Under Lock and Key

The first door he picked was wooden like the rest, with two iron bands running horizontally across. The thief, in black clothes, felt his way through the copper tumblers inside the lock. One hand was applying torque with a metal rod while the other hand fiddled with the tumblers inside using an iron pick. The thief was always nervous in the open. Inside his own house he could pick the average lock in a single moment. But outside, under the possible watch of the town’s guards, his hands grew sweaty and his hold on the lock picks slippery. The stink of his sweat rubbing on the rusted iron made his nose hairs twitch. It bothered him so much it forced him to pick faster. But faster never meant better.

    Twang!

    “Curses!” the thief hissed when the lock pick snapped. He shook the worry from his mind and withdrew another pick from his sleeve.    

    Around the corner, light from a torch flickered up the stone pathway. He crept into an alleyway and hid until the guard passed. The patrol was so close he could hear the man’s hand tapping on his sword’s hilt with boredom. The thought put him on edge. Hesitantly, he returned to his post and continued picking. Damn his nerves! He had done this hundreds of times. For several nerve-racking minutes he crouched at the door, eyes level with the lock, and felt around the tumblers. Finally there was a soft click and the torque gave. The lock turned and the door creaked open. A small rush of euphoria momentarily filled the thief. 

    Inside there was carousal and upbeat music. It was the right house; where the Duke of the Runelands was hosting a lavish party. Only respectable nobles were invited.    

    Standing beside the door was a servant dressed in blue velvet. Resting on his hand was a platter with steaming delectables fresh from the mansion’s kitchen. Getting passed this guard was a difficult task. The servant was not distracted by houseguests or even the delicious food that he served, which, he could have scarfed down when no one was looking. Servants aren’t paid much, so why were they so devout, anyways?

    As if struck by divine wisdom, a plan formed. The thief unbuckled his belt with his sheathed dirk. Gold and silver embellishments wrapped around the metal like vines. The weapon was one of a kind. But one of a kind was something he could steal another time. A true thief dreamed of exposing the hidden lies of the wealthy and entitled.

    The thief reached through the slim crack in the door and placed the weapon behind the servant’s feet. Waiting another thirty seconds or so, he stepped into the mansion. Before the servant could alert the guests, the thief shouted, “There’s a thief, look! Your servant, he has the King’s royal dagger!”

    A wave of gasps swept through the party as they turned to observe the exciting spectacle. The thief held his position with a finger pointed at the poor servant. Moments later the owner of the mansion arrived with enflamed cheeks that huffed embarrassment. 

    “Gregory, is this true?” he asked, snatching the dagger from behind his feet.

    The servant merely stammered and darted his eyes from the host to the stranger dressed in black. “I — he! Who is this man?” asked the boy who crossed his boundaries of acceptable servant lingo.

    “This man?” Taken back, the thief scoffed,  "‘This man’ is no other than the Count of Rhosethistle himself!”

    Fearful of being seen as ignorant for not knowing who the ‘Count’ was, the Duke bowed graciously, pretending otherwise, as did the whole party. “I apologize, Count Rhosethistle. Please, I am sorry for hiring such reprehensible scum.” The host spat on his servant. “Enjoy the party while I have him disposed of.”

    “Sire! Please, you can’t do this!” the servant protested.

    “Oh, truly? I can and I will. And your crimes will not only be punished but this man will receive a fine reward for finding the stolen dagger of the Royal House.”

    The thief only maintained an expression of bemusement, as he had never considered the idea of conning his way into some reward. He just wanted to get into the party.

    “Jeoffry!” the host snapped his fingers and another servant rushed into the room.
    “Yes m’lord?” came Jeoffry.
    “Keep Gregory in the dungeon. We would not want to spoil a fine party with a hearing in the Royal Court.”

    “Course not, m’lord.” Gregory, who was too confused to defend himself, was dragged through the party by Jeoffry.

    “Count Rhosethistle—” the Duke started.

    “No need for more apologies. I’m merely serving the kingdom. I can see you are as well, allowing these fine people to enjoy themselves in such trying times,” the thief said, almost blatantly sarcastic.

    “I do what I can,” said the host with a slight blush. The Duke bowed and returned to the festivities. Meanwhile the thief went in search of the host’s bedroom. It’s a wonder they never asked about his bold attire, but when you’re from an imaginary land no one questions your customs. Rosethistle might as well have been Sageberry.

    While he walked through the cramped rooms he could hear Gregory’s protests as he became aware of what the phrase “disposed of” meant. Instinctually, the thief ascended the first flight of stairs he found. As he suspected it lead to door with a lock more secure than most. Surely something valuable lay behind it. After parting with such a lovely dagger for a mere sum of reward money, which was usually dreadfully underpaid for the item’s true worth, the thief had to compensate for his loss. But why, you might ask, would he come into the party in the first place if it meant parting with such a treasure? It’s simple. Thieving became a playful hobby, not an occupation. Many of the thieves he had come to know did not retire once they pulled an elaborate heist paying insurmountable amounts of coin. They merely sold whatever the item was to keep from being killed in their sleep and went on with their surreptitious lives.

    By this time the thief was in a better position. The long, dark stairway gave him comfort knowing most of the guests were too intoxicated to climb three flights of stairs, least of all spot the thief in the dark where he was camouflaged perfectly. So without nervousness, the lock was opened rather quickly. Upon entering there was no resistance, no guard. After locking the door he began searching the room. Every desk, plank of wood, bookshelf, and cabinet had the chance of treasure. The room was dimly lit by candles scattered atop furniture. The music below was muffled and indistinct.

