Prologue: It Takes a Thief…
Cassidy was out of her element. Sitting in the waiting room of Vedan's branch of The Temple of Yewel was the last place anyone would ever expect to find her. Libraries, casinos, corporate offices, club houses, social functions, and the like were more her inclination. Nevertheless, she was there. She had to be there. One of her rules as a thief, of which there were many, was to give anything she stole to those she felt it rightfully belonged to. That was one of the reasons she even became The Grandmaster of Theft.
The few who shared the tiny room with her were unaware that they were in the presence of the empire's noble thief. They weren't even aware that she was Cassidy Cain, the heiress to the Cain fortune and future Chair of the Cain International conglomerate. Like any decent criminal, she understood the value of disguise. She wore a pair of blue jeans and loose fitting long sleeved pink top, donned oval glasses with thick frames, hid the true color of her eyes with brown contacts, cloaked her hair with a long caramel wig, and claimed that her name was Athena Whitwick. She even brought an ID with her in case anybody questioned her identity, not that they did. Instead of the closing wails of sirens or mesmerized awes that Cassidy Cain of all people was there, the only sounds which filled the room were that of a magazine's pages flipping at regular intervals and the clicking of the receptionist's keyboard. It wasn't until she was approached by the man she requested that she drew any attention at all.
"Miss Athena Whitwick?" the man asked.
She stood and gave a slight bowed. "Good day to you, Mister…?"
"Gerard Turner. I'm one of Yewel's humble priests, as you requested. It's a blessing to meet you. How may The Followers be of service to you?"
Cassidy glanced over Gerard. He was what she expected of most from Salerovian lineage: tall, brown eyes, brown hair, sepia toned skin. His craggy oval face, his short frizzy patch of hair, and his carefully clipped thin mustache is what separated him from the others. Still, were these regular circumstances, he would have been just another face in the sea she saw daily. What made him special was the jade robe he wore. It was that simple yet well-kept robe which identified him as a Yewellian priest and thus, her asset.
He wasn't her asset based on the robe alone. It helped, but Cassidy seldom depended solely on objects like badges and wardrobes when verifying someone's identity. Being a swindler, she knew how exploitable such props were. So, before stepping into the temple, she investigated him for a good week. She had his records checked, his bank account monitored, his apartment bugged, and he shadowed. There were no doubts in her mind that he was who he said he was and that she could trust him to serve the role she had in mind.
"Could we go somewhere a bit more private first?" Cassidy asked.
"Of course." He led her away from the waiting room, down a hallway, and into a space the church set aside for private meetings. "This room is sealed shut. There's nothing to worry about. So what would you like to share?"
From her pocket she withdrew a small black cloth. Her slim fingers gracefully untied it and revealed a tear shaped red diamond pendant resting inside.
Gerard leaned in and squinted. "I-is that…?"
"Adora's Tear, yes."
"I…I can't believe it…"
To most people, Adora's Tear was merely an expensive treasure. To The Followers, it was a relic. It is said that it was created when the first Yewellian, Adora, died when trying to spread their teachings. Her bloody tears were said to have been crystallized by Yewel into thirty indestructible stones that serve as a reminder to humanity why violence was never the answer.
"It's a family heirloom," she lied. "My late aunt passed it on to me months ago. I just learned what it's really worth thanks to that whole mess with Narcissa Richmond and The Grandmaster of Theft. That necklace I saw them competing over looked similar to mine, so I looked into it, learned about Adora's Tear and, well, here I am. I've no idea how my aunt got her hands on this, but whatever. I want you all to have it."
His urge to grab it and study it up close was great, but he held back. There were other things that needed to be done first. "We'll have to get it verified to prove it is the real thing. If it is, there's a 500,000 crown reward-"
She placed the necklace into his hand and flashed a gentle smile. "The satisfaction of righting an injustice is a reward in and of itself."
