Portia slipped out of the basement floor of the warehouse she rented for herself and the child thieves near the Elora River and got to work. She let the young ones sleep in today and went out alone to pay for a few days off for them all. All the wealth of Sinon passed through these warehouses. She made sure to live near them. She was sixteen and the best thief in Sinon.
She listened to an expensively dressed young woman’s thoughts of anticipation of when to wear the white gold earrings encrusted with diamonds she carried in a thick paper box in her purse. Rose followed her down the brick street of the market in the centre of Sinon. More thoughts, of how the woman would shame other wives of wealthy merchants in Sinon with her incomparable earrings.
Portia had done this ten times this month already. She feared being caught every time. Feared a quick grab turning into a deadly fight. Feared being wrestled until guards arrived to shackle her. Executed, her head picked at by birds on Sinon’s ramparts.
Snip. Yank. And she dashed down a muddy alley between two rows of townhouses before the woman began screaming. Heart beating fast, Portia made for a fork in the alley that led to a deserted warehouse with a ladder to the roof. Once there she could relax.
A handsome, bearded man in his forties sat with his legs spread out as though he were having a picnic alone on the roof. He wore a thick green cloak embroidered with a navy-blue river dragon. He was eating a hunk of dark bread and drinking from a bottle of wine that looked cheap.
“Good morning to you,” he said, still chewing. His long hair fell in unkempt curls. His cloak said he could easily afford a bath and a haircut. His boots were worth a month of her rent. Serious climbing boots. Portia didn’t respond.
“Sit down or I’ll cut off your baby finger,” He said. He had cold blue eyes.
She drew her fighting blade, a menacing curved weapon, and slashed at the man’s face. He caught her by the elbow and then seized her wrist in places that made her hand go limp and drop the knife.
“Sitting now?” He asked.
“I’m sitting,” Portia said. It felt as though with a jerk he could break her arm. In fact he knew he could. He didn’t really want to hurt her.
He released her wrist like he were letting a toad jump free of his grasp.
“Irma runs Sinon: all the crime, public works, and many senators. She’s had me watching you and your nest of children for a year.” He nodded at her surprise.
“Yes, and you take good care of your girls and boys. Too good. How do you do it?”
“Score with every mark you pick? How do you pick them? Every time.”
“How do you know?”
“I know you have a talent, maybe magic. A few of us use some magic, but they’re foreigners.”
“What’s going to happen with Irma?”
“She’s going to ask you for a yes or a no on joining the guild. Either way, your independent nest is finished. Accept it.”
Portia had trained each of her kids since she started gathering orphaned children from Sinon’s war with Umbran, a rival city-state to the north. Taught them to pick pockets, cut purses, make friends with tavern owners to get a meal, watch over a whore while she worked, ready to fetch help if she were in trouble with a john. And a thousand other ways to survive. They were her family.
She wouldn’t let her family be sent off to foster with strangers.
On Winery Street was The Scales, with a beautifully wrought set of giant iron weighing scales hanging over the arched entrance. In the tavern was a bar with a hundred or more whiskies and wines tucked into the farthest corner. Two thirds of the space held seats about small round tables of oak and a podium for singers and poets and philosophers. The place smelled good, like hot beef stew cooking, the steam and smell from it filling the gathering and seating area.
“Walk up the stairs, past the art on the wall. Irma’s waiting for you,” her escort instructed.
Portia walked up the creaking boards to the second floor, a vision compared with the wooden furniture and walls below. The second floor was covered with strange art of creatures she’d never seen before. The floor was tiled entirely with gold ingots. Plants, including some woody ones, were growing up from the ingots and out of the oak wall.
On a huge maroon blanket sat a tall silver-haired woman in her late seventies. She did not look frail, only very still. Waiting.
“Good morning, Child,” said Irma.
Portia said nothing.
“Are you rude, shy, or frightened?” asked Irma.
“I don’t want you to take my kids.”
Irma’s eyes widened.
“You are so confident you think you can hide yourself and them from me. Do you know, I once had a taste for children, in my youth, a long time ago,” Irma said.
The old woman’s eyes sparkled and she grinned, showing perfect long white teeth. She kept grinning. It was unnerving. Gods, she couldn’t read the old woman’s mind!
“I thought so. You’re a wizard of thought, not magic. They are rare. You can’t read my mind.”
“Because I’m not a person. Mind wizards can only affect people.” The grin again. She licked her teeth.
“Bullshit. Not a person. What does that mean? What are you if not a person?” Portia demanded.
“If I told you, you wouldn’t believe me, and if I showed you, you would run out of here.”
