Hi everyone! JMD Reid here! Every Saturday, I’m going to post one of my short stories for you all to enjoy! It’ll be up on my blog for a week before it gets taken down and a new story replaces it!
17th Day of Honesty, 737 EU
He flexed his fingers, studying them in the light from a nearby diamond street lamp. The fingernails were chipped, dirt forming dark stains beneath the beds, the cuticles gouged in spots. They were slender, possessing a certain dexterity about them. His shoulders rolled and he bent his knees. Familiarity grew and grew in him. The clothing fit. The boots were comfortable, laced up tight. They were worn and scuffed, like the rest of his clothing. The trousers had frayed hems and were belted with a length of gray rope. Extra pockets, weighted with tools, were sewn down the thighs. A stained shirt, mended in several places, spilled over his lanky frame.
He nudged the dead man’s naked foot behind the refuse bin resting in the alleyway, hiding it from the main road. He straightened his back and nodded in satisfaction. Everything felt in place. The fight had been swift.
“Phred!” a voice hissed from the other end of the alley.
That’s who I am. Phred.
Phred turned and smiled to the even skinnier figure, a youth hovering between boyhood and adulthood, standing at the alley’s mouth. The newcomer had the same bulbous nose, readily identifying the pair as brothers. Their builds were the same: tall and lanky, their hair the same dirty-brown, though the younger had a lock of pure gold curling in the middle, a memento of their mother.
“Thought you might have bungled it,” Phred said, sauntering through the alley without a care of the dead person being noticed. “How long does it take to start a fire?”
“Not as long as it took you to give Cerine a tumble behind the Plucked Rooster last night,” said the younger brother. Nayton flashed a toothy grin.
Phred returned it. “Well, she’s a wet thing, ain’t she? Knows how to get a man’s seed flowing right quick.” He ruffled his younger brother’s hair. “One day, you’ll learn that. Have her callin’ out to the Colour of Virtue.”
Nayton scowled and stepped out of reach. “You know I’ve tumbled my share.”
“When you pay, it don’t count, little rooster.” Phred stretched his back. “So, we clear?”
“You shoulda seen those Gas House boys racin’ to save their favorite brothel. We got our opening.” The Gas House Gang worked in the heart of Kash. If they caught a pair of Roosters strutting in their territory, they would split the brothers’ heads open.
Especially considering their business in the prosperous district this night.
Phred nodded. “Then let’s yank out their short hairs.”
Phred sauntered down the dark street with a boldness. The cobblestones of the great city of Kash gleamed from the rain that had swept through an hour before. The air still held that oily tang clinging to it. He whistled as he walked, his younger brother racing to catch up.
They were burglarizing tonight.
It was a scheme Phred had been working on and off again for the better part of a year. Braffan Dacerin’s strongroom bulged with gold and gems. The merchant made his wealth importing the exotic goods of Tethry, Democh, Zal, and Ny’zil. He sold it to the nobles and even the king. He had wealth to spare, his home full of jewelchines.
He paid the Brotherhood for protection, and they used one of their local gangs, the Gas House Gang, to watch their client’s house and keep burglars like Phred from slipping in and taking his picking of a rich man’s nest. Phred didn’t mind angering the Brotherhood. They might control the heart of Kash, but he ran with Braglin’s Roosters.
Their gang didn’t crow to the Brotherhood.
The light of a diamond jewelchine street lamp illuminated the corner of the merchant’s house. It dominated the block. Music drifted from the rear garden where, this night, Master Dacerin showed off his wealth and extravagance to high society of Kash. Rumor held that the king himself might make an appearance.
The perfect time to slip into his strongroom.
Phred’s skilled eyes flicked along the shadows, searching for any sign of the Gas House boys. He didn’t see any eyes lurking in the shadows. Farther down the street, smoke rose. Nayton did good work, thought Phred. His younger brother was coming up. Sixteen and mastering the skills of being a proper burglar. You had to know when to be daring, when to be stealthy, and when to be smart.