"I – Thank you… You have no idea how much this means! You know, it is people like you that make me certain that humanity will eventually achieve Yewel's dream."
"I sincerely doubt that," she muttered as she turned away. "I'm…not exactly someone your practice would want to have in it."
He patted her shoulder. "There's nobody that our faith won't welcome. If there's something you've done or plan to do which is troubling you or you want to confess, the church is here for you."
She bit down on her lip. "…Is it true that if there is something that someone wishes to get off their chest, The Followers are not just willing to be there for them, you promise absolute confidentiality about anything shared?"
"Yes, it's true. We will never betray your secrets. If there's anything you'd like to discuss, I'm happy to lend you my ear and console."
"I…" She dropped her head and sighed. "I'm really, really, really sorry, but can I have a moment to think about this?"
"Take all the time you need. We'll always be here for you."
She took a seat, clasped her hands around her head, and stared at the ground. "There is something I'd like to discuss," she said after a minute of contemplation, "but is it alright if we do this elsewhere? And in a few days from now?"
"We'll need to register the meeting in our system and perform a background check on you first, just to be safe. Are you okay with that?"
"Yes, that's no problem at all."
She took a piece of paper from a nearby table, jotted down a number, then handed it over. "Contact me whenever you're ready."
Cassidy departed not long after that, smiling the entire way. Everything proceeded according to plan.
Three days passed. Both sides went about their preparations. On Gerard's end, he turned over Adora's Tear to their high priest, who contacted their headquarters outside of The Empire. It was inspected, confirmed to be the genuine article, and then whisked off to their main temple, where it joined the others. After that, they hired a service outside of their church to inspect Athena Whitwick. While they were excellent inspectors, they couldn't best Cassidy's cover story. Gerard contacted Cassidy with complete ease after that and they made a deal to meet at Acquiro's very own Maleperduis, where Cassidy set the stage. It was at this bar where everything would converge.
Chatter of all sorts roared from the sea of people who roamed the warm space that was Maleperduis. Some huddled around the bar counter, where an attractive male bartender entertained with flashy stunts. Others were seated in front of one of the televisions mounted on the wall, watching Tennis on a sport's channel while tearing into food that was brought to them by women in sleek black dresses.
Gerard took everything in with a bit of delight. However, his admiration was cut short by an unfamiliar voice. "Are you Gerard Turner?"
The voice belonged to a young man dressed in an ebony suit who stood behind him. He was a man of average height who had crow black hair which was neatly combed back and light bronze skin which made it difficult to determine his ethnicity. His facial features did not help the matter; his gray eyes were an elongated oval shape, his nose short and straight, and his cheekbones low. His only distinguishable trait was the pair of aviator sunglasses which preceded his forehead.
"Yes I am," Gerard answered. "And you are?"
"Here to escort you," he replied, his voice complete business. "Miss Athena is waiting upstairs for you."
They made their way up four flights of stairs, the escort at an easy pace while Gerard dragged his feet. They passed room after room until they arrived at the VIP lounge.
The young man stopped at the door and held up his hand. "Wait here for a second," he instructed then slipped into the room. When he stepped back out, he came with a long electronic rod wrapped in his hand. "Miss Athena has two requests before you enter. First, turn off your phone and leave it with me. You'll get it back when this is all over. Second, you let me check you with this for any bugs."
"Um, if you don't mind me asking, why all the secrecy? Her background check didn't say anything about all this."
"Miss Athena will explain everything inside. If you get inside. All she wants is for those two things to happen first. I can't let you pass until that's taken care of. It's your call if you go any further or not."
He removed his phone from his pocket and handed it to the escort. "No, it's okay. Do what you must."
Sweat formed on Gerard's head as the man ran the lengthy device up and down his person. Just what was the man guarding? What kind of world was he about to enter? He peeked at the stairs. It wasn't too late to turn back. He hadn't learned anything that could get him killed or anything like that. Yet he couldn't bring himself to leave. He had given his words that he would meet Athena Whitwick that night. He had a duty to perform.
