In the town of Pennyhaven, there was honor among thieves.
For thieving was allowed, but only if done according to the strictest of rules, which were set by the Union of Thieves. The Union had a truce with the local constabulary to deal with any thief in town who did not abide by those rules. Their highest and foremost rule, for example, was that no living creature could be harmed by thieving. Their next highest rule was that only non-living objects may be stolen. And so on. Any aspiring thieves who broke the rules of the Union would never see membership, and would indeed be dealt with by the Union before the constabulary ever need step in.
Eridanus dreamed of being a thief. His hands were quick and his wit was quickly catching up. His father was proud of his efforts, and his mother boasted much about him when he was younger.
But two nights before he found himself sitting in the town square with his friends, watching prospects walk by, he had overheard his mother expressing doubts about his abilities. She had her sister over for tea, and she spoke of how she hoped that he would turn from thieving to pursue a less challenging and more reliable occupation. She dreamed of him leaving their town, for one thing, to go traveling the world. And in the rest of the world, thieving was always a crime.
Eri’s mother had always wanted to travel, but she no longer could. There was too much binding her to the town. So he understood that her longing for him to leave was really her longing to leave. And she had not been born and raised in Pennyhaven. She still did not understand why thieving was deemed an honorable occupation. She would likely always consider it unworthy. All of this, he knew. But this time, she had spoken as if she found him unworthy.
An ember of anger still flickered in his heart, and a heavy sliver of hurt still lay at the bottom of his gut, even two days later. But in that time, his mind had begun ticking, trying to devise a plan to show his mother that he was worthy of being called a thief, worthy even to be called a Master of Thievery.
Eri and his friends watched the people walk by, townsfolk, travelers, visitors, and vagabonds. They overlooked no one as they tried to pick a target for Eri.
When a man in a royal blue suit and a matching tophat adorned with a bronze feather passed by, Eri pointed to the man and said, “Him.”
His friends burst into laughter, and he was pelted with tiny pebbles as they acknowledged the great jest and the bold absurdity of his claim. They all continued searching the crowd for a challenging target. But Eri’s gaze continued to track the man in royal blue.
“No,” he said. “It must be him.”
The man in royal blue was known in town as the man from whom no one had ever managed to steal, not even the master thieves. Some said it was because the man was a mage, a true mage with powers beyond the illusions of thieves and magicians. Some said that if one were to utter his name, he would hear and capture the voice and be able to summon that person to do his bidding. And so he was called by a slew of other names. The most common one was the name the thieves knew him by, Longpocket. For he had the longest pocket of all, a pocket so long that no thief had ever managed to find the bottom.
But Eri insisted that he would steal something from Longpocket.
When his friends realized that he was serious, they began a discussion behind him, as he continued to track the man in royal blue.
“He’s going to get himself banned from the Union before he even tries to join, eh?”
“Let him try. I heard there’s a special exception for Longpocket.”
“Where’d you hear that?”
“What if he somehow succeeds and all the master thieves are sore at him? Jealous?”
“That would be petty.”
“Grown folk can be as petty as we are.”
“Somehow succeeds, eh? This baby thief?”
Eri felt someone grabbing him under his armpits and his sides. He managed to push away the hands without breaking his gaze away from his prospect.
And when he observed the man stop and pull a clock from the inner pocket of his coat, Eri grinned. That watch, that watch was the object he would steal. He announced his intention.
His friends threw out suggestions for strategies. He should dress up as a ragged orphan and try to get close. Or he should sidle up and try to shine the man’s boots whilst asking questions meant as small talk that actually revealed details intended to help him thieve.
Eri chuckled as he broke his gaze from the man and turned around to look at his friends. They could tease all they wanted now. He had marked his prospect.
“I will steal Longpocket’s pocket watch.”
Eri’s gaze flicked from face to face as he gauged what they thought of his declaration. It landed last on his two best friends, Vol, who was nodding vigorously, and Cor, who was looking ahead at Longpocket.
“I can see what Volans says. What do you think, Corona?”
