A Thorn among Fae

Trigger warnings available here.

This is raw, unedited material. Some errors may be present. Expect minor changes upon publishing.

Table of Contents

Chapter One

“I’d bet you won’t last twelve months of being married to me before there’s something growing in your belly.”

Their neighbors at the closest table leaned ever so slightly forward, their chins tilted at a level not quite perpendicular to the tavern floor anymore.

The wife-to-be in question, a young one by the pretty luster of her fair skin and the set of her ruby mouth, hid something like a smile behind a quick hand pressed to her mouth.

Red crawled up her cheeks. The whole tavern had heard, surely. “Delen,” she shushed the dashing young man sitting beside her as she squirmed in her seat.

They were young to be married, but there was little doubt in the minds of the tavern patrons that the girl’s family had needed the bride price. There were more than a few in the city who were exchanging daughters for some extra coin after the last increase in taxes from the fae bastards across the boundary line.

The young man’s eyes, gray as a morning in winter, glinted with something shared only between them.

“You’ve barely lasted all our engagement,” he said, apparently not cowed by her attempts at shushing him, “without a little me in you.”

“Delen,” she said louder. Her hand pressed deeper against her mouth, like she could take his words back by smothering her own. A wave of brown hair pressed against her features, hiding the rest of her face from the world.

Delen’s fingers slipped between hers where she had placed her other hand in her lap. “Ana. I love you with my entire heart and soul. I love you more than my life.”

The intimacy of the moment diverted the stares that had been thrown their way. A confession of love between fiancés wasn’t nearly as interesting as the snippet that had preceded it.

The Last Chance was perhaps a bit of a melodramatic name for a tavern, but it was usually anyone’s last chance to drown themselves in fermented starch in the entire city of Irbess. Bordered as it was by the fae-controlled territories west of it, it was any Irbess dweller’s last chance at seeing a friendly face, too.

As the shadows thrown by the hearth in the center of the tavern grew longer, their eavesdroppers grew bored with their drink and how regular the conversation upwind had grown. Soon, they abandoned their mugs and the rings left on the tables by them and headed to their own rooms for finer conversation.

It was only just midnight when the tenor of the engaged couples’ conversation changed. Empty mugs sticky from dried drink sat before them on the table.

“What are you saying?” Her hand, burdened by a modest band of silver indicating their engagement, caught the light of the fireplace’s faltering glow as it flew to her throat.

“Nothing,” Delen snapped. His fingers raked the strands of his combed curls as his eyes cast anywhere but at his beloved. “Just … leave it be, Ana. You’re talking too much again.”

“But—” Ana’s face was red. “You said you don’t want to marry yet. What others were you talking about? Other girls?”

Delen stood, and his chair nearly fell from the force. “I’ve had enough of your nagging already. Tell your da it’s over.”

“But Delen—” Ana’s words ended in a cry when Delen slammed the door of the tavern behind him.

Her hair piled around her where she pressed her face against the wood of the rickety table where they’d sat together. Her shoulders quivered. She was alone with their empty cups and the plates of their picked-clean supper. When her wrist flew from her side to smudge at her wet face, she knocked one of the cups to the floor where the last of its contents dripped, soaking into the floor and joining generations of stains. She smelled of ale.

There were markedly fewer patrons of The Last Chance left to have seen the argument, but there were enough.

After a short while, the man who had been watching her from the start rose and fitted himself where Delen had sat.

By now, the hearth was nearly cooled. The barperson didn’t look up from his work where he sopped sudsy water into the floor, trying in vain to erase another day’s worth of footprints and dirt.

There was no one left to hear the stranger’s murmurings to the girl.

* * *

The girl whose alias was Ana stiffened in her seat ever so slightly when the man’s hand grazed her lap. She wasn’t nearly as drunk as she had let on, so she could very clearly feel his fumbling, yet determined, attempts to get at what was under her dress.

She would relish this next part.

Just get through it.

The man’s eyes were hard and black like beetles. His skin had a sallow cast to it, as if he were always standing underneath the last minutes of torchlight in the streets of Irbess. In this city, the grime caked onto the lanterns’ glass gave the flames an uncomfortable glow at night.

She found that, equally so, the men who wanted to prey upon her were pretty and ugly. This one was not pretty.

It mattered not to her.

She allowed him to lead her upstairs, swaying on her feet when his arms weren’t all over her, which was most of the time. When they stopped before a door, he produced a key.

As soon as the lock clicked back into place, the man turned to her, his fingers groping at the ties holding together the back of her dress.

His chin pressed into her collarbone as he whispered, “You won’t remember any of this come morning, darling. Best to lie down and let me do what he won’t anymore.”

It was then that the bones in his fingers crushed like brittle, dead leaves. She knew with a hard certainty that a bone in his thumb broke as she forced it to bend at an angle that was almost hard to witness.

Almost.

As her hands were occupied behind her back, she kicked him in his manhood. Her hands were like a prison around him. The strings to her dress remained knotted together.

She never let a man touch her without touching him back just as hard.

She forced them both into his room, and he rolled like a barrel to her delight.

“You broke my hand,” he screamed. His good hand was wrapped around his injured one like that would fix it.

Oops. She was supposed to keep them from screaming when she got them inside.

She crouched above him. “You need to be quiet, or there’ll be worse than that,” she threatened.

“You—you little harlot! You did this on purpose,” he yelped much too loud.

The girl smirked. She liked that insult. It was like an old, worn coat. She could don it and cast it aside whenever she wanted.

“Clearly,” she said, her eyes already on the heavy ring hanging off one of his good fingers. “Give me that.” She nodded at it.

The emerald embedded in the metal stared back at her, glimmering in the low light of the room. How nice it would look sitting on her own finger—

Pain raced across her scalp. The foul man under her had clamped his good hand around her hair and was yanking it repeatedly to the ground.

She cursed herself. She’d been careless.

The girl ignored the pain as she slammed her foot into his throat. She should have silenced him before now. His legs thumped against the floor, and she prayed that those on the floor below thought that they were roughhousing for other reasons than to hurt each other.

When the man slumped into an uneasy unconsciousness, she emptied his pockets, saving the ring for last as she slipped it onto her own finger.

Her fingers lingered on his coat. It was sewn doubly thick compared to ones she’d seen before, lined as it was with fleece. It was perhaps the warmest coat she could remember feeling against her skin.

Winter is coming again.

The girl looked down at the fat emerald. Usually, they tried to limit the items they stole that could be traced back to them. Coins were best, but she allowed herself a piece of jewelry or other trinket every now and again. It put a bigger target on them, she knew, but it also raked in the coins.

Clothes would never fetch as much as a ring would, double lined or not.

She remembered the night before, and the chill seeping into their bones as they’d huddled together in their home.

The girl sighed and replaced the ring on the man’s finger before slipping the coat from him. At least the coins amounted to a comforting weight in her pockets.

The girl whose alias had been Ana for the night left the room and the man behind. Buried in the coat’s pockets, her fingers flipped one of the coins over and over as she thought of the meals that she and her partner would eat for the next several nights.

