Vasco the Mouse muttered the words to himself over and over like a prayer as he fiddled with the grappling hook. “This is a bad idea.” He swung it back and forth on the rope. “This is a bad idea, this is a bad idea….”
“Then why are you doing it?” The question broke his reverie, cutting into his concentration. A hand bunched into a fist and his muscles contracted for the inevitable backslap such questions deserved. Then he remembered who was asking and forced himself to relax.
“For luck,” he said, pushing back the irritation. Suns and Spirits, he needed a drink. But then he would have another, and then someone would say something, and he’d wake up in alleyway covered in blood that would not likely be his…Stop! Focus! Think about the money.
“Yeah.” Vasco looked to the top of the wall, twenty feet above and tipped with rusty iron spikes. “It’s my best friend in this business. I say its a bad idea, maybe the Fates will hear me and take pity and make it a good idea. Always good to have the Fates on your side.”
“Heathen nonsense.” The reply was good-natured, though tinged with scorn. Again he forced back the urge to strike. Vasco glanced over his shoulder at the scoffing boy half-hidden in shadow. He glanced up at the sky, waiting for the lightening bolt to strike. When nothing happened he muttered a curse and turned back to his work.
“You’ll oblige me,” he said,” and keep your mouth shut.”
The boy Connec bowed mockingly.
“This is a bad idea.” Vasco swung the hook back and forth. “This is a bad idea. This is a bad idea. This…is…a…bad…idea!”
Up went the hook. He gave it a yank, felt a shiver as the points dug into the stone. A good firm foothold.
“Follow me,” he said. “Or stay down here and wait. I could use a good pair of eyes…”
“Not a chance,” Connec shot back. “I go with you, that was the deal.”
“This isn’t a job for a newborn…”
“This ain’t the first house I’ve busted…”
“This ain’t some rug dealers back office!” Vasco reddened. “They have guards in there with real weapons who’ll kill you dead. And if your brothers hears about this…”
“I’m going,” Connec said, an annoying whine in his voice. “Or I tell all the world Vasco the Mouse backs off his bets.”
Vasco bit back any number of curses boiling on the tip of his tongue. He turning about and climbed up, soft shoes digging into the pitted side of the wall. Years of wind and rain had left the underlying brickwork exposed. Plenty of spots for a foot to catch. Climbing up was like walking down a garden path. The iron spikes atop were old and rusted, just as expected. Years since anyone had given them a good polish and sharpening. He vaulted over the top and dropped down into the garden beyond, landing like a cat next to some flowering bush. Still he was, still as a stone, like a mouse in a room full of cats, waiting for that one quiet moment when all eyes were turned away and he could move…
“Bugger!” Connec dropped like a stop, landing on the bush and crushing it flat. He stood up, brushing twigs and picking thorns from his shirt. “Son of a whore…”
“Idiot!” Vasco yanked him down. “Shut up!”
They lay there in the dirt and grass, waiting for the shouts of alarm, the lights and lanterns and flashes from pistols or whistle of crossbows or barking guard dogs…nothing. The house on the other side of the garden remained dark and quiet. Heavy sleepers. The Fates were kind this night.
“Do that again,” Vasco whispered, “and I’ll cut your throat. Don’t matter who your brother is. Hear me?”
“Aye.” Connec nodded, red faced under the shadows.
They rose to their feet and crossed the garden. Someone had spent a lot of money creating a tangle of shrubbery, trees and whatnot to resemble an idealized forest glade from old myth. Stone nymphs of paradise peeked out from behind stunted trees covered in moss. A man with the legs of a deer pranced around a reflecting pool with a pair of stone pipes eternally at his lips. In the center was a statue of some woman on her knees, arms out and face open in a song, or a scream, hard to tell. Vasco didn’t have the knowledge to tell one way or another and wouldn’t have cared.
No moon tonight. He glanced up at the sky, saw the glittering of stars in the firmament and somewhat brighter lights moving against them, ships coming in from the Empyrean on a night descent. Foolish that. He knew a man who’d spent time as a sailor, told some hair-raising stories about landing in the dark. So long as they didn’t land on him though…he grinned at that.
They went up the back porch. A narrow door at one end, locked. Connec kept an eye out while Vasco went to work with his picks. Easy enough, he had it open in seconds. In they went, moving quietly through sleeping servants quarters. A few lamps guttered in their holders. One snapped and crackled from the cheap oil it burned. A line of closed doors on either side, snores and the shuffling of sheets faintly heard. One was slightly open. A quick glance inside showed an elderly fellow on his back, face set hard like granite, lower lip almost burying the upper. Occasional whimpering sounds suggesting a bad dream. One of the butlers.
