Calli had always liked spring. The teasing winds whipped the tang of salt up from the docks, masking the more putrid smells which mouldered in the harbour city air. Flowering weeds bullied their way through the chipped cobblestones on the sloping streets. The flamewyrms, which usually oozed a smug blue light in the labyrinth tunnels under the city, went into their mating season and blinked a soft pink, bathing the crew’s underground home in a rose-petal glow. But most importantly, the Royal Spring Festival took place up in Freeman’s Acre.
Calli adjusted her flower crown. The daffodils and snowdrops would have set off her auburn tresses perfectly, but Calli had ink-dyed her hair black today. Ink-dying was messier and less precise than glamour charms, of course, but magic was frowned upon in her crew.
She tried to keep her posture loose and relaxed as if she were excited about the day’s awaiting frivolities. The plan was a solid one, and her fellow crew-member, Hastra, had sewn improvements into her stolen gown. All the same, Calli would have felt better with some more back-up today.
It was never like this when Dryvus was alive. She couldn’t stop the bitter thought, as she joined the queue for the park gates. Dryvus, the erstwhile leader of the Rat’s Nest crew, had had a way of charming and cajoling people, and the crew had thrived under his leadership. When Calli was growing up, every one of the nooks and crannies in the cave-like warren had been filled with laughing, loyal crew-members. Now there were only five of them left, if you included Maggi the apprentice, who was still too green too be much use, and Gregyr, currently unconscious and held hostage by a dark-witch.
So all in all, there wasn’t a lot more back-up left for her to have.
We’ll just have to make do. We’ve been in worse situations than this before. She tried to ignore the whispering voice reminding her that Gregyr’s life depended on her success…
Calli smiled charmingly at the guards on the gate of Freeman’s Acre and presented her forged invitation for them to check.
“You’ll have to remove your necklace, my lady,” the guard on the left said with polite weariness. She suspected he’d had this conversation several times already today. In fact, she knew he had, because she had just watched the outraged argument of Duchess Rike, who believed that normal rules did not apply to people like her. Nonetheless, Rike had begrudgingly handed over her necklace in the end. Even she did not want to miss this festival, it seemed.
Calli’s hands fluttered up to her neck, her fingers tracing the purball stones nestling at her throat.
“I can’t remove this! What if it gets lost?”
“The invitations were very clear.” He held up the invitation to show her, the curling script declaring along the bottom: No weapons, no mage-witches, no technomancy, no exceptions. “We have to put extra precautions in this year, because of the…contention…” he explained.
"Contention" was a rather mild term for the bitter and bloody civil war for the Seasalt throne, Calli thought. None of the three contenders hoping to inherit the heirless Prince Odoro’s seat looked likely to concede gracefully. Calli had thought that the spring festival would have been cancelled given the circumstances, but, as Hastra had reminded her, wars were fought in ballrooms and dining halls just as much as battle-fields.
“Oh, this isn’t technomancy,” she told the guards airily. “It’s fashion.”
“You can’t enter wearing it, my lady.”
“It’s not a weapon!” she protested. “It’s only my family’s important documents sealed in charmed gems to keep them safe.”
The guards exchanged a look which said, quite plainly, that they believed the ‘important documents’ within Calli’s necklace to be nothing more than scraps of paper. It had been the fashion of late for more penurious houses to seal empty pages in the charmed stones and pass them off as land deeds or business shares—polishing glass and calling it diamonds. Calli, posing as the distant country-estate niece of Lady Haverish today, definitely fell into that category.
“Nonetheless, my lady, the gate is warded. It will not let any technomancy through. After Prince Odoro’s assassination, nobody is taking any chances.”
Calli, who unbeknownst to these guards, had had a hand in Prince Odoro’s assassination, sighed theatrically.
“Well, what shall I do, then?” she whinged. “I came all this way, I don’t want to go home again.”
“We’ll seal it in a warded box with your thumbprint and give you a token for it, my lady.”
The guard brought forth a small black box, inlaid with velvet. Tentatively, Calli unclasped her necklace and lay it within. The box filled with smoke, snapping shut, and as Calli pressed her thumb to the lid it sealed entirely so that there was not even a crevice to stick a knife within. The guards sealed it with warded wax upon which a strange symbol formed itself. Then he gave her a token fixed to a simple bracelet with the same symbol upon it, fastening it around her wrist for her and charging her to keep it safe, for she would need it to collect her necklace once more.
“But won’t people just steal the box?” She frowned.
“It wouldn’t do them much good if they did, anyway. If someone tried to break into the box without the right thumbprint, the purball stones and the documents will be destroyed.”
“I don’t want my documents destroyed!” Calli squawked.
“It is fine." He gesutred to the bracelet fastened around her wrist. "Your token is unique to you. It acts as a failsafe in case of damage or loss. Take it to the royal mage-witch insurers and they will recreate your documents exactly from the imprint. Don’t worry, my lady, we’ve thought of everything.”
Calli nodded, relieved, and passed under the garlanded flower arch and gate they ushered her through. As she stepped through it, a strange mist tingled at her skin, searching over her for weapons and magics. She tried not to flinch, thankful that Hastra’s dress improvements were strictly mundane. The mist cleared and she walked forwards, trying not to look too relieved.
