I made Teryk a rich man. He gave me many spoils, but I hungered for more. What he gave me wasn’t enough. There was always more. He laughed whenever I asked for more. So, I plotted his demise.
-writing on the cell wall
The Dirty Pig Tavern was just as dirty as its name. Dirt and filth covered the creaky, scuffed wooden floor and the tables had been dusted over so many times no one really knew what the tops looked like. The chairs were more like stools now with no back to them and what cushion was left was torn with stuffing pouring out. The walls were grimy and streaked with dirt, blood, and fossilized feces. Human or animal, no one was quite sure anymore. The plates, glasses, and silverware were stained beyond belief and everyone was quite sure they hadn’t been cleaned in ages. It smelled worse than a pig sty, full of foul human and animal odors, all topped with the eternal wafting scent of alcohol. But the wine and beer were good and the food had yet to kill anyone, so no one complained. There was really no one to complain to, anyways. The bartenders and managers changed almost nightly.
The Thief Lords didn’t particularly care, though. They used the space above the bar. It was a wide open space with only the outer walls to hem them in. There was an assortment of tables, chairs, and stools scattered around. Usually they sat in chaos, but, with the Thief Lords, they marched around in a circle so the Lords and their advisers could keep an eye on each other. The fireplace at one end was, miraculously, still working and Edvin had made sure a glowing fire lit the room and exuded a more pleasant aroma to try to mask the stench downstairs. Lanterns and scented candles were settled around as well. The more light to see each other by, the better.
Edvin had taken his place opposite the stairs. There was no door; the stairs just ended and one ended up in the large, drafty space. He liked this seat so he could watch everyone else enter and they could play their staring power game with him until they had to look away to claim a seat. Ever loyal, Zyno was by his side, studying every detail with a hawk’s eye.
All the way into the slums, they could hear the Needle City Tower Clock chime midnight. The deep sound of the gong still rang long after the strike had ended, echoing through the streets of the city. Edvin smiled to himself. The others would be arriving soon.
Aven, sans Raven, was the first to arrive. He was always the first arrival, even if it was Raven who was hosting. Raven was always the last to arrive, making a fashionably late appearance just as a noble lady might. The girl carried herself too highly, but, they did fear her to some extent. After all, she had killed three Thief Lords and had escaped numerous assassination attempts. The girl was practically untouchable. Hate her they did, but stand in awe of her they must.
Edvin watched as Aven prowled around the chairs. He always picked out the best seats for himself and his mistress. And no one dared touch Aven. It meant certain death. Of all the advisers, Aven was the most protected. Raven was always watching out for him, and they never knew just from where she was watching.
“Aven,” Zyno said, nodding in greeting.
“Zyno,” Aven returned as he settled into a chair to Zyno and Edvin’s left. The advisers never greeted nor were greeted by the Thief Lords.
They waited in silence. The only sounds were the flickering of the fire and the creaks and yells and pounds from the tavern below. They waited patiently, each hardly daring to draw a breath. Neither did they meet each other’s eyes. It just wasn’t done.
There was really only so much to fear. Weapons weren’t allowed and each Thief Lord had two of their following waiting at the Tavern’s door to check each Thief Lord and each adviser for secreted weapons. Edvin and Zyno had already been through and hadn’t been happy when Corinn’s two had been late to the tavern. It only meant a delay to the host in entering the meeting space. And it always grated on their nerves. But trust Corinn to do that every time.
Deryk was the next to enter, along with his adviser Kyna. He nodded to the others in greeting and took a seat opposite Aven. Kyna sat beside him, leaning back and resting an ankle on a knee. For a woman, the only female adviser, she acted more like a man. Her delicate feminine features and long raven dark hair, though, made her look like a delicate young woman. She was older than Raven, though, and had served as Deryk’s adviser for nearly fifteen years. No other adviser had spent so long as such. Kyna, for all her beauty and age, was almost as deadly as Raven could be. The two women, though, respected each other and had an unspoken, unsteady agreement to not hurt each other. After all, Raven respected Kyna as the first and only female adviser and Kyna secretly worshiped the only female Thief Lord in all of history. It was because of that that Deryk was always on his toes around his adviser. She was good at what she did and he trusted her, but he didn’t trust her enough to not pull a Raven and slit his throat to become the second female Thief Lord. But most Thief Lords did tend to keep their largest threat as close as possible: as adviser.
