“Where are you off to?” Lady Elise asked me, barely looking up from her book at the empty dining table in the main hall. Her voice attempted to reach the height of the ceilings in search of an echo, but fell instead softly between us.
“You would make a good thief, Lady Elise, do you know that?” I asked her, inspiring a mischievous look.
“Perhaps I already am one. But why in the stars would you say such a thing? Coming from you, I expect it was meant as a compliment.”
“Because I hardly noticed you were there. Otherwise, I would have surely given you a farewell before I left. I hope I didn’t appear rude to you. And, indeed, it was intended as such. A good thief has to be talented in many things, but silence is imperative, and that is quite the precious quality.”
“Consider yourself forgiven by the high court, jester, saved by your flattery. Our verdict is thus: your head shall remain affixed to your shoulders.”
“Thank you, Lady Elise.” I bowed deeply. “Now that you have relieved my soul of its heavy burdens, I must be going,” I insisted.
“Now, now, Casimir. You still haven’t answered my question. Where exactly it is you are going.” She closed her book.
I watched her onyx eyes, our silhouettes cast across the floor by broad sheathes of light cutting through the towering windows of the entrance hall, where the throne, and all other chairs besides hers, sat empty. “Your curiosity is the kind that makes one feel cared for, did you know that? But, if you must know, our dearest William sent me on an errand, and one I intend to put off as long as possible, likely for the intent of exploring some of the inner city’s taverns or museums, depending on how the evening goes.”
“To be drunk or to be well informed, now that is a battle we all face every day,” she laughed. “What did he send you to fetch like some cleavage-toting barmaid?”
“Ah, you honor me. He requested a particular type of quill from one of the city’s copy houses, a kind that the scribes use there. Something about it being durable and unlike any other, apparently crafted with a metal interior that stores ink.” It unsettles me, as much as it comforts me, how deception rolls of my tongue easier than honesty.
“Ah yes, he is quite particular when it comes to his writing instruments.”
“Indeed. You don’t need to tell me. Well then!” I said, turning away.
“Yes? What’s wrong with it?” I fiddled with one of its bells, causing it to chime blithely.
“You’re still wearing it. You don’t leave the castle with it, do you?”
“Of course I do. Everyday, in fact. Why shouldn’t I? It keeps my head warm.”
Her face pinched together in thought, as if I was an enigma beyond her fathoming. I arched an eyebrow at her. “Won’t people think you are …”
“Strange?” I finished for her.
“Let me ask you this: is it strange for a woman to put makeup on her face every morning?”
“Is it strange for men to wear lengths of cloth that serve little purpose in the summer?” I asked, grasping my half-cloak as I did.
“No, not at all. You look rather dashing with one.”
“I’m forced to agree. And still, is it strange for armies to stand opposite one another, and in orderly fashion, charge and hack into one another into they’re a sopping mound of flesh and blood?”
She flinched a little at the depicted scene. “Well, when you—”
“Is it strange for folks to imagine that they are speaking to gods in their own heads? To eat with forks in their left hand when it could very well be their right? To roll up a dried plant into a leaf and inhale the smoke from burning it? To cut, beat, dry, and stretch wood until it forms an object capable of emitting sound when horsehair is dragged across attached strings?”
At last, the confusion in her face lessened. Something I always enjoyed about Lady Elise, and William for that matter, is that they had an indomitable sense of reason when logic was presented clearly. “No. No, it’s not.”
“And why?” I asked, stepping even closer.
“Well, because …” she paused, the confusion at last resolved, “I suppose because everyone does those things.”
“And that is precisely the only reason why anything isn’t strange. My hat is nothing more than cloth fashioned in a manner so that three cuts of it hang beside my head. The silver on my vambraces do not enforce the leather, merely embellish it. The hilts of my daggers, painstakingly carved from the bones of some poor creature, do not add any strength to the weapons, only to their allure. Strangeness, my lady, is subjective, perpetuated only by the delusions of what a culture has deemed normal. There is nothing strange about my hat, only the people that think so.”
