The Sun Stone
Copyright © 2002Christine Morgan
Cat Sabledrake could hardly keep her mind on her lessons on the last day of school before Wintersfest.
She was not alone in gazing wistfully through the drafty windows at the bustling streets of Thanis. Shopkeepers were putting up decorations, an aura of excitement was in the air, and over all rose peaks of the Bannerian Mountains with a rare dusting of snow.
At the head of the class, Honor Andrew was going on about the traditional meaning of the holiday. Cat attended with half an ear. A celebration of the immortal life-renewal of Helia, daughter of Galatine. At the temple to the sun goddess, the priestesses would already be preparing to raise the glorious Sun Stone to the top of the spire where it would shine as a beacon and a promise …
At last, perhaps realizing the futility of it, the teacher-priest released his students. They came to renewed life themselves - a trick Helia might like to learn, Cat irreverently thought, and flinched in expectation of being swatted down on the spot by the strict hand of Galatine. Such whimsy was all right at home, but here in the very halls of a Galatinite school?
She escaped unswatted, walking sedately with the rest of the children until they had retrieved their cloaks and satchels and left the school. There, all discipline abandoned them and they dashed about, laughing and calling, scraping thin rimes of frost from the sills to dump the cold wetness down the back of each other's necks, squealing, chasing.
Thanis was bursting with energy. Wherever Cat looked, she saw ruddy faces beaming, treats displayed on bakery shelves, gnomish peddlers with cases of cunningly-crafted toys, merchants hectoring their bargains to the passers-by. She was on the Third Ring of Thanis, her school in a well-to-do neighborhood populated primarily by wealthy merchants.
A strange place to find the crossling daughter of a thief and a barmaid, Cat knew. Not that the neighbors were aware of how Tahm Sabledrake earned his keep. They thought him to be the disreputable son, perhaps an illegitimate one, of some noble house, living on an allowance from his family and spending his nights in one gambling den after another.
He would be sleeping at this hour, so Cat did not go directly home. She made her way instead to the Golden Lion, once the workplace of her long-absent mother.
Her usual habit was to sit at a corner table and finish her assignments. Osnard, a portly, avuncular man who had known both of her parents well, would bring her a bit of something to tide her until supper. She was looking forward to a mug of hot cider and perhaps some spice-bread, and hastened her steps toward the inn with its gilded stone sculpture of a lion's head above the door.
She stopped short, her breath puffing in frosty clouds. For a moment she merely stood like that, a slim little thing in a dark blue cloak, the fur-edged hood thrown back from her face. Her eyes were fixed on the carriage that had drawn up to the Golden Lion, and the figures that were emerging.
Their voices were high and clear, musical as chimes of silver. How tall they were, and how beautiful!
Elves. A party of them, all in fine velvets with their long silken hair blowing in the wind. Elves with their deep, jewel-tone eyes and their delicately curved and pointed ears.
Cat gathered her wits and ducked into the doorway of a nearby shop before they could see her. A single glance at her would tell them at once what she was. She had no desire to begin Wintersfest on a confrontation like that.
Elves at the Golden Lion. Well, it was hardly unheard of. Osnard had been delighted to hire Cat's mother on, because so many of his patrons were merchants or craftsmen from the Emerin. The loftier Emerinians - nobles, mages, diplomats - would prefer the opulent comforts of the Lord's Retreat.
She watched them from hiding, fascinated despite herself. She had seen elves before, of course. Several even lived in Thanis, on the Fourth Ring where the neighborhoods boasted a variety of races. They were more tolerant in their outlook, merely scorning and ignoring the likes of Cat. True Emerinians would regard her as a shameful monstrosity.
No Golden Lion today, she decided. Pulling her hood up to conceal her tell-tale features, she shouldered her satchel and left after one last look. The elves were entering the inn, their movements filled with such grace that they seemed to float above the muddy cobblestones. The humans looked drab and thick and clumsy by comparison.
The joy had leached out of her day. Cat trudged down the Rings, barely noticing the throngs of people rushing about on their errands. On a normal day, she might have taken advantage of the Wintersfest crowds and the general merriment in the air and practiced her skills. She could have had a dozen purses, easily, by the time she reached the Fifth Ring. But her heart was not in it, not now.
She did not despise her parents for what they'd made her. No matter the circumstances of their marriage, elixirs of love and all, she knew they had truly cared for one another and for her. She did not resent them her sapphire eyes, golden skin, and small but distinctly pointed ears that peeked through her tousle of dark hair. Those were marks of her mixed blood. She only wished that crosslings like her were not so rare.
As she reached the steep dwarf-hewn steps that led to the Lower Rings, she quit her introspection. No place in Thanis was it wise to be off one's guard, but here least of all.
