The Party

Rich people often go to parties. Therefore, Ghain went to parties.

No, Ghain wasn’t rich. He wanted to be rich, and it had always seemed to him that the quickest way to get rich was to take things away from rich people.

Don’t misunderstand, he wasn’t for this “equitable redistribution of wealth.” It was Ghain’s opinion that anyone who relies on the government to do their thieving doesn’t deserve to call themselves a thief.

And he’s a thief.

*****

It’s never hard to find a rich people's party in this city. There are hundreds of rich people, and it seemed that they threw parties every weekend. The trick was to dress nicely and hang around the transom cabs until all the rich people start moving in the same direction, then ask your cabbie to follow them.

The easily-overlooked part of that advice is “dress nicely.” That was the hardest part for Ghain. He’s a dwarf--not in the disparaging way that you would describe a short person, but in the racially proud way that you describe a short, stout, bearded guy who was possibly conceived in a mine shaft. He was born with a hammer in his mouth, not a silver spoon. As you might imagine, most formal wear fit him as much as a rainbow clown wig fit the dowager duchess. Don’t ask him which dowager duchess; Ghain assumed they were all equally predisposed against rainbow wigs.

Ghain had a good tailor, so he didn’t mind the pressed slacks and jacket too terribly bad - but if he could possibly get away with it, he would ditch the necktie. If he ever found the gentleman who invented fashionable silk nooses, Ghain wanted to choke him with extreme irony, but since men had been wearing neckties all of his life, he had to assume that the inventor was long dead, or at least very elderly, and strangling someone’s grandpa would be in poor taste.

But as Ghain approached this fine mansion and observed the party’s dress code, it seemed like the necktie was an unfortunate necessity. He paid his cab driver and hurriedly wrapped a colorful length of silk around his neck before jumping out and approaching the doorman. Perhaps too hurriedly.

“I’m sorry, sir, but this is a private event,” said the doorman, with just a hint of disdain. “May I have your name?”

“Gak,” he responded, struggling to breathe, much less speak coherently. “Is that a name?” he sneered, before checking the guestlist. And then, somewhat apologetically he added, “Oh, I suppose it is. My apologies. It says here, ‘Gak the Molester?’”

That appellation would have made Ghain choke if the necktie wasn’t already doing the job. He decided to embrace his good fortune and merely gave the doorman a bug-eyed, red-faced glare as he entered the mansion. The doorman, in his fashion, gave Ghain a wide berth as he strode past.

*****

Once inside the banquet hall, Ghain immediately loosened the infernal necktie before he risked passing out. Fashion forgone, he would have to rely on his charm and good manners to fit in with this crowd. He spotted an elderly woman with frizzy gray hair pulled into a severe bun, sitting by herself alongside the right wall. She looked like an easy mark, so Ghain approached her with swaggering confidence. Sauntering over, he grabbed a sprig of flowers from one of the multitudinous vases in the room and carefully concealed it beneath his jacket.

“Good evening, madam,” Ghain began. “May I have the pleasure of your company?” On closer inspection, Ghain noticed that she was also sporting a significant wart on her left cheek, but admittedly, that mattered to him less than the purse hanging from the back of her chair.

“I can’t imagine that my company will be pleasurable,” she responded. “Have we met?”

Ah, time to use his carefully constructed false identity!

“My name is Ghain--er, Gak--and I’m here to rob the place.”

As it turned out, Ghain was not a good liar. He had a tendency to confess his illegal behavior with brash sincerity, which was often unbelievable enough that he got away with it. Perhaps the throat-constricting necktie was actually working in his favor that night.

The corners of her lips twitched in an almost-smile. “So, they sent me a comedian?” she asked, not quite laughing--but also not calling the police, which he took as a second stroke of good luck.

“Laughter is the best medicine, or so I’ve heard,” Ghain responded with a grin.

Her almost-smile slowly faded. “Ah, but laughter is for the living. What do you prescribe for the dead?”

