We break camp the next morning. I hand Ren the hide-sewn bedroll he lent me for the night, and we scarf down some bread and duck.
Ugh. Ren was right—it’s already starting to get old.
Elier and Lucky haven’t yet risen. Ren walks toward their bedrolls, ready to kick them awake, but Gyrax stops him with a raised hand.
“Let them sleep. We can teach Jon how to use his dagger.”
Ren shrugs. “As you will.”
Gyrax proceeds to teach me some rudimentary knifework: basic defenses coupled with attacks. Apparently, there’s too little distance and too much risk to not do both at the same time. Ren watches us, arms crossed and leaning back against a tree. Occasionally, I see him give an approving nod.
As the lesson continues, I start to feel a rhythm to the movement. I’m no John Wick, but I can at least understand the changes in force, and sense the flow beneath the exchange. Not just logically, but at a subconscious level—my body knows what to do before my brain does.
“Good.” Elier is sitting up in his bedroll. “You’re a natural.” Seems like he’s been awake for awhile. I probably didn’t notice because I was too busy practicing.
“Thanks.” I wipe sweat from my brow with the back of my forearm. “It’s not as hard as I thought it would be. Kinda like riding a bicycle.”
“ ‘Bike?’ ” Lucky stretches his arms overhead and yawns loudly.
“A wheeled machine,” Gyrax explains. “He means to say that it feels familiar.”
I’m puzzled by his knowledge of Earthling travel, but then I grin and shake my head—he’s spent an entire dog-life on Earth. Of course he knows what a bike is.
Ren pushes off the tree he’s been leaning against, and makes his way toward Elier and Lucky. “Time runs thin. Out of your bed and onto the road.”
Lucky squints up at him. “What about breakfast?”
Ren grabs him by the elbow and hauls him up. “We’ve already had it. Eat on the road or part from our company.”
“All right all right,” Lucknar grumbles. He rubs his eye with his right palm, like he’s clearing it of gunk. It’s actually a distraction; his other hand darts toward Ren’s carry—I would have missed it if I wasn’t looking for it.
Ren intercepts the hand with his own, bending Lucky’s wrist into a compromised twist. The thief drops to his knees, facing away and gasping for breath.
“An innocent mistake!” he wheezes. “Force of habit!”
“Then see that it doesn’t happen again,” Ren warns in a deadly-soft voice. “Or I’ll snap your bones and leave you to rot.”
“Aye!” Lucky gives a vigorous nod. His face grows redder as Ren cranks the lock. “You have my word!” Veins jumps out on his forehead. “Grace, Ren! Bloody gryphons on a witch’s eyesore—I plead your grace!”
Ren holds him for a second longer, then releases his arm with a disgusted shove. Lucky collapses onto his side, holding onto his quivering wrist.
“You are strong.” The thief looks up with a shaky smile. I have to give him credit—he bounces back quickly. Either that or he doesn’t know when to stop.
Elier helps him get to his feet. Lucky dusts himself off and curls a golden lock behind his ear, regarding Ren with a knowing grin. “The way you move…who taught you how to fight?”
“Careless idiots who tried to rob me.” Ren turns away. “Onto the road, Lucknar.”
“You’re no fun,” Lucky grumbles. He and Elier pack their goods and hurry up beside us.
The weather is nice. Sunny skies and mild breeze. Gyrax and I fall into lively conversation, laughing at his favorite chew toys, recounting how vigilantly he would guard his treats from Nommie McGobberYoms.
“I enjoyed the baked goods, but I must confess: I have a weakness for their freeze dried bison. By the gods it was tasty!”
He smacks his lips and I can’t help but laugh—yeah, he’s a seven-foot dog-warrior who can speak, fight, and cast magic, but right now, he’s my best friend and loyal buddy.
“What do you speak of?” Lucky asks, curious.
Gyrax smiles at him. “An adventure I had on an adjacent plane.”
“You have the ability to travel to another world?” Lucky gives Gyrax a dubious look. “Such magic is beyond our grasp. Beyond the grasp of Velys Skyseer, I’d wager.”
“Believe what you want.” Gyrax shrugs. “ ’Tis not my concern.”
Lucky stares at him a moment longer, then responds with a matching shrug. “No concern of mine, either. Unless it involves coin or drink.”
“And you?” Gyrax turns to Elier, raising a shaggy eyebrow. “What catches your eye, duelist?”
Elier responds with an easy grin. “A good opponent. I know enough magic to stay alive, but my love is reserved for my cavalry sabers.”
Ren doesn’t speak. He just keeps walking. But if I had to guess, I’d say he’s listening. There’s a certain attentiveness to him. It doesn’t show in his face or posture; it’s more like a slight offness in the air. Like you’re being studied by someone you can’t see, but whose presence you can still feel.
