“Even the kindest hero stands over a spreading graveyard.”
– Theodore Langman, Wizard of the West
Vivienne Dartwick had wondered, about what made her different from all the other pickpockets and thieves that haunted the nights of Southpool. As far as she could tell it was that she didn’t need to steal. Her father had been a baron under the Count of Southpool, but never a martial man and so though he had sent troops to join the armies failing to turn back the Conquest he’d never fought in a battle himself. He was a baron no longer, since all noble titles in the county had been abolished after the first Imperial Governor was appointed, but even after the Praesi took their cut Vivienne’s family remained wealthier than a talented merchant could hope to become with a lifetime of work. Her mother had passed in a hunting accident when she’d been young, and the strangeness of that had been what set her on her path. Mother had been a devil with a bow and a better rider, so her mount getting scared by a wolf and and breaking her ribs in panic stretched credulity, somewhat. She’d only been seven, back then, and Father had made sure to keep her in the dark. It had worked for a few years, but not forever.
He’d gotten forgetful in his old age, and the bar on his study’s door could be forced up if the lock wasn’t properly turned. Vivienne had only gone in to smoke his pipe since he never let her try it, but when rustling through the drawers to find it she’d seen her mother’s name on parchment. Her father had petitioned Governess Ife, successor to the original governor, to investigate the circumstances of her mother’s death. He’d called them highly suspicious. The letter the Governess sent back was dripping with implied threats and made a point of mentioning rebel elements. Treason didn’t fetch the same punishment everywhere, in Callow, since the governors were given free rein to run their territory as they wished. She’d heard that in the south if someone got caught the entire family was executed. In Southpool, though, it was only the directly implicated that got the noose. The families got away with a harsh fine. She’d remembered, then, that around the time of her mother’s death Father had become very frugal for a few months.
That painted a picture she did not like.
It wasn’t that her family was in trouble, not anymore. Her father had sold a smithy they’d once owned, which he said wasn’t turning up much a profit under the Tower’s weapons prohibitions anyway. But when she next had her lessons with her tutor, Vivienne made sure to ask the man about laws. About how much the fine for being associated with treasonous elements was. It… wasn’t a small sum. She could understand why Father had cut corners until he could find a buyer for the smith. But it was a very cheap price, for her mother’s life. There was something wrong about the Praesi killing her mother and making her family pay for it. It was like an itch in the back of her mind she couldn’t scratch. It should have been them it cost, not her father. And that was when it began, when she decided to make right. Gold couldn’t ever make up for her mother, but she could make them feel it. The number she came up with was a whim. Ten times what they’d fined, and once more to make up for the fine itself. It was enough to build three manors in the country, she knew, but anything less would have an insult.
Vivienne knew she wasn’t as pretty as some of the other noble girls, not matter how nice her dresses and how many ribbons the maids put in her hair, but she wasn’t ugly and boys got dumb when you smiled at them and pretended they were interesting. It wasn’t hard to find one of the Imperial orphanage boys near Kingspot Alley that ditched their lessons to mess around in the streets and knew how to pick a pocket. Talking the boy into teaching her was a lot harder, and she had to go through the kitchen for honeybread when the cooks were asleep before he agreed. Vivienne found she had a knack for it. She’d always been good with her hands, even if her handwriting was wobbly, and if she apologized when running into people all they saw was a little girl who felt real sorry, yessir. Getting her tutor to pretend she was still at her lessons was harder, but he’d been sleeping with one of the maids and Father would have thrown him out if he knew. As long as she kept pace with her learning, the man would keep his mouth shut. He’d have a hard time being hired by other nobles if he had a bad reputation.
Within two months she was better than the orphan who’d taught her, and after stealing a sharp little kitchen knife she began trying her hand at cutting purses. She’d need help, though, if she was to steal bigger things than a drunk trader’s ale money. People to find targets for her. The eldermen were useless. People said they’d had a hand in the old riots that made the Governess back down, but ever since they’d been terrified of her. The Guilds were weak and poor and they answered to people in Laure, and everyone knew those were Praesi lapdogs. The guilds that were out in the open, anyway. The Guild of Assassins had people in Southpool, and they took contracts if you put the word in the right place, but Vivienne wasn’t out to kill anyone. What would be the point? Governess Ife would just be replaced by some other Wastelander, and they might be worse. Coin, though, coin would hurt her. So Vivienne hung out in one of those seedy taverns where there were rumours the people of the Guild of Thieves came to drink. No one said anything to her, even when she cut purses, and she was about to go spare when a grinning old man from the north told her to sit down at his table.
