1. Seagate Palace
If Meg had known the significance of this one act and how it would change her life and possibly the lives of everyone on Adonia, maybe she would have had second thoughts. Instead she only thought of the reward: enough gold to not only retire and disappear, but to live like a queen for the rest of her days.
And that was just her half.
‘Are you in?’ Jamine asked, using her mind. Mind speak was not common but Meg and Jamine had been able to share their thoughts all their lives.
Meg smiled and considered not responding, just to see how panicked her sister would become. She decided that she needed Jamine as calm as possible. ‘I’m in. You were right. They wouldn’t touch the wine, but while they were inspecting the glass, I used the perfume sprayer and they’re both as still as statues.’
‘Excellent! Do you have it?’
‘Not yet. I’ll let you know. Make sure the duke stays away.’
‘He’s entertaining his guests on the lawn. The fireworks begin soon. Hurry!’
‘I will. Oh, and you should see me. I look amazing.’ She looked at the mirror on the wall to her left. Her short scraggly hair was white and she was balding. Leathery wrinkled skin hung from her jaw and the wart on her nose was impossible to overlook.
‘And I am as wide as a cow. Get back to work.’
Meg smiled at the old lady in the mirror as she straightened her hair. She and her sister had dreamt of a score like this for as long as she could remember. Finally, they would have a happily-ever-after ending to their story of hardship and pain.
It had taken patience and hard work to get this far. Early on, the thieves’ guild had recognized Meg’s many talents. After Jamine left the school of wizards and joined her, their reputation as a team gained notoriety. They had proven they had the skills for difficult jobs, like this one, which had been turned down by the guild in Vendia. The charms protecting Seagate Palace were famous for being murderously clever. Besides, it did not serve the interests of the guild to call down the wrath of Vendia’s most prominent and powerful citizen.
This kind of job was dangerous but very profitable. No middle man meant higher percentages for Meg and Jamine.
So six months ago the sisters arrived in Vendia quietly and took jobs as servants in the palace. They thoroughly cased the place, then resigned with good references. They made sure they were seen leaving town. Secretly they returned to the slums of Vendia and began their work in earnest. They now knew what they needed to do to get their prize, but making the arrangements took time. They had sunk every coin they had into this venture, and then some. Meg was glad that tonight they would finally put Vendia well behind them.
Meg pulled her attention away from the old maid in the mirror. The illusion was a perfect match for Esmoria, who was right now resting peacefully in the maids’ quarters, thanks to a sleeping potion. Meg surveyed the room until she found what she was looking for. It was floating above a marble pedestal next to the duke’s throne-like chair. She walked up to it.
She looked hungrily at the scepter. It was impressive. It was about a foot and a half long, with a dragon twisted around the shaft. The emerald on top was huge. It was mesmerizing. Magically suspended, it rotated slowly to allow each facet of the huge emerald that sat atop it to catch the light. It may have been Fernig the Artificer’s finest work. Duke Valterius had doubtless paid handsomely for it. Too bad it was a fake.
Everyone knew that if you needed a replica of anything valuable Fernig was the best, if not an expensive, choice. The real scepter was somewhere nearby, in a magic safe that moved around the room every few minutes. Where it was right now was unclear, but she had just the thing to locate it.
She pulled the charm out of the pocket of her apron. It was a small glass bottle with a cork in the top and strange clear yet luminescent liquid inside. Suspended from the cork on a delicate silver wire was a flat silver figurine of a pointing hunting dog. An apprentice to the wizard who made the safe had a side business that generated him a nice income. Every time the wizard made a safe, the apprentice made a charm. He touched it to the safe while saying the proper word, and the two were linked. Meg had acquired this one after quite a bit of flirting and plenty of wine. The apprentice had fallen for her so deeply that he even told her the linking word.
She held the bottle up and looked at the dog closely. The dog’s tail was in the air, its nose pointing directly at the floor. Meg could not contain her smile. Now all she had to do was get past the deadly gas, poisonous needles and paralyzing field that protected it.
* * * * *
Meg may have been enjoying her enchanted disguise. Jamine, however, could not wait to get back to normal. She had chosen to masquerade as a blonde haired, heavyset Woldish woman, since the best servants came from Wold. She was tired of constantly running into things with her hips. Yet Jamine blended in well to the surroundings. She made sure to be the perfect servant girl. She filled the glasses of the elite of Vendia as they sat in fine chairs on the lawn.
