Living in the streets of the slums was hard. I had no friends, knew no one. The other street kids all seemed to belong to someone. I didn’t, and they picked on me for it. I was almost killed one night. If it hadn’t been for Aven, I would be dead right now.
-the writing on the cell wall
She was interrupted in the middle of her limbering exercises. It was Aven clearing his throat that caught her ear and had her whirling on him, settling into an attack pose as she turned.
“Hold it, Raven,” Aven said, holding up his hands in front of him. “It’s just me. You wanted me to let you know when the burglars returned. They have.”
Slowly, Raven came out of her relentless focus on her breathing and her exercises. She straightened up and relaxed her muscles. She rolled her shoulders a few times and tilted her head from side to side.
“Well, I hope they have some good news,” she said, walking past him to re-enter her audience chamber.
Three slim men, none more than five and a half feet in height, stood arrayed before her desk. All wore tight black clothing so nothing could snag as they slinked around in the dead of night. They were all bald so they wouldn’t leave a single strand of hair behind. Their nails were trimmed low and they were clean shaven. Really, they were good looking men, but loved the jewels and other shiny things they stole more than people. It was highly unlikely they would ever bring a lady friend to meet Raven. Besides, they always claimed Raven was the only lady they needed. It flattered her, but it also worried her that they were so deeply entrenched in this life that they wouldn’t know what to do with themselves when they grew too old and stiff to prance around at night on silent feet and with quick fingers.
“Good evening, men,” Raven said quietly as she slipped into her chair.
Aven took his place at her side, folding his arms. He rested his eyes on each man. Though all the men and women in Raven’s following were undyingly loyal to her, he still didn’t trust any of them as far as he could throw an elephant. He and Raven had been through too much together for him to stop being her protector and watcher. He would cut down any of her followers without a bat of an eye.
“What information do you have for me?” Raven asked.
“The Almi Manor sleeps deeply, Thief Lord,” one of the men said, the shortest of the three. “You will have no problems getting in. The weather is warming up and, as all the sleeping chambers are upstairs, they keep windows cracked to allow a breeze in.”
“Excellent,” Raven said, nodding. She rested her arms on the chair arms, letting her small child’s hands dangle over the ends, and lounged back in her chair. “That will make this job infinitely easier. What else?”
The man went on, “We searched every room and found the seed of magic. It has been encased in a glass box and hangs above the fire place. It looks like they never intended on using it.”
Raven nodded thoughtfully. “I see. It’s a trophy to them. The Almis will miss it dearly.”
“It sounds like an easy job,” Aven said. “You could always send someone else to do it.”
She shook her head. “No. I need to get out of here. I need this job. Besides, I have to do some of the jobs myself to keep myself in shape.”
Aven didn’t look pleased. It was his job to protect his mistress, no matter how much she protested. Raven knew he wanted her to never emerge from their cavern, not even to go to the bath houses. Especially not after the assassination attempt the week before. He would never forgive himself if something happened to her. But Raven was stubborn and she was his Thief Lord.
“Thank you,” Raven said, dismissing the men, feeling the displeasure Aven was radiating. “Have a map of the manor drawn up and return it to me by tomorrow afternoon. Aven, you and I have some work to do. And stop projecting your disapproval. It isn’t becoming.”
He grunted as she rummaged around in a drawer and pulled out a map of the Sapphire District. Using a couple of paperweights, she smoothed it out and pointed to the Almi Manor. After a moment of silent stewing, he twitched and moved closer to her and the desk. If he couldn’t dissuade her, he had to help her as best he could.
“The Manor butts up against the city wall. Their gardens are in front and run along the sides of the house so they’re shown to their advantage. If the walls weren’t so tall, I would choose to drop down from it onto the roof. Instead, I have one of three gardens to pass through. The front would be too obvious and this side has two other manors facing it.”
“Triangle Way,” Aven said, pointed to the south side of the manor. “The Needle Quarter is entirely surrounded by gardens and the side facing Triangle Way has the orange orchard to protect the Parliament president’s privacy as well as the Almis’ privacy.”
Slowly, Raven nodded. “The Needle Quarter is where the president makes his residence, so it does afford the most privacy. This is very advantageous for us. I’ll work with my original plan of dropping into one of the hallways and then make my way downstairs. Will you stand guard on the roof?”
“You know I will. Are you bringing anyone else along?”
She shook her head. “It’s the Sapphire District. There are more City Guards there than any other district. Even though they’re paid to pretend we’re not there, they are allowed to nab us if they actually see us doing something illegal. We have to be careful. It’ll be just you and me.” She turned and smiled up at her longtime friend. “Like what we were before I became a Thief Lord.”
