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No part of this story may be reproduced or transmitted without written prior permission from the publisher. This is a work of fiction. All characters, names, events, incidents and places are of the author’s imagination and not to be confused with fact. Any resemblance to living persons or events is merely coincidence.
The King's Thief
Improvisation was key to my success as a courtesan which was so desperately needed. Usually, docks held the sounds of bells, men shouting, rolling barrels, crates being filled and emptied. When we sailed into Chardogne the whole port held its breath. Even the breeze dared not whisper. Discreet in their hopeful curiosity, the men still worked but with a lack of detail or the hurry that accompanies ports. The Rogues Gambit drifted into a guillotine.
Gustave positioned me upon the Forecastle Deck, letting the men at the docks see me first, to know the would-be-queen Chartan promised them, arrived. They were my people. Tall, noble, beautiful but also broken. I met as many eyes as I could reach and willed my returning devotion to be infused inside each pair of eyes. Their hope closed around my neck and squeezed.
Under the guise of sailors and merchants, I saw fugitives, outlaws, foundlings, refugees, forgotten, and displaced souls. Each my people. Holding my breath, I let them stare and take what they needed from me; whether it was resentment or reverie, endurance or resistance, perseverance or indifference. I stood for them to accept or deny.
No one whispered, uttered or gossiped and when The Rogues Gambit anchored, Gustave took me by hand and escorted me down into the docks. Walking slow past the men lined in attention, their faces dirty, the buildings they inhabited just as unclean, I was ushered into a pub. All was silent and waiting my approach inside as well.
The bar keep wiped down the counter, ignoring our approach. I looked to the boy escorting me down what seemed an aisle for a bride. But this church held cobwebs, not bells.
Bar keep held the perfume of a man who worked around a distillery, but never partook in the wares. He also dressed to double as security wearing only a sweat stained shirt with rolled up sleeves and a scowl of a man who’d loved and lost. “What do ya?”
“Torg, this is Lady Dauphine.” Gustave gave a grand gesture, but the importance of my arrival hadn’t phased the thirty-something man behind the bar.
“Yeah?” Torg scrutinized my features. “What’ll do ya Lady Dauphine.”
Smiling, I closed my palms together and brought my hands to my lips. Torg became my anchor. He was the type of no-nonsense man I needed right now when so many eyes declared me savior. Yes, I commanded a legion of women, but this was different. In Xaxyia I could cloth, feed and teach a girl how to navigate men. I could collect information and even use it to my advantage. But, here I was expected to resurrect an entire empire—and with what? My good looks? I took a breath. I’d built an empire with exactly that before. I could do it again—if I wanted to.
“The inspector will be here soon,” Gustave kept his voice a low hush. “I need to keep her in the back.”
“You can tell a lot from a lass by what she drinks.” Torg worried a spot on the bar with his cloth.
Chartan’s first mate gripped my elbow. “We don’t have time—”
“Gustave, if your inspector finds me hidden, ramifications will be worse.” I turned to Torg. “I remember this shack. Dirty now as it was then. I believe your father named one of the spiders that lived in the corner there.” I pointed. “Does your storeroom still have a lecherous reputation?”
A ghost couldn’t make Torg’s face turn more white. But the bar keep recovered and blinked.
“Viognier, please.” I said.
The bar keep broke in a wide smile that receded his hair line. “I’d figure you for the red wine type.”
“Red wine is sweet and this is a dry occasion.”
Torg nodded his head and as quick as he was to smile, his frown returned. “Alas, I have no Viognier.”
“Wines from Condrieu are shipped directly to Cadia.” Gustave said.
Randish tongues reaping the hard won, exclusive grapes of the Toulon Valley didn’t surprise me. But my reaction to the knowledge still cut. “Anything you have Torg, don’t be kind to my palate.”
“Yes ma’am.” The bar keep handed me a scotch that went down burning.
“This inspector…” I tapped the glass for another.
Torg filled it. “Randish tax collector and spy that comes everyday.”
That’s when the men in the room exploded and the small tavern transformed from silence into uncontrollable jibberish. I could scarcely make out the complaints but the meaning was clear. Repression. Not only of money, but of mind and religion. Every man in the room expected me to do something about it. Their demands, my responsibility, the weight of their burdens choked the air from my lungs. Gustave turned his back to me and started yelling at them.
Torg clasp my hand. “Come.” He lifted a section of the bar top and I slipped in the back. The bar keep led me down a hallway to a trap door. We descended a flight of stairs into a dark cellar full of barrels. The bars stock. Torg rolled a cask aside and opened another floor door. Another flight of stairs down and I was in a cozy room with a fire place and sitting furniture. This was one of the places Chartan stashed Detrien and I during our escape while the Randish took control of our capital.
