Xavier felt like he and Gustave were standing on the palette of a giant painter. All around them, dancers were swirling and swaying, their bright garments blending together like colors being mixed by an unseen artist. A raucous din of laughter and music reverberated through the greatroom, rising all the way to the vaulted ceiling, where banners adorned with the king’s tree were elegantly draped.
They were, of course, celebrating the coronation of young Dennmere, the new king of Calldor. As a show of support for the fledgling ruler, parties were being hosted across the land, but perhaps none were as decadently opulent as the one thrown by Bal Orr.
“Drinks, my Lords?”
Even amidst the tumult, Xavier was startled by the closeness of the voice. He turned to see a young man standing at his elbow with a tray of wine glasses. The man was wearing little more than a loincloth, a mask, and a smile. Every inch of his exposed skin had been meticulously brushed with paint to give it the appearance of stone.
All of Bal Orr’s servants, both men and women, were costumed as such. When they weren’t attending to guests, the masked and scandalously-clad live statues struck fanciful poses around the greatroom. Xavier had been nearly scared to death by one of them standing particularly still in the entrance hall.
Xavier took a glass and watched a swarm of tiny bubbles swirl and froth within the wine. Gustave selected a glass as well, and the statue-man moved on.
“How is Tempe?” Gustave asked after taking a sip.
Xavier felt a familiar sensation halfway between warmth and vertigo well up inside him, as was usual whenever Tempe was mentioned. His young and ambitious second, Tempe was obsessed with the business of running Xavier’s estate. In fact, Xavier was fairly certain that his estate would still be wallowing in a condition near failure, had it not been for Tempe.
“You know,” Xavier said, “Walden should promote Tempe to a first. She has what it takes to be the lady of her own estate.”
“And does she have what it takes to be your lady?” Gustave asked delicately.
Xavier felt himself flush and took a long draft of sparkling wine before answering, “I’m not sure that type of talk is professional, Lord Gustave.”
Gustave guffawed and probably would have said more, but at that moment, Camel appeared beside them, holding a plate loaded with hors d’oeuvres.
Camel grinned and rubbed the side of his neck. “Gentlemen,” he said by way of greeting, inclining his head so that his shaggy hair fell in curtains around his face. “Have you guys tried these crackers?”
Xavier and Gustave shared an amused glance. Gustave rolled his eyes.
“I’m still not convinced we’re doing the right thing here,” said Xavier, eyeing the guards watching over the party with their somber faces and shiny swords.
“Me either,” Gustave responded, “but Bal’s never going to notice one book missing out of the thousands in his library. It would be different if we were taking something of value to him.”
Camel bit into a piece of expensive-looking fish and chewed thoughtfully before nodding to himself and taking another bite.
“Camel, will you put that down?” Gustave hissed. “We’re trying to make a plan here!”
Camel cleared his throat self-consciously and handed his plate off to a passing live statue.
The truth was, Xavier, Gustave, and Camel had not come to celebrate the coronation. They were using the party as cover to take, without permission, a tome from their host’s famous library. It was ironic that two months ago, they had been chasing after a gang of thieves in Drehana. Tonight, they were the thieves.
“Okay,” Gustave said. “We don’t want people seeing the three of us gallivanting off together through the mansion. We’ll each take a different route, meet in the library, find our book, and rejoin the party like nothing happened.”
“I’ll use the western passages,” Xavier said, turning to take his leave. “See you two in the library.”
The book they were after was a family history, a genealogy that had been all but lost to time. They were fairly certain the only remaining copy was housed in Bal’s library, or else they wouldn’t be here tonight. They were being paid a lot of money by a man who was trying to legitimize his relationship to the new king. Those who could prove they shared blood with the king or queen could join the nobility, the elite upper class of Calldor. When old King Wallengast had named a nephew, rather than a son or daughter, as his heir, the door to the noble class had been opened to a brand-new bloodline. Higher even than the lords and ladies of the land, the nobles were afforded many privileges that could not be bought with money, and many hopefuls were scrambling to prove they belonged.
In the halls outside the greatroom, the sounds of gaiety gradually faded, to be replaced by an eerie near-silence. The weight of the dagger sheathed in his sleeve was oddly comforting to Xavier. Bal was a well-known collector of all things valuable and rare, and his mansion was filled with more art than most museums. As Xavier wandered circuitously toward the library, he pretended to admire busts and tapestries and suits of armor, so as not to arouse the suspicions of those who saw him outside the greatroom.
Hearing footsteps coming around the corner, Xavier turned to a large portrait of a frowning family. The footsteps rounded the corner and stopped.
“Lord Xavier—I’m so glad you were able to attend.” The voice was soft as velvet. The words were spoken slowly and deliberately, as if they were being measured.