A wooden stair circled upwards from the servants quarters, allowing them access to all floors without having to profane the eyes of their betters with their presence. The wooden steps creaked slightly under their weight and hands were on daggers with each step. Connec kept blessedly quiet, but his eyes were wide in the dark. Green as grass. Yet again Vasco cursed his bad luck with the dice and worse judgment under the drink. This was no place for a novice. Though the boy had skills, all they needed was some firm polishing…
Third floor, that’s what they told him. Third floor and towards the back. A plain wooden door met them at the top of the stairs. Vasco placed a hand against it, lifted the latch with the other and carefully pushed. His eyes caught the slight of fresh oil on the hinges and they opened on a whisper. A dark room on the other side, faintly lit by light coming in from the outside. He caught sight of an elegant rosewood table with an expensive clock sitting on it, ticking ever so faintly, four bejeweled arms marking time on the face, the numbers written in a script strange to him.
Eyes shifted rightwards, halted at the sight of the bed. A large, four-postered affair rammed up against the wall. He caught sight of two shapes lying on it. He glanced up, saw the elaborate frescoes painted on the ceiling. Satyrs, nymphs and various other creatures from mythology whose primary function seemed to be cavorting while looking ever so adorable. In the center was the image of The Summer King in all his glory, his long beard tumbling down and turning into the tangled mass of of vines from legend. Oil paintings hung on the walls, the light too dark to make out the details.
The master’s bedroom. No doubt the servants came up every morning, leaving breakfast for their employer, waking him to the smell of eggs and toast. Not a bad luxury, but a problem for the likes of Vasco. He looked back, placed a finger to his lips and a fierce look to his eye. Not a sound.
The door swung open. Out them went, feet sinking into the thick carpeting. From the other side the door was a section of wall that was indistinguishable from the rest when closed. They crept past the bed. An elderly fellow lay on the left, tubby, with a face like a hatchet. Blue blooded, one of the Forty Families, likely he could rattle off generation after generation of noble ancestors. Blood was like wine, they said, it grew richer with age. The woman beside him was younger by a handful of decades and lovely too look at, No telling how rich her blood might be. Connec couldn’t stop staring at her bare breasts.
Vasco dragged him out. The bedroom door opened out into a parlor, which in turn led them into a hallway. Vasco pressed an ear to the door and held up a hand. Footsteps outside, the slight clanking of metal. Shadows moved beneath it, and for a moment they heard a soft humming tune from the guards doing his rounds. He listened to the steps grow fainter, then out of hearing entirely. Open the door and look out in the hallway. Only three guards on patrol at night. Lord Beyoran was a stingy fellow. Two would be on the ground floor and by the sounds of it that third fellow was not exerting himself.
They went to the right, down the hallway and around a corner, coming to a halt before a heavy iron bound door. The strong room, and unlike the door downstairs it had a very large and formidable lock. Far too heavy for him to pick. He glanced back at Connec, jutted his chin down the hallway. “Keep an eye out,” he whispered.
Vasco reached under his vest and pulled out a large brass key, still shiny from the workshop. Part of the package along with a map of the house, a marked improvement from most of his jobs. Someone somewhere wanted something from the strongroom. They knew where it was and just needed someone with the stones to get it. From way Harlan was talking, Vasco was expecting…well, more. More of a challenge, though he wasn’t complaining. This was almost a walk in the park, though Connec’s presence did throw some stones in his path. Should have told the boy where to head in…but for those who walked the shady side there was no worse fate than to be a man who backed out on a bet. His word was shit after that.
Vasco slipped the key into the lock and turned. A series of clicks came from inside, then runes flared to life on the face of the door, forming a bright circle around a glowing eye. Vasco hissed as the hall was lit up. Connec biting his lip, eyes wide with horror. Surely someone saw that, only a matter of seconds before the guard came back…
Nothing. The rune light faded. The strongroom door swung open, the hinges creaking slightly from the weight.
