The player slapped his cards against the table, leaned back in his chair, and grinned. “Impressive hand,” Ren said. She would know. She’d crafted it. “But better luck next time.” She fanned out her winning cards, and the man’s smile waned, his arrogance falling away like an unclasped cloak slipping from his shoulders. The other two players whistled low. They had long ago folded, but not before parting with a dozen gold coins and a handful of silver. It was enough money to keep Ren comfortable for a week. Standing from her seat in the crowded tavern, she swept her winnings into a pouch and shrugged on her black coat. She tipped her head at the table. “Gentlemen.” The losing player jumped to his feet, his hand latching on to her arm. “How about another round?” When Ren looked pointedly at his grip, he released her but offered no apology. Entitled and cocky, with a taste for gambling and more than enough money to support the unfortunate habit, he possessed all the qualities Ren looked for in an opponent.
But she had grown rather tired of him. He’d spent the game complimenting her pretty poker face, while his eyes not so discreetly darted to her low neckline every other second. He was so relentless she had started to wonder if it was possible to be killed by aggressive flirtation. “Tempting,” she said. “But I have places to be and your money to spend.” “Come on. I can’t go home with empty pockets.” Ren was already walking away. “Looks like you’ll need to ask for an advance on your allowance.” Chilly winter air greeted her outside the tavern doors.
Slipping on thick leather gloves, Ren set out into the dark streets of Denfell. As she made her way through the city, she fingered the coins in her pocket. The man really hadn’t thought she would win. They never did. Not when she’d played her first game at twelve, her black hair ratty and matted, limbs scarcely larger than the cards in her hand. Definitely not now. She was six years older, her long hair shined like fresh ink, and she’d packed on a fair amount of lean muscle, but now she wasn’t a threat because she had the breasts to fill out a corset. It didn’t matter if people underestimated her or not. She would win either way. Ren had a matter to attend to, and afterward she was heading to a fighting pit just across the river, but she didn’t have anywhere to be for another hour.
The tavern she’d chosen tonight wasn’t far from the Golden Strait, a long stretch of road where the city’s wealthiest shopped and dined. It emptied after dusk, and though guards made their rounds, if Ren timed it right, she could avoid them entirely. If she timed it wrong—well, she knew how to deal with it. When Ren arrived at the Golden Strait, she was relieved to find the guards were nowhere to be seen. It wasn’t that she was opposed to taking care of their presence; it was just a massive pain in the ass. Once, she might have objected on moral grounds, but that was a long time ago. Ren pulled out a watch, clocked the time, and estimated she had at least seven minutes. She’d need no more than five. Sweeping down the cobbled stretch of road, she blended into the shadows beneath doorways and overhangs. She slipped past windows of expensive fabrics, passing by jewels glittering in the moonlight, and stopped in front of a shop boasting clothes of some of the finest make in Denfell.
There were dresses she would never have a place to wear and painful-looking velvet shoes. If she’d been feeling self-indulgent, she might have considered trying them on, but tonight her attention slid past the glamour to the far-right side of the display and the burgundy coat she’d been eyeing for two weeks. Tossing a glance around the deserted street, Ren stepped up to the barred door and the heavy padlock. She turned up a palm, and a wispy ball of silver light formed in her hand. It grew dense, the faint silver becoming something more solid, and shot into the keyhole. With a flexing of her fingers, Ren worked the inside of the lock, prodding until it popped open. She unchained the bars and pulled them outward, then directed her silver to the door, guiding it under the crack, into the shop, and up to the lock on the other side. One twist of the wrist, and the shop was hers. She stepped inside, her silver vanishing like smoke on the breeze as she removed her old, ratty jacket. The coat caught her shirt, dragging the collar sideways, and Ren quickly tugged her sleeve back up to cover the uneven skin marring the top of her right shoulder.
Then she pulled the new jacket from the display, the silk lining shining like water and just as smooth to the touch. As she’d suspected, the coat was a nearly perfect fit, save for the sleeves, which were slightly too short, but it was nothing gloves couldn’t fix. The front ended just below the slight curve of her chest and the long coattails, which fell to her heels, highlighted her tall frame nicely. In conjunction with the leather corset she’d paid a fortune to commission (a bodice that failed to cinch in her waist but fared quite nicely when it came to storing small daggers), Ren had to admit she looked good. Before departing, she checked for a coin box or purse, but the merchant wasn’t stupid enough to leave their money overnight, so she settled for pocketing the jewelry, which she’d hawk at the Underground later. She took one last moment to drape her old coat on the display where the red one had been, then slipped out of the shop, her silver locking the door once more. The bars and padlock went back in place, and Ren continued down the street. She caught the faint click of heeled boots, the swish of winter cloaks, and she ducked around a corner just as the guards appeared, gone a moment before they knew she was there. Ren crossed a stone bridge over the Battgandon River, a wide body of water that ran through the center of Denfell like a spine. It separated the generally pleasant northern half of the city from the rougher southern side, but some places, like the Terth slum in the west, were shitholes through and through, regardless of direction.
Ren had just stepped off the bridge when she sensed she was being observed. Without slowing, she glanced back and spotted a tall man on the opposite side of the river. He was mostly obscured by the night shadows and doing a spectacular job of acting casual, but Ren had lived on the streets long enough to know when she was being followed. She ducked between two buildings and picked up her pace, but before she’d reached a fork at the end of the alley, she heard the pound of footfalls behind her. Cursing under her breath, Ren took a right and broke into a sprint, her long coattails rippling behind her like red streamers. The streets of Denfell had been her home for nine years. She knew the straight lines, wide roads, and bright paint of the wealthy districts just as well as the dull colors and crooked alleys of the slums, and she never lost her way as she ran in what she hoped was a disorienting pattern. She darted over bridges spanning the Battgandon and slipped into gaps between buildings, their candy-colored hues bright enough to put sweetshops to shame. Finally, she found the passage she’d been searching for. It was only a couple feet wide and next to invisible in the darkness to anyone who didn’t know to look for it, but she slipped in easily.
She backed into the shadows and held her breath. Five seconds passed, then ten. It was another thirty before she loosed a breath and still thirty more before she moved. Ren slid between the walls and popped out onto a narrow pathway running beside the river, illuminated by a few scattered streetlamps. “You’re quite the card player,” said a voice. Ren whirled, simultaneously withdrawing a dagger from a hidden slit in her corset. She came faceto-face with not a man, but a boy, who she doubted was any older than her. He really didn’t look like much of a threat. In daylight, he was probably downright pleasant, with darker skin, round eyes, and thick black hair, but strangers chasing her around the city were bad news, no matter how attractive. “Why are you following me?” Ren asked, backing away with her knife held aloft.
“I’m sorry if I scared you.” “I don’t scare easy.” Her fingers twitched at her side. “Why are you following me?” “I just want to talk.” “Go to a confessional.” Ren flung her dagger. It plunged into the boy’s shoulder, and he staggered sideways, biting back a shout of pain. Pulling out a second blade, she stalked forward, but before she could make certain he wouldn’t be following her anymore, something smashed into the back of her head. She dropped to the ground, and darkness took her.