They followed the side of the house. It rose three stories above them, built in imitation of a castle. The mortared stones of the wall were large, heavy blocks quarried and dragged to Kash. The windows were narrow, more like arrow slits than anything proper. The weather had pockmarked the stone exterior. Some of the mortar was crumbling. It was at least two hundred years old, built in a martial style that had long gone out of fashion.
“Where should we make our climb?” Phred asked as they reached the far corner. An alley ran here, darker, more cover from the bright diamond that illuminated the front of the house.
“You don’t know?” Nayton asked.
“Course I know. Wanna see if you got a set of helidors, or only obsidian for eyes.”
Nayton’s blue eyes flashed. “Course I got helidors. I can see far and keen.”
Phred nodded as his brother paused before a section of the wall, studying it. Helidors were used in jewelchines involving sight and detection. Phred wasn’t an expert on the science of gems and metals, possessing only the faintest ideas on how they could be fashioned to make devices; he just used them. Some could strengthen, some could heal, some could illuminate, and some performed more sinister tasks.
He was well aware of the obsidian blade tucked in his pocket. In Kash, in the entire Kingdom of Lothon, that was a death sentence to carry, but any burglar who had a polished mind carried one anyway.
“This is it,” Nayton said, his voice hardly heard over the party spilling over the garden wall. The house didn’t occupy the whole block. Two-thirds were taken up by a walled yard blazing with lights. The clear, bright shine of diamond jewelchines, and not cheaper candles, torches, or lanterns, bled from the garden. “Right here’ll be an easy climb.”
“Well, best get to it,” Phred said.
“Wot? You just gonna lounge down here while I go and do all the work?”
Phred shrugged. “Why risk my neck if you’re wrong? Get to climbin’. Burglar that chooses the route goes first.”
Elohm’s Bell tolled from the Temple of Seven Colours. The ringing toll boomed once. Midnight had arrived. Phred flexed his toes as his brother grasped crumbling mortar and began his ascent. His boots’ leather soles squeaked and crunched as he pulled himself up. Phred winced at the noise. The party’s music and revelry helped to mask it, but . . .
He shifted his shoulder, wishing he could see the fire. To know if the Gas House boys were still distracted or not. He ran a hand through his brown hair, smoothing it back. He felt the chill of the night deepening as the exhilaration pumped through him. He breathed in, smelling the sour musk from the alley.
Nayton reached the second floor and used a narrow window’s ledge to pull himself higher. He scrambled past it, working with surety. The route was the one Phred would have chosen. His brother had spotted it with ease.
Helidor eyes, he thought with a smile.
Nayton reached the small fence of wrought iron that ran along the flat roof’s edge, mimicking the barbicans of a real fortress, like those that ran around the Curtain, Kash’s old walls. Nayton rolled over the roof fence then twisted around and peered down.
Phred grinned and followed his brother up. He climbed up with confidence scaling a hundred walls had given him. He gripped the cracks in the mortar. His fingers were slender but strong. They were skilled. He had done this a thousand times. His boots had fresh soles. They gripped the crumbling mortar. Some burglars used expensive grip-gloves, jewelchines with fine emeralds woven into the leather.
Not Phred. He had better things to spend his money on.
He passed the second floor with ease and worked towards the third floor. Nayton watched, a big grin on his face. A slight pang twisted around Phred’s heart as he climbed higher. His fingers felt cold as he gripped the slick stone.
Then he was at the roof. He seized the wrought iron fence, each rod ending in a sharp, arrow-like point. He slipped over it with care not to catch his pants, or his flesh, on those spikes. He settled his boots onto the flat roof. His gaze swept over it. Six chimneys thrust up, five slender pipes of clay, one rectangular and made of brick.
“Now comes the hard part,” Phred said.
“That wasn’t it?” asked Nayton. “I set the Gas House boys’ whorehouse on fire. Almost got my head cracked in doin’ it.”
