The Day of Giving was a damp, dark day of the sort not calculated to bring any joy into the hearts of its observers, and so it is doubtful that the inhabitants of Meridell Castle were displeased to gather in the Great Hall, feasting and dancing and generally behaving in a festive manner. The sun had set several hours ago, but it was as yet far too early for anybody who valued the opinion of the world to retreat to his room; and therefore the upper levels of the castle were remarkably empty.
A young green Eyrie in a tattered brown dress, carrying with her the cleaning rags of a scullery maid and wearing the air of a princess, made her way silently and rather stealthily through one of the deserted halls. She resembled a thief more than anything; and if her intentions matched her purpose it was evident that she was no expert in her field, for had there been anybody to observe her they would undoubtedly have felt a certain degree of suspicion.
Nevertheless she had met with a moderate amount of success, perhaps owing principally to the fact that she had met no one else in her exploits, and those whom she had had seemed unaccountably inclined to ignore her. Her name was Ella and at this very moment she could fairly boast of having acquired a great deal of gold and eleven pieces of valuable jewelry in her chosen fashion.
Like many of her colleagues, having begun she was finding it rather difficult to desist. The moral implications were of no particular concern to her, but the serious possibility of being caught was of a sobering tendency. Therefore she had decided, with all the resolution of her extraordinarily firm mind, that this time was to be her last.
She selected a room on the basis of its being rather far off from the main part of the castle, and additionally, to all appearances, quite uninhabited at the moment. She tried the door; it was not locked – the lords and ladies of Meridell Castle rarely felt obliged to exert themselves in any way, and certainly not for the purpose of safeguarding their belongings. They could scarcely conceive, thought Ella with contempt, of anybody having the nerve to steal from them.
She slipped in quite easily and was pleased to discover that a dim fire had been left burning in the grate, obviating the difficulty of lighting a candle in the darkness. Quite immediately she noticed a large mirror and then several pairs of elegant gentleman’s gloves and a breathtaking cravat of pale gold lying on the dresser. “Vain, vain, vain,” she muttered to herself, casting about for something of value.
This was not an astonishingly difficult task, for any one of the ancient tomes strewn about carelessly on the sofa would very likely have fetched thousands; the gold cufflinks were no doubt ludicrously expensive as well; even the necktie she had seen before would have made a poor servant’s fortune – in short this man, whoever he was, lived in a style as extravagant as any Ella had encountered. The only difficulty was in what, precisely, to take, for she could only carry so much.
After a moment or two she noticed that an uncommonly large and rather fat Snowbunny was watching her with beady eyes from a leather armchair. Watching was the correct term, and not simply looking; for had she not known better Ella would have sworn that it was observing her every movement with decided opinions on each.
Being quite fond of petpets in general, and of Snowbunnies in particular, Ella reached down to stroke its silky head – and, to her horror, it sank its teeth viciously and entirely without warning into her hand.
She gave a small cry and then made a monumental effort to silence herself, for this was not a situation in which she particularly wished to be discovered. But she quickly realized that the Snowbunny had not released her from its grip and that, somehow, she was unable to move.
Having discerned this fact, Ella struggled frantically to escape; it was useless, however. Her limbs would not obey her and she found herself frozen, standing there helplessly to await her capture. She was somewhat relieved to observe that she was still breathing; she could not feel it, but the room had somehow become extremely cold and she could see the regular clouds in front of her.
It was impossible to determine the length of time that Ella remained in her uncomfortable stance, only that it felt to her like a veritable eternity. Behind her she heard a clock’s steady tick – worse than useless, for she was entirely incapable of turning her head.
At last, when the night outside had long become pitch black and the festivities downstairs had finally ended, she heard voices immediately outside the room.
“I am not, as you know, perfectly accustomed to participate in these balls,” said a gentleman’s rather gloomy voice. “However I confess this one was quite amusing, or at least as amusing as anything can be, you know.”
“Oh, yes!” agreed another. “I am always excessively entertained by these gatherings. There is no place to observe the true wisdom and nobility of human nature, as at a ball.”
