The Devil’s Thief – Lisa Maxwell

The Thief turned her back on the city—on everything she had once been and on all the lies she had once believed. The ache of loss had honed her, and the weight of memory had pressed her into something new—hard and cold as a diamond. The Thief carried the memory of those losses as a weapon against what was to come as she faced the span of the great bridge. The dark road spooled out before her, leading onward to where night had already bruised the horizon, its shadow falling over the low-slung buildings and the bare treetops of a land she’d never thought to visit. Measured in steps, the distance wasn’t all that great, but between her and that other shore stood the Brink, with all its devastating power. At her side stood the Magician. Once he had been her enemy. Always he had been her equal. Now he was her ally, and she had risked everything to come back for him. He shuddered, but whether it was from the cold evening air on his bare arms or from the reality of what they needed to do—the impossibility of it—the Thief couldn’t be sure. His voice came to her, a hushed whisper in the wind. “A day ago I had planned to die. I thought I was ready, but .

” He glanced over at her, his storm-cloud eyes revealing everything he wasn’t saying. “This will work,” she reassured him, not because she knew it was true but because there was no other option. She might not be able to change the past, might not be able to save the innocent or rewrite her mistakes and regrets, but she would change the future. Behind them, a streetcar approached, sending vibrations through the track beneath their feet. They couldn’t be seen there. “Give me your hand,” the Thief commanded. The Magician glanced at her, a question in his eyes, but she held out her bare hand, ready. With one touch he would be able read her every hope and fear. With one touch he could turn her from this path. Better to know where his heart stood now. A moment later his hand caught hers, palm to palm. The coolness of his skin barely registered, because when her skin touched his, power sizzled against her palm.

She’d felt his affinity’s warmth before, but what she felt now was something new. A wave of unfamiliar energy licked against her skin, testing her boundaries as though searching for a way into her. The Book. He’d tried to explain—tried to warn her after she had returned from the future he’d sent her to, a future he’d thought was safe. All that power is in me, he’d said. She hadn’t understood. Until now. Now the familiar warmth of his affinity was overwhelmed by a stronger magic, a power that had once been contained in the pages of the Ars Arcana the Thief had tucked into her skirts—a book that people she loved had lied and fought and died for. Now its power was beginning to creep upward, wrapping around her wrist, solid and heavy as the silver cuff she wore on her arm. At the edges of her consciousness, the Thief thought she heard voices whispering.

“Stop it,” she told him through clenched teeth. His response came out clipped, strained. “I’m trying.” When she looked over at him, his expression was pained, but his eyes were bright, their irises flashing with colors she could not have named. He drew in a breath, his nostrils flaring slightly with the effort, and a moment later the colors in his eyes faded until they were his usual stormy gray. The warmth vining around her arm receded, and the voices she’d heard scratching at the boundaries of her mind went quiet. Together they began to walk. Away from their city, their only home. Away from her regrets and failures. As they passed the first set of brick and steel arches, each step was one more toward their possible end.

This close to the Brink, its cold energy warned anyone with an affinity for the old magic to stay away. The Thief could feel it, could sense those icy tendrils of corrupted power clawing at her, at the very heart of what she was. But the warning didn’t stop her. Too much had happened. Too many people had been lost, and all because she had been willing to believe in the comfort of lies and too easily led. It was a mistake she wouldn’t repeat. The truth of who and what she was had seared her, burning away all the lies she’d once accepted. About her world. About herself. That blaze had cauterized her aching regrets and left her a girl of fire.

A girl of ash and scars. She carried a taste in her mouth that made her think of vengeance. It stiffened her resolve and kept her feet moving. Because after everything that had happened, all that she had learned, she had nothing left to lose. She had everything left to lose. Brushing aside the dark thought, the Thief took a deep, steadying breath and found the spaces between the seconds that hung suspended around her. Once she had not thought of time, or her ability to manipulate it, as anything particularly special. She knew better now. Time was the quintessence of existence—Aether—the substance that held the world together. Now she appreciated the way she could sense everything—the air and the light, matter itself—tugging against the net of time.

