"Is the wine satisfactory? May I offer you something to eat, Brendell?"
"The wine is quite good. Thank you." I swirled the excellent vintage in the golden goblet and nestled even deeper into the comforting leather chair. I was ensconced in the manor of Cyran D'Nell and totally enjoying the wealth and charity of my new employer. Evidence of his fortune surrounded me, from the tapestries on the walls to the gold and silver works of art that littered the tables and shelves. A virtual treasure trove of enticements that made my nerves quiver at the possibilities.
Unfortunately they were denied to me, as he and I both knew. I was working for him, and Guild rules prevented me from plying my trade on him either now or in the future. But then, Guild rules were the reason I was here in the first place. "Should we discuss your situation now?"
"The morning will do. I am sure you are quite tired from your journey." D'Nell was an expansive man, both in girth and largesse, and I felt myself taking an immediate liking to him. Which was a pleasant change, since quite often my clients are on the distasteful side. But then, I wasn't under contract to steal for him.
Which made it quite unusual, and I had told the Guild secretary the same in Thuria.
"Agreed, Brendell," and he played with the contract on his desk. "We would not normally honor such a request."
"Then why are we?" I knew it had to be more than just D'Nell being an occasional client. The Thief's Guild will work for nearly anyone as long as they pay. Previous employment does not assure future protection except from the specific Guild member hired.
"Someone is stealing from Cyran D'Nell, and that person is not a member of our Guild. There are no contracts involving him currently. Which means a scab is the thief. And we cannot allow that!"
I nodded in total agreement. It is vital our Guild protect the reputation of our profession. There would always be the occasional amateur or Thief Academy failure plying our trade, and one of our obligations is to catch and discourage every one we found. Whoever was stealing from D'Nell was not an honored Guild member. Therefore he or she had to be stopped. "So my task is?"
"Discover who is breaking Guild rules and prevent them from doing it again."
"Does D'Nell have any suspicions?"
The secretary shoved a satchel across his desk. "Most of the information we have in the archives is here, as are our past discussions. I would rather you approach this assignment with an open mind, however. Any preconceptions might lead to your overlooking the real culprit."
I nodded and took the package. "I will study this tonight and go to his manor in the morning."
"Excellent, Brendell. The Guild thanks you for your assistance in this important matter."
I nodded and returned to my room at the inn to read. I discovered D'Nell had carved himself a small empire made by insurance, banking and usury. He owned a vast manor in the Bantakia forest, one protected by a contingent of the Assassin's Guild. Quite rich, which made him an inviting target for any thief. Beyond more personal information and estate floor plans, however, the report was vague. The Guild secretary had been almost too dedicated to preventing me from forming any preconceptions, but I saw his point and agreed. If D'Nell was hiring me to be a security consultant, then it was best I gathered most information on my own.
So the following morning I was on horseback making the long journey to the manor. It wasn't difficult to find. The road leading to it was wide enough for four wagons. The building itself jutted literally from the side of a mountain and spread out into the surrounding forest. One outbuilding held the stables, while another served as the living quarters for the household staff and contingent of Assassin's Guild. I was greeted by three of the latter long before I reached the manor proper. I identified myself, then waited patiently while one was dispatched to check my credentials. The others refused my efforts at light conversation, which didn't surprise me. Even though we are fellow Guild members, our respective memberships often find themselves in conflict.
Soon enough I was given clearance, which didn't please my guards overmuch. I was led to the stables so my mount could be tended to, then to the manor proper. And, within minutes, to a meeting with D'Nell. Our session was degenerating into casual conversation when there was a knock at the door and a teen-age girl entered. D'Nell greeted her with a wide smile and massive hug. "Brendell, let me introduce my daughter, Chorista."
She looked at me with wide, blue, disapproving eyes. I knew she was D'Nell's only child, his wife having died in childbirth. He had never remarried. "What is he doing here?" she asked, refusing to speak to me. "He's here to help me solve a minor problem."
