At Sundown in Sunlowe
The message went out over all of Earlemont, posted on every corner, affixed with the royal seal. Those who could read the sign explained it to others, who in turn repeated it to friends and family. Soon it was on everyone's lips.
To All Citizens of Greatre Esturia, and residents of Earlemont
His Majesty, King Gracellus Ysarde, seeks the aid of every citizen
Though many will try, only one will succeed
The one who succeeds will be given land and title
Inquire at the castle gates.
Though not officially declared as such, it became a holiday as the curious and eager citizens of the city filed out of their houses, closing shops, bringing along their children. It was rare that the people were invited to the castle en masse, and the promise of land and title was enough incentive to rouse the entire city.
The made a long train through the city streets, marching up the road to the castle gates, both curious and compelled.
It was late morning, and the breeze drifted in through the shutters, high above the crash of voices milling about at the castle gates below. The breeze smelled of sunlowe and freshened the room, and Aeon had reached an angle in the sky that brought a bright shaft of sunlight into the room, and into the face of a woman who lay bare and naked, twisted up in the bed's sheets.
She instantly woke up with a start, and then let out a breath of relief, whatever nightmare had haunted her banished with the waking. What had it been about? She could not remember anything except the sensation of being watched by the violet eyes of some dark, enormous beast.
What time was it? The sun appeared high in the sky, though the breeze was pleasant, and it felt cool on her scalp.
Wait, on her scalp?
Her hand reached up to touch her head and she let out a scream, racing over to the mirror that stood in her room. She stood there for a very long time, hands and eyes in shock, disbelieving. There was no hair on her head. The vanity in front of her was covered with hair. Red hair.
The straight razor lay amidst the mess, presented proudly atop the pile of hair. She had even shaved her eyebrows. Looking at herself in the mirror she did not even recognize who she was anymore. She looked intense, crazed...Gods, what had she done? Why had she done it? Why could she not even remember doing it?
Pacing about the room, trying to make sense and failing, her thoughts maddened her. One thought kept occurring to her over and over.
You are losing your mind, Selka.
"No," she said out loud, and shook her head as if trying to shake the thoughts out of her head.
Look what you did. Why did you do that? Why can you not remember it?
"Oh Gods," she breathed, and finally noticed the position of the sun in the sky. She was supposed to have left already. The King was making the announcement today that the Dragon Corps was no more, abandoned, and dissolved. The papers he had promised were already on her desk, next to the pile of hair. Had Morri delivered them? Had he seen her in her sleep, like this?
Shame, embarrassment, these words did not do service to the emotion she now felt. She felt violated, and to make it worse, that it was she had violated herself. She simply could not walk out there and face them, be seen by everyone at court, with her hair like this. How they would whisper about her! All of her attempts to change their mind about her, would be gone forever. Erased in a single night of madness, by her own hand.
Gods, and how they would laugh at her! Even Gracellus would hide his head in shame. He would question all of the trust he had put in her. He might very well decide that he had been too hasty in giving her so much authority over a new Dragon Corps.
Long minutes were spent thus. She felt trapped, with no exits. On the battlefield, she would have withdrawn. But she could not withdraw. She had orders to go forward. One way or another, she had to leave this room. How she chose to do it was up to her.
She forced herself to look at herself in the mirror, and then began to get dressed in her field armor, now fresh and clean. She started first with her underclothes and padding, then began to arrange the layers, fitting each one with careful practice. The breastplate really did need to be affixed in the back with the help of an assistant to sit properly, but she would be damned if she was going to ask anyone to help her with it right now. Trying to adjust the breastplate behind her back, though she at least had the mirror for guidance, reminded her of the time that Yorn had been with her in the cabin, and had helped her cinch her armor.
He fingers fumbled and dropped to her sides, and she saw her stricken face in the mirror, face and neck flushing red with the dire expectation of being mortified. Gods, Yorn! How could she possibly show her face to him looking like this? She would see the look in his eyes, he would realize she had gone crazy, and that would be it.
This was a disaster. How could she have done it? Why had she done it?
It was a trick of the light. Her armored dress was laid over a chair, but in the mirror, just for a second, from the corner of her eye, it was Leska standing there, looking at her. Though they had had their differences, both had loved each other, and when she glanced back and her sister was not there, she felt frustration grip her even tighter, and everything that had happened to her was all at once too much for her. Kulvas, Yorn, the Viceroy who hated her, the King's trust in her, and this, her damned hair, gone.
The memory of Leska never really went away, and even while she slumped to the floor, still trying to figure out what she was going to do next, she remembered a time with Leska, back at the manor, when they had been just little girls. Selka had been nine, and was already undergoing training to become a dragon knight, but she was home for a holiday.
Leska was getting her hair cut. The nurse had cut her hair before, and knew just how she liked it. But for some particular reason, on this day, perhaps the nurse was distracted, or perhaps it was some kind of punishment, but she cut her hair much too short, and when Leska looked into the mirror, she had sobbed, and shrieked, and fled to her room, and would not see anyone.
Selka had considered it her job to cheer up her big sister, so she found her room, and pounded on the door as loud as she could, and shouted in parade ground fashion, "Out of your bed, soldier!"
"Go 'way," Leska had snapped.
There were no locks on their doors, so Selka just opened the door and walked inside.
"I said: Go away!" Leska screamed, and started crying again, burying her face in the pillow. "Go away, Selka!"
Selka had giggled, and Leska had looked up at her with a blotchy face and her ridiculous hair and such fury in her eyes that Selka had quickly moved from giggling, to laughing.
"It's not funny!" Leska screamed, rising to throw Selka out of her room.
"Yes it is!" Selka said, face frozen in a smile as her sister towed her towards the door. "You are sad about hair."
"It grows back, silly!"
"That will take forever!"
"No it won't! Besides, can't you just wear a wig? You just got a new wig for your anniversary."
Leska had sniffled, pausing at the door. "I...I guess I could."
"It probably wouldn't fit right if your hair was too long."
Leska smiled, and gave her a hug, and remembering it she reached out and wrapped her arms around herself, sitting there on the floor, pretending it was her sister's arms that held her now, and not her own.
But there was nobody coming to pick her up off the floor.
She snarled, and angrily smashed the wet tears from her eyes, letting out a growl, feeling angry at herself. She forced herself to look at herself in the mirror, even with her ridiculous missing eyebrows, and kept staring, until it stopped hurting.
