Teenagers sneaking out of their houses at night were a cliché so ancient the trope was well-represented not only in the modern chapbooks Theasia had been able to sneak, but in the staid old bardic sagas her mother approved for her. She had always rather resented those fictional kids their freedom. As it turned out, sneaking out of a palace secured by a sizable army, a corps of sorcerers, and an invisible network of spies leavened among the very servants was slightly less of a prospect for a teenage girl than tunneling out of a prison using a spoon. She had given up on it by age sixteen, when she had never once made it to the outer walls, let alone past them, and the repercussions of getting caught had started to eat significantly into her already scant freedoms.
Amazing how much easier it was when she was abetted by Imperial Intelligence itself.
“Oh, your Highness, I really think this is a bad idea,” Asfaneh fretted even as the carriage emerged from the courtyard into the street running alongside the Palace, totally unchallenged. “Please, can’t we go back? This is extraordinarily dangerous, how can it possibly be worth it?”
“I appreciate you coming with me, Asfaneh,” she said with a kind smile. Her mother had taught her not only the smile, which was as carefully constructed as a suspension bridge, but the trick of “addressing” the concerns of subordinates by politely failing to address them. Truthfully, she didn’t much like Lady Asfaneh Sakhavenid, but it was only because of the woman’s personality; she had no moral objection to her and no cause to complain of her service. Quite the contrary.
An Imperial Princess obviously needed ladies-in-waiting, a need which was complicated by Theasia’s medical condition. She had to be accompanied by nurses whenever possible, without letting it be known that she was. Her parents had found a solution by carefully fostering a few insignificant noble families like House Sakhavenid, which (like House Tirasian until very recently) only barely qualified as nobility and were treated with disdain by wealthier and more influential Houses. It was useful for many reasons to have a core of smaller Houses scattered around the Empire who were both grateful to House Tirasian and aware that the rug could be yanked out from under them if they displeased; just one of the benefits was the supply of noble daughters who could be trained in medicine and sworn to secrecy. The prospect that fidelity to the Tirasians might provide access to the capital and the Palace for their youngest generation could then be dangled in front of more recalcitrant Houses as well. Not that any of those would ever have a member placed close to the Princess, but as her father had explained to her, a political action should serve multiple purposes, or not bothered with.
Asfaneh was an Izarite priestess of low rank and ability, but a competent nurse with an encyclopedic knowledge of the various medicines, alchemical and mundane, which Theasia’s condition might require, and what symptoms called for the application of each. She was also a feather-headed puff of fluff who sighed at handsome boys, obsessively read execrable poetry, and generally behaved like the worst stereotype of an Izarite—but she was also the only one of Theasia’s attendants who had gone so far as to intercede with the Empress to argue that Theasia needed more freedom more than she needed coddling. In the face of that loyalty, Theasia was very careful never to let slip how much Asfaneh’s personality annoyed her, and took pains to see to it she was well-rewarded for her service. In fact, she felt rather guilty about involving the poor woman in this escapade, but she had not been willing to risk this without the accompaniment of one of her nurses, and the nature of the adventure required the one she trusted most.
Now, the tightening of Asfaneh’s mouth indicated that she had noticed Theasia’s little trick and didn’t appreciate it, but she looked mutely out the carriage window instead of arguing. Theasia continued to smile blandly, despite her nervousness which she felt like an electric charge buzzing in her limbs.
All this had been carefully arranged. It was practically scripted; if all went well, she would have accomplished everything she set out to and be back in her bed before her parents ever marked her absence. But so much could go wrong…
She looked down at her hands folded in her lap, watching the shifting light of passing street lamps gleam upon the jewelry there where it managed to penetrate the curtains. It was a more florid piece than she favored, a construct of jeweled rings connected by loops of worked gold and stretches of twisted golden chain, all linked to a sizable sapphire in a golden setting sewed right into her fingerless satin gloves at the back of each hand. More dangling chains tied each jewel to lavish bracelets, and the rest was thankfully hidden by the wide, lacy sleeves currently in vogue. In fact, those wires twined all the way up her arms and around her upper body, where they were linked to less extravagantly designed crystal settings hidden beneath her dress. Having this thing made had been the main reason for the delay, and even so it had been very rapid work for a jeweler; Shavayad’s man in the city clearly was accustomed to strange projects and discreet orders. It was impressive enough that he had re-worked Araani’s cumbersome gauntlet into this, let alone so swiftly.
