Raven, Chapter 20

In those early days, we all lost followers. It was painful, but they knew what they had gotten themselves into. There was fierce loyalty on all sides, in all followings. It took nearly a year, and many deaths and rampant fear in the slums, but the other Thief Lords finally reluctantly acknowledged me as a Thief Lord. But it was still an uphill battle.

-writing on the cell wall

Raven had never been in the holding cells of the Court House before. She had never been in the Court House before. She had never been anywhere near the Court House before. This was a new experience for her.

She had expected to be led into a courtroom, one of those cozy, echoing chambers with a platform where the magistrate sat and  a length of benches along one wall where the panel of barristers sat and helped judge.

She hadn’t expected a holding cell. She had thought she’d be judged at first light and thrown into prison. Then her people would have her out by the night. But she had ended up spending most of her time in the holding cell.

It was strange. The cell itself was large enough to hold half a dozen people and had a wooden bench running around the perimeter expect where the narrow door was closed and locked. There had been three other people waiting when the City Guards had put her in and placed her on one of the benches before chaining her to it. She could move one foot in every direction, and that was it. She didn’t like being confined so, and above ground.

But the weirdest part to her was being placed right in the middle of the Court House’s atrium. It was a large area with a white marble floor and a high, rounded ceiling that was at least three stories above her head. The people who came in and out barely spared them a glance. She figured this cell had been such a fixture, and no one really wanted to look on a criminal, that they were used to it and it was all part of the furnishings.

It was well past midday when someone finally came for her. The cell had emptied out throughout the day and now she was alone and lonely. She had never been so alone and bored before.

“Up,” the guard said as he entered the cell.

Raven wondered what would happen if she conked him on the head after he released the chains holding her, but there were too many people milling around. It wouldn’t be hard for someone to recapture her. No, her people knew what to do and she would be out of the Court House in no time. She just had to see this trial through.

Her wrists were chained together and a longer one was attached to where the wrists were joined. The guard took hold of the end of that long chain and she groused at being led like an animal. Didn’t these guards know she could have them killed at the snap of her fingers?

“Hurry up,” the guard grumbled as he led her along a hallway.

It was brightly lit and the carpet was plush under her feet. There were light fixtures every few feet and one wall was pierced every now and then with round windows. The other wall was punctured with gleaming wooden doors. Raven assumed this was where the courtrooms were, but, at the spacing between the doors, she surmised they must be small courtroom.

Finally, towards the end of the hallway, the guard stopped and knocked on the door. A moment passed before a muffled voice answered and the guard swung the door open. He tugged at the chain and Raven glared at his back as she was forced to follow him in.

Whatever Raven’s expectations for a courtroom, this was not it at all. It was small and carpeted with a large desk, larger than her own, dominating most of the chamber. The walls were plain, but there was a small potted tree in one corner to help cheer up the room. But Raven didn’t think courtrooms were supposed to be cheerful. Against the wall on the other side of the desk were dark bookcases filled with more books than Raven had seen in her entire life.

Behind the desk sat a man with a great mass of neatly combed white hair. He was bent over the desk’s surface, hastily scrawling something out on an off white piece of parchment. He was dressed in a black robe with tiny golden angels affixed to the ends of the sleeves, near his wrists.

“I’ll be with you in just a moment,” the man murmured as he finished scribbling.

“At your convenience, magistrate,” the guard replied, moving his feet so they were wide apart.

Raven silently grumbled to herself as she was forced to wait. Even when she saw people they never had to wait in her presence. That’s what the entrance chamber was for. And she kept fresh water and malted beer and a few other refreshments for her clients.

Finally, the man put his pen down and looked up at Raven with startling blue eyes. They seemed to see straight through to her soul and it would have taken Raven aback if she hadn’t steeled herself for it. He folded his hands on top of the desk and looked her up and down, his eyes finally coming to rest on her face.

He didn’t recognize her, but Raven knew who he was. The eyes confirmed it for her. She remembered those hands. She remembered watching them scrawl out her death sentence. He was the one who had made her a ward of the city, had sent her to the orphanage. Here before her sat the man who had started her journey to the underground. And he didn’t recognize her.

Raven smiled to herself. After all these years she had finally found the man who had changed her life. She didn’t know whether to kiss him or kill him. Her life after that decision had been hard, but she had met Aven, had become the most powerful Thief Lord. Still, she had promised that the man would pay for the pain she had suffered, and the greater pain she would have suffered at the orphanage had she gone to live there.

“Thief Lord Raven,” the magistrate said, his voice mild and his eyes unwavering. His hands were spread out on top of the papers he had been writing on, proudly displaying the ruby ring he wore as a magistrate. The setting was elaborate; this man had risen quite high since he had sentenced Tala to the orphanage. “I had hoped we would meet one day. You’ve certainly kept us on our toes.”

Raven didn’t say anything. She fixated on his face. This time she was intent on memorizing his face rather than just his hands. She would remember his mild manner at this point in time, and would later delight in the look of horror in his eyes as she slipped her favorite dagger into his gut.

The magistrate frowned and the lines around his eyes creased slightly as she remained silent. “What have you to say for yourself?” he asked, his voice gone cold.

“What are the charges against me?” she replied, her voice similarly steely.

The magistrate leaned back, a look of surprise flittering across his face. “You are a Thief Lord. Surely you know as well as I do that the list of charges is miles long. Your followers, as you people choose to call those petty criminals, have likely committed any number or horrendous crimes from simple theft to murder. As Thief Lord, surely you know you must take the fall for all the crimes your followers have and will commit.”

Raven only repeated,” What are the charges against me?”

The man sighed and plopped a pair of golden rimmed spectacles on his nose. He shifted through his papers and pulled one up.

“Thief Lord Raven, you are being charged with the murder of one Lord Daisun Sarlik.” He put down the paper and looked at her over the top of the spectacles. “Young lady, murder is a very serious crime. For that, you will be sent to the cells and sentencing will be in just a few days.”

The guard reached out to grab hold of her arm, but she quickly jerked away from him. She made it a couple of steps towards him before the guard caught her and held on to both of her arms. She struggled against the man’s strong arms, wishing she had spent more time on strength exercises as well as her usual limbering ones, but the man’s hands were like iron. The magistrate only watched her with wary eyes, but didn’t look afraid at all.

Eyes blazing, Raven stilled and ground out, “What kind of a trial is this?”

Surprise flared in the magistrate’s eyes. “Trial? What makes you think you deserve a trial? You are a Thief Lord. Trials are reserved for the people, the tax payers, the household owners, the lords and ladies, the merchants, the people who make their living honestly.” By the time he finished his recitation, his face had turned red and his hands were once again pressed to the desk top. “You are a common thief and thereby do not deserve a trial. It is clear that are you at fault for all your crimes. You do not get a trial. Guard, take her straight to the cells!”

 

Note: And that’s it! That’s all that’s been written of Raven. I had hoped to have written an ending by now, and I do know most of the ending, but that obviously hasn’t happened. While I had this story perfectly outlined, it started spiraling out of control halfway through and I’m still trying to figure it out. I know what happens to Raven, but no clue what will happen to Caidy and Tyala. One day, though, I hope this will be finished and posted here. Thank you so much for reading, and I’m sorry I couldn’t give you a better ending.

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Raven, Chapter 19

The Thief Lords attacked in the middle of the day, when the underground is usually asleep. They almost made it to my bedchambers, but my followers stopped them. They threatened the Thief Lords’ lives, but I spared them. They should be thankful to me for that. I could have completely taken over the underground. But that only made them plot harder.

-writing on the cell wall

Deri was weaving in and out of carts and wandering people as he made his way through the Market District. It was just before dawn, but already the merchants and street vendors were coming out to prepare for the new day. He had streaked right towards The Nook, only to be stopped by the sight of the milling City Guard.

He had hidden in the shadows, getting as close as he dared, hoping to catch any news from the guards before he was caught. For the most part, the men were silent was they walked around the heart of The Nook. Deri learned that this was where they had found Lord Sarlik’s body and Deri realized Raven had indeed been successful.

One of the Guards shook his head and crossed his arms. “Poor man. Lord Sarlik was a good person. Any news of his daughter yet? Poor girl must be hysterical.”

One of the younger guards sidled up to the guard that had just spoken. “Do you know who did it? I just came on duty and learned about this now.”

The first guard shook his head and spit off to the side. “You wouldn’t believe it if I told you.”

“Try me.”

“You’re familiar with the underground?” At the younger guard’s nod, he went on, “The female Thief Lord, Raven, and, you’re not going to believe this, Lady Almi.”

The younger guard was taken aback at that. “Lady Almi? A noblewoman? She had a part in this murder?”

The older guard nodded. “Sure did. She and the little criminal have been taken to the Court House. They should be charged later today when the magistrate and the President make it to the Town Square.”

Deri didn’t wait to hear any more. He dashed off towards the Town Square and crept through the shadows towards the Court House. He hadn’t been around in this area often, but everyone in the underground knew their way around the Court House. They all knew that those imprisoned were kept in the basement cells and that there were small windows lined with clustered iron bars. All he had to do was find the one Raven was in.

A half hour later, after having called into every window, he still hadn’t managed to find Raven. He knew Onna was waiting for him, but what could he tell her? That Raven was somewhere in the Court House and he couldn’t find her? Well, that would have to do. The sun was starting to rise.