"It's just hair, dammit," she said to herself in the mirror. "It grows back. Whatever happened, it's over. Do what you must or die trying, Selka, it's time to go to work." Seeing and hearing herself say those words, even if they were coming from her all-too-smooth head, helped, and she felt the burning spark of defiance return to her breast, where she had always carried it.
She finished buckling her armor, and belted on her sword. She picked up her dragon helmet, thinking at first to slide the whole thing over her head, but then thought better of it, tucking it under her arm.
They can only hurt me, she reminded herself, If I let them. I will walk out proudly, I will dare them to laugh at me. I did not work my whole life for this, to be undone by a few snips of a blade.
Selka Euphrane was no weakling, no maiden girlishly outdone, she was a survivor, and a dragon rider. When she left, she slammed the door with finality behind her, and walked calmly to the royal gardens, enduring the stares, returning them until the other party became uncomfortable. She heard whispers behind her back, but she did not care. She did not run into anyone of high consequence on the way, but knew that it would become a favorite topic of gossip in her absence.
But so be it, and damn them all to hell. She had much more important things to do.
The dragon emerged from the grotto, blinking in the sunlight, and walked over to her slow and calmly. She regarded him without fear, reaching out a hand to stroke his scales.
"Come here, big guy," she said, and his head lowered. She unbuckled the bit and bridle, wincing as the cruel spurs of the bit pulled some tissue from from his mouth along with it, and looking at the bloody thing she hurled it with disgust, using two hands to do it, into one of the pools.
The dragon leaned forward, bumping her with his nose, and she smiled, arms wrapping around to hug his face. "I think we've had about enough of that, haven't we, boy?"
It was a nice feeling, and while she held him so closely it was like she could almost feel him holding her back, even though the dragon was not actually grabbing her at all.
She broke free, stroking his nose. "Your last rider gave you a terrible name. I have lost my Kulvas. Do you remember him?"
She almost fell over in shock when she felt, literally felt, an overwhelming sense of sadness and longing, and tried to figure out where it was coming from. Until...
"Oh Gods," she breathed, and reached out her hand again to touch his scales, and this time felt only a sense of comfort, reassurance. It was the strangest thing, but it reminded her of a few occasions with Kulvas, where it had almost seemed like they were one creature, instead of two...
Her head snapped up, and she looked to the sky, and began climbing up the back of the dragon, settling herself into the saddle. She finally understood, after all this time. Yorn was not crazy after all. He had been right. The bond between rider and dragon did not require a bond between child and egg.
It just needed the right attitude.
She leaned forward, stroking his neck, no longer concerned about not having any reins to guide him with. The dragons had never needed the reins, it was just something that they had brought with them from riding horses. "Kulvas," she explained, "Was an ancient hero. We have only legends of him. But it was said he united humanity in the days when we were squabbling tribes, and in time he formed the first empire. When he passed, the empire went to his son, Korovas."
She only thought about the sky, and the dragon was aloft. She snapped on her helmet, buckling it into place, the sensation of it against her bare skull a bit weird, but she'd adapt. "That is your name now," she said to him, as the wind took the words away. "Korovas. Now fly, Korovas! Fly to Mir's Edge!"
When she and the dragon screamed together, the sound blended, and like their hearts, their voices were like one creature.
When Mourne entered the city, he wondered if it had fallen victim to the plague. The streets were eerie and empty, with the exception of a few stray animals that wandered curiously empty streets, grazing on some of the cooked or raw leavings of the human beings that had left them behind. Doors were closed, businesses shuttered, and the shop awnings were lowered.
"What in the hells..." he murmured, as he walked up to a fresh sign posted upon one of the intersection markers. Reading it, he swore under his breath.
The box would only allow one person to enter the proper combination. If it failed, that person could never again enter the combination, the box would be forever locked to them.
But if you were methodical, and kept track of the tried combinations, you could begin crossing them off. All you needed was enough people to try the various combinations.
That said there were still not enough people in all of Earlemont to try every combination, far from it, but there may have been enough to significantly lower the odds. And luck was never something he could rule out of any equation. Moreover, he had no doubt that if every available person in Earlemont was exhausted, they would reach further into the pool of Esturian citizenry, until soon there were no combinations left but the correct one.
How long had this been going on? How many combinations had they tried already? How much time did he and Gharel really have, and with a constant flood of people going in and out of the castle, how would they ever steal the box in the first place?
"Thissss city," came a voice from the shadows nearby, a slouched bundle of rags. "Issss ripe for the taking."
"We just got here, and you are already thinking about looting."
"Theft," countered Gharel.
"Same difference. That said...hmmm..."
"Yesss?" The mereling shuffled his feet, his three eyes darting about, mouth salivating. Probably at the thought of so many empty, unguarded houses.
They were already about to break one law, and time was not on their side. So be it. "On second thought, let us consider our situation. We are going to need to act quickly, and we are going to need money to do it. Money that is not sourced. Money that we can spend and quickly make disappear."
"What you propossssse?"
"Hit the unattended houses. We don't want anything we have to sell. We need currency, drema, and plenty of it. We will not have this opportunity again, this announcement must have just happened, or else some of the failures to unlock the box would be coming back, headed home. But right now these streets are empty, they have not yet returned."
The mereling quivered, as if ready to dart off of his feet, and his tail spasmed. "You are sssssserioussss? Gharel can go?"
"We will not have an opportunity like this one again, Gharel. You will not either. Perhaps never again in either of our lifetimes. We will be taking many risks already, and this one will set us up for greater success."
"Wait. You talk of thisss as if it issss your money? Yet I am the one who iss sssstealing it?"
"Gharel, this kind of theft is beneath the skills of a master thief. A child could just walk right into the houses right now, and take whatever they want. You are not taking any risk here. I do not know exactly when those who are up at the castle right now will be returning, however. They will probably linger a bit, but we cannot rely on that. Wait! Before you go, a few conditions."
"What?" snapped Gharel, unable to hold still at this point, darting back and forth to the end of the alley, peering around each corner.
"Only drema, nothing else. You only steal from those who can afford it. Avoid the poor houses, it's a waste of time, anyway. And try to leave some drema behind. People are more likely to notice a theft if all of their money is gone, rather than some."
