Chapter 7: Unbalanced Scale

Needless to say, I spent the next day finding out everything I could about Fiona Khal. I’d heard of her, of course. She wasn’t just a mage; she was Court Magus to the Duchess of Keliar, one of the most prestigious positions in the kingdom, and she held the rank of Archmagus for the region, which meant that the magical researchers at Stark Academy reported to her. But some research uncovered some new, more interesting details.

She lived on the Duchess’s estate, just a few miles out of town. That was a bit unusual; most powerful Magi had a Wizard’s Tower somewhere, but if Ms. Khal had one, no one knew about it. She was somewhere in the neighborhood of 40 years old, and by all accounts a master of the magical arts. Had a reputation for walking out of her chamber at the estate when she had never actually gone in, which suggested there was something really creepy about her, to the rumormongers. (To me, it suggested that there was a teleportation apparatus somewhere inside the suite. Maybe it led to the tower that no one knew about?) And according to gossip at least, she was… well, the word “cougar” isn’t part of the local vernacular, but she was rumored to have a quite scandalous attraction to men half her age. Reputedly not much to look at but, like always, that tends to become less important the more powerful you are.

I filed that one away as Plan C. Not really my style, but it was a possibility that might come in handy, to get me into her room at the least. But I’d rather not if I can afford it. I tend to prefer women a bit closer to my own age–which can be a bit confusing since I haven’t aged in the last ten years–and, well, there’s no delicate way to say this, but a fair bit prettier than Ms. Khal was reported to be. Plus, I’d really prefer not to have the disappearance of the scale linked in the victim’s mind with a memorable encounter with the person stealing it. Paul Twister’s reputation is built on mystery and misdirection as much as anything else!

But with any luck it wouldn’t come to that. By late morning the second day, I was simultaneously putting Plans A and B into action. Disguised as a common page, I made my way to the Duchess’s estate. When the guards at the gate stopped me, I held up a piece of parchment, folded over a few times and sealed in wax. “An urgent message for Archmagus Khal,” I said, panting for breath as if I’d run the whole way from Keliar. “It’s most important that I receive her response posthaste.”

The message, of course, was written by me, in English, and meant nothing of any significance. It contained a pair of lines from an old book, one of my favorites growing up: “Beside the forge of Reorx is a tree of surpassing beauty, the likes of which no living being has ever seen. Beneath that tree sits a grumbling old dwarf, relaxing after many labors.” It would look like a bizarre cipher to anyone from this world, and if by some strange means she had the magical ability to translate it, it would still mean nothing to her.

One of the guardsmen called for another guard to take the letter. That spoke of a certain degree of professionalism; it would not be a simple task to lure the men away from their post with a Bavarian Fire Drill. That was good to know. Not good, but good that I knew it, at least. I waited for several minutes before the guard came back. “My apologies,” he said. “M’lady Khal is not in.”

That was also good to know. Meant I’d be going with Plan A instead of Plan B. I stiffened my posture and looked at him nervously. “I was told she’d be here,” I mumbled, glancing back and forth nervously. “This message is most urgent!” I chewed on my lower lip, then glanced up at the guard. “I… don’t suppose you’d know where I could find her?”

The guard shook his head. “I believe she was going into town today, to the market. If you came from Keliar, you made the trip for nothing.” He gave a soft, rueful chuckle.

I harrumphed and turned away. “Well, my thanks then, good sirs. I will have to seek her out there.”

Preventing the sale was out of the question. I just didn’t have the resources to interfere with a transaction like that, especially on such short notice. And waylaying her on the way back from the city was simply unthinkable. I’m a thief, not a highwayman. The Twist doesn’t make me invincible against magic, particularly not the sort of knowledge and skill an Archmagus has at their disposal, and she’d most likely have at least one armed and well-trained guard with her as well. Picking her pocket might be more successful, if it weren’t such a large and heavy item that would be practically impossible to lift without being noticed. So the only thing that would work, at this point, would be to let her bring it back, and then swipe it from her room while she was away.

I turned and ran back to the city as fast as I could… at least until I was into a lightly wooded area and out of sight of the manor. I leaned against a tree for a bit to catch my breath, then slowly made my way into the woods, circling around. Here in the middle of a kingdom that had been at peace for quite a while, they hadn’t really bothered keeping the trees cut back away from the manor, so I could get in reasonably close without anyone seeing me. Close enough that, with the aid of the little brass spyglass in my pack, I could watch the comings and goings at the manor.

