It wasn't the sort of thing she thought about. She didn't think when she conned. She just acted. She'd been at it for so long that it was second-nature to her—no, it was more than that. First nature. Instinct. Paths opened up before her to the things she needed, the things she wanted, the things that tempted her. All she needed to do was follow them.

That was what was going through her head when she kissed the man. He was almost a stranger, sitting on a sweat-sticky stool in a bar she'd never visited before. Ugly, really. He had a head like a boiled egg—hairless and glistening—and eyes as dull as a beggar's buttons. When she kissed him, he tasted of cigar smoke and stale beer and tobacco. But that didn't matter. Ultimately, he was just one more obstacle on the path to her goal.

At least, he was until she caught Adriel looking.

He glanced away again almost immediately, but not quite quick enough to hide the pain and disgust on his face.

So Zia closed her eyes and hid herself in the kiss.

The stranger broke it off first, forcing her to open her eyes and give him the most seductive in her repertoire of smiles. She lowered her lashes and her voice, leaning into him to whisper, "A deal's a deal. I held up my end."

His lip curled in a leer full of crooked yellow teeth and unwelcome promises. "Second floor, fourth door on the right." He held up a key in a hand pockmarked with old scars, and she took it before he could raise his price. Letting her hips swing, she stood and sauntered back to the table where Adriel waited for her.

He pretended to be engrossed in perusing the menu they couldn't afford, but she could see the faint flush in his cheeks. The paper rumpled at the edges where he held it too tightly. He looked up at her with affected whimsy when she laid a hand on his shoulder. "Ah, the great mistress of acquisition and trickery returns! Any luck?"

She sensed that she should probably apologize, or explain, or at least try to ease his mind. But she had no tactics ready-made for this, and the words eluded her. So she did none of those things. Instead, she made herself grin and held up the key on its cord. "Of course. You didn't doubt me, did you?"

"My faith in you is like a light guiding ships to port. Never once did it flicker."

She laughed, offering him a hand to his feet—but he ignored her and pushed himself up. A little rejection, tailored to look like an oversight, but she didn't think it was.

He followed her up the stairs instead of walking beside her.

Second floor, fourth door on the right opened on a grungy closet of a room with a single bed and a tiny window on the far wall. Grime tinted the moonlight brown as it filtered in.

"I'll take the floor," Adriel said before she had a chance to comment on the bed. Then, before she could protest, he added, "'tis only right of any proper gentleman to yield his comfort to that of his lady companion, no?"


"Nono. I insist. Moreover, I'm terribly tired, darling. Let us straight to sleep." He avoided meeting her eyes as he walked around the bed and stretched himself on the floor.

Reluctantly, Zia lay down on the bed. Adriel had turned over on his side, his back to her and one arm propped under his head.

"Let me give you the pillow at least," she said. "Fair trade, right?"

He didn't answer. His sides rose and fell in an even, rhythmic motion. An approximation of sleep belied by the stiffness in his shoulders. She cast about the room for answers, at a loss.

"Or… a blanket?" she offered.

"Mm?" He favored her with a groggy mumble.

"You'll get cold down there."

"Ah, I'm all right. Really, Dearie, don't trouble yourself."

She pulled the topmost blanket from the bed anyway. "Just so I feel better."

"Mm." He let her spread it over him, and then let the silence stretch on as she laid back down on the bed.

"Hey," she whispered at length.

When he didn't answer, she tugged the pillow off the bed and slid down onto the floor beside him. She laid her cheek against his back. The tension there told her that he still only pretended to sleep. "Ade?"

"Zia," he grumbled. "It's pointless for me even to try to be a gentleman if you come down here on the floor with me."

She smiled despite herself and rested her hand on his arm. "I just…" She floundered, searching for the right words.

"You just what?"


He turned over, then, and in the dim, yellowy light she could make out the quirked eyebrow and the thin line of his mouth. She reached up and ran the pad of her thumb over his lips, but they didn't soften.

"I'm sorry," she said.


In the long pause that followed, she thought he really might not forgive her. A knot tightened in her stomach. Then she heard the sigh and felt his breath stir the hair on her forehead. "My dear, you cannot do things like that."

"I—" She bit off the rest of the remark, trying to keep herself from feeling defensive and failing. "How else was I supposed to get us a room?"

"I don't know," he admitted.

"I didn't steal anything doing it this way. I didn't hurt anybody."

He bent his forehead to hers. "That's not entirely true."

"But what else could I have done?"

"Another day outside wouldn't have hurt us. You don't have to con your way into everything."

His stomach growled, and she frowned. "Hmm. I should have gotten us something to eat, too. I'm too soft a touch sometimes."

He laughed, low and deep in his throat, and she felt the warmth rise in her chest. "You're missing the point, Dearie. Next time, perhaps we should forego the deceit. Peace of mind on a rock in the woods is better than a guilty conscience in the world's finest inn."

She wasn't sure she agreed, but she kept that to herself. Breathing a sigh, she shifted to fit her body into the curve of his own. He wrapped his arms around her, pulling her close.

"And I must admit to a shameful level of jealousy, watching you kiss someone else."

"Oh, you needn't worry. He really was disgusting."

"Be that as it may…"

"I'll kiss you like that right now, if it'll make you feel better."

"Ah, no thank you. I think I'll pass until we find you a toothbrush and paste."

She thought about it for a moment. "You know, they wouldn't be that hard to get. I could probably just-"


"Kidding. Sort of."

More sort of than not, but she didn't say it, and the night stole softly over them both.