Chapter 16: Up the Backside
Lady Gretchen Lenair, the duke’s youngest daughter, was something of a public embarrassment in Alikon.
Like her older sisters, Gretchen had grown up in Castle Cannaid with attendants, servants, and personal escorts to all the dinner parties of nobles and foreign dignitaries. She had been trained in formal etiquette, courtly demeanor, and ballroom dance. Her artistic talent had, at times, graced the city’s galleries.
Unlike her sisters, that all fizzled to a pitiful end two years ago when she met an eccentric artist named Arcen Orfalor. He introduced the young lady to a disjointed art style emphasizing darker hues and poorly defined lines, macabre themes and exaggerated features. Arcen tutored her to paint from the heart rather than with the eyes, even to the point of closing her eyes altogether. Despite results that favored the work of a toddler, he praised her for capturing the purest intent of her soul.
Gretchen found solace in these methods and a warm embrace in Arcen, though he was nearly twice her age. Gretchen’s mother, however, was troubled by the paintings that had gone from warm and stylish to dark and twisted—“messy” was the nicest descriptor Lady Astriase could find. When she learned that Arcen was instructing in more than art, she came unglued. The duchess burst into the castle gallery one afternoon to confront him, and, finding them cuddled up half-undressed on a couch, she nearly killed the man in her wrath. Amassing great dignity, she retained her composure and called for the castle guard.
Arcen was confined to the dungeon and later hanged.
For her part, Gretchen remained locked in her room for a fortnight. During her isolation, she refused to eat and scarcely slept, growing progressively emaciated and withdrawn. She might have died were it not for the intervention of a monastic ascetic, a quiet and contemplative man who specialized in unraveling the inner thoughts of troubled minds.
Leydon Bray consulted with the young girl under the supervision of the duchess for three months, during which time he delved into the hidden causes of her spiral from convention. As he explored the girl’s past, Leydon learned much about Duke Lenair, including his lack of aspiration for the throne, and his laissez-faire approach to leadership. Later, during a period of busy affairs of state, Gretchen divulged to her mentor even greater insights concerning her mother. And as months turned into two years, Leydon Bray enjoyed unprecedented access into the lives of the entire family.
Rather than restore Lady Gretchen to her former, more desirable demeanor, Leydon convinced the duchess that this “new” Gretchen was the true one. Arcen’s folly was the unwitting catalyst that brought her “real” spirit to light. Trying to suppress this newfound spirit, Leydon said, was like trying to capture the wind.
After many sessions, the duchess, wearied of the whole affair, eventually accepted her daughter’s artwork that grew bolder in its depictions of death, insanity, and the grotesque. She never liked it, but she did begrudgingly condone it.
Within the first year of gaining this approval, Leydon opened the young lady’s mind and quietly seized control. Now, with the girl firmly in his grasp, the conniving ascetic could access all parts of the castle, including the armory and treasury. But his interests lay elsewhere. With Lady Gretchen at his command, his real work could begin.
* * * * * * * * * *
After enduring the hours-long wedding rehearsal, Gretchen retired to her chambers, mumbling to herself the whole way. “That was a disgusting display of pomp and pageantry. Makes me sick.” She slammed her door and flopped across her bed with an exasperated sigh. “I can’t endure doing it again tomorrow. I won’t.” Her eyes focused on red lines in the dark gray bedcover. She could remember designing and commissioning the quilt, but the longer she stared at the crimson threads, the harder it became to understand exactly why she had done it.
She sat up and looked about her room. Shades of red and black were a theme in her work lately. The curtains were crimson, the walls dark gray, and all the furniture painted matte black. The sheets beneath her two-toned comforter were the warm hues of blood. Canvases of finished art filled her chamber. Some hung on the walls, others leaned in stacked layers against the wardrobe, and others still in progress occupied the five easels standing about the room like macabre three-legged sentries. Her shoulders sagged. I’m in a creative rut of some kind. Without exception, all her recent paintings were solid red, though many contained a swath of jet black running through them. Each one was different, but she could see no discernable pattern.
A heavy sigh escaped her. “What am I doing with all this? It doesn’t make any sense. Are they finished, or are they failed attempts to find the perfect spatial harmony of black on red?” Like so many other things in her life, it was all vanity. She rolled her eyes and threw herself onto the bed again. Why does nothing make any sense?
