Chapter 13: Thief's Blood
Dear lords and ladies of the court,
I sincerely apologize for a late installment. Last week, as I drafted Chapter 12 and the beginnings of this segment now before you, I was in the midst of a 7 day workweek. Am I singed? Am I burnt out? Am I sleepless? Am I a toasted toast? I am all these things. And I am worlds grateful to have you all here, to join me after I've fostered the time and willpower to develop this tale. Enough of excuses, though!
The stage was warm, sticky and slick from the performance's initial blunder. And yet, now it had all ended. The tense anxieties, the boiling adrenaline, the trepidation, all had melted in a pool that flooded over the knives, the strips of cloth, the punctured sand bags, the painted foot markings, until finally spreading over me. I lay there with my eyes closed, indulging the slow, calm inhalations that boasted no worries for the coming moments. I embodied a depiction of death succumbed to his own nature. I heard the applause as stampeding hooves through the floor. I know what I had expressed, but I could not help but wonder what the audience had seen, instead.
After the curtains had shut, I rose and unstuck the knife from my back. There were still more acts to come, and already the stage was being swept to prepare for the oncoming troupe. Striding through the darting crew members, I was greeted by compliments, pats, and a few alarmed expressions from anyone who shook my bleeding hands.
“It’s nothing serious,” I had to repeat a dozen times.
When Saron embraced me, she’d whispered into my ear, “You’re almost worth all your trouble, you know that?” Promptly, she left my company to advise the next performers.
After I’d given the dancers my compliments and had my hands bandaged, I left the theatre behind, regretful to feel the low, flickering lights and boisterous audience as a backdrop to my gait towards the narrowing streets beyond the Gallows’ Stadium. The stage promised an unparalleled distraction, a sense of family. There, perfection was an attainment within arm’s reach, but beyond it, my silhouette was nothing more than another shadow melding with night’s sable waters. In the late evening, I was embraced by ponderous reflections, and that silence one feels when they’ve just left something remarkable behind with little in comparison to look forward to. Finding Shamus in the middle of Portsworth’s second busiest festival seemed a meaningless venture, still, my curiosity could not be bridled. I was determined to search the streets well past midnight, even if all it would afford was disillusionment.
Various events, popular taverns, and notorious attractions left certain streets utterly empty and their corridors perilously dark, as the moss hanging from their stones dripped from the soft, intermittent rains. Other pockets like the Trade District and the Weavers’ Den were packed, exuding light and music loud enough that you could feel it from afar. The screeching of strings, the slam of drums, the inharmonious voices singing their odes to the Nether, the realm beyond the living. In Portsworth, you could hardly bet on the City Watch being anything more than a comforting illusion of safety, but on All Hallow’s Eve, even that delusion had to be left in the gutters, as nearly all of the guards took their leave that evening to join the celebrations. I could see the residual illuminance of higher, banned spells being cast as their radiance swirled with the fog and drifted against rooftops far in my view. I could hear screams that sounded all in good, innocent fun, and others that were more of a cry for help than anything else. I could hear glasses being shattered in stumbling accidents, and the breaking of windows, whose shops were left empty for the evening.
Burning nitskel, cheap ale, groped asses, drunken laughter and fizzled incantations. I chimed my way through the streets and avoided as many scruples as I could. Down one of the less populated avenues, where the majority of the inhabitants were ravens shaking the dew from their wings, I passed by a dingy inn being ransacked by a group of little more than four or five pillagers. At the doorstep, cracked glass and a torn shoe marked the beginning of a smeared blood trail leading into the alleyway adjacent to the shop. I lingered just long enough to catch the attention of the men inside.
“After him?” I heard one of them say after I’d already kept on moving.
The muscles in my back tensed. I continued forward, afraid that if I turned my head, I would provoke them to follow me. But even without that, I could heard their footsteps slip out of the doorstep, followed by the quick stamping of chasing heels. I started into a sprint, aiming for the nearest corner to turn into.
“Quick fellow ain’t he?” one of them laughed.
“Just means he’s got something,” the other one huffed.
Members of Nocturos’ Order often travel in large flocks throughout the city on a nightly basis, their vows of silence making them appear like wolves without prey in their grey vests, black hoods, and trailing charms of silver hands and dice. Never have I seen a chapel of Nocturos, a statue of him, a group of his followers, without feeling an echo of guilt. Having been born under the Cloaked Star, Nocturos is my patron deity, but I’ve never so much as donated a coin nor an hour’s worth of prayer toward him. Had I, in my most miserable and desperate moments, begged to him for some quick mercy? Of course! Who hasn’t pleaded to a god they hardly believed in when they felt scared witless? All the same, dogma frightens me. Moreover, I never bought into the concept of devoting myself to a deity called ‘The God of Misfortune’. It seemed, or so I thought, that he would consecrate most of my time for his sake whether I liked it or not.
