Because you haven’t had a proper chapter for a bit, today’s chapter is almost twice the length of the others. I’m being critical of my work again, so I won’t say too much, don’t want to force myself out of love with the project so it never gets finished. That said, tell me what you think.
As I left Wolf’s office I immediately stole a cart. Nothing fancy, certainly not one of the steam autocarts that are starting to become popular, but the very first horse cart that happened to pass me by.
I am not, by design, a lethargic soul. I do no exercise and rarely eat healthily, yet I somehow manage to maintain an athletic physique. As a result, I was not stealing the cart for the mere ease in travel in provided, although that would indeed be a nice bonus. I was thinking ahead, planning. The removal of the package would require something a little more sturdy than just my spine, so a cart would have to do.
When planning, things can often go wrong, especially when it is me that is concocting the scheme. Success comes not from creating a foolproof plan, although that is extremely helpful, but in being able to think on the fly and correct any major issues that may arise.
This is why I was only slightly surprised when the dog leapt out from behind me and sunk its teeth into my neck.
The cart I had taken was a large flat-bed, currently heaped with various bits of rubbish and what the more optimistic citizen would call bric-a-brac. A sign on the side proclaimed the cart as belonging to ‘Happy Harold’s Bargain Bazaar’, and the man himself was at the reigns. A swift kick removed him and I was home free, a pair of large bumps under the wheels a nice signal that Harold wouldn’t be chasing me immediately. Then the piles of filth shifted and the dog leapt out at me.
Happy Harold was well known for his temper, and his dog had seemingly taken after its master. It leapt silently, like no other dog I have encountered, and clamped down hard on my throat. As I have said, I am able to think quickly, and I quickly formulated a plan, something which is hard to do with teeth in your windpipe.
Swinging over the edge of the cart, I whipped the dog off the edge so that the only thing keeping its feet from the cobbles was the grip it had on my throat. It clamped down even harder, as I had expected, and I started to sway. Swaying comes naturally when you’re losing blood, especially when you are dangling upside down from the reigns of a horse cart travelling at a fair lick, and before long the dog was swinging like a meaty pendulum. It didn’t like it much, it’s legs kicking out to try and steady itself, which was immediately followed by a loud snap and the jaws loosening.
Running over a dog’s leg with a cart was nothing new to me, but it was the first time I had done it while both parties were passengers of the same cart, and I allowed myself a moment of triumph as my blood sprayed all over my shirt. The horse, still clopping away, hazarded a glance back at me and fixed me with a weather stare. I flashed a polite grin.
‘Hello, Neddy,’ I gurgled. ‘Just keep going straight, there’s a good boy. I need to find a place to stash you.’
The horse frowned at me, I think, and went back to driving himself. Very good for that, horses. That was why I had chosen a more traditional cart and not an auto-cart, horses could manage themselves. Too many levers and knobs on an auto-cart, and they make one hell of a noise.
My eyes felt a little heavy by that point, but I didn’t think sleeping would be a good idea. Having been savaged by wild animals before (as a result of trying to rob various zoos, mostly) I had some experience with life threatening wounds, and they tended to involve a certain amount of arterial spray.
I rummaged around in my backpack, doing my best not to open any more veins on the odd spiky and serrated things I kept in there, until I fished out a long scarf. I wrapped it tight about my wounds for a bit and felt my eyes perk up a little.
The thing you have to remember about blood, the important thing, is that it’s a little bit like a tourist. If you provide it with something new and spectacular to look at, it will spray itself far and wide, and you’ll die. Provide it with nothing but other tourists, however, and it will get fed up and go home. This was the thought behind the scarf.
I had prepared it over months at a time, one or two drops of blood a day, until the entire thing had been saturated with my own blood. It wasn’t absorbent any more, but then it wasn’t meant to be. A little bit of natural magic, that’s what Bridge had told me when he’d taught me the technique.