He flashed a grin back and then took hold of her elbow. “Just like before,” he echoed. “And now it’s time for you to go to bed. Master Yadrow will be back in the morning for the ledgers and you may have the Albers coming by for payback.”
Raven went with him willingly, allowing him to help her up. It had been a long night, longer than other recent nights. She’d had longer and was young enough to deal with them, but she was going to be out working the following night. She would need her rest.
“Papa,” Caidy said as she descended the staircase the following morning. She was smoothing down the silk of her spring green gown and had a matching parasol clutched in one lace gloved hand. “I’m ready to go.”
Sarlik glanced up from the paper he was reading in the parlor. His daughter appeared in the doorway, looking just as lovely as her mother used to. He smiled and put his paper down on the low table sitting in front of the settee he sat upon.
“You look lovely today, Caidy.”
“Thank you, Papa.” She frowned as she saw his dressing slippers rather than his shoes lying beside his feet. “Papa, you’re not ready yet.”
He gave her an indulgent smile. “Not yet, my dear. I have some business I need to attend to before we can leave. Why don’t you go into the kitchen and see if Cook has any sweets for you this morning. It smells like cinnamon buns.”
Ever a lady, Caidy’s nose daintily flickered as she sniffed. A smile bloomed on her rosy lips and her eyes brightened. “Yes, it does. I’ll go see if she has any.”
With that, she turned and headed off for the kitchen, calling out to their cook. Sarlik watched her go and his smile slid from his face. He patted at a pocket in his thigh-length jacket. There was a nice little stack of golden bills wrapped in a white cloth, a little note pinned to it, hiding there, a stack of money he couldn’t let his daughter see. It wasn’t yet time for her to know about the details to this feud. She was still too naive to know it was the Thief Lords that did all the dirty work.
A knock came at the front door. Sarlik shot out of his seat and rushed to it before the butler could answer. The Manor servants didn’t know the details of the feud either. It kept the gossip among the help in the Sapphire District to a minimum.
“I have it,” Sarlik said shortly as his butler materialized.
With a bow, the butler withdrew. Sarlik took a deep breath and tugged his jacket down, waiting for the man’s steps to recede into the distance. Then he opened the door to find a young boy standing on his doorstep. He had a gray messenger cap on his head and freckles on his face. He was dressed in the gray and navy blue messenger uniform, but his shoes looked scuffed. He was young, but had been running for at least a few months. He would have learned subtlety and a quiet tongue by now. Perfect.
“Morning, my good Lord,” the boy said cheerfully. “I heard you are looking for a message to be delivered.”
“I have a package for you to take to the office of the Needle City Guard. And not a word of this, right?”
The boy tipped his cap. “Right sure, my Lord. I’ll do as you ask and mum’s the word.”
“Excellent. Take care.”
“Will do, my Lord.”
Sarlik handed over the money wrapped in the cloth. To one side was pinned a folded note. It read: For the protection of one Thief Lord Raven and her following, with the silver raven sigil. For the duration of one month’s time. To be added to what remaining protection time she and her own have. By the power of one Lord from the Sapphire District.
The boy tucked the package into a deep pocket without a further glance at the package and, with a last tip of his hat, was off. Sarlik breathed easier as he closed the door. There was no going back now. The feud was on with a vengeance.
Hopefully, a shopping trip to the Market District to purchase his daughter a few new gowns would do him some good. He did love to spoil his little princess.
“Raven,” a voice called, rousing her from sleep. “Raven.”
With a yawn, Raven came awake, wondering why, for the hundred thousandth time, why she hadn’t allowed Aven to install some kind of door to her bed chamber. She pulled the covers from over her face and pushed herself up so her pillows supported her back. She blinked a few times to clear the sleep from her eyes and covered her yawning mouth with the back of her hand.
Onna was standing at the doorway, waiting patiently for her mistress to awake. The decoy smiled and bowed her head.
“Raven, Master Yadrow is here to claim his spoils,” Onna said, her voice quiet and gentle. It was a voice Raven liked awakening to, which was why Onna was often the one on duty at the door to the caverns during the day. Not many had a voice that sweet, soft, and gentle. It was like waking to a nightingale. “He will be waiting in the meeting chamber. I’ll await word from Aven to bring him into your audience chamber.”
Raven nodded. “Very well. Thank you, Onna.”
The girl departed and Raven, fully dressed, pulled herself from her bed. She slipped into her boots and walked out of her bed chamber, idly wondering what it would be like to wear pajamas in bed, like she used to before her parents were killed. She didn’t look back, not wanting to see the warm, comfortable bed she had to leave because of business. Sometimes, it really stunk to be a Thief Lord.
