Chapter 20: In Which Friends Unhappily Part Ways
She was first aware of coarse wooden beams stretching up to the peak of a sharp, pointed ceiling, and then, slowly, the rest of the space came gently into focus. She was in a room, a cramped, sparsely-furnished garret, and she lay on a thin mattress stuffed with a material that was sharp and rustled beneath her as she shifted. At the sound, a seated figure in the corner of her eye moved slightly—lifted a head?—and she heard the creak of a chair being pushed back.
The person stood and approached the bed. He spoke, said something, but although the voice was loud enough, she didn't quite catch the words. Everything echoed, trapped, in her ears, ringing while her mind resolved the face of the man now sitting at the edge of the bed with one she remembered. Then clarity came like a flash of lightning in a dark room, and instinctive reaction made Megan throw her arms around the thief's neck.
"You're all right!" she cried, squeezing tighter if only to feel the warmth of a human body after what had seemed like an endless night of phantoms. He was so warm and stable, and she'd thought- But he was alive. She hadn't gotten him killed. And the strange, cold mists that had hung over her, the ones that flickered with fire and screams she didn't quite recognize, were far away from this tiny, quiet room.
Maybe it was the tangy scent of brine and sweat, or the long strands of hair brushing her arm, or the sudden realization that he wasn't hugging her back, Megan jerked herself free of the embrace, mortified. If she hadn't been blushing before, Raife's incredulous face set the blood rushing up to the roots of her hair, and her face burned.
"Are you all right?" He seemed to mistrust his own voice as he spoke and stood, brushing his hands back over his hair. The formation of an uncertain smirk on his face softened the worst of her embarrassment, but not enough to keep her from pinning her stare at her blanketed feet. "I mean, I expected a thank you and everything, but…" He scoffed, and the smirk became more confident. "At least you've got some energy back. Now I won't have to carry you all over the city."
Megan bit her tongue and closed her eyes, willing the heat beneath her cheeks to subside. What had possessed her to hug him? What would Daphne say! Her head ached, and her left cheek itched. As the thief strolled to stand by the one window on the opposite side of the room, Megan raked her fingers over the faintly puckered line of skin running from her throat up to her temple. Her hand paused where her fingertips touched the knot of frizzed, burnt hair. She shivered.
"Where are Daphne and Otto?" she asked, the chill clutching at the base of her throat. She couldn't swallow, couldn't breathe. "Are they here? Are they all right?"
He leaned against the wall, arms crossed. Late afternoon sunlight brushed his face and neck with mellow luminance that seemed to soften his expression. It looked warm there in the sun. "They're fine. They went to find that friend of hers, the bar wench. Should be back soon."
Megan nodded, and the chill began to subside. But still she could hear the roaring of icy waves, the ringing of alarms, and Daphne's shriek in the night as glinting hammers swung down on them.
We should never have gone there, she thought, embarrassed suddenly to be near him, realizing how annoyed he must still be.
"Sorry," she croaked at length. "I should probably apologize for…for the mess we made at Northermeed…"
The light outside seemed to dim, as though passed over by a cloud, and the smirk faded with it. "Don't apologize to me, all right? You don't owe me anything. We're even."
"No, we're not even." There was so much she'd thought about saying, about apologizing for, and the thought that the idiot would get himself killed or worse-! That she'd get him killed before she could get the festering thoughts out of her head was too much. "We're not even close to even. We shouldn't even be keeping track, because we're not even playing the same game! You told us not to tag along after you, but when we heard about the Keeper-! And after all, it was our fault you even got tangled up with all this- and you didn't ask for it! You were right, we're holding you back and we're going to get you killed one of these days!"
The thief started to say something in retort, something snide—no doubt—pushed between his sneering lips, and he had a right, didn't he? After all they'd put him through? But she couldn't stop, not now that she'd started. It rushed out in a jumble of tripping, stupid words she could barely get off her tongue fast enough.
"We should have parted ways the moment you helped me rescue Basso—yes! Helped! I couldn't have done that alone, could I? You know what a wreck I was! And when I killed that guard—I would have had to, sooner or later, but it was only because you were there that I didn't mess up the whole rescue tweaking out over it!"
"Megan." The thief glared at her, grinding his teeth. How much could he possibly hate her by now?
It made her anxious, made her angry. "I yelled at you before because I- I didn't- I was scared of what would happen to us if you left, because let's face it, you're the only person with an skill we know who will even talk to us!
"And then there were the Keepers, who you knew would get us into trouble, and they did, and I should have listened to you, but you just make me so mad most of the time, looking down your nose at me, calling me a kid or a little girl or stupid—I am stupid here, but I'm smart enough to know it, thanks, and I don't need you to tell me-!"
A strangled word tried to escape him, but she cut it short.
