Aphelion Issue 222, Volume 21
October 2017
 
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Faux Pair

by Patrick Welch


The light from the full moon seeping into the room should have been enough for any competent thief to find his (or her) way without difficulty. I suppressed a curse as I banged my ankle against another piece of sharp and massive furniture and for the dozenth time questioned how competent I really was.

I could imagine how my professors at the Thieves' Academy would respond. To a man (or woman) they had dogged me my entire academic career, encouraging me to quit, proclaiming I would never be more than a common pickpocket, if that. Even when I managed to graduate third in my class, they had granted my diploma with utmost reluctance. "You'll never earn journeyman status, Brendell, let alone become a master thief," Master Yorin had whispered as he leaned close to shake my hand.

And the way this night was going, I had to agree. It wasn't as if this was my maiden contract. My first two had been uneventful; theft of a necklace for one, return of an item that had been purloined previously by a fellow Thieves' Guild member for another. I had even succeeded when subcontracted to assist a master thief, although I wouldn't list it on my résumé. This particular contract, at least at the outset, had appeared no more different or difficult than the others.

I had traveled to Perlenz from my last contract because it held the nearest Thieves' Guild office I knew of. As an apprentice thief, I was at the mercy of my guild and the Guild Secretaries that are posted at every regional office. A journeyman thief can meet directly with potential clients and only inform the Guild after a contract is signed. Master thieves can take out their own contracts on any and all they deem fit...as long as they adhered to our rather loose Guild rules. My fellow apprentices and I only receive contracts at the largesse of the Guild. So as soon as I obtained a stable for my mount, a room at an inn, a hot bath, a dinner and a flagon of wine, I reported to the Guild offices the following morning.

The Secretary studied my credentials much longer than I thought necessary before I was finally ushered into his office. Only then did I realize he had been enjoying his breakfast and my satchel still rested on his desk unopened. He pointed toward a chair and said nothing until I was seated. "So you say you are Brendell."

"Indeed." Who else would I be? I wondered. I was certain no one else was roaming the countryside borrowing my name.

"I see." Only then did he retrieve my satchel and open it. I tried to amuse myself by looking around his office while he read the contents. As was standard with the few other regional headquarters I had been in, there was a portrait of Honeais Pran, the current Guild president, prominently displayed behind the Secretary's desk. Otherwise the walls were bare, the few bookshelves displaying unimposing statuary. I had been assured this was done to make our clients feel more at ease, that we weren't taking undue advantage of them. I believed the truth to be the Guild didn't want its members to feel that their dues were being used extravagantly. Otherwise a few of us, master thieves in particular, might find the temptation to acquire Guild possessions irresistible.

A soft harrumph caught my attention. "Sorry, a bit tired from my journey," I said and blushed. "What was that?"

"It says here you are a recent graduate of the Academy."

"Yes." I forced a broad smile. "Less than a year ago."

He held up a copy of my recently completed contract. "You just finished this?"

"Yes. And successfully, I might add. I believe you'll find the client is quite satisfied."

He shrugged. "If not, we'll learn of his displeasure shortly. So what brings you to Perlenz?"

I saw no need to embellish the truth. "This is the nearest Guild office. Or so I was told. I wanted to get the completed contract to you as quickly as possible."

"Good. As well you should." He took the contract and put it in a desk drawer. Then he placed his hands on his desk. "So are you currently employed?"

My heart leapt at that. Could I be so fortunate as to get another contract so soon? I was already learning a painful lesson about how infrequent work could be. "No, no I am not. Looking, of course."

He nodded again, then cupped his chin and studied me another minute. "You may have arrived at a most propitious time. We have a long-standing client who has need of a thief. His requirements are most specific and you might be satisfactory. Can you come back tomorrow morning at ten?"

Of course I could! I nodded eagerly.

"Good," and he pushed my satchel toward me. "I will see you then."

I grabbed it and hurried from his office before he could reconsider. As I walked back to my inn, I congratulated myself on my good fortune. I hadn't really expected to get a contract in Perlenz. It was, after all, the regional headquarters and thieves from hither and yon would visit frequently. And that would include both journeymen and master thieves. As I pondered that over my evening meal, I began to get a feeling in my stomach that had nothing to do with my weasel stew. This was a client of long standing, according to the secretary. Why would he be willing to hire an apprentice when more qualified thieves were surely available? Was the contract particularly dangerous? Or perhaps, I tried to reassure myself, it was just particularly easy and he wanted to pay as little as possible. That was the thought I tried to hold onto as I went to sleep.

