One hour of darkness.
They needed to get in and then out before the light returned.
The press of people in Lorraine’s streets was thinning, as people headed home to sleep for a few hours. The cacophonous, oppressive roar of shouting venders, wheels clattering on the cobblestones, and voices, voices, voices, was finally slackening.
But the drop in noise did nothing for the air Margot was breathing into lungs tight with fear. Acrid smoke irritated her eyes, and the stench of cooking smells mixed up with refuse and day-old fish turned her stomach.
Why were cities such miserable places? Why did people feel the need to bunch up like ants – all living on top of each other – when there was leagues and leagues of empty land outside?
And this was the elegant part of Lorraine. Just outside the old castle walls, this teahouse was surrounded by trees and flowers. The few remaining customers seated outside on the open veranda spoke in quiet, well-modulated voices about proper, polite things. Fashionable hats and the proper sugar decorations for tea biscuits.
Margot hunched over her tepid cup of tea, swirling a properly fashionable biscuit in the light brown liquid. Around and around.
Nothing was going to go wrong. Breathe in. Breathe out. Don’t think about your racing heartbeat, thumping away. Don’t hunch your shoulders. Pretend like you belong. Pretend that you’re not going to try and break into your cousin’s castle, just as soon as the sun disappears.
● ● ●
Three days earlier
The room was low and dim. A wall of steam, tobacco smoke, and human smells greeted her at the door. She gagged, heart racing inside her threadbare gown that she wore under a rough cloak.
The dress had been fine once, but now it would betray her precarious position – gentle born, but alone and unprotected in the world. A thug’s dream.
Two men reeking of smoke and sweat pushed passed her, heading for the counter.
The bar. It’s called a bar.
She shied away from them, but they didn’t even glance at her, as they loudly debated something in gravelly voices. One broke into a wracking cough.
A man with filthy hands wrapped around a mug of some steaming liquid glanced her way, then back down at his cup. Then, back up again, frowning. His gray eyes met hers, and his mouth split into a rotten grin.
Heat swept down from her scalp to her toes– probably turning her face red.
The woman behind the bar turned and shot her a quizzical look.
It was Adele Dumont. Jacques was right there – in her hazel eyes, dark reddish hair, and the set of her mouth. She was about Margot’s age, she’d heard, but Adele seemed so much older.
Hands shaking, Margot withdrew her letter, and stepping up to the bar, she placed it face up before the young woman.
Adele frowned, glanced at the opening line, and cursed.
“Hello Adele, I’m Marguerite Charlotte Lafarge,” Margot had written.
Adele looked up, her face set like a mask.
“You found me.”
Margot nodded, briefly met her eyes, and pointed at the paper.
“I have no intention of stealing the freedom you’ve won for yourself,” she’d written. “But I’d like to hire you to help me with a job. Just one job. You’ll be paid with valuable jewelry that will allow you to live comfortably, far from any of my kind. You are completely free to take this or turn me down. If you refuse, I swear I will not seek you out again, nor will I tell anyone about you.”
Adele slid the paper from the bar, crumpling it in her hand. Margot forced herself to meet the woman’s cold, calculating stare.
“How did you find me?”
Margot retrieved her blank book and pencil, and started to compose an answer with still unsteady hands.
“I’m afraid I was sworn to secrecy on that.” She wrote. “I cannot betray that confidence.”
Adele hissed impatiently.
“Fine.” She pointed to a table in a dark corner. “Go wait for me. I’ll come talk when I can.”
Margot nodded, and left the bar.
The table was rough, scarred, and stained. The bench was much the same, but it had been rubbed smooth by years of sitting.
She didn’t wait long.
“So,” Adele said, sliding onto the other bench. “What is this job.”
Margot started to write, but Adele slapped her hand down on the page. “You proved your point – just tell me about the blasted job for Gale’s sake.”
Margot bit her lip, staring at Adele’s hand. It was dry and cracked from washing dishes, but surprisingly delicate. But then, Magicians don’t fight with their hands.
She shook her head, and tugged her book free.
Adele sighed, leaning back against the wall. She tapped her fingers impatiently on the table top as Margot wrote furiously, hunched over her book.
“I need to steal something from the castle. If you help me, I will also show you where you can take a load of jewelry. My contact can fence them, if you like.”
Margot spun the book around so Adele could read it.
“So, what is this thing you want to steal?”
“Books.” She wrote. “Important books.”
“Really.” Adele didn’t attempt to hide her scorn and disbelief from her voice. “And do you have a plan?”
Margot blushed. “Well,” she scratched out. “You will sneak us in. We grab the books and the jewelry. And then you get us back out.”
“That’s it, huh. That’s your plan.”
Margot flushed. “It has some gaps. Do you have suggestions?”
“How did you get away?”
“Bastien’s Feast. The palace was full of people. I slipped away from my lady-in-waiting and got out the gate with the crowd.”
“Great. And the city daemon, did you consider that? And my uncle? And you do know your brother Alexandre is there, don’t you?”
Margot gasped. “No –!” She cut off – slamming her hands across her mouth. She shrank down in her seat. Then wrote again with a hand that shook ever so slightly.
“How do you know? How long has he been there?”
“Nearly a year. Without me, your dear brother decided he needed Lorraine’s protection against daemons and such. So he swallowed his pride and came crawling back to your cousin. Swore allegiance to his rule.”
Margot frowned. After Alexandre’s long fight for the throne, after all the time she’d spent as a virtual prisoner in that castle? After all that, Alexandre placed himself under Roland’s rule, voluntarily.
Her hands were shaking. She squeezed them together. Alexandre’s presence changed nothing. Adele would make sure she wasn’t captured by either man. Breathe in. Out. In. Out. Alexandre wasn’t going to catch them.
“So – how many books?” Adele asked.
Margot glanced up briefly, then away. Adele was glaring, her lips pressed into a narrow line.
Carefully, she picked up her pencil in still shaking hands. “There were about ten.”
“Ten?” Adele didn’t sound pleased. “You want me to sneak out of that castle with ten books?”
“Do you have an armory stone?”
“Yes. It’s connected to Roucy. I don’t think anyone’s touched the room. I’ve been using it, so it still works. For now.”
She drummed her fingers thoughtfully on the table.
“We’ll have to get past the wall without raising the alarm. The daemon will alert Roland right away. But if we get inside quietly, with luck, the guards will know there’s an intruder, but not who or where. That’s our only chance.”
“So, you’ll help me?”
Adele sighed, crossed her arms, and leaned back against the wall. “I need the money. I can’t work here forever. Another blasted Noble is bound to show up eventually. And life without magic requires money.”
“I drew a map of the castle. It was the best I could do.”
She slid the paper out from the back of her book and unfolded it. She ran a finger over the folds, pressing them flat. It really wasn’t good. She’d been away from the castle for too long. And she’d never been an artist.
Adele bent over the rough sketch, frowning.
“Tell me what you need,” Margot wrote. “ — What commands you need from me.”
Adele’s mouth twisted in a sour smile, but she nodded.