Taxing Courtship, страница 1часть #1 серии Hands of Destin
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The Hands of Destin 1
SOUL MATE PUBLISHING
Cover Design by Anna Lena-Spies
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who shows me the true meaning of love every day.
A debut novel is a singular accomplishment that marks a much longer road of passion, dedication and learning.
Thank you to Romance Writers of America for all the support and educational opportunities. The writers in my local RWA chapter Rose City Romance Writers welcomed me from my very first meeting, so many years ago. A special shout out to the amazing Mermaids, Golden Heart class of 2016, and all the women in the Golden Network who are so generous with their time and knowledge.
Beyond teaching me the general craft and business of writing, I also have many people to credit for this particular book. It wouldn’t have come into existence without my wonderful beta readers, especially Anne Applegate who encouraged and refined my early drafts. And the final draft would be a lot less polished without the expertise and guidance of my tireless editor at Soul Mate Publishing, Char Chaffin. It takes a village to create a book—I would be lost without my team.
Speaking of my team, a big thanks to Katherine Black and Meagan Johanson, the best of writing buddies who are my first sounding board when I get stuck or discouraged.
Finally, I want to give credit where credit is due to my amazing friends and family. Growing up with a writer means routines disrupted by deadlines, confusing dinnertime conversations about fictional characters and family vacations planned around writing conferences—challenges my children have always handled with grace and good humor. I am also blessed with the best, most supportive spouse imaginable. I appreciate all you do, Stony, from getting dinner on the table night after night, to weekend excursions with the kids, to a word of encouragement just when I need it most. I may not have a room of my own, but I have the next best thing!
During the season of Ferel’s descent in the first cycle of the Troika of Peace
On a night for making mischief, all decent people had long since closed themselves into their snug little homes to wait out the Earth God’s day of the week. Only fools and outlaws roamed the streets of Trimble on Taricday.
Like any proper gentlewoman, Lady Emmanuella a’Fermena was tucked away in her room.
But she wasn’t going to stay there.
The howl of a monkey echoed through the bamboo shutters covering the window. More concerned about the occupants of her father’s estate than jungle animals, Em stared at the glinting strands of her bead curtain and strained her ears for sounds of movement in the private courtyard beyond. Nothing. Even her infant nephew had settled for the night.
Heart pounding, Em slipped out of bed, the silk sheet slithering over her bare skin. Goosebumps rose on her arms, though the sultry evening air held the day’s heat. She stepped over to her bubinga wood wardrobe, but ignored the elegant saris folded on its shelves. Instead she knelt to reach into the deep shadows under the wardrobe.
The tile floor cooled her cheek as she pulled out a lumpy bundle of rough cloth. She extracted a dull chiton from the pile and slipped it over her head. Cinched at the waist with a leather belt, the coarse garment hung to her knees.
One shade lighter than her skin, the brown chiton offered no camouflage in the jungle surrounding Merdale, though it would help her blend into the shadows in Trimble. For the nearby town of Trimble was her destination. On Taricday.
Did that make her a fool or an outlaw?
The criminal part of her nocturnal activities was obvious and undeniable. She slipped a wrapped cloth containing lockpicks down the loose front of her chiton. She was going to Trimble to break into a government building. If caught by the city guards, they would clap her in the stocks without hesitation.
Em shivered. Beyond the suffocating torture of imprisonment, a day in the stocks would expose her sneak work and bring dishonor and shame to her family. If she were stripped of her noble title, all her sacrifices would be for naught.
She tugged her mother’s silver ring off her finger and strung it on a leather cord. The ring brought her luck and reminded Em of her purpose.
When Mother’s responsibilities had fallen onto Em’s young shoulders, she’d traded her honor, and anything else of value, for the sake of Aerynet, a temple cared for by her family for generations. Em’s sneak work supported her legacy, honoring her mother and protecting her dependents. She earned her cacao beans the only way she knew how, since she hadn’t the skills to take in mending nor the temperament for prostitution. Besides, as a noble such honest work was also forbidden
Dropping the cord over her head, she nestled the silver talisman under her clothes, where it wouldn’t glint and give her away.
