Menagerie - Part 2
Written by: Anna Hansen
Story Concept by: Rahsaan Footman
Previously on Timedancer…
It was just before sunset. He wasn't too late. He returned to the caravan, and saw the camels sitting beneath the shade of the plane trees, chewing grass.
When he reached the spot where he had left Sata, he saw that she was gone.
Haroun started to panic.
Glancing about him, he saw Firouz. "Firouz," he said. "Firouz, where is Sata?"
"Sata?" Firouz said. "Are you talking about the demon?"
"Yes. Firouz, where is she?"
Firouz shrugged. "Safely in the Caliph's zoo by now, I would expect."
"Your father strapped her on the back of a camel almost a quarter of an hour ago, and went inside the city gates to sell her. I guess he thought that she would be easy to transport while she was a statue. And he could move her by himself. I think he wanted to go by himself," Firouz looked bitter, "because he doesn't want to share the profits of the sale with the rest of us. You would think that, after what we did for him - "
Before the words had even escaped his lips, Haroun had started to run.
He ran through the gates, spotted a large, ostentatious building, decided that was the palace, and hurried towards it.
He reached the town square just as the sun set. He saw his father leaning against a wall of the palace, looking smug. He was holding the reins of one of his camels. Sata was nowhere in sight.
~ Menagerie - Part 1 ~
* * * * *
Menagerie - Part 2
* * * * *
Haroun stood in the center of the square, and watched as a smile stretched across his father's face. A feeling of foreboding settled inside his stomach. He checked the sky, and saw that the sun was about to set.
He wondered where Sata was. What she was doing. If she thought that she'd been betrayed.
* * * * *
Sata awoke with a roar and a leap.
"Hey," a deep voice complained. "Watch where you spray your skin."
Sata crouched into a defensive pose, momentarily disoriented. "Where am I?" she said. She automatically touched her waist, searching for her obi and her blades, and was jolted into remembrance when she discovered them missing. Mesrour had taken them from her. He hadn't given them back. When Sata realized that, she curled her talons in front of her, ready to pounce if she needed to.
"Who are you?" Sata demanded. "Where are the camels?"
She took a moment to glance at her surroundings. She was inside a large, windowless room made of solid stone. Tiny holes high in the wall acted as air vents. Cobwebs in the corners suggested that the room wasn't vigilantly maintained. There was straw on the floor, fresh and crisp. At the far end of the room, it seemed that a wall had been knocked out of the building, and iron bars, like a cage, had been erected in its place. Through the bars came a cool breeze. Behind Sata, there was a door. There was also one opposite her.
The creature who had spoken was neither human nor gargoyle. He was huge - a giant, at more than eight feet tall - and broad, and he was covered in white, silky hair. The only part left bare of hair was his face. That part of him was dark and human-like. "Don't even think about bending the bars," he said, following her gaze. "They're reinforced. They won't budge."
"Where am I?"
The creature flicked pieces of Sata's stone skin from his fur, and said, "Demanding, aren't you? Most people cower when they first find themselves in here. Most humans cower when they first lay eyes on me."
"I am not a human. I am a gargoyle."
"Yeah. Well. Human. Gargoyle. What's the difference?"
Sata raised her eyebrow ridges. "Wings? Talons? Fangs?"
The creature shrugged. "Superficial differences."
"You have not answered my question."
"You haven't started to cower."
"Do I need to cower for you to answer my questions?"
"It would certainly make me feel better."
"At the moment, I can't shake the feeling that you're about to scratch my eyes out."
Sata stared at her talons, clawed like a cat, ready to pounce. Slowly, with one eye on the creature before her, she curled them into a fist.
She straightened, and tried to appear more amicable, more gentle. It was a difficult thing to do. She had no idea where she was, what had happened to Haroun or the camel caravan, or how she was going to escape and find Brooklyn. She was worried. And when she was worried, she knew she looked frightening.
"That's a bit better," the creature said.
Sata smiled, to add to the impression that she wasn't dangerous.
The creature grimaced.
"What is the matter?" Sata asked.
"You really do have fangs, don't you?"
"Sorry," Sata said, relaxing her lips.
"All right. I suppose that will have to do. It's not cowering, mind you, but - "
"Where am I?" Sata suddenly shouted, impatient.
"All right. All right," the creature said, ducking his head and covering his ears with his hands. "Let's add a voluminous voice to that list of gargoyle characteristics. You're inside the Palace of Samarkand. You are, for want of a better description, now a part of the Caliph's menagerie."
"The Caliph's menagerie?" Sata whispered. "But this morning, I was sitting on the back of a camel, in the foothills of some mountains, and... I had no idea were so close to Samarkand. I had not thought that Mesrour would successfully sell me to the Caliph while I was still in my stone sleep."
"Unfortunately for you, and fortunately for your friend Mesrour - "
"He is not my friend."
"Well, no, I didn't really think he was. It was a figure of speech, you see. It's a good thing he isn't your friend, though."
Sata, exasperated, said, "Why is that?"
"Because selling a buddy into slavery can be a strain on even the best of friendships."
Sata sighed. "I have no idea why we are having this meaningless conversation."
The creature peered at her, his brow creased. "You know what?" he asked.
Sata glared at him. "Are my fangs showing again?"
"No. It isn't that. No. I just realized what it is that makes you so scary. You don't have a sense of humor."
Sata had finally had enough. She sliced her hands through the air and said, "No more of this silliness. Tell me about this Caliph. Tell me about this place we are in. And tell me," Sata stared at the creature, "what you are."
"Last questions first," the creature said. "You'd better sit down."
"I am quite comfortable standing."
"Nevertheless, you should - "
"I am comfortable standing!"
"Touchy, touchy. Well, don't say I didn't warn you. I'm a yeti."
Sata felt as though her stomach had turned to stone. "What did you say?" she whispered. A dim memory played at the back of her mind.
"See, I told you that you would be shocked. You didn't think yeti existed, did you?"
"I am not," Sata said, "shocked to see that there really is such a creature as a yeti. I am shocked because..." Images, memories, ballooned in her mind. "Because I have seen evidence of your kind before - recently. And the coincidence is staggering."
"You've seen my kind before?"
For a moment, all trace of the yeti's sardonic humor left his face, and was replaced by a look of such sincere, such vulnerable hope that Sata immediately felt pity for him.
"Where?" the yeti asked. His voice was barely louder than a whisper.
"I am sorry," Sata said slowly. "It was... far from here, and the yeti was... It was a replica, and the real one was long dead."
The hope on the yeti's face faded. "Dead?" he said. And then the hope returned, more forceful this time. "A replica?" He shook his head. "But where there is a replica of a dead yeti, there might be a live one close by. A model for the replica, perhaps? Please tell me. You've been travelling on a camel? You've traveled a long way? It doesn't matter. Only to know that there are others like me still out there..."
"No, no," Sata said quickly, feeling bad for generating the agonizing hope which she saw on the yeti's face. "You misunderstand me. The yeti was dead. Long dead. Long, long dead. And there were no others of his kind nearby."
The yeti frowned. "You're keeping something from me."
"No. I - "
"I'm not a fool. I know when someone is trying to hide something from me. You're not telling me the whole story. Why is that? Why would you not..." A look of horror spread across his face. "The yeti was murdered," he said. "Hunted like an animal."
"No," Sata cried in alarm. "No, it wasn't like that. Quite the opposite, in fact. The yeti was revered..."
If anything, the yeti became more horrified. "Revered," he said. "Oh, his head preserved on a stick in someone's house, worshipped as a god." He dropped his face into his hands. Sata thought he was crying.
Sata wisely judged that she'd already said too much. And yet she knew that she couldn't leave him in this agony.
She took a step toward him. She brushed her talon across his shoulder. She noticed that his hair not only looked like silk, it felt like it. "Will you please believe me," she whispered, "when I tell you that it wasn't like that at all? There was no dishonor done to the yeti. I saw a replica of one who was dead, that is all. He had been a hero, or so I was led to believe. The place where I saw the yeti is a long way from here, and I do not think that there was another yeti like him in the area."
The yeti lifted his head. His eyes were suspiciously bright. "You are still not telling me the truth."
"I am not telling you the whole truth," Sata admitted, "because much of it you wouldn't believe - "
"Please, don't treat me like an idiot."
"I certainly have no desire to treat you like an idiot. I know that you are not."
"My kind," the yeti said, "have been hunted for thousands of years. Humans fear us when we are alive, and worship us when we are dead. My own parents fled their home when it was ransacked by humans. My parents, in turn, were killed by a band of thieves in the mountains. I was only a child, but I can still remember how valiantly they fought, how bravely they died."
Sata felt a lump rise in her throat.
"I was taken from them. I wasn't even allowed to give their bodies a decent, proper burial. The thieves took me from my parents, and sold me to the Caliph. I know what humans can do to a yeti. Please don't feel the need to spare me the truth."
Sata couldn't turn away from the yeti's pain. She knew that her travels through time were a private matter, she could only discuss them with Brooklyn. She couldn't risk talking about the future, and subsequently end up altering the events of history. And yet if she were cautious, if she were careful not to reveal the important events of the future, surely she could say something?
She said, "It is a difficult story to believe."
The yeti stared at her with eyes that were too wise, too knowing. "There is very little in the world that I don't believe."
"Very well," Sata continued. "I am a time traveler."
"A time traveler?" the yeti asked, perplexed.
"A traveler through time," Sata explained. "I don't just travel from place to place, I travel from one time period to another."
"How?" the yeti asked. Sata shook her head. "That, I don't really know. I travel with my mate, and our journey is dictated by a magic talisman which he found in his own time. Why we are on this journey, I do not know. But the point is, I have seen the events of this world over a time period which has spanned thousands of years."
"So, when you say you saw a yeti - "
"A replica of a yeti. I saw it a thousand years from now. In a place high in the mountains. It was an old yeti. It had been dead for many years." Sata thought about the gargoyle, encased in a sarcophagus. She remembered the strange feeling which had overcome her, and she shivered.
"Are you cold?" the yeti asked.
"No," Sata replied. She continued with her story. "The yeti was revered. Not worshipped as a god, but revered. Apparently, he was a great historical figure. With the help of other creatures from the annals of mythology, he set up a sanctuary for hunted and abused animals. A sanctuary, with a human guardian, which had lasted a thousand years."
The yeti smiled. The corners of his eyes crinkled as he did so. "A nice idea."
"Yes," Sata said. "The name of the yeti was Melchior."
The yeti's eyes suddenly turned hard. "What did you say?"
"Melchior," Sata repeated, unsteadily.
The yeti stepped back from Sata, as though repulsed. "You lie," he said.
"No," Sata. "I am not lying. I do not, as a general rule, lie."
"You're lying," the yeti said, emphatically. "This is one of the Caliph's tricks, isn't it? It's his idea of humor, I suppose. He sent you in here to raise my hopes that there may still be others like me outside in the world, and now he watches as those hopes are dashed."
The yeti whirled around. He stared at one of the air vents in the wall. "Are you there, Caliph?" he said wildly. "Are you laughing at my expense? Laugh. Laugh. Laugh. You have a strange sense of humor."
Sata followed the yeti's gaze, and found herself staring at the air vent. "What are you doing?" she asked. "There is no one else here."
"He is listening," the yeti said. "He has ways of spying on us. We are here for his amusement, and his amusement only. He's very good at reminding us of that. Aren't you, Caliph?" the yeti continued, raising his voice. "Oh, I entertain you superbly, don't I? Even when I'm not trying..."
"What _are_ you talking about?" Sata demanded.
The yeti turned to stare at her. "A fine trick you played."
"Trick?" Sata said. "I played no trick."
"My name," the yeti said, "is Melchior."
Before Sata could reply, the door to the room was flung open, and the Caliph bounded inside.
* * * * *
The Caliph was a short, fat man. He wore a white robe stitched with gold, over a tunic made of a pale green silk. His turban, unlike those which Sata had seen on the men of the caravan, was clean, and was also stitched with gold thread. It twisted neatly about his head, and sat low across his forehead until it almost covered his brow. The tips of his shoes poked out from beneath his robes as he walked, and Sata caught a glimpse of soft brown leather, pointed at the toes, before the Caliph stepped up to her, grabbed her chin, and forced her to look down into his eyes.
Surprised, Sata could do nothing but obey the insistent pull of the Caliph's hand.
"Sire," another elegantly dressed man hurried through the door. "I must beg you to be cautious - "
"Quiet!" the Caliph sliced his free hand through the air. "She will not hurt me," he quickly turned his attention to Sata, "will you, my pretty one?" The Caliph met Sata's gaze with an unwavering stare of his own. Over his shoulder, he said, "A gargoyle is an intelligent creature. This one knows that if she hurts me, there will be a hundred guards on top of her in an instant, and she will not escape alive."
"Nevertheless, sire - "
"Nevertheless, she hasn't struck me down yet."