‘Look, mate,’ his voice had boomed across my lounge that summer night. ‘If you’re going to keep picking fights with the bloody guards then you need to know how to patch yourself up, I can’t keep doing it for you.’
The best person to go to for medical help has always been a magician, historically. They cheated.
‘I don’t know bugger all about medicine, Bridge,’ I had moaned in response.
‘That’s an advantage then,’ he said. ‘Your average medical man uses science to sort out injuries, and that works well enough I suppose, but they don’t really understand what they are doing. They stitch people up, chop bits off, make them eat leeches, whatever, all because they think the human body is run by tiny little things with minds of their own.
‘The thing the medical men don’t realise, nor do anyone except magicians really, is that things work a certain way because you expect them to. The key is to expect them to do the helpful thing, not the unhelpful thing.’
It had all been a bit too Zen for me, but I gave him the benefit of the doubt. The scarf was part of that, the idea being that the fresh blood would want to avoid the stale old blood, and therefore stay inside my body for the time being. It wasn’t perfect, and it wouldn’t heal me up, but it should stop me from bleeding to death until I could have a go at myself with a nice needle and thread.
I’d become quite the seamstress recently.
My foolish wound dapperly bandaged, I directed to horse to the museum in search of a helpful hiding spot. Horses are easy things to hide really, especially in a busy town, you just need to know where to look.
The museum itself was the oldest building I had ever seen. There were older buildings nearby, but you don’t really see them, they fail to really draw your attention like the museum. It was gargantuan, its sloped roof two vast chunks of granite that had been carefully chipped into a perfect and nearly seamless arrow. There were stories that , should the fastening split, each granite slab would punch a hole half a mile deep if it should fall. I doubted that, but it would certainly cause a commotion.
The museum was closed today, as it was everyday except a bank holiday, on the grounds that people only went to look at old things when there was nothing else to do. I negotiated the horse down a side alley, the same one that separated the museum and my more lucrative target.
The other building looked perfectly respectable from the front, but a quick trip down the side told me that it was anything but. The impeccable masonry at the front had apparently been maintained by cannibalising the other walls, and great hole were dotted about the wall I passed. It reminded me of a ladder in some respects, and I had no doubt that even the most athletically unskilled could have easily climbed the holes to the roof.
I steered the cart into a nicely secluded spot and allowed to horse to gorge itself from the various bins nearby. Technically, this was the museum’s stables, but they hadn’t been used for years. Until a few years ago, people would often leave their horses here, but then some young bastard had used one of them to break into the museum by riding it through the door like some sort of folk hero. Naturally, people became a bit wary of leaving their horses unattended after that, and with the advent of auto-carts the museum was having to provide new coaching inns nearby anyway, so why bother to do anything with the old stables?
Incidentally, I wouldn’t be using the folk hero method this time. There was too much fighting and, ultimately, too much failure and prison time. The big spectacles work well if you want to be famous, but not if you want to be rich, not in this game. But that’s what you do when you’re young, you make a mess of things and wake up in a cell covered in horse blood and ancient pottery dust.
With my new horse happily chewing the museum’s refuse, I unhitched the cart and surveyed the area for potential entrances. The museum had hundreds, and I had them memorised, but this other building was a bit more of a challenge. In a pinch I could probably kick in one of the walls, there were so few bricks left that it would be like kicking in a grating, but I was worried that might upset the delicate balance and bring the whole building down. It would probably be best to come in from the roof, I could get up there pretty fast thanks to the numerous hand holds.
Still, the potential for collapse weighed heavily on me, no pun intended. It would make combat more difficult for a start. I’m athletic, yes, but not overly strong. When I fight it tends to be al about the agility, I bob and weave until I’ve got an opening, brute force isn’t really my forte. If I’m a bit slow and get grabbed, or too fast and they overextend, one of us is going to hit a wall, and in this building that could mean my untimely death. Ergo, stealth would need to be employed. I hate enforced stealth.
