Prologue

After a brief inner debate Advisor Laurence tore his gaze away from the door. The black iron door while beautiful was just as intimidating as its owner. The details in the metal work screamed of old world design. Laurence knew he had to snuff his nerves before he changed his mind and bolted. He was not here to soak in sight of Thorn Keep, but to beg it's mistress for aid. Before he was able to enact on his bout of courage the door opened with a heavy groan.

In the doorway there stood a man. Relief began to seep through Laurence. He was perfectly ordinary; in fact he looked quite the opposite of what the Advisor expected. Even so Laurence was probably mistaken, for Thorn Keep was not a place one would find ordinary. This was defiantly more than a plain human servant.

"Please come in sir. The mistress is waiting for you in the seating room," the man said as he turned to allow Laurence to pass.

"Th-Thank you," Laurence replied, stuttering on his words. Laurence kept himself from running his hands through his hair for what seemed like the thirtieth time in the last ten minutes. At this rate the spot was going to be bald before he even got back to the capital.

After shutting the door behind them, the servant led Laurence through a series of hallways. He had a hard time focusing on the object at hand during the journey through the mysterious keep. It seemed every wall and window was a sight to behold. Glimpses of colorful stained glass, drapes of jewel tones, and art with a dark message held Laurence captive. Although strange, it seemed as though his anxiety disappeared once he crossed the threshold. From all that he'd had heard over the years he should have been running for the hills. Laurence was so caught up in the view he barely had time to stop from bowling over the servant when they stopped in front of a hall door. The servant knocked in quick session.

"Advisor Laurence is here to see you now," he spoke to the closed door. Laurence didn't hear anything but the servant must have because he opened the door and gestured for Laurence to enter. Nerves returning, Laurence forced himself to walk inside. He jumped with the sound of the door closing fast behind him.

"Advisor don't be shy, do come near," a voice from deeper in the room beckoned. Following the sound that sent shivers down his spine, Laurence found himself in front of large Ebon wood table. Sitting at the table was living legend. He did not know her real name and doubted many did. Bards and Storytellers had many names for her but the one used most was The Lady of Masks. She looked like a young woman who was pretty in a refreshing sort of way. Her body language read trust me and her appearance non-threatening. However, Laurence wasn't fooled. He knew men older and with much more power feared this little lady. Quickly he tried to come up with something to fill the silence.

"My Lady, you have some very lovely décor here at Thorn Keep. The entrance tapestry was from Ancient Solstice was it not'" he inquired having no real interest in the answer.

"Mr. Potts, come now, you did not come here today to pay respects to my home. Why do you have need for my services?" the lady asked with a smile as she gestured to the chair across from her.

"I ca-came to ask a favor my Lady," Laurence quaked. She knew his name? She knew why he was here? Those parts of stories about her were true then; the ones claiming that she always seemed to know things.

"And to whom and what would I be playing for?" she replied with a tilt of her head.

"The King wishes it milady. He said um, he said to tell you that he is calling in that favor," Laurence responded in a quieted voice. He felt uncomfortable repeating the words of the King to the Lady of Masks.

"Ha, of course he would and pray tell, what is the problem this time?" she asked resting her chin on the palm of her hand. Laurence found himself blurting out the speech he had carefully prepared.

"Death is the problem, my Lady, and not the kind that generally is found in the city. These deaths are not natural nor accidents. The frequency over the last two years has begun to increase. I have never seen anything like it. There are also tales of blackmail and of a person who knows how to pull other's strings to keep their hands clean. Our need is dire." Laurence pleaded staring down as his clasped hands.

"The problem sounds dire indeed, but what of King Eostar and his wizard Minstrel, why is the matter out of their hands?" the Lady inquired.

"They have done what they can but the king is to be married this fall to a Lady of Rhian. In celebration, the capital is hosting many people from Rhian. There will be a festival, competitions, and multiple celebrations for their marriage. This will keep both of them very busy. Besides when everyone in the kingdoms knows who you are it's can be hard to get to the bottom of things."

