A unlikely meeting between two men brings hope to a desperate situation for one of them.
The man, his handsome face pale in the light of his fireplace, was nearing the beginning of middle age and his striking black hair had a few streaks of white to contrast it now. His rough upbringing had brought about a finely built body, but the luxurious lifestyle of the past year had softened it a bit.
It was times like these that Lord Lokim wished he could still solve things with a few knuckles in the right faces. It had been simple growing up in the streets. Those who were physically stronger got the respect, thus, they got the power, thus, they got what they wanted. Of course, mostly what was wanted back then was a bit of food and a warm place to stay on a cold night. But those times when you did have were of a simple happiness. A bliss, ignorant of what life had to offer outside the confines of that drafty back room.
Lord Lokim wished he could curl up to this fire and forget the world around him. He couldn’t, even with the wealth and power he had acquired, be ignorant. Ignorance in the aristocracy, not only wasn’t bliss, but was the quickest way to an early grave.
He finally shook his head and came out of his reminiscence. Wishing for the past wasn’t going to help him solve the problems of his present.
He considered tossing this cursed paper into the fire. Then he did. Damn this paper, damn the man who had delivered, damn her who had written it and damn me for being fooled into this position.
“Damn it, damn him, damn her, damn me… And damn you!” He yelled, pointing his finger so violently at the thing sitting as the centerpiece of his main chamber that he felt his elbow give in its socket a little.
A great temptation to pick it up and smash it, burning all its pieces until it was no more came over him for an instance. He’d even took several steps towards it, hands outstretched, ready to undo it, when he got a hold of himself and stopped.
It’d be so much worse if he destroyed it, his very life would be forfeit then, and it was only an object. A unique and irreplaceable object that tied him to to happiest days of his life.
That woman had spent months trying to snatch it out of his grasp. Now she had him right where she wanted him and there was nothing he could do about it.
It was late and Lord Lokim couldn’t see any more point in wracking his mind for ideas that wouldn’t come. He slowly made his way upstairs and went to bed, hoping some blessed spirit would visit his dreams with the solution to his predicament.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Quint squinted towards the manor. He’d been eyeing the place all evening, casing the joint. He had some excellent information that there was a mighty tasty treat just waiting to be scooped up. His friend down at the scribe's office had tipped him off that this lordly lord had a mighty tempting object that several writs and letters had mentioned. It seemed this object was sought after by many of the higher class, but one lady in particular was dead set on it. According to the gossip around the scribe’s office she had been getting more and more desperate to get this object, a music box of all things, and Quint figured a desperate lady would be a mighty tasty payout. He felt it would be right gentlemanly to put into the hands a thing a lady so desired. So he waited, blending into the shadow of an alley across the lane from this manor. Quint waited for the lights to go out and the fun to begin.
It seemed to take half the night before the blasted manor went dark and Quint felt he could safely come out of the alley. His limbs moaned at the sudden use after keeping still, but Quint ignored them as crept into the small yard that linked the lane to the manor’s front door.
Quints observations throughout the day and careful questioning at sundown had gleaned for him that the lord of this manor lived alone, and that no one else should interrupt him as he worked.
Quint didn’t know where this music box was but figured that such a sought after object would probably be safe guarded or hidden. Quint had always considered himself a thinker from outside the box and preferred to enter through the front door, if it wasn’t too lit or on a busy thoroughfare. The way Quint saw it is that everyone figured thieves and burglars to come in through the back of the place and would prepare for them there, and leave the front less guarded for it. This logic hadn’t failed him yet as he flattened himself against the wall next to the manor’s front door. The front door was bathed in a dim light from a lamppost down the street, but Quint figured you’d have to be looking pretty hard to spot anything in light this dim and besides there was no one around. He tried the door and found it locked. No harm in trying to save some trouble Quint thought as he dug out his picks and began working the tumblers. His deft hands had the door open in less than a minute and he slipped into the manor quiet as a whisper.
