East awoke to the sound of drumming, dim but near, as if someone were steadily kicking the chest in which he lay hidden. He waited a heartbeat, considered leaving his little wooden refuge. East's legs throbbed from being bent for so long and the air inside was unbelievably stale, hot, and humid.
But for all East knew, it was day outside. For all East knew, people were still dying.
Moments passed and East became increasingly uncomfortable. The distant drumming had ceased and the sweat-caked boy could hear nothing past the walls of the chest. I'll have to risk it. If only for a moment.
Just as East was about to push open the chest, he heard someone bustle into the tent. A man's voice hollered out. He sounded surprised.
"Would you look at this, Boss?" the voice bellowed. "What a mess!"
"They gave me their word our property would remain untouched," replied a different voice—this one was much calmer, steadier, and somehow familiar to East.
"Never trust a Royal," the original voice spat.
"My dresses!" squealed a third voice; a woman's, East guessed.
East heard movement around his hiding place: the tip-tap of boots and heels, the rustling of debris, and all kinds of clinking and clattering.
"Listen, Boss," said the loud voice, "three from the Scripters Club are unaccounted for, and two more from the Actors Troupe."
"And Quinn?" asked the owner of the calm voice.
"She's safe." A pause, then he added, "She's not seen Ripper and Edge since last night, however."
"They'll show," the calmer man said, then added, "Stop your fussing, will you Jewel?"
The hectic shuffling to East's right ceased. He could only conclude that the woman—Jewel—had been searching frantically for her dresses.
"We ain't leaving without 'em, yeah Boss?"
"Yes," came the reply. "In any case, we're not set to leave until we're paid."
"Surely Her Majesty is more valuable than a couple thousand cranes?" It was the woman's voice this time.
"I’ve no doubt about that," answered the "Boss." "But we cannot leave without reward. Suspicion abounds."
"And we all know them Gallfont Knights are a suspicious lot, right, Boss?"
East could only assume that there was a nod, for the man referred to as "Boss" did not verbally reply.
"Where is it?"
"Where's what, Boss?"
East's heart jumped a thousand miles.
"Ah, here it is."
East sighed—relieved—because the footsteps had retreated from his position.
"Sovereign Hells," cursed the man, "this isn't it."
East heard footsteps approach his hiding place. "Found it, Boss!"
There was no time to panic, really, no time to engineer a clever lie. The top of the chest flipped open and torchlight spilled in. East squinted, adjusting his eyes to the light.
The man looking at East wore a face of grizzly confusion. His eyebrows—eyebrow—was a furry mess of dark hair. Under it was a worn yellow eye-patch. East assumed this man was the one with the loud voice; within a moment, his assumption was confirmed.
The one-eyed man let out a startled scream and pushed East and the chest away, into all sorts of fluffy and multi-colored props. The chest tipped over and East tumbled out, head first, his face slamming into a mess of gaudy masks and shiny, dulled blades. Despite the pain resonating throughout his entire body, East recognized the Bayonet de Vierre from Merlock's most famous adventure-comedy, Of Mountains High.
These people . . . they're Enticus! East realized.
"Eh?" mumbled the eye-patch man. "Hey, Boss, when'd you have a kid?"
The man he called "Boss" stood tall in the tent, thin and slightly lanky. His hair was of a dark shade, and East thought it looked almost green in the torchlight. He had a slender face with a strong chin—handsome, charming. His eyes were a dark green. The man wore an elegant suit of brilliant blue and yellow—Enticus colors—and East now knew why his voice seemed familiar:
This man had recited the prologue to The Love and Lies of Lady Dawn.
East noticed the man looked at him inquisitively, as if he were no more than an odd mantelpiece.
"Hello," East said numbly.
"The kid talks!" exclaimed the stout, eye-patch man. He narrowed his eye at East. "Kid looks like a sandman, eh?" He edged closer to East, stuck his hairy nose forward. "Smells like a sandman, to boot!"
"Ain't he a cute little thing?" said the woman, Jewel.
The "Boss" only stared at East.
"I don't want any trouble," East stated, unsure of the situation.
"It's all right, kid," the eye-patch man reassured him. "Though, uh, can't say I envy your position, pal."