Chapter Two

When she’d descended the stairs to the bottom floor of The Last Chance, all its other patrons had retired to their rooms or gotten lost on Irbess’s streets by then. Their snores were nearly audible.

The fireplace was quiet, though smoldering embers glowed in the ashes. The girl’s hand went to her hip as she looked to the counter where the two of them stood.

Her partner looked up from where he’d been leaning across the counter, speaking to the barkeep. Delen. She snorted internally at the name.

His gray eyes twinkled in the low light. “Done already?”

Instead of addressing him, the girl looked to the barkeep. She knew this one, and undoubtedly, her partner did, too. He was young, though even in the dimness of the room, she could see the muscles already worked into his limbs from carrying plates, dishes, and drinks. He’d been laughing at something her partner Delen had said before she’d descended the stairs.

Her eyebrow arched as she spoke. “Do you see how lazy he is? He makes me do all the work.”

The barkeep smiled in response and looked back at her partner before answering. “I don’t know. He is cute for a lazy mooch, though.”

Her partner jerked his head to look at her. She thought she saw red crawl up the back of his neck. Good.

The girl smirked. Usually, she had to pry him off most of the barkeeps when she did her part of their jobs. Though, she couldn’t complain too much as it helped keep some of the taverns friendly to their operations without so much as a bribe.

He said, “I think we should be getting back, don’t you think, Ana?”

The girl’s eyes went to the room around them. At such a late hour—or early hour, rather—it should remain empty until at least daybreak, but that was closer than she would have liked.

“That’s right,” she said, narrowing her eyes at him. They would speak on that on the way home. The girl addressed the barkeep. “We should go so we don’t cause more problems for you.”

* * *

The two orphans walked the streets of Irbess in the hours between late night and early morning when the fewest eyes could see them. They wore shadows like blankets and moved like ghosts.

These were the streets they had roamed like ghosts since they were small, and they knew which street corners were flooded in the light of torches like they knew each other’s face. They had been on these streets long enough to know that going unnoticed was infinitely safer and more valuable than being noticed.

When she was sure nothing more than their shadows followed their steps, the girl turned to the other orphan.

“Why did you use that name?” Her eyes narrowed on her partner. “You know better than to use an alias like that for me.”

Ana. It was just a few letters short of her full name, Anova.

As a thief, it was closer to the truth than she would have liked. She wasn’t even sure when the last time was that she had heard her own name spoken.

She and Juras were more careful than that. Even in safety, they usually only referred to each other as you. A person never knew who could be listening.

Juras’s gaze was steel for a moment. Then something changed in his expression, too quick for her to read it. His winter gray eyes moved from her face, and his dark eyebrows formed a crease as they came together.

“Do you ever get tired of aliases?” he said. “Of living them out every day?”

Anova looked hard at Juras. “You know it has to be this way.”

His eyes moved to hers again. “If we can’t be us around us, then when can we be?”

Her lips pushed together. There was much she wanted to say to that type of fanciful thinking.

Because it’s not safe.

Because we’ve learned the hard way before.

Because the constables will start to ask around for Anova and Juras.

But what came out of her mouth was none of that.

They know us.” Anova stopped in front of her closest friend—her only friend in this world—and blocked his path with her body. They stood at the crossing of Ridgewell and Mercer. Store buildings looked down on them, their broken windows like staring eyes. Empty—usually.

Her voice was faint as whispers but tight as the strings on a violin and sharp as a blade. “Our loaners. They know everything about us.”

Anova closed the distance between them as she continued speaking. “We can’t be ourselves as long as they’re after us.”

The people after them were worse than the constables. At least the constables had pledged to follow some form of justice—even if it was a justice that favored some over others.

No, their creditors would collect—one way or another. They would do so whether or not Juras and Anova had a successful month.

And their time to repay in full was almost up.

Juras’s eyes hardened, and they flew to the ground. “They don’t count.” The corner of his mouth twitched down. “Shouldn’t.”

But they had to count. They couldn’t trust other people or rely on them like they had before they’d started living like this. They didn’t have the luxury any longer.

She glared at Juras when he wasn’t looking at her. What had gotten into him?

It was then she remembered the barkeep.

It’s him, isn’t it? You want him over the life we have, she wondered.

But she didn’t say the words out loud in case they were true. She didn’t want to know if they were.

Juras had resumed walking towards their home without her, and his shadow crawled behind him on the stones despite their careful avoidance of light. Anova’s throat felt tight. It wasn’t supposed to be like this. They should have been celebrating the whole way home, drunk on success.

She was light on her feet despite the weight in her pockets. Oddly, the added heaviness of the coins and coat buoyed her.

They had done the impossible tonight, just as they had many times before. She hoped she didn’t get accustomed to the feeling.

They had coin—gold, glittering, heavy coin.

By now, they were within a few minutes of getting home. They were about to pass Irbess’s labyrinth of dockyards. She needed to act now if she wanted to avoid his sulking for the rest of the night.

“Oh, Delen,” she said, crooning like the enamored fiancé she’d pretended to be. It worked. At the tone of her voice, he looked behind him at her as she caught up.

Her eyebrow raised, and she smirked. “Don’t you want to know how good we got it tonight?”

In Anova’s palm was a coin fatter than all the others. Her thumb had rubbed into it so much that she was surprised her skin hadn’t turned gold.

It was a crown piece. And it was worth one thousand gold pieces.

Whatever look had been on Juras’s face in the shadows before slid from his features. He swallowed visibly. “You realize how much this is?”

Anova’s lips pulled into a smile. “Yes,” she breathed. She felt her smile turn devilish. There was nothing she liked better than lightening the pockets of predators, and this had been their best job yet. “We got our gold goose this time.”

Juras’s face was still tight. He hadn’t mirrored her smile. “Do you realize what we could do with this?”

Anova followed Juras’s gaze to the docks. Ships, undoubtedly full to the brim with crews and merchandise, floated nearby. This was Irbess’s only real excuse to remain under the control of humans. It was the shipping port between the rest of their kind and the fae of the forests.

If only the taxes on ship fares weren’t inflated enough so that only the wealthy could afford transport. Anova’s eyes watered thinking on it.

This had been their goal, once. Escape. Their loaners wouldn’t know where they’d gone before it was too late to track them across the sea.

Anova’s teeth grinded against each other.

If the fae king weren’t a greedy bastard, it might have happened.

As it was, they could have never hoped to secure enough money at once to fund their exodus. But the crown piece changed things.

It was half of what they needed. At least one of them would get out of this city.

Lightheadedness assaulted her. All they’d have to do was stash it away and pay their loaners a few more payments closer to what they regularly raked in from a job. There was no reason she needed to know about this.

And then, they’d be gone.

Anova didn’t understand at first what she was looking at. She should have seen stillness as she stared out at the placid sea, a low moon hanging in its reflection like a bloated fish come to the surface.

But there was movement on the docks between crates and barrels.

Anova grabbed Juras’s wrist and darted between shadows until she found a crate large enough to hide them behind. Juras knew better than to ask when she got like this. He was nearly as good as she was at sneaking. Almost.

Her muscles were taut, and her lips were thin as they pressed against each other. Anova didn’t speak, merely allowing her eyes to flick between what she’d seen and Juras’s face. He must have seen then.