He took in the entryway and the rooms to either side of him as his eyes adjusted to the more total darkness inside. There were stairs leading up directly in front of him. Quint hoped his treat wouldn’t be upstairs, stairs were mighty noisy most of the time and his last botched break in had him leaping from a second story window when a surprisingly spry old lady had try to lay into him with her walking stick. His ankle ached at the thought of it. To his right was a small dining room with a table that sat maybe six or eight people and a door that most likely lead to the kitchen. Not that way Quint figured as he looked to his left. Now this was promising, a sitting room with a fire that had only recently burned out.The fire’s acrid smell tingled Quint nose as he took in the room. Two chairs by the fire, a table in between, a couple of shelves, with books by the look of it and what’s this? Quint saw against a wall a low cabinet, the sort you display stuff on, and on top of the cabinet was a small box. It was about the size of the music boxes Quint had seen in storefront windows. Could it be that easy? He could nab that treat and be down the street before the owner could blink his eyes in surprise.
Quint slowly approached the cabinet, the lack of something to worry about worrying him. As he stopped in front of the cabinet he took a closer look at the box. He couldn’t make out the details in the darkness but it looked etched with some sort of inlay, with what material he couldn’t tell. He ran a finger along one of the etchings and smiled. This easy, eh? The fates were doing him a kindness. Then he stopped and regarded the box again. There was nothing on the box that told him that it was a music box. This box could be some cigar box or for keeping jewels or the sort. That would be a nice haul, but Quint was on a mission and he had to be sure. He’d open it, just for a second, long enough to tell the box’s contents.
Slowly he unlatched the lid and lifted it up. As soon as the lid was opened an inch a beautiful song came pouring out, loud in the quiet of the night. Quint went to close it before it’s noise woke the owner, but something about this melody stopped his hand, and all else, as he stood mesmerised.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Lord Lokim wasn’t actually sure if he had fallen asleep and dreamt of the song, that song so dear to his heart, or had heard it in the waking world when he opened his eyes to the gloom of his dark bedroom. It was too dim to see the clock on his nightstand, but to Lord Lokim it felt like no time at all had passed. Lord Lokim sighed and closed his eyes, trying for sleep, when he heard it again. The song, definitely he heard it. He rose quickly and started down the stairs right outside his bedroom, wondering how the music box could be playing by itself.
But the music box wasn’t by itself, a man was standing in front of it, his hand still on the lid, staring at it as if transfixed. The man hadn’t apparently heard Lord Lokim come downstairs so he had a moment to arm himself with the blackjack he had hidden above the door frame of the front door.
Normally, Lord Lokim would have brought the blackjack down upon the man’s head and be done with it. A well stuck blow from a proper blackjack like his would take the man out of action for several minutes, enough time to summon the law and have him dealt with. However, something about the way the man was acting made Lord Lokim wary of approaching him.
The song was coming to the end now, and when it stopped Lord Lokim yelled. “Don’t move, I’m armed and have the advantage of you, move and your life is forfeit.”
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Quint was brought forcibly out of his stupor by a shout to his left. He was so startled that only years of honed reflexes saved him from toppling backwards.
Quint’s reeling mind caught the words that had been shouted and he stood still as he could slowly looking over at who had shouted. Quint couldn’t make out the details of the man, but he was in bed clothes so he was presumably the owner of the manor. Then Quint caught sight of the weapon the man had poised over his head, ready to strike, and was taken a little aback. Quint recognized it as a blackjack, a right and proper one too. Right and proper blackjacks were rare in the city as most brutes who would use such tactics as knocking out victims saw no need to pay for a fancy stick, as they thought of them, when a rock wrapped in cloth would do just fine. But to Quint the astounding part was that this was supposedly a noble house of higher standards and nobles definitely didn’t use blackjacks.
“Who are you?” Quint ventured, his wonder pushing aside some of the fear of the moment.
“I’d think you to be more concern with your safety, scoundrel,” the man said iceily.
“Ah, it’s just that that blackjack is a fine thing and I’d not expect it in the hands of one of higher call, is all,” Quint said quickly. Maybe this man was criminal like him, only of a higher class, a smuggler or a successful fence. Maybe he could talk his way into a compromise.