“Robbin’ a rich man’s strongroom’s like seducin’ a church marm. Can’t make a wrong move, or she smacks you up the back of the head.”
Nayton grinned. “Is that how you got that lump on your noggin last week?”
Phred winked at his brother before continuing, “We gotta take care. Watch your steps. Don’t make a wrong move. There’s a hundred people in the garden. Servants are movin’ through the house. The kitchen ain’t far from his office and the strongroom.”
Nayton nodded. He looked around. “Uh, not to question, but how we gettin’ in? We passed a buncha windows. Coulda kicked one in.”
“Probably wired to alarms.” Phred padded to the one chimney that was made of brick and thrust up from the southwest corner. “So, think you can fit?”
“Are you sellin’ crap as topazes?” Nayton shot a look of incredulity, the lock of gold hair spilling down his forehead.
“You’re skinnier than me. I got some grease if you need it.” Phred patted one of the pockets sewn onto his canvas trousers.
“Not lettin’ you do that to me ‘gain.” Nayton bit his lower lip. “Wot I do once I’m done?”
“Open a window.” Phred reached into his pocket and grasped the hilt of the obsidian blade. He pulled it out, the knife shaped from midnight stone that gleamed like smoky glass. Black iron wire, the forbidden metal, wrapped around the tang, forming a handle. Using obsidian went against Elohm and his Seven Colours teachings. Only Black didn’t come from the Lord.
It was evil, not that Phred much cared about the state of his soul. “Twas born in a hovel in the Breezy Hills up to my neck in muck,” he’d always joke. “Doubt Elohm wants my soiled soul noneways.”
Phred flipped the blade around and handed it to his brother first.
Awe kindled in Nayton’s eyes. His hand trembled as he reached out and grasped it, fingers wrapped tight. A shiver ran through him. His chest rose and fell. He stared up at his brother.
“Just don’t break it, you hear? Or I’ll stuff you in one of them round chimneys.”
“I won’t.” The younger brother said, his voice breathy. He slipped it into his boot on the inside of his calf. “I can do this.”
Phred ruffled his brother’s hair again, spilling bangs across Nayton’s forehead. “No, you won’t botch this. Now get to it.”
Nayton hopped onto the chimney. It was narrow, but so was the lad. Phred’s chest tightened as his brother’s legs disappeared into the hole. Then Nayton thrust his right arm in and wiggled his body. His left held the lip of the chimney. His chest then his head vanished, only the hand remaining. Then he let go of it and was swallowed by the chimney. This was the most dangerous part. Phred would do it himself if he could.
Let your Colours shine over him, thought the thief. It couldn’t hurt.
Fog drifted from the Ustern River, spilling over the streets while Phred waited, his heart almost in his throat. His fingers flexed. He stroked them, massaging away the growing chill of the night as he listened to his brother working deeper, grunting, groaning, sliding against the brick.
The sound stopped.
“I did it,” echoed up the chimney.
Phred moved back to the wall. He threw his leg over the railing and climbed down the side of the building to a window on the third floor. He braced for the clatter of alarm jewelchines bursting through the night. If his brother missed any wires . . .
Phred didn’t understand more than the basics of jewelchines. You wrapped the right jewel cut in the right way with the right type of metal wire, and it did things. It illuminated streets, locked doors, rang like windchimes, made automaton toys, or could create water. There were so many uses for them. Men made fortunes if they could find a new effect while others squandered inheritances in the vain search of the next revolutionary jewelchine.
Phred would rather just buy what he needed and steal the rest. All that work sounded far harder than clinging to the side of a merchant’s house with the tendrils of fog creeping over his fingers, the cold numbing the tips.
The window creaked open. Nayton’s head popped out, a boyish grin spilling across his lips, ash smeared across his cheeks and dusting his hair, staining that lock of gold with streaks of soot. He arched his eyebrows as he leaned back in. Phred shuffled over, grabbed the window frame, and slipped inside. He landed in a crouch into a room. A light shone from a diamond lamp set in the wall and encased in glass.
