The Eyes of Tamburah – Maria V. Snyder

The heat thickened the air in Shyla’s room to an uncomfortable level. Sweat slicked her skin and dampened her sleeveless tunic. She adjusted the mirrors to better capture the thin ray of sunlight streaming through a single mirror pipe extruding from her ceiling. Moving another reflective panel until it illuminated the ancient map spread over her table, she resumed her work. The faded ink was barely discernable as it crossed the velbloud skin. The temperature rose another few degrees, warning her that she needed to retreat to the deeper levels before the sun reached angle eighty. Despite being three levels underground, it still wasn’t safe to be this high. All of her neighbors had descended angles ago. But excitement zipped along her spine —she was so close. Shyla continued to translate the archaic symbols. Nothing but sunlight would reveal the location of the Gorgain crypt and the meeting with her client was scheduled for angle two-ten. The historian had paid her in advance for the information, which was proving to be more difficult to find than she’d expected. A damp strand of her long pale-yellow hair slipped free of the tie, but she didn’t have time to fix it. According to the map’s legend, the blue line represented the tunnel the grave diggers had used. She traced it with a fingertip, honing in on— An impatient pounding on her door broke her concentration.

She glared at the thick slab of rough sand-coated glass that guarded her room. It vibrated with each knock. There wasn’t time for interruptions, but if it was a client— “It’s an emergency,” called Banqui. She sighed. Everything was an emergency with Banqui. As the Water Prince’s chief archeologist, he believed his projects should be her top priority. But the man had referred her services to his colleagues, helping her establish her business. After a forlorn glance at the map, she unlocked the door and slid it aside, allowing Banqui to enter. He hustled into her room and stopped dead. “Scorching hells, Shyla.

It’s a thousand degrees in here.” Banqui also tended to exaggerate. “Hello to you too.” Ignoring her, he said, “I’ve been looking all over for you in the lower levels. The sun is almost at angle seventy. What are you still doing up here?” She gestured to the map on her table. “Researching.” “You need to leave right away.” “There’s plenty of time before I’m cooked. Before I was interrupted, I was just about to finish up.

” She gave him a pointed look. But instead of apologizing for barging in on her and leaving, he just stared at her in shock. “Shyla, haven’t you heard?” She studied her best client and perhaps friend. His short black hair stuck up at various angles— probably from running his fingers through it in agitation. He was frequently anxious and stressed by the Water Prince’s demands. But this time fear lurked in his dark brown eyes and his tan tunic and pants, normally impeccable—he had plenty of diggers conscripted by the prince to do his dirty work —were torn and stained with… blood? “Heard what?” she asked as unease stirred in her chest. He paced around the table. Tall and lean with lanky legs, it didn’t take him long to make a circuit. Her room was small and filled with the basics—a table, sitting cushions, a couple shelves filled with her trinkets and clothes, a water jug, her sleeping cushion mounded with a fur, and the mirrors. Banqui made another loop.

She stepped into his path, stopping him. “Tell me before you wear a groove in my floor.” Lines of sweat streaked down the sides of his face, darkening his brown skin. His gaze settled on the map. “How long have you been working?” “Two or three sun jumps.” “And you get immersed in your research,” he muttered then drew in a deep breath. “I found The Eyes of Tamburah. They were in the temple’s hidden vault just like you predicted.” Excitement warred with confusion. “That’s wonderful.

Right?” “It was glorious. They were exquisite. Crafted from diamonds, emeralds, onyx, and the purest white topaz I’ve ever seen.” His voice held an almost fanatical reverence. “They were magnificent, Shyla. My greatest find in my entire career.” Considering he’d been uncovering ancient ruins and artifacts for over seven thousand sun jumps— roughly twenty circuits—they must have been impressive. “And then the Water Prince claimed them. You knew that would happen. He finances your digs.

” “It’s worse than that.” What could be worse? “You lost them?” “No! They were stolen!” Unable to remain still, Banqui resumed his pacing. Treasure hunters were always a problem. Despite the Water Prince’s proclamation that all historical items found within Zirdai’s official boundaries became the property of the crown, the richer citizens collected antiquities through a thriving black market—the rarer the find, the more lucrative. And The Eyes of Tamburah were legendary. Rumored to give their owner magical powers, the gemstones had a long and bloody history. No wonder they were stolen by some greedy hunter. They would fetch a staggering sum in any city in Koraha, assuming the thief lived long enough to leave Zirdai. “Sorry to hear that,” Shyla said. “The Water Prince must be—” “No words can describe his anger.