Seeing all the light that was beginning to pour into the Town Square, Deri scurried off and slid into the shadows. He made his way back to the slums and was out of breath by the time he reached the hidden entrance leading into Raven’s network of caverns.

Onna was still seated in Raven’s seat. She looked tired and haggard. Several other followers were milling around. Deri could feel the anxiety and fear in the cavern. And they all perked up as soon as they saw him, Onna springing to her feet.

“Deri, what news?” she asked, a frantic look in her face and posture.

He shook his head. “Not good, Onna. Lord Sarlik is dead, but Raven and Lady Almi were caught and are now somewhere in the Court House.”

Instead of looking devastated, a resolute look crossed Onna’s face. She sat back down in Raven’s chair as Deri and the other followers in the room looked on. The older ones had some understanding in their faces, but the younger ones looked bewildered, wondering if Onna was asserting her right to be the next Thief Lord.

Slowly, Onna opened up a drawer and pulled out rolled pieces of paper. She spread them out and waved for everyone to come closer. They all crowded around the desk and saw that Raven’s adviser had spread maps of the Court House on the desk surface. There were thick black lines drawn to indicate various paths from various points in the building.

“What’s this?” Deri asked.

Onna didn’t look up as she answered. “When Aven selected me to be his successor, this was the first thing he showed me. There has always been the risk that Raven or one of us, the followers, would be captured. Raven made plans for that, plans for breaking out. Once Raven has been judged, we will find out which cell she is in and break her out.” She looked up, fire in her eyes. “Then we will bring down whoever gave her away.”

Deri frowned. “What do you mean? Do you think one of us told the City Guards what she was doing?”

Onna shook her head. “We wouldn’t do that to her, none of us. It has to have been Thief Lord Corinn. Once we break out Raven, we will go after him.”

One of the older, grizzled murderers stepped up and pulled a curved blade from its sheath. Jesyre had an odd light in his eyes. “Why wait?” he asked. “Let us go take care of him now. It’ll be our gift to Raven.”

Onna shook her head. “First, we must learn of what Raven would like to do with him. If she says to murder him, I will send word to you.”

Jesyre clenched his jaw, but nodded. He stepped away, sheathing his blade as he went. But he folded his arms and that odd light remained in his eyes. Deri wasn’t sure the man was going to keep to his word. After Aven, Jesyre had been Raven’s first follower, having come from Teryk’s following.

“Deri,” Onna said, “take a cloak and remain hidden around the Court House. Send word to us as soon as you know Raven has been judged.”

The boy nodded and hurried off in the first step to break Raven out of the prison.

 

Corinn had never felt so exuberant in his entire life. A goofy smile was on his face, both from the joy and the malted beer he was downing like it was water. Quin had joined in in their private merrymaking in Corinn’s chambers. Already the amber liquid had flowed across the hard ground, spotting the few pieces of furniture Corinn had.

“To us!” Corinn said, reaching out his pewter mug to clink against Quin’s.

For once, the usually somber and serious adviser was smiling and in good spirits. He was laughing and there were tears of joy in the corners of his eyes. He felt as jubilant as his Thief Lord did.

They had finally gotten the best of Raven. And it felt good.

Quin leaned back in the plush armchair, one of the more comfortable pieces in Corinn’s bedchamber. Corinn himself was sprawled out in his bed, the malted beer staining his covers. Quin sighed heavily and took a deep drink.

“I can’t believe how easy it was,” Quin said, for the umpteenth time. “Raven must have let her guard down. Aven’s death sure did hit her hard. She hasn’t been the same since.”

Corinn shook his head and took a big gulp. “Nope. That’s what made it so easy. It’s scandalous, really, how easy it was. But it worked and I don’t feel bad. She’s had it coming for a long time. That girl has thwarted us so many times. She’s gotten her just desserts.”

Quin lifted his mug. “That she has. I’ll drink to that.”

The two men had no sooner lifted their mugs to their lips when there was a commotion at the entrance to the cavern. Startled, they turned and sloshed amber liquid everywhere as the other two Thief Lords stormed into Corinn’s bedchamber, flanked by their advisers.

Drunkenly, Corinn lifted his half full mug to the four men, a goofy smile on his face. “Cheers, men! Raven is no longer a threat to us. She has been imprisoned and will be there for a long time.”

Deryk crossed his arms while Edvin shook his head. The two advisers stood by stoically. Quin paid them no mind; he just took two gulps of the remaining malted beer, finishing off the cup.

“You’re a fool, Corinn,” Edvin growled. “We cannot afford to lose another Thief Lord. Can you imagine who else might rise up and claim to be a Thief Lord? At least, with Raven, there was some semblance of order. We didn’t like her much, either, but we need her.”

“There are also rumblings from Raven’s following,” Deryk added in his melodic tenor voice. “They are furious and are calling for blood. They suspect it was one of us, and it won’t take much for Edvin and I to out you, but we need what few Thief Lords we have.”

Corinn just shrugged. He wasn’t concerned in the least. They were so keen on having four Thief Lords; they couldn’t afford to get rid of him. His hide was safe and sound. They wouldn’t dare touch him.

“What do we do?” he heard Deryk ask softly. He assumed the other Thief Lord was talking to Edvin, so didn’t even bother looking up from pouring more of the amber liquid into his mug. “What can we do?”

“We wait for Raven’s escape,” Edvin replied in his gruff voice. “Then we’ll take it up with her. The vengeance is hers.”

Corinn laughed and hiccuped at the same time, nearly falling off of his bed. “That’s assuming she will escape!”

Deryk shook his head. Corinn didn’t know Raven as well as he thought. Raven was careful and meticulous, just as Teryk had trained her. And, just as Teryk had trained her, she would have escape routes and plans from every room of the Court House.

“We will wait for Raven’s escape,” Edvin repeated.

Corinn only laughed and poured more of the malted beer for himself and Quin. Nothing was going to get him down. Raven was in prison and all was right in the underground for now.

 

Lord Almi returned home, furious with his lot in life. It had taken the better part of the day, but he had managed to bring his wife home. It had also cost him more than a pretty penny to bring her home, without any charges attached to her name.

Lady Almi had been caught with a sword dripping with Lord Sarlik’s blood by the City Guard. The magistrate hadn’t been willing to release her. But he had understood Lord Almi’s situation and knew a murder charge would forever damage the Almi name, which had historically been associated with peace. The also understood the Almis had three children, none yet of the age of majority. Their futures would be compromised if their name was thus besmirched.

The magistrate had charged a hefty sum, and Lord Almi had paid it. In Needle City, just about anything could be bought. At least, as long as you belonged to the nobility.

Lord Almi hadn’t looked at his wife or said a word to her on their ride home. She had plead for him to forgive her, implored him to speak to her, begged for him to look at her. But he refused. The woman had been so consumed with her family’s feud that she had very nearly damaged their family. Their children would have been forced to look elsewhere for spouses, something that the nobility in Needle City tended to look down on. The nobility’s children could marry common folk, as long as they came from Needle City. Everyone else was suspect. Sometimes it was a difficult place to live, but he liked it. And his wife had nearly destroyed everything.

“Father,” Tyala said with surprise as the front door burst open and her father stalked in, her mother following after. “Mother, where have you been?”

Lady Almi glanced uncertainly at her husband before taking a few tentative steps towards her daughter. Her husband’s suddenly booming voice cut her off and nearly made her lose her balance.

“No!” he shouted. “Upstairs, Nyana. We have words to exchange. You will leave the children alone.”

Bewildered, Tyala looked from her father to her mother and back again. “Father, what’s going on?”

Lord Almi cast a warning look at his wife and took a step closer to his daughter. Her face white and her lips pale and pressed tightly together, Lady Almi picked up her skirts and raced for the steps. Her husband and daughter listened as they faded before another word was said.

“Where are your brothers?” Lord Almi asked, his voice and face gentle now, looking exactly like a concerned father.

“Out in the gardens.”

“Tyala, you mother was caught up in something tragic last night,” he said, picking his words very carefully. “Your mother’s family’s feud has gotten out of hand. Last night, your mother and one of the Thief Lords went out and murdered someone.”

Tyala’s hands flew up to her mouth, her eyes wide and horrified. She knew the family’s feud with the Sarliks very well. The victim could only have been a Sarlik, and there were only two of them.

Lord Almi rushed over to his daughter before she fell over and stabilized her. He clutched her arms and forced her to look at him.

“It wasn’t Caidy,” he said in a whisper. “Dear angels, it wasn’t her, Tyala. But she needs you now. If she will see you, end this feud with her and stay with her.”

Eyes full of tears, unshed, Tyala nodded. Her father released her and she bolted out the door. She didn’t even bother to change her house slippers for shoes or to throw on a cloak. Lord Almi was only thankful she had been fully dressed.

Heaving a great sigh, he looked upwards, towards where his wife waited. The woman had endangered their entire family. He shook his head. If it had only been the work of Raven, he would be fine. But his wife had decided to take part, and now there was a price to pay.

Divorce was unheard of in Needle City. But he didn’t think the magistrate would put up too much of a fuss in this case. He would understand that Lord Almi needed to protect his children, away from the evil influences of Needle City and their mother’s obsession with her family’s feud.

His face and mindset set, he made his way to the stairs and slowly ascended them.

