THEIVES IN THE DARK
Willbrand looked darkly at the figures in front of them, his sword poised to strike. There were at least four shadowy figures, and he thought he glimpsed more in the darkness behind them. They weren't city guards; they were dressed as ordinary men, which led Willbrand to believe they were thieves. At least three of them had some kind of sword. He could see the moonlight glinting off the steel.
The men came closer, not seeming to be in any hurry. Without a word they spread out on the sand in front of Willbrand and Merigan, cutting off any chance of escape, except back out to sea.
"And who might you be?" one of the men said, the closest one to them, in fact. "Most people know better than to come wandering around the beach at night, or to go swimming after dark in this sea snake infested area. You're obviously not from around here."
He came closer still, until he was only a few paces away. His sword was in his hand, and Willbrand could now see that it was a short cutlass common to the type carried by the sailors he had seen at the docks.
Willbrand held out his sword.
"Who we merely travelers passing through," he said. "If you're planning on robbing us, you're wasting your time. We have nothing of value."
The man grinned.
"Oh don't worry; we're not here to take your coin. We're looking for someone. What are your names?"
Willbrand hesitated a moment.
"Our names are none of your business," he replied. "I told you, we're just travelers, nothing more. We don't want any trouble, so why don't you just leave us alone."
Willbrand noticed out of the corner of his eye that Merigan was just standing beside him, seeming to stare off into space, her brow furrowed in concentration. He'd seen that look before.
"I'm afraid I can't do that," the man said, stepping closer still, until he stood just a few inches from the point of Willbrand's sword, which, by the way, he didn't seem in the least concerned about. "Captain Fisher was very specific with his orders. He wanted us to find a certain two people and bring them back. Two people, I might add, whose description seems to match your own. Now why don't we..."
The man suddenly spun around, he and all his comrades heads turning toward the city street behind them.
"The city guards!" one of the men shouted.
A moment later they were all scattering, running in different directions. Willbrand felt Merigan grab hold of his hand and pull him forward. He didn't hesitate, having been expecting something to happen. They ran forward, right past the man who had confronted them. Willbrand heard the man give a shout, but he didn't pause. He did glance back. The man was staring at them, but he wasn't pursuing them. At least, not yet.
They reached the street and bolted down it. Willbrand risked a glance behind them once more as they ran. He saw no one following them.
They ran on for quite some time, turning rapidly and seemingly at random down the narrow streets. Eventually, when Merigan could run no farther, they came to a halt. The young girl leaned against a barrel, holding her chest and panting. Willbrand, who was not winded at all, stood beside her, looking behind them for any sign of pursuit.
"You made them see a city guard?" he questioned.
Merigan did not reply for a moment, more concerned with getting oxygen into her lungs. Eventually she nodded.
"Yes," she replied.
"I didn't see anything," he said.
She looked up at him.
"Yes. I knew you were going to do something. Was that the reason?"
Again she nodded.
"It must have been. In order to see the illusion, you have to believe it's real. You have to be susceptible. If you're suspicious, or you don't believe it, the illusion won't work."
"Yeah, that's pretty much what I thought, from all you've told me," he said. For some reason he found that very satisfying. At least this time, he hadn't fallen for it. "So who do you think those men were?"
"Can't say for sure," Merigan replied. "They looked like sailors, and they mentioned Captain Fisher. Probably pirates or privateers. But the thing that concerns me is, how did they know about us?"
Willbrand had to admit, that was a question that was uppermost in his mind as well. He supposed it was possible that they could have been after someone else, that it was a case of mistaken identity, but somehow that didn't seem very likely. No, it was much more likely that they were indeed whom the men had been seeking, and if that were true, it meant that someone knew they were here.
"How could someone have found out about us?" he questioned. "They weren't city guards, or Imperial Knights. How could anyone else know we are here?"
Merigan didn't reply for a moment. She suddenly leaned forward and brought her hand up to her forehead.
Willbrand stooped down beside her.
"Are you all right?" he questioned. He had just thought that she was tired from the run, but her face looked pale.
"I'll be all right," she said. She took a deep breath, then lifted her head again and looked at him. "That takes a lot out of me, and the run afterwards didn't help. We'd better get back. I need to get some rest, and I think the sooner we tell the others about this, the better."
Willbrand nodded in agreement. Merigan got to her feet and stood there for a moment unsteadily. The young noble took her by the arm to steady her.
"Are you sure you're all right?" he asked again. "We're not in that much of a rush. We can wait a little longer if you need to rest."
"No, I'll be fine," Merigan replied. "C'mon, let's go back."
Willbrand looked back and forth down the street. He had a pretty good sense of direction. He had tried to keep track of where they were going, but Merigan had made too many turns for him to keep track of, and the darkness and the fact it was an unfamiliar city had left him without a clue as to which direction might lead back.