Xavier felt a sinking feeling in his stomach. There was no mistaking that voice. Slowly, Xavier turned around, already knowing who he would see behind him.
Lord Bal Orr stood a few paces off, dark hair swept back, eyes alive and sparkling, mouth upturned in the half-smirk that he was somehow able to always pass off as the most genuine smile in the Two Kingdoms.
Xavier swallowed. “Lord Bal. Thank you for the invitation.”
Bal’s smile deepened as he took a step toward Xavier. His cape—of course Bal was wearing a cape—whispered behind him.
“Walden has been telling me about the progress you’ve made at your estate.”
Xavier was taken aback. “He has?”
“Of course.” Again, that smile. “Castle falling apart, lands in disarray, fields left unharvested… To pull yourself back from something like that is nothing short of extraordinary.”
Xavier was flattered. He couldn’t remember the last time Bal had even said more than a sentence to him.
“Thank you, Lord Bal.”
“I must say, I’m impressed,” Bal said, drawing even nearer and placing a hand on Xavier’s shoulder. “I would very much like to hear the story from your own mouth. Perhaps we could compare business practices.”
Xavier hesitated, thinking of Gustave and Camel and the library.
Bal lowered his voice conspiratorially as he said, “I’ve just tapped a barrel of whiskey that you must taste to believe—come, walk with me.”
Xavier had no choice but to be led off in the direction opposite the library. As he and Bal walked, the two men made small talk about Dennmere, about the artwork in the halls, about the weather. Presently, they came upon one of the statue-women, moving gracefully in the opposite direction. As she passed Xavier in the hall, the eyes behind her mask flitted up to meet his for the barest fraction of a second, and a sudden chill shot through Xavier. He recoiled from the woman involuntarily.
Bal turned, apparently oblivious, and watched admiringly as the woman receded.
“No doubt on her way to rendezvous with one of my guests,” Bal said, raising his eyebrows at Xavier. “Why else would she be in this part of the mansion?”
After following Bal through a labyrinth of halls, Xavier found himself seated in a little barroom tucked into a remote corner of the manor. Bal poured two fingers for Xavier before sitting down beside him, and Xavier began to relax. A trace of pipe smoke clung to the room like a half-remembered dream, mingling with the sharp scent of the whiskey.
Xavier opened his mouth to thank Bal for the drink, but his eye was caught by a display above the bar, and instead he asked, “Bal, what are those?”
“Ah,” Bal said, and raised his glass to take a theatrical sip.
Carved entirely of gold, proudly displayed above the shelves of bottles and decanters, were three tiny sand squirrels standing on hind legs. The statues were identical to the one Xavier had found in Drehana!
“Those, my friend, are three of the twenty-two lost pieces of the treasure of Ahsakard. They are among the most valuable and sought-after relics in all the Two Kingdoms. Each one of those little squirrels,” Bal gestured at the walls, “could easily buy this property.”
Xavier’s jaw dropped.
“Curious how something so small can hold so much value,” Bal murmured.
Xavier opened and closed his mouth several times before stammering, “I have one of those.”
Bal set his glass down and regarded Xavier with intensity. “You have one,” he repeated slowly.
“Yes,” Xavier replied. “I took it from some art thieves in Drehana. I had no idea what it was.”
Bal looked at Xavier for a long time with an unreadable expression, and then smiled. “There is indeed more to you than meets the eye, Lord Xavier. Keep a close watch on that little treasure of yours. I’m sure whoever you took it from will be very motivated to get it back.”
Xavier was considering these words when three of Bal’s guards rushed into the room. Xavier knew right away that something was wrong.
“My lord,” one of guards exclaimed, “there’s been a murder! One of the guests has been found dead!”
Bal was on his feet in an instant. “What!? Who?”
“We’re not sure, my lord. A man. We found him in one of the upper rooms!”
Bal looked from the guards to Xavier.
“See to your people, Xavier. Get them out safely.”
And with that, Bal swept from the room, flanked by his men. He issued orders in a low voice while his cloak sighed and fluttered softly in his wake.
Xavier was surrounded by silence once again. He touched the hilt of the dagger in his sleeve, as if seeking reassurance. A murder! He needed to get to the library. Xavier stood and slowly looked about the room, his eyes lingering for a moment on the treasure of Ahsakard. Then, taking a deep breath, Xavier strode quickly into the hall, leaving the room empty, save for the two glasses of whiskey abandoned at the bar.
Screams filled the corridors as news of the murder spread. Guards rushed through the mansion, some with weapons drawn. Hysterical guests ran for the exits.
At last, Xavier burst into the library. “Camel! Gustave! Are you in here?” he hissed.
“Xav!” Gustave materialized from behind a bookshelf. “What’s going on out there? Where have you been?”
