Stealing A Chance
If the village of Tiria had one defining characteristic, Alys Brangwin decided, it was the smell. There was the salt of the ocean brine, but most of all there was the odor of fish. Fish cooking in homes and inn-kitchens. Fish drying on racks. Fresh fish being offloaded from boats and hung from nets. Fish in the market stalls being bought and sold. It was enough to make crawler steak start to look appetizing.
It had been that way the last time she'd been to Tiria, a decade and a half ago. In that respect, nothing had changed.
I wish it had.
Her client was a man named Phillip Theodore ("Call me Theo") Brandon, a well-fed, well-dressed man in his fifties who ran a successful shipping business. He could afford to pay for the best, and the best was what he had gotten: Alys was known across the planet Motavia as the most celebrated member of the Hunter's Guild.
"You're probably wondering," he said as they strolled through the market, "why I've offered ten thousand meseta for what amounts to simple guard duty."
"Either the job's more hazardous than it appears, or you wanted to make sure you caught the attention of the Guild's better hunters," Alys said. The tall brunette in her trademark red dress wasn't inclined towards long-winded explanations. Her equally trademark curtness generally cut through the posturing and self-indulgent pomposity most clients started their speeches with.
Pertinent facts were what she wanted, not the story of Theo's success.
"Um, yes, that's exactly the cause. I can hire sufficient louts and strongmen off the docks here in Tiria without having to import them. I want someone with skill and brains, and from what I've heard the Eight-Stroke Sword will fit that need exactly."
"I'm honored." There was nothing like Alys's own reputation to bring out her sarcastic side. Especially when that stupid nickname was involved.
Theo glanced up at her, a bit confused. Her gaze, meanwhile, flicked to the center of the market square, where a bearded man stood, bent over, his head and wrists locked in the wooden restraints of punishment stocks. He was stripped to the waist, and his back showed the marks of a lash, a dozen long welts. Alys's eyes narrowed.
"You do not approve," her client said. It was not phrased as a question.
"Is that man a thief?"
"He is." Theo looked at her dourly. "Come with me."
He led her out of the marketplace and down the lane to Tiria's wharf. Piers extended out into the dark blue waters, opposite a row of three warehouses. Alys saw several boats tied up, with crews of rough-dressed men and women with weathered faces unloading nets full of fish. The nets were drawn up, hooked to ropes and raised from the holds, then drawn along cross-lines to two of the warehouses, where they would be stored out of the sun until transport to the drying racks and the markets.
"Tiria is a fishing village," Theo explained. "It started that way, and even though it doubles as a sea-trade outlet for Piata it remains dependent upon the ocean. Those fishing boats, and the ones like them which are out at sea, are Tiria's lifeblood."
He tucked his hands into his pockets before continuing.
"The men and women who crew these boats risk their lives daily. They go out in these small craft, facing wind and wave and storm. They work hard at the nets. They even risk the more exotic perils of leviathans and elmelew packs. Each year, there are those who go out to sea and leave orphans behind. Justice here is harsh, because the cost of crime is equally high. A hundred meseta stolen might be what a man gave up his life to earn for his family. Tiria can't afford to build a prison, lock up a thief, and feed that thief for a few years the way a city can. So a dozen strokes with a lash and a few days' discomfort in the stocks lets a thief know we won't tolerate their activities—that plus a stiff fine payable to the victim."
Alys didn't ask what happened to repeat offenders; Motavian justice could indeed be as harsh as was life on the desert planet. The law was the law; her job was to catch the thieves who'd been plaguing Tiria in the act.
"Let me have more details about the thefts."
Theo nodded, some of his self-assurance restored by getting a chance to lecture Alys. It bothered her to realize that she'd brought it on herself, by letting her emotions run away with her. Her mentor, the hunter Galf, would not have been happy. Not that he had ever encouraged her to be cold and unemotional, but when her feelings started to affect her behavior towards people not connected with those emotions, then there was a line somewhere that she'd crossed. Especially on a job.
I didn't think it would get to me, she thought ruefully. Not after fifteen years.
But it did, and it was getting in her way.
"That first warehouse there belongs to me. My company uses it to store goods shipped in and out of town, and we also rent space to the fisherfolk and other traders. We've had three robberies in the past six weeks. Every time a large load of merchandise is shipped in, the thieves strike. I've lost over ninety thousand meseta in valuable goods so far."
"What have you done to try to stop them?"
"After the second theft, I've added to the watch, which meant four guards on duty, tough men. It didn't help. The thieves slipped in and out without being hindered by locked doors, knocked out the guards, and made off with the most expensive and portable goods. I also tried once to trap the thieves with a decoy shipment, but they didn't take the bait—didn't even make an attempt."
"So they ignored increased security and struck anyway when there was something to steal, but saw through the trap."
"That's right. That's why I decided to increase the quality of my guard force. There was a shipment of blown glass vessels from Uzo brought in today on the Caravel. They're worth twenty thousand meseta, and I can't afford to absorb another loss of this size. If the thieves hold true to form, they'll strike tonight, because it's being shipped out tomorrow."
Alys nodded. She'd already reached a few conclusions about the crime, and had questions to ask about it, but first things first, she thought.
"Which objective is my priority?"
"Do you want me to keep the glass safe, or to catch the thieves?"
"Both! The shipment is the immediate problem, of course, and I'll pay a thousand meseta if it leaves town on schedule. If you want to earn the other nine thousand, then put an end to these thefts for good!"
"That's about what I expected. Well, time's wasting. I'd better get to work."
"We have to go tonight," Kelli said, flipping her long braid back over her shoulder.
"That's tough," said Jules. He was the oldest of the four, the only one who could be called an adult instead of a child. "We usually take more time to plan the job out, to make sure it goes right."
