‘Look I know a guy.’ Her contact, her only contact stayed in she shadows, hood pulled low even in the dimness of the tavern’s sublevel. Almost as though he were afraid to be seen among the other denizens who favored the shady establishment.
‘He, sort of has a spot of cases like you, he may me willing to help you out.’
It wasn’t much to go on, but considering it was the best news she had heard all day, Ann was not about to turn the lead away. In less than a single day her carrier as a prominent treasure hunter had gone from bad to worse. The loss of her hand, had spelled an end to her carrier as a lock pick, burglar, or even a watch man. Even the guild that she had risen so prominently in had made it clear that she was no longer welcome in their midst.
So much for honor among thieves, Ann thought bitterly to herself.
‘I’ll take it.’ Sliding the last of her coppers over the counter with her left hand, she kept the stump of her right tucked into the folds of her tattered cloak. It was one of her last useful possessions, custom made with pockets sown into the inner fabric.
‘His name is Isaac. You can find him at this address.’ Another slip of paper appeared by the first. ‘And for goodness sake, don’t go mentioning that I sent you to him.’
Snorting, Ann pushed off from the table and muttered her thanks. It was probably the last help he would be wiling to offer, given how reluctant anyone was to talk to her after the botched job.
The street address proved harder to find than she thought, and even with growing up on the streets it was a challenge to find hint that the building she was looking for even existed. That the city had been partially demolitioned in order for newer improvements to be put in place was not helping the matter. Some of the buildings stubbornly stuck to their titles, while others had adopted new names. In the end it took her well past noon to find the place, a robust derelict compared to the surrounding buildings made of old stone and mortar, and doing its best to weather the changing city.
The door was new though, painted a scandalous red with a lions head knocker hanging from its jaws. On the second rap the door swung open and a grizzled wolf appeared in the door, his tan fur flecked with water.
‘Yes.’ Was all he said by means of greeting. His eyes washing over her drinking in the details. Then he saw the stump, and his demeanor changed, hardened, and for a second Ann was sure he would slam the door in her face. ‘I see. You had better come in.’
At his urging, she stepped into the dim lit room suddenly becoming very aware of how precarious a situation she had just stepped into. The feeling only resolved as the door closed behind her and several locks were worked.
She could sense them long before she could see them, other beings lingering in the shadows. Her night vision had yet to adapt to the darkness from the evening sun, leaving her blind, but she could feel the shift of the air currents as they closed around her. Instinctively her right hand dropped to her knife, phantom fingers closed around air as she realized her mistake. Instead of trying to go for her weapon, Ann dove forwards, trying to roll out of the way as heavy hands snagged the trailing end of her cloak and jerked back hard. Choking she fumbled at the clasp, but it was too late by then. Strong hands closed around her legs, grabbed her arms and pinned her to the floor, screaming she tried to fight back, but against their combined strength she might as well have been fighting statues.
‘Now, now.’ The calm voice of the tan wolf came from above her, there is no need for that. Briskly, her captors liberated her of her daggers, both concealed and on her hip. ‘I see the stories are true then, so that must mean.’ He hesitated, drawing out the last bit as a smile crept over his muzzle. ‘That the great Night Swan has had her wings clipped.’
Somehow the words struck her harder than any blow her captors could have landed, letting herself sink to the floor the fight leaving her.
‘And now, she has come to me.’ He continued in a controlled voice as he knelt down beside her. ‘But why?’
‘I – I –‘ her throat had suddenly gone very dry. ‘I was told you could help me. That you are the mammal to go to when all other doors close. That you, you, can fix, this.’ She tried to brandish her stump of a right arm, but her captors refused to relinquish their grip on her.
‘I see.’ The wolf said, a frown tugging at his features. His gaze held hers and for a long moment she was afraid he was going to have his guards tear her apart. Instead he took several decisive sniffs of the air and proclaimed. ‘You stink night soil and blood.’