The sky was black and the castle quiet when Gretchen awoke with a start. Lightning flashed in the thick clouds to the far south, evidence that a late-night storm rolling off the lake had missed them and dumped its torrents onto Arvoria again. “I love a violent storm,” she muttered. “I could have used one last night instead of Karlina’s floral bonanza.”
She stared into the darkness split by occasional lightning. She did not remember having a dream, and the peals of thunder were too distant to have awoken her. For a time, Gretchen sat still and listened. She found a box of flickersticks and struck one against the stone hearth of her fireplace. It flared a deep scarlet—she had insisted upon scarlet—and she placed the burning stick against the wick of a lamp.
In the illuminating light, she screamed.
Leydon Bray sat on the couch in a scarlet hooded robe, staring intently at her, his eyes glinting red in the flame of her lamp. A woman in black garments sat beside him, a red scarf peering from beneath her collar. Behind them stood a woman with long dreadlocks and skin dark as night, a scowl twisting her face.
The lamp shook in Gretchen’s hand, her breath slipping past chattering teeth. Terror shot straight through to her bones. “M-master Bray? W-what are you doing here?”
“Peace, my child,” he said in soothing tones. He stood and approached, pulling back the hood of his robe to reveal a completely bald head and equally hairless face. Rather than finding comfort, Gretchen’s fear escalated along with a dose of stomach acid. She had never seen her counselor appear this way before. His hair was normally thinning and gray, but it was there. He usually maintained a rather neatly trimmed anchor-styled beard, but that was also gone. A hairless master sent chills through her spine. Would another scream matter?
“It is time for your final lesson,” Leydon said, his voice calm. “You will soon gain the respect of all who know you. Once you are finished, your world will be made new.”
Gretchen scooted back and caught a heel against her bed, forcing her to sit abruptly. Leydon continued his approach. He slipped the lamp from her shaking hand and placed it on the fireplace mantel. Then he gently took her hand and stroked the back with a thumb. “Do not concern yourself with the complexities of life, my child. Soon it will all make sense. I will show you the path to ultimate freedom, the purest form of expression.”
He raised Gretchen’s hand to his lips. A shudder raced through her body, then her breathing settled into a peaceful rhythm. His hand upon hers warmed, and a deep calm traveled down her arm and coursed through her body, driving from her all concerns and worries. Serenity washed over her like a sun-warmed waterfall. This was her place of comfort, her refuge from the absurdities of life, her shelter against a meddling mother, a doting father, and two older sisters who could not care less about her.
“What must I do?” she whispered as Leydon’s sedating touch flooded her mind.
“The All-Father asks only obedience,” he answered.
“I will obey.”
“Good,” Leydon replied, a broad smile creeping across his face. “I have one final task for you, my child. You have painted your last; now is the time for needle and thread.”
* * * * * * * * * *
Leaves rustled beneath the orange glow of a lighted streetlamp. In the silhouette of an elm, tendrils of raw shadow slithered across the ground and coalesced into a darkened form. Mason Rutland, a black silk scarf over his eyes, stepped through the gloaming as wisps of Tenebrae swirled around his legs before dissipating into the night.
A pair of young women screamed and ran the short distance to the gates of Cer Cannaid.
Rutland cringed. “Sorry!” He pulled the scarf from his eyes.
Then his knees buckled. He grasped the elm as acid swelled in the back of his throat. With a great heave, he turned out his stomach. His eyes watered and strength left him. He staggered to the lamp post and slid to the ground. Cripe, I thought I was done pukin’ over this.
He lifted a waterskin to his parched lips, dribbling the cool liquid through the gouge of a scar. His jaw trembled as a sudden cold crept clean through him. I must be insane.
Under the glowing lamp, Rutland took stock of his journey. In a single night, he had traveled from Westmeade to Cer Cannaid, a five-day trek by normal means. And he had done it through Tenebrae, the shadow realm of the Void. Not only had he survived such an excursion, but he had seen several Grotesques along the way. Curiously, none bothered him; indeed, they didn’t seem to notice he was there. Still, it was a harrowing experience, and not something enjoyable. Not at all like a pleasant stroll along the beach.
