Chapter One One
It was midmorning when a stranger pushed through the door of Basil’s Bakery.
The baker’s apprentice, Aurelie, was in the midst of a conversation with a man who was seeking assurance that the cinnamon loaf contained quite enough—but not too much—cinnamon. “Excess cinnamon,” he said gravely, as if it were some fatal error, “irreparably unbalances the gustatory experience.”
It was a snort that drew Aurelie’s attention to the stranger, who was now standing nearby.
Over the course of her three years as an apprentice, Aurelie had grown familiar with the faces of many of the people in the village where Basil’s lay, just north of the Underwood. But she had never seen this particular girl before.
The stranger was dark eyed, raven haired, and beautiful, certainly, but there was sharpness to it—a beauty with teeth. She wore a traveling coat of black velvet with a matching black dress underneath, a small motif of leaves stitched in gold thread all across it. Even her gloves matched, embroidered in the same fashion. It gave Aurelie pause to see someone in the village dressed so fine, but maybe she was the daughter of a merchant or a particularly prosperous tradesman. The New Rich, Mrs. Basil liked to say. Some people think more of them than they do of the nobility, you know.
And why is that? Aurelie was duty bound to respond.
Mrs. Basil looked at her squarely. They’ve earned their wealth, she replied, and failed to see the irony in it.
The stranger smiled, and even her smile had an edge to it. “Pardon me,” she said. “I was just thinking that I would much more readily trust a baker to handle my gustatory experience than a”—she assessed the man for a moment—“moderately successful apothecary. Though not nearly as successful as he boasts.”
“Would like the cinnamon loaf? An excellent choice. Here, Baker.” The stranger moved forward and handed Aurelie several coins. Aurelie hurriedly packaged the cinnamon loaf, and the stranger handed it to the man.
“The impertinence—” he blustered.
“Is astounding, yes.” She fixed the man with an unwavering stare. “Goodbye.”
With a huff and a muttered curse, the man left.
Aurelie was bewildered and awed in equal measure.
The stranger cast her a glance. “I’m sorry, were you hoping to continue that conversation?” Before Aurelie could reply, she went on. “I thought not. Three morning buns, please.”
Aurelie went to fetch the buns. She got the curious feeling that the stranger was watching her, but when she snuck a quick look back, the girl’s eyes were fixed on the case filled with cakes and patisserie.
When Aurelie returned, the stranger rested one arm on the counter and leaned toward her almost as if they were friends, in on some secret together.
“Do you think you could assist me further?”
“Of course, miss. What else will you have?”
“I need something that’s not in the case.”
“We can take a special order, but it may be several days, depending on—”
“I need your help in finding someone.”
“I know there are ways. Ones that most Commonfolk aren’t privy to.”
Aurelie paused for just a moment before wrapping the buns in paper and passing them across the counter. “I’m sorry, I don’t know what you mean.”
The stranger extended one gloved hand. Aurelie reached out, expecting payment for the buns, but instead, five smooth, round stones fell into her palm.
“Something tells me you know just what to do with these,” said the stranger.
The stones felt warm in Aurelie’s hand. She couldn’t be sure if it was heat transferred from the stranger’s grasp or from the hum of magic flaring inside Aurelie, surging up to meet them.
Aurelie swallowed, and her voice sounded strange to her own ears, oddly far away. “How do you know that?”
The stranger’s eyes shone. “I know everything.”