Women are armed with fans as men with swords
and sometimes do more execution with them.
Joseph Addison, The Spectator
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a thief. And Quin was that thief.
The key was not to look like one.
To that end she passed through the crowd with a nod here, a smile there, a pointed avoidance of eye contact elsewhere. Posing as a gentlewoman made that avoidance easy: there were plenty of props to help. Gloves to adjust. The slanted hat brim to hide her amber eyes behind. The lady’s companion at her side to speak with. And if all else failed, simply being a lady of the nobility gave all the excuse necessary for a haughty turn away.
But Quin’s gaze couldn’t keep away from the reason they were all at Kediler Square today. Every so often her eyes turned to the front of the long, stone-paved square, over the heads of the folk gathered, toward the timber construction whose image was ingrained in her mind as a dark silhouette.
She tugged at the ribbon tied fashionably around her throat – it was suddenly tight – and winced at the sight of nooses swaying in the summer breeze. The long lean line of the rapier hidden beneath her full skirts provided no comfort against the haunting presence.
Quin had come for the crowd and they were here for the gallows. The deadly nevergreen. It sprouted from a stage that rose above the heads of the spectators.
And what a crowd they were. All of Arianople was here – people from each of its fourteen districts. The shadowed figures of Zeynab Sultana and her husband Ilyas sat in a gazebo to one side of the scaffold, shielded from the bright sun already drying the air. On the stage shuffled various officials, presiding over execution with all the care of accountants over their books.
Out in the main body of the square, though, that was where the press of bodies and the rising heat were greatest.
Derry walked at Quin’s elbow, neat folded hands and plain blue gown the picture of propriety for a lady’s companion. Her pale skin drew glances as they passed. The Canting King, ever watchful, caught Quin’s eye for a moment before she turned away, her lips pursed.
Pashas stood out like jewelled peacocks, their embroidered silk jackets and gowns resplendent above the street dirt. The aghas – janissary generals rather than aristocrats, technically-speaking – were barely less gilded than the pashas. Some were better-dressed than the beys of less prominent families.
Hawkers cried their wares, saffron buns and one-page pamphlets on today’s criminals, their voices amplified above the hubbub thanks to the magic of their Cards.
Amongst them the professionals, beggars, and all the other sundry folk of the Gutter Streets drifted, but never quite mixed, like oil stirred into water. Their smells of too-strong lavender, unwashed flesh, and street filth punched through the genteel floral and fruit perfumes of those further up the ladder.
Quin walked those eddies between oil and water, eye open for opportunity.
Against all instinct, she moved towards the gallows, aiming for an area where pashas and other aristos tended to gather for hangings. That was where she was likely to get a glimpse of him, the grand opportunity that had brought her back to Arianople, the City of Cities, after so long. She wanted to see him from a distance first, size him up ahead of a formal introduction.
“Blind Lady, let me find him,” she murmured. Her research told her that was the best spot, but a little extra luck from the Blind Lady never hurt. She smiled and brushed her thumb over the Deck of Cards in her pocket – the Blind Lady had saved her skin many a time, in fact.
The heady scent of amber tickled her nose. An expensive cologne. The source? Just ahead, a deep conversation between gentlemen in embroidered silk coats, their attendants intent on swatting away any hawkers or beggars who strayed too close.
This was opportunity. A small one, but one nonetheless.
Barely breaking her stride, Quin removed her glove and skimmed close to the nearest man. He’d thrown his coat open, hands on hips, leaving the side pocket of that pretty silk coat out of his sight and directly in Quin’s path. As she passed, she slipped her hand inside. Cool metal greeted her fingertips. She caught two items between her straight fingers and pulled them out. Without looking, she dropped one in her own pocket and slipped the other to Derry, whose blue eyes remained fixed on the scaffold as if nothing had happened.
It was done.
They had been in her hand only briefly, but Quin had been doing this long enough to know the feel of any coin. Two zeri by her reckoning. She carried on her journey, a bee in search of golden nectar.
A little here, a little there, that was the key to not ending up there. Her traitorous gaze returned to the scaffold.
Preparations were well underway on the stage, officials and the condemned up there, acting out their parts in the pantomime. The convicted were all young men it seemed from this distance; one stood so short he must have been an older boy, perhaps twelve or thirteen.
Their wrists were tied behind their backs, making them hunch awkwardly. The hangman was speaking to the boy, patting his shoulder. What had he done to earn his place up there?
The stage was at one end of the square, which was something of a misnomer – Kediler Square was actually a long, open space, formerly a racetrack for sabrecats. Like a spine through the middle, some of the ancient centre markers still stood testament to its old purpose. Most famous was the serpentine column, some fifteen feet tall, in the form of three snakes twisted together, their bronze heads staring fiercely from the top. Today a small, scruffy girl sat up there, legs dangling either side of one snake’s neck. Quin’s mouth quirked for an instant – that had been her favourite spot as a ten-year-old, too.
