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book dress

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Practicing with the inktense, and markers, and metallic.

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83-Scheme within Scheme

 

The second day after meeting with Mistress Cadenera, Trinh arrived at our little apartment and closeted himself in the office with Namal. My brother and I had just finished a couple hours of sparring in the desolate warehouse, and after I cleaned up I sat down at the top of the stairs to try to listen to the men’s discussion. Their voices were only a resonant hum with no definition. After a few minutes I gave up, brazenly walked down the stairs, grabbed my cloak and left. Namal saw me go but didn’t try to stop me.

I walked with my hood up, and a scarf swathed across half my face. A light coating of snow still covered everything but wasn’t enough to slow down the carriages on the streets. The sun was out, and the air was cold enough that I felt as though I glittered like the snow. A few blocks of bleak warehouses gave way to the stores and open-air markets of the shopping district. The markets were crowded. So close to the Midwinter Festival, everyone who had money to spend was out to prepare. It was the biggest festival of the year, as many spent the whole winter planning it. There would be parties all throughout the city, from the highest to the lowest. Entertainment often started early in the day, with musicians and dancing anywhere there was space big enough, and parties continued on into the night and even the morning following. Almost all the nobility and wealthy would start the evening at the palace for the King’s Ball, then later adjourn to parties at the surrounding homes. I wondered what would happen this year. After we interrupted.

The market bustled around me and I enjoyed how normal it felt…except for the fact that I was fairly certain I had never been alone on a city street before. Even with the circus I had always gone places with others. I spied Domjoa flirting with a pretty milliner and stopped by a cart of squash to watch. The squash vender was haggling with someone and paid me no mind as I lingered, watching the black-haired knave over the round vegetables. I wondered who Domjoa had been before becoming a master thief—where had he learned his manners? Was he a rich man’s bored son, or a noble blooded survivor like Quill?

The woman selected a broad brimmed hat and settled it on Domjoa’s head, clucking in admiration. Domjoa postured for a moment, to her delight, before she showed him a hand mirror and he took time to seriously evaluate the hat. This was hardly the weather for a broad brimmed hat, even if it looked like it was made of wool. He bought the hat but had the woman box it up for him. I shook my head and peeled away to follow him just as the squash vender was starting to notice me.

Domjoa stopped at several venders, sometimes buying, sometimes not. He steered clear of the guardsmen who happened through the market on patrol. I took the time to practice being inconspicuous. Jemin would have been proud of me slipping through the crowd and examining wares like someone bored and waiting for someone else. Eventually, Domjoa entered a clothier with a display of ball gowns in the window. I paused at a cart of sweets in sight of the door. I really had no particular reason to follow Domjoa, or to hide from him. I walked up the steps and into the store. Inside, there were a handful of gowns and men’s clothes on display, but mostly the room was tables lined with bolts of fabric of all colors and textures. At the back, there were tall mirrors and a little platform, for fittings. A pair of decorative screens cordoned off the back corners and a long counter graced one wall. A young girl sat behind the counter, her hands full of some dark material she was stitching. An apprentice, most likely. A reedy little man was fussing over a gown on a dress form by the mirrors. I couldn’t see Domjoa.

The apprentice looked up, “Good afternoon, miss. What can we do for you?”

I smiled and approached the counter, wishing I could order a gown or set of clothes or something. It looked like they did excellent work. “I was looking for my friend, a tall man with black hair? I thought I saw him come in here?”

The apprentice’s expression remained warm, but something shifted in her manner. “Black hair?” she asked, setting down her sewing, “I’m not sure if we have had anyone like that in here today.”

The reedy tailor had stilled.

“Oh,” my suspicion thoroughly aroused, I filled my voice with disappointment. “Well, would you mind if I browsed your fabrics?”

“Of course not,” the apprentice smiled. Relieved? “Please, look, my name is Rading if you have any questions.”

“Thank you.” I moved off slowly, taking my time to examine every brocade, silk, cotton and wool to admire the weave, sheen or color. The tailor and apprentice appeared to relax as I browsed, not caring that I made my way closer to the screens at the back of the store. When I reached the end of the tables I slipped behind the screen. As suspected, it was a changing area, with a couple chairs and a clothing rack. A long mirror stood cock eyed from the wall, and I blinked at it for a second before I realized it was a door standing ajar. I stepped forward and eased the mirrored door open enough for me to peer through. A second dressing room opened up before me, and my heart stammered as I saw a man in a black uniform with a black dragon curling across the chest.  A heartbeat later I recognized Domjoa.

