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The snow had fallen overnight, covering everything around them with a white blanket of silence. Bunny fought the urge to grab Amy and return to their very warm nest of blankets and pillows. Instead, she huddled deeper into her cloak and stepped into the frozen world outside her home. Amy, less than amused by her hesitation, shoved her aside and shut the door behind them. Hazard came from the stables wrapped in a wool blanket, a big smile on his face. "It's beautiful, isn't it?"
"No." Bunny winced as her boots crunched through the snow. "How are you not cold?"
He shrugged. "Just one of the benefits of my path."
"Damned druids..." she grumbled. They made their way to Ogre's, calling out greetings to the other residents as they passed.
Bunny sighed in reflief when she opened the inn's doors, reveling in the warmth. Amy shoved her in and pushed her aside to allow Hazard and the Sunters to enter. "Geez, Bun, what are you going to do when it really gets cold?" Amy asked. "You can't hibernate like a bear."
"Freeze to death." She rubbed her arms. "If we're lucky then we won't have to leave the village like last winter and I get to sit around and play chess with Uncle Gordon."
"You're not so lucky then." Ogre came from the kitchen, carrying a steaming platter of sliced meat. He set it on the bar beside the basket over flowing with rolls. "Because we have a proposal from a baron in Novembertown to consider."
Marti came out as he ducked back in, a bowl in each hand. She grinned at Bunny and Amy. "Hey, honeys! Hungry?"
"They'd better be," grumped Tag. The heavyset grey haired man came from the kitchen carrying a giant confection of icing and setting it on the bar. "I certainly didn't slave on this meal for them to say 'no thanks, we ate crap at home'." He wiped his hands on his stained apron and stomped back into the kitchen.
Marti giggled. "I like him!" She rushed back into the kitchen.
The round tables were pushed aside, two long tables set end to end in the center of the room. Bottles of wine and a cask of beer were set on a round table near the fire, a cauldron of what could only be coffee in its ashes. Gordon and Madelyn, long since hung their cloaks on the pegs by the door, were helping themselves to some wine. Hazard, cup of coffee in hand, sat cross legged on a round table and chatted with the tow haired twins, Duck and Dodge, at the vineyard. Maureen, red hair in a loose braid, relaxed in one of the armchairs with a wine glass in hand. A few had gathered by the bar with their drinks, speculating on what lay beneath the icing.
Ogre set a stack of plates on each table as Marti and Tag placed silverware and napkins at each seat. He waved his hands at the assembled group. "Alright people, your plates won't fill themselves!"
Everyone laughed and wandered to the bar with a plate.
The room hummed with conversations and the racket that accompanies dinner. Ogre took a seat at the table beside Maureen, the latter smiling at him. Everyone had sat down and conversation had died down when Tag raised his voice. "Hey, Ogre, tell them about the proposal."
"I was going to wait until after dinner," he said, wiping his mouth. "But okay." He stood up and cleared his throat. "We were approached by Baron Oettinger from Novembertown. His youngest daughter is coming of age and he's throwing a ball."
"So why come to us?" Gordon took a roll from Madelyn's plate.
She glared at him. "Certainly not because of our sterling table manners, that's certain."
"The baron wants extra security." Ogre shrugged. "From what he told me, he has a visible force but he would like a covert force as well. Some with a more colorful skills than those who are visible."
"Just say it!" Duck laughed. "He wants thieves to be on the lookout for thieves!"
"Pretty much." Ogre grinned. "I figured we could do the whole in plain sight routine. I've only one invitation and as fate would have it, he's a fan of the famous Madelyn Sunter." She tried to look humble while the others whistled and clapped. "Therefor," he continued, "she will be performing at the ball. So we need some volunteers to be party guests and maybe a couple of gate crashers. Tag, you'll be their pastry chef for the evening. The cake is all yours."
"Excellent!" He rubbed his hands together.
"You said proposal," Marti called out. "Does this mean you're accepting the job?"
"It's a matter of money," Ogre explained. "I'll go back to the baron and tell him what we're planning. If he gives me terms I don't think are equal to the risk, I'll tell him what will make it equal. If he doesn't agree, we're not doing business."
"Better to plan and be ready then to be caught off guard," Maureen explained. "Shall I throw in some wine for the parents?"
"We'll see how much he feels we're worth." Ogre sat down and dinner conversation swelled once more.

