Careful so the guard wouldn’t notice, he tossed his handkerchief over the side of the cart. Someone would find it.
Jasen had not been told who. Not when Kynbessne and Jennika explained the plan to him, all three of them gathered around the expertly drawn, delightedly stolen house map. Not a few minutes later when he had asked. Explicitly. Someone would watch the manse while they were inside, and someone would have a way to signal Jennika if the mistress of the house returned while they were still scouting inside.
Kynbessne had looked resolute and patient when he questioned her, perhaps protecting an associate who she’d rather he didn’t arrest. It wouldn’t have been the first time. Jennika, however, had cocked her head slyly, her constant smile tilting her mouth. Like she might just be enjoying the spectacle of leaving him in the dark.
Jennika smiled at Jasen when he met her that morning, taking a large bite out of a pie that barely fit in her hand. She licked apple and cinnamon off the tips of her fingers, popped them off her lips.
She smiled at him while she secured a ride with the cart driver, innocently telling the man that they just needed a ride to a city – which very definitely did not exist – somewhere to the north. She would thank every star in heaven for his kindness, generosity, and nobility for getting them however far he could. And she would pay him two silver. She flashed Jasen a grin when the driver pocketed the money with a rough grumble about having to make one stop before they left the city.
And the thief was smiling at him now, tucked deep and easy into the corner of the cart bed as they rumbled through the main gate. Eyebrows half-raised, she looked at him, disbelief mixed with her amusement. As if he had just tripped on nothing. As if he had just choked on air. As if she could thrown the handkerchief down better. The absurdity of it almost cracked a matching smile across his face. There was no art in tossing a piece of cloth to the side of the road.
Sinking on his heels opposite her, Jasen rested his elbows on his knees. “What?” he asked.
Brazen as sunshine, Jennika’s expression didn’t shift while she held his eye. “A little obvious,” she said.
He blinked at her slowly. She had quicker hands he did. He knew it. Her fingers seemed to conjure more than they pulled. Objects had a tendency to turn ghostly in her palms: plainly there before he blinked, and a shade of memory after. But there wasn’t a large enough difference between his subtlety and her tricks to change the way the handkerchief would have fallen.
He considered her. He purposefully rolled his shoulders forward and relaxed his spine, hiding. By now, the guards should have turned back toward them, if they followed their rotations, and it was too easy for one soldier to recognize the stance of another. The cart’s wheels rattled on the courtyard stones beneath him, the bed shook, and he steadied himself with one hand, though he shouldn’t have needed it.
“It did the job,” Jasen told Jennika.
Jennika grinned. Offering him a lazy salute which grated against his training, she stood just before the cart came to a rocking halt. Then she twisted, vaulted over the side on one hand. A flash of tan coat, and red scarf, and curling, dark hair.
Jasen watched her go in silence. Obvious.
The courtyard beneath the massive white house only stayed empty for another moment. The main doors remained shut, but servants arrived through a smaller entry, set below the street. The quiet broke and they chattered calmly with the driver, with each other, with someone still inside and moved quickly about their business. Jasen climbed down to stretch his legs, feeling largely invisible. Above him, all the shutters were open to welcome the afternoon breeze and shadows moved back and forth inside the rooms. Small noises drifted out, muffled and small behind the bump and bustle of unloading the baskets from the back of the cart. Jasen waited, scanned the other sides of the yard, and found other doors, leaning open. One was only a few yards from his right, and the shadows behind it were perfectly still.
In a moment, if he was patient, he would find the opportunity to slip through it.
“Hey!” Jennika shouted on the other side of the cart.
Jasen snapped around to face her, but Jennika was taking half a step toward one of the servants, hand out as if to help, but still too far away. “Do you need help?”
The boy, three or four years younger than Jennika, and even thinner, shook his head first. Then he hefted the basket higher against his chest hands, losing his grip. It began slipping again almost immediately. “I’m fine, thanks,” he said.
Jennika looked at him, doubt thick on her face. “I figured. That’s why I asked.” She swung back toward the cart, smooth and easy, lifted two baskets by the handles and hitched behind her shoulders. Barely leaned into the effort, she strode across the yard, directly behind the boy. “There you go, lift with your back,” she said, and herded him toward the door. The boy almost tripped trying to keep ahead of her. On every step, he glanced back at her, stunned. Jasen followed her progress, staring too.
The cart driver snickered, just loud enough to echo. One of other servants laughed without covering it.
At the door, Jennika turned back, only head and arms visible above the paving stones. She nodded Jasen forward. “Come on,” she said. “You’ve got hands, too.” And she winked at him.
Jasen moved, because it would have looked strange not to. He had to force his eyes to cart as he picked up a basket of his own, blink to settle back into his calm.
All in an instant, he knew that Jennika would never have secreted the handkerchief over the side of the cart. No, she would have coughed. Quiet at first, and then a little too loud. She would have snorted, as if the hay that softened the cart bed had gotten caught in her nose. Coughed a little louder.
She would have wiped the back of her hand across her face, quickly, as if she didn’t want anyone to see, and drawn everyone’s attention with her sharpness. After a long moment – still coughing, still sniffling – she would have fished through her pockets for the handkerchief. Burying her nose in the cloth, she would have shut her eyes tight and blown, like a twelve-year-old on a trumpet. Every guard would have twisted her way.
Then she would have looked disgusted, maybe moved to put the handkerchief back in her pocket and thought better of it, maybe just moved straight to dangling it off the side of the cart by the tips of her fingers, and then let go. With everyone watching, and no one wondering why she had dropped it.
And then, in the quiet moment, when everyone’s back was turned, when secrets could be slipped down and secured, she would have grinned at him.
Jasen hoisted the basket to his shoulder, hiding his face. He wished, for what he was sure would only be the first time that day, that Kynbessne was there instead.
I’m a thief! I stole the first line of this piece from my friend, M.D. Be sure to check out the original piece at her blog. Then take a peek at what all the other thieves did with their handkerchiefs.