My daggers came out almost of their own volition as I stepped in and closed the door behind me. Domjoa looked up and our eyes met in the mirror. Surprise flashed across his face before he smiled. “Your highness, I did not expect to see you here.”

“Explain this.” I let my gaze rake down his body.

“It’s a little side project,” replied the thief, dismissively.

“Side project?”

“Yes,” Domjoa straightened the already straight jacket and fussed with the collar before again admiring himself in the mirror.

“Explain, or I will get blood on your new suit.”

He met my eyes again, this time noticing the violence in them. “It’s nothing that will harm your little scheme.”

I tilted my chin down. Not enough.

With a heavy sigh, the thief continued. “I am not required at the ball, utterly useless in a fight. So, I’ve thought of something productive to do while I wait.”

I waited.

Domjoa shifted, “Narya Magnifique is a monster, and she is incredibly rich and has some of the finest jewels this side of Kelphas. She is obviously going to bring some to wear while she’s here.” Domjoa spread his hands, “I’m going to steal them.”

I should not have been surprised, but for a moment I stared mutely at the thief before throwing my hands in the air, “Domjoa!”

Stepping away from the knives still in my hands, Domjoa said “Don’t shout!”

I sheathed Shiharr and Azzad, readjusting my warm cloak overtop, still glaring at my thief. “Firstly, those jewels will belong to my family or the Kegan’s if we succeed in our mission. Secondly, don’t you think we have enough going on that night?”

“That’s what’s so perfect about this,” replied Domjoa, “No one will be the slightest bit worried about the Queen’s jewels.”

“Domjoa, you’re stealing from me,” I put my hands on my hips.

He held up a finger, “I really don’t see it that way.”

“If you get yourself caught and jeopardize our plans…”

“I won’t be caught,” broke in the thief, “and even if I was, your plans would already be underway. When you succeed, you can set me free at your leisure.”

I shook my head. Domjoa waited a moment before turning again to face the mirror. I watched him adjust the collar, then bend his body this way and that, trying the flexibility of the outfit. I wondered if ordering him to stay would have any affect. It seemed so unlikely that I was too proud to try. “Do you know for a fact this is what her guard’s wear?”

“I do,” Domjoa looked down at himself. “I have connections.”

“Could we get more of these?”

“No.” His tone was firm. “It was a great risk getting this one. You do not want to know what I’m paying the tailor. Additionally, we haven’t the time.”

A knock sounded at the mirrored door, I spun to see the tailor poking his head in. Chagrin spread over his face at the sight of me in his secret dressing room, “Master Domjoa, I apologize for this intrusion,” he pointed at me with his chin.

“It’s alright, Hardy,” replied Domjoa, “She’s one of mine.”

I shot Domjoa a dark look, and he winked.

The tailor nodded. “Is everything to your liking?”

“Yes, it is. You’ve outdone yourself.”

The tailor nodded again, casting a critical eye up and down Domjoa’s dashing figure. “I agree,” he said, without emotion. “Is there anything else?”

“No, thank you.” Domjoa sent him a charming smile, which was ignored as the tailor disappeared back into his shop. The thief turned to me, “Was there anything else, your highness?”

I crossed my arms. “Would you like me to leave?”

“I would like to change out of these clothes.”

I swiveled on my heel and marched out the door after the tailor. I didn’t bother sticking around in the shop, instead slipping into the streets and eventually making my way back to the apartment.

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82-Plots and Plans

 

 

“We’re going to kill Narya Magnifique,” replied Trinh, mildly.

My breath caught, but Mistress Cadenera didn’t choke or recoil. She met Trinh’s stare with such knowing it was evident she’d guessed our purpose already and had simply wanted to know what we’d say. Then she smirked. “I like you. They say you’re the lost prince.” Her eyes flicked to Namal, “Course, they say you’re the lost prince, too. I find that a touch confusing.”

“It seems the Nether Queen leaves a trail of lost princes,” said Namal with a shrug. “Conquest has consequences.”

Mistress Cadenera snorted. “Consequences? That witch doesn’t get consequences near enough.” She leaned forward, “Look here—my son-in-law died in the Cathedral Square and my poor daughter and her babes haven’t stopped weeping since. I like that you’re straight forward, and I like what you aim to do. But if you fail, more heads than yours will roll.”

