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Lord Capone’s words hung in the air, and I waited—waited—for the moment when he chuckled and told me he was joking.

That moment never came.

By the stars, he was serious.

He truly wanted me to break into the palace and steal a mystical gem from the royal family? Had he lost his mind? He’d caught me stealing—rather easily, might I add—from his house. A house that didn’t have guards, and had fewer maids and servants. There were far less people here than there would be in the palace.

“The royal family,” I repeated, a nervous chuckle bubbling out of me. “Of course. Don’t aim too high, huh?” My mind spun, scrambling to come up with a plan to get me out of this. I’d already agreed. He was my freaking ticket across the Dead Sea. But all I saw were stone walls, armed guards, and the vast gulf between a thief like me and high society.

Lord Capone didn’t so much as bat an eyelash. “I have faith you can do this.”

Or faith that the guards would catch—and subsequently hang—me. Come on, we all knew the truth here.

“Your faith is touching, Lord Capone,” I shot back, the edge in my voice sharpened by fear. “But breaking into the palace is a whole new level of crazy. Even for me.”

“So is breaking into my daughter’s bedroom to steal her glass slippers,” he retorted, his grin more of a grimace now.

“What’s so special about this gem?” I asked, steering the conversation back to safer waters. “And is it worth the risk?”

The smirk returned to his lips. “The Onyx Soul is rumored to possess power over time. As for its worth… Let’s just say it would make the treasury of a small kingdom look like pocket change.”

I blinked, stunned into silence. Power over time? Was such a thing possible? I was far from educated, but even I knew my world history. People still spoke of the “Ancient Days” with pure awe and reverence. There was a time, or so the tales went, when magic threaded the world like veins of gold through rock. A time when mystics danced with the elements, scholars breathed life into their creations, and healers mended wounds with a touch.

But that was eons ago, an epoch revered in stories. Valine, with its bustling markets and golden buildings, hadn’t known magic for longer than anyone could remember. It’d withered away like a vine bereft of sunlight, reduced to little more than whispers and forgotten lore.

Then there was the Dead Lands. It was said that somehow the Beast King and his subjects wielded magic there, bending it to their will the way a blacksmith bends steel into shape. But it was a dark power, fueled by pain, suffering, and the raw power of unbridled will. The kind of power they’d force Arabelle to endure. I only prayed they didn’t twist her spirit into something equally dark and terrible.

Thinking about it made my stomach knot with fear. But if anything, it motivated me to agree to this asinine plan. I had to save Arabelle, and to do that, I had to cross into the Dead Lands. Which meant stealing the Onyx Soul in order to secure my passage.

Thank goodness I truly had nothing left to lose.

“All right. Let’s pretend this is even possible. How do you propose I get into the palace?”

Lord Capone leaned back in his chair, steepling his fingers. “You know,” he said, his eyes dancing with merriment, “I hear the royal palace is in dire need of a few good maids. I didn’t catch the whole story, but I’ve heard people around the market mentioning it. I guess the good prince was in the market a day or so ago in search of hiring a couple new ladies.”

My heart thundered in my chest.

The prince.

Fuuuck. I hadn’t even thought of him. What if he recognized me after our little spat?

I almost snorted at myself. Of course he wouldn’t recognize me. He was the prince for crying out loud. He’d barely looked at me, except to scold me. He’d likely forgotten all about me by the time he’d left the square.

I cleared my throat and focused on the discussion at hand. “But why would they hire me? I’m not exactly the picture of servant loyalty, am I?”

“You’d be surprised, Arilla. People see what they want, and right now, they want to see a hard-working, obedient servant.”

“And who’s going to convince them of that?”

He leaned forward, folding his arms on the desk. “You are. I’m not to be affiliated with this at all in case things go south. If you want your freedom, if you want the gold, if you want to reach the Dead Lands, you’re going to have to sell them the lie. I’m not worried, though. This is a role I know you can pull off.”

A pit formed in my stomach, the daunting reality of my situation sinking in. I mentally ran through the steps. First, I needed to get inside the royal palace, then I needed to win my way onto the staff, all while plotting the theft of a priceless, mystical gem.

No problem.

“Alright,” I finally whispered. “I’ll do it.”

Lord Capone rapped his knuckles on the desk. “Great!” Then he raised his crystal glass to me in a mock toast. “To new employment opportunities.”

I rose from the chair and headed toward the door.

“Oh, and Arilla?”

I glanced over my shoulder.

“You have one month. I want the gem in my hand by the time the clock strikes midnight on the night of the ball.”

Ah. A deadline. Because I needed a little more anxiety. “Will the hand-off be here?”

He nodded. “My wife and daughter insist on making an appearance. It seems I can’t talk them out of it. But I’ll guarantee our safe return home before midnight. Good luck, Arilla.”

With a nod, I left his office and faced my daunting—and dangerous—future.


