The boys came out of nowhere. To this day, I have no idea who they were. They began to beat me, but a bellow stopped them. My eyes were swelling shut as I heard their screams of agony. The last thing I remember seeing is a boy some years older than me standing over me, a concerned look on his face. He said his name was Aven and that I was safe.
-writing on the cell wall
They kept to the shadows as they made their way through Needle City. It didn’t matter, really, if they did or not. The City Guard had been paid to look the other way for seven months already. They couldn’t do anything about Raven or someone in her following unless there was a gap in the payments, and Raven made sure there weren’t any. Even if a guard saw them, he had to look the other way. The one exception was if they were actually caught committing a crime, but Raven made sure her people were trained as well as possible. Her followers protested at the extended training sessions, but she wouldn’t hear of one of them being caught and sent off to prison.
Raven and Aven didn’t wear the silver raven on their shoulder. There was no need. Everyone in Needle City knew what they looked like. Their images were posted in the office of the City Guard for everyone to see. That’s what worried Raven the most.
The Guard were paid to look the other way, but the citizens were not. If one of them were caught, they would be handed over to the Guard and, at that point, the protection was gone. It didn’t matter if the Guard were all paid off; if a citizen caught one of the criminals, they were instantly thrown into prison and given a very unfair trial.
“Almost there,” Aven murmured near her ear as they slipped into the Sapphire District, sliding along the city wall.
It had taken them the better part of the night to slink around the city wall, but, considering it was mostly residences that backed onto it and those inhabitants were likely sleeping, it was safer than going through the middle of the city. There were also fewer guards near the wall. The city hadn’t been attacked in ages and really wasn’t built to withstand an attack, so there were no posts along the wall and it wasn’t even wide enough for a child to stand on it.
Raven nodded, her eyes staring straight ahead. As always, she was focused on the job, her mind running through every alternative action she could take and everything that could go wrong. She had plans for contingency plans. The map the burglars had drawn up was safely folded in a pocket, her sharp weapons carefully concealed, ready for anything. She didn’t think she would need the map since she had memorized the manor’s layout, but it never hurt to have it handy just in case. And it never, ever hurt to have a dependable blade on hand.
She pressed her back against the wall as she heard voices from one of the manors. A man was yelling and a woman was yelling back. Shadows passed across the windows, but quickly vanished. Still, Raven and Aven stood still for a moment longer. When the noise had died down and didn’t return for over a minute, they resumed their way towards the Almi Manor.
“There,” Raven whispered. “Right there.”
Before them was a three story imposing manor built of gray, white, and black stones. They were looking at it from the back, so couldn’t see what the front looked like or what much of the gardens looked like. They could see the large panes of glass that served as windows, the delicate curtains wavering with the breeze if the window was cracked open. The walls, she knew, were not smooth because of the stone. They would be handy hand and foot holds. The garden areas they could see were mainly flower beds ringed with low bushes. The lawn was manicured and fertile, a deep emerald green despite the recent end to winter. There was a single tree beside the manor’s wall, its graceful branches rising up and then falling, the leaves forming a curtain to hide the trunk. The branches did not look sturdy at all. They wouldn’t be able to use the tree to help them up onto the roof.
The roof, Raven was glad to see, was not steep. It was gently graded and had a series of three chimneys, two of which had smoke curling away from them. The days were warm, but the nights had yet to catch up.
“This way,” Raven whispered as she led the way towards the back of the manor as a cool breeze tickled the back of her neck.
They crouched low to the ground and edged along the wall towards the back of the manor. The manor wall they were moving along was mere feet from the city wall, so had no vegetation around it.
Raven nodded to Aven and he placed his hands on the manor wall, searching out the right hand and foot holds. Finding them, he lifted himself up and began the ascent. He made his way up silently, climbing like a cat. Within a couple of minutes, he was crouching on the roof. Raven waited until after he had looked around and gave her the all clear sign.
She made her own way up as skillfully and quickly as Aven had. After all, he had taught her how to scale a wall. She wasn’t as skilled as he was with all vertical climbs, but, with this kind of wall, she was excellent. She thanked Lord Almi for his family’s stupidity. Stone walls were quite advantageous for thieves like herself and Aven.
“All clear?” Raven asked quietly as she joined her friend crouching on the roof.
He returned a simple nod and pointed down the roof. She followed his finger and then looked down, careful to crane her neck just far enough to see what was there and not fall off.
There was a cracked window just a couple of feet below and to the right of her position. From the map the burglars had drawn she knew it led to a hallway near Tyala’s bedroom.
Raven nodded with approval. It would work. Sapphire District gossip said that the Almi daughter was afflicted with nigh walking, so was usually locked in her bed chamber to prevent her from hurting herself. After all, she slept fairly close to the staircase.
