I slid through the open window, dropping to a crouch in the darkness. A dying fire hissed on the hearth and the wind whispered against the stone walls of the tower, but the room lay still. I pulled myself to my feet, pushing back my dark hood as my eyes adjusted from the bright moonlight outside.
The room was half-circular, the straight wall dividing the tower in half. Bunches of drying herbs and roots hung from the heavy beams running across the ceiling. Rough wooden chairs sat before the fire, draped with woven blankets, and shelves lined the walls, piled with books and plants and other objects I couldn’t even begin to identify. Among them, a deep blue sphere on a metal stand was glowing softly. I examined it curiously, rubbing my rough jaw. When I poked it, the light shuddered to green, and I yanked my hand back. I quickly poked it again, sighing in relief when it returned to glowing blue. A skull with enormous fangs sat next to it, but I dragged my attention away. I was getting distracted.
Across the room, something stirred, thumping to the floor, and I whirled, yanking my dagger from my belt. I fumbled behind me for the sphere, holding it up to flood the room in faint light. Pulsating blue and green shimmered between the shadow of my fingers.
I crept to the far wall where a heavy curtain obscured half of the thin bed and yanked it back. Nothing. But the blankets felt warm under my hand, and I hadn’t imagined the sounds. I wasn’t alone.
“Show yourself,” I hissed.
There was a solid thump on the table behind me, and I whirled to see two luminous green eyes and a pink nose set in a fluffy face. With a sigh, I shoved my dagger back into my belt.
“Hi, kitty.” I scratched behind the ginger ears with my forefinger. It stared at me, unblinking.
I put the sphere on the table, turning my attention to the door set into the straight stone wall. There was no mechanism, just a latch and a keyhole, and the resident hadn’t left a key. I dropped to one knee, fiddling at the lock with the picks I’d slipped out of my boot.
“I’ll only be a minute,” I said to the cat, who was still watching me from its perch.
With a soft click, the lock released and the door creaked open into a thin hall falling away at one end to the stairwell that wound down through the tower. Across the hall, another door led to a smaller room, but it was just as locked. Balancing the sphere on my knees, I set to work again. A single emerald eye was peering around the doorjamb at me.
“I thought witches had black cats.”
I closed my eyes, letting my fingers do the work, one hand on the latch, the other working the mechanism. “It’s very hard to concentrate with you staring like that,” I mumbled through the pick in my teeth.
The latch shifted, and the door opened into a black maw. For a moment, I thought the floor had given way and a bottomless pit swallowed me whole, but as I lost my balance, the sphere shifted on my lap and blue light shimmered across a stone floor and windowless walls. Inside stood more shelves piled with sacks and crates and chests. I fumbled in my pocket for my instructions, smoothing the wrinkled note against my chest before squinting at my client’s neat hand.
“Storage room. Black chest.” I glanced around at the indistinguishable containers. “Any ideas?” I asked the cat.
It was sitting in the doorway, tail curled around its feet, the tip idly twitching. It had no answer, and I began perusing the shelves, making my way from one end of the room to the other.
“Your mistress is a clever one, isn’t she? No doors, no windows except for the one I came through. So tell me, is the door hidden or can she walk through solid walls? Gods, I hope not.” I glanced nervously over my shoulder, half expecting to see an angry, wrinkled face sneering at me, but there was only the cat. I nudged a sack aside with the tip of my dagger. “Do I want to know what’s in these? Probably not. I’ve seen worse, sadly. I was hired to steal someone’s brother back from a body snatcher. The stench, puss! You wouldn’t believe it. This is a vast improvement.” I sniffed the air. “Lavender? Your mistress has good taste for a vile, insidious— Ah! Here it is.”
A solid, black chest was tucked away in the furthest corner of the farthest shelf. I carefully lifted it down to the floor with my cloak, settling cross-legged in front of it. Further inspection with the dim light revealed no lock, no hinges, no marks of any kind, not even a line where the cover should lift away.
“This is a puzzle,” I sighed. “You wouldn’t happen to know the trick would you.”
The cat had joined me, sitting by my knee, its green eyes fixed on the box. I tapped the blank surface with my dagger but was rewarded with only a dull clink. A tentative paw reached forward to bat at it, but I snatched the cat up.
“Careful, puss,” I whispered, kissing its soft head before setting it in my lap and absently scratching its ears. “No telling what your mistress has up her sleeve. I suppose I could toss it out the window and pick up the pieces at the bott— Ow!”
I winced as the cat dug its claws through my breeches into my leg.
“No? Fine. No guarantee that would work anyway.”
I cautiously laid my hand on the surface, hoping the leather of my gloves would protect me from any curses. The fingertips had been cut away for climbing and lockpicking, and the cool metal pulsed under my skin. I tugged off my glove with a sigh.
“Here goes nothing.”
The cat meowed softly in response. To my amazement, my hand sank through the black surface. When I pulled it back, my fingers had closed around the thin chain of an amulet. I held it up in front of my grinning face, the wrinkled black stone glinting in the green light.
“Found you. Who’s the clever one now?”
I tucked it into my pocket and shoved the chest back where I’d found it.
“I’m tempted to take you with me, kit,” I said when both doors were locked, the sphere had been returned to its proper place, and all that was left was to scale back down the slick walls.