"Yeah," agreed the smallest thief, a blond-haired boy of thirteen. "What's going on?"
"They're going to ship the stuff out tomorrow," Kelli said.
"Whassa matter, Chaz?" teased Leon, the last thief. A year younger than Chaz, he was the blond boy's main rival. "Scared?"
"I am not!" Chaz shot back. "I'm just not stupid enough to wait to get caught, that's all. Or maybe you didn't hear that they'd finally brought in a hunter?"
"One hunter! What's that to us?"
"I saw her talking to old Brandon in the market today," Kelli said. "Her name's Alys Brangwin. She looks pretty tough to me."
"Alys Brangwin? The Eight-Stroke Warrior?" Jules exclaimed. He might have been the oldest, but he was still only nineteen. "She's famous! If we pull this job off, they'll talk about it all across the planet!"
Kelli slapped Chaz on the shoulder.
"You'd like to be famous, wouldn't you, Shorty?"
Chaz had to admit, it sounded good to him. Of course, he wouldn't be able to tell anyone, except fellow criminals, but still and all, to put one over under the nose of a famous hunter...wow!
Of course, hunters didn't get to be famous without being hard to fool. They'd have to be careful, and lucky.
There was really no way to tell, Alys decided, which of the members of Theo's firm was giving inside information to the thieves, at least not without several more hunters and a fair amount of time for legwork. She couldn't follow them all, and she didn't have the right, let alone the time, to search their homes for evidence. No, the only feasible way to answer that question quickly was to catch the gang (it had to be a gang—too much was being taken at once for it to be a single person's work) and let the threat of punishment wear down the natural loyalty, honor, and dedication of the criminal classes so they would rat out the inside man or woman.
That usually took about eight seconds. Less, if they were particularly weaselly.
She couldn't help but consider the suspects, though. There was the captain of the merchant craft, who had access to the cargo manifest of every run. This wasn't a likely suspect, however, because the shipments that were stolen had come in on two different vessels. A customs officer collecting trade-taxes would have been another good suspect, but Tiria didn't have such a thing—only major mercantile centers like Aiedo, Piata, Kadary, and Zema had begun to see the profit a government could make by facilitating trade in exchange for tax money.
That just left Theo's actual employees. Discounting manual laborers, who didn't have the reliable opportunity to learn the contents or value of one shipment as opposed to another, there were four possibilities, all of whom she'd been introduced to that afternoon. The senior clerk, Garrity, had been rude and waspish, snapping out his answers like a sand newt defending its nest. That could have been guilt talking, but it also could have been resentment of her intrusion into his sphere and of her suspicion.
On the other hand, one of the junior clerks, Joel, had tried to flirt with her, and she had to admit that he was handsome, a man in his late thirties with pale green hair, but his ready smile and easy manner suggested a ladies' man. A penchant for amorous deceit and a fear of commitment (unmarried at his age), though, didn't necessarily translate into dishonesty in business.
The other junior clerk, Noria—she handled contracts and accounts while Joel focused on the logistics of transport—had been positively friendly, seemingly open and willing to share whatever she had to tell. The violet-haired woman was the youngest clerk and she might have just been less defensive and insular than Garrity. Then again, it could have been a facade designed to make Alys think she had nothing to hide.
About the only pertinent fact that Alys had been able to establish was that any shipment of goods impacted on Garrity, Joel, and Noria's responsibilities in turn and therefore each would have the chance to tell the thieves when something worthwhile was there to take. Likewise, they would be aware of Theo's attempt at deception, since it had been designed to trick a gang of robbers, not a complex crime ring operating with inside information.
The fourth suspect Alys didn't meet at the office, but when Theo took her to the warehouse itself. His name was Arno, and he was the warehouse foreman. A short, stocky fellow in his late fifties, his heavily muscled limbs testified to a life of hard physical labor. Now he oversaw the labor of others, the loading and storage of cargo. That gave him immediate access to the records of the company; unlike the workers who brought the items in, he knew what was in the boxes and would be fully aware of the trap. One additional circumstance was against Arno as well: of all Alys's suspects, he was the most familiar with the warehouse's layout and the routine of the guards.
"So this is the hunter," Arno grunted. He looked Alys up and down assessingly. "She don't look so tough."
"I try not to worry about posing," she told him dryly.
"That's something, at least," the big man said with an approving grunt. "Anyone who flaps their gums about how much of a man he is, usually isn't one."
"Well, that's one thing I've never been concerned about at all." Which made two for her side but nothing useful with regard to the job. "So how about showing me around the building? I want to size up the job of protecting it."
Arno glanced at his employer, and Theo nodded curtly.
"All right. C'mon."
He led them through a door into the building. The warehouse was the largest of Tiria's three. At one end the ceiling was domed, a typical feature of Motavian construction, the dome pierced by six windows for ventilation. It would be a narrow squeeze for any to be the point of entry; Alys might not be able to get through one herself, though locked shutters would make her feel more comfortable about that.
The space was necessary, because the warehouse was cluttered in the extreme with crates, kegs, and sacks. Stacks and piles were everywhere, most with written labels pasted to them—shipping instructions so the workers would know what to load on what cart or vessel. Near the entrance hung several nets full of fish (there was that smell again) which were suspended from an ingenious rope-and-pulley system. Since even shielded from the sun fish would not keep for long in Motavia's climate Alys could only assume that the nets would be emptied by the next day, their contents sold, dried, or just eaten.
"I only see two doors," Alys said. "The small one we came through and the main loading bay."
"That's all there are," Arno said.
"Do you know how the thieves got in?"