Kediler Square backed onto the Watergardens, but all attention was on the south-western end. That was considered the front of the square for events and a semi-circle of pale columns stood vigil around it, as they had for some thousand-and-something years. Tiered seating remained between some of the columns, baking in the sun, crumbling to dust, and kept clear by janissaries.
The seats looked down upon the stage and scaffold, flanked by four racing sabrecats cast in bronze, two on each side. Their long, curved teeth gleamed.
Behind the scaffold, an empty plinth rose above the others, its winged sabrecat honouring Felida long since looted and dragged away by the Venetians.
Turning from the empty nooses, Quin noted a hollow-eyed woman, some fifty years old. Her clothes were threadbare and would be poor protection come the autumn rains, which were fast-approaching now they were nearly at the Dying Summer Festival. She stared up at the scaffold, arms wrapped around herself. Quin nodded to Derry, whose blue eyes glanced left and right before she gave an encouraging smile.
She adjusted her course and again dipped her hand into a stranger’s pocket. This one was rough against her fingers and shallow, just a patch on a linen jacket that had been washed a thousand times. The hollow-eyed woman didn’t stir as Quin dropped in one golden zeri.
Quin smiled as she walked further towards the front of the square. A zeri would buy new clothing and still have plenty left over for food.
Her good mood soured too soon, though, as the drumroll hiss began. Quin stopped mid-stride, grimacing at the scaffold. Sure enough, the executioner had his victims lined up and moved down the row to drop white hoods over their heads. Now she was closer she could see they were as young as she’d thought: not a single one had seen more than 25 years come and go.
As the hangman reached the final victim, Quin clutched her plunging stomach. It was a young woman, not a boy, and that frown was familiar. Faintly and from long ago, but Quin knew it and the dark eyes beneath.
The drums echoed Quin’s hammering heartbeat, as she stared, dry-mouthed. They’d trudged through the mud together as children, scouring the seashore for anything they could sell. What was her name? Amina? No, Aminda.
Aminda. Another mudlark who’d graduated to a life of crime. And another one who’d been caught by the janissaries.
Aminda’s terracotta brown face was hidden now, but the angle of those frowning brows and the dark glint of those eyes were etched into Quin’s vision. It was a battle to keep her breath steady against threatening panic.
They hadn’t been close, but they’d lived the same childhood. Luck and an unusual education from an unusual mother – that was the only difference between her and Aminda.
How long was luck going to stay on her side?
There was a snatch of movement near the gallows as the hangman approached his lever, but Quin had seen the trapdoor open and bodies swing enough times before.
She spun on her heel and, with a gasp, straight into someone.
Someone in a rich silk coat. A man, and equipt, then.
Yet another small opportunity, but she could lose herself in it for a moment. Action pushed the panic away.
She fell harder into the stumble than necessary, letting him catch her, strong hands at her shoulders. Perfect. Her own hand was already at the inside pocket of his coat, where all gentlemen kept their pocketbooks, full of notes, and their jewelled snuffboxes.
Except then she looked up.
It was him.
The breath caught in her throat. She had only ever seen his self-portrait, but with those jade eyes and – she was amused to see – the same slight frown of concentration or confusion as in the painting, this was undoubtedly Atesh Shahin, a Pasha of Arianople and cousin of the Sultana.
From her research, she’d expected him to be weak and pale – he was an artist, after all. She’d imagined him locked away in a studio for days on end, starved of sun, not bronze-gold and tall. The self-portrait she’d seen had been honest, not flattering, right down to the shadow of dark stubble and slightly long nose. The famous family blade must be on his person somewhere, its emerald hilt safe from light fingers.
Quin had learnt so much about him, but he had no idea of who she was and, with any luck, he never would.
All that was a moment, already she had mastered her surprise and smoothed her face. Leaning against his chest, as though her feet were still unsteady, she was rewarded with a smile and the sight of his dilating pupils above flushed cheeks. His warm hands tightened on her shoulders, reflexively holding her close.
The first victory in her campaign – he found her attractive. The eyes, the rosy cheeks – they were the signs her mother had taught her and that she’d seen in half a dozen other marks. But that he was handsome – that was a pleasant bonus she didn’t usually get to enjoy in the gentlemen she conned.
They’d been aristocrats she’d made fancy themselves in love with her, when in fact they’d just desired ownership of her or wanted a suitable wife. They’d all had their own reasons. With her looks, inoffensive wit, and apparent wealth, she’d made an excellent candidate. She’d won their admiration, their hearts, their proposals, and helped herself to a cut of their wealth.
Across Europa she’d conned a bey, a baron, a count, two earls, even a marquis. A Pasha, though? That was a new challenge, one she’d spent most of her life training for. Mother had called it her magnum opus. Now she was ready. She’d do Livia proud.
