1. The Stranger's Commission
Locke took a quick look at his cards memorised them then put them face down on the table. Two pairs, two griffins and two manticores; it was a good hand.
“Switch or play?” Asked the scar-faced dealer sitting across the table from him.
“I’ll play.” Locke responded. The dealer moved round the table distributing cards of varying value face down. In a flash Locke pulled out a dagger and pinned the player on his right to the table by his sleeve. With his left hand he carefully removed two cards from the offending sleeve; they were both dragons, the highest value cards in the game.
“Get off me!” The cheat protested.
“Brian if you will persist in cheating like this I will have to exclude you from our games.” Locke said calmly.
“A lifelong ban I suggest.” Growled a face from across the table no less scared than the dealer’s.
“No Tacrad! I’m sorry I didn’t want to only I need the money very badly, I’ve got people on my back.”
“And these people are scarier than I am are they?” Tacrad asked.
“No, of course not. Locke I’m sorry.” He said looking at him for salvation.
“You know what? I’m bored with playing anyway, has anyone got anything better than two pairs.”
“What of?” Asked a hopeful voice.
“Griffins and Manticores.” Locke said flipping the cards over. The hopeful speaker sighed in annoyance. All the other players did likewise flipping over their cards resentfully. Locke got out of his chair and started to scoop up the coins in the middle of the table. He picked out his knife from Brian’s sleeve leaning over as he did so. “I’d get a head start if I were you.” He advised. At once Brian scrambled out of his chair and ran up the stairs. Tacrad and the others laughed loudly at his exit. Locked piled the last of the coins into a pouch and said his goodbyes to the other players.
“Be careful on your way home Locke. I hear there are thieves around these parts.” Tacrad said with a nasty smile.
“If I meet any I’ll be sure to tell you.” Locke returned heading up the stairs Brian had sprinted up. He stepped out into a dark storeroom from where he could hear the sounds of the tavern coming through the walls. It was nearly and the trade was still going strong. At least that was something the Priests had not been able to put a stop to not yet anyway.
Locke made his way through the stuffy room past the boozing customers into the street. It was barely less hot outside than it was inside. There was no sea breeze tonight to mitigate the sweltering heat of summer.
No one had ever been able to work out the cause for the climates of the world. It was not just a matter of being close or far from the equator there were so many variables involved, not least of which being the presence of magic in the atmosphere, that meteorology was a discipline slightly more difficult to master than alchemy. So it was that the weather experienced by people on the eastern side of the Northern Continent’s southern coast was more akin to the kind found in the city-states of the Central Continent, six hundred miles across water to the south, than it was to other places much closer. This was particularly true of Mersudia that might get ten degrees hotter in summer than other cities to be found within Loresia.
Over in the bay there were ships coming into dock even at this time in the morning. The trade routes between the city-states and the Northern Continent were the busiest in the world. Despite the distance the passage was relatively easy by sailing standards and the south coast had a number of good ports and beneficial tides to guide ships in. It was scarcely more difficult to travel four hundred miles up the coast to Harminas than it was to stop at Mersudia. Nonetheless, Mersudia still got more than its fair share of marine traffic coming into its harbours and not just from the city-states. Now and then a strange looking vessel would arrive from as far afield as the Eastern Continent or the Desert Kingdoms that lay in the far south of the Central Continent.
Once upon a time, or more accurately five hundred years ago, Mersudia had been called something else. Locke could never remember what only that it had sounded elven. Like most people born in the centuries since the creation of the Southlands anything that came before that time was ancient history. For them history began with the famine that drove huge amounts of people from their homes in the Central Continent to the under-populated lands of the north. The Northern Continent had experienced famine a few centuries before and had come through but its people no longer numbered enough to hold onto their once great Kingdoms. Through immigration and invasion the exiles established homes in the lands of the north.
Five hundred years ago the twin Kingdom of Aberwald and Harminia decided what was to be done with the newcomers. This debate split the Kingdom, Aberwald wanted to fight while Harminia was prepared to compromise and give lands. The southeast corner and the sparsely populated country at the centre of the continent were given over to the newcomers in full. The lands around Harminas remained the Kingdom of Harminia and the lands to the south-west fell under the control of the city of Aglarim that had an open policy to the newcomers. The lands in the south-east became Loresia while the central lands became Meridor. Thus the Southlands were created; Loresia and Meridor ran their own affairs while still being subject to Harminia. Aglarim came in on this alliance but Aberwald refused to join the Unified Kingdom and had since remained independent. Across the Northern Continent the newcomers mixed with the native people and took up the common tongue until the distinction all but faded away. Regional differences remained but these were on a country by country basis as opposed to a singular divide.
