The Thief’s Wager: An Ominous Parley

Chapter Ten

She placed the shopping bag on the bench by the front door while Claire kicked off her shoes; flinging them across the hallway. Without a word or thank you, she raced upstairs. Hoping to consume her hoard of candies unnoticed by their watchful mother. But Evelyn took the time to slide each finger from her lace gloves, fold them, and placed them into her pocket. Sweat christened her forehead under the brim of her hat and she was looking forward to an iced drink. The sweltering summer heat and Claire’s never-ending source of energy was exhausting. But a much-needed distraction. From the doorway she felt her father’s temper consume ever inch of the claustrophobic home. She hoped that an afternoon apart would ease the tension. She expected her mother would speak on her behalf; smoothing the wrinkles of their relationship.

“Miss Eve,” a haughty female voice called to her from the kitchen. Mrs. Hudson emerged from around the corner wiping her hands on her apron. “Miss Eve, your father wishes to speak to you.” Never had such words invoked fear in a daughter’s heart.

“Dare I ask the reason?”

“Now you know he won’t tell me that, but all I can say is he is in a foul mood. He’s been in his study all afternoon.”

“Where’s mother?”

“Out with Mrs. Sampson and Mrs. Fitz. Now let me take that, I’ll set it in your rooms. He insisted on seeing you straight away.” She yanked the bag Eve was clutching to her chest. With her mother gone, she was alone and at the hands of his wrath.

As she climbed the steps, she recounted her indiscretions. She spoke out of line, asking too many questions over the previous evening meal. She called Claire a brat at breakfast and made her cry. But the one that mattered most was the fact he caught her kissing Oliver, the shop boy. It was the way he glanced at her, studying how she walked, and noticed how she styled her hair. His attention made her feel special which hatched butterflies in her stomach. His tenderness excited her; brought her to life. When he was out of sight, he consumed her thoughts. She found herself visiting the store often, making any excuse to see him again.  Oliver regarded her with a mix of love and wonderment; which made her feel, important.

Rambunctious Claire occupied her parents’ attention. They often ignored her because she would govern herself accordingly. Rebellion wasn’t her intention, but she enjoyed being with someone who had her needs in mind. Oliver didn’t ignore her, instead, he adored her. He was sweet, and she loved the touch of his soft skin. Even the prickle patchiness of his face. He had an innocence she lost in herself and wished she had again. He wanted to please her, and she was willing to let him.

She gave into him freely because he was incapable of hurting her. For the first time, she had power. It was both exciting and liberating; so, when he took her hand, pulling her close she didn’t resist. She allowed his hands to wander to her waist as he held her against him. She gave in when his soft gentle lips pressed on hers. Her heart raced, the world around them spun, and in that magical moment the poets’ words made sense. She wanted it to last forever.  

But her father caught them; wild eyed and red faced he flung his office door open. Oliver tried to apologize but her father threatened to fire him. Then he turned to her, not a word spoken, instead he grabbed her arm and pulled her from the store. He maintained some social decorum on the street, but his iron-clad grip continued as they walked home in broiling silence. She even looked to the ribbon boy on the street corner, but he wasn’t there; even he didn’t care. She expected him to holler once inside their home but instead he sent her to babysit Claire. A task her mother assigned to him which he gracious gave to her.

“Enter,” his voiced ordered from behind the door.

His study was his personal indulgence; littered with objects collected over a lifetime. Manuscripts and texts he never read were crammed into bookcases arranged along the walls. He prided himself on his collection of names scrawled on the spines. Ornate rugs laid beneath her feet as she passed glass cases containing treasures of the continent. Delicate knives decorated with precious gems sat on satin pillows. Painted pottery depicted ancient gods and people. A strange headdress of beads, feathers and shells recalled a sunny beach only visited in her dreams. Like herself they were all kept in a prison, polished to appease the observer. But nothing more than a collectable.

She approached his mahogany desk, bought from someone who said it once belong to someone else. A name she didn’t care to remember. Standing before him she awaited judgment. Her crime, indulging in her desires. She wasn’t stupid; she knew the power fathers had over daughters.

“Your actions are unacceptable! You will never behave so foolishly again.”

