The Thief King



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Cover art Chris Taggart.

Prologue


Roskel Farinder tried to get the louse in his moustache between his teeth. His beard was long enough to chew on, but the mite was just out of reach. He longed to scratch his face, or even better, shave the growth off. Better still, have a fine barber do it. He allowed himself one of his many fantasies, and imagined he sat in a chair with his head tilted back, propped upon a soft head rest. His hair was freshly washed and cut, his body bathed, scrubbed and sweated in a spa. The soothing sound of the barber’s blade stropping lulled him. Not so long ago he’d been able to afford the finest barbers in Naeth, the capital city where he’d lived. He’d been an important man, for a time.

Before that he’d been a bandit, before that a thief of no little renown.

Unfortunately, it was the name he made for himself in those reckless days which got him into trouble now.
If only he’d used his head instead of his…well…he certainly learned his lesson this time. No more dalliances with powerful lord’s wives. He would even steer clear of their mistresses…oh, but that soft, pale flesh…

Roskel’s mind wandered again, and he allowed it free reign. A man had to have dreams. A prisoner had even greater need of them, because it was very easy to go insane, chained in a dank dungeon, unable to scratch your own beard, unable to urinate except when the guard came and brought the bucket. It was a matter of learning control, or sleeping in your own soil.

The man who’d once been a thief and once ruled the whole country might have fallen far, but he still had some shred of dignity, even in this dark corner of the world.

Here, in the dark, damp cold, he could not even hold to his fantasy of beautiful women and warm beds. None of the ladies he courted would stay in his mind, no matter the words he conjured to keep their memory with him.

Lonely down here.

The lice seemed to have run away, too.

Ulbridge town. Twice damned. My bane.

Why had he ever thought to return? He had the whole of Sturma in his palm and left it all behind on a fool’s quest.
Maudlin, but not insane or bereft of hope (yet), the thief turned his mind once more to the matter of getting free. He worried over the problem for three months, and was no closer to a magic trick.

He could hope for no aid. Nobody knew where he was. Such caution had been a necessity at the time. Someone else breaking him out.

He still entertained that fantasy.

‘Ah, Roskel. Hard times?’

‘Ah, my friend. You couldn’t, perhaps, see your way to...’

‘Already seen to. Come along. Let’s get you a drink and a bath, shall we?’

And the iron door would squeal open, and he and his unnamed saviour would stroll past the guard with a grin in the torchlight.

Ha.

Fresh air and the cool night. To see the stars. To stalk the rooftops once more and happen upon a lady, by chance, lonesome while her husband was away on business…perhaps a merchant’s wife…

No.

He shook his head - the little movement he could manage. He chaffed from the constant irritation of the shackles that bound his arms. He had learned to tense and ease his muscles periodically, but when he slipped into his uneasy sleep his arms numbed, and every time he woke his arms screamed as the blood rushed back.

The life of a prisoner was a sorry one. He tried to be thankful for his small mercies…a more inventive captor might have cut something important off, or hanged him. His captor knew a public humiliation would not work.

The Council would hear of it and Roskel’s captor would find himself at the end of a noose, too.

All his past glories and power availed Roskel little. He supposed this secret kind of death, wasting away in the darkness, was a slight improvement over torture or a very public execution.

The first of Rythe’s two suns rose. He couldn’t see it, but the first birdsong of the day drifted to him through the cracks in the wall.

No breakfast was forthcoming.

He allowed his mind to drift once more. He went over his mistakes in his head, as he did a thousand times each day; if he had just forgotten about the crown. If only he had walked away from it to become a thief again…

If he hadn’t listened to Tarn, he wouldn’t be here. But then who could deny a dying man’s wish? The last king, at that.

*