"Think about it, Gharel. You could go out there and hit, what? Twenty? Maybe fifty houses? Some of them are merchants, with strongboxes full of money. Are they going to notice that half of that strongbox is now empty? Perhaps, but not right away. It will take some time, and when they discover it, they will be uncertain as to when the theft occurred. However, if they notice that it's empty, they will immediately assume theft. But what if it is half empty? Who robs a house and steals only half of the money? No thief, that is certain. That is what they will tell themselves. Thieves do not leave half of the treasure behind."
"Yessss, they do not."
"But this thief will. The merchant with half of his money will suspect one of his employees, perhaps, but not a thief. That is what we want."
"Clever, human. Sssoo many houses, sssome from each, and then?"
"Then you lay low until dark, and meet me in the Sunlowe district. There is a market there, and off of that market street a smaller cobbled road, leading towards the cliffside. Those houses are older, and many are in disrepair, but one of those houses is perfect for our needs. The door needs a fresh coat of paint, but it is the only house you'll see with a green door. I will leave a window open for you on the upper level."
"Who livessss there?"
"I do. Or did, a very long time ago. And its title is paid up. I renew it every few decades."
"I am...grrrateful for thisss, Mourrrrne."
"Bring back every coin, hold nothing back, and I will reward you with some of it. The rest we will need to spend to acquire the true prize."
"Sssspending my money..."
"We've been over this, Gharel. If you have a problem with it, I will do it myself. But have you not heard the expression that to make money, one must spend money?"
"Yesssss, I have heard thisss. Very well, thissss isssss your job. We do it your way. I go now?"
"Yes, go. I will see you at nightfall. Oh, and do not think—"
"Yessss?" Gharel interrupted with a hiss, clearly driven beyond madness by the delays.
"—do not think that you can take the money and run. If you run, if you betray us, double-cross us, or even think about living up to your foul reputation, I will know, Gharel. I will know, I will find you, and I will make you suffer for it."
"....Gharel is hurt. You do not trusssst Gharel."
"Gharel, you are a thief."
His laugh was genuine. "Right. Prove me wrong, then. Meet me at sundown with the drema, and I may change my assessment of you."
With a hiss, Gharel was off, and Mourne tried to watch him for as long as he could. As if sensing his attention, however, the little mereling rounded a corner, and after that Mourne saw no more movement, no matter how much he tried.
He began his journey to the Sunlowe district, walking through an empty city filled with nothing now but old memories, and as often happened unbidden to him, he thought about Sheldrache.
She was surely in the city by now. He would have to be very careful, because she knew him better than anyone, and if she really wanted to do so, she could pull every detail of his plan from his lips, and he would beg her to do it.
He pulled up his hood, casting it over his face, and adopted a stagger and slouch. His hands slid up somewhat into the sleeves of his shirt, making it appear to big for him, and on the way he found a fresh pile of horse dung, and smeared a bit of it on his clothes and face. Now even if anyone wanted to take a look at him, the smell would quickly drive them away.
He wondered how many spiders he would have to clean out of his house, wondered if the windows were still intact. Wondered about Iorneste, and how he was doing.
Wondered how a man who was one-hundred and seventy-six years old, and a mereling thief of dubious reputation were going to steal a treasure from under the nose of a King.
His house was in good repair, even though it had been over thirty years since he had last visited it. Day was waning, but he still had enough light to see by once the door was unlocked. Though hiding out in a house that appeared abandoned was ideal, certain things were required. He grabbed the broom and began sweeping dust out into the street, and striking down cobwebs. He left the windows browned and dusty to foil inquisitive eyes, but made sure the interior was clean and livable. Once the dust had been brushed out into the street, he moved upstairs, repeating the process.
Once he had finished tidying up, he went into a small room upstairs and paused, seeing an old drawing of his face upon the wall, a record of another one of his lives, at the University. He picked up a small leather bag with a handle from the table, and a long cylindrical device and walked out of the room, to the end of the hall, where he wrenched and rattled the door open to the balcony. This was the reason he had bought the house all those years ago. From the balcony, he was on the eastern side of the bluff upon which Earlemont was built. Looking out into the world, or the sky, it was like being alone in the world. Though he was not fond of heights, he could appreciate a good view.
It did, however, also afford one an excellent view of the castle, if one but turned away from facing the world and turned around and looked up at the towering structure serviced by a long road to the city below. That road was currently crammed with the populace of Earlemont, and he realized that the Castle district, in the northeast, likely still had quite a few of them jammed inside.
He wondered how they were faring. How long had they been standing still without food or water? How fast were they moving?
He set down the bag, and took the cylinder with both hands, bending and tightening an adjustable bolt that he had greased very well many years ago, so it still moved like new. He then unfolded the legs into a tripod, resting the cylinder upon it, and adjusting the angle.
The telescope had been one of the things he had helped design at the University, and this one had been his personal model that he had continued to tinker with, long after the research on its initial design had been added to the archives. This telescope had adjustable lenses, and he unlatched the bolts, turned the cogs, and reached into the center, fanning out two of the center lenses, which dangled from the side of the telescope on articulated hooks. Those lenses were for looking at things much farther distant, like stars. Then he collapsed it together, shortening it.
He leaned down, and dialed in the focus on the eyepiece, slowly panning the telescope across the city until he found his bearings. He found the road, and the crowd that swarmed upon it, and he marveled at their sheer numbers. Normally, for a monarch, having this many of the city's citizens at the gates was a royal nightmare. That they were so willing and eager to invite every citizen to the castle implied a great deal of desperation on their part. What was their hurry?
The original plan was for him to be methodical, take his time. Despite Iorneste's reassurances that the humans would never be able to open the box, neither of them had considered the crown acting on such a scale to open it, to move an entire city into and out of the castle to do it, as if they were racing against time.
What was really going on here?
It was not apparent without the telescope, but under its keen gaze he could discern a slow but steady traffic of citizens being escorted out of the castle, the failed "openers" (a word he decided to call them for lack of a better one) making their defeated trek back to their homes. He really hoped that the mereling was being careful, and could be trusted.
He mused about how the populace was unaware of the nature of the problem they were being tasked to solve. Those who were most in a hurry, who rushed first to the castle gates, would not produce the proper combination to unlock the puzzle box outside of anything other than divine chance. It was actually those at the end of the line, behind thousands of others, those who were slowest to make their way to the castle, who actually had the best odds of being the lucky soul to open the puzzle box, and become a lord.
He could see money changing hands in the crowd, with people buying a spot in line closer to the castle gates, not realizing that they were being scammed, were in fact reducing their chances of opening the box.