When I turned the corner, I slipped on a piece of parchment, crunching my shoulder against the cobblestone. But when I looked up, my heart stuttered in horror, then in relief, as I saw a black cloud soon to engulf me. It was a flock of the Order. I stood up and let the group flow around me in a river of cloth and clinking charms. When I turned my head, the pillagers stopped and cursed at the sight of them. One of the thugs attempted to shoulder his way through the worshippers with his eyes on me, but the other two pulled him back. I can only imagine how my mask gleamed from the blood moon, a gold coin surrounded by coal.
“Not Nocturos,” one of them advised. “Shouldn’t.”
“Fuck the gods,” the other one spat.
“Look at the bastard, glittering with silver he is.”
“No. Leave it be.”
Shaken by the sight, the two others managed to pry the third one away. I wanted to thank the worshipers, embrace them, anything to show my thanks as the thugs retreated far from view. It was enchanting, to feel the protection of a solemn vow, a nightly ritual, a calm collective, as dozens of their bodies sifted over mine. Each of them had different lengths of hair, facial features, piercings and markings upon their skin. It was remarkable to see them acting in such unison.
“You have my deepest thanks,” I said to them. “Truly, thank you.”
But there was no response. They continued shuffling forward, guided mostly by the touch of those around them. For those that had their eyes opened, they were fixed ahead, thoughtful but otherwise empty in their stare.
By the time the last of the flock had passed over me, I could feel my hopes for finding Shamus dwindling, replaced by the worry that something worse than negligence had kept him from attending the show. Again, the foreboding sounds of Portsworth’s unrivaled revelry howled up at the clouds. Suddenly, the half cloak I had worn fell to the ground. It was missing its clasp. I felt stripped as the wind blew across me without the comfort of the worshipers’ bodies pressed against mine. Confused, I stared at the cloak, wondering how it had fallen.
When I looked down at my costume, much of its ornaments were stripped. The silver embellishments, the gold touches, even one of my rings. All that was left was my mask and my daggers, whose sheathes would be a chore to cut, and whose weight would be immediately recognized were they to go missing.
“Those cursed little …”
“Urchins,” someone finished for me. “Perhaps you could use some company? I find that typically soothes the bitterness of losing something valuable.” A woman leaning against a light post with a flash of her thigh showing, even in the chill of the autumn wind, smirked at me. Evidently, she had seen everything unfold.
“Please, I’m not particularly in the mood for your kind of business,” I rebuked the stranger and began searching myself, passing over the empty space where my coin pouch used to rest against my thigh. I supposed this was the Order’s hilarious way of participating in All Hallow’s Eve, pickpocketing strangers under the guise of reverent pretenses.
The woman stamped closer to me, her hips swaying as the waves of her deep, red hair drifted against her shoulders. I didn’t particularly mind prostitutes; they are more friendly than most. It was no surprise that she was probing me for any possibility of business.
Just as I looked up from my empty pockets, she slapped me. “Typical,” was all she said.
“Is that him?” I heard Shamus cough from inside a niche in the street’s wall.
I groaned, touching the flaring, red realization on my cheek, almost too relieved to feel the pain of it, yet too embarrassed to feel the relief.
“Certainly not. He’s nothing like the gentleman you described. Must be just another drunk. Nothing notable, truly. Hmph … what a damned shame. We really thought we’d find him here, didn’t we?”
“Forgive me,” I muttered, not entirely filled with courage to meet the eyes of Shamus’ colleague just then. “I hadn’t the faintest … those followers … and you seemed so …” She stood half a head taller than me, her hands on her hips and her head shaking slowly while I stumbled through no excuse in particular for my assumptions. I bent and retrieved my cloak, wrapping it around my shoulders and hoping it would somehow shroud my entire body.
“Seemed like what?” the woman huffed. “Well, I was rather frustrated, you see—”
“Oh it is him!” Shamus wheezed out. “I’d recognize that fool’s voice anywhere. Bring him over, won’t you?”
She snatched my arm and led me to the cut in the wall. From the dim faerie light in the street lamp, I could just make out the nearest edges of Shamus’ grinning face. For every bit of his light, ashen skin that shone through, spots of blood were there to contrast it. Even his front teeth were stained red.
