The chilled night air seeped into my bones, turning them brittle. Life with my stepfather had been harsh, but it’d never left me without food or shelter. Tonight, though, I had neither. The remnants of my last meal at the Capone estate—a meager lump of bread and hunk of old meat—were a distant memory. My empty stomach growled in protest against the unfamiliar hunger.
Though I had enough gold for a meal at an inn, these coins were sacred. I needed every last one if I was going to successfully secure passage across the Bone Sea. That meant I couldn’t squander it on something as inconsequential as food.
I grimaced when my belly cramped. It understandably didn’t appreciate my plan. But there wasn’t anything I could do. Not at the moment anyway. Right now, I needed to find a place to stay. The coldest months of the year were swiftly headed this way, and I could feel it in the punishing winds and frosty night air. Clearly the perfect time to plan an escape and find myself homeless. Good thinking, Arilla.
I skulked through the streets of Valine, startled by the complete and utter silence. During the day, the city came alive, bustling with activity as citizens lived their daily lives. But at night, the streets turned into a silent labyrinth full of growing shadows.
Rounding the next street, I halted at the sight of an old, crumbling building, the walls half in ruin. It was once a grand theater, but now the marquee had faded and peeled, and the velvet curtains hung in tatters. The stage, once gleaming with gold, now sat in complete disarray, deserted by its previous artisans. Years before, a fire had ravaged this district, and the theater owners hadn’t the gold to repair it. So, they’d abandoned it. Left the theater to its sordid fate of empty echoes and forgotten memories.
Not much remained of the building, but the walls that still stood would shield me from the biting wind and prying eyes. I couldn’t imagine anyone would look for me here—not that my stepfather was in any condition to search for me. I’d smelled the ale on Hayden. With luck, the three would fall into a drunken sleep and forget all about me until morning.
Entering the ruins, I nestled into the darkest corner, hidden in the shadows. Back against the cold bricks, I slid to the dusty ground and pulled my knees to my chest.
I couldn’t believe the direction this day had taken. It had seemed so promising at first. I’d snatched a golden book from the Capone estate and sold it for more coin than it was worth. All good things. And then everything had come crashing down around my head, and I hadn’t even had the time to take it all in yet.
My best friend in the entire world.
Sold. By her parents.
Never in a million years would I have thought them capable of such a thing. I’d always been envious of her family. Her parents had doted on her and her sister. But when push came to shove, they’d shown their true colors. And now Arabelle was gone.
I could only imagine her fear.
Gods, she must hate me. This was all my fault, after all. If I hadn’t given her that gold coin, her parents never would have sold her. Resolve hardened my nerves. I would free her. I had to. Even if it meant giving myself up in her stead. I refused to see her suffer because of me. I’d do whatever it took.
Even if that meant risking my own freedom.
My mind flashed to the Capone estate. If this was going to work, I needed to score something that would fetch me a lot of gold. Something unique. Something the vendor in the Lower West District would salivate over. My mind flashed to the Capone estate. They were wealthy, obviously, but I needed something transcendent. A family heirloom or something.
The risk of being caught didn’t matter anymore. Besides, if everything went according to plan, I’d soon be on a boat, and beyond the Capones’ reach.
I racked my brain in search of something—anything—from their estate that I could easily steal and sell for a fortune. I knew Lord Capone owned more gems and jewelry than I could imagine, but he kept them locked in a vault. One I wouldn’t be able to quickly access. I needed something transportable. Something that could go unnoticed for a small amount of time.
My thoughts immediately conjured Raelle’s dress for the upcoming royal ball. I sat up straighter, my eyes narrowing as I considered that option. The dress was hideous, yes, but Lady Capone had claimed it was a gift from the queen, and its design did replicate one of her royal ballgowns. While I’d doubted the queen had given them one of her own dresses, I didn’t need to believe Lady Capone’s story. I only needed to sell the story to the vendor.
I drummed my fingers against the dusty floor as I considered that option.
The first problem that rose to mind was the size of the gown. I wouldn’t be able to sneak it under my cloak or hide it in a pocket. And surely someone would notice me dashing down the stairs with Raelle’s gown in hand. Not to mention through the streets. While anonymity didn’t quite apply anymore, I really didn’t want to give myself up at the same time. And running through the streets with a dress in hand would certainly attract attention.
Not the dress then.
