Shaia "Shy" Ratani used to be a member of the most powerful thieves' guild in Taldor—right up until she cheated her colleagues by taking the money and running. The frontier city of Yanmass seems like a perfect place to lie low, until a job solving a noble’s murder reveals an invading centaur army ready to burn the place to the ground. Of course, Shy could stop that from happening, but doing so would reveal her presence to the former friends who now want her dead. Add in a holier-than-thou patron with the literal blood of angels in her veins, and Shy quickly remembers why she swore off doing good deeds in the first place...
Chapter 1: Sociality and Shackles
This wasn't how I wanted to be introduced.
My chains rattled as I shuffled slowly across the floor on bare feet. Despite the multitudes of burning candelabras stretching down the hall on either side of me, the tattered rags I wore failed to ward off a chill. Even if I hadn't been walking the length of a hall so grand and drenched in opulence, I would have felt small.
"That's close enough, thief."
I stopped. The shackles around my wrists seemed heavy enough to pull my eyes to the ground. In the reflection of tile so polished you'd pay to eat off it, I could make out someone looking back at me, black hair hanging in greasy strands before a face covered in grime.
"Shaia Ratani," a deep, elegant voice said. "You are accused of a thousand crimes against the aristocracy of Taldor, the most heinous of which include larceny, fraud, extortion, assault, assault with a deadly weapon, assault with intent to murder, unsanctioned use of poison, trespassing, public indecency ..."
I was hard pressed to think of any legends that began like this.
"...and consorting with deviant powers."
Hell, I couldn't even think of a good tavern story that began like this.
But it was bards who were concerned with how stories began. In my line of work, you learned early on that it's only the ending that matters.
"You may look up, thief."
Bold, commanding words from a bold, commanding voice. You'd think, upon looking up, that they'd belong to a bold, commanding man.
Those were not the first words you'd think upon seeing Lord Herevard Helsen. They might have been the thirty-second and thirty-third ones, if you were generous.
Tall and thin as a stalk of corn and with ears to match, the aristocrat who stood upon a raised dais at the end of the hall seemed an ill fit for his fancy clothes. Hell, he seemed a poor fit for his own home.
While his hall was bedecked with tapestries and servants standing at attention and portraits of strong men and women with strong, noble features, Herevard, with his weak chin and shrewd eyes, shifted uncomfortably. Like he could sense his ancestors' disapproval emanating from the portraits and was already imagining what they'd say if they could see him now.
I never knew them, but I imagined they probably wouldn't be pleased to see a filthy Katapeshi girl in shackles dirtying up their halls.
"Understand this, Miss Ratani." Lord Helsen spoke down an overlarge nose at me, as though the dais he stood upon wasn't high enough to separate us. "I have had you brought from my private dungeons at the behest of another. A mission of mercy that relies entirely on your ability to be civil. Do you understand?"
That would have sounded significantly more authoritative if his face weren't beaded with sweat. I chose not to call attention to that, though. I merely nodded and received a nod in exchange.
Lord Helsen glanced to his side.
"She was captured not two months ago. My guards found her robbing my study. She's been serving penance in my dungeons ever since, my lady."
"Penance?" another voice chimed in. A lyrical birdsong to his squawk: soft, feminine, gentle.
I wasn't sure how I hadn't noticed the woman standing beside him before, but the moment she spoke, I couldn't see anything else in the room.
Had Lord Helsen not addressed her as "lady," I might never have guessed her to be a noble. She certainly wasn't what you'd think of when someone mentioned the word, let alone what I'd think of. Her dress was a simple thing of white and blue linens, easy to move in and functional—words that make aristocratic tailors cringe. Her brown hair was clean and washed, but not styled with any particular elegance. She didn't look especially rich.
Or at least, she might have been. It was hard to tell, what with the massive spectacles resting upon the bridge of her nose.
"Penance, my lady." Lord Helsen nodded to the woman. "As you know, Yanmass's laws are rather ...archaic when it comes to crimes against the gentler class." He chuckled. "Why, I'm told that Lady Stelvan, upon finding a vagrant in her wine cellar, appealed to the courts to have him walled up inside and—"
"Please!" The woman held up a hand. "Er, that is, Lord Helsen, I do not need to be privy to the details."
"Of ...of course, Lady Sidara." Lord Helsen made a hasty, apologetic bow. "Regardless, I couldn't let her walk away freely. Time to reflect upon her misdeeds in the dungeons seemed adequate." He glanced back toward me. "I suspect that she will be ideal for your purposes."
I hadn't intended to sound quite so alarmed when I spoke. I hadn't intended to speak at all.