Not that he was terribly concerned about that right now. He had, after all, ordered Gharel to loot the houses of some of those innocent people, some with families, whose lives would be a bit harder than they needed to be, simply because of his opportunism. It was not the first time in his life he sacrificed others for one of his plans, or for those of the Drac, and he regretted the misfortune. But there were larger priorities, and keeping a Drac artifact out of human hands was one of them. Keeping the artifact out of Sheldrache's hands was his.
He was actually impatient for sundown, and he cursed himself. The patience that was supposed to come with immortality often failed him, but he could not help but feel that something was going on inside, and if Sheldrache was involved, they might open the box a lot sooner than he would like.
The ladies-in-waiting fretted and fussed about the Lady Shelle, as if she were a queen. They had attached herself to her, and Sheldrache was not even sure who had assigned them in the first place, but she had one rather likely idea. The Viceroy Tulane was so taken with her that he had commissioned and sent a dress to her room, with a note attached saying he would very much like to see her in it. It did not fit properly, requiring a bit more room in the bust and hips. She could have easily altered her form to fit it, of course, but rather enjoyed the idea of being fussed over. It was a far cry from the days when she had played the role of a commoner and had served herself.
Once she saw the dress, she knew she had to wear it. It was in shades of violet on a foundation of black, with lighter layers to the front, leaving her arms and shoulders bare, and cut low enough that she could plainly see the Viceroy's motives. It would have to be fitted perfectly in order to even stay up, which was why the ladies were so aflutter.
There was a moment's impatience, but she squashed it down. There was no rush. Though she wanted to be certain to be present when the box was opened, some things were worth waiting for. Since the Viceroy was in charge of the attempt to open the puzzle box, she would dress as he liked. It helped that he had very good taste.
In time she was fully dressed, and she donned a long pair of light lavender gloves to cover her regalia tattoos, and jewels had been added to her neck, her ears, and even within the black raven masses of hair that had been artfully arranged and styled, braided with jewelry in a way she would never have thought to do by herself, but which she found very pleasing. Regal, even.
She could get used to this.
The ladies followed her down to the Great Hall, and as she approached she could hear the murmur and chatter of the unwashed being ushered in. The guards, seeing her approach, made a hole for her to enter, but as she approached closely to the men, women, and even children that were jammed into the hallway, she watched them stare at her as she entered. One man, losing control of his senses, actually blurted out the words, "Oh Gods, it's her," earning himself a stinging slap from his wife for the trouble.
Sheldrache tried to hide her smile. She did not think it would ever grow old for her, this power, the ability to influence a room, in particular the men, simply by walking about and appearing beautiful, despite keeping her hands and animus to herself.
When she entered the Great Hall, shafts of late afternoon sunlight splintering through the prisms in the walls, she was announced by the Herald as, "The Lady Shelle Ru, of the Murian Isles." Heads turned to watch her, and she had the gratifying experience of watching the Viceroy's jaw fall open and see the maddened flicker of his eyes roving up and down her body.
The King was nowhere in sight, possibly due to being detained by other matters, but she had heard that he was being kept sequestered out of concern for his safety. Imagine that.
The spectacle of the Great Hall, as majestic as it was, was nothing compared to the long line of citizens, some quite humble, who made their way forward to the pedestal that had been placed in the room, atop of which was the golden box. Initially many of the citizens were distracted and awed by the Great Hall, the fearsome array of armed soldiers in whitesteel armor that were protecting the box from the unwashed and suspicious lowborn.
The box itself, once they moved close enough to catch sight of it, captured their imagination. It was beautiful, of course, as all things created by the Drac were. Far superior in craftsmanship to any creation of crude hands, formed from the aethir by Paerneste, the High Art, as perfect as the mind of the Drac who created it could imagine it, provided she had sufficient power to work the art. Worked in gold, inlaid with mesmerizing designs, covered with thousands of tiny glowing Drac runes, indicating the work of magic, and reflecting any light it touched in the room like a beacon, there was plenty of reason for wonder.
By the time she had reached the Viceroy's side and given him her most radiant smile, most innocent eyes, and most ladylike curtsey, he had found a way to control his mouth and his eyes, barely. His lust leaked from his anima like a tumultuous red haze, tendrils blind and reaching out towards her, thrumming with the beating of his heart. It did not help matters for this man that the very low-cut dress he had provided her appeared even moreso when she was dipped forward.
She batted away the tendrils at the struggling edge of his animus with barely a thought as she rose from her curtsey and placed her hand on his arm. Once she had closer contact to him and she had moved inside of his personal space, within the boundaries of his weak animus, she felt herself possessed of even more control and did a cursory examination of him.
It took some time to understand the nature of human thought, of how their animus worked, and she was not certain she fully understood it, either. Some of the eldest Drac, including her own mother, had confessed to being completely mystified by the human animus, as their Drac minds and emotional composition were so alien to that of a human as to be speaking not just foreign languages to one another with regards to the animus, but speaking on different planes altogether. But Sheldrache had spent many years as a human in the past, and those lessons were not forgotten. Human memories and emotions were a storm of fragments, pieced together by the human mind to provide a narrative, but rarely were they conscious of their true motivations, why they did what they did, and plans rarely went beyond a scant few weeks or months into the future, and for such a short-lived race, there was a surprising amount of dwelling on the past.
The Viceroy seemed a bit more orderly and possessed than most, despite being human. Much of his time today, she discovered, had been spent torn between two desires. One of them, and quite powerful, was for the opening of the box. The other, growing more powerful by the minute, was for her. There was not the faintest whiff of desire for his wife, and when she seemed to occupy his thoughts at all, it was only with a sense of sadness and weariness, with a dash of bitterness. She was absent from court today, but he did not seem concerned about her making an appearance.
So with her and the King absent, that left two absent parties that would make her life much easier by their being gone.
There was a table set up near the back of the great hall, where a great many scribes, mathematicians, and other scholarly sorts congregated and discussed, scribbled out lines on parchment, crossing some off as each petitioner came forward to receive the box, and press their fingers against the runes indicated by the man next to the Viceroy.
He was a bloodless man, with almost translucent skin, and nearly hairless as well. He wore black velvety robes, those of an academic perhaps, in contrast to the white of most of the scholars. A single chain with a medallion in the center hung around his neck, emblazoned with the mark of the University upon it. A quick glance at it revealed words written in Auld Empyrian.
