As we stood before the gates to the mansion of Julio Kronschild, the second most powerful man in the Empire, a fully armoured, helmeted guard called out to us.
“Either state your business or move along, civilian.”
I glanced over at the man. While the armour hid his physique, his posture and presence suggested a high degree of training and discipline. I could see his grip on his halberd tightening. His vigilance was commendable. Elysium nodded toward him in acknowledgement and spoke.
“Please tell the Lord Chancellor, ‘Elysium Ling has arrived to discuss the aforementioned affair.'”
The message was deliberately vague, as we were unsure of whether the guards were aware of the matter regarding the Emperor’s attendance. Julio and Elysium had previously agreed to go about the preparations as quietly as possible, limiting the number of people who would know of the Emperor’s presence at the concert. This was, of course, a consideration made in the name of security. The lower the number of people who knew of this arrangement, the lower the chance of it being leaked to someone who might want to take advantage of it.
“I will pass it on.”
The guard turned to his partner, standing on the other side of the double gates and nodded. The second guard saluted and swiftly headed across the garden, in the direction of the house. After several minutes of waiting, he returned and opened the gates, accompanied by a maid. He took up his position by the gates, while the maid bowed deeply towards us. Her snow-white hair fell around her face as she did, shimmering as it reflected the sunlight.
“Please follow me.”
Without waiting for a response, she straightened, turned, and strode toward the mansion at a brisk pace. As we followed behind her, I felt Elysium tap me lightly on the back of my hand. I glanced up, whereupon she gave a slight, barely noticeable jerk of the chin in the maid’s direction. I narrowed my eyes and inclined my head slightly in affirmation.
Of course I had noticed.
The maid’s physique was not that of a domestic servant. Certainly, she carried herself in an appropriate manner, and she was clearly at home in her black-and-white attire. However, it was plain to anyone who had an eye for observation that her physique was a well-trained one. She had no wasted movements, even in her bowing and in her gait – furthermore, even as she led us through the grounds and toward the house, she radiated a sense of danger and wariness. I had no doubt that if either of us had, for whatever reason, attempted to attack her while she was bowing, she would have been able to respond in kind. She hid it well, but she had definitely received a substantial amount of combat training.
The maid guided us through the large wooden doors of the mansion. Unlike the grand exterior, decorated in gaudy marble and gold with various sculptures and carvings embellishing the facade, the interior of the Chancellor’s private home was surprisingly bare. Apart from the bare minimum necessary for receiving guests of high stature, the house had no other decoration. The red, carpeted floor was accompanied by white marble on the walls, and the place was devoid of any furniture save for a simple white table and several chairs sitting in the middle of two pairs of stairs that ascended from the entrance hall to a deeper part of the house. The entrance hall was wide in itself, about the same height as both floors of the Ezov, and a large, clear chandelier hanging on the ceiling illuminated the space. Several vases of flowers decorated the base of the two sets of stairs. As I took in the interior, I felt a sense of discomfort.
The house was designed to conceal information about its owner. Its furnishings betrayed no information about its master’s personality or inclinations, save that he was accustomed to receiving visits from people of high standing. One could glean nothing that could prove useful in a negotiation. If nothing else, it only proved that Julio Kronschild was a very careful man – one who was careful to hide his footsteps. There was a common saying among us thieves: ‘Fine livery displays some coin, but a shabby cloak disguises a mint.’ The people who deliberately put on the appearance of poverty were very often the ones with the most money. It was a principle that applied equally to the trade of secrets and lies. There was far more to Julio Kronschild than his public face suggested.
I glanced toward Elysium. Her face remained neutral, but her eyes were searching, scanning the premises. I could see her lip tighten slightly. Without a doubt, she had reached the same conclusion. We would need to stay on our toes for the forthcoming dealings with Kronschild.
We were led up the stairs and down a corridor – again, undecorated and predominantly white – that held two rows of exactly identical wooden doors. The maid showed us to one of the many unmarked doors, whereupon we were greeted by the sight of a long, bare, wooden table. A large window opened to the outside, facing the garden, flanked by a pair of heavy, red curtains. Several simple chairs were set up around the table, along with a tea set and a plate of pastries. A mana lamp sat on the edge of the table, unlit. However, our host was not present. I turned to the maid quizically. Her expression unchanging, she pre-empted my question.
