Kilmerry, AC 1876
No moon crossed the sky that night, nor did any starlight pierce the clouds to dilute the darkness. A rain-heavy breeze rattled the windowpanes of Lomhannor Hall and breached its walls in a hundred different places, filling its chambers and corridors with drafts. Those within huddled in their beds with warming pans and down comforters, lulled into oblivion by the weather's assault. No one was awake to catch a stealthy tread on the Hall's back stairways, the ones where only the slaves and servants walked.
There'd been challenges to getting in, of course, though a wagonload of cobblestones and a laborer's garb had gotten Julian past the gates. Bundled up in his coat against the wind and rain, the groundskeeper had been far more interested in his warm hearth than in explaining to an oaf of a stonemason why His Grace the Duke of Shalridan owed him three ducats for the delivery, not six. The argument gained him leave to argue his case to the seneschal, and no one challenged him once he was inside the Hall. A servant's walk and a wheedling tone of voice told those he passed that he had an accepted place in the daily order of life.
And the map of the great house from the footman he'd bribed told him where to hide until darkness fell.
Sequestered in that empty cellar, he shifted from his disguise to his working attire. It took time--he had but one hand with which to change his appearance, one eye with which to see what he was doing. But with systematic care, laborer's clothing yielded to formfitting black, the gray wig to his true hair. Cotton wadding removed from his cheeks altered the structure of his face, and soot from the hearth closest to his hiding place darkened it, turning him from head to foot into a walking shadow. A black patch, pulled into place, hid his false left eye, and a leather glove swathed the false hand on his right wrist. All throughout he checked and rechecked his weapons, making sure they occupied the places his left hand could reach.
In the night's smallest hours the Rook emerged to take the servants' stairs to the third floor, listening for any sound that might be out of place, and keeping a wall to his blind side at all times. With the patience of a snake slithering past a drowsing lion's paws, he investigated every corner, doorway and alcove, never moving till each one proved safe. He would reach his goal--but only if the lion did not wake.
Behind his mask of soot, Julian's mouth curled in a tight smile. Lomhannor meant heart of the lion. But the place's venerable history and the structure that evoked its name, hinting at the shape of a massive crouching cat, interested him far less than its wealth. On any other night, any of the prizes a thief could spirit out of the place would have tempted him. Tonight, however, he sought a different prize. Tonight he sought a life.
As he stole through the passageways, Julian reviewed his mental map of the Hall. The footman's parchment erred in the sizes of certain rooms and the number of doorways in certain corridors, but it led him nonetheless to the southeastern wing, where the duke and his family resided. Their wing of the house faced east for the best views of the town in the valley below, and south in honor of the Duchess Khamsin's distant homeland. In the vital details of that wing--which doors would be locked, which rooms uninhabited--the parchment was accurate enough. So far.