Living in the streets of the slums was hard. I had no friends, knew no one. The other street kids all seemed to belong to someone. I didn’t, and they picked on me for it. I was almost killed one night. If it hadn’t been for Aven, I would be dead right now.
-the writing on the cell wall
She was interrupted in the middle of her limbering exercises. It was Aven clearing his throat that caught her ear and had her whirling on him, settling into an attack pose as she turned.
“Hold it, Raven,” Aven said, holding up his hands in front of him. “It’s just me. You wanted me to let you know when the burglars returned. They have.”
Slowly, Raven came out of her relentless focus on her breathing and her exercises. She straightened up and relaxed her muscles. She rolled her shoulders a few times and tilted her head from side to side.
“Well, I hope they have some good news,” she said, walking past him to re-enter her audience chamber.
Three slim men, none more than five and a half feet in height, stood arrayed before her desk. All wore tight black clothing so nothing could snag as they slinked around in the dead of night. They were all bald so they wouldn’t leave a single strand of hair behind. Their nails were trimmed low and they were clean shaven. Really, they were good looking men, but loved the jewels and other shiny things they stole more than people. It was highly unlikely they would ever bring a lady friend to meet Raven. Besides, they always claimed Raven was the only lady they needed. It flattered her, but it also worried her that they were so deeply entrenched in this life that they wouldn’t know what to do with themselves when they grew too old and stiff to prance around at night on silent feet and with quick fingers.
“Good evening, men,” Raven said quietly as she slipped into her chair.
Aven took his place at her side, folding his arms. He rested his eyes on each man. Though all the men and women in Raven’s following were undyingly loyal to her, he still didn’t trust any of them as far as he could throw an elephant. He and Raven had been through too much together for him to stop being her protector and watcher. He would cut down any of her followers without a bat of an eye.
“What information do you have for me?” Raven asked.
“The Almi Manor sleeps deeply, Thief Lord,” one of the men said, the shortest of the three. “You will have no problems getting in. The weather is warming up and, as all the sleeping chambers are upstairs, they keep windows cracked to allow a breeze in.”
“Excellent,” Raven said, nodding. She rested her arms on the chair arms, letting her small child’s hands dangle over the ends, and lounged back in her chair. “That will make this job infinitely easier. What else?”
The man went on, “We searched every room and found the seed of magic. It has been encased in a glass box and hangs above the fire place. It looks like they never intended on using it.”
Raven nodded thoughtfully. “I see. It’s a trophy to them. The Almis will miss it dearly.”
“It sounds like an easy job,” Aven said. “You could always send someone else to do it.”
She shook her head. “No. I need to get out of here. I need this job. Besides, I have to do some of the jobs myself to keep myself in shape.”
Aven didn’t look pleased. It was his job to protect his mistress, no matter how much she protested. Raven knew he wanted her to never emerge from their cavern, not even to go to the bath houses. Especially not after the assassination attempt the week before. He would never forgive himself if something happened to her. But Raven was stubborn and she was his Thief Lord.
“Thank you,” Raven said, dismissing the men, feeling the displeasure Aven was radiating. “Have a map of the manor drawn up and return it to me by tomorrow afternoon. Aven, you and I have some work to do. And stop projecting your disapproval. It isn’t becoming.”
He grunted as she rummaged around in a drawer and pulled out a map of the Sapphire District. Using a couple of paperweights, she smoothed it out and pointed to the Almi Manor. After a moment of silent stewing, he twitched and moved closer to her and the desk. If he couldn’t dissuade her, he had to help her as best he could.
“The Manor butts up against the city wall. Their gardens are in front and run along the sides of the house so they’re shown to their advantage. If the walls weren’t so tall, I would choose to drop down from it onto the roof. Instead, I have one of three gardens to pass through. The front would be too obvious and this side has two other manors facing it.”
“Triangle Way,” Aven said, pointed to the south side of the manor. “The Needle Quarter is entirely surrounded by gardens and the side facing Triangle Way has the orange orchard to protect the Parliament president’s privacy as well as the Almis’ privacy.”
Slowly, Raven nodded. “The Needle Quarter is where the president makes his residence, so it does afford the most privacy. This is very advantageous for us. I’ll work with my original plan of dropping into one of the hallways and then make my way downstairs. Will you stand guard on the roof?”
“You know I will. Are you bringing anyone else along?”
She shook her head. “It’s the Sapphire District. There are more City Guards there than any other district. Even though they’re paid to pretend we’re not there, they are allowed to nab us if they actually see us doing something illegal. We have to be careful. It’ll be just you and me.” She turned and smiled up at her longtime friend. “Like what we were before I became a Thief Lord.”
He flashed a grin back and then took hold of her elbow. “Just like before,” he echoed. “And now it’s time for you to go to bed. Master Yadrow will be back in the morning for the ledgers and you may have the Albers coming by for payback.”
Raven went with him willingly, allowing him to help her up. It had been a long night, longer than other recent nights. She’d had longer and was young enough to deal with them, but she was going to be out working the following night. She would need her rest.