We were standing under the canopy of a tree as rain collected and tumbled off the leaves and branches.
The light of a dusk in quick descent swirled around the gas lamps, while the glow within refracted through the droplets, turning them into melting stars.
I could feel the water seeping through the wool of my overcoat, which, several hours ago, or perhaps in a magical fairytale realm, was still warm and comforting.
“I know someone who I think you would be delighted to meet,” Headmaster Orion said cheerfully, not drenched as I was. I could hardly hear what he was saying, I was so damnably cold, desiring nothing more than a warm bed to sleep in with many, many layers of dry clothing. Gods, I would bundle up in every coat I could find, just to sweat profusely and revel in the heat.
“Whatever gets us out of the rain. Haven’t we been practicing enough?” I tried to hide the grumbling in my voice, but strangely enough, my efforts didn’t yield any decent results.
“You can never practice enough, especially in your circumstances,” he said.
I am not certain why I didn’t see his response from miles away.
“Excuse me,” The stranger appeared so close to me I almost jumped. “Can you direct me to Water’s Edge Port? I just arrived by carriage and am looking to make the midnight ship.”
“See?” Orion remarked. “She was walking at a hurried pace, I was watching her coming from all the way down the street …”
“Uh …” I stuttered. “Yes, I can tell you. You need to …”
“… you had all the time to prepare, and even in the darkness of your raiment and the circumstances of the evening, she saw you rather easily. You need to learn to …”
“Are you well?” she asked. She could not hear or see Orion. “You’re shivering.”
“I’m perfectly well. It’s just the cold. I, too, have had a long journey.” It became impossible to listen to both of them at once, so I ignored Orion entirely. His chastisement became like a murmur at the end of a long hallway. “You need to continue along this road, and at the very next turn, there will be an inn called Riverstead.”
“An inn? I don’t need a place to stay.”
“I understand …” Orion’s voice still droned on. “But there is a passage that leads under the city. It will be warm, lit, and will lead to another inn bearing the same name, only it will be at the edge of the docks you speak of. Ask the keeper there, or one of the workers. I’m sure they’ll assist you. It’s used in instances for weather such as this. Not to mention—”
Orion smacked my head with his palm and I stumbled forward.
The woman gasped as I teetered and regained my balance.
There was a terrible screeching noise of metal tearing, and then the rushing of a small river.
Freezing water poured into every remaining, dry pore of my body.
The gutter on the roof above us had broken and unleashed a waterfall on me.
There was no point in moving out of the way. I let the rest of the downpour flow down my back, and stared expressionless at the woman. I then realized she was rather endearing as she looked at me with a mixture of pity and mischief, her laughter restrained in her throat.
I decided not to force her to suffer any longer and started laughing at myself so that she could, too.
“The gods work in mysterious ways, miss,” I said, shaking out my hair.
“Yes,” she agreed.
Judging by the cackles behind me, Orion was also laughing. That heartless man.
“But why did you stumble like that?” she asked.
“It must have been a strong gust of wind,” I shrugged.
“You’re a strange fellow. Here,” she said, bringing out a dry sheet of parchment from within her coat. She scrawled out an address on it and handed it to me. “Maybe there is a dry spot somewhere within the folds of your clothes. I won’t be back for sometime from my trip. But find me in several weeks, and I’ll repay you for your kindness.”
“No repayment necessary. But I’ll find you,” I reassured her, tucking the note into a back pocket of my trousers. There are at least two dozen, of varying sizes. A thief without pockets is as useless as a water pitcher with holes.
After she left, Orion wiped away a tear from his eye and recovered from his fit of laughter. “Now you see why it is important to practice, so that situations like this do not unfold.”
“But now I have the address of a rather ravishing lady,” I said, taking out the paper and waving it in front of him.
“Oh, well done, well done. And I suppose she’ll fall madly in love with you. That is, before she finds out what you do, exactly. Then she’ll stay several lifetimes away, certainly.”
“Just because you are sad and lonely doesn’t mean I must be.”
“Who said I was sad about it?” he chuckled, then pinched my ear. “Come on. I have put students through worse, but I am not blind. This is a rough evening for you, and you made progress.”
