Friday, August 01
"Lot number eight: a compass rose in fine gold set in clear quartz..."
My name's Lyra. I'm a thief.
"...representing the rune Kirath, or Direction..."
At least, I was a thief. No violent stuff, mind you. Warehouses. Jewellers. The occasional top-floor job.
"...this item comes from the estate of Ser Wyle Haveres, with documentation dating it to at least the Restoration period..."
These days, I don't know what I am. Secretary? Book-keeper? Baby-sitter is what it sometimes feels like.
"...although it bears no maker's mark, the style and materials indicate that it may have been produced during the last days of the Old High Kingdom."
My employer is a Magician. Of sorts. I mean, he is a registered Magician; he wears the Star and everything.
"Shall we start bidding at five pounds?"
Five? For that cheap north-country knock-off? Five shillings is more like it. I've seen Joshua do better work with a headache so bad he could hardly see. Hell, I could probably do better.
"Five pounds, thank you sir. Five pounds five. Five pounds ten."
Oh, yeah, Joshua. Joshua ben Abbez, my boss, my charge, my great trial in life. As I was saying, he's a true Magician, Guild-licensed. But: I've seen him perform magic maybe a total of twelve times in the six months I've worked for him. And one of those times was lighting the fire when the wood was damp.
"Six pounds, thank you my lady. Six pounds ten."
What he does, mostly, is read. And sleep. And when he's not reading or sleeping, he works on runestones.
"Seven pounds, thank you. Do I hear seven pounds five?"
God, I hope not. Even with this crowd, any one of whom could afford seven pounds without blinking, I hate to see people getting ripped off like that.
Unless it's me doing the, um, ripping off. I've played that game a time or two, as well.
"No? Very well, sold for seven pounds. And now I'll draw your attention to lot number nine..."
With a partner to do the fancy talking, and me along to show a bit of leg, maybe undo a button or two on my blouse, make sure our new friend isn't thinking too clearly about what's being said.
"...Esak, the double spiral, or Loss, in white gold set in ivory..."
Actually a nice bit of work, this one. Joshua's got at least half a dozen like it, albeit not in white gold, or I'd be taking a closer look myself. Not necessarily to buy, mind you.
"...with the mark of Siram Magister..."
More likely one of his students. If old Siram had produced everything that has shown up since his death with his mark on it, he would have been a very busy boy. Even if he did live to a hundred and thirty.
"I'd like to start the bidding at ten pounds. Thank you sir. Ten pounds ten."
Gah. It's a different world, I tell you. Back on the Coast I'd have been lucky to see ten pounds all year, but here in the capital...
I guess I'm moving in a different crowd these days, too. Chalk that one up to Joshua as well.
"Eleven pounds, thank you. Eleven pounds ten."
Joshua, yes. Runestones. That's what it's all about, what I'm here for.
Joshua studies runestones.
Now, lots of people study magic, and hence use runestones. A smaller number make runestones, and that's a real skill. And others still buy and sell the stones after they're made.
"Thirteen pounds, thank you my lord. Thirteen pounds ten."
But Joshua, being Joshua, studies the stones themselves. He owns maybe five hundred of them, some as fine as this ivory Loss that's selling for -
"Fifteen pounds ten. Do I hear sixteen pounds? Thank you sir."
And he makes them, and I sell them, and that provides enough money for him to read and sleep and for me to dress up like a lady and spend a fine summer's day in a stuffy hall watching stones no better made than ours going for twenty times the price.
"Seventeen pounds twice. Sold. Thank you, your excellency."
Now the interesting thing, and the reason I'm wearing three pounds of lace and four petticoats, is that there aren't that many different runestones. When you ignore the materials, and just look at the patterns, there are maybe ninety different runes in common use. According to Joshua, there are about sixty more known to the High Guilds - and those don't get traded at public auction - and another thirty or so held secret by various scholars and Mages.
