Chapter Six

                                                    The Thieves' Guild
 
 

         "Step forward."
         Valle stepped to the table, squinting in the bright light that shined directly into his face.
         "Look down at the table."
         Valle complied gratefully, noting the many items there.
         "Look up," barked the voice a moment later.  "Turn around."
         Valle did so.
         "What was on the table?"
         Valle thought.  "A rope.  A pen and ink.  A dagger.  There was a golden animal... a bear, I think.  There was a big book.  And a stack of papers.  I think there was a belt.  Oh, and there was some jewelry."
         "Not very good.  You missed quite a few items.  Now, describe the items you saw."
         "I'm sorry?"
         "The golden bear and the jewelry.  Describe them and evaluate their value.  How many pieces of paper were beside the book?  How many feet of rope were on the table?  Was the dagger a dirk or a knife?"
         Valle looked flustered.  "I couldn't even guess!"
         "Not good at all.  You'll take work.  Face front again."
         Valle turned.
         "Pick up the book and read aloud from it."
         Valle picked up the book and flipped to the first page.  "'An Intrinsic Study of General Lashan's Ambition's and Conquests.'"
         He looked up.
         "Read on."
         Valle looked down again.  "'Recent events to the north have brought certain factions back into focus.'"
         "Stop.  You can read.  That is a plus.  What is a twenty-four multiplied by three?"
         "Seventy-two."
         "What is one third of twelve?"
         "Four."
         "Very good.  You know mathematics as well."
         A brief conference took place in the shadows.
         "Alright, then.  You have the skills necessary to become a professional thief, but so do many of your compatriots.  You will be much more useful as a spellcaster, and you have the basic skills necessary to become one.  You will be sent to Calimport, there to study under archmagus Mistlsing."
         "Next," said the voice as Valle turned away.
         Athos stepped forward.
         "Look down."
         Athos did so.
         "Look up.  Turn around."
         Athos complied.
         "What was on the table?"
         "A fifty foot length of hemp rope, probably of calishite make - worth about two silver pieces on the common market.  A medium length parrying dagger, ordinarily worth about five gold, but with the ornamental design on the hild probably worth ten.  Sixteen sheet of 8' x 12' paper.  A book bearing the title Lashan the Conqueror.  A golden ornament of a wolverine on a log - worth only about three gold pieces because it was simply gilded iron.  An ornamental baldric or bandoleer, worth about thirty gold pieces.  A piece of amber with an insect within it.  Unless the insect is very rare, this item is worthless.  Two rings, one set with a diamond and worth fifty gold pieces, the other set with a fake ruby and probably worth about two hundred gold pieces.  A quill made from an ostrich feather the blue ink.  A common copper belt buckle worth about one gold piece.  There was also glove of the sort used by archers to protect their wrists when firing.  It was worth about eight gold pieces."
         "Excellent.  Face front again.  Pick up the book and turn to chapter seven."
         Athos picked up the book, flipping quickly to the desired page.
         "Begin reading."
         "'Chapter Seven:  Possibilities?
         "'Now that Lashan had secured his flanks and built up a strong suppy line, and with opposing forces in rout, he decided to allow his troops to embark upon an orgy of pillaging and looting.  The destruction-'"
         "Stop."
         Athos looked up.
         "You may put the book down."
         Athos did so.
         "What is fourteen divided by seven?"
         "Two."
         "What do fifteen and sixty have in common?"
         "Both have denominations of one, three, five, and fifteen."
         Another hushed conference took place.
         "We need more spellcasters!" insisted Tulmara.
         "I've seen this one in action," Arkail shot back.  "His natural talents would be wasted if we sent him off for training in wizardry.  He is a born thief."
         "I believe I can settle the matter," said a soft voice.
         Athos turned to see who was speaking.  A shadowy figure of average height and build was leaning against the far wall.  Athos was surprised to see him there - he had not heard him come in.
         "Viper!" exclaimed a surprised Arkail.  "What are you doing here?"
         "I've come to collect the favor promised me."
         Viper! thought Athos, his mouth suddenly going dry.  My father's murderer!  He was barely able to hold himself still.
         Arkail's face flushed in anger.  "What do you want?"
         "I'll be training this one myself."
         Beneath the table, and beyond the viper's line of sight, Arkail's hand closed around the hilt of his dagger.  Tulmara snatched his wrist before he could unsheath it.
         "You may have him," she said to the Viper, not looking at Arkail.
         "I know," he said, casually placing a tube to his lips.
         A slight twisping sound followed, and a needle pricked into Athos' neck.
         Athos cried out, and stumbled a few steps towards the door before crumpling bonelessly to the ground.
         The Viper walked over, picked the boy's limp form up, and threw him over his shoulder.
         "Good day," he said, leaving.
         After the Viper left the room, Arkail turned to Tulmara again.
         "Why didn't you let me kill him?  Why did we give him the boy?"
         "He would have killed you long before your dagger cleared its sheath.  What scares me more is the fact that he is training a possible successor.  He never has before.  The viper is dangerous enough.  I can't even imagine what it would be like with two such men."
         "Why, then, did we give him the boy?"
         "We haven't the power to stop him yet.  Not yet.  But when we do..."  Her voice trailed off.
         "When we do," Arkail finished savagely, "the Viper will die."