“Not yet. It’s enough to know that I can kill you at will, now, or any time later. And you just know I could kill your children as well, if you were uncooperative, were I that unethical.
“You’re thought turns to getting out of here safely and escaping to another city with your children. Why haven’t you run? I can’t catch you at my age.”
Portia tried to run, and failed to even begin. She could not make her body run.
“You may sit if you wish, but you may not run or leave the room until I let you.”
“Can I see the children?”
“My child, you’ll see all of them now and again. We all spend time here a lot. Plenty of new friends to make. New faces all the time.”
Portia sat, almost eye level with Irma.
“You’re afraid of me,” Portia said. “That I’ll start a guild of my own—better than yours.”
“Child, I fear few things. You are not among them. You think I fear to compete with you and so strongarm you while you are young, not yet powerful. Not so. Your caring for those girls and boys in that warehouse was love. This guild runs on love, and lives for the good of the people, for change. I want you to be part of that change, but I cannot do it unless my control of crime in Sinon is complete. You will not stand in my way no matter how gifted a thief and interesting a person you are.”
“I … see.”
Portia got back to her feet.
“You may go. Be here at sunrise. You’ll breakfast with the managers and your master tomorrow morning. Bring all twenty. Their masters will be waiting, too.”
“Who will be my master?”
“Braden, the man who brought you here. He asked for you.”
Portia arrived with her girls and boys aged five to thirteen. Inside the wide but cozy common hall over twenty men and women breakfasted and talked boisterously.
Braden spoke. “Children, welcome. Go sit with the master you want to learn from.” The masters were all seated on one side of the table talking to their neighbours. “Children ages eight or younger, come with me. We have nice jobs for you taking care of the animals and working in the public gardens. Other children get some bread and stew and ale and sit opposite the master you want to learn with. Live with.”
Portia felt the fearful thoughts of all her thieves as they walked the length of the table and took seats, made choices. She sent them all reassuring thoughts and imaginings of fun learning new things and making new friends. She sat opposite Braden.
“What are you thinking?” Braden said.
“Just thinking about this new life. Where do we live?”
In an apartment above a bakery near Baker and Shindler. It always smells good. I’m messy but clean. I fuck a lot women—not to worry; they don’t stay long, and I have a room. I like it quiet at home. I read, mostly. I sing, if you’ll have it.”
“When do we start?”
“Got both knives?”
“Then now. We’re collecting this morning from Baker to Boreal Street along Drummond. Ten businesses today.”
“I thought we were thieves?
“Of course we are. There are an infinite number of species of thief.”
The bank was an understated affair, made of ordinary wood and painted white inside and out. There was a long desk with several bankers speaking to well-dressed customers, some noble, judging by their dress and signet rings. Braden walked to the desk, waited quietly. A well-dressed woman in her thirties wearing the bank’s colours came forward, smiling. Her thoughts screamed almost pure fear. This woman was holding a good face.
“Into my office, please, Mister Braden.”
The three took padded ivory seats in a meeting room covered with the art of painters from Sinon and other states.
“What can I do for you today?”
“The three per cent for the month and the financial documents for my accountants.”
“The deal is off!” She screamed in Braden’s face. She hadn’t meant to handle herself like that. Fear was exploding out of her, making her unpredictable.
“Why?” asked Braden.
“Your rivals have robbed two of our shipments. We pay you to keep our shipments safe from bandits. If you can’t protect us, why pay you anything?”
“Never forget that the first people your payment protects you from is us. Don’t pay us and we’ll just take it from you and leave some bodies behind as a reminder of the value of friendship with the guild. Now, your superior, I saw her behind you and she fled. I need to speak with her. I’ll need her finger for Irma.”
“She isn’t available. You’ll have to deal with me.” Her mind hummed with fear. She feared destitution more than violence. She would be fired if she didn’t present her bosses’ decision to Braden and hold her position. She had no belief she would find another job. It was her worst fear, homelessness. She was risking bodily harm for fear of losing her job.
Braden leapt across the table and cut her index finger off. Blood spurted across her desk and pooled on papers awaiting ink to dry. She screamed. Braden handed her a cloth and almost faster than she could believe he had bound the finger stub that was left with a tourniquet.
“Now, show me to the owner.” Braden let the bleeding woman walk dizzily to a large office with a gold-plated desk, at which sat a young woman with long hair in a silk dress and high heels.
“Your manager denied me, even after I removed some of her finger. Go.” Braden said to the bleeding woman, who fled.