“Master Julio is currently in the middle of resolving a matter of some importance. He sends his apologies, and has instructed me to inform you that he will see you in this room as soon as he is freed from his current task, and to reassure you that he will not be long. Master Julio has further instructed me to fulfill any needs you may have. As such, would you like a cup of tea?”
She moved over to the tea set and placed a hand on the tea pot, prepared to pour for us once we gave our approval. Elysium and I exchanged glances, then Elysium shook her head and replied.
“No thank you, we’re fine.”
The maid nodded.
“Very well then. Please, make yourselves comfortable, and let me know if you require anything of me. Until Master Julio arrives, I am at your disposal.”
Having said that, she withdrew to the door, standing next to it, her posture completely straight, her hands crossed demurely in front of her apron.
Elysium started to move around the room, seemingly examining the patterns in the marble on the walls. Of course, her real intention was to ascertain escape routes and possible places where a means of eavesdropping might be hidden. I did a similar preliminary sweep, but after finding nothing out of the ordinary, my attention drifted to the maid who was standing by the door, unmoving. Of course, she wasn’t just there to serve our needs. She was probably instructed to watch us and see how we acted – and to intervene if we tried to do anything suspicious. Just by looking at her, I felt chills run down my spine. I somehow knew, instinctively, that she was a strong combatant. A dangerous opponent, as it were. If I were to fight her, I wasn’t certain if I would emerge victorious.
That understanding caused me some anxiety – and even more anticipation. I could feel my fingers trembling. I wanted to test it out. To see which of us was stronger. To see which of us would win. It was the first time I had met with someone who seemed to be able to match me in combat. To that point, those potential combatants I had encountered were either those that I could likely defeat without much trouble – such as the guards at the gate – or those that I had absolutely no chance of defeating, such as Elysium or Ruth. The fact that I was, for the first time, faced with an opponent that could possibly fight me on an even footing was enough to cause my heart to race. I felt my hand twitch, fighting the urge to extract the dagger hidden in the holster on my wrist.
Elysium’s calm, cautionary voice broke through my violent urges and restored me to a proper state of mind. I relaxed my hand, releasing the muscles that had been pulled taut. I took two deep breaths, then wiped the sweat off my forehead. I glanced toward Elysium and nodded gratefully, then returned my attention to the maid, though this time I had a different consideration on my mind. Even if it was unintentional, I had clearly directed hostility toward the maid. Elysium had picked up on that and therefore stopped me, so there was no way that the maid – with the training she had undoubtedly received – would not have noticed. Yet her expression never changed, nor did her body tense up. She had simply stood in her spot, unmoving, expressionless. It was a degree of stillness that couldn’t be chalked up to discipline. It was like she was a statue – if not for the rising and falling of her chest, I would have likely been unable to tell the difference. It was unnatural.
As I mused upon this, Julio entered the room. Seeing that we were already there, he gave us an apologetic smile.
“Sorry to have kept you waiting. I was resolving a number of requests for tax reforms in the South. Thank you, Alpha. You are dismissed.”
The maid – Alpha, apparently – bowed deeply and withdrew out of the room, closing the door behind her. As her footsteps resounded through the hall, I stared at the door, wondering about all that I found unnatural about her. Noticing the direction of my stare, Julio laughed and addressed me.
“Ah, I see that Alpha has caught your eye, Mister Glint. Excellent taste. The appetite of a young man certainly is refreshing.”
I shook my head and was about to explain my interest, but caught myself. Better for him to assume I was smitten, than to make him aware of my misgivings. Instead, I made a point of averting my gaze, fidgeting. Elysium laughed and ruffled my hair.
“Come now, Lord Chancellor. Don’t tease my assistant like that. For that matter, why not have the girl join us? She can eavesdrop just as well from within this room than from outside the door, I’m sure.”
Julio’s eyes narrowed, but he laughed and nodded.
“As you desire, then, Miss Elysium.”
With that, he walked over to the door and opened it, revealing the figure of Alpha, who had not moved away from the room as her footsteps suggested, but had instead remained outside the door. I swallowed a cry of surprise. I hadn’t noticed her. Presence detection was one skill I prided myself on, honing it over the years as a thief, and later improving it under Elysium’s direction. And yet I had been utterly convinced that there had been nobody by the door. It showed just how much I had to learn. Julio spoke to Alpha.
“Miss Elysium desires that you join us, so come in.”
Alpha walked in and closed the door again. We closed the windows and drew the curtains, then switched on the mana lamp, and then, with the four of us present, the meeting to confirm the security details for the concert began.