"Which way?" he asked.
Merigan looked around.
"Umm..." she said slowly.
Willbrand glared at her.
"Are you telling me you don't know?" he questioned.
"Just kidding," she said, pointing above the rooftops to the left. Willbrand looked and saw the spire of one of the towers he had noticed earlier outlined in a pale light. "That's the Palace Minaret. It's at the north end of town, in the opposite direction from the docks. It's easy to spot from nearly anywhere in the city, so it makes a good landmark. C'mon, we've got to go this way."
She started off down the road in the direction she had pointed. Willbrand followed right behind, a little annoyed and a little relieved that she had been kidding him. The young noble kept his eyes open and his hand on his sword hilt as they walked. He assumed that the men that were following them would not give up just because they had gotten away, and would still be searching for them. There was always the possibility that they might run into one another again, and if they did, he was going to be ready.
But Merigan did not seemed concerned, and, as they walked on, back into the more populated area of the city, Willbrand began to feel more at ease as well.
Even so, it was not until they had walked through the door of Larmonte's house and closed it behind them that he truly relaxed. Maldor was there to greet them and led them into the sitting room. The others were there, including Larmonte. Between him and Saramis sat another man. Sturdily built with a short beard and mustache and head filled with salt and pepper hair. He had a tankard of what Willbrand assumed was ale in his hand. He looked at them keenly as they entered.
"Well, hello," Jenya said when she saw them. "We were just talking about you. We were getting worried."
"Well, as you can see, we're fine," Merigan told her.
Ktan noticed them both eyeing the stranger.
"This is Captain Fisher," he said. "He's agreed to take us to the southern islands if the need arises."
Willbrand's eyebrows rose at the name. He and Merigan looked at one another.
"He was kind enough to send some men to look for you two," Ktan continued. "Did they find you?"
For a moment, neither one of them said anything. Willbrand could see a grin suddenly form on Merigan's face.
"Yes," she said.
"Good," Ktan said, nodding.
They were all silent for a moment. Merigan covered her mouth, and Willbrand found he couldn't suppress a grin himself.
He leaned over to her.
"Oops," he whispered.
Merigan almost choked trying to prevent herself from laughing.
Jenya looked at them curiously.
"What's with you two?" she said slowly, looking at them keenly.
"Nothing," Willbrand said immediately.
Merigan giggled. Willbrand had to turn away to prevent from laughing himself.
Ktan stood up. He did not look amused at all.
"What's going on?" he said sharply.
"They found us down by the beach," Merigan confessed. "But they didn't say why they were after us. We thought they were the enemy."
"What did you do?" he questioned sternly.
"Nothing," Merigan said quickly. "A city guard came by and we ran."
Captain Fisher looked at them with a bemused expression.
"I'm surprised you got away," he said. "Most of my men are quite good at tracking people down, and once they've found someone they don't usually lose them. Perhaps there's more to you two than meets the eye."
Merigan just shrugged.
"Perhaps," she said innocently.
"Well, enough of that," Ktan said rather abruptly, making it apparent that this line of conversation was at an end. "You're back now, and that's the important thing."
He sat back down, still staring at them both. And Willbrand was quite certain he hadn't missed the fact that Merigan was still flushed from her exertion. He had a feeling they'd be getting the third degree from Ktan after the Captain left. And that was definitely not something he was looking forward to.
He also couldn't help but notice that Captain Fisher was now looking at them with keen interest in his dark eyes as well. For some reason, the look made Willbrand slightly uneasy.
"So anyway, Captain Fisher," Saramis spoke up for the first time. "How long will it take us to reach the southern islands?"
"Depending on the wind, it could take anywhere from five days to a week," he replied. "Generally this time of year the winds are favorable, so you're in luck."
"And how soon can you be ready to go?" Ktan questioned.
"I can have the Lady of the Night ready tomorrow afternoon if you like," he replied. "We've already stowed away the cargo we're bringing. The only reason I'm still in port is to give the boys a few days to relax. I was planning on leaving three days hence, but I don't have to wait if you're in a hurry."
"Well, we don't know for sure right now if we even need to go. But we should know soon."
"My ship'll be here for three days," he said.
"Very well," Saramis spoke, standing up. "I think that about covers it then."
Captain Fisher stood as well.
"I suppose so," he replied, draining his tankard. "Well, I'll be off then. It was kind of you to invite me over for a drink, Larmonte. Take care of yourself, and say hello to your wives for me, especially that pretty brunette."
Larmonte lurched to his feet as well.
"Ah yes, Darla. Pretty indeed, but quite a handful. I'll give her your regards."
