by Frances Quinn
Endless stars stretched above Aoife.
Resting on the roof of the Óstán, she considered her options. Six months since Nana disappeared, leaving her with a crew of misfits, and she was failing. They’d eaten nothing but stale bread for days. Stolen nothing but half-empty purses for weeks. Even the gamblers had deserted them.
She needed something bigger than a handful of coins.
“Jobs done in desperation rarely turn out well.” The woman melted from the shadows like the night was unwilling to let her go. “And you’re as desperate as they come.” A scarf wrapped around her hair and most of her face, leaving only a glint of dark eyes. She tossed a large gem into Aoife’s hand. “Relieved from a Bean na Cathrach.”
“I didn’t ask for help,” she snapped.
“No. You didn’t.”
Aoife tried to hand it back, but the woman had already disappeared.
Red edges caught in the moonlight, and a sudden, dangerous plan made her frown; no one stole from the Bean na Cathrach and lived, but the gem was a heavy weight in her hand and hunger a low growl in her stomach. The thief had succeeded where no one else ever had.
Despite the danger, Aoife was willing to try too.
The House of Na Déithe loomed above her, blotting out the morning sun. Loosening her cloak, Aoife touched the green brooch at her neck. Between bouts of warnings about the stupidity of her scheme, Lye admitted it brought out the gold in her eyes. Beauty was a lazy way into anyone’s affections, but Nana had taught them to take full advantage.
Confident she passed for a Bean na Cathrach, the city’s powerful businesswomen, she left the bustle of the harbour marketplace and walked up the steps of the cathedral. The cool white stone and glinting gold should have made it impressive, but they were faded, dull in their own shadow. She shivered in the sudden chill as she strolled through the heavy doors. Brine was replaced with the luscious scent of incense. She walked the quiet aisles, curious eyes following her progress, and sat two rows behind her mark.
Sola Ní Tíre.
A daughter just back from her education abroad. A woman ready for the family business.
Aoife mouthed the words of Na Paidirí while trying to ignore the soft curve of Sola’s neck and the few loose hairs tickling her dark skin. Three stars sat at the top of her spine.
When the service ended, Aoife feigned a stumble, and caught herself on Sola’s arm. “Oh, my lady, I do apologise.”
“It’s quite alright.” Her voice held a lilt that spoke of travel and education. It sounded familiar in a way that drew Aoife closer. “Are you okay?”
“Thank you, yes.” Aoife glanced down. “My lady, if you can forgive my forwardness, but your purse.” She gestured towards Sola’s bag, coin purse visible. “There are thieves about. Only yesterday, my dear friend, the Lady of Copper Row, had her purse taken quite violently.”
The story was true; the job would keep them in food for a week.
“That’s awful,” she replied, with a trace of amusement that set Aoife’s nerves jangling. “I hadn’t heard.”
She swallowed away the sudden want when she caught the scent of rosewater and mint. “She’s taken to bed to recover.”
“I must send my regards.” She smirked and whispered, “Although I’m sure the other ladies have gotten there first.”
“Still,” Aoife responded, shaking off the unease that she was being teased. “She would appreciate your message.”
“Thank you, Lady…”
“Aoife Ashford. I’ve just arrived in the city.” The lie came easily. “My mother thought travel would do me good.”
“My mother felt the same.” She laughed; it sounded like light rain heard from a warm bed. “She’s disappointed all it did was teach me to question her in everything.”
Aoife smiled. “When parents are forward thinking, they cannot be annoyed if their children are as well.”
“What truths you speak. I like it.”
“I do my best to speak freely as often as I can, Lady…”
“Lady Ní Tíre, but call me Sola.” They left the church, stopping at the edge of the shadows. “Would you find a walk tomorrow agreeable? Truthful conversation is hard to find.”
“That sounds delightful.”
Sola gave her wrist a gentle squeeze. “Wonderful. Tomorrow. Midday.”
Aoife watched her stroll through the crowd, almost regretting her near-nocturnal lifestyle. With the protection of her false rank and the teeming heat of life surrounding her, it felt like she was missing something important.
For the first time in weeks, the gambling den in the basement of the Óstán was full.
Aoife walked the floor, stealing glances over the tables, taking in cards turning and new hands dealt. She watched bets, made and paid. She longed for her bed.
Lye weaved through the tables, footsteps light as a wraith.
Aoife waited until she was close to ask, “Any news of the city?”
“Rumours of your thief. No one knows who she is. But she’s been stealing what shouldn’t be touched.”
“Bean na Cathrach?”
Her head quirked in agreement. “Although you seem to have moved up to them as well.” Lye stopped scolding to order two wines. “You know, the customers like it better if we drink with them.” They only had ten tables offering card games, and a tiny bar selling cheap wine, but the income had saved them often.
Aoife took a drag of the bitter liquid and shuddered. “Happy?”
“I’d be happy if you pretended you liked our alcohol.” Lye bit her lip; a rare show of uncertainty. “I’d be happier if you’d stopped risking your neck.”
“We need to eat.”
“I need you alive.”
Aoife dreamt of Sola. Warm skin and soft glances, trailing fingers, the scent of rosewater and mint. She woke, aching.
“Let us walk the gardens,” Sola greeted her the next day. “It is too hot with no shade.”