Promptly at ten the following morning I presented myself to the Guild Secretary. He was not alone. An imposing man filled the one extra chair in the office. He was clad in rich silk robes and his fingers clicked from the multitude of rings he wore. I felt myself shiver at the open display of wealth and I could only hope I didn't reveal my eagerness to own as much of it as possible.

Which, of course, was out of the question. Rules of the Guild are quite strict in that regard: we are not allowed to steal -- ever -- from a current or former client. I've occasionally wondered if it would behoove the very rich to hire every available thief at some point so their possessions would forever be safe from anyone except a scab. But then the Academy graduates several dozen new apprentices every year, so that would not be practical.

Since I couldn't sit, I stood at casual attention while my potential employer studied me through half closed eyes. He took so long I was afraid he might ask me to pirouette or remove my jerkin. Finally he turned his attention to the secretary. "This is a new thief? An apprentice?"

"Of course, as you requested. I've studied Brendell's credentials. He's exactly the thief you've been looking for."

"I'll be the judge of that," he said darkly. Then he returned his piercing glare to me. "You are an apprentice. For how long?"

I tasted copper as I swallowed heavily. I strongly suspected he wanted to hear only one answer. But I had no idea what it was. "I graduated less than a year ago."

"You've carried out successful contracts?"

"Yes. Two." I didn't consider a subcontract a real job.

"Did any involve magic?"

I shivered at that. Yes, the Academy teaches us how to deal with magic. I've never had any confidence, however that wards or counter-spells were of any effect. To me, the best way to deal with magic was to avoid it altogether. "I've studied it, of course," I said, which was true enough. I saw no need to mention I nearly failed the class. "So far I have encountered none in my work."

"It's possible you may this time. Does that concern you?"

I shrugged. "The Assassins' Guild concerns me. Watchdogs concern me. A squeaking floorboard concerns me. I believe that to be a successful thief you have to be concerned about every contingency."

The man leaned back and smiled. "Well said! They taught you well at the Academy. Gersutz, I believe this Brendell will suit my purposes perfectly. Draw up the contract."

"Of course, Master Brynn. I have it right here, in fact." The secretary reached in a drawer and removed a document. "Just sign here," he pointed, "and I will complete the other details."

"Good." The quill flew across the parchment. "Now that's done," he continued as he sat back. "Where are you staying, Brendell?"

"The Golden Oak."

"No longer. You work for me, you stay with me. Gersutz will give you the particulars. Gentlemen, I must be off."

The secretary stood as Brynn strolled from the room. My new employer even managed a regal air in leaving, and I fought the urge to bow as he passed. The secretary remained standing for several minutes after the door closed, so I waited for the opportunity to sit.

But I wasn't to get one. "Here's your contract," the secretary said as he handed it over. "I've already filled in your name. Master Brynn will complete the details when you meet with him. His estate lies due east of Perlenz. Just take the main road leading in that direction and you will come across it soon enough. I suggest you go there promptly. Master Brynn is not a patient man."

I nodded as I accepted the contract. Could it really be this easy? I wondered as I hurried to my inn. I didn't know what I was to steal or what I was to be paid, but it didn't matter. As a new, struggling apprentice, I was in no position to refuse any work. Were it not the case.

The secretary's directions, brief as they were, proved adequate and I reached the Brynn estate before lunch. The land surrounding the massive manor was well maintained, yet I saw no fields nearby. I could only conclude the owner derived his wealth from other sources than farming, which made me envious. I had been raised on a small farm in Mistmourning, and every day had been an endless series of tasks revolving around our small stock of animals or crops. It was my dream to live like a merchant and not off the land that had driven me to pursue my profession.

I was greeted by a servant upon entering the grounds and, once I explained my presence, was directed to the stables behind the home. I was then led to the kitchen, where one of the staff offered me fresh fruit and cheese while I waited for Master Brynn to summon me. Several times I tried to engage the young woman in conversation, but she appeared more concerned with her pies, so I eventually turned my attention to my surroundings.

