Chapter 2

           She needed to recover for several days. The boy was called in again to tend to her. She hadn’t noticed before, but she had been given a bad gash across her forearm and face. Both were easily stitched, but the boy insisted that she could be ill due to the blood crossover. After a week, he said that she was clean. He also needed to take another look at her nub and leg. Her nub had healed, but her ankle had gotten worse. She’d run on it, and it hurt more than it had in weeks.

        The Specter seemed annoyed, but agreed to the boys wishes. She’s stay off her feet, or at least, off the streets, for another three months. It was the only time she’d ever seen The Specter not get his way, though, The Specter seemed more occupied with other matters. She didn’t ask. Instead she spoke with the boy.

        “Oh,” The boy blushed. “You can speak. My name? Page. Though, all students committed to the church are called that. What is yours? Mouse? I’m glad to finally know.” He smiled at her. The smile seemed suspicious. Anyone who had ever openly smiled at her had wanted something from her. “He said I can’t ask about your work but… can you tell me a little more about yourself?”

        She shook her head. “Oh, well, okay.” His fingers tapped the wood. “Well, I like learning. And the Magister just began teaching us letters. I can help now if you’d like.” She shook her head. “Oh, you don’t need me? Okay. Well, how about… what do you like doing?” she shrugged. “When you aren’t working, I guess. Or, what do you like?”

        “…Food.” She shrugged and murmured.

        “Food is good.” He smiled. “I can be sure to get you the best I can when I come here. New and interesting ones, not just the stew.” He made a disgusted face. “What else? I know you don’t like talking, so I’ll stop if you want. But I was told I had to watch over you until The Specter returned, and the Magister always says I was born to talk.” He nervously chuckled.

        “Watching.” Mouse said after a pause. “I like watching.”

        “Like, people?” he asked. She nodded. He smiled, “Like, guessing what they are talking about?”

        “And where they are going. And where they’ve been. And what they want.” Mouse answered.

        “I do that too! Sometimes, when someone is confessing to the Magister, I like to make up stories for why they are taking so long. Sometimes I pretend the Magister is the one confessing!” he chuckled. She gave him a brief, half smile. He seemed to like that. “He doesn’t like when I do that. He’d like you. He says all the time that I should be watching and listening more.” He awkwardly looked around the room. “Do you ever watch The Specter like that?”

        She receded her smile and turned away.

        “Oh, I’m sorry, I’m just curious. I just… no one really knows what he does. Some say there is more than one of him, going around to different towns. But no one knows why. I guess I was hoping… no, sorry. I guess that’s a question about work.” He twiddled his thumbs. “Do you know any games?”

        She raised an eyebrow. “You know, like, guessing games? Games with pieces or… well, I’m not allowed to use dice. But when the Magister is not looking, sometimes we flip coins.“

        “I like winning.” She nodded.

        “Well, it’s all in the journey, not the destination, that’s what the Magister always says. I can teach you some games if you want. But can’t promise you will win all the time. I’m pretty good at games myself.” He took a coin from his tunic. It was made of wood; she had never seen anything like it. “See here,” he showed one side, “This is my face! I made it myself… well, it’s doesn’t really look like my face, but I’m not too good at woodcarving yet.” He showed the other side. “The other side is blank. That can be tails.” He put the coin in his fist. “Now I flip the coin and you guess what side it will land on. If it’s that side… you win! If not, then I do. Do you want to play?”

        She mulled it over. “Are those all the rules?”

        “It’s not a hard game.”

        “What do I get if I win?”

        He blushed. “Um, gambling certainly isn’t allowed…” he thought about it, “but it’s not really money… how about, I’ll give you my wooden coin?”

        “If I lose?” She asked.

        “Then… I win!” He smiled. “I don’t think I really need anything. I’m really just bored.”

        “Flip in between us, so it’s fair.” She said.

        “Me? Cheating?” he rolled his eyes. “The Magister would beat me. Well, if he knew I was flipping coins and gambling he would too…” he shook his head. “Fine, fine.” he stuck his hand out, then put the coin on his thumb, ready to flip it. “Ready? Guess!”

        “Heads.” She spoke. He flipped the coin into the air.

        She grabbed it, and placed it on the ground heads up.

        “Huh, hey!” Page narrowed his eyes. “That’s not fair.”

        “Did I break any rules?” She asked.

        “I, um, well…” he seemed grumpy. “I don’t want to play any more games with you.”

        “…Do you want the coin back?” She asked.

        “No. Keep it. The Magister says every failure is a learning experience. I’ll consider this a lesson to learn from.” He massaged his temple out of stress. It was then that the door opened, revealing The Specter. Page rose, took his things, and left hurriedly. Mouse stayed silent, awaiting his next words.

        “Have you understood those texts yet?” he asked.

        “Not yet.” She responded. He grunted. She noticed now that he held a black case. It was the same that he had taken from the Watchmaker. He placed it down before Mouse and motioned for her to open it.

        Inside was clothing, tools, and a number of objects she had no knowledge of. “The Watchmaker got what he deserved, but he was very skilled. This clothing is what you will wear when you leave this place. You will become familiar with these tools by next summer, just as you will know those texts. The boy says you cannot strain yourself, but I need you to be ready. Do what you must to make it so.”

        She nodded. “Good. Try it on.”

        It fit her like a glove. She opted not to try on the footwear, as her leg was still swollen, but it did fit the other leg. The boots were soft leather with metal cleats at the toes and wooden heels. They would be useful running on stone, earth, mud, and even while climbing up surfaces. Though they’d probably also damage any wood flooring, which was why they was a pin that could be pulled that retracted the cleats.

        There was light armor hidden inside the clothing made of something rigid but soft to touch. It was thin, and she could barely bend it with her hands. There was a cloak much like The Specters, but new, clean, and almost formal. She almost felt like wearing the suit was a sin, and that she dirtied it by putting it on.

        “The armor plates are linen sheets laminated and lacquered. They overlap.” The Specter explained. “The cloak is silk, the other garments underneath are cotton. ”

        The cloth was loose, not betraying any sense of armor underneath. In total, her suit was comprised of boots, trousers, shirt, vest, coat, and cloak. There were copies of the same garments but with different colors. Some were completely black, others looked very expensive and ornate, made with vibrant dyes.

        Beyond the clothes was a small pickaxe. She looked at it curiously. “Try it on.” She heard The Specter say. She picked it up, realizing it was a prosthetic. When she put it on she had to strap it not only to her elbow, but to her shoulder, and chest. This was meant to hold her weight while climbing.  She stretched her phantom fingers and found they fell upon the pick as if it were a knife in her grip. Where her thumb would be two thin lines were cut into the piece. She wondered at their purpose.

        “Rope.” The Specter explained. “It is for climbing up rope. The correct knot will allow you to pull yourself up without fear of the rope slipping.” She nodded, trusting him. It annoyed her how familiar the image was of something where her hand should be, and yet, she could not turn her wrist. She had to move her whole arm to change the angle of the pick. It would be difficult to learn to climb again with this, but she welcomed the challenge.