She shrugged, but her expression looked thoughtful. “It’s done. You have made the declaration.”
Eri rubbed his hands together. “All Thieves’ Night is coming. If I present my mother with the gift of a stolen bauble from the great Longpocket, she will be proudest of me than ever.”
If it were anyone else whose pockets he planned on pilfering from, Eri would have decided that the straightforward, classic pickpocketing was best. He imagined how he might do it, and how he might succeed. Perhaps he could hope that Longpocket’s reputation as someone whose pockets couldn’t be picked had made him far less cautious and vigilant. Eri could bump into the man, take the watch, slip a decoy into its place and quickly disappear into a nearby alley, away from the stern hands of the keen-eyed constables. But somehow, he always ended up imagining them carrying him away after Longpocket felt the blatant attempt at thievery. No one ever dared bump into Longpocket after all.
Eri watched the man for several days and several nights, and when he was not watching, he was drafting strategies, then rejecting them. He was studying records of past attempts to steal from Longpocket at the Union archives.
At last, he decided upon a plan as bold and absurd as his declaration.
He would steal the pocket watch from Longpocket’s home.
The people of Pennyhaven were as adept at thwarting thieves as the thieves were at thieving. Even when they traveled out in the world, a Pennyhavener was a poor target to thieves and bandits. They knew the signs. They knew the tricks. They could feel the lightest of touches on their purses. They set their own traps over themselves and their possessions when they slept.
So their homes were all the more well-defended. And the most well-defended home was the home of the only person in town who had never been thieved.
Cor and Vol both contended to be Eri’s witness to the deed. He considered letting them both come, but the fewer who stepped close to the home of Longpocket, the better. He chose Cor. She could run faster, if they needed to run.
His plan was simple. He would wait until dark and ensure that Longpocket was within the house, for the man always kept the watch with him. Then he would sneak past any guards or traps, pick any locks in his way—a skill for which he had a particular talent—then hide and wait until Longpocket was asleep. Once the man was asleep, Eri would take the pocket watch, replace it with a decoy, and slip away as cautiously as he had entered.
Eri encountered no less than twenty traps before making his way into the house of Longpocket, a feat in and of itself. But he would not congratulate himself yet. No doubt there were dozens more traps inside the house, traps that Longpocket easily avoided every day. And though there were no guards outside, no vigilant dogs, no birds crying in alarm, there might be some inside.
Many times did he wipe the back of his hand against his forehead to wipe away the sweat that formed despite the chill evening. He kept his breathing as quiet as he could, as well as his steps. His gaze darted in all directions before he took each of those steps. His hand remained perched over his pockets, where he kept the tools of his trade. A roll of lock picks. A bag of bread (for any animals). A length of rope. And so on.
He found his way to a room on the lowest floor, where he saw Longpocket.
Longpocket was sitting very still before the unlit fireplace, his head slightly tilted, as if he had dozed off. He was still wearing the coat he had worn that day.
Eri hid behind a heavy velvet curtain whose edges dragged along the floor. He watched and watched.
The man never moved. And so, Eri decided that it was time to fulfill his declaration.
He drifted close to the man, his gaze darting everywhere, his ears straining to hear, his nose sniffing the air. He slipped a hand into the man’s pocket, exchanged the decoy watch for Longpocket’s watch, and slipped his hand smoothly out. He did not wait or hesitate. He began to move back as quickly as he could toward the curtain. When the figure before the unlit fireplace did not move, Eri passed by the curtain and into the hallway.
He wanted to run, to just take his chances and run. But after all the pains he had taken to come that far, he would not ruin his chance to complete his task.
When Eri made it outside of the boundaries of Longpocket’s home, he allowed himself a moment to take some deep and noisy breaths. And a wave of giddiness washed through him.
“Longpocket, more like…Lazypocket.” A grin erupted on Eri’s face, as he surprised himself with the cleverness of his jest. He glanced around and shook his head, for there was no one else present to hear it.
Or so he thought.
“I am grateful your thieving skills are not as lacking as your humor.”
