Chapter Seven: More Questions

"Lia! Wake up!"

The sound of Dray's voice yelling through the wooden door jolted me out of bed. Frantically, I started trying to disentangle myself from the sheets that had wrapped around my legs during the night, fearing that I had slept too late. It didn't work, as I crashed to the floor cursing and still ensnared. Dray took this as a cue to enter my room and make sure I was alright. One look at my plight and he began to laugh.

"Do you really enjoy sleeping on the floor that much?"

I was still too tired from my journey to do anything but glare. Dray waited patiently for me to get up off the floor and put my sheets back on my bed before he motioned me out the door.

"I thought you might want something to eat before we head out."


Once I had smoothed out some of the wrinkles from my outfit, I followed him back down the same passage and into the kitchen once more. This time however, it was crammed full of people eating their morning meal. The noise that came from so many people was nearly deafening, and, for a moment, I missed the quiet enclosure of my private room. Then my nose caught wind of the delicious smells coming from the back of the room, and I quickly forgot the chaos around me.

"This way." Dray motioned to the back of a long line that wound its way through the enormous room. My stomach grumbled in protest at having to wait like everyone else, but being a captive I didn't have much choice. We got behind a large man with a balding spot on the back of his head and settled in to pass the time as the line slowly moved forward.

Having nothing else to do, I watched with open curiosity at the families that were seated at the benches that had been empty the previous evening. Mothers with aprons tied over their skirts stood over their children making sure none of the food on the table went to waste. Fathers hurriedly shoveled what looked like a thick porridge into their mouths before leaving for what I assumed was a day's work. Standing in shadowy corners that were only touched by light from the candles illuminating the room, were several people that looked to be my age or slightly older. Women with low cut dresses walked around whispering in the ears of men that had a menacing look to them. Steel flashed from time to time in the dim light as they shuffled their clothing and grabbed the bottom of any woman that got too close to their straying hands. Inthel was among them, watching me out of the corner of his dark brown eye.

"Dray, who are they?" I asked in a whisper pointing to those that gathered away from the rest.

Dray gave me a sly smile. "They're thieves."

I rolled my eyes signaling that I knew the obvious. "Yes, but they're different from most of the others that are sitting in this place." I gestured with a wave of my hand to the families that surrounded us on all sides.

"They're full time thieves. Most of the ones that have families that live here are only part time thieves. They steal only when the times are hard, but they pay a fee to the Hold to live here all year. It's an easy way to avoid corrupt tax collectors that will take more than the family can afford. The fee for rooms in the Hold are higher than the taxes that a fair collector will take, but it ensures shelter and food for those who don't mind being on the wrong side of the law every once in a while."

"Do the full time thieves pay a fee?" It seemed a little unfair since it was all the work they had.

"They hand over a portion of their nightly take to the Treasury."

"And if they don't have a nightly take? Or if it's a group effort, such as my capture, how does everything get divided up?"

"If a full time thief can't manage to get anything on the nights that they work, then they owe an extra share the next night they do have a take. Callen implemented that when his reign began two years ago, which is a step up from the old system. When Dramen still ruled if you couldn't meet your nightly quota then you were stripped of your ranking and had to completely start over from the bottom, which led to a lot of distrust, cheating, and killing amongst ourselves. My parents complained that during Dramen's rule, the power of the Prince of Thieves diminished because he was far more concerned with keeping himself alive than with dealing with the larger issues of his crown. With Callen's system, the full time thieves are in his debt when they've accumulated too much debt which means he can ask favors for political gain or get specialists to perform certain tasks like your heist. In a group setting, it's pretty much the same thing, but cuts are divided by rank after the Treasury takes its portion."

"I didn't realize there was a lot of politics in the thief world. I thought it was just a fend-for-yourself kind of thing and the leader was just the strongest one."

"There's politics in everything, Lia," he smiled. "You should hear the shopkeepers in Grafel argue, or the whores on Yaoul's Way." I blushed slightly at his bold mention of the women that sold their company for a night, thinking that at home anyone else would have thought the information far too sensitive for a princess's ears. Not that I didn't know about the women that came and went from one courtier's rooms to another before vanishing with the morning light, but it was different having someone state it in such a plain way, as if that was just how the world worked.

By then we had finally moved up to the front of the line. I was handed a small wooden bowl identical to the one I had used last night that was quickly filled with a thick, sweet smelling porridge. Just a bit farther down the line, I grabbed an apple and a large piece of bread because, just as the night before, there was no spoon with which to eat the porridge.

I followed Dray down the rows of wooden benches where we took our seats with Callen, Nessa, and Wye. The meal that we ate was a silent one, though, the other three had been in a deep discussion before Dray and I arrived. I decided to ignore that fact that they'd been talking about me and concentrated completely on my breakfast. Time seemed to speed up that with each bite I took, and my hands started to quiver slightly every time I swallowed.

It wasn't long before Callen stood from the bench that he sitting on and stretched luxuriously before looking down at me and giving me a sly wink, which I returned with a scowl.

"Well, I think it's about time we got started. Nessa, if you could please let everyone know that we're about to begin."