These were no mere dock or ship hands.

Their velvet voices carried on the still night. They made no other sound, and she envied the silence and ease with which they moved.

Anova’s teeth bit into the edge of her tongue, and she tasted blood. She felt the familiar press of her knife’s handle against the inside of her hip where she kept it hidden. How easy it would be to slit their throats and spill the liquid across the docks. She could even kick their bodies off when she was done with them and let the sea have them.

All their robbery jobs together had served as her training for this. Her blood pumped ferociously through her veins. She could have a man on his back faster than he could try to touch her.

Though these were no mere men, she would do the same to them.

Twenty, thirty paces at most. One more crate for cover, but then, I can knock it over on the others while I start on the first ones.

She watched the moonlight graze their skin like they were made of it. The fae moved about the docks like they owned them. Through waves of hair the colors of burgundy, silver river water, and obsidian, their ears came to sharp points. Their unnatural beauty was obvious even at this distance.

Her knife’s cool handle was in her palm before she’d realized it.

Juras jerked her back to the shadows of the crate. “You aren’t doing this,” he hissed to her.

Anova yanked her arm out of his grip. Her eyes didn’t stray from the fae soldiers loading supplies from the docks to the ship. “I can. And I will.”

She would kill every last one of them for what they’d done to her. And she would laugh while she did it.

She hadn’t killed yet, but this night would see her first time.

“They weren’t the ones,” Juras whispered. “Quit this.”

“They could have been.” Her voice was hoarse with desire. “It doesn’t matter. It might as well have been all of them.”

His voice was too loud. They would hear them soon. “Anova, I’m not taking a boat out of here by myself.”

Anova’s legs had tensed to sprint the distance. Seconds passed, and slowly, she sank to the damp wood boards underneath. Her head pressed to her knees underneath her skirt.

She should’ve wanted to get out of Irbess more than she wanted to kill the devils on the other side of the crate.

But in that moment, more than she craved her freedom, she craved to make them her first kill.

Under the silver moon and dusky shadows, the orphan made a black-hearted promise in silence.

Chapter Three

Anova woke to the smell of rising bread and iced pastries. Her stomach stirred in response.

Vanilla icing, by the smell of it.

Her head felt heavy as she lifted it from the floor of the attic space that was their home. The roof sloped harshly to one side, and a dormer window loomed over the city outside. She’d climbed out of it more than once and had the scrapes to prove it.

Juras was nowhere in sight. Their space was small but the warmth from the bakery shop below seeped into the floor and kept them warm during the cold season. All that they kept up here were their blankets, clothes, and a small trunk for their scant possessions.

Her eyebrows pushed together. After one of their jobs, they always laid low in case the constables came sniffing around their part of Irbess for the arguing fiancés who turned out to be thieves.

Anova walked to their single window and watched the denizens of Irbess scramble for their two bronze pieces for the day. The sun was angled out of sight over the shop, though it wasn’t high enough to have reached midday yet.

As she watched, Anova saw something that chilled the blood in her veins. Her nails dug into windowsill as she leaned closer to the smudged glass.

The ship.

Her full memories from last night crashed into her, including what they’d seen on the docks—and what she’d nearly done. She’d been so close to them. Her knuckle grazed the handle of her knife and something ached in the back of her skull.

The fae bastards were still here.

It was the most she’d seen of them in the human lands in years. Anova narrowed her gaze on the ship.

What is going on?

The fae never left their own realm. She bit into the edge of her tongue. Aren’t the excessive taxes enough for you?

Something stirred deep within her, and she forgot all about the hunger squatting in her belly and their dusty, warm attic home.

A woman’s scream seared through her brain and echoed dully in her ears.

The sound cut off too abruptly, and Anova couldn’t move. A coldness seeped into her skin, working deep into her bones.

It’s not real. Not this time.

She jerked from the window. She’d been pressed to it, and the cold from outside had transferred to the pane. Anova shivered, and it wasn’t entirely because of the cold.

As she pulled her legs close to her and pressed her forehead against her knees, she was glad Juras couldn’t see her now. She held herself there like she could hold together her broken pieces.

Why are they here? Why now?

Anova’s hand tightened into a ball. She’d never seen so many here. Not since …

She didn’t let herself go there again.

She needed to know why so many fae were here now when they usually avoided the human lands. They only come here when they want something from us.

Anova stood. She had to know if they were here for reasons other than trade—if they were here for blood. Again.

Fae could never be trusted, so she would spy on them.

Besides, she thought as her heart thundered in her chest, what if they’re the ones who did it?

Because, contrary to what she’d said to Juras last night, it mattered if they were the same ones. She’d probably kill them either way, but she needed to know.

She had to find out, somehow, if these fae were the same ones who had murdered a woman in cold blood.

Her mother.

Remembering the chill that clung to the window pane, Anova found the coat where she’d discarded it last night and threw it over her shoulders. She knew she should’ve left behind such a recognizable stolen item, but she could be out on the docks for hours before finding out what she needed to know.

Juras would have to understand. After all, he’d been the first one to leave the day after one of their jobs. If he was breaking the rules, why couldn’t she?

Anova opened the door leading to the metal stairs that clung to the side of the building and nearly fell from the narrow platform that was the first step. Juras was before her, one hand tight around the metal rail and one clutching a paper bag curled closed.

It was then that the smell hit her. It was the bright smell of blueberries baked into swirled rolls and glazed with vanilla icing. Freshly made.

And it was her favorite pastry from the bakery.

Usually, they only ate the bread that the shop had leftover in the evenings. They got hard loaves and stale muffins, but it meant that they never went truly hungry.

Her eyes watered. He must’ve taken some of his share from last night to buy breakfast for them. And here she was, sneaking around and generally being an ass.

“I …” She struggled for words. “You shouldn’t have,” she completed in a quiet voice.

“Never mind that,” Juras said, throwing a glance around the side of the building. “We should go out for a while.”

At once, Anova’s paranoia ratcheted up several degrees. She didn’t waste precious time asking him why. There were too many reasons and too many folk who wished them ill.

She followed him to the ground below, silent despite the rickety stairs. Even under the sun, they were experts at not being seen. They’d had to disappear too many times not to be good at it.

As Juras and Anova slipped through alleys, cutting across the bustling streets of Irbess and pressing against the back ends of manufacturing buildings, Juras spoke in a low voice.

“I saw them when I was in the shop.” His gray eyes met hers as they passed between buildings. “Constables.”

She kept her voice just as low. “How many?”

“Two.”

Her mind ran. She didn’t think Mara would have sold them out, but she’d been wrong about people before. When Mara’s father had died two years ago, she’d inherited more than the bakery shop. Anova and Juras had been part of the deal.

But maybe the baker was resentful. Anova pursed her lips as she considered this. Mara had once told them that she didn’t mind giving them the stale, leftover loaves at the end of a business day because if she threw the bread out, it attracted rats.

But maybe the taxes had gotten to be too much for the owner of the shop and bakery. Maybe there was a price on their heads now.

Anova remembered the pig from The Last Chance, and her blood boiled. He was definitely the type to put a bounty out.