How could she have missed this? It was all so startlingly clear. The streetcar’s bell clanged out its warning again, and this time she didn’t hesitate to use her affinity to pull the seconds until they ran slow. As the world went still around her, the rumble of the streetcar died away into silence. And the Thief’s breath caught in a strangled gasp. “Esta?” the Magician asked, fear cracking his voice. “What’s wrong?” “Can’t you see it?” she asked, not bothering to hide her wonder. Before her the Brink shimmered in the light of the setting sun, its power fluctuating haphazardly in ribbons of energy. Visible. Almost solid. They were every color she had ever imagined and some she didn’t have names for.

Like the colors that had flashed in the Magician’s eyes, they were beautiful. Terrible. “Come on,” she told the Magician, leading him toward the barrier. She could see the path they would take, the spaces between the coiling tendrils of power that would let them slide through untouched. They were in the middle of the swirling colors, the Magician’s hand like a vise around hers, cold and damp with his fear, when she noticed the darkness. It started at the edges of her vision, like the black spots you see after a flash of light. Nothing more than wisps at first, the darkness slowly bled into her vision like ink in water. Before, the spaces between the seconds had been easy to find and grab hold of, but now they seemed to be slipping away, the substance of them dissolving as if eaten by the same darkness filling her vision. “Run,” she said as she felt her hold on time slipping. “What?” The Magician looked over at her, his eyes now shadowed with the creeping blackness as well.

She stumbled, her legs suddenly like rubber beneath her. The cold power of the Brink was sliding against her skin like a blade. Everything was going dark, and the world around her was fading into nothing. “Run!” THE WHITE LADY 1902—New York The white lady was dying, and there wasn’t a thing that Cela Johnson could do about it. Cela’s nose wrinkled as she approached the lump of rags and filth in the corner. The smell of sweat and piss and something like decay was thick in the air. It was the decay— the sweet ripeness of it—that told Cela the woman wouldn’t make it through the week. Maybe not even through the night. Felt like Death himself had already arrived in the room and was just sitting around, waiting for the right moment. Cela wished Death would hurry up already.

Her brother, Abel, was due home the next evening, and if he found the woman in the house, there’d be hell to pay. She’d been damned stupid for agreeing to keep the woman, not that she could fathom what had possessed her to accept Harte Darrigan’s request two nights before. Cela liked the magician well enough—he was one of the few at the theater who bothered to looked her in the eye when he talked to her—and she supposed she did owe him for making Esta that gown of stars behind his back. But she certainly didn’t owe him enough to be putting up with his dope fiend of a mother. But Harte had always been too slick for his own good. He was like the paste stones she fixed to the performers’ costumes: To the audience, her creations sparkled like they were covered in precious gems—but that was all lights and smoke. Her garments may have been well made, her seams straight and her stitching true, but there was nothing real about the sparkle and shine. Up close, you could tell easy enough that the stones were nothing but polished glass. Harte was a little like that. The problem was, most people couldn’t see past the shine.

Though she probably shouldn’t think so uncharitably of the dead. She’d heard about what happened at the Brooklyn Bridge earlier that day. He’d attempted some fool trick and ended up jumping to his death instead. Which meant he wouldn’t be coming back for his mother, as he’d told her he would. Still . As much as Darrigan might have been all spit and polish on the surface, like the straight, evenly stitched seams in her costumes, there was something beneath that was sturdy and true. Cela had suspected that much all along, but she knew it for the truth when he’d appeared on her doorstep, cradling the filthy woman like she was the most precious of cargo. She supposed she owed it to him now to honor his last wishes by seeing his mother through to the other side. Two days ago the woman had been so deep in an opium dream that nothing would rouse her. But it wasn’t long before the opium had worn off and the moaning had begun.

The laudanum-laced wine Harte had left had lasted less than a day, but the woman’s pain had lasted far longer. At least she seemed to be peaceful now. With a sigh, Cela knelt next to her, careful not to get her skirts too dirty on the cellar’s floor. The old woman wasn’t sleeping, as Cela had first thought. Her eyes were glassy, staring into the darkness of the ceiling above, and her chest rose and fell unevenly. There was a wet-sounding rattle in her shallow breaths that confirmed Cela’s suspicions. Harte’s mother would be dead by morning. Maybe she should have felt worse about that, but she’d promised Harte that she’d look after the old woman and make her comfortable, not that she’d save her. After all, Cela was a seamstress, not a miracle worker, and Harte’s mother—Molly O’Doherty, he’d called her—was far past saving. Anyone could see that.