Two weeks after their conversation in the Araanis’ basement, everything had finally been arranged. Now came what the spymaster had called “the fun part.”
Theasia had firmly steeled herself against reacting to that statement.
“What unusual pieces, your Highness,” Asfaneh commented, having noticed the direction of Theasia’s gaze. “I never saw you wear those before. In fact… I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything quite like that.”
“Exotic, aren’t they? It’s a Sheng design,” the Princess lied with her bland smile firmly in place. “To be quite honest, I don’t think it is to my taste, but I find myself curious whether I can spark a fashion. How many times do you think I need be seen in public wearing these before all the ladies in Tiraas absolutely must have a set?”
Asfaneh pursed her lips for a moment. “Your Highness, I don’t wish to overstep,” she said with the hesitant condescension of someone who intended to widely overstep, “but I’m growing more and more concerned about you with everything I learn tonight. The jewelry is one thing, but…sneaking out to a party? These diversions are growing dangerous, and you mustn’t let them become a pattern. Believe me, your Highness, I understand about wanting to test boundaries! I was your age once, after all.” She was exactly two years older than Theasia, still not old enough to legally work as a secretary in a government office. She’d been younger than Theasia was now when they had met. “But one must be mindful of consequences! The damage to your reputation is the least of what could go wrong with an…an adventure like this. Princess, please take no offense, but you have been very sheltered and I begin to wonder if you’re truly aware of the concept of danger.”
This was one of those times when Lady Asfaneh’s proven track record of devoted loyalty was all that stood between her and a slapping. On average Theasia smiled through at least one such event a day.
“I’m aware of more than you realize, Asfaneh,” she said pleasantly. “As always, I appreciate your willingness to accompany me despite your own misgivings.”
“I wish you would stop doing that,” the lady said with overt annoyance for the first time in their relationship, and Theasia blinked. Now, how to go about encouraging more of that? She found it both more likable and more worthy of respect than all her years of simpering.
The carriage rocked slightly as if something had impacted it, then came to a stop, one of the horses whickering in confusion.
“What’s happening?” Asfaneh asked in alarm. “Why are we stopping? This is the middle of nowhere!”
This was close to the center of Tiraas, barely four blocks from the Palace itself, the absolute minimum distance they had to travel to reach a spot where there would be nobody on the street even in the middle of the night.
The carriage door abruptly opened and a man in a ragged black coat stepped swiftly inside. “Good evening, ladies!”
Asfaneh screamed and scrabbled away from him—but rather than retreating to a corner, she stumbled awkwardly across the space to plant herself in front of (and half on top of) Theasia. “Get out! Get out!”
She went silent when he raised a wand, a thick shaft of wood as long as his forearm, deeply engraved with enchanting symbols along its length and with a softly glowing power crystal protruding from its angled handle. Theasia noted it was a newer model with no charging lever attached to its clicker mechanism, meaning it could be fired as fast and as frequently as its wielder desired, at least until it overheated. The man did not point it at them, at least, but its presence was a firm enough message.
“I apologize for this interruption,” he said, grinning, his gravelly voice suiting his scruffy attire and thick stubble perfectly. “I’m afraid you’ll be late to your party. But don’t you worry, ladies, this evening should be plenty diverting.”
“Do you have any idea who—”
“Course we do,” a woman interrupted Asfaneh, climbing into the carriage from the other side. She was as roughly-dressed as the man and otherwise unremarkable in appearance, except for her vivid green eyes, a shade of viridian that seemed almost to glow in the dim light. “And may I just say, it’s a real honor to make your acquaintance, Princess! And you too, miss, of course.”
Asfaneh was still trying to block Theasia with her body, which involved a lot of awkward shifting and wiggling now that she had to do it from two directions. Theasia gently took her by the shoulders and pushed her aside onto the seat.
“Her title is ‘Lady,’” she said with the driest aloofness she could muster. “I hope my driver has not been harmed?”
