Full Summary: Will, a thief-for-hire bites off more than he can chew when he tries to steal from the famous and slightly eccentric Lord Gavin. Now, employed by the very man he had been hired to steal from, he must help uncover the truth behind a string of outbreaks of a disease that controls the very mind to regain his freedom. It is clear magic is at play here, and Will will need all the covert magic he has at his disposal and all the help he can get from his newfound companions to uncover a truth he slowly becomes surer and surer he doesn't want any part of.
Author's Note: Thank you for opening this story. This is my first writing attempt in years, so I hope you enjoy. If not, let me know.
"…since any one who would act up to a perfect standard of goodness in everything, must be ruined among so many who are not good."
~ Niccolo Machiavelli's The Prince, Chapter XV: Of the Qualities In Respect of Which Men, and Most of all Princes, Are Praised or Blamed
It had been a trick, and I should have seen it for what it was before I was trapped. It had been way too easy. I'm good at what I do, but apparently not that good. My mask was lying cracked and useless on the floor, and my eyebrow was bleeding heavily where the fist that had broken my mask had connected. "He's just a…a kid?" one of Sir Gavin's men asked incredulously.
I cursed myself and my own lack of foresight while I struggled to find a way out of my current predicament. There were five of them and one of me, and, as is always so conveniently arranged by the powers that be in these situations, they were between me and the only way out. They were armed only with small knives and daggers that could be concealed beneath their servants' tunics. I guessed that even for a man such as Lord Gavin, it "simply wouldn't do" do have his lowly serving men seen armed to the teeth.
We were in a cellar that was as cold as it was dark, lit only by the meager light of a bluelight torch. The rough wet stones of the walls were slick with moisture and gleamed eerily like blades in the torch's flickering glances. The wooden door behind the five thugs in front of me was at the top of a small set of stone stairs. Now if only I could reach it, I'd be in good shape.
Best of luck to me.
"Give it up now, kid," A heavily-built man with a recently-shaved beard said, "No matter what they say about you, you won't make it. Not even a grown man could make it out alive."
"Now really," I chided, stalling for time as I slowly formulated a semi-reliable plan, "They're saying things about me? I'm afraid I haven't heard anything about you though." So saying, I slipped out the remaining packet of explopowder in my hidden pocket, my body angled so I could do so without their notice. Then, with a great flourish, I pulled out my own dagger, as though I intended to try and take them down single-handedly. The heavy-set man who had spoken earlier scoffed. I smiled back at him, taking pleasure in what I knew was to come. Then I charged him, dropping the small packet of powder and muttering, "Ignite!" surreptitiously as I did so.
The effect was instantaneous and chaotic. With a loud woosh the powder ignited and the room was suddenly full of suffocating smoke. I veered to the right of the shaved-beard man at the last moment and slipped between two other thugs. Luckily for me, I had been prepared and was already holding my breath. Unluckily for them, they had not been prepared, and so they promptly set to gagging and gasping for air as they blindly swung fist and blade alike, aiming for whatever shadow they thought was me. Apparently they thought I was fool enough to stick around and test my battle prowess with them now that the tables seemed turned. Little did they know that despite my current predicament, I was born with at least an ounce of sense and was hightailing it out of there as fast as my legs could carry me.
"Ow!" I heard one of them shout hoarsely between coughs as I reached the door, "Stop swinging that thing around like an idiot! You are going to get someone killed!"
"It's not as though you're doing any better!" a gruff and equally hoarse voice responded.
As I reached the last step, I couldn't help but think how well-spoken these serving men were. I also couldn't help but notice, with a second thought, just how incompetent they seemed to be in the ways of handling intruders. Yet they had been ready for me. Not normal for a Lord's secret guard. Definitely not normal.
" Why don't we just use…?" the second voice continued, but was abruptly cut off by the beardless man's voice.
"You two are quite possibly as dumb as you look! Get yourselves moving and follow my voice. That little troublemaker probably went towards door for a way out!"
