The city wanted to make me their ward and to put me into the orphanage. I had no family. No aunts, uncles, grandparents. I was terrified of the orphanage. So I ran.
-the writing on the cell wall
Aster Gardens was in full bloom. The trees were heavy with vibrant blossoms and ripened fruit. Flower stalks sported brilliant blooms with bees buzzing from head to head to spread the love the flowers had to share and give. The grass was an emerald green sheet, perfectly manicured, as were the flower beds.
The sun was high in the sky and cast its warmth that day, the first of summer. Many of the nobility were out for a stroll along one of the many dirt footpaths. The women carried dainty parasols and lifted heavy skirts from the dirt. The men tipped their hats to the poised ladies and each other, many with a lovely young maiden on their arm.
Lord Daisun Sarlik nodded his head to a couple of acquaintances as they passed by, careful to keep the little white parasol over his daughter’s head. Like all the other noble men, he wore dark pants stuffed into the tops of shin high boots with a little bit of a heel and a loose cotton shirt stuffed in turn into the pants. On his head was a black hat, tall and stiff with a three inch wide brim. His sixteen-year-old daughter had her father’s curling auburn hair and dancing blue eyes. Her pale skin, though, came from her long dead mother, who had died giving birth to their second child, who had also died during the process. It had been only Lord Sarlik and his daughter, the young Lady Caidy, for the past thirteen years.
“Papa,” Caidy said, carefully lifting the hem of her floor length day dress, a marvelous blue that matched her eyes with lace that matched the parasol, “I don’t wish to go to Mercaido City for further schooling. Why can I not stay here in Needle City? I’ll be so much closer to you.”
Lord Sarlik glanced down at his petite daughter’s head. She really was a delicate little creature with a heart of gold, just like her mother. And, just like her mother, she was fashionable, yet timeless. He knew it was any day now that boys would be knocking at the manor to ask for a luncheon with his little girl. After all, she had just turned sixteen and was now of marriageable age. It pained him to think of that.
“Now, Caidy,” he said sternly, yet lovingly, “we’ve discussed this. You are my only child and, with this feud with those despicable Almis going on, I need to protect you. Just three months ago the Zallis family lost their oldest son in their feud with the Nirlar family. It’s for your own safety.”
Caidy frowned, her mind working overtime. She had planned on telling her father of her longstanding friendship with the Almis’ daughter Tyala that day, something they had kept secret from their parents for most of their lives. Neither girl wished to be part of the feud and had planned on ending it, but perhaps the bitterness was still there, not that any of them actually remembered how their feud had begun. She hoped her friend was having better luck.
“Come, Caidy,” Sarlik said abruptly. “It’s time to head back home for luncheon.”
“But, Papa,” Caidy protested, “we haven’t finished walking around the gardens.”
“I know, my dear, but I have business to attend to right away.”
Caidy sighed and turned with her father. “Yes, Papa.”
As they turned away, Sarlik stole a glance over his shoulder. Lord and Lady Almi were headed in their general direction. He had no wish to have anything to do with them that day, not when he had been enjoying this morning with his daughter. He didn’t need to pollute their day with their feud with the Almis.
Lady Nyana Almi sniffed and turned her head slightly, the flowers laced into her jet black hair wavering with the turn, as she caught sight of Lord Sarlik and his daughter. Beside her, her husband glanced at Lord Sarlik and then to his wife. It was Nyana’s family that had been enmeshed in the feud for generations; he had merely married into it. But he had quickly become a willing participant after Lord Sarlik had hospitalized his brother.
“Pay them no mind, love,” Lord Emeri Almi said softly. “We knew that today was a pleasant day and much of the nobility would be out in the gardens. It was inevitable that we would see them.”
“Yes,” she agreed, “but that doesn’t mean I have to like it. This feud has killed everyone in my family except my sister and I. Being the elder sister, the feud has become mine.”
