Throngs of people walked the streets of Lower Valenar, or so it seemed to Isabel. She had rarely left Higher Valenar, and never on her own. Her trips to Karadash didn’t count, she’d spent most of the way fuming. Isabel was struck by just how much the city she thought she knew changed when one crossed the river bisecting it.
House Jahrimir basically owned Higher Valenar, so it stood to reason it was mostly its members that lived there. Still, it was odd to be surrounded by so many people in Lower Valenar, so many non-dragonkin. So many people not related to her. Isabel felt isolated, outside of her extended family, her House. Isolated and excited.
She couldn’t think of a better way to find Lynn than to ask around. Approaching the first person was scary. After the third, it became a chant: “Hi-excuse me-do you know Lynn-she’s this tall and has scars around her eyes-oh well-thank you anyway.”
People shrugged, tried to sell her something, asked annoying questions like “do your parents know you’re here?” and were otherwise unhelpful. No one had seen Lynn. Isabel kept an eye on the declining sun. There was still time before the music box masking her absence would stop playing.
Finally, in the temple district, she had a stroke of luck. Some of the people here were dressed as poorly as Lynn, which gave Isabel some hope. She tried speaking to a woman leaning on a wall, but the woman’s eyes, wide and vacant, only looked through Isabel. Uncomfortable, Isabel left her staring at nothing.
As Isabel backed away, someone tapped her on the shoulder, causing her to nearly trip over from surprise. It was a boy a bit older than her, who had overheard her enquiries and claimed he’d seen Lynn a while ago, hanging around a particular tower. As he described the location, Isabel’s heart sank. It made perfect sense for Lynn to spend time near Karadash’s home. It was also the last place Isabel wanted to visit.
What choice did she have. Isabel thanked the boy, and made her way there. Eventually, she realized she no longer possessed the purse with her savings. Whether it was the boy or someone else that took it, Isabel didn’t know. At least she still had the dagger. Cursing herself for a fool, Isabel moved on. This adventure wasn’t off to a great start.
With dread she approached Karadash’s tower, for the second time today. Isabel didn’t dare look up to its windows for fear of the marquis spotting her. She just had to hope the hood would do its job. The girl resumed her enquiring chant. The first person she approached seemed deeply offended at the mere thought she’d associate with a human. The second was merely annoyed. Isabel didn’t give up.
The fifth person she asked was Melai. He was sitting on the stairs of a tower, visibly drunk, so Isabel almost didn’t talk to him. But she was running out of time, with barely anything to show for it. The elfblooded man stared at her in confusion, until comprehension dawned on his face.
“Oh. Lynn. Yes, her. Yes, I’ve spoken to your friend a few times. Is she alright? I haven’t seen her around lately.”
Isabel’s hopeful smile turned into a disappointed frown. Another dead end.
“I don’t know, that’s why I’m trying to find her. She’s been involved in something dangerous,” she said.
“Oh my. Oh dear, yes, I do think you are correct. And I may have even helped her to endanger herself. Most egregri… egrige… bad of me,” Melai sighed, disappointed at his slurring tongue.
“She had attempted to… I probably shouldn’t get you involved. I’ve done enough harm, if she’s missing.”
“No, please, wait. You have to tell me. I need to find Lynn!”
“You know, you are a bit like her. Very well, how about this: I will attempt to locate her, and let you know what I’ve found out. If. If you tell me what this is about, and promise not to run off on your own.”
“You’d do that?” Maybe this wasn’t a dead end after all.
Melai considered his answer.
“I believe I will. It would appear it was partially my fault she’s missing, I was a bit cavalier in my interactions with her. Do we have a deal?”
Isabel nodded eagerly.
“Let’s start with your name, then. Mine’s Melai.”
“Isabel Sparkteeth of House Ja… Jahrimir,” she finished weakly. It probably wasn’t the best idea to give out her full name like that.
“Don’t worry, your secret is safe with me,” smiled Melai, “Well then. What is the danger Lynn finds herself in, and what does it have to do with the foreigner?” He nodded in the direction of the maquis’ tower, distaste in his voice.
Isabel looked around to make sure no one was listening, then whispered:
“Lynn thinks the marquis is the Beast that’s been attacking people.”
Melai raised an eyebrow, then, unsatisfied with the level of incredulousness he displayed, tilted his head as well.
“As it may be apparent I dislike the marquis, but I find this to be a far-fetched accusation,” he said.
“Lynn didn’t think so,” replied Isabel defensively. A similar conversation with Daddy didn’t go very well, “She saw through his disguise. And he’s really creepy and I don’t like him and Lynn would know more, she was investigating.”