“Fine! I surrender!” she laughed, then sighed as if I was missing something. “Still, Casimir, everyone will think you are a fool.”
“In many senses, I am one. And I sincerely hope others think so.”
“I am always Casimir, often a fool, but not always. Often, folks take one look at the hat and assume I’m mad. You’d be surprised just how much that puts me at an advantage to cutthroats,” I said with a tirelessly practiced flourish of my daggers that ended with them being sheathed almost as quickly as they were brought out. “The underestimated opponent is a deadly one, and this city, if you hadn’t noticed, is rife with men of ill intent. Many blessings, Lady Elise.” I grasped the end of my cloak and flared it as I whirled towards the colossal doors of the Foxfeather Castle, rather pleased with myself.
Two guards stood at either end of it. The one on the left nodded at me after I did the same. “Casimir,” Hamor, the one on the right, said with a nod. “Looking ridiculous as ever,” he muttered beneath his breath. I noted the insult but said nothing, humming as I strolled out into the wintry air. Perhaps one day I will return the favor.
Soft winds breathed snow onto the two gates beneath Nocturos’ gaping, stone arms, the white flakes on his cowl fighting to layer themselves while the violet flame of his insignia melted them, suspended above his head, rotating slowly.
“Spare a coin?” a child asked me as I strode through the Northern Square. He was no taller than my waist. His practiced expression of sorrow, the limp in his leg, and the crutch he used to support his weight, was all too conspicuous.
I took scarcely a moment to turn and look at him, offering not a coin but a grin. “Maybe next time, if you work harder on your theatrics.”
I knew far better than to play into his scheme, likely resulting with some men waiting for the child’s haul at the day’s end. In all likelihood, more than half of Portsworth’s beggars worked as a network that brought in more coin in one day than an honest business did in several.
The child scampered away towards a street dwindling with late evening strollers, his broken leg miraculously healed.
In quivering winds, phantom fingers of snow and frost swirled around my feet, sweeping across the even cobblestone of the nearly empty square that bathed in the flame's violet hue. “In the City of Thieves, nothing is as it seems,” I mumbled to the air. I wondered what I would do if the man William sent me to trade with had no interest in more wealth. Would I have to fight him, kill him for what William needed?
“You’re right, it never is,” a voice said behind me.
I whipped my head around, hand already on the handle of my dagger. “What—”
“And that child was no poor actor. In fact, he’s quite talented," he said with a laugh. "It’s difficult to pretend to be someone pretending to be someone. Rest assured, my friend. He got exactly what he wanted.”
The young man who had appeared from behind Nocturos’ statue was dressed entirely in black. The high collar of his tunic rested neatly beneath a heavy cowl that obscured his face. He had a single, leather spaulder on his right arm and a cloak that draped the other, falling to his ankles in a slanted cut that rose short on his back. Both of his knee-high boots had a spare dirk strapped to the ankle, though I doubt he used them, because his belt had more than just a few, and another slew of them were strapped to the rugged cuirass over his tunic. Judging by the size of them, they were meant for throwing.
I wanted to ask him who he was, but his observation panicked me. “What do you mean?”
“You saw the boy, but did you spot the young girl before she snuck down the side street to your right? She was hiding behind that bench, right there, before the other one got your attention.”
“What did she take?”
He just laughed, the lower half of his face obscured by a black mask. Only his eyes, charcoal with flecks of white, showed beneath his hood, while a few locks of black hair strayed from within. “Am I assuming too much in saying you don’t have time to ask me?”
I cursed and ran away off towards the street he indicated, startling a couple who were were teetering and laughing outside of a raucous tavern at the corner. Scrutinizing the curve of the walkways ahead, I found little else besides quiet shops closing for the evening, and faerie lamps that illuminated the fog swirling low in the street. Winds picked up and howled at me. When I looked behind me, the stranger was leaning back against Nocturos’ statue. He jerked his head to the left as he twirled a blade around his finger.
