Date Published: October 26, 2021
Publisher: Darkstroke Books
Cinna would quite literally kill for the throne.
She’s spent years forced to serve her wealthy cousins rather than attend society events alongside them, waiting for the chance to prove herself and exact revenge. When a ball is announced at the castle, promising to bring many powerful people to town, she seizes the opportunity to strike.
She bets her best friend, a small-time thief and con-man, that she can land a greater score the night of the ball than he can. They embark on parallel heists. But as their plots unfold, things begin to unravel: by the end of the night, the castle’s on lock down, a duchess is dead, a mansion has burnt to the ground, and Cinna hasn’t stolen anything. Or has she stolen something more valuable than gold and jewels?
Johann sat on the barstool beside Cinna and sighed. Without acknowledging him, she slid her empty glass forward across the bar.
The bartender poured her another round of top-shelf whisky, which Johann knew she could not afford. He wondered briefly whether the bartender owed her a favor, or if she knew something the man did not want shared, then decided that he didn’t care.
She smiled, settled back on her stool, and turned to him at last. “Have a good day?”
He grunted, which made her laugh. He may not have had a good day, but it seemed she had.
“Life of petty crime too petty for you now?”
He shrugged and began rolling himself a cigarette. She sipped her whisky in silence, watching.
In truth, Johann had been in a good mood until he entered the bar and saw her sitting there. Every moment around Cinna was exhausting. She was his favorite and least favorite person at the same time, and he had been looking forward to brooding about her alone with some tobacco and alcohol. That plan was foiled now.
He tipped the cigarette toward her, asking wordlessly for a light. She was always good for that, at least.
She pulled a matchbook from a pocket and drew a match quickly between her fingers to bring forth the flame, then offered it to him.
“Neat trick,” he said.
As she pinched the match out again, she asked if he’d heard about the ball they were throwing for the fiftieth anniversary of the accords.
He could never understand why Cinna made it her business to track things like that, and he certainly didn’t care. Maybe she did not expect him to, because she just shrugged and changed the subject. “Anything interesting in the store?”
With her words, he realized that in fact there was a reason to be glad to see her tonight. “Finish that,” he suggested, gesturing to her still-mostly-full glass. “I have something to show you.”
She raised an eyebrow and took a slow sip, decidedly not finishing the drink in any hurry. “How mysterious.”
“Or don’t,” he said. “But I think you’ll find this interesting.”
She considered his expression for a moment and then seemed to decide that he was worth her time. With a half smile, she knocked back the rest of her drink and slid languidly down from the barstool. “Let’s go, then.”
Johann glanced toward the window. It was too wet and windy to smoke outside, so he stubbed out the cigarette and pocketed it, then offered her an arm as they walked out of the dim little tavern into the winter evening. As he had expected, she made no effort to pay or even thank the bartender.
He knew she only walked with her arm through his to humor him, but still it felt nice. The cold wind erupted in his face and blew back the hood he’d lifted as they went out the door, sending a shiver of icy rain down the back of his shirt. Though she wore a much lighter jacket than he did, Cinna seemed unbothered.
They passed in and out of the blue light of evening and the flickering oily yellow of streetlamps, descending through narrow streets toward his pawn shop. Passersby paid them no mind, in a hurry to get home as the temperature dropped. Before long, the rain would turn to snow and the puddles to ice.
He released her arm to dig out a key and led them inside, not bothering to light a candle. He preferred the shop like this: gloomy, dusty, dark. It reminded him what he hoped to one day escape.
She looked around as they walked deeper into the shop, studying various wares on the towering shelves. If he didn’t know that even Cinna had standards, he would have thought she was casing the place, selecting which trinkets she would come back for when he was not around.
“What did you want to show me?” she asked, leaning her arms against the counter as he walked around behind it.
He wanted to let the suspense build, loving her attention on him. He shrugged out of his damp coat, and turned slowly as if considering his options, theatrically stalling in a way that, as hoped, made her laugh.
“I’m starting to think you just wanted to trick me into coming home with you,” she said, a smile in her rich voice.
He grinned and leaned across the counter in a position mirroring her own. Close enough that he could smell the smoky whisky on her breath. “Maybe I did.”
She laughed again, then leaned away. “I’m missing my nice barstool and whisky.”
“What did you do for that, by the way?”
She smirked. “Wouldn’t you like to know.”
He sighed, well aware that she was as in control of this interaction as she ever was, and ducked below the counter to retrieve what he had thought to show her. It seemed silly now.
But he saw the sparkle in her eyes when he deposited the shoes on the counter with a flourish and knew he had been right. “They’ll fit you,” he said.
She lifted one in her hand, bringing it close enough to admire in the low light. They were truly beautiful, made of gleaming black leather embedded with tiny jewels, a delicate arch lifting upon sturdy but artful high heels.