Lord Helsen hadn't intended me to either, judging from the annoyed glare he shot me. "Yes, thief. Purposes."
I bowed my head.
"The Lady Sidara has need of someone with particular ...talents," he continued.
I nodded, head still lowered. Somehow, I figured it was going to be about this.
The three things nobles hate most, in order, are losing money, bad wine, and being reminded they have the same needs as anyone else. No matter how big your house is or who you pay to wipe your ass, eventually everyone needs a treasure stolen, a throat cut, or something set on fire.
They might have used words like "talents," but nobody needed dirty work done more than a noble.
And they didn't come nobler than they did in Taldor.
"She is firmly bound, my lady, and no danger at all." Herevard gestured to me with one white-gloved hand. "You may inspect her at your leisure."
Lady Sidara cast him a nervous look before glancing back at me. I was, at that moment, keenly aware of every inch of grime on my skin, every ounce of weight in my chains, every tear in the raggedy shirt and trousers I wore. Something about this woman, with her drab dress and giant spectacles, made me feel naked. Vulnerable.
Still, she wasn't the first person to do that to me. Certainly not the worst person, either. I kept my head respectfully low, my body reassuringly still as she approached me.
One dainty hand reached out as if to touch me, but she seemed to think better of it and drew it away. I averted my gaze as she studied me from behind those big round spectacles.
"You're not Taldan," she said. "From the south, maybe?"
Lord Helsen spoke from the dais. "She's Qadiran, my lady."
I stiffened at that. My hands tightened into fists, only relaxing when Lady Sidara spoke again.
"Not Qadiran, Herevard. Her features are a little too fine." She hummed a moment before her face lit up. "Ah! Of course. You're from Katapesh."
Herevard yawned. "Same thing."
Still, I couldn't help but raise an eyebrow. Not a lot of people from Taldor appreciated the difference between us southern nations, let alone a noble.
"You poor dear," she said, eyeing the sorry state of my dress and hygiene. "Listen. I know this might seem ...unorthodox. It certainly wasn't my first choice. But I have ...an issue." She glanced around, as though wary of who might be listening. "An issue that Herevard said you might be able to help with."
I cast her a sidelong look but said nothing. As if embarrassed, she turned away and readjusted her spectacles.
"I can't give you the details here," she said. "Nor can I promise it will be easy. But I can promise you'll be adequately rewarded. I'll see you safely exonerated of your crimes and granted a handsome sum besides, in exchange for your assistance." She drew herself up, fixed me with a hard look. "Of this, you have my word, Miss Ratani."
Funny how words, common as they are, seem to mean an awful lot to some people. Nobles and their heritages, wizards and their spells, paladins and their oaths—words mean a lot to the kind of person who woke up one day and heard a higher calling.
I once heard that calling.
Then I put the pillow over my head and went back to sleep.
People like me, we don't put much stock in words. We know how cheap they are. We know how quickly they spin on glib tongues and how swiftly they scatter on the floor. People like me, we needed firmer stuff.
"I know this must sound odd," Lady Sidara said. "Is there ...is there anything I can get you? To help you make up your mind?"
I took a breath and spoke softly.
Lady Sidara nodded and made a gesture to Herevard. Herevard, in turn, gestured to a nearby servant. The servant ran to a table set up against one of the hall's walls and, in a few moments, came rushing up to me with a goblet upon a tray. I took it, nodded my gratitude, first to him and then to her. I closed my eyes and took a long, slow sip of cold, refreshing liquid.
And immediately spat it out.
"What the hell is this?" I snapped at the servant.
"W-water!" he replied, holding up his tray like a shield.
"Well, did I ask for water, Cecim, or did I ask for a gods-damned drink?"
"S-sorry, Shy!" he cried out, cowering. "Sorry, Mistress!"
It wasn't until I looked and saw Lady Sidara, her mouth wide open in puzzlement, that I realized I might have just ruined things.
"What did you call her?" The noblewoman glanced from Cecim to me, and the puzzlement turned to irritation. It was a full-blown scowl when she whirled upon Lord Helsen and saw the thin nobleman quaking upon the dais, the sweat on his face having gone from beads to big as moons.
"What did he call her?" she demanded. "What's going on here, Herevard?"
"Uh, well ...that is ..." Lord Helsen's tongue seemed two sizes too large for him at that moment, and he fumbled over his words. "You see, Lady Sidara, when ...when we make mistakes and ...and things are said ...and we try to make them right, and ..."
"Ah, give it up, Herevard," I said. "Whatever excuse you're choking on, it's obvious she's not going to buy it."
Lady Sidara turned to me, shock wrestling with outrage on her features as she watched me unfasten the shackles around my wrists and drop them to the floor.
