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Thief and Mockingbird

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The Wilting Rose Inn is Therion’s favorite kind of tavern: dark, loud, and particularly hospitable to society’s undesirables. Tonight, the crowd is raucous, lips are loose, and booze flows like water. It wouldn’t be hard to settle in at a corner table with a handful of rogues and have them reveal their marks by night’s end. It wouldn’t be, if only his traveling companion didn’t command so much attention of her own.

Primrose smiles at every man who passes by, capturing them in her orbit. While she plies them with the tavern’s thin beer and engages in flirty small talk, Therion sits mutely beside her, knowing without trying that he’ll hold the attention of none of these men.

“Aren’t you awfully somber tonight?” she quips when her current conversation partner, red-faced with drink and infatuation, buries himself in his mug. “Wasn’t it your idea to come here to learn about—”

Quiet.” Therion glances around and then, lowering his voice: “How do you expect me to gather intel when you’re making such a scene?”

Primrose feigns a pout. “Your thinking is as narrow as ever. While you were sulking, I happened to learn some very interesting things about getting into—”

Not so loud !”

Someone chuckles from behind them, drawing their attention.

“Well, this is a rather interesting conversation.”

The man who spoke is a prince among paupers, as out of place here as Primrose. His hair and clothes are far too neat to camouflage him in the grit of this place. He’s alone at his table yet perfectly at home, leaning back in his chair with crossed legs and an easy smile. There’s a mug of ale before him, but it doesn’t look touched. Therion narrows his eyes.

“Allow me,” Primrose whispers, rising from her seat. Hips swaying, she makes her way to the man’s table, lowering herself into the seat across from him. “I wasn’t expecting to find such a handsome man in a dingy place like this,” she says, looking up at him through her eyelashes.

If he were close enough, Therion thinks he would strangle her.

The man laughs again. “Aren’t you adorable,” he says, resting his elbow on the table and leaning his chin on his palm. His eyes swivel to Therion. “Why don’t you join us, friend? I could use some attractive company tonight.”

Therion curses under his breath and slinks to the seat beside Primrose, throwing her a nasty look, which she promptly ignores.

“Look how cozy we all are now,” the man says, but Therion can tell he’s sizing them up. “May I have the honor of knowing the lady’s name?”

“You may,” Primrose answers sweetly. “I am Primrose, a traveling dancer.”

It’s how she’s continued to introduce herself even after avenging her father, bereft of any mention of her house and legacy. Therion can’t help but wonder if she’s given up on reviving House Azelhart out of shame, but he’s never been able to bring himself to ask.

“A name has never suited a person as well as yours suits you,” the man tells her. To Therion, he says, “And what may I call you, sweetheart?”

“That’s no concern of yours, sweetheart.”

“Therion!” Primrose reproaches.

The man cocks his head. “There’s no need for hostility. We’re all scoundrels down here, after all.”

Everything about this man screams “suspicious,” and Therion won’t let down his guard. Not again. “What do you want with us?”

“As I said, that was an interesting conversation you were having.” The man leans in closer, lowering his voice. “You casing Abyss?”

“What’s it to you?”

“Quite a lot, actually.” The man gestures to the entirety of the Wilting Rose with a sweep of his arm. “The name’s Yuri. And these scoundrels you see here? You could say that they’re my scoundrels. You should know that we don’t always play nice with surface-dwellers down here.”

“Then you needn’t worry,” Primrose interjects. “My friend and I can hardly be said to dwell on the surface.”

Yuri quirks an eyebrow. “Is that so? How did such a pretty lady find herself on the rougher side of society, I wonder? The usual work? No judgement here—I’m rather familiar with it myself.”

Primrose smiles. “My hands are stained with the blood of evil men. Of course, to... polite society, what I did might be considered murder. But I say it is a necessary evil.”

Yuri appraises her. “Now that is a philosophy I can respect,” he says after a moment. “Listen, friends. As long as you intend no harm to my people, then I welcome your sort to Abyss. You’re exactly the type of lowlifes we need down here. Assuming you aren’t from the church, of course.”

Therion frowns. “You’re an enemy of the church?” he asks, trying to mask his intrigue.

Yuri offers him a pained sort of smile. “Let’s just say I have a spotted history with them and leave it at that.”

Therion relaxes somewhat. “Your ‘people’ have nothing that I desire.” He stands. “Let’s go, Primrose.”

Yuri stands as well. “So it’s the monastery you’re casing, is it?” He smirks when Therion doesn’t answer. “Easy, friend. The Knights of Seiros can stand to lose a few pretty trinkets, and the Ashen Wolves can stand to gain some coin. You interested in a little partnership?”

”Who are the Ashen Wolves?” Primrose asks.

Yuri taps his chin as if considering his words. “I suppose you could say they’re my family. Not by blood. Better. Shall I introduce you, Primrose?” He holds out his hand to her, which she gratefully accepts. To Therion, he adds, “What’s it going to be, friend?”

Therion slips past them and out into the narrow street. “So sorry to disappoint, but I work alone.”

Primrose laughs at his back. “But you left that mindset behind quite some time ago, didn’t you?” she teases.

“Not by my own choice.”

“Self-reliant, eh?” Yuri follows him out, guiding Primrose along with him. “I get it. Less chance of getting betrayed if you don’t have a partner.”