“That just turned on when I came in,” muttered Nayton. “Didn’t do it or nothin’.”
“They’re wired to that. Got them a helidor sensor, detects currents in the room or somethin’.”
A shiver ran through Nayton. “How do you deal with that if it’s attached to an alarm?”
Phred ruffled his little brother’s hair. “Come on, no dawdlin’.”
He closed the window and moved through the smoking room. There were several chairs covered in a cream brocade with darkly polished wooden frames. They sat around a marble table that had a wooden cigar case, probably fresh from the plantations of far Ny’zil, in the center. If there hadn’t been greater riches ahead, he would have been tempted to grab one.
He passed a shelf holding bottles of Onderian brandy, the amber liquid making his mouth water. At the door, he paused, listening. Distant sounds drifted through the house. He pushed the door open then strolled inside. He didn’t go at a hurried pace as he headed down the hallway, feet tramping on the roll of carpet running down the middle of the polished wooden floor. It was worked with scroll designs, the weave soft and muffling his step.
“Shouldn’t we hurry?” Nayton said, his voice low but cracking.
“Runnin’ footsteps will draw the servants’ attention,” he answered. “We need to blend in, not draw attention to ourselves.”
“Right, right, like seducin’ a church marm out of her knickers.”
They reached the dumbwaiter by the merchant’s bedchamber. Phred smiled and opened it, peering down the shaft. It went all the way to the first floor. He saw no issue in using it. He worked the rope, making sure the dumbwaiter was lowered all the way, then slipped his scrawny leg through the opening. It was wider than the chimney by a good handsbreadth. His lanky frame could squeeze down it.
Nayton would have no problems.
He slid down, the rope burning his hands. He passed the second floor and slowed as he reached the dumbwaiter. He rested on the box, its pulley creaking as it swayed. He listened and, hearing nothing, slid open the door and slipped out. He was by the downstairs kitchen. A hallway ran to his right. It led right to the study and the vault.
His heart quickened its beat. His fingers flexed against the exhilaration surging cold through his veins. His brother slipped out after him and the pair padded down the hallway. Phred could hear servants bustling in the kitchen. They prepared food and carried it out to the revelers. Phred felt the cooks and waiters moving behind them. If they came out the wrong door . . .
No helping that, he thought.
He examined the office door when they reached it. Nayton pulled out the obsidian blade. He touched the lock, an amethyst bound to the knob. A jolt of dark lightning rushed into the gem, animating the mechanism. The lock clicked. With a grin, he grabbed the brass knob, twisted, and—
Phred grabbed his brother’s wrist and pulled him back. Phred had noticed, just beneath the door, a faint shadow. Instincts screaming, he slipped down onto his belly, the hardwood floor cold against his cheek, and peered through the gap. A shiver ran down his spine.
A wire ran along the bottom of the door. There was another jewelchine tied to it.
“Elohm’s blessed Colours,” muttered Nayton after Phred whispered what he’d found. “Wot’s it leading to?”
Phred followed it to where it vanished into the frame of the door. He felt up the wood molding covering the frame, his instincts honed by many capers. His fingers slipped over the beveled molding until he felt . . . a section that was different. There was a gap. It was clever, matching the grain of the wood and covered by a bit of wax sealing it shut to make it look solid. He took his dagger from his brother and worked the delicate blade into it, popping off the small cover.
A helidor gem, wrapped in delicate aluminum wire, nestled inside.
“So just cut the wire?” asked his brother.
“Not the bit running off the bottom and down beneath the door. That’ll trip it off. Got to be the wire wrapped about the gem itself.” It was in a curious pattern, following some of the jewel’s facets and ignoring others. The shape of it all is what ensured it worked as intended.
Phred plucked one of the tools he carried out of his many pants pockets. This was a small pair of wire snips made of iron. He’d stolen them from a jewelchine mechanic. He exhaled all the air in his lungs to steady his hand. If he triggered the other wire, it would start ringing. He brushed a wire on the surface.
