The people of Ravenna never came out during the day. They were nightlings. They slunk through their country in the dark, and when the sun rose, they slept. No one wanted to face the daylight horrors. They could be heard screaming overhead sometimes, if you were unlucky enough to wake. Their huge wings beat the air and their eyes burned like fire. So they said. No one had ever seen one.
Nadine paused as a terrible, sweltering roar shook the ground beneath her boots, thrumming through her bones and turning her marrow to ice. She felt her muscles draw into bars even though she knew she was untouchable. Dripping water echoed through the dank tunnel, and she glanced up at a manhole above her, its tiny circle in the centre giving her a glimpse of light above. That light blinded her, although it was smaller than a penny. Oh, how she wanted to climb up, just to see what it was like with the sun shining...
The leathery thwap sound of wings sent a jolt down her spine as if she’d been whipped. She felt her shoulders rising and curling up to her jawline. No. She would never go up there. Not when monsters prowled the skies.
“Pull yourself together,” she muttered, raking her spiky black hair back into a ponytail. Her black fur-lined coat whispered over her arms as it moved. She bent down to graze the knife in her boot with a fingertip before continuing on her way. Always, she had to check it was there. Always.
Nadine stole through the shadows like a wraith, revelling in the silence, her senses on high alert. She stalked on the balls of her feet, skin crackling with electric anticipation as she went through the plan in her head.
1.Scale the wall.
2.Disable the guards before they could sound the alarm.
3.Get the jewels.
4.Leave with all limbs intact.
5.Spend the money to her heart’s content.
It was usually simple enough, when she undertook these types of missions. Except no one had ever left the Palace and lived to tell the tale. It was Ravenna’s government building, infamous for having one of the tightest security systems in the world.
Nadine twirled one wrist, feeling the cold bite of the blade hidden up her sleeve. She was one of a kind. So was the Palace. She thought they would be a good match for each other.
She ran a gloved hand over the slick wall. The tunnels were always deserted during the day, despite the protection they offered from the light monsters. Of course, these tunnels were all but unknown, as they were connected to the sewer network. And only thieves and criminals used them.
They would be murmuring her name in the streets soon enough. Nadine Sadovsky, criminal prodigy. An eighteen-year-old has accomplished what no one has ever managed. She infiltrated the Palace. Of course, she might be hunted for the rest of her life, too. But she’d deal with that.
Nadine tore her thoughts away from the pleasantries and focused on what really mattered: using the money to find a cure for her brother’s sickness. It’s okay, Gavriil, I’m going to make you better. She had told him so many times that she knew he didn’t believe her anymore. It broke her heart every day.
Gritting her teeth, Nadine rounded a corner and stopped at a rusted ladder. This was it. If the maps she’d ‘borrowed’ from another thief were correct, the palace wall was above. She began to climb, the metal biting through her thin gloves. The manhole grate seemed stuck at first, but when she rammed her shoulder into it enough, she felt it dislodge.
She waited for a few terrifying seconds, ears straining to catch monster-sounds. Everything seemed quiet. Unless one was lying in wait for her.
Nadine didn’t allow herself to hesitate any longer, knowing her courage wouldn’t last. She burst up and out of the tunnels, bracing herself for the blinding glare of daylight. It stung her eyes, but she realised she was in the shadow of the huge wall encircling the Palace as she replaced the grate and turned to her first obstacle. It was so tall, she couldn’t see the Palace – it seemed never-ending. It split the world in two.
Nadine unhooked the grappling hook from her belt. She couldn’t resist a glance back at Arkanovsk. The capital city looked too bright, too surreal, in daylight. Nadine shuddered, every fibre of her being recoiling from the openness, the visibility, of it all. Here you were easy prey for anything flying above. She longed for darkness and shadows and lanterns, for the soft green of the aurora borealis intermingled with stars.
The Palace guards hated day shifts. There would be less than usual on the wall, too, because who was crazy enough to infiltrate the Palace in broad daylight?
Nadine spun the grappling hook in one hand until it turned into a blur. She flung it above her, watching it soar like a black spider against grey stone and blue sky. It clanged against the wall, before falling back down and narrowly missing her. She repeated the process. Three tries later – her heart pounding as she waited for arrows or rifles to fire from above – the grappling hook stuck. On what, Nadine didn’t know, but she was about to find out.
She began her climb, bracing her feet on the wall, moving as efficiently as she could. A bitter wind – cold even with the sun to warm the air – stirred her hair and tugged at her long coat. Refusing to look down, she continued on her way. The roar of some ungodly creature made her freeze with panic before she processed how faint and far-away it sounded. Keep going, Nadine. She kept Gavriil’s face in her mind, and her movements mechanical.
Eventually she felt sharp metal instead of cord, and she found herself level with a slit in the wall. For guards to fire from. Luckily this one was empty, and she wriggled through it with ease. Only then did she glance down.
She swayed on her feet. The ground was very far away.
Part 1: Scale the wall. Done.
Nadine coiled her grappling hook up, before glancing down the narrow corridor. Either side was dark, with slits of light every few metres. If there were guards, they didn’t know she was here.
Nadine smoothed her windswept hair; thanking the gods it was so dark. She often looked out of place among Ravennans with their pale hair, but it sure did help her blend into the darkness.
She crept along the corridor, searching for a door to get her to the inner Palace. The guards were easy to spot, stationed with rifles in the shafts of light, clothed in inky blue coats. Nadine wasn’t easy to spot. They didn’t notice her until she was upon them, striking a pressure point in the neck that left them slumping to the floor, unconscious.
Pocketing a ring of keys from one of the guards, she pushed through a wooden door.