Turning into the alleyway besides the tavern, I spotted a girl crouched over my coin pouch, counting its contents. With what little light the moon leaked into the darkened passage, her blonde hair gleamed and glittered with snow.
With a surreptitious tread, careful enough not to jostle the bells of my hat, I closed the distance between us, her attention all too transfixed by the small fortune in her hands to notice me. It was the sum that William had given me to retrieve something of importance that evening. Getting closer, I could see the now severed ends of the chords that previously attached the pouch to my belt, ones she had cut so deftly, I hadn’t noticed the movement.
“I believe you have something of mine,” I said, now that I was close enough to grab her if she tried to run. And she did, only her mind ran faster than her feet, and she tripped onto her back. The coins scattered, danced about and trickled into the cracks of the cobblestone. By then, she was too surprised to move, perhaps because no pursuer of hers ever thought to approach gently, rather shout for the city watch or aid as they chased frantically.
I outstretched my hand towards her. “No, this isn’t a trick, even if you played one on me. It was a good one, I must admit. But I’m not angry,” I replied to the suspicion in her eyes.
Warily, her small hand grasped mine. She rose to her feet, oddly unashamed and all too willing to meet my gaze with eyes that shone a bold turquoise, fearless and cold in a body that should know only frivolity in all its frailness.
“You are quite the bandit,” I informed her as I bent to collect the pieces. “In truth, you did your job well enough. I wouldn’t have noticed you if luck hadn’t been in my favor. For that, I suppose, you deserve some compensation.” I picked up one of the silver pieces, a bulfur, the equivalent of ten evenings at a dingy inn or triple as many meals.
Much like Lady Elise when I riddled her with questions, the child’s face contorted with confusion as the silver piece beckoned her hand. Her silence said little, but the bruises on her face spoke more than I needed to hear.
“I won’t hurt you. Take it.”
When the child gave a meek grin, at first, I felt pangs of pity swell in me. She didn’t necessarily choose this life, no more than any child chose their parents. Portsworth had a way of breeding thieves from its orphans, teaching them wit and guile instead of manners, quiet footsteps in lieu of curtsies, pickpocketing and lock picking where, in a more fortunate start, reading or the basics of lesser casting might’ve taken their place.
Her grin turned to the sharp edges of a smirk, her eyes flickered to something behind me. And all at once, she snatched the coin from my hand, I turned my head, reached for my dagger, but far too late, as someone’s knuckles slammed into my cheek.
The child ran off as more blows descended, before I could even look to see who the accomplices were, or how many were kicking me into the wall of the alleyway.
“Fuckin’ fool, he is,” a hoarse voice remarked with a snarling cackle. I could hardly disagree with him.
“Highborn, by the looks of it. But that Stella’s a charmer, ain’t she?” the other replied. “Always picks the right ones.”
“Aye, she does. Give it a few years, she’ll be a good fuck.”
Briefly, they argued over who would be the first to take advantage of her. I made an attempt to get to my feet, but was kicked harder against the wall, the point and heels of their leather soles became sharp, staccato beats of pain before they finally subsided.
Squinting through an eye already swirling with blood, I spotted two pairs of feet standing over me, before one boot connected with my jaw and sent the blood from my nose spattering across the silver pieces on the ground. My eyes fluttered as my consciousness dared to do the same, but I latched onto the pain and remained there, inert yet seething.
I played dead, breathing through the iron in my throat, the throbbing in my skull where one of their rings broke the flesh, where needles of bright pain sprang each time a snowflake touched the wound, where the rage boiled vivid images of me leaving their corpses for the city watch to find the next morning.
“Think he’s dead?” the other asked, his voice a higher pitch and trembling with the shaky laughter of a hyena.
“Nah, just out. Search ‘im, quick like. I’ll grab the purse.”
The scrawnier one’s fingers groped all over my clothes. He went through the pockets of my trousers, filched a coin, a quill. He slipped the ring off my thumb, unhooked the Foxfeather signet that clasped my cloak, before digging into the satchel strapped to my left leg.