“Keep an eye out,” Vasco muttered before going in, ducking his head under the low lintel. Little more than a closet in size, made narrower still by rows of shelves. Those on the right were stuffed with cloth bags that clinked of coins when touched. On the left were various boxes, bags and cases, every single one holding something of value. For a moment Vasco felt the urge to stuff every pocket with swag, filling his shirt until it bulged over his belt. An urge he quickly suppressed. The first lesson a good thief learned – don’t get greedy. Take what you came for and nothing else. The gallows and graveyards were full of men who ignored this rule, who spent so much time grabbing and getting that they didn’t see the guards coming up behind until the blades were at their throat. No, in and out, quiet as as the mouse he took his name from. No sign of his presence, with luck the mark wouldn’t even know he was robbed until weeks after the event…
There. Jammed up in the back behind a casket of jewels, a small velvet case, He flipped it open, fingers brushed along a round amulet the size of his thumb. He picked it up, looking at an opal teardrop faintly reflecting the light from the hall. Perfect.
“A good night’s work,” he muttered, slipping it under his shirt. Then he whirled about as a metallic clatter sounded behind him
Connec stood in the doorway, hand on one of the coin pouches. A stream of silver galmarks dribbled out, tinkling as they fell to the floor, sounding loud as temple bells under the circumstances. Connec stared at him like a mouse caught in lamplight.
Vasco grabbed the sack and yanked it closed, two final coins slipping free. Then he grabbed Connec’s throat, squeezing with rage-born strength. “Idiot!” he hissed.
“You’ll wake the house!”
“Just..just wanted something for myself…”
Vasco had something to say about what, what Connec could have and where he could stick it. But then he let go of the lad. Connec turned around, rubbing his neck, curses boiling on the top of his tongue dying as quickly as they rose.
A woman stood in the hall, naked but for the sheet clutched to her body. It was the concubine from Lord Beyoran’s bed. They stared at her. She looked back, shock visible on her face in the dim light.
Then she screamed. “AAHHH! THIEVES IN THE HOUSE!”
“Bugger all!” Connec grabbed at her and ended up holding an empty sheet. The woman ran naked down the hall, screaming for the guards, before ducking into another room and slamming the door shut behind her. Shouts came from the hall and from Lord Beyoran’s bedchamber. Flickering light appeared from around the corner along with the tramp of footsteps.
Vasco didn’t waste precious time knocking Connec to the ground, much as he wanted. He pulled a pistol from his pocket and ran down the hall, coming to a halt just before it turned to the left. He peered around the bend, the stepped out, aiming his gun at the guards coming the other way. The pistol barked, the guard jumping back as the ball smacked into the wall beside his head. Vasco turned away, dropping the spent piece to the floor and running past Connec.
“What..” he heard the boy say.
“Shut up and run!” His mind desperately remembered what it could of this place. Third floor, guards on the first two and likely summoned by all the noise. But the gunshot would slow them down, they would take care with someone armed, not knowing it was the only gun he had. But it might buy him a few seconds, time enough to get away. He’d broken into this place before, not to steal but to look around, marking the layout for a night like this…
Past his lordship’s bedroom and a turn to the right…there. He skidded to a halt before a small closet. He opened the door, even as more shouts came from behind. “What’s this?” came an enraged bellow. “Thieves in my house! I’ll see you at the Water Court! I’ll see you swing!” He heard the unmistakable snap of a crossbow, following by a puff of plaster as a bolt struck the wall close to his head.
Lord Beyoran stood in the hall, his nightshirt flapping about his knees and a spent hunting crossbow in his arms. He cursed his poor aim, jammed his bare foot into the stirrup of the weapon and pulled back the string, a second bolt clutched in one hand.
Vasco kicked the door open, shoving Connec inside and following after. He closed and locked it, feeling about in the dark, bumping into a ladder set against the opposite wall. “Follow me!”
“Where? Vasco, I can’t bloody see…”
Vasco went up the ladder, his head bumping up against a trapdoor. He slammed his hand against it, gritting his teeth at the pain that ran up his arm, even as someone slammed against the door below.
“Vasco!” Connec found the ladder and climbed up, his head bumping up against the older thief’s boot.
“Shut up Connec…”
“THUMP” The door shook again, accompanied by the cracking of wood.
“Vasco, they’re coming in…”
WILL…YOU…SHUT…UP!” Vasco snarled, punctuating each word with a blog against the trap door. On the last strike it popped up, cool night air flowing in. Vasco hauled himself up, fingers grabbing hold of red clay roof tiles that looked black in the night. A chimney rose up two feet to his left, which he grabbed for support as he climbed out. His feet skidded slightly as they stepped on the tile. The door opened near its peak, and rows of tiles angled down on either side.
“Wait…” Connec climbed as well, stepping on the roof and then falling his knee as he lot his foot. Vasco cursed and hauled him upright, even as the door below burst open.
“They’re on the roof!” someone shouted.
