Margaret Owen, author of the Merciful Crow series, has a new YA fantasy arriving next month: Little Thieves. The story spins off the Brothers Grimm’s “The Goose Girl.” Little Thieves, which comes with a collection of illustrations from Owen, follows the so-called wicked maid from the fairy tale. The story puts a scrappy maid in a place to outsmart both palace nobles and Low Gods. And today we have an exclusive excerpt from Little Thieves, and the debut of the book’s gorgeous trailer.
Little Thieves‘ synopsis is as follows:
Seventeen-year-old Vanja Schmidt is the thirteenth daughter of a thirteenth daughter, and wherever she goes, misfortune follows. Luckily, her godmothers are Death and Fortune, each of whom blesses Vanja with magic in exchange for a life of servitude when she comes of age.
But when the time comes, Vanja flees, swiping an enchanted string of pearls that allows her to impersonate a princess. So begins a life of merry mayhem posing as a royal to rob the nobles blind. At first, Vanja is thrilled with her luck, but soon, she crosses the wrong god, and is cursed to turn into the jewels she covets, gem by gem, unless she can right her wrongs and pay back her debts—quickly.
This Little Thieves excerpt picks up with the third chapter; Vanja must make a nerve-racking escape.
Rubies and Pearls
There is one key thing that has kept me from being caught until now, and that is the fact that rich nobles don’t know how to handle being robbed in their own homes.
I’m not going to lie, it bothered me when I robbed the von Holtzburgs and they just carried on like nothing happened. Only later did I realize they weren’t going to admit to being victims. At least, not until it was in vogue. For nobles who have lived their entire lives assured of their own safety, it’s embarrassing that someone— the same someone— keeps breaking through their money and their status and taking what they hold dear.
(I know why I left my first red penny, but if I’m being honest, that’s why I keep leaving them. I want them to know it’s me, always me, hitting them where it hurts.)
But the nobility has no way to stop it. That slack-jawed bailiff will just wring his cap at the sight of empty jewelry boxes and mutter about ghosts and grimlingen. They can clap obvious criminals in the stocks, but they’ve no notion how to sniff out wilier culprits like bloodhounds.
The brute in the entrance hall now has been trained to do precisely that. The prefects of the Godly Courts come from the Free Imperial States, where the people elect their leaders, like Minister Holbein—or at least, whoever the Low Gods advise them to elect. The Godly Courts are their judges, juries, and executioners, and the duty of a prefect is to find all the facts of a case so the Low Gods themselves may render judgment.
It’s said the prefects know where to look, what to ask, who to listen to; it’s said they wield tools and powers of the Low Gods themselves to uncover the truth.
I’ve heard of prefects being summoned into the imperial principalities and marches, but it’s for nothing less than the worst of villains, like child-snatchers or doxy-butchers. For one to be brought all the way to Minkja for a mere thief means three things:
First, Adalbrecht has rattled sabers and tightened fists to make this happen.
Second, I need to get out of Eisendorf Manor before Ezbeta’s empty vanity is discovered.
And third, I might be able to pull off exactly one more theft before I have to clear out of Bóern—and hopefully Almandy itself—for good.
The small crowd draws back to make a path for the prefect as the messenger calls out, “‘My friends, I give you Prefect Hubert Klemens—’”
“Junior Prefect.” The voice from the entryway is muffled by layers upon layers of wool and fur, but it still reaches us clearly enough to stop the courier mid-sentence. Probably because it sounds a good deal younger than any of us expected.
A moment later, a doorman helps the prefect—junior prefect—out of his cloak and scarf. It’s like popping an olive pit from the flesh; what looked like a bear of a man is abruptly whittled down to a scarecrow of a boy of no more than eighteen. His dark wool jacket sits loose on his shoulders, a uniform that belongs on someone . . . bulkier. What I can see of a gray waistcoat and dark breeches seem to fit marginally better, though that’s a low bar to clear; his black hair is cut short like a commoner’s, but parted on the side and combed as neatly as any noble’s. All in all, he gives the impression of a collection of billiard cues that unionized to solve crimes.
From what little I remember of my brothers, this boy looks precisely like someone they would have thrown into the pigpen for fun. The effect is only magnified when he fishes in a breast pocket, removes a set of round spectacles, and places them on his pale, narrow face.
“Junior Prefect Emeric Conrad at your service,” the boy says, blinking his dark eyes owlishly. Then he seems to recall he’s not in the Free Imperial States anymore, and adds a nervous, “Sir.”
My panic begins to subside. At least, it does where the prefect is concerned.
“The margrave requested Prefect Klemens.” Adalbrecht’s messenger says it like an accusation.