I was already closing the door behind me as I raced back down the stone interior corridor that led to the room I had let myself in through. I was shaking my head in disgust as I counted the side corridors, making sure I didn't miss my turn. Troublemaker? Had he really just called me troublemaker? I've done enough to deserve better titles than troublemaker, I thought, offended but I shook the thought from my mind. I could hear the cellar door behind me crash open as I raced towards my turn. Luckily for me, I was used to such chases. The so-called serving men behind me, however, were scrambling noisily into the corridor, coughing and cursing enough to make me question my earlier assessment of their speech.
I let a small curse slip myself when I heard one of them shout, "There! There he is!"
This whole operation was just getting sloppy. I needed to get out of there and fast. Thankfully, I had an escape route planned, and at the rate the Lord Gavin's secret guard men were going, I could still make it out of this place alive with loot in hand. I rounded the corner, this thought first and foremost in my mind when I ran headlong into something hard. It was definitely metal, my face could attest to that. My body bounced backwards like it was nothing and I barely managed to brake my fall. I was about to dodge past whatever it was as soon as I regained my balance when I realized it was a who and this who was carrying a sword at his hip and had armor covering his body. Now he was definitely not a serving man. His eyes widened momentarily too, unsurprisingly surprised. We both recovered at the same time, him reaching for his sword while I feinted left and then shifted my weight, dashing to his right. I felt something very painful graze my left shoulder as I sped past him and momentarily stumbled.
He was fast. I'd barely seen him effortlessly rip his sword from its sheath and pivot his body as he swung his sword in my direction, not for one second fooled by my feint. I surged forward even faster. I couldn't afford to conserve energy for a prolonged chase now. I could already feel him right on my heels. Now my only thoughts were focused and refined wired signals to my body to just book it. For the first and stupid time since I had accepted this mission, I was beginning to fear for my life.
"You are only prolonging the inevitable, peasant thief" my pursuer's scornful voice echoed my thoughts. My feet pounded on the plush violet carpet, my heart pounding urgently. The armored knight (for that's what he must have been) was not catching up, but he was doing surprisingly well at keeping pace with me. Much too well for comfort. I could now hear the serving men finally rounding the corner we had already traveled a considerable distance from.
"Sorry, not exactly in my best interests, sir knight sir." I responded with utmost respect, I assure you. Unfortunately I was already winded, and it ruined most of the intended effect. I was becoming more fearful though. This was what I did for a living. I was good at avoiding pursuers and keeping up such a pace till long after my chasers were done for. So why was I already winded?
"You really should stop running, for your own good." The knight informed me.
Fat chance, I thought.
I saw the last door of the corridor on the right ahead of me. It led to an unused room, my way out. My lungs were giving it their all to prove to me they could burn with the same intensity as any old fire. My legs were doing an equally splendid job as I crashed through the door and practically leapt towards the window. Except the leap become more of a drunken stagger as I grabbed the windowsill and tried to heave myself over it.
What's the matter with me? I thought, daunted by the simple task of navigating a windowsill, something I could normally do in my sleep. My shoulder gave a particularly intense throb and I looked at it, suddenly comprehending.
"Oh, wow" I slurred as my vision blurred and I finally landed in a heap just outside the windowsill on the dirt. I could just see the armored man lean out the window and glare down at me as my vision finally faded. "Definitely not a serving man…"
A slew of bright-hued lights engulfed my vision. I could see a faint shape in the distance. I moved towards it, uncomprehending. Slowly the shape solidified as I drew closer, and I saw Talin in front his trinket shop. At least that's what I called it, though he'd beg to differ. His stiff business attire was unable to completely hide his personable demeanor. He was a large, intimidating man, and his merchant tunic had been custom-cut to accommodate his bulky build. His brown hair was combed and in pristine condition. His face was wide yet intelligent, and his humble nose made his job of deceit and cunning that much easier. If you needed a job done, he'd find someone who could do it. And he was always discreet. He responded jovially to my constant quips and was always honest with me about his dishonesty, which made him alright in my book. It also helped that he'd proven his dependability the day we'd met.