Raven, Chapter 17

The other Thief Lords did not welcome the peace agreement. It threw the council for a loop, made it different. But they couldn’t avoid the fact that some of their followers were starting to join my following. You see, I paid my people. I gave them luxuries. I gave them a home. I gave them all they could want. They just had to follow me and be loyal to only me. That didn’t sit well with the Thief Lords, either.

-writing on the cell wall

 

She stood at her bedroom window, chewing on her lower lip. Her  normally bright blue eyes were full of worry and her arms were crossed tightly against her body. Her hair was loose around her shoulders, spilling halfway down her back in a tumble of gentle curls. She was dressed in her favorite peach dressing gown and had dainty slippers on her feet. It had been three days since she had last left Sarlik Manor.

A chill went through Caidy’s body and she shook violently for a second before it passed. It was warm in her rooms and it looked like it was a beautiful warm, sunny day outside, but she’d been having bouts of chills for the past several hours. And she had no idea why.

Caidy rubbed her hands up and down her arms, trying to soothe the chill from her limbs. Something was wrong, or something was going to happen. She had that feeling again. But she didn’t know what it meant and it was driving her crazy.

The last time she had experienced this, nothing had happened. But, the following night, someone had broken into her bedroom and stolen her mother’s jewel setting. It was also the night her father had killed a man.

A shadow passed over her face. That night had changed her life. Well, this whole feud was making her life unbearable, but now she felt disconnected from her father. He had taken a man’s life. She was certain he had a good reason for killing a man, but he had killed a man! That wasn’t the father she had known all her life.

Then she and Tyala had agreed to run away, but Tyala hadn’t met her as they had planned in Aster Gardens. Her best friend was a prisoner in her own home, unable to run away. And Caidy wasn’t going to go anywhere without her best friend.

A knock came at her door and she whirled around in surprise, only to see a young serving woman bob a curtsy. Caidy gave her an apologetic smile as she grabbed up her mistress’s supper tray. But before the girl could withdraw, Lord Sarlik appeared and Caidy drew in a deep breath.

“Careful, Miri,” Caidy said softly to warn the girl that someone was behind her.

With a sharp intake of air, Miri turned and barely missed crashing into her master. With a bob and a murmured apology, Miri edged around Lord Sarlik, but he wasn’t paying any attention to her. Lord Sarlik’s eyes met his daughters as Miri vanished into the hallway, quietly closing the door behind her.

“Papa,” Caidy said quietly.

Lord Sarlik walked towards her, but stopped a few feet short. He had a concerned expression on his face and looked like he wanted to embrace his daughter, but was able to read her well enough to know she was still wary of him. Instead, he asked, “How have you been today, Caidy? I meant to come earlier, but some business pulled me away to the Market District.”

She bit her lip before answering. “I’m better, Papa.”

“Well enough to resume going to the balls, the theater, and other evening gatherings?” he asked, his voice laced with hope and a bright twinkle entering his eyes.

She hated to disappoint him. She hated to have to say no to him again. Her father had been so patient with her lately. It would kill him to be told no again, but she had to. She just couldn’t shake this feeling.

“Papa,” she said hesitantly. “I’ve got that feeling again. The one that means something bad is going to happen.”

A concerned look on his face, Lord Sarlik advanced on his daughter and took her hands. He pulled her over to the sofa and urged her down with him. He clasped her hands tightly and studied her face.

“Caidy, you remember the last time, don’t you? Nothing happened. Everything was fine that night.”

“Yes, Papa. That’s very true. But the following night Mama’s jewel setting was stolen and you killed a man!” Her voice was shrill by that point, worried and frightened looks warring across her face; she just wasn’t sure of how she felt. She leapt to her feet and stared accusingly down at her father. “You killed someone, Papa!”

Slowly, Lord Sarlik rose to his feet, a wary look in his shadowed blue eyes. “It was self-defense, Caidy.”

“It was murder!” she yelled before whirling away and stalking away from him, going towards the window. She leaned against the wall and moved aside the curtain to peer outside, tears in her eyes. “It was murder, Papa. I don’t care what you say, it was murder.”

“It was self-defense, Caidy,” Lord Sarlik repeated, his voice low. “He stole from us and I had to do something about it.”

“He didn’t even have the jewel setting on him, Papa,” Caidy said quietly. “He didn’t even have any weapons. How can that be self-defense, Papa?”

“Believe what you will, Caidy, but I was protecting us. The City Guard agrees with that. Why can’t you think of it that way?”

“Because this feud has gotten out of hand. I won’t want any part of it. My Papa has never hurt anyone before. I don’t know who you are anymore. And I don’t want to turn into you. Papa, I’m ready to go to Mercaido City to finish my schooling.”

Lord Sarlik hesitated. “Are you sure, Caidy?”

She turned to face him, resolve in her face and stance though tears still filled her eyes. “Yes, Papa, I’m sure. And, Papa, I have that bad feeling again. Be careful, okay?”

For a second, Lord Sarlik’s defenses fell and he looked vulnerable. “Caidy, I’m glad you still care about me, but I’ll be fine.”

“You always will be my father. I’ll always worry whenever I get these feelings.” She shook her head. “But I can’t stay here and I can’t be involved with this feud.”

Her father didn’t say anything. Instead, he just nodded and turned and left her sitting room.

Caidy took a deep breath and looked back out the window. She had made her decision. She was going to go to Mercaido City, with or without Tyala. She would love to have her best friend with her but, but Tyala would understand. She had to get away. And, she hoped, Tyala would soon be able to get away from her family and head for her aunt’s home in Mercaido City.

 

Caidy hadn’t wanted to go to the theater that evening. He understood, of course, but it still bothered him that she hadn’t yet forgiven him. It made him feel depressed, deflated. She was all he had and now she had decided to leave him. Going to Mercaido City to finish her schooling had been his idea, but, after she had said no, he had thought that settled.

So, Lord Sarlik headed for the Needle City Theater on his own. His daughter had scowled, reminding him of her bad feeling. She would be protected by their servants, all of whom had been asked to remain at the Manor until Lord Sarlik returned. They had understood it was for Caidy’s protection and they loved their little mistress enough that they didn’t mind staying longer.

He strode down Theater Promenade, joining the well-dressed crowd as they flowed out through the doors. It had been a new play that evening, written by a local playwright. He didn’t completely understand what it was about, but he had enjoyed it anyways. And the size of the crowd told him it had been a good one. He just regretted that his daughter wasn’t with him; Caidy loved new plays. But, perhaps, in time she would come to forgive him and they could return to their nightly outings.

Instead of joining the rest of the crowd as they headed for the Sapphire, Emerald, and Ivory Districts towards home, Lord Sarlik diverted through The Nook. This area of the Market District was filled with book shops and small cafes. He knew his daughter’s favorite was around here and it had some of the best pastries outside of a bakery. The best part of it was that it was open quite late, especially when the theater was open.

Sure enough, Needle Sweet Cafe was open and still had some of Caidy’s favorite chocolate filled pastries. He paid a pretty penny for a couple; the cafe knew they could charge more at night when all the wealthy families were out. But he didn’t mind; he would pay whatever he had to make his daughter happy.

Whistling quietly to himself, he walked through the winding, empty alleys of The Nook. There was no one else around, so his footsteps echoed as he walked along the cobblestones. He was in a good mood, hoping the pastries would help Caidy forgive him. He never knew anyone had been following him.

 

Initially, Raven was afraid Lady Almi would be a liability. The woman had been clumsy in the slums as they had been trying to leave it behind and head into the Market District. She hadn’t understood that she had to stay in the shadows to not be seen. Always a Lady, she insisted in striding right through the slums as though she owned it. It had taken Raven ten patient minutes to put her in her place. Of course, Lady Almi had been indignant, until Raven reminded her what had happened to Aven at Sarlik’s hands. And her adviser had not been as brazen as Lady Almi was acting.

Raven came close to calling the whole deal off. She was more than capable of executing Lord Sarlik on her own. Now, she was just questioning why she had invited the Almis along. Fortunately, the woman’s husband had declined, which was probably a good thing; Raven didn’t think she could handle both Almis.

“Follow me,” Raven hissed, her patience wearing thin as they finally entered the Market District. “If you want a shot at getting at Lord Sarlik, you had better start listening to me.”

Lady Almi scowled at her. “I hired you to do you job. You said I could come along.”

“I said you could participant and we had the condition that you would listen to me!” Raven hissed back. “Now listen to me or this whole deal is off.”

Lady Almi pursed her lips, but backed further into the shadows, slouching along behind Raven. She didn’t want the Thief Lord to deny her the feel of Lord Sarlik’s blood on her hands. His death would ensure her daughter would stay. Caidy would be furious at the death of her father and would blame the Almis, turning the friends on each other.

The Market District was quiet as they crossed through it, choosing to wind their way through The Cafe, The Center, and The Market. They avoided the main streets whenever they could; there were fewer shadows to hide in. Besides, most of the shops and restaurants were closed, The Nook having the only open establishments at this time of night. Lanterns flickered periodically as they went through the alleys, but there were fewer here than along Theater Promenade, so Raven felt safer even though there were more shops.

The theater was just getting out as they neared Theater Promenade. It took Raven a few minutes, but she finally pinpointed Lord Sarlik. She recognized the cape with its’ gold and silver trim that he often wore when he went to see her.

