I was orphaned when I was six years old. I never attended school. I can neither read nor write. My parents died in a factory fire. They called me Tala. But now I am called Raven.
-the writing on the cell wall
A yellow light fell across the creaky floorboards, slipping through the three inch space between the edge of the door and the door frame. The three Thief Lords weren’t being very careful. It explained why Raven and her following were as powerful as they were. No one took more precautions than she did. Which was also the reason why she was still alive.
He had his back pressed hard against the wall opposite that sliver of light. He barely breathed, not wanting the rise and fall of his chest to be perceptible or the whisper of his breathing to be audible. His shadow colored cloak, with the hood pulled well down below his eyes, hid him in the dark corner. His hands were tightly clasped around the inner folds of the robe and he fought to keep his legs from shaking. Raven had trusted him for this task. Him, an eleven-year-old boy she has rescued from the streets. An urchin stealing just enough to keep his tummy from rumbling in the middle of the night. Not enough to sustain him. He was grateful to his new, kind mistress, his own Thief Lord. He wasn’t going to screw up this mission.
Voices rose and fell within the room. He could hear the scraping of chairs and the squeak of floorboards as one of the Thief Lords moved around, too impatient and agitated to sit down. He could hear periodic tapping on the table that was undoubtedly in there. There were three deep voices and, from his close hiding place, he could hear just about every word they uttered.
“We’ve got to do something about that girl,” one of them said. He knew the other Thief Lords by sight, but didn’t know their voices well enough to put a name to them. This one had a deep, gruff voice, unkind and gravely. It made him wince.
“Yes,” another said. This voice was smooth and silky, deep and caressing. You could get so wrapped up in that silky voice that you would never see the snake coming to bite your neck. It made his hands curl into fists so his fingers wouldn’t reach up for his throat. “But she has foiled all of our other attempts. What else is there that we can try?”
“We must be bold, but not too bold,” the third said. This last voice was a deep, rich tenor that could lull someone into a false sense of security. He would have a knife in your ribs before you realized it. This voice made him swallow, hard.
“Raven is very careful. More careful than any of us. We must be swift and silent, then,” the silky voice said. “We must lull her into a false sense of security, let her think we won’t harm her anymore.”
The tenor laughed. “But that is the way of the Thief Lords.”
“True,” the silky voice said. “Very true. But perhaps we could come to a truce with her. One of us could partner with her and then, bam, have her dead in an instant.”
There was a brief period of silence before he heard the gravelly voice speak. “No. That would take too long. We need to deal with her right away.”
“Tonight,” the silky voice said.
“Yes,” the tenor agreed. “We will go from here and confront her ourselves. We won’t let anyone from our followings know. That way she can have no warning if she has spies among us.”
“This has to be quick and brutal,” the gravelly voice said, eagerness laced through his tones.
He swallowed hard, feeling the blood rush from his face. These three Thief Lords were planning on killing his mistress that night. It was a good thing she had sent him to listen in on them!
“The slum bath house,” the tenor said. “My people say this is the night she bathes. We should ambush her there.”
“But she is female,” the silky voice protested. “She will use the female house.”
“Have you no sense?” the gravelly voice sneered. “We will clear the bath house and be ready for her when she enters.”
His fingers clutched even tighter to the inner folds of his cloak. He had to warn Raven at once!
He sucked in a deep breath and held it as he slowly moved away from the wall, creeping down the side of it, his back still pressed to the rough brick wall. It was uncomfortable, but he would do anything for his mistress. Breath held, he tested each step with his bare toes, careful to make sure each step didn’t make the boards squeak. He went this way down the hallway to the open window, from which he dropped down the side of the single story building to the dirt beneath. He landed on his feet, bending his knees as he went down. His fingers brushed the dirt alleyway and then he was off running.
He dodged people, animals, and odd pieces of torn furniture, making a mad dash down Raven’s Way before taking a sharp right onto Catcher’s Way. It was a long run and he was winded halfway there, but he couldn’t let Raven down. His heart was pounding in his throat, making it difficult to breathe. His arms were flailing, colliding with people and things. His bare feet, heavily callused, could barely take the beating. His body ached, but the fear shining in his eyes and beating in his heart kept him going.
