Year of the Scorpion
by Luna

Chapter One: Thief of Hearts
Such a moon -
the thief
pauses to sing.
-Yosa Buson

It was a peaceful night on the Gold Isle. The full moon rose high over the glittering streets in a cloudless sky filled with bright stars. The city looked, if possible, even more beautiful by night.

Kirine Syrille, however, could not admire it, as she was deep inside the city's many mansions, robbing one of its nobles of his priceless jewel collection.

She had spent many nights over the past seven years doing this, at first to support herself after her parents' deaths, then later for fun.

Smiling to herself over a job well done, she closed the safe and headed home.

The next day, after selling the jewels, she settled down and began to go through her mail.

"Hmm, junk," she muttered. "Nothing but junk. Wait! What's this? A letter from Northtown?" She opened it hastily, eager to see who it was from.

It was an invitation to a party, a small dinner party actually. The host seemed to know her and wanted to catch up. Who...? She kept reading, finding a name at the bottom of the letter: Slade Scorpio.

Slade! Kirine smiled wistfully at the memory. She hadn't seen him since she was eleven. That was the year her family moved from Northtown to the Gold Isle. Even though he was a year older than her, Slade had been one of her best friends and it had been hard to say goodbye. Now, after thirteen years, they would meet again. Kirine wondered what it would be like.

She wondered what he would think of her. She was so different now, from the happy, sweet girl he'd known. The change had begun right after the Syrille family's move.

Her parents had become so infatuated with their new money, that they began to spend less and less time with her and her older brother Dorian. On her seventeenth birthday, they had opted to spend it alone on their fancy new yacht rather than with her. However, their selfish fun hadn't lasted long. A storm kicked up, causing the boat to capsize.

Afterwards, it was discovered that their excessive spending and gambling had almost depleted the family fortune, leaving the two siblings with enormous debts. Dorian's salary as an Imperial soldier hadn't been nearly enough to pay off enough of the debts to keep the mansion, so Kirine had turned to stealing.

Dorian....Kirine sighed. He'd joined the Imperial Army when she was fifteen, and had quickly become one of their best. When their parents died, he'd been a favorite of Thanatos, the Emperor's top lieutenant.

She'd been so proud of him, but also worried. Thanatos was a figure of mystery, around whom many dark rumors swirled. No one had ever seen him without his sinister skull mask, and there were many theories as what he really looked like....none of them pleasant.

A few weeks after her birthday, a messenger came bearing the news that her brother had been killed in the line of duty. When she'd asked to see him, they told her he'd already been cremated. The urn containing his ashes had arrived soon after. She hadn't been the same since.

Shaking off the sad memories, she got up and went to her room to prepare for the party that night.

The Scorpio mansion stood on the outskirts of Northtown. It was purple and green, with elaborate, almost creepy architecture. A butler answered the door and showed her in.

There were about ten, twelve people in the dining room, none she knew. Feeling shy and out of place, she withdrew into a corner.

"Kirine?" She turned and looked up to see a tall, handsome man, with dark brown, almost black hair and deep blue eyes smiling at her. "I'd know you anywhere. It's so good to see you again."

"Slade?" she said, her voice filled with disbelief. This was what her friend had grown up into?

"Indeed." He took her hand and gently kissed it. "I'm so glad you could make it."

"S-so am I," she stammered. Of all the things she'd expected to feel tonight, intense attraction wasn't one of them. The two of them had been such awkward children, and she hadn't ever thought that they'd feel anything remotely romantic towards each other. And yet here she was, blushing and stammering.

"Kirine! I'm so glad you could make it!"

Kirine turned to see another familiar face : her cousin Sharlene, who'd been a close friend when she'd lived here. She smiled. "Why, Sharlene. It's been ages. It's good to see you again." Her cousin returned the smile and embraced her.

"You look as lovely as ever, Kirine. And Slade, you look marvelous this evening." Moving past Kirine, Sharlene embraced Slade and kissed him. Kirine's face fell, though neither noticed. They were....involved? News to her. Bad news.

Stop it, Kirine told herself firmly as she tried to smile. That's just plain silly, expecting him not to be with someone, to hold out for someone he hadn't seen in thirteen years, a person he didn't even know would want to be with him.

She knew it was stupid to be hurt by this. But it didn't make it hurt any less.

Sometime during the party, she found herself sitting alone with him in a corner of the room.

"So, how are you?" he inquired.

"I'm great," she lied.

"Good to hear. How's Dorian doing?"

"He's dead," Kirine replied. "Seven years ago. Right after my parents."

"I'm sorry to hear that. And that I asked that."

"It's okay," she replied. "You didn't know. How are your parents? The house looks as beautiful as ever," she added.

"They're dead, too," Slade replied. "And the house is no longer home, not since it was here that they died."

"What?" Kirine was shocked. Slade nodded. "Yes. I was...out one day, seven years ago, and when I came home, I found them, here....murdered. Nobody knows who did it." He sighed. "All I seem to get is empty promises and lip service. It's frustrating."

"I'm so terribly sorry." Kirine laid her hand over his. "I didn't mean to stir up such horrid memories."

"It's fine. You couldn't have known. Besides, I have to deal with those memories almost every day. You see, I found them right inside the front door, and I think of it every time I walk in." He sighed again. "July 25 - the worst day of my life. I relive it even when it's not the anniversary."

Kirine barely hid her shock. July 25 - a full month after her birthday and the same day Dorian had died. The most bizarre of coincidences....

They continued talking for a while, then it was time for dinner. Afterwards, Kirine found herself talking to Sharlene.

