A Thief & A Gentlewoman – Clare Sager

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a thief. And Quin was that thief. The key was not to look like one. To that end she passed through the crowd with a nod here, a smile there, a pointed avoidance of eye contact elsewhere. Posing as a gentlewoman made that avoidance easy: there were plenty of props to help. Gloves to adjust. The slanted hat brim to hide her amber eyes behind. The lady’s companion at her side to speak with. And if all else failed, simply being a lady of the nobility gave all the excuse necessary for a haughty turn away. But Quin’s gaze couldn’t keep away from the reason they were all at Kediler Square today. Every so often her eyes turned to the front of the long, stone-paved square, over the heads of the folk gathered, toward the timber construction whose image was ingrained in her mind as a dark silhouette. She tugged at the ribbon tied fashionably around her throat – it was suddenly tight – and winced at the sight of nooses swaying in the summer breeze. The long lean line of the rapier hidden beneath her full skirts provided no comfort against the haunting presence. Quin had come for the crowd and they were here for the gallows. The deadly nevergreen.

It sprouted from a stage that rose above the heads of the spectators. And what a crowd they were. All of Arianople was here – people from each of its fourteen districts. The shadowed figures of Zeynab Sultana and her husband Ilyas sat in a gazebo to one side of the scaffold, shielded from the bright sun already drying the air. On the stage shuffled various officials, presiding over execution with all the care of accountants over their books. Out in the main body of the square, though, that was where the press of bodies and the rising heat were greatest. Derry walked at Quin’s elbow, neat folded hands and plain blue gown the picture of propriety for a lady’s companion. Her pale skin drew glances as they passed. The Canting King, ever watchful, caught Quin’s eye for a moment before she turned away, her lips pursed. Pashas stood out like jewelled peacocks, their embroidered silk jackets and gowns resplendent above the street dirt.

The aghas – janissary generals rather than aristocrats, technically-speaking – were barely less gilded than the pashas. Some were better-dressed than the beys of less prominent families. Hawkers cried their wares, saffron buns and one-page pamphlets on today’s criminals, their voices amplified above the hubbub thanks to the magic of their Cards. Amongst them the professionals, beggars, and all the other sundry folk of the Gutter Streets drifted, but never quite mixed, like oil stirred into water. Their smells of too-strong lavender, unwashed flesh, and street filth punched through the genteel floral and fruit perfumes of those further up the ladder. Quin walked those eddies between oil and water, eye open for opportunity. Against all instinct, she moved towards the gallows, aiming for an area where pashas and other aristos tended to gather for hangings. That was where she was likely to get a glimpse of him, the grand opportunity that had brought her back to Arianople, the City of Cities, after so long. She wanted to see him from a distance first, size him up ahead of a formal introduction. I “Blind Lady, let me find him,” she murmured.

Her research told her that was the best spot, but a little extra luck from the Blind Lady never hurt. She smiled and brushed her thumb over the Deck of Cards in her pocket – the Blind Lady had saved her skin many a time, in fact. The heady scent of amber tickled her nose. An expensive cologne. The source? Just ahead, a deep conversation between gentlemen in embroidered silk coats, their attendants intent on swatting away any hawkers or beggars who strayed too close. This was opportunity. A small one, but one nonetheless. Barely breaking her stride, Quin removed her glove and skimmed close to the nearest man. He’d thrown his coat open, hands on hips, leaving the side pocket of that pretty silk coat out of his sight and directly in Quin’s path. As she passed, she slipped her hand inside.

Cool metal greeted her fingertips. She caught two items between her straight fingers and pulled them out. Without looking, she dropped one in her own pocket and slipped the other to Derry, whose blue eyes remained fixed on the scaffold as if nothing had happened. It was done. They had been in her hand only briefly, but Quin had been doing this long enough to know the feel of any coin. Two zeri by her reckoning. She carried on her journey, a bee in search of golden nectar. A little here, a little there, that was the key to not ending up there. Her traitorous gaze returned to the scaffold. Preparations were well under way on the stage, officials and the condemned up there, acting out their parts in the pantomime.