“There were a few times,” he said, “when I suspected that a passerby would certainly see you, but you kept up your spell well enough and they passed right by. You also demonstrated your aptitude for pickpocketing. I don’t believe we need to work on that anymore, for some time at least.”
“It will never shine a light on your work, though,” I said with a genuine pitch of sadness.
“In time, in practice, in hope,” he said. “Come, I have a touchstone. Let’s get well and far away from this gods-forsaken street. I am tired of looking at the same lamps. Not to mention, we are not the most nefarious men on the street at this hour.”
Headmaster Orion brought out a stone with glyphs etched into it.
“Mistress Sylphen, I am in need of your assistance,” he said to the stone. The glyphs swirled with dim light, then vapor rushed out and a doorway of shadows appeared before us. He pushed on the vaporous handle, revealing a room with a fireplace, a piano, sofas and books.
We stepped through and breathed in the warmth. I rushed to the fire and shook like a dog.
When I looked back, the street and the door was gone. There was just a sleepy cat on an armchair, raising her head and blinking up at us.
“Well if it’s not some of the finest,” a languid and rather seductive voice purred. A woman in a dark night gown was looking out her window, a nearly-finished book spread out on her lap. “What kind of mischief did you escape from?”
“The mischief of winter rain,” Orion replied.
“You used one of three instances of a rare and precious traveling stone to escape a touch of bad weather? A stone I slaved over for months specifically for you?”
Orion shrugged. “I’ve made it this far with such recklessness. I thought Shamus here deserved a fast reprieve. His lips are also blue. But where are our manners? Shamus, this is Shadow Mistress Sylphen, but you can call her—”
“Lady Sylphen, or simply Sylph. I am enchanted to be your host,” she said, rising from her chair.
If it weren’t for the frost thawing from my very eyelashes, my eyes would have widened at her stunning beauty. It made me forget all about the address in my pocket. Her hair matched both the silken texture and shade of her gown, stretching to the small of her back and obscuring part of her face.
“S-Shamus Dodge,” I said, sticking out a hand.
She took the hand and pulled me in roughly, kissing me full on the lips. All of the heat in my body found a home in my cheeks, then something in my pants moved, so I lingered for only as long as I had to before stepping away.
“We are not friends, Shamus, nor family. Something intimately closer, between, and obscure. Just like our work—not heroes, nor thieves.We are all mere shadowsteps, regardless of ranking within the Syndicate. There is no bashfulness here. Remove your clothes and get warm near the fire. I’ll get something dry.”
“Is she always like this?” I whispered to Orion after she went off to another chamber in her home.
“Just with the ones she has a good feeling about. But don’t read into it. She’s not … active with any members, if you catch my meaning. Just prefers shattering the ice instead of breaking it.”
A monstrous bundle of blankets came flying at me after I struggled out of the soaked clothes. I hung them up on the mantlepiece and started thawing in the layers, the three of us huddled by the fire.
“Do you have something dry for me?” Orion asked.
“But you’re perfectly warm.”
“Liquor, I meant.”
Sylphen came back with a bottle of spirits and three glasses.
“Is this your first time in Tempest?” she asked me as she poured out the clear fluid.
I looked out the three windows at the end of the living room, where her desk and piano were against the walls. Frost was on the windows and snow was falling, despite it being late in April. The touchstone had transported us across half a continent.
I was too sleepy to try and comprehend such magick, so I just accepted it and tried to convince myself I wasn’t dreaming.
“No.” I took a long pull and savored the drink’s burn down my throat while the embers settled in my stomach. “I visited once with my family.”
“Business, or … ?”
“It certainly was not a trip for seeing sights and wonders. Not the usual kind, anyways.”
I didn’t want to continue the story, but her eyes, black with a hint of sanguine, all but stroked it out of me.
“My brother, five years ago, he was put on trial.”
“The Ivory Court?” Her eyes widened.
“What did he do to go so far as to be addressed there?”
“He didn’t do it! The court ruled him as guilty, but he wasn’t.” I pursed my lips tight and breathed deeply; I didn’t mean to raise my voice.
