The Crimson Script - Opening
A Question of Luck.
“Time to make your move, girl.”
She was enjoying the feel of the coarse and weathered cards resting between her fingers, the smell of sea salt that lingered in the shaded confines of the room, and even the thin smile of the man seated before her.
“Just play your cards, sweetheart, we’ll worry about the money later,” said Stel. A sinister line of yellowed and broken teeth framed his words, as a murmur of laughter crept out from the other figures seated at the table.
Lyra’s heart beat a little faster as she remembered to quickly wipe the grin from her face.
She was supposed to be new at this.
Lyra glanced back down at her cards with a concerned grimace.
“Oh, uh – I’m sorry, I’ve not played cards for money before…”
Stel leaned forward with a laboured grunt, the candlelight dancing along the grease stains spotted across his shirt.
“Like I said before, sweetie, the lads and I are here to help you,” he said, his eyes widening with mockery as he gestured down to the four cards lined up across the uneven wood.
Lyra made sure to keep the look of confusion fixed upon her face, even as her hands began to tighten. Her eyes glanced momentarily down to the blades that lay scattered across the table.
“You just gotta make a set of cards with them that you has in your hands, and these here ones on the table.”
“Right, uh, ok – there are just so many different numbers and colours. It’s all a bit confusing,” she stammered, staring at the crudely painted faces that looked up at her from the beer-stained cards.
“Ah, well, don’t you stress, sweetheart, me and Kric and Limmy here will look after you.”
Limmy, who was seated on her left, nodded with an awkward enthusiasm, casting bloodshot eyes across Lyra’s frame.
She let out an involuntary shiver, but masked it by fumbling awkwardly over her cards.
Kric, who sat next to his leering associate, sat cool and still in contrast. His small, dark eyes fell upon her with cautious anticipation.
“No need to fret, darling, we’s no threat to you. We’s here to help.”
“You’re very kind.”
Kric’s gaze remained unsettlingly still. “There’s no hardship in it, darling, not for a sweet thing like you.”
Lyra felt her jaw clench involuntarily. “Oh, I’m really not that sweet.”
“Sweeter than most,” answered Kric, easing back into his seat. “Why? You’re not the Lady, are you? Not going to slit our throats where we sit?” he laughed.
She blushed. “Slitting throats? Certainly not. Mr Stel, I didn’t think that this was that sort of place,” she said with a note of feigned trepidation.
Stel quickly jolted forward, slapping Kric on the shoulder. “Of course it ain’t, sweet. Kric! Don’t speak so vulgar to our guest. My apologies, miss, my friend here has just spent the last few months on a merchant brig. He must have lost his manners somewhere overboard.”
“It’s quite all right, Mr Stel. I’m just glad that there are still a few gentlemen around.”
“A damsel like you deserves a true gentleman,” replied Stel, chewing a lip, as his eyes studied her face. Lyra nodded, sure in the knowledge that she was two stories up in a house that she had never been to before, and that the door was shut firmly behind her.
There was no way out, and she was very alone.
Yet, even as this knowledge brought a flutter to her heart, a question began to form in her mind that went against every word of her training. Lyra fought it back, willing it to be forgotten, but as she looked back at Stel’s smug, lecherous face, she found that she could not resist.
“If you don’t mind me asking, who is the Lady?”
“Some dumb whore.”
Stel shot Kric a venomous look. “That she is, but that’s no kind of language to be speaking in front of the young miss here.”
“I’m sure our little lady has heard worse. What did you say your father was again? A spice trader? There’s harsher words than mine flying about those ships,” muttered Kric.
“Yes,” answered Lyra, “we were fresh out of Aurel a week ago. We moored up this morning and Daddy said he had some business to take care of in the city. I was so bored left waiting all by myself on the docks, that is, until you fine men offered to entertain me.”
“The pleasure’s all ours,” said Kric, his words suddenly more measured than those of his associates, and, as the lightest of breaths escaped Lyra’s lips, she noted the tone of suspicion in his voice.
“So it is,” exclaimed Stel, gesturing back down towards the cards. “Let’s continue our game then, eh? No need to be worrying about the Lady here, we’re safe as a magister’s purse. Besides, she only goes after criminals and the like, so there’s no fear of her turning up here. Not when we are blessed with such gracious company.”