Captain Fisher nodded. He wished them good night, then Larmonte escorted him out of the room.
The others were silent for a few moments. Ktan looked at the doorway, obviously waiting until the two men were out of earshot.
But still, it was Jenya who spoke first.
"Are you sure we can trust him?" she questioned.
"No we can't," Saramis said bluntly. "The man would rob his own mother blind given the chance."
"My kinda guy."
"So why didn't you tell me that sooner?" Jenya said, frowning. "I would have tried to find someone else."
Saramis raised his hand.
"He'll do just fine," he said. "You could have done worse. He's got more scruples than most. At least we won't have to worry about him slitting our throats in the night just for our coin. He'll treat us fairly as long as he knows he can't get away with anything. As long as we keep an eye on him, we should be fine."
Jenya gave him a look.
"Why doesn't that make me feel any better," she grumbled.
"You used your powers, didn't you?" Ktan said out of nowhere.
For a moment no one spoke. Merigan and Willbrand looked at one another again. Neither one of them felt like laughing anymore.
"She had no choice," Willbrand spoke up. "We didn't know they were looking for us at your behest."
Ktan frowned, staring at them both without saying a word for a long time.
"You know you shouldn't use your powers unless absolutely necessary," he said finally. "You know how much it takes out of you, and there are ways it can be detected."
"Yes, I know," Merigan said slowly, head bowed.
"I told you, we didn't have any choice," Willbrand repeated, a little more forcefully. "Or at least, we didn't think so. We thought they were the enemy. What would have us do, just stand there and let them take us? That would have turned out well if they really were the enemy."
"And you wouldn't have been out there at all if you had listened to me in the first place, now would you?" Ktan snapped. "This isn't a picnic we're on. The Imperial Knights aren't looking for us to invite us to a party. If they catch us we'll be hung, or burned at the stake. We can't afford to make any mistakes!"
"Yes I know," Willbrand replied. "How many times have you told us that before?"
"And I'll keep telling you it until it seeps into your thick head!"
"I'm going to bed," Merigan announced suddenly.
Ktan glared at her. But she didn't seem to notice. She turned and walked out of the room.
"I am too," Willbrand said. He glared once more at Ktan, who returned to look just as grimly, then walked out of the room as well.
For a long time the three remaining sat there in silence.
"Actually, I thought it was kind of amusing myself," Saramis ventured eventually.
“You would," Ktan muttered.
Saramis gave him a look.
"Would you lighten up a bit? They're still just kids. They wanted to have a look around. I probably would have done the same thing."
"The point is, no harm was done," Saramis finished.
"No harm was done?" Ktan said. "Are you sure? Every time Merigan uses her power, there's a risk of it being detected. It shouldn't be used on a whim."
"Detected by whom?" Saramis questioned. "Queen Irissa? She's hundreds of miles away. You think she can detect it over that distance?"
Ktan just stared at him for a moment.
"No, but what happened when those men found out there was no city guard there after all? Did they wonder what happened to him, where he went? Once Merigan ran away, she couldn't sustain the illusion. Even if they weren't sure of what they saw, there's bound to be some talk. And that's just what we don't need, now is it?"
Saramis sat there for a moment, then shook his head. He should have known better than to try to argue with Ktan about this.
He leaned forward with a flourish.
"I bow to your superior logic, oh grumpy one."
Ktan glared at him and fingered the hilt of his sword.
"Come over here and I'll show you just how grumpy I can be," he said.
"No thank you," Saramis said, standing up. "In fact, I believe I will join the young ones in turning in. There's obviously no point in talking to you now. Perhaps you'll be in a better mood tomorrow."
"Don't count on it," Ktan said as the magician walked out the door.
Ktan glanced over at Jenya. A huge fireplace was built into one wall, the blaze inside it lighting the room. Jenya was sitting beside it. Now she turned toward it, picking up a poker and stirring up the ash, sending a shower of sparks up the chimney, silhouetting her in the suddenly bright light. When she was done, she did not turn toward him, but remained looking at the fire. They were silent for a long time.
"Am I being too hard on everyone?" Ktan said eventually.
Jenya did not turn to face him. For a long time, he thought she wasn't going to say anything at all.
"We've been running, what, fifteen, twenty years now?" she said eventually.
"More or less," Ktan said slowly. He could only see part of her face, the fire flickering on her red hair.
"That's a long time," she said. "Seems like a lifetime sometimes. But we've never been caught. And it's because of you that we haven't."
She turned to look at him. Facing away from the fire, her face was darkened by shadow.
"You may take things a little too seriously, but that's all right. We need someone like you. We need someone to be vigilant, to keep us safe. Leave it up to Saramis to lighten the mood, or me if you have to. The truth is, we never could have made it this far without you being the way you are."
