[Author's Note: This flashback takes place before the events of The Bad Penny. This short story was originally written for Beth Connor's podcast, Crossroads Cantina]
The trees that ran down the street were already beginning to burn in flaming shades of gold, jasper and amber. Calli couldn’t help but stare at them as she passed. The last rays of the evening sun were catching in them, making them sparkle like jewels. Even the leaves in the upper echelons of Highmast city were decked in far more extravagant wealth than they could ever imagine down by the docks, it seemed.
Calli narrowed her eyes against the setting sun, squinting up at the manor houses which sat preening smugly on the streets here. The shadows lingered darkly in the doorways, deep enough to smother her in her sleep. The trees lined up like sentries down the cobblestones. Calli felt her fingers twitching at her sides, itching for the knife that was no longer sheathed at her side. She felt naked without it, despite the acres of stiff, heavy fabric she was draped in tonight.
Hastra had laughed herself sick when Calli came out of the chambers they shared dressed in this finery, until Gregyr had told her quietly to stop being a fool.
“You look very pretty, Calli,” he’d said, even as Hastra wiped her eyes. Gregyr, the second in command in the Rat's Nest gang, was always the peacemaker. Calli had squinted at him, trying to work out whether he was patronising her or not. Never, in all her fourteen years of life, had she been called ‘pretty’ before. But then, never had she worn such copious amounts of fabric before. The endless white pleats bulked out her scrawny frame, adding a suggestion of curves where there definitely weren’t any. Her red hair was piled up on her head and pinned with pearls, leaving her neck exposed. She hated it. She couldn’t help but imagine the cold kiss of a knife up against her skin.
But then neither had she been invited to a party before. Not that she was exactly 'invited' now...
She wasn't nervous--she wasn't--but all the same...
I wanted this assignment, she reminded herself. I wanted to prove myself, and do more than petty pick-pocketing, tailing the marks and distraction detail. I wanted to be a real player at last.
And yet, she hadn't thought that Dryvus would send her to the infamous Earl Adderforth’s annual masquerade ball either …
She reached up to adjust her mask, making sure the white lace still hid her face. It was curved up into feathers, like angel wings, and matched the pearls and the dress. We want people to think you are innocent, Calli, Dryvus had said as he had handed everything to her, and that made Hastra laugh, too. ‘Innocent’ was another description that had never been applied to Calli before.
Calli didn’t have an actual invite, of course, so she made her way around to the back of Adderforth’s sprawling manor house and let herself in by force, swayed her way confidently through the immaculately manicured gardens, as if she was supposed to be there, ushered herself in through the open garden doors to the ballroom beyond.
The room within was crowded and colourful, the lavish hall bedecked with fresh roses and swathes of greenery, the servants all liveried in crimson and black, sweeping through the dancers with golden trays of canapés and drinks.
Calli helped herself to a tall flute of iris wine as a servant passed by. The liquid within it was onyx black and rippled enticingly as she stared at it. Calli had never tasted it before, but she had heard of it by reputation. She took a small swig of it experimentally and had to fight back a grimace. It was so sweet it set her teeth to tingling.
“A bit young for such a potent drink, aren’t we, my lady?” A voice breathed in her ear.
She whirled around, cursing herself for allowing someone to sneak up on her. The man took the glass out of her hand and sniffed it, swirling it as he held it up to the light. Calli ran her eyes over him hastily.
He hid behind a large, black beaked mask, with a tumble of thick brown hair escaping over the top. His clothes were well-tailored, but hung off of him in those dishevelled billows and he did not seem that much older than Calli was, despite his words.
She snatched the glass back out of his hand, which only made him laugh. She took a second, defiant mouthful of iris wine. She couldn’t say that she liked it any better than the first, but at least it proved her point.
“I think I can handle it, lord…?” But he did not supply a name for her. He just leant against the pillar next to her, surveying the crowd.
“Quite a turn-out tonight, but I don’t see Adderforth here yet. He likes to make an entrance, so they say.”
She didn’t quite know why this stranger was talking to her as if she knew him, so she took another sip of iris wine to cover her confusion. She was almost halfway through the glass now. She needed to be more careful. She could not afford to ruin everything by being drunk, but there was something about this arrogant stranger that got under her skin.
“Even the balconies are bursting,” this stranger continued, staring up at them. She followed his gaze and saw that he was right. Everybody who was anybody was here tonight.
She felt her heart sinking. How the hell am I going to break in now? She wished Dryvus had given her more detailed instructions. The only thing he had said was to be in place and be ready until after midnight, and then she would get the signal and her next instructions.
