Honor Among Thieves: Part Five
Zina complained, "I don't like it. I don't see how they run in these." She kicked at the hem of her long skirt.
Nabile reminded her, "Maids don't run."
Marlos had to help each of the two thief girls tie their sashes – he knew more about how palace maids were supposed to look than Resa did. The Kougra girl checked the armbands they both wore to cover their tattoos. Once they were done, Marlos examined them with a critical eye and said, half to himself, "Hmm... would I bother to look twice at you if you waltzed into the Scribes' Hall? That's the question."
Tomos shook his head. "Sweet Fyora, I'd hope you notice them if they were dancing around!"
Nabile sighed. "It's another figure of speech, thick-skull. It means we just walk in like we belong there."
Tomos muttered, "Little Miss Scholar." Nabile glared at him, using one fist to punch her palm.
Resa scolded, "No, no, no! Maidservants can't threaten to punch people!"
Ilias pointed out, "They're always threatening to throw the wash-water on us if we don't stop hanging around!"
Resa said, "That's different. It's a little more... ladylike. Punching and kicking most definitely aren't."
Zina crossed her arms. "Not that I could kick anyone in this stupid long thing anyway. Why can't I wear my trousers underneath?"
Dom reminded her – for the fifth time – "Because it wouldn't look right. Have you ever seen a servant in the marketplace with her ragged old trousers sticking out under her skirt?"
Zina scowled down at the offending clothing. Both the girls actually looked fairly accurate – simple white dresses with colored sashes were common clothing for the servants of noble houses, and they'd both had their hair braided neatly by Resa. Nabile had even found a ribbon to weave through her plait. He nodded. They were a little young, but plenty of girls joined their mothers at work, and would be sent to fetch and carry, just like Nabile and Zina would be pretending to do. "You look right. Now, acting right..."
Resa said firmly, "You say, 'Yes, ma'am,' or 'Yes, sir.' Nothing else. I don't care how rude any stupid lordling is to you. You can't talk back to them. You can't argue with them. You say 'yes, sir,' and that's it, do you understand me?"
Neither of the two girls looked particularly happy about it. But they both nodded. Dom said, "We'll keep you two in eyeshot. You get into Marcia's rooms and wave to give us the all clear. Then we'll join you." They'd had luck the previous evening – Resa had seen the Lupe at her window, and so they knew where to go. Zina and Nabile merely had to make sure that Marcia wasn't there.
And they all had to hope she didn't decide to leave whatever gathering she was gracing with her presence early, or they'd be in serious trouble.
The sun outside was sinking toward the west, but the day was still as punishingly hot as only Sakhmet at midsummer could be – even the Scarabs and Marlos, desert-dwellers to the core, didn't fancy the trek through the city in heat like this. But there was nothing for it – they wanted as much time to snoop through Marcia's things as possible, and that meant they needed to be in there as soon as they could be sure she'd gone.
So they set off along the street – the two girls on the ground, and Resa, Dom, Horace, Tomos, Ilias, Bokan, and Marlos following from the rooftops, keeping an eye on them to make sure no one gave them any trouble on the way. It would do no good at all to have their cover blown before they even made it to the Palace.
Marlos himself was dressed like a desert trader with a hood and scarf covering his face. There were several lovely wanted posters of him decorating the guard posts in the main markets – he recognized Sylvie's work from the Scribes' Hall – and getting recognized would be highly unpleasant.
He walked along the rooftops by Tomos's side. They'd all spread out to avoid looking too much like a group of young delinquents up to no good, even though the description suited them admirably. Tomos kept looking down at the two girls, who kept to the edge of the street. They were clearly uncomfortable in the long dresses that were so strange to them, but Marlos had to remind himself that it was for the best – that discomfort was the closest either of those bold thief girls would get to the shyness preferred in domestic servants.
They headed through the city and up to the one of the lesser gates of the great palace, where throngs of servants and merchants were all bringing in goods or leaving on errands for the Solstice. Some of the 'prentices and desert traders were scraggly enough that even Marlos's scruffy companions didn't stick out too much in the crowd.
"Hey – you!"
Marlos jumped, but the shout wasn't directed at him. The guards had all swarmed two young men with a cart. The captain pulled two large and valuable-looking vases out from a pile of burlap bags. One of the men sputtered, "I can explain!"