“She hunts criminals? How exciting, Mr Stel. What does she do when she’s found them?”
The man Lyra knew as Limmy lowered his tankard to the table. “The stories say she strings them up, or slices them before throwing them into a canal. But not before she’s tortured them for information.”
Lyra cast an eye over to the bearded figure of Limmy, his breath heavy with the smell of beer and pork. He wore no mask but instead bore a series of strange tattoos, which almost seemed to dance around the corners of his eyes, meeting in a flurry of spirals just above the bridge of his nose. He had barely said anything since she had first been invited to take a seat at the table. When the brief sputter of words finally crawled out from between the greasy spirals of hair that framed his lips, Lyra detected a thick Fereli accent.
Irritation crossed the weathered features of Stel’s face. “Come now, lads, this is hardly fitting talk for the young miss and besides…” he gestured to Lyra, who had placed a small pile of gold coins in front of her, “we have a game to finish before we escort our guest safely home.”
“Right you are, boss,” said Kric. “You’re safe here, sweetheart,” he muttered, spinning the blade before him. “Ain’t no one getting to you in here.”
She met his gaze. “I feel safer already. I truly believe that the Lady would be powerless against such fine, strong men.”
Stel picked up his cards. “Aye, you’re right there, the fighting’s always best left to men. We wouldn’t want lovely ladies such as yourself to bruise your pretty faces now, would we? Sweet as you are.”
Lyra felt her charm falter, “Quite so.”
Stel picked a few coins from his waistcoat pocket and added them to the pile at the table’s centre. “There you go, sweet. Even more money to play for now. Plenty for a new frock or uh, a nice bag. All you need’s do is play your hand.”
“I do so love a nice bag,” Lyra replied, with the briefest flutter of her eyelashes.
“How about you put your cards down then? We’d best walk you home before too long. Wouldn’t want Daddy to start to worry now.”
No, they really wouldn’t, Lyra thought to herself.
“Can you put your cards down first please, Mr Stel. I’m afraid that I’m still not quite sure what all the pictures mean.”
Kric let out an impatient snort of derision, earning a fiery look from Stel, before the older man lowered his cards.
“Sure thing, sweetie, wouldn’t want you all confused now, would we? Here’s my cards.”
Stel tapped one of the cards already lying on the table, laying his own alongside it.
“That’s called trip aces, lovely, a high hand that one.”
He leaned over the table, eying Lyra with a triumphant grin that he had kept reserved for this moment. She wondered how many others had suffered this same cruel leer.
“Oh uh, well – is this any good, Mr Stel?”
Laughter, harsh and loud, erupted from Limmy, as the three men looked over to see the worthless collection that were Lyra’s cards.
“Pay him no heed, sweet. He’s not from around here,” said Stel. “These Fereli don’t understand proper manners.”
“Does this mean that I’ve lost, Mr Stel?” asked Lyra, her eyes widening with as much shock and disappointment as she could pour into them.
“Lost? No, no, my dear, that’s not how cards work. You simply haven’t won this hand, that’s all. I now get all the coins that you put forward, but the good news is that all you have to do to win them back, is put some more gold forward for another round. A clever thing like you is sure to manage it.”
“That is, if you have more gold?” asked Kric.
Lyra allowed the unspoken excitement brought on by the prospect of more money to hang still in the air for a moment. “Oh yes, Daddy gave me some coin for the purchase of a few supplies, but I’m sure he won’t mind if I try again. I think I’m getting the hang of this now.”
“That you are, sweet. You’re a clever one, and no mistake.”
Lyra dropped another handful of coins onto the table as more cards were dealt. She thought about the many hours that she had spent teaching her nephew to play cards and to work out the puzzles in his many study books. She hoped deeply that she had never been as transparently patronising to him as Stel was being to her in this moment. Lyra then shook the image of her family from her mind. This dark place was not worthy of them and she still had work to do. However, she could not suffer this masquerade to persist much longer. These men saw her much like a cat does a mouse, to be taunted and tricked. Lyra did not doubt for one moment that Stel and his cronies believed they could overpower her and take whatever money and liberties they wanted.
And yet, they played cards for her money, toying with her at every hand. Lyra had heard tale of their cruel ways from their previous victims. It had not taken her long to find Stel and his fellows, and they had been easily baited.
