I stayed in that closet, crouched up against the furthest corner like a demon waiting to haunt someone’s night terrors, going in and out of my own nightmares. The fabric of silk night gowns and wool coats pushed my breath back into my face.
I am not sure how much time passed, only that the murmurs of Countess Selen and the Captain had died away a long, long time ago. Before then, the occasional pair of guards reporting that no one and no traces of the thief had been found.
I was, however, quite certain that my ass had successfully melded with the straightness of the closet’s floor, if its lack of sensation was any indication. I passed time by going through as many memories as possible, unable to keep myself from regretting while I searched for what I was happy for.
A first kiss. Laying alone on a field beneath a sky of midsummer stars. Holding the hand of someone I promised everything to in a fit of childish stupidity. Feeding a wild crow by hand with a bit of dead squirrel I found on my way home.
It was surprisingly uplifting, to relive so many of them. And yet, an emptiness swelled in me when I realized how few there were. I regretted that fact the most. I wanted more. Being young, brave, and foolish go hand in hand with an early headstone; but being young, cunning and deadly-swift, those things make a thief of unparalleled success.
Inevitably, the worst moment arrived: the one in which I was convinced dawn was soon to rise. I could feel Headmaster Orion’s nerves across the city as he, in all likelihood, started drinking without me.
I chanced the door of the closet.
The moonlight was brighter now through the window, glinting off a metallic quill and a stained inkwell on the desk.
Sounds of light snores came through the room in pairs.
No more magick. I wasn’t certain I had it in me, but even if I did, I would need it later.
Raw and unglamorously, I stepped out of the closet, shut it behind me, and slunk through the silence. I looked around the corner of the short hall joining the two rooms.
My heart lodged in my throat. The Captain was facing me directly … as she slept with a hanging head, snoring.
I let out an air of relief and crept closer.
A single candle burned on the desk, so low that complete darkness winked in and out of the room. It cast my shadow across the floor in spurts, flashing up the wall before blinking back to darkness, then up again. A phantom’s shadow streaming in and out of this world.
On the side of the bed, a thread bookmark hung from Countess Selen’s journal, coaxing me closer as it waved in a gentle breeze coming through the window.
Why do I worry so much? I asked myself as my first finger touched its leather binding. As if the book was laced with drugs, a rush of euphoric relief, triumph, and pleasure snaked through my finger and bit into my spine. The venom went to my head, and the room swam. An irrepressible smile cracked on my face, and I almost laughed.
The candle sputtered. Darkness flooded the room.
I’ve always been susceptible to kleptomania.
I lifted it from the comforter, and slipped it into my pocket.
“Thought you’d be the type to wait it out,” Captain’s voice said as she stood up from the chair, sword in hand. Keeping her eyes on me, she bent and picked up an object with her other. In the darkness, I couldn’t tell what it was.
Hers could be described as a calm voice, but I think the blood in my veins stopped when I heard it. The shock of discovery goes beyond terror. It was a refined pain as exquisitely sharp as razors.
She raised her other hand. In it, a hand crossbow with a readied bolt. She pressed the lever just as she winked at me.
The string snapped. I stumbled backward, for a moment believing she’d missed, and almost chuckled with relief. But then I felt the arrowhead scrape the wall behind me, the shaft grind against my ribs. And what came out was not a chuckle at all.
You have to get it right the first time around, or suffer for it.
I could sense my legs giving out, either from shock or surrender. But the bolt was thin, small. I told myself I could grunt through it.
“A good outfit. Syndicate made, eh? They must be handing them out to just about anyone, nowadays. You don’t seem like much, after all. Now tell me, before you bleed too much, why you’re here.”
I stared at her, a head above her in height, but far, far beneath her in the circumstances.
“Quiet, or you’ll wake our dear princess.”
“Her? She can sleep through anything,” she said, pressing the point of her sword to my neck. “Now, it’s fair to say we’ve both had a long night. How about I put you to sleep, then I follow suit. Only, I’ll wake the following day and probe your corpse for hints, if you don’t spill enough out right now.”
