Ao Jia, the greatest thief in the Conclave, was hung up on a simple lock. She could hear a museum guard’s footsteps echoing down the hall, a slow counterpoint to the steady hammering of her heart. A few seconds more, and she would be seen.
Good thing she worked well under pressure.
Her left hand maintained torque on the lock while the pick in her right tested the tumblers. There was a series of small, satisfying clicks as they fell into place, one after another. She kept her breathing even, tried to slow her pulse even as she forced herself to work faster. The guard’s flashlight was reflecting off displays behind her, but he hadn’t rounded the corner yet.
Jia’s motions were controlled and precise, playing the lock like an expert musician played their instrument. Another pin, and another. And…
She winced at the sound of the bolt sliding back, but she was already moving, tugging the door open, slipping through the instant it was wide enough for her slender form. Silent as a breath of wind, she pressed herself against the door and pushed it shut.
The guard’s footsteps paused on the other side. Had he noticed something? The beam of his flashlight sent long knives of illumination beneath the door to stab past Jia’s feet.
Then darkness swallowed the room again as he turned away. “All clear on the west side, over.” Another voice, indistinct, replied on the radio.
Of course he hadn’t heard anything. Given the shortcomings of human hearing, Jia wondered how they kept anyone out of this place.
She slowly let out the breath she’d been holding. She knew the guards’ schedules by heart. She had five minutes to do her job and get out before a patrol conducted a very thorough scan of this room. Five minutes between victory and capture.
The Babylon Metropolitan Museum was packed with guards, miraculous security, and high-tech defenses to protect its treasures. Two thieves had tried and failed to rob the museum in as many months, and the chief of security had bragged to the newspapers that the building was impenetrable.
Jia looked out across the gallery, eyes narrowing as she focused on her task, filtering out the rows and rows of moonlit artifacts and glass displays that stretched to the other end of the gallery. She’d done her homework. The cameras watching this room were already on a loop, thanks to some viral mischief she’d uploaded on her way past the security office. Beside the door she’d just come through, locked behind a glass case, a keypad controlled her first obstacle.
Jia hadn’t been able to find the combination, but she wasn’t about to let that stop her. From a pouch at her hip, she drew out a handful of fine sand. And, natural as breathing, she reached deep within herself and called upon the divine power that was her birthright.
Jia was a godborn, and more closely related to her divine ancestor than most. Her maternal grandfather was Ao Guang, who still styled himself the Dragon King of the Eastern Seas, even though modern maritime law definitely didn’t recognize his authority. He was a monumental asshole, but Jia had inherited a tiny fraction of his power over wind and storm, and for that, at least, she couldn’t complain.
Holding the sand before her lips, Jia allowed a tiny trickle of power into her breath, focused her will, and blew.
She only worked a tiny miracle, but the wonderful thing about air was that it was all connected. A bit of gentle pressure was enough to set the sand in motion, sending it spiraling through the room as soon as it puffed out of her palm. The glittering cloud swept past display cases, past ancient relics, past Jia’s prize—and through the previously invisible beams of the laser mesh crisscrossing the gallery. There was a free space around entrance so a guard could disable the lasers before crossing the room, but the nearest beam was barely an inch from Jia’s shin.
It would cost her some time to maneuver through the room, but they would need more than that to stop her.
Jia was in motion after only a moment to study the layout of the lasers. She ducked and wove and vaulted through the room with a surgeon’s precision. A lesser thief would have tripped a laser, but Jia had grace and poise earned from years of hard-won experience.
Every four breaths, she infused her exhalation with a gentle touch of divine power, forcing the air to keep circulating so she could see the lasers. It was a risk to work even that small a miracle—there had to be a thaumascanner in the room, ready to sound the alarm if any godborn thieves tried to use thaumaturgy to make off with the goods. But the scanner had to be calibrated to accept a certain level of background noise or the random variations in the air or the passage of a godborn guard would set it off. She should be fine as long as she used a bare minimum of power.
Her muscles were burning by the time she made it among the displays, but Jia resisted the urge to simply hurry forward. She had four minutes left. Plenty of time. She could skirt the nearest displays, make her way around to the left, and then—
She noticed the danger when her foot was barely an inch from the floor. The tile below her heel was different. Only subtly, but attention to detail was a prerequisite for the job. Jia bent lower, narrowing her eyes as she studied the floor, and probed under edge of the tile with the tiniest tendril of wind.
