Published in "Tails of Wonder" Magazine, 1993 as "It Takes a Thief..."
Copyright 1993 - Nicholas S. Stember, First Reprint and Electronic Rights Available
Approx. 3700 words long
The Narcissus emerald loomed heavily in Crimson Fox's thoughts like some nightmare that wouldn't cease. Every time he closed his eyes, the flawless green crystal seemed to dangle before him, just out of reach. It had quickly become an obsession, as were all things of jeweled perfection...something that he had to have.
These thoughts he tried to push out as he crept along the plush carpet, trying not to knock into anything. His eyes were trained to see in the dark, and the full moon shining through the large parlor windows gave more light than he could ever have asked for.
The entire citadel had heard of the arrival of the Countess DeJourné, and the pride of her jewelry collection, the Narcissus Emerald. She had arrived only this morning, but had already worn it to half a dozen formal affairs. Every thief in the kingdom of Xarlen wanted to get his hands on it, but only he had figured a way past the guardian lions and the Asp nest into the very mansion of the Count.
His thoughts shattered like glass as the jade pedestal bearing his quarry appeared before him. The moonlight shimmered through the many facets of the emerald, causing a prismatic scattering of colors around the fine necklace that bore the precious gem.
A lesser thief would have grabbed at it quickly and ran, but Crimson Fox silently studied the ornate jade pedestal, valuable in its own right. Slowly he removed his ruby amulet from around his neck and touched it to the table, sending a miniature shower of sparks across the carpet. He smiled grimly, quickly recognizing the magical field that protected the emerald. Gently raising up the amulet, he softly whispered the lyric chant that the Enchantress had taught him years ago. As if in response to his words, the ruby lit from within, sparkling like a red star, then faded away.
With a self satisfied grin firmly planted on his thin lips, Crimson Fox reached out and scooped up the Narcissus Emerald, its protection temporarily countered. He slipped the fantastic stone into his leather pouch and stole towards the window, his mind already dancing to the ale and women who would be at his beck and call for this evening's pleasure.
"Absolutely fantastic," came the clear voice across the room like a steel tipped javelin. "You are truly the expert that everyone says that you are."
Crimson Fox froze in his tracks, his hand swiftly closing on the pearl hilt of his sword. He pulled his weapon free of its scabbard while pivoting towards the voice, steeling his lean frame for the attack that was sure to come next.
Light sprang through the room as a two lanterns illuminated, each held by a heavily armed guard. Between the two armored men, stood a tall woman, her features regally sculpted like fine porcelain. Her ruby lips twisted into a sneer of delight, like a animal tamer faced with a new panther fresh from the wild. "You have performed wonderfully, Crimson Fox...as I knew that you would." She gestured an ivory hand towards a velour divan. "Please, sit and join me."
The experienced thief quickly calculated the odds. He had no doubt that he could best her two guards, but her words and tone perplexed him, enticing his curiosity. He carefully sheathed his sword and walked over to the couch. As he sat down he heard the window open behind him. In the grand mirror that covered the wall in front of him, he saw two more guards behind the divan, readying crossbows through the window. He turned to face the Countess, momentarily loosing himself in her sea green eyes. "You talk as if you were expecting me." He chose his words carefully, knowing that the odds were quickly disappearing towards the other side.
Her smile deepened, causing the fine lines in her face to suddenly deepen. "I came to the city of Elarria to find you. That is why I am here, visiting my brother."
"I don't understand," he replied honestly, while fingering the crystal inside the pouch.
The Countess DeJourné shook her head, making plain her distaste in dealing with commoners. "I have need of a thief, a good thief. I knew that if I constantly displayed my pride and joy, that you would come, like the rabbit to the trap."
"Then why not greet me at the door?" he growled with growing suspicion.
"Isn't it obvious?" she said, her voice showing her mounting annoyance. "I needed to make sure that the legendary Crimson Fox was as good as they say."
The Countess DeJourné placed a cool thin hand on his, while carefully running her tongue across her upper lip. "I need something stolen, and that will require the greatest thief in all of Phantasma."
Crimson Fox felt his suspicion fade within his mind, giving way to his ego as it swelled. "In all Phantasma?" he questioned, a wide grin spreading across his face. Then he looked her square in the eyes, sick of this game they were playing. "Just what is it you want me to steal?"
The Countess seemed to hesitate for a moment, as if dealing with a great manner of pride. "It's my daughter," she finally released. "She's been abducted."
"Kidnapped?" Crimson Fox asked, then shook his head slowly in confusion. "Look, my lady...I'm a jewel thief, not a person thief."
