The Thief Lords couldn’t believe I would dare to kill two of their own. They were slow to accept me as one of them. I was only sixteen when I tried to establish myself. They only saw me as a girl trying to be one of them. But after I killed two of their number, they were a little more afraid. Still, it took two years to become a recognized Thief Lord.
-writing on the cell wall
It was starting to become easier to work with Onna as her adviser, but she missed Aven dearly. Her cat burglars had managed to steal his body from the city infirmary, where all the dead were kept before burial. They’d had a small service for him at sundown, right near the city wall in the slums. It made it easier to go on without him, knowing his body was still nearby and that she hadn’t completely abandoned him.
Still, she continued to hope she would turn around and see him.
Deri cleared his throat from the entrance to the cavern. Instead of nervously shifting from foot to foot, he now stood straight and tall, confident and with bright eyes. Ever since he had been promoted to cat burglar, he had continued to act as a guard and had become ever more confident in Raven’s presence.
“Raven, Lord Almi is here to see you,” he announced.
Raven narrowed her eyes slightly. It was that feud that had gotten Aven killed. Lady Almi’s job had taken Aven’s life. Who would Lord Almi’s job steal from her?
“Show him in,” she said, her voice stiff and formal.
The boy gave an eager nod and vanished from her sight. She was still pondering what Lord Almi could possibly want from her when Deri returned with the man in tow.
Raven had never met the Lord before. She had heard that he preferred to stay as far away from the Almi-Sarlik feud as he could. Yet, here he was now, sitting before her. He looked uncomfortable and nervous, but they all were. They were, after all, in the middle of a nest of criminals.
She forced a smile, as calming a smile as she could muster, and folded her hands on top of her desk. “What can I do for you, Lord Almi?”
His eyes shifted to her face and then instantly moved away. His cheeks flushed and he cleared his throat. He was nervous; there was no way of hiding it.
“Ordinarily,” he started, then coughed and began again, “Ordinarily, I would never come to you or any other Thief Lord. You may have heard from my wife, Lady Nyana Almi, that I prefer to stay as far away from the feud as I possibly can. My daughter, Tyala, has chosen to forsake the feud as well. However, she was caught today trying to run away with Lord Sarlik’s daughter, Caidy. This threw my wife and me into fits. Certainly, I understand her desire to stay out of this mess, but I don’t wish for her to run.
“I know that what I will ask you to do will send me to the deepest bowels of the earth upon my death, but I love my family and I want to make my wife happy and keep my daughter from running away. The only solution I have is to turn the two girls, my daughter and Caidy, against each other. And,” he said before hesitating and clearing his throat.
“And?” Raven gently prompted, wondering at just what this man was getting at.
“And I know Lord Sarlik has to die,” Lord Almi said in a rush.
Raven blinked in surprise and leaned back in her chair. She glanced over and traded a look with Onna, hoping the girl knew what she was thinking, just as Aven would.
Lord Almi was hiring her to murder the one man she also wanted dead. What were the odds of this? She would not only have a great opportunity to get rid of Lord Sarlik, but she would also be paid for it.
A gleam came to Raven’s eye and Lord Almi was instantly wary of her.
“Lord Almi,” Raven said calmly, “I believe I can help you. But, first, I would like to meet with you and your wife.”
He looked suspiciously at her and narrowed his eyes. “This should be an easy hire, Thief Lord. Why do you need to meet with both of us?”
“My good man, Lord Sarlik and I have a history of sorts, one in which you and your family play a part. I, too, have a score to settle with your rival and I believe you and your wife can help me just as I can help you.”
“I don’t understand.”
“You will, Lord Almi. Just return with your wife as soon as you can and then we can get down to business. I will give you two nights to return. If you do not, I will assume you no longer require my services.”
Raven sat back and laced her hands over her stomach. She gave him a soft smile and nodded to Onna to indicate she should show the man out. Her adviser got the message and hurried around the desk to escort Lord Almi from the caverns.
Lady Almi glanced between her daughter and her husband. Both were unusually quiet this morning. Tyala, she could understand. They had essentially forbidden their daughter from leaving the manor grounds and had assigned one of the servants to follow her everywhere. She was all but a prisoner in her own home. Her husband, she couldn’t understand. She assumed he had slept as well as she had, but there were dark circles under his eyes and there was a haunted look on his face. It ghosted by every so often, but she had caught it.
She dabbed at her lips with the cloth napkin before clearing her throat. “Boys, why don’t you go out and play in the gardens?”
The twins grinned and raced away before their breakfasts were fully settled. Their mother hardly ever sent them out to play right after breakfast. It was a treat to them, and they meant to take it before their mother could rescind her instructions to them.
Lady Almi turned to focus her attention on her daughter. Tyala was picking at a piece of fruit, and hadn’t touched anything else on her plate. She kept her head down low over the plate, letting her long hair veil her face.
“Tyala,” she said gently. “Why don’t you finish with breakfast and instead enjoy the day.”
Tyala’s head jerked up and around to the serving woman who stood a discrete distance behind her chair. “With my chaperone, I assume?”
Lady Almi sighed. “Tyala, please. We don’t want to lose you.”
The girl stood and threw down her napkin. Without a word, she turned on her heel and left the dining room, the serving woman following after.
That left only Lord and Lady Almi. She turned her attention to her husband, who saw hunched over, pushing around his food. Like Tyala, he hadn’t touched much. That concerned her. Usually, her husband was a hearty eater.
“Emeri, what’s going on?”
He looked up at her, his eyes hooded. “What makes you think something is going on?”
She laid a hand on his arm. “Dearest, you’re never like this. Is it because of Tyala? Because she wanted to run away? Emeri, please tell me what’s going on.”