The city bells began to toll. Cat frowned. It was not yet the hour - and then she realized they were not tolling the time but a general alarm. Everyone on the street turned to look up the tiered walls of Thanis to the First Ring, not that there were answers to be found in the view of the Highlord's palace and the spiraling, opalescent tower of the Archmage.
A babble of conversation rose around her, speculation but no real fear. Those who dwelt in the Lower Rings did not overly concern themselves with what went on above. If the Highlord had taken ill or the Hachlanians were invading, well, word of it would reach them soon enough.
Cat wondered if she should go home and wake her father. But the bells would have already done so, and by the time she got back he would be out and about, eavesdropping and seeing what was amiss. She realized she might learn more, and faster, by asking One-Eye. The leader of the Nightsiders might never leave the Seventh Ring but he was as well-informed as the Highlord. Or more so.
Running footsteps sounded behind her, a clatter of hard boots on stone. She dodged lithely aside as a man bundled in a bearskin cloak plunged past her and nearly knocked her down. Cat shouted a curse after him, some dire invective in the orcish speech that she'd acquired from a friend.
The man reached the bottom of the steps and looked about. He was sweating madly despite the chill, panting. There was something both desperate and furtive in his manner. Cat was intrigued and followed.
The bells tolled again, loud and urgent. The response was immediate from every garrison. Guardsmen appeared, shortswords at their sides and the Thanian crest glinting gold on the clasps of their brown capes.
The streets of the Seventh Ring underwent a sort of magic as those of the populace who wished to avoid the guards - and here, that was most of them - melted away. Cat herself picked up her pace, reaching the bottom of the steps. She saw the man in the bearskin cloak throw a look of abject terror at the guards before ducking down an alley.
He was up to no good, and Cat was going to find out what. She knew that One-Eye did not condone rival lawbreakers in Nightsider territory, and as a member - albeit a junior one - she was duty-bound to investigate.
She reached the mouth of the alley and touched the hilt of the dagger she wore beneath the loose sleeve of her winter-weight tunic. The alley was typical of the Seventh Ring, being cramped and dismal, shadowy and foul-smelling.
This one, too, had no other egress except through the latched and bolted back doors of buildings. Cat saw the man midway down, his frustration bordering on panic. He was wounded, a mat of sticky blood in his hair. Someone, she judged, had struck him a good blow with a heavy object.
The day suddenly seemed dimmer. In the Lower Rings, the sky was often only visible between the close-leaning roofs and chimney pots, but all the same it was there to be seen in wedges and slices. The clouds had shed their freight of snow the night before and given way to a crisp silvery-blue, but the color of it now was wrong. Deeper. Almost a twilight hue, when twilight was yet an hour away.
The man uttered a despairing cry. His gaze was fixed westward. Cat glanced that way too, carefully, lest he rush at her. What she saw made all else pale into insignificance.
The sun hung in the west, visible between two sooty brick buildings like a great golden coin. Except that it wasn't a coin. A dark gap was missing from it. Cat's eyes burned and watered and she had to look away. The image of the strange sun lingered behind her eyelids.
The bearskin-clad man did rush at her. Cat reacted swiftly, drawing her dagger. He batted it aside without interest and shoved a cloth-wrapped parcel into her arms.
"Take it," he spat, sweat running down his jowls. "Take it and all that goes with it! I knew it was a mistake. Cursed, doomed, we're doomed, but let it fall on you, girl!"
With that, he pushed past her and fled the alley. Cat, dumbfounded, stayed where she was. The parcel was heavy, solid. Its wrapping was a woolen blanket around a leather sack, something round within.
The light was fading from the sky. Fully half the sun was eaten away, and Cat could hear the astounded, frightened voices rising from all over Thanis. In the east, the brightest of the stars twinkled. Birds wheeled about in confusion. Animals in the livestock pens of the Eighth Ring set up a fearful lowing and commotion.
Cat shook her head to clear it of a superstitious dread. Her father had once made mention of the sun disappearing, then returning with no harm done to the world.
She opened the blanket, then the bag.
Inside was an orb, perfectly round and larger than a man's head. Cat's mouth fell open. It was gemstone, but none she'd ever seen before. The color was gold but translucent, and it was shot and swirled with all the colors of flame.
"The Sun Stone," she whispered, knowing it for what it had to be.
The man had stolen it from the temple on the very day it was to be put up on the high spire. His crime had not gone unnoticed, not by the guards and officials, and …
"And not by the very gods themselves," she said, looking at the sun. Or where the sun had been.
