VOLUME 1|Grand Theft on the Grand Express, part 1

Of all the operations I performed throughout my lifetime, I consider my battle with the Imperial celebrity Narcissa Richmond to be among the most memorable. It proved intriguing to me from the onset alone, when I received her challenge by way of The Observer, a website which served as my chief source of news.

"I – the GLORIOUS MADAME RRRRICHMOND – will defeat and unveil to the world the face of my great rival: THE GRANDMASTER OF THEFT! The world will soon know what I – the MAGNIFICENT MADAME RRRRICHMOND – has already known: That she is just a GUTLESS, POMPOUS FOOL who is unworthy of her PRETENTIOUS title. To prove she DOESN'T DESERVE anybody's fear, I'll stand alone against her and risk one of my greatest treasures: UNDINE'S TEAR! SO COME AT ME, 'NOBLE' THIEF! Face me at THREE PM at Acquiro station this Saturday, where I'll board the E train. I – the SPECTACULAR MADAME RRRRICHMOND – will singlehandedly see to it that the Grandmaster receives an all-expenses paid one way ticket TO JAIL!"

That set my mind ablaze! Her challenge showed so much promise. For starters, there was her process for capturing attention. Not only did it attract various others to attend, it shaped the battlefield to her advantage. Her maneuvers were meant to make me conform to her strategy, her rules. Everything was set by her schedule and the locale was to her advantage. Moreover, she employed the train as an entrapping terrain. The wisest decision when confronted by such terrain was to steer clear of it all together, as they were simple to enter, but strenuous to escape. I'm positive she was conscious of this and exploited it as a deterrent.

Another hazardous factor was her helpers. Her claims of standing alone failed to fool me. The truth of the matter is that she manipulated the Imperial Guard into serving as her bodyguards. Their watchful eyes, particularly with such a powder keg situation, were formidable. The possibility of her planting a couple of bodyguards among the crowd was likewise a factor I had to take into account, given that they'd be indistinguishable from everyone else.

Finally, I suspected she might have rigged the contest. Carrying that out was laughably easy given that she had absolute sway over the item which was supposed to be stolen. Furthermore, it was the wisest course. It's a strategist's duty to leverage any conceivable factor when in the midst of battle. If I was incapable of stealing it, for all intents and purposes, she won.

Honestly, she would've declared checkmate before our game even began its course, were I on par with the better part of the populace. Unfortunately for her, I long realized that schemes and persons much like her were inescapable. Rather than opting out of the game or lamenting the predicament, I sharpened both mind and body. I became a consummate player in the battle of wits. So if she sought a fight, I'd be more than willing to take up her challenge! Besides, I wouldn't have deserved to be called The Grandmaster of Theft if I were outfoxed that easily.

The station was nearly the same as any other time I paid a visit that Saturday. The pearly white walls hosted posters advertising all sorts of businesses and individuals, from the Premiere automobile franchise to news of Beatrice Ashcroft's upcoming performance at the Acquiro Grand Theatre. Hordes of machines catered to the various needs of those present. There were escalators, speakers, security cameras, vending machines, and more. And, naturally, there were the trains themselves, which rumbles periodically echoed throughout.

As for the people, the building was awash in figures from all imaginable backgrounds. Some were young, some old. Some had lighter complexions while others were far darker. Some were couples or groups, such as one I passed who were sharing a bench, while some separated themselves from the others and were preoccupied with things such as their phones or devouring food acquired from the nearby food stalls. Given that The Empire was a cosmopolitan and that the island state of Vedan saw its fair share of immigrants from eastern waters, it was to be expected. In any event, they were all an indiscernible clutter to me. All save for one.

"LADIES, GENTLEMEN, COME ONE, COME ALL! FOR TO-DAY WILL BE A MONUMENTAL DAY WHICH WILL GO DOWN IN HIS-TORY! LO AND BEHOLD IT IS I – the MARVELOUS MADAME RRRRRICHMOND! LISTEN ALL, FOR I – THE RADIANT MADAME RRRRRICHMOND – HAS A TALE TO SHARE! We all know that true glory comes from doing that which none else can do. And that is why I – the MAGNIFICENT MADAME RRRRICHMOND – am going to do the unthinkable, the unheard-of, and inconceivable by CONQUERING the Grandmaster of Theft! In my EXPERT calculations, her chances of succeeding today against my brilliant plan are ZILCH! NADA! NOTHING! My plan is FOOLPROOF! I – the EXCEPTIONAL MADAME RRRRICHMOND – repeat: FOOLPROOF!"