He wanted to sleep, and the lamp post would suffice for a bed. But he forced himself to stand, sliding up the metal pole with every last vestige of strength. He staggered toward the city, paid the toll, and collapsed on the first open spot he found—a stretch of soggy grass behind a stable doubly filled to capacity with travelers’ horses. He needed only a little sleep, just a wink or two.
Tomorrow he would find Elric. And warn him…tomorrow……
* * * * * * * * * *
An hour past midnight, Kiyla Muroe led the Dragonslayers into a rough and neglected district, to a remote alley near where the Rae Swamy emptied into The Deepening. To the north, stretching high into the night sky, stood the Castle Prominence, an outcropping of rock that formed the base of Castle Cannaid. Behind them lay the shipyard’s breakwater, an artificial levee of heavy boulders that terminated in a lighthouse and kept the city’s shipyards free of turbulence from the choppy waters of the lake. The lighthouse fires flared against overcast skies, throwing sparkles of orange across the water below.
With folded arms and tapping foot, Cora waited for Kiyla to return from the bowels of a ramshackle building.
The Alliance Guild claimed that building, Cora assumed, for their headquarters. She smirked at the cheeky audacity of planting a hub of thievery directly in the shadow of the castle.
An hour passed, during which time Selorian screamed “kill him” at least a dozen times as he paced with harried step along the levee. Cuauhtérroc and Elric watched him from a safe distance, their weapons readied for any sudden loss of control.
Cora tired of the savant. He had reached the end of his usefulness and was now an increasing liability. They knew where Schumann was, and Kiyla was about to procure a “breaker,” a master thief adept at slipping past guards and wards. Soon, they would capture the old alderman and haul his treacherous arse back to Westmeade. But not if Selorian was with them. He clearly intended to kill the old man on sight, an obsession that seemed to have gripped him ever since…
Cora frowned. Ever since he got that sword.
Her eyes widened as realization crashed upon her like waves on the breakwater. He has the Schumann Slayer!
The heavy door of the dilapidated building creaked open, and Kiyla emerged with a diminutive man dressed in loose-fitting, dark clothing. Greasy black hair, slicked straight back, tapered to a point at the base of his neck. Thick black lines painted across his cheekbones reminded Cora of the warpaint Cuauhtérroc applied to prepare himself for battle against the Amurraks. He approached with light feet, a spring and lilt to his catlike steps.
Overly tall for a Dareni but too short even for a Lothanian, Cora puzzled over the man. His scowl and face paint disguised his heritage and shrouded him in an air of mystery. He neither moved nor spoke, but dark, shifty eyes regarded her as Kiyla began the introductions.
“Cora O’Banion,” Kiyla said, “Aynon Shayn. That’s her real name, but not his. No one but his ma knows that.”
Cora folded her arms. “Well, if you can get us into the castle, it doesn’t matter what your name is.”
“Roundrock’n no fetchin’,” Aynon said in a small burst of syllables.
“Look,” Cora said with a tired sigh, “I don’t know thieves’ cant, so if we’re going to get anything done tonight, you’ll have to drop that habit.”
“Square that,” Aynon said.
“Starting right now.”
The master thief pulled a hood over his head. “Fine. Just so long as we’re square—er, in agreement on a few things.”
“Such as I disappear at the first hint of trouble. This ain’t my crusade; it’s a job, and it ain’t worth my life, from what I’ve heard about it. Such as I ought to stab little miss Kiyla for telling you my name, but if you never give it to another person, she’ll live to see the sunrise. Such as I get paid now, preferably in gemstones. Are ya slick?”
Kiyla held out her arms. “I thought that was your fake name!”
Aynon tilted his head with disdain. “We had a moment, you and me. It was…lively, perhaps even…”
“Epicurean?” Selorian suggested.
Aynon turned to the savant. “Vigorous is the word.” He wheeled on Kiyla. “But it was not an invitation to give out my name.”
The brawler’s brown eyes simmered.
Cora shifted her weight with hands on her hips. “So…I don’t have a pile of gemstones on me right now. It would be pretty daft to carry that to a meeting with a thief, wouldn’t it? Besides that, the ‘bail at the first sign of trouble’ stipulation fairly assures me that you will flee with anything I give you whether there’s any trouble or not.”
