The pocketman treated me with the contempt I deserved. “I trust this suits . . . sir.”
He came recommended as the best master pocketman in Nab, a vital assurance for a gentlemen newly arrived from the countryside. Every gentleman requires an expertly-sewn coat, so that theft and shame can be minimised. Yet it stung, that my innocence was so obvious.
However, I had been robbed three times on my way to the Palace the day before and could not afford to upbraid the pocketman for his rudeness. “Yes. Thank you.”
The junior pocketman, a slim youth with amber eyes, stepped forward with my new coat. I twisted so that he could help me on with it.
The master said sharply, “Don’t approach the gentleman, Tin!”
The young pocketman cast his eyes down.
“He might steal from you,” the pocketman berated him. “This great country is built on honourable theft, but to openly allow yourself to be robbed is plain idiocy, the mark of a peasant, an insult to all the values of noble burglary!”
Tin said, “Your coat, Master Pinch.” He offered it to me from a great distance, and as he did, he cast a resentful glance at his master, which luckily the angry pocketman could not see.
I blushed. The error was not his fault, but mine. I could not apologise, however, for that would place me even further in the wrong.
I took the coat from Tin at arm’s length, and shivered myself into it. The pockets were many and ingenious. Inside, outside, secret places for me to hide what I wished to be stolen, and what I wished to keep.
“Oh! This is marvellous!” I exclaimed despite this being against all protocol. Now I could fill my pockets with trinkets designed to be taken, so that the porters and liverymen at the Palace could take their pride and let me pass; yet I would still retain something to be stolen by the Queen. Yesterday I had not even passed the first gilded gate before discovering that my pockets were empty.
I paid the master pocketman, and he showed me how he had already tipped himself with my silver watch. I sighed but acknowledged his skill.
On the way to the door stood a table bearing a dish of brass buttons. This unsubtle device allowed customers to steal from the pocketman on their way out, thus regaining the pride lost by having paid him outright for his services.
I helped myself to an extra large scoop, confident of being robbed several times on the way back to my hotel.
Sure enough, in the cobbled, twilight street, I soon heard the patter of footsteps. I turned swiftly — but it was only the pocketman’s assistant. “Tin,” I said.
He smiled as I showed that I remembered his name.
“Well, what is it?” I said. I remained at a good way off from him. It’s shame to allow yourself to be robbed. Unfortunately, in my case it meant shame at not being able to rob anybody either. I don’t have the skill. Where I grew up, when my family still had their land, before it was stolen from us by the Queen, theft is a minor point of etiquette, vaguely observed, rarely upheld. It’s more like gift giving.
That’s how we lost the estate. That’s how her Majesty, Queen Nab, swept in and took the entire Pinch estate with a sleight of legal hand, and left us homeless and broken, scraping a living through clerking and teaching and all that is middle-class and not very lucrative.
I was here in the capital to steal my family’s estate back. If I could rob the Queen I could claim the right to demand something of her, and that land would be my price. She must consent, or acknowledge her shame.
The only trouble was that, as a country innocent, and a very indifferent thief, I had no idea how to achieve this.
“I can help you,” said Tin. He unfolded his hand, and in it lay my wallet.
I gaped. He’d not come within three feet of me. I would certainly have noticed. He was the kind of person you couldn’t take your eyes off.
I took my purse, slowly, my gaze locked on his. “I owe you a service,” I said formally, feeling sick in my stomach because he had robbed me and I had not even noticed and anything he asked I must give, since he challenged me openly.
Tin shook his head. “No, we’re even.” He ran his eyes all over me, taking in my new coat, my country hat with only two of its twelve feathers left in it, and my breeches. Again I blushed.
A man has pride, however. “How come?” I demanded. “I have taken nothing from you.”
“You’re wrong.” He stepped forward and boldly took my hand, and placed it over his heart.
“Oh,” I said.
I was no nearer the Palace, but my evening had suddenly improved.
The next morning Tin lay wrapped in the sheets at my hotel (stolen, as is the custom, from the basket left carelessly outside each guest’s room) while I dressed, and fussed about my appointment at the Palace.
“I have no hope,” I said. “You stole from me as I stood three feet from you wearing the best pocketcoat in the country, watched by your master. Even if I load my pockets with gold, they will be empty by the time I reach the Queen, and then she will not be able to steal from me and retain her pride, and so we cannot begin a conversation and even if we did she will be half a room away and surrounded by guards and I will never be able to steal anything from her —”
The magpies, sacred bird of Nab, squawked on my windowsill, their beaks bright with trinkets. I snatched at one, and missed. The bird flapped away. I could not even lift a button from a bird. What hope had I of making a significant enough theft from the Queen, to shame her into returning my land?
I tore at my hair.
“Calm down,” said Tin. He wound the sheet between his clever fingers. “There is always something you can steal from a person.”
I sighed. “You’re sweet, but I really think I am unlikely to steal Her Majesty’s heart.”
Tin laughed. “I’m thinking of something far worse. Something she can never get back, a theft so magnificent, so devastating, that she will allow all guards on your land to carelessly look the other way as your entire family ride in and sweep the land out from under their boots.”
“I would never harm the Queen,” I said. “In her person —” Such thefts were not unheard of, but considered ungentlemanly and also rather crass. Not for a thousand years had we raided our women — or our men for that matter — in such a way.
“No, Pinch! Think!”
But I was panicking and sleep-deprived, and could not understand him.
“Well, go,” he said. “And when you succeed, perhaps you will remember I gave you a gift.”
A gift. Only parents and lovers gave gifts.
“Do you hate your master so much,” I asked, “that you would betray his training this way? Why would you help me?”
Tin shook his head.
“What then?” Was this boy made only of riddles? Yet he fascinated me. Contemplating his gleaming eyes, I was already feeling a lessening of any desire to go home.
“I saw you,” he said frankly. “That’s all.”
I didn’t know what to say to that. “I’ve got to go.”
“I’ll be here,” he said. “Ready to celebrate your success.”
I clasped his hand. “I doubt that very much. I have nothing to steal from the Queen.”
“Think,” he said. “And I’ll see you later.”
I left him, and walked to the Palace. The pocketman’s excellent coat protected me from most casual theft, and I was still well-stocked with silver when it came to the official, formal thefts by the guards at the Palace gates.
Yet I had no idea what Tin meant. What could I possibly take from the Queen?
It puzzled me, during the hours I spent waiting, during the repeated, rebuffed attempts to steal from me by this or that bewigged courtier, during the meal left out for us petitioners to steal.
Tin had given me another gift, I knew — the answer — yet I could not see it.
Yet at the same time, I could not let it go. It niggled at me, pecking like the magpies, giving me no rest.
And as I thought that, I understood.
The herald trumpeted me into the throne room, and I prepared to greet the thief who had taken my inheritance.
I straightened my pocketcoat, and stepped into her presence. And although Her Majesty looked sternly, arrogantly upon me, I met her regal eye, and I smiled.
“You did it then,” said Tin, as we rode together out of Nab, heading for my country estate.
“Oh yes. She couldn’t believe it. She turned pale and courtiers rushed in to support her. It was quite the scene.” I smiled at the memory. “The estate is mine, in perpetuity, for she can never now regain what I took. I fear the kingdom may fall. I fear theft itself may fall.”
“Ha,” said Tin. The gleam in his eye suggested he’d hoped for this all along. “So tell me what you took?”
“You know very well. It was you who showed me.”
“I want to hear you say it.”
I shrugged. “Then it was something precious, something which can never be regained once lost. I smiled, and she became uncertain, and then I knew I had it. Her peace of mind.”