"I don't like him. He smells funny." And she snuggled against her father for protection.
"He rode a long way to meet me," he said, stroking her hair. "You should treat our guests a bit more civilly."
She wrinkled her nose. "He should at least bathe."
"I'm sorry, my lady," I said, biting back my anger. "Your father and I had to meet immediately. I have not had time to clean up. I will take care of that now. Master D'Nell, could you have a servant show me where I'll be staying?"
"Of course." He rang a bell and almost immediately one of the many liveried staff entered. A brief conversation later I was being led from the room while father and daughter still huddled together. Later that evening I relaxed in a feathered bed with satin sheets and considered some of what I already knew from the report. D'Nell claimed someone was stealing from him, constantly and in small amounts. He had a vast staff, including the Assassin's Guild. Unless a master thief had taken out his own contract, the culprit almost had to be at the manor. Would I have to investigate everyone? I hoped not because this contract was not that lucrative. I decided D'Nell and I would have a long discussion on the morrow.
Although that soon proved difficult. D'Nell spent his entire breakfast meeting with his staff to give instructions for that day, ignoring me completely. So I tried to strike up a conversation with his daughter, who was seated next to me. She, however, was more interested in making sure her eggs were cooked just so and sent them back three times before they met with her satisfaction. The servants wouldn't talk beyond a mere yes or no, so I finally contented myself with eating ...not an unpleasant way to pass the time. Everyone was fed and the dishes were removed before D'Nell first spoke to me. "Come, Brendell. Time you earned your keep."
I followed him obediently to the back of his manor. Here the home abutted the nearby cliffs and I quickly learned why. The rear held a large loading area, and already there were carts filled with cargo waiting to be unloaded. There was a contingent of armed Assassin's Guild members as well and I wasn't certain if they were there to protect the goods being unloaded or to watch the many servants milling about.
"This is our warehouse," D'Nell said unnecessarily. "Everything we are paid to protect is brought here until it is time for later shipment."
"This is where the thefts have taken place?" I asked as I tried to avoid the laborers scurrying around us. With their master here, I was certain they were working more eagerly than normal.
"No, in the vault itself. This way." We made our way past table after table of clerks inventorying the shipments until we came to a large wooden door attached to the very side of the mountain. Another contingent of guards stood before it. "Let us in," D'Nell said.
"Wait," I said, stopping one from unlocking the door. "Let me." I pulled out my picks and within seconds I had the door open. "Not the most secure lock available," I said to D'Nell, who stared at me with anger and respect. "Could be part of your problem."
"We'll see," and he brushed past me. "Close and lock it behind us," he said to the guards. I shrugged and followed him into the vault.
Which I discovered to be a natural cave. There were more clerks in here as well, plus still another contingent of guards. There were torches on the wall and candles on the table, so there was enough light to deter anyone from hiding successfully in the shadows. Goods were scattered everywhere in bales, boxes and crates. Along the walls, shelves held even more wealth. The clerks sat at tables busily inventorying piles of jewels and coins. Standing behind them, one for each clerk, an armed guard watched. Every man working in the room was naked. "This is where the thefts have occurred," D'Nell said.
I looked at all the wealth in this room and shivered. If only I wasn't under contract! "Tell me, what has been taken and when did it happen?"
"A variety of items actually. I have the complete list in my library. We noticed the losses beginning about four months ago."
I walked over to one of the shelves. This one held open bag after open bag of gold coins. There was as much wealth here in open display as in a small kingdom. Of course, most of it wasn't D'Nell's, but that hardly mattered. I picked out a coin and admired it for a second. Then I noticed a guard start toward me so I dropped it immediately. "How did you discover the theft?"
"We continuously inventory what we have in here. Absolutely necessary for our clients," and he pointed at the men hard at work at the tables. "First it was a few gold coins. Then several rings and small gems. Several items a month."
