“He’s a nobleman’s son, Dryvus,” Calli spat furiously, her flame-red hair flicking in her eyes in her agitation. “We can’t trust him.”
“We don’t have to trust him to use him,” Dryvus, the leader of the Rat’s Nest crew, said with that same infuriating calm he always had.
“It’s not your choice to make, Calli. When you run the Rat’s Nest, you can make your own decisions.”
When you run the Rat’s Nest. It was something Dryvus had slipped into conversation casually several times now and Calli couldn’t help but think that this was a test of some sort. One she didn’t know how to pass.
“We already have the invitation I earned,” she persisted, bristling. She had spent far too much time this summer simpering in petticoats, pretending to be a real lady, to earn that invitation. She was not going to be told all that time was wasted now. “Why isn’t that enough? Why are you still considering Micah’s offer?”
“The invitation you earned will admit two people to the annual end of summer ball, one ticket-holder, one guest. If you accept Micah’s invitation to go as his plus one, we can have three people in the palace instead. That is an advantage we dare not pass up, Calli,” he said, with bottomless patience.
“I hate him!”
“So hate him, but it do it as his guest,” Dryvus grinned. “By this time tomorrow, it will all be over and you’ll have another story to tell.”
That had been hours ago now. Hastra and Dryvus had floated away, posing as father and daughter by the aid of some cheap hair ink, Calli’s hard earned ticket clutched in Dryvus’ hand and Calli had stomped up to meet Micah, lingering outside of the palace gates, alone. He was leaning against a wall, waiting for her, and his eyes lit up at the sight of her.
“You look beau—”
“Don’t start,” she snapped, batting his hand away as he offered it to her. “We’re not friends, Micah. Don’t think I forgive you.”
“Forgive me? What for?” he drawled, quirking an eyebrow up at her. “For constantly out-smarting you or for winning Dryvus’ approval when it should be reserved for you?” He winked at her, as though this was all some big joke, and his grin grew even bigger as she bristled at him.
He’s only goading you, she told herself firmly. Don’t rise to it.
Over the past few years and half a dozen disguises, she had been in and out of many of the noble houses which clustered up at the top of the hill, but she had never yet been to the palace. There were very few occasions when the crown opened its doors for its courtiers, these days. On the night of the summer’s end ball, the nobles of Highmast queued endlessly, just for the chance to enter.
Calli and Micah joined the end of that queue now and slowly they worked their way up through the heavily warded gates. A dozen guards stood on either side, glowering down at her and Calli reminded herself that she had every right to be here tonight.
Still, she had been on the wrong side of the law often enough to be a little cautious about lingering near them for too long.
Micah handed the spell-charmed ticket to one of the guards to scrutinise and the guard ran a warding stone over it to check its authenticity. Then the guard waved them forwards and they stepped through the warding slowly. It fizzed and crackled on their skin, like wading through lightning and fog, searching for weapons, poisons, or dark magics. The world crackled back into clearness as she was spat out on the other side of the gate and she stared around, wide eyed at the gilded palace before them.
It was beautiful. The floor running up from the gates to the palace gardens were made out of Ila lilies, thick and soft underfoot, strong enough to withstand her weight, and perfuming the air heavily. A shallow, gently flowing stream, washed beneath them, reflecting back the lights of the lanterns, hanging from the golden statues, standing on either side of the pathway. An arch of roses and softly hung greenery looped overhead, making everything feel intimate and close, and golden bells were nestled in amongst the vines, singing to them softly in the night breeze. A gentle, suggestive scent of magic lingered in the air, cocooning everything softly, and the world felt pink and hazy. Micah’s fingers tightened in hers and she didn’t even protest.
“It’s a bit of a waste of mage-witching really,” he murmured in her ear, clearly enjoying her wordless wonder, “But you have to admit, it is impressive.”
He led her up the pathway, their feet splashing softly on the lilies, the hem of her dress trailing ripples through the shallow stream. Her eyes reflected back the soft glow of lights, the gentle night tangling in her hair.
Only when they reached the end of the walkway and pushed their way through a curtain of blooming lilacs, into the manicured hedges and gardens beyond, did the effect of the spells lessen slightly and Calli remembered what she was there to do.
She took her hand out of Micah’s quickly and he grinned at her.
“Can I get you a drink?”
“After what happened last time? I don’t think so,” she said sourly.
“Forgiveness has never been your strong suit, has it?”
“There’s a fine line between forgiveness and foolishness, and I don’t intend to cross it,” she snarled, embarrassed that he should have seen her so soft and easily amazed.
“What’s the plan, then?”
“None of your business.”
Micah rolled his eyes. “Dryvus agreed to trust me. Why don’t you give it a go, too? Perhaps I can even help you…”
Calli hesitated for a moment, considering it, and then conceded with a bad grace.