Pressure sensors, she guessed. And not just on the one tile—the irregularities extended through the entire center of the room. A new addition, installed since she’d scouted the place? Or just something she’d missed? Perhaps it was simply well hidden during the day.
Clever, but not clever enough.
Jia had already weighed her options and selected her way forward. Pulling back her foot, she wriggled through a hole in the laser net and pressed herself against the nearest display. Then, as gently as she could manage, she lifted herself up and perched atop the case.
No alarm sounded at her touch. Museum security thought of the relics inside as treasures to be protected, and it seemed they were satisfied as long as people stayed on the other side of the glass.
Jia gauged the jump to the next display, eyed the lasers, and leapt. She had to twist at exactly the right moment to thread herself through the beams, but she landed with a grin. It wasn’t enough to stop her, but at least this latest complication was unexpected.
The exhibit in this gallery was called Before the Conclave: A Celebration of Our History. It was a traveling exhibition, only in Babylon for a month, and every culture that had joined the Conclave after the Great War had contributed pieces of their past. Some were ancient, some less than two hundred years old. All were priceless. There were wonders from across the world here, a hundred different temptations to test Jia’s self-control.
She perched atop each one for only a moment before putting it behind her. There was only one prize in her sights tonight. Impenetrable? What better way to challenge the museum’s boast than to steal their most carefully defended item?
She stood above a collection of Bronze Age artifacts from across the Conclave: Greek pottery, Chinese arrowheads, Xhosa knives, and more. Even worn with age as they were, a few of the knives still shone with divine power from the miracles worked into the metal. She leapt, landed, and took a moment to adjust her footing over a pair of Roman centurion helmets and a wheel from the first railroad. She vaulted past a huge statue of Osiris, old enough that it had stood in a temple back when the gods had still been worshipped.
And a surge of familiar avarice rose in her heart as her goal came into view: the golden lyre of Orpheus.
The lyre rested in a glass case at the center of the gallery, framed beneath a high arch, and it was resplendent even in the faint moonlight. It wasn’t pure gold, of course, but the god Apollo had personally worked gold dust and miracles alike into the wood and strings before giving it to Orpheus. Only minor miracles—Orpheus had charmed everyone around him with the strength of his music and his own thaumaturgy, while Apollo had merely ensured that his instrument would stay intact and always in tune—but that wasn’t the point. The lyre was a tangible piece of history, a rare item that had gone to Hades and back. In the end, its owner’s resolve had failed before the lyre itself.
The thief who stole it would be remembered forever.
Of course, that was true of nearly everything in Jia’s collection. It wasn’t infamy that she longed for, amusing as it could be. Even the lyre was beautiful, invaluable… and secondary.
As Jia surveyed her goal, all she had eyes for was the case and the security measures guarding it. What surprises waited behind the glass? What hidden traps, what cunning challenges? She wasn’t even there yet, and already she was imagining the possibilities and coming up with countermeasures in her head.
Thievery was a dance, a complex interplay of ironclad security and devious circumvention, and Jia had danced with the best. Her last few heists had been disappointingly easy, but surely there were some nasty tricks around the lyre. There had to be. Beating a child at weiqi again and again quickly lost its savor.
Jia moved closer, pausing with all her weight balanced on one foot in the only clear space atop a case. Below her was one of the youngest items in the room—the first radio to transmit a person’s voice, a pride of the Lakota. She was close, now, and with a healthy three and a half minutes left.
One more jump, and she’d be atop the lyre’s display. It wasn’t even a particularly challenging jump.
Jia wasted a handful of seconds scrutinizing the area around the display, but nothing caught her eye. She carefully positioned herself before the largest gap in the laser grid, gathered her strength, and leapt.
She was already in the air when she spotted her mistake—it was almost impossible to see, but the sand she’d sent curling around the room twisted into a glistening cylinder a couple of feet out from the lyre. Exactly as it would if it were running into an invisible wall.
Jia brought her arms up just before she slammed into the barrier. Faint geometric patterns, etched into the space around the display case with pure divine power, flared to life at her impact. Jia slid down its surface.