Ghain paused for a dramatic second and then suggested, “Magic?” With a flourish, he presented the posies he’d concealed in his jacket, but their brief time in his armpit had left the flowers somewhat crushed and wilted, and many of their colorful petals remained embedded in his shirt. Ghain tried to make up for it with a sheepish grin.

Her smile had disappeared. “Ah, necromancy jokes. Equally inappropriate in every situation. You will excuse me, I’m sure.” The stately old woman stood up to leave, and Ghain just had enough time to snatch his hand away from exploring her purse before she collected it and stormed off. It would seem that he had chosen the grumpiest woman at the party to make his initial introduction. Well, an experienced thief takes the bad luck with the good. Ghain sat back to survey the room more carefully before choosing his next move.

*****

Even if Ghain would someday become rich, it was doubtful that he would ever understand the rich. He definitely felt more comfortable at a rowdy, old-fashioned pub crawl any day of any season. In stark contrast, these folk were congregating in small groups, communicating in hushed tones with each other, and a string quartet was performing utterly lifeless music. A podium graced the far side of the banquet hall, and Ghain wasn’t sure if he should expect a political fundraising speech or a lecture on social etiquette later. He resolved to be long absent before it started. Exquisite artwork ornamented the walls, but all of them were portraits; Ghain wasn’t about to try to fence a collection of rich ugly faces, no matter who the artist was. A buffet table along one wall displayed a variety of hors d'oeuvres, the entire collection of which wouldn’t make a dent in a dwarf’s robust appetite. But at least there was booze. He snagged two tall glasses of golden social enhancement from a passing waiter. The immaculately-dressed servant pretended not to notice as Ghain drained them both in two pronounced gulps and replaced the empty glassware on his tray.

Ghain was about to concede that this party had nothing of value besides purses and pocket-watches, when he spotted the object of his desire. A magnificent golden vase, inlaid with precious gems, sat upon a short pedestal on the far side of the room from where he was sitting. No doubt it was very expensive, and it was attracting a fair amount of attention from the other guests. Ghain was suspicious that he wasn’t the only thief in the room.

He would need a distraction.

And that’s when he received his third stroke of luck. A gentleman approached the podium and began to talk...

*****

There’s no official transcript or record of what the podium speaker said that night. Perhaps he was describing the hottest new enchantments in the field of cravat comfort and scarf snugness. Maybe he was sharing a humorous personal anecdote about winning a magic amulet from a card-dealing dragon. Perhaps he was warning all of the party about the dangers of buying shrunken heads and monkey paws from the Eastern import markets. Most of the attendees soon forgot the speech; Ghain simply didn’t care.

He scuttled nonchalantly behind the distracted masses to the far side of the room. Ghain did his best to look like he was listening to the speaker, but had to confess that he may have yawned more than once and perhaps actually fallen asleep if he hadn’t been fixated on the golden vase that he hoped to shortly have in his possession. It was a dainty little thing, and Ghain thought it would fit nicely under his jacketed armpit, now that that particular niche was not occupied with flowers.

A quick glance around the room proved that everyone was watching the speaker, and not Ghain. He slipped the golden vase under his jacket and began his hasty, yet hopefully inconspicuous, departure.

“Excuse me!” a voice bellowed from the podium. “What do you think you are doing?”

Apparently everyone was distracted by the orator, except for the orator himself. And his accusatory finger now directed everyone’s attention upon Ghain. He immediately became the focus of hundreds of shocked gasps and outrage. A few delicate ladies even fainted.

*****

Usually during the course of a burglary, Ghain had a knack for remaining single-mindedly focused on the task at hand. It takes a disruption of this magnitude to break his concentration and really think about the context of his situation.

Somber formal clothing.

Dispirited music.

Melancholy guests.

A golden vase? That didn’t even make any sense. Obviously, it was an urn.

Ghain was robbing a funeral. Even worse, he was stealing someone’s mortal remains.

