Prologue

Covers

Raleigh awakened with a jolt. Something, or someone – he wasn't quite sure what it was – had awakened him from a deep sleep. He didn't realize exactly how deeply he'd been sleeping until he felt a soft, warm form move against his hip. There was someone in his bed, under his blankets, lying against his left side! He didn't dare move his left arm which, he realized only now, was trapped between the as-of-yet unknown person and his own body for fear of wakingh whoever it might be. As he was contemplating whether to try and sneak out of bed without waking his uninvited guest or to try and sneak a peek under the blankets the form suddenly rolled over away from him while making little sleeping noises like a child, or a puppy, being disturbed by its dreams. This unexpected movement, however slight it might have been, was enough to free his arm but even more striking to Raleigh was the fact that it drew the covers down a little over the sleeping form's head. From the little he could see it had hair the color of blue ice but even more distracting were the tips of two decidedly pointed ears. Elf? His first thought went to the mystical creatures from fairytales and fantasy novels known for either their affinity for magic or their love for nature, or both. Half expecting a companion wolf to jump at him from the shadows he carefully scanned the corners of the room he was in. Which was not the same room he went to sleep in last night.

Maybe it was a testament of his state of mind that it no longer shocked him to realize he woke up somewhere else than where he'd gone to sleep but the fact was he remained hardly even fazed as he calmly took in his surroundings. Everything might just be a dream, after all, but somehow he doubted it. It just seemded too … real … for him, too substantial, for it to be just a figment of his imagination.

The silk sheets – Silk! – caressed his body as he sat up slowly to take in more of the room. The bed was kingsize or larger and dressed up like one of those older luxury beds nobles had, with a pole at each corner supporting a canopy. The poles were made of a dark, heavy looking wood and, from the little he could see by the light coming in through the windows, covered in what he presumed to be carvings of an expensive quality, the canopy covered by some light, translucent material that looked more like a very large veil than an actual canopy. But no matter how large the bed was, the room looked big enough to hold four or five of them next to each other in every direction, with large windows opening up to what he presumed was a balcony, based on how the windows stretched to the floor and were opened to the outside.

Extracting himself from the bed without waking his companion proved to be an arduous task. He didn't dare move too fast for fear of waking the elf lying next to him but the feel of her skin against his as he slid himself out from under the sheets was enough to make him want to have it over with. He tried not to think about exactly what part of her body it was that he felt but he felt entirely too much curves not to know it was a girl he had apparently been sleeping next to. And who knows what else. Shaking his head mentally he tried to drive the images his skin send him from his mind and finally managed to free first his arms and then, more slowly, his torso. Raleigh praised himself lucky that the sheets were silk for he doubted that he could have extracted himself from regular linnen without getting caught in the sheets more often.

As soon as his legs were free he swung them over toward the edge of the bed and froze as he heard an indistinct mumble come from behind him. Raleigh was afraid to look behind him as he sat on the edge of the bed, his muscles hard with tension, ready for the cry of alarm that would signal his discovery. He felt very much the intruder, sitting on a strange bed in a strange room with a strange girl whom he hoped was still sleeping, and he felt the hairs in his neck rise as he imagined he could feel her eyes burning into his back. Long moments passed until finally he could hear her breathing slow down again and he let out his breath in a silent gasp of relief. Letting go of the sheets he had clenched between his fingers he drew a deep breath and stood up ever so slowly from the mattress, wary of any sudden movement that might disturb the strange girl's sleep again. Finally he stood erect next to the bed, working muscles stiff with tension as he pondered his next step.

The ornate, double door out of the room in the wall in front of him looked very inviting but he didn't want to think of what could lay behind. Based on the room he suspected he was in some kind of mansion like he'd seen on tv shows about royalty, with large corridors and many doors leading to other rooms and possibly servants walking the halls even at this hour. His only other way out seemed to be the balcony but he had no idea how high he was above the ground or what he would find once he managed to get down. Still, it was probably a better option than trying to sneak through a mansion and so he made his way slowly, carefully, over the rug covered floor towards the window. As with everything in the room the rugs were elaborate and obviously expensive, high enough that he sank into them almost to his ankles, a fact that he was thankful for as it helped him move almost silently to the windows. A small breeze blowing in through the curtains was cool enough to give him goosebumps on every piece on unclothed skin, which there was quite a lot of seeing as how he was wearing nothing but some form of silk boxerlike underpants. He tried not to think of how he might have gotten to be wearing those. He normally slept in the buff and his underwear normally consisted of cotton briefs, not boxers and most definitely not made of silk.

The open doors did indeed open onto a small stone balcony surrounded on three sides by a worked metal fence similar to those he'd seen in Paris once. It was a clear night and by the light of the full moon he could see the fence was mostly for show as it was waist high on him and worked with a lot of curls and what seemed to be flowers. Luckily, he seemed to be little more than two metres above the ground, which put the room on the first floor of what he could now see was indeed a large building. Mentally he nodded to himself: taking the balcony was definitely the preferred route. He didn't see any vines on the wall which he could use to climb down but he could lower himself down the outside of the fence until he hang by his hands from the balcony, after which it was only a short drop to the ground.