Raven and Lady Almi stalked through the crowd after them. Raven’s feet made no sound and Lady Almi’s made a soft shushing sound as they moved across the cobblestones. They kept to the shadows and moved as quietly as they could, following the whistling mad as closely as Raven dared. No one else followed Sarlik into The Nook, choosing instead to head home at this late of any hour. Besides, most of the theater’s patrons had their adolescent children with them, children that should be getting into bed very soon.

Raven led them into The Nook, walking further and further into the alleys after Lord Sarlik. She pressed her back against the brick walls, feeling their coolness invade her clothing. Her heartbeat and breathing were calm. She was hyper-focused on her prey. This night Lord Sarlik would fall.

“What’s going on?” Lady Almi hissed from behind her as they paused and watched Lord Sarlik walk into one of the cafes.

Raven didn’t answer, only glared over her shoulder as though to silence her. Really, she wondered why she had invited the woman along. She was becoming more a nuisance than anything else. She should have taken Onna long with her. Her adviser always went with her to complete a job, but she had yet to bring Onna with her. The girl was just too young, hadn’t gained enough life experience. She had been trained to be an adviser by Aven and she had no complaints there. Onna just hadn’t been out on the streets much. But that would have to change. Soon.

With agile movements, Raven silently drew her knife from where it was sheathed along her right leg as Lord Sarlik’s whistling met their ears once again . She gave a slight nod, indicating Lady Almi should likewise unsheathe the short sword Raven had given her.

 

Lady Almi could feel her heart beating in her chest as she followed Raven into The Nook, following Lord Sarlik. She ached to feel the flow of his blood as it coursed out of his body. But, at the same time, her hands were shaky. She had never before asked a Thief Lord to murder for her, had never before taken a life.

Fleetingly, she thought of her husband. Perhaps Emeri had it right; stay at home with the children and let the Thief Lord do what she did best. Why did she have to get involved with this? Why did she have to have a hand in Lord Sarlik’s murder? Why did she need to feel his blood on her hands, see it splatter over her clothes?

She suppressed a shiver. A shiver of fear or excitement? She was too jumbled up to figure it out. Too much was going through her head and her damn heart wasn’t giving her a break. It felt like it was ready to leap out of her body.

She and Raven inched along, their backs against the bricks of the connected shops and cafes. Raven was focused on Lord Sarlik’s form as he abruptly swerved into one of the cafes. Raven stopped and she almost ran into the younger woman’s back.

“What’s going on?” Lady Almi whispered.

Raven turned slightly to glare over her shoulder at her. She didn’t like the sharp glint in Raven’s eyes. It made her heart beat faster and she had to hold her breath to try to contain it and make it stop beating so fast.

Turning back, Raven bent down slightly, her eyes never leaving the cafe door. They could hear Lord Sarlik’s whistling and then began to hear footsteps. He must be leaving the cafe.

Lady Almi watched as Raven straightened up. A glint caught her eye and she looked down to see the Thief Lord pull her slender knife from the sheath running down the length of her lower leg. Without looking at her, Raven gave a slight nod, indicating Lady Almi should also pull out her sword.

She had almost forgotten Raven had given her the short sword. It was short and light, but Raven assured her it was deadly and extremely sharp. It was decades old, but had been well-cared for. It had been made by some of the finest swords masters in the land. It had been Aven’s.

Lady Almi had been grasping the sheath in her hands, her hands fisted around the sheath and handle. She’d held it that way ever since they had left the slums, careful to keep it hidden under her cloak. Raven had warned her of the repercussion should she used it, and she liked the functioning her hands as they were, thank you very much.

With a huge gulp of air, Lady Almi nodded in response though Raven’s back was to her. She pulled the blade from its sheath, slowly so as not to hurt herself in the process. She had never touched a blade before. Her mother had forbade it even though her father had wanted her to learn how to protect herself. But that’s what husbands were for, her mother had argued. Unfortunately for Hyali Galton, her daughter had married a man of peace, a man who would never dare to touch a blade.

Holding her breath, Lady Almi and Raven watched as Lord Sarlik emerged from the cafe and turned in the direction opposite them. He walked along, carefree, whistling a cheerful tune, a small bag swinging from a fist.

 

Hunting the hunter had always been a favorite game of his to play with his followers. It was good training for him and for them. But, now that he was older and more important things to do rather than training his followers, he didn’t get to play this game again. But it was muscle memory for him; his body remembered exactly what to do.

Quin had apparently played this game before, as well. He was as silent and shadowy as Corinn was. They ghosted along through the slums and the Market District, towards the prey Raven and Lady Almi had marked.

Corinn was surprised the Lady had decided to join Raven in this cat and mouse game. He didn’t think so refined a woman would dare stoop to a Thief Lord’s level. But,apparently, he was wrong because Lady Almi was slinking close behind Raven.

Corinn and Quin followed a discrete distance behind the hunters. They almost lost them as they entered the crowd exiting the theater. Corinn cursed them and their prey for having gone to the theater. It was opening night of a local playwright’s most anticipated work. Most of the city had shown up for it. There were City Guards everywhere, but even they were overwhelmed with the huge crowd.

The City Guards played right into his plan. A gleam came into his eyes as he noted how many of them there were. Most of the Guard was here tonight. Raven and Lady Almi were careful to avoid them. Corinn and Quin ended up avoiding them, as well, but Quin was ready to fetch them at a split second’s notice from Corinn.

He couldn’t help but grin widely as he thought of his plan. It was ingenious, really, and it could be carried out anywhere, anytime. It really was brilliant.

Corinn and Quin followed Raven and Lady Almi as they followed Lord Sarlik into The Nook. None of the other crowd members followed after, which was a good thing. There would be less bloodshed that way and fewer people would get into trouble. By that, he figured Lord Sarlik would be dead and Lady Almi and Raven would be captured while he and Quin would be able to melt back into the night.

The men stalked along as the women did as well. Abruptly, the women stopped as Lord Sarlik walked into a cafe. There was a spring in the man’s step. He had no idea that death waited for him once he exited that cafe. Corinn and Quin stopped not too far behind Raven and Lady Almi. All they had to do was wait and bide their time for the right opportunity.

At a nod from Corinn, Quin backed away to a place where he could watch his master for the signal and have time to fetch one of the Guards. Corinn knew Quin hated this, hated having to sit out on all the action. He knew his adviser would rather be swinging a blade at throats than running for City Guards.

It was crazy, really, his plan. No Thief Lord had ever run to fetch a City Guard. No Thief Lord followers had ever done it, either. It was inconceivable, his plan. But it was the only thing that would work. Raven had to be captured and taken away. Sure, he could kill her, but her following was too large and they would be furious at Raven’s death. They would destroy him and the other two Thief Lords. The underground would be thrown into chaos. No, they couldn’t risk killing Raven.

Corinn watched as Raven and then Lady Almi drew out their blades. In the shadows, they didn’t glint, but Corinn knew they were there. They had to be.

It wasn’t long before Lord Sarlik emerged from the cafe, a small bag swinging from one hand. Apparently, the Lord was hungry at this time of night. There was a spring in the man’s step and he was whistling again. It was starting to annoy Corinn. He hated whistling.

Corinn grinned to himself. If only Lord Sarlik knew he was never going to make it home. If only Raven and Lady Almi knew they would be imprisoned before dawn broke.

 

It didn’t take much for Raven to decide the right moment. Lord Sarlik had turned a corner when she chose to spring. They were in the heart of The Nook, a well-traveled area during the day. It wouldn’t be long before someone found his body. And the man was in good spirits. He would never guess anyone had been following him, ready to kill him.

She didn’t even bother to see if Lady Almi followed. She didn’t care much for the woman, but Lady Almi was paying her handsomely for this. All she wanted was revenge for Aven.

Lord Sarlik never saw them coming. He never heard them. He barely registered Raven’s knife biting through his flesh. Raven pushed with all her might, forcing her knife through Lord Sarlik’s back. The man stumbled and his body inverted as his middle went forward, but the rest stayed behind. A strangled cry erupted from his throat, but Raven had punctured a lung and it was quickly filling with blood.

Lord Sarlik went to his knees as Raven motioned for Lady Almi to plunge her own blade into the Lord’s body. She had feared the noblewoman would be too terrified to move and would look more like a  statue than a real live human being.

But Raven was wrong. She hadn’t anticipated the rage and vengeance that had built up in Lady Almi over the course of her entire life time. The Sarliks had stolen as much from her as her family had stolen from his. She eagerly slammed her sword into the man’s back, jabbing at him over and over as he fell and landed on his stomach, his head turned to the side.

Raven had to stop the woman from hacking up Lord Sarlik’s body. She knelt down as blood pooled around his body and peered into his eyes, watching the light ebb out of them.

“This is for Aven,” she whispered, the last words Lord Sarlik ever heard.

“Halt!” a voice suddenly called out, interrupting Raven’s enraptured joy at watching the man who had killed Aven die with his eyes focused on her.

Raven, Chapter 16

The three remaining Thief Lords descended on me and my following one afternoon. Aven was smart enough to appoint guards and it’s a good thing he did that. We would all be dead if not for those guards. As it was, we barely managed to get the Thief Lords surrounded. Our peace agreement came out of that encounter.

-writing on the cell wall

 

It had been two days since Caidy had received the note from her friend. She hadn’t even seen Tyala since that morning when she’d left the note. She worried about her friend, but knew that, at least, Tyala hadn’t left without her.