The man looked at the blackjack in his hand like it was the first time he was really seeing it. It was a long moment before the man spoke again.
“You may call me Lord Lokim.”
Lord Lokim stopped like he wanted to say more but couldn’t put tongue to it. He also seemed to have relaxed his stance a little and Quint hoped he could get out of this yet. Since it seemed like the lord wasn’t going to continue, Quint took up the conversation.
“I’m terrible sorry my lord, I got a tip for a very valuable treat here, a music box on many a noble person’s lips. If I knew it was yours I’d have never trod my dirty soles upon your household. Maybe I could …”
“Who sent you?” Lord Lokim asked before Quint could get the offer out.
“No one sent me,” Quint stammered, caught off guard by the unexpected question.
“I think it unlikely you mean to take the music box home and put it upon your mantle piece,” Lord Lokim said impatiently. “Who are you taking it to?”
“Well, I’ve a deal with Hayel Groutfinger, he gets first dibs on my takes,” Quint replied. He supposed it wouldn’t do harm telling this man, maybe they even had common contacts. That might help his case.
“Ol’ Groutfinger? Last I heard he was rotting away in the Baileys,” The lord said, surprise in his voice.
“Made a daring escape, by the telling of it,” Quint said, more relaxed now. The lord had the blackjack almost at his side now, ready in case he needed it, but no longer as ready to do violence. Quint continued.
“The way I heard it Ol’ Groutfinger squeezed his way out of the window in his cell, no bars see, since it was a nearly 70 foot drop by accounts and the window being too thin for the normal man to fit through, besides. Took Ol’ Groutfinger nearly four hours to fit himself through that window they say and he hung nearly two more waiting for an opportunity to get down. And a rider on a horse gave him that opportunity, ‘Ol Groutfinger aimed his fall true and knocked the rider off the horse, using him to cushion the fall, see, and rode off on the horse before the alarm could even be thought to be given.”
The Lord laughed.
“He probably just legged it one day when they in collecting garbage, he always was a quick bugger. But it would be like ‘Ol Groutfinger to tell a grand tale of escape.” The lord said, still chuckling.
“I admit it’s good to hear he’s out, and if he’s agreed to do business with you that means you’re a good man,” Lord Lokim said. He started softly whacking his off hand with the blackjack now, alternating between studying it and studying Quint.
“‘Ol Groutfinger’s a lot of the reason I am where I am now,” the lord said, looking lost in thought for a second.
“What’s your name?” He asked.
“Quint, sir,” Quint replied.
Lord Lokim waved a hand dismissively.
“Oh, bugger the ‘sir’. I’ve never been one for all these formalities, frankly my least favorite part of leaving the streets for higher meadows, so to say.”
Lord Lokim smirked as he looked at Quint, then suddenly there was surprise in his eyes. “I’ve just thought of something that could benefit us both. What say you? Will you listen to what I propose?”
“Well, surely sir… er, my Lord, uh, actually ... did you use to go by Garelt the Ear? I remember hearing something of one of us lower class climbing up in the world,” Quint stumbled around his words wanting to ask what was on his mind before losing nerve.
“Aye, that was me,” Lord Lokim said wryly. “But that’s a tale for another time, told better over a good ale with good friends. Come, let’s rekindle the fire and have a chat.”
Lord Lokim motioned for Quint to sit in a chair beside the fire and went to work stirring the ashes back to life. A few minutes and some prodding produced a nice fire. Lord Lokim sat in the other chair and studied Quint again, better able to see him now, he nodded his approval.
“Before I tell you of what it is I’m proposing we do, I’d like to tell you a bit about that music box,” Lord Lokim cracked a smile. “Seems to me the song takes you just like it takes me.”
Quint scratched his head in embarrassment. “I don’t rightly know what came over me, I’ve never known such a thing of beauty in my whole life.”
“Aye, I”ll bet not. Such beauty wasn’t meant for us, the dregs. Or so the snobs would have you believe. No, I believe one’s place in the world shouldn’t have anything to do with what you deserve.” Lord Lokim looked into the fire with sadness etched on his face. He looked back up at Quint, smiling embarrassedly at being caught with such an emotion. Lord Lokim continued.