The convicted were all young men it seemed from this distance; one stood so short he must have been an older boy, perhaps twelve or thirteen. Their wrists were tied behind their backs, making them hunch awkwardly. The hangman was speaking to the boy, patting his shoulder. What had he done to earn his place up there? The stage was at one end of the square, which was something of a misnomer – Kediler Square was actually a long, open space, formerly a racetrack for sabrecats. Like a spine through the middle, some of the ancient centre markers still stood testament to its old purpose. Most famous was the serpentine column, some fifteen feet tall, in the form of three snakes twisted together, their bronze heads staring fiercely from the top. Today a small, scruffy girl sat up there, legs dangling either side of one snake’s neck. Quin’s mouth quirked for an instant – that had been her favourite spot as a tenyear-old, too. Kediler Square backed onto the Watergardens, but all attention was on the south-western end. That was considered the front of the square for events and a semi-circle of pale columns stood vigil around it, as they had for some thousand-and-something years.

Tiered seating remained between some of the columns, baking in the sun, crumbling to dust, and kept clear by janissaries. The seats looked down upon the stage and scaffold, flanked by four racing sabrecats cast in bronze, two on each side. Their long, curved teeth gleamed. Behind the scaffold, an empty plinth rose above the others, its winged sabrecat honouring Felida long since looted and dragged away by the Venetians. Turning from the empty nooses, Quin noted a hollow-eyed woman, some fifty years old. Her clothes were threadbare and would be poor protection come the autumn rains, which were fastapproaching now they were nearly at the Dying Summer Festival. She stared up at the scaffold, arms wrapped around herself. Quin nodded to Derry, whose blue eyes glanced left and right before she gave an encouraging smile. Another opportunity. She adjusted her course and again dipped her hand into a stranger’s pocket.

This one was rough against her fingers and shallow, just a patch on a linen jacket that had been washed a thousand times. The hollow-eyed woman didn’t stir as Quin dropped in one golden zeri. Quin smiled as she walked further towards the front of the square. A zeri would buy new clothing and still have plenty left over for food. Her good mood soured too soon, though, as the drumroll hiss began. Quin stopped mid-stride, grimacing at the scaffold. Sure enough, the executioner had his victims lined up and moved down the row to drop white hoods over their heads. Now she was closer she could see they were as young as she’d thought: not a single one had seen more than 25 years come and go. As the hangman reached the final victim, Quin clutched her plunging stomach. It was a young woman, not a boy, and that frown was familiar.

Faintly and from long ago, but Quin knew it and the dark eyes beneath. The drums echoed Quin’s hammering heartbeat, as she stared, dry-mouthed. They’d trudged through the mud together as children, scouring the seashore for anything they could sell. What was her name? Amina? No, Aminda. Aminda. Another mudlark who’d graduated to a life of crime. And another one who’d been caught by the janissaries. Aminda’s terracotta brown face was hidden now, but the angle of those frowning brows and the dark glint of those eyes were etched into Quin’s vision. It was a battle to keep her breath steady against threatening panic. They hadn’t been close, but they’d lived the same childhood.

Luck and an unusual education from an unusual mother – that was the only difference between her and Aminda. How long was luck going to stay on her side? There was a snatch of movement near the gallows as the hangman approached his lever, but Quin had seen the trapdoor open and bodies swing enough times before. She spun on her heel and, with a gasp, straight into someone. Someone in a rich silk coat. A man, and equipt, then. Yet another small opportunity, but she could lose herself in it for a moment. Action pushed the panic away. She fell harder into the stumble than necessary, letting him catch her, strong hands at her shoulders. Perfect. Her own hand was already at the inside pocket of his coat, where all gentlemen kept their pocketbooks, full of notes, and their jewelled snuffboxes.

