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16: Risk and Reward

Larke, 1182

I stood in front of my door, leaned over, and examined the lock. It appeared to be a simple sort; a basic tumbler that should open with the key that Dean kept on him. While this technically wasn't easy, it shouldn't present a problem for me. I'd done this sort of high precision magic thousands of times and on thousands of locks. I gathered my focus, pinpointing my magic into a small beam of energy, small enough to fit into the keyhole like a minuscule finger. I could feel my magic bump into the pins as they collided; I adjusted the refined energy to lift the pins upwards and out of the way, as if my energy were the key. Finally, I felt no more pins, and while holding the pins in place so they didn't fall out of their secured position, I tested twisting my magical lock-picking energy counter-clockwise.

Aha! I was able to delicate turn the lock, and I heard the click that signified my success. With a deep exhale, I released my energy from the lock. Lightheaded now, I paused to resist the drowsiness and cost of using magic. I stood, hands resting against the solid wood of the now unlocked door. I leaned my ear against it, listening for anyone roaming the halls. I heard nothing; it appeared that nobody was there. I slowly creaked the door open, praying that nobody would turn the corner and see me escaping. Shadows filled the bare hallway.

While these shadows would have been helpful for sneaking around undetected, there was no furniture for me to hide behind if somebody came around. I would have to think of some type of reason I was walking around un-escorted. If I did run into somebody, I decided I would tell them I was looking for Dean. Most of the residents were used to seeing him accompany me just about everywhere I went. I faced my door again and considered re-locking it. No, I'll do that upon my return. Leaving it unlocked would simplify matters if I had to return quickly.

Briskly, I marched down the hallway. People questioned you less if it looked like you knew what you were doing. There was bound to be no shortage of interesting places in this compound; surely, I would find something useful in these halls.

Several turns later, the hallway looked no different than where I had started. A few doors lined the hall, but I was wary of opening one without knowing what – or who – was inside. I had no intention of accidentally coming upon The Raven when I wasn't supposed to be out. Despite being drug along with Dean all over this compound, I still didn't have a good internal map of this place; I never was very good with directions.

I turned another corner. From around the next junction, I heard voices approaching, footsteps getting louder and louder. Someone was about to find me! Silently as I could, I hid myself in the shadows around the corner I'd just come from. Across from me was a door partially ajar that I eyed carefully. Was it empty? There was nothing to hide behind in the hallway, and those people would be upon me in seconds. I prayed to any deity who happened to be listening that it was secluded, and slowly knelt on the ground. I didn't have much time, but any sudden movements would surely alert those just around the other corner. I crawled forward softly, and pushed the door across the hall open with my fingertips, just enough that I could creep in.

The people turned the corner, and I could hear them clearly. I stifled my breath, not wanting to give myself away.

"… and he was just so drunk!"

"I know, hilarious. He shouldn't be allowed to play cards like that, maybe ever."

"His wife is going to kill you, he lost so much money."

"Oh, come off it, Darla loves me…"

Their voices faded, the pair walking further and further away, clearly none the wiser. I'd escaped immediate discovery, and now I tried my best to see what kind of room I was in. The moonlight shone dimly through a small window, much like mine. I saw a bed, rumpled and unmade right next to me. Several bookcases lined the walls, with a desk wedged in between two of them in the corner. The other corner looked to house the door to the bathroom – this was clearly somebody's bedroom, a miniature apartment like mine and Dean's. However, it was certainly much more decorated and lived in than mine. Likely, whoever slept here had been here a long time. How else would they have collected – and be allowed to keep – all of these books?

Behind the bathroom door flickered what was probably candlelight; the resident of this room must be in there. I stayed kneeling, hiding in the darkness of my corner and listened for a moment. I heard some water sloshing around, some faint humming. I steadied my breathing, quieting it as much as possible so as to not give myself away.

I could leave now and continue on my search. But the books called to me. There had to be something of use in there. Perhaps there was records of how the Naga gang was laundering their money? There had to be some kind of accounting books, wouldn't there? I stepped slowly, so as to not make noise, across to the nearest bookshelf. I glanced at the bathroom door, listening for this room's resident. Hopefully, whoever that was in there intended on soaking in the bath for a while, but I doubted I'd be that lucky. Regardless, I had to see what kind of books these were.