I had to restrain myself from plugging my ears. How any found her blaring captivating was beyond me, personally. Objectively, it lent support to an observation I once read about society craving drama, controversy, and larger than life figures. I find it hard to accept that there was any other explanation for her stardom, or the pack which orbited her with their cellphones brandished. How else could anybody tolerate her presence? Or explain how she could even be regarded as a celebrity despite her accomplishing absolutely nothing? The fact that I was resigned to declare her a celebrity was nothing if not absurd!

That aside, her comments had paved the way for my move.

"Foolproof, you say?" Heads turned towards my direction. "Are you positive you're not being a tad presumptuous?"

"WHO SAID THAT?! HUH?! WHO DARES?!"

I strolled closer, the clicks of my dress boot's heels claiming every tile I stepped on. All before me knew their options: Yield or be trampled. Naturally they parted. After all, my reputation preceded me. My long burgundy hair, which I styled into twintails, was essentially a crown which alerted the better part of the onlookers to my identity. For those who failed to realize who I was, my impeccable ebony power suit – which comprised of a knee length skirt, tights which concealed the remainder of my legs, a snow white blouse, crimson red tie, black gloves, and buttoned up suit jacket – alongside the mesmerized stares of the surrounding bystanders clued them in to my own celebrity.

"Terribly sorry to intrude, but I feel such statements are practically an invitation," I declared as I halted before her then offered my hand. "Please permit me to introduce myself: Cassidy Cain, Heiress to the Cain Dynasty."

We made quite the contrast. I was a noblewoman and presented myself as such. Her appearance seemed more suited for a circus. I possessed a creamy complexion, she a more apricot one. Her dress was an appalling carrot color scheme which exposed her thin legs and generally left little to the imagination above in regards to her bust. I really, really wish it did, but I digress. Her hair was dyed magenta, short, and curly. The final pieces were her overly enormous sun hat which was decorated with flowers and the glimmering, trilliant shaped gem which dangled around her neck.

If there was anything positive to be said, I suppose it's that her attire was arresting. Personally, I say she should've been arrested for wearing such a tacky outfit, but I digress. The more pressing issue at the time was me stealing the spotlight. Naturally, she was not as welcoming of this as everybody else.

"You… Wait, I've heard of you before! I don't know what you're up to, but you better stay out of my way. This is MY contest! MY mission! MY glory! I – THE BRILLIANT MADAME RRRRICHMOND – AM A ONE WOMAN BAND! I don't need your type around here!"

She smacked my hand away.

That would've likely be the point where I'd strangle her, were I someone else. Honestly, the fact that someone hadn't already was astonishing in itself. Regardless, it was of little fuss for I foresaw that reaction. I simply folded my hands behind my back and stayed the course.

"Oh I wouldn't hazard the thought," I casually informed her. "I abhor debacles such as this shall become."

"WH-WHAT?!"

"I…abhor…debacles…such as this…shall become."

Her pointed nails bit into my jacket. She jerked me closer.

"WHO THE HELL ARE YOU TO TALK TO ME LIKE THAT?! HUH!?"

My hands instinctively balled into fists.

I was not particularly fond of being pushed around. Not that she was a threat to me. First, she was devoid of noticeable muscle. I, on the other hand, possessed an overall toned body. It should go without say that having a healthy regime, time, and a desire to not fritter those away at my disposal had its advantage. Secondly, I was schooled in the Crawford Combat Disciple, a fighting system which embraced innumerable grapples and throws. So hurling her as far away as possible, while also freeing me of the heavy stench of perfume radiating from her, was easily achieved.

Fortunately, I thought better. I could ill afford to succumb to impulse. I was groomed to curb such sentiments. I was groomed to be a strategist. And a strategist is, if nothing else, productive. A strategist molds dreams into reality. A strategist steels themselves, selects the most efficient route towards victory, and hardly ever loses sight of the big picture. Thus, I refrained. Words served me instead.

