Kyson stood on the other side holding a lantern, he gave her a huge smile, his blonde hair was cropped short to his head and he wore the clothes of a scribe well. “We figured you wouldn’t show and gave up waiting an hour ago.” He was a tall man that had somehow managed to keep his former soldier physique even though he’d worked for Semal for a number of years since refusing the oaths. Nelion had tried to get him to talk about why he hadn’t taken the oaths but he wasn’t inclined to speak about his time in the army. She didn’t even know which army he’d served in.
“I’ve been banging on the door long enough that I was afraid it was going to come off its hinges.” Nelion’s annoyance disappeared in the face of his smile so she took off the edge in her tone with a smile of her own.
“I’d apologize,” Kyson said, his lips spread wider on his face as his smile grew, “but you’re late.”
“Sorry about that,” Nelion said, glancing at her feet. “My mother was waiting for me and wouldn’t let me pass without a long drawn out conversation.”
“No worries,” Kyson said, giving her a knowing look. Nelion had mentioned to him that her mother was disappointed that she’d left Korew army. There was something about that smile of his that had made her open up to him, not many people could get her to do that. “You won’t believe how boring this is, it’s much worse than normal.” He smiled at her again. “I’m glad you showed up, I could use the company.”
“What exactly are we doing?” Nelion repressed a sigh as she followed Kyson into the building and found herself in a small room; she looked around while he locked the door. His lantern cast everything in shadow. Something scuffled somewhere ahead in the dark; it sounded like a rat and made her glad she wasn’t alone. The room was lined with bookshelves that went to the ceiling. The musty smell of old books and leather along with something else she wasn’t able to identify hung heavy in the air. The bookshelf across from the door was full, top to bottom with books. The one to the left had books as well, but interspersed throughout were also a number of small figurines, pottery, and other small curiosities. There were books, scrolls and other items in the one on the right.
“Just sifting through ledgers like Semal told us about, looking for irregularities.”
“Irregularities? Of what?”
“Anything that looks odd or doesn’t add up.” Kyson locked the door. “Semal is convinced that there are codes hidden within the transactions.” He shook his head. “I’m afraid that he’s losing it, so far the only thing I’ve found is a couple of piglets that were purchased and then sold again. The dates don’t match up. The chronological order looked to be correct, but the date when the pigs were sold again is off.” Kyson shrugged. “Semal was excited. It just looked like a mistake to me.”
“He’s not crazy, but the whole thing does sound odd.” Her eyes focused on the center of the room where there was a round table that had been carved with flowers and leaves. The base of which looked like the paws of a large feline animal and the tabletop rotated between slats of dark and lighter colored wood. There were three leather chairs around it with a fourth pulled over to the wall.
It looked as though somebody had been standing on the chair to reach a book, a dubious use of the antique chair that looked as if it would fall apart if somebody too heavy were to sit on it. “I love this table!” She studied it as best she could in the shadows, she’d have to come back sometime in the day to get a better look.
Kyson looked at where she was pointing and shook his head. “Come on, sooner started is sooner done. I’d like to get a few hours of sleep tonight.”
she thought as she followed him out of the room. That was the smell she hadn’t been able to identify. The archives smelled moldy. She looked at the ceiling, expecting to see growths of mold on the wood but wasn’t able to make out anything because she’d let Kyson get too far ahead.
It could be the books
. Spending the next several hours in the archives began to be less appealing and she considered making up an excuse to get out of it but realized it was already too late for that. If she would have had a valid excuse, it would have been the first thing she’d said to Kyson when he opened the door.
Taking a shallow breath through her mouth to avoid the smell, Nelion sped up her pace and found that they were now in a much larger chamber with rows of shelves on either side, leaving a tight walkway. She caught glimpses of the contents of these shelves as they passed, but noticed that most of them didn’t contain books or scrolls. She saw a number of swords, helmets, and other body armor when she took a moment to examine one shelf before hurrying after Kyson. The weaponry and armor were quite old but looked well taken care of.
She would have to come back here in daylight to peruse the items of interest. They must have some significance to be put on display like this. She wondered if hidden among the ancient antiquities she might find proof of the Hunwei’s existence.
They came to a stairway and with a final look around the room, trying to pierce in a glance the secrets that were centuries old, she followed Kyson up to the second floor. This floor was closer to what she’d been expecting and she was happy to note that the moldy smell stayed downstairs.
As with the first floor, it was covered with bookshelves, but instead of interesting items, there were only books. They found Semal in a far corner of the room among a row of the bookshelves sitting on a chair. Nelion had noticed several other such chairs surrounding a table at the center of the room and she assumed that he had grabbed it from there.
A pile of books had been stacked high enough to support a bright lantern and Semal sat beside it with an open ledger on his lap and several books littered around his feet. He scanned
the pages, running his finger down one of the columns, before skipping on to the next page. He didn’t see them approach and Kyson had to clear his throat a couple of times to get his attention.
When Semal looked up, Nelion noticed that his eyes were red. He blinked several times as he focused on them.
“Ah, here you are at last.” Semal smiled. “Kyson was about to start bashing my head in with the ledgers, I’m glad somebody is here to keep him sane.” That was one thing that could be said about the man, even though he didn’t have a problem giving Nelion more work to do in a day than a normal person could do in a week, he was kind and had good humor about it. It was his unassuming gentle manner combined with his high expectations that made her stay on task while she worked for him, even when plowing through boring documents. “I thought he must have been imagining something when he said that he could hear knocking. I fear my hearing is going quicker than I thought.” Despite his haggard appearance and self-deprecation, Semal couldn’t have been older than sixty and still moved with ease.
“If you weren’t so old,” Kyson said, “we wouldn’t be able to benefit from your ancient wisdom.”
