Authors: Richard Baker
The Cities: The City of Ravens
By Richard Baker
Jack Ravenwild scrambled over the parapeted roof of House Kuldath and grinned in delight. The night air was heavy and wet with the first storm of spring. Water ran from his face over his stubbled skull, shaved just over the ears and closely cropped in a distinct widow’s peak.
Jack was a small man, with a wiry build and a round, friendly face that was perpetually split by a jester’s mocking smile. Dark eyes glittered gleefully over an impish nose, a wide mouth, and a thin trace of beard along his jawline.
“Hurry, hurry!” he called softly over his shoulder. The rain stands to ruin my best suit.”
All around him, the moss-grown shingles and leaning spires of the city’s rooftops stretched out into darkness. Jack studied them with deliberate disinterest. Behind him, a single hairy arm groped for a handhold on the rain-slick rooftop. A moment later, Anders Aricssen hauled his head and shoulders to the parapet, grunting with effort.
“If you find yourself concerned about the condition of your clothes,” he gasped, “you might consider helping me up, instead of capering up there like some kind of rubbish-heap weather vane.”
“Rubbish-heap weather vane, indeed,” Jack said sniffing. He considered himself dashingly dressed for the moment. The night’s work demanded clothes that fit like a shadow over a grave, so the small man wore snug leather breeches, a loose shirt of dark gray cotton, and a leather doublet stiffened and padded, all in black. A rapier was slung high on his left hip in a thin wooden scabbard wrapped in black velvet, and a matching poignard rode on his right hip. Pausing a moment to brush the water from his dark cloak, he stepped over to the edge of the roof and offered his hand to Anders. “Come on, then.”
Anders clasped his arm and dragged himself onto the flat roof, slipping and scrambling awkwardly. He straightened slowly, unfolding a frame more than a foot taller than his companion’s. While Jack was dressed in dark leather and a voluminous cloak that billowed in the wind, Anders simply wore weathered buckskins that left his golden-haired chest bare to the elements.
“Are you certain you didn’t use sorcery to magic yourself up that wall? That was not as easy a climb as you’d led me to believe, friend Jack.”
“Why resort to magic when natural aptitude suffices?” Jack replied. He took two light bounds across the slick shingles and balanced a moment with his feet athwart a brick chimney, watching streamers of smoke wind about his legs. “Black as old pitch tonight, friend Anders,” he laughed. “Why, I couldn’t have picked a better evening for my enterprise!”
“Our enterprise,” grunted Anders by way of correction. “That would be our enterprise, Jack. It concerns me when you make mistakes like that.” While Jack occupied himself by hopping casually from one parapet to the other, ignoring the forty-foot fall below, the tall Northman unwrapped a heavy broadsword not too much shorter than Jack himself and slung the blade over his shoulder. He stood eye-to-eye with Jack, despite the fact that the
Ravenaar man now balanced on a crenellation a good cubit higher than the rooftop upon which Anders stood. “Speaking of which, you still have not told me what prize we seek tonight.”
Jack led Anders across the rooftop to a small stone slab in one corner. “Below us, as you well know, is the warehouse of House Kuldath. The five brothers Kuldath hail from some distant land far to the east. Their principal trade lies in carpets of exquisite workmanship, rumored to be hand-woven by sixteen enslaved princesses forced to labor at the brothers’ command in order to prevent House Kuldath from collecting on a debt owed by their destitute father.”
Anders frowned. “Carpets. That’s bad. They’re quite heavy, and in this rain, they’ll get heavier still. That will be a lot of work.”
“No, no, forget the carpets. We’re here”
“Ah, so it’s the princesses, then. They’re even heavier than carpets, but unlikely to become heavier with a soaking. Manageable, I suppose.”
Jack sighed. “Forget the whole carpet story. The important thing is, the five brothers Kuldath are quite wealthy, and in celebration of an extremely successful season, they recently purchased a set of five perfect rubies from the jeweler Shorlock Revahl, each one to give to his wife. We shall relieve them of the responsibility of caring for these small baubles.”
“Rubies,” Anders said, nodding. “That’s much better. So how do we do this?”
