I would like to take a moment to thank whoever nominated this story for one the Some Kind of Wonderful (SKOW) awards. You have no idea how much it means to me to just be nominated considering that I am so very critical of my own writing and see all the flaws and errors that make me almost too embarrassed to post. This has boosted my ego and my self-confidence. Thanks again.

For those of you that don't know, this award is presented to Fictionpress authors that write romance stories. Readers nominate their favorite stories and then vote to see which one will win. Currently, Princess of Thieves was nominated under the Science-Fi/Fantasy Incomplete category. I would love it if you readers would take the time to go to the official SKOW site and vote for your favorite stories (even if it's not mine). I know that all the writer's that have been nominated would greatly appreciate it as well.

For those of you who want to vote the website is listed on my biopage since Fictionpress won't let me post it here.

Thanks.

Chapter Six: Questions

I couldn't believe how fast the next three days went by.

Most of that time was spent trying to pick our way through the enormous trees and dense underbrush. The farther we headed away from the path the darker everything became. The leaves of the canopy swallowed up the sky completely leaving nothing but a sea of green, that in the end, almost made me sick. Strange sounds floated from the forest floor, and the smell of tree sap was overpowering. I attempted to become more accustomed to being dirty and tired, but the only thing that could keep my mind off my misery were the lessons I was learning from Callen.

It was a lot to keep up with, and while the men slowly blazed a trail between the trunks, I was mentally practicing all the moves that Callen had used to put me down the night before. Most of the men were surprised by my maneuver the night we left the road, but it soon became apparent that my accomplishment had only been a fluke. From that night on I could not find anyway to best the Prince of Thieves. No matter how many times I thought I had him cornered, he always managed to pull out another move that would force me to defend, and it was not long until I ended up sitting in the dirt with new bruises.

Dray and Wye continued to encourage me by saying that I was learning quicker than anyone that they had ever seen, but I couldn't help but feel that I was too far behind. Some deep seeded instinct kept telling me that I needed to learn more…I needed to learn faster. I had never been this driven before, and I could only think that it was because I was going to need all the help I could get to complete the duty that had been set before me.

Callen had explained that the test to become the Princess of Thieves was really a series of tasks to insure that the co-commander of the thieves of Jezed was a capable one herself. Originally, there were six tasks to complete, but the last three would have been a test of my leadership skills, and Callen believed that there was no need to test me in these areas. Instead, I was only to complete the first three tasks and if I survived then I would be the next Princess of Thieves. It had taken awhile for me to come to terms with the idea that I might not be alive to find out what the rest of the world was like if I failed, but in the end it had only hardened my resolve. I wasn't about to give up and die now.

It didn't help, however, that Callen refused to tell me exactly what I was going to be doing. According the rules of the test, I wasn't to know anything beforehand except what I could generally guess myself. It was obvious that stealing something was going to be involved in at least one of the tasks, but I didn't have a clue what to expect after that.

I pondered possible scenarios that I might come up against during the test while I spent sleepless nights on the ground. I had since been allowed to bed down for the night without being bound, but it was a small comfort when it was all I could do to keep myself from imagining a horrible death.

It was early on the fourth morning, after we had left the road, and thirteen days after I had left my home, that we broke through edge of the forest. It was so sudden that it took a moment for my mind to catch up with my surroundings.

One minute my mare was slowly walking between dark brown trunks and the next her hooves met the solid stone ground of the base of the Arif Mountains with a ringing clang. I was so startled by the change in scenery that I tugged hard on her reins, causing her to rear and nearly spill me from her back. Laughter rang in my ears as I tried to calm her down with soothing noises that I recalled Dray making, and for a moment, I forgot what had caused my surprise.

When I looked up again I could feel my jaw drop in awe. Behind me the trees just suddenly stopped – almost as if someone had drawn a distinct line in the ground to separate the two areas. In front of me, the mountains rose thousands of feet into the air with their peaks invisible above the thick layer of white clouds that covered them. Rusty colored stone glinted eerily in the early morning light, and sounds echoed off the craggy surfaces. What really surprised me was how barren the entire place was. Not so much as a blade of grass grew more than a foot beyond the tree line, and the signs of animal life ceased to exist. I strained my ears to hear the sound of falling water from snow that should have been melting in the warming period of Valeria's Season, but none came.

