The lamp was still lit. That’s what’s odd, Conroy thought; he’d retired to his room above the common room of the Jack and Jester an hour ago, as Mason and the last of the night’s patrons had left for their homes, but though every previous night the lamp that hung next to the inn’s sign had been put out well before he’d blown out his candle and got into bed, tonight it remained lit, casting a skewed copy of the window’s leading in a pattern of bright diamonds on the white-washed boards of the ceiling above.
Not that the very existence of the window wasn’t itself at least a little odd. Every inn he’d slept in between Etrenium and the border of Fae Atlin had either had wood-shuttered windows or no windows at all. There were plenty of buildings with glassed-in windows in the more affluent sections of Etrenium, with bigger and clearer panes of glass than the ones here, but that was a major city with a hundred-thousand inhabitants, not a village of a hundred and fifty deep in the middle of the forest. There were a number of things like that here in Low Evering, features that wouldn’t have been out of place in the city but seemed strange in a small farming town; the cobbled streets only a few dozen paces long, the fountain where he would have expected a well, Seamus’ long bar with its brass fittings and copper-clad top. Conroy had tried to come up with an explanation for the town’s odd little luxuries, but so far he’d not found one that satisfied him.
Tonight, though, it seemed there might be other curiosities to consider. Conroy got up and approached the window, squinting his eyes as he moved his face from pane to pane, trying to find the clearest view of the fountain square below. It wasn’t just the Jack and Jester’s lamp, he realized; most of the buildings around the town had lit lamps before their doors, or candles in their windows. There was enough light in the square that Conroy could see the fountain clearly, even through tonight’s moon was dark and the sky had been clouded for most of the day.
Something was clearly going on. The expense alone, Conroy thought, meant it had to be something important; even in those wealthy parts of Etrenium nobody left a light burning for no reason. The tallow for the candles might not be enormously costly, as it was produced locally by the Territory’s shepherd, Adham, but their supply was still limited. And the oil for the lamps, like Seamus’ Preyanti cassia, was brought in from afar, harvested by the whale-hunters of the Ursane city-state of Vatsur far to the south.
The light illuminating the square flickered, the shadows changing slightly, and while the leaded glass window didn’t afford him a good view of the street directly below, Conroy realized that the lamp in front of the shop next door to the Jack and Jester must have just been extinguished. He leaned in, pushing up onto his toes and nearly pressing his face against the glass as he tried to see the street below, but all he could make out were faint, shifting shapes in the shadows, shapes that might have been men moving or might just have been the flickering of the flames.
A soft bump, wood on wood, came from the floor below. Conroy jumped, surprise breaking his concentration, and lost his balance and his grip on the windowsill simultaneously. He stumbled back, only just managing to fall onto his narrow bed instead of face-first onto the floor, freezing in place the moment he hit the straw-stuffed mattress. He cursed quietly, straining to hear any sign of further movement from downstairs over the sound of his own breath. For a long, long moment, long enough that Conroy had time to wonder whether he’d actually heard anything, the inn was silent, but just as he began to let his body relax, there was another bump from below, and a few seconds later the light shining up into his window went out.
Conroy rolled over and pushed himself slowly up into a sitting position. His heart was suddenly pounding, he realized. “Come on, Raine,” he muttered to himself, “you are a grown man, and the bearer of a scholarly tradition reaching all the way back to Caurus Etrenius. Stop jumping at shadows.”
He forced himself to breathe, slow and deep, and after a moment he felt his heartbeat slow to something closer to normal. From his position on the bed, he could see the shadows on the buildings across the square shift again, as another light was extinguished. All right, scholar, he thought, consider what you know, and propose an explanation that fits with the events you’ve observed.
He stared at the window, idly tonguing the split lip the Fae Justicars had given him. Lights going out one at a time in order means they’re being extinguished by someone; movement in this building before the lamp here went out probably meant movement in the other buildings, as well. So, logically, someone was moving through the town, going from building to building to do… something. Something the residents of those buildings were expecting, or the lamps wouldn’t be lit. But still something somewhat secret, or they wouldn’t be doing it in the dead of night.
Conroy shook his head. Unless it was something and not someone. Even if this was the ‘Human Granted Territory’, it was still deep within the borders of Fae Atlin, and only the Fates knew for certain what strange things might have come through the Foramen’ande and into the woods over the past forty years. If there was some creature the townsfolk were appeasing, as the Tillish claimed to do for the nameless feline in their old, superstitious “Cat’s Night” traditions, there would be no way for him to form any sort of meaningful explanation without knowing more about it.
