The man crouched on the edge of a roof, legs curled beneath him, arms draped over his knees. His legs had long since gone numb from the position, but each time he considered getting up and getting his blood circulating again, someone walked beneath him and he froze, not wanting to draw attention to his perch. If he had known the stake-out would take this long, he would have started his vigil in a more reasonable position.
The man had been in the same spot for the past two hours, keeping an uninterrupted watch on the manor that rose from the protective hedge wall across the street. He had wanted his target enter hours before, and then never reemerge. Others had come and gone, noblemen and their ladies in expensive evening wear, usually pulled in to the property by a covered carriage. He had paid special attention to the leaving carriages, but so far had seen no sign of the woman he was waiting for. It was quickly turning into a frustrating exercise.
Before this night, the man had spent a week gathering intelligence about his target and the party she was attending at the manor. He had investigated the manor disguised as a servant, and kept track of the woman and her activities largely through well-placed bribes. The man had determined that she was a low-class noble with few higher-end acquaintances, and she didn’t often spent time with those above her. Which is what made her extended stay so strange and irritating. He had expected her in and out within an hour, the usual minimum mingling time frame that was considered polite.
Sighing, the man ran a hand over his face, trying to banish the onset of drowsiness that came from looking at one thing for too long. A couple walking down the street beneath him spoke quietly, the woman stifling a girlish giggle. Another carriage made its way slowly out of the archway in the manor’s hedge wall, carrying an elderly couple up the street to their own home. Music and the drone of conversation drifted across the street toward him, providing a faint background noise.
Just as he was considering another attempt to get his blood flowing properly, a lone woman passed beneath the archway into the street, pulling a shawl tightly around her shoulders like a security blanket. The man shifted, attention focused on the woman as she started down the street, glancing around her warily.
The man rose, his legs protesting the sudden movement with a wave of painful tingling, but he ignored it. If he spent time getting his limbs back in working order, the woman would become lost in the city and he’d have to wait for another chance to catch up with her.
Keeping low, the man hurried across the rooftop after the woman, jumping a gap between two buildings with ease, and keeping most of his attention focused on the person beneath him. Every now and then, she’d pause to look around before quickly pushing on, her heeled shoes beating a sharp rhythm against the cobblestone. Her shadow stretched and wavered around her as she passed the street lamps, occasionally making her jump.
The man stayed above and a little behind her as she hurried down the road, until she turned down a way he couldn’t follow on the rooftops. He swung down to the ground, landing in a crouch, a sharp tingling feeling shooting up his legs. He winced but quickly rose, following after the woman.
His target had turned down a darker side street, lit only by the small overhead lanterns of personal businesses and houses, most of which were dark. Her steps quickened, and he used the noise created by her heels to conceal any sounds he made as he hurried up behind her. A little more than halfway down the street, he slipped up behind the woman and wrapped one arm around her arms and torso, her other hand pressed tightly against her mouth.
The woman tensed and screamed, the sound muffled by the man’s hand. She struggled against his hold, still trying to get out a decent scream, tears running down her face and wetting his hand. He drew the woman closer, wincing each time she kicked him in the shin, and sent a force of will down his arm and into a stone sitting on the back of one hand.
The stone was smooth and rounded, approximately an inch in diameter. It was a deep blue with white speckling, like the night sky. When he put his will into the small stone, he star-like markings seemed to glow and twinkle merrily. The woman immediately quieted and stilled, her ragged breathing slowing to the smoother, natural rhythm of sleep. She went limp against the man and he braced himself to keep from falling with the dead weight.
Sighing heavily, the man let go and let the woman crumple to the ground. Something cracked against the cobblestones, but he ignored it. Though the woman would be bruised and hurting when she awoke, she could at least take solace in the fact that she was alive. The man thought that was considerate enough.
After making sure her spear-like heels hadn’t done too much damage to his legs, the man knelt next to her, lifting up folds of clothing and running his hands over her frame. It didn’t take long to find what he was looking for; a broach sat nestled among the folds of her dress, a red-orange stone set into a golden base. Smiling faintly, the man unclipped and removed the broach, tearing the dress slightly when the pin caught on the fabric.
The man turned the broach over in his hand, examining the stone. The center of the stone seemed to flicker with a yellow light, as if a small fire was burning within the stone. He nodded once, satisfied, and slipped the broach into a pocket as he rose. There was one more thing he needed to do before this night was over, and hopefully it wouldn’t take nearly as long.
The man left the area quickly, not wanting to be around when a patrol came through or when the woman woke up. He slipped through the darker streets, cutting across the brightly lit streets only when he had to. Given the choice, he always tended to use the path least traveled; it created fewer complications. He only started to walk the streets more openly when he hit the edge of town. Here, men like him were in command of the streets and buildings, while guards claimed nothing was amiss as they pocketed coins. It was a more comfortable place for the man, and he had been pleasantly surprised when his employer had set up their meeting in one of the seedier taverns in the area.
The tavern in question was on the very edge of town, isolated from the other businesses in the area. There were no lights outside, but warm firelight shone through the dusty windows. Shouts and laughter carried clearly onto the street, and as the man approached, a loud cheer exploded from the building, over a chorus of groans. The man slipped inside, squeezing through the small gap he could force in the doorway because of the chairs and people piled in the way, as a crowd watched what appeared to be a rather heated game of dice. Ignoring them, he moved over to a booth on the other side of the room, where one lone man sat.