Calli looked around. Once the spring festival at Freeman’s Acre, like the park itself, had been open to all. Then a fence had gone up and access had been strictly limited. Tickets had begun to be sold to the festival which quickly outpaced the depths of an average man’s pockets. Now it had become invitation only, just an excuse for the Highmast elite to see and be seen.
Calli hid her scowl behind a flutter of her lace fan, her eyes darting around for her quarry. It quickly transformed into her most predatory smile as her eyes alighted on her prey. Duchess Ysmin Rike.
The duchess was standing carefully surrounded by bodyguards, who, though weaponless, looked strong enough not to need them anyway. Her usual contingency of mage-witches was conspicuously missing, as was the purball necklace she was never seen without. Her pale throat seemed glaringly bare without it. It also seemed a lot more wrinkled and saggy than usual. The magic restrictions were strong if it caught even low-level glamour charms like that in its net. Calli was glad she had ink-dyed her hair today instead—and she sent a silent prayer of gratitude up to Drvyus’ ghost, wherever it was, that he had trained them all in such paranoia.
Calli took a deep breath, gathered her skirts around her and swept forwards until she reached the duchess. She plunged into a curtsey.
“Duchess Rike? My name is Lady Polita Haverish. I believe you know my aunt, Lady Ermis Haverish?”
Rike regarded her coldly.
“Clearly they have different manners in the provinces,” she told her nearest bodyguard loudly. “In the city, lesser nobles wait to be approached first, they don’t intrude upon their betters upon the slightest pretence of acquaintance.”
Calli stammered fumblingly, dropping into another curtsey.
“Forgive me, Duchess…I…my father said—”
“Your father said you ought to make better connections whilst you could, or you would never find a suitable match, I’m sure, and he thought that the heirless old duchess might take pity on you.” The duchess looked Calli up and down scathingly. “How old are you anyway?”
“Twenty six, Duchess Rike.”
The duchess tutted patronisingly.
“You are far too old for a profitable match now.”
Calli drooped her head lower until a curtain of ink-black hair hid her embarrassed expression.
“Stand up straight, woman, you are not a youth any longer.”
“Wine, my ladies?” A serving maid interrupted, inexpertly balancing an over-full tray of beverages in her hands.
“How dare you disturb us,” Calli snapped, glad to have an outlet for her humiliation. “Don’t you have any manners?” She pushed the woman away hard and the maid stumbled, expensive glasses of iris wine crashed and spilt everywhere.
“My dress!” Calli screeched, staring down at the black liquid dripping down her gown. “Look what you’ve done! This dress cost more than your family makes in a year, and you’ve ruined it!”
“I’m sorry!” The maid was on the edge of tears now, still collapsed on the floor, tangled up in her own limbs and the shattered glasses.
“My lady, this fool has drenched you, too,” Calli said in her most obsequious voice, reaching out and brushing away some of the liquid and glass shards from Rike’s voluminous skirts, her fingers tangling with the older lady’s withered wrist and the bracelets that jangled there. Rike snatched her hand away.
“Yes, but some of us can afford more than one dress, Lady Haverish, so it is not such a matter of concern.”
Calli wished she could summon a blush to her cheeks to complete the picture, but thankfully, Rike wasn’t looking at her anyway.
“Here. Take this glass and fetch me a new one, you ridiculous woman,” she said to the maid, holding out the cup she held, half-emptied and stained with flecks of blood from the glass splinters in her skin. The maid offered up the now empty tray she held to receive it, bobbed into a flustered curtsey, still crying.
“You can go too, Lady Haverish,” Rike said coldly and Calli bobbed another curtsey and all but fled.
She fingered the token she had lifted from the Duchess’ wrist, now secreted within the secret panel Hastra had sewn for her, and tried not to smile. Calli's own token now hung in its place on the duchess’s wrist. With any luck, Rike would not notice that it was Calli’s replica which she collected from the guards…or at least, not for a little while yet.
Calli hurried after the still weeping maid and grabbed her wrist, dragging her away furiously. She did not release the protesting woman until they had marched back through the warded gate and stopped at the guard post there.
“I demand you arrest this woman,” she squawked.
The guards, who were carefully monitoring the cabinet of warded boxes, stifled a long-suffering sigh.
“It was an accident, my lady, truly,” the maid snivelled, a touch theatrically, in Calli’s opinion. “Please, forgive me, have mercy.”
“Look at my dress! You’re not looking at it!” She snapped, clicking her fingers at the guards. They bit back another sigh and stepped closer, regarding the ruined dress she pointed at. A shadow slipped behind them.
“Do you know how much this dress cost? Do you?”
“No, my lady.”
“And this maid—this wretched, clumsy, foolish maid—spilt iris wine all over it! You know such stains will not come out. Or perhaps you do not, I expect you cannot afford iris wine on a guardsman’s salary.”
“My lady—” One of them was already turning back to the cabinet, and the inexperienced little shadow froze. The maid beside her chose that exact moment to burst loudly into tears.