"Ooh, you's right, ain'tcha, Symon?" agreed Jewel, with a look of dainty horror on her face. "All them sandmen are supposed to be dead, yeah?"
Jewel was all curves. Her hair was a bright, curly blue, and at present, her locks fell over the left side of her breast, neatly tied with a light blue ribbon. Her dress was long and made of cascading furls; from the waist down was a thin split where the wandering eye could see Jewel's flawless pale skin.
Meanwhile, East struggled to understand what was going on. Here he stood, bleary-eyed and stinky. After spending the day in a crate, the first event to befall him was an awkward, patronizing scrutiny by a trio of stage performers.
"As far as I could tell, that's the case," said Symon. "Such a shame about the sandmen…"
Before East could voice his obvious distress, the man in the middle, the "Boss," spoke for the first time since East was discovered:
"Eh, what was that, Boss?"
"Clansmen," he repeated. "They prefer the term 'clansmen.'"
"Ah, do they?" Symon scratched his head. "Apologies, clansman."
The Boss took a long step toward East. "What is your name?"
"East?" Symon exclaimed, and his bushy eyebrow made a wave. "Now ain't that a peculiar sort of name!"
"Weren't there a 'Briony North' in Stagecrafting one year?" interjected Jewel.
"It's Eastley," East blurted, finally resolving himself to make a better impression. "Ezra Eastley, sir."
"But you are called East?" asked the tall man.
"Sir," East said, and nodded.
"East." The man never once broke eye contact. "You are in a sorry situation. I'm afraid your fellow clansmen are dead."
"Dead?" East breathed. "All that chaos last night? You mean to say they're all dead?"
"Why, except you, little man," Jewel said, smiling.
"Jewel here let slip some slippery terminology," The Boss continued, "'Her Majesty,' she said. You recall this."
It was not a question, East realized. What have I gotten myself into?
"I have no interest in Royals, sir," East answered cautiously.
"No, I don't suppose you do," agreed the Boss, "But I sympathize. There is nothing for you out there, and in here . . . Well, I am afraid we are going to have to kill you."
East impulsively drew back, tripping over a cheap pseudo-spear just behind his foot. His fall was met by various other props, which were crushed under his weight.
"Aw, don't get all worked up, Boss!" Symon hollered.
Jewel nodded furiously. "His guts'll bloody up my dresses!"
"My intentions are just." the Boss said, turning away from East, "Yet my hands are not my own. I cannot abide the Gallfont Knights to come calling."
"Very true," Symon considered. "All right, Boss, want me to do him in? I'll send him straight to the Duchess of Night!"
His is a fickle mind, East thought.
Jewel strutted up to East, pouting all the while. "How canya harm such a pretty little face?" And she squeezed East's cheeks with fingers that had long nails, painted blue.
"It was good to meet you, Ezra Eastley," the Boss said, and took a step back.
East took this to mean the end had come, and apparently Symon did too. The one-eyed man drew a narrow blade from under his dark apparel and held it up against the torchlight. It reminded East of a scene from the play The Architect's Folly, his favorite tragedy.
In the play, the titular character was the Architect, the King of the Maizon de Eter, or, the House of Eternity. The play dramatized a grand war between the Houses of Aube—Dawn—and the House of Nit—Night. The Architect, who foolishly placed himself between other gods' conflict, was defeated and cast down from his throne.
"You may strike me down, but I shall not perish. I am the King of Eternity, and time is death's master."
These were the words East recited with the bravest face he could muster. He had found a fake mallet lying at his feet, and used it for extra effect.
Symon stared wide-eyed, and Jewel smiled a very white smile. The Boss raised an eyebrow. "You are versed in Merlock?"
East nodded expectantly. "You put on The Architect's Folly two years ago. I never forget my favorite lines."
Symon let out a heaving gasp. "Hey, Boss, we forgot ourselves a third option! Let's take the kid with us!"
Join Enticus? Ezra thought the idea was ridiculous, yet it only took a moment for him to realize that it was the best thing he had ever heard in his short lifetime.
Still . . . hey were just willing to kill me a moment ago.
"He is but a child," the Boss said. "The world outside Vitas Noct is cruel. No place for him. And what's more: our operation is fragile. I cannot risk it."