I bit my lip as I struggled to come up with an alternative.
And then it hit me like lightning.
Small. Transportable. Unique.
No one owned glass slippers in this city. No woman would be dumb enough to wear them. But the vendor wouldn’t know that. I could pitch those shoes to him like they were the newest fashion trend. No one else had a pair similar to these. For all he knew, women from all over were envious of Raelle’s shoes, and were the newest fashion trend.
I dug into my bag and pulled out my gold.
It wasn’t enough by far. I needed at least four more to secure transport. Minimum. There was no avoiding this—I had to steal something.
The shoes it was then.
The royal ball was one month from now. With luck, Raelle wouldn’t notice her missing shoes until that night. And by then, I would be in the Dead Lands. No one would even suspect me. I simply needed to sneak them out of the house without notice, and I could do that. I’d successfully stolen from the Capones more than once already. I wasn’t an amateur anymore.
With my plan in place, I stashed my coins back in my bag, then lay down, tucking it under my head. I shivered from the cold, but tried my best to ignore it. I had a long night ahead of me, and worrying about my discomfort now wouldn’t help matters.
I folded my hands over my chest and stared up. Thanks to a massive hole in the roof, I could see the waning moon and twinkling stars. Oddly enough, they comforted me.
Closing my eyes, I pushed all my worries and fears aside, and tried to sleep. Tomorrow would be a day of calculated risks and daring exploits. So I needed all the sleep I could get.
Dawn broke, and the melancholic song of a soft-tailed mockingbird woke me. I opened my eyes and stretched, wincing when my cold muscles cramped. I’d slept off and on throughout the night, easily disrupted by strange sounds. At one point, it’d sounded like a four-legged something had ventured into the theater. I’d never forget the sounds of its low-pitched growls or the feel of its breath ruffling through my hair. I’d been too scared to turn to see what it was. I’d merely curled into a tighter ball and wrapped my arms around my neck. Thankfully, the beast had found me uninteresting and sauntered off, hopefully never to return.
With a pained groan, I collected my bag and rose. I took a moment to shake off the chill and dust my clothes, then ventured out of the theater. The city hadn’t quite come to life yet, but I saw a few people here and there. Most stood on their porches, stretching out their limbs after a pleasant night in their beds. Seeing them soured my mood, not that they had any idea.
I turned toward the Capone estate and began my trek uptown. The walk passed quickly, as it always did. I was so used to it now, I barely noticed the distance anymore. I came to a stop in front of the estate and stared up at it. Even in the dim light of dawn, it was a testament to opulence. I couldn’t imagine ever living in a place so overly consumed by privilege. All I wanted was a small home where I could live without any worries. There’d be no pits in the backyard, no punishing servants, no drunken outrages. It’d just be me all by myself, with my own food and small wealth. A small dream, but one that had kept me going.
As I stared up at the estate, my palms grew clammy.
I’d stood here countless times, but things were different this morning. Today, my whole life would change—and likely not for the better. My dream of freedom grew dimmer and dimmer.
I brushed that depressing thought aside and entered the estate unnoticed. Arabelle’s freedom was the only thing that mattered right now.
The most important thing was to maintain a normal appearance today. Which meant donning my apron as I did every other morning and arming myself with cleaning supplies. I couldn’t give anyone a reason to notice me.
Discarding my cloak, I tied my apron and collected a bucket and cloth. Lord and Lady Capones’ bedroom was off limits, as was Raelle’s, until they woke for the morning and descended the stairs. The rest of the house, however, was fair game. Usually we tackled the kitchen first, knowing that Lady Capone wanted to see it sparkling when she came down for her breakfast.
So I set to work.
The early morning hours passed quickly as I and two other servants handled the kitchen. The smell of food twisted my stomach, and more than once I caught myself staring longingly at the cook as he prepared their meal. My entire body craved food. So much so that I found myself imagining sneaking a few bites.
I was here to steal the glass slippers. Not their food. I couldn’t attract any attention to myself. Food would come. After.
When the sound of voices rose to my ears, I nearly slumped with relief.
Lady Capone and Raelle rounded the corner and strode past. They didn’t even spare me or the other servant a glance, as was normal. Instead, they headed into the dining room where one of the maids had set out their breakfast.
I bit the inside of my cheek and considered my situation.