People and dogs scrambled out of his way, yelling and barking after him. The pigs and horses and sheep weren’t so bright and he bowled over a few of them, leaving their squeals in his midst as he picked himself up and hurled back down the alley.
The slums rose around him, the air thick with heavy smells of food, rotting wood, and human and animal waste. He and everyone else kicked up dirt as they went along, tattered bits of clothing trailing and making snake-like swirls along the winding alleys. He passed tents, lean-toes, shacks, and crudely constructed one and two story buildings of brick and wood.
Men yelled at him to be careful as he raced by. Children scrambled out of his way and watched him go with wide eyes, all knowing the silver raven crest at the left shoulder of his cloak. It was every slum child’s dream to join Raven’s following. Orphans had it easy; they could join at a moment’s notice. Children with parents weren’t so lucky; they had to ask permission. Which explained the disdainful looks the women, most likely mothers, cast upon him, snatching up their children and hauling them inside as he flew by.
But he didn’t care. He had to get to Raven. Nothing mattered more to him than to warn her. He knew she would be leaving her hideout soon for the bath houses in Ninth Sector.
He cursed the size of the slums as he ran along, making that sharp right onto Catcher’s Way. He really needed to learn the shortcuts. Really, the slums weren’t as big as the other districts of Needle City; it was the smallest of them all. But the Thief Lords had chosen to gather at Needle Sector, clear across the slums from Raven’s lair in Arrow Sector.
Finally, he made it into Arrow Sector and wound his way through the buildings, if they could be called that, until he found the little door in the side of a crude building that led deep underground into Raven’s lair. He scrambled through the door, banging it shut behind him, and fumbled around in the dark for a torch and light. After a moment of fumbling and cursing, he finally latched onto what he needed and had the torch lit in no time.
The tunnels were hard packed dirt with air vents every few feet. Those were constructed of metal and cleared every day by members of Raven’s following. He followed the tunnels as they wound around and up and down until he reached the main tunnel system. Here, the tunnels were wider and taller and had their own entrance, but it was on the edge of the city and only Raven and Aven used it.
The tunnels and chambers were filled with people going about their business, oohing and aahing over someone’s particularly shiny catch, boasting about their criminal deeds, and laughing and eating with each other. It was really a very merry following. Raven took care of her people.
He knew exactly where to find Raven. Unless she was sleeping or out prowling the city, she was in the main chamber. It was the loudest and most crowded, but it usually held her most loyal followers.
Indeed, he found the diminutive Thief Lord holding court with her trusted adviser by her side. Raven and Aven made a striking duo. She was small and lean with black hair cropped close to her head. Her eyes were large and almond shaped and a shiny ebony color. Her skin was tanned, but she mostly kept covered up in long gowns unless she was wearing pants for one of her criminal deeds. Aven, on the other hand, was tall. When he stood by Raven, he appeared to be over twice her height. He was slim with long limbs and chocolate colored skin. His kinky black hair was clipped even closer to his head than Raven’s. His eyes were rounder, but just as dark. He was usually dressed in loose shirts and tight pants with dirt streaked boots. They could afford better clothing, but they never wanted to appear better off than the rest of the following.
He tumbled into the crowd’s midst and, at his arrival, Raven stood up from her pile of cushions, where she had been reclining, listening with interest to her followers’ stories. The crowd parted as she made her way to her messenger and grabbed his hands to help him up.
“Deri,” she said, her voice soft and smooth and melodic. “Was I right in sending you to your cousin’s home? Is he a member of another’s following?”
Breathless, Deri nodded, his own hands clasping hers tightly, if only to keep himself upright. “Mistress, you can’t go to the bath houses tonight. They will be there to kill you!”
At that, the chamber went quiet and all eyes turned towards them. Raven’s gaze didn’t waver from his eyes. Aven made his way over to them and stood protectively by Raven’s shoulder.
“Are you sure?” Aven asked, his voice serious and deep, his brow crinkled in a frown.