The Caliph stared into Sata's eyes for another minute. He stroked her face. "Ah, yes," he whispered, almost reverently. "Finally, a gargoyle."
At first, Sata had thought him courageous. No intelligent human would dare touch a strange gargoyle, unless they were particularly brave. But then Sata glimpsed, through the doorway beyond the Caliph's shoulder, a multitude of guards, with their swords drawn. Some of them looked frightened, and some of them were visibly trembling, but they all stood their ground. Sata started to suspect that the Caliph was more wily than he was courageous. It was easy to be bold when you were being followed by an army.
"Do not touch me," Sata said.
"I will touch you, if that is my wish," the Caliph countered. "You cannot stop me. What's your name?"
"Where's your clan?"
"A long way from here."
"Nonsense," the Caliph said. "Gargoyles live in clans, fight in clans, survive in clans. They never stray for from their clan. Now, where's yours?"
Sata closed her eyes. She thought of her clan, centuries and miles away from her current place in space and time. For the first time in a long while, she wished she were there. When she opened her eyes, she said, "They do not live now."
"They do not..." The Caliph started to repeat her. His eyes narrowed. He had cruel eyes. Sata found that she didn't like him very much at all. "Pity," the Caliph continued. "It would have been nice to have more than one of you. Still, Sata, if you have lost your old home, you'll welcome the new one I'm offering you." He released her chin, and indicated the walls of the room with a gesture of his hands.
Sata's surprise at his bold treatment of her finally gave way to anger. She said, "This home?" She glared at him. "This is not a home. If you know anything about gargoyles, you will know that we need our freedom. We need to feel the wind beneath our wings. We need to see the sky above our heads."
"You'll have a chance to exercise outside," the Caliph said, "once I'm certain that you're happy in your new home. Until then, you will wait." He turned to the elegantly dressed man by his side "This is my Vizier, Ibrahim. He will make sure that you're comfortable and well fed. Tomorrow night, I'll present you to my people - as my very latest acquisition. I have been lucky this day."
He said the last part proudly, almost defiantly. Then, with a final, pleased look at her, he left.
Minutes later, the vizier brought a table and food to her. Lamb roasted until it was tender, accompanied by a sweet fig and almond paste; unleavened bread; grapes, dates, bananas and peanuts.
Although she hadn't eaten for a while, Sata wasn't hungry.
Once the vizier had left, Melchior said, coldly, as though he didn't trust her, "Eat while you can. The Caliph isn't always so generous about feeding his pets."
"I am not hungry."
Melsior sighed, and approached her. He examined her, with eyes that were wary. "Obstinacy won't help you now."
Sata felt her eyes blaze. "I am not being obstinate."
"No?" Melchior chuckled. "Then why won't you eat? You must be hungry? Gargoyles are always hungry."
"You seem to know a lot about my species."
"Only from the stories I've heard," Melchior said. "Eat. Once your belly is filled with food, then you'll have a chance to properly assess your situation here. Besides, if you don't eat, what else can you do? Pace the room until you wear a hole in the stone?"
Sata shot Melchior a rebellious look. "This food could be poisoned."
Melchior laughed again. "I don't think so. The Caliph spent a lot of money acquiring you. He wouldn't do that only to kill you. Eat, and afterwards..." Suddenly, he looked immensely tired. "Afterwards, I think we have to talk."
* * * * *
Haroun watched as a man emerged from a side door of the palace. He handed a pouch to his father.
His father tapped the pouch, opened it to inspect the contents, and then nodded at the man. He placed the pouch in his sack and then, pulling the reins of the camel, started to cross the square.
Forgetting that his father frightened him, forgetting that he never spoke to the older man unless he was spoken to first, Haroun ran across the city square, dodged carts and wagons and stalls filled with the brightly colored silks, and stopped in front of his father. "What have you done with Sata?" he demanded.
Mesrour stared down at Haroun, and blinked, clearly surprised at his son's bluntness. "If you mean the living statue," he said, "I did what I said I would do. I sold her to the Caliph. And I should say, the Caliph was very pleased. Very pleased indeed." Mesrour patted his sack. It rattled with the sound of coins.
Mesrour's callousness made Haroun feel sick. "You sold her?" he whispered. "While she was still a statue? And the Caliph believed you when you told him that she would come to life? He didn't want to see it for himself before he paid you?"
"Oh, he wanted to see it for himself," Mesrour said. "I waited outside the palace for the stone to come to life, and when the Caliph saw that I was indeed telling the truth, he paid me."
"I see," Haroun said.
Mesrour's look hardened. "Shouldn't you be taking care of your camels?"
Haroun inwardly cringed. The thought of attending to those vicious, smelly beasts repulsed him. But he knew that he had to obey his father, or at least seem to. He had a plan to save Sata. And it would not do to incur his father's wrath at this point in time. "I'm going," he said.
And before his father could say a word, Haroun ran off.
* * * * *
The horse caravan reached the foot of the mountains early in the evening, where they stopped for food.
Brooklyn impatiently stopped with his companions, joining Soul and his son around their campfire. He accepted their dinner offering of lentils and unleavened bread, and sat on the tough ground opposite them. He felt melancholy that evening. He couldn't shake the notion that he might never see Sata again.
"Try to cheer up," Soul told Brooklyn. "One more day, and we should be at Samarkand."
"One more day," Brooklyn said quietly. "And what could happen to Sata in that time? What's happening to her now?"
"Inevitably," Soul said, "you'll think of all sorts of horrible things. But the truth is, anything could be happening to her, and what you're imagining in your mind at the moment is just a guess. Nothing more."
Brooklyn closed his eyes. "I can't picture her face any more," he said, in a panic. "I can't remember what she looks like."
"Relax," Soul said, not at all perturbed by Brooklyn's outburst. "You will remember. You won't forget her. Trust me."
Brooklyn opened his eyes and peered at Soul. "That sounds like the voice of experience to me."
Soul hesitated a moment. Then, sagely, he nodded. "My wife died two springs ago."
Brooklyn sucked in his breath. "I'm sorry."
"For what?" Soul asked. "It wasn't your fault she died."
"I'm sorry that I only thought about myself. That I didn't realize that you, too, were also in pain."
"It's an old pain," Soul said. "Which isn't to say that it doesn't still hurt, or that it doesn't still hurt as much as it did two years ago. It only means that I'm used to it now. That I'm not shocked every morning to wake up and realize that I won't ever see her again."
"I understand the shock," Brooklyn said. "Every time I wake from stone sleep, I expect to find Sata by my side, roaring off her sleep."
Brooklyn was surprised to find himself warming to Soul again. With ease, he had put aside his suspicious feelings, and found himself trusting Soul. Found himself wanting to trust him.
"My pain must be nothing compared to yours," Brooklyn continued. "At least I have hope. Whereas you - "
"I have certainty," Soul said. "I know what happened, and I know what I must do. You, on the other hand, know neither. Yours is a different situation. One, I think, that is harder." Soul stopped, and stared at his son fondly. "And, I have Agib. He helps soothe the pain."
"Yes," Brooklyn said quietly. The boy didn't speak much, and he didn't speak now.
Soul said, "He reminds me of my wife. Every single day of my life."
* * * * *
"Why does the Caliph keep a menagerie?" Sata asked, while she sat on the floor and ate.
Melchior was clearly still suspicious of Sata, and of the strange story which she'd told, but he hadn't left her company, and he seemed willing to talk. "The Caliph," Melchior said, "is a dumb man."
Sata spluttered at the bluntness of Melchior's statement, almost choking on a mouthful of water. "Dumb?"
"Oh, yes. Stupid, in fact. Nearly everyone knows it. Look at the way he treated you when he came in here. He knew nothing about you. Nothing at all. And yet he approached you as though you were no more vicious than a kitten. He did that because he wanted his guards to think him brave, but the smarter of his guards know he did it only because he doesn't have a brain. He acts spontaneously, and then thinks about the ramifications of his actions later on."
"But he seemed logical at the time," Sata argued. "He was right. If I valued my life, I wouldn't attack him."
"Ah," Melchior said. "There's the condition. If you valued your life. What if you hadn't valued your life? What if you'd decided that you'd prefer to die than to live in captivity?"
"I would have been a fool to attack him," Sata pointed out. "I have not yet exhausted my options for escape."
"No," Melchior said. "You are a wise gargoyle. You think before you act. But there again, the Caliph was making assumptions about your character. You might have been angry, or insane, or temporarily out of your mind. He made himself vulnerable to you, for no good reason. A wise leader doesn't do that."
Sata thought about Melchior's comments, and nodded. "But that doesn't explain why he keeps a menagerie."
"Ah. Well, you see, the Caliph of Samarkand has nothing to distinguish him, no talents which will make him famous throughout the land. He isn't good on the battlefield, he isn't good at ruling, he isn't diplomatic, he hasn't the skill with languages. In short, the only thing which offers him notoriety is his stupidity, and no one wants to be remembered for that."
"No," Sata said. "I suppose not."
"So, he keeps a menagerie. He buys the most interesting, most talented creatures and twice a month he has them perform for the people of the city, and for any visitors. The caravans come and go, and they take with them the story of the Caliph's menagerie, and so the Caliph's reputation spreads."
"An ingenious plan for a man who you say is a fool."
"It wasn't his plan," Melchior said.
Sata raised an eyebrow ridge.
"It was the Vizier's. The Vizier is a much smarter man than the Caliph. He advises the Caliph on the purchase of the creatures for the menagerie, and he keeps the palace secure so we can't escape."
"So, he is the one we must be wary of?"
Melchior shook his head. "The Vizier is smart, but he isn't cruel. He keeps the menagerie because it makes the Caliph happy. The Vizier won't let us escape, but he isn't cruel to us. The Caliph, on the other hand..."
Melchior's voice drifted away, his eyes became bleak.
"I understand," Sata said.
* * * * *
After Sata finished eating, Melchior showed her around. He was formal and reserved as he spoke to her, which suited Sata just fine.
Melchior opened the second door in the room, and beckoned her into a long corridor. Five doors were cut into each side of the corridor. Melchior said, "These are our rooms. If you want a moment's privacy, this is where you come. Your room is the one at the end, on the right."
Sata walked down the corridor hesitantly. It was a bleak place, lit by two reed torches which flickered dimly. Cobwebs hung from the ceiling and dust caked the floor. When Sata reached the door to her room, she gently pushed it open and stepped inside.
It was outfitted like a prison cell. There was straw on the floor which, presumably, was supposed to be a bed, and there was a chair beneath a tiny, barred window. The room smelled stale, as though the air inside was a thousand years old.
A rat scurried past Sata's toes.
Sata stared at it without reacting.
Melchior approached from behind. "Not exactly the most luxurious room in the palace, is it?"
Sata sighed. "I do not know what the other rooms in the palace look like, but I would guess not. It does not matter. I do not plan to stay here long."
"Ah, Sata," Melchior said. He touched her shoulder.
Startled, Sata jumped.
"I'm sorry," Melchior said.
"Please, do not touch me," Sata replied.
Mortified, Melchior again said, "I'm sorry."
Sata turned to him. She saw confusion and humiliation on his face. Immediately, she felt contrite. Their relationship so far had been short, and rocky, and yet he had been kind to her, and she didn't wish to hurt him. "No," she said. "It is I who am sorry. I wish for us to be friends. If we are to spend any amount of time together in this dreadful place, then it will be good to have an ally."
Melchior nodded. "I agree. And we will be spending a great deal of time together in this `dreadful place.' We'll be spending the rest of our lives here. Don't fool yourself into believing anything else, Sata. The bars are strong. I can't even bend them. And even if you could escape the building, there are hundreds of guards surrounding the palace. You could run, but you would never run far."
Sata lifted her chin in defiance. "I cannot believe that I will be living the rest of my life here."
"It is hard," Melchior spoke gently, "to accept in the beginning. I have been here a long time, and even I still..." He gazed up at the window, at the slither of night sky which twinkled through the opening. "Even I still dream of leaving. But," his voice hardened, "dreams like that can lead a yeti to despair. Accept your fate, Sata. It will be easier for you."
Sata placed her hands on her hips. She felt her heart harden. "Never. We will find a way out of here, Melchior. I promise you. I must find my mate, I must be allowed to continue on the quest which he and I started. And you..." she gentled her voice. "You must find your freedom, too."
"Freedom? Did I hear someone say freedom?"
Sata turned at the sound of this new voice. She saw that a door half way down the corridor had opened, and a woman had emerged.
The woman wore a pink tunic, richly embroidered with gold and silver beads, and stitched with red. Over the tunic she wore a soft, flowing robe of white. Her hair was coiled above her head, and decorated with white and yellow flowers. Two wisps of hair dangled down either side of her face.
She caught Sata's eye, and started to walk toward them.
