I hurried out of the Capone estate as fast as my feet could carry me. I wanted to be gone before anyone noticed the small, cloth-wrapped lump wedged beneath my arm. A lump that would surely get me killed if found.
“Stupid,” I hissed under my breath as I dashed down the stairs leading to the crowded street. “Stupid, stupid, stupid.”
What in the name of the gods had I been thinking?
Clearly, I hadn’t been thinking. I’d reacted rashly, and now my life was on the line. My stepfather frequently questioned my intelligence, and today, so was I.
I’d be lucky if I didn’t find myself dangling from the end of a noose come tomorrow morning. The nobles of Valine didn’t suffer theft lightly. And the repercussions were even worse if the thief turned out to be a servant. To steal from your employer was to betray their trust. It didn’t matter if the theft was justified. The nobles would rather watch you starve than fend for yourself.
Cursing under my breath, I pulled my cloak hood over my head and blended in with the masses. To the casual observer, I looked the same as any other servant heading home for the day. But inside, I was a giant knot of nerves.
If the Capones learned what I’d done….
I could go back. Right now. Slip in through the servant’s entrance and return the vase. As simple as pie. No harm, no foul, right? Then I could go home and face the consequences of my actions today—which would be a real barrel of fun.
Except everything inside of me rebelled at that idea.
Why should I be the one to cave here? Why should I be the one to suffer? All because I wasn’t a noble. They had everything. I had nothing. In my stepfather’s oh-so-loving words, I was worthless except for what little gold I managed to bring into the estate. He truly was a wonderful man. My affection for him ran deeper than the deepest well. I rolled my eyes.
I tucked the package closer, then walked along the broken cobblestone path leading to town. Maybe with a little luck, no one would notice the vase was gone? I’d taken care to spread out the other items on the shelf, so it didn’t look as though anything was missing. But what if a servant noticed? Would they report it? And if they did, then what? Surely, Lord and Lady Capone would learn I was the thief.
By the stars.
I clutched at my chest as my heart skipped a beat.
I wasn’t cut out for this. Only criminals stole. And I was hardly a criminal.
Er… well, I was one now.
Even worse, I had to go back to the Capone estate tomorrow. That had to be the definition of insanity, right? Stealing from them, then returning to work the next day as though nothing had happened? It wasn’t like I could quit. I was indentured, which meant I had no choice where I worked. My stepfather controlled that. He’d sold my services to Lord Capone a long time ago. I was quite literally stuck with them.
“Which is why you’re an idiot,” I snapped.
The man next to me stumbled over his footing, then shot me a wide-eyed glance.
I rolled my eyes. “Not you.”
Yup, I’d really screwed up this time. My temper had gotten me into trouble before, but never quite like this.
I just needed to focus. Figure out a plan. Then implement it.
Sounded simple enough.
Except, I had no idea where to start.
Logically, the best thing for me to do was get rid of the vase right away. I couldn’t take it home. My stepfather would catch onto that quick. He knew every piece of inventory in his estate. Gods, what if Lord Capone was the same? He would know instantly if something was missing.
No. Calm down. Think it through.
Repositioning the vase, I contemplated my options as I approached Valine’s Market District, home to merchants and business owners alike.
The way I saw it, I had two choices. I could sell the vase or toss it. Throwing it away was wasteful. I needed the gold. If I returned home tonight with nothing to show for my day’s work, my stepfather would punish me. Not a lashing, because I had to work tomorrow, and he was always careful not to damage his investment. But he had other ways. Ways I didn’t want to think about right now. Not when I needed to focus on the problem at hand.
Selling it was, then.
But not here. The Market District was for reputable business transactions. The merchants would report me to the guards the first chance they got. Servants didn’t just sell gold vases. That would imply they owned one to begin with.
But there was another place I could go.
Arabelle had once told me about a back-alley transaction she’d made. She’d been pale when telling me about it, but she’d described everything in such detail. If I remembered correctly, she’d sold something of her mother’s to a shady man in the Lower West District—a place for people who lacked all scruples. Seeing as how I was now a thief, who was I to throw stones? At the end of the day, I needed the money. And if it’d worked for Arabelle, why couldn’t it work for me?
Gritting my teeth, I turned away from the Market District and, instead, hurried through the back streets until I finally found the bridge Arabelle had mentioned. I crossed it, my steps faltering when I finally got a good look at my surroundings.
The only words that came to mind were, oh shit.
This rundown hole looked nothing like the Market District. Garbage lined the streets, and blood stained the closest wall. There didn’t appear to be any guards here. In fact, the only men present were clearly brutes, with their rotten-toothed grins and stained clothes.
“Hey, gorgeous,” one called in my direction, somehow wolf-whistling even though he lacked his two front teeth. He gestured toward the building in front of me. “Working tonight?”
My attention leapt to the wooden sign hanging above the door, and heat flushed my cheeks. The Pink Pearl.
What an unfortunate name.
“Cuz if you are…” He adjusted his pants—classy—as he sized me up. “I think I’d like a piece of you.”
The leer on his face told me everything I needed to know about him and the establishment before me. Not that The Pink Pearl was a confusing name. For a moment, I debated chucking the vase at him and running before he came any closer.
“Nope,” I replied with more bravado than I actually felt. “Just here on a little business.”
“Yeah…” The man licked his lips. “Me too.”
“Our business isn’t the same.”
“Mmm,” he grunted, readjusting his pants for the second time. “Well, how ’bout you give me a taste of your action, and I’ll give you a taste of mine.” And just in case I needed a visual, he cupped himself.
