Shouts from the palace guards rose up behind me as I ran down the gilded halls. I laughed, holding the package close to my chest. I’d never been inside a palace before. The sheer joy and adrenaline I had from running barefoot through this place was like nothing I’d felt before.
I made a sharp turn to the left and there were the stairs, right where Jalex had told me they’d be. My legs burned as I took the steps two at a time. Up, up, up, the guards that gave chase becoming a rumbling thunder behind me. I hadn’t glanced back at them in a while, but I could tell the number had grown. I adjusted my grip on the package, careful not to crush it.
“Halt! You there! Stop!”
I burst onto the next floor, dodging the guards Jalex had said would be there. One of their hands brushed my back, a breath of air away from catching me. I forced my legs into a burst of new speed.
Almost there. Almost there.
I wove around a couple servants, grinning at their exclamations as the stampede of guards swallowed them whole.
Another spiraling staircase appeared on my right, and I charged up. The palace was huge. Jalex had said it would be, but I suppose he could only prepare me for so much. Some things you just have to see to believe.
The door at the very top was heavy, and I had to slam my shoulder into it before I could get through. I ran out, onto the top of the castle walls. To my left I could see stone and windows and pointed rooftops, and to my right I saw a spreading town and winding roads and green hills checkered with fields.
Soldiers were close behind, I could hear their heavy steps echoing up the staircase. Before me was a path of stone, ending in another spiraling staircase. Just as the men behind me reached the top, the door to the stair in front of me burst open. More men spilled out, their swords unsheathed.
No turning back. No going forward.
I’d run out of breath so I didn’t laugh, but I did grin at the men running after me. They couldn’t catch me, and they wouldn’t get the package in my arms.
I looked to the right again, this time straight down to the base of the wall. It looked a lot farther down than it had looked the night before, when Jalex and I had stood at the bottom.
Almost there. A few more steps should do it.
The closest soldier reached out a hand, a few more steps and he would have grabbed me. Instead, his fingers grasped cold air as I jumped onto the edge. I stood there for barely a second, just long enough to look down and aim before leaping off the wall.
I clutched the package close to my chest, my heart and stomach floating inside me as I fell. Shouting above me and wind around me and falling, falling, falling . . .
I sank deep into a pile of hay, nearly hitting the wooden planks of the wagon that held it before I stopped falling. There was a whistle and a jerk, and the wagon started moving. I smiled, panting for breath as Jalex drove us away.
My fingers shook with excitement as I carefully unwrapped the package.
Thieves we may be, but we have only ever sought one kind of plunder. The smell of leather and paper and vanilla rose to mingle with the scent of hay, and I passed a loving hand over the cover.
Those nobles wouldn’t have used it anyway; leaving it to rot in their vaults, its knowledge unread and unknown.
But I opened the book to its first page and began reading as we made our escape.