There was a very strict policy regarding the thief’s guilds in Bundia. Prevalent and sometimes impossible to get rid of, they were allowed to work specific sections of the city. Each of them jockeyed for control of the wealthier streets, challenging each other over and over.
There was only supposed to be one guild that had access to the palace, and even that was only for security reasons. They were paid a decent sum for protection from the other guilds.
As far as Mercury knew, the only way to take over from the current guild was to get into the palace and steal the collar from Princess Anise’s cat.
Which was the problem. The collar was missing, and no one had a clue who or how.
The entire palace had been searched, top to bottom. Was it possible that the cat, whom Anise had named Prince, had merely slipped out of it?
No, and further the usual cover for Prince’s pillow had been discovered hidden in a small venting room meant to help control the temperature of Her Highness’s room. There were a series of large channels between that venting room and Her Highness’s room which someone could reasonably slip through, if they were small enough.
Grates were being installed.
Mercury could figure out how, roughly. Prince always slept in Anise’s room. The displaced cover made little sense, but had the cat been wrapped up in it to help prevent scratches, that made sense. Pulling the cat back through the channels would prevent waking up Anise and alerting her.
Figuring out the how was easy. What he couldn’t figure out, was who.
Staring at the reports from all the guards that night, he couldn’t figure it out. Someone had not only gotten into the palace around some of the best trained guards in Bundia, but also around an entire other thief’s guild.
If it was only another guild trying to take over the palace grounds and get that pay, why hadn’t they come forward with the collar yet? It had been missing for two days already. It was almost as if they were taunting him.
A knock on the door made him look up. “It’s open,” he called. It would be one of his men, though they were all on edge.
It eased open and a soft laugh made him jolt. Could it be?
No, he realized as he looked up. Same red hair, same narrow chin, but this was Waller. The triangular scar on her jawline proved it.
“Alright, Waller. Spit it out,” Mercury said and leaned back. “What do you want? Tormenting your sister again?”
“No.” She flicked her wrist and something landed on his desk with a rattle.
Prince’s nameplate caught the light of the enchanted lamp, glittering and undamaged. Mercury took a moment to inhale.
“You stole the collar,” he said and sat up.
“Then one of your thieves did.”
“Yes,” she said and came to lean on his desk. He could see her appraising eye as it roved. “And that’s where you and I run into a problem. It took me two days to figure out what happened, and the only reason I figured to even check for that collar was because every one of the Lockets is up in arms about who could have possibly stolen it.”
That sounded a lot like trouble. “Then your thief—”
Waller caught the front of his shirt and yanked it forward. A killer she wasn’t, but she knew how to make life difficult for anyone she didn’t like.
“I have an eleven-year-old suffering from an unknown ailment and it started on the same night that damn cat scratched her. You tell me how to fix it, or you’re going to spending an awful lot of time explaining how two thieves managed to get in. I won’t just be taking a collar this time.”
He knew it too. Waller was good at what she did. Be that stealing a painting in broad daylight or stealing a person out of their bed.
“I will need to see her before I can fix it. If she got scratched, there’s a couple of possibilities.”
Waller studied him a moment before she let go of his shirt, allowing him to sink back as she straightened. He realized the collar was gone, no longer on his desk.
“Follow me then,” she said, and slunk out.
He only took the time to grab a dark jacket from the hook on the wall before he followed.
She stayed far enough ahead of him that she could have vanished at any time, little more than a beacon of where he needed to go and turn. He half-expected her to take him to a warehouse, but instead, they came to a seedy inn near the river.
There were a couple of others who gave him the same appraising glance he’d come to learn was tell-tale of a well-trained thief. A faint motion from Waller however, and they turned away. The contents of his pocket were safe, but only for now.
Room three was on the floor, and when Waller opened it, Mercury saw how her expression softened a little before she moved in all the way. Mercury took care, following her into the candle-lit dimness.
“Audrey? Audrey, I need you to wake up for a little,” Waller murmured.
The girl on the bed looked sick, and feverish. More importantly however, he could see the problem immediately.
Prince had to have scratched her, he realized as he knelt. Her hair had started to shift, a pair of cat’s ears rising at the top of her head. Both hands sported claw-like nails and he could see a tooth that had fallen out, the normal human canine replaced with a more conical, feline fang.
When she flicked her eyes open though, his heart stopped as he came to kneel next to the bed. They were wide and electric green, slit like a cat’s.
He still had his flask on his belt and pulled that off, opening it and gently tipping it to her lips. “Little sips, kitten,” he murmured.
She took a few and let out a whimper as she pulled away again.
“What is it?” Waller demanded and Mercury took a moment to recap the flask.
“My first question is if you knew she had magic,” Mercury said.
There was some hesitation on Waller’s face before she inhaled. “There’s been a few little things that made me suspect it,” she said. “But she hasn’t done anything to actively confirm it.”
“Well, here’s your confirmation,” Mercury said. “Prince is a Bundian Royal Cat. If you don’t have magic, getting scratched by one usually just leaves you with a sort of aura. You might be unable to lie, or you could always be able to tell the weather. Little things.”
“And if you have magic you get turned into another Royal cat,” Waller said and snorted.
“Only if you have enough,” Mercury said. “She’s been like this two days, you said?”
“Then this is probably about as far as it’ll go. She’ll probably get another fang, and she might get whiskers, but it’s always complete by day three.” Without thinking about it he reached back and smoothed Audrey’s hair down. She seemed to lean up to his touch and his lips lifted in a smile.
“Is there any way to stop it?”
“If there is, no one’s found it yet, but most people try to avoid getting scratched by them,” Mercury said. “And the cats do have some control over whether or not their scratches trigger anything.”
“There’s got to at least be a way to make her more comfortable,” Waller protested and Mercury had to laugh.
“A few. You’re very concerned for her.”
“She’s one of my kids, of course I’m concerned for her. Bad enough she’s grown up in a thieves guild.”
There was something else Waller wasn’t saying. Mercury could take a guess at it. Audrey had the same narrow face, and her hair wasn’t that far off from Waller’s own.
This wasn’t just one of the kids in Waller’s guild. Audrey would be much closer.
Who her father was, Mercury could only guess. He said nothing, continuing to pet her hair.
“Either way,” he said as he looked up. “Your Feathers are now the guild in charge of the palace. You’ll have to make the formal claim of having the collar and it will need to be verified as the real thing.”
“How long is that going to take?”
“Checking the collar? Maybe an hour,” Mercury said.
“And what about Audrey?”
He considered it and stood. “You’ve got two options,” he said. “She is the thief, so rightfully you could have her stationed around the palace, which would mean she’s also able to get some training for that magic. Or, she continues as she has been in your guild, albeit with some cat-like reflexes now.”
“People will notice her appearance,” Waller said.
He considered it. “I know a charmer. They can make something to help with that, but they’ll need to start as soon as possible. It would have been better to start on the first night, but barring that, tonight or tomorrow morning.”
Waller hesitated. “Where is this charmer?”
“In the palace,” Mercury said. “I can take her there if you want.”
The only answer was a nod and Mercury stood, sliding out of his jacket and carefully using it to wrap Audrey before he lifted her, bridal-style.
Waller opened the door and Mercury hesitated. “Her being there will also make the claim a little easier to confirm,” he said.
“I’ll bring the collar back tomorrow,” Waller said. “Provided nothing’s happened to her.”
“Of course,” he answered.
As he started down the streets, the feverish Audrey in his arms, he had to smile. Who would have thought the so-called Princess of Thieves would have a daughter capable of stealing Mercury’s heart?