        “There is also rope in your tools.” The Specter explained. He motioned to a separate item, “In addition, there is a crossbow,”. There was a contraption of wood, metal, and cord where he motioned. The Specter explained. “Use it to throw a hook higher that you normally could. Or use a bolt to shoot through armor. It needs to be cranked.” There was a place on the suit to hide each part of it.  

        When all was explained and shown Mouse considered asking why she would need all this. But then she remembered that The Specter did not like questions. “I will practice.” She said. The Specter nodded and left.

        She spent her days practicing as best she could. She would keep off of her injured leg, but would find things to lift up on with her new pick to test it. She found that while it was not as dexterous, it could fit into smaller areas, grip better, and even make new grips if she was patient enough. There were diagrams of how to use the rope and pick to climb and she practiced the art. She first secured the rope to a beam up above, then secured and tied it to the pick’s notches. There was a clip as well to keep the knot from slipping off the two notches. Kept at one angle, the rope would stay. But when tilted towards the narrows ends she could move it up the rope, tilt again, and then lift herself up. It depended on her having a strong surface to rest her weight on while adjusting the knot higher on the rope.

        The Alsciotian book continued with histories and myths. There were great prophets, who told of new wisdom from their goddess, and Magisters, who taught this wisdom and enforced her will. She remembered the Watchmakers words about being a prophet and shuddered. Page said that he had a Magister that schooled him. The book said that both prophets and Magisters needed to be recognized by the church before such a title was handed down. There were also varying ranks, but she could not be bothered to remember them all.

        She tried again on the mysterious third book with the other form of writing. Last time she had tried to group them into distinct letters. This time, she tried to organize them into groups. Symbols that looked similar may be similar… she hoped. This too was difficult, as some symbols looked like a mix of many others. She began identifying common elements in many symbols. One was a loop with two curved lines sprouting out, like a loop mixed with half a loop. This sign was common, but never alone. There were also crosses, and x’s, that seemed distinct from one another. One sign looked like an eye, another was a circle within a circle. Other signs were common, but even more complex.

        She still could not make sense of it after a week of study and classification, but she felt that she was getting somewhere. The marks were alien to her. The structure did not seem the same as hers. The study was frustrating. She had no pictures to jump off from here.

        She made a guess that there had to be names in this book. She looked to where one might write a name, like in the Alsciotian book, and found what she was looking for. There was a single shape made of many flowing together. This shape could have additional information like the other, like a date of writing, or an acknowledgement, but at least she had an idea for what part of the book was for.

        At the end of that month she had a breakthrough, and found line numbers, or, more accurately, “section” numbers. They would appear at regular intervals, but would repeat and lengthen in a sequence that seemed numeric. Sections were not always the same length, but they averaged a fourth of a page. There was a sign denoting “one”, “three”, “nine”, “twenty seven” and new signs continued from there, each being three times the last. The first digit would blend into the next into a new shape, and when the number was done, the line would continue to the next shape. These symbols also were treated differently, and were written differently than all other symbols. She could now separate the book into sections, and analyze them from there.

        She had to question the breakthrough momentarily however, because it insinuated many things. The text would not simply blend left to right, it would sometimes blend below, or around. Some pages read from left, to right, to down, to left, then up, and then circle round until the text ran out of room in the center. Other pages would twist the other way, or they would rise and fall in strange patterns. These numbers helped to solve one riddle, but from their placement, she found that lines would sometimes jump from section to section. Perhaps the strange directional writing was to let some sections be close to one another, to link certain signs. It meant that these sections were “soft” barriers, and she still was not sure where to begin reading from page to page.

        Regardless, she tried comparing sections to each other to find commonalities. The language now seemed to have a rhythm to it. There was repetition in the form of the lines that linked back to previous section. Perhaps there was some musicality to it? Perhaps this was a book of songs?

        She surmised little more by the time her wounds had healed. By the time Page said she could walk on her ankle again, she had not deduced the meaning of any other words. He had become the closest thing to a friend she had however. Despite his reluctance to try again, they played more games. She begrudgingly had to admit that he was smarter than her in some ways. He knew better where to place bets, or plan decisions. It was something else to do when she was too tired to train her body and mind anymore.

        The crossbow was unwieldy with one hand to construct, crank, hold, shoot, and deconstruct. She knew little about its combat ability. She knew what she had learned on the streets, but that was mostly how to run away and hide. She vividly remembered killing the Watchmaker, and how terrible it had been.  If faced with a similar opponent that wanted her dead from the start, she had no idea what she would do.

        Her leg was weak from disuse, but as the brace was removed from the last time she suddenly noticed how strong she had become. She’d eaten full meals every day for the first time while training, and had grown noticeably; either that or Page had shrunk. Climbing no longer felt like an arduous task. It was just as hard as walking, though, walking was something she was getting used to again. She still did not feel comfortable with running, and Page said as much. It was still weak, and needed time to heal completely

        Physically, she had never felt better in her life. Mentally she still dreamed of the Watchmaker, and the language of the book still confounded her. When The Specter came she was anxious to leave. She was still unsure as to the assignment, but she was more ready for it than ever, whatever it was.

        “Simple job,” he explained as Page left. Mouse was dressed in her new clothes. “But important. There are high stakes for failure.” She nodded. “If you are captured, I don’t know you. And no one will come for you.” She nodded again.

        The Specter took one last moment to scan the room. He spoke low and quiet. “There is a unique item within the depths of Lord Cassiel’s oubliette.” She knew of House Cassiel. They held lordship over the city and nearby keep. She also knew that they were not favored amongst the populace. She did not know too much of recent politics to know the details. “To the west, up on the hills, lies the Cassiel’s Keep. Carved into the stone below are the dungeons. And even lower than that is the Oubliette, where they send prisoners to be forgotten. There you will find a vial with a peculiar artifact inside. An eye that seems to move on its own. You will take the vial and return here to me before midday tomorrow.”

        Mouse didn’t question the strange orders. “How will I get in?”

        “There are cliffs off the edge of the keep to the west that fall into the Black Stream. On those cliffs are many ancient towers. The tallest is also the oldest, and not usually manned by guards. The highest room is home to the young Lady Shani Cassiel. You will climb there to enter. You will need your crossbow and grappling hook. You will avoid the guards. It is important that your presence not be detected until after you leave, as escape may be impossible otherwise. There will be guests when you arrive. That will help distract the guards, servants, and nobility.”

        She nodded.

        “Any other questions?” He asked.

        She had none that were relevant.

        “Good. Go to the shore of the Black Stream tonight. Come back here with the vial. Show it to no one. And should you see anything else you desire…” he shrugged. “If you can carry it out with you, it’s yours. Consider it payment. You will soon need to learn to provide for yourself.”

        He rose. “And again, let no one see you.”

        It was surreal moving in public with her suit. When she walked others would move out of the way. There was a respect there that she’d never had before. She no longer kept to the alleyways. On the large roads she was respectable enough for the beggars to avoid, but casual enough that she was not a target for theft.

        In public she wore a realistic prosthetic, much like the one given to her by the Watchmaker. Wearing it, and looking at it, sent shivers down her spine, but it kept her looking normal.

