Upon reflection, things were not going to well for me. The Thieves’ Brotherhood does not take kindly to interlopers or independents and I was no exception to the rule no matter how polite and helpful I had intended to be. That was why, I thought, they had greeted me with laughter, punched me around a little and slung me into their miserable excuse for a dungeon.
I probably didn’t look like much to them, dirty, shaggy haired and bearded. My fine shirt was more tatters and mud than silk before I ever got to them and my fine boots were long gone. All the remained of my finer attire was my jerkin of fine draco leather and even that was starting to look worn. I must have seemed like a vagabond to them. Not that they were any better off than me.
They called themselves thieves but what I had seen so far suggested that they were little more than footpads, cut-throats and bandits. No finesse, no style, nothing to suggest the true art of thievery and, as a result, I had spoken to them with ill-considered scorn.
I act before I think. It is a curse and a blessing. Sharp reflexes have saved me very often, but leaping before I look has caused me no end of pain in equal measure. I was forcing myself to think now though, to consider. The cell’s bars were wooden, it’s wall compacted soil. I could escape this place easily even though they considered it their stronghold. That would not serve me though, I was here for a reason and I had to win them over.
The soft thump of heavy men in furred boots came down the tunnel at last. Waxy yellow light from their lanterns against the wall as they came to find me.
“Rise spy!” Muttered the talkative one, his squat, bald friend keeping to silence. I obliged them.
“Are you come to let me go?” I tried to smile at them. Friendliness is disarming and unexpected from a prisoner and it can help, if it doesn’t just irritate your captor.
“Hah, no. Come on out ya little piss-stain.”
Charming as always they opened the crude bonds that held shut the wooden door and hoisted me out into the tunnel. I was perfectly capable of walking myself wherever they wanted to take me but if they were insistent on carrying me, who was I to argue?
This was the great and terrible redoubt of the Thieves’ Brotherhood? It stank like a bear’s crotch and was darker than an Tukiri’s arsecrack. While they had captured me the more I saw of them the more it embarrassed me. Finally the two lumps set me down and shoved me forward through another wooden doorway and slammed it shut behind me.
The chamber was round and well lit, by the standards of this place. Moonlight shone down through a crack in the rock above and sputtering torches and lambs cast an epileptic light around the place. There was another door at the far side, the ground was black dirt and the stains and drag marks did not bode well.
I looked up and then saw them. The gathered of the Brotherhood. The chamber formed a natural amphitheatre and they were arranged in a half circle to watch whatever fate might befall me. I obliged their sense of theatricality by standing and giving a neat bow.
“Spy,” came a hissing voice from above, echoing loudly in the bell shape of the cave. I looked up and eyes adjusted to the dim glow of the torches I could see the man who spoke. A bullet head, shaven close, a face and bare chest covered in scars. His hands were bound with leather and he sat, leant forward on a purloined throne, worm-ridden and faded in glory. At each arm crouched a Wolf Sister, wild eyed, hairless, teeth filed to points, bare-breasted and scarified, straining at their chains as though they wanted to tear into me. He must have had money at one point to afford such ‘pets’.
“I am no spy great lord of thieves,” I raised my chin and my voice as I spoke out to him. “I came with an honest proposition and your men set upon me.”
“You’re a long way from Vimana, spy,” he leaned forward with a sneer and set his hand on the head of one of the sisters, stroking her bald pate as she twisted and nudged into his hand, drool dripping from her lips. I winced.
“I am indeed, but the fact remains, I came here to deal – honest and open,” I spread my hands and bowed my head, hoping these barbarian ground-dwellers would see reason.
“None may come to our home and live, save those of the guild.”
Reason was not going to be a match for tradition, I could tell.
“Then let me join.”
That got a laugh, not just from him but the motley band around the rocky wall as well. I grinned, hoping I could ingratiate myself by being in on the joke.
Politeness was not going to do me any good either.
“Release the rats!”
The door opposite me cranked open and I turned towards it. Rats? When one is placed in a fighting pit one can expect many things. Dogs, wolves, half-men, bears, unspeakable things from the imaginings of deranged sorcerers but rats?
Red eyes gleamed in the darkness and came closer. My munificent host stood and flung a bronze dagger, down into the dirt before my feet.
“Let none say I am not generous,” his booming laugh filled the chamber as the rat things scurried out.
These rats were not what I had been expecting. Fourteen pounds of muscle and hatred, gleaming red eyes, teeth like hooks and shod in bronze, great scaly tails like whips. I swallowed, nervously, but I left the knife where it was. I didn’t need it.
I flexed my arms and the small blades concealed in my jacket slipped down into my hands, curved and wicked and glinting in the dark. I felt better to feel their coolness in my grip, even as the scurrying foe reached me.
One leapt and I met it, not anticipating how heavy the beasts would be. It slammed into me and sent me staggering back toppling off my feet and landing with a thump upon the dirt to the cheering of the Brotherhood. The rat-thing snapped and hissed, it’s tail slapping at me. It’s brother was I knew-not-where and I did not care with this thing snapping at my face. It’s bronzed-jaws snapped and bit clean through the leather of jerkin as though it was not there. While it chewed on the strips I stabbed down with my blade, the harder metal of my dagger biting through the softer bronze and into the creature’s skull, it spasmed and thrashed against me, spurting hot blood.
“Iron!” The shout went up. They Vimanan steel, but I had no time to contradict them. The second of the hideous creatures had become enraged by the scent of blood, a pink froth at its metal mouth as it burrowed in against the body of its dead brother and tried to bite.
I twisted, desperately, pushing its litter-mate’s body into its snapping jaws. It bit down and I heard the snap of bone, the flow of blood grew stronger. I had a moment. I had to make an impression. I took the opportunity. I brought the other dagger up, sinking it hilt deep between the foul thing’s ribs, out of sight and, swallowing back bile, I clamped my own jaws upon its throat as it thrashed and kicked.
A breath, a moment, stinking and vile, my nose in the creature’s fur. Then I stood, holding its weight, so heavy, in my mouth, letting it drop and spitting a mouthful of blood and rank fur onto the dirt.
There was a hush.
I swallowed, trying desperately not to spoil the effect by vomiting. “Is there any chance we can talk business now?”
The Wolf Sisters strained even harder on their chains, incensed by the blood, almost dragging the throne forward as that bald mass of scar tissue stood up and leaned against the wall, glowering at me.
“And just why should I let you live spy? What is your name? What can you possibly offer us?”
“I am the Dastard, oh lord of thieves. I can offer you my iron,” I smiled slightly at that and then spoke louder, “and I can offer you gold.”
“You had no gold,” he sneered down at me, bunching those great fists against the rock.
“My lord, what good thief would offer his own gold?” I smiled again, broadly, hoping this time they would see the joke. There were a few nervous laughs, quickly stifled.
“Then whose gold would you offer us, Dastard?” His brow furrowed deep, he was weighing whether to have me killed or not.
This was when I truly needed to impress, so I drew myself up, high, crossed my daggers against my chest, bowed deep and then looked him straight in the eye, across the blood, dirt and rock.
“My lord, take me into your fold and I will give you the vault of Selim the Miser.”
There was hush.