"So," Kirine began. "You and Slade are....seeing each other?" Her cousin warmed at the mention. "Yes, indeed," she replied. "For several months now. I'm hoping it will lead to marriage, but one can never be sure. Still, the chances look pretty good to me. I am so very fond of him, as he is of me, of course." She obviously didn't notice Kirine's discomfort as she said this, or pretended not to.

The latter was far more likely, for she had something of a calculating look in her eyes as she said it, and a smug smile on her face. Kirine's heart sank and she felt sick. What had happened that her other friend had become so cold and conniving? Hurt and bewildered, she quickly left the party without even saying goodbye to Slade.

The crescent moon rose high in the cloudless, star-studded September sky. It had been two weeks since the party. Neither had seen each other since. Still confused as to why she'd just suddenly left, Slade crept through the darkened halls of a Northtown mansion.

After his parent's deaths, he'd been forced to support himself by stealing from wealthy Imperial families, to pay off the gambling debts his father had left behind. Debts that had only come to light after his mysterious murder. It had taken all of the Scorpio family fortune to pay them off, and then some. So, in order to make it all back, and repay the rest, he'd turned to burglary.

He wondered what Kirine would think if she knew his secret. Shocked, definitely. Appalled? Maybe. He didn't want to tell her for fear of her reaction. Not yet, anyway. He still had other things to do. Like talk to her, find out why she just left. And then try to win her. Ever since they were children, he'd had a crush on her, even though she was younger. And now she was even more wonderful than ever, it seemed.

He also had to figure out how to let Sharlene down easily. He'd known for a while he'd have to do it, because he'd recently lost interest. Now that Kirine was back in his life - well, sort of - he would have to do all that much sooner.

Unlocking the safe with ease, he emptied it into his bag. The opals he would have to save for Kirine, they were always her favorites. The rest, he'd sell, as usual. Closing the safe, he headed for the house that was no longer a home.

Kirine sorted through her mail at home the next day. She hoped there would be a letter from Slade, though she was unsure if she wanted to see him again. She was too interested in him to watch him and Sharlene together, and she wasn't very good at hiding her emotions. Plus there was the little matter of her not-so-legal career. She doubted he'd be thrilled to hear about her "nightlife".

"Hmm....lessee here," she murmured. "What have we got today?" After her parents began to neglect her, and Dorian moved out, she'd been all alone. Out of loneliness, she'd begun the habit of talking to herself, and had kept it up after her family member's deaths. "Uh-huh...bills, ads, more bills, a letter, an invitation. Wonder who it's from...." Picking up her letter opener, she ripped the envelope open and began reading the invitation. Her lips parted in surprise. "Why, it's for Countess DeRinne's Halloween masquerade! The very night I intended to rob her! This should be fun...." Smirking to herself, she headed to her office to begin altering her plans for the heist.

The night arrived finally. Kirine dressed as a sorceress, cloaked in long, shimmery robes of pale blue. Most everyone had a date, but her only escort would be the burglar's tools concealed in her cleverly sewn costume.

Walking in, she was dismayed to see that Slade was here, dressed as a vampire, and he had brought Sharlene, looking radiant dressed as Undine, the Water Elemental. She'd have to avoid them, of course. No way was she subjecting herself to that, when she had a job and was supposed to stay calm and cool. An encounter with them would send her to the other end of the spectrum.

But it was not to be. As she hovered near the food, waiting for the time to go steal, Slade came up to her.

"Kirine?" She turned, startled. "Oh, Slade. It's you. You startled me."

"Sorry." He took her hand. "Will you dance with me?"

"You sure your date won't mind?" she asked, trying to swallow the bitterness that threatened to creep into her voice.

"She's dancing with someone else herself. I doubt she'll even miss me." He sounded amused. "So will you?"

What could she say? He led her out to the dance floor and slipped his arms around her.

"You never even told me you left."

"I'm sorry. Really, I am. But I think I was allergic to something in the food and I had to leave quickly." More like someone around the food, she thought sourly.

"You haven't written, either."

"Neither have you," she reminded him. "We're just too...busy, I guess."

He frowned. "What's that supposed to mean?"

She blinked. "What do you mean? I just said we're probably too busy. That's what I meant." In your case, with a conniving little brat, she thought darkly.

"Of course. I'm sorry." He added. "I do want to renew our friendship, if you do too."

She wanted more than that, of course. But if that was all she could get.... She nodded. "Of course I do. I'll try to find more time to write, I promise." Just then she caught sight of the clock. If she didn't get moving she'd be behind schedule! "Whoops, excuse me. Gotta go. I'll try to come back." In a few millenniums. There was no way she was sticking around here after she got the jewels. Not just because of them, but because she wasn't going to let her former friend Sharlene get in some barbs.

Sneaking into the Countess's bedroom, she shut the door and crept over to the safe by the bed. Removing the painting in front of it, she went to work on the lock. Afterwards, she'd climb out the window and be on her way back home.

A few minutes after Kirine hurried off, Slade realized that he was behind in his carefully planned out schedule. If he didn't get into the Countess's bedroom quickly, his entire plan to rob her would be ruined. Making excuses to Sharlene, he rushed off towards the room. He'd have an even harder time the next day explaining to her why he left the ball without her. After all, he wasn't planning on sticking around. Get the jewels and get out through the window.

With any luck, he thought as he slipped into the bedroom, she'll dump me for this stunt and save me the trouble. Closing the door as silently as he'd opened it, he turned. And stopped short.

Someone had beaten him to it. A tall woman with long, dark hair was emptying the safe into her blue robes. Half-amused, half-irritated, he walked up behind the thief.

As he did, she finished and closed the safe. She then turned. Both gasped as they saw each other. Slade stared at the thief in disbelief.

"Kirine?" he whispered.

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