Hugo hated the tavern.
It was loud, filthy, and the air lingered with a musty aroma of piss and bitter ale. The drinks were cheap and the women cheaper, but neither the drinks nor the women were worth his time. The wooden floorboards were softened with rot and droplets of water dripped from the dampened rooftop. Despite its poor condition, the tavern was bursting at the seams with all sorts of people. They danced and sang until their feet went numb and their throats went dry. Hugo would not partake in such festivities. His head was pounding harder than the drums in the far corner of the room. He should have known it would be like this. Even these festering holes were always packed on the advent of the capital’s Nine Feast Days.
Aldessa’s Feast Days were a beloved tradition amongst its people. They were held every year to honor the nine Gods of their kingdom. They also served as a symbol of unity between the High Priests and the ruling families. Men and women poured in, day by day, eager to spend their coin at the marketplace. The Feast Days were open to families of farmers, scullions, swineherds, cottars, carpenters, smallfolk, and men of means looking to sing praises and drink away their savings. Musicians crowded the cobblestone streets and painters set up stalls to sell their work. Even some members of the nobility marched alongside the commoners.
And where the nobles marched, thieves followed. Pickpockets loved the celebrations just as much as everyone else; preparations for the festivities kept most of the city watch occupied, so those who spent their lives lurking in the shadows were free to ply their trade. Many took to plotting in local taverns. Hugo was not so different in that regard, for as much as he desired peace and quiet, he knew that this would be the perfect place to plan his last big score.
The surge of travelers helped him blend with the crowds. He could be another forgettable face in a fog of forgettable faces. To the good people of Aldessa, Hugo Hart was probably some weary emigrant with a thirst for cheap ale. Or perhaps they would see him as just another unfaithful husband looking to pop his cork for a few coppers. Maybe luck would favor him and he would be seen as another nameless ghost with a past not worth sharing. It was no matter. All he knew was that he had big plans for himself once the Feasts were over.
Hugo took a small sip from his own skin of wine. It was a poor vintage, but the summer spices crawled through his blood and warmed his aching bones. He needed that. While his body was far from failing, Hugo knew he no longer possessed the vim and vigor of his youth. Still, not many in his profession could claim the gift of old age. Of this, he was at least somewhat grateful. The life of a thief is not a life known for its longevity.
Across from him sat Mirabelle and Willem, two upstart street urchins from Aldessa’s seedy underbelly. He caught them one evening cheating at a card game by the docks. Hugo didn’t know which game it was, nor did he care, but he knew hand signals when he saw them. Once they collected their winnings, he approached them with two silver coins and a false smile. In one evening he managed to plan a heist while enlisting the help of two unofficial apprentices. Not too bad for an old man, he thought. They were green as grass and all too eager to get started.
“So what are you gonna do with your share?” Hugo asked his new partners in thievery.
“First thing? Probably get a few bottles of wine. The good stuff, from Irrillia,” Mirabelle said. “Then we’ll take it easy for a bit and lay low until something else comes along.” Willem thought about it for a moment. “You know, we have been wanting a dog. There’s a guy near the Rat’s Den who sells pups all the time, we could get one of ‘em.”
Hugo sighed. They were about to steal enough gold to purchase lands and titles from King Alden himself, yet they spent their time fantasizing about getting drunk and playing with dogs. It would have been wrong to chastise them, however. He was young once. He lost the money from his first job in a brothel by Griffinwing Keep. Whatever they thought they were doing with their share was their own business.
But none of that would matter if they screwed up the job. One misstep meant certain death. Their target was not some rich pissant with a noble family name, the mark was all too familiar with their line of work. His name was Ivan, a former street rat who climbed his way to the top. Hugo claimed he was as dangerous as he was obese. Ivan performed the duties of castellan for the Countess of Redcrest, far off and away from the capital’s prying eyes. It was said he sold children into slavery and took all the gold he could carry from honest folk. And he just so happened to be in the capital that same night.
Hugo sipped his spiced wine and took a deep breath. “Now comes the bad news. I’ve paid for your drinks. I’ve told you the stakes of this job. I have been completely honest from the start.” He took another swig. “I am going to ask you both one question. Just one. You can say yes or you can say no, it won’t make much of a difference. But there is a condition: Do not lie to me.”
Mirabelle and Willem nodded in unison.
“Have you ever killed a man?”
Willem lowered his head. It was clear he had never done so; the boy’s eyes didn’t betray him. It was quite likely that he hadn’t even held a dagger. But Mirabelle’s eyes… Those eyes told a different tale.
“Six” she said. “Two were an accident, part of a job gone wrong. You know how it is. But the other four had it coming.” Hugo was impressed. He knew the art of false facing too well to be fooled. She was telling the truth.
“Right. Six. Gods, I hope you’re not married,” Hugo laughed, “I truly do. I’ll feel sorry for the poor sot who tries to pull one over on you, then.” She rolled her eyes and took another sip of ale before scanning the room. No one was going to bother them here, but he wouldn’t tell her that. Besides, taking extra precautions was a good sign. She showed promise.
