A Valuable Acquisition Dartelaan watched the approaching party with determination. After months of watching and waiting, the opportunity he had hoped for had finally come. It was time to make his move and see if everything worked out the way he needed it to. Nodding respectfully to his temporary new employer, he fell into step with the others. Jagreth’s manor was as impressive as rumours had made it out to be. Dartelaan admired the elegance and craftsmanship of the building and envied their host. The spiky scent of envy was rising from the other members of their modest honour guard as well and he wished that he envied Jagreth for the same reasons as they. Once, he had been ignorant like the rest of his kind, but now he knew too much. Not realizing the danger, he had allowed Joanna to ruin him and he feared that he would never be able to enjoy life again. The pain of that had driven him to what others of his kind might have considered brilliance. Competing with his rivals in ever riskier and more dangerous schemes had netted him immense wealth and notoriety in the south, but no longer did his victories grant him any satisfaction! Dartelaan had never considered himself a fool, but he knew that sooner or later he would overstep the bounds of what was possible and that mistake would cost him his life. He was confident that this plan would solve his problem permanently. He had to be! He was out of options to solve it any other way. Jagreth’s ballroom was richly decorated in deep red trimmed with gold, while the floor was expensively tiled in black and white marble. Tall windows stretched from floor to ceiling to let light in. In typical Darkren style, the windows were extremely narrow. A rock thrown through the glass would gain an invader little advantage. Only a shape-shifting magic-wielder might possibly manage to squeeze through one. An immense buffet table had been set up along the far wall and displayed a tantalizing aroma of exotic scents. Jagreth’s expensively dressed slaves were also circulating with trays of food and drink as the musicians were setting up in a corner. Sweeping the room, Dartelaan’s eyes were drawn to a handsomely constructed display-case at the north end. Presumably, it held the reason Jagreth had thrown this little soiree in the first place. Displaying the results of his latest victory would do much to increase his standing among the elite. Managing to keep it in the presence of so many masters of their craft would only increase his social standing all the more. Dartelaan cared nothing for Jagreth’s prestige. He had his own plans for what was in that case! Circulating quietly among the other guests, he matched wits with a few and listened for information that might interfere with his own plans. By reputation, some of the others here tonight were regarded as the best competitors known to exist. They might be masters of their craft but he had inside information he was sure that they lacked. He had been observing Jagreth and his household for months before the opportunity this party represented had dropped into his lap. Glancing up, he noted a familiar female arrive, not at all surprised to see that she was dressed as a guest rather than in the uniform of Jagreth’s house guard. Kanishra was stunning by anyone’s standards. Her lithe form was sheathed in a tight-fitting dress of lush, dark violet. As quiet and as supple as a panther on the prowl, she stalked confidently into the room, her every motion betraying the deadly grace that was her hallmark. Her vivid yellow gaze swept quickly through the guests, noting who was here and who had not yet arrived before she padded over to the buffet table to survey the fare. He watched her choose a wedge of cheese and a glass of wine, admiring her self-assured demeanor in the presence of so many distinguished guests. A female of Kanishra’s so-far modest reputation would not normally have merited an invitation to a party of this calibre. Having known her in the past however, Dartelaan was very aware that she deserved far more prestige than she currently enjoyed. A stranger to Kanishra’s right suddenly stumbled and fell to the floor. Her body contorted in agony as her head banged repeatedly off the tiles from her convulsions. Impassively, he watched as slaves hauled the body away. One of the guests would be down a guard tonight for choosing their hired help unwisely. The inexperienced and the unobservant should never risk matching wits with the elite! Obviously, the female had misjudged which dishes were poisoned and which were safe! Kanishra snorted in disgust for the dead one’s stupidity and moved off into the crowd. Dartelaan tracked her movements surreptitiously as he fenced verbally with the rival in front of him. Kanishra was the key to his plan’s success. He could only hope now that his suspicions about her were correct. Finishing the discussion, he moved to intercept her. “Kanishra,” he said quietly, making sure he was close enough for her to catch and recognize his scent. “It has been awhile.” “Dartelaan,” she responded, turning around to face him. “The last I saw you, you were fighting for the other side in the war.” Dartelaan let out a