The others don’t notice. They keep chatting and laughing, walking the road with easy cheer. Lucky regales us with tales of his exploits. Apparently, he’s stolen from lords while posing as a statesman, seduced married queens impersonating a charming lord, and worked with others as part of intricate burglaries, like a fantasy-world version of Ocean’s Eleven.
“And you can pickpocket,” I add.
At first he looks affronted, but then he gives me a bashful smile. “Aye. It’s how I fell into the craft of larceny. Not the most glamorous aspect of my profession, but it’s forthwith and honest.”
Elier snorts. “ ‘Forthwith and honest?’ It’s kind of the opposite, don’t you think?”
Lucky wags a finger. “Now now. Consider all the events that have plagued our world: a kingdom-wide curse, unchecked war, Lyderea and her Knights…you can’t tell me that a man isn’t justified in doing anything and everything to balance the scales.”
“The scales are balanced by way of the blade,” Elier retorts. “I have never lacked for coin or shelter—there is always a need for a good swordsman.”
“And is that how you think the world should be?” Gyrax asks. He isn’t judging; he’s genuinely curious.
“It’s how it is.” Elier shrugs. “No use in wondering how it should be.”
“Well it suits me fine,” Lucky says. He flips a dagger up in the air, letting it twist and spin before grabbing it by the hilt with a quick snatch. “Abundance abounds.”
“In others’ purses,” Ren mutters. He doesn’t bother to look over.
“Which is why I love my unwitting victims!” Lucky chortles. “If not for them, I’d be begging for scraps!”
Ren stays silent but I see his jaw tighten under his hood.
“Maybe there’s a better way,” Gyrax vemtures. “Maybe it’s right there waiting for us, on the other side of our imagination. Maybe all we have to do is let it in.”
Elier scoffs. “Open your eyes before they’re cut from your skull. Dreamers live short, painful lives.”
“Perhaps.” Gyrax smiles. “But I happen to enjoy imagination and dream. They grace my mind with inspiration. As for my eyes…” The Wolven shrugs. “What my eyes can’t see, my nose will smell. What my nose can’t smell, my ears will hear.”
Lucky chuckles. “You refer to faith, Master Wolven. If not for faith, I could never lift a coin or pick a pocket, for I would be rendered dumb in the grip of fear.”
Ren snorts. “So because of your faith, you empty the pockets of needy folk, and line your own with their blood and sweat?”
Lucky says, “If our positions were reversed, they would do the same to me.” He flips his dagger and tries to catch it, but he almost grabs it by the blade. “Whoop!” He snatches back just in time, then bends to the ground and retrieves his weapon. “Almost lost a finger. See?” He flashes a grin at Ren. “My faith protects me.”
Ren falls silent. His disgust for Lucky is a palpable thing.
“I somewhat agree, but I believe your perspective is incomplete,” Gyrax says.
Elier waves a dismissive hand. “Dreamer.”
Lucky flips his dagger. “To each their own, eh? Time will reveal who is keenest; Elier’s blades, my faith and fortune, your imaginative dreams, or…” he trails off and looks at Ren.
Ren turns and spits at the ground.
“Well, there you go.” Lucky laughs and flips his dagger.
“Indeed,” Gyrax says. “All will be clear with the passing of time.”
“Look here.” Lucky turns to me. “While we’re thinning our soles on this damnable road, allow me to teach you a bit of my craft.”
“I’m not a thief,” I reply.
“That’s a lie if I ever heard one. Everyone steals. Time, aid, companionship…someone takes and someone benefits.”
“Maybe some give freely,” I counter. “Ever consider that?”
“Not since I was a child in Lydenfeld Manor, with tailors to clothe me and bakers to feed me.”
“What?” My brow wrinkles in confusion. “Were you royalty or something?”
“The son of Lord Yetshaw, at your service.” Lucky gives me a sweeping bow. “I prefer not to use my original name, as it could draw unwanted attention.”
“Son of a lord?” Gyrax looks puzzled. “So why would you—”
“Family quibbles,” Lucky explains. “The Yetshaw line is known far and wide for its capable seafarers, but known farther and wider for its treacherous ways. My brothers and sisters did not disappoint. Shortly after my tenth birthday, I was accused of treason and stripped of my lineage.”
“Your tenth birthday?” I can’t help but gape.
“Aye,” Lucky says. “I was cast from my House as a clueless child.”
“So your family took everything of value from you and now you do the same to other people.” Ren scoffs. “Predictable.”
Lucky’s face flashes with anger—the first time he’s expressed anything other than cheer or mischief. Then his grin returns, but a dangerous glint remains in his eye. “If I am, it is only the work of a greater hand, balancing the scales that weigh our lives.”
“Wrong has been done,” Ren says. “But that is no excuse to be a bane upon others.”
“Bane?” Lucky straightens up, mock offended. “You overstep, good wanderer! I am merely a lesson from the world at large!”