Except then she looked up. It was him. The breath caught in her throat. She had only ever seen his self-portrait, but with those jade eyes and – she was amused to see – the same slight frown of concentration or confusion as in the painting, this was undoubtedly Atesh Shahin, a Pasha of Arianople and cousin of the Sultana. From her research, she’d expected him to be weak and pale – he was an artist, after all. She’d imagined him locked away in a studio for days on end, starved of sun, not bronze-gold and tall. The self-portrait she’d seen had been honest, not flattering, right down to the shadow of dark stubble and slightly long nose. The famous family blade must be on his person somewhere, its emerald hilt safe from light fingers. Quin had learnt so much about him, but he had no idea of who she was and, with any luck, he never would. All that was a moment, already she had mastered her surprise and smoothed her face.

Leaning against his chest, as though her feet were still unsteady, she was rewarded with a smile and the sight of his dilating pupils above flushed cheeks. His warm hands tightened on her shoulders, reflexively holding her close. The first victory in her campaign – he found her attractive. The eyes, the rosy cheeks – they were the signs her mother had taught her and that she’d seen in half a dozen other marks. But that he was handsome – that was a pleasant bonus she didn’t usually get to enjoy in the gentlemen she conned. They’d been aristocrats she’d made fancy themselves in love with her, when in fact they’d just desired ownership of her or wanted a suitable wife. They’d all had their own reasons. With her looks, inoffensive wit, and apparent wealth, she’d made an excellent candidate. She’d won their admiration, their hearts, their proposals, and helped herself to a cut of their wealth. Across Europa she’d conned a bey, a baron, a count, two earls, even a marquis.

A Pasha, though? That was a new challenge, one she’d spent most of her life training for. Mother had called it her magnum opus. Now she was ready. She’d do Livia proud. Quin peered up at the Pasha from beneath the brim of her hat, knowing it framed her amber eyes to great advantage. She’d practiced the move enough times in the mirror it had become effortless. She smiled. All those people of the Gutter Streets his fortune would help – rent, food, clothes, medicine, the simple but expensive business of living. She couldn’t help Aminda, but she would help the rest of them. “I beg your pardon, sir,” she murmured, lowering her gaze and pulling away as if overcome with modesty.

“Madam, no,” he said, voice smooth and deep as velvet. Quin shivered – she hadn’t expected him to sound like that. “It’s I who should –” The sudden silence of the drumroll stopped his and all talk in the square. Into the quiet, a creaking of wood and rope cried that the trapdoor on stage had opened. The Pasha tore his eyes from her, but instead of turning to the spectacle of the hanging, he looked away. Quin took a steadying breath, also avoiding the gallows and taking a last glance at her mark. While he was distracted, she slipped away into the pressing crowd – leave him wondering at the mystery of the woman at Kediler Square. Leave him wanting more. He’d be at the party later where they’d be formally introduced – she’d set it all in place. She’d draw him in, take a slice of his fortune, and give it to the Gutter Streets.

And with him looking like that, she might even enjoy it. A grand opportunity indeed. NOT THAT SUCH OPPORTUNITY was a rarity for Quin. Finding and taking advantage of them was her job, after all, and they tended to go much the same. Take the Venetian Con. That had been five years ago and although it had almost ended in disaster, it had started as all their ventures did. Quin was 18 years old, her mark, the Baron, a couple of years older. “Ready?” her mother murmured in her ear. Her voice was rich and low and her bronze skin gleamed in the torchlight. “Now.

” It was only Quin’s second con, so there was a little flutter of nerves in her belly as she let go of her fan. With a quiet clatter, it landed directly in the path of a tall young man. “Well then,” he said, swooping to pick it up. “Here, madam, you dropped –” He rose and saw Quin. They had spent hours getting her ready. The black hair twisted and pinned and curled and smoothed and decorated with a single white rose. The gown in the shade of purple that suited her so well, cut to show just the right amount of décolletage for a young gentlewoman. The rouge staining her lips and cheeks just a touch deeper than their natural tone. It had been hard work, but his speechlessness made it worth it. With mid-brown hair and a square jaw, he was faintly handsome.