“Yes father.” But he didn’t believe her sincerity. Nor did she, all she needed was to wait. Once she was married, she would be free of his rule. All good things come to those who practice patience.

“Eve, this is a serious digression. Should I remind you of your position and what is at risk?”

“Father it was only a kiss. Nothing more was going to happen.”

“A kiss is all a boy like that needs. And all you need is a kiss to ruin your reputation. And my dear, that is all you have. If I cannot arrange a decent match for you, you will have nothing. A life as an old maid living under my roof is not a favorable future.” She chewed her trembling lip as she imagined it. A life stuck with him, alone and withered. “That’s what I thought. Because of this transgression, I am forbidding you from going to that dance next month.”

“Father no!” He recoiled from her outburst. Always the dutiful daughter, he expected her to silently obey. But rage boiled in her chest and set fire to her veins. He didn’t understand the consequences of his words. Her future rested in his hands. And he was throwing it away. “That’s unfair!”

“It is more than acceptable. Now you will understand the seriousness of your situation.”

“If my future cronehood is such a concern then you would not decline that invitation! This punishment ruins any chance of finding a suitor, arranging a marriage, and releasing me from being your financial burden! How does this make sense?” If she declines, Lady Spenser she will never invite her to another function. She’ll be a social pariah; she won’t even garner a pity invite for a tea luncheon. Or a social stroll at the parkway.

“There will always be another party my dear, but only one chance to maintain your purity.”

“You are being unreasonable!”

“I am being a father!” he stood from the desk, “you are never to go to the shop again.” 

Red faced and sweating, he glared at her; daring her to challenge him. No protest, argument or reason would prevail. His word was law. She glanced to her left; a worn straw doll found in the foundation of some collapsed home. For the first time she saw herself in that doll. A secret story of love and friendship hidden by time; all encased in glass. That’s what she was to him. A prize to barter.

“As you wish father,” she muttered through gritted teeth.

Turning on her heels she left. Each step she pushed the anger boiling inside her further to the floor. She finally understood the game, although at sixteen it felt too late. The nice clothes, the etiquette lessons, what ever she wanted she had but say the word. None of it was for her. It was for him. She reflected him; and if that reflection suited him everything was as it should be.

She closed the door behind her, restraining the urge to slam it. A lady doesn’t slam doors, or clinks the plates, or makes any noise at all. A lady is quiet; until summoned to speak. The door clicked behind her. One foot at a time she travelled the lush green rug carpeting the hallway. She fought every muscle urging her to stomp her feet; to let her disagreement ring across the creaking floorboards. A lady doesn’t demand. A patient, worthy lady, gets what she desires without acting disagreeable.

She held her hands to her stomach, placed one palm on the other as instructed in her childhood days. Sweaty palm pressed against sweaty palm, a violent white knuckled kiss. They trembled, teetering between stoic politeness and passion. The shaking hand twisted the handle of the familiar door. Her sanctuary, her altar to celebrate herself. The sacred space where she could be alone; exist outside social protocol. 

The velvet curtains hung to the floor, like a dancer with a pinched sash at the waist. Beams of sunlight stretched over the rug. Delicate pink and white daisies danced along the edges of her full-length mirror. Her favorite corner of the room had a small shelf decorated with porcelain figurines. Each had a name, a story, and a secret they only shared with her. Her room contained everything she sought comfort in; everything that was hers. The throbbing anger diminished as she relished in her freedom. A shawl had slipped from the edge of her four-poster bed to the floor. All-endearing cleanliness, she recalled as she plucked the fabric, Virtue next to godliness.

But she paused, holding the soft material, unsure what to do. Habit dedicated to put it in the closet with the others. But a voice in her head asked why? Did it matter where the shawl went? Everything has a place, her father always said. But it was always the place he preferred, he told her to put the clothes in the closet. To keep the figurines on the shelf. To get the mirror with the flowers and not the seashells.

