Satisfied that the counting house’s occupants were all soundly sleeping, Kiera had started to turn back toward the skylight beneath which the chests lay when a flicker of motion drew her attention back to the bedroom below. She could just make out a faint shadow looming over the bed.
Someone was in the room with Fred. She stretched out, leaning against the skylight to get a better view in hopes of seeing who was casting the shadow. Kiera was just able to make out one side of what she assumed was a man, given his size and shape. It was not Top Hat, of that she was certain. She thought he might be a bodyguard, tasked with watching the crime boss while he slept, but then the figure drew a sword and stalked closer.
Kiera stifled a gasp. Someone was going to kill Fred right in front of her eyes—and completely screw up her heist. There was no way she could go through with it now. Even if the man killed Fred and made his escape without anyone knowing, she wasn’t going to rob a dead man and take the chance of someone thinking she had done it.
She started to scoot back off the skylight to make her escape and leave Fred to the assassin, but the fates had other plans for them both, or more accurately, all three. Kiera froze when the wood panes sagged and the glass gave an ominous crack beneath her hands. Kiera willed her body to become light as a feather, but if that sort of magic existed, she did not possess it.
The glass and wood gave way beneath her and she fell with a startled cry. She landed atop the tall wardrobe, bounced off, and dropped atop Fred’s prone form. Fred sat up and engaged Kiera in a screaming match, each seemingly trying to top the other in volume and pitch. His eyes went from Kiera to the man standing near the foot of his bed with a sword in his hand.
Fred recovered first, bolted to his knees on the bed, grabbed the girl around the neck and one leg, and hurled her at the sword-wielder. Kiera struck the assassin squarely and they both went down in a heap. Fred rolled from the bed, flipped open a small wooden box sitting on the nightstand, and clutched a handful of the white powder filling it.
The drug dealer shoved the powder beneath his nose and inhaled deeply. His fearful scream became a roar of fury and a challenge to all who would face him. The fact that he was completely naked only made the situation that much more terrifying.
Cleary flung the girl off him with a curse, climbed back to his feet, and sought to complete the task he was there to perform. His eyes shifted about the dim room, but Fred was nowhere to be seen. Kiera hit the wall and rolled to a standing position, her baton poised to strike anyone who came within reach. Cleary was closest, so she determined he would be the first to feel her wrath.
Another roar sounded and both sets of eyes flicked back to the bed, which was rising from the floor as if it had somehow become animated and decided to join the brawl. Gripping the mattress rails, Fred charged forth with the bed held before him like a massive tower shield and smashed both intruders against the wall.
Cleary’s face was sandwiched between the mattress and the wall, giving him a good look at the girl, who was identically caught and stared back at him. He was certain it was a girl given the size and what he could see of her face, which was half-covered by a strip of cloth.
Unable to bring his sword arm up, the assassin pushed against the mattress as hard as he could and raised his pistol. The shot tore through the bed, dusting Fred’s face with bits of cotton and downy feathers. Fred cursed, released his hold on the bed, and darted away.
Cleary and Kiera both shoved against the bed and sent it crashing back down. Kiera advanced on the man who had just ruined her plans and possibly signed her death warrant if Fred recognized her. Cleary all but ignored her as a threat and sought out his target.
Fred reached into the nightstand and withdrew a pair of pistols. Clearly threw himself to the side and collided with Kiera, sending them both tumbling to the floor once again. One of the pistols went off, the shot scoring a deep gouge in Cleary’s shoulder. Both intruders fought to disentangle themselves and get back to their feet. The door crashed open and the two men from the other room burst in. Fred, either panicked or high on dream dust, thought they were more assassins and fired his other pistol and shot the first man to come through the door between his eyes.
The second man paused, unsure of how to proceed. He stared at his dead comrade then at Fred, his boss’ face almost completely white due to the dream dust covering it.
Fred gathered a thread of coherent thought. “Kill them!”
The man nodded, stepped over his friend’s body, and charged at Cleary. Cleary deflected the wild chop with his sword, flipped the discharged pistol around to grab it by the barrel, and tried to club his attacker with the butt.
The strike grazed the man’s ear but hit his shoulder squarely. The guard cursed and backed away. Kiera, being on no one’s side but her own, reeled back to hit Cleary. Fred had reloaded his pistols while his man had his attackers distracted and lowered one at the assassin. Cleary ducked beneath his aim, and now the sights were square on the thief.
Kiera’s eyes widened, but her instincts took hold and she acted without hesitation. Her free hand slapped against the cord hanging from her hip. She whipped it forward, the weighted end wrapping around Fred’s gun hand, and jerked with all her strength. Fred’s shot went low and wide but scored another glancing hit to Cleary’s thigh.
Blaming the nightbird’s interference for both of his injuries, Cleary spun around and tried to slash at Kiera. Kiera wrapped the cord around her baton, grabbed the rod with both hands, and leapt out of the window.