Something about the flare of his nostrils gave Quin the impression of a man used to being obeyed. He cleared his throat and held out the mother-of-pearl fan, not taking his walnut-brown eyes off her. “My most humble apologies, Miss –?” “Thank you, sir,” Quin said, deliberately brushing her fingertips across his palm as she took back her property. He took a quick breath at her touch. Perfect. “Sir, you are very good, thank you,” her mother said, amber eyes glinting above a smile. Her angular jaw was softened by the lush curls falling over her shoulder. “Please forgive the lack of a formal introduction – I’m afraid the manner of our meeting leaves us without an appropriate mutual party.” She gestured at the crowd as if helpless. “Of course, madam,” he said, sparing the briefest glance for her mother.

“I am Baroness Sorrento and this is my daughter Lady Quinta Bucca.” “Ladies, I am most honoured.” He bowed. “Baron Belluno, at your service.” Quin and her mother returned his bow as if they hadn’t known his name all along. “Sorrento – that’s in the south, isn’t it, madam?” “It is, indeed,” Mum said, wafting her fan, “you must be well-travelled, sir.” He visibly swelled at her compliment. “When my lands allow it, madam. Might I ask what brings you to La Serenissima?” Before they had a chance to answer, he fixed Quin with a smile. “Though how it can be so serene with such a pair of beauties causing raptures wherever they go, I don’t know.

” Seriously? Quin’s toes scrunched up in the ends of her shoes, but she forced a giggle from her lips and looked away. “Oh, sir,” her mother said, tittering, “you are too kind!” She lifted her fan, as if whispering behind it to him alone. “Although I confess to being perhaps a little biased, sir, I must agree with you.” “Oh, mother,” Quin gasped, looking away modestly. She forced a pink blush to her cheeks by imagining herself naked in front of all these people. The hum of chatter lowered as the pianoforte struck up. The rising excitement was palpable – young women took each other’s hands and hurried into the adjoining ballroom. The men exchanged glances and nods before following. “Madam, the dances are about to begin,” the Baron said. “If Lady Quinta isn’t already claimed, I’d humbly beg the honour of this first dance.

” The way he peered down his nose at her didn’t suggest he humbly did anything. But Quin smiled and placed a hand on her chest, as if surprised. “Sir,” she said, “I’d be honoured, but you must promise to excuse my mistakes – I’m not so familiar with your Venetian dances.” His shoulders squared and his chest puffed. Let him feel superior, having to help this provincial girl from the south. The back of Quin’s throat ached, but she took his hand when he offered. It was hot and clammy. “I’ll hurry straight back, Mama,” she called over her shoulder, as he led her away. Her mother’s eyes were bright above a fierce smile of victory. A few people watched as they made their way to the ballroom.

One tall young woman glared particularly hard at them, dark eyes flinty. The Baron must have an admirer or perhaps a courtesan as was so fashionable in Venetia. They’d made enquiries before coming here – there was no serious understanding between him and another lady. He was fair game. The tall woman made a step forward, as if to intercept or draw his attention, but the Baron’s grip on Quin’s hand tightened and he steered her away. Her interest was not returned, then. Or at least it had been eclipsed by Quin’s presence. The admirer’s jaw knotted and her nostrils flared, but after a few seconds she gave up and turned away, hair shining reddish brown in the candlelight. Quin suppressed a sigh of relief and lined up beside the other women waiting to dance. A prior attachment would have thrown off all their plans, but when the Baron took his place opposite, his eyes were focused only on her.

Each side bowed to the other as a viola and flute joined the pianoforte. Quin’s feet took over, following the music to the complex steps and turns of the minuet. That allowed her to focus on giving the Baron deliberately questioning glances, as if unsure of the next move. With each worried raise of her eyebrows, his expression became more sickening in its intensity. He grasped her fingers where they were meant to only touch flat palm to flat palm. The way he looked at her – it was like he wanted to eat her. He didn’t see her, just a thing to add to his catalogue of possessions, an object to get heirs upon. And the way his gaze lingered on her cleavage suggested he anticipated enjoyment from doing so. But Quin had to keep up the show, so she smiled, blushed, and even threw in a misstep towards the end. Her stomach was lead the whole time.