Marti put aside her book when the shop door bell rang. She looked up and smiled at Hazard, who frowned at the herbs hanging on the racks. "Do you have an anise?"
"Fresh, dried, crystal or capsules?" She pulled herself reluctantly from the soft chair.
"Fresh, if you can. I've a horse with a stomach ache."
She nodded. "Give me a moment." She disappeared behind the curtain that separated her quarters from the shop. He heard doors open and close, tried to hide his surprise when she reappeared with a handful of anise flowers. "Will this be enough?"
"Yes, thank you."
She put the flowers in a muslin bag and handed it to him. "Let me know if you need some more."
He didn't try to hide his amazement. "It's winter! How do you find fresh flowers?"
She grinned. "It's not winter everywhere, you know."
He started to say something when Bunny and Ogre burst in. "Marti! We were wondering if you had potions that temporarily aged a person or made then younger." Bunny asked in a rush.
"Or would color their hair," Ogre added.
Marti paused and pulled out bottles, jars and vials of varying colors and shapes. By the time she had everything she needed, Hazard was gone.

Patrick Finnegan had never seen such a group in all his years of tailoring. He smiled, gritted his teeth and reminded himself of the gold promised by the baron if he took care of these... people.
The two young ladies had hands with a light touch, way too light for Patrick's taste. One had callouses on her fingertips that he guessed did not come from days spent embroidering and both moved a bit too graceful, almost catlike. Their chaperon, despite her gray hair, did not look at all like a matron. Her eyes unsettled him as well, observing and calculating. Even though the girls called her "Aunt Marti", he wondered what sort of relationship "Brenda" and "Amelia" had with her.
The young men were no better. Even though they were polite and well-mannered, their bodies were not the soft, rounded forms he was used to seeing on nobles. They had the look of ones used to hard work. "Donovan" and "Derek" made Patrick count his money twice when they left.
The bard was a breath of fresh air. She was beautiful, a joy to work with and even tipped him from her own pockets. He was so relieved to have a customer that resembled someone normal, he actually enjoyed himself.
He locked the door when she left, drew the curtains and collapsed on the couch in the corner. Never before had he wanted a glass of wine so badly.

