The other Thief Lords did not welcome the peace agreement. It threw the council for a loop, made it different. But they couldn’t avoid the fact that some of their followers were starting to join my following. You see, I paid my people. I gave them luxuries. I gave them a home. I gave them all they could want. They just had to follow me and be loyal to only me. That didn’t sit well with the Thief Lords, either.
-writing on the cell wall
She stood at her bedroom window, chewing on her lower lip. Her normally bright blue eyes were full of worry and her arms were crossed tightly against her body. Her hair was loose around her shoulders, spilling halfway down her back in a tumble of gentle curls. She was dressed in her favorite peach dressing gown and had dainty slippers on her feet. It had been three days since she had last left Sarlik Manor.
A chill went through Caidy’s body and she shook violently for a second before it passed. It was warm in her rooms and it looked like it was a beautiful warm, sunny day outside, but she’d been having bouts of chills for the past several hours. And she had no idea why.
Caidy rubbed her hands up and down her arms, trying to soothe the chill from her limbs. Something was wrong, or something was going to happen. She had that feeling again. But she didn’t know what it meant and it was driving her crazy.
The last time she had experienced this, nothing had happened. But, the following night, someone had broken into her bedroom and stolen her mother’s jewel setting. It was also the night her father had killed a man.
A shadow passed over her face. That night had changed her life. Well, this whole feud was making her life unbearable, but now she felt disconnected from her father. He had taken a man’s life. She was certain he had a good reason for killing a man, but he had killed a man! That wasn’t the father she had known all her life.
Then she and Tyala had agreed to run away, but Tyala hadn’t met her as they had planned in Aster Gardens. Her best friend was a prisoner in her own home, unable to run away. And Caidy wasn’t going to go anywhere without her best friend.
A knock came at her door and she whirled around in surprise, only to see a young serving woman bob a curtsy. Caidy gave her an apologetic smile as she grabbed up her mistress’s supper tray. But before the girl could withdraw, Lord Sarlik appeared and Caidy drew in a deep breath.
“Careful, Miri,” Caidy said softly to warn the girl that someone was behind her.
With a sharp intake of air, Miri turned and barely missed crashing into her master. With a bob and a murmured apology, Miri edged around Lord Sarlik, but he wasn’t paying any attention to her. Lord Sarlik’s eyes met his daughters as Miri vanished into the hallway, quietly closing the door behind her.
“Papa,” Caidy said quietly.
Lord Sarlik walked towards her, but stopped a few feet short. He had a concerned expression on his face and looked like he wanted to embrace his daughter, but was able to read her well enough to know she was still wary of him. Instead, he asked, “How have you been today, Caidy? I meant to come earlier, but some business pulled me away to the Market District.”
She bit her lip before answering. “I’m better, Papa.”
“Well enough to resume going to the balls, the theater, and other evening gatherings?” he asked, his voice laced with hope and a bright twinkle entering his eyes.
She hated to disappoint him. She hated to have to say no to him again. Her father had been so patient with her lately. It would kill him to be told no again, but she had to. She just couldn’t shake this feeling.
“Papa,” she said hesitantly. “I’ve got that feeling again. The one that means something bad is going to happen.”
A concerned look on his face, Lord Sarlik advanced on his daughter and took her hands. He pulled her over to the sofa and urged her down with him. He clasped her hands tightly and studied her face.
“Caidy, you remember the last time, don’t you? Nothing happened. Everything was fine that night.”
“Yes, Papa. That’s very true. But the following night Mama’s jewel setting was stolen and you killed a man!” Her voice was shrill by that point, worried and frightened looks warring across her face; she just wasn’t sure of how she felt. She leapt to her feet and stared accusingly down at her father. “You killed someone, Papa!”
Slowly, Lord Sarlik rose to his feet, a wary look in his shadowed blue eyes. “It was self-defense, Caidy.”
“It was murder!” she yelled before whirling away and stalking away from him, going towards the window. She leaned against the wall and moved aside the curtain to peer outside, tears in her eyes. “It was murder, Papa. I don’t care what you say, it was murder.”
“It was self-defense, Caidy,” Lord Sarlik repeated, his voice low. “He stole from us and I had to do something about it.”
“He didn’t even have the jewel setting on him, Papa,” Caidy said quietly. “He didn’t even have any weapons. How can that be self-defense, Papa?”
“Believe what you will, Caidy, but I was protecting us. The City Guard agrees with that. Why can’t you think of it that way?”
“Because this feud has gotten out of hand. I won’t want any part of it. My Papa has never hurt anyone before. I don’t know who you are anymore. And I don’t want to turn into you. Papa, I’m ready to go to Mercaido City to finish my schooling.”
