Gifted Thief (Highland Magic #1) by Helen Harper

Prologue

The girl with no name scurried down the corridor, hiking up her skirt to avoid the hem from trailing along the dusty floor. She’d already been in trouble once today for her appearance when the cook had cuffed her ear for wearing a stained apron. The fact that it was stained simply because she’d been in the garden and picking mudberries on the cook’s orders didn’t seem to matter. It was one thing, however, to be told off in the kitchen; it was quite another for it to happen in the grand hall in front of goodness knows who.

She hadn’t been in the Bull’s presence for months. The last time she was summoned it was to make up numbers at a cocktail party. Not, of course, as a guest; it was her role to hold up canapés to the mingling party goers – no mean feat for someone who was short for her age and surrounded by towering Sidhe adults.

She barely lasted ten minutes. Once the Bull spotted her, staring at her with dark glittering eyes, his skin suffusing with a mottled angry red, she was ushered away and scolded for drawing attention to herself. Since then she’d kept well out of his way, even risking the wrath of the cook by taking the long way round the dusty palace and arriving even later for her daily duties than she normally did. Frankly, she’d do just about anything to avoid the Bull’s terrifying gaze.

Rounding the corner at high speed, and worried about what was expected of her, she was less alert than she should have been. Colliding with the delicate, elfin form of Tipsania, she sent them both crashing to the ground; her bare feet became tangled with the other girl’s ornate skirts, the heavy fabric inextricably wrapping itself around her ankles.

‘You stupid bitch!’

The girl yanked hard, attempting to free herself. There was an ominous rip of fabric as she finally pulled away, then she received a hard kick from Tipsania for her efforts.

Ignoring the sharp burst of pain, she scrambled to her feet then bent down to help the other girl stand up. Tipsania glared at the proffered hand as if it belonged to a cockroach instead of a child. She still took it, though.

‘You should bloody well watch where you’re going,’ she hissed. ‘Now I look as if I’ve been dragged through a muddy puddle. Don’t they teach you how to keep clean?’

The girl ducked her head down, mumbling an apology.

Tipsania clicked her teeth in disgust. ‘Byron will think I’ve been raised in a hovel. I’ll simply have to go and change.’ She spat, an astoundingly unladylike gesture for someone of her rank.

The girl’s eyes flew upwards. ‘Byron?’ She’d heard of him, of course. The privileged son of the Sidhe Steward Aifric Moncrieffe was well known around the court for his youthful misdemeanours. Only seventeen years old, he was already living up to his namesake as mad, bad and dangerous to know. It didn’t make sense, however, that he’d be coming here. Little as the girl knew, even she was aware that the Moncrieffes held little love for the Scrymgeour Clan, even though they worked together from time to time.

She swallowed the knot of pain that appeared in her throat. Was that why she’d been summoned? Was it an opportunity for the upper echelons of Sidhe royalty to sneer at her, as well as the lower ranks she normally dealt with?

Tipsania’s lip curled. ‘You don’t think he’s going to be interested in you, do you? A dirty urchin?’ She leaned in more closely, her smooth honey-coloured hair tickling the girl’s cheek. ‘A bastard?’

The girl drew back. Her parentage wasn’t her fault. If she could change it, she would. It was incredibly unfortunate for her that her pure white hair and violet eyes reminded everyone of just who her father was.

She opened her mouth to answer back then snapped it shut again, thinking better of it. Tipsania had made an art form out of underhand cruelty that could extend for weeks when she thought she had been slighted. There was no point in antagonising her unnecessarily, tempting as it might be.

The girl dipped her head again, casting her eyes downward and hoping that her act of submission would encourage Tipsania to forget the flare of rebellion that had flickered across her face.

A door opened several metres away and the low hum of voices reached the girl’s ears. Her eyes snapped up, wary of who was about to join them. She received another sharp kick from Tipsania in response.

‘Well, well, well,’ drawled a deep voice. ‘What do we have here?’

This time, the girl kept her head firmly down.

‘Byron!’ Tipsania tittered, her previously harsh tone now muted to a breathy giggle. ‘Are you lost? We’re supposed to be in the grand hall.’