Actions

Work Header

The Wise Man's Tree

Chapter Text

Whitestone stood guard over the North of Tal'Dorei in a manner unique to truly ancient castles: it projected itself across the valley, to all the denizens of the town below, and to any travelers passing in their rattling carriages, as a monstrosity. It crowned a crooked peak above the villages and farms, its spires white as sun-bleached bones, piercing past the mountain pines crowding the battlements. After a thousand years of vigilance, the pale walls showed no sign of crumbling or cracks. The fortress appeared natural and permanent, a fixture of the landscape, as if it were a glacier hewn into shape by the hand of some industrious god.

But the castle was built by human architects, of course – more specifically, the Lords and Ladies de Rolo. Or rather, it was not built, but evolved under their guidance, growing and mutating with each generation of its inhabitants. The de Rolo lineage produced a number of brilliant engineers, who grafted the products of their genius into the very walls of their home. Their inventions ticked away the centuries in the underbelly of Whitestone, like the mechanical organs of a giant golem. The de Rolos and Castle Whitestone were as one, unified from their birth, across generations, and perhaps the only thing older than the castle was the de Rolo name itself.

At the dawning of our tale, the time had nearly passed for such ancient things. Magic, in its grandest forms, began to disappear, the arcane energy of the world spent to the dregs. The powers of society and science, of gold and gossip, of train tracks and steam engines, usurped the need for standing armies and towering forts in the South. Emon was cosmopolitan; Syngorn had become civilized. The de Rolo family attempted, in solidarity with their larger Empire, to make their family home hospitable, but there was only so much one could do for castles on winter-clad mountains. Whitestone was too vast to be altered, too old to be influenced, and too ancient not to have accumulated a will of its own.

Of course, some things do not change over mere centuries. At the time our story begins, there were still invaders, as there were still castles. There was still Whitestone, and, despite the best efforts of treachery and tragedy, there were still de Rolos.

Well – there was one.

And he, like his parents before him, and their ancestors before that, stood on the brink of civilization and wilderness, on the edge of genius and madness, a modern man of reason in the very place where modernity and reason begin to lose their fragile grip.

--

“—But his invitation doesn’t make any bloody sense, sister.”

Lady Vex’ahlia of Syngorn propped her pointed chin on her narrow hand, and heaved an impatient sigh at her brother – though the jostling of the carriage quickly knocked her posture askew. Their sour mood was likely the product of the six-hour drive along Whitestone’s ill-kept cobble roads (neither twin could stand to be stationary for long), but their squabbling hardly helped. Across from her, Vex's twin brother Vax’ildan huddled deeper into his black furs, and tried, yet again, to articulate his suspicions of their host.

“It is too strange that we should be the first guests of Whitestone in four years,” he insisted. “Lord de Rolo and I are barely acquainted. You will not even grant me that much?”

“No, I will not. I know him better than you - and besides, I doubt we will be his only guests,” Vex fired back, crossing her arms. Her brother could be terribly melodramatic at times.

“He mentions no others.”

Vex frowned. True, the guest list was an odd thing to omit, but she could not bring herself to see it as sinister. Lord de Rolo's letter had been terse, barely spanning a complete page. In it, he requested the presence of both twins at Castle Whitestone, offering to lodge them for a week or more, depending on "whether they considered their tasks at Whitestone incomplete." It was the word "tasks" that had originally caused Vax to raise his hackles, and even though his sister persuaded him to respond to the invitation, he had not yet dropped his guard. Vex tried, yet again, to calm him. “Regardless, we must grant Lord de Rolo pity before suspicion. I doubt that he has many friends to invite.”

In response, Vax copied her irritated snarl. Any spectator would find their matching countenances, in that moment, uncanny. The twins shared a series of distinguishing features, inherited largely from their mother: thick, raven hair, worn long; broad, cunning smiles; pointed noises and slender profiles; and large eyes, uniquely prominent and black, constantly scanning their surroundings with the perceptual sharpness of conniving crows.

These similarities in their features masked a deep contrast of personality. Despite his generally good heart, Vax nearly always gave off an impression of aloofness. He spoke in brusque sentences and efficient quips, and dressed (so his sister would often tease) like an undertaker, wearing greys and blacks under dark dinner jackets, and conducting himself with either funereal solemnity or terse sarcasm. His close friends – Vex first among them, and few besides her – understood the incredible depths of his humour and kindness, but he made neither trait obvious upon introduction. Vex, by contrast, lacked the capacity for solemnity. Her sympathies were much more swiftly moved than her brother’s. She lived at constant extremes, always either broadly passionate or aggressively bored. She favoured the same dark colours that lent Vax his grimness, and yet her natural depth of feeling made her appear more dramatic than dour.

Still, both twins were impulsive, impetuous, prone to risk, and intolerant of pointless social protocol. Both remained unmarried at the age of twenty-seven, though their lack of attachments did not perturb them: Vax was quite solitary, and Vex had consciously sabotaged her father’s many attempts to wed her to men she found insipid. Their ill luck in love and friendship had only strengthened their allegiance, to the point where neither twin felt complete without the presence of their opposite. In the face of such fidelity, disagreements between them were always temporary, either forgotten or resolved in short order.

“I suppose I can only suggest that we be on our guard,” Vax finished.

“On our guard? Hah. Do you think Lord de Rolo is planning to eat his guests?”

Vax merely snorted at that, but his smile allowed Vex to deem the matter resolved. She tilted her head towards the window, peeking beyond its velvet curtains. Whitestone had been looming over the landscape for the last hour of their approach, and it remained in view still, imposing and immense, glittering. Perhaps she had permitted Lord de Rolo his rather bizarre invitation because the castle itself fascinated her so. Politely put, Lady Vex had an appreciation for wealth and grandeur. Looking upon such luxury summoned a thrill in her skin, one that crawled over her shoulders like a phantom touch. In the current season, only a gentle dusting of frost lay on the tips of the tree-boughs. She wondered how the castle would appear in the depth of true winter, with the Northern snows banked against its walls, and all the world around it just as white.

Her musings were cut short as the carriage turned onto an incline, and the black boughs of the pines swept in to mask the sublime vision of the castle above. In due course, the carriage took the travelers beyond the forest, through the castle gates – Vex craning her neck to gauge their impossible height – and past the pale walls. The twins disembarked together with their driver, who began to rush them towards the entryway of the keep. With the sun sunk low, the towers cast long, opaque shadows over the pale stones of the courtyard, giving Vex the impression of traversing a giant chessboard. The driver of their carriage propped the broad oak doors open to permit them entry, and once the twins took shelter in the foyer, he immediately excused himself to search for their host.

Thus Vex and Vax were left alone in the castle keep. Their sharp eyes traced the stone floor, and the pattern of pale blue carpets criss-crossing it. Then their gazes climbed the smooth walls, drawn briefly into a grand landscape painting, depicting a rugged mountain crag...and then, their eyes rose further, up to an impossibly high set of wrought-iron windows, to their peaked points and further, up, past the columns and cornices, up, until both twins were craning their necks at the cavernous vaulted ceiling. They drifted closer together, Vex reaching for her brother’s arm. Though the doors had sealed them off from outside, the cold would not dissipate, as if a subtle chill permeated every atom of the building.

Vex bit her tongue around an eager, anxious smile. The vast, empty hall simmered with the venerable silence of a cathedral. As the twins waited, they began to hear a constant, distant clanging, like a bell striking midnight. Vex managed to pinpoint the source of the strange noise – a steep spiral stairway on their left – just as there sounded a clean pop, a loud metal bang, and a series of muffled curses. Vax staggered back, but Vex immediately took flight, dashing down the steps, heedless of the warning cry “Vex’ahlia--!”

--And she stumbled into a lake of roiling smoke billowing up the stairs, black like pitch and near as thick, curling in tongues up the sides of the walls and around her ankles, boiling the snowflakes lingering on her cloak to wisps of steam. In the cloud loomed a skeletal head, beaked, with empty eyes. A pungent smell, ashy and chemical, stung her mouth and nose, and she staggered one step upwards, fumbling for the stairway rail. The image bent – distorted itself – began to tilt – as if the skeleton-bird was opening its maw to devour her – and then, her good sense returning, Vex realized that the demonic-looking creature was only a man wearing an oddly proportioned mask. He removed it, and fanned the last traces of smoke away. Vex recaptured her breath, recognizing him instantly: tall, slender, young but noble in bearing, with a bizarre shock of erratic white hair. He replaced a set of brass-rimmed spectacles on his rather prominent nose, and mute recognition crossed his face. Regaining her composure, Vex tottered into an unsteady curtsey on the stairway.

“My Lord,” she said. “Is everything alright?”

Lord Percival de Rolo tilted his head like a curious owl, his grey-eyed gaze betraying copious wit but little warmth. “Nothing to concern yourself with,” he answered, in a trim, even voice. “Do you often wander so intrepidly through strangers’ houses?”

Vex arched one eyebrow. “Only if I believe my host to be in danger of combusting.”

To her surprise, a wry smile curled the edges of his thin lips. “He is in danger no longer, unless one can catch alight from embarrassment. We have yet to meet under normal circumstances, Lady Vex'ahlia.” Lord de Rolo then tipped his head in cordial greeting, more of a nod than a bow.

Vex barely resisted a shudder of embarrassment herself – their last encounter had been a particularly strange one, and entirely her own fault. Instead, she managed an awkward smile, and a tentative response; “It certainly seems that way.”

In silence, he watched her for a short fragment of time, one that in her perception stretched to nearly endless length. The mathematical nature of his mind became clear: with his searching looks, he seemed to be factoring her into some kind of equation. She had quite forgotten the natural intensity of his expression, but the moment reminded her how frightfully severe Lord de Rolo could be. At last, he asked, “Did your brother not elect to join you?”

From the landing, Vax called down to them. “He elected not to descend the smoking stairwell, actually.”

Eavesdropping – typical Vax. Seemingly unruffled, Lord de Rolo ascended into the main hall, and Vex fell in behind him, bewildered. He spoke as he walked, not bothering to pause or turn. “A simple miscalculation on my part, and I believe I have taken care of the damage. You must forgive my appearance,” he said, and Vex noticed the young Lord was without a jacket or waistcoat, stripped to his shirtsleeves, and wearing some kind of heavy gloves akin to a blacksmith’s. “You’ve both made extraordinarily good time," he continued. "I hadn’t expected any of my visitors until after – oh.”

At last, he halted, and the rattled twins stopped just as abruptly. The light filtering in from the windows above was orange, fading to pink. Lord de Rolo squinted upwards at the colours, as if he found them displeasing, and muttered, “I quite lose my mind in that place, sometimes.”

Vex ignored her brother’s skeptical look - which proved to be a wise choice, as the young Lord instantly turned on his heel and addressed them again. “I must dress for dinner. I will have tea brought to the salon upstairs, if you care to wait there.” With another aborted bow, he vanished, disappearing down a long hall opposite them.

Vex and Vax stared until his footsteps began to fade. The moment they were alone once more, Vax rolled his eyes extravagantly and mocked, in a simpering feminine voice; “He’s not mad, brother, he’s just lonely.”

She rolled her eyes. “You're an arse.”

“Language, my lady.”

Vex whipped off one of her gloves and whacked Vax over the shoulder. The fur cape softened the impact, but not the message, and Vax flashed a teasing grin. “So,” he continued, “since our gracious host neglected to show us the way, shall we find this salon?”

With such a goal uniting them, Vex's cheerful, curious mood began to return. Despite naming the salon as their target, their exploration was not particularly disciplined, and they wandered, dawdling over the strange artifacts of the castle. On an otherwise unremarkable stairway, Vex found herself absorbed by the oily swatches of black and blue that composed a massive painting of a crumbling glacier. Vax, who always had a bad case of what the local louts called "itchy fingers", spent a good thirty seconds inspecting a particularly ornate lock on an otherwise innocuous door. At various points on the walls, they located all kinds of oddities - switches and pipes, strange sculptures on displays, bizarre tapestries and haunted-looking portraits. They kept their adventures to the second floor: a touch more inviting than the floor below, paneled as it was in a rich, dark timber. Still, the high walls and dim lamps lent the place a gloomy air, and Vex found herself giddily nervous when rounding corners, wondering if another smoking demon was poised to leap out at her.

Eventually, they located the salon, and the low table with five steaming cups of tea upon it standing as its centerpiece. A series of bookshelves obscured the wall opposite, while the wall on the right featured a map of Tal'Dorei, all its names and borders marked out by a meticulous hand. A series of bay windows set in the left wall overlooked the courtyard, and it was at the furthest window from the door that the twins found their perch, idly stirring their cups of tea.

At their angle, the twins could glimpse the arrival of each new carriage – and then, several minutes later, a corresponding guest would appear at the door of the salon, escorted by a servant or driver. The first to arrive was a uniquely short gentleman with nut-brown hair, a Mr. Scanlan Shorthalt, who eagerly shook both their hands in greeting and winked roguishly at Vex. Jovial and friendly, he immediately took to chattering away at their side as they waited, spinning wild theories and cracking absurd jokes about the other guests. An Ambassador Tiberius Stormwind, from Draconia, followed him by several minutes. The draconic races being a rarity, even in such a worldly city as Emon, caused Vex to immediately regard him with intense curiosity. In the dimming sunset, his scarlet scales flashed with fiery colour. He introduced himself with a shade more formality than Mr. Shorthalt, but still possessed a kindly (if somewhat bumbling) nature.

After several minutes of awkward introductions, Vex and Vax at last had the pleasure of recognizing an acquaintance. Sweeping into the room with his jewel-adorned hands clasped together, bright and broad in his purple dinner-jacket, Mr. Sean Gilmore stopped in the doorway and recognized the twins immediately. He called out a salutation from across the room, causing Vax to immediately choke on his tea and wheeze inelegantly until Gilmore approached and took his hand. “Good gods, what marvelous luck!” he declared. “Vax’ildan of Syngorn, and his darling sister!”

Vex accepted a handshake for herself, her smile broadening. Their friendship with Gilmore had formed only recently, but his generous nature inclined her to act as if they had known each other for years. Everyone in Emon knew Gilmore, and not a soul among them could attest to disliking him. His businesses were many, varied, and extravagantly profitable, but his connections were more formidable still. The ever-curious Vex asked, as soon as she was able, “Are you here for business, Mr. Gilmore?”

The answer came with a sly wink and a drawling “Perhaps, perhaps.” His pleasing baritone voice rose and fell like waves, fluid and full of dramatic inflections. “At this point, my dear, your guess is as good as mine.”

“Our host neglected to tell you?” Vex asked. If not even Gilmore could pry useful details out of the man, she reasoned, Lord de Rolo was utterly inscrutable.

“Oh, young Percival’s just a touch secretive,” Gilmore responded, with a note of warm-hearted affection. "I can't imagine it's anything serious." He waved one hand dismissively through the air, candlelight sparking off his ostentatious gold rings.

“It would seem you know him far better than we do,” Vax interjected.

To Vex’s surprise, the tone of her brother’s voice prickled with venom – and indeed, his countenance had become sour. Fortunately, Gilmore did not seem offended. “You can tell a great deal about a man by what he’s willing to pay for,” he said, with a wink. “But alas, I could not share such details in good conscience. I am an honest businessman.”

Sighing, Vex continued, “I wish Lord de Rolo were so honest. I’m starting to wonder for what purpose he has brought us here.”

“Indeed,” Vax agreed, darkly.

As the discussion continued, Vex began to collect the opinions of her cohort. It seemed that they, like her brother, were confused about the nature of Lord de Rolo's invitation. Most admitted to accepting out of sheer curiosity or fascination, rather than any sense of affectionate attachment. Even Gilmore was wary, inclined to dismiss "dear Percival's" dramatics as nothing remarkable. In the course of their exchange, Vex gradually found herself to be their host's sole defender, wondering aloud why they were not more charmed by the prospect of staying in such a beautiful old castle.

After several minutes of casual debate, the doors opened once more, and a woman stepped out from the hall. Her image immediately struck Vex to silence. Her yellow-green eyes flickered about like candle-flames, luminous even from a distance. She wore her hair loose, falling to her waist in a cascade of orange-red waves, decorated at points with strange flowers and feathers. She stood apart from the gathered party, hands folded on the brightly-patterned skirts of her jade-green dress. In the gloomy salon, she drew all eyes to her person, as bright and strange as a solitary orchid.

She spoke, her voice trembling; “Lord de Rolo has asked me apologize to everyone for his rudeness. He will be joining us shortly.”

Her curiosity overcoming her wariness, Vex pulled away from the group of guests to greet the newcomer. The strange woman panicked at her advance, and took two steps backwards into a hasty bow. Vex returned the greeting slowly, as if she were approaching a frightened animal. “Thank you for informing us,” she began. “I don’t believe we’ve been introduced, my Lady. Vex’ahlia of Syngorn. You are-?”

“-Keyleth,” she interjected, looking relieved. “Just Keyleth, if you please, I am Lady – um, Lady nothing.” Vex could not resist a smile. The girl’s stuttering was somehow charming, and her nervous expression betrayed her relative youth. Leaning forward, Keyleth asked Vex, in a conspiring whisper, “The guests aren’t upset with him, are they?”

A reasonable question, to which Vex shrugged one shoulder. “Simply confused, I imagine. Didn’t you find Lord de Rolo’s invitation somewhat obtuse?”

Keyleth cocked her head, the beads in her hair clattering. “I wasn’t invited,” she replied. “I was already here.”

The sound of footsteps interrupted any further questioning on Vex’s part – instead, she looked beyond Keyleth’s shoulder just in time to see their host enter the room. He shut the door behind him and rubbed his gloved hands together, surveying his audience, who slowly fell silent in turn. Vex could not fault them for their awkward reaction, not entirely. Lord de Rolo had become something other than a person to his gathered guests: an entity composed of rumour and hearsay, a symbol of misfortune, the central character in a story so tragic that it must, at least in part, have been false.

And indeed, only a handful of facts were indisputably true: that the previous Lord de Rolo, his wife, and six of their seven children died over the course of a single night, five years past; that Percival had become the new Lord of Whitestone shortly afterwards, and retreated from high society; that he had traveled to Emon for a handful of meetings and social appearances over the summer, and then, out of the blue, sent the current company their invitations.

Such an unsatisfying dearth of detail could only sow the seeds of rumour. The superstitious nobility in Emon theorized that the de Rolos were struck down by a curse, or devoured by something ancient beneath their castle. Vex paid little heed to them – those sedentary duchesses with their plumes and pearls, who saw any wilderness north of Westruun as if it were fit only for barbarians or dire wolves. Still less credible, and still more repulsive, were those who believed the de Rolos had been murdered, and who, in subtle ways, accused the obvious culprit: Percival himself, the sole survivor of that tragic, bloody night, the ambitious second son.

Putting aside such thoughts, Vex suspected that most people, whether they thought him culpable or not, would still find Lord de Rolo eerie. His unnatural composure and his severe expressions did not invite friendly discourse or casual approach. He appeared stiff, brittle and pale, like an icicle. His spoken statements carried the calculated weight of a philosophical query or a scientific conclusion, but never the heat of human feeling. Even when he appeared pleased, there was always tension, always activity, always a mechanism clicking in his mind.

(And yes – Vex, like the others, found his presence unsettling, but a difference rested in her reasoning. She sensed an uncomfortable sympathy between herself an Lord de Rolo: Sorrow leaves a unique mark on every soul, yet it is always visible by those who have been likewise branded. Even without the virulent spread of rumour, Vex would have recognized the kinship between her and any orphaned son.)

Lord de Rolo spoke then, wrenching Vex from her thoughts – his voice calm, but almost artificially so, like a poor actor with a flawed script: “Greetings, everyone. Before we eat, I have something important to discuss with all of you. Please, sit if you wish.”

The guests organized themselves. Vex pulled Keyleth with her to a chaise, and they took their seats side-by-side. Her brother and the other gentlemen filled the couches and chairs, all moving in near-silence. Only the host himself remained standing. He paced in front of them, marking out a stage for his speech, rubbing his palms slowly, nervously, back and forth. “As I’m sure you gathered by the letter I sent, I have been harboring an ulterior motive for summoning you here. Now, by all means, we may continue as if this were any other social call, and spend the week amusing ourselves at will. But, should you be at all curious, I will now propose an alternative.”

Silence. His audience could not find the means to interrupt him. The nervousness of his pacing and the flatness of his voice had transformed, imperceptibly, to a kind of quiet authority. Time - and grief - had given Lord de Rolo gravitas. He continued, “As I'm sure you know, this castle has been in my family for a very long time. The de Rolos built it, in fact, almost a thousand years ago. And somewhere in its catacombs and passageways rests a vault, hidden and locked, its location known only to the living heads of the de Rolo family and their immediate successor. Or at least, it was.”

He paused again, his voice softer, reminiscent. “You must not think my late parents and brother short-sighted. Their deaths were – abrupt, and unexpected. But regardless, Julius, Johana and Frederick did not have the chance to pass this knowledge down to me."

“So then, I intend for us to find this vault. Whether we accomplish the task together or apart, the first of you to locate it will have your pick of its treasures – per my approval, of course. Desecration of my ancestry is not my target. I am happy to share what I do know of the vault with all who are interested, and more than pleased to entertain those of you who do not find your curiosity piqued. Well?”

The room remained awkwardly silent, but for an uncertain creaking of furniture. Disbelief and confusion passed across the faces of the guests, mingled with hints of curiosity. Vex looked to her brother, who shrugged. Keyleth tightened her grip on Vex's wrist, and pressed the fingers of her free hand to her mouth, staring openly at their host. “Percival,” she whispered, “are you certain?”

He stared ahead, and answered without meeting her eyes. “Yes, of course.”

To Vex’s surprise, her brother cut in next, half-rising out of his chair. “Begging your pardon, Lord de Rolo, but if desecration is not your goal, then why are you granting us such knowledge of your family secrets? I hope I speak for us all when I say this - we do not want to infringe on what is yours.”

“I did not take this action lightly,” Lord de Rolo admitted. “But the truth is that this castle was never meant to be mine. I am already a transgressor.” Realizing the darkness of his tone, he waved his hands, faking a moment of levity. “But enough about it. You need not worry about offending me, if that is your concern.”

“Well, my concern is something else,” Mr. Shorthalt piped up, his slender arms crossed over his chest. “Putting aside offense – what about our safety? Are we to be shaking up the bones of de Rolos past? Tampering with things we shouldn’t touch, perchance?“

Lord de Rolo smiled thinly. “It is only a castle, nothing more. Shake and tamper as you will, Mr. Shorthalt.”

“Somehow I find that less than comforting,” Mr. Shorthalt confessed. Mr. Gilmore drowned his voice out with another question, at which point Vex’s attention briefly dulled, and began to drift.

These interrogators, she reflected, were entirely missing the point. A thousand-year-old vault of treasure locked in a glorious, sprawling castle, and they quibbled about such mundane things – about courtesies, about safety? What of the nature of the objects in the vault, and what of the trickery masking it? Where were the questions of hidden passageways – of gold, of puzzles, of ancient, long-forgotten secrets? And of their host – of Lord de Rolo, who answered all their complaints with detached disinterest, and dry amusement? Why was the vault so important to him - important enough that he would breach four years of solitude and silence to ask them for aid?

In the midst of her furious evaluation, the Lord's grey gaze drifted to her seat, and settled on her face. “You have not spoken yet, my lady,” he observed. “Have you no questions?”

Vex stared at him, swelled to bursting with no less than a thousand questions, each more intense and burning than the last. His expression challenged her with the expectation of clever riposte – and yet she held her tongue. The others had revealed their hands - their weaknesses, their fears. If this week was to be a game, and if she intended to win, she would cling to her every advantage. She kept her face passive, but inside, she thrummed with emotion, with anticipation and curiosity. She folded her hands together on her lap. Their eyes met, and a wordless communication sparked to life between them, an electric transmission of perfect understanding, so that Lord de Rolo began to smile even before she voiced her response.

“Only one question, my Lord,” she said. “Where do you suggest we start?”

--

Chapter Text

Vex rolled over and kicked a snarl out of her tangled sheets. Despite the grandeur of the guest bed, it proved almost impossible to find a position that was comfortable – or, more pertinently, something to gaze at that did not make her feel uneasy. Her left side offered a view of a shelf of ceramic dolls, and so her view looked back at her with dead, glassy eyes. In the sunlight, the dolls might have been charming, but she could not fathom how any young girl had slept beside them in the dark. Rolling to her other side only intensified her discomfort, for all she could see was a wide bay window, and through it, blackness and distant stars. With no city-lights beyond the glass, it was a view of extreme solitude.

The first night at Whitestone had been disastrous. After Lord de Rolo’s speech, conversation had flagged with such frequency that not even the titanic efforts of the ever-charming Gilmore could save the mood.  The guests had then departed to their individual rooms the moment politeness permitted it, silent in their gloomy contemplation. Vex had not even managed to snatch a moment to strategize with her brother. His guest room was on the opposite wing of the third floor, and, thus divided from her only ally, Vex had stomped off to bed alone.

And their host had been simply infuriating! Over the course of their dinner, he had neither touched the food nor removed his gloves, instead surveying the table almost motionlessly over tented hands and an empty plate. Either he was unable to engage with their topics, or he simply felt no need to converse; regardless, after the guests announced their retirement for the evening, he had disappeared down a nearby stairwell without so much as a formal goodnight.

Vex threw her dark head back into her pillow and huffed out a frustrated breath. Worst of all, Lord de Rolo had offered entirely unsatisfactory answers to her questions. All he knew – all he claimed to know – was that the vault required a special key, of which there were only three copies. “One copy is not accessible to us, but the other two will likely be hidden here somewhere,” he’d said. He had tantalized her with intrigue – such a challenge, such intellectual engagement – and then, in his silence and secrecy, he had failed to deliver!

But no matter. Tomorrow would be different.

The blue canopy above her bed was patterned with yellow felt in thick, soft patches, like bumblebees. She imagined their paths of flight as they drifted to the corner-posts and crossbeams, weaving through each other, and found something calming in the illusion. Earlier in the night, the bedroom had been warmer than the halls, but the air around her grew frostier the longer she stayed awake to ponder and pout. Deep within the castle there sounded a low, mechanical groan, and a pattern of strange whirring – as if Whitestone were a nocturnal beast, waking up just as she began to drift to sleep…

Cold at nighttime, especially in the far north, dulled the senses. It was slow and seeping, a cold that built throughout the day in the marrow and the gut, an anesthetizing cold. The cold of morning had a sharper edge. It cut Vex’s throat on her inhaled breaths, and pricked the skin of her hands when she thrust them out from under the quilts. Finally, she braved the chill, and found it revitalizing, springing all at once from her sheets.

So the others were determined to be stubborn and evasive – that gave her an advantage, didn’t it? If the guests kept away from each other, she could scrape key information from each one in turn, and the sum total of her findings would be vast compared to what they each discovered alone. She would stand at the unconscious intersection of their branches of knowledge, like the center point of a snowflake, and find a unique perspective on the larger pattern. And of course they would turn over what they knew; Vex was confident that a well-placed wink would melt any heart. She dressed as swiftly as she could – feet bouncing on the icy floor – and rushed downstairs to breakfast.

Luckily, the day opened with a piece of good fortune. When she entered the dining hall, there were only two people present: Ambassador Stormwind, who was idly puttering about by the fireplace with tea in hand, and her brother, seated near the head of the table, with a triangle of buttered toast in his fingers. Ignoring the Ambassador, she swept eagerly towards the chair nearest Vax, drew it out, and took her seat with a flourish. She propped her chin on her hand, lowered her voice to a stealthy whisper, and asked, “So, where do you think we should look first?”

Vax glared at her with the spite of any night owl encountering a morning lark. He appeared a little worn, his dark hair disorderly, his eyes tired and shadowed. Grumbling, he handed her a piece of toast. “Good morning, Vex’ahlia. How did you sleep?” he asked, his voice flat.

“Perfectly well,” she lied, glossing over his sarcasm. She needed him on her side, and resolved not to catch them up in a sibling squabble. “I think it’s safe to assume the vault would be somewhere underground – or would you disagree?”

“Vex,” he said, with a note of strained patience, “are you really so set on playing Lord de Rolo’s game?”

She took a slow breath. Vex rarely felt the need to reflect on her own motivations, but her brother’s stalling question gave her a moment to glimpse them. She found curiosity, as expected, about both the castle and its occupants – and no small rush of pleasure at the promise of reward. Yet she found her heart engaged as well, and with surprising intensity. She was not entirely sure whether she feared Lord de Rolo or feared for him, not yet, but she did not doubt that an investigation would reveal which emotion was more appropriate. At the very least, the reflection provided her with a resounding answer: “I am.”

Vax stared at her for a moment, and then his stern countenance gave way to a knowing grin. “And you’ll go on whether I aid you or not.”

“Of course.”

He sighed, still smiling, and helped himself to another piece of toast. “Then I’m with you.”

Vex nearly clapped her hands together in joy, before remembering she still held her breakfast. Instead, she took a celebratory crunch of toast, and spoke through a mouthful of buttery crumbs, “Excellent. How should we arrange this?”

Tilting his chair back on its rear legs, Vax looked up in contemplation, and answered, “Best to learn what we can today, I think. Strategize when we know more.”

She was pleased to see how quickly Vax slipped into a tactical conversation. He took the problem seriously, and thought hard, and provided earnest insight. She could truly rely on him for anything. “I’d like to find occasion to speak with Lord de Rolo alone. Not to say that I’m convinced of your suspicions,” she amended, dusting some of the crumbs from her skirts, “but I do believe he knows more than he’s chosen to share.”

“I think so,” Vax agreed, nodding slowly.

She could see the ideas forming in Vax’s head, and preempted them. “And you should take a look around. Perhaps in places he doesn’t want us to see?”

The least she could do, in recognition of his assistance, was offer him a job he would enjoy. A spark of true eagerness lighting in his dark eyes, Vax pressed, “So you distract him, and I-?”

“-You indulge your favourite hobby,” she finished. Surely, there would be locked doors somewhere in Whitestone.

Vax nodded. A fair plan, for the first day. “Very well – but be cautious with him, Vex. He still makes me nervous.”

Despite her own growing reservations, Vex rolled her eyes. “We need not be afraid of him.”

Tossing away the last crust of his breakfast, her brother asked, “Vex, why do you know him better than I? Did you meet when he was in Emon?”

The same embarrassing memory evoked twice in two days! Vex cringed, and admitted, “We did. It was rather-“

At that very moment, the door of the dining hall clattered open, and Lord de Rolo came through, shoulder to shoulder with Gilmore, the two of them in amiable conversation. The new dawn had granted them brighter moods, as it had with Vex. Gilmore was laughing, a hearty, rolling chuckle that somehow carried clear across the dining hall. He was also impeccably dressed, wearing a different violet-coloured coat from the day before, and practically glittering with his usual excess of gold adornments. Lord de Rolo appeared to have come in from outside, clad as he was in dark gloves and a rather conspicuous black overcoat. His face was still pale, but a hesitant smile sat upon it, suggesting a fragile optimism that had not been present the day before.

“Vex,” Vax whispered, scrubbing his hands with his napkin in nothing short of a panic. “Pretend we’re talking about something important!”

She shot him a confused glance, and raised both her hands haplessly. “We are!

“Oh,” he said, and blinked. In a split second, Vax had gone from a cool interrogator to someone who appeared to have been recently been struck over the head. “What was it?”

With a frustrated noise, Vex dropped her hands, and rose to greet Gilmore and her host.

--

After a quiet but pleasant breakfast, the tour began from the entry hall. Mr. Shorthalt, who had arrived quite late, declined to join the group, wishing to take his time with his food. The strange woman, Keyleth, was also nowhere to be seen. That left Vex, Vax, Gilmore and Ambassador Stormwind under Lord de Rolo’s supervision. Vex noted that Lord de Rolo did not take them down the stairs she had so “intrepidly” descended upon her arrival; instead, he guided them across the foyer and into the Eastern Wing. At first, she planned to ask why they had so bluntly omitted the lower floors from the tour, but she elected to be patient, wondering if the reason would make itself apparent in time. She found herself at the rear of the group, with Vax, while Mr. Stormwind and Gilmore trailed Lord de Rolo more closely, asking casual questions about the history of the castle. The Eastern Wing began as a long gallery of pale stone, and reached a grand wooden door with the mark of Pelor upon it. Lord de Rolo opened it and ushered them into a small chapel.

Vex was not a particularly religious woman, but she had always appreciated the impeccable taste of the faithful. The small chapel of Pelor - its nave only housing four rows of pews, and its altar humble in size - was easily the most pleasant place in Whitestone. The very air was suffused with dusty warmth and peaceful quiet. Every possible measure had been taken to ensure the chapel of the Sun God would remain forever bright. Brass lamps swayed from thick chains strung through the ceiling; rows of candles stood vigil along the walls; skylights pierced the ceiling through. The furnishings were made of dark, rich wood, or gold - materials that had trapped the sun in their colours, tricking her into thinking they would be warm to the touch. But those were details, and Vex's eye was most drawn to the chapel centerpiece: a massive window of fine stained glass. It stood dozens of feet high, depicting a tree with yellow leaves, cradling the symbol of Pelor in its branches. The holy image, broad and bright, stole the voices of its viewers, and cast a pattern of dappled gold across the pews.

In the silence, Vex’s eyes fell on a slight stirring of motion in one of the distant corners of the chapel – and she recognized, of all things, the form of Keyleth. The young woman stood almost flush against the wall, facing the stained-glass tree, tracing strange flourishes in the air with her hands. Vex was surprised at herself for not noticing her earlier, especially as she had attracted the eye so readily last night. It may have been the fault of the setting, as Keyleth was certainly more in her element here than she had been in the glum salon. Her dress was the colour of dandelions, and the sun painted gold into her hair. She almost appeared to be part of the chapel, sharing as she did the palette of its decorations. Breaking the reverent silence of her company, Vex called out, “Keyleth?”

The young woman jumped, and whirled around. Stumbling on the hem of her dress, she tottered for balance and cried, “Oh! Yes, Lady Vex’ahlia! I didn’t hear you – are you – do you need something? I’m not doing anything important!”

At her shoulder, Vex sensed Lord de Rolo slowly bringing his hand to his forehead. Gilmore, Vax, and Ambassador Stormwind shared some poorly-masked chuckles. Ignoring them all, Vex called out, “would you like to join us on our walk, Keyleth?”

Light touched her yellow-green eyes, and Keyleth smiled a genuine smile. She nodded, and dashed happily down the aisle of the chapel, joining the group in the doorway.

Lord de Rolo then guided them back towards the central foyer, along a different hall. Built from the familiar pale stone, it was lined with a series of tall windows facing an internal courtyard. Through the glass, Vex caught a look at a massive tree, standing central and dominant in the yard. By its broad, golden leaves, it resembled the tree on the stained-glass window. The tree came into clearer view the further they walked, and Keyleth’s eyes found it, fixed on it, and did not move.  

Vex could no longer restrain her curiosity. She made her way up to Keyleth’s side, hunting for a topic to open conversation – and she noted a pleasant coincidence in their choice of dress. “Well, would you look at that,” she said, and at her voice, Keyleth finally tore her eyes from the tree. “Would you say we make a precious pair?”

It took a moment for Keyleth to understand. She glanced at Vex’s pearl-grey dress, then at her own pale yellow skirt, and gave a chirping laugh. “Oh, I see. Silver and gold.”

Skittish, but clever. Vex decided she liked Keyleth better every minute, and fell into step with her as they wandered the gallery. With a small rapport established, she ventured to say, “Keyleth, I never learned why you took up residence here at Whitestone.”

Keyleth bowed her head, as if trying to hide behind the coppery curtain of her hair. Her slender hands wove together behind her back. “Percival asked me to aid him with the garden.”

The answer was as unexpected as “Percival asked me to teach him to fly.” Everything from the informality of address to the request itself struck Vex as odd. She glanced ahead, to where “Percival” chatted with her brother and Ambassador Stormwind, the three of them gesturing to some heraldic shields adorning the stone hall. Gilmore walked between the two groups, seemingly deep in thought. “The garden?” Vex repeated.

“I beg your pardon,” Keyleth stammered. “I meant the Sun Tree – look there.”

Keyleth pointed towards the colossal shape in the courtyard. The trunk stood as thick around as several men, and its height was impossible to guess - yet Vex began to realize that, for all its majesty of size, the bark of the tree was pale, and the limbs were weak. Its broad, golden leaves drooped, their points all directed limply earthwards.

“It never looks that sad, generally,” Keyleth added. “It fell ill, and that’s why Percival asked me here. It is an important symbol for his family, and a very unique tree – you see, it shouldn’t even be growing here in the North-“

Over her stumbling chatter, Vex asked, “Are you a botanist, then, Keyleth?”

“Oh, not really,” she answered, fretting her hair back over one ear. As she spoke, Vex noticed Gilmore slowing his pace, perhaps trying to listen in. “I am Ashari, actually.”

Vex let out a short, excited exclamation. The title explained everything from Keyleth’s awkward manners to her interest in the tree. The Ashari, as Vex understood it, were among the few living peoples who could perform magic, using their deep connection to the natural world. They were not part of the peerage, but were held in high regard by society in general, especially by the scientists and historians who sought their expertise. Empires permitted the Ashari to wander through their lands freely, and they would do so, traveling in small groups or families, assisting those who requested their aid, but never resting in one place for long. Most assumed that the Ashari were all loosely related, though their history was foggy and largely undocumented. All of this meant that encounters with Ashari in any capacity were rare, temporary - and, to curious minds like Vex's, endlessly fascinating.

“Oh, marvelous,” Gilmore drawled, dropping any attempt to mask his eavesdropping. “I had my suspicions, but it is a pleasure to be correct.”

“Why thank you, Mr. Gilmore,” Keyleth said, taken aback.

“Not at all,” Gilmore blustered, sidling up to Keyleth. “I’ve done a little business with the Ashari, as it happens." He turned to Vex, and fell seamlessly into step with them. "They make absolutely exquisite salves, the Ashari – effective, all-natural, and they smell divine.

Vex rolled her eyes, with a fond smile on her face – she recognized a soft sell when she saw one. Gilmore was truly an unstoppable force of capitalism. Addressing Keyleth, she said, “So you heal people and plants in equal measure?”

Keyleth appeared pleased with the pithy summary. “I suppose we do. They are more alike than most people believe, after all.”

“Oh?” Gilmore asked, tugging curiously at his goatee. “How so?”

Thus encouraged, Keyleth put on a frown of deep, philosophical focus. “I’m not sure I can phrase it, but – everyone can benefit from strong roots and sunshine. Right?”

Vex and Gilmore both nodded sagely, although Vex was entirely lost and doubted Gilmore understood any better than she did. “Very wise, very wise,” he mused. “Percival is paying well for such expert consultations, I hope?”

“No,” Keyleth responded, and cast her eyes ahead to their host. “This is more important than gold.”

Chuckling, Gilmore leaned in towards them and said, “If it is so important, Keyleth, you could charge him anything.”

From there, the group returned to the foyer, traversed it, and passed into the larger Western Wing. The hall eventually turned sharply right and continued into the distance, but Lord de Rolo led them straight instead, through another set wooden doors. Before Vex entered the room, the suffocating lack-of-sound told her exactly what was on the other side. Only libraries and churches could sustain that kind of sacred silence, and Pelor’s temple was long behind them.

Inside, a hexagonal tower rose four floors up. Oaken staircases curled along the interior, connecting a series of balconies, and occasional alcoves hosted armchairs and windows - but otherwise, as Vex had predicted, bookshelves filled every open space on every wall.

A startled, joyful noise broke from the Draconian Ambassador, who immediately splintered away from the group to investigate a machine in the far corner. Approximately the size of a writing-desk, it stood under the shadow of a staircase. Vex could not discern its purpose from her distance – and Ambassador Stormwind was so eagerly bent over its surface that he obscured most of its mechanisms.

 “It’s a catalog of our volumes,” Lord de Rolo explained, as the group began to crowd around the machine. “I believe my great-grandfather invented it. Here, allow me-“

He demonstrated how to locate a particular book by rotating a series of dials, fielding the Ambassador’s many eager questions as he did. The Ambassador declared he would abandon their group at that juncture, so he could investigate the books in more depth. The remaining guests climbed the stairs, and the tour continued.

With her curiosity satisfied about Keyleth, Vex turned her attention back to her primary target – Lord de Rolo. His pace increased as he took them through the second floor, and his smile started to grow thin, suggesting the process of navigating his own house wearied him, or made him impatient. It was much darker and gloomier upstairs than on the brightly-lit first floor, as if they had entered the stage-hands’ crawlspace above the proscenium arch. The rooms they passed were all sitting-rooms or storage spaces, overstuffed with ancient paintings and old weaponry. Lord de Rolo reported on everything they passed with an academic distance, resembling a museum tour guide, rather than the owner of the house. In the first segment of the tour, Vex caught only a single glimpse of his personal attachments.

The moment in question happened not in a particular room, but on a staircase landing. Between the second and third floors, Vex noticed a magnificent grandfather clock in an alcove in the wall. Its brassy face and shimmering chimes briefly caught her fancy. Lord de Rolo witnessed her moment of pause, and joined her in her contemplation.

“It looks awkward, doesn’t it?” he said.

Vex stepped back, and considered. Though the clock itself was quite beautiful, the oddness of its position could not be denied. The alcove was broader and taller than the clock, as if it had been designed to house something else entirely. “It does,” she admitted. “Is there a passageway to the vault behind it, perhaps?”

“No,” Lord de Rolo replied. Startled by the bluntness of his answer, Vex shot him a glance. With a contemplative frown, he continued, “It is too young to keep such an old secret. My brother Julius built it.”

Vex nodded slowly. She knew how heavy the names of the departed felt on the tongue. She allowed the Lord a moment, if he needed one, and then said, “He was very talented.”

In truth, the clock bore marks of handmade inexperience: a slight lopsidedness to the paneling, an odd grating noise to the gears. Lord de Rolo raised a gloved hand, and ran two fingertips along one crooked edge.

“He could have been,” he said.

Keyleth, Vax and Gilmore had already ascended to the third floor. Vex felt as if she was intruding on something private – a moment that did not belong to her. She began to pursue the rest of the party, and kept her eyes fixed on the stairway until she heard Lord de Rolo following.

The third and fourth floors were much the same as the second, except that Lord de Rolo opened fewer and fewer doors. The majority of the rooms, he explained, were simple bedrooms, either for guests or for the de Rolo family themselves. Vex felt a tightening of tension in the group as they passed, without acknowledgement from their guide, rooms that might have been used by the youngest de Rolos – nurseries, studies with short chairs, bedrooms with smaller and smaller bed-frames. They reached the staircase at the end of the fourth-floor hall, which was almost narrow and steep enough to qualify as a ladder, in a grim and quiet mood.

“Did you catch the door we just skipped?”

Vex slammed her hand down on the banister as she nearly jumped out of her skin. Her brother could move with infuriating silence at times, and she had not noticed him creeping up behind her. Calming her panicked heartbeat, she replied, hushed, “I didn’t.”

She checked over her shoulder. Vax leaned against the rail, his dark eyes glittering with excitement. “Fancy lock on it,” he said.

It was time to set their plan into motion, then. Conscious of the group mounting the stairs, which was gaining distance on the twins rather quickly, Vex answered, “If they ask, you’ve forgotten your gloves.”

"See you at lunch,” he replied, and vanished soundlessly into a nearby doorway, disappearing from her sight.

Vex sucked a breath in, steadied her composure, and turned back up the stairs.

Lord de Rolo, Gilmore, and Keyleth had reconvened in the area above. Of all the rooms she had seen, it was the strangest by far. It was perfectly circular, and there were strange faces carved along the top border of the wall, featureless like masks. Far above them, a domed sheet of metal divided by rivets and spokes served as the roof. At the heart of the space sat another technological contraption, some combination of glass lenses and bronze struts, but Vex did not have time to look at it closely. Before she could even announce her presence, Lord de Rolo gave a curt nod to Keyleth and Gilmore, and abandoned them at the foot of the machine, exiting through a door to her right. A chilly burst of wind trailed him as he escaped, and Vex concluded that the door led outside.

She decided to leave Gilmore and Keyleth as they were. The pair seemed to have struck up a budding friendship, and their casual conversation kept them both occupied. Moving as silently as she could – mimicking her light-footed brother – Vex snuck to the door and followed Lord de Rolo.

The door opened out to the battlements of Whitestone. Behind her, a narrow catwalk wrapped around the outer curve of the circular room; ahead was a straight path of ancient stone, with only a low parapet protecting her from a five-story plunge into the courtyard below. From her position on the ramparts, the top of the Sun Tree was even with her feet. She fancied that, if its leaves were thicker, she could have walked upon it. The whole setting pleased her, and she set out in pursuit of her host with a smile on her face. From her position, there was only one obvious destination - a tower at the far end of the walkway. It was a plain-looking structure compared to the rest of Whitestone, rounded and stout, with a series of glassless openings circling just below the roof. Strangely, its stone flanks seemed an even brighter white than the castle around it, and she had to squint her eyes at one point for the sharpness of the reflected sun. It had only one visible entrance, being a short black door with a rounded top, directly opposite her. As she approached, she heard a muffled ruckus, which gradually clarified into the sound of cawing: it was a rookery.

The door opened onto a short, curving stair. Vex located Lord de Rolo at the top of it, quite fruitlessly trying to attract one of the ravens in the rafters. His come-hither gestures and short whistles barely carried over the sounds of wings and talons, and he threw up one hand with an aggravated sigh. The other hand trembled near his breast, where he clutched small paper scroll.

Vex found herself oddly relieved by what she witnessed. His frustration with the ravens had restored his humanity in an unexpected way. Gone was the composure of the tour guide – instead, in his discontent, his movements gained vivacity, and a fresher, bluer tint shone in his eyes. Grinning, she called out, “Trouble, my Lord?”

He recoiled, and stuffed the little scroll none-too-subtly in the pocket of his overcoat. Vex approached him, and offered, “Is there a particular bird you’re looking to snare?”

With a sigh, he ran a hand through his colourless hair, and shot another frustrated look upwards. Vex followed his gaze, and found herself pleasantly entranced by the swirling clouds of feathers. “Any would do, at this point,” he answered.

Wordlessly, Vex held out her hand, and caught the gaze of a sleek black bird as it settled onto a low perch. An impulse, a casual attempt – and yet it felt certain, and obvious. The raven opened its wings and coasted down to her in a tight arc, alighting with a flutter on her wrist. It latched its claws painlessly into the thick fabric of her dress, and fixed her with a curious gaze, its head tilting back and forth in short, jerky gestures. The creature was light for its size, and she hefted it higher in smug triumph at her success.

Lord de Rolo stared at her over the back of the raven, looking mystified. “Will she do?” Vex said, keeping her voice soothing – for the sake of every flighty creature in her presence.

He blinked, as if shaken awake, and said “oh, of course.” He withdrew the scroll from his pocket, and attached it to the raven’s leg. Vex bobbed her arm up and down twice, and with that short gesture of encouragement, the bird took wing, flapping off through one of the gaps in the rookery wall. Vex approached the gap, leaning against its edge to watch the bird's path. It flew high, coasting over the mountains, shrinking and shrinking, until it became an errant daub of black ink on an otherwise flawlessly blue-white landscape - and then vanished.

For a moment, Vex almost forgot she wasn’t alone. Then Lord de Rolo joined her, leaning on the opposite side of the space, and folding his arms over his chest. “Well, since you have so selflessly assisted me,” he began, “what can I do for you, Lady Vex’ahlia?”

She pulled back from the view, and inspected his expression, hoping that her success had somehow put him in a good mood. Indeed, a faint shadow of a smile touched his face. The scenario seemed ideal, with the two of them so isolated, and him in her debt, however shallow. A chill wind passed through the gap between them, swirling across the stones. Casually, Vex said, “Perhaps you’d be willing to answer a question of mine, my Lord?”

The smile finally manifested as a smirk, implying her request was not unexpected. “Ask away.”

Keeping her tone light, Vex said, “I found myself wondering why you invited us all to start searching for your vault now, after five years.”

“A good question,” he observed. “But not the question you truly want answered.”

Vex narrowed her eyes. She mimicked his posture, crossing her arms defiantly. He was proving to be a fascinating opponent – reading her intentions as if he saw them through glass, turning her questions into clues to her own character. “Would you have me shoot a little straighter, my Lord?” she said. “I didn’t want to offend you.”

He shrugged, his mood still cool and pleasant. “Offend away.”

Until that moment, she could not have pinned down exactly where her suspicions of Lord de Rolo lay. Being asked so directly, however, forced the pieces to snap into place. Stern and even, she said, “What is it in the vault that you want?”

From behind closed lips, he gave a slow, appreciative chuckle that made the hairs on her neck prick up. “Ah, clever girl,” he said.

She gripped her own arms tighter. Her nails nearly pierced through the fabric of her dress. Vex suddenly felt as if she were losing ground, despite the compliment. Struggling to regain her footing, she pressed on. “Either you have something to hide, or you need something that was locked inside it.”

“I do want something in the vault, yes – though I have only recently developed the desire to obtain it.”

“So you intend to be evasive about your quarry’s nature?”

“I would rather that my personal goals not come into play,” he corrected, and Vex frowned. At her look, he elaborated, “The object I am looking for has value to me and no one else. And the less you know of it, the safer you are.”

Vex glared at him. Lord de Rolo only managed to become more obtuse the more he explained. She remained silent for a second, calculating, and making no effort to hide her displeasure. He only seemed amused: “My lady, if looks could kill, the de Rolo line would end here and now.”

Frustrated, she took a challenging step forward. “You are making it very difficult to trust you, my Lord.”

“Good.”

“You say that as if you are earnestly pleased!” she exclaimed.

He held up his hand, a placating gesture. “Allow me to turn the question around. I am not trustworthy, and I recognize the frustrating nature of my answers. Yet you remain here at Whitestone, with no plans to depart. You are equally mysterious."

Again, he redirected the discussion to her – truly a master of avoiding scrutiny. Vex was not fooled. Coolly, she replied, “You cannot expect me to answer for my motivations when you refuse to reveal yours.”

He settled further into the stone wall with an easy shrug. “Very well. So long as you refuse to tell me why you accepted my invitation, I will not explain why I chose to begin this search.”

“A peaceful coexistence born of mutual distrust?” Vex spat, incredulous.

The young Lord remained unperturbed. “I prefer to think of it as blissful ignorance. Believe a man who has learned too many secrets – some things in this world are better left unknown.”

His sinister tone and his cryptic phrasing pushed her frustration to its limit. Her composure broke, and she fired back thoughtlessly, “You are not necessarily one of them, Lord de Rolo.”

He sensed the change in mood. His eyes widened, and caught the blue of the sky. “Beg your pardon?”

Impassioned, Vex said, “You, Lord de Rolo. I think you could be someone worth knowing.”

He stopped as if struck. Vex felt her cheeks grow hot at the presumptuousness of her answer, but found herself unable to excuse it, or even to speak at all. As with her initial question, it had been a truth she had not recognized until she spoke it aloud.

Lord de Rolo looked at her as he had yesterday, like a mathematical variable, and yet he seemed more puzzled than before – perhaps the equations had not come together so neatly. “Very well, Lady Vex’ahlia,” he said.

He approached her, and the ravens clattered on their perches, raising their wings and heckling in their ragged voices. Their exchange suddenly carried the tone of an intimate confession. In a gentler voice, he admitted, “I can offer you some other answers, perhaps. Did you wonder why, of all the people I could have picked, I decided to invite you?”

It was a tentative move towards reconciliation, and Vex did not want to sustain any animosity between them. She strove to be understanding. If Lord de Rolo was honestly uncomfortable sharing his secrets, she would not benefit from pushing him too hard. And, if nothing else, he was still offering to satiate her curiosity as best he could. “I did wonder,” she admitted.

He answered, “I invited you because I once saw you stare down a bear in naught but a dress and dance slippers.”

She gave an angry huff, felt an immediate stab of regret, and bowed her head. Of course he'd bring that up again. He continued, amusement woven into his voice, “My investment in this venture is deeply personal, which may lead me to do something foolish. As such, I can only benefit from the presence of a person who scares me more than I scare myself. Are you content with that for now?”

Vex looked up, surprised. Lord de Rolo, afraid of her? Interesting. She replied, “As a matter of fact, I am.”

“Very well,” he conceded. After a long, tense pause, he added, “And if you are so keen on -" he stumbled in his speech, for the first time since she'd met him "-knowing me better, don’t bother with my title. I have trouble enough considering myself "Lord" of anything.”

Granting her such a privilege was an even more heartfelt gesture of apology, and Vex's heart grew warm. “Percival?” she said, somewhat awkwardly, but his smile remained. Thin, hesitant, a small pleasure in the midst of the cold. Her host looked much less haunted when he smiled, and she discovered that made her happy in turn. In an effort to entertain his good mood further, she leaned in, quirking one eyebrow, and added “or Percy?”

He shuddered, taken aback, and then clapped a gloved hand over his mouth to cover a brief snicker. From under his fingers, he said, “No one has taken that liberty before.”

“I believe you called me ‘intrepid’ once,” Vex pointed out. "And you could call me Vex, as my brother does."

She knew she was pushing their familiarity, perhaps too far, but his hushed laughter was worth the risk – and eventually, he conceded, “If you insist, Lady Vex.”

Laughing, Vex gave him a short bow. She hadn't intended for him to preserve her title, but it was somehow charming, and unique. Lady Vex.“I shall save your name for special occasions," she teased. "You should not have the monopoly on surprises.”

“Believe me,” Percival answered, his quiet voice audible even over the beating of the ravens’ wings, “I don’t.”

Chapter Text

Vax knelt before the door and took a slow breath. In, hold, out. To the ignorant observer, his rituals may have seemed excessive. Few people understood the finesse of this art, the precision in its execution - and even its practitioners rarely had the fortune to encounter such fine locks. Most amateur ‘locksmiths’ were hoodlums or petty thieves, content to break the clumsy tumblers on cellar doors or family armoires. Might as well just use a sledgehammer, for all the skill those required.

In, hold, out. The lock was gilded, and its aperture was slender. By the strangeness of the de Rolo's possessions, he expected its mechanisms to be unique. He felt like a collector of flowers, or insects, in front of a rare specimen, thrilled by the promise of manipulating something so impossibly small and fine. Best to start with a simple tool – In, hold, out – and learn its inner workings.

The hall was silent. Even stirring the air with his shallow breaths became a disruptive act. Vax traced the handle, and to his surprise, his fingertips came back smudged with fine grey dust. He frowned. So nobody had touched this door’s beautiful clasp in months? Such a shame.

In, hold. Vax withdrew two slender metal instruments from his pocket, and positioned them before the keyhole. Out. Somewhere deep in the castle's catacombs, a strange, mechanical hiss began to vibrate, like steam rolling over metal. Vax felt his shoulders stiffen, and forced them to relax. These were no different from the sounds that had kept him awake all night, seeping up through the floors from somewhere deep under Whitestone.

In, hold. He slipped the instruments inside the lock, and tested the contours of its mechanism, running a pick along the lock-pins. Out. A slight disappointment: the pins would certainly not yield to simpler techniques, but they were not particularly special. In, hold, out, and just a slight turn to the lock to set his-

A BANG from the basement, a sound loud enough to thrum up through his shins, and Vax jolted the pick so sharply he nearly shattered it on the aperture. His breath shuddered, caught in his throat, and his focus was whisked away into the cold air. Vax mouthed a scathing curse, shaking out his hands. He glanced left and right down the hall – long, dark, and abandoned. The only motion came from the slight drifting of cobwebs in the drafty old castle.

He paused. In…hold…out. He replaced his instruments. The noises signified nothing; he smudged them out with the intensity of his focus. He persuaded each pin – in, hold, click, out. In, hold, click, out-

Vax gave the lock a gentle push, and it stuck angrily. He snarled, and muttered, “sneaky bastard.” In all likelihood, the lock used modified driver pins, carved into shapes that would trick him into thinking the lock was free when it wasn’t. Despite his curses, a defiant smile had crept onto his face. The challenge had become as pleasant as predicted. Vax breathed in, and out, and started again.

Yet as he worked, he began to feel his focus drift. The voices of the machines pushed back into his soundscape, grating and grinding.  He knew the principles of this process – speed, subtlety, secrecy. His exposed position in the hall did not give him any advantages. And where were the others? Keyleth or Gilmore could interrupt him – In, out, shakily – and who knew where the Ambassador was, or Mr. Shorthalt-

He shot a jerky look to the left, and another to the right. Black halls, long and empty, with fluttering cobwebs in their doorways – it must have been those odd, airy shapes that caught his attention, drifting into the corners of his perception and making him think-

Vax pushed the thought down, and swallowed. The drafts in the passage began to speak, whispering against the old wood. His hands grew slippery on the lockpick, chill with a cool sweat, and his motions became clumsy, trembling – he knew there were eyes on him – he knew – but from whence, in such an empty-

                Click.

He sighed, shaking, freeing a breath that had been unconsciously caged. Vax slid the picks to the left, and heard the perfect snap of a defeated lock. He drew his instruments out with all the finesse of a surgeon closing stitches, and stood, pressing his palm into the dust on the doorframe. Then he turned the golden handle, and felt the bolt slip from the door until it was loose on its hinges.

And then a shriek, an unearthly, horrid shriek, burst into being around him. He staggered back from the door, and a powerful gust of frozen wind slammed into it. The door swung wide, missing him by inches and smacking into the wood-paneled wall. Without a glance into the room, Vax bolted, leaving the door clattering in his wake. He sprinted blindly for the nearest staircase, rounded to the first landing, skipping every other stair, breathless and shaking, and at the next corner he slammed into something solid and warm – something that reached out, and held him still.

Panting, he looked down at his hands. They were braced against a fine velvet jacket, the rich purple-red of blackberry wine. A different kind of fear swept the first away – a hotter, heart-pounding fear that crawled as a blush into his cheeks, and, like a man unable to tear his eyes from a fire, he looked up. Gilmore gazed down at him, startled and concerned.

“Vax’ildan,” he said, his deep, rich voice taut with surprise. “Are you alright? You’re pale as a ghost-”

Everything he feared had intersected at once. Vax was plagued by a swarm of chilling, impossible fears, of dead de Rolos and spirits in the attic, and, at the same time, by a singular moment he’d tried so hard to forget: a darker, thicker mess of molasses-heavy memory. Stunned, and stumbling, and entirely without thought, he pulled his hands from Gilmore’s jacket and answered, “Just looking for my gloves.”

Gilmore stared at him. The only emotion in his face was concern, warm in his eyes – such intense, dark eyes, under such dark lashes. Words started to slip from Vax's grasp, as they always did in Gilmore’s presence. He watched the changes in his ever-animate face – watched his concern give way to determination, watched his broad chest lift with a short breath and a decision, watched him closing in across the ever-shrinking space of the stairway. “By any chance, would you-“

“I’m sure I left them in the library,” Vax cut in, and slipped past him.

“Vax, would you just – slow down!”

The weight of the hand on Vax’s shoulder startled him, and he threw Gilmore’s touch off, stumbling three more stairs downwards. He regained his balance and rounded on his pursuer, bracing himself against the wooden rail on the landing. Again, the black-eyed gaze struck him, locked him to the rail, and Vax could only stare, helpless.

Terrible silence hung between them. At last, Gilmore cobbled together something resembling an earnest smile. He began, “You can’t expect my poor heart to remain untroubled, after such a scene-“

“I don’t expect anything from you,” Vax interrupted, without thought.

Gilmore’s smile – flawed from the outset of its construction – crumbled. His expression grew desolate, heartbroken, and then calm. It was like watching a flower wilt. “Very well,” he said.

He looked up the stairs, and Vax caught a glimpse of his profile, of all its soft contours. Perhaps it was the strangeness of the angle, or the odd shaft of light striking through from the hall above, but the moment froze in his head like a painting. A perfect coincidence of light and frame and colour, one that highlighted its subject’s handsomeness and misery in equal measure. Gilmore seemed in the process of a decision, whether to leave or stay upon the landing, and at the first stirring of motion in his heels, Vax called out “Wait!” – Again before the thought to do so could fully form in his head.

And Gilmore obeyed, pausing with one hand hovering above the rail. Vax’s address burdened him, by the drooping of his shoulders, and the slight, angry shake of his shadowy curls.

“Something’s off about this castle,” Vax said. “Be cautious where you step.”

Gilmore interrupted, nearly pleading, “Must you keep -“

Vax shook his head, and said “Please, not now.” They both knew what they were avoiding, and they hid it so poorly – talentless actors whispering stage directions to each other, not yet, not now.

“But soon,” Gilmore said, a hard edge in his warm voice. “We will find occasion to talk, you and I.”

His heart climbing into his throat once more, Vax nodded. The answer seemed to displease Gilmore, and he huffed a short sigh through his nose before turning back to the stairs. “Find somewhere to relax,” he advised. “Panic does not become you.”

Vax clenched his hand on the rail. Gilmore had never insulted him openly before – teased him, yes, but never targeted him.

Yet as he descended the stairs, and as that singular memory started to slip back into his mind, Vax knew he deserved it.

--

Lord de Rolo – or Percival, now – escorted Vex back inside the castle, cheerfully avoiding another barrage of her curious questions. Above the battlements, the ice-blue afternoon sky began to blend into a yellow evening, the tour having taken them the better part of the day. The whole process had given Percival's challenge a clearer shape, and yet Vex found herself somehow more stymied than before - not for a lack of ideas, but an excess. Every room in Whitestone contained some quirk of construction, some bizarre gadget or object that could be transformed into a clue by a puzzle-hungry mind such as hers. She made a number of suggestions to her host as they retraced their path, and he denied each one with apologetic shakes of his head. She named, almost exclusively, places he had already noticed, already checked, and already found benign. Vex's frustrations grew, and yet Percival's good mood lingered. He coaxed her away from the topic, leading her down the narrow stairways on a leash of easy, pleasant questions about her plans for the remainder of the night. Their search was on the verge of being supplanted by a quest for dinner -  and then, halfway down the fourth-floor hall, Percival stopped short. Vex saw his eyes narrow, and then followed his gaze: ahead of them, swinging loose on its hinges, was an open door with a gilded lock.

At first, a surge of anger overtook her. Vex knew, immediately, that the door was Vax's handiwork, and yet she was startled by his clumsiness. An isolated castle with only a handful of culprits, and he had failed to cover even the most obvious tracks!

(Vex clung to her anger, because it was easier than fear. Yes, Vax was reckless, but he was not so clumsy as to leave a locked door swinging wide in his wake. The possibility that some entity had stolen him away before he could finish his work lingered under her thoughts, and she tried, furiously, to drown it.)

Percival was baffled. “Why on earth-" he muttered, but could not finish. Before Vex could stammer some excuse, he proceeded down the hall, and Vex gave chase. They passed through the doorway almost simultaneously, and what she saw stole any words from her throat.

At one time, the room beyond the gilded door had been a gentleman's private study. A large cylinder-desk, left open, stood flush to the wall, accompanied by a stately wooden chair. A single window, curtained and shut, framed the Sun Tree. Under its sill sat what appeared to be a hand-made chess set.

In sum, those were the only objects that were intact. Everything else in the room had been destroyed.

The floor was a mess of strewn paper and shattered glass on a rich red-and-gold carpet. A series of gutted display cases lined one wall, buttressed by piles of ruined books. One corner of the desk had been drenched and blackened by the contents of an upended inkwell, and a series of broken candles lay flat across its surface. The largest casualty was a tapestry, which lay over an upended armchair like a shroud upon a corpse. The vandal had torn it from the south wall, leaving a horrific, jagged crack in the plaster.

Vex stared wordlessly at the carnage, tucking ever so slightly closer to Percival's shoulder. Vax couldn’t have done this, she thought. But if not Vax, then whom? Worry clawed at her heart at the sight of such catastrophe, and at Vax's absence. Her voice quaking, she glanced up, and asked, “What happened here?”

Percival's expression had gone hauntingly still, his eyes fixed forward with an unblinking glare. He was quietly intense, harboring a cold fury that chilled Vex's heart - and yet somehow, he did not appear surprised. Without responding, he knelt, and fished one of the scraps of paper out from the crushed glass.

“I'm not sure,” he said. He paused, and then traded the paper from his right hand to his left, displaying his emptied palm for her inspection. Vex spied a pale smudge of dust on each gloved finger. He said, “I don’t have the key for this room. It was my father’s study, and it hasn’t been opened since-“

He stood again, and his voice faltered. “In five years,” Vex supplied.

With a grateful look, Percival confirmed, “Yes.”

Vex glanced down at the paper he held. Contrary to her expectations, it was no written letter or ledger, but rather a drawing. The image reminded her of the stained-glassed window in the chapel of Pelor: it, too, depicted the stylized branches of the Sun Tree, wrapped around the symbol of the sun god. Curiously, the design was superimposed upon a circle, resembling a clock’s face: two hands peeked out from between the yellow branches, and a small numeral twelve marked the circle's peak.

Percival seemed to sense her question before she asked it, and explained, “It's Julius’s seal. Each Lord of Whitestone commissions a unique one.”

Vex nodded, and asked, “Do you have a seal?”

“As I said – I have trouble seeing myself as a Lord.”

She winced. Now that she knew the office had been destroyed half a decade past, looking at it was not so much frightening as horribly sad. The tragedy formed an irresistible undercurrent; it was difficult to find an optimistic topic. "Shall we salvage what we can?" Vex offered, trying to catch his gaze. "Clean it up, perhaps?"

"Yes, I would like that very much," he replied. His voice disturbed her: it was that poor-actor monotone again, piteously unbelievable and flat. Percival seemed to be looking at something that wasn't even there, at a pointless mote of dust in the midst of the melee.

"I'm so sorry you had to see this," she added.

He looked as if he had not heard. Wordlessly, he passed her the drawing, and picked his way over to the fallen armchair. She felt her heart plunge in sympathy, but could think of nothing else to say.

Instead, she turned to the task at hand. Avoiding the glass, Vex tiptoed towards the desk, and placed the drawing in an unblemished corner. From there, she caught a better look at the chess set. Strange that the pieces had not been scattered, as with the books and papers. She leaned closer. Standing in for kings, knights and pawns were small birds: crows and ravens for the black pieces, and snowy owls for the white. Vex was on the point of deciding whether or not to touch them, when Percival called, “My Lady, could you assist me?”

She turned, and drew back from the desk. He was struggling with an armful of tangled tapestry, and she rushed over to help fold it. Beyond that, there was little they could do with only their hands - re-shelving the fallen books, collecting the papers and candles. Vex worked mechanically, her mind in a sick whirl. Knowing the study had been destroyed five years ago, she eventually recalled Percival’s comment that the deaths of his family had been abrupt, and unexpected. In the setting of the ruined room, abrupt seemed like a very convenient euphemism for violent. The timing was too perfect, and the act too despicable, not to ignite her suspicion. Worst of all, as her mind worked wildly, concocting a thousand scandalous theories, Percival remained silent and illegible.

Eventually, she discovered pieces of parchment that had been torn by hand.  Vex brought the fragments to the desk to assemble them, but even reconstituted, they proved to be only a portion of a larger note:

                -sk M. Strongjaw to reinforce the tunnel ceiling & request treatments for water damage (reroute top vents?)

                Remove the hold on Julius’s supplies

                Lock down the vault BEFORE the E-

Vex squinted at the last letter, which had been bisected by the shredded paper. Before the what? The mention of the vault had stirred her excitement, but the rest of the words meant nothing to her. She called Percival over, and showed him the papers. “Do you know what tunnel this is speaking of, Percival?”

With an adjustment of his glasses, he quickly scanned the page, and then responded "No." Yet the word trailed off, linking into some silent thought. She observed him, and watched his gaze go from absent to calculating. His eyes flickered with the electric speed of his deductions. He pressed one finger to his lips, and then an idea sparked a smile on his face. “Although,” he said. “I know how we can find out. Would you accompany me downstairs, Lady Vex? I can explain on the way.”

He moved to the door, as if he assumed she would follow. Thrown by the sudden haste of his departure, she called, “Can we really just leave your father’s office like this?”

Percival stalled and turned, looking embarrassed that the thought had not occurred to him. The glass crunched under a hesitant shift of his weight. “I suppose I should arrange to have it properly cleaned.”

She knew that it was hard to predict the behaviour of the grief-stricken, but Percival was being particularly bizarre. The mystery of the room’s destruction did not seem to hold his interest. "Percy," she asked, her voice gentle, “have you no idea why your father would have done this?”

He looked away. “No.”

Vex paused. She was certain, abruptly certain, that he was lying. Perhaps it was the way he avoided her eyes, or the casual sniff trailing his response. As if threatened by her silence, Percival continued, “and there's no way to know that now. But it's all past - it no longer matters, and I’ve an idea of what to do next.”

She sighed. He was being evasive yet again, and yet she found herself unable to devise a clever way to press him on his motivation. Besides, if the vault was her goal, she needed to stay focused. “Alright,” she said. “What’s this idea?”

He brightened, his eyes becoming owlishly wide behind his spectacles. “Well," he announced, "we have yet to reach the best part of the tour.”

--

For several minutes following his unfortunate encounters, Vax wandered the halls and utterly failed to improve his mood. He was jumpy, irritated, impatient and frustrated, and he was truly beginning to despise Whitestone. The sense that something unearthly surveilled him had not dissipated, and yet he was glad he was otherwise alone, as his tumult of emotion also carried a shade of embarrassment. Vax was not a man easily given to overreaction, and prided himself on maintaining a cool deportment.

Nor did he wish to ponder the nature of what he had witnessed. He was certain some rational explanation existed – something about the dynamic of air in the drafty castle – but his mind was quaking too violently to formulate any believable argument. All he could see was the obituary in the papers in Emon: INEXPLICABLE TRAGEDY STRIKES WHITESTONE:  Noble de Rolos Succumb to an Unknown Disease. It was not difficult to imagine those eight souls, untimely ripped from their bodies, clinging to the castle that had claimed them. 

And then, at certain points, his thoughts would wander too far – and his mind would veer straight into Gilmore, a mental relapse of their physical collision. That was even worse, both in terms of embarrassment and fear. His hands felt as if they had been sanded to smoothness by those velvet lapels. He would touch his thumbs to each finger as he walked, tracing a slow circle on each, pretending he could still feel the luxurious fabric between them. And then he would grow infuriated at his own sentimentality and, as a form of punishment and avoidance, force himself to start thinking about ghosts all over again.

As he wandered the pale halls on the first floor, caught in a seemingly perpetual whorl of frustration, he found himself searching for some kind of company. A cool, easy companionship, of course - one that did not carry all the guilty warmth of Gilmore’s presence. And while he looked, he found ever more proof that Whitestone was not a home for the living. It was empty and impersonal, and in nearly a full day, he had not seen a single living servant. The halls were drafty, and so many objects – doorframes, handrails, pillows, books, lamps and candelabras – looked as if they had not been touched in years. Every room felt as stale and sterile as a museum display.

Eventually, near the peak of his discontent, he passed before the door of the library. He recalled that Ambassador Stormwind had remained there, and indeed, the sound of hushed conversation carried through the wood. Vax shoved the door open without a second thought. The abrupt noise surprised both of the room’s occupants, who jumped in tandem. It was indeed Ambassador Stormwind and, sprawled in an armchair in an alcove, Mr. Shorthalt. They appeared to have been in deep conversation, but the moment Vax interrupted them, the prone Mr. Shorthalt sprang to his little feet and called, “Ah, I was wondering when you’d come looking for me!”

Vax said “Sorry?” at the exact moment the Ambassador said “Pardon?”

Mr. Shorthalt shuffled speedily over to Vax, and hooked their arms together, tilting Vax dramatically over by virtue of their height difference. “Don’t be coy now, Vax’ildan,” he said. “I’m sorry for keeping you waiting, but Ambassador Stormwind’s tales were just so riveting.

“Oh, well,” the Ambassador preened. He held a book open in one of his clawed hands, and waved them away with the other. “I understand. Business to attend to and all that. I’ve yet to get through the travel journals of Frederick the First, myself, and-“

“Sounds fascinating!” Mr. Shorthalt crowed, and swung Vax around towards the open door, as if they were partners in the world’s most awkward dance. “You’ll have to tell me all about it over dinner tonight!”

With that, he dragged a speechless Vax from the room, flicking the door shut with his heel as they passed. Once they had put an adequate amount of distance between them and the library, Vax was released, and Mr. Shorthalt brushed his hands over his plum tailcoat. “Thank you for picking up on the charade,” he gushed, starting them on a brisk walk towards the foyer. “I was half ready to die of boredom. I nearly did. I swear my life flashed before my eyes.”

Still confounded, Vax fell into step with him and asked, “What? Why?”

Mr. Shorthalt seemed all too ready for the question, as if he had set it up. He talked with a wry smile on his mouth, and his words came easily and fluidly, his gestures spiraling upwards with exaggerated flair. “Oh, Scaly back there fancies himself some kind of expert on the de Rolos. You know the academic type: they think everything they have to say is interesting to everybody.”

Vax nearly sighed in relief. Mr. Shorthalt might have been the exact distraction he was looking for. All he would have to do was feed him enough questions to keep him chattering in perpetuity. “I don’t suppose the de Rolos are terribly interesting, then?”

“Oh they’re plenty interesting, but not for three gods-blasted hours, begging your pardon.” Mr. Shorthalt put on a blustery voice, a fair imitation of the Draconian Ambassador. “Julius Frederickstein von Middlename de Rolo the First married such-and-such on a lovely sunny day, had three beautiful children, and named them all after himself, even the girls. Really, if you’re curious, go ask Ambassador Stormwind. Psh. More like Ambassador Long-wind!” He performed a mock yawn and an extravagant stretch. “I would prefer to talk about literally anything else. Who were you running from, might I ask?”

Could have been Julius the First, Vax thought, although he did not want to erase what little progress he had made towards regaining his composure. Instead, he parroted, “I’d prefer to talk about literally anything else."

Mr. Shorthalt seemed amused. “I'll tell you what, my friend – I won’t ask, seeing as you rescued me. Let us find more pleasant quarters and topics, shall we?”

“Very well,” Vax conceded, with a growing grin. They picked a path at random, wandering towards the lobby, and ascending the stairs to the second floor. Despite his grousing, Mr. Shorthalt was cheery enough to whistle as they walked. Vax immediately liked him, but found it difficult to discern the fiber of his character: every statement he made seemed in opposition to his emotion, and every confession carried with it an ironic wink. His curiosity piqued, Vax asked as they walked, “So, what business do you have here?”

“Hah,” Mr. Shorthalt spat. Vax found himself gaining too much distance on the stairs, and slowed his pace so his companion could keep up. “An odd one out, am I? That is, you must know I’m not nobility like the rest of you.”

“Gilmore isn’t titled either,” Vax replied, trying not to trip over the name too obviously. “You’re not entirely alone.”

Mr. Shorthalt shrugged, unperturbed. “Ah, I never would have guessed. All that purple just screams lofty decadence, you know.”

“You’re wearing purple,” Vax pointed out, smirking.

“Ah, so I am. Well, I also like to scream decadence,” he countered, with a wink. “What was the question – what am I doing here?”

He thought for a moment, although Vax could not tell how staged his pondering was. All of Mr. Shorthalt’s actions seemed more dramatic than they needed to be. “I suppose Lord de Rolo had reasons to invite each of us, and if I’m here it’s because he’s keen on involving the town. I’m an artist, you see – writer, musician, composer, poet – a jack of all trades, if you will. I’ve been situated in Whitestone since before the de Rolos’ passing, and if anything happens in town I’m the first to hear about it. Everybody wants their little stories written down,” he chuckled.

“You’re not from Whitestone?”

“I lived elsewhere, yes, but I had to leave.”

This time, Vax didn’t even have to ask. Mr. Shorthalt saw his questioning look, and heaved a stagey sigh. “There was a thing with a girl. And another thing with impersonation charges, giant lizards and arson. Nobody ever believes me when I tell the whole story, so I prefer to leave it at that.”

Vax arched an eyebrow. He’d struck absolute gold in terms of entertaining distraction. “Perhaps I shall believe more of it after a drink.”

“A fair idea,” Mr. Shorthalt agreed. “Although I haven’t seen a soul to request one from. Does Lord de Rolo really have no servants whatsoever?”

“Someone must have cooked the meal we had last night.”

“A natural investigator, Vax’ildan! Let us go in search of our phantom chef, then.”

“Yes,” Vax sighed. At this point, if a poltergeist had prepared their evening pudding, he would not have been entirely shocked. “Let’s.”

--

“- so if they did re-route something in the steam tunnels, I’m not surprised the whole monster backfired on me yesterday,” Percival said, over his shoulder. Vex nodded, trying to match his eager speed as he led her down the basement staircase (the same one she had so “intrepidly” investigated upon her first arrival). By his explanation, there were a number of engines running in Whitestone’s converted dungeons, forming a whole circulatory system of air, water and smoke that kept the rooms hot and ran innumerable other gadgets of various convenience. Vex was still reeling from it all, fighting both to follow his explanations and understand how his mood could have shifted so quickly.

After a corkscrew of considerable depth, the staircase met a bolted iron door. Percival unlatched it, and unleashed upon them both a wave of volcanic heat. Vex followed him through, marveling at the shift in temperature. Directly across from the entry were two furnaces, with hefty grates shut across their circular faces. A tangle of airways emerged from them, in the form of brassy pipes, canisters, valves, taps and braces, each wound through with slender ladders, gauges, and even narrow tunnels plunging into the stone, all for purpose of their maintenance. The whole massive design pierced through the walls and ceiling in a pattern that ascended for nearly three stories. She did not remember delving so far into the earth, but she doubted even the highest-set pipes were above ground.

The machine intrigued her. Its form was almost insectoid, with all its hard-shelled brassy limbs and strangely stiff angles. It was its voice, however, that truly captured her attention: this was the source of the sounds she’d been hearing all through the night. Steam hissed through the pipes, like a thousand exhaled breaths in chorus. The noises of shifting metal cut in, clanging, grating and screeching, hitting notes that marked every pitch between high screams and low groans.The furnaces exuded a cloud of heat so powerful it was nearly visible, rippling in the air, and that heat made the sounds heavy. 

Percival had taken a sharp turn away from the machine, into the corner. Glancing after him, she noticed an alcove, set slightly out of the path of the scalding heat. Inside it sat a solid wooden workbench, which had been colonized by an alchemist or tinkerer or some kind. Unfamiliar tools and half-constructed metallic gadgets lay strewn across the surface. The shelves overhead were cluttered with glass tubes, vials, pipettes and bulbs, some of them empty, others filled with liquids and powders of various colours. The birdlike mask hung from the head of the workbench chair. Percival scooped the mask up, and spun the chair on one of its legs so it faced the machine. He touched each of the objects almost tenderly, with a great amount of affection. Without having to be told, Vex realized the workshop was his.

He gestured to the chair with the pointed beak of the mask. "You may take a seat, if you like," he said. "This could occupy me for a while."

She felt as if she were being ushered into a theatre. His gestures were showy, like a magician's. Amused, Vex took the seat as offered, and rested her folded hands on her skirts. "Very well. I'll wait."

"And - begging your pardon - but please don't touch anything," he said, tilting his head towards the chemicals on the shelves. She nodded, making herself the picture of good behaviour. With that, he placed the mask over his head, and left her.

She watched him scale the ladders, checking various links and dials, opening valves, listening to the pitch of the steam hiss and change. The project took him several minutes, and yet Percival seemed to gain boundless energy purely from being in contact with the machine. He moved from dial to dial with the kind of confidence that only intense familiarity could provide. To his credit, he attempted to involve her, as well. Occasionally, he would lift the mask, squint at a glassy-eyed meter, and ask her to remember a handful of numbers. Vex had a fine head for figures, and was only too keen to help. She wished only to know what the numbers meant – especially once he asked her to reiterate a particular handful of them, and the numbers she recited caused him to release a triumphant “Hah!” from halfway up the wall.

“I know exactly what we’re looking for!” he called. 

Vex stood up from her chair. “What? How?”

He removed the mask, shaking loose his short, pale hair. A thin sheen of sweat shone on his forehead. “We’re looking for a tunnel damaged by the steam pipes,” he reminded her, and rapped on one of the glass dials with his knuckles. “We’ve got a very slight pressure leak, which means steam is escaping somewhere along the system. And that means I know what’s been damaged, which means-”

“You know where the tunnel is,” she finished, with a widening grin.

“I know where the tunnel is,” he repeated. He hopped down a few more rungs, and then jumped to the floor of the engine room, dusting off his gloves. “Though,” he continued, “it could be nothing at all, of course. We're not even certain the vault is in it.”

“Still – progress!” Vex protested, propping her hands on her hips. "And a little progress is worth celebrating, true?"

"Perhaps it is," he conceded, with a slight grin.

Vex smiled back at him. He replaced the mask, and turned to the engine. He scaled the ladders once more, spinning dials and switching valves, presumably returning them to their default state.

As he worked, she thought of the dusty glass on the floor of the vandalized study, of the shredded message that had become their only clue. It was difficult to deny that the search for the vault had taken on a different tone. Percival had already admitted to a personal motivation, and Vex believed she had caught a glimpse of it - although she was not yet sure what she had seen. It was a blurry image, a fragment. She would find out, but she would have to tread carefully.

And - and she would not ask yet. For now, Percival was smiling again.

--

Chapter Text

Percival led Vex from the basement with childish, eager haste, striding at a near-run across the entry hall. Vex stopped in a quick moment of passing shock, noting how much time had passed since their descent. The evening had aged from its yellow youth into a scarlet maturity; the clouds, beyond the windows, were fire-bright. Vex threw her head back to catch brief, flashing glimpses of them, blurred like angry strokes of paint across the glass, as she rushed in pursuit of Percival down the corridor opposite. His eyes, unlike hers, were downcast, and his pace unflagging. As they progressed, Vex realized that he tracked a slender brass pipe along the baseboards, one that masqueraded as decorative molding – a single vein diverging from that massive metal organ beating beneath Whitestone.

Percival came to a halt, and she stopped a spare few inches from colliding with him. They stood before the door of the chapel of Pelor once more, their tour thus completing a flawless circuit. At that exact intersection, the pipe pierced through the stone, and presumably continued into the holy sanctum beyond. Vex propped her hands on her knees, tilting forward to inspect it, and wondering if such a mechanism was somehow sacrilegious. Percival mimicked her posture, and explained, “You see, that one travels up through the ceiling. Then, we vent the steam to warm the glass of the skylights."

"And thereby melt the snowfall?" Vex guessed, and Percival nodded, eagerly.

"Here shineth down Pelor's eternal visage, and all.” He half-sang the words - the opening of a familiar hymn - in a delightfully blasphemous manner, and Vex gave a short chuckle. Percival stood, and propped the door of the chapel open for her.

Before either of them moved any further, Vex felt a wave of calming warmth spill from the opening, a gentle pulse that stilled her frantic energy. The soft, tinted light and heady smoke of the intimate room bled into the corridor, and she felt transformed as they met her senses. Remembering, somewhat abashedly, that Pelor's chapel was not a place for frenetic behaviour, she lightened her steps and kept her hands respectfully folded upon her entry. Inside, the candles and braziers had been lit, and the chapel had grown considerably hotter than the halls; nearly hot enough to compare with the engine room, still seething, she imagined, in its clouds of steam. Across the pleasant, peaceful space, the image of the sacred tree no longer shone, its colours cooling as the sun continued to sink behind the walls, but it still captured her gaze: she admired it wordlessly until Percival joined her. 

He stood at her side, and scanned the room, eyes flickering to the columns, the braces, the buttresses. She wondered, with some fascination, if he saw the room at all as she did, or if he saw instead a series of angles and forces, holding the room together in mathematical balance. Vex hoped, in a moment of odd dizziness, that he found an equally comforting harmony in such calculations. At the very least, he practiced a similar reverence, and spoke in a properly hushed tone: “It’s possible the pipes travel up through the one of the pillars." He raised one hand, and started marking out an unknown measurement with his fingertips.

His gestures made a far less interesting spectacle than his acrobatics in the engine room, and so Vex wandered further into the chapel. The window was quite an undeniable attraction. Stained glass was not uncommon in religious halls, but rarely so emphasized. The altar, upon its simple stone dais, supported no artifact or icon, nothing to draw the eye, and as such, the room seemed designed to capture all who entered, exactly as she had been captured, in contemplation of Pelor's tree.

She rounded the altar, and noticed a part of the image that had been blocked by it before: a banner, upon which was marked a long phrase of unfamiliar symbols. By the curved, swirling lettering, however, it was likely Celestial. The language was long dead, and those who did know it treated it as more an academic curiosity than a means of communication. A shame, really - the script was very elegant.

