Raven, Chapter 12

Aven and I worked hard to bring in loyal followers. They were shy of following a girl, but I proved myself to them. I was a good leader, kind, but firm, giving, yet demanding. My followers were steadfastly loyal. Finally, it was time to face the remaining Thief Lords to establish myself as one of them. It was Aven who gave me my new name. He put an “R” before his own name, to signify I came from him, and called me Raven.”

-writing on the cell wall

 

She couldn’t sleep. The sun had risen, but she couldn’t sleep. No matter what she did, she just couldn’t sleep. So, she took Onna and Salaida and Kythi to the bath house. A good soak might do her body some good, and it helped that the water was warm.

Raven was furious with herself. She had just barely missed murdering Sarlik as he slept. She had just barely missed feeling his blood on her hands. She had just barely missed getting her revenge for Aven’s death.

Onna was wary of her mistress. Raven was stewing, but she wouldn’t speak. She guessed that Raven’s mission had failed, but she didn’t know how or why. Raven never failed at a job.

Now, Raven was sunk down up to her neck. Her eyes were closed and her head was leaning back on a rolled towel. Onna could see her body was tense and her lips were pressed in a firm line. Raven was very displeased.

Salaida and Kythi kept their distance, following Onna’s silent instructions, communicated to them through subtle gestures. The two young girls were to keep their distance and serve Raven silently and quickly. She didn’t know what Raven’s mood was, but could tell she was tightly coiled.

Cautiously, Onna dared to approach, swimming to join Raven at her side. After all, she was the young woman’s adviser. If she couldn’t get close, who could? Aven had trained her well and she knew he would have gone to her side. Of course, she wasn’t Aven, but she was hand-picked and trained by him to take his place. That had to count for something.

Raven felt a disturbance in the water as Onna slowly approached her. She barked out a laugh, startling the girl. “Aven would do the same. He trained you well, Onna,” she said without opening her eyes.

“He did select me, Raven,” Onna said quietly, cautiously. “If you can’t trust me, who can you trust?”

Slowly, Raven blinked open her eyes and turned to look at Onna. The girl was almost blown away from the depth of Raven’s grief evident in her dark eyes. Raven was far beyond tears; now her eyes were just veiled, but the overwhelmingly sadness could not be masked.

“I left him to die,” Raven whispered. “I left his body to others. I should have brought him home. Why didn’t I bring him home?”

“You did what you had to. You did what Aven would have wanted you to.”

Raven turned away from Onna. She couldn’t stand the look of sympathy on the girl’s face. Aven would have just told her things happen and she had to take them, otherwise why should she call herself a Thief Lord. He was hard on her, but he knew just how far he could go. He had always pushed her, pulled her, stretched her. There was no one else who could do that for her, not even his hand-picked successor.

“Leave me, Onna,” Raven said, her voice tired.

Raven took in a deep breath and then closed her eyes and leaned her head back. Onna looked at her for a moment, watching her breathe and mourn, before turning away and rejoining the bath attendants.

“Is she okay?” Kythi asked in a hushed tone. The petite fourteen-year-old was new and had been taken in to be a bath attendant, a protector to Raven. She was still in awe of the young Thief Lord.

Onna turned to look over her shoulder at their quiet mistress. The water was hardly disturbed around her body. She almost appeared to be dead. Onna remembered how they had lost Sasha here just a few weeks before. But Aven’s death was hitting her harder. Never had Raven lost so many people in so short a time. It had to be weighing heavily on her.

She turned back to Kythi. “I don’t know,” she admitted.

 

A smile spread across Corinn’s face as his lookout reported what he had seen. This was just the icing on the cake after the news of Aven’s death. He wasn’t completely sure of what it all meant, but it did point to an unstable Raven. She was devastated, as the boy was telling him. It had been days and she was still in deep mourning.

Raven wouldn’t be thinking clearly. She could be impulsive and have her guard down. Of course, she could be reacting differently and be even more sharper. She could make many mistakes, or work flawlessly. The woman had never before lost a member of her following to another’s hands. Of course, Aven had had to execute a handful for disloyalty, but that had been on her orders.

No, Raven had never lost anyone that close to her before. And now to lose her closest friend and adviser? It was also rumored that the man had been Raven’s lover. There was no evidence of that, but he didn’t doubt it was true. They were too close to not be lovers.

He didn’t know how Raven operated while grieving, but he was sure it would put him at an advantage. Her mindset would be different and it might be easier to get at her and stab a knife through her own heart.

Corinn pulled out a silver coin and flipped it to his lookout. The boy turned it over with awe. Never before had he ever been paid for any of his work. He couldn’t believe he actually held real money in his hands.

“Good work, kid,” Corinn said, turning away from the boy and dismissing him with a wave.

Only the sound of footsteps told him the boy had left. Like Raven and Deryk, he was based underground. His network wasn’t as extensive as Raven’s, but it was mostly because his following was smaller than hers, so they required fewer caverns and less space.

Quin emerged from the shadows he usually hid in. He was a silent one, and that’s what Corinn liked about him. He understood all his orders and only offered his advice when Corinn demanded it. The man followed his words to a T. That had been a problem with his last adviser. Pyner had been too focused in the “advising” part of being his adviser.

“What do you think?” Corinn asked, not looking at his adviser. “Do you think now would be the time to go after her, attack her, bring her down?”

“The woman is unstable,” Quin said, his voice soft and silky, not   too different from Corinn’s own oily voice. “She could be capable of anything.”

Corinn nodded. “Yes. That is true. I thought the same.”

“Would you like my advice?” Quin asked.

Corinn turned to him and blinked. “Yes. I would, actually. What would you do?”

“I would survey her a little longer, perhaps another day, but no longer than that. We cannot give her too much time to recover. If we are to strike, now would be the time. Of course, we must be careful, so we must have a closer eye on her.”

The Thief Lord nodded and folded his hands over his lean stomach. “I thought that, too. We cant’ wait too long, but we do need more information. Quin, it’s been far too long since you last served as a shadow.”

A smile spread across Quin’s face. “I would be happy to follow the woman.”

Corinn nodded. “Good. Keep watch for her and follow her closely whenever she exits her caverns.”

Quin bowed to his master and murmured, “As my Thief Lord wishes.”

And that’s exactly what Corinn loved so much about the man.

 

They met at the Angelic Church, their cloaks covering them from head to toe. It was late afternoon and there were people milling around in the Town Square. Most wore their cloaks, but few had the hood up. They feared they looked suspicious, but, for the most part, everyone ignored them.

Caidy and Tyala had requested a private meeting with the Bishop. The old woman had agreed, and the girls were close to being late to their meeting. It had been harder than Caidy had thought to get out of the house.

Last night, someone had attempted to murder her father. She didn’t know who it might have been or why they were driven to kill him, but the attempt had occurred. Her father had stepped up the security around the manor. The City Guard took attempted murders quite seriously, apparently.

Caidy had been concerned about her father, but suspected it had occurred because of the feud. Tyala had agreed, and they were still in firm agreement that the feud had to end.

Tyala waited while Caidy paid her respects to her mother. Tyala, herself, said a silent prayer to the late Lady Sarlik. She remembered Caidy’s mother. She had only known the woman from a distance, but knew her friend’s mother to be a good woman with a golden heart. She had married into the feud and had disagreed with it, but her husband was master of the house, so she followed him. She had, though, imparted her beliefs to Caidy, and now the two girls were working hard to end the feud.

“Ready?” Caidy whispered as she rejoined her friend.

Tyala nodded and they hurried down a narrow hallway towards the Bishop’s meeting room. Their footsteps echoed as they hurried along, but they didn’t really care. The further they went, the further away they came from the sanctum. There was no one here to see them and wonder at them.

They were a little out of breath by the time they burst into the meeting room. But the Bishop only smiled in welcome at their rude entrance and bid them enter and approach her.

The meeting room was a rather small chamber with a single window to light the room. There was a small table amid a cluster of chairs. Dainty cookies and a tea tray sat upon the table and the Bishop served each girl as they took a seat before her.

“What ails you, my children?” the Bishop asked softly.

“You know about our families’ feud,” Caidy began, being the braver of the two.

The Bishop nodded. “Yes. I am well aware of it from what I hear and what you both have told me. Have you made up your minds?”

Tyala and Caidy exchanged looks before Caidy said, “We’re going to run away. Tyala’s aunt lives in another city. She wants nothing to do with the feud, too. I think we would be safe there.”

The Bishop folded her hands on her lap and looked from girl to girl. “In time, this feud will end. I fear it will be in a very unexpected way, but the important thing is that you have made a decision.”

“But is it the right one?” Tyala asked nervously, scrunching up her cloak in her hands and wringing it with her sweaty hands.

“I can’t tell you that. You know what is right and wrong. You know what is best for you. It could mean running away or it could mean staying and standing your ground. I can’t make your choice for you. I can only help you come to a choice.”

Caidy and Tyala traded looks again. They had hoped the Bishop would tell them their plan was the right one. Instead, they were being asked to determine for themselves what was the right course of action.

“What do you think?” Caidy asked her friend, her voice quiet, but not so quiet the Bishop couldn’t hear.

“I still say we leave,” Tyala said, dropping her eyes to her nervous, shaking hands. “My aunt wouldn’t send us back here. She would take care of us. Besides, shouldn’t we be allowed to choose for ourselves whether or not we want to be involved in a feud?”

Caidy nodded in agreement. “I would think so. My father makes me think I don’t have a choice, but I know I do. This feud is getting out of hand. My father was almost killed last night because of this feud. I don’t want my life to be similarly endangered. I’m with you, Tyala. We have to leave.”

Both girls swung their gazes to the Bishop, but she appeared to be smiling in her sleep.

Tyala leaned over to her friend, her eyes wide. “She hasn’t died, has she?” she whispered.

Caidy shrugged, her face turning ashen.

Abruptly, the Bishop gave a small laugh. “You have made your choice, girls. Now go carry it out and live with whatever consequences and rewards that choice brings to you.”

Thoroughly spooked, the girls had never left the Angelic Church faster.

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Raven, Chapter 11

Aven took me away right away. He knew there would be trouble from the other Thief Lords. He wanted to protect me. So, he took me underground into secret tunnels only he and a few others knew about under the Sapphire District. There, we worked our magic and developed a following, a following Aven allowed me to lead.

-the writing on the cell wall.

 

Conducting her nightly business without Aven was strange. Everything seemed to be the same, operated the same. Aven had trained Onna well to be Raven’s next adviser. She had made the change as seamless as possible for Raven, but every time Raven turned to look at her adviser she expected to see Aven, not Onna.

Barrister Salway was mumbling something about wanting Raven to terrorize someone. She couldn’t quite understand the man. For a barrister, he wasn’t very articulate. He was sitting across from her with his legs crossed and his hands clasped around his knee. His thinning graying hair looked a little wispy and was in disarray from having been stuffed under the hood of his cloak. His steely gray eyes were roving all around the cavern, falling everywhere except on Raven.

Eventually, it came to the point where Raven had to hold up a hand and shake her head. She had just met the man and already she was exasperated with him. Usually, it took a couple of visits for that to happen. And, unfortunately, she wasn’t familiar with his feud with whichever family. Neither had ever come to her before.

“Barrister Salway,” Raven said, breaking into his mumbled monologue. “For a barrister, you’re hardly easy to understand. Would you please stop mumbling so I can actually help you?”

The man blinked at her before his eyes instantly shifted away. He shifted uncomfortably in the seat and cleared his throat.

“I’ve previously used Thief Lord Deryk’s services,” he said, much slower and clearer.

Raven smiled at him. “That’s better, Barrister. Now I can understand you. Were you displeased with Deryk’s services?”

Barrister Salway grimaced. “His men bungled the last job I hired them for. I hired him to forge some notes supposedly from Barrister Rayly. That man has been a burr in my side for the past twenty years. Those notes were supposed to be his undoing, but that Thief Lord’s men made a mess of it and they were written off as jokes.”

Raven gave him a patient smile. “Yes. I can see how frustrating that can be. I’m glad you decided to try my services. I guarantee you I provide excellent work. There is a steep price, but I care about my people and they always work quickly, efficiently, and correctly.”

Salway nodded. “I had heard. Your services came highly recommended. I can pay your price, Thief Lord, never fear.”

“What exactly are you hiring me to do?” she asked.

Salway uncrossed his legs and leaned forward as though to engage in conspiratorial whispers. “I want your men to terrorize Barrister Rayly’s oldest son, Balier. Rayly and I have an important trial we’re starting in two days and I want Rayly’s mind on everything but the trial. I don’t want you to actually hurt the boy; just scare him badly enough that his father takes notice.”

Raven nodded thoughtfully. “I have just the man.” She turned to find Aven and was once again struck by the sight of Onna. She drew in a sharp breath and then nodded for the girl to come closer. “Bring me Pyoder.”

Onna nodded and hurried from the cavern. Raven focused her eyes back on the barrister, who was once again looking everywhere but at her.

“Barrister, my fee is three gold coins and six silver coins for my services, to be split. The first half will be paid this night and the second half to be paid in three days’ time if you are satisfied with my services. If you are not sufficiently satisfied, simply write a note and have it sent to the Angelic Church. One of my men will be waiting there in three days to either receive the note or the remainder of my feel.  I also require five gold coins to be sent to the City Guard for my and my following’s protection.”

The Barrister nodded and fumbled for a coin pouch secured around his waist. “Yes, yes, of course. That is a bit more than Thief Lord Deryk’s fees, but I have heard you are good.”

Raven waited patiently as the man counted out half of her fee. By the time she had collected up the coins, Onna had returned with Pyoder. No one was better at psychological fear and terror than this man. He would do a number on the Rayly boy.

“Barrister, this is Pyoder. He will terrorize the Rayly boy for you.”

Salway turned and looked the young man up and down. He was tall and slim with a head of thick auburn hair streaked with gold and eyes as steely gray as his own. His features were rather plain and he looked, well, plain. He was the type of man who could blend in anywhere and not be seen.

Pyoder bowed his head to Salway. “It will be my pleasure to serve you, sir.”

“Pyoder,” Raven said, “Barrister Salway would like you to terrorize Balier Rayly, the son of Barrister Rayly. This must begin as soon as possible and will end in three days’ time. You are not to hurt him; simply terrorize him and put fear in his heart, so much fear that his father become more preoccupied with his son than his upcoming trial.”

Pyoder bowed at the waist to his Thief Lord. “Of course, Thief Lord. I will start plotting right away.” He turned to Barrister Salway. “It will be an honor to work on your behalf, sir.”

Barrister Salway gave a faint smile and looked the man up and down again. He had faith in Raven and hoped she would come through for him. Raven, for her part, felt a twinge of sadness, knowing Aven would just be shaking his head behind her, trying very hard to stifle a laugh. Pyoder was so cavalier and Barrister Salway was a quivering mass of nerves.

 

Raven slid a long, slender knife into it’s sheath running up the outside of her black pants leg. Straightening, she smoothed her black skin tight clothes and peered over her shoulder at Onna. She still expected to see Aven, still expected to feel him smooth away a stray strand of hair or smooth out the back of her clothes. But he wasn’t there anymore.

Onna stood behind her, her arms folded across her chest. An unreadable look was on her face and her eyes gave away nothing. Now that the girl was no longer Raven’s decoy, she was growing out her hair, so it was a touch longer than Raven’s. She wore black, but hers was a black blouse and long skirt since she would not be going out with Raven this evening. She had a golden necklace sparkling around her neck; Raven would never be caught dead wearing jewelry. No, Onna was not longer the decoy; she was the adviser and executioner.

“Aven would look at me with reproach,” Raven said softly, turning to face the girl. “You are not Aven and you may not look at me in that way.”

