August broke, the weather not changing very much save for a few storms that made spying on people a plague. It wasn’t fun working in muggy air that caused him to sweat so much that his shirts were soaked after an hour, but that was better than torrential downpours that lasted for hours to days. It was uncomfortable, cold, and frankly undignified.
Raulin had done as much work under the cover of night as possible. With Tel’s help, he had determined that the Kiinvar estate was clean with no individuals hiding out in some tucked away area. (Tel hadn’t minded this, since his help was likely to determine if someone needed help or had died, not dragging someone kicking and screaming back to his parents.) Raulin had also broken into Schoolinghouse and searched the offices of the men marked by Al as suspicious with no suspicious paperwork discovered. And, through some idle chitchat amongst the rich, he had pieced some idea as to where the Cumber’s headquarters might be located: in Shingden. He had sighed internally every time he heard that same rumor.
Al and Anla were progressing. Although it was slow, they were making headway and Raulin practiced patience. It would happen, he told himself. They would do their parts.
That first evening of August he was rewarded with a note from Kazithu:
Meet me backstage before
the end of the play
This was likely going to be an easy tick-off. Kazi had come through on his end of the bargain. Raulin was very pleased and was rather cheery when he took Anla out to a Hiben barbecue that night.
The next day, he did what he was told. It wasn’t too difficult, when almost everyone’s eyes were on the parade and not some guy poking around a tent. Raulin got comfortable and waited until he heard the sounds of the parade growing louder and louder. It was a different sound with horns blatting and whistles sliding up and down the scale. The circus’s second-to-last play was going to be a comedy, so it made sense that the music was sillier sounding.
“Okay, folks, beginner’s call!” he heard from a woman out in the hallway a few minutes after the music stopped.
“It’s fine,” said Kazi from outside his door. “He doesn’t know.”
“Yeah, it’s not your neck on the line,” said a man.
The door opened and Kazi walked through backwards holding his stilts, his pants tied on the sides so that he could walk without tripping over the extended length. “And if it happens, it happens. Don’t worry. It’s gone well so far.”
“But I don’t like him hanging around here.”
“We’re almost gone and it will be easier then.” Kazi turned, saw Raulin in his hammock, startled, then swore. “You sure know how to make an entrance.”
“We spent several weeks on that in Arvarikor,” he said, sitting up. “Who was that?”
“Oh, that newbie. Just concerned about a role he’s been rehearsing.”
Raulin raised an eyebrow at that, but said nothing. “So, how does this work?”
“Tonight’s theme is ‘sins and vices’.”
“How twin-sisterly,” he replied, referencing the goddesses Aliorna and Beliforn’s ideas on lifestyles.
“Just the idea. Follow me.” He set aside his stilts and led Raulin through the maze of rooms behind the stage. Actors scrambled to doff their parade costumes and change into their stage wardrobe, some running towards the stage while they still zipped themselves or tucked hair into wigs.
Kazi turned into a large room filled with clothes, wigs, masks, jewelry, props, and makeup. “Entertain yourself here. Don’t pull anything out, just choose what you want to play tonight based on what we have. Pick a few characters; you get last dibs after everyone else, so I’ll have to check that your choice isn’t taken. I’ll be back after I’m done.”
Raulin thanked him and began dancing his fingers over the costumes on hangers, looking for inspiration. What would fit his needs? Something quiet, secretive, demure, and aloof. Intoxication? Too abstract. Rage? Definitely too flashy and not something he wanted to keep up for hours. Ah, he thought, what about Seduction? That would give him an excuse to slip away during portions of the night while he hunted for the ledger he needed to steal. It was likely taken, but he would put together a costume anyway.
He walked behind the stage and listened to the play, laughing at the jokes and smiling when the audience reacted in gasps and oohs at some intricate display. A few of the actors walking around the back gave him strange looks, but he always gave them a polite nod. No one tried to kick him out.
“Enjoying yourself?” Kazi asked, having just slipped in from one of the back doors.
“I am, actually.”
“Good. I hate to see my company bored. Show me what you came up with.”
Kazi escorted Raulin to the room after taking off his ridiculous purple wig. He pulled a clipboard from the side of the doorway into the costume room and stepped inside with him.
“I was thinking ‘Seduction’, with this outfit and this mask,” he said, showing him a tight midnight blue outfit not unlike his arong-miil, and a black half-mask that poured down his right cheek.
“Read me the numbers on the tags,” he said, which Raulin did. “Good, those are both available. And so is ‘seduction’, though there is a ‘Lust’ going tonight. Try not to step on her toes.”
“I will do my best.”
“Now, I know you know how to play a character. Do you want me to walk you through anything?”
“We go to the Akistle mansion. We play the part of whatever we are. I assume all the extras will be handled by the professionals?”
“Yes, and any questions should be directed to the more senior members. They’ll have their faces painted.”
“I can handle that.”
Kazi took his own set of clothing and the two walked back to his room to change. Raulin changed into his outfit quickly and swapped out masks while Kazi was busy working on his elaborate face paint. The main area of his face was painted gold with tiny swirls flaring out from the edges, like fire. His eyes were lined heavily with black and his lips colored a smooth exaggeration of their normal color, dark on the edges and pink in the middle. “Here,” he said, and drew a few black curls below his left eye.
Raulin examined himself in the mirror. He liked it. The outfit was a little too large for him and slightly too short, but gloves and his leather boots solved at least one of those problems.
About an hour after the play finished, eleven members of the circus headed off to the Akistle estate together on a trolley and arrived at dusk. The two musicians that accompanied them, one a violinist and the other a drummer, announced their arrival as the actors began doing flips, high kicks, and handsprings up the walkway to the mansion. He noted several guests had clamored to the windows and were watching their entrance.
