The Thief Lords attacked in the middle of the day, when the underground is usually asleep. They almost made it to my bedchambers, but my followers stopped them. They threatened the Thief Lords’ lives, but I spared them. They should be thankful to me for that. I could have completely taken over the underground. But that only made them plot harder.
-writing on the cell wall
Deri was weaving in and out of carts and wandering people as he made his way through the Market District. It was just before dawn, but already the merchants and street vendors were coming out to prepare for the new day. He had streaked right towards The Nook, only to be stopped by the sight of the milling City Guard.
He had hidden in the shadows, getting as close as he dared, hoping to catch any news from the guards before he was caught. For the most part, the men were silent was they walked around the heart of The Nook. Deri learned that this was where they had found Lord Sarlik’s body and Deri realized Raven had indeed been successful.
One of the Guards shook his head and crossed his arms. “Poor man. Lord Sarlik was a good person. Any news of his daughter yet? Poor girl must be hysterical.”
One of the younger guards sidled up to the guard that had just spoken. “Do you know who did it? I just came on duty and learned about this now.”
The first guard shook his head and spit off to the side. “You wouldn’t believe it if I told you.”
“You’re familiar with the underground?” At the younger guard’s nod, he went on, “The female Thief Lord, Raven, and, you’re not going to believe this, Lady Almi.”
The younger guard was taken aback at that. “Lady Almi? A noblewoman? She had a part in this murder?”
The older guard nodded. “Sure did. She and the little criminal have been taken to the Court House. They should be charged later today when the magistrate and the President make it to the Town Square.”
Deri didn’t wait to hear any more. He dashed off towards the Town Square and crept through the shadows towards the Court House. He hadn’t been around in this area often, but everyone in the underground knew their way around the Court House. They all knew that those imprisoned were kept in the basement cells and that there were small windows lined with clustered iron bars. All he had to do was find the one Raven was in.
A half hour later, after having called into every window, he still hadn’t managed to find Raven. He knew Onna was waiting for him, but what could he tell her? That Raven was somewhere in the Court House and he couldn’t find her? Well, that would have to do. The sun was starting to rise.
Seeing all the light that was beginning to pour into the Town Square, Deri scurried off and slid into the shadows. He made his way back to the slums and was out of breath by the time he reached the hidden entrance leading into Raven’s network of caverns.
Onna was still seated in Raven’s seat. She looked tired and haggard. Several other followers were milling around. Deri could feel the anxiety and fear in the cavern. And they all perked up as soon as they saw him, Onna springing to her feet.
“Deri, what news?” she asked, a frantic look in her face and posture.
He shook his head. “Not good, Onna. Lord Sarlik is dead, but Raven and Lady Almi were caught and are now somewhere in the Court House.”
Instead of looking devastated, a resolute look crossed Onna’s face. She sat back down in Raven’s chair as Deri and the other followers in the room looked on. The older ones had some understanding in their faces, but the younger ones looked bewildered, wondering if Onna was asserting her right to be the next Thief Lord.
Slowly, Onna opened up a drawer and pulled out rolled pieces of paper. She spread them out and waved for everyone to come closer. They all crowded around the desk and saw that Raven’s adviser had spread maps of the Court House on the desk surface. There were thick black lines drawn to indicate various paths from various points in the building.
“What’s this?” Deri asked.
Onna didn’t look up as she answered. “When Aven selected me to be his successor, this was the first thing he showed me. There has always been the risk that Raven or one of us, the followers, would be captured. Raven made plans for that, plans for breaking out. Once Raven has been judged, we will find out which cell she is in and break her out.” She looked up, fire in her eyes. “Then we will bring down whoever gave her away.”
Deri frowned. “What do you mean? Do you think one of us told the City Guards what she was doing?”
Onna shook her head. “We wouldn’t do that to her, none of us. It has to have been Thief Lord Corinn. Once we break out Raven, we will go after him.”
One of the older, grizzled murderers stepped up and pulled a curved blade from its sheath. Jesyre had an odd light in his eyes. “Why wait?” he asked. “Let us go take care of him now. It’ll be our gift to Raven.”
Onna shook her head. “First, we must learn of what Raven would like to do with him. If she says to murder him, I will send word to you.”
Jesyre clenched his jaw, but nodded. He stepped away, sheathing his blade as he went. But he folded his arms and that odd light remained in his eyes. Deri wasn’t sure the man was going to keep to his word. After Aven, Jesyre had been Raven’s first follower, having come from Teryk’s following.
“Deri,” Onna said, “take a cloak and remain hidden around the Court House. Send word to us as soon as you know Raven has been judged.”
The boy nodded and hurried off in the first step to break Raven out of the prison.
Corinn had never felt so exuberant in his entire life. A goofy smile was on his face, both from the joy and the malted beer he was downing like it was water. Quin had joined in in their private merrymaking in Corinn’s chambers. Already the amber liquid had flowed across the hard ground, spotting the few pieces of furniture Corinn had.
“To us!” Corinn said, reaching out his pewter mug to clink against Quin’s.
For once, the usually somber and serious adviser was smiling and in good spirits. He was laughing and there were tears of joy in the corners of his eyes. He felt as jubilant as his Thief Lord did.
They had finally gotten the best of Raven. And it felt good.
Quin leaned back in the plush armchair, one of the more comfortable pieces in Corinn’s bedchamber. Corinn himself was sprawled out in his bed, the malted beer staining his covers. Quin sighed heavily and took a deep drink.
“I can’t believe how easy it was,” Quin said, for the umpteenth time. “Raven must have let her guard down. Aven’s death sure did hit her hard. She hasn’t been the same since.”