I looked up at her, blinking. "What?"
"You ...you're not a prisoner at all!" She pointed a finger at me that would have been accusing had it not been so dainty. "You lied to me!"
"If you'll recall, good lady," I replied, holding up my liberated hands in defense, "I didn't say ten words to you. Any lying came specifically from that man."
Lord Helsen squirmed under my finger, flailing as though he could pull an excuse from thin air. But instead, all he did was thrust a finger right back at me and let out a rather unlordly screech.
"She was blackmailing me!"
"I was not!" I shouted back. "I asked you specifically what the information was worth to you! You're the one that came up with the number!"
"Oh, don't you turn this on me, you lying Qadiran—"
To look at her, you wouldn't have thought such a little lady could come up with such a bellowing voice. But it seemed Lady Sidara, breathing heavily, holding her hands up in a demand for silence, was a woman of more than a few surprises.
"No more lies." She split her scowl between me and Lord Helsen. "And no more blaming. The truth. Now."
The nobleman and I exchanged glances for moment—or rather, I exchanged a glance and he gave me a look that suggested he might soil himself. At that, I just rolled my eyes and sighed.
"All right, fine. What I did might, in some countries, be construed as blackmail." I waved absently toward the dais. "I got some information on Herev—" I caught myself; didn't want to rub salt in the wound. "—on Lord Helsen and asked him what it was worth to him to keep it quiet."
"And what was it worth?" Lady Sidara asked.
"Two months in a nice bedroom at his manor," I replied. "Waited on hand and foot by Cecim here." I shot a glare at the servant. "Who should damn well know by now what I mean when I say I want a drink!"
Cecim squealed and scurried off, still holding his tray up. I sighed and looked back to Lady Sidara.
"Anyway, when he said you had a job that needed doing, we made up this bit about the private dungeon." I gestured to my clothes and grime. "Though had I known it would turn out like this, I wouldn't have bothered painting so much dirt on myself."
Lady Sidara frowned.
"And what information did you have to make ..." She gestured over me. "This seem intelligent?"
"You swore you wouldn't tell!" Lord Helsen piped up, his face a red-hot contortion of embarrassment.
"Herevard, what good do you think not telling her would do?" I looked back to the noblewoman and sighed. "I found out about his mistress. A lovely little halfling woman who visits his chambers every other night." I shot her a wink. "Herry likes his short women."
Lord Helsen's mouth hung open. His eyes looked like they were about to roll out of their sockets. I had no doubt that, if I could have read his thoughts, they'd be mostly my name attached to variations of the word "strangle."
Frankly, I wasn't sure what the big deal was. I always thought they looked cute together.
Lady Sidara, for her part, didn't seem particularly upset, either. She slowly turned a sweet, sad smile on Lord Helsen.
"Oh, Herevard," she said. "We've all known about Numa for years now."
"W-what?" Lord Helsen said. "Everyone? All of Yanmass?"
She nodded gently. He made a soft whimpering sound.
"Even Lady Stelvan?"
"She was the first to know, Herry."
"Well, then." I kicked off my ankle shackles and sent them skidding across the hallway. "I guess we've all learned an important lesson about honesty today." I began wiping the painted-on grime from my skin. "And it seems my time with Herry is at an end. Give me a couple of hours to have a bath and I'm all yours, my lady."
"What?" Lady Sidara looked at me, anger flashing across her features. "You assume I'd still hire you now, after ...after ..."
"Oh, what? You were happy to have me when you thought I was a thief, but now that I'm an extortionist, you're too good for me?" I rolled my eyes. "A touch hypocritical, don't you think?"
"It's not that! It's just ..." She rubbed the back of her neck, helpless. "This ...this is a delicate operation, one that I am intent on seeing carried through. I need people I can trust."
She looked at me like I had just slapped her. "What?"
"If you needed people you could trust, you would have found a knight or a brave warrior or some lovesick noble. What you need is someone who can get the job done, and the fact that you're here tells me that the people you can trust simply can't do that."
She fixed me with a long, methodical stare. And though it made me feel every bit as naked as it had the first time, I held my ground and my smile like a sword and shield.
"And can you get the job done?" she asked.
"Are you still going to pay?"
"Then I can." I turned to walk away toward the hall's exit. "But, as I said, let me get a bath first. I'm not going to talk business covered in filth."
"Yes, fine, whatever." Lady Sidara stalked behind me. "Glad to be doing business then, Miss ..." She paused. "Is your name even Shaia?"
"Of course it is." I glanced over my shoulder, spared her a wink. "But my friends call me Shy."