An elderly woman with frizzy gray hair in a severe bun, and an outrageous wart on her left cheek screamed, “Watch out! I think he’s a necromancer!”

*****

So that’s how Ghain found himself sprinting through the upper hallways of an unfamiliar funeral home, trying to evade an angry mob of people who apparently knew of creative ways to kill a necromancer, which would probably work just fine against him also. He had gotten a good head start by threatening to scatter his hostage ashes over the hors d'oeuvres, but then he realized that whoever was in the urn was probably somebody’s elderly grandpa, and hopefully he’d made it clear that he had standards in his work.

For a brief moment, Ghain was out of everyone’s eyesight, so he decided to rid himself of his uncomfortable evening wear. The jacket was restricting his arm movement, his dash for survival had already ripped a hole in the crotch of his pants, and even the shiny shoes on his feet made an obnoxious squeak wherever he trod on the porcelain floors. If Ghain was going to survive this funeral, he was going to do it in his birthday suit. He ducked into the first door he found, praying to the god of strippers and skin-shedding snakes (Ghain wasn’t well-studied in theology, but he had heard about this guy before) that he might at least get his clothes off without incident.

If such a god in fact exists, those prayers didn’t entertain him as much as the prospect of Ghain getting caught with his pants down, in the most literal sense. Ghain had removed the offending jacket, pants, and shoes when one of the bereaved guests burst through the door to see a dwarf furiously getting naked. Luckily, it seemed that Ghain’s heart-patterned boxer shorts surprised the intruder just long enough for Ghain to wrap his necktie around that poor guest’s windpipe before he could raise the alarm.

“Seriously,” Ghain asked the guest, as he slowly strangled him into submission, “Who bursts in on a dwarf while he’s undressing?”

“Gak!” the guest replied.

That response made Ghain pause, wondering who exactly this Gak was and how he became so famous. He briefly thought to interrogate his victim on the subject, but then realized that the intruder was thoroughly unconscious. Ghain dropped him to the floor with as much dignity as he could afford. He let him keep the tie.

Ghain briefly considered stealing the poor guy’s pants before leaving, but assumed that with his typical fortune, the next person to burst in would find him removing the pants from an unconscious mourner, and Ghain didn’t want to develop a reputation. He decided instead to attempt the escape in his underwear.

*****

The next order of business was to rid himself of those encumbering and incriminating (and somewhat creepy) ashes. Out in the hall he saw a pot of lilacs. (Yes, Ghain knew what lilacs look like. He’d once read a gardening magazine while waiting for his barber.) Carefully yanking out the lilacs down by the roots, he dumped out the soil and poured the ashes into the pot. Then, after a moment’s hesitation, he replaced the lilacs. Ghain didn’t have a clear reason for doing that. Perhaps he was thinking that the next day he would send them a tasteful note reading, “SORRY TO CRASH THE FUNREAL PARTY. YOUR GRANDFATHER IS IN THE LILACS, RIP.”

*****

A short moment later, the doors of the mortuary were secured and the guards were searching the guests for stolen urns as they left. This is why Ghain found himself dangling outside the window on a makeshift rope fashioned from what Ghain wanted to believe were bed sheets, but were almost certainly burial shrouds, because, well, this mansion didn’t have any beds. Next time, Ghain thought to himself, rob a hotel.

A well-manicured shrubbery adorned the edge of the exterior wall directly beneath him, which provided a relatively soft landing for the precious urn, closely followed by Ghain himself. He rolled out of the bush and onto the lawn, and grabbed his prize from the thoroughly smashed landscaping. Some hedge clippers might be able to restore that, he thought.

The sound of approaching voices brought him back to his present predicament, and he ducked around the corner to escape them.

