As the sun dawns, I pack up the bedroll Ren has lent me, then hand it over so he can stow it in his carry. He hands back some bread and duck, which I scarf down in quick, hungry bites.
Ren walks over to Elier and Lucky, ready to kick them awake, but Gyrax stops him with a raised hand.
“Let them sleep. We can show Jon how to use his dagger.”
Ren responds with a noncommittal shrug. “As you wish.”
For the next hour or so, Gyrax proceeds to teach me rudimentary knifework: basic defense coupled with attacks. Apparently, there’s too little distance and too much risk to not do both at the same time.
Ren watches silently, arms crossed and leaning back against a tree. The moves start to click as the lesson progresses. I’m no John Wick, but I can at least sense a bit of the rhythm.
“Good.” Elier sits up in his bedroll and hugs his knees. “You’re a natural.”
“Thanks.” I wipe sweat off my brow with the back of my wrist. “It’s nice—kinda feels like riding a bike.”
“ ‘Bike?’ ” Lucky yawns loudly and stretches his arms overhead.
“A wheeled machine,” Gyrax explains. “He means to say that it feels familiar.”
I’m puzzled at first, but then I grin and shake my head. He’s spent an entire dog-life existing on Earth—of course he knows what a bike is.
Ren makes his way toward Elier and Lucky, who are still sitting in their rolls. “Out of your bed and onto the road.”
Lucky squints at him. “What about breakfast?”
Ren grabs his elbow and hauls him up. “We’ve already eaten. Dine on the road or take your leave—I have little patience for slow-footed thieves.”
“All right all right,” Lucky grumbles. He rubs his eye as if he’s clearing it of gunk, but it’s really a distraction; his other hand reaches for Ren’s carry. I would have missed it if I wasn’t looking for it.
Ren intercepts the wayward hand, bending Lucky’s wrist into a compromised twist. The thief immediately drops to his knees, facing away and gasping for breath.
“Innocent mistake!” he wheezes. “Force of habit!”
“The next time it happens,” Ren warns in a deadly-soft voice, “I’ll snap your bones and leave you to rot. Understand?”
“Aye!” Lucky gives a vigorous nod.
Ren cranks the lock, adding a couple more pounds of excruciating pressure. “Didn’t hear you.”
“You have my word!” Veins jump out across his forehead. “Grace, Ren! Bloody gryphons on a witch’s eyesore—I plead your grace!”
Ren holds it a second longer, then releases the thief with an abrupt shove. Lucky collapses onto his side, cradling his quivering wrist with his other hand. He dusts himself off, rises to his feet, and regards Ren with newfound respect.
“The way you move…who taught you to fight?”
“Careless idiots who tried to rob me.” Ren turns away. “Onto the road, Lucknar.”
“You’re no fun,” Lucky mutters.
The weather’s nice—sunny skies and a mild breeze. Gyrax and I fall into lively conversation, reminiscing about treats from Nommie McGobberYoms.
“I enjoyed the cookies, but their freeze-dried bison—by the gods it was tasty!” He smacks his lips and bugs his eyes. I can’t help but laugh.
Lucky, walking on the rightmost edge of our loose-formed line, cranes forward and looks curiously at us. “What do you speak of?”
Gyrax says, “None of your concern.”
A nonchalant shrug. “As you will.”
Gyrax turns to Elier. “What about you, Duelist? What holds your interest?”
“A worthy opponent. I know enough magic to fight off sorcerers, but my first love is—and always shall be—for my cavalry sabers.”
As they engage in easy conversation, I glance over at Ren. He hasn’t joined in but there’s a certain attentiveness to him nonetheless. It doesn’t show in his face or posture—it’s a slight offness, if I had to describe it.
After Gyrax and Elier finish speaking, Lucky regales us with tales of his exploits. Apparently, he’s stolen from lords and taxmen, seduced married queens (sometimes their daughters as well), and worked with others as part of a burglary, like a fantasy-world version of Ocean’s Eleven.