“Run!” Vasco shouted at Connec. He stumbled his way along the rooftop, trying to keep his balance along along its peak. Connec followed after, his passage marked by a stream of whines and curses. Vasco ignored this, keeping his head ahead. The Beyoran’s built an expansion to their house a few years ago, filling in a small garden on the eastern end. This wing now ran up to the wall surrounding their mansion and the roof overhung the street. Six feet of open air separated them from the next building over.
He halted at the edge of the roof. The street lay below, dark in the night. Across the gap was the side of the next house. He spotted an open window there, aim it right and he might grab it, then drop down to the small em tree growing beside. “We have to jump,” he said.
“What? Connec stared wide eyed at the gap. “Jump where?”
Vasco pointed towards the window and the tree.
“Are you touched? I’m not jumping that.”
“Then stay and be damned!” Vasco tensed his legs, planting his foot on the roof’s edge.
“Find another way, Vasco! It’s sure death. Vasco, wait…ack!” Connec gasped.
Vasco looked over. A crossbow bolt was embedded in the boys back. Behind them, Lord Beyoran’s head poked up from the hatch. “A hit!” he shouted, waving the spent crossbow.
Connec looked at Vasco. “Don’t tell my brother,” he said, pace pale with shock. Then he toppled off the roof.
More shouts from behind. “He’d on the roof,” came the lords voice. “After him, you dullards! They’re getting away!”
Vasco shoved off the edge of the roof, hurling himself into the open air, arms out. The breath was knocked from his body as he slammed into the wall across the way. An arm hooked through the window, fingers grabbing the sill and holding on for dear life. More shouts from the roof, he glimpsed figures moving carefully along. He twisted about, pushed away from the wall, got a face full of leaves and branches from the elm as he wrapped his arms around a trunk. He slid down, swinging his legs out and jumped away, his feet landing on the cobblestoned street.
He heard shouting above, but his focus was on the crumpled body lying ahead. Connec lay on his side, one leg twisted oddly beneath his body. Vasco rolled the body over, winced at the blank eyes staring into nothing, the blood trickling from the corner of the mouth.
This was a problem. Connec was a twit who forced his way onto this job after a dice game that went sideways the night before. No one would take the lad along as a second man on a job stealing cabbages from a market stall, let along a righteous lay like this…except Vasco had one too many and made the bet. Sixes and you come along. Three and you polish my boots… Sixes all the way and he cursed his luck ever since. Should have told the lad to take himself to Hell and be done with it, but no man would call Vasco the Mouse a cheat who wouldn’t honor a lost wager. Any many who did that couldn’t call himself a man, high born or low.
The boy had some skill, done a few second story jobs which eased the decision somewhat. Still was too green, a swot in need of cuffing…and had a Watch Captain as a brother.
This was a problem.
Voice from above brought back to the here and now. Beyoran’s men were raising holy hell up top. They’d head out into the streets to get him. The local Watch squad would be here like stink on a beggar’s turd. When one of the Forty Families had a break-in, it may as well have been an attack on the city walls for all the noise it brought. He couldn’t leave Connec here. Questions would be asked, and they would all lead back to him…
“Bugger all!” he snarled. Vasco picked up the body, heaving it over his shoulder and stumbled away. Half a dozen bruises and scrapes on his body from that jump and hauling this corpse wasn’t helping. He ran down the street and turned left down a narrow alley between two stately homes, the smell of stale water and dog piss assailing his nose. He emerged in another street, caught the sound of Watch whistles and tramping feet to his left and ran across to another alleyway, not looking back, not caring where he went so long as it was far away.
The alley ended at an intersection where three streets met. A rubbish cart was parked off to one side, heaped full of last night’s potato shavings and worse. A special service the city gave to the rich. Their servants would haul out the night’s trash and leave it in the carts. Come morning the city would haul it away, through the Gate of Lions and down the East Road towards the Speletrin Marsh five miles away, one more load to fill in the muck…
Good place as any. Vasco heaving the body into the cart. Ignoring the stench, he pulled down handfuls of filth, burying Connec beneath apple cores, broken shoes and nightsoil. The smell curdled his stomach. A pair of full sacks sat by the wheel, left by servants too lazy to dump them. He took hold and poured the contents over the body, Connec’s pale face disappearing underneath a stream of rich man’s rubbish. When it was done, the pile in the back of the cart was higher, and there was no sight of the boy.
Vasco tossed aside an empty sack. He sniffed his shirt and grimaced at the stink. He paused a moment, looking at the cart, wondering what words to say. Connec’s gods weren’t his own, and Vasco wasn’t one to pray all that much anyway.
