Aphelion Issue 277, Volume 26
October 2022
 
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Under Lock and Key

by Josh Fredette




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 to the lock with a metal stick while the other hand fiddled with the tumblers inside. 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 lockpicks slippery. The stink of his sweat rubbing on the rusted iron made his nose hairs twitch. It bothered him so much it encouraged him to pick faster. But faster never meant better.

Twang!

"Curses!" thought the thief when his lockpick snapped. At least they were easy to make. 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 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 minutes he crouched at the door, eyes level with the lock, and felt around the tumblers. Finally there was a soft click. The lock turned and the door creaked open. Inside there was carousal and upbeat music. It was the right house; where the Duke of the Runelands was hosting an expensive party. Only respectable nobles were invited.

Standing beside the door was a servant dressed in lavish 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 in moments, one that would be costly. He unbuckled his belt with his dirk and sheath; the sheath was embellished with gold and silver while the dagger itself was made of King's Amber, a rare find. It was one of a kind. But one of a kind was something he could steal another time. Getting into parties without an invitation, however, was not. The thief's hand crept 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.

"Gregory, is this true?" he asked.

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 said, " 'This man' is none 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 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--"

"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 enjoyed enacting royalty.

"I do what I can," said the host. With that, he 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 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. 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 that paid insurmountable amounts of coin. They merely sold whatever the item was to keep from being killed in their sleep and went on with their lives of thievery.

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.

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 will spend the night with while my husband is off drinking and whoring himself to death," she said.

"Oh, dear me. I must be in the wrong room. Is this not the wine cellar?" With haste he moved back towards the door. He 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 said with a thick Nordic accent. The thief stopped and turned, caught like a mouse. On the nightstand were countless books opened and half-read. Ranging from astronomy to alchemy; she must have been somewhat intelligent. "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 kept 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 to be with you," the thief said with his eyes bowed.

"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 was by far one of the more sinister acts the thief had 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. The mistress lay bare in bed watching as the thief indulged in a greater desire, even if he just fulfilled one that had been unsatisfied for years. Thieving for coin was easy, but when one sought secrets and conspiracies, that was another business. Money was of little importance to him: better to find the dark secrets of nobleman than a sack of coins that would pay for several years of worldly pleasures.

"Maybe it's not my place to wonder, but is there a reason why you have not yet found my husband's stash of coins? Or are you just too simple?"

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 something of much greater value. Value beyond human greed. I'm looking for something that treats the mind."

The woman was impressed and for the most part remained silent.

Only minutes later, there came a chuckle came from across the room. There was a walking closet, too attached to the wall, he observed, that had a hidden panel. The thief fingered the rickety wood between the luxurious clothes until he came upon a handle. When opened it revealed a dungeon lit by torches. It rank of foul, putrid smells that nearly induced retching. Although his stomach could hardly bear it, 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?

It was the first and second. Within the tightly packed walls were cheap, half nailed 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. There were cages where the all too recent victims looked as if they had been killed days before his arrival. The thief, although disgusted, 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 closet wall. The panel was tightly shut. Maybe I closed it, he thought. He yanked and pulled at it, and eventually beat it with his fists. But it wouldn't open.

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

The wood slid open. A dagger shot through the crevice and into the thief's heart. It was the mistress' hand that grasped the handle. The thief gasped, clutched at the hilt and almost pulled it out. He was thrown to the floor by the woman who now joined him in the dungeon. While he stumbled her feet were bare on the rocky floor, dancing gleefully in puddles of blood. The thief tried to fight but his vision grew dark and his mind impaired. Then came a sharp pain as one of the hooks impaled him through the tight skin of his back. Still humming, the woman pulled on a lever and gears clanked in response. The hook raised, and his skin ripped like tough fabric. More mechanical noises echoed until the thief's feet could no longer touch the ground. Blood flowed down his legs. He reached for the chain while black blotches festered in his eyesight. Hopelessly trying to unhook himself, white fire shot through his tendons as they stretched and snapped. He gargled, struggled, and fought until he choked on his own blood, then faltered altogether.

Admiring her work, the mistress pulled the knife from the thief's chest and exited the dungeon. She returned to her bed to rest soundly, peaceful, and content with the day's work.


THE END


2013 Josh Fredette

Bio: At the time this story was submitted, Josh Fredette was a sophomore in high school, hoping to one day be a published author. Congratulations, Josh, you've joined the club.

E-mail: Josh Fredette

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