The wall was connected to the Palace by long stone corridors suspended in the air. Nadine guessed that to the average winged beast flying overhead, they looked like spokes on a wheel. They had pillars holding the roofs up instead of walls, and as she ventured along one, Nadine gazed down at the rippling green of the grounds. A gentle, blazing sea of colours. The Palace itself was huge and breathtaking, topped with many bronze domes that reflected the sunlight. Its walls and circular towers were inlaid with a myriad of different colours, making the whole thing look like a mosaic. So this is what the aristocracy enjoy every day, she thought, bracing herself for the atrocious luxury she expected to find within.
Sure enough, when she went through another door and into the Palace’s halls, finery winked at her in the gloom, all lamps unlit as most of the occupants would be sleeping. Golden chandeliers, lush red carpets, finely polished furniture. The rugs muffled Nadine’s footsteps, cloaking the tread of her boots in softness.
Excitement and danger thrilled through her as she viewed everything with wide-eyed wonder. To be honest, if Gavriil had never been ill, it was likely she’d have broken in here anyway, just to see it. Reckless, said a tiny voice in her mind, and she remembered a fellow criminal shaking his head at her once as he said it.
She pulled a scrap of tattered paper from her pocket and unfolded it, pushing away the memory. A rough sketch of the Palace’s maze of hallways and hidden rooms. She eventually figured out where she was, although the lines twisted and curved like a nest of snakes – but before she could figure out where the jewels were, voices echoed from down the corridor. Nadine’s thoughts scattered.
By the time two guards strolled around a corner, Nadine was behind the heavy curtains covering a window, praying the velvet drapes wouldn’t shiver. Her muscles trembled. She held her breath.
They passed right by her – she felt the air stir her hiding place – droning on about something trivial. When the echoes of their voices had faded, Nadine slipped back into the corridor and prowled on, scanning the map as she did so.
Route in mind, she wound her way deeper into the Palace. No monarchy resided here anymore, only the politicians that made up their democratic government. But the Crown Jewels had never been moved.
Nadine ducked back behind the corner she’d just rounded, heart in her mouth as a giggling couple her age entered a room that was most likely a bedchamber. Nadine felt her own pale cheeks flush. Who were they? Family members of the politicians, perhaps?
She was still in the living quarters. Making her way down staircases, she descended into the bowels of the Palace, conscious of precious seconds slipping by. When people discovered the guards she’d left unconscious, they would sound the gong. The alarm indicating there was an intruder. And she’d never be able to leave with her head still attached to her body.
The number of guards increased as she drew closer to the Hall of Artefacts, where everything precious was stored. Eventually two huge wooden doors came into view, exquisitely carved and gleaming. Two guards were stationed in front, looking sleepy and bored, rifles resting against their shoulders.
Nadine strolled into their view so she was facing them. A dark feline; night itself made human. She turned slowly, enjoying the surprise on their faces as she gave them a grin so sharp it looked like a knife’s edge.
Then she moved. In a flash, the first guard was down as the side of her hand connected with the pressure point on his neck. The second one fired a gunshot. It missed and Nadine was able to wrest the gun away from him, but the sound rang in her ears. Too loud, too loud. When she finished him off, she fumbled with the keys for the door, heart thundering. Someone definitely heard that. She was going to die. She was going to die. She was going to die.
In a flurry, Nadine managed to find the right key and she stumbled into a long, pillar-lined hall. Lovely dark wood, polished and carved, like the doors. On podiums, framed by glass, sat countless rare and expensive items.
Nadine had eyes only for the centre of the room. She pelted for it, her boots echoing on the breathtaking marble floor that looked like a green and blue sea, veins of lighter and darker shades running through the slabs. Glittering up at her were the Crown Jewels of the long-dead monarchs. She hadn’t quite been able to believe they were real.
Nadine snatched up a knife and shattered the glass. Her breath caught as she lifted up each object and placed it in a sack. The crown, red velvet and jewel-encrusted, heavy in her hands. The sceptre – pure gold. The rings. The ornamental necklace. Tying the sack’s drawstring and heaving it over her back, she made her way back to the doors feeling light-headed with what she was doing. To steal the Crown Jewels... it was unthinkable, undoable.
She’d set one foot over the threshold when a noise echoed through the corridors. The gong. Panic flooded her as she listened to its ringing. Her heart’s thumping seemed to mirror it. Intruder.
Nadine ran for her life. The sack was heavy and impossible to carry, but she flew up stairs and down corridors, pushing roughly past guards as she sprinted. They swivelled, struck dumb in their amazement, and by then she was out of sight. Nadine heard the thundering of footsteps as they pursued her. Or was it coming from up ahead? It was impossible to tell. Adrenaline swept into her system and every step was faster, swifter, more panicked.
Her plan was splintering around her. So was her life. And Gavriil’s life, because he wouldn’t survive without her. A bullet flew past her, narrowly missing her ear.
Then she burst through a doorway and onto a mezzanine, gasping at what it overlooked. It was curved, like the oval-shaped room. Red chairs. Podiums. The room from which the entire of Ravenna was governed. The room where everything happened. Nadine’s eyes latched onto the crest of the crow, the symbol of their country, and she felt more insignificant than she ever had before.
She raced along the mezzanine, the Crown Jewels clanking as they bumped against one another within the sack. Guards were spilling out of doors and flooding the way ahead, the way behind. Hands latched onto the sack, throwing Nadine completely off-balance.
She skidded and teetered for a moment before falling spectacularly, the jewels flying out of the sack as it ripped down the middle. Nadine hit the floor hard.
A hushed, shocked silence descended as all eyes focused on the treasures she had taken.
“What is the meaning of this?” a voice rumbled, its tone shot through with authority.
Someone kicked Nadine, throwing her onto her stomach in a burst of pain. Groaning, she looked up.
She was staring directly into the face of Viktor Kostin, the President of Ravenna. The most powerful man in the country.