                                                                 * * *

         Athos came awake with a start.
         The man he had heard named the Viper stood over him.
         He wasn't too terrifying to look at.  His face was vaguely oriental in cast, clean shaven and unmarred.  His eyes were so deeply purple they almost looked black.  He had middle length sable hair which was loosely tied into a ponytail in the back, and which partly obscured his face in the front.  He was dressed all in black, complete with supple boots and gloves of kid leather.
         Athos felt a cold wind freezing into his soul.  He wasn't fooled by appearances.  This was the selfsame man who had murdered his father and countless others.
         "You're awake."  It was a statement, not a question.  "Welcome to your new home."
         "Wha... how..."
         A black gloved hand darted forth, slapping Athos' face before the boy could even flinch.
         A thin line of blood trickled from the corner of his mouth.
         "You will learn the value of silence here."  He paused for a moment before continuing.  "Imagine, if you will, a person who speaks to himself as he thinks.  His thought processes are slowed to the speed at which he can speak them.  If he were to shut his mouth, even his untrained mind could think more in a second than he could speak in a day."
         Athos remained silent.
         "When you do speak, I will expect clear sentences that have been well thought out.  Muttering and explicatives are for fools.  In answer to the question you were about to ask, I selected you not only because of your potential, but also because of your true heritage, of which you are, at present, ignorant.  I will tell you more of this when the time is right.
         "Now listen carefully, for what I am about to say is important to your well being."
         Athos listened.
         "You will spend some years in training here.  When you are not training, you will be where I tell you to be.  After a time, I may allow you free time within the city.  Or I may not.
         "This is not a museum.  You will not roam it to satisfy your curiosity.  There are dangerous places here.  You will go where I tell you to go, and do what I tell you to do.  I will give you three chances.  If you disobey me more than three times I will consider you unworthy of teaching, and I will kill you.
         "When your training is complete, I will give you a series of tests.  If you fail any of these tests, whatever their form, I will kill you.
         "Do you understand?"

                                                                 * * *

         "Balance is the basis."
         They stood in a darkened room, the center of which was dominated by a tightrope strung between two posts which stood four feet from the floor.
         Athos stepped towards the tightrope.
         He landed heavily on the floor as his feet were swept from beneath him.
         "That is merely one kind of balance.  I"m speaking of another kind altogether."
         The Viper sat down efficiently beside Athos.
         He sat for a moment, then pointed his finger toward the floor.  His hand moved downward until it rested on the floor.  His body moved, then, in the opposite direction, slowly but steadily.
         In a mere moment, he was entirely upside down, resting only on one finger.
         He held the position for a moment, then pulled down in a reverse performance of how he had gone up.
         Athos placed his finger on the floor.
         A shar rap across his temples sent him reeling backwards.
         "Learn how to sit first!"
         Athos pulled himself up, and regained his position.
         Again the assassin struck, this time striking Athos' in the side.
         Again Athos tumbled to the floor.
         "Feel the balance within you.  Hold yourself to it."
         Athos struggled up to the sitting position again.

