“The man that we have been sent for is notorious in the surrounding countries for his... well... fake wealth. The city was mostly abandoned many years ago, you see, but the man who remained - once the Lord of the area - much fancied himself more a king, and took the opportunity to turn the city into a small kingdom." Yxalle picked at the dirt in his otherwise neat nails, looking anywhere but at his companion as she spoke. "He forced the remaining citizens to either leave, or separate from the country around, and created his own currency of small iron plates - practically worthless as currency anywhere but within Hellesport, to the king who hoards them - so useful for nothing there-, but apparently useful as materials for our employer and his company, if collected en masse. He opens his doors every day to allow any visitors, as few as they may be, to admire some sort of exhibition of his most valued possessions.. We’re going to use that to infiltrate the building.”
Syla muttered distractedly from the lake, where she knelt with a scrubbing brush in one hand and her sullied green dress in the other. She had been hoping he would, but Yxalle had not dismissed the state of her clothing, and had ordered a break so that she might clean off the dark stains.
“We couldn’t afford to get a spare one,” He’d groaned, golden eyes flashing furiously, “And I shall not
clean it for you, I am not your slave, as it seems you would believe!”
He’d gestured to the bulging sacks attached to his horse which were filled close to overflowing with weapons that Syla had collected on her many jobs. For a moment Syla had thought to retort that it was the horse she was treating like the slave, and not him, but decided it was pointless.
The lake stretched out around her, glittering that peculiar shade that wasn’t quite blue or green, but an odd enough combination of both that re-creating it with paints or pencils would be a form of hell. The water rippled and glittered as the sun hit it, peeking around the edge of the tall cliff that shot into the sky on the other bank; the rock danced through various earthy colours - black, brown, a sandy shade, a colour similar to whisky.
Syla dragged the dress from the water and squeezed it, before plunging it back in, breaking ice that had begun to form around her legs, despite the warm day.
“You’ll dry it for me, won’t ye, Yx?” She called, disregarding the ice and scrubbing harder, red seeping into the water from the cloth.
“I certainly shall not! I am not your slave, I said!” He huffed and crossed his red-clad arms. “Were you even listening to me?”
“Come on, Yx, ain’t we got business to get to?” She whined, purposefully shaking the dripping dress in his direction as she climbed out of the water.
Though Yxalle grumbled, he snatched the dress from her hands and blew on it gently. His breath glowed with a yellow tinge and rolled over the mossy cloth like a spring breeze. For a few moments the dress let off silvery vapour, but was soon dry, silk glimmering once more.
“I will not do it again!” He snapped, glaring down at his small companion.
“Right.” Syla responded to his anger with an uncaring blink, and took the dress.
As she took it she noticed, just poking out from his sleeve, a tuft of golden fur, matching the colour of the carefully-woven braids tumbling from his head.
With a gentle movement she reached out again and pulled his sleeve down, hiding the hair beneath cloth.
Yxalle pulled back in shock, watching after the girl as she strolled back over to Ronac to get dressed, but suddenly realised what she’d done.
“Oh. Thank you.” He murmured, tugging self-consciously at the sleeves.
Syla didn’t reply, but muttered to her horse instead, reaching up to re-adjust the dark, worn leather saddle and stirrups. With a nervous glance, he risked a look at the small girl’s back; it was decorated with an array of pale copper scales, clumping together to form a shining mass. The scales stretched up her back to wrap around her shoulders and down to encase her waist, and then spiralled on the backs of her tiny thighs, and danced along to the top of her arms, shrinking and melting into white skin at her elbows and knees.
And then the display was gone, hidden beneath the folds of the green dress.
Yxalle was so distracted that he didn’t hear the girl talking to him at first. As a small, damp stone knocked against his forehead, he was dragged back to focus.
“Who ain’t listenin’ now?” She smirked. “I’m ready. Let’s get off.”
With an irritable murmur Yxalle mounted his horse and squeezed it onwards, followed slowly by Syla.
As Yxalle had said, the city seemed to be abandoned. Mostly.
Standing in the middle of an old road in the centre of the town, Syla struggled to comprehend all that was around her: the buildings appeared to be chunks of coloured glass cemented together, roughly piled up to make leaning towers that glimmered in every shade of the natural world. The buildings were arranged in awry rows, each seemingly as long as the next - which is to say, they stretched far beyond the limits of Syla’s vision - and neatly separated by rolling roads of equal size.
“Like tired soldiers...” Syla whispered to herself, then raised her voice, “Yxalle, someone needs ta tell these buildings they can stand down.”