A black ball was suspended in the heavens, ringed all about with fire and molten gold. The sky was violet pierced with stars. A cold wind, icy, blew down from the mountains and stirred Cat's hair.
The Sun Stone of Helia. A priceless treasure, surely. The sort of prize any thief in Thanis or indeed all the Northlands would give a finger to possess. What it would be worth … if any could be found to buy it …
What was she thinking? She had not pilfered this prize. It had fallen into her hands by chance, by accident. The glory of stealing it would not be hers. While the cost of it might be far too high for her to pay if she were found with it.
Acting quickly, she stuffed the orb back into its wrappings and carried it from the alley until she found a grocer's stand. The grocer was out in the street, gaping into the sky. It would have been a splendid opportunity for cutpurses, and Cat saw a few that she recognized, but they, too, were staring at the gold-ringed black disk and robbery was the furthest thing from their minds.
She took a large, deep basket from the grocer's stand. It might have been intended to hold cabbages but the bundle fit suitably well. She tossed leafy greens in on top of it, and made off with the clumsy arrangement.
The journey to the Upper Rings was a harrowing one. Thanis had come to a standstill, and not even when the sun began to reemerge - perhaps because the gods divined her errand? - did anyone go back about their business. Nearly everyone stood stock-still, but many were fleeing as if they had decided this was the end of all things. Cat was able to reach the Second Ring unquestioned.
Soldiers were everywhere, brown capes of the City Guard and royal-blue surcoats of the Royal Guard along with the white and gold worn by the holy warriors of Galatine and the ebony of the Knights of Blackmoon. Priests and priestesses milled about, surrounded by frantic nobles begging to know the will of the gods.
Cat had never paid many visits to the Temple District before. She'd had no cause, for all she went to a Galatinite school. She was struck with awe by the lush gardens behind the high walls, the evident riches everywhere.
But this was no time for eyeing the valuables. She had perhaps the most valuable of all in her very arms and dared not so much as contemplate keeping it.
How, though, to return it? She envisioned herself walking up to one of the Helianites, perhaps that woman all in morning-blue with a circlet that rose up in golden rays like the rising sun, and presenting her with the orb.
And then being seized by guards and thrown into prison … or dragged off to be lashed for her impertinence by some acolyte. She was innocent of this crime, the truth-telling powers of the priests could confirm that much, but she could not allow the rest of her secrets to be unveiled.
No, the only thing to do was return the Sun Stone to its rightful place with no one the wiser. Cat ducked her head and scurried through the crowd, hearing the din and babble all around her. Many people had come on the run to pray and make offerings to Helia, that the goddess would bring back the sun, and she was able to slip among them with ease.
She was on the temple grounds, amid pillars of white that formed a ring open to the sky. The pillars glimmered oddly in the twilight gloom. Beyond that central place of worship was a semi-circular building, low, with arched doorways and round skylights of amber stained glass.
A spire rose from the middle span of the building's arc. It was surrounded by a contrivance of platforms and pulleys. Cat, who was better-versed in the intricacies of machinery than were most, deduced that it was a lift. A priestess could stand upon it and be raised to the spire's height, where the Sun Stone would then be placed.
Could she …?
Cat dismissed that idea almost before it was fully formed in her mind. Even if she could get to the lift platform, who would pull the ropes to raise it for her? As for scaling the spire on her own, she knew that she could manage it but not burdened with the awkward weight of the orb.
"You there, girl," called a peremptory voice.
Doing her best not to flinch or look guiltily around, Cat turned. A woman in a white robe was bearing down on her as she stood with the stolen grocer's basket in her arms.
"What are you doing?" the woman scolded. "Deliveries by the side gate. Are you newly apprenticed?"
"Apprentices," muttered the woman. She cast a fearful glance upward, made a holy sign on her brow, and flapped a hand at Cat. "Quickly, now, be off with you."
Cat hurried in the direction the woman indicated. She passed outside a many-windowed schoolroom where two girls her own age were attempting to calm a passel of younger children, while fraught with worry themselves. Soon she came to the path that stretched from the side gate to another building. This one was square and functional, tucked up against the back of the curved white temple.
A few darting flicks of her eyes told her all that she needed to know. That was the kitchen, and next to it most likely a laundry - the servants of the gods had the same corporeal needs as anyone else - but most important was the roofline.
The sun above was now half-returned, the dark blot diminishing. From somewhere in the Lower Rings, a rooster crowed and was answered by others. People on the Tabash Bridge paused in their frantic exodus. Necks craned. Heads scanned the sky.
Cat went to the nook where the walls of the kitchen and temple intersected. She had shadow here still, a deep well of it, and used it to set down her satchel, then shed the basket and much of the wrappings. A rolled length of cloth made a sling to hold the bag containing the Sun Stone against her back.
