Althalus the thief spent ten days on the road down out of the mountains of
Kagwher to reach the imperial city of Deika. As he was coming out of the foothills, he passed a limestone quarry where miserable slaves spent their lives under the whip laboriously sawing building blocks out of the limestone with heavy bronze saws. Althalus had heard about slavery, of course, but this was the first time he'd ever actually seen slaves. As he strode on toward the plains of Equero, he had a little chat with his good luck about the subject, strongly suggesting to her that if she really loved him, she'd do everything she possibly could to keep him from ever becoming a slave.
The city of Deika lay at the southern end of a large lake in northern
Equero, and it was even more splendid than the stories had said it was. It was surrounded by a high stone wall made of squared-off limestone blocks,
and all the buildings inside the walls were also made of stone.
The broad streets of Deika were paved with flagstones, and the public buildings soared to the sky. Everyone in town who thought he was important wore a splendid linen mantle, and every private house was identified by a statue of its owner-usually so idealized that any actual resemblance to the man so identified was purely coincidental.
Althalus was garbed in clothes suitable for the frontier, and he received many disparaging glances from passersby as he viewed the splendors of the imperial city. After a while, he grew tired of that and sought out a quarter of town where the men in the streets wore more commonplace garments and less superior expressions.
Finally he located a fishermen's tavern near the lakefront, and he stopped there to sit and to listen, since fishermen the world over love to talk.
He sat unobtrusively nursing a cup of sour wine while the tar-smeared men around him talked shop.
"I don't believe I've ever seen you here before," one of the men said to
"I'm from out of town," Althalus replied.
"Oh? Where from?"
"Up in the mountains. I came down to look at civilization."
"Well, what do you think of our city?"
"Very impressive. I'm almost as impressed with your city as some of the town's rich men seem to be with themselves."
One of the fishermen laughed cynically. "You passed near the forum, I take it."
"If that's the place where all the fancy buildings are, yes I did. And if you want it, you can take as much of my share of it as you desire."
"You didn't care for our wealthy?"
"Apparently not as much as they did, that's for certain. People like us should avoid the rich if we possibly can. Sooner or later, we'll probably be bad for their eyes."
"How's that?" another fisherman asked.
"Well, all those fellows in the forum-the ones who wear fancy nightgowns in the street-kept looking down their noses at me. If a man spends all his time doing that, sooner or later it's going to make him cross-eyed."
The fishermen all laughed, and the atmosphere in the tavern became relaxed and friendly. Althalus had skillfully introduced the topic dearest to his heart, and they all spent the rest of the afternoon talking about the well-to-do of Deika. By evening, Althalus had committed several names to memory. He spent another few days narrowing down his list, and he ultimately settled on a very wealthy salt merchant named Kweso. Then he went to the central marketplace, visited the marble-lined public baths,
and then dipped into his purse to buy some clothing that more closely fit into the current fashion of Deika. The key word for a thief who's selecting a costume for business purposes is "nondescript," for fairly obvious reasons. Then Althalus went to the rich men's part of town and spent several more days-and nights-watching merchant Kweso's walled-in house. Kweso himself was a plump, rosy-cheeked bald man who had a sort of friendly smile. On a number of occasions Althalus even managed to get close enough to him to be able to hear him talking. He actually grew to be rather fond of the chubby little fellow, but that's not unusual, really.
When you get right down to it, a wolf is probably quite fond of deer.
Althalus managed to pick up the name of one of Kweso's neighbors, and with a suitably businesslike manner, he went in through the salt merchant's gate one morning, walked up to his door, and knocked. After a moment or two, a servant opened the door. "Yes?" the servant asked.
"I'd like to speak with Gentleman Melgor," Althalus said politely. "It's on business."
"I'm afraid you have the wrong house, sir," the servant said. "Gentleman
Melgor's house is the one two doors down."
Althalus smacked his forehead with his open hand. "How stupid of me," he apologized. "I'm very sorry to have disturbed you." His eyes, however,
were very busy. Kweso's door latch wasn't very complicated, and his entryway had several doors leading off it. He lowered his voice. "I hope my pounding didn't wake your master," he said.
The servant smiled briefly. "I rather doubt it," he said. "The master's bedroom is upstairs at the back of the house. He usually gets out of bed about this time in the morning anyway, so he's probably already awake."
"That's a blessing," Althalus said, his eyes still busy. "You said that
Melgor's house is two doors down?"
"Yes." The servant leaned out through the doorway and pointed. "It's that way-the house with the blue door. You can't miss it."
"My thanks, friend, and I'm sorry to have disturbed you." Then Althalus turned and went back out to the street. He was grinning broadly. His luck was still holding him cuddled to her breast. The "wrong house" ploy had given him even more information than he'd expected. His luck had encouraged that servant to tell him all sorts of things. It was still quite early in the morning, and if this was Kweso's normal time to rise,
that was a fair indication that he went to bed early as well. He'd be sound asleep by midnight. The garden around his house was mature, with large trees and broad flowering bushes that would provide cover. Getting inside the house would be no problem, and now Althalus knew where Kweso's bedroom was. All that was left to do was to slip into the house in the middle of the night, go directly to Kweso's bedroom, wake him, and lay a bronze knife against his throat to persuade him to cooperate. The whole affair could be settled in short order.
Unfortunately, however, it didn't turn out that way at all. The salt merchant's chubby, good-natured face obviously concealed a much sharper mind than Althalus expected. Not long after midnight, the clever thief scaled the merchant's outer wall, crept through the garden, and quietly entered the house. He stopped in the entryway to listen. Except for a few snores coming from the servants' quarters, the house was silent. As quietly as a shadow, Althalus went to the foot of the stairs and started up.
It was at that point that Kweso's house became very noisy. The three dogs were almost as large as ponies, and their deep-throated barking seemed to shake the walls.
Althalus immediately changed his plans. The open air of the nighttime streets suddenly seemed enormously attractive.
The dogs at the foot of the stairs seemed to have other plans, however.
They started up, snarling and displaying shockingly large fangs.
There were shouts coming from upstairs, and somebody was lighting candles.
Althalus waited tensely until the dogs had almost reached him. Then, with an acrobatic skill he didn't even know he had, he jumped high over the top of the dogs, tumbled on down to the foot of the stairs, sprang to his feet, and ran back outside.
As he raced across the garden with the dogs snapping at his heels, he heard a buzzing sound zip past his left ear. Somebody in the house, either the deceptively moon-faced Kweso himself or one of his meek-looking servants, seemed to be a very proficient archer.
Althalus scrambled up the wall as the dogs snapped at his heels and more arrows bounced off the stones, spraying his face with chips and fragments.
He rolled over the top of the wall and dropped into the street, running almost before his feet hit the paving stones. Things had not turned out the way he'd planned. His tumble down the stairs had left scrapes and bruises in all sorts of places, and he'd managed to severely twist one of his ankles in his drop to the street. He limped on, filling the air around him with curses.
Then somebody in Kweso's house opened the front gate, and the dogs came rushing out.
Now that, Althalus felt, was going just a little too far. He'd admitted his defeat by running away, but Kweso evidently wasn't satisfied with victory and wanted blood as well.
It took some dodging around and clambering over several walls, but the thief eventually shook off the pursuing dogs. Then he went across town to put himself a long way from all the excitement and sat down on a conveniently placed public bench to think things over. Civilized men were obviously not as docile as they appeared on the surface, and Althalus decided then and there that he'd seen as much of the city of Deika as he really wanted to see. What puzzled him the most, though, was how his luck had failed to warn him about those dogs. Could it be that she'd been asleep? He'd have to speak with her about that.