Eri spun around. He reached into his pocket, and wondered what he was thinking. He should have been running. He had been noticed, but if he ensured no harm came to anyone in the pursuit of his thieving, he might still win the night.
But that voice was familiar, its quality, its cadence. He could not place it in his memory. It came from a dark patch on the pathway before him. He narrowed his eyes and peered into that patch.
“Put that toothpick away, Eridanus. We’re not going to hurt each other.” From the darkness, there emerged a small figure, of equal height with Eri.
Eri blinked once.
His friend greeted him with a warm smile. “Yes, it’s me.”
Eri lowered the knife he had raised, folded it, and placed it back in his pocket. He smiled and pulled the pocket watch out, dropping it from its chain so it dangled before him.
“Bear witness to my theft,” he said.
“I bear witness,” Cor answered.
Eri put the watch away. “What a great victory this is.” He glanced at Longpocket’s house and beckoned to Cor to come away.
“Yes it’s a great victory,” she said, “and I’m hoping that if we let you have it, you will help us.” As she spoke, another figure emerged from the shadows behind her. A much taller figure, wearing a tophat adorned with a gleaming bronze feather.
Eri caught his breath.
“Run if you must, Eri,” Corona said. “But I hope you will stay. I have a favor to ask.”
She must have been captured, Eri thought. Perhaps he threatened her life. Or my life.
He marveled at how calm his friend was under such duress.
Cor tilted her head toward Longpocket, who strangely, had not yet uttered a word. “You have nothing to fear from him. He is not what you think.” She lifted a lantern she’d been carrying, and turned its dim light to a bright flame.
She waved her hand forward, and the man stepped into the full light of the lantern.
There were seams in the man’s face, and one along his neck. Cor asked him to push up his sleeves, to reveal seams at his wrist and along the joints of his fingers. And under those seams, Eri could see ball sockets and gearworks.
“This is not Longpocket,” Cor said.
“A decoy,” Eri managed to say. His voice sounded dim and distant to him.
“Yes. Will you join us inside? I will explain everything.” She glanced at the pocket where he had stowed the stolen watch. “Either way, the watch is yours.”
Eri found himself back inside the home of Longpocket. He followed Cor and the mechanical man, the automaton who looked like the man he had come to thieve. The automaton stopped at the foot of a stair that led to the second floor.
“He can’t climb them,” Cor explained as she led on.
She took him to a room that Eri guessed was the master bedroom. Lying on a four-poster bed where the canopy curtains had been tied back, was a frail old figure.
They stepped closer. The figure was an old man. He appeared to be sleeping. His chest rose and fell just enough for Eri to see that he was breathing.
“This is Longpocket,” Cor said. She turned to Eri. “He is my uncle.”
Eri gripped a bedpost to keep himself from reeling. He gaped at the man’s skin, thin as a peel of onion. He gaped at the man’s hair, as white and brittle as the shell of an egg.
“He has not claimed me as niece, and I have not claimed him as uncle,” Cor said. “The relation is distant. I didn’t want everyone thinking I shared his wealth. The Union knows. But no one else. Not even my guardians.”
“When he summoned me to his home one night, I thought he was going to tell me that he planned on claiming me.” She pressed a hand on the bed beside her uncle’s hand. “He did not look this bad yet, but I was still surprised when I saw him.”
Eri said nothing. He did not know what to say.
“Do you remember that mage that came to town about a season ago?” Cor asked.
A season prior, a powerful mage had passed through Pennyhaven. All thieves were instructed not to attempt any thievery from this mage, even though travelers through town were typically considered fair game. None did, but Cor said that Longpocket accidentally brushed against the mage as they passed each other in the square. Eri did not remember hearing about that. Such an occurrence would have been at the top of town gossip, with people claiming to have seen the sight even if they were nowhere near the square at the time.
Cor suspected that her uncle may have fibbed somewhat, and that perhaps he and this mage had met to do some business.
Mage business? Eri wondered.
Before leaving town, the mage discovered that some possession of his had gone missing. He blamed Longpocket and placed a curse on him. Longpocket did not believe the mage meant any malice. And Cor believed what her uncle believed in the matter.