Trinh remained relaxed in his chair, fingering the handle of his tankard. I had to admire his composure. “We’re aware of that, that’s why I told you our goal.”

She pursed her lips and studied Trinh, then Namal, then Trinh again. She fished a handkerchief out of her pocket and mopped the sweat off her face. “How many of you need in?”

“Four,” replied Namal.

She nodded. “Strapping fellas like you?”

Another nod.

“I could use a few stage hands, to set up beforehand. But, normally most of the hands clear out of the Ball before the performance.”

“That’s fine, if we can get in, we can slip away inside,” replied Trinh, then, seeing the Mistress’s frown he quickly added, “—after we help set up, of course.”

“For this to work,” said the woman, sternly, “I need you and whoever else to report to my theater tomorrow, and every day between. You need to be trained as a hand, and paid as a hand, and work as a hand. I am innocent of your treachery, should you fail.”

“Of course,” said Namal, “They can also perhaps disguise themselves while they work at your theater, and then change at the Ball, so they perhaps won’t be connected to you at all.”

“They?” the woman looked at him sharply, “You’re not one of them?”

Namal inclined his chin slightly, “I have another way into the Ball.”

She chuffed, “Pity.”

I smirked.

Namal looked uncomfortable for a heartbeat before sliding back into his easy bearing. “There is little we can offer you in payment.” Namal slid a slip of paper across the table to the theater mistress.

She looked at the paper, then slid it back. “Pay me double if you succeed. If you fail, I don’t want anyone looking my way or asking where I got my extra money.”

The princes exchanged glances. Then Namal said, “You have our word.”

“Is this agreeable to you, Mistress Caderena?” prompted Trinh.

She drew a deep breath and let it out. Her face burned with intensity. “Yes.” She nodded, as if to herself, then said again. “Yes.” She raised hard eyes to the princes. “Tomorrow, one hour after dawn, I expect your four at my theater ready to work. The other extra hands are reporting at the same time.”  Mistress Cadenera finished the ale in her tankard and stood up, “May Eloi guide your steps,” her voice was gruff, somehow turning the traditional farewell into a raw wish. She turned and made her way back through the crowded room and out through the little door.

“There’s one piece,” said Namal. He looked at Trinh, “You’ve picked your men already?”

“Yes, Baldric and I are too likely to be recognized, so we will sneak in through the tunnels and join the nobility in disguise,” Trinh tipped his head at Baldric, “I’m sending the twins, Rakov and Rae’d, and also Elaer and Jasem, to the theater.” Four of the eight knights who’d been with him when he struck out for Dalyn and arrived six years later. “Have you heard from your brother?”

“Yes,” Namal flicked his eyes to me, “I sent the captain back to him with a raven to go with him. He is leaving tonight to scout up the river.”

Alone. Worry niggled through me, and I reminded myself that one half-blooded prince would be hard to detect, much less catch. Even if his only back up was a bird. Ravens were exceptional birds, many of which would speak human language and they were unparalleled as scouts and messengers. But they were still just a small ball of wings and feathers if you got into a fight.

“Good,” Trinh lifted his tankard. “I’ll pass word to my men tonight. I sent them to find out what barges would be on the river providing lights for the ball. My hope is to set up my marksmen on the river if any of the barges will be tall enough this year.”

“I would get your other two men into the ball, also, if at all possible,” said Namal. “We need as many bodies as we can get, if anything goes wrong I don’t want to be relying on the King’s personal guards to get us out.”

“Moonie knows which bakers are coming in to help the night before,” put in Domjoa. “Perhaps they might need someone to carry bread…”

I leaned out of my shadow, “If we are open to smuggling them in early, couldn’t they take the tunnels, and get someone to steal servant uniforms for them so they can get into the ballroom?” The men looked me. I shrugged, “Assuming, they aren’t all so huge people would get spooked…”

Trinh looked to Baldric, who looked thoughtful. I wondered if he ever spoke. After several long seconds Trinh said, “I’ll talk to Tarr.”

When the ale was finished, we left. Buttoning shirts and over shirts as we ascended the stairs and wrapping up in cloaks when we entered the relief of the cool crisp night and lost ourselves in the swirl of snowflakes.