“Which means,” Conroy said quietly, cursing his own conclusion even as he said it, “that I need more information, and that means closer observation.”
He dressed as quickly as he could force himself to, trying to allay his nervousness by telling himself what people at the Academy would say if they learned he’d left a mystery unexamined. There were only a few lights outside the window now, at the far side of the square, and another went out as he pulled on his boots. Cursing his own hesitancy, he opened his door and headed for the stairs, moving as fast as he could without making too much noise. Or what he hoped wasn’t too much noise, anyway.
The chill of the night air made Conroy shiver as he ducked out of the Jack and Jester’s front door, trying to stay low as he made his way to the edge of the fountain. The only lights remaining were a candle in the front window of the town shoemaker’s shop, and the lantern hanging outside the low clay-brick building that Conroy knew held the rooms and offices of the Territory’s human sheriff. In their dim illumination, Conroy could just make out the shape of a four wheeled wagon full of sacks and boxes, sitting in the road outside the shoemaker’s, and a pair of figures in gray hooded robes standing at the wagon’s front end.
As Conroy watched, another pair of figures came out of the door of the shoemaker’s shop, each carrying a sack over their shoulder, their faces hidden by the shadows of their hoods. Behind them, Conroy caught a brief glance of the shoemaker himself as he closed the door behind the men, and then the candle in the window went out as the robed figures put the sacks gently into the back of the cart and began pushing and pulling the wagon forward toward the sheriff’s offices.
Well, at least it’s not some sort of Fae monster, Conroy thought. Probably.
The wagon rolled to a stop in front of the brick building, and Conroy saw the door opening, the sheriff stepping out to meet the robed figures. Three of the four stepped around the sheriff and went inside, while the fourth, one of the ones who’d been at the front of the wagon, stood next to the sheriff and began speaking to him; Conroy could only just make out the sound of a man’s voice over the gentle gurgling of the fountain.
He moved along the edge of the fountain, trying to get as close as he could without revealing himself, straining to hear what was being said. The man in the robes was incomprehensible, but the sheriff spoke in a slightly higher register, his words slightly clearer over the sound of the water.
“…ran into a bit of luck with that file…” Conroy heard the sheriff say. “…keep sending what we can, but … like traders have learned not to bring … … or taken at the border, before we see it…”
The men that had gone into the building came back out. Two carried small boxes, which they tucked into the front of the wagon; the third appeared to be empty-handed at first, but when he reached the cart Conroy saw him slip something out of his sleeve, a dark, thin shape almost as long as his forearm. The figure slipped the thing into the wagon, in the same place as the little boxes had gone, and then stepped up to the front of the cart.
“Thank you,” the sheriff said to the robed men, raising his voice to speak to all of them, “and tell them I wish we could do more.” He stepped toward the one he’d been speaking to before. “Tell Arric, especially, that I’m sorry I couldn’t do more.”
Conroy frowned as the sheriff put out his lamp and stepped back inside. Arric. Where have I heard the name Arric? He looked down, wishing he’d thought to bring his lead and some parchment, trying to commit the name to memory.
There was a sound, a sliding, shuffling footstep on the cobbles just behind him, and Conroy jumped, stumbling hard as his body tried to stand, turn, freeze in place and bolt away all at once. He got a brief glimpse of another figure in a hooded robe, standing almost on top of him, and then the figure cried out in surprise, falling forward over Conroy as Conroy himself fell, the two men hitting the cobbles as a single heap.
“Shit!” the figure cursed, “Elf piss! Who in the-”
Conroy heard more footsteps, coming at him from the direction of the cart. He tried to crawl forward, away from the approaching figures, but the one that had fallen on him seemed to have a hold on Conroy’s cloak, and the most he was able to do was turn himself over to that he faced his attackers.
The night was inky black, but one of the figures now carried a shrouded lantern, and while the shroud was closed faint ribbons of light leaked out of it at the seams. The hooded men stood near the fountain, each with a knife drawn, their faces still hidden but their bodies tensed and ready for a fight. The largest one, the one who’d been speaking to the sheriff, took a step forward, and tilted his head.
“Raine?” the tall figure asked, in Griff Mason’s voice. “…oh, curse me.”
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