        After traveling through the city, and out the city gates, she turned and walked along the stone city wall. Two guards at the gates looked at her with raised eyebrows when she left the main road, but kept to their post.

        She saw a horizon filled with farmland. Small buildings littered the landscape between fields. Rivers budding from the Black Stream poured through artificial channels and nourished the land like veins in flesh. As she continued to walk she came closer to the Black Stream, a great river filled with fertile silt. The sun was just below the horizon when she reached its shores, and the towers that overlooked it. As she walked the wall began to rise upon a hill, the earth adding height to the wall.

        There were three towers built into walls upon a cliff of stone and clay. Against an army, it would be the hardest place to pierce along the walls. For that very reason, guards seemed scarce here. Most were on the other side of the keep, the city side, as the people were a greater threat than foreign armies in these times. The one that jutted out the most was the tallest, and was her target.

        She constructed the crossbow, wondering if it was truly powerful enough to reach the top of the tower. She cranked, loaded, aimed, and braced the weapon against her shoulder, holding the end up with her false hand. She pulled the lever and felt the kickback. She fell to the ground, off balance, but the bolt flew true. She saw the rope fall between the crenellations of the tower like fiber stuck between teeth. She pulled it taut, and then deconstructed the weapon.

        She twisted the trunk of her false hand and the prosthetic came loose. She placed it in her cloak, replacing it with her pick. Once on the trunk, she tightened it on with another twist. It would not come loose unless she used her left hand to twist the trunk again.

        Tying the rope around the notches and securing them with the spring-loaded clip in her pick she began to climb. It was slow work, but significantly easier than traditional climbing. The cleats seemed to make the work too easy on the dirt and clay, and they found spaces between the stones of the wall as well. She slowed when she the stone as to keep her presence quiet. It was night by the time she reached the height she needed and she clung next to the window she planned to enter.

        A simple glance down was enough to remind her that she had never been this high before. Sand was soft, but not soft enough, and the Stream was deep, but not deep enough. A fall would surely kill her. She took a breath before setting her eyes on the window to her side. It was several dozen stones away, not enough to reach from the safety of her rope. She also did not trust the rope enough to swing from it, nor pull it sideways. She trusted her fingers and toes much better.

        Unfortunately, she only had one hand of fingers. The training she had done for the past months would pay off here and now. The stones were weathered, but her cleats and pick were narrow enough to fit between them. She put some slack in the rope by holding onto a stone with her left and pushing herself slightly up. Then she picked at the top of a stone until she had half a finger’s worth of grip and put tension on it. It seemed to hold. She then used her left to loosen the rope to create more slack. If she lost her grip for any reason the rope was her only lifeline.  She worked slowly sideways, increasing the slack as she went.

        “My lady Shani.” She heard and hugged the wall. “The guards say the visitors are waiting in the baily. You must get dressed!”

        Another voice replied, “Patience! I can’t disappoint our guests. Lord Amerah is in the King’s court. I need to make a good first impression.”

        The voices came from the window she neared. She’d have to wait for them to leave. Mouse did however take the risk of getting closer, slowly, to listen in.

        “Surely you don’t think…” The first woman began.

        “I am unmarried, and I hear he is a serial adulterer. Loose lips may lend our house the secrets it needs. Since father’s death my baby brother has done remarkably well, but he still doesn’t see the terrible shape our country is in.”

        “Where did you hear such rumors about the Lord?” the first woman sounded embarrassed.

        “From other loose lips. Now, what do you think, this one or that?”

        “Well, he is foreign, but I’m not sure what styles they prefer over there.”

        “You are useless.” the Lady seemed exasperated. “Fine, Help me with this and…”

        Mouse became weightless for half a breath as a stone chipped under the weight of her shifting pick. She withheld a gasp as her grip tightened on the stone in her left.

        “What was that?” The Lady asked.

        “This old castle creaks my lady.”

        “But it doesn’t just fall apart does it?”

        Mouse heard footsteps. She quickly tried climbing down. There was a ledge that would hide her.

        However, like a chain, the rope bound her pick. She had no time to adjust the rope. Instead she changed directions and climbed up and around the window. If she fell from her she could be flung far over the stream by the slack. It offered very little protection here.

        She looked down and saw long chestnut hair on pale, freckled skin. She was quite beautiful, several years older than Mouse, but not old enough to be a woman yet. Her nose was pointed in a dignified way. Mouse saw little else of her from this angle. She looked left, then right, then down, then shrugged and retreated back into the castle.

        “I suppose this castle is falling apart,” the lady continued.

        “I’ll be sure to call the masons to have a look,” the other replied.

        “No need, I hope to leave this hellhole as soon as I can. If not by marriage then by other means. My brother is sticking his fingers into the broken hull of a sinking ship in an attempt to vainly staunch the flow. This city will take him when it crumbles. It won’t take me.”

        “…Room for one more when you leave then Mistress?”

        “Of course Diane. Where would I be without you… no, tighter!”

        “But my lady will need to breathe…”

        “There will be time for that later. Tighter. Good. Now, let’s get going.”

        Mouse heard two sets of feet leave the chambers and allowed herself to breathe normally once more. She slowly slunk down and into the window, the ledge providing ample support. She now untied and unclasped the rope, letting it swing then rest naturally against the stone wall. At the same time she pulled a pin on her boots and the cleats receded.

        The room was lit by candlelight by all four corners. The decoration was entrancing, and the room was spacious and strangely warm. The bed was unmade, but beautifully crafted. There was a table Mouse had to step over to enter. On it were papers and a quill, and ink. Mouse was about to leave the room when something else caught her eye. On the bedside table was a golden necklace with a green gemstone set into it.

        Mouse had seen jewelry before, but only ever glimpses. Even then the treasure had been behind half a dozen swords and men who knew how to wield them. It was just sitting there. She almost felt that it would be crime not to take it. She was told that it would be part of her payment to take anything she wanted, after all. She imagined the thing around her own neck. With the clothes she wore now it would not be completely out of place. Besides, the lady surely had more than this trinket. She probably wouldn’t even miss it.

        She hesitated. She felt as if the gold might burn her if she touched it with her impure hands. But eventually the desire won out and she touched it delicately with her finger, testing it like it was bathwater. It was cold and heavy. When she took it in her grasp it seemed to have a power all on its own. She had never seen true wealth before. Now that it was in her grasp she now knew why so many stories had been told about it. She slid the gold into a pocket of her suit. She thought to leave…

        But there could be more. Certainly she had time. A few more trinkets wouldn’t be so bad. If she was just letting them out in the open, perhaps in the cabinets…

        She heard footsteps. Two pairs. She quickly rolled under the bed and looked at the doorway. Sure enough, the Lady and her servant returned to the room. “Yes, I know… wait-” the lady seemed confused. “It was right here.” She walked to the other side of the room, fumbling with papers on her desk.

        “My lady is just as beautiful without it.”

        “A fine sentiment, but I’d rather have the necklace back. I know it was around here somewhere. Perhaps it fell.”