Countess Moriah’s gardens were a haven of green. Sun dancing in the sky, the horizon simmering in the heat. Aoife cooled herself with an ornate fan she’d stolen for her disguise while allowing Sola to charm her with a mix of biting comments and stories of far off places.
“I’ll get us some juice,” Sola offered, after a moment of silence. “You must be parched.”
Aoife nodded her head towards a stone bench. “I’ll wait in the shade.”
With another smile, Sola left her sitting beneath a crimson tree. It wasn’t the smile she’d watched for weeks. It was new, and it made her wish for something she couldn’t quite grasp.
Still, it didn’t stop her from manipulating an almost too easy invitation to her home.
Lye sat waiting when she climbed through the window of the Óstán. “So, you weren’t caught then?”
“How’s the Lady of Copper Row?” she asked, rolling her eyes at the insult.
Lye stretched, long arms easily grazing the broken plaster of the roof. “She sends her regards. Laughed when I told her we’d already spent the coin.”
“She’ll spread the word she knows me?”
She twirled her long plait between her fingers, stark black against her pale skin. “Once we continue to spy for her.”
“Good.” Aoife leaned against the windowsill. “Last thing we need is for her to become forgetful. Or worse…”
When she searched for it later, she realised she’d lost the fan.
Large windows stretched above them. Glittering light highlighted every corner. The conservatory’s heat hung heavy in the small space. Flowers grew everywhere she looked. The air tasted of rosewater and mint.
Her skin dampened uncomfortably. “Your house is beautiful.” Aoife’s quick eyes caught the details, jealousy a bitter taste on her tongue. The dark halls of the Óstán, abandoned during the sickness, contained miles of rooms, faded red wallpaper, too much dust, and chandeliers decorated in spiderwebs and broken glass. No one would mistake it for beautiful ever again. It was home, but it would never be this.
“It is something.” Sola’s words held a trace of boredom. “Would you like a tour after?”
She ignored the thrum of success. “That would be lovely.”
Aoife stared out at the gamblers, another night that felt the same as all the ones that had come before. Lye stood beside her, as always. She couldn’t remember a time when her warm presence wasn’t within reaching distance.
“Be careful, Aoife. This woman is in your head.”
“She’s nothing but a mark.”
“A mark you’re dreaming about.”
“I find it unsettling when you do that.”
“Your window has street access. You talk in your sleep.” Lye never took her eyes off the tables. “Terribly easy way to steal your secrets.”
Aoife leaned against the bar. Quiet music echoed through the small room, adding to the din of cards and laughter and the clink of coins. “She’s just a mark,” she finally managed, over the uncomfortable pounding of her heart. The words were sharper than she intended. “I’m finishing the job tonight.”
Candlewax dripped down the walls like blood.
“All I’m saying is tread lightly.”
Lye laughed, downing the last of her wine. “Sometimes Nana was right.”
Night had stolen the city when she climbed the perimeter wall, invisible in black.
The guards walked below. Never once glancing up. When their voices faded, Aoife jumped and caught the edge of the long building with her fingertips. Arms straining, she pulled herself onto the roof of a storage facility.
Merchants kept their riches and merchandise and daughters in the same place.
Like that didn’t just make them more convenient to steal.
The lock on Sola’s bedroom window fell open easily under her knife. Darkness coated the room, made brighter by the streetlamps burning outside. The silence held steady, but for Sola’s breathing. Aoife crept towards the jewellery boxes.
She twirled around; knife ready.
“Do you know how long I’ve been waiting?” Sola sat up, hair drawn into a braid atop her head like a sleeping snake. “Does it usually take this long to decide to steal someone?”
Aoife knew getting an invitation to Sola’s home had been too easy. “I…”
She stalked soundlessly from her bed. Lighter than anyone but Lye. “Take me.”
She took a step closer. Aoife took one back.
“I’m not here to…” Aoife trailed off, unsure.
Sola rolled her eyes and took another step forward. Aoife took another back.
The smile she directed at Aoife contained nothing but scorn. “Try to lie better than that.”
Another step forward. Another back.
Aoife’s back hit a cold wall. “What is it you want?”
“You came for jewels, money, a way to survive. I can get you all of it.” Turning, she opened a wooden box and handed Aoife the fan she’d lost. Rubies shone in the moonlight.
It had been a long time since someone had stolen from Aoife.
Sola pushed down the knife.
Aoife didn’t think to resist. “You gave me the gem.”
“I needed a reason to talk to you. Take me with you.”
The final step left her flush with Aoife’s body.
Sola traced her jaw with soft fingertips. “I’ve been trapped in the city for months with nothing but gossip and politics, and then the Lady of Copper Row mentioned a friend, a thief, who deals in orphans and runaways. So, I say it again, beg it of you, take me instead.”
Aoife glanced at her mouth, so close Sola’s breath warmed her lips.
When Sola closed the distance, it felt like climbing the rooftops while the city slept and watching the stars burn endlessly. Kissing her were those few moments before being fully awake, when blankets were warm, and dreams were kind.
Aoife chased her lips when she pulled away.
“Take me with you.”
Fran Quinn is a chronically ill writer based in Dublin. She spent four years interning in Big Smoke Writing Factory. She took part in Penguin WriteNow 2020, and more recently, the DHA New Writers Week 2021. She writes YA about witches and magic.