"I'm not finished!" She was shaking all over, but for once she felt like she was saying all the right things. "You can say whatever you like to me later; you can curse me or mock me or sneer at me or laugh in my face—you've got every reason to hate me, and I don't blame you—but I need to say this, and I need to say it now, because otherwise who knows when I'll have the courage to say it again.
"When we got to Northermeed and the alarms were going, you know what my first thought was? I thought you were an idiot and set them off by doing something stupid—and I was angry at you for that—but, Raife, I'm just really glad you're not dead and that the Enforcers haven't killed you, and that we haven't killed you or gotten you killed yet, and you really probably should just-!"
It took only two swift strides for him to cross the floor, and when he caught her face in his hands, she knew he was going to break her neck.
Instead, he kissed her.
If she had ever imagined what his kiss would be like, she would have thought it would be rough and selfish, the way he was. Instead, it was so strangely soft, she found herself kissing him back before she even realized what she was doing. His jaw was like sandpaper under the palms of her hands, but the hair at the nape of his neck was smooth as silk thread. She couldn't breathe, but she could feel the warmth of his breath across her cheek. He held her head in his hands as tight as a vice, but when their teeth clicked against each other, he pulled back, breathless and flushed, staring at her with an enigmatic look she didn't understand.
Footsteps drawing near, in the hall. Voices: did she recognize them? The thief stood, swept his hands back over his hair, and went to slump in the chair at the desk.
She thought she could see his jaw twitching as he fidgeted with the knife belt at his hip, pulled it free, and lay it across the desk top. His hands moved in sharp, angled gestures as he snatched up a whetting stone, plucked one small dagger from its belt loop, and began swiping its blade across the stone. The knife's edge flashed in the strengthened sunlight.
I should say something, she thought suddenly, but she didn't know what to say, and judging from the whizzing zing of the knife across the stone, she wasn't sure he wanted to talk anyway.
The footsteps stopped outside the door, and the hinges squeaked as it was thrown open to admit a frazzled, huffing Daphne with Otto at her heels.
"She wasn't there!" she cried, then paused when Megan caught her eye. The frown that had crimped her friend's face immediately vanished, burst by surprise. "Meg! You're awake!"
Megan felt her fingertips brush the burnt hair at her temple again, though she didn't remember reaching up for it. "Yeah," she said, but it came out croaked until she cleared her voice. "I guess I've been out a while?"
"A while!" Daphne's face beamed as she dropped onto the bedside and threw her arms around Megan's neck. "Gosh, I thought you'd never wake up! Otto and Raife said the last potion would do it, but I- I just- I didn't know what to think!" Meg laughed as she choked in Daphne's death grip.
"You're going to knock her out again if you're not careful." Megan was violently aware of the thief's voice, but when she glanced over at him, he was absorbed in testing the sharpness of the dagger against his thumb.
He kissed me. She felt the blood rush to her face, from the base of her throat where her pulse raced like fleeing footsteps in the streets to the roots of her hair. Her lips tingled; she could still feel where his palms had pressed her cheeks.
"Sorry, sorry, sorry!" Daphne said, laughing as she pulled back, holding her at arm's length. "I'm just so glad you're okay!"
Megan nodded furiously, hoping the movement would shake the blush out of her face. "It's okay. Really. I'm glad you're okay, too!"
"And what about me, huh?" Otto had moved to stand just behind Daphne with his lanky arms crossed and a hesitant smirk on his face.
Megan grinned back. "I knew you'd be all right," she said. "I could tell by how fast those skinny legs of yours ran when those Hammerites were coming after us!"
She'd hoped it would make him laugh, or at least smile, but he only nodded with a frown, and glanced down at the floor, shifting where he stood. "I should have stayed to help," he said quietly.
The sudden memory hit her like a hammer: the rush of cold air, the feeling of sea mist on her face, the shrill echo of a scream in her ears, and then pain and fire racing up her skin, burning against her temple. She felt sick, and the bile rose in the back of her throat. The room spun.
"Are you okay?" Daphne's voice swam to her through the sound of crashing waves and a whining siren.
Megan swallowed, and it settled like a rock in her chest. "Yeah. Fine. Oh, Otto, I… I didn't mean…" He lifted his gaze to her. "There wasn't anything you could have done. And it wasn't your fault. We…we all made mistakes." Her voice sounded hollow to her.
Raife was watching her now, a knife and the whetting stone forgotten in his hands, though whether he watched with concern or with anger she couldn't quite be sure. The thought that it might be anger twisted something in her chest and made her frown. Or was it concern? It was hard to tell by the expression alone, and it was too focused for her to meet with more than a glance.
"What were you saying when you came in?" she asked Daphne, forcing herself to look back at her friend, her voice rasping in her throat. "Who wasn't where?"