Sata noticed the slow, predatory sway in her hips. Each step she took was graceful, comfortable. She wore no shoes, and yet the rough surface of the stony floor didn't seem to bother her.
"Did I," she repeated softly, in a voice which sounded like a purr, "hear someone mention freedom?"
She stopped in front of Sata, and stared at her with piercing green eyes.
The stare, Sata knew, was meant to be intimidating. Sata met the look with a hostile one of her own.
"You did," Sata said.
The woman laughed, a shrill, piercing sound. "What a naive thought. There is no freedom in this palace. Not for you, not for the slaves who work for the Caliph, not even for the Vizier."
"Ah," Melchior said, evidently trying to relieve the tension mounting between the two females. "Sata, this is Darice. Darice, this is Sata."
"It sounds to me," Sata said, ignoring Melchior and aiming her words at Darice, "as though you have easily been subdued."
Darice stopped laughing. She glared at Sata. "I am a survivor," she said, in that shrill voice of hers. "And a realist. There is no freedom here for you, gargoyle, and you had better accept that as soon as possible."
Sata stood her ground firmly. "I will not accept, on your word, that I have lost my freedom forever. Only after I have exhausted every possibility of escape will I accept such a fate."
Sata eyed Darice with hostility. Darice eyed her back. The tension between them ran thick and hard. Sata could almost feel the sparks between them.
Melchior said, "Anyone for a song?"
Sata turned her gaze from Darice to Melchior, dumbfounded.
"A song," Melchior explained. "I always find that when tensions run high, music and singing is a good balm. I'll start." He opened his mouth, and rich, deep notes flowed from between his lips.
Darice clamped her hand over his mouth. "Now isn't the time, Melchior. I'm to visit the Caliph tonight."
Melchior stopped singing. He looked disappointed. He removed Darice's hand from his mouth and said, "Oh, that means we won't have your company. You and Sata won't be getting better acquainted tonight."
"No," Darice said. She sounded relieved. "Sata isn't the only new pet the Caliph has acquired today. He also has a dragon, which he is at this very moment looking over for the first time. He intends to present the dragon to the court this evening."
"I see," Melchior said. "In your presence?"
"Yes," Darice said. "In my presence. I must go, now. I don't want to disappoint the Caliph."
"No," Melchior said. "You don't."
Darice darted a glance at Sata. "We'll meet again, very soon. Think about what I've told you. I say it only for your own good."
With that she turned and, with her soft, graceful movements, left.
After she'd gone, Sata said, "I don't trust her."
"Darice is all right," Melchior said.
Sata shook her head. "She has you persuaded that there is no way to escape this place, and she is trying to persuade me of the same thing. She also seems to be close to the Caliph. Does that not make you suspicious, Melchior? Do you not think that she may be placed here, to keep you and whoever else is locked down here from rebelling?"
Melchior said, quietly, "No. I don't think that. I think that... I think that Darice has led a very hard life."
Sata heard the compassion in Melchior's voice and, even though she didn't share it, she respected him all the more for being able to feel sympathy for someone like Darice. "Why is she a part of this menagerie? She seems like a normal, attractive human. Nothing unusual about her."
"Ah," Melchior said, with a smile. "She is..." He stopped speaking, and shook his head. "No, you should see for yourself. There is a hole in the door. It's a small hole, but it gives one a good view of the Caliph's private quarters. Darice will go there first. The Caliph likes to spend some time alone with her, before sharing her with the rest of the court. You can see them in action."
Sata felt her mouth dry. "I do not know if that is... proper, Melchior."
Melchior grinned at her. "Don't worry about it. I do this all the time. The one thing about being a prisoner in a cramped zoo is that you can forget about what's proper and what isn't. Come on. I'll show you."
Melchior took her arm. Then, he seemed to remember that Sata had asked him not to touch her. He released her arm again, and beckoned her down the corridor, back to the room where Sata had wakened.
The room was darker now. Sata could hear the night noises passing through bars at the end of the room. There were crickets, an owl, and the rattle of leaves.
Melchior pressed his ear against the door, and beckoned Sata to do the same.
Reluctantly, Sata listened. The wood of the door felt rough against her ear. In the other room, she heard the faint strains of deep, seductive music.
Melchior pulled away from the door, and pressed his eyes against a peephole that was situated low, in the center of the door. The peephole was roughly cut, and Sata guessed that Melchior had made it himself.
Melchior watched for a few moments, and then he said, "Now, I think. Yes, now." He jerked away from the peephole, and, pulling Sata so that she was positioned in front of it, he pressed her forward.
As she positioned her eye in front of the peephole, Sata protested. "Melchior, I truly do not think this is proper. What Darice and the Caliph do in the privacy of the Caliph's own quarters is surely their business, not... Oh." Sata stopped speaking when she saw Darice. She pressed her eyes closer to the peephole. "Darice is dancing."
Sata pulled her head back and stared at Melchior.
"Of course she's dancing," Melchior said. "What did you think she was doing?"
"Darice has the ability to mesmerize people when she dances," Melchior said. "It's a handy talent. But that isn't why she's here. Watch," he waved his hands, gesturing that Sata should continue to stare through the peephole. "Watch, or you'll miss it."
"Miss what," Sata said, again positioning her eye over the hole.
Sata saw Darice again, dancing on a mat in front of the Caliph, who was reclining on the floor with brightly colored cushions behind his back. Two men stood discreetly in the corner of the room, one played some drums, and the other played a pipe. Their music was gentle, rhythmic, and Darice danced to it beautifully. She fluttered her hands through the air, swung her hips, and stomped her feet in perfect timing.
Sata was entranced.
Then, as the music reached its climax, something odd happened. Darice removed her robe, throwing it behind her. It billowed as it sailed across the room, floating gently to the floor. Darice opened her tunic and, as she did so, she began to change. She grew whiskers. Her nose shrank to a pale pink stump. Points formed on her ears. Tawny fur appeared on her face.
The tunic fell, bundling at her feet. Tawny fur appeared on every part of her skin. She crouched on all fours.
Sata blinked. Darice had become a cheetah.
Sata sprang away from the peephole. "Darice is a... Is a..."
"Is a were-cheetah," Melchior finished for her.
"Yes," Sata said. Her memories about her last journey with the Phoenix Gate all come flooding back to her. A yeti called Melchior, A were-cheetah called Darice. A dragon called Li.
"Did Darice say that the Caliph had acquired a dragon today?" Sata asked, turning to Melchior.
Melchior blinked. "Yes, she did."
"A dragon," Sata whispered. "A dragon called..." She scanned her memory, pushing it and prodding it. "A dragon called Li. And a gargoyle..." She felt the blood drain from her face as she remembered the sarcophagus of the gargoyle. "A gargoyle." Sata stared down at her body, as though she needed to remind herself that she was a gargoyle.
"Sata," Melchior said, "what's wrong?"
Sata couldn't reply. She was pondering the meaning of what was happening to her.
"Sata?" Melchior prodded.
Sata shook her head, as though this could wipe away the memories that plagued her mind. "I am sorry, Melchior, what did you say?"
"Is there something wrong?"
Sata pressed her eye against the peephole again, and watched as Darice changed back, from a cheetah to a human. "Do you remember the story I told you? The one about the yeti who is revered for starting a sanctuary?"
"Ah, yes," Melchior said. "I've been thinking about that."
"You didn't believe me," Sata said, still staring through the peephole. "You thought that I had been sent here by the Caliph to psychologically torture you."
"Yes," Melchior said.
"There is not a method I know of to persuade you that I am telling you the truth. I travel through time with my mate Brooklyn. We were lost during a sandstorm, during which we turned to stone. I was picked up by a camel caravan, and I do not know where Brooklyn is now. He has the Phoenix Gate, so I cannot show it to you. Even if I could, I could not show you how it works. But Melchior, you must believe me when I tell you that before we came here - just before we came here - we visited the sanctuary where we saw the replica of you. You, Melchior. I have come to realize now that it must be you."
"Sata, I have never been involved with a sanctuary."
"No, Melchior. It must be in your future."
"It can't be. There is no escape - "
"There is an escape." Sata pulled back from the peephole. She curled her talon into a fist and pounded it against the door as she repeated. "There is an escape. You will find it. You will escape to the mountains, where you will start a sanctuary for yourself, and for those like you. It happens, Melchior. It is in your future. I have seen your future."
Melchior looked as though he didn't believe her. "Sata, do not torture me."
"I do not mean to torture you," Sata said. "I mean to give you hope."
"How do you know that this yeti was me? That is wasn't some other Melchior?"
Sata nodded at the peephole. "I know because you start that sanctuary with friends. Your friends are Darice the were-cheetah, and Li the dragon."
"Darice," Melchior whispered. "And Li... But we don't know the dragon's name."
"I will wager that it is Li," Sata said. "You must believe me, Melchior. You must not give up hope that there is a way to escape."
For the first time since Sata had met him, she saw a gleam in Melchior's eyes. "Escape," he said, in a voice so quiet it was almost a sigh. "Freedom."
"Yes," Sata said, urging him.
"And other yeti?"
Sata saw the hope in his eyes. "About that, I do not know." She saw the hope fade. "But," she said, insistently, "at least if you escape this place, you will have a chance to look."
"Yes," Melchior said. "Freedom," he breathed the word again. "For years, I haven't dared to hope..."
"Dare," Sata said. "Dare. It will happen. All the characters are in place. You. Darice. Li. And..."
"And?" Melchior arched a shaggy eyebrow.
"And..." Sata whispered. She thought about the gargoyle, the female. If she accepted the possibility that the gargoyle in the sarcophagus was her, then she would have to accept that her destiny was here with Melchior. She would never see Brooklyn again, she was here in this time to stay, and her travels through time were over.
She wasn't ready to face those possibilities.
"And nothing," Sata said quietly. "Let us go over possible plans of escape, and see if, together, we can think of something new."
* * * * *
After everyone had gone to sleep, Haroun cautiously walked around the camels. He noticed, with a half smile, that he seemed to have finally become accustomed to their smell. Tip-toeing carefully, he brushed past the first camels in the caravan, to the camel were his father kept his private, personal possessions.
He reached that camel, saw his father's sack, and cautiously opened it.
"Hey!" Firouz called into the night air.
Haroun froze, his hand on the tie of his father's sack.
"Hey, Khacun," Firouz continued. "Shall we go into the city together, and see if we can sample its delights? The gate is closed, but we can climb the walls."
Haroun breathed a sigh of relief when he realized that Firouz hadn't seen him, and continued to open his father's sack. He'd never stolen anything before, and he felt nervous.
Haroun rummaged through his father's possessions, removing spare clothes, some precious stones which Mesrour had bought in the east, a woodcarving. At the bottom of the sack, Haroun found it. Sata's knives. He pulled out one, and then the other.
The blades gleamed in the moonlight. They looked sharp, dangerous. Sata would be better equipped to look after herself if she had these back.
Haroun smiled to himself.
He found a piece of silk tied onto one of the camels backs. He took the precious cloth and wrapped it around the knives. Then, he quietly slipped between the sleeping forms of the camel men, and crept past his father's nose.
He went to the city gates, and found them firmly shut. But there was a space between the gate and the ground, a hole dug by a dog or perhaps some other animal that had wished to escape the city at night.
Haroun crawled through that hole, wiggling his small body, writhing, until he reached the other side.
There were guards on the city side of the gate, but they weren't looking down at the ground. Haroun held his breath, careful not to make a noise, and crawled along the road, slowly, trying not to attract the guards' attention.
"You there," one of the guards said.
Haroun turned, slowly, to face the guard who had spoken.
"What are you doing?" The guard looked directly at Haroun. He had unsheathed his blade. It looked menacing.
Haroun gulped. "I was..."
"Stand up," the guard said.
Haroun did as he was told.
The other guard, who had not yet spoken, said, "Leave him alone, he's just a boy. Probably got locked out and is now scared that his mother's going to be furious."
The first guard didn't look convinced. He stared at Haroun, his gaze sharp. He looked as though he wanted to use his blade. But then he said, "All right. Run along. See that you don't get locked out again tomorrow night."
Haroun swallowed. "I won't," he said, and ran.
He was puffing by the time he reached the palace.
Catching his breath, gulping the cool night air, he stared at the huge building in front of him. It had been carved and erected out of the stone which surrounded the area, and was pale brown in color. Plane trees surrounded it, brushing their broad leaves tenderly against the walls.
Haroun had only sketchily thought through this part of the plan. He needed to find a way inside the palace. He'd figured that there would be a servants' door open, or perhaps a window which he could climb through, but as he walked around the palace, he realized that this wasn't the case.
He reached a part of the palace which was heavily guarded. He stepped behind a tree, to examine his surroundings. These guards looked sterner, and more thorough, than the ones which guarded the city gates.
Instinctively, Haroun knew that if he could slip past these guards, he would find a way to Sata.