Resigned more than resolved, Em strapped on a pair of hemp sandals. Cruder than her normal footwear, the sandals were finer than what a servant would wear and ruined her laborer’s disguise. Going unshod would damage her feet, however, and so she made the compromise to protect her noble dignity.
She snorted. Her dignity had been traded with everything else.
She opened the shutters and swung a leg over the sill. Dropping silently to the ground, Em froze to listen for the sounds of any servants moving about the estate.
Hearing only chirping insects, she pulled the shutters closed behind her and slunk between the trees.
An hour later the walls of Trimble rose before her, black with sharp corners distinct from the layered shadows of the jungle. Clouds scuttled across the lone moon, visible for the first time in the clear sky above the river.
She crept along a footpath to a tunnel in the city walls, timing her entrance into the city to avoid the Trimble guards. Guardswomen, technically, since the men who served in the city watch honored Taric, the Earthen God of Strength, on his day of the week, leaving the women on patrol overworked and the city ripe for trouble.
Bypassing brick-lined streets in favor of dirt-packed alleys, Em prowled from the wall to the riverfront. Reaching her destination, she crouched in a shadowed passageway. Little more than a crack between two clay warehouses, her hiding spot offered ample concealment as a pair of guards marched by.
Em held her breath and counted to thirty. Once her pulse had calmed, she peered into the lane. The acrid tang of smoke hung in the humid air while a torch glimmered like a fallen star at the end of the street.
She retreated into the crack, the rough terra cotta wall catching at her clothes.
The patrol would turn a corner on their route through the wharf district. Soon she could make her move on her target.
The Tribute Office squatted across from her hiding place. Square, brown, and featureless, it was nearly indistinguishable from the other clay-covered warehouses on the street. Only the cloverleaf emblem of Destin carved into its doors betrayed its official purpose.
Sneaking into a government building was risky, even on Taricday. But the pay was good and her criminal contact, Simon claimed the client was an auditor who worked there. He promised the door would be unlocked and unguarded. Getting in and out of the building should be quick and easy. Almost too easy. There was something fishy about this job, and it wasn’t just the smell of the nearby river.
She’d been hired to add a medallion of The Water Goddess Marana to a locked trunk. The task stank of espionage and set her teeth on edge. She’d be more comfortable with straightforward theft. A smile twisted her lips. What had happened to her scruples?
Em’s smile faded. Her scruples had died with her mother.
She kissed her mother’s silver ring for luck. Fishy or not, she had a task to do, one that paid well enough to maintain Aerynet. Nothing else mattered, her conscience be damned.
In another hour, the patrol would march past again. By then she should be long gone, her fee for the night well earned.
Unease trickled down her spine as she approached the double doors of the Tribute Office and pulled on the bronze handle. Part of her expected the door to be barred, no matter what the client promised, but it swung open on silent hinges.
She slipped inside, taking her first easy breath since leaving Merdale.
Square beams of moonlight shone through windows set high on the walls of the echoing room. Stacked barrels and urns were little more than dark shadows, while the central floor was a maze of trunks and knee-high tables.
Careful not to stumble into any furniture, Em crept away from the door. When she was far enough into the room to be certain no light would leak onto the street, she removed a candle from the pouch on her belt. She pinched the wick between her fingers. Her lips moved in silent prayers to Fermena, Tarina and Marana, a deity for each of the three elements. With the help of the Goddesses, Em pushed heat and life into the candle. The wick sputtered into a flickering flame. She snatched her fingers back from the heat.
A sharp intake of breath echoed through the room, unnaturally loud in the stillness. “You’re a woman.”
“Who’s there?” Em gripped the comforting hilt of the knife strapped to her thigh. “What do you want?”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to frighten you.” A young man wearing the loose brown kaftan of an auditor stepped into the ring of candlelight. The tax collector smiled tentatively, a few black curls escaping his fashionable queue to frame his earnest face.