“Percival,” she called, “what’s this say?”

She turned in place, and for a moment, thought he had abandoned her, as the chapel appeared empty. Then his head emerged from behind the pews, not unlike a rodent rising from a burrow. Searching for the route of the pipes, she guessed with a smirk, on his hands and knees. Percival dusted off his gloves, and rested his arms crosswise on the nearest pew. He quoted the light, liquid words in Celestial first – his manicured tenor brought quite a pleasant shape to the syllables – and then translated them for her. “The fool sees not the tree the wise man sees," he said. "The family motto, as it stands on all the stationery.”

He descended behind the bench again, leaving Vex to contemplate. As she did, a curious thought occurred: would the de Rolos of old not have foreseen a situation similar to Percival’s? If their vault was important enough to be so closely guarded, certainly they would take precautions against losing it forever? In the note she’d found, Percival’s father had been quite adamant about preserving the tunnel, and locking down the vault before – before whatever “E” was. The de Rolos had treasured their secrets so dearly, and therefore they must have left clues to ensure they could not be lost. If this was indeed the room where the vault was hidden, perhaps something else indicated its location?

And perhaps that was the reason the window behind her was so extravagant? Vex considered the shape of the space, and where she would hide a clue if she were a cunning, wealthy de Rolo. The chapel measured taller than it was wide or long, meaning that when the sun shone in directly, the tree would paint the entire expanse, including part of the opposite wall, with its image. Unfortunately, she and Percival now stood in diffuse, cooling light; the pools of colour were dim, distorted, and indistinct.

“The fool sees not the tree the wise man sees,” she repeated.

Percival popped out from behind the bench again, and she tried not to laugh. His sudden appearances were so endearingly comic. He called, “Something of interest, Lady Vex?”

Keyleth had been standing in this chapel last time, hadn’t she? Vex recalled her gentle, mesmerized gestures, tracing the patterns of the glass. Vex mimicked her as Percival watched, drawing her hand upwards, outlining the trunk, the curve of a branch. "Is this window as old as the rest of the house?”

“I believe so,” he reported. Intrigued by her odd question, he stood up, and made his way down the central aisle. From where Vex stood, he looked like a curious worshipper joining a service – and then the sparks connected in her mind – the words, the gestures, the light – and she flung her hands forwards. Percival halted where he was, startled.

“I have it!” she called. She rounded the altar, and placed her hands flat on its plain surface. “I stand where a Keeper of Pelor would stand to preach, correct?”

“You do,” Percival confirmed, folding his arms and looking terribly confused.

“And you stand where an ignorant worshipper would,” she continued. She spread her arms wide, palms facing up. “And behind me, you see a lovely tree.”

Ignorant, Lady Vex?” he answered dryly, and she felt her smile grow wide.

“Of course! I might even call you a fool," she taunted, and he looked rather offended. "Because you, my earnest sheep, have yet to be enlightened by my sermons. But, Pelor be praised, I am here to impart my Gods-given wisdom. And I do not see the tree behind me, but when the sun comes through-“

Percival’s eyes widened. “You see its image, cast on the floor.”

Exactly, she thought – the 'fools' in the pews saw the glass tree, while she saw its reflection, painted upon the floor with sunlight: the wise man’s tree. “Does it seem as if it’s pointing to something?” she asked.

Looking equally inspired, Percival considered, stroking his chin thoughtfully. “It could be the sun,” he answered, and formed a sphere with his hands, as if he were gripping the very orb of the celestial body inside them. “All the branches gather around it.”

Vex raised her own hands, as if she were framing a landscape, and tried to imagine the sunlight. If it were to come straight through the window at a direct angle, the boughs would spread across the pews, while the sun would hover just above the exit, on an empty, unadorned archway. “Well that can’t be it,” she replied.  “I doubt there’s a vault in the door.”

Percival turned – and then shook his head, and sprinted forwards to join her on the dais with a growing smile. “Certainly not,” he argued. “But the sun comes in at different angles, depending on the time of year.”

He stood behind her shoulder, glanced up at the sun behind them, and raised his arm straight before his eyes. Slowly, he turned on the spot, guiding their lines of sight along the back wall. “It could be designed for a particular date. Pelor’s festival day, I'd wager – ah!”

Percival froze, his arm extended. Vex stepped in front of him, aligning herself with his trajectory. “There, you see?” he said.

An elated smile spread across Vex’s face. The back wall was supported by four stone pillars, and upon the third, high enough to sit above the common person’s gaze, and faint enough to be invisible unless one was searching for it, there shone the shallow carving of a tree. From their distance, the pillar itself looked bizarre: slightly distended, and somewhat disjointed from the wall.

“That’s it,” she breathed. "The wise man's tree."

Percival paused, and then lowered his arm. "Was that not the tree on the floor?"

Vex rolled her eyes. "Well, maybe there are two wise trees. There's a third one outside, as well. All of them very intelligent trees, I'm certain." She turned to him, and caught a stern, skeptical look on his face. "Oh, don't ask me," she huffed, "I'm no de Rolo."

"Indeed," he declared, with a wry grin. "But the pipes could run through there. It's worth a closer look."

Without any further words, they rushed down the aisle of the chapel together, swerving around the last row of pews. An iron rack of votive candles blocked the base of the pillar, and Percival hauled it aside. As Vex watched, he put his hands to the wall, groping for some anomaly or sign – and at last, he found it, recognition lighting in his eyes. He depressed a particular stone, and with a sonorous grating noise, the pillar lurched and split down its middle, the mortar cracking apart in a shower of pale dust. The two halves parted, and receded into the wall, revealing an empty passageway.

Vex flung her hands into the sky, and unleashed a strain of triumphant cackling. Percival jumped, rattling the displaced shelf of candles, and echoed her with a surprised laugh of his own. Ah. So much for preserving the sacred peace of the chapel. Sheepishly, Vex lowered her hands.

“You’re certainly an excitable one,” Percival observed. He retreated behind the pillar, and removed one of the votive candles, keeping it cradled in his gloved palm.

Incredulous, Vex repeated her gesture, flinging her hands even higher - though she spoke in an appropriately hushed tone for her scathing reply. “And you are in possession of a secret passageway! Leading to a secret vault! Are you entirely spoiled for thrills, living in such a place?”

“Not entirely,” he answered, a barely contained smirk still visible on his face. “But we cannot enter the vault without the key. I doubt this will be as thrilling as you predict-”

Out of habit instilled from dealing with her brother, Vex whipped off one of her gloves and smacked him across the arm with it. The little flame in Percival’s hands flared with the gust of wind, and he chuckled. He bowed his head, almost mockingly, and gestured forth with the candle. “After you, then, my intrepid Lady Vex.”

With an equally parodic curtsey, she complied, holding her head high as she turned back to the opening. Before her, a set of stone steps angled down into a warm, dim passage. The stairs were ancient, cracked and worn by the constant progress of time. It was not entirely dark below; the glow of the temple suffused the entryway of the tunnel, casting everything in dim, gold colours, even for several paces beyond the stairs. She could see, before she took a single step, that the floor was packed earth, the right-hand wall was battered stone, and the left was a mess of tangled pipes, hissing with pregnant heat - far more than she was expecting, based on Percival's description of their function.

Stepping down onto the first stair, as she did then, was an act that dramatically changed the tone of their interaction. Vex could almost sense Percival's smirk, as ephemeral as it always was, vanishing from his face. They descended, Vex first and her escort in immediate pursuit. Silence took them, a tense, uncomfortable silence underscored by the hissing of steam. At last they reached the passage floor, and the meager candlelight glittered over the sleek shells of the pipes.  As Vex progressed, she kept her eyes fixed ahead, but she could sense Percival’s head turning, sharp and curious, behind her – likely inspecting the paths of the machinery, and discerning its use. It was warmer in the tunnel than in the chapel - even more sweltering, in fact, than the engine room. An uncanny heat clung to the underground, and perspiration began to gather on Vex's lower back. The thrill Percival had so disdained felt suddenly impossible to resist - only it was that thrill's darkest edge, one that the unkind observer might choose to name as "fear".

The passageway turned after about twenty-five feet, making a sharp right away from the bulk of the building. They rounded the corner, and encountered a discouraging sight. Not twenty paces ahead in the growing darkness was a wall of shattered, shadowy stone; a collapse blocking the tunnel entire. The tension dissipated, replaced by disappointment.  She felt Percival’s shoulders sag alongside hers. He made a short, angry noise, one she recognized as him resisting the urge to swear in front of a lady. “I should have known,” he grumbled. “There's been no water damage so far. We’ve found the wrong tunnel.”

Vex was not convinced, nor would she be deterred. With Percival trailing, still providing her with light, she drew closer to the cave-in. She noted a smooth, square outline embedded in the mess; a plaque, as if someone had seen fit to commemorate the disaster.

“Over here, my Lord,” she said, beckoning the candle closer. The light flashed across metal; a series of letters, in brass, affixed to a black surface: 

THE FOOL IS TURNED BY MARKS OF NATURE’S WRATH;

THE WISE MAN LEARNS TO CARVE ANOTHER PATH:

SEEK WISDOM WOVEN IN THY ANCIENT NAME,

INGENIOUS HERALDS OF ANCESTRAL SHAME.

RECALL THY BURIED ROOTS AND FALLEN LEAVES:

THE FOOL SEES NOT THE TREE THE WISE MAN SEES

Percival bowed closer to the words, close enough to make visible his deep, troubled frown. Vex read the poem over again, but she found her thoughts disturbed by his expression – one of an unsettled soul in troubled contemplation. “It sounds like there could be another way in,” she started, trying to be helpful. “Another path?

“Yes,” he said, his voice distant.

She waited, and he offered nothing else. His eyes were moving rapidly, reading the poem over and over. Vex wandered away from their discovery, pacing a circle out on the dirt floor, casting a casual look about for anything else of interest. There was nothing, and so she began again, as if trying to give him hints. “And it mentions the tree once more - though, what are its 'buried roots and fallen leaves'? That can't be literal.”

Silence. Percival’s hand traced the letters, idly.

Vex folded her arms, irritated. “So you have no contribution whatsoever?”

With a sigh, he finally looked her way, rubbing some of the dust and grit between his pinched fingers. “My apologies, Lady Vex,” he began. “You’re correct, of course. It’s just-“

He emphasized a line, propping his hand under the brass letters: heralds of ancestral shame.

“Oh,” she said. She felt insensitive, and looked down.

“I should not be so concerned at something so cryptic,” he argued, as if debating himself. “It could mean a number of things. Still, I find it...unsettling." Percival turned to her, and held the candle aloft between them. The light cast deep, shifting shadows over his regretful face. Solemnly, he said, “I should apologize – I can no longer guarantee you will find anything of value in the vault for yourself.”

She froze. That detail was not negotiable. She fought to cool her panic, and maintain a steady deportment. Squeezing her folded hands, she said, “A gentleman would find a way to honour his deal.”

Percival blinked, taken aback at her severity. He replied, “I’m sure we can come to an arrangement." At her stony stare, he fumbled for a concrete answer. "Certainly a monetary reward, if nothing more elaborate. Would that suffice?”

It was not ideal, but Vex nodded. She would not stand to have her labours uncompensated. In her precarious position, that was a transgression she was unlikely to survive.

They stared, in silence, each trying to keep their irritation from disheartening the other. “It’s less than what we were expecting,” Percival sighed, “but I suppose it is the beginning of something.”

Vex managed to smile at him, and subsequently turned her attentions back to the poem. After some consultation, they agreed to memorize the words and close the tunnel. Trying to shift the stone seemed a dangerous risk, and there was little else of interest about their discovery. Once they could both recite the riddle perfectly, without looking, they left the collapsed wall in gloomy silence.

They emerged into the chapel, and found that the sun had set. However, as Percival had promised, the room still shone with light: it had simply been condensed and scattered, like a series of yellow pearls, across the room, manifested in the candles, torches and braziers, their flames glowing with serene steadiness. Percival fumbled around with the passage door, eventually discerning the mechanism that would close it, as Vex looked out over scattered stars before her. A final whoosh of air, as the passageway sealed itself, washed across every flame at once. The flames tilted, as if with a tide, and then drew back upright. The aura of the room put Vex in a meditative mood, and she began, calmly, almost surgically, to pick the meaning of the poem apart in her mind.

Percival, interrupting her contemplation, suggested they locate the other guests to see if they were ready to take dinner; Vex agreed, and, intending to search for her brother, politely found occasion to divide her path from her host's. She wished to impart all she had learned to Vax in seclusion from Percival, knowing that her brother's dislike of the man would likely colour his responses.

As she climbed the stairs to search, she moved with more haste than normal; the last she had seen of Vax, he had been investigating the study, and his absence thereafter grew more sinister to her with each passing second. By the time she found him on the third floor landing, it had grown properly dark with night, and she had grown so panicked that she climbed the stairs two at a time to his side in rushed relief. Mr. Shorthalt had been keeping Vax in jovial company, but the clever artist seemed to sense the impending request for privacy, and excused himself before Vex could do more than greet him in passing.

Once the echoes of his footsteps faded into the stairwell below, Vex asked, still somewhat breathlessly, “What happened?”

Vax folded his hands on the banister, looking perfectly normal and unperturbed. “What happened when?”

She stomped up the final few stairs, and gestured upwards to the study on the floor above. “With the door, you clod. You left it wide open.”

“Oh. My mistake," he said, rather hastily. "Did you find anything?”

She glared at him, knowing the question was meant only to deter her from further criticism.  After all she had discovered, though, the mishap felt immaterial. Vex joined him at the banister, and recounted the tale of the passageway's discovery, from the note unearthed in the study and on to the collapsed cavern. She included the poem, reciting it word-for-word. He listened intently, his eyes focused on a distant, uncertain point.

“Sounds like the late de Rolos are as straightforward as the living ones,” Vax drawled, picking at the shedding splinters on the rail. His sister slapped his hand away, scolding for both the vandalism and the disrespect. “So,” Vax said, with a half-hearted swat in retaliation, “we’ve hit the proverbial dead end.”

“Not quite,” Vex replied. “I haven't the slightest idea what that poem means, but nor am I satisfied with that study. I want to go back and look without Lord de Rolo hovering over me.”

Vax glanced her way. The very thought seemed to spook him, and his impassive features transformed, growing furrowed and serious. “That might be unwise, Vex'ahlia.”

She tilted her head, confused. The grimness of his expression - and the use of her full name, a rarity between them unless the topic was dire - compounded to create something desperately serious. “I did mention it was destroyed five years past, didn't I? It's not as if-" Vex faltered, noticing her words brought her brother no comfort. He folded his arms, and fiddled with something in his hands. His lockpicks, most likely. Vax only fidgeted this obviously when something truly troubled him.

“You've hit on my point. If it was destroyed five years past, Lord de Rolo is the only one who could have done it.”

Vex’s hands felt cold. She rose up on her toes, then fell back down to her feet, unable to find words to argue - and indeed Vax was correct, or close enough to it to cause her pain. Though Percival had certainly looked surprised, even furious, at the state of the study, he had been behaving very oddly upon their departure. Perhaps his shock had only been at seeing the door open…and indeed, it made more sense than the assumption that Percival's father had committed the vandalism, for no discernible reason, and immediately before his own unforeseeable demise. But that would point to nothing so much as the young Lord's culpability. In what, she could not guess, but-

She swallowed, and glared down at the staircases below the rail. They formed a curious pattern of angles and squares in the dark, a fascinating, meaningless mess. The shadows at their edges grew opaque with the fall of night, obliterating detail, muting depth. Noticing her downcast eyes, Vax edged closer to her, and spoke his next words in a softer voice. “Mr. Shorthalt offered to take me into town tomorrow. I’ll ask around about Lord de Rolo, and hopefully his citizens shall soothe my worries. With luck I might even learn something about that vault, eh?”

Vex found the words an empty comfort. Percival was a notorious recluse and eccentric. What would the townsfolk have to say that she didn’t already know? Noting her unimpressed glare, Vax continued, “And you should find occasion to speak with Ambassador Stormwind.”

“Should I?” she asked, with a tilt of her head.

"He fancies himself an expert on the de Rolos and their history, apparently,” Vax said. "Maybe he knows of your poem."

That was certainly a more plausible line of inquiry. Vex was loath to split her share of whatever take there would be, but if some kind of alliance was required, then she would sooner approach an expert than a civilian in Whitestone. “Very well,” she sighed. “I’ll speak with him, and you go into town." Realizing Vax was trying to guide their conversation somewhere positive, she hunted for an optimistic topic of her own. At last, after some reflection, she suggested, “Perhaps you should also press Mr. Gilmore for what sorts of trade he and Lord de Rolo engage in.”

Vax grimaced, even before she had finished speaking. “I’d rather not.”

Another curiosity - Vax had been avoiding Gilmore since their arrival, and speaking of him so scathingly. Vex tilted her head, and asked, “Has he offended your good opinion, brother? Your exchanges have been terribly awkward since we arrived.”

“Indeed he has,” Vax replied, darkly. “I had hoped to tell you earlier, but this whole excursion to Whitestone denied me the proper moment."

Vex nodded her understanding - she didn't mind her brother keeping secrets due to circumstance, and indeed, they had not had a proper chance to speak since their arrival. At her encouragement, he continued, "It appears that Mr. Gilmore was that executor’s 'anonymous' witness.”

Her mouth opened, in shock, as she began to comprehend. “You mean he knew what father was planning?”

Vax's fidgeting ceased: he stood perfectly still, but for a slight twitching of tension in his jaw. "He might not have known the extent of it, but that is the best I can say of him."

With a sympathetic groan, she wound her arm through her brother's, and rested her head on his shoulder. She knew, if Vax's attachment to Mr. Gilmore ran as deep as she expected, that he would feel this injury more sharply - and yet she, too, had trusted the charming, gregarious man, and his inexplicable treachery cut her deeply. Moreover, she ached for her brother's broken heart: to wound one twin was always to do harm to both. 

That particular stinging revelation also clarified Vax's suspicions of Lord de Rolo. So freshly betrayed by a man he held in highest regard, Vax would be alert for any sign of dishonesty in his peers, and a man like Percival, who had done nothing to affirm his integrity, could easily be painted a threat. At that subsequent thought, she squeezed the worn fabric on her brother's forearm. If Gilmore and Percival had both truly deceived her, the wounds of such injustices might never heal - she was in danger of never trusting someone so blindly again.

By his sunken shoulders, Vax's musings were equally pessimistic. “Well,” she said. “There’s still the vault. It's not over, is it?"

Vax sighed, and managed a smile. “Far from it, sister.”

She shut her eyes, and nodded. What a struggle life must be, she mused, for the solitary child. Born into the world with an eternally loyal friend, she could not conceive of happiness in a world without one. They stood together a moment longer, and then descended the stairs to dinner, their faces eerily similar masks of good temper and falsified cheer.

--

It would come as no surprise that, following a relatively normal meal, the twins were fated to suffer a second sleepless night at Whitestone. As if a ribbon of discontent had been strung between their spines, separated as they were by an entire floor, when one tugged forth in a discontented toss, so the other would turn. Long after the stroke of midnight, Vex turned to her side, and then, disconcerted by the dead faces of the dolls, she rolled back - and saw a light.

She froze, and slowly, sat up. Indeed, there shone a distant, anomalous aura of flickering gold from a window elsewhere in Whitestone. Vex tried to make her best guesses of distance, height, and shape, and before she had calculated anything accurately she was already certain: the glow emanated from the late Lord de Rolo’s study. By her count, only three people knew it had been opened. Herself; her brother, who had actively discouraged her from returning; and Percival.

She wondered if Percival’s night, like hers, had been plagued by sleepless distress - and in swift pursuit of that thought followed her brother’s warnings. The young lord could have been investigating, or he could have been destroying whatever evidence remained. Either way, she realized, as she rose from her sheets, that she had stumbled upon a perfect opportunity to expose his intentions - an opportunity that could not be missed.

So consumed with curiosity she did not bother to dress beyond her bedclothes, Vex lit a taper and escaped her dismal room. Whitestone whirred beneath her feet, its mechanical growls and churnings vibrating through the wooden floor. She approached every corner, every darkened stair, with the same fearful fascination one would a slumbering predator. The noises bound up in the shadowy halls, always so muted by the delirium of daylight, thrummed clearly through the dark: the creaking floors, the groans of the paneled walls, the steam rattling the brass veins of the machinery, the metal thunks deep in the castle's heart. Late though it was, and sleepless as her nights had been so far, she felt sharp, tense, and alert.

Vex climbed the stairs, and approached the door of the study warily, finding it glowing gently around its edges. If Percival was indeed engaged in something sinister, she would have to catch him in the act. She listened at the door, but there was only silence behind it. Cautiously, she pressed her back to the wood, gently guided the handle open, and opened the door by the barest fraction.

Through the gap, she saw the room exactly as she and Percival had left it: hastily tidied, with the crystal dust of crushed glass strewn about. The books and papers were otherwise undisturbed. She pushed it open further, and found the study was also unoccupied – though the candles upon the desk had been gathered, and lit. She bit her lip. This marked the second time she had expected to see someone in that particular room, only to find it deserted.

And what of the candles? With a short, curious glance to her right and left, she crept across the room to the desk, and examined them. Aside from the fact that they had seemingly lit themselves, they were unremarkable; of the same stout kind one would expect to find at a writing-desk. They illuminated, almost coincidentally, the picture of Julius de Rolo’s crest. Vex traced the image of the tree cradling the clock, thoughtfully, with one hand.

She looked over her shoulder. A strange, wicked impulse overcame her: a gut feeling that the image would be somehow useful. Before she could think better of it, she folded the paper up and slipped it through the tie on her nightgown.

Next to the desk, she caught sight of the last unexamined curiosity the room held for her: the chessboard, which still stood with all its pieces assembled at attention, unmolested. Vex brushed her fingertip over the cool, marble skull of the queen raven. To her surprise, the piece did not give or wobble at her touch. It felt, instead, as if it were affixed to its place. Looking closer, she recognized a pattern of shallow grooves marked into the board. Tracks?

She nudged the nearest owl-pawn, standing on a white square, forwards. It could not be lifted, but it did move quite fluidly along its track. The moment the owlet's talons exited its home tile, the tile flipped itself over, complemented by a whirring of minute gears. The tile’s underside was black; it disrupted the regular checker-board pattern. Vex grinned. Then it was a puzzle, a game of sorts, with the general goal of making a new black and white pattern. But which pattern?

Delighted at her discovery, she began to push the pieces about, watching the tiles flip and flip back as they were crossed by the pieces. After reaching a dead end, she inspected the entire apparatus more closely. It appeared that the pedestal on which the board stood was fixed to the floor, as the pieces were to its surface. In her scrutiny, she discovered a button under the chessboard, which she eagerly, thoughtlessly depressed. Then, with awe, she watched her pieces retrace their steps until they reinstated their original formation.

Vex started to strategize the paces of her birds like a battlefield general. Engrossed, she barely felt the drops of wax tracking over her hand as her taper burned low. After what felt like passionate minutes – but what was probably more like hours – she managed to orchestrate the board so each crow-piece stood on a black square of its own, and each owl had a white square on which to roost.

She pushed the last bird into place. A great lurching of gears, a whirring of machinery, a whoosh of expelled steam. The pedestal shuddered, and Vex staggered back with a delighted noise as it began to move. It sank until the birds were level with the floor, and then slid back into the wall and disappeared from sight. In its place was an empty aperture: another secret passageway! Vex extended her candle over the blackness, and discerned the faint shape of a ladder descending into the dark.

As she looked down, however, she beheld a distortion on the floor – a slight wavering of heated air, rippling across the carpet. She watched, and the air darkened, forming black, smoggy tendrils that curled closer about her ankles. A powerful scent of burning cinders surged up around her, as if from nowhere. Suddenly airless with panic, Vex spun in place, trying to locate their source.

And in the doorway behind her, fulminating in the flickering candlelight, loomed a being constituted entirely of smoke. It whirled and swirled in its place, silent, its shape impossible to distinguish, its height inhuman, filling the entire doorway. Vex regarded it, eyes wide, unable to react – and then it surged towards her, violently, swarming into the room, its curling limbs expanding larger and larger, and she leaped back – 

– into nothing. The floor vanished beneath her feet, and she tumbled into the chute she had just uncovered, the image of the monstrous creature ripped from before her by the force of gravity. She did not scream – there was no time, and she still could not find air to breathe. Scrambling for a grip on something, she slammed one hand against the stone surrounding her, and the other grappled for the ladder. The first rung cracked from the impact of her weight, and she tumbled several more feet, at last releasing a panicked scream. She heard the sound of tearing fabric and felt a sharp, dragging pain against her calf. Her taper spun into the darkness below, winking out as the wind smote it. Finally, she latched onto the ladder again, and lurched to a stop. She wound her arms through the rungs, holding on with all the might left in her. Panting, her heart throbbing, she looked up.

Above, far above, she saw the square of dim, smoggy light through which she had fallen. An impossibly loud sound of shifting stone vibrated through the chute, and just as the first tendrils of smoke began to curl over the lip of the opening, the chessboard slid, slowly, back into place. Vex, stunned, kept her painful grip on the ladder, and watched helplessly as the passage closed. With a final click, her only exit was sealed, leaving her suspended, alone, in utterly impenetrable darkness.

Chapter Text

Vex heard nothing but her rapid, terrified breaths, and saw nothing but black. The passageway remained lightless. Whether she closed or opened her eyes made not a whit of difference, and so she left them helplessly wide. Fear denied her any possibility of motion for several minutes. She wondered if that demonic apparition would swarm through the cracks in the ceiling and choke her while she dangled from the ladder. Would she even know of its approach - would she hear the whisper of its airy tendrils, or smell the smoke?

She shifted to alleviate the stinging in her palms. When the creak of the ladder did not immediately summon the creature to consume her, her heartbeat began to slow. Thoughts of malicious revenants drifted from her mind, while the scent of smoke still suffused the passageway. She realized, with a frantic skip of her heart, that the clouds in the study could have been the herald of an actual conflagration, one lighting the ancient halls at that very minute. She envisioned Whitestone ablaze, just beyond her reach. Perhaps the smoke had simply been - moving strangely? But regardless of whether she had seen a natural flame, or a demon of some kind - the others were in danger if they did not wake! Her brother, Mr. Gilmore, that kind Ashari, Keyleth – and Percival–

Vex gathered her courage and lowered herself further down the ladder as quickly as she could manage, her shoulders beset by aching, anxious tension. How long, she wondered, had she held herself still, and idled in fear while the others were at risk? She cursed the dark – Gods, but this would have been so much simpler if there had been a single mote of light! Instead, she had to hold her breath after every rung, wondering if the next step would snap and send her tumbling into a void.

Eventually, her bare foot touched cool, rough stone, and she planted her heel – with a brief slip and stagger – on the smooth, waxy cylinder of her dropped taper, which shot from her step and rattled off into the dark. Never mind that, anyway; she had nothing to light it with.

She removed her weight from the ladder, and winced as a stinging wave of pain shot from her ankle through to her knee. The limb had been sliced open by the broken ladder-rung, and now that her shock had faded, the agony grated clearly and constantly on her fragile nerves.

Marvelous! Bleeding, blinded, entirely alone and locked in a passageway in a building that could very well be on fire. Vex was utterly furious with herself. Groping clumsily for any kind of guide, her fingertips eventually met with a smooth, wooden wall, worn with age. She tracked her hand along it, shuffling in the only direction it offered, and all the while swallowing a burst of tearful self-loathing. Her own thoughts scalded her, berated her – she was exactly as impulsive as he had described, every bit as shameful. It was not her own voice in which she heard this castigation, but her father’s. He spoke of this fate as justice, as the ultimate consequence of his decision – the decision that had sent her to Whitestone, the very crisis that inspired her to seek the vault so recklessly...

--

Three months prior

“Disinherited?”

Vax slammed his emptied glass down hard enough that the table shook, the beads in the window-panes clattered, and even the flame of the candle between them dove flat as if for cover. Vax was a quiet man, but the rages of quiet men sounded louder than the cries of a stormy heart; they were all the more striking and thunderous for their infrequency.

“Disowned!” he barked, and rattled a list off on his fingers. “Cut out of the money, the properties, the records, the peerage, and the name.”

Gilmore sighed, and tipped the brandy bottle over his empty glass. Vax watched the amber stream intently, though he had difficulty bringing it into focus. They had locked themselves away in one of the store-rooms of Gilmore's many establishments, and sat side-by-side at a rickety table, shoved in the corner. The odd location had been Vax's choice; he preferred to share his secrets in spaces so confined that others would deem them claustrophobic. The brandy, however, had been Gilmore's idea. That was why Vax had come to him first: he had good ideas, better brandy, and a fantastic capacity to listen, which he had proven time and again over the past few months of their fledgling acquaintance. Gilmore replaced the bottle on the table, folded his arms, and asked, “Were you given any justification?”

Vax threw his hand dismissively towards the ceiling, narrowly avoiding the untimely destruction of the brandy bottle once more. “What responsible man would want a pair of common half-blood bastards inheriting his name?" he crowed. "Oh, and lest we forget-“ he slammed his elbows on the table, lurching forwards and launching into a slurring impersonation of Lord Syngorn, “that in addition to being whore-spawn, the prodigal heir is a sexual deviant."

Silence. Gilmore's understanding expression turned deadly. “I beg your pardon?” he said, his voice tense and slow. As with the quiet man in cacophonous rage, to see a warm and gentle spirit cool to such merciless anger was a rare and terrible sight.

Vax looked down at his drink. The ranting had been cathartic, almost fun, but it hurt more than he had expected to repeat that aloud. He inspected the glass idly, turning each of its facets to flash in the candlelight. Then he replaced it on the table, and pushed it away, muttering, “Never mind the women you court in perfect sincerity, you get caught – cavorting with one stablehand and suddenly you’re-” He sighed, and tried to push his hair from his eyes with short, frustrated gestures. "He looked at me with pity. Like I was ill.”

Gilmore stared straight ahead, wordless, for a horribly painful moment. Then he sighed, and covered Vax’s hand with his own. The fury had faded: there was only sympathy. “You wouldn't dare believe that, would you?” he said.

Vax shook his head, wearing an empty smile. “Doesn't matter. He’s seizing the house in Emon and everything in it. We’ve got a stipend and a year to sort ourselves out." Wincing, pained by another realization, he added, "Hell. Poor mother. The kindest woman I ever knew and the world will remember her as a slattern.”

“Things are changing in this world, Vax," Gilmore said. His voice was gentle - wonderfully smooth, and as dulling as the brandy. "I suspect the future will view her with sympathy.”

“And there’s my sister," Vax continued, hoping that intoxicating voice could talk him out of every worry. "Maybe I could make coin doing – I don’t know, something – but it’s so much harder for her. She couldn’t stand to marry herself off just to survive, but it’s that or scrape by as a starving shop-girl, and Vex would go mad doing that.”

“She won't go mad or hungry while she still has you, if I know you at all.”

 Vax heaved a ragged sigh. He flipped his hand over, so his palms were aligned with his companion's. “I am no provider, Gilmore," he protested, his anger fading to a simmer. "In all honesty, I’d be a better con man than a Lord.”

“You sell yourself short," Gilmore replied. Holding Vax's hand captive in his, he began to trace its lines with his broad fingertips. He followed the pattern with the slow, easy certitude of a fortune-teller. The touch was strange, unique, but pleasant. "And Vex is a smart woman – either she will find a way, or she will find someone she loves.”

It proved very difficult to hold the thread of the conversation when his hands were so occupied. Vax grumbled, “We can hardly think about marriage as an out when we have an excess of nothing to offer.”

“Oh, I believe you have plenty to offer beyond your title,” Gilmore interrupted, chuckling. He had no purpose to his touches now; he performed the mesmerizing pattern on Vax's hand, repeated and repeated, with his dark eyes cast down.

Vax leaned closer, and felt a smile forming on his face. He put his weight against Gilmore's shoulder, clear and unmistakable. Gilmore turned - and Vax - he felt dizzy, but not stupid, and he was perceptive enough to understand that the look Gilmore trained on him was one of affection and anticipation. Those emotions were a mirror of his own: they blended so flawlessly into the flock of lovely feelings that had soothed his heart. Coming to Gilmore had been a good choice - a perfect choice. “You're so very certain,” Vax said - and he turned, and slid his palm up the front of Gilmore's jacket, slipping a sure touch between the folds of velvet - "What would you say I have to offer?"

He felt a trembling breath push against his body - Gilmore, shuddering. Slowly, the hands around his opened, like blooming flowers, and drifted away.  “Marvels and pleasures incomparable, my dear,” GIlmore answered, his voice low. Vax leaned further, eagerly - and then felt a soft but prohibitive touch against his lips.

Gilmore continued, “I will not take them when you are not yourself.”

Vax pulled away. He stared blankly at the table for a moment, and then bowed his head, pinching the bridge of his nose. His head was starting to pound. “I’m that drunk, am I?”

Gilmore chuckled again, and answered, “I shall still be here when you recover.”

“You know it's not just your brandy talking," Vax protested. The words felt difficult again, hard to pronounce. "You know that I've - wanted this.”

A gentle touch - Gilmore's hand, tucking away one lock of his hair behind his shoulder. “As have I," he answered. "But not on this miserable night. I imagine you should find your sister. Your family needs you now."

Vax sighed. "What's left of it."

--

At that same moment, Vex, unlike her brother, did not feel a need for companionship. While the brother drank his sorrows away in a store-room, the sister fled to the wilds. There, she leaned over her folded knees, freed her tears to fall down her cheeks, and watched her breath form curls in the frigid air. The woods were unforgiving in the winter, sunless and snarling. Frost infected the mud, and cool breezes swept in from the nearby sea. Returning home for a shawl might have been prudent – or better yet, for a lantern, as darkness was swiftly descending – but the idea seemed impossible, loathsome. Her father’s cool disdain would have withered her to death, or pushed her to bloody murder.

Nor could she stay where she was. Though she was barely a mile from the walls of Emon, she was ensnared within a winding weald of massive oaks and whipcrack curves of loud, active rivers. The mountains and forests to the south had left marks of their slow invasion of the civilized world: The paths were all of stubborn dirt, the signs worn away by rain, the bridges tentative and forever bent against the brow of the constant wind. Just beyond the paths, boulders of granite pierced upwards from the carpet of fallen leaves, like glaciers in a frigid sea. Vex had found her perch on one such erratic, nearing three feet tall and sloping upwards like a ramp, and at its peak she and braced the soft fabric of her slippers against its rough ridges. Her tears slowed, as her anxiousness intensified; though she always sought the solitude of the woods in her dire hours, the woods at night suggested more threat than comfort. The cool sunset dimmed; the shadows grew. Soon, it became time to return to civilization – to town, where her brother had gone, if not home.

So she rose from her spot on the granite, sprung forwards, and landed on the path with a light crackle of the crisp leaves, her knees bowing, one hand just brushing the dirt for balance. And with her landing, the forest produced an uncannily human-sounding yelp. She looked around. At her side, a few paces distant down the path, was a young man holding a lantern, his other placed over his startled heart as if to catch it mid-escape from his chest.

Her own heart was engaged with a distant distress, and so she glared at him unsympathetically, without apology or shame. He regained his composure, and replied with a gentle bow. In the entire path of his movement, he never dislodged the fixed contact of their eyes: his were blue, though of a tint so diluted they seemed almost grey – two spots of stormy morning sky amidst the orange evening. Although he appeared no older than her – perhaps even younger – his hair was entirely white, and when he rose from his bow, she noted he was uncommonly well-dressed. Money, nobility, or both, would formed the prerequisite of owning any jacket with that much fur and gold adorning its shoulders. Vex and the stranger were both an odd sight to each other - neither belonged where they were, and the chances of their intersection seemed minuscule.

“Greetings, spirit,” the stranger said, with a wry twist of his voice. The curious, drawling tone made her suspect him of sarcasm, despite his unsmiling mouth. “Have you come to take my soul, then?”

She narrowed her eyes, but could not fault his mockery. She was alone, without a shawl or coat, clad in a white dress, and she had released her wild hair from its pinnings earlier that night. He could have sincerely or sarcastically mistaken her for a ghost, and either would be understandable. She rose up, as dignified as she could, mimicked his half-teasing tone. “Perhaps I will take it, should you disrupt me.”

The interloper stepped to the side of the road, allowing her passage if she desired it. “I will not impress myself upon you further, then,” he replied. He supplemented his comment with a helpful gesture of the lantern, directing her down the path from whence he had come. She did not take his offer. The strange pale hair and his odd behaviour had summoned a thought – a suspicion. She was curious, and to her surprise, she was unsure if she wanted to remain alone in her grief. A distraction of some kind might prove pleasant.

“We have not been introduced,” she said. “Who are you?”

His stormy gaze grew colder; there had been a mocking smile threatening his expression, but its traces vanished altogether. “I am no easy dupe, spirit,” he said dryly. “And I am disinclined to give you any power over me.”

A flat, unenthusiastic attempt at extending their little charade. Vex stepped forwards, joining him in the mixture of broken stone and dirt at the edge of the path. Her shoes were improper for the occasion, some would say - light, fabric and formal - and yet she enjoyed the shape of every brittle leaf and crumbled pebble under her step. She extended her hand. “Lady Vex’ahlia of Syngorn,” she said. “And you, sir?"

At first, his gaze remained piercing, and wary; then he took her hand in a grip that felt oddly stiff and tentative, as if he was unused to touching other people. In a long, drawn-out sigh, he announced, “Percival Frederickstein Von Musel Klossowski de Rolo the Third.”

She released his hand, and tried not to look stunned. And he had mistaken her for a myth! The rumour that Lord de Rolo was in Emon had circulated for several weeks, and yet no one had managed to meet the young Lord in person. She felt like a landscape artist whose frame had been crossed by a shy, uncommon bird; completely by accident, she had found that which others had been so greedily hunting for.

“Charmed,” she said.

“I’m sure you are,” he answered. She stepped further into the light, and he squinted at her, investigating. He wore rounded, brass-rimmed glasses. By the prominence those lenses gave his eyes, and by the fluid tilting of his head, his snowy hair, and his absolute silences, she fancied her rare feathered friend to be an owl of some kind. One native to a solitary tundra, perhaps, with that heavy coat to keep him warm. As he continued to inspect her, her amusement at the idea faded. She realized her eyes would likely be raw and wretched from the remnants of her tears - and abruptly, she turned away. The Lord did not ask after them – instead, he continued, “I was headed for town. Shall I leave you to your own dealings?”

She glanced in his direction, and considered. In any other situation, she might have interrogated him, and yet she found she sympathized with his irritation. In a few days, her own plight would likely be as widespread and scandalous as his own. “Very well,” she said. “I hope you enjoy a pleasant stay in Emon, my Lord.”

“Indeed,” he answered, cold and cordial. They both made a decisive step towards their parting – and moved for several paces in the same direction, in perfect parallel. Vex halted, and gave a laugh.

“If you are headed for town, my Lord, you should direct yourself North.”

“North?” he said, perplexed, turning himself towards the setting sun. “But are we not Eastwards of the-?”

“Yes,” she interrupted, “but a river crosses the path a ways ahead, and-“

He looked at her, his owlish gaze imploring. Vex smiled; so he was lost, despite his composure. “Perhaps it would be safer for me to escort you, my Lord," she said. Coyly, she added, "If you are prepared to trust a spirit with the task.”

The comment summoned a slight smile from him – one of cool amusement, and very little passion. “If you think that would be best,” he conceded. “Lady Vex’ahlia of Syngorn, was it? I owe you thanks.”

With the lantern aloft, he stepped forth along the same route they had already commenced. At her questioning look, he admitted, “I would follow your path rather than my own. I’m avoiding an appointment.”

She nodded, and joined him. Their chosen route would, in fact, lead to the walls of the city, but the path was uncultivated, and rarely traversed. It narrowed; its edges blurred into the dirt and bark shed from the trees; it dipped down uncomfortably steep inclines for several paces, and hitched up over protruding roots. Lord de Rolo walked at her side where he could, and behind her when the path became too narrow; his lantern proved invaluable, with the tightly-woven trees ever closing in, and the sun ever fading.

Again, questions sprang to Vex's mouth – but she recalled the executor of her father’s will, and his impersonal recitation of everything they had lost. She remembered her brother’s face growing pale, her own embarrassing pleas for pity, and the staunch denial of her father. She thought of the questions, the whispers, and the paranoia that pursued her everywhere. She was convinced everyone knew she had been disinherited for her ignoble heritage and for her poor behaviour; and she could only imagine that Lord de Rolo’s situation would be similar, but a thousand times worse.

“I imagine you are avoiding more of an interrogation than an appointment,” she put in, after a minute of tense quiet.

Another smile passed across Lord de Rolo's face, this one a single, bitter quirk of the corner of his mouth. “An interrogation that you are doubtlessly burning to conduct yourself,” he pointed out.

She could not deny her curiosity; the only surviving member of the de Rolo family was before her in an intimate setting, and the mystery swirling around him was doubtlessly tempting. He looked so like a normal nobleman, if a touch restrained in his expression, but his name carried such a considerable weight of curiosity. “Indeed I am,” she admitted. “But I have a better idea. I shall tell you one thing about myself, and you shall agree to believe it implicitly and without question. I shall do the same for you, and we will then say no more on either topic.”

“Interesting,” he said, the leaves crunching under his steps. The metal lantern swayed, creaking quietly as it did, providing their words with a constant undercurrent of metallic noise. “And what, pray tell, inspired this curious exchange?”

“I imagine you want someone in Emon to trust your word. It would be a terribly lonely visit for you otherwise.”

He frowned. They turned down a slight incline, bracing their feet against the sloping dirt. “I hadn’t thought of that,” he admitted, over a slight sigh over exertion.

Vex considered, her eyes fixed on the darkening trail. She thought of everything that had occurred that day, and the wound that cut closer to her heart than any other. It was obvious, but painful to speak aloud – and yet surely a recluse of five years (such as Lord de Rolo) had no context for her statement. He could not possibly know the person on her mind. Very slowly, she said, “My mother, rest her soul, was a good woman, who deserved neither her fate nor her reputation.”

He stalled, somewhat taken aback. “That isn’t a statement about yourself,” he protested.

Vex shook her head. “Oh, no, it is.”

“Very well,” he said. “Without question, as you said, implicitly – I believe you.”

Strange silence took them for a minute, while Lord de Rolo thought. The sun continued to sink, glittering between the trees ahead of them. The path avoided its glare, dipping down into a ravine below the horizon. Vex skirted around a rock, directing them to the wildest portion of their route. The path grew narrow: Lord de Rolo fell behind her, by necessity. When he began to speak, she turned towards him to hear his answer.

He said, “I did not kill my family.”

She stared at him. He looked utterly serious, but for his eyes; deep within them, she could see that same imploring look, the one that had wordlessly cued her to guide him through the trees. Other than that look, and those words, he offered her nothing; he was quite unreadable. Vex wondered if anyone had the gall to actually ask him such a question, and then realized it did not matter. No one would have dared ask her about her mother. That was not the point.

“You did not kill your family,” she repeated. She turned, and she heard his slow footsteps in pursuit.

For several minutes longer, they wound through the base of the ravine in intense, troubled silence. Lord de Rolo seemed to be gathering his thoughts, and she did not wish to disrupt him - nor could she think of any questions to ask that would not betray the promise they had just made. The woods, if nowhere else, were a place for meditations, and so she let him think.

It was not Vex, in the end, who broke the silence. Instead, it was a brief, metal snap, and then a roar, one that echoed through their little valley, one that was deep and sonorous and absolutely inhuman.

Lord de Rolo reached for her, to stall her. She felt the careful pressure of his glove on her forearm, and sensed them both draw in synchronized breaths of terror. He raised the lantern. Not twenty paces down the ravine, a huge hulking shape thrashed about in the trees. The bluish evening made it difficult to see detail, but the size was unique and the sounds unmistakable; it was a bear.

“Don’t move,” she breathed.

He nodded. The miserable light of his lantern shook in the dark, its aura bobbing through the trees.

The creature thrashed, bowed its shaggy head, and gnashed its jaws at something on the ground between its paws. It drew back, as a cat would, its hindquarters raised in a tense stretch. Vex squinted at the shape, realizing its movements were strange, aborted; it tried to lurch away, digging its massive rear paws into the hard ground and wrenching itself backwards, but it could not remove itself from its place. The poor creature had not captured a kill; rather, it was the captive, its paw crushed in a hunter’s trap.

She took a step forwards, and Lord de Rolo’s hand tightened on her arm. “My Lady,” he hissed, in a forceful whisper, “what on earth are you doing?”

The bear roared, full-throated, a noise that seemed to shake the ground. Vex gently pried Lord de Rolo’s hand from her arm, and took another step.

“Wait! Oh, Gods –“ he hissed – and she hushed him, waving a dismissive hand behind her. The bear ceased its wild reactions, and paused to lift its shaggy head. It snuffled at the air. It licked its muzzle, smearing it with blood by way of a tongue as broad as her hand. Then it lowered its head and found her in the dark, fixing upon her with its perfectly circular black eyes. It whined, almost like a dog.

She crept closer, and then heard a clatter of hasty footsteps. Lord de Rolo caught up to her, grappling for her arm again. Startled, the beast shied away, releasing another trembling roar.

“Not so quickly, my Lord, you’ll scare him-“

“You’re mad, Lady Syngorn, and I won’t let that thing devour you-“

 “Hush!” she barked – and out of a strange, passionate impulse, she lied outright: “I’ve done this before.”

 “You’ve done what?” he said, aghast.

Vex did not answer, blushing hot with the tension of the moment.  Her statement was not entirely a lie: Animals always acted more docile in her presence. She had called sparrows and magpies to her finger with little more than gentle whistles. Once she had calmed a rampaging mare who would not bend to her caretakers. Of course, this situation was somewhat different, but it did not feel impossible – provided both Lord de Rolo and the bear behaved themselves. Instead, it felt natural - obvious.

And, simultaneously, both creatures decided to defer to her judgement; Lord de Rolo’s hand relaxed on her arm, and then vanished. The bear, though he still huffed in frustrated agony, did not make any further threats. Instead, when she approached, the bear lay down, and pulled as far back as it could, holding its paw outstretched. Up close, it was not as large as she had originally thought – bigger than a cub, certainly, but not full grown.

“You brave young thing,” she crooned. “Let me see that, darling.”

The bear groaned, and scrubbed his nose with his free paw. Vex looked down, inspecting the trap itself – a set of steel teeth, clamped around the joint above the creature's front paw. Blood matted the leaves below it, and spattered the trees around them, struck upwards by its captive's agonized thrashing. Vex leaned closer, squinting for a better look. Slowly, the light grew, the details sharpened, and when Vex glanced up a little candle-wick lit in the bear’s black eyes. He growled, low and threatening, but it did not flinch or lunge forth.

“Oh, hush, you,” Lord de Rolo said, as he joined her at her side, his voice shrill with failed bravado.

Vex smiled, rather impressed. “Thank you, my Lord,” she said. “If you could bring the light a little closer?”

“I hope,” he said, as he complied, “that this is another secret about yourself that I can believe – what was it – implicitly and without question?”

“Certainly,” Vex said. Her charms had not failed her yet. The bear (really quite a handsome creature, with its fluffy, sandy-coloured fur and big black eyes) seemed quite docile before her, even with Lord de Rolo’s destabilizing presence.

“And,” he continued, “if it devours me here, I hope you trust implicitly and without question that I will haunt your bloody grave.”

The bear snapped its jaws, and the lantern flashed with Lord de Rolo's sudden recoil. Vex swallowed another ill-timed chuckle – as, she suspected, Lord de Rolo simultaneously repressed another yelp.

Her amusement passed quickly. The trap was large and brutal-looking, and if a bear could not pull it apart, what could she hope to do? She studied it, flummoxed, for a second longer, until a short cough emerged from Lord de Rolo. “It should come free with enough weight on the springs. You see there?”

He indicated two flat, metallic loops, which bound the two halves of the trap together. She followed his logic: pushing down on them would release the grip of the jaws. “Very well,” she said. She stood straight, and put one of her feet on the nearest ring. It was barely broad enough to hold her, and she wobbled for a moment until Lord de Rolo caught her hand to steady her. The bear sniffed curiously at her skirts, stirring them as if in a slight breeze. She giggled, and heard Lord de Rolo swallow. With his steadying aid, she stamped down on the opposite ring of the trap with her other foot. Releasing a metal scream, the rings bowed inwards, and the jaws opened. The bear wrenched his paw free from beneath her, drenching the hem of her skirt in blood; Lord de Rolo’s hand shook in hers.

The bear was free. He sat where he was, and slurped his tongue over his muzzle again. The wounded paw did not hold any weight, and he picked it up, very slightly, with a conversational woof at Vex. She knew what he was asking, and gave him a sad smile.

“I doubt I can help you further, poor dear,” Vex said, wobbling for balance upon the trap. “That will heal with time, but maybe you should find a home that will be kinder to you, hm?”

The creature lurched back upwards onto his big, padded feet and leaned forwards, sniffing about her skirts once more. Gleefully, she held out her hand - and to her surprise, Lord de Rolo made no noise of mortified protest, though he squeezed the hand that remained in his grip, like a warning. The bear nosed forwards into her palm, and licked it. The touch was slimy, smooth and cool, like what she imagined touching a living fish would be like, and she could not help a surprised stream of giggles. The creature turned to her escort, and gave him a respectful grunt.

“Yes, quite, it's been a pleasure,” he said, hoarsely. The bear waddled back a few paces, and then turned, and lumbered down the ravine. They watched it depart, and Lord de Rolo helped her step safely off the trap. While her hand was still captive in his, he admitted, “That was – quite incredible.”

Vex removed her hand, and he let it fall. Grinning, she asked, “shall we head into town, then, my Lord?”

He gestured forwards with the lantern, a distant look of amusement on his face. “I called you a spirit in jest, earlier,” he muttered. “I feel as if I've just been proven right all along. Is that why you would tell me only one thing about yourself?"

"If I tell you everything now," she replied, "what will you have left to ask me, next we meet? I must leave you something to be curious about."

"Then I will ask you nothing," he said. "And I will ensure that we meet again."

--

Present

Vex’s fingertips, trailing along the wall, met quite suddenly with a smooth wooden ridge. A flash of golden light burst from her touch, shrunk to a sliver, and then vanished. Ecstatic, she groped forwards and felt a kind of disc, about the size of her palm. It swung on a hinge, and she pushed it aside, revealing a shaft of light barely the circumference of a coin. Curious, she pressed her eye to the aperture.

Beyond the wall was a bedroom, well-furnished in deep reds and vibrant golds. The light emitted from a set of candles on the desk, and a form circled them, pacing in frustration, forcibly pulling back the cuffs of its sleeves with hasty rasps of fabric. She recognized, even in the dim light, the shape of the shoulders, the colourless hair, and the voice providing the frustrated whispers; she called, partly in thoughtless shock, “Percival!”

The sound startled him and he rounded on the wall, panting, half-frantic. She breathed in, sharp and cold, and covered her mouth with her hands. She looked not at her host’s troubled gaze, but at his hands. While the left was normal, clenched pale and tight around the opposite elbow joint, Percival’s right hand was entirely charred by deep, painful-looking burns. He held it upturned in the shaking candlelight, and it had the appearance of a devil’s limb; the marks glowed scarlet, as if they were still burning. As he searched for the source of her voice, he grit his teeth, and tried to flex the muscles in his hand. He gave a short, strangled cry at stubborn agony of his flesh, and she heard the crack of his ruined skin.  He asked, in a ragged, low voice, "Who-? Who speaks?"

No answer would come; a thought had entered Vex’s mind, a revelation that finally troubled the fragile trust they had built.

That burn - he lit the fire upstairs.

Vex shut the peephole as quietly as she could, her heart thundering. Her urgency grew, and she did not let herself think beyond her next step. Panicked suspicions would do her no favours (although the thought, once created, could not be stricken from the ledger of her memory). She recalled her brother mentioning where his quarters stood in relation to Percival’s, and so she rushed down the passage, her hand skimming along the wall in search of another disc of wood, another aperture. She found the one she suspected, and breathlessly lifted its shield.

Vax, too, was still awake, with his bedside candles lit; he lay on his back, his hands over his face. Though his sister's urgency was not dispelled, her heart was moved to sympathy; she did not have to ask to know what he was thinking about.

--

Two weeks prior

“You knew! You bastard, you knew all along!”

The letters struck Gilmore across the cheek, fell, and burst across the floor in white shards like shattered pottery. Gilmore staggered, dizzy, until Vax caught him by the collar and forced their eyes to meet. The tax offices had been upended in the chaos of his rage. Assorted spectators cried out at the scandal; trembling, white-faced clerks lowered their shoulders behind the desks. One particularly mortified young woman, her mouth taut, slipped through the back door of the office in search of a guard. Vax found himself unconcerned with the reactions of the rabble: he thrust Gilmore back against the closest wall, slamming his shoulders into the wood. 

“Vax’ildan!" he choked, chastising. "We are not-”

He lashed forwards for Vax's arms, and managed to drag them both into the hallway - hells, but the bastard was strong! A door swung behind them, muting the chatter and hiding them, briefly, from the eyes of the world. The accusations poured out of Vax in a desperate stream, ragged and tearing and unstoppable. “I found your name in his notes, and all over the documents, you two-faced –" he shoved Gilmore again, and the man collided with the wall once more - now that they were hidden, he was not fighting back. He took every blow with downcast eyes. The papers Vax had assailed him with had already split a narrow cut on his cheek. Vax ranted, "You’ve known for weeks what was going to happen to Vex and I, and you just watched and lied while father struck us down?!”

At that, he did look up, pleading, pitying, trying to pry Vax's hands from his jacket- “Vax-“

That dark-eyed look, that soft-voiced lie that mimicked a feeling heart, they enchanted Vax every time - but they would not again. “Traitor!" he spat. "We could have done something about this - we could have stopped him if you’d –" no, no, it still worked, that black, intoxicating gaze, that uncanny seduction, and even wordless Gilmore was so perfect to his eyes, and so vile in his mind, that the hurt surfaced from beneath the anger in Vax's heart. He brought his hands to Gilmore's face and gripped his jaws and said, "I thought you – I thought you might have felt– “

“I do, Vax," he answered, immediate, certain, and he tried to cover the grasping hands with his own before Vax wrenched them away. "I've wanted nothing more-"

Vax stepped back. “You wanted - what, were you hoping to – sate your own tastes, until I grew too drunk for even your last scrap of shame?”

Gilmore shut his mouth. He offered no explanation. The cut on his cheek shone bright red, and from it trailed a single, scarlet bead.

Vax snarled, “You are never to come near me or my sister again," and slammed the door on his way out.

--

Present

Unfortunately, Vex did not have time to suffer long in sympathy. She slammed the flat of her palm against the wall and barked, “Vax!”

He lurched from his bed and stumbled onto his feet. He replied, “Vex?” looking about, utterly shocked.

“I’m behind the wall, brother!”

He searched past various spots across the wallpaper without ever managing to find hers. She realized her passage sat about a foot lower than the bedrooms; when Vax approached, she was speaking mostly to his knees.

From above, he called, “And what are you doing behind the wall at three in the bloody morning, sister?”

“There is no time to explain, Vax. In the study, upstairs – I saw something, and I’m not sure what it was –“

Fumbling for a description, she fell silent, but Vax interrupted; “I believe you – I did as well.”

She could have wept for relief. Of course Vax would have believed her regardless, but at least she had not gone mad overnight. “I worry someone may have lit a fire upstairs – I don’t know for sure, but you must check the fourth floor – the study you unlocked - immediately! I can find my way out, but go with all haste!”

Bless him, for Vax asked no further questions, and with only a brief farewell – “I’m coming back for you, sister!” - he rushed for the door.

With Vax on task, Vex set herself to the task at hand – her own escape – and redoubled her speed down the passage. The meager light from the peepholes traced faint outlines of the path ahead; she could discern the end of her secret hall, and the darkened groove of a handle not twenty paces from her position. She dashed forwards, pushed the handle in, and heard a click. It opened only four inches; it was stuck, warped with age. She shoved it with her shoulder and felt a searing burst of pain in her leg. Another shove, this time with a slight cry of effort from her lips, and the panel dislodged, rattling along its track – she flung herself into the forwards into a space that was gently candle-lit, and recognized a landing on the stairwell. Vex threw the passageway shut behind her, and made as if to climb to the rooms on the third floor, to rejoin her brother - but at the first step, she was too wracked by sudden pain to stand. She stumbled, and someone caught her – a gloved hand, under her arm.

“Lady Vex, you’re hurt-“

She looked up, dizzily. Lord de Rolo held her upright, a look of earnest panic and worry on his face. She remembered the vile scars on his right hand, the evidence of his crime, and she wrenched herself from their grip, gasping, “Don’t touch me-“ without a second thought.

He released her, and as if she had shocked him, obscured his gloved hand behind his back. In a perfectly polite, perfectly cool voice, he said, “My apologies.”

Vex braced herself against the banister, conflicted. Lord de Rolo had been so earnest during the day, almost friendly - and now, in the night, his kind regard had vanished entirely, drawn back behind unreadable eyes. She felt tears build in her voice, and asked. “How could you have-“

Her question faded, and his expression did not change, and he offered no words. They stood, silent - or unable to speak.

And then the stairwell rang with clattering footsteps and confused voices. Her brother arrived first, sweeping down two, three steps at a time to join her, and calling her name – “Vex – oh, hells, what happened to you-?”

“It it safe upstairs?” she interrupted. “Make sure everyone-“

Vax pulled her into a tight hug, as she heard the other voices joining them – high, shrill, and panicked enough that Vex could not identify their owners at first.

“Is she alright?”

“Oh no, Lady Syngorn-!”

Vax whispered harshly in her ear, “I believe you, sister, but there was no fire upstairs.”

He released her – and she tried, desperately, to understand what she had seen, completely at a loss. She looked at Percival, wondering if he had heard Vax's claim. He stood opposite them on the landing, impassive, his hand still behind his back. If there was no fire, how had he burned himself? If there was no fire, what smoke had she seen? As she fought for breath and looked back and forth for answers, anywhere, Keyleth and Mr. Shorthalt joined them on the landing. Both held tapers and wore bedclothes, seemingly awoken by their noise and distress. Mr. Gilmore arrived as she watched, and looked down at them all from the top stair, his dark head flickering back and forth with confusion and concern.

“Now there’s a feat, to be standing upon that leg,” Mr. Shorthalt supplied, with a comforting grin. Everyone looked at him, shocked by the disturbing brightness in his tone. “I believe she needs a doctor!”

Vex looked down at her leg. Indeed, it and the skirt of her nightdress had been shorn through; she had left a trail of bloody footprints on the stairway. Keyleth was absentmindedly standing in one. The wide, jagged gash bled still; it was ugly and it stung, and she could hardly look at it without bile rising in her throat.

“I shall send for one,” Lord de Rolo declared, refusing to meet her eyes and descending the stairwell.

Keyleth swept in front of him, and barred his way. “We must take her into town, my Lord,” she insisted. “It will be half the time – Percival, please.”

He glared at her in cold silence. Lord de Rolo did not deny her outright, but his refusal was legible, even without words.

“Keyleth speaks wisely,” Mr. Gilmore supplied. “We can take her in my carriage, if-“

Vax’s grip tightened on his sister’s shoulders, and he pulled her closer to him – bringing an extra few pounds of weight to bear down on her injured foot. She winced, wordlessly, as he growled, “You know damn well that’s not going to happen!”

Mr. Gilmore struck the banister with his hand, impassioned, and looked as if he were about to shout his reply. Mr. Shorthalt, luckily undeterred by the sudden violence of their exchange, cut him off: “My carriage will work just as well! And I do know a fantastic doctor.”

Keyleth had not noticed the dialogue; she was still pleading quietly with Percival. Her luminescent eyes jumped from his expressionless face to Vex's - and to her surprise, Vex could see a slight sheen of tears across them. That the lovely, earnest Ashari had been moved to the point of weeping did not surprise her, but Vex felt rather undeserving. Her leg hurt, but certainly not lethally so. “Please,” Keyleth said. “I’ll go too, and I’ll make sure everything is alright!”

Lord de Rolo turned back to the landing, and scrutinized Vex. He looked at her injury, then up to her face – and in his expression, Vex read a terrible, trembling fear. Vax, at her side, grew incredulous, and made an appalled noise at their host’s hesitation.

“Very well,” he conceded, with a sigh. “Keyleth, fetch her some shoes. Mr. Gilmore, you should help Mr. Shorthalt rig his carriage. I’ll find some money for the doctor.”

They dispersed, at his orders, in different directions. Vex’s mind was a whorl of inspired activity, and the moment she and her brother were alone on the landing, she hissed, “You need to stay here.”

He recoiled. “You’re mad!”

Stay,” she repeated, “and keep an eye on Lord de Rolo. Don't let him out of your sight. I need to know everything he does while I am gone.”

Vax frowned. “Are you certain?

“Yes,” she replied, and feigned a smile, though the pain was beginning to intensify. “I’ll undertake your mission instead, and I shall be perfectly fine.”

“You mean you’ll be perfectly careful,” Vax corrected her. He assisted her down the stairs, and left her leaning against the doors of the entry hall, sprinting out into the cold to help Mr. Shorthalt with the horses. The chill morning wind swept towards her through the opening, and she realized, blushing, that they would be carting her through the town of Whitestone in her bedclothes. As that embarrassing (though amusing) thought began to circle in her mind, she felt the weight of a heavy piece of fabric thud down upon her shoulders.

She whirled around, and found Lord de Rolo looking down at her, his composure threatened by irritation and impatience. She recognized the fur brushing up against her cheeks, and the dark velvet; he had merely returned her winter jacket.

“I took the liberty of putting the doctor's fee in your pocket,” he reported.

Vex searched, fumbling, for the purse. As she did, Percival glanced down at her waist, and something there held his gaze. She realized she had quite forgotten the crest of Julius de Rolo, which she had taken from the desk and folded over the belt of her nightgown. Caught in a crime of her own, Vex froze where she stood.

Percival stepped forwards. They stood mere inches apart. He wrapped his hands around the lapels of her jacket - and slowly, deliberately, folded it across her, hiding the crest from general sight. Eyes downcast, he muttered, “Keep it, if you believe it to be important.”

He circled his arms around her, seeking the two halves of the belt that would tie the garment shut. The gesture brought them nearly into contact - his mouth passed beside her ear - and while he was close, closer than he had ever been, he whispered, “Tell no one in town of what we are doing. Please, it must stay secret.”

Vex snatched the belt from his hands. “Why?”

Percival stepped back to a politer distance. The sounds of horses and carriage-wheels began to fill the courtyard; they were about to be interrupted. In what little time remained to him, Percival said, “Your mother was a good woman.”

What a dastardly card to play. Vex glared at him. “You did not kill your family,” she replied. Then she leaned forwards, and continued with unrestrained venom, “but who knows what else you might have done?”

Mr. Shorthalt’s voice summoned her to the carriage. Lord de Rolo watched her depart, his icy glare pursuing her, clawing at the back of her head and down her spine until the doors of Whitestone swung shut.

Chapter Text

“She'll recover soon, I imagine."

Vax jolted to a stop at the sudden sound of the voice, and turned his gaze to the unexpected speaker; Lord de Rolo, leaning against the frame of the door. Vax had been storming through it, his ears full of the clatter of the parting carriage, and thus consumed with his own frustration he had been somewhat ignorant of his surroundings. The sullen Lord of Whitestone moved well through the shadows of his castle: Vax, who prided himself on being perceptive and light of step, had not noticed him in the dark arch of the doorway. Lord de Rolo did not acknowledge his guest's double-take. He merely waited, his gaze steady as a glacier, until Vax chose his reply. It was not immediately produced; instead, Vax stepped briefly onto the doorstep again, tugging the massive door shut by its iron ring. It closed with a deep thud and a rattle of metal, and the wind died to a dull roar beyond it. In the newly muffled silence, he lied, "I’m not terribly concerned for her. Vex has always been-“

“-intrepid.” Lord de Rolo cut in, and fixed his eyes on a crack in the floor, his hands clasped thoughtfully together, the left gently kneading the right. Despite the fact that his expression remained stoic, Vax caught the distinct impression Lord de Rolo was smiling - only somewhere deep inside his head, rather than on his face. The impression was also a fleeting one; he spoke next in a voice that betrayed not a shred of true regret. "As your host, I feel responsible for what has occurred here. When she returns, would you do me the favour of alerting me? I should apologize to her.”

Fearful as ever of his motives, Vax was on the verge of denying the request - but he held back his refusal. The favour made for a convenient excuse to surveil Lord de Rolo throughout the day; if the need arose, he could excuse his pursuit with the logic that he needed to know where Lord de Rolo was in case Vex came back. He forced a smile, and said, “Certainly. Shall I knock on your door, or -?”

“Hm?" His host's eyes and thoughts had wandered again, this time up towards the central staircase, and whatever musings it led to. "Oh, no," he said, and rose from the doorway to make his way towards the stairs. He called, over his shoulder, "I am not returning to bed, for I could no more sleep now than you could – I thought I would lock the study to prevent any further injuries, and then I intend to spend the morning working in the engine room.”

An inconsistency in the statement pricked at Vax’s mind. He spoke it as he decoded it; “How did you know it was the study where she was injured, my Lord?”

He turned where he stood, an ominous tension gripping his heart, and saw Lord de Rolo leaning coolly on the banister, his chin raised, his downward gaze imperious. Without a proper coat, his white shirt and white gloves gave him an air of blankness – he wore the anonymity of a surgeon, prepared to dissect. “Your candor may surpass even your sister’s,” he observed, unsmiling.

Vax could not tell whether the young Lord was distressed, offended, or amused, though it struck him as ultimately immaterial. In his mind, Vex’s safety took precedence. “I found you standing alongside her in the middle of the night, and her gravely injured, without any explanation as to how the situation arose. You cannot blame me for protecting my family, Lord de Rolo.”

His host paused in reflection for a long minute, remaining almost perfectly still. At last, his voice alarmingly steady, he said, “I was awake, and I heard her stumble on the stair. She had injured herself before I found her, as I'm sure she will confirm for you.”

“You were awake?” Vax repeated. That excuse seemed terribly unlikely. The clock had struck three just before Vex’s voice summoned him to the wall.

“I do not sleep well here,” he answered, his voice crisp and cutting. “And I am sure you understand if I do not wish to discuss that further.”

Vax suspicions were far from allayed; but Lord de Rolo was not an easy man to pry words from, and he doubted an answer would come free if he did not wish to provide one. Vex had always been better at drawing information from stubborn people – this task would have suited her skills over his. A passing memory of smudged, bloody footprints upon the landing assaulted him, and Vax felt a sympathetic twist in his stomach.

“Good day, then, my Lord,” he muttered, and, thus excused, Lord de Rolo turned from him and climbed the stairs without another word.

The moment he disappeared from sight, Vax made his calm, silent way down to the engine room. His project of surveillance seemed more and more justified, with the evasive way Lord de Rolo continued to behave. Careful to leave every tool and trinket upon the workbench untouched, he sought a hiding place and vantage point. An alcove in the tangle of the engine itself seemed ideal – as Vex had described to him, the pipes extended through maintenance tunnels, broad and tall enough to crawl into. He selected one at a considerable height; the oil-lamps below would spread their auras only so high, and he could wait in murky shadow, well out of Lord de Rolo’s sight, while still witnessing everything that transpired beneath him. Vax scaled the rattling machine, the heat sinking into his hands through the metal. He slipped inside a tunnel - a narrow, square passage about ten feet up - and lay down on his stomach.

That single, constant force, that tide upon which all his other feelings seemed to turn, grappled with his consciousness once more, and he thought, at least there is very little chance of Gilmore cornering me here.

He berated himself silently for his egotistical cowardice, and settled for worrying about his sister instead.

--

Lying prone on the carriage cushions, Vex tilted her head back to watch the sky transform through the window-glass. Over two hours of rickety travel, the brightening blue painted away each of the stars, until there was nothing but a cloudless spring day above. It would have been a pleasant spectacle, were it not for the constant throbbing and stinging in her leg. She’d propped the wounded limb upon the opposite seat, wrapping it as best she could in her ruined nightgown so as not to spread the blood about them. Mr. Shorthalt drove in front; had he been with them in the compartment, Vex predicted it would have been a much more talkative journey. Keyleth sat opposite her, but the Ashari seemed spellbound into silence.

Despite the length of the journey, they still arrived in town before the sun had truly risen, and Vex first beheld the town of Whitestone, upside-down through her window, as a series of short, pale buildings with unlit windows and distorted signs. The very architecture seemed to have huddled up for protection from the continual cold: the houses stood in close proximity; the windows were narrowed eyes with wool curtain lashes; the doors were dark, thick wood; the streetlights, burning low in the morning, were short and thickly shielded with glass; the plants, where they grew, were stout, hardy evergreens or tough, spindly shrubs with shrunken berries. Above any other descriptor, it struck her as a shy-looking place.

The carriage halted outside one such modest house, though it distinguished itself by a brass-lettered directory beside the door; it appeared to be a shared property, inhabited by a half-dozen medical professionals. Mr. Shorthalt led them up, and rang the bell with his toes jittering upon the step (either for excitement or the cold, Vex could not discern; he had been even more jovial than usual at the castle, and the mood still gripped him upon their arrival.)

The doctor that responded was not, as she had expected, another severe and bespectacled character – Whitestone did seem a natural habitat for such people – but rather a short, sweet-smiling young woman in a professional, almost uniform-looking dress of slate gray. Vex did not learn her name at first, as Mr. Shorthalt (clearly smitten with her) addressed her only by audaciously elaborate pet names, but at length she introduced herself as Dr. Pike Trickfoot. From the stray curls in her blonde bun to her anxiously elevated shoulders, she was a person entirely constituted by soft, rounded curves. Vex thought she should have been a baker, rather than a surgeon: someone perpetually surrounded by sweet smells, clouds of flour and kitchen warmth.

However, she was also thoroughly competent at her chosen profession. Dr. Trickfoot ushered them swiftly inside, and held the doors while Vex hobbled through. Mr. Shorthalt she directed down the hall, explaining that she kept a stock of spare clothes in a closet, and denying him entry to her rooms while a lady's surgery was being performed. With Keyleth's assistance, Vex was brought to a couch, one already dressed with a clean white sheet, in what resembled a very simple living room. Cream walls, cabinets of pale wood, and shelves stocked with neatly-labeled jars and beakers marked all the detail she could gather before Vex lay back on the sheet and fixed her gaze on the ceiling. The doctor drew up a short, wheeled tray and began sorting her instruments - and meanwhile, she distracted her patient with amiable conversation in a high, gentle voice. Vex liked her immediately; she was obviously very organized and quick-witted, but her intelligence never turned critical, as if Dr. Trickfoot did not have it in her to hurt another soul.

“Now, you needn't worry,” she said. “This won’t scar, provided you treat it gently. I shall have to clean it before I stitch it up. Very good, my Lady?”

With a slightly stunned nod from Vex, Dr. Trickfoot set to work, polishing a pair of long tweezers with a cotton cloth and scrutinizing the wound before her. Keyleth took a seat at Vex’s side, her composure seemingly regained, and watched the operation intently but wordlessly. Her brilliant green eyes would not, despite Vex’s curiously craning head, train themselves anywhere but at the floor.

“Can you tell me how this happened, Lady Syngorn?” Dr. Trickfoot asked.

In the midst of her sentence came a sharp and unsettling nip of pain. She was extracting splinters, so Vex gathered. She could not entirely tell what those cool metal pincers grasped onto - whether their target was flesh or foreign material - until the fragment pulled free, and that uncertainty turned her stomach. Almost without thought, she reached her hand out and grabbed the folds of Keyleth’s skirt, about at the height of her knee. Keyleth flinched, startled, and then took her hand and squeezed it.

Dizzily, she tried to remember the doctor’s question. She recalled Percival’s request for silence; she was unsure whether or not she wanted to betray it yet, and so she answered, “I had the misfortune of taking a wrong turn inside Whitestone. The old place is full of surprises.”

Dr. Trickfoot perked up, wearing a pink smile on her plump lips. “Are you visiting Lord de Rolo, then?”

Intrigued by her eagerness, Vex replied, “Oh, yes. Are you well acquainted with him?” Her voice sounded more strained than she would have liked - it grew breathy with the eerie feel of the operation. It was not quite pain, but it was certainly aspiring to be. 

“Very,” she answered cheerily. “‘Twas I who introduced the young Lord to Keyleth, in fact. Have things been proceeding well?”

Keyleth sighed, and squeezed Vex’s hand again; Vex felt fairly certain that she was the one providing comfort this time, rather that receiving it (although Dr. Trickfoot did yank another splinter from her at exactly that moment – clever woman.)

“I’m sorry, doctor,” Keyleth sighed. “I've been trying, but he'll hardly let me look at his hand, let alone-“

Dr. Trickfoot gave a cough, and a small shake of her head. Keyleth looked at the carpet again. Vex craned her neck upwards, to get a better angle on their expressions. She desperately wanted them to continue: she put in, “You are not betraying any secrets. I’ve seen his hand already.”

The quiet snipping sounds of her surgery immediately halted. Her leg was briefly abandoned. Keyleth and Dr. Trickfoot traded a glance, eyebrows raised. “The young Lord must hold you in high regard,” the Doctor said, and turned back to her work. “I doubt he would show the scars to anyone he didn’t trust very deeply.”

Ignoring the quiet creep of guilt in her heart, Vex staged a broad grin, a sheepish laugh, and another half-truth: “Well, it was something of an accident, really – and he didn’t share any details." Curious, though: If the healers before her were treating Percival's hand, he couldn't have inflicted that injury upon himself the previous night, as the clumsy side effect of sabotage. Fighting to keep her voice light over her suspicion - and steady over her pain - Vex asked, "Has it been troubling him long?”

Dr. Trickfoot looked at Keyleth again, and the Ashari bit the inside of her lip. “I’d think I’d like one of your salves for this," the doctor said. "Could you fetch me the lavender or the cloves, please?”

The Ashari rose from her seat. She was not, like Mr. Shorthalt, being banished from the premises, as Vex first thought; instead, she moved towards a high-set shelf on the wall, and fanned her slender fingers through an array of stout ceramic jars. Dr. Trickfoot scooted her chair closer, and briefly placed her hand on Vex’s, replacing Keyleth’s. “Lady Syngorn, I do not wish to put any further burdens on you, nor do I wish to pry into your private affairs – but if Lord de Rolo trusts you even that much, I feel I should ask. Have you developed a sincere affection for him? Are you friends, perhaps?”

Unwelcome, uncomfortable questions, and based on false assumptions! Vex found the entire exchange somewhat farcical. She realized, however, that Dr. Trickfoot was on the verge of revealing something: she held a burning question sealed just behind her lips. Without bothering to discern whether she was lying or not, Vex smiled, fluttered her lashes and said, “Yes, I’ve grown very fond of him.”

“Good, that's very good,” Dr. Trickfoot continued. “In normal circumstances, Lady Syngorn, I would prefer to keep his medical information private, but he is in a dire state and I pray your friendship can be of aid to him." Vex nodded, encouraging, and the doctor released her hand. Her professional tone returned, and she continued, "In truth, I have no knowledge of how he received the injury; he showed up in the middle of the night five years ago, delirious with the pain, and he never gave voice to its cause.”

Had her own pain not prohibited her movement, Vex would have leaped clear off the chair. “The burn is five years old?” she replied, incredulous. From her perspective, distorted and dim though it had been, the wound looked entirely raw, entirely fresh. Nor did she miss the significance of the timespan – even without asking, she knew exactly which night had seen his hand destroyed.

“It’s the strangest case I’ve taken,” Dr. Trickfoot admitted, her voice hurt, betraying her shame. “It healed poorly, if it can be said to have healed at all, and I know it still troubles him. I sent him to consult with Keyleth in Emon a few months ago, but from the sound of it, the situation has not improved.”

The Ashari rejoined their discussion, a ceramic jar open in her hand, full of a pasty whorl of lightly purplish-coloured cream. Vex felt Keyleth’s fingers brush along her ankle, and the sensation in the joint grew numb. “He’s stubbornly resistant about taking anything besides treatments for the pain. And, of course, he tells me nothing,” she added, as her hand traveled the length of the cut.

Dr. Trickfoot put in, “I would very much like to know how he injured himself, Lady Syngorn, if you can somehow draw that from him. It would vastly improve our treatment plans. Or, rather, it would permit us to form one.”

For the first time, a slight note of resentment had entered her voice. Vex sighed aloud - it was nice to know that Lord de Rolo was equally evasive around everybody, but she was beginning to wonder how many pleasant young women he intended to offend.

“Do you know nothing at all?” Vex pressed.

“Only that he was injured the same night his family passed.”

The numbness in Vex's leg spread to her knee. Dr. Trickfoot threaded her stitching-needle with expert speed, and bowed her head over the gash. Keyleth’s salve had dulled Vex's pain, but it did not entirely obliterate the sensation of the needle piercing her, and Vex winced at the discomfiting tugs on her flesh. “And do you have any idea how they died, Dr. Trickfoot?” she asked, strained, through clenched teeth.

“No,” she admitted. Her eyes remained trained on her work, but Vex could see the frustration building in them. “One of my colleagues investigated, but she could not identify the illness that felled them. It does not seem to be related to the young Lord's injuries, however - not medically related, at least,” she amended.

Vex stopped trying to crane her neck at her nurses, and let her head tumble back onto the couch cushions. She stared at the blank ceiling, her thoughts vacillating between guilt, sympathy and suspicion. The events five years past had cost Percival his family. Somehow, on that same night, the young Lord himself had been crippled although death had spared him. She could not piece together what that meant, but it painted Percival more victim than criminal – and with the burn thus contextualized, he lacked any significant tie to the events of the previous night. Yet he was keeping a secret still, a painful secret: that much he had already disclosed to her, in a sense. She shuffled through all the evidence in her mind – the vandalized study, the unknowable illness, the burn on his hand, his target in the vault, the smoke on the stairs – with the distinct feeling that a vital piece still eluded her. If only he would tell her what he knew!

At that moment in the conversation, a clatter of footsteps and a hasty swap of polite greetings sounded from beyond the door. One "good-morning" came in a woman’s voice, speaking too quick and sharp for Vex to recognize, and the other came in the trilling tones of Mr. Shorthalt. Abruptly, as the exchange ended, he rapped on the door. The noise jolted Dr. Trickfoot unexpectedly - she yanked a touch too hard on Vex's stitches, and she cursed under her breath. Despite herself, a slight smirk took Vex’s features – it was quite something to hear such words in her childlike soprano. She had tough fibers in her heart, under all that kindness.

Mr Shorthalt declared, in a deliberately saucy voice, “I come bearing petticoats, and not in my usual way!”

Vex snickered. Dr. Trickfoot sent a short sigh through her nose. Keyleth moved to press her delicate hands to her temples, realizing just in time that her fingertips were still coated with lavender cream and stopping with a jolt.

Vex found herself somewhat disappointed in them both. "As in 'baring' petticoats?" she said. "No? Nothing?"

At the silence, Mr. Shorthalt continued – with considerably less confidence – “Are they enough to gain me entry?”

With unimpeachable dignity, Dr. Trickfoot finished her final stitch, and snipped the string with a pair of silver scissors. She made her way to the door, shoulders high, and opened it by barely a foot. “I’m afraid not, Mr. Shorthalt,” she said.

She accepted an armful of fabric from him, pulling it through the crack in the door. He declared, “And yet, my dearest doctor, it has all been worth this briefest glimpse of your sweet visage-“

Dr. Trickfoot shut the door, and turned back, slightly pink in the cheeks. Through the wood, Mr. Shorthalt called, “I’ll just wait out here, shall I?”

With her stitches completed, they washed the last of the blood from Vex’s leg, helped her dress, and braided her hair back into a respectable knot. The spare clothes were understandably simple: plain, navy-coloured fabric in two pieces, not unlike a riding habit. They fit a touch loose in the shoulders and tight in the hips, but Vex found herself appreciating their relative practicality, and her confidence and good spirits returned to her. She replaced her own coat, which had thankfully been spared of bloodstains, and fumbled her hands through the pockets for the doctor’s fee. As she did, she brushed her fingers against the (now quite rumpled) parchment that bore the image of Julius de Rolo’s crest, which she had placed there during the carriage-ride. The accident set her mind alight again; it grew electric with ideas. She realized that while the mystery of Percival’s motivations could not be solved with any swiftness, there was another puzzle at hand, one a doctor and self-proclaimed man-about-town could certainly help her solve. 

Ask M. Strongjaw to reinforce tunnel ceiling, so requested the note she had found in the study. Well, she would not be asking him for that precisely, but she certainly had some questions for him.

She paid the doctor’s fee – Dr. Trickfoot took less than half of what Percival had given her – and then called Mr. Shorthalt into the room. “Dr. Trickfoot, Mr. Shorthalt,” she said, “you wouldn’t happen to know a Mr. Strongjaw, would you?"

They both brightened, and looked at each other with sunny smiles on their faces. “Ol’ Grog Strongjaw?” Mr. Shorthalt chirped, “of course. How in the –" (Dr. Trickfoot elbowed him, stifling some hearty outburst of vulgarity) "-how do you know Grog Strongjaw?”

“You sound surprised.”

Mr. Shorthalt shrugged, but his good mood did not flag. “Just that – how shall I put this – you’re not the kind of Lady he usually favours.”

“Oh, Scanlan,” Dr. Trickfoot scoffed. “You know Grog can be a perfect gentleman when he wants to be-“

“You’re right, you’re right as always, my sweet angel of healing. I’m sure he’ll help Lady Vex’ahlia with whatever she needs.”

“What do you need?” Keyleth asked. She scrubbed her hands on the bloodied sheet, wiping away the last of the lavender cream.

Ah. At last, someone had asked her, indirectly, about her pursuit of the vault. Keyleth and Mr. Shorthalt already knew about it, of course, but Dr. Trickfoot was an unknown factor, and Percival had been quite explicit that she was to tell no one. She thought of his whispered warning before they had parted, and the fear in his eyes on the landing. In his own limited way, he had extended a heartfelt plea for her silence.  Slowly, she drew the two halves of the belt around her, and answered, "Just a name mentioned in passing - one that struck my curiosity. Where would I find him?”

“He works the quarries,” Mr. Shorthalt informed her, “but he’ll be in town for lunch. I can introduce you at the tavern, if you like.”

He shared the general direction of the tavern with her, and they made plans to meet in three hours. Once their agreement was reached, Mr. Shorthalt immediately began alluding to Dr. Trickfoot exactly how he’d prefer to while the time away. The doctor seemed willing to entertain his flirtations a moment or so longer, and so Vex briefly diverted her attention to Keyleth. The Ashari was rearranging the salves on the shelf, pressed up high onto her toes.

“So, Keyleth,” she said, “I'd thought you were at Whitestone to look after the Sun Tree?”

She dropped flat onto her feet again, and stammered, “well, yes – Percival agreed to let me oversee his treatments in Whitestone, on the condition that I look after the tree as well. I apologize, my Lady, I only omitted that at his request."

“Oh, I'm certain of that,” Vex replied acridly. Now that she was standing, she could even stage an offended glance in the general direction of Castle Whitestone. Her leg began to sting again, though the scent of the lavender salve still pursued her at her ankles like an affectionate lapdog. Turning back to Keyleth, she asked, “Then am I correct in assuming that you’ve been trapped at Whitestone for three wintry months with nothing but Lord de Rolo’s brooding and a sick tree to occupy your time?”

Keyleth could not stop a guilty giggle at the phrasing. She wrinkled her nose when she laughed, which made Vex smile easily in turn. “You make it sound so much more miserable than it is,” she answered, “but – well, you’re not wrong, either.”

With that, Vex lassoed the Ashari’s arm, turning her forcibly on the spot so they stood linked side-by-side at the elbows. Keyleth staggered, and looked at her, quite shocked. Vex stared back, wearing her most confident grin. Though she still believed him to be in a difficult situation of some inexplicable nature, she’d had rather enough of Lord de Rolo groundlessly begging their silence – especially since Keyleth seemed so troubled and so harmless in equal measure. So she would not tell his secrets, no, but nor would she bow to Percival's wishes without some small retaliations of her own. Unbeknownst to him, he had not won her silence through affection: but, by overestimating the cost of her stitches, he'd bought it instead.

“Keyleth, I’ve a pocket full of de Rolo gold and three hours to waste,” she declared, “and we’re going to have more fun in that time than you have since last Winter’s-Crest.”

She dragged Keyleth from the room at a speed that was surely unhealthy for her stitches, while the Ashari gave a startled laugh. The pair of them nearly barrelled into another doctor as they left – a dark-haired woman who sent them a glare of haughty severity – but they were both moving too quickly to stop, and Vex simply tossed a brusque apology over her shoulder as they departed.

