Flash Fiction: Better Than the Watchman (981 words)

Wick knew three people who made better watchmen than him.

Two of them – his mother, and his grandfather – were long dead, more memories than flesh, with lists of valorous stands that might have been made longer and greater by the time that had passed. He suspected at times, that his mother hadn’t actually stood watch over a door for seven days and eight nights without sleep. He suspected his grandfather had never kept watch over a King’s window, even if it was just to make sure no competing thief took what his employer had an eye for. He suspected neither of them had gone two and three months without being seen at all while personally stacking unwanted guests in the alleys behind their watches for their friends to wake and put back together.

But they were his mother and his grandfather. And they were long dead. Wick had no intention of trying to wrestle any medals off their chests.

The third was a blind man who worked the west quarter behind the warehouses with a stick the breadth of Wick’s forearm. There was no accounting for a blind man.

Wick shifted inside the shadow of the roof. Carefully, he stretched the muscles of his back, though it was more like tightening every muscle down, and slowly letting it go to scrub away the tightness that had been growing there over the last few hours. He didn’t move much. If anyone had been looking up – which few people did – they wouldn’t even have seen the slide of a ghost.

Below him, he marked the top of each head as men and women passed. He memorized their stride as they walked. He looked for anyone who came to close to the house, or lingered too far, or looked at it at all. And he watched, quiet as the air, sharp as the breeze coming down out of the north. Beside him, a heavy blade laid on the roof. It rested in its leathers, to remove the glint, but he kept it near his hand. Just in case.

From time to time, he glanced across to one of the other roofs, catching slight signals off the shadows that came from an extended hand. His youngers kept an eye on his bad angles, and he kept an eye on them.

They were long days, but the girl had given him a heavy enough payment to keep them pleasant. She was a thief, he knew, a sneak that liked to play in the dark, and apparently set her tokens in larger games than the usual quick-handed kid. He’d counted her money the first week, felt his eyebrows climb up his forehead, had to bite a lip to keep from asking how she’d come by it. It didn’t matter whose the money had once been. That morning it was hers, that afternoon it was his, and the exchange kept him over her door.

But she have been good at what she did. Sometimes he didn’t even see her come home, but heard a creak deep in the house, to announce she was in for the night. The first time, he’d dropped through a window, caught her stepping into her bedroom, soup in one hand, and the spoon casually hanging out of her mouth. He stared at her.

She blinked back at him, then pulled the spoon out of her mouth.

“Is everything all right?” she asked.

“You’re here,” he said.

Pausing, she nodded. “I think, tonight, I’ll take that as a compliment.”

His heart thudded in his chest, tapping against the inside of his ribs harder than they had in years. He realized how lacking he looked, standing there in her hall in surprise.

After that, he assigned a kid to watch her windows. He only saw her arrive half the time, but they kept him from tumbling into her house when she decided to move between rooms.

A shadow shifted on the opposite roof. Wick watched out of the corner of his eye for the motion to repeat. The flicker came again, as indistinct as the first, but repeated, and therefore deliberate. He grabbed his knife off the roof, rolled and slid down the wall.

Everick froze in the middle of his step toward the front door. He was built long, light muscle and bone, and a set of dark eyes that could be both charming and disturbing at a will. His hair curled carelessly down his forehead. His coat lay open on his chest. “What are you doing here?” he asked.

Wick slid the leather off his knife, and dropped it in the street, before resting his hands in front of him. The blade glinted nicely in his hand. “What I’m paid for. You’re not invited today, as far as I know.”

“I just came to take a look at the house,” Everick said. He slid a glance up the side of it. “It’s a nice little hideaway.”

“I don’t think she’s like to give it up to you,” Wick said.

“I don’t know that I need her to,” Everick said slowly.

Wick raised his eyebrows. He hadn’t expected something quiet so brash from another Sneak, but hearing it, he enjoyed the laugh. “I’m almost tempted to let you in,” Wick told him. “She is a scrappy thing. I’d like to see what she’d do to one man who thinks he can take out of her pocket.”

Everick blinked. Then he pointed to the house. “She’s in there?”

Wick nodded. His eyebrows bent together. “Yeah.”

“When did you last see her?”

Wick didn’t answer. There was no need to.

Everick spun his arm out, finger still pointed, but now pointed toward the western sky line. “Because they saw her skip out through the city gate three days ago.”

Wick paused. Then he swore, scooped the leather sheath off the street, and ran to check the house.

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