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No matter how comfortable he was, Skif slept like a cat, with one eye open and one ear cocked, in case trouble stole upon him, thinking to catch him unaware. So even though he didn’t know what woke him, when he woke, he came alert all at once, and instead of jumping to his feet, he stayed frozen in place, listening.
Wood creaked slightly, somewhere in the loft. Was it a footstep? The sound came again, a trifle nearer, then fabric brushed against something harder. There was someone up here with him.
Now, it wouldn’t be one of the laundry servants on proper business; they came up the stair, clumping and talking loudly. It might be a servant or a page come up here to nap or escape work—if it was, although Skif would have a slight advantage in that the other wouldn’t want to be caught, he had a profound dis-advantage in that he didn’t belong here himself, and the other could legitimately claim to have heard something overhead and gone to investigate. If that was the case, he’d be stuck under this tub until the other person left.
It might also be something and someone entirely different—a thief, who wouldn’t want to be found any more than Skif did, who might flee, or might fight, depending on the circumstances, if Skif came out of hiding.
He didn’t know enough yet; better to wait. It was highly unlikely that the other would choose Skif’s particular tub to hide himself or anything else underneath. It was out of the way and smallish, and Skif had chosen it for precisely those reasons. Instead, he peered under the edge of it, as the surreptitious sounds moved closer, thanking his luck that it wasn’t dusty up here. Now would be a bad time to sneeze.
It sounded, given the direction the sounds were coming from, as if the unknown had gotten into the loft the same way that Skif had, through the gable window at the end. Skif narrowed his eyes, waiting for something to come into his area of vision among the slats of the wooden tubs. The light was surprisingly good up here, but the sun was all wrong for Skif to see a shadow that might give him some notion of who the other intruder was. The creaking gave Skif a good idea that the fellow moved toward the stairs, which meant he was at least thinking of using them to descend into the laundry itself. That wasn’t an option Skif would have chosen—unless, of course, the fellow was a thief, and was planning on purloining something from the laundry itself. There was plenty of stuff to steal in there; silk handkerchiefs and scarves, the embroidered ribbons that the young ladies of the household liked to use for their necks and hair and the young men liked to give them, the gossamer veils they wore in public—all light, easy to carry, presumably easy to sell. The only reason Skif hadn’t helped himself before this was that he didn’t know where to dispose of such things and was not about to share his loot with Kalchan.
A foot slid slowly into view; not a big foot, and most importantly of all, not a foot clad in the soled sock of a page or liveried indoor servant. This was a foot in a half-boot of very flexible black leather, laced tight to the ankle and calf, much worn and patched, not much larger than his own, attached to a leg in rusty black trews with worn places along the hem. This foot, and the person who wore those trews, did not belong here. No one in Lord Orthallen’s service wore anything of the sort.
Skif made a quick decision, and struck. Before the other knew he was there, Skif’s hand darted from under the tub, and Skif had the fellow’s ankle held fast in a hand that was a lot stronger than it looked.
Skif had half expected a struggle, or at least an attempt to get free, but the owner of the ankle had more sense than that—or was more afraid of the attention that the sounds of a struggle would bring than anything Skif could do to him. So now, it was the other’s turn to freeze.
Skif mentally applauded his decision. He thought he had a good idea of what was going through the other fellow’s mind. Now, the arm that Skif had snaked out from beneath the tub was clad in a sleeve that was more patch than whole cloth. So Skif obviously didn’t belong here either, and the two of them were at an equal advantage and disadvantage. For either to make noise or fuss would mean that both would be caught—and no point in trying to claim that one had seen the other sneak over the wall and followed to catch him either. An honest boy would have pounded on the back entrance to report the intruder, not climbed up after him. No, no—if one betrayed the other, both of them would be thrown to the City Guard.
So the other fellow did the prudent thing; he stayed in place once Skif let go of him so that Skif could slip out from under the tub. Like it or not, for the moment they were partners in crime. Skif, however, had a plan.
There was a moment when the other could have tried to knock Skif out and make a run for it, but he didn’t. Such an action would have been noisy, of course, and he still might have been caught, but with one unconscious or semiconscious boy on the floor to distract those who would come clambering up here, he might have been able to get away. Skif breathed a sigh of relief when he was all the way out from under the tub and was able to kneel next to it, looking up at the interloper.
What he saw was a boy of about fifteen, but small for his age, so that he wasn’t a great deal taller than Skif. His thin face, as closed and impassive as any statue’s, gave away no hint of what he was thinking. His eyes narrowed when he got a good look at his captor, but there was no telling what emotion lay behind the eyes.
