But Titans? How do I know if I’ll love Proper Thieves? The answer is here. Please enjoy the first chapter (er… section?) of Proper Thieves.
The guard unwrapped his sandwich, took a bite, and collapsed in a pile of wrecked bone and mangled muscle.
Or at least that’s how it would have looked, had anyone been nearby to see it happen. In truth, the guard’s sudden implosion had somewhat less to do with his lunch and more to do with Tolem, who had dropped onto the unsuspecting brute from fifteen feet up while wrapped in an invisibility cloak. A moment later, that cloak finished fluttering to the floor, encircling both the aging thief and the crumpled security guard.
Hidden beneath its folds, Tolem sucked air between his teeth and rubbed gingerly at his bum hip. He had held his position—legs split wide to span the narrow corridor, pressing his feet flat against the two opposing walls—for as long as his old bones would let him, but the youngster below had stubbornly refused to get a move on. The impact from fifteen feet up didn’t do Tolem’s carcass any favors, either, but at least the kid had gone down quietly. He’d have felt a lot worse had the guard yelled out; the cloak wasn’t that magical anymore, after all, and he doubted its ability to hide him from someone who actually knew he was there.
Or someone with a bright, shiny lantern like the lantern that was being carried by the pair of brutes who’d just turned the corner.
Kack, Tolem mouthed to himself. He looked over his shoulder through the threadbare fabric of his cloak. He could backtrack, find that offshoot service tunnel. If he moved slowly enough, then maybe the guardsmen wouldn’t see the mirror shimmer he left in his wake when he moved…
…but, Tolem realized as he noticed his boots sticking to the cobblestone floor, they’d almost certainly see the pudding he’d made from their colleague and the gooey footprints leading away from him.
The brutes were clad in The Palace’s preferred uniform of silk robes over quiet mail. You could hear the rustling of linen where most armor that strong would clink and clank. Each held a hand ready on the hilt of a sheathed sword, and they spoke loudly to one another, so as to be heard over the squealing wheels of the empty cart that followed behind them.
Of course, he thought, letting his head loll back on his shoulders. How utterly goddamned perfect. He twisted a finger in his long, graying beard, and as the light from the lantern began to stream through his gauzy cloak, a stray scent caught Tolem’s nose. A familiar scent.
“Biggest arse ever I’d seen on a thing what weren’t bred for farm work,” the brute on the left was saying to the brute on the right. They looked nearly identical; The Palace hired for a certain look in addition to a certain moral flexibility. “So what does Parval say to her? Well, you know Parval. Parval comes up, looks her straight in the eye, and Parval says—”
A clatter rang off the wall behind them; the two guards wheeled around, answering the noise with the sound of their blades. The slave boy pushing the cart barely stopped in time to keep from running them over. “Oi!” Left Brute called out. “Who’s that?” But there was no one there to answer back.
The two guards spun back around, blades flashing in the lantern light, and there was Tolem, standing in front of them. He swayed gently back and forth before them. “Hey, hey, hey…” he said, shifting easily into a Korvian brogue to match the guards’. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I were just looking for the head, mate. Swear!”
Left Brute made a face and put his sword away. “Huzzah. Another drunk patron too pissed to read the ‘Stay the feck out of the service tunnel’ signs.” He took a sniff of the older man and inspected the state of his tunic, soaked as it was in whiskey. “Gods’ mercy, dad. That shet’s supposed to go inside you.”
Right Brute tucked his blade away as well. “Smells like grampa here found hisself a bottle of the same gutshot Barnaby’s always bringing on watch with him.”
Dad. Grampa. Tolem glared at them, but hiccupped for comedic effect.
“Yeah, where is Barnaby then?” Left Brute asked, grabbing Tolem by the arm and spinning him around. “Weren’t he on post tonight?” Without another word to waste, the guard pushed Tolem in the small of his back, prompting him to march in front of them.
The cart’s wheels began to squeal again, riding along on a pair of well-worn metal tracks. As they set off, Tolem scanned the shadows from the corner of his eye, looking for where he’d left young Barnaby wrapped in what was left of his cloak. Its enchantment wouldn’t last much longer, but he had needed a distraction. He had torn off a corner, wrapped it around the guard’s broken whiskey flask, and thrown it over the brutes’ heads.
But not before he had taken a moment to douse himself in one of the more pungent liquors he’d ever had the pleasure of bathing in. As he walked now, he sucked a bit out of his shaggy mustache and smiled. He’d hated to leave the cloak; he’d had it for longer than he could remember. But a mustache full of single malt wasn’t a bad parting gift.
