A Thief in the House of Tales

“Did you open my window last night?” asked Ash, the newest of our boarders.

“I didn’t,” I said distractedly, reaching for the next of a pile of vegetables to chop for supper.  The annual festival was upon us, and with it came artisans from every corner of the world.  Mirna and I had six boarders occupying rooms in the house and two or three apprentices sleeping in the studio out back.  “You could check with um…” the painter’s name eluded me completely and I had to stop chopping to try to think of it.  Pacel?  No, Pacel was the sculptor, and one or two of the apprentices were his.  Agon was the poet and Sabine the dancer.  Pacel, Agon and Sabine had all been out last night, and they were staying on the other side of the house besides.  Lacey the dress maker had a room on the first floor that we had converted into a bedroom.  That left Mirna, who wouldn’t go around opening peoples’ windows, me, and… Artur!  That was it.  “Did you ask Artur?”

“He said he didn’t,” said Ash.  I noticed she was wringing her hands and gave her my full attention.  Something was wrong.  “He said he was playing chess with Lacey in the parlor all last night,” she said.

“Is everything okay?” I asked, and it occurred to me suddenly that it might have rained during the night.  “Were any of your weavings ruined?” I gasped.  Ash wove everything from tapestries to jewelry, and her intricate patterns and colors were a marvel.

She shook her head.  “It wasn’t much, just a bauble I picked up at the market yesterday, but the fact remains that someone took it.  I’ve looked everywhere.”

It dawned on me that she was reporting a theft.  “Something is missing?” I asked.

“Something’s missing?” echoed Mirna, gliding into the kitchen.  “Hopefully it isn’t the last scone.  I’m sure Eddie brought four this morning and I’m absolutely dying for a scone.”

“Something was stolen from Ash’s room,” I said, sliding the pastry plate under Mirna’s seeking hand.

Mirna stopped mid-bite, horror scribed on her face, her free hand searching the air for Ash.  Ash took Mirna’s hand and joined her at the table.  I put on a kettle for tea.

“What was it?” asked Mirna, setting down the scone so her fingers could drift to her most precious treasure, the necklace at her throat.

I found myself mimicking her movement, running my fingertips over the reassuring metal of the necklace Mirna’s father had given me.  I wasn’t sure what Mirna’s necklace did beyond allowing some kind of communication with her father, but my necklace was keeping me hidden from Alpha.  One of the architects of the Council of Azminan, Alpha was able to do untold things.  He controlled wolves and myir, nasty creatures drawn and fed by fear.  He had an army of soldiers willing to do whatever he said.  And he was hunting me.  Mirna tried to be sensitive toward my distress at each new stranger we took into our house, as well as my reluctance to go with her to market more than strictly necessary, but Mirna couldn’t help who she was.  She drew people to her as naturally as breathing, and she trusted far too easily.

“A little silver figurine,” answered Ash.  “I traded a basket for it yesterday at market.”  She shrugged.  “I’m not heartbroken over it, but the fact that it’s gone, and my window left open, is unsettling.”

“Who would do such a thing?” scowled Mirna.  “And in this house!”  What she meant was, how was it possible for a crime to be committed in this house?  This house had been built by her father, another of the architects of Azminan, and there were many protections here.

“There is a lot going on right now,” I pointed out, “with all of the people visiting Bishmasfa for the festival.”

“You’re right,” said Ash.  “It really could have been anybody.  Don’t worry about it, you two, I’m fine and my weavings were untouched.  I’m guessing this was an isolated incident.”

It wasn’t, though.

Pacel’s shouts awakened the whole house the next morning, and by the time I got to his room the other boarders were there already.

“Who took it!” he demanded, glaring at each of us in turn.

“What was taken?” asked Mirna, tying the sash of her robe on her way down the hall.

“My silver handled chisel,” he bellowed, “a family heirloom!”

“When was the last time you saw it?” asked Artur.

“Earlier today!” Pacel yelled, as if Artur’s question was a challenge in some way.

“Is your window open?” asked Ash.

“I always keep my windows locked,” sniffed Pacel.  Even with that declaration, Pacel went to inspect the locks on his windows.  They were all latched.  “It had to be someone in the house,” the accused, studying each of our faces.

“I recommend we search every bedroom,” suggested Mirna.  “We won’t sleep tonight with that question lingering over us, so we might as well find out now.”

I could see that no one liked Mirna’s suggestion, but none were willing to say so, lest they appear the guilty party.  Room by room we searched through peoples’ things.  It was humiliating, having a crowd snooping through my bedroom.  It wasn’t particularly clean, and having every drawer searched felt like an awful violation.  I could tell the others felt the same.

The early morning hours found us in the parlor clutching teacups and devoid of conversation.  Even the speculations, which had come in bursts as people tried to make sense of it, had died away, and now we listened morosely to morning birds announcing the new day altogether too cheerfully.  At least it was a reprieve from the sad wolf songs that had filled our long night.

“It doesn’t make sense,” Pacel muttered for the umpteenth time.  “The doors and windows were all locked and it isn’t in anybody’s room.

“This house is covered floor to ceiling with art,” Agon said, though it had been said many times before.