With a soft chirp, the cat trotted to the hearth and leapt into a chair, wrapping its ginger tail around its feet. My foot was halfway to the sill when a soft voice spoke behind me.
“Stay for a cup of tea?”
I froze, my fingers gripping the edge of the window until my knuckles whitened. When I turned, the cat was gone. In its place sat a woman, watching me with the same green eyes, a ginger braid wrapped around her waist. She lifted a kettle from the hearth, kept warm by the dying coals, and the heavy smell of hydrating leaves filled the room.
I looked longingly over my shoulder to the open window, the cool air seeping through taunting me. I could throw myself into the night and undoubtedly break my neck. If I took the time to climb down properly, there was no telling what she would do to me before I reached the ground.
“Tea?” she asked again, holding out a chipped cup to me.
“Is it poisoned?”
She laughed but gave no answer, and the cup stayed stubbornly extended. I cautiously took it, lowering myself into the chair across from her, my eyes locked on her. She had a sharply pointed chin, high cheekbones, and soft freckles that had taken the place of whiskers. The cat seemed to still hover there, just below the skin. She didn’t look how I expected a witch to look, but this could be a trick too, putting on the façade of a pretty face to make men who had weaknesses for such things let their guard down. I had no intention of being one of those men. Her gaze flickered down to where my hand was nervously playing with the hilt of my dagger.
“I frighten you.”
“You’re a witch.”
“You’re a thief,” she retorted.
“You turned into a cat,” I said darkly, leaning forward, and she mirrored my movement.
“You climbed a tower with sheer walls.”
I had done that, but no matter how proud I was of that fact, I wasn’t going to let her distract me.
“You live in a tower with sheer walls.”
“I like the view,” she said with a dismissive shrug.
“If you’re so harmless, why did my client send me to steal your amulet? An amulet he said he needed to protect himself from you.”
“Do you know what that amulet does?” She sat back, taking a sip of tea. “It wards off warts.”
There was no hint of a lie in her green eyes, and I yanked it out of my pocket, staring at it. “Warts?! I risked my life for this thing! Why by all the Gods would he need that?”
“Because I gave them to him,” she said, laughing into her cup.
That was hardly reassuring, and she sighed as I narrowed my eyes at her.
“He said he was tired of looking at his wife, she was getting old and could I please do something about it. So I did. I made it so he couldn’t see her. The poor dear, I think she actually enjoyed it. As long as she didn’t make a sound, she could creep out of the house while he rambled on thinking she was there all the while. I expect she was just as tired of listening to him as he was of looking at her. Well, he was rather peeved and told me he wouldn’t pay until I fixed it, and I said I had done exactly as he asked. He called me a hag, and I may have been rather petty.” She twitched the end of her braid between her fingers. “I covered his feet in warts, the insufferable old pig. Told him I’d give him the cure when he paid. But I suppose he decided it was easier to hire you.”
“Then why turn into a cat?” I demanded.
“I was scared! It’s rather alarming to wake to a strange man crawling through your window!”
All in a moment, I realized her feet were bare, she wore only a nightdress, and that I was not the victim in this situation but rather an armed man creeping through darkened windows.
“I… I’m sorry I frightened you,” I muttered, rubbing the back of my neck.
“No harm done. I realized you weren’t here for me. And I suppose I like being called clever, even if it is a thief doing the calling.”
Everything I’d done with the cat beside me came flooding back, and I stared wide-eyed into the fire, excruciatingly aware she’d heard everything and there was no way to hide the kiss I’d placed on her ginger head. Her smirk told me she had guessed my thoughts, and I quickly cleared my throat.
“That’s quite a trick. Think you could teach me?”
She narrowed her eyes. “You’re already much too adept at getting into places you shouldn’t. I’m not helping you along.”
She took another sip of her tea, her nose twitching slightly as she stared into the fire. I set my own untouched cup aside, pulling myself to my feet.
“Well, I suppose I should be off then before the sun rises.”
I still wasn’t sure she was going to let me leave, and my heart sank as she jumped to her feet and yanked a key from her pocket.
“Wait,” she told me before vanishing through the door into the dark hallway.
I could hear her rummaging around and was contemplating making a break for it when she reappeared with a vial in her hand. “Give this to the wife and tell her she can drink it whenever she wants him to see her again, though I wouldn’t blame her if she never did.”
I tucked it into my belt, breathing a sigh of relief as I finally made it back to the window and the night air seeping in.
“How did you get up here?” she asked, leaning over the windowsill to stare down at the sheer walls.
“Maybe I have a little magic of my own.” I grinned, winking at her.
Wise or not, my fear had vanished, or maybe whatever charms her thin face held were working on me. I had always had an unhealthy penchant for danger. She pursed her lips at me, but the corner of her mouth twisted into a rueful smile. “I don’t get many visitors. Witch and all that.”
I gazed out the window, looping my thumb through my belt. “I suppose I could stop by again, if I’m in the area. Just to make sure you haven’t fallen down the stairs and broken your neck.”
Her laugh followed me as I climbed into the darkness, feeling for holds on the slick surface as I slowly descended.
“You could use the door next time,” she called, leaning out the window.
I grinned up at her. “Where’s the fun in that?”
When I looked again, a ginger cat sat on the sill, watching me, idly flicking its tail, its green eyes glowing in the moonlight.