Chapter 3: Lyn

“So what made you want to become a thief?” said the plump balding man sitting behind the desk. What was left of his oily matted hair and missing teeth spoke of a hard life lived on the streets. Lyn didn’t answer. This wasn’t who she had come to see and she owed this man nothing. On the other hand, the question had an easy answer. Lyn hadn’t wanted to become a thief, it just happened. As she was sure it did for most who ended up in the shadier crafts. Lyn didn’t think people were born thieves, murderers, or rapists. No one grows up telling their friends ‘I want to steal, rape and murder when I grow up!,’ Lyn certainly hadn’t. On the contrary, Lyn had spent most of her early years wanting to be a constable like her father. Man of the law. Upholder of the righteous. Protector of the weak. What a bunch of bullshit. Lyn’s mother explained when she was still a child that only men could become constables in Fortright, but that wasn’t what stopped Lyn from trying. She talked like a boy, cut her hair like a boy, and even dressed like a boy, for as long as she understood how. Doing so was safer. Her father’s friends, the drunk bastards who came to her home after nights of carousing, they ignored the homely little ‘boy.’ If she’d been a cute little girl…Lyn shuddered at the thought.

Lyn understood early on that being female wasn’t safe in the Griffin household. Father blamed Lyn’s mother for not bearing him another child, for not giving him a son. He justified his cruelty this way, turning mother into a whore for countless other men. Lyn still remembered his heartless taunts: ‘maybe you’ll bear a kid for one of these worthless dogs? Don’t worry, these men will keep plowing your barren fields til you do.’ The immoral prick seemed to delight in mother’s pain. He watched with glee, taking a lurid pleasure in the repeated violations. Lyn’s early years were spent listening cautiously for father’s inevitable return home. She would hide as soon as any men’s voices were heard. Initially, she’d stayed close and listened to the talk about ‘collecting from Jeran’ or ‘making sure Pellar paid up,’ not understanding the discussion and related jokes. But once it became clear that these were crooks in lawmens outfits, she found little reason to ever be home and her dream of being a constable was buried. She wasn’t proud to be a thief, she just didn’t think she had other options. She liked to think she was still searching for her true calling.

“Don’t talk much, eh?” the bald man interrupted her thoughts, probably a good thing. Focusing on the past caused more problems than it solved.

“To you? No,” Lyn probably should have stopped there, but prudence was not one of her virtues. “Inconsequential, unimportant, useless lackeys like yourself,” she paused looking him up and down for effect, “you deserve no answers.” She smiled at the mix of disgust and bravado in her voice. Well done Lyn, she thought smugly.

“Oh? You got a mouth on ya boy. Maybe I stick my fist in it and see what pretty words come out then?” The man rose from his chair and wobbled a bit as he raised his hands in what he supposed was a menacing manner. Lyn could take this man in seconds. Growing up on the streets had taught Lyn several useful survival skills. First, she could size up an opponent accurately in seconds, noting relevant strengths and weaknesses. This was a basic reflex at this point, and no one escaped her judgment. Lyn believed that knowing the outcome of a fight before it began ensured survival. The second critical expertise was the ability to end a fight quickly. Long drawn out fights tended to be won by the stronger or larger party. Lyn was typically neither. To win fast, she’d learned to exploit vulnerabilities and disable opponents with speed. She tirelessly practiced precise, quick dagger throws that could end fights before she was touched.The third survival skill was avoiding fights altogether. Furthering this aim, Lyn had cultivated a reputation for instability. Unpredictable foes were frightening and Lyn made sure to end unavoided fights in suitably bizarre fashion to foster her growing notoriety. Once, in a street fight with a particularly cruel and relentless bully, she pulled the two daggers she’d embedded in his thighs and licked them slowly, a loud maniacal laugh adding to the terror. The downed man scrambled away petrified and the gathering crowd dispersed, unsettled by the strange act.

This clumsy old fool didn’t need to be avoided, he’d be under her boot instantly. She stood, meeting his gaze, but then thought better of it. He clearly didn’t know who she was or else was too foolish to understand how close to grievous harm he had already come. No, she thought, this isn’t why I’m here. Letting her adrenaline cool, she posed a question of her own.

“Where is your master? He summoned me for this ‘interview’. Does he always make newcomers wait this long?” Lyn was anxious to get this started. When Bedo Voils summoned, you came as quickly as humanly possible. He didn’t have a reputation for patience or subtlety. As the purveyor of the largest gambling den in Fortright and the undisputed king of the Fortright underground, Bedo wasn’t a man to trifle with, even for Lyn. But what did he want with her? Had she stolen something of his? Was she running cons he didn’t approve of? Was she somehow interfering with some unofficial racket? Lyn didn’t know why, but when word came that Bedo sought her presence, she rushed to The High Table.