Corinn shook his head and took a big gulp. “Nope. That’s what made it so easy. It’s scandalous, really, how easy it was. But it worked and I don’t feel bad. She’s had it coming for a long time. That girl has thwarted us so many times. She’s gotten her just desserts.”
Quin lifted his mug. “That she has. I’ll drink to that.”
The two men had no sooner lifted their mugs to their lips when there was a commotion at the entrance to the cavern. Startled, they turned and sloshed amber liquid everywhere as the other two Thief Lords stormed into Corinn’s bedchamber, flanked by their advisers.
Drunkenly, Corinn lifted his half full mug to the four men, a goofy smile on his face. “Cheers, men! Raven is no longer a threat to us. She has been imprisoned and will be there for a long time.”
Deryk crossed his arms while Edvin shook his head. The two advisers stood by stoically. Quin paid them no mind; he just took two gulps of the remaining malted beer, finishing off the cup.
“You’re a fool, Corinn,” Edvin growled. “We cannot afford to lose another Thief Lord. Can you imagine who else might rise up and claim to be a Thief Lord? At least, with Raven, there was some semblance of order. We didn’t like her much, either, but we need her.”
“There are also rumblings from Raven’s following,” Deryk added in his melodic tenor voice. “They are furious and are calling for blood. They suspect it was one of us, and it won’t take much for Edvin and I to out you, but we need what few Thief Lords we have.”
Corinn just shrugged. He wasn’t concerned in the least. They were so keen on having four Thief Lords; they couldn’t afford to get rid of him. His hide was safe and sound. They wouldn’t dare touch him.
“What do we do?” he heard Deryk ask softly. He assumed the other Thief Lord was talking to Edvin, so didn’t even bother looking up from pouring more of the amber liquid into his mug. “What can we do?”
“We wait for Raven’s escape,” Edvin replied in his gruff voice. “Then we’ll take it up with her. The vengeance is hers.”
Corinn laughed and hiccuped at the same time, nearly falling off of his bed. “That’s assuming she will escape!”
Deryk shook his head. Corinn didn’t know Raven as well as he thought. Raven was careful and meticulous, just as Teryk had trained her. And, just as Teryk had trained her, she would have escape routes and plans from every room of the Court House.
“We will wait for Raven’s escape,” Edvin repeated.
Corinn only laughed and poured more of the malted beer for himself and Quin. Nothing was going to get him down. Raven was in prison and all was right in the underground for now.
Lord Almi returned home, furious with his lot in life. It had taken the better part of the day, but he had managed to bring his wife home. It had also cost him more than a pretty penny to bring her home, without any charges attached to her name.
Lady Almi had been caught with a sword dripping with Lord Sarlik’s blood by the City Guard. The magistrate hadn’t been willing to release her. But he had understood Lord Almi’s situation and knew a murder charge would forever damage the Almi name, which had historically been associated with peace. The also understood the Almis had three children, none yet of the age of majority. Their futures would be compromised if their name was thus besmirched.
The magistrate had charged a hefty sum, and Lord Almi had paid it. In Needle City, just about anything could be bought. At least, as long as you belonged to the nobility.
Lord Almi hadn’t looked at his wife or said a word to her on their ride home. She had plead for him to forgive her, implored him to speak to her, begged for him to look at her. But he refused. The woman had been so consumed with her family’s feud that she had very nearly damaged their family. Their children would have been forced to look elsewhere for spouses, something that the nobility in Needle City tended to look down on. The nobility’s children could marry common folk, as long as they came from Needle City. Everyone else was suspect. Sometimes it was a difficult place to live, but he liked it. And his wife had nearly destroyed everything.
“Father,” Tyala said with surprise as the front door burst open and her father stalked in, her mother following after. “Mother, where have you been?”
Lady Almi glanced uncertainly at her husband before taking a few tentative steps towards her daughter. Her husband’s suddenly booming voice cut her off and nearly made her lose her balance.
“No!” he shouted. “Upstairs, Nyana. We have words to exchange. You will leave the children alone.”
Bewildered, Tyala looked from her father to her mother and back again. “Father, what’s going on?”
Lord Almi cast a warning look at his wife and took a step closer to his daughter. Her face white and her lips pale and pressed tightly together, Lady Almi picked up her skirts and raced for the steps. Her husband and daughter listened as they faded before another word was said.
“Where are your brothers?” Lord Almi asked, his voice and face gentle now, looking exactly like a concerned father.
“Out in the gardens.”
“Tyala, you mother was caught up in something tragic last night,” he said, picking his words very carefully. “Your mother’s family’s feud has gotten out of hand. Last night, your mother and one of the Thief Lords went out and murdered someone.”
Tyala’s hands flew up to her mouth, her eyes wide and horrified. She knew the family’s feud with the Sarliks very well. The victim could only have been a Sarlik, and there were only two of them.
Lord Almi rushed over to his daughter before she fell over and stabilized her. He clutched her arms and forced her to look at him.
“It wasn’t Caidy,” he said in a whisper. “Dear angels, it wasn’t her, Tyala. But she needs you now. If she will see you, end this feud with her and stay with her.”
Eyes full of tears, unshed, Tyala nodded. Her father released her and she bolted out the door. She didn’t even bother to change her house slippers for shoes or to throw on a cloak. Lord Almi was only thankful she had been fully dressed.
Heaving a great sigh, he looked upwards, towards where his wife waited. The woman had endangered their entire family. He shook his head. If it had only been the work of Raven, he would be fine. But his wife had decided to take part, and now there was a price to pay.
Divorce was unheard of in Needle City. But he didn’t think the magistrate would put up too much of a fuss in this case. He would understand that Lord Almi needed to protect his children, away from the evil influences of Needle City and their mother’s obsession with her family’s feud.
His face and mindset set, he made his way to the stairs and slowly ascended them.