This was going to be short, she thought to herself.
The door behind them was locked, and these men would soon be very alone.
Lyra looked down at her cards. They were as unexceptional as her previous ones, but she knew that it was not the cards that she needed to play.
“Daddy would be so angry to know that I was playing cards. He never lets me play with the men on the ship. What is it that you do, Mr Stel? Are you a sailor?”
“No sweet, not anymore. I’m a trader, of sorts,” he answered, with a sly look to his companions.
“A trader? How exciting! I want to be a merchant one day. I dream of owning my very own ship. What do you trade in?” asked Lyra, making sure to be seen taking note of the cards that Stel placed face up on the table.
He looked back at her, amused. “Rare oddities, my sweet. Nothing that would interest you.”
“Oddities? I simply adore oddities, Mr Stel. What sort of… oddities?”
“Trinkets, nothing more than trinkets.”
Lyra flexed her right hand, allowing the rings upon her fingers to catch whatever meagre light crept into the room.
She decided to try again. “I collect trinkets myself. I’ve brought dozens from ports all across the Argenti Sea. Maybe I could use a few to bet on another round?”
Stel looked at Lyra. The thinly-veiled charm was now strained upon his face, his eyes narrow and lips tight. She had struck upon something, of that she could be sure. These were indeed the right targets.
“Ah, sweet, I don’t deal in your simple rings. My trinkets have a bit more… life to them.” Stel placed his final card upon the stained wood and gently pushed his pile of coins to the centre, readying himself for the end of the game.
“You mean magic?” asked Lyra, “Daddy says that magic–”
“Who exactly is your father? If you don’t mind me asking?” interrupted Kric, slowly lowering his tankard.
“Oh, Daddy? He’s a man of the city. Like you, he’s got a few ships moored outside. Well, more than a few. He said I could have a look around the city while he sorted out some business.”
A chequered toothy grin returned to Stel’s face.
“Well sweetie, after our little game, me and the lads can escort you back to the docks, if you like?”
Lyra felt her fingers tense once again, as they creased the corner of one of the cards.
“Oh, that would be just lovely of you, Mr Stel, thank you,” she replied, the corner of her mouth behind her half-mask curling in disgust.
Stel’s eye traced the golden outline of hair which ran across the unmasked space of Lyra’s brow. Keeping firm grasp of her cards, Lyra slowly lowered her free hand down towards her belt, offering as mirthful and innocent a smile as the dank, cramped room would suffer. This was becoming harder with every passing minute.
The three men’s eyes passed to the gold, greedily drinking in the sight of the small cluster of shining coins now piled up at the centre of the table.
Covetous eyes moved from beauty to beauty, until Kric spoke again.
“You say that your father has many ships? Well I work at the docks, and I have seen few that I don’t recognise. Which is his flag-ship?”
“The Aligri Verde,” answered Lyra, slowly wrapping her unseen fingers around a pistol at her belt.
Kric made to speak again but was swiftly cut off. “There’s plenty of time to socialise, but let’s get these cards played first.” Stel’s voice brooked no room for disagreement, and a note of impatience harassed his speech.
Kric placed a particularly dirty thumb under his own splintered and cracked mask, relieving himself of a troubling itch. He was beginning to grow unsettled. Even Stel’s awkward smile began to fade as time drew on and Lyra sensed that the game would soon be over.
More cards were drawn, bets were made, hands were folded, and before long the final stage had arrived. Lyra slowly pulled both of her feet to rest just under her chair, legs tensed.
She looked down to see that Stel had another pair of aces in his hand, which he now proudly displayed before the rest of the table.
How odd it was that his hand always seemed so flush with ace cards.
“Your turn, my sweet. All the money needs to go in the centre, now. Yeah, that’s right. Now, what cards you got? They’d best be good.”
Lyra revealed her worthless hand of cards with due surprise and disappointment. Stel chuckled and immediately began to console her with the least comforting language possible. Limmy once again fell into hysterics, descending back into the endless depths of his beer tankard.
However, Kric remained unmoved by this sudden loss and revelry. Pained concentration furrowed his brow, as he searched for the answer that for the past few minutes had eluded him, until now.
“Your father sails on the Aligri Verde, you say?”
“Yes,” replied Lyra, and her voice hardened, less uncertain than before.