But how, he wondered. There were no bushes between him and the guards, which could conceal him. There was only barren land, and if he ran, he would most certainly be seen.
He had to think. He had to be cautious.
Carefully, he lowered himself to the ground, and leaned against the tree. He would think of a way to find Sata. He knew he would.
* * * * *
The door opened and a cheetah walked through it. She walked slowly, leisurely, her muscles rippling beneath her fur.
The Vizier stepped in behind her, and threw a blanket at Melchior.
Melchior caught it deftly, and covered the cheetah with it.
With the blanket concealing her shining fur, the cheetah approached Sata, her yellow green eyes almost supernatural in their glow.
Although Sata knew this was Darice, knew that this cheetah was an intelligent creature, she couldn't keep her heart from pounding in apprehension.
Darice reached Sata, and roared.
Automatically, Sata struck her talons in a defensive pose, ready to protect herself should Darice wish to fight.
Darice, however, didn't wish to fight. After she'd frightened Sata, her whiskers retracted into her face, her fur disappeared, she stood on her hind legs, and she turned back into a human.
Clutching the blanket closely around her body, Darice laughed. "You should have seen the look on your face," she said to Sata. "You thought I was going to eat you."
Sata scowled. "I did not know what you were going to do. I was preparing myself for anything."
An expression of boredom flicked across Darice's face. "It doesn't matter," she said. She turned to Melchior. "I met the dragon. She is only a child. She hardly has any idea what is going to happen to her."
Melchior grimaced. "The poor thing."
"She was so frightened," Darice continued, "that at first we thought she couldn't speak. She hadn't said anything since her capture, and the Caliph was disappointed because a dragon who can't talk is far inferior to one which can. But then she spoke - she murmured some words of fear - and the Vizier finally coaxed her name from her."
"Her name?" Melchior's attention peaked. "What is her name?" "It's Li," Darice said. "The dragon's name is Li."
Sata's heart began to pound. She looked at Melchior. Their eyes met.
Melchior straightened his shoulders. He spoke to Sata. "If the dragon only found her voice just now, then the only way you could have possibly known her name would be..."
"Would be if I'm telling you the truth," Sata finished for him.
"Or it could be an elaborate scheme to torture me. But, like I said before, the Caliph is not an intelligent man. Extremely complex and well-planned methods of torture are not his style. And the Vizier isn't, by nature, a cruel man." Melchior stared at Sata. "I believe you're telling me the truth."
Darice said, "What are you two talking about?"
Melchior turned to the were-cheetah. "It's a long story. One which I'll tell you later. Tell us more about the dragon. You said that she's just a child." Melchior sighed. A look of pain flicked across his face. "The poor thing."
For the first time since she'd met her, Sata saw something akin to kindness on Darice's face. "I don't know much more about her," she said. And then, tenderly, she said, "Ah, Melchior." She walked to the yeti and placed a hand on his silky shoulder. "I forgot. You know how she feels, don't you? To arrive in this place as a child, lost and lonely and confused."
"For the Caliph," Melchior said, "children are easier. They can be trained. They accept their surroundings without a fight."
Darice sat beside Melchior, settled the hem of her blanket demurely about her legs, and pressed her face against the yeti's shoulder. "Probably a good thing, don't you think? If they fight, they're punished."
Melchior nodded, hesitantly.
Darice lifted her head from his shoulder. With an astuteness which Sata would not have expected from her, Darice said, "What is it, Melchior? There's something on your mind."
Melchior was quiet for a moment. Then, he nodded in Sata's direction. "I have been speaking to our new room-mate. She has persuaded me that there must be a way to escape this place. We only need to try harder to find it."
Darice turned to Sata, a look of vicious hostility sprang to her face. For a second, her face turned to that of a cheetah, and she roared. It was a high pitched, tearing noise, and it stunned Sata.
"Why does the idea of escape displease you?" Sata asked the were-cheetah.
Darice turned back to her human form. "Because there is no escape. Because by persuading Melchior that there is, you're only raising his hopes, building him up so that he'll be hurt. And because if you do succeed in persuading Melchior that there is a way to escape, if you try it and fail, the Caliph would punish you both. You," she stared, hard, at Sata, "I don't care about. But Melchior," she turned to the yeti, her expression gentle. She patted his fur. "I care about Melchior."
"I... see," Sata said quietly. "And perhaps you also care about yourself. Perhaps you, too, are worried that you will be punished?"
Sata had pushed her too far. Darice roared, and this time her cry echoed throughout the small chamber. She flung the blanket off her shoulders, and leapt at Sata. In mid-air, she changed into a cheetah and fell onto Sata, her claws bared.
Sata reacted quickly, with the instincts of a warrior. She covered her face with one talon, and clawed the other, ready to attack. She whipped her tail in an arc, and caught Darice's hind legs as she fell, knocking the cheetah off balance.
Darice successfully swiped Sata's shoulder, before Sata pushed Darice in the chest, and knocked her over.
Rolling over, Sata wished she had her blades with her. But she was a good fighter, even without blades. She stood, preparing herself for Darice's next attack. Darice leapt again. Sata bounded away, and Darice collided headfirst with the wall.
The cheetah slumped to the ground.
Sata paused, waiting to see if Darice would stand again.
Slowly, the cheetah rose. Her legs shook. Her fur was matted. That last blow had taken a lot out of her, but Sata saw that she meant to try again.
Sata jumped, landed behind the cheetah, and, wrapping her strong arms around the cheetah's torso, squeezed.
"Stop it!" Melchior shouted, running to Sata's side. He pushed her away.
Sata, startled, released Darice.
Darice, in turn, took her opportunity. She whirled around, and leapt through the air again, her sharp claws pale in the darkness.
Melchior jumped on Sata, and pushed her out of the way.
Darice landed, clumsily, on the stone ground. She was about to leap at Sata again, when the door opened, and guards poured in.
Suddenly, there were guards everywhere. One restrained Darice, another restrained Sata.
Sata looked around, and saw that there were even guards on the other side of the bars, their swords drawn, hostile expressions on their faces.
The Vizier stepped through the door. He looked at Sata, hard. "What is going on here?" he demanded. He turned to stare at Darice. "Change back to your human form," he told the cheetah. "You know that you're forbidden to become a cheetah unless you are commanded to do so by the Caliph."
Darice changed into a human.
Melchior crossed the room, retrieved the blanket which had fallen from Darice when the fight had first begun, and placed it gently across Darice's shoulders.
"Explain yourselves," the Vizier said.
Sata wasn't accustomed to being spoken to in such a manner. It was almost as though she were again a hatchling, being chastised by one of her elders for doing something naughty. She reminded herself that she was no longer a hatchling, and she was not answerable to this man - one of her captors.
The Vizier drew his sword and threatened Sata with it. "I can see that you're a strong one," he said. "Believe me when I tell you that I can wear you down. I want an answer from you. One way or another, I will get it."
"It's only a clash of personalities," Melchior explained quickly. "Sata is new here. She doesn't know us well yet, and she still needs to learn how to live with us. I promise you that we will sort these problems out, quickly, and that in the next day or so, we will all get along as though we'd been living together all our lives."
The Vizier stared at Melchior, contemplative. The Vizier was a tall man. The tip of his head reached Melchior's shoulder. After a moment, he said, "See that you do fix things in here. The Caliph doesn't like fighting. You know that as well as I do. If he had caught you in here fighting, and if he had seen Darice in her cheetah state, he would have punished you all. I," he yawned, "on the other hand, would like some sleep. So, if you promise to try to get along, I'll forget that I saw any of this."
"We promise," Melchior said. He nudged Darice.
Darice said, "We promise." She stared at Sata, and mouthed the word, `Promise.'
Sata said, grudgingly, "I, too, promise."
"Good," the vizier said. He rubbed his hands together, and turned to the guards. "You may go now." He arched his neck, and stared at the guards outside, on the other side of the bars. "You may also go."
And then, he left.
After he'd gone, Sata collapsed against the wall, and rubbed her shoulder. She could feel blood trickling down it.
"You're hurt," Melchior said.
"It is not a fatal wound," Sata said. "I will be all right after I sleep." She looked from Melchior to Darice and back again. "I will go to my room and await sunrise. We can discuss this again tomorrow night."
And with that, she left.
* * * * *
Haroun waited by the plane tree, trying to think of a plan. In the end, it was the adventure with the city guards which gave him the idea.
They'd dismissed him because they'd thought he was just a boy, locked out at night, and frightened of incurring his mother's wrath. Perhaps he could use the small, helpless boy ruse again.
He stepped out from behind the tree, and boldly approached the guards. His heart pounded and his palms perspired, and he wanted nothing more than to be lying next to the camels, safe and sound from the dangers of Samarkand. But he was determined not to let Sata down again. He hadn't protected her, hadn't kept her from being sold. He wouldn't forsake her again.
He stopped in front of the nearest guard and said, "Hello, sir."
The guard, stiff and stern, stared down at Haroun and blinked, surprised. "Hel... lo," he said, apprehensively.
Haroun could hear the pounding of blood in his ears. He ignored it, and continued with his plan. "I'm lost," he said. "I traveled here with my father, by camel, and we arrived here today. But I can't find my father any more. I was wondering if you could help me."
Astonishment etched itself on the guard's face. "I... I... can't," he spluttered.
Haroun tried to look crestfallen. "Please," he said, "you must help me."
"I'm sorry, boy," the guard said firmly. "I can't help you. My orders are to stand guard here, and not to move from this place until the next guard comes to dismiss me. You'll have to find someone else to help you."
"But... But... There is no one else. It's the middle of the night, and everyone's asleep."
"Then, wait until morning."
Haroun tried to look aghast. "Out here? By myself? It's dark, and frightening, and who knows what monsters - "
On the word `monsters' a roar tore through the air. The guard whirled around, forgetting Haroun. Without a backward glance, he rushed to the palace.
Haroun thought that the roar might be Sata's. Perhaps she'd escaped. His heart danced with joy. He glanced about him, and noticed that the other guards had also rushed in the direction from which the noise had come. Haroun followed them
He arrived at a wall in the palace which had been knocked out, and replaced by bars. The area at the front of the barred wall had been cleared. It was almost as though it were a viewing area. It must be the makeshift stage which the vendor of figs had told him about.
"A viewing area for the Caliph's menagerie," Haroun whispered to himself. Perhaps he'd also found Sata's prison. The guards crowded around the bars, staring inside. Haroun heard another roar, and then another. Whatever was going on inside, it was distracting enough for Haroun to crawl between the legs of the soldiers, and peer through the bars.
He saw Sata fighting with a cheetah. His heart leapt to his throat. He was disappointed to learn that Sata hadn't escaped, but he was relieved to find her.
He realized that this was a chance to leave Sata's blades in a place where she might find them. Deftly, Haroun pulled the silk covered swords from his shirt and slipped it between the bars, pressing it against the wall so that it wouldn't be easily visible.
Once he'd done that, he tried to attract Sata's attention.
"Sata," he hissed. "Sata." But she was too busy fighting the cheetah to hear him.
The guard just above Haroun did hear, however. He looked down at the boy clamped between his feet and said, "What are you doing down there?"
Haroun looked up, trying to appear like an innocent child. "What kind of monsters are they?"
"Come back to this place tomorrow," the guard said, bending over and picking Haroun up. "The Caliph plans to open his menagerie to the public then. But not before. You'll see them properly, and learn what they are. For now..." He threw Haroun over his shoulder. "You have to leave."
Haroun didn't protest. He'd achieved what he'd set out to achieve.
* * * * *
Just before sunrise, Brooklyn climbed onto the back of a horse, settling himself comfortably. He waited while Soul and Agib tied his legs to the horse, and then he lowered himself so that his cheek brushed the animal's mane.
He looked at Soul and said, "See you at nightfall," just as the sun rose.
* * * * *
During the day, while his father traded his silks with some of the local vendors, Haroun slept in the shade of a plane tree. It was hot, and he didn't sleep well, but he wanted to be bright and awake by evening. He wanted to find a chance to speak to Sata.
In the afternoon, a horse caravan arrived. By this time, Haroun had decided that he'd had enough sleep. He went to the horse caravan and inspected it. He was surprised to see another statue, which looked similar to Sata, strapped to the back of a horse.
He was even more surprised to find the caravan driver, a man with a thick, white beard, talking to Mesrour.
Mesrour was nodding and shaking his head. The horse-driver looked stern.
The horse-driver passed the reins of a horse to Mesrour. It was the horse which carried the statue.
Mesrour nodded his thanks, and led the horse toward the gates of Samarkand, toward the palace.
The statue bounced up and down as the horse walked. There was a smile on his face.
Haroun sighed, unhappy. The poor statue had no idea that he was about to become the Caliph's prisoner. He knew he had to do something. He hadn't been able to save Sata, but perhaps he could save this statue.