Although she hated the words, she spoke them anyway. Her eyes swept across the alley they’d crossed into as she said, “We should stay away for a while. Until we know that it’s safe there again. And,” Anova said, looking to Juras as they slowed their steps, “I’m going to the docks. They’re still there.”

Juras locked eyes with her. “Didn’t you say we needed to be more careful?”

But he handed her the bag as he said it, so she knew that it was a won battle. They had nowhere else to be now.

She found what she’d hoped for—a blueberry swirl bun. It was still warm in her fingers. She passed the bag with the other inside it to him.

Anova leaned against the building. Despite how their day was going, she couldn’t help but be in a good mood as she licked icing off her fingers. It was impossible not to be.

“It’s odd. You must admit that. They don’t leave their realm,” she said between bites.

Fae lived in gilded palaces among carpets of flowers where they stuffed themselves with delicacies until they were sick. They propped their feet on human servants stolen from their lands and built towers to the sky to swim in the gold taken from them as taxes. On the other side of the boundary, her people struggled and sold each other out.

The fae spilled their blood when they liked it as sport.

“It is,” Juras agreed as he chewed. Even in the dim light that filtered down to the alley below, his gray eyes glimmered. “The question is—why?”

This was the Juras she loved. A sneak and just as much of a thieving bastard as she was. They were cut from the same cloth.

They’d been friends for as long as she could remember. She supposed this must be what having a brother felt like.

“That’s what we’ll find out,” she said, licking the last of a blueberry smudge from her hand.

Down one end of the alley, a familiar voice called, “Find out what?”

At the sound, Anova’s hand flew to her waist to grab for her knife. It was then that she realized sounds were coming from behind her.

As she spun on her feet, someone else was faster. A body pressed against her back, and a lightning bolt of pain cracked through her wrist as a hand twisted it to grab her knife. She released it automatically from the pain. Cold metal bit into the skin at her throat as her own knife pressed into her.

She ambled out from the other end of the alley, hands clasped behind her back. Her hair was braided and wrapped around her head. She was a short woman, at least a head shorter than Anova.

Robes that looked fae-made had been draped across her shoulders. Sewn into the gauzy fabric by some craft or magic were a thousand black gems twinkling at Anova as the woman approached them.

Madam Hinterfell did not do anything halfway.

Juras had been even slower than she had. One of her enforcers, Bron, had his knee in Juras’s back. His knee was thicker than her head.

Juras isn’t getting out of that.

“Tell your men to back off,” Anova said through her teeth. She wished she could move to at least kick her captor in the groin, but the steel he held was too close to opening her throat. “We haven’t ever missed a payment, have we?”

“That remains to be seen,” Madam Hinterfell said. “I heard you had a job last night.” She looked at the man behind Anova.

The knife was free of her throat. Before she checked her throat to see if he had spilled her blood, she lunged at the man who was one of Hinterfell’s other enforcers, Strego.

“Give me that back,” she hissed at him.

Her skin crawled. He’d been staring at her already and expected the attack. His knee met her stomach, and she doubled over in pain before she could touch him.

I’m supposed to be good at this. Hand-to-hand fighting is the only thing I’m good at.

Her eyes watered, but she forced herself straight after putting some distance between her and Strego. She wouldn’t let them bruise her more. This wasn’t a robbery. They had their money, and she was perfectly willing to hand over what they were due.

At least Bron had gotten off Juras, though she wasn’t sure if Juras looked better for it. Anova watched with malice as Strego tossed her knife by its handle to Bron. She hoped it would cut him as he caught it.

It didn’t.

“Are you willing to cooperate now?” Hinterfell asked, her thin eyebrows raised while her lips remained in a straight line.

“We were going to cooperate in the first place,” she muttered as she shoved her hands in her coat.

She noticed that Juras hadn’t said much. As his eyes found hers, she realized that he didn’t know if she’d brought any of their money with them. In that moment, she didn’t, either.

When the cold surface of the coins met her fingers, she could have sagged to the ground. She’d left most of their profit from last night buried in her new coat’s pockets.

We should have gone straight to The Rosebud to pay them.

But she could hardly force herself to go there, even if only to see Madam Hinterfell and leave.

They owed her, and it was not a light debt. It was the price of approximately a dozen years of lodging, food, and other supplies. For Juras and Anova had been raised in each of their mother’s quarters at The Rosebud.

And now all who was left to pay their debts was each woman’s child.

The three of them—Anova, Juras, and Madam Hinterfell—had known each other for the entire length of Anova’s life. Other faces had come and gone throughout her childhood, but, along with her mother, those two had been in her life throughout it.

The crown is still in here, she realized. She froze.

If she finds out about it … She prayed she didn’t.

Sweat slicked her clothes to her back. Don’t tip her off, she scolded herself. Anova forced her shoulders to relax.

“Here,” she said as she fished out all the coins besides the crown and shoved them at Hinterfell.

The woman took them all and began counting them immediately. Madam Hinterfell had been running her brothel for much longer than Anova had been alive. If there was anything the woman could do, it was count money, Anova considered with a sneer.

Anova knew it was enough payment. More than enough. But she didn’t like staring at what felt like Fate measuring the thread of her life, deciding how long it would be.

When Juras spoke, his tone was icy. “We’ll be leaving, now.”

But as he moved, Bron grabbed his arm.

Hinterfell didn’t look up from her counting as she held up one finger. “Not yet.”

The woman stopped her counting, seeming to finally be finished with the bounty Anova had given her that had been nearly all their steal from last night. “This is for this month. But you are still short last month.”

Anova’s teeth grinded together so much that she was sure the others could hear it. They’d given her a fortune.

“That has to be enough,” she said.

Madam Hinterfell’s eyes were dull from the shadows falling across the alley. “Unless one or both of you plan to work for me? I would consider all existing debts resolved—as long as you worked enough.”

“As if we’d want to work for you,” Anova growled.

Hinterfell continued like she hadn’t heard her, walking around them with her hands clasped behind her. “I have given you nearly five years now to repay what you owe The Rosebud. I believe you are both seventeen, correct?” She didn’t wait for them to confirm it. She didn’t have to; she’d been at both their births.

“In a few months, I will bring the matter to the attention of the courts of Irbess.” Hinterfell locked eyes with Anova then Juras. To him, she said, “It will mark your next birthday when you’ll be at the age that our laws determine you’ll be eligible to work for me—and at the age you’ll be legally responsible for your debts.” She stopped walking around the semi-circle of people. Her voice was flat. “The judge will decide from there how I shall be repaid. By dubious means under the law”—her eyes shot to Anova and her stolen coat—“or by real work.”

It was clear what she meant by real work.

Anova’s throat was dry. She didn’t know what to say.

Juras’s head slanted down, and the curls from the top of his head fell into his face. His voice was deadly quiet when he spoke. “You’ll get your money before then.”

If Anova could have moved, she would have hugged him. They had to stay strong in front of this witch.

It was then that Anova noticed Hinterfell was holding her open palm towards her, gesturing for something.

“Give me the coat,” she said. “That should cover last month’s deficit.”