The boy shouldn’t have come along.
“Stupid beggar,” he muttered turning away. “Serves you right.” He walked down a street without looking back. Come morning the cart would head to the marsh. It wouldn’t be the first body dumped there, and even if someone recognized Connec, there was nothing to link the corpse to a job at the Beyoran house in Nine Pillars. Nothing to link him to Vasco the Mouse.
The boy shouldn’t have come along. But he did, and now he was dead.
“Better you than me,” Vasco said into the night.
Dawn was barely an hour away. The night sky was lightening as Vasco reached the meeting place. He looked around the small square, a feeling of nervousness prickling his skin. The Spires…he hated this part of Galadorn. Haunt of Arcanists, alchemists and worse. Not to mention the students from the academies clustered along the narrow streets, who seemed more interested in drunken brawls than their studies. Good ground for pickpockets, and they were welcome to the earnings. Wise men stayed clear of those who worked the Aethyr.
He stood by a small fountain, washing his hands and arms, slapping handfuls of water on his neck. Vasco stank enough to drop a bull at ten paces. Not good. People would remember that. A thief stayed hidden, like a mouse in the night. He looked about at the buildings and their dark windows. Somewhere in the distance he heard a fiddle playing. Likely a tavern, open all night. He could use a drink, but not here. Head back to the Gardelaar with the nights earnings, hole up in his hidey. Then off to Keelarin and its pleasures. To Ronela and her soft thighs, her hot mouth and skilled tongue. To cold wine and warm flesh…
But only if he got paid. He looked about and saw no one. Dawn was coming and he didn’t want to be caught out here. A hand touched the amulet under his shirt.
“Sod it,” he muttered, turning away. The bastard didn’t want the goods? Fine, he knew a half-dozen fences who would pay good coin. Always have options, that was another lesson he learned early on…
“Vasco the Mouse.” The voiced called out across the square.
He turned about, saw the man standing there. Wearing a thick cloak, very dramatic like. Vasco’s lip curled. Another bloody amateur. “Never heard of him,” came the reply.
“Harlan sent me.” The man stepped forward. “He said to tell you, ‘the mouse squeaks twice.'”
Vasco frowned. “And the cat eats once,” he replied, giving the countersign.
“Do you have the item?”
“Do you have the coin?”
“Piss off!” Vasco turned to leave.
“Wait.” The man reached into his cloak, pulling out a cloth purse. He shook it twice, the unmistakable jingle of gold coins coming through.
Vasco nodded, taking out the amber piece and raising it up so the man could see. Then he set it down on the edge of the fountain and took a few steps back, placing a hand on the hilt of his dagger in a way that was visible.
The man came over, picked up the amulet and held it upwards, catching the gray dawn light slowly creeping over the horizon. He nodded once, slipping the amulet in a pocket and left the money in its place on the fountain’s edge.
“A pleasure,” he said, walking back to the shadows.
Vasco took the bag. all there, he could tell by the weight, the feel of gold coins through the thin cloth giving him sensuous pleasure. Two hundred gold aurins…a fortune by any measure. A common laborer would have to work ten years, day and night, to equal the wealth Vasco held in his palm.
He turned away, putting the money beneath his shirt, his mind already running over the glorious possibilities. Back to the Gardelaar for a well-earned sleep, and then to Keelarin and Ronela’s embraces. Cups of the finest wine, punctuated by hours of pleasure in the brothel’s silken sheets. The sight of the gold would bring a smile to face and open her thighs…he would have her a hundred different ways, a hundred different times, and when she couldn’t continue, maybe two more women…he had an eye on that red head, couldn’t remember her name…
Vasco’s hand clapped to the back of his neck as something stung there. He muttered a curse as whatever it was was crumbled under his palm. “Bloody biters,” he growled. Stinging insects, that would leave a welt. Might have to spent a copper on ointment, he didn’t want to go to his pleasures with a bad itch getting in the way. He picked up the pace, but his left leg refused to move. The knee quivered and then fell, and he kneeling in the street. Every muscle in his body seemed to relax, he tried to move but nothing responded.
He fell over. Blinking in confusion. What was happening? He needed to leave, there was money to spend, women waiting, he needed to go…where? He couldn’t remember, what was he doing here…what as his name? A strange tightness in his chest…I can’t breath screamed a voice in his head, somewhere far away…
A pair of boots appeared before his darkening vision. A hand rummaged about under his shirt, pulling out the bag of coin. “Waste not,” said a voice. “Suns and Spirits, you stink.”
The last words Vasco heard, before death claimed him…
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