Chapter 1: A Wraith’s Job

    Rain pitter-pattered on the shingles of a cobblestone manor. Swirling designs of flowers and vines were etched into the walnut columns holding up the roof of its wrap-around porch. On the porch was a well-crafted loveseat with a small matching table. Inside windows, glittering gold decor and sizeable art hung on the walls. All of it must have cost a fortune.

    But none of that luxury was why Nora had been sent to rob the Taeguns. All of that enticing treasure would remain right where it was. She was there for one thing only — a ring. It was more than some simple trinket, though. 

    The ring she’d been sent to steal could alter spoken words from drab to charming, and anything said would curl from lips as seductively as the swaying of a woman’s curves.

    With something so powerful in their possession, it was no surprise that the Taeguns had gained so much favor with Orym’s royals and nobles. 

    If others knew about it, the Taeguns would be cast down from their soaring height, but someone with enough influence and coin to hire the Wraiths had discovered their secret and decided they’d rather control the ring’s ability than see the Taeguns grovel at their feet. That someone had paid for the ring to find its way into their waiting hands.

    With such a high-profile client requesting their services, the Wraiths had sent one of their most talented thieves on the job — Nora. 

    A lithe woman of average height, Nora blended in well with the crowd as long as her hood was up, and she also had talents beyond her agility and cunning — illusion magic.

    Nora stood outside the Taegun’s manor, cautiously taking note of the number of guards and locations of exits. In the dark shroud of night, it would have been difficult to see if not for the glowing orbs of mage light emitted from lamps in the lush gardens.

    A chill and humid breeze lifted the scent of honeysuckle from the garden into the air, curling around Nora’s nose. The pleasant smell was a moment of bliss during tension that would find no release until she was far from the Taeguns estate. 

   Using all her senses to determine her best move, Nora snapped her keen eyes to a third-story window. An orange glow flickered there as a burly shadow passed and then stilled. The shadow sat in a chair and lifted a book.       

    Nora’s heart raced at the sight of the man preoccupied with his novel. His awareness was a complication. ‘This shouldn’t be happening. It’s so late. Why is he awake?’ A crash of thunder presented itself as an answer to her question.

    Hiding from the view of the window as lightning lit the sky again, Nora drew her body closer to the house’s front-outer wall, very near the carved columns of the front porch. It was a risky position to take, but she’d done it in haste.

     Though Nora wanted to scurry away from the estate and return another night when the Lord wasn’t thwarting the ease of her job and rain wasn’t pouring down from the sky, she couldn’t. If she returned empty-handed, there was no telling what would be done to her. Whatever it was, it would be far from enjoyable. 

    With retreat not a possibility, Nora had to devise another plan. ‘Something a bit more magical might do the trick,’ she thought as she darted behind one of the columns to hide from a guard passing by a window. 

     Mischief swirled in the depths of her tri-colored hazel eyes — eyes that were so unique she’d never seen them anywhere but reflected in the mirror. 

     ‘I may as well make this more entertaining.’ Thoughts of ways to terrify the Lord into fleeing his home brought a playful smirk to her pouty lips, but even if seeing the Lord frightened amused her, it wasn’t a sound idea. ‘His screams would only draw the attention of guards.’ 

     Nora knew the illusion she conjured needed to be more practical, and there was one fallback that had almost always worked before. ‘I’m getting ahead of myself. It’s been years since I’ve been seen on a job. Lord Taegun may be awake, but he’ll be lucky to catch even a glimpse of me.’

   Brimming with confidence, Nora more seriously searched for the best route into the estate. ‘The front door is tempting.’ It was only a few strides away. She almost wanted to test if it was unlocked, but giving in to such laziness would lead her right into the clutches of guards. One had already passed by the front window.

   Any usual entrance to the manor was likely too dangerous, which left impractical entries to consider. One of the most accessible entries to access was a first-floor window. There were many, and it would save Nora from climbing outside the home and possibly slipping since the rain wet the stones. 

   ‘No, I need to stop trying to take the easy way out,’ Nora thought. ‘Besides, it wouldn’t be easy once I got inside and was immediately noticed. I may as well tie a ribbon around myself before I gift myself to the guards like that.’

   Mind made up to work much harder to avoid capture, Nora decided to climb to the third floor from the outside of the house. It would be a slippery route, and she’d be drenched with rain more than she already was, but it was the cautious approach. 

    The problem was, whichever room she entered might be the only room she could visit. The guards would be posted outside bedroom doors, which meant the only way out was the same way she went in.