"Nope. We used to have one guard watch the place at night. He didn't see anything the first time. 'Course, old Petey's half deaf anyway. Same thing the second time. The third time, Mr. Brandon paid me and a few guys from the boats to help out. We had one man outside each door and two standing guard over the most valuable cargo, good Native Motavian titanium tools. I was at the side door and didn't see or hear a thing all night. Same with Bert on the big doors. Inside, though, Fred and Mickey fell asleep or got knocked out or something, and six crates of tools were taken."
"So how did they do it?" Alys asked.
"Did anyone check for tunnels?" she asked, noting the hard-packed earthen floor.
This time she got a nod in response.
"Loose boards in the walls?"
"Teleportation, maybe?" Alys mused. "I presume that Petey's not so deaf that he'd miss a telepipe being played?"
"Of course not," Theo snapped. "I admit, giving him the night-watch job is a bit of a pension with a job title, but if he couldn't spot something like that I wouldn't keep him on. Loyalty or not, there's a point the job has to come first."
"I'm not criticizing your business methods, Theo," Alys said, repressing a sigh. Since she didn't have any desire to hit him this time, she figured that getting out of the sun had helped her temper. "I'm trying to understand what happened. Somehow, thieves are getting in and crates of merchandise are getting out. Anyway, out to where? How do you sell crates full of stolen tools in Tiria? Whom do you sell it to?"
"I don't have any idea," Theo said. "I don't have many competitors, and they're relatively small-time. They don't deal in high-end goods, and I doubt they'd have the contacts to sell anything that was stolen."
"By the way, what's the complete list of stolen goods?"
This, Theo had no trouble answering.
"The first time it was nine crates of Nalyan porcelainware, the good stuff. The second it was five kegs of medical herbs, ingredients for apothecaries to make into healing medicines. The third was the six crates of tools we've been talking about."
"Crates this size?" Alys patted a two-foot-square crate, one of a stack labeled "Tents—Rane Juael, Zema to Carson Phillips, Torinco."
"Well, that rules out teleportation. Even if they used the Ryuka technique, there was just too much cargo to haul along with them. Teleporting people works a lot easier than bulk goods."
"That's why I'm in business," Theo agreed. "Most cargo has to go from point A to point B by the old-fashioned way."
Alys nodded. The pieces of the puzzle weren't quite falling into place.
"I'd like to talk to the two guards who were knocked out during the third theft—Fred and Mickey?"
"You can talk to Fred," Arno said gruffly. "Mickey's boat went out yesterday and he won't be back for a week.
"Fred it is, then. So where do I find him?"
The walk across Tiria should have taken no more than a few minutes; the village wasn't all that big. Somehow, though, Alys found herself taking a winding lane around the market, through the poorer district of town. The houses here were run-down; some were unoccupied and others held those waiting to die: crippled fisherfolk who could no longer work the boats; widows or grandparents trying to face their own losses while trying to raise the children of their loved ones; the children themselves who had to face the truth that they were most likely destined for the same profession that had taken their mother, father, or both. There were taverns here, too, but unlike the happy, raucous atmosphere of those in the better part of town, these were grim places where people drank to help them endure, and to forget.
It got worse before it got better, Alys thought. The next building she passed, coming out of the run-down area, was the square stone block of the orphanage. There was nothing physically forbidding about it; the sandy-hued walls, domed roof, and crenellated eaves were all typical of the other buildings in town and, frankly, of Parmanian architecture throughout Motavia. Yet the place had a tangible feeling of menace and despair about it, the kind of feeling one gets from a prison.
Which, of course, was what the orphanage was.
Children with families were taken in by their relatives. The only ones in the orphanage were those too young to support themselves and too alone for anyone else to do it for them. Even in larger cities like Zema and Aiedo, few children older than infants were ever adopted. In a village Tiria's size, that chance was essentially nil. The orphanage was effectively a prison to hold the children until they reached apprentice-age. The caretakers would arrange an apprenticeship, to give them their due, so that no child was merely thrown out on the streets without shelter or support, but that did not provide hope, or choice...or love.
Ordinarily, Alys was not an introspective person. Part of that was her nature, and part of that was good advice from Galf during her training. Don't sit around dreaming, girl. Act on your dreams, if they're worth having! When it came to this place, though, she just couldn't help it.
The woman had a kindly face, though her hair was pulled back into a severe bun, the kind adult women wore when they wanted to look "serious" and "professional." Alys thought that was stupid. You never saw men deliberately downplaying their appearance just to make people think they were being businesslike. Men tried to look their best in whatever garb was necessary for the job.
Alys decided at that moment that she'd do the same, whatever she wound up doing with her life. She'd let her skills speak for themselves, and anyone who didn't get it, well, that was their problem.
"She's a little old for us," the woman said dubiously. "We generally take in only the younger children who can't take care of themselves." She sighed sadly and said, "Still, that's not fair to Alys. Alex Brangwin was a Tirian, after all, though he left town, and I know that none of his family are left locally. You say the same is true of her mother?"
Alys had to keep from gritting her teeth at the way the caretaker talked over her head, like she wasn't capable of making her own decisions or carrying on a conversation. She was fourteen, for goodness sake, not a little brat who—
A hand fell on her shoulder, and she looked up at Galf, the hunter who stood beside her. He'd saved her when the highwaymen had killed her parents, brought her on to Tiria—not only the nearest village but where Alex and Lysa Brangwin had been heading in the first place. He'd been there when she needed him, hadn't treated her like a kid. Even now, the grip on her shoulder—surprisingly gentle for a big man—seemed to be saying, "Calm down. I know she's being silly, but she means well and there's nothing good getting mad will get you."
