Cool shadows wash over my sweaty skin, welcoming me, disguising me. I could revel in the darkness—happily lie under the stars and let the night air unravel my knotted, overworked muscles—but I won’t waste tonight on rest or fleeting pleasure. These are the hours of spies and thieves. They’re my hours.
I slide two hairpins into the lock, my chapped fingers dancing over them like the strings of a viola. This is a song I’ve rehearsed a thousand times, a hymn I’ve played in my most desperate moments. Better to pray to deft fingers, to shadows and camouflage, than to the old gods. Better to steal than to starve.
Frogs sing in the distance, and their chorus nearly covers the satisfying click of the lock releasing. The servant door into Creighton Gorst’s manor house swings open.
Gorst has business elsewhere tonight. I made sure of it. Nevertheless, I scan my surroundings for any sign of him or his staff. Most of the wealthy keep guards on duty, but a few—like Gorst—are so paranoid that they don’t even trust those in their inner circle to be unaccompanied near their vaults. I’ve been waiting for a night like this for months.
I pad down the stone stairwell into the cellar. The temperature drops with each step, but my skin is flushed from adrenaline and the climb over his property walls, and I welcome the chill that skates across my skin.
At the base of the stairs, a glowstone senses my movements and kicks on, dimly illuminating the floor. I disable it with a gash of my knife along its soft center, blanketing the room in a darkness so complete that I can hardly make out my own hand in front of my face. Good. I’m more comfortable moving in the dark, anyway.
Following the walls around the periphery of the cellar with my hands, I reach the cool steel of the vault door. I blindly examine it with my fingertips—three locks, but none too complex. They yield to my blade and pins. In less than five minutes I have the door open and can already feel relief loosening my muscles. We’ll make this month’s payment. Madame Vivias won’t be able to enforce more penalties this time.
My smile of triumph is short-lived as I catch sight of the symbols etched on the threshold. That quickly, the rush from my success ebbs.
Gorst’s vault is protected by wards.
Of course it is.
A rich man paranoid enough to forgo sentries would be a poor man very quickly if he didn’t employ a little magic to guard his wealth.
Tonight’s mission is dangerous, and I can’t risk forgetting that for even a moment. I only steal from those who have more than they need, but with wealth comes power—the power to have thieves like me executed if we’re caught.
I sidestep the markings and pull a starworm from my satchel. Its silky-wet skin is slippery between my fingers, but I lead it to my wrist, wincing when it latches on. As it slowly draws a trickle of blood from my veins, its skin glows, lighting the ground before me. I hate losing the darkness, but I need to see the symbols. Sinking to my haunches, I trace every line and curve, confirming their shape and intent. Clever magic, indeed.
These runes wouldn’t keep me out of the vault. They’d let me in and lock me there, make me a prisoner until the master of the manor could deal with me. A common thief schooled only in protection runes might make the mistake of thinking the wards were faulty when he passed them. A common thief would find himself locked inside. Good thing I’m anything but common.
I scour my mind for an appropriate counterspell. I’m no mage. I might like to be, if my fate had been different and my days weren’t so full of scrubbing floors and cleaning up after my spoiled cousins. I don’t have the time or the coin to spare on training, so I’ll never be able to carry magic at my fingertips with spells, potions, and rituals. I’m lucky to have a friend who’s taught me what he can. Lucky to know just how to get out of this vault when I’ve taken what I need.
I slide my knife from my belt and bite my cheek as I drag the blade across the palm opposite the starworm. The sharp pain makes my head spin and pushes every thought from my head. For too many moments I teeter, my body begging to give in to the reprieve of unconsciousness.
Breathe, Abriella. You have to breathe. You can’t trade oxygen for courage.
The memory of my mother’s voice has me dragging air into my lungs. What is wrong with me tonight? I’m normally not so squeamish about blood or pain. But I’m exhausted and hungry after working all day with no break. I’m dehydrated.
I’m running out of time.
I dip my finger into the blood welling in my palm and carefully draw the counterspell runes atop those etched into stone. I wipe my bloody palm on my pants and study my work carefully before rising.
I don’t let myself hold my breath as I cross the threshold, immediately passing the symbols in each direction to make sure my runes are working. When I step into the vault, I cast the light from the starworm across the space and gasp.
Creighton Gorst’s vault is bigger than my bedroom. The walls are lined with shelves holding raqon coinbags, jewels, and shining weapons. My hands itch to take as much as I can carry, but I won’t. If I let my desperation get the best of me, he’ll know someone was here. Perhaps he will anyway. Maybe I underestimate the drunkard’s ability to account for the wealth he’s amassed dealing in pleasure and flesh, but if I’m lucky, he’ll never know that someone breached his wards.
I knew Gorst was rich, but I didn’t expect riches like these. Prostitution and drink make wealthy men, but this wealthy? I scan the shelves and instinctively reach out when I spot the only explanation. I hover my hand over a stack of life deeds but yank back at the magical heat radiating from them.
Had I been born into a different life, I would have very much liked to become a powerful mage for contracts like this alone. I would unravel the magic that binds these lives to evil men like Gorst. I’d gather my resources and free as many girls as I could before I was caught and executed. Even knowing that I don’t have the skill to undo the magic in those documents, it’s all I can do to leave them where they sit. Everything in me screams that I should at least try.
You can’t save them.
I force myself to step away. Choosing a cluttered shelf where a missing coinbag might go unnoticed, I scan for markings. None. Maybe Gorst should pay me to teach him how to truly guard his treas...