"And have they," I nodded at his help, "been questioned?"
"The Assassin's Guild has been most thorough in that respect. Both their members and my staff, but their attempts were fruitless."
I noticed the mark of the lash on the back of one of the clerks and nodded. The Guild was quite effective in their inquisitions. "Mind if I look around?"
"I'll come with you."
I shrugged as I wandered to the back of the room. I was, after all, a professional thief, so I understood his concern even if I didn't appreciate it. The cave itself did not stretch that deeply, and the back area ended at an imposing wall. "Is there another entrance?" I asked as I rapped on it.
"No, which is why I chose to build here. And that wall is quite solid."
"So it is." We continued our tour, interrupted only by the continuous click of metal on metal. I paused in front of one of the walls. There was a small hole, much smaller than my hand, carved into the rock. "What is this?"
"Air hole. For ventilation. The vault door is quite tight."
I bent down and looked into it, but I saw no light from the other end.
"It's cut at an angle," D'Nell answered my questioning look. "It goes down so rain won't enter. Just so you know, that wall is over ten feet thick."
"How often do you inventory?" I asked as we walked away.
"Nearly continuously. Anything that is not shipped out is confirmed at least twice a month."
"Is it possible the items were merely misplaced? There is so much here."
D'Nell stopped so abruptly I almost bumped into him. "Let me explain something to you," he said coldly. "I hired you because you are an expert in your field. I am an expert in mine. This may look haphazard to you, but I assure you it is not. I and my men know where everything is. Except, of course, what has been stolen."
I blushed. "Sorry. I think I've seen all I need in here."
D'Nell merely nodded. He was still angry when we reached the vault door. He knocked five quick raps. Someone on the other side knocked four times. He did the same and within seconds I heard a click and then the door swung open. It was shut and locked immediately after we left.
"Are there guards posted all night?" I asked as we made our way back through the warehouse.
"Inside the vault?"
"Not necessary. The vault is locked securely and the chamber is thoroughly checked each morning when we open. No one could hide in there all night and escape. The door cannot be opened from the inside. There is no other exit."
He was right about that. If there was no other entrance, then the thief surely had to come in through the guarded vault door. "I would like to be here in the morning when you open, if you don't mind. Maybe I'll see something you missed."
"Of course." All residual anger was gone from his voice. "Do you have any suggestions?"
"You could double or triple lock the door. But unless the Assassin's Guild is somehow involved, that's all I have for now."
He nodded, a bit disappointed. "If you'll excuse me, I have other work to do. You have free reign of my manor during your stay. You may talk with anyone you wish."
"Thank you. I think I will explore a bit. If I find anything, I'll let you know immediately."
With that he left me to my ruminations. Which were many. I walked outside and found some shade under a spreading tree. The loading area was still busy, and probably would remain so throughout the day. That would be the most obvious place for the thefts to take place. At least, that's where I would. But D'Nell insisted they occurred within the vault itself. And why just a few items, and at different times? That's what confused me the most. A master thief would have made one major heist and be gone. The thief had to be someone who worked for D'Nell, someone who was on his staff. Unless there was an impostor on the Assassin's contingent, I could discount them. They were as honor-bound by their Guild's rules as I was by mine. A clerk? They certainly had the opportunity, but they were also well-supervised. Perhaps there was more than one, working together. But even that didn't answer my final question: how?
Getting more frustrated by the minute, I decided to take a walk. It turned into a long one. I wanted to see the cliff for myself, and I was already sweating and hungry by the time I made my way around the front of the manor to the mountain proper. I soon satisfied myself that it was secure. Steep, high and wide; no one was going to get in from the top and none from the back. And I knew from the Guild report that there were no tunnels running anywhere under the manor.
So much for the obvious. I headed toward the stables but stopped when I met one of the guards. "How are you today?" I greeted him.
He frowned, unsure how to treat my civility. "Why do you ask?"