The kitchen wasn't large but certainly serviceable, and I could only conclude that the lord of the manor had a small family at best and didn't concern himself overly with entertaining. I noticed one of the staff enter from another room carrying more fruit, so I was certain there was a fruit cellar and likely wine cellar below the kitchen. They had taught me at the Academy that such information could prove useful. But then they had taught me much at the Academy which I had yet to find practical.

I managed to down a half dozen paracs, a local fruit the woman had assured me, when another servant, formally dressed, entered. "The master will see you now," he said and bowed. "This way."

Munching on an apple, I followed him into the manor. For the first time I saw evidence of the wealth Brynn had to possess. The mahogany walls were nearly sagging with paintings and tapestries. Bookcases were crammed with leather-covered tomes and various smaller works of art, while larger statuary took their rightful positions on the marble floors. If only I wasn't working for you, I thought sadly as I followed the servant to the front of the house.

Finally we reached a room very near the entryway. The servant knocked once, then opened it. "Master Brynn," he said unnecessarily and held out his hand.

Shrugging, I dropped the remains of my apple in it, then entered. Brynn was standing in the shadows by a window looking at something he was holding. He waved me over. "Do you know what this is?" he asked and held it up when I reached him.

It was a jewel in an ornate setting. Not a pin, however, and much too large to be part of a necklace. I decided it had to be a decorative ornament. "Silver setting. Is that an emerald? More than a paperweight surely."

He snorted, then chuckled in disdain. "Hardly that. This is an artifact from Qim. I used to own two of them. One was stolen from me. But by itself, one of these, I'm afraid," and he tossed it in the air and let it fall for emphasis, "is basically useless."

I retrieved it so I could study it further. There appeared to be runes carved in the setting. The emerald itself was startlingly clear so I could see deep within the gem. There was a shadow there, which I was sure was caused by the setting. The back was basically flat, as was the bottom. A bookend? A doorstop? I wondered as I handed it back to Brynn. "I take it, then, that you hired me to retrieve the mate to this."

"Perceptive lad!" and he slapped me on the back for emphasis.

"And you know who has it?"

He nodded. "I know who stole it, where it is; I even have the plans of his home. Everything a thief should need to be successful."

A thought crossed my mind and I gnawed at a recalcitrant hangnail as I framed my question. "The Guild Secretary assured me you have used our services in the past."

"Often."

"Then why have the other attempts been unsuccessful? I can't believe I am the first you've hired for this task."

"A fair question. Come, have a seat while I provide the details. Now," he continued after we had each obtained a chair and a goblet of wine, "I have hired at least half a dozen thieves in the past, all highly recommended, all extremely successful. Journeymen and master thieves; they've all failed."

That was troubling news and I feared more what was to come. "And why is that?"

He shrugged. "I have no idea. None have ever returned."

The wine immediately lost its appeal, and I set the goblet aside. "You failed with journeymen and masters and now you rely on a mere apprentice?"

He shrugged. "Perhaps you will offer a fresh approach. I've learned over the years that people become set in their ways. What was successful once must always be so. Yet the world changes, Brendell, in case you are too young to have noticed. The tried and true may not always be effective. They taught you well at the Academy, yes?"

"I was third in my class."

"You've succeeded in several contracts. Have you strayed from the lessons they taught?"

I grinned, recalling in particular my last contract. "We are, of course, given certain latitude in completing a project."

"Good. In that case I shall provide you all the documents I have and in the morning you can begin."

I raised a finger. "Hold on. If there is magic involved..."

"I don't know that."

"If there is, I will need wards. I must do research. The Guild has a library; I should take advantage of those resources."

He set his goblet down emphatically. "I think not. I have signed a valid contract, as have you. You will do your best to obtain the item you are contracted for, and you will do so immediately. If you are successful I will pay you the amount agreed to by the secretary. If you fail, then, of course, you will have an indelible black mark on your record. I know the Guild does not tolerate failure, especially from apprentices. You will follow my orders, Brendell." He stood and pointed to a small table in a corner. "Everything you need to know is in those documents. I suggest you study them carefully. Tomorrow your retrieve what is rightfully mine!" With that he stormed out of the room.

I remained in my chair for quite some time. He was right, of course; it was a legitimate contract even if I hadn't exactly entered it of my own free will. And the Guild would treat me most harshly if I failed. Still, I did not relish planning a theft on such short notice. The Academy always stressed thorough planning, which was one of their few principles I agreed with. What Brynn was demanding was a near assurance of failure. And I had no choice.