"My daughter is more precious to me than any jewel," the Countess retorted sharply.
"Then why not ask the King for help? Or the royal guard?"
She glanced down for a moment then shrugged. "This is a delicate matter, Crimson Fox, it involves family. I wouldn't expect someone from your station in life to understand. But listen earnestly, for you have no choice. She's inside the King's palace "
"Palace?" Crimson Fox blurted out. "You can forget this, Countess, you caught yourself the wrong thief."
The Countess DeJourné held up her hand to silence him. "As I said, you have no choice...and very little time." She motioned for one of her guards to come forward.
Crimson Fox tensed as the armed man approached swiftly and grabbed the pouch containing the Narcissus Emerald. He emptied it into a silk bag, then tossed the vacant leather pouch back to the thief.
"You only have three hours to steal her back for me," she continued, her voice suddenly devoid of emotion, "so I'd listen if I were you."
"Why only three hours?" he asked, while wiping his increacingly sweaty palms on the course, blood red leather of his trousers. For some reason, it suddenly struck him that the Countess would have been quite beautiful, if it were not the icy flatness of her magnificent eyes.
"Because that's how long it will take the skin poison in your system to kill you, Crimson Fox," she stated bluntly. "You return my daughter to me, alive and well...and you get the antidote."
Crimson Fox's eyes flashed to the silk bag in the guard's hands, and cursed himself for being so careless. For a moment he considered the validity of her statement, and realized that she had nothing to loose by telling the truth here. He never would have thought that a piece of jewelry, that one wore, would be protected with the cyanide derivative that could be invisibly placed on an object, that slowly seeped into to skin of anyone foolish enough to touch it. A single bead of perspiration formed on his forehead, and began to slowly trickle down his face. "Bitch," he whispered menacingly as her smile returned. "You've just hired yourself the Crimson Fox."
The tall palace stretched up from the center of the citadel, flanked by the dozens of guards who diligently patrolled its grounds. The crystal blue moat that surrounded its walls teemed with the piranha that gave it its name, the blood waters. And above it all, was the elite royal guard that patrolled the castle halls...the fiercest warriors that Xarlen had to offer.
Crimson Fox's hazel eyes narrowed as he leaned against a tree on the far side of the moat, as the Countess DeJourné's words stung his thoughts like a swarm of wasps. "Do not fail me," she had warned. My daughter's name is Cassandra, and she is being held in the Palace tower."
"How about you throwing in the Narcissus as payment?" he asked.
"Not even my daughter could make me part with that, thief," she coldly replied. "Your life is payment enough."
"How will I know her?" he asked through a sigh.
"You just will."
"I just will," he grumbled quietly as he scanned the high walls of the palace, letting his gaze rest on the tower in the center of the grand building. Getting in and out wasn't what he was really worried about, he'd cracked tougher nuts before. Getting the girl out was what bothered him. But as usual, he decided to play it by ear, and see what happened.
He spotted the small canoe under some brush, just like the Countess DeJourné had promised, and quietly pulled it into the water. Slipping inside, he glanced up and down the moat, satisfied that the Legionaries patrol wouldn't be back on this side of the palace for at least another five minutes or so.
The trip across the moat was silent and painless, as he assumed it would be. Coming from a town by a river, he had used a canoe often, and found it effortless to quietly glide it to the palace grounds. He quickly pulled the small boat up against the palace wall, trusting that it wouldn't be seen as there was no lighting on this side of the grand building.
The grappling hook felt light in his hands as he tossed it up to the only open window that he found on this side that wasn't illuminated from within. With a satisfying click, the hook latched onto the sill, and he swiftly climbed the two flights up.
Once inside the room, he let his eyes adjust to the absence of light, as he scanned the rich treasures within...gold trimmed furniture, silver vases, silken drapes. But he shook his head sadly while closing towards the door, regretting that he hadn't more time...and less of a burden to bring out.
He found the tower without much trouble, simply by going down the hall. Every moment he expected a guard to notice him, but thus far none had come. Never one to question his luck for long, Crimson Fox opened the large oak door and starred up the long winding stairs that lead to the room at the top, six flights up. "She'd better be there," he whispered under his breath, as he started his long climb.
The stairs were carved in stone, so it was easy to be silent while heading up. As he rounded the last corner before the door, he pulled his sword free and caught his breath then moved forward...and stopped. There was no guard at the door. His mind clouded with suspicion as he reached out to the latch and lifted it, casing the door to swing inward.