“A woman like you touching my body? I wouldn’t be opposed.”
The slap, in combination with sheer contempt, perhaps hurt worse than the arrow.
But that’s what I wanted, after all … for the point of her sword to nudge a little to the left.
I grasped her arm with the sword hand, put my foot in front of her legs, and dragged her towards me.
She stepped into my leg and stumbled to the ground, the sword thrust into the wood behind me.
I took out my dagger, hilt-first, and cracked it against her skull. “Pest,” I grunted.
Now to get well and far away from this nightmare.
But first, I turned her over. She was too good at feigning sleep.
This time, she was out.
I pulled out the last scroll, wearied of this thief-with-no-boundaries act, gasping through the pain in my side. She’d stuck me between my last ribs, missing my lung. I hoped that she’d missed anything else of equal importance.
I stepped back, taking in the image of her armor, face, hair, countenance, and every possible detail.
“Rorrim,” I murmured as I undid the scroll’s seal with shaking, bloodied fingers.
The scroll fluttered in the air like a moth, shot to her body, then disintegrated into mine. A warmth from where the spell landed spread across my body.
I turned and looked into the mirror on the nightstand. A perfect imitation. Here and there, vaporous wisps of shadow leaked, but it would have to do. If it weren’t for the constant scowl, the Captain’s face would be somewhat attractive.
The Countess stirred, sat up in bed. I stepped very close to her, so that all she saw was my face … and not the body on the floor.
Her perfectly silky, blonde hair fell in tumbles down her gown. It was rather disenchanting when I remembered the limbs her family kept stored in a room just down the corridor.
“Milsha, what are you doing?” she asked with a frog’s throat.
“Just making sure you’re safe, Countess Selen.”
“Oh …” she mumbled.
“Nothing to report. Everything seems as it should be. You should continue to rest. I’ll watch over you.”
“Will you have my bath ready for me in the morning?”
“Yes, Countess. I’ll tell one of the servants.”
When her head fell back into the pillow, she let out a few more breaths, then continued snoring.
I glanced at the Captain, then to the light beginning to bleed into the sky. It was well passed time that I left.
I snatched up the Captain’s silver-handled crossbow, pried the quiver from her belt, and left with all the briskness a captain of royal guards should have.
Slumped on either side of the doorway were two more guards with swords drawn. Sleeping peacefully.
I rushed through the corridors until I was stepping down a massive staircase leading to a dining hall. Servants were already bustling, preparing the massive table for breakfast. One of them was carrying a basket of freshly-baked bread slices doused in butter. I nipped one and bit into it.
“Servant!” I called before he got too far.
“Yes, Captain Milsha?”
“Countess Selen has strict orders that you prepare a bath for her when she awakes.”
“Of course, as always.” He bowed, started off again.
“Wait. She asked that this time you scrounge for moths from inside one of the fabric cabinets, grind them into a pulp, and mix them into the bathwater. ‘The more, the merrier,’ she said.”
“Orders are orders. At least two dozen, she told me. ‘A remedy for her skin,’ she said. You know how she gets.”
“And, later this morning, when you see Countess Selen and I together, you must give her a message, but this detail cannot be ignored: it must be strictly in my presence.”
“Yes, Captain. What message?”
“Tell them—tell her … erh—us, a man said, ‘I hope you slept well.’ ”
“Are you feeling well, Captain?”
“You forget your place, pageboy. I am perfectly well. If you do not do this, your service for the Elren family will be discontinued. You will not be compensated for this week’s labor, either.”
“N-no Captain, I’ll give you the message, I promise!”
“There’s a good lad.”
“Any name for this man?”
“No, ‘a strange man’ will do. Now get going,” I said as I took another slice of bread and strode, or rather, limped off.
I left the gates of the manor as if every demon of the Nether was after me, slowing my pace only when I entered the seedier parts of the city. The illusion of the Captain’s armor and skin slipped off into wisps of shadow, and trailed behind me in dark fog to be blown away by the morning air.
Dawn was still a handful of minutes off. The color of the horizon was a deep sanguine, while the sky beyond darkened from violet to midnight at the farthest edge.