Oettinger Manor was a grand old lady dressed in her finest sitting on the top of a hill. Gardens surrounded her, walking paths creating a network that led to the elaborate fountains in the center. Carriages came and went from the broad packed earth driveway to deliver guests to the front steps before pulling off to the side to wait for their charges to return.
Amy, Bunny and Marti rode in a carriage together, their skirts and bustles not allowing Duck and Dodge to join them. "Ladies do not travel with unattached gentlemen," Madelyn had pointed out when they discussed it. "Besides, it's not your money that's being spent, why be cheap?"
Bunny had spent the ride in silence, staring at the city streets and occasionally closing her eyes. She had not taken any conversational bait from her carriage mates, but did hold Amy's hand. At the tall, almost sinister manor gate Bunny had ordered the driver to stop. The driver never questioned, but Amy and Marti exchanged glances. Amy reached for the dagger hidden in her skirts and Marti fondled one of the rings on her hand.
She opened the carriage door, urchins scattering like the wind. Except one stood defiant, her knotted hair tied back and her threadbare clothes no asset against the night's chill. Bunny returned her stare and held out a pouch. The girl reached for it but Bunny pulled it back. "If I give you this, will you share with the others?" she asked the girl.
"Yes," came a clear voice from the dirty face. "All will have a share."
"You speak well." Bunny looked her over. "Would you like to make more than what I have in this pouch?"
The girl regarded her with distrust. "Maybe."
"Can you sneak into this manor?"
The girl's face flushed with pride. "I don't have to! I help Cook sometimes!"
Bunny nodded. "Then you are what I need. Can you go to the kitchens and tell them you are looking for Tag? When he sees you, give him this pouch and tell him Bunny said there wasn't a single ounce of sugar to be had. He'll know who you are."
The girl nodded and melted into the darkness.
Bunny closed the door and signaled the driver to continue. "What was that all about?" Marti asked. "We have everything figured out. She wasn't a part of the plan."
"I couldn't leave her there to starve." Bunny turned her head to watch the manor come into view. "Tag'll make sure she's fed. Everyone ready?"
They nodded and plastered smiles on their faces as the servant opened their door and held out a hand to steady them. Bubbles filled with fireflies floated in the air, lighting their path. "OoOo!" Amy cooed. "Look, Aunt Marti! It's beautiful!"
"Indeed," Marti agreed. "That took some talent to create, to be sure."
Bunny looked down so the servant couldn't see her roll her eyes. "I'm sure similar wonders await us inside," she said pointedly.
"Quite right, niece." Marti led the way into the manor, past the bowing liveried servants and handed her invitation to the pinch-faced man in livery at the entrance to the great hall. He sniffed and turned to announce them. "Lady Martina Arlesan and her nieces, Brenda and Amelia."
They put on their best unconcerned, bored looks and walked into the hall.
More bubbles floated near the ceiling, these had some full of flowers and others seemed to have glowing stones in them. "They'll pop at dawn so make sure you're not in the hall then," Marti murmured.
"Never been hit with a rose from that high," Bunny said under her breath. "Seems like it wouldn't be all song and story."
The hall was a massive affair, white walls decorated with gold brocade for the event. The crystal chandeliers sparkled with the light of a spell and the reflected glow of the bubbles. Butterflies danced over the crowd watching dancers waltz over the beige marble floor. One wall was nothing but glass from floor to ceiling with doors opening to the magnificent rose garden outside. Past the glass wall was a dais with a head table draped in gold to showcase the tiara on the satin pillow in the center.
Amy took out her fan and coyly returned the smile of a nobleman who couldn't have been older than her slippers. "You know, if we swiped the tiara we wouldn't have to take any more of these lousy gigs for at least a year," she said behind her smile.
"Yeah, about that," Bunny nudged her and giggled into her own fan. "Uh, no."
"It was a thought." Marti glared at the young man, causing him to stumble into a servant carrying glasses of champagne. "If not for the bruiser standing behind the head table like he's a statue."
"Oh bloody damned hell!" Bunny swore. "That's Ty!"
"Ty?" Marti swiped some glasses from the servant, passing them around.
"Remember the failed kidnapping?" Bunny asked, scanning the crowd.
"Yes," Marti said slowly.
"Ty was the leader of that party of fools." She downed the glass in one gulp and handed it empty to a passing server. "We have to find Duck and Dodge. Heaven forbid Raquel is with him."
"Um, is that her?" Amy waved her fan at a dark-haired woman in a guard's tunic strolled up, hand on her sword.
"Damnit." Bunny took Amy's arm. "Marti, find Duck and Dodge. Tell them to pass word that we've a situation."
Marti nodded and wandered away. Amy and Bunny melted into the crowd standing around the doors that led to the main house and slipped in, Raquel on their heels.
They ended up in a library, a lone old man sitting by the window with a book. "Great," hissed Amy as the woman entered behind them.
She grabbed them, her smile promising pain. "I got you!" she growled.
Amy threw her drink in the woman's face. She wiped out the champagne in time to see Bunny's fist connect with her nose before slumping to the floor.
The man looked up from his book, startled. "Oops!" giggled Bunny, kicking the unconscious woman. Amy winked and grabbed Bunny's arm, dragging her out of the room.
"Now what?" Amy fumed, stomping along the hall.
"This could be to our advantage..." Bunny thought out loud. "Wonder where Maxwell's hiding?"