“Everyone waits for Bedo,” the man said, settling back into his chair behind the desk. The small room Lyn sat in was one of many hidden rooms at The High Table. The desk was cheaply made, as were the other furnishings in the room. Lyn’s patient reserves nearly exhausted, she rose to leave when the door behind her opened and Bedo appeared.

“Come with me, boy,” the word made Lyn hesitate. She’d gone great lengths to hide her gender from the world. She spoke little and tended to act overly masculine; spit, farts, and burps were more commonly heard from her than words. Did he know? If so, how? Lyn kept her head down, her face mostly covered by loose brown hair and a layer of dirt that was common among street folk. Her wide leather hat cast her face in perpetual shade and darkness. Lyn had appeared this way for so long that even she wasn’t sure what she looked like underneath.

Bedo, in contrast, was dressed in fine yellow linens, immaculately pressed to hide any possible seams or wrinkles. His short dark hair was cropped close as was his fine beard. He wasn’t attractive, but he was dignified and sophisticated. Seeing her own filthy clothing next to his, Lyn was momentarily embarrassed. Her sudden shame quickly evolved into resentment. This man clearly sits behind a desk, pampered and privileged, while I earn every Parsi I have in hard labor on the streets. Lyn’s bitterness grew as they entered a richly decorated room, expensive oil paintings covering nearly every inch of the expansive walls.

“Please. Have a seat. I’ve been looking forward to meeting the infamous young lass, Lyn Griffin,” he raised an eyebrow with the last three words. “Of course I know. What kind of ‘master of secrets’ would I be if I couldn’t recognize a young woman in men’s clothing? You have nothing to fear here. I haven’t asked you here to hurt or expose you.”

“Why did you ask me here?” Lyn said.

“To interview you. Didn’t the little urchins who contacted you explain this?”

“I’m not looking for employment, while I appreciate the offer. I do quite well on my own.”

“Who said anything about work? I see that we have started off on the wrong foot,” Bedo said apologetically. “Let’s try this again. I have some questions for you. I’m hoping you will answer them. I have need of individuals with certain talents and morals. But it isn’t our shared business I’m looking to enlarge. Something else entirely, something much more important. Do you understand?” Bedo’s manner of speech took some getting used to. He paused, thinking for a moment, before issuing the last word of each sentence. It gave his words an unfamiliar cadence that encouraged closer listening. Lyn admired the tactic, if that was why he did it.

“Sure. But like I said, I’m not looking for any kind of job,” said Lyn impatiently. Despite Bedo’s reputation as a master thief and ‘lord of the underground’, Lyn found herself repulsed by the opulence of his dress and surroundings. Any one of these paintings, if sold, could feed hundreds of the little ‘urchins’ that he must know are starving in the streets. Lyn had always resented wealth and those who had it, that wasn’t new. But someone who stole it or made it freely in the gambling halls, and still just hoarded and displayed it? It was too much for her.

“Ah. The paintings, this room,” Bedo said, seeing her eyes dart from object to object. “This all is for show. I’ve spent many years building relationships in Fortright, many years learning the customs and trappings of wealth and power so that I could more easily influence those with the same. Don’t judge me too harshly, at least not yet. You, of all people, should know. Appearances aren’t always what they seem.”

There it was again. Despite the tic, Bedo had an ease with words that made him easy to listen to. It was as if he was instructing in the ways of the world, but doing so in a manner that said ‘this is the truth, it isn’t pretty, but there it is.’ Lyn consciously decided to shelve her judgment and participate, for now.

“Shall we get started then?” said Bedo, gesturing again for Lyn to take a seat on the luxurious couch opposite the elegant chair he collapsed into wearily. Lyn hesitated, the sofa was immaculately clean and worth more than several months work. Her body, and most certainly her clothing, were squalid and grungy.

“You won’t ruin it. Dirt can be removed, candles and incense can hide almost any smell,” Bedo said. For the second time since they met, he had answered unspoken questions and concerns. This man is much more clever than he looks and so damn perceptive. Careful where you tread Lyn. She brushed herself off heartily and took a seat. She sat upright, trying to maintain as little contact with the surface as possible.

“Get comfortable. We could be here for a while. Would you care for a drink? Some wine? My urchins tell me you prefer ale, shall I have a glass fetched for you?” Lyn didn’t want to take anything from Bedo if she could help it. Experience had taught her that gifts always came with a price. Sometimes the price was simply feeling beholden to the giver.

“No thank you,” she said politely.

“Suit yourself. So Lyn, how is it that you’ve escaped the usual round-ups by the constabulary? My urchins say that you’ve never spent a night in jail. Nor is your name in the city records for any crime. How is this possible? Don’t say that your father’s presence among the law is a factor. I know that you and he haven’t spoken in years,” said Bedo.

“I’m careful.”

