Ariah picks the wrong pocket.
No Honour Among Thieves
People flocked from far and wide to the great city of Commesidion. The huge waterfront market was the attraction for buyer and seller alike. Stalls and stores and great warehouses filled with every sort of marketable good could be found in Commesidion's market. The merchants and hawkers came from the world over, some by sea, some by caravan, for it was said that a merchant who did not sell in the Commesidion market was, in truth, no merchant at all.
The market teemed with the heady life of commerce, where fortunes were won and lost, and where lives were spent as freely as silver pennies on trinkets when the deal went bad or the powerful were doublecrossed. The very place made an assault on all the senses to those who plied its cobbled alleys. In the humid closeness of the crowded merchant booths, the air was thick with the scent of strange spices from far off lands, flowers, sour wine, perfumes and fresh fish, all commingling with the stench of too many people. The market's sights and sounds were dazzling, sumptuous and richly coloured fabrics, precious metals and jewelry, and the strangeness of the many races of the world.
It was said that anything in the world could be purchased at the market, both legal and contraband. Narcotics, slaves, sex and murder were available, side by side with the legal wares, for the right amount of gold. It was an unruly place where the authorities turned a blind-eye to all manners of crime and extortion for prosperity's sake, and the occasional purse of silver or gold.
One of the market's denizens was Ariah, an old woman whose fortune telling had once earned some small repute among the tourists to the market. Daily she would ply the market alleyways in search of the hordes of visitors to amaze with her prescience for a small fee. Yet for all her skill, Ariah managed only a meagre existence in the seedy underbelly of Commesidion. All prophecy and practice of black arts had long since been outlawed in the city, except for those who could afford a ducal charter. Ariah held no such charter, and she could barely afford to live from month to month, for her customers were transient mostly and came in seasonal waves to the market with very little consistency. Business was not what it had once been for Ariah. Since the decree, all magic was strictly regulated throughout Commesidion, so many visitors to the city and its market would spurn her offer of fortune telling. Those caught buying illegal magic were dealt with as harshly as those who sold it, and that usually meant being strung up outside the city gates to become the sport of boys with stones, and eventually, hungry crows.
Her illegal fortune-telling trade left her poor, and needing to resort to other means to supplement her subsistence income. Frequently she plied her skill as a cutpurse, a skill she had learned from her mother who had been a prostitute until age rendered her unappealing. Ariah had as comfortable a childhood as such a lifestyle allowed. Even now, in her advancing years, she continued to live in relative comfort by the standards of other waterfront residents in her two-room tenement above a rowdy tavern. Her talents afforded her at least one meal a day, sometimes two, and an occasional flask of sour wine.
The foresight that allowed Ariah to earn her partial living came from a magic orb that gave her insight into many things that had not yet come to pass. The orb was the only thing of value that her mother had left her, and it had taken her many years to learn how to use it to see people's futures. But for all her mastery over the orb's power, she was never able to see into her own future.
On this particular day Ariah was wandering through the crowds at the market seeking customers and victims alike. She had only two coppers to show for the day. The city marshals were circulating, and she was forced to keep herself moving to avoid being caught for selling magic without a charter. She crouched down to rest against a building and to take stock of her situation, when out of the throng emerged a parade of richly dressed men and their bodyguards. Fortune, it seemed, had not abandoned her after all. Stealthily she crept forward, intent on intercepting this crowd of wealthy-looking citizens.
Ariah shadowed their path through the crowded alleys waiting for the right moment to make her move. She smiled as she watched the chief bodyguard become embroiled in an altercation with a handful of street urchins, and she knew it was time to make her move. Ariah stealthily but conveniently stumbled into the gentleman at the head of the procession. Her lightening swift pickpocketing won her a weighty prize which she had no sooner stowed up her sleeve when she was suddenly and roughly grabbed from behind. The bodyguard jostled her fragile frame with a sneer.
Fearing she was caught, Ariah swept open her cloak revealing the orb, "Tell your fortune, sire?" She squawked, "Only a single copper for you, sir, says I." She beamed a semi-toothless grin at the guard who only frowned and shoved her out of the way.
"Begone, street rat!" The guard pushed past her and she stumbled away as the procession continued past.
Ariah laughed out loud as she made her way to her tenement, relishing the thought of the of the contents of the pilfered purse. She scuttled furtively down the stone steps towards her apartment, chuckling softly to herself, when a tug on her cloak made Ariah wheel around brandishing her grey steel shiv she kept for protection. A young woman slithered from the shadows. Her dirty black hair cascaded over her raggedly clothed shoulders. Had she been clean and wearing fresh clothes, she might have been pretty. The young girl smiled evilly, holding her own dagger low at her side.
"You old dog!" the younger woman hissed contemptuously.
"Lauren!" Ariah croaked nervously. The young girl was also a thief who worked the same part of the market as Ariah. The two were arch rivals. "What do you want?" Ariah's eyes narrowed and her hand holding her own dagger twitched involuntarily.
"Don't act so surprised," Lauren jeered. "I saw you pinch the purse of that ambassador this afternoon in the market. Tell me, Ariah, how much did you get?"
Ariah tossed her head back and let out a raucous laugh, "More than you would make in all your whoring days to come." She flipped her stringy grey hair from her eyes and began to turn away. "And don't even think of trying to take my prize from me, Lauren. I'll be watching out for you, minx."
"That may be so, you old hag, but I got a good look at the gentleman whose purse you lifted. I followed him all the way up town to where he lives. If you don't cut me in, I'll find him and tell him it was you who took his money. You know what they do with thieves in this city, don't you." Lauren's words festered in Ariah's mind and the hair on her neck prickled with fire. The last thing she needed was to be arrested for thievery and strung up at the city gate. She turned on her heel.