“Strange, that, because two months ago I heard that the Verde had gone down in a storm, with all hands lost,” said Kric, locking eyes with Lyra.
Stel coughed out a sinister wheeze, obliviously piling the gold into a small brown bag. His laughter grew louder and louder, as he revelled in the success of the early morning venture. The clatter of coins rose joyfully to his ears, and soon it was all that could he could hear, as the rest of the room grew suddenly silent.
Stel’s eyes remained fixed on the brief but enchanting shower of gold. There was no quiet void that the sound of swiftly falling coin could not fill.
“The Verde is sunk, you say?” Lyra mused, “well, maybe Father and I are just strong swimmers. There’s no shortage of new ships at the docks.”
Kric’s jaw clenched. “Maybe, but it’s bad luck to name a ship after another that was lost in foul weather. I don’t know any sailors that would sail on such a craft.”
Lyra could feel her heart beating faster, as she withdrew her second hand to rest under the table. The only thing breaking the momentary silence between her and Kric was the falling clatter of golden coins and the slurping gulps of a very inebriated Limmy.
“I always found sailors to be a suspicious bunch, prone to all manner of flights of fancy.”
A sudden paleness crept across Kric’s cheeks. “Like believing in the Lady?”
Lyra grinned, “She does sound like quite the terror.”
Silence fell, pregnant with threat.
“I hear she can cut a man up pretty bad.”
“Cut, shoot, stab, I imagine it’s much the same, all a means to an end.”
A grimace marred Kric’s lips, his hands curled into fists. “What end could a woman like that possibly have?”
Lyra breathed deeply, leaning ever so slightly forward. “Wiping scum from the streets. You’d be surprised how hard it is. You really have to put your back into it.”
Kric nodded slowly, looking down at the knife that rested so close to his hands. “I expect some stains are harder to wipe than others.”
In a sudden blur of motion, Lyra kicked her leg into the table, sending it flying into Kric and Limmy. Then there followed the crack of bone and the swift release of blood, as the Lady went to work.
Stel looked up, as a final gold piece could be heard landing within the meagre depths of his bag.
The crumpled form of Kric lay over by the door, his elbow jutting out at an angle that seemed anything but natural. Limmy was on his knees, wincing as a fine trail of blood ran down his head. The barrel of a finely-engraved pistol filled his mouth, as Lyra pulled back the flintlock mechanism resting just in front of his nose.
“Something wrong, Stel?” asked Lyra, keeping her second pistol levelled at his head. This weapon was different to the gun that was currently causing Limmy to choke a little. The firing chamber and flintlock had the appearance of finely-engraved silver, whilst the barrel gave off the shine of white pearl. To the right buyer, the weapon was worth more than the very building in which Stel’s day was rapidly falling apart.
For a few moments he was rendered mute, looking slowly over to the collapsed form of Kric and the spluttering Limmy, before returning his frantic gaze to Lyra.
“No need for that, my good woman, no need at all!”
Stel slowly rose to his feet, keeping his hands high in the air.
“Really, Stel? Because if I didn’t know any better, I could have sworn that you were just about to cheat me out of all my gold? Or did I simply misunderstand you?”
No youthful innocence hindered Lyra’s speech, and her eyes had ceased their cautious wanderings around the room. The naïve merchant’s daughter now spoke with a confidence and focus that brought a wave of unease to Stel’s stomach – not that any merchant’s daughter carried weapons like these.
“Misunderstanding? Yeah, love, all a big misunderstanding! Gold’s all yours, plain as day.”
Lyra nodded slowly, drawing the barrel of her pistol from Limmy’s mouth and wiping it on his shaking shoulders.
Stel grabbed his small bag with a gentle clink of moving coins, and tossed it swiftly over to Lyra’s side of the table. She parted the half-open leather with her first pistol, inspecting the gold inside.
Limmy rose to his feet looking nervously over to Stel, whose gaze had shifted back down to the knife resting upon the small table.
“So, Lady, what are you? A guild member? I ain’t troubled no guild, I ain’t stupid. Anyhow, I thought it was understood that the docks was neutral territory. Fair game for all and all that. That’s unless Karrick wants another blood-bath on his hands,” said Stel, edging back over to his side of the table.
