Right before dawn, I pack up the bedroll Ren lent me and hand it back to him. He hands back some bread and duck, which I scarf down in quick, hungry bites. While I’m eating, he 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 wield a dagger.”
Ren responds with a noncommittal shrug. “As you wish.”
For the next hour, Gyrax teaches 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 as he leans against a tree, arms crossed.
Much to my surprise, 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, hugging his knees. “You’re a natural.”
“Thanks.” I wipe sweat off my brow with the back of my wrist. “It was awkward at first, but now it feels a little smoother—kinda feels like I’m 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 back on Earth—of course he knows what a bike is.
Ren makes his way toward Elier and Lucky, who are still cocooned inside 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 (thankfully, he’s wearing underwear). “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 actually a distraction; his other hand reaches for Ren’s carry. I wouldn’t have caught 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, “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 ounces 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 on a second longer, then releases Lucky with an abrupt shove. The thief collapses, cradling his wrist with his other hand. He dusts himself off, stands up, and regards Ren with newfound respect.
“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 mutters.
The weather’s nice—sunny skies and a mild breeze. During our trek, Gyrax and I reminisce 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, surprising me into a full-throated laugh.
Lucky, walking on the rightmost edge of our loose-formed line, cranes forward and examines us curiously. “What do you speak of?”
Gyrax says, “None of your concern.”
A nonchalant shrug. “As you will.”
Gyrax turns to Elier. “And you, Duelist? What holds your interest?”
“A worthy opponent. I know enough magic to fight off sorcerers, but my first love is—and always will be—for my cavalry sabers.”
As they engage in conversation, I glance at Ren. He hasn’t joined in but there’s a certain attentiveness to him. 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 as part of a team-run burglary, like a fantasy-world version of Ocean’s Eleven.
“But you still pick pockets,” I say. “Why?”
“I’m the first to admit it’s not very glamorous, but it’s forthwith and honest—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 world: 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 good swordsmen.”
“And is that how you think the world should be?” Gyrax asks. He isn’t judging; he’s genuinely curious.
“That’s how it is.” Elier shrugs.
“Perhaps.” Lucky flips a dagger up in the air, letting it whirl and twirl before snatching its hilt. “But I do not think the world is transactional. Not at its heart, anyway. I firmly 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 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 faith, 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.”
“And 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 resumes 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 catches 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 think of 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. “You’re royalty?”
“Daiken Yetshaw, at your service.” Lucky dips into a sweeping bow. “I prefer to refrain from my given name, as it might attract 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 are no exception—shortly 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. “I was 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—the first time he’s expressed anything other than cheer or mischief—but then his merriness returns. “If I am, it is only the work of a greater hand. Call it fate, call it fortune, call it whatever you plea—”
“Wrong has been done,” Ren snaps. “But that isn’t an 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.”
“It’s true, no?” Lucky throws me a rakish grin. “I relieve others of their naivete. They pass on the lesson by doing the same to someone else. The disillusionment goes ’round and ’round, and that is how the world is 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 trouble, the journey will take three to four months.”
Lucky and Elier exchange a glance. Unspoken communication flows between them. A second later, Lucky turns back to Gyrax. “Could we watch your back and help tend camp? Not as soldiers, but as roadside companions—you would have our service, to occasionally include our swords and daggers. But you must cover our costs and give us advances.”
“How about collateral?” Gyrax reaches in his carry and produces a multicolored, unhewn rock. Most of its surface is rough and craggy, but the clearer parts glimmer and shine.
“A dimfire gem?” Lucky’s eyes widen with greed. “Give it here!”
Gyrax hands it over. “Once I parlay with Ardos, I will happily pay you a thousand regals each, upon which I will request that you return the gem.”
“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.” He stows the rock in his carry.
Elier asks Ren, “Now that’s settled, 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, but I have changed my mind. 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 me, highwayman? Do. Not. Touch him.” Ren steps in front of Lucky, 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. “Easy, Ren. Elier and I will wait outside. We’ll leave you be when 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 should accompany me during my visit. You both reek of fate and destiny.”
“You say that like it’s a bad thing,” I venture.
“It often is,” Ren replies grimly. “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, whispering, “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 valuable. 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. “I…okay.”
“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 things. Safety, security, companionship…To ply my trade, you must understand how desire becomes 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, so on and so forth. But with time and experience, theft 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 you everything…”
Thus begins my intro to stealing. I wish they taught it at SFSU.