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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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.

There was a girl, too, probably about his age. She was looking at him with her lips pressed tightly together, as though trying not to laugh. She was sitting at the table, half turned towards him with a plate and a crust of bread in front of her smothered in dripping. Her face was plain apart from being covered in freckles. She wore a loose shirt belted tightly at the waist. It showed off curves that demanded attention. Despite himself, Berren realised he was staring.

A cuff around the head put a quick stop to that. ‘Rudeness, lad. I told you I won’t tolerate it. This here is Lilissa. She breaks bread with us some mornings. Lilissa, this is Berren. No…’ He held out a hand as she started to rise. ‘You stay there. This lad here is my apprentice and barely worthy of your notice. Berren, bow to the lady.’

Berren blinked. ‘What?’ That got him another cuff round the head, hard enough to make him stagger.

‘Bow, lad. That’s what a gentleman does when he meets a lady.’

Feeling stupid, Berren gave a clumsy bow and earned himself yet another cuff.

‘No no no. From the waist. Keep your back straight.’ Berren started to try again, but now the thief-taker’s hands were all over him. ‘Back straight. That means not bent in the middle. No, not like that, no, you have to…’ The thief-taker sighed as Berren stumbled across the room. ‘Try again. No no no, eyes up, eyes up! When you bow to someone you look at them, not at the floor. Don’t look her in the eye though lad, that’s rude. And not there, either.’ Another cuff almost knocked him over. Berren jumped round.

‘What’s that for?’

‘Watch your eyes, boy. Maybe where you come from you think you can look at a lady how you please, but that will change. Parts of this city are full of bravos with swords who like to show off how dangerous they think they are. Look at the lady on their arm like that when you bow and you’ll find yourself on the wrong end of one of them. And since they have names that matter and families with money and you don’t, no one will care either.’ The thief-taker’s face wrinkled up in disdain. Lilissa just looked frightened.

‘But she’s not a lady,’ Berren blurted.

The thief-taker’s face went cold and flat. ‘Really? And how do you know that, boy? Because she doesn’t dress up in fine clothes?’

Berren sniffed. ‘Well. Yeh, I suppose.’

‘From now on, boy, for as long as you live under this roof and until I say otherwise, every person you meet is either a lady or a gentleman to you. If I see you treat anyone otherwise, there will be punishment. Do you understand?’


‘Do you understand?’ The thief-taker didn’t even raise his voice but the words were edged with steel. Berren took a long deep breath and nodded.

‘Yes, sir.’ Yes. For as long as I live under this roof. Exactly that long. He was thinking of the window again.

‘Good. Now we shall do this until you get it at least crudely right, and then, perhaps, over the next month we might even find some grace and elegance in you. You may practice while we eat. Lilissa, please pay no attention to my apprentice for however long he chooses to remain here. Once we’ve broken our fast, Berren will be carrying out your usual chores, so we’ll have more time for your lessons today.’



‘Water, air, earth and fire, sun-heart shields from dark one’s ire

Fire, earth, air and water, moon-pride brings us naught but slaughter

Air and water, fire and earth, dead god lifts forgotten curse

Earth and water, fire and air, star-song rends what must repair

Black moon comes, round and round

Black moon comes, all fall down.’

After the song came the muffled sound of giggling from outside. Berren groaned and rolled over. Light filtered in through the window.

‘Oi!’ The shout rang through the whole house. Every noise did. Four tiny rooms, walls so thin that a good kick would bring them down, old timbers that creaked and groaned in the wind. Wherever you were, you heard everything. But next to Hatchet’s place, the quiet was deafening. More than the singing and the laughing and the shouting, it was the quiet that came after that roused Berren from his torpor. He wasn’t used to waking up on his own. When he opened the shutters and looked out into the yard, a gang of ragged dirty children were dancing around, shouting and pointing up at his window.

‘Thief-taker man, thief-taker man

Is he hungry, is he thirsty?

If he is he’ll do you dirty

Thief-taker man, thief-taker man

Run while you can from the thief-taker man.’

They stood there, jumping up and down, shrieking and laughing. As soon as the thief-taker opened his door they ran, skittering helter-skelter out of the yard and away.

The thief-taker’s name was Syannis, Sy to his friends, Master Sy to Berren, and being his apprentice proved to be a lot of work. Boring, tedious, repetitive and frequently pointless work. It seemed to Berren that he spent most of his time fetching, cleaning, carrying and polishing while Master Sy sat in his comfortable chair and contemplated the world. Running away was never far from his thoughts. It would have been easy. Compared to Master Hatchet, Master Sy was blind and deaf. He left the door to the yard ajar as often as not, and frequently paid no attention at all to what Berren was doing. In fact, how easy it would be to leave was probably what kept him there for those first few days. That and the promise that one day he’d learn about swords.

And Lilissa. She came to the house most mornings with fresh bread for their breakfast. Each time she did, Master Sy made Berren practice bowing. At first that was the part he hated most about the day, having to scrape and crawl to some girl who was as much a nothing as he was. But then, after the first two days, he caught her looking back at him, trying not to smile. The next morning he tried as hard as he could to get it right and caught her smiling back at him a second time. Then Master Sy had her curtseying too and they were both at it, trying to outdo each other. By the time they were done, even Master Sy was grinning. Berren never got a chance to talk much to her, though. She came in the morning, broke bread with them, stayed for an hour while Berren did his chores and then was gone. While she was there, mostly what she did was read aloud, while Master Sy closed his eyes and listened and occasionally corrected her or helped when she stumbled with one of the words.

‘Who is she?’ Berren asked one day.

‘Who is who?’


Master Sy snorted. ‘Not someone you should be thinking about, lad.’ The thief-taker wrinkled his nose. ‘Her mother was kind to me once, bless her soul. She died of the pox last year. Now I repay her favours by helping Lilissa to better herself. Get her out of your head, boy.’ And that was all he ever got. Get her out of your head.

On the twelfth day, after Lilissa had gone and they were alone again, Master Sy folded his arms and gave Berren a long hard look.

‘You’re still here,’ he said, as if that was somehow a surprise. Berren shrugged. He’d learned to keep his mouth closed unless Master Sy told him to open it. The thief-taker was still looking at him, slowly nodding. ‘I suppose you’ve worked well enough. Enough to work off your debt.’ He opened the door to the yard and gestured outside. ‘You’re free, lad. Off you go.’

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