        Mouse saw the servant begin to crouch. There was nowhere else to go. Mouse turned away and held herself in a ball.

        “No, I don’t… eh?” Mouse closed her eyes in panic. She should have just left the room when she had the chance.

        “Did you leave something below the bed?” Mouse heard. She then felt a tug on her cloak. “I don’t remember you having these…” She held her breath and played dead as best she could.

        “Diane!” Mouse heard the lady shout and return to the servant’s side. “I need your help!”

        Mouse felt the grip on her back loosen as the servant got to her feet. “But there is something under there…”

        “There is nothing under there-” Mouse dropped the necklace silently. Then she scrambled away from the two, and out from under the bed. She put one toe of her boot and her left hand on the bed frame, and pushed on her pick to support her right side, the flat end resting on the carpeted stone floor. She quickly turned the pick to hide it behind one of the bed’s support beams. The mattress hid her body, just barely. ”See-” She heard, then shocked silence. “Oh…” she heard the scraping of metal on wood.

        “My lady should learn to trust her servants…”

        “Silence Diane. Or you’re not coming with me when I leave.” Mouse heard some chuckling as the two left again. Once the steps went silent Mouse let her body go limp and she sighed in relief. Gold was going to be a tertiary priority from this point on.

        Mouse left the room after scanning the staircase beyond. A colored carpet hid the stone steps and tapestries hid the walls. The servant must have held a candle, because the way was dark. Mouse was okay with that. She put her left hand on the tapestry of the wall and felt it as she descended. Every step was slow and calculated.

        It took some time, but she eventually found her way down to ground level. There were many doors she had decided not to open. Her goal was the deepest part of the castle, so as long as she could she continued down the steps. She finally faced a heavy oak door with iron reinforcements. It was not locked. Beyond it was light. A dining room with a lit chandelier projected shapes of color like fairies dancing around the walls of the room. It caught her eye, but only for a moment. She spent little time in the room, instead keeping to the walls and corners and sneaking towards the nearest doorway.

        Beyond that room she tried many doors, and came upon a number of rooms. most were empty. One was the kitchen, but she heard the cooking inside and avoided it. Eventually she found herself on the second floor of an entrance hall. The floors here were marble, and lit well with a hearth and with lanterns. A giant statue of a blind angel greeted visitors above the fireplace. The face of the angel was on the same level as Mouse.

        Mouse had been getting more and more annoyed with every moment that passed without her finding a way into the dungeons. However, from her vantage point she could see on the ground floor a stairway leading down. It was out of the way, on the far side of the room. Mouse could find her way to the ground floor again, but every moment was a risk, and the statue intrigued her. The wings spread to her level, and she could touch them simply be leaning over the railing. The feathers made good handholds, and she could climb her way down, hidden by the shadow of the angel.

        The room was empty, so she felt safe in the risk. Even if she fell there was a carpet underneath. She had fallen such distanced before. They did not scare her. She took to the wing and shuffled to the side, her pick and her hand gripping the top of the wing with ease. She reached the head and looked down and to the stairway. It was directly above the tip of the angles other wing. She found some grips in the folds of the angels robes and slid down to the ground.

        Unfortunately she took no more than two paces past the robes before hearing doors open. She dived back into cover and waited. She heard voices.

        “Lord Amerah, you are just as knowledgeable as your reputation suggests. And so fit! You look more impressive than any knight I’ve ever seen. Please, tell me about your homeland! And the court!”

        Mouse eyed the nearby stairway with anxiety. If she were careful, she could climb to the other wingtip and drop down, being visible for only a moment. It could be safer than hoping the group would not see her in passing.

        “I apologize for my daughter’s excitement.” An older women spoke deep and calm like breeze through a well, “We have invited you here to show you that House Cassiel is still strong despite my husband’s passing, But you must be tired from your travels, and in no mood to speak of business.”

        Mouse climbed back up the angel, at the very least, it was a place that they’d be less likely to look. Once at the shoulders she heard another voice, a young boy.

        “I’m sure my sister’s intentions have nothing to do with business.” Despite its youth, the voice contained power and confidence.

        She heard an eerie laugh. It must have been from Lord Amerah. “You are a very observant boy Janus.” There was something off about the Lord’s voice. As Mouse crept across the statue she risked a glance over it.

        She saw Lady Shani from before. She looked very different from the rest of her family. Her auburn hair and freckles made her stick out despite the obvious similarities of build with her mother. She had an annoyed glare aimed at her brother and mother.

        The older woman, Lady Cassiel, was a long sultry shadow upon the wall with pale skin that flickered with the fire of the hearth. She was very tall and had long flowing charcoal black hair was quite beautiful herself. It was not hard to see why her late husband had married her.

        Her son was around Mouse’s age, though it was hard to tell, as he held himself like a man twice his age. His hair was also black. He and his mother were quite slim, and very soft in facial features, while his sister’s were more hard. The son also wore black, while the sister had on something a bit more gaudy and red, once again separating herself from her family.

        Then, finally, Lord Amerah came into her view. He was tall, strong, dark skinned, and dressed in a dull purple. But unlike the others he was staring right at her. In the time it took for her to find him, his eyes darted to her like a hawks. Like a rodent her heart froze when the glint of his eyes flared and her cover as blown in an instant.

        But then, with the glint in his eyes, she suddenly knew why his voice had sounded off to her.

        The Specter looked away from her and Lord Amerah continued, “But where is the wine? I’ve been traveling for so long…” The man continued as Mouse held her position. The Specter was a Lord; Lord Amerah. Why did he need her to break in if he was invited? Why did he even need her here in the first place?

        This, and many other mysteries flew through her head. The revelation had not given her any real answers, only more questions. She’d have to figure it out later. Now, she had a job to focus on. She climbed to the tip of the angels wing, checked one more time to be sure that the group was all distracted, then dropped to the staircase. Her boots were quiet enough landing on the marble steps. She then descended deeper into the castles depths, the talk of the lords and ladies above her slowly dying out.

        Eventually she came upon a door. It was heavy, and could be locked from the outside, but was slightly ajar. Mouse was careful when approaching it and slipped into the darkness beyond with as much agility as she could muster. The dark was suffocating, but not total. She could glean dots of reflected light from the doorway off of metal bars along the outside wall and wet stone.

        There were cells all along a spiral stone staircase that continued down.  However, the staircase was wide and hollow. If she were to take two steps from the outside wall, she’d fall into the center of the staircase and into the mysterious dark abyss. The gap was just too far for her to leap across at its widest, if she had dared. Looking down over the edge she did see dots of light, but not enough to aid her decent.

        A fall from this distance was about as great as that from the highest tower to the Black Stream. The dungeons extended not only into the hill the castle stood upon, but dug far below the normal ground level as well. To make matters worse, these steps were at a slight decline towards the center, and were worn and slick with water and moss. If she met anyone on her way she doubted her ability to avoid them on the narrow path.

        She slowly began her decent, keeping her hand on the outside wall to guide her. The dungeons seemed to beg her to enter deeper with the angled steps. She touched bars, then stone, each time she passed a cell. She did not know which were empty. She went around several times before the darkness became all she could see. Every action became louder as she continued still deeper. She could hear the stone across her skin, each step echoed despite her best efforts.