Em narrowed her eyes. She wasn’t naive enough to trust a stranger, no matter how guileless he appeared.
His kaftan billowed from his shoulders to mid-calf, leaving his bulk a mystery. His slender fingers and narrow wrists made him seem slight, yet he held a polished wooden staff expertly in his left hand. Two paces long, the staff reached from the floor to a foot above his head.
“You don’t frighten me,” she said, only half-bluffing. With her knife skills and speed, she had a good chance of escaping before he could summon the city watch. Only his staff caused her concern.
“I’m glad to hear it,” he replied, his voice soft and soothing. A dimple flashed with his smile. “You’re not what I expected.”
She blinked. He expected her? “What?”
“Someone with certain specialized skills was hired for a job here tonight.” A nervous chuckle escaped his lips. “I imagined some scar-faced ruffian sneaking through the door, not a lovely woman.”
She drummed her fingers against the hilt of her knife. I knew this job smelled rotten.
“I don’t work directly with clients.”
“I’m sorry.” His teeth flashed as he worried his lip. “You have to this time.”
A muscle in her jaw ticked. The last time a client tried to oversee her work, he’d nearly brought the guard down on her head. Granted, silence wouldn’t be as crucial for this task. Still, she had standards. “I could leave right now.”
“You could.” He tugged on a hank of wavy black hair. “But you won’t get paid if you walk out.”
The wooden hilt of her knife bit into her palm. She needed those beans. Mystic Patricia and the others at Aerynet depended on her. “If you hired an expert, why are you here?”
He yanked on his queue again. The nervous gesture spoke of his sincerity, weakening her resolve. “I need to add something to the trunk once you get it open.”
“Why didn’t you give the new materials to my contact?”
“The item is very sensitive. I need to do this personally.”
Em sighed. She shouldn’t let herself be swayed by his pretty face. In truth, he wasn’t classically handsome, yet his wide-set eyes gave him an appealing, wholesome look. And she did need the payment.
“I won’t get in your way,” he added eagerly. “I can wait here while you work. Tell me when you get the trunk open and I’ll do my part quick as a blink.”
Reaching a decision, she released her knife. The dull fabric of her chiton fell back into place, covering the weapon. “There is no need for that. Can you show me exactly where this trunk is?”
He nodded vigorously, a black curl sliding free of his queue. Her fingers itched to smooth the strand off his face. As a Lady she was often surrounded by men too pompous and polished to ever have a hair out of place. The auditor’s unaffected manner was refreshing. Almost enticing.
He folded his hands together around his staff and bent in a quick bow. “Thank you, most honorable thief,” he said, his tone sincere and reverent.
Em waved her hand in a shooing motion to hide her surprise at the respectful gesture. What kind of man honors an outlaw? “We’ve wasted enough time.”
He grabbed a coil of string from a nearby table before leading her to a doorway blocked by strands of wooden beads. The curtain rattled as he held it aside in another courtly gesture. After joining her in the office, he pointed at a trunk. “That’s the one.”
She crouched with the lock at eye level. The back of her neck itched. She’d never be able to work with him lurking behind her. “Willing to hold the candle for me?”
“It is an honor to serve.” He leaned his staff against a wall and squatted beside her.
She pulled the packet of lockpicks out of her chiton and unfurled it on the floor. After selecting a pair of picks the appropriate size, she set to work. Moments later, her skilled hands felt the click as it gave way.
“Amazing,” he murmured. “Could you teach me to do it?”
She raised her eyebrows. Was this his true motivation for intercepting her tonight? “You want to be my apprentice?”
“Certainly not.” His eyes widened, charmingly scandalized by her wicked suggestion. Had she ever been so pure? “It’s just a fascinating and useful skill.”
Em felt a pang. His curiosity evoked memories of herself, when lockpicking had felt daring, a clever trick and not a dangerous, though necessary, occupation. She, too, had been flush with independence and eager for adventure, before six years of sneak work jaded her.
Part of her yearned to feed his interest and relive those simpler times.