"I repeat: Cassidy Cain: Daughter of Nickolas and Scarlette Cain – the founders and owners of Cain International, Granddaughter of Edan Cain – former advisor to Emperor Alexandros Arkland the Second and mentor to figures which include Sharpe Security's CEO Benjamin Hunter, and one within the good graces of many influential figures such as Alana Arkland – The Imperial Princess and Viceroy of Vedan. I pray I need not reiterate that for not only is it admittedly lengthy, I abhor repeating myself far more than I do inept planning."

Her grip loosened. Her eyes bulged for a second before shifting away from mine.

"Lucky for you, I – the ASTUTE MADAME RRRRICHMOND – don't have the time for pathetic lots like you," she announced as she released me. She turned her back to me and made her bid to flee after.

I jotted a quick mental note about her reaction to my intimidation. I recognized her for precisely what she was: A masked opposite, a person who cloaks their core self by selecting an opposing character. I had suspected as such before, though I sought to confirm before proceeding. Furthermore, if I were incorrect, I predicted that she would've attempted to strike me. That would've resulted in The Imperial Guard intervening, which would effectively throw a wrench into off her schemes.

In any event, words remained my primary weapon. While I was still somewhat peeved about her grabbing me, I simply smoothed out my jacket and proceeded to the next phase.

"Make some. What I have to say to you is out of concern for your safety. Your plan leaves much to be desired and will bring you only tragedy should you persist. If you find that hard to accept, debate me here and now. Unless you're not as assured in your machinations as you claim, Narcissa."

She stopped dead in her tracks. She had to. It was the only way for her to guard her precious ego – or I suppose I should say lack thereof.

"THAT'S MADAME RICHMOND, LITTLE GIRL!" she announced as she promptly jerked back around to face me. "And me, NOT assured?! KYA-HAHAHAHAHAHA! OH THIS IS RICH! GO ON, BRING IT THEN!"

"Many a foe has thought that they were superior to the Grandmaster. And all of them have fallen short. She is a thief who transcends conventional knowledge. You're digging your own grave. I say this as a Cain, on our legacy of wisdom."

"That's it? Really? That's your 'brilliant' reveal'? REALLY?! That was them, this is me! I am THE ONE! I am THE ONLY! I am THE INVINCIBLE MADAME RRRRICHMOND!"

"Do tell, what separate you from the others?"

"How many times do I have to…? MY PLANS AND I AM FFFFOOOOLLLLPPPRRRROOOOOFFFFF! DO I HAVE TO SPEAK LOUDER?!OR DO YOU NOT KNOW WHAT THAT MEANS?! HUH?! DO YOU?! GUESS THOSE PRIVATE SCHOOLS DID YOU NOTHING IF YOU CAN'T FIGURE OUT THAT FOOLPROOF MEANS THAT EVEN A PAMPERED, OVERRATED, COCKY, RICH BITCH LIKE YOU COULDN'T MESS THIS UP!"

"Your words rang hollow no matter the volume," I shot back. "The Grandmaster's accomplishments up until now, however, lend credence far louder than you ever have or will. You'd be wise to heed my warning. I am trying to keep you safe."

"KYA-HA-HA-HA-HA!" Narcissa cackled while dropping her head and holding sides. "Wait, wait, I get it, I GET IT! You're not trying to help me. You're trying to help the Grandmaster, AREN'T YOU?! Or, OR, maybe you ARE THE GRANDMASTER!"

The speculation surrounding us turned to whether or not I was indeed The Grandmaster. I remained a fortress, my head still held high and smile unfazed. A diamond would crack sooner.

"Come now, Narci-"

"MADAME RICHMOND!"

"-ssa. Even you're not that unenlightened. Let's assess the situation. Given the cluster present, why would I step forth if I, being the Grandmaster, can effortlessly slip in without drawing any unwarranted attention and simply steal Undine's Tear from you? Or, if I was dead set on confronting you, why wouldn't I assume a guise, such as that of a man, beforehand? And why do I choose to not even take a precaution or two with my intellectual displays, such as Gabriel the Fool from the fable Generic? I could conceal it by simply not speaking a word or pretending to be some , which would allow me to slip in under everybody's radars."

