Return of the Thief Page 1

The Book of Pheris

Volume I

Chapter One

Though I was born to the house of Susa, I am Erondites. My mother, the only daughter of the Baron Erondites, was disowned when she married herself to a younger son of the Susa family. My father was an uncomplicated, easygoing man, and I have never known what drew the two of them together, as my mother was ambitious enough for two, and far more conniving. Resenting her restriction to family life on a Susa country estate, she entertained a steady stream of visitors from the capital who brought her all the news of the court, of the queen, and of her father’s many machinations. She was far more his child than either of her surviving brothers, and she hated him for casting her out.

When it became clear that I had been born with the infirmity that ran in my family, she declined the conventional response, and not because of any maternal feelings. Knowing it would anger her father, she arranged for a wet nurse and recorded my birth in the capital. She held my naming ceremony in the great temple, with free wine and food for all who attended, and only after that turned me over to the nurse of her own childhood, never to show any interest in me again.

I grew up in an outbuilding on the grounds of the Villa Suterpe, my nurse, Melisande, keeping me alive through my infancy and continuing to care for me as I grew older. She was nurse to my brother, Juridius, as well, though once he was old enough, he was moved to the main house. I never was, and if Melisande had had her way, I would have stayed forever in the two small rooms of our little home, as I was blamed every time the milk soured or someone fell ill. “Out of sight, out of mind, little one,” she cautioned me.

Despite the dangers, and her warnings, I was drawn to the main house like a moth to flame. Attention for an ugly child such as I was never positive, but I had my repertoire of seemingly accidental defenses. To my nurse’s distress, I enjoyed tipping plates of food or wine into my tormentors’ laps or wiping the spit from my mouth on their sleeves and watching with an assumed air of bewilderment as their audience laughed at them instead of me. I came to understand something my nurse never did: the less people want to see you, the easier it becomes to be invisible in plain sight.

My story begins in late summer. The days were still hot, but the grain was ripe, and the end of the year was on the horizon. It was late in the afternoon, the dry air like powder on the skin, and I was behind the stables watching a swarm of bees settle into a hollow tree. They had abandoned the clay pipes stacked for them in the kitchen garden, and the beekeeper had not yet tracked them down. Fascinated by an orderliness I glimpsed in their movements, I sometimes watched the bees for hours, though the longer I was still, the more painful it was when I tried to move again.

Just as my father returning from the hunt would linger at the threshold, handing off his horse, his weapons, his prizes to this servant or that servant before taking the wine from his cupbearer, so would a bee pause at the entrance to the hive to bow and spin in circles, to greet the doorkeeper bees and be greeted in turn. If the hunt had been successful, my father would pour out a libation in thanks; if a bee returned with pockets stuffed full of pollen, the doorkeeper bees escorted the successful hunter inside while other bees flew off, retracing her flight. All had a role to play.

The blue had washed out of the sky except where the sun was just settling on the hills to the west, and a house cat had joined me to begin his evening hunt in the litter under the trees. The birds overhead were making a racket as they found their roosts for the night, and I didn’t hear my nurse at first. Her voice was just loud enough to carry into the bushes, where she knew I liked to hide.

“Quickly, come quickly, boy,” she called, though she knew how difficult it is for me to get to my feet when I’ve been still for a long time.

The cat was crouched for a pounce. I had no desire to interrupt his pursuit of dinner, but Melisande called again, so I worked myself up from the ground—carefully enough that the hunter, focused on its mouse, took no notice of my going. The slope behind the stables was steep and I had to move in small steps, placing my bad leg with strict attention to avoid tumbling downhill. My nurse, once she caught sight of me through the brush, urged me with anxious waves of her hand to hurry. Obedient to her, if to no other, I did try, but she was bobbing her head in distress by the time I reached her. She had a bag, which she pushed into my good hand.

“You take this,” she said. “You go to the shrine of Agalia, you know the one I mean, where the roof has come down. You stay there until I come for you, do you understand?”

I nodded but waited for more, watching her face. “Erondites is here,” she said, and I froze as still as the mouse behind me hiding in deadly peril from the cat. Erondites. My grandfather who hated me. She had no time to say more, and I wondered later: if I hadn’t sought an explanation, if I’d gone as soon as I’d been told, slipping away into the bushes, would I have made it to the old shrine in the hills—a half day’s walk away for anyone else, an entire day for me or my old nurse? And if I had made it there, what might have been different then?

One of the housemen rounded the corner of the stable, moving fast, followed by another. Melisande said to me, “Go, go,” but of course I could not. The first houseman snatched the bag and threw it on the ground, then picked me up, grabbing me around the chest and swinging me. I cried out in pain and Melisande sank her hands into my shirt, twisting the fabric as if, feeble as she was, she could pull me out of the houseman’s arms.

“No,” she said, her voice breaking, “no, he cannot have my little Pheris.”

As I watched in horror, the houseman struck her with his fist, knocking her to the ground. I bit him hard on the ball of his shoulder, making him shout and then swear, but he did not drop me as I expected. He only changed his grip, easily shifting my weight and sending fire through my leg again. He locked an arm around my neck.

“Your time is up, little monster,” he said as he tightened his hold.

I’d never been treated so by a servant. Certainly by my family members, but the servants only spat when they saw me, or made a hex sign. Any physical harm they did was indirect: something placed for me to trip over, something unpleasant left on the paths for me to find. If they’d laid a hand on me, Melisande would have had them chopped and boiled and fed to the pigs. But Melisande was still on the ground, sobbing into her hands as my vision grew dark and the blood roared in my ears.

The next thing I knew, I was falling. My head hit the stone floor of the living room at the center of the main house, and I sprawled bonelessly until the darkness began to clear. When I could, I rolled into a crouch so that if I was kicked, as I sometimes was, I had a chance of taking the blow on my good leg. I’d spent a long winter in bed after my father had kicked the bad one.

My mother reclined on a couch, apparently at ease, the beads woven into the thin braids near her face hanging quite still. I’d often longed to set those braids in motion, to hear the clink of the brightly colored glass beads, but knew that any attempt to draw near to her would end with a slap. The man beside her was bald and running to fat the way powerfully built men often do as they age. He clutched a wine cup in his fist and stared at me in disgust—my grandfather, who’d never spoken to my mother since her marriage, who was much reviled in the villa, who’d wanted me dead since the day I was born. I knew what he saw.

Next page