Chapter 12: A Thief in the Night
After receiving his pay, Absalom, the privateer, climbed the great white steps of the Lion’s Maw in silence. His wiry frame cast the slimmest of shadows on the marble stairs, and his footsteps were as silent as a feather fall. Pausing to pull back his dark locks of hair that hung to his shoulders with a bit of string, he tied them to a ponytail, ensuring his line of sight was unobstructed. Quick hands were only as good as a sharp eye. Average in height, Absalom, studied his reflection in a puddle of water near his feet. He was perfectly unremarkable in every way, an everyman that could blend in the crowd and vanish, ideal for his line of work. As he made his way up and around the terraces, lying within the mouth of the great stone beast, he saw that the merchant kiosks were empty, covered in dust and in disrepair. Whatever commerce existed here had left long ago. He shook his head and continued up the steps until he came to the great western gate at the top of the cliff, opened wide and guarded by two sentinels.
“Evening, sir. Where is your business tonight?” A guard approached him.
“In the market district, where else?” Absalom noticed the guard gripped the hilt of his sword tightly. “What of it? Does the Queen track our every movement now?”
“There’s talk of invasion, spies within the walls, and the like.”
“You’d hardly know one by questioning one, would you? Tell your chief he needs better tactics if that’s his concern.” Absalom tossed the guard a coin. “Let this speak for me.”
The guard smiled as he caught the coin. “Have a pleasant evening.”
Absalom smirked. It was always the same with that bunch. Their morality could always be counted on to grovel when it came to the clink of extra coin.
Absalom moved forward into the Ambassador’s Square. What could easily be the center of any town in the land, this court only made up the western edge of Gilead’s sprawling boundaries. The plaza itself stretched near 200,000 feet around its perimeter and was lined with mansions and shops on all sides. In days past, Absalom remembered dignitaries were met by the King here. A sprawling purple carpet runner would be laid across the humble cobblestone so that their feet might never touch the filthy walkways the commoners used.
He had been just a boy then, unaware of what the pomp and circumstance actually meant, a regal circus signifying a station he could never achieve, a reminder of his humble place in the world. Only a guard’s swift kick to his stomach when he drew too close to the runner had impressed upon him the lesson. He was glad the King’s jewel of a city was crumbling – there was a certain sick satisfaction seeing it slowly wither. But the people he knew here, the little ones who struggled to get by, kept him from walking away completely.
Absalom made his way across the plaza to the eastern side and the winding Market Street that curved and wound its way into the heart of the city. The houses here were less grand, tightly abutting each other, and felt more like home. The candlelights from the windows were welcoming eyes compared to the cold emptiness of the Square. His mother had promised them a home here one day, but Absalom knew her words were empty. Her gentlemen callers rarely paid what they promised, and more often than not she’d return to their hovel with a black eye or a bruised limb, until one day she didn’t return at all.
As Absalom entered the market district he saw the same old bustling activity from vendors breaking down their carts and kiosks for the night, though the night was now a constant in the land. A call here for more rope, a laugh between two others, and promises of drinks to come. This portion of the city hadn’t changed at all.
He had only been twelve when he found his mother’s broken body in a back alley, no sign of the aggressor in sight. He wandered in a stupor for days, until his growling stomach woke him from his daze. It was then that he learned his meager frame was an asset. It was here in the streets that he learned to survive. He could move unnoticed and pilfer any vendor’s stall with ease. Instead of a harsh and unforgiving corner, he found the district to be a banquet table, open to any who braved to dine at it.
Alleyways broke out in all directions from the main bazaar here, and he’d explored each, save for the few that led southeast into the great cemetery. Every gutter snipe knew the field of tombs within the city walls was haunted and even most adults preferred to bypass it and brave the old sector of town instead. There one could enjoy the fine delicacies of opium, liquor, and the company of whores before stumbling out of the crumbling eastern gate onto the moors.
Absalom wondered if his old shanty in the old sector was still standing, but the impulse to visit it died quickly. Even if the landlord hadn’t let it burn to the ground, there were no fond memories there. The quiet desperation in his mother’s soft sobbing at night would echo in his mind again if he saw those cracked walls and rotting door.
Instead, he followed the course of the market road as it ran northward out of the bazaar and into the temple district, a place he’d happily avoided as an urchin for fear of dying from boredom. The white marble columns and lavish finery that hung on travertine walls and altars never spoke to him as it did to the religious types. His provider was the clink of an unguarded coin purse; his god was real.
As Absalom approached a brazier of burning coals he saw his fence appear from the shadows. The grizzled face and hunched figure of the man in the dirty overcoat could have blended into any crowd, a fact Absalom knew this particular scoundrel took full advantage of.
“Bout’ time, you sloth. Figured you was held up by that captain of the guard, or chief warrant officer or whatever it is they call him.” The fence laughed.
“Cutty, the day that boy-captain bests me is the day I retire.” Absalom smiled. “So, what’s the mark?”
“Not really a mark per se – but I thought you might be interested. What with the curfew and all the talk of invasion going about, many in the palace up north are eyeing their retirement funds early. One in particular might be a real catch. Seems the King has a chest he keeps well locked in his bedroom.” Cutty scratched at his chin. “Too heavy to run off with, of course, and too tough to break. A five-tumbler lock to boot. They say no one can crack it, but then I thought of you.”
“I’ve never tried the castle before,” Absalom eyed the road as it ran northward up a hill to the castle and its courtyard in the distance.
“Which is damn surprising if you ask me,” Cutty continued, “You can hit any target and get out free as a bird, and there’s the biggest mark in the land and you ignore it.”
“I wouldn’t say ‘ignore’ Cutty, I just have my reasons. There’s a scab there I’m not sure I should pick.”
“Scab eh? I say rip it off. Royal wounds bleed gold.” Cutty slapped Absalom’s back. “Either way, you’re on your own. I’m leaving tonight for Northport. Too many things stirring here for my comfort. You ever figure a way and get out alive, let me know.”
“Aye.” Absalom nodded as he gazed at the castle walls. His brow furrowed. Perhaps it was time to reopen the wound.