Still, the woman—no matter how low life had laid her or how much she stank— deserved a bit of comfort in her final moments. Cela took the bowl of clean, warm water she’d brought with her to the cellar and gently mopped the woman’s brow and the crusted spittle around her mouth, but the woman didn’t so much as stir. As Cela finished cleaning the woman up as well as she could without disturbing her, she heard footsteps at the top of the wooden stairs. “Cela?” It was Abel, her older brother, who shouldn’t have been home yet. He was a Pullman porter on the New York Central line, and he should have been on his way back from Chicago, not standing in their stairwell. “That you, Abe?” she called, easing herself up from the floor and smoothing her hair back from her face. The dampness of the cellar was surely making it start to curl up around her temples. “I thought your train wasn’t due until tomorrow?” “Switched with someone for an earlier berth.” She heard him start down the steps. “What’re you doing down there?” “I’m coming up now.

” She grabbed a jar of peaches—an excuse for being down in the cellar—and started up the steps before he could come all the way down. “I was just getting some fruit for tonight’s dinner.” Above her, Abe was still dressed in his uniform. His eyes were ringed with fatigue— probably from taking a back-to-back shift to get home—but he was smiling at her with their father’s smile. Abel Johnson Sr. had been a tall, wiry man with the build of someone who used his hands for a living. He’d been killed in the summer of 1900, when the city had erupted in riots after Arthur Harris had been arrested for stabbing some white man who’d turned out to be a plainclothes policeman. Her father didn’t have anything to do with it, but that hadn’t stopped him from being caught up in the hate and the fury that had swept through the city during those hot months. Some days Cela thought she could hardly remember her father’s voice or the sound of his laugh, as though he was already fading from her memory. But it helped that Abe wore her father’s smile almost every day.

Times like this, it struck her just how much her brother resembled her father. Same tall, wiry build. Same high forehead and square chin. Same lines of worry and exhaustion etched into his too-young face from the long hours of working on the rail lines. But he wasn’t exactly the spitting image of his namesake. The deep-set eyes that were a warm chestnut brown flecked with gold, and the red undertones of his skin— those features were from their mother. Cela’s own skin was a good bit darker, more like the burnished brown of her father’s. Abel’s expression brightened at her mention of food. “You making me something good?” She frowned. Because she’d been too wrapped up in caring for the old woman to go to the market, she didn’t have anything but the jar of peaches in her hand.

“Considering that I wasn’t planning on you being home until tomorrow night? You’ll have to settle for porridge with peaches, same as what I was planning on making for myself.” His expression fell, and he looked so forlorn that she had to hold back her laugh. She gathered up her skirts and took a few more steps. “Oh, don’t look so—” Before she could finish, a soft moaning came from the darkness of the cellar. Abe went completely still. “You hear that?” “What?” Cela asked, inwardly cursing herself and the old woman just the same. “I didn’t hear nothing at all.” She took another step up toward where Abel was waiting. But the stupid old woman let out another moan, which had Abel’s expression bunching. Cela pretended that she didn’t hear it.

“You know this old building . probably just a rat or something.” Abel started to descend the narrow staircase. “Rats don’t make that kind of noise.” “Abe,” she called, but he already had the lamp out of her hand and was pushing past her. She closed her eyes and waited for the inevitable outburst, and when it came, she gave herself—and Abel—a moment before trudging back to the cellar. “What the hell is going on, Cela?” he asked, crouched over the woman in the corner. The material of his navy porter’s uniform was pulled tight across his shoulders, and he had his nose tucked into his shirt. She couldn’t blame him—the woman stank. There was nothing for it.

“You don’t need to worry about it,” Cela told him, crossing her arms. Maybe it was a stupid decision to help out the magician, but it had been her decision. As much as Abe thought it was his duty to take up where their father left off, Cela wasn’t a child anymore. She didn’t need her older brother to approve every little thing she did, especially when five days of seven he wasn’t even around. “I don’t need to worry about it?” Abe asked, incredulous. “There’s a white woman unconscious in my cellar, and I don’t need to worry about it? What have you gotten yourself into this time?” “It’s our cellar,” she told him, emphasizing the word. Left to them both by their parents. “And I haven’t gotten myself into anything. I’m helping a friend,” she answered, her shoulders squared. “She your friend?” Abe’s face shadowed with disbelief.

“No. I promised a friend I’d keep her comfortable, until she . ” But it seemed wrong, somehow, to speak Death’s name when he was sitting in the room with them. “It’s not like she’s got much time left.”

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