THE POUNDING OF my pursuer’s feet on the cobblestones echoed behind me in the narrow alleyway. Ancient architectural masterpieces stretched high on my left and right, blocking the bright afternoon sun. The view was every bit as valuable to the people in my time as the document wedged between my heart and the bodice of my wool dress.
Magnificent as the Duomo was, and as lucrative as a digital image would be, the risks involved with obtaining a snapshot were too great. Oil paintings were still used to memorialize men and women of importance in this time. The most primitive camera was centuries away from being invented. If dropped—a very likely possibility given my current predicament—the slim electronic device in my possession would confound the finder and the loss would royally piss off my boss.
Exercising prudence, I left the camera snug against the inside of my wrist, directly over the scrawling text tattooed on my skin.
Maybe next time, I thought regretfully.
“Obtenir son!” a man shouted in French, his command coming out as a wheezy exhalation of breath.
His name was Etienne and he was a guard in the palace. For the past ten minutes, he’d been trying to “get” me with no luck. In his defense, it wasn’t really a fair match-up. I was lithe, agile, and well-trained in the art of evasion. He was large, clumsy and accustomed to sitting atop a horse and letting the animal do all the cardio. The fact he’d kept up with me on foot for this long was actually pretty impressive. Then again, he had the advantage of not having to navigate the crowded streets of Florence barefoot, corseted, and wearing something called a false rump.
The clomp-clomp of boots intensified exponentially as Etienne’s fellow soldiers joined the chase. They sounded like a herd of elephants ready to trample me to death in their stampede.
Welcome to the party, boys.
With numbers on his side, the Frenchman suddenly had the upper hand. Though I was desperate to find out exactly how outnumbered I was, I didn’t dare turn my head to count. They sounded close enough that I imagined their hot, fetid breath was blowing on my neck. The split second it would take to look over my shoulder was time I did not have.
Up ahead, a sliver of sunshine illuminated the filthy cobblestones like a ray of hope. Swatches of color, muted blues and greens and yellows, moved past the opening of the alleyway. Fifteen more feet and I’d be among the crowd, just another woman wandering the piazza.
Pushing myself to increase the pace, my stocking-clad feet slapped the cobblestones with bone-jarring force.
The shapes in the large town square were close, though still blurry through the sweat stinging my eyes and locks of blonde hair that had long since broken free from the pins used to fasten them in place. The cotton shift beneath my petticoat was tangled around my legs, gathering between my knees in an irksome manner that made me grateful the garments had fallen out of fashion eons before I was born.
The piazza was crowded today, even more so than usual. A small smile crossed my lips. Finally, something on this run was going my way. Crowds were good for me. I was a master at blending—you might even say it was in my job description.
My right foot landed in a puddle. That prematurely triumphant smile vanished. Warm, foul-smelling liquid splashed up over my ankle and halfway up my calf. A wave of revulsion made my stomach turn, and I had to suppress the urge to gag. But there was no break in my stride, no pause for a girlie freak-out.
This isn’t the first time you’ve stepped in urine, I told myself as I skidded the last several feet towards the end of the alleyway. Sadly, it probably wouldn’t be the last time, either. I made a quick mental reminder to avoid taking missions in times when people simply dumped their chamber pots in the streets. It was seriously unsanitary.
Behind me, the soldiers shouted curse words as they met the ankle-deep pool of human waste.
This time it was a full-on grin that curved my lips upwards. Sometimes the small victories were what made life worth living.
An instant later, I burst into the piazza. Wide-eyed stares came from those closest to the opening, which I promptly ignored. There was no time to care about the impression I was making. All that mattered was losing my tail, meeting up with my partner, making it to customs, and returning to our time. Preferably in that order. And preferably without taking a detour through the Italian prison system.
Speaking of my partner, where the hell was Gaige, anyway? As the backup on this mission, he was supposed to be there to bail me out of sticky situations. Running for my life from a regiment of Napoleon’s soldiers definitely fell into that category.
Feet still in motion, I gathered up the soggy skirt of my dress and began weaving through the crowd. My misstep into the puddle proved fortuitous. Men and women alike parted like the Red Sea when I neared, the heat making the stench of my dress even worse.
“Au voleur!” one of the French soldiers shouted behind me.
Awesome. Being labeled a thief, while technically true, was so not what I needed at the moment.
Anticipating the hands that were surely about to reach out from the surrounding crowd and grab me, I hugged my arms tight against my body in an attempt to make my five-foot-seven frame as small and compact as possible. Only, no one reached for me. Those in my path continued to move aside to allow me to pass. Their curious expressions narrowed into disdainful gazes directed at my pursuers.
