“G’night, miss,” the steward called after her.
Anna waved a hand over her head, sagging in relief as she stepped from the late-night train. There was hardly a soul left in the station and she knew from experience it would be the same on the streets. Even this late at night, she wasn’t worried about trouble. The Bellcaster Watch was far too vigilant for that.
The bags that pooled about her feet were lumps of floral-printed fabric in the dark. The train staff hadn’t realized who rode in coach and Anna preferred it that way—sneaking into the capital of Briland before sneaking right back out, unbeknownst to her father.
Rolling her neck, Anna rubbed at the aching muscles between her head and shoulders, stomach rumbling and demanding sustenance. She had forgone dinner in exchange for additional sleep. The donkeys had never revealed themselves and she’d been forced to walk the entire way back to the village. Exhaustion was not strong enough a word for what she felt upon stumbling past their gates and then onto the train.
She looked down. At least her feet no longer felt like some obscure extension of her ankles.
The train pulled from the station, too late for a whistle. Wind stirred her hair, cold and crisp with the changing of the season. Gas lights blazed at equal intervals down the cobbled street, barely cutting through the layer of fog that descended upon Bellcaster at the beginning of every autumn. It was a stubborn fog, one that would refuse to lift until spring—and even then, it could be caught slinking about in the early hours of summer.
Anna shouldered her bags with a grunt, her breath fanning out in front of her face, and began the walk to her flat. She carried one bag at her back and another under each arm. Her satchel draped over her right shoulder, the golden-eyed stone jaguar still confined within. She’d drop the overgrown paperweight off at the Board in the morning. Though after decimating that step pyramid, she doubted there would be anything she could do to impress goodwill upon them. It would take years and some considerable donations to work herself back into their neutral graces.
Treasure hunter, some would glare.
Adventurer, others would sneer.
And the worst of them would say, Just like her blasted mother.
She looked from one building to the next as she trudged along. The windows of some were flooded with light and laughter but most would hold their dark vigil until morning. Not many establishments remained open at this hour, but those that did were far from reputable. Gentlemen’s clubs, taverns, and gambling dens, every one of them a favorite haunt of her brother’s. Here near the train station, outside the central hub of Bellcaster, they were a common enough sight.
She hummed along to the varying tunes sneaking beneath doors and through carelessly cracked windows. Some were slow piano numbers coupled with smoky feminine voices. Others were loud and raucous, sung and screamed by drunken men and women as they danced or stumbled into the street.
“Oi! Did you hear about what happened in Tremble’s Bay?”
Anna paused, tipping her ear toward the open tavern window. News was a rare thing to hear at this hour, especially above the laughter and good-natured fun. Tremble’s Bay was a small, warm thing with crystal blue waters, located just north of the Charleston Naval Base.
“The way I hear it, Senator Savage’s knickers are in a knot. Apparently, a whole pleasure barge was snatched up by the Pirate King. A bloody riot even broke out, people wanting to know what the Senate will do now that the blasted scoundrels are in our waters.”
“Think they’ll increase patrols?”
“Do they have the men for that?” a third voice questioned.
Anna shifted the straps of her bags and leaned toward the window.
“Does it matter? Fathers are worried about their daughters and wives. Shit, they’ve got to worry about their sons now too. They’re not just plaguing foreign soils. The Senate will have to do something.”
Anna exhaled hard. Her father would do nothing, as he had done nothing when she had been taken by pirates.
Nothing but sweep her disappearance under the rug, lest she embarrass him. It wasn’t entirely fair to think of her father as a heartless man who cared only about his power and reputation. Nine out of ten times it would have been true, but her jaunt in the slave trade was the one time it wasn’t.
As she lugged her bags through the empty streets, the missing pleasure barge and the Pirate King’s tie to it was all anyone talked about. That, and the Pirate King’s latest scuffle with Carsyn Kidd, one of the five Coalition Chiefs.
Anna wanted to tell them not to hold their breath for anything beyond a public briefing on the barge matter. Security on the water was difficult to come by, there was simply too much of it. That had been the entire reason for crafting a treaty with the Coalition of Pirates to begin with.
But they were pirates for a reason and honesty was not in their repertoire. And as honorable as the five Pirate Chiefs of the Coalition supposedly were, the Pirate King was the worst of them. No one knew that better than Anna.
She turned down a narrow alley lined with trellises. In the spring and summer, climbing roses bloomed along them. Now there were only thorns and green leaves so dark they appeared black. She passed under an archway. The iron rod gate closed behind her with an eerie creek, the latch clanging shut.
Anna followed the path to the right. A staircase wound around the cobbled courtyard, circling ever higher. Her flat loomed at the top and each step was a twin to the ones she’d descended in her haste to escape the collapsing step pyramid. Every breath ached and one of her bags pressed painfully against her side. The village doctor had claimed Anna had broken a rib and at the time it seemed unlikely. Now it seemed plausible.
