And without further delay, enjoy . . .
How easy it would be to kill him at that moment, Kalna Tomiko reflected. The fiend in charge of the Thieves’ Guild, the man who’d cost her everyone she’d held dear.
Tomiko kneeled across from Kree Bon Wo at the low table located in the side room off of the shop. She kept her eyes demurely downcast so the man couldn’t read her thoughts as their hostess poured the tea. Part of Tomiko marveled that he didn’t know. At the same time, she wasn’t surprised at all. What she wanted to conceal, she concealed with great adroitness and no one was ever the wiser.
Kree would laugh at the very thought of the meek Widow Kalna even contemplating, let alone carrying out, any harmful action against anyone. He could never conceive of the idea that a woman as tiny as she—liable, in his view, to be whisked away by the lightest breeze—could do him any harm, least of all physically. After all, a warrior Guardian she was not.
Little did he know.
Tall and powerfully built with broad shoulders and a trim waist, Kree dressed with care and took the same pride in maintaining his physical condition. The gray that streaked the man’s black hair knotted atop his head added dignity, not age. With a quick mind and nimble fingers, Kree still plied the trade he so ruthlessly managed.
She wanted to kill him. But Tomiko was a thief, not a cold-blooded murderer, however tempting the opportunity or deserving the potential victim.
She smiled affectionately at her friend Krupa. Taller, older, and far plumper than Tomiko, Krupa alternated between acting motherly and as a big sister. Tomiko trusted no one else.
The woman gracefully set the cups before her two guests, then poured one for herself. Tomiko had rarely seen painting more delicate and detailed than that on the white porcelain cups. Tiny birds and bright flowers glistened like sapphires and aquamarine.
The china was undoubtedly a gift from one of Krupa’s satisfied customers. A tailor renowned not just in the city of Sharnay, but throughout all of the southwest region of Yang, Krupa never lacked for patrons. But wealthy as humble Krupa was, she wasn’t that rich, nor in any way a spendthrift. Ever frugal, Krupa didn’t object when Kalna Tomiko delivered several bolts of luxurious silk to her, the finest weave and the richest cerulean color, and told her friend there was no charge.
Tomiko’s only request—not a demand or condition, but she knew Krupa would respect it—was that she not make Kree anything from it. Tomiko might have relented if Krupa charged the man ten times what it was worth, but she knew her friend was far too honorable to do such a thing.
Completely unlike the man sharing their table.
Kree sipped the aromatic brew and made a satisfied smacking noise with his lips. After a few more swallows, he complimented Krupa on the exquisite beverage and then leaned forward, eyes twinkling. His deep voice dropped to a conspiratorial whisper.
Alarms instantly blared inside Tomiko’s head. The feigned intimacy raised her hackles, and she covered by savoring her own sweet drink.
“If I may trust to your ladies’ discretion,” he glanced around theatrically as if to ensure no one else could overhear. Perhaps he thought eavesdroppers lurked behind the rice paper walls enclosing the tea room. “I’ve learned what the Emperor is sending the governor’s brother and his new bride for their wedding gift. It’s most astounding.”
Governor Bhutto had ruled Ta’Ming ever since her mother, the previous governor, had died tragically in an attack. The current governor took great pride in her close relationship with the Emperor of all of Yang. For the moment at least, as far as Tomiko could tell, the Emperor seemed to reciprocate.
What was Kree playing at? For no doubt, any ‘secret’ he divulged, he fully expected them to disseminate as far and wide as possible.
Krupa smiled with polite interest. “I had thought all the gifts were a secret until after the wedding.”
Kree’s gaze flitted to Tomiko as if waiting for her also to remark on his cleverness.
She obliged him. “Such an honor to be privy to information like that.”
He nodded, nobly accepting the praise as his due. Again he leaned close. “The emperor’s gift is nothing less than the Diamond of the Sky.”
Tomiko allowed her surprise to show. Krupa’s eyes widened as well. Although neither the largest nor most valuable gemstone in the Emperor’s vast collection—nor, arguably, the most beautiful—the azure diamond was indubitably the most storied and therefore the most famous. Reputedly, the legendary jewel brought good fortune to its owner. Thus far, history had borne out the myth. Whoever possessed the teardrop-shaped stone—said to be as large as a man’s fist—experienced not sorrow but plentiful joy.