A familiar rage simmered at the surface. His control, his dictatorship, was everywhere. Her heart raced as the image of her, as she was, slipped away. The girl in the mirror was the daughter he constructed. She balled the shawl in her hands; ensuring she squeezed, pulled, and twisted the delicate fabric. She welcomed the wrinkles, the creases made by her hand, and tossed it in the corner. Next was her bed; yanking the blankets, sheets, and chemise curtains from the hooks. The pillows flew; feathers floated to the floor dusting the pile of blankets at her feet.  

But nothing quelled the rage, it pumped faster and faster, boiling through her body. The smiling faces of the porcelain girls in their dresses, their little sheep, and bouquets mocked her. A future lost, slipped through her fingers and now out of reach forever. The varnished glass was cool against her palm, but the painted faces reignited the injustice searing through her veins.

The figure crashed to the floor, shattering in pieces; the illusion of the perfect life scattered among the carpet. The release, a liberating freedom she hadn’t felt since Oliver kissed her. But the hopelessness returned. She grabbed another and threw it to the ground. And another; until one by one they were nothing. Nothing but fragments; worthless discard debris.

A maid’s timid knock rapped on the door. Her heart raced, sweat glistened over her flushed skin. She felt alive, in control, and powerful. She wasn’t finished, no longer would she stand idly by. The maid pulled at the doorknob but she had locked it behind her. A habit father dearest may regret teaching her. As the maid shouted, she looked for new victims. She ripped each carefully selected outfit from the hangers. Tossing the lace, silk, shoes, hats, and gloves to the floor. The hangers were next; everything had its place. But this time she decided they belonged under her feet.

The door rattled, rocking on its hinges as she found a loose corner of wallpaper by the baseboard. The frantic knocking of her mother resounded as she tore the paper from the wall. It curled and collapsed amid the rubble.

“Open this door at once!” her mother’s frail voice demanded.

Not this time, and never again. She would erase every trace of them from her skin, her person, and life. Panting and sweating she paused in front of the mirror. Her hair, her clothes, ever mannerism was carefully constructed. They ensured she was set to walk their path. But the languid strands escaped from her braided locks. Her skirts and blouse, twisted and askew, depicted a crazed form reflecting at her.

“You did this to me!” Hatred, blood thirsty and eternal, ravaged her being. She hated them. She hated herself for living that way. For allowing them to strip her of herself. But that will change, she grabbed the hairbrush from dressing table.

“Evelyn!” Her father. She pictured his heavy fists yanking the door from the wall. “Open this now!”

She pitched the brush, sending it crashing against the glass. She studied the fragmented reflections staring up at her. Each one different but each the same. All part of the whole. She understood. A thud crashed against the door. The hinges cracked. They all played their part into crafting her identity. Another slam. But not anymore. A strange calm washed over her; quelling the fury. The door crashed open, the pins in the hinges sprung from the castings and rolled over the hardwood.

“Have you lost you damn mind?” Her father boomed from the doorway. “What are you doing?”

“Redecorating,” she smiled.

~~*~~

His feet ached in his polished shoes. To say he was grateful for the day of demands and dictation to end was an understatement. His leather bag crammed with books and papers fell by the coat rack with a thud. The narrow front hall branched into a sitting room to his right, a kitchen door ahead and a creaky staircase to his left. The rooms were dark, but the cook left a candle lit on a slim table by the stairs. An unspoken token, informing him he had a visitor in the study.

Social decorum dictated he greet guests in the sitting room. But that was currently occupied with his books. Volumes stacked on every surface climbed to the ceiling. He doubted a mouse could find space in there, let alone a person. He climbed the stairs, tightening the loose tie preparing for battle. It was late, his prepared meal waited in the oven, and the last thing he wanted was a guest. The cook understood, she always left before he returned. And that impressed him.

He had no reason to fear, after all his bodyguards were never far away. As he climbed the squeaky steps, he knew they waited in the rented apartment across the street. Their signal was a lit candle in the window at the top of the stairs. The single flame would usher trained killers to stomp out any crook who outstayed their welcome.

Warm lamplight radiated outside the open office door and into the hallway. A young man lounged in the chair opposite his desk. He knew by the back of his head it was John Bayliss. Of all the idiots to interrupt his solitude. A light meal of drink and refreshments lay on his desk. Three cups? Then he noticed a second man, taller than him dressed in a black wool cloak, and stood in the darken corner. A friend? Intriguing.