Reluctantly, I retrieved the documents and studied them in the dying afternoon light. Assuming they were accurate, the plans of the manor were plain enough and suggested no challenges. I would know better, of course, when I surveyed it myself. According to handwritten notes, the twin of the Qim artifact was on a bookshelf in a small room off the main hall. In plain sight yet, which was not encouraging news. If it was that poorly protected physically, then the real protection had to be a magical spell of some sort.

I looked at the two documents I held, looked on the backs, looked at them one more time, then set them on the floor with a sigh. No mention of what the other thieves had done, no mention why they had failed. And the Guild continues to let you hire thieves! I knew the Guild never wanted to admit failure as that was very very bad for business. But at some point, it appeared to me, they would have to say "Enough! We can't let you keep losing us members!" But then I was still young and under the misconception that the Guild was indeed concerned about our welfare. I would learn, and this would be my first lesson.

The next morning I was on my way to the Harnokah estate. Brynn assured me I would reach it by mid-afternoon and it was very easy to find. Better yet, he was certain the lord of the manor was away on business and what few staff remained could be easily avoided. "What are your plans?" he asked eagerly as we walked to his stables.

I hadn't any. I was still troubled that more experienced thieves had already failed. Surely they had made plans. But Brynn wasn't going to share that knowledge with me. "I plan to reconnoiter first," I said truthfully.

He snorted. "That should hardly be necessary. I've told you everything you need to know."

"You told the others the same?"

"Of course. Why?"

Obviously it wasn't very helpful. "Just trying to be thorough."

"Good," and he slapped me on the back. "I have confidence in you, Brendell. I'm sure you'll succeed. I will see you this evening, then."

"Is that when the other thieves were expected back?"

"Of course. It is only a few hours ride to Harnokah's home and back."

Then I will enter at night. "I'm sure I'll see you soon." I mounted the horse Brynn had provided, one much superior to the mount I had rented, and I started east toward the Harnokah manor.

I didn't hurry, however. In fact I made a long circle and within a half hour was back in the woods behind the Brynn estate. I was certain the thieves who had preceded me had planned much more carefully than I could, and carried much more in the way of tools or weapons or supplies. But I was also certain there was one item they had left behind, and I honestly had no idea if it could possibly help me. But if I was to die pursuing a hopeless contract, I was going to take some of Brynn with me. When I was finally able to leave nearly two hours later, I was carrying the other Qim relic.

It was still late afternoon when I reached the Harnokah manor. Unlike Brynn's, this was just a simple home on a riverbank. I doubted Harnokah had many servants, if any, which made my life easier if he were indeed away. I tied up my mount then studied the house in greater detail. Although there was a slight chill in the air, I didn't see smoke rising from the chimney, which was further proof the owner was gone and no servants remained. I then climbed a tree near the forest edge and viewed my target from above. Again there was nothing unusual, nothing to warn of awaiting danger.

Finally I took the only logical, ultimate action: I walked up to the front door and knocked loudly. No one answered, which was disappointing as I had a lost wayfarer routine so polished that it had earned accolades in my class on deception and misdirection. With no better alternative, I turned the door handle and pushed gently; the door swung open nearly without a squeak. "Hello?" I yelled out as I entered slowly, just in case, but still nothing. I finally shrugged and closed the door behind me. If the owner abruptly returned, I would just explain I was lost and looking for help and meant no harm and so forth.

Now that I was inside, I saw no reason to wait for evening. That didn't mean, however, that I was going to blithely stroll directly to the Qim relic, which I could actually see on a shelf across the room from where I was standing. After all, other thieves had failed. The question was what trap had they fallen for?

Which made me suspect the floor first. I glanced up at the ceiling but there was nothing that suggested some type of deadfall. A trapdoor would make more sense. I doubted it would be near the doorway, however, as a desirable visitor or even the owner might fall prey to it. If there was one, it would be closer to the bookshelves and the Qim artifact resting so invitingly at the opposite end of the room. Fortunately there was a stool near the door, one I assumed the owner used when he had to remove muddy boots. I picked it up, then hit it on the floor in front of me. If there was anyone in the home they would have heard that. Except for a whistle and the sound of flapping wings as several birds on the roof outside flew away in disgust, there was no reaction. I took a step forward and struck the floor again. If there was a trapdoor, I was sure my blows would trip it. But I only found evidence of a solid floor under the carpet as I made my slow, noisy progress across the room.