Onna scowled and her arms twitched, but they were already crossed as tightly as they could be across her chest. “I may not be Aven and you may have forbidden me from acting like him, but I can still disagree with this course of action. What will killing Lord Sarlik get you, Raven?”

Raven clenched her hands to flex the black leather covering them. The material silently moved with her movements. “Revenge,” was Raven’s only reply.

Without another word, Raven strode out of her bedchamber. With the scowled still in place, Onna followed.

“At least let me come with you. I’ll be your eyes and ears.”

That made Raven pause and whirl on her new adviser. “You would have me risk the life of another adviser?” Raven stepped close to the girl, almost coming eye to eye, she was so close. “You forget, Onna. Lord Sarlik killed Aven. The man could very well kill again. I will not risk the life of another adviser. Do you understand me?”

Onna pursed her lips, but nodded.

That done, Raven whirled around and made her way out of her underground network of caverns. She strode through the slums, being her own lookout for the other Thief Lords and their followings. But they must be busy this night because she sensed no one following or watching her and she came across no one from the other followings. She was alone this night, and she was thankful for that. She had a plan for revenge, and she was dangerous this night.

This night, Lord Sarlik would die.

As soon as she entered the Market District, her movements changed. Her bold stride through the slums, her own territory, became a slink as she moved from shadow to shadow to hide from the City Guard.

Instead of taking the direct route through the Town Square, she instead crossed Skywalk Promenade, dividing the Market District from The Commons. Here, three, four, and five story apartment buildings rose on either side of the narrow streets. These, as in all the other districts excepting the slums and Factory District, were cobbled with light brown, white, black, and gray stones and smoothed over so wheels had a flatter surface to travel over. It also ensured fewer wheels were lost or broken.

The apartment buildings were dark. It was, after all, well after midnight. She quickly skirted around Arel Gardens. She didn’t think she would be able to return any time soon. It reminded her too strongly of Aven and the dawn they had spent together. Never again would they be able to watch the dawn together, explore the city, or swing up onto a cloister covered with vines.

She continued her way around the city, crossing Needle Promenade, dividing The Commons from the Emerald District, where the upper class resided. These people were very wealthy, some even more so than the nobility, but they could never live in the Sapphire District; only those of noble blood could, unless they were the Parliament President.

The residences in the Emerald District were grand, but not as grand as those in the Sapphire District. Many of the homes, especially those covering extensive ground, had fine gardens, colorful and sweet smelling, an echo of the Sapphire District. These people would do anything to emulate the nobility. It sickened Raven. She never took any jobs necessitating being in the Emerald District. It was far too pretentious to her.

Finally, she crossed the Esplanade into the Sapphire District. It was quite fortunate the Sarlik Manor was just off of the Esplanade. There were fewer other manors she had to worry about, manors where people might be peeking.

Silently, Raven crept onto the manor grounds. She could hear movement, foot steps moving evenly in time. Those foot steps could only belong to the City Guard. Only they were that disciplined.

She wasn’t surprised Lord Sarlik and his daughter were being protected by the City Guard. It happened periodically when a job went bad and the nobility were spooked. But it never lasted for more than a few days.

The City Guards didn’t scare Raven. If anything, she was even more determined. She could almost taste her revenge, could almost feel Lord Sarlik’s warm, red blood spilling over her bare hands. For this, she would remove her gloves.In her mind’s eye, she could see the look of fear and horror in Lord Sarlik’s eyes as they light went out of them, just as the light had gone out of Aven’s eyes.

She grit her teeth. She had to do this. She had to get her revenge. Sarlik had stolen her best friend, lover, and adviser from her. She would steal his life from his body.

She worked silently and automatically. With surprise, she realized she was entering the manor; she had no recollection of it. Her skills and instincts and training had moved her while her mind was preoccupied. She felt lucky she hadn’t been caught.

Raven knew exactly which door would lead to Lord Sarlik. Down one hall, where Caidy’s rooms were, there was a guard, but Sarlik’s rooms were in another hallway and were not protected. It appeared the man was more concerned about his daughter than himself. At least he had his priorities straight. And it made her job easier.

She silently ghosted into Lord Sarlik’s chambers. Silvery moonlight bathed part of the sitting room, casting shadows long and tall over the rest of the room. The moonlight lit up the door to the bedroom, and Raven was glad to see it was partially open. That would eliminate the need to open the potentially creaky door.

She slipped into the bedroom and quietly unsheathed her knife. On the broad bed was a sleeping figure, the covers pulled up the chest. Lord Sarlik slept on his side with his mouth open. A soft snore came from him, but it was barely audible to Raven’s ears.

Quietly, she approached the bed and raised her knife. She brought the blade down quickly, her body shielding the moonlight from sparkling on the blade. It was as hungry for blood as Raven was.

But Lord Sarlik shifted, moved further away from her. Her blade whispered just past him and struck the bed. Cursing inwardly, she pulled the knife from the bed, but there was no way she could go back for the kill.

Lord Sarlik had come awake with a start. He gasped and his body shifted as he struggled to sit up to find out what had disturbed him. By the time he had turned himself over, his fingers brushed against the hole the knife had made, Raven was only a silhouette against the window. She vanished a moment later.

Raven, Chapter 10

Teryk trusted me. Perhaps a little too much. It was easy to get close to him. It was easy to slit his throat. I remember his eyes and his moving lips. They were accusing me, and all I could do was grin. I watched the light leave his eyes, and I had never felt more powerful.

-writing on the cell wall

Raven was inconsolable. She had barely made it back to the slums. She wasn’t even sure how she had done it or how she had gotten into her bed. She had lost her best friend, her lover, her adviser. Aven had meant everything to her and she had lost him.

And it was all her fault. If she hadn’t insisted on going ahead with the steal, he would still be alive and with her. She wasn’t sure what she was going to do without Aven.

Onna was the only one who dared go to her in this state. She had become volatile and prone to breakdowns in turn. she was unpredictable and often flew into rages more directed at herself than whoever she was talking to. Onna had been Aven’s chosen successor, had picked by the man she trusted most, so she allowed her former decoy near.

A gentle hand touched her shoulder, rested there comfortably. It was Onna’s touch. Just knowing that Aven had selected her to be Raven’s next adviser should something happen to her made her feel as though he were still close by.

“Raven,” Onna said softly. “Lady Almi has returned. She’s been coming for the past two nights, demanding to see you.”

Raven lay with her face in her pillows. The last thing she wanted to do was have anything to do with Lady Almi. It was her job that had gotten Aven killed.

“Send her away,” Raven said, her voice muffled against the pillow.

“Raven, she hired you for a job,” Onna said, her voice as commanding has Aven’s had been. “You need to see that job through. You still clutch that jewel setting as though your life depends on it! And it doesn’t! Aven is gone, Raven. Would he want you to wallow in your pain like this?”

Silence was the only thing that greeted her. With an exasperated sigh, Onna stood and headed out of the bedchamber to let tell Lady Almi to return again the following night.

“Aven died because of this job for her,” Raven said softly.

Onna turned and found her mistress had turned over and was now sitting up. Her eyes were haunted and her skin was pale. Bags sagged under her eyes and her lips were trembling.

“Aven knew the risks, Raven,” Onna said, just as quietly. “We all do. We all vowed to serve you until our deaths, though I have a feeling Aven would mean to serve you even in death.”

Raven turned her face away. “Aven was my best friend. He was the only one who cared about me when I was a child. He was my first source of support and my first follower. I don’t know what to do without him.”

“You go on. He would want that, and you know it. Aven knew the risks, Raven. He lived to serve you and he lived to die for you if he had to.”

Raven looked down at her clenched fist. The jewel setting Lady Almi had so wanted was clutched in her fist. Her fingers tightened around it and the jewels were pressed into her palm.

“Tell Lady Almi for wait for me. I will see her this night.”

Onna carefully studied the Thief Lord. “Are you sure?”

“Very,” came Raven’s whispered reply.

Onna turned and walked out of the bedchamber. As she left, she heard Raven whisper softly, “We will have our vengeance, Aven.”

 

Caidy had been avoiding their gardens for the past two days, ever since her father had killed that man. She didn’t know who he had been, but she guessed he had to have been from the underground for her father to kill him.

She remembered the morning afterwards, when she had woken to find her father sitting on the edge of her bed, his head down. He had a devastated look on his face, one she had never seen before, and it had frightened her.

He had told her what he had done. He had killed a man who had stolen from them. He had stabbed him through the heart. The City Guard had removed the body so his precious daughter wouldn’t be exposed to that horror.

And Caidy had been horrified. How could her father have killed someone? Even if he had stolen from them, how could her father murder someone else? How could he take another person’s life?

Her father had been afraid of this, afraid of losing his daughter’s respect. She knew it hurt him to see the accusation and tinges of hate in her eyes every time she looked at him. She couldn’t help but loathe him. He had killed someone. This feud was getting out of hand.

Sure, she knew others had been killed throughout the feud, but to know her own father had taken a life? It was unimaginable, and, yet, it had happened. Her entire opinion of her father had changed. She couldn’t help it.

For the past two days, Caidy had been avoiding the gardens, and her father. She had discovered that her mother’s jewel setting had gone missing, but that didn’t matter to her as much as knowing her father had robbed a man of his life. That was a far worse crime to her.

It’s not that she doubted her father hadn’t acted to defend himself, her, and their home. It was more of the fact that he hadn’t taken some other course of action that would have spared the man his life. The man hadn’t even had the jewel setting on him! Someone else had taken it, but Caidy didn’t care. This feud had cost them enough. What was one jewel setting to a man’s life?

Caidy hadn’t been to the Angelic Church, the one located in the Town Square, since her mother’s death. The memorial had been done there rather than at the Angelic Church in the Sapphire District. The Town Square’s church was much larger and grander than the one in the Sapphire District. The Angelic Bishop oversaw all the people of Needle City while the Sapphire District’s Angelic Minister only tended to the nobility. For what she wanted to talk about, she needed the Bishop.

The Town Square was busy in the middle of the day. People were rushing around, tending to their business, delivering this and that, searching out that person or this. She skirted the Needle on her way across the cobblestones towards the Angelic Church.

It was a large, white building with four spires at each corner. They rose up and narrowed into twisted, golden spires capped with silver balls. In the middle was a taller spire, this one twisted as it reached for the clouds. There were four stained glass windows at the front of the church and below the middle two were the wooden double doors that always stood ajar. The Angelic Church welcomed all at anytime of the day or night.

As she entered the church, she pushed back the hood of her dark brown cloak. She entered a rectangular chamber, its walls extending to either side of her. Shelves had been attached to the walls in three rows and candles flickered along them. They were lit in memory of someone who had been lost.

Off to one side, Caidy took a match and lit it on the large, stout candle that stood on a single shelf. She walked down one side of the chamber until she came to her mother’s candle. She bowed before it and lit it, something she hadn’t done in years. Usually, it sat gathering dust until either she or her father chose to visit the city’s church.

“Bring peace to my soul, Mother,” she whispered before blowing out her candle.

Tossing out the match, she headed into the main church and walked along the aisle to the front. The front of the church was rather plain with only a seat in the middle of the platform and a pulpit to the left side. Sunlight filtered through the large stained glass bearing the image of an angel with flowing blond hair and blue gown, casting pastel colors across the platform and the elderly man seated on the chair.

Caidy headed straight for the woman, ignoring all the other people who were filling the pews here and there to make prayers of their own. The Bishop opened her eyes and smiled gently on Caidy. She reached out a hand and indicated the girl could approach before resting her slender hands back onto the white silk gown she wore.

Her eyes filling with tears, Caidy went to her knees before the Bishop and pressed the golden band that ran around the hem of the woman’s gown to her forehead.

“What brings you to me, child?” the Bishop asked, her voice gentle and almost angelic. It was musical and quiet, the tones soft and welcoming. “What ails you?”

“Bishop,” Caidy began, “my name is Caidy Sarlik. My father is Lord Daisun Sarlik. My mother was Lady Mertara Sarlik.”

The Bishop smiled. “I remember your mother, child. She was a good woman with a beautiful heart.”

“Yes, she was,” Caidy whispered.

“What ails you?”

“My father, Bishop. He killed a man in our gardens two nights ago. He said the man was a thief who had taken my mother’s jewel setting, but the necklace was not found on him.”

“Ah,” the Bishop said, nodding. “Your father has committed a crime, but shall pay no penance. That is indeed troubling for a young lady who has looked up to her father since the day her mother died.”

“Can you help me, Bishop?” she implored, staring up at the old woman with pleading eyes.

The Bishop gave her a gentle smile and rested a hand on top of Caidy’s head. “I cannot, Caidy. The forgiveness must come from your heart, not mine. You know the correct course of action. You must follow your own heart, child.”

Caidy’s shoulders sagged. “But I don’t know what to do.”

“Yes, you do.”

Caidy was silent for long moments. Then she raised her eyes and looked right into the Bishop’s. “The feud must end.”

“Feuds are the way of this city, but they are not always right. I have seen them destroy many families and many have come to bloody ends. You know where your’s is headed.”

Caidy nodded. “I do. After my father, I am the only one left to carry it on. But I don’t wish to. Bishop, I am friends with the Almis’ daughter. She wants not part in it, either.”

The Bishop smiled, a twinkle in her eyes. “And you have a plan.”

Caidy started. “How do you know?”

The Bishop took a swift glance around before leaning close to Caidy’s ear and whispering, “Tyala Almi came to seek my counsel yesterday.”

Caidy blinked in surprise and stared up at the old woman. The Bishop raised a finger to her lips to indicate all secrets were hers to keep. If Lord Sarlik ever came to her to find out anything about his daughter, the Bishop would keep whatever Caidy said in the strictest of confidences.

“Caidy Sarlik, you know what you must do.”

 

Night was approaching and Lord Sarlik was most paranoid at night. Especially since he had caught that man prowling on his property. It probably wasn’t the best idea to have killed him, but it had angered him to catch a thief in his own gardens.

He had heard creaking from his roof. He had initially written them off as the roof settling and the manor being generations old. But then they had started to sound more like very soft foot falls. That had alarmed him and he had gotten out of bed. The nearest weapon he had at hand had been the knife, so he had taken it into the gardens to hunt down the intruder.

He hadn’t meant to kill him, but he had become enraged at the man’s audaciousness. His actions that night had cost him his daughter’s regard and respect. It hurt to think about, to remember, but he would protect his daughter and she would come to respect him again one day. One day she would see that his actions had been correct.

That evening he sat in his study with three City Guards. They stood before him, feet apart and hands clasped behind their backs. They were three very solid men, men who were at his command until he felt safe in his home once again. He hadn’t intended on asking for guards, but after discovering that the man had broken into his little girl’s bedchambers while she slept in that very room had upset him. He was doing this to protect his daughter, not himself or the manor.

“You know your posts?” Lord Sarlik asked.

The middle man, the oldest one, his blond hair cut very short and his green eyes vivid and sharp, nodded sharply. “We do. One of us will be posted outside of your daughter’s chambers while the other two roam the grounds.”

Sarlik nodded. “The orders remain the same.”

“Very good, sir.”

With that, the three men marched from the study, leaving Lord Sarlik to his thoughts.

Caidy was safely ensconced in her rooms. She had spent much of the day out in the city, alone. He didn’t blame her for not wanting to be around him. After all, he had blood on his hands. He’d literally had blood on his hands when he had told her what had happened. As a matter of fact, after dealing with the City Guard, he had gone straight to his daughter’s rooms and had waited for her to awaken.

He did worry about her when she went out into the city alone, but it was daylight and there were people bustling around everywhere. He hoped she would be safe enough in the crowds. No one would try anything in broad daylight. Besides, the Thief Lords operated at night. At least, Raven always did.

Sarlik hadn’t told his daughter he had known the man he had killed. He recognized the man. He was always standing at Raven’s side, but he didn’t know the man’s name. Neither he nor Raven had ever offered it.