Quietly and stealthily, they made their way across the roof so they were standing above where the window was located. With Aven securing her by tightly grasping her knees, Raven leaned down and quietly swung the window further open so it was just wide enough for her to enter, but not enough where a particularly strong breeze would disturb anything.
Aven helped her raise back up and she turned carefully so her back was to the city wall and her eyes could scan the rest of the roof. Aven took firm hold of her hands, his eyes flashing caution. Carefully, Raven lowered a foot and searched out a firm foot hold. Finding it, she secured her foot there and then allowed Aven to slowly lower her. Her other food found the sill to the window and she balanced there as she moved her other foot into a better position to fully take her weight. Aven released one of her hands and she slowly crouched down to grab hold of the eave. Once she had a good grip, Aven released her other hand and she grabbed the eave with that one as well. Silently, she lowered herself and slid her feet into the hallway, the rest of her following a moment later.
Inside the manor, she crouched down and looked around. It was a carpeted hallway with two doors down one side of it. Paintings hung on the walls, but she wasn’t interested in them. To her left was a staircase.
Quietly, she rose up and moved the window so it was only slightly cracked. Then she made her way over to the stairs and was able to make her way down them silently until she made her way to the ground floor.
It was dark and she spent a few minutes letting her eyes adjust to the darker lighting. There was no outside light filtering in down here. She was in some kind of large hall that had heavily curtained windows. That would explain the lack of light down here. From the map, she knew the parlor where the seed of magic was located would be to her left.
She started to move in that direction, but was stopped by the sound of footsteps. Heart pounding, she scooted behind a potted plant, crouching down, but also hoping the lower leaves and the darkness would help to better obscure her.
Two boys came into view. The Almis’ twin sons. They were about nine years old and always full of mischief. Raven wondered what they were doing up in the middle of the night.
She heard a thunk and then one of the boys said, “Watch out, stupid. Mother won’t like it if you’ve damaged her big clock.”
The other boy muttered a response, but she couldn’t make out any of the words.
“Come on,” the first boy said. “I want to get back to bed. Let’s hurry up and get your milk already.”
The second boy grumbled, but followed his brother off to the right, in the direction of the kitchen. They vanished from sight, but she could still hear their heavy foot falls.
She waited patiently, barely breathing, until they passed back by, one boy carrying a glass of milk in one hand. She watched and waited as they made their way back up the stairs and then disappeared around a corner. She waited an extra moment for caution, and then moved from behind the tree and made her way into the parlor.
Just as the burglars had said, the seed of magic was encased in a glass box and was sitting on the mantle. She walked up to it and picked up the box. It felt fragile in her hands and she spent a moment debating whether she wanted just the seed or the seed and box. The box had a clear glass front, but the sides had beautiful stained glass panes. It would be a lovely addition to her spoils, but, really, how useful would a delicate little thing be? Making up her mind quickly, she released the box’s catch and it opened with a quiet click. Opening up the front, swinging it out like a door, she reached in and grasped the seed. It fit nicely in her palm and really looked just like a peach pit. She didn’t for the life of her know how to use magic or what to do with a seed. It was safe in her possession.
Carefully, she closed the box back up and quietly placed it back on the mantle. Pocketing the seed, she looked around the parlor for an exit. None of the parlor windows were open.
Cursing to herself, she knew she would have to look around and hope someone had left a window open down here. She didn’t relish having to exit back the way she had come in.
Quietly, she left the parlor and then began to make her way around the first floor. She passed from room to room and explored the hallways. So far, nothing. She was growing more frustrated by the moment, imagining Aven’s impatience and she took more and more time to find a convenient exit. Spending more time in the manor also increased her chances of being found, and that made Aven even more nervous for her. After all, the Almi twins had already made their way downstairs.
Frowning to herself, she made her way into the kitchen. And there it was. There was a service door that was kept ajar to let in a light breeze and cool off the hot hearth. The kitchen didn’t have any windows, just the door. And unattended door. Smiling, she made her way over to the door, keeping a look out for anyone who might be slumbering in a corner.
Raven gave a silent sigh of relief when she made it out of the manor. She was on the opposite side of the house, in the herb garden, from the direction in which they had approached the manor. She waited, crouched behind a citrus tree, for Aven to find and join her. He would have been circling the gardens, on the lookout for her, ever since she entered the manor.
It didn’t take long for Aven to join her. With a silent nod, they rose up and made their way back into the deep shadows. They went back the way they had come, heading for the Sarlik Manor now.
They slunk through the shadows the manors and their gardens provided. Dawn was just a couple of hours away when they reached the Sarlik Manor. Already the sky was showing the slightest hints of a brightness heralding the approaching new day. Aven waited while Raven stole her way up to the stoop.