Her hands flexed as she studied the wall, and then she began to climb. The weight on her back pulled at her, but her clever fingers found purchase and within moments she was crouched on the kitchen roof. It was lower than that of the temple, so that when Cat stood the temple roof came to her shoulders. She peered around. A white railing fenced off the spire, also enclosing a flat trap door.
She stayed low, nearly crawling, as she crossed the temple roof and wriggled between the rails. The brass circle of the trap door's handle was within reach. Cat raised the door the tiniest bit. A brilliant ray of light came through the crack to dazzle her. She lowered the door again and blinked, rubbing her eyes.
That was no good. If she opened it fully, the beam would alert everyone. Yet she couldn't very well leave the Sun Stone here on the roof.
Her cloak! Cat undid the silver clasp and spread out the fabric over herself and the trap door. When she lifted again, the cloak formed a makeshift tent over the opening.
The bright dazzle of light speared up again. Expecting it this time, Cat was able to shield her eyes until they had adjusted, and then looked down through the door.
Spiral stairs that sparkled as if plated in gold rose in a column to just beneath her. The room was round, the walls a pristine white where they were not covered in murals depicting the twelve Saints of the Morning. Before each of these, braziers that held neither wood nor coal burned with flames that produced no smoke. The floor was a mosaic of tiles forming a sunburst.
Warily, still expecting to be seared by holy fire for trespassing, Cat slid through the trap door and partway down the stairs. The room was unoccupied. She saw a pedestal at the center of the sunburst, its top a flared and rounded bowl of precisely the size to fit the orb.
She moved silently, descending the staircase. Her soft-soled boots wanted to slip on the smooth golden surfaces. She reached the bottom with her heart galloping briskly. Only then did she notice the stains on the mosaic tiles. Rusty-reddish ones. And places where the tiles had been freshly chipped.
Such small details, and so telling. She remembered the man in the bearskin, the injury on his head. Had he been with companions? Had he been the only one to escape?
None of that was her concern. She undid the sling and removed the Sun Stone, cradling it gingerly in her palms as she approached the pedestal. It felt warm through her gloves, almost hot, a banked ember. She set it in its place.
No sooner had she done so than the orb erupted with light and warmth. Cat staggered back from it, then lowered the arms she'd instinctively crossed over her face to gaze on it in amazement. The light bathed her like the sun of a summer's day, clean and beatific. Her winter clothes were too hot, stifling.
Her hand strayed out again, curious, wanting to touch the stone and see if the light remained. She snatched it back, telling herself not to be the fool. The deed was done and to delay would be to risk discovery.
She went up the spiral stairs as quietly as she'd come down, taking pains to keep the trap door covered until it was closed again with her on the topside. She retraced her steps, picking up her satchel and the basket, leaving no sign that she'd been here. The priests of Galatine could touch an object and know its past. Of course, there was still the Sun Stone itself, but she couldn't do much about that.
The sun had entirely reappeared, balanced on the horizon in a deep orange fireball. Now true shadows were creeping into the corners, and the roosters had fallen still.
Cat hadn't even reached the end of the street before a joyous cry went up that the Sun Stone had been returned. A miracle, people said to one another, a miracle. Proof of Helia's divine power.
She went home, through streets overspilling with relieved celebrants. Her father was waiting for her on the steps of their little house, watching the sunset. He was dressed for work in sensible clothes of dark colors, his saber belted at his waist, daggers in his boots, lockpicks up his sleeves, a tough and wiry man of not much more height than his daughter.
"There's my kitten," he said amiably.
"Hello, Da." She embraced him, pressed a kiss on his slightly scruffy cheek. He smelled of leather and oil and danger, and she felt him smile as he kissed her cheek in return.
"You've been up to something," he said, setting her back from him with his firm swordsman's hands and looking her over. "There's cabbage leaf stuck to your knee, scorch marks on the palms of your gloves, flecks of gold on your boots, and a blush of sunburn to your face that wasn't there this morning. Care to let your old da in on it?"
"Oh, well, I …" What was she to say? That she'd been in possession, for however brief a while, of a fabulous treasure, and had given it up? What would he, a Nightsider in good standing, make of that? "Call it my good deed for the day."
The last of the setting sun had vanished, and just then a glorious golden-white light appeared high in the Second Ring. Cat looked at it, her spirits unexpectedly soaring. Her father's hand fell on her shoulder and squeezed. He was looking up at the temple of Helia as well.
"I'm proud of you, Cat."
He knew. More, he understood.
"Thank you, Da. Happy Wintersfest."
I'd like to make a comment about this article.
This page has been visited times.