"Actually I have a lot to ask. Master D'Nell told you why I'm here?"
"We were informed." His hand never left the hilt of his sword.
"Have you been here since the thefts started?"
"No. Our contingent was only assigned in the last month."
"All of you?"
I could sympathize with his frustration. It was their duty, after all, to prevent such annoyances as thievery. "Have there been any thefts since your arrival?"
"Yes." He admitted it with utmost reluctance.
"How often are you rotated?"
"Every month. We have always done so. Master D'Nell has always insisted upon that."
"Thank you," and I left him to his solitary duty. D'Nell was wise to do that; even if a thief was posing as a Guild member, it would do him no good when sent elsewhere. Now I was convinced no one from that Guild was involved.
After I left the stables I was convinced no one there was, either. But at least I was assured my mount was being treated well. I gnawed on a fingernail as I walked back to the manor to eat something more filling. The more I considered, the more I was convinced that D'Nell's staff would have little or no opportunity to be involved. Only a small group were directly involved with the banking activities and they were closely watched.
The kitchen staff was more than willing to prepare me a light lunch, but I hardly noticed it as I ate. Right now I had no idea how the thefts were being done, let alone who. And I suspected D'Nell would have little patience waiting for an answer. And if he is unhappy, my Guild will be unhappy. I decided to avoid my employer the remainder of the evening. Perhaps I would learn something the following morning.
Which I did. I learned just what I expected: no one could hide in that vault all night and leave undetected. I was there when they opened the vault. I followed a team of naked guards, who lit the torches and thoroughly searched the chamber before allowing the also-naked clerks to enter. I even checked the back wall once again but I found absolutely nothing to suggest it wasn't solid and secure. I also endured a thorough search myself when I finally left. Again standard protocol, and I applauded D'Nell's attention to detail. So what detail was he missing?
Deciding I needed something to inspire me, I took walk in the woods behind the estate. There were gardeners about but I ignored them. I just wanted to find a quiet place to think, but an angry yet familiar voice caught my attention. I followed it to a clearing, where I found a number of pens filled with small animals and one frustrated young lady. "Good morning, Chorista. Is this your menagerie?"
She turned her attention from the caged rabbit and immediately favored me with a frown. I was beginning to believe it was her favorite and sole expression. "Oh, its you. What are you doing here? Why isn't there a guard with you?"
"Your father gave me free rein of the place, you know." I knelt down beside her. "We have a most perplexing problem to solve."
"The thefts?" She shook her brown tresses adorned heavily with jewels. "You will never find him."
"Really? You know I'm a thief myself."
"He told me," and she wrinkled her nose. "You can't be a very good one."
"And why do you say that?"
"Because you haven't found the thief yet!" Her voice was heavy with exasperation and contempt.
"In time." I turned my attention to the animals around her. "Are these all yours?"
"Of course. I catch them and train them."
"Really?" I poked my finger in the cage and stroked the nose of the rabbit. "What did you train this one to do?"
"You can't train rabbits, silly."
"So you mean, say, horses? Dogs?"
She laughed. "Yes. Horses and dogs."
"You caught all these?" There were nearly a dozen cages with various animals around us.
"Most. My father bought me the rest. He buys me about anything I ask for."
Memories of my own impoverished childhood arose unbidden. "Must be nice to have a father like him. Get you anything you want."
"He doesn't get me anything I want!" and her lower lip trembled in frustration.
I didn't want her angry at me, not with a doting father at her beck and call. "I'm sure there must be a reason."
"He's selfish! He can be a very selfish man."
It was time to change the subject. "So, Chorista, which one is your favorite?"
"Rosebud," she said with a touch of pride.
"Rosebud. Is that the rabbit's name?"
"Not the rabbit! This is Rosebud." She opened another cage and pulled out a ferret. It scampered up her arm and rested on her shoulder. Then it noticed me and chittered.