"Alright, you can enter," the man said upon completing the scan. "Word of advice, don't try anything. She's not someone you want to get on the wrong side of. Best case scenario, she'll have me take care of you."
With that as his parting words, the man opened the door and Gerard entered into the VIP room.
The chatter and odors from below dissolved. The air was now rich with the sweet fragrance of strawberries. Bright lights showered down from the ceiling to reveal a room with walls that were decorated gold and had massive television monitors on them. The floor was covered with a soft carmine carpet that had a simple circular design across and furnished with leather club chairs. The room, in Gerard's estimations at least, lived up to its name.
Although the room was spacious enough to host a party of thirty five if necessary, it was devoid of almost anybody. The one exception, Gerard aside, was a girl. She sat in the chair opposite the entrance with perfect posture, her legs crossed, and her chin resting on her hand. She wore a smile that could disarm an army.
"Good evening, Mister Turner," she greeted with a clear, articulate voice. "I offer my sincerest apologies for the cloak and dagger routine. My circumstances force me to tread with caution. Can I interest you in a drink? I can conjure up whatever concoction you desire, so long as it's non-alcoholic."
"You're… not Athena Whitwick…" Gerard observed.
The first thing that drew his eye was her long auburn hair, as it did with most. Natural redheads were rare sight in The Alexandros Empire. She wore her hair in a hime cut, which was also near alien to the empire. It framed her diamond shaped face well. Another one of her attributes which stood out was her narrow shaped pine green eyes. That, alongside her red hair, clued him into her Arcan ancestry. Her less notable traits were her long straight nose, slender eyebrows, and bow shaped lips, her upper lip thicker than the bottom. The one thing she had which was more common with Imperials was her creamy skin.
Like her ally, she wore an ebony suit. Her own was composed of a long sleeved jacket, knee length skirt, stockings, ankle boots, and choker necklace. The only articles of her appearance which wasn't black were her red tie, snow white blouse, and her lips and fingernails which she had painted a light shade of pink. The clothes themselves were impeccably well made and tailored to showcase her slender, toned figure. She left no doubt that she came from high society.
"I am, depending on how you perceive things," she said. "Athena Whitwick is one of the various guises I assume whenever I've fieldwork which requires me to conceal my true identity."
"Then who are you really? And what do you want with me?"
"Who I am is Cassidy Cain, heiress to the Cain fortune and everything which lies within its reach. As for what I seek, I've been forthright from the onset. I wish to speak with you in private and the church failed to provide me the same solace as this bar." She gestured towards the chair across from her. "Will you please take a seat?"
Gerard stayed rooted in place for a second. Something about Cassidy felt off. The only thing that moved him to take the chair was his sense of duty.
"Would you please indulge me for a moment and answer a question of mine?" she asked once he seated himself.
"What manner of things have you heard about me?"
"I don't keep up with that kind of stuff, so I don't know much." He paused and shut his eyes. Her name was a familiar one. "I think I heard about you doing some high stakes gambling or something like that. And maybe something about you doing charity work?"
"I was hoping for more, but no matter. Both of those facts are indeed true. Another fact that you might find intriguing to learn is that I am The Grandmaster of Theft."
Gerard did a double take. While he wasn't the most pop culture sensitive person, that was a persona that not even he could avoid hearing of. "Y-y-you're kidding, right? I mean, you're…" His mouth gaped. "…you're still just a kid!"
She snickered. "I am by no means a child. In fact, I'll officially be twenty in two weeks."
"That's still pretty young to be a thief like The Grandmaster. Or a thief at all."
"You'd be amazed what you can accomplish when you've been groomed in all sorts of topics, come from a moneyed background, and, most importantly, wish to learn. Do you honestly believe I'd devote this much time and effort to a prank?"