Lyra looked up, keeping one weapon in hand, as she placed her winnings inside a larger bag hanging from her belt.
“Do you really think that Karrick sent me?” uttered Lyra, saying the name that could render silent any tavern on this side of Abys-Luthil, with an uncharacteristic solemnity.
“Uh well, no, no – I suppose not. After all, your ladyship, I ain’t done nothing. Not to Mr Karrick. Not that there’d be a problem if you was representing the Pale Star Guild, I’m a local lad myself miss, always happy to help the community –”
Lyra saw the betrayal of thought in Stel’s eyes, even before Limmy could make his final step behind her.
She spun on her heel, raising the butt of her pistol and slamming it into Limmy’s nose. He staggered backwards as blood washed over his lips, struggling to steady himself against the wall behind and pulling down a poorly-assembled row of shelves behind him. He cursed and spat, barely able to regain his footing before Lyra’s fist hammered into his windpipe, sending him reeling to the floor, desperate to catch what little breath he could.
A sudden blur of rusted steel erupted into view as Stel’s blade passed mere inches from her face. Lyra felt the straps of her mask and the hem of her cloak tug against the air, as she spun swiftly away, raising her pistol and firing a shot at Stel’s leg.
A horrid scream pierced the air and mingled with the brief roar of firing powder, and Stel’s right knee burst in a flurry of blood and fractured bone.
Lyra’s heart beat with the pace of a marching drum. The smell of the dark powder assaulted her senses and she began to feel her hands shake, watching whilst Stel’s blood pooled between the rotten floorboards.
It really wasn’t supposed to go this way. But she had to hold it together – she was on the wrong side of town, and even wounded, she couldn’t let these men see her take a moment’s pause.
Stel screamed and shook with pain, desperately trying to crawl away from Lyra. She knelt down beside him and placed the rim of her smoking gun next to the terrible wound.
“Now you’re going to listen to me, Stel, or you’re going to bleed out in this dank, forgotten corner of nowhere. Do you understand me?” asked Lyra, using whatever menace she could muster to hide the nerves which now wracked her heart, beating furiously in her chest.
There was no anger, no frustration left in the sweaty, pale features of Stel’s face. There was only fear and the desperate need to survive.
“You’ve got the money! What else do you want? I haven’t got anything! Kric over there has a small amount of –”
Lyra pressed the steaming ring of her pistol against the bleeding remnants of Stel’s knee. He cried out in a second howl of agony, and Lyra realised that she was now working on very limited time. She had to do this fast.
“I don’t care about the gold, you, or the scum that you work with to lure innocent people into this rat-infested shell. All I want is the location of the shipment that you were paid to deliver this morning from Forely Docks. Where is it?”
Stel’s eyes widened in surprise, as pain and confusion wrestled over the fractured remnants of his mind.
“H-How do you know about that?”
“Never mind how I know. Just tell me where it is, and maybe, just maybe, you’ll be able to hobble down the street again one day.”
What was she saying? Where were these words coming from? They seemed to seep out from some unbidden recess of her mind that lingered behind the fear and the nerves.
Stel grimaced, and for a few moments the pain became too much to bear.
Lyra turned towards the back of the staircase that led up to the room. Limmy was nowhere to be seen, having apparently summoned up enough breath to escape the room.
“Where is it!?” she growled, rising to her feet, holstering her used pistol, but keeping the second looming ominously over Stel’s head.
“O-Ok, but you didn’t hear it from me, I don’t want that sort of trouble,” rasped Stel between sighs of pain.
Lyra tilted her second pistol downwards, aiming the barrel directly between the squirming man’s eyes.
“Oh yeah? What sort of trouble do you want?”
The gun slowly inched towards his face.
“Fine!” Stel exclaimed in bitter frustration. “We dropped it off at that abandoned manor house by the Castelli forges, the old Guilmino place. We was told to leave it under the grand stair, so that’s what we did. Didn’t see no one. Client was going to collect it later, he said. Didn’t want to meet us face to face, apparently.”
Lyra holstered her pistol.
“I wonder why? Lovely as you are.”
The man spat on the floor and looked over to the doorway, as the sound of rushing feet echoed from the stairway beyond.
He smiled through the pain.
“Seems like you best be off, girl, unless you want to say a proper hello to the lads.”
Lyra’s eyes darted towards the window.