“The fuck’s all this?” he asked, finding the dual-glass vials I used for performances. If the glass separating the two chemicals inside broke, it activated thick clouds of smoke. He got up from his crouched position to show the other one. “You think it’s for drinkin’?”
“Who cares? Grab them daggers and let’s get out of here. I got his purse a’ready.”
I heard the pop of the vial’s tiny cork, the inhalation of his nostrils. “Smells good enough.”
“Well don’t just drink it!” The gruff one shouted as he slapped the concoction out of his hands before his lips touched it. “It could be—”
Glass shattered. The components sizzled, simmered then snapped with a loud burst of fumes. I shot up from the ground, grabbed the smaller one’s head and rammed it into the wall, kneeing his jaw before he hit the ground. His skull cracked louder than the vial’s eruption as he fell down groaning.
Fury compelled my hand, an instinct beyond quelling, a movement irrepressible as chance became consequence. I looked up from my shaking fist, now gripping a dagger hilt-deep in the man’s back, trembling from the last, feeble throbs of his impaled heart. I stood up and flicked the excess substance off the blade before drawing its pair. “It’s one thing to beat someone senseless before robbing them,” I told the remaining thug as I brandished my blades and stretched my arms. “Quite another, to raise a child to be your whore.” Blood continued pouring from my nose. I breathed raggedly through my mouth, swallowing gulps of it periodically.
“Easy now,” the bigger one said, now holding a studded cudgel. “Meant nothin’ by it. Just the way the world is, you see.”
Having now been taught the painful way that there were not just two, but three layers to this scheme, I looked behind me, but found the end of the alleyway empty. I returned my gaze to the silhouette of the bandit, growing ever more distorted as the smoke thickened around us.
“Give back what you took and I won’t kill you,” I threatened and spat my blood at his feet. “Even if you deserve far worse.”
His body shook with another set of cough-ridden cackles. He was far larger than me and built better, his muscles roped with thick veins from arduous labor. “How about you hand over what I haven’t already got, and you walk away? Luck can only get fools like you so far.”
Now that it was missing its clasp, my cloak slid to the ground. I belted my satchel shut before anymore of its contents could spill out, preparing myself as I did. The stinging in my head became harsher as blood beat faster through me.
“What’ll it be, then?”
“Luck certainly played her role back there,” I admitted, nodding towards the body, where crimson was spreading greedily through the snow, steam rising up in tendrils to join the fog. “But I wouldn’t bet she had any favors in store for either of us, now. And oh,” I laughed, “I would like to see what that’s like. Care to humor me?”
“Gladly,” the thug replied. He advanced, thrashing his cudgel so wildly that it collided against the walls of the passage. Stone particles and dust sprang out of the impacts that left heavy indents behind. Each time, images of the cudgel bashing my skull flashed in my mind. I shook them out and retreated while he advanced, the spiked edges of the cudgel nearing me as his slow push turned into a charge.
His movements seemed sporadic, but contained a rhythm: left, right, down, left, right, the beat of an idiot.
As I neared the end of the passage, as snowdrift fell over our heads, as his crude attacks reached a frenzy of arrogance, I picked his next swing in the rhythm and made a motion as if to parry a strike to the left while he raised the cudgel for a downswing. Triumph flashed in his expression as he caught the feigned mistake. Enthused, he continued the cudgel’s arc for my head.
I twisted my body, and with a sudden thrust, impaled his wrist with the dagger in my right hand, snarling as the blade sprang out the other end, just as delighted as I was to breathe the air after his blood was drawn.
His hand spasmed as my steel played with their ligaments. The cudgel dropped to the floor in a defeated clatter. Before he could retaliate with his free hand, I twisted his arm down, a puppeteer of his flesh and screams. “Meant nothin’ by it,” I told him as my other blade thrusted between his ribs and found his heart, twisting. “Just the way the world is, you see.”