Higher and higher, she climbed, passing framed window boxes and large oak doors. Some had elaborate knockers, others adorned with decorations to celebrate the coming of autumn. Wreaths of orange and yellow leaves and braided straw. Pumpkins sat just to the left or right of most doors. The flames of little black candles arranged next to pumpkins flickered in the breeze, throwing a spiced scent into the night.
Anna blew hair from her face and slumped against the wall, trying to adjust her bags without dropping them. She looked up from under the brim of her hat and wilted. The last set of ten stairs might kill her, she was certain of the possibility. But she’d made it this far and while the bed in her flat wasn’t comfortable, it was better than the ground out here—and it had blankets. An entire mountain of them.
Her door did not have decorations, no pumpkin sat at its side. Nothing differentiated it from the other doors except for maybe the amount of dirt sitting in front of it.
Looking up, Anna sighed and dropped her bags to her feet. A cloud of dust wafted from them at the sudden impact, the sound echoing up and down the spiral staircase. Anna winced at the jarring sound but if the residents living around her weren’t used to her late-night comings and goings by now, they never would be. She rolled her neck and reached into her pocket, digging around for the brass filigreed key. Her brows drew together and she dug deeper.
Anna turned out every pocket on her person and patted down every surface available to her. She leaned back against the railing, one hand sliding to her hip as the other pinched the bridge of her nose.
She’d lost her key.
No matter, she was more than capable at handling a locked door. She plopped down in front of her door and picked through the pins in her hair until several lock picks and a hammer sat in her fingers. Anna couldn’t help the soft laugh that bubbled up. Here she was breaking into her flat in the middle of the night—and not for the first time in her life.
At least it was a bit of excitement, a small spark of something interesting. The mountains of paperwork the Board piled on her desk for filing certainly wasn’t doing Anna any favors. Nor were the low-profile digs in places considered perfectly proper. Going out into that step pyramid had been the culmination of months of begging and bribing.
The lock clicked and then with a swift twist of the brass knob, her door opened. She threw her bags into the entry hall and pulled herself to her feet, a hand braced on each knee.
Anna stretched, closing the door with her foot. She picked up the mail from the floor and tucked it under her elbow, turning a knob by leaning against it with her arm. Brass fixtures flickered to life, a bit of flame held within glass cases.
Her satchel bumped against her hip, the considerable weight of the jaguar reminding her it rested within. She glanced to the old leather bag, unbuckling the sides and reaching in. The jaguar’s golden eyes glowed in the low light of the gas lamps. Tossing her satchel with her other bags, she stared into its gaze.
What a curious little trinket.
Weighty, as expected from something made of stone with solid gold eyes. But it was more than that. She squinted at it. The jaguar had…presence and it was cool to the touch even here. Anna flipped it over to reveal the nonsense carved on its stomach.
Could it really be an Aepith artifact?
Curious, so very curious.
She set the jaguar down on a thin entry table to her right. Next to it sat a small crystal bowl with soft peppermint candies. A diamond-shaped mirror with a gilt frame hung behind it, revealing just how haggard Anna really looked. She leaned forward, inspecting the bags under her eyes. No one ever said archaeology would be a glamorous career, but Anna would have liked it if someone warned her about the sleepless nights.
Leaning back, she stepped away from the mirror and stared down the hall. It was so silent, this flat. Her shadow loomed long and anemic in the low light. She crossed her arms and looked from the golden wallpaper to the elaborate runner along the floor and the dark wood beneath it.
Something exhausted Anna about returning to a perpetually empty space. She didn’t consider this home, just the place she occupied between her various travels. Somewhere to put her things until she found something that felt right. Her own personal limbo.
Her stomach growled, interrupting the silence and making itself known. There was never any rest for the wicked, not truly. Anna toed off her boots and pulled the mail from its resting place snug beneath her arm. She snatched a mint from the entry table, popping the fresh delicacy into her mouth as she sorted her mail. The unimportant letters, she flicked over her shoulder. It was an excellent system she had learned from her mother.
Her father’s reelection campaign. Her father’s birthday gala at the end of the month. Anna cocked an annoyed brow—was it that time of the year already? She could have sworn they’d just celebrated the damn thing. She stared at the envelope for a long minute, the way her father had written her name in perfect script.
With a sigh, she tore into it, looking for the date and time. She found them, but could only focus on the scrawled note on the inside.
I highly doubt you will grace us with your presence,
but I cannot recommend attending enough. It would
do your standing some much needed good.