"I have a job for you, Will," he said in a mischievous tone beneath the hum of the city's morning hubbub. His face revealed none of the excitement in his tone, but I could tell this job interested him.
"Is that so?" I replied, intrigued despite myself. Talin was usually not prone to any display of emotion when it came to our business matters. "Perhaps we should speak in a more private place?"
"Of course," he agreed, putting down his paint brush. He had been repainting the façade of his shop's building. He was always arguing the importance of first impressions. "They are all people know about you for a temporary time," he was fond of saying as he eyed my inconspicuous tunic and hastily-combed hair. Admittedly, his shop did always make the other, less well-kept shops that lined Canal Street look bad. He made sure not to make his shop look too appealing though, for that was an invitation for the wrong sort of people. We entered the shop and left his painting materials just inside the door. He placed a "Gone for a Tick" sign on the back counter and we went into his comfortably small storage room and closed the door behind us.
"So?" I said, and Talin immediately got down to business.
"This potential client is willing to pay ten times your normal asking price and they requested that I ask for you specifically. They don't have a contact name, but they do have a meeting place and time, and are willing to offer all pertinent information they know about the place where the item is located. They seemed very concerned with keeping their identity a secret though, cloaks and daggers and all. You know, the whole goddess-damned melodrama. Still, it was effective; I had a hard time gathering any information. I had to use quite an expensive seeing-eye to do this, but I was able to make out a letter hidden beneath one of their cloaks, and it had a very important name and crest on it."
"And what name was that?" I asked.
"You mean, the Lord Ailor?" I asked more loudly than I intended. We were both silent for a moment. I could tell he'd heard the soft thump that sounded like it had come from just outside the door. I opened the door and stepped out, eying the surrounding store, then came back in, shutting the door firmly.
"How many other Lord Ailor's do you know about?" Talin continued, barely breaking stride.
"This is already sounding dangerous."
"Still, ten times the usual and all pertinent information included. They'll be wanting your usual guarantee to keep all incriminating information secret even 'under duress' of course. All in all, though, it's not a bad offer. " Talin leaned back, a satisfied smile on his face, as if expecting to be showered with my excitement or praise, or something. Instead, he was greeted with my altogether unimpressed silence. "Well?" he asked.
"Well, what? It just seems a little too good of an offer. Are you sure it's not a city guardsman who's finally using the intelligence the good goddess gave him and is setting a trap?"
"I thought so too, until I learned who the target owner was, and I now think their secrecy is well justified." This was Talin's way. Always hinting and hemming and hawing to force me to ask questions. His theatrics sometimes tested my patience, but my living depended on unending patience, so I simply stayed silent. "Of course, if it intimidates you, I could always tell them I'll have to find someone else."
I sighed, apathetic, aloof, "You're either going to tell me who it is or you aren't, and I assume the job would be impossible if I didn't know, so then I guess that's that."
"Ah, well since you're going to be so pushy about it, I guess I'll tell you," Talin leaned forward, whispering now, as if the closed door and our low tones weren't enough to keep this secret, "I will give you a hint. He's the 'People's Lord,' the king's very own friend, the 'Brains of the Trans Shaland Railroad,' the-"
I cut him off incredulously, "You can't be serious! I don't buy it."
"Well, I don't either, I mean, I've never met a Lord who even noticed his servants, let alone acted like a 'People's Lord,' but you never know. Rumor has it he's a proper saint."
"You know what I mean. No one would ever dare consider stealing from a lord of such high rank as Lord Gavin. You said it yourself; he's the king's very own friend!"
"Mind that you keep your voice down now. And yes, I am serious. As serious as a heart assault. Besides, you're one to talk about daring. With your skill and your magical gift, I'm sure you could muddle through well-enough to finish this job."
