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The night was dark but clear, and the waning moon still had not showed its face above the horizon. In the shadows along Ironsmith's Road in the northwest quarter of the city, a figure moved stealthily along the base of the wall. The figure was cloaked in black and shod in soft leather boots so his footsteps would make no sound as he slipped through the night like a ship through a tranquil sea.
Hakem Rafi was, both by nature and by choice, a fulltime thief and an occasional murderer. His fate had been sealed by his birth as the son of a whoring mother and an unknown father in the city of Yazed some sixty parasangs southeast of Ravan. Sickly and weak as a child, often neglected and left to survive as he could, he lived by his wits and the quickness of his hands and feet. He envied those who had more than he did, which was everyone, and early in life swore a vow to reduce the rest of the world to his own level of moral bankruptcy. To this end he lied and cheated, gambled and whored; he stole when he needed money and he killed when he had to. He was not a cruel man, just conveniently callous. If Fate decreed him the life of a cockroach, then he would be a cockroach and defy the world to squash out his life.
Hakem Rafi had lived all his life in Yazed until three months ago, when the wali of police died of political causes. As the new wali was less corrupt and less amenable to persuasion, Hakem Rafi decided his fortune might better be made elsewhere. Having heard all his life about the riches of Ravan, he ventured to the Holy City in the hope of making a new, if similar, beginning.
Life in Ravan was difficult, however, for a man of hisparticular talents. Even the poorer merchants usually had one or two hulking servants guarding the merchandise in their shops, while the nobles and wealthy traders scarcely went anywhere without a full retinue of bodyguards. Hakem Rafi found easy pickings among the poor, the crippled, and the aged, but the rewards were seldom worth his efforts.
With his money spent and in vile circumstance, Hakem Rafi was desperate to change his situation -- so desperate he was willing to risk confronting the guards by breaking into the house of a rich merchant. In the past he'd always preferred speed to stealth; it was far easier to cut the strings of a purse and run through the crowd, or to waylay an unsuspecting victim in a back alleyway, than it was to climb over a wall or break through the lattice of a window when the owner might be waiting with a large knife just on the other side. Still, if the one path was impossible, Hakem Rafi was prepared to take the other.
He'd chosen as his victim a wine merchant, a man old in years and infirm in body who was known to hoard great piles of coins in secret niches within his walls. The merchant would probably die soon anyway, and Hakem Rafi merely sought to simplify the division of his estate. In scouting the merchant's house during the daytime, he had observed a break in the otherwise impassable wall at the northern edge of the house where the gardeners had carelessly knocked some bricks loose into the street; that would serve as his entryway.
As he now reached his chosen spot, Hakem Rafi paused once more to taste the air with his ears for any tang of danger. All was peaceful; not a soul stirred within the house or out on the street. With a final prayer to whatever daeva guided such endeavors, the thief gathered his strength and leaped for the top of the wall.
Hakem Rafi was a small man in body as well as soul, slim and wiry as a coiled spring. In most places the wall was twice his height but here, where the top had crumbled, it was just low enough for him to reach. His hand grabbed hold of the crumbly brick and he quickly pulled himself to the top. Surveying the ground beneath him for a safe spot, he jumped down again into the garden.
His troubles began immediately upon hitting the ground. His black cloak, swirling around him, caught on the upper branches of a pomegranate tree, and the weight of his body caused several small twigs to snap loudly as he awkwardly pulled himself free.
The merchant, as chance would have it, owned a dog. The beast was old and nearly as toothless as its master, but fiercely loyal and fearlessly aggressive. Hearing the twigs snap, small a sound as it was, woke the creature, and its old nose was still keen enough to catch the scent of a stranger. Stirring its aged bones and barking a loud cry, the dog bounded across the garden to attack the interloper.
