A faint breeze swept across the nighttime road and out over the sea cliffs. Ribbons of moonlight shimmered off the black water, waves crashing into the rocks below with steady cadence. Ahead, a walled, fortress-like manor overlooked the bay and the adjoining port.
Keeping to the shadows beneath the trees, Karolina followed the sinuous path toward the house. A sudden gust swept her blue cloak and pushed against the basket in her arms. She adjusted her grip until the wind subsided, all the while maintaining the appearance that the empty vessel was heavy.
Her skin tingled with anticipation. She slowed her breath to prevent it from steaming in the chilly air. Excitement coursed through her body, spiking her senses. She heard the scuttle of mice in the leaves. The sweet taste of salty air danced across her lips, and she smelled the flowered vines creeping through branches above.
Nearing the house, she turned and circled to a clump of large rocks bordering the property. She crouched behind them and watched. A pair of guards, armed with rapiers at their belts, stood at the wrought iron gate. Through the bars, she spied at least one more patrolling the grounds inside. Slivers of yellow light peeked through the manor’s shuttered windows. Two on the third, and highest, floor hung open. A dark figure walked between them, silhouetted by lamplight. Guard or a servant, Karolina couldn’t tell. Both would be plentiful within the house. Somewhere, hidden within the ivy-drenched walls, Mikhail Svelovich thought he was safe.
Karolina untied the bothersome cloak and shoved it into the basket. There was no more need for disguises.
Unclasping the slender leather box on her belt, she removed a round gem from its padded cradle. Even in the moonlight she could make out the wisps of inky smoke that swirled and danced within the inch-wide ruby.
She slipped the stone into her mouth and shuddered, a sudden jolt shooting through her flesh. To the world she was invisible, but when she looked at her own hands and body, she saw black curls of fog confined to her form. Pressing her tongue against the gem so it wouldn’t roll back into her throat, she stood and walked across the clearing toward the manor. She moved softly to not make any noise or overly disturb the grass.
The gossiping voices of the two gate guards became clearer as she neared the ten-foot wall.
“I’m not lying, it’s the size of my head,” said one in a high pitched voice.
“It can’t be,” the other replied.
“Tomorrow we’ll go to town and I’ll show you.”
Their voices faded as another gust of wind swept them away. Karolina followed the stone wall to a narrow patch devoid of vines. She grabbed hold of one of the worn rocks and quickly scaled to the top.
Peering over the edge, she surveyed the property. A sentry stood alone at the front door, but the side servant’s entrance appeared unguarded. A lone patrolman circled the grounds; his blank expression said his mind wandered on other things. Patiently, she waited for him to pass out of earshot before dropping quietly to the ground.
Steering clear of fallen leaves, she made her way around to the side of the manor. She maintained slow breathing so the plumes would not give her away in the unlikely case anyone looked her direction.
She reached the side door and listened. Nothing. The hinges faced inward, making it impossible for it to suddenly open and hit her. Carefully, she knelt, swung the metal cover away from the keyhole, and peered through.
A slender, mousey-haired maid worked quietly at a table rolling dough. Karolina watched for a few minutes, but the woman made no sign she intended to leave the kitchen for a while. She slid the keyhole cover back in place and continued her circle.
A white marble statue of a woman holding a lily stood in a hedge garden behind the house. Beyond it, a knee-high wall ran along the rear of the property where it fell away to the sheer sea cliffs. A double door set with large glass windows looked out from the manor. Inside, several chairs and sofas lined the walls leaving the inlaid floor open. On other nights the ballroom might comfortably hold forty people, but tonight it lay empty.
Karolina checked the door. Locked. She removed a small set of picks from her belt and unlocked it within seconds. Taking a quick moment to be sure the patrolling guard was not near, she softly cracked it open and slipped inside.
An impressive, life-size painting of Mikhail Svelovich hung on the side wall between two doors. Gray stripes accented his dark, curly beard. A fleet of merchant ships filled the ocean behind him as he stood poised in a regal stance.
His rival, Igor Vshlaci, had offered her five thousand gold bishkas to bring an end to the blood feud. It was just like a merchant to offer gold as payment. How would he expect her to move it out of the city, let alone carry it? Besides, five thousand bishkas was far below her price. She was Polnoch, and if her clients wanted the best, they had to pay for her reputation. Of course Igor tried to haggle at first, all good merchants do. But in the end he agreed; twenty Mercińan emeralds, each the size of a robin’s egg, all in advance.
Tonight, the Merchant Kings’ War would end.
After checking the door, she crept out into a long hallway. According to the ex-servant she had coaxed, Mikhail spent most of his evenings either in the library on the second floor or his chambers on the third. The servant, like most young men, was eager to please, and drew a very detailed layout which she memorized.