“I promise you an end to the war with the upstart in a month. I need the payment or a finger. When I return next month, I’ll need payment or your tongue.”
The woman looked disgusted. Her thoughts were of her plans for an expensive party of her banker friends were dashed. She felt almost no fear, just vexation at having to part with the money and shame at having to be threatened for what she felt she owed deep down. The guild did use fear to implant obligation and guilt into the owners of wealthy businesses and wealthy citizery.
They left with a bag of coins and a satchel of financial documents.
“She’s gotten an offer from the other gang. She liked the thief she dealt with, liked the terms. Only one percent.”
“We’ll have to deal with that. Wait—how could you know that?”
She was silent.
“You can hear people’s thoughts?”
She nodded. As did Braden.
“What are we doing now?”
“You are. Killing.”
“You would never, you are saying?”
“It’s part of the job. You need to be able to fight and kill on command. Irma counts on it.”
“I’m not killing anyone.”
“Let’s go. The house isn’t far.”
Braden and Portia walked up to a corner two-storey merchant’s townhouse. Leather goods. A woman entered the door. There was bruise on her cheek and she had been crying.
“Yes?” she asked.
“We’re hear about the contract. Shyla? Go to a friend’s or the pub. Come back tonight and the deed will be done. Tell the guards all your money was stolen.”
Braden turned to Portia. “Your turn. Get the blade into his throat or belly, forget the chest.”
“I’m not going in.”
“All right. Tell her husband not to beat her anymore or the guild will kill him and we’ll refund her money for the contract.”
“Why not. Give the man a chance to change his ways.”
“Okay, I’ll go in.” She sensed fear from the bruised woman.
“Won’t you be going?” the woman asked Braden.
Braden didn’t answer.
Portia went through the doorway into a parlour. Through it was a shirtless, fat man who’d clearly been whipped viciously judging by the scars on his back and chest.
“That whipping you took is nothing compared to what we will do to you if you don’t stop beating your wife.” He raped her nightly as well. His thoughts were crawling to her without her having to seek to hear them. He became erect, the fact showing through his trousers.
“Okay. I was going to throw her out anyway.” He had found another prettier woman to abuse, who craved the abuse. He was going to rape his wife moments after she left. Threats would change nothing. If she didn’t kill this man, his wife would go on being raped and beaten almost daily and would soon be cast out into the streets so another could take her place.
Portia drew her knife, ran up to the sitting man, and sliced his throat. He screamed and struck her, stunning her. Dark blood came out in little jets. He ran for a cloth and held it. Then he grabbed a kitchen knife and ran at Portia. Braden entered the room and caught the man, snapped his neck.
“Well done,” Braden said. Not winded.
“He was going to kill me! All I did was nick him. I’ll never be a killer.”
“You will, an excellent one. You were a virgin. You are no longer. You struck to kill. That’s all that matters. I’ll show you some techniques starting tomorrow. You almost got deep enough.”
“Thanks,” Portia said. “For coming in when you did. I didn’t think you would.”
“One more stop and then an early quit.”
Braden’s mind fascainated: the sheer number of things he didn’t care or worry about. His mood and thoughts were brightening as they walked. They arrived at a large stone church with a simple golden circle over the entrance. A woman wearing the cloth of a priest appeared. She was in her fifties and her eyes shone at Braden. She loved the man. He loved her too, almost the same way. The hours they spent talking and reading together.
“Braden, what can I do for you? Is this a social call?”
“No wine tonight, I’m afraid. I want to introduce my apprentice—Portia–and be off. She’ll be coming Wednesdays and Thursdays to cook meals for the homeless and Saturdays and Sundays to learn her letters. Portia, Mother Gendra. Ah, before I forget…” Braden lifted the heavy leather bag of gold “This is very heavy, Mother, where can I put this?”
“This is more than enough to run for the month.”
“It’s almost autumn festival. Spend the extra money on a celebration for the homeless and parishioners. Buy them booze. I leave it to your wisdom.”
“So good a man, and so full of shit. How does that happen in the same person?” she asked him.
“I leave such mysteries to thinkers like you, Mother. I await your answer avidly. We take our leave.”
The pair were soon walking back to the Scales.
“You’ve passed your first day. Thirty more to go and you’ll be a junior. How are you feeling?”
“I think I’m going to be good at this. We do good, don’t we?. Take care of people?”
Braden didn’t answer.
Portia said nothing, just walked with her master to the Scales where her twenty thieves were already drinking and smiling. Had they all been blooded? She doubted it. But their time would come, and they would cope as she had.
She had a much larger family to care for now.