--

Vex grew quite fond of the town of Whitestone over the subsequent three hours. To be sure, it lacked the heartbeat of a massive population, and felt rather quaint at first. The early spring chill made it especially sedate outdoors; most people shuffled through the street in furs so thick they bounced harmlessly from accidental collisions with each other like croquet balls, and exchanged no other greetings. Though the wares of the shops were perfectly impressive, she noticed far too many buildings with darkened doors and boarded-up windows; it seemed Whitestone's economy was suffering slightly under the distanced rule of its reclusive Lord.

Still, it was not an empty town. Vex led Keyleth through the streets with completely unfounded confidence, determined to entertain them with whatever curiosities they stumbled across. Driven jointly by spite and impulse, she purchased whatever nearby treats captured her fancy: sugared chestnuts, which they ate with their fingers (Keyleth giggling when hers tasted of lavender); fur-lined mittens, which they could not bring themselves to put on over their sticky digits; a pack of cards, when Keyleth said she’d never learned to play. She reasoned that Lord de Rolo would justly confiscate any coin that remained upon her return, and she resolved to spend it all. Of course, she was also determined to squeeze as much value out of it as she could. She expected that much of Keyleth's entertainment came from watching her increasingly absurd methods of forcing the prices down. Vex regretted her haggling somewhat - once unwrapped from their furs, the population in Whitestone was unequivocally friendly, and a little desperate for good business - but not nearly enough to stop, especially when her antics nearly managed to make Keyleth smile properly.

Then the sought a place to sit, so Vex could teach Keyleth the card-games. As they juggled their prizes, they instead stumbled across a building with broader windows than most. They pressed their faces to the tinted glass, and saw that the walls were plain, the floor was bare, and the emptied space had been entirely filled with an exhibition of gadgetry. It seemed the town shared the de Rolo passion for bizarre engineering. Vex pulled her companion inside, her curiosity piqued. Together they spent a full third of their allotted time inventing functions for the machines they saw, guessing their purposes before reading their placards (Keyleth was more imaginative, but Vex usually more accurate.) There sat a stout black machine that printed the letters carved on its keys, and there a miniature automated train with thin ribbon tracks, and there a simple wooden box surrounded by a display of blurry images, its placard claiming it had captured the pictures through refractions of light and reactions of chemicals. Everything whirred, clicked and clattered, performing its delegated task for its audience with ceaseless energy. Vex - remembering Percival's exhilarated face when he worked the engine in Castle Whitestone - found herself wondering what his expression would be like were he to come across the gallery before her. She decided that he probably needed a day out as much as Keyleth had, and resolved to drag him back to see the inventions - she would have to return to Dr. Trickfoot to get her stitches removed at some point. 

Adjacent to the gallery was a shop that seemed to be capitalizing on the popularity of its neighbour; the jewelry in the window was all brass, glass and hard angles, some of it bonded together by gears or rivets, mimicking the machinery next door. Vex caught Keyleth in a fascinated pause, her eyes fixed on something in the window. She slowed her pace to discern what captivated her friend; it was a pair of bracelets made of two different-coloured wires, winding through each other like serpents.

Keyleth, realizing that she had stopped them without explanation, stammered, “Ah, I was just thinking – silver and gold, again.”

Recalling their first true conversation in the halls of Whitestone, Vex grinned. She was truly growing to like Keyleth. Vex's attachments formed swiftly, and she decided that if she were to have an ally in Whitestone aside from her cunning brother and her troubled host, she would want someone with an earnest heart.

And so she teasingly drilled her finger into Keyleth’s shoulder, and said. “It’s a sign.

They emerged mere minutes later with the matching bracelets on their wrists, the shopkeeper glowering none-too-subtly at their departure (Percival’s coin was running low, and Vex had smoothly swindled him into nearly halving the price). To Vex’s dismay, however, Keyleth’s eyes were once again downcast; something had been occupying her thoughts since the morning, and it seemed no amount of indecent expenditure would dislodge it.

“Alright,” Vex sighed. “Keyleth, you’re calling rain-clouds down on us. What has you so miserable, darling?”

Vex directed them back across the main square, in the general direction of the tavern as indicated by Mr. Shorthalt – but Keyleth stilled her when they came to the sidewalk. Thus paused on the street corner, she asked, “How did you injure yourself, my Lady?”

In all their delightful amusements, Vex had nearly forgotten about the stitches, but the irritating itch of pain returned at the mention of the wound. She hesitated - any honest explanation would have sounded mad. “I fell, Keyleth, as I said.”

Her companion's pretty mouth twisted into a deeper frown, and Vex sighed. She realized her lie was untenable. “I fell,” she continued, “because thought I saw something. I’m not certain what. It could have been a nightmare, but it looked as if - it looked like-"

"A creature," Keyleth interrupted, “made of smoke?”

The sound of the world around them seemed to vanish in her shock. Breathlessly, Vex asked, “You’ve seen it too, have you?”

“Only once,” the Ashari confirmed. She bound her arms tight about herself, clearly troubled by a blackened memory of her own. “It chased me from the engine room, one night.”

Vex's heart thundered. Then she hadn't been mad, she truly had witnessed- “Do you have any idea what it is?”

Keyleth shook her head. The beads in her hair clinked against each other with a glittering noise, like wind-chimes. “I've only one theory, and it's - it's absurd, really-"

Absurd might have been the only kind of explanation that would fit: the creature had been something utterly beyond Vex's experience. She pulled them closer to the fence at the sidewalk's edge - the street was fairly busy, and she still felt the need to keep the events at the castle a secret. "Go on."

Quietly, her voice tripping with frequent hesitations, Keyleth recounted, "There is a legend in the de Rolo family that could explain it. It says that long ago, someone - it might have been a thief, or an assassin, I'm not sure - he killed one of the heirs of Whitestone. Then the heir rose again, from the depths of the castle, to take vengeance on his murderer." Keyleth's voice grew confident - her strange eyes fixed on Vex's, and in a measured, serious tone, she said, "They say this revenant cannot hold a constant form, for the heir himself was too young to know the shape of his soul, and that he appears whenever the fates of the de Rolos are threatened again."

Despite herself, Vex felt a chill crawl up her neck. Keyleth grasped her hands, and confessed, "I wonder sometimes if it would be wiser for us to leave.”

Though the suggestion was not irrational, the pace of Vex's heart surged, and her feet dug into the ground. She felt like a dog biting back at her master's leash; being told where to go made her more violently enraged than almost anything else. Spirits or no, she would not be deterred. There was a vault to unlock, and a fortune to secure. And beyond that - as she scrambled for an argument with which to retaliate - she realized that if she and the others departed, there would be nobody in the castle but Percival and the ghost. Whether it was truly a risen spirit, or a trick of some kind, a small, firm voice in her head insisted that no one should have to face such things alone.

Vex looked to the north. Castle Whitestone, distant though it was, loomed over the town like an encroaching glacier. She set her shoulders, and mused, “Who is wiser, really – the one who turns from such a mystery, or the one who risks the search for a rational explanation?”

“You sound like Percival,” Keyleth answered, slightly curt. “Lady Vex’ahlia, if you do stay, please – be careful, and especially after dark. It sounds as if the creature may only manifest at night, if we are the only two to have witnessed it.”

“Have you never mentioned this apparition to Lord de Rolo?” Vex asked. It seemed strange that a man who lived there for five years would have seen nothing of the creature, while she and Keyleth had both come across it after mere months.

“I have. He deems it a children’s tale." Keyleth released her hands, and began to fret with a loose strand of her scarlet hair again. "If you do want to know of the legend you’d be better suited to ask Ambassador Stormwind," she said, her voice returning to a relative steadiness. "I barely remember the story myself, and it was he who recounted it to me first.”

“A good thought," Vex agreed. A spirit made of smoke was the stuff of past ages, of fairytales. On any other day, she would not have believed Keyleth for a second - and yet she had seen something unearthly, something that defied any other explanation. It seemed that Ambassador Stormwind would be her first stop upon returning to the castle, but as there was little she could learn of the spirit before then, she shoved it to the back of her mind.

She looked back to Keyleth, and feigned as bright a smile as she could. "Well, I promised we’d have fun, and this is hardly a pleasant topic. We must meet Mr. Shorthalt – I expect we’re already late.”

They progressed, with all haste, to the tavern. It stood on a corner along the road that eventually led to Whitestone castle, and linked on its path to the highways that crossed Tal’Dorei. The tavern bore its name and insignia – The Lion’s Wrath, and the eponymous cat snarling with one paw pressed on a mead barrel – on a swinging, frost-dusted sign that hung above the street. As promised, Mr. Shorthalt was loitering beside the establishment, leaning against a brick wall. He greeted them with a cheery wave. “You’re just in time,” he announced. “Voila!”

He gestured down the bustling street. Amidst the carriages and horses and pedestrians, a hefty open-air cart traveled, pulled by a pair of deeply overburdened mules and carrying a half-dozen burly men and women. In a way, Vex heard the cart before seeing it; the rowdiest chatter and loudest cheers on the street emitted from its passengers. The whole assemblage clattered to a stop at the door of the tavern, and the rowdy crew disembarked. Vex craned her neck, scanning each face as if she would be able to recognize her quarry on sight.

“Strongjaw’s the big one,” Mr. Shorthalt informed her.

As her eyes chased over their shoulders, their hands on the lip of the cart, and their boots as they sank into the mud, Vex protested, “They’re all big.”

In her peripheral vision, she spied Mr. Shorthalt’s grin – and soon understood why he was smiling. There was a grunt, a rumble of exertion, and a thud. The cart bounced with the sudden release of weight, and stood a full few inches higher, visible even across the street; the mules shook themselves and rolled their shoulders, as if their burden had at last been lifted. The last worker had descended from the cart. He straightened, and when he at last reached his full height, he stood head and shoulders above the assembled crowd. The man was massive in every sense, nearly half as broad again as his fellows. He was perfectly bald atop his tattooed head, but he wore a full, soot-black beard, bisected by a wide, toothy grin of satisfaction. He ignored them entirely, absentmindedly cracked his knuckles, and pursued his cohort into the tavern, bowing his head to enter the doorway.

Mr. Shorthalt said, “He’s really a teddy bear at heart.”

A thunderous voice punched out clear from the inside of the tavern. “Oi, Kern! Whose fuckin’ chair d'you think that is-?!”

Vex then heard a crack, a splinter, riotous laughter from the tavern, and what sounded like a squeak from Keyleth. Mr. Shorthalt was grinning broadly. “So long as you don’t make him angry.”

Rather appalled, Vex turned to Mr. Shorthalt to demand some kind of further justification. To her surprise, he was not looking at her, but rather past her, his eyes narrowed in focus. He was squinting at someone or something further down the street, and Vex turned to follow his curious gaze.

There was nothing terribly out of the ordinary behind her; she saw only a sparse, grey avenue, one that had filled with pedestrians as the day progressed. Vex looked back, and Mr. Shorthalt gave her an apologetic shrug. "Never mind all that - thought I saw someone I knew, but it seems I was mistaken. Shall we?"

They entered the tavern together, Mr. Shorthalt in the lead, and Keyleth clinging to Vex’s shoulders like a shy, bright shadow. The Lion’s Wrath was surprisingly dim, despite the unimpeded noonday sun outside. It helped that everything was made of thickly cut wood, so dark it was nearly black; Vex had the distinct impression that she had walked into a dryad’s den, a darkened lair under the roots of a massive tree. The interior was warm, sweaty, packed to bursting with dust-smudged miners, and it smelled intensely of spilled whiskey.

Vex did not have to search very long to find her target. Strongjaw had claimed – or reclaimed – a spot against the far wall, under a pooled patch of dull bronze sunlight into which he leaned like a drowsy, freshly-fed cat. He'd slung his massive boots up on the chair opposite, the picture of the arrogant victor. The table before him had a mug of ale atop it, as well as a hefty plate of what looked like beef skewers. Vex also noticed the casualty she assumed to be Kern, who was picking himself up from the floor – he appeared to be another miner, a heavily scarred lip marring his face with the illusion of a permanent scowl.

The laughter at Kern's defeat died rather abruptly, as a consequence of their odd party drawing closer. Mr. Shorthalt was clearly a common customer. He traded waves and winks with a half-dozen other patrons on their way across the tavern, and even swiped an ale from one at the cost of a single, friendly swat to the shoulder in retaliation. The two young ladies, however - one wearing a jacket marked with noble finery and the other in the telltale decorations of an Ashari - were definitely a rarity. Mr. Strongjaw noticed them drawing closer, and immediately looked over his shoulder, as if he wondered whether they were approaching someone behind him (this despite the fact that he was seated almost flush with the wall, and the only thing behind him was a weathered old dartboard.)

“Oi, Grog!” Mr. Shorthalt called, offering him a brotherly handshake over the table. “Got some friends of mine keen to make your acquaintance, if you don’t mind a little company to drink with. You don’t, do you? Of course you don’t.”

The quarryman blinked, looking from Mr. Shorthalt, to Vex, to Keyleth, and back again, utterly mystified. “Er, right,” he said, and he removed his boots from the chair, sitting straight and formal. His voice lowered to an awkward rumble. “And how can I be of assistance to your Ladyships?”

He spoke in a commanding, thundering bass, but he stumbled over the formalities. Vex found it utterly charming, and opened her smiling mouth to answer – before the same miner from before, Kern, cut her off with a piercing wolf-whistle. She turned, shuddering at the unmistakable sensation of greedy eyes trailing up her form. “Oi, Strongjaw," Kern heckled. "You order a two-for-one special or summat?”

There was an incredulous cry from the gathered assembly. Two of the female miners fired off rude hand gestures in Kern’s direction. Keyleth whispered, in Vex’s ear, “I don't understand: he’s only got one plate.”

A flare of anger burst up through Vex’s chest. She snatched up the nearest projectile – the tankard on the table before her, nearly emptied to the dregs – and hurled it in Kern’s direction. It rebounded from his forehead, spinning over the bar in an arc, and splattering the remaining foam and ale across the ceiling. Kern tipped so far back he nearly tumbled from his stool. As he rocked back into place, Grog stood up violently, jolting the table a screeching six inches forwards. He bellowed, “OI!” and pointed a meaty finger directly at Vex’s face.

She felt her heart sink, and her eyes grow wide, and she realized she’d just stolen drink from a veritable human giant, one notorious for his rages, one who could snap her in one hand like a straw. And yet, just as she was about to scramble for an apology, or a promise to buy him a replacement, another broad grin split his face behind the beard.

“Good shot,” he said, and then broke into strain of loud, howling laughter. Keyleth gave a shrill, awkward giggle from behind her - she was prone to nervous laughter, evidently. The general chatter of the tavern resumed – Vex caught a few people admonishing Kern that “he ought to know he deserved it” – and Grog threw out a sweeping hand gesture to welcome the three of them to his lunch.

“As you were saying,” he said, and they took their seats. “Er – didn’t get your names yet, did I?”

Vex grinned, planted her folded arms on the table – not without a slight twitch of regret, because it was, indeed, gummy with the vestiges of spilled drink – and said, “Lady Vex’ahlia of Syngorn, and Keyleth of the Ashari People.”

Grog drew in a breath, and his eyes opened wide. “Ashari?” he said, and slammed a hand on the table so hard the dishes jumped. “You do magic, then, eh?”

Glancing towards her companion, Vex could only smirk as Keyleth seemed to shrink a few inches deeper into her chair. “Only very little,” she said.

That did not deter their new acquaintance – he gave her a wild, wordless gesture of encouragement. Panicked, Keyleth shot some swift glances around the table. She said “excuse me,” and picked up a discarded wooden skewer from Grog’s plate, one that had already been divested of meat. Vex couldn’t help a slight grimace - the wood was still quite coated in sauce and drippings.

Keyleth held the skewer before her, and stared at it so intently she almost grew cross-eyed. “You remember what you were, once, right?” she whispered to the stick.

Silence fell at the table. Mr. Shorthalt took a slow drink. Grog said, “No.”

Acting as if she did not hear, Keyleth raised her free hand to the skewer, swirling it around in the air – and Vex felt a pull, a strangely familiar sense that something natural, obvious, and yet inexplicably strange was about to occur. Keyleth chirped, “pouf!”, and the point of the skewer burst apart with a snap. A short cluster of green shoots curled from it, growing at uncanny speed. One tendril budded, and upon it opened a small, rounded leaf.

Vex gave a short, delighted laugh, and Mr. Shorthalt clapped a polite round of applause against his tankard. Keyleth held the skewer out, proudly, and Grog said, “Wow.”

“I knew it,” Keyleth said, brightly. “It’s a birch!”

Grog recoiled. “What’d you call me?”

She faltered. “Um-“

“You should keep it, Grog!” Vex put in, jovially. “I’m sure it’s good luck.”

A nervous, hopeful, almost childlike look lit his beetle-black eyes, and Keyleth sheepishly handed him the skewer. He tucked it behind his ear, grinning, and Vex couldn’t help a smile of her own. He didn’t look any less threatening, even with the floral decoration, but it was clear that Dr. Trickfoot and Mr. Shorthalt had been sincere in describing his character; he made very pleasant company when he wasn’t bellowing like a gorilla. She ordered him another drink, and waited until it arrived to begin her interrogation.

“So,” she started, “I’ve a question for you, Grog.”

He took a quick pull from his tankard before he answered, grumbling, “’s not a maths question, is it?”

“No,” Vex replied, her voice bright. “Just about your work. I’m wondering if you know anything about the tunnels under Whitestone castle.”

Everyone at the table sent her a look - she realized, a fraction too late, that Keyleth and Mr. Shorthalt had no context for what she was asking, at that she had unintentionally let them in on one of her best clues. No matter; she had needed them both to get to this point. As for Grog, the curious question set him thinking, and he replaced his drink on the table. He scratched one massive hand under his chin, freeing a slight shower of grit from his beard. “I know some. You mean the old mine in back?”

Vex raised her eyebrows, her curiosity fully engaged. She hadn’t been expecting something quite so promising and elaborate as an entire mine. “I do indeed,” she said.

“Ain’t much to know,” Grog replied. “Haven’t seen jobs up that way for a hundred years. My great-uncle Kevdak worked ‘em when he was a lad, and that’s about it.”

“Really? What was he working on?”

“Wouldn’t say nothin’,” Grog answered. “Lord de Rolo paid him to button it.”

Keyleth and Mr. Shorthalt exchanged looks. Vex leaned closer across the table. “Did he?”

Realizing he had been misunderstood, Grog waved his hand dismissively through the air, as if he were fanning out a fire. “Not this one. One a ways back. Percival the Second, I think?”

“Now, why would he do that?” Vex drawled, tapping her chin thoughtfully with her fingernails.

“Haven’t the slightest,” Grog said, and he knocked back another swig of ale, “Between you and me, your Ladyship, those de Rolos are bonkers to the last. That other Percival what opened the mine – when my great-uncle worked it, right – he paid to have it carved up for a month, then sent ‘em all back to the quarry on the other side of the valley with double pay and orders to shut it.”

“Should you be telling us this, then?” Keyleth put in, in a very small voice.

 “Nobody paid me,” he said, with a shrug and a wicked, booming cackle.

 Mr. Shorthalt raised his ale, in a mock toast. “He’s got a fair point, there.” He seemed to be paying only half his full attention to the conversation; while they spoke, he was busily scanning the faces of the tavern, looking as if he were trying to find something lost.

The thoughts tumbling around in Vex's head had very little to do with the contents of the mine itself. She had already come across one collapsed tunnel, and the promise that a wise man would build another path; perhaps that wise man had been the second Percival, and the tunnel-carving Grog described were his efforts to access the vault once more? Vex pressed on, “Have you any idea what the work in the mine was for? Any at all?”

Grog shook his head, and scowled. “Nah. It was a bust. Nothin' worth pulling out of the ground up that way.”

"Then have you any idea why Lord de Rolo would want to hire someone like you to fix a tunnel in Whitestone?"

"Does he?"

"He might," she lied smoothly, while Keyleth gave her a curious look. "Although I believe he is occupied with other projects at the moment."

"Probably needs to put new stone in somewhere, then," he concluded. At Vex's obvious confusion, he continued, "The white stone’s a special kind, see – it’s a – what’s the word – compromise?”

The table pondered collectively, until Mr. Shorthalt suggested, “composite?”

“Yes, that’s the one, thank you, Scanlan.” Grog said, jabbing his finger in his direction. “It’s a softer stone what gives the stone its shine. Couple hundred years pass, and the rain scrubs all the shiny off. Could've just built it all from real hardy kinds of rock, but as I said – bonkers.

He finished the last of his ale, which he had been drinking throughout the conversation, and heaved a spectacular belch. Vex wrinkled her nose, and pressed on, “Could you tell me how to get to the mine?”

“Not much to see,” Grog supplied. “But I’ll do you one better, in exchange for the lovely luck charm from your Ladyship." He gave Keyleth a nod, and she blushed pink, with a nervous smile. "I’ll take you all out to it once I’m done me lunch.”

And that was how Vex ended up riding in the back of a wagon with a half-dozen burly miners, one very nervous Ashari, Grog’s spare sledgehammer slung across her lap “just in case”, and a growing feeling that she was taking her ventures a touch too far. Mr. Shorthalt, possibly the only one among them to retain his good sense, waved goodbye to the party with a bemused look on his face, and then headed down the street that Vex recalled to be Dr. Trickfoot’s.

The cart exited the town, its wheels rattling forebodingly at every hillock and pothole, and the axles squeaking at the slightest turn. Vex was quite glad for noise, both because she was entirely too aware that the other workers found her presence somewhat awkward and conversation would likely be disastrous, but also because she was rather enjoying the scenery. As they pulled away from the town of Whitestone, they turned down a road that curved along the outside of the castle's hill, and dove deep into the nearby forests. For her temporary companions, it was a commute, and she assumed they were long since numbed to its wonders – but Vex regarded the winding, stony path as utterly thrilling. The route circled the side of a massive ravine, and the trees spearing up from its steeply sloped face were taller than any she had ever seen, veritable towers of black and dark green, their broad branches dimming the needle-strewn path before them. The snow was mostly melted but for stray, gritty-grey patches, already dissolving into brackish pools. The road was deserted: their cart was its lone traveler. It was a splendidly haunted landscape. Once the wheels rattled to a stop, Vex sprung from her seat with her heart full of adventure – neglecting entirely the weight of the sledgehammer, which immediately swung her off balance and sent her plunging from the back of the cart and face-first into the dirt behind it.

Keyleth yelped, “Lady Vex’ahlia!” and she heard a pair of feet thud to the ground beside her. Vex rolled onto her back, releasing the sledgehammer and staring up at the distant, dappled sky. It looked alarmingly far away, with the height of the trees. Keyleth’s worried face swept into her vision, followed by that of a female miner who had been sitting next to her for the ride.

Dizzily, she said, “Keyleth, could you check my stitches, please?”

“They’re fine, my Lady,” she confirmed, and, with the assistance of the other woman, helped her to her feet. The rest of the crew were gathered at the lip of the cart, staring at her wide-eyed, Grog peeking head and shoulders above the rest.

“Stitches?” her unnamed helper asked. “You chop up your leg, is that it?”

“Only a little,” Vex responded. “I’ll just need a minute.”

Hefting Vex higher on her shoulder, the woman barked, “Oi, Kern! Toss me your flask, you layabout.”

“Aw, Trish-“

“You’ve already done her insult today! Call this an apology so I don’t have to break your nose.”

There was a grumble from the cart, and then a small, silvery flask sailed over the heads of the other miners. Trish caught it, still propping Vex up with her other hand, and said, “This’ll do you well for the sting. Who’d you see at the doctor’s? Trickfoot, was it? Vesh? Ripley?”

“Doctor Trickfoot, yes,” she replied.

“Thought so. She’s too much of a straight-edge to give you the good stuff. Take a few swigs while you walk, you’ll feel right as rain.”

Trish gave Vex a hearty clap on the back, and then released her, seeing she had mostly regained her footing. The miners relaxed, collectively, and took their seats again. Once they were settled, Grog stepped from the cart – the mules at its head gave twin squawks of relief – and joined them on the path. He picked up the fallen sledgehammer, and slung it fluidly over his shoulder as if it were no heavier than a jacket.

“Right,” he said. “I’ll take you both up to where the mine is, then we’ll all be on our way to the quarry – it's just a bit of a walk from here.”

“Um, Mr. Strongjaw,” Keyleth put in, “How will Vex and I get back to town?”

He stared at her for a while, and then answered, “I hadn’t thought of that.”

Keyleth pressed her fingertips to her temples again, but Vex squinted up the incline, and saw a smooth plane of white far beyond the tightly woven trees. It was the wall of the castle; their path had taken them almost directly alongside it the entire way. “I don’t think we’re far from home,” she said. “We’ll just climb back up on our own.”

Their little band of three agreed; and the cart continued its noisy way along the road. Vex waved an earnest goodbye to the workers, catching Trish's eye, and feeling a slight twinge of regret that she had not tried to engage at least one of them in conversation.

Grog turned from the road, and with short, hearty phrases of encouragement, began to lead them up the side of the ravine. They scaled a steep, root-strapped incline that did very little good to her stinging leg, and her pain was slowing their pace. Thus, it did not take Vex long to follow Trish’s suggestion: she swigged a hasty mouthful of the liquid when they were not five minutes along. She'd been gifted some rather terrible whiskey, as she discovered; stinging and strong, and she’d taken just enough to force a shocked little cough from her throat. Grog and Keyleth both glanced back at her, but she bade them press onward, feeling the pleasant burn sink down into her gut.

By the time they had scaled the side of the hill, she felt quite a bit better, and the stinging in her leg had calmed. She screwed the cap back on the flask, and inspected the juncture where Grog had gestured for them to halt. The ground before them flattened out, and the carpet of foliage - fallen leaves, coarse grass, and short shrubs - gave way to a ring of rock-speckled dirt, over which crossed a rusted set of mine cart tracks. At the opposite end of the artificial clearing, the natural incline of the mountain resumed; cut into its slope was a wide, rectangular tunnel. The tracks led towards it, but the opening had been barricaded by a double set of reinforced wooden doors. A rusty chain looped through the door-handles, sealed with an intimidating padlock. Vex frowned, and briefly regretted leaving her brother in the castle.

“Not all that exciting, like I said,” Grog concluded - and somewhat sheepishly, as if he sensed the escapade had been disappointing.

Vex was not convinced. She walked up to the door, taking another quick drink as she did, and squinted into the darkness beyond its barred windows. A pale tunnel of grayish-white stone extended for several feet, and she could barely discern the shape of the tracks traveling further inside. Beyond that, it was difficult to see: the might of the mountain swallowed the sun. She found it disconcerting that the mine was locked so simply, and not with some elaborate de Rolo riddle, but she was not entirely deterred. The tunnel did point in the direction of the castle, and they were truly not far from its walls. Even if the vault proper were not beyond the door, perhaps a few clues as to what Percival the Second was up to - or what Percival the Third was up to, for that matter - could be found inside.

“You want in, eh?” Grog called. “’Scuse me, your Ladyship.”

Vex stepped back just in time to dodge Grog’s full-bodied overhand swing. Without so much as a grunt of exertion, he brought the sledgehammer down. The chain snapped; the hefty mallet pulverized the padlock beneath it. There was a moment of silence, and then one door swung six inches inwards with a submissive creak.

“Right, that should do,” he declared, swinging the sledgehammer back over his shoulder. Vex realized she was clutching at her whiskey with both hands. She took another quick swig as Grog turned to her. “I wouldn't go more than a few feet in. Could be right dangerous in there. Got a light to go by? Won’t be none inside.”

“Oh, no, I won't be going in without Percival,” Vex said.

She stopped. The answer had been automatic, and mentally, she asked herself why. At the same time, Keyleth looked at her sidelong, and she realized that she’d made the double mistake of referring to him by his given name.

She reflected: despite her bitterness at his behaviour that morning, she found herself disinclined to exclude him from the hunt. It was his vault; it felt only fair. “You have my thanks for the door, however,” she continued, and gave Grog a swift, awkward bow.

Keyleth offered him a curtsey, gently lifting her skirts from the ground. “It has been a pleasure, Mr. Strongjaw.”

“Pleasure’s all mine, your Ladyships,” he replied, and gave them a flowery, extravagant bow in return. “Head south a bit before you climb – then you’ll come out by the road and not smack into a castle wall.”

He descended the hill, as they turned to climb it. Vex and Keyleth took the first part of their walk in silence: Vex, for her part, had learned too much in a handful of hours. She spent a few long, strained minutes dissecting her evidence, her thoughts charged by the bracing cold and gentle wind. Her conclusions, in the end, were not positive: the details gathered in the town suggested that Percival was more innocent than she had thought, but Keyleth's story made her believe he - and all his guests - were in more danger than they could possibly know.

For her part, Keyleth remained quiet as well. Vex suspected it was out of politeness; she wondered if she had ever met someone quite so accommodating. In the middle of her musings, she turned back, to call to Keyleth, “Thank you for all your assistance today, my dear.”

“You’re entirely welcome,” Keyleth replied, and – at last, at last! – Vex caught sight of a tiny, eager, earnest smile on her face, and her brilliant eyes shone with a joyful light, and she said, “I had quite a bit of fun.”

Chapter Text

As their climb continued, a cold and bracing wind moved through the trees on Whitestone’s hill and pinned Vex and her companion to its leaf-littered face. Beyond the netting of the branches, the sky shone blue, unmarked by clouds, and yet the sun’s touch had warmed nothing. She relied on the touch of the whiskey for that instead: it carried a little warmth with each mouthful, and it numbed her chills along with her pain. It occurred to her that she could have offered some to Keyleth, at least to start the conversation again. Their journey had become oppressively quiet, and Vex grew uncomfortable. The Ashari's fine brows were deeply furrowed, and she obviously had some complex thought cooking slowly in her mind. Vex decided not to interrupt the process, curious as to whether Keyleth was about to shed new light on something they had discovered together.

Her patience was rewarded halfway up the hill, when Whitestone began to show ever more clearly through the gaps in the trees. Keyleth called to her, “Have you met many other Ashari, Lady Vex’ahlia?”

Interesting - an unexpected line of questioning. Vex restricted her pace until she fell into step with Keyleth again. The path below their feet was narrow, but both women walked sure-footed; they moved side-by-side with little trouble. “I have not,” she admitted. “Well, I have been introduced to a handful, but you are the first I have befriended."

The final word set a small smile aglow on Keyleth’s face; the discovery of such an unexpected allegiance was a pleasure for them both, evidently. “That is very kind of you,” she said. “Though I had a purpose in asking - I wondered, my Lady, if anyone had ever spoken to you about your magic.”

Vex turned. The wind batted loose strands of her hair into her face, and she raked them back to ensure Keyleth could appreciate the incredulity in her expression. Her friend had a tendency to say truly bizarre things - though she smiled so convincingly as she did. The word “magic” in particular sounded absolutely audacious. “About my magic?” Vex repeated, in a skeptical voice. “What magic?”

Grinning, Keyleth clapped her hands like a delighted child and said, “Oh, wonderful! That means I can teach you.”

The wind settled – the forest grew eerily quiet. Vex managed to reply, “What would you have to teach me? I can admit to some interest in the topic, but a complete absence of talent for its practice.”

“Why, that isn’t true at all,” Keyleth replied. Her voice became instructive – it was strange to hear her naturally hesitant tones gain an edge of authority – and she said, “The Ashari have managed to preserve the deepest connection with magic, but there are still those with the talent for it in their blood. Usually, begging your pardon, their skills are somewhat weaker. But only because they have never been trained, of course - I'm sure you could be plenty powerful, if you wished to practice." Keyleth stopped short with an apologetic smile, realizing she had wandered from her point, and hastily explained, "Regardless - it is possible you've used your gift without knowing. Often it manifests in a singular form. To all outside observation, it would simply resemble an unnatural talent. Have you anything special you can do?”

Vex took another swig of whiskey – she had grown almost entirely accustomed to the powerful taste – and thought. She knew she had a handful of good characteristics to take pride in: she was intelligent and possessed an excellent memory; she was quite vital and athletic for her age and size; and she thought herself relatively friendly and (hopefully) likable. Nothing so general could be the work of magic, and so she narrowed her focus to her specific accomplishments. She grew quite disappointed: for all her schooling and talents, she could not pinpoint a single sense in which she was extraordinary. It was both depressing and soothing to affirm one’s mediocrity, she thought; one was spared the pressure of grand aspirations, in exchange for the irritating knowledge that one was entirely unremarkable.

And yet somewhere in that mediocrity, Keyleth had seen magic?

“I haven’t thought of anything," Vex grumbled, stomping decisively on a cracked root. Bluntly, she continued, "If I do, I shall tell you. And I don’t mean to be rude, Keyleth, but is it possible you are mistaken?”

Keyleth looked somewhat disappointed, and booted a pinecone down the hill for good measure. “No. I’m certain the trait is simply escaping your notice. It happens quite often. You will mistake it for something natural and obvious, while others would deem it uncanny.”

Excellent. Her choices were mediocre or uncanny. Seeing she was headed for quite a miserable spiral of thought, Vex pretended to consider Keyleth's question, but focused on the woods again instead. She liked the brittle wind on her cheeks and the distant snapping sounds of branches and the piney scent of the intimidating trees. She would enjoy the walk, let herself move so she could think – and at length, she noticed a series of broad, flat imprints frozen in the muck, which instantly brightened her spirits again.

“Oh, look, Keyleth!” she gestured, “bear tracks.”

And then, she remembered – the sparrows, the mare, the raven, and the bear sniffing her skirts while Percival's hand trembled in hers.

“Oh,” she breathed. And then, “Oh, Keyleth, I have it!”

Keyleth, who had bent over the tracks to inspect them. swung upright and looked at her excitedly. Vex held her hands out, bidding her for patience, as she continued, “It would be far better to show you. Keep your eyes open, and let me know if you see a living creature.”

They climbed with new energy, searching through the woods as they traveled. After barely five minutes, Keyleth seized her wrist, and pointed up into the trees. A sound of rattling branches drew her eye, and she spotted a downy-brown form skittering across a branch - elongated and slender, like a squirrel, but closer to the size of a housecat. It stopped on a slender, swaying branch, and stared at them with the masterful stillness of a tiny predator. Its furry cheeks were dusty white, as if it had nuzzled into a bag of flour. Vex recognized a pine marten, going about his business, under whose treetop bridge they were about to cross. Perfect - she knew better than to underestimate the teeth on even the smallest rat-catcher, but the marten certainly posed less threat than a bear.

“Would you join us for a moment, friend?” she called up, careful to keep her voice soft.

The furry chest huffed and heaved with quick breaths. A little nervous, perhaps, but he did obey; he scuttled down the trunk of the nearest tree, and sat between its roots with his ears perked up. His nose twitched quick and constant, almost like a heartbeat.

“Oh, sweetheart!” Keyleth said. She crouched on the uneven ground, and held her slender fingers outstretched. The marten sat further back, lifting his paws from the earth, a miniature gesture of hesitation. Vex gave the creature an encouraging nod, and he scampered forwards to prod at Keyleth’s fingertips with his nose.

Vex took stock of herself. If she was performing magic, it didn’t feel half as dramatic as she expected. She felt no electric revelation, only a slight wrinkle in the fabric of life. The physical effects were minimal, and gentle; a slight warmth in her hands, a sharpness to her senses despite the whiskey. Altogether it felt akin to the way one’s skin tingles when one is being watched, or to the precognitive tension in one’s stomach a split-second before the ringing of an alarm: it was not necessarily a sensation that could be explained, or a knowledge that could be justified, but it felt dependable and reliable, and it made a certain amount of impossible sense.

She understood, in the same strange way, that the pine marten felt uncomfortable. He shied from Keyleth's fingers, and his paws twitched anxiously on the ground. Vex did not want to trap him there a moment longer than necessary, so when Keyleth curled her fingers away from his curious snuffling, she dismissed the creature with a quick jerk of her head. It dashed back up the tree, and skittered off skyward through the branches. As she rose, dusting off her hands, Keyleth commented, “That is most certainly an arcane gift, my Lady.”

Vex gave a slightly bashful shrug. “I thought I was just – being kind.”

“There is a touch of magic in such kindness anyway, I think,” Keyleth replied, and there was an eerie distance in her voice, a patient wisdom Vex had not heard before. “Though now we have proven that you are particularly gifted.”

They returned to their walk; Whitestone loomed ahead. Vex could discern the windows rising above the external walls: the broad, high tower above them belonged to the library. Another question surfaced in her mind: “How did you manage to identify such a talent before I showed you, Keyleth?”

“It is another aspect of all magic," Keyleth explained. “We practitioners are drawn to each other, in a sense. I imagine when you meet someone with a similar skill, you would feel - a connection, almost. A quick and powerful affinity.”

Keyleth spoke with a suggestion implicit in her voice, and she folded her hands behind her back. She had someone particular in mind; Vex reflected, searching for the last time she had felt an attraction that could be described in such a way.

She found the solution quite swiftly: it explained her sudden attachment to a particular stranger who had crossed her path in the woods, months ago. Percival had captured her curiosity so very quickly, and perhaps the reason why lay in what Keyleth was describing. She wondered if that had been the motive behind his strange greeting - had Percival felt that immediate sympathy, that draw of magic, and assumed she was a woodland ghost or wandering spirit? Even the simple coincidence of their encounter became enormously significant. After all, of the many pathways in that winding wood outside Emon, somehow, theirs had crossed.

Immediately after the revelation thrilled her, it began to scare her. If Percival had magic, what could he do with it? She managed to breathe, “Are you talking about Percival?” as her mind invented a dozen fictions of horrific magical talents: she thought of how he always appeared so suddenly, knowing more than he should, and of fire and of smoke and intangibility-

To her surprise, however, Keyleth heard the name and recoiled in confusion. “I’m not sure what you mean, Lady Vex’ahlia – Percival has no magic to speak of,” she said.

They fell awkwardly quiet for a moment, and then a broad smile took Keyleth’s face, and she raised her hands to her cheeks to frame her own grin. “Although,” she continued, her voice teasing and weaving, “there are other kinds of affinities-”

“-I haven’t the slightest idea what you’re talking about-“

“-Love at first sight, was it, Lady Vex’ahlia?” she chirped.

Vex turned away sharply and pushed ahead, fully intending to abandon Keyleth on the mountainside, but her friend only kept to her quick-footed pace. “Absolutely not!” she denied, and found her cheeks tickling with the touch of the whiskey. She hadn’t even considered - 

“You know, he’s very fond of you,” Keyleth put in. “Oh, I’m earnestly glad for you both! Percival needs someone to bring the sun back to his heart-”

“Oh, enough!” Vex interrupted. The assumptions embarrassed her, but were simultaneously so ridiculous that she could not help laugh along with her friend. “You had someone in else in mind, did you not?”

“I was only speaking of myself,” Keyleth explained, bashfully, dismissing the question with a wave of her hand. “I imagine, if I may presume – that you and I are friends for that very reason.”

Vex found that supposition far more irritating than Keyleth's teasing. Arcane guidance be damned - she would decide who her friends were (and if she wished to be in love with anyone, she would decide that for herself too). “Keyleth,” she declared, “You and I are friends because I enjoy your company, and that’s that. Despite your tendency towards groundless assumptions.”

Keyleth blushed; Vex knocked back the rest of her whiskey. It was a larger mouthful than expected, and the world tilted and swum for a moment after she swallowed. Luckily, the ground evened out at that very moment, and they emerged onto the road at Castle Whitestone’s entryway. The gates were lowered, and the courtyard was empty as they crossed it. Upon meeting the grand wooden doors at the front of the castle, Vex was surprised to find herself consumed by a gripping sense of relief, and with it, a budding familiarity. It was not quite the sense of immediate comfort that came from returning to one’s home, but it was sister to that feeling, and she smiled with exhausted pleasure when she pushed the front door in. Whitestone was such a different creature in the daytime, so distant from the bizarre visions in the halls at night. The castle remained quite stark, as reserved as its Lord, but the bright, cloudless day did it many favours in tone. They entered to see the sun streaming cheerily in from the broad windows, lighting every pale stone wall to a soft glow.

Their timing proved to be fortuitous. Vex and Keyleth dawdled a minute in the main hall, and while they waited, footsteps echoed from the stairwell on their left. Lord de Rolo emerged from the engine room a moment later, head tilted forth in curiosity at the sound of their voices. “Ah,” he called, “Keyleth, Lady Syngorn.”

They greeted him in turn, but Vex did not miss the look the Ashari gave her. Damn Keyleth and her teasing! Now that she had made such suggestions, Vex was forced to consider them whether she wanted to or not. Percival certainly seemed to brighten at their presence, and she couldn’t help but track the speed of his paces as he approached, or note the amount of time his eyes lingered on her face compared to anywhere else. He almost smiled at them, though his guilt prevented the fullness of any such joyful expression. Perhaps the young Lord was fond of her after all, and as she did not yet know how to make use of that thought, Vex stashed it away for later. He joined them, and breathed a sigh of relief into his speech: “How are you faring?”

“Not too poorly,” she answered, and it was quite true; her leg had not pained her since she’d started drinking. Her tongue and limbs felt good, agile and loose. “All stitched back together.”

“I’m glad of it,” he answered, but his gladness remained plagued by questions. He bit the inside of his lip, and then continued, “Forgive my impertinence, but how did this misfortune befall you?”

Quite a weighted question. Vex was on the point of explaining it, until she recalled Keyleth’s warnings – Percival did not believe in the spirit she had seen, and would likely take her explanation as a joke or a lie. She did not want to sacrifice her credibility quite yet. So, staging a sigh, she replied, “Through my own clumsiness, my Lord. I can recount the whole thrilling tale of my stumbling about the darkened halls if you wish; but rest assured that you bear no responsibility for my state.”

An obvious lie, and he did not believe her – the quick smile that ticked across his face told her that much. Another confrontation to expect later, perhaps. Despite his undisguised doubts, however, he responded, “That assurance will satisfy me.” He turned to Keyleth, directing his next question at her. His voice fell low, and quite serious. “Any other problems?”

“Nothing, my Lord,” she answered, her voice cheery and musical. Her eyes flickered back and forth between their faces as she said, “Lady Vex’ahlia, I should check on the tree – I leave you to share your plans. Good afternoon to you both.”

With a flourish of her sweeping skirts, Keyleth curtsied and departed down the hall, past Percival’s shoulder. She gave Vex an encouraging look, but Vex found it easy to ignore: Percival had wasted no time starting up his interrogations again. “I don’t see Mr. Shorthalt with you. How did you find your way back?”

“We rode in a cart with your quarrymen,” Vex answered proudly. "And then we climbed the hill."

That brought his smile out in full, along with a skeptical raised brow. “Sounds as if you had quite the excursion,” he observed.

“Indeed, I have,” Vex said. She felt rejuvenated by the light on the walls and the whiskey blurring her senses, and she took a swinging, impulsive turn down the closest hall. She stepped on the squares of sunshine projected from the windows as she walked, avoiding the cracks in the tiles and the shadows between the panes. Percival followed, keeping a more regular pace at her side. “Whitestone is delightful,” she continued. “I’m quite taken by those candied chestnuts they make – and there was an exhibition by the main square that I’m certain would have delighted you. They’ve got this machine that paints pictures with light, and all sorts of clever inventions-“

A column interrupted the gallery of windows; her next target fell just beyond the reach of her stride. Without a second of hesitation, hardly even looking in her direction, Percival extended a hand to her. She caught it, and he steadied her as she leaped to the next square. Vex landed smoothly, released his hand, and they continued. Airily, he said, “I’m familiar with the exhibition, yes. I’ve been many times.” A slight weight crept into his voice. “I’m rather astounded that I forgot about it.”

Vex glanced his way. He seemed to be searching for something in his memory, his eyes tracing across the floor. “Well, I’d certainly go back again, if you’d like to see it,” she offered.

He looked at her quite suddenly, as if he'd been shaken awake, and then glanced away. Tense and hesitant, he answered, “That – I expect that would be – I’ll think about it.”

Percival looked at the ground, his eyes grey and grim. Her heart twisted in sympathy: she recognized his confusion, his selective amnesia. How many fond memories of her mother had she erased, only to spare herself the pain of recalling them? From time to time, odd, nostalgic details still stung her – strains of songs, certain flowers, patterns on wood grain, blurred sights and sounds – they all unexpectedly summoned shadows of that lost, precious woman to mind. She did not know whether that method of grieving was right or healthy, but she knew she could spare him from it for a little longer. She remembered the harshness of their last exchange, and noticed the nervousness with which he still spoke to her. Vex had come to understand the reasons for some of his transgressions, and she'd taken her revenge for others (his coin purse was entirely empty). Most of all, he seemed genuinely concerned for her safety: whatever secrets he still kept, she knew he did not do it with intent to harm her. For now, that would be enough.

“Percival,” she said, and he slowed to a stop at the seriousness of her voice, “I should apologize for my aggressive tone last night. I’ve been rather suspicious of you, and it’s not entirely warranted. You’ve had a difficult time.”

He looked away, heaving a long, rattling sigh. “It’s not unwarranted, either,” he pointed out at last, with a shrug. “We both acknowledge we are keeping secrets from each other, but that does little to make such secrecy less ominous. He glanced back at her, wearing a regretful expression. Another little smile snuck into it, and he added, tugging at the cuffs of his gloves, “Although, if you’re no longer angry with me, I will admit to a measure of relief.”

“I don’t suppose I am,” Vex decided. To prove it to them both, she took the young Lord’s arm as if they were embarking on a promenade. The gesture startled them both in turn: he seemed surprised at her boldness, and his bearing grew nervously square and mechanical; she found his elbow eerily warm where she grasped it, as if she were pressing her hand to an overworked engine. They shared a moment of pause, and then it passed them by. They turned a corner together; the light shifted; she changed the topic; “So, my Lord, I’ve got a new theory for us to test. Did you know about the mine under your castle?”

“That’s on the West side of the mountain, yes?” he replied thoughtfully.

“Indeed. I spoke with someone in town today and learned that your great-grandfather opened it for work. Apparently he kept the reasoning behind it secret, and I’ve been thinking, that it was-“

“-to carve another tunnel into the vault,” he interjected. He sounded impressed, and acknowledged, “It certainly seems plausible.”

Amused, Vex took advantage of their proximity, and nudged him in the side with her shoulder. He flinched, but did not tear from her grip. “You need to make a few more friends, Percival,” she taunted. “Astounding what you can learn from them.”

“I have no doubt. I am learning plenty from the few I’ve made recently.”

The glancing compliment made her smile – she caught his eye, and found him grinning faintly along with her. Something else seemed different on his face, and she realized, after a moment of study, that his eyes looked brighter than usual – closer to the colour of clear skies, rather than skies overcast. It could have been the shift in the light, but she suspected his shift in mood instead. “All your talk of ominousness and secrecy,” she scoffed. “You know, you are not quite so sinister as you would have us believe, my Lord, nor half so inscrutable.”

“Really? What a curious observation,” he replied, raising his brows again in disbelief. “Most people seem to say the opposite.”

“I know by your eyes,” she declared. “I believe they tint bluer when something pleases you. They tell me where your thoughts are directed - like little weathervanes for your temper.”

The analogy pushed him to embarrassed laughter. Vex hadn’t heard him laugh outright before, outside short, subdued chuckles; the full sound was rasping and worn, as if he didn’t use it terribly often, but she found it strangely delightful. She expected her theory was correct, and indeed, when he glanced towards her again, the hue of his gaze seemed ever brighter. “To think I’ve been giving myself away so colourfully!” he teased. She shrugged, and his eyes caught on her, studying her expression. At length, he added, “Lady Vex, you’ll have to pardon my forwardness again, but – have you been drinking?”

Vex immediately felt her cheeks burn with shame, and she took stock of her own actions. She'd been weaving them through the hallways like a patient with a concussion and prattling on with the drunken looseness of a libertine. And she'd gone so far as to take his arm uninvited, which was certainly much too forward of her. Self-conscious of the empty flask knocking against her thigh through her pocket, she stammered, “yes - medicinal purposes, you know, for the pain. The stitches.”

Percival didn’t seem to care, and did not pull his arm from her hands. He only nodded, indicating a curiosity satisfied, rather than any offense taken. “Ah, of course,” he said. Endeavouring to be helpful (but not without a wryness to his voice) he added, “You know, I do keep actual medicines for medicinal purposes. I've a good stock of the one I use for burns in the workshop.”

The offer summoned a very particular burn to mind. Vex recalled Percival's flinch at their moment of contact, and briefly worried that it had been a reaction of pain; but she realized she gripped his left arm, not his crippled right. Banishing the train of thought altogether, she answered, “I think I’m enjoying this particular treatment plan, thank you. Now, have you any knowledge of these mines? Any maps, or records?”

He followed the swift change in topic without protest. “That old? There could be some in the Library, I suppose.”

“Then I shall go look for them immediately,” she informed him. “Ambassador Stormwind can assist me. I’ve been wanting to speak with him regardless.”

Gently, he pulled away from her, sensing they were about to part ways; they were only a few paces down the hall from the library, where the Ambassador would surely be. “Excellent," he agreed. "I’ve got something I’d like to work on in the meantime.”

They spoke only a few moments longer, formulating a strategy. They agreed to delay their expedition until Vex’s leg healed properly, and decided they would bring Vax along (Vex alluded to her host that her brother would be useful; he accepted her assertions without, thankfully, asking for too much detail). Keyleth would remain at Whitestone as a contingency – should the three of them become lost or trapped, Keyleth would be able to quickly gather a rescue party, knowing the mountain, the mine, and the town as she did. Once their agreement was reached, Percival departed to find Keyleth, intending to explain the plan to her; Vex turned her attentions to the library.

She left her companion behind with a slightly troubled heart. All the mysteries of the study and the spirit and the unnatural burn had somehow fallen away. Vex had so many questions to ask, and yet Percival always managed to neutralize them, seemingly without effort. She had not yet deciphered how – but she did not doubt that she and her brother would make a formidable interrogation team, and navigating the mine would give the three of them plenty of time and opportunity to speak about the things that troubled them.

Vex entered the library, and was pleased to find her assumptions correct. In the two days since the group’s arrival in Whitestone, Ambassador Stormwind had quite industriously colonized an alcove of the second floor of the library for his personal use. Vex could see him pacing before it through the railing. The thick, dusty air and the hefty leather books muted much of Whitestone’s constant mechanical songs, and so she could quite clearly hear the Ambassador muttering to himself as he worked. He was busily organizing stacks of books along the edge of a rickety writing-desk, which seemed altogether too frail to support the weight of the knowledge upon it. When Vex rushed up the stairs to meet him, her sudden approach startled him out of his thoughts; his shocked flailing sent a stack of parchment fluttering to the floor.

Trying not to laugh, Vex called, “Begging your pardon, Ambassador.” With an awkward curtsey, she bent in half to start gathering the papers.

He waved his clawed hands in the air, dismissing her apologies. “Not a worry, not a worry – do try to keep them in order, if you can manage it-”

A strange request, seeing as the notes did not seem to have an order to them – or perhaps they did, but they were scrawled in the quick, angular dashes of the Draconian script, and were largely indecipherable to her. He continued to mutter as they gathered the sheets, grumbling little half-sentences in his stuffy voice that just barely reached her ears. “I beg your pardon, my Lady – I was quite in the middle of something, quite enthralled with my thoughts – we’re not called to dinner yet, are we? Ah, but it is barely three – then of course, if you require anything I am happy to be of service – although I am rather occupied at the moment-”

Vex handed him the collected sheets, grinning. “Normally, I would be loath to interrupt you, Ambassador, but I do require your help, in fact.”

She described to him the texts she sought; any maps, records or charts pertaining to the Whitestone mines, specifically dating from the era of Percival’s great-grandfather. The Ambassador grinned, baring sharpened teeth in his long jaws. He seemed thrilled that another guest at the castle shared his passion for its history, and with very little prodding from Vex, he slapped his papers on the desk and led her down to the automated catalog on the first floor. He bent over the machine and spun the dials expertly, his grumbling, rough-voiced monologue ceaseless. Vex found him amusing company, if a touch verbose. Once she had posed her request, she could hardly get a word in; as they gathered the books he rambled, unbidden, about the history of the mine – the ill-advised location, the poor crop of minerals – and Vex found herself so instantly bored by the topic that she interrupted him.

“Mr. Ambassador,” she cut in, with an apologetic smile, “You are terribly knowledgeable about the de Rolos. By any chance, does your research extend to more…unconventional topics?”

“My research extends to a great many things,” he responded with a proud huff. He tracked one claw across the spines on the shelf before them, producing a series of quiet leathery clicks. “You shall have to specify, Lady Syngorn,” he said. He located the book he was searching for, and added it to the growing stack on his arm.

Vex folded her hands behind her back, and leaned forwards as if she were imparting a shred of invaluable gossip. “They say a spirit of vengeance haunts this castle,” she said.

The Ambassador chortled, and shook his head dismissively. Vex found herself wondering if that gesture ever caused him to get stuck on things by way of his horns. “Ah, you must be speaking of Orthax. Riveting stuff, of course, but a bit sensationalist in my humble opinion.”

Orthax. Oh, it sounded positively vile. Vex tried not to look excited, merely folding her arms and asking, airily, “Is that the name?”

“Indeed, the name that most know him by. Would you mind taking these off my hands, my Lady?”

He handed her the three books he had collected, and led them up the stairs towards the second floor again. She opened her mouth to ask him to continue, but the Ambassador needed no prompting, and lectured as if he were in a university. “The tale of the spirit is often associated with Frederick de Rolo – not the poor late Lord of recent years, of course, but the first Frederick de Rolo, who lived eight centuries past. Now, you see, at that time, the de Rolo family had already earned a reputation for hoarding wealth and arcane rarities, and a particularly ambitious thief broke into Whitestone to partake of that collection. Young Frederick witnessed the interloper, and was unfortunately slain by him on the spot.”

Ambassador Stormwind withdrew a hefty atlas from the shelves, and slammed it on the stack of books in Vex’s arm. The awkward shape and sudden weight threw her slightly off-balance, and she wheezed, “Lovely.”

“A common tale in such eras,” the Ambassador continued, with a sage nod. He guided her up another staircase, this one claustrophobically tight, and up to the third floor. Its ceilings were lower, and its alcoves more intimate, and she nearly lost sight of her instructor once or twice in the winding shelves. He continued, “The legend claims that the thief did, in fact, escape with something – an emerald pendant, in most versions – and that until he was brought to justice, the de Rolos were plagued by Frederick’s spirit. It sought vengeance upon its murderer. Its shapeless black form pursued and tormented unfriendly visitors, and its vile presence infected the very life of the castle.”

“Really?” Vex said, fighting to keep all the details organized in her head (and all the books steady in her arms), “How do you mean?”

“While Orthax roams the castle, the legend says, Whitestone escapes the bounds of time. Nothing dies, ages or grows until Orthax is appeased and sent to sleep. He cannot be destroyed, of course – which guarantees the legend is fantastical, in my opinion. Time destroys all things, and we have no immunity against its passage.”

They came to a stop, and he rested a smaller volume on top of the stack of books like a garnish. “But enough of such dark talk!” he declared. “Have I provided you with sufficient material to sate your curiosity, Lady Syngorn?”

“I believe I shall be well occupied for the week, Mr. Ambassador. Thank you.”

He departed without a true goodbye, retreating to his alcove on the second floor. Vex took her books to the nearest chair, and set them cautiously on the floor by her feet. She could not have opened them immediately; her mind was arrested by thoughts of Orthax. A spirit who rose to take vengeance on behalf of the de Rolos. The rational part of her dismissed its existence altogether, but in the fantastical corners in her mind, she created other scenarios. She had believed herself to be a normal woman just this morning, after all – and now she knew she possessed a rare reserve of latent magic. With the vandalized study, the inexplicable deaths of the de Rolo family, and the mutilation of the last surviving heir, a spirit of vengeance would certainly have motivation to act.

Yet again, she did not have enough evidence to stand on; and such a nightmarish apparition was not a particularly enticing mystery to pursue. It did not hold the promise of gold and salvation, not in the way the vault did. With any luck, the smoke in the study would be the end of it, and she could ignore tales of roving spirits and concentrate on her true goals. Thus, after contemplating at length, she turned to the books. While Percival still had his unspecified project to work on, she could read at her leisure, and she scanned the titles and contents at a slow – but not disinterested – pace. Her head slowly cleared of the whiskey; the sharpness of her wits returned to her in full. She began with the leaflet Ambassador Stormwind had included at the last minute. It seemed to be a collection of accounts, which confirmed that Percival’s great-grandfather had paid for labour and mining supplies, but meant very little to her otherwise. She set the first three books to the ground as well, and began with the local atlas – and again, she found notes on geology and topography and mineral content, but nothing specific enough to be useful. At the same time, she scanned for phrases that would recall the poem from the vault – for ingenious heralds of ancestral shame, fallen leaves and the like. Vex found her efforts largely frustrated; there were no maps or narrative accounts of that particular mine, and she spent the latter portion of her three-hour study leafing tiredly through the volumes without absorbing a word.

Vex was on the point of abandoning the books entirely when a shadow fell across her page. Startled, she glanced up to see Vax glaring down at her, his arms folded across his chest, a thoroughly displeased look contorting his features. She realized, with a slight flicker of heated shame, that she had entirely forgotten to speak with him, or even tell him she had returned; so many other thoughts had captured her attention.

“Ah! There you are, Vax,” she greeted, her voice growing slightly shrill in her embarrassment.

To his credit, he did not condemn her for neglecting him; instead, he only asked, “Are you well?”

“Perfectly fine. I only needed stitches." Recalling the mission she had left him with, she asked, “How did Percival spend the day while I was gone?”

“Brooding,” Vax replied bluntly. He unfolded his arms, and dusted what appeared to be a thin layer of soot from his shoulders onto the library’s fine carpet. The blemishes brought a frown to Vex’s face – especially when she noticed that he had also left smudgy, ash-grey shoeprints on the stairs. He’d certainly been hiding somewhere very dusty. Vax explained, “He spent the whole day in his workshop mucking about with chemicals and sighing like a bellows. Twelve blasted hours and he left the room all of once. Breakfast, a quick greeting to his guests, and then right back to it.” Confused, he added, “Since when is he ‘Percival’ to you?”

Vex flinched. Revealing their familiarity was starting to become a common mistake of hers. “Oh, since – I suppose it was yesterday,” she informed him. Well, at least Vax’s observations seemed to absolve Percival of any guilt regarding the previous night. He had not snuck off to some forbidden corner to destroy some damning evidence; from Vax’s phrasing, it sounded as if he had merely been killing time. Brushing the thoughts away, she began. “It matters not. I’ve got a plan to-“

“Vex,” her brother cut in, “Was Lord de Rolo with you in the study, when you injured your leg?”

An odd question. Cautiously, Vex answered, “No, I was alone.”

“But he knew you were there. Did you tell him?”

She sighed, and raised her hand, hapless and exasperated. The whiskey had worn off; she had earned a pulsing headache, and her leg began to sting. With those unpleasant sensations came the unpleasant thought that Vax had once again worked himself into a huff over nothing. “What are you suggesting, Vax? That he knew – so, what, that he somehow orchestrated this?”

“I’m suggesting we leave,” Vax corrected. Blunt, final, and flat, as if there was no argument to be had.

Vex rose from her chair, knocking the atlas from the armrest as she rose. “Leave?” she repeated, incredulous. "But - Vax, brother, I've a new lead on the vault - I've yet to tell you-"

"Damn the vault!" Vax hissed. "We're being played, Vex'ahlia, somehow. There is nothing for us here - nothing besides a threat I do not fully understand. Lord de Rolo has done too much to earn my suspicion, and nothing at all to gain my confidence."

“He did nothing all day, and you find that suspicious?”

“He mixed chemicals all day,” Vax corrected. “And he and the Gods only know what they were for. And he knew how you injured yourself, and he found you too quickly, and vandalized the study, and he – well, who knows if he-“

Vax fell silent. His sister knew that hesitation; she had heard that abrupt death of the voice, the point where politeness did not allow one to continue. Her brother had stopped just short of accusing Percival of murder, and Vex, quite suddenly, realized she had never been angrier with him in her life. The vow she had made in the woods shone bright and righteous in her mind. Her voice trembling, she replied, “I don’t care what you or any other person believes. While there is still a chance of finding the vault, I will not abandon it. And moreover, we have no reason to be afraid of Percival."

He flinched at the name. “Stop saying that, it’s –“

“Ooh, it makes him sound like a person, doesn’t it?” She interrupted, her voice absolutely venomous. “I would imagine acknowledging that would make it harder to be so cavalier with your accusations. Very well,” she said, and sat back down in her armchair. She pulled a book into her lap, and opened it. The page was unimportant; the dismissal was what counted. “If you’re so convinced,” she spat, “you’re welcome to leave.”

Vax’s answer, once again, came across as simple and indisputable. “I won’t go without you.”

“I’d rather be abandoned than ignored!” Vex fired back. “You certainly don’t have a problem giving up on other people at the slightest provocation."

At last, she pulled a reaction from him – for she knew she had aimed for a much more personal target. The accusation could refer to Percival, but by the wounded expression in his eyes, Vex knew it was Gilmore's name that passed through his mind. She would have regretted such a tactic herself, perhaps, but her anger spilled out beyond her control.

Vax’s expression grew cool, and he looked elsewhere. He said “Fine, then. Do as you will,” and exited before he even finished speaking.

Vex watched him go. She felt hurt, but spite kept her firm in her armchair. The apology would be his to make.

And so she sat in the dimming library, entirely alone, trying to focus on the books and absorbing even less than before. If Ambassador Stormwind, on the floor below, had heard their fight or her quiet sniffling, he made no indication: more likely he was still buried in study. She shed frustrated tears on the pages of the atlas, blurring the strong lines of the cliffs and rivers, flooding the valleys, drowning the trees. Fighting with her brother always felt cataclysmic. Each time, she was convinced they would never speak again. This time, she swore she would not give in, she would not let Vax's paranoia control her, and she would not condemn Percival without proof.

And she certainly would not tolerate the three of them trapped in a mine together. She would need to adjust their plan.

Darkness fell upon her, and the pages became too black to read. She set the atlas down on the ground with the other books, and stood - and there she stopped. The moon lit parts of the library through its tall, narrow windows, but large parts of each floor were perfectly black with shadow, as if something had erased the shelves and walls from existence. She searched the black spaces with her heart beating hard in her throat. Her skin prickled – she felt a slight wrinkle in the fabric of life – she was being watched.

Perhaps Ambassador Stormwind remained in the library; perhaps his draconic eyes were more suited to reading in the dark than hers; perhaps he was too polite to interrupt her tears, and but too curious to look away. Vex approached the banister as quietly as she could. If she glanced down, she would see a majority of the first floor, the catalog, and the desk where he had been sitting.

She put her hand on the rail, and leaned slightly over it. Nothing. All the candles had been extinguished. Ambassador Stormwind had locked his notes inside the desk and disappeared, and the books he had gathered rested on the chair. The silence of the room carried weight; the sense that someone was looking at her lingered on. She could not help but think of the passageway she had discovered, with its hidden apertures that opened onto private rooms.

Slowly, as if she were trying not to startle an animal, Vex leaned out further, and turned her head to look at the balcony directly above. There was a flash of movement – a spark of moonlight reflected from something shiny, a slight curve of glass or metal – and then she was alone again, still with shock, her heart thundering in her chest.

She raced up the stairs to confront the voyeur, but even as she climbed she knew she was too late. The doors to the halls were all shut; the bookcases stood vigil over an empty floor. Whoever they were, they were long gone.

Trembling, Vex returned to the third floor, trying to pull some semblance of logic from her shock. She shoved the books she had been reading under her armchair with her foot, punishing them for their uselessness. Then she left the library, keeping her paces as quiet and even as she could, to seal herself up in her room for the night. She kept to the halls where moonlight shone in through the windows, and even then, it was too dark for her liking.

Again, she did not sleep, and sat curled with her back against her bedframe and her arms wrapped around her knees. Her leg stung, dull and constant. She shaped ghosts out of the shadows around her, shuddering at the slightest shifts of fabric. As the night progressed, thick clouds rolled across Whitestone and smudged away the moon. And all the while, she circled back to her slowly simmering anger at her brother – her brother, who did not understand, and who had abandoned her after all.

Vex rose again before the sun. Her mouth set in a determined line, she dressed in the clothes she had borrowed from Doctor Trickfoot, her fur-lined coat, and sturdy, thick-laced boots. She filled her empty whiskey-flask with water from the pitcher at her bedside, and tucked it into her pocket. She braided her hair hastily, clumsily, as she descended the central staircase, and flicked the plait over one shoulder. Further decorations would be a hindrance; she wore only the bracelet she had bought in Keyleth’s company, as she had not removed it since its purchase.

That affinity for her host – the connection she denied in words but felt in spirit – guided her steps; she knew, somehow, that Percival had not retired the previous night, and she knew where he would have spent it.

The door to the engine room stood shut, but not locked; and when she pushed it open, the torches inside burned on. He lay slouched over his desk, arms folded, in the flickering light. At the door’s deep groan he lurched awake, and glanced over to her, eyes drowsily half-lidded. His glasses were folded shut upon the table; he retrieved them and replaced them, and grumbled, “Lady Vex? Is something wrong?”

Frustration drew all her sinews taut. Evidently, their sympathy would always work both ways; he knew she was furious with someone or something, and would not be easily deceived to think otherwise. “We’re leaving now,” she said. She ignored the dull ache in her leg and the exhaustion in her frame; she would prove her brother wrong, and without his meddling.

Percival stared at her, then turned back to the workbench. He took a pencil from a low-set shelf, and wordlessly began to write a note. Vex concocted a vicious protest – she believed him to be ignoring her, and she’d had enough of that for the week – but then he stood, and donned the heavy jacket he had slung over the back of his chair. He gathered from his table a lantern, a coil of rope, and a metal device she did not recognize (which he stuffed hastily in his pocket; she did not have a chance to inspect it).

She closed her mouth, and watched him, curious, as Percival came to stand before her. Lastly, he ruffled his own hair, and pulled some of the pale strands into order, as if self-conscious about its dishevelment. Quietly, he said, “I spoke with Keyleth already; she understands her role in all this. If we do not return by sundown she’ll send someone after us. Are we prepared, then?”

Vex found herself so stunned, she could not help but ask, “Have you no desire to ask me why?”

Percival answered, “I assume you will explain on the way, if you are so inclined.”

She felt a steel conviction form in her heart. “I shall. And with luck, my Lord, the vault will be ours by sundown.”

Even in the dim light of morning, his eyes were brightly blue – she understood the excitement in him, and it infected her. “I’ve learned not to put much stock in my luck. Your convictions, however, I trust absolutely. Lead on.”

Chapter Text

Vex guided Percival from the front gates of Whitestone and onto the mountainside. Unlike the previous day, when the sky had been so clear as to appear perfectly smooth and infinitely distant, this morning sunk down low upon them, heavy with thick, lumbering clouds. The valiant pair made for the forest rapidly, silently. It had rained during the night, and would again: the grasses and wildflowers carried a veneer of glossy dew, and the trunks of the trees had swollen with water. Normally, such weather eliminated all possibility of taking a walk, but Vex made them the exception. She continued, undeterred by the threats in the air, and her companion voiced no protest - nor did he ask why she had started the expedition so early, or why she had neglected to invite her brother. Either her host had chosen to remain politely silent, or he was still waking up: a fair condition to be in, as a few minutes still remained before the sun rose, and only Vex's stubbornness kept her from yawning. 

Recalling the path she had climbed with Keyleth the previous day, Vex brought them under the sparse, sporadic cover of the trees. Taking her first slipping steps down the incline, freeing showers of pine needles as she descended, she called behind her, “Percival, could you recite that riddle for me?”

She remembered it well enough on her own, of course, but his patient silence had begun to disturb her. “The fool is turned by marks of nature’s wrath,” he stated - and then he slipped a pause into his recitation, like an outstretched hand, an invitation for her to continue.

He carried the lantern, and walked behind her: she could see her own shadow swaying as she descended the hill. Steadying her steps, she obliged him: “The wise man learns to carve another path.” That sounded somewhat promising: miners could be said to carve underground paths, of a sort. They swapped the subsequent lines back and forth:

Seek wisdom woven in thy ancient name-

-Ingenious heralds of ancestral shame-

Recall thy buried roots – ah!” Percival stopped short, and Vex turned back. She thought he’d tripped on the path, but instead, he wore an expression of smug revelation on his face. “I’d say a mine shaft would be a ‘buried route’.”

Vex nodded. Riddles traded on such coy wordplay, and of course the long-dead de Rolos would delight in such misdirection. “Indeed I would,” she confirmed. "But the rest is still nonsense."

“It should come to light along the way,” Percival mused, and fell into quiet contemplation. She could sense his mind working, sifting through the words for another significant detail.

Vex doubted he would find one; she had repeated the poem a thousand times an hour since discovering it, and discerned nothing terribly significant within (nothing that wasn't shrouded by a cryptic layer of metaphor, at least.) Growing impatient with his thoughtful silence, and with the incomprehensible riddle, Vex sought a change of topic: one that would engage her host properly and distract her from her own fretting and still-cooling fury at Vax. She paused halfway down the hill, and turned back to Percival. By necessity, their pace was quick - gravity pulled them relentlessly down the hillside - and he stopped with only just enough time to avoid a collision. Ignoring his unbalanced flailing, she asked, “What was that contraption you took from the workshop, my Lord?”

“Hm?” he looked briefly down at the lantern held aloft in his hand, and then – at her impatient eye-roll – remembered what he kept in his pocket. “Oh, that!” From his jacket, he fished out a slender, metallic instrument with a handle. Vex froze with animal panic, mistaking the object for a revolver. He held it aloft, and she flinched, but it was no weapon: it only borrowed the appearance of one. Where the barrel should have opened, there was instead a four-pronged claw made of metal.

She looked up to his face once more. He wore a smirk, either proud of his contraption or amused by her panic. “This is a grappling gun,” he explained, a mild note of condescension in his voice. “It seems you and I haven’t read the same adventure serials.”

“Yes, well. It looks threatening,” she huffed.

“I’m hoping it will be the opposite,” he said, and it almost sounded like an apology. He stepped closer, holding the device flat in his open hand to better describe its operation. “The claw attaches to the rope, and then fires by way of compressed gas – you see?" He indicated a slender canister, masked beneath metal braces and hooked up to a trigger. "I imagine it could prove useful in the mine at some point.”

 Vex nodded, studying the gun intently, scouring its exposed gears, trying to understand it. “Is this what you were working on?”

“Indeed. It was more or less a toy, but now it’s strong enough to crack rock and carry our weights. Theoretically.”

Fascinating – the gadget was so small. Gingerly, Vex traced her fingers along the inside of the handle. Percival did not flinch or shy, allowing her to take it from his hands. “Don’t fire it,” he warned. “It’s only primed for a single shot. Since our schedule changed so abruptly, I lacked the time to develop a reloading mechanism.”

She ignored the slight prickling of irritation in his voice. He didn’t seem bitter about the change in plans per se, only miffed that he hadn’t been given more time to tinker. Vex ignored his grumbling, turning the little machine in her hands. It weighed almost nothing, and some excitable, childlike instinct told her to pull the trigger and see how it would click. She raised it, aimed it off into the trees – and resisted the impulse, but only barely.

Upon turning back to hand the gun to her host, however, she caught a quick look at his passing smile. He shook his head, and graciously declined. “You should take it,” he said, “I would never dream of denying someone the happiness I now see in your face.”

Touched, she fit the gun into the pocket of her dress. He passed her the rope, as well, and she carried it looped over her arm. He gave her quick instruction on how to link the two pieces, and then they descended together towards the mine.

“Remind me to loan you some of those adventure serials,” he noted.

Since meeting him, Vex could not recall him ever smiling so much.

On the Western side of the mountain, the dawn took a very long time to breach the dreariness around them. Only as the Lord and Lady approached the mine at last could they see each other clearly, and even then, their opposite appeared in the palest of blue tones. The shadows were long, and the air biting with chill and sparse rain; when they saw the entrance, they observed a gaping black maw, howling slightly with the passage of wind through its open jaws.

Vex took a quick breath at the intimidating sight, but proceeded onward – or she meant to, until Percival’s voice cut her off, and stalled her where she stood.

“Lady Vex, we had best be cautious.” He gestured to the door with his lantern, and to the shattered lock and bindings on the ground. “Someone was here before us.”

Vex responded, without thinking, “Oh, yes, that was me!”

Percival stared at her, his eyes wide. “You broke the chain?”

It would have been so easy to correct him – to explain that the lock had been smashed by a sledgehammer wielded by a man three times her size. Instead, some impulse of needless trickery washed over her. She said nothing, and only smiled as Percival’s expression grew ever more terrified.

Eventually, he scoffed, turned away, and muttered, “Oh, she's a wicked spirit, fantastic.”

She purred. "Is there any other kind?"

As he shrugged, conceding the point, Vex felt a droplet of cold prick the back of her hand. She looked up. The dense, blue-black clouds had pursued them across the sky, and they swept so low that the pointed treetops threatened to puncture them. The branches above would catch some of the incoming rain, but not all – and when she looked down, she noticed Percival flinching, and a droplet spattered against the lenses of his glasses.

“Best we go inside, then,” he observed, and quickly removed the glasses to clean them. She waited until he replaced them, and they entered the mine together. The rain intensified in mere seconds: drops pattered audibly against the carpet of needles and dirt. Percival, shooting a cross look at the fouling weather, closed the doors behind them.

Inside, the lantern-light carried quite a distance, painting the cavern ahead in oily, orange colours. Vex stepped carefully to the right, avoiding a path of rusted tracks leading into the dark, beyond the point at which their meager torch faded. The walls, muddled mixtures of pale granite and damp black dirt, curved in towards the ceiling, and the air hung heavy, thick and stale in her mouth. Predictably, the tunnel narrowed ahead, though it did not appear to divide. And yet, for all the claustrophobic stillness, the mine was not silent, which surprised her. Even as the door muffled the rain, she could hear water trickling somewhere – dripping elsewhere – and rushing, too, somewhere else. There were no pickaxes chiming or sounds of exertion, but the walls had trapped their echoes: metallic creaks and wooden sighs whispered through the tunnel as they advanced, and below the sounds of their footsteps, she could feel a hum and rumble, as if some ancient machine still worked beneath their feet.

The tunnel descended at a shallow angle. Percival walked ahead, more slowly than he had outside, and Vex timed her footsteps with his. “So,” he offered, “I imagine we should start at the top and work our way down.”

“The vault would be closer to the castle,” she said, by way of agreement.

Together, they wandered further down the darkened tunnel, and met little variation for a long while. They tripped over old shovels or half-buried pickaxes; they passed under slouching wooden beams, creaking with the weight of the mountain; they noticed abandoned carts with the wheels rusted away, either emptied, or full of pale, grimy boulders.

The near-silence, trembling with those distant vibrations, troubled Vex more than anything else about the sullen, shadowy journey. The other ingredients of the scene were almost familiar by now; Percival with his lantern, and Vex following a half-pace behind him, walking together into some unknowable place. Yes, it was the only silence that drew her nerves taut. Every step was a roulette game of noise – whether some creak would shudder up through the ground and startle her, or whether she would slam her foot into some clanging, abandoned tool, or, worst of all, whether she would encounter nothing at all. Unfortunately, Percival was no help at first. He only asked, at equally unpredictable intervals, if her stitches were beginning to bother her after the length of the walk: Vex answered, quite truthfully, that she had not been thinking of them until he pointed them out. The injury ached, but less than it had yesterday; and it did not trouble her more than the stuffy air, or the exhaustion born of her sleepless night.

After asking her a fifth time if she was certain she could continue, since the walk had taken longer than both expected (and so far nothing of note had changed), Vex resolved to find another topic of conversation at any cost, and so she voiced the first thought in her head. “This is rather similar to how we met, isn’t it?”

Quick as a whip, he replied, “I doubt we’ll find any bears in here.”

Startled, Vex couldn’t help a short laugh, and she caught another satisfied smile crossing his face. “Of course,” she said. “I do wonder how the poor dear is doing. That was a horrible thing to suffer.”

“Did you not meet up with your friend again, after making his acquaintance?” Percival asked. He hopped up onto the rusted rail of the old mine cart tracks, and balanced along its edge for a while, following the curve. His strides were quite sure-footed; the light remained steady as it had when he walked along the ground.

“Regrettably, no,” she reflected. “I expect he took my advice and went elsewhere.”

"You almost sound as if you wanted to keep him," he observed dryly.

Vex ignored him, caught up in fascination with another thought. She had spent little time thinking about her magic with everything else swarming her thoughts, but at that moment, she realized she did not know whether she was commanding the creatures, or simply communicating with them. Such murkiness, she expected, could only be cleared up by practice. A shame, then, that this cave was a bearless one.

“Ah, you’ve given me a thought,” Percival said, hopping down from the rail. “Perhaps we can do as we did when we met.”

“Oh?”

“I imagine, if we’re clever about it, we can clear up some of the secrets between us. You’ll answer one of my questions with complete sincerity, and I shall do the same for you.”

Vex frowned, and kicked a pebble down the passageway. It clattered away into a corner. In the previous case, they had each volunteered what they considered most important. Questions placed power in the hands of the other party. “And if we wish to keep certain things unknown?”

As if he’d considered her objection beforehand, he replied in an instant: “Then the rules shall be lax, and we shall pick another question. Shall I start?”

She thought a moment. The situation presented an invaluable opportunity to learn something about him, and he appeared eager to trade. The true difficulty would be in narrowing down her questions to a singular one. “Very well,” she conceded.

He asked, “How did that injury of yours really come about?”

Vex looked at him, opened her mouth with a half-formed protest, and then shut it again. She had expected him to ask about their unscheduled departure that morning, but the question he selected was equally understandable. In fact, Vex was quite touched; his tone remained playful, but when he looked at her, his eyes were steady and strangely earnest. With a sigh, she began, “Did you happen to visit your father’s study the night before last?”

“The study? No, I hadn’t thought to do so.”

Vex felt a frown tighten her expression. If it hadn’t been Percival, then who had lit that bloody candle? Setting the question aside (though it would certainly continue to haunt her), she described the discovery of the passage to him in detail. He asked her a half-dozen questions about the mechanics of the chessboard. She answered them as best she could, and then she continued on to how she had been startled enough to slip into the chute. Orthax did not factor into her initial telling: she avoided all talk of the apparition, as Keyleth had advised.

“What startled you?”

Vex sighed through her nose, and then spoke, tugging at the tail of her braid, her voice falling quieter and quieter. “I couldn’t say. It manifested in the doorway, and it – it resembled a cloud of smoke, but – human.”

He made a condescending “ah” noise, and nodded his head. “One of your ghostly cousins, little spirit?”

She glared at him, square and unflinching, so he could see there were no ploys or inventions on her face. “I have no other explanation for what it was.”

“Did Keyleth unsettle you with her ghost stories?" he guessed. "Orthax is a fairytale. I do believe you when you say you saw something, but I’m certain I can explain it. Whitestone is very old and very bizarre. I shall check the engine room when we return. I have no doubt that a vent is not clearing properly, and that I will be able to exorcise your spirit with a screwdriver.”

Vex laughed a bitter laugh, secretly hoping he was right and entirely doubting it all at once. “I’ll take that wager, Lord de Rolo. Is it my turn, now?”

“Proceed.”

Questions came to her in a thousand shapes and variations. Some were foolishly shallow, while others proved too cutting and impolite for their little game. She did not want to waste her question, but she did not want to offend him, either. Her fretting infected Percival like an illness, and the longer she pondered, the more he fidgeted. Vex realized, watching the lantern arcing with his steps, that she could fulfill Dr. Trickfoot's request alongside her own curiosity, and so she made her choice.

She asked, “How did you injure your hand?”

Percival's footsteps stopped. The lantern continued to swing, creaking slowly. He turned towards her, and his face was grim and furious. His voice a seething hiss, he asked, “How the blasted hells do you know about that?”

Startled by the transformation, she took a step away. “I saw it-“

He strode forwards, and grasped her tightly around the wrist, pulling her into the light. His touch was scorching, as if his burn scars had spread to her on contact. He scoured her face for some - some sign of dishonesty or disloyalty, she could not be sure. “When? How?”

“Calm yourself, my Lord!” She pulled to make her escape, but his grasp was iron, and his gaze was steel. Frantic, she stammered, “In the passageway I described – there were these peepholes, and I happened to look in upon your room when you had removed your gloves.”

“Have you told anyone else?”

“No! Your secret is safe. I swear to you.”

He stared a moment longer, then released her. For a long time he did not speak, his gaze cast on the floor. Then he paced towards an abandoned cart, and set the light down on one of its benches. The fire cast long, reaching shadows, which climbed to the cavernous ceiling. As Vex watched, Percival picked at the fingers of his glove and began to pull it off. “You asked how I injured it, yes? That was your exact phrasing?”

She nodded, and he shut his eyes. His voice taut with frustration, he said, “Well, forgive me. I don’t remember much.”

He removed the glove and rolled his sleeve, raising his forearm. She swallowed, and forced herself to look again at the charred, blistered flesh. He showed her the worst of the mark, revealing a detail she had not noticed previously: a pattern of sorts had been burnt into his skin. Six blackened bars, evenly spaced and a half-inch thick, tracked across his wrist and palm. The marks were raised, like a brand. She drew closer. Percival flinched, but did not back away from her inspection.

“It would have been five years ago now, in the engine room. I remember pressing it against some unbearably hot metal, and that’s all. A just memory will spare one the recollection of such intense agony. Even now, I can lose entire hours to it.”

“How do you mean?”

“Blackouts." He tugged his sleeve back down his arm, quick and dismissive. The force of the gesture made Vex wince; he treated his burns very roughly. Percival continued, “I’ll do something foolish to aggravate it, and then the pain will worsen until I forget where I am. I’ll wake up two, three hours later, often somewhere else entirely, and I’ll remember nothing. I had one such...fit, I suppose, the night you were injured, and I feared I’d neglected to hear you call for help, or done something worse, perhaps.”

He looked up at her, a wound in his voice. Strange that he could be so violent one moment, and so earnestly worried the next. Oh, there were still pieces missing, even from this honest answer! Why on earth would he have pressed his arm to heated metal - and for long enough for it to scar him permanently? What had happened to Percival de Rolo?

“You burnt it on something metallic?” she asked.

“Yes. A part of the engine, I expect. It can run dangerously hot in places.” He kept his eyes on hers, and in a softer, less instructional tone, he asked, “I haven’t hurt your wrist, have I?”

She shook her head, and lifted it to show him, turning her hand this way and that. Satisfied to see it unblemished and working, he nodded, and replaced his discarded glove.

“I’m sorry I asked,” Vex said. “I assure you, it was out of nothing more than concern.”

“Curiosity too, I imagine,” he countered, smiling again, albeit weakly. “I - apologize. I invited the question, and I shall not snap at you next time.”

He gathered up the lantern, and they continued on. Vex fell behind him, and he, either sensing her wariness or nursing his own, maintained the distance between them. Her hands shook as she fretted with the buttons of her coat, and the tie on her braid. Never had her stern, impassive host lashed out with such vitriol in her presence. His rage had flung her into a panic, for a moment, but it was his fear that truly haunted her. Fear motivated his anger: she had seen it in his flickering eyes, and she knew fear was the secret behind anger most of the time.

She was angry too, after all - in part because she was justified, but largely because she, too, was afraid. She feared whatever could transform a man so drastically, and whether learning the truth would irreparably scar her, too.

In time, her fury softened. Anger took energy, and by all estimates they still had quite a journey ahead. They walked in tense, difficult silence, underscored by that same distant rush of water. The sound troubled Vex’s thoughts: it seemed to her some kind of significant anomaly. Perhaps the rain above had grown stronger, or perhaps the mine hid an underground river? She asked Percival about the noise, hoping a lighter topic would repair the mood they had shattered so spectacularly. Disinterested, he explained it was likely the sound of the drainage systems within the mines, and Vex subsequently gave up on starting another conversation.

The organic shape of the tunnel transformed, at length, into something geometric, the cross-beams sturdy and the earthen walls hard-packed. At first, Vex thought the path terminated, quite suddenly, in sheer wall, but as they drew closer, her gaze trailed down to the floor. There, a wooden platform lay braced in a metal frame, and a long handle emerged from it amidst a contraption of gears, pulleys and cables. The platform looked quite large: certainly large enough to hold one of the carts they had passed, or perhaps a half-dozen men of Mr. Strongjaw’s size.