“Course not, whaddaya take us for? Some kinda thugs?” The rough-looking man grinned as if this were a fantastic joke, pulling the carriage door shut and settling onto the seat across from them.
There came a muffled slap of reins and the vehicle started moving again, the green-eyed woman shutting her door even as they took off into the night.
“You will suffer for this, I promise you,” Asfaneh spat. “Once the Emperor learns what you’ve done, it’ll be your heads on pikes!”
“Young lady, this is the twelfth century,” Green Eyes said with a smirk. “Nobody uses pikes for any reason, much less for heads.”
“Might put our heads on plates,” her companion mused. “Whaddaya think? A nice silver platter? I think that’d set off my chiseled features pretty good.”
“Sarsamon’s too soft a touch for that, way I hear it,” she said amiably. “’Sides, beheading’s for traitorous nobles. Couple of trash like us abducting a member of the Imperial family, that’s a hanging.”
“Oh, well that’s no good,” he grumbled. “All that swingin’ around, how’m I supposed to keep my good side to the audience?”
“You’re insane,” Asfaneh blurted.
“Shh,” Theasia soothed, patting her shoulder and causing her jewelry to rattle. “Please compose yourself, Lady Asfaneh. They would have harmed us if they intended to.”
“That’s right, ladies,” the woman said airily. “You just sit back and relax, leave the work to us. We’re gonna go for a ride and have a little stopover. So long as everybody stays polite and professional, there’s not a single reason anybody should get so much as their hair ruffled. I promise we mean you no harm.”
“As if I would believe that!” Asfaneh snapped.
“Let’s not provoke them,” Theasia murmured, patting her again. “Just do as they say and remain calm. And when all this is over, you can tell me ‘I told you so.’ It’s something to look forward to, is it not?”
Her lady-in-waiting gave her a truly indescribable look. But at least she fell quiet.
Their new destination was a warehouse in one of the rising industrial districts, with a large door easily wide enough to admit the carriage. Torches and oil lamps lit the space, barely adequately; when the carriage doors were opened and they were directed to disembark, Theasia looked out upon a cavernous chamber whose ceiling and corners were lost to shadow.
All according to plan. Practically scripted. She was in control. She repeated this like a mantra as if it would ease the mounting speed of her heartbeat. Theasia could control her expression with practiced ease, but the doctors had warned her against stressing any of her organs excessively. One had admitted, when she pressed, that a heart attack would very likely be her cause of death, and that was practically optimal, considering how much faster it was than death by failure of the liver or kidneys.
“Princess, run!” Asfaneh abruptly screamed as soon as they were out of the carriage and surrounded by scruffy Thieves’ Guild reprobates. The lady bodily shoved the nearest thief away from Theasia, a gesture which proved totally ineffectual.
Theasia, of course, did not move, and would not have even had she not been here by her own design. Run where? They were shut in and surrounded. She was progressively revising her opinion of Asfaneh, who had considerably more courage than she had realized, but even less sense.
The man she had tried to body-slam stood a head taller and twice as broad; he was barely jostled, but turned a scowl on the young lady and raised a hand.
“Hey, Brick,” said the green-eyed woman, emerging from the carriage last. “You want your fingers broken in any particular order, or should I improvise?”
He hesitated, grimaced, and then lowered his hand and bowed to Asfaneh, to her visible amazement. “Beggin’ your pardon, miss, my apologies. Force o’ habit. We’re just simple thieves, after all, an’ not used to such…esteemed company.”
She squeaked and scurried over to Theasia, where she clung to the Princess’s arm.
“Welp! Here we are,” Green Eyes said, sweeping a grandiose bow and flinging out one arm to gesture around the empty warehouse and the gaggle of thugs. Theasia quickly took stock; the thieves were watching her mostly with a kind of bemusement, which was encouraging. She had expected leering. There was no sign of her driver, but a thin woman even younger than herself was tending to the horses. That was all she could take in with a single glance, but the woman kept speaking so the Princess quickly resumed meeting those eerie eyes. “Welcome to this miscellaneous spot in the manufacturing district! Please don’t bother memorizing the location; the poor sap who owns this joint doesn’t know we’re here and wouldn’t be happy about it. We aren’t quite daft enough to bring you to a real hideout.”