Toward the pressure sensors in the floor.
Reeling, heart pounding, she didn’t have time to get her bearings. She pushed off the invisible wall with her hands and feet and all her godborn strength, throwing herself backward.
And straight toward a laser she’d leapt over on her way toward the lyre.
Acting on pure instinct, Jia hurled the strongest miracle she dared at the ground, sending a gust of wind erupting out of her. She had the presence of mind to widen the blast, spreading the pressure across as much of the floor as she could manage. The miracle buffeted the floor, sending sand skirling about the center of the gallery.
And in return, nudging her upward, just enough to clear the laser.
Jia arched her back like a high jumper, contorted in midair, and caught the edge of a display case with one hand. She swung wildly, barely kept her foot from breaking a beam, and hugged herself against the glass.
She paused there, breathing heavily, barely able to believe how close she’d come to discovery.
Three minutes left.
Jia flipped herself back up to the top of the case, laughing silently to herself. Well played, she thought, giving a mental tip of the hat to the chief of security, but I’m not caught yet. At least the barrier explained why she hadn’t set off the any alarms. With a miracle like that in place, any thaumascanner would have to have a relatively high tolerance.
A miraculous barrier around the lyre made sense, but there would be limitations. A perfect, closed shell would isolate the lyre’s case, which would prevent any number of other security systems from functioning. There was no way the museum trusted a single miracle to guard the lyre. Which meant…
Jia fixed the locations of the nearest lasers in her mind and then stopped refreshing her miracle, letting the wind die across the room. She watched the sand she’d set in motion drift toward the floor.
The sand over the lyre settled atop the case without running into any invisible barriers. It was open on top: not a complete shell, but an open tube that ended two feet above the display case.
And just like that, Jia knew what she had to do.
Careful to keep a stray elbow from contacting the now-invisible web of lasers, she unspooled a coil of rope from another pouch and tipped her head back.
One of Babylon’s contributions to the exhibit stood directly over the lyre: the Lamassu Gate. The doors themselves had been missing for centuries, but the arch stood tall, carved in the likeness of its namesake. Its bull’s legs formed the sides of the arch. Its huge chest, wings folded to either side, formed the top. The stern, human head was turned to one side to glare down at invaders. At Romans, historically—the gate had stood firm against the invasion that had broken Roman imperial ambitions forever, back before Rome and Babylon had become allies. Now, the lamassu’s glare was directed at Jia.
The lower third of the arch was covered in sensors to prevent awed children from pawing at the stone—Jia had heard the proximity warning herself when she’d been here during visiting hours—but like the lasers, the sensors on the arch didn’t go all the way up, and it wasn’t encased in glass or anything. It’s not like anyone was going to make off with a few hundred thousand tons of stone gate.
Jia flipped the solemn guardian a jaunty salute, double-checked her mental map of the lasers all around her, and swung a coil of rope up toward the top of the arch. The loop fell over the tip of one of the lamassu’s wings, and it stayed there when she gave it a tug.
She coiled her legs beneath her and launched herself straight up into the air.
Every godborn’s divine blood came with some amount of increased strength. Jia was no Heracles, but she had enough to clear the highest beam. She was a good six feet out from the gate, and the angled rope pulled her into a swing immediately. She scrambled upward before her feet could brush the topmost lasers, her heart racing.
She swung by a display holding a breastplate, still shimmering with faint miracles, that had belonged to a pharaoh’s personal guard. She swung over the golden lyre, past it, and twisted in the air as she tried to steady her movement. A collection of coins from pre-sinking Atlantis, generously donated by the merfolk who lived there now, glittered a few inches from her face. She shifted her weight to slow her swinging and quickly stabilized almost directly over the lyre.
Perfect. More than enough time left, despite the complications. She lowered herself toward the lyre.
A key scraped against the lock of the door on the far side of the gallery, a mirror to the one she’d entered through.
Panic flared through Jia, spurring her into motion. In the brief time that it took the handle to turn, she launched herself upward, gathering the rope with her as she climbed. She was just barely hidden behind the arch’s bulk when the beam of a flashlight cut through the space above the lyre. The guard’s footsteps echoed through the gallery, and the flashlight slashed this way and that through the darkness.