And the only reason why the man could have been in the gardens in the middle of the night would be because the Almis had hired Raven. The Thief Lord was working both sides of the feud. It was just a job to her, but it angered him. He and the Almis were using the same Thief Lord to get at each other. The thought didn’t sit well with him.

Now, not only did he respect Raven for what she did, he also feared her for what she did and what she could do to him and Caidy.

Raven, Chapter 9

Chapter Nine

I made Teryk a rich man. He gave me many spoils, but I hungered for more. What he gave me wasn’t enough. There was always more. He laughed whenever I asked for more. So, I plotted his demise.

-writing on the cell wall

The Dirty Pig Tavern was just as dirty as its name. Dirt and filth covered the creaky, scuffed wooden floor and the tables had been dusted over so many times no one really knew what the tops looked like. The chairs were more like stools now with no back to them and what cushion was left was torn with stuffing pouring out. The walls were grimy and streaked with dirt, blood, and fossilized feces. Human or animal, no one was quite sure anymore. The plates, glasses, and silverware were stained beyond belief and everyone was quite sure they hadn’t been cleaned in ages. It smelled worse than a pig sty, full of foul human and animal odors, all topped with the eternal wafting scent of alcohol. But the wine and beer were good and the food had yet to kill anyone, so no one complained. There was really no one to complain to, anyways. The bartenders and managers changed almost nightly.

The Thief Lords didn’t particularly care, though. They used the space above the bar. It was a wide open space with only the outer walls to hem them in. There was an assortment of tables, chairs, and stools scattered around. Usually they sat in chaos, but, with the Thief Lords, they marched around in a circle so the Lords and their advisers could keep an eye on each other. The fireplace at one end was, miraculously, still working and Edvin had made sure a glowing fire lit the room and exuded a more pleasant aroma to try to mask the stench downstairs. Lanterns and scented candles were settled around as well. The more light to see each other by, the better.

Edvin had taken his place opposite the stairs. There was no door; the stairs just ended and one ended up in the large, drafty space. He liked this seat so he could watch everyone else enter and they could play their staring power game with him until they had to look away to claim a seat. Ever loyal, Zyno was by his side, studying every detail with a hawk’s eye.

All the way into the slums, they could hear the Needle City Tower Clock chime midnight.  The deep sound of the gong still rang long after the strike had ended, echoing through the streets of the city. Edvin smiled to himself. The others would be arriving soon.

Aven, sans Raven, was the first to arrive. He was always the first arrival, even if it was Raven who was hosting. Raven was always the last to arrive, making a fashionably late appearance just as a noble lady might. The girl carried herself too highly, but, they did fear her to some extent. After all, she had killed three Thief Lords and had escaped numerous assassination attempts. The girl was practically untouchable. Hate her they did, but stand in awe of her they must.

Edvin watched as Aven prowled around the chairs. He always picked out the best seats for himself and his mistress. And no one dared touch Aven. It meant certain death. Of all the advisers, Aven was the most protected. Raven was always watching out for him, and they never knew just from where she was watching.

“Aven,” Zyno said, nodding in greeting.

“Zyno,” Aven returned as he settled into a chair to Zyno and Edvin’s left. The advisers never greeted nor were greeted by the Thief Lords.

They waited in silence. The only sounds were the flickering of the fire and the creaks and yells and pounds from the tavern below. They waited patiently, each hardly daring to draw a breath. Neither did they meet each other’s eyes. It just wasn’t done.

There was really only so much to fear. Weapons weren’t allowed and each Thief Lord had two of their following waiting at the Tavern’s door to check each Thief Lord and each adviser for secreted weapons. Edvin and Zyno had already been through and hadn’t been happy when Corinn’s two had been late to the tavern. It only meant a delay to the host in entering the meeting space. And it always grated on their nerves. But trust Corinn to do that every time.

Deryk was the next to enter, along with his adviser Kyna. He nodded to the others in greeting and took a seat opposite Aven. Kyna sat beside him, leaning back and resting an ankle on a knee. For a woman, the only female adviser, she acted more like a man. Her delicate feminine features and long raven dark hair, though, made her look like a delicate young woman. She was older than Raven, though, and had served as Deryk’s adviser for nearly fifteen years. No other adviser had spent so long as such. Kyna, for all her beauty and age, was almost as deadly as Raven could be. The two women, though, respected each other and had an unspoken, unsteady agreement to not hurt each other. After all, Raven respected Kyna as the first and only female adviser and Kyna secretly worshiped the only female Thief Lord in all of history. It was because of that that Deryk was always on his toes around his adviser. She was good at what she did and he trusted her, but he didn’t trust her enough to not pull a Raven and slit his throat to become the second female Thief Lord. But most Thief Lords did tend to keep their largest threat as close as possible: as adviser.

Five minutes passed before Corinn and his adviser Quin made their way upstairs. He was always trying to push it, or push Raven, rather, wanting more than anything to be the last one. No one ever saw Raven and where she came from, but they all assumed by now that she was watching from somewhere nearby, so always knew when all the others had arrived.

With a frown, Corinn flung his cloak over the chair with its back to the stairs. Quin, a large grizzled man with long graying black hair and beard sat beside his master. His keen green eyes swept over the rest of the group and he nodded to the other three advisers. He had served as Corinn’s adviser for three years and was the newest of them. He was a secretive man and Corinn never talked about him, so they didn’t know much about this mountain man. All they knew was that he was not originally from Needle City.

They didn’t have to wait long for Raven to enter. She walked in with her usual cat-like grace and made her way to Aven’s side without looking at anyone. Dressed in her customary full black, she was more like a moving shadow with nothing casting that shadow. She looked at each one of them, Thief Lord and adviser, in turn, staring at each for no longer nor no less than ten seconds. Seemingly satisfied, she settled back in her chair and let Aven watch out for them. After all, that’s what the man did best. He always looked out for her. Always.

Edvin cleared his throat. “I believe our primary concern this night is Raven’s peace agreement.”

Two other heads nodded in agreement. Raven simply watched him, her hands calmly folded in her lap, her face impassive.

“I believe,” she said, “that is what has been causing the problems between us lately.”

“When the original Thief Lords created the council,” Deryk said, “it was to ensure we wouldn’t off each other and create a single Thief Lord who would become a tyrant.”

“Very true,” Corinn murmured.

“I believe my peace agreement takes care of that very nicely,” Raven said almost off-handedly.

Edvin nodded. “It does. As Thief Lords, we naturally want to take out our competition, but we know the perils and prices for that.”

Yes, they did. They remembered the chaos Teryk’s death had thrown them into. Every other Thief Lord had screamed for blood, but the girl known as Tala had vanished into the night. She hadn’t returned until after the dust had settled and they had settled back into a comfortable routine, one Thief Lord down because they hadn’t been able to pick someone to take Teryk’s place. No one had been strong enough, smart enough, or daring enough to be labeled a Thief Lord.

They remembered when Raven had asserted herself as a Thief Lord, her following larger than Corinn’s and Edvin’s, who did not, by far, have some of the smaller followings. Two of the other Thief Lords had opposed her and thought that a mere girl couldn’t stand up to them. They had learned soon enough how wrong they were and the council was down two more Thief Lords.

The peace agreement had come out of that unfortunate mishap, as Raven referred to it as, and it had kept the peace so far. They wouldn’t kill each other. At least, not attempt any more than usual. And none of them could actually be killed without having all the other Thief Lords fall on them. Of course, Raven knew her life was in constant danger despite the agreement. The other three would do anything to see her dead.

“I,” Edvin said, “for one, have resigned the agreement as it stands. I don’t wish to be killed any more than I wish to kill any of you. We are only four when we were once seven. That is enough for me to want to preserve our ranks.”

Deryk nodded. “I agree. I, too, have signed the agreement.”

All eyes turned to Corinn. Of the three, he was the most eager to be well-rid of Raven. Though eager to be rid of the young female Thief Lord, Deryk and Edvin had been Lords longer than Corinn and knew they needed every one of them to keep order in the underground. It kept them in check and kept any one following from growing too large and too powerful. It also helped to spread the numerous followers out so they could be kept under watchful eyes. But Corinn viewed Raven as a thorn in his side, an upstart who had stolen what he viewed as his chance to be the most powerful Thief Lord. He had, after all, been Teryk’s favorite until Raven had come along.

Corinn crossed his arms. “I am not convinced. We never needed an agreement before. Why do we need one now? What has changed? We are still a council of Thief Lords. We still rule the underground. We still try to kill each other and never succeed.”

“If my man hadn’t overheard your plan,” Raven said softly, dangerously, “you would very likely have succeeded at killing me. Everyone knows I do not carry weapons into the bath houses. That is forbidden. This agreement protects my life. It protects yours as well, especially from my following. I assure you many of my people despise one or more of you and would jump at the chance to attempt to take your life. If I could do it, any of them could. This agreement isn’t just for us. It’s for our people as well. They cannot kill any one of us any more than we can kill each other’s followers.”

Deryk nodded. “That is true. And we know our followers are zealous. At a word, they would kill for us, especially another Thief Lord.” His eyes turned to Raven and a flicker of a smile touched one side of his mouth. “Everyone wants to be another Raven.”

“What say you?” Edvin asked of Corinn. “It protects all of us.”

The man only pursed his lips.

Raven looked at Deryk and Edvin. “The agreement is null and void if Corinn does not sign. All of our lives and the lives of our followers would be in danger from this point forward.”

That put a thoughtful look on Corinn’s face. Aven didn’t like it and he wished more than anything that the other three Thief Lords would force a pen into his hand and make him sign the agreement.

“Corinn,” Deryk said, his voice soft, a hint of danger laced through. “It is in your best interest, as well as the rest of ours, to sign it.”

Corinn folded his arms. “I’ll take my chances. I won’t sign.” He turned to his adviser. “Quin, we leave.”

His adviser only nodded. Quin rose and nodded to the other advisers as he preceded his Thief Lord down the stairs. Corinn left the other Lords and advisers staring at each other, each knowing the peace agreement was now null and void and all of them and their followings were in danger from each other.

 

“I don’t like it,” Aven said as they made their way through the shadows back to their caverns.

Raven sighed, a soft sound that was quickly carried off in the light breeze. “I know, Aven. But Corinn has always been slippery. It took a great deal to get him to sign in the first place. We’ll just have to be careful from now on. Very careful.”

The clock tower chimed the one o’clock hour. Raven paused in her step and turned her head in the direction of the sound. A thoughtful look came over her face. Aven paused and took one look at her before his face clouded.

“No, Raven,” he said, his voice harsh. “We can’t risk it. Not now. Wait until tomorrow night.”

“It’s still early, Aven,” she whispered, not looking at him.

Without another word, she whirled and made her way out of the slums instead of further into them. Cursing under his breath, Aven loped after her.

“Quiet,” she hissed once he had caught up to her. “You don’t want anyone to hear you, now do you?”

“Oh, now you’re worried about something happening?”

“I’m worried about something happening to you,” she snapped back. “Now, hurry up, Aven. The Sarliks should be asleep by now. That jewel setting has to be in the Lady Caidy’s bedroom.”

“We’re not even prepared for this,” he pointed out as he caught up to her.

She waved a hand. “I’ve broken into the manor before. I know what I’m doing.”

Aven frowned. “Aren’t you being a little optimistic, not to mention far from cautious?”

“Of course not,” she said breezily. “Everything will be just fine. I know which window leads into the girl’s room. And with you as look out, I’ll be just fine.”

“Are you sure about this, Raven?”

“Positive. And, remember, Lady Almi will pay quite well for this.” She chuckled. “She’s new to working with me. She’ll never know I charged her a gold coin more than I charge anyone else.”

Aven raised an eyebrow, but didn’t look at her, being too concerned at watching for lurking shadows that wouldn’t be shadows. Neither of them had weapons with them. He was afraid Raven was getting too far ahead of herself and maybe a little too cocky. Or Corinn’s refusal to sign the agreement meant she thought he had just signed her death warrant and certificate, so why couldn’t she go out on a lark?

He couldn’t blame Raven for wanting to make the most of her life, but to go into a steal unprepared? That was unlike her. He worried about her, but he loved her and admired and had trained her. He would go where she willed. Even if it made his hands shake and his knees quake.

So, he loped after her, hiding in the shadows and keeping a look out. He would rather die than let anything happen to her. He couldn’t lose a second Thief Lord, especially when that Thief Lord was the love of his life.

 

Aven crouched on top of the roof of Sarlik Manor. Raven was making her way through the manor, searching for the jewel setting. The night was dark, a sliver of moon being the only light in the sky. But he still felt exposed. There was nowhere to hide on the roof, not even a chimney.

They were ill prepared for this steal. They had no real plan and no tools. If Raven got into trouble, there was no way he would be able to help her. And with the other Thief Lords potentially on the prowl for each other’s blood, the night was even more dangerous.

Aven fervently wished she hadn’t decided to go ahead with the steal tonight. This night was more dangerous than any other. There was the usual fear that the City Guard might catch them or the home’s master or mistress might awaken. But now there was the additional danger of the other Thief Lords and their followings.

If they weren’t careful, Raven could still end up losing her life this night. But Aven would see to it that that didn’t happen.

He scanned the ground, his eyes searching carefully for any unnatural movement. Early on, in Teryk’s following, he had been used as a scout. That’s what he had been trained for as a young boy before he turned towards being a cat burglar. He had the sharpest eyes in the following and he liked to think that he still did. Nothing had ever gotten past him. And now it was even more imperative that he have sharp eyes. Raven’s life depended on it.

A soft whistle pierced the air towards his right. He crept over to the edge of the roof and saw Raven crouched near a flowering bush in the gardens. She made a slight hand movement and he gave a nod to indicate he understood.

His feet silent, he ghosted over the roof towards the tree they had climbed up and now just as gracefully climbed down. Slinking low to the ground, he made his way towards his mistress, his eyes trained on her.

A twig snapped behind him and he instantly stilled. Raven’s eyes had gone wide and a hand moved to her mouth. They had been caught.

“Stop, thief!” Lord Sarlik’s voice rang out loud and clear in the night air.

“Hide,” Aven whispered to Raven as footsteps headed in his direction.

Raven, fear etched in her face, didn’t move. She only shook her head.

“Tala, please,” he mouthed, his eyes imploring her to follow his command for once in her life. He knew he was either going to die or be imprisoned. That was fine with him. He was protecting Raven. He would protect her until his dying breath.

For once in her life, Raven listened to him and shrank into the bushes. Lord Sarlik was so focused on Aven that he didn’t even notice the bush’s movement. Raven was able to hide herself quickly and effectively, but kept her eyes trained on Aven.

Aven had straightened and turned around to face Sarlik. The lord had a long knife clutched in a hand. So, it would be death tonight.

“Give me back what you have taken,” Lord Sarlik demanded, one hand outstretched.

Aven spread his hands wide. “I have nothing of yours, sir.”

Lord Sarlik’s eyes narrowed. “Someone was in my home and you are the only one I see. Return what you have taken.”

“I have nothing of yours, sir,” Aven repeated, his voice calm, his body still.

Raven couldn’t help but quiver in the bushes. She wanted nothing more than to go out and rescue her beloved friend and adviser. But they had planned for this, and they were following that plan. Aven’s use of her birth name was their key word. If he used it, she would hide and he would take the fall. She had prayed it would never come to that, but, if it was imprisonment, they had a plan for that, too.

“Thief!” Lord Sarlik roared.

With that, he launched himself at Aven and, before the thief could move, thrust the knife through Aven’s heart. Raven’s hand flew to her mouth to hold in the choked cry that was on the tip of her tongue. Aven’s body stiffened and then fell as Lord Sarlik yanked the blade from the man’s chest. Aven fell so he could cast his dying gaze on Raven’s hiding spot.