The chuckle tore itself from the space deep inside she reserved for annoyance with her father. Do her standing some good? God, he had to be kidding. Bellcaster nobility thought little of Anna, believing her hardly noteworthy beyond an excellent source of gossip. She preferred it that way and even if she didn’t, one outing would hardly change her standing among those pompous asses.
She tore the letter up, throwing its bits and pieces over her shoulder like confetti and returned to the rest of her mail. Three baby announcements and five engagements in just the last month. Anna leaned against the door and sucked on her mint. Maybe babies were what kept one well entertained in their mid-twenties?
Is that why Anna felt this stirring in her soul, a restlessness that demanded attention? Was she supposed to be filling it with little ones? She traced the rose gold script of the last baby announcement, moving the mint to her cheek with a sigh.
She’d put her eye out before ever admitting her father had been right all these years. Become a spinster just to spite him. A spinster who wore an eyepatch and chased the locals with sticks, claiming to be a witch. A small grin flashed; he’d hate that. Especially after all his attempts to marry her off.
Her nose twitched.
Was that chamomile?
Anna tossed the announcement over her shoulder and crept toward her kitchen, brows pinched. She had left tea out before, but chamomile wasn’t her tea of choice. Leaning around the corner, she spied two tea cups at her round, white-washed table, steam billowing up from their tops. Anna was quite sure they had not been there when she’d left last month, and even if they had been, they wouldn’t be steaming now.
Anna squinted. Those were her good china cups, the ones with hand-painted lavender curling up their sides. She only got those buggers down for special occasions. Normally she took her tea in an over-large red cup that may or may not have been a bowl in its past life. Her hand slipped to her back pocket, procuring a small knife as she eased into a crouch.
“There will be no need for that, Anna.”
Her muscles relaxed at the familiar cadence, chipper and bright as if they had no worry in the world. Anna slid the knife back into her back pocket and straightened, putting her hands on her hips. “Those are very brave words for a man who dresses as fine as you and doesn’t carry a knife while traipsing around in the middle of the night.”
“And how would you know I don’t arm myself?” he asked, clearly amused.
“Because I know you,” Anna grinned. “And you, Mihkel Tamm, have never carried a weapon in your life.”
“I suppose there’s never been a reason on account that I don’t start a ruckus everywhere I go. Unlike someone I know.”
“How very dull.”
Mihk carried a tray of delicate tea sandwiches toward her on a large silver platter. Anna recognized them immediately even though she only had a quick glance. Her stomach rumbled again, reminding her of her hunger. Tomato-cheddar on white bread. Ham, brie, and apple on French. Open-faced smoked salmon sandwiches with dill and crème fraiche.
There was even a salad of fruit in a small bowl. Freshly cut strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, and sliced oranges. Mihkel Tamm was not one to forget the littlest of details.
“You’ve really outdone yourself, Mihk.”
Anna turned, catching sight of the little desserts on the platter. Rectangles of lemon loaf with lemon frosting. Slices of carrot cake smeared with cream cheese and chopped pecans. Chocolate eclairs and scones with raspberry jam. Her mouth watered, stomach making a ridiculous noise that might have embarrassed her had it been anyone other than Mihk standing in her kitchen.
“Someone has to make sure you’re well fed. We both know it’s the first thing you put off.”
“You’ve seen my thighs, yes?”
“Yes.” Mihk sighed. “And you’re absolutely stunning, darling.”
“I know that, I just wanted to make sure you’ve seen them.” She motioned down to the soft muscle of her legs, the ample curve of her hips and rear. A bit like an upside down triangle, if one asked. Anna struck a pose against the doorframe. “I really am a vision.”
“And so modest, too.”
She grinned briefly, exhaustion making it difficult to sustain. Mihk set the platter atop the table and turned, allowing Anna her first good look at him. He’d always been a wisp of a man, about her height with an even daintier frame. Tonight, he wore a thick burgundy robe with a black shirt and long pants beneath. Slippers kept his steps silent. Had he been staying here in her flat?
He sat, motioning for Anna to join him as he brushed golden hair from his face. The fair coloring of the flaxen strands only called attention to his large olive-green eyes and the sharp elf-like qualities he possessed. A pointed chin and narrow face, straight nose, and slightly angled eyes. Mihk was a handsome gentleman, though he’d denied any compliment he’d ever received.
“To what do I owe this pleasure?” she asked after sipping, brow raised in question.
He swallowed, dropping his gaze to his tea. “I hate to be the bearer of dreadful news, Anna. But…” He paused, running his finger along the rim of his cup.
“What could be so terrible it warrants tea and sandwiches?” she joked, picking one up and stuffing it completely into her mouth.
He flinched. “It’s your brother.”
Anna rolled her eyes, popping another sandwich in her mouth. “It can’t be that bad,” she said around her mouthful.
Mihk only appeared more interested in his tea.
Bugger, what had Markus done now?