“We need to get out of here! Someone’s been killed, and the guards are locking the mansion down!”
Camel stepped out from behind the shelf, an ancient tome in his arms.
“We’ve got the book!” Camel exclaimed. “The family tree is in here!”
“Alright gentlemen,” Gustave said, clapping Camel on the back, “time to move. Shall we use the bolt hole?”
Xavier and Camel nodded. The bolt hole was a second-story window the men had decided to use if an emergency exit was needed. Since the three of them were armed and carrying stolen property, it would probably be best to avoid Bal’s guards, who would almost certainly be searching all the guests leaving by the conventional exits. The second-story window opened directly onto the rounded roof of the ice house, and it would be a simple matter to scramble down the little building’s sloped sides to reach the ground.
Gustave grinned and cracked his knuckles. These were, after all, the moments they lived for—moments of adventure. Gustave put his ear to the library door, cracked it open carefully, and peered outside. He then extended a closed fist toward the floor and flung the door wide. Xavier darted into the hall.
The three men stole through the mansion, quickly falling into a rhythm more familiar than a favorite song. A lifetime of friendship as close as brotherhood enabled them to move and think together. They ran half-crouched through darkened and deserted passages, darting from shadow to shadow, communicating silently with glances and hand signals.
In no time at all, Xavier was slipping into the room that contained their bolt hole, Camel and Gustave close behind him. Upon entering the room, the three men froze—because someone was already there.
Every hair at the base of Xavier’s neck stood on end. His dagger was in his hand before he even realized he had drawn it.
Standing at the open window, silhouetted against the night sky and framed by curtains blowing in a frigid breeze, was a woman in a mask. The paint covering her body made her look as though she had been carved from a block of living stone. Xavier immediately recognized her as the woman he had passed in the hall earlier. Sinuous muscles twisted and rippled as she whirled to face the newcomers. Some of the paint on her skin was marred, as though she had been in a struggle, and there was a single, ominous drop of blood on her chest. As surely as he had known anything, Xavier knew that this was the murderer.
No one said a word. The only movement in the little room came from the curtains, dancing as they courted the wind. The woman at the window was relaxed, alert, cat-like. Xavier repressed a shudder. He was beginning to realize that she was no simple killer—this woman had been trained to kill, hired to kill. She was an assassin. She had yet to produce a weapon, and seemed utterly unconcerned that she faced three armed opponents.
The woman’s gaze seemed to bore into their very souls. Xavier forced himself to meet her eyes, both alive and dead, both sensuous and repulsive. And still, no one moved.
Outside, a raven flew across the open window, prruk-prruk-prruking as it winged through the night sky. Xavier could have sworn he saw the corner of the assassin’s mouth twitch upward, just for half a second, and then she was gone.
Xavier, Gustave, and Camel rushed to the window in time to see the woman bounding lithely from the ice house to the ground. As she ran from the mansion’s lights, the shadows seemed to reach for her, as if eager to greet one of their own. The masked face of the assassin turned back to look up at them, just once, and then she was lost to the night.
“Camel?” Gustave ventured. “You okay?”
Lord Bal’s mansion dwindled in the rear window of their carriage. As they returned to their inn, the three friends had been sitting in silence, each man with his own thoughts. Gustave had been twirling his pipe between his fingers, Xavier staring out the window. Camel was looking down at the book he held in his hands, an unhappy expression on his face.
“We just squared off against an assassin,” Camel began, still looking down. “Did you see her laugh at us before jumping out the window? I don’t know about you, but I get the feeling that she could have gone through us like we were paper if she’d wanted to.
“And in Drehana,” Camel continued, “Xav fell off a cliff. We’ve only done two jobs, and we’re already becoming well-acquainted with death’s gaping maw. One of these days, the maw is gonna come snapping closed, and we’ll have to stand with our backs against the wall and fight for our lives. Mercenaries lead a violent life, and if we’re serious about forming the Wolverines, there will be bloodshed—possibly ours.” Camel looked up at last.
After a long silence, Xavier said, “We can’t stop the sky from falling, but when it does, we can bear its weight on our shoulders and on our shields. If we trust our gear and we trust each other, there’s nothing in the Two Kingdoms that will be able to knock us down.”
Xavier’s words carried more certainty than his thoughts. He felt as though a tide was turning somewhere, that a bend in the trail lay just ahead of him. He kept thinking about the way the assassin had run, fading step by step into the shadows. He couldn’t shake the feeling that he too was racing toward darkness, and that some part of himself was also fading, soon to be lost, like the killer to the night.
Shaking his head, Xavier looked out the window at the winding road, trying in vain to banish such things from his mind.
Next chapter: Fallen Sky
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