"Come on, Boss, you know you don't want to kill the boy," commented Symon.
Jewel pouted her big, purple lips. "Yeah, we're thieves, ain't we? Not murderers!"
"Thieves?" East inquired. "Are you not performers of Enticus?"
"Oops!" Jewel squealed.
The Boss stared calmly at East, as if he were used to Jewel's constant slip-ups. "Very well; we will take him along. I suspect Her Majesty would be delighted to have someone her age to whom she may speak."
"H-her Majesty?" East choked. This is all too much at once…
"The princess, kid," Symon said.
"Jewel is aching to tell you all about it, I have no doubt," the Boss said, and then added, "Now, East, have you any belongings?"
"Belongings?" East thought a moment. A nomad got by with little permanent possessions and East was not one for keepsakes. "No, nothing."
"Very good," the Boss said, "At present, I must be off. We leave at sunrise—"
"There is one thing I have to do before we leave," interrupted East.
The Boss, Symon, Jewel—the three of them looked at East expectantly.
"There is someone I have to find."
Mona Veylor spent the night in the shadows, atop rooftops, under the moon-less sky. She never knew it was so easy to cry oneself to sleep.
When the Lumeer attacked, Mona's only thought was to run. All around her, death had reigned supreme. She had seen men, women, and child alike, torn apart by the devilish creatures of the day, and all Mona could do was run like a coward.
When day came, Mona had tucked herself away between two rooftop chimneys—cold, tired, and terrified. Nothing made sense. Where had the Lumeer come from? And during the night, at that! How did they get past the walls? How did no one notice?
Mona felt utterly lost and every time she thought of her grandmother tears came to her green eyes. She knew her life was forever changed, and how could it not be? It was not until the next night that she fully understood how grave her situation was.
When night arrived, the moon returned with it, and for the first time in this year's Feast of Weeks Mona saw Royals outside of their homes. Their expressions varied by person. Mona saw looks of disgust; others wore faces of sadness—some anger. Mona could tell they appreciated the scene of blood and carnage no more than she, yet some dark thought tugged at the back of her mind.
Had they known?
Mona could not bear the thought. Royals were a proud, pompous people, but they could not have known that the massacre of thousands of people was nigh. They would have warned us…Even the Royals would not let their fellow Noctians be slaughtered. Yet, Mona could not deny that they were acting very strangely of late.
Looking down from the rooftop on which she sat, hidden, Mona could see a line of silver and white making its way toward the Principalia. It appeared to be an array of armored soldiers. Even from her faraway distance, Mona knew just who they were—the Gallfont Knights of Vitas Noct.
The Gallfont Knights were an elite force of Royal military might. There was never any war in the Symviridia, but with the Lumeer looming always, the people considered the Gallfont a defensive necessity.
The Gallfont answered to the Dux of Vitas Noct, whom the Royals elected every year. It was said that the Dux had the ear of Sovereign Dusk himself.
As the Gallfont made their way up the streets they paused only to move aside any bodies that impeded their path. Mona glared at the knights with all the anger she could bear—how can they be so disrespectful?
A retainer of Royal servants treaded in the Gallfont wake, piling the bodies high. Mona saw them pouring a clear liquid over the bodies. Once the piles were deemed high enough, they set the bodies ablaze-without a second thought.
Mona forced her eyes away from the fires before she could cry out in terror. Everyone is Royal, she realized. Not a clansman in sight.
They're all dead.
Her family was dead. And now the Royals were burning their memory.
Mona's feeble attempt to sleep away her problems caused her to wake with a start. She shivered against the coarse rooftop that was her bed and felt her stomach rumble.
It was still night.
Mona felt she had not slept for any longer than an hour—she wished she could sleep and never wake up.
There was one way she could fulfill that wish. Suddenly, the edge of the rooftop seemed somehow magnetic. I could throw myself from this rooftop, right now. I could die, and this nightmare would be over.
Mona stood at the end of the house, uncaring as to whether or not she was seen. The cold wind blew her blond hair across her face and for a moment Mona thought she could do it. Throw yourself off, Mona. And it will all be over.
