The woman stood on a balcony overlooking the Royal District. The towers of Ayrst Palace were the only features of the city that reached higher than her perch. She surveyed the city below with some small measure of disdain: the place was full of vermin, but many of them were useful vermin. They were ignorant of the uses to which they could be put, but the woman knew that the power to manipulate them was the power to control the twin forces of history and destiny.
The sun was just beginning to meet the horizon off to her right, and so lamps were beginning to come on below her. The Temple servants would be lighting the lamps in her own chambers, soon. The autumn breeze carried with it a hint of the coolness to come: the time when the Ice Aspect of the Lord of Invincible Light would reign. The people would celebrate this with their festivals – meaningless rituals to soothe their superstitious minds, an abstract light to ward off the darkness in the recesses of their own souls. Whatever gets them through their paltry lives, she thought.
She was a short woman with very dark hair and eyes. She was also petite and very pretty, with a generous mouth that curved up at the corners making her seem ever on the verge of a smile, even when she was in a cloudy mood. She wore flowing white robes with gold embroidery about the neck, sleeves and hem that made a whish as she strode back to her chambers.
The servants had already been. They'd lit the lamps, and brought her fresh water for washing. There was also a new carafe of chilled red wine and a glass on a silver tray by her bedside.
She poured herself a glass and drank down the contents in one gulp. She then filled it again, but this time she sat it on the night table. There was much to be done tonight, but first she had to speak to that miserable Dvergar. She went to her wardrobe to choose her attire for the night. She first pulled out her favorite green silk corset, but upon examination she realized that there was a tear in it. Should she even bother to have it mended? I'll just have another made. She tossed it aside. Where is that aberrant little circus freak? She hated waiting.
There was the sound of a sharp knock, followed by silence, then two more together, then one alone again. At last!
She glided to the chamber door where she pushed a bolt in place to lock it. Then she went to the east wall and pulled aside the edge of a large tapestry to reveal the polished marble that made up the entirety of the Tower of Sol. She found a place where there was an imperfection in the stone – a small chip where three yellow veins came together and inserted her finger into it. There was an audible click, and a portion of the wall gave way, swinging inwards, to reveal an unlit chamber.
There stood the disheveled Dvergar. He swept past the woman and looked around him.
"Where in All the Hells have you been? You know I don't like to be kept waiting."
"Had bus'ness wit' da Troop."
She threw up her hands. There was no use arguing with the diminutive miscreation. He was here now, and that's what mattered. "Are you ready, then? Have you scouted out the place?"
"It's called the Seabreeze Tavern. Nice place."
"That's awfully close to the last one. Look, Sticky, next time I need you to find a place a little further afield. Maybe try in the House District."
"Yea. But this time by the river. Lots o' young nobles likes to 'slum it' there, as they say."
"Fine. It'll do for this night. I'll meet you at the tavern's stable."
"Yea. An' here's the drug." He reached her a small vial of blue liquid.
"Good. Now be gone. I need to finish preparing."
The Dvergar returned the way he came, closing the hidden portal behind him. The woman straightened the tapestry in its place.
She went back to her wardrobe and decided on a black leather corset over a white blouse and indigo skirts. She looked at herself in the tall stand mirror. Who would be the unlucky soul tonight? Sticky had better be right about the clientele at the Seabreeze. No one would panic if the details didn't get out, but if the victim were someone of importance ... well, the Watch would hardly be able to keep it under wraps this time, would they?
Once she was dressed, she exited through the same passage Sticky had used. From there she followed a spiral stair on its lengthy course to the base of the tower. She slipped out into the stables via means of another secret portal. Looking swiftly about her to see that no one was there to witness her egress, she walked around the back of the Cathedral into an alley that led to the Mayrand Way – the main avenue that led between the Cathedral Square and the Palace. Once on the street, she slipped into the crowds and continued on towards the river.
The Seabreeze Tavern was a simple two-story construction on the High Street which was separated from the river and the High Street Bridge only by a Moneychanger's and a small alleyway. The alley that ran between the two buildings led to a stable behind the Tavern itself. It had few rooms to let, and thus was primarily used as a tavern hall. The stables were, in fact, larger than the Tavern, and the proprietress, Arya Seefer, made more than a little coin through trading in horses as a result.
Upon reaching the tavern grounds, the woman immediately followed the alley to the stables. She waited until the stablehands were busy talking with another patron to surreptitiously enter one of the buildings. She went to the last stall on the right, passing several horses on her way. There sat Sticky.
"Took ya long enough," he said, looking up at her from his seat on a bale of hay.
"Yes, well let's bear in mind that my time is far more valuable than yours."