Lord Capone hadn’t come downstairs yet. But perhaps that didn’t matter. He never visited Raelle’s room. And on mornings when his wife and daughter came down without him, he usually locked himself in his office to work. Days like that often passed without me so much as catching a glimpse of him.
Meaning the upstairs was clear.
I dropped my cloth into the bucket, then grabbed the handle and rose on shaky legs. The other servant didn’t so much as look up from the spot she’d been scrubbing on the floor.
Clutching my bucket in one hand and apron in the other, I made my way up the stairs, my eyes pinned to the ground. I needed it to look like I was heading upstairs to clean. I was so nervous, every sound had me jumping out of my skin, even while doing nothing wrong. And there was this pit deep in my stomach, one filled with darkness. I attempted to reassure myself—as long as I didn’t appear anxious, I’d be fine.
I strode silently down the hall, then dropped to my hands and knees right outside Raelle’s door. I plunged the cloth into the bucket and started scrubbing the floor. When no one came to question me, I inched her door open and crawled inside. I waited a few more moments, my anxiety flaring to life, when I saw a shadow move beneath Lord Capone’s office door. Thankfully, it remained shut with him squirreled away inside.
Blowing out a relieved breath, I quietly closed Raelle’s bedroom door, then hurried to her wardrobe. I yanked open the doors and scanned the contents. More shoes and dresses than I could count, but no glass slippers.
I silently cursed, then gently opened the drawers, searching.
The second I pulled open the third drawer, I nearly cried out.
There, sitting next to a pair of thick woolen socks, were the glass slippers. They practically winked at me as they caught the room’s light.
I glanced over my shoulder.
No movement or sound.
I reached in and gently grasped the shoes, afraid to clack them together for fear they’d break. I slipped them in my apron, glanced down, and cursed.
The blasted shoes weren’t nearly as small as I imagined last night.
Two firm lumps bulged in my pockets.
I fisted my hands and whirled around, staring at the door. What could I do? I needed to walk out of this estate and sell these shoes to the vendor. I needed the gold. And I couldn’t waste any more time figuring out the best thing to steal. These were the best things right now. And already in my pocket. I just needed to get them out the damn door without being spotted.
The bucket snagged my attention, and I narrowed my eyes as I considered it.
Perhaps if I held it in front of me, it’d obscure the shoes?
I closed the drawers, then shut the wardrobe, my heart pounding the entire time. I needed to get myself together. If anyone saw me right now, they’d know I was up to no good. I drew a deep breath and focused on calming myself. Once my heartbeat slowed and I felt more composed, I turned and glanced at Raelle’s mirror. The bucket did appear to obscure the two lumps in my apron, thank the gods.
All that remained was escaping.
I drew another breath, then reached for the door handle and twisted it open.
For a moment, I’d expected to see Lord Capone standing there, watching me. But the hallway stood empty. Relief nearly had me dropping the bucket. Instead, I tightened my grip and forced myself to move. I only needed to cross the hallway, descend the stairs, then bolt out the front door. No way I’d stick around for the rest of the day. Too much rode on my success. I couldn’t risk being caught.
I forced myself to take one step.
Soon, I’d taken two dozen and had passed Lord Capone’s office and reached the stairs. I could hear him behind me, pacing his floor. His voice was raised, so he was clearly speaking with someone, and angry. One boded well for me, the other didn’t.
Clutching the railing, I practically sprinted down the stairs. Halfway down the stairs, I heard Lord Capone’s office door open.
I choked back a gasp and quickened my pace.
Once my feet touched the main floor, I froze, suddenly remembering my cloak. By the stars, I couldn't believe I'd forgotten about it.
I cursed under my breath and quickly considered my two options. Retrieve my cloak. Or make a run for it. I loathed the thought of leaving it behind, but could I risk the wasted time and effort to retrieve it? The door was right here. I could be free in seconds.
The servants were in the kitchen, and Lady Capone and Raelle in the dining room, and Lord Capone had left his office. I couldn’t chance it.
I sprinted for the front door on my tiptoes, so not to make too much noise. I threw it open and practically jumped down the stairs. Freedom lay just beyond the gate. For a moment, I let myself believe this was possible.
I would succeed.
I would free Arabelle.
But just as I reached for the gate, a firm hand ensnared my arm and wrenched me back.
Guess I'd made the wrong choice.