“But you still pick pockets,” I say. “Why?”
“I’ll be the first to admit it’s not very glamorous, but it’s forthwith and honest. It keeps me grounded.”
Elier snorts. “ ‘Forthwith and honest?’ It’s kind of the opposite, don’t you think?”
Lucky wags a chiding finger. “Now, now—consider the history of our blighted worlds: a kingdom-wide curse, unchecked war, Lyderea’s rise…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. 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 is how it is.” Elier shrugs.
“Perhaps.” Lucky flips a dagger up in the air, letting it whirl and twirl before snatching it firmly by the hilt. “But I disagree. I do not think the world is transactional. Not at its heart, anyway. I believe that abundance abounds.”
“In others’ purses,” Ren mutters.
“Which is why I love my unwitting marks!” Lucky chortles. “If not for them, I’d be begging for scraps.”
“Maybe there’s a better way,” Gyrax ventures. “Waiting on the other side of our imagination.”
Elier scoffs. “Please, Wolven—open your eyes before they’re cut from your skull. Dreamers live short, painful lives.”
Gyrax smiles. “Then I cede to my doom, for I love my dreams far too much to set them aside. As for my eyes…” He shrugs. “What my eyes can’t see, my nose will smell. What my nose can’t smell, my ears will hear.”
Lucky says, “You reference faith, Master Wolven. And I heartily agree—if not for its presence, I would never snatch a wayward coin, for fear would strike me dumb and clumsy.”
Ren spits in disgust. “So because of your faith, you steal from the needy, lining your pockets with their blood and sweat.”
“They would do the same, given the chance.” Lucky flips his dagger, tries to catch it, but almost grabs it by the blade. “Whoop!” He jerks back just in time, then bends over and retrieves his knife. “See?” He grins at Ren. “My faith protects me.”
Ren falls silent. His contempt for Lucky is a palpable thing.
“I somewhat agree, but I believe your perspective is incomplete,” Gyrax says.
Elier dismisses him with a contemptuous wave. “Dreamer.”
Lucky continues flipping his dagger. “To each their own, eh? Time will reveal who is right; Elier and his blades, my faith and fortune, your dreams and fancies, or…” he trails off and looks at Ren.
Ren turns and spits again.
Lucky laughs and flips his dagger. “Well there you go.” He catches my attention with a jerk of his chin. “Jon. While we thin our soles on this damnable road, allow me to teach you a bit of my craft.”
I’m surprised into laughter. “I’m not a thief, Lucky.”
“Everyone steals. Time, aid, companionship…someone pays and someone profits.”
“Some give freely,” I counter. “Ever consider that?”
“Not since I was a child in Lydenfeld Manor, with tailors to clothe me and chefs to feed me.”
“What?” Now I’m confused. “Are you royalty or something?”
“Daiken Yetshaw, at your service.” Lucky dips into a sweeping bow. “I prefer not to use my given name, as it might draw unwanted attention.”
“The son of a lord?” Gyrax looks puzzled. “So why would you—”
“Yetshaws are known far and wide as sailor-merchants, but known farther and wider as treacherous scum. My brothers and sisters were no exception—a day after my tenth birthday, I was accused of treason and stripped of my lineage.”
“Your tenth birthday?” I gape dumbly at him.
“Aye.” Lucky nods. “Cast from my House as a luckless child. Ironic, isn’t it?”
“So your family took everything of value from you and now you do the same to others.” Ren scoffs. “Predictable.”
Lucky’s face tightens with anger—it’s the first time he’s expressed anything other than cheer or mischief—but then his grin returns. “If I am, it is only the work of a greater hand. Call it fate, call it fortune, call it whate—”
“Wrong has been done,” Ren snaps. “But that’s no excuse to leech off others.”
Lucky straightens up, mock offended. “I am merely a lesson from the world at large!”