“Below there,” Jack said, pointing to the stone slab, “lies the hitherto inviolate inner sanctum of the brothers Kuldath. With some careful scrying, I have determined that the first floor of this building is the Kuldath Emporium; the second, their main warehouse; the third, their living quarters; and the fourth, the private offices and secret
vaults of the house.” Jack donned a pair of soft leather gloves and pulled his hood over his face. “The room below is reserved for the storage of their very finest carpets. Two rooms away is a locked strongbox wherein the rubies lie. You shall remain in the carpet room and stand guard, while I steal the strongbox.”
“I don’t see why you need me along, if that’s the case,” Anders replied. “One of your ability should be able to handle that quite easily.”
“There may be a complication,” Jack admitted, “involving a guardian demon who watches over the wealth of the house.”
Anders turned to stare down at him. “Am I going to have to fight this demon?”
“It’s extremely unlikely. I anticipate that we will reach our goal and retreat before any encounter with the guardian becomes remotely possible. I merely asked you to come along to handle that one chance in a hundred nay, a thousandwhereby the demon may become aware of our presence.” Jack knelt by the trapdoor and spoke the words of an opening spell, gently passing his hand over the latch. With a small rasping sound, a bolt on the other side slid out of the way. Before the blond-bearded Northman could reconsider, Jack opened the door and dropped inside.
He landed on a soft stack of carpets, surrounded by deep gloom. He’d always had a knack for feeling his way around in the dark. Without stumbling, he glided forward to the storeroom’s door and cracked it, peeking out into the hallway. A checkered wooden floor and ornate chestnut paneling gleamed in lamplight outside the storeroom. Watching for any sign of movement, he heard Anders drop into the room somewhat more awkwardly than he had.
“Stay here, good Anders,” he said quietly, “and be ready to come swiftly to my aid if I call for you.”
“May I ask a simple question first?” “Of course.”
“How do you intend to divide five gems, Jack? Four or six present no problem, of course, but five are difficult to split between two partners.”
Jack closed the door to the narrowest of cracks and turned back to Anders. “Well, each of us shall have two rubies to start. That is only fair.”
“That makes four,” Anders observed. “Do you mean to tell me that you will leave the brothers Kuldath the fifth gem, in order to ensure a fair and evenhanded split of the taker
“Of course not. I shall have it,” Jack replied.
Anders scowled. “Your certainty unsettles me, friend Jack. How did you arrive at this decision?”
“It is a simple matter. I conceived tonight’s adventure, and I reconnoitered our means of ingress. Therefore, I shall take the greater part of the treasure.” Jack set his hands on his hips, putting on an expression of lordly indulgence. “Your assistance is important, of course, so I cheerfully assign to you two-fifths of tonight’s take. You will note that I deal with you honestly and without deceit before the work commences. Others in our profession might conveniently allow the question of the fifth gem to go unanswered until the prize was in hand. That, in my experience, leads to rash actions and hurtful words.”
“I am not reassured,” the Northman replied.
“Why, you should be, friend Anders. I am in all things and in all ways the very soul of honesty. Not only do I pride myself on my true and forthright nature, but I believe that I can claim to have never knowingly allowed a falsehood to pass my lips. The slightest deceit is quite beyond my capabilities, and every day I fervently pray to be struck down in the most horrible and grisly fashion
imaginable should I fail to live up to my own exacting standards of decent and moral conduct.” “And what is that
“Decent and moral conduct? Why, I define”
“No, no, not that. The most horrible and grisly demise imaginable. What would that be?”
Jack raised his hand as if to answer, thought for a moment, and then lowered it. “I’m not entirely sure.” Momentarily nonplussed, he tapped his finger on his chin and then gave up with a shrug. “I’ll think on it. Are you satisfied with the arrangements?”
Anders grimaced. “I accept, under one condition: If I end up fighting the demon, I get the fifth gem.”
“I assure you, that condition is completely unnecessary,” Jack said.
“If. that is really the case, then you should be able to agree to it without hesitation. Now, do you agree to my condition?”
Jack winced and offered a weak smile. Anders was much smarter than he looked. “I do, although perhaps we should define ‘fighting.’”
“Easily done. If I find myself in a situation where it’s trying to kill me, or I’m trying to kill it. Now, if you please, resume your burglary.”