She looked back toward the palace for a moment. Seagate Palace’s estate was terraced. It flowed down from the gate to the duke’s private docks in the Vendian harbor. It was the ideal view for the display that was coming. Wizard-assisted fireworks were very rare. Even the most pretentious lords and ladies would not move until the show was over. It was the perfect distraction. The palace would be virtually empty. All the servants and guards who remained inside would find a way to get a peek.
As Jamine made her way closer to the duke, the duchess stood. Her high collared dress, with sparkling enchanted crystals sewn into it, dazzled the eye. Her hand was on her pale forehead and she drew her shawl tighter around her plump figure. “But my darling, you will miss it.” The duke stood in his reserved, regal attire. His closely cropped moustache and beard were perfectly trimmed. His long black hair, just now showing a hint of gray at the temples, was pulled back in a fashionable ponytail. All the lords in their ponytails and close cropped beards and moustaches and ladies with high collared dresses and shawls stood with the duke.
The duchess shook her head and scowled. “I fear that my headache will rob me of any pleasure I would have had. The noise of the cannons will be unbearable.”
“Then I will escort you to your bed chamber,” the duke offered.
Jamine froze in fear. ‘Meg, we may have trouble.’
‘Just a minute.’
“Please, I will be fine. If you leave, you will miss the event. Plus I fear our guests will feel the need to join us inside and miss it as well,” the duchess insisted.
The duke kissed her forehead. “All right, then. I will check on you later.”
The duchess’ sycophantic ladies-in-waiting left with her.
Jamine cursed under her breath and nearly spilled the mulled wine she was pouring. ‘The duchess is on her way in.’
Meg echoed Jamine’s curse in her head. ‘I need a few more minutes.’
‘You have about seven.’
‘Try to stall her.’
* * * * *
The safe maker had relied on the magic that concealed the safe to protect it and therefore had skimped on the lock mechanism. Though picking the lock may have been child’s play, from here on there were a few, quite perilous safeguards to overcome.
Meg held her breath. She trusted her sister’s work, but still, it was magic—dangerous and a little scary to use. Magic was always strange to her. Jamine learned magic from the priests of Beltaz and later from the best wizards in the world. Meg had pursued her own education—both as a bard and as a thief. Someone had to get the coins that paid for Jamine’s schooling. Fortunately, she had nimble fingers and quick reflexes: good for playing the lute and great for thieving.
Timing was critical. She held the magic bottle close to the floor panel over the safe. She opened the panel and in the same instant spoke the word to activate the bottle. Gas started hissing out from the space beneath the floor. To Meg’s relief it worked perfectly; in a moment all the gas was contained. She corked the bottle and breathed freely.
* * * * *
“Do you need assistance, My Lady?” Jamine curtseyed before the duchess.
The duchess looked at her in unblinking irritation. “You are new.”
“I am Jillana, at your service.”
“Well, Jillana, if you want to keep your job, I suggest you learn your place. Servants do not address me unless I address them first.”
“My apologies; I was worried about you. You do not seem well.”
The duchess glanced at her. “I am going to my chambers. I do not require your assistance.”
“Oh, my.” Jamine wrung her hands worriedly.
“What is it?” The duchess sounded quite put upon.
“My Lady Boulanee wanted the servants to take advantage of the empty palace. She gave orders to replace all the bed linens to something more seasonal. I am afraid they may be working in your chambers right now.”
The duchess sighed with her whole body. “What am I to do, then?”
Jamine pretended to consider. “I will send someone to hurry the servants. Perhaps the duchess can retire to a sitting room downstairs. I will make sure you are comfortable while you wait.”
The duchess shook her head. “I suppose I have no choice.”
Jamine curtsied and then rushed off to the make sure the sitting room was ready.
‘I got you some extra time.’
‘You are going to get me fired.’
Meg chuckled. ‘I think we will both be fired after tonight.’
* * * * *
Meg did not need magic to avoid the needles, just precision tools. After carefully placing a few pieces of cork, she used her lock pick to trip the spring. The needles stuck into the cork pieces as she had planned, injecting them with their foul poison. With several quick pulls, all the needles were broken.