Surprise, a gnarled anguish in his eyes, received only malice from mine as he staggered to the wall, his blood now mingled with mine on the ground; there, a quiet communion of murderer and victim, of the ardent and the pathetic, mixing in sworn shades of the same hue.
“Yora kemmin dek,” I muttered to the corpse as it slid to the ground. I collected my purse and placed it in my satchel.
“Is that how you say ‘Good riddance’ where you come from?” a now familiar voice asked behind me as his shadow drew closer. I hadn’t even heard his feet approach, his tread snowfall on the ground. Despite having just killed two people, I chuckled, figuring that if he was apart of the triple ploy, he would have already done the same to me by now.
“How the Qalmorian Moon-elves do, at least. Though it is a little harsher, I would say.” I got to my feet and took in his appearance, surprised to find he’d drawn back his hood and mask, and beyond that, that I was comforted by his presence. He outstretched my cloak to me, the clasp on it already refastened.
His face contained the rushed maturity of a difficult upbringing, not perturbed by the past, but illuminated by the challenges overcome. His dark eyes were considerably brighter now, as he smiled at me. He looked just a year or two older than myself at the time: seventeen, with a soft, rounded nose and lips set in a tight line when they weren’t smirking.
I thanked him and drew the black-and-red motley cloak back over my shoulder. “Harsher?” he asked.
“Loosely translated, it means ‘You met your intended end’ or rather, the only one that was fitting for someone like you. It’s not exactly something you say for your wife’s eulogy.”
The stranger snickered and knelt to search one of the bodies before he tossed up a smaller, patched coin purse and tucked it in his sleeve. “Fitting, indeed. Can’t say that I pity them.”
“Nobody should. You’ve a name?” I wiped the blood spattered on my face, both mine and the bandit’s, on my cloak, before doing the same for my blades. The frozen air helped to stop the steady trickle coming from my nose.
“Oh, many, though I am assuming you want the true one. I must admit, I watched all of this unfold. I just couldn’t help myself. I was curious. So I suppose I owe you that much, at least.”
“And a drink,” I added quickly. “At least two, one for each of them. I’ll even do you a favor and pretend like you didn’t help in the slightest with that tip you gave me back there.”
The stranger laughed, already privy to my humor and all too willing to play along. “Nobody owes anybody anything, thus possession,” he replied as he produced the rest of my belongings in his other hand, “is simply an illusion. Danger, on the other hand, is quite real, and in this instance, is taking form in the guards now heading towards the screams that our friend here made. Shall we continue this elsewhere?”
The frozen air had embraced my silver ring, but it felt soothing to have it returned to my thumb, all the same. “I know just the place.” It was the only place, in fact, that I had intended to be that night.
I snatched the quill and coin from his hand, and together we abandoned the scene, heading east of the Northern Square, where the rest of my evening’s business lay waiting. Portsworth might have lacked virtue, but narrow crevices and tunnels, it did not. There was a reason why thievery was rampant here. The sheer size and twisting passages of the city made losing pursuers easy.
Both of us pretending we were less winded than we were when we stopped running, now standing outside The Craven Phantom, a gambling house that only became louder as the night deepened and the snow thickened around us. The fogged windows glowed from the candlelight inside, the myriad silhouettes within emitted laughter, shouts and insults muffled through the wall. A heavy thud shook the establishment after someone went down to a pair of flying fists.
“Now, about that name."
“Drinks first. It’s not every night that I'm free to roam like this, and I intend to make the most of it. I just watched someone fight for their life, so it can only get worse from here.”
“Oh, I wouldn’t be so sure of that,” I said, still smiling despite the steady hammer beating my head from where I’d been pummeled. “But I’m not one to argue. After you.”