Deri nodded, gulping for air, his heart still hammering away. Now, though, it was more from fear and anxiety than physical activity. “I heard them. They’re frustrated with you, Raven, and their failed assassination attempts. They have decided to strike immediately on their own. They didn’t want to let their followings know just in case they have a spy in their midst. They know you go to the bath houses tonight and they have planned to meet you there in order to kill you. You can’t go, Raven, you can’t!”
Raven released his hands and turned him over to one of the matronly women who cared for the younger orphans. She turned to Aven as Deri was led away to a warm meal. She propped her hands on her hips, her dark eyes hard and glinting as she stared into space for a moment.
“I have to do something about this,” Raven finally announced. “Aven, gather ten of my murderers and have them meet us three buildings over from the bath house. Have ten more gather here. And get my decoy ready. We attack.”
Aven nodded and hurried off to do her biding. Laser focused, Raven strode into her private chambers off of the main chamber and prepared herself for a confrontation, dressing in tight black pants and a skin-tight long-sleeved shirt. She pulled on her boots and wrapped a black cloak around her shoulders to finish off her outfit. It was time to set those other Thief Lords right. She was not going to be threatened by another mere assassination attempt.
A grim look on her otherwise flawless face and confidence in her stride, Raven walked back into her main chamber. It had been cleared of just about everyone, most of whom had probably already dispersed on their own to spread word of what the messenger had overheard and what was about to go down at the bath houses. Ten men, all dressed in tight fitting black outfits that bulged slightly here and there to hide knives and other blades, were standing around, waiting on her. Aven was with them, hands clasped behind his back and a face as grim and serious as Raven’s. A girl of sixteen with the same coloring as Raven stood at his side. Onna had been serving as her decoy for the past year; she had been specially selected because of her striking resemblance to Raven, and the girl was proud of this honor. For this outing, she was dressed in a dark brown robe, hood covering her hair, and sandals. She was dressed as Raven would be if she were really on her way to a bath.
Raven ignored the murderers for the moment and instead walked over to Onna to stare deep into the girl’s dark eyes. Onna stared back, a flame of excitement in her eyes. She wasn’t often called to serve as decoy, but delighted in it every time. She loved the excitement of certain death staring her down and being defeated.
“It’s not bumbling following members after me tonight, Onna,” Raven said, her voice firm and clear. The girl needed to know some of the greatest and most successful criminals in Needle City would be trying to kill her. “These are three experienced Thief Lords who have killed before. Corinn himself was a murderer before he became a Thief Lord. He is slippery and sly, Onna. You must be especially vigilant for him.”
Onna nodded. “Of course, Raven. It is my intent to serve as your decoy for as long as I can.”
Raven gave her a tight smile. “Watch yourself, Onna.” She turned her head to Aven. “Are the bath attendants ready?”
Aven inclined his head. “Sasha and Myria await Onna at the front of the building. They have their orders.”
“Good,” Raven said, turning back to Onna. “Now, my dear, watch your step and take care. We will see you after we have faced the Thief Lords.”
Onna bowed her head and then scampered off. Raven paced back to where the murderers waited patiently. Aven fell in behind her. While the murderers were some of Raven’s most loyal followers, he still didn’t put anything past them.
“There are ten other murderers waiting three buildings from the bath house,” Raven said. “You will join them and pair up. Until we meet up with them, your job will be to protect Onna. These Thief Lords are dangerous and now that our peace has been breached, they will be even more zealous to be rid of me, or else face an even more stringent treaty.”
Several of the murderers nodded and others shifted stances. This wasn’t any normal job and it carried far more risks. Going up against just one Thief Lord was almost certain death. Going up against three was just plain crazy.
“We move,” Raven announced.
She turned on her heel and headed out into the tunnels. Aven followed close behind and the murderers shuffled after them, murmuring plans to each other. They knew the other ten that had been sent ahead and knew whom worked best with whom.
They made their way out into the slum’s alleys and headed off for the bath house in Ninth Sector. They slipped along in the shadows, their group breaking off, but still heading in the same direction, to keep from being detected.