“Something precious was stolen from the mage,” Cor said. “So the mage stole something precious from my uncle, one of the most precious things he has… his time.”
For each day that everyone else aged, Longpocket aged a year. After the mage left town, Longpocket followed the mage and entreated him to lift the curse. The mage assured Longpocket that the curse would fade when Longpocket returned the missing item. But Longpocket had never stolen from the mage.
Understanding that the mage would not relent easily, Longpocket searched for and found evidence of the real thief, one of the mage’s hangers-on. By that time, he had grown so old that he could not walk about town. So he used his decoy, the automaton he had built many years before as one of his many tricks to thwart the thieves of Pennyhaven. He summoned his niece and revealed all to her, so she could help him. And he sent word to the mage of what he had found.
The stubborn mage would hear nothing from Longpocket until he returned what was stolen. But when Cor suggested that she speak on her uncle’s behalf, Longpocket allowed it. She sent an entreaty to the mage. But before an answer came, Longpocket caught a fever that would not heal. He ordered her not to visit the mage, not without an invitation. The invitation finally came. Cor had been prepared to leave her uncle in his own care. But two things happened that made her realize she needed help. Her uncle fell into a stupor from which he did not wake. And Eri decided to steal from Longpocket.
“I need you to look after my uncle while I go and present his proof to the mage. He made me swear not to tell anyone else about any of this, but that was before he fell into stupor.” Cor fixed her gaze on Eri. “I trust you above all other friends to care for my uncle. And you are the only thief in town I trust to do that without stealing anything from him.”
Eri returned her gaze. He put a hand on her shoulder. “Take Vol with you,” he said.
Cor shook her head. “I can’t tell anyone else.”
“Take it from a thief,” Eri said, “no possession is as precious as the ones you care for. Your uncle would want you to be safe. And if he doesn’t, then I do.” He shook her shoulder. “Take Vol with you.”
Cor smiled suddenly and Eri realized that he had not seen the sight in a while.
“And take this,” Eri said, reaching into his pocket. He pulled out the watch. “You caught me after all.”
Cor took the watch and nodded. She sighed a long sigh and her shoulders bounced up as if suddenly free of a heavy burden.
“It will take me a fortnight to travel to and back from where the mage is, maybe longer,” she said. “That means I’ll likely be gone when All Thieves’ Night comes.”
Eri snapped his fingers. “All Thieves’ Night. That’s right.”
Longpocket’s home and person would need to be protected from thieving.
Cor showed Eri how to operate the automaton, who would walk about town, and give the appearance of doing Longpocket’s regular business. She showed Eri every secret passage and doorway in the house. He was stunned. Though she had said she trusted him, he truly believed so after that revelation. When All Thieves’ Night came, he would make sure to thwart any thief who tried to steal from the house.
All Thieves’ Night came, and Eri darkened the whole house. From a balcony, he gazed toward the center of town. There were lights on in some of the rooms of the inns. There were always some visitors to the town who believed that leaving their lights on would deter thieves, or that they would be clever enough to catch a thief. On that night alone, anyone who caught someone thieving was entitled to a portion of that thief’s fortune. He tapped his foot and gazed down at the darkness surrounding the house, imagining himself down there instead of up where he was.
He was not the only one who had ever hoped to impress the Union, or a parent, or a lover, or a friend, or a child, or someone, by stealing something from the impenetrable Longpocket. Through the night, he caught movement in several places around the boundary of the house, and sent the automaton to chase away the would-be thief. He had often dreamed of coordinating with his friends to steal a large horde. But tonight, he was thankful for the “rule of one” that prevented thieves from banding together to strike all at once.
He remained vigilant inside the house as well. He checked on Longpocket, whom he was able to rouse long enough to drink water and a small measure of broth, and to help walk to the water closet. He used the passages that Cor showed him to suddenly appear in a room, ready to surprise anyone who may have made it into the house.
But none did, to Eri’s surprise. After all, he had made it through.