“Drat,” she said neutrally. “I shall have to re-work my escape plan entirely.”
That earned her several grins, including from the speaker, who seemed to be in charge. “I will be your host this evening; you can call me Catseye. You know Spiff, of course.” The ragged fellow from the carriage ride grinned and tipped his hat, winking at Asfaneh. “And despite Brick’s little lapse, rest assured you’re not here to be roughed up in any way, shape, or form. I’d introduce everybody else, but you don’t care and a lot of the lads prefer their anonymity.”
“Catseye?” Asfaneh said incredulously. “Spiff? Those can’t possibly be names!”
“This Empire was recently brought to its knees by someone called Horsebutt,” Theasia pointed out.
“Bit of Imperial propaganda, that,” Catseye said amiably. “Heshenaad translates more as ‘the space behind the horse;’ it’s an old equestrian term from Calderaas, referring to how not to handle horses. You don’t ever wanna approach them from their blind spot. The Empire misnamed him on purpose to make him sound ridiculous, which pretty much backfired when we then got our heshenaads kicked by the guy with the silly name.”
Theasia raised an eyebrow. “Our?”
“Hey, we may be thieves,” Catseye said, raising one of her own, “but we’re all Tiraan here.”
There came a muffled throat-clearing from a young woman in an overlarge coat, with a scarf hiding all of her face save her black hair and almond-shaped eyes.
“Except Wakizashi,” Catseye said with a sigh, “who would like to remind everyone that we are a brutish and savage people with a history no longer than the fall of last autumn’s leaves.”
“Wakizashi,” Theasia said, tilting her head. “That’s a Sheng term, is it not?”
There came a beat of silence, in which the Sifanese woman’s glare turned murderous, followed by uproarious laughter from every other thief in the warehouse. Asfaneh pressed herself against the Princess amid the tumult, wrapping an arm around her protectively.
“Kid, I like you,” Catseye said, grinning at Theasia.
“How charming. Finally, something worth noting in my diary.”
“Well, timing being what it is, we’re gonna be here a little while,” the thief said, and clapped her hands loudly. “Let’s have some damn hospitality, already, you louts are making us look bad! Come on, roll out some seating and let’s bust open the refreshments.”
“What are they waiting for?” Asfaneh whispered while the thieves busied themselves fetching things from crates. Theasia just shook her head and patted her companion’s hand comfortingly.
“Luxury accommodations, as requested!” Brick proclaimed, setting down the second barrel a few feet behind them. The big man whisked off his coat and draped it over the two upright barrels, forming a makeshift bench.
“Good evening, ladies!” said another thief, approaching with a grin, a tin of salted fish and a box of crackers. “Tonight’s menu is herring, caught in the majestic waters of our very own Gulf of Punamanta, probably at some point in the last six months, chased by a local specialty: machine-formed nautical biscuits, made right here in Tiraas, the very jewel of our Empire. I recommend putting a little fish on each cracker, it makes it harder to taste both. And here’s Spangle with the wine list!”
The gestured grandly with the cracker box at another man, this one a lean Westerner with his hair up in braids threaded with beads and metal charms, who was holding a visibly dusty jug.
“You are in luck, your Highness,” he declaimed. “Tonight we feature a particularly amusing Calderaan corn moonshine. I find this a surprisingly oakey vintage, with the most delicate notes of wheat and citrus, with an almost playfully presumptuous finish. It is, of course, white, as the main course is fish.”
Asfaneh whimpered and squeezed Theasia tighter.
“That’s very kind,” the Princess said politely, “but no thank you.”
“As you wish,” Catseye said amiably. “We have a bit of a wait ahead of us, though, and I’m afraid luxurious accommodations aren’t even adjacent to our list of priorities. This is a big nuisance for you girls at absolute best; I don’t mean to make it any more uncomfortable than necessary.”
Theasia gave Asfaneh’s hand a squeeze before the girl could say anything. Either she got the message or hadn’t been planning to chime in that time; at any rate, she stayed quiet, and Theasia turned her attention fully to Catseye, disregarding the offered “amenities.”