The boy bobs his head in apology, shoulders hunching. With the pearls on, I can nearly look him in the eye. I think he’d have a couple of inches on me if he stood straight, but his primary goal seems to be taking up as little space as possible. “Y-yes, sir, he was held up in Lüdz. I was sent ahead to begin the preliminary investigation.” He produces a small journal and a stick of paper-wrapped writing charcoal from another pocket. “I’d like to begin by taking statements—”
Komte von Eisendorf holds up a hand. “I doubt anyone here is sober enough to give you a useful account of what happened, Prefect. Won’t you celebrate with us tonight, and save the questions until morning?”
I see the boy mumble an aggrieved “junior prefect” under his breath before he offers a shrug. “If it suits you. Sir.”
It certainly suits me, considering that somewhere on this estate, Hans the manservant is unwittingly returning a satchel full of stolen Eisendorf jewelry to my coach.
The next hour and a half are a blur. I’m only half there as we sit down for supper, but it’s not hard to keep up the Gisele act, bubbly and glowing and still half drunk as she fields felicitations. All the while my mind whirs like a clock. A few brave souls attempt to strike up a conversation with Junior Prefect Emeric Conrad from where he’s glumly rooted himself at the other end of the table, only to give up in short order, looking almost as miserable as he does.
For once, it’s easy for me to slip away with relatively little fanfare after supper. The rest of the guests are either too busy buzzing about the upcoming wedding, or too gorged and wine-fuddled to notice me quietly asking for my cloak and gloves. (Even Ezbeta is nodding off in an overstuffed damask armchair.) My coachman has been summoned, and a detachment of the messenger’s escort will accompany me back to Minkja, capital of Bóern. All that’s left is to wait in the foyer for the coach to pull around.
Or so I thought. I’m standing at a window in my cloak of positively angelic mink-lined frost-blue velvet, staring out into the moonless night, when a reflection in the glass shifts behind me. I whirl around.
Junior Prefect Emeric Conrad hovers a few yards away. This close, it’s easy to see how he’s practically swimming in his oversized uniform. He lets out an awkward little cough. “Apologies if I startled you, er…Prinzessin?”
I nod, gracious. “Can I help you?”
“I wished to offer my congratulations on your upcoming marriage,” he says very quickly, pushing his spectacles up a thin nose, “and to ask if it would not be too much trouble to take your statement tomorrow morning. The Penny Phantom has stolen from you in the past as well, have they not?”
“Indeed,” I say, and by that I mean I made sure everyone saw me wearing a couple of Gisele’s most valuable baubles, hosted the kind of party the Pfennigeist kept infiltrating, and then immediately sold the jewelry to my fence. “I will be happy to tell you everything I know,” I lie. Then I let a beatific smile unfurl over my face. Gisele’s face.
I know what that smile does to people. I was there the first time the enchanted pearls were strung around the real Gisele’s throat; I saw what they made her into. I saw the way her smile seemed to light up the room and break your heart all at once, in just the way you liked best.
Years ago, while I was mending Gisele’s winter cloak and she was off on a hunt in the woods, I refined a theory about desire. In the world I knew, there were three reasons a person would be wanted: for profit, pleasure, or power. If you could satisfy only one, they used you. Two, they saw you.
Three, they served you.
From what I can tell, the pearls complete the trinity. They find what you might want, what you didn’t know you wanted, and make you believe only the wearer can give it to you. You desire their friendship, their company, their approval, and for many, their bed.
And judging by Emeric’s faintly stunned look now, I surmise even a prefect of the Godly Courts is not immune.
The wheels of the coach clatter outside on the drive, and the manor door creaks open. That’s my cue. I toss a shallow curtsy Emeric’s way. “Prefect Conrad.”
As the door closes behind me, I catch an uneven “junior prefect.”
No, I don’t think he’ll be a problem.
The footman helps me into the Reigenbach-blue coach, and I glance to the corner. The satchel is there, ceramic jars clinking quietly as the coach rocks from my weight. I seat myself nearby, sweeping my skirts over it, and accept a steaming waterskin from the footman. It’s been filled with boiling water for heat, and I settle it on my lap as the door shuts, then draw a soft, heavy fur wrap over myself to make a cozy cocoon against the chill. It’s going to be a long ride back to Minkja, but at least it will give me time to think.
The coach lurches forward, and I burrow deeper into the fur.
The way I see it, I have three problems.
First: I don’t have enough money to leave right now. A thousand gilden is enough to last a spendthrift countess five months, a shrewd laborer five years. It’s enough to get me out of the Blessed Empire of Almandy, through one of the borders that isn’t a bloodbath, and it will buy . . . I don’t know what. A ship? A storefront? A farm? All that matters is that it will buy me a life far from here.
And it must be far, if I am to escape my godmothers. Far enough for them to lose their claim to me.