“If the marquis is the Beast, and that’s a big ‘if’, she would be in a lot of trouble,” Melai got up, steadying himself on a wall, “I shall see what I can find out. When can you come back here?”
“I don’t know. I’m not really supposed to be here on my own.”
“I gathered as much,” chuckled Melai.
“I’ll come when I can sneak away. Maybe tomorrow, maybe in a couple of days. Please, please find Lynn.”
The conversation left Isabel both hopeful and worried. Before, she was mostly concerned for her Daddy. Now, Melai had confirmed Lynn may have gotten into trouble herself. Was that why no one had seen her around? Karadash wouldn’t… He wouldn’t do something to Lynn, would he? Of course he would, he’s the Beast. He kills people. No. Lynn is fine, she has to be. Melai will find her, and Isabel will talk to her, and together they will bring proof to lord Jahrimir, and everything will be fine.
Heart in stomach, Isabel approached her home. Has her absence been discovered? She’d never get out of the house again if it was. Not until she’s an adult.
Shadowfall had begun, sky growing darker, the Shadow sprouting in the cracks between the daylight crystals. The back alley from which Isabel intended to climb up to her room was one such place. The girl approached it with trepidation, and jumped back when the Shadow reached out to her.
She looked for a way to climb that would avoid the hungry blackness, but there was none. “It isn’t dangerous, not if you barely touch it,” said to herself Isabel, over and over. The longer she waited, the more the Shadow grew. Finally, the dragonkin girl rushed to the engulfed wall and leapt up. She wanted to move as fast as possible, but, hanging there, covered in the Shadow, couldn’t see past the first couple of handholds.
Isabel reached up, feeling for the protruding bricks she knew were there. As she did, the Shadow was feeling its way inside her. Isabel could feel the cold tendrils sliding in between her scales and into the soft flesh underneath. Or, at least, she imagined she could. Mostly, she just felt cold. Up and up Isabel went, desperate to get to the safety of her home.
She fell into the open window of her room, breathing heavily from stress rather than exertion, then stopped breathing entirely when she noticed she wasn’t alone. The family servant, Margaret, stared back at her in mute surprise. In the silence, the music box’s halting, strained melody sounded ominous, each lone plucked note hanging in the air far too long. The dancer on top of the box stuttered and jerked.
Isabel got up, closed the window behind her, walked over to the music box and closed the lid over it, putting it out of its misery. Margaret kept watching her.
“Where were you?” she finally managed to ask.
“Out,” tried answering nonchalantly Isabel. It didn’t quite work.
“I thought something had happened, that you were kidnapped. I was about to tell Stefan…”
“You can’t. You can’t tell him, please don’t,” Isabel’s nonchalance crumbled, “You can’t tell anyone.”
“I have to. If he found out I hid this…”
“He won’t. You don’t need to worry about him,” cut her off Isabel.
Margaret shook her head.
“I’m sorry, mistress. We have to keep you safe.”
“I… I forbid you,” Isabel copied Daddy’s tone, wincing internally. She’d been on its receiving end far too often.
Margaret grew a bit pale.
“I’m sorry, mistress. Your father…”
“My father isn’t here. That means you will obey me. And I say you will keep quiet of what you saw,” Isabel stomped her foot, guilt washed away by anger.
Margaret bowed, paler still. This wouldn’t work on Stefan, knew Isabel. He was a member of the House, though far removed. Margaret, on the other hand, was their family’s servant since before Isabel was born. Still, Margaret would likely tell Daddy on her, so Isabel needed to find an excuse. Maybe lord Jahrimir himself would favor her for exposing the marquis, and Daddy would be proud. More likely, though, Daddy would be proud and she’d still be grounded.
Next day, Stefan came to Isabel’s home earlier than usual, and watched her like she was made of gold. When Isabel locked herself in her room and looked out of the window, she found him standing out on the street, basking in the winter sun. Whether or not Margaret told Stefan, he must have suspected something, concluded Isabel.
Going anywhere that day was out of the question. The next day, she had more tedious lessons, then more of being watched. Isabel could slip away, just not in a way that wouldn’t be quickly found out. On the third day, she began to consider that option.
Isabel dragged her legs on the way to yet another tutor. Daddy insisted she got the best education possible, but while some of the topics Isabel learned about were interesting, elven language simply wasn’t one of them. How could she concentrate on the intricacies of the wishful future tense when her Daddy still hadn’t returned.
