I RUSH THROUGH the catacombs, my face shrouded beneath the brim of a cap, skimming by the empty eyes of ancient skulls. I’m fast and sleek in my borrowed jeans but feel scantily clad without the heavy silk and brocade skirts to which I’m accustomed. I retained my corset: not out of an affinity for this particular one, but because my innards feel like jelly without stays, and tonight I have need of a strong spine.
I pause in the halo of a light to look at the half-crumpled bit of paper Lord Aaron passed me this afternoon. Once more I scan the hastily scrawled words and peer at the landmarks around me; as far as I can tell, I’m in the right place.
Just one more thing to do. With a dull thud my bag hits the dusty ground, and I take three brisk steps forward. I shiver—from the chill, from nerves, from exhaustion—and stand with my legs slightly apart, arms raised. Almost immediately—though I’d have sworn I was alone—there are hands searching my body, and I close my eyes against the humiliation. They pat my arms, my legs, my inner thighs, the hollow between my breasts. Mercifully, the ordeal is brief.
But a set of hands stops at the boning of my stays.
“What have we here?” My brain can’t wrap around the man’s words until I realize they’re French. All the lords and ladies of our court study the language—speak it with passable fluency at least weekly—but this raw, native accent is something else entirely. Of course it is. I’ve fled from a court that’s practically another world. But the reminder is jarring. I mentally fumble for a suitable response, praying my faux accent won’t render it unintelligible.
“It’s only a—stop!” But a shadowed form has already yanked the hem of my shirt up to my shoulder blades, and I feel a gentle tug at the laces. The binding fabric falls away, and my entire abdomen sets to quaking as the heavy undergarment drops to the ground. Two dozen cleanly sliced satin ribbons reveal that the person standing behind me has a very sharp knife. I pull my shirt back down—lest they try to cut that off too—but probing fingers merely frisk my soft belly and leave me be.
“Intéressante,” comes a voice from the dark, his throaty R so classically French. This is no Sonoman nobleman, French only in memorial and mockery of a bygone age. He says something else, too fast for me to follow, but unmistakably a command, and nimble feet patter all around me. I can see some of the people in the dim underground light, but with the shadows cast across their faces, I couldn’t identify a single one.
“Do you have it?” the rumbling voice asks.
“Have what, monsieur?” I reply, trying to sound strong.
A bark of a laugh as he steps more fully into the light. “Runaways always think I’m stupid. They’re putting their very lives in my hands, but they think I’m stupid.” He’s at least as old as my father and wears a scraggly half-beard that somehow doesn’t strike me as casual or shoddy. A leather coat drapes his shoulders, looking almost like a cloak. His eyes are dark, and there’s a black word tattooed on his neck—but the light isn’t bright enough to read it. “The money, girl. Do you have the money?”
“I don’t think you’re stupid,” I say first, feeling an irrational need to defend myself. “The…person who arranged this meeting didn’t know your current price. But I brought—”
Something cold presses against my neck, stopping me even as I step toward my bag: the unmistakable feel of a gun barrel.
“I haven’t gotten to where we’re standing right now by getting myself dead,” the man says, his voice silky. “What’s in the bag?”
“Some money. Jewelry. It’s all I could get my hands on.” Shut up! Don’t babble! I bite the inside of my lip and force myself to stand straight, my arms curled into a perfect ballet pose—at my sides, but not quite touching my body. Posture speaks louder than words, my dance instructor often said.
“I’m a fair man,” the dark figure says as the gunman tosses my backpack to him, chilly gun barrel never breaking contact with my skin. “My rate is five hundred thousand, and I’ll only take from your bag what’s needed to cover that. We can fence the rest if you want; wherever you’re going, I’m sure you’ll need the change.”
What I’ve stolen will surely be enough.
“I don’t ask why and you don’t ask me how. For five hundred we’ll remove your tracer, scramble your profile, and work up a new identity, complete with a passport.” As he speaks, he unzips the backpack by feel. “Have one of those faces? Another hundred thousand and I’ll put you under the knife.”
I suspect he’s not just offering a nose job like the one my mother foisted on me before my début.
“That…might be necessary,” I say at last. One week ago I was nobody—today I have one of the most recognizable faces in the world.