“Se déplacer de côté!” Etienne’s voice rose above the murmurs of the crowd.
Move out of the way!
Something that felt like an elbow made contact with the soft spot between the bottom of my ribcage and my left kidney. I pitched forward, stumbled several paces before I caught my footing. Against my better judgment, I spared a glance over my shoulder, positive one of the soldiers would be within arm’s reach. But all I saw were well-dressed men and women, now damming the stream they’d made for me to traverse the piazza.
The heel of a woman’s shoe crushed my three middle toes. I swore in English at the same time the toe-crusher apologized in Italian. And that was when I realized what was happening. French soldiers were chasing me. French soldiers who were currently occupying Florence. And the piazza was full of Italian—or maybe they were technically Austrian, I wasn’t sure—citizens. They didn’t give a damn if I was a thief, so long as whatever I stole came from the French interlopers.
To the toe-crusher, I spoke in barely passable Italian, assuring her that no harm was done. At least, I hoped that was what I said. Thanks to the Rosetta—a miniscule translation device—tucked inside my ear, I was able to understand most any language spoken from the heyday of the Roman Empire to the post Epic War economic collapse. Unfortunately, my verbal skills and pronunciation with the same were rudimentary at best.
Not waiting to see whether my sentiments were understood, I resumed my getaway. Once again weaving through the crowd, I carefully navigated the makeshift path caused by my malodorous clothing and scanned the area ahead of me for escape. Thanks to the aid of my new allies, the distance between Napoleon’s henchmen and me grew with every pounding heartbeat. If I could just maintain my lead, I might be able to lose my pursuers for good in the crowds and winding streets up ahead.
Of course, this getaway would be a lot easier if my backup was actually doing his job. I was going to give Gaige hell once we were back home in our present. Particularly if I found out he was currently preoccupied with a courtesan.
I quickly darted between two buildings and exited the piazza with much less fanfare than I’d entered with. The passage was barely wide enough for me to fit through, so I doubted Etienne, with his much wider girth, would think to check inside.
Though the sounds of the noisy piazza were dulled by the stone walls stretching high on either side of me, muffled shouts of men demanding to know where the thief had gone floated down the alleyway on the cool breeze. Shadows engulfed me like dark shrouds, providing the perfect cover for me to pause, catch my breath, and revise my getaway strategy.
If the map provided by the historians was accurate, this alley was a cut through to the Ponte Vecchio. Once on the bridge, it would be easy enough to blend into the market crowd—just another consumer haggling with the merchants who were hocking their wares for a premium. From there, I could cross to the opposite side of the Arno River, go through the Palazzo Vecchio, and retrace my path, with its many twists and turns, to customs. As soon as I reached our waystation, I was jumping home. Gaige or no Gaige. For all I cared, he could stay in 18th century Florence and pray the plague didn’t claim him.
Since the goal was to blend once I emerged from my hiding place, I spared a moment to evaluate my appearance. One glance down confirmed that I looked as disheveled as I felt. The golden ringlets that the customs hair specialist had painstakingly curled, arranged, and pinned atop my head were now dangling in limp strands around my shoulders. The powder and rouge that the customs makeup artist had pressed all over my face and neck were surely gone, washed away by a river of sweat. Add in my stained dress and filthy, torn stockings, and I was more likely to be mistaken for a lady of the night trolling for midday clients than a consumer.
Still on high alert, I glanced toward the mouth of the alley to ensure I was alone in the darkness. The only visible movement was in the patch of light at the threshold, as the men and women of Florence went about their daily business. The shouts of Etienne and his lackeys were gone and only faint squeaking noises and the sound of tiny, scurrying claws echoed through the dark space. Breathing a sigh of relief, I began pulling pins out of my hair and twisting the rogue strands up as best I could manage.
We’d been in 1796 for five days now, on what should’ve been a challenging but doable assignment. Our missions were usually covert, the goal to slip into and out of places, times, and people’s lives like ghosts. After spending the first day in Florence familiarizing ourselves with the area, as was our standard procedure, it became clear stealth wasn’t going to be an option this go-round. Napoleon was exceedingly paranoid, security in the palace akin to that of Fort Knox in the twentieth century. His private rooms were located in a single wing, guarded closely by French soldiers, and impossible for an outsider to infiltrate. So, I’d used the syndicate’s local connections to obtain a position on the household staff of Napoleon’s Florentine palace.