“Are you now? My understanding is that you have dirt on some constables and you use that leverage to your advantage. Is that not true?” said Bedo. Lyn shrugged nonchalantly. What doesn’t he know?

“I hope you will be more forthcoming with the questions I don’t already have the answers to,” Bedo added, looking down at a piece of paper on his desk. He scribbled some notes and then looked up, cocking his head to the side a bit. “Is it acceptable to steal for a living?” he asked genuinely. I’m a thief, thought Lyn. Of course it’s fair to steal and you know that.

“Depends,” she said.

“On?”

“Who I’m stealing from. The way I see it, much of what the rich in Fortright ‘own’ was stolen from the hard working people who made it to begin with. The wealthy Fuerdai, who haven’t worked a day in their lives, but have servants and slaves catering to their needs…they are my targets, and yes, I think it’s acceptable to steal from them.” Lyn had made this justification in her head countless times.

“What if everyone stole? What kind of world would we live in then?” said Bedo.

“Everyone does steal. Some just more honestly and openly than others,” Lyn replied without hesitation.

“What about killing? Is it moral to kill?” asked Bedo, looking down and marking his paper again. Was he really taking notes on this conversation?

“Killing is wrong,” said Lyn, “but sometimes justified.”

“Let me give you a hypothetical. I’m standing here with a knife to your mother’s throat. You have a dagger and perfect aim. If you hit me between the eyes, I die and she lives. Is it correct for you to kill me?” Bedo asked. Lyn considered. She had no real love for her mother, the woman had become a miserable and abusive wench once her father had started whoring her out. Lyn didn’t blame her, at least not anymore, but she didn’t forgive her either. None of this was relevant to Bedo’s question.

“Sure. I kill you. Save her,” Lyn said.

“What if your mother was a killer? What if she had been responsible for many deaths, including absolute innocents, babies even? Is it still alright to kill me because she is your mother?” Lyn wasn’t sure. Her eyebrows furrowed in concentration and deliberation.

“I’m not sure what your point is with all of this,” said Lyn. “I revise my earlier answer. Sometimes it is probably moral, even righteous, to kill.”

“Good,” replied Bedo, continuing to look down at the paper, making further marks as he spoke. “Why we do what we do matters. ‘Why’ is always of critical importance. Men and women are motivated by different concerns. But those reasons are critical, sometimes more important than the acts themselves. Let me give you an example. There are two men working in this building, both employed as dealers at my tables. I trust them both; they are both good workers and they are roughly the same age. One of them works to feed his drinking and whoring. He rents a cheap place and needs this job to not be begging on the streets. The other is a father of three. He has a sick wife who he loves. He works to support them, to provide for them. Both men do the same thing, if I showed you both working this evening, you couldn’t tell me which was which. But why they work here matters, it matters significantly more than the work itself.

“Are you a very religious person Lyn Griffin?” he asked. Lyn didn’t respond. Which religion? The official religion of Fortright was the Kal faith. She understood the basic tenets fine: 1) one god, 2) one chosen people, 3) it was every Kal’s sacred duty to bring the faith, sometimes called ‘the way’ to the rest of the world, 4) everyone, everywhere, has their proper place, and 5) the Kal must teach others ‘the way’, 6) by force, if necessary. She didn’t subscribe to any of it. The Kal weren’t special, just big, dumb, and with shorter lives than most. Even the pureblood Kal in Fortright were second class Kal, exiles or the children of exiles. All the true Kal, the sworn bands, were in Deylanz, to the south. Most people in Fortright weren’t Kal, they were Utlendi and they secretly worshipped the old bear totems of the lost Iboan people, while paying lip service to the Kal functionaries in the city. Lyn was Utlendi herself but she didn’t pray to the totems, nor bother pretending to pray to the Kal god. Neither seemed of any use to her.

“I’m not. I understand it all well enough, official and unofficial faiths, but I wouldn’t say I practice either,” she said finally, having paused longer than she would have liked. Bedo looked up at her and set his quill down. He grabbed a pinch of sawdust and tossed it on the paper, blowing it around. When the ink was dry enough for his liking, he set the paper aside and picked up another one.

“And what do you make of the douls?” Bedo said, his eyes focusing on hers with intensity, searching for something. This now, was dangerous talk. If Bedo’s operation was tied to the Kal, saying the wrong thing here could place her life in jeopardy. She hesitated. The Kal had a reputation for honor and strict adherence to the law. Would they really partner with the ‘lord of the underground’? Lyn had seen stranger things. Her father, the constable, still ran one of the largest protection rackets in Fortright. Be mindful Lyn, she warned herself.

“Sad?” she said, offering nothing else.

“Come on. The Kal have enslaved people, our people. That is more than just sad.

