Calli laughed brightly, her fingers already reaching for the proffered invitation card.
“It’s very good of you,” she fluttered in her sweetest voice, teeth-tinglingly saccharine. But before she could snatch that all important card—the whole reason Dryvus, her boss and the leader of the Rat’s Nest crew she worked for, had sent her to slowly infiltrate the Hurstmere’s inner circle this past month—her gloved hand was captured by someone else’s.
She turned in surprise to chide whichever impudent lordling had the arrogance to intervene in such a brash way, and stopped dead as she was met with a familiar pair of sparklingly dark eyes, hidden beneath a messy thicket of brown hair.
“You!” she exclaimed, her anger overtaking her tact. He grinned devilishly back at her.
“Oh, you’ve met Dawlish’s son already, have you?” Lady Hurstmere drawled, as Micah raised Calli’s hand to his lips and pressed a kiss to it. Calli resisted the urge to snatch it away from him.
“You could say that,” she said darkly.
She didn’t know very much about Micah at all, but she doubted he really was Lord Dawlish’s son, or that he was here for any good reason. However, as she was also not really who she was currently pretending to be, and she was certainly here for nefarious purposes herself, she could hardly say as much without giving away her own position.
Micah had clearly realised it too, for his grin only increased.
“I had the pleasure of being introduced to Lady Carlotta at Earl Adderforth’s masquerade at the beginning of the season. If I recall rightly, she was quite enchanting behind a white lace mask. If I may say so, my lady, you look even more enchanting without it.”
Calli gritted her teeth together, grinding them so hard behind her simpering smile that she was surprised they did not shatter in her mouth.
He had a nerve bringing up that party. Adderforth’s ball had been an unmitigated disaster for Calli. Not only had Micah drugged her wine, causing her unwittingly to make a disturbance so that he could slip past the guards unseen, he had then tricked Calli into giving him the documents she had been sent there to recover. To add insult to injury, it had been the first time Dryvus had ever allowed her to take point on a job. To have failed at it so spectacularly was nothing short of galling.
And it was all Micah’s fault.
Well, OK, it was partially my fault—but mostly it was his.
She glowered at him behind the false smile she was still forced to wear in Lady Hurstmere’s presence.
And how does he know my alias anyway? I used a different one at Adderforth’s ball.
But that was Micah all over. Infuriatingly knowing and always where he was least wanted.
Well, she consoled herself grimly, he’s not going to know anything at all by the time I’m done with him…
She took her hand deliberately out of Micah’s and took the card Lady Hurstmere still held out. She slipped it into an inner pocket, with a grateful curtsey.
And she was grateful. With this invitation card, she would be able to attend the exclusive end of season summer ball at the palace, something Dryvus had insisted they do this year, for one or other of the perpetual schemes he dreamed up. One had to be personally vouched for by one of the king’s courtiers to be allowed past the entrance of the summer ball. In previous years, Dryvus had tried unsuccessfully to forge invitations, bribe his way in, even sneak in via a back entrance, but he had always, thus far, been stymied by the elaborate safety precautions.
This year he had tried a new tact, getting Calli to ooze up to the Hurstmeres as a distant country relation looking for patrons for her coming out. It had taken weeks of schmoozing, but finally—finally—Calli had managed to win an invitation to the summer ball.
But perhaps. more importantly, she would be able to leave this wretched garden party now, up in the upper echelons of Highmast, and be able to wander back down the underground tunnels in the bad part of town, where she belonged.
Oh, Dryvus had taught her how to comport herself amongst the nobility, dressing her up in a variety of gowns and aliases in his ever-growing list of schemes to steal, con and bully the fat-headed, fat-pursed aristocracy of the harbour city, but Calli had once been a sewer kid. Though you could take the girl out of the sewers, you could never take the sewers out of the girl. She never really felt at home unless someone was trying to catch or kill her. It was fun to play at aristocracy now and again, but life would be unbearably boring if she had to live there permanently.
She curtseyed to Lady Hurstmere now, promising to attend the sailing party the Hurstmeres were throwing next week.
“A pleasure to see you again, too, Dawlish,” she added coldly to Micah, excusing herself.
To her profound irritation, he also made excuses to Lady Hurstmere, falling into place besides her, as she tried to leave.
The garden party was bright and colourful, packed with musicians and mage-witches throwing petty spells aside, turning handkerchiefs into multicoloured butterflies which fluttered through the bright blue skies—wasteful, wanton magics which would have made her sneer had she not been being watched by the cream of Highmast society. None of these folks would last five minutes down in the real world. They could use their magic to make people safer, to ensure good harvests or keep away blight, but they play with tricks and tomfoolery, whilst down at the bottom of these winding hills, people are scrabbling for their very existence.