The captain said, "I look forward to it." But Marlos didn't get to hear the explanation – as all of the heads turned toward the spectacle, Tomos tugged him away and the Scarabs ran toward the shelter of one of the palace gardens.
Dom said, once they were all crouching amid some bushes, "Thank Fyora for stupid thieves."
Bokan said, "If they're stupid, what does that make us?"
Horace replied, not really paying attention – he was peeking over the greenery at the door to the tower with Marcia's apartments, watching Nabile and Zina – "Completely and utterly insane."
Then they fell silent – Marlos joined his companions in watching the third level of windows, where he knew Marcia lived. He hoped the girls would be okay – their cover seemed convincing enough, but he would never forgive himself if one of these thieves got hurt trying to save his tail.
And then, after what seemed like an eternity of a thudding heart and a rock in his stomach, Nabile appeared at the window. The Ixi girl didn't wave or do anything obvious, but her mere presence was all the signal they needed, and they headed off under the cover of the foliage.
Marlos flew up to the window first – it was already dusk, and visibility was poor, so in his sand-colored clothes he doubted he'd be noticed. But they had to keep their eyes out – while climbing in the window was less likely to get the Scarabs caught than trying to go inside, it would look bad if someone saw them.
The other Scarabs climbed as quickly and skillfully as a pack of Myncies – Marlos squinted through the dimness to make sure they hadn't been seen. He didn't hear any guards coming, so he thought they were safe.
Dom said, "Marlos, you're in charge of anything written. Nabile, Resa, you're the only two who can read worth Slorg slime, so you're helping. All the rest of you, just be on the lookout for anything suspicious, and try to leave everything the way you found it. If we don't find anything, we don't want her knowing we were here. If any of you pocket any jewelry, I'm trussing you up like a Grackle-stuffed turkey and leaving you for the guards. Understood?"
Marlos had to laugh a little at the crestfallen expressions on the Scarabs' faces. They all mumbled, "Understood."
They were in what looked to be a small sitting room, with a writing desk and bookshelf in the corner. Other doors led to what the Scarabs described as a larger sitting room, a bedroom, and a bathroom – Bokan couldn't even say "bath" without shuddering a little.
Nabile went straight to the desk. Resa frowned. "Would you really keep proof that you're plotting treason right on your desk?"
Nabile shrugged. "Why not? No one would think to look there."
Marlos sighed. "Come on. Let's go through this."
Nabile stuck her head in the desk's drawer, and came out with a sheet of parchment. "Oh, look!"
Resa took it. "It says she needs to buy some lace for her dress for the Solstice Celebration."
Nabile sniffed. "Well, it was in the back. It could have been something important."
And then Marlos grabbed a rumpled-looking paper from the bottom of the stack.
It was unsigned, but it read in a bold hand, "If you desire his death, meet me at midnight tonight."
Resa's eyes widened. "Well, that's something."
Marlos said, "It doesn't prove that she met this person, but handwriting's unique. I bet this was from the mage."
Nabile asked, "Why wouldn't she have burned it?"
Resa said, "Maybe she kept it around to keep the mage from backing out on his end of the deal. If he tries to let her take the blame, she can prove he was in on it."
Tomos looked into the room and frowned. "That's complicated. Why can't she just have a journal with 'I want to kill King Coltzan' written on every page?"
Nabile sighed. "This is why you don't understand stories."
"Only because no one in them ever acts like they've got a brain!"
Ilias called, "Hey! Look at these!"
He came out of the bathroom holding two vials. "They were mixed in with the perfumes. She's got enough of those to open her own market stall. And there's some other stuff in there too – dirt, and oil, and weird-looking rocks."
Nabile and Resa looked longingly toward the bathroom, but Marlos was focused on the vials. They were both marked with a skull – the obvious sign for poison. He said, "There's certainly no innocent reason for her to have those."
Dom came out of the bedroom. "I'd say this is enough proof to take before Coltzan – don't you think?"
Marlos shook his head. "Let's stay a little longer. I'd like nothing better than to find something in her hand, or with her name on it. Let's see what else you've got in the bathroom."
And then an ice-cold voice asked, "What do you think you're doing?"
To be continued...