"Yeah," Galf agreed. "I knew Lysa; she didn't have anyone, at least not that she'd admit to."
"Well, in that case we would be glad to offer Alys a place here until something can be arranged by way of finding her a trade. It's the least we can do."
"Thank you, Vina. We both appreciate it." He extended his hand to the caretaker, who shook it. "I'll be leaving town in a couple of days, and we'll be back in touch."
"Oh? She isn't going to be staying?"
Galf rose from his seat; Alys mirrored the action.
"There's still a few details to be worked out with regard to her parents' property. Least I could do, I suppose. Like I said, we'll be in touch."
They left Vina's office. Alys didn't let out a breath until she was outside the main door. When it swung shut behind her, she sighed with relief that the way was barred and she was on the outside.
"I hope you don't mind the bald-faced lying," Galf said. "About your parents' property, I mean."
"I thought the plan was that I'd move in today."
"Yeah, well," Galf said with a shrug. "I could see that you weren't exactly keen on the idea."
"That place...Galf, it's like a dungeon! They lock kids up there, then turn them loose into another prison."
"That apprenticeship stuff? Don't get them wrong, Alys. A person's gotta have work. Around here, yeah, that does pretty much mean fishing, homemaker, trader, or more fishing, but that isn't Vina's fault. She does the best she can, and you're going to have to do something, since you aren't rich and worthless enough to live without working."
The grin between his bushy, iron-gray whiskers took away any sting that might have been in his words.
"Dad was teaching me to go into his trading business. That's why I've been going along with him on his trips the last couple of years."
"Unfortunately, at your age you can't step into his shoes, and since he didn't have a big company, there aren't clerks and merchants to run it for you while you learn the ropes."
"At this rate I'd be better off selling the house and goods and using the money for a nest egg to start up my own business in a few years, whatever I end up in." She looked up at Galf. "Did you really know my mother?"
"A long time ago, yeah. Long before you were born. She was a fine lady. Not surprised she married a trader like your dad. Lysa never liked to stay in one place for too long."
Alys laughed in spite of herself as a memory rose up. "Dad always said she must be a Motavian in disguise, because she had a nomad's heart." Then her face fell, and she had to fight off a sob that threatened to choke her. I'll never see them again, never hear them laugh or cry or talk...
"Truth is, girl, you've got to make a choice," Galf changed the subject, making it easier for her to hold back the tears. It hadn't taken him long to realize that Alys didn't want a shoulder to cry on, that she was the kind whose grief was a private thing. She'd let it out in the open before him once, already, when he'd saved her from the bandits, and it had left her feeling almost violated to expose all that raw emotion to another. Alys wanted to hug him for understanding. "You've got a fair number of options, but not much time to pick one."
"Galf, I'm just fourteen—I can't decide my whole life right now!"
"Yeah, it's tough. If life was fair, you wouldn't have to, and you'd have your parents to help back you up. Only it isn't and you don't. Truth is, you don't pick your own path, it's gonna be like Vina said. Someone else, maybe her, maybe not, is gonna pick it for you. I've been around a while, and I've seen people make good choices and bad choices, but the worst ones of all are always the ones they let somebody else make for them."
Alys thought that over. She didn't know if she could answer that question, but Galf had a good point, too. She definitely didn't want Vina being the one to decide what she'd do with the rest of her life!
"Then I want to be a hunter," she stated.
"I want to be a hunter," she repeated calmly. "I want to kill monsters and catch crooks and make sure that what happened to my parents doesn't happen to anyone more than it has to. You can't do that in your spare time. If I'm a hunter, people will pay me for it."
Galf turned to face her directly.
"Alys, I know you just lost your parents, and yeah, a hunter did get the ones who did that, but that's no reason to—"
"You said I had to make a choice, Galf, and this is the only one that feels right to me. I know for sure that I don't want to go into fishing! I can certainly pay any kind of Guild fee for apprenticeship."
The older man met her gaze squarely. Alys didn't flinch away.
"You're serious, aren't you?"
"I'm not feeling a whole lot of funny going on right now."
"First lesson, kid. No backtalking your trainer."
"Every apprentice's gotta have a master."
"Yeah, but..." The belligerence dropped from her voice. "Galf, I wasn't asking you."
"Don't think I'd do a good job?" he challenged.
"No, it's not that, it's just—"
"Hey, look at it this way. Your mom was a classy lady, and she gave me a lot of help, once. Pulled my tail out of a fire, to be honest. I'm not gonna let her daughter go into this business without making sure she knows everything I can teach her. So, if you're gonna be a hunter, then you're gonna be my trainee."
He shook his head, as if bewildered by his own actions.
"Man, I thought you had to have kids to end up a granddad."
Alys smiled at the memory. It had been a long time, but she still missed Galf. Maybe as much as she missed her real parents. Coming back to Tiria just reminded her of that. She needed to move on, though. There were thieves to catch, and she doubted Fred would wait for her to stroll much longer down memory lane.
Alys found Fred Bartlett in his back yard, stripped to the waist as he pounded a fence post into the ground with a heavy mallet. The old, broken post lay on the ground next to his feet, indicating the reason for the chore.
"Now, I don't mind helping out Mr. Brandon," said Mrs. Bartlett, a tiny, almost fairylike creature who seemed almost of a different species than her big, broad, muscular husband. "He's a good man and paid Fred in full even though the thieves got away with what Fred was supposed to guard. But don't take too long about it! Fred's boat is going out tomorrow and he'd going to get that fence fixed before it does! Have you ever tried to chase down a runaway duck?"
"Not that I'd admit."
"Those little critters are no end of trouble when they want to be, and it isn't healthy for them to keep them penned in the basement, either. So go on and ask your questions, but be quick about it!"