"If you keep your mouth open long enough like that, you might actually be able catch something in it," Callen commented with a smile as he sidled his stallion up to my own horse.

"It's beautiful," I replied, ignoring the joke. "But it's so…so…"

"Lifeless."

I nodded, and continued to stare. "Shouldn't there be snow melting? I've read tales of the mountains in the south that receive so much melted snow that it floods their rivers for weeks."

"There's no snow at the peaks of these mountains. No one is sure why, but there is a legend that names the highest peak as the home of the god of Fire, Taeh. They say that his forge created the first lightning strike, giving the beings on this planet fire to warm themselves with. None have ever made it to the top of any of the peaks and lived to tell of it. The legend states that anyone who tries will melt before they reach the top because of the heat coming from Taeh's forge. That's also why they say no snow will ever settle there," Callen explained.

I noted a hint of mysticism in his voice and I wondered if he was religious, but somehow, I couldn't picture him kneeling before an altar and praying to Hintos and the head god's brothers and sisters.

"Taeh? I don't think I've ever heard of that god. Are you sure you aren't thinking of Gambol?"

Callen shrugged his shoulders casually, but he turned his eyes on me. I was surprised by the intensity of his gaze since that simple movement made it seem like he didn't put any importance behind the words he had just spoken.

"Not many speak of Taeh in Jezed," he finally answered turning back towards the mountains. "I guess you could say he is a lesser known god."

"I see," I said, nodding my head and pretending that I understood his explanation, but I racked my brain trying to remember my tutor ever mentioning Taeh. She had been unbelievably thorough in my education of the Jezedian beliefs, which didn't differ too much from Falton's, and I was sure that I had memorized the name and purpose of every god that was worshiped in this country. Apparently I hadn't though, and I felt a grin spread across my face as I thought of how furious my tutor would be if she could see me now.

"Are you two just going to sit and stare at the scenery all day?" Dray called out from further up the road.

"I don't know about you, but I'm looking forward to a warm bed and a full stomach," Wye put in.

"A bed?" I sighed. Callen laughed as I looked dreamily off in the distance imagining something softer than packed dirt.

"Yes…did you think we lived like savages?" he asked.

"I had my suspiscions."

"Sorry to disappoint you."

"I think I'll survive," I muttered sarcastically following Dray and Wye's horses up the slim path into the base of the mountains. Callen came up behind me bringing up the rear as all the other men had thrown caution to the wind and moved ahead without us. I didn't blame them after being on the road for more than a week with almost no loot to speak of. Inthel and his gang were in the lead grumbling obnoxiously about the how the entire trip was a waste. Some the men made noises that signified their agreement, but I noticed that no one else but Inthel said anything outright about Callen's misleading information that led to my capture.

"How much further is it?" I asked Dray when I finally caught up with him.

"Our home backs into the base of the mountains about ten miles from the edge of that tree line. If we hurry we should make it just in time for supper," he replied.

"Ten miles? Why so far from the city?"

"Because we don't want the King's men to find it."

"Oh," I said, trying to ignore my burning cheeks. That should have been an easy answer.

Dray laughed at me, but continued to explain for my benefit. "We're actually not as far from the city as it sounds. The East Wall also begins to back into the Arif mountains and our underground entrances come up just inside that wall. We try not to use that entrance as much as possible, just in case we're being followed, but it's there. From the East Gate our main entrance is an hour ride, and that way in is well hidden. The rest of the lair follows a series of caverns that run beneath the mountains."

I whistled impressively. I knew a little of the geography of Jezed from maps I had seen, and the area that Dray had described was huge. I didn't understand what they needed all the space for, but I knew that I would find out soon enough.

We rode on in silence for a while before I noticed that both Callen and Wye had dropped back far behind us. I turned in the saddle and saw that they were quietly talking with their heads close together. About what I couldn't guess, but it was a little unnerving because every once in a while Wye would make a gesture in my direction.

"Is there a reason I'm such a topic of interest?" I whispered to Dray, tilting my head at the pair.

"They're probably discussing how best to introduce you."

"Introduce me?" I snorted. "Somehow I've got a feeling that everyone will know who I am well before they ever get to see me."

"That may be true, but the real question is will you be presented as our captive or our equal?"

