Esperance Valois stumbled to the door and turned back to a crowded table of sweating nobles. “Goodbye, my everlasting love!” he shouted out to the woman he’d met just an hour ago. “Farewell, my eternal rose!”
She wagged her kerchief at him as he teetered in the doorway, words leaving her mouth in an incomprehensible, passionate jumble. And there were tears, but whether they were for Esperance or for her losses, he did not know.
Esperance stepped into the gambling house that night with a heavy purse and left with an empty pouch. He did, however, make off with the eye of the Crescent Sea Leviathan clutched in his palm. At least, that was what the shady yet oh so friendly merchant from “a far off land” had insisted the smooth rock was. The merchant had no idea what a fool he was for parting with it!
Walking along cobblestone streets, Esperance drifted farther and farther away from the taverns and brothels of Opulence Square. And yet, the beauty of the nightly decadence was tainted.
Tainted by that horrible structure Esperance saw looming over the city–dominant, watchful, and judging, just like the gods of old.
The Fal Tower.
Named after the tyrannical mages infesting it, the castle was played up to be some immaculate testimony to the power and virtue of the Fal Order. To Esperance, it looked like a big, ivory prick jutting up into the sky.
He’d burgled the church twice–that the clergy knew of. He’d broken into the offices of politicians and fellow nobles, so easily that he stopped one because he could no longer taste the thrill of the hunt. He never took anything of value from these places, and most times he never took anything at all. Of course, it was only ever about the challenge. And breaking into the most intimidating and mighty tower in all of Laféron would be the greatest challenge yet.
Esperance’s scheming was cut short when he felt something bat at his swishing tail, followed by a distinct greeting.
“A companion!” he gasped, bending to stroke the mewing cat’s head. It was a bushy, black thing with white along its underside and whiskers as long as Esperance’s fingers. “You and I share a common ancestry, you know,” he said, and the cat trilled cluelessly. What did ancestry matter to her?
Looking to the Fal Tower once more, Esperance told the furry friend now weaving between his legs, “Wish me luck, my dear, for tonight I plan to make a fantastic mistake.”
To which anyone who knew him might respond, But is that not every night?
Yes, yes, ascend the tower, slip in through that window there, creep past the snoring wizards, find something pretty and shiny to commemorate the night, get caught–tis half the fun!–blow the poor fool a teasing kiss, oh how they shall dream of it later, then slip away with darkness as my cover–
“And what are you doing?”
Meticulous planning interrupted by a tower scribe. In these situations, Esperance’s weapon of choice was also his most powerful: charm.
One thing led to another and it was not long before the scribe believed Esperance was visiting on behalf of his good friend, Prince Leon, and needed to speak with the High Seer right away! This was only a half-lie. He did know the prince. Intimately.
Oh, but the High Seer was too busy to see guests at so late an hour. High Mage Noel, however, had an abundance of leisure and would see that the prince’s message make it to the Seer.
“Wait here,” the scribe ordered before walking off, leaving Esperance alone in the antechamber. And Esperance, of course, did the very opposite.
As soon as the scribe was out of earshot, he crept off down the hall, on the hunt for thrills, danger, and probably something that would look nice next to the rock he’d given his purse for.
But rather quickly into his prowl, he became acutely aware of how empty the tower was. For something so massive, it was as still and as silent as a graveyard. No, perhaps graveyards were even more lively than this. There was nothing–no snoring from within the bedchambers, no distant laughter, and not even the sounds of brewing potions or studious wizards humming in concentration as they channeled their spells. Though the interior of the Fal Tower sparkled with alabaster columns and marble floors and tapestries of gold and red, the air felt dangerous, like it was crackling with nervous energy. All the better for his burgling endeavors, Esperance supposed.
Most of the rooms were hidden away behind big, oak doors and protected by magic locks. But just as he began to lose hope, he spotted it–a door open just a crack. He had almost missed it.
Gently, so very gently, he pushed the door open just a bit more and peered inside.
Open books scattered the floor of the small reading room. It looked like the work of a frenzied scholar caught behind on his readings just before an exam. But the books were less interesting than what was in them. Esperance recognized the language to be Auyarin, the tongue of the dragons, but could not read a word. Alongside the Auyarin texts were writings in olde Laféronion, something taught but rarely practiced.
Well, a little look wouldn’t hurt, would it? In the dark, Esperance skimmed passages.
The great, unfathomable Void… It is believed to be a well of unimaginable power…
Ruled by a paragon of terror and emptiness…
Upon killing the paragon, a new ruler is crowned and granted its power…
The secret to summoning the Abyss lies within opening the voidrift…
Esperance fell to his knees, body cold and quivering. His heart thundered as he crumpled over, gasping for breath. The wine…?