    Somewhere between the walking closet and the nightstand the thief heard a yawn. He turned to see a beautiful woman in a silk nightgown sleeping in the hosts’s bed. She stirred and saw him, not surprised in the slightest.

    “So this is the man I spend the night with while my husband is off drinking and whoring himself to death?” she asked more in the form of a statement.

    “Oh, dear me. I must be in the wrong room. Is this not the wine cellar?” With celerity he moved back towards the door. The thief had been caught before, but never this bad. Only guards in watchtowers who were bribed handsomely. But wives of rich husbands, that was a dangerous game.

    “Please. Do not play me as if I am the fool here,” she laughed. The thief stopped and turned, shackled by his curiosity. On the nightstand were countless books opened and half-read. Ranging from astronomy to alchemy; she was too learned to be tricked that easily. “I know what you are doing. You haven’t been the first, and frankly, I enjoy the company. Even if it is a scoundrel’s.”

    The thief remained silent.

    “My husband won’t be coming to bed anytime soon. And if you can’t express yourself with your words, why not join me?”

    “I wouldn’t dare think it’s my place,” the thief said with bowed eyes.

    “I’m tired of excuses. I hear an earful of them every night from my drunkard of a husband.”

    If the guests weren’t so awfully loud, they would have heard the nervous tapping of the thief’s foot through the wooden floorboards. She was quite beautiful, after all. And if it wasn’t an item he was going to steal, perhaps a night with someone’s spouse. It would by far be one of the more sinister acts the thief ever committed. Why, he wondered, was such a sophisticated woman wed with a fool? And if the Duke would not appreciate her, at least he would. So he accepted her plea.

 

     After an enjoyable evening with a stranger, he redressed himself and continued to scour about the room as if no interruption had occurred at all. The mistress lay bare in bed watching as the thief indulged in a greater desire, even if he just fulfilled one that had gone unsatisfied for years. Thieving for coin was easy, but when one sought secrets and conspiracies; there was a certain finesse required, another eye to be trained. Money was of little importance to him. Better to expose the dark secrets of noblemen than to be fed for a year from a single heist.

    “Maybe it’s not my place to wonder, but is there a reason why you have not yet found my husband’s stash? Or are you just too simple-minded?” the woman asked. 

    Slightly offended, the thief summoned a little wisdom, “You know, the thieves looking for wealth are not true thieves at all, just poor men out of luck and without a job. What I’m looking for is something of much greater value. Value beyond human greed. I’m looking for something that treats the mind, maybe even a sense of justice.”

    The woman was impressed and for the most part remained silent while he felt about the edges and floorboards of the room.

    Only minutes later, a chuckle came from the Duke's workspace. There was a walking closet, too attached to the wall, the thief observed, that had a hidden panel. The thief fingered the rickety wood between the luxurious clothes until he felt a small indentation in the backboard. He slid open the panel slowly. It revealed a dark, cold entryway dimly lit by flickering torches. It rank of foul, putrid smells that made him force back a retch. Although his stomach could hardly bear the stench his mind was reveling in it. Could it be he stumbled upon something much more exciting than he hoped? A torture chamber? A room filled with bodies? Where the Duke stashes incriminating documents?

    The thief stepped through the cave-like entrance. His eyes widened at the treasure before him. Within the tightly packed walls were thin, half-closed coffins with arms and legs protruding. Dismembered limbs littered the ground. Utensils of torture were on wooden tables saturated with blood. Eyeballs, intestines, and organs hung from rusted hooks like a gallery of the damned. There were cages where recent victims looked as if they had been killed merely days before. The thief, although disgusted and gagging, was also bursting with excitement. It was time to alert the guards, but first the woman. He sprinted back through the narrow crevice and to the closet wall. Calling for the mistress as he ran, he anticipated her wonderful shock when he revealed the Duke’s horrific deeds.

    With his head still turned at the bloody scene, he smacked into the wooden backboard. The panel was shut. Maybe I closed it, he thought. He yanked and pulled at it, and eventually beat it with his fists. It wouldn’t open.

    Soft humming came from the other side. The confounded thief put his ear to the panel.

    The panel slid open. A dagger rose through the crevice and speared the thief’s chest. It was the mistress’ hand that grasped the handle. The thief staggered backwards, hand clutching the hilt and trying feebly to free it from his bones. The woman emerged fully into the cavern and shoved the thief onto his back. He tried to resist the fall but his vision grew dark and his mind impaired by the loss of blood. 

    There was a moment of silence between the bloody gasps.

    Then came a fiery pain as one of the hooks impaled the thief through the tight skin of his back. Still humming, the woman pulled on a lever and gears clanked in response. She tiptoed gleefully in the puddles of his blood. With every mechanical clunk there was an eruption of agony in the thief. The hook raised ever so slowly, and his skin ripped like tough fabric. The horrible sounds of the cogs continued to echo until the thief’s feet dangled above the ground. Blood flowed down his legs and wet the soles of his shoes. He flailed for the rusty chain while unconsciousness festered in his eyes. Hopelessly trying to unhook himself, white fire shot through his tendons as they stretched and snapped. He gargled, struggled, and fought relentlessly. Then, choking on his own blood, he faltered completely.

    Admiring her work, the mistress unstuck the knife from the thief’s heart and exited the dungeon. She returned to her bed to rest soundly; peaceful and content with the day’s work.