Haroun ran to his father. "Father! Father!" he shouted. "Don't do this. You can't do this."
Mesrour stopped. Haroun slammed into him.
Haroun felt the strength of his father; the taut muscles. Slowly, he lifted his chin. He ran his gaze along his father's stomach, and chest. Upwards, along his neck and chin. He met his father's angry gaze.
He gulped. "F... father," he whispered. "Don't do this. It's wrong."
Mesrour lifted his hand, and slapped Haroun away.
Haroun felt the sting against his cheek.
"If you can't remember that I'm your father," Mesrour said, "then remember that I'm your boss. You depend on me for food, for water, for everything. Do not incur my wrath, or you _will_ regret it."
To Haroun's mortification, he felt his body start to tremble. He'd never stood up to his father. Ever. But he had to. He had to do it now, or else his father would sell this statue to the Caliph.
In his mind, Haroun felt that his promise to protect Sata extended to this poor statue, too.
And yet when he looked at his father, and saw the angry lines of his face, he froze.
Mesrour stared at Haroun for one long moment. Then, he gathered the reins of the horse, and slowly led it, and the statue, toward the palace. Haroun found that he couldn't move.
* * * * *
Sata roared as she woke.
She stretched, and stared around at her cold cell. She was surprised to find Melchior sitting on the floor in the doorway, staring at her with a curious expression on his face. "What are you doing?" she asked, more roughly than she'd intended.
"Watching you," Melchior said.
"Why?" Sata asked.
"It's an interesting thing, watching a gargoyle wake from her stone sleep. I had never seen it before yesterday, and I find it fascinating."
Sata sighed. "Please," she said, "I ask you not to find me fascinating."
"I can't help it," Melchior said.
He watched her for a moment longer, and then reached behind him and pulled out a parcel wrapped in silk.
"What is that?" Sata asked.
"Someone slipped this through the bars last night, while you and Darice were fighting," Melchior said. "I don't know how they managed it. The place was full of guards. Anyway, I remembered seeing your belt," he nodded to her waist, "and I remembered thinking that it looked strangely bare. I was wondering if these were, perhaps, yours." He unwrapped the silk.
Inside the parcel, Sata's katana blades gleamed.
Sata gasped. "My blades! Where did they come from?" She bounded the short distance between her and Melchior and pulled the blades from Melchior's hands. The handles felt wonderfully familiar, the weight just right in her talons. She tested the blades by holding them in some traditional positions, and then she tucked them into her obi. In her excitement and pleasure, she kissed Melchior's cheek.
Seeing his embarrassment, Sata stared at him, suddenly horrified.
Melchior saw the expression on her face, and frowned. "Something is wrong," he said.
Sata stepped back, appalled at what she'd done.
When she didn't speak, Melchior said, "Tell me what it is you're thinking. One minute you're friendly, and the next minute you're cold. I find your changes in mood peculiar. I'd like to know what causes them."
"I have a mate," Sata said.
Melchior stared at her, as though he expected her to continue. When she didn't, he prompted her, "And?"
Sata inhaled a lungful of air. She lifted her chin, and looked Melchior in the eye. "My moods - they are not your fault. It is just that..."
"Just that what?"
"Just that... I told you that I had learned about you from a place in the mountains, a sanctuary for misfits."
"Yes," Melchior said. "You used the existence of such a place as proof that I would one day escape from the Caliph's menagerie."
"Yes," Sata said. "I did. But there is more."
Melchior raised a shaggy eyebrow.
"When we were there, I saw... I saw the tomb of a gargoyle. She was..." Sata turned away from Melchior. "I must not tell you your future."
"And yet, now that you have started," Melchior said, "you must finish."
Sata shook her head, closed her eyes. "You had loved that gargoyle, and she had died, and you'd built a beautiful sarcophagus for her."
Melchior breathed a long, ragged breath. "I see. And you think - "
"I think that gargoyle is me," Sata said, firmly. "I think I know my own future. I will never see Brooklyn again. I will help you escape and..."
"And I will fall in love with you."
"Yes," Sata whispered.
"And you think that by keeping away from me, you can stop me from loving you. And if you stop me from loving you, then perhaps you will be able to change the rest of your future. You won't die. You'll find your mate again."
Sata nodded, and repeated, "Yes."
Sata turned to look at Melchior. She saw sympathy in his warm brown eyes. She knew that, despite the fact that she wanted to avoid him, she liked him very much.
"I'm not an expert," Melchior said. "I don't know much about the way time travel works, but... But I think that we can't change the future which you have already seen. What you saw wasn't a premonition or a prophecy, it was a fact. It will happen. No matter what you do, no matter what I do, we can't change that future."
Sata shook her head. "I can't believe that."
"But in your heart, you already do."
Sata stared at the ground, defeated. "I cannot believe that I will never see Brooklyn again. I cannot believe that I will ever love anyone but him."
"In that place where you learned of your future, and of mine, you said that I loved you?"
"Yes," Sata said.
"Did you love me?" His voice was barely more than a whisper.
Sata stared at him. "I... I don't know," she said, hesitantly. "The guardian didn't say."
"Then, perhaps, you will always love Brooklyn." Melchior smiled. "And I guess I will just be condemned to suffer unrequited love."
* * * * *
Brooklyn roared as the sun set. He opened his eyes, expecting to feel the firm warmth of horse flesh beneath him, and was surprised to find himself in a tiny, dark cell. The stones which imprisoned him were cold and dry. The air smelled musty.
"Where am I?" he asked himself, confused.
He walked to the door of his cell. It was made of solid steel, and it was locked. He pounded on it, "Where am I?" He shouted.
A guard opened a flap in the door. "Quiet, gargoyle," he said.
"Where am I?" Brooklyn demanded. "Where is Soul? What have you done with him?"
"Soul?" the guard asked. "Is he the caravan driver?"
"Yes," Brooklyn said, through clenched teeth.
The guard laughed. "You've no need to be concerned for his sake. I imagine he is a richer man tonight."
"What are you talking about?"
"Don't you know?" the guard asked. "The caravan driver sold you to the Caliph. He must have made a tidy profit, too. You're now a part of the Caliph's menagerie."
Stunned, for a moment Brooklyn could only stare at the guard. Then he roared, a sharp, anguished roar. "I have been betrayed!" he cried.
The guard just laughed, and closed the flap.
* * * * *
Melchior smiled. "But come, Sata. Let's not dwell on the far future. I've brought your blades to you, and I'd like to know what you make of this parcel. Who would have brought them to you? And how. The palace is heavily guarded at all times."
A noise coming from beneath the floor caught Sata's attention for a moment. "What's that?" she asked.
Melchior stared at the hard stones of the floor beneath them. It could have been her imagination, but Sata thought she saw him shudder. "The prison is beneath us," he explained. "It might be one of the prisoners, crying out. Or singing, perhaps. One never knows. The cells down there are cramped - far worse than ours. The Caliph houses all sorts of nasty people down there. Thieves. Murderers. People who don't laugh at his jokes."
Sata peered at Melchior, examining his face. "You've been down there?"
"Yes," Melchior said. "When Darice first arrived. She and I tried to escape. We were caught, and stopped, and were locked down there for a month." This time, Sata was certain that Melchior shuddered. "It isn't a nice place."
Melchior lifted his head. "The service down there is poor. Very poor indeed."
"You've tried to escape? With Darice?"
Melchior sighed. "Yes. I was still young. I'd lived here since I was a child, and I had never tried to escape. I'd always been frightened that life out there would be worse than life in here. Then, Darice came. She couldn't stand the closed spaces of the menagerie. She wanted to escape. And she persuaded me to help her. She told me that once we were outside, she'd help me carve a new life for myself. She described the outside world in such vivid, colorful terms that I started to crave freedom. When our attempt at escape failed, we were punished. Severely. We never tried to escape again. Darice was too frightened of the consequences and, to be honest, so was I. But she'd told me what freedom was like, and even though I was too frightened to attempt to escape, I started to imagine what it would be like to be outside. To be free. To have..." Melchior stared at Sata. "To have friends."
Sata gulped. "I did not understand, truly, what you had suffered, until now?"
"Suffer?" Melchior laughed. "Did I say suffer? No, I meant to say - "
"Melchior, that is enough. You need not brush me off with your humor."
Melchior dropped the facade. "Darice has always felt bad about firing me up for escape, and then submitting, herself, to imprisonment. That's why she's so hostile toward you. She feels that you are raising my hopes, just as she did all those years ago. And she feels that you, too, will fail me in the end. She fears that you will hurt me."
This was a lot for Sata to digest. It seemed that she had misjudged Darice.
"But, Sata," Melchior said, "never mind that, for now. You know and I know that we will escape. And we'll take Darice with us, even if she is reluctant to attempt escape. Perhaps the appearance of these blades are providence? Perhaps you'll be able to use them to help us escape?"
"My blades," Sata said, patting her obi with one talon. "Were taken from me when the camel driver took me prisoner. But I befriended a boy - the son of the driver - and he must have found a way to deliver them to me. How, I do not know. But I agree, these blades will be a help to me in combat."
"Your friend - he must be a brave boy," Melchior said.
"I think so," Sata replied.
Just then, Darice appeared at the door to the cell. She wore a white tunic which clung to her body, and rippled as she walked. Somehow, this simple form of clothing seemed to accentuate her feline nature.
Darice stared at Sata, dislike in her eyes.
Sata stiffened. Even with her new insight into Darice's character, she couldn't feel comfortable around the were-cheetah.
"While you were sleeping," Darice said, "Melchior convinced me that he really does want to try to escape, that he isn't just doing it because your arguments are persuasive. He's willing to risk the Caliph's punishment for freedom. I don't think you'll succeed. But I owe Melchior the chance to try. He helped me to escape once. You have more of a chance of escape with my help than without it. So, although I'm reluctant, you can count me in."
Sata stared at the woman, at her narrow face and at her small, sharp teeth. She thought about the sanctuary in the mountains - Melchior, Darice, Li and a gargoyle. The four of them start the sanctuary. Sata said, "I know we can trust you."
Darice narrowed her eyes. "Whether or not you can trust me doesn't matter. Melchior knows he can trust me, and that's all I care about. I am, after all, doing this for him, and for no other reason."
Sata nodded. "Very well." It seemed as though they couldn't help but have a clash of personalities. Sata wondered if it would always be like that.
Darice said, "I think we have a chance to escape tonight. The Caliph is opening his menagerie to the public. The dragon is already outside, tied to a tree. She'll be giving the children rides on her back. I've been sent to bring you two outside."
"We are coming," Sata said, holding her head up high.
She followed Darice and Melchior down the long, dark corridor, and through the main room of their abode. The bars had been swung open like an enormous gate. Outside, Sata could hear the sounds of children squealing and adults laughing.
She stepped outdoors and, for the first time in more than twenty-four hours, saw the sky and stars above her head.
* * * * *
Haroun groomed the camels until sunset. He thought about the second statue, and wondered what had happened to it.
He was upset that his father had succeeded in frightening him again. He wished that he were more courageous, more like Sata.
At sunset, he hurried to the palace. He saw that a crowd had already gathered there, to see the Caliph's menagerie.
The dragon was already on display. A long rope bound her to a camel. She was giving children rides, permitting them to climb onto her back before she launched herself into the air. The rope allowed her some space to fly, but made sure that she couldn't escape. She looked unhappy, almost despondent. The children jumped up and down on her back, shouting and screaming their joy, while the dragon flew outwards until the rope which bound her to the camel was taught. And then she circled the palace in long, lazy loops.
The camel didn't look pleased about the situation, either. As the dragon circled, the rope rotated. During each rotation, the rope would scrape past the camel's ears, and the camel would twitch with irritation.
Haroun craned his neck, staring at the door. He saw now that the barred wall to the room which he'd visited the day before wasn't simply made of bars. It was a gate which swung outwards. The Caliph, evidently, was going to let Sata outside. All Haroun needed to do was wait.
* * * * *
Sata stood in a square of land about two hundred yards by two hundred yards. The area was bounded by a crowd of guards, three men deep. There was no way to escape on foot. If any one of them tried to crash through the line, a hundred guards would be there to stop them. Nor, Sata observed, was there a path of escape by air. There was only one tree in the area, and that, too, was heavily guarded.
Escape seemed impossible, but Sata didn't allow that fact to discourage her. For now, she wanted to take a moment to enjoy being outside. Seeing the endless sky, inhaling the fresh air, Sata felt liberated. It was as though, before in her cell, she had been covered by a suffocating blanket, hardly able to move, hardly able to breath; and now, someone had removed that blanket, and she was free to move again.
"This is wonderful," Sata whispered.
Melchior smiled at her. "I find the outdoors a bit frightening. Too much space, and the air is too light."
"You have been indoors too much," Sata observed.
"Perhaps," Melchior agreed.