Ktan didn't reply. |She could see him plainly in the light of the fire, but she couldn't really read the expression on his face.
"But I do wonder what's going to happen," she continued.
Still, Ktan did not reply.
She looked down at the floor.
"How do you envision this all ending?" she said.
"What do you mean?" Ktan said finally.
"Just what I said. Is there any happy ending here? I mean for us? What happens after we get the Book of Redemption? We'll still be heretics. Even if Merigan were strong enough to face Irissa, she's still the Queen. She's got the king and the army behind her. And how can we fight that? The only way for us to get out of this, the only way we'll ever be able to live in peace, as long as we stay here, is to overthrow the King. And I don't care how powerful Merigan becomes, you and I both know there's no way we're going to do that without an army of our own. Before the war, there were dozens of Maidens, but even they couldn't fight the king without help, surely you can't expect Merigan to do that by herself."
Jenya got up and walked over to Ktan, sitting down right in front of him. She looked attentively into Ktan's eyes.
"I know you want revenge. And believe it or not, I want it just as much as you do. But don't you ever get tired of this? Don't you want to stop running, settle down, maybe...I don't know, maybe have a real family?"
Ktan lowered his gaze.
"Of course," he said slowly. "I've thought about it many times. But you know how I feel about this. What we're doing is more important than my peace of mind. It doesn't matter what I want, or whether I'm happy or have a family. I have to put that aside until this is done, one way or another. And no, I'm not sure how it's going to end. To tell you the truth, I don't see many scenarios that don't end badly for us. But that doesn't mean I'm going to give up. It doesn't mean I'm not going to try. I have no idea how it's going to end, but I know I have to see it through."
He looked up again. She was still looking at him. His gaze was firm, but he wasn't frowning. There was no anger on his face like there had been before.
"For Merigan?" she said.
Now it was Jenya's turn to lower her gaze. She sat there in silence, but then looked up in surprise as he suddenly took her hand. He hardly ever touched her. He hardly ever touched anyone.
"What's troubling you?" he questioned. "Do you still think we should leave the kingdom?"
He wasn't used to seeing her like this. In her armor she was another knight, another fighter who could tough out any situation. Yet she wasn't wearing her armor now. Vulnerable wasn't a word he usually thought of when he thought of Jenya, but that was the way she looked now.
For a moment she didn't reply.
"I don't know," she replied. "Sometimes I just get so tired. Sometimes I want it to end so badly I don't even care anymore if I get caught. So tell me truthfully, if we get this Book of Redemption, does that mean that the end is in sight?"
For a moment he just looked at her. He knew what he wanted to tell her. He knew what she wanted to hear, but he also knew those were lies.
"I don't know," he said. "I really don't know."
Jenya looked at him sadly. It wasn't as if what he had just said came as any big surprise.
"Well tell me this then," she tried. "If we get the Book, does that mean that Merigan will become more powerful? Does that mean that if she ever did have to confront Irissa, she would have a chance at defeating her. If we get the book, does that mean that Merigan will be able to defend herself?"
Again Ktan hesitated.
"I don't know," he said again. "I think so."
"All right then. I have a proposal. If we do manage to get our hands on the book. If it does indeed give Merigan the capability to defend herself, then I think you should tell her the truth, the truth about herself and the truth about the Maidens."
She paused for a moment to gauge his reaction. His brow furrowed, but before he could say anything she continued.
"She's not a child anymore. She deserves to know."
She waited, looking at him. She could tell he didn't like the idea, that he was resisting it. Just like any father, he was reluctant to admit his daughter was growing up. But finally he nodded.
"All right. I guess it is about time she knew."
Jenya was relieved to hear that, but she wasn't done.
Ktan looked at her guardingly.
"Once she knows, I think it should be up to her what to do about it, whether to confront Irissa or to run."
Now Ktan really did frown.
"Now you're asking too much," he said. "She's only fifteen. I know she's growing up, but she's not old enough to make a decision like that."
"I disagree," Jenya replied. "I may not have known her as long as you, but I can see she's got a good head on her shoulders. She's more mature than you think. I think she's perfectly capable of making a decision like that. After all, it's her life we're talking about here, isn't it?
"Yeah, but that's..."
"Just let me finish," Jenya cut him off. "You said yourself it was her people who were wronged by what happened. Therefore it should be up to her what should be done about it. You've said all along you're doing this all for Merigan, so shouldn't she have a say in that? If this really is about her and not you, shouldn't she be the one to make this decision?"