None of this made a difference to Locke, to him it mattered not if in Aberwald religion was practised differently or that the people of Korhadris were generally taller than his own. Somewhere like Korhadris was a distant and fantastical as the rumoured dragon islands that lay on the world’s horizon. The furthest he had ever been in his life was fifty miles upriver to Neniaur and into the hills to Lorenne on a couple of occasions. His trade did not often call for long journeys. More frequently it called for short journeys usually in the dead of night in and out of other people’s houses. Locke was a thief although he disliked the term. Not because it distinguished him as a criminal but because it failed to recognise there were different kinds of criminal.
A thief could be anyone from a pickpocket to the person who stole the largest jewel in the world. In the same way, someone who graffitis toilets and the author of the greatest work of magic could both be described as writers. This was why he disliked the term it gave no credit to the skill involved in being really good at what you do. Of course he could always be described as a burglar but that brought up connotations of the people Locke hated most in the world, gentlemen burglars. Ponces who did it for the thrill or because they thought it was daring. Locke liked to think that he stole things purely for the money and that if he had enough money he wouldn’t need to steal.
Naturally this was self-deceit; he enjoyed the satisfaction that came from being able to get something that other people couldn’t. For Locke was a very good thief in more ways than one. He was an expert sneak and left no traces of his presence but that wasn’t his real skill. Locke, so called for this reason, could pick just about any lock known to man and some that weren’t. Many thieves could pick an ordinary lock but exceedingly few could pick magically sealed locks or find the treasure hidden within a riddle. Locke’s ability to overcome such obstacles had secured him a reputation as being one of the very best in his field, one for whom thief was barely an adequate title. There was another sense in which Locke was a good thief and that was his ability to complete jobs with the minimum harm to everyone involved. Not once had he been forced to kill anyone he was robbing from. There had been a couple of times when he had been forced to momentarily disable people but he had always done so without malice and would attempt not to leave lasting injuries.
However, it would be a mistake to think that Locke was soft he was just good enough at what he did to do it well. He was also sharp enough to know when he was being followed even if the person made no sound. Feeling behind his charcoal black cloak he grabbed hold of the handles to the set of twin daggers holstered on the small of his back. The daggers came out into the night air as he span round looking in every direction examining every shadow for the outline of his tracker. Nothing, not a trace of single living thing. Locke breathed out and carried on walking towards his house in the next street along.
The door to his house was odd, where there should have been a keyhole a sheet of metal had been nailed across. Locke ran his finger over the metal and concentrated until he heard a click. The door swung inwards to the murky corridor of his narrow wooden house. His first stop was to the safe that was hidden behind a couple of thick coats he never wore in a cupboard under the stairs. He emptied his night’s winnings in with the rest of the coins of which a small pile were gold. The safe was then sealed with a mechanism that operated neither with keys or combinations.
Feeling in need of a drink he entered his poky kitchen and reached inside a cupboard filled with bottles of cheap wine. Locke was not by nature a wine drinker but in Loresia, unlike the other lands of the Northern Continent, it was less expensive than ale or any spirit. He selected a bottle of Lorenne 1008 and poured out a fair amount into a wooden goblet and sat down at his table to drink it. All free lands of the Northern Continent went by the Korhadrian calendar which was strange in some ways as the Kingdoms of Aberwald and Dunfalas both predated it. However, as with the wide use of common language and currency the benefits of standardisation overcame national pride and Korhadris had the most coherent and easily usable date system.
“I will have a glass of the white Emervale 997 I noticed you have. If you are offering that is.” Said a voice from the gloom. A man wearing a moss green cloak with the hood up moved into the faint starlight coming through the window and calmly sat down across from Locke. Several questions occurred, such as how did this man get in, who was he, why was he sitting down and all the rest. Locke was shrewd enough not to bother with any of them the worst thing you could do when caught off guard is to draw attention to the fact.
“I was saving that for a special occasion but you may have a glass of this if you can find one.” Locke said handing over the Lorenne 1008.