Lord Almi shook his head. Emotions did run high in Nyana’s family, but he couldn’t blame her. Her father and Sarlik’s had both perished in a duel. It was fortunate that that had happened; the survivor would have had no way of avoiding imprisonment. Dueling was against the law and the Needle City Guard enforced that law more strictly than others. That was probably because the nobility were also so consumed with one feud or another and were often overheard calling each other out. Why, the Nirlars were part of three different feuds at the moment and currently had two sons and a daughter sitting in prison for illegal dueling.
They walked along in silence, the back hem of Lady Almi’s pale blue summer gown dragging slightly along the dirt path, creating a faint wavy path in her wake. Lord Almi held aloft her delicate blue parasol and carried her long-fingered right hand on his arm. They didn’t speak further as Lady Almi watched Lord Sarlik and his daughter leave the gardens, her gaze like a hawk’s. Lord Almi knew she was always plotting against the man, and he did admire how her mind worked, but sometimes he wished it would end, for their children’s sakes.
Tyala was in the same academy as Sarlik’s daughter. They were the same age and in the same class. So far, they hadn’t had any instructor reports about them, but he knew it was only time. Nyana was always trying to inoculate their eldest child against the Sarliks, but he was devoted to protecting their children from the feud. His family had been fortunate; the Almis had never been involved in a feud. They had been Sapphire District’s peace keepers until he had fallen in love with Nyana Galton and inherited the Sarlik-Galton feud after her parents died. It was the first time in his family’s history that the Almi name became linked to a feud. His brother hadn’t been pleased and, after making it known, had been hospitalized by Sarlik. He had recovered, only to leave Needle City, claiming he would never return. And he hadn’t. He didn’t know his niece and two nephews, the children who were eventually going to inherit the feud and further tarnish the Almi name.
“It’s only a matter of time,” Lady Almi murmured.
“I’m sorry?” her husband asked, turning his deep brown eyes on her.
She briefly met his eyes and then shook her head. “You have got to stop daydreaming, Emeri. We’re in the middle of a feud. You have to keep a sharp mind.”
“I didn’t want this feud, Nyana,” he pointed out. “You chose to inherit it when your sister decided she wanted nothing to do with it.”
Lady Almi frowned at him. “That doesn’t matter. This is our feud now and we will see it through. As will our children.”
Lord Almi didn’t respond. He knew Tyala didn’t want anything to do with the feud; she’d told him so a year before. Being one of the peace-keeping Almis, he had agreed with her, but had to ask her to not mention it to her mother. Nyana would be furious.
“Come, darling,” Lady Almi said. “We have things to do today. And stop daydreaming. Sarlik can attack us at any moment. He knows where we are right now.”
Lord Almi sighed as he followed here from the gardens. “Of course, love, of course.”
Raven barely suppressed a yawn as she held audience with Master Yadrow, one of the wealthier merchants of the Ivory District. Those were the upper middle class people. They were wealthy, but not of blue blood. That didn’t stop them from trying to emulate the nobles of the Sapphire District, though. The Ivory District had their number of feuds.
It all bored Raven to death, but it was a living. She did what the lords and ladies and masters and mistresses wanted and they paid off the City Guard to look the other way whenever they saw her or her sigil. And the Yadrow-Alber feud paid quite well. They were competing clothing merchants and had been trying to destroy each other for the past ten years.
It had been ten years ago when she’d been introduced to the Yadrow-Alber feud, when she’d been in Thief Lord Teryk’s following. He had sent her out to steal from the Albers for the Yadrows. She had been his most skilled thief and he had trusted her. Of course, that trust would end up being misplaced a couple of years later, but she had gained the respect of both families during her two years working for both. After Teryk’s death, after she had gone deep underground, they had been forced to go to other Thief Lords, but hadn’t been as satisfied with them. After hearing that Raven had returned to the underground four years before, they had come back to her with a vengeance.
Of course, Raven didn’t involve herself in such petty matters anymore. It was far too easy to steal from the Ivory District. She usually sent out some of her more skilled thieves for those jobs, but delighted in taking the ones from the Sapphire District. Sometimes she was requested to do the job, as Master Yadrow was doing, but that didn’t always mean she had to comply. They would, after all, never know.
