Stephen Deas: The Thief-Takers Apprentice

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Stephen Deas The Thief-Takers Apprentice
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    The Thief-Takers Apprentice
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Berren has lived in the city all his life. He has made his way as a thief, paying a little of what he earns to the Fagin like master of their band. But there is a twist to this tale of a thief. One day Berren goes to watch an execution of three thieves. He watches as the thief-taker takes his reward and decides to try and steal the prize. He fails. The young thief is taken. But the thief-taker spots something in Berren. And the boy reminds him of someone as well. Berren becomes his apprentice. And is introduced to a world of shadows, deceit and corruption behind the streets he thought he knew. Full of richly observed life in a teeming fantasy city, a hectic progression of fights, flights and fancies and charting the fall of a boy into the dark world of political plotting and murder this marks the beginning of a new fantasy series for all lovers of fantasy - from fans of Kristin Cashore to Brent Weeks.

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‘What’s happening?’ asked the boy beside him, craning his neck and squinting to see. Berren cuffed him silent. Ten emperors! His eyes went wide even thinking about it. He felt himself wobble and almost tumbled off the lintel. He’d never heard of such a fortune!

The man who now had this fortune stepped back while the executioner came forward again. The prisoners were dragged to the front of the platform so that everyone could see. The executioner made a big show of his axe, holding it high so everyone could see that too. He spun and twirled it, the axe head tracing wild arcs in the air, until he brought it down on a thick lump of wood and split it. Splinters showered all around. The crowd roared. The three prisoners were forced down into the three blocks that waited for them. Berren barely noticed. He was watching the man with the ten emperors, lurking in the shadows at the back of the platform.

Suddenly the executioner brought down his axe again. The boy beside him let out a soft whistle of awe. Berren’s heart leapt. One of the prisoners had been beheaded and he hadn’t even seen it! The body was still there but the head was gone. He noted the dark spattered streaks across the planks and the stain where the head had fallen. The executioner was holding it up in the air now, gripping its hair, making sure everyone got a good look at his handiwork.

Berren’s eyes began to dart back and forth, from the man in the shadows to the executioner and back again, back and forth, back and forth. He didn’t dare lose track of the man with ten emperors in his pocket but he wanted to see the head, too. He squinted, trying to see if it was still moving. A waning trickle of blood still dripped from its neck; he couldn’t see it, but he could see the dark stains, spattering across the pale wood around the headsman’s feet.

Abruptly the executioner turned and tossed the head away into a large basket lined with straw that was on the platform behind him. He stood beside his second victim and raised his axe. The man in the shadows hadn’t moved. Berren held his breath and let his eyes settle on the axe. He watched it start to fall, slowly it seemed. His own heart thumped in his chest, slow and hard, and he felt a thrilling tightness inside him. As the axe struck flesh, he gasped with glee. Skin and bone parted. Blood sprayed further than Berren could spit. He was almost rigid with exhilaration.

One of the dead man’s legs twitched with such force that it almost twisted the body off its block. The executioner shied away in surprise. One foot slipped in the pool of blood. When he caught his balance, he gave the severed head a hefty kick. The head rolled away and fell down somewhere under the platform. The crowd laughed, but by then Berren was already searching again for the man in the shadows.

The man still hadn’t moved. Berren sighed with relief.

For the last execution, he allowed himself to relax and take in everything the executioner did. He appreciated the careful preparation, the cleaning of the axe head, the touch of a sharpening stone. When it fell, he watched and grinned. The last one was every bit as good as the first. Not as much blood as he’d hoped, but still quite a bit. When the executioner picked up the last head and held it up for the crowd to view, Berren strained his eyes to see whether anything was still moving. He squinted. He was sure he saw the dead head blink.

He turned to the boy beside him, overflowing with excitement. ‘Did you see that? He blinked! Did you see it?’

The younger boy’s goggling eyes stayed riveted to the head. ‘Yeh yeh, it did, yeh.’

Berren stared intently at the head again, peering in case there was more. Finally, when the executioner turned to go, Berren sent his gaze back in search of the man in the shadows.

He was gone.



Patience didn’t come easily to Berren. He shifted back and forth on his lintel until the crowds had dispersed and the square was almost empty. Then he dropped to the ground and crept from shadow to shadow, eyeing the building where the man with the small fortune had gone. He wasn’t entirely sure what he was doing. He was already late. Even if he ran all the way back to Shipwrights, he’d still get a cuffing from Master Hatchet. Didn’t like his boys out too late, did the master. At least not unless it was his errands they were on. Berren had a decent enough take, too. Enough that he could give it over and keep a few pennies to himself without Hatchet getting too suspicious. That was the unspoken deal. The more you handed over, the less likely you were to get searched. Gods help you if you got searched and Hatchet found something. Boys who did that once learned not to do it again. Boys who made a habit of it wound up face-down in the bay.

Ten gold emperors, though. That was something else. Hatchet’s eyes would likely pop right out of his head. Or he could keep it. Keep it and run away so far that even Hatchet couldn’t reach him. Then live like a king. That’s how much ten emperors was, wasn’t it?

So he didn’t go home and he paid no mind to the restless worries that told him to leave a man such as this thief-taker well alone. He’d been cutting purses and picking pockets for more than half his years and that was enough to be considered an expert in any other trade. No, he didn’t go home; instead he watched and he waited, slinking from one corner of the square to another, trying not to arouse the suspicions of the soldiers who stood on watch there. They weren’t the sorts of soldiers he was used to either. In the rest of the city, the various district militias wore whatever they could get their hands on, and carried clubs and sticks, or maybe knives if they were lucky or happened to spend their days as a butcher. The soldiers here were different. They wore uniforms and carried swords. They had mail shirts and shiny steel helmets and on the arms of their surcoats were flaming birds, bright red on a black field. They were the emperor’s soldiers, and no one Berren knew had a nice word to say for those who wore the colours of the emperor.

Maybe they thought he was too far beneath them; although they watched him, they left him alone, and eventually Berren saw what he was waiting for. The man from the platform, the thief-taker with ten gold emperors in his pocket. He came out of the front door of the courthouse and walked straight across the square, in plain view, bold as brass. He still didn’t look like much. If anything he was a bit short, a bit skinny. His boots were battered and worn and most of him was wrapped up in a stained leather overcoat that had clearly seen better days. The coat hid most of the rest of him. It was much too hot for the thick humid air of a Deephaven spring and made him almost impossible to miss.

He was also on his own. Berren felt a new anxiety surge inside him. The man was a thief-taker, and good enough at it to bring in men worth hanging. Surely he wasn’t so daft as to walk through the streets of the city with all that money and no bodyguard. But as Berren was wondering about that, his legs were already moving. As far as the rest of him was concerned, he had to get in quick. He’d seen three or four others while he’d been waiting. Men lurking around the fringes of the square. Big men with sticks. Probably there were more, and they looked like the sort who’d take a runt like Berren and break him over their knee just because they could. One way or another the man with the fortune was in for a mugging. Best, then, if Berren got to the gold first. He jammed his hand into his pocket and fingered the tiny knife he kept there, the blade only as long as his finger but sharp as a razor. His purse-cutting knife. Secretly, because he’d heard that all good swords got given names, he called it Stealer. Not that he’d ever dare admit something like that in front of Master Hatchet or the other boys.

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