"Shh," Darice held her finger to her lips, swiveling around and glaring at her two companions. "Watch and observe. And remember," she said to Sata, "don't inflame the Caliph. No matter how much he offends you, you must lead him to believe that you are docile, that you have no spirit. Agree with him. Bend to his wishes."
Sata straightened, stubbornly. "A gargoyle is a slave to no one."
"Your bravery and independence is admirable," Darice said, sarcastically, "but your intelligence is questionable. I didn't tell you to become docile, I told you to make the Caliph believe that you were. There is a difference and, when you think about it, you will realize that my way is right."
Anger at Darice's condescension coursed through Sata. She didn't like being told what to do; she didn't like losing control. She was about to argue with Darice, when she remembered her last conversation with Brooklyn.
Brooklyn had been antagonistic about having lost control of his life to the Phoenix Gate. His anger had clouded his judgement. Sata had advised him to try to accept the situation, and act wisely. She should take her own advice now, and concede that Darice was, indeed, right.
The Caliph approached the trio from his seat beneath the only tree in the area. Three guards followed him.
"I have a surprise for you," the Caliph said to Sata. "But I'll show it to you later. For now, how do you like my new acquisition?"
He pointed to the corner of the partitioned area.
Sata saw what she hadn't seen before. Tied to a camel was a long, wingless dragon. She had scales of gold, which glittered beneath the moonlight. She'd landed, and children were jumping onto her back. Once five of the children were seated comfortably, tied securely with ropes, the dragon ran along the ground, leapt into the air, and took flight. The rope which bound the dragon to the camel was long, allowing for a wide arc through the air.
"She is beautiful," Darice purred, as the dragon darted and swirled through the air.
"Magnificent," Melchior agreed.
"Perfect," Sata whispered, with glee.
The Caliph said, "I want you, gargoyle, and you, Melchior, to wrestle with one another for the crowd. Don't hurt yourselves. Just show the crowd your strength. When they have finished, you, Darice," he pointed to the were-cheetah, "will dance. Remember, there are guards watching you at all times."
He paused. "Well, what are you waiting for? Start?"
Melchior and Sata turned to face one another. Clearly, Melchior had performed for an audience before. He roared, and Sata copied him, putting her best effort into her sound. Then, they circled one another.
A crowd gathered about them as they tossed and tumbled one another. Occasionally, Melchior would roar at the crowd, as though he meant to attack them. The crowd gasped but they didn't back away.
After fifteen minutes of this, they stopped. The Caliph's musicians started to play, and Darice stepped into the limelight.
Sata pulled Melchior away from the crowd. "Now's our chance," she said. "Look at the Caliph. He's entranced by Darice. And so are most of the guards. While their attention isn't on us, we can make our escape."
"We can't leave Darice," Melchior protested.
"We won't leave Darice," Sata promised. "Come with me."
"Trust me," Sata said.
Sata led Melchior to the corner of the partitioned area, where Li the dragon was just loading some more children onto her back. There were three guards looking after Li. One was tying the children onto the dragon's back, the other two were watching Darice dance. Sata slid towards the rope which bound the dragon to the camel. It was a long rope. It coiled in a pile on the ground. Sata bent over and slashed the thick rope with her talon. She straightened quickly, and glanced around her. No one but Melchior had seen her.
The children were bound securely to her back. Li ran along the ground and launched herself. Just as Li was taking off, Sata leapt into the air, and caught Li by the tail.
Li wobbled in the air, and glanced behind her, clearly startled.
"Fly," Sata hissed. "Just, fly."
They were high in the air before anyone realized what was happening.
The Caliph shouted, "Stop them!"
Someone cried out, "My child!"
"Fly," Sata urged Li. "Keep flying. I've untied the rope, so now you're free. Leave the children outside the city walls, and then go home to your family."
Once she'd finished giving Li orders, Sata released the dragon's tail. She was high enough to now glide of her own accord.
It felt good to glide again.
The dragon flew straight, across the wall, and out of sight.
Sata stared down at the ground, at the commotion beneath her. The guards were throwing knives at her, but she was too high. They didn't reach her.
She caught sight of Melchior. No one was paying him any attention and Melchior, smart enough to realize what was happening, had slowly crept to a quiet part of the enclave.
Without waiting, Sata dived to the ground. A knife whizzed past her shoulder, missing her by mere inches.
Sata swooped, grabbing Melchior around the waist. Catching an air current back upwards, she glided. She held Melchior tightly, and pulled him high into the sky.
"Darice," Melchior said, as Sata carried him over the city walls.
"I will drop you beyond the city," Sata said. "And then I will go back for Darice."
Sata glided far beyond the walls of the city, and dropped Melchior on a deserted patch of grass near a grove of trees. Then, Sata climbed a tree, launched herself from it, and glided back to the palace.
In the place where the Caliph had been exhibiting his menagerie, there was confusion. Guards were running everywhere, throwing knives in every direction. Two guards held Darice's arms, clearly concerned that Sata would come back for her. Parents were screaming, children were jumping. It was pandemonium.
Sata looked, but couldn't see the Caliph anywhere.
Then she saw him, emerging from the palace. Three guards followed him. They were leading something - someone - by a rope.
Sata gasped. It was Brooklyn.
For a moment, she felt nothing but joy. She had thought that she would never see him again.
But before that joy could completely fill her, it was replaced with horror. How was she to save her mate from the Caliph?
As Sata hovered in the air, the Caliph looked up. Sata saw a small, malicious smile creep across his lips. He turned to the guards and nodded once, briefly. One of the guards pulled a knife from his belt, and lifted it to Brooklyn's throat.
Sata gasped. "No," she dived to the ground without thinking.
As she did so, the guards on the ground started to throw knives at her. One hit her in the leg, another in the arm. She couldn't avoid them. The pain weakened her, threw her off balance, and she fell to the ground.
As she lost consciousness, she heard Brooklyn shout, "Sata! No!"
* * * * *
Haroun saw it all. Horrified, he ran toward Sata. But he was too late. Guards shuffled the rust colored, male living statue back into the building. Then four guards picked up the unconscious Sata, and carried her inside.
* * * * *
Sata awoke inside a tiny, cramped cell. She lay in Brooklyn's arms. The smell of must and a century of dirt filled her nostrils. She didn't care about the smell. She could feel Brooklyn's lap beneath her head, could feel his talons gently stroking her face, and the fact that she was reunited with him was all that mattered.
He had wrapped his wings around her and for a moment, and she felt content.
Brooklyn's face came swimmingly into focus. The rusty red beak looked adoringly familiar. Sata reached up and stroked it. She said, "I thought I was never going to see you again."
"I thought you were dead."
Sata swallowed a lump in her throat. The timbre in his voice, the shadows in his eyes, told her how much he had suffered in the last few days. "I'm not," she said weakly.
Brooklyn smiled. Some of his old good humor returned to his face. "I can see that. I am..." he closed his eyes and bowed his head. "I'm truly grateful. Sata, I'm sorry for what I said to you before. I'm sorry if I seemed ungrateful or churlish. Please know - you must know - that I love you, and never wanted to hurt you."
"Oh, Brooklyn, have you been torturing yourself over our argument for the last few days? Surely you must know that some of the best couples argue. We are both strong willed, you and I. We will have a clash of opinion every now and again. But that does not mean that we do not love each other. You understand that, do you not?"
Brooklyn lifted his head, opened his eyes. "I understand that now. I'm glad I found you again, Sata."
Sata smiled. "So am I."
The ground beneath Sata's back started to feel cold and hard. She lifted her head from Brooklyn's lap and, shaking her head to clear it, said, "Where are we?"
"The Caliph's dungeon," Brooklyn said coldly. "When I woke this morning, I was here."
Sata stared at her mate. "How did you come to be here?"
"I was picked up by a horse caravan about half a day after you were picked up by the camel caravan - you _were_ picked up by that camel caravan, weren't you? And the driver of that caravan did sell you to the Caliph's menagerie?"
"Well, a similar fate befell me. I was picked up by a horse caravan. Only I thought the driver of that caravan was my friend. It was only when I woke up in this cell," Brooklyn slammed his fist against the iron door, "that I realized I had been betrayed. Soul, the caravan driver, had sold me in my sleep."
"Brooklyn, no. I am sorry."
"There is no one in the world who I can trust, apart from you, my love."
"Brooklyn, that is not true. What about your clan in Manhattan? What about my clan in Ishimura? What about the different people we've met on our travels, who have proven to be loyal friends to us? If we have learned anything from our journey through time, surely it is that the world is filled with good people, and bad people, good gargoyles, and bad gargoyles. The only problem is, it's very hard to tell the one from the other."
Brooklyn's face softened. "You're right again, Sata." He touched his talon to hers. "What would I do without your wisdom?"
Sata smiled. "You would undoubtedly get yourself into much trouble." Then, she became more serious. "Brooklyn-san, I am sorry that your friend betrayed you. But at least his betrayal brought about something good. We are together, again. Think about that, and not about a friendship turned sour."
"I will," Brooklyn said.
"And now," Sata continued, "we must think of a way to escape."
Brooklyn shook his head. "I don't think we need to worry about that."
Sata laughed. "I do not know about you, but I have no intention of spending the rest of my life in this cell. Even if I am with you, Brooklyn-san, this place," she glanced about her, "is dreary. I need to be outside. I need to be beneath the stars."
"I do, too, Sata," Brooklyn said. "What I meant is, we needn't plan our escape. The Phoenix Gate has been jumpy for the last two days. I'm sure that it's ready to send us to another time. I think it was just waiting for me to find you - although it gave me a scare. I thought it was going to send me through time without you. Now, all I think we have to do is wait for it to become active again, and then we'll be on our way."
Sata had started to shake her head before Brooklyn had even finished his sentence.
"No?" Brooklyn asked. "What's the problem?"
Sata said, "I made friends while I was here. And I made promises to those friends. You saw me help the dragon and the yeti to escape, but there is one other who needs my help."
"You've met her?"
"I saw her briefly when the Caliph brought me out in the open, and used me as bait to trap you. She is a friend of yours?"
"Not... exactly," Sata said. "She is someone who I have judged harshly, someone who does not trust me. But, she deserves her freedom. And I promised to help free her. I would like to keep my promise."
* * * * *
It took Haroun two hours to find the yeti, who was waiting impatiently in a deserted place, off the road, by a tree.
"I am Sata's friend," he said, hesitantly approaching the yeti. He'd never met a yeti before, and didn't know what to expect.
"You're the one who left the blades for her?" the yeti said.
"Yes," Haroun said, brightening. "She received them?"
"Yes," the yeti said. "She was very grateful. My name is Melchior."
"My name is Haroun. Sata was caught by the Caliph while she was trying to save another living statue."
"Another living... Oh, you mean another gargoyle." Melchior arched an eyebrow. "I don't remember the Caliph owning another gargoyle."
"He purchased it today." Haroun said. "I saw part of the transaction. We have to save them both. You must help me. I have a plan, but I need your assistance. And more importantly, we need that dragon. Do you know where she is?"
"No idea," Melchior said. "But I can help you look for her."
* * * * *
Although Sata had the best intentions of saving Darice, she soon discovered that there was no escape from the small cell which confined her and Brooklyn. She and Brooklyn tried to tear the door with their talons, they tried to scratch through the stone, but to no avail.
In the end, they started shouting for help.
At one point, a guard lifted the flap in the door and said, "What's wrong?"
Sata said, "We need to released. Gargoyles are claustrophobic. We don't like small spaces."
"You should have thought of that before you tried to escape. Punishment for a first time offence is being locked in the cell, with only water and unleavened bread for food, for a whole month. You should be glad that you have company. Normally, the creatures who the Caliph punishes are alone."
"That kind of imprisonment would drive anyone crazy," Sata said.
"That's the point," the guard said, and shut the flap.
Sata turned to Brooklyn. "No wonder both Darice and Melchior were reluctant to try to escape again. They'd already experienced this kind of punishment once. The didn't want to experience it again."
"So," Brooklyn said, leaning against the door. "What are we going to do now?"
"I do not know," Sata said, crouching on the floor. "But we will think of something."
Brooklyn crouched next to her. "Sata-chan - I have had this experience before. I've wanted to help people, only to discover that the Phoenix Gate whisks me away before I've had a chance to help them. Remember when I told you about the slave boat, how I didn't have the chance to save them from the pirates? Perhaps this is a similar situation. Perhaps you aren't meant to save Darice."
"We are still here, are we not?" Sata said. "The Phoenix Gate has not yet whisked us away. Besides, I already know that Darice is meant to escape."
"Yes," Sata said. "Remember the place we last visited? The place in the mountains where we argued? You probably weren't listening, but the guardian there told us about some creatures - for want of a better word - who founded a sanctuary there. They were a yeti named Melchior, a dragon named Li, and a were-cheetah named Darice. I have already freed Melchior and Li from this place. That leaves only Darice. The Phoenix Gate has already shown us that she escapes. And I believe that the Phoenix Gate showed us that because it is our job to see that she does escape."