Ktan started to speak, then shut his mouth. Jenya continued to look at him. She had wanted to tell him this for a long time. Someone had to, and of all of them, she thought if he was going to listen to any of them, it would be her. But still she wasn't sure how he was going to react, yet she took the fact that he hadn't rejected the idea outright to be a good sign.
"I don't know," he said finally. "You're asking a lot Jenya. I don't know whether even now Merigan is ready to make a decision like that."
"I realize that," she said. "But no matter how you look at it, it's her life. She's getting old enough that she's going to start making decision on her own whether you like it or not."
Ktan smiled ruefully.
"I suppose you're right," he said. "All right. I'll think about it. You don't need a decision this minute, do you?"
"No, I can wait," she replied. "But I suggest you don't wait too long or you'll find she's made the decision on her own without any help from you at all."
As if by some unspoken sign, they both got up.
"I guess we better get some sleep too," Ktan said. "You know, she's become a lot more outspoken since she met that young noble. I think he's a bad influence."
"Oh shush," Jenya said. "He's good for her, and you know it. Otherwise he wouldn't be with us at all."
Ktan smiled again.
"You know me too well."
"How could I not, after all these years?"
As they walked over to the hallway Jenya looked at Ktan again.
"Did you really mean that?"
"When I asked you if you had ever thought about settling down, about raising a family. Have you really thought about that?"
"Yeah, I guess," he replied. "But it's never been serious. More of a 'grass is always greener on the other side' kind of thing. I've been roaming all my life. Even when this is over, I don't think I could change that, even if I wanted to. And what kind of woman would want a man like that?"
They reached the hallway and headed up the stairs to their rooms, Ktan in front. Jenya followed behind, looking at his back. What kind of woman indeed, she thought. But she said not a word.
The next two days passed quietly. No one disturbed them, and there seemed to be no repercussions from Willbrand and Merigan's confrontation with Captain Fisher's men. Saramis and Jenya had a number of errands to run in the city, Saramis stocking up on various sundry items needed for his magical pursuits, as well as a few luxury food items to add to the rather Spartan fare, or at least Spartan in Saramis' opinion, that Jenya had chosen to add to their stocks. Willbrand and Merigan accompanied them on these excursions, so Willbrand did indeed get to see a major part of the city. Only Ktan stayed behind, cooped up in Larmonte's house, which was fine with Willbrand. Ktan could stay inside brooding all day long as far as he was concerned. He wouldn't mind one bit.
Besides the docks, he found the marketplace to be the most exciting. The streets there were crowded with people, more people than he had ever seen in his life, more people than he had ever imagined. And the stalls along the street were filled with the most marvelous items from all over the kingdom. Just walking down the road left him in awe.
By the end of the second day, the spies who Larmonte had sent out to hunt down all available information on Dason and his home had come back. Someone had even contacted the builder and gotten the floor plan. As they were all gathered after dinner that night, Ktan decided it was time to make their move.
"Dason's bedroom and study are on the second floor, two rooms apart," Ktan filled them in. "If the book is there, those are the two rooms most likely to contain it."
"Unless it's hidden away somewhere," Jenya stated. "It's not likely he's got it sitting on a bookshelf you know. It might not even be in the house."
"Obviously," Ktan said dryly. "It's not going to be right out in the open. We're depending on your skills to find it, Saramis. As for it not being in the house, unless Dason's got it with him, it's probably there. It's too important. I think he'd want to keep it nearby."
"It's not like we have much choice in the matter anyway," Saramis spoke up. "We have no place else to look. If it's there, I'll find it."
"All right," Ktan replied. "Be careful. If you run into any trouble, you know we won't be far away. All you have to do is signal."
Willbrand looked at them for a moment.
"Wait a minute," he said. "What do you mean, we won't be far away? Is Saramis going in by himself."
"No, not by himself. I'll be with him," Merigan said.
Willbrand frowned. Saramis and Merigan were going in alone? He had thought they would all go together. He looked at Ktan.
"You're going to let them go in alone?" he said in disbelief.
"Yes, I'm going to let them go in alone," Ktan said impatiently. "This is a mission that requires stealth. The fewer people who go the less likely it is they'll be noticed. You and me and Jenya would just get in the way."
Willbrand just stood there with his mouth open.
"But..but, suppose they get in trouble?" he blurted out. "Suppose they run into someone? Neither one of them even has a sword. How will they defend themselves?"
"You've already seen Saramis' ability to take care of himself," Ktan explained. "And Merigan too. Just because they don't carry steel doesn't mean they're helpless. I thought you would have realized that by now."
"We'll be right outside," Jenya reassured him. "If they get into any trouble that they don't think they can handle all they have to do is signal us. We can reach them in minutes."