“ ‘Lesson?’ ” I raise an eyebrow. “That’s an interesting way to put it.”
“But it’s true, no?” Lucky nudges me with the point of his elbow. “I relieve others of their naivete. Most of them, in turn, will do the same to someone else. The disillusionment goes ’round and ’round, and that is how the world is kept spinning.”
Gyrax dips his head and stares at the ground. “You’re wrong, Lucky. As the sky is blue and the night is long.”
Lucky winks at him. “Then prove it, Master Wolven. Grace me with coins from your royal largesse.”
“I shall endeavor to do so,” Gyrax replies. “But before I do, I have many tasks I must accomplish. Right now I wish to parley with Ardos Rygar.”
“I thought you had business in Naversé,” Elier says.
Gyrax nods at me. “Only because Jon does. Where he goes, I go. But eventually, I must find Ardos and engage in palaver.”
“The Birthright Alliance?” Lucky chews his lip. “They aren’t known for their kindness or amity. What do you wish to discuss with them?”
“It is no concern of yours. But I am sworn to meet him at Tyr Noctin. Barring any stops, it could take several months.”
Lucky and Elier exchange a glance.
“Cover our expenses,” Lucky says. “And give us an advance.”
“How about collateral?” Gyrax reaches in his carry and produces a multicolored, unhewn rock. It’s dirty and craggy, but the clearer parts of it glimmer and shine.
“A dimfire rock?” Lucky’s eyes widen with greed. “Give it here!” He reaches out with both hands.
Gyrax hands it over. “Keep it until I can access coinage or goods. After I parley with Ardos, I will happily pay you and Elier.”
“Seems fair,” Elier says.
Lucky holds the rock close, inspecting its facets with a lunacy-tinged smile. I’m a little unnerved—he looks a kind of like Gollum, with a generous helping of Heath Ledger’s Joker. “As you say, Master Wolven. As you say.” He stows the rock in his carry, then gives us all his trademark grin.
Elier turns to Ren. “What’s your business in Naversé, Master Wanderer? We follow the Wolven, and the Wolven follows you, so…”
“It was twofold, originally,” Ren says. “I was going to leave him—” he gives me a nod, “—with someone better suited to care for his needs. Now I go there to honor a debt. A dear friend is nearing the end of his days—he is fast approaching the Eventide Clear, and I would see him again before he crosses over.”
(Eventide Clear—that’s so much cooler than heaven or hell.)
“You’re a better man than I,” Lucky remarks. “If any of my friends were on the verge of death, they wouldn’t ask for me. I’ve lightened too many carries throughout my travels.”
“And if you lighten my friend’s, I’ll lighten your body of your thieving spirit. The man I am seeing is not to be touched. Not a hair on his person nor a strap on his carry, do you understand, highwayman? Do. Not. Touch him.”
Ren steps in front of Lucky and assumes a draw-stance, body turned at a diagonal slant. It forces the thief to stop in his tracks.
“Point made.” Lucky raises his hands in a conciliatory gesture. “Elier and I shall wait outside whilst you palaver with your friend.”
Ren doesn’t reply. He simply turns and starts down the path, allowing the rest of us to do so as well. After a few seconds, he casts a glance at me and Gyrax. “You two may accompany me. You both reek of fate and destiny.”
“You say it like it’s a bad thing,” I state.
“It often is,” Ren replies. “Fate and destiny grind many to dust. And in so doing, they create men like him.” He throws a disgusted look at Lucky.
The thief shrugs with upturned hands, as if to say, What can you do?
Gyrax nudges me. “Learn from him, Jon. Take him up on his offer.”
“What? Why? I’m not gonna steal from people.”
“His skills are impartial. It is only theft because he makes it so.”
I think about this for a couple of seconds, then nod grudgingly. “Yeah…I guess. For some it’s survival, I would imagine.”
“For you it’s defense,” Ren says. “Against low-shadow thieves who would cut the opportunity from beneath your feet.”
“That’s right!” Lucky declares, pretending to miss the irony. “One can never be too careful around those low-shadow thieves!” He claps me on the shoulder. “What do you say, Jon?”
“I…” I look at Gyrax, who gives me a nod. “I guess. For my own defense, if nothing else.”
“That’s the spirit!” Lucky snaps his fingers, producing a coin from seemingly out of nowhere. “Now listen closely: thievery is all about desire and focus. Everyone desires the same basic things, in one form or another. Safety, security, companionship…To ply my trade, you must come to understand how desire converts to focus, then coax that desire toward a focus of your choosing. In the beginning, it is all about understanding brutish instincts: what the eye sees, what the ear hears…but with time and experience, it becomes so much more. A mental tandem of give-and-take, where your mark doesn’t realize they’ve ceded everything until they’ve willingly given it…
And just like that, I learn how to steal.