"I think," Brooklyn said slowly, "that you attribute too much intelligence to this talisman," he patted his pouch. "Perhaps Darice escapes by herself. Perhaps her friends come back for her. You don't know, Sata. You don't know. Why don't we just wait here, and see what happens?"
Sata thought about the gargoyle and her sarcophagus, sitting in a museum a millenium in the future. "All right," she said. "I have no choice, anyway." Sata was certain, however, that she was meant to save Darice, and the opportunity to do so would present itself soon.
* * * * *
It didn't take long for Haroun and Melchior to find the dragon. They followed the road out of Samarkand for half a mile and there she was, lying beneath a tree. The children whom she'd carried on her back were sitting in the middle of the road, crying. The dragon, too, was crying.
Haroun approached the creature. The sight of the pearly tears in the dragon's big eyes drove any thought of fear from his mind. "What's wrong?" he asked the dragon.
"I don't know what to do," the dragon replied.
"What do you mean?"
"The gargoyle told me to fly. She told me to fly out of the city, and let the children off my back. She didn't tell me what to do after that. She didn't tell me how to find my mummy."
"Your... Mummy?" Haroun said.
Melchior said, "Haroun, I know that Li looks big and frightening to you, but you have to realize that she's just a child. How old are you, Li?"
"Two hundred years."
"That's young for a dragon," Melchior said. "It makes her about five years old on a human scale." Melchior crouched beneath the dragon, and patted her behind the ear. "Don't worry, Li. You're with friends now. You don't need to feel lost any more."
"I think my mother is dead," Li said.
Melchior nodded. "I won't lie to you, Li. That's most likely the case. If she was still alive, she would have followed you here, and she would have fought the Caliph for you. My parents are dead, too. They died when I was a child."
Haroun sat next to the dragon, wanting to comfort her. "My mother is also dead," Haroun said. "I loved her very much, and I miss her. My father doesn't care for me at all, so that means that I, too, don't have any parents. I understand how you feel, Li. But at least you're with friends now."
Melchior smiled. "A fine group of orphans we are. Well, Haroun, what is this plan of yours. Is it dangerous?"
"Ah, well," Melchior sighed. "Did I ever tell you that I love danger? I thrive on it, actually."
* * * * *
Haroun returned to his father's caravan, telling Melchior and Li to wait for him in the bushes, well away from the road. Haroun took the crying children with him, leading them along the road until they were in sight of the gate. Then, he pushed them toward the city. He was fairly certain that they would find their parents without much effort.
At his father's caravan, Haroun took the rope that he would need. On his way back to the place where he'd left Melchior and Li, he ran into a stranger.
"I saw you with the children," the man said. "The children who were with the dragon when the dragon escaped."
Haroun heart started to pound. The stranger was familiar. He was small, wiry, and had a thick white beard. "I'm sorry," Haroun said slowly, suspicious. He lied, "You must have mistaken me for someone else."
"I haven't mistaken you. You returned the children only a few moments ago. And now you carry a rope with you. I'd like to know what you're doing."
Haroun stared at the man before him. "Why do you want to know what I'm doing?"
"I want to know if you intend helping the gargoyles escape."
Now, Haroun's heart truly started to pound. He could feel his own sweat, sticky against the palms of his hands. "Of course not," Haroun spluttered, "Who would be stupid enough - "
"I wish to help you," the man said. "The red gargoyle, he is a friend of mine. I want to help him."
Haroun peered more closely at the man. He wished he could remember where he had seen him before. Although Haroun was suspicious, he judged the man to be sincere. And he could take all the help he could get. "Well," Haroun spoke slowly. "We could use some help."
"You have it," the man clapped Haroun on the shoulder.
"My name is Haroun," Haroun said.
"My name is Soul," said the man.
* * * * *
The Phoenix Gate started to glow. Orange flames sparked from it. Brooklyn raised his eyes to Sata's, and watched her face. "I think it's time to leave."
Sata met Brooklyn's gaze evenly. She had already made up her mind. She had to keep her promise, no matter what. She did not give her word lightly. She would not have her honor tainted by not considering the value of her word now. "I can't go with you, Brooklyn-san," she said.
Brooklyn looked shocked. "Sata, you can't mean that."
"I do mean that."
"After all we went through to find each other. Surely - "
"I made a promise."
"Your vows to me must mean more than that."
"I made a promise, Brooklyn. I am not free to go with you until I have fulfilled that promise."
The Phoenix Gate sparked again. "Sata, this is serious. You know that if I go without you, we might not see each other ever again."
"I know that," Sata said quietly, sadly. "But I must keep my promise to Melchior and to Darice. Brooklyn, please understand that."
"But... But... This woman doesn't even like you."
"I know," Sata sighed.
The Phoenix Gate sparked again. Sata closed her eyes, not wishing to watch her mate disappear from her life.
* * * * *
Haroun walked beside Soul, trying to look like a sweet, innocent, twelve-year-old boy.
Soul held a rope in his hand, and at the end of that rope was Li.
Li herself was crying, frightened that their plan wouldn't work, frightened that she would be forced to become a slave to the Caliph again. Haroun had tried to calm her but, in the end, he realized nothing could calm her, and at least her tears lent some authenticity to the situation.
Melchior waited outside the city gates with a ferghana horse which Soul had supplied.
"I thought I had lost it," Soul had said of the horse. "But then, when we reached the city, she was here waiting for me."
It was said, Haroun knew, that a ferghana horse could fly. Haroun would be happy if it could just run fast.
Haroun sighed. Everything was now set. He hoped his plan would work.
Haroun and Soul strolled casually toward the palace, to the place where the Caliph displayed his menagerie. There were still some people milling about the area, and both the Vizier and the Caliph were outside, trying to entertain the crowds with some trained monkeys, and a few talking birds. The were-cheetah was there, dancing and transforming from a cheetah to a human and back again. But nothing seemed able to hold the crowd's attention, and one by one, people peeled away from the crowd, to go home.
The remains of the crowd saw Haroun, Soul and Li first, and then the guards, who pointed them out to the Caliph. The Caliph himself looked stunned. He watched as Soul and Haroun approached them. His face brightened when he saw Li.
"You have brought her back to me," the Caliph said.
"Yes, my Lord Caliph," Soul said, bowing deeply. "We stumbled across this creature in the forest outside. We trapped her, thinking to sell her to you, and then we heard of your plight, how she escaped from you, and now we wish only to return her to you."
The Caliph's eyes lit up. "I must reward you."
"No. No," Soul said quickly.
"No, I insist," the Caliph said. He stepped around Haroun, to examine the dragon. "She is hardly hurt at all. You have treated her well," he stroked his hand along Li's scales. The dragon sniffed. "Stop blubbering, you stupid animal," the Caliph said to Li. "You have caused me much anxiety this night. You'll be locked in the cells for a month, with only bread and water, and in that time, you can contemplate what you've done. Take her away," he called the last to the nearest guard.
"If I may," Soul said, raising his hand and stopping the guard from carrying out the Caliph's order. "You mentioned a reward."
"Yes," the Caliph said. "You will have gold. I am truly pleased with you and your son."
"It isn't gold that I want," Soul said.
"Not gold?" the Caliph blinked. Evidently, he'd never met a man who didn't want gold. "What is it you want, then?"
"I heard that you had two gargoyles here. I have heard much about gargoyles, but I have never seen one. I was wondering if we could meet them."
"Absolutely not," the Caliph said.
"Please," Soul said. "You have guards with you. And the dragon is firmly tied now." Soul tugged the rope. "None of your creatures will escape."
Caliph sighed. "All right. But only because you brought my prize back to me." The Caliph stared at the Vizier. "Collect them yourself. Make sure this whole area is heavily guarded, and also make sure that the gargoyles do not have access to this dragon."
* * * * *
The Phoenix Gate ceased sparking.
Brooklyn sighed. "We have a reprieve. For now."
"Brooklyn-san," Sata said quietly, opening her eyes. "Please understand - " Before she could finish her sentence, the door opened and the Vizier entered.
He stared down at the two gargoyles, his tall framed almost filling the doorway. "Tie them securely," he called to the guards. "We don't want to give them any chance of escaping."
"Where are you taking us?" Sata asked.
"The Caliph has caught the dragon," the Vizier said. "The people who caught her has asked, as a reward, to meet the two of you. The Caliph has granted that wish. Move. Both of you."
The guards pulled Sata and Brooklyn from their cramped cell. They walked up a narrow staircase, through the door which led to the menagerie quarters, and then out through the open bars of the gate.
Outside, Sata stared in dismay at the imprisoned Li. And then her heart leapt with joy when she saw that one of Li's captors was Haroun.
Haroun winked at her, and Sata was sure that this was the moment to escape. She was about to turn to Brooklyn, to warn him, when Brooklyn tore himself free of the guards.
Alarmed, the Caliph shouted, "Guards! Hold him."
Brooklyn lunged at the man holding Li's rope, the one standing next to Haroun. "You betrayed me," he shouted.
"Brooklyn-san," Sata said, not understanding what was happening.
"I thought you were my friend. But instead, you sold me to the Caliph."
Suddenly, everything was clear to Sata.
The Caliph, obviously confused by what was happening, cried, "Seize them all. We will get to the bottom of this."
"No!" Haroun shouted. "Li! Run. Now."
Li started to run. Soul released the rope, and Li launched herself into the air.
The guards holding Sata tightened their grip on her. Some more guards seized Brooklyn, and dragged him back to Sata's side.
Sata touched a comforting talon to Brooklyn's shoulder, just as the Phoenix Gate sparked orange. The gate's circle embraced Sata and Brooklyn, and the guards who held them. For a moment, Sata felt the familiar sensation of the time dance. And then the Phoenix Gate spat them out, in the air, over the Caliph's palace. As far as Sata could discern, the gate hadn't transported them through time, only through space. She and Brooklyn were now hovering high in the sky, the Caliph and the palace were far below them.
The guards who held Brooklyn and Sata were startled. They released the gargoyles, and fell through the air, screaming. Sata and Brooklyn raced to catch them. They placed them gently in a tree.
Li hovered beside them. She was crying. "I don't know what to do."
"We don't have much time," Sata said. "We have the element of surprise on our side. The Caliph doesn't know what just happened. So quickly, Brooklyn, you grab Haroun. Li, you take Soul. I will take Darice."
"I vote we leave Soul behind," Brooklyn said.
"We don't have time to argue," Sata said. "Any moment now, the Caliph is going to order Soul and Haroun imprisoned. We take them both, and then we will discuss the matter later."
And without another word, Sata turned. She swooped to the ground. The guards were just about to grab Darice, when Sata snatched her about the waist and carried her high into the sky.
Hovering in the air, Sata watched as Li skimmed the ground, tipped Soul onto her back, and then spiraled back into the air without a hitch.
Sata's heart started to pound as she watched her mate try to save Haroun. The guards threw knives at Brooklyn. A guard grasped Haroun's upper arm. Brooklyn knocked two guards out with his talons, and then grabbed Haroun by the legs, flipped him over his shoulder like a sack, caught an updraft, and met Sata in the sky.
"Let's get out of here," Brooklyn said.
"I agree," Sata replied.
* * * * *
The guards pursued them to the gate, throwing knives.
Haroun directed them to the place where Melchior waited, astride the ferghana horse. They whistled to him from the air, and Melchior spurred the horse into a clumsy gallop.
High above them, the group flew, escaping the soldiers.
Sata kept on eye on Melchior and the horse down below. Melchior had probably never ridden before, and yet he handled the horse deftly. There were soldiers on horseback, galloping behind him, but Melchior and his horse were comfortably in the lead.
Suddenly, and without warning, the horse leapt into the air, and took flight.
Sata blinked. "What is happening?"
Soul, seated on Li's back, said, "She's flying."
Sata replied, "I can see that. But how - "
"She is a ferghana horse," Soul said. "A rare breed. The people of the east guard their secrets carefully, and this is one of them. A species of horse that can fly."
Sata nodded. "Good," she said. "The horse will help us in our
Melchior screamed as the horse soared through the air, tipping and gliding. Melchior held tightly onto the reins. Sata felt some sympathy for him. He didn't like the outdoors, and yet here he was, being forced to experience the greatest of spatial freedoms - flight.
"I must collect Agib, my son," Soul said, from his place on Li's back.
"Of course," Sata said. "Direct us."
Soul did so. The group - two gargoyles, a dragon and a ferghana horse - followed. When they hovered about the horse caravan, Soul looked at it and said, "That is my livelihood. I must now leave it behind."
"I would feel sorry for you," Brooklyn said. "But I can't. You betrayed me, Soul."
"I didn't betray you," Soul argued.