“What do I owe the pleasure John?” He took command of the room, ignoring the spectator and took his seat at the desk opposite his guest.

“My lord,” he smirked. “You really should hire a servant or an assistant. The cook brought us here, imagine. Do you have no other help?”

“I will gladly hire someone else. I only ask that they breathe through their nose. Chew with their mouth closed. Keep their questions to themselves. And have no ailing family that takes them from their duties.” John’s fake laugh crawled over his skin; he humoured his associated by giving a quirk smirk. But the truth remained, people annoyed him, the more they spoke the faster his patience dwindled. “Now I assume you are here to offer an update to our endeavor? Has the bell I gave you provided reasonable results.”

“The bishop’s bell is useless; we need additional stones and it has no gems. It is nothing more than a glorified paperweight on my desk.”

“The gems are only half of it.” He pinched the bridge of his nose, how many times did it need to be explained? “Part of our problem is the metal used to house them is too brittle. After a handful of uses it breaks.”

“Yeah, I know that part.”

“The bell John, you were supposed to get the chemists to melt it and recast it!”

“Will that work?”

“That is what you were supposed to find out! What did Kavi have to say about it?”

“The foreigner? No one understands a word he says.”

“Kavi is a tribal priest, and the only one capable of transcribing the Ametrine manuscripts. If I find out your repugnant attitude has offended him in anyway, I will see to your dismissal personally. He is irreplaceable, unlike you.” He took a deep breath, trying to compose himself. “Now moving on, I have some news of my own. Our helper is currently in the process of attaining a certain diadem that has made an appearance in the kingdom.

“The thief you hired. All useless if you ask me. One of the rats broke into my home the other night.”

“Was anything stolen?”

“No nothing. But the audacity of the vagabonds. Next time I will peel the smug face off his skull.”

“Tell me you stopped experimenting in the basement?”

“Of course, it was terminated after our last discussion.” Something about the way his eyes glanced away for a split second told a different story. But it had to wait, there were more pressing matters.

“It is rude of you to invite strangers into my home.” The stranger in the corner lifted his head but the hood concealed his face and most of his form.  

“I thought you would like to meet the solution to our supply problem.”

“Him?”

“Yes, he is very adept at catching who we need.” John leaned closer and whispered, “he has an instinct. He smells them.” He glanced at the stranger, wondering if he was part dog. 

“I was unaware they had a particular scent.” He leaned back into his chair and clasped his fingertips together. Up until now, finding the proper subject was trial and error.  But if what he said was true… “What do Mages smell like?”

“Like ripen fruit.” The stranger stepped forward into the candlelight. “The sweeter, the more favourable.” John laughed as if it was an inside joke between them but none of them cracked a smile.

“And his success rate?” he asked John, who lost the grin from his face.

“One hundred percent. Every Mage he found is strong enough to survive the trials.”

“And tell me master hunter, what is your price for these Mages? How much gold does it require to retain your services?” He looked to John who pursed his lips, the blood escaped his face. The stranger pulled back his hood, standing behind John’s chair. His skin was absent of colour. His angular features were a classic beauty he only witnessed in marble artworks. But his eyes, sharp and a fierce gold set him apart from anyone he had ever met. A scar over removed part of his left eyebrow. And two thin pinkish lines scraped across his otherwise smooth complexion; from cheek bone to jaw.

“Monetary payment does not serve my lifestyle. My arrangement is, as I negotiated with John, I lend him the Mages he requires, and when he is finished, he returns them to me.”

“What do you do with them?” He had seen the Mages Bayliss discarded. Withered, emancipated hollow shells of what they once were.

“That is none of your concern.”

“On the contrary, it is. My contribution to this endeavor has only one requirement: secrecy. If that is in jeopardy then I walk.”

“Lord Sexton,” John interrupted. “That’s not necessary, we take every precaution.”

“Then tell me, how do you ensure the subjects remain silent?”  John looked to his partner who grinned, revealing a set of glistening teeth. “I devour them.”

Chapter Eleven: The Escape

Revisit Chapter Nine!

Can’t wait for the next update? Full Novel Found on Royal Road!

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