IGNA. Home to the Rose Fortress, the Red Queen, and more redbloods than the nation had room for. Many things here were red: the heraldry, the granite buildings, and even the sky on some mornings. Red, too, was the Thief’s hair: a red like autumn leaves and wine.

Silent, she crept down the corridor of an Upperbirth’s lavish manor. She paused to listen at a side door. Content in hearing nothing, she placed her hand on the brass knob and turned. She slipped between the door and jamb, closing it softly behind her.

She spied a table bathed in autumnal moonlight. A thick stack of parchments bound in twine sat atop it, just as she had expected. Some sort of sales records. She stuffed it in her satchel and moved toward the door. As she turned the knob, the thief heard the faintest hint of voices; a woman and a man.

She stood very still. No one was supposed to be home.

The voices quieted again. She suspended her breath. Some whispering. A huff. Words of anger she couldn’t quite make out. Something about the mines south of here—the Roseheart Army’s greatest source of iron ore.

“I will not have a traitor in my house!” the woman bellowed.

The thief’s heart beat in scattered thumps. She let go of the knob.

“That ungrateful bitch is no daughter of mine, Zerhei, I don’t care what the law says! I will not tolerate a drop of support for that—”

Her voice cut off. The man’s voice was muffled and deep.

“That illegitimate, fanatical—”

The man spoke over her again, too quiet to hear.

“No, no, no, I’ll call her what she is—what they both are! You don’t get to tell me—yes. Yes! That Saronan bitch is a caste whore and so is the girl in this house! I want her gone, Zerhei!”

The woman’s words burnt the thief’s ears. Caste whore. Caste slavery, more like. Those who kept the tradition called them nezhdoya; their sole purpose was to marry Upperbirths of other hemotones so those truly born of higher stock didn’t have to dilute their precious black blood. In the west, the practice was tradition. In the north, outlawed.

“Unreasonable? I’m the one being unreasonable, Zerhei? You’re speaking treason and it’s me that should listen to ‘reason’? You know what they did to all the others who refused to—I don’t care, Zerhei! Yarchala is leaving, and that is final!”

Sensing her moment, the thief darted through the threshold and down the corridor, hugging the wall. She stopped at a corner. No movement upstairs, no other noise. Quickly, she shimmied down a short ladder and found her way to the front door. No good. Torchlight leaked through the windows. There were guards outside.

Sweating now, she slithered to the manor’s rear. Somewhere in the house, glass shattered against the wall. The thief jumped.

Thudding footsteps marched from one end of the manor to the other. A door slammed. Candlelight splashed across the front door as the man hurried down the stairs. The thief ducked behind a chest of drawers. When he passed, she bolted for the kitchen door. It smacked shut behind her as she quickened her pace across the backyard. Damn the buyer. He’d promised an empty house. There were other hungry minds out there willing to pay for knowledge they shouldn’t have. But, the buyer had promised a thousand tadril. The deal was simply too good to pass.

She hastened to the travelmaster’s kiosk at the city gates. Her stomach turned. Yarchala. She’d heard that name before, when she lived another life. A faint silhouette burdened her mind’s eye. Yarchala. She hadn’t known the girl, but a once-dear friend of hers said the name before.

At the kiosk she said one word to the man standing there: “Borrow.” He pivoted and rapped three times on the door of the small storeroom behind him. A short, bald man—the buyer—opened it. He looked the thief up and down.

“Let ‘er in.”

His friend unhooked the rope strung across the kiosk side and waved her forward.

Barrels, bins, and confiscated goods cluttered the storeroom. Such things were picked up by the town watch fortnightly.

The buyer counted out ten shiny silver coins atop a barrelhead. Just those few tenpieces would get her to Sarona. She could start looking for her family and live off the spoils of past jobs she’d been saving. Igna would be nothing but a distant memory.

The thief extended the stack of parchments to him. He snatched them, rifling through each paper with all the grace of a greasy-fingered imp. He nodded and gestured to the coins. She plucked up the first and dropped it in her coin purse. It almost made her feel…guilty. She took the second and third in hand, trying to ignore the disquiet in her heart. Yarchala. What would become of her?

“Are you…you know others like you and I, yes?” she asked him.

“Redheads?”

“No, I mean…aren’t you a smuggler? Do you know others?”

“What’s it to you?”

She looked at the coins in her hand. No. She couldn’t. But… she must. “Do you take jobs?”

“Lady, take your coins and get out of here. I only deal in messes I make.”

“It isn’t a mess.” She bit her lip. “I need a favour.”

The buyer guffawed. “Favours? Those are above my paygrade.”

“I’ll only ask two tenpieces for the papers in exchange. It’s eight days to Sarona by cart, isn’t it?”

Something shifted in his eyes. He raised a brow. “Now you ain’t askin’ a favour, you’re makin’ a deal.”

“There’s a nezhdoya girl in that house I robbed. Yarchala Sakcha. I heard a woman and her husband arguing while I was in there. The woman wants her gone. I don’t know what they’re going to do to her, but—”

“And you care…why?” he asked.

Her cheeks flushed. “I don’t need to explain myself to you. I don’t want her going wherever it is they’re sending her. She supports the Rirah.” Seeing his look, she sighed. “The ‘Blue Queen’?” Some had taken to calling her that. He stared back at her. “The ‘caste whore’ in Sarona?” The words burnt her throat.

“So you’re tellin’ me it’s worth all those tadril coins to get this girl to the capital, is what you really want.”

She glanced at the barrelhead, then back to him. She nodded.

“Whatever you say, lady. I’ll get someone on it soon. When’s the deadline?”

“I don’t know. Soon, I’d think. Maybe even in the next week.”

He let out a low whistle. “Alright. I’ll see what I can do, but be prepared for it to fall through. That Sakcha family’s not one to mess with lightly. They own those mines the Red Queen gets her ore from.”

“I know,” the thief said quietly. She set eight coins in his palm. As she turned to leave, she felt his eyes on the back of her neck. She pulled down her cap to cover the marking.

“Oh, I see,” he said. “You’re one of ‘em.”

She left without another word. Nezhdoya. Caste whore. Not my own. The thief knew all too well what it meant to be those things. But even if she couldn’t save herself, she might be able to save Yarchala. If she made it to Sarona, they’d return her to her family—her real family, the one that she was stolen from.

She prayed two tenpieces was enough.

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