The climb over the fence and the subsequent drop to the ground went according to plan and after a smooth landing he found himself in a garden of sorts. Raleigh could see small and not so small bushes, some apparently clipped into shapes and forms that must have been quite a sight by daylight. He could see what appeared to be various animals as well as geometrical shapes and some distance off he even saw one particularly large specimen that seemed to be depicting a man astride a prancing horse. Apart from bushes and dark patches that he suspected were flowerbeds the floor was covered mostly in well trimmed grass. The occasional small tree added its shadow to the phantasmagoria of lighter and darker spots, moonlit patches interrupted by manshaped shadows that seemingly moved on their own whenever the slight breeze picked up enough to ruffle the tree or bush that provided it. The grass was cold and wet on his feet and he felt himself shivering in the cool night air. Clenching his jaws to keep his teeth from chattering he picked a steady pace through the trees and bushes, made all the more difficult by the ever-changing landscape the shadows provided him with. A snapping sound, like a twig breaking in the forest, caught his ear and he froze in midstride. His heart beat loudly in his throat as he tried to gather in his surroundings, trying to make out whatever was responsible for that sound. For a moment, he saw a man standing in the shadow of a tree and his heart seemed to skip a beat. Then the shadow moved and he recognized a branch waving softly in the breeze. Shaking his head he stayed still, listening, watching and waiting, while the seconds went by until he was convinced there was nothing out there.

Feeling very exposed all of a sudden he hastened his step. He figured that as long as he moved away from the mansion in a straight line he would eventually encounter the wall that was sure to surround these gardens. Sure enough, within moments after he started he noticed what had seemed to be just a part of the dark background become larger and more prominent until he could recognize a stone wall that ran the length of the garden for as far as he could see. It was difficult to see in the moonlight but he estimated it was about four metres high, maybe five. Climbing it would be difficult but, depending on how smooth the wall was and how close the trees stood next to it, not impossible. He tried not to think about the drop on the other side; something told him there wouldn't be any trees standing close by on the other side.

He was closing in on the wall, which from upclose seemed closer to five metres, maybe six, getting close enough to see there were indeed a few trees growing close enough to the wall to use in climbing his way to freedom, getting close enough to touch the wall in a few quick steps, when something hit his shoulder hard, like a heavy weight being dropped on top of him. The next thing he knew was a brilliant pain exploding in the back of his head, and then there was nothing as he fell to the ground unconscious.

That same time, a woman covered from head to toe in swads of dark clothing hesitantly approached four masked people sitting on elaborately engraved, high-backed chairs on the other side of a table made out of a dark and very expensive type of wood called strianen in the woman's mother tongue. Despite the large fire blazing in the hearth she shivers, though it's not from the cold. The paintings covering the walls, all famous works of art, are as invisible to her as the elaborately woven rugs adorning the floor, woven through with thread-of-gold and silver so finely there can be no doubt as to the sums that had to have been paid for it. Her attention is focused entirely on the four figures, all dressed in identical black gowns adorned only by a small patch on their right breast. The garments were wide enough to make it hard to tell which of them were men and which women, though the figure sitting to the far left was small enough to make it likely that she was a woman, just as the person sitting just to the right of the middle was likely a men based on his height. The other two were all of middling height, tall for a woman or small for a man, though not by far.

"Is it done?" a man's rough voice spoke. She thought it came from behind the elaborate panther's mask covering the face of the person on the far right. Despite not being able to see their faces, she thought all four were … eager. There was something in the way they were leaning forward that suggested they couldn't wait to hear what news she brought and she would have felt even more at unease were she to bring news of anything but succes. It seemed to her she could see their eyes burning feverously from behind their masks but she dismissed the notion as a trick of the flickering light cast by the fire in the hearth as well as two golden-worked standlamps next to the entrance.

"It is done," she said in an unsteady voice and felt a collective sigh of relief from the four in front of her.

"Show us," a high-pitched woman's voice commanded. Reaching between her swaddlings the woman standing in front of them produced a golden coin that glimmered as it she threw it in the air. The figure to the right of the small woman, wearing a simple wooden dog's mask, just managed to catch it with an outstretched arm and for a moment she could see a man's hand, tattooed with a small star on the inside of his wrist, before the figure withdrew his hand behind the table to inspect the coin that she had just tossed them. Despite having no magic sense whatsoever she imagined she could feel the mystic energies being expended by the magical inspection he was sure to perform.

"Very well," he said in a deep baritone voice after a pause that stretched into minutes but seemed like hours. "Your payment will come by the usual way."

Hearing a clear dismissal in his tone, she knew better than to ask questions even had she dared, had her tongue been able to form the words, had she been able to work up the courage for questions that she knew could be very, very dangerous. So she left the way she came, picking her way carefully through dark streets and over a multitude of bridges, and only when she was safe in her own district did she dare move more leisurely and remove some of her swaddlings. Within a few streets she would come to a hiding place where she could change back into her normal garb. Her heart still bounced in her throat but she forced herself to breath calmly. It would draw undue attention to her and to her activities if she entered the Academy looking like a frightened animal.