All they could do was stare at each other, each hoping the other knew how much they loved them, as Aven bleed to death and his heart stilled. He mouthed his love to her as his eyes glazed over and he breathed his last.

Raven, Chapter 8

Chapter Eight

The first time I met Teryk, I was terrified. But he turned out to be quite pleased with me. He took me under his wing and finished my training himself. I quickly became the best little thief in his following.

-the writing on the cell wall

Caidy came out of a deep sleep slowly, clenching her eyes closed, as she always did to block out the incoming sunlight. Her back was killing her and she wasn’t sure why. She turned over onto her side, wondering why her bed felt so weird. There were lumps and dips, so unlike her smooth, soft mattress. And the light was all wrong. It should be falling onto her eyes, but her face was still in shadows.

She blinked her eyes open and looked around her father’s sitting room, perplexed. Slowly, she pushed herself into a sitting position, the blanket covering her falling to pool around her waist. She yawned and looked towards the doors to her father’s bedroom. It was still closed.

Almost in a rush, the previous night rushed back to her. She remembered why she had decided to sleep in her father’s chambers. She’d had a bad feeling that something was going to happen.

A streak of fear shot down her spine. She flung the blanket off of her legs and jumped up to run towards her father’s bedroom. She knocked on the door and didn’t wait for a reply. She had to make sure her father was all right!

Sarlik was rubbing his eyes and yawning in the darkness of his bedroom, the curtains still drawn across all the windows. His daughter was rushing towards him with a terrified expression on her face. That had him instantly awake and holding his arms out to catch her, just as he used to when she had been a little girl waking in the middle of the night from a bad dream.

Caidy flung her arms around her father’s neck and held on to him tightly. “Papa,” she whispered. “You’re all right.”

“Of course I am, child,” he said, his voice laced with humor. “Why wouldn’t I be?”

“I was so scared, Papa. I thought something bad was going to happen.”

“There now, Caidy. Everything is fine. Come now, child, remove your arms from my neck so I can get up.”

Caidy slowly withdrew from her father and settled down on the side of his bed. Sarlik stretched his arms over his head and yawned.

“How are you feeling this morning?” he asked.

Caidy cocked her head to one side and thought for a moment, her eyes shifting back and forth as she examined herself and how she was feeling. Sarlik waited patiently, combing his fingers through his bed tousled hair. He was hoping his daughter was feeling better so they didn’t have more nights and mornings like this. It was undignified for a father and his grown daughter to sleep in the same chambers.

“I’m feeling much better today, Papa. Can we go out for tea today?”

“I thought you were spending the day with some school friends,” he reminded her.

“Yes, of course I am. But we can still have tea together.”

He reached out and ruffled her hair, a smile on his lips. “Perhaps tomorrow, my dear. I have some business to attend to in the Market District today. You and your friends will have the run of the house today if you wish.”

“Thank you, Papa, but I think we’re going to go shopping and to Arel Gardens.”

With that, Caidy was back to herself and bounded out of her father’s bedroom to ready herself for her day with a school friend. Of course, she had never told her father about her best friend, Tyala Almi. And Tyala had never told her parents about her friendship with Caidy. As daughters of feuding parents, it just wouldn’t be right, but neither girl wanted to be a part of the feud. They had been secret friends for years and nothing was going to stop them from avoiding the feud, or ending it permanently.

 

“Thief Lord Corinn is here to see you.”

Edvin turned from the window he had been staring out of. It had been far too long since he’d looked out of his library window and seen day light. He was loathe to turn from the sight, but business was business. Besides, Corinn was not easily dissuaded.

Unlike the other Thief Lords, Edvin chose to base himself above ground. It gave him a great vantage point, especially since his building was three stories high and his private quarters were on the third floor. He could see most of the slums from his windows and had the perfect vantage point for looking out for assassins. The other Thief Lords often pointed out the value of keeping underground, out of sight, out of the public eye, but he liked the starlight and moonlight. And sometimes he got to see daylight, as well.

It’s not that he even wanted to be awake during the day light hours. But there was work that needed to be done to prepare for the council meeting tonight. All four Thief Lords would be there. They needed to have as many precautions in place as possible. Enough guards, no weapons, minimum amount of personal items, only an adviser each. The list went on. There was just too much to attend to. The Dirty Pig was common ground, but it was a well-known fact that any one of them would love to take control of it. The old man who owned couldn’t live forever.

His heavy black boots clunked on the wooden floor as he turned to face his adviser, a scrawny, but shrewd man by the name of Zyno. The two had been inseparable for over ten years. He was the best adviser Edvin had ever had. He also had no idea where the man had come from; Zyno having wandered into Needle City as a middle-aged man. But it didn’t matter to Edvin as long as the man was loyal.

“What does he want?” Edvin asked, his voice gruff as usual.

Zyno gave him a bemused look. “Like he would really tell me.”

Edvin gave what sounded like a chuckle, but his face didn’t changed. That was about the extent of his amusement. In Zyno’s opinion, his friend was all too serious.

“Well, then,” Edvin said, “show him in.”

Zyno nodded, his floppy dark hair flipping in and out of his eyes. He just brushed the hair to one side and left the room. Edvin shook his head and, hands behind his back, walked over to one of his armchairs and dropped down into it.

Unlike Raven, he had two walls lined with, not books, but things. Some of them were things he had stolen that his clients hadn’t been able to afford or hadn’t come to retrieve. Others were things he had just collected. Some of it he couldn’t even remember what they were or why he had them. He also had two armchairs facing each other, one with the back to the door and the other with the back to the window. They were moderately comfortable, but they really weren’t designed to be sat in. Edvin preferred to stand and he didn’t want any guests, employers or followers, to get too comfortable. Between the two chairs was a small round table. He had a lantern sitting on it, but, with day light streaming in, he didn’t need it.

A knock came at the door before it was swung open. Without a sound, Corinn strode in and plopped down across from Edvin. The two Thief Lords nodded to each other and Edvin steepled his fingers as he waited for Corinn to begin.

They sat in silence for several moments, neither willing to speak first. Edvin didn’t want Corinn to think he was eager to hear what the other Thief Lord had to say. Corinn didn’t want to say anything just yet, wanting to make Edvin wait and squirm. It was an odd power game all four of the Thief Lords played. Eventually, they would meet an impasse, usually time constraints, and whoever had the more pressing appointment would be forced to speak first.

Unfortunately, this time it was Edvin. And he was not pleased about that. He was the oldest of the Thief Lords. He should have seniority, but it didn’t work that way. Unfortunately.

“What brings you here in broad daylight?” Edvin asked.

Corinn barely contained a smile. That was one point for Corinn. Not that they really kept count. By now it just evened out, but it was all part of the power game.

“Raven.”

Edvin sighed. “What about Raven?”

“She’s going to want us to have to sign her peace agreement tonight.”

Edvin nodded in agreement. “Most likely, yes, that will occur.”

“We have to change the rules. I don’t like it.”

“It’s exactly as it was before,” Edvin pointed out.

“True, but I still don’t like it. It’s too restricting. We need to change it so it favors us now.”

Edvin raised an eyebrow. He didn’t like Raven and the way she had become a Thief Lord, but she had guts and, really, the peace agreement favored them all. It protected all of them.

“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” Edvin said slowly.

Corinn frowned and narrowed his eyes. He couldn’t believe what he was hearing. Edvin had been all for killing Raven not that long ago. Now he was changing his tune? It was common for the Thief Lords to change sides, but, for a long time now, Edvin had been staunchly against Raven.

“Look, Corinn, we keep each other in check by attempting to kill each other. But we’re not supposed to actually kill each other. We’re supposed to hate each other and undermine each other. That’s what keeps us from overstepping our bounds and stepping on each other’s toes.

“That’s exactly what Raven has enumerated in the peace agreement. We get to do what we’ve always done, but we can’t gang up on each other. It isn’t fair and it makes us all uneasy and wary of each other. If we’re to rule the underground together, we have to trust each other to some degree.

“What we did to Raven goes against the agreement. Sure, I was all for it. But that was because it had been so long since anything else had happened. And, yes, I do hate that girl. But we need that agreement if we’re all to be protected. Remember, Raven has the largest and most loyal following of all of us. If something happens to her, we’ll have her whole following at our throats. And you know as well as I do that hers is larger than the two of ours combined.”

Corinn sat back in the armchair, a thoughtful look on his face. “That is what the peace agreement says, doesn’t it?”

With a grave face, Edvin nodded. “Yes. And this is a reminder of what it says. Nothing more. Now, if you have nothing else, Corinn, I have work to do for tonight.”

Edvin stood, signaling their meeting was over and Corinn was no longer welcome. Corinn was forced to stand and make his way over to the door.

“Until tonight, Edvin.”

The other Thief Lord only nodded as he turned back to his window. The sound of the door opening and closing was the only way he knew Corinn had left.

He heard the door open again a few moments later. By the sound of the foot falls, he deduced it was Zyno that had walked in. Still, he didn’t turn from the window. His adviser was used to talking to his back.

“Zyno, bring me our copy of the peace agreement. I need to go over it one more time before I sign it.”

“Of course.”

The door closed again, leaving Edvin alone with his thoughts and plans.

 

Caidy and Tyala walked out of the popular Corner Sweets Bakery in the Corner, each a silver coin poorer, but three sweet buns richer. They were nibbling on one bun each as they walked out and strolled up and down the alleys of the Corner. It was a popular place in the Market District, particularly well-known for the sweet shops. They alleys wandered up and down and curved around, shops opening up off of them, before eventually broadening up into the streets of the Market District.

“I don’t think my Papa is interested in ending the feud,” Caidy said around a mouthful of warm pastry flavored with cinnamon, raisins, and honey. It was sweet and sticky and stuck to the roof of her mouth, so her words were a little difficult to understand.

Fortunately, Tyala could understand her just fine, and even spoke the same way as she sucked the honey from her thumb. “I don’t think my parents are in the mood for that, either. Well, Mother, at least. Yesterday morning we found out my father’s seed of magic was stolen.”

Caidy shook her head. “I don’t know if my father has it or not. He doesn’t share those things with me. For the longest time he wanted to keep me out of it, but now I think he thinks it’s time for me to learn how it’s done.”

Tyala nodded. “My mother’s getting to be that way, too. What do we do?”

Caidy shrugged. “I don’t know. Run away?”

Tyala laughed. “Where would we go?”

“I don’t know. I don’t have any family anywhere else. It’s just Papa and me.”

“I have an aunt,” Tyala offered. “She lives in the capital. We could go to her. She wants nothing to do with this feud, either. I’m sure she would help us, take us in.”

Caidy nodded. “That’s a plan. A good plan.”

“It’s also our only plan,” Tyala reminded her.

“Yes. For now.”

They found a little wrought iron bench outside of a small cafe. The smell of salads, fresh breads, stewing meats, and coffee flitted out every time someone opened the little glass door. It made them even hungrier, so they started on a second sweet bun after they finished their first.

“Do you think we could talk our parents out of the feud?” Caidy asked. “Seriously, do you think that’s possible?”

“You’re my best friend, Caidy, but I think you’re an idealist. My mother lives and breathes this feud. My father doesn’t care for it too much, so I know it’s my mother who takes care of everything. She’s probably the one who has those criminals do things to you family.”

Caidy nodded miserably. “And it’s got to be my father who has had things done to your family.”

Tyala took a bite of her sweet bun and slowly chewed it. “I’ve told my father I don’t want to be part of the feud.”

Caidy shook her head. “You’re going to have to say that again,” she said, laughter in her voice. “I can’t understand a word when you have food stuffed in your mouth.”

Tyala laughed and nearly choked. Caidy pounded on her back until her friend swallowed the bite and cleared her throat. She coughed a few times, looking a little red faced, but quickly recovered with a few breaths of air.

“I’m okay,” Tyala said, wheezing a little as she reassured her friend. “I said, I’ve told my father I don’t want to be part of the feud.”

“What did he say to that?”

“My father supports my decision, Caidy, but he wouldn’t dare breathe a word of it to my mother. There’s really nothing he can do. It’s not really his feud. He just participates for my mother’s sake. But he doesn’t want to get mixed up in it more than he already is. But he can’t do anything. We can’t do anything, Caidy. Nothing at all.”

Caidy frowned. “This is a hard one.”

Tyala nodded morosely. “I guess we should run away.”

Her friend looked glum as she picked off a piece of her sweet bun and fed it to the birds. She didn’t feel like eating anymore. And the sugar was starting to make her stomach turn. “I guess. My father won’t be happy. There’s no one else to take up the feud after he’s gone.”

“Well,” Tyala said, forced brightness in her voice, “after that happens, we can come back and proclaim the feud over. My mother will be too old by then to want to argue with us.”

Caidy nodded thoughtfully. “That might work. And we might want to think of recruiting your brothers so she can’t turn them against me.”

“Ah, yes. I forgot about those brats.” Tyala shook her head. Her twin brothers had been the bane of her existence ever since they had been born. Everything was always about them and Tyala always had to take up the slack. They were growing boys, and old enough to take care of themselves. But they were the little princes of the manor. They could get away with murder.

Caidy patted her friend’s shoulder sympathetically. “At least we all know they adore you.”

“I guess that’s one mark in their favor.”

“So, are we agreed? We’ll run away to your aunt’s home?”

Tyala nodded. “Absolutely. We’ll work on our plans for that and then we’ll pack up and leave in the middle of the night.”

Caidy nodded in agreement and they resumed devouring their sweet buns with renewed vigor. But she couldn’t deny a twinge of sadness at the thought of having to leave her beloved father in order to avoid a feud she didn’t believe in.

Raven, Chapter 7

Chapter Seven

The Market District was full of easy pickings. Aven taught me who to target and how to steal. He had to bail me out a couple of times, though. But, one day, he said I was a natural and he was going to take me to Teryk, his thief Lord. It was the most exciting day of my life.

-writing on the cell wall

Raven had her chin resting in the palm of one hand as she went over city reports at her desk. Night had fallen and now it was time for the serious work. Unfortunately, at that moment, work consisted of reports. Tedious, but necessary, she still wished it would vanish.

Tonight it was a lot of the same as last night: what routes the guards were taking, which family was feuding with which family, who had which seed of magic and jewel setting since those tended to be the most sought after items, and who was betting what on which family would be going to Raven next.

She yawned and didn’t bother covering her mouth. It was just her and Aven, anyways, and he was usually more crudely behaved than she was. After all, he had been abandoned as an infant. That orphanage, no matter its name as the Angel House, wasn’t very good at bringing up kids. Oh, sure, some of them made out okay, but most were turned out into the streets when they turned sixteen. The system didn’t really care much for them. And that was one reason why some of the followings, particularly her own, were so strong and numbered. They took in all of the children that were turned out, as well as the children they managed to grab before they entered the orphanage.

The clearing of a throat grabbed her attention and she eagerly looked up from the papers. She needed some excitement. She craved it. She hoped the throat-clearer had something interesting for her.

Stepho was standing at the entrance to the cavern. He was a new kid, about twelve years old, and had just joined her two months before. He spent most of his time being trained in various criminal acts, but spent two nights a week as her evening attendant.

“Um, my Lady Raven,” he said awkwardly, clearing his throat again.

“Yes, Stepho?” she asked, her voice calm and patient. He was a nervous kid who had seen his parents killed just six months before. Everyone had been warned to tread carefully around him. Raven was no exception; she would be as patient with him as he needed her to be.

“There’s a lady waiting to see you. A Lady Almi.”

Raven raised her eyebrows and looked up to trade glances with Aven. So, the Lady Almi had come to seek vengeance against Lord Sarlik. Let the feuding begin.

“Show her in,” Raven said, barely smothering a pleased smile.

Stepho nodded and jumped away from the entrance. His footsteps could be heard echoing in the tunnels. Raven shook her head. No, the boy would not make a good thief. She would find a place for him eventually.