“An elevator?” Vex guessed. Setting her foot on the platform, she leaned forward – and not only could she see a tall, roughly square shaft ascending beyond the reach of the lantern, but the wood beneath her boots felt tellingly thin, and her steps produced echoing thumps. Percival followed her, setting his sights immediately on the mechanism with the handle. His lantern swung as he knelt down to inspect it, and Vex gave a quiet jump of surprise. The swirling light had produced, for only a moment, the illusion that the walls were moving, their surfaces swaying and rippling like the surface of a lake. Of course, the walls were stable – what she had seen, instead, were reflections glancing off the rivulets of brown water that trickled down the chute. These little streams were narrow, silent, and unremarkable, barely sloughing off tiny clumps of mud as they traveled.

The light swung again as Percival stood, set his hand upon the lever, and pulled. It did not move; he tugged at it again, this time with a grunt of frustrated exertion. Shouldering her coiled rope higher, Vex asked, “Is it broken?”

Percival stood straight, thinking. Then he gripped the handle once more, swung his leg back and kicked the base of the gears. A hollow metal thumm echoed through the little chamber and up the empty shaft, and the handle lurched and screeched in his grip. The cables in the teeth of the machine rattled, shaking free flecks of rust, and the platform began to ascend.

“I believe it is,” he answered wryly, and Vex snickered. A true mechanical genius, this young de Rolo.

He smiled back at her. The joke had accomplished what her nervous attempt at conversation and his tentative apology had not; a silent message of forgiveness passed between them, in that wordless manner only honest smiles could achieve.

Vex focused her attention on the mine once more, as did Percival. They passed a number of darkened, empty tunnels on their climb, each one leading out from the opposite end of the elevator, progressing further into the mountain. The sound of rushing water haunted Vex’s ears throughout the climb, and she found herself pacing her side of the platform, tense, convinced that something was wrong and unable to justify why. Percival stood with the mechanism, watching her circling, until he finally asked, “is something wrong, my Lady?”

She paused where she stood, and tried to phrase the shape of her worries. Something about how quickly the water was flowing, and how it sounded louder the higher they climbed. She opened her mouth, and was interrupted by a burst of wind, a flash, and a clatter, as a damp, pale stone the size of a croquet ball plummeted to the platform by her feet. She yelped, and leaped back – the young lord glanced at her, then at the unexpected missile, then again at her face. Their eyes met, and she could see his breath stop in tandem with hers. The creaks and lurches of the mine grew louder – the elevator groaned as it climbed, higher, and higher – and a long, deep rumbling noise sounded from above.

“Move,” Percival said, all breath – and then, more sternly, he shouted, “Move!”

He did not wait for her to follow the instructions, grasping her hands and pulling her from the platform. There was a tunnel before them, one they had nearly passed, and together they dropped a foot and a half down onto the stone, ducking their heads below the ceiling. Vex landed on her good ankle out of instinct, but beyond that, she could hardly think. She reached for the grappling hook, hands catching on the seams of her pocket, the rope uncoiling from her shoulder. She had no thought of what she would do with it, only that she had to do something-

-and then she felt an urgent hand take her wrist, and pull her away from the mouth of the tunnel. Percival dragged her into the thick shadow of a support beam - the only structure that did not seem to be quivering apart around them. While the earth thundered, he grasped the back of her head, pressed her tight against his chest, and shielded her eyes with his shoulder. A final, thunderous crash echoed from the lift. Muffled as it was by his body, she heard only the splintering of wood, the crumbling of rock, and Percival’s breaths, panicked, harsh, heaving in time with the pulsing of his chest under her touch.

The noises subsided. The mine grew quiet. They waited, Percival’s back pressed to the wall of the mine and Vex pulled flush to him. Her blood throbbed too swiftly through her veins, a scalding speed, heating each of her limbs, her face, and low in her stomach. As when she had touched Percival before, his body was unnervingly hot, almost feverish, burning through his shirt and vest and gloves. His hand gripped her strictly, fingertips sharp, and the leather stuck to strands of her hair. It felt odd to touch him so closely: strangely profound, as if she were learning something entirely new. She learned of heartbeats, of contours of the collarbone, ribs, and shoulder, of the places her hands fell and fit-

He released her just as suddenly as he had captured her, and she stepped away. His eyes were dull with shock, and his cheeks flushed from fear. Dizzy, she felt her gaze flickering from the darkness of the tunnel, to the face of her rescuer, to indeterminate points between. He asked, “Have you been hurt?”

Vex gathered herself. She lifted her skirts to check the integrity of her stitches, preened her hair back, and wound the straying rope she carried back into a neat coil. Her gestures felt cosmetic in the face of what had just occurred, but they did comfort her somewhat. “I don’t believe I have,” she stammered. “The first rock missed me, and I suppose – the others did as well?”

He laughed, slightly hysterical, still panting. “Indeed. A shame we can’t say the same for that elevator.”

Vex turned away from him, stepping out from beyond the support beam. All that remained of the platform were bent iron bracers and split cables. Showers of dust swirled down from the ceiling, hissing as they passed. Bracing her feet on the edge of their landing, Vex looked down over the chute. It only made her dizzy; in the blackness below, she could see neither the elevator nor the shape of the tunnel through which they had entered.

"What happened?" she asked, trying to swallow and speak past what felt like a layer of grit on her tongue.

"A collapse of some kind, obviously. This place is very old," he replied. "I couldn't guess from where, or why."

The unfortunate explorers waited for their shock to fade, leaning against opposite walls and trying not to meet each other's eyes too frequently. In that period of recovery, Percival pressed his ruined hand to his heart, as if he could regulate his breathing by force, and said, "I am truly sorry about before, my Lady."

He sounded both sincere and still quite winded, a combination bizarre enough to pull another laugh from Vex. "Oh, I wouldn't worry about it," she said lightly. "I'm fairly certain you just saved my life."

"Well," he said, and shrugged. "Perhaps."

Evidently there was some qualification in his mind that the situation had not met. Perhaps her peril had not quite been mortal enough for him. Vex chuckled quietly at the thought, and attempted to ready herself for the next step. “We’ve made some headway, at least. Shall we continue?”

“Really?” Percival asked. He stood up from the wall, brushing detritus from his jacket. “After this whole place nearly collapsed on our heads, might it not be safer to leave?”

Vex swung a hand out over the empty elevator shaft and quipped, “Please, Percival, do inform me if you’ve achieved human flight.”

He gave an irritated tsk, and made a motion to imitate a shot with a grappling hook. “You could just-“

Vex stared at him, unflinching. “Yes,” she said, cold and flat, “I suppose I could.”

She did not move until he understood that her decision had already been made. Percival rolled his eyes and gestured down the tunnel with his lantern. “Oh, very well. Let’s see where we’ve landed, shall we?”

The passageway before them opened wide: they stood in a broad, columned hall with a low ceiling. By all appearances, the mountain had been hollowed out in every direction, and quite impulsively: the columns stood erratically spaced, and in the glow from Percival’s lantern their shadows dropped across each other to create a labyrinth of dust and light. Vex found the columns quite curious, and inspected several as they passed, but learned they were merely supports hewn roughly from the bedrock, bearing no insignias or clues or fallen leaves or whatnot. Though she grew quickly bored and irritated with the starkness of the hall, she felt much less awkward than she had previously. Surviving the cavern collapse together had dispelled the remaining tension between her and Percival for the moment, and they squabbled good-naturedly about whether the room was worth inspecting further.

Vex did find herself excruciatingly aware that Percival held the lantern exclusively in his left hand; she doubted she would ever fail to notice such details again.

After near on an hour of searching and slow progress, they stumbled across a narrow, mucky tunnel that seemed to ascend at a shallow incline. They debated its merits and, at length, decided to climb it in the hopes of approaching the castle – though Vex could not help some private apprehension. The narrower the tunnel became, the easier it was to recall how they had both narrowly missed being crushed by the mountain’s unpredictable vengeance once already. Short of breath, she dropped behind Percival, hoping he would not see the nervousness on her face. The lantern he held swung with his lurching steps on the uneven ground; his shadow swayed, dancing left and right across her path.

He scoffed, “I’m beginning to wonder if this was a poor decision. We’ve yet to see a single sign of the vault, and with my luck this whole place will come down on our heads.”

Vex groaned. The longer she thought about it, the more the mine resembled a false lead. A distant doorway outside the castle enclosed with a single iron padlock simply didn’t suit the de Rolo ethos; she could not conceive of this dripping, dangerous cavern as the most sacred chamber of a lineage of eccentrics who built secret passageways and inscribed poems on the walls. Her leg ached; she had put the wound under too much strain. Still, she could not abandon their trek halfway - especially not when it was the only clue they had left. “Come now, Percival,” she retorted, her voice strained with false cheer. “Only the – the fool is turned by nature’s wrath.

“Only a fool would make this vault so desperately obscure, and in a collapsing mine, no less. And it’s ‘marks of’ nature’s wrath,” he corrected, his voice strict and a mite condescending. “Iambic pentameter is a delicate thing, you know. Just like gravity,” he added bitterly, under his breath.

“Oh, what a pity,” she grumbled, her voice simmering with sarcasm. She wondered if he smiled at that: though she could only see the back of his head, there was a playful leap in his next step upwards. “But if not that, what else could we have here?”

“Iambic tetrameter, if you so insist.”

“The project, Percival,” she said, scathingly. “Your great-grandfather’s secret mining mission.”

“Well, that’s a fair question,” he said, and there was certainly a smile in his voice now, a brightness on the corners of the consonants. “I hadn’t thought of it before.”

He fell silent, and their path grew level.  They entered another hall of similar columns, this one strewn with carts, gravel, and piles of shattered rock. Unlike the empty floor below, it resembled a project abandoned halfway through, and did not open quite as wide or extend quite as far. They approached the nearest pillar together, and scrutinized its surface – until, with a sudden, sighing grunt of frustration, Percival kicked it.

“I am a fool,” he grumbled.

Percival strode away, and set the lantern down on the brim of an upended cart. He sat soundly upon the ground, and swatted a broken wheel on its crooked axle, like an idle cat, until it squeaked and spun. Then he folded his hands before his face, drew his knees up and braced his elbows upon them, and stared piercingly into the distance. The lantern shone down on him, but, cast from the edge of the cart, a shadow descended over his countenance, making him look ever more grim and miserable.

Vex joined him on the ground, cautiously, extending her legs out straight. He didn't seem as angry as he had been before, but the long and fruitless day had clearly taken a toll on them both. Her own patience - particularly her patience with his moods - had begun to wane. She lifted the hem of her skirt to check her stitches (Percival looked demurely away from her exposed ankles) and found them intact. No questions were bothered with; once she was settled, Percival simply began, “The engine room in Whitestone-“ and he pointed directly above their heads “-was converted from the old castle dungeons by my great-grandfather.”

“Alright,” Vex said patiently, folding her hands on her skirts. “Meaning…?”

“Meaning that someone had to build a false wall, haul in all of the pipes and steel and coal, find somewhere to direct the engine runoff, for which an abandoned mine would prove simply ideal-“

Vex understood, and sighed, knocking her head against the base of the cart with a thump. “And that was the secret project.”

“Indeed – which means the vault is elsewhere.”

“Could it not be in the prison, behind the false wall?”

“I doubt it.” Percival mimed a layout of the castle with his fingers, tracing it in the air. “It lies in the opposite direction from the tunnel in the chapel. And I've been back through to the old prison: nothing stands there now but waste chutes.”

Vex furrowed her brows. It certainly made sense that the paranoid de Rolos – those who hid their treasures behind layers of riddles and stone – would want to keep such a project as the engine secret. She decided to trust Percival’s assessment, and instead sought an alternative. She drew the grappling pistol from her pocket, finding herself pleased by the alluring click and clatter of its gears. "Well, if there's nothing else here, maybe we could climb a chute out into the engine room?”

He frowned, and mumbled, “I suppose.”

“Well, would it work, or wouldn’t it?” she quipped, impatient again. She shoved the tool back in her pocket, using more force than the gesture demanded.

“Oh, it would certainly work. I am simply loathe to climb up a metal tube coated in coal dust.” In a sincere lamentation, Percival continued, “I quite like this jacket.”

“You’ll have the money for another jacket once we find the vault,” she said, mocking his condescending tone from earlier.

He looked at her quizzically, the sudden motion jostling the cart, and causing the lantern to flash eerily above them. “I can afford to order a new one,” he said.

Vex had been on the point of patting him on the shoulder. She withdrew her hand, suddenly deeply aware that Percival was no desperate treasure hunter like herself. Of course he’d have the money for such a purchase; a luxury in her accounts would be a staple in his. “You should get something nice,” she prattled, trying to distract him from her slip-up. “Tailored, maybe?”

He lifted his right hand, waving it under the light. “I rather dislike stripping down to be measured for cuffs.”

Cringing, Vex nodded. A second misstep. Percival set his hand back to where it had previously rested, folding it gingerly atop the other. She noticed that he pressed his lips to his folded hands out of habit, but he seemed to be resting no pressure upon them. Either the burn was always slightly tender, or he was always very conscious of it. “I don’t remember if I asked you this previously,” he continued, quiet, looking away, “but please – I would be grateful if you could keep what you’ve seen to yourself.”

Her irritation subsided, and she answered, gently but immediately, “Of course, I shall.”

A long, slow nod marked his only answer. Vex decided a break would be prudent - they'd been walking, fighting, and wearing themselves out all day. Over a slight crunch of gravel, she inched closer, the better to catch his eye. Granting him the broadest smile she could muster, she said. “You know, Percy, the reason I asked you about your hand was that Dr. Trickfoot requested it of me – once she knew I was already aware of it, of course,” Vex amended, seeing his eyes grow wary and wide at the thought his physician had been gossiping. “It seems everyone who knows about it only wishes to help you. Keyleth sounded distraught that she couldn't.”

He grunted his agreement, and added, “A kind girl, that one.” The words carried very little warmth in them: they seemed more a justification for Keyleth’s actions than a compliment of any heartfelt weight.

Still, the statement was undeniably true. Vex smiled, and shook her hand to free the wire bracelet from the cuff of her sleeve. The strange trinket looked particularly odd in the smoky, colourful light of the lantern, almost as if two shades of gold wound together on her wrist, rather than gold and silver in opposition. She knew Percival’s answer would likely disappoint Keyleth and Dr. Trickfoot; she assumed they were hoping for a particular chemical cause, an acid or poison for which they could concoct an antidote.

"Did you just call me 'Percy' again?" he asked dryly.

She chuckled, and shot him a sideways glance, complete with a quick wink. "Maybe. Am I to be exiled for that, Lord de Rolo?

"Burned at the stake," he corrected, and then snorted inelegantly. "I'm actually surprised at how little it offends me."

"I hope it still offends you in part," Vex pouted, "or else it's no fun at all."

He hummed, refusing to grace her with a look in her direction, but squinting his eyes derisively all the same. "Let me guess," he said after a minute. "Between you and your brother, you're the younger twin."

"I am," she replied. "How did you know?"

"A logical inference," he said, smirking.

Grinning along with him, Vex thought back to the doctors again, and came to a realization.  Percival treated that burn of his so terribly, suffocating it under leather gloves, wrenching his sleeves about it as if he wanted to tear the wound away. He suffered sheer panic at the thought of exposing it, far more concerned with the hiding than the treatment. Perhaps her duty in this situation was to convince him it was nothing to be ashamed of, and that the world was not against him. If he could only talk about it like this - in the same casual way he took the name "Percy" in stride, using the same distant sarcasm with which he teased her - if they could trust each other enough to achieve that, perhaps it would make a difference? Keyleth had put it another way, an Ashari way – oh, what was it – he needed strong roots and sunshine? To have the sun brought back to his heart? In the end, what he lacked was any measure of human support. Ah, how lonely he must have been for so long, without a family to turn to, without-

-strong roots.

Vex jolted where she sat, upsetting a pile of gravel into a miniature rock-slide. She whispered “Oh,” and then, more loudly, “Oh!” as she leaped to her feet.

Startled by her sudden action, Percival knocked into the cart again, and sprang upwards to steady the wobbling lantern on its edge. “What the devil – what is it?”

She laughed, sudden and bright – thank gods he wasn’t keeping his curses to himself anymore. How amusing, to hear them spat out in that clipped, educated accent of his! Grinning, she spun to face him, and declared “I’ve got it, Percival – I've cracked it!"

"Cracked what?" he repeated shrilly, still hunched protectively over the lantern as if she were about to punch it from sheer excitement.

"I know what ‘tree’ we’re searching for! All that – how’s it go – ‘wisdom woven in your name?’ ‘Recall your buried roots?’ It speaks of no physical tree or hidden path. It’s your family tree – the tree from which all those wise men sprouted!”

He straightened. His eyes grew wide, shining in the lantern-light. Slow, and awed, he spoke while his smile grew; “Lady Vex’ahlia, what a clever little sprite you are.”

She clapped her hands together. “I haven’t the slightest idea what this all means, but it’s certainly a start, eh?”

A shadow flashed across her vision; Percival raised his hand, begging her silence, and she watched his lips move with quick, breathy whispers, rattling off the lines of the poem at a speed she could neither comprehend nor match – and then halfway through, he snapped his fingers and said, “Have you kept that thing  – you recall that paper you took from father’s office?”

Scrambling in her coat pockets, Vex at last managed to extract Julius’s crest from under her flask. It came out crinkling in her hands, slightly rumpled from the journey, but intact. Percival snatched it from her, and recited, “Ingenious heralds of ancestral shame. Heralds-" he unfolded the paper with a flick, showing her the crest once more “-as in heraldry.

Vex cackled and clapped her hands together. The light shone through the paper so it was nearly translucent; she could see the sketch of the clock-face shimmering on the surface, a burning black. “Seems we’ll have to take a closer look at Julius’s project, then, eh?” she tittered.

“That, and the others. He’s not the only one with an individualized crest,” Percival pointed out, his excitement mirroring her own. “My goodness, Lady Vex, we entered this place with next to no leads, and thanks to you we’ve come out with a half-dozen!”

“A shame on your great-grandfather for omitting the wisdom of women from his little poem,” Vex pointed out, extending her arms as elegantly as she could, aping some exquisite marble statue.

“I trust you’d like me to alter it now, bastardizing the meter as I go?” Percival quipped, still smiling uncontrollably, as he folded the crest hastily in his hands.

She snatched it away from him, and returned it to her pocket. “But of course,” she chirped. “I’m hoping I’ve earned it by now.”

“You certainly have,” he said. “You’re proving a better de Rolo than I am at this point.”

Had their rapport been any less intimate, Vex would have said nothing – but the sheer energy and familiar ease of their exchange pulled a laugh from her throat. She raised one eyebrow, and teased, “A de Rolo, am I? It is quite customary to kneel before you ask that of me, Percival.”

Even in the yellowing light, he turned scarlet as a strawberry, and suddenly seemed to have no idea where to put his hands – fretting them through the air, straightening his jacket - as Vex only snickered louder. “I – my Lady, I didn’t mean to imply –“

His stammering was so terribly endearing, so delightfully unlike him, that she could not resist pushing her little jest further. With a sweeping sigh, she spun halfway around and leaned heavily into his shoulder, pressing the back of her hand to her forehead and declaring, “Truly romantic of you, to choose this flooded pit for your proposal! I believe we shall hold the ceremony right here in the catacombs.”

Embarrassed, he stuttered, “You are joking, yes?”

“I am not,” she declared, overplaying a burst of indignation. Oh, if only Keyleth were here to see this. She flicked her braid over her shoulder, and stood straight, preparing to lecture. "We shall haul the guests up on the broken elevator, and have the musicians play atop the upturned carts." She held her arms aloft again, mimicking the frame of a waltz, and continued, "You must admit, this hall is the perfect shape for dancing."

Percival laughed at last, and - to her joyful surprise - swept forward to join their hands. Vex put her fingertips on his shoulder, excessively delicate with her touch, and he sent them spinning through a series of broad, swirling steps. He moved with exaggerated pomposity, his nose high in the air, but the parody came from a place of knowledge: his posture was good, his motions were graceful, and his rhythm, even without music and in mockery, was flawless. As they spun, nearly skidding on the stray gravel, Percival finally chipped in, “If all the wedding gifts are pickaxes, on your head be it.”

“I was expecting a bear, darling,” she chastised. “The engagement is off.”

He feigned a broken-hearted sob, and she couldn’t help but laugh once more. As she regained her composure, and their movements slowed, she realized that Percival regarded her with an odd expression, one she had never seen on him before. She had grown used to his quizzical curiosity, his cold calculation; now, he wore a kind of joyful longing, pained and pleased in equal measure. Their frantic waltz ceased; they stopped where they were.

And Vex, in that minute of pause, realized something. 

He carried the lantern, always, in his left hand. Not once had he dined with his guests – he sat at an empty place when they all ate together, receiving no plate or portion – and so she had never seen him use cutlery, or drink from a glass. But she knew he wrote left-handed, gestured left-handed, touched left-handed (she recalled him supporting her jump in the hall, far above), and he did not shake hands in greeting if he could avoid it.

In the empty hall, alone, without a shudder or second thought, their right hands were raised and clasped together.

Vex assumed, before, that his reluctance to touch came from agony - but it seemed the motivation was merely shame, a paranoid thought that any contact would lay bare the scars on his skin. As if the discovery of such an injury would alter good opinions of him! Ridiculous - especially, she thought with a surge of amusement, when he could dance so very well.

He was staring at her, perplexed by her silence, but maintaining his own.

She whispered, “Percival?” She watched that that cool, critical gaze of his, deciphering her meaning and intent. As cautiously as she could, she squeezed his hand, and then wound their fingers together.

A pause for a silence, one unmatched in breathlessness and tension. Then he recoiled, releasing her, and turned away towards the light. He took the lantern in his good hand, and inspected the other. His breath shuddered in, trembling in his shoulders. He sighed outward with such force that she swore the light flickered against the gust.

Astonished and confused, Vex tried to frame an apology. Before she could speak, he turned back, approached her again, and said, “Vex, we’ll find our way out of here. Alright?”

In terms of startling actions, he had usurped her: not once had he neglected to address her by her formal title. Dispensing with it promised an intimate familiarity and affection - the kind she had been seeking in calling him Percival. How had she, in the course of their difficult day, achieved that?

She could not think of anything to say. Percival shook out the cuff of his sleeve, clutching it over the heel of his right hand. He brought the fabric to her face, and dusted something from her cheek, a gesture of unprecedented gentleness – and she saw the slight smudge of pale grey on the leather glove when he pulled it back, and the same expression in his eyes. Joy and longing at once, complex and incomprehensible.

In her confusion, she managed to smile. "Shall we go home for now, then?"

As they looked at each other, another silent, wordless understanding passed between them. It would never be as easy as Vex proposed. For several, suffocating moments, they grew stymied under the weight of the mountain, and stunned by the thought that it might not be willing to release them.

But it was a passing fear; and fear, Vex knew, could be defeated in a thousand clever ways. Percival hefted the lantern higher, and gestured into the darkness with it. They departed, traversing the lifeless hall together, synchronized pace for pace.

Chapter Text

As the world grew drained of its magic, stories proved to have more longevity than spells. The superstitions of witches remained in the ways that one should not drink their tea, or the gifts one should not bring to parties, lest the good hosts fall victim to a curse or poison. Omens may not have carried the weight of the old divinations, but they were observed; snowdrops brought luck, mushrooms brought good health, and a caterpillar’s cocoon at your window meant you were being deceived. And there were many tales of precious artifacts, of the old swords and holy symbols that carried ancient curses (perhaps they would have even been dangerous, had anyone retained the knowledge required to access them). Stories there were of men and women born to fairy mothers, those who could enchant the layman with their clever words, or lull them to sleep with a kiss. And there existed a handful of stories about twins, and the arcane connections forged by the strange circumstance of their birth. Twins, said the stories, felt the pains of their mirror sibling; they would know, on instinct, when their other half faced injury or menace.

Of course, those were the stories, and the truth, as always, was the lesser incarnation of the tales. When Vax’ildan awoke on the day his sister snuck out of the castle, he had no supernatural sense of what had transpired. He only felt exceptionally grumpy, and his stomach churned as if he had eaten something rotten the night before. He spent the morning in utterly inconsolable discomfort and solitude, unable to identify what ailed him.

Throughout the afternoon, he canvassed the halls of Whitestone, at last thinking to seek out his sister. Rain flecked each window he passed, as if the clouds had captured the misery of his mood. After three hours, he had found no traces of her (and her fur-lined jacket was not in the cloak-room). Predictably, his discomfort then turned to anxiety. Flustered and flushed, he at last came upon another living soul in the barren castle: the Ashari, posed bright and quiet as a candle in the upstairs salon, picking lightly through a yellow-jacketed book. He asked if his sister had been seen, and her answer broke the tension of his ignorance into a wild panic.

“She left this morning with Lord de Rolo, to explore the mine in the mountain West of here.”

With great feeling, he yelped, “The nine bloody Hells she has!” 

Foolish, stubborn Vex'ahlia, alone with a man he did not trust a whit, wandering in some deadly catacomb without so much as a note for warning, and already missing for half the day!  After a loud, incoherent exclamation that made the poor Ashari drop her book, he turned on his heel and sprinted for the central stairwell.

 -And found it had grown infuriatingly populated! Mr. Gilmore and Ambassador Stormwind crowded the first landing, chatting actively in their distinctive voices. Vax jumped five stairs at once and slammed onto the floorboards between them, splitting their conversation in two. He could barely muster the breath for a hasty, “Beg pardon, Ambassador-” before he flew past them and towards the oaken doors of Whitestone. At his frantic shove, they burst apart.

A sublime storm of light and sound greeted him; he had opened the door to a hurricane. The rain rattled and hissed about his boots, and the mountain shook with deep roars of thunder. The vision of such a terrible storm gave him only the minutest pause before he sprinted out through the cataracts before him. He ran, and ran, and did not remember storms being so loud. Even as he rounded the outer walls of Whitestone and slipped into the forest, where the high-topped trees made futile mimicry of shelter, Vax felt as if he drowned in the cacophony. Frantic bird calls, the snapping of tree branches, and all of it suffocating under the constant patter of rainfall and endless howl of wind. He watched Whitestone’s ancient walls bleed grey where the drops peppered them with a thousand blows, like a hail of arrows or a burst of rifle-shot. It was dark, too dark, for early afternoon, the sun swallowed behind heavy clouds and the shadows of the trees diffuse – and all the while, the rain, coating the ground in mist and white sparks, sinking through his coat, through his skin, into his bones.

Water ran down the cliff in streams, and his descent proved to be more of a stumbling slide than a climb (though he stayed, with no small stroke of luck, upright on his feet). A blackening muck of leaves and dislodged loam tumbled before him, and after. The storm fell with such speed and mercilessness that his footprints were filled with water almost the second his weight left the ground.

The next crack of thunder sounded awfully, painfully near, and he grew faintly aware that they stood atop the highest point for miles around. His head throbbed, the awful noise pounding through his bones. Over the trembling inside him, he thought he heard his name, shouted again and again. It was not his sister's voice, and so it did not slow his course.

Of course, he did not know what he was looking for. Had the Ashari meant the Western side of the mountain, or the mountain to the West? All this bloody land had was mountains! Mountains and trees, and more mountains beyond that! A flattened clearing appeared below him – and he planned to use it to survey the countryside, but as he landed upon it, with a splash, he recognized an eerie pattern. The puddles were uniform and strange; the water had accumulated in a set of old cart-tracks, and so the mine must have been nearby. He turned, and spotted the passage a ways along the mountainside, a black tunnel open onto the world like a monstrous throat. A brackish puddle mired the entrance, but Vax strode through it, submerged up to his ankles. He called his sister’s name, then cupped his hands around his mouth, and called again. Silence.

A flash of light from above, and another thunder-strike. The tunnel before him glowed briefly white, and he saw the ancient tracks plunging further into the mine. Vax waded through the water and into the tunnel, calling and calling. The sound of rain grew muffled, distant, and Vex’ahlia’s name echoed back at him, followed by the tunnel’s spiteful silence.

It grew too dark to see. Vax slowed his reckless rush and shifted over to the wall, skimming his hand along it for guidance. No longer able to throw himself into his charge, his mind awoke: his worries surged forth. He could not lose his fool sister to some fool argument – not to his own inconsiderate neglect – and –

His foot caught the edge of a broken rail tie. He tumbled forward and landed on the ground, hands planting in the mud. A chilly wave splattered against his chest, and he loosed a short gasp of shock, choking out the droplets that had flown down his throat. Vax shivered briefly, regained his composure, and blindly hauled himself up with the aid of the rough rock wall. He shuffled forwards, feeling for the treacherous obstacle – but before he could progress, a cry startled him. Someone had called his name, but it was not his sister, nor did the voice emerge from the cavern beyond. It hailed him from behind, and as he recognized the speaker, he turned to meet him with a vicious scowl on his face.

“Why the bloody hell are you following me?” Vax barked.

Gilmore, standing in the doorway, lowered his hands. Rainwater dripped from his fine cloak and the brim of his hat. Scorn and worry fought to claim his expression, but neither emotion emerged the victor. Vax could barely see the conflict; the only light, grey and weak in the storm, glowed in from behind Gilmore, and blurred the details of his countenance with soft shadow. When he spoke, his tone carried a patience fraught with tension: “You will not find her by charging off.”

“That wasn’t what I asked you.”

“Would set your baseless grudges aside?” Gilmore replied. Scorn emerged the winner; Gilmore’s handsome face was rent with a naked scowl, and his voice was scathing. “Surely I’m not the only one suited to tell you that no one will benefit if you are lost in some godforsaken mineshaft. Surely you can come to that conclusion yourself!”

Had Vax been permitted a choice, he would have selected the darkness behind him over the confrontations ahead. The decrepit mine somehow scared him so much less than the wounded look on Gilmore’s face. His dear friend looked glamorous as ever, though soundly soaked. His damp hair clung to the side of his face in limp strings, dark and smooth like strokes of ink. The gold clasped at his neck and adorning his fingers shone with a dewy coat. His shoulders were heaving as he took shallow gasps of air, faint but still strained. He’d run, Vax realized, all the way down from the castle to meet with him – just as impulsively as Vax himself had done.

Gilmore's rage cooled quickly; he reached up to remove his hat, held it over his heart, and swept into a gentle bow. “I implore you, forgive me. I hadn’t meant to shout. Keyleth informed me, after you ran, that Lady Vex’ahlia and Lord de Rolo are not expected back until nightfall. We have no cause to worry before then.”

A long silence stretched between them, while the rain rattled on. Gilmore stood straight, and caught his breath.

“I don’t understand you,” Vax confessed.

“I’m certain you don’t,” Gilmore sighed, and pulled a pained smile across his expression.

Another silence. Furious, Vax looked down at the railroad ties, swarmed by frustrated questions. For what purpose did Gilmore chase him down, time and again, and offer him assistance - why such loyalty, after such betrayal? When Vax at last found the faculties to speak, still, his confusion halted him at every other word. “Your ardency would suggest you feel guilty. That you are trying to redeem yourself.”

A soft slosh of water echoed through the cavern. Gilmore had taken a tentative step forward. “I did say we would speak of this one day – but now?”

He spoke without dismissal; his voice betrayed only an earnest uncertainty. Vax looked up at him, begging for an escape, a release he could not define. He worried for his sister, and the feeling ached in him - stole his breath and squeezed his gullet - but he had learned enough to know he would not find her in his current state. He worried, too, about the significance of the discussion he was about to enter. Gilmore's words felt monumental, as if they were being recited before a court, or inscribed into an immortal stone. Every detail of the mine became astoundingly sharp, fixing itself in Vax's memory: the shape of the tunnel mouth, and Gilmore silhouetted against it with that soft darkness in his eyes, and the storm beyond.

Discounting Vex by her absence, he knew there were precious few people who could soothe his fears. Gilmore had been one of those people, once.

“You’re no fool like I am,” Vax continued. “You must have known what you were doing to us when you signed that will.”

Gilmore passed his hat slowly from hand to hand, a gesture of deep thought. “There is a measure of guilt involved, yes,” he admitted. “From your perspective, I must seem quite a terrible traitor.”

“Are you not?” Vax asked.

It was an honest question, and Gilmore laughed darkly at it. Vax felt an eerie, unwelcome warmth touch his heart through the cold coat of the rain. "The situation is somewhat more complicated than that, but I will not deny that I have disappointed you." Gilmore cradled his hat under one arm, and reached forth with one hand, beckoning. “Come out of the dark, will you, my boy? If you are willing to stay and hear it all, I shall tell you everything, here and now.”

Vax took a half-dozen paces towards him, but moved no further. Hot air washed out of the mine; though it did not quite stem the chill that soaked Vax to the skin, it did mitigate the shivering somewhat. The earnest smile on Gilmore’s face grew strained, though Vax interrupted before it could fade entirely: “It’s warmer away from the rain.”

Gilmore took a step of his own. When he saw his advance would not be rejected, he continued until they stood together, within arm’s reach, and there he leaned against the rough-hewn wall. Idly, he swiped rain-water from the brim of his hat while Vax waited opposite him, standing straight. To Vax's quiet irritation, Gilmore looked no less elegant for being drenched, and seemed warm even in the grey light of the downpour beyond. He radiated heat in the welcoming way of a living-room hearth. Not for the first time, Vax swallowed the impulse to draw closer to him and rest there, to soothe himself with that aura.

“I am in a poor position to ask you for favours,” Gilmore began, “but I would ask that you promise to listen to the entire tale before you dash off again.”

“I’m eager to hear it,” Vax said, more tersely than he had meant. He added, “and I’ve got nowhere to run, besides.”

Gilmore looked up, and smiled with a note of pity in his eyes. “I doubt a little rain would stop you. You’re covered in mud, you know.”

Vax looked down. His jacket had gone from black to brown. Pine needles clung to his shirtfront like clumsy, broad-stitched embroidery. A half-hearted attempt at brushing the muck away only spread it further along his shirtsleeves.

“That look must be in fashion somewhere,” Gilmore continued, and Vax absentmindedly flicked a spatter of mud at him with his fingertips. Gilmore shielded himself with his hat. Vax – caught, remembering who he was with and why, recalling what he was about to hear – broke the petty little game for a tired sigh.

“Tell me everything.”

Gilmore did not meet his eyes to begin; instead, he elected to tell the story to his hat, and turned it over in his hands while he spoke. “Your father approached me with the revisions to the will about a month after you and I met," he said. The tale was spoken with unmistakable caution, at nearly the slowest tempo Vax could tolerate. "We talked a handful of times in private, and I believe he regarded me as someone who would act with discretion. My first mistake, as such, was placing too much faith in Lord Syngorn. I assumed he had private reasons for his actions, and I did not breach the confidentiality he entrusted me with.”

Vax struggled to keep himself composed. In every other situation, the mere thought of the will sent him into blind, vengeful fury. He raised his hand, curled loosely in a weak fist, and pressed his lips to it, resisting the urge to bite into his skin for the sake of his own silence.

“So indeed, I acted as a witness, and I signed the will. And, in a most unfortunate coincidence, I found myself growing quite fond of the disinherited pair,” Gilmore continued, smiling faintly. “Your sister proved to be such delightful company, quick as a whip and kinder than she will ever recognize. And you” —he paused, breathless in a way that took Vax’s breath with it, and his dark eyes lifted— “are a man of stunning integrity and matchless virtue. I would fain call you heroic, if I thought you would believe me.”

His eyes fell back to the hat once more, while Vax’s heart seemed to disappear from his chest. What magic tricks this devilish man could pull with only his words! “In a painfully short period of time, I grew to care for the both of you deeply. And while I did, I learned of the second part to your father’s plan." His voice had grown gentle with pleasure; abruptly, it grew stern again, and gained a bitter edge: "Of course you know that Lord Syngorn intends to" —he hesitated, looking for a properly sensitive word— “liquidize your portions of the estate, at the end of the year.”

Behind his hand, Vax cursed, and he began to pace a short, stressful circle through the tunnel.

For years, the twins had lived in a townhouse in Emon while their father spent his days in a manor outside its limits, and only the most urgent of business would bring them together on the same property. Of course, the townhouse technically belonged to the titled Lord, and selling it was his sickeningly roundabout way of turning the now-illegitimate heirs onto the streets, and prying his wealth from their hands. He knew full well that the twins would rather die as vagrants than live in his manor with him.

The raconteur paused, allowing Vax a moment to suffer the sting of the memory. Then: “He wanted to keep the process of selling these properties quiet, lest you or your sister sabotage his work somehow. I expect that was why he asked me to be the witness; he knew the businesses I traded in, and realized I could serve as both signatory and appraiser. Along with my signature, he asked for estimates on the property, the furniture, the carriage, the lot of it. The minute he asked this of me, I told him not to bother seeking other buyers. I signed about thirty binding contracts, and so by the year's end, your house and everything in it shall pass into my possession."

Dryly, Vax muttered, “Wonderful. So it wasn’t just a betrayal, it was a betrayal for profit. How magnanimous of you both.” He felt ill and oddly breathless, queasy with the thought that the story was somehow worse than he had imagined-

“I expect I shall not profit from any of it. I’m giving it back to you.”

Gilmore looked at the ground once more, his face blank, as if he, too, were stunned by what he had just said. Vax heard only the rain, and that single detail just barely convinced him that their exchange was not a hallucination. 

“I truly, truly loathe that man," Gilmore continued. "I despise him for what he has done to you and your sister. He can take the money I gave him and buy a first-class ferry-ride to the Abyss with it. I have bought everything of consequence, and I intend to leave it exactly where it is. It was all I could do to spare you both the suffering you did not deserve.”

His was a voice that always had music in it somewhere, and even now it trembled with broken notes, rent by earnest anger. Vax stopped where he stood, reeling, and echoed, “You purchased everything?

The question seemed to startle Gilmore, as if he had forgotten his story had an audience. He began to toy with his hat once more, and continued with an uncharacteristic stammer, “Well, there were a pair of particularly loathsome end tables I couldn’t bring myself to spend coin on, so those are a deserving casualty. The property itself has proven a little - it's a stumbling block, shall we say. And there are some legal snarls with the horses, so there will be about six months next year where they technically belong to nobody at all.”

“Good gods," Vax said. "How much did this all cost you?”

He braced for the answer, but Gilmore did not trouble him with a figure; instead, he smiled coyly, and answered, “Money is one of those tricky things that means less and less to a man the more he has of it. Trust me, my dear: I was relieved to choose the meaning over the money for once." A supplementary thought occurred to him, and he caught a short laugh between his closed lips. "Though perhaps I should have chosen common sense above both. I was overzealous. The property itself is just a hair wide of my financial bracket, and so I've been - ah, canvassing some co-sponsors, as it were.”

“Oh?" Vax asked. He folded his arms across his chest and tightened them, and other than that, he could not move; he was too dizzy.

Gilmore continued, "Any arrangement would hinge on your consent, of course, but I came to Whitestone with the intent of persuading Lord de Rolo to involve himself. Meaningless mounds of money are certainly familiar territory for him. And incidentally, I'd already been persuading him to start a business in Emon - he's quite a clever little chemist, makes all sorts of delightfully odd things - so I realized he could use your lower floors as an office. Admittedly, I have not addressed the topic with him yet, as I did not have your permission-" he cut his own babbling off with a wave of his hand. "Well, it was all a much better plan before you and I had our row."

For the sake of his own sanity, Vax put the question of Lord de Rolo and future flatmates aside. It was too much at once regardless, a whole whorl of impossible information that he was somehow expected to comprehend. Hollowly, he asked, “You purchased my entire house and all my possessions with the intention of just giving them back, however you could manage? And you said nothing?”

“I thought Syldor would discover my plans, and so I repurposed his tactics. I couldn't risk telling-"

Gilmore cut himself off, and shook his head. "I swore I would lie to you no longer, and here I am painting far too flattering a picture of the whole debacle." The tune of his confession changed; it was mournful, vulnerable, and scored with terrible sighs. He pressed his hand to his forehead, and revealed, "It was nothing nobler than fear, Vax'ildan. I acted without thought, and then I had all the receipts in my hands, and I felt as if I were hanging this magnificent ransom over you for the purchase of your affections. It truly made me sick. In the end I was another Lord Syngorn, throwing my money around to buy what I wanted from you."

"I will not," Vax said, speaking without thought, "let you compare yourself to him."

Gilmore's answer took the form of a strained smile. "Then I shall refrain from that. But there you have it - that's the story. Before I could contrive a suitable way to explain myself and what I had done, you found the truth on your own. Or, part of it, anyway. And so, here we are."

So then, the ending was as abrupt and baffling as everything else in the confession. Vax took a few slow steps back, and found a spot to lean against the opposite wall. He pressed one hand to the frigid stones, seeking something heavy and certain to cling to. The roughened texture pricked his skin, and for a moment, he let that feeling be the only thing he understood. Gilmore fidgeted, still apparently unsatisfied with the state of his hat. He had said so much, and implied even more; he had taken a mind-boggling risk to save him and his sister both, and yet somehow, he had deemed his generous acts to be symptoms of selfishness? He had lied, and suffered fears of senseless things, and by his own secrecy he had created a malignant mass of guilt around a truly heroic gesture-

-and Vax could think of no way to excise it, no way to accept Gilmore's incredible gift without stumbling into some sort of tainted feeling, some vestige of suspicion or doubt, not unless he rejected the whole gift outright - and - ah. 

With a strangely fascinated smile, Vax said, “Keep it.”

“Pardon?”

“Keep it," Vax repeated, and watched with smug delight as Gilmore's face transformed away from its worry. His dark brow furrowed, and he brushed some of his sodden curls further back from his face, as if he wanted Vax to see the full weight of his confusion. Smirking now, Vax said, "Come year's end, I'll buy back what I can, and you shall keep the rest until I can purchase it fairly.”

“That was – truly not my original goal-”

Vax raised a skeptical brow. "Perhaps not, but I cannot take so much from you in good conscience. I dislike feeling indebted as much as you dislike feeling mercenary. If you and I conduct this as a proper business transaction, there is no plot for father to discover; you are not holding me ransom, and I am not taking any bribe. Instead, you are guarding the life I once led until I can afford it again."

Gilmore wore a curious, growing smile. Slowly, his voice thoughtfully drawn out, he replied, "If that's truly what you would prefer."

"Ah, well, we do need to see what Vex'ahlia will say," Vax realized, and Gilmore gave a laugh - he'd forgotten her too, in the moment. She'd likely churn out the most practical answer; Vax had no idea what it would be, and didn't care to think on it.

Instead, he was enraptured by an entirely separate revelation: without a second thought, Gilmore had taken a truly absurd risk to protect him and his sister. Such a risk, as inadvisable as it had been, was overwhelming by the sheer force of feeling behind it. Gods, but with someone so generous and meddlesome watching over him, Vax felt utterly invulnerable. At long last, he could breathe a moment, and move forward with peace instead of panic. That delightful calm made a far greater gift than a townhouse. Wearing a soft but indomitable smile, he said, "You make a clumsy guardian angel, but I would never want another."

"No one's ever called me clumsy before," Gilmore grumbled, but there was no distress in that melodic voice. Somewhat bashfully, he added, “If this ill-executed plot of mine will bring you a measure of security in the end, it will have been worth everything from the expenses to the paper cuts.”

“Ah,” Vax said, stung by the reminder of their fight. “I apologize. I’ve…” he abandoned a careful phrasing, and settled for “I’ve been an arse.”

Gilmore laughed, bright and full, and Vax felt as if the sound were a key unlocking the rest of the anxious shackles around his heart. He’d missed such frankness, such easy friendship; there was no better company in all Tal’Dorei.  “You are entirely forgiven,” Gilmore said. “Unless you have something else to throw at me. In which case, let’s not keep ourselves in suspense.”

Vax displayed his empty hands, and shrugged, at which Gilmore produced another genuine, musical laugh – and Vax, fallen helplessly in love with its tune, listened in quiet joy until it faded. They stood silently together then, listening to the rain fall and observing each other. It was quite a show of trust when one was granted permission to stare, and Vax reveled in the experience; as always, the man opposite him seemed to be someone's masterpiece portrait, on a casual walk out of its frame. Every dark curve and curved line on his form blended flawlessly into the next, all of it purposeful, and all of it in harmony, like an artist had put it there. What clever painter, Vax wondered, could make the murky shadows of a mine look warm, just there, on the line of his jaw, or in the folds of his cloak? They basked in the thrill of a mutual adoration, a private link that did not need the texture of words. Ah, but it would be a wonderful secret to speak of! It would be so terrifying at first, and then so easy - he was certain of it.

After a minute, Vax stood up from his post and crossed the muddy tunnel, found a spot against the wall beside Gilmore, and rested his head on his shoulder. He fancied that even the stone behind his back had grown warmer simply by being in that delightful man's presence. “That cannot be all we have to say to each other, can it?” Vax said.

Gilmore hummed; Vax felt the noise thrum through his cheekbone. “Perhaps,” he said. And then, in a more matter-of-fact voice, “You’re cold as death, dear boy. Here-“

Vax heard the snap of a metal clasp, and then Gilmore's form wriggled underneath him for a moment. He passed the cape over Vax’s shoulders, and let it settle there, wrapped crookedly around them both. It seemed designed to repel the rain, and the inside felt soft – lined with fur, perhaps. Vax truly had not realized how cold he was until those gestures began to banish the chill. Sighing, Vax shuffled in closer, and pressed himself to Gilmore’s side – a motion that was met with a very gentle laugh.

“It's been a stressful hour," Gilmore reminded him. "Let us wait out the storm. If your sister does not emerge before it ends, we’ll climb the hill, find a torch, and have a look inside. When she’s safe and sound, we’ll talk of anything you wish. I believe we now have the luxury of time, so the only proper thing to do is to waste it.”

Standing side-by-side as they were, their eyes could not easily meet, and Vax was briefly, privately glad. That Gilmore would not only understand his mind better than Vax himself did, but that he would also offer such selfless comfort, was horribly touching, and he drew perilously close to tears of gratitude and relief. At the very least, he was certainly pulling some contorted expressions to ward those tears off.

But all the same – all the same, it was blissfully cathartic. “I adore you, you glorious bastard,” he whispered.

Gilmore grasped his hand, tentatively, tenderly, and wove their fingers together. After a moment, he took the hat he'd been toying with all afternoon and placed it gently on Vax's head. It rested slightly crooked, with the way Vax leaned into his shoulder, and when Vax lurched with laughter, the hat wobbled. He could not see the smirk on Gilmore's mouth, but he had no doubt it was there - and it would be a particularly handsome and devastating expression, he was certain.

The rain rumbled on, and with a flash of lightning, the tunnel grew bright, and then dark.

 --

In that same darkness, deeper and distant, the explorers continued their search.

Though Vex and Percival had regained considerable energy from their discoveries, the mine quickly drained what their celebrations had renewed. Trudging ever upwards through dank, ever-narrowing passages, Vex grew impatient, exhausted, and bored. Knowing the path to the vault lay elsewhere only intensified her ill mood; it felt as if every step not taken in the direction of promised riches was an incredible waste of time. For his part, Percival’s excitement had cooled into a grim meditation. He held the lantern aloft to light their way, and yet he still managed to trip on pebbles and discarded pickaxes. His mind was entirely elsewhere, and it was clearly somewhere miserable.

(Vex attempted to engage him in conversation again, for both of their sakes, and soon asked about the crests. His response, however, was that the best place to find the heraldry would be the de Rolo family graveyard, and Vex quite abandoned the idea of cheering him up.)

Several hours on, she came to a stubborn stop in the middle of a passageway, one that widened only just enough to permit them to stand side-by-side. For a brief moment, she paced around in a circle, searching somewhere to sit upon the ground. No luck befell her; this particular tunnel floor was moist and muddy, to a depth that it began to smudge the hem of her skirt. Percival had taken a half-dozen steps forward without realizing she was no longer at his side, but at her groan of discontent, he turned back, located her, and gave her a questioning look.

“Are you certain this path will take us to your engine room?” she asked, and folded her arms tight over her chest.

“No,” he said. “I never claimed to be.”

Vex shut her eyes, flung her head back and sighed. She felt like a misbehaving toddler for all her complaining, but saw no reason to comport herself any more maturely. “Then hadn’t we best go back to the elevator shaft? It feels as if we’ve been here all day!”

“It's likely we have,” Percival agreed. “The main shaft is a poor choice, though. I don’t trust it.”

“What happened to it? Did a tunnel collapse?”

“Perhaps,” he said. “It’s possible we knocked something loose by starting up the elevator, or perhaps the storm put too much strain on an old drainage shaft-“

He bit his lip, lost in the puzzle. Vex startled him out of contemplation, asking, “Have you brought any food?”

“Oh. No. Have you?”

“I brought water,” Vex grumbled, but made no motion towards her flask. “Gods, we’re fools-“ Reaching the end of her patience, she stomped her foot in the mud, producing an audible splash – and then, unexpectedly, a wooden thunk.

Percival looked at her, startled. She stared back, embedded in the mud past her ankle, but feeling something stiff and solid under the soles of her feet. Instinct told her not to move, and so she remained frozen where she stood. Bound by no such compulsion, Percival cast his lantern about the passage, and the light fell upon a mess of broken ropes and shattered wood.

“Hah,” he said to himself. “It wasn’t the only one.”

“What?” Vex pressed, entirely out of patience. At times, when Percival engaged her in conversation, it seemed half the necessary exchanges happened entirely inside his head.

With a smug, knowing grin on his narrow lips, Percival approached her, until he stood close enough that she could feel the heat of the lantern-flame through the glass. Then, with a short flourish, he pointed up.

She followed his gesture. Directly above them was a shaft just narrow enough to climb through, extending up into impenetrable darkness.

“My Lady,” he said wryly, “it seems you’ve disrespected the remains of this elevator.

A rather obscene squelch filled the silence between them, as Vex pulled her boot from the mud. Then, suddenly thrilled, she raised both her hands before her in excited little fists, and looked up again. “Oh! An elevator!”

Vex squinted. The shaft appeared to end far above them in some kind of criss-cross contraption; either in a grate, or perhaps a set of bracings from the broken elevator. Set perpendicular to that, in the wall facing Whitestone, was a doorway framed by dark, sturdy beams of wood.

“That’s it,” Percival said, with forceful confidence. “If this mine does connect to the engine room, it will be through that passage there. We’re at the perfect height and distance.”

"Such a shame there's no elevator anymore," Vex said, and drew the grapple-gun with as much obscene flourish as she could muster. Tearing her eyes from Percival's bemused look, she raised the instrument and angled it towards the upper passage.

Abruptly, she wondered whether she held the pistol correctly, or if there was something obvious in its operation that she was about to execute wrong. Her hands shook, and she lowered them, and took a slow breath. Self-consciousness had blocked her shot. An error would likely condemn them to wandering the mines until they could be rescued. 

She glanced at Percival, expecting reproach for her fear, but received only a gentle shrug of his shoulders. “If you miss,” he said, “we'll search out another way.”

Oddly enough, Vex found that reassurance more comforting than groundless confidence in her aim. She hoisted the grapple-gun aloft again, aligning it as best she could with the distant doorframe. She closed one eye, and squeezed the trigger. The machine made an enormously satisfying pop, and jolted her whole body back and down into the ground as if she had been shoved. A smooth rush of air ghosted over her hands, matched by a steady exhaling hiss. Endeavouring to keep her arm straight and her stance square, she still could not help but squeeze her eyes shut to pray and hope – then the grapple-gun lurched in her fingers, the rope fell slack, the hiss fizzled out, and Vex heard something not unlike the squeak of a mouse being trodden on.

She opened her eyes. Percival’s hands were both pressed to his mouth, and yet somehow the smile behind them was still unmistakable to her. His eyes shone with a gleeful light, and he gave another shrill, high-pitched noise, one that shook apart into giddy, madcap giggles.

“It worked!” he chirped. “I’m a genius.”

He looked positively delighted. “Well I’m a rather good shot,” she retaliated, and gave a harsh tug on the rope. It stuck fast. Vex glanced upwards; the line arced through the shaft and into the elevated hall, and though she could not see exactly what the hook had caught, it seemed perfectly sturdy. Even leaning her entire weight into the rope, as she did then, changed nothing. She admitted to herself a fondness for the little gadget, and turned it over in her hand, swishing the cord happily back-and-forth. Quite suddenly, though, she frowned:

“Won’t it spool us up?” she complained. She shook it, and it did no such thing. It only rattled, as if a gear had come loose.

“It most certainly would have, had you actually given me the time to make such a mechanism," Percival explained. She made a face at him, and in a dull, overly condescending tone, he continued, “No, it will not, so we shall have to climb.”

Despite his sarcasm, he could not keep the peacock-proud smile from his face. Vex found his petty enjoyments oddly endearing, and decided not to tease him further. Instead, she wordlessly released the grapple-gun. Percival took it from her, and hooked the little machine through the lantern's ring - they would pull the light up, he said, once they had climbed to the tunnel above. Cautious of the delicate mobile he had created, Vex wound her hands about the rope, and began to climb. It proved a difficult task; with nothing heavy to anchor it, the rope swayed dramatically, and her grip upon the twine was slipperier than she expected, especially between the toes of her muddied boots. It grew easier when she reached the narrowed elevator shaft, where she could brace her feet upon the rocky wall, but her shoulders still burned from carrying her own weight. She wondered if Percival would be able to lift himself one-handed, or if he would use both despite the burn. Whatever he chose, it did not impede him; she could feel him keeping pace with her, and at one point, he grabbed her boot by accident.

"Good gods, Percival, watch where you're going!" she yelped, scrabbling to keep her footing stable.

"No, no," he answered, his voice oddly shrill, "I don't think I shall."

She glanced down. He was turned away. It took Vex a moment to realize he was averting his eyes out of politeness, and she briefly regretted deciding to go first.

The tunnel above was a perfectly square hall of pale stone, its floor scraped and scored by the wheels of heavy carts. Vex hauled herself up with the aid of the wooden doorframe, and helped Percival over the ledge and to his feet. When he stood, she did not miss the slight grimace of pain on his face, or the way he flexed the fingers of his right hand before tucking them into his pocket, but she did not think it wise to ask after them. She would have to dismiss that habit before it formed, lest she make the mistake of mentioning his injury in a more public setting.

After unsticking the hook from its purchase point – deeply embedded in the base of the right-hand pillar – winding the rope around her shoulder once more, and handing the lantern off to Percival, she continued through the passage. Percival was swiftly proved right that the passage connected to the engine room; Vex could hear its mechanical rumblings through the earth. She rounded a corner, and found herself unexpectedly submerged in a forest of brass tubes. Varied in thickness and singing with steam and heat, piercing through the low tunnel-ceiling and crawling along the floor, they crowded the path such that Vex found herself slipping between them sideways as she advanced. At one point, the complex weave forced her to press her back nearly flush against a pipe, and for those barest few seconds of contact, she could feel the heat swarming her clothes, sinking through them, threatening her skin. She rushed onward, and heard Percival, undergoing the same challenge, hiss in surprise behind her.

She reached the termination of the passage, which was a sheer, solid wall studded with the rungs of a ladder. They rose some fifteen feet, and led into another dark tunnel. Vex paused at that juncture, and looked to Percival over her shoulder. The heat of the area had driven them both to a painful sweat, and his cheeks were red with the unpleasant exertion. She found his expression even more worrying; he looked distracted, his eyes locked on something far distant, and he bit his lips and pulled them through his teeth.

“Do you know where this leads, my Lord?” she half-shouted, over the grumbling of the engine.

Even her voice seemed to irritate him. Curtly, he nodded, and called, “That’s – that’s the way. I bid you continue.”

“Are you quite alright?”

Silently, he waved his hand forth, ushering her on (the left, of course; the right he held pinned to his chest). Vex obeyed his command, but with great hesitation; no doubt he was plagued by the memory of his injury. The steam-pipes about them could not be touched for more than a second without threatening a burn - perhaps one of the pipes penning her in was the culprit of five years past. Vex wished only that she had some better way to assuage Percival's anguish; it seemed she would have to settle for escaping the catacombs as swiftly as she could.

Pocketing the grappling-hook, she climbed the ladder into the tunnel above. It seemed to be a maintenance passage for the engine, but it was not tall enough for her to stand, and so she – scowling in disgust at the thick layer of grime beneath her – pulled herself to the end of the tunnel, swiping palm-sized smudges through the coal dust. The noises and vibrations of the engine clamped down on her, suddenly and fiercely as a set of jaws. Sweat gathered into beads at her wrists and her temples, and the air she drank in was heavy and scalding like steam.

Under the mountain, she had been captivated most of the time by exploration and adventure; squeezing through that narrow tunnel, she found herself abruptly conscious of the weight of the castle above her, and it felt dreadfully immense.

In quiet panic, she stumbled from the crawlway and into the engine room; she was several feet up, but she did not bother with the ladder, leaping to the floor in her eagerness to be free. She did not look, at first, to see if Percival had followed, possessed as she was by her own panic. Her awareness was dampened by dark spots in her vision and a pounding heartbeat, and she took shaking steps almost to the door, a hand pressed to her heart as she attempted to quell its pace.

Then a clamor erupted from behind her, a shattering sound and a thud, and Vex wheeled around to see the young Lord leaning heavily against his work table, his knees given out, his shoulders shaking. The left hand braced him on the desk above a sheet of shattered glass and pooled liquid; the right, he held to his chest, clutched and claw-like.

“Percival!”

His face grew contorted with agony, and his eyes were sealed shut. “Keyleth, call for Keyleth!”

With another rattle the entire workbench shook, and his grasp on the chemical-slick surface slipped; his knees collided into the floor with a bruising slam. Vex rushed towards him, and pulled the workbench stool with her. Scrambling to regain his feet, he muttered something, a senseless litany – she caught pleading words spat from between his sealed jaws: “I don’t know, I don’t know, don’t ask me, I don’t know--!”

Vex reached for him, pleading, “Percy, everything’s fine-!” She grasped his shoulders to guide him to the seat, but as soon as the touch descended he thrashed away from her and yelled, emitting a mindless sound of animal pain, and the noise startled Vex into a flight up the stairs.

As she ran, insensible of time or place, she called for Keyleth over and over. Her voice echoed through the spiral stairwell and drowned her own thoughts: arriving into the main hall, she took the closest corner and found herself face-to-face with the Ashari. The young woman’s eyes were already wide with fear; before Vex could even voice her request, Keyleth asked, “Percival?” and did not seem shocked to see Vex nod.

“Please, stay here,” Keyleth said, as she pushed past Vex and into the stairwell.

“Stay?” Vex echoed – her heart screamed at the audacity of the thought – it felt irrational, impossible, to leave him alone-

With more strength than Vex had ever heard from her, Keyleth ordered, “Stay here, and let no one follow!”

Stunned, Vex watched Keyleth vanish around the corner with a flicker of ember-bright hair.

Vex felt dizzy, and pressed one hand to the wall. Perhaps – if only she waited – Percival would emerge from the basement, in a cloud of curling smoke, as he had on the day she arrived-

Something in her mind shifted at that thought, an ugly, uncomfortable nudge. The image of the smoke – curling around his hands, his feet – the birdlike mask – it suddenly bothered her terribly, in an aching but subtle way. It was like coming into a room she had known all her life, and realizing, at a glance, that something had changed – but she could not place what it was.

And then, in the middle of her contemplation, something damp and ice-cold collided with her back. Vex shrieked, and tried to wriggle away, but it seized her in a pair of clammy arms. She heard laughter, familiar laughter – and recognized the voice of her brother in her ear, hysterical and giddy.

“You arse, Vax’ildan!” She barked, and shoved him away. He was absolutely sopping wet, and entirely filthy; he seemed to be painted in a layer of mud, one that the rain had only partly washed away. “I’m soaked, now! Look what you’ve done!”

“You’re a mess yourself, sister,” he pointed out, and yanked her sleeves outwards, posing her like a doll. Vex looked down: her own clothes were smudged from hem to collar, black with soot. Vax’s damp hug had left a pair of slimy streaks across her front, but she hadn’t exactly been in fine shape beforehand, and despite herself, Vex gave a short laugh.

“You’re alright, eh?” Vax pressed, in a falsely careless tone. “Thought you were supposed to be out mining for gold. Did you lose your pickaxe?”

“It didn’t go quite as planned,” Vex cut in, her voice stern. “I’ll explain, but – Percival, he’s –“

“The young Lord’s not with you.”

The observation came from another voice, one that briefly startled Vex, in her shaken state. Mr. Gilmore had joined them – or perhaps he had been standing behind Vax all along, and Vex had simply been too overwhelmed to notice. “Yes,” she breathed. “He’s downstairs. Keyleth told me to stay here while she looked after him, but I think he’s-“

She hesitated. The hand. You can’t tell them about the hand. She started again; “He’s not feeling well – he was – quite distraught, and I’m worried for him.”

Vax’s teasing smile vanished, and his brow furrowed with concern. Mr. Gilmore did not seem so shaken; warmly, consolingly, he said, “I wouldn’t fret, my Lady. The young Lord is known to suffer such fits on occasion, and Keyleth is quite a talented healer: he shall be well cared for.”

“Like as not, he’s only exhausted,” Vax supplied, folding his arms. “The pair have you been gone for hours. It’s almost sundown.”

Vex blinked, and glanced about.  She could just see the sky through the rain-streaked windows of the main hall; the spent clouds remained, but they wore the purple tones of late dusk. Exhausted, she thought, but swallowed her scathing retaliations. Had the pair of them not heard him scream?

Yet Percival had warned her that he could suffer such attacks upon overworking his hand: in many ways, what had just happened was probably unremarkable, if tragic, and certainly a predictable consequence. Exhausted, indeed.

Her footing regained at last, Vex realized the strangeness of what she was looking at: her brother and Mr. Gilmore, standing nearly shoulder-to-shoulder without a hint of tension or vitriol. Even stranger, Vax asked, “So, have you found anything interesting?”

Vex’s gaze flickered to Mr.Gilmore and back, and Vax understood the reason for her hesitation. “Right,” he said,"You've not heard the good news, Vex.”

“Pardon?” she said flatly.

“It’s something of a story,” Vax cut in, and she caught a sly little smile forming on Mr. Gilmore’s face. Her brother relayed the scheme to her, and she found her panic fading over her growing smile. He explained, beaming, how their friend had deceived their father and rescued their property. Mr. Gilmore chipped in to the tale on occasion, correcting details in ways that made Vax trip over a laugh on his way into the next sentence. By the conclusion of the tale, Vex had grown so touched she felt tears come into her eyes.

“Your brother has declined to take the objects back for nothing,” Gilmore concluded. “He claims he's going to purchase them from me. Of course, I am still perfectly willing to return them to you.

Vex gave her brother an icy look, and said, "You're absolutely mad, brother."

With an irritated bounce on his heels, Vax swiftly changed the topic (and Vex resolved to interrogate him about the strange choice at a later date).

“So, are we still keen on this vault, then?” he asked. Vex shut her mouth mid-reply and recalled, with a swift sting, the argument that had motivated her the day before. Vax, seeing her expression, sighed heavily. “I do not trust Lord de Rolo just yet, but if my sister is searching, then so am I.” He gave a laugh, and added, “Shan’t pretend I have any better ideas.”

“Thank you.” Vex said, with absolute earnestness. Her brother only shrugged. She could not quite voice how she had come to feel about the situation, not in full. Money was still very much her objective, and yet she had begun to sense the desperation in Lord de Rolo’s heart. She hoped that whatever he sought in the vault would bring closure to his grief. At the moment - with his agony and his secrets - his situation was intolerable, and she would not abandon him to it without resolution. She added, “I don’t believe I could leave now, after everything I’ve seen.”

“What’s our next step, then?” Vax asked.

Vex pondered. It felt wrong to move forward too far without Percival, but perhaps she could seek out a few leads while he recovered. At length, she replied. “I think we may want to speak with Ambassador Stormwind once more. Our next step requires the old de Rolo crests and mottos, and the Ambassador has the best grasp of the castle’s history.”

“I believe he has already retired,” Gilmore noted. “The library stands empty, at least.”

He pointed to the end of the hall. The door at the far end, standing slightly ajar, opened onto darkness; not even the distant, flickering light of a candle interrupted it. The group of three shared a moment of quiet, and heard no rustle of paper, no hiss of scales, no signature chortle.

“No matter,” said Vex. “Truly, I don’t wish to continue alone.”

“Am I chopped liver, sister?”

“I mean, without-“ Vax’s smirk cut into her, and she said quite crossly, “Oh, you know what I mean.”

The three guests fell into a nervous silence after that. Vex was unwilling to leave the stairwell until she heard news of Percival – all had gone quiet below, and she could not say whether that was a worrying sign or no – and the other two seemed equally unwilling to leave her. Mr. Gilmore began to idly pick pine needles from the back of Vax’s jacket and flick them onto the carpet.

Inside the minute, a set of light, rushing footsteps echoed from the stairway. Vex immediately posted herself at the top of the stairs. Keyleth swept up to her, and caught and clasped both of her hands, giving quick nods of acknowledgement to the gentlemen. “M’Lord is resting downstairs – ah, good evening – and he will be fine, but I must ask that you not disturb him for the next few hours. He cannot be moved or bothered in his condition.”

It was a startling proclamation; it came out all in a rush, and Keyleth looked absurdly panicked for someone supposedly reassuring her that everything was alright. "You're certain?" Vex pleaded. "Should he not be supervised by someone, at the very least?"

"I shall see to that myself," Keyleth said. "I believe the presence of anyone else would - it would distress him."

Vex could not pretend she was not stung by the implication, but she would gain nothing from acting petty about it. Forging her most valiant smile, Vex only said, “Thank you, Keyleth, for ensuring his good health.” She squeezed Keyleth's hands, and gave a slight wince: the engine-grease on her palms had layered so thick, she could feel it smudging onto Keyleth’s little hands with stomach-churning clarity. She would really need to calm the both of them down, or they'd make a complete mess of each other. For that, Vex hit upon an idea: “I must thank you for something else, as well."

“Oh – must you?”

“Yes, for your clever sayings,” Vex teased. She released their bonded hands, and jangled the bracelet she wore - Keyleth, of course, was wearing hers as well. “I recalled your words at the strangest time, but they cracked a de Rolo riddle, of all things!”

Keyleth’s smile grew tight at the corners. Slowly, she said, “I am glad your venture was worthwhile.”

For all the confidence in her words, Keyleth’s tone could not render them convincing; her sweet voice shook, and her hands with them. She looked at the blackened smears on her fingers and then over her shoulder at the spiral staircase, as if she had no idea how any of it had gotten there. Still, the conversation seemed to cool her frantic mood somewhat. Wiping her hands on her skirts, she asked, “Shall I draw baths for the three of you? It seems you all had enviable adventures this afternoon.”

Vex glanced down at her own greasy hands, and Vax gave both the ladies a thin, bemused smile. Gilmore chuckled, “I think that would do very well.”

Keyleth moved past the group, intending to lead them up the stairs. Vex paused a moment, and did not follow. Over her shoulder, she could hear her brother apologizing to the Ashari for some earlier slight, though Vex did not possess the peace of mind to eavesdrop. She stood at the head of the stairs and listened for the sounds beneath her instead.

Nothing human reached her ears - nothing but the constant, mindless whirring of the machine.

Well – she loathed the feeling, and the admittance of it pained her even more, but she was powerless for the moment. She turned away from the stairwell, and caught up with her companions, trying to swallow her guilt and glancing over her shoulder every third step. Pointless gestures, the lot. The best she could do was wait, and move quickly; the sooner Keyleth finished drawing their baths, the sooner the Ashari could attend to Percival again, if it was needed.

Chapter Text

The adventurers took their baths, and lingered there as long as it pleased them: they had all suffered an arduous day, which made the indulgence impossible to resist. By the time the water cooled, all the windows of the castle had gone black. Night had come. Most other members of their company would be abed; the sleepless would be earning their moniker.

Some took the occasion to converse in privacy. Gilmore, reclining and resplendent in a purple dressing-gown, drinking cool water from a wine-glass; Vax’ildan opposite, sharing the chaise but forgoing any real contact. They talked of inconsequential things, small pleasures, trifles and tricks. Gilmore recounted the Ambassador’s ghost stories, or explained Lord de Rolo’s chemical inventions as far as he understood them, or described how he had seen the Ashari summon fire to her fingertips to light the candles in their rooms. His tales were tales of the everyday, but caught under the spell of that enchanting voice, Vax heard stories of alchemists, demons and enchantments in their stead.

Midnight did fascinating things to conversation. In time, the content of their words meant not half as much as the tone, the cadence, the rhythm. Vax found himself listening for pauses and laughter and escalations of pitch, and hidden in each of them were permissions to move closer, or touch. In no time at all, they were sprawled across the chaise together, side-by-side with feet entangled, too drowsy to move and too fascinated by their dance to sleep. Eventually, they agreed; the time to sleep would come eventually...

Across the hall and down the stairs, Vex found herself in a much more discontented state of wakefulness, and though her thoughts were equally mysterious, they were occupied instead with passageways and riddles. She circled her room in her slippers and dressing-gown, watching the candlelight shadows waltz across the curtains. The vault felt closer than ever, but her ignorance of the de Rolo family stalled her hunt; without a place or person to learn the secret heraldry from, she had only Julius’s crest to go by, and she now believed that to only be the smallest piece of the larger puzzle.

And deeper in her heart, she worried for her host with a nervous energy that Keyleth's comforting words could not soothe. She would require the sight of Percival unharmed, and nothing less, before her fears would be fully quelled.

Thus the spell of the midnight hour claimed another. Against good sense, previous experience and mortal exhaustion, Vex began to wander again. First, her course took her past the desk, where she gathered one of her candles. The parchment bearing the crest, now thoroughly creased and worn, lay open in her hand, and she did not remember picking it up. She slipped out of her room, and descended to the third floor landing.

How curious it was, that she was not afraid. Barely two nights prior, Orthax had swarmed her in the study, and yet she did not believe she would encounter it again. Percival’s argument had not convinced her that the apparition was benign (no malfunction moved with such purpose), but she sensed no strange presences pursuing her. The spirit’s arrival had been heralded, twice before, by a preternatural chill of anxiousness: all she felt wandering the halls that night was a terrible, terrible loneliness.

The darkness, the hollow halls, the quiet, inhuman noises below - it all created an illusion of perfect solitude. The massive, extraordinary engine rumbled on with the staunch loyalty of a hound, while all but one of its masters lay in their graves, and the remaining son drifted through the halls as a recluse. Whitestone worked, as they slept. Such pointless, tireless expenditure, such ingenuity amounting to nothing – and Percival had been suffocating in this devastating uselessness for five years!

In a way, she understood why he had not sought his vault out sooner. He’d said, “I do want something in the vault, but I have only recently developed the desire to obtain it.” As an answer it was typically cryptic of Percival, but perhaps his desire had simply been overwhelmed by the waste of it all. Vex approached the clock on the landing, and even she, who had never met Julius de Rolo, looked upon it with a dark note of sorrow. Everything he had made, everything all the de Rolos had made, over hundreds of years, amounted to this: a stranger in a nightgown, excavating their secrets for her own profit, while the last de Rolo slept alone with his troubled dreams.

The clock showed five to midnight. Vex tucked her nightgown under her and knelt upon the landing, setting the candle next to her, and staring up at the machinery within the casing. Never in her life had she seen a clock so complex: such an incredible number of gears spinning and clicking, all different sizes and moving at different rates, tasked with the simple role of keeping time! Regardless, she would solve whatever puzzle they masked, and bring the results to Percival on the morrow. A little progress might soothe his suffering.

She watched, idly raking her fingers through her own hair. She braided it, unwound it, and braided it on the other side. The hands of the clock moved into a perfect parallel alignment – midnight. Three of the gears spun, and Vex squinted up at them curiously. Words in the common tongue were etched into their surfaces, though they had been obscured before the shift: one read “clock” , and another “of”. Meaningless at the moment, but she had expected no less: the time on the crest showed ten after twelve, and she would have to be patient until then.

Not that patience was a strength of hers.

Vex drummed her fingers on her knee. If Percival had indeed recovered, as Keyleth had insisted he would, why had he not come to bid her goodnight, and prove his good health? Oh, if it had been too late in the evening, he would not have ventured into the ladies’ wing of the house, of course - and yet, was he not accustomed to discarding manners when the situation demanded it? Transgressions were not beyond him. The way he’d crowded her in the collapsing mine shaft, clawing his hand into her hair and pressing her to him –

There was no second hand on the clock face: when the minute hand jumped forwards a nock, she shivered in her place, startled, and then settled again.

Had anyone seen the young lord at all – any of the gentlemen, or Keyleth? Had he even left his workshop?

Her thoughts drifted, back and forth. The gears of the machine were utterly strange. None of them seemed to be moving on the rhythm of a second; they all turned erratically, at different intervals, occasionally showing glimpses of other words – “hours”, then “folly”. Perhaps she was supposed to move them somehow? The case was protected by a glass, but there was a latch and a hinge; Julius had designed it to be opened. She reached up, and wriggled the latch: it stuck fast.

It proved so difficult to focus, especially when the puzzle was being so stubborn - and especially with so many other worries dogging her. Percival's absence bothered her, and she was equally bothered by the memory of him emerging from the workshop on her first day, surrounded by smoke. She had missed something obvious – a pattern, an implication. Fear crawled into her, not from any identified point or particular moment, but from everywhere, from everything she didn’t know. Her jaw clenched tight, and she forced her breath to come in slow, steady hisses, in and out. She drew her knees up to her chest and watched the clock as if hypnotized, suddenly too nervous to look anywhere else.

The hand jolted forwards again, again, again…and in her distress, the truth she had neglected struck her with such suddenness that she nearly gasped. It was Orthax – the apparition – by the way the tendrils fell, the monster was not shapeless, not entirely. No, the motions of the cloud, the surges and swirls - they looked uncannily similar to Percival’s smoke-wreathed entrance on her first day in Whitestone. In both cases, the smoke had moved around something, curling across and over a physical obstruction. There had been something inside the smoke in the study that night, something solid, something that could move.

Orthax was not a spirit: it was humanoid.

Vex gripped the edges of her nightgown, digging her fingers into the flesh of her palm through the thin bunch of fabric. But - what could that mean? What conclusions would such a revelation create? She had so little expertise with risen spirits, and the likenesses they chose. Perhaps the lost de Rolo’s bones moved on their own, or perhaps a statue or sculpture of the man, or perhaps –

The hand on the clock jerked forward once more. Ten minutes after twelve. Vex sprang from her seat, nearly knocking her taper over, her fingers shaking and pale in the trembling light. She grasped the tiny handle on the side of the clock and jerked it. The casing rattled, and the glass shook in its frame, but nothing changed or came loose, and the door would not open. Deep, brassy chimes sounded from under her fingers, so loud the casing vibrated with force, and Vex jumped back. The clock tolled, slow and loud and sonorous, strike after strike, and Vex, her mind still thrumming with thoughts of Orthax, watched as closely as she could, watched every subtle shift and tick, memorizing every detail and trying, frantically, to spot something out of the ordinary in the machine.

And as she watched, the gears moved into unexpected alignment: the letters etched into their surfaces, curving in an arc, read “The hours of folly are measured by the clock.

Vex frowned. The sound of the clock-chimes faded, and she stomped her foot. She tried the door of the clock again; it remained comfortably locked. The glass seemed thin and ill-fitted, and she could have tricked the latch inside into opening (slipping a piece of card through the seam might have sufficed), but she doubted the de Rolos planned for something so underhanded – and what was she looking for, besides? What had she expected from a clock?

Well, she hadn’t expected to be chastised for her folly, but that, at least fit with the character of the family.

She gathered her taper again, prepared to stomp off to bed, and froze on the landing.

The last time Keyleth had seen Orthax - it had been in the workshop.

And all at once, the question of why Percival had not been up to see her became a desperate emergency. Her feet reacted faster than her mind: at a dead sprint, Vex descended the central stairway, crossed the main hall, and dashed down the stairs, cursing herself for not recognizing the disaster sooner. The metal door to the engine room was shut, but not locked; when Vex pushed it aside, it moved with a deep, aching creak.

The workshop was dark but for the light of her taper, and even raising it high she could only see the barest few feet before her. The engine moaned, expelling gushes of heat with bursts of eerie, hissing noise. She held her breath: exploring the room made her more uncomfortable than she had predicted. Even if Orthax did not hover coiled in some blackened corner, there was something transgressive about her search, as if she were spying or eavesdropping. The engine room belonged to Percival, while the rest of the castle seemed to belong only to itself.

At last, under the mechanical cacophony, she heard a human pattern of breath. She turned, and the light of her taper caught something metallic, something that flashed and reflected: the golden trim on Percival’s coat. He had curled up on the ground, and wore the garment over his form like a blanket. Vex approached him with haste born of concern, for he appeared to be lying in a pool of something dark, something her panic translated as blood – but then the light of her candle touched it, and she saw a mat of dark, starchy moss, flecked with tiny white flowers. Keyleth must have grown him a place to rest. Softly, the young Lord's shoulders rose and fell, breathing steady in contented sleep.

Vex finally gave a long, quiet sigh, and from that, steadied her composure so she could inspect him more carefully. Percival’s right arm lay extended outwards across the floor, draped with a white cloth. The fabric clung to the shape underneath it: it was slightly damp. She concluded it was doused either with cold water or another Ashari salve, to soothe the burn, and decided not to move it. Beside his sleeping form stood a single glass bottle, the kind a chemist would use, stoppered and halfway full of a clear liquid. Half his clothes were scattered next to that: his boots, his gloves, his waistcoat and cravat.

She set the taper a few feet back, kneeling on the cool stone beside Percival’s shoulder, a contemplative smile crossing her face. With that odd, pale hair, and the strangeness of his bower in the midst of a mechanized room, he looked like a sprite who had stumbled out of the fairy world and fallen asleep. His glasses rested askew on his nose, slightly crushed under the weight of his head; his clothes and skin bore the smudges of soot from their journey that day.

What tricks the mind could play, at midnight! There were no ghosts here, no smoke-wreathed spirits, no blood upon the stones. Percival, though eccentrically positioned as usual, rested in good health. Sitting with him, she felt she had nothing to fear from Whitestone beyond the inventions of her own mind. She had overreacted to her wild thoughts of Orthax: if something as typical as an engine malfunction could mimic the apparition so closely, perhaps it was all an illusion after all.

She folded her hands, entwining her fingers, making herself the picture of innocent curiosity, and whispered, “Percival?”

Not a word. Vex furrowed her brows. Given his expressed difficulty with nights in the castle, she had expected him to be a lighter sleeper. She called his name a full three times, putting a sing-song tone on it when it began to bore her. When he stirred at last, his eyes opened blearily, and it took him nearly five seconds to recognize her through his waking haze. He used his good hand to push himself up from the ground - slightly, only enough to adjust his glasses.

“Lady Vex?” he muttered. Then, as if he comprehended the strangeness of his situation all at once, he reared back, scrambling to rise to his hands and knees, pulling his scarred hand free from the cloth. He started to feel frantically about the ground, searching, fingers flinching at the strange texture of the ground beneath him. The jacket hung crooked from his shoulders, and one sleeve trailed through the moss with a hiss.

“We’re in the engine room,” she cut in. He looked startled by her voice, and she froze for a moment. His gaze fixed on her, still and attentive; it was an intense look, almost as forceful as a touch, and she felt herself leaning away. “You had a fit. I think it was your hand. Keyleth came down here to care for you." She remembered his particular fear about his injury, and before it could capture him, she added, "No one else was present, my Lord. No one saw."

He grumbled a wordless complaint as his answer, rubbing his hand over his face, which nearly made Vex laugh: he did not look ill so much as inconvenienced. (What sweet, amusing relief this was!) Voice pitched low and gravelly, he asked, “What time is it?”

“A quarter after midnight.”

"And what are you doing awake, at this hour?”

Vex held Julius’s crest aloft, halfway tempted to toss it to the ground in recollection of her frustration. She said, “I thought that I would look at that clock and solve another puzzle for you. All I got for my trouble was a telling-off.”

A coy spark lit the blue back into his eyes, banishing the last of his irritation. “You were told off by a clock?”

“The inscription deemed me a fool.”

“How rude,” he chuckled.

Percival discarded his jacket, shouldering it off onto the floor. The white shirt beneath hung loose on his shoulders, halfway unlaced. He sat back upon his mossy pallet with his back straight against the stones. The young Lord then spent a few moments arranging himself to be presentable - flattening his hair with his good hand, pulling the cuffs of his shirt straight and low, masking what he could of his scars. As he fussed, he gave a choked laugh, and asked, “Do you never sleep, little spirit? On every night I’ve woken, I’ve seen you flitting about investigating some thing or other.”

Vex caught his gaze and held it, her own smile growing. Of all the faces of her host she had seen so far, she liked this one best. Wicked, but slightly unguarded. A delightful roguish streak rested beneath the mire of his misery, seen only when he was truly comfortable with his company. She was glad the earlier fit had not sunk his spirits too low. She preened, “Well, it shows midnight on the crest-“

“-it shows twelve, ergo you could have waited for noon.”

By that dizzy, slack smile upon his face, she knew this was not an argument to be won: he was only toying with her, prodding her in ways that amused him. With a slight roll of his eyes, he amended, “Forgive me, my mind is always somewhat untethered once this wears off.”

“This?” she asked.

He needed no excuse for the odd tone of their conversation, for own mind felt similarly disarrayed. She found she liked his probing yet inoffensive questions, his gentle jibes. She enjoyed his teasing attention the way a cat would enjoy having its ears scratched. As they spoke, her gaze flicked downwards to his collarbones, exposed by the open collar of the shirt, as if she thought they would somehow indicate his well-being. Of course, they were just collarbones, pale and sharp and intact.

But he was saying something, explaining: “-a homemade sedative. For the pain.”

He indicated the stoppered bottle at his side. The gesture made him appear even more owlish than usual, as his sleeves swept outwards like ivory wings. Vex propped her chin on one hand. "Are you feeling much better?"

Percival plucked one of the flowers from the moss, and spun it between his fingers. He tossed it aside, and mumbled, "It's hard to say. I've lost another few hours, though."

“Ah,” she sighed. Exactly as she had thought: his hand had caused another blackout. But outside of that, he seemed well recovered, and in fine spirits - she did not want to dampen his mood. Lightly, she said, “Well, my Lord, my investigating is done for the night.” She rose, and took the taper from the ground again. “Perhaps a quarter past midnight is too late for even the sprites.”

“Five after midnight,” he corrected. “If you’re going by that hall clock, anyway. It runs about ten minutes fast.”

Vex stopped where she stood. “It runs ten minutes fast?”

“Yes,” he said, slowly, and then her conclusion reached him like an electric charge, and he sprang to his feet. “Oh, of course! It runs ten minutes fast!”

“What time is it now?” she asked.

“I’ve no idea!” he declared. “Make haste!”

They rushed off together, at a quick and reckless pace. Whatever clouds had blurred the sky ten minutes past had been banished, and the moon was full beyond the distant windows. As they climbed the main stairwell, pools of pale light marked their way to the landing. They skidded to a stop before the clock, grasping the landing-rail for balance. Catching their breath, they scanned the quicksilver lines of the clock, and found the gears whirring steady, and the hands marking twelve-nineteen. 

Vex gave a shrill laugh, panting for the suddenness of their sprint, and pressing her free hand to her chest to study her heartbeat. Huffing, Percival hung his head, and stood straight to organize himself once more. “Clever man, my late brother” Percival prattled. “Like as not, only someone who lived here would remember the clock running fast. Anyone else would have checked at the wrong time and lost their patience, just as you did.” He pushed his glasses up his nose, ruffled his hair, and tugged his shirt down, adjusting it to his preference. Vex, busy balancing her taper on the railing, saw the final gesture coming just in time, and made sure to supervise his collarbones. Settled at last, side by side, they bent in half to observe the gears.

They looked similar to how they had ten minutes ago, only in much stranger light. The silver moon and the golden candle mixed, glowing, across the glass, and the cogs and etchings cast flickering cross-shaped shadows. A number of other words had rotated into visibility, but they created only a nonsensical mishmash. For clock wisdom fool hour of-

"Was this the inscription you saw?" Percival asked, tapping the glass with a forefinger.

Vex opened her mouth, but before she could answer, the clock rattled tellingly. She glanced up just as the minute hand leaped another notch forward. Twelve-twenty by this clock, and twelve-ten by every other: the time Julius's crest indicated. Vex impulsively grabbed the handle on the casing, and this time, felt the latch give easily: she swung the door wide. A crisp click sounded from the machine, and then another: the clock counting down a timer - exactly a minute, if she had to guess.

“Can you move them?” Vex asked, as Percival reached towards the gears.

