I DIDN’T FIT.
The night moon glowed overhead, cool and soft and bright. I’d slipped off the dark roof and into the darker room through the window, but my hips had gotten wedged, and try as I might, I couldn’t pull my way through. I was stuck, half in and half out of the bedroom before me.
I stifled a sigh and instead held my breath, waiting, listening for any movement, any sign I’d been found. Nothing. The house was silent and still.
At least no one was around to see me in my amateur predicament. I twisted, using my hips to push the window up a little more. I tumbled the rest of the way into the bedroom, catching myself on my hands. I lowered my body carefully to the floor. Even the slightest bit of noise on my part would attract attention, and that would be the end of it.
I adjusted my bone mask, decorated with raindrops, over my face. A deep breath calmed the twitching in my muscles, my fingers, the blood rushing through my veins as it begged me to spring into action.
But this was not a time for action. This was a time of stealth.
I slipped out of the dark bedroom and into the darker hallway, closing the door so quietly it barely clicked as it latched. My ears strained for any noise. There was nothing.
I slid my feet across the hall floor, then gently stepped down the stairs, one after another, tiptoeing along the wall so the floorboards wouldn’t squeak beneath me.
The common room spread before me, empty and quiet in the night. Moonlight from a single window cast beams across the dining table, motes of dust sparkling for an instant before passing from sight. Scents from the remains of dinner brushed over me—lamb, spiced with fresh herbs, and ripe summer fruit.
My mouth watered.
Down another flight of stairs, pausing every few moments to listen, to let my eyes unfocus, to catch any slight movements hidden in the shadows. My leathers creaked, keeping me snug in their tight embrace.
The shop on the ground floor stood empty and still like the rest of the house. Bottles filled with perfumes and concoctions lined the shelves, and though the shop had been scrubbed clean, the faint scent of goldencones and tullie blossoms reached me.
To anyone else, it would appear there was nowhere further to go, that I had reached the end of my travels. But I wasn’t anyone else. I was a clipper. My world was a world of secrets.
In the back room of the shop, past the f lowers and herbs hanging from the ceiling and the jarred liquids waiting to be combined for later sale, I depressed a small, concealed latch. A hidden door slid silently open.
I crept through and closed the door tightly. Behind the hidden door of the shop was a hatch in the floor. I squatted and pulled a key from a pocket on my hip. The key fit perfectly into the lock. I twisted slowly until the lock turned over.
The hinges of the hatch were whisper quiet. They’d been well oiled. Beneath the hatch stood a ladder, leading deeper into darkness.
I exhaled, then stepped onto the rungs. I descended.
My eyes had adjusted to the night, but the room at the bottom of the ladder was so dark that blindness weighed me down like the heavy stones of the building above. It would be easy to panic, to let the crushing darkness and fear overtake me. I could scramble up the ladder to the shop and the fresh air and freedom that awaited me there.
But for once it wasn’t freedom I sought, but answers.
And panic was for amateurs.
A breeze of fresh air brushed across my neck. I followed it. My senses stretched and pushed into the darkness for any signal or sign.
The room opened into a larger one. A small glow of orange light emerged from a hearth and the dying embers nestled in the embrace of the ashes. Hardly any light at all, really, but it seemed a noonday sun after the darkness at the bottom of the ladder.
The room was rectangular, with the hearth in the middle. Before the hearth rested chairs and a short table for reading or conversing. At one end of the rectangle stood the kitchen, with a dining table. At the other end of the room weapons leaned in racks, glinting quietly in the dying firelight, their edges well honed.
The room appeared empty.
I inched forward.
My fingers twitched at my belt, the knives waiting for me to need them.
A blade pressed tightly against the skin of my throat. Then a breath, quiet, yet filled with arrogance and triumph all the same.
A voice whispered in my ear, “You lose.”
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