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Desert Dunes
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               Little in this world is as timeless or numerous as the sands of the desert, and I was completely surrounded by it. As I mulled through the crowd at the docks, just another faceless body pushing toward my destination, anyone would argue I was as significant as the grains of sand grinding between my toes. What they couldn’t see was how deliberately I was invisible.

               With neutral brown clothing and my face protected from the wind by a faded yellow scarf, no one could notice me. Not even when I bumped my shoulder against theirs and apologized in order to slide my hand down their arm to unlatch their bracelet. Or when I stepped on the heel of their boot, causing them to stumble so I could slip my hand into their pocket and lift a few stray coins.

               To the people of Sheblom, I was Almas—the selfish thief who prowled the streets and stole their wealth.

And I was proud of that title.

               I had been keeping my attention on one particular ship that had just docked—the Northern—a ship burdened with traded goods. I knew because I’d lifted a couple of pieces from them before. They had just finished unloading crates with preciously packed cargo and organized them in neat little towers, ready to be moved to the wealthiest merchants in Zunbar.

               One merchant walked with a man holding the manifest. They stopped by two crates. The merchant was vaguely familiar, though I couldn’t recall if I’d stolen from him before or not. I rarely remembered faces, but I remembered houses and the items I stole.

               “The serpent is from Kalekai. They made it with pure gold and emerald eyes. We traded your silk rug for it,” the man holding the manifest said. He was from the ship, but dressed too properly to be a sailor, with a tightly buttoned jacket that pulled around his belly and a fluffy mess of white fabric beneath his sweaty jaw.

“And the dagger?” the merchant pressed.

               The sailor smiled and lifted the lid of another crate, much smaller, revealing the dagger glinting from its bed of dried grass or hay. “We traded the golden egg for it. Also pure gold, but as you can see, encrusted with pearls and rubies.”

               The merchant grinned with greed, making his eyes practically glow. “I see the merchandise with my own eyes and approve,” he intoned, using the traditional phrasing for merchants confirming their goods.

               The sailor handed the man his board, parchment, and quill for his signature. “It’s been a pleasure doing business with you, Sir Midas. My men will deliver these immediately.” He waved his hand toward a man and snapped his fingers, then pointed to the crate, likely telling him to seal it back up.

               Sir Midas. I smiled beneath my scarf. My next target.

               He was the…fourth richest merchant in Zunbar. Like every other rich merchant in the land, he lived up on the hill near the palace. If my memory served me correctly, he was known for trading fabric and more than once had tried to con my Aunt Jade into providing him with more opportunity to make money. I’d over heard her speaking with my father. It was some ploy to hide jewels within the seams of garments she would make in order to be taxed only on the garments. Of course, auntie refused.

               From the tales I had heard from other lands, it seemed a common thing—for the rich to look down on the poor from their homes atop a hill. I’d entered a handful of them, but always under my father’s watchful eye. After all, rule number two of the thief code was to never get greedy. Father ensured I learned that rule by teaching me what items seemed insignificant to others and could be stolen without being missed, such as jewelry, candles, lamps, or silverware.

               On rare occasions, however, Father would take me with him to obtain a more valuable item, such as the snake statue and dagger I had spotted on the docks. Those items we would essentially hold ransom until they offered a reward. I had only personally done that twice.

               With it having been nearly a year since the last time—a rabbit statue the size of my hand—I could only imagine my father’s pride when I approached him with this new endeavor. The forty thieves were growing in number. Since we started collecting outcasts, we had grown to well over forty members and we needed more money to support everyone.

               So I walked deliberately through the streets and exited the eastern gates of the city.

               The walk to the small desert town in which I lived was long and hot and always offered me plenty of time to get lost in my thoughts. I hummed to myself while wondering if Father would go with me or if he would finally trust me enough to let me go on my own. After all, I was nearly sixteen.

               In the distance, the horizon wavered with the heat of the sun as if it couldn’t decide whether the sand dune marking my village was real or not. And then a figure took shape. Or rather, almost. It seemed both far away and near simultaneously.

               I scrunched my brow and held my hand over my eyes to shield what I could from the sun.

               The familiar turquoise turban finally took shape, and I grinned. “Mihrage!” I shouted across the distance.

               The figure turned.

               I ran as best I could through the sand, my feet sliding as they always did, and the nearer I drew, the more my second-best friend’s form solidified.

               “Where have you been all day?” he said to me long before I made it to him.

               “The docks. Where do you think?”

               “I imagined you would pester Taraji or even Aunt Jade.” All I could see of his face were his striking blue eyes and orange skin. I often compared his eyes to the brightest parts of the sea, but wondered if his eyes looked like ice. His nose and mouth, hair and horns were hidden beneath his turban. Mihrage showed up in our village a couple of years ago, an orphan and Dalarian. He fit in perfectly with our band of outcasts.

               I reached him, breathing hard, and tugged my scarf up to dry the sweat trickling down the side of my face. “I think we should make our way to the water and cool off.”

               Mihrage laughed. “It isn’t even the hottest time of day.”

               “Precisely.” I tapped my nose over my scarf and grimaced against the heat.

               He shook his head with a slight roll of his eyes and resumed walking.

               I inclined my head. He seemed a bit lost in thought, so I pressed by saying, “What’s on your mind? Where have you been all day?”

               “I visited Madame Kiara’s apothecary and purchased some more herbs. If Taraji is truly going to join the Desert Trials, she’s going to need to take some healing ointment and other such items.”

               “You think she might join the trials? Is this one of your premonitions?”

               “I haven’t decided yet,” he answered.

               “Have you spoken with Taraji about it?” I looked sideways at him.