Hakem Rafi was a nervous man, always edgy, his eyes constantly darting like a hummingbird on a spring afternoon. He heard the barking and saw the dark shape come leaping at him through the bushes, and his hand immediately reached for the khanjar he wore at his belt. The dog's body knocked him over just as he pulled the curved blade from its sheath. A quick upward thrust and a downward pull were sufficient; the stink of ripped organs and fresh blood poured forth. The dog would protect its master no more.
But in its death the dog had performed its final duty. Even as he wiped the dog's blood from his hands and knife onto the lawn, Hakem Rafi could see lights appearing in the windows of the house as its occupants lit candles and lamps to see what the commotion was about. It would be some minutes yet before they ventured into the garden, Hakem Rafi thought; the old man would probably be afraid an army of thieves had come to steal his hoard, and he and his servants would hesitate to rush out until they knew the truth of the matter.
Unfortunately for Hakem Rafi, the old merchant had a son in the prime of life, as fearless as the dog and far more capable. Without a moment's hesitation the young man came racing out into the garden, not even stopping to arrange his turban, sword drawn and ready for a fight. Hakem Rafi, who preferred his fights less well matched, decided this would be a moment for retreat.
He pushed away the body of the dead dog, rose quickly and leaped for the breach in the wall. The ground of the garden, being softly turned earth, did not give him a solid base and his leap was short. His fingernails scraped at the top surface without catching hold and he fell back awkwardly into the garden.
He could hear the approach of the merchant's son and, behind him, the servants and slaves who were more than willing to let their noble master precede them. With desperation lending strength to his legs, Hakem Rafi leaped again and this time his hands grabbed the crumbling brick. Pulling himself upward he scrambled to the top of the wall and dropped over the other side.
He landed beside the wall in the narrow ditch through which sewage was channeled to the khandaq. His boot slipped in the muck but he regained his balance without further incident and stepped onto the more secure footing of the street. Even as his mind considered the avenues of escape, Hakem Rafi was cursing his luck in this so-called Blessed City.
Behind the wall the entire household was now awake and, with the discovery that there'd been but a single intruder, the bravery of its staff was asserting itself. The cry of alarm was going up throughout the neighborhood, and it would not be long before every house along this street was alerted to the threat. Hakem Rafi saw the advantage of visiting some other quarter of the city as rapidly as possible.
Ironsmith's Road ran east and west, branching off the King's Bazaar in the northwest quarter of Ravan. Even as Hakem Rafi was contemplating his action, the servants of the wine merchant were pouring out the gate on the eastern side of the house, cutting off his escape back to the King's Bazaar. Further west the road curved to the south and came to a dead end. Hakem Rafi saw, in the dim shadows of starlight, a small lane running to the north and quickly dodged into it, hoping to escape his pursuit.
At first the alley seemed another hopeless path, with no cross-streets into which he could turn. Hakem Rafi ran at his swiftest pace, while behind him the hue and cry of the indignant citizens roused the neighborhood to action. Then, just when he'd abandoned all thought of escape, the alley ended and Hakem Rafi found himself standing before the doors of the Temple of the Faith.
Throughout the centuries many men had turned to the Royal Temple for salvation, but few as desperately as Hakem Rafi the thief did now. The cry was up throughout the quarter, and escape along the streets would prove impossible for a while. The thief hoped he could dodge into the temple and find some dark corner to hide him until the crowds outside died away again and it was safe to leave.
The main gates to the temple were shut and barred at this late hour. Hakem Rafi raced frantically along the outer wall until he came to a smaller gate, less frequently used. This entrance, too, was closed, but because it was less important the priests had not given it too much attention; the iron bolt barely went across the frame, and Hakem Rafi's panicked shaking jiggled it enough to slip it out of the latch. The portal opened for him and the grateful thief slipped inside. He remanded himself to the mercy of Oromasd as he shut the heavy door behind him again and barred it securely this time.