“Hey,” Aynon objected, “I don’t flink.”
Cora regarded him warily. “I’m sure you do. It’s fair to say that your line of work lacks a certain reputation for trustworthiness.”
“I reckon,” Aynon said. “So…half now, half on completion?”
“Look, Ayn—breaker…” Cora nearly called him by name. “It’s not like you’re doing all that much: showing us a back entrance to the castle. I believe you can wait to be paid until you’ve actually done it.”
The thief frowned with offense. “No, that ain’t all I’m doin’. What you want and what you’re askin’ for are two very different things. You want access to the castle, but you can’t get in. You want in tomorrow, and the only reason for wanting that is either the weddin’ or the birthday party or both. Maybe you want to crash the party for a slice of cake, or maybe you just want to kill the duke. Makes no difference…it’s somethin’ that can’t wait until you have the proper clearance, which means it’s somethin’ so important that you’re willin’ to pay handsomely for that kind of access. But…you’re not just askin’ for access to a merchant’s shop; this is the rinkin castle we’re talkin’ about. And you’re not pickin’ a night when no one’s home, like you want to make off with a drawer full of silverware…no, you’ve chosen the same night when the entire army and all the Sentinel League are here. So, without sayin’ it, you have asked me to break in the back way, dodge a few traps, slip past a couple thousand soldiers, weave across a wide-open lawn, delve into the heart of the castle, and come back to you alive with a signed summons…from the duke. ‘Cause I can get you in, but you ain’t gettin’ anywhere else without that. All this and you don’t wanna pay me up front?”
Cora gulped. “Can you actually do all that?” It did seem an impossibly tall order.
Aynon extended his arms and bowed low. “It’s no fetchin’,” he repeated, this time with a proud smile.
“All right, how much?”
“Five gilded coaches.”
Cora raised the eyebrow again.
“Five thousand stallions,” Aynon explained.
Cora breathed deeply and then exhaled slowly. “We’ve got two hundred amongst the four of us. That’s it.”
Aynon made a disgusted snort and turned away.
“Wait! There’s going to be an assassination at the castle tomorrow, and we have to get in to stop it.”
The thief turned back and squinted skeptically at her. “I ain’t never heard of this.”
“The whole plan originated in Westmeade, and we followed it here. If we don’t get into the castle before the wedding, the duke’s daughter will die. Now, maybe you don’t give a flip about that, but what you can know is that if we’re successful, we’ll be rewarded with massive shares of the duke’s treasures, and you…you will have twice what you’re asking. Of course, if we fail, we’re dead. Now, I’ve been ‘square’ with you; are you ‘slick’?”
Aynon thought for a moment, then held out an upturned hand. “I don’t give a rat’s arse about the duke, but I happen to like his daughter. I’ll take your two hundred, and you better be good on the rest.”
Cora gave him her coin pouch. “I don’t flink either.”
Access to the “backside” of Castle Cannaid, as Aynon called it, required scaling the Castle Prominence, sheer cliffs jutting out a quarter-mile into The Deepening. This imposing outcropping served as an unscalable menace for all who named the castle enemy. But to the Alliance Guild, the cliffs were merely an obstacle. They neither feared it nor loved it. To them, it was just another “job,” albeit a considerably riskier one.
Under the light of a single torch, Aynon Shayn led the Dragonslayers down a rocky embankment to the Rae Swamy, where it poured over jagged rocks in a violent froth before spilling into the Deepening. The Swamy drained a majority of Alikon and split Cer Cannaid into two halves with a steep canyon running through the midst. Bridges crossed the gorge in several places throughout the city, each one a marvel of Dareni engineering and Vashanti design. One of these spanned the cliffs far above them, a single masonry arch stretching from bluff to bluff. How it didn’t collapse under its own weight was a mystery, and Cora dreaded to think Aynon might be leading them underneath the structure.
Pressing against the opposite bank of the river stood the Prominence, its towering crags looming overhead and lifting the castle far above them. Castle Cannaid pushed to the very edge of the cliff, its walls merging with the stony outcropping with such harmony that it was difficult to tell where the cliff ended and the wall began. Cora’s breath failed her as she craned her neck ever higher to see the turret spires. Heh…it’s a castle in the sky…in more ways than one. Aynon said they were going in “the backside” of the castle. That looked like a sheer vertical climb well over a hundred feet.
