"You're not nervous, are you my dear?" Shax set the formal hat aside when they reached their rented room and switched out his lace-trimmed party gloves for more practical ones.
"I'm not, Papa Shax." Leopold waddled on two legs to the occasional table to remove his feathered bowler. "But I'm not sure about this. Will we cause harm here?"
"Harm? Of course not. We won't hurt the old sweetheart and she won't miss the bauble." Shax hung up his dinner jacket and changed out of his heels into soft-soled boots. "She's no children of her own, so who would her jewels go to? Those awful sisters of hers? You met them tonight."
Leopold's spines shivered and he nodded. Good. Shax had a moment of inordinate pride that his son was so observant.
"Excellent. Apparently, Dame Lydia lives on the outskirts of the city. Rather lonely sounding place, actually. So we'll have to follow her float car to find it. Ready?"
Leopold dropped to all fours and scurried over in his new tool vest. Much handier than a backpack. Quite fetching black synth-leather as well. Shax scooped his hedgehog son onto the back of the hoverbike and told him to hang on tight. A tag on Dame Lydia from earlier in the evening showed up as a green blip on his helmet visual. Simplest thing in the world to follow.
He followed at a sane distance and noted the house where the hired car stopped to drop her off as he drove past. Not that this was at all difficult. It was the only house for several kilometers around. After another kilometer, which would mask the whine of the hoverbike, Shax parked the vehicle in a copse of tree-like stalks and they hiked the short distance to the house. Shax hiked. Leopold scurried.
The house was already dark by the time they reached the side yard. Old girl must've already gone to bed. Ah, well. We won't even need to disturb her rest.
Leopold tsked softly as they examined the kitchen window. The blasted thing wasn't even alarmed. Shax frowned as he ease open the pane. Sweet little old lady, living all alone out here? She should have at least invested in a basic alert system. That gave him a moment's pause. What if she didn't live alone…?
No. His intelligence had been thorough. She was estranged from her family, had outlived her husband, and had no children. Alone.
He wriggled in through the lace curtains and dropped silently to the floor, then turned and helped Leopold through. Scents of lemon and lavender dominated the kitchen with undertones of recent baking. Everything shone from meticulous cleaning and there were…cozies. The teapot had a cozy. The mixer had a cozy. A shape that could only be an old-fashioned toaster had a cozy. Even the handle on the cold storage unit had a cozy, all of them quilted in floral prints and lace-trimmed. Everything was so cute, from the kitty-cat handled utensils to the tablecloth with embroidered duckies.
Unexpectedly flummoxed, Shax lost track of what he was doing for a moment. He stumbled into the parlor and found himself face to face with the lady of the house. She let out a little yelp of shock, fumbled for the lights, then stopped, squinting at him.
"William? Is that you? Oh, you gave me quite a start, dear." She bustled about, snagging a shawl from the back of a chair to put over her bunny print nightgown. "You really should have messaged. Are you in trouble? Come in, come in, I'll get you something."
Shax's mouth opened and closed several times before he got out, "Ma'am I think there's been some mis—"
"Now, now. Don't put on airs, William. I know your mother sent you off to that fancy offworld academy, but I don't care what they taught you. I'm still Auntie Lydia."
Leopold looked from her to Shax and shrugged. Shax raised an eyebrow, hesitating only a moment before he followed after.
"Of course, Auntie Lydia."
"Goodness, you sound different, dear. All grown up, I expect, though." Lydia sighed and shuffled through the ritual of making tea in her pink bunny slippers. "It is nice to see you, of course. It's been a terribly long time. Earlier in the day would have been better, but I expect you had delays at the shuttle port, didn't you."
"I'm sorry, I—"
"Quite all right, sweetheart. You know you're always welcome, no matter what your mother says." She patted his shoulder on the way to gather mugs. "Goodness! You're so hot. I hope you're not fevered. That's a lovely jacket, dear, though black is so severe for you."
She bustled about the kitchen, bringing old-fashioned metal cookie tins and the accoutrements for tea. The mug she finally plunked down in front of Shax? Festooned with little cows in tutus. When she bent to pick up a dropped spoon, she spotted Leopold under Shax's chair.