Starting at the bottom of the wall-height bookcase, I remained kneeling, trying to read the book titles in the dark. This bookcase had history books, philosophy, and some mathematics. Whoever this was, they must be well educated, if they had read everything in here. I passed over rows of more books of this nature, nothing really catching my eye. I stood, silently and delicately; tiptoeing over to the next bookcase. Hopefully this was one more helpful. I unsheathed a book from its neighbors, selecting one at random.

It was not. This bookcase was full of mythology from foreign countries, cultural examinations of both Thiolish and Rynish ancient religions, including both the Sollatin writings and Serran, the Thiolish and Rynish religious texts. Mildly frustrated, I considered leaving.

Then, I saw something interesting. Tucked in between the Serran texts and a large, dusty book of Thiolish religious symbology, was an unmarked notebook. Curious, I paused to stroke the spine, and edge it out from between the two hefty tomes beside it. What secrets did this one hold? I hoped it wasn't this person's diary; the likelihood of its helpfulness in that case were slim. In any case, I did not want to read someone's inner thoughts. It's rarely ever interesting.

Flicking open the first page, I saw a messy handwriting indicating, Records. Not very imaginative, but much better than a diary. I skimmed through, thumbing through the handwritten and painstakingly recorded financial transactions. I couldn't keep this book – surely the owner would notice it missing. The dates marked in this notebook were recent, all within the last six months, with several blank pages at the end for future entries. A first perusal showed that the Naga gang had been dealing with several merchants within the city, which wasn't surprising. Flipping through more pages of the small book, I noticed there was a number 4 written at the top of each page. Did that mean this was the fourth financial book of many? How many were there?

"Find anything interesting, darling?"

Oh no. I recognized that masculine voice, smug and confident. I didn't turn around, pausing to consider my options. I could run for it – but I would have to pass right by him on the way out. The odds of him seeing who I was, or even being stopped by him, were not ones I wanted to risk. How had I not heard the door open from the bathroom? If I couldn't run out of the room immediately, I could probably subdue him quickly… but then that would blow my cover, and I hadn't found enough information yet to throw that away.

Or, I could just play dumb.

"This isn't the library?" I said, tilting my head to the side, and looking over my shoulder at the speaker who had discovered me.

Still shrouded in the relative darkness of his room, the candlelight from the bathroom spilling out onto the doorway only allowing for me to see his silhouette. The flickering light showed he had indeed just got out of the bath; I saw water droplets fresh on his skin, a towel wrapped tightly around his waist. Maybe I was lucky enough that the darkness hid my identity also. But evidently, I wasn't very lucky tonight if I'd already been caught; I was sure that he was able to discern exactly who I was, especially given how he'd addressed me.

The man chuckled. "No, it certainly isn't. Although I do boast a large collection," gesturing to the large bookcases I'd made myself intimately familiar with, "we don't have a library. Why are you here?" Still casual in his stance, yet his words were anything but.

I turned sideways, not facing him head on. I tried to relax my stance, but I fear it did me no favors. I never did know how to be casual. I swallowed, trying to think of another lie. I was usually so good at this – what was going on with me? He tilted his head to the other side, watching me struggle silently.

He took a step towards me, and I subconsciously responded with a step back – knocking directly into the desk chair in the corner, right next to the third bookcase where I'd been snooping. I stumbled, and fell into the chair, awkwardly clutching the record book I'd been reading. Excellent – now I was more vulnerable, stuck in an uncomfortable chair. I overcompensated, and shoved myself out, standing once more. I needed to reevaluate my options. I had to leave, right now!

"What do you have there, darling?" He asked, gesturing towards the book I held in my hand. He had taken a few steps closer; a few more and he would be able to grab me.

I didn't answer; I had passed the small window of plausible deniability. Raising his hands up, he shifted his direction and extracted a small candle from the tiny table sitting next to the bed and lit it swiftly with a match placed right next to it, specifically for that purpose. Finally, my eyes confirmed what my ears had deduced from first hearing his voice – I was in the bedroom of Spenser Red. I swallowed again. Surely, I was done for. I braced myself to move, readying for action.

Instead, he lifted his hands, as if warding me off.

"Wait," he whispered, "don't run."

He must've seen my intentions in my eyes as well as my movements. Spenser shut the door I had cracked to enter, effectively sealing us both in this small space. Warily, I watched him. He hadn't sounded any alarm yet, but I didn't know enough about him to know if that was a good or a bad thing. I had no idea what he would do.

