Fame and fortune. Those two virtues were all that swirled about in the young thief’s head, a perfect storm of unlawful desires bearing down on what little convictions remained. A thin veneer of morals instilled by the orphanage over so many years to so little effect was being battered by the torrential downpour of promised riches he had only dreamt of. The young man’s hands were coated in sweat despite the cool salt-spray sea breeze wafting over the dockside district in the great seaside city of Port Fenton. A pair of focused blue eyes watered not from the fish mongers and incoming sailboats but from the pinpoint precision of anxious pupils staring down a sealed envelope clutched in the strong, meaty paws of the mark.
This was the young thief’s moment. Tomorrow would be his seventeenth birthday, and he would celebrate by being the first one to be inducted into the local Guild of Shadows before that age. All he needed was to pass the test walking before him; simply filch the sealed document from the clenched fist of its guard, a striking man nearly twice his size and employed by the wealthiest, most cutthroat merchant guild in all of the great continent of Tanimor. The young man tried to calm his nerves, his narrowed eyes darting about in the bustling dock, plotting his plan of escape once the letter was his. He distracted himself by dreaming of what the contents held or what prize would be laid upon him by his cutpurse mentors and peers. Seeing the mark stop for a moment to look over a newly imported stack of crates, the young thief knew it was his moment.
He stepped out from the dingy alley and walked confidently through the crowd, remaining poised and inconspicuous just as he had practiced a hundred times. His thin frame and narrow shoulders made it easy to pass between even the broadest of persons, like a ghost caught on the refreshing wind untouchable and unseen. A few steps remained to the mark, his grasp on the envelope loosened and his attention frayed among other important tasks. The moppy haired young boy stifled a beaming grin as he sidestepped the last of the walking obstacles. One foot passed behind the mark, swiftly and solidly planted down on the grimy cobble. The next crossed over, toes just lightly touching the earth in tandem with two fingertips grazing the yellowed paper. Looking one last time at the series of mazelike alleyways and makeshift shops to his right the young thief shifted his weight away from the giant brute of a man.
The fingers pinched the envelope hard, yanking it free. Like a long practiced dance of the finest courtesans the young robber twisted his torso in tune, planting his full weight on his left foot and springing off. The momentum swiftly brought him back into the crowd, already three quick steps away before the envelope’s guardian spun around looking for the culprit. Six steps away now, the young thief thought, making sure not to look back and give himself away. He was almost to the first alley, a long stretch of filth and refuse even the homeless dared not wallow in. Ten steps now, only a few more and he was free from danger. It had been even easier than he imagined.
“Hey! You little wretch, give that back! Thief!”
The booming voice carried easily through the crowds, reaching what little courage the young thief had remaining and shaking him to the core. The hairs stood up on the back of his neck as the entire crowd seemed to halt to a standstill and bring all eyes to bear on him.
“How stupid are you to…”
There was no waiting for the statement to finish, no time to let the merchant guild guard let loose a flurry of words before a flurry of something far more painful. The young thief bolted away into the alley, diving into the shadows headlong as the docks sprang to life once again as if nothing happened. Rolling across a pile of discarded clothing he quickly rose to his feet and vaulted over a pile of rotting planks and building supplies before looking behind him. The enormous oaf was tossing people aside like children’s dolls, pushing and shoving his way to the alley’s dark entrance. Sweat poured down his face in rage and exertion, and he moved far faster than the young man thought possible. The fleet footed rogue wasted no time in bounding over another pile of trash, eyes constantly scanning the barely visible running path and looking for the next crossroads. Suddenly the alley curved right before opening up to two more yawning caverns of tight, urban design. He bolted through the right passage, the sounds of scattered debris and violent curses coming ever closer behind him. Looking to spy another means of escape he darted into the next tight corridor on his left. Though the alley here was clear it was much darker, with only five feet left open between the two towering brick buildings and a long sprint to the other end opening into the market. His eyes gazed skyward to the overcast sky, the silhouette of a clothesline between open windows helping him get his bearings.
The sudden shout echoing to his ears caught the thief off guard. Standing at the entrance to the alley was the shadow of the mark, breathing heavy with flared nostrils and a quivering jowl overflowing with rage. The thief knew he could never beat the man in a straight out run to the other end of the alley, not with the speed he had displayed. A sinister laugh carried over the slick walls and stifling air, followed by a single storming footstep slamming to the ground.