"Sure." She shoved the last piece of bread from her breakfast in her mouth, ran a finger through the tightly curled brown hair that peeked out from under her bandana, and motioned for Wye to follow her out of the kitchen. Dray stood to follow them before surprisingly bending down and giving me a quick hug that left me a little speechless. No one besides my old maid had ever showed any kind of affection for me, so Dray's display was a little uncomfortable after so many years of being alone.

"Good luck. I'll be rooting for you," he whispered.


I saw Callen roll his hazel eyes behind Dray's back. "Come on, you flirt. Leave the poor princess alone before you break her fragile heart."

Dray only laughed and jogged out of the kitchen to catch up with Nessa and Wye.

"My heart is hardly fragile," I muttered into my porridge, scraping the edges of the bowl to get the last of it. I did have to admit that while the food was not nearly as refined as what I was used to eating, it was far more filling, and I felt myself calm a little at the thought of a full stomach after days on the road with meager meals.

Slowly, the corners of the room began to empty out soon followed by families as mothers and fathers herded children off to their quarters. It wasn't long before only a few stragglers, Callen and I were left sitting in the large hall.

"We'll wait just a little bit more before we head out. I have to give everyone time to get in place."

My stomach clenched at the thought that the tasks were about to begin and I had to mentally will my feet to keep from tapping nervously on the ground. Callen's relaxed posture was in contrast to my own and a complete turnaround from the firm but fair leader I had known on the road. While he had joked and talked with his men on the road, it had always been from a distance as he kept his guard up waiting for an attack that had never come. Now, however, he looked like a carefree young man with his long fingered hands folded as he lightly twiddled his thumbs humming a tune softly under his breath. His eyes gazed sightlessly behind me with slumped broad shoulders that tapered to a trim waist.

"What's that?" I asked, finally getting a good look at his left hand.

"Hmm?" Apparently, I'd interrupted his day dream. "What's on the back of your hand?" I asked again, pointing. A sword and what looked to be a healer's staff was circled in a ring of flames that had been tattooed across the width of the back of his hand.

"This? It's the symbol of my office," he explained, nonchalantly.

"Will I have to get one?" I gulped. "Aren't tattoos supposed to be painful?"

Callen chuckled and pulled his hands under the table so I couldn't look at the design anymore. "You don't have to, but I'd recommend it unless you want people to constantly be confusing you with just any woman that might be walking the streets. You retain a fair amount of respect if someone sees you with the tattoo. It usually makes life in the slums a bit easier, but at other times it can be a bit of drawback."

"You mean, like when one of the city guards sees it?"

"They don't really care."

"What do you mean they don't care?" My opinion of King Malin lowered by quite a bit seeing as how he couldn't keep his soldiers in line enough to capture a simple thief. Well, not just a simple thief, but even still, you would think someone would recognize him, I thought.

An odd look passed over his face before he wiped it away with a sly smile. "I'm a peacekeeper of sorts."


"Any heist that occurs in this city is under my jurisdiction. I make sure that only people that aren't under my protection get stolen from; helping to ensure that there is no malcontent among my own people leading to an underground war. Those tend to get messy. So, since I try to keep things under control and keep the rest of the city from getting dragged into an ugly killing spree, the guards won't touch me unless they catch me at a heist red handed."

"Oh." I felt my flush for the second time that morning as I was reminded of my naivety once more.

"On top of that, I hold too much sway with many of the common people that let the king rule over them."

I couldn't hold back a snort of laughter. "What do you mean let the king rule over them? Kingdoms are inherited through bloodlines and the commoners don't have much say in it."

Callen raised an eyebrow at my statement. "Really? Haven't you ever heard of a revolt?"

I blinked at him for a moment wondering briefly at my own stupidity before the thought of the people revolting against a ruler sent a shiver down my spine. I'd heard of other countries such as Tre-ena, a small mountainous country that resided in the middle of the Arif mountain range south of Jezed, that were continuously going through ruler after ruler as different political factions spilled the blood of the previously chosen king. The idea of a revolt by the people of Falton had never occurred to me since word of civil unrest, other than the general that had plotted against my father, had not reached my ears.

"Then you could sway those that have the power to insight a revolt to do it if the king does not do as you want?" I asked skeptically. The idea of being the wife to someone that would bow to the wishes of the Prince of Thieves just because of the worry of a revolt suddenly made me want to retch. The whole system was flawed, and I began to wonder if I was really going to escape the duties of my crown by replacing it with another.

"If King Malin truly upset me, I suppose that's possible," he replied thoughtfully scratching the side of neck. "However, a true revolt that would overturn an entire ruling class is bloody, long, and would rob the country of its stability making my job as the Prince of Thieves nearly impossible. The king and I have a struck a bargain of sorts by testing each others boundaries. If he doesn't meddle in my personal responsibilities as the Prince of Thieves, then I won't threaten to disrupt the peace with a civil war. Though in the end, I doubt that I could start a civil war against Malin since the majority of those living under his rule consider him fair."