Therion freezes. Partner. The word catches in his head, his heart.

Yuri drapes a free arm over his shoulder. “But you can always betray yourself. I know. I’ve done it. That’s why I choose to put a little faith in people. You can’t always predict every outcome even when you work alone. So it doesn’t hurt to have a few backup plans.”

Therion shakes him off. “What are you saying?”

“I’m saying you should put a little faith in me. I’ll put a little faith in you in turn. Let’s make this a mutually beneficial arrangement. I’ll start: I can show you a way into the monastery’s treasure vault.”

Therion frowns. His own crudely drawn map of the monastery revealed no easy points of entry into the treasure vault. That’s why he came to Abyss to begin with—to find a solution to his “puzzle.”

“If you already know a way in, then why do you need my help?” he asks.

Yuri stops next to an oaken cask outside the Wilting Rose where a white cat is cleaning its face. “Because,” he says, scratching behind the creature’s ears, “I’m already on my ninth life. If I get caught in there, I’ll be executed. And I can’t leave the Wolves or the Abyssians behind.”

“You understand,” Primrose says, “why we don’t have the luxury of trust.”

She’s thinking of Simeon. Therion can tell. She must see that he’s thinking of Darius. And by all appearances, Yuri seems a perfect blend of the two—well-cultured charm masking shrewd sagacity.

“Of course,” Yuri says. “Why don’t you meet my people first? They’re honest folk. More honest than me.” He winks.

Primrose looks to Therion.

“Fine,” he mutters. It isn’t as if they have any other leads.

They follow as Yuri leads them deeper down into Abyss. The underground city carved out of the monastery’s catacombs has a disquieting character all its own that rivals Bolderfall’s slums. Their footsteps echo into the darkness ahead as water drips from an invisible ceiling. Therion can hear the sound of a rushing current long before the drainage canals come into view. A dankness hangs in the air and on his skin, and his sense of smell is muted by the pervasive tang of mold and stale air.

They pass through a marketplace. Two young men square off sluggishly in an alleyway, neither sober. A woman huddled against some crates stacked with pale-looking produce counts her coin with one eye and guards her wares with the other. A group of children gather around a scruffy hound, feeding it pieces of fish and squealing when its tongue brushes their fingers.

Yuri seems to know everyone. He calls the two men out by name and sends them their separate ways. He greets the coin-counting woman, whose eyes soften as she offers him an apple. The children leap up when they see him and crowd around him, tugging at his coat and begging him to come play with them.

“Later,” he says, ruffling one girl’s hair. He nods toward the dog. “You have Rusty today. Give him a good scratch for me, alright?”

“You’re quite the celebrity down here,” Primrose notes as they enter yet another narrow stairway.

“I protect these people,” Yuri says, shrugging. “Nobody else will. All of us down here have been forsaken by the world. But that doesn’t mean we stop living.”

Therion crosses his arms and says nothing.

Eventually, they end up in a room lined with tables and chairs that looks suspiciously like a classroom. Two women and a man turn from their conversation to look at them.

“Well, damn,” says the man, raising his eyebrows. “Are we interrupting something?” His eyes linger on Primrose.

“Not the sort of interrupting you’re imagining, Balthus,” Yuri says dryly.

“Who are these people?” asks the red-headed girl, scrutinizing them.

“Balthus, Hapi, Constance, I’d like you to meet Primrose and Therion.”

“You there!” says the blonde woman to Primrose, pointing with her fan. “You have the mien and bearing of a noblewoman—much like myself! I am Constance von Nuvelle, daughter of Viscount Nuvelle and heir to the once-great House Nuvelle!”

“You are of the nobility?” Primrose asks.

“Indeed! And I shall rebuild my family’s legacy if it’s the last thing I do!”

Primrose's eyes widen a little.

“Enough of that, Coco,” the girl named Hapi says. “Yuri-bird, why did you bring them here?”

“Our friends here might be able to help fill our coffers with a generous donation from the church.” Yuri grins. “I just need a character reference to get them on our side.”

“Aww, that’s it? You can trust the boss.” Balthus claps Yuri on the back. “He may look like a rat, but he’s a good guy. Doesn’t come after you for debts or anything!”

“Now, Balthus, I haven’t forgotten what you owe.”

“You’re going to rob the church?” Hapi’s stern expression folds into a smile. “Count me in. Those guys deserve everything bad that comes to them. And if Yuri-bird trusts you... then I do, too. He’s a good leader.”

“‘Your people’ really do hold you in high esteem,” Primrose says.

“Well. They’re the real heart of Abyss.”

“Oh, Yuri, you must stop with the self-deprecation!” Constance says exasperatedly. To Primrose and Therion, she adds, “If you need someone to rely on, you won’t find a more trustworthy partner!”

Primrose catches Therion’s eye, as if to convey, “It’s up to you.” He can tell she’s made up her mind. In spite of everything, she wants to trust again.

He does, too.

He sighs. It isn’t as if he’s never been caught up in an adventure with total strangers before. As tedious as all that was, he has to admit—grudgingly—that maybe it wasn’t so bad in the end.

“Well?” He leans against a desk and folds his arms over his chest. “What are we waiting for? If we’re going to sneak into the treasure vault, we’re going to need a plan...”