Nayton trembled beside him. His breath spilled over the back of Phred’s neck.
He caught a bit of the wire and snipped, severing it. The tension sprang back one end from the gem.
“There,” he said.
He rose, his legs stiff, and opened the door into Braffan Dacerin’s office. A diamond lantern burst to life in the ceiling. Just as the fired servant had described to Phred after an evening of buying cheap ale, it was an opulent room. Shelves lined the walls with a window draped in dark curtains. On the opposite wall, an iron statue of Boan Sword-Arm stood beside a small fireplace, his left arm ending in the famed blade that had slain the Darkling King and driven their ilk from the Stoytin Isles five thousand years before.
A wide desk of exotic hardwood from the Shattered Isles dominated the room. Several neat piles of papers and a ledger lay on it along with a silver quill and an inkpot. To protect the wood, a leather writing blotter was spread across the surface, a silver-plated letter opener lying on it. The chair pulled up against it was carved with the spreading antlers of the Stag of Lothon. They would frame Braffan’s head as he sat there. Behind him was the heavy iron door of the vault.
Trembling, he pulled out his absorber. Where an alarm made noise, an absorber did the opposite. It had aluminum wire wrapped around the helidor. It was the same gem used in an alarm, but the wires were bound around it in a different manner, forming a different effect. He placed it right on the desk and a deep silence descended.
He couldn’t hear his own heart beating blood through his veins, let alone the sounds of his brother moving. It was like his ears were stuffed with wool. It was a terrible feeling. It made his skin crawl every time he did it. He shouted at the top of his voice.
Nayton appeared before him, lips moving fast, his eyes wide. He smiled and then grabbed the ledger off the desk and slammed it down. Silent laughter peeled from his lips. Phred smiled at his brother’s amusement.
Then he faced the vault.
It was a new design using tumbler locks. There was a large dial in the center numbered from one to a hundred, each inscribed into the metal wheel. A knob thrust from the center. These types of safes would have alarms built into the very metal of the door. He could do nothing about those from this side, so he’d killed all the sound. However, that denied him one of the easiest methods to deal with a tumbler lock.
Listening to the pins clicking into place.
He would have to do this by touch. He pulled out his final tool from his pocket, a glove of fine leather with small amethysts in the fingertips. They were able to detect the faintest of motions. They had been invented for the inspection of foundations, feeling if there were any minute weaknesses that could lead to an old structure collapsing.
The man who’d invented it had been given a minor barony and owned a fine house by Lake Ophavin.
Phred knelt before the vault and flexed his fingers in the touch-glove. He grasped the dial and felt quivering through it. He felt the tiny vibrations caused by his brother’s movement. He turned around and glared at his brother capering around the room like a child.
He arched an eyebrow.
A sheepish look crossed Nayton’s face. He mouthed, “Sorry.”
Phred turned back to the vault’s lock. He turned it, feeling the tumblers moving as it clicked to 1.
2. 3. 4.
They felt the same.
He didn’t detect any shift in the pins.
He paused there. Eight felt a little different. A trap? He turned the dial again.
9. 10. 11.
He drew in slow breaths, feeling each click almost shake his fingertips.
13. 14. 15.
Sweat trickled down his brow.
21. 22. 23.
His head cocked to the side. He’d felt an audible pop on twenty-three. Something had definitely moved, not a trap but a pin sliding out of the way. He smiled. Twenty-three. He turned it the other way.
22. 21. 20.
He waited for that feeling, his shoulders shifting. A new vibration rippled through the floor.
Irritation flared. He threw his head around to glare at his brother and—
A metal sword flashed at his head.
With a soundless scream, Phred ducked low. The blade struck the vault’s surface, marring the finish. Sparks flared and popped without a hiss. He looked up to see the statue moving, flashes of emerald light bleeding through gaps in the metal plating, white glowing from its eyes.
