Sunday, October 15, 2017

The Masks of Shandar: Prologue

The Masks of Shandar

Typically, Noral Tremailshin wouldn’t deign to be hurried by anything.  He’d keep a stately pace, he’d keep his poise and posture.  
Tonight, he ran like his shirt tail was on fire.  He’d ditched his velvet slippers three hallways back and was running along the rich woven runners and marble floors with wild abandon.  The Tremailshin manor was one of the biggest and richest in the city-state of Shandar, and Noral was doing his best to make his way across it as fast as possible.
His bare feet slapped at the tiles, and he swung a corner, scrambling wildly to keep his balance.  His breath was ragged in his own ears, and a stitch in his left side caused it to ache. Sweat poured down his face, causing his mask to slip precariously as well.  The wide swept black velvet shifted easily enough in ideal circumstances, but in this case, it seemed to try to actively betray him.  He idly thought about clipping the nose piece off so it would settle on the bridge of his nose, but that thought blew away in the desperate turn of another corner.  This running around did not befit someone of his station, but this was something he couldn’t afford to dally on.
“Brother!” he shouted as he turned the corner!  “Brother!  News!”
He slid to a halt before the tall, elaborately carved doors of deep, rich browns.  He was about to throw them open when his memory stopped his hand a moment from the handle.  He reached into the pocket of his crimson silk waistcoat and withdrew a small, metal half sphere, then leaned over to knock it solidly against the door frame.  The sound echoed down the hall, cracking sharply against a hidden metal plate.  After all, it wouldn’t do to fall to the traps that protected the family’s apartments in their own home.  He lifted his hand to rap again, when the door swung open.  His brother’s iron gray gaze glared at him through his own mask, also broad swept velvet, but ornamented with small gems around the edges.  His mouth was twisted into a sneer, and with only a moment’s preamble, he reached through the door, grabbed Noral’s lapels, and jerked him into the apartment.
The door boomed behind him as it swung shut.  Noral gasped air into his lungs, not used to so much exertion, and watched as Naleesh pulled a lever.  As he did, two heavy crossbows swung back into place, pointing at the door.  Their quarrels were shining in the sparse light, but the tips were dark with a sickly green substance.  Naleesh turned on him and snarled.  
“What in the hells is wrong with you,” he hissed. Naleesh kept a grip on Noral’s arm and dragged him from the small entry chamber to his small sitting room off to one side.  The hearth sat cold and quiet on the warm summer night.  Rich leather chairs sat in the round, facing one another, with dark mahogany end tables next to each one.  One table had a candelabra burning, a silver goblet and pitcher, and a leather folder of papers sitting next to him.
“Brother,” Noral said, trying to catch his wind.  “I received news from…”
“There is no reason,” spat Naleesh, “to be running around the halls, in view of the family and the servants like a buffoon!”
“You don’t understand!” said Noral.
“We are Tremailshin. We keep our decorum!”  He took a deep breath and released Noral’s arm.  “What is it that has you in such a state?”
“Someone found out,” said Noral, getting his wind back.  
Naleesh speared him with another glare.  “Found out what?”
Noral gave him a pointed look.  “Someone found out.”
“About our grandparents?”  Naleesh’s expression hadn’t changed, but his skin had visibly paled.
“Yes,” Noral said.  “They found out about it.  About everything.  Apparently, they found the captain’s private journal.”
“That can’t be,” said Naleesh.  “It was destroyed.  All the documents on the ship were destroyed.”
“They were supposed to be,” countered Noral.  “Two scholars found a chest, marked with a rune of Stasis and the interior covered with an elixir of Permanence.  Inside was the captain’s private journal and the travel log book.”
Naleesh was quiet for a moment.  “I apologize, brother.”  He carefully wrapped his hands around the lapels of his own vest.  Noral knew it was his private gesture for troubled thoughts.  “Who has it?”
“A pair of scholars, minor branch of House Salimbra.  They found it months ago, but they’ve been very quietly making inquiries to verify it.  I only found out through one of the librarians at the Royal Library I have on retainer.”
“I’ll admit,” said Naleesh quietly, “that I used to think that was foolish of you.  It turns out, little brother, that you may have displayed uncanny wisdom in this.”  Naleesh very slowly walked over to one of the chairs and picked up a silver goblet.  He took a slow sip.  “We cannot tread lightly here.  Our status is at stake.  If this comes to light, our ties to the royal family will be dissolved and our standing will be, at the very least, in question.”
“At the very least,” Noral agreed.  “What do you think?  Call the Family or the Legion?”

    “No,” said Naleesh quietly.  “The Family wouldn’t take the job, and the Legion would be too sloppy about it.”  He paused, lifting the goblet to his lips.  He stopped before it touched his lips.  “Call out our working men.”
Noral’s eyebrows rose.  “If you believe that will be best.”  He considered what he knew of their working men.  It was a term they used for the men that were completely devoted to House Tremailshin, willing to do whatever was asked of them.  They were recruited from as many walks of life as possible, but a good many came from a less savory element.
Naleesh gestured with the goblet.  “I agree, it’s not something we do often, but this is something we need to keep internal, and we need to have this done a particular way.”

    Noral nodded slowly.  “Do for both of them, but do we want to bring their son and household staff in?”
“How old is he?  The son.”  Naleesh’s eyes seemed to be looking at something in the distance.
“He’s about sixteen.  Bookish, like his parents, though he’s started taking lessons with the short blade.”

    “Kill him as well.  Bring the maids back, they would know where to find the journal and other interesting bits that they might have hidden away.  But for everyone else in the household, get rid of them.”  Naleesh stopped to consider again.  He took another sip, let it sit on his tongue and swallowed slowly.  “We will need cover.  If we assault their home, kill everyone and burn it to the ground, House Salimbra may take offense, even over a minor branch.”
Noral stepped to the sideboard, picking up another goblet.  His brother favored the unadorned silver for his private use.  The goblet he picked up had no etchings anywhere on its exterior.  An odd preference, given the wealth they had at their disposal.  He politely gestured towards the pitcher, and Naleesh gave him permission with an absent wave.
“We certainly don’t want to make open enemies of them,” Noral said, pouring wine.  “They have too strong of a public face, what with that flouncing bard, Saim.”  He paused to sniff the wine for a moment.  It smelled of blueberries.  “Could we frame it as treason?”
“Unlikely,” said Naleesh, swirling his cup absently.  “Who would believe a pair of scholars like them would be acting in treason against the crown?  It could happen, but in this case, the implication would cause more suspicion than explanation.”
“Perhaps that they were consorting with the eldritch?” asked Noral.  Only two years before, the king had made a proclamation that was only circulated in written form among the noble houses, mage guilds, and scholar houses.  “The crown’s quiet edict against such things is quite severe, and it would not be out of character for scholars to be studying things they ought not be.”  
“An excellent idea,” said Naleesh with a small grin.  “Have our men pull one of the artifacts from the vault.  One of the tablets about the conflict against the Fay should do nicely.”  He turned, pointing at Noral.  “Be sure that they take it in one of the special chests.  We don’t want one of the royal seers to trace it back to us.”  Naleesh finally seemed to snap out of his distraction.  “Excellent work, brother.  It seems this pitfall won’t end up being the concern you may have thought.”

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