Willbrand didn't reply. Minutes might be too late, but what could he say? No matter how he felt, he knew they were right. With their magical skills, Saramis and Merigan were more than able to take care of themselves. He didn't like it one bit, but he could tell that no one was going to back him up on this one if he complained.
So he didn't say anything, though the look on his face said it all
"If we're done discussing this now, shall we get on with it?" Saramis questioned.
A few minutes later they were out in the streets, making their way to Dason's house. Although it had been dark for some time now, there were still plenty of people in the streets. Jenya had left her armor behind. It would have brought too much attention to them. But she and Ktan, as well as Willbrand, still wore their swords. Other than that, they were dressed in their usual traveling gear. There was nothing about them that made them stand out.
The crowds thinned out as they left the commercial area and entered a more residential district. The residents of this area were the wealthiest in the city, and the houses reflected that. Most of them were huge, some larger than the temples that stood near the center of the city, and just as ostentatious. Almost every one had huge pillars and ornate columns lining the front, as well as lavish gardens surrounding them. Willbrand followed the others in silence. This was new to him too. Each home here was larger than any building in all of Crotasia except for the castle itself, and some rivaled that. But after all he had seen of the city so far, this wasn't really all that surprising.
Eventually Ktan called them to a halt.
"All right, there it is," he said, pointing to a huge stone and marble house across the street from where they stood. He looked at Saramis and Merigan. "It's up to you two now. Remember, we'll be here if you need us."
Saramis nodded and led Merigan away. The young girl looked back at the others as they crossed the street. Willbrand was already starting to pace nervously. Although he didn't show it, Merigan knew that Ktan was almost as uneasy as the young noble.
"This way," she heard Saramis say softly. They had crossed the street now, and stood in front of a low hedge that marked the edge of the elaborate garden that surrounded Dason's house. The hedge stood over six feet high, and she could not see beyond it, but as she turned toward him Saramis slipped through a narrow gap and disappeared.
With one last look at the others behind her, she glided through as well.
The moon had risen shortly after sunset, and though it was only nearing half full, it still provided enough light for them to see by. Or at least it had when they had been out on the road. Here, under the trees in the garden, the light came through only intermittently, leaving black pools of darkness all around them. Merigan could hardly see Saramis in the shadows in front of her. She quickened her pace, not wanting to fall behind and lose sight of him.
She had momentarily lost sight of the house as they made there way through the trees, but now it appeared again ahead of them. It was enormous, even when compared with the other homes in the vicinity. Most of the windows were dark, but she could see light flickering in one of the second floor windows.
The trees were separated from the house by an open space. Saramis looked around carefully. Merigan had seen guards standing by the entrance to the house when they had approached, but she could see no one now. Quickly they ran forward, momentarily exposed in the moonlight, then disappearing into darkness again as they reached the shadow cast by the house itself. There they halted. There was a window to their left, its shutters closed to the night. In the darkness Merigan also noticed a door for the first time, set unobtrusively in the wall. They were around the back of the building now, and Merigan supposed it was a servant's entrance.
Saramis paused to look around again. Merigan stood beside him, her back to the building, its stone cold to the touch. Above them a small balcony surrounded an upstairs window.
Satisfied that they had not been detected, Saramis looked up at the balcony above them for a moment. He crouched down, then sprang up and grabbed hold of a narrow ledge that ran along the bottom of the balcony. A moment later he had pulled himself up onto the balcony itself.
"I'll have the door open in a moment," floated down to her.
She nodded, but he had already vanished. Saramis had been to the house the night before, casing it out to find the easiest entry. He had known just where to go.
Merigan stood quietly, waiting in the dark, listening for any sound that might give away the approach of a passing guard. She had done this many times before, or something similar, but she was still uneasy. All her life had been spent running and hiding. She should be used to this by now. But it seemed like this was something one never got used to. Not completely. No matter how well planned; there was always a matter of luck involved in things like this. All these years their luck had held. But if they kept it up, if they kept bucking the odds, a time had to come when their luck would run out. It was inevitable, wasn't it?
The snap of a twig made her eyes dart toward the trees. She stared into the night, but the shadows below the leafy canopy defeated even her keen vision. She took a deep breath and lowered her eyes, forcing herself to relax and focus inward.
She wasn't sure how she did it. She wasn't sure how she did any of the things she did. She just concentrated on feeling. Call it a sixth sense, call it what you will, but somehow she could tap into it, whatever it was, to extend her senses, to detect another's presence. It didn't always work. Everything she did depended on the other person. Some people she could sense from quite a distance, others she couldn't sense at all. She wasn't sure why. She suspected that it depended on the other person's strength of will. At any rate, though it was flawed, it had still come in handy for her many times in the past.