Quin peered up at the Pasha from beneath the brim of her hat, knowing it framed her amber eyes to great advantage. She’d practiced the move enough times in the mirror it had become effortless. She smiled. All those people of the Gutter Streets his fortune would help – rent, food, clothes, medicine, the simple but expensive business of living. She couldn’t help Aminda, but she would help the rest of them.
“I beg your pardon, sir,” she murmured, lowering her gaze and pulling away as if overcome with modesty.
“Madam, no,” he said, voice smooth and deep as velvet. Quin shivered – she hadn’t expected him to sound like that. “It’s I who should –”
The sudden silence of the drumroll stopped his and all talk in the square. Into the quiet, a creaking of wood and rope cried that the trapdoor on stage had opened. The Pasha tore his eyes from her, but instead of turning to the spectacle of the hanging, he looked away.
Quin took a steadying breath, also avoiding the gallows and taking a last glance at her mark. While he was distracted, she slipped away into the pressing crowd – leave him wondering at the mystery of the woman at Kediler Square. Leave him wanting more.
He’d be at the party later where they’d be formally introduced – she’d set it all in place. She’d draw him in, take a slice of his fortune, and give it to the Gutter Streets. And with him looking like that, she might even enjoy it.
A grand opportunity indeed.
Not that such opportunity was a rarity for Quin. Finding and taking advantage of them was her job, after all, and they tended to go much the same.
Take the Venetian Con. That had been five years ago and although it had almost ended in disaster, it had started as all their ventures did.
Quin was 18 years old, her mark, the Baron, a couple of years older.
“Ready?” her mother murmured in her ear. Her voice was rich and low and her bronze skin gleamed in the torchlight. “Now.”
It was only Quin’s second con, so there was a little flutter of nerves in her belly as she let go of her fan. With a quiet clatter, it landed directly in the path of a tall young man.
“Well then,” he said, swooping to pick it up. “Here, madam, you dropped –”
He rose and saw Quin.
They had spent hours getting her ready. The black hair twisted and pinned and curled and smoothed and decorated with a single white rose. The gown in the shade of purple that suited her so well, cut to show just the right amount of décolletage for a young gentlewoman. The rouge staining her lips and cheeks just a touch deeper than their natural tone. It had been hard work, but his speechlessness made it worth it.
With mid-brown hair and a square jaw, he was faintly handsome. Something about the flare of his nostrils gave Quin the impression of a man used to being obeyed.
He cleared his throat and held out the mother-of-pearl fan, not taking his walnut-brown eyes off her. “My most humble apologies, Miss –?”
“Thank you, sir,” Quin said, deliberately brushing her fingertips across his palm as she took back her property. He took a quick breath at her touch. Perfect.
“Sir, you are very good, thank you,” her mother said, amber eyes glinting above a smile. Her angular jaw was softened by the lush curls falling over her shoulder. “Please forgive the lack of a formal introduction – I’m afraid the manner of our meeting leaves us without an appropriate mutual party.” She gestured at the crowd as if helpless.
“Of course, madam,” he said, sparing the briefest glance for her mother.
“I am Baroness Sorrento and this is my daughter Lady Quinta Bucca.”
“Ladies, I am most honoured.” He bowed. “Baron Belluno, at your service.”
Quin and her mother returned his bow as if they hadn’t known his name all along.
“Sorrento – that’s in the south, isn’t it, madam?”
“It is, indeed,” Mum said, wafting her fan, “you must be well-travelled, sir.”
He visibly swelled at her compliment. “When my lands allow it, madam. Might I ask what brings you to La Serenissima?” Before they had a chance to answer, he fixed Quin with a smile. “Though how it can be so serene with such a pair of beauties causing raptures wherever they go, I don’t know.”
Seriously? Quin’s toes scrunched up in the ends of her shoes, but she forced a giggle from her lips and looked away.
“Oh, sir,” her mother said, tittering, “you are too kind!” She lifted her fan, as if whispering behind it to him alone. “Although I confess to being perhaps a little biased, sir, I must agree with you.”
“Oh, mother,” Quin gasped, looking away modestly. She forced a pink blush to her cheeks by imagining herself naked in front of all these people.
The hum of chatter lowered as the pianoforte struck up. The rising excitement was palpable – young women took each other’s hands and hurried into the adjoining ballroom. The men exchanged glances and nods before following.
“Madam, the dances are about to begin,” the Baron said. “If Lady Quinta isn’t already claimed, I’d humbly beg the honour of this first dance.” The way he peered down his nose at her didn’t suggest he humbly did anything.
But Quin smiled and placed a hand on her chest, as if surprised. “Sir,” she said, “I’d be honoured, but you must promise to excuse my mistakes – I’m not so familiar with your Venetian dances.”