"Oh!" Daphne blanched and frowned. "I'd completely forgotten. Sherry. We went to the meeting spot at noon today, but she wasn't there. She didn't come."
"She's probably just mad that you left her behind," the thief said from his remote corner. "Just wait until she shows up tonight after letting you worry about her for a while."
Megan shifted, looked at her blanketed feet. How can he sound so calm? So bored?
"Sherry wouldn't do that to me," Daphne said firmly. "I know her. She would never make me worry without good reason. Besides…" She turned her gaze back to Megan. "We went back to where we'd hidden Gus, but he was gone, too, and it didn't look like he'd just wandered off."
Otto hunched his shoulders and lowered his voice. "I'd bet every penny I have that the Hammerites found him, or found out about him. If that's the case, they would have had to take him somewhere, probably to Gormalt Cathedral. There are a couple of churches around this part of the city, but it's the biggest and the closest to that particular alley. It's probably where any Hammerite big-wig would be staying, and they'd probably take it to him to see what to do with it."
"And we think that's probably where Sherry is too," Daphne said.
Raife scoffed softly and stood, grabbing the threadbare cloak from the back of his chair. "And that's my cue," he said, nearly smirking as he threw the cloak over his shoulders. "Hate to step out on you like this, but there are a couple of townhouses calling my name, and I'd like to replenish my personal stores a bit before getting into any more life-threatening situations."
Daphne gave him a narrow glare, then sniffed and shrugged. "You're not tied to us or anything. Do as you like."
"I will." The thief frowned, took a hesitant step toward the door, paused there, and then said, "I expect you to be cleared out of here before I get back."
His voice was chill, and when Megan glanced up at him, he immediately turned away and left. The clunk of the door closing behind him nearly made her jump.
But he… Gritting her teeth, she forced the flicker of another blush away and pushed the thought from her head. He's probably kissed tons of girls that way. He probably does it all the time. He's handsome enough, who am I to think I'm so special? It made her angry, which was better, at least, than the confusion from before. I'm such an idiot, she thought, clenching the blankets in her fists. And he knows I'm an idiot now. He must have seen it all over my face. I'm so stupid!
Daphne was watching her, she realized, and with a cough, she nodded, shifted and swung her legs out from under the blankets. The floor was cold on her bare feet. "Well, let's go look for Sherry, then."
"Is something wrong?" Daphne asked, softly, and for a moment, Megan was afraid she'd been too obvious. But then Daphne added quickly, "I know you're probably not eager to go racing back to the Hammerites, and that's totally okay."
Good, she thought, she doesn't suspect a thing. At least only he and I know how dumb I am. The thought gave her little consolation.
"You don't have to go with us," Otto said. "It'll probably be easier with just me and Daphne. We can find someplace to lay low, and you can stay there while we-"
"No." Megan set her jaw. "I'm coming with you. If I sit around anymore, I'm just going to drive myself nuts…" She sighed. "But we're not going in there unarmed. I want some kind of knife, and maybe a few gas bombs, health potions, invisibility potions-"
"Hey!" Otto looked wounded. "I can make an invisibility glyph that is just as-" Daphne glared at him, and he rolled his head. "Okay—nearly as good as any potion you could buy."
"Yeah, I'm going with Meg on this one," Daphne said, scoffing, even as Otto squawked his indignation. "Sorry, but as I recall, your spell didn't necessarily cover clothes, and I am not popping into view naked in front of so much as a rat, let alone a troop of armed Hammerites!"
Otto sulked and hunched his shoulders. "If you did, they might not try to kill you."
Daphne and Meg shuddered in unison. "Yeah," Daphne said, distain dripping from her voice, "and I don't want to know what they'd do then, thanks very much! I'd rather deal with them trying to kill me."
The kid threw up his hands in mock defeat. "Fine! We'll get you some stupid potions, all right? Geez." He turned toward the door and pulled it open. "So, let's go, all ready! What are we waiting for?"
Daphne stood and gave Megan one last concerned frown. "Are you sure about this? No one would blame you if-"
"I'm sure," Megan said, though when she stood, her legs weren't quite as firm under her as she'd hoped they would be.
The furious shadow cut a cleft through the crowded streets as pedestrians hurried to get out of his way. They couldn't see more than the snarl beneath the deep cowl of his hood, but they could feel the searing glare of his eyes somewhere from the darkness within. The snap of his cloak made those around him shrink back, afraid that invisible daggers might suddenly prickle from the folds of dark cloth. When he passed, there was a collective, unconscious sigh of relief, and a moment later, a shared realization that the purses strapped to their belts had been liberated from them. But by that time, the thief was gone, vanished into other streets, and no one particularly wanted to test their luck with him, even if they could find him again.