sinister chuckle to match his arrogant smirk. “The side you also fought for in the end I might point out,” he noted. “It seems that we both chose well, for it was the winning side.” “That is true, however unlikely it seemed at the time,” she replied, eyeing him speculatively. “What are you doing here?” she asked bluntly. “The same as you I imagine,” he replied, his penetrating gaze locking onto hers. Not at all intimidated, she stared him down and his eyes swept over her appreciatively before he inclined his head in the direction of one of the more influential guests. “Tonight I am a sword for hire. With a prize such as this famed ruby to boast over, many have hired extras to guard them.” “Of course,” she agreed suspiciously. “Have you seen this infamous stone yet?” he asked. “Jagreth claims to have stolen it from the crown of the king of Nador himself.” “A not-inconsiderable feat,” Kanishra noted admiringly. “He deserves his victory and the prestige it has brought him.” “Then let us honour victory and admire the stone,” he suggested. “Our host will expect it,” he added, deliberately hiding the fact that he knew she worked for Jagreth now. Kanishra nodded her agreement and stalked silently beside him to the display case that held the ruby. Critically eyeing the red gem, Dartelaan wondered if it was authentic or not. It would make as much sense for Jagreth to hide it in plain sight as it would to allow someone to steal a displayed fake. To his reckoning it certainly looked real enough. Discovering the truth of the mystery was of paramount importance. As second-in-command of Jagreth’s house guard, he was sure that Kanishra certainly had that information. He had only to discover what she knew. “A rich prize,” he finally pronounced admiringly, putting his suspicions to the test. He inhaled as unobtrusively as possible as Kanishra nodded her agreement. The faintest hint of spicy triumph suddenly flared in her scent at his words and he noted it with satisfaction. There was only one reason he could think of that she might be pleased with his assumption that the ruby was authentic. The stone was a forgery and she knew it. Nodding to her, Dartelaan moved off again into the crowd, needing to observe her for awhile longer to ascertain her game. Making his way over to the buffet table, he pretended to admire Jagreth’s pleasure slaves as he ate. He watched Kanishra circulate among her rivals until he finally saw her leading another guest over to the display case. The oily gem-dealer peered carefully at the stone and then broke into delighted laughter. “This has been swapped for a fake,” he announced, confirming what Dartelaan already suspected. All conversation in the room ceased at his words and the guests looked suspiciously at each other, no doubt wondering who had successfully managed to steal what everyone wanted. “Seal the exits!” Jagreth commanded and the house guard rushed to obey. “Get me a guest list! Everyone is to be searched.” Kanishra’s superior Rastelann sent a number of his underlings running to round up guests that might be in other areas of the manor. Dartelaan noted that Kanishra allowed herself to be searched at sword-point along with the rest of the guests. He stared menacingly at the junior guard that rifled through his own pockets and small-clothes as three others held him at sword point. In anticipation, everyone waited as the guards found nothing incriminating on anybody. Rastelann began to smell worried and Dartelaan began to piece Kanishra’s plan together. Silently, he admired her cunning. Jagreth was deceptively calm throughout the proceedings. Finally, he waved the musicians to play again and then strode purposefully from the room followed by Rastelann. Kanishra appeared outwardly disinterested in their departure but Dartelaan’s suspicions were confirmed when she wandered out of the ballroom a few moments later. “Where is the restroom?” he demanded to know of a slave passing by with a tray. None of the other guests paid any outward attention to his subsequent departure. Following the slave’s directions, he turned right out of the ballroom doorway, following the main hall around to where it met the servant hallway. Luck was with him for he could faintly smell that Kanishra had headed in the same direction. He kept walking past the door where her scent disappeared and ducked into the restroom on the left. Listening and smelling carefully at the door, he determined that no-one was out in the hallway and that he hadn’t been followed. Carefully, Dartelaan crept back to the door that Kanishra had disappeared into, getting as close as he dared. The low murmur of her voice and Jagreth’s drifted out from under it. He strained to hear what they were saying but couldn’t quite make out the words. The scent of blood wafted out into the hallway and he guessed that Rastelann was no more. The head of the house guard had apparently failed to protect his employer’s stone and had paid the price for it. Jagreth had acted too hastily to dispatch him, yet he would be impressed with Kanishra since she had so cunningly arranged her own promotion. Quickly, Dartelaan left the doorway and stole silently down the servant