But then, he had only done so because Cor had wanted him to. She had not shown him what all the traps around the house were, only how to avoid them. He didn’t know what the thieves outside were really encountering.
He had finished his latest patrol inside the house and stood once again on the balcony of the master bedroom.
Something aroused his attention. He didn’t hear anything. He didn’t see or smell anything. But the hairs of his neck pricked up. He turned and jumped back into the room, his knife drawn.
“Put that toothpick away, Eridanus,” a voice said.
Eri was not to be fooled. He twisted the knob on a nearby lantern, until there was enough light to see the intruder by, and to see that she was no intruder.
“Cor,” he said with a nod, putting his knife away.
“Of all nights for me to return, eh?” Cor said. She was smiling. And that could only mean one thing.
Eri embraced his friend, and then left her to the work of administering the anti-curse to her uncle, as he continued his guard over Longpocket’s house.
Cor was told that it would take as many days for the curse’s effects to be reversed as it took for it to work. So there seemed no effect on that first night. Or the next. Or the next.
But the on third night, her uncle, Longpocket, woke without aid.
She did not have to tell him that she had defied his instruction not to tell another soul about his condition. For Eri was in the bedchamber, standing beside his friend.
Eri stopped visiting the house after that, though he stopped by Cor’s house to see her alone every now and then. He would not ask about her uncle, in case they were overheard. She did not join their group of friends in all that time, and when they asked, Eri told them as much of the truth as he could, that a distant relative was sick, and Cor was observing the ritual of deprivation. She had also denied herself the eating of sweets and the wearing of her favorite colors. But she allowed herself to see her friends one by one. And those who were inclined did so.
A month passed and Eri received a summons to the house of Longpocket, an evening summons.
Eri went and was greeted at the door by Cor, much to his relief.
She stood by him while her uncle made his formal introductions. He was entirely changed, though he was not quite his proper age yet. He had a streak of gray still in his dark hair, but he was dressed in a royal blue suit, and the grip of his handshake was solid and strong.
He thanked Eri and offered refreshment, to be taken after one order of business. He turned to his niece.
Cor stepped forth and held out her hand. In it, lay the pocket watch of Longpocket.
“You haven’t admitted defeat on your declaration,” she said. “It remains unfinished.”
“Not a true theft if it’s given,” Eri said.
“No, it’s a gift.” Cor held out the pocket watch. “You can give this to your mother, and tell her whose watch it is. The theft will not be disputed.”
Eri smiled. “I’m a thief not a liar.” He took the watch. “But I will not refuse a gift from my friend. And I will not give away a gift from my friend.” He slipped the watch into his own pocket and sighed. “I’ll steal something for my mother next year.”
Cor’s uncle narrowed his eyes and peered at Eri. “Passing up the chance to claim that you have stolen from the impenetrable Longpocket?”
To that Eri had no response.
Longpocket bowed his head to Eri and closed his eyes.
Eri was taken aback. The man was offering him another chance to steal. But Eri stood where he was until the man’s eyes opened again. Longpocket slowly but steadily made his way out of the room.
Corona stepped toward Eri. “I suppose my thieving days are over,” she said, “now that it will be known who I am.”
Eri hesitated. “I could keep your secret.”
“No, Eri. Not after the speech you just made about being an honest thief. You’ve kept my secret long enough.”
Eri puckered his brow. “Speech? It wasn’t…”
Cor clapped a hand to his shoulder. “You’re the thief. I am something else, or I will be. I’m going to apprentice with my uncle. We’re claiming each other as family.”
Eri’s eyes widened. “He is a mage, isn’t he? That’s why the other mage cursed him. Because Longpocket is one of his own, and should have known better. He would have been more forgiving of a thief, wouldn’t he?”
“How else would he be able to thwart the greatest thieves in all the world?”
Cor took a deep breath and exhaled heavily. “It does seem curious.” She grinned and threw an arm around Eri, and she whispered in his ear. “But I’ve always heard it’s because he has very long pockets.”
Copyright © 2019 Nila L. Patel