If they had known more fully of his wrathful mood, they might have left town all together. The sunlight offended him, made him curse under his breath and seek out the darker streets. The cacophony of carts and callers, bartering, laughing, and shouting: the noise sizzled in his burning ears, made him grind his teeth until his jaw ached. The presence of so many bodies, so much crowded flesh, made his skin crawl and boiled away the last of his patience.
His own snide voice in his ear made him clamp his lips tight to keep from shouting back at it. You are such a damned fool, he thought. Shit! What were you thinking?
The thief turned down a less crowded alley, ducked into a shadowed doorway, and flung off his hood. He threw the knife he'd been twirling endlessly in his hand into boards of the wooden steps, where it landed with a thud and stuck, tip-down and shivering. He tore off his gloves; they slapped when he tossed them to the ground. Then he sat, and rubbed his hands over his cheeks and neck to erase the phantom touch of smooth hands, drew the back of his fist over his lips as if he could wipe the memory of the kiss away. Hands clenched in front of his face, he sat scowling at the few alley beggars who wandered past, deftly avoiding the overhang as if they knew he was there.
A kiss was nothing. Nothing. How many women had he kissed before? He scoffed and brushed a strand of hair from his brow. Hundreds, probably. No: thousands! Girls fell over themselves for him all the time. He was always popular in certain circles. He knew how to turn on the charm when he wanted to, knew how to play the game, how to make them blush and swoon and cling to him. And he was just as good at slipping away, disappearing, leaving them guessing. He'd become such a pro at it, there were some houses he didn't dare go back to for fear of the madam's wrath at his effortlessly dumping one of her girls. It had always been easy to walk away. Always. He gave a hard, thin grin at the now empty alley and scoffed.
But this had blindsided him, and he hadn't been prepared. He hadn't been thinking straight. He hadn't expected it to be so hard to stop kissing her, or that one kiss could set him that much on fire. Sure, it'd been a while since he'd been laid, but he'd never felt like this before…
No, that wasn't true. He had, once, but he'd been so young. He didn't know how a woman could sink her claws into him, tie strings around his wrists and make him dance for her like some damned puppet. Or twist his heart in his chest with just the flick of a hand.
It made his skin burn just to remember that overzealous, desperate, pining kid he'd been in those long-gone days, begging for the kiss of her bright red lips, for the gaze of her dark, smoldering eyes, for the thrill of her amused laughter, and the greedy touch of her hand. She must have been twice his age. Maybe more. But he'd been her lapdog, her little toy, and she'd known it well. The things he'd done for her… He'd grown used to the feel of crusted blood on his hands. She'd said she liked the taste of it on his skin.
It made him sick to remember, and sicker still to realize how close he'd just come to that uncomfortable territory again. He gritted his teeth.
Never. Again. This is it. If you didn't have reason enough to leave before, you have it now. You're done with them all. You've made an ass of yourself, and this is what you get. You want recreation? You know where to go. But as for her… As for them—you're done. I'm done.
With a sigh, he stood, picked up the knife and gloves, tugged the hood back over his head and stepped out into the sunlight. He felt weary to the bone, exhausted, and the unnaturally heavy weight of the Eye at his belt wasn't helping. But that was something he could work with.
It was a good thing he'd thought to memorize the drop-off location on the map Pawsberry had given him. The map itself had disappeared sometime between nearly getting his head pulverized by that damn robot and getting on the boat to Northermeed, but at what point he'd lost it, he couldn't be sure. Someone could have picked his pocket. It wasn't impossible.
He did not immediately head to the forest. He had grown much too comfortable with risk in the last few days, and this time, he was going to take no chances. If he appeared to Pawsberry at the designated spot with the Eye in hand, there would be no reason for them to let him live. The pagan monster they'd sent after him on Northermeed proved he was expendable to them, and he didn't like the position that left him in. No, to show up with the Eye in hand was suicide, and he'd had enough near-death experiences to satisfy himself for quite a while. Perhaps it was cowardly to worry, but if it was, he was not ashamed. Cowards lived if they could run fast enough. And the brave would die one day, no matter what danger they faced down and vanquished once upon a time. Death always wins; that's something the coward knows.
Not that I'm a coward, he thought to himself as he wove through the gradually thinning crowds.
The spot he had in mind was risky in its own right, particularly after Northermeed, but the chances were good that no Hammerites had actually gotten a good look at him. What with all the other crazy things to be killed by, he was really just a gnat; no one would remember a simple thief.
