The Ultimate Key; a Tale of Greed

The Ultimate Key; a Tale of Greed

Of all the queen’s treasures, it was to the simple silver key she wore around her neck that Silkfoot’s eyes were continuously drawn. It was too plain to have been intended as a decoration, too ordinary to suit the fantastic nature of the woman who wore it. But he dared not ask about the adornment, lest he draw attention to his interest.

It wasn’t every day, after all, that a queen invited a notorious pirate captain to tour the halls of her palace. Prior to his arrival, Silkfoot had made a silent promise to be on his best behavior; that key was going to test the limits of his pledge.

He held his tongue for the duration of her tour, commenting instead on paintings, tapestries and carvings that decorated the halls and rooms through which they passed. He chose them at random, watching storm clouds gather in the eyes of the queen’s chief bodyguard with every new mention. He wouldn’t be surprised to find extra guards posted next to each artifact for the duration of his stay. It was mighty tempting to try to nab one of them just to see the look on the guard captain’s face.

But it would have been a waste of the invitation, even if Domerin Lorcasf was absolutely adorable when he was angry. If he was going to get himself banned from the royal palace – and probably the rest of the country as well – it would be for nothing less than something spectacular.

Despite the fuss he made over the dazzling display, this was far from Silkfoot’s first time inside a royal residence. He had slipped into more royal balls in more countries than he could count, never having needed an invitation. Though he couldn’t help thinking how much fun it was going to be to brag about the official nature of his visit, especially if he could secure more invitations later.

Which only made the conundrum of the key more difficult to solve.

He waited until he and his first mate were alone in the common sitting room shared between their quarters to speak. He had been pacing for several minutes by now, and it was probably obvious he had something on his mind. Not that Kestrel would ever interrupt one of his silent reveries.

“Did you happen to notice the necklace the queen was wearing? The one with the key?”

Kestrel arched one midnight eyebrow and Silkfoot could tell he was trying to read the hidden meaning in his words. The man knew him well enough to know that if he was bringing it up, there was business involved.

“I didn’t pay much attention.”

No surprise. His first mate had a spectacular eye when it came to weather patterns and trouble, but objects often escaped his notice. “Do you think she takes it off when she goes to sleep?”

It wasn’t that peculiar a question as far as Silkfoot was concerned, and Kestrel didn’t even bat an eyelash, though he did shrug. “I’d imagine it goes into a drawer or chest with all her other jewels. Why?”

“It isn’t all that fancy. In fact she wears it under the neckline of her dress and covers it with another necklace. I’m sure now that she’s worn it every time we’ve seen her. That makes me think she never takes it off.”

Kestrel sighed softly, as if he had tired of a game they hadn’t even started. “And why should that make a difference?”

“Well…” Silkfoot murmured in a tone that suggested Kestrel should be quite well aware of what he was implying. When his first mate offered no further response, Silkfoot flashed him an exasperated look. “Even I would be hard-pressed to remove a necklace from a noblewoman’s neck while she slept.” Unless she was drunk or drugged, and Silkfoot wouldn’t dream of going that far, not with the one monarch willing to treat him with a little bit of respect and dignity.

“Why would you want to steal such a plain necklace?” Kestrel’s brow furrowed with confusion. “Certainly not just so you could say you stole something from a queen?”

Silkfoot clicked his tongue and flicked his wrist to dismiss the idea. “Oh, I’ve done that already. That’s not just any key, Kestrel, my darling. I’m pretty sure it’s the Key of Andurale.”

“The Key of Andurale?” Kestrel repeated slowly, his confusion growing deeper.

“Yes,” Silkfoot said with obvious impatience, “an ancient artifact which is said to be able to open any lock.”

Understanding finally donned in his first mate’s eyes. “But wouldn’t that rather take the fun out of it all? Being able to bypass any lock without expending any effort?”

“Indeed,” Silkfoot was forced to concede that particular point.

“Then why do you need it?” Kestrel demanded, reading the intent in his eyes.

“I do not need it,” Silkfoot snapped, insulted by the insinuation. “I want it.”

Kestrel held up both hands as if in surrender. “Why do you want it then?”

Silkfoot drew a deep breath which indicated that he was about to say a great deal in a short span of time. “A man of my considerable talents doesn’t need to regard locks as problems, as we’ve well established. But think of our considerable contacts, my friend. All those bumbling buffoons that call themselves thieves but keep getting caught. Not to mention our younger associates who are just starting out and haven’t really gotten the feel for the profession. Think how many of them would be interested in the ultimate key, a key which would remove all obstacles from their path, thereby opening the flood gates of success.”

Kestrel snorted, a hint of a grin playing across his lips. “You want to sell it.”

Silkfoot nodded once, a wicked grin taking residence on his face. “More than once.”

A rich peel of laughter echoed through the room before Kestrel shook his head. “You were the one who said ‘best behavior.’ Don’t let greed get the better of you. Remember what you said you could accomplish with the friendship of a monarch.”