I glanced sideways at him. "I thought I was supposed to be your equal."

He returned the look with a sly smile. "You won't truly be my equal until you can pass the test."

I was tempted to smack him across the face for that remark, if only to prove that I wouldn't take jibes like that lying down, but I stayed my hand knowing that I still wasn't sure of my position among the thieves just as Dray had suggested. Some of the men that were closer to Callen, especially Wye and Dray, seemed to have taken me under their wing. On the nights that I practiced my fighting, they would yell encouragement and try to help me maneuver my way past Callen's guards. However, they were still wary of my loyalties, and some only followed Callen's lead because of their faith in their leader.

Others, particularly those that followed Inthel's group, had tried to make my life as hard as possible without disobeying Callen directly. Tree sap had mysteriously found its way into my sleeping roll, and I was sporting several bruises where I had been brutally pinched when one of them had walked close enough to do so without anyone seeing. I had tried not to complain knowing full well that my suffering would only increase, but it was hard.

In the end, there were two views of my position, but neither side saw me as an ally. Callen was the only one with unwavering faith in my ability to complete the test and was the only one that made me feel like I belonged. I knew that Dray and Wye tried to follow their leader's example because they were friendly with me, but Dray could only see me as a foolish princess that had managed to survive so far on his helpfulness and luck while Wye continued to doubt Callen's decisions about my welfare that had led to a small rift between us. Overall, my situation began to feel like I had never left home.

Lunch came and went with little event. Callen sat next to me on a sun warmed rock and explained the finer points of defending against different weapons while most of the men milled around with barely contained restraint waiting to get back to their lives. Time passed slowly as the sun began to sink behind the mountains bringing dusk upon us earlier than normal, and I longed to reach our destination just so that I would be done with traveling.

Finally, after first a bright yellow moon rose followed by a second reddish colored moon, we came up to a looming opening in the mountainside tucked behind a small outcrop. We paused at the entrance to light lanterns that had been hidden just inside before we set off into the darkness. Callen moved up to the front of the column accompanied by Wye while the men seemed to arrange themselves according to rank among the thieves. I was kept at the very back with Dray just behind Inthel and his friends. I was secretly pleased to see that Inthel commanded very little respect amongst his peers even if it meant that I had to look at the back of his head the entire way.

Slowly, because of the limited amount of light, we proceeded through a series of tunnels and caverns that twisted and turned sporadically making it impossible for me to determine which direction we were heading in. All the passageways were large enough to allow a horse and rider to move along comfortably without feeling too crowded, but we were forced to go in a single file line so I couldn't speak with Dray and keep my spirits up. It was some time before we finally reached an area that looked remotely like it was inhabited.

Small lanterns began to appear along the walls leading the way deeper into the mountains, proving that someone knew we were coming. The path widened a bit more, allowing Dray to come up beside me, and it also smoothed out so that my mare no longer had to pick her way around rocks that had fallen from the walls of the passage. It wasn't long before the men blew out their own lanterns as the light became steadier with each passing yard.

"Dray, how much further do we have to go?" I whispered. I felt a catch in my throat as I uttered the words, and I swallowed hard trying to stop my agitation from growing.

"Not far. We've almost reached the stables."

"Stables?"

My question was answered, however, as we turned a corner. The small passage instantly opened up into a cavern large enough to house a small village. Wooden stables had been built along the back wall that appeared to have the ability to house at least a hundred horses, and there looked to be some metal cages hidden in the back that, when they were occupied, might hold some more exotic creatures. To the right, bales of hay were neatly stacked along with crates of horse feed and several watering troughs. On my left, a stairway carved from the rock lead up to an entrance that glowed warmly with the light from hundreds of candles.

Young boys raced out from the stables at our approach taking the reins that were thrown down to them from the men sitting on the horses. I watched Callen toss a coin to his hostler before one approached me. I leaned down and handed my own reins over to the lad with big brown eyes and a nice smile. The boy looked at me with purpose as a clambered down from my horse, but I could only smile in return and pat my pockets showing that I had nothing to give. His smile faded, and he gave me a rude gesture before he stalked off with my mare in hand.

"I'm sorry," I muttered to his retreating form. "It's not my fault I've been stripped of my wealth."

"Don't pay too much attention to them," Dray said. "They're here to become apprentice thieves and that one just so happens to be a masterful player."

