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It had been Rhyll's birthday, her thirtieth, and she wanted her whole family here. Luthien disliked the Cynystran hegemony over Nylevia, but the chance to spend time with his sister, to play with his nieces (and Gordon's cousins, he reminded himself... he would have to get Rhyn and Gordon to come with him on one of these trips) was worth wandering around Duke--no, Emperor, now--Eric's territory.
The birthday party had gone off wonderfully. Rhyll seemed to be completely over the horrors that Wyvern had subjected her to. Gone was all sense of tension, of fear and hesitation that had been there for the year after his sister had killed him. Now it was birthday candles and children's laughter and a Ring of Medium Fashion (all he could really afford right now, after paying salary to the Chain Gang) wrapped in black satin. It would be enough for Neporris.
The birthday passed; for some reason Luthien felt reticent to leave. Rhyll was happy to have him. Her husband was on the road a lot--"business," she told Luthien--and there were so many years to catch up on. Besides, Rhynwa was in seclusion for the traditional period of ninety days while she prepared to be ordained as an elder of Annwych. There wasn't any reason for him to go.
But there was something more than that.
As he opened the door to his room, he saw it.
The window was open. Just a crack, but as a gladiator, he was aware of all of his surroundings. Someone had been in his room, while he was downstairs with Rhyll and the twins.
A thin black envelope was on his bed. In embossed silver ink, was his name.
It wasn't magical, a quick scan proved that. But who would have known to find him here, in his apartment above Rhyll's inn? Much more likely to find him at Annwych.
He opened the envelope.
It was unsigned.
Schneider had been talking about (threatening?) a Sewer Tour reunion for a long time, but last he had heard, the jester was occupied. Besides, where was the white rose?
And why sneak him the invitation? Why not greet him?
The black envelope mocked him from the desk where he had left it. The Mithril Dagger was about a two day ride from here. He would have to leave tonight.
"Luthien?" Rhyll asked from behind him. He hadn't even heard her on the stairs, he had been so preoccupied. "Is everything all right?"
"I'm going to a party," Luthien said, as if someone had died.
"You're a party animal," Rhyll said, smiling. "Whose party?"
"That's what I have to go to find out."
Tila fingered the purse on her belt like it was a penis. She could feel her tools inside. This job was going to be so easy, even Kynvelyn could have pulled it off, she thought.
The Vestal Ploughshare, an artifact from pre-Tal multitheistic Dalencia was showing in Tobrinel for one week only. As a ploughshare, it was pretty ratty looking. As an artistic relic of ancient artisans, it was priceless, and would be going in her private collection. Her youth as Karatilana Torin of the wealthy House Torin had taught her much about the appreciation of art.
Besides, if she couldn't have beautiful men, she could at least have beautiful art.
The guilds that she sponsored and ran took in enough of a percentage of the Trade States GNP to keep Tila in wealth for the rest of her life, even if she lived as long as the Sunfighter. Still, there was something to sneaking into a guarded museum that made her foray out from her palacial mansion in Tobrinel to rob from the rich and give to herself.
Maybe there was more of the adventuring blood left in her. Since Sway, she had been happy to look back on her journeyman adventuring days as the product of youth and an overdeveloped sex drive. Nowadays she was content to sit back and let others bring the treasure to her. Wasn't she?
If so, why was she here at the Tobrinel Museum at midnight?
The front entrance was blocked by an iron portcullis, and all the lower windows were barred. However, on her last visit to the museum, she had noticed a high window vent about two feet square at the pinacle of the roof's ziggurat. Easy enough to get to, but it would take everything Roxy had taught her back at boarding school to squeeze into it.
As a course of order, Tila scaled the wall, clambered up the roof, and slid into the window. Pulling her pouch in behind her was a little awkward, but she wasn't a master thief for nothing. Slowly she lowered herself to the ground.
Light to her left indicated that the two night guards were currently in the Nylevian proto-history exhibition room. Way too close to get a clunky ploughshare up and out of the window. She needed them out of the way.
Fortunately, Tila had prepared well. Reaching into the pouch, she pulled out her secret weapon. It was a hollow glass sphere, sealed at one end and filled with water. Inside, swimming unhappily in the sphere, was the meanest sturgeon that Badger and Twiddle's Seafood and Aquarium Shoppe had to offer. Supposedly it had bitten off the hand that fed it.
Tila put the ball on the ground and gave it a strong push. It rolled silently along the floor, past the room the guards were in, straight towards the portcullis barring the entrance. Tila counted slowly to three while she waited for the crash.
The glass ball shattered with a piercing crystal scream. Tila moved. The noise of the sturgeon flapping about drew footsteps from the guards, who rushed to investigate.
And then Tila saw it.
There was a black envelope with her name on it, affixed to the plough.
Tila froze. She had told no one about this job. She hadn't even planned it three days ago. Who could possibly have put this here? And when?
"What the hell?" asked one of the guards in the distance.
Tila's hands were on the plough.
"Looks like a fish," said the other.