Shit! They were early. She was supposed to have another minute a and a half!
“Nadin? You in here?” The man sounded exhausted. “We need all hands on deck. Marduk’s mace, if you turned off your radio again, I swear…”
Moving in absolute silence and using the side of the arch for leverage, Jia twisted in place so that her feet were toward the ceiling and her head was toward the ground. Holding her whole body rigid, she slowly lowered herself hand over hand until her eyes peeked past the lamassu’s underbelly.
The guard had his back to her, the flashlight clutched under one arm while he examined the controls for the laser grid—still active—and then fumbled with his radio, muttering under his breath. If he noticed the thin layer of sand coating the floor, he didn’t seem to pay it any mind. He wasn’t here ahead of schedule to search the room. He was a fluke. Bad luck.
She had barely a minute left before a guard arrived with a miracle to scan the gallery instead of a broken radio. It was now or never.
She loosened her grip on the rope and dropped toward the lyre, grinning madly to herself. Stealing the lyre with a guard in the room? Museum security was never going to live this down.
Her hair stood on end as she passed the thaumaturgy protecting the sides, but she didn’t run into any more miraculous walls or trigger any alarms. The lyre was just below her, gleaming in golden perfection.
The guard was still cursing at his radio, his back to Jia. “Now, of all times… Piece of shit!”
Jia’s mind was racing well ahead of her hands. She’d brought glass-cutting tools, but there wasn’t enough time left to use them. The situation called for extreme measures. One eye on the guard, she lowered herself past the lyre and down to the side of its pedestal. It took a moment, but she pried open a panel with brute force while holding herself suspended with her other hand. She tugged a bundle of wires out, picked out the right one without hesitation, and snipped it with a pair of wire cutters from her belt.
She replaced the tool and retreated back up the rope until she was staring straight at the lyre. She drew on the wellspring of divine power deep within her soul, gathering as much as she dared, and wrapped a carefully crafted miracle around the lyre’s display case.
Then she drove her elbow into the glass.
Jia had spent literal weeks fine-tuning this particular bit of thaumaturgy. She’d never heard of anyone trying it, but, then, who but a thief would have much cause to? Still, these were the sorts of moments that made those long hours of repetition worth it.
Sound was just air waves. With precise control over the air itself, the right miracle could deaden the sound completely.
Jia’s elbow smashed through the glass in utter, eerie silence. The guard continued his muttering, the only other sound the scrape of metal and plastic as he messed with his radio. Jia pulled one last item out of a pocket, stretched out her hands, and swapped it for the lyre.
She was gone as soon as she had the instrument in hand, shimmying up the rope as fast as her one free hand could take her. There were only seconds left, and she needed to be gone.
Below, the door opened again, and a new voice said, “Hey, what are you still doing in— Shit!”
Laughing silently to herself, Jia rose out of sight behind the arch just as flashlights swept the room. “It was right there! I swear the room was empty!” the first guard protested, and then he was cut off as the other spoke into his radio and an alarm blared through the museum.
Pulse pounding in her ears as if trying to compete with the siren, Jia crouched beside the lamassu’s wing and pulled her rope free. The key to not getting caught—besides never selling anything she stole—was to leave no trace.
Or, at least, no trace beyond what she meant for them to find.
The two guards were, predictably, running to the center of the room, as if the shattered glass and empty case could lead them to the lyre. Despite herself, Jia strained to hear, and she couldn’t help a grin as they found her calling card: a gold-colored jianzhi paper-cutting of a serpent clutching a coin in its fangs. Even over the alarm, Jia heard one of the men gasp, “The Golden Viper!”
But there wasn’t time to gloat. Her first choice of escape routes was visible to the guards. Her backup would take too long. That just left the messy way. The backup to her backup.
As soon as the guards were beneath the arch, Jia scrambled to the peak of the lamassu’s back. She moved to the nearest skylight and, with the alarm muffling the sound as effectively as any miracle, smashed through enough of the glass to slip outside.
She stayed where she was. The open air called to her, the moon and the few stars bright enough to be seen over Babylon’s city lights taunting her with their distant freedom. But tempting as it was to flee into the night, she’d made a plan for a reason, and the plan called for a distraction. There were at least two winged godborn among the museum’s guards. If one of them decided to fly through the skylight and follow, she’d be caught.