Aven was already waiting in the audience chamber, just as he always was. She nodded to him as she took her place reclining on her cushions, walking past her bare desk. Aven left the chamber to let Onna know Raven was ready.
Raven waited patiently, fighting back yawns, until she saw Aven precede Onna and Master Yadrow into the chamber. Her adviser took up his place at the back of the chamber, standing silent guard with arms crossed and eyes hard. Onna, gentle and smiling, gestured for Master Yadrow to approach Raven and then she withdrew.
“Welcome back, Master Yadrow,” Raven said. “Aven?”
As Master Yadrow approached Raven, Aven walked over to her desk and dug out the ledgers.
“Do you have what I asked for?” Master Yadrow asked, his eyes flickering nervously around the chamber.
“Indeed I do,” she responded. “Have you paid off the guard?”
He nodded, the movements uneven and jerky. Even though the man had been through this numerous times, he was still extremely nervous and it still tickled her. She had to force herself to swallow her giggles.
“And you know the price of lying?” she asked.
Gulping hard, Master Yadrow nodded. “Believe me, Thief Lord, I would not lie to you. I have paid them off to look away for three weeks’ time.”
Raven nodded, satisfied. “That is more than the price I asked for, but I assume that means I won’t be getting the rest of my pay?”
The man flushed, but Raven bestowed a gentle smile on him and held up a hand. “Have no fear, my good man. I sent out someone new to do the job. You owe me nothing more. The extra week of protection will do me some good. Aven?”
Aven stepped forward and handed over the three ledgers. Master Yadrow frowned as he weighed them.
“This is it?” he asked skeptically, lifting an eyebrow at Raven. “For a merchant of his caliber, he has only three ledgers?”
“He has tiny writing,” Raven said dryly. “I believe you will need a magnifying glass.”
Frowning to himself, Master Yadrow bowed his head to Raven and then withdrew from the chamber. Aven stepped forward and helped Raven up.
“Back to bed, mistress,” Aven said, pushing her back to her bed chamber. “You need your rest for your job tonight.”
She nodded complacently and covered a yawn. “Yes. Excellent idea, Aven. Good night.”
He smiled. “Good night, my heart.”
Raven wasn’t awakened again until evening. For that, she was thankful. She needed all the sleep she could get. Tonight would be interesting. She hadn’t had a job to pull in the Sapphire District since the fall. Her blood was pumping with excitement, but her brain was throbbing with worry that she was out of practice. Winter had taken far too long to pass.
Aven sat at the foot of her bed as she finished preparing herself. He was dressed from head to toe in black with soft soled black shoes. She didn’t worry too much about him. The man could step on a creaky board without eliciting a sound. She was dressed in her tightest black outfit. There was not a single dangling thread or protrusion. There was nothing that could get caught on anything. Over her cropped hair she pulled on a tight black cap so her hair wouldn’t show. Her shoes barely covered her ankles and had soft slipper-like soles. They gave her more movement, and quietness of that movement, than any other shoe she had ever worn.
“You look fantastic,” Aven said appreciatively.
She turned from her mirror and smiled at him. “Thank you, Aven. You look ready for a night on the town yourself.”
He laughed at their joke as she approached him and placed her hands on his shoulders. He smiled up at her and wrapped his large hands around her dainty waist.
“Are you ready?” she asked softly.
“Always,” he whispered back.
“Then let’s go.”
She lowered her head to his and gently brushed his lips with her cool ones. The warmth of his kiss spread through her and gave her the energy and high she needed for this job. Of course, she did wish she had another job she could do with her longtime friend and lover, but there were spoils to be had and she couldn’t turn them down any more than Aven could.
They pulled away from each other and were back to business. Most of their relationship was comprised of business. It was hard to find moments to be together and not worry about anything. But Raven was a Thief Lord and Aven her adviser, protector, and executioner, so he was always by her side. She knew he loved her, so his protection was fierce. They didn’t need much more than that.
“I sent Onna over to the Sapphire District,” Aven said as he rose from the bed. “She went sniffing around the Sarlik Manor and saw him pass a package to a messenger. She followed the boy to the office of the City Guard. They have been paid off. When she returned to the manor, there was a pouch hanging by the door with the letters T, L, and R hastily stitched onto it. She guessed your pay was in there.”
Raven grinned as they walked out of her bed chamber. “Excellent. Then I can get the seed of magic off my hands sooner than I expected.”
Now it was time to actually steal the seed of magic from the Almi Manor. Raven couldn’t suppress the shiver of excitement that ran down her spine.