“Yes, you see how they rotate? It must be a saying, a quote or a motto-"

“Of course, of course, shove over-“

Swatting at each other’s hands, squabbling in hushed voices, they spun the gears with frantic fingertips, trading the words around. Vex immediately lost track of the time that remained to them: the ticking pounded in her ears like a heartbeat, irritating, too hasty. Then, with a triumphant noise, Percival forced something into place. Vex snatched her hands back and stepped a pace away, half expecting another passage to pop open beneath her feet. Instead, she heard another small click. Percival snatched something from between the gears, and held it up to the moonlight, turning it over and over in his fingers. Vex glanced back to the machinery, and saw, carved across the gears in a sunlike arc:

Of wisdom, no clock can measure.

The ticking ceased; Vex closed the glass casing, and moved to her companion's side to examine their prize.

They had retrieved a single carved piece of green stone – or perhaps glass? She could not guess exactly at its material while Percival held it, and it was certainly an uncanny substance: it seemed to reflect and gather the moonlight all at once, shining like a mirror from one angle, translucent from another. Halfway up the two-inch length of it, the column split into three oddly-shaped prongs, each of them marked with a random pattern of indentations and protrusions. Percival flipped it over: the opposite end terminated in a small ring.

“Is that a key?” she asked.

The key, I expect,” he mumbled. “One of three.”

On the point of a triumphant shout, Vex abruptly held her tongue. Before, in the mine, her clever revelation had been met with utter glee on Percival’s part: not so for this occasion. He gazed at the little glass key in silence, wearing a gentle frown.

Of course. This evening marked nothing more than a puzzle to her, but Percival had known the clock’s maker – grown up with him, and loved him in that belligerent and begrudging younger-sibling way. Vex tried to imagine how it would feel, taking apart one of Vax’s secrets after his death, and found her heart could barely take the thought of his absence. In the shifting light, in the stifling colours and deep shadows, it proved more difficult than usual to read the full range of emotions on Percival’s face. Vex was left, as a consequence, to a patient silence.

“I think,” he said at last, “Julius would have been impressed with us.”

Vex could think of no response. Percival never spoke of his family, if he could help it. Something changed in his face, something very slight – not a smile, not entirely, but a forgiving softness that touched his eyes and banished the frown. Closing his hand around the key, he said, in a brighter voice, “Would you accompany me back to the workshop? I’ve had a thought.”

She nodded, and retrieved the taper. Together, they descended the stairs once more, and he led her back to the workshop table. Bidding her hold the candle close, he blustered about the workbench, his energy returned. After a minute or two of cracking open drawers and scrambling with tinkerer's tools, he retrieved a slender length of chain and a set of pliers. He bent down, and the project proved too minute not to be obscured by his shoulder. Vex waited, keeping the taper steady, until he stood straight again and tossed the pliers aside. He had formed the chain into a loop, and hung the glass key from it as if it were a pendant necklace.

“We can hide it in plain sight,” he explained. “It’s pretty enough to pass for jewelry, isn’t it? Jade, perhaps?”

Vex cocked her head to the side, and gave an uncertain hum. The seal on the chain – he had broken and refitted one of the links with pliers – looked a little clumsy, and the pronged shape of the key struck her as unorthodox. It was a passable trinket, but if his goal was to hide the key, the solution seemed just too strange not to attract questions.

As he looked at her, waiting for an answer, an appraising look crossed his face. Hefting the chain higher, he glanced to the key, and back at her. “You know, you’ve a touch of green in your eyes,” he observed. “I daresay this would bring it out quite nicely.”

“Green?” she parroted, incredulous. No one had pointed that out before.

“A little ring of it,” he said. “Around the middle.”

Vex frowned, skeptical. To her own inspection, her eyes always appeared black as a slate. If he was trying to convince her through flattery, he was doing a poor job. He looked delightfully earnest, though, wearing the proud, wide eyes of a salesman who believed wholeheartedly in his product. She very nearly voiced her criticisms, until she recognized the subtext of the exchange. She remembered his intense look at the key upon its discovery, his desperate secrecy about the affair of the vault. Handing her the key was a show of considerable trust, one he was obviously nervous about making.

“Well, a lady could never turn away such a thoughtful gift,” she said with a curtsey, her tone halfway mocking. If he did not want to acknowledge the seriousness of the gesture, then neither would she.

Grinning, he slipped his fingers in the loop of chain, and spread them wide to broaden its aperture. “May I?” he asked.

She bent forwards, sweeping a hand to her heart as if she were about to be knighted. The chain passed over her crown and down the sides of her head. It caught on one of her ears, and Percival shook it upwards to adjust it. The key settled, cool and heavy, on the plane of her chest. Vex slipped her hand under her hair and flicked the braid free from the chain, spending a moment to arrange it exactly the way she preferred.

“There we are,” she sighed. Her comment was met with silence.

She glanced up. Percival stared at the pendant, absentmindedly flexing the fingers on his left hand. Slowly curling, slowly stretching, and all the while his mouth made a serious line.

“Is something wrong?” she asked.

He remained silent a moment longer, and then met her eyes, unsmiling. “No,” he answered.

Vex had never taken notice of it before, but his voice could fall quite deep when he willed it, deep and slow and coiled with tension – as it did now, with a resonance that was almost sinister. Coolly, he noted, “Three times now, we’ve found each other in the dark. We suit this witching hour.”

There was an intensity in his expression, and she could not look away from it. It felt searching, piercing, and understanding. He had discovered something in her, a pattern or preference, that she did not recognize in herself, and he sought her acknowledgement of it. She wondered why he coyly called her 'spirit', or what he had seen in her eyes besides the colour green.

“I should retire, my Lord,” she said, her voice trembling.

A long silence. Then he exhaled, relaxed, folded his arms and leaned back against the workbench. Somehow, in spite of his gestures - in spite of the fact that he now regarded her gently, with nothing more than warmth in his eyes - she felt that none of the tension between them had dissipated. Calmly, he replied, “I think I can say the same for myself."

And that soft look he gave pulled forth the secret he sought, summoned it to her fingertips, made it painfully tangible. Her hands flinched. Her heart burned. She needed – gods, were there even words for this feeling? - she needed to press her lips to his pale throat and dig her nails into his skin. She needed to carve a good memory into him, something at once undeniable and undeniably hers. Let him look back on a night with joy and warmth for once. Let him escape this lonely manor for only a moment, and let him leave his heartbreaking coldness behind. Let him think of her, dark in the witching hour – let him hallucinate any colour for her eyes that he wished – and feel her touch, her hands, her claims that left no scars. He was right to call her a spirit, and the castle was haunted after all. A woodland will-o-wisp she was, or perhaps a demon, for the way that she wanted-

She took one step forward. He raised an eyebrow. The feeling vanished as soon as it had come, fleeting as a passing shadow. She said, “Good-night, my Lord-” and stopped, bit her lip, and left him.

Chapter Text

Morning came, and with it, solemn clarity.

Vex woke early, and descended the stairway full of hope, anticipating that the presence of her host would spark the same feeling that had so ensorcelled her previous evening. Whatever desire had possessed her then, and engaged her curious mind for the rest of the night - surely, the sight of him would create it anew, and she could, at last, decipher its meaning. Yet the gray dawn would not allow for the same fullness of feeling, the same captivations. When she found Percival searching for her on the second-floor landing, dressed in a black cloak and hat for an excursion outdoors, she felt only a stumbling, soft-hearted fondness. He inclined his head in greeting, prim and collected. He bowed, regal and refined. The storm of the previous day had broken, fallen low upon the castle as a permeating mist, and the windows were clouded with haze and the stones clammy with dew; perhaps the morning weather had also dampened her flighty fantasies, clipped her faery wings, and brought her back to good sense.

Percival, too, seemed more subdued. If she had not heard his footsteps trailing her up to bed the previous night, she would have guessed he had not left the engine room. He appeared paler than before, if possible, and his smile, though genuine, looked thin. He offered an honest good-morning, and asked if she would join him on a short walk before breakfast. Vex agreed, and followed him down the stairs. He led her not to the front door of the foyer, but to the hallway that circled behind it, and eventually towards the inner courtyard of the castle, through which Vex had not yet ventured. Conversation was all but absent, save for pleasantries as to how well they had slept, or how chilly the day would be. Percival pulled a half-pace ahead, and seemed relieved to have something to do - even if that was as simple as opening the door to the gardens.

At first, the thick morning fog blurred the yard beyond, and Vex frowned at the dampness. It felt particularly unpleasant against the jade key around her neck; the stone chilled her straight through her dress, and cold air seemed to condense the moment it touched the odd material. She considered doubling back for the coat she had worn in the mine, but it was still mud-spattered and unwearable; thus she set her teeth against the Northern weather, and grumpily pursued her host.

Her mood lifted, ever so slightly, as they walked; she learned, and appreciated, how Whitestone gardens were quite different from those cultivated in Emon. In the large cities, they had borrowed Syngorian styles of landscape, believing them too look more “refined” – all square hedgerows and orderly lanes of trees and systematic flowers, sorted by colour. Vex had been fond enough of such gardens, and they certainly carried a satisfying, symmetrical beauty, but as she entered the central courtyard of Whitestone, she came to know her preference in style. It seemed the Northerners preferred to replicate wilderness as best they could; the gardens were lush and tangled, the plants growing freely into and through and around each other. No measured flowerbeds or square hedgerows were to be found; only soft, curved beds of soil, and the winding paths they framed through the inner yard. In this season, only the hardiest grasses grew thick, and only the evergreens and early-budded crocuses showed any kind of colour, and yet she could still see the skeletons of stout berry-trees and shrubs and roses, all entwined. Though the central tree – that magnificent, dying thing Keyleth had shown her through the window – had a respectable lawn around it, the rest of the inner courtyard left much less space for walking than for plants, and she found twigs and thorns pricking curiously at her skirts as she and Percival made their way through various lattices, archways and paths.

They exited the garden, and crossed the grass, passing under the spiderweb shadow of the grand tree. Above them hung a weave of bone-coloured branches and spangled golden leaves, bright as coins, and as Vex looked up her gaze was drawn higher and higher, where sunlight first touched the canopy. Her steps faltered, and Percival slowed at her side. It was too early in spring for most shoots to break the frost, and it was strange to see a tree in full bloom that was not already evergreen – and yet, as she watched, a few leaves were detached by a passing gust of wind. They fluttered to the ground; below Vex's feet, the earth was strewn with others of their kind.

“Keyleth mentioned the tree was ill,” Vex said.

Percival had folded his arms and tucked his hands tight to his sides in an effort to keep the cold away. He approached her thus, tense and hunched. “It is," he confirmed. "The tree has not seen a proper bloom in years."

He lifted his head, as Vex’s gaze fell to regard him. He had a way of expressing sadness without a frown or downcast eye; it lived instead in the intensity of his thoughts, in the way his troubles obsessed him and drew his focus. His skyward, ice-grey gaze was inhumanly steady, unflinching. She watched him a moment, studying the sharpness and intractability of his profile. His grimness would infect her, and that, she decided, would not do.

Vex bent over, sweeping a leaf from the detritus below. It was a little larger than her palm, gold and veined with brighter yellow, and she spun it through her fingertips until it blurred. “Should we scour our way through these “fallen leaves”, do you think?” she teased, and her feigned smile felt easier.

“Oh, please, they’d never be so literal-“ he scoffed, before catching onto her jest, and laughing at himself. Her ridiculous little ruse had worked. Percival's focus was torn from the branches above and rested on her, now. He gestured to the spinning leaf. “You should press that in a book. It could be among the last of its kind."

“Keyleth may save it,” she protested. “Her magic is astounding. Have you seen her light fires in her hands? She did it to help warm my bath last night.”

Percival smiled on, though his expression was touched by a hint of disbelief, and his cheeks grew a shade pinker. “I doubt this tree would benefit from being lit on fire – still. You are quite welcome to keep it.”

Vex nodded, and threaded the stem through a buttonhole on her dress. The leaf looked a little odd against the fine garment, but she did like the colour. Gods above, the jade key, the wire-weave bracelet, and now an actual golden leaf; the longer she spent wandering through Whitestone the more she began to resemble a walking curiosity cabinet. “If this ‘gold’ is the treasure all these clues lead to, Percival,” she declared, pointing at the leaf, “in some kind of detestable pun or moral lesson, perhaps – then I shall dig Percival the Second up and slap him.”

He laughed darkly, “Well, of all the things to suggest.” For a moment, Vex thought she had seriously offended him – until he unfolded from his coiled pose, drew back his cloak and offered his arm. “You’ll pardon me for my mood, my Lady,” he continued. “Our errand today is a rather morbid one.”

With a slight sinking of her heart, she recalled what it was: he’d mentioned in the mine that his family heraldry could only be found on the gravestones of his forebears. Wincing, she took the proffered arm and let him draw her into step at his side. It did not take her long to realize the gesture was for the benefit of both parties; a silent pardon for her after her misstep, and a comfort for him. Percival’s steps across the courtyard were slightly halting, as if he half-hoped Vex would pull him in another direction entirely. He tucked her hand close at his side, nearly pinning it in the crook of his elbow. Tension moulded him square and tight; Vex found herself slowly drumming her fingers against his arm, in an idle attempt to ease him.

At least he was warm, as he always seemed to be. She drew closer to his person without any real reflection on the subject. As they passed through the yard, the land sloped slightly, angling them down into the shadow of the rookery. Gazing up at the black tower windows, Vex wondered, “Did our raven ever return, my Lord?”

“Not yet, but she’s got quite a ways to fly,” he said, all in a sighing burst - grateful, as Vex predicted, for the distraction of conversation.

“Emon?” she guessed.

“A little further, I'd say,” he replied, with a vague, dismissive gesture.

For a moment, they were silent but for their footsteps. The earth grew muddier – perhaps the rainwater ran off in this direction, as the ground sloped downwards. Yesterday’s storm was still fresh under their heels. “I never asked her name,” Vex realized.

“Who-? Oh, the bird?” Percival said. “They're not named. I imagine it would be difficult to keep track of them all. They've never taken to being collared and tagged.”

A short path of flat stones emerged from the grass, leading down the incline. Even those footholds were partly flooded; Vex chose her steps with care, leaning into Percival’s grasp to steady them both. The section of garden directly under the rookery seemed more secluded than the others, and a short wire fence cordoned it off. The skeletons of sleeping plants had choked the fence entirely, and its square form vanished in places under the weeds. Percival opened the gate for them, and led them into a grove of short trees. On their left stood the base of the rookery, a protrusion of glittering white stone. A decorative trellis of wrought iron surrounded it, reaching a full head taller than her. The black spirals and spires of the pattern were abstract, but they reminded Vex distinctly of the tangled gardens.

However, the rookery tower was not their destination; Percival led her to the right, instead. Vex searched the ground for graves, and found there were none. Instead, Percival took a side-ward step to turn them, and faced the back wall of Whitestone castle. Before them, a square brass plaque hung fixed against the stone. It read Julius Frederickstein Von Musel Klossowski de Rolo II. The stone beneath it bore the full name of a Vesper de Rolo; the one to Vex’s right, set before Percival, named a Lady Johana. Rather than receiving individual gravestones, the fallen de Rolos each had claim to a stone in the rear wall of Whitestone itself.

For a long moment, she could think of nothing worthwhile to say. She simply kept her grip on Percival, gentle but steady, as if hoping to balance something breakable through an earthquake. He said nothing.

At last, she asked, “Are they buried here?”

Her voice felt distant; she had the impression someone else was asking the question.

“More or less,” Percival murmured. “When de Rolos die, we are cremated, and then the ashes are set inside the wall. A tradition of centuries, I've been told.”

Vex shuddered, staring at the brass arches and angles of the name Johana. She did not want to envision her current companion burned, dead, and sealed in stone.

Another thought struck her, after that; “Lady Johana chose to be interred here?” she asked.

The question popped out of her mouth before she could evaluate it, but Percival did not seem offended. Instead, his voice had dulled into a blunted monotone. It was the cold, impersonal report of a man detaching himself from his grief. “Most everyone who marries into our family does,” he said. “Whitestone has a way of possessing you.”

Unconsciously, she squeezed his arm, and felt her gaze drifting downwards. She struggled to understand. Her own sense of home had never been bound to something so concrete. She found herself envious of Percival and his ancient castle, of the place that would always be his home, regardless of what befell him.

She envied that, and envied little else. The stones before her glittered, almost diamond-like, though the reflected sun was dimmed by fog; she recalled the miner, Mr. Strongjaw, telling her how the brighter the white stones gleamed, the more recently they had been cut. His family had not died so very long ago. Vex found her gaze resting on the last name on the wall: Cassandra. As she read, she could not help a soft exclamation of horror. By the dates on her tomb, the girl had been thirteen on the eve of her death. More than ever before, she was appalled by the sheer injustice of the fates of the de Rolos.

“This is where we’ll find our ‘heraldry’,” Percival sighed, and pulled her gently onward.

Vex obeyed her guide. These were the buried roots, she concluded; the de Rolos of the past, sealed inside Whitestone’s very walls. Perplexingly, the tomb of Frederick de Rolo, Percival's father, had no inscription or insignia on it, only a name and a date. They passed it without pause, and Vex - determined not to unsettle anyone further - swallowed her questions. The first tomb that differed was the one of Julius the first, Percival’s grandfather. Below the name and inscription, a shield was emblazoned upon his plaque. Instead of a clock, however, the emblem bore a simple, elegant design of an owl, staring outwards through serene, almond-shaped eyes. Vex realized, as they drew closer, that the gentle creature's shadow created a shape – the arcing beak and dark head of a crow, resting its head upon the owl’s. From where she stood, it was hard to discern which creature protected or supported the other, and as they drew closer, her conclusion changed with her perspective; a clever little optical illusion. All in all she found the symbol quite alluring, and nearly neglected the letters emblazoned above it:

THE CROW, HE WISHED THAT ALL WAS BLACK

THE OWL, THAT ALL WAS WHITE;

OUR SHADOWS SHOW OUR LIKENESSES

IN SOUL, IN MIND, IN FLIGHT

“That’s rather sweet,” Vex mused.

“Sweet?” Percival repeated, taken aback.

Bashfully, she explained, “I enjoy the sentiment. Finding a likeness in your opposite.”

“Twins,” Percival said, almost as a reminder to himself. After a moment, he continued, “Well, it would seem we’ve solved this one already.”

Vex glanced at him. “Really?”

“Rather, you did. Doesn’t it remind you of anything?”

She bit her lip, reading the poem over again. It took her but a few seconds to realize what it was alluding to, and then she started, tugging at the sleeve in her hand. “Oh! The chessboard – of course.” The crow wished for black, and the owl for white – and she had moved the birdlike pieces to match them to those colours.

Percival grinned, looking suitably proud of them both. It seemed a fragile happiness, but she was glad to see it still. “I don’t suppose you found a key when you were there last?”

“I hardly got a good look at the passage or the puzzle,” she said. “We’ll go back and scour the place. I certainly could have missed something.”

“Very well,” he said, and led her further along the wall. Percival the second was next – and if seeing the other members of his family had disturbed Vex, seeing “Percival” on the wall was doubly unsettling. The young lord seemed unperturbed, scrutinizing the crest instead. This one appeared stylistically similar to the first; simple yet evocative, depicting three birds perched atop three triangular spires, their wings extended. The inscription read:

FELLED IS THE TREE FROM WHICH THE TRUTH SPRINGS:

INSCRIBE THERE THE CONSEQUENCE IGNORANCE BRINGS

YOUR WISDOM SHALL BANISH THE SHAME OF THE KINGS:

NO BIRD SOARS TOO HIGH UPON HIS OWN WINGS

“Much more cheerful,” Vex mused sarcastically. “This was the Percival who wrote the original riddle, wasn’t it?”

“It was,” her host replied. “Haven’t the faintest about this one, though.”

Vex pressed the fingers of her free hand daintily to her lips, screwing her eyes shut in concentration. “A tree that begets truth,” she muttered against her hand. “And we have to inscribe something on it?”

“A felled tree,” he clarified, clearly lost in frustrated thought himself.

“I assume the “tree” doesn’t refer to your family tree this time, then?" she asked.

Percival raised an eyebrow. Vex realized what she had implied, and looked shamefacedly towards the ground. A felled family tree. The thought made her shiver, and Percival looked equally disturbed. “Either it’s an obtuse metaphor, or a flawless prediction,” he muttered. “The consequences of ignorance indeed.”

In the resulting silence, Vex desperately wanted to say how she was sorry, but even those simple words refused to leave her lips. For the moment, she feared her own impulsive tongue too much. “That last phrase is a bit incongruous,” Percival pointed out. “I must wonder where the birds come into it.”

“The chess pieces are shaped like birds,” Vex supplied.

“Oh, there’s birds everywhere in Whitestone. Paintings, carvings, living in the rookery, etched on the stairway rails-” he trailed off.

“Would a wooden staircase count as a felled tree?” Vex thought aloud.

At that, Percival barked out a laugh, and twisted to look her in the eye. “Yes, of course. As we all know, truth springs eternal from the staircase.”

She withdrew her hand from his elbow and folded her arms. “I’m only coming up with ideas.”

“And I am assisting by selecting the prudent ones,” he teased. She pouted openly until he mollified her; “You may be right in that it’s something made of wood, but still – that hardly narrows it down.”

Vex spent a moment longer scrutinizing the crest until she felt her boots sinking deeper into the mud. She pulled them free with twin popping sounds, and planted her feet upon the stones, a pace back from the wall. “Then I suppose we shall have to think on it,” she grumbled. “The study first; perhaps we shall solve the other riddle along the way.”

Percival acquiesced with a silent nod, and stepped past her, headed towards the rookery. She followed, but as she passed the tombs of his immediate family, she could not help divulging the question that had been rattling about in her mind: she called her host to a stop. He turned, and by the cool, distant look in his eye, seemed to have anticipated the difficult conversation at hand. Daunted by his frigidity, Vex felt her voice fading quieter and quieter as she spoke; “My Lord - why is your father’s tomb blank?”

He sighed, long and frustrated, and the sound withered her remaining confidence. “He left me no instructions." His voice had regained that blunt, toneless cadence. Grief had numbed the speaker like an anaesthetic, until he could only recount the purest and simplest of facts.

Yet while his answer had the tone of the factual, Vex could not brook the logic. Cautiously, she continued, “Percival, how could that be? Your brother had already built his contribution” –she pressed her hand to her throat, indicating the strange key that hung there– “and yet your father left you nothing? This vault – it seems so important to your family-“

“So then,” he said icily, “I must have disregarded his instructions? Disobeyed his final wishes?”

Vex stammered her way into a painful silence. She realized, too late, the insults she had implied with her question. Though he had been grieving, and injured, surely he would have been respectful of his family's last rites. Lowering her gaze, she said, “I only thought the words might have been somewhere else - or that there must have been a misunderstanding of some kind.”

“My father misunderstood his own mortality,” he said icily. “He hardly had time to prepare for it. No one-“ he fell silent, and pulled his hat down over his brow. He seemed to be awaiting a dismissal, as if, paradoxically, he had been the one to offend her.

Instinct warred with sympathy in Vex's heart. The de Rolos had guarded their vault too cautiously for such a mistake. She remained convinced that Frederick de Rolo's riddle would not have vanished with his death. Yet her host, the helpless young man before her, hardly deserved the weight of more guilt than what he already carried. And this time, his words rang true – who could have prepared for such a fate?

A cold thought entered her mind. Illness, the papers said. Would a death by illness – even one that struck so quickly – truly leave no time to prepare? What malady could slay a man so quick that he could not even make contingent plans, that even a rational fear of death had no time to take hold of him? What sudden contagion would spare none but the third child? Society whispered of patricide when they spoke Percival’s name, and seeing his heartbreak before her, she could not ever believe him guilty of that – but the official story now felt like a convenient, digestible lie. The 'illness' had been too swift, too absolute, and too selective in its victims.

Percival regained his composure, and at his sudden shift, her thoughts were aborted. “You may speculate as you like," he said. "As I have already told you, my role is to attend to the prudent ideas.”

With that, he bowed, and turned to the garden's exit. Vex watched him depart, his winter cape aflutter with his steps. Overcome with regret for her insensitivity, she did the only thing she could think of – she put her fingers to her mouth and whistled, sharp and shrill.

The noise startled Percival into stopping, just before the iron gate; at the same moment, a black streak sprung from the window of the rookery above, dove through the morning mists, and alighted on a fence-post before him. The lord and the bird glared at each other a moment, and then the raven gave a magnificent honk. Percival flinched away, directing his startled ire towards Vex, hands clutched in fists at his sides.

She took the fingers away from her mouth, and said, “You might wait for me to join you in that, my Lord.”

He eyed the raven, and then looked back to her. “Are you threatening me with a bird?”

“No,” she said, and took a few hasty steps closer, her words spilling forth in a rush once more. “I am trying to apologize. You see, I had forgotten the promise I made to you. I’ve remembered it now – I said I would believe what you told me about your family, without reason or exception.”

If he had been startled by her before, now he was positively blown over – his eyes wide, his shoulders lurching back as if he had been struck across the face. Vex continued, “I still think your father’s words must be somewhere, but if you say he did not leave them for you to find, then I shall trust that is the truth.”

“That was not the deal, not precisely. All I asked was that you not hold me culpable,” he said. He inspected her closely, hunting for some clue that would reveal the reason behind her error. Vex had no such secret to reveal – she had merely misremembered their vow, interposing a greater loyalty than what she had initially sworn.

“Even so,” she replied, folding her hands behind her back. “That shall be the end of my speculation.”

The deciphering look grew more intense: he was adding up her words, her mistakes, her expressions, in the pursuit of an answer to some unspoken question. His eyes flickered briefly to the key that hung from her neck, and then away to the wall where generations of de Rolos were embedded. The tension of the moment broke when his gaze turned away - he sighed once more, and said, “I’ve been rude, my Lady." He did not offer his arm again, but as he went to open the gate, gently shooing the bird back into the sky, he added, “Please, do keep speculating. It has been our sole effective strategy thus far.”

There was a measure of unwilling warmth in his words. Vex smiled. She expected that was the closest thing to an apology she would receive, on such a miserable day.

Percival held the gate for her, and let her pass in front of him. She took to the path ahead, mounting the slight incline in the direction of the tree. The motion of the raven behind her seemed to ripple through her senses; she could feel it as it rose, silently, to its nest, and there the connection of her magic was severed. At the same time, she was aware of Percival’s upturned head and backwards glance: he was watching the bird. He made no comment and asked no questions, only giving a short, dry laugh, before he hastened himself to catch up with her.

Vex and Percival entered together into the back hall. The sun rose above the walls as they walked, and began to burn away the thickness of the fog. It felt, at last, like a proper morning. They discussed whether to take a quick breakfast before investigating the study – and just as they entered the foyer, on the point of coming to an agreement, they were halted by the sound of a distant, horrified scream.

They stopped, in tandem; the screaming ceased. Stunned, they looked to each other. Vex said, “That was from the library, wasn’t it?”

Percival did not answer, but sprinted in the direction of the noise. Vex rushed after him. His strides were longer, and she remained hindered by the sting of her injured leg. When he reached the library and flung the right door open, she was still a half-dozen paces back – and yet the choking smell of the room still overwhelmed her, a tide of ash and charcoal. At first, she thought the room was ablaze - but no image of smoke accompanied the scent. Vex, her hands raised to her mouth, drew up to Percival's shoulder to inspect the scene.

In the open center of the library tower, Ambassador Stormwind, his back to them both, stood before a heap of charred books and papers. The volumes were piled to the height of his shins, some almost intact, some nearly disintegrated into blasted dust. Patches of soot blackened the floor, trailing from the pyre of books all the way to the entrance. Using the charred vestiges of the fire, someone had smeared bold, dark words on the carpet, barely four paces beyond the doorstop, for all to see:

LEAVE US

The noise of the door alerted the Ambassador - evidently, he had been the one to scream. With an imperious sweep of his arm, he rounded on Percival and crowed, “What the on earth is this?” His clawed hands were full of burnt papers: Vex noticed the signature sharp angles and peaks of Draconian script. “Who is responsible for this?”

Vex glanced at Percival, at a loss. He stood with his right hand braced against the door, and were it not for the tension in his fingers, she would have deemed him completely unaffected by the sight. His eyes were grey as storms again, traveling slowly through the chaos. He said nothing.

“Ambassador,” Vex said, her voice quavering. “What happened here?”

“A question I should rightfully turn upon our host!” He shouted. “What man of noble standing allows such disrespectful mistreatment of his guests?”

Directly accused as he was, the steel in Percival’s soul seemed to weld itself together. He straightened his stance and lowered his hand with the slow, implacable shift of a moving glacier. In a perfectly calm voice, he said, “Before you sling such accusations, Ambassador, I would request you remain calm. Rash action shall not benefit the victim, and he may find himself twice reprimanded. Now, be clear about it: what happened?”

Vex stared at him, agog – but the Ambassador was not deterred. Percival’s upbraiding had only brought a bellows to his rage, stoking it hotter. “You see it here before you!” he said. “Some heathen has defaced the library and destroyed my notes!”

“And your conclusion is that I must have vandalized my own estate?” Percival replied.

The chill of his dismissal could be felt even by those not targeted; Vex took a half-step back, intimidated. Ambassador Stormwind, in his fury, seemed impervious to it. “My conclusion,” he blustered, “is that you are responsible for the security of your guests. Nor is this the first time you have failed to provide it!”

He made a sharp gesture in Vex’s direction, indicating her stitched leg. Vex opened her mouth to defend him: her injury was not Percival’s fault, she wanted to say. It had been her own foolishness, and the appearance of Orthax-

And there she closed her mouth again, silenced before she could speak. She had guessed Orthax was humanoid – and it manifested in smoke, and she thought she might have seen it in the library once before – her thoughts raced onward, the inevitable, horrific conclusion approaching her.

Percival, for his turn, did not seem surprised by her mute reaction. He faced his accuser instead, collected as ever. “I assure you, such frustrations are-“

“I have reached the limit of my frustrations!” the Ambassador huffed. “Your riddles hold no further interest to me. I will not remain here and make myself a subject of danger and mockery!”

He strode between the Lord and Lady, and stopped there, barricading them from each other. He gave Vex a slightly pitying look, and a respectful bow. “Do not hold to those ghost stories, madam,” the Ambassador warned, as if he had read her thoughts on her face. “Someone is toying with us all, and that someone is decidedly human.” He nodded, resolute, and stomped down the hall.

As he passed, Vex studied Percival again. For the briefest instant, he wore a slight, crooked smile, the barest shift of his expression, so faint it could almost have been an illusion. But illusions, she thought, were acts of distraction, not subtlety – and the smile he wore was subtle as shadow, only the faintest of darkenings, a secret no one was meant to see. And ever so swiftly, it vanished, as she heard the Ambassador say, “Excuse me-“

In the heat of the altercation, Vex had not noticed her brother and Mr. Gilmore rushing up from behind them, wearing equally perplexed expressions. As they drew closer, craning their necks to get a clearer look at the room beyond, Percival quickly rounded on them and shut the door.

“Gentlemen,” he said. “There’s been another unfortunate incident. Like as not, Ambassador Stormwind fell asleep as he worked and knocked over a candle.”

Mr. Gilmore glanced over his shoulder, and then back to Lord de Rolo. “Then, there was a fire? Was anyone hurt?”

“I don’t believe so,” Percival answered. A realization struck him, and he continued, “Though, if I could trouble the pair of you to send Keyleth to me, I would be quite grateful. She and I will take care of the mess, thank you.”

The new arrivals exchanged looks in silence. Vax then met his sister’s eyes, seeking some kind of confirmation. Percival was lying, bluntly and obviously - yet she did not want to rattle his trust in such a crucial moment. She thought Keyleth would prove a stabilizing force for the whole debacle, and gave her brother the slightest tilt of the head to encourage him. The signal was received. Mr. Gilmore and Vax left together, fretting audibly about the disaster; Vex and Percival were left alone in the library doorway.

Without a single acknowledgement to her, Percival turned around and slipped inside.  Vex pursued him; he nearly closed the door on her, as if he had not expected her to follow. She stood over the message, stymied, while he began to scuff the ashen letters away with the sole of his boot. The motion only smudged the writing deeper into the carpet, and he sneered.

“Percival!” she snapped, and he shot her a look before crouching to the ground, brushing at the ash with his hands instead. “This is not the work of a tipped candle!”

“No, it is not,” he grunted.

He said nothing more. Realizing she would get nothing useful from him in this state, Vex rushed over to the ruined books, making a half-hearted effort to sort them as she worked through her own conclusion. The notes, she observed, were torn in places and burned in others, as if someone had shredded them even before setting them alight. She gathered what legible pages she could, and set them aside.

She could not blindly conclude that a spirit had vandalized the library, not without interrogating such a strange notion. Yet - of the guests remaining, she could not isolate one with a reasonable motive. Vex had faith in the good character of all who were present, excepting the Ambassador himself, and she deemed his rage far too earnest to doubt. To be certain, Percival had reacted to the situation strangely, but Vex could account for his whereabouts when the defacement occurred; he had been recovering from his fit in the engine room, and then, after their midnight escapade, he had presumably gone to his chambers. Orthax would have been the only one with opportunity, as well as motive – but a motive of what kind? Could she even hope to speculate as to the motives of a vengeful ghost?

And why had Orthax targeted Ambassador Stormwind, and why in this manner? He was one of the only guests who actually knew of the spirit and its history, but by his own admission, he did not believe in it. Perhaps his research had uncovered something about Orthax, some weakness or secret…

“Lady Vex-“

She glanced to her side. Percival had joined her, crouching at the base of the expended pyre, a touch of guilt in his expression. A rustling noise interrupted them, and she realized she had been restlessly fretting with the torn edges of the Ambassador's notes. She did not want to confess her theory, knowing Percival was so skeptical about the creature. Stammering, she replied, “Yes?”

“Steady on, now,” he said, his voice low. “Your hands are shaking.”

Vex tossed the papers aside, and curled her fingers in her skirts, releasing a breath on a trembling smile. “It’s not a cause for concern,” she said.

Percival seemed unsure of what to say. Together, they broke their shared gaze, and stared at the ashes. Vex considered herself at best an occasional reader, and still, she felt there was something particularly tragic in the destruction of books. There were perhaps ten volumes on the ground, and some might have even been salvageable, and yet a heavy, exhausted sadness filled her regardless, weighing her down. At least Percival had finally managed to scuff away the horrid message: only a black smudge remained.

“You needn't be afraid, Lady Vex. I doubt our vandal will hurt anyone,” Percival said, at last. 

Vex looked at him, incredulous. “Do you know who it is?”

“I have my suspicions, but none are worth sharing." He gave a short sigh, intended to be a dismissal of the topic, and continued, "I must check the rest of the rooms, and ensure nothing else has been damaged. You are welcome to accompany me, if you would rather not be left alone."

A perfectly characteristic non-answer. Vex laughed bitterly, and gathered the notes she had pulled from the ashes on her lap again. She had not expected anything different, but seeing Percival's evasiveness, she knew she would have to pursue the question of Orthax on her own.

Leave us, she thought - and her heart began to quicken its pace with the incoming flood of realizations. Perhaps that was the motive for this crime, bluntly and boldly stated. Did Orthax want to claim Percival for its own, without the interference of his guests? Is that why it had tried to intimidate her on the night she had crept into the study? Those five years of isolation, that horrible, unhealed scar - they were marks of the demon's possessiveness!

The vile beast had at last shown its hand. Her fear vanished, and in its place simmered a quiet rage, and a deep, vicious conviction. She would not allow Orthax to interfere with her search for the vault, and certainly  not with Percival’s life. No longer.

Her transformation must have been visible: Percival tilted his head, looking at her curiously.

“I think,” Vex began, slow and thoughtful, “it would be best if we suspended our investigation for the day.”

“I suppose that would be - agreeable. A break is long overdue,” he said.

She would need to know more, and she would need to observe Orthax again. The spirit, by her limited experience, would be more likely to appear after dark: that would give her most of the morning and the afternoon to prepare. If Percival was indeed the creature's target, it would be far too much of a risk to include him in her new plans. Vex decided, instead, to involve her brother in the hunt. He had sworn to help her, and she trusted him more than anyone else in Whitestone.

“I'm fine - and I shall stay here,” she told Percival. The library seemed to be one of the creature’s preferred haunts, and the nooks and balconies created an ideal spot for a stakeout.

Her conviction was misinterpreted. When Percival spoke next, his voice came out in an awkward lurch: “I could make arrangements to the contrary, if you wish."

By every clue written clear upon his face, he hoped for her to refuse the offer. Vex laughed at him, more in shock than true mirth. “I’m not going to leave Whitestone now, Percy. Not when we’re in the thick of things." Still, he looked doubtful; she planted her hand on the carpet between them, and leaned closer, smiling. "We’re close to that vault of yours. I know it.”

She endeavoured to look as earnest and encouraging as possible. He studied her, and found something in her that satisfied him; after which he nodded, and rose to his feet. “Keyleth will be here any minute," he said. "I might be a miserable host, but I won’t force a Lady to clean up after my disasters.“

He thanked her for her composure, and offered her a hand for balance; Vex took it and rose, dusting the ash from her skirts with the fistful of torn papers. As their touch separated, she prepared for Percival to ignore her again, and begin cleaning the scattered books; instead, he hovered at her side. His fingertips were all a-flutter, drumming against his leg. To her surprise, he had grown quite pink in the cheeks.

A strange transformation. Vex crossed her arms, scrunching the papers in her grip, and gave him an expectant look. He started, “I've had a thought - that is, if you were looking for a distraction from all this nonsense - well, those adventure serials I mentioned, they’re up on the second floor, on that shelf by the window."

Vex recalled their brief conversation on the mountainside, over the grapple-gun, and started grinning wickedly. It was quite an audacious suggestion he was making, proposing that a lady entertain herself with such questionable literature. Amused, she leaned closer, and delighted to see him tilt incrementally back. “And would a fine, cultured man such as yourself have a particular recommendation?”

The colour in his cheeks darkened, but he wore a disbelieving smile, and kept his eyes boldly fixed on her. “I think you'd like Scoundrels of the Broken Howl. The first one’s Isle of Glass, on the second shelf. Or The Name of The Sphinx, if you’re not as inclined towards scoundrels.”

He gave a charming quirk of the eyebrow. “I must admit," she said, her grin widening, "I am quite inclined towards scoundrels.”

And with that, Percival had stumbled out of his depth. He folded his hands behind his back, and shied into the winter cloak he still wore, speaking his next words into its collar. “If nothing else, I imagine the stories will take you away for a while.”

“Oh, most certainly,” she said. A soft wave of heat surged through her, a kind of silken pride and pleasure in witnessing Percival's daring. It was nearly the echo of her feeling the previous night, the one she had been so keen to recapture, and it made her giddy. With a flick of her skirts, Vex turned toward the stair. As if some invisible thread connected them, she felt the tension in Percival's bearing relax, and at that very moment she chose to unsettle him again; she shot a coy smirk over her shoulder, and gleefully watched him spring back to stiff attention when he received it.

Vex turned away, chuckling quietly, and mounted to the floor above. She had planned to use the afternoon to translate Ambassador Stormwind’s notes, if she could manage to find a Draconian dictionary. Such plans were temporarily discarded in favour of humouring her host. Once Percival and Keyleth had finished cleaning the library, she would begin decoding the Ambassador's work.

Besides, with the rather daunting task of hunting a spirit imminent, a half-hour of pleasurable reading would likely prove a comfort for her nerves.

The books in question were indeed remarkably gaudy, with covers of saturated red and false gold. She brushed the sun-warmed leather with her fingertips, running her touch over the lips and indents of each volume. With a laugh stifled by bitten tongue, she conjured the image of the composed, clinical Percival, tearing voraciously through the pages, the books held close under the frames of his breath-fogged glasses. She plucked The Isle of Glass from the shelf, and took it to a nearby armchair. The stolen notes, which she had kept clutched in her other hand, she stowed under the chair; the book, she opened on her lap. Distantly, she heard the sound of Keyleth arriving, and some quiet words exchanged with Percival. Beyond the soothing timbre of their voices, one light and sweet, the other dark and baritone, he noises meant nothing to her. They faded to babble as she began to read.

The story was one of a brave maiden-turned-corsair, Captain Adela, who usurped the Broken Howl from under her tyrannical husband, and sent him thrashing in chains to the bottom of the sea. It was thrilling and vivid, to the point of being moderately scandalous, and Vex could not stop reading once she had begun. She found herself enamored of the devil-may-care behaviour of the liberated heroine, and the unfairly lush descriptions of her battle prowess, beauty, and cunning. Under desperate circumstances, the captain fled the pursuant navy of Emon, losing them in a storm that nearly claimed her beloved ship – only to find herself and her crew lost in a mysterious reef, abreast of an island that glittered in the sun, like a thousand shards of glass had been spilled across the waves-

“Are you enjoying it?”

Vex gave a grunt of surprise and irritation, glancing up to see Percival leaning on the banister opposite. For a moment, they were on the deck of the Broken Howl, with the wind filling the heaving, ivory sails above them, the sun scattering off the crests of the waves, lost together in a fantastic world of motion and energy. Vex realized she had tucked her heels up under her skirts and started chewing on her thumbnail, posing herself as the picture of an enraptured audience. Blushing, she snapped the book shut and tucked it away next to the armrest, watching the witness's devilish smile grow wider. Instead of answering his question - for the answer was clearly spoken in the heat of her cheeks and the eagerness of her posture - she asked, “Have you finished?”

“As best we can with what we have. Keyleth has left already. Seems she didn’t want to disturb you," he said, in a slightly needling tone. Leaning forth from the rail, he asked, "Shall I leave you to your scoundrels, Lady Vex?”

“If you must,” she quipped, withdrawing the book with a flourish. He laughed, and bowed his head.

“Should you need me," he said, "I’ll be in the engine room. One of those steam-pipes is still losing pressure.”

Vex nodded, her eyes already drifting back towards the page. There was something else she’d wanted to ask Percival, but her head was full of roguish tales of pirates, and she only remembered her request once he had already reached the lower floor. As her host made his way toward the exit, Vex leaped from her chair, ran to the balcony, and called after him, “If you happen across my brother, could you tell him where I am?”

“Of course," Percival replied, turning on his heel to face her. His pace did not slow; he walked smoothly, backwards, to the door. "I’ll tell him to come at his leisure. Should give you time aplenty to reach the mutiny.”

“There’s a mutiny?” Vex cried.

Percival shrugged, as if he had no idea, and pushed the door open with his shoulder. At her infuriated gasp, he laughed again, and swirled out into the hallway. The library door swung shut behind him.

For near on an hour, she was not disturbed; the only break in her reader’s reverie was the sound of carriage-wheels, just beyond the library window, and Vex did not pause at that interruption for long. She simply assumed the Ambassador had kept to his word, and was riding into the town of Whitestone, preparing to return to Draconia. Whether he considered the message to be a ploy or an honest threat, it did not seem to matter; it had done its job, and the castle was less another guest.

Vax'ildan appeared only a few minutes later, moving with inimitable silence as was his way; she hardly noticed him until he took a seat on the windowsill at her shoulder, blocking her light. Caught and startled, Vex snapped the Isle of Glass shut, and stowed it next to her, stuffing it between the armrest and her skirts. By the smug look in his eye, her brother had definitely seen the book and made a guess as to its nature, but before he could make any snide criticisms, Vex cut him off with an overly cheerful salutation; “Hello, Vax – have you an evening to spend assisting your dearest little sister?”

“I suppose I do,” he said, swinging his feet. With a slightly sickened glance at the book she had hidden, he asked, “What shall we be doing?”

Vex rolled her eyes at him, and pulled the Ambassador’s notes out from their hiding place under the chair. Her brother relaxed into the window-glass while Vex smoothed the notes out in her lap. “Something foolish, I expect,” she said evasively.

“Oh, how excellent.”

No convincing manner of introducing the topic presented itself, so Vex put a blindingly broad smile on her face, slung her arm around the back of the chair and chirped, “Would you like to go on a ghost hunt?”

“A ghost hunt?” Vax parroted, looking down his nose at her.

“I thought it would be fun,” she said. Even she noticed the tension and shrill pitch of her voice – she was an unconvincing delegate for her cause, giving a hastily copied speech. “It’s not every day you and I get to stay in a haunted castle. We should stay up late, wander around coming up with ghost stories, and see if we can scare ourselves silly.”

“Should we ask Lord de Rolo to build us a blanket fort?" Vax put in dryly. "I expect Lady Keyleth could makes marvelous hot cocoa.”

Vex glared up at her brother. “Oh, of course. I'd quite forgotten that you don’t like to have fun anymore.”

Looking stung, Vax changed his tactic; “Prowling about in the middle of the night is how you earned those stitches, sister.”

Momentarily deterred, Vex plucked at the edges of the notes, crushing flakes of charred paper in her fingertips. Vax leaned forward, halfway off the windowsill, trying to catch her eye. Much of their communication happened without speech, and always had; here she knew Vax had caught wind of her obfuscations, and that he stubbornly demanded, through his silence, the true story. Vex gave in. If she could not trust her brother, she could trust no one. She admitted, “I haven’t told you everything about that night.”

“I thought not,” he said. “You were behind my bedroom wall, and you said the castle was on fire when it wasn't. Honestly, I'd hoped there was more to the story.”

“I believed it was on fire, at first,” Vex replied. “All I really saw that night was smoke. And then I learned” –her voice picked up in speed, unable to contain the energy of her theory– “that there are legends about a creature - the ghost of an ancient de Rolo, one who manifests in smoke as a spirit of vengeance. They call it Orthax, and it appears when the family is threatened. I know it sounds ridiculous, but I haven’t met with any other explanation that satisfies me.”

In her eagerness, she had turned fully round in her chair, facing her brother and the window. She expected dismissal, but received none. Vax was rubbing his chin, staring off at the opposite balcony, thinking hard – she remembered, quite suddenly, what he had said to her that night through the passageway wall.

“You saw it too, didn’t you?” she breathed.

“Not quite,” he muttered. “Only I had a feeling I was being watched, and then the door to that study burst open on its own. That's the same study where you fell, wasn't it?”

A considerable creak, as Vex sprung up onto her knees in her armchair. First Keyleth, and now Vax – three witnesses to the creature including herself! Percival could chatter all he wanted about faulty steam pipes. Orthax grew more real to her every minute. “It was! It must have been the same creature!”

“There was no smoke when I was there,” Vax clarified. “No smoke, no spooks.”

“But that was the middle of the day,” Vex cut in. She grew conscious of how loud her voice was, and dropped it to a conspiring whisper: “I've only seen Orthax after dark, by candle-light. Perhaps it is stronger at night - or maybe light rends it invisible?”

“Hard to say. I’ve never met a ghost before.” Vax laughed, sounding startled. “I can hardly believe we’re talking about it.”

Vex had to catch him before he grew too incredulous – “Will you help me look for it, then? It was here in the library last night, so perhaps it will show itself again it we wait.”

"Orthax, was it?" Vex nodded; her brother continued, a dark look in his eye. "If it was Orthax who lit the fire below, it cannot be a harmless spirit. We must be prepared to escape it, if necessary - or we must learn how to banish it."

For a long minute, Vax did not look at her. Vex clutched the back of the armchair with both hands, putting on the most adorable, pleading expression she could muster, though he knew well enough not to look at her and fall prey to it. Still, by his words, the gears in his mind were already turning. The plan was in motion. With a final roll of his eyes, Vax slipped down from the windowsill and tousled her hair. “Very well, sister. Tonight, we catch ourselves a ghost.”

Chapter Text

The twins' expedition began, as most ill-fated adventures do, with earnest energy and infinite promise. At sundown, Vex and Vax reconvened in the library, armed with a single candle and vigilant senses. They scurried from floor to floor, winding through the looming stacks, alerted to the slightest creak of wood or shift of shadow, moving as silent as they could manage. After an hour of wandering produced no signs of a haunting, Vax began to take the burden of ghostly interference upon himself. With his uncommon talent for subterfuge, he would vanish behind the bookshelves and then pop his head out from the dark, demanding his sister's soul in a guttural, raspy voice. The first case of this startled Vex’ahlia into a shriek; by the fourth, she had nicked a book on landscape sketching for the sole purpose of swatting him away.

And thus incomplete, the excursion slowly lost its purpose along with its seriousness. By the chime of eleven, Vex, too, had grown tired of the fruitless hunt. In all the hours spent a-wandering, they had encountered nothing of note; Orthax remained stubbornly unmanifested.

Defeated, the siblings returned to Vex’s favoured perch on the second floor. Vex, determined to wring a useful occupation out of their misadventure, retrieved a Draconian-language dictionary from the shelves, sat upon the ground, and began flipping through the Ambassador’s charred notes. Vax took the chair behind her and sat idle for a while; he soon grew fidgety, and untied Vex’s voluminous hair so he could braid it into all manner of creative arrangements.

As he worked, Vax muttered, “Have you figured what the old chatterbox is on about?”

Vex shut the Draconian dictionary over her thumb, holding her place, and gave a short, sarcastic laugh. Not only did the language in question use a different script, but its structure was dissimilar to the common tongue; translating the piecemeal scrawlings word-by-word had left her with little more than an incoherent jumble of backwards clauses and unfamiliar euphemisms. Still, languages were one of her natural aptitudes; her talents in the realm allowed her to decipher more than what most readers would. Sequestering the useful notes from the illegible papers, she said, “I believe he was researching that tree in the courtyard.”

Vax’s fingers stilled on her scalp, and then began to unwind his latest creation, separating the hair so he could start again. “I thought he was a historian?”

“So did I,” Vex replied, furrowing her brow. She flipped back to the first page of notes, but she found no names or terms she recognized. The Ambassador mentioned no de Rolos, no Whitestones. “Though, it is historical work in a way," she thought aloud. “Apparently the tree is a well of arcane energy, of the sort that used to be common centuries ago.”

“The magical history of trees, then. I suppose he was branching out?”

Vex jabbed her elbow down toward her brother's toes. He skittered his foot back across the carpet, avoiding her vengeance by a hair. “Show that to your Ashari friend,” he suggested, tucking both his feet up underneath him to prevent further assaults. “She spends quite a bit of time in the garden, and I’ve heard her claim the tree is dying. Perhaps she’ll glean more from it.”

“That’s not a bad idea,” Vex agreed. She straightened her shoulders. Vax began to braid along her hairline, slowly forming plaited ring not unlike a crown.

As her brother worked, Vex's eyes began to roam the scene before her. Perhaps she and her brother had lain a trap for a beast without baiting their snare. It would not make sense for Orthax to manifest every night – with Percival’s poor sleeping habits, he surely would have noticed the creature by now, if that were the case. She had assumed any interference with the young lord’s life would anger the spirit, but perhaps she would have to interfere more immediately.

Her gaze journeyed up and down, into the shadows of the stacks and out to the moonlit windows, until it finally came to rest upon a landscape painting hanging on a wall nearby. The image depicted three crows atop a crumbling stonework spire, their wings raised and beaks opened as if they were engaged in a heated debate. She tilted her head to get a better look – Vax moved with her fluidly, his fingers never ceasing – and Vex found herself recalling Percival’s bitter assessment that there were birds everywhere in Whitestone. She smiled. How foolish of her to forget: she knew the perfect means to interfere.

“Vax," she started, and he grunted, fixated on his task. "Have you any idea how one could inscribe something on a fallen tree?”

“With a knife?" he replied. Vex cricked her neck back so her brother could see her rolling her eyes. He pushed her head back down, weaving through the hair behind her right ear. “Alright, alright. That's one of your vault riddles, is it?”

“Mhm. Felled is the tree from which the truth springs,” she quoted.

Vax repeated the line, in a tone that belied both skepticism and impatience. Vex gave a pitying smirk; Vax had much less patience for mind games than she. He preferred puzzles he could solve with fingertips and screwdrivers. “Am I carving knowledge on to the tree, or does knowledge come from it?” he said.

“Both, I suppose. This "fallen tree" provides truth, but you must also be able to write on it, somehow-“

Vax's fingers froze again, and they shared in a simultaneous revelation. The twins were not just in the presence of their answer, but utterly encompassed by it: they were surrounded, after all, by five floors of bookshelves, each neatly stuffed with innumerable tomes. Vax spread his arms wide. “Is this what they mean when they say one 'can't see the forest for the trees'?” he quipped.

Vex propped her chin on her hand, reduced to helpless laughter at her own obliviousness. “Oh, it's a book. Paper comes from trees, paper makes books, books hold truth,” she recited. “How circuitous.”

“Alright,” Vax said, and he pinned the braid on her crown in place, making a show of dusting off his hands, “Which book?”

“Something we could write on, somehow?” Vex replied, already frowning at the incompleteness of her answer.

They pondered in silence until Vex at last remembered the mechanical catalogue on the first floor. It would, with any luck, provide a starting point; and then she recalled, with a startled exclamation, that Percival’s great-grandfather had invented it – and he was the very same man who had written the poem.

Together, the twins descended the stairs and approached the machine, Vax holding the candle aloft to guide their way. The catalogue stood at waist-height, thick and sturdy and square like a trunk, and carved of lacquered wood. Two sets of twenty large dials were set into its flat surface. The first set of dials, with square, brassy letters printed on their facets, had been arranged to spell out LOCAL HISTORY; the second set, similarly printed, displayed an author’s name: RADCLIFFE. Beneath the first two sets, three dials – these printed with numbers – showed 2-06. Vex deduced that the last set referred to a section of the library, providing a guide to where the author’s works would be found – the sixth shelf upon the second floor, a place not far distant from where she and her brother had been sitting.

Two brass crank-handles protruded from the side of the machine. Vex impulsively turned the larger one, and watched with awe as forty-three individual dials automatically clicked and shifted, each letter moving independently to a new position: LOCAL HISTORY became LOCAL GEOGRAPHY, RADCLIFFE became TYRIOK, 2-06 became 4-08. She experimented: the larger handle would shift through the subject, author, and section dials together; the smaller crank scrolled through each author who wrote on a particular subject. With each change, a mechanical cacophony sounded from the catalogue, only barely muted by its wooden shell. Envisioning the multiplicity of cogs and gears and letters that must have been at work inside the machine, Vex gave a low, impressed whistle. “Perhaps this is what the riddle speaks of. We could find every truth this library offers, given time enough-”

“Hold on,” Vax interrupted. Vex looked to her brother. His eyes were shut, and his free hand was raised, fingers twitching. She stopped spinning the handles; the corner of Vax's mouth twitched. Passing her the candle and directing her gently away, he knelt by the machine, pressing his ear flush to its side. He set his hands upon the closest crank, coaxing it forward, and then tugging it back. The expression on his face was one of serene focus. “Can you hear that?” he said. “The clicks?”

“No.”

“Give me a moment.”

He turned the handles again, back and forth, and Vex watched the dials rotate. After nearly ten solid minutes of work, a sharp clack and clatter sounded from the machine. Vax stood, and tugged sharply at the larger crank. It came free in his hand, bringing with it a long brass pin. The pin was intricately toothed and notched, not unlike a key, except that when Vax extricated it fully, it was almost the length of his arm. Vex gasped and grabbed her brother’s wrist, speechless with horror at the thought that he had eviscerated a de Rolo artefact.

“Ow,” he said, and shoved her away with his shoulder. “Don’t fret. It’s designed to come out.”

“Are you absolutely certain?” she hissed.

Vax tilted his head towards the catalogue. She glanced down. The subject read FORESTRY. The author was DEROLO.

While she could have slapped the smug grin clear off her brother’s face, Vex instead looked down at the catalog. His fiddling had created a second change; the dials indicating the subject seemed loose, and she could now spin each letter individually with a push of her finger.

“This looks like the place for your inscription, eh?” Vax pointed out.

“The consequence of ignorance,” she mused, her voice soft. “Perhaps they’re working on a theme?”

Vex set the candle down on top of the catalogue, and rotated the dials until they read FOOLISHNESS. Nothing happened. She asked Vax to replace the pin: he could not force it through its slot. Brow furrowing, he stood it upon the ground, leaning into it like a cane. Vex did not succeed with FOOLHARDINESS; an attempt at simply FOOL was foiled, yet again, when her brother could not replace the pin. Frustrated, she tightened her arms over her chest and stared at the letters, as if she could persuade them to rearrange themselves through sheer intimidation.

“Is foolishness a consequence of ignorance?” Vax wondered aloud, tapping the brass pin against the toe of his boot, “Or is it the same thing?”

“Oh, since when are you so philosophical?” Vex retaliated, huffing dramatically. Half out of stubbornness and half of desperation, she switched the dials until they read DEATH.

As he aligned the pin with its slot, Vax eyed her closely, and muttered, “You’ve been spending too much time with that Percival of yours.”

The pin stuck after the first notch, and Vex stamped her foot. For the next hour, she tried every word or concept she could associate with “ignorance”, all of the names of the de Rolos she knew, and each word of the relevant riddles, line by line. Plurals, derivatives, rephrasings and synonyms all failed her. She even tried paradoxes that would hardly apply – WISDOM, LEARNING, SAGE, KING. Nothing indicated progress; the machine remained silent but for the clicks of her inscriptions, and the pin would not penetrate the casing further than an inch at best. She tossed her hands up, and finally exclaimed, “We’re missing something, I know it.”

With a defeated shrug, Vax took control of the dials, spinning them until they showed FORESTRY once more. He replaced the pin, and rotated it gingerly to find the machine adequately reassembled. As he worked, he said, “It will come to you. You’ve always been clever.”

“If cleverness determined the answer, I’d have found it already,” she argued, drumming her nails upon her cheek. Forcing her own expression to brighten, she clapped a hand to her brother’s arm and chirped, “Well on done figuring the first part, though. That’s progress of a sort.”

“Of a sort,” Vax echoed, chuckling. “Maybe you should share this with our handsome host? Perhaps it's a passcode only known to de Rolos.”

His mention of Percival drove Vex’s mind back to the task of the evening: the pursuit of his resident spirit, Orthax. As of yet, there had been no sign of the creature – it had not disturbed them while they lay in wait, nor while they argued over the puzzle before them. Vex tried to grasp the reason, to locate a thread that tied the events and locales of its appearance together – the workshop, the study, the library. If the creature was so set on tormenting Percival, perhaps its actions revolved around his. He had been awake, nursing his burn, the first time she encountered Orthax in the study; and last night, when the spirit had vandalized the library, Percy had been tending to the same injury in his workshop.

A tingling, ominous fear began to stir deep in Vex’s stomach. She grasped the edge of the catalogue to steady herself.

Vax nudged her with his shoulder. “Are you well?”

“We must go to the engine room,” she said. Her hearing had been numbed by her confusion: her own voice sounded muffled and odd. “And then the chapel of Pelor.”

“The chapel of – why?”

“Percival said he had to fix the steam pipes.”

Her formless suspicions would not be clarified further by words; she turned away from the catalog and rushed for the door, trusting that Vax would pursue her. She burst into the hall, and ran on. She had forgotten the candle, and when there were no windows to permit the moon, she ran in blackness – but she did not fear she would trip or tumble. The roots of familiarity had burrowed into her mind: almost without her noticing Whitestone had left its mark upon her. She knew exactly how many strides to take, skirts fisted in her hands and drawn away from her hurried feet, as she raced towards the engine room. Even blinded, she knew the sharp curve of the stairwell, and could follow its narrow arc. Around her, a harsh whisper of her name coalesced – “Vex! Vex’ahlia!” – and only belatedly did she realize it was her brother, urging her to stop.

She did not. Vex arrived at the metal door, flung it open, and held her breath. The typical tide of engine-warmth greeted her, suffused with the tireless, terrible groans of the machine. As with the previous night, she listened for any human noise. The cavern could never be called empty, nor quiet, but there was no breath, no sigh, no voice.

“He’s not here,” she called, and rushed back up the stair.

The light of the candle flashed before her as she climbed, and Vex nearly collided with her brother, who was descending to join her. Instinctively, he braced her elbows. Perhaps he had heard her words, for he did not stop her, only turned to follow as she mounted back up to the main hall.

She continued on, sprinting to the chapel of Pelor, wondering what power of feeling had granted her such frantic energy. The chapel doors stood solemnly shut, and without hesitation, she threw one wide with her free hand, and called, “Percival!”

The pews were vacant. The candles were unlit. What spare light washed through the room came only from the massive imaged window, where all the golds of morning had turned blue under the moon. And there was nothing, nothing, not a stray, staggered breath, not a human shadow in the corner, not a curl of smoke rising from the dead altar wicks. Vex looked up to the hollow vault of the chapel ceiling, and pressed her agitated fingers to her forehead.

In a flare of light, Vax arrived at her side. He grasped her elbow again, and hissed, “Vex’ahlia! We’ll wake the whole castle if you keep slamming doors about in the middle of the night.”

She sighed, looking away from him. If Percival was not working on the chapel pipes or the engine itself, then he had gone to bed, and there was nothing to fear from the roving spirit. Vex tugged self-consciously at a thin, loose curl, which had fallen free from her braided crown. “Of course. Of course you’re right,” she whispered.

Her brother’s hands released her arms, gently, as if setting down a glass dish. The gentleness brought her back to full composure, and she sighed, “I don’t think looking for the bastard will work quite like we planned, Vax. It may be more complicated than that.”

“That makes sense,” he agreed. “It’s a vengeful spirit, yes? Would it need a crime to avenge?”

“It could be that it manifests to take vengeance for Percival’s pain,” she said, her voice slow and measured. She chose her phrases carefully; she had sworn to keep the crippled hand secret, even from her brother. “Whenever he – has a fit, as Keyleth puts it – that is when Orthax appears. Or, at least, that has been the pattern so far.”

“That’s unfortunate,” Vax said grimly. “It would be rather barbaric to cause Lord de Rolo pain in the hope of calling a vengeful spirit down upon ourselves. Not to mention that would also be a rather stupid plan.”

Vex nodded, a weak laugh emerging from behind her closed lips. “I’m glad you believe me,” she said, catching her brother’s gaze so he could see her earnestness. “It feels so odd to talk about hauntings and spirits with any seriousness.”

Her brother shrugged, and helped her guide the straying curl back into her braid. “Next time Lord de Rolo knocks his head on a doorframe, we’ll keep an eye out for your monster,” he teased. “For now, though – it’s rather late.”

She agreed; no further words were needed. With a lingering look at the majestic window, Vex pulled the chapel door shut.

They had not ventured half a dozen paces down the hall when Vex noticed a slow, steady brightening around the corner. She was on the point of dismissing it as a trick, but Vax suddenly grasped her hand to still her, blew out his candle, and pulled them flush to the wall. Indeed, a light caught the ridges and carvings in the pale stone, distorting their shapes and shadows. Vax paced forward, slowly, silently, approaching the corner; Vex trailed him, still bound by his grasp. The light continued to grow. Vex squeezed her brother’s hand. He squeezed hers, and then, with a quick breath in, stepped decisively around the corner. Vex caught a quick flash of flailing motion as her brother released her and jumped back, and pair of male screams echoed through the halls. The interloper immediately launched into a tirade, and in a faintly familiar voice:

Hells below and gods above I nearly jumped myself to death! You’d yank a man’s heart clear through his ribs, skulking about in the shadow all dressed up like a pair of the Queen’s reapers – do either of you own a single bleeding stitch that isn’t black? What in blazes are you doing?”

Vex rounded the corner and recognized the little frame and nut-brown hair of Mr. Shorthalt. Carrying a lantern (which was clearly the culprit of the haunting light), and wearing a winter cloak and hat, he looked a touch windswept and disheveled, as if he had just come in from outside. Vax recovered from his shock by leaning against the nearest wall, tilting his head back, and laughing, so Vex took on the burden of apology, pressing both her hands over her heart. “I am so, so sorry, Mr. Shorthalt – I didn’t realize you were back from town.”

He gestured incredulously with his lantern, sending their shadows into a dance once more. “Obviously,” he crowed. “Hours of freezing, mucky riding, and here I think I’ll just slip inside the castle and tuck myself in to one of those cozy royal beds, except then I hear a banshee cry out for the master of the house!” Startled by a secondary realization, he held the lantern up to Vex’s face, and asked “Was that you?

Feeling wicked, she bared her teeth in a broad smile and nodded. “Indeed, I’ve come to devour his soul.”

“Oh, well. Aren’t you an odd duck,” Mr. Shorthalt said flatly – though he seemed to approve, in his own way. He regained a measure of composure, shouldered his cloak tighter around himself, and continued, “While I applaud the method, your sense of location is pitiful. You might try yodeling outside his door next time.”

“You’re arriving quite late, Mr. Shorthalt,” Vax observed. He was wiping a gleeful tear from his eye with the heel of his hand. “Surely this is the hour one would expect a ghost or two to be prowling the halls.”

Mr. Shorthalt shook his head, and answered, “It was important that I came here quickly. This is a fair coincidence, actually.” He took a breath, and lowered his voice. “I’ve got a dire need to speak with you both.”

The twins looked at each other, and then back at Mr. Shorthalt. He rolled his eyes. “Has anyone ever told you it’s frightfully disturbing when you mimic each other like that?”

They said nothing; and the chattering man was clearly stalling. He sighed, and took off his hat, meeting eyes with Vex. “I apologize for the strange question, my Lady,” he began. His short fingers drummed a rhythm on the brim on his hat. He bit his lip, then squinted up at the ceiling, his voice escalating in strain and pitch like a harp-string pulled tighter and tighter. “Could you think of any reason why someone would be following you?”

Vex took a half-step back. “Why, no. Following me? I haven’t the slightest idea.”

Mr. Shorthalt looked pained. Vax’s swallowed chuckles ended abruptly, and his face grew serious. “I can’t be certain, but I think so," Mr. Shorthalt said. "You’ll want the story, I take it?”

The twins urged him on with matching nods.

“It started when you were being treated by Dr. Trickfoot. Now, it only makes sense that a doctor would be puttering about her own office – but there’s that other woman who works there, that Dr. Ripley. I think she was listening at the door. I came down the hall with your clothes and she skittered off, like I’d startled her. Like I'd caught her at something she shouldn't have been doing.

“I thought nothing of that, at first. Then, if you remember, you and I met by the Lion’s Wrath, with ol’ Grog Strongjaw. And when you arrived, Ripley was behind you on the street.”

Vex felt her heart go cold, horrified that she had not noticed. “Go on,” she said, swallowing.

Mr. Shorthalt spun the top-hat in his hands. “Now that struck me as a little odd, so I thought I’d follow her and see what she did. She spent the afternoon with patients – or at least, she didn’t leave that office for a few hours – but at dusk, guess where she went?”

“I haven’t the slightest,” Vex replied faintly.

The Lion’s Wrath,” Mr. Shorthalt presented, spreading his hands apart like a ringmaster introducing his next act. “She goes into The Lion’s Wrath, all hooded and cowled like a crook, and sits down to buy an ale for Grog Strongjaw. Now, Grog doesn’t mean you harm, I’m sure,” Mr. Shorthalt explained, “but he’s thick as a brick and thrice as dense, so if Ripley asked what you two talked about-” He trailed off, and shrugged. “I doubt Grog realized what she was doing. I cut in when I could.”

Vax, who had so far been listening in silence, blinked and interrupted, “How?”

“Oh, started a little tavern tango,” Mr. Shorthalt chuckled. “A little bare-knuckle dance. Told a miner by the bar how well I’d become acquainted with his mother, and once fists started flying, the heroic Grog Strongjaw stepped in to save his old pal Scanlan. The doctor scampered out of there right quick.”

“Did you learn what Mr. Strongjaw told her?” Vex pressed.

“That you had a fair Ashari with you, and that you were looking at  tunnels under the castle and asking him about rocks,” Mr. Shorthalt recounted. “I don’t doubt Ripley’s little interrogation did her more harm than good. She’ll be lucky to pick what she needs out of that man’s head. Still,” he sighed, “I thought you’d want to know. That doctor's following you.”

Vex tried to keep her thundering heart steady, tried to keep her mind cool and working smooth, like clockwork, rational in the face of panic. “Could it be she was following Keyleth? We were together the entire day.”

“That’s hard to say,” Mr. Shorthalt replied. “From what Grog said, she asked after you, but, well-” he shrugged, grinning, “-that’s what Grog said, so who knows?”

Silence took the hall. Vex fiddled distractedly with a button on her cuff, and Mr. Shorthalt watched her, eager for some kind of response. In the silence, Vax muttered, “Well. Then we need to find out more, don’t we?”

“I think so,” Vex agreed. “The police?”

“What would we tell them? That we’re suspicious because a woman we’ve never met is working in her own office and drinking in a local tavern?”

Vex bit her lip, and looked at the floor. “Then perhaps we’ll need to look into it on our own.”

Mr. Shorthalt seemed jointly relieved and anxious to hear their answer – though he sighed, and the tension fell from his shoulders, he shot jittery looks back and forth as if expecting the doctor to overhear them even then. “There’s, ah, something else you should know if you’re planning to speak with her,” he added. The twins stared, and he cowered under the sudden intensity of their gaze, holding up his hat and his lantern like shields. “Might not be relevant, but you should know all the same. The doctor following you – Anna Ripley – she’s the one who found the de Rolos.”

“Found them?” Vex repeated. “You mean when they died?”

“Well, Lord de Rolo was already there,” Mr. Shorthalt corrected himself. “But when he came down from the castle, Pike – Dr. Trickfoot – she looked after him, and Dr. Ripley climbed the hill to account for the others.” His voice took on a derisive, venomous lilt. “It’s Ripley the papers got all their “unidentified causes” and “mysterious demises” from. Played herself off like a martyr, you know – claimed she burned their corpses to stop the spread of whatever disease they caught. She built a pyre right under the Sun Tree. By her telling she snuffed it out with her tears.”

Vex imagined it – the smell of bodies burning, fabric and fat and hair, the snow melting for miles around from the power of the pyre, the smoke suffocating the leaves of the age-old tree. Did Percival know what Ripley had done? Was that the picture in his mind, when he touched their memorials on the Whitestone wall?

Vax’s mind proceeded in a different direction: “You sound as if you’ve got a grudge against the woman, Mr. Shorthalt,” he observed.

“I don’t bother with grudges for anyone, but I know how liars make heroes of themselves.” He answered, over a shrug. “If I’d seen anyone else chasing you two fine ladies around Whitestone, I’d have credited it to an unrequited passion. But it wasn’t anyone, it was Ripley, and if nothing else, she’s a liar.”

Silence reigned again – and once again, it was Vax who broke it, standing straight and brushing off his shirts. “Very well. I’ll go.”

“By yourself?” Vex said. She had known him long enough to recognize the implication in the suggestion. Her brother, like his quarry, never missed an opportunity to martyr himself; she suspected the difference between him and this Ripley character rested purely in Vax’s sincerity.

“You’re the one she’s tailing,” Vax pointed out. “And she might’ve caught on to Mr. Shorthalt after everything at The Lion’s Wrath. She wouldn’t be expecting me.” Another thought occurred to him, and he folded his arms. “Or Gilmore, for that matter. I could bring him along.”

“What will the pair of you do?” Mr. Shorthalt asked, a touch of skepticism in his voice. “Knock on her door? ‘Why, hello, good doctor, I couldn’t help but notice your prolonged interest in the back of my sister’s head. I could ask her to braid your hair for you, if you’re so envious’!”

Vex raised her fingertips to the plait in question, frowning. In the whirl of their midnight altercation, she’d forgotten about it.

“Not hardly,” Vax snarled. “No, we need to know what she’s interested in, and if she’s after my sister for any reason, she will earn no pity from me.” Recognizing the grimness of his tone, he performed a dismissive wave. “I shall think of something – and it’s possible Gilmore will know better what to ask.”

The plan frustrated Vex: though she trusted nobody quite so well as her brother, she hated the idea of being separate from him for too long, and worse, of putting him at risk. She acquiesced, but only begrudgingly. “Do be careful, Vax.”

Vax shrugged, his thoughts already elsewhere – scheming, perhaps – and he gave her a pat of encouragement on the shoulder.

Mr. Shorthalt looked between the twins, and then feigned a ludicrous stretch and full-breasted sigh. “Well, now that that’s been decided, we’d best tuck ourselves in. It’s such a dreary climb to this tower in the middle of the night, you know. My horse is probably nursing a few regrets right now.”

“Thank you,” Vex cut in, before Mr. Shorthalt could excuse himself, “for warning us.”

The messenger only smiled, bowed, and turned away, spinning his hat in one hand. Vex reflected, briefly, on what an odd person he was. She could not tell if Mr. Shorthalt had shared the information out of genuine concern, or simply in the interest of stirring up further scandal. He sauntered forth, taking with him his aura of light, and gave an eerie, melodic whistle as he went.

“How much d’you wager this Ripley woman knows of us?” Vax said, under his breath.

“Hard to say,” Vex replied. “She may not even know who we are. Perhaps an association with this castle is enough.” She realized, in time, what Vax was truly asking; her voice low and sour, she added, “I hope she’s never met father.”

“I hope so too,” Vax’s words were rent with equally bitter laughter. “Only so many deceitful pricks a man can suffer before he starts thinking the gods are out to get him.”

Vex turned her head down the dark hall. Her thoughts traveled away from her brother, to the empty library, the silent workshop, the hollow chapel.

The twins agreed to a plan for the next day: Vax would persuade Mr. Gilmore to travel to the town of Whitestone in the morning; Vex would resume the hunt for the vault. After Vax's stubornness and begging, she also agreed to hide herself should Orthax appear again. He clearly believed in the spirit as keenly as her, if he came to the point of worrying whether she could face it alone.

As she climbed the stairs, Vex cast a final, desperate look over the hall, held her breath, and listened. Moonlight pooled on the floor. The engine purred, distant, discordant. The shadows were all as straight, uniform and cool as the stones they were cast from. The stillness left her frustrated, in part, but also relieved.

After the long, fruitless investigation, the next morning came upon her far too quickly, and Vex arrived late to breakfast. She rushed into the dining hall with her collar halfway buttoned and her shoes hastily laced, hoping she had not insulted her host (or let her food get cold)

To her surprise, only Percival and Keyleth were present in the hall, seated side-by-side at the dining-table with cups of tea. It startled her not only because Gilmore, her brother, and Mr. Shorthalt were absent, but also because she had never seen Percival eat or drink in the presence of another person. Vex had only a moment to silently thank the fates that both her friends were well, as both of them reacted rather strangely to her sudden arrival. Percival put down his tea as a bemused look crossed his face, and he pressed his fingers to his mouth. Keyleth’s eyes widened, and she gazed at Vex with an expression caught between awe and envy.

“Ooh,” she sighed softly, “could you teach me to do that with my hair?”

Vex felt her face colour, and her hands flew up to her head once more. Vax’s inventive braid-crown still circled her skull. Her hair was naturally rebellious, sprung with whimsical waves and curls, and she did not doubt that a night of restless sleeping upon the braid would have freed a few locks from their place. She imagined she looked akin to a laureled satyr, wild and disheveled. She had no time to gather herself before their curious gazes: as per usual, when thus unbalanced, Vex fell back upon a charming smile. “I’m afraid not,” she chirped, as brightly and confidently as she could. “This is my brother’s malicious handiwork.”

“Malicious? Oh, I think it’s quite delightful,” Keyleth said earnestly, propping her chin on both hands. Vex managed to twist a smile out of her pained expression.

“You look like a queen.”

Both women turned to Percival, who seemed to have voiced the opinion without much thought. His gloved fingers tapped along the line of his jaw, in sequence, one after the other, just under the faintest hint of a grin. Vex regarded him, perplexed, her fingers still hovering at her temples. His blue, blue gaze traveled slowly across her brow, from one hand to the other. Then he started, and corrected himself, “The chess pieces, I mean. You recall how the queens are crowned with those-?” he traced a series of short arcs in the air with his fingertip, miming the design. “I’d always imagined them to be braids, rather like – anyway.” He brought his teacup back to his lips and drank deeply.

Keyleth’s grin grew wicked. Vex lowered her hands, and squeezed a lace border upon her skirts, her cheeks gathering heat.

“Chessboards,” Vex finally said, her voice bright and high. “We were supposed to look at the-“

“Indeed we were,” Percival cut in, grimacing; apparently, he had swallowed his mouthful of tea too hastily, and the words came out in a half-cough. “The study. We'll go after breakfast, of course – do sit down. How rude of me.” He rose from his seat, and pulled out the chair beside him.

Keyleth’s smile became steadily more shark-like. “Well, if you’ll excuse me from the table, I think I shall find your brother,” she tittered. “Perhaps he can teach me!”

Vex resisted the impulse to throw the nearest small object at Keyleth (and perhaps the Ashari was only spared by the fact that Vex stood in the middle of the floor, with no projectiles in reach). Instead, she sniffed, “Tragically, I doubt you will have time. He’s headed into town this morning with Mr. Gilmore.”

“Is he?” Percival said. “Has he left?”

“Not yet, I believe,” Vex answered.

He tapped the back of the chair once, twice, thrice, deep in thought. Vex watched, awaiting whatever answers were forthcoming. Then he shook himself, and stammered, “I’d like to ask him something before he goes. If you’ll excuse me, Keyleth,” and then, when he looked back to Vex, he smiled. Placing a hand over his heart, he bowed deep, bringing his head practically level with the teacups. “Your Majesty.”

Imperiously, Vex waved a hand in his direction. “Yes, yes, squire, you are excused.”

He departed, footsteps clacking loudly over the stones. Vex held her regal posture, unmoving and wordless. Keyleth snapped her fingers, staring at Vex, and a tiny wick of flame sprouted from her forefinger. She held it to the base of Percival’s teacup, keeping the drink warm for him. A curl of steam rose from her finger, winding towards the high ceiling.

When the sound of Percival's footsteps disappeared, Vex stomped over to Keyleth, sat in the chair Percival had drawn out for her, folded her arms, and let her head drop to the table with a clatter of silverware.

“Not a word,” she mumbled, and Keyleth began to laugh.

--

At the same moment, Vax and Gilmore stood at the base of the stairway in the main hall, adjusting their cloaks and hats as they conversed. They had encountered each other on the upper floors earlier in the day, and Vax, pressed by his nervousness, revealed his plans to travel down to Whitestone on the spot. Despite his reticence in introducing such a good-natured man as Gilmore to such a questionable adventure, his dear friend immediately understood the seriousness of the task, and agreed, without condition, to assist in it.

“You know, I do find that Ripley woman terribly suspicious. Those deaths never sat well with me,” Gilmore said, a thoughtful twist in his handsome mouth. He spoke in a muted voice, preventing their conversation from carrying through the halls. “The reports in the papers were so frightfully weak.”

“They were,” Vax agreed. Gilmore forced his fingers into a pair of soft winter gloves, his gestures decidedly nervous. Vax approached, pushed the fretting hands apart, and buttoned the gloves for him. “Perhaps Ripley has been hiding something about the de Rolos? It explains why she would shadow any guests of the castle.”

“Thank you, dear boy,” Gilmore muttered, his dark eyes still narrow. He continued, his voice a conspiratorial hush; “That could be the least of it. I mean to say her explanation was not only inadequate, but perhaps unbelievable by design. Think, Vax – what would be the obvious conclusion of the public, were they to suspect Ripley of a lie?”

Vax met his eyes, his careful touch lingering on Gilmore’s wrists. “That would cast suspicion of foul play, either onto her, or-” he paused, and realized, “-or onto Lord de Rolo.”

“Which is precisely what happened,” Gilmore pointed out. His dark eyes flickered upward, and he withdrew his hand gently from Vax’s grasp. “Look lively, now.”

Vax turned, retracting his touch as subtly as he could, to see the Lord of the house coming up to them at a half-run. He addressed them breathlessly, with a courteous bow, and requested to speak with Vax in private. Before Vax could question him, Gilmore acquiesced, and stepped out into the chilled courtyard to prepare his horses. His departure took the gracious mood with it, and Vax remained in the massive, empty hall, sharing a slightly awkward stillness with his host.

Fear claimed him quickly, and Vax's fingers began to burn. He was certain that he was about to be chastised for the rather intimate touch he had just shared with another man. His heart throbbed in his throat. The old, familiar anguishes, crept up on him, the scuttling, shivering shame his father had inflicted-

“I understand our acquaintance has been somewhat tense, thus far,” the young Lord began, “for which I do not fault you. It has been a complicated week, and I have not always reacted sensibly.” He straightened his shoulders and folded his hands demurely behind his back, as a manservant would; “Regardless of all else,” he continued, “in this time, I have deemed you an excellent judge of character.”

Vax answered him, his voice thin. “Have you, my Lord?”

“Indeed. You’ve realized you should not trust me.”

Startled, Vax took a step away. The conversation was not proceeding at all as he had predicted, and he took a moment to find his footing again. “I'm sorry? Are you implying something?”

“Only that your judgement is unfettered,” Lord de Rolo answered airily. “I have a favour to ask of you, one I could not possibly ask of anyone burdened by their loyalty to me–” he hesitated, a grin playing about his face “–whether or not that loyalty has been justified.”

“And this task you have?” 

Silence fell, which gave Vax enough time to turn his scrutiny away from himself, and towards the oddly framed request. Despite himself, Vax found he appreciated the bluntness of the conversation: social graces irritated him quickly. The young lord gave a long, rattling sigh, and folded his arms tight across his chest. He seemed barely able to resist the impulse to pace; he rose onto the balls of his feet, then rocked back on his heels. At last, he said, “There is a man named Anders working in Whitestone. A retired solicitor, and a legal scholar and advisor to the de Rolos. After the passing of my family, he handled the entail of assets and property, and the execution of my parents’ wills.” He paused, and looked Vax dead in the eye. “I have recently come to believe he may be hiding something from me.”

Vax considered. The gaze meeting his did not quiver or change. “That is no small accusation, Lord de Rolo. Have you any proof of it?”

“If I had any, I wouldn’t need to ask this of you,” Lord de Rolo answered darkly. “It is all suspicion at this point – suffice to say, the situation is no longer adding up as it should.” He must have sensed Vax’s hesitation, for he continued in a bemused, suggestive tone, “The credit for this mess goes to your sister, in fact. Lady Vex’ahlia pointed out an inconsistency that I had heretofore disregarded.”

“She makes a habit of that,” Vax admitted.

“She does,” he agreed. He smiled, then, and a touch of light finally reached his cold eyes. “The inscription on my father’s tomb is incorrect, and I would be particularly intrigued to know what Anders has to say about that – but he could be hiding any number of things. The more you learn, the better. I cannot be certain whether he is masking the truth to protect me or sabotage me, but I am hoping you will ascertain that as well, and that you will act accordingly.”

“Would he even share such information with a stranger?”

“Perhaps not - but if he is lying, I assume he would be more likely to speak with a stranger than to anyone associated with me. And so, of course, you must not tell him I sent you.”

“I don’t like speaking in circles,” Vax cut in. He would honour Lord de Rolo’s prior frankness with his own. “What do you expect me to find?”

He received no answer, at first, save for a stare. Vax still found the stern man before him quite illegible, but if he had to name the cause of the hard lines in his expression, the frustrated curve of his brow – it would have been pain. A pain born from something deep and personal - regret, perhaps, or fear.

“My expectations have no bearing on the truth,” he said at last, and forcibly changed the topic. “I’m certain I could find a way to compensate you for what you find. Is that agreeable?”

“Compensation seems excessive,” Vax replied, recoiling, and Lord de Rolo gave him a sly smile. “It would be – odd, to say the least, to bribe me for my honesty.”

That cracked the lord's strange smile apart, and it produced a curious chuckle. “Well,” he said, “I have cut many odd deals of late, with many an otherworldly creature. Perhaps I have grown accustomed to stranger transactions. This one, I leave to you.”

He bowed, excused himself, and set off in the direction of the dining hall. Vax stared after him until he vanished, wondering how Vex had grown so taken with someone so unabashedly ominous.

When he exited into the courtyard, Vax found his dear friend awaiting him, the horses prepared and carriage drawn up to the castle’s door. Gilmore drove a smart black-wheeled curricle, which would leave them exposed to the air; he apologized for what would likely be a chilly ride, and suggested they sit close together in the driver’s seat. Vax agreed and joined him, and they departed, sitting shoulder to shoulder.

They drove under the gate, and out to the mountain road. A light snow had fallen overnight, and the ground was patchily blanketed with it, spears of grass and proud roots jutting through the snow's fragile film. As they drove – in silence, at first – it began to snow again. The flakes were neither driving nor tempestuous, though they drifted and whirled and swirled about; they were fat and soft, and white as down, and they were pleasantly scattered and stirred by passing winds. In their sheer number, they painted a shifting veil over the distant town and the looming keep of Whitestone. With the thickness of the fall came a breath-held silence, one that would have felt unnatural had it not been crafted by nature’s hands.

In that muting, numbing fog, it grew easy for Vax to envision himself and Gilmore as the sole travelers on an endless road, a path without beginning or termination. A romantic notion, one that made him pull his furred cape up higher to hide his giddy smile. The thought enchanted him awhile; and then, in time, he remembered where the path would truly lead. At last, he told Gilmore of the task Lord de Rolo had passed to him, and as he spoke he felt the old sickness of nervousness claim him once more.

