It wasn’t supposed to go this way.
Nils tore down the hallway, his worn shoes sliding on the polished floor as he rounded a corner. He threw a hand up to push off the wall and kept running, clenching the necklace in his other hand with gloved fingers. He could hear boot steps thundering much too closely behind him.
Another corner—he darted around it as quickly as possible, slid through an open doorway, and beheld with rapture an unguarded window. He threw it open and scrambled out into the cool night air, his stomach dropping at the distance beneath his narrow ledge.
Not down, then, he thought. His eyes darted back and forth, looking for the best place to re-enter the manor. There. That balcony.
He couldn’t pause to consider the danger of dashing across the tiny shelf of architecture that stretched between him and his goal, not with the sounds of pursuit getting closer behind him. If he was going to lose them, it was now. He held his breath and ran until his feet were firmly planted on the balcony, then let it out in a wheeze, tearing off his black hood as he did. His blond hair might make him easier to spot, but he needed the air, he couldn’t help it—
Fives. He really should’ve guessed the room inside would be occupied. Fancy balcony like this? It could only belong to one of the nobles. He looked for another landing, a place he could make another stupidly dangerous lunge for…
“I think he came out here!” a voice called from the window he’d just vacated. He had no time to think; he rammed his shoulder into the balcony door and flew inside.
The room was lit only by a small fire in the hearth. Nils’ eyes immediately jumped to the extravagant four-poster bed, but it was unoccupied. Recently, it seemed, as the blankets were strewn about in all directions. All right, so where is…
He couldn’t finish his mental inquiry before a hairbrush came flying at his head. It missed him by mere inches and smacked into the door behind him. He would’ve sighed in relief that it hadn’t shattered the glass, but he didn’t have time; a perfume bottle followed closely behind. He blocked it from hitting his face, but couldn’t stop it from smashing to the floor, burning his nose with the sudden release of floral fumes. He winced. This encounter was much too noisy.
He whirled around, caught the next object—a small jewelry box—and finally caught sight of his assailant. She was a noble, all right, a young woman dressed in a frilly nightgown and armed with a candelabrum.
“Don’t come any closer!” she squawked, brandishing the silver candle-holder.
“Quiet!” Nils hissed, eyeing the door leading out of the room. Was someone coming? Had they heard the perfume bottle smash?
“I mean it!” the noblewoman said, only growing louder.
Nils discarded the jewelry box, lunged forward, and grabbed her by the wrist. She nearly dropped the candelabrum, so Nils was forced to release the necklace he still carried, which hit the floor with a tink.
“Let me go!” the girl cried, flailing her free arm. Nils threw the candlestick back toward the bed, hoping for the best, and grabbed her other wrist, pinning both her arms against the wall. “Guards!” she shouted, and Nils did the only thing he could think of to quiet her mouth with both his hands already occupied. He kissed her.
The girl became still and silent as the grave. In fact, grave is exactly the word Nils would’ve used to describe her as he kept his lips pressed firmly against hers. He waited several heartbeats, waited to see if anyone had heard her scream. When all remained quiet, he hesitantly broke the kiss, afraid she would cry out at the first chance, but she didn’t. She just stared at him, eyes wide as wagon wheels.
“You’re alive,” she said, voice barely more than a breath.
“Wha—?” Nils started to say, and then the dreaded noise filled his ears. Boot steps. His eyes shot to the door. How long did he have? He released the girl, bent to grab his fallen prize, and turned to run, but he’d barely taken two steps when the door flung open. Four guards poured inside, grabbing him before he’d even reached the balcony. One of them pried the necklace from his black-gloved fingers, and in the light from the hearth, he saw it: a hair-line crack in the solitary black stone. It had broken when he dropped it.
The necklace wasn’t what he was looking for. He had done all this, and failed, for nothing.
A moment of numbness, then crushing dread spread through him as the guards hauled him from the room. The noblewoman was shouting something above their grunts and threats, but he didn’t catch her words. In a blink he was out of her chambers and into the lamp-lit hallway. He traced the map in his head, trying to guess where he was in the manor house, but between his unexpected detour and his current state of panic, he couldn’t seem to wrap his head around it.