Before the winds could freeze us to our leathers, we let ourselves into the tavern, immediately overwhelmed by the stench of sweat, mead, nitskel and unfavorable chances over dice boards, cards, and backhanded insults. Bones made up the sconces and candlesticks inside, the most impressive piece being a gently swinging chandelier that hung beneath the rafters, where eight skulls adorned each point, fashioned to look down upon the patrons with hanging jaws. Some human, some not. We made our way through the most boisterous and drunk, the patrons too entrenched in their current dealings to pay us more than a glance. I scanned the crowd, spotting a woman with an eyepatch and a glare in her working eye as she observed the expressions of the men sitting around the same table, all of them holding cards before a stack of coins.
“What are you looking for?” the stranger asked me, his gaze just as watchful.
“Nothing that’s in this room,” I muttered. “Follow me.”
We ascended cracked and groaning stairs to the second floor. Upstairs, the noise from below still bellowed after us, but more tables were empty, and for the ones that weren’t, hushed conversations rolled over closely-clutched drinks and wary eyes. At the far corner of the room, a man with cropped hair was leaning back in a chair in front of two others and a woman, laughing as he swigged from a carafe. One of his fingers glinted from a silver Foxfeather signet—William's signet, the only one, for that matter. The collars of his beaten, leather coat rose obnoxiously high, a wide breadth of his head, which was covered in all manner of scars.
“It appears I haven’t used all of my evening’s luck up, yet,” I said as we sat down at an empty table.
“Something tells me you’re not the type of person that runs out of it.”
“All is fortune in the eyes of chaos.”
When one of the servers took their queue and followed us upstairs, the stranger payed for gin and brandy before I could insist. Not that it was all too burdensome, considering he used the coin from one of the corpses. I kept my eye on the man in the corner as the first beginnings of our companionship arose. The unexpected friendship that sparked between us was nothing short of odd, but I had a taste for the unexpected and the happenstance, especially when it came to the bonds of kindred souls.
“I do feel guilty for not stepping in,” he admitted after a short silence. “But you should understand that someone like me can’t afford to make allies of fickle people. Watching you deal with those rats proved more than just a few things to me. Despite your inability to see that the boy was only a ruse, I thought you could handle yourself with the others. Luckily, you did. And now, what was an innocent evening of people watching turned into this,” he gestured between us, “and I don’t take my friends lightly.”
“Neither do I. If it weren’t for you, I would have lost that purse, so let’s call it fair. But what if I hadn’t handled myself?” I took off my hat, not surprised to find more than a little blood on the inside of it. I prodded the wounds on my head to judge their seriousness.
He scoffed. “Don’t be a fool. I would have dashed in there like a golden legend, of course.”
Our words stopped as the server returned with two small, ivory cups. He took the brandy.
“This golden legend could have saved my head from three welts, and that’s not even mentioning the bruises on my body.”
“Ah well, I had to know you were worth your mettle. Ladies love black eyes, in any case. And that one’s going to be a monster,” he said, pointing towards my left socket.
We clinked the cups and drank. With a trailing finger, I admired the cup’s surface, heavily engraved in filigree.
“Shamus Dodge,” he told me after we swallowed back the liquor. After the initial bite, the smooth texture left minty notes in the back of my throat, to an almost bittersweet finish before leaving a pleasant burn that chilled and trailed down my stomach.
He finished his second sip in sputtering coughs, hearing my second name. “Gods, I thought you had stolen that clasp and ring.” His expression flashed, seemingly without control, to confused frustration. “So you’re a highborn then? And here I thought the hat, the motley cloak, it was all some elaborate mockery of royalty! Gods!”
It had been a long while since I laughed as hard, the irony much sweeter than the ale. “No and yes. I wasn’t born into the Foxfeathers. I was raised in a small town north of Westrun, long, long before I was brought into their court. I took the second name because, well, pasts are meant to be left with the dead. Names have a way of erasing things.”
“Fair enough. So then, you have no royal blood in you?”
“If I did, it would come as a surprise to me, and not a welcome one.”
At that, the urge Shamus had turn the table over and run seemed to leave, but he quickly lost himself to thought as if the question of my trust lay there in the stained wood. “Yet you live with them, eat and drink with them.”