Anova found that she still couldn’t move. She wouldn’t have given it to her if she could’ve, anyway.

At once, her hand dove into her pocket to reach for the fat crown piece that had been thumping against her thigh the whole way to that alley. All she needed was a distraction and she could fit it in her dress pocket—

Strego’s hands were on her at once. She could hear Bron try to restrain Juras. He would have to fend for himself for now.

Anova twisted in his grip, stomping hard on his foot. Strego groaned but didn’t release her. As she bunched her fingers together in a point to jab out his eyes, a voice broke her concentration.

It was Bron. “Hand it over or he’ll pay with blood.”

In his hand was her knife that Strego had taken from her. Bron pinned it hard against Juras’s throat. A fresh bruise was forming along Bron’s jaw, but Juras’s hands were hanging uselessly at his sides now.

It was over.

Carefully, slowly, Anova shed the coat without risking one more chance to get the crown piece out. Bron had already drawn a stream of blood at Juras’s throat. His thumb sat at the bottom of her knife’s handle like he was poised not to cut her friend’s throat but to stab through it to the other side.

When the three of them left the alley, Anova and Juras sank to the cold cobblestones under their feet.

Chapter Four

It was the most tempted by the charade she could remember being.

Anova’s lashes brushed against her cheek. The nearly empty mug of ale sat before her, and she’d ingested only some of it. The rest she’d gotten on herself, halfway to suggest drunkenness and halfway to keep from having to actually drink it all. She needed to be alert.

And when her marks were half drunk themselves, her life was made infinitely easier. The ribs of her dress pressed into her upper half, forcing a little more air from her each time she took a breath.

How she wished she could use tonight to lose herself. To act like she seemed: a disheveled, heartbroken girl in a tavern.

But they had a job to do here and a man to rob. There were coins here that would be in her pocket by the end of the night, and the thought cheered her.

She missed The Last Chance. There’d been no hope of going back so soon for another job, regardless of the barkeep’s friendliness to their operations. They hadn’t even been back to their attic in Mara’s bakery.

Since Hinterfell had gotten to them, they’d gone to bars every night. They couldn’t afford not to. They hadn’t had another success yet.

Anova tried to tally the amount they owed her in her head. It was many times the amount of the crown piece they’d happened upon the other night.

Focus. Let yourself be consumed by the hunt.

It always went better the more she was into it. And they needed their charade to work.

Fast.

“Delen.” Her voice quavered. “What are you saying?”

Across from her, Juras was playing his part better than ever. His gray eyes were hard, and a muscle in his jaw had ticked when she spoke.

“Stop this,” Delen hissed. His eyes roved over her, lingering on the stains seeping into her dress. “You’re much too drunk again. You know I hate when you get like this.”

Wow. That would have hurt if it were sincere. Anova had to match his effort.

“What changed?” Anova protested. Her voice was a loud whisper that she knew would carry. She swallowed. “On our first night together, you said you loved me—”

“That’s enough, Ana.” Delen’s voice was hard. His chair scraped the floor as he stood. “I’ve had enough of this all. It’s over.”

“Delen—” She fumbled for him and missed, barely catching herself from falling out of her chair. Delen didn’t turn to check on her as he walked out.

She pressed the mug close to her chest and her frame shook as if from a quiet sob. Through her veil of hair, she could see the occupants of the room eye her with a renewed interest.

Everyone loved drama. But she wasn’t fishing for an audience for a drama. She was fishing for a predator with expensive tastes.

That’s when she saw it.

It was a sapphire the size of her eyeball. Something like molten silver held it in place around his thumb. The stranger who it belonged to was cloaked in a fine velvet all the way to his hood, hiding his face in shadow. But since the age of eleven, Anova had been able to feel when a man’s eyes were on her. When they were on parts of her other than her face.

Her own eyes fell, and she was reminded of the low cut of her dress.

Creep.

How I’d like to lighten your fingers and neck.

The base of her skull ached. Anova didn’t have enough pockets to stuff all the gold that the gem would fetch if she got her fingers on it. It looked even more expensive as the ring from a few nights ago, the one she’d foregone for the coat.

Anova wiped foam from the side of her mouth and popped one foamy finger into her mouth, sucking it off. It wasn’t necessarily in-character, but it didn’t hurt her chances, she figured.

She didn’t think she’d had enough ale, but a buzz rumbled around her cranium.

No, this was from her hunt. She’d snagged one tonight.

A firm arm had circled around her bicep. Hot air breathed into her neck. “You appear to be in need of a room, Ana.”

Ana. She was Ana now. She melted into where he held her, but it was unnecessary. The stranger had an iron grip.

“Yes,” she managed in a breathy voice. “But my fiancé …”

Sometimes, this was where the men stopped. For some of them, the mention of him quickened their steps.

And some of them kissed her then and there, dragging their lips across her mouth. She always washed her mouth out after a job.

Something flickered in her vision. The sapphire. She had caught the one who had been eyeing her.

Lucky.

No. This one was coming with her.

“Is there a problem with some privacy?” he asked. His hot breath was in her face. To her surprise, she found that he smelled good.

Pay attention! This bastard is your mark.

“I don’t think so.” The words were too close together for sobriety. “Can you show me where?” She squinted like she wasn’t sure where the door even was.

The stranger’s arms were on her, one around her bicep and one around her middle as he helped her to her feet. As Anova moved across the tavern floor, a few eyes tracked her, but no one batted a lash when she appeared to stumble.

Though she’d never stayed in this inn, the path at her feet was as familiar to her as her hands. Through her heavy lids, she kept an eye on the egg-jewel.

Anova tried to peek at his face, but the inn’s torches were too weak to reveal much. He had a pair of haughty lips and eyes that roved across her body. She was used to that. In a strange way, it comforted her. She knew what to expect.

After the stairs, he led her to a room at the end of a hall. With the key in his hand, he hesitated. Suddenly, his dark eyes flitted to her face like he’d known he’d find her gaze there. He’d caught her looking at him.

All at once, he was too close for her comfort. The torchlight fell on his velvet coat and the silver threads that ran through it like a river.

His hand pulled her chin up, forcing her gaze up at him. “Do you want me?” he asked in that same low voice he’d used before. The edge of his lips twitched up like he found the idea humorous.

It was a simple question, and it should have had a simple answer.

Red washed across her skin. She’d just been looking for the best place to attack him.

No, she wanted to say, but she had a part to play still.

“I …” She looked into his eyes when her words failed. As soon as she looked, they held hers in a dark prison.

Oddly, she didn’t recognize the person reflected back at her. It was her, and yet it wasn’t her at all.

Attack him when he opens the door.

But when she blinked, they were already in the room. Her head spun. Maybe she’d had more drink than she’d realized.

Keep it together.

The room around them was sparse. It was a mirror image to most all the other rooms at the inns she’d been in. A candle had melted a deep pool of wax around its metal tray.

It threw light on his face, and she nearly gasped.

He was the most beautiful person she thought she’d ever seen. He was younger than she’d assumed. Even under his cloak’s hood, she could see hair the color of ravens’ feathers. His cheekbones framed a moody countenance. His dark eyes were like pools of liquid night, and his eyebrows arched delicately when he found her staring again. Thick black lashes lined his eyelids.