Surprisingly, the stool was still in one piece -- the carpenter deserved a commendation -- so I sat on it while I studied my intended. In general appearance it certainly looked like a twin for the one riding in my knapsack, and once again I was reminded inanely of bookends. The back of this one appeared flattened as well, so a pair could certainly serve that function. Like its mate, the silver setting was covered with indecipherable runes. For a considerable fee, a Guild archivist would doubtless be willing to translate them, and if I had the time and the contract was rich enough, I might have been tempted.

Instead I turned my attention to other matters. The stone in the relic's center was the same as the one I carried. Yet it did not appear particularly valuable, and the silver setting wasn't all that extraordinary, either. And the way Brynn had treated the relic told me it's true value was in whatever function it might serve. Whatever that could be.

But that was a question to ponder another time as there was still the unsprung trap awaiting me. Where would the danger to come from? It was frustrating as the Qim relic was just sitting there an arms length from me. I could just reach out and drop it in my satchel and be off. "What is your secret?" I whispered. I removed my knapsack and set it on the floor beside me. Besides the other Qim relic, it held several slices of dried venison, a few fruit, a copy of the contract and a metal rod. The rod was steel, and I could use it along with a piece of flint to start a campfire and also hold my venison if I decided to warm it. Today it would serve an even more mundane task.

Stepping as far back and to one side as I could, I reached out with the rod to push the relic off the shelf. The rod only reached within about a foot when suddenly there was some movement and something wrested it from my hand and flung it across the room. I held my breath and tried not to move as I stared at the statue. I hadn't really seen anything, just a blur, like air rising from hot sand. There was a disturbance around the relic: it's the only way I could describe it.

Now the relic remained as it had before, unmoving and, if it were alive, totally unconcerned. I stood slowly, but the statue didn't react. Breathing a soft sigh, I retrieved my rod and studied it. Not only was it bent, but there were deep scratches in the metal at one end, the end I had tried to move the relic with. It was if some strong creature with fearsome talons had seized it. And, I realized, maybe one had.

Magic, Brynn had suggested before shrugging it off. Magic it was, but what kind? Somehow I had to see what I was dealing with, if I could even see it at all. Steam, I decided so I lit a fire in the small hearth, then filled an iron pot with water and set it above the flames. Of course this would alert anyone within miles that someone was in the Harnokah home, and I was breaking one of the first rules of property acquisition: alerting people of your presence. But I couldn't think of any other way at the moment. And it wasn't as if I had much of a choice. Guild contracts are sacred; they must be completed to the best of the Thieves' ability. I was not going to destroy my chance of earning journeyman status because of a magic spell ...if that indeed was what it was. Once the water was boiling, I filled a bowl, then got as close to the relic as I dared and let the steam waft over it.

And there was something in the mist. Clinging to the side and gesturing angrily in my direction with its free arm was a miniature demon. The mist didn't allow many details, but its talons and fangs were clear enough. And there was no doubt it was angry as it continuously snarled and spit at me. Despite its size, those talons and its obvious strength could certainly harm me ...if it could reach me. It appeared content, instead, to make empty threatening gestures while not letting go of its hold on the relic.

I sat back and thought. What little practical advice the Academy had offered concerning demons consisted of four words: avoid at all costs. Too bad I couldn't follow it. The steam was dissipating rapidly, but I was certain my erstwhile friend hadn't gone anywhere, so I decided to talk to it. "So, demon, how are we today? Do you have a name?"

No response, although I thought I saw the relic stir ever so slightly. But that wouldn't do. I wanted to see my adversary, and steaming it wasn't satisfactory. So I placed a burning limb from the small fire in the hearth in a metal pot and set that in front of the bookshelf. The smoke was much more effective in bringing out the best of my problem. Now I could make out the small horns and bumps on its forehead, the scales on its cheeks and arms, the thick ridged bone that ran down its stomach. It continued its fruitless gestures in my direction, hoping, I supposed, that I would be foolish enough to come within range.

What I needed, I thought, was a net of some kind. Something I could just drop over it and then pick it up at a safe distance. Then I saw my bar lying nearby and realized that wouldn't work. The creature would rip through that as if it were paper. I then looked at the pot at my feet. Perhaps I could somehow push the relic into that, then throw a lid on top. But getting it into the pot would be the problem. Then I looked at the bookshelves. Perhaps I could cut a hole from underneath and cause the shelf to collapse and the relic with it. I opened my knapsack and started rifling through the contents. I set my apple, the Qim relic and other items aside as I retrieved my knife.