And Tomiko suddenly knew, as crystal-clear as if she had gazed into the diamond itself, what Kree’s plan was. If Kree or some other Guild member stole the Diamond of the Sky, Governor Bhutto would lose face to an incredible degree. Were that to happen, it would make Kree’s machinations that much easier. The further he undermined Bhutto, the more easily the Guild could operate. Yes, their activities would remain as surreptitious as ever, but they would meet less resistance with a weaker governor less able to motivate law enforcement.
A second epiphany followed, one that would have brought a huge feral grin to her face had Tomiko allowed it to.
Instead, she tilted her head and regarded Kree as if she hung on every word.
All the while, she knew exactly how to deal the Guild a blow. The damage would be short-lived and covert. Few knew of their existence at all, let alone of their business. But a select group would realize what had happened. If Tomiko stole the diamond first, the Guild would need to recover from the mortifying blow. People would be less likely to cooperate with them. Maybe they would even lose some members, or people on the cusp would chose not to join.
Tomiko doubted it, but she could hope.
She appeared attentive and made the correct polite responses throughout the rest of the—interminable—afternoon tea. Her true thoughts raced elsewhere. She needed access to the wedding which, luckily, was still months away. She could barely wait to return to her own humble abode.
She needed to plan, and the sooner some things were set in motion, the better.
Her spirits rose in tandem with Kree as he stood from the table, begging their forgiveness with false modesty and claiming with poorly veiled self-importance that his presence was required elsewhere.
“Thank you, Krupa. Do you have time in your schedule for some new robes for me before the wedding?”
Thinking her assent a foregone conclusion, Kree barely waited to hear her reply before bowing and taking his leave.
Tomiko leapt to her feet. Instead of dashing out, however, she began pacing. She needed to plan. She could make a few stops on the way home that would set various wheels in motion. Signals she could leave for her own shadow network to alert them, and have them gather information for her.
Such an event would require extensive preparation. Dozens, more likely hundreds, of people such as Krupa would be involved. Other local tailors, bakers, butchers, artisans, merchants and smiths, to name only a few.
“Will you also need new robes?” Krupa’s gentle tone held more than a hint of dryness. “I can save the cerulean-colored silk for you.”
“No, thank you!” Tomiko hugged her friend, then started to help her clear away the tea set.
Krupa shooed her away. “Go! Go before you explode out of your skin. I know that look.”
Laughing, Tomiko complied.
At particular establishments around Sharnay, Tomiko could leave a signal: a specific flower in a window, a certain origami animal hanging in a doorway. Sometimes they simply appeared without the proprietor having any idea how. Or, a sprightly young boy or shriveled old man would say someone in the street gave it to them to deliver. Never the same youngster or oldster twice—but always Tomiko herself in disguise.
Ever cautious, Tomiko wouldn’t act without first confirming that her suspicion was correct. No matter how certain, she could be mistaken, and Tomiko rarely acted precipitously. That’s why she’d never been caught.
Confident that Kree would never take on the Emperor himself, Tomiko concluded that they would not steal the diamond en route. Kree was neither that bold nor that stupid.
No, he and his Guild would have to wait until after the ceremony. Once the Diamond of the Sky was in the newlyweds’ possession, the embarrassment at its loss would be theirs, not the imperial family’s. Theirs and by extension, Governor Bhutto’s.
Finding out the ‘secret’ wedding plans would be easy. Finding out the Guild’s plans was the real challenge. But at least Tomiko knew where to begin her search.
Ensuring she wasn’t followed, she slipped into a deserted home not far from her own but just far enough away to be in one of the rougher sections of Sharnay. On occasion, she needed to chase out a vagrant. For the most part, people seemed to leave the ramshackle former abode alone.
The overgrown garden was—deliberately—full of thorns, and the wooden decks at either entryway were rotted through and rife with jagged holes. There were less foreboding places to find shelter.