Death told me once that she and Fortune are different beyond our borders of the Blessed Empire. That the Low Gods and their believers are like rivers and valleys, each shaping the other over time. In other lands, she is a messenger, a black dog, a warrior queen; Fortune is a horn of plenty, an eightfold-goddess, a serpent-headed titan. They wear different forms, abide by different laws.
So maybe, outside the Blessed Empire, they will no longer be my godmothers. It’s the only way I can think to be free of them. Right now, I have just enough to get past the border as is, but I will be a commoner again, alone and friendless and without a penny to my name, and I know what happens to girls like that. I’d planned to solve this problem, with another theft, but . . .
Now that Adalbrecht’s on his way back, I have two weeks to handle the money issue and figure out how to flee from my second problem: Gisele’s husband-to-be.
Ordinarily, the only trouble with solving a problem like Adalbrecht would be deciding between arsenic and hemlock. But that route is cut off by my third problem: the prefects. Well, not Junior Prefect Milksop really, just the impending Prefect Klemens. A full-fledged prefect will be able to trace Adalbrecht’s murder back to me, and convene the Low Gods themselves to decide my punishment. I don’t think even Death or Fortune could save me then.
It’s a puzzle, like picking a lock, trying to nudge each of the tumblers just right until the way is clear. If I arrange a visit to another noble family . . . no, Gisele is too high-profile, especially with the upcoming wedding, and will surely be connected to the crime. If we host celebrations at Castle Reigenbach? That could be something . . .
It takes a moment for me to realize the coach isn’t moving anymore.
I peek out from the furs. The muted drumrolls of hoofbeats have fallen silent, and beyond the coach windows I only see pitch-black night, and torchlight sweeping down spruce boughs. My brow furrows with confusion. We’re deep into the forest of Eiswald, with no need to stop.
Then I see it.
The torchlight is steady, unmoving, like the flame itself has frozen. And if I look carefully, I can see the crumbling ash of my fortune taking a turn for the worse.
There’s no sound but my heartbeat rattling in my ears as the coach door slowly, quietly swings open.
Nothing is there.
Prickles run up the back of my neck. This could be the work of a grimling, a wicked, hungry spirit looking for a meal.
Then again, a grimling wouldn’t bother with these theatrics. I’ve dealt with two Low Gods since I was four; I know when one’s at work.
And if I’ve learned anything, it’s that there’s only one way to do business with a Low God: Get it over with as soon as possible. I roll my eyes, peel myself from my nest of fur, and draw my hood up against the cold as I climb out of the coach.
Sure enough, an inhuman figure towers in the road outside, wreathed in the forest’s mists, perhaps twice as tall as a man. The only reason my escort isn’t fleeing is that they don’t see her, or anything at all. Every rider, every soldier, every attendant has gone still, their torch flames stuck in place like lanterns of molten glass. That means whichever Low God this is, they’re at least powerful enough to halt time a moment.
That does not bode well.
This Low God has a bear skull for a head, twin red-tinged lights glowing in each eye socket. Two antlers branch from the crest of the skull, their tips blooming into blood-red leaves. A strange shadowy sphere floats between them. Long hair falls around the skull, parted perfectly down the middle, fading from jet-black roots to snow-white ends and laced with bands of scarlet hemp. Two gaunt human arms thrust from a heap of shifting pelts like ribs from a long-dead corpse’s jerkin, bone-pale everywhere but the joints, which blush an unnaturally deep crimson. A raven is perched on one of the branch-antlers, its eyes also glowing red.
Life and death, beast and vine, blood and bone, the teeth of a predator and the horns of prey. The goddess of this forest, then. Of course Eiswald is strong enough to hold time. Her woods reach nearly all the way to the border itself.
I curtsy with a bit more sincerity than I had for the junior prefect. “Eiswald. What—”
“Silence, thief.” It’s a howl, a hiss, a snarl all in one.
Oh, that can’t be good.
“It’s Lady Eiswald to the likes of you. Did you think you could come into my lands and take whatever you pleased? Did you think you would never pay?” Eiswald’s voice rises to a shriek. I blink and she’s suddenly closed the distance, looming taller than even the coach, eyes burning scarlet. “Did you think you could steal from mine?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I gasp, stumbling back.
There’s a bang. A glittering cloud pours from the open coach door: everything I took from the Eisendorfs, hanging in midair like hornets.
The pewter ring rises above them all, its moonstone shimmering in cold talons. “This,” Eiswald snaps. “This is a token of my protection. It is not yours to take.”
“Ezbeta and Gustav don’t need your protection,” I fire back.
Eiswald only gnashes her teeth. “Everyone in my woods needs my protection. They make their sacrifices every solstice. They respect the old ways. They respect me.”