Down a flight of stairs, through a grand hallway, now into a larger room. Another set of stairs before him, and there, descending…
It was Lord Dreygard himself, flanked by attendants, fully dressed and not looking at all as though it was the middle of the night. Did the man never sleep?
“What is going on?” he thundered. “What is this?”
“My lord, we’ve apprehended a thief,” a guard explained. “He fled from us when we spotted him outside the third floor storeroom, and just now we caught him in Lady Raeya’s chambers.”
“In Raeya’s—” Lord Dreygard said, his face becoming impossibly more furious.
Unholy fives, Nils thought. She wasn’t just a noble. She’s the domiseer’s daughter.
“She is unharmed, my lord.”
“She had better be. What did this mudworm steal? I assume you recovered it?”
“Yes, my lord.”
The guard hurried forward and presented the black-stoned necklace. The domiseer looked it over, eyes scanning every detail, before he stated, “Costume jewelry.”
“Yes, my lord.”
The domiseer’s eyes at last flashed to Nils, who looked down at his feet. He could feel the heat of Lord Dreygard’s stare boring into the top of his head.
“What?” Nils said, head snapping back up. “No—you, you said yourself, it’s merely costume jewelry. You’d execute a man over that?”
“You broke into my home, stole from me, and forced entry into my daughter’s bedroom. You deserve worse than a quick death, but it isn’t worth my time to bother with a more fitting punishment.” Lord Dreygard signaled the guards to proceed.
“No, you can’t—”
Where Nils’ words went unheeded, this new cry caused the guards to all but drop their weapons. Nils craned his neck around to see the young woman from before—Lady Raeya Dreygard—marching toward them, an untied robe thrown over her nightgown. A middle-aged attendant followed her, looking as embarrassed as if she were the one parading through the manor barely dressed.
“Don’t lay a hand on him,” Lady Raeya threatened the guards. “Father, you mustn’t harm this man.”
“And why not?” the domiseer demanded.
“He just kissed me in my chambers.”
Nils grimaced. He didn’t know what the girl expected, but surely that would just make the domiseer angrier, and yet…the man’s face had gone still as stone.
“Show me,” he said.
Show him what? Raeya approached Nils, and he almost could’ve laughed. It was just too ridiculous. “You aren’t really going to…” he said, but as he looked back and forth between the girl and her father, he realized she was.
Some of Raeya’s confidence faded once she was standing face to face with him. She glanced at his lips, then back to his eyes. “If I’m wrong about this,” she said, “I’m sorry.”
Once again, Nils had no idea what to make of that statement, but his mind went blank anyway as she leaned up and kissed him gently on the mouth. She kept her eyes closed afterward, shut tight like she was afraid to look. When she finally did, her lips parted in wonder.
Nils didn’t think he’d ever stood in a room so quiet. He looked around, wishing he could shrink away from all the staring eyes. “What is it?” he stammered when he couldn’t take the silence anymore.
Lord Dreygard was the first to thaw, but it seemed even he was only capable of one word. “Raeya.”
“You saw, Father. You know what this means. And you know you mustn’t harm him.”
“If you think I’ll let some lowborn, petty thief marry my daughter just because of this—”
“Father, he’s the only one! You wouldn’t, you couldn’t execute him, could you? Could you really do that to me?”
The domiseer fought back his words, restricting his show of fury to the flame-light dancing in his eyes. Raeya seemed to take his silence as a victory, and turned to Nils with another look of wonder, followed by a timid smile.
“Wait, hold on,” Nils said. “You…he didn’t say marry, did he? Look, I’m not…I just stole something, remember?”
“That is unexpected, I’ll admit,” Raeya said, “but we can get past a mild act of thievery, I’m sure.”
Nils looked around again. No one was countering her. “What…Are you all mad? Don’t get me wrong—I’m all too grateful not to be executed, but why in Desna’s season should a kiss mean I’m supposed to marry you?”
“Because you lived,” Raeya said.
“How does that explain anything?”
“Because you are the only one who has lived.” The girl’s face grew solemn. “I’ve been cursed since my childhood. Any man who kisses me will die, except one.” She looked back up at him. “My true love. I was afraid I’d never find you.”
“True love,” Nils repeated. “What, like…a soulmate?” He made one last sweep of the room, just waiting for someone to crack, to reveal this as the sick joke it was.
Nobody so much as twitched.
* * * * *