It felt good to have power. For a criminal living in the middle of the slums, it was quite heady. That power had gotten to Teryk’s head, especially after Raven started bringing in money by bucket loads almost every day. He began to think himself invincible and it had gotten to his head real bad. It was just the opening Raven had been waiting for. She wouldn’t make the same mistakes he had. She made sure of that.
“I’m sorry, Master Yadrow,” Raven broke in. She rearranged herself on the pillows she was reclining against. “I personally can’t take this job, but I have just the man for this.”
Master Yadrow frowned, his whole aged face turning into a pile of wrinkles. Really, the man needed to take better care of himself. His graying dark hair was looking quite stringy around his face and his dark eyes looked hollow. This feud was taking more of a toll on him than he was letting on.
“I don’t understand, Raven,” he said nervously. “It’s just a simple steal. I want that man’s ledgers.”
Raven gave him a placating smile. “Master Alber keeps his ledgers in an unlocked drawer in his office above his shop. The guards are making their rounds at night, but I know for a fact that it takes them twenty-eight minutes to make a full round. I can be in and out in less than three. No, my good man, this needs to be an exercise for one of my following members.”
As the man continued to frown, Raven turned her head and beckoned for Aven to join them. He had been hovering in the background, just waiting for his mistress to summon him. Now he walked towards them, his height towering over both Raven and the merchant.
“Aven, would you bring Deri for me?” she asked. “I think it might help if Master Yadrow meets the man I will be sending to do the job.”
Aven nodded and withdrew from the chamber with silent feet. He had been a cat burglar when she had met him, and had been quite excellent at it from a young age. He had taught her everything he knew and, even though he no longer committed any crimes himself, he still walked with silent feet. Raven wished she had mastered that as well. Alas, it was a rare skill to have, and one she was not meant to have despite all her other talents.
“You’re certain this kid will do just as good a job as you would?” Master Yadrow asked, his fingers fidgeting in front of his pudgy stomach.
Raven sighed. “I’m certain, Master Yadrow. He saved me from an assassination attempt just last week when he eavesdropped and escaped a creaky building without a single squeak.”
He gave her a dubious look and Raven returned it with another placating smile.
“Mistress? You asked for me?”
Raven craned her neck slightly and motioned for Deri and Aven to approach them. Aven faded back into the background, walking past where Raven reclined without a glance at either of them. Deri approached and stood a few feet from Master Yadrow.
“Deri, my child,” she said, waving a hand at Master Yadrow. “This is Master Yadrow, one of the wealthiest merchants in the Ivory District. He has come to me for a job and I would like you to take care of it for him.”
Deri bowed and turned to Master Yadrow. “I’m you man, Master Yadrow. I can do any job you would have me do.”
Master Yadrow looked the skinny youth up and down with a dubious look before turning back to Raven. “You sure he’s up to it? Kid looks like he hasn’t eaten in days.”
Raven frowned. “We take good care of ourselves, Master Yadrow. If you dare insult anyone from my following, I will make sure you can never come back to see me.”
Master Yadrow’s eyes went wide and he waved his hands in front of him as though he could erase what he had just said. “No, no, of course not, Raven. I meant no disrespect. I’m sure he’ll be just fine.”
“He is just about where I was when I started working with your feud,” Raven said softly. “Remember that, Master Yadrow. Now, Deri, take him to the conference chamber and he will tell you exactly what he wants. If you need my advice or Aven’s, you know where to find us.”
Deri nodded. “This way, Master Yadrow.”
Raven watched as they left before beckoning Aven forward. He joined her on the cushions and leaned back beside her, groaning softly as he lowered himself down. He gave her a wide grin and gently laced his fingers with her.
“Well,” he said, “here’s some of that excitement you asked for. Let’s see how Deri does with his first steal.”
Raven shook her head. “He’ll do just fine. No, Aven, I need something more exciting. The Sapphire District has been relatively quiet lately. They must have been hibernating with the winter this year.”