Gerard made no immediate reply. Her words made sense, but still, her, The Grandmaster? The Grandmaster of Theft was an infamous thief known for a number of things. Sometimes she stole treasures from heavily guarded environments then returned the items days later. Other times she was a detective who unearthed evidence which exposed corrupted entities to the public and robbed these same individuals of their valuables. No matter what she was up to, she was a phantom. She left little evidence, if any, regarding her involvement outside of her calling cards, which could be identified as hers by a crimson fox head and wavy tail insignia. The only commonly accepted fact about The Grandmaster was that she was a she, and even that was questioned by a fair number of people. To picture The Grandmaster of Theft and Cassidy Cain as one and the same was just a tall task.
"I don't think you would," he admitted, "but…how? How could you have possibly learned to be a master criminal at your age? And why wouldn't anybody notice?"
"I've invest a great deal of my time into developing myself in a number of ways. It's not as if simply being born my family's heir miraculously bestowed me with the skills a leader must have, nor does it earn me the respect of those I'm to lead."
"But what does that have to do with being a criminal? Unless your family's-"
"My family's business practices are anything but illegal. I'll thank you not to insult them."
There was a subtle sense of gravity to her words. Gerard decided it best not to press that point again.
"Anyway," she went on, "some of the skills I acquired for the corporate world and upper echelon translate well to the criminal underworld. Honestly, the fundamentals of many things I've familiarized myself with can be applied in numerous fields."
"Still, is that really all it takes? I mean, what kind of skills could you have possibly gotten to make you a master thief?"
"It taught me a great deal about people, at the very least. And that in turn enabled me to gather my crew and associates, which bolsters my influence. As the saying goes, 'Behind every able man are other able men'. I'm fortunate enough to possess a capable, versatile crew who can cover the angles I cannot. For instance, the man who escorted you here is one of my accomplices. Well, I imagine you already surmised as much, it's not that much a puzzler, but regardless, his name is Augustus Wynn. If you ever speak with him again, please address him as Wynn. He's not particularly fond of being called by his first name. Anyway, on the surface, he's my bodyguard and chauffeur. In the criminal underworld, there are a number of names for what he does: heavy, muscle, hitter, enforcer. You can select whichever you prefer. The task is ultimately the same."
Thug, Gerard thought but didn't say for fear of offending her.
He was right that he would have bothered her. The idea of classifying her right hand man, and more importantly her close friend, as a thug was something she'd consider an insult to him and, by association, her. His fear was misplaced though; she wouldn't have harmed him. Another rule of hers was to do her utmost to not harm innocents. The worst thing she would have done was lecture him on the difference between thugs and professionals like Wynn.
At any rate, the command with which she spoke was persuasive. That, of course, gave way to more questions.
"Alright, let's say you're actually The Grandmaster of Theft. Why? You don't have any reason to risk your neck. What do you get out of this?"
"Why are you a priest? Why did you join The Followers?"
"To help people, of course."
"We have that in common then. Are you familiar with noblesse oblige?"
He shook his head. "I'm sorry, but I haven't."
"Noblesse oblige is a concept I came by when studying Un Cri Au Devoir. The author argues that nobility extends beyond entitlements, that we with power, wealth, and prestige should hold ourselves to a higher standard and contribute more to society as we can make a greater difference. Since the world is a much friendlier place to those of my standing, what's minor to us can be life changing to someone else. I wish to utilize that to make the world a friendlier place for those with less than me."
"But why must you be a criminal to do that? How does being a criminal help anyone? If you really want to help people, there are other options out there. Especially for someone like you."
"I won't disagree that there are other options available to me. However, the same sadly cannot be said for those who I come to the aid of. Tell me, how well were your people fairing at retrieving Adora's Tear without me? Was the Imperial government all that accommodating?"
Gerard clenched his jaw. She didn't need to elaborate on all that had happened there. He knew all about The Osion Purge and the substantial fallout.