“Ain’t no one that’s going to apprentice you, girl,” he said. “No matter how much stolen copper you flash.”
“I’m good,” Vivienne complained.
“Passable,” he said, the Harrow accent thick. “But you look like a little noble, and no one wants that kind of attention.”
That night, sneaking back in her room, Vivienne stood in front of her mirror with the kitchen knife and hacked through her hair. It stung and tore, but she went through with it to the end. She went back to the Kingspot orphans and found the idiot boy flirting with some tanner’s daughter. He looked nervous when she walked up to them, but she ignored him. She traded one of her cheaper dresses for the girl’s spare clothes, and returned to the tavern.
“Took a knife to it, did you?” the grinning old man asked.
“I’ll take a knife to you too, if you don’t help me,” she threatened.
That was how she apprenticed to Sidehands, which he insisted he was his name. He was an old crook and he’d claim nine tenths of whatever she stole as long as he taught her, but he let her buy tools and taught her how to use them. More importantly, he introduced her to the wrong sort of people. Fences, handlers who had servants from important places on the take and a few roughs who’d make a ruckus if you needed someone distracted.
“Ain’t a lot of rules in the Guild,” Sidehands said. “We’re not a rule-abiding kind, and even the King’s only the King as long as he keeps his crown out of other people’s hands.”
“But there are,” Vivienne said. “Rules.”
“We don’t kill,” the old man said. “That’s the one that matters. And we steal from the right people.”
“’cause we’re thieves, not murderers,” she said, duly impressed.
“’cause if we start putting knives in people the Guild of Assassins is going to start floating us by the docks one by one,” Sidehands replied, amused. “We take from merchants, we take from traders, we can take from ye old nobles. But we don’t fuck with the Praesi. Otherwise they send for the mages, and there ain’t no cover of night that’ll get rid of a scrying spell.”
“The Hedge Guild has mages that could do that,” Vivienne said.
“Now there’s a bunch of real thieves,” Sidehands chuckled. “You should see their rates. Don’t think about it, girl. All the mages with real talent were pressed into the Legions and what’s left is crawling with Eyes of the Empire. You ask them to block a scrying spell and the city guard will knock at your door before the hour’s done.”
He grimaced, then patted her shoulder.
“Besides, there’s worse out there,” he said. “The Guild took a deal, when the Carrion Lord came riding in. He ain’t the kind of man you want to cross.”
Vivienne smiled and agreed and because everyone trusted a smiling little girl Sidehands thought she’d stick to the rules. As if. Two years she was apprenticed, and her nights were spent picking locks and working windows. She enjoyed it, the double life. When Jenny Gartrand was a real bitch about her hair – it looked fine, the maids cut it so it was evened out – the night after she stole her pony and her collection of hunting bows and pawned them for a neat profit even after her teacher took his part. Father eventually noticed how much time she spent in the city, but bless his soul he assumed she had a boy there. He awkwardly tried to tell her this wasn’t the old Callow anymore and it was fine if she wanted to marry a tradesman for love but she had to be careful about pregnancies and it was both mortifying and the most loving thing she’d ever heard. She did find a few corners with boys she liked, but they sure as Hells weren’t tradesmen and there were no wedding bells around the corner. She was fifteen when Sidehands told her she was as good as he could make her, and offered her a seat on the Guild.
“You’ll be the only highborn on there, but they’ll come around,” the old man said. “Hard for any of us to get a legitimate foot in the door to those parties and that’ll whet their appetite. Don’t let them rob you on their cut, Vivs, they’ll need you more than the other way around.”