Karolina turned up a tight staircase to the second floor. Lowering to her hands, she ascended like a cat to prevent the wooden steps from creaking loudly. As she reached the top, a thin-nosed guard walked past, his legs coming within inches of her face. She froze and watched him continue on, completely unaware she was there. He strolled down the passageway until it turned before she stepped out into the hall.
A long rug ran the length of the hall. Her map had said the library was located near the southeast corner of the house. Silently, she followed the corridor until it came to a dark oaken door.
Her tongue rolled along the magical gem in her mouth as she quietly crouched at the keyhole. The soft, red glow of a dying fire flickered across the room. Carved shelves packed with tomes rested along the walls between paintings and heavy curtains. A lone figure sat in a high-backed chair facing the fireplace.
Resting her ear to the keyhole, she heard nothing but the popping of embers.
Opening the door would give her away. Her prey might cry out in alarm and rouse any nearby guards and servants. Relying on her invisibility would be reckless and unlike many of the others who had owned the magical gemstone in its long and bloody history, she was a professional. Mikhail would have to leave eventually and all she needed was patience.
She retreated to a nook in the hallway, periodically checking to see if her target had moved, and waited.
The patrolling guard made his rounds one more time. After another twenty or so minutes, the kitchen servant came down the hall carrying a silver tray of food. She stopped at the library door and pushed it open with her hip, brass hinges groaning.
Quickly, Karolina made her move. She slipped through, behind the maid, and slid to the side of the door.
The thin woman kept her eyes low as she approached the leather chair. “I brought you your dinner, sir,” she mumbled.
The seated figure gave no response.
She set the platter on a low table beside him. “I will leave it here for you.” The woman shifted uncomfortably, bowed, and quickly left the room.
Karolina waited until the door closed. Luxurious paintings and elaborate vases decorated the spacious library. Curtains of lemon yellow velvet draped across the ceiling and down the walls. A thick, fringed rug dominated the room, almost completely covering the wooden floor’s intricately inlaid pattern. Warmth issued from a mahogany fireplace filled with flickering red coals.
Carefully, she approached the lone chair. Normally, the footprints she made in the soft rug would concern her. But with her prey’s back to her, no one would see the telltale signs.
The man sat quietly with a thick tome lying open in his lap. His hanging head said he was asleep.
Reaching to her belt, she removed a glass stiletto from a padded leather sheath along her back. Squeezing its smooth, twisted handle she poised it inches from her victim’s neck beneath his gray beard. With a sudden and hard thrust, she struck. A triangular hole opened in the man’s throat as the invisible blade drove through his flesh. His body jerked. The stiletto scraped against his vertebrae and with a twist, she broke the glass blade inside him.
She withdrew her hand, releasing the weapon, and the blue-swirled handle appeared jutting from the wound. It fell to his lap leaving shards of glass as crimson blood burst from the hole and ran from his mouth.
His eyes sprung open in disbelief and she saw his face for the first time. Something about him looked familiar. She’d seen his pudgy cheeks and thick eyebrows before.
Wheezing and gurgling, he shuddered, knocking the book from his lap. Tight brown cord bound his hands, cutting his wrists. The thick beard slid unnaturally as he convulsed. Karolina ripped it off his face and gasped.
Igor Vshlaci, her employer, sat dying before her. With a final shiver, his body fell still. She removed a long black quill clutched in the dead man’s hand.
Movement reflected in the azure vase in front of her. Spinning around, she saw a figure step from behind one of the curtains against the wall. She froze in shock.
His familiar blue eyes narrowed as he drew a black sash across his mouth with one hand and pulled a hanging silk rope with the other.
With a hard tug, Ahren yanked the smooth rope. A bell sounded as white flour spilled from the velvet slings along the ceiling, filling the room in clouds of fine powder. His eyes focused on an empty hole in the chalky fog. Metal rasped as he drew his rapier and stepped forward. He’d waited for this meeting for a long time. “Surrender.”
One of Mikhail’s guards burst through the door, holding his sword.
The invisible figure grabbed a nearby vase and hurled it at him. He ducked and the porcelain exploded behind him. The assassin leaped from the floor and across the room.
The guard hesitated, obviously confused by the scene before him. Polnoch lunged, her outstretched arm just a blur of emptiness silhouetted in white. The guard’s neck caved inward and he fell to his knees, dropping his sword as he clutched his throat.
Cursing, Ahren chased after her. He leapt over the wheezing guard and into the hall. White footprints led to the left. He turned to see the streams of flour trailing from nothingness as she ran.
The hallway intersected ahead, and she took the right passage. A woman screamed.