Alys liked her.
The big man turned, letting the hammer dip to the ground.
"This is Alys Brangwin. She wants to talk to you about the robbery at Brandon Shipping."
"Alys Brangwin?" he said, his face beginning to take on what Alys recognized as The Look. "The Eight-Str—"
"We don't have time for that, Fred; you've got a fence to fix. Just answer her questions so you both can get back to work."
"All right, then." She flounced back into the house.
Fred lowered the big mallet, putting the head on the ground and resting his hands on the butt of the handle.
"So what do you want to know, Miss Brangwin?" he said politely.
"Why don't you just tell me about that night, and if I want to hear something more than you say, I'll butt in with questions."
"Suits me fine. There's a bunch of crates Mr. Brandon figures could get stolen, so he has a bunch of us to guard them. There's me and Coley Sams from the Lady Mary and Mickey Barstow from the Reliant, plus Arno Scott, Mr. Brandon's warehouse manager. The first night nothing happens. The second night..."
He glanced down, embarrassed.
"You had a bunch of trouble?" Alys prompted. She couldn't resist.
"Yeah. Mickey and I got the job of staying inside the warehouse with the crates. Arno told us he wanted two men to watch each other's backs, or in case one got distracted."
"Was the regular watchman there, too?"
"Old Petey? Nah. Mr. Brandon had let him stay home. He didn't want the old guy getting hurt if something bad went down. With all the guards, y'know, we figured there'd be a fight if the thieves showed at all, and Petey's a little past his fighting days."
Alys mentally crossed one suspect off her list.
"So, Mickey and I are hanging around with the crates, and we've each got our knife and a good-sized club if a brawl starts. Nothing much happens until it's past midnight. Then I hear something, a kind of, I don't know, a soft kind of thump."
"Yeah. A dull thump, kinda like this." He stomped his boot on the ground. "Then...well, the next thing I remember is, it's the next morning, Arno is shaking me awake, and there's a big empty space where the crates were."
"You weren't hurt, though? You hadn't been hit and knocked out?"
He shook his head.
"No, I was fine, no bumps or bruises."
"What about a scratch or puncture-mark?"
Fred looked at her quizzically.
"I was thinking of a dart or needle, tipped in some sleeping drug."
"Oh." He shrugged again. "There was nothing that I noticed; but really, I don't think I'd have seen it if there had been something. I get scratched and nicked a lot, you know. Can't help it, working the lines and the nets."
"I know exactly what you mean. How about after you woke up? Do you remember anything being strange? A headache, a taste in your mouth, any out-of-place feeling?"
Fred's face lit up at once.
"Hey, yeah! There was kind of a funny taste—minty, like I'd just sucked on a candy drop or something. How did you know?"
"A lot of drugs have aftereffects. Thanks for the help."
"Oh, sure. Hey, that's it? You're done?"
Alys grinned at him.
"Can't let you ship out without fixing Margie's duck yard, or she'll kick both our butts, right?"
He'd given her a couple of clues, as well. Alys thought she recognized the drug that had been used to knock out the two guards, and what she could do about it. It's not enough just to be able to fight, Galf had always said. You have to know what you're getting yourself into.
As always, a pang of sadness brushed the hunter when she thought of the old man. Galf had been more than just a teacher; he'd been a second father to the orphaned girl she was in those days. He'd turned a raw, hotheaded, angry young woman, a teenager with a chip on her shoulder, and made her...
Made her into The Hunter Alys Brangwin, the Eight-Stroke Warrior.
Yeah, I learned a lot from Galf. Much more than fighting technique. More, even, than just how to do the job.
It was funny, she thought. Galf was the only subject which could move her to an emotion anyone could describe as wistful.
Alys shook her head. Another lesson she'd learned from Galf was not to waste time thinking about abstract ideas when on a job!
She wished she had the time to check out her theory about what had happened to Fred; a letter transmission to the Guild in Aiedo could verify what she thought she knew, but she didn't have the opportunity. She had to be in the warehouse, on guard, not waiting for messages. Theo Brandon met her at the door just before sunset.
"Thank goodness! I was afraid you wouldn't be back in time. Do you have any plans for protecting the cargo?"
"I do, but I want your help."
"I want you to post men outside both warehouse doors, preferably a pair at each."
"That didn't stop anything the last time."
"Last time you had two untrained men with the crates. Tonight you have me."
"Do you want any other men inside?"
"No. They'd just be in the way."
The merchant's eyes widened.
"You sound like you have ideas, Alys."
Alys couldn't help but shiver a bit when the doors were slammed shut behind her and the locks slotted into place, sealing her into the cavernlike building. It passed almost at once, though, and she went to take up her position, and to wait. Patience was not Alys's strength, so she was none too happy that all too many good plans required it.
It was going to be a long night.
Quietly, four figures slipped down the bank that separated the Tiria harbor from the rest of the village. Each was dressed in dark clothes, with no whites or pastels to catch any stray beam of light. Two carried haversacks slung over their shoulders. Creeping over to the warehouse, they stopped not at the one belonging to Brandon Shipping, but the second in line, which was owned by a couple of Tirian boat captains and rented to a variety of merchants.
"Any sign of someone coming?" Jules said softly. He didn't whisper; all four of them had been at this long enough to know that a whisper carried much further than a low voice.
"Nah; the coast is clear," said Chaz.
Jules opened his haversack and took out a long coil of rope, which was tied into a constricting noose at one end. It was much quieter than a grappling hook, even one with cloth-muffled prongs, and as long as castle-style crenelations were the architectural fashion on Motavia just as useful for getting to the rooftop. A flick of his wrist snaked the noose around one of the merlons, and he pulled the rope snug. One after another they climbed to the top of the second warehouse, then pulled up the rope so it wouldn't give away their position.