Moving lightly over the sections of floor Tomiko knew to be solid, she went to a chest hidden amidst a pile of rubble. Nose wrinkling at the stench, she pulled out a filthy, ragged robe. After shaking out all the bugs—taking care to miss none—she donned the rat-chewed attire as its previous occupants skittered away into darkness.
She shook her long hair loose from its tidy chignon at the nape of her neck, grabbed handfuls of grime and worked it through the long, black locks. She smeared it all over her face and arms as well, and up her calves.
Thanks to her diminutive height and slight figure, she knew the ministrations would make her look like a street boy orphaned for years. Invisible. She could listen with impunity as long as she wasn’t too obvious about it. After securing the numerous blades she always wore, and the tiny globes that would explode with either light or smoke or ear-shattering noise, Tomiko set out on her mission.
Her favorite corner near the Thieves’ Guild’s favorite bathhouse had the advantage of being just outside the room they preferred. Thanks to some skillfully discreet holes in the wall, Tomiko could hear every word. She had to concentrate and make an effort to filter out the noise from the street, but the bathhouse sat back from the well-traveled road, yet not back so far that it would look suspicious for her to panhandle there. Rich patrons came and went all day.
So Tomiko sat with her back against the building, eyes scanning the crowd, and calling out for a spare coin or two from those who passed. The overhang from the elegantly curving roof shaded her from the worst of the sun.
All she needed was an inkling of when the Guild planned to act. Then she could be sure to act first and to formulate a plan that would cause the Guild maximum harm.
Whatever the outcome, it would be subtle. The common person on the street would have no idea at all that anything had transpired. But the thieves would know. And so, most likely, would a few people in local law enforcement.
And Tomiko would know. That would be enough for her—for the moment. She knew the extent of the Guild’s reach. Her war against it would not end any time soon. But every tiny victory added up and would contribute to her eventual triumph.
She didn’t care how long it took.
Tomiko didn’t react when Kree himself strode by, not deigning to so much as notice her. She expected no less. He never gave coins or did anything to help those less fortunate than himself. On one particularly bad day of his, he’d yelled at her and attempted to kick her but she’d deftly avoided the blow and scampered away.
Now even with Kree’s voice pitched low, she could discern every word through the wall. Tomiko had always had excellent hearing.
“We have time,” Kree growled, all semblance of urbane culture gone. “Do not fail at this, or it will be your last failure.”
Tomiko suppressed a snort of contempt. Kree was all polish in public, but the veneer crumbled instantly in private.
“When the imperial representative to Ta’Ming returns next week, he will bring the diamond with him. They believe no one will expect it to be moved so early and hope to confound any attempt to steal it. We are going to allow them to tuck it away nice and tidy where they believe it will be safe, then we relieve them of it. They might not even discover it’s gone until the wedding itself. But if they do, that’ll give them that much more time to panic.”
“What about guards and magic?” a voice Tomiko didn’t recognize demanded.
She sucked in her breath and felt every muscle in her body clench. She hated magic. It was evil, anathema, abhorrent.
Kree answered, “Guards—there’ll be plenty. Magic—we don’t have to worry about until after it arrives. Apparently some genius believes it’s safer for it to travel unwarded so no evil wizards can track its location. Plus they will keep the wards in place at the palace. If we can swap it before, no one will realize it’s gone.”
Every muscle in Tomiko’s body relaxed. She went limp, sagging back against the wall, careful not to thunk her head on the wood. Good. Her job had just gotten immeasurably easier. Still tricky, but not nearly as bad as it might have been. She nearly guffawed with relief, which would have been instantly fatal.
Instead she continued to pay attention to the conversation on the other side of the wall behind her, all the while nodding and bowing gratefully when anyone tossed a coin into the dish in the dirt in front of ‘him’.
“We’ll have people watching the port, and every road into the governor’s palace, from now until we have the diamond. We’ll work in teams of three. The person who filches the rock will immediately bring it here to me. Now get out of here,” he barked, “and get to work!”
Ten men of all shapes and sizes filed out five minutes later, no doubt after clothing themselves as hastily as possible. Kree’s top lieutenants ranged in age from around thirty—slightly older than Tomiko herself—to three times that. She’d long since committed their faces and names to memory and could normally locate them if ever she had to.