A few hours later, I stood outside the grand entrance of the royal palace, armed with nothing more than a half-baked plan and a thimbleful of hope. The streets of Valine bustled with the usual chaos of haggling merchants, braying animals, and gossiping townsfolk. Beneath all that came the whispers of the upcoming royal ball, rippling through the city like a soft breeze. Everyone seemed eager and excited, not only to mingle the royal family, but to dance the night away with the prince.

The notion made me laugh. From the few moments I’d spent in the prince’s company, they’d have to pay me to dance with him. His personality was as prickly as a pear cactus.

I stared up at the marble archway and gold-embossed door, my heart pounding like a hammer on an anvil. Two guards, clad in polished armor and stern expressions, stood as still as statues, their cold eyes scanning the constant flow of people. I straightened my apron and shabby dress, then took a breath and stepped forward.

Instantly, the guards came to life, reaching for the hilts of their swords—as though I could possibly be a threat. Considering I was here to literally rob the royal family, I guess they weren’t too far off.

“State your business,” the larger of the two guards demanded, his gaze raking me over.

I raised a brow. My appearance screamed “maid.” Clearly, I was here for one reason only.

“I’m here to apply for a maid position,” I replied, my voice helpfully wavering with uncertainty. The less threatening I seemed, the better.

The guard appraised me, his focus lingering on my stained apron. I clung to it with my work-worn hands, hoping it convinced him I was nothing more than a lowly servant.

“Follow me,” he ordered before turning on his heel and marching me through the main entrance.

Once inside, the behemoth of a man led me through a dizzying maze of corridors I certainly wouldn’t remember. The palace was a sprawling labyrinth of luxury and opulence, worlds away from my beggared life. Not even Lord Capone’s estate compared. So much gleaming gold, from the columns to the picture frames to the marbled floor inlaid with glittering gold dust. By the stars… The luxury of this place was downright baffling. But also daunting. I could only imagine how much it would hurt to kneel on these floors.

The guard finally led me into a room that buzzed with activity. Men and women hustled to and fro, armed with cleaning supplies. In the center of the whirlwind stood a stern-looking woman, her steely eyes taking in everything. From the looks of it, she was the head housekeeper, the one in charge of this hive.

She didn’t so much as glance my way, even when the guard planted me right in front of her, whispered a few words in her ear, then left.

“State your name and experience.”

I considered lying—giving myself a fake name and back story. Lord Capone had explicitly stated that he didn’t want his name connected to me in case things went south. But if she caught me lying, I risked losing this job. If I didn’t get this job, everything else fell to pieces. I had only one choice. Lord Capone would just have to deal with it.

“Arilla Whitlock,” I replied quickly. Someone brushed my shoulder as they hurried past. “I’ve worked for Lord Capone’s household for the last ten years.”

Her head rose and she eyed me. “Lord Capone, you say?” Her voice held a grudging respect, but her mouth pursed, as though she thought I was lying. “What duties did you perform there?”


“I started as a scullery maid,” I said, swallowing hard. “Washing dishes, scrubbing floors… But as I gained experience, I was given more responsibilities. I’ve done everything from laundry and housecleaning to assisting the cook.”

She didn’t look impressed. My guess, everyone here had the same qualifications. We were all servants after all. I needed something that set me above the others. Something that gave me an edge. I racked my brain. She’d been impressed when I mentioned Lord Capone. Perhaps because he was high society? Not a royal, no, but he was still a lord. Maybe that was the angle I needed?

“I’ve also had the privilege of arranging and serving several dinners for Lord Capone and his distinguished guests.”

Now that got her attention, if the gleam in her eye was evidence of anything. “You’ve served nobility?”

“Yes, ma’am,” I confirmed. “Lord Capone often entertained guests from various noble houses. I’ve served lords and ladies from across the kingdom.”

The woman chewed on that, her stern face inscrutable. “Why leave Lord Capone’s service?”

Time for the big sell. “Lord Capone’s estate is beautiful and grand, indeed. But it doesn’t compare to the palace. Every maid dreams of working here.” Yeah, right.

“Lord Capone will confirm your employment with him should we decide to seek him out?”

I bit back a grimace and nodded. “Yes, ma’am.”

For a moment, she was silent as she scribbled something on a piece of paper someone had thrust at her. Then, she gave a slight nod. “We run a tight operation, Amarelle.”

“Uh, Arilla,” I said, wincing.

She waved a dismissive hand. “There’s no room for lazy maids or any sort of mischief. If you’re willing to work hard, keep your head down, and speak only when spoken to, we might have a place for you here.”

“Yes, ma’am,” I said, forcing every ounce of sincerity I could muster into my voice. “You won’t regret giving me this chance.”

The woman gave a clipped nod. “My name is Ms. Grace. That is how you’ll address me. Report here at sunrise. You’ll be issued your assignment then. Always come in through the back servant door. You are not to be seen entering the main entrance again, do you understand?”

I gritted my teeth but nodded. This was the life I’d wanted to escape from. I was tired of always keeping my head down and speaking only when spoken to. Tired of wearing myself down to the bone. But the dream of escaping and starting a new life was gone now. The only dream that remained was freeing Arabelle. And I would do whatever it took to accomplish that.

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