"Lady Shelle," the Viceroy greeted her, bringing her hand to his lips. "You honor me."
She laughed in a carefree way, her fingertips drifting across his lips, one of them flicking at his bottom lip in a teasing manner as she withdrew her hand and returned it to his arm. His pulse quickened, and his swallow was audible, and her nostrils were assailed with some sort of scent, some sort of breeding musk exuded by the male human during excitement or arousal. "Not at all, Your Excellency. It is you who honor me. A man of your station gifting me with such a stunning dress as this?" She pressed her hands to her sides, running them down her body. "I am truly overcome."
The gesture had the desired effect on the Viceroy, but the bloodless man did not react to her much at all, his attention focused intently on the box, the scroll in his hand with the various rune combinations he would supply to each petitioner, and when the combination entered would fail, he would cross it off, and the scribes behind him would cross the combination off of the master list as well. Meanwhile, more scribes continued to scribble out more possible combinations. She could work on the bloodless man, and would surely make him hers in time if she desired, but it did not seem to be necessary at this point. The box was more important.
She could have seized the box at any time, of course. She could have flown it directly to her mother, and her mother would surely be able to open it. But hoard rights were very specific. In mortal hands, no Drac item was really considered to belong to them unless it had been freely gifted, and the gifting was documented within the memory of a witnessing Drac. Otherwise, Drac artifacts were, like all things Drac, supposed to be removed and hidden from the world. However, once an item became part of a Drac's hoard, it belonged to them, no matter what the item was. Once she claimed it, it was hers, no matter who else yearned for it. Taking it from the humans was the easy part, it was opening the box that had stifled her.
Sheldrache could not open it, either, and this knowledge frustrated her. She and this particular box had a history, with her once trying—and failing—to open it. Like it or not, she was reliant upon the methods of mankind, even if she had no intention of letting them keep what was inside once they did.
She did have to give them credit, though, for surprising her. After some two-thousand or so people had already filed through the door, not even at the end of the first day, they had already worked out the first two runes in the sequence. Though she was not granted an intuitive understanding of which runes needed to be pressed, she knew more than they did. But two runes already? When she had discovered none of them after weeks of study?
Great Winged Death, could the humans really unlock this box in a matter of days?
Long minutes passed, with each petitioner coming forward, pressing runes that had been demanded of them by the bloodless scholar, and turning away disappointed. The suns began to fall. The Viceroy sent away for a table and chair for the lady, but it was not her legs that were struggling to remain standing, but his. She could have remained standing in the same position, as still as a statue, for days if she wanted, but it was important to keep up appearances.
One look at the dainty chair provided for her, however, changed her mind. There was no way that flimsy thing would survive the press of her weight upon it, and landing in a heap beneath a collapsed chair in front of honored lords, the soldiery, and the unwashed of Earlemont was simply not going to happen.
But there were few things that the High Art could not solve for a skilled practitioner, and strengthening the chair was not a difficult task for her. She reached over to the chair, touched it, ran her hands over the seat as if smoothing it out or admiring the fabric, and the aethir flowed from her hand to the chair, weaving the strength of earth and stone into its construction.
Once this was complete, she perched neatly on the end of the chair as if she was made of spun glass, legs folded, sipping from the cup of tea that had been whisked into her presence. The Viceroy stepped back from the pedestal to move to her table, snapping his fingers and having a chair appear beneath him as he sat down, the servant quickly disappearing to wherever it is that servants go.
He poured himself a cup of tea, and his face was apologetic. "I know this must be tiring, Lady Shelle. I apologize for keeping you, but you did say you wanted to see it. You also said your people have known similar boxes such as this...you called it a puzzle box?"
"Yes," she said, taking an easy sip. Tea was a human commodity she always missed in Kaer Drac, and the kiin there seemed to have forgotten the art. It had never tasted the same. She swallowed, licking her lips and tried not to giggle at the resulting effect on the Viceroy. Such a brute he was! They were close enough that she could feel his impulses, read scattered images in his thoughts and few of them involved him treating her like a lady. "But I believe I have discovered something that is going to present a problem for your scribes."
"Oh?" he asked.
"They are assuming a finite number of combinations, thinking that within reason there may be as many as twenty in the sequence, with the rest of the runes remaining inert to distract you."
His black eyebrows, tinged with grey, drew together. "And they are not?"
"No, they are not," she explained, and cupped the tea cup in her hand, enjoying its warmth. "None of them are unused. Every one of them must be pressed, every one of them used, in the proper sequence."
"What?" he said. "How do you know this?"
He was smarter than she had given him credit for, despite the desire that was continuing to cripple him. "That is how these boxes work. The same rune is not used twice within the sequence."
"Really?" he asked and dashed up from the table, taking the box directly from the hands of a failed petitioner and earning a curious look from the bloodless man, turning it about in his hands. He then asked the bloodless man a single question, and after receiving the answer he returned the box, coming back to her side.
"Impressive!" he said, and his eyes were like a gleeful child. "You surprise me, Milady! Such an amazing creature you are, of such a rare disposition, rare intelligence, and if I might flatter, rare beauty."
She brought pink to her cheeks and cast a demure downward glance to the floor. "Your Excellency is too kind. I just remember playing with such boxes when I was a little girl. Though they were not quite so difficult as this one."
"Not at all," he countered, capturing her hand and pressing it to his lips as though in fervent prayer. "Thank you, Lady Shelle. This will ensure we focus our efforts. There should be no repeating glyphs in the sequence. This is valuable information! Please, I beg you, excuse me for one moment."
"You do not need to ask my permission, Your Excellency."
"I do not, but I ask anyway." Because by leaving you, I leave behind my heart. Such was the unspoken message in his face, his eyes, and his animus.
"You are such a dear," she said, and smiled. "Go, with my blessing, Your Excellency. I shall await your return, though it be only a few steps away."
"They shall feel like an ocean between us, dear Lady," he said, and his body began to leave her, but his gaze remained upon her until he reached the table filled with frantic, and now-tiring scholars. He snapped his gaze to them, and with imperious words he gave them new instructions.
The effect on the scholars was as if he had doused them in pitch and set them on fire. Their loud voices and protestations filled the Great Hall, and the cacophony made it difficult for Sheldrache to piece through their words. The Viceroy began to argue with them, going red in the face, and to Sheldrache it was clear enough that he was no mathematician. The bloodless man, however, moved from his place, snatching up the box and bringing it over to the table with the other scholars, while the commoners in the Great Hall murmured.
