Thieftaker

The Thieftaker Chronicles (Volume 1 of 4)

D. B. Jackson

Tor Fantasy

Chapter
ONE
 
Boston, Province of Massachusetts Bay, August 26, 1765
 
 
Ethan Kaille eased his knife from the leather sheath on his belt as he approached Griffin’s Wharf, the words of a warding spell on his lips. He had sweated through his linen shirt, and nearly through his waistcoat, as well. His leg ached and he was breathing hard, gasping greedily at the warm, heavy air hanging over Boston on this August eve. But he had chased Daniel Folter this far—from the Town Dock to Purchase Street, over cobblestone and dirt, past storefronts and homes and pastures empty save for crows and grazing cows—and he wasn’t about to let the pup escape him now.
The western horizon still glowed with the last golden light of day, but the sky over Boston Harbor and the South End shoreline had darkened to a deep indigo. Hulking wooden warehouses, shrouded in a faint mist, cast deep, elongated shadows across the wharves. Clouds of midges danced around Ethan’s head, scattering when he waved a hand at them, only to swarm again as soon as he turned his attention back to his quarry.
Ethan stepped onto the wharf and peered into murky corners, expecting Folter to fly at him at any moment. The boy had shown himself to be a fool; now he was desperate as well, a dangerous combination. Ethan preferred to handle this without casting, but he already knew what spell he would speak if he had to.
“You’re mine now, Daniel!” he called. “Best you come out and face what’s coming to you!”
No answer. He crept forward, wary, his gaze sweeping back and forth between the warehouses that loomed on either side of the pier. He heard small waves lapping at the timbers, and the echoing cries of a lone gull. But Ethan was listening for the man’s breathing, for the scrape of a shoe or the whisper of a blade clearing leather.
After a few more steps, Ethan halted, afraid to stray too far out onto the pier lest the pup sneak past him. If he lost Folter to the tangled streets of the South End, he would have to begin his search anew.
“You shouldn’t have stolen Missus Corbett’s necklaces, Daniel!” Ethan pitched his voice to carry, but his words were swallowed by the hazy twilight air and the sounds of the harbor. “Her husband is angry. He’s paying his hard-earned money to get her jewels back, and to have some justice meted out on her behalf.”
He waited, listening, watching.
“Your only way out is through me, lad. And I’m not going anywhere.”
Still no response. Doubt started to gnaw at Ethan’s mind. Had Folter found some other way off the wharf? Or was he simply smarter and more patient than Ethan had allowed?
Neither, as it turned out.
Ethan heard a footfall to his left and wheeled quickly, his knife held ready. Folter stepped from the darkness, the faint glow of twilight shining in his eyes and glinting off the dagger he carried.
“Corbett can rot fer all I care!” he said. Brave words, but his voice trembled, almost as badly as his blade hand.
Ethan shook his head and approached him slowly. “You know better, lad. Mister Corbett is a man of means. He decides who rots and who doesn’t.”
Folter was bigger than he remembered. He stood a full head taller than Ethan, with long limbs and a thin, bony face. His hair, damp and lank, hung to his stooped shoulders. His breeches were torn at the knees, his waistcoat stained; the sleeves of his shirt barely reached his narrow wrists. His knife had a long, curved blade, and though he passed it from one hand to the other, wiping his sweaty palms on his breeches, the movements were deft. Ethan guessed that he would be a formidable foe in a knife fight if it came to that.
“Tha’s not true,” Folter said. “Not all of it, anyway.”
Ethan stopped, leaving some distance between them. Folter’s gaze met his for a moment before darting away, first to one side, then to the other. He was looking for a way out or past—or through, if need be. Ethan sensed that Folter had already taken his measure and convinced himself that he could prevail in a fight if he had to. He was wrong, but he had no way of knowing that. Ethan didn’t exactly cut an imposing figure. He was of medium height and build, and looked like a competent fighter, but not one to be truly feared. His hair was starting to go gray at the temples, and his face was lined and scarred. Folter would see in him someone too old and too small to be a true threat. Others had made the same mistake.
“I done a bit o’ work fer Pryce—Miss Pryce—back a year or two. If she could see her way clear t’ let this slide…”