I hung out there for a few hours, munching on some dried meat when I got hungry. I mostly had a lot of time alone with my thoughts, and the more I thought, the less I liked any of this. If the dragoness was familiar enough with the boring piece of cloth I was carrying in my pocket to attune her will to it, wouldn’t she be just as familiar with something that had been a part of her own body? This whole job stunk to high heaven, and it was becoming more and more clear that I was being set up for something. But unless I wanted to end up confronting the wrath of a dragon who I’d already seen had some abilities to influence me that the Twist did nothing about, I was kind of stuck on the current course. Figures.

It was late afternoon before I spotted a couple people approaching the manor. The sun was behind me by this point, so there was no danger of giving myself away when I held up the spyglass to get a closer look. One was an older woman in robes, who matched the descriptions I’d heard of Ms. Khal, and the other was a man, a bit on the short side, wearing leather armor with a sword at his hip. She’d be returning from the market now, then. Excellent. Now I just had to wait until the next time she left. The “conduit” had said that she would keep the scale close until she was ready to use it. I hoped that meant “in her room” and not “on her person.” Otherwise, things would get complicated.

I was fortunate, at least on this one point. It was less than half an hour before she and her guard left again. She must be a very busy woman! I waited around for a couple hours, to make sure she was a good distance away. The sun was on its way down, and I left my pack there among the trees, just taking the bare essentials along with me… plus the sapphire. Even knowing that I couldn’t actually use it for anything, I had spent enough time scrounging for the next job and putting my life on the line that some irrational part of me refused to let such an immense source of wealth out of my hands.

I wore a dark cloak covered in patches and stains of various colors, the next best thing to actual camouflage. It would break up my outline in the dim light, making it harder for anyone looking my way to register a person-shape moving towards them. There was a wall around the grounds, but it was rough stone and not too high, easy enough to climb. An unlocked window at the end of a hallway let me slip inside, discarding the cloak beneath some nearby bushes. I intended to come back for it, but even if I couldn’t, it wouldn’t be too hard to get another one.

From my research, I had a vague idea of where in the manor I would find Fiona Khal’s suite. That’s not the same as actually knowing where it is, though, so I skulked around through the manor house, doing my best to keep out of sight. The darkness outside helped, but it also worried me, as there was a good chance that Fiona Khal would be returning to her rooms for the night. Had I waited too long to move in?

I found the Archmage’s rooms after a few minutes, about where I’d thought they should be. There were several runes adorning the doorframe, shimmering slightly with their own light, and I didn’t doubt that other, less visible wardings existed as well.

Well, that’s what they hire me for, now isn’t it?

I made my way down the hallway towards the door, then stepped up and placed my hand on the handle, hoping that the Twist wouldn’t choose this of all moments to randomly backfire and cause some chaotic effect. The runes set around the door glowed, and I felt the magic Twisting under my hand, and then the light faded. I turned the handle and slipped inside the Archmagus’s chambers and started to look around.

After all the worry and stress I’d expended getting in here, the actual theft was pathetically simple. She had a display case filled with arcane-looking artifacts on the far wall, and one of the things inside was a golden object that matched the conduit-man’s description. The case’s lock yielded to my pick just as easily as its wards yielded to the touch of my fingers, and I slid the expensive glass door open, then pulled out the rag and wrapped it around the golden dragon scale, and a few brief moments later, it vanished with a quiet pop.

I quickly closed and re-locked the display case. In and out in under two minutes, like I was never there. This was going to be too easy!

I really shouldn’t have even thought that. It’s just tempting fate. Just as I was slipping out the door to Ms. Khal’s room, I heard the worst possible thing a thief can hear at a time like that. “Who goes there?”

Crap! It was a guard! I turned, thinking furiously, trying to improvise something. He was a well-built guy in his 30s, with a sword hilt sticking up over his shoulder. I needed a convincing lie, and fast! The only thing that came to mind was, plan D: pretend I went with plan C. I slouched a little as I turned to face the man, trying to look as nervous as I felt and pitching my voice up about half an octave. “Beg your pardon, sir,” I said. “Am I in the wrong place? This is where Mistress Khal’s rooms are to be found?”