Lord Sarlik hesitated. “Are you sure, Caidy?”
She turned to face him, resolve in her face and stance though tears still filled her eyes. “Yes, Papa, I’m sure. And, Papa, I have that bad feeling again. Be careful, okay?”
For a second, Lord Sarlik’s defenses fell and he looked vulnerable. “Caidy, I’m glad you still care about me, but I’ll be fine.”
“You always will be my father. I’ll always worry whenever I get these feelings.” She shook her head. “But I can’t stay here and I can’t be involved with this feud.”
Her father didn’t say anything. Instead, he just nodded and turned and left her sitting room.
Caidy took a deep breath and looked back out the window. She had made her decision. She was going to go to Mercaido City, with or without Tyala. She would love to have her best friend with her but, but Tyala would understand. She had to get away. And, she hoped, Tyala would soon be able to get away from her family and head for her aunt’s home in Mercaido City.
Caidy hadn’t wanted to go to the theater that evening. He understood, of course, but it still bothered him that she hadn’t yet forgiven him. It made him feel depressed, deflated. She was all he had and now she had decided to leave him. Going to Mercaido City to finish her schooling had been his idea, but, after she had said no, he had thought that settled.
So, Lord Sarlik headed for the Needle City Theater on his own. His daughter had scowled, reminding him of her bad feeling. She would be protected by their servants, all of whom had been asked to remain at the Manor until Lord Sarlik returned. They had understood it was for Caidy’s protection and they loved their little mistress enough that they didn’t mind staying longer.
He strode down Theater Promenade, joining the well-dressed crowd as they flowed out through the doors. It had been a new play that evening, written by a local playwright. He didn’t completely understand what it was about, but he had enjoyed it anyways. And the size of the crowd told him it had been a good one. He just regretted that his daughter wasn’t with him; Caidy loved new plays. But, perhaps, in time she would come to forgive him and they could return to their nightly outings.
Instead of joining the rest of the crowd as they headed for the Sapphire, Emerald, and Ivory Districts towards home, Lord Sarlik diverted through The Nook. This area of the Market District was filled with book shops and small cafes. He knew his daughter’s favorite was around here and it had some of the best pastries outside of a bakery. The best part of it was that it was open quite late, especially when the theater was open.
Sure enough, Needle Sweet Cafe was open and still had some of Caidy’s favorite chocolate filled pastries. He paid a pretty penny for a couple; the cafe knew they could charge more at night when all the wealthy families were out. But he didn’t mind; he would pay whatever he had to make his daughter happy.
Whistling quietly to himself, he walked through the winding, empty alleys of The Nook. There was no one else around, so his footsteps echoed as he walked along the cobblestones. He was in a good mood, hoping the pastries would help Caidy forgive him. He never knew anyone had been following him.
Initially, Raven was afraid Lady Almi would be a liability. The woman had been clumsy in the slums as they had been trying to leave it behind and head into the Market District. She hadn’t understood that she had to stay in the shadows to not be seen. Always a Lady, she insisted in striding right through the slums as though she owned it. It had taken Raven ten patient minutes to put her in her place. Of course, Lady Almi had been indignant, until Raven reminded her what had happened to Aven at Sarlik’s hands. And her adviser had not been as brazen as Lady Almi was acting.
Raven came close to calling the whole deal off. She was more than capable of executing Lord Sarlik on her own. Now, she was just questioning why she had invited the Almis along. Fortunately, the woman’s husband had declined, which was probably a good thing; Raven didn’t think she could handle both Almis.
“Follow me,” Raven hissed, her patience wearing thin as they finally entered the Market District. “If you want a shot at getting at Lord Sarlik, you had better start listening to me.”
Lady Almi scowled at her. “I hired you to do you job. You said I could come along.”
“I said you could participant and we had the condition that you would listen to me!” Raven hissed back. “Now listen to me or this whole deal is off.”
Lady Almi pursed her lips, but backed further into the shadows, slouching along behind Raven. She didn’t want the Thief Lord to deny her the feel of Lord Sarlik’s blood on her hands. His death would ensure her daughter would stay. Caidy would be furious at the death of her father and would blame the Almis, turning the friends on each other.
The Market District was quiet as they crossed through it, choosing to wind their way through The Cafe, The Center, and The Market. They avoided the main streets whenever they could; there were fewer shadows to hide in. Besides, most of the shops and restaurants were closed, The Nook having the only open establishments at this time of night. Lanterns flickered periodically as they went through the alleys, but there were fewer here than along Theater Promenade, so Raven felt safer even though there were more shops.