There wasn’t much he could do for acrobatics, at least not high-powered moves. Instead he swaggered to the door and entered quietly, slipping past the show that was put on and choosing instead to invade people’s personal space. Later, if he had the chance, he would show off some of his slow balancing moves that he practiced daily.
One man stepped forward after the entrance, clapping enthusiastically. He was portly and balding, with rosy cheeks and a craggy nose. “Welcome! Thank you all for coming. I’ve been told that tonight’s spectacle is ‘sins and vices’. A great choice for our last party. Come! Enjoy the food, drink, and company!”
The party-goers clapped and moved from the foyer, decorated in green and gold for Ap Riszel’s Day, to the hallways. The main areas people would need to walk safely were lit by the gas lamps on the walls and oil lights hanging from the ceilings. The larger rooms off the hallways, the music room, the billiards room, the dining room, and the conservatory, were lit with candelabras and dozens of rows of candles lining tables, buffets, and cabinets.
Again, Raulin kept himself to a whisper. He waited until the actors had the attention of smaller crowds, then crept up behind the women and spoke softly in their ears. Any who didn’t give him a glare were entertained with risque jokes and fingers brushing past their ears. Then, he moved on to the next lady.
As soon as he had made his way through everyone, he began exploring with intent. Akistle’s company ledger was likely in his office, perhaps in a library or bedroom. He had questioned it being in his home at all, but since the man conducted all business from his home, it had better be somewhere on the premises.
There was no one in the music room when he passed through. He was about to leave when he spotted a beautifully carved spinet in a corner. It looked achingly like the one his mother had played. He felt himself pulled and he ran his hand over the wood, his fingers dancing along the raised embellishments on the side. He sat at the stool, adjusted himself ’til he was comfortable, and pressed his fingers on the keys.
He closed his eyes and took in the rich, twanging sounds. The gorgeous instrument lacked the annoying clicks he’d often hear with inferior pieces. It was also tuned, a blessing. It wasn’t long before he was lost in a melody, one from his homeland, about the lush forests of Kian Suay in the north. It had been his mother’s favorite song.
Raulin was pleased that he remembered the tune. It had been well over fifteen years since he’d last played, the light cramp in his hands reminding him that he was not a regular musician. He finished with a flourish and almost jumped when a dozen people clapped enthusiastically.
Had he actually wanted to succeed as Seduction, this would have worked brilliantly. Several women flocked around him, wanting him to play some favorite song or answer questions about himself. He gave coy replies, turning the attention back on the women, not letting anyone know that his brilliance only existed for five precious songs from his youth.
After perhaps a half-hour, he fame waned and he was left alone again to wander. He moved to the front atrium and starting peeking into rooms, shutting the door once he identified the space as unimportant. He made a note of the library, but continued on until he found a smaller room with a desk, a few bookcases, and a couple of chairs that was most likely an office, perhaps the office he needed.
He really wished he had his mask. Even after he let his eyes adjust to the dark, he still couldn’t discern much about what he was looking at. There were a few papers and books on Akistle’s desk, but he ignored those for the time being. Only an idiot would leave his business ledger on his desk. Then again, sometimes people were idiotic in their trust.
Both bottom drawers were locked. He clicked his tongue a few times, retrieved his lock picks from the silk strap he wore across his ribs and under his outfit, and tried the right drawer first. He always found the clicking associated with unlocking to be a beautiful, satisfying sound, especially since it wasn’t his strong suit and he never finished first in the competitions they held at Arvarikor. He didn’t finish last, either, not wanting to be caned, but it was often a close call.
He found the ledger immediately. Or, technically, he found a ledger, then another, and another after that. He opened the front and had to bring it to the door of the office to have enough light to tell that it was from last year. The one in the back was seven years old. He’d be impressed if Akistle thought to plant his current ledger in the middle of a stack of supposedly ordered ledgers.
His attentions turned to the other drawer, where he fumbled with the lock for a few minutes. Finally, he heard the satisfying click and opened the drawer. Underneath a small leather portfolio and some papers was a ledger identical to the others, save the dates were current. He returned back to the desk, took the front ledger from the right drawer, and placed it where the current one had been. He fiddled again for an additional five minutes to re-lock both drawers and stood, shoving the ledger and his lock picks under his strap.
“What are you doing?” he heard and froze for a moment.
Excuses flew by his mind and he reached out and grabbed the first that seemed plausible. He looked around. “Playing hide-and-seek with someone. She’s very good.”
“Maybe she doesn’t want to be found,” the woman said.
“Well, the key is to not be so great at that game that you bore the other players. I think I’ve reached that point.”
“Ah, too bad for the girl.” She paused for a few moments. “You’re the man who was playing our spinet?”
He bowed and made a mental note of that word “our”. Raulin made to move past the woman but she put a gloved hand on his chest. “I wanted to inquire about your wages.”
“The…,” she waved her hand in the air, “fees you creveirs charge.”
“Oh,” he said. He wouldn’t have minded it, and the extra cash, but there was the slight issue of things under his clothing that would be hard to explain. “You need to speak with Greed.”
“Greed? Which one’s he?”
“He wears the gold he covets on his face.”
“Hmm,” she said before turning to find Kazithu. Raulin followed her as covertly as possible. When she found him and began to negotiate, Raulin caught Kazi’s eye and shook his head. He waved goodbye and gave a flourished half-bow before leaving out a side entrance, pleased to be finally done with another contract.