He grunted. "As you say."
"Have you the mask?"
"Yea. And th' other thing ya asked for." He reached behind him into a large sack that was mostly covered in straw.
"Oh, very good. Did you have much trouble finding it?"
"Nay. Our man out at the farm has been bringin' 'em in by the crate." He handed her a small glowing crystal. Its light shone faintly amber.
"Let's just be sure our man doesn't get himself caught with them. More importantly, be sure he never knows my name."
"Don't ya worry yourself none, Archpriestess. He don't even know my name."
"You be careful using titles like that, you fool!" She rounded on him. "If the wrong ears were to hear … let me just say that I would not be alone on the pyre!"
The Dvergar chuckled. "Don't get your skirts in a twist. I was just havin' a joke. Ain't no one here now but horses on any account."
She glared at him as though to murder him with her eyes. "Well no more jokes of that sort."
"Just you be ready with that mask and cloak. I doubt I can get a room at this place, so I'll bring someone out here to the stables. Do you have an escape route planned?"
"Good. This time, be sure someone sees you before you vanish. I want the description on every wagging tongue in all of Ayrst by tomorrow morning. Do you understand?"
She left Sticky alone in the stable to wait. As she walked to the tavern, she thought of all the ways she might kill the filthy little Dvergar. He knew far too much to be allowed to live. And he has far too loose a tongue.
Inside, the Seabreeze Tavern was a dank, smelly shit hole. Young nobles come here? It hardly seemed possible. The smell alone would drive out most commoners, let alone the delicate sensibilities of the upper classes. Nevertheless, there were more than a few young people dressed every bit as well as – if not better than – she was. The little fool knew his taverns, at least. There was a trio of musicians playing in one dingy corner of the room. They were surprisingly good, considering their surroundings.
She searched the crowd for a likely mark. There was an attractive young man playing dice and laughing much too loudly. He would likely end up in some sort of trouble whether she took any interest in him or not. There was a group of well-dressed young people sitting at a corner table together. They seemed to be chattering amongst themselves – the way young people often do – about the manners and dress of the other patrons. It would probably be difficult to separate the weak member out of that flock. Ah! Just there on the edge of the group sat a young woman who was obviously trying to fit in with them but didn't quite know how. The little clique was ignoring her for the most part.
She was a pretty girl, though she clearly didn't know how to use it to her advantage. Her clothes were expensive but rumpled, and her blush was applied incorrectly – it was the wrong shade for her light skin tone in any case. She also seemed to pay more attention to the women dancing around the room than to the men. Was she jealous of the way they danced so freely or the way they carried themselves? Or did her tastes in pleasurable company lean somewhat outside the norm?
In any case, it shouldn't be too difficult to get the girl alone for a few questions. The woman noticed that the girl's glass was nearly empty, so she went strait to the first serving girl she saw and tugged on her sleeve.
"Yes?" The poor girl looked flustered. Evidently tonight's crowd was a bit much for her to handle.
"Listen to me carefully, and I will make it worth your efforts."
The serving girl stopped short and gave the woman her full attention. "Go on."
"I want you to drop whatever you're doing and go to the bar. I want a bottle of the best mead this place has and two glasses brought to me over there in two minutes." She pointed in the direction of where the girl was sitting. She then pressed a gold mark into the serving girl's hand. "There will be another of these when you've done as I ask."
"Right away, Mistress!" The serving girl scurried off to the bar.
The woman came close to the sitting girl, who was oblivious to her approach.
"That's a lovely dress you're wearing. You should keep better care of it: it would more finely complement your figure."
The girl looked up at her. "Pardon?"
"Your dress. It's very nicely-tailored. I think with just a few adjustments you would outshine any other woman in the room."
"Well, I uh … I mean to say, thank you. It's an old dress." She blushed.
"I quite like it. How did you come by it?"
"It was my mother's … before she Passed into The Dream."
"Oh, I'm sorry to hear. How long ago was that?"
"It's been nearly two years now, I think."
"My own mother Passed in birthing me, so I never knew her."
"I'm sorry to hear, as well." She brushed a lock of her auburn hair out of her face.
"So what brings you to this little pit this evening?"
"Oh, well some of the others were going slumming, and I thought I'd tag along."
"This lot here?" The woman nodded to the circle of young people seated around the table nearby. "Why ever would you tag along with them? If anything, they should be trailing you like needful pups."
The girl giggled. "You've clearly not spent much time among the newly rich."
"Oh, is that what they are? I think the term pretenders fits them better."
"Oh, you're a wicked one!"