“Take another drink. We will meet by Prince’s Pass at sundown. I have it on good authority that Ivan will be making rounds to the local merchants. Something about collecting old debts before he left the capital for Redcrest. We need to be careful though, he keeps two armed men with him at all times. Crossbows, probably. But he also carries a small chest, and in that chest sits enough gold to buy a small army and make yourself High Lord of whatever piss pile you’d like to call home. Willem, you’re gonna get Ivan plastered. Buy him as much ale, mead, beer, and wine as the bloated bastard can drink. Then we’re gonna wait for him to stumble out. As he makes his way through the streets, Mirabelle and I will dispose of his men, take his coin, and then we’ll all meet back at this very tavern.” He took one last sip of his wine. It felt good to give orders again.
So the terms were set and the roles were assigned. Willem was to scout and serve as the distraction when needed. Hugo was to lurk in the shadows and keep hidden while Mirabelle made sure no one followed them. It was simple and rather crude as far as plans went, but sometimes the simple job was the safer job. They met where they said they would meet, just at the corner of Prince’s Pass, and Ivan was where Hugo said he would be. It was all too easy.
But Ivan had more than just two crossbowmen with him. Next to him stood a little girl with blonde hair and bright blue eyes. Gods damn it, Hugo thought. Where did that walking whale find time to make a bloody kid? Mirabelle may have seemed like a cold-hearted killer, but she was not one to consider harming a child. They could only hope Willem would lead her away while they did their work.
Ivan moved slowly, probably because he never had to move for anybody, and took whatever the merchants gave him. He collected his earnings, stored them in his chest, and kept on walking… But as fate would have it, his next stop was at a brothel. Hugo and Mirabelle trailed behind and Willem made his way inside.
“Wait,” Hugo held his hand up to Mirabelle. “There’s Willem. He’s buying our friend a drink. That’s good. Let’s go in and request a table. Pretend we’re together.”
“No one would believe that,” she said, “You’re old enough to be my father.”
“Then pretend I’m your father,” Hugo shrugged, “I’ve seen stranger happenings.”
“What kind of a father takes his daughter to a brothel?” Mirabelle’s eyes grew wide.
“The kind of father who needs coin. And as it stands, we need coin. So let’s go.”
They walked in, sat down, and watched as Willem put on his charm. Ivan was buying whatever the boy was selling. Within an hour they were both hollering profanities and sharing stories as if they had been best friends. The little girl with him, however, stood quiet, not even whispering a word when Willem asked about her. “Bethany!” Ivan roared, “Our friend… W-whatisit… Williamson! Williamson asked you a question!” The little girl smiled and spoke softly; Hugo and Mirabelle couldn’t make out what was said.
After another hour they all stood up to leave. Willem walked them out, causing Ivan to stumble behind. “I know a quicker way back to the inn,” he said. “Follow me. Your pals with the crossbows can come too!” Ivan let out yet another laugh. Willem was quite the entertainer, which provided a rather unexpected outcome.
And then, as if the Gods themselves had smiled on Hugo, he saw it. The chest. Ivan left it right there at his table. All Hugo had to do was take it. No one had to die. No one had to worry about spilling blood. In an instant he filched the chest and walked right out of the brothel. He had Mirabelle stay behind to make sure no one had their eyes on him, but with all the crowds, who would even notice? They were all to meet at the same tavern at the end of the night, but Hugo had other plans. Now for the real lesson, he thought. Never trust a bloody thief.
He crept out of the city and kept on going until he reached the inn he was staying at near the outskirts of Aldessa. He almost felt bad for Mirabelle and Willem. Ivan’s men would find them and hunt them down. He could see Mirabelle taking some of Ivan’s punishment. They wouldn’t harm her face; Ivan liked to keep his girls pretty while he was breaking them, but Willem… Willem wouldn’t last a moment. The criminal underworld was a cruel, unforgiving place. Hugo had known that all his life. Treachery was about as common as the fleas.
Hugo paid the innkeeper for one more night. He figured it would be a good idea to rest up before heading to Irillia the next morning. He would then sleep with their women and drink their wine. The good stuff, he remembered Mirabelle saying. Maybe he’d buy a bottle in her honor. He made his way up the stairs and opened the door to his room. It was still dark, but a foul, rotten stench lingered in the air. Then he felt cold steel kiss the side of his neck.
“Someone wants to speak with you,” a soft voice whispered from behind. “And he is not happy, Hugo Hart.” He turned around and saw Bethany standing, head tilted sideways, while the reflection of candlelight swam in her eyes. Ivan’s crossbowmen kept their bolts pushed against his skin. “Inside,” she pointed to the open door.
He walked in and found the source of the terrible smell. It was shit. Dog shit. In the corner sat a shaggy, black pup and a smiling Willem. “I wanted to name him Hugo,” he laughed. “Mirabelle doesn’t like the idea, but I think she’ll come around. You’ll come around, won’t you?”
Hugo stood motionless. Ivan’s men kept their crossbows steady while Willem locked eyes with Hugo. “Sorry about all this,” Willem started again, “But Ivan promised us a share when we told him what we were planning.” Hugo’s eyes grew wide when he realized what he had walked into. And they grew wider when a soft, slender hand gripped the back of his neck…
“Seven,” Mirabelle whispered, as she pressed her dagger into his throat.