“Well, it was a rather brutal one this year,” Aven pointed out. “Even we were snowed in. It was a wonder we even found Deri when we did. Poor kid would have been frozen alive.”
“That’s true,” Raven admitted. “But the Sapphire District’s goings on have been more petty than usual. I’m tired of stealing odd stuff and sending my con men to dupe people. I can’t send my murderers because no one’s been around asking to off anyone. My swindlers are doing good work, but they’re really the only ones seeing any action. The caverns have been filled with more people than usual. Everyone’s starting to wear on each other’s nerves. The weather cannot heat up fast enough.”
He squeezed her fingers. “Just be patient, Raven. They’ll come.”
“I hope so.”
It irked him to have to leave his daughter home alone, but he had business to attend to. Since seeing the Almis that morning, he’d been all but obsessed with them. He had to do something. And Raven was just the person he needed. And that meant he had to slip over to the slums in the middle of the night to meet with her.
Oh, everyone in the Sapphire District knew that if you wanted something done, you had to go to one of the Thief Lords in the slums. But no one liked to talk about it or even see it. So, everyone slipped out in the middle of the night to go to the slums. It was one thing he would love to protect Caidy from, but she was his only child. She had to inherit the feud. One day he would be forced to bring her along and introduce her to the useful, but unsavory underground of Needle City.
He pulled the hood of his cloak further down to better hide his face. His dark brown cape was wrapped loosely around his body and his soft soled boots whispered against the stones of Esplanade.
Lanterns hung from iron poles every few feet down the wide avenue, but no one was about except the City Guard. They tipped their hats to him as he revealed just enough of his face for them to recognize him every time he saw a pair. He tried to keep to the shadows, but it was hard with so many lanterns lighting up spheres of space.
He could have readied his carriage or hired one, but it was late at night and the sound would draw listening ears and watchful eyes. If he wanted a ride to the slums, he would have to wake one of the sleepy midnight chaises from the Town Square. That would be a little more anonymous. The midnight drivers were the better secret keepers, especially since so much happened at night that could not be spoken about in the light of day.
Sarlik reached the Town Square without any problems and with just a handful of run-ins with the City Guard. He quickly made his way to the Court House, where the midnight drivers tended to gather. With his hood pulled down low over his face, he hailed one of them and climbed into the chaise.
“Where to, sir?” the sleepy driver asked, preparing his brown mare for the ride.
“Sector Promenade at Sewer Way,” Sarlik said, handing over the fare. “And I’ll want you to wait for me. I’ll pay double when I return.”
The man nodded and clucked at his horse. “Very well, my good man. We’ll be there shortly.”
Sarlik leaned back and relaxed as he let the driver do the work. They went through the middle of the Town Square and around the Needle that stood in the middle. It was really some kind of very tall and slender sculpture. It was made of a glossy, obsidian material that rose from a relatively wide base into a very pointed top. No one really knew who had made it, or even how long it had been there. Oddly enough, there was absolutely nothing written about it, not even in modern times.
The Needle had become so enmeshed in city life that Sarlik didn’t even bother to admire it anymore. They rolled out of the Town Square and down the cobblestone Skywalk Promenade dividing the Commons District and the Market District. It was a little narrower than the Esplanade, but had the lanterns every few feet, just as on all the other major roadways.
The chaise’s wheels clattered over the cobblestone, but the Market District was empty and the apartments of the Commons were dark. Not that anyone would recognize him, anyways. Still, it made him feel better that he didn’t see anyone peeking out at him.
They reached the end of the Skywalk Promenade, which ended at the towering walls of Needle City, and made a sharp turn onto Sector Promenade. It wasn’t long before the chaise was stopping at the narrow dirt road that was Sewer Way.
“Here we are, my good man,” the midnight driver said, suppressing a yawn. “I’ll wait for ye here. Take your time.”
Sarlik nodded to the man and stepped down onto the dirt road. He made a face, but, if he wanted to see Raven, this was how it had to be.