His shoulders squared and his chest puffed. Let him feel superior, having to help this provincial girl from the south.
The back of Quin’s throat ached, but she took his hand when he offered. It was hot and clammy.
“I’ll hurry straight back, Mama,” she called over her shoulder, as he led her away.
Her mother’s eyes were bright above a fierce smile of victory.
A few people watched as they made their way to the ballroom. One tall young woman glared particularly hard at them, dark eyes flinty. The Baron must have an admirer or perhaps a courtesan as was so fashionable in Venetia. They’d made enquiries before coming here – there was no serious understanding between him and another lady. He was fair game.
The tall woman made a step forward, as if to intercept or draw his attention, but the Baron’s grip on Quin’s hand tightened and he steered her away. Her interest was not returned, then. Or at least it had been eclipsed by Quin’s presence.
The admirer’s jaw knotted and her nostrils flared, but after a few seconds she gave up and turned away, hair shining reddish brown in the candlelight.
Quin suppressed a sigh of relief and lined up beside the other women waiting to dance. A prior attachment would have thrown off all their plans, but when the Baron took his place opposite, his eyes were focused only on her.
Each side bowed to the other as a viola and flute joined the pianoforte.
Quin’s feet took over, following the music to the complex steps and turns of the minuet. That allowed her to focus on giving the Baron deliberately questioning glances, as if unsure of the next move.
With each worried raise of her eyebrows, his expression became more sickening in its intensity. He grasped her fingers where they were meant to only touch flat palm to flat palm.
The way he looked at her – it was like he wanted to eat her. He didn’t see her, just a thing to add to his catalogue of possessions, an object to get heirs upon. And the way his gaze lingered on her cleavage suggested he anticipated enjoyment from doing so.
But Quin had to keep up the show, so she smiled, blushed, and even threw in a misstep towards the end. Her stomach was lead the whole time. There was no excitement left, only dismay.
At last, it was over. She sank into a bow, squeezing her eyes shut for the moment her face was hidden. When she rose, she was smiling.
The Baron offered his arm and she placed her hand on it. In another place and time, with different people, it could have been a love story. There were women who dreamed of dancing at a ball with a dashing young nobleman. Quin wasn’t one of them and the Baron wasn’t the kind of gentleman sensible women dreamed of.
“Madam,” he said, as they cleared the way for the next dance, “I must admit, I am quite parched and I should imagine you are, too.” It wasn’t a question. He didn’t wait for her to respond. “Let us have a little refreshment before I return you to Lady Sorrento. I’m sure she won’t mind a few minutes more.” He was already leading her towards the low mahogany table groaning under the weight of an enormous cut-glass punch bowl – it wasn’t much smaller than the troughs of water sabrecats drank from.
“A drink is an excellent idea, sir,” Quin said, looking up at him from lowered lashes.
He gave her hand a squeeze before fetching a glass and ladling a generous portion of punch into it. This was the whole reason such balls had self-serve punch bowls – it allowed a gentleman to gallantly serve a lady her drink, ensuring time for flirtation and favours. The Baron was taking full advantage of the opportunity to keep her to himself a little longer.
“Madam,” he said, handing her a glass so full it was almost overflowing, “I must say you danced beautifully. I wouldn’t have known you had reservations about dancing in the Venetian style.” He took a glass for himself and ladled in the bright orange punch. It wasn’t as full as the one he’d given Quin. “Although I’m not the least bit surprised that you’d pick up our ways so quickly – with a little help, of course.” He gave a little, self-important lift of his chin. “The first moment I saw you, I knew there had to be an uncommon woman behind that uncommon beauty.”
“Oh, sir,” she murmured, lowering her eyes. One, two, three, she counted, then returned her gaze to him. His chest rose in a sudden breath.
It was almost too easy. Quin took a sip of her drink, holding his gaze over the brim of the glass. She knew the move framed her eyes and when she took the glass away, the drink left her lips glistening, inviting.
The Baron’s eyes bulged and he emptied his glass in one gulp.
Far too easy.
That night they danced twice more, causing tongues to wag already. It was a little boring – he’d been hooked so easily. Ariston had joked about betting on how long until she had her proposal. With how nicely this was going, Quin was only too happy to gamble on the date.
And with the Baron, well, she’d wager it wouldn’t take long at all …
Quin had travelled across much of Europa, but the gallows party was an institution peculiar to Arianople. After a public hanging the nobility retired to avoid the heat of the day, before emerging in the evening to gather in oak-panelled rooms in houses across the city for private parties thrown, ostensibly, to celebrate the death of a deserving criminal (or two or three or half a dozen as had hanged that morning).
The idea turned Quin’s stomach, threatening to bring back the glass of sweet punch she’d just finished. Perhaps they were truly here to celebrate that they themselves still lived or to blot out the images in their minds of kicking legs and twitching fingers.