A clockwork automaton? thought Phred in disbelief. The statue of Boan Sword-Arm was more than mere decoration. It moved, the heavy steps muffled by the absorber. The click of the gears inside animating its limbs were swallowed up by Phred’s own device. Powered by emerald gems, it followed basic instructions encoded into its diamond heart.
This one’s instructions were clear as it drew back its arm, the chisel-sharp point of the sword aimed right at Phred’s heart.
The burglar rolled backward as the arm lanced down. The weapon struck the hardwood floor, splinters flying. Phred felt the impact vibrating through his right hand planted behind him, almost hurting his fingers. The clockwork wrenched its sword free in a flare of green light.
Nayton shouted, mouth moving energetically, but no sound reached Phred’s ears. He felt the weight of silence around him. He could feel his heart pounding and his chest rising but didn’t hear that rush of blood through his ears or the ragged edge to his breaths.
The automaton swung again, driving Phred back. He didn’t know what to do. His only weapon was the obsidian blade, and that was a delicate object. Obsidian, the forbidden gem, could be shaped in ways the other seven couldn’t, but it lacked their strength. It could betray its owner at any time.
Another soundless swipe.
A wordless scream of fright bubbled from Phred. He leaped back and slammed into the wall. He felt cold stone behind him. He trembled, seeing his own reflection in the polished surface of the automaton’s sheet metal chest, sculpted to appear muscular, abs rippling, pectorals defined. Phred’s own face, twisted with fear, arrested him for a moment.
Bulbous nose centered on a round face. Blue eyes wide. Dirty-brown bangs falling over his pale forehead. Lips thick. A shadow of stubble around his cheeks.
Who am I? flashed through Phred’s mind.
The automaton drew back its sword.
Before death could flash, movement flowed behind the automaton. Something struck it. The clockwork stumbled a step forward, emerald light bursting through its joints as it turned around to face Nayton holding a wrought iron poker. A dent marred the back panel of the automaton, a long crease.
Phred cried out his brother’s name. The absorber swallowed the sound.
The automaton advanced in heavy silence. The green light bled through the room, splashing across items. Its sword swung, catching the fireplace poker and throwing it from Nayton’s scrawny hand. Fear burst across the youth’s face.
Terror surged through Phred. Flashes of a life burned through his mind. A young boy beaming to an older brother over a tin soldier purloined from a toy store. Racing through the slums, two front teeth missing, cheeks smudged with soil. Life burned in those eyes. In his laughter.
Phred grabbed the nearest object at hand, the heavy chair behind the desk. He screamed out his silent fury as he charged across the room. Nayton tumbled back. The sword crashed into a shelf, cutting through books and scattering them to the floor.
Phred slammed the chair into the clockwork’s back. Wood exploded into fragments. Stuffing from the cushion burst like fluffy snow. It danced around him as the automaton turned on silent hinges. The sword stabbed through the wreckage.
Instincts beyond Phred’s own animated him. He flowed back like water, feet sliding across the floor, the sword slicing past his chest. He stepped on a book. The shifting cover, the spine bending, caught Phred off-balance.
Even with enhanced reflexes, he fell as the automaton pivoted, landing hard on his side. An armored foot kicked out. Metal slammed into Phred’s floating rib. Air exploded from his lungs as he tumbled across the room. His ears begged for sensory input as he crashed into the desk. He let out a silent groan, feeling his heart pounding as he yearned for the sound of rushing blood.
The sword stabbed down at him as books, hurtled by Nayton, pelted the clockwork. Pages burst from spines and danced through the air. Phred saw death come from him. He was against the desk. Nowhere to dodge. All he could do was grab one of the heavy books which had landed by him.
He thrust it up before him; an improvised shield.
The shock of impact jarred his arm. The blade sank into the book. The chiseled tip burst out of the leather cover, poking only a fingerwidth or two from the book, blunted by hundreds of layers of parchment. Phred shuddered, relief darting through him as the automaton pulled back its blade.
He had his chance.
