That night, Cal knew that her classmates would be slaving away on their projects, but not her. Instead, she was in Washpenny Lane, one of Istima’s countless market streets. Perhaps, more accurately, she was atop one of the roofs of Washpenny Lane.
She’d been here a few times now, picking pockets and cutting purses, but the real money was inside the shops. The one Cal was watching right now was a clothing shop called Sable and Burr’s Garment Emporium. It was a tall and thin building, with each level jutting further and further out from the first, which gave the structure the unsettling appearance that it was about to tip over onto the street below.
Most towns Cal had ever been to closed down at sunset, but Istima was different. The magic lamps and ever-burning fires meant that it was well into the night before the market closed. When it finally did, she made her way across the roofs until she was atop the building beside her target. It was only when she was about to make the jump that she noticed something odd.
Something glittered on the roof of the shop, like a million tiny diamonds in the moonlight. She peered closer and raised an eyebrow. Someone had stuck shards of glass all across the edge of the roof, anyone trying to grab on from another building would end up slicing their hand to ribbons. Either the shopkeeper was paranoid, or they had something valuable to protect.
Usually, Cal preferred to work barehanded, but she carried leather gloves in the small bag strapped to her back. Once they were on, she backed up a few paces and, with a running start, leapt for the other roof.
She heard glass crunch in her hands as she grabbed onto the tiles, and she quickly clambered up before anyone on the street below happened to look up. She wiped the shards from her gloves and surveyed the situation.
The building was four stories tall, the highest level had a balcony on the backside, facing a canal. That would be her entrance. Looking down, she saw it was empty, and there were no lights coming from inside. Satisfied, she hopped down, the running water from the canal masking the sound of her movement.
She went to try the doorknob and saw that it was covered in little runes. Damn, she thought, maybe I should’ve paid more attention to that lesson. She recognized an anchor rune, but the other symbols were unknown to her. There was a chance it was nothing dangerous, but that sort of thinking ended the careers of many would-be thieves.
Instead, she got out her knife and wedged it into the frame of the window beside the door. It took a little convincing, but eventually, she was rewarded with the soft click of the lock giving way. The window opened noiselessly and Cal clambered through. Her feet hit the ground inside and that’s when things went wrong.
Cal’s feet slipped out from under her as she was hurled upwards. She shielded her face as the ceiling rapidly approached and… then nothing. She opened her eyes and saw that she was hanging in the middle of the air.
She heard voices from somewhere in another room and then the sound of a door opening. She cursed, then cursed again when she saw her knife floating just out of her reach.
“Well, would you look at that,” a voice said beneath her. “It appears we have something caught in our flytrap.”
“Quite,” said another voice said. “Should we get her down?”
“One moment—I say, you there! Are you injured?” Was he speaking to her? “Come now, I know you can hear me! Are you injured?”
“I’m fine,” Cal said.
“Wonderful! Sable, if you would?”
Cal heard a click and gravity returned. She crashed to the ground, landing on a surprisingly plush rug. She groaned and rolled over, looking up at the ceiling. Two men appeared in her vision, one holding an elegant blade to her throat.
“I have several questions and I assure you it would be in your best interest to answer, agreed?” Cal nodded, feeling the steel of the blade at her neck. “First, how did you manage to get this far? Most thieves get caught by the first two traps, why not you?”
“No such thing, darling,” the other man said with a smile. “In this city, that’s known as skill. But, we’ll have time enough to discuss that. Next question, what were you hoping to find in here?”
“What do most thieves come to find?”
“Clever answer,” said the first man. “Though you did just admit to being a thief. Points off for that. Final question, are you available for hire?”
“What my colleague here means to say is that we are impressed with your abilities. If you are not previously engaged, we have a proposition to make.”
“Oh, Burr, we’ve confused the poor girl.” He pulled the knife back and slid it into a scabbard hidden in the lining of his jacket.
Cal sat up and got a better look at the two men. They were both thin, middle-aged, and incredibly well dressed. The man with the knife wore a white suit while his counterpart wore black.
“Perhaps we should start with introductions,” said the man in white. “I am Burr, and this is my partner Sable.”
“A pleasure,” said Sable, giving Cal a warm smile.
“And you are?”
“Wonderful. You are sure you aren’t injured? You did fall from quite a ways up.”
“I’m fine. What’s going on exactly?”
“It’s actually rather simple, really. We are two businessmen looking to hire someone of your talents.”
“To do what?”
“Robbery, theft, and general skullduggery,” said Sable.
“But… why? This is a tailor’s shop.”
“It is,” Burr said with a nod. “Some would say the best in the city. But, we have other enterprises too. Enterprises which rely on discretion and a certain amount of moral flexibility.”