What I need is a saw or an ax, I thought as I pulled it from its sheath. Perhaps there was one in the cabin. I glanced around the room but saw neither hanging from the wall or resting against one. "I'll have you out of here in no time," I said to the demon as I turned my attention to the task at hand. It was still grasping futilely and even more energetically than before. But I noticed it wasn't reaching for me. Instead it was reaching to the right of me. I glanced down in that general direction and realized the other Qim relic was sitting in that general area.

I set down my knife and picked up the relic. "You want this?" I asked as I moved it slowly in front of me. The demon became even more agitated -- if that were possible -- as it followed my every move. I moved it ever so slightly closer and the poor creature nearly tore itself apart trying to wrest it from me. However, it remained as firmly attached to the statue as a usurer to a gold coin. "Can't go anywhere, can you?" I asked as I kept moving the relic before it. It could only snarl and lunge futilely in frustration.

I had learned something quite important, I was sure of that. How would it help fulfill my contract? Perhaps I could distract the creature by holding my relic to the side and grabbing the other with my free hand. But I couldn't be sure the demon wouldn't divert its attention to me until I tried it. Which didn't leave a lot of room for error.

So I picked up Brynn's relic and studied it some more. The runes remained as unreadable as a gambler's face. Again I was struck by how it was an almost perfect duplicate of the other, and once more I was reminded of bookends. I ran my finger along the flat back. Yes, the two should fit together nicely, almost as if they were two halves of a perfect whole.

And that's when I knew. Bookends, no, but a cage, yes. Or, perhaps, a home. The Qim relics were not meant to be two, but one. "If you're wrong, Brendell, you've failed this contract and you'll never become journeyman," I cautioned myself even as I moved closer to the bookshelf. But I'm not, I tried to reassure myself as I steeled my nerves for what I was about to do.

I couldn't just let the demon take the statue from my hand; it might take my hand as well. But now I had a good understanding of how far it could reach, and I set the relic on the same shelf but well out of harm's way. It was the final proof of my theory as the demon kept reaching frantically but futilely for it. Taking a deep breath, I used my metal rod to push the Brynn relic towards the other.

It took only seconds for the statue to come within the demon's range. By now the smoke was dissipating rapidly so I could just make out the creature. The demon now had its free claw firmly around the sister statue, and I could have sworn it was actually smiling. Then the statues began to move slowly, then more rapidly, together until, with a muffled thunderclap, they met. And suddenly the two relics of Qim were one.

Taking a deep breath, I reached for the statue. Enough smoke remained that I could see no evidence of the demon. It was now inside the relic, and I couldn't help but think it was now home. I was now able to pick up the statue with no resistance. I studied it. There was no seam, nothing to suggest there had ever been two separate sections. The outside was smooth and complete in every detail. Even the runes and other figures melded together perfectly.

This completely changed my plans. Originally I was going back that evening, return the Brynn statue to its rightful home, then enter triumphantly with its twin the following morning. Now I had no twin. It's not my fault, I told myself. If Brynn had warned me of the demon, it might not have happened. Although, I realized, one of the previous thieves would doubtless have been successful and I wouldn't have gotten a contract.

I decided not to clean up after myself as I had spent enough time here. I hadn't done a complete inventory when I entered so I couldn't return every item just so. Besides, the owner was going to notice the missing Qim statue in any event. When I left, dusk was just beginning and I had several hours to ride before I would reach Brynn's estate. But I was in no real hurry now as I didn't want to arrive at a reasonable hour. Besides, I needed the time to decide what I would do once I got there.

Which was why I was now stumbling around Brynn's library in the dark. I had noticed he didn't keep pets when I was there before, which was a relief. There are ways to deal with dogs, but I didn't have the energy to do so at present. Especially when my patience was being sorely tried by constantly bumping into particularly sharp furniture. I was just fortunate that the bedrooms were at the opposite side of the manor.

With only minimal further damage to my shins, I finally reached the painting which hid the wall safe behind it. This was actually the easiest part of the process; I had it opened within seconds and placed the Qim statue inside, then closed the door. Then it was back outside to my waiting mount and a short ride to my camp to spend the rest of the rapidly vanishing night.