She twitched when he called her that, as she always did. The only part about this she’d regret was that she’d never get a Guild name. She declined, politely, and talked about how her father was getting old and he’d need help running the family properties soon. She made vague assurances she’d be up for jobs now and then, and never followed through on it. The Guild of Thieves had rules, and she’d already gotten what she needed from them. Vivienne spent what she’d earned with thrifty hands on getting a few servant tongues to loosen, and she began to get her dues. There was no Legion garrison in Southpool, it wasn’t large or important enough a city for that, but the roads west went through it and there were a bunch of Legions holed up at the Red Flower Vales. Her first time out on her own, she waited until the wagons with the pay stayed for the night and broke into the Governess’ palace. She’d have to be careful, she knew. Sidehands’ warnings about mages still rang in her ears. But she needed to know if she could do it.
And Gods, could she.
It was easier than it should have been. Her steps more silent, her hands quicker and her ears sharper. She got into the sealed courtyard where the wagons had been left and slid down a pillar from above while the guards talked, hiding under the wagon until they moved on. There were a few left even after the patrol had gone away, but she timed it well and stayed in the shadows. She left with a single silver ingot that night, shoved under her leathers. It was only when word spread that the wagons had been broken in that she realized that she’d done something she shouldn’t have been able to. The city was gossiping about the dozen legionaries who’d gotten hanged for putting their hands to the silver. They were the only ones who’d been allowed behind the wards that protected the courtyard, so it must have been one of them who’d stolen an ingot when they wagons were checked later that night. Vivienne’s blood went cold, when she realized how close she’d been to being caught. She hadn’t thought that the Praesi would be that cautious inside the palace. More importantly, she hadn’t triggered the wards.
Vivienne Dartwick knew she was good, but she wasn’t literally magic.
Except that she was, now. She could hide in broad daylight where there wasn’t a single shadow, and when she did there was a word almost on the tip of her tongue. When she cut a purse she could feel the urge to put it away somewhere that didn’t quite exist, even if she didn’t know how. Yet. She was Named, she came to understand, and when she did she knew exactly who she was. She was the Thief. The Gods Above had looked upon her work and found it worthy of blessing. That knowledge burned within her, the sheer certainty of it. She went back to the palace, and this time it was not a single ingot she took. Governess Ife’s entire jewellery box disappeared, and though she had it appraised through a series of intermediaries she never pawned it. Too obvious, it would get back to her. It was when she debated on where to stash it that she grasped her first aspect. Hold. The box went into a place that wasn’t, and she returned to work. The Governess had one of the few eldermen who still tried to oppose her disappeared by the Assassins, and since he had no heir his wealth was now Imperial property. She stole the entire thing, including the cart, just to make a point.
One of the Praesi lickspittles that made up Ife’s inner circle had delicacies imported from the Wasteland through the Silver Lake at great expense, and Thief popped caramelized dates into her mouth when strolling rooftops for a month. The Praesi made a ruckus about it, tried to have the captain’s ship confiscated, so she went back and stole every single thing in his rooms. The Governess put two thousand aurelii out on contract to Guild of Assassins for the head of the person who’d robbed her, so Vivienne stole the prize money and out of professional courtesy dropped half at a contact point for the same Guild. A very polite note of thanks was nailed to one of the rooftops she liked to pass through, though it did mention if a greater bounty was put out they would still take the contract. Over four months Thief made away with thrice the fine for her mothers’ murder, and planned on making it to four when she got her hands on the payment the Governess intended to float the Guild of Smugglers for some illegally-forged swords of dwarven make. Shame it wasn’t goblin steel, the sum would have been at least double, but she supposed even Praesi didn’t want to come to the attention of the Tower. She’d heard about the Carrion Lord hanging half the staff of an Imperial Governor down south for selling weapon-making licenses without permission.
Sidehands had been right about that, at least.