There it was: she could see the red velvet box containing their prize inches beneath the floor. Now to get past the paralyzing field. If she touched it, she would freeze until the duke’s guards arrived and took her to her execution. She removed the wand from her stocking. They had paid good money for this. It had better work. She waved it and spoke the command word. The hair on the back of her neck stood up as the air around the scepter shimmered and there was a pop. She tucked the depleted wand away.
Now all she had to do was trust that they had not missed anything. She looked at her hand and sincerely hoped that she would not lose it. She liked her hand, even though right now it was wrinkled and had liver spots. She withdrew the chain with a pendant of a torch from her pouch, the symbol of her mother’s faith. It was a religion that Meg had abandoned when her mother died. Even so she held it and whispered a prayer to the Maker just in case. She took a deep breath and slowly…
‘Do you have it?’
Meg pulled her hand back. ‘Remind me to kill you later.’
‘I am going to kill you if you don’t hurry.’
Meg inhaled and grabbed for the scepter. She had it and her hand was still intact. No alarms or other traps went off. Relief flooded her senses as she held it firmly.
‘I’m proud of you! Now, move! The duchess might give up on the sitting room and go up the stairs any minute.’
Holding the scepter Meg shivered. She was not sure if it was from the thrill of finally holding their prize or if it was something else. She placed the scepter in the hidden compartment of her special serving tray and covered it with a towel. Then she removed any signs that she had been there. She was not one of those thieves who needed to advertise by leaving a trinket behind. She preferred it if no one knew who she was.
When she had closed the floor safe and everything was in order, she returned to the door. The two guards stood staring at a wine glass. She arranged herself in the same spot she had been in earlier. She used the other perfume sprayer in her pocket. A few moments later the guards reanimated and briskly told her to get back to work, none the wiser. Once outside the doors to the duke’s audience room, she gulped down the wine the guards had refused, and made her way to the stairs.
* * * * *
Jamine was just leaving the sitting room after arranging the pillows when the duchess arrived.
“Girl!” The duchess called out to her. “Bring me something stronger than wine.”
“My husband has a stash in the library.”
Jamine tried to think.
Jamine curtsied, and headed for the library. She was looking for another servant to get the duchess her drink. But the pending fireworks had drawn them all outside. That was what they had hoped would happen. Now she just wanted one person to take her place so she could sneak out without raising suspicion.
‘I’m going to be late,’ Jamine told her sister.
* * * * *
Meg was already making her way down the servant’s stairway and coming into the kitchen. ‘Hurry! We must be as far away from here as possible when the fireworks finish.’
‘I know the plan,’ Jamine responded. ‘It’s my plan.’
‘And a wonderful plan it is.’
Meg put her tray down on a table. She made sure no one was around. She went to the closet and found her cloak and lute case. She opened the case. She briefly caressed the smooth polished wood of her instrument. It was very small, and had a nice alto tone that complemented her voice. It was the perfect size to sling to her back whenever she traveled, which in her business was all the time.
She removed the scepter from the tray and looked around again. No one was near. Jamine was delayed. She could take a moment to savor their success. It was beautiful. It was a sinuous dragon. At the base, the tail wrapped round and round a crystal ball about the size of a plum. The shaft was platinum, encrusted in jewels. Meg could hardly tear her eyes away.
She sensed someone coming down the corridor outside the kitchen. She quickly stashed the scepter back in the tray. One of the duchess’s ladies-in-waiting passed by the kitchen door but did not even notice Meg.
She took the tuning key from the slot in her lute that secured it and tuned the third string to a low D flat. The back of the lute clicked. Meg turned it over and lifted the hinged section that had been unlocked. Ignoring the urge to stare at the thing again, she slipped the scepter inside the body of the lute. In truth, it should have been too big to fit, but it was no ordinary compartment. Meg retuned the string with the key and felt the hairs on the back of her neck stand up. Wherever the scepter was, it was now safe. She put the lute back in its case. Then she threw her cloak on over her clothes and draped the case strap over her shoulder.
Meg sneaked out the back and into the gardens.
There were guards on duty but all of them were looking toward the fireworks barge. Jamine had used her magic to create a hidden path through the elaborate hedge maze and out the back wall. It was an excellent spell, made to last. Meg crossed the garden without incident. She knew she found the spot when her hand passed through the wall. The illusion was perfect. She slipped though it and was safe on the other side.