“My understanding is that some douls are treated quite well. They exist as extensions of the larger Kal family households,” Lyn wasn’t showing her cards just yet. Let Bedo say more before saying anything treasonous. “Besides, the douls are where they’re supposed to be. The Kal faith makes this clear. Everyone has their role and place. Some are workers, some are warriors. Some lead, some follow. Some ow-”

“I know the bullshit catechisms too,” interrupted Bedo harshly. “I want to know what you think.” If this was the way the Kal were seeking out dissension, it was a strange method indeed. Here goes, thought Lyn, taking a deep breath.

“I think the Kal are oppressive bastards. That the bullshit religion is justification for the way they treat people. I think that the douls are slaves, not servants, and I think this city is rotten to its core due to Kal influence. Happy?” Lyn was practically shouting. Bedo set his quill down again and slowly moved his hands out in front. He began clapping, slowly. After a lengthy pause in which they both sat staring at each other, he continued.

“Have you heard of Tiras?” he asked, picking up the quill again. Lyn had, but only legends and myths. She was pretty sure he was just a story told to lift spirits and give false hope.

“Yes. Stories. Probably not true,” she said, with a calmer tone than before.

“What about the so-called ‘White Wisp’?” Bedo asked. Unlike Tiras, Lyn was pretty sure the White Wisp was real. She remembered her father and the other constables talking about the trouble she caused, riling people up, protesting and demonstrating against the former mayor. She remembered one night in particular, after more rounds had been shared than usual, that one of her father’s companions mentioned that they’d found a basement warehouse where the White Wisp was fostering runaway douls. They’d spoken in hushed tones. Even these men, venal to their essence, debated reporting on the safe haven. Hiding escaped douls was punishable by death, yet even these corrupt and worthless men hesitated. If recaptured, the douls would be tortured slowly and starved in public stocks, the smell and sight serving as lasting reminders of what a disruption of the Kal order could heed. In the end, they needn’t worry. The warehouse was burned by an Omada band in the middle of the night. Eighteen douls forcefully locked inside were burned alive, including a pregnant woman. Lyn felt the disgust and rage building within her. The White Wisp disappeared shortly after the massacre. That black spot on the city’s face was now five years past.

“I have, but she is gone. Probably dead,” Lyn said demurely.

“Perhaps,” said Bedo. “Maybe not. I can assure you, her movement, the rebellion, is very much alive. Did you ever see her? If you did, you’d know.” said Bedo. She hadn’t and said so.

“She was a spark of energy come alive. Barely four feet tall, she was agile, fast, and could leap-” Bedo paused. “Well, it was almost as if she could fly. But I think I’ve said enough. I’ve learned enough about you, for now. I’d like you to consider working with me. I’m not asking for you to change what you do, not at all. I’m asking you to reconsider why.” Lyn was taken aback, ‘with’ he said. The boldness and straightforwardness of the request surprised her. Hadn’t she said repeatedly she wasn’t interested just as this conversation began? This was a blunt ask, especially after the philosophical meanderings the conversation had taken earlier.

“As a thief? Why? I don’t need any help to support myself,” she said. Still unsure what exactly was being offered.

“Most of your work would be in a similar vein to what you do now. Thievery and protection are certainly part of the job…but some aspects would be different. Espionage, sabotage…and treason,” Bedo said. His tone had darkened. He was revealing himself now, his true self. Lyn was scared and excited.

“Are you asking me to join the rebellion?”

Bedo laughed and hit the table. “Yes. Yes I am! You see, you are already a lawbreaker. There was little chance you would go to the authorities with anything you learned or heard here today. Many of my finest recruits have come from the underworld. What I am offering you is a chance to be part of a cause. You could continue doing what you do, for yourself, getting by and watching the horrors the Kal may bring…or you can join us. Be a part of something, be on the right side of history. From my experience, many thieves are motivated by desperation. The world hasn’t offered them an honest route, so they take the only path available. I’m inviting you to be part of something larger than yourself, something dangerous and risky, but something you could be proud of and something that could change this world, forever. Why you do what you do matters Lyn, and I’m giving you a better reason, no, the best reason, to continue being a thief.

“I don’t expect an answer today. You know I can find you and you know how to find me. Take some time to think about this,” Bedo said. Lyn didn’t need time to think. She’d spent her early years looking up to her father and the law, believing that cause was just and that his path would be her own. Her disappointment at the truth only underscored the fact that she was still searching, looking for something more. Bedo may have found her, but this cause, this calling, it was the end of her search.

“No need. I’m in. When can I start?” Lyn asked, standing and extending her hand. Bedo took her hand and clasped it firmly with both of his.

“Tomorrow. I have the perfect first job. Come see me at sun up and we’ll go over the details.” She walked out of the High Table with a huge grin on her face. Her mind raced with possibilities and purpose. And just like that, Lyn was a rebel.