“Please don’t arrest me!” she wailed, loudly, drawing a crowd of curious eyes her way. “My husband was discharged from the navy when he lost his legs, and I have five children at home to feed, and the youngest one has rickets and I can’t afford the medicines for it. I need this job. They’ll all starve if you arrest me. Please!” She clutched onto the front of the guard’s uniform, burying her head in his chest as she sobbed. He tried to detach her, but she was gripping on too hard and it took the efforts of both him and his colleague together to prise her fingers free. By the time they succeeded, the shadow had disappeared once more.
“Well, I suppose I can be magnanimous this time,” sniffed Calli. “But see that you don’t do it again. Well, go,” she added sharply, “before I change my mind!”
The maid bobbed a grateful curtsey in her direction, still sniffing, and fled away from the party.
“Do you want to retrieve your necklace now, my lady?”
“What necklace? Don’t talk nonsense.” She glowered at them both fiercely and stormed away out of sight, leaving them staring after her in bemusement.
It only took her a few minutes to change out of the dress, abandoning it in an alley without compunction—and to transfer Rike’s token safely to her new pocket. Hastra and Maggi fell in beside her as they hurried down to the slums and Dae the Dark’s house.
“Next time, you’re the maid,” Hastra grumbled. “You always get to play the noble.”
“It’s my natural charisma.”
“Your natural something, anyway.”
Despite the tension of the situation, Calli couldn’t help but laugh. “You did a good job today, Maggi, well done,” she added, but the kid just glared at her. The brat had taken against Calli for some reason, but Calli wasn’t too bothered. She’d come round in time, or she wouldn’t. She wasn’t going to let the child’s moods bother her.
Big Gristo, the one-eyed muscleman who rounded off their current crew, was waiting for them in the hovel Dae the Dark called a home, guarding the unconscious body of Gregyr.
Calli couldn’t withstand a small gasp as she saw Gregyr lying there, thin and lean, pocked with the leechcraft sucking the poison from his veins. His eyes fluttered occasionally, and he moaned incomprehensible words, still steadfastly unconscious. As he would remain, Dae had informed them blithely, until she got what she wanted.
“Well?” Dae asked, stepping forwards. Calli, still kneeling beside Gregyr, cocked an eye in her direction. She always thought that Dae was misnamed. True she was a dark-witch, but someone who was called ‘Dae the Dark’ should not be so blindingly pale. Pale skin, white hair, even clouded eyes. Perhaps it is just her soul that is dark…
“Maggi?” Calli said and sullenly Maggi produced the black warded box she had stolen from the guard’s compartment.
Dae’s eyes lit up greedily, already reaching out for it.
“It’s warded. We need Rike’s thumbprint to open it or the purball stones within will be destroyed,” Calli warned.
“You have brought me her thumb then, I presume?”
Maggi wrinkled her nose in disgust, but Calli just laughed.
“We thought it would draw too much attention to chop off her thumb in public, Dae. We’ve got you the next best thing, though.”
Hastra produced the cup from within an inner pocket carefully with a gloved hand, careful not to smudge Rike's fingermarks. She placed it reverently on the floor before Dae, still speckled with the duchess’ blood.
“Spit, blood, and the print of her thumb. If you can’t do something with that, Dae, then what kind of dark-witch are you?”
Dae scowled. “I have to do all my own work, do I?”
Hastra opened her mouth to speak but Calli cut across her quickly.
“We brought you the box. You can see that it is hers, and that the necklace is in there. We have completed our part of the bargain. Now return Gregyr to us, as you gave your word to do.”
Dae regarded her for a long time and Calli held her gaze, refusing to blink. There was a silent struggle of wills, the power balance shifting invisibly in the dank little hovel, and then Dae nodded slowly.
“If I find it missing, or a forgery in its place, I will know. You do not want me as your enemy, Callietta.”
Callietta. She knows my true name. It was a rare name here, and there were very few people in this world who knew Calli’s full name. She did not like the fact that Dae the Dark was one of them. Nonetheless, she held Dae’s gaze and nodded.
“Give me space then,” Dae snapped, and the rest of the Rat’s Nest crew scuttled back out of her way.
“What about the token you stole?” whispered Hastra to Calli beneath her breath as Dae bent over Gregyr and began her work. “I thought we were going to trade that as a back-up option?”
“The back-up was for us not for Dae,” Calli hissed back. “Don’t you want some kind of insurance against the dark-witch? Don’t you want to know why she was so desperate to get Rike’s documents? I know I do. I’m sure we can find some unscrupulous mage-witch outside the royal insurers to recreate the documents for us.”
Hastra frowned at her. “You always take too many risks, Cal,” she muttered. “Do we not have enough problems without courting more?”
But Big Gristo gasped loudly beside them at that moment, cutting over the inaudible conversation.
“Look!” he said hoarsely, hope flaring in his eyes. All four of them hurried forwards to where Gregyr was panting and grunting and groaning, the magic swarming around him. They all leant forwards, holding their breath, praying to whatever gods were listening, please let him live, please return him to us.
And he opened his eyes.