His clothing was better than Skif’s—but then again, whose wasn’t? Skif wore every shirt he owned—three, all ragged, all inexpertly patched by his own hands, all faded into an indeterminate brown—with a knitted tunic that was more hole than knit over the top of it all. His linen trews, patched as well, were under his woolen trews, which for a change, had been darned except for the seat which sported a huge patch made from an old canvas tent. This boy’s clothing was at least all the same color and the patches were of the same sort of material as the original. In fact, unless you were as close as Skif was, you wouldn’t notice the patches much.
He had long hair of a middling brown color, and a headband of dark braided string to keep it out of his eyes. His eyes matched his hair, and if he’d been fed as well as one of the page boys his face would have been round; as it was, the bones showed clearly, though not nearly as sharply defined as Skif’s.
There were other signs of relative prosperity; the other boy’s wrists weren’t as thin as Skif’s, and he showed no signs of the many illnesses that the poor were prone to in the winter. If he was a thief—and there was little doubt in Skif’s mind that he was—this boy was a good enough thief to be doing well.
The two of them stared at each other for several moments. It was the older boy who finally broke the silence.
“Wot ye want?” he asked, in a harsh whisper.
Until that moment when he’d seized the other’s ankle, Skif hadn’t known what he wanted, but the moment his hand had touched leather, his plan had sprung up in his mind.
“Teach me,” he whispered, and saw with satisfaction the boy’s eyes widen with surprise, then his slow nod.
He squatted down beside Skif, who beckoned to him to follow. On hands and knees, Skif led him into the maze of tubs and empty packing crates until they were hidden from view against the wall, next to the chimney.
There they settled, screened by stacks of buckets needing repair. From below came the steady sounds of the laundry, which should cover any conversation of theirs.
“Ye ain’t no page, an’ ye ain’t got no reason t’be in the wash house. Wot ye doin’ here?” the boy asked, more curious than annoyed.
Skif shrugged. “Same as you, only not so good,” he replied. He explained his ruse to get fed to the boy, whose lips twitched into a thin smile.
“Not bad done, fer a little,” he acknowledged. “Noboddie never pays mind t’littles. Ye cud do better, though. Real work, not this pilferin’ bits uv grub. I kin get through places a mun can’t, an ye kin get where I can’t. We might cud work t’gether.”
“That’s why I want ye t’teach me,” Skif whispered back. “Can’t keep runnin’ this ferever. Won’ look like no page much longer.”
The boy snorted. “Won’t need to. Here, shake on’t.” He held out his hand, a thin, hard, and strong hand, and Skif took it, cementing their bargain with a shake. “M’name’s Deek,” the boy said, releasing his hand.
Skif was happy to note that Deek hadn’t tried to crush his hand in his grip or otherwise show signs of being a bully. “Call me Skif,” he offered.
Deek grinned. “Good. Now, you stay here—I come back in a tick, an’ we’ll scoot out by th’ back t’gether.” He cocked his head down at the floor, and it was pretty clear that there wasn’t anyone working down in the laundry anymore. It was probably time for supper; the laundresses and some of the other servants ate long before their betters, and went to bed soon after sundown, for their work started before sunrise.
Skif nodded; he saw no reason to doubt that Deek would play him false, since he was sitting on the only good route of escape. He and Deek made their way back to Skif’s tub; Skif ducked back inside, and Deek crept down the stairs into the laundry.
Deek came back up quickly, and the quick peek of silk from the now slightly-bulging breast of his tunic told Skif all he needed to know. As he had expected, Deek had managed to slip downstairs, purloin small items of valuable silk, and get back up without anyone catching sight of him. As long as he took small things, items unlikely to be missed for a while, that weren’t such rare dainties as to be too recognizable, it was quite likely that the owners themselves would assume they’d been mislaid. No specially embroidered handkerchiefs, for example, or unusual colors of veils. He beckoned to Skif, who followed him out over the roof, both of them lying as flat as stalking cats as they wiggled their way along the tiles, to minimize the chance of someone spotting them from below. From this position, they couldn’t see much; just the lines of drying linens in the yard, the tops of bushes past the linens that marked the gardens, and the bulk of the magnificent mansion beyond. If anyone looked out of the windows of the mansion, they would be spotted.
Not likely though.
Reprinted from Take a Thief by Mercedes Lackey by permission of DAW, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc. Copyright © 2002, Mercedes Lackey. All rights reserved. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.