“What are you doing in here?”

Lord Bridry froze. Was there a pistol at his back? Was the young voice accompanied by guards? Or did the lone man think to take old Elyas Bridry with a blade? The white-haired nobleman turned to see a familiar young gent, the scrabble finally shaved from his chin, sculpting a more mature face than when he’d last seen the boy. The smiling Randyl Lhyvreyn held his arms wide, expecting a hug.

“Bridry! I thought my father banned everyone from his study,” the young man feigned a stern tone, still smiling.

“Let’s say he’s taken to letting me raid his library on rare occasions in exchange for certain favors we shan’t speak about,” the old man replied with a crusty voice, embracing the gentleman briefly and clapping him on the back.

Considering the aristocratic circles Lord Goddard Lhyvreyn and the renowned Elyas Bridry frequented, such a nonchalant mention of “favors,” could be seen as bold talk. However, Randyl laughed it off, albeit stiffly.

Bridry’s gaze subtly panned around the dark room. As an appendage of the manor that hung within the path of the black-spewing smokestacks of one of Rynyr’s various iron and bronze foundries—several owned by the Lhyvreyn’s—Lord Goddard’s library was always dark these days. “Quite impressive, really. I’ve learned more here than at the academy.”

“Ah, who learns anything at the academy?” the young man chuckled. “Some wine then?”

“Unfortunately, no. I can’t stay long. Other matters, always.”

“Too bad, but I understand. I hear you’re quite the busy man.” There was the briefest pause here, leaving Bridry to wonder if young Randyl was daring a rather plucky innuendo. But the face was too honest, the manner too naïve—not at all like his father, thought Bridry.

Seemingly oblivious to the scrutiny, Randyl continued. “So what’s a political emissary like yourself doing spending time with books anyway? Should you not have some lackey doing the reading for you while you run about court, scheming with all the other nobles?”

“Scheming? Hah! Maybe in my younger days. That fire’s all but left me now,” Bridry said, deftly slipping a golden signet into his trousers, maintaining his warm façade while his gaze continued scanning the room, looking for the panel he knew must be hidden here somewhere. He absorbed every possibility—the tapestry, the paintings, the fireplace, the desk with its beautiful brace of pistols hanging above it, the bookshelves... Ah yes, something about the bookshelves… something not quite right.

“So what are you reading?” the young nobleman asked. “I’ve read many of these myself.”

Bridry turned and surveyed the shelves. He hadn’t read a single one of these books. He stepped up a short ladder and plucked out a highly wrought book with metal corners entitled The Menite Empire Subsequent to the Reconstruction Era. “I’m nearly through an interesting survey of Menite temples, mainly those in western Khador. A brilliant scholar—an old chap of mine from the early days, Sir Wilby Albenbright—penned it, but I must say I’m disappointed to find that he’s focused on existing temples rather than the more interesting ruined ones. I do so love ancient history, you know.” He slid the tome back into place and reached for another. “Right now, however, I’m eager to dive into this old tome.”

His finger landed upon a faded red book, the gilded lettering on its spine tarnished almost black. He tugged at the book gently, but it didn’t budge. A fake. Surely part of a panel.

“Very eager,” he whispered. “Randyl, I just recalled something I wish to show you. But first, fetch Wexler, if you would be so kind. I wish to finish a short passage and then I’ll meet you in the central library downstairs. I believe you’ll both be rather surprised.”

Randyl peered at the man suspiciously for a moment, then smiled. “Very well, Bridry. You’ve always been one for surprises. I wonder what you’ve cooked up this time.” The young noble smiled and bowed his head before leaving the chamber to search down his mentor, Artys Wexler, House Lhyvreyn’s Minister of Security.

Bridry waited a few seconds to be sure Randyl was gone, then went and peered into the carpeted hall. No one to be seen. He shut the heavy iron door with a ka-chunk, latched it shut, and then plucked a gilt pocket watch from his woolen vest. He flipped it open and peered at the golden hands—little more than an hour before dusk. He still had some time, but couldn’t afford another distraction.

Bridry tucked the watch back into its pocket and looked toward the false panel. The old man moved quickly, slipping his belt around to reveal a flat slipcase of tools formerly tucked against the small of his back. Bridry made quick work of the panel, and moments later stood in the center of the room, holding in his hands a packet of papers sealed by an ornate signet—the very same signet now resting comfortably in his trousers pocket.

“Oh, you’ll be surprised, young Randyl,” he said toward the door where the young noble had stood just moments ago. Bridry’s voice was suddenly deep and sure now, quite unlike the parched croaking of the elderly emissary. It was the voice of master spy, Armand Rhywyn.

Armand walked across the room, his stride solid, no longer betraying any hint of age, and snatched a leather satchel from underneath an Iosan imitation settee. It contained a house guard’s uniform of House Lhyvreyn and some other accessories. The spy pulled out the uniform and placed the packet of papers into the satchel, then stepped around a corner and began removing his disguise in order to replace it with that of the house guard.

“The Council of Nobles doesn’t take kindly to the ordnance they’ve commissioned being sold under their noses to Khadoran expansionists,” Armand’s deep voice whispered. “So when they see these ledgers with Lhyvreyn’s seal, I imagine they’ll haul old Goddard before the court in a day or two,” the spy peeled a strip of flesh-colored wax from one side of his face, revealing a smoothly shaven, sharp jaw line. “Surprise is the just the first thing you deceitful bastards will be feeling then, I promise you that!”

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