Ella discovered that she was ideally situated, by peering through the crack she had created earlier by leaving the door slightly ajar, to observe one of the gentlemen conversing; the other was for the moment hidden from her sight. She thought that the one she could see must be the first to have spoken, for he was a drooping grey Kyrii whose appearance exactly matched his unenthusiastic tone.
“You are far too severe, sir,” he protested now, without any extraordinary amount of vigor. “Your standards are too high. It is hardly kind to be making fun of everybody in one fell swoop.”
“I have not suggested that it is; but what adds to my amusement, and does not detract from anyone else’s, must surely be acceptable.”
The Kyrii laughed greyly. “I do not care to argue with you even in good humor, for I am certain to lose. Good night, and goodbye until I return; and give Lady Borodere my regards, if you would be so obliging. Oh – and incidentally – I perceive some very odd magic coming from your chambers. You may wish to investigate.”
“I will both convey your sentiments to Lisha, and investigate my chambers, with the greatest pleasure in the world,” the other replied, then entered the room.
The door was thrown open to reveal an exquisitely well-dressed shadow Gelert, though the light was too weak to compose an accurate impression of his face. He stared rather blankly at Ella for a moment, as well he might; overall, however, he seemed remarkably little fazed to discover an unknown somebody frozen in front of his fireplace.
His eyes traveled to the Snowbunny, which still held Ella’s hand in a vise-like grip, and with a sigh he heaved it away from her onto another chair.
Instantly the spell seemed broken, and Ella made use of her legs before anything else; but he caught her before she even managed to approach the door and closed it firmly himself.
She sat down shakily on the sofa and he lit a lamp, illuminating everything in a strong golden light. Ella blinked, her eyes still adjusted to the dark. As she recovered, she studied the intended victim of her crime. He was perhaps the most extraordinarily handsome being she had ever seen in her life, notwithstanding a scar on his cheek and what her practiced eye recognized as a healing bruise under his eye; but most of all he was cool, unimpressed, and rather intimidating.
“How may I address you?” she asked defiantly, before her nerves had the opportunity to fail. “Are you a duke, or an earl? – perhaps only a lord, or even a mere baronet?”
“Nothing so exciting, I am afraid; merely a private gentleman.” He calmly removed his coat and seated himself, placing the Snowbunny in his lap with a greater degree of affection than Ella would have believed possible. “I believe I may be more qualified to inquire after your identity, however.”
“My name is Ella,” she snapped. “As if you care.”
“No surname, I suppose? Very well; and may I be so bold as to ask what you were doing in my rooms?”
“Cleaning,” she replied succinctly, holding up her scrubbing rags.
“Is that so?” he asked with a faint air of sarcastic amusement. “That is very singular. You have an interesting way of going about it.”
“Your monster attacked me!” she exclaimed defensively. “And –” Her eyes traveled over the room, the titles of the books – Mage Spells, Advanced Magic, Bound Magic Book – and over the man and the Snowbunny, and she cursed herself for her idiocy. “And you are a Royal Sorcerer,” she finished lamely.
She had most unaccountably failed to make the connection before; but it was now entirely clear to her that the Snowbunny was not one of the magical anomalies quite regularly found around Meridell Castle, nor was its master any sort of typical Meridellian nobleman. Her tone became suddenly rather conciliatory.
“I – I’m just a girl, sir, and surely you wouldn’t be so cruel as to – to turn me in?” she pleaded innocently.
It was quite evident, however, that her guile had not deceived him in the least. He simply regarded her with that cold, cruel amusement and Ella began to despair of escaping intact. King Skarl’s treatment of thieves was a subject of general knowledge and a source of glee among the more bloodthirsty inhabitants of the castle. Without a doubt he would take less kindly still to one of his own servants turned traitor.
“So Bunny here,” remarked the gentleman, removing the large petpet from his lap with some difficulty, “is somewhat more magical than I had any conception of. That is very interesting...”
And indeed, Ella perceived that he was a great deal more interested than anything else; whether angry she could not say, but he was certainly amused and interested.
“And you, naturally, have no small degree of experience in your misdeeds – I presume that you have done this before? Lord Browning, I believe, most recently...”
