Putting on the Duke’s green and brown had been the proudest moment in Misha Dantrig’s so-far-short life. Not even when he’d made lieutenant a few weeks back had it compared – and he’d been ecstatic to have those stripes sewn onto his cloak and his jerkin. He’d been promoted for doing his job and using his head, so it wasn’t that he wasn’t proud of his progress – and he was only nineteen, young to have an officer’s stripes. But entering the service of Duke Wafret had been entirely his choice, a decision that set himself apart. A defining moment of his life.

Being told to leave the green and brown behind, to dress like a tradesman in plain, unremarkable clothes and keep his hood over his face, to leave his sword on the rack and keep his pistol out of sight – those were things that didn’t sit well with him. It was like the Duke’s livery had suddenly become something to be ashamed of.

But the new Captain had a plan, she said. This was something they needed to do, to catch a certain brand of lawbreaker. Exactly what kind that was, she’d been cagey about – didn’t want to let anything slip, she said. Which was why she hadn’t even revealed until this day that they’d be working in the market together, never mind that they’d be out of uniform.

And Misha couldn’t deny that serious crimes were happening in this city. Being in the market in the evening, he could even guess what crimes they were here to investigate. Someone was preying on merchants, especially those from out of town – and in the last few weeks, those predations had crossed a terrible threshold.

First it had been pockets picked, purses lifted. Then, as people grew more vigilant, a half-dozen merchants had been dragged into alleys and roughed up by a hooded assailant. Whoever it was – if indeed it was the same person each time – nobody could say. Strengthening the watch around the market hadn’t helped; the robber had never struck when guards were nearby, and always seemed to know where they weren’t.

Then the guards had come running in answer to a shout, only to find the latest mark, a jeweller, dead on the cobblestones. Nor was she the only one. The latest, just a week ago, had been the first that wasn’t a merchant – just a farmhand, gone to market to buy some spiced buns for his sweetheart, according to her tearful account.

And then the Duke had named a new captain, with the mandate to find and stop this murderer.

Misha had heard, but always scorned, the saying “set a thief to trap a thief.” Give thieves too much power and some of them would inevitably develop even stickier fingers. But it had some parallels to this latest situation. Maybe the best person to find a slippery criminal really was someone with just enough in common in how they thought. So, to find and stop the one preying on his subjects, the Duke had found a predator of his own.

Misha passed her now, going the other way, and did his best to just nod at her in passing like he might at anyone else, like he’d done countless times tonight as he meandered about the stalls. She gave him a cool nod in kind, and kept going.

Anya Trellig was no great beauty. Her features were coarse, rough, even mannish, and had picked up some additional roughness in brawls over the years – scars hinted at by where the fur didn’t quite grow right. Her eyes seemed a little darker than most, maybe because they were always so intent. She was fairly big as women went – half a head shorter than Misha himself – and her rugged features could easily be seen as handsome; that portion of Misha that fondly remembered his first fumbling steps with other youths found her quite appealing, just as the older, more experienced young men had been back then, though her intense manner would have discouraged him from pursuing anything with her even if they weren’t both Duke’s officers.

He’d learned a little about her in the two weeks since her promotion. She was someone who did what must be done, even if it didn’t always make her popular. Even if…

Motion out of the corner of his eye caught Misha’s attention. Under his cloak, one hand tugged the slip-knotted string that held a paper-wrapped book to his belt, letting it fall to the cobbles. Stopping up short and crouching down to retrieve it, to look over it as though it wasn’t familiar, he watched that shadow from the corner of his eye. It had drawn his gaze first by suddenly detaching from the flow of people; now, resolved by his closer inspection into a patterned cloak with a tear at the hem, it followed the shorter form of a departing woman away from the press of the crowd.

Misha stood, packet in hand, and looked around. A few steps, weaving around passersby, took him within speaking distance of the Captain. What act was it he’d been told to put on? Ah, yes. “Pardon me, ma’am,” he said, putting aside his consideration for her rank and reaching out to touch her shoulder. “I think this snagged on my cloak. Does it belong to you?”

She turned, lifting the book from his hand and turning it over. “Why, yes, it does,” she exclaimed, tucking it under her cloak. “Thank you, sir.” And with a dip of her head, she continued on.

Misha forced himself not to watch her; he just went on his way, and took the first turning he could away from the market. There was a point they’d all been instructed to meet at after passing such a signal; he was still two turnings away from it when Trellig seized his shoulder.

“Where?” she hissed into his shoulder.

Misha glanced back at the market, got his bearings, and nodded toward one alleyway that went in the right direction.

“Let’s hope we’re in time, then. Come on.” And off she went, secrecy forgotten, with Misha dashing after.

He took the lead at the next turning, trying to picture where the mismatched pair might have been going. Then Luck favoured him – he saw a cloak with the right pattern, with a tear in the right place, turning down Oak Lane. Confidence, absent through most of this unaccustomed skulking about, surged now; he pointed eagerly. Trellig followed his gaze, nodded, and hustled forward.

On the way to the intersection, she touched his shoulder. “Leave it to me,” she hissed. “Stay back and cover me. Whatever else happens, if I’m still on my feet, wait. You know the signals.”

Was it really necessary to make this so complicated? Nevertheless, he nodded.

Trellig slowed to a walk, if a brisk one, as she got near Oak Lane and turned down it. Misha paused at the intersection, listening to her footsteps for a few seconds before he followed, and where she was striding down the middle of the lane, he kept to the shadows right past the intersection. He could see the man with the torn cloak, the woman he’d followed, and the Captain, all quite clearly; he took his pistol in hand and made sure it was ready.

Then he lost his line of sight as the man reached for the woman. Trellig called out, but her raised hand said wait. Voices echoed – the woman was accusing the man of following her; the man claimed she’d invited him, and reached for her again – still Trellig’s hand was held up in the wait signal.

And then suddenly she lunged forward, grabbing the man and yanking him back – just in time for steel to spark off the brick where he’d just been.

Misha swore under his breath.

Trellig was no longer telling him to wait, but she was also in the middle of a three-way melee; even as he hurried closer, pistol held in his best firing-range form, he didn’t have a clear shot. Then the Captain and the other woman went tumbling to the cobbles while the man staggered back, and Misha took closer aim.

In an instant, he had the opportunity he was waiting for. Trellig put her shoulders to the stone and shoved the woman to arm’s length above her, and Misha fired three times.

For a moment, there was silence. Then, as shouts rose in the night, Misha hurried closer. Trellig pushed the woman’s body off of her and rolled up to a crouch beside it. Coming close enough to see it properly, Misha swore out loud. Her face had been ruined by one of his bullets, but he could still recognize it.

Lieutenant Natasha Morell hadn’t been a part of this investigation; she’d been off-duty. But she had been in charge of investigating the robberies.

“I knew it had to be a guard,” Trellig sighed, closing the woman’s eyes and rising to her feet. “Nobody else could avoid the patrols so well. But she knew where they all were.”

Turning, she squeezed his shoulder. “Good work, Misha. Good eye.”

There was something about how she said his name… maybe, once the shock had eased and the paperwork had been filed, maybe he should make a few enquiries. After all, she was a very handsome woman. And every woman needed a man about once a month…