“I think this should qualify as such an occasion but let me not be presumptuous.” The stranger said locating a glass and filling it with the bottle he was offered.
“You have a job for me.” Said Locke.
“What makes you say that?” The stranger came back with then quickly decided to abandon the games. “Yes, you are correct I have a commission I wish you to carry out.”
“Tomorrow evening a ship will be arriving and on board will be an item my employer is keen to get his hands on.”
“You want me to steal from a ship?”
“No, there are far too many people, particularly city watch, around the docks to be able to do that unseen. Even for a thief with a reputation as good as yourself. Besides I expect the item itself will be heavily guarded at that time.”
“But they have to sleep somewhere.”
“Precisely. The White Head Inn to be exact, the arrangements have already been made so that no other rooms will be occupied that night.”
“It sounds a little high-profile, do they want to draw attention to themselves?”
“I daresay it sounds more obvious because I already possess this information. I can assure you that it is not widely known. Anyway, the item will be guarded by at least a dozen armed men and the representative.”
“Representative? Then this item is being sold on.”
“Yes, the trade is due to take place the following day. The actual seller is in the Central Continent. I want you to obtain this item before this sale takes place. A simple enough task for you I would think. For your efforts I am willing to pay two hundred gold crowns on top of an allowance for expenses.”
“Really? That is quite a lot. So much I think I will have to turn it down.”
“Why ever would you do that?”
“Well, firstly there is the issue of the dozen or so guards which puts the price up to start with. Then there’s the issue of magical seals and that always costs extra.”
“I did not mention any magical seals.”
“You did not need to; you came to me didn’t you? And while no doubt my reputation as a straightforward stealer is fairly good it’s for my speciality that the high paying customers come to me. Plus there are a number of things about this job which you’re not telling me and that makes me think hidden danger. I need not tell you that danger is the highest mark-up of the lot.” Locke could not see the stranger’s expression but he was pretty sure there was a smile in there somewhere.
“What more do you wish to know?” He asked levelly.
“With whom would I be employed perhaps? You have a northern accent, possibly Korhadrian, and that is a long distance to come for so simple a job. I would also like to know what this item is I am supposed to steal.”
“None of that information is relevant. The Item will be inside a case that need not be opened.”
“How about these question? Why aren’t you stealing it? You got inside my house easily enough so locks cannot be a problem for you. You crept passed me in the street without me seeing you so you must be good at sneaking.” Locke pointed out. The stranger remained silent for several moments before speaking again.
“My employer will be most pleased that we did not come to a fool. Very well, I shall tell you a little more. The item will most likely be locked in a magically sealed safe provided by the buyer’s people. The representative may also have a little magical power so there might be additional seals on the room in which the safe will be. I am not doing this myself because I am…shall we say under scrutiny from certain sources. As for my employer that is not your concern you are to consider me the sole contractor for this job. You will meet only with me or contacts provided by me. However, if you are able to complete this job you can earn some more money by bringing the item some of the way north. After securing the item you will report the next day to a Mr Cartwright on Lemasien Street. There you can either hand over the item to him or he will arrange transport to take you out of Mersudia. If you decide to make the journey then you can carry on to Bannen where there will be another contact who will pay you one thousand gold crowns for you efforts. Alternatively you can go all the way to the Korhadrian city of Harslburgh where I will meet you myself. For the full journey I will pay you two thousand gold crowns on top of the fee for the initial theft.”
“Korhadris is eight hundred miles away and that is as the crow flies. It would be a lot more for a man to travel.”
“Two thousand gold crowns is an awful lot of money.”
“That is true.” Conceded Locke. Two thousand gold crowns was more than twice what he normally earned in a year. Still Korhadris was very far Bannen seemed like a better option being a mere five hundred miles away. Coming to an internal decision Locke spoke up. “I want four hundred for the initial job and twelve hundred upon reaching Bannen.”
“Three hundred now for your expenses but no more for the other two parts. Twelve hundred gold crowns is ample payment for this job.”
“What if I refuse?”
“That would be a grave mistake.” Said the stranger pointedly.
“Excellent decision Mr Locke. For our business from now on you shall know me only as Mr Sikilda. Any further questions?” Locke paused for a moment trying to think. “Good. Thank you for the wine.” Mr Sikilda stepped back a few paces into the gloom where he seemed to merge with the surrounding darkness. Locke blinked and realised that Sikilda was no longer in the room.