Ella wondered briefly whether anything might be gained by refusing to confess, but she concluded that it would not. “Yes,” she replied simply. “What are you going to do, sir?”
“What principally intrigues me,” he continued, as though she had not spoken, “is not your failure but rather your success. You will forgive me for noting that you are a singularly inept thief.”
She fumed, but remained silent.
“Even a good deal of luck cannot account for it. There are guards on every wing; it is far too improbable to be altogether natural. You, however,” he added silkily, “are neither a sorceress nor even a witch.”
“Oh?” she said defiantly. “And what does that signify?”
He only raised an eyebrow, delivering to her the cold, ironic stare at which he appeared most adept.
“It is an amulet of stealth,” Ella confessed reluctantly. “It has been passed down through my family for generations, each to the next; and each person in turn was too foolish to put it to any worthwhile use. And why would they?” she cried angrily. “They had money enough, I am sure! I have only taken what nobody will ever miss!”
“I am excessively glad to hear that you can excuse your actions,” said the gentleman with amusement. “I am certain that King Skarl will be delighted to hear your explanation.”
She had quite forgotten herself, she realized; and she was shocked. In the heat of the moment she had placed her livelihood and indeed her life at stake. “Please,” she said breathlessly. “Oh, please, sir – all I need is a chance to do right. I’ll do anything – I can leave the castle and take up work somewhere else! I will give back what I have stolen –”
“Oh, I am very little concerned with the morals of the situation,” he replied languidly. “There is no advantage in that for me. Truly anything, you say?”
“Yes!” she told him fervently. “I’ll do anything!”
He seemed to consider her words, and she held her breath and hoped as she had never hoped for anything in her life.
“I am a sorcerer, you understand, and my chief concern is with all things magical.” He paused for a moment. “The amulet.”
Ella clutched it possessively, feeling its cold weight around her slender throat. “It – it is an heirloom,” she protested weakly. “It is worth everything to me and to my family...”
The sorcerer shrugged. “I will give you a fair price – I would not of course dream of slighting the Day of Giving. More than that I cannot promise. Allow me to suggest, however, that you will be infinitely better off alive and without your amulet than deceased and with it.”
She was obliged to recognize the truth of his words, and although an odd sensation came to her throat as she recalled her mother’s face, and her entreaties never to relinquish it –
She tugged sharply at the chain, freeing it from her neck, and turned the lovely emerald over in her hands; then she handed it silently to the sorcerer. Momentarily she saw a flash of something peculiar in his eyes, something that made her shiver slightly and wish herself far from where she sat. It appeared, however, that he intended to make good his promise.
“This should support you quite comfortably, I think,” he remarked indifferently, and as Ella took the gold she began to feel more confidently pleased about what she had done. It might in fact, she thought, turn out to be one of the wiser decisions of her life; it was quite a fortunate chance that had brought her here.
“And now there is the little matter of what is to become of you. You are perfectly free, of course, to go wherever you choose; if you are in search of a position I believe I may be able to provide you with one.”
Ella considered this. Even such a sum as this would not last forever, and it would do her no harm to be working at something rather than wasting away in idleness. “What is the job, sir?”
“An acquaintance of mine is searching for an assistant, I believe,” he said, stifling a yawn. Ella realized for the first time that the hour was extraordinarily late. “She is an archery instructor. It strikes me that the position might suit you quite well.”
And so it might, she reflected complacently; at the very least it would suit her far better than the life of a scullery maid. In any case, she would be always capable of leaving should she grow tired of the work. “Thank you, sir – I believe I would – would like that very much.”
“Very well. Ask for Miss Harlow tomorrow and I will have informed her of your coming.”
“Thank you,” she repeated, and because it was quite clear that their bizarre interview was over, she made her way to the door. After a moment’s hesitation she turned back. “May I ask you a question, sir?”
“I consider it very likely.”
“What is your name, sir?”
“Lockwood,” answered the sorcerer.
Ella snatched one last moment to regard the handsome Gelert and then quitted the room. It was by now quite settled in her mind that she had made the correct decision; and if she had been cheated out of anything, it was altogether probable that she would never know the difference.