[Working Title] Dark Lord's Stand-in

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Chapter 1

A man clad all in black and carrying a heavy, fully stuffed burlap sack slung over his shoulder sprinted down the flagstone streets, pursued by a squad of City Guards. A shrill tinny whistle echoed from the thief’s right, informing him that more Guards had joined the chase and that he would soon have no avenue of escape in that direction. This did not concern him, for his destination was less than five blocks away and to the left. What was of concern was the squad currently on his tail. Especially if… He glanced backwards briefly and, sure enough, saw a particular pattern of dents in the helmet of the squad’s leader. The thief was so light on his feet that most City Guards could only dream of catching him in a straight run, but Jacques was the exception the proved the rule.

Just four blocks to go, though, the thief thought hopefully, kicking off a rain barrel to round the corner without losing any speed. His goal was in sight now, and he heard Jacques’s hobnailed boots scrabbling as the Guard was forced to turn in a far less graceful manner. The thief allowed himself a tiny chuckle, but his amusement quickly turned into a muttered curse when, two and half blocks to go, an unexpected obstacle presented itself in the form of crowd of people crossing through the intersection ahead of them. The people were all dressed in oddly cut suits or oversized tunics in nonsensical color patterns and shoes made of some strange not-quite-leather material.

Tourists, the thief thought sourly. Coulda sworn there weren’t any groups scheduled for this part of town today. Without breaking stride, the thief quickly scanned his surroundings and considered his options. Bulling straight through the Tourists would give him the chance to lift a few trinkets, but it would slow him down too much. He could climb up to the roofs with ease even with the heavy sack weighing him down, but with his goal so close he would only be giving Jacques and the other Guards ample time to cut him off before he could descend again.

Mere paces before having to commit to certain, if appropriately showy, defeat, the thief spotted a net full of bricks held suspended near a roof via a rope run through a pulley and secured to an anchor on the ground. It was exactly the sort of set-up that served no practical purpose besides as a set-piece but which Tourists rarely noticed until it was triggered. Drawing his dagger at the same instant he lurched to the side, the thief grabbed the rope with his sack-bearing hand and sliced it just above the anchor knot, then prayed that the weight of his loot wouldn’t interfere with the stunt.

Luck was on his side; the bricks fell quickly as soon as the rope was cut and the thief was hauled upward. Angling his legs, he ran along the wall in a rising arc, gaining just enough momentum before the rope grew too short to launch himself clear over the heads of the astonished Tourists and land cleanly on the far side of the group. Sparing barely enough time to grace the Tourists with a roguish smirk, the thief sprinted down the street again.

Last block, and he could see the open door of the Frog n’ Toad. Jacques had made it through the crowd of Tourists, who had naturally stopped right in the middle of the intersection to watch, and was gaining quickly, but the thief reached the tavern and skidded through the door with feet to spare. “Grog, now!” he barked at the barman as he crossed the room, vaulting an empty table and slinging the sack down from his shoulder. Barely stopping in time, he hopped onto a stool at the bar, hefted the sack over the bar and out of sight, and grasped the mug the barman slid to him. “Safe,” the thief declared, and then flinched when a hand clapped him on the shoulder from behind. He glanced back and smiled weakly at Jacques’s stern face. “I made it clean,” the thief insisted, lifting his mug slightly.

“’Course you did, Kurt,” Jacques said. He released his grip and took the stool next to the thief, catching his breath. “To be frank, you were clean the moment you got inside; the Tourists all stayed put.”

Kurt relaxed and turned around on his stool to survey the tavern, sipping his drink. “I figured I should play it safe and go all the way,” he said, relaxing further when he recognized all the faces of the only four other patrons. “Those Tourists weren’t s’posed to be on that street; might’ve been one or two snuck their way in here.”

“Fair enough,” Jacques said. “So, good take this time?”

Kurt turned back around and nodded at the barman, who reached down and lifted the sack onto the bar and started unloading it and inspecting the stolen goods. “I managed to make off with a lot of things, at least,” Kurt said. “Which is particular impressive given that ol’ Lord Melstrup had some new alarms to try out on me.”

“You got spotted at the Havelok house, though,” Jacques said, raising an eyebrow. Kurt just gave him a look, and Jacques nodded in comprehension. “Right, of course you beat Melstrup’s security anyway.”

“Course I did,” Kurt boasted, “I’m the greatest Wealth Redistributor in Roumont, after all! Oh!” He fished in his pocket and pulled out a tight roll of narrow paper, handing it to the barkeep. “You’ll probably be wanting my receipt, Frank. The ‘commissions’ are first, followed by everything else in order of the houses I hit.”

Frank took and unrolled the receipt without a word. He checked the top of the list and sorted out three statuettes and a candlestick. “You hit all your targets,” Frank said, setting the receipt down, “so you’ve at least made enough to cover your rent for the week. I’ll have the rest of this sorted and your pay ready by morning.” Turning to Jacques, he asked, “Could I tempt you into delivering the ransomed pieces for a tenner?”

