Until my parents died, I had no notion of living on the streets. It was terrifying. I was afraid most days and nights. I stole what little I could just to get by. I was cold and hungry most of the time.
-the writing on the cell wall
It was the middle of the night, but Raven and Aven hardly ever slept during this time of night. This was when the nobility came out of their lofty Sapphire District to hire her. It wouldn’t do if she were sleeping. If they didn’t get any sleep, why should she? These were the jobs that mattered. These were the jobs that paid. She had to stay awake for them. Which meant those that made their way to her during the daylight hours got a sleepy Raven reclining on cushions. The nighttime employers got a wide awake Raven who was already dressed in her tight black clothes and boots who sat at her wide desk, going over papers with Aven and actually doing work.
That night, as they waited to see if any of the nobility would finally start coming to her, they were also going over Deri’s job. The boy was due to return any moment now with Master Yadrow’s spoils and the merchant himself would be back sometime during the day to finish paying Raven and to pick up the ledger.
Myria interrupted them by clearing her throat. She was on duty tonight to greet anyone who was coming to see Raven.
Raven and Aven looked up from the papers and saw the young woman waiting patiently at the entrance to Raven’s audience chamber. Aven nodded to Myria and then retreated towards the pile of cushions. He settled himself down on them and leaned back, propped up on one elbow. He looked relaxed, but his eyes were sharp and vigilant. He wouldn’t let anyone hurt Raven.
“Bring them in, Myria,” Raven said quietly as she gathered up her papers into neat piles, only briefly raising her eyes to the young woman as she spoke.
Myria disappeared and, a moment later, a tall figure in a dark brown cloak entered. Raven smiled and held out a hand towards the plain wooden chair placed on the other side of her desk.
“Lord Sarlik,” she greeted, recognizing the man as he pulled up his hood from his head of graying hair. “It’s lovely to see you again. Please have a seat and we can get down to business.”
Lord Sarlik had come to her before, both as a youth and a man. They were well acquainted and Raven knew the Sarlik-Almi, formerly Sarlik-Galton, feud quite well. The families had gone to other Thief Lords from time to time, but both purported to be most pleased with Raven’s work, especially since it was the Thief Lord herself doing the work rather than one of the followers. They liked the skill and professionalism Raven had.
Despite their relationship, though, Lord Sarlik was, understandably, still cautious around her. His gaze flickered over to Aven for a brief second. The other man only gave him the slightest of nods, barely imperceptible, but there nonetheless. It had been customary between the two men for the past two years. After a moment’s hesitation, Lord Sarlik finally took the seat Raven gestured to and faced her.
“What can I do for you this time, Lord Sarlik?”
He leaned forward, allowing the cloak to open up now that he wasn’t holding onto the folds on the inside to keep it closed. “I need you to steal something for me.”
Raven nodded, happy to be returning to the Sapphire District for a job, but a little disappointed it was to steal something. She had more fun creating contraptions to catch people unawares, but stealing was right up her alley and she was one of the best at it.
“Of course, Lord Sarlik. Tell me a little more.”
“You are familiar with the seeds of magic, yes?” he asked.
Raven nodded. “Certainly. The magicians produce only a few a year. I hear the magic quality is reducing with every seed they form, but that’s to be expected. The reserve is drying up.”
“Yes, that is true,” Sarlik said. “This new batch is quite weakened. Lord Almi has one of the last good seeds in his possession. He doesn’t use magic much, so I don’t know why he bothers to have one on hand. It’ll just sit there and the magic will slowly dissipate. What a waste.” He sniffed, and then instantly regretted it when he smelled a combination of strange food scents and sewage. He coughed and brought out a scented handkerchief to mask the odor, using it to gently pat around his lips and nose.
“Do you know where this seed is located?” Raven asked, ever focused on the job and not caring what her clients felt or smelled as they sat before her. If they wanted to hire her, they had to deal with everything she had.
“No. I only know it’s somewhere in his manor.”
Raven grinned. “This will be a fun one. I will have your seed of magic for you in two days’ time.”
“So soon?” he asked with surprise.
“I’ve been waiting for something more entertaining that assassination attempts,” she replied drily. “This job is perfect. You may pay half now and half when you return to collect your seed.”
“Ah,” he interrupted. “Would it be too much trouble for you to leave it at my manor?”
Surprise flickered in her eyes. No one had ever asked her for that before. But it would give her a great opportunity to break into two homes.
“You could just leave it on the doorstep,” he added quickly. “I’ll even pay more for the delivery. I know you prefer to have people pick things up from you, but I really hate to leave my daughter by herself.”