“‘Tis a tale I’m not keen to tell, but I think you’ll better understand if I do. It starts a year and a half back. Like many a sad tale this tale starts with a woman. I shan’t go into details, it’s enough to say she was better than this world deserved.
Her name was Malese and I met her as she came off a ship. A sleek beaut she was, the ship I mean, and I meant to ply my trade to lighten the load of the passengers as they stood around waiting for the ship to be off loaded. Her purse was mine easy enough, but I never could resist a look back at a victim to see their reaction. I must have looked a sight standing there staring at heaven taken earthly form and it wasn’t long before I had caught her eye and she had sight of the purse I held. I couldn’t seem to make my feet work, so I just stood there as she made her way over to me and held her hand out for her purse. I think if she had acted any differently the spell would have broke, but she just stood calmly as I handed back her purse, slack jawed and utterly entranced.
“A few more moments of being smitten and she asked if I were alright.” Lord Lokim laughed. “Had to slap myself to be able to respond with a shake of my head.”
“‘What’s wrong?’ she asked. ‘The guilt of your chosen pursuit come crashing down on you? Or do they just not make them like me around here?’” she giggled at that and I surrendered. What was life worth living if I couldn’t see her, couldn’t hear that giggle again, so I told her I would give up anything and everything to be with her, right then and there. I couldn’t see any way she’d want anything to do with me. By the make of her clothes she was from high birthing and me, a street rat.”
“But, she crossed her arms and thought a bit. Then, smiling, she said I could be her tour guide. She’d never been to a city this big and had heard my kind knew things even the most knowledgeable guide didn’t. But I had to be on my best behavior. I, of course, agreed completely and we spent the next few days traveling around the city, sometimes sticking to nicer parts for some shopping or a play, she’d bought me some nicer clothes so I wouldn’t stick out so much around the other high borns. Sometimes we went to some of the rougher parts of town and she was surprisingly ready to accept the simpler, more rude fun that could be had. The night we got slaked and danced and sang on the beach where the fishers keep their boats was the best night I’ve ever had.
It couldn’t last though, and the fifth day she told me she would be going east by carriage and she couldn’t miss it. She was suppose to be guesting with a family friend while in the city and was already in enough trouble for skeeving off with me. I told her the past four days had been the best I’d ever had and she could stay with me if she’d like. It was stupid, she had her life and me mine, but I could see she’d considered it. In the end she had too much responsibility to her family to just disappear and so couldn’t stay, but she said she’d look me up if she ever came back.
If only I’d left it at that, but after I saw her off the next morning I felt an emptiness. I knew I couldn’t live without her, so I got in touch with Groutfinger and put up enough collateral to get a horse. I’ve never been outside the city so I was rather excited, it was like an adventure, like you hear the bards sing about sometimes. Well, thing is, many adventures turn to tragedy and that’s just what I was stepping into when I came upon the carriage a couple hours ride outside the city.
“The carriage was on it’s side, the horses gone and no sign of the driver. It’s … It’s hard to talk about what I found in the carriage.” Lord Lokim’s voice started to waver and he clenched a fist. He took a deep breath, pounded his fist into the arm of the chair and continued.
“There she was, lying so peacefully in the carriage, an arrow sticking out of her side. I rushed in and tried to rouse her, but I knew the look in those perfect eyes, I’d seen it too often on the streets. She was dead.” the Lord’s head drooped at this final sentence and Quint realized the Lord was sobbing. Quint was no good at these sort of things so he just sat and made a point of looking at the fire to save the man some dignity at least.
Some time had passed before the Lord spoke up again.