“You know what, Stel? I think I’ll pass,” she snapped, marring the repugnant grin on the man’s face with a solid kick of her boot, before leaping over him, towards the window beyond.
It was small but easy enough to open. Lyra stuck her head outside, and saw nothing but a narrow waterway between the two high buildings. There was a small boat jostling between the swell of the water against the plaster walls.
Lyra landed awkwardly in the boat, catching her shin against one of the planks, which sent waves of pain shooting up her leg.
“She’s jumped! Out the back, now!”
This really was not going to plan.
Another much larger window stood before her, and as she heard the number of angry shouts growing behind her, Lyra leapt through it and into the building beyond.
She fought through the pain coursing through her leg, as she ran through room after room. Most of them were abandoned, lined with row upon row of rusting machinery, which appeared to have been promptly abandoned once the old factory had begun to sink into the watery depths which made up most of the eastern part of the city’s highways.
Not knowing how closely her pursuers chased at her heels, Lyra barged through doors and slid down any stairs that offered the quickest route away. Wet and rotted floorboards hindered her flight, and she passed through corridors lined with mould and chipped plaster. Soon enough, yet another door impeded her advance, with a large brass lock fastening it to an old wooden frame. In her haste she fired her remaining loaded pistol at the wood around the brass and gave the quivering door a solid knock with her shoulder.
The door flew open.
“Oh – uh, hello there.”
Several young faces looked up with a collective stare of horror at the masked woman holding a gun, which was currently emitting fine tendrils of smoke.
They offered no reply, stunned into silence. One of them was standing up and holding a small brass cog a few feet away from a pile of other cogs, which were thrown haphazardly around a pointed wooden stick. Lyra was familiar with the game and saddened to see children of their age playing it in the decaying remains of a place like this. There was much wrong with this city, but she was hardly going to be able to heal its wounds this morning.
The sound of rushing footsteps resumed behind her.
“Right, you lot, scram now!”
They required little persuading and swiftly ran out of the room to find another place of refuge.
“Oi!” Lyra shouted.
The last child to leave the room, a young girl, no older than eleven, spun on her heel to face the masked horror.
“Take this, and run!”
Lyra threw the girl a small money pouch that she had kept hidden within the rim of her boot in case of emergencies. The child caught it with an awkward fumble, nodded meekly and hastily retreated into the darkness. That would keep them fed for a few weeks, in the rare event that they weren’t robbed of it first, Lyra thought to herself. Dark thoughts clouded her vision, but not enough to stop her from pulling a small sphere of copper metal from her belt.
Virgil was going to kill her, but she was running out of options.
She pulled the fine wire cord from the grenade’s spring mechanism and secured one end to the doorframe at knee level. Lyra then pushed the miniature lever next to a series of whirring cogs that would activate Virgil’s bizarre prototype weapon. She very gently fixed the small copper ball onto the other side of the doorframe, before running with all the strength that she could muster over to the door through which the children had just fled. She could hear the panting of her own breath beating against the rim of her mask as she ran down the exceptionally wide service corridor towards the promising light of an open doorway.
She had set the grenade correctly, right? she asked herself, her boots striking a quick rhythm on the floor.
Virgil had definitely said to pull the wire before pressing the lever.
Or wait, was it the other way around?
Well, she couldn’t hear anything behind her, so maybe they had decided to–
Before Lyra could finish her train of thought, a resounding crash and burst of smoke erupted from the room that she had fled. She heard the distinct crack of electricity as the shock grenade tore through the room and echoed horribly down the corridor.
Virgil had insisted that they weren’t lethal, that much she did remember clearly. They would simply give someone a rather nasty shock and knock them out for a bit. Lyra was now perilously close to experiencing this feeling herself, if Virgil learned that she had relieved his workshop of one of his precious inventions without asking.
But she could worry about that later. Not getting stabbed and left to die at the bottom of Abys- Luthil’s watery depths would suffice for the moment.
Virgil would appreciate that. Hopefully.
The light sped towards her at a furious speed, as she leapt from the corridor and landed roughly onto the surface of one of the city’s numerous stone bridges.
The sudden wash of light assaulted Lyra’s eyes, momentarily obscuring her vision, as her hearing adjusted to the plethora of sounds around her. She could hear the heavy passage of a large barge traversing along the waterway under her feet, and the bustle of a large crowd teeming with hasty shouts and idle chatter.