The list did flash through his mind again and it was considerable enough to make him hesitate. He wondered, fleetingly, if he could bring the queen in on the deal. Probably not.

With a sigh, Silkfoot flopped into the comfortable arm chair next to Kestrel’s. He let his legs drift across the floor until his back slid halfway down the back of the overstuffed chair and his armpits rested firmly on its arms.

“It isn’t the money, really,” he insisted, “it’s walking away from such a perfectly delectable scam.”

“Of course,” Kestrel murmured in his most soothing voice. “But I rather suspect you’ll survive, Captain.”

Survival wasn’t the question. The question was whether or not he could manage to steal the key, make brief use of it, and return it before the queen noticed it was missing.

*  *  *  *  *  *

Night didn’t shroud the palace as deeply as Silkfoot had hoped. Even using secret passages to navigate the halls, and having already noted the regular guard patrols, he would have liked the extra advantage of easy obscurity. His one advantage lay in the fact that they didn’t seem to think he would be foolish enough to slip into the royal family’s private wing. They were rather underestimating him in that regard but, for once, he wasn’t going to complain.

This heist would be challenging enough as it was without higher than normal security. Domerin took no chances when it came to his charge. Even the normal amount of patrols made this decision suicidally stupid.

But traversing the space wasn’t the difficulty. Silkfoot reached the queen’s quarters with such ease, he might have been taking a stroll through the halls of his own house. It was after her door slid closed that the real challenge began. Rumor had it that the queen had ears like a cat – and that was no figure of speech. Chances were she had other magical protections to enhance her senses while she slept, and even the slightest alarm was likely to result in deadly injuries before anyone thought about stopping to answer questions.

Still he inched forward, moving with practiced silence, tiptoeing from the sitting room to the bedroom, where the queen lay curled beneath her silken covers. Unbound, her hair was so long it spilled over the edge of the bed and brushed the floor. How anyone could manage so much hair was beyond the pirate captain’s reckoning. It must be dreadfully heavy, not to mention getting tangled all the time. Then again, a woman with as much magic as the queen probably had her own ways of keeping her long hair tame.

He shook himself slightly; this was no time to get caught up in the queen’s beauty.

Moonlight glinted off a hint of silver. The key was still on its chain around her neck, half buried in the folds of the blanket, inches from her steadily moving chest.

The only question which remained was how to unlock the clasp. If he could do so without waking her, he only needed to wait until she rolled away. Then he could pluck the key from the bed and retreat the same way he had come.


Perhaps too easy.

He paused with his fingers poised mere inches from the sleeping monarch’s neck. Her eyes were open. The moonlight shimmered against their blue depths making it seem, for a moment, as if stars glittered in her eyes.

Silkfoot didn’t move. He barely dared to breathe.

The queen shifted slowly beneath the covers. The key bounced across her chest as she moved, eventually sliding over her shoulder, disappearing behind it. She folded her arms across her chest and a slow smile spread across her lips.

“Have you lost your way, Messier Lightvolt?” Her voice was so sweetly innocent, it almost made him choke.

“Why so I have,” he replied with an easy grin of his own. “How clumsy of me.” Clumsy indeed, to fall for such an obvious trap.

“It’s quite all right,” the queen practically purred. “I knew you wouldn’t be able to resist.”

Silkfoot’s grin grew sheepish. “Well, in that case, I wonder if I might be able to interest you in a little proposition. I didn’t intend to keep the key forever, you see. If you would just allow me to borrow it, I could steal it back for you when I was finished selling it. I’ll offer you half of everything I make.”

The queen arched an eyebrow, mirth dancing across her face. “Really? Half?”

“It seemed like the best starting offer.” He’d have tried to whittle her down to twenty-five percent by the end. It was how these negotiations worked.

She chuckled, a sound like tinkling bells. “I don’t think Domerin would approve. And he’s the one you really have to worry about, you know.”

Of course he is.

“I’ll tell you what…” the queen went on without waiting for a response. “If you go back to your room right now, and keep your slick fingers off the rest of my personal possessions for the duration of your stay, I’ll forget this ever happened.”

Silkfoot lowered his hand back to his side. It was the best he could hope for. If nothing else, he should have spent at least one more day planning this little excursion. He knew better than to let himself get swept up in the excitement of a scheme.

“Very well, your majesty. As always, I appreciate your consideration.”

“It’s only because I’m so fond of you.” The queen chuckled again.

The pirate captain nodded politely before he turned and slunk from the room like a dog with its tail between its legs. It had been a long time since he had been foiled. But then, he should have expected it.

His plan to slip back to his room and wallow in self-pity unnoticed was shattered the moment he passed back through the doorway to the queen’s quarters. A lone figure waited for him in the shadows, dressed in full guard uniform, twin swords strapped to his hips. Even in the darkness, the intensity of his narrowed gaze was such that Silkfoot shuddered.

With a series of wide steps, Silkfoot slid past the captain of the queen’s guard and hurried from the hallway. The pirate captain never allowed himself to look back, but he swore the iron weight of Domerin Lorcasf’s gaze followed him all the way back to his quarters.

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