        “Hello?” She stopped when she heard a voice ahead of her. It was sick and manic sounding. “Another? You are not the warden. She already came. Who are you?” She waited, hoping the voice would think it was mistaken. “You smell young. And clean. And sweaty. A knight from battle? A thief from crawling? Ah, you smell like a girl. A thief then. But what are you to steal from here from those with nothing but time?”

        She surmised that it was impossible to hide herself any longer, “Are you a prisoner?” Her eyes strained in the dark, but saw nothing. She heard a coughing laugh in response.

        “Yes. A misunderstanding I assure you. But my time is up after another week. Still, a new voice is good to hear after so long. And a pretty voice too. What is your name thief?”

        “I must be going.” Mouse responded. She took a step.

        “Wait!” The prisoner floundered, “Girl, come here and let me touch you.”

        Mouse hesitated. “No.”

        “It’s been so long!” The voice cried. “If you don’t then I’ll scream! The warden will come and push you over the ledge! Then the only ones touching you will be maggots!”

        “I must be going.” Mouse replied and continued.

        “I’m not joking!” The voice was raised, echoing loudly through the chamber, “The warden will warn the guards! And then you will be sorry!”

        Mouse hesitated again. “You sound sick.” She said. “And how do I know you won’t hurt me.”

        “I’m not!” his voice cracked and another fit of coughs erupted from him. “and I’ve no reason to harm you. But I’ll scream if I have to!” he warned again.

        Mouse sighed. “…Fine.” She walked along the wall and carefully extended her right hand. She found the bars directly where the voice had come from.

        The right hand was snatched from her grip, the prosthetic yanked into the cage with violent force. “Wha-” She heard confusion, then laughing. “Sneaky bitch.” She heard him seethe. “Bravo girl. I’ll let you pass this time. But only if I can keep this. It feels soft…” Mouse heard disturbing giggles from inside, and the shuffling of a ragged body. She quickly made her way past the cage, hoping that the inmate would be distracted for a time. She felt her pick to make sure it was still firm, just incase the prisoner wanted any more of her.

        She made her way even deeper, and somehow, the blackness became even darker and more wet. The air was heavy and cold like a blanket of snow and the silence made every drop of water a piercing splash. As she continued she began to lose track of time and distance, only the sensation of continually spiraling down. Every sound became thunderous. Every step was a stomp and every breath was a wheeze.

        “Someone there?” She heard another voice, high, female and old. It croaked again, “You’re not supposed to be here!” Mouse heard whoever it was pace towards her. She took a step back, “You stay there! I can hear you!” The crone began to quicken her pace. Mouse considered running, but there was only one direction to go. There was also no promise that she was faster than the woman making it up the stairs. “Last chance! Tell me who you are or I’ll…”

        Mouse found the end of the stairs and carefully hung herself over the edge. She had no idea how long the fall was, but other than a small scraping sound of leather and metal on stone, the transition was silent. She held onto the slick stone with her pick and fingers. Her fingers held very little traction, but the pick held firm, piercing the wet moss and hitting stone. She heard the woman reach the spot she had been standing previously.

        “Hmm? I swear I heard…” The woman stayed there for some time. Mouse held her breath. “… hmm. Curious…” The woman mumbled. “And before I thought I heard voices… The prisoners playing tricks again?” She heard steps as the woman continued up. Mouse did not breathe easy until the footsteps were muffled by her own heartbeat. She then carefully pulled herself back up. She needed to use her cleats again, but once back on the steps she continued down.

        Finally, with a sickening tripping feeling, she reached the last step and found level ground. She saw some lights like stars, but nothing to illuminate the area. The beams came from the outline of a door several paces away. Mouse crept up to it and tried listening. Nothing. She saw no shifting shadows either. There was however a terrible smell coming from beyond the door. It was a mix of rot, sewage and fearful animals. It mixed with the thick humid air. It felt like the smell was grabbing onto her to pull her in. She opened the door and found that there was no one there; a dying candle with less than a fingernails worth of wax was still burning. The light almost blinded her. The room was a narrow corridor with grates to either side.

        She walked down the hallway with a new sense of claustrophobia. She had no idea how many stones and how much earth was above her, and she had no idea how this cavern supported itself in the depths. Now the walls felt like they were closing in. There was only just enough room for her to stand and walk forward, but if she had been taller of shoulders more broad, she’d have had to squeeze or crouch.

        Along the hallway the grates dug down still deeper, somehow. The channels were about a leg deep into the floor, then a grate sealed off whatever lay below. On sleepless nights Mouse had sometimes wondered how deep the world went, but had never fathomed that this depth was possible. She feared that any further would mean she’d fall down below the ground into some bottomless abyss. Perhaps that is where the grates led. It was just large enough to squeeze a human through. After looking down into the shadows of one such grate she continued and withheld a gasp, holding her mouth.

        Fingers reached out of a hole down the hallway, and just barely gripped onto the floor. The hand was missing pieces and parts, and looked long dead and rotten.  Yet, the fingers moved, tapping against the stone irregularly, as if the owner did not realize some fingers were missing.

        “Warden?” The voice gurgled. “Again? Please. Another candle. Not more dark. A rat can’t stand the dark. Another minute more.” Mouse held still. “No?” The voice asked. “Ah, another trick of the light.” The fingers left a bloody trail as they slithered back down the hole they came from. “If you are there, please consider it. A rat can tell another story for you. A story for a candle. It isn’t much, but it’s all I have you know.”

        Something between pity and fear ate at Mouse. She knew what it was like to have nothing to give, but to be desperate for relief. Yet she feared the monster that lived under the earth. She looked again to the candle and found several others lying by it. It would take no time at all to light another and grant this thing what it so desperately wanted.

        She did so, lighting a candle with the light of the first. She then walked to the grate of the old, decrepit hand. “Here,” She said, placing the candle by the hole. She half expected to see the creature grab at her, like the other prisoner had. The light reflected off of the eyes of the thing below her. They were like a dog’s eyes, inhuman yet capable of emotion, and possibly restraint. A hand did reach for the candle, but slowly, and carefully, as if he suspected some sort of trick. Once he had the candle in his grip he lowered it into his cave with the utmost care, as if it were a baby.

        The light revealed the thing in the dark. Through the grate she saw the face and still did not know if it was human. It should have been dead. Sores, scars, and cuts covered in muck made up his skin. A new wave of disgust blew up from the chute and into Mouse’s face with the hot air of the candle. She nearly vomited from the smell.

        “You are not the warden… or maybe, a new one? A rat has seen three, each a child of the last. No, you look pretty. The warden is not pretty. She is also blind, a great boon in a place like this.”

        Mouse stood back up with a cough. The deed was done, she wanted nothing more to do with this thing.  “You do not want a story?” The thing asked. “Then, this is an act of pity? Kindness? It has been so long since a rat has seen that. A rat… I… I’m sorry, it’s been so long, I can’t remember my name. The Warden calls me a rat. What is your name?”

        “Mouse.”