hallway, hoping his scent would dissipate before the two of them emerged. He could smell that the kitchen was at the end of this hallway and that would help to mask his presence. Cooking and food odours were useful for more than just tempting the palate! The two Lantren slave boys scrubbing dishes in the kitchen jumped in alarm as he ducked into the doorway. He fixed both of them with a cold glare, punctuating his words with a firm overtone of command. “Your silence will serve you well,” he told them. He ignored the vague wave of nausea that rolled over him as his implied threat triggered the magical restrictions Joanna had once placed on his behaviour. The pair nodded and silently went back to work, ostensibly pretending they hadn’t seen him. Returning his attention to the hallway, Dartelaan listened carefully for evidence that Kanishra and Jagreth were done their private conference. He needed to search that room! To his surprise, he could hear that they hadn’t gone back to the party but were headed this way instead. Casting the slave boys a look that promised retribution if they didn’t keep their vow of silence, he moved to the back of the kitchen. Most kitchens had a door to the outside, making the hauling of wood to fuel the stoves more convenient. To his relief, this one was hidden from view of the rest of the kitchen by a pantry cabinet. Squatting beside the cabinet, his hand on the doorknob for a quick escape, Dartelaan waited to see what he could learn. He listened carefully as Kanishra’s light step announced her entrance. A heavier one followed immediately afterward. “Get out,” he heard her say sharply. Wisely, the slaves complied, and Dartelaan heard the sound of jars moving around on the shelf above the counter. “You hid it in the raisin jar?” Jagreth’s voice asked incredulously. Dartelaan allowed himself a triumphant smile. “Clever,” Jagreth announced admiringly. “No-one will ever know it is here. Yet we will take one last precaution against accidental theft.” A moment later the scent of sweet almonds filled the room and Dartelaan grinned in pleasure. Jagreth had just unknowingly provided him with the means for his victory! Nobody would dare to eat a ‘raisin’ coated in cyanide and only a fool would fail to notice its distinctive smell! Well pleased with how his victory was shaping up, Dartelaan slipped silently out the kitchen door and into the night. He had just made it into the shadows cast by the wall of the manor when Kanishra stole silently out the door he had only recently come through. Her glossy black hair shone silver in the moonlight and only the brilliance of her yellow gaze distinguished her as separate from the darkness of the night around her. Dartelaan studied her silently. She had her part to play in this and he wondered how he was going to manipulate her into playing it. Deciding on a clever course of action, he deliberately scuffed a foot softly on the grass. The sudden sound of someone moving in the shadows caught her attention, alarming her. Whirling, she whipped a dagger out of her sleeve and threw it at him, drawing a second one for defence if it came to a fight. Expecting her to do something like that, he was ready and snatched the dagger out of the air before it found its intended mark. Smiling at her skilful reaction, he emerged out of shadow and into moonlight, revealing to her who it was that she faced. Kanishra eyed him warily. “You were sloppy Dartelaan,” she accused him. “I heard you far too easily.” “Is that so?” he asked, his gaze challenging her. “There is no benefit to me in killing you tonight Kanishra. Perhaps I wanted you to hear me.” “What are you doing out here?” she demanded to know, her scent revealing her irritation that he might actually have managed to surprise her. “I came out to scout the perimeter in case the thief managed to slip away from Jagreth’s house guard somehow,” he lied. “Anyone would be a fool to ignore such an easy opportunity, do you not think?” he asked, cocking his head to the side and regarding her. “Now I find you sneaking out the kitchen door.” “I was searched by the guard as well,” she pointed out, coolly waving her dagger for effect. “Or did you fail to notice that little detail?” she asked acidly. “I did notice that,” he assured her. “No doubt we are both out here with the same idea.” He slid his gaze sideways to regard other dark forms that were now stalking noiselessly across the lawns. “It appears we are no longer alone in our quest for opportunity,” he noted dryly. “I think the thief will not be found out here after all. Shall we return then?” Nodding, she returned her dagger to its sheath and followed him back inside. Tucking her other one securely away, he suppressed a smile of satisfaction. Her knife was going to be very useful indeed! The rest of the evening was entertaining as the guests speculated on the supposed theft of Jagreth’s prize. Dartelaan listened to their theories with interest, adding a few rumours of his own for purposes of misdirection. He was quite satisfied with his manipulations by the time his employer chose a pleasure slave and retired for the evening. Before taking up his guard post outside his