Under the shadow of a palm branch, a thief leaned against a dusty wall, ruminating. In his hands rested the figurine of an iron jackal. Late afternoon light settled through the dusty leaves, glinting off the sculpture, and a haze of airborne dirt particles swirled as he turned it over. The desert jackal. Stealthy. Adaptable. Deeply dedicated to its clan.
The words of the old vendor flitted through his mind. “Long have you been solitary. It is difficult to be the last of a bloodline.”
Across the dirt road lay the expanse of a desert city. His feet knew every stone and his agile hands had relieved property from nearly every vessel. Not once had he been caught. Street urchins and pedestrians scurried past him in the sand and heat.
“You are certain it matches the description?”
“Your father was a mysterious man, rest his mortal soul, but he was very precise.”
Instinctively he touched a mark just below his right collarbone. There rested the tattoo of an identical side-striped jackal. It was his family crest. None but kin knew the technique of rendering fur with a rare ink that changed colors. As both ink and thief aged, so too did the characteristic stripe of the jackal. It was impossible to forge. His father had been particularly skilled at the technique.
In an instant, one of the street urchins bolted past and air swept across his palm. Other pickpockets occasionally targeted him, unaware of his abilities. He found the diversions amusing.
Primed reflexes launched him up to the rooftops. Hardly a reed rattled as he navigated the gritty adobe. The urchin was incredibly young, no more than ten years. It was hard to be certain, as the boy wore a loose hooded jacket that dodged with him as he scrambled past vendors and down crumbling stairs. The gap between them was closing rapidly. The fateful wrong turn was made, and with eagle-precision the thief ricocheted off an alley wall and landed in front of the urchin, catching him with both hands at the jacket collar.
The thief took a slow inhale. There was no need to scare the child. Retrieving his property was enough. The urchin lifted his head, and suddenly the thief flinched. The figure before him was a girl. At that, she was closer to fifteen years of age, not ten. She had a fierce charisma to her plain features. Her hair was pulled back into a ragged bundle, a dark mahogany that matched her equally dark and calculating eyes. The thief studied her.
She neither moved nor spoke. Her eyes yielded continuous scrutiny and an unusual sense of calmness. They locked gazes.
Finally, she said, “Your time has come. My lord wishes to speak with you.”
His brow furrowed. “What lord?”
He leaned closer. His voice was neither angry nor impatient. “What lord.”
Her gaze never broke.
He straightened up again. As he did so, his left hand shifted on her jacket and a dark patch came into view. He froze. She immediately slipped from his grasp and vanished. The thief stood in shock, aware that she was gone but engrossed in thought. Dry-mouthed, he reached for his water flask and abruptly realized he had been robbed. She had appropriated every possession, and left behind a scrap of parchment with an address and a message:
BE THERE IN A FORTNIGHT, THIEF.
He leaned against the alley wall. He did not care about this mysterious master. What he wanted to know was how she had outwitted him, and why she had a genuine jackal tattoo.
~ Marie Steck Johnson, Sandy, Utah