She went to take a fourth mouthful, though she was already feeling slightly woozy. Her companion reached over and took the glass from her with gentle force. With his other hand, he tipped his bird-mask up slightly, revealing a handsome, if somewhat smug, face beneath. He pressed a kiss against her exposed throat before she could stop him and winked.
“Don’t overdose now, Lady Callietta,” he whispered. “What would Dryvus do without you?” He readjusted his mask and slipped off into the crowd before she could do any more than gape at him.
Nobody knew her name was Callietta. Not even Dryvus. She only ever introduced herself as Calli.
She tried to follow the bird-man’s progress across the dance floor, but he swam through the crowds with a graceful ease and she soon lost him in the press of bodies.
Who was he? How did he know my name? How did he know I was with Dryvus?
She tried to stumble after him, but her limbs were sluggish now. She frowned behind her mask. She longed to rip it off, but she knew that was foolish. Three mouthfuls of iris wine should not have affected her so much, however potent it was.
A cold chill spread through her. Poison. That bird-man must have slipped poison into her glass when he took it from her—and like a fool she had guzzled it down, simply because he had told her not to.
Panic spread through her, and the noise of the ball ratcheted louder. The colours burnt brighter as they swirled about in noisy, echoing hues, the music reverberated like demonic laughter, the crowds whirling manically and she was drowning in the midst of it all.
She tried to suck down enough air to breathe, but her chest ached beneath her corsetry and that hateful dress felt too hot, too close, too heavy. She collapsed to her knees in the middle of the ballroom, her fingers seeking the cold of the floor as if she could root herself into it.
A blare of trumpets cut through the noise and a sudden hush filled the room. She was vaguely aware of the herald shouting something from the top of the staircase and a wave of applause bursting through the dancers, but she still couldn’t find her feet.
The crowd parted before her and a pair of black, shiny boots stopped before her. She looked up to see Earl Adderforth, dressed entirely in black from head to foot, staring down at her. The candlelit shone off of his bald head.
“And who has lost this child?” he asked the crowd, who burst into laughter. He bent and held out a hand and, unsure what else to do, Calli took it.
“Would you honour me with a dance before your nursemaid trundles you off to bed?” he asked, pulling her far too close, and again the crowd howled with mocking laughter.
Calli felt her temper flaring but she reined it under control, as he started whirling her around the dance floor. Her stumbling feet would not obey her. Blackness swam up towards her and the world tipped sideways. When she awoke she was on the floor of the ballroom, a crowd of anxious guards and Adderforth himself still crowded around her, the stunned eyes of the crowd whispering gleefully, everybody staring at her and the scene she was making.
She pushed herself up, throwing Adderforth’s grasping hands off of her by force.
“I should…I need to go…” She staggered to her feet and pushed her way out of the dance floor, spilling herself out into the neatly trimmed hedges and rose bushes of the gardens beyond. The sun had set properly now, the night air dark and lit only by the soft glow of lanterns and the cold light of the stars above. The wind chilled her skin and she gulped down deep breaths as she once more sank to her knees.
Get a grip on yourself, Calli, she chided herself firmly. The cold night air was cooling her panic now, too, and shame was beginning to wash over her instead. Hastra is never going to let me live this down.
And Dryvus, though he would not be cruel, would also never trust her with another assignment again. I had screwed everything up…He had told me to wait, to be ready, to be unobtrusive and I did none of those things.
She forced herself to her knees, steeling her nerve.
The night isn’t over yet. I can still salvage it yet.
She looked around the gardens and saw a trellis bedecked with rambling roses stretching up to the balconies above, and she grinned.
The climb took her far longer than it should have done, but eventually, she tipped herself over the top onto the balcony above. She withdrew one of the white, pearlescent inestra tablets Dryvus had used to pin her autumnal hair in place, indistinguishable from the saltwater pearl pins it innocently hid beside. She forced it into the lock of the balcony doors and then withdrew a small vial secreted in the boning of her corsetry. Unstoppering it carefully, she dripped it onto the circular tablet, which began fizzing and dissolving immediately, eating through the metal of the lock with it. She couldn’t resist a grin, even at the thin plume of acrid smoke which began curling skywards, choking its way down her throat. The metal curled in on itself and then fell out of the wooden door completely with a heavy thunk. She pushed the door inwards.
Somebody was already there. She froze, squinting against the candle-glow at the figure hesitating within and her drunken hand fumbled for her dagger but, of course, it was still missing.
It was the bird-man. He had pushed his mask up onto his head by now, the candle held in one hand, a lockpick in the other.
“You!” she hissed, fury flooding through her. She launched herself across the room hitting him hard. He fended her off carefully, still grinning that infuriating smile.