"And now to lot number ten, an unidentified rune, possibly a House Sigil..."
House Sigil my arse. It's Desere, the Carrion, and it's got no business turning up here. It hasn't been seen since the fall of the High Kingdom, and I doubt there are more than five people in the city who could identify it. Joshua being one, and me, as of yesterday, being another.
"...of platinum set in black opal. The work is very fine, and the materials alone are worth at least ten pounds..."
So today I'm Joshua's eyes and ears to see just who picks up this little trifle from the pits of hell. He would have preferred to have come himself, but even he has to admit that would have been just a touch conspicuous.
"Ten pounds, thank you ma'am. Eleven pounds. Twelve pounds."
Crap. Time to pay attention.
Lord Aronak, the younger son of the Duke of the South Isles. A collector and a magical dilettante. Wouldn't know carrion from camphor.
Lady Ystre. Widow of Sir Daret Ystre. Now, she's a registered Sorceress. High Guild, and someone to watch.
Cale Arrens, second Sealord. What's he doing here?
"Sixteen pounds, thank you sir."
Big guy, braided grey hair - one of the March Wardens. Selmor?
No, not Selmor. Maris. Right up against the forest. Not a few Magicians end up there, so close to the ruins of -
"Twenty pounds, thank you, my lady."
Eh? Looking at me, no, behind me. I'm sitting at the back, but with no few heads turning, I take the chance for a quick look. Tall, slim, dressed in dove grey. Grey hat, with a veil. Widow's clothes. Standing, though there's no shortage of seats.
Aronak again. I doubt his father will be pleased if he wins this one.
"Twenty-five pounds, thank you."
No one in front of me had twitched. Our mystery lady again.
Aronak. He doesn't like having his toys taken away.
Oof. Thirty pounds would buy a farm, back home. Even here, it would buy my way into any of the Guilds.
"Do I hear thirty-five? Thank you sir."
"I have a bid of thirty-five pounds."
And nobody's game to move a muscle.
"Sold. Thank you sir."
And now people stir and start breathing again.
At that time we were living in the attic of what used to be some rich lord's town house and was now three floors of apartments above a bakery. Our attic was the fifth floor, and though it was a pain hauling water up there, it had its advantages. It was roomy, and high enough to catch the sea breeze at night, and we had the use of the ancient furniture that had been stored there prior to our arrival. Our unknown lord's third best, perhaps, but still better than I was used to.
Best of all, living above a bakery meant waking up to seven kinds of wonderful smells every morning.
Morning was well past, though, by the time I returned from my mission. I bought two pastries and headed upstairs to find out what state Joshua was in today. He was bent over the workbench and didn't so much as look up when I came in. But that's not him being rude, that's just him being Joshua.
I dropped one of the pastries onto the bench beside him. "Lunch", I said.
I was about half-way through my pastry before he leaned back, rubbed his neck, and blinked at me. I nudged the pastry towards him and waited for him to pick it up.
"Aronak", I said. "Thirty-five pounds."
He chewed thoughtfully for a moment. "If it's real, it's worth ten times that. More."
Scary thought. I shook my head to clear it.
"Plus, we had a mysterious lady."
He looked straight at me now. "Did she bid?"
"Up to thirty."
"Um." He took another mouthful of pastry, chewed slowly. "No-one you recognised?"
I shook my head again. "Wearing widow's dress, veil and everything. I didn't see her come in." I hadn't seen her leave, for that matter. "No servants, no guards. Looked like she was alone."
"Maris. Ystre. Arrens, the Sealord. That's it."
"Um." A pause. "I doubt Aronak has any idea what he's just bought. Unless he's fronting for someone. Even if he is fronting for someone."
We looked at each other.
"So what next?" I said.
He pushed the chair back and stood up. His hand went to massage his neck again. "I don't trust Aronak with the stone. More to the point, I don't trust Aronak to keep hold of it. We've seen at least four others with an interest in it, and I wouldn't be surprised if there are more we haven't seen. Our Lady Ystre wouldn't think twice about stealing it - or having it stolen. If she knows what it is."