At the river’s edge, a fine mist wetted every surface and soon coated them with a watery sheen. Cora shook her head in dismay; before they could begin the daunting task of climbing the cliffs, they faced the equally arduous task of crossing the foaming river. She froze at the sheer impossibility. This is stupid…I can’t believe we’re following a cutpurse across a raging river and up a cliff face to break into the largest, best protected castle in Alikon. She closed her eyes and exhaled sharply. There wasn’t a thing she could do about it now. The stage was set; she could only play the music.
“How do we get across?” she shouted over the roar of the rumbling rapids. Treachery lay within the churning water.
Aynon winked at her, then turned away to pace the bank of the Rae Swamy, his head down and his feet poking at the rocks. In the glow of the lighthouse, he appeared to be searching for something.
At the height of the rapids, Selorian launched several lavender spheres of energy into the water. He crouched, screamed, pulled at his hair, and acted in every way like a madman. Thankfully, Cuauhtérroc’s keen eye was on the savant, ready to end any lethal outrages. But Cora pondered whether she should let Selorian go. Was he a danger to them, or would he be more of a danger to the crowded city if she bade him leave? Surely, they would be culpable if they let loose an insane savant upon Cer Cannaid.
A deep ka-ploop punctuated the constant din of the rapids, severing Cora’s thoughts. She turned away from the savant to see Elric holding a stone the size of his head. Beside him, Kiyla dusted grit from her hands, a satisfied grin spread across her face. Elric crouched and sprang up, launching the stone with a grunt. A second splash broke the river’s drone.
“Ha!” he exclaimed, grinning at Kiyla. “Beat ya.”
Cora held up a hand. “Stop throwing rocks. Both of you.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Elric replied, then he leaned toward Kiyla. “I told ya she’d squawk. Yer gonna haffa get used to that.”
Cora folded her arms and sighed. “You don’t need to stay with us, Kiyla. I appreciate your help, but this isn’t your fight. You’re quite literally free now and not obligated to us anymore.”
“My ma’s in the castle,” the brawler said. “I wanna see her. I can’t get in. She can’t get out. This is my shot.”
There it was: family. Kiyla was willing to risk her life to be with family, and the fact stabbed Cora’s conscience. And I ran away.
She swallowed the guilt and held out a hand. “I can’t provide for your safety.”
Kiyla glanced down at Cora’s rapier. A smirk pulled at her mouth. “I know.” She shook Cora’s hand. “How ‘bout I provide yours?”
“Here it is!” Aynon announced. He kicked at a few stones, then stooped to dig out a pair of hidden metal handles. “Hey Audric,” he hollered, pointing to Cuauhtérroc, “a little help?”
At the breaker’s instruction, Cuauhtérroc grabbed the handles and pulled. Rocks tumbled aside as a square metal plate lifted out of the ground. Groaning on rusty hinges, the plate folded back to reveal a hand-cranked winch, and as Cuauhtérroc let the plate fall backward onto the ground, a cable pulled taut, whipping a quick spray of water from the surface of the river before dropping back into the rushing torrent.
Aynon handed the torch to Cora and began cranking the winch. “Soon as it’s tight, we’ll latch on and walk straight through.”
Cora studied the water tumbling over stony rapids near the tightened cable. A small log floated by, appearing out of an unseen eddy to crest on the swell of water before cascading across the jagged stones. Without latching on, they would be swept over the rocks and out into the lake, dead likely as not. “Is it shallow enough to wade across?”
The thief shrugged. “You might have to hold your breath a bit.”
“How is it no one’s found this?” Cora asked.
“Ain’t no boats comin’ over the rapids, see, and only dead people swim here.”
A lump caught in Cora’s throat.
Using his full body weight, Aynon pulled back on the winch until the locking lever clicked one final time. The cable, taut as a lute string, stretched in mid-air across the river about a foot off the waterline.
Cora cared not for the implications. “What now?”
Aynon reached into his pack and pulled out several short lengths of rope, each fitted with a quick-release clip on the end. He tossed one to each of them and tied the loose end of his rope around his belt. With a small nod, he slapped his clip around the cable spanning the river, took the torch from Cora, and walked into the torrent. Midway across he disappeared beneath the surface; only the torch remained upright and bobbing like a will-o-wisp above the water. Moments later, his head emerged, and he trudged against the current to the opposite bank.