"You know him?"

"Of course." I raised an eyebrow. "His name is Pital and he just so happens to be my youngest brother."

"Barely even eight years old, and already you're convincing him to following your footsteps."

"My parents wouldn't have it any other way," he replied as we wandered towards the group that was forming at the bottom of the steps. "My entire family has served the Prince of Thieves in one way or another since my great-grandfather's time."

"That's…um…great," I said lamely. What was I supposed to say to something like that? Thieves had always been someone to arrest from my standpoint. I just couldn't view it as a family business that had been passed down from generation to generation.

"It's a living," he shrugged.

By then we had reached the circle of men that were quietly chatting amongst themselves. Callen was sitting at the bottom of the steps looking thoughtful while Wye was leaning against the wall next to him glancing at the crowd through half closed lids. Dray and I mingled with the other men for a few minutes waiting for stragglers to arrive. Once they had, Callen stood up and moved up to the top of the steps so that we could all see and hear him.

"Well, it's been a bit of an interesting heist," he started sounding lighthearted. It was a bit of a change from the usually silent and serious man that I had become accustomed to. "All that hard work and we ended up with nothing but an extra mouth to feed."

I felt my face heat up in furry as I watched the thieves laugh and nudge each other at my expense. I didn't ask to be dragged into this mess! Granted, I was grateful for the chance to escape the duties that had been placed upon my head, but in the end I was still being forced to do something that I had no say in. Looking at the floor, I clenched my fists and tried to focus on the tasks that had been set before me.

"However, this extra mouth may prove to have some worth after all." I glanced up, almost in surprise, to find Callen's hazel eyes staring at me intently. "As you all know, she has agreed to perform the tasks to become the Princess of Thieves – my second in command. We will begin tomorrow at noon. Anyone who wishes to participate in the event needs to come see me in the main hall. The rest of you are free to do as you choose. Lia, please follow me."

With that, Callen stepped aside to allow the men to rush up the stairs into the entrance at the top. Wye and Dray were no exception, though they were in the rear and cast glances at me over their shoulders that I hoped were supposed to comfort me. I waited for everyone to disappear into the room beyond before I approached Callen.

"Where am I going?" I asked a little nervously.

"I assumed that you would want a bath and a change of clothes."

I looked down at my oversized outfit and imagined in my mind's eyes what I must have looked like. Callen smiled a knowing smile and held out his hand for me to take. He led me up the stairs and into a hallway that split off into three directions. Taking the far right passage, we passed several doors that had numbers etched into small plaques hung on the wood. We had gone at least halfway down this hall before Callen stopped and opened one of the doors.

"This will be your room for the time being," he explained. "I'll send someone in to help you with anything you need and then you should get some rest. As I said, the tasks start tomorrow at noon. We'll be leaving at the third bell after breakfast."

He turned to leave.

"Callen, wait," I protested. How could I explain to him what I was feeling? Scared, lonely, excited, anxious. There were just too many to describe and I was scared of what he might say to me.

"Was there something you wanted?" he asked stopping to look over his shoulder.

"I – I…I just wanted to thank you."

"Your welcome." Then he was gone and I was left alone.

I stepped through the doorway to find a simple room with nothing more than a bed, a dresser and a mirror on the wall. On the right side of the bed, there was a door that led to a small privy. I walked around trying to get a feel for the room realizing how different everything was from my old life. Even though all the finery was gone and the room was smaller than the smallest room in the palace that I used to live, it still felt more like a home than anything else had.

"Excuse me, miss?"

The female voice that called from the doorway was warm and friendly. I turned from where I was standing by the dresser to find a petite young woman with curly brown hair holding a towel and a bag full of soaps. She wore a pair of white knee-length breeches and a red shirt cut in the same style as the one I was currently borrowing that matched a red bandana tied around her head to keep her curls out of her eyes. Honey brown eyes waited expectantly for me to say something.

"Yes," I finally responded immediately liking her. "I mean…I'm sorry. Please, come in."

She stepped in through the entrance and motioned for a group of people that I hadn't noticed behind her to bring in a metal tub filled with steaming water. After it had been left beside the bed, the woman swiftly stepped up threw a string knotted at intervals around my waist and began to measure me from head to toe. I stood still waiting for her to finish, as I was used to such treatment from the fittings that I had to sit through at least once a week as a princess.

