“Good evening, Nightingale.”
Ria stopped whistling and smiled in greeting at the man on the balcony, the only other person still awake and out of bed at that ungodly hour. “Why do you always call me that?”
“You are the only pretty bird singing at night. Experts on the matter pose they sing to attract mates.”
Ria laughed, and swiped his blond hair from his face to better see the man above. Black hair with a dusting of gray, the look and feel of a professor about him, especially with those gold spectacles on his nose. “I whistle because I like to whistle.”
“That’s a pity,” the man said with a smile, “because it’s certainly effective at drawing interest. You must have a mate then, Nightingale.”
Shaking his head, Ria said, “No longer. He flew away to chase after prettier birds than I.”
“Must have been a robin, they’re deucedly stupid. At least I assume they must be, since those are what my cats always bring me.”
Ria burst out laughing again, belatedly muffling it as he realized he was being a trifle too loud for the late hour. “So what are you then?” he asked, flirting back because it was nice to be wanted and flirted with, even if the man was probably only trying to alleviate boredom in the dead of night. Anything was better than trudging back to his little room to sleep the day away before his late shift as a guard at the gate came ’round again.
The man cocked his head, pretending to give the matter serious thought. “A magpie,” he said. “Most consider me bad luck, and I like to steal pretty things to keep for myself.”
“Do you have a name, Magpie?” Ria asked.
Smile slipping away, the man hesitated, then finally said, “Liam Torrence.”
Ria’s eyes widened in surprise. “Not the one called a witch and banished from court?”
“The very same, which is another good reason to call me Magpie. I suppose I should let you be on your way, Nightingale.”
The pain Liam tried to hide was familiar—too familiar. Ria remembered it when Bryn had thrown him away for a beautiful dancer. “I’ve nowhere special to be,” Ria called out as Liam turned away. “Anyway, you called me pretty, and then said magpies collect pretty things. Am I not pretty enough to collect?” He waited, heart thudding in his chest.
Liam slowly turned around, and leaned on the balcony railing, and Ria thought he knew why everyone believed him to be a witch—he just didn’t believe that was a bad thing, not in Liam’s case. He shivered, not breathing properly until Liam gave him a slow, hot, wicked smile. “I did not say we collect pretty things. I said we steal pretty things and keep them for ourselves.”
“So am I not pretty enough to steal then?”
Smirking, Liam said, “The gate’s unlocked, Nightingale. Slip inside if you want to see just how pretty I find you. But I might just decide to steal you, so have a care.” He vanished into his home, and Ria licked his lips.
He thought about it for a moment, but only for form’s sake. Abandoning the street, he slipped through the gate that led to Liam’s home, heading eagerly for the shadowy figure that waited for him on the porch at the end of the walkway.