Laying on a bed in the small room was quite probably the most beautiful woman that Crimson Fox had ever seen. His jaw went loose as his eyes traced a fine line along her alabaster skin, clothed only in a fine white nightgown. Even in darkness, her bright auburn hair gleamed with shadows of the deepest gold and the richest red. Her facial bones were delicately carved, her mouth full. He suddenly realized that he had unconsciously crossed the room to her, as if magnetically attracted to the woman on the silken white sheets. Quietly he sat on the side of her bed, suddenly afraid to disturb what seemed a perfect vision. Then her eyelids fluttered open causing him to catch his breath. Her eyes gleamed like the moon at harvest, a brilliant jade that melted his heart. She was her mother's daughter, unmistakable and perfect.
"Who are you?" her voice whispered in dulcet tones.
For a moment his voice found no bearing, then he forced himself to remember the severity of the night, and the lethal poison that was quickly moving through his blood. "I'm Crimson Fox," he told her quietly. "I'm here to help you."
"How gallant," she said with a smile, while appraising the handsome stranger on her bed. "And what help have you come to offer?"
All thoughts of poison and guards died swiftly as he beheld the sparkle in her eyes. The one tragic flaw that her mother had, held nothing over this wondrous beauty. Suddenly he wanted nothing more than to be this young woman's hero, to safely carry her away from this horror. "I'm here to save you," he told her, his voice filled with pride.
"What are you talking about?" she asked, her iris' dancing with playful curiosity.
"Surly you know," he responded, filling with caution again. "Your mother sent me here to rescue you."
Suddenly her dazzling eyes turned dark, the lilting smile on her ruby lips fading away. "Crimson Fox," she stated flatly, "just what is it that you think you're rescuing me from?"
The hollow pit that had been filling his stomach with fear slowly turned to anger, the mystery of the lack of guards becoming apparent. You don't need guards to watch over a prisoner who doesn't want to escape. "You were abducted and brought here," he reminded her. "Your mother wants me to steal you back...you are the lady Cassandra, right?"
"Mother," she responded bitterly, then smiled sternly at her would be hero. "Yes, I'm Cassandra. No, I don't need rescuing...at least not from her."
Crimson Fox cocked his head to the side, feeling a large headache coming on. He knew that the Countess DeJourné was unlikely to give him the antidote without her daughter, but he could hardly make the young woman leave against her will. "I wish that I understood all this, but all that matters to me is that I was poisoned, by your mother, and if I don't bring you to her within an hour and a half I will be quite dead."
Now it was the young Lady's turn to be confused, as she placed a hand on the thief's arm. "How could that be?"
Crimson Fox let out a long sigh. "I was trying to...obtain the Narcissus Emerald...it was covered in poison."
The playful look returned to her eyes. "That makes you a--"
"An entrepreneur," he finished for her with a grin.
"That cursed stone," Cassandra whispered bitterly. "This is all because of it, and mother." She gazed deeply into his hazel eyes, searching for some glimmer of understanding, but found none. "You deserve to know the truth, sir thief," she explained with a sigh. "The young prince of Elarria Castle, heir to the throne of Xarlen, found the Narcissus last spring on a crusade, and proudly declared it the most valuable jewel in all of Paragon. But my mother had to have it, and offered the prince the one thing that he wanted more than money...me."
"You were sold for the emerald?" he asked, genuinely astonished. "But then why am I here?"
Cassandra's ruby lips hardened into a flat line. "That is because I am already betrothed, to my uncle, the Count DeJourné. My uncle told my mother, his sister, that if I wasn't wed to him, we would both be cut off from the family without a copper to divide amongst us."
"Then why sell you to the prince?"
"She thought that she could talk my uncle out of the trade. But he is a foul man, and can't be reasoned with. I would guess that you are here to deliver me to him."
"Won't the prince mind?"
"He would never know, I suppose," she explained sadly. "My uncle would keep me in his Chateau to the north, and my mother could tell the prince that I was abducted by brigands and killed. Then she gets her money and the Narcissus."
As much as Crimson Fox hated to admit it, the Countess' plan seemed perfect, except for one thing. "Do you want to stay with the prince?"
"He's handsome," she admitted, "though not quite as you. But he is vain and cruel, caring little for anything but his own pleasures."
"Is that how you talk of your true love?" snapped a voice at the door.
They both whirled to find the young Prince standing in the doorway, his rapier in hand. His lean frame was clothed in fine silk with gold trim, and his face held a look of cruel pleasure, as he pointed the thin sword at the couple.
"Has a thief come calling at your door, my love?" the prince laughed sardonically. "Sir, you will come downstairs, so I do not have to spill your blood in my betrothed's chambers."