“That’s easy!” Elric exclaimed, latching on and jumping into the raging river. Immediately, his feet swept out from under him and he plunged. The rope and clasp held, and in seconds he was sputtering and flailing about for something to grasp. The Rae Swamy pushed against him, but the fighter refused to yield. Eventually, after drinking half the river, Elric pulled himself up and regained his footing. With dogged determination, he slowly trudged to the other side, emerging with the look of a drowned cat on the opposite bank.
With examples of both the proper and improper way to cross, the remaining freeblades, one by one, plunged into the river with nothing more than a clasp and willpower to guide them. Debris from the city floated by—pieces of wood, food scraps, dead animals, and unidentifiable sludge—along with occasional odors of refuse, offal, and decayed meat.
Once they had regrouped beneath the towering castle bluffs, Aynon led them on a meticulous climb along the outer edge of the Prominence. “Do exactly what I do,” he said. “Don’t trust your eyes; trust my hands and feet.”
Cora turned to the young soldier. “Elric?”
“And don’t look down,” Aynon added.
“Also, Selorian,” Cora hastened to say, “no purple fire.”
The savant’s eyes flashed, and ambient light around him dimmed briefly. Cora regarded him with considerable trepidation, her eyes fixed on the poorly made sword hanging from his side.
Nothing along the rocky cliff indicated a path, and only a lone Alliance breaker guided them up and around the crags. Cora saw no footholds, roots, or rocky protrusions to assist in the climb, but she trusted Cuauhtérroc’s hands and feet, which were supposed to be following Aynon’s. She tried not to think about how Kiyla, at the end of the procession, was relying on four other people to mimic perfectly the thief’s motions. She also tried not to think about the result of slipping from the edge. Nothing lay beneath them but massive rocks with the lake crashing upon them. A fall here would mean certain death, and only a few inches of stone beneath their toes prevented such a fate.
Finally, seventy feet up and thirty feet around the bluff, Aynon hoisted himself into a small cavity in the rocks. He dropped to his knees and peered out over the ledge at them. “Almost there,” he called out. After a terrifying hour of trusting their lives to fingertips and toeholds, they reassembled in stony silence in the smallish cave overlooking The Deepening.
Aynon lit a lantern and hung it from a hook in the ceiling. “Ain’t much left, but make yourselves at home. It is…for the night.”
Cora blinked. “What? We’re not staying the night here, are we?”
“You don’t think very far ahead, do you?” Aynon quipped.
Selorian shook his head. “She does not.”
“First of all,” Aynon said, “I still gotta break in for you. Second, you have probably been hard at it all day, and I reckon even freeblade types like you gotta sleep at some point. Third, if you want, you can always clamber back down that cliff by yourself…”
Plenty of retorts entered Cora’s mind, but she bit her tongue.
Aynon grinned. “I didn’t think so. Take a load off. There’s bedrolls near the back of the cave, and hopefully some dried foodstuffs and clean water. No makin’ a fire, though. Don’t want to give away our position.”
Selorian flung a ball of lavender energy out the mouth of the cave. Half a minute later it finally hit the surface of the lake over a mile away. The savant sniffed. “Satisfying.”
Aynon rolled his eyes and wandered away from the group. “No more signal flares, Slim. I swear, none of y’all use your heads.”
“Is dees your home?” Cuauhtérroc asked.
Aynon laughed. “Not hardly. I don’t even like comin’ up here. The guild maintains it as a launchin’ point for castle raids. That, and the occasionally necessary cliff-divin’ expedition.” He picked his teeth with a fingernail.
Selorian nodded at him with a sly grin.
After beds were made and the stores of dried fruits and meats consumed, Aynon slipped away into the back of the cave and disappeared. Soon, Elric and Kiyla settled into a discussion of contrasting combat styles, and before long they were comparing battle wounds. The savant curled up in a bedroll, and was soon asleep.
Cora joined the savage at the cave’s entrance.
Cuauhtérroc’s legs dangled over the ledge, his face solemn as he gazed across the choppy waters of The Deepening far below. Cora recalled the last time she stared out over the Cradle of Storms as she prepared herself for her graduating recital of The Ballad of Tanasha’s Keep.