Surely, they were as haunted by that as she was. Though none of them would have known the names of any of the condemned, never mind spent a childhood mudlarking with one.
Quin sipped the fresh glass of punch a footman placed beside her, the sweet pomegranate and sharp orange not quite masking the alcohol burn. She wanted to gulp it to steady her nerves, but that would be unseemly and the way Malos’s eyes kept lingering on her, there was no doubt he’d notice such behaviour.
She smiled at him over the rim of her glass as he gathered the cards from the table. With his dark hair and black eyes, he was a handsome rake, but a rake nonetheless. The poor man had paid her a lot of attention since her arrival in the city and she almost felt bad to have befriended him just to get to his richer cousin.
A friendship with Malos Aksoy had been the surest way to get herself formally introduced to his close friend and cousin, Atesh Shahin Pasha. The Pasha was newly returned from his country estate and he’d already – quite literally – bumped into a mysterious young woman in Kediler Square. Tonight, he’d have a proper introduction and put a name to the face he’d clearly found so attractive.
She balled her hand into a fist under the table – the only expression of excitement she allowed herself. She couldn’t have planned it better if she’d tried. All thanks to the Blind Lady for the stroke of luck that had made her walk into him.
Her friendship with Malos had also won the invitation to this most exclusive of all the gallows parties. Quin had only seen their host, Erdem Chalik from a distance, but clearly Malos had made enquiries on her behalf. Erdem was a distant cousin to the Sultana, but one of her closest friends. Quin smiled: her aristocratic persona was going up in the world.
“It’s your deal, Lady Sabia,” Malos said, passing her the stacked playing cards. These were a world away from the Decks of Cards in everyone’s pockets, the ones that let them manipulate magic, as the hawkers had done at the hanging. These were dead rectangles of cardboard in comparison. No vibration of energy. No painted figures that wore different expressions each time you looked at them. Nothing but the fun of the game.
And more opportunity.
This opportunity was the chance to rob the rich right under their noses, in plain sight and quite legally. Or mostly legally – that depended on how one felt about hidden cards or stacking the deck.
Quin smiled again, wider this time. The trick was to win enough to make a profit, but not so much to rouse suspicion or make one unpopular. If no one would play cards with her, she couldn’t very well win their money, could she?
Even now the other two nobles at the table sighed and exchanged looks. Nazli and Danyal Uzun. A sweet pair, apparently that rarity at court: a married couple in love with, of all people, each other. She with the largest brown eyes Quin had ever seen that so often turned sparkling to him. He with this private smile he wore when she played the zither, her singing voice rising pure and true.
There were no ugly rumours about them. Her landau had never been spotted parked outside another gentleman’s home late at night. He had never been caught with a professional or any other woman warming his bed.
They smiled at each other and shrugged at the coins and notes Quin pulled into her pile with an apologetic tilt of her head. Danyal took a glass of wine from a passing footman, giving the first to Nazli, then taking one for himself.
She’d try not to win so much as to ruin these two, especially.
The distant music and chatter grew louder as the door opened. Quin resisted the urge to crane her neck to check who’d entered – it wouldn’t do for anyone to think she wasn’t entirely absorbed in the fun of a good card game. Bored people attracted no one. She glanced out the corner of her eye.
It was the Pasha, just as she’d hoped. Let him come to her, think it was his idea.
She half-heartedly shuffled the cards, eyes on them, but attention on him. He faltered in the doorway, likely recognising her and surprised that she knew his cousin, and then made a beeline for their card table.
“There you are, Malos,” the Pasha said, “I’ve been looking for you – I’d already checked the smoking room and if you weren’t there, then you had to be here.”
“Atesh,” Malos said, smiling broadly, “I’d heard you were back at last!”
“As you see,” he said, clapping Malos on the shoulder. “I can’t let you have the run of the city for the whole year. Who knows what scandals you’ll stir up?” His jade eyes glinted above a grin, the mirror of Malos’s expression. Their closeness struck her immediately.
“That’s a conversation for later,” Malos said, with a raised brow. “One not fit for ladies’ ears.”
“Or anyone’s ears, I’d wager,” the Pasha said, rolling his eyes. The group around the table laughed.
“Too true. Now, join us, so I can make introductions and win some of that money weighing down your pockets – this one has taken most of mine.”
That brought Malos’s smile to Quin, but it was trumped by his cousin’s. It animated the angular planes of the Pasha’s face. He considered her a long while, not looking away even while waving off the help of a footman; the Pasha pulled up his own chair.
Remembering herself, Quin glanced away. Modesty. A lady shouldn’t stare at a gentleman, however pleasant the view.
“Well, I know the Uzuns – as always it’s a pleasure to see you both,” the gentleman in question said, his bow smooth, his smile sparkling in his eyes, “but who is ‘this one’, as you so rudely put it, Malos?”
