Just as Alix had predicted, the door was ajar.
They’d come up through the market vrenli, hiding themselves in the crowds of people looking to find bread or pants. Neon lights shone from the sides of buildings, and coloured lamps hung from the roofs of stalls and carts- every creator, no matter how puny, trying to grab one’s attention.
No one noticed them there. They were just two more people in a crowd like a river. Even as they passed into the Solsva vrenli, there was nothing that drew people’s attention to them. Svelen had covered his freckles with dirt, and Alix kept her head down, eyes fixed on the ground.
The walls of their old master’s house rose over them in all their shabby glory. Beige, water-stained, studded with windows- and the small door in the back, by the rubbish bins and the ashcans, hung loose on its hinges. The air still smelled like Cook’s cigars.
Alix slipped forward and glanced through the cracked-open door. The kitchen hallway was as bare as could be-white walls, a plain wooden floor, and no one in sight.
“Clear,” she said. She eased the door open and crept inside. Svelen followed behind her, closing the door.
Somewhere in the house, a clock ticked. Faint laughter echoed a few rooms down, and dice clicked- Cook’s valaxa game was in full swing.
Alix felt like a hunted hare. If they were caught, by anyone, they’d lose everything – the glove, their freedom, and maybe even their lives.
But there was no one to catch them. They’d timed it right. The trick was never about getting in; it was getting out.
Alix closed her eyes, breathed in, and started forward. Svelen followed, silent as a cat.
At the end of the hall was the servant’s elevator, behind a thick metal grate. She smelled its dusty emptiness even through the closed door. The elevator was a rustbucket- it rattled and clanked on the way up, and clunked and wheezed on the way down. It used the house’s thrice-vexed ancient boiler system, and clouds of black smoke sometimes rose through the shaft behind it.
“You think-” she started. Using it would be risky, but it might get them upstairs faster.
Svelen shook his head.
She nodded, and turned left, up the servants’ staircase.
The stairs spiraled like the inside of a shell. Alix wanted to take them three at a time, but that would make too much noise. She stuck to the side, where they were less likely to creak.
Finally- upstairs. She’d never been happier to see the deer skulls and dead butterflies mounted on the wall. A shard of glass still stuck between the floorboards- whoever had cleaned up after her hadn’t done their job.
They know I’m gone.
She squinted and tried to look through the lock of bedroom door. No one was inside, as far as she could tell.
“Clear?” Svelen asked.
She nodded, and stepped aside. Svelen pulled a hairpin from his pocket. It was curiously bent at the tips, and gleamed in the dim windowlight. He got to work.
The pin rattled in the locks; every little click of the tumblers sounded as loud as a bone breaking. Alix glanced over her shoulder at the stairs. She thought she heard someone coming, but no one was there.
“Hurry up,” she muttered.
“Trying. It’s stuck.”
Alix cursed under her breath.
The door creaked open. Svelen smiled, tight as a sailor’s grip.
She slipped through. He closed the door behind them.
Her master- no, her old master- lived in a mess. He fancied himself a scholar. His rooms were always filled with stacks of books the thoughtform slaves weren’t allowed to touch. They towered over his bed like the ruins of a dead city.
His mess had colonized the entire room. It would make their job harder.
Alix edged around a tower of books and bent under the bed. Maybe in her flight, she’d kicked the glove under there. She scrabbled on her hands and knees, squinting in the darkness.
A book had fallen under the bed. It was a prayer book- extracts from the Variegations – about the size of Alix’s palm. She pocketed it to read later. Better to have shit books than no books; at least they gave your mind something to chew on.
Alix dug around with her hands, to make sure she wasn’t missing the glove in the dark. There were dust bunnies, the odd scrap of paper, and- wait, was that fabric?
She pulled it up eagerly, but dropped it as soon as she saw it. The sweat-stained sock crumpled on the ground.
Ugh. Waste of time.
She stood. Her face burned. Her hair- normally flat as mud- crackled around her head like a prophet’s halo.
“Anything?” she asked Svelen. He shook his head.
“Not in the closet. Or the stacks. Checked.”
“Vexit. So it’s in the study.”
“If it’s here at all,” he mumbled.
“Best get to it.”
Alix eased the door open and peered around it. The hall was still empty. The flowers on the wallpaper looked like a thousand tiny camera lenses, recording her every move.
She stuck to the side, feet brushing the baseboard. There was one floorboard that creaked, no matter how lightly you stepped. She’d learned to edge around it, but with every little step, she half-expected it to shriek.
Her master’s study was behind two very thick oak doors. Inside, a clock ticked from the top of a large armoire. The radio hummed.
“-more news from the front- this is to be a quick war. With luck, our brave soldiers may even be home by the third chain- ”
The announcer’s voice drilled into Alix’s brain. Soon, tinny music replaced his rapid-fire words. She unplugged the radio. If they were unlucky enough to get caught, she wanted to hear them coming.
Just like her master’s room, every flat surface was covered in stacks of papers. Most of them were priestly things- anatomical diagrams, maps of some obscure dream or another, sigils drawn from the many books of Vari- but a few looked like they might be poetry. Alix didn’t have time to read them. Whatever they were, they weren’t what she was looking for.
She squinted under the desk. It couldn’t be there, could it? Not enough space. That meant it was somewhere in the mess of papers.
There was no way she was going to put everything back where she found it. Too many papers, and she didn’t care about sorting them. He’d see the glove was gone anyway. And if they got caught, she’d have a lot more to worry about than a few spoiled papers, wouldn’t she?
Fuck it. The thought went to her head like cheap wine. She swept papers to the floor. They fell like snow. She wanted to laugh and kick them into the air, just to watch them ruined.
No. Stay focused. She was here for a reason, and it wasn’t to ruin her master’s work.
Something creaked behind her. She flinched, and looked over her shoulder. Svelen had opened the great hinged cabinet, and was peering through the messily-stacked boxes inside. A safe perched in the bottom left hand corner, balanced on a tiny box barely big enough to hold a ring.
“Quiet,” she muttered.
Svelen glanced behind him. He nodded, and went back to his search. Alix went back to hers. She tucked the little book into her waistband, so she could better use both hands.
“Anything?” Svelen asked.
“Not anywhere obvious.” She shook her head.
“…Might be in the safe,” Svelen’s lips quirked to one side.
“Then we’re fucked.”
“No. Gimme a tick-” He took out the hairpin again. Alix raised an eyebrow.
“We have time?”
“What time is it?” he asked.
She glanced at the clock.
“Ten-thirty,” she said. “We’re running short.”
“Just let me -“
“Fine. Make it quick.”
Svelen fumbled with the lock, spinning the wheel over and over. Something inside the safe clicked. He looked up, and opened the door.
“You’re good at this,” Alix said.
“Thanks. Flattery later,” Svelen said.
Inside- mostly more papers. Alix cursed under her breath, and dug in. Papers, papers, what looked like a birth certificate, slave licenses- she crumpled those and threw them behind her. Svelen pocketed a little velvet pouch. Then he cried out, and Alix blinked.
“Look what I-”
He held up the glove. Its fingertips dangled at his elbow.
“It must have settled in the back when he put it in here,” he said; his voice was high and rushed. “Now we just have to-“
Were those voices in the corridor? Alix shushed him, and pricked up her ears.
Outside, clear as a gunshot, the floorboard creaked.
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