Posing as a maid was far less exhilarating than some of my other cover stories, and I’d grown bored quickly. Four days of dusting miniature furniture and fluffing miniature pillows under the eagle eye of Napoleon’s security team passed before I caught a break. Thanks to an impromptu, mandatory tactical meeting for everyone on the palace’s protective detail, I’d suddenly found myself alone and unwatched.
I knew better than to act on impulse. I knew it was smarter to follow the plan.
Nevertheless, my boredom had bred impatience, causing me to ignore the niggling voice inside my head warning me to bide my time, to wait to act until I had become a background fixture at the palace. Seizing the opportunity, I’d bolted to the forbidden wing with the pint-sized warmonger’s private chambers.
The mission target was Napoleon’s final letter to his wife, Josephine. I’d found easily in the drawer of his desk—exactly where the historians said it would be. Instinctively, I’d busted out my happy dance, taking an ill-advised moment to celebrate my victory. Just as I was about to slide the letter into the artifact pouch—a stretchy, plastic sleeve from my present, impervious to the elements and all known corrosive chemicals—Etienne had appeared out of thin air and caught me, red-handed.
If I hadn’t taken the time to revel in my triumph, maybe he wouldn’t have found me with the letter in hand. Maybe it would’ve already been stashed in my dress. Maybe I could’ve feigned innocence, babbled about being lost in the sprawling estate.
Unfortunately, I loved a good victory shimmy.
Boots scuffling on stone echoed in the passage, pulling me out of my self-chastising. The reasons for royally screwing up this run, while entirely my own fault, were also entirely irrelevant at that moment. I still had the letter and they still hadn’t apprehended me. But both of those facts might prove false if I stayed in the alleyway much longer.
There was one thing I wanted to check before leaving, though. Due to Etienne’s sudden appearance, and my equally sudden need to disappear, I’d been careless when placing Napoleon’s letter into the pouch and was worried it had sustained damage. After glancing again at both exits, I retrieved the letter from its hiding place, withdrew my camera from the wrist holster, turned it on, and examined the single sheet of velum using the light from the camera’s display.
Finding no notable rips, stains, or holes, I breathed a sigh of relief.
One point for me, I thought wryly.
Finally, I re-pinned my hair in a loose bun and smoothed my petticoat and dress back into place. I considered ditching my stockings, but figured bare legs were more offensive than torn undergarments. All the while, I prayed that Etienne and his minions weren’t waiting for me at the other end of the passage.
Taking a deep breath and steeling myself for the worst, I crept out of the alleyway as inconspicuously as possible.
The sunlight seemed impossibly bright after the shadow-filled enclosure, and it took several moments for my eyes to adjust. Once they did, I scanned the piazza for both French soldiers and Gaige. Seeing neither, I sighed with both relief and exasperation.
Truth be told, I was beginning to worry about my wayward partner. Gaige was both immature and irresponsible when it came to his personal life, but he took his job very seriously. He didn’t know as well as I did how harsh the world outside the syndicate could be, but he would never do anything to jeopardize his position. Or my safety, for that matter.
The customs agent will know where he is, I reassured myself. No need to panic just yet.
The crowd was even thicker on this side of the square and the sea of people heading for the large footbridge soon swallowed me whole. I entered the bridge at a leisurely pace to avoid drawing any extra attention. Both sides of the wide walkway were lined with market stalls, selling everything from leather goods to goat feet. Pretending to peruse the merchandise of a silver dealer, I used a serving platter as a mirror to discreetly check behind me for a tail.
“There!” someone shouted in French.
Chaos erupted. The soldiers began shoving people aside. I immediately dropped the silver platter and took off into the crowd at break-neck speed.
Luckily, this wasn’t my first rodeo. Spurred on by the adrenaline coursing through my veins, I was ducking arms and weaving through groups of people before the guards had even made it past the entrance to the bridge. Back in the spirit of the chase, I felt the bizarre mix of exhilaration and apprehension that only such a frenetically charged situation brought about. With every stride of my relatively long legs, the soldiers’ shouts grew fainter and fainter. Soon, the sound of my own blood pumping furiously in my ears eclipsed their voices altogether.
I have this in the bag, I thought, grinning hugely.
Confident that victory was within my reach, I spared a glance over my shoulder to see just how many men were looking to take my head. How many would inevitably fail in their pursuit.
That moment of arrogance cost me.
Head still turned, I ran smack into a brick wall.
Okay, maybe not an actual brick wall. Because why would there have been a brick wall in the middle of a bridge? But the impact was hard enough and the obstruction solid enough that my head actually bounced off of it as though made of rubber.