“No, no, that would be fine, Lord Sarlik. Certainly, I can make the delivery for you. Half now, please.”
She held out a hand and he reached over to drop three gold coins into her palm. Her fingers instantly wrapped around them and her hand vanished into her pockets before he could even pull back his hand.
Raven smiled and stood. “Lovely doing business with you, Lord Sarlik. Until I see the rest of my pay waiting outside of your door, I won’t drop off the seed.”
Sarlik nodded and stood. “I understand. Thank you, Raven.”
She smiled and bowed her head to him. Myria materialized behind him, walking on quiet feet, and escorted him from the room. As soon as they had departed, Aven rejoined Raven and perched on her desk as she once again settled herself in her padded chair.
“Well, my little bird, it looks like you’ve got yourself some excitement.”
Raven grinned up at her longtime friend. “So it seems. Now. Let’s plan out this steal.”
Together, they pulled together large and small maps of the Sapphire District and began to pore over them. They stood side by side, upper arms brushing together, as they bent their heads over the parchment.
“It won’t be a problem to get to the Almi Manor,” Raven said, spreading her hands over one of the large maps of the Sapphire District. “And getting in will be a cinch.” She shook her head. “These nobles with all of their feuds have relatively poor security. The City Guard can’t be everywhere all the time.” She flashed a grin at her friend. “Besides, they’re being paid to look the other way whenever they see me. Those Guards are really nothing more than a joke.”
Aven laughed softly. “It is a little ironic, isn’t it?”
Still smiling, Raven turned back to her maps. “What will be problematic will be finding the seed of magic. It’s the size of a small peach pit. It could be anywhere in that house.”
“Well,” Aven said slowly, “I would start with the bedroom. I would assume he wants to keep it close by just in case.”
Raven frowned. “Yes. That is a possibility. But he doesn’t really use magic. He might have it for display purposes.”
“That’s true. In that case, it could be just about anywhere.”
She sighed. “I need to do some recon of the Almi Manor. Have a team of three of my cat burglars sent over tonight. We still have five more hours of night left and I know Lord and Lady Almi are not early risers. Their children might pose a problem, but it’s unlikely they might have the seed. After all, it is illegal for anyone under the age of seventeen to have one in their possession.”
Aven nodded. “I’ll have them leave at once.”
He left at trot, leaving Raven to frown and continue to study the maps It didn’t take him long to gather the team of three and they were off immediately, glad for the work. By the time he returned to Raven, Deri had returned with the ledgers for Master Yadrow.
The three slim black books were sitting on Raven’s desk. Raven herself was rummaging in a desk drawer, probably hunting down Deri’s pay. The boy was waiting patiently by the chair. His fingers were linked behind his back and he was humming softly to himself as his eyes wandered around the cavern.
“Hey, kid,” Aven said, clapping the boy on his shoulder as he passed to stand with Raven.
“I did it, Aven,” Deri said with a blindingly bright grin. “I stole for the first time for Raven.”
She glanced up at Deri at that and gave him a smile. “Yes, you did. And you did a great job. There were no problems, right? The ledgers were exactly where I said they would be?”
“Exactly,” Deri said, nodding his head. “I had no problems at all.”
“Good. Ah, here we go.”
Triumphantly, Raven pulled out a small black pouch that she kept full of gold and silver coins. Normally, Thief Lords didn’t pay their followers for the work they did. Instead, they provided a home, food, and companionship. Raven was different. She believed her people would be more loyal if they were independent and had the choice of who to follow. The pay kept them coming back. Like regular people, they liked buying things. And she knew some were saving up for rent for an apartment in the Commons.
“Here you go, kid,” Raven said, dropping three silver coins into Deri’s outstretched hand.
He grinned and closed his fingers over them before tucking them into a pocket. “Thank you, Raven.”
She gave him an indulgent smile and leaned back in her seat. “What are your plans for the money?”
He shrugged. “I don’t know yet. All I ever dreamed about was getting out of the streets, and I have, thanks to you and Aven. I don’t know what else I might want.”
“Well, you can afford better made clothing,” she suggested.
He looked down at his clothes. The hems were tattered with strings dangling here and there and there were holes in odd places along his pants legs and around his belly. “I guess I could. Thank you.”
“Okay,” Aven said. “Off with you, kid. You need your sleep and Raven and I have work to do.”
Flashing a smile, Deri ran off to find his bed. Aven shook his head as the kid vanished into the tunnels. Raven reached over and gently squeezed her friend’s hand.