Seeing the bloodless man approach, Tulane's face grew more calm. "Ahh, Kraisel, finally someone who can explain the situation."
Kraisel, the bloodless man revealed, had a conference with his fellows, bringing them to order and their voices entering a murmur and a babble that she could not quite understand. She had a standard Drac education with regards to mathematics, which is to say that she learned what she found interesting, but what they were discussing was either beyond her or couched in such a special vocabulary that she could not really discern their meaning.
"Kraisel, please. I do not have the benefit of your education. I realize the situation is more difficult than we initially considered, but we have the entire populace of Earlemont at our disposal, and we have already discovered two of the combinations in just a few hours!"
Kraisel turned from the scholars to address Tulane, and his voice was so soft that Sheldrache had to strain her ears to hear his reply. "I will explain. Let me put this plainly, Your Excellency. The number of possible combinations is staggering, and beyond describing in any fashion you would comprehend. But allow me to put this in practical terms."
"Please do, ser."
The bloodless man sighed, his resolve bled out of him. "There are more possible combinations than there are living creatures on Runea. You would require a million worlds such as this before you had exhausted all possible combinations."
Blood drained from the Viceroy's face, and Sheldrache felt all three of her hearts sink in her chest. She had never really worked out the numbers for herself, though she knew it to be a large number.
"However, there is a flaw in the design of this box. Though thousands of runes are on its surface, the box itself lets us know which runes are correct, and which are incorrect. All the same, Your Excellency, this approach will not work. Not within the time frame you wish. Outside of sheer luck, or relying on a miracle. Or magic."
The Viceroy nodded. "Magic we can try. But in the meantime, let us continue. Perhaps we can unlock some more possible combinations. Does that not make your job easier?"
"Each new rune sequence we discover drastically reduces the number of possible combinations."
"But it is still extraordinarily unlikely we will unlock this box within two weeks, as you specified."
"But it is possible, yes?"
"Yes, it is of course possible, Your Excellency, but I advise you again that—"
"Carry on, Ser. Once we have exhausted the population of Earlemont we will pursue other options. I will begin inquiring with the mages to see if they can turn their thoughts to opening it. Their initial inspections of the box were dubious, however, and their odds of opening it were expressed in terms similarly to yours."
"So we may as well continue."
"Very well, Your Excellency."
Kaisel and the Viceroy left the table of scribes, with Kaisel returning the box to the pedestal, the next petitioner coming forward. The Viceroy returned to Sheldrache's table, sitting down with her and refreshing his tea, offering her the same. "Now, Lady Shelle," he said, leaning forward. "Where were we?"
Mourne and Gharel stood in the failing light, only a sliver of blue light remaining. They looked down from a rooftop near what had become the end of the line. There was still light enough to see, with lanterns already lit among the endless parade of citizens enroute to the castle. They had pulled together as people often do in such circumstances, with runners bringing food and water, blankets and other essentials for those waiting in line, and it seemed as though families or clans or maybe neighborhoods were clustered together in similar places, saving room for each other in line, and ousting anyone who tried to get in front of them.
The castle guards had their hands full keeping order, but seemed to rely on the factions within the crowd as well. Mourne found any large population study of people to be interesting, and so rarely had the chance to observe so many in so close of a gathering, under such unusual circumstances.
Iorneste had not wanted it to be like this, but Iorneste thought like a dragon, and so did Sheldrache, and her even moreso. He knew that dragons were at their best when they had ample time to think and plan. That was exactly what he did not want to give Sheldrache time to do. The one action she would never anticipate would be the rash action, the sudden and illogical one, the one doomed to fail.
Or as he might have explained it to Iorneste: In order to confound the sophisticated, do something unsophisticated.
"You are certain, Gharel, that twelve-thousand dremas was all you were able to obtain, in all that time you spent ransacking houses?"
"That's what I thought. Keep whatever you hoarded, then. I don't know if I will be around much longer to pay you."
"Gharrrel isss content. Hissss ledger issss now current assss you have alssso paid two thousssand dremasss."
"It's a good thing it was Iorn who offered you that deal. I'd have never paid so much."
They stood there for some time, formulating their thoughts, or gathering their resolve, then the mereling crept up to the ledge, perching on it so that he could get eye level with Mourne. "Gharel issss sssurprisssed at you, Mourrrne."
"Oh? Why is that?"
"You arrre verrry brrrave. I did not think you would rrrisssk yourrsself sso."
"Neither did I, to be honest."
"Yet in Phasssse One of ourrr plan, you arrre taking all the rrissk."
He swallowed. "Yeah, don't I know it."
"I will want them back."
"I know you will, Gharrel. I might not be able to promise that unless this goes as planned."
"You know wherrrre I will be."
"Yes. But keep a watchful eye. You may have to improvise. There is no way this is going to go exactly according to plan."
Gharel came over, putting one paw on Mourne's shoulder. "You laugh at death. Gharrel underssstandsss and resspectsss this. I did not like you, Mourrrne. But now I sssee why Iorrrrnessste likess you."
"Stop trying to cheer me up."
"It issss assss they ssssay, yourrr funerrral."
"Now you're just being rude."
Gharel hissed with laughter, and left without a farewell, disappearing over the wall, and going wherever mereling thieves go when they do not want to be seen.
He checked his disguise again, making sure everything was in place. Iorneste would have found him unrecognizable. His dragon ward Terchius, some sixty years ago, had been a performer during his First Exile, and during that time Mourne had picked up a few tricks with makeup and disguise. It had come in very useful over the years. The shaggy grey beard and hair, matted and dirty, was certainly unlike him, or his bushy white eyebrows. The stocking cap on his head helped snug the wig to his head and he adjusted it just to be sure. The slovenly coat he wore was patchy and tattered, and he wore gloves with many holes on his fingers. He had divested himself of weapons, but carried his backpack, which housed the twelve-thousand-drema small fortune that Gharel had accumulated when raiding the houses of all those people he saw down below. It would have been hard to carry such a heavy load of money, but this backpack was an old friend, inscribed with a Drac pocket rune, and held much more within than he had ever revealed to Iorneste during their travels.
Now it was time to spend his small fortune.