She knew a great deal about the Guild. That’s why they knew nothing about her.
Part one of her plan was easy. No one, not even other master thieves, had more skillful fingers than she. She could confiscate the precious rock before they could. She’d make sure they never gave it to Kree in the bathhouse.
Part two, though, that would be truly challenging. She’d need to get the prize into the wedding and to its assigned place on time. Which meant she needed to get into the wedding, and to find out exactly where that place was.
She preferred stealth—always—but some tasks were easier to accomplish in the light of day and in plain sight of everyone.
Kree’s departure interrupted her thoughts. He marched out, paused a moment to stare at her, so she hopefully held out her bowl and cried for pity. It held a pathetic few copper coins.
Kree tossed in a single gold coin before striding off; Tomiko hid her smirk even though his back was turned.
Other tasks were easier in the dark of night.
Still in her ragged street urchin disguise as dawn neared, Tomiko made the rounds and collected the information her signals had garnered. A tidbit here, a glimmer there, but with enough of the scattered pieces, Tomiko could assemble a pretty complete puzzle.
She now knew the date on which the diamond would arrive, and that it was coming overland and not by ship.
The imperial representative normally traveled with twenty warriors to protect against roaming bandits and marauders. This time, there would be thirty—a noteworthy oddity, but not unheard of.
Tomiko only realized the extent of the additional protection when she saw the apparently ‘unrelated’ bit of news that the number of Guardians at the palace itself was mysteriously thirty short at the moment.
Guardians. They would make things especially interesting for the Guild.
Not common warriors, a single member of the elite Guardian contingent fought better than any ten regular soldiers. Of course, the Guild did all they could to avoid fights, but Guardians were also more intelligent and better observers. They’d be much more difficult to fool or divert from their duty.
But not impossible, and Tomiko knew the details of the transport.
Secrecy was their greatest asset at the moment. Fortunately it was hers as well.
Two days later and dressed head-to-toe in black, including a hood that covered not just her head but the alabaster white of her face, she stole from branch to branch of the trees next to where the small party—if forty could be called ‘small’—had made camp atop a hill that gave them a view of the surrounding countryside.
The two youngest Guardian warriors—one a woman, Tomiko noted—guarded the coach and the horses. Rare but not unheard of, an older woman commanded the group as well.
The imperial envoy occupied the only tent and had already fallen sound asleep, as attested to by deep rumbling snores emanating from inside the canvas.
Fourteen Guardians slept in a circle around the tent. The slightest noise, the tiniest movement, would wake them instantly.
The remaining fourteen patrolled the camp’s perimeter. Tomiko could only see seven of them.
No matter. Her plan of attack guaranteed they wouldn’t cross paths.
She hooked her harness to the black cord she’d strung across the top of the clearing. Thin enough not to be spotted from the ground, yet strong enough to hold twice her weight, it was the perfect tool for this mission.
Using hands and feet, she propelled herself along the rope and stopped directly over the tent. Using the pulleys that attached her harness to the rope, she lowered herself to just above the roof. She descended ever so slowly, taking care that neither she nor the equipment made any sound at all.
A fire illuminated the occupants of the tent, and the smokehole allowed Tomiko to peer inside so long as she avoided breathing the smoke rising into the moonless night. On luxuriously raised sleeping mats lay the source of the cacophonous snoring. But the representative’s attendants remained not just awake, but watchful as if they expected trouble. They huddled close to the fire, not talking but occasionally exchanging nervous looks and wringing their hands.
Tomiko drew a glass ball, painstakingly wrapped, from her robe. She could crush the glass in her grasp to powder with no more sound than the fire inside the tent was already making. She rejected throwing it, as that could have left evidence behind, scant though it would have been. So Tomiko held her arm as far inside the tent as she dared and squeezed the glass globe.
The gas it held, heavier than air, drifted down on the two attendants like an invisible fog. In unison, they sank to their knees and fell over, just missing each other and the fire.
Tomiko dropped into the room, mindful that now anyone outside could see her silhouette at any moment if they glanced her way. She was counting on the fact that all the guards’ attention would be directed outward and not inward toward what they would assume to be the most secure area.
