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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Stephen Deas

The Thief-Takers Apprentice

The first book in the Thief-Taker's Apprentice series





The crowd had come to watch three men die. Most of them had no idea who the three men were. Nor did they particularly care. They’d come into Four Winds Square for the spectacle, for a bit of blood, for a Sun-day afternoon of entertainment. They’d come for the jugglers and the fire-breathers, the pies and the pastry-sellers, the singers and the speakers. They’d come for everything the city had to offer, and that’s what they got.

The thief ran through them with practised ease. The crowd barely noticed he was there. He slipped between the larger bodies around him like an eel between a fisherman’s fingers, finding space where none seemed to exist. If anyone had asked him how old he was, he might have said twelve or he might have said sixteen, depending on who was doing the asking. The truth probably lay somewhere in between. The truth was that he didn’t know and he didn’t much care. He was small for a boy who might nearly have been a man, and his name was Berren.

He’d come for the executions like everyone else, but he’d come for the crowd too. A watcher, perched on one of the rooftops around the square and taking an interest in his progress, would have seen him pause now and then amid all his motion. Each pause marked the crowd as a fraction poorer and Berren as a token richer. The same watcher, if he stared for long enough, would have seen that Berren was slowly meandering his way towards the front of the crowd. When the executioner and his charges finally emerged, Berren had every intention of watching from as close as he could get.

After a time the crowd began to hush. At one end of the square stood a wooden platform, built especially for the occasion. For the last few hours a succession of dancers and jugglers and other petty entertainers had paid for the privilege of using it. The crowd had largely ignored them, talking amongst themselves. The coming of quiet meant something worth watching was about to happen. Berren began to worm his way further forwards. He was a head shorter than most of the people around him, and navigated by the simple expedient of watching where everyone else was looking, and then heading that way. From time to time he caught a fleeting glimpse of the platform. A man in yellow robes was standing there now, making slow gestures with his hands. Even Berren knew enough to know that the yellow made him a priest.

As he reached the front of the crowd, his progress slowed. He changed direction and edged sideways until he reached the corner of the square. Four Winds Square was in the centre of the Courts District of Deephaven city. The buildings around it were high and made of stone, with tall doors of heavy wood and dark wobbly glass in their windows. Each of the doors had a stone lintel protruding a good six inches from the wall. Boys smaller than him filled them, jostling for space, squeezed up precariously close to the ends but never quite falling off. Berren spotted a gap on the corner of one of them. He scaled the wall and made it his own. It was too narrow to be properly comfortable, but from up there he could see everything. That more than made up for having to constantly push himself against the stone and the grumbling boys next to him.

The priest was gone. The executioner had ascended the platform now, a big brawny man standing with his legs braced apart, holding an axe that was almost as tall as he was. Behind the executioner stood the three who’d been sentenced to die, chained and surrounded by guards. Beside them, someone bald and dressed in fine clothes was making another speech of some sort. The crowd wasn’t very interested. They hadn’t come for speeches and they were talking restlessly again, so that Berren could barely hear anything that was said. Snatches reached him, the occasional two or three words, not enough to make any sense. He didn’t care any more than the rest of the crowd. Executions were a rarity. He was here to see people have their heads cut off, not to listen to boring speeches. The crowd agreed. It was late spring, the month of Floods, and the stifling afternoons of humid summer heat were arriving early this year.

Berren wondered briefly what the three men had done. He knew a thing or two about how the city punished thieves. Boys like him caught cutting purses usually got a beating and that was that. Berren had had plenty of those. If the watch knew your face and you got unlucky then you got a branding or maybe had a finger cut off. He shuddered to think about that sort of thing. Losing a finger, that was… well, something he didn’t want to think about. Just as well Master Hatchet kept things sweet with the watch around his piece of the city. Master Hatchet was a bear in a man’s body, but that wasn’t his secret. His boys, when they weren’t thieving, kept the streets around Shipwrights and the south end of the Fishing Quarter clear of animal filth. Most particularly, they kept Reeper Hill clear of animal filth. Every morning and every evening and all through the night, Hatchet would have someone up there with a dung-cart. Keeping sweet with the ladies on Reeper Hill mattered more to Master Hatchet than anything else. Their favour was what gave him clout.

People lost their whole hands sometimes. He’d heard of it but he’d never seen it happen. Mostly, if the city decided it couldn’t stand to put up with you any more, you got loaded onto a barge and shipped off up the river to the imperial mines. The mines were somewhere in the north, hundreds and thousands of miles away where it was always raining and cold and no one ever came back. Berren didn’t know what you had to do to have your head cut off, though. Every now and then the city just decided to put on a show and that was that. They didn’t do it very often, which was why today there was such a crowd come out to watch.

The boy on the lintel next to him nudged him. ‘’Scuse me. You ever seen one of these before?’

Berren looked at him with all the scorn he could muster. The boy must have been eight. ‘’Course I have,’ he lied. ‘Lots.’ He snorted and shook his head as though it was the stupidest question in the world, but the boy didn’t give up.

‘What happens, then?’

‘Wait and see.’

‘Is there lots of blood? I hope there’s lots.’

‘Did you know that the heads, after they get chopped off, they can still move their eyes and wrinkle their nose and talk and things like that for hours before they die?’ Hatchet himself had told him that.

The boy’s eyes grew wide and his jaw dropped. ‘No! Really? Can you go and talk to them afterwards?’

Berren shrugged. ‘I suppose. If you want to. If they don’t take them away.’ Then the man on the platform did something that got Berren’s full attention. He stopped talking and held up a purse. The crowd’s murmuring subsided, enough that Berren caught a few words of what he said next. Something about a reward. Something about ten gold emperors. Ten gold emperors.

A new man came forward from behind the executioner. The one who’d caught the men about to be killed. The thief-taker. From what Berren could see, there was nothing special about him. He didn’t have particularly rich clothes. He didn’t have a fancy sword or anything like that. If Berren had seen him in the street, he would have thought him a shopkeeper, or maybe a foreman from the docks. But now…

Now he had a purse, given to him by the man with the fine clothes. Now Berren would think of him as a man who had ten emperors in his pocket…

‘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!

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