I held my breath and willed myself still as a tree when I heard the clicking sound come from somewhere. It was faint but clear as glass, and for the thousandth time I reconsidered why I was here. But there was no going back, not now. I pressed myself against the wooden wall, trying to disappear into it as I heard the sound again. Then I heard a scratching noise followed by a muted squeak and I slowly relaxed. It had to be a mouse.
Not what my nerves needed this evening, not when I was breaking into the Thief’s Guild offices in Hannis Bay. Difficult enough climbing up to a third floor balcony and through a window, then creeping down the stairs while trusting the residents would remain asleep and unconcerned. Worrying about traps magical and mundane. Even a loose floorboard could be enough to ruin me. Slinking through an unfamiliar building at night with no light. Finally reaching the downstairs office. And now this.
Could it be a magical mouse, enhanced for sentry duty? I wondered inanely, then chuckled. Don?t be a fool Brendell. I strongly doubted the Guild would protect itself with magic, not when there were many more effective methods available. A contingent from the Assassin’s Guild would suffice ...and be more dependable. But I was counting on the Guild’s own reputation and confidence in its power; after all, who would dare steal from the Thief’s Guild?
They were going to find out. And it was all their fault for what they had done to
my family and me.
This had all started when I returned to Hannis Bay from my home in mistmourning to learn who had stolen from my father. It had to be a rogue thief, something my Guild would not tolerate.
The Guild Secretary proved me wrong. "It is a legitimate contract, Brendell," she had told me after I lodged my complaint. "We shall not interfere." Once I recovered from my shock, the rest of our meeting proceeded downhill at a rapid pace. I finally bid her leave and stomped out of her office. Later, over my campfire at my camp outside Hannis Bay, I stared at the flames. Only appropriate, since I saw my entire life being consumed by the fire. Throughout my career as an honored member of the Thief’s Guild, I had obeyed their rules ...most of the time anyway. I had been taken advantage of more than once during my apprenticeship, so like a puppy eager to do the bidding of its master. But I had done everything they asked, fulfilled every contract they had often foisted upon me, to reach my goal of journeyman.
Journeyman. All my time, effort and hopes summed up in one word, in one document I used to carry proudly. I now knew beyond any doubt my Guild status meant next to nothing.
Nothing. I sighed as my small fire continued to consume my dreams. Someone had taken a contract out on me. With the Guild’s blessing and approval. Someone had gone to my father’s home and stolen everything I had sent him, money meant to help him enjoy the last few years of his life. And one of the few things I had learned at the Thief’s Academy I still believed was this: you do not steal from a thief. Not without frightful retribution.
I tossed another limb on the fire and gnawed tastelessly on a haunch of hare. They had given me no recourse, I tried to reassure myself. And, for once, that was relatively easy. I had already broken Guild rules before. Now I planned to shatter them beyond recognition.
Soon I would go back to my father, help him get his home and affairs in order. Then I would complete my very personal contract on the Guild member who had taken a contract out one me. But first I had to learn who that was. Which meant a return trip to Hannis Bay, but this time at night when the Guild offices were closed.
So now here I was, breaking my code of honor by stealing from my own Guild. Still my caution was mixed with regret as I began to search the office. Nearly ten years ago I had left my family and Mistmourning to attend the Thief’s Academy. I had believed ? then ? in everything they had taught me about my chosen profession. We were committed to serving our clients and fulfilling our contracts. Upon graduation, we were to become honored members of the Thief’s Guild, following their rules and regulations religiously as we advanced the honor and stature of thievery. We would respect our membership and merit respect from them. If we were successful, we would move from apprentice to journeyman and, eventually, to the most valued of titles: Master Thief. I had been trained to embrace those ideals just as thoroughly as I had been trained in picking locks, counterfeiting documents and other items, creating disguises, breaking and entering, discovering and avoiding traps and pitfalls, reconnoitering and so much more. And I had eagerly believed all of it.
No longer. Not after what I had learned upon my return to Mistmourning and my lonely father. What I was doing ? what I had to do ? would surely result in my banishment from the Guild. Or worse. I withdrew my dagger and wedged the blade in the locked door on the desk, then paused. It was not too late. I had not been discovered. I could still escape and no one would ever know.
I shoved down, breaking the lock irreparably. The drawer slid open easily but I had no interest in its contents. But that action also unlocked the larger drawer on the side, the drawer which held all the contracts released and approved through the Hannis Bay office. One of those contracts, I was certain, had my name on it. And I had to know who had taken it out.