Gross. Just plain gross.
“Gonna have to pass on that delightful offer,” I murmured.
I took off at a jog, even though I had no idea where I was going.
All this to sell a vase? Really?
No, I reminded myself. All this for gold. To appease my stepfather. To keep Lady Capone from winning. To keep me fed and happy. I needed to stick this out. It was too late to turn back now. Besides, that vendor had to be here somewhere.
Arabelle had mentioned the brothel. So if I recalled her directions correctly, that meant the vendor was a left, then a right, and straight on till—
At the bottom of the next street, a man stood behind a table heavy with wares. I quickened my pace, eager to finish this dreadful business and leave. I came to a stop in front of him. His head rose, and he eyed me curiously, his gaze running down my cloaked figure.
“What?” he demanded.
I smirked. “Nice greeting. I heard you might be a purveyor of pilfered goods.”
“A purveyor of pilfered goods,” he repeated, dramatizing my words. “Sure, sweetheart. We can call it that.” He waved a dismissive hand. “Show me what you got.”
I untucked the bundle and passed it over the table to him.
He took it without question, then laughed. “First time?”
“First time hawking stolen crap?” He shook his head, then handed me back the package. “You don’t give it to me. What if I pulled a blade on you, huh? You show it, but don’t let anyone touch it. Not till you strike a deal.”
“Oh.” Heat blasted my cheeks. “Uh, yeah. First time.”
“S’okay.” He winked, then gestured for me to unwrap the bundle. “Any time you wanna learn something, you just lemme know. Wouldn’t mind teaching you a few things, if you know what I mean.”
Yeah, I knew what he meant. And for crying out loud, was that all the men in the Lower West District cared about? That hard up to wet their dick that they propositioned anyone in a skirt?
“Just the vase today, thanks,” I muttered before holding it up to the alley’s dim lighting. Though it was early evening, the sun didn’t seem to breach back here. Probably why the seedier sort had chosen this location.
The man studied the vase with a pursed mouth. “It’s decent looking. I could probably resell it. One gold.”
“One gold,” I sputtered. “This is worth way more than that.”
“Sure. When it was brand new. But it ain’t new, is it, sweetheart?”
By the gods, if he called me sweetheart one more time….
“Stolen goods don’t fetch half the price they’re worth. Get me?”
I rewrapped the vase and leaned back, appraising him. “Or, because I’m new at this, you’re low-balling me. But that couldn’t possibly be the situation, right?”
He sucked his teeth, then smiled. “I like you.”
“I don’t like you.”
This time, he laughed, then stood straighter. “Lemme have another look.”
I reopened the wrapping and showed him the top portion. “It’s not engraved with a family name. So there’s no way to trace its origins.”
He barked another laugh. “There’s always a way to trace its origins. But fine. Two gold.”
“Three,” I countered. I only owed my stepfather two pieces, but now I wanted a little taste for myself.
“Three?” The man crossed his arms and leaned back against the building wall behind him. “You gotta be kidding me. That ain’t worth three.”
“It’s worth a whole lot more,” I told him. “And I know that.”
“Sure, sweetheart. But who else is gonna buy it from you?”
I gritted my teeth, ignoring the pet name. It wasn’t worth disrupting negotiations. “I’m sure I could find someone. Besides, we both know you’re gonna sell it for five. So, cut me some slack, and give me three.”
The man’s eyes narrowed. “Fine. Three.”
“Great!” I cheered, then handed over the vase.
The vendor groaned and pinched his brow. “Always get the money before handing over the goods. What do they teach you fancy ladies these days?”
Fancy ladies? This time, I laughed. “I’m the farthest thing you’ll find from a fancy lady.”
His gaze climbed my figure once more, then he shrugged. “You look fancy to me, compared to the ladies we get around here. Clean, too. I like clean.”
And that was my cue to skedaddle.
I held out my hand, palm up, and waited for the gold. Once all three coins clinked in my palm, I handed over the vase with a bright smile.
He seemed taken aback at the sight of it. Then he shook his head once more. “You wanna make it out of here safely? Put that pretty smile away and pull your hood down more. A face like yours is gonna attract a lot of unwanted attention. The thugs you passed on the way in will take you for free. The gold won’t even matter to them. Get me?”
Yeah, I got him. I followed his instructions and tucked myself as tightly as I could into my cloak.
“Good girl.” He nodded. “If you ever wanna do business again, I’m game. As I said, I like you. And I like ripping off nobles.”
My mouth fell open. How did he know?
“A vase like that could only come from some noble’s house,” he said, as though reading my mind. “Now, listen closely. Don’t go back the way you came, you hear?”
My eyes widened.
He pointed behind me. “You came from the bridge, yeah? By The Pink Pearl?”
“Trust me when I say, if you head back that way, no way you’ll make it home tonight. Those men are probably waiting there for ya now.” He jerked a thumb over his shoulder. “Follow this street, then take two rights. It’ll take you to Midtown, where you’ll be safe.”
I stared at this man, stunned that he’d even offer me such advice. “Thank you.”
He grunted. “I got a daughter ’bout your age. Now, that don’t mean I don’t wanna piece of you for myself, cuz I sure do. But I can play the long game. And I wanna see what other business you can bring me.”
I… honestly had no idea what to make of any of that, but I appreciated his advice regardless.
“Now get,” he told me.
I did as he suggested and hustled my ass down his suggested route. Time to get home and pay my stepfather. But the extra gold coin in my pocket made me smile.
Maybe being a thief wouldn’t be so bad.