"You have no idea." The woman noticed that the serving girl was approaching them. "Here, your drink is nearly gone and I'm quite thirsty myself." She took the bottle of mead and the two glasses from her and handed her another gold mark. She examined the bottle and filled the glasses, handing one to the sitting girl.
"Here, try this. It's mead from Kraycia. Perhaps not the best in the world, but likely the best you'll find in a filthy dive such as this."
"Thank you," she said to the serving girl. "Be on your way now." The serving girl left them alone, bowing her thanks.
By this time, the pair of them were beginning to attract some attention from the clique of chattering young nobles at the table. One of the boys in particular – a tall lad with dark hair and bright green eyes, wearing a coat of the finest blue velvet with silver scrollwork up the sleeves – stood and bowed to the woman.
"Is she bothering you, madam?"
"Not at all," replied the woman.
"Surely I can provide you better company."
"Surely you can take a hint and put your overly privileged arse back in its chair." She waved him away as though dismissing the lowliest of servants.
His mouth dropped open in shock. "Do you have any idea who you're talking to?"
"Do you have any idea how very little I care? Now leave us be." The girl stood up, laughing and very nearly spilling her drink. The woman led her a little ways away from the group.
"You've gone and done it now, Miss," said the girl. "That's Michel Friedland. His father's the-"
The woman cut her off. "Head Master of the Tradesman's Guild."
"Yes. How did you know that? Have you met him?"
"No, we've never met, but I know the name – and the reputation."
"I'm sorry, but who are you, exactly?"
"Please forgive me. My name's Lily." She bowed to the girl.
"Just Lily? That's not much to go on."
"You know, the polite thing to do when someone introduces herself is to introduce yourself in turn."
"Judging by your behavior just now, I didn't think you put much store in politeness." The girl grinned broadly. "Nevertheless, I'm pleased to meet you. My name's Aliquah. And until I know more about you, that's all you're going to get. Fair is fair, yes?"
"Very well." The woman nodded. "Then I propose that you and I and this bottle find somewhere else to sit and get to know one another a bit better."
"I'll agree to that. Where do you propose we go? The place is rather crowded, and I think my seat's been taken already."
"How about the stables, then?"
"All right. It's bound to be quieter there, and we can hear each other talk."
"Also, I expect the company of horses to be much pleasanter than that of cocky young noblemen."
"Agreed," laughed Aliquah.
The woman took her hand and they swept out of the Seabreeze and into the cool evening air.
"That place was getting too stuffy anyway," said the girl. "And this mead's going to my head. A little fresh air will do me some good."
"Yes, those kinds of crowds are a bit ... much. Come, follow me." She pulled Aliquah behind her and led her around the tavern to the stableyard, where she stopped short. "Wait just a moment."
"I like to play a little sneaking game, you see."
"Yes. See those two men over there?"
"They're stablehands, I think."
"Yes. Well, let's see if we can sneak into the stables without them noticing us."
"But, why? There's no reason for them to stop us going in."
"Oh, I know that, but I still think it's fun."
"All right," Aliquah arched an eyebrow at Lily. "If you say so."
The pair of them ducked behind a fence and waited. The two men were talking to one another, but the women couldn't hear what they were saying. A man on a horse rode into the yard and dismounted. The three men all turned their attention to the horse as they led it to the far stable.
"Now!" hissed Lily. The two of them sneaked into the first stable. Once inside they both began giggling.
"Well, Lily, I guess you were right. That was fun!"
"Of course I was ... and I'm always right!" Aliquah snorted at this assertion before Lily once again grabbed her hand and pulled her down the rows of stalls to the end. She opened the empty stable to the left where a lamp was lit. "Here, we can sit on these bales of hay and have another drink."
As Aliquah entered the stall Lily turned and looked into the one across from it. It appeared to be empty. Where had that Dvergar got himself to now? He was supposed to have been waiting there. Surely he would come back soon. Probably went to get himself a drink, the fool. She had returned more quickly than even she had expected, but that was no excuse for him to keep her waiting.
Lily sat on the nearest hay bale and gave it a pat. "Here, have a seat next to me."
Aliquah sat. "You know, Lily, there's something strange about you."
"You think? Tell me, then: what is it?"
"Well, you carry yourself like a proper noblewoman, but ..."
"... but what? I don't act like one?"
"Something like that, yes. You remind me of what my mother used to say: 'Act your age, young lady!'" She laughed again. "But I never wanted to. Perhaps it's because you grew up without a mother to tell you those things, that ..."
"That I don't act my age."
"Well what age do you suppose I am?"
"At first I thought you were my age, but I see now you're a bit older."