Marti located the blonde twins, handsome in their matching midnight blue and sliver waistcoats, chatting with twins redheads. "Donovan and Derek!" she said as sternly as she could. "You rapscallions must leave these young ladies alone before their reputation is compromised!"
Duck's eyebrow arched at her last word. "Oh?" He bowed to the girls. "Excuse us, dear ladies. We shall return for our dance later." They giggled and whispered behind their fans. He grabbed Dodge and pulled him along, following Marti through the crowd and snatching a pastry from a passing tray.
"What's going on?" Dodge asked, wrenching himself from his brother's grip.
"Did you notice who's guarding the tiara?" Marti asked.
Duck glanced at the head table and nearly choked on his pastry. "Ty!"
"Exactly." Marti looked around. "The girls took care of someone named Raquel."
Dodge snorted. "The worrisome one is Maxwell. He's smarter than the rest and he'll ask questions before waving a sword in our faces."
"Great." Marti's gaze took her to the musicians playing near the dancers. "How do we tell Madelyn?"
Duck dusted his hands on his pants. "I'll handle that." He winked. "I owe someone a dance."
Dodge jerked his head toward the door servers entered and exited in a steady stream. "I'll tell Tag."

Madelyn accepted the applause with a humble smile and incline of her head. She nodded at the young blonde man who came up, a redhead on his arm. "Yes, young sir?"
"A ballad, if it pleases you?" he asked and his eyes widened slightly. He grinned. "For maximum enjoyment, I assure you."
His choice of words confused her but she didn't show it. She turned to the musicians, giving them instructions and checking faces carefully, nearly gasping when she noticed Maxwell playing the mandolin. "A ballad, gentlemen," she began.