Just then, a gust nearly knocked her over but Mona steadied herself. Instead of falling, she felt the Fiddler card slip from under her shirt and ripple away across the dim skyline.
Mona felt naked. At once, she chased after the Maizon card—she simply had to retrieve it.
The golden edges of the Fiddler card quivered high and fluttered low, across darkened rooftops and smoking chimneys. Mona found herself jumping from house to house, over small gaps and large ones. Her eyes never lost track of the card.
Eventually the card settled on the graveled ground, dangerously close to a puddle. Mona climbed down from the nearest building, never losing her balance.
When the card was back in her possession, Mona released a heavy breath that she hadn’t realized she’d been holding. Mona tucked the Fiddler card safely inside her shirt and observed her surroundings.
She stood near the spiraling main road of the Principalia and on the ground the odor of the clansmen corpses was raw and pungent. Mona could smell urine, feces, and all the exposed humors of decaying bodies. She felt sick.
Then Mona realized that she was standing exactly where Madam Masque's tent had been not too long ago. Before her world had ended. Was it merely a coincidence that the Fiddler card landed exactly at the location of its previous owner? Mona did not think so. But Madam Masque's tent was nowhere in sight, nor were those market tents that so defined this area of the Principalia.
Peering around the corner, Mona stared at the burning piles of her fellow clansmen. The Lumeer were monsters, of this she was certain. How else could anyone—anything—be so cruel? Yet, she could not imagine how they could have infiltrated Vitas Noct's mile-wide barriers, and even if they did, why was there no warning?
Mona found herself cursing Sovereign Dusk, their supposed protector and savior. How could he let this happen? Of one more thing Mona knew without a doubt: Sovereign Dusk was no god. She stared somberly at the Tower of Ereba; its gleaming parapets seemed to claw at the moon.
It was then that Mona realized how out of place she must have seemed. The Royals scurrying around were dirt-caked and sweating, yes, but they all wore the uniform of indentured servants. Mona was dressed in the Talon Clan's clothing, and its deep blue almost foiled the Royal white.
Mona stepped backward, allowing the shadows of the alley engulf her body. But it was too late.
"You there!" shouted a voice in her direction. "Girl!"
One of the Royal servants strolled up to Mona and frowned. "You are not allowed in this area, trouper. I saw your lot gathering by the Sphere. Why don't you get along now?"
Mona, confused, stood in silence.
"You're with Enticus, are you not?" the servant said, waving her away, "I haven't the time for you performers sneaking about. Away!"
With a stiff nod, Mona disappeared into the alleyway and soon broke into a run. The servant had mistaken her Talon blue for the blue of Enticus, the traveling band of performers. Mona almost laughed at herself. What did it matter if the Royals knew she was a clansman? It was not as if they were being hunted.
Suddenly the sound of a woman crying reached Mona's ears. No, the sound was more of a grotesque wailing than anything else. Mona reached the end of the alley, finding herself a mile away from Madam Masque's tent.
"You were told to stay inside," Mona heard a man say.
The woman only cried louder.
"Did you mark your door with a white crescent moon?"
The man sighed. Mona came to the end of the alley, and shot a glance around the corner. A plump, ginger-haired woman was cradling a lifeless body in her lap. Her tears rained down mercilessly on the corpse.
A little girl's corpse.
By the look of the woman, Mona could see she was a Royal. Over the woman's shoulder stood a Gallfont Knight, red and gold armor, horned helmet, and all. Orange torchlight flickered glaringly off the knight's glistening chest plate and on it, Mona caught a glimpse of her own reflection.
"The Lumeer should have passed you over," the Gallfont Knight was saying. ". . . if you followed the instructions provided by the Dux."
"I did," the woman bawled. "We did!"
The Gallfont Knight looked not at all concerned. "I am sorry for the child that has been taken from you. May the Duchess of Night welcome her into paradise."
With that, the Gallfont Knight clattered away, leaving the crying mother with her daughter's corpse.
It was a riddle Mona never wanted to solve. Instructions from the Dux? Passed over? There was no denying it—they knew. They all did. The Dux, his Gallfont Knights, even the Royals. They were told how to save themselves from the Lumeer.
They were told to let the clansmen die.