“I don’t work for Pryce,” Ethan said.
Folter stared at him. “Then why are ya—?”
“I work on my own.”
The pup actually laughed. “Yar own? Ya think Sephira Pryce will stand by an’ let another thieftaker work anywhere in Boston?”
Ethan shrugged. “She has for the last few years.”
Folter’s smile faded. “Who are ya?” he asked.
Ethan twirled his knife casually between his fingers. “I was hired by Ezra Corbett to retrieve the jewels you’re carrying. My name is Ethan Kaille.”
The pup’s eyes widened at the mention of Ethan’s name. “Kaille,” he repeated. He tightened his grip on the hilt of his blade. “I’ve heard o’ ya.”
“Good,” Ethan said. “Then you know that you’d best be giving me what I’m after.”
“Ya’ll take them an’ then give me t’ th’ lobst’rbacks. I’ll be fourteen years at hard labor.”
“It doesn’t have to come to that.”
The young man shook his head, panic in his eyes. “I don’ believe ya.” He shifted his weight just slightly toward his right, his knees bending, his shoulders tensing. Subtle changes, but taken together they were all the warning Ethan needed.
By the time Folter lunged at him, leading with his blade, Ethan had already started to spin away. He had every intention of countering over Folter’s off hand, but at the last moment he saw that the boy—more cur now than pup—somehow had drawn a second knife. Only another spin saved Ethan from being skewered.
But in evading Folter’s attacks, Ethan had opened a path of escape. Folter looked at the thieftaker once, perhaps weighing another assault. Instead, he ran up the wharf back toward Purchase Street.
With the harbor at his back and the air heavy with moisture, Ethan had enough water at hand to cast an elemental spell. He spoke it quickly under his breath—“Imago ex aqua evocata”; illusion, conjured from water—and at the same time made a small flicking gesture with his hands, directing the charm so that the image formed directly in front of Folter.
Instantly the air around him felt charged, as it did when a storm came upon a ship at sea; as it did any time he conjured. Ethan felt the hairs on his neck and arms stand on end.
The old ghost appeared at Ethan’s side, glowing a rich reddish brown like the moon when it hangs low in the night. His eyes gleamed like brands, and they held a hint of annoyance, as if Ethan had torn him away from something too important to be interrupted for a mere illusion spell. Not that the ghost could refuse him. He was Ethan’s guide, a spectral guardian of the power-laden realm between the living world and the domain of the dead. Folter wouldn’t be able to see the specter; no one who wasn’t a conjurer could. But he would see the conjuring that Ethan’s ghost made possible.
For this illusion, Ethan summoned the first image that came to mind: a great white horse with a flowing mane, like the one he had seen earlier that day leading a chaise through the streets near the Common. Ethan cast the spell quickly, with little preparation; at midday, the creature might have looked insubstantial, but in the gloaming it appeared solid and huge and wild. It bore down on Folter as if intent on trampling him, and the pup did exactly what Ethan had hoped. He halted, dove to one side, and wrapped his hands over his head to shield himself. He gave no sign of noticing that though the beast looked real enough, its hooves made no sound on the wharf.
Ethan sprinted forward just as Folter scrambled to his feet.
The young man looked around frantically, his knives still in hand, though seemingly forgotten for the moment. “Where’d it—?”
Ethan didn’t allow him to finish the thought. He crashed into him, sending him sprawling. Ethan fell, too, rolled, and was on his feet again. One of the knives had flown from Folter’s hand; Ethan kicked the other one away. He aimed a second kick at Folter’s jaw, but the pup was too fast for him. He grabbed Ethan’s foot and twisted viciously, flipping Ethan to the ground.
Folter threw himself onto Ethan, and for a few harrowing moments the two of them grappled for control of Ethan’s blade. Folter was younger, quicker, stronger. He tried to pry Ethan’s fingers off the knife, and though Ethan fought him, he could feel his grip on the weapon slipping.
He wrapped his other hand around Folter’s throat and squeezed as hard as he could. Immediately the younger man stopped trying to tear the knife away and instead grabbed at Ethan’s other hand. Ethan, his blade hand now free, drove the heel of it up into Folter’s nose. He heard bone break, felt hot blood splatter on his cheek. An instant later, Folter rolled off of him, both hands clutching his face, blood running over his fingers.