"But not by much, I don't think. And regardless of your physical age, I think you're much younger than that at heart."
"Oh, I see. So, you think I'm an old woman playing at being a girl, do you?"
"No, not at all! You're not too old ..."
"Too old? Who said anything about too old? Too old for what, exactly?" Lily leaned in close to Aliquah.
Aliquah swallowed. "Too old for me to notice your eyes."
"What about my eyes," Lily whispered.
"How they're so ... dark and deep. And beautiful."
"Oh, my dear ... if my eyes are deep because they've seen things. If they're dark, it's because they have secrets." Their kiss was warm and soft, at first, but as their lips pressed harder, Aliquah pulled away.
"What ever is the matter, my sweet?"
"Who are you? Why are you paying such attention to me?" Suddenly her voice grew cold. "Did someone put you up to this?"
"Why no, not at all. Who would do such a thing?"
"Some of those fools in the tavern would."
"Well, I've never met any of them before tonight. And to answer your question, I'm paying attention to you because you deserve it. You may take care not to draw too much attention on yourself, but I have a keen eye for beautiful things -"
"Oh, I see. So I'm just a thing to you?" She stood up in a huff.
"That's not at all what I meant, dear Aliquah." Where was that bloody dwarf? She was going to lose this one if he didn't return soon. "Please, sit down."
"Because I want to get to know you better. There's something special about you, and I can't quite put my finger on it."
"I get the feeling you've used that line before."
"No. Please. I won't try to kiss you again. Just sit. Here - have a seat across from me and have a drink and we'll talk. Please?"
Aliquah folded her harms across her breast and sat on one of the other bales. "All right. Maybe you're not what I fear."
"Please don't fear me." Lily swept her arms wide, and in doing so knocked the bottle of mead on the floor of the stall behind her. "Oh! How clumsy of me. See? You're making me nervous, Aliquah."
Aliquah tilted her head at Lily as Lily turned to get the bottle. She popped the cork out and poured them each another drink.
"I'm just glad I didn't knock the glasses over, as well. Though I suppose the straw would have broken their fall." As she turned, she palmed the small vial of blue liquid and poured a few drops into one of the glasses. She handed it to Aliquah and raised her own.
"What was that?" Asked Aliquah.
"What was what, my dear?"
"What was that you just put in my glass? And don't try to pretend you didn't. Let me see your other hand."
Lily raised her hand, empty palm upwards. "Nothing."
Aliquah stood again. She reached her glass to Lily. "Then drink this."
"What? Surely you're joking. You think I'm trying to poison you, or something?"
"Maybe. Or maybe just drug me."
"To calm me down against my will, maybe? To make me do something I'll regret? To kidnap me? There could be any number of reasons." She suddenly turned towards the stall door. "What was that noise? Is there someone in here?"
"Just horses, my sweet." Aliquah stepped away from her, her back against the high stable wall.
"I don't think I want to be here any more."
Suddenly the stall door opened to reveal a broad figure. It stood not much shorter than a man and wore a bulky black cloak. But it was the head that Aliquah couldn't tear her eyes from. It had a bulbous, lizard-like head with grey-green skin that shone wetly in the flickering lamplight. It had a longish snout with a ring of teeth in the end, and tentacles where its eyes should be.
Aliquah turned away from it, and backed towards Lily, who slowly stood up and drew a heavy-hilted dagger from its sheath. Suddenly Aliquah screamed and rushed at the creature, trying to knock it over and make her escape. It barely budged, though, and she was just about to make another attempt when Lily struck her on the back of the head with the pommel of her dagger. She collapsed in a heap.
"Sticky, you fool! Where were you?" Lily pulled Aliquah up by the back of her dress and threw her on her back into a pile of straw. "Help me with this."
"Didn't expect ya'd be back as soon as all that," said the figure. He removed the Teuthanurae helmet he wore.
"It's a shame I had to wound the back of her head. This isn't going to look right. Well, what's done is done. I need to get back, so you finish up. And remember ... make sure you're seen – wearing that." She indicated the helmet.
The straw under Aliquah was beginning to pool with blood from the head wound. Lily stepped away and brushed the blood off her shoes against one of the bales of hay.
As she exited the stall, she turned back to Sticky. "Remember - if there's not a panic in the streets in two days, we'll meet again on the third. And this time we need to go somewhere in the House district, understand?"
"Yea." The Dvergar pulled a long thin metal instrument from under his bulky cloak and set to work. He'd remove the eyes first, then scrape out the inside of the skull and put its contents into an oiled leather bag before tossing it into the River Ayrst.
Lily left him to his ghastly work.