employer’s bedroom door for the night, Dartelaan had one final thing to do. He found the cook in the kitchen lecturing the slave boys on the merits of washing the dishes properly. Both boys paled visibly when he stepped into the room and their scents began to emanate fear and uncertainty. “You,” Dartelaan said sharply, pointing at the fat cook. “Come here!” The slave boys fled as soon as the now-terrified cook turned away from them. The cook was the weakest part of his plan. He would have to be painfully obvious and very convincing for this to work. To do that he was going to have to toe the line of what Joanna’s magical restrictions would allow him to do. If the cook had been Darkren, this wouldn’t be a problem! He was still allowed to hurt his own kind. Gritting his teeth, Dartelaan braced himself for what he knew was coming. “You’re making biscuits for the breakfast buffet in the morning?” he demanded to know. The cook nodded emphatically. “Of course,” he agreed. “Master has commanded it.” “Good,” Dartelaan replied curtly. A wave of nausea assaulted him as he drew Kanishra’s dagger and waved it threateningly in the face of the slave in front of him. “You will add raisins to them,” he commanded. “My employer demands it.” “C...certainly!” the cook stammered, his piggy eyes tracking the blade as Dartelaan waved it conspicuously back and forth. “I see no harm in granting your employer’s request.” “See that you do,” Dartelaan told him quietly. Black spots at the edges of his vision were now threatening to make him lose consciousness altogether. Struggling to appear as if nothing was wrong, he quickly tucked the dagger away, hoping the fool cook had seen enough of it to serve his purpose. Ordering the slave out, Dartelaan waited alone in the kitchen until he had fully recovered his wits and then headed off to guard his employer for the night. True to form, his employer rose early and Dartelaan followed him and his other guards to the ballroom. Jagreth’s slaves were already busy carrying platters of food in from the kitchen and setting them on the buffet table. Pausing to lace up his boot, Dartelaan made certain he was the last of their party to choose his breakfast. Avoiding the platter of scrambled eggs since they were laced with subtle toxins, he selected his food carefully. The cook had indeed made raisin biscuits and Dartelaan carefully sniffed at each one. It was almost too easy to pick out the one that smelled of cyanide and he slipped it deftly into his belt pouch before carrying his meal to a table to eat it. Jagreth and Kanishra met their party at the door as they were preparing to depart, Kanishra no longer pretending to be a guest. Their host soundly cursed them all with disadvantages so he could best them more easily at their next meeting. His scent was smug and vaguely triumphant. Jagreth would be in for a rude awakening when he learned why he had no right to be so pleased with himself! A short time later, Dartelaan parted from his employer, a few pounds heavier for his reluctantly-given payment. Taking a footpath that he knew would lead him south, he jogged along just fast enough so someone might think he was in a hurry. Carefully, he kept his senses trained on his surroundings, passing areas that might afford an enemy a place to hide with his hand on his sword. He grinned with pleasure when his blade met Kanishra’s on her first strike. Clever female! She had always been a worthy adversary and now she had proven it to him yet again. A lesser competitor would never have figured out who had the ruby in time! “You shouldn’t have kept my dagger last night,” she told him, aiming a fast flurry of blows at his mid-section. “It was foolish of you to threaten the cook with it Dartelaan. That was what led me to you in the end.” Expertly, she parried his counterattack. “So now you have come to claim back what I have stolen,” he noted, thrusting low with his sword. Blocking the strike with her own, she aimed a blow to his head with her other hand. He ducked and twisted, disentangling his weapon from hers in the process. “Why would you want to do that?” he asked, circling her warily, his blade at the ready. She snorted in disgust for his lack of vision. “Jagreth cannot discount my skill when I return his prize to him,” she replied. “Securing an alliance with him will do much to gain me wealth and prestige.” Dartelaan struck again, faster than a snake. Delighted, Kanishra blocked the blow, putting him slightly off balance in the process. Quickly, she hooked his foot with her own, tripping him as he stepped back to regain it. He slapped her blade sideways as he fell backward, giving himself just enough time to tuck into a smooth roll and land right back on his feet again. She charged in with another sortie of strikes. The sound of steel ringing echoed through the surrounding woods as Dartelaan defended against her. Trapping her blade with his own finally, he leaned in close enough to her face that she could feel his breath on her cheek. She smiled welcomingly but he was not fool enough to come within range of her teeth! “I have a better proposition for you,” he whispered, catching her gaze with his own. Clearly