I held out my hand so it could sniff me. "Hello, Rosebud," I said softly and petted it. It grabbed my hand and gnawed lightly on my thumb, then jumped back and hid behind Chorista. Then it turned its attention to a bauble in her hair and began trying to unloosen it with its paws.
"Rosebud, stop that!" and she slowly but firmly pulled her pet off her shoulder. Then she glared at me anew. "You scared her!"
"Sorry, didn't mean to." I stared at the ferret, who stared just as openly back at me. "Well, you obviously have a lot to do here and so do I if I'm going to find that thief."
"You aren't smart enough."
"We'll see. Perhaps I'll see you at dinner tonight."
"In that case I'll eat in my room."
I laughed and left her to tend to her pets. I now had an idea and plans of my own, but they would have to wait until later that evening.
Dinner that evening became a strained affair almost immediately. D'Nell was expecting me to have some solution and Chorista was favoring me with a dark stare. I suspected she was not joining us under her own accord, but at least she was here. Still the meal was excellent and I prolonged my announcement so I could enjoy as much of it as I could. When she asked permission to leave, however, I knew I couldn't wait any longer. "You'll be happy to know, Master D'Nell, that I have taken care of your thievery problem."
"Really?" Somehow D'Nell managed to smile and frown at the same time. I noticed out of the corner of my eye that his daughter had returned to her seat. "Who was it? How?"
"I really don't want to say now," and I nodded at her. "It's a bit ...troubling. But you can be assured there will be no more thefts."
"That is most excellent news!"
"If it's true," Chorista added and snorted.
"It is. I just have one thing to do. Then I can leave tomorrow."
"Make sure he doesn't take anything, father. You know thieves can't be trusted."
He gave her a doting smile. "I am well aware of his talents, princess. You can go if you wish."
"Thank you." She gave her father a kiss on the cheek. She favored me with one more glare as she left. D'Nell leaned forward eagerly as soon as the door closed. "So, what is it? What do you have to tell me?"
"I suspect magic. But I have to confirm my suspicions."
"Magic?" He scratched his chin. "What type of magic?"
"I want to be sure first. But I've seen it before. I need your permission to do one thing."
"Of course. What is it?"
"I need to stay in the vault tonight."
I sat huddled over the single candle I allowed myself. It was cold in the cave, cold and damp and all the wealth inside failed to warm me. D'Nell had needed a lot of persuading. So had the Assassin's Guild. Outside the locked door they waited, eager, I was sure, to find me trying to steal something.
If I was wrong, of course, I would look like a complete incompetent. I just had to hope the person I suspected would find the challenge too enticing to avoid. So there I sat in the stillness, with only the slight hiss of the candle giving any sound.
There was no way to tell how long I waited except for the ever-shrinking candle. Then I thought I heard something. I held my breath and strained to listen. Yes, I definitely heard something. A scratching sound that echoed around the chamber so it could be coming from anywhere.
But I knew. I was seated at a table right across from the single air channel carved through the cavern. The scratching sound was getting louder, followed by an occasional titter. "Come on," I whispered. "Prove me right."
Another minute and a furry head popped out of the small vent, followed by an equally furry body. "Hello, Rosebud," I greeted the thief.
She recognized me. She allowed me to pull her from the inlet and curled up in my hands. There was a leather leash tied around her, but I let that be. Instead I placed her on the floor and stepped back. Satisfied, she immediately made her way to one of the shelves and quickly scaled it. Then it was on to one of the piles of gold coins. She grabbed one, put it in her mouth and started back down. Then I intercepted her. "Sorry. Take this one." She protested, but when I offered her a disk, one that contained a special message, she obediently seized it and started her journey back.
I could leave as well, but I wasn't ready to. Instead I sat in the near darkness, heavy with depression. On one hand I had to admire Chorista's cleverness. Training the ferret to steal small jewels and coins, one of the few animals that could negotiate the narrow air vent. Yet she had just about anything a person could want! How could I tell her father that his own daughter was stealing from him? A daughter whom he loved more than anything in the world.