He’s still my target as well as a predator, she reminded herself.

It was the latter part of her thought that spurred her to action.

Remember who you’re playing.

Her fingers stumbled to the ties holding together her dress. All she needed was his fingers behind her, out of his sight, and it would be an easy matter to break a few of them.

“I can’t get it myself,” she mumbled.

Her target took the hand that had been at her side and moved it too fast to his chest for her to break some bones. It was where a sliver of his chest poked out from the top of his silken shirt.

He pressed her hand to his bare skin, near where his heart was. One of his perfect eyebrows arched. “Is this what you want, Anova?”

Anova’s blood ran cold.

He shouldn’t have known her name.

This was a setup.

What happened next was a blur to her.

She was fairly sure she launched a kick to his midsection while she twisted his fingers the wrong way.

But her leg connected with nothing. Instead, her arm and elbow were forced behind her back, not painfully so, but enough to hold her there. He held her other hand in his, too tight to move.

“How do you know my name?” she growled, her eyes darting behind her shoulder. How he’d gotten behind her so fast, she didn’t know.

“That’s not the important question here,” he said in her ear.

“That’s the only question here,” she hissed.

He was being weak, not twisting her arm further to ensure it broke. She should have been on the floor by now if that was his aim.

She exploited the weakness and leaned further into the hold at her back. Her eyes watered, but it didn’t matter. What mattered was that a stranger knew her name.

It worked, and he eased up in either surprise or to prevent permanent damage to her arm. At the same time that he did, she kicked behind her, aiming for his manhood but hitting his shins. He was on the ground in a blink.

He’s too fast, and he knows who we are. I need to get the ring and get out before this goes further.

Her eyes flicked to the door. Maybe even without the ring.

But she hated to waste a job so.

As these thoughts rushed through her mind, her knee struck the middle of his back. He tried to turn over, but she used her weight to keep him down against her.

Anova pulled his head up, and his hood fell away in the same moment. There were pointed ears below her.

Her lips pulled back in disgust. “You’re fae.”

Anova couldn’t get herself to move. Her adrenaline had fled her body.

Underneath her, he rolled, pushing her off him in a single brutal movement.

“You’re surprised?” When he got to his feet, his back was planted against the door. “None of the human males here would have found you out. They are happy to be tricked.” His dark eyes narrowed. “Their minds are weak.”

She saw him fully now, and the addition of his sharp ears made for a severe yet beautiful face. He was slender though there had to be some muscle underneath the velvet from how he’d been clearly trained, and his skin was the color of moonlight.

It doesn’t matter if he’s beautiful or ugly. Anova’s fingers twitched. It was more than she could have hoped for. She remembered what was in her pocket.

For a moment, she needed his trust.

“What do you want?” she said.

“That’s not the question, either. What do you want?” His eyes found where she’d been looking. He laughed a dry laugh. She’d been staring at the ring again.

“What does it matter?”

“It matters because I can give it to you, Anova. And only I can.” His dark eyes glimmered. “A room of diamonds. Troves of molten silver. Riches worth more than a thousand crown pieces.”

He took a single step closer to her. His voice had an edge to it. “Enough gold to replace all the blood in your veins.”

Anova allowed herself, for one moment, to consider how much money that was. Even if he was lying—which he most certainly was—it was a tempting thought to linger on.

She stepped forward, closing the gap between them.

“I think I’ll start with all the blood in your veins,” she said.

The dinner knife tucked inside her bodice was in her fist faster than she could speak, and she aimed for the skin flickering at his throat. It was a strike to kill.

Chapter Five

The dinner knife never found its mark.

His reflexes were faster than Anova’s, and she hated him for it. His hand squeezed her wrist hard, and metal clattered against the floor when she dropped the crude weapon.

His face was impassive for someone she’d tried to kill seconds before. “Resourceful. You’re going to need that where we’re going.” His eyes darted to her empty hands. “Although, I’m surprised that you don’t carry a real knife.”

Mine was taken from me, she thought but didn’t reveal that weakness out loud, even if he already suspected it.

“I’m not going anywhere with you,” she said through her teeth.

She jerked her arm out of his grip. Anova would kill him, even if she had to choke the life from him with her bare hands. Her fingers came together at the points, and she aimed for his eyes. He would be easier to deal with when he couldn’t see.

The fae darted back in a dodge. His teeth showed in a snarl. “That’s enough.”

“I will kill you,” Anova said. “You picked the wrong human to toy with, fae.”

She lunged for him again, but he was too fast. He’d been holding out on her. Both his hands locked around her wrists like iron cages, and he drove them against the nearest wall.

“Anything you try, and I’ll to do you worse,” she said, glaring at him to prove her word.

“I’m not one of your drunken human men, Anova,” he said, his black eyes depthless and his teeth bared. But before she could respond, his features softened a degree. “I’m not trying to hurt you. I have a job for you, and since you seem intent on fighting, this is how we’re going to have to converse.” His eyes narrowed in annoyance down at her. “Seeing as how you have to be forced to be civil.”

His words should have surprised her, but Anova was well past surprise by now. “I would never work with a fae.” Her teeth ached in her head from grinding them so much. “Especially one so arrogant.”

His face went hard, and all expression and life fell from his features. His eyes went dull. “I could simply turn you into your constables. I wonder how much they would pay for the thief girl menacing Irbess.”

Anova’s throat was dry when she swallowed, but her voice was clear when it came out. “I’ve bribed them all.”

His eyes glittered like darkest obsidian. “Fae gold and jewels would be enough to change their allegiance, one would think.” Something in his expression shifted, and she fought to catch what it was. She wasn’t used to reading their faces and moods.

“Besides. You lie.” As he spoke, his thumb touched her lower jaw lightly enough for her to want to break it. His full lips were tight together as he looked down at her. “I know your type. You’ve grown up in the gutters and there you shall remain unless you choose to get out of it.”

Anova could have bitten his hand off. He knew nothing about her.

Except, he knows your name.

It was enough to give her pause. She needed to know some things and balance this game between them tipping dangerously in his favor.

There could be things she stood to gain here if she played her cards right.

“You’re going to tell me some things. You’ve been following me. Scouting me,” she said in a tone that made it clear it wasn’t a question. She wanted to squirm but his hold was iron. “How long?”

His eyes were like polished gems. “A few nights.”

But a few nights could have been anywhere from two days to a month. Well, it didn’t matter so much as the next question. Even so, she made a mental note that, for all their precautions, they’d been too lax.

No, this next question would determine the outcome of this little encounter. And whether or not she would leave this room covered in his blood like war paint.

Anova leaned into his looming figure, her nose nearly touching his. She wasn’t going to allow herself to be cowed and bullied. They said the fae couldn’t lie, and she was about to test that theory for herself.

“Do you come to the human lands often?”

His expression betrayed nothing. “Sometimes.”

Her voice was even despite what was raging in her chest. “Did you come to Irbess on a night in the cold season five years ago?”

His eyebrows raised at the wording of her question. He said, “Does this have a point, human?”

