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 one of the last places 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. It's where she had to be. One of her rules as a thief, of which there were many, was to give anything she stole to those who she felt it rightfully belonged to. That was one of the reasons why she became The Grandmaster of Theft in the first place.
The few who shared the tiny room with her were completely unaware that they were in the presence of the empire's own 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 her name was Athena Whitwick. She even brought an ID with her in case anybody questioned her identity, not that they did. The only sounds which even filled the otherwise silent room were that of the pages of a magazine 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 even drew attention.
"Miss Athena Whitwick?" the man asked.
She stood and gave a brief bow. "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 performed a swift read of Gerard. He was what one would expect of most Salerovian descendants: tall, brown eyes, brown hair, sepia toned skin. As an individual, he was nothing to write home about, but not hideous either. His face was oval, his hair a short frizzy patch, and his thin mustache carefully clipped. He would have been just another face to her were it not for the jade robe he wore that identified him as a Yewellian priest. It was that plain robe and all it represented which turned him into her asset.
He wasn't her asset based on the robe alone however. It helped, but Cassidy rarely depended on objects like badges and wardrobes alone when verifying someone's identity. She had seen far too many fall prey to such props. So, before stepping into the temple, she had Gerard Turner investigated for a week. His records were checked, his bank account monitored, his apartment bugged, and he was shadowed by one of Cassidy's operatives. There were no doubts in her mind that he was who he claimed 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 one of the spaces 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 diamond necklace resting inside.
"I…I can't believe it…" Gerard leaned in for a closer look. It was indeed what he thought it was: Adora's Tear.
"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 really similar to mine, so I looked more into it, learned about the stories surrounding 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."
He wanted to reach right out and grab it, to study it up close, 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-"
"The satisfaction of righting an injustice is a reward in and of itself," she said as she placed the necklace into his hands and flashed a gentle smile.
Gerard was at a complete loss. To receive Adora's Tear – for free, no less – was one of the last things he expected to happen that or any other day. When he finally found the words, he said "I- …Thank you… You have no idea how much this means. You know, it is people like you make me all the more certain that humanity will eventually achieve Yewel's dream."
"I sincerely doubt that," she deflected, lowering her head. "I'm…not exactly someone that your practice would want to have in it."
He placed his hand on her shoulder and assured her, "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'd like to confess to, the church is here for you."
She grew quiet and 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 only 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'll be more than happy to lend you my ear and console."
"I…" She dropped her head and sighed. "I'm really, really sorry, but can I have a moment to think about this?"
"Take all the time you need," he said warmly. "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 at last, "but is it alright if we do it elsewhere? And in a few days?"
"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 too long after that, smiling the entire way.
A few 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 and happily confirmed to be the genuine article. They then whisked it off to their main temple, where it joined the others. After that, they hired a service outside of their church to perform a background check on Athena Whitwick. While they were excellent inspectors, they were not enough to 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.
A lively atmosphere was the first thing to welcome all patrons. Chatter of all sorts roared from the sea of people who roamed the cozy space. 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 – which was a highly respected sport in The Empire – on a sport's channel while tearing into a large pepperoni pizza that was brought to them by women in sleek black dresses. And that was just the first floor alone.
Gerard took everything in with a bit of delight. However, his admiration was cut short by an unfamiliar voice who asked, "Are you Gerard Turner?"
He turned to see a young man dressed in an ebony suit standing behind him. He was a tall man with crown black hair which he neatly combed back and light bronze skin which made it difficult to determine his ethnicity. He could have been a direct Imperial descendant, an immigrant's child, or perhaps even a mixture of the two. There were simply far too many possibilities to conclude anything. His facial features did not help to the matter either. He had one of the most unremarkable faces to ever grace humanity. Unless you were a close acquaintance of his, each meeting with him felt like a first because he was so forgettable.
The first thought which passed through Gerard's mind was that of who was he and why was he asking. Of course, the only way to answer that was to answer him first.
"Yes I am. And you are?"
"Here to escort you," he announced, his voice complete ice. "Miss Athena is waiting upstairs for you."
They made their way up four flights of stairs, passing room after room until they arrived at the VIP lounge on the fourth floor. His guide stopped in front of a door and held up his hand, signaling for the man to stop.
"Wait here for a second," the escort instructed then slipped into the room, leaving Gerard with his thoughts. When the young man stepped out of the door, he only added to the mystery for Gerard. He brought a bug sweeper out with him. "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?" Gerard inquired. "Her background check didn't say anything about all this."
"Miss Athena will explain all of that when you get 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 want to go any further."
He removed his phone from his pocket and handed it to the escort. "No, it's okay. Do what you must."
Chills raced up Gerard's spine as the man ran the lengthy device up and down his person. He thought more on the possible world he was about to enter. A part of him considered turning back before he went any further. After all, he knew not what danger could possibly await him if he learned what was being so closely guarded. Nevertheless, he stayed. He had given his word he would meet with Athena Whitwick that night and hear her confession. That's what mattered most to him, for better or worse.