Clapping his hands together twice, he motioned to a hallway at the end of room. ‘Bath her.’
‘Hey! Hey, wait – what about hey! Let go of me!’ Despite Ann’s protests her captors lifted her from the floor and began to march her towards the darkened hall. ‘Isaac! I need to speak to Isaac!’
The bath house turned out to be just that, not some dungeon to torture victims as she had expected it to be. Instead, it vaguely resembled something she had seen in the palace baths, including crocodile figureheads where water streamed from their mouths. Her captors, now visible in the light proved to be equally surprising, young and slender wolves clad in black silks, that matched each other. Two males, the rest females, gathered around her in traditional pack like fashion.
‘Your clothes.’ The Alpha demanded in a stern but calm voice, as he extended his paw.
There was something about the way he asked that set Ann’s nerves on edge, and frowning she folded her arms and took a step back. At a slight jerk of his head, the others of the pack were on her, grasping at her limbs as she kicked and tried to fight back. She didn’t know why she tried as without her sword hand the battle was pretty one sided. In moments they had stripped her of everything save for the bandage that concealed the severed limb of her right hand.
Nude before them, they appeared hesitant to touch her, almost as though she were some disease ridden leper that they had just unmasked. I might as well be, without a hand she was clearly marked, and no one in their right mind would have anything to do with her.
A sharp gasp caused her to cringe, knowing what they were looking at. The royal guards had made been certain she was responsible for the theft and had striped her back before sending her to the dungeon. There the jailors had taken up the task of trying to extract the truth from her, and finally accepting her tail had parted her hand from her arm before evicting her from their care. Untreated and unbandaged, Ann knew the wounds looked ghastly without having to see them. Still it shamed her to have them see her this way.
‘Step aside.’ The firm cool voice of the wolf that had greeted her at the door came again. ‘No. This will not do. Not at all. Water. Hot. And lots of it, and bring the oils, I will tend to our guest myself.’
Turning to face him, the wolf that her contact had called Isaac, Isaac, otherwise known as The Wizard on the streets, Isaac who could solve problems when no one else could. Isaac, who, to her surprise was much more fit than she had expected, almost hansom for his species. Wearing only a blue silk sash that hung between his legs, affixed with a golden broch she could not help but let her eyes linger.
‘Don’t even think about it.’ He growled, waving his servants on. ‘I’m not interested in you like that.’
Her reply was cut short by a rumbling growl that emitted from the stone gators mouths, and for a second she expected them to come to life and attack her. Instead, steam billowed from their cavernous jaws as hot water steamed down to begin to swirl about in the stone set basin. Large enough to accommodate several elephants Ann looked at her host in mixed awe and concern. Finally managing, ‘It- it’s going to be too hot – the water.’
‘Heat is good, you are going to need it when we clean your wounds.’ Grasping her firmly he pushed her to the edge of the pool and motioned for her to get in. Ann hesitated, but the cool controlling look in the wolfs eyes was enough to cut her reply short.
The water was hot enough to make her recoil the second her toe touched it and for a second she was sure he was about to assist her in if she did not comply. Gritting her teeth, Ann eased her way in breaking the waters surface and working her way down to her hips. As the water began lapping at her open wounds she almost screamed. ‘Your trying to boil me alive!’
Grinning at her as he eased himself into the pool, if it caused him any discomfort he hid it well. ‘Yes, of course I am. You see, I like my rabbit stew hot, and very, very, fresh.’ His hands closed around her.
‘Wait, what are you – ‘
She attempted to scream as he pulled her under, dunking her head below the surface. Ann burst from his grasp sputtering and flailing around blindly for the lip. ‘You – Bastard!’ She screamed, her back protesting as the water loosened the dried remains of the straw and debris that had caked over her back. ‘I’ll kill you!’
Still smiling at her, Isaac, the Wizard of Nathrandiall, laughed. ‘Unlikely little swan. Very unlikely.’
Part One: Thief: A Botched Job