They stopped within sight of the female bath house at the edge of the slums, the backs of the houses here backing against the towering wall that surrounded the entire city. The bath houses were pumping water from the Needle River, which ran a quarter of a mile from the city. They could see the place was deserted, so knew the other Thief Lord were already there. Onna and the two attendants strolled towards the doors, Sasha and Myria keeping close watch.
Raven gave the signal and the murderers melted into the shadows to join the other ten. In moments, they would be surrounding and entering the bath house. Indeed, a mere minute after the murderers had vanished, Onna had entered the bath house and a pair of murderers slipped in behind her.
Aven rested a hand on his friend and Lord’s shoulder. She was a hard woman, but cared deeply for those in her following. Those feelings, though, were very deeply buried. After all, she sometimes had sent her loyal followers to their deaths. But they knew what they had signed up for, so Raven didn’t spend too long mourning their loss. That was a weakness she couldn’t indulge in. Otherwise she would wind up dead, too.
Raven and Aven wouldn’t be involved in this mission. Twenty murderers would be enough. Besides, they couldn’t risk anything actually happening to Raven. They waited for tense, quiet moments until the first screams were heard. Raven stiffened at those sounds; there was no way to tell which scream belonged to which person, but they would find out soon enough.
Before she knew it, Onna appeared in the bath house’s doorway and made the all-clear motion before disappearing back inside. Raven and Aven waited a moment before one of the murderers who had been one of Raven’s earliest and most loyal followers appeared and made the same motion.
Without a word, Raven emerged from the shadows and strode over to the door, Aven following close behind. They joined the man on the low stoop and stopped before him.
“The kid was right,” the murderer said. “All three of ’em were waiting inside, ready to gut ye.”
Raven nodded, her eyes hard and her lips pressed into a thin line. “Thank you, Jesyre.”
The man saluted her and they followed him into the bath house. They walked through a short, narrow hallway, a door on either side opening into changing rooms, before entering the bath chamber. It was large and round with a domed ceiling. In the middle was a sunken hole about three and a half feet deep, filled with river water that was now tinged with red. Smooth white stone encircled the bath and was likewise streaked with blood. Pillars of the same stone stood around the edges of the bath and a couple showed interesting streaks of red and brown.
Raven took all this in with a single sweep of her eyes, but she was more interested in the large group gathered at the back of the chamber. Most of her murderers turned to her and were dismissed with a look. Five stayed behind, along with Onna and Myria. Sasha, unfortunately, was floating in the middle of the bath. It was mostly her blood giving the water its red color.
The three Thief Lords were kneeling with the five murderers standing over them, mean-looking blades hovering above their heads. The three men glared at Raven was she approached. She could see Daryk, the one with the tenor voice, had a bleeding wound in his side, but he wasn’t paying it any mind. Corinn, the silky voiced murderer was glaring with fiery green eyes, darts of contempt hurling her way. Grizzled Edvin with his collar-length brown heard and shaggy brown hair falling to his shoulders growled at her.
Raven stopped before them and sighed, shaking her head. “My fellow Thief Lords. I thought we had come to a peace treaty. My life for yours, was it not? But here you are this evening,” she said, sweeping out her arms, “you three captured and one of my followers dead. You know what this will cost.”
Edvin growled. “You have been a thorn in our sides for too long now, girl. It was time we did something about you.”
Raven looked at the other two. “Anything else you have to say?’
They remained quiet, but their glares said enough to her. She sighed and motioned for her murderers to put their weapons away. Leary of the Thief Lords, they did as she demanded, but didn’t step back.
“There will be no new treaty,” Raven declared. “You temporarily lost your senses. I’m sure this will never happen again. I shall overlook this just this one time. If this happens again, I guarantee you it will mean certain death. Keep that in mind.”
That said, Raven turned and left the bath house, Aven following after her. The murderers ushered the Thief Lords out, making sure none doubled back to make another attempt on Raven’s life. Last out of the bath house were Onna and Myria, Sasha’s body carried between the two of them. She would receive a proper burial later that night.
“Just another day,” Raven said, mostly to herself. “I need some other entertainment.”