“And you’re offering me a job?” Cal’s head was still spinning.
“I do believe she’s got it, Sable!” Burr smiled. “Yes, a job is exactly the idea. Are you interested?”
“I… need to know the details.”
“Yes, yes,” he waved a hand. “All in good time. But first, would you care for something to drink?”
And so, Cal found herself sitting in the small apartment behind the shop she had intended to rob, waiting as the two men bustled about the kitchen.
“Sugar?” Sable asked, bringing her a cup of steaming tea. Cal shook her head, taking the drink from him. Burr followed close behind with a plate of small biscuits. The two men sat down across from her and watched intently.
“So… this business of yours,” Cal said, taking a biscuit, “what is it exactly?”
“We are suppliers,” Burr said. “The mages need all sorts of ingredients and materials for their various projects, but not all are easy to come by.”
“Or even legal,” Sable added.
“Quite right. We discretely provide customers with what they need and they pay us handsomely for it.”
“And where do I come into all this?”
“As I said, not all the things we acquire are strictly legal. In fact, some of them are carefully guarded by certain factions of the college. We need someone to retrieve items and make deliveries. You will, of course, be paid.”
“And why should I trust you?”
“Would you prefer we turn you over to the guard?” Burr shook his head. “It is a calculated risk for you to trust us, just as it is for us to hire a thief. But, this has the potential to be lucrative for both of us, don’t you agree?”
Cal hated to admit it, but she agreed. She was in the city as a thief anyway, so she might as well get paid a wage for it. “I’ll accept, but on one condition.”
“The room above the store, the one I broke into, I want to stay in it.”
“Stay? We aren’t a boarding house.”
“It’s not like you’re using it,” she said. “Think of me as your fourth alarm, should anyone else try and break in. Besides, it beats the Summer Court dormitory.”
“The Summer— hold it, you’re a student?” Burr looked to his partner. “No wonder she made it through the first two traps. Well then, as long as Sable is okay with it?” The man in the black suit nodded. “Then we are agreed! The room and wages in exchange for your services. We will, of course, deduct rent from your earnings.”
“Hang on a minute—“
“The deal is good, my dear, I would take it if I were you.” Sable smiled.
“Fine,” Cal said, crossing her arms.
“Excellent! Go ahead and get settled in, we’ll have something for you soon.”
Moving into her new room didn’t take much time. All of Cal’s belongings fit into the small trunk she’d brought with her to Istima. It was midnight by the time she got back to the shop, and the room was completely dark.
She cursed, wishing she’d asked Sable or Burr for a lamp. They probably had a spare magical lantern or something—it seemed everyone in the damned city did. If Alendra was here, she’d probably be able to do that glowing thing with her hands and—
Cal paused. Technically, she could do that. She looked at her hands and concentrated, then on the space above her hand. Like someone sparking flint, a small spark appeared. She poured in more energy and a small white flame burst into the air, illuminating the room with pale light.
It only lasted a few seconds before Cal felt a wave of fatigue, but it was longer than her last attempt. She smirked, it was a nice parlor trick, but it wouldn’t do.
Then another thought occurred to her. She opened up her pack and took out the small slate tablet she’d gotten in class. She began writing runes, trying to recall the lesson. What was it Teagan had said? Anchor and link, she drew the symbols. She hoped she was remembering the energy transfer system correctly.
The slate began to glow. A smile spread across her face, but faded when she felt the tablet get hot.
“Damn!” She said. Something was wrong. It was heating rapidly, Cal dropped the slate and backed up. She rummaged through her bag for her gloves as the rug beneath the tablet began to smoke and sizzle.
Putting on the gloves, she snatched the tablet back up and wiped away the transfer runes. The light disappeared, but so did the heat. I forgot the channeling. She drew the symbols again, this time, adding in the runes to funnel all the energy in the system into light. This time, when the slate glowed, it was brighter and remained cool to the touch.
It was a little victory, but now she could get a good look at her new room.
It was unfinished, with wood scraps and nails dotting the floor. On one side, below the window to the balcony, was the large rug she’d landed on earlier that night. On the other side of the room, beneath a sheet, she found a small table and two chairs. A thick layer of dust coated every surface.
Overlooking the lack of a bed, it was serviceable, especially compared to the rooms of the Day Court. She borrowed a broom from the shop downstairs and cleaned the debris off the floor, piling it in the far corner. With the floor clear, Cal took the rug and folded it on top of itself, then she covered it with the sheet she’d pulled off the table. It wouldn’t be the most comfortable sleep in the world, but it beat the floor.
She made a mental note to examine the traps on the doorknob and the floor beneath the window, but not tonight. Instead she fell onto her makeshift bed, and was asleep before she hit the blanket.