“So,” Aven said sotto voce, “the Lady Almi has come. This will be interesting.”

Raven gave him a sly smile. Yes, it would be interesting. Usually, it was Lord Sarlik who came to her. The Almis tended to use the other Thief Lords, but had come to her once before, the last bit of the feud before the heavy winter came and stopped just about everything. Lady Almi had been very pleased with Raven’s work, Raven remembered, and it was only time before she came back. It would be fun to steal from both families for each other.

“Watch yourself,” Aven warned. “This is new territory for us.”

“I know,” she said. “I’m always cautious.”

Lady Almi entered the chamber, pushing back the black hood to her cape. Her dark curls tumbled out around her face as she took a look around before approaching the desk.

“Welcome, Lady Almi,” Raven said, gesturing for the chair. “Please have a seat and we’ll get down to business.”

Gracefully, the lady settled herself into the seat and settled her gloved hands in her lap. She was every inch a lady. Regal and poised, she looked only slightly uncomfortable to be sitting before one of the infamous Thief Lords. But if she wanted something illegal done, this was what she had to do.

“I was very pleased with your work last time,” the lady began, her eyes shifting from Raven to Aven as she spoke. “I have need of your services again.”

“Of course, Lady Almi,” Raven said smoothly, professionally. “What can we do for you?”

“Lord Sarlik has stolen my husband’s seed of magic. I seek revenge. I want his daughter’s jewel setting. It is quite beautiful. It’s a shame the girl never uses magic. So, I want it. The girl clearly has no use for it.”

“And what does this jewel setting look like? I need to know what it looks like if I am to make sure I steal the right one.”

Lady Almi hesitated. “I’ve only seen the thing once. I believe it’s a necklace. A golden chain. It has a ruby droplet hanging from it and a space in the drop for the seed. There’s gold filigree all around the drop and its base is set in a bed of emerald leaves spotted with diamonds.”

Raven nodded, making no comment on the lady’s detailed description of something she reportedly only saw once. “It does sound beautiful. I suppose it’s in the girl’s bedroom?”

“Most likely,” Lady Almi replied, appearing a little more at ease as she settled into the chair.

“All right, then, Lady Almi, I will take the job. You know my price?”

The woman hesitated again, a shoulder twitching slightly. Raven inwardly sighed. For a lady who strode in so confidently, she didn’t seem so sure of herself now.

“A thousand in gold coins to the City Guard,” Raven gently reminded her. “That will provide protection for my following and me for the next three weeks. In addition, I request five gold coins now and five when the job is done.”

Lady Almi pursed her lips, but apparently was prepared. She reached into an interior pocket in her cloak and pulled out a handful of coins. Counting them out, she placed them one by one on Raven’s desk. Satisfied, Raven nodded and swept them up, dumping them into a drawer.

“I’ll have the jewel setting ready for you in two days’ time. You may see me then, along with the rest of my pay. And make sure the City Guard is paid before you come to me.”

Lady Almi nodded, her lips still pursed. “Thank you, Raven. Good night.”

Raven only nodded to her as she rose and swept out of the cavern. Aven looked down at her and shook his head. She shrugged. Some of the nobility were more comfortable with her than others. She didn’t blame them.

“Well, then,” Raven said, opening up another drawer. She pulled out the maps of the Sapphire District and spread them out over her desk. “I guess it’s back to Sarlik Manor.”

“Guess so,” Aven murmured. “I hope this doesn’t get too messy, with you working for both families.”

Raven looked up at him with a raised eyebrow. “It was bound to happen, Aven. There are only four Thief Lords and numerous feuds. The odds that we’ll end up working with both families are quite high.”

He shrugged. “I suppose. So, should I send the burglars in to survey the manor?”

“May as well,” Raven said. “I have old floor plans, but people have a habit of changing things every so often. I don’t want to take the risk that my maps are out of date.”

Aven nodded. “I’ll get them sent off, then.”

Absently, Raven nodded to give her consent, her eyes focused on her maps. Aven quietly left the cavern on his silent feet, leaving the Thief Lord deep in contemplation of the maps. Her mind, though, was very far from the Sapphire District.

The Thief Lord council meeting was tomorrow night. It was a midnight meeting and would likely last well into the early hours. They always did. Raven knew she could send someone else to do this job, but she wanted to do it herself. Last night’s job had been such a rush. She wasn’t willing to relinquish those feelings yet. The job would have to wait until the following night. There was no helping it. She may be a thief, but she was a busy girl, too.

 

Caidy drew back the music room’s curtains for the tenth time that night. She was making her father nervous, but he knew to trust her bad feelings. They were usually right.

Sarlik’s fingers stilled on the piano’s keys in the middle of the aria his daughter had been singing. He watched her frown and le the curtains fall from her fingers. Slowly, she turned from the curtain and stared at the piano with worried eyes.

“Caidy,” Sarlik said, “if something’s going to happen, we’ll be home for it. Don’t worry so much.”

“Papa, I have a really bad feeling.”

He held out a hand to her and she obediently went to him. She slid onto the piano bench beside him and rested her head on his shoulder. He placed his hands back on the piano keys and began to pick out a lullaby her mother used to sing. Caidy hummed along for a few bars and then stopped.

“Are you sure we’ll be okay?” she asked quietly.

“We’re never really safe,” he said. “You know that.”

“Yes, Papa, but it still worries me. Winter is over and the Almis could be up to anything. Papa, why can’t we just end this feud? I don’t like it. We’re the only ones left in this family because of it.”

He lifted his left hand from the piano, but his right hand kept playing out the melody. He gently stroked her hair with his free hand. “This feud is all that we’ve ever really known. It’s too late to back out and there’s no end in sight. Besides, feuds are the life blood of Needle City.”

Caidy frowned and shook her head, but didn’t say anything. She had that worried look on her face, the one that told him she didn’t really believe what he was saying. She wasn’t happy with what was going on, but there was really only so much he could do about it. He had already reignited the feud by hiring Raven. Now all they could do was wait for the retaliation. That was probably the bad feeling Caidy had.

“It’s late, my dear,” he said softly as the clock chimed the one o’clock hour. “We should go up to bed”

“I’m not sleepy,” she said, the worry still lacing her voice.

“Well, your Papa is sleepy.”

With that, he ended the melody and closed the piano, pulling the cover down to protect the keys and keep them dust free. Caidy lifted her head from his shoulder and he rose, leaving her to stare at the piano cover.

“Come, Caidy,” he gently demanded. “It’s time for bed.”

She still had that troubled look on her face as she rose and walked towards him. “Papa, I don’t want either of us to be alone tonight. Will you stay in my chambers for the night?”

He frowned at her, wondering why she had suddenly changed back into being a child. “No, Caidy. You are sixteen years old. It’s time for you to do things on your own. I can’t keep coddling you. Once I’m gone, you will inherit this feud. You will have to start dealing with it sooner or later. And the sooner the better. I’m not getting any younger.”

She frowned up at him, effectively pairing it with a glare in her eyes. Her father had never denied her anything before. Now he was just starting to sound mean.

“Caidy,” he said, more gently. “It’s late. Everything will be fine. You’ve had bad feelings before and things have turned out okay.”

Doubt flared in her eyes. “Can I at least stay in your bedchambers? To protect you and make sure you’re okay?”

He lifted an eyebrow.

“You did say you’re getting old,” she pointed out. “I want to be there just in case something bad happens to you in your sleep.”

He scratched his chin, deep in thought. “Huh. I guess I can’t really argue with your logic.”

“No, Papa,” she said, trying to hide a grin. She knew as well as he did that she had him there.

“All right, then, child. You can sleep on the sofa. Satisfied?”

She grinned now, her whole face lighting up. She felt as though she had won. “Yes, Papa. That’s much better.”

Shaking his head, he followed his daughter out of the music room, snuffing out the lights that lit up the room as he went. An hour later, they were both fast asleep and never even heard the cat burglars that had snuck into their manor.

 

Someone was tapping her head and it was starting to annoy her. It was an incessant tapping, a tapping that never changed in rhythm or strength. It was irritating how even the beat was. But it was effective if it was meant to wake her up.

Raven growled as she came awake, lifting her head from the maps that were spread out over her desk. She hadn’t meant to fall asleep, but she had been so tired.

Aven was perched on the edge of her desk beside her. He was the one who was tapping the top of her head. He raised an eyebrow as she came awake and reached out with her teeth to try to bite his finger. He was, however, faster than a sleepy Raven.

“What was all that tapping for?” she groused. “I was sleeping.”

“So you were,” he said evenly. “For a solid hour.”

“Well, you weren’t the one who was awake for two hours during the day. While I bathed, you slept. That’s not really fair.”

He shrugged. “You’re the one who decided to bathe during the morning when the other Thief Lords would be asleep.”

She muttered under her breath as she reorganized her maps and got a grip on her emotions. Taking a few deep breaths, she calmed herself down and settled her hands on top of her desk.

“All right, Aven, what did you wake me up for?”

“The cat burglars are back.”

“Why didn’t you say that in the first place?” she demanded, coming fully awake. “Send them in already.”

Again with that lifted eyebrow. He could really be annoying sometimes. But at least the man jumped off of the desk and left to fetch the burglars. While she waited, she ran her fingers through her short hair. It would need to be cut soon again. It was amazing how fast hair grew. She liked to keep it short, so monthly trims were a necessity. Actually, Aven could do with a good clipping, too.

She didn’t have to wait too long for the burglars and Aven to return. The burglars lined up before her in front of the desk and Aven took his customary place beside her.

“Well?” Raven asked.

“The lord and mistress were asleep,” one of the burglars, a fifteen-year-old girl, said. “We had no trouble getting in or out.”

“Excellent, Adry. What else?”

The other burglars seemed to be following the girl, so she went on. If no one else wanted to talk, she would gladly take the credit. After all, she was a female cat burglar. She was a rare breed in Needle City. Raven had come close to being one, but she never managed to be as light on her feet was Aven was.

“Interestingly, the little Lady Caidy was sleeping in her father’s sitting room. Lord Sarlik was fast asleep in his bed. We had no trouble poking through her room for the jewel setting.”

“Did you find it?”

Adry shook her head. “No, Thief Lord. She has a number of jewel boxes. It could be in any one of them. It could also be somewhere else.”

“Unlikely,” Raven said. “That jewel setting was her mother’s. Lady Elysia was a sorceress of some renown. I understand it was her childhood jewel setting. She had learned from her mother and then from a school the magicians founded. She was quite sought out for her potions. Lady Elysia gave Caidy the jewel setting when she died. It was Caidy’s inheritance from her mother. I highly doubt it would be anywhere but in the girl’s bedchamber.” She waved her hand. “But don’t worry about it. I will find it and steal it. All I need now from you is a map of the manor.”

Adry bowed her head. “Of course, Raven. We will have it ready for you by the end of the night.”

Raven nodded and dismissed them. “Good work, Adry. The three of you see Aven later about your pay.”

The burglars bowed their heads in thanks and left as quietly as they had come in.

Raven looked up at Aven to get a sense for what he thought. “It’s interesting that a daughter should sleep in her father’s room.”

“Very,” he said slowly. “I wonder if she’ll do the same in two nights’ time.”

“That would definitely make things easier,” Raven remarked. “But the odds of that are slim.”

Aven nodded in agreement. “Still, that would make this an easy job.”

Raven chuckled and shuffled her papers to tease out the reports she was still supposed to be looking over.

Raven, Chapter 6

Chapter Six

When I woke up, I was in some kind of cavern. Only Aven was with me. He asked me why those boys had attacked me and I said it was because I was stealing. He gave me a peculiar look, then said I wasn’t very good at it yet, but he would teach me.

-writing on the wall

The shriek irritated him, but didn’t interrupt his breakfast. At least not until the downstairs maid rushed into the dining room and skidded to a stop at the side of his chair. He glanced over at her, taking in her heaving breasts as she tried to catch her breath and her eyes wide as saucers. His wife, at the other end of the table, gave her a curious look and their three children completely ignored her, being too engrossed in their breakfasts.

“Yes, Ama?” Lord Almi said tiredly. “What is it?”

She managed a small curtsy, teetering slightly on her feet and then pointed in the direction she had come from, her finger quivering. “My Lord, my Lady, a break in!”

That got his attention, as well as everyone else’s. Chairs scrapped as Lord and Lady Almi stood. Lady Almi motioned for the children to remain seated. Without a second thought, all three of them did. They knew what was going on. It was the same thing year after year. The feud had been going on for longer than Tyala had been alive and they were used to people breaking in. They had had guards, at one point, but that had only taught them that nothing deterred the people of the underground. Now they took what happened as incidents came. With things like this occurring so often, no one thought of them as any more than incidents these days.

“Show me,” Lord Almi ordered as he threw down his cloth napkin into the remains of his meal. He wasn’t angry; he was disgusted and irritated that Sarlik had made the first move this year, thereby forcing the continuation of this blasted feud. He had no doubt that his wife was already plotting retaliation.

Ama bobbed another curtsy, now a little steadier on her feet, and then led her master and mistress into the parlor, the skirt of her ankle-length gown rustling as she hurried. Coming to a stop at the doorway, she pointed a still shaking finger at the mantle. Frowning, Lord Almi approached it to see what was missing.

It wasn’t that hard to miss. The glass case that had held his seed of magic, the last powerful one in the entire kingdom, was gone. He picked up the case and turned around. Lady Almi gasped and then fumed.

“It’s that man again,” she hissed. “Sarlik took our magic.”

Lord Almi looked at his empty box with a grave expression. “Yes. That is quite likely.”

With that said, he walked out of the room and toward the staircase, the box in hand. Lady Almi chased after him and caught him as he was halfway up the first flight of stairs. She wrapped her hands around a post knob at the bottom of the stairs and called up to her husband, who turned at the sound of her voice.

“Emeri, what are we going to do?”

He paused a moment and then said, “Why, my dear, we have two options, as usual. We can do nothing or we can retaliate. You know my answer. Make your own.”

Lord Almi turned and continued up the stairs, quickly vanishing from her sight. She frowned, knowing her husband’s choice was to do nothing. She didn’t blame him; he had, after all, married into the feud. He had never thrown himself fully into it, even after their many years of marriage. It was up to her to do something. It was up to her to continue this feud.

And, for that, she would need the cover of darkness. And one Thief Lord by the name of Raven.

 

He almost didn’t dare to look. Could Raven have delivered the seed of magic already? She had said two days’ time, but she always delivered early. Which was one reason why he didn’t mind having to pay so much for her service: one amount to the City Guard and another to her. Both nice sized lumps of coins and some of the new paper money the country was trying out. For Raven’s services it was always worth it.

It was still early, nowhere near Caidy’s ten o’clock waking time. The girl did enjoy her sleep, but they did often spend evenings out at the theater or balls until the early hours of the morning, so he didn’t begrudge his little girl her sleep. Besides, they had a play to attend that night and they wouldn’t be home until after midnight.

Throwing down the morning paper, he decided to take a peek. While his innocent daughter was still slumbering, this really was the best time. He hoped Raven was still delivering early; he had immediately put out her pay after returning from the slums with that hope in mind.

He pushed aside the curtains of a front window, a window where he could look at the door to his manor. The velvet pouch still hung there, but it looked different. He breathed out heavily, calming his beating heart, knowing it no longer held the coins he had placed inside it for the Thief Lord.

Holding his breath, Sarlik shuffled over to the door in his house slippers and cracked it open wide enough for him to slip though. He closed the door behind him, but keeping it slightly ajar. He reached for the pouch and felt that its weight was lighter than it had been when he had put it there. It was also much slimmer, almost flattened, with an arcing shape at the bottom.