I raise an eyebrow. “Interesting way to put it.”
“But it’s true, no?” Lucky throws me a rakish grin. “I relieve others of their naivete. They will pass on my lesson by doing the same to someone else. The disillusionment goes ’round and ’round, and that is how our lives are kept spinning.”
Gyrax shakes his head. “You’re wrong, Lucky. As the sky is blue and the night is long.”
“Then prove it, Wolven. Grace me with coins from your royal largesse.”
“That I shall do,” Gyrax replies. “But first, I must engage in parley with Ardos Rygar.”
“I thought you had business in Naversé,” Elier says.
“I do, but only because Jon does. Afterwards, I must find Ardos.”
“The Birthright Alliance?” Lucky chews his lower lip. “They aren’t known for their kindness or amity.”
“I have agreed to meet him at Tyr Noctin. Barring any trouble, the trip will take several months.”
Lucky and Elier exchange a glance. Unspoken communication flows between them. Lucky turns back to Gyrax. “You have our services, to include our swords. But you must cover our expenses. And give us an advance.”
“Will collateral suffice?” Gyrax reaches in his carry and produces a multicolored, unhewn rock. Most of its surface is rough and craggy, but the clearer parts of it glimmer and shine.
“A dimfire gem?” Lucky’s eyes widen with greed. “Give it here!”
Gyrax hands it over. “Keep it as a sign of my faith and commitment. Once I parlay with Ardos, I will happily pay you and Elier a thousand regals each, upon which I will request its return.”
“More than fair,” Elier says.
Lucky doesn’t respond, not right away. He holds the rock close, inspecting its facets with a piggish gaze. It’s a little unnerving—he looks a lot like Gollum and a bit like Joker.
After an awkward silence (for us, not him), he nods vigorously. “As you say, Master Wolven.” Then stows the rock in his carry.
Elier asks Ren, “What is your business in Naversé Township? 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 soothe a friend. When last we met he was severely ill—I fear he is approaching the Eventide Clear.”
(Eventide Clear…wow. So much cooler than heaven or hell.)
“You’re a better man than I,” Lucky states. “If death came knocking, no one I know would ask for me. I’ve charmed too many wives, lightened too many carries.”
“And if you lighten my friend’s, I’ll lighten your body of your thieving spirit. The man I seek is not to be touched. Do you understand, highwayman? Do. Not. Touch him.” Ren steps in front of Lucky, blocking the path while gripping his sword-hilt and assuming a draw-stance. It forces the thief to stop in his tracks.
Lucky raises his hands in a conciliatory gesture. “Be easy, Ren. Elier and I will wait outside—we’ll leave you be while you palaver with your friend.”
For a long moment, Ren is silent. Then he starts down the path, allowing the rest of us to do so as well. After a few seconds, he glances over at me and Gyrax. “You two may accompany me. You both reek of fate and destiny.”
“You say that like it’s a bad thing,” I venture.
“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: What can you do?
Gyrax draws me close and whispers, “Learn from him, Jon. Take him up on his offer.”
“What?” I give him an are-you-crazy look. “Why? I’m not gonna steal.” I’m a little shocked. A little offended, too.
“His skills are invaluable. It is only theft because he makes it so.”
I 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 cheerily. “One can never be too careful around those low-shadow thieves!” He claps me on the shoulder. “What say you, Jon?”
“I…” I look at Gyrax, who gives me a nod.
“That’s the spirit!” Lucky snaps his fingers, producing a coin from seemingly out of nowhere. “Now listen close: thieving is all about desire and focus. Everyone desires the same basic things. Safety, security, companionship…To ply my trade, you must understand how that desire converts into focus, then coax that desire toward a focus of your choosing. In the beginning, it is about baser perceptions: what the eye sees, what the ear hears, and son on and so forth. 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 anything until they’ve given everything…”
Thus begins my intro to theft. I wish they had taught it at SFSU.