He darted to the right. The next blow slammed down, cutting through a throw rug and gouging the hardwood floor. The tip of the sword bent from the impact. Green light gleamed off its edge as Phred darted towards the vault and pressed against it.
He had to think of something.
Nayton threw himself at the clockwork with the bravado of youth. He landed on its back, arms going around the neck. He tried to wrench the head off, pulling at it. Green light bled through the gaps in the joints, bleeding from the inner works of it where the jewelchines that powered the gears and widgets controlled the clockwork.
Jewelchines that have delicate wires . . .
He drew his obsidian blade and rushed at the clockwork as it thrashed. His brother flew from the heaving automaton in a soundless howl and crashed into a fresh bookshelf. He rebounded, landing on his stomach. An avalanche of knowledge crashed down on him.
The automaton turned and thrust its blade at Phred.
Those instincts he couldn’t have learned animated Phred again. He flowed faster than possible. Power burst through him, a flare of resonating energy that molded his flesh. The sword flashed past his head as he thrust his obsidian blade up and into the armpit joint. He churned it around, feeling it striking internal workings. The arm moved to strike him.
The obsidian cut something. He felt a wire snap.
The sword arm went limp.
The statue’s right hand barreled at Phred in a punch. He raised his arm to block, jerking the obsidian blade out of the joint. The fragile end snapped a moment before the fist slammed into his forearm. Pain flared up his body. He staggered back.
The clockwork’s sword arm sagged by its side, the tip dragging on the ground. It stomped forward, drawing back its right fist again. Phred threw down the ruined dagger. He needed something else. Long. Sharp. Something that could reach in deep.
Movement caught his attention.
His brother, waving a frantic arm, held the silver letter opener from the desk. Phred nodded. He ducked a punch and rolled to the side of the clockwork, coming up behind it. His brother tossed the knife, an underhand throw. Its arced point towards the ceiling, handle coming closer to Phred.
He focused on it.
He whirled around—
The fist cracked into his chest. Ribs broke. The letter opener flew from his hand. The blow threw him off his feet. He landed hard. Those resonating, topaz energies pulsed through him as stars danced across his vision. He coughed, gasped, making no sound as the automaton loomed over him. A foot raised.
Nayton appeared, letter opener in hand. He stabbed it into the hip joint, working it around. The leg went still. The automaton shifted, off-balance. With a soundless crash, it hit the floor, good arm and leg thrashing as it struggled to right itself. But Nayton was on it, digging the sharp blade of the letter opener into the clockwork’s neck joint.
A flare of white light burst out of gaps around the chest plate. The entire thing went still.
Nayton panted, his face flushed. He rose and stumbled to Phred, lips moving. Blinking, Phred focused, trying to read them, to understand what they said. The boy reached Phred, dropping the letter opener.
Then Phred understood the gist of Nayton’s lips. He nodded and sat up. The broken ribs were mending fast. “I’m fine!” Phred said soundlessly to his brother. “Not that bad.”
Nayton nodded, offering a hand. Phred took it. He had a safe to crack.
He snagged the letter opener. With his obsidian blade snapped, he needed a replacement to finish the job. He shoved the silver knife into his back pocket before stumbling to the vault door, wincing against his sore chest. He flexed his fingers, glad the touch-glove felt intact so he could complete his mission.
He set to work. In all, the tumbler lock had five pins he had to find. He focused on turning the wheel, not paying attention to anything else but the feel of pins. He teased out each one bit by bit until he felt that shuddering click of the lock springing open.
He spun the wheel beside the tumbler, retracting the locking bars that thrust out on all sides of the vault door to hold it closed. Then he yanked the heavy door open. He imagined the groaning creak it must make. On the back of the door, alarm jewelchines flashed yellow. They would have made a racket.
I’ll have to leave behind the absorber, Phred thought, surprised by how much he regretted that.
Nayton darted through first. He stopped in the middle of the strongroom, his eyes dashing around, staring at the sight of all the gold beams, the highest denomination of coins, stacked on top of each other. There was more than coins. Books with information, stacks of bonds and promissory notes worth even more money than any of the coins, deeds to properties, boxes holding rare and exotic goods such as narshark ambergris and Darkling silk.