Of course I couldn't. But I could make sure she didn't do it anymore. At least not this way. I went to the door and knocked the prearranged signal. I had one more task to complete.
"You say that will stop it?" D'Nell pointed at the metal grating I had placed over the ventilation channel. The one previously unguarded entrance to his vault.
"Yes. It will cancel the magic tethers that have been placed on the items."
"Are you sure?"
"I witnessed it last night. A jewel began to disappear, but I had a weaker charm with me. I was able to remove the spell. This larger charm can protect your entire vault."
Fortunately he didn't notice how transparent my explanation was. He had other concerns. "But who? Why does it have to be there? Is it strong enough?"
"'Who' could be anyone. You receive valuables from all over the world. Your clients receive valuables from others. I've seen magical tethers work in the past." That, at least, was the truth. "The magician can use it no matter how far away or how well-protected the object is. This charm will prevent that."
The charm was actually made earlier that morning by a smith in the nearby village. He had wondered about the design I had selected - a sleeping dragon, one similar to the sigil on my dagger - but was willing when a suitable payment was made. And it was necessary that the grate look like something more than just a grate.
He gazed at it once more. "Will it be strong enough? Does it need to be recharged or anything?"
"No. Just makes sure it stays there."
He stepped back, still suspicious. "How do I know you are telling the truth?"
I was losing patience. "You have a signed Guild contract. If something disappears again, it will be a simple matter to complain to them. You will get your fee back and I will be punished most severely. Is that proof enough?"
"Yes, I suppose it is." D'Nell led me from the vault. "Tell your Guild that I will wait a month to see if you are correct. If so, I will pay the fee then."
I could have argued but my heart wasn't in it. D'Nell had done enough business with us that he wouldn't try to cheat me. Unless he learned the truth. "I'll be leaving then. I'll inform my Guild of our arrangement."
"Excellent. Your horse is waiting for you." With that D'Nell returned his attention to the business around us. I started toward the stables.
I was deep in thought so she had to call my name three times before I turned. Chorista was standing by a tree with Rosebud on her shoulder. She beckoned me over, then held up the disk I had given Rosebud to deliver. "That was a cruel trick," she said as soon as I got within earshot.
"And yours was quite clever," I said in all honesty.
She allowed herself a smile. "Yes, wasn't it? I make a good thief, don't I?"
I decided to tell her the truth. "No, you don't. You're too impatient. If you had waited a week or so, I would have been gone and you could have continued. Probably for years since your father would have lost all confidence in my Guild. But I knew you couldn't resist the challenge I gave you last evening. I'm sorry, but you'll have to teach Rosebud a new trick."
Her eyes flared fire. "I hate you, Brendell. I just want you to remember that." Then she turned and stalked away.
I drove my horse harder than I needed to as I left D'Nell's estate. The Guild wouldn't complain about my arrangements because they would be paid. And I had completed another successful contract, putting me one step closer to my journeyman's card.
Chorista however. I shook my head. If she learned patience, could control her greed, she would make an excellent thief someday. Whether she was a member of the Guild or not.
Patrick Welch earned a BA and MA in English from Bowling Green State University. While in college he had stories appear in several university publications, Riverside Quarterly and Analog. After graduating he concentrated on writing articles and advertising for Toledo, Ohio markets until about four years ago. Since returning to short fiction, he has had more than 40 stories appear in such e-zines as Jackhammer, Eternity, Orphic Chronicle and The Haunted.
He currently has four e-books available; The Thirteenth Magician and The Body Shop from Dark Star Publications, and also Westchester Station and Before/Beyond (Dream Realm Award finalist) from Crossroads Publications. Another anthology, Brendell, Apprentice Thief, will be available at the end of the year.
Visit Patrick's web site.