The thought occurred to me just then that I was no longer a princess. From this point on I was just me – no one else but Lia. I wasn't the Crown Princess of Falton, I wasn't yet the Princess of Thieves, I was no longer a captive. It felt good to not have to worry about how I was supposed to act in my present situation.

"If you want to go ahead and clean yourself up, I'll be back with some clothes that fit a little better. Keep in mind that it won't be anything special until we're sure you're going to be staying," she said as she finished.

"Of course. I'm Lia by the way," I said putting out my hand for her to shake.

"Calinessa, but you'll hear most just call me Nessa." She took my hand and smiled. Suddenly, her features seemed familiar, but I couldn't quite recall why.

Once Nessa had left, I stripped down and stepped into the tiny tub. I was scrunched and uncomfortable, but it was a relief to finally just be able to be clean once more. My skin was red from my rough treatment while I was scrubbing and my hands were horribly wrinkled when I finally got out. I plaited my hair just as before because I didn't know what else to do with it and wrapped myself in the towel that Nessa had given me. I avoided looking in the mirror even though I was clean because I was scared of who I would see looking out at me. There were so many conflicting emotions that I wasn't sure I would recognize myself.

It didn't take long for Nessa to return once I was done washing myself. She handed me a pair of pants that tucked nicely into my boots. A blue tunic that matched the color of my eyes was worn under a brown vest covered in pockets to hide away small objects. There was also a green sash that cinched around my waist completing the outfit.

"Now that that's done, let's get you something to eat."

I nodded and followed her out the door back into the hallway. She showed me the huge dining hall where everyone ate during meals, but instead of sitting down at one of the wooden benches that was currently empty I was led back into the kitchen. I was introduced me to the main cook, who handed me a bowl of thick stew and a loaf of bread. Nessa received the same fare, and we walked back my room using the loaves of bread as crude spoons to label up what we could of the stew.

"Nessa?"

"Um-hmm." I laughed at the face she was making. A piece of meat was sticking out of her mouth as she tried to talk and swallow at the same time.

"Why isn't there anybody else walking around?" I asked when she had finally managed to get her food down her throat.

"They're all at the victory party in the main hall."

"What? What victory party?"

"Every time the group comes back from a major heist there's a celebration to praise the gods that they've made it home safely. This time there's also the coordination of the tasks that are being setup for tomorrow. Callen's also explaining your presence here to everyone else, and why you're not to be touched," she explained.

"How do you know all this if he's down there explaining it?" Nessa looked at me for a moment as if she wasn't sure she trusted me.

Finally she said, "He's my older brother. I met up with him before he reached the hall and he told me anything."

My eyes widened in surprise, but I didn't say anything. That was why Nessa had looked familiar.

"He trusted me to take care of you without taking advantage of you."

"Oh."

We continued on in silence before another question came to mind. "Why isn't there a Princess of Thieves now? If there was a job of being second-in-command to Callen I would think women would be lining up to complete the tasks. Or are they really that hard to pass?"

"Callen was right," was Nessa's comment.

"Huh?"

"You're a lot smarter than you look, at least when it comes to putting the pieces of the puzzle together. Maybe not so much in the area of street smarts, but that comes with time."

I didn't know what to say to that. Callen thought I was smart? Well, that could explain some of the reasons that he took me along, but it still wasn't enough. He still had some secrets that he was hiding, and by now I was becoming more determined to find out what they were.

'

"The reason that there isn't a Princess of Thieves right now is because Callen hasn't let anyone try for the position since the last one passed away just after he took the throne," she continued on. "He has…trust issues, I guess you could say. The previous Princess of Thieves tried to assassinate him to give her current lover the crown, and he's never really been able to trust another woman like that. "

"But why would he trust me after just meeting me?"

"I can't give you that answer."

"Well, then why don't you try for it?" There obviously wasn't a trust issue between the siblings if Callen left me in her care.

"I'm not one for politics or leadership. Callen got that end of the stick."

"And what did you get?" I asked with a smile.

"The looks."

We both laughed at that. By then, we had reached my room where Nessa left me a little happier. I climbed into bed and sighed with pleasure at the feel of a soft pillow before I drifted off into sleep trying not to think about tomorrow.