“Cousin!” Detrien bolted from a chair towards me.
Smiling I held out my hands in greeting, but as soon as he was within striking distance, I punched his arm.
“Owww!” Detrien stumbled back holding his shoulder.
“That’s for double-dealing with Chartan, commandeering my time from my duties and sequestering me on that ship.”
Torg burst out with a hearty laugh. “Perhaps you are a rogue after all, entertainer!”
Detrien glared at me. His voice muffled through his hands. “And I thought you were having fun.”
“How did you get here so fast? Even if you left when I did, you still had to ride over eight hundred miles.”
“Which should tell you my urgency to see you.”
His deep voice soothed my wrath and knowing I could never stay angry with Detrien, I let out my anger with a sigh. “You rode Carnival?”
Detrien adjusted his arm, working out the pain of my punch. “I swear that horse is the demon from Khazaria. I think he was trying to kill me with his stamina.”
His chapped thighs gave me a little consolation. But I could use Detrien to help save Bowden. “Well, cousin, since your here…”
Another man stepped from the shadows and maintained a less than reachable striking distance from me. Covered in a grey cloak I could not tell his dress or station. His face held none of the grime of a working man, but his weathered skin claimed he was outside most the day. His steel expression and those eyes told me his story. Behind the stern look, regret filmed over the glint of intelligence. A dagger shaped the line of his cloak. He stood just beyond the shadows ready to slither into them to avoid danger. A rogue. Much like Chartan’s men he left with on the St. Maria.
Torg stepped up to my side, apparently unhappy about seeing the man.
I straightened, reaching up to my full height of five feet eight inches. “You are Landon.” The man who stayed behind for Bowden.
The man stepped back looking at me with wary eyes and said nothing.
“What are you doing here?” Torg said.
Landon appraised Torg and through the rogues expression I ascertained this already small room would become much smaller. “Where’s Chartan?”
“Cleaning your mess.” I answered.
“Already claiming command?” Landon glared at me sweeping his eyes over my person. “Whatever Chartan has put in your head, you are still a hay-penny whore.”
Torg rushed forward and landed a blow to the rogues gut.
Landon bent forward and coughed his way to the ground.
“Damn lightweight.” Torg said. “Don’t have any tolerance to you at all.”
“Torg! Back up!” I saw the blade and knew Landon’s tactic.
The bar keep jumped out of Landon’s arc then stepped forward and landed another blow to the rogues cheek.
Detrien tackled me in a vice grip and started shoving me up the stairs. “Go!”
Landon ducked under Torg, grabbed Detrien by the collar and pulled both of us down from the ladder. Landon straddled me, holding the knife to my throat. “Where’s Chartan?”
The rogue was a desperate combination of the need to prove himself loyal to LeBeau and deep sorrow of loss. Information of Chartan’s whereabouts could jeopardize my lover and Bowden, but if I didn’t give the man an answer, he was likely to tear down the town looking for one. He also held a blade threatening to kill me. “He went to save Bowden.”
Landon relaxed his grip, the despair of failure weighing his shoulders. “So he’s in Rouelle.”
“Rouelle?” I gasped, Chartan was going to the wrong place! “No he went to Cadia.”
Landon snapped his grip back in place. “Cadia? Why?”
“Cadia is where they take prisoners.”
“Prisoners? No, Bowden isn’t a prisoner, he’s their science experiment.”
I couldn’t understand what he meant. “Science experiment?”
Landon looked past me, through me, staring into a place in time. “They are cutting him open and making him use his power to see how…how his magic works from the inside.”
Torg and Detrien both ripped Landon off me. But the fight had been leeched out of all of them.
“Detrien, Chartan needs to be told, I need Carnival.”
“I’ll go.” Landon said.
“You’ll need Carnival.” Detrien’s grave expression proved he loved his horse even if he called the steed names. “But understand this. Xaxyia doesn’t have an assassin’s guild, but if it did, the guild master, hypothetically, would owe me a favor. If you don’t bring Carnival back to me whole and sound, I would, if it existed, have every member of that guild searching for you.”
Landon listened and took Detrien to his “hypothetical” word. Even I held my breath at my cousins threat. I’d never seen him less than jovial. But Detrien was right. The not so hypothetical assassins guild in Xaxyia were some of my favorite clients and they owed favors to us both. Finally, Landon nodded. “Thank you.”
The rogue left with Torg, leaving me alone with my cousin.
“You gave Carnival to him out of guilt.”
Detrien shrugged and smiled. “I was supposed to stay in Xaxyia, but I went against Chartan’s suggestion.”
