Cat crouched in the bushes below the window. Branches poked her in places best left unpoked, and nervous butterflies queased her stomach, but she willed herself to relax just as Geordie had taught her. No use getting bothered. It would be the work of a minute to nip in and filch the goods. Nothing to it.
Hoisting herself up onto the sill, she scrambled for purchase on the slick, mossy granite. Turned her attention to the window, sliding the thin metal of her betty between the casement and sash.
She swallowed a contemptuous sniff as a jiggle and a twist of her wrist released what passed for a lock. Committing this sorry excuse for security to memory, she dropped soundlessly into the room. It might be worth her while to return another night. Not too soon. But if she needed a bit of something to pawn, it was good to know where a ready supply of pocketable trinkets might be found.
She cast a quick glance around. In the dark, furniture stood humped and unrecognizable, though the desk was easy enough to spot—an enormous black shape at the far end of the room, facing the window she’d just come through. But it was the rows upon rows of shelves that caused her breath to catch in her throat, squashing her earlier optimism.
Was she insane? What had she been thinking when she’d offered to come here in Geordie’s place? This was a job for a professional, not a novice with more bravado than skill. She’d never find one book among the hundreds rising from floor to ceiling on every wall.
She gave a passing thought to returning home and explaining her failure. Discarded the idea almost immediately. Geordie needed her. He’d asked so little over the years they’d been together, the least she could do was complete this one small job.
Plucking a candle from a low table nearby, she mumbled the words to set flame to wick. She’d learned over the last few years to hide even the small bits of household magic she’d been allowed at home. Survival meant being normal. Passing as one of the non-magical Duinedon in a world where to be Other meant persecution and worse. But she was in a hurry, with no time to waste searching for flint and steel. Not when she had a much bigger and more frustrating search ahead of her. Magic would have to serve.
Yet the futility of her task was simply made more clear to her in the light of the tiny flame. Had she said hundreds of books? There must be thousands. And more spread out on tables. Heaped upon the desk. Some even stacked in corners for lack of other space. She’d never seen so many in one place. Not even in her stepfather’s library, the coveted symbol of his newfound wealth.
Cat started at the shelves, browsing the titles and spines, hoping against hope the damned thing would jump out and holler, here I am! Found nothing even remotely resembling the diary’s description Geordie had given her.
She moved to the tables. Plucking books up. Leafing through them. Putting them back disappointed. Scowling, hands on hips, she surveyed the bibliophilic excess. This was getting her nowhere. And time stood as her enemy. The longer she remained, the greater the chance she’d be caught. She needed a plan of action.
So, if she had a diary, where would she keep it?
Simple. Close at hand. Easily accessible. That meant the desk.
She focused her attention on the volumes scattered there. A book did lie open. But a quick scan showed her columns and rows of tiny, carefully written numbers. Sheet upon sheet, with little to show for them at the end if she were any judge.
Pushing it aside, she took up the next in the pile. And the next. A third followed. Then a fourth.
She gave up. Started rifling through drawers. Ledger books, receipts, correspondence. She’d progressed as far as the bottom right-hand side when she encountered a lock. Out came the betty. With a practiced flick of her wrist, the lock gave way. And . . . success. A book lay at the bottom of the drawer. A drawer empty but for this one item.
Carefully, she withdrew the book. Placed it on the desk, her breath coming jumpy with excitement.
Frayed at the edges. A cover of tooled leather, supple from handling. So far, so good.
A crescent pierced by a broken arrow in gold leaf?
She studied it in the weak light. Turned it one way, then the other.
Here was a funny squiggle rubbed to a dull brown, but if she squinched her eyes almost shut, it sort of resembled the sketch Geordie had given her to memorize.
The final test. The stamped personal crest of Kilronan.
Cat smiled. That was easy to see. A spread-winged bird atop a crooked sword had been pressed into one corner. Fortuna ventus validus. Luck favors the strong.
Latin. A straightforward language and one she’d learned the secret of long ago, despite Mother’s gimlet eye on her every moment she’d not been at her needlework or helping with her half sisters.
This was it, then. She could taste success.
Curiosity set her fingers leafing through the pages.
Her heart beat sharp as a bird’s, her mouth going dry, her throat tightening. Not Latin this time. No language she’d ever seen.
