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CHAPTER NINE

Hot, toxic shame sluiced through my stomach as Lord Capone dragged me through the house and back up the stairs, bucket still in hand. Horrified expressions turned to me, one by one. The other servants had no idea what I’d done, but they knew it was bad. Catastrophic, really. I’d been caught stealing. I knew the punishment, and my whole being threatened to crack and shatter into a million pieces.

I would be arrested. Thrown into the dungeons. Then hanged.

It was as simple as that.

Indentured servants turned thieves didn’t get trials, nor a chance to justify their actions. Punishment was meted out swiftly, and with such frightening finality. My whole life flashed before my eyes—as pathetic as it was—and I found myself thinking of Logen and Arabelle. They were the only two who mattered to me. Arabelle was gone, thanks to me. And Logen didn’t even know. But given his position with the guard, he’d soon be privy to my arrest.

Arabelle had warned me. And I’d refused to listen. Like an idiot.

Lord Capone tossed me into his office and slammed the door shut behind us. I stumbled forward, scrambling for balance, my hands coming down on his desktop to steady me.

He eyed me as he rounded his desk and sat.

A stifling silence fell between us. The only sound was that of the gold-encrusted clock sitting on his mantel tick, tick, ticking. Every second that passed, I felt my future draining away, like sands through an hourglass. Had he already summoned the guard? Were they on their way?

I shot a glance over my shoulder, as though expecting Logen to march in and arrest me right this second.

Lord Capone must have misinterpreted my glance, because he finally broke the silence with a loud sigh. “Don’t even think about trying to escape.”

Huh. That thought hadn’t even tickled my mind. Odd.

I turned back to face him, his gaze as sharp as a shard of ice. He leaned forward and subtly drummed his fingers against his mahogany desk. The look he wore was one I’d seen from him many times before—often when conducting business. There was a calculative gleam to his eye, as though he was finally seeing me for the first time.

“Arilla,” he said, leaning back in his throne-like chair. He reached for the half-full glass of amber scotch sitting next to him. “You disappoint me.”

I disappoint him? I managed to snort back a laugh. “Seems we have something in common, then.”

His gaze darkened.

I forced myself to swallow and decided it was probably best to shut up. Not that it mattered. Nothing would save me from the gallows now.

After a moment, he clucked his tongue, then brought the crystal glass to his mouth. “Where is it?”

Uh. “Where is what?”

He scoffed, as though my feigned ignorance annoyed him. Without a word, he set his glass back on the desk with a heavy thump, then pushed to his feet and strode toward me. I gulped and stole a step back. I definitely preferred having the desk between us.

His keen eyes raked me over, pausing on the bucket. For a moment, I wondered if he’d plunge a hand into the filthy water to root around, but he seemed to think better of it. Instead, he pushed the bucket aside and stared at the two lumps protruding from my apron.

I withered beneath the look he gave me. One of complete and utter disappointment.

Then he reached down and plucked the glass slippers from my pocket before holding them up to the light. “They truly are exquisite. I suspect they would have fetched you quite the price.” He rotated one of the slippers, then shot me another look. “Tell me, how much gold have you made selling off my family heirlooms?”

Fear blossomed in my chest. Oh, this was far worse than I’d expected. I’d assumed he’d only caught me stealing the slippers. But he knew about the other thefts as well? How? And why hadn’t he done anything before today? What was he playing at here?

“Come on now,” he pressed. “You’ve been caught. You know it. I know it. So how about we discuss this openly? How much gold?”

Discuss this openly? He’d lost his mind, right? Like I’d admit to thieving. Not that it mattered anymore, of course. He’d caught me red-handed. I was thoroughly screwed.

I sighed. “Seven coins.”

His brows rose. “Seven? Not bad. The items were worth far more, but considering you sold them in the Lower West District, I’m impressed you got that much.”

This time, my brows shot up.

Lord Capone chuckled. “Yes, I know where you sold them. And to whom, as well. I have connections you couldn’t begin to understand.”

My thoughts screeched to a dead halt. The seller sold me out? That rank, traitorous, no-good—

“Have a seat, Arilla,” Lord Capone ordered, interrupting my mental tirade.

When I didn’t move, he placed a hand on the small of my back—just the lightest touch—and guided me toward the chair in front of his desk.

“Please,” he repeated. “I’d like to discuss something with you. And I think we’d both be more comfortable sitting.”

I blinked as I moved for the chair. What in the name of the stars could he have to discuss with me? All that remained was turning me over to the guards.

Once I was seated, Lord Capone rounded his desk and took his own chair. He sat back, his gaze drinking me in. “I must say, I was stunned to learn of your recent antics. You’d always seemed so meek and terrified of disappointing your stepfather.”

I sucked in a breath. By the gods, he didn’t plan to turn me over to him, did he? That fate might be worse than the gallows.

“I’d like to know your reasoning behind your actions.”

This had to be the strangest conversation I’d ever had. But what was the point in lying now? “My freedom.”

“Ah.” A knowing light shone in his eyes. “Yes, I imagine that would be worth the risk.” He leaned forward in his chair and rested his elbows on the desk, his fingers twined. “I can offer you that, you know.”

My stomach twisted, and a shiver screamed down my spine. I had a feeling I knew exactly what he meant by that offer. And no way would I ever become a courtesan to someone like him. To anyone, really.

“Before you answer, allow me to lay out my proposal.”

His proposal. My gorge rose at the thought. “Lord Capone—”

“I want you to steal something for me.”

I froze, my mouth hanging open. He…what? Surely, I’d misheard. “I-I’m sorry. I thought you just said—”

“That I want you to steal something for me, yes.”

A momentary silence hung between us, then I sputtered, “But why? You caught me. Clearly, I’m not a good thief.” As much as that chagrined me.