                                                                     * * *

         "Silence is a state of mind.  You must reach through your body and hear it - the heart, the brain, the crackling of the bones in your toes.  Now, slowly fade that noise to silence."
         The viper stood and walked, quickly and in great silence, across the wooden platform and back.  The old boards didn't even bend to accommodate his weight.
         Athos stood.
         And was knocked off his feet once again.
         "Not yet.  First you must learn to listen."
         Athos sat down and waited.
         The assassin made no sound as he sat down in front of the boy.
         A stinging slap rocked Athos back.
         "I asked you to say your name.  Will you not answer?  Also, I knocked you off your haunches.  Have you forgotten how to sit so soon?"
         Athos shook his head.
         "Good.  Then it will not happen again.  Now, this time listen."
         Athos strained his ears.  This time he heard a vague sound, but couldn't make  it out.
         "Athos," he said hopefully.
         This time he managed to keep his balance when the blow fell.
         "I asked you your age.  Now, this time listen."
         This time he heard the question.
         "Yes," he replied, "I am a boy."
         He nearly lost his balance again when the blow fell.
         "I asked for a simple yes or no."

                                                                     * * *

         The heavy wooden door swung inward, revealing a large room dominated by the shelves of books climbing the walls and the large oaken table resting amidst them.
         "Knowledge is power," said the Viper, leading Athos into the room.  "You will study each of these books carefully, and memorize the information within them."
         The Viper handed him a thick tome.
         "You will start with this one."
         Athos glanced at the cover as the Viper left the room.
         A Locksmith's Guide to Locks, Both Exotic and Mundane

                                                                    * * *

         Athos was stunned.  He had never seen so many different weapons in his life.  The large weapon racks stretched on either side as far back as he could see, and the mirrored walls behind the racks made the number of weapons stretch to infinity as they reflected them back and forth.
         "This is the weapons room.  This is where we will work on your physical combat abilities.  In time, you will become expert with each of these weapons."
         Athos looked across the wide racks.  All of these?
         A kick landed in his solar plexus and his breath whuffed out as he curled over in shock.
         "You must always be aware of your opponent.  It will be long before your training in weaponry begins.  First, you must learn to use your body as a weapon.
         "Now stand up, and avoid being struck."

                                                                     * * *

         Pook was a man who definitely enjoyed the pleasures that life had to offer.
         He reclined lazily on a soft divan among scattered exotic furs.  A great cat lounged at his feet, licking its massive paws.  A great bowl of exotic fruits rested in his lap, and he popped     something in his pudgy mouth every few minutes and chewed slowly, closing his eyes and savoring the flavors.
         He was a plump man on the whole, with no facial hair.  He always kept himself meticulously clean.  The sweet scents of exotic oils surrounded his person.
         A casual observer might have taken Pook for a lazy fool.
         Not so.  Behind that eccentric personality lay a cunning mind.
         Pook had arrived in Calimport seven years ago, a former Tethyrian noble fleeing the chaos of his homeland.  he had with him a very small supply of cash, and a profound amount of laziness.  He had an eye for both politics and money, and within five years had become a fixture in the Calimport underworld.  Under his careful hands, the organization he now headed would soon become the biggest of its kind in Calimport.
         There was only one obstacle.
         The Viper.
         Pook had seen long ago that the man would have to be removed.  Now he had a plan to accomplish this goal.
         He plucked another of the exotic grapes from its stem and placed it into his mouth.
         He chewed slowly, enjoying the sweet taste.