The next trick was even easier. Since no one else ever came up to the roof that they knew of, they'd left a long plank there from their last job. Jules and Leon worked it into place so that it spanned the gap. In less than two minutes the agile thieves had crossed over to Brandon's warehouse, then pulled the plank across behind them so no passerby would glance up and notice it.
Now came the hard part.
They went over to the roof dome and looked down through the narrow windows. The six holes were small, but for a collection of lean—all right, scrawny—kids they weren't small enough to keep them out.
"Be careful," Kelli said. "I don't want to be caught by that hunter."
"She's just like anyone else," Leon replied. "Big and dumb."
It had been easier the first couple of times, of course. Kelli had watched the night-guard from the window, signaling an all-clear to Leon at the roof edge, who had signaled down to Jules and Chaz when it was safe to pick the lock and sneak in. Then they'd just played hide-and-sneak with the watchman until they were done. Once Brandon had started posting guards, it had gotten more complicated, but nothing, Chaz thought smugly, that they couldn't handle.
"There she is," Jules said. "Right next to the crates we're after."
Kelli opened her pack and took out two small bags of powder. She carefully poured them into a third bag, which was pierced with holes at one end.
"What if this doesn't work?"
"Then we'll think of something else. Don't worry, though. It'll work."
"Okay, Jules. I hope you're right."
She took out a small vial, worked the stopper loose, and let three drops of a translucent blue fluid drip into the bag. A sizzling sound could be heard at once, and Kelli handed the bag to Jules. While she put away her reagents, he snugged up the drawstring and tossed the bag down through the window. The leather slapped against the dirt with a soft sound that nonetheless got the hunter to spin around in surprise, her hands going to the hints of her slashers.
She's good! Chaz thought. Those other two didn't even act like they'd heard it.
Good or not, though, the hunter was no more immune to the knockout gas than the guards had been on the previous occasion; she sprawled face-first on the floor, her long brown hair fanning out around her head.
The thieves waited a short time for the gas to dissipate, which didn't take long in the cavernous warehouse. Again, they hooked up the rope, then began to shimmy down one at a time.
"Okay," Jules said when they were all down on the floor. "Let's get to work—but keep it quiet! We don't want the guards outside to know we're here!"
"I think you need to be more worried about the guard inside."
The hunter sat up.
Perfect, Alys thought. Her sudden "awakening" had all of them standing around shocked and flat-footed. Verisnal made an excellent knock-out potion, but it dissipated easily in the open air and had little penetrating power. A wet cloth clapped over Alys's nose and mouth as she pretended to pass out was more than enough to filter out the chemicals.
The only real surprise was that the thieves had turned out to be a bunch of kids. She had figured it would have been adults who were skinny and agile enough to get through the window, not some juvenile troublemakers. Now she had another problem: Alys couldn't just go into full combat mode on a bunch of kids, but if she underestimated their nastiness level she could end up getting a knife somewhere painful.
"Run for it!" shouted the biggest kid, and all four bolted.
Alys drew one of her slashers, snapping the blades open, and hurled the weapon just as one of the kids reached the climbing-rope. With the thief's weight holding the line taut, the razor-edged blade cut the rope easily, and the girl fell a few feet to land with a thump.
Now Alys had them trapped.
Until the loading bay doors were hauled open.
"Hey, what's going on in here?"
It wasn't Arno, at least; he should have known better and apparently did, keeping the side door locked. The two men who burst inside were broad-shouldered and wiry, probably more local fishermen.
"Close that blasted door, you idiots!" Alys screamed, but it was too late. One of the kids had had an idea. The blond-haired boy darted for a lever on the wall and yanked it.
It was the release control for the fishnet rig.
She almost had to admire the boy's ingenuity. The net dropped onto the two men, the weight of the day's catch knocking the guards flat and spreading the net out over them. Plus, knocking down the men cleared the way to the door.
Alys had gotten a late start in her chasing because she'd had to wait for the thrown slasher to return to her hand. The boys were too far ahead of her to catch, but the girl had gotten tangled up in the climbing rope. The hunter would get at least one.
Only, the blond kid got to her first. He yanked the ropes away and helped her to her feet.
"Go on, Kelli, get going!" he said, giving her a push towards the door. He then turned to face Alys, putting his body between the hunter and his friend.
"Honor among thieves? Oh, please," she groaned. The kid threw a punch—he was actually pretty strong for his age, even though he was short. Alys sidestepped the wild swing easily, though, and knocked him on his butt with a kick to the chest. The girl was gone, though, unless Alys was going to cut her down with a slasher or toast her with a Foi technique. Which she wasn't, not for larceny with no more violence than the use of a mild sleeping gas.
"All right, kid," she said, hauling her prisoner up by the back of his shirt. "Time to pay the piper. The good news for you is, your little act of chivalry let your girlfriend get clean away. The bad news is, that just leaves you to face the law." Alys picked up the cut length of rope and tied the boy's arms. She then dragged him over to the fishnet and shoved him down on his belly. "Stay there. Try to run off and I'll get cranky."
"As compared to what?"
Alys looked down and shook her head pityingly. She'd have thought a street-rat thief would have developed better survival instincts than that.
"I sincerely hope that was a suicide attempt. I hate dealing with stupid people."
She helped get the two guards extricated from the fish; they appeared stunned but not severely hurt.
"You," she told the dizzier-looking one, "go get Arno and tell him to come in." To the other, she said, "You, fetch Theo and have him roust out the town law, whatever it is around here. And make them bring Brandon Shipping's clerks, too. I don't want the inside person getting out of town while I'm explaining who it is."
