Here it is! The final, exciting installment of “It Takes a Thief.”
It Takes a Thief, Part Six
If the middle ring was cramped, crowded, and crime-ridden, than the upper ring was a paradise. A wall higher than any wall the twins had seen in the east separated the middle ring from the upper ring. There was a single gate, guarded by a dozen Blue Caps at all times. If there were any doubts that the plutocrats of Solaria were aware of the crime and poverty that thrived on the other side of that wall, those armed soldiers would quickly dismiss them.
Farris and Fayra had managed to slip through the gate with the throngs of servants who made daily pilgrimages to the markets and shops of the middle ring to acquire food for their masters’ daily meals. The twins had liberated a pair of the long, homespun tunics worn by Solaria’s servant class. As long as they didn’t draw too much attention to themselves, they should be able to move about freely.
They spent the next two days exploring the upper ring, careful to avoid the daily patrols of the Blue Caps. Open-air plazas, lush parks, and public gardens stretched as far as the eye could see. Everywhere they looked was another marble statue, gleaming colonnade, or ornate fountain. There wasn’t a shop, stall, or tavern anywhere. Walled estates and villas stood in stark contrast to the slums and tenements of the middle ring. Overlooking it all were the white columns and gold-topped domes of the Solarian senate and courts.
The Lake of Swans was the largest of two man-made lakes, the other being the Lake of Joys. Both lakes were surrounded by palatial homes, but the twins knew their quarry’s villa was beside the Lake of Swans. However, that still left dozens of possible homes to search.
“I wish we knew more about this Sekk,” Farris said. “It might make it easier to figure out which of these houses is his.”
Fayra was absently fiddling with the simple cloth belt that kept her tunic in place. “Like what?”
“Oh, I don’t know. Maybe he has a favorite kind of tree or something.” He thought for a moment. “Like, maybe he really loves red-fan pine, so we just need to find the villa with a lot of red-fan pines.”
“We already know that Sekk employs a troop of dwarfs as his private security,” Fayra said. “What more do you need?”
That was a key piece of information, and Farris said as much. “So we just knock on every gate until a dwarf answers?”
“Must I think of everything, dear brother?” When Farris didn’t answer, she added: “Know any dwarfen drinking songs?”
Redcastle’s soldiers didn’t allow them to take any weapons ashore. But, they did allow Farris to bring his lute and Fayra her lockpicks.
Dwarf drinking songs were deceptively complicated. The words didn’t matter, as long as the music that accompanied them perfectly matched the chaotic, life-threatening tumult of the largest battles ever waged. As far as Farris was concerned, other than the spell-singing used at the elf courts, the only thing harder than dwarfen drinking songs was goblin yodeling.
Farris started playing a few notes of random songs as he walked around the Lake of Swans. Fayra kept several paces behind her twin, enough to be able to see the reactions of those around the,. After warming up, and playing most of a particularly popular Daenarian wedding ballad, Farris launched into the best dwarfen drinking song he could think of.
Farris could feel the stares and looks of disgust he was getting from the average Solarians he passed. He paused by a marble statue of a particularly well-endowed archer and launched into his third verse, a rousing tale of the slaughter of the troll siege of King Barven’s mountain stronghold.
Fayra walked by, glancing appreciatively at the statue. She stopped and leaned against one of the the trees that lined the path around the lake. She tilted her head to one side before moving on. As Farris continued to sing–he was now recounting everything he knew about the Seven Thanes and the Orc Invasion–his eyes shifted in the direction Fayra had indicated.
There were four villas along this stretch of lakefront, each with the same high stone walls surrounding them. Something about the fourth villa, the one furthest away, had caught Fayra’s eye. It took Farris a few second, but then he saw it. The gate was open and several short, stout figures could be seen gathered in the opening and glancing in his direction.
Dwarfs. They had found Sekk’s villa.
Once the sun had set, the twins stashed their tunics and returned to Sekk’s villa. There was just the single gate, most likely guarded by at least two of Sekk’s dwarf soldiers. The walls were too high for Fayra to vault over, at least without her quarterstaff or grapnel, both of which were still in the possession of Redcastle’s men. Time was a factor, especially with the regular patrols of Blue Caps.
“You’re going to have to throw me,” Fayra whispered.
“Yeah. Throw me and once I’m on top of the wall, I’ll reach back down and pull you up.”
Farris shook his head. “This better not be Stormreach all over again.”
He gave his sister a boost, which was all she needed to get enough height to grab the wall’s top edge. Fayra hauled herself up and, hooking her feet over the inner edge of the wall, leaned back over and reached down to her brother. Farris took her hands and scrambled up the wall, using his twin like a living ladder. He clambered to the top of the wall and helped his sister back up.