She covered each of the men with a blanket, not just against the night chill but because it would make it look like they had gone to sleep of their own volition. Then she went to the small chest beside the envoy, replaced one of the ornate containers inside with the identical one she’d carried strapped to her hip, and raised herself back up through the smoke hole.
Her incursion had lasted all of ten seconds.
Then she waited, hovering hidden by the tent top.
None of the sleeping Guardians stirred. None of the sentries changed their patrol pattern. And none of the invisible seven appeared.
Taking every bit as much care with her retreat, Tomiko rose up into the black sky and pulled herself back to the cover of the treetops.
Now she had her prize and could begin planning how to return it.
Three Months Later
Tomiko adjusted her royal-blue robes and slid her feet into the waiting platform-heeled shoes. The platforms made her substantially taller. One shoe had an insert at the heel inside the shoe itself to give her an uneven gait. The pasty makeup she’d applied added wrinkles and jowls to her appearance, to better match the padding adding pounds to her slender figure. Tattered around the edges, the clothing looked rich yet worn.
She twisted her hair into a tight knot atop her head and secured it with the foot-long hairpins. Not coincidentally, the pointy metal pins made deadly weapons in addition to the usual arsenal she carried with her. The style gave the illusion of even more height. She examined her hands to ensure that none of the white powder had come off on them.
None did. And none of the wrinkles had come off her hands either.
Now the greatest test.
Tomiko made a point never to involve Krupa in any of her schemes. Her friend was the only truly and completely honest person Tomiko knew, and she would never impose on their relationship or compromise Krupa’s conscience or honor by dragging her into a plot.
However, Tomiko felt no qualms at testing her disguises on her friend. Most importantly, Tomiko took care not to wear garments that Krupa had sewn. Her friend never forgot a customer or an outfit.
Thus, as prepared as she could possibly be and with a package tucked under one arm, Tomiko hobbled into her friend’s shop the day before the wedding. Only to be nearly trampled as Kree thundered in behind her.
“Pardon, Grandmother,” he barked, insincerely. He barely spared a glance for her as he stomped over to where Krupa and a young man were examining a bolt of linen.
Averting her eyes and holding a paper fan hand-painted with eagles, in front of her face, Tomiko howled with laughter inside.
No wonder at his foul mood.
Turmoil. Chaos. Bedlam. Pandemonium. Tomiko loved the maelstrom of panic that had exploded after the second theft—all painstakingly hidden from the public. On schedule, the package had apparently arrived at the imperial representative’s residence and had been secured not just by guards—no longer Guardians—but by magic. Not sharing Tomiko’s loathing at having anything to do with enchantments, the Guild had managed to steal the decoy she’d planted.
Only to find they’d inexplicably missed their mark.
So for the past months, the Guild had searched with insane intensity for the thief who had dared beat them to their target.
Tomiko had longed to visit the bathhouse that night they were supposed to deliver the diamond, but prudence had prevailed. She could easily imagine Kree’s rage when he opened the box—to look upon a piece of granite. She’d heard a few of his underlings had narrowly avoided death that night.
Now as he regarded Krupa, Kree attempted to force a smile, but the tightness around his mouth and eyes betrayed his ill temper. No one else was supposed to embarrass the governor. That right was his. And Kree took failure very personally.
Now, ignoring everyone else in the shop, he cornered Krupa. “Honorable Tailor, the stitching under one sleeve has pulled out,” he held out the folded garment to her.
Pulled out indeed. Tomiko fanned faster so she wouldn’t scoff out loud. He’d probably torn it putting it on too quickly while in a fit of temper.
“And you wish to wear it to the wedding tomorrow?” she asked mildly.
Before he could master it, anger flitted across his face and briefly turned his handsome features ugly. “Yes,” he said curtly, his temper getting the better of him.
She gingerly shook out the robe top of magnificent scarlet silk, then examined the tear. “Can you send someone for it in an hour?” Krupa asked. Tomiko remembered hearing her say she’d kept her schedule clear the final days before the wedding for just such emergencies.