Even a dashing, fleet-footed one. Even if they did, and even if there was anyone left to realize that the Eye was missing, they certainly wouldn't think to look for it here. He grinned to himself and ducked into a notch of shadow across from the front gates of the old Mechanist seminary. The gates now bore the shining hammer of the Builder, but the place was little more than a patrolled shell, an unpleasant reminder to the traditionalists of a rather embarrassing moment in their sect. The lock on the gate looked relatively simple, but in the light of the afternoon sun, it would be hard to avoid suspicion if he was seen tinkering with it too much. He didn't exactly look like a devout believer.
There were other ways, of course.
He glanced up and down the street, watching the few milling beggars who gathered here for the thin Hammerite charity they could occasionally collect. One of them he knew from years ago, when he'd tried to take the straight and narrow for a few weeks before he realized it wasn't worth being penitent and starving over dishonest and well-fed. They'd been youths together, then, but the man he saw drifting this piece of street was ragged, bone-thin, and damned-near a walking corpse. He didn't exactly pity him; there were plenty of ways to get fed in this town, if you were willing to get your hands dirty. He'd never liked those who deliberately suffered for their righteousness; it made them proud and arrogant, even when they wore only shreds of clothing and stole scraps of bread from the rats. Filthy mongrels. He felt his lip curling as he watched the haggard man hobble past him, hollow-eyed and whispering penance.
He could see only one city guard from his hiding spot as well, but there were likely others. This part of town was known for its decayed elements and often had regular patrols to keep the more insidious business from sinking its roots in too deep. If only he could wait until nightfall, this would be as easy as picking a pocket in a crowded street. But he'd grown used to less than ideal circumstances.
A gangly, toothless old man sat on the cobblestones by the gate's entrance, chewing on his gums and speaking softly to himself as he rocked back and forth, lifting and lowering his gaze from the heavens to the streets at seemingly unpredictable intervals. The thief pried a fat little green gem from one of the purses he'd nicked on the way. It was a fine stone, intricately wrought with a family crest. Someone would be looking for this one eventually. As much as he hated to part with such a pretty, expensive thing, it'd be too much trouble to fence without cutting into tiny pieces, and that would invariably drop the value.
He turned the gem over in his hand and sighed at its fine craftsmanship. Someday he'd have gems with crests of his own. Hundreds of them. Thousands. Millions, even. What was one tiny gem now in the face of all that future wealth? It didn't make his fingers stop itching when he pushed up against the dark wall and threw the gem in a high arch toward the beggar. It struck just a little left of his head, which made the man cry out and wince away from the sound. But once it rolled to a stop just a few feet from him, the beggar opened one of his squinty eyes and crawled toward it, stooped, plucked it from the ground and turned it in his fingers. His wrinkled lips formed a delighted O.
The thief pulled another trinket, a silver necklace—the strings deftly cut while passing a young lady in finery, and caught with a nudge, a smile, and an apology as it slid from her throat—and tossed it out across the street. It hissed as it slid across the stones, drawing the beggar's eye. The old man clucked and twisted, still clinging to the gem as he came upon the necklace.
A gold ring, a handful of silver coins, and a few more gems of various size and shape sprinkled the sidewalk with a few quick tosses. The beggar was chortling, clucking, laughing to himself as he gathered up the goods in his dirty, boney hands. The thief crouched and waited as the city guard patrol drew nearer, and just before they passed in front of the beggar, he rolled a well-timed gold medallion into the street. It came to a quiet, clinking stop half-way to the beggar, who immediately saw it and lunged for it, right into the feet of the approaching guard. There was a shout, a clatter of a helmet and a scabbard striking the cobblestones, the scrabble of bare feet and long fingernails, and the inevitable cascade of pretty noises caused by the sudden spilling of the beggar's stash.
The prostrate city guard's cursing brought out the others of his squad from their hidden posts, and soon a small cluster of them had gathered around the beggar and their comrade. This, as the thief watched, was when they noticed the charming goods the beggar clutched.
"Oh, ho! What's all this then?" A mustachioed guard stooped to snatch up one of the crested gems. "Where'd you get a thing like this?"
The beggar, either incapable or unwilling to speak, squawked instead and tried to snatch the gem back. That did not go over well. Another guard, a man with a craggy face and sleepy eyes, caught the beggar by the scruff of his neck and shoved him back, while the moustache guard caught up a few more gems and the ring from the stones. The thief settled himself into his pocket of shadow and watched with growing amusement.
"Awful big haul you've got yourself today," the moustache said, his discolored teeth grinning beneath the fringe of brown hair.
The guard who had fallen, now on his feet once again, nudged the crouching beggar with his foot and took up the wooden begging bowl, emptying it onto the ground. The silver necklace fell out, and the guards crowed at the find. The beggar's face fell and he whimpered as he tried to get his hands on his stash again, only to have a hard heel come down on it, making him yelp and pull back.
"Well, just look at that!"
"Mighty fine jewelry for a dirty taffer like you," mustache said, his voice dripping with mockery. "Do you always wear it with those scabby pants of yours?"
