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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The thief-taker looked at him in surprise. ‘You have a question?’

‘Yes, sir. I’m very sorry I stole your purse, sir. I promise it’ll never happen again.’ It was a practised speech, one that Hatchet had taught them all. He’d used it a few times, too. Usually there was more, about how he was an orphan caring for his little sisters and trying to keep them from starving. That sort of thing. Usually it didn’t work, but the times it did were enough to make it worth a try.

The thief-taker spat. ‘I’d be a piss-poor thief-taker if I fell for that. Try again, lad. A bit harder this time.’

‘Sir, what do you mean to do with me?’

The man gave him another long look. ‘Better. What’s your name, boy?’

‘Berren, sir.’

‘Well then, Berren, I mean to keep you, that’s what I mean to do with you. Until you have worked off your debt to me. I have need of someone to keep my possessions, such as they are, in order. Someone to run errands and buy goods. Someone to keep an eye on what ships are in the sea-docks. A boot-cleaner, knife-sharpener, water-carrier and flag-watcher.’

To Berren this sounded a lot like being a slave. In fact it sounded a lot like being with Master Hatchet except with a much better prospect of an easy and early escape, possibly with some of the thief-taker’s goods or money. So he said nothing.

‘Rich men have house-boys who are slaves, is that what you’re thinking?’ His new master bared his teeth with disdain. ‘They’re for decoration, and that’s certainly not what I have in mind for you! No, you’ll work, boy, and work hard. You stole from me. For that you must absolve yourself.’

Again Berren kept his silence. A few days. Then the man would let his guard down and Berren would be away.

The thief-taker stared through him. ‘I’m thinking I might take an apprentice,’ he said slowly. ‘Someone to learn what I know.’

Berren blinked. He suddenly saw the fight in the alley again, as clear and vivid as if he was right back there, drenched in the rain. He saw the thief-taker with his sword, powerful and deadly, cutting down his assailants. ‘Does that mean you’d teach me swords?’ he blurted.

‘If I were to decide you were worth taking on as an apprentice?’ The thief-taker grimaced. ‘Yes, lad. In time and if you proved yourself then I suppose I’d teach you the beginnings of how to use a sword.’

In his head, Berren still thought he’d run away after a few days. But something warm and bright was building inside his stomach. ‘Sir? May I ask something? You said a thief once stole something precious from you. What happened to him?’

The man’s laugher died and a bitterness entered his voice. ‘Nothing, lad. Absolutely nothing at all.’



He was propelled up a precipitous flight of stairs and pushed into a room. The door closed behind him and he heard the click of a key in a lock. Moonlight filtered in through an open window that looked out onto the yard. The floor was bare boards. Not even a bed. He was halfway through the window when he heard the key in the lock again. The door opened and there was the thief-taker, now with a bundle of blankets under his arm. He looked long and hard at the window and then at Berren.

‘Going somewhere?’

‘No, sir!’ Berren stared at his feet, eyes already half screwed up, waiting for Master Hatchet’s ham of a hand to slap him sideways.

The thief-taker didn’t move. ‘Don’t lie to me, lad. I can smell a lie and you’d best remember that. It’s a long way down and the ground’s hard out there. You owe me a few days’ hard work, boy. After that I’m not going to stop you from running away if that’s still what you want. But you might think first on where you’d go.’ The thief-taker threw down the blankets and looked at them. Then he looked at Berren, looked at the window, shrugged and left. ‘Night rains are almost here,’ he said as he closed the door. ‘It’s late. Get some sleep in the dry, lad. Be a long hard day for you tomorrow. With a bit of luck you might learn a thing or two.’ The door closed. The lock clicked for a final time. Berren heard the thief-taker’s footsteps creak outside. Heard another door opening into the second upstairs room next door. Two paces inside, door closed, another two paces. The creak of a bed. The grunt and sigh of boots coming off. More bed noise. Then silence for a while and finally snores. Berren stayed very still when he heard the snores, listening to them for a long time. Even then he wasn’t sure he should trust them. He was still listening when he heard a rustle of wind from outside. The pit-pat of raindrops began, turning quickly into a steady hiss.

Berren reached his hand out of the window. He let the rain fall on his skin for a while and then pulled it back inside, closing the shutters behind him. Very quietly, he spread the thief-taker’s blankets across the floor and lay down on them, flat on his back, staring at the ceiling. He listened to the drumming of water on the roof, the spatter of a dozen tiny waterfalls pouring into the yard below.

He had a room. A room of his own. That deserved some thought. He’d never in all his life had a room of his own. In the orphanage they’d slept almost on top of each other, dozens of them in a long, thin stone room with tiny slits for windows that faced the wrong way to let in any sunlight. When Master Hatchet had bought him for two shiny new pennies – the going rate for a boy just about old enough to push a hand-cart – he’d been put in the attic with all Hatchet’s other boys. The windows had been bigger but they’d still been sleeping on top of each other.

And now he had a room. His own space. So small that he could touch all four walls with his hands and feet if he lay across it from corner to corner, but still… It smelled of old wood and smoke, the unfinished plaster walls were dry and crumbled when he picked at them, but it was his. All his.

It terrified him. The silence behind the rustle of rain. The aloneness. He lay there, the thief-taker’s last words running through his head, chasing themselves in circles, looking for a way out and not finding any. I’m not going to stop you from running away if that’s what you want. But you might think first on where you’d go. He could go whenever he wanted. It couldn’t be that far down to the ground, could it?

‘Boy!’ Berren jerked. The sound of the rain had stopped. Daylight stabbed through the gaps in the shutters. Gods! He’d fallen asleep and now it was morning and light already! A hot flush ran through him and he scrabbled to his feet. The shout came again. ‘Boy! Get down here, lad!’ Footsteps creaking on the stairs. In the House of Hatchet, that was never good. Berren ran for the door, clawing at the handle. It wasn’t locked. He fumbled it open in time to meet the thief-taker eye to eye, three quarters of the way up the steps.

‘Lazy.’ The man shook his head. Berren sniffed. He could smell air, fresh outside air on a tiny breeze wafting past his face, and another smell. A people smell. The sort of sickly perfume smell he was used to from the whores next door, only not as strong. Woman smell.

The thief-taker was looking at him. ‘Good, lad. Yes, we have a visitor. You’d best come and meet her.’

Berren hesitated, but the thief-taker had his arm before he could even think. He pulled Berren out of his room. ‘Lazy and rude, eh? I won’t tolerate either in this house, lad. Best you get used to that.’

Tonight. Tonight I’m gone. As long as it doesn’t rain. Night rains. That was the summer coming, that was. Balmy evenings and steamy mornings; night rains, afternoon downpours and sultry days. Thieving season. Gingerly he tiptoed down the steps into the largest room of the house. There was a table and a couple of chairs and a hearth and nothing else. Nothing even to steal.

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