It all began with Gregory the Fourteenth, who was then the King of Osion, and his policy that those who inhabited his country were either with him or against him. Since The Followers who lived there refused to fight for him because of their antiviolence stance, he judged them ingrates who did not deserve to remain in his country. He outlawed The Followers then banished them from the country. When The Followers argued that they could not leave for The First Temple rested there, Gregory responded with force. A vast majority of their people were slaughtered. The temple was ransacked then scorched. The jewels were saved solely because they were secured by a priestess named Tai Emmons before she fled with her family. Their exodus, however, was far from perfect. They were hunted like animals and hid in the darkest corners of Osion.
They eventually found a smuggler who was willing to escort them to asylum, but at a price: they had to give up five of the diamond necklaces. Faced with the decision of protecting her family or protecting the holy relics, Tai chose her family and was smuggled into The Alexandros Empire, where their family and many others were accepted as refugees. The smuggler would go on to sell them to five different sources. Those five would then collect or sell them, as they saw fit.
The Followers of Yewel did try to retrieve each of them. A case where it was an absolute defeat was that of Narcissa Richmond. Narcissa, a media personality who obtained one of the necklaces as a gift during an affair of hers, refused to turn over the necklace when requested to. When they tried to fight her in court, they were trounced by her lawyers. The law would not restore the amulet to them on the grounds that they were nonetheless the ones who sold them in the end. The circumstances surrounding why didn't matter. The initial deal, and all which followed, had to be honored. Stripping her of Adora's Tear was deemed unfair.
There wasn't a single Follower who didn't resent that decision to some degree or another. There also wasn't a single one who didn't despise Narcissa for what she would do next.
"I'm willing to cut a deal with The Followers," Narcissa told them, "if you can get five hundred thousand crowns. Get five hundred thousand and I'll sell this to you."
And they did. It took months, but they did it. When it came time for the exchange, Narcissa's tune changed. "You know, after thinking about it for so long. I'm finding that I'm more attached to this than I realized. It's going to take more money if I'm going to sell. How about you get a million crowns? We can talk then."
Both The Followers and various people in the public were disgusted by this, though it changed nothing. Narcissa was the legal owner. She could do whatever she pleased with it. And that played right into Cassidy's hands.
"The reality I've found is that sometimes doing what's conventionally considered good – being friendly, adhering to the laws, showing mercy, telling the truth – is not enough to ensure that the right things occur," Cassidy went on with a hint of bitterness. "Sometimes the only options people are left with are to either yield to these tormentors, to allow them to prosper in spite of why they're prospering, or to do something 'bad' to set things right. It's when predicaments such as these arise that we become a factor. We're 'the villains' so people like you don't have to be."
Gerard tried to form words, but couldn't. He wanted to argue with her, to tell her that her path was the wrong one, that there was nothing that a thief could ever do to help anyone. But he didn't. He couldn't bring himself to. She truly had helped them. In that moment, Adora's Tear became more than just a religious relic or another score; it became the key to influencing Gerard's heart – as Cassidy had planned.
A lesson Cassidy learned growing up was the power of demonstration. She felt that words alone, as much as she enjoyed using them, were a dime a dozen and that actions and demonstrations were far more meaningful when persuading opposing sides. After all, anyone could say or cite something in the heat of the moment to support their cause. Doing so didn't actually prove anything. In fact, she found that the opposing side was likelier to raise their defenses or resent what was said. Actions and results however left no room for debate.
It was the mix of her actions and words which drew Gerard in. And that bothered him more than anything else.
"I…really don't think there's anything someone like me can do for you," Gerard said as he stood to leave. His eyes flew to the door. Just a few steps and he would be away from the siren song that was Cassidy Cain.
"That's where you are wrong, Mr. Turner," Cassidy said. "I summoned you here because I'm in need of your assistance in particular. I'm presently preparing for what shall likely be a lengthy campaign and there's a role I wish for you to assume in it."
He continued to cross the room. "I will not be an accomplice to any crimes."