She lost herself in the hand-inked marks upon the vellum, in the swirl and slice of each faded letter. Strung together like beads upon a string. She studied their weight and shape. The emptiness between. They fell into her head like stones into a pool. Rippled and struck. Bounced back until they met their echo in the still center of her. And from the unintelligible came meaning.
This was what she’d been sent for. She’d bet her only farthing on it.
She smiled, shifting on the balls of her feet as success lit her insides. Clutched the diary to her chest as if embracing a baby.
“Did you find what you were looking for?” A deep baritone voice punctuated by the snick of a cocked pistol.
Aidan studied the woman as he might some rare new species.
Black hair swept up and accentuating a delicate jawline, the pale slash of a scar down one cheek. Wide green eyes round with panic. And a body disturbingly contoured in a snug jacket and a pair of hip-hugging trousers.
“Put the book down and step away from the desk,” he ordered.
Her eyes flicked to the open window.
“Don’t even think it.” Exhaustion edged Aidan’s words. His head hurt from a long day spent sparring with lawyers, bankers, and the occasional family member. And sleep beckoned with the arms of a lover. The only lover he’d had in more months than he could count.
Something he needed to remedy soon if his reaction to this woman leaned more toward lust than rage.
His eye fell upon the book she still clutched. Coincidence she chose this item instead of shinier, more tempting baubles? Aidan had long ago decided there was no such thing as coincidence. Even more disturbing, she’d actually seemed to be reading the impenetrable text, something no bookseller or scholar in Dublin had been able to do. And he should know. He’d been to them all.
The woman stiffened, her gaze falling beyond Aidan’s shoulder to something or someone behind him. Her eyes widened, her mouth rounding into an “O” of astonishment.
An accomplice? Servant?
Aidan turned. A moment only for his concentration to stray, but all it took for chaos to break loose.
A book came hurtling toward Aidan’s head, catching him in the arm; his pistol going off with a report to wake the dead. The recoil jarred his shoulder while smoke stung his eyes.
The woman took that moment to bolt for the window, hitching herself up with a moan of desperation. Scrabbling at the latch with nimble fingers.
Aidan sprang, catching her by the ankle. Dragging her, kicking and flailing, back into the room. “Neat little trick,” he hissed.
“You fell for it, didn’t you?” she snarled. “Just shows what a stupid prat you are.”
A knee caught Aidan in the groin, sending agony curdling along every nerve in his lower half. He resisted the urge to drop into a fetal curl, but the gloves came off. She may have been female, but she was dangerous.
Ignoring the upbringing that taught him not to lay a hand on women, Aidan staggered her with a hard slap to the side of her head. Grabbed her by the arm, ignoring her cry of pain and white-lipped grimace. Twisted her other behind her back, all while avoiding the wriggling kicks and thwarting the clever maneuvers designed to slither out of even the tightest holds.
“Careful how you toss the insults,” Aidan cautioned, guiding his captive toward a chair. Shoving her into it.
“I was being careful,” she sulked, clutching her upper arm, lines grooved white in her already pale face.
With no hope of escape, the woman seemed to shrink in on herself, and what features Aidan had been able to distinguish earlier blurred and faded. What he’d taken for green eyes were blue now in this light, but a flicker of the candle and golden hazel might be more accurate. And though at first she had appeared slender, hunched shoulders broadened her frame, her face coarsening so that Aidan questioned his first impression. That or—
He blinked, and the woman’s image settled like sand in a glass.
A fith-fath? Not exactly. This was a more subtle shifting—a clever manipulation of awareness leaving the victim doubting his own observations. An obvious asset in her chosen profession.
Aidan grabbed her roughly by the collar. Dragged her close so they stood nose to nose, trying to avoid her all-too-obvious curves. Her lavender scent so at odds with her boyish costume.
“Who are you? Answer me, or so help me god, I’ll have you in front of a magistrate by dawn.”
She swallowed, eyes wide, bottom lip bit between her teeth as she struggled against Aidan’s grip. “Hired,” she gasped.
“To do what?”
She shook her head in denial.
“I said, hired to do what?”