Bunny and Amy found Marti enjoying a pastry in the crowd watching the dancers. "These are really good!" She took some from a passing servant. "Try them!"
They accepted them, biting into them without enthusiasm. "Is that cream cheese?" wondered Amy, taking a smaller bite and chewing thoughtfully.
"That's what I thought!" Marti said, inspecting the inside of hers. "There's some shrimp or crab or something-"
Bunny ate hers without tasting it. "Tag will know exactly what's it in before the night's out, I'm sure. Maxwell Silver's hiding somewhere. But there was a cleric and a wizard with them and I haven't seen either yet."
"No matter," Marti wiped her hands on her handkerchief and tucked it back into her bodice. "The presentation of our hostess is upon us."
The entrance doors were opened wide, admitting a young lady in a confection of gold and white on the arm of an older man in a silver and gold waistcoat. An older woman in a dress matching the man's outfit walked on the other side of the young woman, bursting with as much pride as the man. Behind them walked a procession of family members, their clothing matching the color scheme.
They made their way slowly through the crowd, acknowledging the applause with smiles. "Mother and father, Patrick and Helga," guessed Bunny. "Cousins and such behind them?"
"Ogre said Audra, the daughter, has an older sister named Jaclyn." Marti searched the procession. "But is she with them..." Her breath caught. "What is SHE doing here?!"
Marti pointed out a woman in a simple silver gown walking directly behind Patrick, Helga and Audra. Her wire rimmed glasses did nothing to hide bright, searching brown eyes. Her blonde hair hung loose to her shoulders as opposed to the elaborate hair styles around her. "That's Trillium. She's a jewel thief. Why is she with the family?"
Amy closed her eyes. "She's Jaclyn Oettinger, I bet. Great."
Bunny sighed. "Remind me to kick Ogre good and hard. This is a damned set up."
The procession arrived at the head table, Audra siting in the central chair. Helga and Patrick stood beaming behind her, the rest fanning out behind them. As a servant picked up the pillow and offered it to Helga, the bubbles burst and showered the guests with flowers and sparks. Panic ensued.
"Showtime!" Marti held a green glowing vial in her hand. One by one, Amy, Madelyn, Duck and Dodge were lit by similar glows.
Bunny shook her vial and frowned. "It's not working!" Marti pressed another one in her hand. Bunny shook it, rewarded with a green glow, and tied it to a leather thong around her neck.
The guests ran for the easiest exit, the garden doors. The press of bodies against the glass caused it to crack and ,in an almost musical sound, shatter in a deadly cloud.
"Great!" howled Bunny. "Get to the head table!"
Amy took off without responding, crossing the distance in a rapid series of flips and cartwheels despite her skirts. She landed without a flourish to stand at the gaping parents, Audra under the table. "Are you okay, sir?" she asked, searching for anything out of place.
Patrick and Helga clung to each other and nodded. "Jaclyn is missing..." Helga managed.
"Where's-" Amy began and saw a blade out the corner of her eye.
She flipped backwards, Ty's greatsword slicing her petticoat, landing on the dance floor on her hands and getting to her feet in time to see Ty charge, screaming a battle cry. She tensed but frowned as he yelped and fell over, a dagger sticking out of his leg. Duck had his arm around Madelyn, another dagger at the ready. "Coward!" he shouted. "Only a true coward attacks a woman!"
Ty bellowed with rage and charged at Duck, who shoved Madelyn at Amy. "GO!" he called. "I've got this jerk!"
Amy took Madelyn's hand and they ran toward the entrance, both pulling daggers from their skirts. "What's going on?" Madelyn shouted over the screams.
"Not sure!" Amy shouted back. "We need to find Marti and Bunny! Where's Dodge?"
"I don't know!" Madelyn stopped running. "I've an idea. Cover me."
In the middle of running, screaming nobles, Madelyn closed her eyes and reached into a pouch she took from her pocket. Muttering, she threw dust in the air, where it became rainbow colored fireworks that hung for a few moments before disappearing. Amy frowned, then smiled as Bunny, Marti and Dodge appeared from the crowd, each wearing a glowing vial. "Brilliant!" Bunny yelled. "Now what?"
"The tiara's missing and so's Trillium!" Marti shouted.
"Oh, HELL!" Bunny shook her head and shoved Amy aside, countering a sword thrust from Maxwell. "You guys go, I've got this!"
Amy rolled her eyes. "One more person says that..." she muttered and followed the rest as they waded into the crowd.
"Very nice, Bunny English." Maxwell said, eyeing Bunny's dress. "An improvement from the last time I saw you." He swung at her.
She parried his blow. "Better to hide a sword in, it would seem. What are you doing here?"
He shrugged. "Protecting the baron's family, of course." He swung again. "From scum like you!"
She blocked him again. "Maxwell, the baron hired us as his shadow security! We're not the enemy!"
"Oh yeah?" he snarled and swung once more. "Prove it!"
"Because I won't kill you." She sidestepped his swing and threw a handful of glittering dust in his face.
He blinked and yawned. "Wha-"
She took his sword. "Nighty-night." She ran off.