Five minutes passed before Corinn and his adviser Quin made their way upstairs. He was always trying to push it, or push Raven, rather, wanting more than anything to be the last one. No one ever saw Raven and where she came from, but they all assumed by now that she was watching from somewhere nearby, so always knew when all the others had arrived.
With a frown, Corinn flung his cloak over the chair with its back to the stairs. Quin, a large grizzled man with long graying black hair and beard sat beside his master. His keen green eyes swept over the rest of the group and he nodded to the other three advisers. He had served as Corinn’s adviser for three years and was the newest of them. He was a secretive man and Corinn never talked about him, so they didn’t know much about this mountain man. All they knew was that he was not originally from Needle City.
They didn’t have to wait long for Raven to enter. She walked in with her usual cat-like grace and made her way to Aven’s side without looking at anyone. Dressed in her customary full black, she was more like a moving shadow with nothing casting that shadow. She looked at each one of them, Thief Lord and adviser, in turn, staring at each for no longer nor no less than ten seconds. Seemingly satisfied, she settled back in her chair and let Aven watch out for them. After all, that’s what the man did best. He always looked out for her. Always.
Edvin cleared his throat. “I believe our primary concern this night is Raven’s peace agreement.”
Two other heads nodded in agreement. Raven simply watched him, her hands calmly folded in her lap, her face impassive.
“I believe,” she said, “that is what has been causing the problems between us lately.”
“When the original Thief Lords created the council,” Deryk said, “it was to ensure we wouldn’t off each other and create a single Thief Lord who would become a tyrant.”
“Very true,” Corinn murmured.
“I believe my peace agreement takes care of that very nicely,” Raven said almost off-handedly.
Edvin nodded. “It does. As Thief Lords, we naturally want to take out our competition, but we know the perils and prices for that.”
Yes, they did. They remembered the chaos Teryk’s death had thrown them into. Every other Thief Lord had screamed for blood, but the girl known as Tala had vanished into the night. She hadn’t returned until after the dust had settled and they had settled back into a comfortable routine, one Thief Lord down because they hadn’t been able to pick someone to take Teryk’s place. No one had been strong enough, smart enough, or daring enough to be labeled a Thief Lord.
They remembered when Raven had asserted herself as a Thief Lord, her following larger than Corinn’s and Edvin’s, who did not, by far, have some of the smaller followings. Two of the other Thief Lords had opposed her and thought that a mere girl couldn’t stand up to them. They had learned soon enough how wrong they were and the council was down two more Thief Lords.
The peace agreement had come out of that unfortunate mishap, as Raven referred to it as, and it had kept the peace so far. They wouldn’t kill each other. At least, not attempt any more than usual. And none of them could actually be killed without having all the other Thief Lords fall on them. Of course, Raven knew her life was in constant danger despite the agreement. The other three would do anything to see her dead.
“I,” Edvin said, “for one, have resigned the agreement as it stands. I don’t wish to be killed any more than I wish to kill any of you. We are only four when we were once seven. That is enough for me to want to preserve our ranks.”
Deryk nodded. “I agree. I, too, have signed the agreement.”
All eyes turned to Corinn. Of the three, he was the most eager to be well-rid of Raven. Though eager to be rid of the young female Thief Lord, Deryk and Edvin had been Lords longer than Corinn and knew they needed every one of them to keep order in the underground. It kept them in check and kept any one following from growing too large and too powerful. It also helped to spread the numerous followers out so they could be kept under watchful eyes. But Corinn viewed Raven as a thorn in his side, an upstart who had stolen what he viewed as his chance to be the most powerful Thief Lord. He had, after all, been Teryk’s favorite until Raven had come along.