The theater was just getting out as they neared Theater Promenade. It took Raven a few minutes, but she finally pinpointed Lord Sarlik. She recognized the cape with its’ gold and silver trim that he often wore when he went to see her.
Raven and Lady Almi stalked through the crowd after them. Raven’s feet made no sound and Lady Almi’s made a soft shushing sound as they moved across the cobblestones. They kept to the shadows and moved as quietly as they could, following the whistling mad as closely as Raven dared. No one else followed Sarlik into The Nook, choosing instead to head home at this late of any hour. Besides, most of the theater’s patrons had their adolescent children with them, children that should be getting into bed very soon.
Raven led them into The Nook, walking further and further into the alleys after Lord Sarlik. She pressed her back against the brick walls, feeling their coolness invade her clothing. Her heartbeat and breathing were calm. She was hyper-focused on her prey. This night Lord Sarlik would fall.
“What’s going on?” Lady Almi hissed from behind her as they paused and watched Lord Sarlik walk into one of the cafes.
Raven didn’t answer, only glared over her shoulder as though to silence her. Really, she wondered why she had invited the woman along. She was becoming more a nuisance than anything else. She should have taken Onna long with her. Her adviser always went with her to complete a job, but she had yet to bring Onna with her. The girl was just too young, hadn’t gained enough life experience. She had been trained to be an adviser by Aven and she had no complaints there. Onna just hadn’t been out on the streets much. But that would have to change. Soon.
With agile movements, Raven silently drew her knife from where it was sheathed along her right leg as Lord Sarlik’s whistling met their ears once again . She gave a slight nod, indicating Lady Almi should likewise unsheathe the short sword Raven had given her.
Lady Almi could feel her heart beating in her chest as she followed Raven into The Nook, following Lord Sarlik. She ached to feel the flow of his blood as it coursed out of his body. But, at the same time, her hands were shaky. She had never before asked a Thief Lord to murder for her, had never before taken a life.
Fleetingly, she thought of her husband. Perhaps Emeri had it right; stay at home with the children and let the Thief Lord do what she did best. Why did she have to get involved with this? Why did she have to have a hand in Lord Sarlik’s murder? Why did she need to feel his blood on her hands, see it splatter over her clothes?
She suppressed a shiver. A shiver of fear or excitement? She was too jumbled up to figure it out. Too much was going through her head and her damn heart wasn’t giving her a break. It felt like it was ready to leap out of her body.
She and Raven inched along, their backs against the bricks of the connected shops and cafes. Raven was focused on Lord Sarlik’s form as he abruptly swerved into one of the cafes. Raven stopped and she almost ran into the younger woman’s back.
“What’s going on?” Lady Almi whispered.
Raven turned slightly to glare over her shoulder at her. She didn’t like the sharp glint in Raven’s eyes. It made her heart beat faster and she had to hold her breath to try to contain it and make it stop beating so fast.
Turning back, Raven bent down slightly, her eyes never leaving the cafe door. They could hear Lord Sarlik’s whistling and then began to hear footsteps. He must be leaving the cafe.
Lady Almi watched as Raven straightened up. A glint caught her eye and she looked down to see the Thief Lord pull her slender knife from the sheath running down the length of her lower leg. Without looking at her, Raven gave a slight nod, indicating Lady Almi should also pull out her sword.
She had almost forgotten Raven had given her the short sword. It was short and light, but Raven assured her it was deadly and extremely sharp. It was decades old, but had been well-cared for. It had been made by some of the finest swords masters in the land. It had been Aven’s.
Lady Almi had been grasping the sheath in her hands, her hands fisted around the sheath and handle. She’d held it that way ever since they had left the slums, careful to keep it hidden under her cloak. Raven had warned her of the repercussion should she used it, and she liked the functioning her hands as they were, thank you very much.
With a huge gulp of air, Lady Almi nodded in response though Raven’s back was to her. She pulled the blade from its sheath, slowly so as not to hurt herself in the process. She had never touched a blade before. Her mother had forbade it even though her father had wanted her to learn how to protect herself. But that’s what husbands were for, her mother had argued. Unfortunately for Hyali Galton, her daughter had married a man of peace, a man who would never dare to touch a blade.
Holding her breath, Lady Almi and Raven watched as Lord Sarlik emerged from the cafe and turned in the direction opposite them. He walked along, carefree, whistling a cheerful tune, a small bag swinging from a fist.
Hunting the hunter had always been a favorite game of his to play with his followers. It was good training for him and for them. But, now that he was older and more important things to do rather than training his followers, he didn’t get to play this game again. But it was muscle memory for him; his body remembered exactly what to do.