Crimson Fox slowly rose from the bed, realizing that Cassandra still held his hand in hers. He gently pulled away, gazing down at her with a smile. "Don't worry, my lady."
"Are you not afraid?" she asked with wonder in her voice.
The cocky sneer died on the Prince's face at the insult and he charged forward, intent on skewering the young thief.
Crimson Fox easily sidestepped the clumsy lunge, letting the Prince fall over the bed.
Before the heir to the Xarlenn throne could rise, Cassandra picked up his fallen sword and smashed the hilt down on the base of his skull with a firm crunch...the Prince sank wordlessly to the floor.
I see your point," she told Crimson Fox. "It seems that we are both pawns in this game, sir thief, so what do you propose that we do?"
The astonished thief stared at the young woman in silence, then let out the laugh that had been building up. He offered her his hand, bringing her up from the bed. "We take you home."
Cassandra glanced over at the prone Prince and smiled. "He won't be very happy when he wakes up."
"Then we should both be long gone by then."
Crimson Fox gently took Cassandra's hand, bringing her out of the tower room. He knew that he had been lucky getting in, since the Lady Cassandra DeJourné had only been a pseudo willing guest, but that luck could hardly hold out on their retreat. He silently ushered her back to the bedroom that he had entered through, only to find an elderly man sitting on the bed.
The grey haired man quickly pulled his robe about him at the sight of the young couple. "What is the meaning of this?" he demanded. "Lady DeJourné, what are you doing here?"
"We're just passing through," Crimson Fox explained through his grin, while climbing out the window.
"A thousand pardons, my lord," Cassandra said with a curtsy, then followed him out the window.
The old man watched in shock as they both disappeared, shimmying down a thin rope. Then he gave a shrug, and lay down to sleep. "Children," he laughed, then closed his eyes, "what will they do next?"
It wasn't until they were sneaking along a lantern lit street that she spoke again, having left the palace far behind. "What if I left my home, left Xarlen and the DeJournés." She gazed up at him, her eyes shimmering with the fading moonlight.
Crimson Fox looked down at her, his hand gently moving a stray wisp of hair out of her oval face. "What if?" Then he took her hand, and led her to the mansion.
"You should be commended, thief," the Countess DeJourné accented with a grimace, "I suppose." She crossed the ballroom of her grand mansion and handed Crimson Fox a small vial filled with a green liquid. "Here is the antidote that was promised." Her false smile faded into her familiar icy veneer. "If you are ever seen near the city of Elarria or all of the kingdom of Xarlen again, Crimson Fox, I will have you arrested and killed. I'm sure that you can see yourself out." She turned on her heels and went into the hallway without another word.
Crimson Fox sniffed the liquid, satisfied that it held the aroma that he knew to counter similar poisons. He quickly tilted the vial to his lips and swallowed the sweet formula, while training his ears to the discussion in the hall.
"Tomorrow you will leave for the northern Chateau," he could hear the Countess lecturing. "You will wed your uncle in one week."
"What if I refuse?" Cassandra questioned defiantly.
"You have no choice, child," the mother snapped loudly. "The Prince would behead us both if he knew the truth."
"True," the young lady relented, "my choices do seem limited."
Crimson Fox tuned out the domestic discussion and placed the empty vial on the table. Then he shook his head sadly as he walked towards the outside door. For a moment he hesitated in the foyer, turning his head back to the sound of their voices, then he pivoted on his heals and
darted towards the main parlor.
The first strands of dawn were cresting the horizon over the citadel as Crimson Fox sat on his horse, the great forest to his back, staring at the gates of the city that he was grateful to be leaving behind. He had considered starting straight off towards his destination, as it would take many weeks to get there, but he had waited here, quietly stroking his horse's long mane.
Finally another rider emerged from the still sleeping city, astride a snow white stallion. The cloaked rider rode up to the young thief, pulling along side his horse.
"I'm coming with you." Cassandra's informed him with a grin on her ruby lips. The words held no trace of question in them...to her, this seemed more a statement of fact. Yet there was a tenderness to her tone, an almost child like innocence.
Crimson Fox turned to the young Lady, the smile returning to his face. "I know that," he replied simply, then started his horse down the road at a fast pace, closely followed by hers.
"This is strange for me, sir thief," Cassandra admitted nervously as they rode. "I've never been without money. How will we survive?"
"Oh, don't worry," Crimson Fox reassured her with his quirky grin, "we'll find some way." He reached into his pouch, pulling out the freshly polished Narcissus Emerald, as his laughter rang along the forest road.