Corinn crossed his arms. “I am not convinced. We never needed an agreement before. Why do we need one now? What has changed? We are still a council of Thief Lords. We still rule the underground. We still try to kill each other and never succeed.”
“If my man hadn’t overheard your plan,” Raven said softly, dangerously, “you would very likely have succeeded at killing me. Everyone knows I do not carry weapons into the bath houses. That is forbidden. This agreement protects my life. It protects yours as well, especially from my following. I assure you many of my people despise one or more of you and would jump at the chance to attempt to take your life. If I could do it, any of them could. This agreement isn’t just for us. It’s for our people as well. They cannot kill any one of us any more than we can kill each other’s followers.”
Deryk nodded. “That is true. And we know our followers are zealous. At a word, they would kill for us, especially another Thief Lord.” His eyes turned to Raven and a flicker of a smile touched one side of his mouth. “Everyone wants to be another Raven.”
“What say you?” Edvin asked of Corinn. “It protects all of us.”
The man only pursed his lips.
Raven looked at Deryk and Edvin. “The agreement is null and void if Corinn does not sign. All of our lives and the lives of our followers would be in danger from this point forward.”
That put a thoughtful look on Corinn’s face. Aven didn’t like it and he wished more than anything that the other three Thief Lords would force a pen into his hand and make him sign the agreement.
“Corinn,” Deryk said, his voice soft, a hint of danger laced through. “It is in your best interest, as well as the rest of ours, to sign it.”
Corinn folded his arms. “I’ll take my chances. I won’t sign.” He turned to his adviser. “Quin, we leave.”
His adviser only nodded. Quin rose and nodded to the other advisers as he preceded his Thief Lord down the stairs. Corinn left the other Lords and advisers staring at each other, each knowing the peace agreement was now null and void and all of them and their followings were in danger from each other.
“I don’t like it,” Aven said as they made their way through the shadows back to their caverns.
Raven sighed, a soft sound that was quickly carried off in the light breeze. “I know, Aven. But Corinn has always been slippery. It took a great deal to get him to sign in the first place. We’ll just have to be careful from now on. Very careful.”
The clock tower chimed the one o’clock hour. Raven paused in her step and turned her head in the direction of the sound. A thoughtful look came over her face. Aven paused and took one look at her before his face clouded.
“No, Raven,” he said, his voice harsh. “We can’t risk it. Not now. Wait until tomorrow night.”
“It’s still early, Aven,” she whispered, not looking at him.
Without another word, she whirled and made her way out of the slums instead of further into them. Cursing under his breath, Aven loped after her.
“Quiet,” she hissed once he had caught up to her. “You don’t want anyone to hear you, now do you?”
“Oh, now you’re worried about something happening?”
“I’m worried about something happening to you,” she snapped back. “Now, hurry up, Aven. The Sarliks should be asleep by now. That jewel setting has to be in the Lady Caidy’s bedroom.”
“We’re not even prepared for this,” he pointed out as he caught up to her.
She waved a hand. “I’ve broken into the manor before. I know what I’m doing.”
Aven frowned. “Aren’t you being a little optimistic, not to mention far from cautious?”
“Of course not,” she said breezily. “Everything will be just fine. I know which window leads into the girl’s room. And with you as look out, I’ll be just fine.”
“Are you sure about this, Raven?”
“Positive. And, remember, Lady Almi will pay quite well for this.” She chuckled. “She’s new to working with me. She’ll never know I charged her a gold coin more than I charge anyone else.”
Aven raised an eyebrow, but didn’t look at her, being too concerned at watching for lurking shadows that wouldn’t be shadows. Neither of them had weapons with them. He was afraid Raven was getting too far ahead of herself and maybe a little too cocky. Or Corinn’s refusal to sign the agreement meant she thought he had just signed her death warrant and certificate, so why couldn’t she go out on a lark?
