The Smoke Thief
The Drákon Series, Book 1
“Oh, I say, Mamá! Isn’t it grand?”
The boy tugged at his mother’s hand in excitement, pointing past the crowd to the pedestal holding the Langford Diamond, a purple-prismed glimmer against pillows and glass.
“Here you are, little man. Up you go!” The boy’s father hoisted him to his hip, earning the disgruntled looks of the museum-goers around him.
The Stewart had seldom experienced such a crush. News of the Langford Diamond was enough to bring out London in force: there were Cits and housemaids and gentry, all shoulder to shoulder in the excitement to see the stone. Much had been written of the unique colored diamond—larger than the king’s scepter! heavy as cricket ball!—but no one still alive outside the Marquess of Langford’s family was known to have actually seen it. Until now.
The museum curator stood by the pedestal with a look of exulted horror on his face; he wrung his hands and begged the mob to keep a civil distance.
The hired guards were more effective, and far less polite. They fondled their pistols and grinned evilly at anyone who would meet their eyes. Even a pack of sailors edged back from them.
Rue watched the drama unfold from the heated expanse of the atrium balcony, a stained glass dome above and a sea of bobbing heads below. The Langford Diamond was a winsome twinkle from here, but little else. It might have been a fine work of paste, for all anyone this high up could tell.
But for her. She kept her breathing steady and her hands on the rail in front of her, but the lure of the diamond pulled at her. She felt it, in her blood, in her pulse, as all of the tribe could. It was their nature to connect to the stones. And this one—ninety eight carats, shaped as a teardrop, recited her mind—had been cherished by the drákon from the beginning of their time. It even had a name: Herte. The heart of the tribe.
So they would be here with it. They would not be far.
It was a trap, and a shrewd one. She’d always known they would come for her sooner or later; she had been fervently hoping for later.
But Rue wasn’t taken yet.
A bead of perspiration slipped down her neck, became a tickle in the gauze handkerchief of her bodice. It was hotter than July up here.
“Blast it all, I can’t see the thing,” muttered the man pressed against her right, to his companion. “Bloody tourists. Let’s go.”
She inched closer to the railing as they departed, her feet tucked between the engraved wooden posts, her sea-green skirts flattened with their hoops into a silken train behind her. From the main doors below came an updraft, still warm but mercifully there. She took a deep breath amid it, feeling the curls of her wig lift from her brow.
“It’s magnificent,” remarked a woman coming to stand at her elbow, fanning herself in leisurely strokes. “Quite worth the price of the ticket. But there’s really no market for such a thing.”
Rue tilted her head in acknowledgment, not looking away from the stone. She wasn’t surprised to encounter Mim here; she had learned, over the past nine years, that nothing brought out the underworld like a spectacle.
“Much too singular,” Mim continued quietly, also facing ahead. “A violet diamond. Even recut, it would draw attention.”
“And the museum is too well guarded. I’ve examined that for myself.”
“Again, I agree.”
The fan slowed. “And there is the fact of the marquess, of course. Is he here?”
Rue’s fingers tightened over the railing; she forced herself to let it go. “Heavens, how would I know?”
“Simply follow the trail of swooning women,” suggested Mim, wry. “I saw him once at Drury Lane. The rumors are perfectly correct, for once. A poet’s mane of windswept gold, ice green eyes that jolt straight through you. I swear every hair on my body stood on end when he strolled by. He is glorious.”
“And ruthless,” said Rue, before she could stop herself.
“That was my other point. You would not wish to aggrieve someone who has killed three men in duels and sent two others to the gallows merely for attempting to lift a bit of coin from his pocket.”
“No,” replied Rue. “Certainly not.”
“‘The fairest face, and the blackest heart.’ Who said that of him, do you recall? It’s on the tip of my tongue...” The fan grew slower still, then snapped closed. “Ah. The Baroness von Zonnenburg, I believe. Just after he broke it off with her.”
Rue said nothing. Mim glanced at her at last.
“I wonder what you’re doing here, my friend.”
“Admiring a pretty stone. That’s all.”
“Well, luv, if you decide to do more than just admire it, I suggest you think twice. Ta.”
Mim, in her easy way, disappeared back into the crowd.
Down below, the little boy and his parents had been drawn off from their coveted positions before the diamond. For an instant a splinter of lavender light struck Rue’s eye, blocked in a trice by someone new.
She brought a hand to her face, rubbing away the light, then lowered it again. She began once more to scan the many, many people for the members of her tribe.
He was here.
Christoff felt the presence of the thief like a rising charge in the air, the distinct frisson of energy just before lightning slivered the sky, white heat encompassing everything and nothing at once.
He recognized that same charge from the mansion four days ago. It was a different sensation from any other drákon he knew, stronger, more refined. The man must have amazing powers; Kit had known the moment the runner had entered the museum.
The problem, it seemed, was in pinpointing him.
He had scattered his guard throughout the building, wandering in pairs and alone. They squeezed by onlookers with open eyes and canny senses, listening, waiting. Everyone knew what was at stake. With their instincts rubbed raw, they had felt the shiver of the thief too.
Kit moved less effortlessly through the people, stopping to greet those who recognized him, not bothering to hide. He was known in these circles and would look a fine fool incognito; let the others drift and watch. George and Rufus and the entire council prowled the floor. Kit himself was bait, just as the diamond was. And as much as he enjoyed the hunt, he hoped, very much, that his prey would strike soon.
He looked forward to the fight.
From the corner of his eye Christoff caught a flash of gloved white, high above. A gentlewoman stood at the balcony railing with a hand pressed over her face, scalloped skirts the color of seafoam and a profusion of lace cascading from her sleeve. He thought a moment she might fall; she wavered there, and he was already moving to the stairs—but she recovered. Her hand relaxed to her side.