“First the doctor, now the solicitor,” Gilmore murmured, twisting the reins around his hand. “Mark my words, something’s afoot. We’d best be careful who we speak with in Whitestone. Is there anyone we can trust for certain?”

Relief quelled Vax’s frantic heart, and soothed the tightness of anxiety in his shoulders: with every obstacle he introduced, Gilmore only grew more determined. Vax spared a moment in silent gratitude, and then answered, “Not exactly – but we might try one Mr. Strongjaw, to begin with. Mr. Shorthalt claims he is a good man, and he spoke with Ripley about my sister.”

“A fine start. Mr. Strongjaw, then.” Gilmore fidgeted, crossing his ankles. He sighed, and continued, “I worry for poor Percival. This all has the stink of a vile, greedy scheme about it.”

Vax felt a wry smile dart across his own face, unbidden. “And you’d know, you criminal,” he said, with unguarded fondness, leaning into Gilmore’s shoulder. He liked the contrast of their position – the cool air around them, and the heat where their bodies joined. In the strangeness of the hours ahead, the presence of such a darling man was a singular comfort.

“Ah, indeed I would,” Gilmore said, around a robust, delighted laugh. “I’m making a habit of such interference, aren’t I? Speaking of which, remind me to check the post. I’m expecting that cur father of yours to try and haggle me out of more of my gold.”

“That sounds like him,” Vax noted, his voice dry. To his surprise, Gilmore took his hand and squeezed it – and then released him just as quickly, lashing his hand to the reins again.

The single slip of that gesture changed the mood of the drive. They fell into silence again, only this silence was a weight, pressing down on their tongues and lungs and shoulders. Vax started tapping a frantic rhythm on the edge of the carriage-seat, like an encoded plea for help. He could feel the pressure of Gilmore’s eyes, which seemed unable to stay on the road, and constantly drifted over to his partner in the driver’s seat. That dark-eyed look still held intoxicating power over Vax; in that moment he did not quite trust himself to meet it.

On the crest of the last hill above Whitestone, Gilmore tugged sharply at the reins and stopped them. Aside from the soft huffing of the horses, the world was quite silent, muted by the snow. The driver reached out, and snowflakes landed on his upturned palm. Vax leaned back in his seat, watching Gilmore watch the snow.

“It never snowed where I was raised,” he explained. “I suppose if one is to be such an inconvenience, one might as well be pretty about it.”

Gilmore rubbed his fingertips together, melting a fat white flake between them. While he looked up at the cotton-blank sky, he continued, “We’re headed into no small trouble in Whitestone, I should think.”

“We are,” Vax agreed. The snow came to rest on Gilmore’s cheeks, on his collar, on his cloak. None could remain intact for long against the heat of his person, and the white flakes melted as swift as they landed. “You needn’t stay, if you’re-”

There was no fitting adjective. Vax turned away, and watched the flakes gathering on the toes of his boots.

Gilmore’s low chuckle seemed to rumble through the carriage. “Dear boy, you insult me. I am honoured to make trouble with you.”

Vax covered his own smile with his hand. Through his fingers, he vowed, “And I’m lucky to have you with me, as always. As ever.”

He swallowed; the last words felt thick in his throat, somehow more meaningful than what he had intended. A long silence followed, and in it, the tension twisted tight.

“I said we had time to waste, you and I,” Gilmore finally murmured, his voice low. Vax had to turn to him at last, had to lean closer to hear him. His voice carried the pain and pace of an unwanted confession. “And I do adore the dance. I only fear if we-”

Finally, their gazes were forced to meet. Gilmore drew a breath in, looked towards Vax with a wide-eyed, hopeful expression that lasted just long enough for Vax to understand it before it vanished - he turned away, abruptly, forcing another laugh. He shook the reins in his hands, sitting up straight in the driver’s seat. “Forgive me, Vax – I will force nothing upon you. I’m sure you understand what is being offered.”

He clicked his tongue, snapped the reins, and the horses started into movement.

And as the wheels turned and the horses trotted on, Vax felt as if they were pulling away from a view he had not finished sketching. His heart was a half-pace behind, trapped under Gilmore’s dark gaze, and beating hard. The unsaid words, the undrawn lines, they filled him until he could have burst – hang the shame, he thought, hang father’s scorn and your own fear – what are they worth, next to what he has given? – what shadows can they hope to cast, in the midst of all his sunlight-

Vax removed one of his gloves. He put his fingers under the brim of Gilmore’s hat, and flicked it off onto the driver’s seat beside him. Gilmore, aghast, pulled the horses to a lurching stop. One hand flew to his impeccable hair. He swung around with a look that was halfway offended, halfway amused. And when their eyes were locked again, Vax pushed himself up on one knee, leaned forward across the chair, and kissed him.

He met with a mouth cooled by the touch of winter, softened by a morning of butter and tea. His naked fingers alighted on arcs of smooth, thick hair, loosely tied and lightly snow-dampened. For a moment Gilmore froze, immobile, stunned – but he was not a man to let a good kiss pass him by; Vax felt the warm, guiding weight of a hand on his shoulder, and heard the creak of the leather leash as Gilmore's other hand tightened. All else was silence, or snowfall.

And as long as they had awaited it, the kiss was not a monument or a revolution. It spoke of many wordless things, and soothed the ache of every day of wasted longing; it brought subtle smiles to both their faces, fresh, youthful heat to their cheeks, and a knowing laugh deep in Gilmore’s chest, a vibration that pulsed through Vax’s ribs; and then it ended. Vax looked down upon a fluttering fan of dark lashes, saw the spark of light in the eyes as they opened, and watched the kiss crystallize into a memory. It would vanish, like the wheel-tracks behind them, like the flakes fading upon Gilmore's upturned face, for all its impact on the wider world; and, in gentle, lovestruck rebellion, they found such a kiss all the more precious for its quiet diminution.

“Marvels and pleasures incomparable, right?” Vax breathed. Smiling roguishly, he retrieved the hat he’d unseated, and replaced it firmly on Gilmore’s head.

The driver tried and failed to look displeased, pronounced Vax a mongrel and a tease, and tugged at his cloak to make him sit down again. They leaned into each other’s shoulders, the cold biting a blush onto their complexions. Their hands tangled lazily together, resting on Vax’s lap. The rest of their journey down the mountain was lost to the haze of snow, and guarded by a blanket of comfortable delight.

Chapter Text

Vex'ahlia's breakfast that morning was tantamount to an interrogation over tea. Keyleth demanded an accounting of all Percival’s behaviour since they had last spoken, and she set her demands with such a broadness of gesture that she often threatened the dishes. Though Vex found it charming that her quiet friend had grown so animated, and though she appreciated having someone to gossip with, she could not quite stifle her own embarrassment at the topic. Keyleth had somehow cast Vex and Percival in a love story for the ages. She prattled about shared looks that could stop time, and the tension that burdened every word in their every exchange, and the aching sighs they expelled when torn apart! And all the while, Keyleth seemed oblivious to how Vex's shoulders hunched higher and higher, as if trying to protect herself from the bizarre imagery.

The tension emerged not because the questions were ridiculous, but because Vex could hardly recognize herself as the heroine Keyleth described. She was a beautiful, darkly passionate creature, radiating mystique. The brooding, secretive hero was more accurate, but he lacked Percival's erratic manners, his arrogance, and his childish excitement over pirate adventure serials and compressed-air grappling hooks.

Vex wondered later if Keyleth really thought so highly of them both, or if she merely meant to be persuasive; for the Ashari ended her speech with the assertion that Vex should take Percival back to Emon with her as soon as possible.

“If not for love, then at least for good health!” she chirped, at Vex’s scandalized look. “Percival is terribly isolated here. A day in town with you rejuvenated me completely, and I thought you could do the same kindness for him."

It was a rather dramatic suggestion. An unmarried man and unmarried woman traveling such distance together would surely attract whispers, and Vex knew the both of them had suffered quite enough whispers for a lifetime. She brushed Keyleth off with the reply that Percival’s travel plans would have to wait until the vault was recovered. Interrupting as politely as she could by pouring them each another cup of tea, Vex changed the topic to something she hoped would pique Keyleth's interest.

“I wanted to ask you about the tree in the courtyard. You said it was ill?”

Keyleth nodded, and started spinning her teaspoon between a thumb and forefinger. “Yes. It’s terribly sad.”

“I’ve been reading about it," Vex said. A basket of muffins stood on the table, and she selected one to pick apart as she spoke. "It was full of magic at one time, was it not? Maybe it ran out?”

“Not entirely, but the problem is very similar,” Keyleth explained. “You know that trees distill their energy from air and sunlight, yes? This Sun Tree processes magic in the same way. It gathers sparks of arcane energy from the atmosphere. That is why the tree has grown so large, and so far north. It consumes the magic it has stored for warmth and energy, when it lacks for sunshine.”

Now genuinely intrigued, Vex pressed her instructor further; “Then how could the Sun Tree be ill, if it can distill magic out of thin air?” Vex said.

“The same way one kills an ordinary tree by stripping its leaves, or hollowing its roots,” Keyleth said, her eyes downcast. “Something has corrupted it – or devoured the well of magic within it. I’m only surprised the poor dear hasn’t died yet.”

She frowned, growing sombre, as any doctor would for their ailing patient. If the flowers in her hair had wilted in sympathy, Vex would not have been surprised. And by her reaction, the culprit seemed all too evident. Leaning over their plates, Vex said, “You suspect Orthax again, do you not?”

Keyleth recoiled, as if the name were a curse. “What do you mean?”

“Orthax,” Vex repeated, lowering her voice. “You think Orthax is devouring the magic from the tree, don’t you?”

Silence fell, and Keyleth picked up her spoon once more. She began to scrape stray muffin-crumbs into a pile. “I will admit the thought has crossed my mind,” she mumbled.

Vex’s frustrations boiled over again. She snatched up a butter-knife and cleaved her pastry in two as if she were working a guillotine. “There must be something we can do, Keyleth,” she complained. “I should say, my brother and I went looking for that creature yesterday evening. We must have sat awake past midnight, and there was no sign of the thing!”

“You – Lady Vex’ahlia!”

And suddenly, Keyleth’s wiry fingers were wrapped around Vex’s hands, and the butter-knife fell to the table with a clatter. The strength of her grasp must have surprised them both, because Keyleth loosened it before she began her plea; “You must not seek the spirit out! You must not provoke it. You have no conception of – of what it might be – of what it might do to you should you cross it!”

“Then what do you suggest?” Vex retaliated, turning her hands to hold Keyleth’s, to provide some sense of comfort. “Shall we let it roam the halls, tormenting us both and draining the life from that tree?”

“I suggest we heed it,” Keyleth pleaded. Her eyes were bright as spring leaves, nearly hypnotic in their intensity. “You saw its message in the library – it only wants-“

Keyleth fell silent, and Vex caught the sound of footsteps approaching from the hall. They disentangled their hands and turned their attention to their plates, just as Percival returned to the breakfast room. He stopped in the doorway, but Vex did not lift her eyes to look at him, nor could she look at Keyleth. Instead, she scowled at her breakfast.

She could ask Percival if Orthax had vandalized the library, if the spirit could be found or hunted or stopped, and the phrases were forming in her mind – even as she realized she would not speak them. Why could she not bear to bring her suspicions to the man they concerned? Was it only because he was too practical and hard-headed to entertain them? It was a frightful, frustrating thing to swallow a question for fear of its answer.

The young lord must have sensed the tension coiling between both women like steam trapped in a kettle. He approached the table, and asked if everything was alright. Vex nodded curtly; Keyleth said “Yes, Lord de Rolo.”

He took the seat opposite them, hands folded on his lap. The silence grew thick and toxic, and Vex felt as if she would not breathe until it was broken. She straightened her shoulders, flashed the most alluring smile she could muster, and asked, “Will you take some more tea, my Lord?”

Keyleth flinched at the suggestion. Vex remembered, too late, her host’s reluctance to eat or drink before his guests. Keyleth appeared to be an exception; Vex had forgotten she was not one.

Yet to her surprise – to the surprise of everyone, perhaps, given the way Percival’s voice brightened with his answer – he said, “I think I will.” He poured himself another cup. Keyleth watched, her spoon frozen mid-reap of muffin crumbs.

The simple graces broke the awkward spell, and Vex was able to rescue the conversation. Percival informed her that Vax’ildan’s plans would likely keep him in Whitestone for a day or two; Vex remembered to tell him that Mr. Shorthalt had arrived late the night prior. Keyleth remained atypically silent, which began to worry Vex. She hoped she had not scared her friend too seriously. As an apology of sorts, she offered, “Percival and I have a few clues to follow this morning. Would you be interested in joining us?”

Keyleth shook her head. “I should see if Mr. Shorthalt needs anything – any breakfast.”

She rose from her chair without further comment, and rushed toward the door. Vex watched her leave, regretful. Keyleth seemed to pull all the warmth from the room whenever she departed, taking it away in her scarlet hair and yellow skirts. With a sigh, Vex pulled the cuff of her sleeve over the wound-wire bracelet.

“Poor girl,” Percival muttered over the rim of his teacup. “I must be running her ragged.”

The implication of the phrase gave Vex pause. She glanced at her half-eaten muffin, and then after Keyleth. “I’ve not seen any other servants. Has Keyleth been cooking all our food?”

Percival hummed in assent. “It was quite chaotic when the both of you went into Whitestone for a day,” he said, chuckling. “Thankfully Mr. Gilmore and I managed to fend for ourselves. Though I didn’t see your brother at lunch, now that I think on it.”

Because that was the day I told him to shadow you in secret, Vex remembered, with a flicker of amusement. “Does Keyleth do all the housework in Whitestone, then?”

“Well, many things are automated by steam here, and it was much less labour when it was just the two of us,” Percival argued, but he also seemed to be cowering. He explained that Keyleth, upon taking up her position as his medical consultant in Whitestone, had grown so swiftly appalled at Percival’s state of living that she set out to change it herself. Apparently, Keyleth considered maintaining a proper diet and a clean home to be vital steps in his recovery.

Vex considered asking what had happened to the servants who had worked in Whitestone before, when the rest of the de Rolos were alive - but it did not take much imagination to reach her own conclusion. Either he had dismissed them all, or they had fled to a man in fear of catching the de Rolos’ lethal disease; she could not be certain which was worse.

“You really ought to hire more,” she said gently. “If you’re going to start inviting company.”

 “I’ll think about it,” he said - though he spoke far too quickly to permit any thought. Replacing his teacup, which was not quite emptied, he asked, “Shall we start with the study?”

Vex insisted they clear the dirtied plates and cups into the kitchens at least, and Percival agreed to assist her ‘if she was so determined’. They took a brief diversion to engine room, so Percival could collect and light a lantern to explore the tunnels with. Their chores complete, the pair departed for the upper halls.

The study had been tidied further since her last visit. Keyleth, or perhaps Percival, had cleared all the broken glass from the display cases, and removed most of the destroyed books. Oddly enough, the room seemed more haunted than it had before. With so many volumes and records removed, it felt too sterile, as if no one had ever lived there. Ignoring the chill that passed through her at that thought, Vex led Percival to the chessboard, and showed him how the pieces could be slid along the tracks.

And then she watched, with a dose of competitive irritation, as Percival solved the puzzle considerably faster than she had. She realized he was on the point of lining up the final pieces, and grumbled before she could stop herself, “That was quick.”

“Was it?” he asked, and she nodded, trying not to look bothered. He cocked his head to the side. “Do you not play chess, Lady Vex?”

“I know the rules, but I never had occasion to play, nor a worthy partner to practice with.”

“Ah, well, you see, this puzzle is based on a fairly common defensive strategy.” Smiling, he added, “It’s the one father typically defaulted to right before he lost.”

“Before he lost to you, I assume?” she prodded, noting the egotism informing his smile.

“Usually. He was far too soft-hearted to sacrifice his queens, even when it was utterly necessary.” His eyes narrowed in thought. “Although, seeing this, perhaps he was only trying to burn the forms into my memory.”

Percival seemed to think he was being grim, and he withdrew his hand from the board. “Would you do the honours?” he asked.

Vex pushed the last pieces into place, and watched the chessboard begin to sink into the floor. She could not help it - she looked over her shoulder. No smoke in the doorway, no spirits pursuant. If Percival noticed her paranoia, he did not comment. He descended first; once he avoided the broken rungs, she passed him his lantern, and he carried it carefully downward, hooked over one thumb. She followed his flickering light into the darkness below, wondering, slightly hysterically, if her blood had stained the broken ladder somewhere.

When she arrived, Percival was holding something, and he held it up to show her. It was the two broken pieces of the taper she had dropped on her last visit. “A mark of your misadventures, is this?” he asked.

“Yes,” she said. “Blame those spirits in your steam-pipes.”

Percival, to her surprise, looked somewhat abashed, and he confessed, “Ah, that. I may have miscalculated.”

He gestured upward, and Vex followed the lantern’s beam. A small snarl of narrow brass pipes and gears were affixed to the ceiling, linked to the passageway’s opening and disappearing into the walls. “You see those steam-works there?” he said.

I do.”

 “And you said your – spirit, I suppose – that it appeared from behind you? In the study doorway?”

 “Yes.”

Frowning, he lowered the light and shook his head. “I thought there would be more pipes in this passage – under the floor, perhaps. But those pipes are all diverted in different directions, and they don’t explain what you saw. Nothing could explain what you saw, with the pipes laid out like this...” He trailed off.

Vex folded her arms. “Are you trying to scare me, Percival?” she said, bemused.

“No,” he answered, with a disbelieving laugh. And then he softened, and added, more sincerely, “No, I’m not. I trust you saw something. Unfortunately, the explanation for it will have to wait.”

Disappointed, but unsurprised, Vex nodded. “Now,” he continued, “which way did you go, when you first came here?

Vex looked around, and realized that they stood at a juncture. Her familiar path of retreat extended beyond Percival’s shoulder, but the secret hall also continued in the opposite direction. It progressed for another dozen feet before it inclined downwards into a set of narrow, shallow stairs. “Let’s try this way first,” she decided, and Percival stepped politely around her, leading the way.

 

Percival stopped them naught six paces down the passage, and gestured up at the wall again. “Do you see that rectangular shape in the stones?” he said, directing his lantern to a point above their heads.

Vex looked, and noted what looked like the outline of a small window, except that its frame had been filled by stones rather than glass. “Those would have been arrow-notches for archers, when this place was still a fortress,” he explained. “My ancestors gutted whole floors of this castle in the process of making it a modern manor. They must built this passage, as well-” he trailed off, looking intrigued, shifting through a catalogue in his mind.

“Did they do it to hide the vault?” Vex guessed.

Percival shrugged. “In part, maybe. This is at least as old as the riddles we’ve found, if not older.”

He started them forward again. The staircase traveled down, and then angled inwards. They passed through an old stone archway, where a door might have stood hundreds of years past, and then another. At last, they came upon the termination of the passage in a long, narrow gallery. Percival’s lantern caught the reflection of something shining on the wall – and he turned, lifted the light, and muttered, “Good gods-“

Vex swallowed her own exclamation. In the wall they faced now, someone had inscribed a massive, indecipherable symbol in the stone. Based around a series of concentric circles, strange letters, equations, and prayers in a language she did not know glittered along every line and curve and between each narrow angle. The whole mad design rested inside a ring so broad that Vex would have barely been able to touch both ends with her arms fully outstretched.

And every intersection, every unknowable phrase, had been embedded with fragments glittering green stone – something like jade, or –

Vex’s hand flew to her neck. Whatever the material was, it seemed to match the key Percival had given her. “This is incredible,” she whispered. “Do you know what it does?”

“No,” he said, sounding awed. “I’ve never seen anything like this outside of books.”

He reached out and touched the center of the sigil. Vex nearly gasped, half-expecting he would be blasted across the room, or disintegrated into dust. Nothing: the sigil remained inert, its dull green architecture reflecting the glow of the lantern.

They stood in silent wonder for a moment longer, lost in their discovery. “Perhaps Keyleth would know?” Vex suggested, as Percival began to trace the rings with his fingertips.

  “I doubt this is Ashari magic,” he said. “Arcane, more likely. “ He reached a juncture in the symbol, and took a path inwards and down. He paused – his fingers had slipped inside an indent in the wall, resting right at the centre of the symbol. He withdrew his hand, and showed Vex a coating of glittering, greenish dust upon his gloves. “Curious. Have you anything to carry this in?”

She had not. Percival tutted, set the lantern down, and patted at his pockets until he located a leather glasses-case. He requested the assistance of Vex’s slender fingers; she reached into the indent, and scraped the glittering dust into the case.

As they worked, Vex thought that the gleam of the surrounding sigil had somehow dimmed. Percival turned away to stow his glasses-case and retrieve the lantern. Meanwhile, Vex removed the glass key from around her neck, and held it up for comparison. Within the glass, she felt a slight tug, like a magnet’s invisible pull, guiding the key forwards. It would fit the square indent perfectly, she realized; its grooves and protrusions aligned with slight imperfections in the stone, like interlocking fingers-

“Vex!”

The sound of her name startled her. Percival stood with one hand outstretched, his fingers stalled inches from hers; sheepishly, she withdrew the key.

“Do you think I shouldn’t?” she asked.

 “Perhaps not.” He said. His face was pale, and his mouth tight, despite his easy tone. “I’ve just had – the most dreadful, ominous feeling-“

Vex stepped back, and Percival looked ashamed of his own explanation. He fumbled for another; “We’ve no idea what it might activate if you do.”

“The key does fit,” she argued. “What if this opens the way to the vault?”

 “I suppose that’s possible.” His concession felt disingenuous; and he readily ignored it. Instead, he took up the lantern, and walked further down the passage. Just beyond the glyph, he turned, and Vex rushed after him with an irritated huff.

They came to a stop before a wooden panel with a heavy, hatch-like lever upon it. Vex opened it while Percival held the light, and they both peeked into a familiar room: the salon where they had first greeted each other at Whitestone. They had emerged from behind a bookshelf just to the left of the map of Tal’Dorei. Vex could see snow falling beyond the bay windows.

Percival reached past her, and shut the bookcase door, locking them back inside the passage. His mouth was set in a doubtful twist. “Do you remember what I told you on your first day here, in that very room?”

“It was quite an eventful meeting,” Vex reminded him. “You told us a number of things.”

“I said there were three keys to the vault, and that I knew that one would be gone. I expect it was the key that fit in that glyph."

Vex looked at him askance, and she recognized a surprising hole in his story. “How could you have known that one key would be missing?”

“Because Julius had a key with him the night he passed,” he answered, over a sigh. “I remember him toying with it before dinner. And so I expect it was destroyed when he was cremated.”

Vex fell silent, listening to the gentle dripping of water in the passage.

“I do concede that the glyph and the key appear to be made of the same material. In theory, I can duplicate it now that we’ve found this one-“ a realization of some sort halted him, briefly, but he continued without acknowledging it. “If I can deduce how to make this glass, it shall not be an issue.”

Perhaps Vex could have been content with that, but there was something strange about the entire situation. Together, they walked back to the glyph, and Vex pulled her thoughts together while Percival studied it further. By the clues they had gathered so far, Julius’s key had been the key in the clock. It was the key she now wore, or so she had assumed – so why had Julius taken a different key from the glyph? And for that matter, if he had kept the key until he died, he might not have been the last to see it.

 “What if Doctor Ripley has it?” Vex asked.

Percival froze, staring at the glyph, his eyes blank. Vex explained, “Pardon me, my Lord. I learned that Doctor Ripley was responsible for – that she handled their cremation. Is it possible that she retrieved it from his – from Julius?”

“Ripley doesn’t have it,” he said. His voice was curt.

“Have you asked?”

“It’s best not to antagonize Ripley.” He said. He wore a facile smile, a familiar one by now; it was a smugly guarded expression. When he wore it, he would give no more secrets away. It was the face of a card-player who had already won the hand. Vex mimicked the smile back at him.

 “I’m afraid it’s too late for that,” she said. “I’ve already landed on the Doctor’s bad side, unless she’s been shadowing me through Whitestone out of admiration.”

Surprise, though Percival tried to mask it, proved too vivid an emotion to leave his face unmarked. A slight widening of the eyes later, he had steadied his voice enough to say, “Are you quite certain of that?”

“I am,” she said, though her words were firmer than her mind (who knew what the doctor was truly after, in the end?)

Then followed a swift interrogation on Percival’s part:

“Does Ripley know your name?”

“Yes, I imagine so.”

 “Does she know why you are here?”

 “That’s impossible to say.”

 “But she knows you are staying in this castle?”

 “Most likely.”

 “And how did you come to suspect her?”

“Mr. Shorthalt caught her in the act. She was asking questions about me in a tavern.”

Percival gave a long, pensive sigh. “Well,” he said with strained levity, “this is all moving faster than I had predicted.”

“You predicted?” Vex repeated, aghast.

That loathsome smile returned to Percival’s face. “Ripley has many talents, but minding her own business has never been one of them,” he said loftily. He brushed past her, and made his way towards the bookcase passageway. “It’s nothing to be concerned about, but we had best move on.”

Vex rounded on him, planted her feet, and called, “Percival!”

He froze, and turned back. His cold, impatient look did nothing to deter her. Straightening her shoulders, she declared, “You have admitted to a host of secrets that must be kept for your own reasons, and I shall not challenge your privacy. But when your secrets begin to involve me, I cannot tolerate them without protest! Do you earnestly expect me to bear the threat of a strange woman shadowing me, shielded only by your reassurance that her actions do not trouble you?”

Percival bit his lip, looking torn. “A valid point.”

Vex charged forth, an idea sparking through her mind too swiftly to stop: “I’ve solved the next riddle,” she declared, folding her arms. “The felled tree from which the truth springs – I know what it is. And I will exchange the answer for any manner of proof that Ripley is not a threat to me, or to my brother.”

She expected him to rebuke her, or to scoff, or even – with his infuriating quickness – to announce that he had solved the riddle himself. Instead, she received a crooked grin. It grew and grew, with an aura somewhere between pride and hunger, until a short laugh burst through his bared teeth. When he spoke, his voice drawled, leaning into a contemplative tone.

“You must know, Lady Vex, that in the first year of my solitude there were so many comforts and pleasures I lacked. At first, it was agonizing, but time made me forget those missing pieces. Now that I am reintroducing myself to pleasure, I have realized the magnitude of the ache that has developed in its absence.” He looked at her, steadily, trapping her with his grin. “If you did find a worthy partner, I’d wager you would play a marvelous game of chess.”

She took the philosophizing and compliments with a stone heart, and awaited his counter-offer. Percival watched her, his eyes gleaming green with the reflection of the glyph. “Very well. How shall I put this,” he began. He set the lantern down, and tented his fingers in front of that wolfish smile, which stubbornly refused to fade. “Ripley is behaving exactly as I expected, though a touch more recklessly. She is not interested in you, but rather interested in your connection to me. As long as you serve as a potential font of information on my activities, you are more valuable to her in a state of undisturbed happiness.”

“And why is information about you so valuable to Ripley?” Vex pressed.

“That is a question I have often asked myself,” he answered, voice dry. Though his tone was casual, he seemed intently focused on the negotiation; his gaze hardly left hers. “Ripley’s fascination with the de Rolos borders on fanatical. Perhaps it is merely a vainglorious attempt to ingratiate herself with nobility.” He thought a moment longer, and added, “Not that you should not be wary. If she approaches you directly I would advise taking extreme caution in what you say, particularly about the vault. The last thing she needs is another reason to bother me.”

Vex stepped closer, trying to read his face, but still he did not falter. “My brother is investigating Ripley as we speak,” she said haughtily. “If you are lying to me, I will know.”

A long silence, as they studied each other; she thought he might challenge her further, or double back on his words. Instead, he relaxed, and said, “Then I sincerely hope he does not attract any trouble in the process. Now – the riddle?”

Vex decided she was satisfied. Even if Percival was lying – which she suspected he might have been, at least in part – she trusted her brother to expose the truth in time. She said, “The “fallen tree” refers to the mechanical catalogue in the library. If you organize the dials in a particular way, you can turn them freely.”

“Oh, how curious,” he said. “I assume it then needs a passphrase of some sort?”

“The 'consequence ignorance brings', yes,” she reminded him. “I tried every word I could think of, but nothing succeeded.”

“That was half an answer to the riddle at best,” he pointed out, with a quirk of his brow. “I’d say you’re indebted to me now.”

“At best you gave me half a reason not to be worried,” she said. “All I have to console me is your good word, and you have taken extraordinary measures to prove yourself a dishonest person.”

He laughed outright at that, and held his hands up in surrender. “Touché, my lady. Your gymnastic words would put the most talented athletes to shame.”

She could not help but smile at that. It was an odd feeling – like their negotiations were a game between them, despite the undeniable seriousness of the stakes – and the flattery certainly helped. Percival retrieved the lantern from the ground and passed it to her, almost like a recognition of her prowess. He asked her to wait by the glyph while he retrieved some paper and a pen from a writing-desk in the salon. They discovered, through this endeavour, that the passage behind the bookcase could only be opened from the inside. Percival could not open it from the salon, though he pried on various books and nearby mouldings in the wall, and though he circled and searched the room twice at Vex’s urging. She opened the bookcase from the inside, and allowed him back in.

Within the passage, Vex held the lantern aloft while Percival sketched the shape of the glyph in ink. When he finished, he asked Vex to list the passwords she had tried on the machine in the library. Obediently, Vex recounted each one she could remember, and Percival recorded them. He wrote for another long minute once she had finished. At long last, he passed the list over.

Vex looked down at his additions. The first two dozen appeared to be nonsense words; the last ten were names, of which some were familiar and some were unknown. Cued by her expression, Percival explained, “Those are all the passcodes you tried in Celestial, since we know the de Rolos have a proclivity for the language. And the rest are old enemies of the de Rolo family, battles, failed business ventures, the like.”

“Ah, I see. Disasters born of ignorance.”

“Precisely,” he said. “If you’ll excuse me, I’d like to identify that powder from the glyph, to see if I could replicate it. I thought you might want to try those passcodes in the meantime.”

She agreed, and they exited the passage into the salon. They did not immediately set about their tasks, but dawdled in the room awhile. Vex found herself distracted by the windows. The lack of sound that all heavy snow brought with it, the diffusion of the grey light, that noticeable nothingness – it all made Whitestone seem smaller in her eyes. The thin skirts of white on each windowsill comforted her, as if snowbanks formed another line of the castle’s defenses. The salon felt properly cozy. Vex watched the snow build and thicken, and Percival commented that a snowstorm or two always struck Whitestone in mid-spring, but that it would likely pass by the morrow.

They parted ways in the main hall; Percival descended the stairs to the engine room, and Vex headed onward to the library. The catalog stood as she and her brother had left it, with the dials aligned to FORESTRY. She withdrew the pin, flattened Percival’s list out with one hand, and began to spin the dials with the other.

At first, Vex worked with some confidence, thinking that Percival would know something she didn’t, and that one of his passcodes would provide the missing link. But time went on, and attempt after attempt produced nothing but silence and uncooperative machinery. Vex felt, as she had before, that some vital ingredient was missing. Though she dutifully tried every word on the list – and some twice for good measure – she knew long before she had finished that the passcode would be found elsewhere.

Frustrated, and nearly certain Percival would not be finished with his experiments yet, Vex retrieved The Isle of Glass from the armchair on the upper floor. Perhaps she could find a quiet place to read up to that mutiny Percival had tantalized her with. Besides that, walking often helped activate her thoughts.

She climbed the stairs to the observatory and exited onto the battlements, where she could see all of Whitestone from above. Snow still fell over the lands, and the forests and mountain peaks beyond the walls were frosted white upon green. The crenellations and the rooftops of the castle, erratic in their height and age, were similarly crowned. She noticed, with a hint of pride, that she could spot the ancient arrow-notches in the old castle, those since filled in by stones. Strangely, the snow did not cling to the sun tree the way it did the pines; the golden leaves remained bright and untouched, and the boughs were pale and naked. Vex thought of the leaf she had worn in her button-hole the day before. She had given it to one of the dolls in her room, propping it between its porcelain hands – childish, perhaps, but the little mannequins did look brighter when they had something to do.

Below the boughs, Vex noticed a circling pattern of footprints, wild and purposeless – and then, just hidden by the ledge of the battlements, she spotted Keyleth and Mr. Shorthalt below her. Mr. Shorthalt made three steps, then a step which crossed his ankles, and then he pushed himself into a half-turn while Keyleth watched attentively. She mimicked the pattern, full of enthusiasm, and wobbled only slightly as she turned. Mr. Shorthalt, Vex realized, must have been teaching Keyleth a dance – and indeed, they repeated the steps together, facing each other, while Keyleth made increasingly frightened expressions at her off-balance turns. Vex could hear their stray peals of laughter and Mr. Shorthalt’s applause bouncing from the inner walls of the courtyard.

Amused, Vex backed away from the edge so they would not notice her. She did not want to embarrass poor Keyleth by interrupting her practice, and so she turned instead to the rookery. It glittered brightly, sparkling like a diamond even without the sun to illuminate it.

Vex sat in the rookery’s courtyard-facing window, her book open on her lap. The boughs of the tree blocked her from the dancing pair, while the stone shielded her from the wind, and without the wind to carry it the cold was of little consequence. Before she had even finished a page, however, a cheerful honk sounded from above her, and a raven swept down and landed on her knee.

She yelped at the weight. “Oof! You’re rather hearty for bird, aren’t you?” she said, and turned her attention back to the book. Vex had predicted a little attention from her friends in the rookery, but she did not mind reading peacefully in their company.

The raven would not allow it. It hopped forward, made an offended noise, and started chipping at the pages with its talons.

“And rude, as well!” Vex scolded. As she tugged her book away, she noticed that the extended claw had a small leather scroll-case attached to it – and she recognized the bird she had sent on her first day in Whitestone, at Percival’s request.

 “Oh! I’m dreadfully sorry for insulting you, dear,” she said, with an easy laugh. She lifted her hand, and when it seemed like the bird would not snap at her, petted the raven’s sleek head and scratched the ruffling feathers under her neck. “You must be chilly, flying all this way in the snow.”

The bird gave a low, happy trill, almost like a cat’s purr. Her talons tapped against the page, an unbidden reflex.

Vex looked at the scroll. She leaned over the bird, and glanced out into the garden. Keyleth and Mr. Shorthalt were nowhere to be seen; her brother and Mr. Gilmore were gone; Percival was likely still occupied – and if he had come to fetch her, he would check the library first, and then he would not know where to go. She would not be interrupted.

With her right hand, she kept the bird occupied, smoothing down the feathers she had ruffled. With the left, she snapped open the leather case and pulled the scroll from it.

She bit her lip, and considered it. It was not sealed by wax or tied with string, simply rolled tight. If she read it, Percival would not know what she had done. Hesitation plagued her for a moment; this was a breach of their fragile trust, doubtlessly. But if there was any chance he was hiding something truly dangerous – she would do it for her own sake, and for his.

Vex took a breath in, and unrolled the scroll with shaking hands. She read it, and frowned. Out loud, loud enough that anyone in the garden would have heard her, she said, “You slippery, scheming bastard!”

And in wild, hastily scrawled letters, this is what she beheld on the page:

ISPUK AOLPY LFLZ PU DOPALZAVUL VY AOLF ZOHUA IVAOLY: ZALW JHYLMBSSF. ZOL PZ ZBZWPJPVBZ.

A cipher – of course. At first, she was merely furious that Percival – or rather, whoever he was communicating with – had foiled her snooping. She rolled the paper back up, returned it to the crow’s leather case, and sighed. The raven blinked her button-black eyes, and tilted her head. Vex almost laughed – it was as if the creature was playing the picture of innocence, practicing at being her accomplice.

“Shall we go deliver this to your master, then?” she said. “Come along. You can warm yourself in the castle for a minute.”

Vex held out her arm, and the bird fluttered up to her shoulder (rather ungracefully – Vex’s nose was nearly battered by a flailing wing). The raven settled after a few steadying plucks of her talons, and started preening the stray locks that had fallen from Vex’s braid.

“Everyone’s so terribly fond of my hair today,” she sighed. Vex closed her book with a snap, stood as carefully and steadily as she could so as not to unbalance her passenger, and returned to the castle. She found herself quite pleased with her little traveling companion, though the bird was admittedly fidgety and keen on pecking at Vex’s braid. With the creature’s weight, Vex was forced to square her shoulders and walk with might and serenity in order to keep them both stable. Sweeping across the battlements of a castle with her noble posture and her enchanted attendant, she felt rather like the queen Percival had mistaken her for.

He was in the engine room, as she expected, fussing over his workbench. He leaned forward, squinting into the lens of an unfamiliar little gadget. To her untrained eye, it looked a bit like three minute telescopes pointed at each other, all observing something inside a little brass cylinder. Percival, his glasses pushed up over his forehead and into his disheveled white hair, was absorbed in his observations. Vex made a quick hushing motion to the raven on her shoulder, and then with the book held tight in her crossed arms, she approached the desk.

“What’s this?” she asked conversationally.

If he was startled, he did not show it; perhaps he had heard her footsteps. The only change in his features was a slightly self-congratulatory grin. “Science,” he said, with a mystic-sounding swish. She could almost see him throwing wide a sparkling cape as he said it, like a street magician.

“Oh, how delightful,” Vex said, drumming her fingers on the spine of the book. She had only a middling education in the sciences, and no familiarity with the esoteric collection of instruments before her – but Percival’s quiet, joyful immersion was a pleasure in itself. The workbench had the look of a kitchen before a banquet, or an artist’s box midway through an open-air sketch; while the space clearly had an order to it, that order had been usurped by the wild heat of creation. Metallic tools, glass dishes, and powdered samples were strewn about the surface, used or waiting to be used.

“Indeed! The entertaining kind of science, no less. Spectroscopy.” His nose wrinkled as he shut one eye. “Now, I assume my suggestions accomplished nothing, or you’d be rather more excited yourself.”

Still he did not move from the machine, only adjusted one of its pieces – at which Vex jumped, as she noticed that at least some part of its inner workings was on fire. Percival did not seem to be concerned by it, and so she assumed the fire to be part of the process.

“Yes,” she said thoughtlessly, and then, “That is – no, they did not.”

“A shame,” he said. “Well, as for the glass it seems it’s just processed whitestone, but there’s something else in it that I can’t quite pin down. Copper, maybe?” He sighed, and then his smile slowly disappeared.

Vex waited, and watched. It seemed Percival desperately wanted to say something else, and she was growing accustomed to giving him time to formulate his speech. The raven shifted her feet, her claws catching on the edging of Vex’ dress.

At last, he drew back from the machine, standing to his full height – and he looked ashamed, in the way he refused to meet her eyes, keeping them downcast. “I realized something after our conversation earlier. I think I may not have been adequately conscious of your-“ he gestured towards the empty air, hunting for a word, before he settled on “-person.”

He paused, thinking, and Vex tried not to laugh. Their apologies grew more and more awkward with each iteration. “I am still responsible for your well-being while you are in Whitestone,” he continued, with his lordliest airs, “and therefore if you do feel threatened by Ripley, or by a spirit of some sort, I would like to know so I might ensure your safety as best I can. I hope you may trust me with that, at least.”

The declaration took the wind out of him once completed. With a sigh, he straightened a wooden rack of small glass vials, seemingly for no other purpose than to do something with his hands.

“Thank you,” Vex said, still smiling and now quite touched. Still, a question lingered in her: “I thought you didn’t believe in Orthax?”

Percival laughed, and flicked one of the vials. It made a clear, ringing note. “I most certainly do not. In fact, I’ve had a thought that might – gah!”

He had finally noticed the raven on her shoulder. Vex raised her brows and the raven croaked a salutation – one that sounded rather like it was mimicking Percival’s noise.

“Oh, yes,” she said. “You’ve received a letter, my lord.”

The bird helpfully extended the leather scroll-case tied to her leg.

Percival looked incredulously from the raven to her escort, and then reached for the letter. Vex could barely quell her giggling at the satisfaction of a prank well-pulled. The lord of the house looked uncharacteristically disheveled, with his hair mussed and sleeves rolled back, and it complemented his wordless surprise. She could see the soft indents his glasses had left on his nose, and a very faded smudge of black grease on his jaw. She decided the image brought her far too much pleasure to correct it, and she even felt a slight pout form unbidden on her face when he pulled his glasses back down to read.

 His gaze flicked across the little scroll once, and then he grunted and slipped it into his shirt pocket. Vex could not tell whether he had understood the code, but either way, he did not seem inclined to explain. That would be that. “Thank you both for your service,” he said, and gave them a slightly exaggerated bow.

“Job well done, darling,” Vex said. “About time for a break, I’d say.”

The bird squawked, and flapped loudly over to the engine. She landed before one of the vents and spread her wings, where her feathers fluttered in the steady gush of warm, damp air. Vex laughed, and watched her hop back and forth to catch her various angles.

Percival was watching Vex, his cheeks somewhat pinker than before. “I – oh, of course,” he stammered. “You called the bird darling.”

“Yes,” she admitted. “Is that odd?”

“No, not at all,” he said, trying to flatten his hair with a gloved hand. “What was I saying before?”

“You were on the point of telling me about your incredibly haunted castle and its many, many ghosts,” she said. Feeling triumphant, she swept her hands behind her back, tapping the book against her thighs.

“I am not admitting to a ghost,” he corrected. “But I do have another theory. If you will indulge me, it may require a personal question or two.”

“Very well,” she said. At this point, she considered their match of wits recommenced. She remained convinced of her malicious vision. Let Percival try his damnedest to dispel it; in the very least, it would be entertaining.

He folded his arms, assembling his argument. “You have been in Whitestone less than a fortnight, and every time I wake past midnight, for whatever reason, you are out wandering.”

Vex wondered if he was accusing her of something. “Well, you must know that faeries only come out in the moonlight,” she said, with a mocking grin, and he shot her a rather offended look.

“I mean to ask,” he continued, “if you’ve been sleeping poorly.”

She reviewed the past few nights. It would not do to undercut his argument with lies. And yet, before she could answer, he continued as if he could not help himself: “When this first-“ he lifted his right hand, “-afflicted me, I was in such pain I could hardly sleep. And after a few days of insomnia I began to see things that weren’t there. Smoke and shadows. Meaningless distortions.”

Silence, as Vex’s mouth opened in horror, and the machine roared on. “That’s horrible,” she whispered. “Could they not – did Doctor Trickfoot not think to sedate you?”

“Apparently it didn’t take,” he answered crisply. At the look on her face, he amended, “I beg your pardon, I am reaching a point – which is that I wondered if you might be suffering something similar. Hallucinations caused by sleep deprivation.”

Vex bit the corner of her lip. She tried to quell the flares of sympathy in her heart: he clearly did not want to discuss his own afflictions in the current moment. Gently, she admitted, “I have been restless, but nothing so extraordinary. And the apparition did look very real.”

“Most hallucinations do.”

“Well, do you believe I ‘hallucinated’ the vandalism in the library?” she asked.

Percival blinked, and then shook himself as if she had just said something implausible. “Hold a moment – you thought that was Orthax?”

“Well, if not Orthax, then whom?”

Percy tried to flatten his hair again, his shoulders raised and curled like he was protecting himself. “I – well, I was fairly certain it was your brother, actually.”

Vex’s mouth sprang open again, and she cried, “You thought it was Vax?”

“I assumed that was why you were so upset,” he explained, as hurriedly as he could. “And “Leave us” made sense, since I know he – disapproves of our collaborations. He certainly doesn’t like me, and he has made that perfectly clear. And he has already defaced my castle once,” he added, in a sour voice. Vex remained silently shocked, and Percival caught her unvoiced plea for an explanation. “He broke the lock into the study, didn’t he?”

She shut her mouth, and her hands clutched tight at the spine of her book. Percival rolled his eyes at her reaction. “It doesn’t matter if you admit that or not. Keyleth saw him do it. I must admit that without his actions, we never would have progressed as far as we have, but it also betrays a rather flagrant disregard for my family home.”

He folded his arms. Vex could hardly argue with those points, but she remained stubborn. “My brother would not do something so needlessly cruel, I swear it to you. Besides, the target was Ambassador Stormwind, who has nothing to do with any of this.”

“I believed the target was me,” Percival said grimly.

Again, Vex found she could not argue. Another awkward silence lingered between them, until Percival laughed and unfolded his arms. “This was rather the opposite of what I thought to accomplish with this conversation.”

“And what was that?”

“I have a gift for you.”

In the distance, the raven closed her wings, and began to strut about before the machine, scraping her beak on its shining corners. It made a shrill squeaking noise.

Vex stammered, “You – what? Why?”

“Well, it was meant to be an expression of gratitude, but perhaps it will serve just as well as an apology.” He turned back to his workbench, and began to search one of the upper shelves. When his rummaging ceased, he held a stoppered glass bottle filled with pale green liquid in one hand and what looked like a small porcelain figurine in the other. Both objects were foreign to her.

Percival turned the bottle in his hand, and Vex spotted a parchment label tied to its neck. “This one is sage, chamomile, and bergamot. It promotes calm nerves and healthy sleep.” He squinted at the label. “I think. Keyleth has monstrous handwriting. It might say healthy sheep, I’m not entirely certain.”

“Keyleth?” Vex echoed, still feeling a bit struck.

“Yes,” he said, and smiled at her, with some small hesitation. Vex could see the eagerness of creation in his eyes again – that awe and flair he used to describe his favourite projects. “She brought these magnificent Ashari medicines to help treat me, all made from plants and herbs and other such things. We have something of a common interest in crafting, so then we just started making things like this to entertain ourselves.”

He replaced the bottle, and selected a different one, which had a brighter grass-green tone. “Perhaps this one would suit you better. Bergamot, lime, mint, and lavender. According to Keyleth’s recipe this will protect the traveler, bring her wealth, and promote her ever-important healthy sheep.”

Vex gave an incredulous laugh, smiling despite herself. “Oh - what do I do with it?”

Grinning, he slid the figurine across the table so it stood between them. Looking at it more closely, Vex could see it was not ceramic, but rather carved of whitestone. It resembled, perhaps as a joke at her expense, a chess piece – a queen, in particular. Its centre column had been hollowed out, and its crown was a little glass dish. In the hollow sat a small white candle.

She caught a glimpse of Percival’s showmanship again. With flourishes that were entirely too rhythmic to be unintentional, he filled the glass dish with the oil, set it down, and lit the candle. Nothing happened at first, but after a few seconds, a delightful scent began to push against the engine-smell of raw metal and smoke. It settled somewhere between summer lemonade and a garden after rainfall, bright and vivacious and clean. Vex could not resist her smile.

“Oh, it’s wonderful,” she said, bending further over the dish to smell it better. A lock of hair had fallen free from her braid, and she had to quickly tuck it back so it would not catch fire.

“I’m glad you like it,” Percival replied. “I thought you could light it in your room, and perhaps it would help your sleep. If I am to keep a woodland faery in my castle, the least I can do is paint her home in familiar colours,” and he shrugged, as if his gift was trivial, or a thing as fantastical as his metaphors. There was a playful smile on his face, and it lingered a while behind his eyes, until it settled into a calm place deep inside him.

“Then I can borrow these while I’m here?” Vex pressed. She found the temptation to touch the oil or the trickling candle-wax almost irresistible, but she suspected that would have been rude.

“Lady Vex, they’re a gift,” he said. “They’re yours. You can take them back to Emon with you when you go.”

Stymied, Vex watched the little contraption a moment longer. Then she set down her book, and lifted the chess piece into her palm. The base still felt cool, although the candle had warmed the insides. “I shall. Thank you.”

Vex realized that with her book, the sculpture, the raven and the bottles, she had taken far too many little pieces of Whitestone with her to carry them all at once. Percival offered to help bring the lot to her room, and she agreed, calling the raven back to her shoulder. She thought she owed Percival at least a bit of entertainment in return, so she asked the bird to blow the candle out for her, which she accomplished after a few sputtering efforts. Percival looked suitably impressed, and Vex led him up the stairs.

They set their bounty down on the nightstand. Percival opened the window, and Vex released the raven through it. She watched the bird weave through the branches of the sun tree and vanish behind them, perhaps to rest in her rookery. The fundamentals of her power grew clearer to her; it seemed the creatures did understand her words, and trusted her well enough to perform little tricks or small favours, but they were not permanently bound to her will. Somehow, that was comforting.

Vex breathed in the cold air, lingering by the window. The sun had fallen beyond the mountains, and though the sky was still alight with deepening reds and purples, the high walls of the castle had darkened the court below. With the morning snowfall's end, the scene before her was still as a painting. She closed the window and turned back to the nightstand, where Percival was lighting the candle once more.

And she felt her heart dragged down to her heels, watching him then. All she wanted was to watch - had he had grown hypnotized by the flame and stared at it all night, she would have watched him that long.

She knew that proponents of finer beauty would criticize his dark, heavy brows and the prominent nose; that lovers of the athletic form would deplore his slenderness. The snow-white hair might have turned away all but the satirists, and the crippled limb was more likely to draw pity than affection. And yet Vex watched his brilliant eyes chasing some unfathomable thought in the candle-flame, and she was enraptured. She was not thinking of beauty then, but of the things she knew of him: that his eyes in this state meant curiosity and his faint frown meant a thought that was unpleasant to speak but too important to deny. Beauty was an empty delight, but understanding was an unparalleled pleasure; and he was a marvelous thing to understand.

Percival stood straight, but it was only to relieve the tension of his position; he had not noticed her watching. She wondered, still studying his profile etched in the darkness of her room, what had possessed him to make her a gift. In Percival's guarded, tactical mind, she had somehow found a singular mote of warmth. It was a like treasure in a labyrinth; his kindness was such a rare, lost thing, and its rarity drew her ever nearer.

Vex almost laughed at herself - all this emotion for the sake of a candle! Oh, but she was a fool, to have her heart spill over at something so small.

“Thank you, Percy,” she said, and he looked over at her, startled, as if he had forgotten she was there. “This is very thoughtful of you.”

He laughed, but it was dry and devoid of mirth, and he revealed the thought that had been plaguing him in their silence: “I would rather call it selfish.”

The brightness of mint and lavender began to swirl around them, beckoning, and Vex drew closer until she could feel the heat of the candle. “How do you mean?” she asked. She feared that the question would scare him; and indeed, he took a long time to compose his answer.

He said, “I accuse your brother of vandalism, and I diagnose your stories as hallucinations. I endanger you with mine shafts and old, broken passageways. I place you in the path of Ripley’s obsessions. And this vision or spirit haunts you all the while-“

His voice faltered, and she swore a note of terror entered it. He started again; “I am the Lord of this house, as much as I abhor that role. It is my duty to control the situation more effectively, and yet I cannot.”

Percival took a deep breath, and folded his hands behind his back. He declared, “I will reiterate an offer, and this time I shall make it in no uncertain terms. I will find someone to take you into town. I will pay for the carriage and the trains, and if you still crave a reward from the vault I can accommodate somehow. You are under no obligation to stay here. I would advise you instead to leave.”

The words seemed painful to speak, and Vex recoiled, hurt. “I would never agree to leave,” she said, her voice low and serious. Percival looked at her as if her answer was tragic, and her pain burst forth as a quiver in her voice and a flush in her cheeks. Could he not sense what she had felt, not a moment before – that warmth, that dedication, that sudden pull and shackling of souls- “How could you even think to ask that of me? How could I leave with so many questions unanswered – questions you will not answer! I am trapped here, and in the very snare you set with your mysteries!”

“I expect you must resent me terribly,” he said. He had weathered her words unmoving.

Vex sighed, and grasped the edge of the night-table. She could feel his eyes upon her, and that gaze scattered her thoughts even as she tried to gather them. She found herself confessing things she had not meant to say, all in the effort to explain: “No. I do not. Your secrecy and solitude, Percival – it does not suit you. In good moments you are kind, and curious, and I expect in a better world you would be using your cunning for delightful little things like this.” She gestured to the candle. “I believe your freedom is worth any struggle we may encounter together. And I hate how difficult you make it-“ he laughed, and she pressed, “-but what I hate even more is that you continue to think I will abandon you before this is over.”

“And you will not?”

The words were soft, so fragile and hesitant. Vex’s heart broke for him, and she looked up into his fearful, flickering eyes. He stared back, silent, waiting.

“I will not,” she said.

He seemed to take her reassurance like a strike, and he recoiled and waved his hand to banish the tension of her honesty. “You’re so infuriatingly perceptive,” he scoffed.

Silence took them for a moment. Then, as she watched, he tugged his left-hand glove free. With that liberated hand, he reached for her, and touched her on the shoulder. He sought the curl of hair that had fallen free from her braid, and gathered it gently in his fingers. Vex breathed in, and felt his fingertips rise with the air in her chest. The motion did not startle him; Percival straightened the loose lock, and let it settle against her collarbone. He did not meet her eyes; though she sought them intently, they remained downcast, almost ashamed. He seemed so tall when he stood so close, and though Vex was not afraid of him, something not unlike fear consumed her.

Percival leaned toward her. Vex stared past his shoulder at the candlelight cast on the wall. His breath whisking past her ear, he whispered, “I am so, so sorry, Vex. I am trapped here too.”

She felt a gentle pressure on her temple - the weight of Percival leaning his cheek against her hair.

Vex shut her eyes. She raised her hand, and touched his other cheek with her fingertips. The gesture spoke to him, and he understood; he knew he could rest there as long as he needed, and she heard his breathing fall into step with her own. They lingered, and she wanted to give him more than a comforting touch, any reassurance, any at all-

Then he gave a short sigh, and stepped back, his eyes downcast. “I should see about dinner,” he said. He turned away without further words, and exited her room, closing the door gently behind him.

Vex stood frozen, her hand half-raised. Then she blew out the candle, gathered her skirts, and rushed after him, throwing the door wide. It banged against the wall, and Percival turned, startled by the noise.

Trapped, he said, and Vex understood. She knew she could not free him yet – but she also knew that a heart in captivity could be sustained by small joys, at least until it was properly free.

She told herself this – she excused herself with this – when she caught up with him, took his arm, and asked him to explain how spectroscopy worked. He gave a baffled smile, but she pressed, and he gave in. As each word formed, his smile turned to an expression of honest fascination. He described how chemical substances held colours within them, and that the colours could be broken apart by light. Those secret colours told the scientist what chemicals composed the world, and named the substances that burned within stars.

And Vex realized, somewhere between after-dinner tea and the staircase to her chambers, that she had come to care far too deeply for the young lord in his lonely castle – that her heart, which had always acted subservient to her mind, had at last betrayed her. She denied the feeling, swallowed it down - even as she walked up to the rookery and down to the engine room to see if Percival had gone to bed, even as she felt desolate to realize he had, even as thinking of his name or his face put a giddy energy to her steps. It was nothing, she thought, nothing but a passing infatuation born of gratitude…

And yet, that night, drifting to sleep in the bower he had crafted for her, Vex’ahlia dreamt of eternal things – of the stars revealing their colours, and the roots of the Sun Tree encircling her wrists and her shoulders like a lover's embrace, and of Lady Johana’s ashes burning in the frozen earth, and of Percival, standing in her shadow, breathing clouds of steam and smoke across her skin.

Chapter Text

As they approached the city of Whitestone to begin their investigation, Vax and Gilmore's comfortable mood gave way to a more thoughtful silence. In Vax's mind, he repeated a triad of names over and over, each of them hiding their own enigmas: Ripley, the doctor who shadowed his sister; Mr. Strongjaw, the miner who had informed on her; and Mr. Anders, the solicitor who might have double-crossed his liege. Of the last, Vax was particularly suspicious – not only of Anders himself, but also of Lord de Rolo, whose motives were inscrutable. The more he thought on them, the more twisted they became. Perhaps Lord de Rolo had sent Vax to speak with a leech only to cast a kinder light upon himself, or perhaps Anders was a scapegoat for a crime they had committed together?

Gilmore had brought the carriage to rest and tied up the horses, and he knocked on the wheel to startle Vax out of his musings. It was difficult to be suspicious when Gilmore sought him out with that look of fond amusement, and offered a gentlemanly hand to help Vax out of the curricle. In fact, it was difficult to be distressed about anything at all. 

Such consideration put Vax in an awkward position; fretting was his natural way about the world.

With a flutter of his cloak, Vax arrived on the snow-dusted ground. Gilmore released their clasped hands, and pulled his cloak tighter about his throat. “We seem to have arrived in time for lunch,” he noted. “If the labourers are back from their mines, we might find Mr. Strongjaw in the tavern.”

The Lion’s Wrath was indeed packed to its eaves with workers, and quaking with their voices. The barmaids pointed them to Mr. Strongjaw, at his table in the back by the window. He was as huge and hulking as Mr. Shorthalt had described, but not nearly as rambunctious. He sat alone. An aura of fragile quiet hung around him, and his shoulders were hunched. He had finished three bowlfuls of some rich-smelling stew and at least two pints of ale, and he stared at the defeated dishes with a forlorn look on his face, gently stroking his beard.

Gilmore approached and rapped his knuckles on the table. Mr. Strongjaw jolted as if he’d been woken from sleep. “Eh? Who’s this?”

With a natural flourish and salesman’s grin, Gilmore swept into a smooth bow. Vax hastily copied the gesture. “Shaun Gilmore,” he announced, “owner and proprietor of Gilmore’s Glorious Goods. This is Vax’ildan of Syngorn. Could we share your table, Mr. Strongjaw?”

The miner gave a puff of breath through his nose like an irritated bull. He leaned back in his chair, folding his arms over his chest. “Mister Strongjaw this, Master Strongjaw that. Should I be openin’ an office?” As he looked them over, his eyes narrowed in thought. To Vax, he growled, “I know you, mate?”

“No,” Vax said. “You have spoken with my sister, though.” He took the chair opposite Mr. Strongjaw, since the miner did not possess the manner to offer one, and Gilmore joined them.

Mr. Strongjaw snapped his fingers, a sound like a cracking bone. “I did. She’s the one was with Scanlan and that Ashari lass, Keyleth?” he guffawed. “Seems everybody’s interested in that little chat we had.”

“Aye,” Vax said. Mr. Strongjaw had left a few coins on the table for his ale, and Vax started spinning one in his fingers - an old, idle habit. “You spoke with a doctor named Ripley about her, didn’t you?”

“I did. I’m hopin’ I didn’t cause the ladies any trouble,” he said, his thick brows furrowed and low. “Scanlan said I might have. They alright?”

“Of course, of course,” Gilmore said, with a wave of his hand. “We just wondered why the doctor was so interested in them. Did she mention that to you?” At Grog’s frustrated face, he added, “It just seems strange that a doctor’s interrogation would not end in a diagnosis.”

“Don’t think it was a doctor thing,” Mr. Strongjaw said. “The ladyships looked alright when they was here, too. Sat right where you're sittin’. Lady Keyleth even did me some Ashari magic.”

“Then what did you talk about with the doctor?” Vax asked.

Mr. Strongjaw recounted his story, which fit with Mr. Shorthalt's. Ripley had asked where Vex’ahlia hailed from, why she had come to Whitestone, and what her relationship was with Lord de Rolo, but Mr. Strongjaw could not answer those questions with confidence; he had told the doctor about the tunnel under Whitestone castle, but not why they were so keen on exploring it. The conversation convinced Vax that Mr. Strongjaw was not acting out of malice: he was a simple, genuine fellow, and the way he spoke of the woman with faint irritation suggested that his loyalties did not lie with Ripley.

“Another topic, then,” Gilmore said.

Vax spun the coin in his fingers once more. As it rippled to a stop, he asked, “do you know a man in this city named Anders?”

“Anders?” Mr. Strongjaw gave a bitter snort. “Yeah, he’s a law-man. He’s got offices in the centre square, right by the court.”

“A law-man,” Vax echoed. “A judge? A solicitor?”

“Somethin’ like that. Sorted everything out for Lord Percival after the rest of the de Rolos bit it. Couldn’t get away from ‘im for a half-year. Always around askin’ all these questions, pesterin’ everyone from here to Westruun. Sacked a bunch o’ the old servants at the castle, too.”

“You don’t like him,” Gilmore observed, a slight edge of amusement in his voice.

“Bastard owes me thirty gold,” Mr. Strongjaw growled. He reached for the closest tankard, and made it halfway to another sip before realizing it was empty. His scowl deepened.

“We’ll buy you another,” Vax said, waving to the tankard. “As thanks for your help.”

“Right, right,” Mr. Strongjaw muttered, his mood now decidedly fouled. “Next time some bloke comes in to ask me ‘bout Lord this or Lady that, I’m chargin’ im.”

Vax moved to stand up, but a slight tug on his cloak stopped him – Gilmore’s hand, grasping the hem. “He owes you gold?” Gilmore said, sounding scandalized. “Thirty gold? Whatever for?”

“Commission,” Mr. Strongjaw grunted. Gilmore leaned in, perching his chin on his free hand, and that seemed to be all the encouragement Mr. Strongjaw needed. He slammed the empty tankard down and continued, his gestures broad and frustrated. “You’re an honest businessman, Mr. Gilmore, by what you said. So, Anders orders these etchings from me, right? Eight of ‘em, pays up front, all’s well and good. Then he comes knocking, middle of the night, says I carved one of ‘em all wrong and I’ve got to do it over for free. I say no deal, but he’ll take me to court, he’ll take me house, he gets his bloomers all bunched up about it-“ he flung his hand outward, nearly knocking a nearby chair to the floor. Vax flinched. “-and I says, you can’t pull one over on a Strongjaw, just cause he can’t read. I made it just how y’drew for me, and I show him the order and the stone, and the letters, they match bit for bit – but he’s still makin’ like I’ve done it wrong. Then he says he’ll pay double for a replacement, with a new carving, and that’s thirty gold, right? So I do the next one, just like the last but with the new words-“ he slammed his hand down on the table. “-and the bastard never paid me.”

Vax shot Gilmore a quick, appreciative look, but Gilmore was locked onto his target. “Appalling,” he sighed, his voice drawling with disgust, “Simply appalling. You know, Mr. Strongjaw, I must conduct some business with the man this afternoon. You’ve painted a marvelous image of what a scoundrel he is, and I swear on my good name that I shall do everything in my power to rectify this slight.”

“What did you make for him?” Vax cut in.

Mr. Strongjaw shrugged. “Couldn’t read the letters on 'em. But by the size, they was just buildin’ stones. Maybe one of those fancy ones they put in big churches n’ the like.”

“Cornerstones, perhaps?” Gilmore wondered aloud. “And yet, for eight buildings...”

“Do you still have the designs he gave you?” Vax pressed. “We might use that to prove your case.”

“Nah, threw ‘is paper out.” Mr. Strongjaw said. “I got the stone, though.”

The two investigators sat in silence for a moment, until Gilmore managed, “You kept the stone?”

“Aye. It’s a good piece o’ my work. Lots of letters.”

Vax and Gilmore glanced at each other. Gilmore shrugged, and Vax took it as permission. He turned back to Mr. Strongjaw. “Show us.”

They left the tavern together, and walked toward the castle. Mr. Strongjaw’s home stood on the outskirts of the town, where the spaces between the streets began to widen, and copses of pine trees broke the blocks of the city apart. They arrived at a sturdy stone cottage with narrow windows, a house markedly too small for the man inhabiting it. He did not lead them inside, however, but around to the back of the house.

There, the trees had been cleared to make way for a yard. Snow covered most of its features, but Vax could see it was not flat: there were slight, snow-covered hillocks every few feet. The air smelled sharply of ash and steel, and as Vax rounded the cottage corner, he spied an-open air blacksmith’s forge. The forge itself was unlit, but the rest of the area was a mess made by frequent use. Under a wooden awning, massive tongs and poles hung from iron pegs, while other tools were scattered about the ground: a particularly impressive hammer rested on an anvil in the middle of the yard. At first, Vax thought the wind had swept the snow under the awning, but he realized, as he drew closer, that the forge, the anvil, and the tools were coated in glittering, chalky dust, and all throughout that dust were Mr. Strongjaw’s massive handprints. As he scanned through the forge, Vax’s sharp eyes found a surprising sprig of green. Resting on a window-sill beside the awning was a single plant in a little terracotta pot. It looked like the warped sprout of a sapling, bound to a very tiny garden-stake.

Mr. Strongjaw marched out to the field, and knelt next to the nearest lump in the snow. He brushed it clear with his hands, unearthing a lump of white rock, about the size of tea-table. Gilmore hurried forward to help, and Vax – with a confused backward glance at the plant – followed behind. The first piece was not what they were looking for: Mr. Strongjaw shook his head, muttered, "Maybe s'over here," and moved to the next buried piece.

Over the next few minutes, they unearthed raw pieces of stone, half-cut carvings, and unfinished sculptures. The alabaster marble blended into the snow so closely that it proved difficult to discern what the carvings were until they were completely exposed, and the search was long. Gilmore complimented the miner’s craftsmanship, but Mr. Strongjaw looked dissatisfied, tossing piece after piece aside as if the stones were weightless wads of newsprint. Vax found the casual strength a little disconcerting.

At last, Mr. Strongjaw knelt before a square lump in the middle of the yard, and brushed its front surface clean. “Ah, there she is! I remember that pattern,” he said. “That’s the one.”

Vax and Gilmore joined him, and with the three of them working together, they revealed what appeared to be a gravestone. It bore the birth and death dates of one Frederick de Rolo, and beneath it, a poem:

THE AMBITION TO LEARN WHAT MIDWINTER NIGHT KNOWS

THOUGH IT TURNS A KING’S GAZE TO THE HEAVENS AFAR

SHALL NOT SUNDER HIS HEART FROM THE ARBOR BELOW:

IF HIS HOME GIVES NO LIGHT, HE SHALL NE’ER BE A STAR

“So, what’s it say?” Mr. Strongjaw asked.

“It’s the late Lord de Rolo’s gravestone,” Vax reported. He read the poem aloud to him, slow and thoughtful, trying to decipher it as he spoke. When he finished, silence swallowed them all for a moment.

“How lovely,” Gilmore sighed, with a dreamy lilt to his voice.

“What’s it mean?” Mr. Strongjaw asked.

Gilmore shrugged, still smiling. “I’ve no idea.”

Vax bit his lip. It was exactly as Lord de Rolo had guessed; perfect, almost too perfect. Anders had tampered with the inscription on Frederick de Rolo’s grave. For any other family, he would have dismissed the gesture as a last act of spite, Anders holding on to some lingering grudge. But Vax recalled the stories his sister recounted – and the mysterious device in the library, and its unknown password – and a cold mantle of suspicion landed on his shoulders, one that he knew would be difficult to shed. If Anders knew anything of the vault and they keys, this resembled sabotage over spite.

And at last, he realized that if this poem was in fact part of Vex’ahlia’s quest at the castle, she would make better use of the stone than he.

“Mr. Strongjaw,” he said, rising from the ground and dusting the pale powder from his hands, “I believe there’s been a mistake here. Lord de Rolo would very much like to see this stone installed at the castle. In fact,” he added, with a crooked grin, “he’d pay you double commission, as an apology.”

The miner whistled. “You think?”

“Oh, I’m quite certain. Is there a chance you could deliver it?”

Mr. Strongjaw rubbed the back of his head, thinking hard. “Could do tomorrow. We get the day out from the tunnels if we’re on nobles’ commissions.”

“Tomorrow would be sensational,” Vax said. He pondered, and then grinned. “Make sure you’re there as early as possible. Before dawn, if you can manage it.”

“Right, right. Could do.”

“It’s a big castle,” Vax insisted. “So if Lord de Rolo doesn’t answer right away, keep pounding on that front door until he does. Or pick a window and start hollering.”

Mr. Strongjaw nodded, and Vax tried to ignore Gilmore rolling his eyes behind him. “He better not stiff me the way ‘is lawyer friend did,” the stonecutter grumbled. "Right. Anything else?”

“That should be all,” said Gilmore.

Mr. Strongjaw grunted, and waved goodbye, his mind already elsewhere. As Vax and Gilmore parted, he wandered over to the sprout in the terracotta pot, and turned it so its struggling leaves caught the light.

Vax was already snickering by the time they reached the street. “Ah, a giant hollering outside our Lordship's window at six in the morning! I hope I get back in time to see his face."

“You are going to scare the poor boy witless,” Gilmore said, and though he elbowed Vax gently in the side, he could neither suppress his smile nor hide the laugh threading through his voice.

Grinning, Vax took the little punishments, caught Gilmore’s elbow as it jabbed him, and wound his hand through it. He walked them, arm-in-arm, back to the street. “A fine inspiration, thinking to ask Mr. Strongjaw about his debts,” he said, hoping to turn the conversation away from his misdemeanors.

“Always follow the money, dear boy – I’ve learned that, if nothing else.” Gilmore replied, with a wink.

The lunch hour had passed during their exploration of the stone-yard, and the streets were nearly abandoned upon their return. In their solitude, they risked the luxury of walking with their arms intertwined. The walk passed largely in silence, as Gilmore seemed to be turning a question over in his mind, and was so entranced by his thoughts that Vax had to steer him away from ditches and cobblestones more than once.

Eventually, as they approached the corner of an empty road, Gilmore said, “I know the issue of your sister is most pressing to you, Vax, but I feel that Anders should be our next port of call.”

“Have you? Your instincts are very good.”

“I’ve learned to spot a conniving bastard a mile off, you mean to say,” Gilmore muttered, pulling a muted laugh from between Vax’s lips. “No, it was something Mr. Strongjaw said, about Anders meddling in things after the deaths of the de Rolos – It forces me to wonder if the doctor and the solicitor are connected.”

Vax nodded, glancing furtively down the street as they crossed. They were still alone, but he lowered his voice to a murmur. “It all comes back to the de Rolos, doesn’t it? It sounded as if the doctor was only watching Vex’ahlia because she associates with Lord de Rolo.”

“Precisely. Mr. Strongjaw said this solicitor fired the de Rolos’ servants, and that he pestered everyone in Whitestone with questions, and Dr. Ripley pestered Mr. Strongjaw, in turn, with questions about how your sister came to Whitestone. They are trying to learn something, or hide something, about Percival and the castle – and they could be working in competition or in concert.”

They crossed a narrow street, their pace quickening. Vax glanced up at the windows, and caught himself flinching at the wind when it stirred the branches of nearby gardens. He became excruciatingly aware of how small Whitestone was; already, they had nearly reached the tavern, and the centre of town was not far away. “Anything seems possible at the moment,” he breathed. “Anders it is. We need more than gossip and a headstone.”

“I agree,” Gilmore said, quite grim – but then he smiled. “A shame. I doubt we’ll find any poetry in a lawyer’s office.”

“You were quite taken with that epitaph, weren't you?” Vax prodded, raising one eyebrow.

“Rather I liked hearing you read it,” Gilmore corrected. At Vax’s incredulous expression, Gilmore leaned on him heavily, and said, “Something about a poem makes a man’s voice all low, and lamenting, and thoughtful, and thunderous, and you wear that all very well.”

“You,” Vax said, through a smile and short, swallowed laughter, “are a scoundrel.”

Gilmore recoiled and choked, mocking a voice rent by tears. “A scoundrel, he says, simply because my tender heart is finally free to express its affections.”

His cheeks burning, Vax squeezed Gilmore’s hand. “Hush! My heart is holding back its flattery for now – if I can manage, so can you.”

Gilmore looked genuinely pleased to be complimented, even so clumsily. This sent an odd pain, like a reflex away from a hot iron, through Vax’s heart. The dear man deserved to be doted upon more often.

They were fast approaching the town’s central square, and with it, a small handful of townsfolk and passers-by. Just before they disentangled their grasp altogether, Vax captured Gilmore's hand and pressed a covert kiss between his glove and the cuff of his sleeve. It would be the last available moment for affection before their next step, and he was loath to let it go to waste. They stepped apart, and paused at a street corner to prepare their next move.

“So,” Vax said, rubbing his fingertips together to stoke some heat out of the air, “how should we do this? Do we have a plan?”

Gilmore paused to think, drumming his fingers on his lips. The gesture was damnably distracting, and Vax had to shake himself when Gilmore started speaking. “Well, we should play to our strengths, I think. I could try and talk business, perhaps bully some condemning confessions out of him. But I am a better distraction, so that you might make use of those lockpicks and see if he’s left a paper trail.”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Vax said flatly, trying to keep his smile benign.

Gilmore scoffed, “Oh, please. You used to buy wires and wrenches from my shop every other week. Or do you moonlight as a piano-tuner?”

“I only bought wires twice a week so I could talk to you in the shop,” Vax admitted. “I haven’t broken a lockpick in months.”

“You terrible sweetheart,” Gilmore said, grinning brightly, and it was somewhere between a compliment and a taunt. He continued, “Then I can rely on your success today. You’ll have a much better chance of finding something definite.”

“Very well. You’ll question him and I shall search. How are we getting in?”

Gilmore had been anticipating the question. He wiggled his brows, and said, “How do you feel about putting on a little theatre?”

After some discussion, they assembled their plan, a number of contingencies, and then their disguises. Vax shed his fur cloak, hat, and jacket, so he would not be mistaken for nobility; Gilmore procured him a flat wool cap after some quick bartering with a cheerful old haberdasher on the street. Vax, with his subtle manner of dress, could pass as Gilmore’s driver-for-hire. He retrieved the carriage and drove it towards the square, with Gilmore lounging in the passengers’ seat behind him.

They made nearly a full loop of the square before finding what they sought. Anders’ office was a dark, demure building, blocked from its neighbours by a ring of black fencing. A small, hand-painted sign built into the iron gate advertised the solicitor’s practice. It was all suspiciously tasteful, almost austere. As they passed, Vax studied the outside facade, making a quick map of the place in his mind. There was a narrow path beside the house to a homey back garden, black and thorny in winter; there was a second story; there were no other signs or advertisements upon the fence. He assumed the entire building belonged to Anders, and that the main floor held his law offices, and the upper floor his home. What a stroke of luck it would be if Anders kept everything dear to him in one place…

They parked the carriage, and Vax helped Gilmore down to the street, their charade already begun. Gilmore pushed ahead and led them up to the door, his shoulders fully squared and a blinding smile brightening his handsome face. He rang the bell twice, and straightened his hat. Hasty footsteps pattered up, and a well-dressed secretary boy opened the door – one who was mousy, lanky, bespectacled, possibly still teenaged, and gawping freely at the gold woven into Gilmore’s clothes.

“Good afternoon, sir,” the boy stammered. “Are you here to make an appointment?”

“An appointment!” Gilmore trumpeted. He unfastened his cloak with a flourish, tossing it carelessly from his shoulder. Vax barely remembered to catch the cloak in time, and folded it hastily in his arms. “How quaint," Gilmore pattered on. "If your master isn’t expecting me, well, then, he’s not a man of the world, is he?”

The young secretary opened his mouth to respond, but did not get far. Gilmore pushed through the door, took the secretary by the shoulders and squeezed him so hard he was visibly compressed. “Then this will be a thrilling surprise! Opportunity doesn’t make appointments, lad, opportunity knocks.

He released the boy, and took his own hat from his head with a theatrical twirl. Inspiration glowed in his eyes. He marched into Anders’ front office, with Vax scurrying along behind him both. “Soon,” Gilmore declared, “your master and I shall leave behind simple words of appointments and contracts! We’ll be talking words of empire, my good man. Beautiful, beautiful words like acquisitions and oligopoly. In fact!” he whirled about, and pointed at the secretary with his hat.

Vax buried his face in the cloak to keep from laughing. The fabric smelled quite strongly of patchouli.

“In fact!” Gilmore repeated. “Run and tell your master that the glorious Shaun Gilmore wishes to make him an emperor. Or better yet, I shall tell him myself!”

Gilmore turned away again, and flicked his hat into the air. Vax barely remembered to surface from the cloak and catch it on his fingertips. His master paraded across the front lobby, rounding abruptly toward a glass door marked M. ANDERS. The solicitor’s secretary chased after him,  “Sir – sir, you can’t go in there – sir, he’s in the middle of an meeting!”

As Gilmore swung the door wide and sashayed through it, the secretary shot a last, pleading look at Vax for some kind of aid. Vax only shrugged, and the poor boy raced after Gilmore.

Alone in the salon, Vax chuckled as he tossed Gilmore’s cloak and hat over a nearby coat-hook, shut the front door, and took a quick scan of his surroundings. He knew almost nothing about Anders – whether he was clever, perceptive, or intimidating, and as a result of that, how long it would take for him to throw Gilmore out – and so he had to assume time was limited. The room was a simple, elegant office, with a sturdy mahogany desk and a number of waiting-chairs. Three exits: the glass door, through which Gilmore had disappeared; one with a heavy brass lock that made Vax's fingers itch; and one up on the second floor, at the top of a narrow staircase behind the front desk. He reasoned Anders would not keep anything particularly incriminating in his lobby, where his secretary could stumble upon it, but it would be worth checking the drawers for a spare key.

Like a simmering pot, voices began to bubble up from the office beyond the glass door, growing in heat and agitation. Smirking, Vax tugged the desk drawers open. Basic office supplies, quills and inkwells, wax and seals, a calendar of upcoming appointments. Vax checked the present date, and found the entire afternoon blocked out for a “meeting with A”. Well – hopefully “A” was one of those voices, and with luck they would delay the solicitor even longer.

Vax was on the point of opening the last drawer when the commotion from the office finally boiled over, and footsteps approached the glass door. There was no time to sprint out to the street, or up the stairs, so Vax vaulted over the desk, rushed back to the hook where he’d left Gilmore’s hat, and pretended to be in the midst of dusting the snow from it.

A voice drew near to the door, one he didn’t know, high, crisp, and feminine. “-certain I will hear from you soon.”

The door opened, and a woman emerged. She looked as pristine as her words. She was sharp-featured and narrow-eyed, her dark hair pulled back in a knot so tight it seemed to tug at her brow. Her movements were efficient and purposeful, and she was as impeccably dressed as a storefront mannequin, wearing a black jacket and a primly folded scarf. She shut the door behind her, and pulled a pair of gloves from her pocket before she noticed, Vax loitering in the office. She seemed curious but unsurprised, and as she buttoned her cuffs, she said, “You, boy. We’ve met before, have we not?”

Vax blinked at her. Remembering at the last minute not to act above a servant's station, he bowed his head and said “No, ma’am.”

“You don’t work for Anders, do you?”

“No ma’am.”

“Have you come here before?”

“No ma’am.”

Her lip twitched, and she muttered, “Your vocabulary rivals that of a road sign.” She sighed, and waved him away. “No matter.”

To Vax’s surprise, the woman did not leave the building. Instead, she passed the desk and stomped her way up the stairs. Vax watched her disappear through the upper door and shut it behind her, and again, he was alone.

Vax listened; he could hear Gilmore’s jovial laugh, and another door upstairs creaking open and slamming closed.

Replacing Gilmore’s hat on its hook, Vax crept over to the stairs. Whoever the woman was – Anders’ wife, perhaps, if she had permission to enter his private rooms – she had piqued Vax’s curiosity. He pursued her up the stairs, careful to step lightly and silently as he could.

The second story opened to a short, straight gallery with three doors, two on the right, one on the left, all closed and none distinct from the other. Running into the woman would spell disaster, and so Vax listened again, hoping to find her. Behind the door on the right, there were faint, muffled motions – a rattling of drawers, and the frustrated muttering of someone looking for something. All very promising, but he would have to return later.

The room on the left was quiet. He pressed his ear to the wood to be certain; nothing. No lock, either. Vax tried the handle and cracked it open.

It was dark beyond, with the only light coming from the pale gray beams slipping in through a slatted window. No larger than a closet, most of the space was occupied by a chaise covered with a sheet, and all the free crevices were packed with brooms, buckets, cleaning supplies, and short stack of extra office-chairs. A path had been carved through the clutter, and at the end of it stood a wooden file-cabinet, four drawers high.

Vax closed the door behind him, and picked his way towards the cabinet, squinting in the limited light. The drawers were alphabetized, but not visibly locked. Slowly, cautiously, he lifted the handle of the drawer labeled A-F, which stood at eye height. He pulled it out. The drawer squeaked shrilly on its rollers.

He froze, and listened. Silence.

On tiptoe, he began to flick through the files. Each was labeled with a last name. Immediately, he found a curiosity in that Anders kept a file on his own family. With the unfamiliar “A” on the calendar still lingering in his mind, Vax palmed the entire stack of A-name files and withdrew them, tucking them under his arm.

Drumming his fingers briefly on the side of the drawer, Vax pondered what other names would be useful to him. De Rolo sprang to mind first, as the obvious choice. In the top drawer, he flicked past Barnham, Bay, Bell, Borden, Briarwood, Burner, Callois, Consalvo, Day – but there was no de Rolo file to be found.

Vax bit his lip. Well, it was one of those odd prefix-names. To be certain, he closed the drawer and knelt, looking for M-R. The drawer opened soundlessly, and he scanned through the R section twice. Nothing.

He shut the drawers, and set the “A” files down on the stack of office chairs. He had no hope of reading them all in time, but nor could hardly grab the lot to read later. He drew out the “Anders” file to keep at his side for later, and opened the next file down, scanning briefly through the pages. A marriage license; a copy of a birth certificate; three wills for different members of a family. Vax did not know enough about law to guess whether the documents were legitimate or not, and so he discarded it and moved to the next. A similar story: a marriage license, two wills. The next file, slightly thicker, held the proceedings of a divorce claim.

The absence of the de Rolo file bothered him most, and so Vax opened the other drawers and patted quickly around the filing cabinet to see if he could find some kind of hidden compartment or switch. No, he thought as he worked, the de Rolo file was likely elsewhere, if it contained anything incriminating. As a last, desperate throw, he pulled open the S-Z drawer. He breathed a sigh of relief when there was no file for any Lord Syngorn, and in its place, he noticed the Strongjaw file. It held only two pages, each a receipt for a stone carving. The first included a description of the poem; the second had only Frederick’s name and the dates of his death.

“Arse,” Vax breathed, and tucked the receipts into his breast pocket.

He tossed the first three “A” files aside, reaching for a fourth – and then froze. Footsteps. A clicking doorknob. Vax shuffled back into the shadows, squeezing between the chairs and the cabinet, his eyes fixed on the faint line of light under the door.

A shadow passed before it – the woman in the room opposite, "A" – but she continued without stopping, her footfalls fading as she made her way down the stairs.

Vax shifted out from behind the rickety chairs, breathing out. Perhaps "A" did not have her own file, or maybe it, too, was hidden? He waited another few seconds. Then he soundlessly replaced all but the Anders file, and carefully closed the squeaking drawer. The closet looked more or less identical to how he had found it. With Anders' file crushed to his chest, he darted quickly to the door, crept across the hall, and slipped into the room the woman had just abandoned.

A bedroom - empty of occupants, thankfully. A grandly overstuffed bed to his left, an armoire beside it, and a vanity table directly across from him. Vax was far more nervous in it than he had been in the closet, for a broad, open window next to the bed filled the room with light and cold air. He felt tremendously exposed.

Shivering, he glanced around, hunting for what the strange woman had been working on. He noticed the room smelled faintly of fresh ink. Intrigued, he scanned for the source of it, and spotted a note pinned under an open inkwell on the vanity.

Vax crept toward it, pushed the inkwell aside, and read:

Irony of ironies, that you are too occupied with your own mishandled greed to speak with me! I hope this snake-oil salesman lands you in court. K.S. can only overlook your extortions for so long.

At this rate you will be obsolete; our pup has become dreadfully rambunctious & gives you fewer & fewer opportunities to sedate him. When was the last time you saw the innards of the castle? Or did ANYTHING to help AT ALL?

 I WARNED you the Ashari was coming and told you to bar her papers; you had only excuses for why you could not; and now this other girl scuttles about IN the castle! See how roaches multiply, if they are not stamped out!!!

An injustice, that you earn thrice my wage for failing at your job of glorified paper-pusher! My work is the crux of our collaboration, and I bear the costs of MY OWN materials!

If you will not hear this ultimatum in my voice, read it in my hand: every item on the list beneath, delivered by month’s end, or I report your indiscretions. And if your simian brain can still comprehend how to light a fire, do remember to burn it when you’re done.

A----

Vax lifted the paper, heart thundering, searching for the list. It was short, maybe ten items long, listing grams and litres of chemical compounds he did not recognize, with some circled, others underlined, and scrawled instructions beneath. Vax could not absorb the names, as his mind was astir elsewhere.

--see how the roaches multiply.

The woman who left the note, and who was at the meeting, was A.

This girl scuttles about in the castle – his sister Vex’ahlia.

A for Anna. Doctor Anna Ripley.