Ringing filled my ears instantly. The side of my face took the brunt of the collision and my cheekbone felt like it had just made contact with a fist.
That’s going to leave an attractive bruise, I thought absently as dizziness overtook me.
The searing pain suddenly took a backseat to the spinning world that was careening dangerously around me. It felt like someone had pressed hyper speed on a carousel. I clenched my eyes closed as tightly as possible, hoping to halt the ride with sheer will alone. When that didn’t work, I reached out my arm to steady myself on the low barrier along the side of the bridge. Unfortunately, I underestimated my distance from the wall. The ground rushed up to greet me.
This is going to hurt.
Just as I was about to hit the filthy pavement, strong hands caught me around the waist and pulled me to the very thing that had been my downfall. Rough fabric scratched my palms, proving the wall was not a wall at all but a man’s chest.
An impressively firm man’s chest, I thought absently.
Somewhere, in an alternate universe, this scene was playing out in a romance novel; I was the swooning leading lady and the hero had just drawn me tightly against him. With that thought swimming in my head, I rested my forehead on the imposing chest in an effort to still the spinning. As I forced myself to draw in slow, deep pulls of oxygen to my addled brain, one of the man’s hands rubbed my back soothingly.
This is ridiculous, I thought. One moment I was running for my life, the next I was living a passionate parable. No costume change required.
Despite the sheer absurdity of the situation, I was grateful to the chivalrous man. He could’ve let me fall flat on my face. He could’ve shoved me away. And I wouldn’t have blamed him, considering my stench. Instead, he was acting the part of the gallant knight, swooping in to save the distraught princess before she knocked out a few teeth on the pavement.
The strong hand on my spine slid down to my hip, moving into my still-downcast line of vision.
Interesting, I thought, still dazed from the collision. Maybe this tale was more scandalous than swoon-worthy, my hero more roguish than knightly. Before I could process that this was definitively reality and not a harlequin novel, the hand continued around to my stomach while the other held me firmly against him. Then, to my utter horror, the hand shot up the front of my dress, caressing every inch of my torso as its owner copped a cheap thrill. Finally, when two long fingers climbed over the deep neckline and down the inside of my bodice, the shock wore off. I snapped into action.
“Get off of me, you perv!” I shouted in English as I shoved against that rock-hard chest, too incensed to translate the words.
Skilled in self-defense, I attempted to create enough space for my knee to lock in on its target: my attacker’s groin. The creep was apparently accustomed to groping unwilling women, though, because he angled his lower body away at exactly the right moment. My blow landed on his outer thigh, hard enough to inflict pain but not the doubled-over-in agony degree I’d hoped for.
“Is that your idea of foreplay?” the man chuckled in my ear, his English just as perfect and unaccented as my own. “No wonder you never go on second dates.”
My eyes went wide. I tipped my head back to get a good look at the man’s face. Dark brown eyes that held just a hint of amber sparkled with amusement. Though a casual observer might have only seen delight, I knew fierce determination was hidden in the shadows beneath. Way beneath, in this case.
“Gaige!” I exclaimed, both incensed and grateful to find my partner had arrived at last.
The grin he wore stretched from ear to ear as his arm slid around me once more, bringing me close again. When his fingers slipped down the front of my dress for a second time, they found their mark. As Gaige’s groping digits retreated from my bodice, I caught a fleeting glimpse of the artifact pouch between his thumb and forefinger. Then, just like the queen in three-card Monte, it disappeared to parts unknown.
“What have I told you about personal space?” I snapped, shoving him away from me.
“Is that any way for a lady to treat her rescuer?” Gaige taunted. “I’m not asking for much, Stassi, just a little gratitude.”
I opened my mouth to respond that feeling me up was more than enough payment for his eleventh-hour intervention, but never got the chance to utter the words. Without warning, my legs were swept out from underneath me. The action was not performed in an enjoyable, romantic manner. Instead, Gaige tossed me over his shoulder caveman-style.
“Are you freaking kidding me?” I screeched. “Put me down, jackass!”
“Good lord, you stink,” Gaige intoned.
“You always stink,” I replied lamely, pounding my fists against his back.
“You okay?” he asked quietly. “Still dizzy?”
“Oh yeah, I’m just great,” I said, still struggling.
“Still dizzy?” he persisted.
“No, I’m clearheaded and going to kill you,” I snapped, straining to loosen his grip enough to flip myself over and away from my partner. “Put me down!”
“In that case, can you pretend you’re actually trying to get away, Stass? Sell it for the audience.”