Ktan had told her many times to only use her powers when necessary. But detecting the presence of others and casting an illusion where very different. Sensing someone's presence was a passive thing. It was like she was just listening, waiting to receive the energy of someone else. Casting an illusion, on the other hand, required a large expenditure of energy on her part. That was why even the simplest one's left her exhausted.
She could sense no one else nearby.
The door beside her suddenly opening nearly made her jump out of her skin.
"C'mon," Saramis hissed. "This way."
Recovering quickly, she followed him inside.
As soon as the door was closed there was a hiss, and a spark of light appeared and then grew as Saramis lit a small lantern he had brought along. Merigan found herself in a long hallway. There were paintings on the wall, and small tables set periodically down the length of the hallway held vases or small marble statues. Saramis had the lantern open only a slit, just enough light for them to see by, but, hopefully, not enough to give them away. As a result, Merigan couldn't see much detail, but she could tell just from what she could see in this narrow hallway that the place must be lavishly furnished.
Saramis didn't give her any time to look things over either. He led her quickly down the hall. She could see it led out into another room ahead, but before they could reach it Saramis suddenly turned right into a room. She followed him in, looking around. Even in the dim light it was obvious they had entered the kitchen.
Saramis led them through the room. Toward the back between two enormous ovens stood a stairway. As they started up he turned toward her and pressed his finger to his lips. Merigan nodded without replying. She had had no intention of making any sound anyway.
They made their way quietly up the steps. This led out into another hallway. Saramis pointed to the left. Merigan saw that the hallway in that direction led into a brightly lit room. She could hear faint voices coming from that direction.
Saramis led her the other way. They passed four doors before Saramis stopped at one. He fiddled with the door for a few minutes. Merigan stood behind him, watching for any sign of activity in the room down the hall. If anyone came out of there, they were in plain sight.
But no one came out before Saramis swung the door open, and they entered the room.
It was the study. That was easy enough to determine. A large desk stood along one wall, a bookcase on another. A thick rug, two chairs and a wooden chest completed the furnishing.
Saramis opened the cover on the lamp so that the light filled the room. It was unlikely to give them away in here. "You see what's in that chest," he said.
Merigan nodded and walked over to the chest as Saramis began to root through the desk. She looked it over for a moment, but it seemed rather ordinary. It had a clasp on it, but there was no lock. She hesitated for a moment. She couldn't sense anything wrong, but that didn't necessarily mean anything. Her abilities were not unlimited. If there was some kind of trap, she wouldn't be able to detect it, except the way any normal human would, by being careful and using her powers of observation.
She examined the latch carefully, but could detect nothing wrong with it. She took hold of it and slowly opened the top.
It was filled with papers.
She skimmed though them, but it soon became apparent they were of no interest to her. They all had to do with shipping and cargo. There certainly wasn't any kind of book in the chest.
She closed it and stood up, looking over at Saramis, who was still engrossed in searching the desk drawers.
"Not there," she said.
He nodded without looking up.
"Take a look at the bookcase."
She walked over to the bookcase, though she was doubtful she would find anything there. The Book of Redemption was too important to leave out in plain sight like that. But one never knew. Perhaps hiding in plain sight might be the best place for it.
She quickly looked over the books. Again, she found nothing of interest. The Book of Redemption was not there either.
Merigan turned to see Saramis looking at her. She shook her head.
"It's not in the desk either," he stated. He walked around the room slowly, staring at the walls and floor, obviously searching for some sign of a secret hiding place. But apparently he didn't see anything, for eventually he turned toward her again.
"Let's take a look at the bedroom."
They exited the room. Merigan glanced once more down the hall at the occupied room. It was farther away now, and she could no longer hear voices, but it was still lit by a flickering fire.
The bedroom was only two doors down. It only took them moments to reach it, and just a little longer for Saramis to unlock it.
The bedroom was just as lavishly furnished as the rest of the house, if not more so. The four post bed was enormous, taking up nearly half the room, and the bed covering was of the finest silk. A large bureau stood opposite the bed, with a long dresser of dark wood on the wall opposite the door. Saramis immediately went over to the bureau and started rooting through it, leaving the dresser to Merigan.
But she had no more luck here than she had had in the study. It didn't take her long to look through the dresser with no sign of the book. Saramis finished his search at almost the same time. He shook his head to indicate his lack of success.
He walked over to the bed and inspected it, even searching under the mattress, but he came up empty handed.
He stood up and looked around the room.
"I had a feeling this wasn't going to be easy," he said. "We'll have to expand the search, and that's going to be much riskier."
Merigan looked at him.
"Well, we can't search the whole house," she said logically.