The Guard considered for a second, and then shook his head. “Nah, I’m good on pay for the moment. I’ll have ’em send a rookie in the morning.” The barkeep nodded and went back to examining the stolen goods. Jacques got up and clapped Kurt on the shoulder again. “I’ll get you next time, lightfoot,” he said.

“You can try,” Kurt replied with a grin and a wave as the Guard left the tavern.

Kurt came down the tavern’s common room the next morning to find a coin purse tagged with his name sitting at the end of the bar next to a plate of egg-on-toast. Frowning, he picked up he purse and gave it a little toss, finding it was actually a tad heavier than expected. He stole a quick peek behind the bar, seeing nothing of note, before Frank stepped out of the kitchen rolling the day’s new ale keg ahead of him. “Hey, Frank,” Kurt said, dangling the coin purse from his hand, “this can’t be all of it!”

“Afraid so, Kurt,” Frank said, hefting the keg into place. “Everything you stole was either a commission or on a ransom account.”

“Couldn’t be,” the thief protested. “What about the stuff I lifted from Prucelle? The copper dogs and the lumenium-handle knife? Prucelle doesn’t maintain a ransom account; I ought to be able to fence those.”

“Actually, Prucelle started an account just yesterday morning, according to the latest guild record.”

“Feh,” Kurt grumbled, sinking onto a stool and poking at his egg-on-toast with a fork, “fine time for the old man to finally give a damn about his treasures.”

“You’ve hit Prucelle for at least a good thousand on almost every job you’ve run in the last two months,” Frank pointed out. “So you only have yourself to blame.”

Kurt emptied the purse and counted the coins with one hand as he ate his breakfast. “Cuss,” he muttered, “I needed something I could fence during off-season.” Once winter officially arrived and the flow of Tourists shifted south to the Khopesh Sahara, the wealthy and noblesque of Roumont would be spending more of their nights holed up in their mansions and townhomes, leaving fewer openings for a thief to work undetected. Worse still, running about on a rooftop covered in snow and ice was a death sentence for even the most skilled of burglars.

Kurt finished his toast and dumped the money back into the purse, and then stood up and went over to the large cork board hanging on the north wall. It was covered in posters about alleged local news and wanted criminals who either didn’t exist or were filling a role in some Tour or another. After checking that the tavern was empty save for the barkeep, Kurt pressed a hidden button on the board’s frame, causing the board to flip around to show its real purpose: requests from the Thieves Guild for various Tour-related and Wealth Redistribution jobs. Normally there were more job postings than active thieves, but this morning the board was almost empty. “Frank,” Kurt called over his shoulder in a tone that was certainly not panic or whining, “what happened to all the jobs?”

“Hm?” Frank stepped out from behind the bar and came over to look. “That’s strange… Wait, no, there’s a Lull Week coming up, that’s why.”

“Lull Week?” Kurt exclaimed. “Why the cuss is there going to be a Lull Week? The season ends in less than a month!” Tourists typically moved about the country in large groups, accompanied by guides and secretly trailed by small armies of support staff and recurring “actors.” Several such Tours occurred simultaneously and had to follow convoluted paths to avoid encountering one another and spoiling the experience. So many sets of feet, hooves, paws, and wheels hiking about and engaging in occasional simulated battles took a toll on the wild landscape and more especially the croplands and pastures of poor farmers. Without occasional Lull Weeks, when Tours were suspended and teams of Warlocks armed with restorative spells were dispatched from Dyrklan Citadel and the College, the whole nation would quickly fall under the scourge of persistent famine. For those who lived in the cities, a Lull Week generally meant a brief respite from Tourists and lighter workloads. Normally, Kurt wouldn’t have notice or cared about the lack of good work, but he needed something to carry him through the off-season and he wasn’t willing to take a chance on getting a good haul in the mere two weeks left after the end of the Lull, especially since it seemed like every man of means had a ransom account now.

Frank simply shrugged at Kurt’s outburst; the machinations of the Tourism Board were beyond him. Scowling, Kurt quickly read through the few notices left on the board. Every one of them was for small jobs like lifting Tourist wallets or acting the rabbit for Guard trainees – low-paying jobs only fit for amateur thieves in desperate need of practice. But then he found a half-torn paper pinned to a corner of the board, upside down. Kurt turned the paper upright and read, “interested parties must present themselves at the servant’s gate of Dyrklan Citadel and ask for Karlon. Payment negotiable upon hire.”

“I wonder what the Dark Lord wants a thief for,” Kurt mused, removing the paper and folding it into a pocket. “Any ideas, Frank?”

The barkeep shook his head. “I’m not the one who put that on the board,” he answered. “Are you going to look into it? Someone else may have beat you to it already, since the notice is torn.”

“I don’t have anything better to do,” Kurt replied, folding the paper up and putting it in his pocket. “And maybe I’ll find an opportunity in another city.”

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