As Lyra opened her eyes, she saw a large city square before her, alive with the journey of a thousand steps and the furious exchange of exotic goods. Ramshackle merchant stalls pocketed the vast expanse of the square, adorning it with vibrant colours and aromas both bitter and sweet. Trains of merchants traversed from stall to stall, haggling in languages both native and foreign. Strange voices and eager tongues emerged from faces decorated in a variety of painted masks and flowing robes. The stalls were flanked on all sides by an imposing row of grand colonnade structures, decorated with aged frescos and time-worn statues.
These monuments of past glory stood sentinel over the flurry of trade below. Weathered faces looked down on the moving figures with a muted solemnity that Lyra had always thought was rather sad. Figures of ancient legend, bearing weapons and texts of ages past, observed a spectacle of light and sound which almost seemed to mock the faded stone of their appearance. The rings of faded gold that sat above the lofty height of the grand columns glinted with the light of the rising sun, illuminating those below in a shower of glittering splendour. These timeless witnesses to the wealth of a once-great empire bestowed a crown of gold to all, whether noble, merchant or beggar.
Each man and woman on that square was crowned by the titans of history that went before them, but, even as gold shone down upon their heads, so too did it fix their eyes to the ground, as the furious exchange of trade and coin continued ever onward.
The smile fell from Lyra’s face as she submerged herself within the depths of the crowd’s own heaving tide. She allowed the life of the city to envelope her, as she took refuge in the passage of strange faces and curious smells.
She took shelter in the light as she escaped from the dark, keeping her eyes fixed on the other side of the square and the promise of the path that would lead her to the empty shell of the old Guilmino manor, and her prize.
Lyra felt the edge of her mask press gently against the doorway as she gazed down the tall stairway. She could hear voices coming from the long-neglected grand entrance below. The size of the staircase was absurd, even for the aristocracy. Its finely-crafted bannister rail was designed to mimic the flow of tidal waves, washing down the room in heaving torrents that carried delicately-made ships of walnut wood and ash. It was truly a work of art in itself, and dilapidated and dust ridden as it was, it still warranted a moment’s pause.
Then the sound of hushed voices called to her from the darkness of the depths below, and her mind began to focus.
Lyra placed the tip of her foot tentatively upon the first step of the stair. No eerie creak echoed from its surface and no shower of wood descended onto the floors below. It seemed stable enough to walk on, and keeping one hand upon the uneven surface of the bannister rail, she slowly made her descent.
With each step, Lyra felt a further weight fall upon the base of her stomach, and a slight shudder trouble the beat of her heart, unsettling the slow whispers of her breath.
Fear gripped her. The darkness hemmed her in on every side, and now the light seemed very far away indeed.
Why had she come to this place? Really?
In her head she knew well enough, and she could almost smell her prize which now sat between the growing pair of voices below.
But doubts now assaulted the certainties that she had once possessed.
What if her father found out what she was doing?
She did not fear his rebuke in the same way that she did Virgil’s. Virgil would chastise her with a heat of rhetoric that closely resembled the fires of his workshop forge. She would feel the sting of his words and the shame of his weary stare, but she was no stranger to this and would soon recover.
But her father, that was a different matter.
He would not bluster or rage, he would not shout or stamp. He would simply look at her with a sadness that she had only been able to endure a few times in her life. He would utter a few quiet words, and her heart would sink. He was not one for the shadows, and she felt that he would barely recognise her now, skulking about in the darkness.
He could never know that she was here.
She would not let that happen.
Before Lyra could ponder this any more, the image of his face now resting in her mind’s eye became blurred, and was quickly dissipated by the darkness of the room, as the pair of voices below grew louder.
“Seems to be all here.”
“Yeah, well, let me have a look. I ain’t getting put on watch duty by the boss again. You know it rained for three hours last night?”
“You was outside for three hours, in all that rain?”
“Yeah, like I said.”
“Ah that ain’t right, that ain’t. You have a look ‘ere then, looks to be all there.”
Lyra leaned carefully over the bannister to see two robed figures investigating a small wooden box. She allowed herself to take a few more steps down the stairs before slowly drawing another copper sphere from the clasps at her belt.