Lord Almi didn’t look at her as he spoke. “I had an idea last night, Nyana, an idea of how to keep our daughter with us. I despise this feud, but I love our daughter. The only way I found to keep her with us was to kill Lord Sarlik and make Tyala and Caidy turn against each other, for Caidy would know that it was us that called for her father’s death.
“So, I went to a Thief Lord, the one called Raven, and asked her to murder Lord Sarlik. She didn’t give me an answer other than to tell me I should return to her with you.”
Lord Almi lifted his eyes to meet his wife’s gaze. She looked stricken and was sitting straight and still. “You went to Raven?” she whispered. “When?”
“Last night, while you were sleeping. She was actually quite reasonable.”
Lady Almi lifted a hand to tangle her fingers with a golden necklace. She tugged on it gently and revealed a beautiful jewel setting. “Raven stole this for me from Caidy. She is a pleasure to work with. I’m glad you chose to go to her. And I am surprised you decided Lord Sarlik has to die.”
Lord Almi gritted his teeth. “Don’t read too much into this, Nyana. I just want to keep our daughter from leaving us.”
“Of course, Emeri. I don’t want her to leave, either. When should we return to Raven?”
His eyes lowered so he wasn’t looking at her. “Tonight. The sooner we finish with this, the better.”
He didn’t see his wife nod in approval and agreement.
Tyala caught sight of Caidy out of the corner of her eye. Caidy was lurking just outside the window, peeking every now and then. Tyala knew her friend had to be worried about her when she didn’t meet her at the Angelic Church last night. But she had no way of explaining to Caidy what had happened. Her parents had put her under lock and key and now one of their servants was watching her every movement.
She stood at the parlor window, her hands clutching the bottom part of the frame. She could see her friend’s slight, petite figure hiding behind a lemon tree, but she knew Caidy didn’t dare to get any closer.
Surreptitiously, Tyala glanced over her shoulder to see what the serving woman was doing. Lya appeared thoroughly engrossed in her knitting, with her head hunched over her hands, the needles click clacking against each other as the blanket she was working on emerged. Seeing her watchdog was busy, she slipped a hand into a pocket and pulled out a slim envelope.
“Are you warm, Lya?” Tyala asked, her tone innocent enough.
“No, Miss,” the serving woman replied without looking up, “but if you are, I could open the window for you.”
Tyala waved the woman back to her seat. “I can take care of it, Lya. Go back to your knitting.”
Sticking the envelope between her teeth, she pulled up on the window a few inches and waved, both to bring in the fresh air and signal to Caidy that she was to come near. Then she pushed the window back down, securing the envelope between the window and the frame.
Tyala whirled from the window and stalked over to the serving woman. Lya peered up at her mistress with a curious look. She put away her knitting and rose to go where Tyala went.
“I’m going to the music room,” Tyala announced. “It’s been too long since I last played anything. I’m sure Father will be pleased if I can relearn his favorite piece.”
“Of course, Miss,” Lya said with a slight bob.
The two left the parlor and Tyala didn’t risk looking back at the window; she would check it later to see if Caidy received her note or not. It hurt her that she couldn’t be with her best friend, the only person who truly understood her. She feared Caidy wouldn’t understand what had happened. It was all just a stroke of bad luck, really.
Caidy peered over the bottom frame of the window. It had taken her a few minutes to work up the courage to creep across the gardens. She had studied each window before moving from tree to bush, praying no one was looking down into the gardens, that no one else was home. Fortunately, the windows had remained covered and they didn’t look like they had been disturbed. Now she had reached the parlor window and saw that the room was empty. Tyala must have left, so she wasn’t planning on meeting her.
Puzzled, Caidy’s brows knit together as she squinted to look in through the window. That’s when she saw the enveloped. Frowning, she gently pulled it out and quickly looked around the garden for a hiding spot.
Nearby, she caught sight of a draping willow tree, the strands of leaves thick and veiling. There were also a few low bushes nearby, full of leaves and bright blossoms. That would have to do. She wasn’t sure of what she would do if someone caught her, but prayed that wouldn’t happen. The gardeners were nowhere around and she expected she would hear them if they got too close to her hiding spot. She contemplated going home, but was curious to see what her friend had written. After all, she had waited half the night for Tyala to come.
She practically crawled over to her chosen hiding place, her heart pounding all the way. It was hard to crawl away from the manor and keep an eye on all the windows. All she could do was hope that everyone was occupied and no one was looking. The twin boys were playing around out here, but she’d heard them on the far side of the manor. Hopefully, they would stay there.
Settling herself on the ground softened with green moss, she opened the envelope and pulled out a folded piece of paper. Taking a quick look around, she unfolded the paper and found Tyala’s neat writing covering about half of the page.
My parents caught me packing up last night. That’s why I couldn’t meet you. I don’t know what they mean to do about me, but I know they don’t want me to leave. I accidentally let slip that you and I are best friends. I fear what will happen to you and your father now. I don’t know when we will be able to meet. They have apparently decided I need to be locked up in the manor for now. Who knows when they’ll let me out again? But, for now, we can’t see each other. I cannot let any harm come to you. At least, I hope to minimize any harm my parents attempt to place on you and your father. Think of me, Caidy, and keep safe.
Your friend, Tyala
Caidy drew in a sharp breath and crushed the paper in her hand. Tyala had been caught and now Lord and Lady Almi knew about their friendship. What else could go wrong? Right now, she was just thankful that her father didn’t know who her best friend was.
She glanced over at the house, a concerned look on her face. She knew now what had gone wrong last night. And now she was afraid for her friend. There was no telling what Tyala’s parents would do.
Taking a final look at the manor and the window from which she had spotted her friend, she crawled out from under the tree and stole her way across the gardens. She barely kept tears of frustration from her eyes as she left the Almi Manor and headed for home, hoping the Almis hadn’t done anything yet.