"That would definitely explain the large offer though…" I thought out loud, only half-listening to Talin now. With ten times my asking price, I couldn't begin to imagine the things I could do. Perhaps I would be able to make amends. This job was irresistible; still, I couldn't shake a feeling of misgiving.
"Nothing to worry about," Talin continued, as if sensing my thoughts, "These folks are a bit more secretive than most, but I reckon that might be because of what they're asking for. They requested you personally; it's a sure-fire sign of intelligence on their part."
"Ha, Talin," I said absent-mindedly examining a rather real-looking fake diamond he had prepared for sell, "Your flattery only works on unwitting clients and flippant maidens. Seeing as I am neither of those, I suggest you don't try it on me."
"I wouldn't go so far as to say you're neither," Talin shrugged, eyebrow raised.
"I may be a client but I am not unwitting,"
"I never denied that," Talin replied, taking the fake diamond from my hand and putting it in its rightful place on his display. "I can't have you stealing my wares, even if they are a little less than what they seem."
"Better than I would expect," I muttered, sending him a questioning glance.
Talin thought a moment before responding, weighing his words carefully, "A good friend gave that to me, he only comes in the spring, and spends the rest of his time in the capital Kiramor. You could say he's as good at what he does as you are at what you do."
"Hmm…" I mused, considering the possibilities.
"Don't think I'll be giving you any names," he growled, "It's bad enough I tell you as much as I do in this business."
I grinned wolfishly back at him, "Talin, you insult me."
He seemed to think it best not to respond and changed the subject, "Now, will you accept, or will I have to tell my poor 'unwitting client' that the great Thief of Lyre is suffering from a severe case of the frights?" And of course I already knew my answer.
My thoughts shifted then, to an image of Ellen, an elderly woman with a kind heart and a face to match. Her husband Leon was next to her, his face hardened by his early years at sea and his subsequent struggles to become an innkeeper afterwards. Laugh lines lined both of their faces though, because despite what they'd been through, they had both produced in each other a sense of humor in life and their shortcomings. They had been my guardians since I first arrived in the city of Lyre.
I had just entered the back kitchen of the inn, taking care to enter the inn seemed my efforts were unnecessary, though, for there they both were, sitting at the table, awaiting my return. I had not been expecting anyone to be awake. In fact, I had been hoping no one was awake. I was returning home after one of my jobs and I had never told them what I did to help bring money home for the inn. I had misrepresented the truth a bit to be quite honest. I was not sure whether they would approve or not, and their approval was something I never wanted to lose. If only I had simply told them. Now I might never have a chance to make things right again.
"Will, I need you to sit down, now," Ellen said, her eyes boring into mine. "There would have been a bowl of soup waiting for you, but you're a little late tonight, now aren't you?" That was a dangerous understatement, and I had a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach.
"I think I'll be okay standing, and no need for soup of course," I said, a picture of casualness. "Thank you for the offer though. I-"
So I sat. And the sinking feeling in my stomach grew more intense as we sat for a moment in silence. Both Ellen and Leon simply stared at me, both of their eyes searching my face. I felt utterly exposed and wished I had some sort of shield to hide behind, or that maybe I could just shrink away into oblivion. Anything so that I wouldn't have to face their piercing stares. The silence stretched on for what seemed like forever. It couldn't have been more than a few seconds though.
"Will," Ellen began in a pleasant, even tone, "We have been raising you for some years. We are proud of who you've become and we've prayed to the goddess every day that you would find your fortune somewhere. That's why, when you told us you had gotten a job in the city working as a scribe for the Docks Master, we were overjoyed. We couldn't possibly be happier. Our Will, a Docks Master's assistant, and maybe even a Docks Master himself one day! Today, I had made some extra apple pie and thought I'd take some over to you. I'd never met your employer before, and I figured you could use some real food for all your hard work. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that the only assistant named Will that he'd ever had had left months ago. And not only that, but that same Will had disappeared on the same night a whole case of fine Alia wine disappeared. He seemed to think that this Will was the culprit."