"He'd have to do something for the ladies. He smells like a pig!" The previously-fallen guard laughed and kicked the begging bowl across the street. It struck the wall not far from Raife's hiding spot, which made him less amused.
"Come on, now! Come on!" The droopy-eyed guard grabbed the beggar under his boney arm and hauled him to his unstable feet. "Where'd you get all this lovely stuff, aye? Haven't been in Stonemarket lately, have yeh? Because, funny thing, that there necklace looks an awful lot like one we got a report on not too long ago, aye? How'd you come by it?"
The beggar chewed his gums, wrung his hands, stammered, drooled.
"Yeah? You're quite the talker, aren't you?" The moustache grabbed the old man by the shirt collar and shook him. The beggar clutched onto his arm and leaned as he struggled to stay on his feet. "Hey now! You let go!"
But the beggar was sinking to his knees, and his babbling had grown to a height of panic, which wasn't helping his case much. The once-fallen guard kicked him, which made him shout and cling tighter, which made the mustache angrier.
"Oh, you want a piece of me, aye?" the moustache shouted, readying an arm to swing at the poor beggar.
The thief sighed, took a small gem, and hurled it as hard as he could at the guard's head. It struck the man in the cheek, just above the right curl of his moustache, and it hit with quite an effect. The guard howled and let go of the beggar to clap a hand to his cheek, and the beggar took that moment to bolt for it. He was a speedy little devil of a man on all fours, loping into the back alleys, while the guards gave chase, leaving the courtyard temporarily deserted.
Raife stepped from the shadows with a cautious glance around him, and, satisfied that he was alone and unobserved, moved quickly to the old seminary door. Sure enough, with a few careful twists, the lock clicked open and fell away. The thief entered with care, leaving the door slightly ajar behind him in case he needed a quick retreat. But as he moved into the shadowed overhang and stepped off the metal grating onto the dead, brown grass, he doubted a retreat would be needed. Most of the large windows were shattered or punctured with holes from bricks and other projectiles; the grounds were in poor shape and overgrown; and the front doors were heavily chained, though the links were rusting.
Still, he took care, not wanting to find himself face to face with a bored and overzealous Hammerite who would more than enjoy catching an intruder to fill his time. He wound his way along the walls, keeping close to any shadows he could find. The further he went, however, the less likely it became that anyone, even a single Hammerite acolyte, was anywhere nearby.
He was just beginning to feel a bit bored himself when he turned a corner and found a gold cherub face with a single blue eye glaring at him. The yelp he made was not entirely brave, nor entirely manly, nor was the panicked backward leap that brought him out of sight and—he hoped—out of range. But after a moment in which the only sound was the thundering of his heart in his ribcage, he dared himself to peak around the corner again. The giant, rusted robot had not moved, and no steam trickled from the pipes on its back. Grass had grown up around its motionless feet, and the vines from the wall had ensnared one of its claw arms.
Still… That eye had lost no luminance, no crack obscured it, no dust coated it. The thief waved a quick hand in front of its face, but it did not make a sound and stayed hunkered down on itself at perpetual rest. With a sigh that came out more like a laugh, Raife circled around it to the back, saw its domed furnace cold and empty, though a thick, soft blanket of ashes remained inside.
The idea struck him, and the aesthetic of the circumstance made him grin as he plucked the Eye's pouch from his side, pried open the furnace grate, and made a deep divot in the ashes. The little pouch fit perfectly, and when it was covered, the layer of ash looked just as it had when he'd found it.
Now that's what I call I hiding place! The thief couldn't help but chuckle at his own genius as he set the grate back in place and brushed the ash from his gloves, his clothes, his cloak. I dare any Pagan to come looking for it here.
With the Eye carefully hidden, he slipped out of the seminary and replaced the lock just as it had been. Then he headed back into the streets.
Keeper Cyrus knew his methods weren't always approved of by the Keeper Council, but that hardly meant they weren't effective. If he'd his way, which Keeper Artemus rarely allowed, there was no doubt in his mind that this whole mess with Pagan and Hammerite prophecies would have been cleared up days ago. But no: Aretmus had an excess of patience for undesirable contacts, and even though the girls had assaulted him and left him for dead, kidnapped an acolyte, and run off to stop the enforcers who had been rightly dispatched to deal with their Keeper-murdering companion, even then, he had plead with the Council to repeal the death warrant and persuaded them toward clemency.
Cyrus had no respect for men of that nature. He imagined them weak and simpering, too absorbed in the meaning of things than in the way things actually presented themselves. Cyrus himself had been no shirk when it came to book study. His mind was like a steel trap: once he read something, he never forgot it. He could recite all of the primary Glyphs backwards at any moment; he could list every Glyph which made use of the Key stroke or the Knowledge radical. It was only his unrelenting dedication to facts that made the Council repeatedly pass over him for appointments in favor of those who shared their inane fascination with the deeper shadows of events and prophecies.