“I’m gonna’ get that letter back out of your hands when I’m done breaking both of them kid.” The towering hulk of a man bragged, taking another step closer to the boy. It was only then that regret entered the young man’s mind, the consequences of his actions up to now personified in a terrible, violent man hired for the very thing he was about to do. The thief’s throat was swollen, a loud gulp of nonexistent saliva doing little to spark the bravery that lied dormant in his heart. From above a seahawk cried out, bringing the young man’s attention skyward to view the beauty of nature one last time. The quivering fear subsided a bit, overwhelming him no more now that a plan had entered his mind.
With a roar a fist the size of the thief’s head came rushing forward. Hairy knuckles felt only humid air as the thief ducked low, diving between the legs of the burly brute. Spinning about to grab hold of the trickster the mark grasped only air as the young man darted back, knowing full well another assault was coming.
“Stand still and take your punishment like a man!”
The letter’s previous carrier swung low this time, a jab easily dodged by the spritely target. Seeing an opportunity to rush in with a head full of anger and a fist filled with rage he followed up with a vicious uppercut, this time confident that there’d be nowhere to dodge the attack in the tight confines. The thief leapt forward, twisting his body to the side and grabbing hold of his assailant’s forearm as leverage to drive his body between the brute and the mold dotted wall. His left leg kicked out, connecting with the crotch of the brute and doubling the man over in pain. Without hesitation the young acrobat tightened his grip on the forearm and pushed his feet against the alley wall, tumbling over onto the man’s back and vaulting off skyward. Outstretched hands grabbed onto the clothesline, thankful it was secured tightly and could sustain his weight.
By the time the shooting pain had subsided to a pounding, throbbing ache radiating into his abdomen the merchant guild guardian could only look up and see the young thief twist and squirm his way from the clothesline through the open window. Cursing the cowardly yet effective blow to his groin the man slouched down to the ground, a grin crossing his face despite his own failure.
The young thief sat beneath the windowsill, panting as each sharp, deep breath waned slower and slower until he had calmed his nerves and was sure the bully couldn’t follow him up. He smiled to himself, leaning his head back against the plastered wall of the abode he had so nimbly escaped to. For once he wouldn’t be forced to tell a tall tale of his escapades, to embellish the story and make an epic saga out of the simple test. He couldn’t wait to show the letter to the Guildmaster of Shadows and be known as the youngest thief to pass the great test. Perhaps he would look inside the letter, just a peak to see what was so important he told himself.
“That’s an interesting item you’ve got there young man!” A salty, commanding voice filled with sarcasm mentioned from the far side of the room. Looking up the thief’s eyes rested on a rotund fellow in rich red robes, a belt of golden silk resting below a jiggling paunch and more jewelry than existed in the great market itself hanging from a sweaty neck. On either side of the smiling stranger stood two rather violent looking men, each flexing their fingers and popping stubborn knuckles.
“Mind if I see it?” The extravagant stranger requested, little choice emanating from his mocking demand as he lent an outstretched hand to the thief. A single ring wedged onto a plump sausage of a finger caught the light streaming in through the window, bearing the highest seal of the merchant guild. The young thief’s heart dropped, his stomach churning knowing the reason none as young as him had passed the test. Smiling to the man he held out the letter, eyes darting back and forth between the two hired muscle keeping their distance for the time being.
“It’s my birthday tomorrow…” The young thief smiled wryly, a heavy sigh escaping his lips before finishing his statement.
“…and I’m going to be sure to celebrate!”
The young thief quickly pulled the crinkled envelope back, tucking it into his tunic and grabbing hold of the windowsill with both hands. In one deft move he lurched back and flung himself over the ledge and out the window, his momentum carrying him down to the original owner of the letter still sitting down and nursing his wounds. Without warning both the young man’s feet slammed down into the exposed groin of the once mighty threat, a howling yelp cut short by unconsciousness that befell the suitable landing pad. Rolling gracefully to the side the thief looked to the window one last moment before running off into the alleys, smiling at the stream of furious curses and frothing spittle ejected from the mouth of the merchant guild leader.
Tomorrow would be a good birthday indeed.