His heart thundering, Vax blew on the ink, folded up the letter and the list, and shoved them in the pocket of his jacket, next to Mr. Strongjaw’s receipts.  If there was a file for Ripley, he could rush back to the storage room and grab it before Gilmore’s time was up. Preparing to sneak away, he shot one last glance at the desk – and noticed a woman’s black glove discarded next to the inkwell. It was one of the gloves Ripley had been wearing in the lobby downstairs, left behind in her haste.

The sound of footsteps returned, mounting the stairs, growing quickly louder. Vax spun around, and dashed for the armoire, hoping to hide - but before he could reach it, the hall door opened.

Doctor Ripley stood in the doorway, her stern face even fiercer than before, only a slight widening of her eyes to betray her shock. “What are you doing here?”

Her eyes darted down to his hands. Vax realized that though he had hidden the stolen letter, he still held Anders’ file against his chest. He opened his mouth, and stammered, “I – I didn't do nothin'-”

Ripley stomped her foot loud on the floor, so loud it felt as if it shook, and yelled, “Anders, you’re being robbed!”

And then she rushed at Vax, to knock him down or hold him. He never found out, for the moment she sprang, he turned and dove through the open window behind him.

Before the white ground rushed up to meet him, Vax had just enough time to wonder if the snow would soften his fall. It did not.

He hit foot-first, knees bending deep into a roll to break his fall, but pain still shot through his legs and burst in his bones. The snow sprayed up around him like a fountain. He scrambled to his feet, biting down on the pain, forcing himself to move and try and think. There was a plan for what to do if he were caught – he still had the file, the letter – he needed to keep them safe! The house behind him erupted with more shouts, slamming doors, footsteps. Disoriented, he crossed the garden. The border at the back was a brick wall, far too high to climb. Cursing, he turned and rushed along the side of the house, sprinting for the street.

Just as he reached the corner, a figure rounded it, and knocked him to the ground. Vax landed on his back, winded, ears ringing.

“Quickly – anything?”

It was Gilmore above him, holding him down. Vax would have breathed a sigh of relief, if he had any breath left in him. “Jacket pocket,” Vax wheezed, gesturing towards it. “Four papers.”

As Vax coughed and tried to steady himself, Gilmore’s hands darted under his clothes. With sleight-of-hand that frankly made Vax proud, he slipped the letter, the list and the receipts up his sleeve and adjusted his glove to secure them. The file had been knocked out of Vax’s hands, its innards spilled over his shoulder. Gilmore had nowhere to hide something so conspicuous; he gathered the pages and shoved them into the snowdrifts against the house. Vax helped him bury it as best he could. He watched, frustrated, as snow began to dampen the papers. If there was anything important in them, they would be hard-pressed to retrieve it. That same snowy dampness began to seep into Vax’s jacket through the ground, and his legs were still throbbing. "You've not got time to run," Gilmore hissed. "I'm sorry. Worst-case scenario."

Over their frantic preparation, Vax heard the distant shouts and footsteps grew louder. He swore under his breath; Gilmore was right. “Yeah. Ready to sell this?”

Gilmore nodded, and brought his hands to Vax’s shoulders, pinning him to the ground. “Go.”

Vax let a cry tear from his throat, and tried to shove Gilmore’s arms off any way he could. Gilmore shouted, “I’ve got you, blackguard-!” and grappled for Vax’s flailing hands. Vax flipped onto his side, then his stomach, trying to crawl free. He swung an arm back, sharp and swift, and heard a crunch. Gilmore yelped.

“Sorry!” Vax hissed

“Bastard!” Gilmore yelled, and it sounded slightly more earnest than before. Nearly face-first in the snow as he was, Vax could not see the approach of the others, but they were upon them in moments; Gilmore’s familiar hands vanished, and he was hauled to his feet by a stranger’s touch, and Vax was thrown back against the wall of the house.

He sagged against the bricks, panting, and faced his captor: an older gentleman, white-haired, goateed, with pointed, jutting cheekbones. Both of his fists were snarled in Vax’s vest, and his expression was livid. Vax presumed he was Mr. Anders, the solicitor. Behind him were two more figures, and as Vax’s dizzy mind began to focus he recognized Ripley and the secretary. Gilmore, dusting the snow from his clothing, rounded on Vax with manufactured rage in his eyes. Or perhaps it was not entirely manufactured; blood was pouring from his nose and matting his impeccable goatee. Vax felt a slight twinge of regret.

Anders pulled at his collar, and slammed him back once into the brick. With his lips curled back in fury, baring narrow, grey-stained teeth, he snarled, “Who on earth are you?”

Vax sneered at him. “King Kiss-my-arse.”

Swift as a whip-crack, Anders released his collar and punched him in the stomach, and Vax doubled over, cursing. Not a bad hit, for a stringy old man. Before Vax could right himself, Anders grabbed him by the shoulder and straightened him by force, throwing him back to the wall once more.

“Beg your pardon?” Anders said.

Ripley cut in: “He came in with you, sir, did he not?”

She was looking at Gilmore. Vax mutely cursed her sharpness, but Gilmore slipped smoothly into the lie they had prepared. He pressed his hand under his nose, and then drew it back an examined the bright blood on his fingertips. “Unfortunately, yes. I hired him to drive me ‘cross town. Do all Whitestone cabbies have a penchant for larceny?”

“A delinquent masquerading as an aid,” Anders spat. “Unconscionable”.

Vax ignored their vituperation, and tried to read Ripley’s face. Anders had taken their bait, but the doctor looked suspicious. She glared at Vax with the expression of a woman disapproving of a misspelled word in a book. “He had a file of papers with him,” she said; she was speaking to Anders, but her eyes did not leave their captive. “Search him.”

Scowling, Anders pulled Vax’s jacket open, patted down his sides, and scoured the panels. He found the lockpicking tools in his trouser pocket, and with a disgusted, dismissive noise, tossed them into the snow. From the pocket of Vax’s shirt, he retrieved a black leather wallet, and stared at it, perplexed.

“Nine bloodied Hells – that belongs to me!” Gilmore cried. “The gall of this urchin!”

Anders handed the planted wallet to its owner. Gilmore looked properly ruffled, and made a show of checking it to see if everything was there. Vax could not help but admire the acting – nor could he stop a furtive glance at Gilmore’s sleeve, where their true prize was safely disguised. It would be alright; he would take the fall, pretending to be a simple pickpocket, and Gilmore would escape with the evidence-

Ripley interrupted his thoughts. “Anders,” she said, “call Stonefell.”

Anders had yet to turn his seething stare away from Vax, but Ripley’s order triggered a double-take, and he gave her an incredulous look. His face was even sharper in profile, utterly knife-like. “For this whelp?”

“You retain your talent for underestimation,” Ripley observed. She no longer sounded irritated. Her words were softened, almost soothing. “Where did you put that file? And why did you want it?" she asked.

Vax pretended to think for a moment, and then fired a rude hand gesture her way. Ripley only grinned, and said, "No, I think Stonefell is absolutely necessary.”

“What, pray tell, is a ‘Stonefell’?” Gilmore huffed.

The doctor turned her eerie smile to him, and Vax had a strong impulse to shove past Anders and force her to look away. “A detective of the Whitestone police. He will see justice done most swiftly.”

Anders twisted his hand tighter in Vax’s shirt, until the collar began to wear a groove in his neck. He ordered, “Call Stonefell.”

The secretary took the order, rushing off to the street, and the group stood in horribly tense silence. Vax raised his hands to signify his surrender; Anders kept his fist snared in his collar regardless. Only a single, bare thread of discussion emerged, when Ripley asked if Gilmore’s nose had been broken. She offered directions to her clinic, and said she would join him for an examination in an hour or so, and once the interloper was safely put under arrest. Gilmore thanked her, but said nothing. Though his eyes were downcast, Vax could guess at his thoughts; their ploy to hide their evidence succeeded, but Ripley felt less like an unwilling dupe and more like an unsettling factor, a wrench in their makeshift machine.

Stonefell arrived sooner than Vax predicted. He was quite tall and looked young for a detective, and he strode up to the scene with a calm, almost lazy pride in his step. Though he was dressed in the high-collared navy jacket of the Whitestone police, he did not act like a man wearing a uniform; rather, he was aggressively casual, hands thrust in his pockets and head thrown back. He greeted Anders and Ripley with a lopsided grin on his face, one that only grew when he spotted Vax.

“Well, well,” he drawled, in a lazy, liquid voice. “What’s got us rattled this time, old boy? A break-in, I hear?”

A muscle twitched in Anders’ jaw. “Yes, it was this ruffian,” he reported, giving Vax an extra slam against the wall for good measure. “He went through my files and my private rooms.”

“And he nicked my wallet,” Gilmore added.

The officer let out a long sigh, almost as if he were releasing a breath of pipe-smoke. He raked a hand briefly through his messy, nut-brown hair, and studied Vax up and down. He asked, “Anything to say in your defense?”

Anders scoffed, “Oh, please, we caught him red-handed-“, but the detective hushed him, waiting for Vax’s response.

Vax only shrugged, his hands still raised. “What good’ll that do me?” he let his voice drift further away from its natural accent, closer to something like Mr. Strongjaw’s – convincingly ill-bred. “You’re in their pocket, aren’t you? Must be swell to have a copper at your beck and call.”

At the unexpected jab, Stonefell leaned back, looking impressed. “You thought it was worth calling me for this, Anna?”

Doctor Ripley folded her arms. “It’s best we take every precaution,” she said; she was putting thought into each word. “I have some unanswered questions.”

“Ah, don’t you always,” Stonefell replied, cocking one eyebrow. “Very well.”

He stepped closer, and pushed Anders aside. He turned Vax around, wrenched his wrists behind his back and cuffed them. Gilmore complained, “Mr. Anders, this is all above-board, is it not? I would like to see him brought to proper justice in the courts.”

“I assure you, Mr. Gilmore, you will have your justice,” Anders spat.

Gilmore pressed him, but Vax heard no more of the conversation; Stonefell had turned him from the alley, and began to lead him to the street.

Vax fought the fear building in his chest. In this worst-case scenario, in which Vax was caught, he and Gilmore had planned for an arrest. Vax would spend a night incarcerated, but Gilmore would not charge him for theft of the wallet, and he would pay the trespassing fines in exchange for Vax shouldering the risk. It was the rapport Stonefell shared with Ripley and Anders that made Vax nervous – but would it not make sense for a doctor or a lawyer to know at least one criminal detective by name…?

Stupid, he thought – stupid of them to assume that Ripley and Anders, if they considered themselves so above the law, would subject Vax to its punishment! But now there was no escape; Gilmore's voice, strong though it was, had faded into the distance, and Stonefell brought him to a police wagon parked on the street, where another guard stood waiting. In the wagon, Vax would be constantly watched, and Anders had thrown away his lockpicks regardless. His chances to escape were dwindling, all but gone.

He rode in the dark, rumbling back of the wagon for a long time, nearly an hour. Though the compartment was windowless, Vax knew by the sheer length of the journey that they must have reached the outskirts of town. When they emerged, the land around was indeed desolate. They had parked on a single dirt road, which was all but barren, except for a stone wall, twice the height of a man, that Stonefell now directed him towards.

They passed through an iron gate, which had left deep, arcing grooves in the snow upon its opening. Vax caught sight of the complex beyond, and suppressed a groan. Whitestone’s prison might have been the only building as old as its castle, for how run-down it was. It appeared to be two square, squat, utterly miserable buildings of dull-grey rock, seated in the middle of an snow-patched field. In place of windows, narrow slits had been cut through the front wall, leaving the prison utterly featureless.

Stonefell nudged him on, directing them towards the nearest building. He whistled a quick, birdlike tune as they walked, as if he were headed out for a morning stroll. Vax decided he despised him most of all the people he'd met today.

Inside the prison, another guard operated a single desk behind a protective cage. They did not pause there for any procedures: Stonefell waved at the man over Vax's shoulder, and asked the guard to prepare some papers for him. They passed through an archway, and down a set of stairs.

The complex was larger beneath the ground, much larger than the small offices upstairs would suggest. Hallways reached out in every direction, utterly labyrinthine, and by the cracked and worn stones it looked still older. There were no windows or barred cells, only sprawling, twisting hallways of endless dark wood doors, each with heavy padlocks and small barred windows. Oil lanterns hung every few feet, casting criss-crossing shadows. It was horribly quiet, as if the jail did not hold a single prisoner. Vax’s fear swiftly gave way to misery; that, too, he swallowed down.

They took a handful of turns at Stonefell's guidance, which Vax did his best to memorize: one right, one left, another left, and then they came to a halt at the fourth door on his right. Stonefell unlocked that fourth door and relieved Vax of his manacles at last – but he left a firm hand on Vax’s shoulder, turning and guiding him into the cell. Vax did not fight him; even if he'd won, there would be nowhere to go. He took deep breaths, reminding himself that this was all part of their plan, and that Gilmore would come 'round by morning to save him.

“Right,” Stonefell said. “Prison’s rules. I’ll need all the clothes but your shirt and slacks. Shoes too.”

“Why d’you need that?” Vax asked shrilly, barely remembering to maintain his accent.

“Prison’s rules,” Stonefell repeated, looking bored. “Debtors like to hang themselves on their neckties. It's such a bother.”

Swallowing his disgust, Vax did as he was told. Stonefell took his vest, his scarf, his cap, and his shoes, leaving him in the barest of respectable dress. It was warmer beneath the stone than outside, for the oil torches practically stuffed the halls with smoggy heat, but the stones themselves were cold to the touch, and he felt shivers crawl up his legs once his sock feet touched the floor.

“Well,” Stonefell said, weighing the bundle of clothes in his hand, “I don’t quite know what you did to land on Anna’s bad side, but I’m sure I will soon enough. Take a good rest, now.” He took a graceful step backwards, reached in, and shut the door. Vax heard the telltale click-clunk of a heavy lock shutting on his door, and spat a curse through his teeth. As an insult added to injury, he could tell by the sound of the lock that it was appallingly simple. He could have picked it easily - he could have picked it one-handed while staggeringly drunk! - but of course, Anders had confiscated his tools.

Vax glanced around, and sighed at the contents of the room: a bucket in one corner, and a wooden cot in the other. He tiptoed over the icy floor and curled up on the bed, and for many hours thereafter tried in vain to find a comfortable position upon it.

It surprised him, but he found that after the initial ire faded, he did not mind spending a night in a prison cell. His bed amounted to little more than a bench with a blanket, and the stone walls could not entirely protect him from the chill outside. He shivered, and when his shoulder blades bumped up against the stone wall a shot of pure cold lanced through his back. Yet there was justice to be found in it, he thought: not only for the crime he had in fact committed that day, but for a lifetime of petty vandalisms and break-ins that his father had scoured from the record. Lord Syngorn cared more for image than justice; his son’s priorities, which grew ever-clearer in the frigid cell, were opposite. He clung to that faint notion, that hope of suffering for redemption, before he hit upon something even more important: he had been arrested for the sake of his sister, and for her, he would have suffered far worse. Ripley's note suggested she was suspicious of Vex, and wanted her to leave Whitestone, if not something far worse. Once Gilmore read it, he would be certain to warn her. Yes, a single night of discomfort would certainly be worth that...

That was the thought that carried Vax through the miserable night, and he hoped would sustain him until Gilmore arrived. He slept only in drowsy fits, and after only a handful of discomfiting dreams and waking jolts, it was impossible to guess how much time had passed.

But as he was falling into a daze again, for the tenth time or the hundredth, a loud thud broke his trance. Vax pushed himself up on his elbows, rubbing his eye. The lock began to rattle, Vax pushed himself from the cot and stood. (His punishment might have been warranted in some ways, but he was still eager for it to end).

The door swung open. A flood of light set him blinking. There were figures before him, and at least two lanterns flooding his cell with their warmth and glow. He heard a command, issued in the stern but silken voice of Officer Stonefell. “Hands out.”

Vax obeyed, waiting for his eyes to carve shapes out of the blurry shadows. Stonefell entered his cell, and tugged him forward by his outstretched hands. Cold iron manacles snapped into place around his wrists once again. Out of panicked, animal instinct, Vax took a step back, but a gloved hand closed around the chain and yanked him forward.

The two other officers – men he did not recognize from his earlier indictment – flanked the door, each holding a lantern in their free hand. The moment Vax stepped from his cell, the guards seized him around the elbows. Vax tried to flinch away, but their grip proved too tight, and Stonefell yanked on his manacles like he was pulling a bulldog by its chain. The three of them all but lifted Vax clear off the ground as they dragged him down the halls of the prison.

“The bloody hells is this?” Vax said. No response. They rounded the hall to the stairs. Panicked, Vax tried to dig his heels in, to brace his bare feet against the stones. The guards were prepared, and they hoisted their prisoner half a foot into the air above the stairway. He thrashed and thrashed, but they held on.

When they reached office above ground, Vax at last caught sight of the high, narrow windows and the open front door. Beyond them, he saw a sky of black and cobalt. The sun had not yet risen. Only the faintest aura of pale blue light suggested dawn would break soon.

Vax’s panic, which had been instinctive, transformed at once into knowing terror. There was no one else in the guards’ office; and even as they led him out into the prison-yard, the streets and distant buildings beyond were empty and lightless. Gilmore would not arrive for another hour at least. Vax was alone, and at their mercy.

The only other sign of life was a single black horse, who stood in the middle of the prison-yard. She was hitched to a heavy wagon that looked like a small shed. She wore thick leather blinders, but in the spreading darkness they looked more like the too-large eyes cut into a mask. As the guards pulled him through the frozen yard, their lanterns began to swing, and Vax caught sight of the letters painted on the side of the wagon, dancing in the light: VOUKSTRONO ASYLUM.

The carriage door at the back was open wide. As they steered him toward it, Vax thrashed again. They brought him up to the mouth of the cell, and he managed to brace his feet on the doorframe, shouting for help while the guards struggled to move him. “I’m not – what are you doing!? Stop, I’m not – I’m not-!”

His cries faded, unheard. The guard on his left released him with such abruptness that Vax fell completely off-balance, slipping from the raised doorframe and slamming his knee into the step below. He gave a cry of pain, and that was all the guards needed to throw him bodily into the back of the carriage.

Winded, disoriented, Vax rolled onto his back, his knees, and scrambled forward to the door, only to find it blocked by Officer Stonefell. He was mostly shadow, but the faint light of the approaching sun illuminated his profile. “I’ve an interesting problem for you to ponder on your ride,” he purred. “Anna calls it the madman’s paradox.”

He leaned in. The darkness of the carriage-cell erased all but his smile. “The louder you shout that you’re sane, the madder you sound. So please, scream for help – we’re listening.”

With that, he drew back and shut the door, leaving Vax in the dark. The wheels under him shifted, and rattled, and the horse stalked off into the frozen morning.

Chapter Text

Morning did not come to Whitestone gently, but with three booming strikes. Vex thought she had awoken on a warship cracking apart in a gale. She threw the bedsheets off, blinking around at the pale grey room, where dawn had only just arrived. It was almost offensively early, and someone was already hollering down in the castle’s front courtyard, and pounding on its fortified door.

Vex leaped out of her bed, and gasped at the prick of the chilly floor on the bottom of her feet. Whitestone was typically cold in the mornings, but this was exceptional: it felt as if she had slept outside, or with the window thrown open. Irritated, she rounded the bed to where her travel trunk rested. She dug about in the mussed-up skirts until she found a pink-ribboned nightgown and a pair of slippers, leaving her room as she donned them. The shouting and thundering quieted as she reached the central stairwell, replaced with two voices in clipped conversation.

She descended, and saw the immense door had been opened partway. Percival stood in its aperture, limp-shouldered, and clad in a pale blue night-robe, speaking to their early morning visitor. Their tone was not argumentative, and in the absence of an immediate threat, Vex’s urgency collapsed. She approached, curious, right up to Percival’s shoulder. He spotted her out of the corner of his eye and jumped slightly in place, surprise cutting his words off mid-sentence.

Vex grinned at him while he rubbed his eyes under his glasses. “Good-morning, my Lord!” She glanced out the door, and added, recognizing their visitor, “And good-morning to you too, Mr. Strongjaw!"

The miner stood in the castle entryway, dressed for labour. He took his cap from his head and gave her a gracious bow, which Vex returned. “Hallo, your Ladyship. ‘S good to see you again. Brought a gift from your brother!”

“Did you?” Vex said brightly, and looked over his shoulder. A canvas-covered cart, pulled by a grey, dopey-eyed donkey, stood in the courtyard. Whatever Vax had sent her, it appeared to be the size and shape of an end table. She cocked her head to the side, curious. “What is it?”

“Just a lil’ old stone carving by yours truly,” Grog said, straightening his shoulders. “Seemed to think you’d find it interesting.”

“Begging your pardon, Mr. Strongjaw,” Percival interrupted. “How much are you charging for this?”

“Fifteen gold for the carving, fifteen for the installation, and then three times that, so that’s, er-“

“Ninety,” Percival said hollowly, pressing his hand to his face again. It was not a hefty sum for a Lord of Whitestone – just enough to be irritating. “Very well, ninety gold. Take it around to the courtyard, please, by the west wall. I shall be out to join you presently.”

“Right, right. I’ll head around-“

“Splendid,” Percival cut in, with the voice of a man consumed by torturous irritations. He shut the door before Mr. Strongjaw had a chance to reply.

Vex folded her arms across her chest. “That was quite rude, my Lord."

Without looking at her, he heaved a long, put-upon sigh. The sash of his robe trailed to the ground, untied, and the nightshirt beneath was clumsily buttoned and rumpled. Despite his dishevelment, he had taken the time to find his glasses and his customary gloves; those were even more incongruous than the messy bedroom dress, and he looked altogether quite ridiculous.

“Mr. Grog Strongjaw,” he said, his voice dragging as if he were too lazy to pull the syllables upright.

“Were you not expecting him?”

He finally turned to Vex, still looking cross. “I was not.”

Vex chuckled. “Do you remember when I said my brother would not torment you by vandalizing your library?”

In response, he narrowed his eyes. Vex leaned toward him over her folded arms. “ This is how he would torment you.”

Percival’s shoulders sagged, and he made a wordless groan of complaint. Vex’s smile grew broader.

Eventually, he regained his faculties of speech, though what speech he regained proved irate and sarcastic. “Well,” he grumbled, “you will be pleased to know you were right again. Mr. Strongjaw has brought my father’s original gravestone. Apparently there was a mix-up during the installation.”

“Oh!” Vex declared, clapping her hands together. “Then we’ve found another clue, have we?”

“Indeed.”

“This is a delightful surprise, my Lord,” she reminded him. “It’s practically a Winter’s-Crest gift!”

He leered at her over his glasses. “I was sleeping , you-“ he scowled, hunting for an insult “-chipper little early-bird.”

Vex began to laugh. With a lordly sweep of his robe, Percival rounded toward the stairs. A smile had crept onto his face, one he directed downward and away from her, as if he did not intend her to see it. She watched him walk past her for a half-dozen paces, until a cold gust swept in through a crack in the door behind her. Shouldering it closed, she recalled the question she had meant to ask him.

“Percival?” she called. “Is something wrong with your heating systems?”

He stopped on the stairway and turned back to her, propping his hands thoughtfully on his hips. “Indeed it is. I’ll wager it’s another pipe losing pressure.”

Vex was listening to his words, but only faintly. She was rather more preoccupied by the fact that his robe did not fit, and it hung from his narrow frame like a sheet covering a sculpture. Below that, his night-shirt was barely knee-length, and as Percival was halfway up the stairs, his naked calves were level with her eyes. They were surprisingly shapely legs for a shut-in – probably a mix of a lucky lineage and climbing about the castle stairs and engine ladders.

“-not opposed to wearing furs indoors, as the repairs could take the better part of the afternoon.”

Startled from her contemplations, Vex shook herself into responding, “Oh, yes, furs, of course. I’m not opposed, not at all.”

Percival looked at her sidelong. She folded her hands behind her back, smiling as bright as she could.

“Anyway,” he said, each syllable pronounced as if it were a tiptoed step down a stair. “I suppose we’d better dress and see what your brother found for us, yes?”

“After you, my Lord.”

He tilted his head to the side, and then tapped the banister a few times with his fingertips. “Did you find a more restorative rest last night, Lady Vex?”

“Until it was interrupted by our invading stonecutter, yes,” she said. At the very least, she had not suffered bad dreams or woken during the night, and her room smelled pleasantly of lavender and mint. “I did indeed, Percy. Thank you.”

There was satisfaction in his expression, just a quick flash of it – but he swiftly wrote it over with dramatic, exaggerated irritation. “Mm, of course,” he said dryly. “It’s my own fault you’re so bloody cheery.” As she laughed at him again, he spun on his heel, tossing both his hands high in a gesture of surrender. He climbed the stairs, the tie on his robe trailing behind him. This was no honest bitterness; only a performance of it to entertain her. “Yet again, I am the enemy of my own tranquility! Bah.”

He rounded the upper landing, leaving Vex giggling in the main hall.

It was a strange and delightful feeling, one she contemplated as she rushed back up the stairs to dress. His anguish the night prior had bled into her, weighing on her heart until she found a method of soothing it. In the morning she played his game of sarcasm, teasing just enough to amuse him. Her moods were now beholden to his, and she could not easily be joyful while he was miserable. It was more than the influence of a social atmosphere, more than feeling at ease with a good friend or awkward in an awkward situation; this bond between her and Percival had burrowed deep in her flesh. If their hearts and lungs had been transplanted, exchanged between each other by some mad doctor, she would have had a viable explanation: for she now felt his anguish as if it were her own, aching in those sympathetic organs.

All evidence suggested Percival was influenced in the same way. He was not naturally in tune with the feelings of others, but he had grown uncharacteristically attentive to hers. She saw it in the books he had loaned to entertain her, and the gift he made to lull her to sleep.

Vex thought another woman – a smarter, more cautious woman, perhaps – would have been reticent to develop an attachment so strong, and so hastily. But no, her wariness from the previous night had gone. She had always found her greatest joys in caring for creatures who needed it, and she did not fear caring so freely.

She assembled her warmest skirt and jacket, twisted her hair into a particularly artful knot, pulled her woolen gloves to her elbows, and laced up her heaviest pair of boots. She moved with energy, dispensing a little more care into her appearance than was usual. She had decided she would enjoy her growing affections for Percival de Rolo, sincerely and wholeheartedly: nobody loved to be in love quite as much Vex’ahlia of Syngorn did.

Once she had done herself up, (and placed the jade glass key around her neck, and tucked it under her jacket), she decided to look for Keyleth. The poor woman might have been preparing a breakfast that would not be attended; indeed, Vex found her alone in the dining hall, holding a tray of crumpets and leaning into the spare, cool light of the window, looking out. Vex approached and tapped her shoulder; Keyleth started so abruptly that the crumpets almost bounced from their plate.

Vex laughed, “Startled you, did I?”

“You’re very light on your feet,” Keyleth said nervously. “Is that Mr. Strongjaw outside with Percival?”

Vex followed her friend’s gaze, looking out into the garden. There were two gentlemen posted by the wall, one broad and the other lean, accompanied by the donkey and cart. Vex noticed, with some amusement, that even Percival looked short next to the towering foreman. “It is,” she said. “He showed up to do some work on the wall this morning. Would you like to visit?”

“Do you think they’ll mind if we interrupt?” Keyleth asked, her eyes wide.

Vex nabbed a crumpet from the tray. “I’m sure they won’t mind if we bring breakfast.”

They took the tray with them into the yard. The scent of the hot breakfast drew Mr. Strongjaw’s attention immediately, and his face brightened to see the ladies approaching him. Percival remained fixed on his father’s headstone, looking away. Keyleth urged the gentlemen to take as many as they wished, to which Mr. Strongjaw happily took a small tower of crumpets and Percival did not move.

“Pleasure to see you again, Your Ladyships,” Mr. Strongjaw greeted, between mouthfuls of breakfast. He had tied a thick white rag loosely around his neck, and it caught a few stray crumbs on their way down.

Vex curtsied; Keyleth copied her. “Hard at work, are we?” Vex asked.

“Aye, or just about to be,” he confirmed. “You’ll want to step back, ladies. Dust’s not good for you, so’s I’ve been told.”

He tugged pointedly at the rag on his neck, before tugging it up over his nose as a makeshift mask.

Keyleth cut in, “I could help you.”

“Eh? How’s that?”

Keyleth handed the tray over to Vex, and stretched her freed fingers. “I can get rid of the dust, I think.”

Vex glanced over to their host, who still had not moved. “Percival?”

“Yes,” he said, to indicate he had been listening. He took a last look at the headstone, and then turned towards the group. “How far back do you recommend?”

Mr. Strongjaw instructed them where to stand while finishing the last of his breakfast. Vex and Percival stepped half a dozen paces back, while Keyleth positioned herself on the other side of the headstone. Mr. Strongjaw lined up a chisel the size of a meat cleaver, and struck it with his hammer. The blow produced such a tremendous cloud of opaque white dust that he was nearly obscured – yet with a swirl of Keyleth’s hands, and that familiar-but-strange pull of magic at work, the dust spiraled away, rising in the coils of a corkscrewing wind, rising up, up, until it drifted above the walls, caught a northward gust, and disappeared over the mountains.

Mr. Strongjaw pulled the rag down from his face and whistled, long and low. Vex shoved the tray of crumpets into Percival’s hands, so she could give Keyleth a delighted round of applause.

“Woah,” Mr. Strongjaw said, awed.

Keyleth’s hair had been caught up in the gusts of wind, and she quickly pulled it back from her face. The gesture exposed her blushing cheeks.

Vex was amused to see her friend so delightfully flustered. She relieved Percival of the crumpet tray, and took another for herself, enjoying the spectacle.

They set back to work, Mr. Strongjaw chipping the headstone away and Keyleth filtering out the dust. Every dozen strikes or so, Mr. Strongaw would dart away from the wall and fetch another crumpet for himself, at times bringing Keyleth a second serving of her own. By the time the crumpets were gone (Percival had not touched any, though Vex had prodded him to do so at least three times), Mr. Strongjaw had still made very little visible progress, and it became evident that even this first stage would likely take hours.

“Mr. Strongjaw?” Vex called. “Could we take a look at the new headstone?”

“Yup,” he shouted back. “Make sure I spelled it all right!”

She and Percival moved to the cart together, and he pulled the canvas away from the new stone. It had been lashed to the cart with ropes, which they were forced to bend out of the way to read the inscription. Beneath Frederick de Rolo’s name, and the dates marking his life, there was a verse to match those of his ancestors. Vex read, idly spinning the empty tray in one hand:

THE AMBITION TO LEARN WHAT MIDWINTER NIGHT KNOWS

THOUGH IT TURNS A KING’S GAZE TO THE HEAVENS AFAR

SHALL NOT SUNDER HIS HEART FROM THE ARBOR BELOW:

IF HIS HOME GIVES NO LIGHT, HE SHALL NE’ER BE A STAR

Percival was a faster reader than she: before she arrived at the final line, she heard him give a soft, sardonic laugh, and he lowered his head.

“Do you know what it means?” she asked.

Wordlessly, he nodded, and he wore a fragile smile. After a long moment of thought, he turned to Vex and said, “I’m curious – how much of it do you understand?”

Irked, Vex stared at the poem, as if trying to intimidate it into revealing its secret. She tapped the empty crumpet tray against the edge of the cart, as if the rhythm might help her think.

“Well,” she began, “This is your father’s poem.”

“Yes.”

“So as to the king’s gaze and the far-off heavens – your father built that telescope in the observatory, yes?”

“Very good.”

“Well, I’m glad that’s very good, because that is as far as I shall get with it,” she declared. She looked over her shoulder toward the observatory and the library beneath it. There was no sign of an arbour there, nor any exterior decoration - only a plain stone column, with blank, narrow windows.

“No, no, you haven’t finished yet,” Percival said, mysteriously. Vex turned back to him, and he gave a generous hint. “If the ‘king’s gaze’ is our telescope, what would he be looking at?”

“The sky. Planets and stars. Stars in midwinter?”

“Exactly,” Percival said. “Do you know much about astronomy?”

“No, I’m afraid not.”

“Then your frustration is understandable,” he said. He pulled back one of the ropes with his thumb, indicating the arbor line again. “This is referencing a particular constellation. Most constellations have names derived from Celestial, you see. So, there’s one that resembles a drawn longbow, and they call it Venatrix, meaning ‘The Huntress’. The constellation known as Pelor’s Eye also goes by Sol Videt. And there is one called Arbor, which in this instance means ‘The Tree’. That is the constellation on my father’s seal.”

Vex’s eyes narrowed. “Trees. I should have known.”

Percival repeated the words inscribed in Pelor’s chapel, masked in that unfamiliar, archaic language: “Stultus sapiens non videt illa arbor videt.”

“So,” Vex said. “All we need do is point the telescope at the right constellation? Or must we wait for midwinter?”

“That’s the trick to it,” Percival said. He released the rope, and pulled the canvas over the stone. “It is a seasonal constellation, and it only appears here in the summer. On midwinter night, it would be in the southern sky, about-“ he spent a moment orienting himself, pointing one finger upwards and counting incremental angles, until at last he pointed diagonally at the ground, toward her feet “-there.”

“You would point the telescope at the ground?” Vex said, tilting her head to the side.

“Yes,” he concluded. “An Arbor ‘below’.”

Vex thought aloud, “Then no one would find the key unless they were looking. Even if someone did point the telescope downwards, it would have to land in a precise position. How clever.”

“Yes, he was a very clever man,” Percival said.

He spoke quietly, coldly. Vex looked toward him, but he stared at the ground, addressing it instead of her. “I thought constellations were a pointless thing to know, but he made certain to teach us,” he continued. “Not just what names the stars had, but how they moved across the sky – and where they had gone when you couldn’t see them anymore.”

Vex approached him, intending to reach out, before she realized she still held the empty crumpet tray. She hid it behind her back, squeezing the hard silver handle in an effort to restrain her impulses. “Are you alright?”

“It is nothing to concern yourself with,” he said.

Percival pulled at the brim of his hat and straightened his shoulders. The topic was dismissed, in his mind, and so he took a step toward the castle.

She stepped in front of him and interrupted his escape. Like a warning, she said, “Percy, please.”

A curl of cool white air passed from his lips, like the smoky sigh of a discontented dragon. “My father’s epitaph was a missing piece,” he explained, with an irritated edge in his voice, “and I thought it would make sense of all of this. I was a fool to hope that this – this contorted legacy would bring me any comfort.”

Softly, Vex said, “Of all the words he could have written, would anything truly make it better?”

“Maybe,” he fired back. Realizing he was being confrontational, he sighed, and amended, “No. No, I couldn’t think of any.”

“I wish I could think of some,” Vex said. “I might like to say them to you.”

Percival made a dismissive noise. Again, he tried to gather himself, swallowing his frustration before it could fully possess him. She could see the struggle in his heart – the tautness in his every motion, the wounded look in his eyes. Vex felt as if an ancient volcano had threatened to burst, and then shuddered into dormancy. Percival’s anger had always been there, buried but still burning.

He muttered, “It is not your responsibility to invent a countermeasure for tragedy. This was senseless. It will always be senseless.” And with that he took a few disciplined steps past her shoulder, intent on ending the conversation yet again.

Vex was still desperate to halt him; and she spoke the first phrase she thought would do so, without reflection. She said,  “My mother left no words at all.”

She had not told this story to anyone before. It would have been fraudulent, diminishing, for no recounting could ever capture the fullness of her loss. Behind her, Percival’s footsteps had stopped, and she hoped he was listening.

“A fire took her,” she continued, “and it destroyed anything she would have left behind.  She was just erased.”

For a brief, painful moment, the snow blanketing the ground became gray ash, and she saw the blackened beams of the fallen manor around her – but she blinked the vision away. Whitestone returned to her, colourless and cold, and it calmed her panic. She looked to Percival, who had indeed stopped to hear her. He listened, making no interruption, his expression unreadable.

She said, “I know it is painful to be reminded, but I am also pleased you have something to remember your family by. Perhaps a day will come when you will be glad to have this place.”

Percival studied her, and said,  “Intriguing.”

Then he turned away, and walked silently to the courtyard door, deep in thought. Vex glumly pursued him inside, upset that she had only managed to wring a single word from him in reaction.

They made their way back inside, through the rear hall, and toward the central stairway. Vex, caught by her negative mood, did not bother to stomp the slush from her boots. At the first opportunity, she ducked into a nearby room - an annex to the kitchen, full of high countertops and knives for preparing vegetables - and shunted the empty breakfast tray onto the closest table. After disposing of it, she intended to part from her host, allowing them both space to stew and sulk.

To her surprise, Percival had not left her, but waited for her return from the kitchen. He stood against a window on the opposite side of the hall, fiddling with the top button on his cloak. When she emerged, he called her name softly, hesitantly, over the distant sound of Mr. Strongjaw’s hammer and chisel striking the walls.

“I do not think,” Percival began, “that your mother was erased entirely.”

Vex paused to listen, hand lingering on the doorframe. He moved closer and spoke slowly; both his words and steps were carefully chosen. “You are evidence that she existed. If her character resembled yours, you prove that she was a good woman indeed.” He smiled, faintly; “If she was known to be patient with irksome people, you have certainly inherited that.”

Irksome. He thought his grieving irksome. This time, Vex did not bury her impulse to touch him, as she had before. She clasped his good hand in both of hers, and squeezed it. “Percival, mourning is not irksome to me, even if mourning is irksome to you-” she grinned “-and here I speak both of your grief and your vendetta against rising early for breakfast.”

She winked. Percival barked out a short, loud laugh. He covered his mouth with his free hand, startled by the volume of his own exclamation. Behind his fingers, he chastised, “What an entirely inappropriate subject to joke on.” He sounded aghast, but not unamused, and Vex started chuckling at his reaction. He goaded her on, prodding more laughter from her; “You have been spending too much time with me. I am very nearly proud.”

They bowed their heads closer together, trying to muffle their revelry.

“I shall make an attempt to be a little less dour,” he said, and extracted his hand from hers. He added, “-for both our sakes.”

“You can be as you like,” she said, “but I would rather you be genuine than dishonestly cheerful.”

“Intriguing,” he said again. He squeezed her hand, and then released it. “And anyway,” he continued, bright and proper, “there is more for us to do. To the observatory, then?”

“No, no, no. We should make an event of this, my Lord,” she said, folding her hands behind her back. “We have our riddle mostly deciphered, so let us wait for nightfall and stargaze properly.”

“Are you certain? It will be rather cold with the shutter open.”

“There are methods of keeping warm,” she corrected. “Another portion of the event is the preparation, which in this case shall be fur cloaks and hot tea.”

Percival squinted up at the wall behind her, thinking. “I believe I have been persuaded,” he said, and Vex clapped her hands together once in delight.

“Very good,” she said. “What shall we do until then?”

“Unfortunately, I have a little engineering business to attend to,” he reminded her. “Another pressure problem, and this one demands a solution lest my poor guests freeze solid. You are quite welcome to join me,” he suggested. “It should be the warmest room in the castle at the moment.”

He was transparently eager for her company, which Vex found flattering. “Are you in need of an assistant?” she asked. “Many hands, light work, and all that.”

“Certainly.”

Percival led her down to the engine room and into the hot shadow of the furnace. Slightly flustered, he reminded her he would be dressing down to shirtsleeves, to avoid getting oil on his jacket.

“Of course,” she said, with a permissive wave. “I’m only disappointed that propriety will not let me join you. It is rather sweltering here.”

“Well,” he said, and then chose not to continue his sentence. Instead he turned away and stripped his jacket with blinding speed, all the more keen to get started. Amused, Vex removed her cloak and draped it over the workbench chair. That much, at least, she could politely part with.

Percival turned them quickly to the topic of the engine. He instructed Vex on the generalities of its operation, indicating the particular gauges he wanted her to read. Though Vex enjoyed what she was learning, most of his lecture was a list of things she was not to touch – no levers or cranks, none of the metal pipes, and neither of the furnaces that powered the engine. They were reasonable warnings: though the furnaces were sealed with thick doors and weighty latches, they radiated an absolutely scalding heat. The ladder she would have to climb stood between them, and she could feel, even through her gloves, how their warmth had infected the nearby metal. Still, she suffered an itch of curiosity in her fingers.

He loaned her the mask he wore when operating the engine, and asked her to read three of the gauges about ten feet up the wall. She climbed, counting her steps, and growing delightfully disoriented in the engine’s noise and unclean heat. As monstrous as the construct was, it was fascinating to be so close to it.

Vex reached the gauges, and squinted through the steam and grimy glass to find the numbers, which were hand-inked on ancient parchment. She recited them, then clung to her post, awaiting further instruction. Looking back at Percival would have meant looking down - and that would have certainly been foolish.

She heard his footsteps and a creak of metal, and then the machine surrounding her to growled and hissed and boomed, deep in its metal chambers. The gauge-needles flickered and dropped. In unison, to zero. Though she was not familiar with the engine’s workings, she found she could grasp a little of its operation by watching the numbers change, and her fascination was such that Percival had to call her name twice to summon her down.

Percival reclaimed the heavy work-gloves she had borrowed and took her place on the ladder, a wrench slung through one of his belt-loops. He targeted a knot of pipes just above the gauges she had read, moving with certainty born of practice. Balanced quite precariously on a ladder-rung, he stretched out to untwist a series of bolts. Vex watched him press up on his toes, watched the curves of his calves tense-

While she was thus occupied, Percival pulled a narrow section of pipe away from the wall, and Vex yelped and leaped back as a shower of black dust rained down on her from above.

He called, “Oh, goodness – are you alright?”

She stepped out of the pool of grit and wheezed, “I’m fine-“ before breaking into a fit of ugly coughs. Her eyes watered, to the point where she heard, rather than saw, Percival descending the ladder and landing on the ground before her.

“I am terribly sorry. It’s only soot – harmless, though you shouldn’t breathe too much in – let’s step away from the engine, shall we?”

He guided her by the shoulders, and the air, though still scorching, became somewhat clearer. Vex dabbed at her watering eyes with her handkerchief, still trying to cough away the soot. Percival still steadied her with one hand, but he seemed to have forgotten he was doing so. In his other hand, he held the excised pipe, turning it over and over, inspecting its every facet.

When Vex could at last see through her tears, she noticed his expression was somewhere between confused and grim. She asked, “What’s wrong?”

Percival heaved a long sigh, and released her shoulder. “This pipe is supposed to carry heated air through the house – clean air. I can’t fathom how this much soot got in.”

“Well, that engine is quite an old beast,” Vex wheezed. She raised her hand and muffled a cough behind it.

His frown deepened. “That should be irrelevant. Looking at this, it’s – it’s as if you threw a rock from the top of the rookery and watched it fall up into the sky. It just shouldn’t break this way.”

Vex tried to hold in another burst of coughing while he pondered, and ultimately failed. Percival looked at her pityingly, and muttered, “Oh, dear.”

“After all the trouble that went into making me look pretty this morning,” she lamented, dusting the soot from her shoulders.

“Oh,” Percival said. “Is there a special occasion I’m not aware of?”

She could not help her smile, which was the only expression to encapsulate both her disappointment and her amusement. He had not noticed her efforts in the slightest. “No, nothing special, dear,” she sighed. “Sometimes I just enjoy the ceremony of it all.” The soot had left smudges on her gloves. She glared at them. “And now I suppose I get to enjoy it all over again. Delightful.”

“In that case,” he said, “you’re quite welcome.” He was grinning, and slightly flushed. “I beg your pardon, I am under the distinct impression that a poor chimney-sweep has lost his brush.”

Percival spun the pipe in his hand, and tapped the furred collar of her coat. A rain of black ash sprinkled down around her feet.

Straightening her shoulders, Vex held up one blackened finger. “Lord Percival de Rolo,” she declared, “if you do not immediately beg my forgiveness, I will smudge you.”

He reversed the arc of the pipe, spun it and tucked it under his arm, like an infantry parader with his rifle. Percival bowed deeply, and said, “I must earnestly apologize, Lady Vex’ahlia, for besmirching your good name and your winter coat.”

“That will do,” she said. “Now, if you do not mind, I shall rid myself of this catastrophe and return when I am presentable.”

Percival offered to send some heated water to her room through the engine’ pipes. Despite Vex’s doubts about the temperamental machine, she followed Percival’s instruction, returning to her room with a washcloth in her hand. One of the armoires she had not explored hid a small snarl of brass pipes, a dish, and a drain, and a valve that poured warm water when she opened it. With that assistance she scrubbed away the smudges on her skin, and then spent what felt like hours combing the soot from her hair. She unlaced her boots, and rolled her stocking halfway down - and there, she stopped.

Peeking over the hem of the fabric was a bright scarlet line, and, surrounding it, pink and puckered skin held together by black stitches – her injury from climbing the ladder in the passageway. She had neglected it somewhat in the excitement of the last few days, pushing the twinges of pain downward whenever they tried to interfere. Frowning, she stroked her thumb over the odd texture of the stitches, and hissed when they pulled at her flesh in a distinctly disturbing way. The sight was uncanny, almost nauseating, seeing her skin rent by thread so unnaturally, and at first that overwhelmed her with its strangeness – but the longer she looked, she realized that the wound was even stranger. By the raw edges of the cut, and the inflammation where the thread punctured her skin, the gash looked practically fresh. It was not bleeding, but the scabs were thin, thin enough she thought she might pop through one with her fingernail if she did not move with care.

Now that she had noticed it, the pain felt clearer, sharper, stronger, and trying to ignore it seemed only to intensify it. She finished dressing, tying the boot as securely as she could around her injured foot, and went to look for Percival again.

He was no longer in the engine room, presumably having finished his repairs. The courtyard, which Vex passed throughout her explorations, was empty as well. Mr. Strongjaw had finished installing the new headstone - perhaps Keyleth had brought him in for lunch. Mr. Shorthalt had slept in, and passed her on the stairs; he was delighted to learn Mr. Strongjaw had come to the castle, and immediately set out to greet him while he remained there.

Vex did manage to find Percival after a while of wandering: he was on the third floor of the library, head shoved halfway into a narrow, square portal in the wall. Vex approached, with a curious noise. Another tangle of brass pipes rested in that secret alcove, but this one had been methodically disassembled, its components scattered about Percival’s feet on a smudged drop-cloth. A wooden panel, which had previously hidden the mechanical veins, rested just under a nearby window.

“Another problem?”

“Yes, it would seem so. Soot blocking the clean air, as with the last one.”

“I see. You haven’t seen my brother back yet, have you?”

“No. Tomorrow or the next day, I should think, considering how many errands he’s taken upon himself.” He glanced out from behind the panel, taking her in with a quick up-and-down look. “Did you spend time on this one, as well?”

Vex was taken aback, until she realized he meant her outfit. On the contrary, she had pulled the closest, cleanest jacket from her trunk and dressed in haste, and after combing the soot from her hair she had only braided it loosely. “No, not this one,” she said.

He studied her for a long moment, and then turned back to the pipes with a short hum. He seemed caught in serious contemplation, storing away an imperative fact. Vex’s incredulous laugh startled him enough that he jumped, and he knocked a tool into the pipes with an echoing clang.

“Oh, pardon me, I’m - er - studying up,” he said, and then seemed to curse his own words, continuing with a stammer, “I hardly noticed earlier today, but still, I should learn to notice, if only to acknowledge when you put work into something.”

He spoke half in self-mockery, half in earnest confusion. Vex admitted, “I cannot say whether you are paying me a compliment.”

Meekly, he turned back to the pipes. “Indeed. I must have dropped the compliment in here somewhere,” he muttered.

Vex claimed the nearest armchair and folded her hands pointedly in her lap. “Then I shall wait until you retrieve it,” she declared, grinning.

“If you so insist.” From the open panel there emerged a metallic squeal, summoned by a tense flinch of his arm - he had resumed his work. Vex had no mind to draw him away, only to peek over his shoulder and see what she could divine of the castle’s inner workings. The twinging wound on her angle continued to draw her focus, and she, irritated, unlaced her boot and slipped her foot free. With her toes perch-pointed on the carpet, she lifted the hem of her skirts to see if her wound had bled through her stockings. In the process of her examination, another conspicuous clatter sounded from the wall panel.

“Apologies-” Percival called, and then he was buried in the pipes again. “Pardon my - I had no mind to look-”

Vex let the ruffled hem fall from her fingertips and settle on the floor. “No matter, my Lord,” she said, biting down on a smirk. “I was lost in thought.”

“Oh?” he stammered.

“Yes, this little nick here has been troubling me of late. Perhaps I should visit the surgeon.”

“Ah, from the ladder in the passage,” he recalled. “A shame to hear it’s causing trouble.” He had set about his work again; a soot-smeared pipe emerged from the panel and fell to the drop-cloth with a thunk. “It’s rather late now, but you could go in to town tomorrow,” he suggested. “I’ve a horse and carriage you can borrow, if your brother does not return on time - or I’m certain Mr. Shorthalt would drive you.”

“Would you not rather drive me yourself?”

It was a brazen interjection. Percival leaned out from the panel again, and looked at her nervously. “Into town?”

“Yes.”

“I cannot,” he said, and then flinched at his own words. He raked his hair back from his eyes, frowning, and explained, “Please, I mean no offense, Lady Vex’ahlia, I would be – it would be my honour to escort you anywhere, so you are not a factor in my hesitation, it is-“

She interrupted; “I understand.”

Recalling his fear when she had last gone to visit the doctor, and his desperate confession of the night before - I am trapped here too, he had said - she began to regret asking in the first place. Percival de Rolo’s five-year isolation was likely a complicated problem, combining the weight of his unfulfilled destinies, his paranoia regarding Ripley, and his crippling injury. Belatedly, she realized he now had another reason to mistrust the world beyond, considering his father’s gravestone had been tampered with. Then he had sound, logical reasons to hide in Whitestone castle - but Vex thought fear played a larger part in his retreat. She knew of widowers and young heiresses in Emon who had grown so paralyzed by the terrors of the world that they withdrew from it entirely, fearing all that lived outside their chambers. Percival seemed on the point of succumbing to that phobia, and she could think of only one time he had escaped it since knowing her.

Gently, she asked, “How did you manage to come to Emon?”

Another clang from the engine, and she feared that would be the only response. Percival knelt down to gather the disassembled pipes, and with a huff, he explained, “I was browbeaten into it by my caretaker, and even then I spent most hours huddled in the back of that carriage. Profoundly uncomfortable.”

“Your caretaker?” Vex echoed.

“Of my hand - our good Doctor Trickfoot,” he said. “Only a woman so endlessly patient could be so endlessly stubborn.”

Vex laughed behind her smile. Though the Doctor had been nothing but kind to her, she could easily see how hard it would be to argue with her. Percival did not elaborate; he began to swap the soot-clogged pipes with replacements, and was quickly drawn into silent work. Though he did not restart their conversation, she did not feel compelled to leave. Instead, she retrieved Isle of Glass, the book she had started earlier, and reclaimed her post in the armchair, reading along with the erratic ringing sounds of metal negotiating with metal.

She read undisturbed for several minutes, until she realized the sounds of Percival’s labours had ceased. He was no longer working on the panel, and Vex realized, with a start, that he was hovering at the corner of her chair.

Percival smiled sheepishly, and gestured vaguely at the book. “I quite like this part.”

She felt her expression soften in seeing his eagerness. “Join me, then.”

The chair was not broad enough for them to sit side-by-side, but its arms were plush and curved, and Percival made a perch of one. He read over her shoulder, leaning somewhat crookedly overhead. Doubtlessly he read faster than her - he did so naturally, and he had read the story before - but he waited for her to turn the pages without complaint. He was quite silent, only granting the occasional chuckle when Vex reacted to an event on the page. Though the adventure pulled her in like a dream, she remained partly awake and aware. She found herself dramatizing her own responses, heightening her gasps and giggles, all to elicit smiles from the reader behind her.

He braced his elbow on the back of the chair to steady himself; she felt it crushing the curls of her loose-tied braid. She tried to sit straight and proper, to give him the best view of the words, but in doing this she could not avoid nudging him occasionally with her elbow or shoulder. These touches, accidental though they were, did not startle either party or force them to jolt away or apologize. Invited and accepted, their closeness did not rattle the order of the universe or the peace of the afternoon. The warmth of the engine began to rise through the castle once more, and by that growing contentment the hours were slowly worn away.

--

Vax did not know the lay of Whitestone, and through the narrow, barred window of the cart he could learn little more. Lying on his back, he watched the spearlike tips of trees pass by, their bristled needles sharpening in the growing light. He tried to calm himself, to steady his breath and think of a way out. Stonefell had stripped him of all but the simplest clothes, and Anders had thrown away his lockpicks. He sat up, and – not to his surprise – saw only a bare cart, with no discarded scraps or screws to aid in his escape.

He fell back again, resting his shackled hands on his chest and cursing under his breath. The blank wooden walls pressed in on him. Surely there were reasons not to give up hope, but it was difficult to think beyond his madman’s box.

Then, as despair began to leech into his thoughts, the cart lurched to a stop. He scrambled up to his knees. A pair of voices argued outside, neither of which he could identify – even their words were muffled. The noises circled around the side of the cart, and then, after a clatter, the doors were thrown wide.

As the light flooded his cell, Vax fought the urge to sprint through to freedom. He knew he would not get far. Before him stood a young man wearing a dark jacket, a wide-brimmed hat, and leather gloves, who he presumed was his driver; beside him was a petite, curvy woman with pale blonde hair and rounded cheeks. She wore a high-collared jacket, and carried a heavy black bag.

“There he is,” the woman declared, in a high, bright voice. She climbed into the cart, while the driver looked back and forth in uncertainty. “You’re lucky I caught you before you departed.”

The driver protested, “Ma’am, I don’t know if that’s-“

“-Hush,” she cut in. “Steady your horse up front. We can’t have the cart a-rattling.”

She set the black bag down, and knelt before Vax. With tiny, narrow-fingered hands, she wrenched his cuff free from his shackles and rolled up his sleeve. She worked efficiently, but Vax did not sense the same cold malice in her as he had in Ripley. Stonefell’s warning swirling in his mind, he pleaded, in the quietest, steadiest voice he could muster, “Please, there’s been a mistake. I’m not mad, I swear-“

“You hush up, you-“ she scowled, and spat, “ scoundrel!

Twisting her face into a sneer, she gripped the cuff of his shirt and jabbed him with a needle. She had extracted the tool from her bag so quickly he had hardly seen it, and he yelped in surprise. As he watched, mute with confusion, she drew a full phial of his blood. The sight of that blood leaving him made Vax ill and dizzy at once; he felt as if some part of him, which had remained sacred under his ruse, had at last been breached.

The strange doctor placed the phial in a wooden box, and latched it shut. She shot a furtive look around, and then removed a small, narrow package made of paper from the black bag.

“Listen,” he started again, “I-“

The doctor interrupted. She grabbed one of Vax’s belt loops and shoved the package down the side of his trousers. He looked at her, bewildered, and she pressed one finger to her lips over a cunning little smile.

Then she stepped back, climbed out of the carriage, and called for the driver. “Get moving!” she barked, her diminutive voice straining to sound commanding. “Ripley cannot abide this sloppiness!”

And with that, the doors were shut.

Vax wriggled the package out of his belt, and the parchment fell apart in his trembling hands. Out tumbled a small screwdriver, a narrow loop of thin wire, a tiny hooked wrench. He gasped in delighted recognition; they were tools that could, in a pinch, replace his lockpicks. Gathering the tools, he noticed that the parchment had a note scrawled on the inside:

My dearest Vax – you have the delightful Doctor Trickfoot to thank for this gift. If you can free yourself, meet me at the Whispering Fountain in Port Damali in three days time, at midnight; if you are still shackled then, I will be by the Voukstrono Asylum to liberate you. R & A necessitate more investigation.

Be safe, my little blackbird! I am set to perish of worry.

The note was signed with a swirling monogram - S. G.

With another grateful gasp, Vax pressed the page to his face, as if he could somehow speak his response into it so Gilmore would hear. He snickered, muffled by the paper - the missive smelled ever so slightly of a man’s perfume. Leave it to Shaun Gilmore to transform a warning note into a love letter.

Vax rolled the parchment up tight and shoved it in his pocket.  He inspected the gifts he had been given, separating the tools into some kind of natural order. Gilmore had remembered well; the wire alone would be more than enough to break the manacles. Vax took a breath to steady his hands. He did not have the space in his panicked mind to address the other elements of Gilmore’s letter, to think on Doctor Trickfoot, the Voukstrono Asylum, or their sinister targets. He steadied his breath, and set to work.

Chapter Text

Vex and Percival read together for several long, quiet hours, until the booming voice of Mr. Strongjaw interrupted from the floor below. He bellowed for Lord de Rolo with such volume that Percival, startled, tumbled from his seat on the armchair in a flutter of coattails. While Vex hid her laughter behind the book, he righted himself, and rushed down to the first floor.

Chuckling, Vex permitted herself a languishing stretch, and she approached the nearest balcony rail so she could watch the proceedings below. Mr. Strongjaw stood awkwardly in the doorway, hat crumpled in his hands, elbows tucked in and shoulders hunched, as if he feared the very prospect of touching the bookshelves. His flinty eyes searched the upper balconies with unguarded suspicion – though he did not catch sight of Vex. Keyleth followed him in, drifting to a stop at his side. Stray flecks of white dust hung upon her loose hair and brightly patterned skirts. After her work on the headstone, she looked as if she had been caught in a snowfall.

“Evening, your Lordship,” Mr. Strongjaw called. Keyleth bobbed a quick curtsey.

Percival arrived in Vex’ahlia’s view, crossing the bottom floor. He fidgeted between one position and another, first dusting his palms off on his trousers, then raising his hand as if for a handshake before aborting the gesture, then folding his arms. He stopped a few cool feet away from Keyleth and Mr. Strongjaw, addressing them from a formal distance. “Is everything in order?” he said. “I assume there were no difficulties.”

“Nope, in and done,” Mr. Strongjaw confirmed. “What d’you want I should do with the old stone, m’Lord?”

Narrow fingertips drummed out a swift tempo on the crook of Percival’s folded arm. “Dispose of it,” he said, voice crisp and dismissive. “I have no use for it, so you may do with it as you wish.”

“Much obliged,” Mr. Strongjaw said, sweeping his cap across his chest and taking a short bow.

The conversation seemed unfinished, but Percival exited it regardless, disappearing from Vex’s view under one of the nearby balconies. She heard the clatter of a writing-desk as it was opened, and the scratch of a pen on parchment. Keyleth and Mr. Strongjaw waited, idling side-by-side. They stole a look at each other in the same instant – and, embarrassed to be caught by their mirror, both turned away just as quickly. Mr. Strongjaw fixed his cap, and returned it to his head; Keyleth brushed away the dust upon her skirt.

Amused, Vex leaned over the railing and waved, calling, “Afternoon, Keyleth! Mr. Strongjaw!”

As expected, Keyleth reacted with a most satisfying jump. Noticing Vex on the upper balcony, she returned the salutation with an awkward wave of one slender hand. “Vex! I hadn’t noticed you were here!” Mr. Strongjaw recognized Vex as well, acknowledging her with a nod.

Vex called, “Have you spent a pleasant afternoon, dear?”

“Oh, yes!  Mr. Strongjaw and Mr. Shorthalt and I took tea together, and they taught me to play Avandra’s Favour. They are a natural double act.”

“Is that a good thing?” Mr. Strongjaw muttered. Though he directed his question at Keyleth, his voice was so deep and resonant that Vex could still hear him from the balcony.

“It is!” Keyleth said. “I mean to say I find your conversations entertaining.”

His shoulders and his heavy brow both leapt skyward, as if someone had pulled upon Mr. Strongjaw's puppet-strings. To Vex, he appeared delighted, but Keyleth stumbled into an apology anyway, soothing an offense she had not dealt. “Not that I would not find you amusing on your own. You are very amusing, of course, and that is only when you mean to be-“

Vex sighed, pressing her temples with the tips of her fingers. Still, Mr. Strongjaw preened, his cheeks round and ruddy over his bearded smile.

Their fretting was thankfully interrupted by Percival, who returned with Mr. Strongjaw’s payment in an envelope. Vex shifted, to better see the young Lord’s expression. He had a pensive, furrow-browed look on his face - and it did not seem to pertain to the bill, which he handled carelessly. Mr. Strongjaw snatched the envelope from him, and tucked it in a rather cavernous shirt pocket.

Percival strode away from him again, pacing out a small loop on the library carpet. Abruptly, he rounded back, and ordered, “Tell me once more how this error transpired.”

“By way of that Mr. Anders, m’Lord,” Mr. Strongjaw reported. “He’s the one what changed all the plans and ordered the other carving – the one you had in the wall ‘til just today.”

“And he was also the one who ordered the long-form headstone in the first place?”

“Aye. Followed his instructions to the letter, then he went and changed the letters on me,” Mr. Strongjaw said, with a deep, rumbling guffaw. Bemused, Vex rolled her eyes, and Keyleth produced a short, inelegant snort. 

With an edge of condescension in his voice, Percival cut in; “You are absolutely certain the error was not yours?”

Keyleth recoiled. Vex did a double-take against the rail. Percival stared ahead, unflinching.

The question was answered first with a tense silence, the kind that deflected the gazes of viewers in embarrassment. Mr. Strongjaw took a slow step forward. Only then did Percival seem to notice the sheer size of the man he was challenging, and though his expression remained steady, he leaned incrementally back.  With a condescension that somehow equaled the young Lord’s, Mr. Strongjaw said, “I have pride in what I make, your Lordship. I might not read too well, but I’m careful, and I’m honest.”

Another silence, painful in its length and crushing weight. Finally, Percival repeated, “You can’t read?”

“Nope. And that don’t stop me,” Mr. Strongjaw said. His stone-grey eyes were just as cold as Percival’s, and the conviction in them was just as unconquerable.

The young Lord broke the stare first, looking down and away. He was lost in thought again; Keyleth interjected, “The new headstone looks wonderful, Percival. Mr. Anders must have simply changed his mind.”

“Of course,” Percival agreed. “Very well. That will be all.”

His dismissal had no effect. Keyleth did not move except to fidget, and Mr. Strongjaw stood where he was, studying his employer. In a low, serious voice, he said. “I’d like to do right by Lord Frederick. Seemed a fair man, the few times I met him.”

“Yes,” Percival said. His voice had gone distant and thin. “Yes, he was.”

Mr. Strongjaw regarded him a moment longer, and then offered his broad hand for Percival to shake. Vex started on the balcony, leaning forward, and Keyleth fluttered up to them, a fumbling explanation halfway to her lips – that the young Lord meant no offense, that he preferred not to give his hands or let them be touched – but Percival surprised them both. He shook Mr. Strongjaw’s hand once, with a loose and careless grip. His mind seemed elsewhere; he completed the gesture without meeting anyone’s eyes, and then drifted away from them without further words.

Mr. Strongjaw turned, and made his way to the library door. Vex, struck with an idea, called after him. “Excuse me, Mr. Strongjaw?”

He turned on one boot-heel. “Aye, your Ladyship?”

“Are you headed back in to town?”

“I should think so. Scanlan’s comin’ along too, so he said.”

“And you met my brother there before?”

“I did.”

“Well, give him my regards, if you see him again,” Vex huffed. “And then tell him to send word to the castle, please, he’s been puttering about in town for a dog’s age.”

Mr. Strongjaw gave another full-hearted chuckle. “Aye, I’ll pass that along.”

Keyleth, still hovering at Mr. Strongjaw’s side, folded her hands behind her back and tipped forward to address him. “I shall show you out, then.”

“Thank you, your Ladyship.”

They turned, headed for the door. Mr. Strongjaw mumbled, looking down at his boots, “I hope I didn’t track too much snow in-“

“-oh no, please, don’t worry – it’s only snow, it should melt-“

Vex waved a sarcastic, unseen farewell at their backs, and glanced down to Percival. To her surprise, he was already looking back at her, wearing an expression that was equal parts lost and hopeful. Though he remained mute, he was pleading for something; Vex did not know what it was, and tilted her head gently to the side, asking him a silent question.

“Keyleth,” Percival said, quite suddenly.

The departing pair halted where they were; Keyleth turned, attentive. “Yes?”

“Yes,” Percival echoed, and rearranged his hair with an awkward, idle hand. “Mr. Strongjaw, rather. Have you any interest in learning?”

Everyone stared once more. Percival cleared his throat, and clarified, “In learning to read, I mean.”

“Some,” Mr. Strongjaw admitted. “I started a while back, but my buddy Pike’s been too busy to teach these days.”

“I see. Keyleth,” Percival said again, “please help our guest in selecting a few books that will satisfy his attention. There might be some illustrated volumes by the doors, I think.”

Percival quitted them, making a straight line for the stairs. Mr. Strongjaw looked confused, but Keyleth brightened immediately, and guided their guest down an aisle of books. The miner followed, his steps hesitant, as if the books were having conversations on which he did not wish to intrude. At Keyleth’s encouragement, he went along, and vanished from Vex’s sight beneath the balcony.

Vex rose from the rail and returned to her seat, opening the book on her lap. She turned the pages idly, seeking the next illustration – and indeed, there was a full-page woodcut of a battle at sea, which pleased her immediately. Percival arrived at the top of the steps in short order. He gave a winded sigh, having climbed the stairs so quickly. Gesturing down to the floor below, he mouthed, “Was that alright? Rude of me?”

With a smile, Vex whispered, “No, no, that was fine.” Percival relaxed, and she returned to flipping through her own book. She thought Percival might join her, reclaiming his perch on the chair, but he did not. Instead, he moved straight toward a bookcase further down the balcony, tracking a finger along the shelf, scanning the spines. Perhaps he was being polite, waiting to see if she would call him to return. An easy, unbidden smile captured her lips, and she let her heart leap freely about with fondness. Whatever impulse of benevolence had suddenly possessed Percival, she found it quite adorable. There was an almost self-serving pride in a well-chosen love: that she had been among the first to acknowledge the kindness in him set her to preening. Still, she was equally pleased to see that kindness spreading to others. Vex remained silent, enjoying what felt like a collective victory, until Mr. Strongjaw and Keyleth at last selected their books and departed through the library doors, chattering all the while.

Still, Percival did not join her. Vex let her heels swing back and forth over the carpet a few times, and turned to watch him, while her fingers idly followed the contours of the illustration. The young lord bit his lower lip as he scanned through the book titles – it was no tactic of evasion, but some genuine project he had immersed himself in. “What are you doing over there, Percival?” she called, trying to smother any impatience in her voice. Though the words come back to my side were not spoken, they were audibly threaded in her words.

He did not obey the implicit order. “I’ve had another idea,” he replied instead. “Do you happen to recall your mother’s maiden name?”

Vex’s fingertips froze, midway through tracing the rigging on a warship mast.

When she did not speak, Percival continued, “Mr. Strongjaw saying he wanted to do right by my father – well, that sparked me into thinking what that meant, doing right by the dead. So, your mother – her belongings might have been lost, but she must have an extended family somewhere. We’ve got peerage records going back centuries, so if there are any living cousins or uncles or whatnot, they might have letters, or a portrait-“

He smiled, and he was so clearly enchanted by his own brilliance that he would not see her growing horror.

No matter how many centuries were covered in the peerages, none would contain her mother’s name. There was no peerage for the likes of serving women or nursemaids. Still, still, he trumpeted on; “It seems only fair, with all the work you are doing for me and my family. Something to remember her by, as you said? Maiden name?”

“I don’t recall it,” Vex said finally said, fighting to keep her face steady. She could not control her voice – it trembled.

That did not deter him; “Not a worry, we can narrow it down. Was she from Emon, originally?”

Vex dug her fingernails into the book, scalloping the border of the illustration until the ships crumbled beneath her fingers. “You promised you would never ask,” she said.

Finally, he turned to look at her, his hand still hovering above the books. She cursed herself; her resistance was enough of a hint, and she could see the young Lord’s mind at work, mathematical and ruthless, eliminating each possibility until he hit upon the truth. Vex looked down at the book again – she would not be able to bear the sight of the revelation on his face, whether it faded to disgust or pity or shock.

What a fool she had been, to think she could bury her past under fine clothes and flirtation. She had forgotten the urgency of her disinheritance – or perhaps she had not, perhaps it was worse. Perhaps it was Percival’s wealth and generosity that made her so eager to sink her teeth into him. Perhaps it was that very lowborn blood that made her scheme for better treatment than she deserved-

She had bent nearly in half over the book, cowering in an effort to hide her expression. The soft thuds of tentative footsteps drew close to her chair. He knelt before her, a blurred shadow in her periphery until his dark-gloved hand slipped across the page.

Vex’ahlia’s tightened fist lay atop the book; Percival touched it softly, resting his fingertips upon her knuckles. He caressed the path of her fingers, trying to coax her hand into unfurling, and he said, “Vex?”

She did not move; he drew his hand back up, and rested it gently over hers.

“You swore you would not ask,” she repeated.

“I have nothing to ask,” he said. “If you presume your parentage is of great interest to me, you are entirely mistaken; there is not a thing in the world I find more tedious.”

Vex sighed. She could not love him and carry her lie further.

“Our mother was a laundress,” she said. “I don’t think Vax and I were ever supposed to know, but our father is a man seized by fits of useless cruelty. So the old manor burned, when we were eight – and we escaped, but not all the servants managed that, and father told us – told us our mother was among them. Our true mother. And we knew her – she had been our nursemaid, and pretended to be nothing more, all that time.”

She took a scalding, shuddering breath, and cursed. “Everyone pretended. The Lady Syngorn pretended to be our mother while she lived, but she took ill and died when we were three. And so when the manor burned, the whole façade collapsed. Father couldn’t be bothered to maintain it for us. I’m only surprised the secret lasted as long as it did.”

Percival’s thumb stroked up and down the side of her hand. She could not meet his gaze yet, but she forced an apologetic smile. “I’m talking quite a lot about this – this question you have no interest in.”

“Is this what you have been hiding from me?” he said. He leaned further down, so she could not avoid his eyes any longer. He held her gaze, smiling gently, still trying to be understanding. She felt a furious, desperate compulsion to test him, to crush all his pretty expectations of her, to see if he could only be kind when it was easy.

“No,” she said. “That is not all of it.”

He remained silent, his hand still resting on her tightened fist.

“My father plans to take the whole mess to the law and disinherit us, Vax’ildan and I both. And so we might as well have been born the bastards of a laundress, for all the good our title has done for us.”

“Why on earth would he do that?” Percival whispered. “Why would he disinherit you?”

With an exhausted shrug, Vex’ahlia replied, “Perhaps we are blights on his reputation, or perhaps he has simply lost patience. Or perhaps this was always the plan.”

“He will come to regret that,” Percival said.

His voice was cool and factual. Confused, Vex let her response fade from her ready lips, and studied his expression instead. She had seen him angered twice that day. Earlier, when he had been frustrated by the cryptic words of his father, he seethed and snapped in a bloodied, burning kind of rage. This was another kind, deep and assured: it was the righteous anger of a judge encountering an insufferable injustice. Vex was momentarily cowed from her confessions, stunned at such a reaction on her behalf.

After a long moment, he growled, “There is no justifiable reason for a man to discard his children.”

“We are not his children, we are his bastards. He has all the reason he needs,” Vex argued.

Percival made a pitying noise. “Has he convinced you that your blood somehow excuses this mistreatment? Has your father branded that onto you so deeply?”

She did not quite know how to answer him. Suddenly, all she could think of was Percival’s hand, how it had begun to weigh hers down, how odd it felt to have it resting there so patiently. She had prodded him and grasped at him so many times, and this marked the first occasion he had reached for her. She said nothing, but she uncurled her hand, and let him twine their fingers together over the pages of the book.

“It isn’t true, Vex’ahlia. Blood does very little to determine the worth of a person. I have known some extremely vile people with terribly impressive titles. I have met so few people with your capacity for kindness and brilliance and those are worth infinitely more.”

“Percival,” she interrupted. “I agreed to help you find the vault only because I was promised a reward, and I hoped that reward might sustain me after losing my title.”

Vex stared at him, but his smile was unscathed, and now it grew a little wicked. “You will have to try harder if you want me to condemn you, dear. If your only secret is that finding the vault is a matter of survival for you, you will have to try so very much harder. And as to this matter of lineage, all I shall say is that there are swaths of titled idiots who could stand to learn about true nobility from Lady Vex’ahlia.”

She felt him pull slightly against the page, and he began to unravel their clasped fingers – but instead of severing their touch, he caressed her hand and cradled it in his. He raised it to his lips, and kissed it softly. He lingered there, in reverence and communion, while his warm, slow exhale of breath swept over her skin. He shut his eyes. His lashes fell to his cheek. Each slow second drifted past them like a feather. Vex felt as if her heart did not beat until Percival’s eyes opened and his lashes drifted up, joining their gaze,

“You do not believe me yet," he said, his words brushing against her, slipping through the slender columns of her fingers, “I can see it on your face.”

He set her hand back down upon the pages of the book, but did not release it, and she did not pull it away. His voice brightening, he continued, “In truth, I am almost relieved – if coin is all you care for, then I stand a chance at repaying you. I was starting to worry I had incurred a debt I could never satisfy.”

If anything, his acceptance only made her feel worse – more entangled, more confused, and her heart thundered so loudly she thought she might be deafened. “It is not all I care for,” she protested. “Perhaps it was, once, but I have come to care for you too, and I want to see your troubles put to rest. I earnestly do.”

“Ah,” he said, “so you have put aside a selfish path and found a selfless one." His eyes narrowed, his expression turning towards the contemplative. "And yet, both motives would justify your actions. I still have reason to be grateful for the what, regardless of the why. If your true motives have made no difference in your actions, perhaps there is no difference at all, hm?”

Vex squeezed his hand, almost punitively. “Of course there is a difference. There will come a time when those paths diverge, and when their courses are impossible to reconcile. In that moment I would – I will – take the path that proves my loyalty is greater than my greed.”

“Not greed, dear Vex, necessity,” he said gently.

“Do you not believe me?” she challenged. “Do you not believe I could have developed a genuine attachment to you?”

“I – well, it does sound a little incredible when you phrase it like that,” he said, nearly on the point of laughter. “But I do indeed believe that you, of anyone in this world, might have all your other motivations eclipsed by your generosity.”

Vex glared at him, but he made an apologetic noise, and his thumb passed soothingly over back of her hand. “I am not trying to challenge you,” he continued. “I am confronting the question itself,” he said, “of whether a person’s selfish desires can be overcome by selfless ones – and if that means a man can be forgiven for past selfishness. I have certainly forgiven you, and effortlessly. It is something powerful to think about.”

She could not help a laugh, and she leaned forward, pressing her forehead into his. “You,” she said, “are very good at getting distracted by philosophies.”

“You beg interesting questions,” he replied, while she still leaned against him. He nudged her away, drawing back to meet her eyes. “To the point, then – do you trust that I will not toss you to the street, and that I still accept your friendship and assistance?”

Vex nodded, smiling dizzily. She thought her heart had chosen uncommonly well. “Yes, I think so.”

“And that today I have seen a larger picture of your character, and that I have deemed it a kind and worthy one?”

“If you insist,” she said.

“I certainly do,” he finished. He released her hand, and stood before her, resuming his airs of propriety. “Now – I believe we still have some preparations to make for this evening, and the sun has almost set. We had best gather those hot drinks and heavy coats, and see what other tricks my father has left for us. Come, come-“ He offered his hand once more, and helped her to her feet.


--

They spent a scattered evening while they waited for the sky to dim. In her preoccupation with Mr. Strongjaw, Keyleth had not prepared dinner by the usual time. Only she, Vex'ahlia, and Percival remained in the castle, and all three were content to eat quickly by the hearth-light rather than sitting for a proper meal. The young women spent the rest of the evening together, in easy conversation, their paths crossing Percival's a handful of times. Meanwhile, the young Lord dashed about in preparation, recording star coordinates on scraps of paper in the library, or seeking Keyleth's aid in preparing tea in the kitchen. Though Vex felt somewhat awkward about her earlier conversation with Percival, whenever he passed by her, he was exceptionally friendly, and unusually happy. She feared the gulf of class that still divided them, but his blushing, rushing antics were so delightful, and so immediate, that he wore down her fears.

When Vex eventually retired to her room to dress for the cold expedition ahead, she had to press the heels of her hands to her cheeks - they had begun to ache from all the smiling.

Night crept up to the castle, climbed over the walls, and bled in through the windows. Its infiltration was quick and effortless. Vex hardly took note of that silent intruder until it was upon her, making the halls too dark to navigate without light, sharpening the subtle groans of the machinery below into auditory omens. But Vex no longer feared the creaks and cries beneath her feet. She carried the last of her tapers down the hall on the fourth floor, past the vandalized office, and up the stairs to the observatory.

She opened the door, bracing for freezing wind. Though the room was cold, the night was uncommonly still, and no gust arrived to knock her back. Inside the chamber, someone – Percival? Keyleth? – had lit six of the lanterns mounted in the walls, and they formed a serene ring of glowing light. Vex entered, taking a half-dozen curious steps closer. A single curving panel of the ceiling had been drawn back, exposing a portion of the deep black sky and its distant stars. The telescope was projected out of that portal, its brass neck fully outstretched, its glass eye tilted heavenward. The rest of the room stood in peaceful symmetry, as the six lanterns cast six identical telescope-shadows, all of them spiraling outward from the center – like a flower, she thought. Vex looked down, bemused, and saw her own six-way shadow beneath her feet.

The door behind her squealed, and she glanced back to see Percival closing it gently with his foot. He held a pair of hefty mugs, of the kind one might use for ale – although steam curled appealingly from their tops. Seeing Vex was already present, he smiled, and came to her side, offering up one of the tankards.

“Tea?” she asked, confused.

He nodded, and she relieved him of one of the tankards. “The mugs are odd, but they keep it warm," he explained.

Vex took a cautious sip, and the tea was still hot enough to sting her tongue. She jerked backwards in surprise and made a face. Chuckling, he teased, "I did warn you."

After her reciprocal glower, they shared a long moment of silent contentment, surveying the observatory. “This is an incredible room,” she said. “And your father built all of it?”

“He did,” Percival said – and though his voice was somewhat hesitant, it did not warn her away from the topic. He spoke with cautious nostalgia. “It was a simple castle watchtower, before that. He added the walls, the dome, and of course he designed the telescope.”

“Do you remember it being built?”

“I do,” he said, sounding surprised. He recounted the memory; “I remember scaffolding, and I remember them taking old stones down on these spectacular machines - all the cables and pulleys. Must have been well over a decade ago. It was certainly before Cass was born.”

Vex stepped cautiously closer. Their shoulders were not quite touching, but she could feel the fabric of his jacket rasping against hers. “That was your younger sister?”

“Youngest,” he confirmed. “She would give you a far better tour of this place. Cassandra memorized every single star in that sky. I only wanted to muck about with the telescope, which was absolutely forbidden, of course.”

He interrupted himself with a self-conscious laugh, and took another drink of tea. Into his mug, he mumbled, “I’m rambling.”

“I like it,” Vex said. “Hearing about your family.”

Percival nodded, and though he seemed to accept her encouragement, he fumbled awhile for his next words. Vex nudged him – gently, so as not to knock his drink askew – and said, “You and my brother would get along famously, if you hadn’t started off on the wrong foot.”

“And what makes you say that?” Percival replied.

“He, too, would want to muck about with the telescope.”

Percival looked at her, trying to stifle a smile. “Shall we muck about with the telescope?”

“It is the popular thing to do.”

“After you, Lady Vex.”

The telescope looked to her like a broad brass cannon, aimed over the lip of the wall to target invaders below. It sat upon a stout wooden console, about the size of a writing-desk, which was decorated by a mess of dials, cranks, and switches. The dials were not unlike the library catalogue, displaying numbers instead of letters, and dictating degrees and coordinates. As they approached, the air grew warmer, and Vex heard the familiar hiss of pressurized air against metal. The telescope, then, was somehow linked to the engine - or perhaps it had its own.

Vex was slightly intimidated by the complexity of it all, but Percival placed his mug of tea on the ground, and strode confidently over to the console. With audible ticks and clicks he reorganized the dials, and drew back once they were positioned to his satisfaction. He pulled a lever, and the entire apparatus gushed pale clouds of steam from its joints. Sections of the telescope twisted and turned, adjusting lenses and sockets, moving in a way that was more reptilian than mechanical; it brought to mind a sleeping snake or lizard, blinking the world into focus. Vex liked the spectacle of it all; she could not help bouncing with excitement throughout the automatic transformation.

“Here,” Percival said. He stepped back, and gestured to the telescope’s eyepiece, which rested above the console. “The moon should be quite clear tonight.”

Vex pressed her eye to the aperture. And oh, she had expected a little white disc, a pale pebble hovering in the blackness, like the moon in an everyday sky – but no, instead she marveled at an entire alien landscape, a plain of grey and white marked with craters and peaks. She looked down upon the moon's surface as if she were a bird, flying above it at a great altitude, and the prospect of diving into those strange lands thrilled her to delight. She had always, in some old, instinctual part of her, wanted to fly.

She must have gasped quite loudly at the vision, because Percival was laughing again – good-natured and warm, but still a little mocking. Vex could not be bothered with that; she was enraptured. After another minute agog at the eerie world, she reared up from the eyepiece and said, “Could we see the other moon from here?”

“Yes, I think so-“

Percival moved to adjust the dials himself, but Vex interrupted him – “Oh, let me do it, Percy – tell me, how should I place them?”

He leaned close over her shoulder, smiling. “Alright, alright, increase this top dial here by eight degrees-“

Once he completed his instruction, she pulled the lever again. Another hissing steam cloud, and the contraption adjusted itself. Vex bent over the eyepiece before it was finished, and this time saw a field of pinkish-red, swirling and whirling like a desert mirage. She realized she was looking at a storm of some kind, at clouds and dust whipped into motion by a faraway wind – and yet she could practically feel that same wind stirring about her, so vivid was the picture.

She sprang back again, and asked him to show her something else, something new. Referring only once to the coordinates scrawled on his pocket notes, Percival gave Vex'ahlia a tour of the nearest galaxies, of orbs of scattered stars and strange glowing planets. He found two stars hanging so close together that they blended into one light unless she narrowed her eyes to split them apart.  They spent an hour, or perhaps much longer, in exploration. The machine’s periodic exhales of steam kept them from growing too cold, and the console itself radiated heat. They were free of the urgency and frustration of the other puzzles. The telescope moved serenely, fluidly, precisely, all its pieces ticking into synchronicity with each other to sharpen the stars in its view.

It felt somehow different from all the other riddles they had solved together. On those distant nights, nothing in the world had mattered but the answers, and the dead de Rolos seemed to swarm around them, cooling their joy; here, Vex’ahlia felt much the opposite. The puzzle itself mattered little. In the scheme of things, it was meaningless. It was so much nothing, next to the piece of the sky Percival mapped for her. It was incidental next to the weight of his hand on her shoulder, or on the small of her back, as he guided her away from the panel or down to the lens. The realities of life would consume them eventually, but she was not in reality; she was soaring over the skies of distant planets.

Only once the initial thrill of discovery had cooled did she realize that Percival had not looked through the telescope once, nor had he requested a turn for himself. “Would you like a look, Percy?”

“No, no, I am enjoying a spectacle of my own,” he said smugly.

Vex felt herself turning scarlet. She glared at him, and he laughed a quick, light laugh, one that was almost a giggle. “You are too genuine in your delight,” he continued. “For all our talk of the secrets we keep from each other, I think I have known your true character all along.”

Too genuine?” she retorted. “In what contest? What am I too genuine for?”

In response, his smile grew tense, and then vanished entirely. Vex took her hands away from the console, worried that she had crossed an unseen boundary.

Percival gave her no chance to ask. He said, “To business, then,” and pushed past her toward the console. He adjusted the dials, and pulled the lever. A cloud of steam rolled across the stone floor, but instead of the now-familiar shifts in the machinery, the console itself rattled; then, with a screech of metal, its front panel parted along a middle seam. Percival and Vex stepped back in confusion – at first, it seemed like the compartment was empty. Yet as the steam cleared, they saw that the bottom of the compartment did not exist; instead, it opened onto a hole. Vex carefully gathered her skirts and knelt to inspect the strange gap. A second surface existed below the console, a floor underneath the floor on which she knelt. It, too, appeared to be stone, and it stretched in all directions indefinitely, disappearing in the dark. She leaned away, so the torches could illuminate the secret surface, and the firelight glinted off something that was a bright, unnatural green.

She squinted to discern the shape, and grinned. There, embedded in the hidden floor, and surrounded by concentric rings of jade-glass symbols, was the final key to the vault.
In faint awe, she reported, “Percival, there is another glyph here, under the floor! I think I can reach the key – should I take it?”

There was no answer. She turned back, her knees scraping across the frigid stone. Percival had backed away from the telescope, and he had not joined her to inspect their discovery. He stared at her instead, mouth trembling on the verge of words. Then the words spilled past his lips, though his voice was still fragile, hesitant; “I need to tell you something.”