He found himself in the ziyada, the outer courtyard of the temple separating the building proper from the street. He started to relax, but then realized that if the hue and cry of his pursuers awakened any of the priests they'd be able to spot him easily here in the open. After regaining his breath he moved silently and with greater deliberateness to the doors of the temple itself. These were unlocked; barring the outer doors had been deemed sufficient to keep out intruders. Hakem Rafi entered the Temple of the Faith so quietly that no one heard him. The few priests awake at this hour were absorbed in their own devotional duties.
He was now in the riwaq, the covered arcade with four rows of immense columns dividing the space into areas for teaching and prayers. Past the edges of the riwaq was the enormous open courtyard where the faithful could gather once a week to listen to sermons. The Royal Temple of Ravan was the largest ever built by man, and the courtyard was so vast that, in the darkness of night, Hakem Rafi could barely see all the way across to its far side.
The thief wandered slowly through the riwaq, his feet making no sound on the carefully swept ground. The portico was dimly illuminated by occasional perfumed oil lamps and candles kept burning around the clock as tributes to Oromasd. The floral richness almost disguised the stink of sweat and blood coming from the thief. As he walked, and as his eyes became accustomed to the feeble lighting, Hakem Rafi grew awed by his magnificent surroundings. It was not an overwhelming love of Oromasd that caused this feeling, nor yet an appreciation of the temple's vast size or architectural brilliance. Rather, it was the fact that the Temple of the Faith was more lavishly embellished than any building the thief had ever seen before -- and certainly was richer than Hakem Rafi thought any temple ought to be.
Some parts of the walls were mosaics of glazed tiles with calligraphic designs, but most were handpainted with scenes depicting famous battles and legends from the Age of Heroes. Here, the hero Argun battled the twelve lions of the Hajjani Pass; there, Shiratz beheaded Affiz the three-eyed giant; beyond that, the priestess Rida outwitted the demon who'd been sent to seduce her from the ways of righteousness. The paintings, once in vivid colors, had faded over the ages, but the gilded highlights showed as clearly as ever. More impressively to the mind of Hakem Rafi, every painted figure -- be it bird, animal, human, or demon -- had eyes that were set with jewels. Demons had eyes of rubies, cats had eyes of opal. Birds had eyes of sapphire, while other beasts had eyes variously of pearls and jet. Men had eyes of emeralds and women eyes of diamonds. The smallest of the stones would purchase a kingdom and a thousand warriors, while the largest were of values beyond even Hakem Rafi's greediest reckonings.
Niches in the walls contained figurines of jade or ivory. Carved wooden screens were inlaid with ivory, turquoise, and mother-of-pearl. Even the sconces and the candelabra set in the walls were silver and gold.
Hakem Rafi marveled at the richness of the Royal Temple, and as he marveled his greedy thoughts bred like mosquitos in the swamps of Nikhrash.
Oromasd created the world and all its riches, thought Hakem Rafi. He created wealth beyond measure. Great was his power, and he could easily create more with but a single thought if he so chose. He would hardly miss a stone or two from the walls of this one temple.
The priests of Oromasd lived simple lives, thought Hakem Rafi. The temples provided them with food and shelter and all their worldly goods. They had no need for such riches. A stone here or there taken from its setting would not impoverish them nor diminish the greatness of Oromasd. There were so many gems here they would not even miss the loss for many years.
So thought Hakem Rafi, the thief. Having thus convinced himself his sacrilegious acts would hurt no one and benefit himself greatly, he set about to steal some of the Royal Temple's treasure for his own gain.
The temple's builders had been well aware of the temptation they were placing in people's paths, and had designed the temple accordingly. The figures in the niches, the jewels in the walls, even the candelabra -- all were placed well above the reach of even a tall man. Hakem Rafi looked for the lowest stone he could find and leaped as high as he could, but still the treasure remained tantalizingly out of his grasp.
Hakem Rafi leaped again and again, growing progressively more angry and progressively more winded. His robe left streaks of filth on the pristine walls, and his feet hit hard enough to echo across the courtyard. As he made his fifth leap and puffed from his exertion, one of the junior priests chanced to walk through the riwaq. Hearing the sounds of the thief's labors, he stopped and called out, "Who's there? Who disturbs the nighttime peace?"