Making his way down to the street and approaching the sullen end of the line, he moved with an old man's gait, shuffling about unhurried, eyes downcast, hair hanging around his face. He had no time to wait at the end of the line, so began circumventing via side streets, seeking the gate out of the city walls and up the ascent to the castle. That is where he would have to start.
He tried to shuffle his way into line near the gate, but soon realized this was a common practice. Several very tired people started protesting, and one of the eldest stepped forward, placing his hand in the center of Mourne's chest. "You are not going this way, grandfather."
He cleared his throat in a rumbling, rheumatic way and wheezed, "I am so s-sorry, to bother, but it is just that—"
"We have heard all kinds of stories today, greybeard. We are not interested in yours."
So it was like that. "B-but.." he protested as the man gently but firmly began pressing him back from the line. He shuffled his feet as if about to stumble, and the man reached out and steadied him. He thought that it spoke well of his character. "Please," he said. "I can p-pay you..."
There was no person in existence who would not stop pushing an old man down the street once hearing those words, as Mourne knew full well, and he was able to stop pretending to stumble as the man steadied him. "Oh?" the man asked. "No disrespect, grandfather, but you don't look like you have much. You should save it."
"I have been s-saving...for many years, young man. All I want is to s-see the castle before I die. To see the Great Hall where the King himself sits upon his throne has been a dream of mine since I was a child. It means everything to me, and this money means nothing. And I..." he started a coughing fit that doubled him over, and the man cried out in alarm, steading him.
"Oh Gods...greybeard...look. As I said, we have heard many stories today. But if you have money to pay us as you say, I will believe you."
"I do," he assured the man, slapping him on his shoulder and giving him his best grandfatherly smile. He wrestled the pack off of his back, slumping it to the street. Then, reaching in with dirty hands, he rummaged around as if he did not know exactly where the money was, at last pulling out a handful of drema with both hands.
As he deposited it with faux-arthritic hands into the swollen hands of the man he was bribing, the man's eyes widened. "Oh, ser! I could not take so much money, please..."
"I w-want you to have it," he insisted, closing the man's fingers around the money. After all Gharel may very well have stolen it from this man's house, in which case he was giving it back.
"Bless you, grandfather," said the man. "What is your name?"
"Moram. And yours?"
"Redrick. Redrick Stane."
"Ahh, hostelers, are ye?" he asked, shouldering his pack and hobbling over to join the group with the man's blessing.
"Aye, greybeard. How did you know?"
"I remember your grandfather, Beaphus, was it?"
"Aye! I wish you had told me that sooner."
"Eh," he coughed once more. "One can never be too careful these days, youngster. You said it yourself. These days, everyone's got a s-story."
He repeated the process, moving steadily forward, further and further up the line, shifting amongst the mass of people, redistributing the wealth he had acquired, but there were some who listened to his story of wanting to visit the Great Hall and welcomed him among them for free. For a bored populace at the edge of anticipation, the story of the old man who wanted to visit the Great Hall before he died drifted up among them, and in time he struggled to retain his feet as he was hustled forward, deeper and deeper into the castle.
Sheldrache wished that the Viceroy would be quiet. There were only so many innuendos she was willing to trade with him, and she craved a quiet moment to think. She had drank quite enough tea at this point, and the faces of the human waste that crowded the Great Hall were an offense to her eyes and her nose by this hour. The suns had dipped, and night shrouded the sky, the stars peeking through a blanket of grey fog.
She had come into this room with optimism, but now she realized the enormity of the task before them, even if the Viceroy would not. If only she had not been so foolish when she was younger! Puzzle boxes were not supposed to be rushed, or forced. To open one required the solving of a mental puzzle, after which knowing the sequence of the runes should be easy. It was supposed to take years for a dragon's dedicated mind to solve, but it did not matter to her in the slightest if she figured out the mental puzzle now, because she had already attempted the physical puzzle itself, and failed.
Which was when it occurred to her. Since she was dependent upon them to open it, perhaps there was something she could do to make their job a bit easier. Why had she not considered this before? Perhaps because from the moment she arrived she had faced no end of distractions. The failed assassination, Selka, The Viceroy, and his dress among them. "Your Excellency," she said, interrupting him mid-sentence. "I wonder if I might be permitted to examine the box?"
He smiled. "Of course! You have been of great help already. But we have the populace here for now. Can you wait a few more minutes?"
"I can wait as long as you like, Your Excellency," she said, smiling. "I am in no hurry to leave you."
The Viceroy rose to his feet, raising his voice to address the guards at the back of the room. "No one else is allowed entrance to the castle until the morrow! Only those who are already within the Great Hall will be admitted! Guards, please escort the remainder of our guests from the castle, and back to their homes."
There were audible groans at this, and a few raised voices. But the large contingent of guards who exited the room and began pressing the crowd back, out of the castle, weapons bared and threatening, began to convince the recalcitrant mob.
Soon the doors closed to the Great Hall while the guards outside could be heard shouting for the citizenry to disperse, and to return tomorrow in the morning.
Sheldrache smiled, and finally felt like another cup of tea. She poured it for herself, glancing bored around the room and past the Viceroy, but before her eyes could sweep back to him, something caught her eye.
An old, feeble man with grey hair stood before the pedestal, with Kraisel pressing the box into his palms. There was nothing special about this man at first glance, but then she caught something very familiar in his eyes, and stared closer.
The brown eyes of the man stared back, widening. Then she reached out and felt his animus.
The teacup broke in her fingers with a sharp snap. Her violet eyes narrowed, and she began to rise.
Mourne was aware of Sheldrache as soon as he entered the Great Hall, as she was impossible to miss. The dress was new, and judging by the powerful but fawning Viceroy Tulane who sat next to her, a gift. For a moment he had to take her in, struck by her beauty and resolve, and the memories of the time he had spent with her as a "young woman". Then his memories of her upon the road through the Ghostwood. Then he tried something he had never tried before. He imagined her before him as a towering she-dragon of sharpened claws and razor fangs, goring horns, lashing tail, with wings that could buffet everyone in the room into powerlessness.
His head felt much clearer already.
She was bored, lost in thought, ignoring the important-looking man who sat at the small tea table with her. He shuffled forward, eyes downcast, painfully aware of Sheldrache's proximity. He was close enough to see into her teacup. She would feel him with her animus soon enough, but she appeared to be lost in thought.
He felt a rising sense of impatience bordering on panic, as he watched her brows knitting, and then smoothing, and the gentle, controlled smile that started at her lips. He found his heart pound as he heard her caramel voice, feeling the old yearnings swelling through him. Then she said the words that stabbed a knife of dread into him. "Your Excellency, I wonder if I might be permitted to examine the box?"