A short walk later, the four turned a corner, and the otherwise darksome passageway abruptly lit up. A bright white light blared from a door ahead of them, set into the right hand wall. As they approached, another pair of guards emerged from the entryway, followed by another slave boy pushing another cart—only this one was piled high with gold coins. Eyeballing the contents of the cart, Tolem guessed a person could purchase one of the former Petric duchies with the cargo those three were escorting.
He cocked an eyebrow. “This th’ way to the head, then?”
One of the brutes shoved him. “We’ll get you to the goddamned ‘head’, dad. Hold your water. We’ve a stop to make first.”
Their wheels squealing on the rails, the other two guards and the other slave boy turned and pushed their cart farther down the hallway, their lantern light getting smaller and smaller until they disappeared around a corner. As Tolem and his escort approached the glowing door, he became aware of a second opening on the opposite side of the hallway. Inside, a mechanized lift clattered and clanked, pulling one empty cage upward after another. One fork of the cart rails led inside; it looked like the lift was built to carry carts to one of the upper floors.
Tolem heard one of the brutes draw his sword again. “Up against the wall now. Come on.” Left Brute stayed with him; Right Brute followed the cart.
Tolem put his back to the bricks and squinted toward the light, but he wasn’t able to make out anything definite beyond the glowing door. His party’s slave boy pushed on, and the cart followed the track inside until it, Right Brute, and the slave boy disappeared from view. Tolem leaned to one side, trying to follow them with his eyes, and he got a crack on the side of the head for his troubles.
“What are you trying to pull then, grampa?” His thuggish nursemaid spat on the floor. “You really don’t have the sense the gods gave a feckin’ turnip, do you?”
“Patrons,” Left Brute said, as if his mouth were trying to shit the word into the air. “I swear.” He sniffed again. “That gutshot you went swimming in. It really does smell like Barnaby’s, so it does.” He paused, then, squinting at Tolem’s face.
Tolem rubbed his temple where he’d been swatted. “Your friend has shet for taste,” he slurred, smiling amiably, “assuming he has any taste buds left at this point.”
Left Brute just watched him, and his sudden curiosity was making Tolem less and less comfortable. “What are the odds?” the guard asked. “Hanh? There’d be two sods able to keep that shet down?”
Across the way, the cages in the lift clattered upward. Tolem shrugged and said nothing. From the other room, he could hear voices in muffled conversation, echoing off the cobblestones at angles too oblique to be understood.
Left Brute leaned in close, tapping the edge of his sword against the brick wall by Tolem’s head. Tolem smiled faintly at the floor, no longer looking at the guard.
“You know…” Left Brute said slowly, as if working something out in his head. “…Barnaby would—”
Tolem lunged and sank his teeth into the brute’s eye.
The guard howled, blood and humors streaming between his groping fingers, and Tolem was gone, leaping up into the next cage in the lift, pulling in his trailing leg and shoulder inches shy of getting them scraped off between the floor of the cage and the edge of the door. He rolled to his side, but it was too late to see inside the glowing white door and the treasures within.
Still, he’d found it. The vault. And he knew how to get back to it.
The other brute had rejoined his comrade, and their combined cries made it up the lift shaft ahead of Tolem. And if the climb had been a few meters higher, it might have given the servants in the room above a chance to form a response other than fumbling hands and awkward shouting. Bad hip notwithstanding, Tolem kicked his way through the confused cluster and ran. He’d left the dank cobblestone corridors on the floor below; this was the casino floor, and it was flashing past him in a screaming blur of gold-trimmed dresses and blonde wood finishes. He ran between the gaming tables, crashing through crowds of perfumed aristocrats and barreling over their fallen bodies.
He collided glancingly with another guard, one who looked very much like the two he’d left behind in the lower corridors, but he rolled with the impact, stayed on his feet, and kept going.
“Take off!” came a cry from behind him as Tolem turned over a table piled high with golden chits. Instantly, a crowd surged around, hands grasping whatever they could snag, and making the way behind him utterly impassable. “Take off!” the voice called again.
Tolem plowed through a second set of curtains into blinding sunlight, nearly tumbling headlong down the grand stairway of the coliseum. He fell down the steps as much as ran, his feet barely catching him from one moment to the next. Oblivious to his flight, the crowd around him was losing its collective mind as, in the pit below, two men slashed the air with cutlasses to keep an 800-pound cat beast at bay.