     ‘Which room do I choose? The most obvious choice is Lord Taegun’s. He must wear that ring himself, else why would he have it?’ There was a dreadful pause as she considered hopping through Lord Taegun’s window to interrupt his reading. 

    ‘Should I say hello when he looks up from his pages? Or maybe I could pretend I was a present from a friend — a woman to roll in the sheets with.’ The thought wrinkled her nose in disgust and uncertainty before loosening into a thoughtful expression. ‘Perhaps I don’t need to worry about seeing the Lord at all. It could be that Lady Taegun has what I’m looking for.’

   In Orym, married couples typically had their own separate rooms. Lady Taegun would not sleep in the same room as Lord Taegun every night, which meant that if it was the Lady who had the ring, Nora could avoid the Lord. ‘That would be convenient, but my life is far from convenient. Lord Taegun must have it.’ 

   With thoughts going around in circles, she considered, ‘But women here are equal to men. Maybe the Lady is the one manipulating the nobility. That would mean she’d have the ring.’ 

    Women were not inferior to men in the kingdom of Orym, so if Lady Taegun made most of the political moves, she would have it. This posed a dilemma. 

      Placing a finger on her chin, Nora mentally took a step back from her racing thoughts and focused on remembering the briefing she’d been given before leaving the thieves guild. ‘What was it Vicla had said?’ Her eyes briefly shut to help her focus. 

    Vicla’s crystal, feminine voice resounded in her mind, ‘Bertelis deals with financials and buying goods for the estate. He is usually quiet at social events, so you should only go there if you can’t find the ring in Myrtle’s quarters.’

    Relief floated through Nora like a gentle summer breeze through the leaves of trees. Lady Myrtle Taegun was the one schmoozing and charming the other nobles and royals. ‘So, I’ll try the Lady’s room first.’ A quiet sigh escaped Nora’s lips at the bit of good luck, and her almond-shaped eyes popped open.

    Once the job began, it could not be stopped. Nora would have to see it through no matter what happened, and she couldn’t turn back time to undo any mistakes. No one had that power. Everything needed to be decided before it happened, so Nora knew she needed to locate the Lady’s room before making any moves.

    It wasn’t a decision that took long. ‘The lady’s room must be next to her husband’s.’ It only made sense that they would be near each other.

    Everything was decided, so Nora drew a long breath. ‘Time to stop skulking about by the porch and get this over with.’ A slow exhale expelled her nerves, and she willed herself to move.

   Creeping along the house’s outer wall, Nora tilted her chin upward toward the third floor. Her eyes vigilantly shifted to the glowing window of Lord Bertelis’ room, then to the nearby dark window. That was the target.

  She’d have to make her way up to the third story to get to it, so the climb began. Nora took a running start, leaped from the soft, muddy ground, and outstretched her hands to the lip of the front porch’s roof.

   Tightly gripping the edge with her fingertips, Nora swung her body toward the wall, pushed off with her legs, propelled herself enough to pull upward with her arms, and then landed on top of the roof with a quiet thump.

   She was crouching in the shadows next to the second-story wall. Like a hawk, Nora scanned the house for any way to climb higher. 

    Above her was a small balcony connected to the room where she’d seen the Lord. Even if she chose to jump to it and remained silent as the grave, there was still a chance he’d look up and spot her through the window, so she decided to creep on the slippery roof toward the corner of the house.

   As she neared the corner that would, hopefully, lead her to Lady Taegun’s room, Nora’s nerves began to rise. The Taeguns’ could afford magical lamps for their gardens, carved columns for their home, and at least a dozen guards. She was a good thief, but even she was not used to having such a wealthy mark.

  ‘Who knows what else they can afford? Traps? Alarms? — Alarms would likely be attached to doors.’ Thoughts spun webs of anxiety in her mind. ‘It would be just my terrible luck that they’d be so paranoid as to trap their windows.’ The idea that they might do something so absurd tickled her mind, refusing to let her be until she caught her reflection in a window and chuckled at how jittery she looked.

   ‘I look like a child frightened of getting caught stealing dessert. If anyone in the guild saw me wide-eyed like this, they’d have a portrait painted to taunt me with it forever.’ 

   Using the reflection to ensure her auburn waves of hair were hidden, Nora tugged the corner of her hood, assuring herself that it still hid her features, then took a few slow, even breaths to calm her nerves.

   ‘What was I even thinking? The Taeguns may be nobles, but that only makes them lofty. They probably think no one would dare steal from them with all the guards they employ. My parents certainly weren’t concerned over such an improbability.’

      Having decided to stop struggling with her anxious thoughts, Nora resumed her stealthy approach to the corner of the impressive residence.

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