Realizing his night had now been doubly cursed with discovery, Hakem Rafi turned to flee. In doing so he ran straight into a second priest who'd entered the riwaq at his fellow's cries. The priest grabbed at his cloak as Hakem Rafi ran by, preventing the thief's escape. Hakem Rafi reached quickly for his khanjar once again and stabbed the unfortunate priest up under the ribs. The man gasped hoarsely and fell to the ground, still clutching at the thief's black cloak.
Hakem Rafi paused with annoyance to pull the fabric out of the dying man's grasp. The first priest was continuing the alarm with cries of "Help! Murderer!" and he was too far away to silence. His cries were already causing a stir in the upper levels of the temple, and so Hakem Rafi realized that once again he'd have to flee without attaining his goals.
Pulling free of his victim, he raced without thinking to the nearest door, which happened to be at the front end of the temple. He yanked the door open and stepped inside the enclosed room -- but when he saw where he was, his heart froze for an instant.
He had, without realizing it, entered the sanctuary where the flame of Oromasd burned continuously. This was no ordinary blaze, but the sacred Bahram fire that only the holiest of priests could oversee. An enormous brass basin filled with ash stood by the front wall, with a large jewelled crown hanging over it to proclaim it the king of fires. The regal flame burned like a beacon, and the stand on which the basin rested was plated with gold. In front of the flame was a rectangular marble altar on which the priests could place their sacrifices. A rich linen cloth bordered with embroidered lettering in gold thread currently covered the altar top. The walls of the room were tiled in geometric patterns of peacock blue, white, and claret. Except for himself, there was no one else here.
Such is the power of old habits that even an irreligious man like Hakem Rafi was struck with awe at a moment like this. The sanctuary was off limits to all but the noblest priests, who brought the prayers and sacrifices of the people in and offered them personally to Oromasd. Even Hakem Rafi, who professed to respect no one and nothing, felt he had violated some sacred privacy. Reverently he dropped to his knees and bowed his head to avoid looking at or breathing on the Bahram flame that symbolized the might and the majesty of Oromasd the Creator.
After a moment, though, his sense of self-preservation returned. The sounds of the priests gathering outside reminded him he had to be on his way. Hakem Rafi raised his head again preparing to rise -- and in that instant, the world was changed.
There was a niche in the wall behind the basin of the Bahram flame. Sitting in the niche was a reliquary urn little more than half a cubit tall. The urn may have been made of gold, but it was so thickly encrusted with diamonds and emeralds it was hard to tell. There was some writing inscribed around the base of the urn, but Hakem Rafi was illiterate and cared nothing for such things.
The jewels glowed in the light of Oromasd's flame, shining with a gleam that riveted the thief's attention upon it. The beauty spoke to his soul, the gems to his greed. Hakem Rafi ached with all of his being to possess this small urn, to hold its treasure for himself. Not even the burning fire of Oromasd could draw his attention from the golden urn; its light merely enhanced the glory of the dazzling artifact.
The world lost all its perspective, time lost all meaning. The desperation of his plight, the sounds of the priests running in the outer corridors, all vanished from his thoughts. Like a mystic in a trance, Hakem Rafi rose slowly to his feet. The universe was empty save for him and the urn, as though kismet had prepared him all his life for this moment. The thief moved like a sleepwalker as he walked around the altar, past the dancing flame, and to a spot directly under the niche that held the urn.
This niche, too, was placed high on the wall, but Hakem Rafi never once doubted he could reach the desired treasure. He made one mighty leap, and Fate lent strength to his legs. His outstretched fingers brushed the urn, knocking it out of the position it had occupied since the Royal Temple was built. It began its long fall to the floor even as Hakem Rafi himself was on the downward course of his leap. For one brief instant it appeared the urn would smash upon the ground, but the thief's quick hands grabbed it and preserved it from damage. As Hakem Rafi himself fell to the ground, he gathered the urn in towards his body, protecting it from harm. The touch of that mysterious object was electrifying, making him feel his destiny had finally arrived.