“Remind you of someone?” she asked with a grin.
He glanced over at her and returned the smile. “Yeah. He reminds me of an overeager girl named Tala.”
She frowned and removed her hand. “Aven, you know I don’t go by that name anymore.”
“I know,” he said softly. “But sometimes it’s good to remember. You came from somewhere and it shaped you. Unlike a lot of us, you actually had a family that loved you.” He crouched down beside her chair and took her hand in his. “Raven, if it weren’t for your parents’ deaths, you wouldn’t be where you are now. You’re the most powerful Thief Lord, and the first female one. If your parents had lived and you had lived as Tala, you would probably be slogging away in one of the factories as we speak. What happened to you happened for a reason and it’s made you into Raven.”
She raised a dark eyebrow. “You helped, too. Aven. If you hadn’t saved me from those boys, I would have died that night. I owe everything to you.”
“Yes, you do, and you make it up to me every day. You’re the best Thief Lord and everyone loves you. You are the kind of leader every criminal dreams of, and the leader that most of them now have the opportunity to serve under. You’re the dearest friend I’ve ever had, the one person I can no longer live without.”
She gave him a smile and reached out to gently caress his cheek. “Thank you, Aven. I needed that. Now. Back to business. How long until the burglars return?”
“It shouldn’t be for more than a couple of hours. Then, hopefully, we’ll know where that seed is.”
Raven nodded and Aven stood to pore over the maps with her once again. “I figure it’ll be easier to enter from the roof. There are less people prowling up there than along the streets and it’ll give me a chance to practice my climbing skills. I’ll drop down into the master bedroom if the seed is there. If not, I’ll go into one of the hallways and work my way down.”
Aven nodded. “I like that plan. Just remember to keep low to the roof.”
Raven cast him a look. “Tomorrow is the new moon. There will be no other light than the lanterns and the nearest one is on the side opposite where I plan to enter.”
“Ah. Smart thinking.”
“Well, someone has to be around here,” she muttered, shuffling the maps to shove them back into a drawer.
He laughed. “Okay, little thief. I’ll take care of the burglars when they get back. You can start getting ready for your outing tomorrow night.”
Raven stood, grinning widely. She stretched her arms above her head and twisted at her waist in both directions. “Yes. I think I need to limber up a bit. I’ll be in the exercise chamber. If the burglars come back with any interesting news, let me know right away.”
“Of course,” he said, giving her a look that said she was crazy for asking him to do something he always did. “Now, go, little thief.”
Speaking to Raven had taken less time than he had thought it would. He was back home before he knew it, but wasn’t yet ready for bed. Instead, he wanted to see Caidy, make sure she was safe and sleeping soundly. As his daughter grew older, he worried more about her. She would be out in the world on her own in a few years unless he married her off, but he wasn’t ready to lose his little girl like that just yet. He also hadn’t yet found a suitable husband for her.
He stood in the doorway to her bed chamber, watching as she slept with haunted eyes. Her hair was spread over her stark white pillows and she had the light green quilt pulled up to her chin. She was lying on her side, her mouth open, snoring softly. She looked like a little angel. An angel he wanted to protect.
More than anything, he wanted his family’s feud with the Almis to end, but there was too much pain. It had started when the Galtons had murdered his great-grandfather. They had claimed he had scorned their daughter’s hand in marriage and had him killed. In retaliation, the Galton daughter had been killed. Nyana and Kaida were the only two Galtons left now and, now that Nyana was married, Kaida had claimed the Galton home and name, but not the feud. The law was protecting her from the feud and had granted her the family’s name and ancestral home, but she had chosen to make her physical home in Mercaido City. If she married, her husband would have to take the Galton name.
Nyana had become relentless in her pursuit of the feud. He knew she had wanted to end it in her youth, when she had been young and idealistic, but her parents had passed it on to her. Forced was probably more like it. He didn’t know what had made her so zealous in wanting to destroy his family, but she was and there was nothing he could do to stop it. She was probably like him, feeling impelled to continue something that had defined their families and social interactions for generations. Without it, they would be like floundering fish washed up on the Traiden Shore.
And unless this feud ended soon, it would be up to Caidy to continue. But she was too sweet and loving. Just like her mother. He didn’t think she would stand a chance against the Almi children. He would have to somehow end the feud himself, but he feared losing the definition to his life that it provided. He had lived and breathed the feud for too long. It was too late to stop it, he realized. He couldn’t do it, not even for his child.