(First Published in Interregnum APA)
"Subtelty is not one of your fine points, is it my dear?" asked the gentleman's too calm voice. "It is when necessary. Just stand still and you'll live to perhaps experience it one day. As long as your back is to me, and my knife is to your throat, I remain annonymous and you remain alive." "I have no intention in turning, child." Giovanni replied. He knew that she was shorter than him, by the position of the blade. Her voice was young and betrayed the fact that she was just a little bit afraid. "And don't try resisting, I just want your money purse and then I'll be gone." She offered in as firm and assuring voice as she could muster. "You assume I have one." "I've been following you for three blocks since you left that art shop. Anyone rich enough to buy paintings and dressed in velvets and silks has got to have a healthy purse." "You're good. I didn't notice you until you fell in step behind me a moment before striking." "Thanks. You act like you've been robbed before." So, his apparent calmness had disconcerted her, causing her to talk. Perhaps, then, he could get something from this, if only information. "Theft is the price of doing business in T'Jacob, since the revolt and the Baron's death," he sallied cautiously. He felt the weight at his belt lighten without a sound. Her second blade had severed the cord in a single stroke. "I'll take your fancy dagger too," she said as she snatched the blade from its sheath on the opposite side of the belt. He glimpsed her hand this time, slim with soft looking skin and nails cut short. He guessed her age to was not more than fifteen years, probably a bit less. "Pity, its one of a matched pair. I left the other at home." "I'm sure you can afford to replace it. I need all I can get for my entry fee." "Entry Fee?" "Since you're being so cooperative it can't hurt to tell... I'm joining the temple of Gildorn, and stolen goods are always the price." "Are they? I didn't realize that many knew of Gildorn's temple here." "They don't. A friend told me a few months ago. So, I've been saving up to pay the entry fee and get the Lady's protection." "Ah, you believe the Goddess Gildorn will shine her graces upon you, and all will be right in the world." "It's a fact that her folks got protection. Word's out that the local priestess helped raid the Baron's treasury the night of the revolution, and none of those protected by her got hurt, while lots of others died. Sounds good to me." Giovanni smiled at this. He knew that Gildorn's people had nothing to do with the real events of that night. True, he'd heard that the temple theives made off with a fair chunk of the treasury, but only long after a passing aquaintence had started the fire and brought about the massacre of the Baron's men. If they had crept into the smouldering remains of the Palace, it was after the real danger had passed. "And you think bringing them more money will prove your faith?" He berated himself, as the scorn in his voice caused her hand to tense slightly. Not yet breaking the skin, but uncomfortably close. He wondered if he had pushed the girl just a bit too much. "No, but it gets me in the door. After that I may have to prove myself, but at least I won't have to sleep in alleyways or steal food from a farmer's wagons as it passes into market. Maybe I'll even become a priestess myself." "I see... and this is your goal in life?" "I don't see no heroes on white horses riding up to carry me away. A girl's got to be practical. It's this, manual labor, or selling myself to every drunken sailor that comes into port. Choice is obvious to me." "Good luck then. Don't worry, I won't turn around. My purse is not worth my life." The pressure of the blade left his neck entirely, but he remained tense, in case she thought he might raise an alarm or use the relaxing of his muscles as a movement to strike. "If you do you'll be found with your own knife in your belly," she said with all sincerity. "No need for such vulgarity. Politeness is as useful to a thief as stealth and speed." "Sure it is...." her voice trailed off slightly as she moved away and blended back into the darkness of the night. He took a few breathes and pondered the turn of events. Tomorrow, the New Moon, was said to be sacred to Gildorn. She'd probably be among the brethren before the night was over, if he wanted her. Giovanni walked home and spent an uneventful night. The loss of the purse was nothing, not even a day's proceeds from his art shop. But he had been stalked and mugged, and that meant he was rusty, not spending enough effort to watch his back since the fall of the Baron's soldiers. He would have to be sure to vary his path home from now on. * * * The next night was dark as pitch as Fesha crept through the streets outside the walled city to the delapitated apartment building. She was challenged twice within a block of the place, confirming that within was the secret temple in all its splendor. At the entrance she was searched by the guard (But not disarmed) and, after she explained her reason for coming, ushered her into a holding chamber of the temple. She went without a struggle, but the guard still stayed to watch her in the sparsely furnished room. He seemed amused as he leaned by the room's only door. A second guard appeared, spoke to the first in hushed tones, and headed off down a darkened passage. "You're to see the keeper, he'll judge wether you're to be initiated or not." said the guard as she was waiting. "Keeper?" Fesha had expected to be brought before a Priestess, or tested in some magical manner. "He manages the temple's worldly affairs, and answers to Gildorn's priestess directly. He's roughly number two around here, so watch yourself. And, if he ok's you, then you see a Priestess for initiation." "And if he don't?" "You better pray to Gildorn that he does." Fesha couldn't tell if he was trying to scare her, or really meant the implied threat. She paced nervously while they waited. At last a second guard appeared at the door and spoke softly to the first. "Alright, little lady. You get to see the man now. Keep your head bowed in his prescence, in respect. Answer when you're spoken to. If you lie, your body will be found in the river by morning." She was escorted down the darkened hall and into an office lit by a single candle on a desk. Behind the desk, just out of the light, was a cloaked figure. She kept her head down, avoiding the keeper's face and looking at the floor. as she had been told. "You have come to ask initiation unto Gildorn. What gifts have you brought to Gildorn's representatives?" stated the guard, still standing beside her. "One thousand silver frills, a fine ring set with a ruby." She set the items named within the circle of candlelight. A draft caused the flame to flicker, and the shadows to sway, but when she glanced nervously upward, the keeper hadn't moved. "And this dagger." she added, placing the dagger, with it's ornate silver hilt and stylized 'G' beside the other items. There was a pregnant pause, a silence filled only by the keeper's sharp intake of breath in the shadows, and Fesha's own heartbeat pounding in her ears. "Why do you seek to join the faithful of Gildorn?" came the slighly muffled voice of the keeper. "To serve the Lady, to seek her mercy." "Then welcome child," said a familiar voice behind the desk. She jumped bolt upright to see Giovanni, now in the circle of light. "Thank you," he continued, "for the return of my blade. I see you have polished it up for me. "Last Night -" "I was sloppy and you were what one expects from a thief of Gildorn. But you must remember courtesy, humor and civility when dealing with a mark. I'm sure you will learn not to make these mistakes again in the weeks to come." "You're the temple keeper? But... the artshop." "Yes, I'm the keeper." he said, showing the matching blade at his belt as he slid the recovered dagger into its sheath. "And the artshop is one of many legitimate businesses used to dispose of stolen goods. Not all thievery is done from alleyways. Aspire towards greatness and you might one day follow suite." "Then I am to be initiated?" "Yes, of course. And given a safe warm place to sleep off the street, food to keep you healthy and by the looks of things a change of clothes and a bath. The priestess will initiate you this very night." "But, since you've shown me I'm getting sloppy, you will be given a tough job. From now on you will be apprenticed to me, and part of that involves watching my back and carrying from shop to home part of my purses. It will not be easy or without danger. If you survive, then perhaps in a year you will have your chance to enter into training to serve the lady directly." She stood in thought over this and then broke into a smile. She had been given an offer she couldn't refuse.