As he ran, the voices followed him. Every serving girl that flashed by in a blur, every steward waiting at the bottom of every stairwell, each of them carried along the cry: “Take off! Take off!” And as they yelled, they scurried about in a sudden panic, hastening to secure the tools of their respective trades. Podiums and tables were secured to the floor with small chains. Serving trays were stashed hastily in recessed cabinets under the stairs. Tolem grunted as he darted around a barricade that was swinging to a close, pushing past a frail older woman who insisted that he return to his seat in advance of what was about to happen.
Adrenaline could push muscles faster than nature intended, but the bones those muscles hung on were still just bone, and the one in Tolem’s hip finally decided it had had enough jarring impacts. Tolem landed hard, the sharp edge of one stair catching him between the shoulder blades, the sharp edge of another catching him hard on a kneecap. Rolling to a stop on a broad landing, Tolem flailed, scrambling to find which way the sky was so he could right himself. He looked up; the stairway behind him swarmed with nearly identical guards, hands on nearly identical swords.
He found his feet. He pushed off. Gritting his teeth to bear the pain, he ran.
The path between him and the nearest gate was a tangle of arms and legs; Tolem found every tiny opening in the sea of men before him and mashed his body through them. As he ran, he could feel the ground heave beneath his feet. In the pit of his stomach, he could feel a certain weightlessness, like falling, only upward. And in his ears, there was a sound like two mountains scraping past one another.
Tolem didn’t believe in the gods, but sometimes he found they were merciful nonetheless—miraculously, the crowd parted and disappeared. He dove, rolled, and slid under a portcullis as its spiked feet came to rest in the slotted brick floor. The mountain sound built to a deafening roar, then stopped entirely, giving way to a yawning silence. But Tolem didn’t stop to look back. Behind him, the immense stone structure rose into the air and soared away.
* * *
It took half an hour for the old thief to start breathing normally again, and another half hour to dare himself to emerge from hiding. Any stir he had caused had finally died down, so Tolem decided to limp his way from the alleys behind the grand bazaar to one of the city’s rooftop gardens.
There, he found a young girl tending her mistress’s flowers. He gave her a silver piece and dropped heavily into a wicker chair. The little gardener pocketed the coin and ostensibly went back to tending the flowers. Her eyes rarely left The Palace as it drifted lazily above the sand sea, there beyond the tall city walls against which the great ship had been moored. It hung silently between the earth and sky, a cloud hewn from marble and peopled by some of the wealthiest merchants and noblemen in all the worlds.
“Something to see, no question,” Tolem said, glancing the girl’s direction.
She pushed her hair off her forehead with the back of her wrist and smiled. “Yes sir,” she said.
“Something to see,” he said again, more to himself than anyone. He hung his head down to his chest and sighed deeply. Here he was again, watching the immense thing sail away. And this time was the worst. He had been so close—so close! If only he’d had a dagger when that guard was on him. If only he’d had a better cloak. If only…
He shifted his weight in his seat and the sharp pain from his hip nearly took his breath away.
Tolem growled. If only his body hadn’t given out on him. If only he hadn’t gotten so fucking old.
He let his head loll to one side to watch the little gardener. Under a low row of hanging flowerbeds, she dropped to the stone ground on her bare knees to pull a weed then bounced back up again. She dropped again and bounced up again, quick as a hiccup. He winced at the thought of doing that himself. “Gods be,” he muttered to himself. “I should just hire her to…”
His mouth hung open, but the words stopped coming. He twisted a finger through his long, graying beard as his mind began to wrap itself around a new idea. Slowly, a smile crept across his face.
He pulled himself gingerly up off his seat. “Girl,” he called, motioning for her to come over. “Do you know who runs the caravans?” The little gardener nodded, and Tolem produced a gold-plated gaming slip, one of a bare handful he’d snagged when he’d turned over that table in the casino. He placed it in her palm. “I’d like you to secure me a place in the next one headed east. I don’t have a horse, but still, that should cover it.”
The girl’s eyes went wide as she stared at the thing in her hand. She was shaking. She’s holding more money in her hand right now than she’ll make in five years, Tolem thought. And it’s only gold on the outside.
Tolem smiled at her. “Do this for me, and I’ll have two of these for you when you get back.”
At that, the gardener looked like her knees might buckle beneath her. “Sir…sir, I—I can’t accept this, it’s…you’re too generous and…” She looked down at his clothes. “…don’t you need these?”
Tolem looked down at himself. His clothes were tattered from his flight through the crowd and streaked with blood from his spill down the steps. He chuckled at the sight of himself, then stood and dusted himself off. “Don’t worry about me, miss,” he said. “There’s plenty more where that came from.”
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