She still couldn’t believe Tyala had told her parents about them. Even she hadn’t dared reveal anything to her father! Her father didn’t know she had planned to run away, didn’t know Tyala Almi was her best friend, didn’t know she still planned on leaving.

Caidy didn’t want any part of the feud. She knew it would end with her father’s death, though she was dreading that moment. Even if Lord or Lady Almi died, the feud would probably still continue. Lord Almi wasn’t the sort of person to want to keep a feud alive, but what she knew of the twin boys, they were mischievous and Lady Almi had recently begun to introduce them to the feud.

But, with her father gone, it would just be her against the Almis. She would be able to choose what to do and what not to do. The Almis could do whatever they wanted to her, but she would not retaliate.

“Caidy?” her father’s voice came.

She turned from where she sat at her vanity, dropping the hairbrush from her fingers. Even though it was close to afternoon, she was still in her dressing gown and a breakfast tray still sat on the low table in her sitting room. She’d told her father she hadn’t been feeling well, and that was partially true. The thought that Tyala was trapped made her feel ill.

Caidy forced a smile to her pale face and stood so she could kiss her father’s cheek in greeting. “Hello, Papa.”

Sarlik hugged his daughter tightly before pulling back and leading her over to the little sofa. “How are you feeling today, Caidy?”

She mulled the question over for a few moments before answering. “I think I’m feeling a little better, Papa, but I’m not ready to go out yet.”

“This afternoon is the Academy’s tea,” he reminded her. “You’ve never missed it before.”

She paled slightly at that. Tyala and her parents were usually there, though the two families usually kept to opposite sides of the room. The fact that the Almis now knew their daughter and Caidy were friends was very likely to play out at the tea. It would destroy her father to know she was best friends with Tyala Almi.

“Papa,” she said slowly, “I don’t think I’m well enough for that.”

He looked at her with concern. “Are you sure, Caidy? Should I call for the physician? You haven’t been well for the past few days.”

Caidy gave him a small smile. “I’ll be fine, Papa. I just need a little more rest. Perhaps tomorrow we can dine out?”

“Are you sure, angel?” he asked.

She nodded. “Yes, Papa. Just give me another day. And let the Academy know I’m not feeling well enough to attend the tea this year.”

“If your’re sure,” he said, his voice trailing off.

“I’m sure, Papa.”

“All right, angel. Go back to bed and I will let the Academy know.”

Caidy nodded and watched her father leave. He closed the door on the way out and she sagged against the sofa, suddenly feeling very tired.

 

Corinn rubbed his eyes. It was the middle of the afternoon and he should be asleep, but Quin’s news last night kept revolving in his head. The Almis had hired Raven to murder Lord Sarlik and Raven had asked them to take part in it.

That was a first. No Thief Lord had ever invited a client to work with them. It was unheard of. But so was a female Thief Lord. Raven had certainly turned their Thief Lord council on its head, and he wasn’t always pleased about it.

Deryk and Edvin were no more pleased about the girl than he was, but they had accepted her as one of them. She seemed indestructible, countering their every attack. Of course, they hadn’t really meant to kill her, except for their last attempt, but now the peace agreement was null and void. They could kill her and face no ramifications.

And yet, those other two Thief Lords didn’t even want to be around him. He had caught glimpses of the two of them with their heads close together, but every time he got close to them, they would give him a wary look.

The still blamed him for the loss of their peace agreement. He could only think of them as getting soft.

Quin walked into the cavern and slumped into the chair across from Corinn. He yawned and scratched at his stomach. Corinn had awoken him for the same reason he was still awake: he wanted to talk about how to destroy Raven.

Corinn knew Quin was tired. He was tired. But there was work to be done. There was no telling when the Almis would return or when the murder plot would be carried out. They had to be ready with some kind of plan when the murder occurred.

“I’m guessing you have some ideas?” Quin started, breaking into Corinn’s thoughts.

“A few,” Corinn admitted. “You know we have to be on our toes about this. We have no details, just a plot.”

Quin nodded and yawned again. “Yes, I know. We have to be ready for anything and everything.”

“Exactly. We have to have a plan to trap Raven and bring her down.”

“Do you want her dead this time?” Quin asked.

“Yes and no. Actually,” he admitted, “I’m not completely sure yet. I haven’t yet decided on the right course of action just yet. That’s why I needed you to wake up.”

Quin stretched and sighed. “That’s what I figured. Okay, Corinn, let’s have it all out.”

“I don’t want to kill her, Quin. I want her to be caught and locked up forever. I want her to suffer. Death would be too kind. She has changed the underground far too much in the past few years. It isn’t sitting well with the rest of us. We have to do something about it, and I’m the only one willing to do something.

“We know she’ll be killing Lord Sarlik. She has many murderers at her disposal, but we all know she wants revenge on the man who killed Aven. She will be the one to kill him, I’m sure. We have to make sure she’s caught. But should it be before, during, or after?”

Quin crossed his arms as a frown creased the flesh around his lips. While he thought, Corinn leaned back and wiped his hands over his face, scrubbing at his cheeks and letting out a moan. He was exhausted, but they didn’t know how much time they had before the planned murder.

“Does it really matter?” Quin finally asked. “The City Guard will arrest her if there’s intent. Of course, she’ll be locked up for a much longer time if the murder has already been carried out.”

A thoughtful look bloomed on Corinn’s face and he stroked his chin with the tips of his fingers. “Yes, that is true, isn’t it? I should have remembered that. I supposed catching her in the act or right after would be best.”

Quin regarded his Thief Lord from under lowered brows, a brooding look on his face. “Now, the only question left is how do we time it just right?”

“That is the problem, isn’t it? And how do we make the City Guard trust us?”

His adviser shook his head. This was a tricky situation, but it was their best opportunity to bring down Raven.

“Quin, at nightfall, bring Chrysithia to me. I believe she might be able to help us.”

Quin blinked in surprise. “The messenger? But she just joined us two months ago. And she’s only eleven. How can she help you?”

Corinn grinned like a cat with a dish full of fresh, cold milk. “That, my friend, is for you to find out. Just have her here by nightfall.”

Still with a confused look on his face, Quin nodded and, at a motion from Corinn, was dismissed.

 

Dusk was just fallen when Onna rushed into Raven’s bedchamber to awaken her. Raven awoke quickly and in a confused state. She never woke this early.

“Onna, what’s going on?” Raven demanded.

“Deri just rushed in to say the Almis were back. He said they looked like they were in a hurry.”

Raven frowned. “At this time of day? The whole city is still wide awake. The evening activities haven’t even started!”

Onna shrugged. “I don’t know what’s going on, Raven, but Deri said they need to see you right away. It’s something about the murder plot.”

Slowly, Raven nodded and threw the covers back off of her. Onna quickly withdrew so Raven could dress in her customary black. She dressed in her usual rapid fashion. Her clothes were easy to put on and take off, which was important when times like these happened. Occasionally she did get a client who demanded to see her at odd hours. While she could demand things from the underground, the clientele was different. They commanded the Thief Lords.

Raven strode out into her office cavern and found the Almis already sitting before her desk. Deri was hovering in the entrance to the cavern opposite where she entered from and Onna was standing behind the desk with her arms folded. Joining them, Raven smoothly took her seat and plastered on a welcoming smile, smiling through a yawn.

“Lord and Lady Almi, welcome back. I was hoping to see you again this evening. Have you come to a decision?”

Lord Almi shifted uncomfortably and shot a look at his wife. “We have, of a sort,” he admitted.

Raven nodded encouragingly, but he didn’t look like he was going to say anything else. So, she gave up on hearing anything else from him and turned instead to his wife, hoping she was a little more forthcoming.

Lady Almi took a deep breath and leaned forward slightly. “My husband and I would like to go ahead with the murder. We’ve thought about your offer and talked at great lengths about it.” She glanced over at Lord Almi, but he wasn’t meeting anyone’s gaze. “As you know, my husband has never condoned this feud. The only reason why he is here is because we don’t want to lose our daughter. I have decided I want to take you up on your offer, but my husband does not.”

Raven gave them a gentle smile. “I, of course, understand. Lady Almi, I would be honored to have your presence with me. Lord Almi, know that you are always welcome to join us.”

Lord Almi muttered something and then stood up abruptly and strode out of the cavern. Raven threw his wife a puzzled look, but she only shook her head and held up a hand to stop Onna from going after him. Raven gave a nod to Deri, who still hovered at the cavern mouth, and the boy let the man pass.

With a grin, Raven opened up a drawer and reached inside to pull out her maps of the Sarlik Manor. She spread them out so she and Lady Almi could see them. “We should begin our plans, Lady Almi. When would you like to see this through?”

Lady Almi gave her a pleased smile and said simply, “Tonight.”

Raven, Chapter 15

My following continued to grow and grow while the other Thief Lords’ remained at status quo. I was pleased, but they were not. I didn’t know they were planning on killing me, but thankfully Aven is always thinking of these things and was smart enough to keep eyes and ears out to keep me safe. I owe my life to Aven.

-writing on the cell wall

 

Quin leaned against the desk as he gave his report to Corinn, his arms crossed over his chest. He spoke quietly and concisely, reporting what he had heard and seen hiding out near Raven’s cavern network.

Corinn was leaning back in his seat, his fingers steepled. He had a grave look on his face with flashes of what looked like inspiration fleeting by every so often. Quin wasn’t sure what those looks meant, but he kept up his stream of words. He hardly ever knew what his Thief Lord was thinking, but he trusted Corinn. Corinn was probably the only one he truly trusted.