"Alright, you can enter," he decided upon completing the scan. "Word of advice, don't try anything. 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 VIP room lived up to its name. The walls were painted gold and large monitors rested on the walls. It was furnished with leather chairs and sofas, each given a good deal of space between one another. The chatter and scents of people from below dissolved there, leaving only solitude and a pleasant hint of flowers in the air. The room, while large enough to hold a party of fifty if necessary, was devoid of almost anybody. The one exception, Gerard aside, was a girl – the true Cassidy Cain.
Even if she wasn't the only person in the room, she would have drawn attention. First there was the way she carried herself. She sat at one of the chairs with perfect posture, legs crossed, and her hand to her chin. Her eyes probed him.
Her second mesmerizing quality was the way she appeared, physically. The first thing that drew his eye was her long auburn red hair, as it did with most. Natural redheads like her were rare inside of The Alexandros Empire. She wore her hair in a hime cut, another element foreign to The Empire; the style was far more popular in The Doran Republic, a country located on the other side of the world. It framed her diamond shaped face well. Another one of her attributes which stood out was her pine green eyes, which were shaped somewhat like a foxes. It was that combined with her red hair that clued Gerard on her Arcan ancestry. Her less notable traits – none of which detracted from her beauty – were her long straight nose, slender eyebrows, and bow shaped lips, her upper lip thicker than the bottom. The only thing she had which was more common with Imperials was her creamy skin and even that was notable in how perfect it appeared. Though she was clearly young – at least somewhere in her late teens, she was free from blemishes and the model of health.
Finally, there was the way she dressed. Like her ally, she wore an ebony suit. Her own outfit was composed of a long sleeved jacket, knee length skirt, stockings, knee boots, and choker necklace. The only articles of her appearance which wasn't black were her red tie, white blouse, and her lips and fingernails which she 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 was a member of high society.
"Good evening, Mister Turner," she greeted with a soft-spoken, articulate voice. "I offer my humblest apologies for the cloak and dagger routine. My circumstances force me to tread with caution."
He moved in closer and got a better view of her. "You're… not Athena Whitwick…"
"I am, to an extent. It's one of the 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?"
"Who I am is Cassidy Cain, heiress to the Cain fortune and everything which lies within its reach. As for what I want, I've been forthright about that from the onset. I wish to speak with you in private. Will you please take a seat?"
She gestured towards the chair across from her. Gerard decided it best to comply, having come this far.
"Would you please indulge me for a moment and answer a question of mine?" she asked.
"What manner of things have you heard about me?"
"I really don't keep up with that kind of stuff, so I really don't know any more than anyone else." He took a second to scan through his memories as the name of Cassidy Cain was a familiar one. He didn't find much, but he did find something. "I think I heard something about you doing some high stakes gambling or something like that. That and I've heard a little bit about you taking part in some charity work."
"I was hoping you'd know more, but no matter. Both of those facts are indeed true. Another fact that you might find intriguing is that I'm The Grandmaster of Theft."
Gerard did a double take.
"Y-y-you're kidding, right? I mean, you're…" He paused, mouth gaping. There were a number of comments and questions which he wanted to raise. "You're still just a kid!" was what he picked.
Cassidy met his question with a bemused smile. "I am by no means a child. In fact, I'll be twenty in a couple of weeks."
"That's still pretty young to be a thief."
"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. Besides, do you honestly believe I'd devote this much time and effort to a prank?"
Gerard made no immediate reply. What she said made sense, but he still found it hard to believe. The Grandmaster of Theft was an infamous vigilante who stole evidence that exposed corrupt entities to the public. Doing so made her numerous enemies, though none were able to do anything about it as she was a phantom. Picturing that master thief and Cassidy Cain as one in the same was something Gerard just couldn't see. He just couldn't believe that she alone had all the skill needed to accomplish all that and more.
"I don't think you would," he answered, "but…how?! How could you have possibly learned to be a master criminal at your age? And why wouldn't anybody notice?!"
"The skills weren't exactly intended for theft," she answered. "As said, I'm heiress to the Cain fortune, which puts me in line to become the future owner and CEO of my family's company. Simply being born their heir doesn't exactly make me a fit leader, however, nor does it earn respect. So I've devoted a large amount of time to developing myself. It's my way of proving I deserve my inheritance, not because of my birth, but because of my personal worth. When I decided to become a thief as well, I found the skills I developed translated well to the criminal underworld. Beyond that, as the proverb 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. Case in point, the man who escorted you here is one of my accomplices. 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 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 is lecture him on the difference between thugs and Wynn.
At any rate, the confidence with which she spoke made him believe that she was the real deal. That, of course, raised even more questions.
"Alright, let's say you're actually The Grandmaster of Theft," he continued. "Why? You really don't have any reason to risk your neck. I really don't see what you get out of this."
"Why are you a priest? Why did you join The Followers?"
"To help people, of course."
"We have much in common then. Are you familiar with noblesse oblige?"
He shook his head. "I'm sorry, but I have not."
"That's fine," she said in a comforting voice. "I enjoy explaining things to people anyway. Noblesse oblige is a concept I came by when studying the Florian philosopher Tabitha Alvarez. She 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 great difference. Everything I do as The Grandmaster can be traced back to this notion. I help those with less than me because I can help. I thwart those who abuse their power because they won't help."