The unexpected weight pulled Fred forward, and he collided with Cleary’s back, causing both men to tumble to the floor. Kiera bounced at the end of her lash and swayed a good fifteen or twenty feet over the cobblestone street. Banging sounds drew her eyes to the boarding house. Their battle had woken Fred’s reinforcements, and they were trying to batter their way through the blocked door. It was likely only a matter of seconds before the door gave way or someone got smart and simply jumped through one of the windows.
Cleary lunged at Fred’s back with his sword, but the drug dealer turned back around and got away with a deep cut by deflecting the blade with his discharged pistol. Fred raised the other weapon, but Cleary ducked his head and charged. The shot sailed past Cleary’s head as he rammed into Fred.
Fueled by dream dust, Fred wrapped his arms around Cleary’s shoulders and pushed off the wall, driving his assailant across the room. Kiera found herself racing upward toward the window and could now see the two men exchanging blows with pistols and sword hilts. She heard the boarding house door finally give way, and men poured out into the street with shouts of outrage. Some saw her dangling from the window and pointed. A couple of them shot at her, sending splinters of wood flying near her face.
Shrill whistles added to the cacophony as dozens of gendarmes burst into the plaza. Unsure of what to do, the men turned and attacked the officers. Numerous musket shots thundered, striking down the thugs nearest the gendarmes.
A massive melee erupted in the plaza between the criminals and the gendarmes, but a few of Fred’s men sprinted toward the counting house. Kiera spied a gendarme dressed in black and wearing a mask staring up at her. Their eyes met, and Kiera decided it was past time to leave.
The nightbird grabbed the top of the window sill and braced her feet against the ledge. She was about to drop inside the room when the two men barreled toward her. Two heads appeared between her legs, the masked one facing down, Fred’s staring up at her.
She brought one foot up and stomped. Cleary, either lucky or possessing some sixth sense, thrust his head to the side, letting Fred take the blow directly to his face. Kiera felt his nose crunch beneath her heel. Fred cursed, heaved up on Cleary’s shoulders, and pushed back into the room.
Kiera gripped the window frame, raised her feet, and swung through the window, catching Fred in the back and sending both men crashing to the floor. Fred, being on top, recovered first. He jumped to his feet with a curse and hurled one of his pistols at Kiera. She threw herself to the floor, letting the bludgeon sail over her head, and scrambled beneath the bed.
The sound of fighting resumed. Kiera assumed the assassin had regained his feet and recommenced his attack. Her hand struck something heavy. Barely able to see anything from beneath the bed, she grabbed the object and shoved it into a large pocket on her pack. There was no way she was going to leave this place without something to show for it.
Kiera popped out on the other side of the bed and sprinted for the door. A figure appeared in the doorway, barring her path. Given the man’s shabby appearance and lack of uniform, Kiera assumed it was not a member of the gendarme, not that it would have altered her course of action in any way.
She dropped beneath the man’s hasty sword swing, slid between his legs, and delivered a hammer blow to his crotch with the meaty side of her fist. The man bent double with a wracking cough. Kiera came up behind him and nearly collided with a second man. She dropped back to the floor and struck him in the side of the knee with her baton, collapsing the leg. The nightbird hit him in the side of the head for good measure as he fell.
Kiera sprang to her feet once more only to find herself staring down the barrel of an exquisite pistol. The inquisitor held an equally splendid sword in his other hand, the void-steel and gold filigrees seeming to shine with a light all their own. Kiera’s brown eyes met the brilliant blue orbs behind the porcelain mask. For whatever reason, the inquisitor checked his shot, lifting his pistol to point at the ceiling.
The young thief was not about to question her good fortune, nor was she going to pass up an opportunity to escape. Her cord flew from her hand and wrapped around the inquisitor’s ankle. Kiera hurled herself over the balcony railing.
Bertram’s feet left the floor as the cord went taut. His back struck hard, blasting a good amount of air from his lungs. He slid toward the railing and arrested his momentum by bracing his foot against a banister post. He felt the girl, or possibly young boy but he suspected the former, bounce at the end of the line as her weight pulled at his trapped leg. He raised his sword and severed the cord with ease.
Kiera resumed her fall with a loud snap of her rope being cut. She landed atop a desk with a crash, the wood splintering and collapsing beneath her, absorbing some of the impact. Her breath left her body and beads from the abacus she crushed went skittering across the floor. Sparing no time to recover, she rolled off the remnants of the desk and struggled to her feet.
Her eyes met the inquisitor’s once more as he leaned over the balcony rail and stared down at her. Kiera raised a hand and flashed him an obscene gesture. She thought she may have actually heard him laugh behind his mask, but several gendarmes burst into the room at the same instant and rushed toward her.
Booted feet landed on the scattered abacus beads and sent the first few men slipping and sliding. Those behind them tripped over the ones stumbling in front of them and all went down. Kiera wasted no time and raced out of the back door and disappeared into the night.