"That's John for you, always forgetting things," I was floundering now, " It's got me worried. Why, just last week-"
"His name is Jack, Will, and he seemed stable enough."
"Ah, well, that explains it, you must have spoken to the wrong Docks Master," I tried, the pit of my stomach now a tumultuous wreck.
"Do not lie to me Will! I know you haven't been working at the docks for the past four months! Tell me, what have you been doing Will? Where has the money really been coming from, and tell me this," now Ellena's face changed from one of unfathomable fury to one of twisted and confused pain, " Tell me. Why have you been lying to us?"
If I had been feeling bad before, I was feeling sickened with an overwhelming surge of guilt now. I was struck speechless, unable to think of a suitable response to this question. What had been my reasoning before? I had wanted to protect them with ignorance. I had been terrified of what might befall them if I was eventually caught. But most of all, I had been terrified to see the looks on their faces when they learned the truth, and now that it was happening, it was worse than I had imagined.
"Well?" Leon prompted, his voice only just now cutting into the conversation. I brought my eyes up to his, doing my best not to waver, as he had taught me, but I hardly managed it.
"Are you going to offer us an explanation? Or are we to assume you will lie about that as well?"
"I heard you guys talking," I offered.
"What do you mean? Talking about what?" Ellen asked, impatient. She wanted, no needed an answer and she needed one now.
"You don't think I hear you, but I do. With the king's taxes rising and the customers dwindling, you were running out of money. I had to do something. I had the power to help and I couldn't just sit by and watch!"
"You think you're helping us by lying to our faces every day? And to top it all off, you've been using your powers for whatever it is you've been up to. You've neglected to tell us what that is, by the way."
"I…" I paused, all my old fears of capture and their eventual suffering suddenly resurfacing, "I won't lie to you about this, but I can't tell you what I've been doing either. I'm afraid something very bad may happen to you if you know."
"And you don't think we're suffering now?" Ellen asked.
"I think you may suffer worse if you knew and someone wanted to find out." I tried to explain. I wished now more than ever that I had been completely honest with them to begin with. But then, if I had, would we even be at the inn arguing, or would we be in the streets begging? I wanted them to understand that if they knew I was the Thief of Lyre, and it came down to it, they might be imprisoned or worse. I knew them well enough to know they would never give me up for their own safety. Though now, seeing the expressions on their faces and sick with guilt, I wasn't so sure anymore.
"If you can't even come clean about what you've been doing, then how can we ever trust you, again?"
"I'm sorry," I said, and I truly was, "But it's for your own good."
Ellen's face hardened at this. Leon's face was a mask of motionlessness. Another excruciating moment of silence passed.
"Out." It was only one word, but the meanings and emotions it carried had me unable to comprehend for a few moments.
"You heard me, I said out. When you are ready to tell us the whole truth, then you may return home." Ellen's composure remained one of complete severity, the hurt from earlier only visible in her eyes. Her posture remained stoic. I was floored. They had been my guides and the hosts to my very first sanctuary when I had arrived in Lyre. I had never had anyone care for me the way they had. A lump formed in my throat as I realized I'd ruined it all. I could never tell them for fear of their own safety, and I could never return because of that. All because I had lied.
"I'll just be grabbing my things then," my voice was slightly croaky. I wished I could sound calm and unperturbed, but I barely managed to climb up the stairs and grab my few possessions, mostly tools of my trade, and a memento from my childhood, before returning downstairs without running. I didn't look at them as I walked towards the door I had only recently stepped through. I had my hand on the handle when an impulse to tell them everything momentarily stopped me. I stood still for a moment in limb. "I just wish…" then thought better of it and walked out the door without another word.
I should have known better. I'd ruined it all. I would take from this what I could and stride forward. I had now learned never to become too attached. Such was life's way of teaching. And yet, I couldn't keep my stomach from churning or my eyes from brimming.