Kree bowed, far more stilted than usual. “Thank you, Krupa.” He turned on his heel and stalked out of the establishment.
Tomiko wanted to chortle with glee. Of course she maintained her composure instead, but she had so enjoyed the scene. It almost made up for skipping the night at the bathhouse.
Then Krupa gave Tomiko her attention. “Yes, Grandmother, how may I help you?”
Tomiko tucked her fan into her belt and unwrapped her package.
She looked with dismay at the garments in her hands, as threadbare as the ones she wore. Pitching her voice higher than usual, and changing the normal cadence as well, Tomiko pleaded with Krupa to repair the hems that were fraying so that she would look respectable tomorrow.
“How wonderful you’ll be at the wedding,” Krupa exclaimed with typical generosity of spirit.
“Alas, nothing so glamorous as being as guest,” Tomiko assured her modestly. “Nor even inside the residence. But these old hands of mine, they still play the kugo well enough, and the governor wants music in the gardens.” The harp with its L-shaped frame was among those instruments Tomiko excelled at, and one of them that she most enjoyed.
In Tomiko’s estimation, being an outdoor musician would give her the maximum possible invisibility, hence the most freedom of movement.
“I can have my assistant tend to it right now, if you can wait.”
Bowing deeply and unsteadily, Tomiko thanked her profusely. Krupa guided her to a chair and then, taking great care as if with a priceless treasure, handed one of her assistants the robes Tomiko had brought.
Not the tiniest glimmer of recognition from her friend. Not even the slightest hesitancy or questioning in her bearing. Satisfied that this stage of the mission was a success, Tomiko settled back contentedly to wait.
The next day, fully padded and dressed in the scarlet finery—as that was the official color of the wedding—Tomiko limped her way toward the castle with the other musicians and affected just the right degree of feebleness to be convincing. One young woman graciously insisted on carrying Tomiko’s harp along with her own pipe. After first politely refusing, Tomiko accepted the kindness and thus only had to contend with her cane.
It had been easy enough to arrange for one of the musicians to go missing the night before. The young man would, of course, be found safe and well after the wedding. In the meantime by ‘most fortunate happenstance’ the elderly but still talented Nukoshisato Keno had been persuaded to replace him.
An aged little man offered his arm and, though he looked scarcely more sturdy than she herself, Tomiko couldn’t think of a polite way to decline. She did have to stop herself from a double-take at the libidinous glint in his eyes.
He hovered solicitously as the group of eight musicians made their way through the lush gardens surrounding the Gubernatorial residence, and saw to it that Tomiko was settled in her seat before taking his own.
They had time to rehearse before guests began arriving in an hour. A glorious sun shone overhead in a spectacular blue sky, one befitting the Diamond of the Sky itself. Tomiko felt the stone pressing against her ribs, hidden by all her padding.
The rich loamy smell of the garden soil combined with the fresh scent of the rain the night before, and competed with the aroma of savory foods wafting out of the house.
They’d been instructed to play for forty-five minutes, then were allowed to take a fifteen-minute break, and keep that schedule throughout the day—except for four hours hence when the young couple actually proclaimed their vows.
Tomiko found herself appreciating the festivities more than she would have thought possible. The elegant costumes, abundant with bright silks, precious metals and gemstones woven in, and masterful embroidery, pleased the eye as much as the perfumes, and flowers’ and foods’ fragrances pleased the nose. The music enhanced the joyous atmosphere, as did the bubbling conversations of those strolling through the gardens.
In four hours, the ceremony would begin.
That meant that Tomiko had three breaks to place the diamond among the wedding presents so blatantly that everyone would see it was there.
She admired the skill of her fellow musicians, other harpists and some pipers, as they played. The gentle melodies floated among the flora and all the meandering guests who had arrived early to partake of the ambiance.
Their first session ended, Tomiko stood shakily. Her elderly friend gripped her arm with surprising firmness. “May I escort you to the fountains? They are very beautiful. I’ve seen them before,” he confided. “This is the second time I’ve played here. I entertained at the governor’s wedding too.”