        “Apt.” The thing did not question it. “I’ve made friends with mice before, but you are much bigger than them, if you don’t mind me saying so. And they never gave me a candle either. You are a talented mouse. If you are a kind person… and I believe you are… I have one more favor to ask of you, if you’d hear it.”

        Mouse stood in the hallway for a moment. She heard nothing but the breathing and shuffling underneath her. She’d hear out the creatures proposal. She nodded.

        “The other day… or maybe, week… or month… or year… there was a boy screaming. He was at the end of the hallway. He has since stopped, but may be alive. I don’t know who he is, or why he is here, but I am old. I grew up here as a boy, and now I am an old man. I know nothing of the outside. There is nothing for me in this world and there never was. My time is done, but if I could spare another it would mean the world to me, and make me feel like I have done… something. You know what I mean don’t you? You know how good it feels to be of use? It almost feels like having power.” He chuckled. “Something about that feels right doesn’t it? Being in control of something. That is why I kept this ring a secret from everyone… a dirty thing. But it is mine. My only thing. I’ve always kept it. But if you try; If you agree to try to save that boy, I’ll give it to you. It may not mean much to you, but it means the world to me. Will you do it?”

        There was power in the phrase. The man spoke with some authority and trust that Mouse felt like she did not deserve, even from such a lowly being. She could easily agree and say the boy was dead for the reward regardless, but the idea of that felt wrong. She’d betrayed people before, lied to them. But strangely, now, to this man, it felt so wrong. More wrong than anything else she’d ever done, and yet, she could not bring herself to say no.

        She nodded. “Please, if it isn’t to much to ask…” the man continued. “Promise me. Say it. It means more than you could ever know…”

        “I promise.” She was surprised at herself. She felt the words bind her, for better or worse.

        “Good. Once you are back I will give you my ring. I promise this.” He shuffled away from the grate. Mouse found it impossible to breath deeply without choking down in the depths of the oubliette, but covering her face she managed to reach the door at the end of the narrow corridor. It seemed that the rat was the only living thing here. Either that, or the others did not want her attention.

        She opened the door and the smells changed. She noticed the smell of iron and acid overwhelm the previous sewage. It was not a pleasant change. The smell of rot was just a terrible as she made her way in. Blood had stained the walls and ceiling. All around were mechanisms that Mouse dared not interpret the purpose of. There were no bodies, living or dead. But there was movement.

        A golden eye lay on a simple wooden table suspended in a glass vial. With the new burst of light in the room it turned in the solution with supernatural precision and intense curiosity. It could not blink, but the pupils did shrink. It anxiously turned about, studying her and the area beyond. It was unnerving and unnatural. It was, however, obviously what she was looking for. She walked to it, studying the room for any other persons or traps, but finding nothing. She picked up the glass and placed it inside her cloak. It almost seemed afraid to be put back into the dark, but she tried not to consider how sentient it might be.

        There were no other doors or areas of inquiry. It was the deepest, and darkest part of Castle Cassiel. She felt that, in a way, she had conquered it. She had been to both its highest and lowest points.

        Well, that was not entirely true. The rat had been slightly lower. She would have to return to him now with the bad news. Though, if the boy was not here, she had no idea where he might have gone. She turned back to the hallway and closed the door behind her.

        She came to the trough that the rat called home and sure enough found a ring on the edge of the stone. She picked it up. It was golden, with a pitch-black stone inset into it. It was heavy and cold like the necklace from before, but somehow, even more so. Perhaps it was the value with which she placed it. It was earned, not taken. It was hers by right. Like the bread from The Specter, but somehow even more valuable because it was for a purpose she understood, and not the strange machinations of a man she did not truly know. She put the ring with her other treasures.

        “Rat?” She asked. She felt that she should at least say goodbye, or that she had found nothing, but there was no response. “He was not there.” She said. Again there was nothing. She raised and eyebrow and looked down. The candle still flickered, but she saw no shifting shadows. After looking both ways and finding a key next to the extra candles she went to the rat’s cell and unlocked the grate. The rat did not seem dangerous, and perhaps deserved to be set free. She lifted the metal up and out of the deep hole that it was inset into. “Hello?” She asked again. “You are free now.” Again, no response.

        She felt an urge to go down to check on him, but every muscle in her body told her it was a bad idea. Already the walls seemed to close, down there she could hardly imagine the size of the room. The smell was as suffocating as ever. “Rat?” She willed herself down feet first, against her better judgment, keeping an ear for any sounds outside the room. She could not allow herself to be trapped over such a silly curiosity.

        She had to bend awkwardly to fit down the hole and into the cavern below it. It was the very lowest point, the bottom of the world as she knew it. She had to breath out to squeeze her diaphragm against the stone and finally she slipped in. she had to crouch to turn and see the room.

        At her first breath the nausea became unbearable. Then the sight hit her. It was not large enough for her to lie down in, let alone stand. There was yet another grate on ground level that could not be detached, but otherwise there was no other exit. The ground was filth. There was a small hole on the ceiling covered in sewage from the castle above. Everything was covered in urine and defecation, and a human shaped carcass was in a ball just a few steps away from her, against the far wall. It’s head was bloody and broken, fresh gore trickling from the wound. The man had slammed his head against the stone until the skull had cracked. The rat was dead, his body half rotted away, half chewed by what was left of his own teeth. There was more death and human waste than air in this pocket of hell, and even the air was so thick she found it impossible to breathe.

        She vomited almost immediately, adding to the pile of decay. She did not wait any longer. She turned and tried desperately to leave the cavern, heaving and coughing. The panic held back the churning of her stomach as she raced to leave. Her panic made her rush and she found herself trapped in the narrow hole, her arms pinned by her chest. Her fear was doubled. She heard herself whimper against her will as her arms trapped her body in the stone and she crawled more like a worm than anything else, the walls getting tighter as she continued up. She kicked and finally began screaming as her bones became bound by her panicked muscles in the narrowest part of the shaft. She slammed the back of her head against the stone in a panic. The pain blocked out some of the disgust and fear.

        Though it pained her, she shook herself down, and left herself fall back down into the little piece of hell. Once free she reached her hands and arms completely out before hopping up and grabbing the outside edge. Then, bracing her back against the stone, she crawled up and out, rolling onto the stone and vomiting once more after holding it in for so long. She gagged on the air and spat out all the sick she could before scrambling back to her feet, panic again filling her body, and rushing out of the hallway, back into the cool darkness of the dungeons.

        She was glad that she had been too scared to vomit when trapped; otherwise she’d still smell of sick. The smell of blood and feces faded from her nose as she moved away from the door and back onto the wet, mossy steps. She still felt less clean, and her boots did still track the mess, from what she could hear, but in time she scraped off all she could and began going up the steps once more. Her limbs shook and her breathing was ragged, half from fear and half from the retching before.  Before she had felt like she had conquered the castle, now she felt a more sincere sense of defeat. She had seen the lowest point and could not for a moment take what that rat had endured for his whole life.