“You leave me no choice.” He dragged her toward the door, her heels scrabbling against the carpet. “What I can’t get out of you, perhaps your gaolers will.”
He slowed his steps. “Changed your mind?”
“I . . . that is . . . they might . . .”
He kept his expression purposefully bland. “A definite risk. The keepers at Newgate aren’t known for their chivalry. A female on her own . . .” He shrugged.
Her face blanched white.
“So what’s it to be? Answer to me or answer to them?”
If looks could kill, he’d be dead thrice over. “You,” she spat.
Aidan eased his stranglehold. “I knew you’d come to see it my way. Well?”
“I was hired to find a book. A red cover. Funny picture on the front.” Her words came fast and shaky.
“Who hired you? What was his name?” Aidan prodded.
“Said his name was Smith. Said to steal the book. Leave it at Saint Patrick’s. That’s all I know. Honestly.”
He tossed her back into the seat with a muttered oath. He’d two choices. Summon a constable and write the episode off as one more instance of Dublin’s pervasive crime. Or lock her in a windowless room until morning when daylight and a few snatched hours of sleep might make sense of a situation that hinted at more than simple housebreaking. A jangling unease tickled the base of his skull. Made the first choice untenable.
“Come.” He yanked her back to her feet. Took grim pleasure in the bitten-off groan as she staggered against him. “I’ve got the perfect place to hold you for the night.”
The two of them headed down into the kitchens, the passage growing narrower and dustier the farther they walked.
“Here we are.” Aidan swung a creaking door wide.
The woman ducked inside, studying her surroundings. A row of shelves, empty now but for a few mismatched pieces of crockery. No windows. One door.
Still clutching her upper arm, she looked questioningly back at Aidan, those damn green eyes blinking back tears.
“You’ll stay here tonight,” Aidan said, hating the heavy knot settling in his chest, as if he tortured a kitten or tore the wings from a butterfly. Pushing the thought aside, he growled, “Enjoy it. It’ll be the cleanest cell you’ll have for a good while I expect.”
Before he could change his mind, Aidan slammed the door on his prisoner, turning the latch to lock it behind him. Made it halfway down the dark passage before an idea struck him with such force that his bad leg buckled beneath him. Sent him lurching for the door like a drunkard.
A wild, stupid, ridiculous idea. It wouldn’t work. Couldn’t work. But once the thought had planted itself in his brain, it refused to be shaken.
If this woman knew enough about her Other abilities to manipulate perception, who knew what else she might be capable of? Aidan had been sure he’d seen not only interest but comprehension in her eyes as she’d flipped the pages of his father’s diary. Something he would have thought impossible had he not witnessed it for himself. But there it was. A thief who could read the headache-inducing writing that had stymied all his attempts at translation for months.
Once again Aidan dragged back the lock. Felt the grudging give of the ancient metal. Pushed wide the door. And stopped dead in his tracks, the air rushing from his lungs in a gasping string of curses. Great bloody goddamn. Womanus Exoticus had shed her plumage.
If there was any mercy in the world, let the gods strike her to cinders right now.
Cat fumbled with her shirt to cover her nudity, the gash in her arm throbbing with every pound of her heart. Prayed for the bolt that would end the humiliating torture of his shocked stare. His curses ringing in her ears like a death knell.
Nothing. She was doomed.
He recovered almost instantly, his gaze darting from her blood-soaked shirt, now draped near her lap, to the bloody score running across her upper arm where the pistol ball had raked her with the sting of a hornet.
His statement of the obvious snapped her out of her daze. She dragged her shirt over her head as if somehow he’d unsee what had been staring him in the face moments before. If she’d had her wits about her, she’d have made a dash for the open doorway while he stood gawking. That chance had vanished. He shouldered his way into the room, his tall, rangy frame effectively blocking escape. His bronze brown eyes pinning her where she crouched with the force of a spear point.
“It’s naught but a scratch,” she argued.
“I’ve seen men sicken from lesser wounds.” He knelt beside her, easing her clamped hand away from her arm. The combined scents of bay rum and cheroot smoke tickling her nose. “Let me take a look.”
Was this his way of getting her to drop her guard? And once it was down, what then? She went rigid in his grasp. “I’m no man’s whore.”