He had too good a memory to forget even the slightest insult, and as he slipped unnoticed through the city streets and into the shadows of Gormalt Cathedral, he burned as he thought of the latest reprimand from the Council, driven—no doubt—by Aretmus' pleas.
Have patience, his own voice whined the words in his mind. Always patience. Patience is the way of the Keepers. Withdraw the enforcers and let the girls alone. They will return to us. We are the ones best equipped to help them. Cyrus clenched his fists at his side and stepped into an alcove across from the Cathedral's front doors. There were days when he thought he would have been better suited as a Hammerite zealot, save for the fact that he found the scriptures and teachings dull, and had no tolerance for those devoid of the passion for intellectual growth.
Well, he had done what was asked, though he had refused to give up entirely. The Keeper-murdering thief knew something. Of that, he was absolutely certain. And he had little doubt that wherever the thief was, the girls would also be, sooner or later. So he had left a handful enforcers on the man's tail, if only to follow and observe. The thief, of course, would never know. Unlike the fool Pathnar who had misjudged the thief's inclination toward violence, the enforcers were armed and far more astute at tracking. And if something occurred which required them to kill him, so be it. There were rules about killing Keepers, no matter what the Council decided to turn a blind eye on. Either way, he'd find out what the thief knew and locate the girls again. What he would do once he found them, he wasn't sure, but he had to remind himself of his scolding: Patience. He had plenty of time to determine what was necessary. No one had seen the girls since they'd left the mainland, and as yet, he'd heard no report from the enforcer who'd followed them. No news was not necessarily bad news, he knew, particularly when it came to enforcers.
Besides, he had his own work to focus on for the time being. Rumors had been circulating that the Hammerites were being visited by a messenger of the Builder: a strange youth with knowledge of the city's events far beyond his years. They called him "The Hammer," and there were rumors, too, that this youth was preparing them for a great battle against the Pagans. But what interested Cyrus was not rumors and gossip from the lips of irritable zealots, but that the youth had supposedly appeared at just the same time as the young man the Keepers had found half-dead in the streets. At the same time as the two girls. That would make four, the number Aretmus speculated would have been needed for the Pagan ritual, if the ritual indeed drew from external life forces previously unknown to even the Keepers. Far-fetched, perhaps, but Cyrus was nothing if not dedicated to exposing every possible path of logic.
The courtyard before the Cathedral was quiet in the late afternoon, and the sun heated his dark cloak as Cyrus passed quietly to the nearest wall of the structure, unnoticed by even the few milling citizens walking past. There, on the warm stone, he drew a precise glyph; and when the wall faded, he slipped inside.
There were many ways to access the dense forests surrounding the city, but the shortest was through the Pavelock prison cemetery. Here, there were no guards to patrol the inmates.
The thief dropped unnoticed over the stone wall separating the cemetery from the streets. In the dimming light, it was almost quiet here. He might have thought it peaceful if he weren't so aware that beneath his feet were the permanent holding cells for the prisoners who had not been so lucky as himself.
Lucky, so far.
Some of the graves had markers with a name scratched into the white wood; some were naked, marked only by a vague indentation in the overgrown weeds. The long, dried-out grass stalks snagged on his cloak, left little seedpod gifts in its folds. His footsteps crunched as he walked, save for the one time he walked across a fresh grave and felt an involuntary shiver when the soil sank beneath him. The name wasn't one he recognized, but he alleviated the chill by placing a silver coin on the new marker, so fresh the white paint stuck to the fingertips of his glove. He had enough enemies already; he didn't need the dead holding any grudges.
No one tended these, the final resting places of the city's unwanted, though the thief was surprised as he passed through to find a few clusters of wilted wildflowers bundled and placed with seeming care beside some of the faded stakes. He paused at one bundle, freshly picked by the look of the blooms, and glanced across the broad yard, but there was no one but himself anywhere to be seen. It made him feel suddenly conspicuous, and as he continued, he hunched a little lower and hurried his step toward the shadowed tree line.
Compared to the graveyard, however, the woods provided little atmospheric improvement. The moment he stepped beneath the dense canopy, the light faded to a grim dusk, and the noise of the city vanished beneath the damp silence pierced with angry bird cries and the distant hum of insects. If he'd closed his eyes, he could have been a thousand miles from civilization, but he didn't dare to lower his guard even for a moment.