With a shaking hand, he opened the pouch and, eyes closed, stuck his hand it. His fingers closed around a small warm object that felt like it was the right size for a seed of magic. Holding his breath, he pulled it up towards the opening, but didn’t pull it out. Grasping the seed between his thumb and forefinger, he saw it was indeed a seed of magic.

Quickly, he dropped it back into the pouch and headed back inside. The Almi Manor wasn’t too far away. He didn’t want to risk having one of the Almis see him with their seed of magic. As it was, he was expecting retaliation at any moment.

“Papa?” Caidy’s voice floated down to him from her bedroom on the second floor as soon as he had closed the door firmly. “Papa?”

“Coming, love,” he called back, dropping the pouch into a pocket of his morning jacket.

He made his way up the stairs, wondering why his daughter was calling to him so early in the morning. It was still a good two hours before her usual waking time. Had something happened? That thought had him doubling his speed as he began to take the stairs two at a time.

Sarlik arrived at his daughter’s bedroom to find her in her sitting room. She was perched on her floral settee, an open book resting on her lap. She was dressed in a peach dressing gown and her hair was done up with colorful ribbons. Her head lifted up from her book at the sound of her father’s footsteps.

“What is it, Caidy?” Sarlik asked, approaching her to join her on the settee.

“Papa, I have a bad feeling that something’s going to happen,” she said, her voice troubled.

“What do you mean?” he asked gently as he came to kneel before her.

She shook her head, loose ribbons flying around her face. “I don’t know, Papa. I had a bad dream that something was going to happen and then I couldn’t fall back asleep. Something’s going to happen. I know it. Could we stay here this evening?”

Sarlik took her hand in his and gently squeezed it. “Of course, my dear. You must be tired from the ball last night, anyways.”

She gave her father a small smile. “Yes, that, too, but I mean it, Papa. I think something bad is going to happen.”

“Well, your intuition has never led us wrong, so we’ll stay here tonight.”

She gave him a wide smile and wrapped her hands around his, squeezing his hand gently. “Can we walk in Aster Gardens again today? We didn’t really have much of a walk the other day.”

“Of course. Go get dressed and then we’ll have breakfast. After that, we can go to the gardens and then pay the Market District a visit.”

Smiling, Caidy stood and placed a kiss on Sarlik’s cheek before skipping off into her bed chamber. Chuckling to himself, he left the room and closed the door after him. Her words worried him, but he was expecting something to happen, too.

 

The incessant shaking wouldn’t stop. She mumbled, half asleep, and turned away. But it wouldn’t stop. Someone had hold of her shoulder and was rocking it back and forth. Growling, she grabbed a pillow and flung it in the general direction of the person trying to shake her awake.

It was the middle of the morning. She had just gone to bed a few hours ago. Aven and her assistants knew she wasn’t to be disturbed in the morning. She thought that news had already made its rounds in the rest of her following. There was no reason for her to be shaken awake in the morning.

“I swear,” Aven’s voice said from above her, “if you don’t wake up right now, I’ll give you your bath right here in your bed.”

Grumbling, Raven turned over onto her back and slowly blinked her eyes open. Aven was kneeling above her, the loose shirt he wore pulling away from his chest as he leaned over her body. He had been the one shaking her awake, but now he had his arms crossed.

“I was sleeping,” she said crossly. “What’d you wake me up for?”

He lifted an arched eyebrow. “Was it not you who asked me to wake you just before noon so you could take your bath?”

Groaning, Raven pulled a pillow over her face and sighed into it.

“Well?” Aven asked.

She flung the pillow away, narrowly missing Aven’s head as he dodged out of the way, and pushed herself up. “Fine. I’m up. See?”

He patted her shoulder sympathetically. “That’s a dear, Raven. After all, this was your idea. After that last assassination attempt, you decided no more evening bathing. Too many shadows and too much darkness, you said.”

“Yeah,” she groused, “but why did I have to pick the morning?”

“Because all the other Thief Lords would be asleep during this time of day, too. Don’t worry. You’ll make up your sleep tonight. You have no planned jobs, and neither does anyone else. The work has been light so far, but it will come. You should take advantage of this time.”

Sighing heavily, and knowing he was right, Raven flung her covers away and pushed herself out of her nice warm, comfortable bed. Even though he had seen her naked numerous times, Aven left her bedchamber to let her prepare for her bath in peace. He was considerate like that. She was also grumpy in the mornings, and he knew it.

Muttering to herself, she pulled on the robe she wore whenever she went to bathe and gathered up her bathing things. She really did enjoy her baths. But did she really have to pick the mornings for such a task?

Raven, Onna, and Idala made their way over to the female bath house without any incidents. Onna was a little weary, but Raven thought it might have something to do with the fact that the girl hadn’t been back to the bath house since the assassination attempt. After all, she had lost her friend and confident during that scuffle. But Onna had insisted on attending to Raven that morning. Besides, she also needed a bath.

The water was warm and soothing as the three of them settled in. Since it was still morning, no one else was in the house, so they had the whole pool to themselves. Raven settled in up to her neck and rested her head back against the wall, closing her eyes. A little cat nap wouldn’t hurt. And the water was so nice and warm.

“Raven,” a voice called, soft and insistent. “Raven. Wake up, Raven.”

What? She wasn’t asleep, was she?

Slowly, she opened her eyes and looked right into Onna’s upside down face.

“Raven, you have a message.”

Onna, dutiful and perceptive as always, realized her mistress was just waking up. She waited patiently as Raven quickly came to full awareness. Raven, for her part, was upset with herself that it was taking so long for her to wake up today. What was wrong with her? And why did people insist on waking her every time she had just slipped into a restful slumber?

“Yes, Onna?”

“One of Edvin’s messengers came by with a message for you.”  At Raven’s narrowed eyed look, she quickly went on, “Aven directed him to come here.”

“And what did this messenger say?” Raven asked, suspicion thick in her voice.

“There will be a Thief Lord council meeting tomorrow night. Edvin is calling it and is requesting that all Thief Lords and their advisers meet him at the Dirty Pig Tavern at midnight.”

Raven nodded, deep in thought. The Dirty Pig was neutral territory. There, none of them would have the higher ground. It had been their meeting place for years. The tavern owner was a stubborn old man who remembered the slum days before the Thief Lords had taken over. He would never allow bloodshed in his establishment, and they respected him. After all, he was the oldest person in the slums, had made it that far in life in the slums. He wasn’t the kind of man you tangled with.

Raven sighed. “I guess it’s that time for our yearly meeting, then. I had forgotten Edvin was the one arranging it this year.”

Onna looked troubled, remembering what had happened the last time all four Thief Lords had met. “Are you sure it will be safe for you? They all want you dead.”

She gave her decoy a sympathetic smile. “We all want each other dead. Don’t forget, trying to assassinate each other is what we do. No one ever succeeded until me. We just do it to keep in shape. Don’t worry, Onna.”

Onna just gave her a dubious nod, then handed her a warm, fluffy towel. Raven sighed. It was back to work, but, at least for now, it was sleep that was her work.

Raven, Chapter 5

Chapter Five

The boys came out of nowhere. To this day, I have no idea who they were. They began to beat me, but a bellow stopped them. My eyes were swelling shut as I heard their screams of agony. The last thing I remember seeing is a boy some years older than me standing over me, a concerned look on his face. He said his name was Aven and that I was safe.

-writing on the cell wall

They kept to the shadows as they made their way through Needle City. It didn’t matter, really, if they did or not. The City Guard had been paid to look the other way for seven months already. They couldn’t do anything about Raven or someone in her following unless there was a gap in the payments, and Raven made sure there weren’t any. Even if a guard saw them, he had to look the other way. The one exception was if they were actually caught committing a crime, but Raven made sure her people were trained as well as possible. Her followers protested at the extended training sessions, but she wouldn’t hear of one of them being caught and sent off to prison.

Raven and Aven didn’t wear the silver raven on their shoulder. There was no need. Everyone in Needle City knew what they looked like. Their images were posted in the office of the City Guard for everyone to see. That’s what worried Raven the most.

The Guard were paid to look the other way, but the citizens were not. If one of them were caught, they would be handed over to the Guard and, at that point, the protection was gone. It didn’t matter if the Guard were all paid off; if a citizen caught one of the criminals, they were instantly thrown into prison and given a very unfair trial.

“Almost there,” Aven murmured near her ear as they slipped into the Sapphire District, sliding along the city wall.

It had taken them the better part of the night to slink around the city wall, but, considering it was mostly residences that backed onto it and those inhabitants were likely sleeping, it was safer than going through the middle of the city. There were also fewer guards near the wall. The city hadn’t been attacked in ages and really wasn’t built to withstand an attack, so there were no posts along the wall and it wasn’t even wide enough for a child to stand on it.

Raven nodded, her eyes staring straight ahead. As always, she was focused on the job, her mind running through every alternative action she could take and everything that could go wrong. She had plans for contingency plans. The map the burglars had drawn up was safely folded in a pocket, her sharp weapons carefully concealed, ready for anything. She didn’t think she would need the map since she had memorized the manor’s layout, but it never hurt to have it handy just in case. And it never, ever hurt to have a dependable blade on hand.

She pressed her back against the wall as she heard voices from one of the manors. A man was yelling and a woman was yelling back. Shadows passed across the windows, but quickly vanished. Still, Raven and Aven stood still for a moment longer. When the noise had died down and didn’t return for over a minute, they resumed their way towards the Almi Manor.

“There,” Raven whispered. “Right there.”

Before them was a three story imposing manor built of gray, white, and black stones. They were looking at it from the back, so couldn’t see what the front looked like or what much of the gardens looked like. They could see the large panes of glass that served as windows, the delicate curtains wavering with the breeze if the window was cracked open. The walls, she knew, were not smooth because of the stone. They would be handy hand and foot holds. The garden areas they could see were mainly flower beds ringed with low bushes. The lawn was manicured and fertile, a deep emerald green despite the recent end to winter. There was a single tree beside the manor’s wall, its graceful branches rising up and then falling, the leaves forming a curtain to hide the trunk. The branches did not look sturdy at all. They wouldn’t be able to use the tree to help them up onto the roof.

The roof, Raven was glad to see, was not steep. It was gently graded and had a series of three chimneys, two of which had smoke curling away from them. The days were warm, but the nights had yet to catch up.

“This way,” Raven whispered as she led the way towards the back of the manor as a cool breeze tickled the back of her neck.

They crouched low to the ground and edged along the wall towards the back of the manor. The manor wall they were moving along was mere feet from the city wall, so had no vegetation around it.

Raven nodded to Aven and he placed his hands on the manor wall, searching out the right hand and foot holds. Finding them, he lifted himself up and began the ascent. He made his way up silently, climbing like a cat. Within a couple of minutes, he was crouching on the roof. Raven waited until after he had looked around and gave her the all clear sign.

She made her own way up as skillfully and quickly as Aven had. After all, he had taught her how to scale a wall. She wasn’t as skilled as he was with all vertical climbs, but, with this kind of wall, she was excellent. She thanked Lord Almi for his family’s stupidity. Stone walls were quite advantageous for thieves like herself and Aven.

“All clear?” Raven asked quietly as she joined her friend crouching on the roof.

He returned a simple nod and pointed down the roof. She followed his finger and then looked down, careful to crane her neck just far enough to see what was there and not fall off.

There was a cracked window just a couple of feet below and to the right of her position. From the map the burglars had drawn she knew it led to a hallway near Tyala’s bedroom.

Raven nodded with approval. It would work. Sapphire District gossip said that the Almi daughter was afflicted with nigh walking, so was usually locked in her bed chamber to prevent her from hurting herself. After all, she slept fairly close to the staircase.

Quietly and stealthily, they made their way across the roof so they were standing above where the window was located. With Aven securing her by tightly grasping her knees, Raven leaned down and quietly swung the window further open so it was just wide enough for her to enter, but not enough where a particularly strong breeze would disturb anything.

Aven helped her raise back up and she turned carefully so her back was to the city wall and her eyes could scan the rest of the roof. Aven took firm hold of her hands, his eyes flashing caution. Carefully, Raven lowered a foot and searched out a firm foot hold. Finding it, she secured her foot there and then allowed Aven to slowly lower her. Her other food found the sill to the window and she balanced there as she moved her other foot into a better position to fully take her weight. Aven released one of her hands and she slowly crouched down to grab hold of the eave. Once she had a good grip, Aven released her other hand and she grabbed the eave with that one as well. Silently, she lowered herself and slid her feet into the hallway, the rest of her following a moment later.

Inside the manor, she crouched down and looked around. It was a carpeted hallway with two doors down one side of it. Paintings hung on the walls, but she wasn’t interested in them. To her left was a staircase.

Quietly, she rose up and moved the window so it was only slightly cracked. Then she made her way over to the stairs and was able to make her way down them silently until she made her way to the ground floor.

It was dark and she spent a few minutes letting her eyes adjust to the darker lighting. There was no outside light filtering in down here. She was in some kind of large hall that had heavily curtained windows. That would explain the lack of light down here. From the map, she knew the parlor where the seed of magic was located would be to her left.

She started to move in that direction, but was stopped by the sound of footsteps. Heart pounding, she scooted behind a potted plant, crouching down, but also hoping the lower leaves and the darkness would help to better obscure her.

Two boys came into view. The Almis’ twin sons. They were about nine years old and always full of mischief. Raven wondered what they were doing up in the middle of the night.

She heard a thunk and then one of the boys said, “Watch out, stupid. Mother won’t like it if you’ve damaged her big clock.”

The other boy muttered a response, but she couldn’t make out any of the words.

“Come on,” the first boy said. “I want to get back to bed. Let’s hurry up and get your milk already.”

The second boy grumbled, but followed his brother off to the right, in the direction of the kitchen. They vanished from sight, but she could still hear their heavy foot falls.

She waited patiently, barely breathing, until they passed back by, one boy carrying a glass of milk in one hand. She watched and waited as they made their way back up the stairs and then disappeared around a corner. She waited an extra moment for caution, and then moved from behind the tree and made her way into the parlor.

Just as the burglars had said, the seed of magic was encased in a glass box and was sitting on the mantle. She walked up to it and picked up the box. It felt fragile in her hands and she spent a moment debating whether she wanted just the seed or the seed and box. The box had a clear glass front, but the sides had beautiful stained glass panes. It would be a lovely addition to her spoils, but, really, how useful would a delicate little thing be? Making up her mind quickly, she released the box’s catch and it opened with a quiet click. Opening up the front, swinging it out like a door, she reached in and grasped the seed. It fit nicely in her palm and really looked just like a peach pit. She didn’t for the life of her know how to use magic or what to do with a seed. It was safe in her possession.

Carefully, she closed the box back up and quietly placed it back on the mantle. Pocketing the seed, she looked around the parlor for an exit. None of the parlor windows were open.

Cursing to herself, she knew she would have to look around and hope someone had left a window open down here. She didn’t relish having to exit back the way she had come in.

Quietly, she left the parlor and then began to make her way around the first floor. She passed from room to room and explored the hallways. So far, nothing. She was growing more frustrated by the moment, imagining Aven’s impatience and she took more and more time to find a convenient exit. Spending more time in the manor also increased her chances of being found, and that made Aven even more nervous for her. After all, the Almi twins had already made their way downstairs.

Frowning to herself, she made her way into the kitchen. And there it was. There was a service door that was kept ajar to let in a light breeze and cool off the hot hearth. The kitchen didn’t have any windows, just the door. And unattended door. Smiling, she made her way over to the door, keeping a look out for anyone who might be slumbering in a corner.

Raven gave a silent sigh of relief when she made it out of the manor. She was on the opposite side of the house, in the herb garden, from the direction in which they had approached the manor. She waited, crouched behind a citrus tree, for Aven to find and join her. He would have been circling the gardens, on the lookout for her, ever since she entered the manor.

It didn’t take long for Aven to join her. With a silent nod, they rose up and made their way back into the deep shadows. They went back the way they had come, heading for the Sarlik Manor now.