There was no excitement left, only dismay. At last, it was over. She sank into a bow, squeezing her eyes shut for the moment her face was hidden. When she rose, she was smiling. The Baron offered his arm and she placed her hand on it. In another place and time, with different people, it could have been a love story. There were women who dreamed of dancing at a ball with a dashing young nobleman. Quin wasn’t one of them and the Baron wasn’t the kind of gentleman sensible women dreamed of. “Madam,” he said, as they cleared the way for the next dance, “I must admit, I am quite parched and I should imagine you are, too.” It wasn’t a question.

He didn’t wait for her to respond. “Let us have a little refreshment before I return you to Lady Sorrento. I’m sure she won’t mind a few minutes more.” He was already leading her towards the low mahogany table groaning under the weight of an enormous cut-glass punch bowl – it wasn’t much smaller than the troughs of water sabrecats drank from. “A drink is an excellent idea, sir,” Quin said, looking up at him from lowered lashes. He gave her hand a squeeze before fetching a glass and ladling a generous portion of punch into it. This was the whole reason such balls had self-serve punch bowls – it allowed a gentleman to gallantly serve a lady her drink, ensuring time for flirtation and favours. The Baron was taking full advantage of the opportunity to keep her to himself a little longer. “Madam,” he said, handing her a glass so full it was almost overflowing, “I must say you danced beautifully. I wouldn’t have known you had reservations about dancing in the Venetian style.

” He took a glass for himself and ladled in the bright orange punch. It wasn’t as full as the one he’d given Quin. “Although I’m not the least bit surprised that you’d pick up our ways so quickly – with a little help, of course.” He gave a little, self-important lift of his chin. “The first moment I saw you, I knew there had to be an uncommon woman behind that uncommon beauty.” “Oh, sir,” she murmured, lowering her eyes. One, two, three, she counted, then returned her gaze to him. His chest rose in a sudden breath. It was almost too easy. Quin took a sip of her drink, holding his gaze over the brim of the glass.

She knew the move framed her eyes and when she took the glass away, the drink left her lips glistening, inviting. The Baron’s eyes bulged and he emptied his glass in one gulp. Far too easy. That night they danced twice more, causing tongues to wag already. It was a little boring – he’d been hooked so easily. Ariston had joked about betting on how long until she had her proposal. With how nicely this was going, Quin was only too happy to gamble on the date. And with the Baron, well, she’d wager it wouldn’t take long at all … QUIN HAD TRAVELLED across much of Europa, but the gallows party was an institution peculiar to Arianople. After a public hanging the nobility retired to avoid the heat of the day, before emerging in the evening to gather in oak-panelled rooms in houses across the city for private parties thrown, ostensibly, to celebrate the death of a deserving criminal (or two or three or half a dozen as had hanged that morning). The idea turned Quin’s stomach, threatening to bring back the glass of sweet punch she’d just finished.

Perhaps they were truly here to celebrate that they themselves still lived or to blot out the images in their minds of kicking legs and twitching fingers. Surely, they were as haunted by that as she was. Though none of them would have known the names of any of the condemned, never mind spent a childhood mudlarking with one. Quin sipped the fresh glass of punch a footman placed beside her, the sweet pomegranate and sharp orange not quite masking the alcohol burn. She wanted to gulp it to steady her nerves, but that would be unseemly and the way Malos’s eyes kept lingering on her, there was no doubt he’d notice such behaviour. She smiled at him over the rim of her glass as he gathered the cards from the table. With his dark hair and black eyes, he was a handsome rake, but a rake nonetheless. The poor man had paid her a lot of attention since her arrival in the city and she almost felt bad to have befriended him just to get to his richer cousin. A friendship with Malos Aksoy had been the surest way to get herself formally introduced to his close friend and cousin, Atesh Shahin Pasha. The Pasha was newly returned from his country estate and he’d already – quite literally – bumped into a mysterious young woman in Kediler Square.

Tonight, he’d have a proper introduction and put a name to the face he’d clearly found so attractive. She balled her hand into a fist under the table – the only expression of excitement she allowed herself. She couldn’t have planned it better if she’d tried. All thanks to the Blind Lady for the stroke of luck that had made her walk into him.


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