He raised his hand to clasp mine, the markings on his palms thick, emblazoned and dripping from recent casting. I grabbed his arm, instead, and threw myself against his chest in an embrace, nearly knocking him off the crate he was sitting on.
“Easy now!” the woman laughed. “He’s not standing for a reason, you know.”
“What’s happened to you? Are you well?” I asked him, as soon as I realized I’d just stepped in a puddle of his vomit.
“As well as I was after the first time we’d met,” he laughed. He hawked out a wad of blood and wiped his face with the back of his palm, which only smeared more of it across his cheeks. “Well, a little worse,” he admitted. “Casimir, you’ll have to excuse the methods by which we found you. Hopefully the payment was not too much. I figured with your ties to the Foxfeathers …” he shrugged the rest, so I nodded, all but confusedly.
“Payment? I didn’t …”
“The flock, you halfwit,” the woman clarified nicely.
“You mean to say you … had them …?”
Shamus sucked in some air. “Traveling around Portsworth in this condition, at this time of night, you understand I couldn’t exactly search for you alone, even with Clarisse. I found some fellows in the Order and had them guide us. And I told them, well, truth is I hadn’t much coin on me at the time and they’re a greedier bunch than they look. I told them they could take what they could from passersby, even if you were one of them. Oh gods … all those poor souls they must’ve taken from,” Shamus realized aloud.
“But if they could pickpocket like that as a group, why would the Order need to listen to your suggestions at all?”
“Sanctions, rules, territories …” Clarisse added with a bored, droning tone. “They’re kind of like cattle. You lead them, show them what to do, or else they’ll just stand there.”
I shook my head. “This doesn’t make any sense. What you have to do with the Order?”
“Consider them an extension of our ‘family’ so to speak.” Shamus tested the shaking in his legs to see if he could stand, only to sit back down with a tight grimace. “Casimir, you have no idea how terribly sorry I am to have missed your performance. Something of greater importance requested my attention. Speaking of which, the lovely, not-truly-a-whore you just met is Clarisse. She’s one of my own, a colleague, a friend. She was helping me tonight.”
“ ‘Saving’ might be the better word. Someone of your daft bravery is beyond help.”
“Made it out alive though, didn’t we? At least you admitted I am brave.”
“You did, barely. I would have been fine. Warriors work well with bravery, Shamus, but not with folks like us.”
“Lecture me after I’ve discussed something with him, won’t you? Next time, I'll let you be the one who phase shifts us to safety.”
Clarisse flicked her head to gaze at the moon, muttering under her breath while Shamus rolled his eyes.
I knelt down so that my eyes met his. Behind the pain, the excitement for having found each other, he harbored something. A deep, brooding imp that seemed as much mine as it was his, the moment I was cognizant of it. Shamus, like I, believed little in the turning of fates beyond our control, we worried little for minor scruples, we laughed at the daily troubles that so harried others. We urged ourselves to be free, in every sense of the word, and that meant above all else, to forget fear where others could not.
So when I saw that look in his eyes, I felt there was no possibility of escaping what haunted him, as if I was bound to feel the same chill, doomed by our mutual limitations of our carefree propensities.
“How was the show?” he asked me suddenly, dodging what was on his mind.
“It was … spectacular.” Already, it lingered in my memory as a dream, something that did not belong in reality. Those were the best memories, the ones that persisted long after others had fled. “When I realized you weren’t there to watch, at first, I was hurt. But then, something strange happened, and I felt freed by it.”
Shamus lifted a hand to put on my shoulder, his wounds warm through my clothes. “I truly am regretful. The Syndicate—”
“Have you lost too much blood, dimwit?” Clarisse immediately snapped, stomping towards us from her watchful position at the opening of the alleyway. But her stringent, carnelian eyes swept passed me and dug into Shamus. “Why are you mouthing off our own like that?”
“Oh, what’s the point? Casimir knows as much already, it was only a matter of speaking the name. If he was a threat, something would’ve already happened. And yet, we were the ones who stole into the Foxfeather’s tonight.”
“Oh! So that’s where—”
It was enough to make me shudder. I got to my feet. Clarisse flinched at the movement with a disgusted expression, but ignored me beyond that.
“I was hesitant, but I was willing to understand. Making bonds with an outsider is nearly too far by itself. But this … this is something else entirely. This is unthinkable. Think of who he knows, think of how well he knows you, for Siflos’ sake! Think of what he could do with a memory of your face! He could have the Northern King plaster it on every street lamp by the month’s end if he wished!” Clarisse, herself, had not lowered her hood or cloth covering the lower half of her face.