They slunk through the shadows the manors and their gardens provided. Dawn was just a couple of hours away when they reached the Sarlik Manor. Already the sky was showing the slightest hints of a brightness heralding the approaching new day. Aven waited while Raven stole her way up to the stoop.

Half hidden behind a handful of leaves to one side of the door, where a thick grape vine ran up the wall, was a velvet pouch. Raven pulled it open and reached inside. Her fingers closed around a handful of coins. She counted the money after withdrawing them and smiled as she counted out the correct amount. Satisfied, she dropped the seed of magic into the pouch. She hoped Lord Sarlik was as pleased as she was.

Raven made her way back to Aven and they melted back into the shadows. They didn’t worry now about being caught now that the job was done. No one could arrest them for strolling through the city. They didn’t have to slink through the shadows, but they liked the practice.

“I wish we could stay for the dawn,” Raven said wistfully. “Being underground, I never get to see it anymore.”

Aven gave her a sideways look and grinned. “Come on, then. I know where we can go.”

Intrigued, Raven laced her fingers in his and allowed him to pull her along. Their job over, they didn’t have to hide in the shadows. Even if they were suspected of committing a crime, no one would find anything more than a handful of coins on them. It made getting to wherever Aven was taking her easier. And she had no idea what the man had up his sleeve. He was always full of surprises.

She followed close behind as he led them through the city. They left the Sapphire District and cut through part of the Town Square. They didn’t have to dodge the guards, but it never hurt to stay in shape, so they slunk around in the shadows, backs pressed to stone buildings, to avoid the uniformed men.

They were entering the Emerald District before she knew it. And right into Astrel Gardens. It was a garden to rival Astor Gardens, but had been the former president’s home, so of course it was vast and lovely. Many of the nobility believed it should be incorporated into the Sapphire District because of what it looked like, but the Emerald District held to it tightly with pride. It was an exhausting, ongoing debate.

The manor house hadn’t housed anyone in over four generations. Instead, the grand two story stone building with ivy creeping up all sides was reserved for ceremonies, banquets, balls, and weddings. Raven had never seen the inside of it, but could only imagine it was opulent and probably decked out in gold. It was a thief’s dream; her dream.

The gardens were another matter. There was a raised cloister leading from the house. It was alabaster marble with vines heavy with blooms and fruit twining up the pillars and along the open top.  In the middle of the cloister was an opening where a set of marble stairs descended into the statue garden. Here, there were whole and fractured forms of humans and animals. Some of them were draped in cloths, but most stood bare and gleamed in the light that often flooded the gardens. On the other side of the statues was Alina’s Pool. It was named for the city’s first president’s wife. It was long, running the length of the cloister, and shallow at only two feet deep. The water was pure and sparkling and flowers were often found floating in it. Opposite the manor, at the other end of the estate, was the Tangleweed Garden, a relatively small garden patch full of wildflowers. Stories said Alina had been fond of wildflowers and they had been planted in her honor when she died. On the other side of Alina’s Pool was a wide walkway, paved in marble. On the other side was a smaller pool, more of a square shape than a rectangle, called Beth’s Pool, named for Alina’s daughter. It was a deeper pool and housed golden fish. Beside the pool was a small rose garden with red, pink, orange, and purple flowers, planted when Beth had died at the tender age of nine.

Aven led her right by the pools and through the statue garden. She knew he had been here before, but she hadn’t. She wished he would slow down so she could take a look around, but dawn was quickly approaching and she knew he had something to show her.

They raced up the stairs into the cloister and then Aven approached one of the pillars and dropped her hand. He looked up the length of the pillar and nodded to himself. Before she could say a word, he had his fingers wrapped around the vines and was climbing up.

“Aven!” she hissed. “What are you doing?”

He glanced down at her and grinned. “Climbing. You’d better hurry up if you want to see the dawn.”

With that, he resumed his climb and squeezed through the vines creating a roof over the cloister. Muttering to herself, Raven followed him and he helped her get through the vine cover.

However crazy she thought him, she soon forgave him. He helped her settle on one of the marble beams, their seats resting on vines that crossed this way and that. The sun was rising and they were facing the Sapphire District and the rising sun. To their left were the Town Square and the needle.

The golden sunrise washed over the city and struck the needle, catching on the crystal prism at the top of it and sending a rainbow of light across the other half of the city. The roofs of the Sapphire District residences gleamed in the light and the gold than many of the nobility had painted onto the roof of their home glittered, beckoning for her to steal some of that paint.

“This is beautiful, Aven,” she whispered as he wrapped an arm around her shoulders. “Thank you.”

“You deserve to see a dawn as beautiful as this at least once in your lifetime. Enjoy it for the next few minutes. The City Guard will be making their rounds here soon and we will need to be gone by then. We are trespassing right now.”

Raven could only nod. She was too in awe of this city that was her home, the city where she was the most powerful Thief Lord. The city where she was a queen.

Raven, Chapter 4

Chapter Four

Living in the streets of the slums was hard. I had no friends, knew no one. The other street kids all seemed to belong to someone. I didn’t, and they picked on me for it. I was almost killed one night. If it hadn’t been for Aven, I would be dead right now.

-the writing on the cell wall

She was interrupted in the middle of her limbering exercises. It was Aven clearing his throat that caught her ear and had her whirling on him, settling into an attack pose as she turned.

“Hold it, Raven,” Aven said, holding up his hands in front of him. “It’s just me. You wanted me to let you know when the burglars returned. They have.”

Slowly, Raven came out of her relentless focus on her breathing and her exercises. She straightened up and relaxed her muscles. She rolled her shoulders a few times and tilted her head from side to side.

“Well, I hope they have some good news,” she said, walking past him to re-enter her audience chamber.

Three slim men, none more than five and a half feet in height, stood arrayed before her desk. All wore tight black clothing so nothing could snag as they slinked around in the dead of night. They were all bald so they wouldn’t leave a single strand of hair behind. Their nails were trimmed low and they were clean shaven. Really, they were good looking men, but loved the jewels and other shiny things they stole more than people. It was highly unlikely they would ever bring a lady friend to meet Raven. Besides, they always claimed Raven was the only lady they needed. It flattered her, but it also worried her that they were so deeply entrenched in this life that they wouldn’t know what to do with themselves when they grew too old and stiff to prance around at night on silent feet and with quick fingers.

“Good evening, men,” Raven said quietly as she slipped into her chair.

Aven took his place at her side, folding his arms. He rested his eyes on each man. Though all the men and women in Raven’s following were undyingly loyal to her, he still didn’t trust any of them as far as he could throw an elephant. He and Raven had been through too much together for him to stop being her protector and watcher. He would cut down any of her followers without a bat of an eye.

“What information do you have for me?” Raven asked.

“The Almi Manor sleeps deeply, Thief Lord,” one of the men said, the shortest of the three. “You will have no problems getting in. The weather is warming up and, as all the sleeping chambers are upstairs, they keep windows cracked to allow a breeze in.”

“Excellent,” Raven said, nodding. She rested her arms on the chair arms, letting her small child’s hands dangle over the ends, and lounged back in her chair. “That will make this job infinitely easier. What else?”

The man went on, “We searched every room and found the seed of magic. It has been encased in a glass box and hangs above the fire place. It looks like they never intended on using it.”

Raven nodded thoughtfully. “I see. It’s a trophy to them. The Almis will miss it dearly.”

“It sounds like an easy job,” Aven said. “You could always send someone else to do it.”

She shook her head. “No. I need to get out of here. I need this job. Besides, I have to do some of the jobs myself to keep myself in shape.”

Aven didn’t look pleased. It was his job to protect his mistress, no matter how much she protested. Raven knew he wanted her to never emerge from their cavern, not even to go to the bath houses. Especially not after the assassination attempt the week before. He would never forgive himself if something happened to her. But Raven was stubborn and she was his Thief Lord.

“Thank you,” Raven said, dismissing the men, feeling the displeasure Aven was radiating. “Have a map of the manor drawn up and return it to me by tomorrow afternoon. Aven, you and I have some work to do. And stop projecting your disapproval. It isn’t becoming.”

He grunted as she rummaged around in a drawer and pulled out a map of the Sapphire District. Using a couple of paperweights, she smoothed it out and pointed to the Almi Manor. After a moment of silent stewing, he twitched and moved closer to her and the desk. If he couldn’t dissuade her, he had to help her as best he could.

“The Manor butts up against the city wall. Their gardens are in front and run along the sides of the house so they’re shown to their advantage. If the walls weren’t so tall, I would choose to drop down from it onto the roof. Instead, I have one of three gardens to pass through. The front would be too obvious and this side has two other manors facing it.”

“Triangle Way,” Aven said, pointed to the south side of the manor. “The Needle Quarter is entirely surrounded by gardens and the side facing Triangle Way has the orange orchard to protect the Parliament president’s privacy as well as the Almis’ privacy.”

Slowly, Raven nodded. “The Needle Quarter is where the president makes his residence, so it does afford the most privacy. This is very advantageous for us. I’ll work with my original plan of dropping into one of the hallways and then make my way downstairs. Will you stand guard on the roof?”

“You know I will. Are you bringing anyone else along?”

She shook her head. “It’s the Sapphire District. There are more City Guards there than any other district. Even though they’re paid to pretend we’re not there, they are allowed to nab us if they actually see us doing something illegal. We have to be careful. It’ll be just you and me.” She turned and smiled up at her longtime friend. “Like what we were before I became a Thief Lord.”

He flashed a grin back and then took hold of her elbow. “Just like before,” he echoed. “And now it’s time for you to go to bed. Master Yadrow will be back in the morning for the ledgers and you may have the Albers coming by for payback.”

Raven went with him willingly, allowing him to help her up. It had been a long night, longer than other recent nights. She’d had longer and was young enough to deal with them, but she was going to be out working the following night. She would need her rest.

 

“Papa,” Caidy said as she descended the staircase the following morning. She was smoothing down the silk of her spring green gown and had a matching parasol clutched in one lace gloved hand. “I’m ready to go.”

Sarlik glanced up from the paper he was reading in the parlor. His daughter appeared in the doorway, looking just as lovely as her mother used to. He smiled and put his paper down on the low table sitting in front of the settee he sat upon.

“You look lovely today, Caidy.”

“Thank you, Papa.” She frowned as she saw his dressing slippers rather than his shoes lying beside his feet. “Papa, you’re not ready yet.”

He gave her an indulgent smile. “Not yet, my dear. I have some business I need to attend to before we can leave. Why don’t you go into the kitchen and see if Cook has any sweets for you this morning. It smells like cinnamon buns.”

Ever a lady, Caidy’s nose daintily flickered as she sniffed. A smile bloomed on her rosy lips and her eyes brightened. “Yes, it does. I’ll go see if she has any.”

With that, she turned and headed off for the kitchen, calling out to their cook. Sarlik watched her go and his smile slid from his face. He patted at a pocket in his thigh-length jacket. There was a nice little stack of golden bills wrapped in a white cloth, a little note pinned to it, hiding there, a stack of money he couldn’t let his daughter see. It wasn’t yet time for her to know about the details to this feud. She was still too naive to know it was the Thief Lords that did all the dirty work.

A knock came at the front door. Sarlik shot out of his seat and rushed to it before the butler could answer. The Manor servants didn’t know the details of the feud either. It kept the gossip among the help in the Sapphire District to a minimum.

“I have it,” Sarlik said shortly as his butler materialized.

With a bow, the butler withdrew. Sarlik took a deep breath and tugged his jacket down, waiting for the man’s steps to recede into the distance. Then he opened the door to find a young boy standing on his doorstep. He had a gray messenger cap on his head and freckles on his face. He was dressed in the gray and navy blue messenger uniform, but his shoes looked scuffed. He was young, but had been running for at least a few months. He would have learned subtlety and a quiet tongue by now. Perfect.

“Morning, my good Lord,” the boy said cheerfully. “I heard you are looking for a message to be delivered.”

“I have a package for you to take to the office of the Needle City Guard. And not a word of this, right?”

The boy tipped his cap. “Right sure, my Lord. I’ll do as you ask and mum’s the word.”

“Excellent. Take care.”

“Will do, my Lord.”

Sarlik handed over the money wrapped in the cloth. To one side was pinned a folded note. It read: For the protection of one Thief Lord Raven and her following, with the silver raven sigil. For the duration of one month’s time. To be added to what remaining protection time she and her own have. By the power of one Lord from the Sapphire District.

The boy tucked the package into a deep pocket without a further glance at the package and, with a last tip of his hat, was off. Sarlik breathed easier as he closed the door. There was no going back now. The feud was on with a vengeance.

Hopefully, a shopping trip to the Market District to purchase his daughter a few new gowns would do him some good. He did love to spoil his little princess.

 

“Raven,” a voice called, rousing her from sleep. “Raven.”

With a yawn, Raven came awake, wondering why, for the hundred thousandth time, why she hadn’t allowed Aven to install some kind of door to her bed chamber. She pulled the covers from over her face and pushed herself up so her pillows supported her back. She blinked a few times to clear the sleep from her eyes and covered her yawning mouth with the back of her hand.

Onna was standing at the doorway, waiting patiently for her mistress to awake. The decoy smiled and bowed her head.

“Raven, Master Yadrow is here to claim his spoils,” Onna said, her voice quiet and gentle. It was a voice Raven liked awakening to, which was why Onna was often the one on duty at the door to the caverns during the day. Not many had a voice that sweet, soft, and gentle. It was like waking to a nightingale. “He will be waiting in the meeting chamber. I’ll await word from Aven to bring him into your audience chamber.”

Raven nodded. “Very well. Thank you, Onna.”

The girl departed and Raven, fully dressed, pulled herself from her bed. She slipped into her boots and walked out of her bed chamber, idly wondering what it would be like to wear pajamas in bed, like she used to before her parents were killed. She didn’t look back, not wanting to see the warm, comfortable bed she had to leave because of business. Sometimes, it really stunk to be a Thief Lord.

Aven was already waiting in the audience chamber, just as he always was. She nodded to him as she took her place reclining on her cushions, walking past her bare desk. Aven left the chamber to let Onna know Raven was ready.

Raven waited patiently, fighting back yawns, until she saw Aven precede Onna and Master Yadrow into the chamber. Her adviser took up his place at the back of the chamber, standing silent guard with arms crossed and eyes hard. Onna, gentle and smiling, gestured for Master Yadrow to approach Raven and then she withdrew.

“Welcome back, Master Yadrow,” Raven said. “Aven?”

As Master Yadrow approached Raven, Aven walked over to her desk and dug out the ledgers.

“Do you have what I asked for?” Master Yadrow asked, his eyes flickering nervously around the chamber.

“Indeed I do,” she responded. “Have you paid off the guard?”

He nodded, the movements uneven and jerky. Even though the man had been through this numerous times, he was still extremely nervous and it still tickled her. She had to force herself to swallow her giggles.

“And you know the price of lying?” she asked.

Gulping hard, Master Yadrow nodded. “Believe me, Thief Lord, I would not lie to you. I have paid them off to look away for three weeks’ time.”

Raven nodded, satisfied. “That is more than the price I asked for, but I assume that means I won’t be getting the rest of my pay?”

The man flushed, but Raven bestowed a gentle smile on him and held up a hand. “Have no fear, my good man. I sent out someone new to do the job. You owe me nothing more. The extra week of protection will do me some good. Aven?”

Aven stepped forward and handed over the three ledgers. Master Yadrow frowned as he weighed them.

“This is it?” he asked skeptically, lifting an eyebrow at Raven. “For a merchant of his caliber, he has only three ledgers?”

“He has tiny writing,” Raven said dryly. “I believe you will need a magnifying glass.”

Frowning to himself, Master Yadrow bowed his head to Raven and then withdrew from the chamber. Aven stepped forward and helped Raven up.