Alys gave the Tirians credit for one thing; they were industrious. Although it was nearly two in the morning, within a half an hour she found herself facing Theo Brandon, Garrity, Joel, Noria, and three uniformed officers of the Tirian town guard (these being, in fact, the entire Tirian town guard) besides the cast of characters previously present.
"Alys!" Theo cried at once. "Do you mean to say you've solved the thefts?"
"Yep. I've got the who, I've got the how, and I've got a witness." She pointed to the kid. "By the way, do any of you know him?"
"Sure," said the senior guard, who'd opted to call himself a sergeant instead of puffing the officer's importance up to a captaincy. "His name's Chaz Ashley. We know him pretty well. Parents died when he was ten; he's been trouble ever since—pickpocketing, housebreaking, you name it."
"Well, he and three others like him did the actual grunt work," Alys said. "There was a dark-haired boy who looked a bit older than the rest, a girl with a green braid, and a boy with red hair and freckles."
"The redhead's probably Leon Mars, and the girl Kelli Desmond. We'll find out soon enough. But you're saying they snuck all those crates out of here?"
"Nope. They couldn't," Alys said, shaking her head. "First, they came in and left by the windows. A kid could squeeze and twist through, but you can't do that to a solid-sided wooden crate. Second, we may be talking about ninety thousand meseta's worth of goods, but it's not like cash or jewelry. You can't sell porcelain and tools to a street fence. It's got to be sold, sooner or later, to someone who can put that stuff on the market. How would street rats do that? No, not one single crate left the warehouse during any of the thefts."
"But the crates were gone," Theo insisted. "We saw it, several of us!"
"Sure, they were gone. What the kids did was to sneak into the warehouse, move the crates to somewhere else in the building, and replace the shipping labels with fake ones. It's not like, finding valuables missing, you'd immediately go looking to see if they'd been misplaced, and one crate pretty much looks like another. Then, the crates would be shipped out—quickly, so no one would realize that there was a stack where it shouldn't be—to a crooked merchant in some other town in accordance with their new labels. Isn't that pretty much it, Chaz?"
Chaz refrained from comment.
"Chaz, this isn't petty theft. This is ninety thousand meseta, to say nothing of burglary, drugging the guards with that knockout gas last time, and assault on the guards this time with your little fish stunt." She was never going to get the stench of it out of her clothes, and that was just from helping the two men out from under the finny heap. "You may just be a kid, but you're getting old enough that you'd have to take adult responsibilities in many towns. I don't think you want to be facing that right now, especially since right now you're the only one the law has a hold of to punish."
"On the other hand," said the sergeant, showing that he wasn't in command just because he was the oldest of the lawmen, "you're also the only available witness right now. You can cut a deal to talk right away, before anyone else even gets the chance to make an offer."
"Yeah, all right," Chaz said sullenly. "It happened just like she said."
"Have some respect," piped up one of the guards. "This is Alys Brangwin."
Chaz probably knew who she was if they'd done their homework, Alys figured, but that apparently hadn't been enough to quite take the edge off the eyes-widening realization.
"Don't say it," she told him. "Just stick to the thefts."
"That's all there is, really. It was kind of fun sneaking around the first couple of times, getting the crates moved where we wanted without the old guy seeing us. The third job was really easy by comparison."
"So who was paying you?" Theo asked at once. "Who is it that gives you the fake labels and tells you where to put my property?"
"I don't know."
"Chaz," warned the sergeant.
"I'm serious! I don't know who it was!" he said urgently. "I never got to meet with him. Only Ke—I never got to meet the guy!"
Alys turned to the sergeant.
"Wait a second; I thought Kelli was the girl."
"She is. Kelli Desmond, daughter of the barmaid at the Plastered Pike."
"Her father's dead?"
"Who knows? Lila's the bar girl, right?"
"Sorry; I didn't catch the euphemism. That's good, though. It clinches my idea about who's responsible."
"You know the real thief? The one who hired the kids?"
"Sure. Joel, there. Shipping schedules are his job. Inserting a fake address, rerouting goods, knowing when things worth stealing are coming in—remember, no one tried to steal the fake shipment Theo rigged up—is all his area. Shipping and logistics, right?"
She got a few nods, but Joel didn't cave. Not surprising, really. Anyone who'd set up a successful theft ring under his employer's nose had to have a certain amount of cool. He just flashed that smile, which was starting to get annoying.
"I'm not the only one who could do that. Garrity could do any job that I could. Arno knows our shipping procedures up and down, backwards and forwards. Really, there's no reason to point at me instead of either of them."
"Are you calling me a thief?" Arno bellowed. Garrity just sniffed arrogantly.
"In fact," Joel continued, "it might even be Noria. It's as logical to assume she has learned about the details of my job as it is I learned to make out-of-town business connections. You have no evidence."
"Yeah, but none of them is Kelli's father," Alys drawled. A guess based on hair color, of course, but she figured that with the clerk's appreciation of the opposite sex, it fit together. That and the point that it was Kelli who was the contact with the head of the ring.
Might as well spell that out for those who still haven't quite woken up.
"Chaz," she asked, "who's the leader of your little gang of four?"
"Hey, I'm not gonna sell out my pals."
"Chaz, we already know who two of them are. Do you think we're going to slip up on the fourth? Tiria just isn't all that big. And the redhead looks like he'll weasel."
Good guess. It got a scowl from the kid.
"Yeah, Leon'll spill it all if you give him a dirty look. Okay, Jules is the leader. He got the four of us together last year, long before any of this happened."
"Jules Vane," groaned the sergeant. "Aw, darn it, his dad's the commander of the fishing fleet."