“Thank you, Quin,” Corinn said softly as his adviser finished.

“If I may ask,” Quin said carefully, “what exactly are you planning?”

“I’m not sure yet, Quin,” Corinn admitted. His adviser was the only one he would admit such a thing to. To the rest of the following, he knew exactly was he was doing at all moments. “But I find it interesting that Lord Almi went to visit Raven. Usually, Lady Almi goes to a Thief Lord on her own. And you said they both returned tonight?”

“That’s right.”

“Hmm. I don’t know what to think, but the three of them must be planning something.” He pursed his lips. “If only I could get into her cavern network, then I would know what she’s planning. Quin, follow the Almis when they leave. Keep an ear out just in case they discuss something related to what they want Raven for. We must undermine her, cut her down, make the nobility believe she is no longer trustworthy. Then we can better catch her off guard and be rid of her.”

Quin nodded and, without another word, turned on his heel and left Corinn to his thoughts. He was Corinn’s adviser, but the Thief Lord still assigned important work to him. And, sometimes, that work was more important than the adviser role he served for Corinn. He lived for that kind of work.

 

Lord and Lady Almi arrived right on time. Raven had a feeling they wouldn’t sit idle for long. She thought they would come right away for her help. So, she had ordered Onna to let no one by the Almis through to her that night. This was an important job, one she would have hired herself to do. It was too important to risk any interruptions. She was intent on being focused on working with the Lord and Lady to exact not only their, but her, revenge on Lord Sarlik. The man was responsible for a great deal of grief in all their lives.

Onna promptly ushered the couple in as soon as they arrived. Lord Almi was still a little leery of her, she could tell. He kept a wary eye on her as he slid onto one of the chairs Onna had rustled up. Lady Almi was a little more graceful and much more comfortable. Of course, there had been stories for the past few years that Lady Almi used to visit Thief Lords with her father as a way of him teaching her how to keep the feud alive.

Raven looked from one to the other, watching as they both moved their hoods to reveal their faces. She bestowed a gentle, welcoming smile on them. She had to be particularly careful of Lord Almi. This was only the second time he had been to see a Thief Lord. She didn’t want to scare him off. She and all the other Thief Lords needed the jobs the nobility and other wealthy had for them.

“I’m glad to see you chose to return so quickly,” Raven began.

Lady Almi leaned forward slightly. “We would do anything to keep our daughter with us.”

Raven nodded. “Yes. Lord Almi told me everything last night. I will, of course, do everything I can to ensure your daughter and the young Lady Sarlik turn against each other.”

“That’s exactly why we have come to you,” Lady Almi said.

Raven gave her a smile. “And that’s what most people come to me for.” She cleared her throat. “I understand you want Lord Sarlik dead.”

Both Almis nodded, though Lord Almi looked much more uncomfortable about it than his wife did. Raven wouldn’t be surprised if Lady Almi had had a hand in other deaths along the way. Her husband, though, was so very new to all of this that she gave him a sympathetic smile.

“Lord Almi, if you are distressed, you do not have to stay,” Raven said.

He tugged at the collar of his white shirt and swallowed. “No, I think I’ll be okay. This is all just very new to me. I never wanted to get mixed up in this feud. I always wanted to see it end. But I want to keep my daughter from running away even more.”

Raven nodded. “Of course. I understand. I, too, have a bone to pick with Lord Sarlik.

Lady Almi was very interested in that. Her wide eyes went even wider and she leaned forward even more. There was a brightness in her eyes and a look of excitement on her face. Raven took all this in with a sweeping glance over the woman. She had Lady Almi’s full attention.

“You may have noticed, Lady Almi,” Raven said, “that the last time you were here there was a gentleman attending to me, but now there is a young lady.”

She nodded slowly. “I did notice that.” She was frowning now, not quite sure of where the Thief Lord was going with this.

“His name was Aven. He was my closest friend, my mentor, someone I looked up to. He helped establish me as a Thief Lord, as the most powerful Thief Lord, in fact. He was also my adviser.

“Lady Almi, Aven and I assumed the job you hired me for would be simple and we would be in and out of the Sarlik Manor in a flash. Unfortunately, things didn’t quite go as planned.

“You see, Aven was killed by Lord Sarlik. I watched him die and I could do nothing without revealing myself and risk my own death. Now I, too, want revenge on Lord Sarlik.

“It was like a divine gift from the skies when you, Lord Almi, came to me and told me you want Lord Sarlik dead. We have a common goal and I would be very happy to work with you.

“Now, I ask of you something I have never before asked of any of my patrons. Would you like to have a hand in this murder?”

Lady Almi was taken aback. The Thief Lords had always taken care of anything. All the nobility ever had to do was to pay them and wait. Being asked to be involved in the job was simply unheard of. But it did appeal to her on so many levels.

Raven could see Lady Almi considering it. There was a thoughtful look on her face. Her husband, though, was apparently having internal fits. His face was clouded and his eyes hooded. He clearly didn’t like the idea.

“You don’t have to make this decision right now,” Raven said gently. “It is a rather large thing I am asking of you. It has never been done before and it will probably never be done again, but I wanted to make the offer to you. The Sarliks have caused the Galtons much pain and I thought Lady Almi might like a hand in her rival’s downfall.”

Lady Almi began to nod, but her husband cut her off. “I’m not sure that would be the best course of action for us,” he said abruptly. “We will need time to talk and think it over.”

Raven nodded understandingly. “Certainly. Take you time. Return to me when you have decided.”

Lord Almi immediately stood up, taking his wife’s elbow. “Come, Nyana. We have much to discuss.”

His wife looked like she was going to protest, but Lord Almi gave her a look, effectively silencing her. Raven gave a slight wave and Onna materialized from the entrance to the cavern.

“Onna will show you out,” Raven said softly.

“This way,” Onna said, coming up quietly behind the Almis.

After a start, Lord Almi followed her, dragging his wife behind him.

 

Quin wasn’t startled when the Almis suddenly emerged from Raven’s cavern network; no, he had been expecting them. So, when they emerged from the dark depths of the cavern network, he was waiting for them and was quick to slide into the shadows as they quickly left the slums.

“What was that all about?” he heard Lady Almi hiss as her husband was grasping her by the elbow and led her along.

Lord Almi didn’t say a word until they had crossed into the Market District. Then he stopped and turned his wife so they were practically nose to nose. Quin drifted closer to them on silent feet as he slipped deeper into the black shadows.

“You aren’t seriously considering the Thief Lord’s offer, are you?” Lord Almi asked in a quiet voice.

“Well, why not?”

“Nyana! If we get caught, we’ll be charged with murder. There will be no way out of it. That’s why we hire the Thief Lords. Committing crimes is their territory. They know what they’re doing, they’re the ones with the expertise. There is no reason for us to get involved.”

Lady Almi took a step back and crossed her arms. Quin could only imagine how cross she was. He wasn’t sure of what Raven had offered them, but she was apparently keen on the idea while Lord Almi was more cautious.

“Emeri, don’t you want our daughter to stay in Needle City? If we don’t do something, she’ll run away! And you know my sister won’t send her back unless that’s what Tyala wants. Are you willing to risk losing our daughter.”

“I don’t want to lose her, either, but think of what we’ll be doing if we agree to working with Raven to kill Sarlik. There could be huge ramifications! We could lose our daughter anyways.”

Ah, Quin thought to himself. That’s why they had gone to Raven. The Almis wanted Lord Sarlik dead. Of course, he wasn’t completely sure why, but he knew Corinn would want to know. He was sure his Thief Lord had some plans.

“I don’t want to lose her, Emeri,” Lady Almi said quietly. “And my family has been feuding for so long with the Sarliks. This was bound to happen sooner or later.”

“Yes,” Lord Almi agreed. “That’s true. But it was supposed to be a Thief Lord that committed the murder, not us. Why would you want to be involved, Nyana, why?”

“Because,” she said softly, “Sarlik was the one who killed my father. It’s his daughter that Tyala wants to run away with. It’s because of him that we’re all so miserable.”

“No,” Lord Almi cut in. “We’re miserable because of this feud. I’m not saying Lord Sarlik shouldn’t die. I’m saying I don’t want to be involved in the murder.”

“Well, I will be, Emeri, and that’s the end of that. I don’t care what you decide to do, but I have to do this for myself.”

With that said, Lady Almi whirled around and stomped off as though she were a child in the midst of a tantrum. Quin watched Lord Almi sigh and rub his fingers against his temples. It looked like this wasn’t the first time the couple had had an argument like this. After spending a moment muttering to himself, Lord Almi finally walked off after his wife, leaving Quin in the shadows.

There was no need for him to follow the couple any further. He already had all the information he needed. Besides, it didn’t look like the Almis would be discussing anything of any importance anymore. And he had a Thief Lord to return to.

Raven, Chapter 14

The Thief Lords couldn’t believe I would dare to kill two of their own. They were slow to accept me as one of them. I was only sixteen when I tried to establish myself. They only saw me as a girl trying to be one of them. But after I killed two of their number, they were a little more afraid. Still, it took two years to become a recognized Thief Lord.

-writing on the cell wall

 

It was starting to become easier to work with Onna as her adviser, but she missed Aven dearly. Her cat burglars had managed to steal his body from the city infirmary, where all the dead were kept before burial. They’d had a small service for him at sundown, right near the city wall in the slums. It made it easier to go on without him, knowing his body was still nearby and that she hadn’t completely abandoned him.