Ahren raced around the corner to see a housemaid against the wall, pointing toward the stairwell. The flour on Polnoch’s feet was thinning, but there was still enough to leave faint marks. Squeezing his rapier handle, he hurried down after the echoing footsteps.
He stopped and looked around as he reached the first floor. The elaborate, multicolored rugs hid any trace of white dust. Listening, he walked a few steps one way then the other. Guards were shouting the alarms above and outside. But he heard nothing from his quarry.
From the corner of his eyes he noticed a pale smudge in an alcove wall beside him. He feigned a glance the other way as his arm shot into the niche. His fingers caught fabric and he closed his fist. She fought, striking his arm and he wrenched her out. She twisted and the rapier dropped from his hand as they both crashed to the floor.
Struggling, Ahren managed to get his weight on top of her. A hand grabbed his throat, digging in its nails. He found her wrist and pulled it away, pinning it down. Through the flour he could smell her breath and skin. The familiar scent of her sweat trembled through his brain. She twisted like an insane cat wrestling to be free. A fist smashed into his cheek. Stunned, he nearly lost his grip. The unseen fist struck him again and he tasted blood. Dropping his weight, he slung his head forward. His forehead knocked against hers, banging it into the floor.
She yelped in pain.
In that quick instant as her lips parted, he saw her. Her fierce green eyes were just as he remembered. He found her other hand as she vanished again and grabbed it, slamming it into the floor above her head.
“Nice to see you again,” he growled.
Bucking her body, Karolina wrapped her legs around Ahren and crushed his sides, driving the wind from him. She wrenched her weight to the right, throwing him off her. Ahren struggled to hold her unseen wrists, but her knee slammed into his groin. Gasping, his body seized in pain. With another hard kick, she tore from his grasp. The imprint in the carpet vanished and footsteps raced away.
The guard from the library burst down the stairs, clutching his rapier. Staggering to his feet, Ahren grabbed his sword and they hurried after her.
The kitchen door stood ajar. He looked in to see the handle of the outside exit rattling. Holding his sword in front so she couldn’t charge, they stepped inside.
The door handle stopped clattering. Ahren advanced slowly into the small kitchen. His gaze swept across the floor, but found no trace of flour. He cursed the cleanliness of Mikhail's staff. There wasn't even dust to help give her away.
The cellar door burst open and her soft shoes padded down the steps. Ahren crossed the room and followed down the dim-lit stairs.
Wooden shelves packed with dusty casks lined the cellar walls. Rows of narrow wine racks ran the length like dominos. Ahren stopped at the foot of the steps to get his bearings when a bottle flew at him from the darkness.
He side-stepped as it exploded beside him, showering him with glass and burgundy wine. “Shut the door!” he hollered to the guard silhouetted at the top of the stairs. He darted behind a row of cases as the door above closed, pinching off the only light and flooding the cellar in blackness. If he couldn’t see her, it was time to even the field.
Hugging the wall of barrels, he crept further from where she had last seen him and listened. The room lay silent. “You can’t escape this time,” he said. “The exits are all blocked.”
He slid further away and knelt beside one of the freestanding cases. His eyes strained to see anything from the dim light peeking under the door above. “Your employer is dead, Polnoch. You failed.”
Wood creaked. Glass shattered as something slammed into the rack beside him. Ahren leapt out of the way as the case fell over then crashed into the adjoining one with a terrible clatter. He crouched beside a support pillar and listened, but heard nothing. Cold liquid ran between his fingers against the floor as decades worth of wine flowed over the stone.
“Are you all right,” shouted a voice from behind the cellar door. “We’re coming down.”
“Keep that door shut,” he hollered. “She’ll escape if you open it.”
Finally she spoke. “You’re just wanting me alone in the dark again.”
“Now we’re even,” he continued. “Or have you forgotten how you got that night ruby in Nadjancia?”
“That was different.”
Ahren’s eyes locked onto the direction her voice had come. If she was talking it meant the night ruby was out of her mouth. “Not really. You killed my boss, shot me with a drugged dart, and stole it.”
Tinkling glass came from the broken bottles across the fallen racks.
“I let you live,” she purred. “Your plan for revenge doesn’t give me the same option.”
“You left me to answer to my superiors. The Tyenee doesn’t forgive easily.” He slinked away from where he had last spoken and waited beside a stack of boxes.
“Poor Ahren,” she condescended. “Does the mighty Black Raven have a master? I always wondered why you would subjugate yourself to the Tyenee. Maybe you aren’t as brilliant as you think.”