“Had you chosen any other seller, they wouldn’t have notified me of the thefts,” Lord Capone stated. “No one in the estate noticed what you were up to—at least, no one came to speak to me of it. And no one reported seeing you in public carrying the stolen goods. Which tells me you’re talented. Yes, you were caught. But only because your seller and I have a long history, and his loyalty to me runs far deeper.”

I had so many questions. So, so many.

Lord Capone nudged the glass slippers. “And the only reason I caught you today was because I was waiting for you to steal from me again. I’m surprised you chose the slippers, though. While they’re worth a great deal, they aren’t as inconspicuous as other items.” He hooked a finger in the heel of one and lifted it. “Why them?”

I winced. “I needed the gold tonight. Something extremely valuable. And these were the easiest to grab considering all your jewels are locked up. I didn’t have time to waste trying to break into your safe.”

Lord Capone’s head bobbed in a slow nod. “I see. And why do you need the gold tonight?”

I bit my lip. I really didn’t want to tell him about Arabelle or the Dead Lands. So, I pared down the truth and gave him only a taste. “I ran away from my stepfather’s last night. I can’t return. And I have nowhere to go.”

“Ah.” He studied the slipper once more. “You intended to leave the city tonight?”

I nodded.

“I’m afraid that won’t do.”

Despair punched a hole through my chest.

“As I said, I want you to steal something for me. That means your presence is required here, in town.”

I immediately started to shake my head. First, I had no reason to work with him. And second, I needed to get to Arabelle, which didn’t seem quite possible now, given my new circumstances.

“Before you reject my offer, let me lay out my offer. You do this job for me, and I won’t inform the guards of your crimes.”

My eyes widened.

“Not only that, but I will also let you keep the gold you’ve acquire, and secure transport for you to the next town over. Your stepfather need not ever know.”

Okay. This was madness. And too good of a deal to be true.

“I don’t understand,” I murmured. “What could you possibly want me to steal?”

A sparkle twinkled in his eye. “We’ll get to that. First, do you agree to my proposal?”

Did I? I’d be a fool not to, wouldn’t I? The terms he’d laid out were quite fair. No arrest, and he’d arrange transport out of Valine for me. A dream come true, really. But could I trust him? Clearly, the lord wasn’t the man I thought he was. If he wanted me to steal something, then he was far from a model citizen. It also made me wonder what other crimes he dabbled in.

On the other hand, I couldn’t refuse. If I did, he would turn me over to the guards.

Hello, rock and hard place. Nice to meet you.

Whatever he wanted me to steal, he was obviously desperate to acquire it, if he was relying on a lowly indentured servant. Probably because it didn’t matter to him if I was caught. He would just wipe his hands clean of me. No one would believe he was behind it all. It’d be his word against mine, and he was a lord.

If I accepted his proposal, and that was a mighty big if, I needed more reassurances.

“You swear you only want me to do this one job for you?” I asked.

He gave a slow nod.

“And after, I’m free to go. You won’t have me arrested?”

His mouth quirked. “If you succeed in your task, having you arrested will be the farthest thing from my mind.”

I had no idea what that meant. “And you’ll secure transport for me?”

“As I said.”

I pressed my lips together, then shook my head. “No.”

Lord Capone seemed taken aback. “No?”

“No, I don’t want transport to the next town over.”

Confusion wrinkled his brow. “Then where would you like to go?”

I drew in a deep breath and said, “The Dead Lands.”

The shock on his face would have made me laugh were it any other day. He stared at me as though I’d grown a second head. Then he pressed a hand to his mouth and smoothed his facial hair. “The Dead Lands?”

I nodded.

“Arilla, why in the name of the gods would you want to go there?”

“That’s my business,” I told him. “Can you arrange it?”

“I can…” he hedged. “You do know what’s over there, right?”

I did. Or, at least, I’d heard. Men plagued with magic who turned into beasts. Thieves, rapists, and murderers. Curses, scourges, and monsters. It was why I had to rescue Arabelle from that place.

“Where in the Dead Lands do you wish to go?” he asked.

“Nadora,” I whispered. The Beast King owned a castle there. If Arabelle belonged to him now, it was the only place I could think of where they’d take her.

“Nadora,” he repeated. If I wasn’t mistaken, his face had paled. “Arilla…”

“Don’t pretend to care about me,” I said. “Just tell me if it can be done.”

His expression briefly hardened, then he nodded. “It can.”

“Good, then that’s the arrangement I want to make. Oh, and a cut of the profit.”

He choked on a breath. “What?”

“I’ll need gold when over there, and the seven coins I’ve collected won’t be enough. I’m not asking for much. Just ten percent of the sale.”

“Who says I intend to sell the item?”

I rolled my eyes. “Please. Anyone with a brain knows you never hold on to stolen items.”

He stared at me for a few moments, as though not quite sure what to make of me. Finally, he tapped his knuckles against the desk and said, “Done.”

“Yeah? We have a deal?”

“We do. Transportation to the Dead Lands and ten percent of the cut.”

“And no betraying me to the guards or my stepfather.”

A grin spread across his face. “And no reporting you to the guards or your stepfather.”

Hmm. That seemed far too easy. Perhaps I should have held out for more.

“Good.” I leaned back, feeling lighter than I had since Arabelle’s parents sold her. Finally, I had a solution. Now, all that remained was completing whatever job Lord Capone asked of me. “So, what am I stealing?”

That twinkle lit his eyes once more. He leaned forward, a mischievous grin curling his lips. “Have you ever heard of the Onyx Soul?”

I shook my head. “What is it? And who does it belong to?”

“It’s a gem rumored to possess immense mystical properties,” he said. Then he leaned back and appraised me. “And it belongs to the royal family.”

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