As she sprinted over the rooftops, Mona felt her heart beat incessantly fast. The Royals knew the Lumeer were coming that night. No, Mona thought, could it be that the Lumeer were already here, in Vitas Noct the entire time? There had been no warning, no alarm bell. The Royals obviously were not talking, but if the Lumeer crept in last night, the clansmen would have sounded their approach. There was but one conclusion.
This massacre was engineered.
The brilliant blue of the Enticus camp shimmered blearily in the night. The red-orange glint of fire and torches gave the performers' tents a somber look indeed.
Mona did her best to enter the grounds unnoticed, keeping her head down as much as she could. A pair of Enticus troupers were pulling down the banner that advertised The Love and Lies of Lady Dawn and with a pang of guilt, Mona realized she had never met up with East to watch the show. Had he died waiting for her?
The thought of his body burning away along with the rest of his family made Mona want to fall to the ground and cry herself to sleep.
Suddenly she could hear his voice in her head, rhyming her name with any random word. And then she heard his voice in reality, coming from a nearby tent.
"There is someone I have to find," East was saying. Unmistakably his voice.
Mona could not help herself. She flung the tent flap aside and burst inside, arms outstretched. She catapulted herself onto East and yelled "EZRA!" all the while crying like a fool.
"Mona?" came East's voice, a few feet away.
Not from the person she was embracing.
Mona thrust herself off whom she thought had been East. A grizzly, one-eyed man faced her, a stupid grin splashed across his hairy face.
"Hello, lass," he said with a toothy smirk. "Ain't you a friendly one?"
Mona pushed him away with all the force she could muster; he teetered over and crashed into what Mona could only reason were devices for the show.
East pulled her into his arms, laughing as he did so. "Veylor you rummer! You're alive!"
"I'm alive, I'm alive," Mona cried, sobbing into East's chest. "I thought you were dead."
"I thought I was dead, too," East laughed.
Mona steadied herself. She had to tell East everything she had learned. "What do you know about what happened? Last night?"
"No more than you, I am sure," East hesitated, and glanced around at the other people in the tent. "Some business about a princess, I gather."
"Princess?" Mona mouthed, incredulous.
"Hello there, darling," a large-bosomed woman greeted. "Name's Jewel. The oaf over there is Symon." She pointed at the man Mona had shoved into the stage tools.
Mona did not know what to say. She turned to Symon and apologized meekly. "I thought you were someone else."
"Well that much is obvious, ain't it, lass?"
A tall, handsome man in the center of the tent cleared his throat. His hair was green, strangely enough, and immediately Mona realized that this was the man in charge.
"Mona, is it." He asked. It was not a question.
"Mona Veylor," the man continued, "you're in the way."
Before Mona could venture his meaning the tent flap flew wide open and East pulled her aside. In marched two burly men—twins, from what Mona could see—and one of them carried a large brown sack under his brawny arm.
Between the muscular pair sauntered in a slender woman, threadlike in bearing. She possessed a graceful step and beady yellow eyes.
"Quinn," the green-haired man said, and then turned to the twins. "Ripper, Edge. I take it you have brought Her Majesty?"
"We got her, Boss," said the twin addressed as Edge.
"She has quite the temper, Boss," said the other twin—Ripper. "Be warned."
"She is unharmed?"
"Harmed?" Ripper bellowed. "Sovereign Hells, she harmed us!"
Mona thought the green-haired man wanted to smile. "Let's see her, then.”
The twin who carried the sack dumped its contents onto the tent floor. The girl that rolled out of the gargantuan leather bag was the last person Mona expected to see.
Princess Aveena de Noct fell to the floor. Her hands were tied and her mouth was gagged, but Mona did not need words to tell that this was a very angry, very abducted princess.
Mona had glimpsed the princess Aveena only once before—at the last year's Feast of Weeks. She had looked more magnificent then, dressed in a guise of pure white.
"Who are you people?" Mona found herself demanding. "What is this?"
The green-haired man strode up to the princess, set his right foot on her side, and this time he did smile, revealing a bottom row of gold teeth. "We are Enticus," he declared, "And this"—he gestured at the tent, his troupe, the princess—"is the greatest play you'll ever see.