“You can imagine I was devastated, even thought of joining her with the dagger I’d taken along, but I didn’t have the chance as a rider interrupted me. He was with the royal rangers and had been patrolling the roads. At first he took me for a bandit, caught in the act, but when he saw my tear stained visage he asked what had happened. Well, since I could only guess I made up a story of how I’d seen the carriage attacked at a distance and had rode up to chase the attackers away, that they had dragged the poor driver away and shot the woman with an arrow. I told them I made a split second decision to try to save the woman as the attackers outnumbered me and while my sudden appearance had them spooked, they might be running towards more of them. I told him that try as I might I couldn’t stop the bleeding and the woman had died and that the waste of life had broken my heart.
“He believed the story and, taking out a horn on his belt, summoned the rest of his party. He was part of a troop out for blood as the bandits in the woods had killed a cousin or some such of the noble who owned the woods. They caught some tracks and all of them headed off and left me.
Well, at the sight of these hardened men my spirit rose and I decided that dying in vain wasn’t the right action. But the thought of going back to the streets with not even the visit of the woman to look forward to threatened to break my spirit again. I’d decided I at least couldn’t leave the woman lying here for the beasts of the forest. So I set out to bury her and lo, underneath her body was a bag of gold.
Well, to make this long story shorter I buried her and took the gold and, with Groutfinger’s help, bought my way into noblehood. I won’t bore you with how that life has been going, but, well, the one good thing that’s come of it I’m about to lose.
“Now we finally come to the point of the story, that music box. You see on our final night together we saw this great troupe from up north somewhere and they played the song you heard. We fell in love with the song from the first.” Lord Lokim smiled a little at this. “It was a year back that I heard that song again, coming out of a shop as I strolled. All the feeling of our wonderful time together came rushing back and I bought the music box on the spot. It’s like having a little bit of her around everytime I listen to it.”
“Now you may be wondering why you’ve heard so much about a simple music box, and well, there isn’t really much to it. The other nobility of the city never accepted me as one of them and have sought to put me back where I belong. Oh, I’ve fought a good fight, but this game they play is nothing like on the streets, frankly they’re more dishonorable and prone to backstabbing than the dirtiest scoundrel.
I made a mistake in mentioning how dear the music box is to me to someone I thought had no cause to do me harm, but it ends up I have nary a friend at all in the year and a half I’ve been playing this game. They’ve given me an ultimatum, a final offer if you will, to give up the music box or give up my life. And I believe them capable, more ferocious than a spurned wench those lot, so I’ve been left with no choice. Or so I thought.”
Lord Lokim looked at Quint with a conniving smirk.
“I want you to rob me,” Lord Lokim said
“You what?” said Quint warily.
“I want you to rob me,” Lord Lokim repeated. “Blind. But I have two requests. We’ll have to make a botch of it and get the police involved, and you’ll need to be seen. Preferably with the music box. We have to make it look like I was actually robbed and not like a ploy. Second, I need you to give the music box directly to Groutfinger, not fenced, and to tell him I’ll be coming for it and it’ll be worth his while to hold it for me. I’ll dig out some of the gold I’ve left, that’d you never have found, to make up for it. And of course anything you want from the house is yours, I’ll not stop you. In fact, I’ll help.”
Lord Lokim stood up and moved to the mantle piece.
“You see this sword hung here? Rubbish in a fight, but the grip is inlaid gold, worth a pretty penny.”
Quint watched as the lord grabbed up the bag he had dropped by the music box and, snapping the blade off, stuck the hilt into it. He started moving around the room dumping things from all around the room into it. It was about the strangest thing Quint had ever seen, a man burgling himself, but he wasn’t about to complain about having the job done for him.
Quint was still a little sore about not getting the treat he’d come for, but the handful of gold the lord handed him cured that right up. After Quint’s bag was full and the lord satisfied his house was thoroughly ransacked he took out his dagger and, cutting the palm of his hand, stuck out his hand the way thieves do when they strike bargain and asked Quint to shake in agreement with the requests he had made. Quint cut his hand and they shook on it.
Two days later
Garelt dodged the swing of the guard as he ran around him, taking off down an alleyway. Garelt knew the alleyways became like a maze through here and that he would lose the guard easily enough. As Garelt ducked down a gutter he smiled broadly, he himself wouldn’t get lost because he knew these alleys better than anyone.
Because they were his home.