surprised by his words, she brought her knee up sharply, intending to cause him a painful muscle spasm in his thigh. He twisted to avoid the blow, releasing her blade and shoving her away from him in the process. “I doubt that,” she scoffed, backing away from him. “Yet I am willing to listen. Speak.” “You have great skill and cunning Kanishra,” Dartelaan acknowledged, eyeing her appreciatively. “You also think fast on your feet, ready to take advantage of opportunities as they present themselves.” She stiffened with pride for his praise and he smiled in satisfaction. “After the battle when you and that Lantren boy Tomas ended the war, I had the opportunity to speak with the boy.” Kanishra chuckled. “He is truly remarkable for one of his unworthy kind! I would that he had been born one of us. All of us would be far better at our craft for having to match wits with one such as him!” “Agreed,” Dartelaan replied, considering her carefully. This was the point of no return. Even Joanna had been surprised at how much pain and grief her lesson had caused him and his son. The Darkren did not learn to love easily but she had proven that they could be taught. In her ignorance, she had condemned both of them to a life of conflict. He was as driven to hurt, cheat and destroy as much as he had been before he had ever met her, but now understood why he shouldn’t do these things. Not able to live among the other races who had been unable to accept him, he had returned to live among his own kind. In their ignorance they were content, finding fulfilment in the pursuit of wealth, prestige and power. Dartelaan knew Joanna had never been his and he could never successfully compete with the one who had won her heart. That painful truth had left a void within him that nothing else could fill. Yet if he and his son could be taught to love, then surely so could another! His gaze studied the ruthless female in front of him. Kanishra had once let Tomas live, and not because there was an advantage for her in doing so. She probably had no idea why she had done that, but he was fairly certain that he knew why. Tomas had already begun in her what he hoped to finish. If he could teach Kanishra to love him, then he would no longer be alone. He knew he shouldn’t do it. She would suffer as badly with it as he now did. Making his decision, he stepped over the point of no return. “I knew you as a worthy adversary when we competed against each other for Zakarsh’s favour at the dark fortress,” he told her. “Tomas spoke of you with admiration and I see that your skills have only increased since last we saw each other. I suspect you have also gained unique knowledge from your association with Tomas, as I have also done from those he would have called his ‘friends’.” She frowned a little in confusion at that comment. He did not bother to explain, merely giving her a mysterious smile in response to her unspoken question. “I maintain a manor estate in the south near Rajket,” he told her, continuing on with his tale. “My slaves are well trained and there are many worthy adversaries to compete with nearby.” His eyes sought hers then. “Your knowledge and skills are of value to me. I would have one such as you for my ally Kanishra. I suspect that I would benefit greatly from our association.” The lemony smell of surprise flared in her scent at his offer. Narrowing her eyes suspiciously, she lowered her sword. “You never really cared about the ruby, did you?” she asked. “No,” he replied. “I was after something of far greater benefit to me than that.” Reaching into his belt pouch, he withdrew the raisin biscuit and tossed it to her. The sweet scent of almonds wafted up from it and she laughed out loud in delight. “Allied together, our skills could gain us hundreds of such treasures,” he promised her, suppressing the nagging feeling of guilt that plagued him. “You deliberately threatened the cook with my dagger, didn’t you?” she asked, piecing the puzzle together. “And you knew that I had taken employment with Jagreth.” Dartelaan only chuckled and nodded. “What say you?” he asked. “I defeated Jagreth himself. I would be a worthy ally Kanishra.” He waited silently to hear what she would say as she carefully weighed the merits of his offer against her current strategy for success. “Yes you would,” she agreed finally, sheathing her sword. She regarded him in admiration as she tucked the raisin biscuit into her own belt pouch. “You have proven your worth to me, just as you set out to do. Very well then Dartelaan, let us go and see what the south has to offer.” Sheathing his own sword, he nodded and then stole noiselessly off the trail and into the underbrush. Kanishra followed just as silently, her ebony skin standing out starkly against the green foliage around them. She moved off ahead a little ways and he watched the dappled sunlight pick up highlights in her dark hair. Perhaps there was still hope for both of them yet? Apparently he hadn’t learned Joanna’s lesson as well as he thought since he was most likely condemning Kanishra to a life of suffering right alongside him. The thought brought him some comfort. Whatever he had learned, he was still Darkren!