“You think this makes up for it?”
“That’s the least of our problems. Bowden—he’s still alive?”
My plan would stay the same, just the town had changed. This time in my favor. I was closer the Roulle than Chartan and he’d have to go over a mountain or swing around them. Rouelle was a clear path from Chardogne. “Up for the rescue of a friend?”
Detrien bowed with a flourish. “Anything for my queen.”
I shook my head in disgust. “You too, Detrien?”
The fire light of the room cast an eerie mood. I did not feel the warmth of its heat but with all the men surrounding there was no need. Detrien on my right, Gustave on my left, Torg, Dean, Roy and two other men from the Rogue’s Gambit plus another five from upstairs and this cozy little hideaway became a package dozen of testosterone. With little o’ me in the middle and Chartan’s makeshift quilt world map I told them the first leg of my plan.
“We march from here to Rouelle. It is two hundred and sixty-two miles.”
Torg cursed under his breath. “Will we make it before they kill him?”
“We will.” Detrien my ever optimist was the only one who didn’t have doubts.
“Let’s not think in terms of defeat just yet.” I looked to all the men. “If we travel by foot it will take us five or six days. Three by horse.”
“I’ll get us horses then.” Dean said. The man was hardly an idle hand with the patience of an ant.
“Good. How many are going?” I said. Putting Dean to work was better than asking him to wait. Otherwise, he would likely use his anger for destructive energies.
“Twenty.” Torg nodded to Dean and the man was off.
“Once we get there, how are we to get in?” Gustave tapped at Roulle on the map.
“Oh, that,” I smiled. “Through the front gate.”
Everyone, except Detrien, gaped. Their eyes suggested I asked them to hang themselves. Rogues. No imagination.
“Who put her in charge of this operation?” A voice from the back said.
“You did.” I looked around the room. “All of you did.”
Torg nodded once as if the matter was settled.
The man, in yet another grey cloak, stepped forward. Chartan must be head of the thieves guild and gives them all grey cloaks for rogues in training. "That’s not good enough. Why should we follow you?"
I leaned back, clasp my hands in front of me and smiled. "I don't care if you do. If you decide not to follow me in retrieving Bowden and LeBeau out of Randish hands, that is your choice."
I went back to the board.
The man looked around at all his fellows. "You all are fools for blindly following the whore."
Gustave reached for his sword and snarled. "Don't ever let Chartan hear you call her that."
I stayed his hand. “Apparently, you don’t know the difference between a whore and a courtesan. If you did, you might be asking to trade secrets instead of questioning my plan.”
The man scoffed and turned to the stairs. Torg made a move to intercept the man.
"Let him go." I studied the map.
The man climbed the wrung of stairs and was out of the room. I flicked my eyes to Gustave. "It would not be prudent to allow my plans to reach Randish ears."
Gustave snapped his head up to where the rogue went. "I'll handle it."
I stayed Gustave once more. "Please, don't leave permanent damage. I just want to make sure he’s not a spy."
The boy grunted and climbed the stairs out of my sight.
“There is a small town here, at the base of the mountain.” I pointed on the map. “We can refuel supplies there.”
“No my lady, that town isn’t there any longer.” Roy said. Nostalgia and sadness expressed on his face. It had to be his home town.
“My apologies.” Our eyes met. His lip firmed and he nodded.
A wave of hopelessness gripped me. Detrien slid his hand into mine and squeezed. My beloved country suffered such loss. “Oh, then are there any towns convenient to restock?”
“No.” Torg said. “We’re rogues out of necessity.”
Plastering a smile I said, “Not anymore. For at least the next week, you are my company of entertainers.”
I rolled up the map—it would take more time to gather supplies and we could talk on the way there. For now, we needed horses, food, water and shelters. “Let’s get the first phase started. We’ll plan this out soon as we get closer.”
To my surprise, the rest of the men gathered their belongings and made way up the stairs. I expected them to demand a plan, to have to know what was going on. I’d waited on more of a challenge.
When they left I turned to Detrien, “I expected more of a fight.”
Detrien rubbed my arms and smiled. “Ah, Dauphine, men like that just want to fix what ails you.”
“So I haven’t lost my touch?” I quirked my head to the side.
He laughed. “You know you haven’t. You’re the best courtesan there ever was.”
“Still the one that left wasn’t convinced.”
“You can’t please everybody.” Detrien sighed.
“Yes you can.” I smirked, hearing Detrien’s thought--you can’t bed every man—especially those that don’t find a woman’s charms desirable. But there was only one man I wanted and he was seven hundred miles away.
Next installments should be June 8th!
Until then...happy reading!
♥ ~ Stephy
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