It was enough to make her sick, it really was.
She was just heading for the ornately scrolled gates which led out of the rambling gardens of the Hurstmere estates, when Micah stepped in front of her, blocking her path. He hemmed her into a corner, guarded by a garishly pruned topiary tree, which had been mage-witched with a string of safety-candles which gave off brightly coloured lights without heat.
“Come on, Calietta,” he breathed, with that infuriating smile of his. “You can’t be mad at me forever.”
That was the other thing, of course. Somehow, Micah had learnt her true name. It was a fact that frightened her as much as it irritated her.
She gritted her teeth.
“Move, Micah. Or I will make you.”
He leant forwards, his breath tickling over her skin. “I don’t think you will,” he grinned. “You don’t want to cause a scene here, do you? What would Lady Hurstmere say if she knew Lady Carlotta was assaulting her honoured guests? She might revoke that all important invitation you’ve been working oh-so-hard to get.”
She scowled, cast a quick look around to make sure none of the other guests or servants were watching and then grabbed his arm. She whirled him out of sight around the elaborately shaped trees, thudding him up hard against the brick wall behind them. Ivy crawled up the brickwork like smoke, and she could only hope it was the poisoned kind as she slammed him up against it.
His arms snaked around her waist, pulling her up close against his chest and she slapped them away hard, seriously considering using a swift knee to make him behave himself.
“What are you doing here?” she spat at him.
He winked at her, as though he thought he was a loveable rogue, the kind which had all the young women swooning at his feet.
“Perhaps I just wanted the pleasure of seeing you.”
“You’re not as charming as you think you are.”
“Oh no, I definitely am, you’re just excessively stubborn and refuse to fall prey to my allure.”
She snorted out half a laugh. Allure. Honestly.
He flicked his hair out of his eyes with a grin and examined the invitation he now held between two long fingers.
Her eyes went wide as she stared at it, and her hands fumbled furiously for her inner pocket, now empty.
Damn, he’s good. He must have pinched it when he put his hands around my waist. I didn’t even feel him taking it.
She snatched at it, but he held it out of her reach.
“Gilded,” he frowned. “And mage-witched, too, with an incredibly intricate watermark. These would be highly expensive and near impossible to replicate, I imagine.” He whistled low under his breath. “Lot of money wasted on a ticket like this. But then, the whole summer ball is a waste of money, I’d warrant.”
She jumped up to get it, but he held it higher out of her reach. She scowled and hit him hard in the stomach, snatching it out of his hand as he doubled over, winded. They wrestled with it for a moment, but she felt it slip into her own hand at last and she pulled it back triumphantly.
“You’ve stolen enough from me,” she told him fiercely. Still struggling to gather his breath, he slung an arm over her shoulder and pulled her close once more.
“Don’t hold grudges, Cal,” he murmured playfully in her ear. “You can’t live in the past. You’ve got to keep moving forwards, that’s my motto.”
She rewarded him for his impertinence with another elbow to the stomach and he let out a grunt, then a chuckle.
“You’re impossible,” he wheezed. “I’m going to be covered in bruises.”
“Good,” she snarled. “It will be something to remember me by.”
She shoved the card back in her pocket again without taking her eyes off of him. This time she held onto it tightly within her pocket, refusing to relinquish it until she was out of his sight, her fingers rubbing over the shiny corners of the card, reassured by its unseen metallic sheen.
Only when she had slipped into the carriage Dryvus had sent to wait for her and was struggling her way into less ostentatious clothes, did she pull out the invitation once more.
Loud and bitter cursing filled the tiny carriage as it jolted down the hill.
The invitation had been switched for a card of the same size. It, too, was gilded, but the ornately scrawling calligraphy upon the front now read:
If Lady Carlotta wishes to have her invitation returned, she will do Lord Micah Dawlish the honour of attending dinner with him at the Speckled Boar tonight at 8:30. There, she has his word of honour as both a gentleman and a thief, that that which was stolen from her will be returned.
He always knew I was there for the invite. It was no accident that he bumped into me today, he came prepared.
She scowled. Micah could not be more than a year or two older than Calli, only a youth herself, and it was a bitter pill to swallow that he was so much better at this than her already. He might even give Dryvus himself a run for his money.
Another, even darker thought appeared on the heels of that one: Hastra is going to laugh herself sick when she hears about this…
She flipped the card over, scowling hard, and saw six more words scrawled across the reverse:
To looking forwards, Callietta, never back.