He sighed and stepped forward, a look of exasperation on his face. “No, you’re in the right place.” he muttered.

I shook my head and smiled confidently. “She told me to await her inside. Said that the door was wa… erm… guarded? Guarded by her magic? I forget the word. But she drew something on the back of my hand and said it would allow me to pass, and it did. I’ve been here for some time, and…” I lowered my voice, looking back and forth as if embarrassed, “I need to find the privy. Could you direct me?”

He muttered something that sounded none-too-complimentary, though towards me or towards her I couldn’t quite tell. “Begging your pardon, sir?”

The guard shook his head. “If she’s not here, I’ll have to insist that you leave.”

Oh, please, sir, don’t throw me into that thar briar patch! I put on my most crestfallen expression. “But Mistress Khal invited me,” I protested. Then, lowering my voice, I leaned in. “And you know what they say about magic and the Nighttime Arts…” I murmured conspiratorially, adding a decidedly lascivious edge to my tone.

This, of course, only made him even more uncomfortable. “Regardless,” the guard said, “without her to vouch for you, you will need to leave.”

I slouched my shoulders and hung my head. “Very well,” I harrumphed bitterly. “I do hope Mistress Khal is not too disappointed at not finding me when she returns.”

The guard just grunted something noncommittal and gave me an ungentle shove by my shoulder in the direction of the front gates. I stumbled a little, then made my way towards the exit, with him following. Right as I neared the door, he seemed to think of something which he really should have noticed from the first: he’d found me coming out of the Archmagus’s rooms. “Wait,” he said. “I need to ensure you aren’t carrying anything of Lady Khal’s.”

Busted! I didn’t actually have the scale on me, but if he searched me he’d find the sapphire, my lockpicks, and a dagger hidden in my boot, any of which would mark me as an incredibly suspicious character. I tensed and turned to face him, thinking fast, trying to figure out a way to talk my way out of this. Nothing came to mind.

“A word, Captain Henry?” A woman’s voice came from down the hall, strangely familiar. I looked up, and there, standing in front of a window, gloriously backlit by the setting sun, was Aylwyn, the angelic warrior I had kind-of-sort-of-maybe rescued from Robert de Long’s dungeon. She looked every bit as beautiful as the last time I had seen her! But what in the world was she doing here?

The guard turned, and in the instant before he was turned around enough to look at her, her eyes met mine, she scowled slightly, and something passed between us. I’m not sure exactly what it was supposed to be, but I understood three things. She recognized me, she knew she was distracting this guard captain long enough for me to get free… and she was not happy about any of it.

“Yes, m’lady?” he asked. She looked to him quickly, the annoyed expression vanishing from her face so easily, you’d have never known it was there. He was a couple paces away, and I stepped back very softly, then turned and opened the door as quietly as I could and slipped through. From there, it was a quick walk to the gates, and the guards didn’t have any trouble with letting me out. Whatever Aylwyn was talking about with Captain Henry, it must be more important than making sure I hadn’t stolen anything from the manor!

I was shaking as the stress bled out of me once I passed the gate and began to make my way up the road. Once I reached the tree line, I slipped away into the woods to reclaim my gear. I heard footsteps on the road, and turned to see Fiona Khal and her bodyguard making their way back. Eep! Not good! I quickly made my way through the trees, reclaiming my pack and then slipping into the forest. I almost certainly had only a few short minutes before the missing scale was discovered, and I wasn’t anywhere near far enough away for comfort!

There would be guards after me. Maybe even Celestials, if Aylwyn wasn’t the only one at the manor. I didn’t even want to think what would happen to her, for “accidentally” distracting the guard long enough for me to get away!

As I fled into the darkness of the woods, I couldn’t help but wonder what had just happened, and how. Things like that just didn’t happen to me, suddenly being bailed out by an unexpected ally, just seconds after being caught flat-footed. And she was a Celestial, to boot. Seriously, all that was missing was the machina! I had the distinct impression that she knew exactly what she was doing, but how could she? She certainly didn’t get that information from Ryell; dragons and Celestials were said to be bitter rivals since ancient times. But how else could she have come by that knowledge?

What in the world was going on? I wondered as I made my way into the night as fast as I could. What had the dragoness gotten me involved in?

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