I could see where this was headed, and I didn't like it. "So you want -"
"There's no way we could have got it out of Bethel's." The auction house. He was right, their security is solid. "But now -" His voice trailed off as he noticed my expression.
"You want me to break into South Isles House? Is that all? Maybe I could burgle the palace while I'm at it?"
He shook his head. "You said you were good at this."
"I am. But -"
"I told you what that stone means. Do you really want it in Aronak's hands? Or Ystre's? Or your mysterious widow's?"
Not fair. What he'd told me last night had left me with a case of the shuddering creeps. Desere, one of the cornerstones of death magic. With the stone, and the right knowledge, a Sorceror could turn magic into silent, invisible death. Worse, he could turn death into magic: power his spells by the taking of human life. That was one of the nastier secrets of the Old Kingdom, and not one I'd like to see resurface.
"So why not just tell the Empress? Make it her problem?"
He was at the bookcase now, pulling out a heavy black volume. "For a start, I couldn't get an audience with the Empress without explaining the whole thing to at least three layers of officials. Not much of a secret then."
"Well, then tell the First Mage."
"Same problem. Worse, to see Lord Ryan I'd have to explain myself to the Guild. I'd sooner put my hand in a hornet's nest." He dropped his book onto the workbench with a bang, making me jump. "Besides, there's another problem. Something I didn't mention last night." He wouldn't look at me now, which meant he was going to tell me something I didn't want to know.
"There's a death penalty for even knowing about any of this."
"You - what -"
"I wasn't going to tell you, but you have to understand why this needs to be done."
"But you were quite happy to tell me all about this - this stone of yours - and bring me under the death penalty?"
He had the decency to look uncomfortable. "Who else was I going to tell?" He rubbed his face. "Look: you break in, grab the stone. Bring it back here, I destroy it. End of problem."
Somewhere inside my head, a little voice was crying no, no, no. "How will I even find the thing? The stone's barely an inch square, and that place is huge."
That gave him pause for a moment, but only for a moment.
He blinked. "Kuzke."
"Bless you." I said.
"Kuzke", he said, "the Fly. It would resonate in close proximity to Desere." He really talks like that. "I can make you a detector. You'd just wave it about and head whichever way the vibration's strongest." He nodded, happy now. "Silver wire in glass, I think. It wouldn't need to last very long. Um." He started pulling materials together on the workbench.
"Wait a minute!" I grabbed his shoulder. He was lucky I didn't grab his neck. "You want me to wander all over one of the biggest mansions in the city, waving a buzzing piece of glass? Maybe I should tell the guards I'm checking for termites? Maybe I should dress up as a termite? I could hardly draw more attention to myself!"
"Knowing Aronak, it will be in his rooms. Just wait until he's asleep, go in through his window, the detector will take you straight to it. Easy."
The little voice was screaming now. "If it's so easy, why don't you do it?"
He blinked at me, astonished. "I'll be busy."
"I have to prepare to destroy the stone."
"Prepare? What prepare?" My grammar was starting to slip, but I was upset. "We can just hit it with a hammer. I'd be happy to."
He blinked again. "Um, no. I wouldn't do that."
"Desere. It's death magic. Not a common rune like Fero." Fire. Even I know that one. "If it's been used, it will have picked up traces of the spell. Breaking it would release those traces. Even if it's clean, the binding energies would be enough to -" He swallowed. "Don't smash it."
"What would happen?"
He opened the book, starting leafing through it near the end. "Let's just say you'd die. Almost certainly die."
Oh, good. "Don't smash the stone."
"Right. Right. Now if we couple Kuzke to Ayin, hmm, need copper wire for that." He was gone. And so was my evening.