I did not want to risk a candle or spend any more time than necessary, so I removed all the files and dumped them into my satchel. Under different circumstances I would have arranged to replace the original with a counterfeit, or just read them here. Neither option was feasible. Since the robbery was obvious anyway, I left the office window open when I crawled out. I hope it doesn?t rain, I thought as I made my way down the empty street to where my horse was waiting. Then I changed my mind. They had already done nearly everything possible to ruin my life. If a storm damaged their precious furnishings, so much the better.
There would be no inn for me tonight. The Academy had always taught that one leaves as quickly as possible after a successful theft, especially an overt theft such as this. That was among a handful of lessons I considered valid in the real world of thievery. So I made my way out of Hannis Bay as quickly as possible to the hills and forest beyond ...and the camp I had already set up. Although I would not be staying there long, either. As soon as my mount was fed and the campfire lit, I sat down and began reading what I had stolen.
Most were routine contracts and I set those aside for later. I waded through a stack of contracts, invoices, standard bookkeeping records and so forth until I finally found what I was searching for.
As I stared numbly at it in the firelight, I felt my world crashing completely into some black abyss of hopelessness. A standard contract except with one noticeable difference: there was no name for either the employer or employee, just mine as the contract.
I shuddered as I set it aside. I had heard of open contracts of course, had even been involved with one during the last Thief’s Rally. But I had never seen one before. A typical contract held the name of the employer, the thief and the unwitting donor. Only a Master Thief could take out contracts on his or her volition, but even those had to be signed and filed.
An open contract could only be initiated by the Guild itself.
I tossed it into the fire and watched it burn, and with it my career as an honored member of the Thief’s Guild. They don?t want me, I realized. Perhaps they never had.
I continued to stare at the flames while I recalled the myriad of times the Guild had used me for their own purposes. Assigning me contracts that were considered impossible, such as stealing a ten-foot-tall statue. Forcing me to return to the Academy to assist a professor in maintaining his own standing in the Guild. Refusing to recognize me when I succeeded at winning the Rally. Finally granting me journeyman status only when I accomplished what two master thieves had not.
Why? That was what I longed to ask but would probably never receive an answer even if there was someone I could ask. Could it be because I had defied the Guilds and ensured that not all of the inventions by the mad genius Ensten would be buried and forgotten? I suspected not; indeed, the Assassin’s Guild would have already dispatched me if that bit of information were learned.
One thing was clear: my task had become a thousand times more difficult. I had expected to have one person with their hand raised against me, not the entire Guild. But it mattered little. If they were going to steal from me, then by the gods I was going to do the same to them.
So I started reading the other contracts. Each was typical, bearing the names of the employer and so forth. I committed each to memory as, one by one, I tossed them into the fire. When I finished with those, I threw in the remaining documents as well. If somehow the Guild did find me, I wanted nothing to suggest I had been involved. That would come later.
Only when all the papers had been reduced to ashes did I douse the campfire and scatter the remains. Then it was on my horse and a long ride through the night and early morning to my father’s home in Mistmourning.
"You have to leave so soon, Brendell?" My father spoke the words without reproach, only resignation.
I reached across the table and patted his hand. "Yes, I?m afraid so." In the darkness I could barely discern his features, but I was certain he was crying. He didn?t require light, having become nearly totally blind. "I have arranged for someone to help you. They will stop by each day and cook and clean for you."
"That isn?t necessary. You can?t afford that."
"Yes, I can." I could afford much more if it became necessary, but I wouldn?t tell him that. If the Thief’s Guild had not taken out a contract on me, the money I had sent my father would have been more than enough to keep him in comfort until the inevitable. But they had, and it was long gone. "You will keep the money where I told you, yes?"
"I have to contact Mesol, Kyra, Fenz and the others. Do you know where they are?" Those were my brothers and sisters and they had to be warned. Although the contract contained only my name, the Guild had already proven it would endanger my family.
"I believe so." He rose and made his trembling way to a small table. He opened a drawer and removed a small box, then brought it back to the table. "I don?t hear from them often," he said as he handed it to me. Again his voice held no recrimination.
I nodded slowly as I opened it. Several letters from my sisters, nothing from my brothers. Or me. We had all left Mistmourning for varying reasons and none of us had desired to return. But at least the letters mentioned the towns they lived in now. If I could get messages to my sisters, they might be able to pass the information along to my brothers. I wrote the town names on a scrap of paper and placed it in my satchel, then returned the box to the desk. "It would be best if I leave now."
"You can?t stay another day?"
I don?t dare. For both of us. "I have a very important appointment to keep. I must be in Banik’s Cove within the week."
He stood and offered his hand. "Come back when you can."
"Of course." If I can. I shook his hand, then hugged him. "Don?t trust any strangers. Any strangers." And I left him to his solitude and memories.