She watched the changing of the guard with amused disinterest. From her vantage point on the roof of the Porterhouse, she could see the whole length of the wall and the quiet efficiency of the men and women who slid into the places of their fellows at every post along the line. The last watch only relaxed once they had seen their replacements square themselves against their spears, only let out a breath when their replacements had raised their chins to keep watch. She could almost read their thoughts across the air, and her lips twisted father into a smile, as if their straight spines were the iron guard posts that kept everything behind them whole.
When the trap door behind her creaked open, she tilted her head to listen over her shoulder without taking her eyes off the guard. She heard the heavy breath of someone taking the too-large last step up to the roof, the thud of a second foot, the creak and clack of the latch shutting again. She didn’t turn around as the footsteps thunked closer, reverberating in the tiles beneath her. She didn’t even look up when his shadow crossed her, though she flicked a look down at the shape of it.
The sheath relinquished the sword with a soft click like a key turned in a lock. Jennika paused with her hand wrapped around the hilt, and tried to decide if that was a bad sound echoing in her clever little silence.
Going still, she cocked her head, and listened just to make sure that her silence was still clever, and not the thing that fell when heads suddenly came up and breaths were held to hear what was not there.
Below her, the first floor of the house laid as quietly as before. Before she came, there had been a light hum through a cracked window, but she’d shut that up tight before it could wake anyone who might be willing to get out of bed to investigate. The second floor ached and cracked with its usual nighttime shufflings. A man snored. A sideboard creaked in the breeze outside. Some timber in the wall decided to shrink in the cold and groan about it. But none of them were loud enough to break the silence that Jennika had brought with her through the second floor window she’d shimmied into.
She slid the sword a little farther out.
There was a certain set of codes and etiquettes that snapped into place when one sneak met another unexpectedly.
The least of them was the sudden understanding that neither sneak would screw anything up. Whatever job they were in the middle of springing, if they’d wanted to perform anything less than larcenous perfection, they should have done it on their own time. Now that there were two players, two heads that could be seen, caught, bashed, and imprisoned by the city guard, they would do their thieving duty and get away with everything they had planned. Plus a little more.
The greatest of them was an understanding that one sneak would believe that the other was as invisible as the air, inaudible as hearth tale cats, and absolutely magnificent at their job. They would hold onto that belief until it was absolutely impossible to do so, and then one moment more.
So, when Imalie realized that she was skulking around the same house as a woman twice her age and half as quiet, she ignored her. Of the four items that she had dropped through the window to find, Imalie already had three of them, which made it doubtful that they were there for the same reason, or if they were, that the woman would beat her to the last of it.
Jasen took a single step into his kitchen and stopped. He had not expected to find Jennika standing by his small square table, but seeing her there, he couldn’t muster any surprise to see her pocketing something off the sideboard. He wasn’t sure what it was, wasn’t even entirely sure that she had picked it up or flicked her fingers into the fold of her jacket. Still, he thought he saw her, so he knew she’d done something.
“If you take that, I will hunt you down,” he said.
She looked at him steadily, blinked once, and let her eyebrows drift upward.
“I will hunt you down,” Jasen repeated. He took another step into the room. “With horses, or hounds, or mountain lions, or crocodiles, or whatever it takes to track a little slithering weasel like you.”
She cocked her head to one side, very careful not to move otherwise. “Do crocodiles have a good sense of smell?”
Caled liked Heydi, the same way he liked any of the kids that turned up under his roof. She was young, maybe six and short for that, but she’d already lost the uncertain weight that most kids carried in their hands and feet. Her hair was dark, her skin was a sun-turned bronze, and she looked as if she had been shaved out of a shadow.
Jerdan brought her in, took her straight into Caled’s office. Her head stopped a little higher than the boy’s elbow, and she stayed behind him, not to hide, just following him smoothly, turning when he turned, stopping when he stopped.
Jerdan glanced back at her, nodding when he found her waiting just inside the door. Looking to Caled behind the desk, he met his eye questioningly. The fact that she was with him was the most eloquent recommendation Jerdan could offer. He knew he couldn’t say anything more.
“What is she?” Caled asked.
Jerdan shrugged. “Nothing. Yet.” His mouth tilted into a smile. “But she could be a sneak.”
Imalie probably should have hidden the money better. As a matter of course, no matter how well concealed, money could always be hidden better. Whoever had invented it, was a genius for making it so easy to carry, and also an idiot. No matter what else was around, Imalie knew that a thief would take coins first. They were easy to pocket, easy to run with, so easy to trade in for something more personally valuable, and nearly impossible to recover once taken.
Imalie knew. She’d taken enough of it.
But she’d lived behind serious locks for a long time, and she supposed somewhere in the back of her mind, she’d believed that anyone who cracked their way inside her four walls would have earned the right to the purse.
She stopped believing it the moment she slipped through her back window and found him standing beside the toppled table.
Imalie blinked at him. She glanced at the front door, still perfectly seated in its frame, but she didn’t really have to. She’d circled the block before she came in, assured herself that everything was in place twice before she allowed herself to trip the window latch and arrive home.
Slowly, she smiled. Rocking back, she looked over one shoulder, then the other. The table was resting on its lip. The shelves were pulled straight down off the wall. Her books, her papers, every small thing in the room was scattered over the floor. “You made a mess,” she said.
Empty houses stood in a certain kind of silence. Even from the outside, they breathed reticence, so long quiet that they’d started to echo their own silence. The walls waited for sound, holding still to keep the sighing inside from gaining strength.
Stepping out of the carriage in front of her uncle’s house, Karleigh hesitated. The stillness wasn’t there, and it should have been.
“Take my things to the back please,” she told the driver. He looked surprised and pleased when she added an extra coin for his effort and started unfastening her trunks from the top of the carriage. Karleigh left him to it, slowly moving up the front steps.
“Here,” Terius said and dropped a book into Jaera’s lap.
Jaera looked at him out of the corner of her eye as he leaned against the rail beside her. She was curled up on a crate, back to the rail, out of the way while she watched the crew change tack. The ocean spray was kicking up hard behind her as the ship angled into its turn and she had to put a hand on the crate to keep her balance against the swells. Glancing down at the book, then back to him, she eyed both warily.
“Begging your pardon?” she said haltingly.
He watched her for a minute, mouth curved into a dry smile she couldn’t quite read, arms crossed over his chest. “I will never understand how you can be so honestly polite in daylight, and still steal books out of my room in the middle of the night.”
The castle’s main hall was full on court day, crowded with petitioners and council members. It was Tyren’s favorite crowd, all of them dressed in something finer than their usual, but not so fine that they worried about losing the jewels around their neck, or instinctively touched their clothes from time to time to make sure everything was still just-so. They milled around the public hall, some coming, some going, too many faces to keep track of, and no one questioning the occasional accidental bump in the press. Tyren leaned against the wall outside the side door, where it was a little quieter and smiled to himself, spinning the chain of the gold watch he’d lifted.
Sera wasn’t long in joining him, sauntering out with the same pleased sort of smile. She had her hands in the pocket of her jacket, the collar turned up around her neck. It half hid, half showed off the string of tear-drop opals at her neck. She waited for him to see it, then pulled one hand up to tighten her collar and leaned against the wall beside him. He stopped spinning the watch and tucked it neatly into his pocket.
“Good day,” he said, watching a couple exit the hall.
“Very,” she agreed. “Have you seen the others?”
“Not yet. They have time though. It’s only been ten minutes or so.”