“Dees song is good,” Cuauhtérroc said after she finished.
Cora started in surprise. “I didn’t realize I was singing it.”
“I theenk it makes you ready for dees fight.”
Cora looked down into her lap. “I don’t know, Cuauhtie. I’m not sure anything can make me ready for a fight. I used to go through a mental exercise to clear my mind before a performance, but it doesn’t really help much for combat. I really just want to play music for the duke, not fight his battles.”
The savage looked up at the night sky that was beginning to clear. A waning gibbous moon struggled against thinning clouds, and occasional luminescent sparkles flecked the lake far below. Minutes passed as they observed the forces of nature at work. Behind them the conversation had ended, and the small cave fell into silence. Only the breakwater below reached their ears. “It’s peaceful, isn’t it?” Cora said.
Cuauhtérroc sighed. “There ees no place like dees in my homeland. Only dees trees.”
Cora’s thoughts wandered to their task, a mission growing more critical and less likely by the hour. “Do you think we’ll get Schumann?”
She marveled at his confidence; the savage never doubted himself. “Do you think we’ll save Lady Karlina?”
Cuauhtérroc paused. “Yes. Dees theef must do hees job.”
“Yeah. It all rides on him, doesn’t it?”
“What if he’s caught?”
Cuauhtérroc shrugged. “Den we do the best we can.”
“What if we fail?”
“Den we go back to Westmeade and tell dees Council we fail.”
Cora fell back into reverie, pondering everything she had accomplished since leaving home. It didn’t seem like much to her, and yet it seemed like a whirlwind had swept through her life and made a mess of things. Now, her whole life hinged on tomorrow’s actions. If Aynon Shayn succeeded in infiltrating the castle, clearing the way, and bringing back forged documents that allowed them to attend the wedding; if they could find Schumann before he carried out his nefarious plot; if they could save Karlina from his clutches and make it out of there alive…
“I think Selorian has the Schumann Slayer,” she said, breaking a long silence.
Cuauhtérroc nodded. “I know. He is a dangerous man weeth dees sword. I watch heem.”
Cora laid her head on the savage’s soft panther pelt. “I’m glad you’re here, Cuauhtie. There’s no way I could do any of this without you.”
The savage stared at the moon as it peered through the receding clouds. “You are dees good friend, Cora O’Banion,” he said.
* * * * * * * * * *
Early the next morning, Elric awoke to the smell of bacon frying over an open fire. The sun had not yet broken the horizon, and clear gray skies were just beginning to give way to pink and orange. A crisp breeze wafted into the small cave, carrying with it the fishy scents of The Deepening and stirring the hunger-inducing aroma of breakfast.
Much to Elric’s surprise, Aynon Shayn knelt beside a small campfire near the mouth of the cave. Several strips of bacon sizzled, and a wicker basket of eggs sat near him waiting their turn. Elric shuffled over to watch the thief working.
Aynon grinned as he turned the bacon with a spatula. “Compliments of the kitchen.”
Elric breathed in the aroma and rubbed his stomach, but a frown etched his forehead. “I thought ya didn’t want us makin’ a fire.”
“It ain’t a problem now,” Aynon said. “You’ll be in the castle in a couple hours.”
“So…I reckon the guards didn’t kill ya, then.”
Aynon glanced at him briefly, then returned to the skillet. “Nope.”
As the heavenly scent penetrated their dreams, the other freeblades stirred, stretched, and sat up.
“Would you look at that!” Cora exclaimed.
Elric followed her pointing finger. A red-orange sun slowly crested the horizon of lake water, turning the sky fiery shades of orange before finally giving way to pale blue. A vibrant glow filled the cave, illuminating her awestruck face.
“It’s beautiful up here,” she said. “I’ve never seen a sunrise over The Deepening before. I’ve lived on this lake all my life, but never have I seen it like this. It really takes your breath away.”
They ate in silence as a cloud of somberness filled the cave. Elric savored every bite as if this might be his last meal. Above them, the castle awaited—a castle filled to the brim with military men and surrounded by the Sentinel League. They had placed their lives in the hands of not simply a stranger, but a tenured member of a shady gang of thieves. Nothing about this arrangement gave Elric any confidence. There was only blind trust in an untrustworthy man.