” Banqui clutched her shoulders. “Which is why you must hide.” She jerked from his grasp in surprise. “Me? Why?” “He thinks you are the thief.” It took her a moment to sort through his words. Did he really say… “Why would he believe that?” Fear coiled around her heart and squeezed. Banqui’s broad face creased with anguish, flaring the nostrils of his flat nose. “Because I told him you were the only other person in all of Zirdai who knew where The Eyes were located.” Scorching hells. Shyla stepped back.

Perhaps calling him a friend was being rather generous. “But your diggers—” “None of them were part of the extraction. Only me. I trusted no one with the information.” But someone had to know. Unless… “Surely you don’t think that I—” “Of course not, Shyla! You could have kept the location to yourself and retrieved them without anyone the wiser, which is what I tried to explain to the prince, but he wouldn’t listen. I suspect a spy in my crew, but I need time to figure it out and I don’t wish you harmed.” How nice, but she didn’t voice her sarcastic response. Instead her mind whirled with the possibilities. The heat in the room baked the sweat off her skin, another warning that they needed to go below.

“I can go talk to him. Explain—” “No. He will not listen. You’ll be tortured until he’s satisfied you’ve told the truth and then, if you’re lucky, you’ll be locked in the black cells. And if you’re not, you’ll be staked to the sand and cooked.” Gee, what a prince. The fear tightened. “You need to hide until I can find the culprit. Perhaps the monks will hide you?” “No,” she said. “But they raised you.

” “Doesn’t matter. I will not run and hide, Banqui.” She had lived in the monastery for eighteen circuits and refused to run back to them at the first sign of trouble. “But—” “I’m going to help you.” He shook his head sadly. “You don’t have any contacts among the people.” Banqui gestured to the piles around them. “Your expertise is with translating these historical tablets, sifting the facts from the fables.” True, but she did have other clients. “What about the spy? Do you know who he or she is working for? I can talk to the other archeologists.

” And treasure hunters, but Banqui didn’t need to know she’d worked for them as well. His lecture would last an entire sun jump. His full lips thinned into a scowl. “At first I suspected the Heliacal Priestess.” She grunted. “If that’s the case, you’ll never get them back.” The sun neared the kill zone. The mirror pipe blazed with light as the air in her room seared their throats, creeping toward sixty degrees Celsius. Time to go. Shyla grabbed her pack and without a word, they exited to the empty tunnel—everyone else had abandoned this level angles ago.

Sliding the door in place, she locked it and they bolted for the closest stairway. It spiraled down into the gloom. Druk lanterns hanging on the sandstone walls glowed with a warm yellow light. As they descended, the air cooled fifteen degrees for each level. By the time they reached the safe zone at level six, it was thirty degrees. At level eight, Banqui grabbed one of the lanterns. “This way.” He headed down a side tunnel. The temperature on this level reached ten degrees. Shyla shivered and pulled her wrap from her pack.

At least it wouldn’t get any cooler unless they traveled past level eighty where the dry air turned damp. In Zirdai, the popular routes were all well marked with lanterns and symbols etched into the sandstone walls—the others were left in darkness. Druk lanterns were cheap to produce and plentiful. People frequently carried them and left them at various places for others to use. At least one or two druks lit every room. The special substance inside the druk changed its tint with depth. At the very bottom of their world—level ninety-seven—it shone with a violet hue. The distinctive colors came in handy for those who were easily lost, unlike Shyla, who’d been exploring the underground city since the monks kicked her out about two circuits ago. Actually it had been exactly eight hundred and twenty-five sun jumps ago—there were three hundred and sixty sun jumps in one circuit. Not that she was counting.

A thin layer of grit crunched under their boots as they walked. The dry air held a salty scent mixed with the faint gingery anise odor of the desert. “Where are we going?” she asked him. “Since you won’t go to the monks, you need a place to stay.” She waited, but he failed to continue. “And that would be…” “My upper-level work rooms.” “They will be the second place the prince’s soldiers will look after checking my room,” she said. “They already searched them. You can hide—” “I’m not hiding, Banqui,” she snapped, which wasn’t helping. Shyla considered the problem, viewing it the same way she researched lost artifacts.

“After you found The Eyes, what happened next?” He sighed. “I wrapped the marble container with layers of silk and put it into my satchel. I headed back to the entrance and someone jumped me from behind.” Banqui rubbed the side of his head as anger flared in his eyes. “When I woke, my bag was gone. And before you ask, I didn’t see or hear anyone in the temple before or after the attack.” She mulled over the information. “What about the guards? Don’t you always station them at a dig site?” “I do. According to them, no one had entered or left since I’d gone in.” He held his free hand up.