The warehouse by the docks was without guards, which was the first sign something had gone wrong. Ife wouldn’t use city guard for this, but she’d imported some killers that didn’t ask questions from the ol’ desert back home. Vivienne found the first corpse shoved behind a pile of crates, and frowned at the sight. Messy work, the Soninke must have been stabbed at least a dozen times even if that first throat wound should have killed him outright. That was the sign of a nervous hand, so that meant not the Assassins and not one of the other Praesi making a play. They tended to have a better quality of murderers on the payroll. Three quit leaps had her using the alley walls to get on the roof, which sadly did not have a trapdoor leading down. The Governess wasn’t an idiot, just a morally bankrupt murderer sanctioned by an entire nation of morally bankrupt murderers. She shimmied down the side and pried open the planks she’d broken when she’d learned this would be the warehouse, landing on a high beam. Ah, and there was the company. There were fourteen of them, Callowans. Not from Southpool, by the accents. Somewhere down south.
They’d dragged the rest of the guard corpses inside, five piled on near the oil lamp because evidently she was dealing with raging imbeciles. They were also arguing by the three thick trunks where the gold of the Governess was awaiting her tender touch.
“I’m not dragging these fucking things unless we’re sure the gold is actually inside, Philip,” one of the men said.
“What else would be?” that very Philip replied. “Bloody tulips?”
“We could sell those,” another one contributed. “I hear them Praesi nobles go crazy over the fancy flowers.”
“I wish I could sell you, Jake,” the first man complained. “But Hells, how much could a dumb fucker like you even be worth?”
Well, that would have been entertaining if the idiots weren’t fucking up a perfectly good theft. If she got close enough she could just Hold the coffers, but she’d have to break out of her stealth aspect to do that and the prize was in the lamplight. At least one of these men was going to keep his eye on the gold. A distraction, then. Vivienne stalked across the angled beam and leapt to a flat one crossing the length of the warehouse, quiet as a cat. Now, how to go about this? Dropping something heavy in the front wouldn’t do it, they might panic and try to run with the coffers. Although, it might just be enough to have them bolt. If the corpse outside was any indication, they were fairly nervous about the affair. The lamp light flickered, and Vivienne looked down. The men had gone quiet.
She went very, very still.
Thief was looking down on fourteen corpses. She could see, from how the corpses were positioned, exactly how it had happened. Someone had come close to the first, the slit his throat. Then they’d grabbed the hand of the dying man and put it in the hand of the second, moving from man to man and making a daisy chain of the falling corpses. Fourteen pairs of dead eyes looked down on cut throats, each hand pointing at next man. The beam behind her creaked and she turned in her crouch, dagger in hand. There was a silhouette in the dark she could almost make out the features of. It was a man. She blinked. It was a woman. It was neither and she couldn’t remember a single thing about either of the people she’d glimpsed. Not their hair, not the shape of their face not even the colour of their skin.
“Vivienne Dartwick,” a voice that was a dozen whispering voices said. “Thief.”
Hide, Thief thought. She could still feel the thing’s eyes on her. She leapt down and she should have been invisible, but when she headed for the window she was preparing to jump through there was a silhouette leaning against the wall to the side.
“You will survive the night,” the monster said.
The shock was enough for her aspect to ebb out.
“You’re,” she said and bit her tongue.
It waited for her in silence. It felt amused.
“Assassin,” she got out.
“You have not followed the rules, Vivienne Dartwick,” it said. “An agreement was made.”
“I’m not a member of the Guild of Thieves,” she said.
“You are a citizen of the Empire,” it said. “You are Named.”
“And we all know what you do to heroes,” she bit out, because she was going to die anyway wasn’t she? “Is that why you’re here? To nip me in the bud?”
“Are you?” the thing asked.
“A heroine?” it finished.
It had not come to kill her, she realized. This was an offer. Become a lapdog for the Empress, or else.
“I will not lick the boot on my throat,” she hissed.
“Then you will live under it,” the monster said. “There are rules. There are consequences. And only one warning.”
She blinked and it was gone. She didn’t come back home, that night, or the three nights that followed. When she did she saw her father had a healing gash on his throat. His manservant’s hand had shaken while shaving him, he said after he finished fussing over her. Vivienne knew better than that. Thief fled the city and did not steal from Praesi again, not even after her father was buried. Are you? That was the thing had asked. The words were echoing in her ears, when she heard of the Lone Swordsman and his call for other heroes to join rebellion. She went, against her better judgement. They echoed again in Laure, that night the devil came calling under moonlight.
She was not so certain of the answer as she’d once been.