He watched me carefully, then said, "I can help you, Larke, if you'll let me."

Shocked, I choked on my words, struggling to form a sentence, "What?" I said awkwardly. "I… just need help finding my room again." I cringed at my ineffective lie.

He let out a small chuckle, amused at my attempt to play dumb once more.

"Drop the act, I know what you're doing, Mage. Unless… you came to my bedroom for a different reason?"

I reddened, hoping it was unnoticeable in the dim light. "And if I did? Come here for a different reason, I mean."

"Well, I can't say I'd be upset. But I know that's not why you're here."

I didn't answer. He approached me slowly, each minute step feeling like another knot tied in a noose.

"What I can't figure out, is why you sought out my records," he said, still walking in my direction. "I don't have all of them here, and any I do are of little importance."

He sat on his bed, watching me. How could he appear so comfortable and aloof while still only in a towel? I stood, stiff as a board, waiting for him to reveal what he wanted. Clearly, at this point, it would be best to agree to whatever he wanted so I could leave.

I decided to be truthful. "I was hiding, and your door was slightly open, so I took refuge in here."

"Ah, so luck brought you here tonight?"

"I wouldn't have called it that, but sure," I said, unable to help the sarcasm.

"Come, sit with me." He patted the space on the bed next to him, beckoning me closer.

Cautiously, I crept towards him and sat on his side at the end of the bed, as far from him as I could manage. I set the book I'd been trying to read on his bed; he could put it away later. I still wasn't sure that I wouldn't have to engage in physical combat with him in order to escape. The candlelight danced on his features, outlining his thick, dark blond hair; it was much darker when wet, and I noticed a droplet make its way down the side of his face. I watched it as it trickled, painfully slow, over the side of his brow and his cheek, resting in the stubble on his jaw.

I met his eyes, and realized he'd been watching me watch him. He leaned closer, into my personal space. I didn't dare move away.

Inches from my face, he whispered into my lips, "Let's team up."

Again, he'd surprised me. "What?"

Still far too close to my face, he whispered, "I help you, and you help me." He exhaled deeply, noticing my wariness and general disbelief. "I'll help you find whatever it is you're looking for, as long as you take me with you when you leave."

"Take you with me?" I said, taken aback, "You want to return to the palace?"

He leaned back and sat up straight. I breathed a sigh of relief.

"Well not return, as I've never been there; but I want to go, yes." Spenser examined his nails as he spoke.

Dumbfounded, I asked, "Why?"

"Same as you. I have intel, and I'll be rewarded for it. Life is expensive, darling."

I stared at him, trying to discern his sincerity. "…you'll help me?" I asked quietly, my own words surprising me. I never asked for help, and rarely did I accept it.

He nodded.

"Then we have a deal." I extended my hand in agreement, doing my best to conceal the shaking.

He took it, grasped it tightly, and shook it once before releasing.

"If you betray me… I'll kill you," I said, staring directly into his eyes. They mesmerized me, examining me threaten him.

Stoic, he nodded.

"And if you betray me?" he said, raising a finger to stroke my face, "I'll bring you down with me, and the Naga gang will tear you apart; he'll torture you so that you wish for death."

He leaned back, giving me space. Standing once more, he held out his hand to help me off of the bed as if he hadn't just threatened my life seconds before. I accepted, and he pulled me to stand, ending up much closer to him than I'd expected. I stumbled, knocking into his bare chest. Spenser grabbed my shoulders, settling me.

He paused to look me up and down, a pensive thought in his eyes.

"You're not far from your room; why don't I escort you back so as to not arise suspicion?"

"Well that'd be fine, but won't it cause alarm if you're not clothed?" I sarcastically, gesturing to his towel.

Rolling his eyes, he crossed his arms and huffed, "Obviously I'll get dressed. Go sit over there," he said, pointing at the chair I'd fallen into just minutes before.

All too ready to leave this room, I complied, and turned to face the wall to give him some privacy. Still wary, I didn't trust him, but it had to do for now. I wasn't getting far enough on my own, but with his help, I just might be able to uncover enough for the King to be satisfied with my mission. I heard the rustling of cloth, the jingling of a belt buckle.

"Let's go." He looked deadly, a fierce expression on his face.

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