They could hear the raucous laughter of the dwarfs at the gate. Fayra was sure there would be at least one guard walking the grounds. Trees provided cover between the wall and the main house. The twins sprinted from tree to tree, thankful that it was a particularly cloudy night. A sky full of stars would have been an additional obstacle they didn’t need.
An arch in the villa’s outer wall led to a small courtyard. A small fountain babbled in the center of the courtyard. Beyond the fountain, three steps led up into the villa. A faint, flickering light could be seen illuminating the villa’s interior. Sekk was home.
The villa’s main hall was decorated in silk curtains and draperies of every color: deep purples, bold blues, vibrant reds. The floor was a mosaic of brightly-colored tile. Plush sofas, divans, and cushions filled the room. Fires burned in two large bronze braziers at the far end of the hall.
The room had a single occupant. Seated behind a low table, upon a mountain of cushions, was Boltus Sekk. Sekk was a disgustingly fat man, with greasy black hair pulled back into a ponytail and a long, scraggly beard. His eyes were small and dark, his lips thick and wet. As the twins entered the hall, Sekk popped an olive into his cavernous mouth and smiled.
“And here they are,” he croaked. He sucked on his fingertips, one hand and then the other, then clapped his hands. Two servants appeared from behind the curtains and removed the table.
Sekk lifted his ponderous bulk off of the cushions with a grunt and lurched towards the hauflins. He was dressed, like every other member of Solaria’s moneyed class, in a brightly colored silk robe embroidered with golden thread and matching gold slippers. Something glinted in the flickering light of the braziers as Sekk moved across the room. Something hanging around his neck. A simple gold ring on a chain. It had to be the trinket that contained the fragment of the black mage’s soul.
“You knew we were coming?”
Sekk stopped, looking down at Farris. “Of course, my dear boy. It was my idea.” A familiar form appeared from behind one of the silk curtains. Broad shoulders, neatly-trimmed beard and hair, matching scarlet doublet and robe.
“Lord Redcastle? What in the nine hells of the Eternal Jailer is going on?” Fayra looked at her twin, hoping he had a clue. Farris just shrugged.
“Think of this as an audition,” Sekk grinned, his thick lips sliding across a mouth full of crooked, yellow teeth.
“An audition?” The twins asked in unison.
“Of course. You may not know this, but I am one of the wealthiest men in Solaria. In all of the City-States, actually.” Sekk was preening. “That often requires creative thinking and alternate avenues of activity.”
Fayra nodded. “Theft.”
“I prefer not to label such things. However, I do believe your talents would greatly benefit my business enterprises.”
“Okay,” Farris said. “I get it. You’re a greedy, amoral asshole. But, what’s in it for Redcastle?”
Sekk giggled. It was grotesque hearing such a childlike sound coming out of a creature like Sekk. He reached up and stroked the ring that hung around his neck with thick, flabby fingers.
Redcastle vanished. In his place stood a tall, gaunt figure dressed all in black. The figure wore a long, hooded cloak that, along with a thick, black scarf, concealed all of his face except for a pair of sunken, bloodshot eyes. Those eyes were locked on the hauflins, barely blinking.
“Are you kidding me!”
“I get it,” Fayra said. “So, if we say no, you’ll just order the Black Mage to force us to work for you. Right?”
“Intelligent as you are beautiful,” Sekk croaked, licking his lips.
“That’s it. I’m done.” Fayra charged Sekk. She was fast. Too fast for most men, and certainly too fast for someone of Sekk’s corpulent bulk. Sekk barely had time to react as Fayra jumped at him. She grabbed the gold ring with one hand. With her other hand, she vaulted over Sekk’s shoulder, snapping the delicate chain that held the ring.
“What? No! Stop her!” Sekk’s face was purple with rage, spittle flew as he bellowed commands. The Black Mage remained motionless. “I said, stop her!”
“Sorry, Sekk,” Fayra said, holding up the ring. “No ring. No control.” She tossed the ring towards the mage, who caught it in the pale, skeletal hand without looking. “This means you’re free now, right?”
Realization dawned on Sekk, but it was too late. He tried to flee, heading for the nearest door as fast as his stubby legs and slippered feet could carry him. The Black Mage turned his unblinking eyes on Sekk, who simply froze in place. Turning back to the twins, the Black Mage said one word in a raspy voice: “Leave.”
When they got outside, Farris and Fayra were surprised to see that the dwarfs had abandoned their posts. Maybe they had seen what was going on inside the villa and had no desire to face an enraged Black Mage of Malashir. Maybe they had been under the mage’s control just like Sekk had planned to do to the twins.
“Can we get the hell out of here?” Farris pleaded.
“I don’t know, twin of mine. Solaria could have an awful lot of opportunities for two enterprising and ethically flexible souls such as you and me.”
“Nope. This place is weird and I want to go back east. The eastern kingdoms make sense.”
Fayra looked at her brother and smiled. “Fine.”
“No boats,” Farris insisted.