This was not Alys's problem, and she was glad of it. Politics made her want to hit people.
"And there you have it. Why did the head of the theft ring deal with Kelli and not the one in charge? A personal tie. End of story. You want any more evidence, go have someone who likes numbers to follow the paper trail, but that's not my job. The number concerning me is my fee—ten thousand happy meseta."
"Ridiculous!" Joel mocked.
"I don't think so," said the sergeant. "Investigation'll prove it one way or another, but she's got a good enough circumstantial case for me to put you under arrest. Just so you don't try to check out the weather on the far side of the continent while we're gathering evidence, see?"
He took Joel by the arm, easily keeping the slighter figure under control, while another guard took Chaz.
"As soon as we get these two locked up, we'll go fetch the rest of the kids—and have a talk with Kelli's mother."
"Thank you for all your help, Alys," Theo told her, shaking the hunter's hand enthusiastically. "I'll remit your fee to the Guild tomorrow morning. You've saved me a small fortune."
"You're welcome." She wasn't quite sure what made her ask the next question; perhaps it was the lateness of the hour combined with the amount of time she'd spent thinking over the facts and personalities of the job, but ask it Alys did. "Theo, what's going to happen to that kid? Chaz, I mean."
"Oh, you don't have to worry about him." Theo was obviously recalling Alys's reaction to Tiria's methods of criminal punishment. "Sergeant Hammond is an honest man; he wouldn't go back on the deal you made. He'll make sure Chaz testifies as much as he needs to before the magistrate, but he won't be tried or punished."
"He's thirteen, I think. Too old for the orphanage. Probably try to apprentice him to one of the boats."
"Doesn't he have any family?"
"Nah, his parents weren't from around here. Too bad; that kid's been a problem ever since he's been on his own."
I shouldn't be here, Alys thought to herself the next morning as the guard led her back to the cells. I should have telepiped back home to Aiedo, had a decent night's sleep in my own bed, and be collecting my commission right now. She suppressed a yawn with some effort; bad enough to stay up half the night on the job without losing the rest of it trying to convince herself that what she intended was too pointless, too mushy, or just too darned poetic-justically obvious.
"Wake up, kid; you've got a visitor," the guard snapped. Chaz sat up and rubbed his eyes.
"Hey, it's Alys Brangwin!"
He hopped down out of the cot and came over to the cell door.
"You smell like fish."
"This whole town smells like fish," grumbled Alys. If I'd gone home, I could have changed clothes. "Why should I be any different?"
"I dunno. Why'd you come to see me?"
"Just wondering about the direction your life is heading."
Chaz rolled his eyes.
"You can spare me the lecture. The sergeant was saying how he was gonna see I got apprenticed to his brother's boat to keep me out of trouble. No way am I going for that. First chance I get, I'm bailing out of this dead-end village."
"And what then?"
He looked at her, puzzlement written in his green eyes.
"What then?" Alys repeated. "Are you going to become a bandit? Or go to the big city and start in on serious crime there?"
"It's better than working on a fishing boat, risking my neck and breaking my back for next to nothing! My parents got killed that way, and I'm not going to follow them."
Alys couldn't actually argue with him on that point; fishing wouldn't have been her first choice, either. Actually, it had come in pretty much dead last among legal occupations when she had been thinking about it.
"Ever thought of being a hunter?"
"Huh?" There was the difference between them. She'd had to be told there was a choice, but had figured out her own path from there. Chaz, on the other hand, already had the choice part figured but needed his eyes opened to possible options.
"It's a lot like crime. You fight for your life, you're always doing a lot of different things, and the pay is good enough but not steady. Only, you're more likely to get eaten by a sand newt than hung after a trial, but the general idea is the same."
He tilted his head to the side, as if to try to get a better perspective on what she was saying.
"Are you serious?"
"No; I stayed in this charming slice of village life just so I could come in here and make jokes to a smart-mouthed kid. Of course I'm serious."
Chaz decided that she was.
"I'd be interested. It sounds a lot more fun than fishing, and, well, ten thousand meseta for one day's work—I'd like to make that kind of money. It's kind of a pointless question, though. How would a street rat get to be a hunter?"
She looked him square in the eyes.
"As my apprentice."
"Why the heck would you do that for me?" he asked at once with the immediate suspicion of a kid who hadn't gotten anything handed to him on a silver platter before, let alone a life-changing opportunity.
"You've got promise," she said. "That trick with the fishnet was fast thinking. Then you came back to help your friend, which was good. Loyalty's worth something. Of course, you went and tried to take me on to help delay my pursuit, which was stupid, but we'll work on that. You've got guts, heart, and a hint of brains; you just need a chance to use them." And most of all, you remind me of an orphan girl another hunter took in.
Alys never had gotten a chance to pay Galf back for what he'd done for her; he'd died long before she'd become Alys the Eight-Stroke Sword.
But then, maybe this was the best way, after all.
"You mean it, don't you? You really would take me on as an apprentice?"
"I don't say a lot of things I don't mean. It's a waste of breath."
"I...well..." Chaz stopped, and grinned wryly. "I'd be an idiot not to say yes, wouldn't I?"
"I could be mistaken. Maybe you just like being in jail cells."
"You don't have to rub it in," Chaz muttered.
"Just making a point. Yes or no?"
Once again Chaz demonstrated the ability to make a correct decision on short notice.
"I'll do it. And, um...thanks, Alys."
"Don't thank me yet. You might regret it after I start getting you into shape. Now, if you'll excuse me, I need a bath. The next time I say something smells fishy, it had better be a lie, not a flounder."
Chaz laughed, as he was meant to. She didn't know it yet, but in her new trainee Alys had netted herself quite a catch.