"I'm not asking you to be. Quite the opposite, actually. I wish for you to convince me to not commit a crime."
Gerard's stride faltered. "Wh-what? I… Why me?"
"I once read that sometimes the best approach to overcoming a problem is to introduce someone who possesses an alternate perspective, who thinks differently from those already involved. They might be able to offer an idea which would have otherwise gone unnoticed. I've such a dilemma and you see the world in a way I do not. Ergo, you might possess the answer I currently lack. So would you be so kind as to help me?"
"…I'll need to know what the crime is first."
His eyes nearly popped out of his head. "You're planning to murder someone?!"
"I've yet to plan the actual deed. I'm simply entertaining the thought and would like you to talk me out of it. Oh and for the record, this is not something I'd typically do. The reason I am now is due to this… calling them a person is generous, but it'll suffice. This person I encountered recently has forced me to contemplate taking their life. It's…perplexing. On one hand, I rather not murder anyone. These lives we lead are, to the best of my knowledge, all we have. So when a life is stolen, the perpetrator steals everything."
"Then why are you even considering killing someone?"
"…Because there are some things in this world which cannot and should not be tolerated or absolved." Her nails, which bite into her chair's arms, were the only thing that betrayed her otherwise composed outer shell. "Before I continue, allow me to make one thing clear: I will punish this person for what they've done. That is not open to debate. What we're doing here is less about answering the question of if I should do anything to them and more about what will I do to them. Don't squander my time trying to persuade me otherwise or try to interfere with my operations. While I've no desire to harm you, I'll do what I must if you force my hand. Do we have an understanding?"
Gerard needed that seat more than ever then as his knees jellied. It was not just the fact that she had threatened him, but the way she did it in. Her voice remained as soothingly sweet as ever. Her face was as beautifully composed as when she welcomed him.
"Well I guess it's a good thing you're trying to think of alternatives to murdering someone at least… I'll…do my duty as a priest." He returned to the chair. "So who is it you want to kill? And why?"
"You're going to wind up raising all sorts of questions if I simply tell you who they are and what they've done. What's more, I rather you understand why I feel as I do before you pass judgment. If I'm to do this any justice, I'm going to have to share with you the details surrounding my latest caper from the beginning."
Welcome to The Grandmaster of Theft series! As you can already tell from the prologue, this series is a caper that follows the life & escapades of Cassidy Cain & her criminal crew.
The majority of this novel shall be told in first person. There are more 3rd person scenes to come (Interlude chapters), but I rather have a framing device than just start in first person. One issue I have with 1st person is the question of why. Why is the narrator telling this story at all? And who are they telling it to? What is their agenda? I feel there should always be some sort of intention behind it, something they are trying to accomplish that's motivating them to tell the story. That's just me though.
Also, I suppose I should give one of these "warnings" in advance. Frankly, I hate calling it a warning, but no matter. I have no issues portraying violence, having sexual elements (nothing explicit, not going to throw a sex scene in out of nowhere, but I have no issues at such things existing or being discussed), exploring various ethical themes, featuring homosexuality, and so on.
At the bottom I tend to leave various questions I am curious about response wise. The reason I ask them is because it provides things I can use to better refine the story. The story is in its present state not just because of my imagination and spirit, but because of feedback. I'm an entertainer at the foremost and I need to know what entertains, what people respond to, etc. Of course, I know I can't please everyone, but still, the more I know, the more I can work with and more I can improve. So yeah, if you'd be willing to answer things there, point out what you enjoy and don't, I'd appreciate it and will use it to make a better experience!
What is your first impression of this series?
Did this prologue draw you in? If so, what did it for you?
What is your first impression of Cassidy Cain?
How about Gerard Turner so far? What are your thoughts on him?
The story surrounding Adora's Tear, what do you think about that?
Your thoughts on Narcissa Richmond so far as she's setup to be an antagonist?
Any questions, comments, compliments, criticisms, or so forth?