She leaned, hard, into his grasp of her hands. She was cutting off her circulation by doing so, but she didn’t care. She bared her teeth at him when she opened her mouth.

“It has a point.” When she spoke, she didn’t recognize her own voice. “I need to know.”

His eyes went to where she was leaning into him, putting more pressure on him physically.

For perhaps the first time, his response was not sardonic. “No. I did not.”

Anova leaned back, breathed, and tried to look anywhere but at the fae’s face. He’d allowed her wrists to slide through his hands even though he was still blocking her from moving. She massaged her skin.

This isn’t the one that did it. This isn’t the one who killed my mother.

It didn’t mean that he was trustworthy, however. But there were other uses for the fae that were richer than was good for them.

Her eyes darted to his face again. “This job. It’s in the fae realm, then?”

“Yes.” There was a strange change to his voice that she couldn’t understand. “I want you to kill someone for me.”

“I—” Anova choked on air. She smothered her coughs enough to talk again. “I’m not an assassin. Look elsewhere.”

This fae boy is short several marbles.

But his eyes hadn’t left her face. He wasn’t joking. “Oh, I’m confident you’re exactly what I need.” His breath tickled her face, and although there was nothing holding her there, she felt she couldn’t move again.

They locked eyes. He continued, “I need someone who can pretend, act, and disguise themselves. Because from the first moment you’re in Fae, you’ll have to pretend to be something you’re not. Or we’re both dead.”

The thought of his death should have cheered her, at least a little bit, even if it would have meant her own. Another dead fae was never a bad thing. But she couldn’t shake the feeling of his eyes on her. It made her jumpy for no good reason.

Her eyes left his. She was a coward who couldn’t maintain eye contact. “There are plenty others who could do this. Irbess is filled with scoundrels other than me. Murderers—”

“I need someone comfortable with illusion. Someone who can live it like you can. I saw you that night in the tavern by the boundary land.” His finger moved her chin to look at his face, forcing her eyes back on his. “I need that. I can train anyone to kill.”

Anova breathed. She needed space, and she needed to stop smelling him. Her eyes went to his body blocking hers from the rest of the room. “Release me first.” She looked back at his face. “Then we’ll talk.”

And the fool did. Anova’s eyes went discretely to the door, although the window was closer.

She could leave him and this room behind. Even if she had to break the pane.

Anova stopped. Madam Hinterfell was before her like a midnight specter. Her cold eyes had tracked her movements.

This version of her wasn’t real, but a date two months from now was. It was Juras’s birthday.

Even if they held it out that long and managed to keep him out of her hands and out of The Rosebud, her birthday was shortly after. She had no doubt that the judge would be as fair as Madam Hinterfell was.

She needed to do something.

This had been her only successful target in too many days. And he’d been waiting for her to reel him in like a trout.

A quiet voice inside her spoke.

She’s going to keep adding to our debt even if she forces us in there. We’ll be imprisoned in Irbess for the rest of our lives.

She hadn’t noticed how far panic had started to climb from her belly into her throat. The fae boy’s eyes were on her. She had to stop pacing and trembling.

It was then that her plan came to her, fully formed. It was a beautiful thing like the first shoots of green after the cold season.

Maybe she could get her and Juras out of here—far away from here.

And she wouldn’t even have to kill.

Finally, she turned and met his eyes.

“You know my name. It’s only fair I know yours.”

He closed much of the gap between them, watching her as he did so. He looked as if he were considering not telling her.

At last, he said, “Leander.”

“Leander,” she repeated, memorizing it.

She was going to come with him to Fae, but she wasn’t going to stay for very long.

No, she was going to rob him blind and return to the human lands, sell it all off, and then she and Juras would leave this damned place for good. After a moment, she said, “I accept.”

Chapter Six

“We’re leaving tonight. We shouldn’t be seen together here.”

Anova stared at Leander. She’d waited for him to pack his belongings together in his room, and he wasn’t going to let her get hers?

“I have things I need,” Anova said, crossing her arms.

“What would that be?” He pushed a lock of his raven hair out of his infuriatingly pretty face.

All fae are like this, she reminded herself. They thrive on you looking at them. It’s like the sun for plants.

“Clothes,” she responded out loud.

His tone was wry as his gaze flicked from her dress and away. “You’ll need new ones anyway.”

An angry red blush stormed across her cheeks. She had many words for what he was, but she held herself in check.

“I need to talk to someone,” she grinded out.

One of his eyebrows arched. “Your accomplice? It’s the dead of the night.”

“My friend is waiting on me,” she corrected. “And he’s more than that. He’s family.”

Strangely, his gaze went to the floor at that. The door to his room clicked shut behind him as he ushered her out into the hallway before him.

At her shoulder, Leander whispered, “Find him, but don’t leave the tavern. I’ll be waiting just outside.”

***

When she descended the stairs to the emptied first floor of the tavern, she felt oddly like she was repeating her recent night at The Last Chance.

But many things had changed since then. She couldn’t quite decide if they were all bad. She was sitting on the golden goose.

When she found Juras, he was alone in the corner of the darkened bar. At her approach, his eyes scanned her face. He’d been worried, and perhaps for good reason. She never took this long with a job unless there was a problem.

The words came out of him in a quick whisper. “What’s going on? Are you okay? I almost came up for you.”

Anova’s eyes moved to the only other person in the main hall with them. The barkeep tonight was an old man, his hands moving a rag across glasses and mugs with a practiced, easy effort. His back was turned to them, but she couldn’t be sure he wasn’t trying to listen.

Leander had been watching her without her knowledge, hadn’t he? There could be others.

“I’m fine,” she said, sitting across from him. “But something’s come up.”

Some dried herbs hung from strings dangling from the rafters above. They were suspended throughout, and the smell of rosemary hit her then. Dried berries were preserved on some, frozen in time.

“Is this about him?” Juras didn’t seem placated. “Our mark?”

Her eyes moved across the room. Where was he? He hadn’t come down with her.

Well, he’s not here. She stared at the back of the old barkeep.

“He’s not our mark anymore. Well. At least, not like that,” she said in a low voice. She steepled her fingers and smirked. “I’ll be taking on a different type of job for a while.”

Juras leaned his body forward on his seat as she explained. She kept her voice nearly inaudible as she spoke. The fae boy was nowhere to be seen, but she wasn’t going to let him overhear any part of this plan.

She finished with, “As long as everything goes to plan, I’ll be back before the month’s out.”

And before our next payment to The Rosebud.

He seemed to hear the unspoken part of her statement, as well.

Juras allowed a low whistle to wheedle from his lips as he leaned against the back of his chair. “It sounds like this could be our biggest payday yet.” His eyes caught on the dim light of the torches set in sconces around them. “And not merely a human’s fortune but a fae one.”

“Exactly,” she said.

She mirrored his grin. They were thieves to their core, after all. There was nothing so joyful to them as a con and a disguise to go with it. Her blood pounded with the idea.

It didn’t exactly matter to her who the target was, only that there was one.

Juras’s mouth formed a serious line abruptly. “But this is also your most dangerous job yet.” His eyebrows lifted. “We should find new weapons for you while we prepare for your trip to Fae.”