“Oh, I’m only playing,” he said with a dismissive hand wave. “Lady Sabia and I are good enough friends for her to appreciate my witty repartee.”
“Childish banter, more like,” Danyal muttered, fussing the money stacked beside him.
“This, Atesh Shahin Pasha,” Malos went on, ignoring Danyal, “is Contessa Quinta Sabia. Madam, I’m afraid this fellow’s my cousin. He’s such a terrible cad he had to flee to his country estate for half a year and is only just come back to terrorise the lot of us.”
“This is how you present me in my absence, is it, Malos?” The Pasha laughed and shook his head. “Contessa,” he said, bowing, “I’d humbly beg you to utterly ignore anything my cousin says – about me at least.”
“I’ve discovered it’s best to do so in general, Pasha,” Quin replied, winning a pout from Malos and a chuckle from his cousin.
She made to stand to bow to the Pasha in return. “No, no,” he said, taking a seat “don’t worry yourself with that, madam. We’ve got cards to get to and I can see Malos is positively yearning to lose more money.”
“It’s a pleasure to meet you properly, sir,” she said, voice low.
“I trust you won’t be disappearing into any crowds this time, madam,” the Pasha replied, a smile at the corner of his mouth.
Quin found herself returning the expression at his gentle teasing.
Malos frowned, looking from Quin to his cousin. “So, you two have already met, and yet I’m not inclined to ask, as I suspect it will be either some secret scandal you can’t possibly reveal or so frightfully dull you’ll send us all to sleep. Are you going to deal those cards, madam, or just tickle them?”
She was still absently shuffling the deck. She handed it to Malos. “Would you do a final pass? You’re much better at it than I.” It was a peace offering – the exchange between her and the Pasha had upset him. She must have made more of an impression on Malos than she’s realised.
That was all she needed, inviting an offer from the wrong cousin! She’d have to balance their friendship with his expectations.
Yes, Malos was wealthy and high-ranking and, apparently, would be an easy enough mark for her, but he was less wealthy than his cousin and was not second in line to the Tulip Throne. He also wasn’t the mark her mother had picked out for Quin all those years ago. She’d come here for the Pasha and nothing else would do.
Malos passed the cards from hand to hand in an effortless shuffle, then returned them to Quin.
“Thank you, sir. My hands are so small, I do struggle, you know.” She smiled sweetly, though it almost choked her to say the words.
Making herself smaller, lesser, it was necessary. Noblemen like these loved to feel powerful, greater than the dainty little creatures they believed women were … Or wanted them to be. Ladies were ornaments made of spun glass – silent, beautiful, hollow, liable to shatter at the slightest provocation. They needed protecting.
She’d seen it before. She knew the part well. Just enough wit to be amusing. Helpless enough to need a guardian. Beautiful and flirtatious enough to be irresistible.
That was the mask she’d worn for the past six years.
As well as his art, this Pasha was known for creating a great show in society; no doubt he wanted a woman who would reflect his own glory back at himself. If she was going to win him, she would have to oblige. A lot rested on her victory – it wasn’t just her own subsistence that depended on separating him from a fraction of his vast fortune, it would change the lives of dozens of families on the Gutter Streets.
Their hunger-sharp faces in her mind made her swallow away the sick feeling that came from putting on that hollow mask for the start of a new con.
“Oops,” she said, deliberately dropping a card as she dealt them out.
Malos gave her an indulgent smile, returning the card, and Nazli patted her shoulder. “There’s no need to rush, Quin,” she said with an encouraging nod. The Pasha leant back in his chair.
“You are quite right, madam,” Quin said, “I’m getting ahead of myself.”
She finished dealing the cards and looked at her hand. Damn, three kings and that was without cheating. Having the Blind Lady smile upon you was usually helpful, but not when you were trying to lose a game.
“Nazli Pasha,” Shahin said, granting her a warm smile that crinkled the corners of his eyes, “how is your sister? I thought she had debuted now, but I don’t see her here.”
Gods, please say he wasn’t asking about her because they’d formed an attachment. She was a sweet girl, but surely not old enough for him, only 18 and a young 18 at that. But then some men preferred a younger woman.
Quin kept her eyes on her cards and her body relaxed, but all attention was on their conversation.
At last night’s ball, the younger Uzun sister had seemed quite happy to draw the attention of a handsome Bey. Surely there was nothing between her and Shahin.
“You just missed her, sir,” Nazli replied. “Quin met her last night, didn’t you, my dear?”
She smiled, looking up from her cards as if only just becoming aware of the conversation. “Indeed, a lovely young woman.” Too young. Let him remember that. “She’s returning to the country with your parents today, isn’t she?”
Unless the Bey flirtation had been to make the Pasha jealous. No, she was an innocent, not the type to play such games. Quin had no need to worry about any attachment. Hundred, what had got into her? She didn’t normally worry about attracting her marks.