Anger flashed, and then a chuckle escaped his lips. She was toying with him. “I foiled you, didn’t I?” He ran his fingers across the wet floor until he found one of the broken shards. Softly he crept further back behind the crates to where they opened up into the main storage area of the basement. Faint strips of light peeked in from the outside cellar door far in the back of the room. He only hoped she hadn’t seen it.
“I’m not beaten yet.” Her voice came from where he had hidden after the racks fell.
The guard behind the kitchen door called again. “Are you all right, down there?”
Ahren flicked the wedge of glass out several feet in front of him. It skittered across the floor stones. He held his breath and waited.
Unable to see, he heard nothing, yet the air in front of him moved slightly. He lunged forward, hoping she was there. His hands found her shoulder and he grabbed tight.
She thrashed, trying to get away, but he threw his arm around her neck and held on. Her elbow came back and jabbed into his stomach. Stumbling back, they crashed into a row of boxes, knocking them to the floor. Gasping for air, the night ruby fell from her mouth. She appeared suddenly in his arms as the round gem pinged on the ground and rolled away.
A small knife glinted in her hand. He released his sword just in time to catch it as she stabbed behind her. Pulling her hand away, he knocked it against the floor until the blade fell from her grasp.
She pressed back against his chest and purred, “I missed you too, lover.”
“Give up, Karolina.”
“You know that isn’t an option.” She twisted against him. “That’s not what you really want.”
He tightened his hold. “Surrender.”
She turned her head so her smooth cheek brushed his chin. “I always said we’d be good together, Black Raven. Just you and me.”
He pulled his face from hers, but not before he had caught her scent. Memories of Nadjancia flickered in his mind.
“Just you and me. And only one night ruby between us.”
“Don't tell me it was that important to you. I hurt your pride. You wanted revenge.” She slid her back up and down his chest. “And more. Don’t tell me you haven’t considered it. Or is vengeance your only dream about me when you go to bed at night?”
Her words stung. He struggled with himself to keep his tight hold of her. “You used me,” he growled. “You stole from me.”
“You used me too,” she cooed. “I saved your life, remember? Then I spared it when I could have killed you. It was more than just business between us, you know that. Why else would I have let you live?”
Ahren pulled them up to their feet and moved toward the door. Yanking her hand free, she twisted around to face him. It was too dark to see her clearly, but he felt her soft lips tremble against his.
She whispered her words into his mouth. “We’d be magical together.”
His grip loosened despite himself. Her leg slid up behind his as her hands glided up his chest.
The kitchen door burst open, spilling yellow light down into the wrecked wine cellar. He jerked in surprise and caught a glimpse of a guard boot starting down the steps.
Karolina’s lips pressed Ahren’s and kissed him. His flesh tingled as he returned the kiss, but suddenly her hand shoved away. Tripping over her leg, he crashed into a cluttered table and then onto the floor
“There she is!” a guard cried, charging over the fallen wine racks.
Karolina hesitated, scanning the floor once. Then she raced to the outside cellar doors. Ahren rolled to his feet just as she unlatched the exit and threw it open.
One of the guard’s feet broke through a fallen case as he climbed toward them. “She’s getting away.”
Something caught Ahren’s attention just before he stood to start after her. The night ruby lay on the floor under the table. He scooped it up as the guards ran past.
Cries of pursuit came from the yard above. Ahren’s lips still tingled from her kiss. He popped the night ruby into his mouth and bounded up the stairs. Cold night air hit his sweat-streaked face as he looked around. A black-clothed figure ran around to the front of the house.
The outside guards yelled and gave chase. She doubled back as she saw them and ran the other way. Ahren sprinted across the lawn past the gardens after her. He swiped with his hand but missed. He leapt, grabbing her waist and tackling her to the ground.
He scrambled up and held her down on the damp grass.
It was the first time he clearly saw her. Wisps of her auburn hair had pulled from her ponytail and hung across her face. Her emerald eyes darted to the closing guards.
“I wouldn’t let you die this way.” No lies, no seduction, just the truth.
“I can’t let you escape,” he said, the round gem clinking in his mouth as his body blinked into visibility.
“You didn’t.” She smiled then struck him aside the head. The stone fell from his mouth as he clutched his ear in pain. Snatching the night ruby from the grass, she pulled herself free and ran.
Two pairs of guards, their swords drawn, closed in from either side. Karolina hopped up onto the low wall overlooking the cliffs and turned back.
Ahren met her eyes and she gave a wink. Leaping over the wall, she slipped the gemstone in her mouth and vanished.
His heart pounding in fear, Ahren ran to where she had stood and looked over. White waves broke against the cliffs thirty feet below. The water looked black in the moonlight and he searched the surface for any sign of her. There was no body, no shape of her swimming away. Nothing.
She was gone.