The small thief opened the door and slipped out into the hall. He furiously considered some kind of strategy by which he might have avoided conceding the last gem to the Northman but fell short. He glided past several doors emblazoned with the symbol of the House Kuldath, an anvil crowned by five gemstones, and wondered idly if in the near future the brothers would amend their house symbol to a plain anvil. Jack had carefully studied the interior of the building through various divinations and seeing spells over the last week, committing the entire plan of the building to his memory. He knew, for example,
that the door immediately to his left led to the personal quarters of Aldeemo, eldest of the brothers, and that the door across the hall led to a linen closet backed by a secret stairway that led down to the emporium on the first floor. Talent in both sorcery and thievery made possible thefts that mundane rogues or honest sorcerers would never have attempted.
He reached the end of the hall, where a door sheathed in green copper sheets warded the upper vault. Here Jack knelt and fished out a couple of small picks from a pouch at his side, expertly picking the lock with a moment’s work. He glanced over his shoulder; at the other end of the hallway, Anders peered out of the carpet storeroom, watching intently. Jack winked at him and opened the copper door, quietly sliding inside.
The room was a small, crowded place fitted with five counting desks all in a row, awash in bagged coinage and precarious stacks of iron strongboxes. Had Jack a mind to take it, the coinage itself would have been an epic success… but he was after something more impressive than hundreds of pounds of coins. He worked his way to the back of the room, where a small iron box rested in an alcove in the wall. Cautiously, he inspected the niche and the box, using his poignard gently to raise the front edge of the box.
The weight of the box held down a small spring-loaded trigger, just visible under the center of the container. “Perfectly predictable,” Jack muttered. Taking the box out of the niche would trigger some kind of alarm or trap. He could probably disarm it, but did he need too? Suddenly the answer struck him. He laughed softly. “Of course!” Carefully, he fished another set of picks from his pouch and set to work, quickly opening the small box right where it sat. If he didn’t move the lockbox, he wouldn’t trigger the trap, and that meant that all he had to do was remove
the rubies from the box without removing the box from the niche. With one final click, the box opened.
Five perfect rubies glimmered darkly inside.
Jack grinned. He pushed the lid back out of the way, exposing the five rubies to view. Then, as a precaution in case removing the weight of the rubies might be sufficient to trigger the spring-loaded catch beneath the box, he fished out a small wooden dowel from his burglary kit and wedged it in place to hold the box firmly down on the bottom of the niche. That done, he produced a small silk cloth from another pocket and folded the five rubies inside. “And that is that.” He grinned.
Something snuffled and grunted outside.
Jack froze. He held his breath, listening intently. Then he mumbled an invisibility spell, fading from sight as the familiar words and energies worked the magic in the accustomed way. Even as he vanished, the counting-room door slowly swung open, creaking on its hinges.
A hulking, bearlike shape stood in the door. Leathery bat-wings flapped and shuffled as it advanced into the room. Demonic red eyes glowed in the center of an ursine face crowned by curling ram’s horns.
“Come out, come out, little thief,” the demon hissed. Its voice was thick oil poured over a hot stove. “I can smell your magic, I can hear your heartbeat, I can taste your spoor in the air. You cannot hide from me.”
Jack decided to try anyway. He held himself perfectly still, breathing slowly and silently.
The demon advanced into the room, snuffling and spreading out its limbs to grope for him. “I see you have borrowed my masters’ rubies, little thief,” the creature hissed. “Put them back now, and I will allow you to live.”
Moving very slowly, Jack crouched low and began to feel his way forward. The only way to escape was to dive under the creature’s grasp and bolt before it could turn
to follow. He tightened his grasp on the gems, held in his left hand. Then, before he could lose his nerve, he jumped to one side and scrambled under the monster’s outstretched paws. “Anders he called.
The demon roared and slammed its monstrous talons against the wall, trying to catch hold of Jack or pin him in place, but Jack dropped to all fours and scrambled past the guardian. Coins glittered and crashed in the darkness. The monstrous creature whirled with impossible speed and sprang after him, talons grasping blindly for him, its stinking breath hot on his neck. Jack gained his feet in the hallway outside and fled for his life.