Half hidden behind a handful of leaves to one side of the door, where a thick grape vine ran up the wall, was a velvet pouch. Raven pulled it open and reached inside. Her fingers closed around a handful of coins. She counted the money after withdrawing them and smiled as she counted out the correct amount. Satisfied, she dropped the seed of magic into the pouch. She hoped Lord Sarlik was as pleased as she was.
Raven made her way back to Aven and they melted back into the shadows. They didn’t worry now about being caught now that the job was done. No one could arrest them for strolling through the city. They didn’t have to slink through the shadows, but they liked the practice.
“I wish we could stay for the dawn,” Raven said wistfully. “Being underground, I never get to see it anymore.”
Aven gave her a sideways look and grinned. “Come on, then. I know where we can go.”
Intrigued, Raven laced her fingers in his and allowed him to pull her along. Their job over, they didn’t have to hide in the shadows. Even if they were suspected of committing a crime, no one would find anything more than a handful of coins on them. It made getting to wherever Aven was taking her easier. And she had no idea what the man had up his sleeve. He was always full of surprises.
She followed close behind as he led them through the city. They left the Sapphire District and cut through part of the Town Square. They didn’t have to dodge the guards, but it never hurt to stay in shape, so they slunk around in the shadows, backs pressed to stone buildings, to avoid the uniformed men.
They were entering the Emerald District before she knew it. And right into Astrel Gardens. It was a garden to rival Astor Gardens, but had been the former president’s home, so of course it was vast and lovely. Many of the nobility believed it should be incorporated into the Sapphire District because of what it looked like, but the Emerald District held to it tightly with pride. It was an exhausting, ongoing debate.
The manor house hadn’t housed anyone in over four generations. Instead, the grand two story stone building with ivy creeping up all sides was reserved for ceremonies, banquets, balls, and weddings. Raven had never seen the inside of it, but could only imagine it was opulent and probably decked out in gold. It was a thief’s dream; her dream.
The gardens were another matter. There was a raised cloister leading from the house. It was alabaster marble with vines heavy with blooms and fruit twining up the pillars and along the open top. In the middle of the cloister was an opening where a set of marble stairs descended into the statue garden. Here, there were whole and fractured forms of humans and animals. Some of them were draped in cloths, but most stood bare and gleamed in the light that often flooded the gardens. On the other side of the statues was Alina’s Pool. It was named for the city’s first president’s wife. It was long, running the length of the cloister, and shallow at only two feet deep. The water was pure and sparkling and flowers were often found floating in it. Opposite the manor, at the other end of the estate, was the Tangleweed Garden, a relatively small garden patch full of wildflowers. Stories said Alina had been fond of wildflowers and they had been planted in her honor when she died. On the other side of Alina’s Pool was a wide walkway, paved in marble. On the other side was a smaller pool, more of a square shape than a rectangle, called Beth’s Pool, named for Alina’s daughter. It was a deeper pool and housed golden fish. Beside the pool was a small rose garden with red, pink, orange, and purple flowers, planted when Beth had died at the tender age of nine.
Aven led her right by the pools and through the statue garden. She knew he had been here before, but she hadn’t. She wished he would slow down so she could take a look around, but dawn was quickly approaching and she knew he had something to show her.
They raced up the stairs into the cloister and then Aven approached one of the pillars and dropped her hand. He looked up the length of the pillar and nodded to himself. Before she could say a word, he had his fingers wrapped around the vines and was climbing up.
“Aven!” she hissed. “What are you doing?”
He glanced down at her and grinned. “Climbing. You’d better hurry up if you want to see the dawn.”
With that, he resumed his climb and squeezed through the vines creating a roof over the cloister. Muttering to herself, Raven followed him and he helped her get through the vine cover.
However crazy she thought him, she soon forgave him. He helped her settle on one of the marble beams, their seats resting on vines that crossed this way and that. The sun was rising and they were facing the Sapphire District and the rising sun. To their left were the Town Square and the needle.
The golden sunrise washed over the city and struck the needle, catching on the crystal prism at the top of it and sending a rainbow of light across the other half of the city. The roofs of the Sapphire District residences gleamed in the light and the gold than many of the nobility had painted onto the roof of their home glittered, beckoning for her to steal some of that paint.
“This is beautiful, Aven,” she whispered as he wrapped an arm around her shoulders. “Thank you.”
“You deserve to see a dawn as beautiful as this at least once in your lifetime. Enjoy it for the next few minutes. The City Guard will be making their rounds here soon and we will need to be gone by then. We are trespassing right now.”
Raven could only nod. She was too in awe of this city that was her home, the city where she was the most powerful Thief Lord. The city where she was a queen.