He couldn’t blame Raven for wanting to make the most of her life, but to go into a steal unprepared? That was unlike her. He worried about her, but he loved her and admired and had trained her. He would go where she willed. Even if it made his hands shake and his knees quake.
So, he loped after her, hiding in the shadows and keeping a look out. He would rather die than let anything happen to her. He couldn’t lose a second Thief Lord, especially when that Thief Lord was the love of his life.
Aven crouched on top of the roof of Sarlik Manor. Raven was making her way through the manor, searching for the jewel setting. The night was dark, a sliver of moon being the only light in the sky. But he still felt exposed. There was nowhere to hide on the roof, not even a chimney.
They were ill prepared for this steal. They had no real plan and no tools. If Raven got into trouble, there was no way he would be able to help her. And with the other Thief Lords potentially on the prowl for each other’s blood, the night was even more dangerous.
Aven fervently wished she hadn’t decided to go ahead with the steal tonight. This night was more dangerous than any other. There was the usual fear that the City Guard might catch them or the home’s master or mistress might awaken. But now there was the additional danger of the other Thief Lords and their followings.
If they weren’t careful, Raven could still end up losing her life this night. But Aven would see to it that that didn’t happen.
He scanned the ground, his eyes searching carefully for any unnatural movement. Early on, in Teryk’s following, he had been used as a scout. That’s what he had been trained for as a young boy before he turned towards being a cat burglar. He had the sharpest eyes in the following and he liked to think that he still did. Nothing had ever gotten past him. And now it was even more imperative that he have sharp eyes. Raven’s life depended on it.
A soft whistle pierced the air towards his right. He crept over to the edge of the roof and saw Raven crouched near a flowering bush in the gardens. She made a slight hand movement and he gave a nod to indicate he understood.
His feet silent, he ghosted over the roof towards the tree they had climbed up and now just as gracefully climbed down. Slinking low to the ground, he made his way towards his mistress, his eyes trained on her.
A twig snapped behind him and he instantly stilled. Raven’s eyes had gone wide and a hand moved to her mouth. They had been caught.
“Stop, thief!” Lord Sarlik’s voice rang out loud and clear in the night air.
“Hide,” Aven whispered to Raven as footsteps headed in his direction.
Raven, fear etched in her face, didn’t move. She only shook her head.
“Tala, please,” he mouthed, his eyes imploring her to follow his command for once in her life. He knew he was either going to die or be imprisoned. That was fine with him. He was protecting Raven. He would protect her until his dying breath.
For once in her life, Raven listened to him and shrank into the bushes. Lord Sarlik was so focused on Aven that he didn’t even notice the bush’s movement. Raven was able to hide herself quickly and effectively, but kept her eyes trained on Aven.
Aven had straightened and turned around to face Sarlik. The lord had a long knife clutched in a hand. So, it would be death tonight.
“Give me back what you have taken,” Lord Sarlik demanded, one hand outstretched.
Aven spread his hands wide. “I have nothing of yours, sir.”
Lord Sarlik’s eyes narrowed. “Someone was in my home and you are the only one I see. Return what you have taken.”
“I have nothing of yours, sir,” Aven repeated, his voice calm, his body still.
Raven couldn’t help but quiver in the bushes. She wanted nothing more than to go out and rescue her beloved friend and adviser. But they had planned for this, and they were following that plan. Aven’s use of her birth name was their key word. If he used it, she would hide and he would take the fall. She had prayed it would never come to that, but, if it was imprisonment, they had a plan for that, too.
“Thief!” Lord Sarlik roared.
With that, he launched himself at Aven and, before the thief could move, thrust the knife through Aven’s heart. Raven’s hand flew to her mouth to hold in the choked cry that was on the tip of her tongue. Aven’s body stiffened and then fell as Lord Sarlik yanked the blade from the man’s chest. Aven fell so he could cast his dying gaze on Raven’s hiding spot.
All they could do was stare at each other, each hoping the other knew how much they loved them, as Aven bleed to death and his heart stilled. He mouthed his love to her as his eyes glazed over and he breathed his last.