Still, she continued to hope she would turn around and see him.

Deri cleared his throat from the entrance to the cavern. Instead of nervously shifting from foot to foot, he now stood straight and tall, confident and with bright eyes. Ever since he had been promoted to cat burglar, he had continued to act as a guard and had become ever more confident in Raven’s presence.

“Raven, Lord Almi is here to see you,” he announced.

Raven narrowed her eyes slightly. It was that feud that had gotten Aven killed. Lady Almi’s job had taken Aven’s life. Who would Lord Almi’s job steal from her?

“Show him in,” she said, her voice stiff and formal.

The boy gave an eager nod and vanished from her sight. She was still pondering what Lord Almi could possibly want from her when Deri returned with the man in tow.

Raven had never met the Lord before. She had heard that he preferred to stay as far away from the Almi-Sarlik feud as he could. Yet, here he was now, sitting before her. He looked uncomfortable and nervous, but they all were. They were, after all, in the middle of a nest of criminals.

She forced a smile, as calming a smile as she could muster, and folded her hands on top of her desk. “What can I do for you, Lord Almi?”

His eyes shifted to her face and then instantly moved away. His cheeks flushed and he cleared his throat. He was nervous; there was no way of hiding it.

“Ordinarily,” he started, then coughed and began again, “Ordinarily, I would never come to you or any other Thief Lord. You may have heard from my wife, Lady Nyana Almi, that I prefer to stay as far away from the feud as I possibly can. My daughter, Tyala, has chosen to forsake the feud as well. However, she was caught today trying to run away with Lord Sarlik’s daughter, Caidy. This threw my wife and me into fits. Certainly, I understand her desire to stay out of this mess, but I don’t wish for her to run.

“I know that what I will ask you to do will send me to the deepest bowels of the earth upon my death, but I love my family and I want to make my wife happy and keep my daughter from running away. The only solution I have is to turn the two girls, my daughter and Caidy, against each other. And,” he said before hesitating and clearing his throat.

“And?” Raven gently prompted, wondering at just what this man was getting at.

“And I know Lord Sarlik has to die,” Lord Almi said in a rush.

Raven blinked in surprise and leaned back in her chair. She glanced over and traded a look with Onna, hoping the girl knew what she was thinking, just as Aven would.

Lord Almi was hiring her to murder the one man she also wanted dead. What were the odds of this? She would not only have a great opportunity to get rid of Lord Sarlik, but she would also be paid for it.

A gleam came to Raven’s eye and Lord Almi was instantly wary of her.

“Lord Almi,” Raven said calmly, “I believe I can help you. But, first, I would like to meet with you and your wife.”

He looked suspiciously at her and narrowed his eyes. “This should be an easy hire, Thief Lord. Why do you need to meet with both of us?”

“My good man, Lord Sarlik and I have a history of sorts, one in which you and your family play a part. I, too, have a score to settle with your rival and I believe you and your wife can help me just as I can help you.”

“I don’t understand.”

“You will, Lord Almi. Just return with your wife as soon as you can and then we can get down to business. I will give you two nights to return. If you do not, I will assume you no longer require my services.”

Raven sat back and laced her hands over her stomach. She gave him a soft smile and nodded to Onna to indicate she should show the man out. Her adviser got the message and hurried around the desk to escort Lord Almi from the caverns.

 

Lady Almi glanced between her daughter and her husband. Both were unusually quiet this morning. Tyala, she could understand. They had essentially forbidden their daughter from leaving the manor grounds and had assigned one of the servants to follow her everywhere. She was all but a prisoner in her own home. Her husband, she couldn’t understand. She assumed he had slept as well as she had, but there were dark circles under his eyes and there was a haunted look on his face. It ghosted by every so often, but she had caught it.

She dabbed at her lips with the cloth napkin before clearing her throat. “Boys, why don’t you go out and play in the gardens?”

The twins grinned and raced away before their breakfasts were fully settled. Their mother hardly ever sent them out to play right after breakfast. It was a treat to them, and they meant to take it before their mother could rescind her instructions to them.

Lady Almi turned to focus her attention on her daughter. Tyala was picking at a piece of fruit, and hadn’t touched anything else on her plate. She kept her head down low over the plate, letting her long hair veil her face.

“Tyala,” she said gently. “Why don’t you finish with breakfast and instead enjoy the day.”

Tyala’s head jerked up and around to the serving woman who stood a discrete distance behind her chair. “With my chaperone, I assume?”

Lady Almi sighed. “Tyala, please. We don’t want to lose you.”

The girl stood and threw down her napkin. Without a word, she turned on her heel and left the dining room, the serving woman following after.

That left only Lord and Lady Almi. She turned her attention to her husband, who saw hunched over, pushing around his food. Like Tyala, he hadn’t touched much. That concerned her. Usually, her husband was a hearty eater.

“Emeri, what’s going on?”

He looked up at her, his eyes hooded. “What makes you think something is going on?”

She laid a hand on his arm. “Dearest, you’re never like this. Is it because of Tyala? Because she wanted to run away? Emeri, please tell me what’s going on.”

Lord Almi didn’t look at her as he spoke. “I had an idea last night, Nyana, an idea of how to keep our daughter with us. I despise this feud, but I love our daughter. The only way I found to keep her with us was to kill Lord Sarlik and make Tyala and Caidy turn against each other, for Caidy would know that it was us that called for her father’s death.

“So, I went to a Thief Lord, the one called Raven, and asked her to murder Lord Sarlik. She didn’t give me an answer other than to tell me I should return to her with you.”

Lord Almi lifted his eyes to meet his wife’s gaze. She looked stricken and was sitting straight and still. “You went to Raven?” she whispered. “When?”

“Last night, while you were sleeping. She was actually quite reasonable.”

Lady Almi lifted a hand to tangle her fingers with a golden necklace. She tugged on it gently and revealed a beautiful jewel setting. “Raven stole this for me from Caidy. She is a pleasure to work with. I’m glad you chose to go to her. And I am surprised you decided Lord Sarlik has to die.”

Lord Almi gritted his teeth. “Don’t read too much into this, Nyana. I just want to keep our daughter from leaving us.”

“Of course, Emeri. I don’t want her to leave, either. When should we return to Raven?”

His eyes lowered so he wasn’t looking at her. “Tonight. The sooner we finish with this, the better.”

He didn’t see his wife nod in approval and agreement.

 

Tyala caught sight of Caidy out of the corner of her eye. Caidy was lurking just outside the window, peeking every now and then. Tyala knew her friend had to be worried about her when she didn’t meet her at the Angelic Church last night. But she had no way of explaining to Caidy what had happened. Her parents had put her under lock and key and now one of their servants was watching her every movement.

She stood at the parlor window, her hands clutching the bottom part of the frame. She could see her friend’s slight, petite figure hiding behind a lemon tree, but she knew Caidy didn’t dare to get any closer.

Surreptitiously, Tyala glanced over her shoulder to see what the serving woman was doing. Lya appeared thoroughly engrossed in her knitting, with her head hunched over her hands, the needles click clacking against each other as the blanket she was working on emerged. Seeing her watchdog was busy, she slipped a hand into a pocket and pulled out a slim envelope.

“Are you warm, Lya?” Tyala asked, her tone innocent enough.

“No, Miss,” the serving woman replied without looking up, “but if you are, I could open the window for you.”

Tyala waved the woman back to her seat. “I can take care of it, Lya. Go back to your knitting.”

Sticking the envelope between her teeth, she pulled up on the window a few inches and waved, both to bring in the fresh air and signal to Caidy that she was to come near. Then she pushed the window back down, securing the envelope between the window and the frame.

Tyala whirled from the window and stalked over to the serving woman. Lya peered up at her mistress with a curious look. She put away her knitting and rose to go where Tyala went.

“I’m going to the music room,” Tyala announced. “It’s been too long since I last played anything. I’m sure Father will be pleased if I can relearn his favorite piece.”

“Of course, Miss,” Lya said with a slight bob.

The two left the parlor and Tyala didn’t risk looking back at the window; she would check it later to see if Caidy received her note or not. It hurt her that she couldn’t be with her best friend, the only person who truly understood her. She feared Caidy wouldn’t understand what had happened. It was all just a stroke of bad luck, really.

Caidy peered over the bottom frame of the window. It had taken her a few minutes to work up the courage to creep across the gardens. She had studied each window before moving from tree to bush, praying no one was looking down into the gardens, that no one else was home. Fortunately, the windows had remained covered and they didn’t look like they had been disturbed. Now she had reached the parlor window and saw that the room was empty. Tyala must have left, so she wasn’t planning on meeting her.

Puzzled, Caidy’s brows knit together as she squinted to look in through the window. That’s when she saw the enveloped. Frowning, she gently pulled it out and quickly looked around the garden for a hiding spot.

Nearby, she caught sight of a draping willow tree, the strands of leaves thick and veiling. There were also a few low bushes nearby, full of leaves and bright blossoms. That would have to do. She wasn’t sure of what she would do if someone caught her, but prayed that wouldn’t happen. The gardeners were nowhere around and she expected she would hear them if they got too close to her hiding spot. She contemplated going home, but was curious to see what her friend had written. After all, she had waited half the night for Tyala to come.