Dodge led the way into the library. "I think she went in here-"
A sword greeted him. He rolled his eyes, grabbing the sword from Raquel and punching her in the face, letting her fall unconscious to the floor. He stepped aside, letting the others come in before shutting the door. "What the blazing hell is going on?" demanded Madelyn. "This was supposed to be an easy run!"
"You are preaching to the choir," said a woman's voice from the catwalk above them. The woman in silver leaned on the railing and frowned at them. "It was simple: steal my sister's dowry and blame it on the hired thugs. Never trust a thief." She laughed. "I would know, wouldn't I?"
"Trillium." Marti said, hands fists at her sides.
Trillium smiled down at her. "Martina! How lovely! It's been awhile, hasn't it?"
"It certainly has." Marti's face was stone. "I never expected to see you here. Or that one of your caliber would be so easily fooled."
"What are you babbling about?" She took the tiara from the sack in her hand. "It's the highest quality diamond..." she trailed off, squinting at the gems then swore. "Fakes!?"
"Yeah." Marti folded her arms. "I knew someone would try to steal it so I made a fake for the ball. The real one is safe in the vault."
Trillium's shock became a grin. "In that case, I still win because-"
The library door opened with a bang. Tag, covered in flour, tossed a trussed-up dwarf on the floor. "He was trying to sneak in the kitchen."
Bunny came behind him, both swords resting on her shoulders. "The ones trying to break into the vault are nice and snug. Not very good thieves."
Trillium stared at them "How?"
Bunny shrugged. "Like the baron said, he needed thieves to catch thieves. We set a trap in the vault room, because that's what we would've hit had we wanted to rob this place."
"I checked it for magic!" she growled. "What-?"
"It wasn't supposed to go off until activated." Madelyn patted the ring on her hand. "Which I did as soon as the hall went dark. I know a diversion when I see one."
"It's over, Trillium." Marti folded her arms.
She laughed. "Uh, I don't think so." Trillium touched a hidden panel and stepped into the bookcase, the catwalk crashing to the floor.
The old man got up from his chair and stomped out, book in hand. "I can never read at these things! Why even open the library? I ask you!" he groused, stomping out.

Baron Patrick Oettinger surveyed the damage to his hall with a sigh. "At least Audra's dowry is safe." He smiled at his security teams. "I do appreciate your work."
"Thanks," Bunny said with little trace of sarcasm. "You might want to include healing in the cost owed to your visual team. They took a bit of a beating."
Maxwell held Ty back, rolling his eyes all the while. Raquel dabbed at her broken, bleeding nose and glared at Duck.
"Is there anything we can do?" Helga asked, smile strained.
"Yes." Tag entered, pushing a cart that carried a cake as tall as him covered in sugar butterflies and flowers. The urchin followed, carrying a basket of plates and forks. "You can eat this damned thing."
Duck and Dodge exchanged glances. "Okay." They took plates from the girl, dragging her with them as Tag sliced it.
Amy sighed and studied her shredded dress. "What?" Bunny asked.
"I never got to dance," she said. "It was silly but I was looking forward to putting on a pretty dress and dancing with you."
"I can't dance." Bunny shrugged. "You know that."
"I can teach you."
"There's no music," Bunny replied.
As if on cue, Madelyn and Maxwell picked up mandolins and began to play. "There's no way out, is there?" Bunny sighed.
"No, sweetheart, I'm afraid not." Amy smiled and held out her hand.
Bunny took her hand and laughed.

(no subject)

Date: 2009-12-14 02:24 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
*heart* I've always felt I'd make a great cat-burglar. This made me late for work the first time I attempted to read it, had to quit halfway through and only got back by a computer today - thus why I'm just now commenting.

(no subject)

Date: 2009-12-14 10:50 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
The end literally wrote itself. After Amy's rather showy dodge, everything else fell into place.
I'm glad you like it! She'll reappear again, as she's Marti's nemesis:-D

(no subject)

Date: 2009-12-16 06:56 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Sweet. I love stories that fall into place and write themselves. And nemesis huh? I'm intrigued...
BTW, really absorbing fiction has a way of showing up in my dreams, whether it's the characters or dreaming of the next installment being available. I keep dreaming that there's a new chapter of this up, because it is that interesting.

(no subject)

Date: 2009-12-16 07:57 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Cool! I'm working on the next chapter. One of the downsides to writing fantasy in your own world is you have to create the damned thing, so I've been working on an 'atlas'. Should be done with the next part tomorrow:)
Last NaNoWriMo, I had gotten stuck and my characters invaded my dreams and demanded that I get moving or else they would write it themselves and I wouldn't be pleased with the ending. I got up and wrote:)

(no subject)

Date: 2009-12-18 05:15 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
i have a nemesis! awesome! :-D

(no subject)

Date: 2009-12-18 11:28 am (UTC)


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