Thief of Lives

Prologue

He neither relished nor anticipated the task at hand. It was simply one more step upon the path, and he had always been capable of doing whatever was necessary.

Street lanterns, lit by the night watch, hung from high posts and building-side iron mounts at more regular intervals along this street than other places in the king's city. Dim light shimmered on wet cobblestone rather than packed earth, on stone dwellings instead of wattle and daub or timber buildings. This was an elite district, where gentry, dignitaries, and city officials lived just outside the walls of the castle grounds. Light, warmth, and an aura of comfort flowed out between half-drawn curtains hanging in windows with actual glass panes. Here, at night, all was serene.

He watched the street from a side corner, making certain no guard or watchman would pass by anytime soon, then stepped along the cobblestones at a quiet pace.

Night air was seasoned with the wet scent of the bay on the city's west side. The cool breeze carried some chill, but he did not notice the cold. Still, he shifted the long black wool cloak closer about him. Its dark color, melting into the night, protected him from errant gazes by any occupant peering out a window before settling to bed. He tugged his black lambskin gloves, flexing his fingers until the material was smoothed comfortably in place.

Arriving at the house he sought, he entered the iron yard-gate and walked up the path. His hand rested gently on a side railing as he climbed the three stone steps to the large front door. Ornate ash wood was stained in multiple tones to accent detailed doves and vines a patient artisan had carved in its panels. Two lanterns glowed to either side of the door. He reached up and twisted their knobs, first the right then the left, until the wicks retreated and their light dimmed just short of going out altogether. Grasping the large brass knocker ring, he announced his arrival with two raps and no more.

Moments passed. The door cracked open.

A young feminine face peered out. She was small for sixteen, with dark brown ringlets hanging to her shoulders and a dress of muted lavender with light saffron trim. Her expression was hesitant at first, but then she smiled with warm recognition.

He knew she would answer. Her father was away this same midweek evening, playing faro with other gentlemen and nobility. This young one always took pity on their overworked servants, giving them a secret night off without her father's knowledge. She was alone in her house, in the quietest, most respectable of neighborhoods.

"Oh, Father isn't home tonight," she said. "He's gone to the Knight's House for cards again."

He did not answer her. His left hand shot out, gripped the back of her neck, and jerked her toward his open mouth.

She heaved in a breath but never released it.

He bit her exposed throat before her hands could push at him, elongated canines sinking through her skin. His jaws snapped closed as he ripped away flesh to expose open veins. Pain and trauma paralyzed her body, and there was no way she could scream. Her hands, almost to his chest, dropped limp in spasms.

Her weight was nothing, and he supported it by the hand clamped about her neck. Her heartbeat slowed, its rhythm shallow and irregular, so he shook her until the blood flowed freely. It soaked her collar, spreading from the wound, and he watched the red seep into her bodice and across her chest, and downward over her shoulder until it ran along her left arm to drip