"We do not have time to argue," Sata pointed out. "Brooklyn, you take Darice." Sata hovered close to Brooklyn, while Brooklyn clasped Darice about her waist. "I will go down and find Agib."
"Be careful, Sata."
"I am always so."
Sata landed in the middle of the horse caravan. She decided that, with the Caliph's guards close on her heels, she didn't have time for subtlety. "Where is Agib?" she called to the people closest to her.
When no one answered her, she spoke more loudly, "Where is Agib?"
"He is here." A man stepped out from the concealment of a tent. Sata gasped as she recognized Haroun's father, Mesrour.
Mesrour clutched a boy beneath his arm.
"Mesrour," Sata whispered. "What are you doing here? This is not your caravan. You drive camels."
"I heard about the escape this evening. I thought that Soul might be behind it."
"Why would you think such a thing?" Sata asked quietly.
"Because," Mesrour said slowly, "I watched his horse caravan gallop into the city. I saw the statue on the back of a horse. I thought that it might turn out to be a living statue, like you, so I threatened Soul. I told him that I would kill his son if he didn't give the living statue to me. Soul and I have met before. He understands that I mean what I say."
"You stole Brooklyn?"
"If you insist on putting it like that, yes," Mesrour said. "I stole your mate, and sold him to the Caliph."
"So," Sata whispered, "Soul didn't betray Brooklyn at all." Sata glared at Mesrour. "You are an evil man."
"I'm an opportunist. And I'm taking an opportunity now. My men told me that you had all escaped, with the help of my son. I thought that Soul might be behind it, too. I thought that if I kidnapped his son, then perhaps I could make a trade..."
Brooklyn landed beside Sata. He released Darice and Haroun. Evidently he had heard most of the exchange between Sata and Mesrour.
To Mesrour, Brooklyn said, "Release Agib." He looked angry.
Mesrour produced a knife, and held it to Agib's throat. "No."
"Release him now," Brooklyn said.
Li also dropped to the ground. Soul leapt off the dragon's back and cried, "Release my boy. I will give you anything for him. You killed my wife. Don't kill my son, too."
Brooklyn gasped. "This man killed your wife?"
"Yes," Soul said quietly. "That's why I let him take you. I knew his threats were real. I couldn't risk Agib's life. I broke my promise to you, and I'm sorry."
Brooklyn said, "There's no need to be sorry, Soul. I understand. I would have done the same thing in your position. It is me who should be sorry. I should never have doubted you."
Soul spared a glance for Brooklyn. He smiled. "That's all right. Please, save my boy now."
Mesrour had overheard this exchange. He said, "Give me the dragon, the yeti, the were-cheetah, and the two gargoyles and the boy will live.
The ferghana horse landed beside them. Melchior dismounted. "What is going on here?" he said. "The guards are right behind us. If we're going to escape, we must do it now."
"We cannot leave without Agib," Sata said.
"Give me," Mesrour said again, "the dragon, the yeti - "
"They are not mine to give," Soul cried.
Mesrour pressed the knife more firmly against Agib's throat.
"Father, don't," Haroun cried. Up until now, Haroun had been quiet. Now, he find his voice.
Mesrour stared at Haroun. He chuckled. "My cowardly son speaks at last."
Haroun blushed. "I know I was a disappointment to you, father - "
"A disappointment? You were more than that. You were a failure. Your mother spoiled you, treated you like a girl, so that when you finally joined the caravan, you were even afraid of the camels." Mesrour stared at his son in disgust.
Haroun's face burnt a deep red. "At least she taught me not to be greedy. Release Agib, father. If you have any sort of conscience..." Haroun took a step toward his father.
Mesrour, evidently not frightened of his son, let Haroun approach him.
Suddenly, Haroun leapt toward his father, tackling him to the ground.
Mesrour was so surprised, he released Agib, who ran to Soul.
Mesrour fought with his son and easily wrestled him to the ground. But by now, his advantage was over. Sata and Brooklyn reached the wrestling pair, and pulled Mesrour off Haroun.
Brooklyn threw Mesrour into the bushes, and then leapt on top of him. He clasped his talons around the camel driver's throat.
Sata tucked Haroun beneath her arm. "Brooklyn," she said. "We must go."
Brooklyn glanced behind him. He could see the Caliph's guards, running toward them. He stood, dragging Mesrour with him. He held the camel driver high in the air, and roared until the man screamed with fright.
"Brooklyn!" Sata said.
"Coming," Brooklyn replied. He tossed Mesrour to the ground, a gesture of disgust and anger. Then, he turned to Sata. "Let's go." He glanced at the rest of his companions. "Soul and Agib are with me," he shouted. "Melchior, get back on your horse. Darice, ride with Li. Sata, you hold onto Haroun. Let's go."
Sata placed Haroun safely on her back. Then, she climbed a tree and jumped into the air. She watched as Brooklyn did the same thing.
Li ran across the ground, and leapt into the air.
The ferghana horse galloped, fast, and sprung toward the sky.
Once everyone was safely in the air, Sata said to Haroun, "You were very brave today."
Haroun leaned against Sata's shoulder. "I promised that I would look after you. And a person must keep their promises, mustn't they?"
"Yes," Sata said. "They must."
She looked at the boy and smiled. "Remember when you asked me for courage?"
Haroun said, "Yes?"
"Well, I don't think you need to wish for it any more."
* * * * *
Brooklyn was tired. But he pushed the group onwards, until just before dawn, when they landed on the ground, and found a cave. All slept except Melchior, who kept guard. At sunset, Brooklyn and Sata woke again. Melchior rode on Li's back, and slept as they flew through the sky.
The group continued their journey in such of fashion for a week.
They flew toward the mountains, as far and as fast as possible. During the many days of their journey, the Phoenix Gate didn't stir. Not once.
* * * * *
One night, Brooklyn said to Sata. "I have learned something."
"What is that, Brooklyn-san?" Sata asked.
They were gliding through the air. For the first time in days, they didn't have any passengers. Melchior, Darice and Haroun were all on Li's back, Soul and Agib were flying on the ferghana horse.
"I have learned," Brooklyn said, "that I may not have control over where, or when, I go, but I have control over what I do in the places where I find myself. I still have choices. We have choices. Look at what we're doing. We're helping a band of misfits escape from misery. We're doing it, Sata. We're doing it."
Sata smiled at her mate. "Yes, my love. We are."
Sata thought about the gargoyle, about the sarcophagus, and the smile disappeared from her face. Despite Brooklyn's lessons on life choices and control, she couldn't help wondering if the Phoenix Gate was going to decide her fate for her.
Was she going to be torn from Brooklyn again?
Was she destined to remain in this time?
* * * * *
Sata was carrying Melchior. She looked down and said, "That place looks familiar."
"Do you think this might be it?"
"Maybe," Sata replied.
They landed outside the mouth of a cave, and Sata released Melchior. The rest of the group followed them to the ground.
Sata glanced about her. A thin layer of snow covered the ground. Mountain peaks surrounding them, pushing toward the sky. It was silent. So silent, she could hear the gentle swish of the wind.
"This is it," she said, certainty. "I guess we start by making our home here."
"You could have picked somewhere warmer," Melchior grumbled.
Despite his words, Sata could see that he was happy. He couldn't help but stare at the dark, starry sky. He had his freedom, at last. He walked to the mouth of the cave, and looked inside.
Everyone else headed toward the interior of the cave.
All but Darice, who waited outside with Sata. When everyone else had disappeared into the cave, Darice said, "You were right, Sata." The woman's high voice seemed to pierce the tranquil silence of the mountains.
"I do not understand," Sata said. "Why was I right?"
Darice couldn't look Sata in the eye. "You said we would escape, and you were right. I should not have treated you badly in the beginning."
Sata sighed. "You were right to treat me the way you did. You were protecting Melchior. You did not want him to be hurt again."
Darice licked her lips, a strangely feline gesture. "For Melchior's sake, I'm glad that your courage led to his freedom," she said. She regarded Sata, and this time, the were-cheetah could look the gargoyle in the eye. "But I hope you understand that I will always hate you. For you were the one to succeed, where I had failed."
Darice turned, and walked into the cave.
Sata waited outside, and stared at the were-cheetah's retreating back.
* * * * *
Later that night, Haroun went looking for food. He didn't travel far, because it was dark. He searched beneath the snow for roots and tubers that could be boiled in a stew. Melchior was looking for wild yaks, that could be killed for their meat and for their fur. Haroun enjoyed the walk. The cool air stung his nose, and the cold snow prickled against the skin of his hands. Both sensations felt fresh, and reminded him that this was the start of his new life. There were no camels, no camel drivers, no rolls of silk to protect. He didn't feel sad at the idea of never seeing his father again. His father hadn't loved him.
Haroun had new friends now, and they already felt like his family.
When he'd filled his arms and pockets with roots, he returned to the cave.
As he was walking along the path, he saw Brooklyn and Sata walking toward him. He waved, and they waved back.
Then, suddenly, Brooklyn wrapped his wings around Sata.
Haroun thought that they were about to share a tender moment together - a kiss or something. He closed his eyes, briefly, and when he opened them again, Brooklyn and Sata were surrounded by fire.
The flames blazed, brightening the snow-covered ground around them, bathing the slopes of the mountain in orange light, and pushing back the darkness of night.
Panic sliced through Haroun. "Sata!" he shouted, and ran toward the pair of gargoyles.
Before he could reach them, they disappeared.
Haroun continued to run.
He stopped in the place where Brooklyn and Sata had stood, before the flames had engulfed them. He examined the ground. There was no sign of ash, no residue of a fire.
And yet, Haroun thought to himself, he'd seen the flames. He'd seen Sata and Brooklyn disappear.
Remembering that he'd seen Brooklyn and Sata disappear in a ball of fire before, only to reappear in the sky, Haroun glanced above him, expected to see Sata and Brooklyn hovering in the air, their wings stretched out beneath the moonlight.
He could see nothing.
Upset, he continued to search for them. When he couldn't find them, he ran back to the cave.
At the mouth of the cave, he crashed into Melchior's furry legs.
"What the - " Melchior cried, when Haroun stumbled into him. "Haroun, what's wrong?" Melchior dropped the load he was carrying, and grabbed Haroun's arm. Kneeling in front of him, Melchior gently repeated his question, "Tell me what's wrong. Why are you crying?"
Haroun hadn't realized he was crying. He reached a hand up to his face, and ran a finger along his own wet cheek. "It's Sata," Haroun whispered.
Soul had managed to light a fire, and dim orange light flickered all about Haroun, reminding him of the flames that had recently engulfed Sata and Brooklyn. In the light, Haroun could see concern on etched onto the brown features of Melchior's face. At the pronouncement of Sata's name, that concern deepened. "What about Sata?" Melchior asked.
In the silence that followed, Haroun could hear the wind whoosh across the snow.
"How?" Melchior asked.
"Both she and Brooklyn were suddenly bathed in orange light - like flames. I'd seen this happen to them once before. When Sata and Brooklyn were trying to escape the Caliph's guards, an orange flame engulfed them and they disappeared, only to reappear in the sky. It was like magic."
"And this time - "
"This time, they didn't reappear. I looked for them, but I couldn't find them anywhere. Do you suppose something could have gone wrong with their magic?"
"I don't think so," Melchior said.
"What if something did go wrong?" Haroun argued.
"Can you show me the place?" Melchior asked.
Haroun felt his tears falling more quickly now. They dripped down his face, and touched his lips. Some fell into his mouth, and he could taste the saltiness of them. He looked up at Melchior. Through his blurred vision he could see that the yeti, too, was upset.
"Yes," Haroun whispered.
He took Melchior to the place where he'd seen Sata and Brooklyn disappear. He stopped in the snow, and pointed.
Melchior crouched, examining the trail. Melchior had better night vision than Haroun, and he could see details more clearly.
"Their footprints end here," Melchior said, touching the snow with one shaggy finger.
Haroun sobbed. "Do you think..." Haroun found it hard to voice his greatest fear. "Do you think Sata's dead, then? Like my mother?"
Melchior didn't look at Haroun. He lifted his head, and stared at the mountain peaks. In the darkness, Haroun couldn't see his face clearly. But he could see the shadow of his profile; his straight nose and square jaw.
"No. Sata isn't dead," Melchior said. And then, more softly, "But she might as well be to us. She's in another place, now. Another time."
Haroun gulped down another sob. "Will we ever see her again."
Melchior turned to Haroun. Although Haroun still couldn't see the yeti, he could sense the profound sadness in him. "I don't think so."
Melchior stood. The wind whipped his fur. He contemplated the ground for a long moment.
After a while, he ruffled Haroun's hair, and then turned started to walk, in the direction leading away from the cave.
"Where are you going?" Haroun asked him.
"To fulfill my own destiny," Melchior replied. "I'm going to find a very big rock."
"Apparently, it's time for me to make a sarcophagus."
* * * * *