When I woke up, I was in some kind of cavern. Only Aven was with me. He asked me why those boys had attacked me and I said it was because I was stealing. He gave me a peculiar look, then said I wasn’t very good at it yet, but he would teach me.
-writing on the wall
The shriek irritated him, but didn’t interrupt his breakfast. At least not until the downstairs maid rushed into the dining room and skidded to a stop at the side of his chair. He glanced over at her, taking in her heaving breasts as she tried to catch her breath and her eyes wide as saucers. His wife, at the other end of the table, gave her a curious look and their three children completely ignored her, being too engrossed in their breakfasts.
“Yes, Ama?” Lord Almi said tiredly. “What is it?”
She managed a small curtsy, teetering slightly on her feet and then pointed in the direction she had come from, her finger quivering. “My Lord, my Lady, a break in!”
That got his attention, as well as everyone else’s. Chairs scrapped as Lord and Lady Almi stood. Lady Almi motioned for the children to remain seated. Without a second thought, all three of them did. They knew what was going on. It was the same thing year after year. The feud had been going on for longer than Tyala had been alive and they were used to people breaking in. They had had guards, at one point, but that had only taught them that nothing deterred the people of the underground. Now they took what happened as incidents came. With things like this occurring so often, no one thought of them as any more than incidents these days.
“Show me,” Lord Almi ordered as he threw down his cloth napkin into the remains of his meal. He wasn’t angry; he was disgusted and irritated that Sarlik had made the first move this year, thereby forcing the continuation of this blasted feud. He had no doubt that his wife was already plotting retaliation.
Ama bobbed another curtsy, now a little steadier on her feet, and then led her master and mistress into the parlor, the skirt of her ankle-length gown rustling as she hurried. Coming to a stop at the doorway, she pointed a still shaking finger at the mantle. Frowning, Lord Almi approached it to see what was missing.
It wasn’t that hard to miss. The glass case that had held his seed of magic, the last powerful one in the entire kingdom, was gone. He picked up the case and turned around. Lady Almi gasped and then fumed.
“It’s that man again,” she hissed. “Sarlik took our magic.”
Lord Almi looked at his empty box with a grave expression. “Yes. That is quite likely.”
With that said, he walked out of the room and toward the staircase, the box in hand. Lady Almi chased after him and caught him as he was halfway up the first flight of stairs. She wrapped her hands around a post knob at the bottom of the stairs and called up to her husband, who turned at the sound of her voice.
“Emeri, what are we going to do?”
He paused a moment and then said, “Why, my dear, we have two options, as usual. We can do nothing or we can retaliate. You know my answer. Make your own.”
Lord Almi turned and continued up the stairs, quickly vanishing from her sight. She frowned, knowing her husband’s choice was to do nothing. She didn’t blame him; he had, after all, married into the feud. He had never thrown himself fully into it, even after their many years of marriage. It was up to her to do something. It was up to her to continue this feud.
And, for that, she would need the cover of darkness. And one Thief Lord by the name of Raven.
He almost didn’t dare to look. Could Raven have delivered the seed of magic already? She had said two days’ time, but she always delivered early. Which was one reason why he didn’t mind having to pay so much for her service: one amount to the City Guard and another to her. Both nice sized lumps of coins and some of the new paper money the country was trying out. For Raven’s services it was always worth it.
It was still early, nowhere near Caidy’s ten o’clock waking time. The girl did enjoy her sleep, but they did often spend evenings out at the theater or balls until the early hours of the morning, so he didn’t begrudge his little girl her sleep. Besides, they had a play to attend that night and they wouldn’t be home until after midnight.
Throwing down the morning paper, he decided to take a peek. While his innocent daughter was still slumbering, this really was the best time. He hoped Raven was still delivering early; he had immediately put out her pay after returning from the slums with that hope in mind.
He pushed aside the curtains of a front window, a window where he could look at the door to his manor. The velvet pouch still hung there, but it looked different. He breathed out heavily, calming his beating heart, knowing it no longer held the coins he had placed inside it for the Thief Lord.
Holding his breath, Sarlik shuffled over to the door in his house slippers and cracked it open wide enough for him to slip though. He closed the door behind him, but keeping it slightly ajar. He reached for the pouch and felt that its weight was lighter than it had been when he had put it there. It was also much slimmer, almost flattened, with an arcing shape at the bottom.
With a shaking hand, he opened the pouch and, eyes closed, stuck his hand it. His fingers closed around a small warm object that felt like it was the right size for a seed of magic. Holding his breath, he pulled it up towards the opening, but didn’t pull it out. Grasping the seed between his thumb and forefinger, he saw it was indeed a seed of magic.
Quickly, he dropped it back into the pouch and headed back inside. The Almi Manor wasn’t too far away. He didn’t want to risk having one of the Almis see him with their seed of magic. As it was, he was expecting retaliation at any moment.
“Papa?” Caidy’s voice floated down to him from her bedroom on the second floor as soon as he had closed the door firmly. “Papa?”
“Coming, love,” he called back, dropping the pouch into a pocket of his morning jacket.
He made his way up the stairs, wondering why his daughter was calling to him so early in the morning. It was still a good two hours before her usual waking time. Had something happened? That thought had him doubling his speed as he began to take the stairs two at a time.
Sarlik arrived at his daughter’s bedroom to find her in her sitting room. She was perched on her floral settee, an open book resting on her lap. She was dressed in a peach dressing gown and her hair was done up with colorful ribbons. Her head lifted up from her book at the sound of her father’s footsteps.
“What is it, Caidy?” Sarlik asked, approaching her to join her on the settee.
“Papa, I have a bad feeling that something’s going to happen,” she said, her voice troubled.