Tila was on the rope.
"A sturgeon, I think... let me... YOW!"
The plough was pushed noisily through the window, to fall into the cloth net made out of one of Jarth's old chasubles. Tila followed quickly.
"Damn, Bill, that sturgeon's one mean mother!"
"It bit my finger off!"
Tila finally took a breath and pulled the envelope off of the plough. She tore it open in annoyance. Someone was a better sneak than she was, and she was damned if she was going to let a challenge like this go unanswered.
Inside the envelope was a card, reading:
Schneider? George? Threnody? Trissia? Damned if Tila could remember back that far to figure out who it could be. The details weren't important... just the answer. Which she would get, and soon.
Tila slid down the roof and was already preparing to travel.
(with additional dialogue by Laura Redish)
"Something's wrong with the Valkyrie. I just know it."
"Come on, Sigje," Jason said to the tall, powerful Norsewoman. "you worry too much. They took up Stormhand just a week ago. I was there. Flicker was there."
"I agree with Sigrid," Flicker added.
"You're both morbid," Jason said. "You've been worrying since Kelva left to find and bring back Norna."
"They've been... strange. Aloof, even to me..." Sigrid trailed off, staring into the distance.
"What is it?" Flicker asked.
Sigrid pointed to the Jormungandir. "Someone's on the mountain."
"How can you tell?" Jason asked. "I can hardly see..."
"You don't always need to see to know what's there," Flicker said.
"No one should be on Jormungandir," Sigrid whispered. "The danger of awakening the serpent is too great..."
"He seems to be coming down the mountain, not ascending," Flicker observed.
"We should go there," Sigrid said.
"He might be hurt or in need of help, having been on the Snake's Tooth," Flicker added.
"Well, that's two for, one confused. Shall we?" Jason smiled.
The three pushed forward, and started down the hill, their skis tracing runes of a peculiarly human nature in the snow behind them.
It was an hour later when they finally reached the base of Jormungandir. Far up the mountain, they could see the lone figure in black alternately climbing and stumbling down. Finally, the figure looked down, saw the three, and collapsed next to an outcropping of rock, about thirty feet from the foot of the mountain.
"Well, shall we go help him?" Jason asked. "The mountain's already been breached."
"No!" Sigrid cried. "We can't! Hela is too near, I can hear her."
"You're the Valkyrie, Sigje," Jason said, kissing her on the cheek.
"Someone's got to get him off the mountain," Flicker said.
"Well, Flick, if you want to fly up there and get him, I'll be happy to cheer you on," the bard said. Sigrid glared at him.
"Give me your rope," Flicker said to Jason. "I've got an idea."
Jason handed his best friend a fifty-foot braided cord. Flicker made a loop and tied a knot. "I never thought I'd end up using one of his tricks," he said, an unusual but old anger in his voice. He took the lasso, and spinning it with uncanny skill, tossed the loop over the rock next to the man in black. He handed the other end to Sigrid.
"You two hold this taut."
"Wod's beard, what do you think you're doing, Flick?"
"I'm walking on the rope."
"Are you nuts?" Jason demanded. "Remember the time you fell out of the runepine? That branch was a foot wide and you couldn't walk three yards!"
"I've gotten better at it," Flicker said.
Sigrid flashed Jason a look of concern, but the skald simply nodded.
"If you say so, Eren." Jason knotted the rope to the hilt of his sword and thrust the blade into the earth. "Help me hold this, Sigrid."
Flicker slowly put one foot onto the rope, and imagined it was a ship's rigging. From there, the rest came easily. He walked along the rope, above the mountain, until he reached the man. He knelt, grasped the rope, and swung around until he was hanging by his knees above the figure. Even from this vantage point, he could tell that the man was dead. The face was certainly not Riklandic; Flicker guessed that he was Nylevian, possibly Rimborese, though he didn't recognize him. A long way to come just to die on a cursed mountain.
Reaching down, he grasped the man's pack and lifted it off the body. The pack was surprisingly light. Sliding it over one shoulder, he grasped the rope again, and flipped himself back on top of it. He could hear Jason mutter in amazement from the foot of the mountain. Slowly he stood and walked back down the rope.
"He's dead, a foreigner," Flicker said when he arrived at the end of the rope. He hopped off. "I retrieved his pack, so we can hopefully find out what he was doing there."
"I'm not even going to ask how you did that, Flick," Jason said. Sigrid just stared at Flicker, and he wondered momentarily what she saw with her Valkyrie sight.
It was the only thing inside the pack.
A black envelope, with "Sunfighter" written in silver ink on it. Flicker opened the envelope. It was written in Dalen, and read:
"Flick, let me see it."
"How do you know it's personal? You can't read Dalen!"
"I've been learning."
"Flicker, give me the letter!"
"It's for me."
"Leave him be, Jason. Flicker knows what he's doing."
"What?" Jason demanded. "What is he doing?"
"I'm going back," he said. "I'm going to Lianth."
On to the rest of the prologues
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