"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."
"This is true. There are a number of other options available to me. The same sadly cannot be said for those 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 actually talk about the case's details. There wasn't a Follower alive who didn't know the story.
The story behind Adora's Tear was one bathed in tragedy. If The Followers were to be believed, their misfortune began many eras ago, back when the world was young and after Yewel – the architect of humanity – had ascended back to where he had come from before creating humanity. Before leaving, Yewel left humanity volumes on how they must act if they wish to join them in paradise. The first Follower, Adora, tried to spread these teachings with the earlier Followers, but there were those who resisted. Eventually that resistance turned to defiance and that defiance resulted in death, Adora's included. As she died, her bloody tears were crystallized by Yewel into thirty indestructible red diamonds which were meant to serve as a reminder to humanity why violence was never the answer. The earlier followers turned these into necklaces and placed them inside of Adora's home, which would evolve into the First Temple of Yewel.
Whether or not any of that is true is unverifiable. Cassidy personally considered it to be yet another fable invented by yet another religion to get whatever they wanted. It was interesting, but fundamentally no different than the tales she told to swindle her marks. That story alone simple wasn't enough to move her into lending her power. What was enough was The Osion Purge.
The catastrophe 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 decided that they were ingrates who did not deserve to remain in his country. He outlawed The Followers and 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 only reasons the jewels were saved was 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 would be 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, the priestess chose her family and was smuggled into The Alexandros Empire, where their family – and many others who eventually came – was 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 repeatedly try to retrieve each of them. One of the cases 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 one of her affairs, refused to turn over the necklace when asked. 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 still 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. It would have been unfair to Narcissa for them to strip her of Adora's Tear.
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 to them next.
"I'm willing to cut a deal with The Followers," Narcissa announced, "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 were able to. 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 far more money if you want me to sell. How about you get a million crowns and then we'll talk."
Both The Followers and various people in the public were disgusted by this, though it changed nothing. Narcissa was the legal owner. She was free to do whatever she pleased with it. Targeting her career as an indirect means of affecting her was a worthless gesture too. Narcissa's entire career was a case study of there being no such thing as bad publicity. In the end, she was legally untouchable. 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 said decisively. "I wish they were, truly I do, but there is no power to be found in deceiving myself. Sometimes the only options people are left with are to either yield to their tormentors and be a victim or to do what's conventionally considered '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 he 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. So long as she had retrieved Adora's Tear for The Followers, his gratitude would not fade. 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. Actions and demonstrations are far more powerful and meaningful when persuading opposing sides. After all, anyone can say or cite something in the heat of the moment to support their cause. Doing so doesn't actually prove anything. In fact, the opposing side is more likely to raise their defenses or might even resent what's said. Actions and results however leave no room for debate. It was her actions combined with her words which drew him in. And that bothered him more than what she said.
"I…really don't think there's anything someone like me can do for you," he finally managed to say as he stood to leave. He had hoped to flee as quickly as possible, before she tempted him more.
"That's where you are wrong, Mr. Turner," Cassidy said primly. She had no intentions of letting him leave at this juncture. "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 operation and there's a role I wish for you to assume in it."
"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."
"Wh-what? I…" Of the number of things which caught him off guard that day, that took first place. "Why me?"
"I once read that sometimes the best approach to overcoming a problem is to introduce someone from outside of one's own department who is part of the minority, who possesses an alternate perspective to those already involved. They might be able to offer new ideas which would have gone otherwise unnoticed. I've such a dilemma and you see the world in a way I do not. Thus, you might be of use to me. So will you please help me?"
"…I'll need to know what the crime is first."
"Murder," she nonchalantly answered.
"What?! You're planning to murder someone?!"
"I've yet to actually plan the deed. I'm simply entertaining the thought. To note, this is not something I'd do under normal circumstances. The reason I am now is due to this… calling them a person is generous, but it'll suffice. Regardless, they've forced me to contemplate taking their life. It's…perplexing, to say the least. On one hand, I rather not murder anyone. Life is, to the best of my knowledge, all we have. To kill means to steal life. When life is stolen, everything is stolen."
"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 them 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 operation. 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 went weak. 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," he said as he returned to the chair. "I'll do my duty as a priest. 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 follows the life & escapades of Cassidy Cain & her crew of thieves as she practices her own brand of noblesse oblige. Sometimes cases are on the lighter end of the spectrum, with eccentric characters and comedy, while other times the story leans to the darker side of the equation, with darker themes & tragic elements. Whatever the case, the crew will do whatever they can to accomplish their ends, whether it's by hook or by crook.
To note, the majority of the story 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 this way? This is not a question of why the creator chose first person, but the question of why the character is telling this story at all. That and sometimes, 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.
At the bottom I tend to leave various questions I am curious about response wise. The reason I ask them is because it does provide 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, I'd appreciate it and will use it to make a better experience!
What is your first impression of the series & the premise as a whole so far?
Did this prologue overall draw you into the story?
What is your first impression of Cassidy Cain, both as herself and in relation to being a thief?
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 the antagonist?
Any questions, comments, compliments, criticisms, or so forth?