The drop-off location was some distance in, which he didn't like. It meant he was in their territory, and home advantage was theirs. The dense canopy of leaves overhead stirred in a breeze he couldn't feel, whispered things that sounded a little too close to words for his comfort. In the distance—or at least, he hoped it was distant—he heard something that sounded like the crash of a tree falling, and a low moan. It made his skin prickle, and he pulled his thin cloak around his shoulders, tugged the hood further over his face, as though the cloth alone could hide him from whatever myriad eyes watched him from the forest.
There were no clear-cut paths, no easy way to keep himself on track. Every so often, he paused to gouge an arrow sign into the tree bark, pointing his way forward, but that would only assure him a path back out, not that he was heading in the right direction.
Pagans gave him the creeps. Again, he started to loathe his eagerness to take up a mission even the Master Thief wouldn't take. Had he been mad? Distracted, maybe. He frowned.
It was just as he began to seriously consider turning back, to wait until full daylight to return, when he stepped out of the low brush into a broad, grassy clearing. Overhead, the canopy parted, showing him a piece of glittering dark blue sky filled with emerging stars. The air was cold; he could feel the breeze now, sharp against him. Or at least, he thought it was the breeze until he felt the knives press closer—two at his throat and one at his back—and he heard a familiar voice whisper, "You didn't follow instructions."
The thief stood very still, but out of the corner of his eye he could see Pawsberry standing there, his face twisted in a scowl. "And you," he growled, "sent a beast after me. I'd say both sides of our agreement were breached." The knife edge under his jaw sank a little deeper, and he felt it break the skin. He swallowed. "But I got your damned Eye just the same. No thanks to you."
"Where bes it?" the pagan on his left, unknown, hissed.
"I figured you folks might be mad, and not really want to hear my side, so I hid it. I'm the only one who knows where it is, so kill me if you like, but you'll never find it without me."
At first, the knives pushed closer, but then a woman's cold voice said from the edge of the woods in front of him, "You're very clever, thief, but you lie." A figure emerged, not from the line of trees, as he'd expected, but in a writhing coil of roots and vines which rose from the ground to form a woman, a woman with long dark coils of hair trailing over her shoulders.
He gritted his teeth to fight back the urge to run, but the knives withdrew a little at the flick of the woman's hand.
She smiled at him, her green lips parting to bear inhumanly sharp teeth, as she approached to stand before him. He could definitely feel the cold breeze now. It stirred her hair as though it were a nest of snakes and stole the breath from his lungs. Her green eyes seared him with their gaze.
A coarse, bark-like hand took his jaw between her fingers. A tiny leaf sprouted from the tip of her thumb and brushed against his throat. "You say we sent a monster after you. But we have done no such thing."
He used a too-confident scoff to clear his throat so he could speak. "Well, whatever it was used a lot of vines and thorns to do its dirty work, so naturally, I assumed. It nearly killed me, too."
"It, you say." The woman's smile tightened. "Do you mean she, by any chance?"
The grip on his chin tightened, then nodded his head for him.
"Yes," the woodsy woman hissed softly, the smile growing so broad it spread much too far across her cheeks. "Then she hasn't left the city. Would you be able to recognize her again, my dear thief? She will not always be so…frightening as to be called a monster. I am not a monster, am I?"
Again, she shook his head for him, and he clamped his jaw tight to keep the growing panic in his chest at bay. She snickered then, and released him, though she did not step any further away.
"You will bring us to where you hid the Eye, and we will pay you what we promised and let you go," she said. "You need not fear for your life, thief. The information you've provided is very useful to me. But before I release you, tell me: do you know two girls, one a stranger here, the other a barmaid? You'd know the first if you saw her; she's young, sweet, but she knows more than she should if she truly is just a youth. She is not from here, nor anywhere in our comprehension."
Raife felt his stomach turn. Whose face had he first seen after the vine creature nearly killed him? Whose voice had he heard, really, when the multi-toned shriek called his name?
Daphne? He swallowed, and the woman of the woods pressed her lips together, pleased.
"You have," she whispered. "You know of whom I speak."
"No, I-" He shook his head, but that only made the woman laugh. It was low and high at the same time, a strangely echoing laugh that seemed to come from everywhere at once—everywhere besides her throat.
"Don't lie to me, my dear thief," she said. "There are so many ways for a fleshy body to die, and we have already agreed to keep you in good health. I would hate to break that promise, in the end, because you tried to trick me."
A strong hand on his arm made him turn, see Pawsberry watching him closely, knife still drawn but at his side.
"You will take Pawsberry and Lockleaf to where you hid the Eye," the woman said. "And then, when you have finished, do give your friend a little message from me." A folded parchment formed in her hand, and this, she passed to him, pressing his fingers tightly around it. "Then we shall leave you to your business. If you ignore this request…" Her smile returned, and her eyes narrowed to slits of black. "…you will not enjoy what will be left of your short, miserable life."