Along the roads at various intervals, cracked metal carriages lay rusting, their black and silver wheels squashing and melting into the dull, broken ground; they appeared to have been doing so for many years.
Behind her the grandest building of all attempted to stand it’s own against the army of multi-coloured towers. It was distinctly different to the rest in that it was not a variety of colours, or made from glass; this building was simple grey stone, but practically hung over the town due to it’s enormous height. The tall columns at the entrance could easily have stunned someone with a weak heart into paralysis - they stood resolute beneath the huge slab that sheltered the walkway to the doors. It appeared to be very old due to the old-fashioned architecture, but was, in fact, not much older than the buildings lined up before it.
“It’s not the biggest palace we’ve seen, eh?” Syla chuckled, trying to lighten Yxalle’s mood as she felt his disappointment, and leapt up onto the first step, “Best be off.”
Yxalle took another moment to admire the building before he scoured the horizon - the sun was beginning to roll beneath the hills, bathing the sky in pink and orange - and settled his determined gaze on the small girl standing on the large step.
“Right.” He said, and then hushed his voice, “There will be a path marked from the door that takes you straight to the exhibition, which is in the room you can see through the front, left-most window, but you want to make your way to the top two floors. According to our investigations, the king’s bedroom and storage room where the slates are kept should be in the centre of the highest floor. His sons’ bedrooms are located in various areas on the floor below. Any servants he may have will be in the basement, and I shall find and deal with them. It’s old, but not old enough that it won’t have ventilation. For now, go in, hide yourself. When night falls, it begins.”
Syla’s eyes had grown distant during Yxalle’s explanation, but her ears had remained sharp. Her nose wrinkled in confusion.
“If the customer just wants the slates, why’d they get us, and not thieves, like Aran and Teb?” She asked.
“They have their reasons, most of which they likely did not share with me. However, they say that, despite having withdrawn from it, and the apparent lack of benefits, the surrounding country had an agreement to protect this one. It is necessary to not allow any word to be spread there, or the search might be thorough enough to find and destroy the culprits. That is why this is not a robbery.”
Syla sighed, and started to heave herself up more steps to the walk-way.
“Syla.” Yxalle called, voice low.
As she turned, she saw his glare was serious, and ice cold. It chilled her bones.
Ironic, she thought, that him with warm breath can make a cold one like me shiver.
“All potential dangers must be killed.”
The exhibition was a display filling no more than a room the size of a small barn, lined with badly painted portraits - mimicking an old, lost style - of members of the city’s family; there were four men, a father and three sons, and two women, one of which was marked deceased, that had dripped onto the dusty blue carpet, making the faces look as though they were trying to melt and escape their frames. One of the sons’ portraits was still victim to the heat. The paint looked fresher than in the others.
On one wall there was nothing displayed, but curtains hung loose in the centre, and the sky blue of the paint seemed cleaner behind the curtains than anywhere else.
Except for a dark wooden cupboard - empty - and a table that could barely stand (due to one of it’s original four legs being missing), the portraits were all that the king of this city wished to show guests - Syla understood why people often avoided this city.
With a deep breath she glanced around for witnesses - there was a boy she’d seen wandering as she came through the door that had shown interest in her- who Syla now just about recognised from a portrait. The picture of him on the wall didn’t look nearly as excited as he had when he spotted her. Also, it had evidently less freckles, she noticed, and appeared more masculine than the actual person. The boy she’d seen was the one from the newest painting, and his face had lit up as he saw her.
“Just came in for a look,” She’d called in her best accent, nodding politely, but the boy had already run off, yelling for his father,
“Father!” He’d cried, “Someone has finally come looking at your exhibition!”
The king, then, had waddled out to greet her. He was large, with a bulging face overrun by orange freckles which shone from the effects of persistent alcohol consumption. He’d smiled brightly, thanked her for coming, slurred out an apology for not being able to show her around, and then scurried - as fast as he could with his weight to drag along - back the way he’d come. His wife had appeared, having been stood behind him and so blocked from sight. She was slight and tall, with a mess of long brown hair. She nodded in welcome, and hurried away in a different direction than her husband.
As she listened from the exhibition room now, she heard the wife’s voice close by.
“Arroll!” It called, “Arroll, dear!”
For a moment Syla refused to move, keeping every part of her body still, calmly restraining her breath, expecting the woman to enter the room at any moment and declare her the assassin that her husband had sent two farm workers to kill.
But she did not. A boy, obviously not King Arroll, shouted in response, and the heels of the woman clicked away.