“They’re loyal to the Water Prince and they’ve already been questioned.” “Is that code for tortured?” “Shyla, this isn’t a joke.” She gave him a flat look. “The Water Prince thinks I’m a thief so I’m well aware of the seriousness of the situation.” “Er…right…sorry.” “How long ago did the theft happen?” “Two sun jumps.” “Do you still have the map of the temple?” “There’s no other entrance. I checked.” She waited. “Yes, I still have it,” he said with annoyed exasperation.

“Good. I’ll take another look. And when the sun is lower, we’ll visit the temple.” Banqui swallowed his protest. Instead, he asked why. “To find clues, of course.” Various emotions flicked over his face before he settled on a tired acceptance. “All right. And who knows, maybe you’ll find something. Despite your youth, your attention to detail is unparalleled.

” Shyla huffed in amusement. “Really? Normally you’re irritated by that trait.” And she didn’t think twenty circuits and one hundred and five sun jumps that young, but compared to Banqui’s forty-two circuits or so, she conceded his point. “This isn’t a normal situation. Besides, I’m starting to suspect the Heliacal Priestess does not have The Eyes.” “Why not?” “Because she would have taken control of the water supply and proclaimed her right to rule Zirdai by now.” “Banqui, the rumors that The Eyes have magical power are just that, rumors. I’ve found nothing that provides proof.” This was an old argument between them. “But you only have access to the monk’s First Room of Knowledge.

There could be plenty of evidence in the Second Room of Knowledge or the Third or the Fourth.” Shyla swallowed the sudden knot in her throat. When she’d reached eighteen circuits old, the monks offered her a choice. Stay and take the oath, becoming a monk—with full access to the four Rooms of Knowledge—or go. From what she had managed to piece together, staying meant keeping the knowledge to herself and never seeing the great underground cities of Koraha, their world. Leaving meant loneliness and being viewed as an outcast. Her pale blond hair, eyebrows, eyelashes and even the fine hairs on her arms and legs, which all stood out starkly against her dark skin, all marked her as sun-kissed. Sun-kissed babies were considered the Sun Goddess’s children and they were abandoned in the desert to die so they could return to their proper mother. The Monks of Parzival didn’t believe in this barbaric sacrifice. They had found her a couple kilometers from Zirdai and raised her.

When she chose to leave the monastery, they gave her a pouch of coins and one boon, continued access to the First Room of Knowledge, but she no longer had access to their hearts. Shaking her head at her maudlin—childish—thoughts, Shyla concentrated on keeping track of the turns and twists as Banqui led her down another five levels to his “upper-level” work rooms. They were all well lit with costly trol lanterns—the now orangey glow from the druk weak in comparison to the bright white of the trol. The Water Prince spared no expense for his personnel. Banqui’s equipment normally occupied the first of the three large caverns, but since he had an active dig site, all that remained were broken shovels, frayed ropes, and worn pulleys. The second cavern housed his diggers. The rows of sleeping cushions were empty. “They’re working on uncovering the lower levels of the Shem burial grounds,” Banqui explained. “Deep enough to be safe.” He guided her into the last room, which was his office and occasional sleeping quarters.

“You can stay here until the sun reaches angle one-fiftyseven, then we’ll go topside.” Rummaging through the piles on his desk, he pulled out a roll of velbloud skin. “Here’s the map of Tamburah’s temple. I’ll be back later.” The thought of being alone scared her. A surprise, considering she preferred to be alone. “Where are you going?” “To check with the black market dealers, see if they heard anything.” He left, taking the druk lantern with him. Right. Finding The Eyes needed to be their sole focus.

She glanced at the sand clock. The grains poured through the narrow glass at the same rate the sun jumped across the sky. The clock read angle ninety, which meant the ball of fire that baked their world was at its zenith. Shyla spread the map on the floor and weighed down the edges with the lanterns. Tamburah’s temple was located about three kilometers from Zirdai. The place had been built about fourteen hundred circuits ago in the classic hexagonal shape of that time period with one level above ground and twelve below. She bent over the velbloud skin and examined every centimeter of each line, shape, and smudge for all twelve underground stories. Many times hidden entrances or rooms were marked with an almost invisible symbol. When nothing caught her attention, she searched for a magnifying glass and found one under a pile of broken pottery. How could Banqui get any work done in this mess? Returning to the map, she peered through the glass, repeating her scrutiny.

Other than the slight flourish indicating the hidden vault where The Eyes had been, nothing else stood out. She sat back on her heels. Guess she’d have to wait and inspect the walls inside the temple. Shyla circled the areas she wanted to inspect with a piece of chalk. Her stomach growled. When had she last eaten? Last darkness? She tended to lose track of time when working. Too bad she couldn’t visit one of the dining caverns. No doubt the Water Prince’s soldiers waited in all the common areas, hoping she’d appear

.

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