I nodded, as I finally began to understand the intricacies of the political world. I had never had too much exposure to it being a female heir that was only good for producing male heirs that would lead the country of the man that I was married to. It also didn't help that at the castle I had been a rebel at court and confined myself to the library when I felt the air become stuffy with words left unspoken and double meanings.

"Does this protection from the king extend to anyone else in the Hold? If they know that you're too important to just arrest off the street, then they must know those that are in power around you?"

A gleam shown in Callen's eyes as he grinned at me. "They know those that I won't stand to have my most trusted thieves in prison, and the same rules apply to them that apply to me."

Silence stretched across the room as I pondered everything that had been explained to me this morning. It seemed that becoming a leader among thieves wasn't going to be anything that I thought that it would be. The tales of dashing and courageous men that stole for a living in all my books suddenly seemed to be unbelievably silly. The world was suddenly becoming far more cutthroat and I was being thrust into it at full speed with nothing but my wits and stubbornness to keep me from being slaughtered.

I was so lost in thought that I didn't even realize that Callen had stood up and wandered around the table. His hand shaking my shoulder was the only thing that pulled me out of my reverie and I knew that it was time to face the challenges that had been placed before me.

We left the Hold on horseback following one of the many twisting tunnels that had branched off from the entrance we had used the day before. The ride was silent as I followed behind Callen with my plaited red hair bound into a bun and covered with a green bandana that matched the sash around my waist. While red hair wasn't unnatural within the boundaries of Jezed, it was uncommon enough that I would be remembered by those who lived in the city that might spill important information of my appearance once it was discovered that I had gone missing.

It wasn't long before Callen and I were once again traveling along the dusty road leading towards the East Gate of Grafel. We maneuvered our way slowly through the late morning traffic since many of the farmers and other peasants that were coming to trade in Grafel's famed Laes Market were on foot pulling small hand carts of goods behind them. As we neared the city, small mobile stands selling meat pies and sausages began to pop up along the rode as the traffic grew increasingly heavier.

Ahead of us a massive wall that was reddish in color loomed threateningly towards the sky, a defense that would serve the city well should any army make it far enough into Jezedian territory to lay siege. The wall was smooth and unmarred by cracks that could have been used for climbing like any normal stone wall that had pieces that were cut and shaped by the hands of men. There were archer holes every few feet and a walkway at the top with guards that watched intently for any threat. The East Gate was two massive wooden doors that looked as if they had each been carved from one whole tree trunk. If I hadn't been traveling through the forest of Jezed, I would never had thought that a tree existed that would grow large enough to become the doors. As we approached, I noticed that each door contained intricate carvings that swirled and looped into patterns that I couldn't fathom, giving the East Gate a less forbidding feel. The guards standing at the entrance to city glanced over Callen and me with bored gazes as they shifted uncomfortably with the growing heat of the day.


"Hmm?" The thief sounded distracted as his eyes flicked from place to place almost as if he was searching for something.

"What are these walls made of? It's obviously not stone, but from the way the texture looks it must be at least as hard as stone?"

"It's clay. There are large pits filled with the material north of Grafel that produce some of the country's best pottery. Originally, the walls surrounding the city were built of wood because it was a plentiful resource and carrying rocks large enough to become a stone wall from the quarry's in the mountains was too difficult. Once the Jezedian boundaries began to expand one of the old kings decided that if stone could not protect his city then he would get the next best thing. The original wood wall was used as the frame for the clay which was packed down layer upon layer until it was thick enough to become as strong as any stone."

I whistled appreciatively. Grafel was quickly becoming a far grander place than what any of my tutors had been able to describe. The entire city was situated on the edge of the foothills that backed into the Arif Mountains with the palace sitting at the top of the highest point. A similar clay wall surrounded each section of the city so that if one portion had to be abandoned the rest of the city could continue to fight on. The sector that I had been taught the most about (apart from the palace grounds) was that of the upper class. Even from the lowest level of Grafel, I could see the large houses that lined the streets of the Pepru District. Below that was the Laes Market were it was told that one could find whatever they wished to buy so long as you were willing to pay the price, not all of it in coin. Housing for anyone that had to work for a living surrounded the other three districts in a large circle with the quality of the housing declining as you steadily worked your way toward the outer walls.

My gaze was caught by the sheer size of Grafel as we entered through the East Gate and Callen turned down a side street. If my mare hadn't been inclined to stick close to Callen's stallion, I would probably have been lost in the crowd that seethed around us.

Names were shouted and greetings were called bringing the buzz of the city to a dull roar. Strange smells assaulted my nose as fish and boar meat were brandished like weapons as they were thrust from person to person before someone finally bought the seller's wares. Patchwork banners of bright color flitted in the breeze from open windows while wooden slats that had charms carved into them were hung above every doorway. I recognized many of the symbols for luck and good health among them. Even though I knew that precious metals and jewels were far more common in Jezed, it was still a little disconcerting to see even the lowliest of women with gold and silver pendants pinned to their shirts.

It wasn't until we had taken several more turns that we finally stopped at the dead end of an alley. Callen solemnly dismounted from his horse and I knew that it was time to begin the Tasks.