From a pocket in his pants, Nayton produced a canvas sack and began piling the coins into them, joy on his face. He smiled like he had the day Phred had given him the tin soldier. The sight stabbed guilt into the older brother.
He had his mission. No matter how much he loved Nayton, the mission came first.
He drew the letter opener and struck.
The knowledge on where to precisely stab wasn’t something Phred knew. Like with the extra speed and the mending ribs, it came from beyond the young burglar. The letter opener’s sharp point passed between the fifth and sixth ribs to strike right into Nayton’s heart, stopping it, killing the flow of blood.
The youth went limp.
The bag of coins fell from his grip in a soundless clatter, spilling dancing discs across the stone floor. Nayton’s eyes widened in betrayal as Phred caught his dying brother, holding him. Nayton struggled to move his mouth.
Compassion stirred Phred. This was his brother he held dying. Nayton didn’t deserve to leave this life thinking his brother hated him. His soul deserved to be as free from as many burdens in his life as possible. Maybe he would rise up to the embrace of Elohm’s Colours instead of dragged down into the blackness.
Phred stopped being Phred.
The lank, brown hair melted from Phred’s head. It spilled off around him, shed. The flesh of his face softened even as the hue of his skin faded from the light-beige of a Lothonian to a pasty, milky white, almost the color of an albino. Lips became thick and waxy. The nose shrank to just the impression of one with tiny slits for nostrils. No distinct cheekbones or chin. Just the suggestion of a human face, the gender impossible to tell. Clothing grew loose as the frame grew slender, almost delicate.
Nayton’s lips moved. A question asked.
“No One,” answered the thing who had masqueraded as Phred.
With care, affection lingering in No One’s mind as the memories he’d stolen from the real Phred bled out of it, the thing lowered Nayton’s body to the vault’s floor. Blood pooled out of the wound, soaking the youth’s shirt. The hem had ridden up, exposing a hint of his stomach and the rooster tattooed there in crude reds and blacks.
A sign that the Brotherhood couldn’t protect Braffan Dacerin’s vault from the outer gangs.
No One rose, the loose clothing rustling about its body. It would have shed a tear if it could, but Phred was fading faster and faster. All those memories were fleeing its mind like shadows retreating from the dawning sun.
No One grabbed the two ledgers bound in leather from the vault’s shelf. No One didn’t care why it had been sent on this mission.
It didn’t question. It didn’t think. It only mimicked.
No One scooped up a bag of coins then gave a final, sad glance to the boy caught up in grand events before slipping out of the vault. The office window was easy to open from the inside. It didn’t care about triggering the alarms. The absorber was still active. It thrust a slender leg, almost bony, through the window, a milky ankle flashing between pants and shoe. In moments, sound assaulted its ears again.
It felt strange to hear now. Who are you? echoed in its mind, spoken in Nayton’s voice.
No One hurried through the dark streets. The Gas House boys were still busy putting out the brothel fire, their dereliction another blow to the Brotherhood’s support. No One didn’t know what that meant. Didn’t care.
It returned to the alley where the real Phred lay dead. As instructed, it dropped a few coins around the burglar. As it stared at the corpse, No One cocked its head. It needed to become someone else.
Who am I? wondered No One. The shadow of a brother?
A final memory burst in its mind. Phred handed a tin soldier to a smiling child.
Flinching, No One shook its head and settled on a safe identity. One with no bad memories. Color returned to its flesh, arms growing thicker, stronger. The jewelchines implanted through its body molded it, shaped it, transformed it into a brawny young man named Carstin.
Who am I?
Carstin whistled as he walked through the night, the ledgers tucked beneath his arms, the sack of gold rattling from his other hand. He headed to the docks and the rendezvous with his employer. He felt good about succeeding at another mission.
Only a shadow deep inside of him grieved for two brothers.
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