Quin had apparently played this game before, as well. He was as silent and shadowy as Corinn was. They ghosted along through the slums and the Market District, towards the prey Raven and Lady Almi had marked.
Corinn was surprised the Lady had decided to join Raven in this cat and mouse game. He didn’t think so refined a woman would dare stoop to a Thief Lord’s level. But,apparently, he was wrong because Lady Almi was slinking close behind Raven.
Corinn and Quin followed a discrete distance behind the hunters. They almost lost them as they entered the crowd exiting the theater. Corinn cursed them and their prey for having gone to the theater. It was opening night of a local playwright’s most anticipated work. Most of the city had shown up for it. There were City Guards everywhere, but even they were overwhelmed with the huge crowd.
The City Guards played right into his plan. A gleam came into his eyes as he noted how many of them there were. Most of the Guard was here tonight. Raven and Lady Almi were careful to avoid them. Corinn and Quin ended up avoiding them, as well, but Quin was ready to fetch them at a split second’s notice from Corinn.
He couldn’t help but grin widely as he thought of his plan. It was ingenious, really, and it could be carried out anywhere, anytime. It really was brilliant.
Corinn and Quin followed Raven and Lady Almi as they followed Lord Sarlik into The Nook. None of the other crowd members followed after, which was a good thing. There would be less bloodshed that way and fewer people would get into trouble. By that, he figured Lord Sarlik would be dead and Lady Almi and Raven would be captured while he and Quin would be able to melt back into the night.
The men stalked along as the women did as well. Abruptly, the women stopped as Lord Sarlik walked into a cafe. There was a spring in the man’s step. He had no idea that death waited for him once he exited that cafe. Corinn and Quin stopped not too far behind Raven and Lady Almi. All they had to do was wait and bide their time for the right opportunity.
At a nod from Corinn, Quin backed away to a place where he could watch his master for the signal and have time to fetch one of the Guards. Corinn knew Quin hated this, hated having to sit out on all the action. He knew his adviser would rather be swinging a blade at throats than running for City Guards.
It was crazy, really, his plan. No Thief Lord had ever run to fetch a City Guard. No Thief Lord followers had ever done it, either. It was inconceivable, his plan. But it was the only thing that would work. Raven had to be captured and taken away. Sure, he could kill her, but her following was too large and they would be furious at Raven’s death. They would destroy him and the other two Thief Lords. The underground would be thrown into chaos. No, they couldn’t risk killing Raven.
Corinn watched as Raven and then Lady Almi drew out their blades. In the shadows, they didn’t glint, but Corinn knew they were there. They had to be.
It wasn’t long before Lord Sarlik emerged from the cafe, a small bag swinging from one hand. Apparently, the Lord was hungry at this time of night. There was a spring in the man’s step and he was whistling again. It was starting to annoy Corinn. He hated whistling.
Corinn grinned to himself. If only Lord Sarlik knew he was never going to make it home. If only Raven and Lady Almi knew they would be imprisoned before dawn broke.
It didn’t take much for Raven to decide the right moment. Lord Sarlik had turned a corner when she chose to spring. They were in the heart of The Nook, a well-traveled area during the day. It wouldn’t be long before someone found his body. And the man was in good spirits. He would never guess anyone had been following him, ready to kill him.
She didn’t even bother to see if Lady Almi followed. She didn’t care much for the woman, but Lady Almi was paying her handsomely for this. All she wanted was revenge for Aven.
Lord Sarlik never saw them coming. He never heard them. He barely registered Raven’s knife biting through his flesh. Raven pushed with all her might, forcing her knife through Lord Sarlik’s back. The man stumbled and his body inverted as his middle went forward, but the rest stayed behind. A strangled cry erupted from his throat, but Raven had punctured a lung and it was quickly filling with blood.
Lord Sarlik went to his knees as Raven motioned for Lady Almi to plunge her own blade into the Lord’s body. She had feared the noblewoman would be too terrified to move and would look more like a statue than a real live human being.
But Raven was wrong. She hadn’t anticipated the rage and vengeance that had built up in Lady Almi over the course of her entire life time. The Sarliks had stolen as much from her as her family had stolen from his. She eagerly slammed her sword into the man’s back, jabbing at him over and over as he fell and landed on his stomach, his head turned to the side.
Raven had to stop the woman from hacking up Lord Sarlik’s body. She knelt down as blood pooled around his body and peered into his eyes, watching the light ebb out of them.
“This is for Aven,” she whispered, the last words Lord Sarlik ever heard.
“Halt!” a voice suddenly called out, interrupting Raven’s enraptured joy at watching the man who had killed Aven die with his eyes focused on her.