“What made you decide to become a thief?”
That, finally, pierced the veneer of conviviality, not just from Catseye but from the room at large. Smiles faded and the Guild members grew still, turning suddenly contemplative stares on her. Asfaneh squeaked softly at the attention.
Catseye, after a pause, tilted her head back, looking defiantly down her nose. “What made you decide to become a princess?”
“Hmm.” Despite the stress of the situation and the risk she was taking by effectively poking at this woman, Theasia couldn’t help being actually interested. All her life, the Thieves’ Guild had been presented in her social circles as a monster that lurked in every shadow. Yet obviously, these people had their own perspectives and reasons for the things they did. They certainly did not act quite like anyone else she had ever met. Thieves in stories were altogether more…menacing. “So you imply that all our lives are scripted, our fates preordained?”
“That’s more grandiosity than I would give to anything, ever,” Catseye said in a drier tone, tucking her hands into the pockets of her ratty longcoat. In the faded golden lamplight, her vivid green eyes seemed practically to glow; it was clear (and even a little unimaginative) where her nickname derived from. “Life is about what you do with what the gods hand you. You got a palace, an education, and a shitload of responsibilities nobody sane would ask for, with all the lavish luxuries to match. Me, pretty much the opposite. Same goes for most of those here. Either of us could’ve chosen to be resentful and make a general pest of ourselves. Or, we can take life seriously, stifle our complaints, and see how much we can get done in the situation we’ve got to work with.” She shrugged, quirking one side of her mouth in an ironic smile. “I know what I chose. After this night’s work, I’m getting increasingly curious about you.”
“Oy, Catseye!” Theasia was spared having to respond to that by the voice from the rafters; a scrawny boy who could hardly have been more than fifteen had appeared, balanced precariously on a beam in the upper darkness near the window through which he had just clambered. “We got incoming, looks like our mark. Two swells in fancy suits and six guards with swords and staves, just like he promised.”
“He’s early, though,” Catseye murmured, meeting Theasia’s gaze. “Nobles never can wait their bloody turn… All right, Selim, good work. Get back up there and sing out if anything unexpected happens, but remember to stay quiet about the rest of what’s planned.”
“I’m not stupid, Cat,” he snorted, shimmying back out into the night.
“Curtain’s rising! Places, everybody!” Catseye clapped her hands and the various thieves flowed into motion, arranging themselves in a menacing half-ring around their leader, the Princess, and Lady Asfaneh, who was trembling so hard Theasia was partially holding her up by now. “Ladies, this marks the last portion of the evening where I can personally guarantee that everyone involved will remain polite. You may wanna discreetly remove yourselves to behind the carriage over there.”
“You know very well that isn’t an option for me,” Theasia replied. “Asfaneh, here.”
It was easy, in light of her peculiar hand jewelry, to miss the relatively simple sapphire brooch she had pinned to the throat of her gown. Now, she withdrew an identical one from the cunningly hidden pocket in her skirts and carefully affixed it to Asfaneh’s own dress, to the woman’s clear confusion.
“Lady Asfaneh,” she said, firmly but gently. “I want you to stand behind the thieves until I tell you otherwise. If at any point you feel you are in physical danger, grab this brooch and press down on the sapphire until it clicks. But not unless you actually discern a threat. Is that clear?”
“Your Highness, no,” she said, forgetting protocol. “I’m not going to leave you!”
“I’ll be right here,” Theasia insisted. “This is important. I will make it a command if I must, but I would rather you trust me.”
Asfaneh peered at her, wide-eyed, then glanced around at the watching thieves.
“I know what I’m doing,” Theasia said softly.
“I’m very much afraid you know less than you think, Princess,” the lady whispered.
“There is simply not time. Go, Asfaneh. Now.”
She drew in a deep breath and scrunched up her face, and for a moment Theasia feared she would have to ask the Guild to manhandle her attendant. But Asfaneh finally let out a tiny noise of dismay and turned, scurrying off through a gap in the thieves’ loose formation.
“You ready for this, Princess?” Catseye asked her quietly as she turned back to face the door.
Theasia shook her head. “Is anyone ever—”
Lightning flashed and the huge warehouse door exploded inward.