               He shrugged noncommittally.

               Taraji was my first best friend and the sister I’d never had. We had been raised together since childhood.

But Taraji had a gift I didn’t—magic.

               I was one of the lucky few women in Sheblom to lack the blessing of magic. It was fine. I survived without it. In fact, I couldn’t help but think I was better without it. Only, the sultan and his grand sorceress weren’t celebrating me in two days.

               “You’re being quiet,” Mihrage said, breaking me from my thoughts.

               “I was thinking about what I overheard at the docks.”

               From the edge of my vision, I saw Mihrage’s white brows disappear up into his turban as he lifted them in surprise. “Care to share with me?”

               I gave him a sly smile and shifted my gaze. “There’s a jeweled dagger and golden snake being delivered to Sir Midas. I would have tried to steal them in transit, but could have used some backup.”

               He shrugged innocently. “I’m not much of a thief. You know that.”

               “Something to do with your morals, if I recall? Which is odd, considering you live with us now.” It was my turn to raise my brows at him.

               He reached up and slid his fingers into the turban at his temple and I knew he was wiping at sweat the same way I felt sweat trickling down my spine and the back of my neck. At his movement, I reached back and wiped the trickle hanging on the curls at the back of head.

               “We’re all born with our own gifts. You know that. Just because I don’t like the idea of stealing from someone—”

               “Do you not like it or is it that you can’t do it?” I cut in. I scrunched my eyes enough to reveal my grin as my warm scarf clung to my lips.

               Mihrage pulled the fabric from hiding his own mouth, showing me his pout. “Why do I need to be good at stealing when the thieves have you? I prefer meddling in mixing ingredients and creating healing potions and poisons.” His eyes flashed with an almost cat-like glow.

               “Oh please. You couldn’t poison a rat, much less anyone else.” I nudged him with my shoulder, the feeling of butterflies lurching into my stomach after doing so.

               His grin softened and the right side slid upward higher than the left.

               My mouth, already dry from the heat and having walked through the desert, went suddenly even more dry and I choked on a cough, which sent me gasping for air. Tears welled in my eyes as I struggled to swallow my spit and wet my tongue enough to calm the coughing fit.

               Mihrage pounded my back, as if that would help, and said, “Did you choke on your scarf?”

               That was a much better alternative than admitting I choked on my own emotions or admit that I had feelings for him, so I only nodded. I coughed a couple more times before straightening again. “I’m fine,” I croaked.

               “You need to get one of those enchanted water skins.”

               I snorted. “Like I could afford that.”

               An object so precious as never-ending water in a land that was nothing but desert would cost a small fortune. And, of course, those who didn’t do any sort of labor or traveling seemed to be the ones who actually owned them. Perhaps one of the enchanted water skins should be the next priceless possession I should steal, and not the golden serpent.

               “I would think you could create a potion in a bottle that did the same. Or that satisfied anyone’s thirst with a single swallow.” I wiped the tears from my eyes.

               “Hm. Not a bad idea.” Mihrage stroked his smooth chin. At eighteen, he didn’t have so much as a prickle under his nose, near his ears, or across his jaw at all. I often wondered if his kind, the Dalar, had any hair aside from their brows and the top of their head.

               We walked around the edge of the sand dune that hid our village on one side and I fiddled with the frayed edge of the sleeve hiding my tattoos—a mark I knew little about.

               “Do you want to come with me to tell my father? You don’t have to. I’m sure you have a lot to do making ointments Taraji will never use.”

               Mihrage, now safe, removed the turban, which revealed his dark brown, dragon-like horns. They started at his hairline, one above each brow, and curved back and up. I could only imagine how impressive they would be as he grew older. I never asked why his left horn had a golden band around it, but I found myself wondering yet again as the sunlight reflected off of it. Mihrage’s braided white hair was nearly as long as mine, which was rather impressive. It was mussy from being wrapped up all morning, and he absently smoothed his hand over the top of his head.

               “You seem confident she will not join the trials,” he finally said, answering my statement about Taraji but not my question about joining me.

               I shrugged and finally removed my scarf. “If she joins and completes them, she’ll move to the academy. Taraji would never leave us like that.”

               Mihrage tucked his turban under his arm. “I hadn’t thought of that.” I followed his gaze to see his attention locked on Taraji’s house.

               My stomach dropped.

               I sort of had a feeling he and Taraji might be interested in each other. I caught them staring at each other more than once. But they’d never gone beyond exchanging looks and Taraji blushing. On the other hand, Mihrage seemed to flirt with me with nudging and laughing. Of course, he and Taraji had been spending more time without me lately.

               And to confirm that thought, Mihrage turned his gaze to me and said, “I’m going to stop by Taraji’s house and see how her practicing is coming along. We can meet up after you talk with your father.”

               I forced a smile onto my face. “Sounds good.” The fake smile dropped as soon as Mihrage was far enough away he wouldn’t see me unless he turned around. I pressed my wrist to my forehead and silently cursed myself. You idiot. Mihrage is your friend. Why does it matter if he likes Taraji? If you really wanted him, you could chase after him and win him over. But you’re friends.

               “Do you need some water, Caspara?”

               I practically jumped out of my skin and dropped my hand to see my father standing beside me. “Don’t creep up on me. And yes, please. Water sounds wonderful.”

               He kept his gaze forward, but his attention on me. “I couldn’t tell if you had a headache from the heat or from trying to subtly let Mihrage know your heart yearns for him.”

               I scowled up at my father.

               He put his hands up in a defensive posture.

               “My heart doesn’t yearn for anyone.” But the blush burning up my back and likely across my cheeks revealed my lie. I turned around and walked into our home.

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