My eyes scanned the mantle first. When I failed to see anything of any direct importance, I shifted to the darker side of the room and lit one of the lamps poised by the far wall. The small flame grew in stature until the immediate area became consumed by a warm, pleasant glow. Drawing a deep breath inward, I breathed in the scent of burning oil and began a much closer examination of the entryway.
What I expected to see first lay exactly where I thought it might be, painted over the doorway with fine brush strokes and barely visible unless you walked up to it. A circle broken by two lines – which cut the shape into three equal parts – it contained a series of strange symbols scattered around its circumference. I still had no idea of what it meant, but its presence meant Lord Bertrand was hiding other things within these walls. “A brother in arms are we, sire?” I murmured. “What secrets might you be housing, then?”
I shifted my focus to the furnishings. Checking beneath each one, I ran my hand along the underside just to be sure I hadn’t missed anything before moving onto the next chair or table. I knocked along the walls and failed to hear anything other than the normal echoes, indicating there were no hidden passages or concealed nooks. Reflexively, I frowned. Navigating the rest of the house would come at the expense of keeping watch for Paulo’s sake.
“You’re looking again aren’t you?”
Paulo appeared in one of the hallways, rounding the corner back into the room where I stood. He slid a parcel of bundled letters beneath his cloak and raised an eyebrow, his disposition suddenly serious.
I sighed. Bloody bastard had been swifter than I thought he might. “Of course I am. You know how rarely I find myself in the house of a noble for more than a few moments.” Walking past him, I scanned the wall closer to the window again. “Are you going to help me or not?"
With a nod, he walked closer to the entryway. I assumed him to be looking for the same marking I had discovered. “A member?” he asked.
“At least casually. I haven’t ruled out this might be a loose affiliation.”
I heard my compatriot sigh and smiled when he began searching the room with me, doing the same things I had just moments ago. “Already checked,” I said. “It’s probably in another room.”
“We’ll search two, amico mio. But after that, we need to go before we have trouble.”
“Gratzie.” I walked out and entered the first room I came upon; encountering what must have been a servant’s quarters. Giving it only a cursory glance, I abandoned it in favor of dashing up the stairs and lighting another one of the lamps. A more opulent room opened up to me, with more lavish furnishings, including a chest of drawers and an armoire. A trunk poised near a window grabbed my immediate attention, compelling me toward it until I crouched in front of it and studied the lock. It had been fastened into place and breaking the trunk would garner more suspicion than I wished to rouse at the moment. “Paulo!” I called into the house. “Come here and bring one of the lamps with you.”
“Sto andando!” he called back.
I continued studying the trunk while the sounds of footfalls became progressively louder. Paulo entered the room and walked up beside me, kneeling and taking the lock from my hand while setting down the lamp. I watched as he pulled his tools out and lowered closer to the trunk, squinting as he started the task of picking the lock. A smirk touched the corners of my mouth, the same one, undoubtedly, that Paulo must have had as he watched me execute the three guards. Witnessing a master at his craft was always a treat for either of us.
My mind stole to a brief memory.
I recalled a nineteen-year-old man, his legs propped up on a table and hands meticulously cleaning one of his daggers after returning from a job. The foreigner seated across from him had demonstrated a few sleight of hand tricks mastered as a petty thief in Italy, provoking laughter from the rogue when he made coins disappear with a deft maneuver of his fingers.
“Do you intend to do that to the nobles?” I had asked, glancing up at him with a smirk.
He had grinned, a sparkle of mischief in his eyes as he pledged to double his pay within a month. When he managed that and more, I had asked when he planned to return home with his riches. “There is no going home, amico mio,” he had said, the laugh lines on his face still present despite the heaviness which had settled on his soul. “We are both orphans – you without parents, and me without a country.”
I returned to the present, blinking away my thoughts while Paulo removed the lock and threw the trunk lid open. He patted me on the shoulder and stood. “Now, find whatever it is you’re looking for while I collect the bodies and burn them,” he said. “We need to be on the road soon.”
“I won’t linger,” I said in return, winking at him while he nodded and walked away. As I heard him descend the stairs, I turned my attention back to the trunk and began to rummage through its contents, not certain what I would find, but hopeful it would be that puzzle piece I coveted time after time while on my search. My hands displaced a coat and a formal dress that had started to fray at the edges. I lifted a few trinkets out and set them on the floor beside me. Just as I wondered if my efforts had been for naught, I found a bound tome with a symbol burned in wax on its cover. The symbol, I would have known had I been blind and forced to trace it with my fingertips.
Briefly, I was fifteen years old again, in the tavern while watching an armed man strangle Old John without so much as laying a finger on him. A shaky breath passed through my lips while my heart picked up in tempo. I felt the sting of tears and stared at the book I held, wondering if enough years would ever pass for the pain to dull. Something told me if it had not in a decade, it would never at all.
“Coming!” I shouted back, setting the volume next to the lamp and arranging the trunk’s contents in an orderly fashion again. After securing the lock into place, I rose to a stand, picking up the book and tucking it behind my back. Within moments, I had the room cleaned and all traces of our presence erased from view. I emerged in time to see a conflagration in the distance, with Paulo standing in front of it holding his horse by its reins.
He studied the flames, his eyes distant when I walked up beside him. My gaze found the pyre, its warmth cutting the chill of the night. Within moments, I became transfixed as well.
“You’re going to see your brother, aren’t you?” Paulo asked without looking at me.
I frowned. “I’m going off to think. Seeing my brother is an unfortunate casualty of doing that.”
Paulo shook his head. We both glanced at each other at the same time. “What do you want me to tell Roland?”
“That Christian was being Christian. He knows better than most what that means.”
“He also threatens to give your half of the pay to the village whores when you do this.”
“Oh good. This means I’ll be paid up with them.”
Paulo burst into laughter and walked to his horse’s side, mounting the beast with one fluid motion and reaching for my hand after settling into place. “I’ll give you a ride to the edge of town. You can worry about riding on the backs of wagons after that.”
“Gratzie, amico mio,” I said, taking his hand and allowing him to pull me up while hefting myself in the process. Once I was positioned behind him, he waited for my arms to entwine his waist and nudged his horse at its sides, propelling it into a gallop until we reached the crossroads several kilometers away. I jumped from my perch and bowed to Paulo, standing in the same place even after he departed down the road, headed for the English countryside.I stole a deep breath and peered into the night. A symphony of stars played across the obsidian sky above me, with the waxing moon glowing in the distance, disrupted by the occasional barrage of clouds. My feet began moving down a path I first traversed eight years ago and had been on ever since. Jeffrey’s farm would be half a day’s journey, but I knew for a fact I would not feel a second of it.