Within a couple minutes she would be in the ravine where their horses waited. Jamine had better hurry.
* * * * *
It was a strong drink, especially after Jamine poured a sleeping potion into it. She handed it to one of the ladies-in-waiting, who brought it to the duchess.
“Is my room ready yet?” The duchess took the drink from the woman.
“I will check, My Lady.” Jamine turned and left her and the women who fawned over her. She knew that in a couple minutes the duchess would drift off to sleep and forget all about her room. By then she hoped to be on a horse riding fast away from the palace.
* * * * *
Meg was back to her normal self, the short gray mop replaced with her long red hair. Her liver spotted skin was now young and clear. She was relieved to be wearing her own clothes again, too. Two servants in the livery of the duke leaving town would stand out. Two young travelers would draw less attention.
She had waited patiently. Jamine had told her she was on the way. She stood near a tree above the ravine, looking at Seagate Palace. She wondered what it would be like to live in such a manner. What would it be like to be someone like Duke Valterius, the most powerful of the three dukes in contention for the throne of Korish?
It was a quiet night. Every sound caught her attention. She nervously secured the packs on the horses. She rolled up her maid’s costume and stuffed it into a pack. While she did that, the charm fell out of the apron pocket. She picked it up and thought about setting it to track something else, just for fun. Maybe her pack or her lute, then if she ever lost it she could find it with ease. She tossed the charm in the air and caught it.
She was tired of waiting. She wanted to get on the road to someplace safe. ‘Where are you, Jamine?’
The fireworks started in the distance. Meg could not see most of them because the palace blocked her view. She opened the case and took out her lute. She held the charm up to the lute and was about to speak the word when she paused, mulling over a better idea. She removed the scepter from its hiding place. Why not set the charm to track the scepter? Maybe after they sold it she could steal it back and sell it again.
She giggled at the idea as she pressed the charm against the jeweled top of the scepter and spoke the word. The hair on the back of her neck stood up, so she knew that something magical had just happened. She held the scepter with one hand and the charm with the other. Sure enough, the dog pointed at the scepter no matter where she moved it. She laughed to herself, then put the charm in her pocket.
She started to put the scepter away, but felt compelled to look at it closer. There was no one around for miles, except for the lords and ladies enthralled by the fireworks on the other side of the palace. It was safe enough to keep it out for now. She admired it in the moonlight. The girls knew it was valuable, but why was it so valuable? Could it be a magical scepter? Or was it just old and beautiful?
She examined the dragon as it twisted around the platinum shaft; tracing if from the crystal ball it held in its tail, to the cunning head of the beast at the top. Its black eyes stared straight at Meg. Its horns curved up and over the stone, holding it in place. She was still impressed with the size of the emerald, at least twice the size of the crystal ball at the base.
One facet was framed by the shape of the horns and the crown of the dragon’s head. There was a strange rune etched into it. As she turned the scepter in her hand she noticed that each facet was etched with a different symbol. Symbols could mean magic. She touched the emerald and discovered that it spun in its setting. She turned it. Each of the twelve facets clicked into place as it lined up with the platinum frame and the dragon skull on the shaft. She stopped. One of the etchings caught her attention. It looked like two dragons intertwined. Then she noticed that the dragon’s eyes were no longer black. They were glowing red. She touched the head and it clicked. It was a button.
Suddenly power exploded from the scepter. She held on to it tightly as it nearly ripped her shoulder out of its socket. Power shot into the sky and the clouds above the palace began to churn.
‘Meg!’ Jamine yelled in her head.
Meg was too busy holding on to answer.
The clouds churned and began to change color. Something told her that people were no longer looking at the fireworks. Jamine, having come the long way around, ran up the ravine toward Meg.
Meg’s feet started to leave the ground. The scepter had turned the clouds and air around the palace into a vortex and it was pulling Meg in. She reached for the tree with her other hand but missed. She only had one choice.
She let go of the scepter and fell sprawling.
“Nooo!” Jamine wailed, panting up beside her.
They both watched the scepter fly into the maelstrom. The vortex expanded and covered the palace. The air erupted with power and knocked the sisters off their feet. It grew painfully quiet. When they looked up, everything was back to normal.
Everything, except Seagate Palace was no longer there.
(Continued Next Week in Chapter 2)