After a brief bit of consultation and flirtation between them, the Viceroy suddenly announced the end of the festivities, and several guards moved to disperse the crowd outside the doors. Mourne looked behind him, seeing his only exit shut behind him.
The man in front of him in line, the only one, pressed one of the runes at the direction of a bald-headed man who stood on the other side of the podium, and there was a sad and final click as all of the other runes stopped glowing on the surface. The man sighed, handing it back to him, and heading for the back of the room. The guards were not yet prepared to open the doors, so they left him waiting there, for everyone to finish.
The box was passed into his hands, and he looked up just for a moment to acknowledge it. It was precisely the wrong moment to do it, and he caught Sheldrache's bored eyes beginning to glance past him, violet eyes that widened briefly in shock, the tenuous touch on his emotions that came along with it, and he knew then, as they looked across the podium at each other, he with the box she so desired in his hands, that she recognized him. The teacup she was holding snapped to splinters in her hand.
He could feel her intent, and was certain he would not survive it. There was no more plan anymore. There was only improvisation.
He faked a fumble of the box as if surprised, dropping to catch it, but as he dipped, buckling his knees, something dropped out of his sleeve and rolled along the floor. Something he had taken from the little black bag in his house in the Sunlowe, something he had been tinkering with years ago at the University, in another life.
It looked at first to be a solid black ball with strange patterns and lines across its surface, bouncing only a little at first, rolling steadily towards the King's absent throne. It then emitted a sudden, sharp wail that echoed within the Great Hall, followed by a steady hum.
The eyes of everyone in the room were drawn to the source of the noise, which was precisely the point.
A tendril of blue light leaked from the top of the ball, spinning and whirling like incandescent water, making a spiral upwards, coalescing into an orb of water, and then resolving into a dancing water nymph who weaved and danced. She writhed her body in the motions of her strange water dance, captivating the eyes of the onlookers, which is to say everyone in the Great Hall, waving as if she could see them looking at her.
There were assorted oohs from the people around him, and even the Viceroy had risen to his feet, eyes both suspicious and surprised, unable to look away. Sheldrache glanced away from Mourne for just a second to discern what was going on behind her, and this time the timing of her eyes was on his side.
That was when Mourne looked down, clamping his eyes shut, and the nymph dissolved in a splash of water at the same instant the orb opened and released a piercing blast of white light, white as the Aeon sun when looked at directly.
There was a consensus cry of shock, and several hands were brought to several eyes. But Sheldrache was already turning to look at him, blinking. The distraction would not last long, especially for her eyes. It was now or never.
What were his assets? He had the box, at least for now, and the benefit of a distraction. Many of the guards had left the room to escort the citizenry out of the castle, and Sheldrache had not yet figured out what his plan was. Dragons were creatures of deliberation, and sudden irrational acts could leave them off balance.
What did he know about the box? The words of Iorneste came to him, from when they had both been chained in a cell together aboard the Cutlass.
In the case of an intellectual riddle, the Drac do not abide cheaters. Force turned to the box will be turned outward. If they were to strike it with a sword, they would find the sword rebounding back towards themselves with equal force.
As soon as the idea came to him, he realized it was a terrible one, and the less he thought about it the better. Terrible as it was, it had the benefit that it might actually work. Then, looking down at his feet, he wondered if he had planned to do it all along.
It was a foolish plan, a young man's plan. Brash. Not his kind of plan.
This was something that Iorneste would do.
He ran towards the thick glass, just as Sheldrache's disbelieving eyes began to clear. As startled as she was, she began to move towards him. He wasted no time, bringing the box back behind his head with both hands and hurling it as hard as he could. Though the glass was thick, and supposedly unbreakable via some kind of ancient magic, the force of several pounds of solid gold, the force of his throw, and the power of Drac magic behind it, the box did not rebound from the window, but directed all of that force, including the force that the window directed at it, outwards.
The crystal window shattered, exploding from the pane entirely, and the box tumbled outward into the night. He saw shock hit Sheldrache's face like a slap. There was nothing in this room or beyond he feared right now more than being left in her care, and next to that prospect any fate, any consequence, any personal fear of his, was small by contrast. He gave her one last glance, their eyes meeting, before he closed his eyes, clenched his teeth and his bowels, and leapt through the window after the box, tumbling down to the city far, far below.
The mereling looked up sharp, hearing the sound of something very large breaking, keen nighteyes following a glowing box-shaped object falling to the earth below like a shooting star. Then some crazy human jumped out of the window after it, trying to catch the shooting star.
Gharel was not much interested in shooting stars or crazy humans, but he put everything into a four-legged sprint, determined to catch the box before it could land and break the precious treasure inside.
He sprinted out into a street mostly deserted, watching the box descending, but despite his fast legs, was unable to reach it in time. It was just as well, since when it landed it hit the earth before him like it was a shooting star, smashing into the ground with such force as to blow rock debris and dust all over. He skidded to a stop before it, throwing one arm across his face with a hiss.
A second later the crazy human landed, but when he hit the ground behind Gharel there was only the faintest tremor in the earth. The human's panicked, shallow breathing was much louder than the sound of him hitting the ground had been. "I'm alive..." he said. "That helps."
"I want them back," Gharel growled.
The one called Mourne ignored him, jumping into the crater that had been left in the street, fishing out a glittering golden box and scrambling back out. He then rushed to an alleyway out of sight. Gharel followed him, checking on the way for suspicious eyes.
Mourne dropped down to his rump in the alley, tearing off his false beard and hair, and kicking off the boots he was wearing. "Thank you."
Gharel growled, "Welcome," and snatched his boots back, stuffing his legs into them, pleased to feel them shrink back to mereling size. Ahh, but the treasure! He pointed at the shiny golden box, and looking at it again his fur felt itchy and twitchy. "That iss the box? It isss a treasssure of dreamssss beyond—!"
"You have no idea," the rude human named Mourne interrupted, fishing a scrap of paper from his ragged coat pocket. "We don't have much time, Gharel. You know what we have to do now, right?"
He could hear shouts far up the hill in the direction of the castle. "Yessss," he said, grinning, rubbing his paws together. "Phasssse Two."
by Zaina Isard a.k.a. "Queen Z"
© 2015 Zaina Isard