“We all have different tasks tonight. I don’t know what Hastra has been assigned to do, and I never know what Dryvus is up to, but I have to put this letter in Lord Astor’s inner pocket.”
She pulled out the carefully sealed letter Dryvus had given her.
Micah frowned at her.
“I know of Astor a little. I don’t think you’ll find it easy to lay it on him. He’s paranoid.” He rubbed a hand over his chin. “Does it have to be tonight? It might be easier to sneak into his house and plant it then?”
“Tonight,” Calli said firmly. “That was what Dryvus said.”
“He didn’t say. Dryvus tells us the bits we need to know and not the bits we don’t. It’s safer that way.”
“Safer for whom? If everybody is on the same page, there’ll be fewer misunderstandings.”
She shrugged. “You want to be part of Dryvus’ gang, you’re just going to have to accept that that’s the way it’s going to be. He has the final say, always.”
When he didn’t reply, she glanced over at him. To her surprise, she found a soft smile lingering there in his eyes.
“What?” she demanded. He shrugged, too.
“That’s the first time you’ve said I could be part of Dryvus’ gang.”
Calli felt her cheeks burning.
“I didn’t—I never—that wasn’t what I meant.”
“Hmmm-mmmm. It seems to me like you’re coming round to me, Cal. I knew you wouldn’t be able to resist my charms forever.” She just pulled a face at him and he laughed. “Astor isn’t here yet.” He bowed low to her, offering her his hand. “I don’t suppose you’d do me the honour of a dance whilst we wait?”
Calli hesitated. She suspected Micah was only trying to provoke her—that he would be amused by her angry retort—so she put her hand in his and led him forcefully to the marble dance floor. He let out a breath of laughter, apparently surprised by her reaction, and she chalked that up to a petty victory.
One of his hands slipped around her waist and he began to lead her around the dance floor, between the other whirling couples, with that infuriating confidence which characterised him.
Calli wondered if there was a charm on the dance-floor, too, because, as they span, the world seemed to drop away. All she could feel was the warmth of Micah’s hand at her waist or cupped in her own hand. His eyes fixed on hers so intently that she could see her own reflection staring back at her. Even the music seemed distant and unreal.
Another story to tell, she reminded herself softly.
Abruptly, Micah’s hand tightened in hers, his footsteps stumbling. As she glanced up at him, she saw there was a wary horror flickering in his eyes behind the mask of insouciance he wore.
“Micah?” she whispered and he blinked, the moment passing. He let out half a breath and slipped the tension out of his muscles, with what was clearly a force of will. He gave her a rueful half smile.
“My father’s here,” he murmured. “He wasn’t supposed to be coming tonight, but he’s here. Don’t look,” he added as Calli began to turn around, but it was already too late. Micah groaned as an older, well-dressed man walked stiffly up to them. His hair was iron grey instead of nut brown, but there was a strong family resemblance all the same. Micah dropped his hands from around Calli quickly.
“I see you changed your mind, Father,” he said with cool arrogance, so different from his usual cheerfulness.
“Well, as you abandoned your sister, somebody had to chaperone her. Introduce me to your guest, Micah.”
“Lady Carlotta Thresher, Lord Hydric Dawlish, etc,” Micah drawled with a careless wave of his hand.
Lord Hydric inclined his head an inch in her direction. “You will excuse me, Lady Carlotta. Micah and I have some family matters to attend to.”
Calli bobbed into a curtsey and quickly scurried away, but she couldn’t help staring at the very muted altercation going on before her from the side of the dance floor.
It was like watching an argument in a different language, she thought. Arguments weren’t uncommon in the Rat’s Nest but they were sniping words and raised voices, thrown pillows and rude gestures. They spurted up like geysers out of the ground and faded away just as quickly. These two were clearly fighting, but their voices were low and clipped, their posture still held back and careful.
It was a side of Micah she had never seen before and something in her tightened at the sight of him like this, so angry, so miserable.
“You know he only brought you to annoy Father, don’t you?” a voice said besides her, making her flinch. Calli whirled around to see a woman standing at her elbow, watching Micah and Lord Dawlish talking quietly across the room. The woman was a few years older than Micah and shared his thick tumbling brown hair. She must surely have been his sister. Unusually, she had a seersight orb in her eye—most nobles didn’t bother trading their limbs for technomancy. They had servants to do it for them.
The woman’s one mortal eye turned to Calli abruptly, making her flinch.
“I’m not saying this to wound you,” she said gently, “but things tend to go badly for the people who get caught between Micah and Father’s incessant war. I’d hate to watch you become collateral damage. You should be on your guard, Lady Carlotta.”
Calli flinched again. She had got so swept up with Micah tonight that she had forgotten her alias.
That was a worrying thought. I let Micah sweep me around the floor as Calli, the thief and con-artist, not as Lady Carlotta the country lady. I let him put his arms around my waist, not hers. I let him stare into my eyes.
His sister is right. I do need to be on my guard.