        Her chest shook as if sobbing, but she continued forward. The dark did not help her. It still weighed her down, as if it did not want her to leave. She tore against it, rushing more than she should. She slipped on the wet steps once or twice, but kept her hand against the wall to track her progress. In time, she began to calm down. Her breathing became even. She was tired. The climb, the steps, and the panic had all been trying. In addition she did not know how late it was. The cold kept her awake, but her muscles ached.

        She stopped for a breather. She hadn’t realized how stressed she had become. She sat on the stairs and waited for a time. She felt inside her cloak and found the key she had used to unlock the grate below. It was probably useless, but perhaps not. Beside it was the ring. The rat had been generous enough to give her everything he had before ending his own life. She caressed it in her fingers, rubbing it as clean as possible with her cloak. She could not see it, but it was smooth and felt good to touch nonetheless.

        She let herself try it on. She could not see herself with it, but she imagined it looked pretty on her. Putting it on was awkward with one hand, but so were many things. She decided to keep it on. If she was found, it would be the least of her concerns. More than anything else the ring seemed to calm her. It was like a cool breeze across her heart and body, relaxing her muscles and slowing her heart.

        She was ready to continue. She scaled the steps on more, even more quiet than before. Strange, even though she knew her senses were exaggerated, she could no longer hear her own careful footsteps, nor her breath, nor even her own heartbeat over the water drops and shuffling of the occasional prisoner. Perhaps all she had needed was rest.

        She even seemed to pass the inmate who had stolen her arm without suspicion. After passing she heard him snort and grumble, but was able to continue unmolested. Her luck was beginning to turn around. She reached the top of the stairs and found the door to be closed completely, and locked.

        Mouse took a risk and took the key from her cloak. Maybe they used the same lock at the grates in the oubliette. She snuck up to the door and carefully put the key into the lock and tried to turn it. It failed. She tried with a bit more force, shaking the key against the lock. Suddenly, she saw a glimmer on her hand. The black ring seemed to shine dimly.

        At the same time she heard a voice beside her, hidden against the wall, “I knew it!” It was the warden’s voice. Mouse flinched and felt a heavy strike land in her midsection, knocking the wind out of her. She reeled back, the heel of one foot falling off the edge of the staircase. She then felt human claws clasp her arms, “Intruder! Guards! Guards!” the crone screeched. “They’ll scrape you off the stone steps they will…” she felt the woman push, and she felt herself losing traction.

        Mouse struggled, tearing her right arm from the warden and coming down on her with her pick. She aimed for where the head might be. She heard a screech as her pick entered flesh and stopped at bone. The screech continued as Mouse tried to free her pick in vain, it had dug too deep into something. She tugged too hard and found the body falling forward towards her. Mouse lost her balance and began falling backwards.

        She crouched and tried to hold onto something, anything. The body of the warden fell and took her arm with it. Mouse slid off the staircase with her, her fingers vainly trying to dig into the wet stone. Her fingers finally found traction, but only after the rest of her body hung below them. The screeching did not stop, in fact, the warden screamed in even greater pain and fear, and Mouse felt the wardens nails scrape against her arm. The pick was certainly deep in something. The more the warden struggled the more Mouse fingers slipped. She was already beginning to lose feeling in them. Mouse kicked at the warden, but to no avail. All it did was muffle the screams for a moment each time.

        Mouse finally made a plan and nudged her boots across the trunk of her prosthetic. After several twists the pick finally fell loose, and Mouse felt the weight of the warden fall from her. Her shouts continued for a few moments, then stopped suddenly. Mouse heard her body crunch and crack off of various sides of the staircase until finding a final resting place.

        “Hello?” She heard a voice up above her, and recognized it. It was a guard. Not Fallow, but the one who had been with him all those months ago. The voice sent a new electric chill of hate and fear through her, “What is the matter…” She heard the sound of the door unlocking. All the man would have to do was look down and see her fingers clinging for dear life. She could try falling, but that did not seem to work well for the warden.

        The door opened. Mouse closed her eyes and willed the shadows to hide her. She willed for the guard to look away. She waited for a moment as the guard walked in and stopped, presumably looking around. “Agatha?” He asked. “Was that you? You know I can’t hear anything from up there.” Had he really not noticed her? All he had to do was look down. The guard made a confused grunt. “Must have been rats. Her shift ended an hour ago.” She heard him pace away and close the door once again, locking it behind him.

        Mouse sighed and prepared herself. She was still not safe, not until she lifted herself back up. She pulled with all her might. It felt like the bones of her fingers would dig out of their flesh. Without her cleats her feet were of no help either. She managed to lift her chin to the stone before throwing her right arm over and desperately trying to clamber back onto solid ground. It took far too long to put her weight back over the stairs and finally rest once more in relative safety. She winced as she tried flexing her fingers again, the tendons and muscles resisting her every command.

        She felt an odd sensation around her midsection and felt it out. In shock, her fingers came upon a blade stick out of her chest. She felt the surrounding area; no blood. Another sigh of relief escaped her. The linen armor, at least, seemed functional. She pulled the blade out and placed it in her cloak as another payment for her job. She’d bruise, and her arm would be sore.

        But she was alive. That rush had still not died down. She got back up and made the trek down again. She would need her pick, and the Wardens keys, if she was to get out. It added some time to her mission, but she still took her time to remain silent. It also gave her time to think.

        What was that glint on her ring? Perhaps there was more to the stone than she first thought. It had been a long time since she had seen the creatures in that tower, but the way the gemstone glowed somehow reminded her of that day. Regardless, she felt a certainly loyalty to the ring. It would have to prove to be a hindrance to her before she removed it.

        Eventually she came upon the body, feeling it with her foot. She searched it and found her keys in addition to the pick lodged into her shoulder. The pick had hooked into and around the clavicle. Mouse winced at the realization. After finding the right angle it came loose and she was able to stick it back on her arm and lock it back in place.

         She used the keys and escaped the underground. The light seemed bright to her, but must have been very dim to others. Starlight entered through windows to light the staircase from above. Upon reaching the entrance room she found no candles or lanterns lit. Outside the window she saw the occasional light mark the patrol of a guard.

        She kept to the shadows and slowly made her way through the castle once more to her exit. If the room was occupied once more she’d have to think of another plan, but at the moment it seemed the safest route. Before reaching the staircase to the tallest tower she had to cross the dining room. Unfortunately, upon slowly creaking the door open, she found it occupied. The boy from before sat at the table with papers in front of him as the guard from before stood on the other side.

        “Lord Cassiel.” The Guard spoke, continuing a conversation, “Leaving the orphan issues, there is also the matter of finances.”

        The boy seemed deep in thought, “Will we have enough to pay the Alsciosians?” He asked.

        “Our coffers are nearly dry.” The guard continued. “This month, yes. Maybe even the one after, but this is not sustainable. Nor is it actually helping our populace in the long run. We lost a man this week as well. He was defending a cart of fruits when a gang of thugs rushed him and cut him down.”

        “Only one guard?” The young lord asked.

        “We are spread thin. Again, our wealth is lacking. We hardly have enough to guard the marketplace and the keep.”

        “Then divert some from here.” The lord said quickly.