She rubbed her forehead. "Uh, w-well…"

"Furthermore, I'm a well-documented 'workaholic', a term which I happily embrace for I am enamored with being groomed to lead my family's conglomerate. Can you even conceive of me managing to be a phantom thief on top of handling both my studies and projects? Or even being willing to carry out such hazardous tasks which could compromise my livelihood, were I caught?"

"Um…well…I-I guess you got a point, but, uh… if…if you're really aren't the Grandmaster… YEAH! IF YOU AREN'T THE GRANDMASTER, WHY ARE YOU HERE ANYWAY?!"

"While it needn't concern you, I'm on a trip to Xylen's shopping district. I was merely passing through and considered your preservation. My code of honor dictates I do as such. As my grandfather and parents before me, I use my mind for the greater good of humanity. Of which even you are a member of."

She stood dumbfounded. If I believed in The Pantheon, I would've given them praise for the miracle that was Narcissa remaining silent for ten bloody seconds. However, since it was simply an outgrowth of my efforts, I gave myself an internal pat on the back.

At any rate, I recognized Narcissa's dedication to challenging me. In truth, I suspected as such beforehand. Sadly, for her, that was the key to roping her in.

"Now enough about me. Are you positive you wish to face The Grandmaster?"

"Am I positive? Really? That's your question? REALLY? NO, I'm not positive at all, THAT'S WHY I PUT ALL THIS DAMN TIME AND EFFORT INTO THIS WHOLE FREAKING THING!"

"Then I suppose you wouldn't mind a friendly wager on the outcome."

"Wager?"

"I'm willing to ante up one million crowns of own funds against one million of yours."

"ONE M-M-MILLION!?"

"You've boasted your brilliance and coming success repeatedly up until now," I recalled. "What were your words again? Foolproof? If this is as foolproof as you claim, then this shall be free money. Are you willing to literally put your money where your mouth is? I am."

"O-of course…of course I am. A-ANY CHALLENGE WILL BE OVERCOME BY I – THE CONQUERING MADAME RICHMOND! NAME YOUR CONDITIONS!"

"If you manage to retain Undine's Tear as well as capture the Grandmaster, I'll personally deliver both the sum and an apology to you. Again, a free million, if I'm incorrect. But if I'm not and you fail, you'll donate a million crowns to Cain International's medical branch. Furthermore, the payout shall be delivered by you personally to Cain Manor, directly into my hands. The loser pays this coming Tuesday at noon, no sooner or later. Have we come to an agreement?"

I held out hand once again, my palm tilted slightly downward. She snatched my hand and gave a lackluster squeeze.

"GET MY MONEY READY FOR I – THE REMARKABLE MADAME RICHMOND – SHALL MOP THE FLOOR WITH THE GRANDMASTER OF THEFT! AND YOU! I'M GOING TO SHOW YOU JUST WHY YOU SHOUL'VE KEPT YOUR SMUG ASS BACK IN YOUR MANSION! PLAYTIME'S OVER, KIDDIE!"

"We'll see. I'll concede this plan foolproof if even you can triumph."

She scowled at me then tore away in a huff, blind to the web I weaved.

My schemes employed the principles of maneuver warfare, as my grandfather schooled me in. I took every factor – the terrain, the atmosphere, my resources, their resources, populace, etc. – into account then manipulate them to favor my objectives. Where others were preoccupied with dramatic battles, I aimed to weaken my opposition before confrontation even happened. The best case scenario was when I seized victory without the least bit of bloodshed.

In this instance, Plan A incorporated a deterrence strategy, as I often opened with. The basic concept behind it was to halt conflict from occurring in the first place, which ultimately spared me both the time and energy it took to secure a victory while steering my adversaries clear of the hazards battle presents. I figured that my reputation as the descendant of famous strategists combined with The Grandmaster of Theft would inspire sentiments of dread within her. She'd then yield to me, were I correct. If I was not, I'd still profit due to fact that I crafted my schemes with branches.