Calli drew herself up. “Forgive me,” she said, “But I fear you have the advantage of me, Lady…?”
“Phyllis. I see Micah hasn’t spoken of me.”
“He doesn’t talk about his family much.”
“No. I don’t suppose he would,” she said it almost sadly, her good eye turning back towards Micah and Lord Dawlish. Though both of them still spoke quietly and Micah still practised his casual, arrogant lounge, they had both gone red in the face and tight lipped. Calli could almost feel the anger radiating off of them from here.
“Consider yourself warned, Carlotta,” Phyllis sighed, arranging her skirts in her hands and sweeping forwards across the floor to intercept the argument, before it spiralled out of control. Calli couldn’t hear what she said, as she reached the two arguing Dawlish men, but Micah flicked his gaze over Phyllis’ shoulder towards Calli, standing there at the side, so she presumed that her name had come up. Micah nodded tersely, a thin lipped jerk of the head, and then he marched back across the dance floor towards her.
“Forgive my father for his rudeness,” he said. “He’s used to getting what he wants.”
As is his son, she thought, but she didn’t say anything.
Micah laughed uneasily and ran a hand through his hair, not sure what to do with her silence. She didn’t think she had ever seen him looking so discomfited before. He filled the waiting quiet with a cough.
“Astor,” he breathed suddenly. Calli felt her chest tighten nervously, glancing over her shoulder to follow his gaze.
Astor was an old man, wearing a smart green frock coat and a garish pink waistcoat underneath. He stood by the door of flowers, clearly having just arrived, and his small eyes glared suspiciously at everyone who came near him.
Calli fingered the letter in the pocket of her skirts, took a deep breath to steady her nerves, and then darted forwards. She ‘tripped’ over her feet and went colliding into him with a horrified squeak, her hand brushing against his chest. He glared at her and she bobbed into a curtsey, trying to look as abashed as possible. He pushed her away and the letter she had slipped inside his jacket pocket teetered on the edge and fell downwards. She stared at it in horror. I must not have pushed it in deeply enough.
Astor didn’t seem to notice its feather light flight downwards, but Calli was painfully aware of it. She tried not to stare at it, tried not to send snatching fingers for it, forcing her eyes to stay fixed on Astor’s own, willing him not to see it fall.
“Forgive me, Lord Astor. Lady Carlotta is a little overwhelmed. I hope you weren’t hurt,” Micah said, brushing imaginary specks off of Astor’s waistcoat jovially and then grabbing Calli by the arm. “I’ll just accompany her out of your way.”
Calli tried to pull herself out of Micah’s grip, but found it impossible.
“Let go,” she hissed. “Micah, you don’t understand!” she glanced over her shoulder at Astor, but he was already walking away. She scanned the floor for the letter, hoping to snatch it back up, but there were too many feet trampling this way and that for her to catch sight of it.
Micah pulled her behind a neatly clipped hedge and let go at last.
“It fell out!” she hissed. “I need to go back and get it! I need to try again!”
“You can’t. Astor is already paranoid, two attempts in one night will be far too suspicious. Besides—”
“You don’t understand, Micah, Dryvus is going to kill me. He’s waited years for this opportunity and I’ve ruined it!”
“Calli, calm down. People are coming,” Micah hissed at her sharply.
“Keep your voice down! We already look suspicious enough.”
True enough, a passing gaggle of servants were approaching. Calli looked around for somewhere else to go, somewhere to escape to, but there was nowhere, they were trapped between the hedge and the wall. Panicking, Calli pulled Micah up against her, ramming her lips against his. She heard the whispers of the servants as they caught sight of the two of them in the corner together, knew that they would be taking this salacious gossip back with them to the halls and dormitories of the downstairs world, but at least they wouldn’t know the truth. Micah’s lips moved softly against her, his hands tightening gently in her hair, his breath restrained and laboured, and he didn’t seem to notice that the footsteps had passed away.
She pushed him away softly and he pulled reluctantly back.
“A ruse,” she whispered fiercely. “That’s all.”
He licked his lips, still plump from the pressure and nodded, though he seemed uncertain about it all.
“We’ve got to go and find that letter before someone else does,” she hissed. “I can’t let Dryvus know I’ve let him down again.”
“He doesn’t have to.”
“Of course he does! I can’t just pretend I managed to drop the letter in.”
“As long as Astor got it in the end, who cares who delivered it?”
She stared at him, confused, and then the truth dripped into place.
He grinned and shrugged. “I saw you fumble it and slipped it into his pocket when I caught you. But you don’t have to let Dryvus know that, do you? As far as he is concerned, he asked you to deliver the letter and it got delivered. That’s all that matters.”
She stared at him for a moment and then let out a breathless little laugh, throwing her arms around his neck in sheer relief.
“You light-fingered little genius,” she whispered. “I’ve changed my mind, Micah, you’re not completely useless after all.”