I wound my way around the narrow streets, passing sleeping beggars, closed shops and thatched homes. Every step it became a little harder to walk, to breathe, a little harder to contain my excitement. I wanted to shout, cry, and die all at once.
“Just you left, huh?” I murmured, patting the dagger Orion lent me. “Maybe they’ll think I’m resourceful for using your friends.”
Nocturos’ Chapel was at the center of an intersection of four streets, and I was walking down the one facing the front door. Headmaster Orion and an individual I did not recognize stood on the steps, both holding steaming mugs. There was a third cup waiting for me on one of the guardrails. I didn’t expect to have the strength to drink whatever was in it by the time the exchange was over.
I could not help the bloodied smile on my face as I tugged the journal from one of my pockets and handed it to the proctor.
Orion leaned in and murmured something to her.
“ … as close as it gets,” she responded. She had stern eyes, dark makeup, thin lips and what appeared to be a darker heart as she regarded my face, and the bolt sticking from my stomach, with little more than a scowl.
She flipped through the journal wordlessly, nodded, brought out a notepad, and checked something off.
“Your assigned weapon,” she demanded.
“Oh? You mean …”
“The dagger I gave you, Shamus,” Orion interjected.
I handed it to her, confused, before she could use her talons to wrench it from me.
“I apologize,” Orion said, “it will be the last and only time I deceive you, Shamus.”
As he said this, the proctor brought out a strange and hallow case of metal. She flipped the latch and the lid sprang open. She then took out another device that she used to pry the onyx from the dagger’s hilt.
The gem sunk perfectly into the case, and after a few moments, a blood-red glow issued from it.
“A bloodthirsty one, as well,” she remarked, flashing me a quirked eyebrow before replacing the gem and stowing the weapon away. “Regardless. You’ve done well. Headmaster Orion, I must admit you’ve found another. However, tend to that wound before you celebrate or we’ll lose him,” was all she said before walking away.
“Lose me …” I whispered. “I’m useful?”
I turned around to thank her, but she was gone. Typical.
Orion laugh was shaky at best. “I would embrace you right now, Shamus, but the circumstances …”
“It was not the smoothest evening,” I confessed. It was then that my body decided not to regard anymore of my insane demands, and folded beneath me. Before my back could slam against the ground, he’d grasped my arm and hauled me up.
“The moment I saw you clear off from the rooftops with the countermeasure, I almost lost hope. I couldn’t watch,” he said as we made our way up the steps. “I hired a healer immediately after I saw you use it. What were you doing, just enjoying yourself?”
“More … or less?”
“I should have never used the touchstone so carelessly in front of you. You learned from the best, after all.”
I laughed despite the horrific pain of doing so, and he carried me inside. A woman in light robes bowed to me, introducing herself as a healer from Calan’s Chapel before muttering words in a tongue I didn’t know. A subtle warmth came in waves over my body, the faintest of gold light misted from her hands.
“A fine crossbow you found,” he noted, taking it from my hand and resting it somewhere nearby.
I dug inside a pocket and flipped open the music box. A tinkling of sound began to trickle into the chapel. “This, too.”
“During my examination, I decided to take, of all things, one of the family’s messenger crows. Thought it would listen to me, since it was small and dressed in black like I was. Well, suffice it to say things didn’t go so smoothly, either.”
They ushered me onto a bed, forcing me to sit up.
Headmaster Orion told me to breathe deeply, as he was about to snap the arrow so that it could be pulled out. His grey eyes were alight with excitement for my success, but harrowed by worry.
“Orion, wait …”
“We have to do it now, Shamus.”
“No. Something else …” The words became too heavy to pull out of my throat. “Something else …”
The music box’s melody filled my senses. Stars were winking in and out of vibrancy, their tones lulling me into unconsciousness. The notes from the box became an orchestra of sound, of whispers, memory and reverie, agony and bliss. I sunk into it. A mere thief at the hands of humanity’s expression.
“A vault …”
“One … two … breathe …”
Somewhere, far off and beyond the realm of songs I’d drifted off to, something snapped.