Plan B exploited the concept of cognitive dissonance, which draws upon a person's beliefs, attitude, and values. All I required was a commitment from her. All her boasts, all the effort she placed into the challenge, and all the faces present to witness her undertakings sealed both the deal and her fate. There was no turning back once I made the wager. Even if she did not wish to accept it, doing so was the sole means of saving face.

Finally, I sweetened the pot via simply saying free. The word is a trigger for a many. The prospect of easy gain hooked her then I reeled her in with the legally binding handshake.

"Can't go anywhere without making a scene, can you?" a low, mellow voice commented from behind me.

"Only if I have a valid reason not to," I answered without glancing back, given that I knew the soothing sound of my own subordinate, Augustus Wynn.

He too adorned an ebony suit, per my instructions, though he modified it to suit his tastes. His suit jacket was unbuttoned, white shirt never tucked, and he seldom wore a tie, which ultimately ruined the professionalism I aimed for. Beyond that, he appeared utterly unremarkable. His slate hue eyes, oval facial structure, and ebony hair which he usually combed straight back failed to draw practically any attention. Moreover, his olive complexion made it difficult to deduce him as one ethnicity or another. It proved one of the many reasons he made for my unfailing ally. At that time I had entrusted him with my padded black briefcase, which contents were incriminating, to say the least.

"Did you acquire the tickets?" I continued on.

"Yeah, see, about that…"

I spun around, worried that a new complication arose. What I found instead was him flashing the tickets.

"A simple yes would've sufficed," I noted, scowling.

"Yeah, but then I wouldn't get to see that look," he taunted, slyly flashing his whites at me. "Besides, you shouldn't have fallen for it. Aren't you the one who says that to control the world, one must first control themselves? Very unbecoming for a strategist, don't you think?"

Times such as that reminded me something: he, of all people, was my right-hand man. The fact I hadn't become an alcoholic around him can be partially thanked to my refusal to ever even sample that poison. The other half is that he, much to my surprise, proved himself more than capable when he was not slacking. Case in point, he did obtain the tickets, as instructed. So long as his shenanigans caused no harm, I gladly suffered them in exchange for his loyalty.

From there we forged ahead onto the Cross-Continental Express, I with nary a concern. The most left for us to contend with was the possibility of our cabin being wiretapped, which was dubious at most due to the legality of such measures and put that to rest after a thorough sweep. Beyond that, Narcissa was ripe for the picking. My maneuvering a couple of days prior ensured that.

Author's Commentary/Feedback Questions

Greetings ladies and gents! Welcome to my serial novel, Grandmaster of Theft! This here is a project I dreamed up during teenage years and began constructing. This is overall a romanticist epic which will feature action, adventure, mystery, romance, tragedies, horror, comedy, and thrillers. My goal is for anybody to leave this entertained. If someone cares to think about some things presented in stories or learn from it – such as the information surrounding social science, philosophy, tactics, strategy, etc., that's fine by me and I'm glad for it. I do research on all of this and can back it up, for better or worse. But it's not my core objective. I don't care to be some great drama writer, super Shakespearian, a great innovator or anything like that. As long as people leave this feeling it was worth their time and wish to read more, I'm satisfied.

At the bottom I'm going to place various questions which really help me mold the story to better story while staying true to vision. They're things I really want to hear response on. I am open to praise, criticism, and questions beyond that. Praise helps me figure what people respond positively to, criticism assists with things I may not have considered and welcome being challenged. In fact, plenty of revisions made are me acknowledging past criticisms I feel worth addressing while staying true to image. I'm all ears, even if I disagree with. It's still useful.

On side of commentary for this chapter, I've gone through countless (well, I could probably count, but I detest math) approaches early on really. This one I feel is the real keeper though. It pretty much hits everything I wanted. Hopefully everything I aimed for comes across.

First impressions of Cassidy Cain?

First impressions of Narcissa Richmond?

How about her assistant, Augustus Wynn & their relationship so far from the scene at the end?

What do you think of Cassidy's confidence scheme?

Thoughts on Cassidy's approach to hiding her identity with audacity?

Able to follow all the world building throughout?

Feeling hooked to continue on? If so, what in this drew you in?

Anything else?