She studied him over the shoe she held, eyes bright in the darkness. He had no idea what she was thinking, but he liked the hint of a smile on her lips.
“You can have them,” he said, completing the thought he’d implied already.
She shook her head and set the shoe back down. “I have no use for anything like this,” she said. “You know that.”
He smirked and picked up the shoe that she had set down, holding it carefully in one hand with the other flat below the heel. With his thumb, he made some slight motion where she couldn’t see, and a slender knife dropped into his palm, pricking a tiny burst of blood where it made contact. Her eyes flickered to his face quickly enough to catch his grimace, but then they shared a smile.
She reached for the knife. He closed his fist around it and pulled away.
“I have a weakness for pretty things,” she said slowly, picking up the other shoe and looking for the mechanism that would reveal the blade, “but usually I can ignore it. When beauty is combined with danger, though…” She grinned at him and he warmed at the sight of her honest happiness. “You know me well.”
And he did. Well enough to know that her real weakness was not that she liked objects that were pretty and dangerous, but rather that he knew as much. He was fairly sure she did not know his own.
But he would play into what she thought she knew. He set the knife he’d already extracted onto the counter and took the shoe from her, holding it aloft to show which jewel was actually a lever. “Someday I’ll get you every beautiful weapon you can imagine,” he said.
“Gilded daggers?” she asked.
He nodded. “Swords inset with rubies.”
“Guns that shoot not bullets but diamonds?”
He lifted his hands and parted them, as if to say he’d give her the world. She laughed, and he did too.
“You talk a big game,” she said, lifting the blade by the hilt and tipping it back and forth. He watched her, seeing that she was thinking, wondering what she thought.
“Cinna?” he asked.
The thoughts that clouded her face drifted away and she smiled. “What do you say to a wager?”
He folded his arms and raised an eyebrow. “Friendly competition between friends?”
“Something like that.”
“What are your terms?” he asked.
“That ball,” she said. “Two weeks away. Everyone who’s anyone will be there. The king will empty his vaults to show off his treasure. It’s the ultimate target.”
“I’m not seeing how this is a competition,” he said slowly. Understanding sank through him.
“I’m not saying we do this together,” she clarified. “Let’s see who can land a bigger score that night.”
She still twirled the knife between her fingers. He held only an empty shoe.
“What’re the stakes?” he asked. He could never read her, much as he tried to. Maybe that was why she was so entrancing.
She shrugged, grinned, stood up straight. “Not high enough for you?’
“Not high enough for you,” he replied.
She laughed. A chill went down his spine.
“Let’s decide once I win, shall we?” she asked.
He frowned. “That’s hardly fair.”
Her laugh this time was abrupt and biting, but her smile was friendly. “Then beat me.”
He drew a breath, considering. Cinna was not a fool: she would have a plan already, and he would be starting from behind if he agreed to this. But Johann was not a fool, either. Perhaps he needed something so risky and high-profile if he wanted to impress Cinna and break free of the ridiculous hold she had on him. Maybe this would show him that he did not need her approval to be strong.
“Walk me home,” she said before he could reply, setting both knives down on the counter. “It’s late.”
He slid the knives back into their sheathes and put the shoes on the counter. “Are you keeping them?”
She lifted one by the heel, then the other. “I’ll wear these the night of the ball,” she said. “And I’ll see you there?”
He grinned, shrugged into his coat, and made up his mind. “If I do things right, you won’t.”
They headed back into the night, which had darkened fully by then. She did not live far away —the city was dense, with a small footprint—but even a woman as dangerous as Cinna knew better to walk home alone through those streets. Looking at her now, though, he was fairly sure she was the threat, not the one in danger. If someone thought to target her for a mugging, that would be their last theft.
The rain had let up but the paving stones had grown slick, just on the edge of icing over. Their breath clouded before them. Cinna held onto the shoes more firmly than she did his arm.
When they reached the mansion where she worked as a servant, they hesitated. He caught an inscrutable dark look in her eyes as she gazed up at its gabled roof and bright windows, and wondered for the thousandth time how Cinna had come to live the life she did. But if she shared that with anyone, it was not him.
About the Author
I am a software engineer and author living and working in Silicon Valley, California. I studied computer science at Stanford University, but I’ve always loved stories in all their forms. I approach writing fiction the same way I approach writing code: I like to know where it’s going, but I want to figure out the details as I go along. Good software is a lot like a good story, full of neat and clever solutions to tricky problems, beautiful at a granular level but also from a distance.
Originally from Seattle, I love getting outdoors and living in places that allow me to escape to the mountains on the weekends, and I care deeply about the ecosystems that humans impact and that impact us. My writing explores these issues while also following classic coming-of-age arcs in science fiction and fantasy. I’m also very interested in stories and characters that complicate the traditional and familiar, leading me to fairytale retellings from unexpected angles.