So I was still tired and very hungry when I presented myself to Brynn the following morning. "You have it?" he asked as soon as I entered to find him enjoying breakfast.

"Of course," and I smiled shyly. "I wouldn't be here if I didn't."

He set down his fork and dabbed his lips with a napkin. "Then let me see it! Now!" And he held out his hand.

I swallowed with envy as I looked at the poached pheasant, steaming potatoes and grouse eggs set before him. Like I said, I was very hungry. "Perhaps ...after you've finished eating."

"I'm not hungry, not now." He motioned to one of his servants and they began removing his meal.

"Don't," and I took an involuntary step forward. "Please finish your meal," I said after I managed to regain control of my incredulous stomach.

"Later, later. Show me the statue."

"Not here." I hefted the satchel I was carrying. "We should do this in private. Perhaps your library."

He frowned. "My servants are loyal."

"I would feel more comfortable if we did this alone."

He shook his head. "Fine. Let's repair to the library. So," he continued as soon as we left the dining area, "how did you do it?"

"It was...a challenge," I said. I was reluctant to say more. One of the lessons drummed into us at the Academy is the need to keep our methods secret as much as possible. In this particular case, I didn't want Brynn to know that I knew about the demon. "I basically had to cut away the shelf holding it from below. Let the statue fall into a pot I found at the manor, cover it with a lid." I shrugged. "It took some time so that's why I'm late."

"No matter," he said as he opened the door to the library. I could tell by his tone, however, that he didn't fully believe me. Which troubled me not at all. He walked over to the table in the center of the room. "Put your satchel here and let me see it."

"No need," I said. "Just open your safe."

He frowned. "My safe?"

"Yes." I smiled shyly. "The statue is so valuable, I didn't want to risk anything happening to it. So I arrived earlier and placed it in your safe for protection. It's there right now if you care to look."

He couldn't decide if he should be outraged or amazed, so he settled for angry surprise. "You broke into my home? Into my safe? That's impossible!"

I pointed to the painting which covered the small vault. "See for yourself. It's a relatively simple model to open," I continued as he slowly approached the artwork. You know what would have happened if I were telling the truth. "It was much safer there than in my satchel. In the woods and everything; there are highwaymen everywhere."

I stopped then and watched as he swung back the painting, then opened the vault. And removed the Qim statue. He stared at it, then at me. "No! What have you done?"

I feigned surprise. "Done? Why, fulfilled my contract, of course. That is the statue. Wait, that is not the statue of Qim. There were two. And smaller. What is that?"

If I were a twig, he would have set me afire with his glare. "The real statue of Qim, you idiot! By placing the two together, you have released the demon. You've ruined it!"

So you did know! Now I was delighted in what I had wrought. But he couldn't know that, so I maintained my charade. "What demon? I saw no demon. What are you talking about? That is the statue of Qim?"

He shook his head so hard I thought his neck would snap. "I don't have time to educate fools. It's worthless now. Only Harnokah knew the spell to release it. And he can no longer ..." Then he stopped as he remembered I was still there. "You've failed me," he said simply and placed the statue on the table.

I wasn't going to let him get away with that. "No, I did exactly what you told me. Bring you the statue of Qim. There was nothing in my contract about demons or anything else."

He shook the relic at me. "You've ruined it! And you broke into my home! I will report this affront to the Guild secretary!"

"And I will report to him that you kept vital information from those you previously hired to obtain it. If they would have known, they might have been successful. Or at least still alive."

He studied me for a moment, then set the Qim relic back on the table. He knew as well as I how thorough and dedicated the Guild could be in righting any perceived wrong. Declaring open contracts on transgressors was not unheard of. "I will inform the Guild that you have completed the contract," he said heavily. "You will receive your payment from them. Now get off of my property!"

I merely nodded and did as ordered. As I rode away, I congratulated myself on fulfilling another contract, even if in many ways I had not. Still it bothered me that my employer had essentially lied to me.

Unfortunately, it would not be the last time.

THE END


© 2008 Patrick Welch

Bio: Mr. Welch is the author of more than a dozen books (two of which feature the further adventures of Brendell the thief) and over 50 shorts stories. His latest books, Cord and Usurper, are available from Eternal Press and Twilight Times Books, respectively.

E-mail: Patrick Welch
Website: Patrick Welch - Printed Works

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