"I know," Saramis replied ruefully. "But I don't think he'd keep it in a room open to the servants. I'd think he'd want it in a room that was a little more private. That's why I thought it likely it would be in one of these two. Unless of course, it's hidden in some secret room. The builder’s plans didn't show anything like that, but that doesn't mean he didn't add anything later on. The most likely place for him to do something like that would be downstairs, in the wine cellar."
"So you think we should look there next?" Merigan asked.
"That would seem...wait a minute."
He had been looking around the room as he spoke, now his eyes settled on the wall that held the bureau.
"What is it?" Merigan asked.
"Just a second," he said. He reached into his poach, fumbling around for a moment before pulling out a folded paper. He paused for a moment, then walked over to the dresser. He unfolded the paper and spread it out there. Merigan came closer and saw it was a map of what she assumed was the building.
"Yes, just as I thought," he said after a moment.
"What? What is it?" she repeated.
His head swiveled toward the bureau.
"According to the plans, there's supposed to be a fireplace there," he said.
He stepped over to the bureau and looked at the wall behind it. After a moment, he turned to her again.
"Give me a hand with this."
She joined him, grabbing one side. They pulled the bureau slowly out, trying not to make any noise. When they had it far enough away from the wall, Saramis stepped in the spot vacated and looked intently at the wall. Merigan watched him as he ran his hand slowly along it.
"This feels like the outline of a trapdoor," he said softly.
Merigan nodded. She was beginning to feel just a hint of excitement. Perhaps they were finally on to something.
Saramis hand finally must have found some kind of hold, for suddenly the wall opened up to reveal a dark space.
A slight click was all that gave it away, but it as enough to alert Saramis. He ducked down as something shot past his head, missing him by a hairs breath. It was nice to know he still had his reflexes, he thought with a smirk.
"Saramis," Merigan said slowly.
He brought the lantern up to look inside. It was a hollowed out space surrounded by brick, obviously the remains of the fireplace. To his disappointment, it was empty, but in the center was a flat space. Dust covered the space, except for the rectangular outline that was just the right size for a fair sized book.
"He must have..." Saramis began, turning back to Merigan.
The words died in his throat. Her eyes were wide, but they weren't looking at him. Instead they were staring at the black dart protruding from her arm, and the trickle of blood beneath.
With a curse he jumped to his feet. Without hesitation he grabbed the dart and pulled it out. She winced and cried out in pain, but he didn't care. If there was poison on the dart, and there almost certainly was, the sooner it came out the better. Then he grabbed hold of her uninjured arm and pulled her toward the door, all thought of the Book of Redemption forgotten.
They ran down the hall. Saramis didn't seem to care anymore how much noise he was making. And in truth, he wasn't. His face was pale, and he found his heart suddenly thudding against his chest, and not from exertion. He had seen darts like that before. He had seen them kill a man in minutes, and he had seen men linger for days in agony before finally succumbing, depending on the poison. He had to get her out of here as quickly as possible. If it was fast acting, he had to be out of the building before she collapsed, or they'd be caught for sure. He just hoped there was some kind of antidote.
He ran down the steps, pulling her behind him. In spite of all the noise they were making, by some miracle they didn't attract any attention. A few minutes later they were out of the house, running across the lawn into the trees once again. Even after they reached them, Saramis did not slow down. It was a race against time now, and he knew he didn't have a moment to lose. They had to identify the poison and find an antidote. Larmonte should be able to help him with that. He probably knew what kinds of poisons were favored in this city. Then they had to get the antidote, if there was one. And Merigan would have to live long enough for them to get it to her.
Merigan struggled to keep up. Already she felt feverish, and her limbs were starting to get numb. Saramis was practically pulling her along now, as she was having difficulty staying on her feet. She had figured out by now that the dart must have had something on it. Must have been poisoned. She had felt fear before. She and Ktan had almost been caught dozens of times. They had had many narrow escapes, but nothing like this had ever happened to her before. Was she going to die?
They were out in the street now, but Merigan hardly noticed. Her vision seemed to be suffering. Everything around her was blurry. She heard Saramis call out, and a moment later the others, calling back. By now she couldn't even stand without Saramis' support. She saw vague figures approach.
"Where is..." Ktan began, but stopped when he saw the condition Merigan was in. "What happened?"
"She was struck by a poisoned dart," Saramis said quickly. "We've got to get her back to Larmonte's. It's her only..."
Ktan needed only that to access the situation. He cut Saramis off, pushing forward, grabbing hold of Merigan and lifting her up into his arms.
"Hurry!" he snapped, his voice a mixture of anguish and contained rage. "Saramis, go on ahead and tell Larmonte."
Saramis nodded and ran ahead immediately. Willbrand came up beside Ktan, his face pale as he peered at Merigan.
"What can I do?"
Ktan cast him hardly a glance.
"Pray to the gods that they have an antidote."