Hakem Rafi stood beside the flame of Oromasd and gazed into the jewels adorning the urn. Their beauty was so deep, their facets so exquisitely cut, a man could lose his soul staring into their glittery interiors. The thief's craggy features and rough-hewn beard took on the beatific expression of a baby at rest as he contemplated the glowing universe within his hand.
Then the trance was shattered and reality returned with a crude rush. The priests were massing outside the door to the sanctuary. With one of their number already murdered they were not going to attack the intruder individually, but they hoped to make a collective charge that would overpower the thief before anyone else could be hurt. Having finally gained a treasure worthy of all his troubles, Hakem Rafi was more eager than ever to escape this trap successfully.
Nothing could be allowed to harm his beautiful urn. Looking quickly around, he grabbed the cloth off the marble altar and wrapped it hastily around the urn to protect it in case it fell from his grasp. Then he tucked the urn deep into the pocket of his kaftan and searched for another way out of the room.
He spied a small door off to one corner, and ran toward it just as an army of priests armed with ceremonial knives and other makeshift weapons burst in through the main entrance. Hakem Rafi dodged through a maze of narrow back hallways within the temple, becoming thoroughly lost in the process, while the priests chased at his heels like hunting dogs in full pursuit. He found a series of steps and climbed up two stories until he found a doorway out onto the roof of the riwaq.
The outer ziyada made escape impossible that way -- but on the side of the temple where the sanctuary was, the building was separated from its neighbors by only a narrow alleyway. Running with the quick stride of the accomplished thief, Hakem Rafi raced to the edge and leaped onto the roof of the building across from the temple. Some of the priests followed him, but most were less daring and less desperate; they returned instead to spread the word of the temple's violation to the Royal Guards.
For the next hour and a half, Hakem Rafi the black-souled, the accursed, led his pursuers a merry chase across the rooftops and down the back streets of Ravan. Where before he'd been spurred by fear and desperation, the acquisition of his precious urn had filled him with a glow of confidence. Though sometimes his pursuers came almost within reach, he never lost his faith in his ability to elude them. After dodging down one winding, narrow street he heard the growing horde of his pursuers -- numbering many of the Royal Guards by this time -- race off in a different direction, finally chasing a shadow that was not of his making.
Hakem Rafi leaned against the wall and wiped the sweat from his brow with the tattered sleeve of his cloak. Then suddenly he threw his head back and laughed. It was a high-pitched laugh, a harsh laugh, a laugh devoid of mirth or good humor, a laugh deriving from the cheating of the innocent and the misleading of the honest. Hakem Rafi was a man who laughed at cripples when their crutches cracked.
When he'd had his fill of laughter, Hakem Rafi took his prize from his pocket and looked at it by starlight in the early morning darkness. Even though dawn had not yet begun the waning moon had risen and shed some light on the empty street. Unwrapping the urn, he let it glitter mysteriously under the moonlight, its jewels hypnotizing him once more with their unearthly beauty.
He looked for a moment at the altar cloth in his other hand. It was a fine piece of fabric and intrinsically valuable, but it would be far too recognizable for him to trade safely. There was bound to be a fuss about the thief who'd broken into the temple. The jewels in the urn could be pried loose from their settings and sold individually, and the golden urn itself could be melted down into a safer form. The altar cloth was too distinctive to sell.
Tossing away the cloth, Hakem Rafi tucked the urn once more in his pocket and walked jauntily back to the miserable room he rented in the caravanserai behind the Winding Bazaar.
A reliquary urn and a discarded altar cloth. With such slender threads, then, does kismet weave its intricate tapesty and change the fate both of worlds and of men.
Copyright © 1988 by Stephen Goldin