Shamus opened his mouth to speak, but I thought, especially as I watched the stains of his wounds bleed through his dark clothes, that he’d dealt with enough for one evening. I lifted up my hand to quiet him and approached Clarisse. “Hear my words and listen well. I was born a commoner. My associations with the Foxfeathers is purely coincidental. A misstep of the gods, a cosmic accident, a fool’s luck. You’d be damned to find a drop of my blood mingled with theirs, or any highborns’ from the lowest Reaches to the highest Isles,” I growled, uncertain if I was more frustrated for her attacking Shamus or assuming so much of myself. “Take what you can from them, from me if you wish. I don’t need half as much of the wealth I have. Curse me, call me names, distrust me, do all or whichever you prefer in particular, I couldn’t be bothered to care. Call me halfwit, fool,” Clarisse’s brows tensed, her stare hardened, and I edged closer, “but betrayer, backstabber … those words do not belong to me.”
When Clarisse’s stubbornness compelled only silence as a response, I continued, admiring how the blood moon’s deepening shades matched her hair as the giant rose higher in the sky, illuminating every stone and crack with faded crimson. “Shamus may be daft, but his heart is smarter than his head. He made no mistake trusting me, someone who speaks the truth so rarely.” I looked at him and slowly, a grin cracked to show his teeth, despite the fear toying with him behind the expression that failed to conceal it. Clarisse’s suspicions only flared his anxiety, a demeanor that he did not wear well. “You were at the castle searching for something during the performance, weren’t you? You, or somebody in the Syndicate must’ve realized it was an ideal time for an assignment, as much of the city’s attention would be scattered from between the Gallows’ Stadium to the Trade District. So, you took the assignment instead, seizing the opportunity. That’s why you two were missing, wasn’t it? Any other action made little sense, when considering your responsibilities.”
Clarisse sighed and squatted down. “He knows too much, Shamus. If anybody found out about him, they’d have all our heads. Why risk it?”
The threat was only as heavy as the speculation behind it. All the same, I kept my hand comfortably close to my hilt.
“Look at me for a long while and tell me the bonds of a kindred soul are idle playthings to be forgotten. Casimir is more clever than he looks, you know,” Shamus replied calmly. “I think he’s smart enough to understand we’re not folks to be tampered with, even if he didn’t happen to like us much, which, I will tentatively assume he does, even after you made an ass of yourself.”
“It’s true,” I shrugged, catching Clarisse’s eyes long enough to show her that I was grinning. “I admire folks like you. I don’t empathize with the cultish behavior, but being the thieves of legends, that can’t be unglamorous work. Had I three lives, I might’ve tried it for a spell.”
“As if it’s so easy as that,” she scoffed. “The only option besides killing you is trusting you, isn’t it? There is nothing between.” Clarisse was using her rings to dance the moonlight across her fingers.
“Shamus made that evident a few months into our correspondence. What can I say?” I shrugged again. “I like my friends to stand beyond the crowd.”
“I understand what this is asking, Clarisse, but I haven’t told anyone in our sanctuary, not a soul beyond us. As long as it’s kept here, all will remain well,” Shamus added. “If nobody else finds out, our heads won’t roll … just yet.”
“So, now I must protect another idiot and call him ‘family’ like I do with you?” Clarisse chuckled. “Gorgeous …”
“Most folks just call me ‘charming’,” I corrected and twirled a lock of hair around my finger.
“Aha. I suppose next you’ll be asking what I charge for my usual hour?” she quipped.
“If you’re the one offering, sure. Three dugarts, then?”
Shamus laughed hard enough that he began coughing violently, which only served him by making him teeter off the crate and onto the ground. And somehow, as his ass landed on the stone, we all felt the tension lift.
This time, Clarisse rolled her eyes while I helped up the dauntless rogue.
“So then, why were the two of you prowling around my dear, dear royal family’s castle, and on such short notice that you missed one of the finest spectacles you could’ve ever witnessed?”
Clarisse and Shamus shared a wordless interaction, neither of them looking very amused at my attempts at humor. At the end of it, she was the one spoke. This time, she drew back her hood and pulled her mask down, revealing thin yet inviting, curved lips and a small nose with an upwards point. “There’s something underneath that castle, Casimir.”
“The silver pools?” I offered.
“Were it that simple, Shamus and I would’ve shrugged off the assignment to come watch your performance.”
“Well then … ?”