“Did you have a break, when you was out on watch?”
“Nah, that’s the thing! Groar had me out there for hours. I didn’t even get me’ tea,” said the second voice despondently.
“What! No tea?” in disbelief.
“No, not even a little bit! An’ it was really cold. Got me’ fingers all numb and everything.”
“Ah mate, that’s not right, none of it.”
“Yeah well, then I tried pouring some hot water on ‘em, you know, but then they got all tingly and stung rotten,” replied the man, putting the box down and displaying the red tips of his fingers.
“Ah mate you gotta look after yourself. My wife makes the warmest gloves, ever. They’re great, she can make you some up no problem,” responded the first man, carefully offering his fellow a small woollen item.
“That’s a mitten.”
“What? No! They ain’t mittens. This is the best quality gloveware is this,” the man insisted earnestly.
“You sure? Cos’ that really looks like a mitten.”
“Nah mate. Look, try it on. It’ll keep that cold out, no problem.”
The other cloaked figure tentatively tried on the small object.
“Oh you’re not wrong there, mate, that ain’t half bad. You say Marion would make me a pair?”
“Yeah, no problem, she’s great at the old stitching, my Marion. Feel the inside of that lining there, it’s a real work of art that.”
Lyra slowly placed the copper grenade back onto her belt.
She just couldn’t bring herself to do it.
“She makes a smashing pork pie as well.”
“For the last time, Eric, you can’t keep passing cat off as pork.”
“You can if you’ve fed it a sausage.”
Lyra pulled out a small pebble from one of the pouches at her belt. She looked towards the half-opened door by which the men had made their entrance, and threw the stone with an easy flick of her wrist.
Their conversation came to a sudden halt. The two figures made their way over to the building’s entrance, pulling weathered short swords from their belts. Without a moment’s pause, Lyra leapt from the bannister, allowed herself to fall a few feet, then caught the edge of the dust-strewn surface with her hands and landed with her boots to the floor.
The stunned duo turned upon their heels to face the masked apparition, who was bearing a long, dark cloak and finely-made boots. However, what most captured their attention was the pair of finely-polished pistols which she held pointed at each of them.
“Oi! Who are you then?” asked the one with what were clearly two mittens folded over his belt.
“Never mind who I am. I want that box that you’re holding. Kick it over here, start walking up those stairs, and you and your friend get to live another day,” said Lyra with more confidence than she had expected.
The two shared a nervous glance.
“Best do as the lady says, Eric, she’s literally pointing guns at us,” said the other one, as his sore, red fingers slowly sheathed his sword, before raising his hands.
Lyra pulled back the firing mechanisms on her pistols.
“This is about as literal as it gets, Eric. Kick over the box, now.”
Needing no further motivation, Eric promptly shoved the box over with his foot. Lyra holstered one pistol, picked up her prize and edged towards the open door.
“Much obliged, gents. Now, if you wouldn’t mind heading up those stairs and keeping those eyes of yours forwards, you never have to worry about seeing me again.”
The pair moved over towards the stairs, hands raised.
“Sure thing, miss, but you do know who we work for, right? Maybe you should reconsider, not that I’m threatening you, you understand. Just a friendly warning.”
Lyra knew exactly who they worked for, but Karrick would have to enter her side of town if he wanted to catch her. Karrick’s guild was not to be trifled with, but he wasn’t that stupid.
“I’ll bear it in mind. Now, up you go, eyes forwards.”
The two shuffled up the stairs, happily averting their eyes from the armed stranger.
“That’s gonna be another two nights’ watch for us now, mate.”
“Ok look, I’ll get Marion to knock up a few gloves, maybe a flask of tea, and we’re right as rain.”
“Honestly mate, they still look like mittens to me.”
Lyra holstered her weapons, box in hand, and made for the door, easing out of the darkness and into the light. Her prize had a satisfying weight to it as it knocked against her thigh. She made for the busiest city barge that she could find. For her, the crowd and the noise promised safety, discretion, and most importantly, anonymity. Qualities which were going to be in short supply in an hour’s time. She considered extending that travel time to over an hour. Hopefully, Virgil would be less inclined to shout at her if his mouth was full of the cake that she planned on buying him. It was a thin hope, but in this city of shadows and masks, hope was always a rare commodity.