“But what did he not do?”
“Did you ever hear about the crow killings? The mutilation and cannibalism sprees near Westrun?”
She nodded. “Half of Netherway heard of it. Your brother was involved?”
“Somehow. He never told us exactly how, but he was mixed in with those folks. We still don’t know why, or how. It’s damned, cursed mystery. It tortured my family, just thinking about it. We were lucky not to be put on trial, too.”
“I am truly sorry to hear it.”
“Thank you. But the time for condolences has long passed,” I sighed. “The true reason why was not to see him on trial. We came for his execution. Or at least, my father and I did. My mother … she stayed in that day.”
In the Ivory Court, executions are done with arrows and bows. Archers of renown are given the opportunity to prove their accuracy on a live target. They typically aim for the heart. A somewhat poetic ending, at least.
But for some damnable reason, my brother’s archer decided to try a technique he had been practicing instead of the traditional, single arrow.
He nocked three arrows simultaneously. The first pierced his neck, the second his chest, the third his stomach. If it weren’t for his neck, it would have been a slow death.
Regardless, my brother didn’t deserve to be a human scarecrow for target practice. Certainly not for a stunt executed merely to elicit shock and enthusiasm from the crowd. The force of the arrows knocked him on his back, so that he died like a worm writhing on the ground, rather than a man kneeling and facing the afterward straight on.
I’ve ground away the sharp edges of my teeth, thinking about it too much.
“Shamus, are you feeling tired?” Sylph asked, pulling me away from reimagining it again.
“Strangely, no,” I said.
“That is because you are past exhaustion. That odd state of wakefulness when you’ve been deprived of sleep too long.”
“I don’t deny that.” I polished the rest of the spirits and set the cup down. “And, thank you. It was very kind of you to let us in like that.”
“No need for thanking me. Orion usually picks the best, anyways. I’d trust his recruits more than my own. But it’d be wise if you rest.”
“Always picks the best,” he corrected.
But even that didn’t make me smile. “I want to think about things for awhile.”
“I’m sorry to have brought up that memory, but now is not the time. Examinations are in a week. Please rest so you can continue to prepare. I can torture you for more details another day.”
I opened my mouth to argue, but Orion caught my eye. Many shadowsteps do not respect their instructors, and tension usually develops. It is a hard thing to find discipline in a thief, let alone refine it and tailor it for a dynamic between student and mentor.
But from the moment Orion and I first locked eyes, we both understood we were beyond such pettiness.
Shadowsteps, or rather, the elite thieves of The Shadow Syndicate, are first plucked from their lives after demonstrating an aptitude for stealing. An addiction to it is not required, but is preferred.
A confrontation in a secluded alleyway. A letter appearing mysteriously on a nightstand. A note left in an object you’d been planning to steal for weeks. There’s no end to their cunning and imagination when it comes to how they contact you.
It sounds like a blessing from the gods, doesn’t it? For such a society to reach down and pick you up from your life of pickpocketing for bread money. The catch is, once you accept their offer, if you don’t pass the examinations …
You won’t exactly be around to talk about it. They are imaginative when it comes to that, too.
“She’s right,” he said. “Your studies are more important than late-evening musings. Far more important. Your mind and body will be thankful to have rested.”
So I went dutifully to a cotton bed and a feather pillow, such that my surprise at the luxury kept me awake several extra minutes. I listened to Orion and Sylphen's murmurs through the door, the light from the fire sneaking in from beneath.
Maybe I was imagining it, but their voices seemed to become more hushed and ominous as the minutes passed.
I felt homesick with no home to return to, and yet, in love with one I might have found, even for the night. My heart thudded confusedly between remembering the past and embracing the present moment.
The snow turned to a steady downpour on my window, the droplets pattering my eyelids and pushing them down … down … down …
I sunk deeper. Drifting weightlessly through the winter sky. All the stark beauty of winter, none of the bite; the snow and rain swirling around me.
No more thoughts, no more musings.
Just rest, and dreamscape inklings.
Shadow doorways and handles. I reach out and push one open.