From my position in the dark, abandoned stables I couldn’t see what the roof was like, but I decided to take a chance and make my entrance from up there. If I was going in stealthily then from above would be best anyway, regardless of its stability, and I’m nimble enough to be able to traverse bare support beams if necessary.
There was a sudden peal of thunder and it started to rain. Rain is a good thing for a thief, it makes people blind, always staring at their feet and never looking where they’re going. In the business we like to take it as a good omen.
A rusty door on the side of the dilapidated building creaked open, and a pair of men stepped out into the stables. They were shorter than me, but seemed to be wider than I was tall, which put me on edge. I stared at them stupidly as they approached. They wore long, grey steel swords, definitely real and not for show, on their hips and looked decidedly foreign. They approached me and the one on the left looked me up and down.
‘How strange it is to see a man willing to leave his cart here nowadays,’ he said. There was no hint of suspicion, he was merely stating a fact. His accent told me he was from Lend, our neighbours and, more often than not, enemies.
‘I’m not one to cave to the prospect of petty villainy,’ I said.
‘Ah, so you’re a fool, a hero or a criminal,’ he smiled.
The thing about good omens is that they don’t quite work the same way if you’re a bad guy. I tried my best not to splutter, giving them a sign of success could only make things worse, and instead gave them my best roguish grin in return. ‘Criminal is such a broad term.’
The foreigners laughed and muttered to each other in Lendian. I’m not one for languages, so I couldn’t tell you what they said, but they certainly gave the impression that I amused them. This was either very good or very bad, and I was hoping for the former.
‘My friend, I am Mr Th,’ said the vocal one of the pair. ‘And you make me laugh. I feel I must warn you, however, that this stable is private property, mine to be specific, and we do not usually allow the public to make use of it.’
‘I was under the impression it belonged to the museum.’
Th rubbed his hands together. ‘Officially it does, but I am the de facto owner. Social salvage, that sort of thing.’
‘So I can’t leave my cart here?’
‘Well, perhaps,’ he thumbed the hilt of his sword. ‘You look like a dishonest man, and any regular visitor would have had this speech already, so I can only conclude you intend to rob the museum.’
This was something I hated about Lend. The country had invented psychology and, as such, it trickled down from the universities and into the general populace. The average Lendian could tell what you were thinking by what you didn’t say. It made them very much sought after as diplomats and school teachers, and very dangerous when you were trying to conceal something. Lying to them would be pointless, and would most likely just annoy them.
‘Yes, I intend to rob the museum,’ I said truthfully. Bloody foreign mind magic, makes everything more difficult.
Th tilted his head to one side and frowned. He was scrutinising me, I realised, searching to see if I had lied to him. I hadn’t, only omitted the fact that I intended to rob him (or the building I now assumed to be his) when I was done. Perhaps omission is harder to detect than a lie, but after a few moments of consideration the man smiled at me.
‘I will allow you one night,’ he said happily. ‘I am not an aggressive businessman, sir, so I would not dream of impeding you in your duty. Just be sure to have cleared out your things by the morning.’
‘I’ll be long gone by then.’
Th and his friend tilted their heads slightly and strode off down towards the main street, leaving me alone with the horse, who had now finished with the bins and was munching on some unsightly pile festering in the corner.
I was quite pleased that the Lendians hadn’t completely seen through me, but their damned psychological insight had forced me to reveal a little too much about my plans. I didn’t like vocalising my jobs to more people than were necessary; the more that knew, the easier I could be found out. At least it hadn’t all been a waste, I had gotten some information on who guarded the package.
The horse looked up from his dinner and fixed me with a glare. Bloody foreigners only ever complicate things, and it wouldn’t be long before things would spiral out of control. I could only hope that I’d be lucky enough to come out on top when it did.
Of course, if I’d known that the horse was a foreign breed as well then perhaps I would have felt differently about my chances.