Better to be subtle. Trying to ignore the flashlight beams dancing madly around the room, Jia moved to the north side of the arch. Her eyes strained against the darkness until she found what she was looking for: the grate of an air duct. Alarmed, surely, but that was no longer a problem.
There was no time for screwdrivers, so Jia drew out a different tool: a piece of thaumatechnology the size of a pen, originally designed for detailed mechanical work rather than thievery. She clicked the button on one end, and the miracle worked into the metal flared to life to create a bead of superheated air at the other.
Jia pressed the hot end to the screws, one after another, and melted them beyond recognition. Cruder than she preferred, but sometimes speed was the priority. She tugged the vent off the wall, immensely grateful for her slender frame. She slithered in feet-first, pulling the lyre in behind her. She paused just long enough to melt the edges of the duct and twist them back into place. Someone would notice eventually, but she’d be long gone by then.
A hush fell over the gallery below as the alarm fell silent, and the guards’ shouts faded barely a moment later.
Jia squeezed past the lyre and pressed her face against the grate, just in time to see two new people hurrying into the room. One of them moved out of her line of sight before she could get a good look. The other was a Roman-looking woman in a sleeveless coat and camouflage pants, her face absolutely riddled with scars.
“Conclave Furies. What happened?” the woman demanded, displaying a badge.
Jia’s blood froze in her veins. The Furies. The Furies were after her? That was ridiculous. They were responsible for keeping the Conclave’s people safe from dragons and sea serpents and other monsters, or for tracking down godborn—or gods themselves—who were too dangerous for the police to handle. She was just a thief!
“How did you respond to the alarm so fast?” one of the museum guards asked. The poor idiot was clearly in awe.
The Fury with the scarred face snorted. “We didn’t. We’ve been on the Golden Viper’s trail since the heist in Èkó.” She looked around, scanning the room. “Is there normally this much sand on the floor?” Her gaze passed directly over the grate where Jia was hidden, and Jia stayed perfectly still. A Fury’s eyes could famously pierce shadow, but between the distance and the vent…
“Um, no. How did you know the Viper would come here?” the guard asked. He winced. “Adad’s horns, is this because of what the chief said? About our security being impenetrable?”
The Fury didn’t even glance at him. “Regretting that boast now, huh?”
Jia could barely hear them over the blood rushing in her ears. The Furies weren’t just after her—they’d predicted that she would be here. If they’d shown up a minute sooner, they would have caught her in the act. What else did they have on her? What else could they guess?
It didn’t matter. She had the lyre in hand. She should leave before they closed off her escape route. And then…
What? Retire? Get out of the game before it was too late?
A smile spread slowly across Jia’s face.
She’d bested the security of countless museums, of government buildings, of private collectors’ manors. She’d stolen from mobsters, from rich business owners on three continents, from merfolk, dwarves, and giants. She’d evaded vengeful criminals, local police, and national law enforcement agencies.
But never the Furies.
She hadn’t just stolen Orpheus’s lyre from the Babylon Metropolitan Museum. She hadn’t just stolen it right out from under the guards’ noses. She’d stolen it with the Furies moments away. She was only one step ahead, but one step was all she needed.
She’d been looking for a challenge, and one had fallen into her lap.
Below, the other Fury walked back into view. “We were right, Caelistra,” he said to his scarred partner. “It was the Golden Viper. I found the paper-cutting. There’s also a broken skylight.”
The female Fury—Caelistra?—nodded. “I expect the Viper’s long gone, but we should take a look just in case. Maybe we’ll get lucky, and we can tie this whole case up before I have to go babysit some new recruit.”
Jia didn’t hear the rest of the conversation. She was already retreating down the duct, heading for her escape route. The Furies were onto her, were they? Well, that just meant her next heist had to be even more daring and outlandish than usual. Maybe she should make a list of valuable targets and pick one randomly. They couldn’t predict what she left to chance.
Jia was still grinning to herself as she slipped out into the night and made her escape. She had a place picked out for the lyre already, but she was thinking weeks ahead, this prize nearly forgotten.
This was going to be fun.