The new man wore a long, dark cloak with the hood pulled up to hide his features. Only his nose, chin and the gleam of his eyes in the firelight could be seen among the shadows. A dagger lay on the table, a short distance from the hooded man’s hand, and he was slowly spinning a flask between his long fingers. The newly arrived thief nodded once to the hooded man and slid into the booth across from him.
“You’re late, Keagan,” said the hooded man in a quiet, even tone that was almost lost among the chatter and occasional raised voice from the gamblers across the room. “I expected you here more than an hour ago.”
Keagan shrugged, turning and lifting a hand to get the bartender’s attention. “That time was an estimate. When exactly my targets present themselves is beyond my control,” he said, fishing a coin out of his pocket and passing it to the woman who slid up next to their table with a tankard in hand. The coin quickly disappeared into her apron and she hurried away nimbly, weaving around tables and people with the ease of familiarity. Keagan watched her go, a small smirk playing across his face.
The hooded man huffed and shoved the flask in a pocket. “Then next time, give me the latest estimated time. I don’t like to be kept waiting, Keagan, and especially not here,” he said darkly.
Keagan took a long drink and wiped his mouth with his sleeve, quietly watching the other man’s glowing, cat-like eyes for a moment. “This meeting place was your idea. If you were so against waiting here, perhaps you could have chosen somewhere more fitting for one of your status,” Keagan pointed out, and the eyes within the shadows narrowed.
“You know that would be too dangerous for both of us,” the hooded man snapped. “And this isn’t the point of meeting here. Did you at least complete the job?”
Nodding, Keagan glanced quickly around the room before pulling the broach from his pocket and sliding it to his employer. The hooded man looked it over briefly before snorting and stowing it away inside his cloak. “I find it amazing, how many people possess barachs and choose to wear them for fashion instead of practicality. I doubt that woman even knew what this could do.”
“It’s my experience that nobles rarely have the need to use barachs; their lives are good enough without the help,” Keagan said, sitting back against the rough wooden bench and cradling his tankard in both hands. The hooded man glared at him but didn’t argue. “So where’s the money you promised me?”
The hooded man nodded, his hair brushing audibly against his hood, and dug around in his pocket. He pulled four silver coins from his cloak and stacked them, sliding them across the table to the thief. Kegan frowned at the small stack, setting aside his tankard. “I was promised a gold piece. I’d like my full payment,” he said dangerously, one hand falling to the knife at his belt. The hooded man’s own hand slid a little closer to the dagger on the table, but still sat relaxed on the surface.
“I offered one gold piece for this to be delivered in a timely manner. You kept me waiting far longer than I would have preferred, so your pay has been cut,” the hooded man said calmly, and Keagan narrowed his eyes, fingers curling around the hilt of his knife. “Besides, my next offer will more than compensate your loss.” The end of his sentence was punctuated by a collective shout from the large group nearly, followed by a loud accusation of cheating and boisterous laughter. Keagan and his companion waited for the commotion to die down before continuing their conversation.
“How will I know you won’t short me again?” Keagan demanded, leaning forward and resting one elbow on the table. “I’m not risking a bigger loss just because some noble isn’t getting his way.” The hooded man growled quietly under his breath, fist clenching on the table top. Keagan unsheathed his knife and set it calmly on the table, silently warning his companion that he was ready if it came to blows.
The hooded man sighed and visibly forced himself to relax, fingers uncurling slowly until his hand rested palm-down on the table. “If you help, I will pay half up front, and you can collect the rest when you’ve finished the job. As long as you give me an accurate time frame and don’t screw up, your pay will remain the same.”
Frowning slightly, Keagan considered the offer, eyeing the small stack of silver in front of him. “What’s the job?” he asked, slowly reaching for his tankard.
“Another retrieval job,” the hooded man said, satisfaction evident in his voice. “There’s a collector in Koslun who is suspected of holding freshly excavated barachs without getting them registered. If this is true, he will have a sizable collection; I’d like as many as you can get me. The reward will be a total of three platinum.”
Keagan’s eyebrows rose and he nearly choked on his drink, quickly working to regain his composure. “That’s a lot of money,” he rasped, throat burning from the alcohol.
“It’s a lot of barachs,” the hooded man pointed out. “And as promised, I will give you one platinum and five gold now; the rest will be given upon completion.”
Though Keagan was silent for a while, half listening to a heated debate about which roll was superior, he had made his decision as soon as the offer was made. “Deal,” he finally said, scooping up the silver in front of him.
“Good,” the hooded man said pleasantly, digging around in another pocket. He pulled out a small square of parchment, as well as the promised coins, sliding all of it across the table. “Half your pay, and the details of the job. I hope to hear from you soon, Keagan. I can be in Koslun within three days.” With that, the man grabbed his dagger and rose, adjusting his hood. “Happy hunting.” Then he was gone, slipping between the other patrons and out the door.
Keagan pocketed the coins quickly and sheathed his own knife. He put the parchment away in a pocket, resolving to read it later. He had just finished a job; he deserved a break before starting another. With that thought, he gathered up his drink and joined the table where two drunken men battled for the contents of the other’s wallet. The job could wait.
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