He shut his eyes, and corrected himself; “I need to tell you everything.”

Vex froze, torn apart at once by her concern, her wariness, her curiosity. She turned slowly to face him and settled down where she knelt, folding her hands atop her skirts. At her attention, Percival added a pained laugh. “And even now, you must look at me so earnestly!”

She remained silent; she could see on his face that he was deciding something, and she had learned to let him finish that process without interruption. Vex held her tongue, ignoring her pulses of nervousness. The chill of the stone floor bled through her skirts and into her skin. At last, Percival said, “You shall have the truth. It is a complicated truth, and far from painless – I hardly know where to begin.”

He began to pace, scraping one thumb along the line of his jaw. He moved away from the telescope first, and then rounded back to her. “Do you recall the night we met, Vex’ahlia?”

“I do,” she said. Her own voice, when it emerged, seemed gentle even to her ears. It was how she spoke to fearful creatures when she enchanted them, how she reached out to the earth with her magic. Maybe that arcane tone would calm him, too. “We met in the forest,” she said, “outside Emon. We walked together awhile. We befriended a bear.”

Percival’s footsteps halted, and he confessed, “I did not believe that night was real. You were-“ a curl of icy air emerged from between his lips, a soft, hapless sigh. He started again. “Finding such a rare, strange thing as you, in such a wild wood – I did not find it possible. I thought you had been sent .”

He fell quickly silent and shook his head, appalled by his own choice of words.

“Sent?” Vex repeated. “Sent by whom?”

Her soothing tone had no effect; his distress was climbing; he paced again, circling left and right before her, one hand tangling through his hair. “That – that is the heart of it,” he said. “I did not spend five years in isolation because I desired it. I was not permitted to leave.”

Vex watched him with mounting horror. He continued, his words coursing from his lips with such fervour she could no longer dream of stopping them; “I was only permitted letters, or sanctioned visits. I could call my doctors up from Whitestone. I could order the supplies I needed. Everything else – no ventures into town. No servants – all the old ones banished, and any replacements prohibited. And forbidden above anything else was opening the vault. That would be – utterly foolish-“

He lurched to a stop, his hands still fretting with his hair, pressing now and again to his face as if to smother his own panic; “So, to ensure I – that I obey – she watches over me. At first I thought it was magic of some kind, because she knew things she had no way of knowing, but that – no. She has simply been hiring people to shadow me, paying or blackmailing them."

“I went to Emon to test the limits of her surveillance, and that – that was a terrible mistake, perhaps. Everywhere I went, everyone stared. Everyone asked questions. I heard a thousand excuses for the false interest of complete strangers. Lord de Rolo, I find the history of your family so fascinating. Lord de Rolo, you would do well to expand your business ties. Anyone could have funneled my answers back to her, eager to collar the little pup who had chewed through his leash.”

He fumed, silent, unmoving. Vex could hold her questions back no longer. She whispered, “You thought this woman hired me to watch you? Percival, it was only happenstance-”

“I am not a believer in happenstance,” he snapped. “Coincidence is only the mask favoured by schemes of deception. So, yes. That is what I thought.”

He sighed, and in the following terrible silence, he regained his composure somewhat. At last, he continued, “And that is what I must tell you. I did not invite you here because I was inspired by your courage. I invited you – and everyone I met on my trip to Emon – because I suspected one or more of you were complicit in my captivity. I planned to wait, and find you out, and learn how you were communicating with your masters. And once I had determined who was involved, I would turn them traitor, or if they would not crack, I planned to wring their information from them using any means necessary.”

Even when his words concerned her directly, Percival could not bear to look at her. Vex leaned forward, trying to force his gaze, but he was unreachable. She asked, “So that is why you invited Mr. Gilmore and Ambassador Stormwind here, and that is why Keyleth lives in this castle?”

“Yes.”

“And my brother?” Vex'ahlia's hands tightened in her skirts. “You barely knew him.”

“I knew enough to recognize his value as leverage over you,” Percival said darkly.

Vex stopped, speechless. Percival breathed in and finally, finally leveled his stare at her. “It does not matter any longer.”

He strode closer. “You have exposed the guilty parties. Anders, and Ripley – between their machinations and sabotage, most mysteries are now accounted for. They have both been correspondents throughout my imprisonment, and they have fed information to my enemy. Ripley does not surprise me; she could not scrape half a moral from her festering swamp of a soul. Anders, I-” his face became drawn “-he was a family friend. My friend. I would never have guessed, had you not pressed the question.”

Silence – and then Percival laughed, and the sound was fraught with pain. His eyes were fixed on her now, fascinated, and that was somehow worse, as she could see all the frustration contorting his thoughts. “Even that could be explained away! Perhaps you turned them in to – to ingratiate yourself, no? My mind still screams that this is all her plan, that you are gaining my trust on false pretenses – that you will lead me to the vault and slit my throat on the doorstep of my victory – but – I disregard it. I cannot hear a single sensible thought over the cacophony in my heart.” He pressed his hand to his chest, fingers clawing into the fabric of his shirt, as if he fought to quell the affected organ. “If you are her pawn then I have already lost. I can no longer bear to sacrifice you.”

His breaths came quick and ragged; his voice was trembling on the verge of tears. “Please,” he finished, “if you are under her dominion, I ask only for a portion of mercy. Act swiftly. Take that key and destroy it. Seal the vault forever, and go. I will not disobey again.”

Vex rose, smoothly, slowly, to her feet. Percival watched her warily, as if he were bracing for her to strike him.

“What heartless tyrant has done this to you, Percy?”

He did not move. That cold, gathered façade he always wore had at last been torn away; though his expressions were still small, still naturally restrained, she could now clearly read the confusion written there. Vex clenched her fists, her fury and hatred writhing in her stomach, twisting in her throat. “Name her,” she said. “Name the bitch and I will-“

Her voice broke; what she wished to promise him was a vengeance beyond words. Percival still looked so lost, and Vex could hardly bear it. She pressed on; “Have you truly been suffering this way for five years, thinking that every person who – who dared to show you kindness was a traitor in the making?”

She crossed the floor and closed in on him, her steps ringing. “Is this why you call me a sprite or a pixie – because you believe that my loyalty is an impossible thing, a thing that you have won through a fae bargain – that I will one day claim your soul in payment? Is that what you think of – of Keyleth, who has given so much time to you? Can you understand no other motive?”

“I-“ he stammered, “I am not ungrateful-“

“-And you do realize that your fear plays into her hands! How hard can it be to pursue a man who never leaves his castle, and who has no connections? What need has this woman of jailors, when your fears alone have held you captive?”

Vex cut herself short; Percival's eyes were wide, and she realized he had misconstrued himself as the target of her fury. While she caught her breath, his gaze softened. “You will not take the key.” He realized aloud.

“I could not possibly care less for it,” Vex cried. She placed her own hand to her neck, where the other key rested. “I only care for this one because you entrusted it to me-“ and at that, another revelation struck her, and she closed in on him so he could not look away, grasping his arms “-and why would you have done that, if you did not trust me in some capacity?”

He faltered further. His shoulders sagged. He looked helpless in her grip. “I wanted to. Because I wanted to.”

Vex dug her fingers into him, enough to be firm without being painful, enough to prove her reality. She vowed, “I am no deception, Percy. I have no secret masters, and no desires to attend to but my own, and with all sincerity I want to help you – will you allow me?”

He nodded, but he said nothing. Vex, fearing that she had pushed too far, asked him quietly, “Have I said too much?”

Percival processed her question, and then he looked up and came to life again. “No, no,” he said, his voice barely a whisper. “You are entirely correct. Almost entirely correct.”

He was staring at her, his eyes darting across her face as if marveling in its every detail. “Almost?” she repeated. She let her hands drift lower on his arms, loosening her grip. “What mistake have I made?”

A pause, and then - “You must have some manner of magic in you,” he said.

Vex gave him a weak, breathless smile, and with a disbelieving sigh, he leaned forward. She felt Percival's forehead press against hers. He caught her by the waist, his hands clinging loosely to the belt of her winter coat. Vex, stunned and unthinking, trailed her hands up to his shoulders. Until he was ready to speak, she would hold him. She could feel him shaking – laughing? No, not quite laughing, but something close to it – so close that his voice climbed near to laughter’s melody - “I am – I am like one of those wandering soldiers in the stories,” he said. “The wounded deserter following a will-o-wisp across a moor. I am lost, but I am rapturous, knowing I might soon be free. You can see, can’t you, how you would be an impossible thing for me to believe in?”

She felt the soft rasp of silk against her cheek - the touch of his gloved fingertips. “And yet – somehow I do. It frightens me, but I do. It is in the nature of most lights to burn away. Even the stars will go out in time. But I have faith in you, my little spirit, more faith in you than in the returning rise of the sun. I refuse to diminish you.”

Vex’ahlia stood frozen in his grasp, captivated and speechless. Perhaps there was a word, or a turn of phrase, or some other way to voice what she felt – that sudden-yet-slow outpouring of affection, the gratitude and pain, the perfect sympathy and agonizing incompletion – but she could think of nothing - and the feeling burned inside her, aching to escape - and so she kissed him.

She pressed up on her toes, she took his face in her hands, and Vex’ahlia kissed him, pressing soft and desperate against his mouth, as if to capture what he had just declared. And Percival grasped her waist and slid his fingers through her hair and kissed her too. The wordless agony within her vanished, and the joy remained. She shut her eyes. Nothing then but darkness, and an outward brush of breath, a sound of blissful certainty.

In the passing of that infinite moment, she descended, falling back on her heels. Percival drifted with her, still obligingly gathered in her hands. Her breaths quivered in her throat, in her shoulders, and she kept her eyes closed because she was abruptly, viscerally afraid of what she had just done - but he held her still, and he smiled, and his fingers slowly, tenderly, began to arrange her hair around her face.

“So,” he breathed, and his words were more sensation than sound, “then - then you are at least a little real.”

She drew slightly back, just in time to see the bloom of his broad, effortless smile. His gaze, blue and bright, rested still upon her eyes, never diverting. Vex liked the expression so much, she grasped the lapels of his overcoat to pull him down and kissed him once more, and his swallowed laugh tickled against her lips. The most beautiful sight in the world, she thought, was the smile of someone who knew their love was returned.

When she ended the second kiss, he bore a slight blush on his pale cheeks. His glasses had slid down his nose, and the stiff lapels of his jacket stuck straight outwards where she had grasped them.  “I am not entirely-“ he was interrupted by his own laughter, as Vex pushed his glasses back up his nose with one fingertip, “-ah, thank you. Rescuing my dignity, how kind.”

“Of course,” she said.

After a pause, he stammered, “What was I talking about?”

Smiling, Vex slid her hands under his overcoat, and linked them together around his waist. She had to crane her neck to look at him in such a position, but she hardly minded. “You were charming me with fairies and will-o-wisps.”

“Oh. Oh, right, yes-”

For all she wanted to tease him further, her happiness overflowed, and seemed to speak for her: “Percival, you must never forget – I would never leave you lost – I would never leave you at all if I could.” She brightened with an idea, and tightened her hold on him. “Let me take you into Whitestone tomorrow! We can see something you like - perhaps that inventor’s exhibition – I want to see you marvel at some brilliantly pointless little mechanism. I like the smile you wear when you learn of clever things.”

“As you wish,“ he agreed, delivering a smirking kiss to her forehead. Coyly, he added, “I do not think resisting you would be entirely worth the trouble.”

She pulled him closer, and rested her cheek on the plane of his chest before her. His heart rapped against her ear, quick and light and warm. Vex scraped her nails teasingly on Percival’s back, enough to make him flinch toward her. She tried to resist her laughter at first, but then realized it was unnecessary. Her voice skipping with delight, Vex said, “Of course not! You have suffered more than your fair share of trouble, darling.”

Perhaps that was too weighty an observation for the moment, but in a single smooth gesture, Percival embraced her. His arms trailed over her back, one hand cradling her head against his chest. His fingers traced through her hair, learning the gentle weave of the braid until he had memorized it. Vex shut her eyes, content, and smiled when his voice rumbled through her ribs. “One day soon,” he said, “this – this madness will be over, and I can turn myself to better things.”

Some unreadable thought overcame him, one both tragic and joyful, and with a short hum, he pulled her tighter to his chest, and bowed his head into her shoulder.

The ache in his voice struck her, and dispersed the haze of her elation. His suffering was worse than she had dreamed; hatred began to boil in her belly for whatever loathsome woman had condemned Percival to his solitude. Vex turned toward him, kissed his hair, his cheek, and he brought their lips together once more, and this time they lost themselves to the pleasure of it, to the gentle push and rise and fall - and as she kissed him she vowed the night would not belong to his watchers or his ghosts; it would be theirs, and the starlit tower would be haunted by a happy memory.

He broke away from her and stole a shuddering breath, and she held him close and whispered to him, fierce and certain and soft at once – “You know now – you know that I am yours. While you keep your faith in me, keep faith in that as well. I will see you freed, Percy.”

Another trembling sigh, and another tightened embrace, were his only responses. Words had left him, and they left her then too. They stood in silence, entangled, their breaths falling into slow synchronization, lingering in each other’s warmth and strength while they could.

But their solace did not last much longer. Almost regretfully, Percival drew back from her, and asked, “Shall we claim that key, then?”

“Oh, yes” she said, and laughed ashamedly at herself. “I’d almost forgotten – that one is yours, is it not?” she reminded him.

“No, no, you take it,” he said. “It worked in my favour last time.”

Smiling once again, despite herself, Vex bestowed a quick kiss to his cheek before she skittered away from him. She knelt before the compartment and reached down for the protruding ring of the key. It was already loose, and Vex wriggled it slightly to make certain there was no resistance. She pulled it free.

The moment the key was withdrawn, Vex felt as if she had snapped the neck of a bird. A fragile, beating energy broke under her touch. A subaural hum fell to haunted silence. Vex stared, incredulous, terrified of what she had ruined-

A cry and a thud rang out from behind her. Vex turned, and saw Percival had fallen to his knees. He picked and clawed at the glove on his right hand, desperate to get it off.

She darted forward, and grabbed him by the shoulders. “Percy!”

He did not hear her. His eyes were downcast, raptly fixed on his mutilated hand as he struggled to free it from the glove. He was muttering a litany, over and over, “I don’t know, I don’t know – don’t ask me – don’t ask me, sir, please, I don’t know-“

Vex could not think of what else to do. She released him, and turned back. She stumbled to the ground by the open console, fumbling with the key, until she was interrupted by a shout- “No!”

She whirled around once more. Percival was staring at her, his eyes bloodshot, his hands extended towards her like claws – one pale and smooth and slender, the other angular, burning scarlet. He grinned, baring all his teeth in a mad, gleeful smile. “No,” he repeated, his voice ragged. “I need this – I need to feel this-“

He cut himself off with a cry of agony.

Vex would suffer his arguments and fury later; she could not tolerate his pain. Desperate, she turned and stabbed the key into its slot. A jolt of energy – like waking up, like starting a fire – shot through her arm. Once the key was fixed, Vex flew to Percy’s side again, placing her hands on his shoulders. He held the crippled limb to his chest like he was carrying a child. Sweat coated his brow; in the frosty evening, he was feverish.

“Darling, darling-,” Vex whispered, and tried to coax him into looking up at her. He slumped over, and she cried out in distress, nearly falling with him.

“I don’t know,” he mumbled again, his voice nearly incoherent with tears. “Please – I don’t know, don’t ask me.”

Vex screamed for Keyleth, for aid, for anyone. In her arms, Percival writhed. His words shuddered and stuttered into madness, and then silence, as his lips trembled with terror. He turned up to the black-arched dome, oblivious and yet enraptured, as if there was a storm roiling above them that only he could see.

Chapter Text

It was the afternoon of winter’s most ambitious snowfall. The snowbanks rose to the first-floor windows, and the trees cracked under the weight of their white crowns.

During winter storms, it was not unusual for Lord and Lady de Rolo to be in foul moods. Winter impeded the miners who laboured for Whitestone’s income. Winter froze the blood of livestock, slew the sick and the impoverished. Winter rattled the bones of old nobles, whose chief occupation, as Johana often said, seemed to be complaining. The storm could have created any number of tragedies or inconveniences, and the de Rolos would doubtlessly be summoned to remedy what they could and apologize for what they could not.

As of that day the heir to Whitestone, Julius de Rolo, was a week beyond his twenty-fifth birthday. He was not yet the Lord of the castle, but on days of crisis, he was expected to share the burden of a rulership that would one day be entirely his own. Lord and Lady de Rolo handled the disasters of the moment, and Julius managed the mundanities; he answered the letters, monitored the treasury, and conferred with the advisors. No matter how much practice he gained, even those simple tasks remained intimidating without guidance. Without guidance,  he felt like an illiterate left in charge of a library - perpetually and completely underqualified. Julius had stern parents and strict tutors, but winter was his harshest instructor.

Julius did not receive any information on the crisis of the moment at first. The Lady of the house departed early, dressed for urgent travel. She bid her children and husband good-morning and raced into town without a word of explanation. Lord Frederick did not accompany her, and sat at his breakfast-table with even more silent gravity than usual. Upon finishing his tea, he told the children they were to dress for company that night, and after deflecting enough questions to stymie his curious brood he departed in a contemplative silence.

Normally a winter crisis would bring some kind of bustling business to the castle - normally his parents would be dashing hither and thither, lobbing their requests toward Julius in passing. Not so, on this morning. The absence of his mother proved particularly jarring. She was impassioned by disasters, and she worked with a sort of haste and urgency that her husband could not hope to match. He expected Lady Johana would have sent a footman or messenger to request whatever aid was needed in town, but no such news arrived. Instead, the morning was utterly quiet, until Lord de Rolo summoned Julius to his study at noon.

The door was ajar, and so Julius pushed it open and stood just inside the frame. His father was standing at his desk, a quill poised in his hand, halfway to recording something in a notebook. Julius waited to be invited in. Lord de Rolo was a quiet, reflective man, and out of deference to his position the world around him often slowed to match his pace. And so they lingered in silence, the kind of silence that could only exist after snowfall, until Lord de Rolo beckoned Julius to the desk with a gesture of his quill.

Julius approached the table. Before him, his father’s notebook lay open upon a bed of loose pages and discarded envelopes. A packet of letters had been assembled, tied with string, and placed in the center of the desk. On top of the letters lay a square green stone, like a piece of jade, etched and grooved with strange patterns. Julius stared, and upon recognizing it, he took a step back.

With his quill, Frederick pointed at the green glass key. “Take this with you, please.”

Julius did not. He looked away from the key and studied his father's expression, but found it still and solemn. Urgently, Julius asked, “Why do you have this?”

Lord de Rolo said nothing.

Julius pressed: “Did you unseal it? Intentionally?

Lord de Rolo’s gaze did not lift from his papers, not even to meet the accusation. He gave a long, slow sigh, and said, “Julius, if you do not understand my motivations, that does not make you foolish. It makes you fortunate.” he said. “I pray you never understand. I pray that you will make braver choices than I.”

The queer response struck Julius into silence. Lord de Rolo scraped the point of his quill along the rim of an open ink pot. He continued, with more conviction; “Your duty on this night is to watch over your brothers and sisters. Keep a weather eye for anything suspicious.”

He rested the quill crosswise on the ink pot, and rested both hands on the edge of the table. He tapped each finger on the wood, in order, but said nothing more.

Julius took the key from the desk, and with his other hand, he turned his father forcefully by the shoulder. With the key held aloft between them, Julius said, “When this is over, I will know why. You will tell me.”

“Indeed I will.” Lord de Rolo conceded. Unruffled, he patted his son's hand once, and then lifted it from his jacket and turned away to make another note in his book . He was perpetually forgetful, Lord de Rolo; Lady Johana said that he would hold court in a nightgown if he did not record a note reminding himself to dress.

“Why,” he said as he wrote, “do prison cells have locks on their doors?”

Julius stared at him. “To keep prisoners secure, I imagine.”

“True,” Lord de Rolo admitted. “But locks are designed to be opened. Why, then, are there locks on the cells of violent madmen who will never regain their sanity, or murderers who shall spend their lives incarcerated? Why not cement the doors shut?”

His father did this often; if there was an argument he could not phrase, he would pose it in an analogy. Though Julius preferred to be straightforward, he had learned that this particular game required patience. He thought a while longer. “We still feed the prisoners, do we not? We clean the cells. We collect their bones when they perish, and we use those prisons again.”

“Then you have your answer,” Lord de Rolo said grimly. He dipped his quill in the inkwell once again and withdrew it, but he did not record anything more. He simply watched the black beads of dye drip from its point. “We preserve our evils. We take our vile instincts and our unsalvageable tragedies, and instead of destroying them utterly, we keep them locked away. That is safer, we tell ourselves. That is more humane, though the madman will never regain his sanity, and the villain will never atone to our satisfaction. We lock them away – in case.”

“In case of what?” Julius asked.

Lord de Rolo stared down at his notebook, and added a second note; something about the water damage in the passageway. “I have found my answer tonight,” he said. “I pray that you have no occasion to find yours.”

Julius hesitated, his hands resting at his sides.

“Are the pair of you still – what is that?”

Startled, Julius turned toward the door. His younger brother Percival leaned against the doorframe, looking over his glasses at their conspicuous conference.

Julius quickly tucked the key into his jacket pocket, but Percival’s keen eyes followed it. “What do you want? Stand up straight,” Julius snapped. “Do not forget that we have guests this evening. And tuck your shirt in. You look like a rogue.”

Percival did not flinch at the barrage, outside the lift of a curious brow. Even his gaze was immobile, lingering upon the latest curiosity and studying the shape of the key in Julius’s pocket. “Is that why everyone’s so ill-tempered?” he asked.

“We talked about this at breakfast, Percival-”

“I was reading,” Percival explained, affecting his typical boredom.

“At breakfast ?

Percival made a noise indicating that Julius was an imbecile, and that reading at the breakfast table was the obvious thing to do.

“Enough, then,” Lord de Rolo sighed. He straightened his back, and turned to his sons. Though he chastised them, a faint smile had returned to his features. “Stop haranguing each other. Percival shall be on his best behaviour, I am certain.”

The interloper in question made a show of tucking in his shirt-tails, and thereafter executing a flamboyant bow. “Lady Johana summons you, my Lord,” he said. "She has returned from the town."

Percival spoke with a melodramatic voice, artificially formal and deep. Julius had the sneaking suspicion he was being mocked.

“Very well,” Lord de Rolo said. He reached back over the desk, and picked up the packet of letters, tucking them under his arm. Julius could not see the addressee or any o the words from his angle, only a smidgen of curling script. He wondered if his father was carrying them that way on purpose.

There was no time to contemplate that, either; Lord de Rolo crossed the room, and joined Percival in the doorway. “I expect Lord and Lady Briarwood shall arrive around sunset. Join us in the dining hall when you are ready, Julius.”

He crossed the threshold into the hall, he resumed his lordly bearing, and his eyes cleared of their worry. Either he had left his worries behind in the study, or he had far too much practice at suppressing them.

Percival lingered a moment longer, giving Julius’s jacket pocket a pointed look. “I’m disappointed you’ve not turned to stone.”

“What?” Julius grunted.

“That’s a vault key,” Percival said. “Mother told us if we ever took them from where we found them, we’d be cursed and turned to stone. She never charmed you with that particular tidbit?”

Julius said nothing. Telling Percival to mind his own business would likely have the opposite effect. He braced for questions.

Instead, his younger brother rolled his eyes, and nudged his spectacles further up his nose with the back of his hand. “Oh, spare yourself the worries, Jules,” he drawled. “I don’t think I could possibly care less.”

He turned and trotted away, waving both hands sarcastically in the air as if he were waiting for an officer to shackle him. “Shan’t breathe a word about the shenanigans of ancient de Rolos to the guests. May a curse befall me if I do.”

Jules exhaled. Tradition dictated that the firstborn was to bear the burden of lordship, and that he was to keep the vault secret to all but his own future heir. Unfortunately, tradition had no defense against a sharp wit. All of his siblings had picked up on fragments of the tales of the de Rolo vault, even little Cassandra - and complete secrecy had long ago become implausible.

The saving grace of the situation was that they were far too sharp-witted to believe in any of it. Perhaps no sane man would.

The key in his pocket felt heavy, more like wrought metal than glass. He glanced down at his father’s notebook, which had been left open to allow the ink to dry, and his concern was far from alleviated. Lord de Rolo had written himself a last note for the evening:

Lock down the vault BEFORE the Briarwoods arrive

--         

They arrived at sunset, as predicted.

The way Percival remembered it, he and his siblings were introduced to the Briarwoods only briefly, in a solemn and unremarkable line of handshakes and curtseys. He remembered that Delilah Briarwood was short and her hair was tied so strictly that her brow looked constantly tense. He remembered Lord Briarwood never stood more than six inches from his wife’s side, and that he squeezed too tightly when he shook hands. Delilah was too doting, her voice dripping with sordid endearments, and Sylas laughed too loudly. They were both handsome specimens, but they fell squarely into his least favourite category of people - the honey-tongued, the patently insincere, those who reveled in the social politics of nobility. After the pleasantries, Percival all but stopped listening to them completely.

He did not have to suffer their presence long, of course. It took less than an hour of tea and idle chatter before the Briarwoods, begging the understanding of their gentle hosts, asked to speak to the Lord and Lady de Rolo in seclusion. This was not unusual.

Julius was exiled from proceedings alongside his brothers and sisters, which was, perhaps, a little strange. As the heir of Whitestone he was typically included in the affairs of Lordship. Percival expected him to be irritated by the slight: not so. Instead, Julius was rather morose. He claimed an armchair in the corner, where his hand returned again to his breast pocket, and pressed securely against the shape of the odd emerald key.

Percival was only faintly curious as to why Julius was acting strange. The Briarwoods had interrupted his research plans for the evening. His mind was preoccupied with the alchemical instabilities of certain metals. He was thinking of sturdy, immalleable compounds that, when exposed to electricity, could be so volatile as to turn water into fire - infinitely more interesting than the prattlings and politics of Lord this and Lady that. He, too, sought an isolated seat in the salon, and tried to regain his lost trail of thought while his siblings milled about and bothered him in their own unique ways.

At half past nine, the arrival of Mr. Anders brought a little light to the salon. He pushed the doors open with both hands, entering with a cocked grin and energized stride. Behind him trailed one of the Briarwood escorts, pulling a wheeled tray of champagne flutes. 

Percival sat up straighter at his arrival, hoping Anders had some secret or satire to disgorge about the Briarwoods. Of all the Whitestone court, Percival liked Anders the most. He had a delightful wicked streak in him.

Nor was he alone in this positive regard; all his siblings liked Anders. Vesper offered him a warm, full-voiced hello and a curtsey. Her younger siblings echoed her greetings. Even Julius’s guarded posture seemed to ease. Anders acknowledged each of them, and then quieted them with a wave of his hand. He gestured back toward the tray of glasses. “Your Lord parents will be indisposed with the Briarwoods awhile longer. They have gifted you this to entertain in their absence.”

“We’re not grown enough to have wine, are we?” Cassandra piped up. She was seated at the window, swinging her buckled shoes and looking fiercely skeptical.

You might not be,” Oliver said. At his age, he was rather desperate to breach adolescence and escape to manhood; the opportunity to drink something grown-up seemed to put an extra puff of air in his chest.

“Drinking is a skill like anything else, my dears,” Anders said, making a show of uncorking the wine and pouring across the tray, “best practiced in youth and mastered in maturity.”

Percival smirked, and stretched his arms over his head. A drink might make an evening of socializing bearable.

“Cassandra,” Anders continued, as he reached the last glass of the row, “I shall pour out a little glass and water it for you.”

The youngest de Rolo puffed out her cheeks with a disgruntled exhale, but did not respond. Whitney, who shared her seat, grabbed one of Cass’s curls and tugged so it bounced like a spring. “It’s alright,” she said. “Anders won’t tell mother.”

Glasses were handed around, each half-filled with amber liquid; Cassandra’s was paler, the colour of honey. Percival remembered the first taste as heavy and sweet, like a caramel, but afterward it stung like a hornet. Ludwig made a quiet gagging noise in surprise. His brother punched him in the shoulder. The rest of the de Rolos enjoyed their drinks with more thought - except for Cassandra, who watched, completely still, as the droplets slid down the inside of her glass.

Percival was fairly desperate to be entertained, so he drank as quickly as the pungent draught would let him. Once he felt pleasantly dizzy, he asked, “If the Briarwoods are not planning to entertain us, why are we waiting around for them, eh?”

Vesper tutted. “Your mind is halfway to the basement, isn't it?”

“What else is there to occupy it? Wildemount whiskey?” To punctuate his point, Percival downed the rest of his glass and placed it on the table with a sharp clatter of glass. He glanced at Anders, hoping to have earned a smirk - but Anders was looking at Cassandra, a faint line of concern heavy on his brow. Cassandra held her drink in both hands. She had not taken the slightest taste.

“Don’t be rude, Percival,” Vesper chastised. “We never retire before our guests.”

She turned in her seat to look at Julius, an eyebrow arched in a plea for support. The tension in his shoulders had returned. He looked disheveled despite his fine dress, bearded and bright-eyed under long, shaggy hair. He had his mother’s Wildemount blood, they said, and it showed most when he felt threatened.

“I will bear the burden of his rudeness,” Julius said, all but immobile.

Silence. None were more surprised by his lenience than Percival, who actively recoiled.

“Will that be a problem, Anders?”

In response, the solicitor cocked his head, smiling again - it was that same wicked grin that Percival tried to emulate on occasion. “None whatsoever. I have known the Briarwoods to be quite forgiving.”

Julius stared a moment, and then nodded. Percival took the gesture as dismissal, and sprang up to his feet, eager to be rid of the tension-

The moment he stood, he felt a rush of slowing dizziness, as if the world had failed to stand up with him. The faces of his brothers and sisters were blurs of pink and orange in the evening firelight. He wobbled, and felt a strong hand looped around his arm.

“Are you alright, Percival? Too much?”

He blinked a few times, and then patted Vesper’s hand where she held him upright. “I drank a bit fast,” he confessed; his tongue felt thick around the simple words, and he frowned. “Never mind the - I think I -”

He gestured vaguely to the door, up to his chambers, somewhere he could sleep off the dizziness.

“Shall I come with you?” Vesper said, her voice gentle but hesitant.

“No, no,” he said, wildly tugging his arm from her grasp. Someone giggled - probably Oliver or Ludwig - and Percival straightened up and diligently fixed his cuffs, determined not to make a completely embarrassing exit. He quipped, “Please, dear sister, stay and bear my rudeness with his Lordship.”

"If you insist,” she said. “Careful on the stairs, please, Percival.”

 

So that was it, then - in the haze of that night - those were the last words anyone from his family had ever spoken to him. A pointless grace. A pointless concern. All of it pointless.

 

He stumbled out the door, still blaming his awkward steps on the drink. The sounds of conversation faded behind him. Before he reached the end of the hall, his knees gave way. He slumped to the ground, and pressed a hand to the wood-paneled wall, scoring his fingers into the surface in an effort to stay standing. The other hand flew to his chest, where a weight had descended upon his ribs. The patterns on the carpet before him twisted and wove and writhed, like snakes, like maggots. Percival took one slow, laboured breath, and before he could think to cry out for help, he staggered, slumped to the floor, and fell into darkness.

--

It was the heat that woke him, slowly.

Agonizing, consuming heat. His clothes, his temples, his wrists, his neck, all were drenched with sweat; the first few breaths he took were slow and thick and difficult, like the worst of humid mornings.

Sound was next to register. He heard he crackle of open flame, distant from him, making small fiery pops in a big, hollow room. Voices - a low conversation - rising with agitation and then fading again.

His eyes opened. He gazed up at the ceiling, which narrowed into darkness like a creature’s open throat. The world did not come into focus as he expected; his thoughts, the dull pain of his awkward position, the voices around him, it all remained muted and indistinct, as if he were, in part, still asleep. He tried to lift a hand, to produce a thought with some kind of clarity or conviction - but however he struggled, he could not pull himself to wakefulness. Had he collapsed in that hall? Had he taken ill?

Before he could decipher the mystery, footsteps. The sound cut into Percival's thoughts, and so, with great effort, he pulled his head forward to meet its maker. There was a shadow standing before him in the long, fire-lit room, a shadow he barely recognized at first. Tall, broad-shouldered, with that dark, thick, Wildemount hair.

“Yes,” Lord Briarwood said. “He’s awake. You’re awake, boy?”

Percival blinked. He was not yet certain of the answer. Even moving his head forward had cost him dearly in energy, and he felt an overpowering need to fall back to sleep.

It did not last. One moment, he was gazing dopily at a stranger; the next, he was reeling to the side from a stinging pain in his cheek. He heard the faint metal clink of his glasses tumbling to the floor. Stunned, Percival turned back to see Lord Briarwood straightening his shoulders and wringing out his hand. Lord Briarwood had struck him across the face.

Perhaps he should have been indignant, but he was not. Instead, the blow shifted his understanding of the situation, and a deep, aching fear latched onto his heart. Such sudden violence meant they were no longer in his every day reality. They had tumbled into a world he did not know how to navigate. He knew how to shake hands and avoid unpleasant conversations and deter shouting matches. He had never been seriously struck by another person. He had never been in a situation calling for it. Something - everything - was wrong.

Lord Briarwood said, “Pay attention, then.”

Percival swallowed, or tried to; his throat did not obey him. He could not speak. His breaths came in too shallow. He could not pull enough air from the scorching room.

“How did you survive the night? An antidote?”

The question was nonsense, but Lord Briarwood asked it with fervor. Percival shook his head, speechless. He had too many questions of his own, and he wanted none of them answered - but they haunted him, they whirled about him, they commanded him.

Lord Briarwood bent forward, and placed his hands on the armrests of Percival’s chair, gazing directly at his captive. His eyes were nearly black. His words, in his deep, rumbling voice, came out one at a time, each one laced with disgust. “You should not be breathing. What deception is this?”

He drew closer, and Percival tried to cower back into the chair. He did not want to be touched again, but Lord Briarwood’s hands sprang up and landed on his shoulders.  Those hands, massive and inelegant, were burning hot in their gloves. They crawled up Percival's neck, raked back his hair, and tested their width against that of Percival’s throat. The inspection was unkind, unwanted, dehumanizing; every second of dismantling contact made Percival feel more and more ill.

Lord Briarwood questioned on; “Your blackguard mother, your brothers and sisters – do you know why they breathed on? Why your father woke and shambled from his bed?” He snarled; his voice grew strained, almost panicked. “Does consciousness linger in their ashes, now that we have burned them all to dust?!”

With his grasp on Percival’s throat, Lord Briarwood threw his captive over. The world turned sideways, as Percival and the chair clattered to the floor. He cried out, more from surprise than pain. His shoulder pulsed with the pain of the fall, but it hurt less than it should have. Whatever he had drunk, it was still pulsing through him, and everything - every sound, every injury - it was muffled.

When Percival regained his breath, he saw at last where the hellish light of the room was housed: it was a furnace. And he, in abject horror, understood what his captor spoke of. We have burned them all to dust.

“You – you killed them-“ he panted, shock speaking in his place. “You threw them in-!?”

Lord Briarwood knelt down, and hauled his captive forward by the neck. Through the choking grip and the lingering intoxication, Percival fought for air or anchor, for any point of purchase in the madness of the night. It was too horrible and too sudden to believe.

“Did we? Did we stop them?” he yelled, more to himself than his prisoner. He crouched on the ash-flecked floor like a gargoyle, his gargantuan shoulders hunched, blocking the swirling, scalding light.

Percival's answer was a strangled sob. The pressure on his throat vanished. He took panicked gasps of air, clawing at his shirt collar. 

Above him, Lord Briarwood turned, and the firelight illuminated his profile. Whatever he saw in the furnace seemed to satisfy him, and his rage was not rekindled. His stillness was almost as terrifying, and Percival, curled on the ground beneath him, was paralyzed by it. "So," Lord Briarwood mused, “the de Rolo witchcraft is not so potent as to violate death. The bitch can only do so much to keep her breed alive.”

Then, he looked again to Percival; “Your family is gone, little Lord. Where are Delilah’s letters? What has your mother done with them?”

“Letters, what letters?” Percival whispered, swallowing past the pain in his throat again. Tears were sweeping down his cheeks unbidden, unrestrained. “I don’t know – I never even heard your names until tonight, I swear-“

A voice, sweet and feminine, carried over the roar of the engine. She said, “That is mostly truthful. Truthful enough.”

Lord Briarwood continued. “The vault, then? What do you know of your father’s vault?”

Memories flashed through Percival’s mind: his brother, his father, their furtiveness to hide that strange key. A wick of rebellion was lit in him, growing stronger on the fuel of hatred.

“Nothing,” he said. “I don’t know, don’t ask me-“

“A lie,” said the same ladylike voice.

His captor’s face twisted, his lips curling into a snarl. Again, Percival was hauled upright, and dragged toward the furnace. He could not walk: he could only stumble as Lord Briarwood pulled him, and he collapsed where he was discarded.

“You think I will not throw you to the coals to join your kin?” he snarled. “Seven times tonight I have bloodied my hands – they will not quail before an eighth!”

“I don’t know!” Percival yelled. “I don’t know-“

“A lie,” the lady’s voice cut in.

Lord Briarwood bore down on him, twisting his fingers into Percival’s collar and thrusting his face up to the open portal. The heat scalded his cheeks, and burned away his tears. Percival looked into the bright scarlet belly of the furnace, and there among the coals were melting metal buttons, charred bones, a belt buckle glowing red-hot. Horror and rage swept through him – and then his eye caught something, and his trembling ceased for a moment of breathless recognition – there, rippling in the heat but perfectly intact, rested Julius’s key.

Lord Briarwood was sitting too close to overlook the change in him. He descended low to Percival’s ear, a curl of his hair brushing against Percival’s temple. “Now, that’s interesting. What is that ?”

“I don’t know,” Percival panted. “Don’t ask me, please, I don’t know-“

“You’re lying again, boy. Bring that to me, I want to see it.”

Percival struggled to breathe, choking on the waves of heat spilling out from the furnace. “My gloves are on the workbench,” he said, almost begging. "Please, don't-"

Lord Briarwood’s massive hand tightened. “No, no. Bring it to me now.”

Was he stupefied in shock, or had he understood? Percival winced, and felt his cracked lips split. “Please,” he said again.

Lord Briarwood leaned closer. “You will bring it to me,” he repeated. “ Every step you take from now on, every single thing you say or do – you will do only what satisfies me . You will, or I will take the last of your family away from you.”

Percival's mind raced to decipher the threat. Seven times, Lord Briarwood’s hands had been bloodied – then someone remained – one more de Rolo was alive. He was not alone – and if he did not have to be alone in this hell – he would give anything.

“Now,” Lord Briarwood repeated, “bring it to me.”

Percival breathed in, and reached out. The heat on the interior of the furnace was unbearable, even though it came through the thick, hazy blanket of whatever opiate he had drunk – and he snatched at the key, trying to scrape it out with quick, darting touches, crying out when his hand hit the raw coals until he had no air left in him, and with a clatter of charcoal and glass he finally freed it, and heard it tumble to the floor, and he sobbed in relief-

And then Lord Briarwood closed the furnace door, pinning Percival’s hand between the scalding grate and the frame. He screamed. The blazing steel burned away his flesh, seared it from the bone, and even once the door swung open again his hand briefly welded to the metal, strips of skin sloughing away and peeling his screaming nerves with them-

It never truly ended, that moment: the sensation of having a part of him destroyed, and the pain of his flesh burning to ash alongside the bones of his family.

And yet, somehow, it was over. He stared up at the darkened throat of the ceiling, cradling his mutilated hand to his chest. His throat ached, lurching with sobs and cries he did not remember voicing. Someone was calling him – a woman, calling his name, over and over, screaming – Vesper? Mother? No – she was so young, the mourner - it had to be Cassandra.

Lord Briarwood placed one foot on Percival’s chest and leaned over him. “What is this?” he asked. He was pointing to the key, which lay on the ground between Percival and the furnace.

(The heat pulsing from it seemed comforting now, distant as the horizon.)

“It’s a key,” Percival said. “A key for the vault. That’s all I know.”

A sweet, feminine voice drifted between them. “He tells the truth now, dearest.”

“Good boy,” Lord Briarwood said. He removed his foot. His voice rumbled, far away and far above, like thunder. No more, Percival thought, no more – and tears of relief spilled down the sides of his face, through his hair, down to the ashen ground.

Lord Briarwood shut the door of the furnace. He took a handkerchief from his pocket, and with it, he picked up the key. “No one shall ever know we were here. Your silence buys your sister’s life."

 

Percival closed his eyes, and nodded. He released his right hand, and let it fall against the ground. The stone beneath him felt like a glacier, steady and blissfully cool.

“Long live the Lord of Whitestone,” said the thunder; and Percival nodded again, trembling, as Cassandra screamed behind him, her voice fading further and further away-

And then, abrupt and vicious, he awoke at the sensation of something else – something other – something painful and angry jolting through his spine, like the furnace but brighter, luminous, and he surged up to his knees, to his feet. Gods above, his hand ached and stung and burned, and he could barely stand to hold it cradled by the wrist. But he forced himself to rise, and forced himself to look down at the peeling, bubbling flesh.

The engine room was dark; he saw only the crooked claw-shape of his hand, dull orange-red in the furnace light. He seethed, and he pulled angry breaths in through his teeth and let them out shuddering. Up the stairs he walked. Into the hall. He would find the Briarwoods and slay them in retribution. He would tear out their throats with the very brand of their villainous dominion – with the hand they had given him. He would stuff them in that selfsame furnace while they still lived, boil their whimpering breaths to steam. In his rage, in his fire, he would devour them.

He burst through the front door and into the courtyard, still gasping at the pain – in his hand, in his heart, in his throat – and there was no one, nothing at all, nothing but a set of carriage-tracks slowly fading under falling snow.

His legs gave. He slumped back against the door.

He did not know how long he waited there, trying to produce a breath that did not tremble. In what might have been minutes or hours, he was interrupted by a form sweeping out from the castle, moving in the corner of his eye. Percival could not haul himself to his feet in time - in a panic, struck out at it - and something arrested his hand, and Percival found himself looking into the face of Anders.

And was speaking, and gently coaxing Percival’s hand to rest. It sounded like nonsense, but the words did begin to register in Percival's mind “-and I can never beg your forgiveness enough. What horrors on this night - I wish I could have done something. Thank goodness you live, I could never have hoped-”

“What happened?” Percival rasped.

“They drugged the liquor. I expect they planned to kill me too, that they thought I would partake. You’re injured, my Lord-”

Percival recoiled, pressing his back up against the door. “And you - you did nothing, once you realized? You let them burn my family alive?”

His breath came harsh and scalding through his throat. Tears gathered in his eyes again, while Anders lost his voice, staring with his mouth open and trembling. The shame, the cowardice, the forgiveness he begged for, all written across his face - it drove Percival into a rage. He struck out again, this time gathering Anders’ collar in the fist of his unmarked hand, and twisting it. He was not strong enough to strangle him, but the old man’s shoulders caved and he tumbled closer. Percival snarled, “You’re a coward - I should kill you, coward, coward-!”

“My Lord,” Anders said, trying to unlatch Percival’s hand from his throat, “please, be calm! We must bring you to a doctor. The things you have suffered-”

Percival shoved him away. Anders staggered back, knees skidding across the stonework. “Bring the bloody doctor here,” Percival hissed. “No one else.”

“My lord, should I not fetch the captain of the-”

“No one!” He shouted, and a bolt of fear split through his frantic rage. Your silence buys your sister's life. “No one, no one but the doctor-”

He leaned his head back against the door, hissing through his teeth. When he found his composure again, he looked at the carriage tracks. They had nearly faded.

Anders helped him to his feet, and half-carried him to the library. There, Percival lay upon one of couches, seething and delirious with pain. Doctor Ripley, accompanied by Doctor Trickfoot and Mr. Anders, arrived to treat him.

It was many days before he returned to health, if he ever did. Even when he could bear the pain well enough to walk and eat, he felt unwell. He felt the presence of others in his home like the burrowing of parasites in his organs. He called servants in for questioning and then faltered, fleeing from the room and breaking down into a panic, or dissolving into furious tirades. He dismissed every servant in fits and bursts, and then his doctors, and then Mr. Anders, until he was at last alone.

Then he returned to the engine.

He nursed the flame within until it grew powerful enough to fuel his castle. He watched steam and heat pump through the pipes. He studied the intricacies of its system, the oddities, the unexpected functions. He overheated it and broke it and replaced the pieces, and still he did not understand it all. There were hundreds of little brass pipes, all running up the walls like veins, and he still did not know their meaning or purpose. Perhaps they did not have a purpose.

The Briarwoods' instructions arrived in a fortnight, sent by a raven messenger. The ordered Percival to remain on the castle grounds, but such a command was moot. The furnace had been branded into him. He could not stand to be too far from it. When he dared to explore elsewhere, even elsewhere in his own home, he felt cold. He felt eyes in every drafty hall, ghosts waiting at every window. Outside of the engine room he  could never find peace, nor even complete solitude - the messengers who brought news from town, the probing visits of Anders and his doctors, the ravens who brought his orders - he was always watched, always pursued.

Heat worsened the pain in his hand, but he embraced that. At night, he would open the hatch to the central furnace and sit before its pulsing, scarlet coals . There, where his family had been erased, where he had been transformed against his will, his fears and his agony and his grief and all his other aching pieces coalesced into a purpose. They hardened with heat and pressure into a singular point – a last, lingering reason for living.

And that reason rumbled in his mind, constant, distant, and lordly as thunder:

Vengeance, vengeance, vengeance.

Chapter Text

Keyleth arrived at the tower in moments, summoned by Vex’s frantic calls for help. She rushed to Percival’s side and, before Vex could offer a word of explanation, ordered her to flee from the tower.

Vex stumbled into a defense, or a plea - “Keyleth, I didn’t-”

Keyleth shouted over her, all but shoving her away from Percival, who was still thrashing on the ground. “Get out!

With her last word, the torches in the tower flared bright, flashing with frantic energy, and Vex felt a burst of terrible heat. The wild show of power sent Vex sprinting mindlessly away to the door. Whatever she had done - whatever Keyleth thought she had done - she could not bear her wrath, or the sounds of Percival’s agony.

So she fled down the narrow stairs, and through the darkened halls, and all around her it seemed that the castle was railing against the suffering of its master. A deep, metallic roar bloomed from the furnace’s underbelly. The pipes rattled with it, as if they were fit to burst through the walls. She stumbled down to the fourth-floor hall, and gave a brief, startled cry - the window drapes along the hall surged with a brief gust of wind, and her eyes mistook the roiling fabric for smoke.

Vex ran further downstairs, fleeing the noises, the hallucinations. Her room - the familiar door - she went through it, slammed it behind her, and sank to the ground, pressing her back to the barrier and her hands to her ears, blocking away the shock and the madness, and making herself small.

The clamour of the castle’s instruments quieted. She heard nothing, save her own panicked breaths. The storm of uncontrolled magic was finished.

What a fool she was!

Vex pressed her forehead to her knees. She had tampered with magic beyond her knowing. She had brought harm to Percival. What did she know of the arcane? She only knew that the castle was corrupted by something monstrous, and – she had the sheer audacity to fancy herself a cursebreaker! To think that plucking the key from its home would not have consequences! She could not even say whether the rattling in the walls was the product of a haunting, a surge of magic, or whether it was just an engine malfunction – how could her ignorance have led her to something so reckless?

The vitriol of her own reaction almost shocked her. Self-doubt and self-loathing must have possessed her in little increments. The hatred felt alien and yet comforting – or, perhaps, deserved. She bit into the thick flesh of her thumb, at the base of her palm.

But the castle did not collapse around her, nor did a ghost come to steal her from her bed. The night was calm again. Perhaps returning the key to its place had stopped the strange reaction after all.

She released her hand, and looked at the plum-red bite marks in her flesh. They stung, and looked deep enough to linger for a while.

She would need to apologize to Percival for her rashness, if she hoped to make things right. Vex weighed the urgency of such an apology against his delicate state. It would not do to come to him in a panic, and Keyleth would surely be circling him for a while yet. Still – she could not see herself finding rest until her mistake had been forgiven.

There was no telling how long she sat there against the door, doubting all her options and chastising herself for considering any of them. But she knew she would not sleep - and so, at last, she decided to risk the adventure.

Trembling, Vex’ahlia lit another taper, and approached the door to her chambers. She slipped into the hall, holding her breath at the intensity of the silence beyond. No spirits leaped out to assail her, and yet she kept her footsteps light, and had to fight to steady her breathing.

She climbed the central staircase up to the fourth floor, and turned down the hall that led to the observatory. There, she stopped, and her mouth fell open, and she surveyed by flickering candle-light how the hall had transformed since she had fled.

The entire passage had been blackened by a burst of ash, as if it had blazed with a fire not an hour before. Next to the study, a wooden panel was blasted from the wall – this had not been burned away, but torn free by some exuberant force or explosion. The broken façade exposed steam-pipes, which were producing a constant, quiet hiss of liberated air. It reminded her of the library, only this time it was infinitely worse. She recalled the order of the spirit Orthax, one she had resolutely disobeyed; leave him . This must have been the consequence of her defiance.

Vex was paralyzed with dread – suddenly a child, staring at the charred bones of her manor – at the calamity that had claimed her mother.

Percival, she reminded herself, think of Percival, and that his fears are immediate, and yours are long past.

She crept through the ashy hall and up the stairs to the observatory. On the way, she nearly slipped on a bundle of fabric that had fallen onto the lowest stair. She lowered the candle, and recognized the jacket Percival had worn that night, discarded in some haste. Unthinking, she gathered it in her hands and clung to it as if it were the Lord himself, as if she could somehow hold him to her at a distance.

To her further confusion, the observatory was untouched by the chaos below, and Percival was no longer there. The six torches shone undisturbed, though they had neared the ends of their fuel and begun to dim. Even the telescope had been returned to how it was before the night began, as if Vex had walked backwards in time.

She left the observatory feeling even more confounded, even more panicked. There was a narrow side-staircase in the same hall, one just beyond the study door and the explosion of ashes. The side-stair was not lit, but when she cast her candle before it, she realized the ashy marks continued down its path, spilling down the steps, smearing across the walls. A lantern had shattered here, a painting had been knocked from its hangings there – but the ash began to thin, and the air felt clearer and lighter, as she descended. At the base of the stairs, the evidence of Orthax’s rampage had all but vanished. All that remained was a paired set of smudged tracks. One set was barefoot; the other was a trail of long, staggering drag marks.

It all ended at Percival’s bedroom door, which hung slightly open.

Before Vex could enter the door, a clatter erupted from further down the hallway. Vex jumped a step backward, and saw Keyleth at the end of the hall, carting a bucket and broom, and looking equally shocked to see Vex. Her expression in the candle-light was eerie, and wary; her green eyes shone in the torchlight like a cat’s.        

They faced each other in silence – Vex slowly assembling the pieces, and Keyleth obviously struggling for words that would stop the revelation from occurring. It was too late for that. Already, Vex was running through the evidence in her mind – how Keyleth whisked her away when Percival had a fit – how Percival claimed he had never seen Orthax himself, despite living in the castle the longest – the human form she had seen in the haunted smoke-

“Keyleth -” she began.

“Please,” Keyleth interrupted, “do not tell Percival.”

Vex stared at her, confounded, until she remembered Percival’s description of his own fits. Whenever the young Lord succumbed to one, he would lose pieces of his memory. As he had on the night she had first seen the spirit. As he had the same day the library was vandalized.

It would mean that the young Lord himself did not know the truth Vex had stumbled upon; he, Percival de Rolo, was Orthax.

Keyleth was still stammering - “His  – his pain is worsened, when he is upset, so knowing about this would only-“

Vex shook her head, interrupting in her desperation. “Please, Keyleth, tell me he will be alright.”

Keyleth blinked. “What?”

Percival, ” Vex repeated, through her teeth. “If you do not want me to burst through that door,” she pointed resolutely at his bedroom, “swear to me that Orthax will not hurt him.”

“Oh,” Keyleth said, as she shifted in her place, her eyes downcast. “No more than he has already.”

They were silent. Vex twisted her hands into her skirt. “So, when he is in pain – when he has those fits – the curse takes effect, and he becomes Orthax?”

Silence from Keyleth, and then an oddly flat “Yes.”

Vex shut her eyes, trying to push her pounding heart down, trying to think as rationally as she could. “Very well,” she said, breathing quickly, talking more to stop the silence than to make any progress. “I pulled – there was a glyph upstairs, made of green glass, and I pulled the key from it.” She shook her head, realizing she sounded half nonsensical.

At Keyleth’s curious look, Vex recounted the story in full – the keys to the vault, the glyphs behind the walls, and how Percival’s fit had started after she took the key from the seal.

“It felt like magic of some kind,” she said.

Keyleth nodded. “Yes. You said you put the key back?”

“I did. I don’t know what I did.” She remembered Percival’s shout of resistance in the tower, and his protestations before the other glyph, behind the wall. “He seems distressed to see the glyphs complete, but I have never seen him in such agony before. It must be Orthax, speaking through him.” She shuddered, and wondered aloud, “How many of his words belong to that spirit, then?”

“Vex,” Keyleth interrupted. She suspended her effacement: she spoke direct and confident, staring Vex in the eye. “Orthax cares only for our pain. That is what sustains him. It has nothing to do with how Percival feels about you.”

Startled, Vex tried to understand the protest. She voiced the only explanation she could find; “Has Orthax hurt you, Keyleth?”

“No,” she said. “I, um-“ she glanced away again. Her doubt had returned. When she found her words, she spoke in a rush “-if I can sedate him before Orthax takes full hold, we are usually safe.”

“I’ve seen him take that sedative before,” Vex realized. “The last time he was struck with a fit.”

Keyleth nodded. “Indeed. It quells his pain, and makes him sleep.”

“And that is enough to halt Orthax’s possession?”

Again, Keyleth nodded. From her wary eyes, it looked as if she did not trust herself to speak.

It was an incredible story, and if Vex had not seen the spirit herself, and had not witnessed the results of its transformation, she might not have believed it. She sent a pitying glance to the caretaker, and said, “You have managed this all on your own, Keyleth, for so long. I’m so sorry.”

The apology only made Keyleth look more despondent. Vex crossed the hallway to her. “This cannot stand. We cannot let a spirit control Percival. What can we do?”

Keyleth shook her head. “I don’t know. I don’t know if you should listen to anything I say.” The Ashari cut herself off, as tears welled up in her eyes.

Vex sighed. She closed the last of the distance between them, and took her friend’s hand. “Keyleth. It’s alright. We are allies in this.”

“Yes,” Keyleth said. “Yes, I would like that.”

Vex allowed Keyleth a moment to regain her composure, and then she continued. “Now – you know more about magic and spirits than I. How do we free Percival?”

“I – I don’t know. I don’t know how Orthax – where Orthax is – it’s as if the spirit has leeched into the entire castle, and it can simply descend whenever its prey is weak.”

“Well, I suppose we could raze the place to the ground,” Vex said, and that drew a fragile smile from Keyleth. “For now, though – can we help him resist it?”

“Perhaps,” Keyleth said. “But that will only ever be a temporary solution. We must know more about Orthax. I haven’t seen the glyphs myself - perhaps I should?”

“You should,” Vex concurred. She placed her own hand over her heart, showing Keyleth a somewhat self-deprecating smile. “If I do not touch any more of them, that should help. I’m sorry. I was reckless.”

Keyleth shook her head, wordless. A strained silence hung between them - an awkward, exhausted accord.

Vex continued; “May I see him?”

“I suppose so. But do not rouse him.”

“I will not. I understand,” Vex said gently. She strove to find something heartening to say, and settled on, “we’re very close to solving this, Keyleth. I know it.”

Keyleth made a wistful smile at the ground. “I wish I could be so certain of things.”

Surprised by the compliment, Vex glanced down, and tucked a wayward curl behind her ear. “I’m not half as certain as I appear.”

They did not discuss it further. Keyleth hoisted her bucket, and said, as businesslike as she could manage, “I need to clean the ashes up, or Percival will get suspicious. If he wakes, keep him there until I knock on the door.”

“Will you need help?”

The Ashari shook her head, and said, “It is only right that I do it.” Then she gave Vex a long, expressive look – a look that suggested Vex was supposed to understand something that had not been said. Then, she swept her hand outward, and pulled it in a slow circle. Her motions were slowed, as if she were dragging her fingertips through water. In the dim light of the taper, Vex saw a dark whorl of ash lifted from the carpet, and guided, by Keyleth’s coaxing gesture, across the darkness and into the bucket.

“As you can see,” she finished, “it’s hardly a burden.”

She did not look up to meet Vex’s eye again; she bowed, and stepped back to allow Vex passage into Percival’s chambers.

It was dark and quiet within, so dark that Vex felt anxious even with her light. She pulled the door so it was almost shut, but did not close it completely, fearing the noise would wake Percival. She set the taper in a candle-holder on a table, far distant from the bed, and found a chair to sit in close-by. From where she sat, the bed was a distant, dark mass, and for a moment she was not sure Percival was even there. But soon she heard the slow, easy pattern of his breathing, and her eyes adjusted to the blackness until she could see his shape – his head turned away, his arm outstretched, his thin form resting undisturbed atop the blankets. She realized she still held his jacket; she clutched it closer to her chest.

Perhaps she had made a poor decision, giving her heart to a man possessed by a malevolent spirit?

She muffled her laugh in the collar of Percival’s jacket. No, she reminded herself, love was not hindered by such inconveniences. If he could embrace her knowing she was half-blooded, ill-conceived, and all but a liar, she could face his dangers at his side. It was an unfamiliar, uncanny world, the world of magic and possessions, and she feared it - but she could not abandon him to it.

She had fallen asleep by the time Keyleth knocked on the door. The sound roused her, but not Percival; he slept on, with the same pattern of too-slow breath. Vex rose and took a slightly regretful look at the young Lord’s sleeping form. Keyleth had stripped him to his shirtsleeves, and rolled those sleeves to his elbows – he would doubtlessly be cold when he woke.

She unfolded his jacket, and lay it across him. At the descending weight, he shifted, and mumbled a discontented noise. His hand scrabbled out from under the coat. Vex seized it.

She leaned closer. “Percy?”

He said nothing. A long exhale passed his lips, and then a slight, breathy snore.

From the doorway, Keyleth giggled. Vex made a face at her through the dark, and was treated to an elaborate pantomime – Keyleth falling to her knees, seizing an invisible hand in both of hers, and gasping “Percy?!” in mock anguish.

Vex rolled her eyes, and replaced Percival’s hand on the bed. She followed Keyleth out of the young Lord’s room, chiding her friend in whispers as they went.

---

The carriage stopped with enough of a jolt to throw Vax awake. The orienting factors of time and space were stripped from him; he did not know how long he had been asleep, how far he had traveled, or where he had arrived.

Then, the minute he was roused, the doors of the carriage opened, and he was taken from it by a flurry of hands. There was barely time to secure the tools Gilmore had sent him in his shirtsleeve: he gripped the cuff tightly over his palm. In the whirl of waking in such a hostile way, those instruments were the only advantage – the only certainty – he could cling to. Though he had used them to unlock his cuffs with ease, there had been no way out of the cart itself, which was locked from the outside; glumly, he had replaced his own shackles, accepting that his escape would have to occur elsewhere.

The guards ejected him from the cart, half-hauling, half-shoving him toward a broad wooden set of doors, bolted like a stable. Vax stole a quick look upward. A sheer grey wall rose above him, with a protruding window-ledge, and ending as a distant peak in the form of a tower – the outer wall of the Voukstrono Asylum.

His skyward glance earned him a cuff to the back of the head, which jostled his hands. He clutched his sleeve tighter, and forced himself to be docile. It was an irritating performance: the injustice of what was being done to him still ached within his gut, like a lingering illness, and every shove made him fear his tools would be dislodged from where he had hidden them.

The guards led him through the doors and into an utterly unremarkable hallway. There were no decorations, no windows, only plain paneled door after plain paneled door. They turned down a similar hall, and saw a nearly identical path. As they walked, Vax tried to map the halls in his head, in a manner both fervent and futile.

At last, they crossed a landmark: a stone archway. It opened into a massive room with a high ceiling and unmarked walls, like a lecture hall, or a warehouse. From corner to corner, the hall was packed with identical white cots. Vax felt a queer dread emanating from the hall, but to his relief they did not enter it; instead, they passed it by. As they went, he caught the passing scent of rot and cleaning agents, and a glimpse of the white mounds of bodies under bedsheets, and a swift sight of the gown-clad people drifting between them, aimless, silent. It was the silence, he realized, that truly unnerved him: he had not expected madness to be so stifling.

There was one more landmark of note on their journey, beyond the hall: an open door on the opposite side, and the office beyond. It looked half medical, half administrative, a mixture of steel tools and parchment ledgers. Of course, they did not pass through it. If the madhouse did keep legitimate patients, he was not one of them; what need did they have to keep his record?

Instead, they progressed up a set of stairs. The upper halls were for the dangerous prisoners, for each juncture was cordoned by a locked metal gate, and each door fitted with naked bars or barred windows. From some rooms, there was only silence; at others, the madmen threw themselves against the doors when they passed, shrieking or sobbing.

They arrived at a round room, perhaps a part of a tower, with a ring of barred doors. Vax was brought to the room that would host him for the next three days.

What a glamorous task, he thought, collecting evidence for Lord de Rolo! It seemed mostly to consist of injuring oneself and then mulling over those injuries in prison.

Again, the door was locked, and Vax was left to his own devices. He fell back onto his bedsheet, and drafted a fittingly playful response to Gilmore’s letter in his mind.

Then, a soft tap at the wall of his cell. A thin voice called through it – “Excuse me, young man? Are you quite alright?”

Vax blinked. “Yes?”

“Did you come from Whitestone?”

Muffled though it was, the stranger’s voice still audibly trembled, either with age or excitement. Vax pushed himself up on his bed and sat on his knees, shooting a quick glance to the barred window to make sure no shadows had passed. “I did,” he said.

“Dawn’s mercy,” the wall said, with a dry chuckle. “How is the young Lord Percival? Is he alive?”

The severity of the question knocked Vax off balance. “Yes. Pardon me, grandfather, you are-?”

“My manners!” the old man exclaimed, and his voice seemed to press closer to the wall. “I am Archibald Desnay, steward and advisor to the de Rolo family – or I was. And you? What do I call you?”

Vax thought a moment. “Simon,” he said at last.

“Very well – Mr. Simon – I’d best catch my breath!”

A smile rose to Vax’s face. “Lord Percival is a prickly bastard, but a living one.”

The old man chuckled, but it slipped into a sad sigh. “He’s always been a quiet boy – next to those energetic elder siblings of his. But a kind child, under his pretentions. I hope these years have not changed him too severely.” A realization came abruptly, and another knock on the wall. “Then you’ve met with him, Mr. Simon?”

“Yes,” Vax replied, a bit overwhelmed. Unable to stop himself, he said, “You don’t sound like a madman, Mr. Desnay.”

“Of course not!” he scoffed. The tone conjured a vivid image of a wrinkled old scowl. “Are you?”

“No,” Vax said. He paused – an old servant of the de Rolos, locked in the same asylum as he, and seeming entirely lucid. Perhaps their predicaments were the same. Slowly, he began to unbutton his cuffs, and draw the lockpicks out from his sleeve one by one. “I’ve upset someone powerful.”

Silence from the other end of the wall – Mr. Archibald Desnay putting the pieces together, no doubt. “Mr. Desnay,” Vax pushed, “is that perhaps why you are here?”

Another long silence. “I have been in a cage for four years. I can think of only two reasons why Doctor Anna Ripley would have sent you here,” he said. “Either she wants you to torment me, or she needs you to become as I am – old, presumed mad, and without influence.”

Vax had to laugh. “My sister would describe me that way already,” he joked. He lined his tools up on the sheets. “Yes, it was Ripley. I suspect she wanted me removed.”

“That is a familiar tale.”

“Is it also yours?”

A long sigh. “Unfortunately, yes. There are a number of us in here – all of us sane as any man, betrayed by Doctor Ripley and locked away like criminals. You are the first she has introduced to our number in five long years.”

The significance of that number did not pass Vax by – nor did the old man’s familiarity with the de Rolos. Cautiously, he said, “Is it because you know what happened to the de Rolo family?”

Mr. Desnay was silent a long while. “I can hardly stand it,” he said, his voice heavy with emotion. “We did not see their dying moments, no, rest their souls, but we knew how they died. We thought the town would hang the murderers the moment we named them – but now, I expect, the story you were told reflects none of that?”

Vax was staring incredulously at the wall. With Percival’s requests and his sister’s warnings, he had suspected foul play of some sort – but not anything so blunt and staggering. “They say it was a disease that only spared Percival.”

“Balderdash,” the steward said.

He broke into a coughing fit. Vax waited for it to die down, and the steward continued; “I took the claims of the castle staff to a detective, and in barely a fortnight every one of the staff was gone. Dismissed, or vanished, or carted to an asylum.”

“Bloody hell,” Vax said. “Then Ripley killed them?”

“Ripley? No, no, my boy.”

He seemed to be weighing his next comment. Vax waited, desperate for an explanation but terrified to interrupt.

At last, the old man said, “I suppose you don’t know whose lands we’re on?”

“No.”

“Well,” the old man said. “You shall. The Lady will not have missed your arrival, not with all the clamour. She will visit us soon.”

Vax looked down at his tools. With a displeased curl of his lip, he gathered them and rolled over, tucking them under the sheets of his plainly-dressed bed. If the Lady of the madhouse expected him to be there that night, it would not be wise to flee.

And, as twin strains of morbid curiosity and hate twisted together in his mind, he realized he wanted to look her in the eye; he wanted to see the face of a woman who could murder a family, imprison a dozen innocents, and hide her crimes without hesitation or shame. He could not understand the source of cruelty in the human soul – and while he could not understand it, he feared that such cruelty could possess even him without warning.  He had to know the murderer’s answer, if he was to escape the madhouse as sane as he had entered it.

---

When the clock struck ten the next morning, the door to Percival’s room flew open with a bang. The Lord himself rushed out, all a-flutter and off-kilter, both hands hastily wrapping a cravat about his neck. He must have thought he was unseen, but a sputtered laugh alerted him to a spectator. He skittered to a stop upon noticing Vex, and his cheeks coloured. She clapped both hands to her mouth. She had ventured to his room to wake him, and to see if he was well, and arrived there at perhaps the most opportune time.

“Vex’ahlia,” he called, and righted himself, still fussing with the cravat. “You’re – you look well.”

“Yes, Percy,” she said, covering her smile.

“I’m so very sorry if I frightened you again,” he continued. “I don’t know quite what came over me, I – I assure you, I had no idea-“

Vex approached him. He stammered into silence. In his haste, he had neglected to button his waistcoat. She took both halves of the fabric and started to fit the buttons through the holes. She smiled down at the pattern of the fabric.

“How much have you forgotten this time, my Lord?”

“I remember a few things I can hardly believe,” he admitted. She did not have to look up to see him flushing. He seemed to have no idea of what to do with his hands, and left them limp at his sides with the fingers fidgeting. “I remember – everything important,” he reassured her.

Her smile broadened, and she quirked one eyebrow. “You remember I kissed you so well that you fainted.”

Percy laughed, startled. “That’s one way of telling it, I suppose.”

She straightened the waistcoat fabric, satisfied. A gentle touch pressed under her right forearm, holding her up, and them together.

“I hardly know what to say,” he admitted. “But I’m very glad you’re here.”

She made a silent smile as her expression of gratitude. Morning permitted a quiet moment after the harrowing night, and she drew Percival into it with her. He took his part of the peace she offered, and mimicked her smile, one no longer anxious or embarrassed, but instead content that all their trials had in that moment either paused or passed for good-

-and if there was a demon in him, she could not see its mark.

She said, “I have a request to make of his Lordship.”

He stood a little straighter. “If it is in my power, I will see it granted.”

Vex’s smile grew at Percival’s sweet half-sincerity. “Well, we shall see. My fool brother has not yet returned from town.”

Percival considered, and then sent a brow-furrowed look down the hall to Vax’s room. “Has he not?”

“Knowing him,” Vex continued, “he’ll have gotten himself into some ludicrous spot of trouble.”

“You must be jealous,” Percy said quickly, and smirked at her. Before she could even pretend to take offense, he continued, “then into Whitestone we shall go.”

Surprised, Vex cocked her head. “Will you be joining me?”

“Yes, of course,” he said, too easily – and then again, with more thought and a serious nod, “Yes. You were right to say that my captivity is contingent on my own fear. It is best to challenge it. If we avoid Ripley and Anders’ hunting grounds, I believe we shall put no one in danger.”

He looked at her for affirmation; Vex nodded. “Well,” he said, his voice thin, “–stay close with me.”

Percival’s eyes suddenly brightened, as if he had forced them to do so – and he cut himself off abruptly. “If you are so inclined, it is a good bit faster to walk to town than take a carriage – we can cut through the wood instead of winding down the road. Let me find a hat-“

If the path they took was faster, it was at the cost of being steep and precarious. Each step required one to brace their footing on protruding roots or balance themselves on nearby branches, or they would slide a half-step down the snow-mottled leaves. Percival took her hand for the length of the journey, but it was more for safety than affection. Still, he knew the trail well, Vex had always loved an adventurous walk in the woods, and it was a splendid, clear day – she would certainly not have traded it for the carriage.

He had an odd manner of courtship, this isolated Lord. In Vex’s previous experience, once romantic intentions were declared, what followed was mostly frittering flattery and elaborate promises. Occasionally verse, or dancing. It seemed Percival had quite worn through his capacity for poetry, and he settled instead on being ravenously curious about her, nearly to the point of indecency. Question after question, and he would store her answers with a hum and a quick glance away, performing his own little silent analyses. It was not so much wooing as an interrogation, and she was absolutely delighted by it.

They noticed a raven circling their heads, and that led them to talking of Vex’s natural magic. She told him of her accidental enchantments on creatures in her youth, and her first stumbling attempts to use those powers on command, with Keyleth’s occasional encouragement.

“I think,” she mused, “that I may be stronger in Whitestone. Or, perhaps not stronger – it is more a difference in precision. Like the difference between approaching a long, difficult math problem with a good night of sleep or approaching it exhausted – I find it simpler to focus and stay focused – do you see?”

“I do not have a sensible attitude toward sleep or mathematics,” he said gravely, “but I do follow the point.”

She laughed at him. He smirked, proud of himself, and squeezed her fingers.

“So – careful, darling-“ he started ahead on the trail, and made a short jump down a root-gnarled slope. He took both her hands to steady her, and she dropped down to join him. Vex felt delighted, dizzy, light as air. “Is it that Whitestone is a more peaceful place compared to Emon, or are you suggesting something supernatural?”

Vex tried to respond, but she was flustered by the pet name. It seemed to have slipped out by accident. He certainly hadn’t noticed. “Oh, it’s hard to say,” she said, on an outward breath, “or perhaps hard to differentiate.”

Percival looked as if he wanted to argue a point, but words were failing him. He gave a short hum, and paused in thoughtful silence. She was fond of that thinking face – it had been a constant since their first meeting. Vex sprang up on her toes and kissed his cheek, nearly hard enough to push him over, and through his yelp of surprise she chided, “Onward, dear , and we shall do our thinking later-!”

“Oh,” he said, once they fell back to position. His cheeks were quite scarlet. He fixed his hat, as if he wished he could pull it flat down over his spectacles. “Yes – onward.”

They arrived at the edges of the town, which was already lively with midday activity. Little groups of travelers, not unlike their own, moved through the streets with haste and purpose. Beneath them, the half-melted snow was churned to brown slush by a cavalcade of cart-tracks and footprints. The ongoing errands and work of the recent past seemed to occupy the minds of the townspeople – they moved along their paths undeterred. However as they walked nearer, Vex noticed that her companion was drawing eyes. He was too well-dressed for this particular road, and perhaps, to some of them, familiar.

“Where shall we begin?” Percival asked, already craning over the meagre crowd as if he expected her brother to be posted on a street-corner.

Vex thought quickly. “Well, he must be staying somewhere in the evenings – I stopped at a tavern inn, last I was here – “

The Lion’s Wrath was a few streets away, where the carriage-road to the castle joined with the main road of the town. Vex turned them toward it, still wary of the glances they attracted.

Perhaps Percival was less perceptive than she, or perhaps her rush had made him suspicious – but as they walked to the tavern, he took notice as well. He tucked deeper into the collar of his cloak and pulled his hat down again, aiming defensive glances left and right. He redoubled his speed, and Vex did as well, lengthening her strides to keep with his. When they reached the tavern, and crossed the street to its door, they were moving with such haste that they practically burst through the wood – the clamour drawing much more attention than it should have, and making them both cringe at their own self-defeating panic.

Some eyes turned to them, but only a handful lingered. The tavern was busy, and the patrons largely occupied. The sweet smell of spilt drink was cloying, even so early in the day, and it was difficult to pull faces from the bunches of patrons seated in the indoor dark. “The tavernmaster,” Percival said weakly, somewhere near her ear. Vex’ahlia led him, with feigned confidence, to the bar.

The barman was unfamiliar to her, and she recalled she had not approached him last time. He was a ruddy, portly gentleman with a proud red-brown moustache, and by his brightening eyes he seemed delighted to receive a customer of any nature.

“Good morning,” Vex greeted him, resting her folded hands on the bar, “have you-“

He was not looking at her, but just beyond her shoulder; he exclaimed, “Bless my blood, m’Lord Percival de Rolo!”

Vex froze. Percival, who was standing immediately behind her, cringed and tensed in a way she could practically feel. “Ah, yes. Hello,” he said, his voice high and strained.

“Pleasure to see you about, m’Lord,” the barman said. “Sit yourself anywhere you wish.”

The bustle at the tavern was growing quieter – more faces in the mass were turning their way. “Let’s avoid any fuss, please,” Percival said. He was fiddling with the collar of his winter cloak, trying to draw it closer around his shoulders, as if he could disappear into it.

 “Of course, of course-“

Vex felt a hard tap on her shoulder, and she turned down the bar to see another unfamiliar man, this one graying and round-faced, practically stuffed into his starched-white collar and red as a grape. “Begging your pardon – I haven’t seen you in my Lord’s entourage before – are you, by chance, the Ashari we received from Emon?”

 “Received?” Vex repeated. “No, I beg your pardon-“

In her brief distraction, another patron had swept up to Percival from the side – a middle-aged woman with tightly-wound sandy hair. She was mid-tirade; “-letters have gone unanswered! Holding courts in person is a tradition of Whitestone nobility, and certain of my permits are on the verge of-“

“Excuse me,” Vex cut in, sending a tight-lipped smile to the interrogator. Percival was staring straight ahead, his eyes widening as if something horrific was forming before him on the bartop.

The stranger snapped her glare to Vex. “Are you his secretary?” she pressed.

The man on Vex’s side interjected, “She’s an Ashari witch doctor!”

“I am neither!”

“Ey, come now,” the tavernmaster interrupted. “You’ve not seen the other young madam, with the red hair, the scarves? She’s a patron of this very establishment-“

“Then who is this? ” The woman spoke over them, making an open-hand gesture at Vex. “Is she scheduling your private appointments? There must be a system of responsibility in place-“

The tavermaster leaned forward, as if to pass a conspiring whisper to Percival, who shrank away from the attention. Undeterred, the moustached man continued, “If she’s a bother to you and your companion, my Lord, I can toss her to the street-“

“You would dare-!”

A loud bang! sounded from behind them as the front entrance flew open again, and Percival bolted at the noise like a shot-startled quail. He rounded the bar and exited, stumbling, through the archway to the kitchen, and then they heard the muffled slam of a distant door. A stunned silence fell over the group, but it did not linger; the new crowd of patrons entering brought with them a rush of revelry and shouts.

Vex was the first to regain her senses, and without a word, she pursued him. The others seemed to realize they had caused offense, and did not seek to stop her by word or gesture; she left them behind. That was a mercy, and a blessing. Vex’s thoughts were twisted by the vision of black tendrils of smoke uncoiling from under a door, slipping through the crowded hall, crawling up around the throats of the patrons.

The closest door beyond the entrance was that of a pantry. Vex slipped through, her hands shaking on the rattling handle. Inside, in near-complete darkness, Percival was facing away from her, his left hand splayed against the wall, his right clawed and shaking under his throat. He was gasping with the desperation of a drowning man.

“Percival?” Vex said. Her voice was quivering with fear. In the darkness, with his trembling, it was hard to tell if she was witnessing smoke or shadows. She cleared her throat, and tried again. “Percival?”

“I can’t-“ he said, his voice almost teary “-I can’t breathe.”

The ache in Vex’s heart was stronger than her fear. She ran to him, and turned him forcefully by the shoulders. He slumped against the wall, still pawing at his throat – but his face betrayed no hatred, no smoke, no spirit. He barely acknowledged her at all. He was only afraid.

“I’m sorry,” she gasped, and gently pushed his hand away from his neck. “I’m sorry, darling, I’m so sorry, here-“

She discarded his winter cloak, pulled his cravat away, and unfastened the first buttons of his shirt for good measure. Percival grasped her arms, cutting short her ministrations, and leaned down into her, resting his forehead against hers. He gave short, gasping, stuttering breaths, but could not find the words for a plea. Vex did not move until he released her wrists, and then she held him gently by his shoulders, forcing her own breathing to be loud and slow, so he could fall into step. In time, he did. He was calm once more, but for the left hand wrapped sternly around his own right forearm, squeezing the skin above the injury so fiercely she could hear his leather gloves creak.

Vex said nothing, wondering if she should have been thrilled or horrified. Either Orthax could be stopped if he was calmed in time, or the spirit could not move so far from the castle. Had he fought away a possession, or a natural panic?

While she calculated, he breathed, “Thank you.”

The sincerity pushed her thoughts out of step. Vex swallowed, and nodded. Percival stood straight, and leaned back against the pantry wall. Her eyes were adjusting to the dim light: they were hiding in an alcove between a shelf of dishes and a stack of mead-sticky barrels. It seemed a strange place for a monster to seek out. Percival confessed, his voice ragged and high, “This is what it was like in Emon. All those people, and all their eyes – I just start – I just start to think-“

“I know,” she said, and she did. It was hell to be looked at, sometimes. “You’re alright. No one is watching.”

After a long silence, where he did not look at her at all, he continued; “I am truly – truly sorry.” He sounded tearful; Vex’s heart was rent in sympathy. “I had hoped I could – do this for you. Help.” He swallowed. “Aid you, as you have aided me.”

Vex shook her head. “If such confrontation terrifies you so much, do not force it upon yourself,” she said, hoping to be gentle.

He hummed, and was quiet again for a while. Then he sighed. “One day, this will all be over, and I can turn myself to better things,” he said.

Vex recognized the sentiment. It was a promise he had made in the tower at Whitestone. She barely resisted the impulse to reach for him again, and banish the fear and impatience from his countenance.

 “I – I care for you very deeply,” Percival said. “In a way that is both immediate and constant. I cannot help but think you deserve much more than this. A man thrown to tormented anxiety at the first blush of an aggressive conversation.”

He said it wryly, but he could not fully disguise the self-loathing in the phrase. Vex narrowed her eyes. “I have no interest in what any other person has to offer, at the moment,” she said.

Percival let his head fall back, and gave a warm, affectionate laugh. “Heavens. That was not my meaning. How dare you?”

Vex smiled back at him, at the lighter tone in the midst of his grimness. He continued, “Still – I am heartened by your conviction. What I did mean to ask for was patience. Patience with me. I have much to recover from before I can treat you with all the graces I wish, and all the kindness you merit. I can do frightfully stupid things when I am determined to better myself.” He paused again, and at last conceded, “or determined to show off.”

With his entreaty complete, he fell silent, and looked at her imploringly. Vex felt her smile grow tense, and looked away. Orthax was unknown to him; in his ignorance, he could not even ask her to bear the burden of what would doubtlessly be his greatest challenge. It would have been comical, had it not been so heartbreaking. She answered carefully. “I think,” she said, “that is why people are drawn together at all – to make each other better, in ways they recognize, and in ways they never would have considered.”

While Vex was thinking, Percival grasped her hand, stole it toward him and kissed the backs of her fingers. A quick and almost thoughtless gesture, but it cut short her contemplation. She stared, silent and blushing, and he said, “Our loves are like a well-wrought contract, my fey little friend?”

 “You are very weird,” she replied.

You’re weird."

She uncurled her fingers from his grasp and feigned slapping him. He gave a suitably dramatic twist of the head in reaction, and they both stumbled into quiet, fluttering laughter.

Vex’ahlia pressed her hands to her heart, and took a deep breath. “Very well,” she said. “How shall we handle this? Locate a side door for our timely escape?”

Percival shook his head. “Send the tavernmaster back here to me. He was sympathetic, and I can hold that conversation without trouble, provided it is only him. Perhaps you could – face the crowds, and see if your brother is among them?”

He winced at his own suggestion. He looked so petrified that for a moment Vex nearly forgot she had no pressing fear of the situation, and found the gawkers and squawkers no more than irritating. She straightened and squared her shoulders, a cadet standing at attention, and gave Percival a cheery salute. “On my honour, I shall question the lot.”

“Noble and fearless,” he said, with a crooked grin. “So it shall be. Come back to me when you are satisfied. I shall–“ he glanced around, bemused “--make myself at home amongst the bread and barrels, for now.”

Vex bestowed a farewell kiss to his cheek, and rushed out to find the tavernmaster. She was oddly heartened by the encounter – it had cut close, but it suggested Orthax could be suppressed if the situation called for it. Commotion in the main tavern hall had settled to its typical volume, and the gossiping man and complaining woman had sunk back into the masses. Instead, once Vex directed the tavernmaster towards Percival’s hiding place in the pantry, she noticed two familiar faces. The clamorous arrival that had startled her Lord so was none other than that of the mining crew. Mr. Grog Strongjaw stood by the doorway, nearly bent double so he could speak to a stout man in a purple-and-gold winter cloak, absolutely audacious in its decoration – belonging, of course, to Mr. Scanlan Shorthalt.

Mr. Strongjaw noticed her first, and, instead of the jolly wave she expected, his thick brows leapt high on his forehead, and he beckoned her over urgently. He knocked Mr. Shorthalt on the shoulder to attract his attention – the force of the knock nearly sent the shorter man sprawling. When he recovered his balance, Mr. Shorthalt turned, caught sight of Vex, and beckoned her with equal fervour.

She skirted the crowds, and came up to them, and spoke half of her hasty greeting. “Mr. Shorthalt, Mr. Strongjaw, it’s a pleasure to-“

“Lady Vex’ahlia,” Mr. Shorthalt cut in, “we’ve been hoping to find you. You won’t believe half of what I have to tell you.”

She looked back and forth between their expressions, unnerved to find both men uncharacteristically serious. “What is it?”

Mr. Shorthalt puffed out a breath, and started drumming his fingers in a pattern on his hat-brim. “Bit nutty to talk out here. Grog claims Lord de Rolo’s lunching in the kitchen –

“Lunching?” Vex echoed.

Mr. Strongjaw nodded gravely. “I ain’t never seen a man skitter off that fast. People says he doesn’t eat nor drink most days, so – must’ve been starving.”

“Right,” Vex said slowly. “Mr. Strongjaw, if anyone mentions to you that they saw Lord de Rolo here, please tell them exactly that. We’re here for lunch.”

Mr. Strongjaw winked. “Knew it. If you’re that hard done by up at the castle, I’ll bring you all meat pies next I-“

Mr. Shorthalt waved both his hands between them, interrupting shrilly, “The meat pies have nothing to do with anything! Listen, my Lady, we need to talk to you – Doctor Trickfoot and Mr. Gilmore are at my manor, and their news is not the kind that can wait patiently. Bring your princeling and join us here-“

He slipped a calling card from his pocket with the easy flourish of a magician, pressed it into her palm, and closed both his hands around it, as if to prevent its escape. “Do not waste any time,” he said insistently.

“Mr. Shorthalt,” Vex cut in. “I will do as you ask, but I’m looking for my brother, so-“

“I know!” He hissed, and shook her captive hand for emphasis. “Ask Mr. Gilmore. Urgent, remember!”

“Alright!” she said, yanking her hand away. Fear began to stir low in her belly – had her brother not left with Mr. Gilmore? Why were they not together anymore?

“We’ve got something else to take care of, this hulking beastie and I,” Mr. Shorthalt continued, clapping Mr. Strongjaw on the bicep. “But I’ll see you in the foyer before the afternoon is out. Do not leave until I rejoin you!”