“What do you mean?” he asked gently as he came to kneel before her.
She shook her head, loose ribbons flying around her face. “I don’t know, Papa. I had a bad dream that something was going to happen and then I couldn’t fall back asleep. Something’s going to happen. I know it. Could we stay here this evening?”
Sarlik took her hand in his and gently squeezed it. “Of course, my dear. You must be tired from the ball last night, anyways.”
She gave her father a small smile. “Yes, that, too, but I mean it, Papa. I think something bad is going to happen.”
“Well, your intuition has never led us wrong, so we’ll stay here tonight.”
She gave him a wide smile and wrapped her hands around his, squeezing his hand gently. “Can we walk in Aster Gardens again today? We didn’t really have much of a walk the other day.”
“Of course. Go get dressed and then we’ll have breakfast. After that, we can go to the gardens and then pay the Market District a visit.”
Smiling, Caidy stood and placed a kiss on Sarlik’s cheek before skipping off into her bed chamber. Chuckling to himself, he left the room and closed the door after him. Her words worried him, but he was expecting something to happen, too.
The incessant shaking wouldn’t stop. She mumbled, half asleep, and turned away. But it wouldn’t stop. Someone had hold of her shoulder and was rocking it back and forth. Growling, she grabbed a pillow and flung it in the general direction of the person trying to shake her awake.
It was the middle of the morning. She had just gone to bed a few hours ago. Aven and her assistants knew she wasn’t to be disturbed in the morning. She thought that news had already made its rounds in the rest of her following. There was no reason for her to be shaken awake in the morning.
“I swear,” Aven’s voice said from above her, “if you don’t wake up right now, I’ll give you your bath right here in your bed.”
Grumbling, Raven turned over onto her back and slowly blinked her eyes open. Aven was kneeling above her, the loose shirt he wore pulling away from his chest as he leaned over her body. He had been the one shaking her awake, but now he had his arms crossed.
“I was sleeping,” she said crossly. “What’d you wake me up for?”
He lifted an arched eyebrow. “Was it not you who asked me to wake you just before noon so you could take your bath?”
Groaning, Raven pulled a pillow over her face and sighed into it.
“Well?” Aven asked.
She flung the pillow away, narrowly missing Aven’s head as he dodged out of the way, and pushed herself up. “Fine. I’m up. See?”
He patted her shoulder sympathetically. “That’s a dear, Raven. After all, this was your idea. After that last assassination attempt, you decided no more evening bathing. Too many shadows and too much darkness, you said.”
“Yeah,” she groused, “but why did I have to pick the morning?”
“Because all the other Thief Lords would be asleep during this time of day, too. Don’t worry. You’ll make up your sleep tonight. You have no planned jobs, and neither does anyone else. The work has been light so far, but it will come. You should take advantage of this time.”
Sighing heavily, and knowing he was right, Raven flung her covers away and pushed herself out of her nice warm, comfortable bed. Even though he had seen her naked numerous times, Aven left her bedchamber to let her prepare for her bath in peace. He was considerate like that. She was also grumpy in the mornings, and he knew it.
Muttering to herself, she pulled on the robe she wore whenever she went to bathe and gathered up her bathing things. She really did enjoy her baths. But did she really have to pick the mornings for such a task?
Raven, Onna, and Idala made their way over to the female bath house without any incidents. Onna was a little weary, but Raven thought it might have something to do with the fact that the girl hadn’t been back to the bath house since the assassination attempt. After all, she had lost her friend and confident during that scuffle. But Onna had insisted on attending to Raven that morning. Besides, she also needed a bath.
The water was warm and soothing as the three of them settled in. Since it was still morning, no one else was in the house, so they had the whole pool to themselves. Raven settled in up to her neck and rested her head back against the wall, closing her eyes. A little cat nap wouldn’t hurt. And the water was so nice and warm.
“Raven,” a voice called, soft and insistent. “Raven. Wake up, Raven.”
What? She wasn’t asleep, was she?
Slowly, she opened her eyes and looked right into Onna’s upside down face.
“Raven, you have a message.”
Onna, dutiful and perceptive as always, realized her mistress was just waking up. She waited patiently as Raven quickly came to full awareness. Raven, for her part, was upset with herself that it was taking so long for her to wake up today. What was wrong with her? And why did people insist on waking her every time she had just slipped into a restful slumber?
“One of Edvin’s messengers came by with a message for you.” At Raven’s narrowed eyed look, she quickly went on, “Aven directed him to come here.”
“And what did this messenger say?” Raven asked, suspicion thick in her voice.
“There will be a Thief Lord council meeting tomorrow night. Edvin is calling it and is requesting that all Thief Lords and their advisers meet him at the Dirty Pig Tavern at midnight.”
Raven nodded, deep in thought. The Dirty Pig was neutral territory. There, none of them would have the higher ground. It had been their meeting place for years. The tavern owner was a stubborn old man who remembered the slum days before the Thief Lords had taken over. He would never allow bloodshed in his establishment, and they respected him. After all, he was the oldest person in the slums, had made it that far in life in the slums. He wasn’t the kind of man you tangled with.
Raven sighed. “I guess it’s that time for our yearly meeting, then. I had forgotten Edvin was the one arranging it this year.”
Onna looked troubled, remembering what had happened the last time all four Thief Lords had met. “Are you sure it will be safe for you? They all want you dead.”
She gave her decoy a sympathetic smile. “We all want each other dead. Don’t forget, trying to assassinate each other is what we do. No one ever succeeded until me. We just do it to keep in shape. Don’t worry, Onna.”
Onna just gave her a dubious nod, then handed her a warm, fluffy towel. Raven sighed. It was back to work, but, at least for now, it was sleep that was her work.