Anova’s lips pursed. “We’re leaving tonight. And I can’t bring in anything like that. We’ll be searched at the border.”

Juras’s mouth popped open for a mere second before he recovered himself. “You’re going to come back, aren’t you?”

Anova’s heart stuttered. She wasn’t used to this Juras. She was used to the Juras who was self-assured, confident to a fault, and just as hungry for coin as she was.

But she couldn’t let him see how his words had affected her. She had to do this.

For both of them.

And by extension, she had to believe that she could do this.

I have no choice but to try, Juras. We have no choice. This is our only lifeline out.

Any other job is just a postponement until next month.

But instead of all those things, she said, “Are you kidding? I’ve been waiting for this.” She leaned forward, feeling the light of the nearest torch fall away from her face. “Maybe this isn’t all about the gold this time. I’m going to find him. I’m going to find the one who did it.”

When they stood for their farewells, Juras surprised her. His arms were suddenly around her, holding her. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d hugged or been hugged.

Anova closed her eyes during the embrace, afraid that she would cry if she didn’t.

He spoke into her ear, “Remember what I said. You can’t kill all of them. And maybe that’s not what you need, either.”

It’s exactly what I need, she thought, but she didn’t want to ruin the moment.

She opened her eyes and exhaled an unsteady breath. “I’m going to miss you. But we’ll be filthy rich when I come back.” As they pulled apart, she looked into his gray eyes as she made her vow to him and this city. “Wait for me. I’ll be back before then, I promise.”

This time, she was sure they both knew what day they meant by then.

“I’ll hold you to it.”

***

Anova swore she hadn’t seen him standing there a moment before. The contours of Leander’s face under the moonlight made him look even more like some beast that lurked the woods.

The fae boy was getting to her, and it had only been hours since she’d made a deal with him. He walked out from under the eaves of the building, holding a cloak.

She shrugged into it, and she had to prevent herself from gasping. It was as soft as a blanket. She knew that instant she wanted to sleep with it.

Anova’s face darted to Leander. She hoped he hadn’t seen that written on her face and wondered how perceptive the fae were of human’s expressions.

Likely, too much so.

His eyebrows rose. Maybe he had seen it. “You’re ready now?”

“Yes.” Her heart thundered in her chest, and she stopped herself from looking for Juras. She knew the path he’d be taking right about now.

She hadn’t even gotten the chance to see their attic room above Mara’s one last time. And then there were those at The Rosebud that she hadn’t seen in too many months already, old friends of her mother’s.

I’ll see them all again, she reminded herself, and with heavier pockets.

They moved through the streets in a blur. Usually, she wore the shadows of Irbess like a second skin. She was surprised to find that she would mourn the loss.

As the buildings receded, they came to the stretch of forest that kept the humans and fae mostly apart. Her boots wore into the dirt below as they approached the first trees.

She used to venture into these woods as a young girl. She’d dreamed of a world of magic and wonders just beyond the trunks she could reach.

That had all stopped when the beings on the other side of the woods had become more real than they’d ever been and killed her mother.

Why did they do it? What compelled them to kill a woman in cold blood?

She stopped. These bastards were dangerous, and she needed to know as much as possible about them in order to win in their own realm. She needed to absorb information like a dry, wrung-out rag sops up water.

She needed to start taking this seriously.

Leander stopped with her. “What?”

Anova’s arms crossed against her chest. “You promised earlier that you would fill me in. Job details. What’s in store for me on the other side. I need to know.”

Instead of speaking, he held out his hand, his palm flat and opened to the dark sky. She waited for something to happen, but only crickets sounded around them. The spots between the tree’s canopies above shifted and made shapes on their faces with the moonlight.

 “We’ll need privacy for that, though you are right,” he admitted. “We need to perfect our stories before we get near Fae.”

It was then that a sudden gust stirred up the winds between the trees. Her cloak billowed about her, and she held to it tight.

The wind had moved the canopies of leaves above their heads once again. Except this time, moonlight bathed Leander and touched his open palm.

She blinked. She couldn’t believe it and blinked again.

The moonlight had become tangible. It ran like a silver, gleaming liquid into his palm until it overfilled and poured from his palm to the ground.

Leander stepped back, allowing the dribbles of liquid moonlight in his hand to splatter to the ground in one flick of his hand.

“What—” She never got to finish.

Anova lost the thought.

Where the silver had pooled on the ground, a glass orb ballooned from the size of a turnip to as big as a shack. But truly, such a comparison was a crime.

The glass had formed ridges and ripples on its surface which turned into a door, windows, a curved knob, and elegant trim. All edges created from the process smoothed and became beveled.

It was a glass carriage.

Where he’d splattered the moonlight on the ground, wheels sprouted and attached to the sides of the carriage.

While she’d been staring at the glass orb, Leander had held one of his fingers into the air, still covered by a slight sheen of liquid moonlight. She watched as one, then another butterfly landed on his hand. Their shiny black bodies crawled along his finger, their proboscises moving and flexing as they tasted the air.

The first one had found the moonlight liquid. Its iridescent green wings caught on the light seeping from the canopy above. As it drank the nectar of the moon, its body was filled with light.

When they’d had their fill, they flapped their wings and hovered in the air before them. Leander threw out his hand behind him as he started moving.

It was then that the butterflies started to grow.

“We need to get back.”

Anova stumbled backwards with him, unable to do much else. This was impossible.

The thin, black bodies of the butterflies grew in size, morphing in proportion as they did. Their thoraxes broadened to chests, melding with their lower halves. Their legs stayed spindly and black, though they grew large enough to support their new bodies. Their mouthparts formed thin snouts.

Their wings moved across their backs, flapping and bending until they were much more substantial than those of insects’. They emanated the light of moonbeams.

They were strange horses, but horses nonetheless. They looked more delicate than the ones she knew, and short, shiny hair rippled across their body in pure ebony.

When she stared at them, she could still see the eyes of the butterflies, orb-like and slightly too perceptive. Black bead-eyes stared back like they thought the same of her.

Their wings still looked to be the paper-thin wings of a butterfly, but as they thrusted them against the ground, a great wind stirred. Anova’s hair whipped about her face.

She said the only thing she could. “How?”

“It helps that the moon is waxing rather than waning.” Leander glanced down at his palm. It looked dry now, though she wasn’t sure she trusted that assessment enough to touch it. Who knew what it would do to her.

A thought occurred to her then. “Wait,” she said, planting her body in front of his. “We’re going back. If you can make coins from moonlight like this, we’re giving Juras my payment for this job before we got any further. Or at least a down portion of it.”

Some muscle appeared to tick in Leander’s jaw. His words were stiff. “It doesn’t quite work like that.”

She glared him down. “Because you want me beholden to you until the job is done? Paying for services upfront is standard where I come from.”

Anova would fight for Juras every time. If she could make things easier for them already …

But when Leander spoke again, his voice was cool and removed of the emotion from his earlier words. He turned his back to her, walking to the glass carriage.

“First rule of Fae. Anything made from moonlight will disappear or revert to its original form come dawn.”

Leander held the door to the carriage open for her, his face hard and impassive.

Working with him was going to seriously test her, she could see already.

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