She wore a wide-brimmed hat with one long, plumed feather that masked her eyes, curving down to brush her cheek. He had a glimpse of her lips, dusky rose against very pale skin, and her wig, artful curls. Her face was turned away.
Unlike everyone else around her, she wasn’t looking at the diamond. She was, instead, watching the museum doors.
He shot a look over his shoulder at the entrance. Sir George loitered there, a fine country squire in his embroidered coat and brass buttons that stretched tight at the seams. He was fiddling with a ticket stub in his hands, but broke it off as he noticed Kit’s gaze. He took a step forward, a question in his glance.
Kit looked back up at the woman. And now she was looking at him.
Liquid dark eyes, delicate black brows, that complexion, those lips. The snowy curve of the feather caressing her chin: Aphrodite carved from alabaster and jet.
They stared at each other and Christoff felt, astonishingly, that frisson rise to pass through him once more.
The air crackled between them.
Sweet Jesus. It was she.
The runner was a woman.
Even as he thought it she turned away from the railing, unhurried, slipping past one man and then another, a graceful figure in sea green that vanished from view.
Kit began to push through the crowd, his mind buzzing. A woman, it was a woman—not the thief after all, because a woman couldn’t Turn—but still one of the tribe, a female here in London. How the hell could it have happened? Why hadn’t the council known?
People spoke to him, touched him on the shoulder, but he shrugged them off and kept moving—polite, polite, don’t cause a scene—looking back once to George, who was trying to follow.
The stairs were easier to navigate; most of the onlookers were crowded against the banister. He moved swiftly up them, focusing on her energy again, searching—finding her.
There. She was heading toward the staff stairwell, the narrow closed door by a Flemish tapestry he had made certain was locked and bolted before the show.
Gawkers thronged between them. He lost her, found her again.
In the space between two red-coated ensigns he saw her hand close over the latch.
Damn—there were too many people up here. Kit began to shove his way more roughly through the mob, keeping the teal-banded crest of her hat in sight.
“Oh, it’s you, Langford. Watch your step—”
“Well! What a rude man! Did you see, Winifred, he pushed right into me—”
She had released the latch—still locked, thank God—and was walking again, circling, looking for another way out. There wouldn’t be one; Kit had the place memorized. She had nowhere to go—
The last group of women standing between them folded out of his way. Kit was at the runner’s back, his blood singing, his breath coming between his teeth. She began to turn toward him.
He reached out and grabbed her wrist.
Ah. He felt it as a shock, a snap of connection between them, and if he had any doubts at all they scorched away in that instant, with the fine bones of her wrist in his hand and the full force of her power surging through him.
She twisted in his grasp—the sinewy strength of drákon—but he didn’t let go; she stepped back, her arm stiff against his, and looked up into his face.
One of them. Of course she was one of them, more radiant, more vital than mere mortal folk, with her velvet brown eyes and flawless features. Dressed in silk and frothing lace, she was as dainty a lady as could be—but she met his gaze fearlessly, assessing, her expression cool but her eyes alight with something like fury.
The last of the air left his lungs. By God, she was beautiful.
Who was she? He’d met every member of the tribe, certainly every female, but she...
The noise of the museum, the heat, the stench of unwashed bodies, all began to recede.
A little girl. A running child, alone in the trees.
A silver-lit face, pinched with fear.
The river. A drowning.
“Mouse?” Kit said, incredulous.
“What?” Her voice was theirs too, low and lovely, pitched to serenade the stars.
He found her name. “Clarissa.” And she sucked in her breath.
Someone knocked into him from behind, apologized, but he barely heard it. They stood there face to face, their arms locked together, their chests almost touching, a lovers’ pose that was truly a silent war of pull and resistance. Through it all she kept her chilly composure; only the quick, hard pulse in her throat betrayed her. That, and she was panting a little. The feather ruffled and stirred at the corner of her lips.
He was close enough now to catch the more human fragrance adorning her, faint lilies, purely feminine. Arousing.
Her gaze flickered past him and she saw what he already knew, that George the others were moving in. Her fingers closed into a fist. She glanced again at the staff door.
“Don’t try,” Kit murmured. “Please. I don’t want to hurt you.”
She gave her hand a sudden jerk but he was ready for it, using the recoil of her own force to pull her nearer, his other arm wrapping around her waist. He turned his head to hers and dropped his voice.
“Be reasonable. You can’t escape.”
Her response was a whisper against his cheek. “Watch me.”
The powdered curls of her wig tickled his jaw. Her skin was warm, burning warm beneath her winter paleness, and her waist was small and her skirts rustled against his legs. Clouds and flowers and the charged hum of lightning; Christoff felt her so keenly it was like the blade of a knife scratched over his nerves, a sensation at once both exquisite and terrifying. She was as fixed as stone in his grip, wreathed in lace and lilies and all he wanted to do was laugh in exhilaration.
A female, a drákon who lived in the open—
His ears caught the scant, tinkling sound of breaking glass. A din roared up from below, yelling, shouts. The loose clusters of people surrounding them began to surge forward to the railing. He planted his feet and steadied them both as the babble of nearly four hundred museum patrons separated into words:
“Stop! Stop him! He’s got the diamond—”
“Thief! Stop! There, he went there—”
Pistols fired, women screamed, and all hell broke loose.
In the split second before they were trampled, Kit looked back at Clarissa Hawthorne. She was smiling up at him: gorgeous, dazzling victory. Before he could move, she Turned to smoke in his grasp.
He was left standing at the brink of the bolting crowd, holding up an empty gown.
Excerpted from The Smoke Thief by Shana Abé. Copyright © 2005 by Shana Abé. Excerpted by permission of Bantam Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.