No, something worse.
He felt dread gripping his chest, as there was a rupture in his heart that spilled forth crippling melancholy. The woe ravaged him, as if every sadness and heartache he’d ever felt over his life had come back to him all at once.
He wanted… death.
It scared him to think that. It terrified him. But lying there, consumed by anguish like he hadn’t felt since–
And then it stopped, and Esperance was not dead. But he was not in the library anymore, either. He was lying in a wash of colors, moonlight pouring in through stained glass windows. It was peaceful. So peaceful, he dared not move. No, he wanted to close his eyes and drift away…
The start nearly sent Esperance’s heart shooting out from his chest. As weak limbs scrambled to pull his body to a sit, he eyes quickly readjusted to the dark. Two young men in gaudy robes sneered down at him.
“Have we a rat sneaking around our tower?” said the one on the left, stepping forward. Ah, that sharp, predatory voice. It was terribly hard to forget if heard even once, and it belonged to the wizard named Sylvain.
“I was told you sought an audience with me?” The one on the right–the High Mage, with his fancier robes–said. “Or perhaps you were only interested in my books?”
The Fal wizards were all handsome bastards, yet to balance their good looks, nature graced them with personalities as appealing as a pike up the backside.
Sylvain was a wolfish devil with sun-graced skin and eyes like honey, dripping danger and madness. His golden hair was short but fell like a wave to one side of his face. Noel was dark like Esperance, if not darker, and his long ropes of braided hair were tied back, allowing the proud display of pointed ears. No, it was not these men’s books Esperance was interested in.
“That was one hell of a curse,” Esperance said on a ragged breath, flashing them a clever smile despite the ache that still stung his heart.
Noel returned the gesture. “We have our means of protecting ourselves,” and his eyes darted to the sword at Esperance’s hip, “as you have yours.”
“Ha, I remember now!” Sylvain cried. “Lord Esperance Valois, isn’t it? Oh, you’re not a rat at all. No, we are dealing with the famed ‘Cat of Laféron.'”
Esperance clenched his jaw but kept his smile. “They call me that to slight me, you know.”
And he was sure they did know.
Laféron was rich, privileged, and uniform. The elves–always ones to remind you that they are the descendants of mythical and supremely beautiful beings–had established the city-state to be a bastion of “elven purity.” Other races came and went as merchants and politicians and sightseers, but few were allowed permanent residence. Esperance was one of the few felidae among the population–and certainly the only with a noble title. The others hated him for it.
For the poor merchants he was born unto, for how he disregarded their rules and traditions, for the way he seduced their sons and daughters and threatened to taint their bloodline. How they wished he would roll over for them whenever they raised their hands. Common ancestry be damned, he was no one’s pet.
Noel said, “They speak ill of us too, because they do not understand.” His voice was gentle and sympathetic, as if he could feel Esperance’s anger as easily as he could feel a flame to his hand.
“And neither do I,” Esperance said, head finally starting to clear. “What is an order of pure-of-heart wizards doing reading up on how to summon the Abyss?”
Esperance had been shooting an arrow in the dark, but judging from the flicker across Noel’s eyes, he must have hit something.
“We keep many books, Lord Valois. All for the purpose of preserving their knowledge.”
“Then are all your libraries guarded with dark magic?”
Noel stepped forward and said, “Alright, I shall play along. Suppose we do plot to do whatever sinister act your imagination has conjured.” He raised his hand, and around it was a violet glow. Esperance might have thought it pretty if a terrible pain did not erupt in his chest.
Crying out, he doubled over in pain. His lungs labored with the force of his breathing, and again his muscles went weak.
“What would you do?” Noel asked, voice mockingly gentle. “What could you do?” He closed his fist tighter and the pain flared into agony, spreading through all of Esperance’s body.
Gods, this night was going to hell. He should have just taken Lady Amiée to bed. He’d wake up with drinking sickness and that would have been the worst of it.
“We are gifted, chosen, divine,” Noel continued, as if Esperance did not abundantly understand the point. “You? You are nothing.”
“You do have a spark of magic in you,” Sylvain said, spitting out the word, “but it’s weak, isn’t it, little kitten?”
Before Esperance could lash out, the agony stopped–so abruptly that it took his breath away. Falling on his hands and knees, he struggled to regain his wits. Then he heard movement–feet approaching, fabric rustling as someone knelt, and finally a voice close to his ear.
“If you mean to make an enemy of us,” Noel said, so low it came out like a growl, “you had better make sure you have very powerful friends.”