“Damn ya!” the pup said, his voice thick.
Ethan got to his feet and kicked Folter in the side. The pup gasped and doubled up.
“Where are the jewels?” Ethan demanded.
Folter groaned.
Kneeling beside him, Ethan laid the edge of his blade along Folter’s throat. The young man stiffened.
“Don’t try it, lad,” Ethan said. “I don’t want to kill you, but I will.” Folter didn’t move; Ethan began to search his pockets with his free hand. In no time at all, he had found three bejeweled golden necklaces. “Was this it, or were there more?” he asked.
When Folter didn’t answer, Ethan pressed harder with his knife, drawing a small trickle of blood from the pup’s throat.
“Tha’s all,” Folter said sullenly.
Ethan didn’t release him.
The young man looked up at Ethan, fear in his eyes. “I swear!”
After holding him for another moment, Ethan removed the knife and stood once more.
“Are ya going t’ kill me now?” Folter asked. He sat up, eyeing Ethan, his body tensing, coiled.
“I can tell you that Mister Corbett wouldn’t object,” Ethan said. “The Admiralty Court would probably thank me for performing a service. And I promise you that if I meant to, you couldn’t stop me.”
“But ya’re going t’ let me go,” Folter said with disbelief. “Ya really don’ work fer Pryce, do ya?”
“No, I really don’t. I’m giving you this one chance, Daniel. I’ll let you go, but you have to leave Boston and never return. Corbett instructed me to give you over to Sheriff Greenleaf; he would be happy to see you transported to the Carolinas, or the Indies.” Ethan felt a twinge in his foot at his mention of the islands, the remembered pain of an old wound. “But Diver Jervis is a friend of mine, and he wouldn’t want to see you come to that end. I’m risking a great deal by letting you go. If I see you again, I’ll turn you in. Failing that, I’ll have no choice but to kill you.”
“I’s born here,” Folter said. “I ain’ never been anywhere else.”
“Then this is your chance to see the world,” Ethan told him. “But one way or another, you’re leaving the city.”
Folter opened his mouth to argue.
“I’ll give you one day, Daniel,” Ethan said. “If you’re still in Boston after midnight tomorrow, I’ll know it, and I’ll find you. Then you’ll have the sheriff to deal with.”
The young man nodded glumly.
“Go,” Ethan said.
Folter started away, then stopped, turning again. “My knives—”
“Leave them. And when you get to wherever you’re going, try not to make a mess of your life.”
The pup frowned and glanced about as if he had barely heard. “Say, where did tha’ horse go?” he asked. “Th’ one tha’ nearly ran me down.”
“I didn’t see it.”
Folter eyed him curiously. “Ya had t’ have seen it.”
“Good-bye, Daniel.”
The young man stared at him for a long time. “Ya’re a speller, aren’ ya?” he finally said. “Tha’s why I’d heard o’ ya. Ethan Kaille. Sure, tha’s it. Th’ speller wha’ does thieftakin’ here in th’ city. I remember now. Tha’s where tha’ horse came from. It was bloody witch’ry. An’ tha’s how ya can compete with Sephira Pryce.”
Ethan retrieved Folter’s knives and put them in his pocket. He made no answer.
“I could tell someone,” Folter said. “I could tell Pryce or one o’ her men.” A smile crept over his thin face. “I could get ya hung fer a witch.”
“You could,” Ethan said, meeting his gaze. “But if I really am a speller, what’s to keep me from killing you in your sleep if I think you’re a threat to me? What’s to keep me from tracking you down whenever I want to, and giving you smallpox or plague?”
Even in the failing light, Ethan could see the pup’s face go white. In truth, the fact that Ethan was a conjurer—a speller, as Folter put it—wasn’t as much of a secret as he would have liked. He suspected that Sephira Pryce already knew, and it was possible that some on the Admiralty Court still remembered the names Ruby Blade and Ethan Kaille. But he didn’t want word of his talents spreading farther than necessary, and he surely didn’t want Folter thinking that he had any advantage over him.
“I’m not sayin’ I’d tell,” Folter told him. “I was jus’ … I wouldn’ tell anyone.”
“Go, Daniel. Right now. Get out of Boston, and you won’t need to worry about me ever again. Remain here, and I’ll make Sephira Pryce seem like a kindly aunt. Understand?”
The pup nodded, and began to back away from him, his eyes wide, his face still ashen save for the bright blood that trickled from his nose. After a few steps, he turned and ran.


 
Copyright © 2012 by D. B. Jackson