The sharp whisper made him tilt his head, but Tahl still crunched into his apple before he answered. “Yeah?”
A number of thumps and a low grunt came as reply. Niada’s head popped up above the edge of the rooftop and she grimaced as she dragged herself onto the shingles. “I need help,” she panted.
“After an ascent like that, I’d say I agree.” Tahl swiped a bead of juice from the corner of his mouth with a fingertip he then licked clean.
Her nose crinkled as she crawled closer. She was a little more graceful on top of the bakery, but everyone inside had to know she was there. “I’m serious.” Her hand went to her pocket, for something stashed inside. He raised a brow when she withdrew a bundle of cloth.
“I took this earlier,” Nia said, “but not on purpose. I missed the mark’s purse and got this out of his pocket instead.”
“And you decided it was worth keeping.” He bit into his apple again.
“Well, no, it’s just… every time I get ready to drop it…” A hint of worry furrowed her brow and she shook her head. “I’m not superstitious, okay? I promise I’m not, but there’s something weird about this thing, and every time I try to drop it somewhere, something happens.”
Tahl squinted at the bundle as she extended it toward him on a flat palm. He wiped his hand on his trousers and folded back the fabric around whatever it was, revealing the most unremarkable knife he’d ever seen. He considered it for a time, trying to decide if she was messing with him. From the way concern pinched her face, it seemed unlikely. “What made you decide to bring it to me?”
“Because if anyone in the city can escape it, it’d be you.” She inched closer, thrusting the wrapped toward him as she crawled, desperate for him to take it.
He rolled his eyes and reached to take it.
The moment his fingers brushed the hilt, a jolt of power shot through his arm. Tahl yelped and jerked his arm back. The knife tumbled from Nia’s palm and bounced off the roof.
She squeaked and started down after it. As her foot swung over the edge to search for holds, a glint of metal caught Tahl’s eye. He lunged after her, snagged her by the back of the shirt, and dragged her up the roof.
“Hey!” Nia kicked, but her legs were too short for her to connect from that angle. He hauled her over the roof’s peak and shoved her down until they both disappeared behind it. Below, a half-dozen booted footsteps marched into the narrow street in front of the bakery.
“She came this way,” a man’s voice said. “I’m sure of it.”
“Guards?” Tahl whispered, so close beside her ear he was positive no one else would be able to hear him.
Nia nodded once and hunkered lower against the shingles. She gripped the ridged wood so tightly, her knuckles grew pale.
“Were they following you before?”
She hesitated, then rocked a hand from side to side. Not a helpful answer.
“Either they were or they weren’t,” he whispered before he slipped away. Unlike Nia, Tahl’s movements on the rooftop were soundless. She scuffled after him, the toes of her shoes knocking on the edges of all the shingles she passed. “I think they saw me take it. Every time I think I’ve gotten away, I try to drop the knife and they show up again.”
Tahl motioned for her to join him behind the chimney. “That just means they followed you, numbskull. You have to be sure you’ve shaken them before you try to drop it.”
“But I have!” Nia protested. He hushed her with a sharp gesture and she tucked her chin into her chest, sulking. When she spoke again, it was little more than a whisper. “I took this from a mark on the east docks.”
That was enough to make Tahl’s brows climb. Perched near the west gate as they were, there were few places farther away she could run. As far as he knew, he was the only thief in Orrad the guard might find worth following from one end of the city to the other. Why would they pursue her so relentlessly?
He rose just enough to peer over the peak of the roof and watch the guards disappear. Then he flicked his fingers in a signal for Nia to stay put.
Her lower lip jutted out, but she didn’t follow as he slid down the roof and dropped from its edge to alight soundlessly in the yard. The knife hadn’t gone far; Tahl spotted it almost immediately, its wrappings lost and its blade stuck in the earth. He flexed his fingers, unsure he wanted to touch it again.
Had Nia felt that power? She wasn’t a mage, so she shouldn’t have. Still, she’d brought the knife wrapped. Curiosity tingled in his fingertips as he swept the cloth from the dusty ground and draped it over the blade’s hilt.
When his hand brushed the pommel through the fabric, he felt nothing.
“You’re an unusual thing, aren’t you?” he murmured as he wiggled the knife free from the dirt. Whether he intended to talk to the blade or just mumble his thoughts aloud, he didn’t know. It wasn’t as if he’d never talked to inanimate objects before, but this one gave him an eerie feeling.
Nia descended from the roof a shade more gracefully than she’d climbed it in the first place. “What do you think?” she asked as she dusted off her boyish breeches. “Is it cursed?”
“Why’d you wrap it?” Tahl glanced down at his hands, then looked around his feet. He’d been eating an apple. What had he done with it? He didn’t remember putting it down, and he didn’t see it, either. That the prick of magic in the blade had been enough to distract him meant nothing good.
“It gave me the creeps when I touched it. I don’t know why. It felt better after I wrapped it.” She scrubbed her hands against her hips as if to remove a sensation the knife had left behind. A look of concern pulled her brows together. “It’s not cursed, is it?”
Tahl snorted. “Unlikely.”
She didn’t appear convinced. “But there’s something funny about it.”
“Yes.” He turned the knife in his hand, studying the way the light glinted off its edge. Even without touching it directly, magic buzzed in his senses.
“Is it dangerous?”
For a moment, Tahl wasn’t sure how to answer. The shock that had traveled up his arm hadn’t been pleasant, but he hadn’t held the blade long enough to know if it was dangerous. He wasn’t willing to touch it again to find out.
Yet without touching it or exploring its energy, he had no way of knowing what the magic did.He frowned, unsure what to do next. There didn’t seem much point to touching it. It wasn’t like he’d had any more luck sussing out whatever the crown he’d stolen did.
“Don’t know,” he said at last. He almost stuck the knife into his belt, then thought better of it. Instead, he wrapped the square of fabric around it more securely and fished a piece of string from his pocket to tie it closed.
The action made Nia wrinkle her nose. “So that’s a yes.”
Tahl touched a hand to his chest. “What, you have that little faith in my powers of deduction?”
“You dropped it,” she replied dryly. “Considering your incredible lack of slippery fingers, I can do my own deduction from that.”
Fair, he thought with a smirk, though he was unwilling to concede that out loud. He kept the knife in his hand and turned toward the street.
“Where are you going?” Nia asked, trotting along behind him as he started walking.
Tahl waved the little bundle. “To give it back.”
Niada almost tripped over her feet.