When she had finished her meal, Kiyla stepped to the back of the cave where the sun cast long shadows against the back wall. There she shadowboxed for a while, her breath spurting through tight lips with each jab. Elric watched her movements—graceful yet powerful, feminine but brutal. He didn’t know whether to fear for his life or fall madly in love. He shook his head. There ain’t no time for that.
Aynon hoisted his pack onto his shoulders and doused the fire. “Well, that’s that. I done my part. The way’s clear…just slip through that crevasse by Kiyla back there and follow it up into a cellar. The guard keepin’ watch up there is with us, so he’ll let you in. All the traps have been disengaged…I think…don’t step in any holes. You got about an hour to get through there before everything resets. It might be enough time…if you hurry. Hope you succeed on this little fool’s errand of yours. Oh…the docs are in Cora’s pack. Luck o’ the Bones!”
Elric shook Aynon’s hand. “Thanks. I hope we meet again someday.”
Aynon clapped him on the shoulder. “If we do, you’ll probably be a mark.”
Cora extended a hand. “If we ever require your services again, how will we find you?”
Aynon pulled a small card from his sleeve. “Here. You need me? Write an address on this card and set it down just about anywhere. And then walk away. Far away. There’s runners what’ll get the flapjaw on the flip.”
Cora slipped the card into a pocket. “Thank you.”
The master thief shrugged. “Yeah, well you best hurry up.”
A flash of brilliant purple lit up the small cave, causing Kiyla to jump and spin in a low crouch. Selorian chuckled at the effect. “I possess the distinct sensation of jubilance, a rapturous elation of joy that I will today fulfill my destiny. Schumann dies this day.”
“Selorian!” Cora scolded for the umpteenth time. “We’re trying to capture him, not kill him. We’re trying to prevent Lady Karlina’s death.”
The savant sniffed. “Which I will indubitably accomplish by removing his cranium from his torso.”
Aynon stepped toward the mouth of the cave and pulled his cloak around him. “Okay…y’all have fun.” With remarkable grace, he slipped both legs over the ledge and shimmied down the cliff, leaving the freeblades to follow his directions.
As Elric watched the thief disappear, a memory flickered in his mind. “Hey Cora, did he put some papers in yer pack?”
Cora slipped her backpack off her shoulders and opened the top flap. “Yes, they’re right h—” She froze, then buried her hands to the bottom of the pack. Seconds later, she sighed and tossed the forged documents onto the floor. She glowered as she put everything back on, smoldering and sputtering under her breath.
“Whassup?” Elric asked.
Cora’s face flushed red beneath a deep scowl. “That rinkin Aynon Shayn! He took my entire pouch of gems!”
Elric picked up a hand-written note from among the scattered paperwork. It read: “Thought you said you don’t flink.” He squinted at her. “I thought ya didn’ have none.”
Cora growled and kicked her pack. “I’m not going to tell a thief I’ve got gems on me.”
“Lyin’…stealin’…” Elric shrugged. “Off the same side o’ the coin, ain’t it?”
A moment later, Kiyla cursed. “Filthy bugger flushed me. I trusted him!”
Elric’s brain hurt. That made no sense. Kiyla was on the thief’s side…wasn’t she? She was “in” with the Alliance…right? Clearly not, but then if she wasn’t—
He rifled through his backpack. “Cripe!” No one was on Aynon’s side. Fresh waves of doubt washed over him. A fortress before them, a cliff behind them, and they were stuck in the middle with no food, little water, and only the word of a thief to go on—a thief who had stolen all their means.
Flashes of eldritch energy erupted into the back of the cave, spraying showers of rock. Selorian had been robbed as well.
“Maybe it is why he is called dees thief,” Cuauhtérroc offered. He readied his macana with narrowed eyes on the savant.
Elric peered into the dark crevasse in the rear of the cave. He pulled resolve from thin air, or maybe it was fatalism. “Ain’t no use puttin’ guts back inna frog. C’mon…we gotta job to do.” He rolled his shoulders forward to adjust his pack. “Ain’t but an hour left. Let’s go.”
The Bones were rolled, only he didn’t know what had turned up.He hoped they weren’t crossed.