        The guard spoke patiently, “More guards will not make the people happier, and public opinion is already low. Our garrison as it stands could hold out against a riot, but any less and I can’t insure your safety.”

        Janus Cassiel looked over the papers before him. “What other pressing matters are there?”

        The guard paused before replying, “Increased taxes would be a poor choice. I personally think the people could be taxed doubly without incurring a loss of productivity, but the people would surely revolt and the town watch does not the power to enforce order in its current state. The city is in turmoil and the gangs have become more devious and headstrong. We’ve done our best to make deals, switching imprisonment for hangings and the like for promises of temperance, but these tactics will only give these criminals more courage to defy your authority.”

        Janus rubbed his temples, “What do you suggest Dante?”

        The guard, Dante, shuffled back and forth awkwardly. “You won’t like it my lord.”

        “Do tell.” Janus implored him. “Please.”

        “My lord, our town is a modest one. Most provide more than enough to survive. If it weren’t for our duty to the king we would need take no action. As it stands we need supplemental income, not only to pay the king but also to feed your obsession… er, your humanitarianism.”

        “Explain.” The Janus motioned for him to continue.

        Dante said, “We are within three days of the capitol, and on a popular trade route. Many merchants stop here to rest and sell their wares. If we were to charge a toll, and perhaps a tariff, it would add some income, through, discourage some trade.”

        “That would depend on the steepness of the toll.” The lord nodded. “But not too many traders come here because…” he paused in recognition. “Ah, so that is the suggestion.”

        “My lord, we are one of the few principalities that have disallowed the slave trade from our lands.” Dante rushed the words out. “The Alsciosians approve of it, as does most of the kingdom. Our old rules keep many nobles and merchants away. I suggest you allow them to enter, with a toll, a tax on their property, and a tariff on their trade. I know that it breaks the ancient laws of these lands, held long before the rise of the king, but under these measures even the most loyal of citizens will understand that while you may allow the sale of flesh, you do not approve of it. It would be popular and profitable. The trade already exists here in the shadows. I have seen it. It is simply darker, less safe, and more ugly. It exploits those you wish to protect most.”

        Janus did not immediately refuse the idea. Dante continued, “The Alsciosians have rules about it as well my lord. If we kept to them, slaves would be treated much like the youngest child of a home. While lacking in agency, they do have assured safety, and excessive abuse is still a crime.”

        Janus was not yet sold on the idea, “I know that this was an issue that your father also disagreed with me on. And I know it was one of the few you both saw eye to eye with. I simply ask you to consider it.”

        Mouse could see Janus tighten his fist at the thought. “Dante, are there any other concerns?”

        The guard coughed, “I do wonder if you are getting enough sleep. Your father never worried this much about these matters, and you act far older than he ever did.”

        Janus smirked at that. “That is all then. Make the arrangements for that thing in the oubliette. I will think about your proposal.”

        “Don’t think too long my lord.” Dante made his way out of the room. Janus sighed.

        From the corner of the room, his mother wandered towards her son like a dark cloud and murmured, “To bed?” Janus nodded wearily, letting his mother take his hand and lead him away from the table and towards another exit.

        Mouse let the room wallow in it’s silence a moment more before making her exit. She snuck to the door of the high tower and scaled the steps as fast as she dared. She only slowed when she heard a noise coming from one of the many rooms along the way. She paused and snuck closer to it. Creaking and groaning of boards signaled something moving inside. Light shone from the outline of the door. She could not see through the cracks.

        She did hear a grunt however and took a startled jump back. And then she heard a lighter murmur, like a woman in pain. Then the noises stopped in waves, settling back down into silence. She heard voices inside. She recognized the Specter as one. The other was whispered too quiet for her to recognize.

        As much as she was curious, she could not bring herself to risk The Specter seeing her, mostly out of embarrassment. She continued up and found the Lady Shani’s room empty. She went to the ledge and hooked her cleats, fingers, and pick into the stone. It was slow and steady progress until she reached the hanging rope, and then after tying it down to the notches on her pick she slid back down, and to safety.

       

        “Report.” The Specter stood before her in his normal attire, and normal demeanor, in the safe house. She showed the vial. He took it in his grasp. The eye dilated at the sight. “Good. Any complications?”

        “Two dead. A prisoner and the warden.” Mouse admitted. “And I lost my false arm.”

        “Sloppy.” The Specter grumbled. He turned his head, looking once more at the eye. “But still, nothing of real value lost. What have you taken for your payment?” He asked.

        Mouse took out the book and the knife, and placed her hand on the table to show the ring. The knife blade was about as long as the handle and curved back at a slight angle.

        “The knife is hardly worth the iron.” The Specter shrugged, flipped through the book with mild interest, then closed back once more, “Anything else?” She looked to the ring in his sight, then to him. Then she shook her head. “You’ll need to do better.”

        The Specter raised his hood, revealing his face. “If I could notice you there, any of them could. You are lucky.” It almost looked like a completely different face up close and without the mask of social pleasantries. Up close his features still looked mildly hawkish with a large nose and a hairline high on his forehead. His chin was pointed low and his eyes were a dignified black. She could tell he had on a great deal of makeup the night before to cover a number of blemishes and scars, and to tint his skin slightly lighter. He was not altogether ugly; in fact there was an exotic quality to his features. He could look like a dignified scholar, or disciplined soldier, or even a flamboyant nobleman based on a small change in his expression.

        Then, with little warning, The Specter took one of his dignified eyes and popped it out of its socket. Mouse retreated back a step as The Specter calmly put the glass eye in a silk lined box and put it back in his cloak. He then took the vial and emptied the contents into his hand. She smelled brine, vinegar, alcohol, and other powerful solutions she had never smelled before as the clear liquid flowed into his hands, through his fingers, and onto the stone floor. Finally the eye itself was drawn to his palm and he took it by the tips of his strong fingers. He began to insert the golden eye into his newly empty socket.

        From the eye exploded a mass of veins and wiry muscles that found his skull and pulled itself in like an animal seeking shelter. The Specter did not seem scared or frightened, though Mouse took another few steps back in horror. The monster used The Specters skull as a shell and she could see the tendrils of it pouring into him under his skin, making itself at home in his body and brain. Even fully in the socket with the lid as shelter it continued digging inside of him. He shook, and lost his balance momentarily. The muscles dug into his hands through his arms and into the tips of every finger, seemingly melding with the ones already present.

        Finally, after another single shudder The Specter rose and turned to look at Mouse. The golden eye slowly morphed to match it’s new home, becoming another white orb with a plain black iris. Once the transition was complete The Specter seemed happier, as if he had just found an old friend.  “Now I finally get to see you Mouse.” There was an unnatural grin on his face. “The old Lord Cassiel had taken this from me. Now I can truly see again.”

        Mouse wondered if this was the same Specter. “What is that?” She asked. “What are you?”

        The Specter’s smile wavered, soon he looked much more like his normal self. “I suppose you would begin to ask questions eventually.” She looked away from his disappointed glare, but was at least happy that he had not changed too much. “I think it’s time I gave you a promotion. There are some people I’d like you to meet.”

 

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