"Alright," Ariah snarled, cursing her foe, "you win. Now follow me; I'll not divvy up the spoils here, lest we be seen by someone." Lauren grinned, and followed Ariah to her sparsely furnished rooms. Once inside, Ariah set to washing up and preparing dinner.
Lauren hovered impatiently by the door. "I don't want no food, old woman, I just wants me money." Ariah sighed. She brought out the purse and poured its contents on the table. It yielded up four coppers, seven silvers and three gold coins.
"I'll have to cleave the gold and silver so its evenly split," the old woman said, and turned to the cupboard to fetch her cleaver. Then, suddenly realizing what she had done, she wheeled around in time to see Lauren scoop up the coins and drop them in her own pocket. Lauren took a step forward and waved her dagger menacingly at Ariah.
"Never turn your back on a cutpurse, Ariah," Lauren mocked, "so you always told me." Lauren backed out of the doorway, and she ran off into the approaching darkness laughing loudly as she went.
Ariah slumped dejectedly into her chair and cursed Lauren under her breath. She was getting too old for this sort of thing, too old and too slow to deal with the likes of more youthful rivals like Lauren. Sighing with exhaustion, she prepared a meagre supper and ate, then set to polishing her orb as the night grew old and her lone candle grew small.
She was almost asleep when noises outside her door made her sit up with a start. Her door flung suddenly open revealing a figure waiting in the shadows beyond. Ariah grabbed her dagger from the table and pulled herself to her feet.
"Come back to kill me, have you Lauren?" Ariah growled. "No honour among thieves, no honour among thieves at all!"
Ariah took a step backwards when two tall, darkly clad men stepped into her room, followed by a third slightly smaller man wearing flowing black robes. He was bald, with deep set dark eyes, thick eyebrows and a black goatee and moustache. Instantly Ariah recognized the man as her victim from earlier in the day. Her eyes fell to the empty leather purse in plain view on the table. She mustered a half-hearted smile and let her dagger hand fall to her side.
"How can I be of service, my good sirs?" She bowed but kept one eye on the two imposing bodyguards. The shorter man stepped forward.
"You have something I want," the man said softly. There was an evil glint in his eyes. Ariah shrieked and fell to her knees, wailing. She let her dagger drop from her hands and she grovelled at the feet of the smaller man.
"Oh please sir, I'm just a poor fortune teller who sometimes must resort to thieving just to buy enough to eat to keep a poor old woman alive," Ariah sobbed. The man stared icily at her pitiful display. "Have mercy, please sir."
"Where is it?" the bald man hissed, clearly losing his patience with the old woman's antics.
Ariah cowered, "I myself was robbed," she cried. "I know it sounds foolish but it is no less than I deserved for picking the pocket of a noble man such as yourself. Please, I beg of ye, have mercy on an old soul."
The bald man frowned, annoyed, then his face softened and he chuckled, "Not the money, old woman, I don't care about that!" he snapped, all traces of pity disappearing from his face. He turned his eyes, darker and more threatening than before, on Ariah and demanded, "Where is the orb, hag?"
Ariah's heart leapt to her throat. He would take all she had left in the world, her only means of livelihood, and her only precious possession next to life itself. One of the bodyguards stepped forward and plucked the shimmering crystal sphere from the table top and held it up, smiling at his find. The bald man's eyes grew wide and he extended his hands greedily to accept the orb.
"Give it here," he commended in a whisper. He murmured, "Ah, this is it, this is what I came for, old fool." As he waved the shiny sphere in front of Ariah's eyes, she caught her breath suddenly at the sight of the ornate ring on his hand. It was fashioned of bright yellow gold in the shape of a fanged serpent that held an black gemstone in its mouth. The stone in the ring had begun to glow ever so slightly when the man picked up the orb. Ariah gasped. "Something wrong, old woman?" the man's voice rumbled softly.
"You're a real magician of..."
"Warlock of Blackguild, if you please, cur! I'll not have some petty seer soil the good name of a charter guild!" The bald man drew back his hand as if preparing to strike her, then relented. He motioned his men from the apartment and turned to leave himself.
Ariah let out a sob, "Please sire, that orb is all I have in life. I beg of you."
At the doorway, the bald man hesitated, "Oh yes?" he asked, almost pleasantly. For a moment, Ariah's heart lifted at the thought that he would return the orb to her. Pocketing the orb, the bald man drew forth a dagger that shone like black glass from beneath the folds of his robes. "If that is all you have in life, and I take it from you, what then is your reason to go on living?" Ariah scrambled away from the advancing man, whimpering. "Besides, if they discovered that I've stolen this from you, they will string me up like a common thief at the gates. I can't have that, now, can I?"
The magician spoke calmly, deliberately as he advanced on Ariah who now cowered, terrified in the corner of the room, trapped like an animal. "Wait," she cried, "please sir, I won't say anything to anyone! You have my word."
The warlock raised his eyebrows in mock surprise but shook his head, "Take the word of a second rate seer and a petty thief? I'm afraid I can't afford to take that risk, my dearest. I am a man of status and position here in Commesidion. You must understand, I can't risk it." The bald man spoke softly, his obsidian dagger poised to strike. With a low chortle, he thrust blade into her abdomen, twisted it, then wrenched it free. Ariah gasped as the pain coursed through her. She clutched at the wound in her torso and slowly slumped to the floor where her blood had already begun to pool.
The bald man stepped away but paused and turned in the doorway, "What is it you said? No honour among thieves?" The warlock stared down at her dispassionately, "Yes, I believe that was it: No honour among thieves."