Neva froze when the sound of footsteps approached the door, disturbing the steady hum of the howling wind. The tower quarters had been cold and empty when she climbed through the frosted window, and Flynn had assured her the duke would be engaged in festivities downstairs well into the night.
She held her breath, remaining crouched over the warded chest in the dark as she waited for the servant to continue past. The whisper of a lock pick and wrench scraping against the keyhole reached her, and her stomach dropped. After a moment, the door inched open, then closed with a barely perceivable click.
Neva silently backed against the study’s stone wall. If the intruder lit a candle, she would be found out, so she murmured an incantation under her breath to call her favorite glamour to life. The telltale sting of invisibility washed over her as a man in black britches and a matching tunic strode into the study.
The invisibility glamour was worth the gold she had paid, and the pain of having it stitched into her skin inch by inch, but it bit like poison ivy. She resisted scratching as the sensation faded.
A woven rug muffled the man’s footfalls, and he squinted as he inspected his surroundings by moonlight, hesitating briefly when he passed the space where she stood, before continuing into the room. Her nose wrinkled. He smelled of spoiled milk.
Neva’s enhanced sight allowed her to see the intense concentration on his clean-shaven face. His short blond hair was almost as light as her own, his hazel eyes were probing, and his nose was bent.
Neva stayed quiet as he moved around the desk and to the back of the room. There, he knelt in front of the warded chest.
Her teeth clenched and her hand inched toward the dagger strapped to her ankle.
A job like this rarely came along, and she was counting on it to make a name for herself. Not to mention that Flynn Abernathy, the most feared crime lord in Glacier Pass, had commissioned her.
Anyone else after the same item was going against the Thieves’ Code.
Neva could ambush the man. She didn’t have the full power of a majila, a female Da’Valia, but she could do more than merely see in the dark.
Da’Valia were fast, strong, brutal creatures. Eliminating this man from the realm of the living likely wouldn’t cause them to hesitate, yet Neva did. Some said thieves were without honor, but she knew otherwise. Her father raised her to follow the Code.
“You don’t want to do that,” she said, dropping her glamour and stepping away from the wall.
The man spun around as if startled but was nimble as he stepped away from the hidden prize and tossed an illuminator from his pocket.
The ball of magic exploded in a burst of yellow light before hovering near the ceiling in the center of the study. The temperature dropped to near-freezing, and Neva’s breath traveled away from her in a fog.
Illuminators temporarily revealed that which lay beneath both spells and darkness. Neva didn’t know if the man had stolen this one, or paid for it with someone else’s silver or blood.
Then, the taste of copper settled on her tongue. He had paid with blood.
He frowned and stood protectively in front of the chest as he looked her over. Neva was dressed differently than when she delivered firewood about the city during daylight hours. She had replaced her heavy fur jacket and traditional skirts with a costume of another kind. The black of her boots matched her fitted bodysuit, and a charcoal wrap covered her light blonde hair.
“Good evening, dove,” he drawled, recovering smoothly. “Just who might you be?”
She noted with some relief this man’s accent was foreign.
“Maybe that’s what I should ask you,” Neva replied. Anyone who had purchased an illuminator with blood was a serious threat.
“Allow me to introduce myself.” He lowered into a slight bow, keeping his eyes on her all the while. “My name is Thatcher Sullivan. You may have heard of me.”
“You’re not supposed to be here,” Neva said, her voice bitter and flat. His gallantry didn’t fool her. He had made no indication he intended to stand down, and this job belonged to her.
“Ah.” He nodded. “An astute observation, but, alas, here I am.”
“You’re breaking the Code.”
A sneer flickered over his face. “I’ve been sent here by people who operate outside your Code.”
A thought sparked in Neva’s mind. His name was Sullivan, and his accent indicated he was from the west. Oh, she knew who he was all right. The Chameleon. Although she had never heard of him working this far north, he was notorious for taking contracts without local approval across Cirandrel.
It didn’t matter who hired him. Someone went through the wrong channels. The thieving community could forgive that. But if Flynn discovered Thatcher was working in Glacier Pass, the crime lord would have the thief’s head.
“I’ll make you an offer,” Neva said slowly. She wanted to keep the situation from escalating, if possible. “But only this once, so listen well. If you leave now, I won’t tell Flynn. If you make me fight for this, you will regret it.”
“So sorry, dove. I’ve promised some important people a certain item by the end of the night.”
“Now, listen here —”
Neva made it two steps closer to the man before he flung another spell in her direction. This one knocked her off her feet, slamming her into the wall and then the hard floor. Against a human, the spell would have rendered its victim unconscious. Against a half-Da’Valia, it failed.
But Thatcher wasn’t waiting to see if the magic worked. He was counting on it. By the time she regained her footing, he had used the lock pick and wrench from his pocket to open the chest.
He didn’t notice her because he was so intent, but Neva was shaking with anger. She didn’t think. She rushed him. Silent, fluid, nearly a blur.
She slammed into him, and he flew into the opposite wall with a hard thud. Thatcher’s body was still, his right arm at an awkward angle. The illuminator blinked out, sending the room back to darkness.
The noise from their scuffle made Neva cringe. She prayed the Guard hadn’t heard. Perhaps she should have dealt with Thatcher another way, but there wasn’t time to second-guess herself now.