“Easy to respect a god,” I mutter, thinking of the look on Hans’s face when Ezbeta screeched his name. “Anyway, your token was just gathering dust in the bottom of a jewelry box. They weren’t using it.”
“But they are far from your only trespass, aren’t they, little Vanja?”
The sound of my name knocks any answer from my tongue.
For the last year, I’ve been Marthe, Gisele, the Pfennigeist. I have not answered to Vanja.
I can’t remember the last time someone called me by name. I’ve forgotten what it feels like.
Eiswald pushes closer, and I smell night and yarrow and rot. “Do not think your godmothers can help you now. Take, take, take, that’s all you’ve done for the last year, taken whatever you desired. But you have come into my woods tonight, and stolen from those under my ward. So now . . .”
One pale hand reaches out, knuckles flushed red. My hood falls back on its own, the mink trim coiling around my throat like a noose. I try to move, try to scream, but—nothing. I can’t even breathe, lungs afire, my sight filling with the coal dust of terrible luck.
A burning-cold fingertip presses to my cheek, just below my right eye. There’s a sharp pain.
“. . . I will give you a gift,” Eiswald whispers, and glides back. “You will have what you want.”
I suck in a breath like a dagger in the gut. I can move again. My hand flies to my face—and catches on something hard, no bigger than the tip of my little finger.
Eiswald does not have lips to smile with, but the jaws of the bear skull crack a little wider. Torchlight slices along her teeth. “Rubies and pearls you shall become, little Vanja, and you will know the price of being wanted. For true greed will do anything to take what—”
“Wait.” I strip off my glove and run my bare fingers over whatever she’s put on my cheek. It’s too rough to be a pearl. “Is this real?”
Eiswald tries again. “To take what it—”
“Is this a real ruby?” I whip out my boot knife and check my dim reflection in the blade.
Sure enough, a fat, impeccable, teardrop-shaped ruby sits below my right eye.
“Scheit,” I breathe, and immediately prod at the stone with the tip of my knife. “I could buy five horses with this.”
“True greed,” Eiswald thunders, “will do anything to take what it wants.”
I shoot her a pointed look as the blade scrapes against the ruby, perhaps a little too close to my right eye. Admittedly, cutting gemstones out of my own face is not ideal, but . . . five horses. “Do you mind? I’m trying to concentrate.”
But no matter how I chisel at the jewel, it won’t move, as if it’s grown right out of my cheekbone.
Eiswald knocks the knife aside anyway, seizing my chin in a grip that makes me squirm. “Out of respect for your godmothers, I give you one more gift.”
“Pass,” I grind out.
“You have until the full moon to make up for what you have stolen,” Eiswald growls. “The longer you take, the more your greed will overtake you, until it is all you are.”
The thing about Low Gods is they’re inordinately fond of talking like a book of doomsday prophecies. You could ask Fortune about the weather and she’d say something like The wind’s loyalty skews, the veil lifts and that would mean “The rain will clear out by Tuesday.” The only way to get a straight answer from them is to spell it out first. “So I’m going to keep breaking out in gemstones?”
“By the full moon, you will be gemstones and nothing more. The only way to save yourself is to shed your greed and make amends for—”
“What I took, right, I heard you the first time.” I purse my lips. If I’m sprouting jewels like warts, maybe I’ve solved at least my money problem. “Are they all going to grow on my face, or somewhere less . . . necessary?”
“Enough. You grow tiresome.” Eiswald flicks a hand, and the raven flutters down from her antlers to alight upon one ruddy fingertip. “My daughter, Ragne, will watch over you until my gift ends, one way or another.”
“Your curse, you mean.” I eye the raven as the gravity of this situation begins to sink in.
Eiswald tilts her head, and the leaves on her antlers shiver. “It will be what you make of it, little Vanja.”
All the floating jewelry falls to the ground, save for the pewter ring, which vanishes. I swear and crouch to begin picking everything up, doing my best to keep the dirt off my pale-blue cloak. The raven—Ragne, I suppose—lands on the road, then hops away as I gather up the Eisendorfs’ jewelry. A moment later she returns, dragging my knife. I tuck it back into my boot.
“At least your daughter’s helpful,” I grumble to Eiswald.
She doesn’t answer. When I look up, she’s gone.
In her place stands Godmother Death, her shroud bleeding into the mists of the road.
I rise, my hands dripping stolen gems. “Don’t give me that look.”
Death does not deny it. Fortune can be slippery, but you can count on Death to deal plain. Disapproval is collecting on her like dew on a grave.
I sigh and jerk my head toward the open coach door. “If you’re going to yell at me, do it in here. We’ve still got a long way to go until Minkja.”
Little Thieves arrives on October 19, 2021. You can place a pre-order now.