She practically crawled over to her chosen hiding place, her heart pounding all the way. It was hard to crawl away from the manor and keep an eye on all the windows. All she could do was hope that everyone was occupied and no one was looking. The twin boys were playing around out here, but she’d heard them on the far side of the manor. Hopefully, they would stay there.

Settling herself on the ground softened with green moss, she opened the envelope and pulled out a folded piece of paper. Taking a quick look around, she unfolded the paper and found Tyala’s neat writing covering about half of the page.

 

Dear Caidy,

 

My parents caught me packing up last night. That’s why I couldn’t meet you. I don’t know what they mean to do about me, but I know they don’t want me to leave. I accidentally let slip that you and I are best friends. I fear what will happen to you and your father now. I don’t know when we will be able to meet. They have apparently decided I need to be locked up in the manor for now. Who knows when they’ll let me out again? But, for now, we can’t see each other. I cannot let any harm come to you. At least, I hope to minimize any harm my parents attempt to place on you and your father. Think of me, Caidy, and keep safe.

 

Your friend, Tyala

 

Caidy drew in a sharp breath and crushed the paper in her hand. Tyala had been caught and now Lord and Lady Almi knew about their friendship. What else could go wrong? Right now, she was just thankful that her father didn’t know who her best friend was.

She glanced over at the house, a concerned look on her face. She knew now what had gone wrong last night. And now she was afraid for her friend. There was no telling what Tyala’s parents would do.

Taking a final look at the manor and the window from which she had spotted her friend, she crawled out from under the tree and stole her way across the gardens. She barely kept tears of frustration from her eyes as she left the Almi Manor and headed for home, hoping the Almis hadn’t done anything yet.

Raven, Chapter 13

The Thief Lords opposed my claim. But the followers kept coming. I rewarded and paid my people. I treated them like people, not servants. Two of the Thief Lords came for my head. But they lost their lives. Their followers quickly became my own.

-writing on the cell wall

 

Lady Almi couldn’t believe what she was hearing. She couldn’t believe what she had been seeing. All she could do was stare into her daughter’s defiant gaze as the girl tried to explain what she was trying to do.

Tyala hadn’t answered when she’d been called for supper. Lord Almi had asked his wife to see what was keeping their child. Tyala never missed a meal. Slim as she was, Tyala could eat. Rolling her eyes and muttering that the girl was probably daydreaming again, she had gone to find her daughter, only to find her hastily pulling out all of her clothes and stuffing them into bags.

“What are you doing?” Lady Almi had shrieked.

Tyala had bolted straight up, not having heard her mother’s approach. Her mother’s cry had also brought her father to join them. He hadn’t looked surprised, but he did have a reproachful look, as though he knew his daughter’s plans, but couldn’t believe she was putting her mother through this.

“What is going on up here?” Lord Almi had asked in his deep, calm voice.

“I don’t want to be a part of this feud,” Tyala had said stubbornly. “So, I’m going to run away.”

Lord Almi had shaken his head. “You’re only sixteen, Tyala. Old enough to be married but certainly not old enough to live on your own. Where in Needle City would you go? Where would you go where we could not find you?”

Tyala had tilted her chin up slightly, the stubborn chin she had inherited from her mother. “We’re going to leave Needle City and go to Aunt Celycia’s home in Mercaido City.”

Lady Almi’s eyebrows had arched so high they nearly disappeared under her hairline. “We?”

Tyala’s slender body had jerked slightly at that and a flush had come over her face, but she remained silent, pressing her lips together. She took a step back and stared at her mother with silent reproach.

“Tyala,” Lord Almi said gently. “What do you mean by ‘we’?”

“That’s none of your concern,” Tyala had whispered.

Now they stood staring at each other. Lady Almi had collapsed onto her daughter’s large bed and Lord Almi had clasped his hands behind his back. Tyala had backed up against the window, he back resting against the cool glass.

Lady Almi shook her head. “But…why? Why, Tyala?”

Tyala looked away. “I don’t believe in this feud. I don’t want to be a part of it. It’s ruined so many lives, cut so many lives short. Lord Sarlik killed someone a few nights ago, someone who was probably somehow involved with this feud. Caidy is in fits over it.”

Lady Almi’s eyes narrowed. “Caidy? Caidy Sarlik is in fits? And how would you know this, Tyala?”

The girl’s eyes darted between her parents. Her father knew she didn’t want to be a part of the feud, but he didn’t know she was best friends with Caidy Sarlik. She found no sense of safety in her father’s face. Her mother was staring hard at her with anger flaring up in her eyes.

“Caidy and I are classmates at the Academy,” Tyala whispered. “You knew that.”

“But you are not in school right now.” Lady Almi’s voice sounded dangerous and it scared Tyala.

“No,” Tyala said, her voice quivering, “but Caidy and I became friends. Good friends. She doesn’t want to be a part of this feud, either. So, we’ve decided to run away to Mercaido City.”

Lady Almi stood up quickly. “You will do nothing of the sort,” she said, her voice sounding powerful, so powerful it made her husband flinch and her daughter cringe. “You will stay here and do as your duty demands.”

With that, the woman swept up her daughter’s clothes and bags and stormed from Tyala’s rooms. Lord Almi looked over at his daughter with sadness in his eyes.

“Father,” Tyala whispered.

He shook his head. “You brought this on yourself, Tyala. I understand your desire to not be a part of this feud, but to run away?”

With that said, he shook his head and left Tyala alone.

 

“What do we do?” Lady Almi asked as she and her husband rested in their bed later that night. Their children were already tucked in to their beds and they had locked the windows and door to Tyala’s chambers so the girl couldn’t run away. “We’ve essentially imprisoned our own daughter. But she has to carry on this feud.”

“Against her best friend?” Lord Almi replied musingly as he stared up at the ceiling. “I don’t think either girl will like that.”

“But this feud has been in our blood for generations,” Lady Almi argued. “It can’t be ended just because two girls disagree with it. I was in her shoes when I was her age and look how I turned out. Tyala will come around. She has to.”

“I don’t know, dear. She seems to have made up her mind.”

“Then we’ll have to unmake it.”

“And how do you propose we do that?” Lord Almi asked dryly, certain that nothing could sway their daughter to stay and take her place in this feud. She was as strong minded as her mother.

That question silenced Lady Almi. There was no good answer to that. They could imprison her, but that would only make their daughter hate them all the more. They could forbid her from seeing Caidy again, but Tyala would become rebellious and find a way to run away anyways. She knew herself, so she knew her daughter. She recognized some of the girl’s antics, wondered if Tyala had been talking to some of the long-time servants who had served her family when she had been growing up.

“We have to keep her away from Caidy,” Lady Almi finally said. “Caidy is Sarlik’s only child. She will be taking up the feud after her father’s death. It will one day be Tyala and Caidy against each other. We must make them enemies.”

Lord Almi lifted an eyebrow and turned his head to look at his wife. “And how do we do that?” he asked, exasperation lacing his voice.

Lady Almi settled down, not quite sure herself of how to do that.

“We make Caidy take over her father’s place,” she finally said.

Lord Almi shook his head. “Wouldn’t she more likely proclaim an end to the feud in that case?”

“I hadn’t thought of that.” Lady Almi looked deflated. There appeared to be no way to make their daughter and Caidy turn on each other. It looked like they were going to lose their daughter, all because of silly childhood nonsense.

Her head beginning to hurt, Lady Almi kissed her husband on the cheek and then rolled over to fall asleep. But Lord Almi couldn’t follow suit. Of all his children, he loved Tyala best. She shared his spirit and values. They were like two peas in a pod. He would be devastated to lose her. He agreed with her that the feud had to end, but he didn’t want to lose his little girl.

And idea began to nudge at his mind. He knew it would only wrap him further into the feud, but it was the only way he could make his daughter stay. His wife was right; they had to turn the girls on each other. They had to make Caidy hate her best friend, no matter how much that would break Tyala’s heart. He had to find a way to make Caidy hate his daughter and have her turn on Tyala. And the feud was the only way he could do that.

Caidy had to take her father’s place. Yes, that could give her the opportunity to end the feud, but they could also infuriate her, make her want to retaliate for the death of her father.

Yes. That was it. Lord Sarlik had to die. Caidy had to take her father’s place. Caidy had to be infuriated enough to make her retaliate against the Almis. Then the feud would continue on as his wife wanted and Caidy and Tyala would no longer be friends. And Tyala would stay. His little girl wouldn’t run off, never to be seen in Needle City again.

He hated the idea. He hated having to ask one of the Thief Lords to murder a man, but that’s what they were there for. His wife would be pleased with him, but he knew he was going to go straight to the dark underworld lord himself.

Quietly, Lord Almi slipped out of the bed. His wife was a sound sleeper, so he didn’t worry too much about waking her. She had never been a light sleeper. If anything happened, he would have to work hard to wake her. So, he dressed quickly and threw on a dark cloak, pulling the hood up to cover his face.

Slipping out of the manor was easy to do. The children were asleep and his wife wasn’t stirring. The night was cool and dark, and it was well past midnight.

Lord Almi wasn’t completely sure of what he was doing, but he had to keep his daughter with him. He couldn’t lose one of his children. He only hoped that one of the Thief Lords could help him.

Nyana had talked about one of them. The female Thief Lord, she had said. Her name was Raven, but Lord Almi had no idea how to reach Raven. He only knew how to get to the slums.

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.

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.