“He’s been arrested,” Mihk said quietly, feet dancing nervously beneath the table. “Anna…he was detained by marshals. I don’t know what for yet, only that it happened.”
Her breath caught in her lungs and she nodded slowly, entirely interested in her tea as well. “Is there anything our father can do?”
Occasionally—not very often, but occasionally—it paid to be the child of a senator.
Mihk shook his head. “No…I don’t think it’s public knowledge, nor do I believe it will be.”
Detainment by the Senate’s dogs was not common practice and it bothered her a great deal that her father’s considerable influence would be null in this instance.
Anna exhaled, slow and focused. “How did you find out, then?”
He laughed nervously, turning his gaze to the ceiling. A blush fanned across his face. “I’ve been seeing a captain. His father is privy to such things.”
“And when did this captain find out?”
“Yesterday. The same time I did, considering we were in the closet of his father’s office.” Mihk coughed, rubbing his neck. “We overheard the conversation.”
The grin fell from her face and she squinted at the blond. “It’s not Bastian Hayhurst, is it? Because if it is, I owe Markus a fair amount of money.”
Mihk looked away, throat bobbing and cheeks flushing in embarrassment. “It might have been. But never mind that. I remembered you would be home this week for a short time before shipping back off to the step pyramid and decided to wait you out. I took the liberty of cleaning your bathroom. It was absolutely atrocious.”
“I have been gone for a month.”
“Well, before that I spent a month in Xing, and before that I was in the Emerald Isles for four months excavating a long-lost king beneath the ever-watchful gaze of your father.”
“He’s still bitter about that.”
“I would be too,” she agreed. “Three of his ships went down. I told them not to send me to the Emerald Isles, but alas,” Anna teased. “I’m more interested in my closet. Did you find anything interesting in there, Mihk?”
“Anna.” He laughed, raising those olive-green eyes to meet her bright blue ones.
She laughed too. But her gaze slowly dropped to her hands around the little tea cup and any humor she’d found speaking with Mihk dried up. There and then gone, a creeping chill replaced their light mood. Anna tore at a piece of lemon loaf.
They remained quiet for several minutes as Anna contemplated her options, not that there were many. She would rescue her brother. But to even contemplate spiriting him from the marshal’s clutches would be mad. A sure way to find a hangman’s noose. Daunting and rife with danger.
She shook her head—he’d be fine. Their father would prevail. And if not, Markus had gotten himself into plenty of trouble, perhaps it was time he learned how to get himself out. Of course, escaping and then evading marshals would be a feat unto itself.
“No. Oh, no.” Mihk put his cup down, some of the tea spilling over the edge. “That is treason you’re contemplating, Anna. You would lose your fortune and your credibility as an archaeologist. If you’re lucky, you’ll be detained as well. If not, it’ll be death, Anna. Death. Even if Markus is innocent—”
Oh, no, Markus had done something all right.
“Even if he is innocent,” Mihk repeated, glaring at the interruption, “of whatever they have charged him with, it will take time to clear your name too. A very long time, I’d wager. All of that very long time you would be in jail, probably Chesterhale—which is worse than death, in case you’ve forgotten.
“I did not come here to send you to the noose. I came to tell you because you deserve to know. Because he is your brother and I care deeply about you both. Now, I have a plan, Anna. I think we have a chance if we post bail and petition the Senate to—”
“Splendid speech.” Anna pushed her tea cup away and popped another bit of lemon loaf in her mouth. “But you see, all of that is only relevant if I’m caught. I’ll be in and out with none the wiser. If they take him to Chesterhale, I might never see him again—no, no it would be better to grab him while I still can.”
Mihk dragged his hands down his face, groaning. “This is a quarter-life crisis. Too many so-called tedious assignments from the Board. You’ll see once it all blows over—please, Anna, please do not do anything rash. We can post bail and meet with the Senate. I’ll bring my father in, you’ll see. We do not have to go on some grand adventure to be successful.”
Something sparked in her soul. Something related to adventure, something quite possibly cousins with thrill. Whatever it was, she had missed it the way a suffocating man missed air. If nothing else, this outing promised to be entertaining. It promised to likely take several years off her life too, considering the trouble Markus had gotten himself into.
But it would be leaps and bounds better than sitting behind a desk and sifting through field reports—or explaining herself to the Board.
“Anna…” Mihk begged.
She held up a finger, gaze narrowing in thought. “I’m going to need my best dress and a few favors from you, my wonderful, naughty, partner in crime.”
He sighed, head falling to his hands. “Please don’t call me that.”
“Does Captain Hayhurst call you that? It does have a nice ring to it.” She grinned, sitting back in her chair. “Now, here is what we’re going to do. Do you still have those wigs?”
It would be dangerous.
But some of the very best things in life were.