Nazli confirmed her sister was en route to the country and they fell to polite conversation on other subjects. The Pasha didn’t dwell on the absence of the younger Uzun sister and Nazli didn’t fight to keep her the topic of conversation as any elder sister with designs would. No need for alarm.
When it came to Quin’s turn to bet, she threw some coins in and sipped her drink. So much money. She sighed softly. It was an investment in the con. She’d get it back hundredfold when she carried this off. Massaging his ego was just the first step.
“I must say, Contessa,” the Pasha said, peering over his cards in a way that made Quin shift in her seat, “bright pink fruit punch is a bold choice for a lady wearing an ivory gown.”
“Only a clumsy one, sir.” It was a quick reply, flippant and hollow.
“Then I’d be concerned after the way you dropped that card when you were dealing.” He raised an eyebrow.
“Perhaps I just love to take risks, then.” She threw in another zeri to illustrate her point.
“Have you finished?” Malos broke in. He gestured to the money accruing on the table.
“Oh? Yes,” Quin said, “I raised two.” Except he hadn’t only meant the betting.
They went around the table, finishing their bets, and then discarding cards face-down. Quin rid herself of two of the kings before drawing two cards. Two knaves. Bloody hells, the Blind Lady really wanted her to win the game – that would have been a full house.
Malos wore a small pout. His hand wasn’t great. Nazli kept moving her cards around, her nose piercing glinting as her nostrils flared. She had nothing to speak of; shuffling them about wasn’t going to make a straight suddenly appear. Her husband kept rubbing his face, trying to hide a smirk. He had something – three of a kind or a straight perhaps.
The Pasha, though … He was all stillness that revealed nothing. He’d looked at his cards after the draw, then placed them face-down on the table. The light chatter that went with the game held his attention – he nodded at the odd comment, added a few of his own, but gave no obvious tell.
They had another round of betting – Nazli folded as Quin had expected, Danyal raised more than he should have, so Malos folded too, but Quin’s attention was on the Pasha. He saw the other bets, so he had something.
Then his eyes were on her, returning her bold gaze. Her stomach lurched – she’d watched him too long and he’d noticed. She lowered her eyes to her cards, face suddenly warm. One, two, three, she counted then glanced back from under lowered lashes.
The tiniest frown flashed across his brow for a second and he leant away, looking at his drink.
Disinterest. Quin frowned at her cards. Well that was …
Damn. All those years of training, all those other cons – they were meant to be preparation for this. Had it all been for nothing? Perhaps she wasn’t good enough to catch a Pasha after all.
No. This was just a misstep. A small one. She’d find a solution.
That morning at Kediler Square, he’d held her tight and smiled. His pupils had blown to large black circles, despite the brightness of the sun. He’d definitely found her attractive.
When he’d walked in the room, he’d noticed her immediately and approached, even making a comment about their earlier meeting that was almost intimate. He hadn’t been able to take his eyes off her, even when fetching that chair.
There had to be something since then that was putting him off. In his excitement about his cousin’s return, Malos had told Quin plenty about him, including that there was no woman in his life, so it wasn’t that. It must be something she’d said or done.
His interest was waning now – he hadn’t looked back at her – but there had been interest to start with. She was positive. If she could work out the problem, she could amend her behaviour and win him back.
She had to.
Now they had to reveal their cards. Danyal had three tens, but Atesh beat him with three queens – still his face was neutral, no victorious smile. He watched Quin and gave an expectant raise of his brows.
“Oh dear,” she said, making a show of sighing as she revealed her cards. “Just a pair of knaves. Pasha, you’ve beaten us all!”
But he sank back in his chair again, so obviously disappointed, it might as well have been written across his face in ink.
He’d leant back when she’d dropped the card, too, and now she’d lost the hand he was all the more indifferent. What had put him off?
Quin narrowed her eyes, going to gather the cards from the table, but the Pasha reached for his winnings at the same moment, somehow knocking her two discarded cards on the floor.
“Apologies, madam,” he said, already leaping up, “please, allow me.”
“Oh, no, I’ve got –”
But he was already crouched by her, close enough for the bright orange and bergamot of his cologne to reach her. The cards had landed face-up and he stared at them a moment. “You discarded two kings. You –”
He made a show of looking at the five cards she’d revealed as her hand. If she’d discarded the two junk cards and kept the kings, as anyone playing to win would have, she would have had a full house, beating all the other hands.
“Now, Lady Sabia,” he said, voice low, green eyes intense upon hers, “you could have won that hand. You wouldn’t be deliberately throwing the game for some reason I can’t fathom, would you? I know my cousin can be a bit of a cad, but he won’t get too stroppy if you beat him at cards.”