“Come on, Calli, we haven’t got much time,” he said.
“Who are you? How do you know my name? What are you doing here?”
“Micah. Dryvus sent me, and the same thing as you. Come on. We’ve got to find those papers.”
She glared at this Micah. Her brain was still being slow and uncooperative, but something about this didn’t feel right.
“Dryvus sent you? He didn’t tell me. You poisoned me!”
“Only a little bit,” he said apologetically. “It’ll wear off soon. Dryvus wanted your panic to seem real. You were never in any danger, we just needed a distraction so that I could break in.”
“But he sent me to get the paperwork.”
Micah huffed out an impatient sigh, pity crinkling in those dark eyes. “Really? You really thought he would trust you with something like that? You’re the distraction, Calli, nothing more.”
The words stung. She had thought Dryvus was trusting her at last. I had thought he had given me a real assignment. But, of course, he hadn’t, she chided herself bitterly. How could he when I only screw everything up?
Micah placed the candle on the side table and began rummaging through Adderforth’s bedchambers.
“Now, if I were a secret document, where would I hide?” mused Micah, as he disappeared underneath the bed and began pulling out boxes and chests, rifling through the folders of paperwork within them quickly.
Calli just stood and stared around the room. It was opulent and large, decked in velvet and silk, large gold-framed oil paintings hanging upon the walls, a free-standing looking glass lingering in the corner. There was a dressing table, too, with a hairbrush and hand-mirror set upon it. Something was prickling at her, but in her slow, poison-addled brain, she couldn’t tell what.
Micah had moved over to the wardrobe now, picking it with well-practised ease and rummaging through the drawers. Calli still stood in the centre of the room frowning.
“Why is there a hairbrush? Adderforth is bald.”
“I don’t know. It came as part of the set, I imagine. Can you concentrate?”
But she had already passed over to the dressing table. She picked up the hairbrush and pried the back off of it. It was hollow within, and hidden in the nook was a collection of small mage-witched purball stones in various shades.
Micah looked up quickly as she tipped them into the palm of her hand.
“Calli, you beautiful genius,” he whispered under his breath, hurrying over. He ran his hands over them, holding each one up to the light. They were translucent, like amber, and tiny reflections of words echoed deep within them. The perfect way to keep important documents safe and hidden.
“It’s this one, I think, hang on.”
Micah placed the purball stone on the dressing table, fetched the ewer and jug from the bedside table and tentatively dripped a couple of water droplets on top of it until the charms trapping the papers within it dissolved, releasing the paper within. The document unfurled before their eyes. Calli could see Adderforth’s scrawling signature there at the bottom of the document. It was legitimate.
They both reached for it at the same time, their fingers closing in unison over it. His hands were warm, and Calli could feel her cheeks burning.
“Who gets to take it to Dryvus?” he grinned. “Want to flip for it?”
But there was a sudden noise in the corridor outside. Micah’s head whirled around at the sound and so did Calli's.
“Go. Quickly, back out of the window. We can’t be found here now.”
He snatched at the papers and the remaining purball stones and secreted them within his tunic as he hurried her back to the window ledge on fleet feet and bundled her back over the edge. She tipped herself over the balcony, landing bent-kneed in the lawn beneath and Micah landed next to her. His hand grabbed at hers.
They sprinted for the perimeters, and Calli cursed the billowing dress that slowed her down.
“Split up,” Micah hissed at her as they sprinted for the streets outside. “We’ll meet up once we’ve lost them. Go!”
Panic still pounding through her, she instinctively obeyed. She fled the night, intuitively avoiding the wandering crowds that never slept in this city, disappearing down the alleyway stairs into the labyrinth below, where only the muted blue glow of the flamewyrms oozing upon the damp and dripping ceiling lit the way. She didn’t stop running even then, not until she reached the hidden entrance to the Rat’s Nest. She fumbled for the warded door and collapsed inside, panting. Everyone leapt up to their feet at once, and Dryvus was by her side immediately.
“Calli? You’re back early. I told you not to make your move until after midnight.” He was frowning at her. She stared up at him. He was in his best clothes too, a mask lingering on the table behind him.
“You were coming too?” she panted.
“Of course I was, I just had a few things to finish up here first. What happened? What went wrong?”
She pushed herself up into a sitting position, still desperately gulping down air.
“Nothing. We got it, Dryvus. Don’t worry. Is he back yet? Don’t tell me he got caught?”
“Micah, of course.”
His stunned expression left her feeling chilled, and her stomach had already plummeted down to the depths beneath long before he said:
“Who the hell is Micah?”