“Back to bed, mistress,” Aven said, pushing her back to her bed chamber. “You need your rest for your job tonight.”

She nodded complacently and covered a yawn. “Yes. Excellent idea, Aven. Good night.”

He smiled. “Good night, my heart.”

 

Raven wasn’t awakened again until evening. For that, she was thankful. She needed all the sleep she could get. Tonight would be interesting. She hadn’t had a job to pull in the Sapphire District since the fall. Her blood was pumping with excitement, but her brain was throbbing with worry that she was out of practice. Winter had taken far too long to pass.

Aven sat at the foot of her bed as she finished preparing herself. He was dressed from head to toe in black with soft soled black shoes. She didn’t worry too much about him. The man could step on a creaky board without eliciting a sound. She was dressed in her tightest black outfit. There was not a single dangling thread or protrusion. There was nothing that could get caught on anything. Over her cropped hair she pulled on a tight black cap so her hair wouldn’t show. Her shoes barely covered her ankles and had soft slipper-like soles. They gave her more movement, and quietness of that movement, than any other shoe she had ever worn.

“You look fantastic,” Aven said appreciatively.

She turned from her mirror and smiled at him. “Thank you, Aven. You look ready for a night on the town yourself.”

He laughed at their joke as she approached him and placed her hands on his shoulders. He smiled up at her and wrapped his large hands around her dainty waist.

“Are you ready?” she asked softly.

“Always,” he whispered back.

“Then let’s go.”

She lowered her head to his and gently brushed his lips with her cool ones. The warmth of his kiss spread through her and gave her the energy and high she needed for this job. Of course, she did wish she had another job she could do with her longtime friend and lover, but there were spoils to be had and she couldn’t turn them down any more than Aven could.

They pulled away from each other and were back to business. Most of their relationship was comprised of business. It was hard to find moments to be together and not worry about anything. But Raven was a Thief Lord and Aven her adviser, protector, and executioner, so he was always by her side. She knew he loved her, so his protection was fierce. They didn’t need much more than that.

“I sent Onna over to the Sapphire District,” Aven said as he rose from the bed. “She went sniffing around the Sarlik Manor and saw him pass a package to a messenger. She followed the boy to the office of the City Guard. They have been paid off. When she returned to the manor, there was a pouch hanging by the door with the letters T, L, and R hastily stitched onto it. She guessed your pay was in there.”

Raven grinned as they walked out of her bed chamber. “Excellent. Then I can get the seed of magic off my hands sooner than I expected.”

Now it was time to actually steal the seed of magic from the Almi Manor. Raven couldn’t suppress the shiver of excitement that ran down her spine.

Raven, Chapter 3

Chapter Three

Until my parents died, I had no notion of living on the streets. It was terrifying. I was afraid most days and nights. I stole what little I could just to get by. I was cold and hungry most of the time.

-the writing on the cell wall

It was the middle of the night, but Raven and Aven hardly ever slept during this time of night. This was when the nobility came out of their lofty Sapphire District to hire her. It wouldn’t do if she were sleeping. If they didn’t get any sleep, why should she? These were the jobs that mattered. These were the jobs that paid. She had to stay awake for them. Which meant those that made their way to her during the daylight hours got a sleepy Raven reclining on cushions. The nighttime employers got a wide awake Raven who was already dressed in her tight black clothes and boots who sat at her wide desk, going over papers with Aven and actually doing work.

That night, as they waited to see if any of the nobility would finally start coming to her, they were also going over Deri’s job. The boy was due to return any moment now with Master Yadrow’s spoils and the merchant himself would be back sometime during the day to finish paying Raven and to pick up the ledger.

Myria interrupted them by clearing her throat. She was on duty tonight to greet anyone who was coming to see Raven.

Raven and Aven looked up from the papers and saw the young woman waiting patiently at the entrance to Raven’s audience chamber. Aven nodded to Myria and then retreated towards the pile of cushions. He settled himself down on them and leaned back, propped up on one elbow. He looked relaxed, but his eyes were sharp and vigilant. He wouldn’t let anyone hurt Raven.

“Bring them in, Myria,” Raven said quietly as she gathered up her papers into neat piles, only briefly raising her eyes to the young woman as she spoke.

Myria disappeared and, a moment later, a tall figure in a dark brown cloak entered. Raven smiled and held out a hand towards the plain wooden chair placed on the other side of her desk.

“Lord Sarlik,” she greeted, recognizing the man as he pulled up his hood from his head of graying hair. “It’s lovely to see you again. Please have a seat and we can get down to business.”

Lord Sarlik had come to her before, both as a youth and a man. They were well acquainted and Raven knew the Sarlik-Almi, formerly Sarlik-Galton, feud quite well. The families had gone to other Thief Lords from time to time, but both purported to be most pleased with Raven’s work, especially since it was the Thief Lord herself doing the work rather than one of the followers. They liked the skill and professionalism Raven had.

Despite their relationship, though, Lord Sarlik was, understandably, still cautious around her. His gaze flickered over to Aven for a brief second. The other man only gave him the slightest of nods, barely imperceptible, but there nonetheless. It had been customary between the two men for the past two years. After a moment’s hesitation, Lord Sarlik finally took the seat Raven gestured to and faced her.

“What can I do for you this time, Lord Sarlik?”

He leaned forward, allowing the cloak to open up now that he wasn’t holding onto the folds on the inside to keep it closed. “I need you to steal something for me.”

Raven nodded, happy to be returning to the Sapphire District for a job, but a little disappointed it was to steal something. She had more fun creating contraptions to catch people unawares, but stealing was right up her alley and she was one of the best at it.

“Of course, Lord Sarlik. Tell me a little more.”

“You are familiar with the seeds of magic, yes?” he asked.

Raven nodded. “Certainly. The magicians produce only a few a year. I hear the magic quality is reducing with every seed they form, but that’s to be expected. The reserve is drying up.”

“Yes, that is true,” Sarlik said. “This new batch is quite weakened. Lord Almi has one of the last good seeds in his possession. He doesn’t use magic much, so I don’t know why he bothers to have one on hand. It’ll just sit there and the magic will slowly dissipate. What a waste.” He sniffed, and then instantly regretted it when he smelled a combination of strange food scents and sewage. He coughed and brought out a scented handkerchief to mask the odor, using it to gently pat around his lips and nose.

“Do you know where this seed is located?” Raven asked, ever focused on the job and not caring what her clients felt or smelled as they sat before her. If they wanted to hire her, they had to deal with everything she had.

“No. I only know it’s somewhere in his manor.”

Raven grinned. “This will be a fun one. I will have your seed of magic for you in two days’ time.”

“So soon?” he asked with surprise.

“I’ve been waiting for something more entertaining that assassination attempts,” she replied drily. “This job is perfect. You may pay half now and half when you return to collect your seed.”

“Ah,” he interrupted. “Would it be too much trouble for you to leave it at my manor?”

Surprise flickered in her eyes. No one had ever asked her for that before. But it would give her a great opportunity to break into two homes.

“You could just leave it on the doorstep,” he added quickly. “I’ll even pay more for the delivery. I know you prefer to have people pick things up from you, but I really hate to leave my daughter by herself.”

“No, no, that would be fine, Lord Sarlik. Certainly, I can make the delivery for you. Half now, please.”

She held out a hand and he reached over to drop three gold coins into her palm. Her fingers instantly wrapped around them and her hand vanished into her pockets before he could even pull back his hand.

Raven smiled and stood. “Lovely doing business with you, Lord Sarlik. Until I see the rest of my pay waiting outside of your door, I won’t drop off the seed.”

Sarlik nodded and stood. “I understand. Thank you, Raven.”

She smiled and bowed her head to him. Myria materialized behind him, walking on quiet feet, and escorted him from the room. As soon as they had departed, Aven rejoined Raven and perched on her desk as she once again settled herself in her padded chair.

“Well, my little bird, it looks like you’ve got yourself some excitement.”

Raven grinned up at her longtime friend. “So it seems. Now. Let’s plan out this steal.”

Together, they pulled together large and small maps of the Sapphire District and began to pore over them. They stood side by side, upper arms brushing together, as they bent their heads over the parchment.

“It won’t be a problem to get to the Almi Manor,” Raven said, spreading her hands over one of the large maps of the Sapphire District. “And getting in will be a cinch.” She shook her head. “These nobles with all of their feuds have relatively poor security. The City Guard can’t be everywhere all the time.” She flashed a grin at her friend. “Besides, they’re being paid to look the other way whenever they see me. Those Guards are really nothing more than a joke.”

Aven laughed softly. “It is a little ironic, isn’t it?”

Still smiling, Raven turned back to her maps. “What will be problematic will be finding the seed of magic. It’s the size of a small peach pit. It could be anywhere in that house.”

“Well,” Aven said slowly, “I would start with the bedroom. I would assume he wants to keep it close by just in case.”

Raven frowned. “Yes. That is a possibility. But he doesn’t really use magic. He might have it for display purposes.”

“That’s true. In that case, it could be just about anywhere.”

She sighed. “I need to do some recon of the Almi Manor. Have a team of three of my cat burglars sent over tonight. We still have five more hours of night left and I know Lord and Lady Almi are not early risers. Their children might pose a problem, but it’s unlikely they might have the seed. After all, it is illegal for anyone under the age of seventeen to have one in their possession.”

Aven nodded. “I’ll have them leave at once.”

He left at trot, leaving Raven to frown and continue to study the maps It didn’t take him long to gather the team of three and they were off immediately, glad for the work. By the time he returned to Raven, Deri had returned with the ledgers for Master Yadrow.

The three slim black books were sitting on Raven’s desk. Raven herself was rummaging in a desk drawer, probably hunting down Deri’s pay. The boy was waiting patiently by the chair. His fingers were linked behind his back and he was humming softly to himself as his eyes wandered around the cavern.

“Hey, kid,” Aven said, clapping the boy on his shoulder as he passed to stand with Raven.

“I did it, Aven,” Deri said with a blindingly bright grin. “I stole for the first time for Raven.”

She glanced up at Deri at that and gave him a smile. “Yes, you did. And you did a great job. There were no problems, right? The ledgers were exactly where I said they would be?”

“Exactly,” Deri said, nodding his head. “I had no problems at all.”

“Good. Ah, here we go.”

Triumphantly, Raven pulled out a small black pouch that she kept full of gold and silver coins. Normally, Thief Lords didn’t pay their followers for the work they did. Instead, they provided a home, food, and companionship. Raven was different. She believed her people would be more loyal if they were independent and had the choice of who to follow. The pay kept them coming back. Like regular people, they liked buying things. And she knew some were saving up for rent for an apartment in the Commons.

“Here you go, kid,” Raven said, dropping three silver coins into Deri’s outstretched hand.

He grinned and closed his fingers over them before tucking them into a pocket. “Thank you, Raven.”

She gave him an indulgent smile and leaned back in her seat. “What are your plans for the money?”

He shrugged. “I don’t know yet. All I ever dreamed about was getting out of the streets, and I have, thanks to you and Aven. I don’t know what else I might want.”

“Well, you can afford better made clothing,” she suggested.

He looked down at his clothes. The hems were tattered with strings dangling here and there and there were holes in odd places along his pants legs and around his belly. “I guess I could. Thank you.”

“Okay,” Aven said. “Off with you, kid. You need your sleep and Raven and I have work to do.”

Flashing a smile, Deri ran off to find his bed. Aven shook his head as the kid vanished into the tunnels. Raven reached over and gently squeezed her friend’s hand.

“Remind you of someone?” she asked with a grin.

He glanced over at her and returned the smile. “Yeah. He reminds me of an overeager girl named Tala.”

She frowned and removed her hand. “Aven, you know I don’t go by that name anymore.”

“I know,” he said softly. “But sometimes it’s good to remember. You came from somewhere and it shaped you. Unlike a lot of us, you actually had a family that loved you.” He crouched down beside her chair and took her hand in his. “Raven, if it weren’t for your parents’ deaths, you wouldn’t be where you are now. You’re the most powerful Thief Lord, and the first female one. If your parents had lived and you had lived as Tala, you would probably be slogging away in one of the factories as we speak. What happened to you happened for a reason and it’s made you into Raven.”

She raised a dark eyebrow. “You helped, too. Aven. If you hadn’t saved me from those boys, I would have died that night. I owe everything to you.”

“Yes, you do, and you make it up to me every day. You’re the best Thief Lord and everyone loves you. You are the kind of leader every criminal dreams of, and the leader that most of them now have the opportunity to serve under. You’re the dearest friend I’ve ever had, the one person I can no longer live without.”

She gave him a smile and reached out to gently caress his cheek. “Thank you, Aven. I needed that. Now. Back to business. How long until the burglars return?”

“It shouldn’t be for more than a couple of hours. Then, hopefully, we’ll know where that seed is.”

Raven nodded and Aven stood to pore over the maps with her once again. “I figure it’ll be easier to enter from the roof. There are less people prowling up there than along the streets and it’ll give me a chance to practice my climbing skills. I’ll drop down into the master bedroom if the seed is there. If not, I’ll go into one of the hallways and work my way down.”

Aven nodded. “I like that plan. Just remember to keep low to the roof.”

Raven cast him a look. “Tomorrow is the new moon. There will be no other light than the lanterns and the nearest one is on the side opposite where I plan to enter.”

“Ah. Smart thinking.”

“Well, someone has to be around here,” she muttered, shuffling the maps to shove them back into a drawer.

He laughed. “Okay, little thief. I’ll take care of the burglars when they get back. You can start getting ready for your outing tomorrow night.”

Raven stood, grinning widely. She stretched her arms above her head and twisted at her waist in both directions. “Yes. I think I need to limber up a bit. I’ll be in the exercise chamber. If the burglars come back with any interesting news, let me know right away.”

“Of course,” he said, giving her a look that said she was crazy for asking him to do something he always did. “Now, go, little thief.”

 

Speaking to Raven had taken less time than he had thought it would. He was back home before he knew it, but wasn’t yet ready for bed. Instead, he wanted to see Caidy, make sure she was safe and sleeping soundly. As his daughter grew older, he worried more about her. She would be out in the world on her own in a few years unless he married her off, but he wasn’t ready to lose his little girl like that just yet. He also hadn’t yet found a suitable husband for her.

He stood in the doorway to her bed chamber, watching as she slept with haunted eyes. Her hair was spread over her stark white pillows and she had the light green quilt pulled up to her chin. She was lying on her side, her mouth open, snoring softly. She looked like a little angel. An angel he wanted to protect.

More than anything, he wanted his family’s feud with the Almis to end, but there was too much pain. It had started when the Galtons had murdered his great-grandfather. They had claimed he had scorned their daughter’s hand in marriage and had him killed. In retaliation, the Galton daughter had been killed. Nyana and Kaida were the only two Galtons left now and, now that Nyana was married, Kaida had claimed the Galton home and name, but not the feud. The law was protecting her from the feud and had granted her the family’s name and ancestral home, but she had chosen to make her physical home in Mercaido City. If she married, her husband would have to take the Galton name.

Nyana had become relentless in her pursuit of the feud. He knew she had wanted to end it in her youth, when she had been young and idealistic, but her parents had passed it on to her. Forced was probably more like it. He didn’t know what had made her so zealous in wanting to destroy his family, but she was and there was nothing he could do to stop it. She was probably like him, feeling impelled to continue something that had defined their families and social interactions for generations. Without it, they would be like floundering fish washed up on the Traiden Shore.

And unless this feud ended soon, it would be up to Caidy to continue. But she was too sweet and loving. Just like her mother. He didn’t think she would stand a chance against the Almi children. He would have to somehow end the feud himself, but he feared losing the definition to his life that it provided. He had lived and breathed the feud for too long. It was too late to stop it, he realized. He couldn’t do it, not even for his child.