Startled, I remembered that we weren’t alone. When I looked up, dozens of shocked expressions met my gaze. Napoleon’s guards had nearly caught up to us, pushing their way towards the outer ring of bystanders who’d stopped to gape at the show.
My heart sank as my annoyance rose. It was so not the time for Gaige’s pranks. I was going to be completely screwed if the moron didn’t let me go in the next moment. Probably even if he did. Still, I kicked my legs as hard as I could in a desperate attempt to flee.
Unfortunately, Gaige’s arms were well-muscled from all the rock climbing he did in our downtime and they were locked around me in a steel embrace.
“Just a piece of friendly advice,” my partner called over his shoulder. “You might want to take a nice big breath real quick. Oh, and definitely keep your mouth closed.”
Alarm bells went off inside my head.
Hold my breath?
Realization dawned. I struggled harder against his hold. Not in the hopes of actually getting free from him, but to indeed give the spectators a show.
“You bastard!” I screamed in mangled French.
“After what you did to my brother, you’re lucky it’s not the gallows!” Gaige roared back in a monstrous tone, taking two steps to the side. In a lower tone meant only for my ears, he added, “You’re welcome, by the way.”
Without further ado, Gaige threw me over the side of the bridge.
Despite my partner’s advice to keep my mouth shut, I couldn’t help the scream that tore loose from my throat.
Every expletive in my vast repertoire flew through my mind in the seconds before I hit the fetid water. The instant the stench wafted into my nostrils, I vowed revenge upon Gaige for this little stunt. Maybe he’d just saved me in the moment, but the impromptu bridge dive probably wouldn’t have been necessary had my partner been actually backing me up.
The landing was as ungraceful as humanly possible—back-first with my legs futilely bicycle-kicking the air. Lips still parted in an involuntary shriek, murky river water seeped into my mouth before I had the wherewithal to clamp it shut.
Pretend it’s one of the hot springs on the island, I chanted over and over again in my head like the refrain of a poorly-written song.
Fortunately for my sanity, a reminder of my mortality quickly derailed that train of thought. Once wet, the heavy wool of my dress felt like newly-poured concrete. I sank like a boulder.
As much as I really didn’t want another molecule of the Arno River inside of me, I reluctantly opened my eyes to gain my bearings. The foul water stung painfully. I blinked several times before straining to keep them open. All I saw was deep, dark, murky brown. I glanced around frantically, searching for lighter water that would indicate the surface. Once I spotted it, I managed to flip my body around. With powerful kicks of my legs and strokes of my arms, I fought against the weight dragging me down and slowly reversed my course.
Contrary to what he would tell you, my partner didn’t have superhero-strength, so I couldn’t have been far from the large stone construct. Fortuitous, since I needed to be underneath it for Gaige’s gamble to pay off.
Through the cloudy water, a shape emerged up ahead, maybe five feet away. The water was dimmer there, too, as though bathed in shadows instead of sunlight. Swimming towards the pool of darkness, I prayed that I was heading closer to the bridge and not away from it. My lungs were already starting to burn. In the very near future, they would be screaming for air.
Seconds that felt like hours to my oxygen-deprived system passed before my outstretched hands made contact with the slimy stone foundation of the bridge. If I could’ve breathed a sigh of relief without filling my lungs with pure nastiness, I would have.
My heart began to pound harder, anticipating what was to come.
As soon as my entire body was pressed against the inside of the stone pillar, an unnerving tingling began. The dichotomous sensation started in my toes, cool at first, then growing colder and colder as it crawled up my calves. The crown of my head was instantly warm, becoming uncomfortably hot as the feeling slid down my chest. Though not unpleasant at first, the sensation intensified as it traveled down my torso and up my legs, until the tingling felt more like being continually jabbed with a cheese dagger. It was as though I was the fabric of time itself and thousands of sewing machines were simultaneously stitching me together with white-hot needles.
Within moments, hot and cold collided in a clash-of-the-titans match-up in my abdomen. The pain was unfathomable, indescribable to those who have not felt it. And it was rocketing through me.
A burst of light exploded in my line of vision like a star detonating. Golden white swirls twisted and churned before my eyes, illuminating the murky water with preternatural beauty. At the epicenter, the light was pure gold. It pulled me in as though it was a powerful magnet and I was nothing more than a fleck of metal.
This was a bad idea, I thought, panic overtaking me as surely as the light. Shoving the thought aside, I focused with every ounce of my mental capacity on my destination: The Atlic Gate in my present time.
My body bowed backwards, my spine arching as long fingers of light shot out from the supernova and grabbed hold of my waist. The pain in my midsection peaked right before the golden light engulfed me.
And then I was gone.