"And who's this, dear?"
"Ah, well…" Shax lifted Leopold into his lap. "This is my…cat. Er…Fluffy."
Leopold peeped in offense but wasn't quite so offended that he spoke up to contradict his new feline status.
"Oh, he's adorable. Lovely shade. One of those new designer breeds is he?" Lydia bustled off again, poking into cabinets, not satisfied until she had opened a tin of sardines and set it in front of Leopold.
Shax handed his teaspoon to Leopold so he could eat the sardines in a civilized fashion and opened the nearest cookie tin when Lydia flapped a hand at him and told him not to wait on her, she'd be right there. Inside the tin lay an army of cute, obviously homemade cookies—some baked too long, some not quite enough, some with irregular edges. Shax chose a chocolate twist of dough with colorful sprinkles and held out the tin for Leopold, who chose a heart-shaped cookie with pink icing. The cookie was too dry and tasted a bit floury, as if the dough hadn't been mixed quite well enough. But cookies with tea should be a bit dry, right?
Lydia sat with them finally, her bent bird-like hands careful as she added cream and too much sugar to her tea. Her skin seemed thin to the point of translucence, and though there were age spots here and there, her nails were still white and clear. Difficult to tell how old she was. Shax concluded the answer was very.
"So have you been to see your mother, William?"
"No, Auntie Lydia."
"No, I expect not." She made a little moue of disapproval before she picked a cookie for herself. "I suspected that you didn't leave home on the best of terms. No, no, I don't blame you, dear. She wasn't always terribly kind to you. But you always have a place here."
"Thank you, Auntie." Shax's stomach was churning tea. It made no sense at all. He'd stolen from little old ladies before and even charmed them in the process without a niggle of guilt. But this? Hell's pits, I can't do this. I just can't. "I, ah, can't stay too long."
"Of course, dear." She reached across the table to pat his hand. "I'm sure you have a hundred things you need to get done while you're home. I'm simply pleased that you took the time to stop by. Before you go—"
She was up again, bustling off in a soft rustle of flannel. When she returned, she clutched a beautiful wooden box in both hands. Pastoral scenes of wildflower fields and sheep decorated the top and sides. She set the box on the table and opened the lid toward Shax.
"I'd like you to have these, William."
For a long moment, for the first time in quite some time, Shax was speechless. Winking at him in the dim light of the kitchen were the same jewels he had come to burgle, diamonds, rubies and an emerald the size of his thumbnail. Which would have been fine, before the tea, the cookies, the sardines, the kind words—but now?
"Auntie Lydia, I… I can't take these."
"Of course you can, dear. Who would I give them to? My sisters?" She leaned in to kiss the top of his head. "I'd rather know they went to you than having people squabble over them after I pass."
"But you… Auntie, you might need them. If you get sick. If something happens to the house. Please keep them for now."
"Such a good boy." She reached in and plucked the emerald ring and a diamond pendant from the haphazard pile of pretties. "Just these tonight, then. I won't hear another refusal."
"Yes, Auntie Lydia." Shax swallowed hard. The cookie must have stuck in his throat. "Thank you."
She sat with them a bit longer, making small talk and admiring Leopold. When they said their goodbyes, Shax leaned in to kiss the offered cheek. How could he not? Leopold left him to his thoughts all the way back to the rented room.
"Will you, Papa Shax? Decide to keep the pretties? It doesn't seem right."
"I think…" Shax sighed and shook his head. "That was a monumentally strange evening. I have to think about it."
Two days later, Dame Lydia received a visit from several large men in a security company van.
"We're here to install the system, ma'am," the one with the clip pad said.
"Oh, dear. I haven't ordered anything." Lydia clutched the neck of her housecoat. "What sort of system?"
"Nothing to worry about, ma'am. It's all paid for. Full alert system on your windows and doors. Outside camera bots. Intruder resistant glass." He scratched his head, checking his pad. "Buyer said to tell you it's from William."