Tomiko couldn’t extricate herself from his ‘supportive’ hand without revealing her own strength, so she allowed him to guide her along the graveled paths until they reached the center of the gardens. Stunning pink marble, the base of the fountain comprised a circular pool twenty feet in diameter. Equally spaced, six figures sat along the fountain’s edge. Alternating, three dragons and three tigers posed as if roaring. Water shot forth from their open mouths, arching high in the air before raining down in the center of the pool.
Strong though he seemed, Tomiko’s companion moved as slowly as she. It took them the entire fifteen minutes to traverse the distance between the fountain and their assigned station.
The next break, Tomiko was better prepared. As subtly as possible, she moved just swiftly enough to evade her persistent would-be paramour. With what she hoped was a warm yet platonic smile, she excused herself and said she…needed to excuse herself.
He understood her implied meaning as she’d hoped he would.
She wandered into the house, appearing to have gotten turned around and lost. She was just about to waddle into one of the two banquet halls holding all the gifts when a figure appeared as if out of nowhere.
Wearing full armor and a sword on either hip, her long hair braided atop her head to keep it out of the way during battle, the Guardian stepped in front of her. “Are you lost, Grandmother?”
Tomiko instantly assessed the tone: conspicuously neutral. The woman suspected nothing, yet also trusted nothing. Tomiko wouldn’t be getting past her. Admitting that yes, she had gotten lost, Tomiko asked where the bathroom was and nodded appreciatively at the ‘young woman’s’ directions.
Two opportunities gone. Tomiko would have to make her move during the next one, regardless of what obstacle she faced.
Again Tomiko needed to slip the clutches of the increasingly attentive fellow musician. This time was even more difficult, as it seemed based on her sly grin as if the young woman—the piper who’d carried Tomiko’s harp—had been encouraging him in Tomiko’s absence. But Tomiko pleaded fatigue and said that, much to her shame, she needed a brief respite before she could continue playing and would miss the next session but would return.
Moving faster when she was confident no one was observing her, she found the second banquet hall. Her worst fears proved to be unfounded. Had the commander of the Guardians been there, Tomiko could not have pretended to be lost a second time. Another bit of good fortune, the Guardian who was there was one of the youngest.
Yes he was equally vigilant, but not yet nearly equally well experienced. This was her only remaining chance, so she had no choice but to take it.
Taking a handful of glass globes, she hurled them down the hallway and against the ceiling. Her action went undetected, but the resulting cloud of heavy smoke elicited an instant response.
She could no longer see either. People screamed and she heard running in all directions. And, since she was listening intently and thought she knew what to expect, she could follow some very specific movements by ear as well.
Tomiko heard the doors to the banquet room swing on their squeaking hinges as the Guardian pulled them shut. On her belly against the wall so as not to be stomped, Tomiko slid the diamond in at the exact moment before the doors slammed closed.
Then she joined the fleeing crowd, her hand on the wall guiding her to the exit. Nukoshisato Keno reappeared with the rest of the musicians, adding her questions to theirs as to what could possibly have happened. For her to vanish then would have raised far too many alarms.
Besides, she needed to be sure that the Diamond of the Sky was actually found.
Thick though it was, the smoke dissipated rapidly. With equal speed, the imperial Guardians and the local guards searched the residence and declared it secure. Eluding her musician friends, Tomiko moved among the milling crowd outside in the gardens until she had a clear view of Kree.
So she was watching his face when one of his lieutenants came up and whispered something in his ear. Her fan shielding all but her eyes as immense satisfaction overwhelmed her, she saw Kree go white with shock, then red with fury.
Few outside the Guild would ever know that anything at all had transpired. But Kree knew. The theft had been injury, and the return had heaped insult on that injury. And soon the entire Guild would know, dealing Kree’s status a huge blow.
Tomiko caught snatches of conversation around her as the news began to spread among the guildmembers present. Surely the diamond was indeed imbued with good fortune. It had somehow made its way back to its rightful owner, and just in time for the wedding.
Perfect. Absolutely perfect.
Kree was apoplectic; his influence and more importantly his ego were wounded.
The young couple would start their life together—with the mystery of a failed robbery attempt that would only add to the lore of the gemstone.