“Throwing the game, sir?” He’d seen the cards now. She could admit it or she could pretend to be so monumentally stupid that she didn’t understand the rules of the game. So far, every time she’d played the incapable damsel, he’d backed off, so … “Would I do such a thing?” she asked with a raise of her eyebrow that was as challenging to him as his proximity was to her.
“I don’t know.” He spoke so softly it was intimate somehow, almost scandalous. He didn’t back away, if anything he leant almost imperceptibly closer. She held still, though the urge to shift in her seat was strong. “Yet.”
“So, sir thinks he’ll come to know me well enough to tell?”
A moment’s secret smile flickered across his lips. “I get the feeling I will.”
“Perhaps,” she said with a shrug and an impish smirk at the corner of her mouth, “but I suppose it depends whether you’ll get as stroppy losing to me, as your cousin did last time we played.”
Somewhere in the background Malos protested, but their eye contact didn’t break.
“Ah, Malos is just too competitive for his own good sometimes. Trust me; I am nothing like my cousin in that respect, dear fellow that he is.” He glanced down at the cards in his hand, those accusatory kings. “Fear not, Lady Sabia, my ego won’t be mortally wounded by losing a game of cards to a young lady newly come to town. That’s if she can win …”
“Well, sir, we’ll just have to see if she can possibly manage such a herculean feat, shan’t we?”
He held the cards out to her, eyes and smile bright. “Let’s.”
Heart pounding, Quin took the two kings. With a nod, the Pasha rose and returned to his seat. The others at the table rushed to sort through their money or sip their drinks, as if they hadn’t been listening to the exchange.
What a confounding man. So, he favoured a challenge or capability or something over the helpless routine. How peculiar. How interesting. Maybe she’d enjoy this con even more than she’d expected.
Quin passed the deck to Nazli to deal the next hand, which she would play properly. Then she’d watch the Pasha’s reaction and see how different he really was.
“Oh, Atesh,” Malos said, looking at his nails, “when did you say that exhibition of yours was?”
Atesh’s hand hovered over the cards Nazli had just dealt him. “Thursday,” he muttered.
“Thursday, yes. Contessa, have you heard Atesh is having a little soirée to celebrate the opening of an exhibition of his art?”
“An exhibition?” Quin’s brows rose. “I’d heard the Pasha was a most esteemed painter, but I didn’t know I was lucky enough to be in town in time for an exhibition of his work.”
“It’s only –” began Atesh, but Malos leapt in.
“Indeed, madam, you must come! Nazli and Danyal will be there, won’t you accompany us?”
“Of course, I –”
“Madam,” Atesh said, “if you’re busy, you really needn’t ”
“Now, now, cousin,” Malos interrupted again, “there’s no need for false modesty. I’m sure Lady Sabia relishes the opportunity to – how did you phrase it? – ah, yes, to see your soul on the canvas.” Malos’s eyes bore into his cousin’s. For a moment, the two sat locked there. The Pasha smiled, but his cheeks were flushed and his jaw knotted.
Quin watched the pair closely. Malos had a wicked smirk on his lips. He knew he had upset his cousin. He’d intended it.
“Then I hope you all enjoy the show,” the Pasha said softly. Vulnerability. Just a touch, but definitely there around the edges of his quiet voice.
Atesh – no, the Pasha was just full of surprises.
“Goodness,” said Nazli, “are we going to play this hand or not? Because I have such excellent cards, I’m sure neither of these two shall win!” With a pert smile, she gave the cousins sidelong looks.
“Well, who am I to resist such a challenge?” the Pasha asked, fanning his cards out and surveying them at last.
Malos tried to hide his smirk behind a sip of wine, but his eyes flashed with a victory that had nothing to do with kings, queens, or knaves.
Despite Nazli’s confidence, however, she didn’t win the hand, folding in the second round of bets. Quin played properly now and was duly rewarded with the Pasha’s rapt attention. His eyes were on her more often than they were on his own cards, sometimes furtively, sometimes unabashedly, such as when she raised the stakes by ten zeri. She couldn’t say whether it was her own bold bet or his lingering look that left her heart pounding so hard. It was clear the Pasha was enjoying himself, relishing the challenge, even.
Between the bets and cards, they laughed and chatted. It was shallow, but fun banter and more often than not, Quin’s laughter was genuine, not forced. She was enjoying herself.
Almost as shocking, she had to focus to stay ahead of the Pasha in the game. She won the next hand, but he had the one after that.
The intensity of the game, the stakes creeping higher, they were what made her gasp when she reached for the cards and Atesh’s long fingers, gathering his winnings, brushed hers. That was why, it was nothing to do with the way their gazes collided or their hands froze, warm skin against warm skin for scandalous seconds.
Quin swallowed and snatched her hands and gaze away. She needed to focus on the game, always the game.
She was rescued by the burst of distant music that signalled the door opening again. This time, she used the distraction to very deliberately turn her attention away from Atesh and to the tall, angular man who entered.