His dark eyes crackled. “Don’t add fool to your list of crimes.”
Heat scalded her cheeks. Humiliation overriding her earlier sense of panic.
“Do you have a name?” His manner held a gruff kindness.
A long pause followed, punctuated by a rumble of laughter. “And that name would be . . . ?”
She flushed again. Toyed with the idea of giving him a false name, but gave it up as being of little worth. “It’s Cat.” She skimmed her gaze over his stern profile. Heavy-lidded eyes. Long, narrow nose. Chiseled, stubborn jaw. The man couldn’t have looked more aristocratic if he’d been carved in marble on some Roman column. She bit her lip. Amended her answer. “Miss Catriona O’Connell.”
A preoccupied grunt met her response as his hands probed the cut, sending flashes of pain radiating down her arm until even her fingers hurt. “It’s not deep. A good cleaning and you should be thieving again in no time, Miss O’Connell.”
The cool amusement in his voice fired her like no harsh words could. How dare he? Who was he to hold her in contempt? Did he know what it was like to feel the press of desperation and futility always at your back? To spend every moment alert? On edge? Watchful for the one second when a dropped guard would spell disaster?
This second came to mind.
She lurched to her feet. Fury lending her courage. “What do you care whether I live or die?” she shot back. “What’s one less of my kind in the world to you?” Fear, embarrassment, and desperation passed like a knife through her stomach.
He unfolded from the floor to tower over her, barely ruffled by her manner. Exhaled on a deep sigh.
Cat noticed for the first time the shadows hovering beneath those impenetrable eyes and in the hollows of his cheeks, the stubble darkening his angular jaw, the ink stains purpling the fingers of his left hand.
He rubbed the back of his neck as if pondering a weighty decision and the glint of a smile lit his dark eyes. Or was that the flicker of their guttering candle?
“A fair reading of the situation thus far,” he said, “though if my hunch is right, your kind and mine might not be so different.”
Lazarus leaned against the packet ship’s rail. Spray needled his face while the wind off the sea raked him like a claw. Left his lungs frozen, his skin flayed raw. Yet he remained topside. Spurned the claustrophobic, overcrowded hold. The suspicious and half-terrified glances from the other passengers. They sensed the truth about him, even if they didn’t understand that truth. Who in their right mind would? It was beyond comprehension.
He flexed his hands. Curled them into fists.
A throat cleared behind him. “The cap’n says to tell ya if the winds keep up, we’ll be makin’ port with the dawn tide, sir.”
So quickly? Lazarus had hazy memories of counting the crossing from Wales to Ireland in days not hours. But that had been another life. A different existence. He nodded without turning around. Heard the man’s muttered oath. His scuttled retreat. He’d be in Dublin tomorrow, retrieve the book from Quigley as ordered, and return to Máelodor within a fortnight.
Scanning the horizon, a slice of midnight against the blood-water of the Irish Sea, he felt as if he could already see the tangled lanes and streets of the Irish capital, the curve of the Liffey. But it was a mirage. A memory. The Dublin he knew was long gone. Transformed through time from the hardscrabble fortress to a metropolis as grand and light-filled as any European city.
The men he knew were gone too. Wilim. Grifid. His brothers in arms. His comrades. All dead. Naught left of them but a few dusty bones. Scraps of cloth. Bits of moldy armor.
That had been all Máelodor needed.
© 2011 Alix Rickloff
Earl of Darkness
Born a lady, but reduced to surviving in the slums of Dublin, Catriona O’Connell has been hired to steal a mysterious book from Aidan Douglas, Earl of Kilronan. But Cat is secretly Other, an age-old mixture of Fey and human—something Aidan recognizes immediately when he surprises the lovely young burglar in his library, about to steal a magical diary.
. . . is the magic he desperately wants.
From the moment Aidan sees her, Cat’s spirited beauty enchants him, but her uncanny abilities are what he truly needs, for Cat can understand the mystical language in the diary he inherited from his murdered father. So Aidan makes an offer: translate the book or be thrown in prison as a thief. And as Cat slowly deciphers each page, she and Aidan are drawn together by passion . . . and into the violence of the Other world that is the Kilronan legacy. Can they defeat those who seek the book, or are their lives in even greater danger than their hearts?