With a breath of relief, Syla stole to the other side of the room and, as quietly as possible, hoisted the table off the ground as much as she could. There was a ventilation grate just to the right of the newest portrait; she just needed something to give her a boost.
It was as she was putting it down by the wall, and took a chance to check again for any dangers, that she noticed the boy from earlier standing, arms crossed, in the doorway to the exhibition room. He was slim, with a thick chest despite his slim shoulders.
Syla ordered her body not to startle obviously, and addressed the boy with a polite, if appropriately awkward, smile. She moved her hands to fiddle in a nervous manner with her dress, like she’d done with the two men earlier.
“I saw you.” The boy said. His voice was gentle, like it was trying to be a melody, “Move the table, I mean.”
She forced herself to look anywhere but his eyes.
“I...I apologise for moving the furniture...” She started, making her voice quiet, shy, putting on her grand accent once more, “I wanted a closer look at the portraits... they’re so intricate and beautiful and... as you can see... I... I am not quite tall enough to take in th-”
“It’s okay.” The boy responded, striding into the room with an air of true confidence.
As he got closer Syla noticed that his face was practically smothered in the terracotta-splatter-freckles; the tips of his nose, chin and ears had a soft rosy hue to them; his chestnut hair was shaved back to the scalp on one side, but hung over on the other, a curl of it perfectly framing one of his shining green eyes.
He stood beside Syla, and settled her with the gentlest smile she had ever seen. With a cringe that caused no quarry to the rest of his face, he sighed at the painting in front of them. His fingers clicked on the table that was now by the wall.
“Personally, I don’t see the beauty. It’s awful.” The boy chuckled, “But it’s all we have to offer visitors. Father painted them. Well... at least he tried his best. He is a caring man, you know, despite declaring himself king.”
Before she could flinch away he’d taken her hand and placed his lips softly upon it.
“Aid- ah!” He yelped and dropped her hand in an instant. Syla resisted a sigh of relief - her self-control was well-trained, but she wasn’t sure it would be enough to resist slapping her knuckles into the side of his face for touching her.
“Oh, my...” He muttered, rubbing his suddenly blue lips with the back of his hand to stimulate warmth, “W-what cold fingers you have...”
Syla only nodded, still outraged by the touch.
After no more than a minute, the boy had recovered. He bowed to her, fingers twitching to reach out and take her hand again, like it was something he’d been trained to do, and then turned to leave.
“My name is Aidwen, by the way.” He added when he got to the door, “I do hope we meet again.”
With his final words, Syla caught a glance of a knowing smile as he closed the door behind him. It locked with a click.
In the quiet, Syla took deep breaths, resisting rash decisions, and listening. The heels had clicked back in this direction.
“Oh, did that little girl leave so soon?” The wife enquired to the boy.
Syla’s heart thumped loudly in her chest.
“I’m afraid so.” He responded. “I’ve locked the door for the night, mother. I’ll lock the front door, too, then go and help father to his room. I’ll be in bed along with everyone else by the time it’s dark, don’t worry.”
The wife fretted over small things for a minute or so, but then the voices stopped. Footsteps faded, moving deeper into the mansion.
Syla sighed. That had been off-putting, perhaps, but not enough to make her turn around and declare it the wrong day to do the job. Besides, where could she discretely escape now?
Turning back to the table, she noticed something glinting upon it just as she placed her hand down to push her tiny body up. She grabbed the object and she straightened on the table, which shook precariously beneath her.
It was a screw-driver.
Looking up at the grate, she noted four screws at each corner, thickly crusted with rust.
The boy had left her a screw-driver so that she could get into the ventilation...
Syla gritted her teeth in frustration, and tugged hard at the paper mask that covered her mouth. The bands that held it on snapped sharply, whipping her cheeks.
As she opened her white lips, blue curling out of her mouth in wisps, frost began to creep up the front window, the dripping of the new portrait slowed and hardened into a frozen blob. She gripped the screw driver tightly like a knife as ice began to crawl along it from her hand.
And then it suddenly stopped. She pursed her lips in vexation as she quelled her anger enough to realise that using the screw driver would be much more inconspicuous and quieter than cooling the metal enough that she could punch through and break it.
With a deep breath the air around her filled with blue steam, and she picked up her mask, tying the broken bands roughly together and slipping it back on.
Within five minutes she had removed and replaced the grate, and lay hidden a few metres into the shaft. It was dark, and riddled with dust and a thick smell created over many years by rat droppings.
She began to count the minutes.
Half an hour until it would be dark. One hour until she could be almost sure that everyone was asleep. That’s when she could move.