“It was something that even shadowsteps wouldn’t steal, and that is certainly saying something. Even if we could have gotten passed those doors …” Shamus lost himself in musings, and didn’t quite return, but kept that same hollow stare into the ground. “Tell me: does King William trust you?”
“With his life.”
“And yet he’s told you nothing of this?”
I looked up at Clarisse. “To be quite honest, I haven’t the faintest idea what you saw.”
“The Mancer’s Stone.”
“Or the Dead Mage’s Stone, whichever childhood tale you were told,” Shamus added.
I began laughing, but neither of them looked amused. “I … but it’s a legend, a …” my voice trailed to a whisper, because I was talking to two people whose existences, just years before, I would have condemned to the frivolities of fiction. “William would have told me, he would’ve. You must be mistaken. You saw something else.”
Shamus shook his head and grabbed something from the pockets on the inside of his cloak. “We didn’t leave empty handed.” A journal flopped onto the ground between us, a journal that I typically saw on the nightstand beside William’s bed. “He’d written of his concern of it, in there, should Addoran enter in another era of war, or should Portsworth ever be ransacked. Beyond all else, he fretted for the stone’s recovery into living hands, for the loss of the Foxfeather’s hidden fortune. I apologize if this taints your image of him, but whatever his true intentions, William had more reasons than the goodness of his heart to keep Addoran and Portsworth in terms of peace. He admitted it, at least.”
Reluctantly, I picked up the journal, almost asking Shamus to quote the exact page so that I could read the words myself. I quelled the urge. Blood is more reliant than promises. And in that moment, Shamus was dripping, the agony of his efforts plain across his body.
“Highborns …” Clarisse snorted and spat. “They’re the only reason that anything useful remains hidden long enough to become a legend. In the hands of honest folk, the Mancer’s Stone could construct entire citadels in an afternoon, chapels for the impoverished, colleges for the unlearned. An unparalleled tool.”
“So why not take it? Why not do precisely that with it?” I jumped to my feet, but Shamus was too beaten to be enthused. He waved the notion away with his hand tiredly.
“Some things should remain in the possession of their owners, or remain sealed in crypts, or locked in chests,” he replied. “But beyond that, there are … creatures guarding that stone, things that I would rather not remember. Things I’ve never seen before, and hope not to again.”
I looked from between the two of them, felt midnight’s fingers sift through the tight alley, as the hairs on my neck pricked up at the dimming din of revelry in the distance. Ecstasy had faded to a cheerless reality once more, a daunting shadow that seemed adept at swallowing the excitement of innocent moments. “But how does all this concern me?”
“The same reason why we missed your performance tonight,” Clarisse answered.
“Of which I am still, extremely regretful,” Shamus mumbled.
“At this time, there’s more people than just the Shadow Syndicate keeping their eyes trained on the Mancer’s Stone. A few … unsavory organizations are beginning to become privy to whomever deduced the stone’s location.”
“But I … knew nothing of it until tonight.”
Shamus laughed darkly. “Maybe your King really is your friend, then, for keeping the secret from you.”
“But of course he is.”
“Think on it, Casimir,” Clarisse said with low melancholy, as she joined me in crouching close to the ground, “if anybody wished to discover more about the stone’s location, what’s guarding it, on what floor, and they didn’t want to capture the King for that information …”
He shrugged. “ 'Fek' indeed. That’s just how the dice fall. I thought I’d be the one who explained the damned game to you, before anyone took their chances against yours. Just know you had one friend willing to warn you, at least.” He winked, but somehow, it wasn’t as comforting as you might think.
“You’re his closest advisor,” Clarisse continued. “Whoever else is after the stone will suspect you know something about it. I’d advise keeping a close eye on your back, Casimir. It’s cost-effective to kidnap a court fool rather than his king.”
We sat in the silence, where I was surprised to find the bulk of the evening’s disappointments falling on my shoulders. “Well this turned to be one gods’ damned frightening evening,” I muttered.
“And what would All Hallow’s Eve be without it?!” Shamus tried to stand, but failed again. “In that instance … drinks?” he offered.
But I was numb, uncertain whether I should weep or laugh from it all.
“Promptly. Now that you’re something like our family, Casimir, you get to be treated like one.”
“Aha, splendid! What does that mean?”
“You’re paying!” Shamus and Clarisse said in unison and broke into cackles. Together, we hauled Shamus up between us and helped him stumble onto his limping legs.
“Unfortunately, the jest’s in my favor, seeing as how you two rats simply told Nocturos’ flock to swipe my coin purse.”
“Oh, damnit all …”
“Ah, that’s right …” they realized, also in unison.