We’d searched the art.  We’d searched every room.  Even the attic and cellar endured our investigating.  We’d awakened the poor apprentices; three apparently, and after thoroughly questioning the bleary eyed students, had searched the workshop and garden.  I rose, groaning at the complaint of my under-rested muscles, and went to fetch another round of tea.

“Good morning,” smiled Mrs. Reynolds, the baker from next door.  She was already bustling about the kitchen, arranging a heap of pastries from her basket onto a plate.

“Morning,” I mumbled.  Mirna was the early riser between us, and it wasn’t often that I met Mrs. Reynolds outside of market.

“How are you and dear Mirna are making out?” She asked.  “My John threw in extra rolls for all those extra mouths you’re feeding.”

“Thank you, and please thank Mr. Reynolds for us.  We’ve all had a long night.  There was a theft.”

“You don’t say!” gasped Mrs. Reynolds, clutching her basket as if the thief might waltz in and rip it from her arms.  “You poor dears.  How many times have we warned against inviting just anyone into your home?  They may be artists, but that doesn’t make them trustworthy.”

“I know,” I sighed.  I’d made the same speech to Mirna countless times.

“Was it anything important?” she asked, her eyes darting around the room and my person as if she’d be able to detect what had gone missing right there.

“A family heirloom,” I nodded.  “And a trinket from market.”

Mrs. Reynolds clucked her tongue and patted my hand.  “Talk to Mirna about being so trusting, would you?”

I nodded.

“Was that Mrs. Reynolds?” Mirna asked as our neighbor left still clucking about the state of the world.

“She says we’re too trusting with our boarders,” I said.

“She can mind her own business,” Mirna laughed, investigating the small mountain of pastries.  This was an old and well-worn conversation.  “Mrs. Reynolds brought us twice as much as Eddie does,” she grinned.  “I’ve long suspected Eddie eats a few on the way over.”

Mirna and I served the tea and pastries but no one else had much of an appetite after the night we’d had.  One by one, each of our boarders excused themselves to prepare for the day ahead.  The festival would be opening officially on the next morning and everyone had plenty to do.  Mirna and I, neither of us playing a role in the festivities, took the opportunity of an empty house to nap through the afternoon, and our outlook was brighter upon awakening.

“I’m going to look through the garden again,” I said.  “The full moon helped, but we easily could have missed something.”

“Both items were silver,” mused Mirna, following my lead out to the garden.  “Does that seem odd to you?  I mean, silver is nice, but Ash’s weavings and Pacel’s sculptures are worth far more than what was stolen.”

“It could mean the thief has no appreciation for art,” I said, beginning my search.

“Which rules out anyone staying in this house,” observed Mirna.

I straightened.  Judging by the look on Mirna’s face, she’d just had the same thought.

“Mrs. Reynolds has a key.”  I hated to even suggest it after the daily kindness she and her family had lavished on us.

“It’s Eddie who delivers the food each morning,” said Mirna, “not Mrs. Reynolds.  Did she say where Eddie was this morning?”

“She didn’t.”  I noticed it then, as Mirna’s fingertips reached for the reassurance of her necklace and found bare skin instead.  “Oh Mirna!” I cried, rushing to her side.  Her hands were trembling.  “I never take it off,” she said.  “But I can’t believe Mrs. Reynolds would do such a thing.  I refuse to believe it.”  Mirna’s expression changed.  “Mrs. Reynolds?” she called.

I looked around, but we were alone in the garden.

“Mrs. Reynolds, I can hear you weeping,” Mirna insisted.  She pointed impatiently in the direction of our shared fence and I went immediately to peer through the boards.  Mrs. Reynolds had her face in her hands and her shoulders were heaving.

“Mrs. Reynolds,” I called.  The woman jumped up in alarm, wiping away tears and looking around her garden.  “Mrs. Reynolds, where’s Eddie?”

Her eye found me then and she approached the fence, twisting her apron into tight knots.  She leaned close.  “They said they’d give us back our Eddie if we gave them something from your house,” she whispered hoarsely.  “They wouldn’t tell us what it was; just that it was a precious metal.”  Fresh tears spilled over.  “I never wanted to hurt you dears, but those awful men have our little boy.”

“We understand,” said Mirna, approaching.  “But Mrs. Reynolds, the necklace you took today, that was keeping me safe.  I need it back.”

Mrs. Reynolds let out a sob.  “The blonde man said those necklaces were just what he was looking for,” she wailed.  Her apron began to tear in her grasp.  “He took them away and said we’ll see our Eddie again tonight.  Please forgive me!”  She dissolved into a weeping lump.

Mirna’s fingers again traced the line where her necklace once rested, and only then did it occur to me that Mrs. Reynolds had said necklaces.  I reached up, and found my world spinning as my fingertips met skin at my own throat.

Alpha had found us.

Written by W. C. McClure www.wcmcclure.com.  This short story may be shared (and please do); just please be sure to share it in its entirety, unaltered (and including this fine print), with credit given to W. C. McClure.  Comments are welcome at www.farsideofdreams.com. Oh, and if you want to show your support, tell your friends about this short story blog – and pick up a copy of “The Statues of Azminan” by W. C. McClure.  Thanks!