She waited in the guest room for Stefan to check the study, something he insisted on doing whenever they came to a home belonging to anyone outside of the House. Isabel suspected he simply liked to appear busy, as well as to intimidate the host. He even tried to do it the first time they came to see the marquis. He had come back out quickly and silently, nursing his arm, and hasn’t attempted to do so since.
But this wasn’t Karadash. Stefan has begun an argument with her tutor, their muffled voices barely reaching Lynn through the door. Something about a change of the plan, a different teacher. Isabel sighed. She didn’t care who taught her, she just wished they could get it over with.
Outside the window, the river flowed. Somewhere beyond it was Lynn. She didn’t have to endure silly tutors and mean bodyguards. She went where she wanted, did what she wanted, was free. It wasn’t an easy life, Isabel knew. But sometimes she wanted to trade, if only for a day.
The door finally opened, and Stefan walked through. He nodded to Isabel. Mean and obnoxious though he was, Stefan knew his station. Isabel went inside, looked up at her elfblooded teacher sitting at a table and stopped at the threshold.
Melai winked at her conspiratorially.
Isabel composed herself long enough to close the door with a straight face, then the surprise exploded out of her in a barely contained whisper: “What are you doing here?!”
“Since it appeared you were no longer free to travel, I undertook the steps necessary to have this meeting. Turns out, there aren’t too many young dragonkin ladies undergoing an education, and some of my fellow archivists were tutoring on the side. I just asked one for a favor, said I’m trying to get my life back together,” Melai explained, very pleased with himself.
He looked different. For starters, he didn’t reek of alcohol. His clothes were cleaner, and even his face looked younger. Isabel spotted traces of makeup on his fingers, solving that particular mystery.
“A necessary disguise,” shrugged Melai, noticing her attention, “Otherwise the lovely fellow with fake scales wouldn’t let me anywhere near you.”
Isabel wanted to ask if this meant he was just pretending to not be a drunkard, but had more pressing concerns.
“Nevermind that. Did you find Lynn, how is she?”
“Ah, well. Almost. It turns out, our mutual friend had been briefly employed at a butcher’s shop at the time of our acquaintance. Tragically, the proprietor of the shop had been slain by the Beast, lending credence to your theory that Lynn was investigating the monster.”
“It’s not a theory! And can’t you speak less.. pretentiously?”
“As you wish,” replied Melai, his spirits dampened only for a moment, “As I was saying, Lynn had worked there. And while the propri… the butcher is sadly deceased, his daughter was easy to track down. The young woman had joined the city militia. She didn’t know where Lynn was, either, but she’d seen her conversing with another youthful miscreant, someone I realized I had also seen.
“Armed with the description of them both, I could elicit… I mean, it was easier for people to remember seeing them. I found a matronly woman, a pillar of the homeless community, it would seem, who spoke kindly of Lynn. She had been alarmed at the news of her disappearance, and pointed me toward Lynn’s adopted family of sorts.
“Unfortunately, it appears they’ve had a falling out of some description, but the boys were still able to point me towards a likely location. They said they’d seen her there recently, and I quote, ‘casing the place’. They had also indicated she had, unfortunately, and I quote again, ‘fallen off the wagon’.
“I’ve briefly pursued the, ah, drug angle. It was a long shot, the suppliers of the stuff being understandably cagey about their clientelle. The only thing I was able to ascertain was the fact that Lynn had been blacklisted by someone they feared. No one is to sell her any kind of substance. Which is most curious, though I do not know what it means. So that is where my investigation has led me so far,” Melai finished, beaming.
Isabel sat in silence for a few moments, digesting the new information. That was a lot of running around Melai did on her behalf, she was very fortunate to have found him. A lot of running around, but still no Lynn.
“What are we waiting for?” asked Isabel, “Let’s go find her, then.”
“What? No. Your guard will eat me.”
“Nonsense. Stefan doesn’t eat people. He just bites.”
“And I very much would prefer to not be bitten!”
“He doesn’t need to know. The lesson takes at least an hour, often longer. If we sneak out of the back door, he’ll be none the wiser.”
“Lynn may not even be there,” protested Melai weakly.
“But she may be. We’ll see. And if she’s not, we’ll come back, I’ll go home with Stefan, and you can tell me what you find out when you do find her. You seem to be very good at this.”
“Thank you, it had been quite an enjoyable experience. I still don’t think you should…”
“She may not be there for long!” interrupted him Isabel, “Please. I just want to know she’s alright.”