“I am one of the King’s advisors, and entertainers, but gods know I prefer the latter. Why should a fool have to lend his opinion on warfare or trade treaties? The intricacies of royal politics befuddle me.”
“Wait!” Shamus exclaimed and grasped my arm. The white flecks in his eyes seemed to ignite, burning up any judgements he might’ve had of me. “You are that Casimir? You were that acrobat in this year’s Hallow’s Eve Reverie performance? The second act, was it?”
“At your service,” I said, then wiped a less charming, lingering trail of blood coming from one of my nostrils.
“Gods, you were magnificent! How did you summon all those illusions? You made it appear as if there were dozens of you, all at once. And then …” he trailed off, shaking his head as his words faltered to describe the vivid conjurations of that night’s performance. “That was three bulfurs well spent, my friend. How did you do it?”
“You think I’ll unveil my secrets to you only after one drink? Tsk, tsk. You’ll have to be more cunning than that.”
“Cunning?” Looking about the room, a roguish smile came to his lips. “You’re here for something from that man in the corner, yes?”
“Well, I didn’t stroll out into Portsworth’s late evening to be robbed and nearly murdered, even if it was rather exciting.” I took another sip, wondering if the pains in my abdomen were from cracked or bruised ribs.
Shamus didn't seem interested in his drink anymore. He leaned over the edge of the table. “Tell me what you’re after. I’ll retrieve it for you."
“Just like that?” I asked, all too eager to accept his help now that the adrenaline had begun to fade, and in its absence, an even angrier ache swelled in my head, a tiredness like lead forming beneath my eyes. Simultaneously, I could leave the evening where it stood and return another time. Surely, William would understand if I had told him the story, but I had a self-destructive tendency to do things that weren’t entirely rational, especially if they came wrapped in a challenge.
“Just like that. But,” he continued, “if I get the object, you’ll tell me the mechanics behind your illusions in that performance. In my profession, deception is gold, and you might as well be a mine.”
The man in the corner laughed uproariously, spluttering his drink all over the table. The longer I thought about it, the more intrigued I was to see what Shamus had in mind.
“I must confess,” I told him, “I was given a rather large sum to trade for that object. Hence the small fortune I nearly lost to a child.”
“To the worms with it. Keep the sum, the reward is in the execution. Where’s the fun if we do this the polite way?”
“I couldn’t agree more.”
“Now, what is it?”
“You see the ring on his forefinger? That’s the Northern King’s signet. If that man had half a mind to do so, he could send off commands to ambassadors, tradesmen, even executioners, and stamp the wax with that seal. Luckily, he doesn’t appear to be the type that enjoys penmanship, much less speaking well. I doubt he understands that he is, at this moment, far more powerful than he ever dreamed he'd be. William has a, erhm, slight concern that one day he might just figure it out.”
“How did he lose something so godsdamned valuable to a drunk like that?”
“Shamus, that ‘drunk’ owns this tavern and half the brothels in Portsworth,” I whispered, careful not to look at him anymore than I already was.
Dumbfounded, he shook his head and pushed his drink away. “That still doesn’t explain what a highborn was doing in a place like this.”
“William isn’t all that different from us,” I confessed. “Every now and then he puts on disguises, changes his wardrobe, and goes to lowly places like this to gamble, to drink, to laugh, to pretend like he never was a king to begin with.”
“That’s oddly … admirable,” Shamus admitted.
“And probably one of his worst habits,” I grumbled. “He lost that ring while he was gambling.”
“Regardless ... are you still up to the task?”
“Stealing a king’s signet, making a fool out of some wealthy, drunk bastard, what’s not to love? Forget your secrets, I’ll do this for pleasure. You gave me a performance I could never forget, how about I return the favor?”
"You know, I think I may at least come to forgive you for letting me get beaten bloody in that alley."
"Oh, gods no! After tonight, you're going to thank me for it. After all, if I hadn't felt guilty, I wouldn't have bought you the drink."