A carriage house stood nearby, separated from the main building by a covered walkway that was tastefully overgrown with vines and ivy. The faint sound of neighing emanated from the structure, which indicated that some of the vehicles inside were probably harnessed with horses and ready to drive away. Unfortunately, when Ghain had previously had the choice between “Coach and Driver” magazine or “Home Gardening” magazine, he had picked up the latter, and had no idea how to drive a horse carriage. Ghain mentally scheduled another appointment with his barber.

Regardless, the voices were steadily approaching, and Ghain had no choice but to duck inside, tip-toeing around the stoic horses so that they wouldn’t cause a commotion. The outside voices seemed intent upon following him into the carriage house, so Ghain looked for the carriage that offered the most privacy. The carriage nearest the exit had heavy black curtains drawn across all the windows, which seemed perfect. Ghain opened the door and jumped inside.

He immediately regretted this choice.

Obvious to everyone except a frantic dwarf, there is someone more desirous of privacy than even a thief. That someone is a corpse, and it is not unusual to find many such corpses hiding in various places on mortuary grounds, such as coffins and hearses.

This carriage was obviously a hearse, and in the hearse was a coffin.

And based on the odor emanating from the coffin, Ghain was obviously invading that unfortunate corpse’s privacy. Ghain wished that he was still holding a pocketful of posies. With no better option at the moment, he pinched his nose and tried to hold his breath.

*****

“But Madam,” the valet objected, “it would be very bad manners to take the mortuary’s horse carriage!”

“Very soon, many of the other guests will be in this very spot, looking for their personal carriages, and I will not be accused of stealing by my peers!” remarked an elderly woman with frizzy gray hair and an outrageous wart. “I need to depart immediately, and since my own carriage is not here to take me away, I’m sure the mortuary will understand my urgent need to borrow theirs.” The valet was unconvinced, but a stern look from the gray-haired duchess silenced his protestations, and he climbed onto the driver’s perch.

The duchess opened up the door and was assailed by the sickly-sweet stench of embalming preservatives. She frowned as she saw a coffin lying inside the hearse, but her pride prevented her from changing her mind and telling the valet to take a different carriage. Instead, she pulled a wilted bouquet of flowers from her handbag and held them to her nose as she climbed inside. A few sharp raps on the ceiling instructed the valet to conduct them away from the catastrophically-disrupted funeral. Within a moment, they were underway.

But it wasn’t until later, when the carriage hit a loose cobblestone in the street, that she heard a muffled “oomph” from inside the coffin.

Sternly, she asked the casket, “Is someone in there?” Summoning the courage that befits a lady of her impeccable upbringing, she lifted the lid.

There within, she saw a dwarf in a significant state of undress, lying next to a corpse in a significant state of decomposition.

“Gak!” exhaled the bug-eyed dwarf.

She finally fainted.

Ghain scratched his head, and then grabbed the posies, which he pressed to his own nose.

A moment later, the driver heard the carriage door slam open behind him, and turned around just in time to see a dwarf in heart-patterned boxer shorts running away from the carriage with a crumpled bouquet in one hand and a golden urn in the other.

*****

Ghain impatiently tapped his fingers on the desk in front of him while the fence inspected the golden urn.

“This is a magnificent vase,” the fence said with admiration. Ghain chose not to correct him. “Wherever did you get it?”

“Um,” Ghain hesitated, scratching his head, “I was at a party.”

The fence sighed, wistfully, as he counted out a stack of coins. “Ah, I used to have great luck at parties. But a few months ago, someone took my invitation to a party, drank a little too much while he was there, and assaulted a dowager duchess.” He pushed the coins across the desk to Ghain, who reached for them greedily. “That incident gave me a pretty bad reputation.”

Ghain choked in sudden realization. “Gak?” he stammered.

The infamous party-goer was disconcerted. “Do you know me?” he asked.

Ghain paused and chose his words very carefully. “I’d imagine that folks have entirely forgotten that incident by now,” he said, pocketing the payout. He looked thoughtfully at Gak, who was still clutching the cremation urn, then nonchalantly left the shop.

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