So, an hour after midnight by the town hall clock, I was clinging to a drainpipe forty feet above the very hard-looking ground. Inside the fence of South Isles House, where I had no intention of remaining any longer than I had to.
It felt good be in my old clothes again, except that the outfit had apparently shrunk over the past few months. Black leather vest, leaving the arms free. Black leather pants, tight so as not to catch on anything. Slippers, black of course. A fine net kept my hair in place, and helped hide it from view. White-blond is not the best colour for a burglar.
Black gloves too, which flashed into sight now as I pulled the shim from my belt.
The fence had been no problem: four feet of sandstone and six of wrought iron, I'd been over it in seconds. The guards seem disinclined to patrol, bless them, and I was careful not to give them any reason to stir themselves.
The tricky part was in the magical wards. I'd fully expected them, and come prepared. The shim would stretch the ward on the window without breaking it. Once it was stretched far enough, I could pop the window (with a ward on it, the lock was not likely to be up to much) and climb through undetected.
Unfortunately for my plan, the shim started growling angrily before the ward was six inches away from the window. I took the warning and eased it back. The ward was either better work than usual, or very fresh. There wasn't enough slack there to let a cat through, much less me.
Well, more than one way to crack a nut - or a window. I made sure of my footing, then opened the pocket on my vest where my favourite toys lived. What I pulled out now was a pair of short, black and white rods. They looked like common wards - what you'd use to seal a door or window if you didn't have a Magician on hand to do a custom job.
They weren't, quite.
I eased the first rod up against the near side of the window. There's a knack to this, and I had it. The rod grated gently in my hand - those wards were tight - and then found its place, and held. The second rod took a little longer, held at arm's length, but after a few moments, it slid into place too.
I felt a puff of air as the ward dissolved into the night.
The lock was no better than I'd expected, just a latch on the inside to hold the window closed. My slimmest knife soon had it out of the way. Now for the window itself. I wiggled it gently in the frame. Sometimes in these old houses you'll find the windows painted shut, but whoever maintained this place was on the ball. The window slid up smooth and silent.
I parted the curtains just far enough to look into the room beyond. No light, no movement. I took Joshua's glass rod out now, and held it up.
Ugh. It vibrated all right, a nasty grating buzz that felt like I had insects gnawing their way up the bones of my arm. Back in the pocket with that one.
Through the window now, no more hesitating. Feet touching carpet, quiet as a mouse. I straightened up. It was almost, not quite, pitch dark inside the room; I could make out faint details in the corners of my eyes. The bed, there; a bookcase; a door; a wardrobe. I pulled the rod out again, and waved it in a slow arc in front of me.
The bed? Yes, no question, the rod buzzed gleefully at the bed, even seeming to tug at my hand. I edged closer, nervous. I preferred my houses empty, of people anyway. The vibration grew stronger as I slipped further into the room. The insects were munching clear up to my shoulder now, sparking little waves of nausea that seemed to stem from my collar bones.
I was right beside the bed now, and I could see a figure - presumably Aronak - in it, fast asleep, not moving.
I keep a glowstone on a chain around my neck, under the vest. I pulled it out now, squeezed it gently for just a touch of pale yellow light. I looked.
Bad. Bad, bad, bad.
The glowstone went back under the vest. I held the glass rod out towards Aronak's corpse. Nausea. Grating buzzing worms crawling through me. I held on, waved the rod over the body for a moment. More of the same.
Kuzke, the Fly. Right. Resonates to Carrion, right. Good one, Joshua.
Rod, back in the pocket. No light, no sound. I eased my way back to the window. Looked out: no guards, no movement. Out, closing the window behind me. I took the time to tease the latch back into place. My little toys came loose from the window frame easily enough; the ward would be back to normal by morning.
Now: down. Pause, listen. Across the little patch of garden. Up onto the fence. Over the top, smooth; you've done this a hundred times. Down, on my toes, knees bent, fingers brushing the ground.
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