It was such a depressingly gloomy evening in early autumn. Dark grey clouds hung restlessly above the flooding streets of Hightowne, which were usually crowded with all sorts of people; nobles, and servants running their errands; merchants driving beggars off their shop windows, and buyers who held their purses tight when passing them; pickpockets keeping an eye on Watchmen, and vice versa. Now, there was rain.
Through his office's large double windows a certain nobleman looked down to his mansion's fenced-in yard, where a lone guard was just about to step into a puddle. Yesterday, he had sent one of his servants to the city's underbelly in order to find the busiest fence and leave a message which he had written by himself and tied with a red silk ribbon for pointing out that it was important. Had the message reached its destination? So many questions bothered him – frightened him.
Would even criminals crawl out of their lairs in this weather? Lord Fitzroy bit nervously his nails behind the running raindrops. Slim fingers twiddled restlessly a fringe of the red curtains, short gnawed nails catching and loosening its threads. The rain showed no signs of dying.
A passing reflection in a window glass made Fitzroy wake up to this realm again. A faint odour of presumably wet and infrequently washed fabric reached his nose, and the sensation of hope-filled trepidation it set alight in him made his eyes grow wide.
The servants knew to knock before entering. Therefore...
"You wished to see me."
Fitzroy turned slowly around. The voice was unknown to him and so was the speaker right beside the closed door. He felt a pair of eyes scrutinise him from head to toe, eyes of the face he couldn't properly see apart from the chin and tip of nose – no doubt the stranger's hood did just what it was meant to do. How ironic. All of a sudden he realized that he couldn't possibly know if this stranger was really the man he had asked for; he had no idea of what the so-called 'master thief' was supposed to look like.
Better not be that picky, Fitzroy scolded himself. It had to get done as soon as possible, no matter who did it as long as he wasn't incompetent. If this man obeyed the name Garrett, it was then the name they used.
"Yes, I did. So, I have heard that you, Garrett, are the most skilled thief in the City... A real master among your kind."
"It's nice that I don't have to advertise myself."
"I have a task for you. A task that is... delicate, in many perspectives."
Garrett made another examining view on Lord Fitzroy. Tall and aristocratic-looking nobleman, middle-aged yet still dark-haired, long face so guileful and anxious it was quite clear that he hadn't just inherited all his properties. However, judged by the emptiness of lord's office - and the whole house, in fact -, that fortune had been spent almost in its entirety, probably not even that long ago.
"You probably have heard about Argall family, or at least about the scandal they are going through these days."
Argall family. Suspicious marriages, strange deaths in questionable circumstances, properties no one really knew who was in charge of. Yeah, I've heard about them, Garrett thought, and nodded slightly. Fitzroy started to explain the case.
"It's not a long time since Lord Armand, head of the Argall family, died and his wife, Lady Viola, married a nobleman Lord Wymond, who also happened to be my dear uncle. Now it has occurred that Wymond has died as well – you have heard about it, haven't you? A sudden bout of illness and suffocating to wine, as they say..."
Garrett nodded again. People at most raised an eyebrow when death of a man was promptly followed by remarriage of the widow. Surely it aroused rumours, but it was hardly condemned... as long as the new spouse stayed alive.
"Indeed. Lord Wymond surely was neither a healthy nor particularly sober man, but I'm completely sure it was a murder."
At first Garrett considered asking why had Lord Fitzroy made such assumption, but decided then to let it go. Nobles had assassinated each others for centuries, and natural death was one of the most glorious life goals in this treacherous city. Nothing new or surprising about that.
"And you decided to call for a thief instead of the Watch?" he asked, but Fitzroy held up his hand.
"It's not that simple. You see, I have one suspect: Miss Rowena, Lady Viola's daughter. Her stance towards my uncle was... pure hatred."
Now was the thief's turn to lift an eyebrow. Not the widow? Fitzroy granted him an ungenuine smile.
"The thing is, since long before this little incident, I have tried to persuade Miss Argall to marry me. Without trying to sound like a devious blackmailer, nor trying to benefit from the passing of my dear uncle, I think that now she has an excellent reason to finally agree," Fitzroy explained, frowning to the thief's cynical sneer. "I've sent countless letters to Argall Manor and tried to convince her that this kind of misunderstandings could be taken care off without public handling, but she doesn't make any contact. They don't let anyone enter Argall Manor, and Miss hadn't shown her pretty face in public since poor Wymond's funeral. I've heard some whispers telling that she has fled from the City, but I don't believe that."
A small grin appeared on Garrett's scarred face. Even he knew that women liked gifts more than blackmail, and he was not the one who was bothering about relationships in general.
"So, your wife-to-be has already killed one of your relatives and gives you the silent treatment? If I were you, I'd be considering that marriage twice."
"Well, I don't remember being asking for an advice," Fitzroy stated, little annoyed. "I want you to enter Argall Manor in Auldale, find some information about Miss Argall's current location, and report straight to me. No need to steal anything... it would be very unapproved, as you undoubtedly understand. But do not worry; I will make this worth your while."
While speaking, Fitzroy turned slightly, and with a tiny copper key he opened the uppermost drawer of his writing desk. Garrett moved his head upwards a little, catching a glimpse of something blue.
"This little pouch here is full of gold coins," Fitzroy said, taking out a dark blue velvet pouch. "I will exchange this to any information you are able to give me. If you can't find anything, I will still pay for your time. But," the nobleman delved the drawer again, "if Miss Argall happens to be at home as I guess, I expect you to bring her to me unharmed, by any means necessary. In that case, you can await this being part of your reward."
Garrett stared at the huge red ruby which Fitzroy put down on the table. It had to be worth more than some people ever got in their hands! He would be living like a noble for weeks...
Usually, Garrett wouldn't have had anything to do with schemes of this nature. To him, forcing someone into a marriage was one of the most foolish ideas one could ever come up with. On the other hand, it wasn't very mature to murder a new stepfather either, so without taking a closer look to the affair in question one might say that maybe Miss Argall was just as insidious as her suitor.
It didn't change the fact that kidnapping wasn't really a business he would have liked to attend to. Not that he would have found it too challenging or anything – tedious sounded more accurate. Getting in or finding the target was rarely a problem, but not all shadows were large enough to hide two human beings, and he wasn't all that fast and agile with a body on his shoulder. And all the way from Auldale..?
Moreover, there was something shady in this. Fitzroy's mansion didn't really scream the standard wealth of nobility; along with the lack of statues and other decorations, there were paler spots on the walls there where had used to be paintings. While sneaking through the mansion the thief had also got some dust on the damp hems of his cloak; servants who were responsible for cleaning were either lazy or not very well paid. No doubt behind this all was simply just an attempt to recover lost wealth, but if Lord Fitzroy had been forced to sell some of his treasures and keep cheap staff in order to be able to maintain his mansion and lifestyle, how did he have such a precious stone to be given to a thief?
"I'd rather steal valuables than women. Items won't whine about it," Garrett stated and zoomed in to the ruby. The light reflected from its beautiful sparkly surface, and he could almost feel its glassy coldness in his grip. Before Lord Fitzroy could say anything - that he would surely find another greedy taffer to take the job -, Garrett muttered his agreement.
"I don't usually get involved with intrigues like this, but I need money. I'll go and see what I can find. Just don't lose that pretty gem while I'm gone."