“A life unplanned will go nowhere.” Semal smiled again. “All joking aside, old age hasn’t brought half as much as I expected, though my stiff joints are worse than I’d planned on. Are you ready to work?” When Nelion nodded, he continued. “We’re going through these looking for irregularities.” He stopped as if that was all the explanation that was needed and didn’t say anything more as he handed Nelion a ledger.
“Um,” Nelion said as she noticed a smile on Kyson’s face as he shrugged as if to say that he had told her so. “Irregularities? I thought we had more to go on than that.” She’d thought that Kyson had given her the highlights of what they were doing, not the whole of it.
Earlier in the day, when Semal had asked her to help with the research, he’d mentioned that the project was based on a theory and explained that some time ago he’d stumbled across a reference to the ledgers of the Kopal. After giving it thought and considerable research, he’d wondered if it meant the ledgers in everyday use within the armies. He was starting with the Paroke archives because they were the most extensive and the best kept.
“That’s all I can tell you,” Semal said. “Look for things that seem odd. A price that is too much or too little when compared with the items being bought or sold. It could be some sort of code in the way items are ordered on the page. I don’t know.” He shrugged. “Like I said,
Nelion took the ledger that Semal still held out to her. It was from five years ago and was as thick as her leg. She’d been expecting to look at something decades old, not a book that was from so recent a time period. Did Semal believe that the Kopal had been active as recently as that?
“This isn’t that old,” she said. “The Kopal were extinguished long before this.”
Semal didn’t look up. “A dangerous assumption that seems to be on everybody’s lips. Makes me wonder how the rumor got started.”
A chill went down Nelion’s back and the darkness surrounding them outside the glow of the lantern seemed to close in. She thought of the sound she’d heard earlier and dismissed as a rat. If the Kopal were still around… She pushed the thought away and tried to think of a response to Semal but came up with nothing, so instead she pulled over a stack of ledgers and was about to sit when Kyson spoke.
“I was back at the table. You’re welcome to join me. That would be a bit more comfortable.” He motioned at the stack she was about to sit on.
She took her ledger and followed him to the table. As they walked, the lantern that he held made the shadows in the room move. Stifling a gasp, she turned, positive that she’d seen
somebody in the darkness but when she stared at the place, the moving light made it impossible to tell.
Shuddering, she dismissed it as her imagination as she continued forward. She had thought it odd that Semal had wanted to do this research at night and had assumed that it was the only time he could get access to the archives. If he believed that the Kopal were still active, there was a different reason altogether that they were here once everybody else had gone home.
She could feel her dagger brushing against her side and took some measure in the comfort it provided but not much. A sword would have been better. The shadows were dancing too much. The moving light hit what appeared to be a person covered in a cowl in a row to her right, but when Nelion focused on it, Kyson had already moved on and she wasn’t able to make anything out for certain.
She got a bad feeling and almost called out to Kyson but stopped before she did so. All this talk about the Kopal had worked up her fears.
As she passed the bookshelf where she’d seen the shadow, she couldn’t help but look from the corner of her eye but saw nothing. Once they were beyond the place in question, she found herself reaching for her dagger even while she told herself that she’d been seeing illusions. She pulled it out from the sheath on her belt and held it flat against her side. She was certain she was being paranoid, but after hesitating she decided that it was better to have the dagger in hand in case she hadn’t imagined the hooded person.
She squatted on instinct when a scraping sound came from behind.
Kyson set the lantern on the table and looked back; he frowned when he noticed she was crouching. He opened his mouth to speak as an arrow plunged into his chest. Whatever he’d been about to say turned into a scream while Nelion dove between the bookcases and went to all fours. Had the arrow been meant for her? She’d felt it pass by over her head.
The chair she had been crouching beside moments before shuddered as an arrow penetrated the back and stuck, quivering in the lantern light. Another followed it a moment later and this one ricocheted off the table before sliding into the darkness.
Kyson fell to the floor with a thud and moaned. It was followed by a raspy gasp of breath and a soft growl. She could just make out his face in the light of the lantern and had to suppress an urge to go to him. She wouldn’t do him any good if she got herself killed in the process of helping. She couldn’t see where he’d been hit in the chest, but if he was to have any chance at all, she would need to get him help immediately.
A shuffling sound from several rows back caught her attention; it was coming from the spot where she’d seen the hooded person. She crawled down the row of bookshelves to the other side where there was a small aisle between the shelves and the wall. The nearest window was several rows away and gave her a little light with which to see. Grateful that the bookshelf hadn’t connected up with the wall, she scrambled down the aisle to where she’d seen the hooded person and peeked around the corner. The person was still there, peering in the direction of the table.
Nelion was considering her options when the figure turned and walked towards her. By the outline of his shape and the broad shoulders, she could tell it was a man. He had a sword that he held out in front. Glad that she’d kept a low profile, she retreated and crawled into the next row.
She hadn’t seen a bow or a quiver of arrows on the man coming her way, so there was at least one other assailant.
She heard the man stop and imagined him looking down the aisle in the direction she’d just come from. A few moments later he passed by heading that way. She swallowed when she realized how close she’d come to getting caught.
If she hadn’t moved when she had, he would have got her. She gripped the hilt of her dagger and realized that her hand was sweaty. She placed the dagger on the floor without making a sound and wiped her hand on her dress before picking it up again. What she would have given to have a sword with her right now. She hadn’t been as good with that as she had a bow and arrow, but she could hold her own well enough. Her cheeks flushed when she thought about how she’d judged her mother for carrying her sword with her even though she was now retired.
Summoning her courage, she moved forward until she could peek out into the aisle. The man stood in front of the row she’d ducked into right after Kyson had been hit. He started to turn his head back towards her, so she slid behind the bookshelf. What would he do next? Would he meet up with his counterpart and leave or would they try to find her?