Melai teetered on the brink, and Isabel’s puppy-dog eyes pushed him over the edge. He slapped the table quietly as he got up. He was just as happy as Isabel to be on an adventure.
“Let us go, then. But if she’s not there, we’ll come back immediately.”
Isabel nodded impishly.
The two of them snuck out of the back door, leaving Stefan to guard an empty room. On the way, Isabel mulled over the things she learned.
“Does ‘casing the place’ mean what I think it means? That Lynn was looking for ways to rob it?” finally voiced her concerns Isabel.
“Pretty much. It would appear she is making a career out of thievery. Which is concerning, and a terrible example to set,” Melai glanced at her as he replied, seemingly worried Isabel would follow suit.
Amusing though the thought of picking up robbery was, Isabel didn’t smile. Her best hope for getting rid of the marquis was a thief and an addict, she now knew. She had always known, just pretended it wasn’t important. Pretended that by not thinking about it, she’ll make it untrue.
Before she had the chance to discourage herself any further, they had arrived. A quiet place in Lower Valenar, recently built up as the daylight crystal coverage expanded, its architecture designed to maximize the reach of the light. Wide windows, densely packed houses forming terraces, with not a ray going to waste.
“Any ideas on how to find her?” turned to Melai Isabel.
“Not a clue. I suspect asking if people had seen a girl looking to rob them may have an adverse effect.”
“Then we’ll simply look. Wander around, maybe we’ll spot her.”
There weren’t many people on the street, this close to the outskirts, and none of them were Lynn. Of course, if she was here, Lynn would be hiding. Bright as the place was, she’d find a way to disappear. Isabel circled one terrace block, then another. There wasn’t much time left before they’ll have to head back. She stood in the middle of the street, looking back and forth, and waited for Melai to join her.
“No luck, I’m afraid,” he reported.
“We have to figure something out. Running around doesn’t work.”
“Agreed. I’m wondering, why here? In the whole city, why would she come here, far from her usual home? Is there some building here that stands out, some resident we should know about? Some, ah, likely target?”
Isabel shrugged. They all look similar, rows of windows upon rows of windows. Nothing special about any of them. And yet something nagged at her in the back of her mind. Something’s been bothering her since she first got here. Isabel closed her eyes to try and concentrate on this feeling. One of the buildings had to stand out, there weren’t that many options…
“Huh,” said Isabel.
“What, did you think of something?” asked Melai.
Isabel nodded slowly, unsure.
“Take a look around. Now close your eyes. How many buildings can you see from here?”
“Five, I think. Why?”
“Now open your eyes and count them.”
Melai gave her a confused look but complied, pointing with a finger as he counted.
“One, two, three, four, five… six. ‘Huh’, indeed.”
“Indeed,” smiled triumphantly Isabel.
“It’s this one. No, this one that’s missing. No, this one?” Melai spun in a spot, pained expression on his face.
“I think it’s this one. It’s slippery, like a fish. My mind can’t get a grasp on it. I blink and I no longer notice it.”
“Then we’ll approach it like a slippery fish. Instead of ‘grabbing’ it, leave it no place to go. That bush in front of it. It’s not disappearing. Concentrate on it.”
Isabel breathed out, relaxing. She would not have been able to maintain attention on the building for much longer.
“How did you notice it at all?” asked Melai, impressed.
“I’ve walked past it twice. The air is noticeably colder near it. Then I closed my eyes, and couldn’t remember it being there, except I remembered it being cold.”
“Fascinating. I don’t feel it.”
“Guess we’re more attuned to the elements. Dragon blood, you know,” said Isabel, almost apologetic.
“Fascinating,” repeated Melai.
They stood in front of a completely ordinary building. As Isabel looked up at it, she felt her mind go blank. There was nothing to see here, so the brain filled the void with idle thoughts.
What was for dinner, she wondered. She’d better hurry back home, or she would be late. Wouldn’t it be great if Daddy was there when she returned. Maybe he brought back a souvenir for her. And if he’s not there, wouldn’t it be great if she found Lynn. She’s been looking for her, remembered Isabel. But why here, in this perfectly boring place?
Isabel shook her head, then elbowed Melai under the ribs. He gasped, looked down at her in surprise, then rubbed his forehead.
“We’d better avoid looking straight at it. There’s a serious enchantment on this place. I’ve only read of such things,” he said, averting his eyes.
“We’re not here for the building anyway. Let’s walk around it, see if we can spot Lynn,” suggested Isabel.
“Eek,” replied Melai.
“Now what would you want with our pet burglar?” asked the woman holding a dagger to Melai’s back.