"Wedding is it…surprising. What is your role in all of this Mr. Potts?"

"My role? Um, I am the Bookkeeper of the dead my Lady. I'm the one who brought the problem to light. They felt it best to limit the spread of this information."

"Ah I see then. Then I don't need to tell you that if I do this than you must forget you've ever met me. I will not be the person sitting in front of you. I do not expect to run into many others who know me by face," the Lady told Laurence as he felt a sense of relief swim over him.

"I will my Lady, I swear it. I will take my leave but Minstrel and King Eostar will be able to tell you more once you arrive. He requested that you be there some time as the fall celebration begins." Laurence arose and bowed before leaving. He was glad it was over. This was too much royal intrigue for him. Now he could go back to his quiet desk work. At least he was afforded another look at the inner walls of Thorn Keep.

Upon the Advisor leaving a man stepped from the shadows. He had hidden there to listen because people tended to be on edge around Devlin. It wasn't that he was monstrous looking, quite the opposite actually. Many a lady had thrown themselves at the long white-haired man with the cold blue eyes. Not that Devlin ever opened his arms or bed to them. No, it was the fact that he was a Shadowmancer. Their kind was feared by anyone with a brain. They were born wielders of gifts from a time long since past. Very few of them were left. Thanks to the marks on their body and face curtsey of the magic they were born with you couldn't mistake one for a common man if they wanted you to. They reminded the Lady of the snakes that were brightly colored to warn potential predators. The prettier the deadlier and in Devlin's case that most certainly was true.

It probably also didn't help that he was the leader of the Shadowmancers and they were like wolves. The alpha with the most brawn and power was in charge of the pack. Although in the Lady's mind he had more of the body type of a sword dancer, she'd never tell him that. Overall Devlin was a good man. He couldn't help that most people wanted to avoid anything to do with him.

"Why did you waste the time asking him all that when you already know about it?" Devlin asked opting out of the chair and instead choosing to sit on the table.

"And let him know that at the capital I have friends with far-seeing eyes and extending ears. Not a chance. Now get off my table before your armor scratches it," the lady said motioning with a swipe of her hands.

"If there is going to be fighting count me in. I have a new blade that could use a little red," the Shadowmancer announced as he pushed off the table to stand. Okay maybe it was his fault people wanted to avoid him.

The Lady did not protest his tagging along because she knew he was worried for his friend. She could handle herself more than fine in almost any given situation. Hence the name Lady of Masks, but if Eostar and Minstrel were asking for help the problem must be bigger than the Advisor knew.

"So what narrative are we going with this time? Performers? Merchants?" Devlin asked.

"Competitor. The wedding will be drawing in lots of merchants and performers. I want to stand out and earn respect at the same time. It's the fastest and easiest way." Winter shared her plans with him while she focused on polishing her blade.

"Sounds good for you but what about me? My kind aren't allowed to enter. What sport are you competing for?" Devlin inquired pacing back and forth.

"I thought that perhaps you could go as yourself as a guest of the King's, that way you can get information from inside court. Archery," she informed him without looking up from her task.

"Archery! That's a man's sport. Why not something I'd enjoy watching you compete for… like dancing." Devlin said jokingly as he sprawled out on a nearby lounge seat.

"Because darling, when I dance there is no competition," Winter replied in her best sexy drawl. Devlin rolled his eyes at his friend. He had no doubt she was telling the truth. The Lady of Masks, as most know her, is skilled in just about everything she chooses to do. Yet Winter, as he knew her by, was seemingly uncorrupted by the power she controlled. She was one of three had actually called a friend. He respected her accomplishments, she didn't get in his way, and they both shared similar life experiences. A side benefit he cared far less about was their banter.

"Ouch, you can be such a saucy minx when you want to be." Devlin said between laughs. Winter turned and began gathering together her weapon cleaning materials to take with her.

"Yes I can be many things… when I want to be," Winter said to herself quietly as she walked back to her room to plotting.