You needed five things to steal a dragon’s egg from the Aurinon Empire: knowledge, timing, skill, luck, and a careless disregard for the sanctity of your own life. Eli met four of those five criteria, and he hoped that luck would also be on his side tonight.
The carriage carrying the egg presented itself as a nondescript thing. Not quite battered and patch-worked enough to make one think it the easy mark of a lowly merchant trying to scrape by on whatever wares he had mustered up to sell, but not so ornate and heavily guarded as to draw the attention of better-equipped bandits wanting to try their hand at a bigger prize. Aside from the mud and dust coating its wheels from the most recent leg of its travel, the carriage remained free of dirt. The fresh coat of paint told Eli the light blue of its body wasn’t the only color it had sported during its journey. Rather than transfer the egg to another vessel, it appeared as though they had made use of the same carriage, changing its color and various details to further confuse those who might have had their eyes on it.
Unfortunately for them, the trick was old by thief standards, and where most of the well-known merchants loathed to disguise their house’s emblems (which was testament more to their ego than to any semblance of intelligence, Eli believed), particularly when so close to the capital city, those who frequented the black market often engaged in its use. The less someone recognized what they were purchasing at first glance, the better it was to snare the right buyer for the right price. And the easier the evasion from any pursuing authorities.
Another glance showed Eli that not only had the paint been recently switched over, but the handles on the doors had been changed out as well, which likely meant an entirely new lock system. Nothing that would hinder him much, though he didn’t relish the thought of picking his way through whatever configuration they had set upon it.
A problem he would solve when it arose.
Though contently eating now, the two horses hitched to the carriage had danced eagerly under harness on their arrival into the clearing. Another new addition, still fresh from this last leg. They could not have been driven hard. A cautious push forward then, Eli surmised. The trim around the carriage’s body and doors had also been painted anew, a pale grey against the blue of the main body, lacking the sheen of silver. For all appearances, it paraded about as a member of some mid-class merchant house, though the lack of any official insignia marked it as one not yet associated with the main merchant trade of the capital. However, if someone wasn’t well versed in the trade houses of Taivaadan, it might be all too easy to confuse this carriage with one belonging to the Glittering Spool. The blue, however, shied just a few shades too dark in his opinion.
It was a fine enough deception, though, Eli thought. Few would question such a carriage ambling along the capital’s streets. Even fewer would pay it any mind at all.
Accompanying the egg on its journey, a set of five guardsmen. From his vantage point, Eli could see that not one of them was dressed like the city-sanctioned mercenaries often employed by most merchants. Their armor matched too well despite the efforts made to hide that fact: sword hilts identical though the scabbards had been wrapped in differing colors and fabric types to obscure the fact that the weapons likely came from the same source, chest plates overlayed with well-worn scraps of leather haphazardly laced together to give the impression of a lesser quality piece, coats fashioned in the longer styles favored from several years ago despite the newness of the material, a fact not even the variously patched over areas could escape. Too little wear for a group of men supposedly long in the service of themselves as most mercenaries tended to be.
Two of the guardsmen sat near a low-burning fire, the shimmer of a veil catching on the moonlight when the clouds deigned to allow it a glimpse of the world below. One of them possessed auroral magic at the very least, though Eli supposed all of them had their hands immersed in some type of magic, if not several sorts. It would have been folly on the part of the emperor not to give the egg an escort with a wide array of defensive abilities, and if Eli understood anything about the man currently reigning over Aurinon, he was anything but a fool.
Superstitious, but certainly not a fool.
The largest of the guards roamed about the area with a steady pace belying his alertness. His gaze raked relentlessly over the area surrounding the carriage, and every so often, he knocked on the carriage’s body, which received an answer in kind from one of the two men still stationed on the driver’s box. If Eli had to guess, he stood at the head of this operation, likely one of the emperor’s personal guards. In that case, he was also likely to be proficient in most of the main lines of magics, though the emperor and those around him had a tendency to favor water over fire, air over earth. And very few of them had a talent for the darker lines of magical artistry.
Which was rather fortunate for him.
Above him, the clouds coalesced once more into a thick mass and drowned the woods in shadow. The head guard clicked his tongue.
Perhaps luck was on his side tonight.
Eli exhaled. He patted down the inner lining of his jacket, counting each of the small blades hidden within its various pockets. Another dagger strapped to his thigh, its pommel wrapped tightly with a cloth strip once white, now a dull grey. Arudarcan steel with a jade dragon coiling about its grip. His fingers traced the outline of the dragon’s body through the cloth, the feel familiar and comforting. Eli liked to call it a gift, though others might have termed it a stolen benefit. But when the object in question had already been stolen twice over, what was a third time added to its history? Besides, he had made far better use of it than the duke who had pilfered it in the first place.
“I wonder, Nievrago,” he murmured as he turned his gaze to the cloud-choked sky, “which would be kinder, to kill them or leave them for their master’s wrath?”
The head guard paused in his circuit around the carriage and turned his gaze up into the trees. Eli held his breath though his lips began to curve into the semblance of a smile, half-written but full of amusement. Skill he also had, along with full faith that the shadow-web woven hours ago over his form still kept him from even the keenest of eyes. Instinct, however, might be another matter, but what was thieving without a bit of intrigue and danger? Between his magic and the leafy fullness of the tree he had nestled himself in, Eli counted himself well concealed, and in full proof of that, the head guard fell back onto his trodden path with only a dissatisfied grunt.
From his vantage point, Eli could still make out the main road, empty now at this late hour. The likelihood of encountering another party upon it remained as slim as snowfall in the Blackened Desert. Not entirely impossible, but highly improbable. Still, he would rather not press his luck.
“Ah, but before we get started, shall we see what else they brewed with last night’s layover? I hardly think a fresh coat of paint was all they managed for this most perilous leg of their journey…so very close to home,” he said, voice soft and not without a touch of sardonic humor to it.
Home, in this particular case, being something of a debatable topic. The last dragon seen within Aurinon’s borders had been a little over a decade ago.
How they had managed to get their hands on an egg remained unclear even to Eli’s vast information network. The very topic burned the throats of all who knew of its existence, so reluctant were they to talk of the subject. But, considering the mere idea of knowing the empire had an egg within their grasp at all could provide reason enough to meet the gallows, who could blame them for sealing their lips?
Eli studied the clearing beneath him once more. The guards situated by the fire had retired to their bedrolls to catch what sleep they could before likely changing out with the two men sitting watch on the carriage itself. Meanwhile, the head guard still paced about, wary as a half-starved wolf stalking the outskirts of a well-guarded sheep pen. Eli tapped his thigh absently.
In his experience, the more someone rode the very edge of any emotion, the easier they were to topple into the mess of it. As restless as the head guard now seemed, Eli counted it among his blessings. He had ways to work on frayed nerves and heavy expectations.
With a twitch at the corner of his mouth, he whispered into the night air, “Shift through the shadows and take what belongs to the light.”
As he spoke, his skin took on an inky purple hue, the color rising up from his fingertips in a crawling wave, devouring the tanned expanse until his entire forearm had turned as dark as the sky above. And with every inch of skin turned to night, the scene below him shifted as layers of intricate magic-work peeled away. The fire burned brighter, its light no longer contained to the capsule erected over it; the carriage rippled beneath the new paint, revealing a network of symbols dancing along its sides; the horses changed coats in a crashing wave of color, from dusty brown to lively chestnut to dappled grey until they finally settled on the pearlescent white of the emperor’s infamous war mounts. But what caught Eli’s eyes first and foremost were the numbers ticking down lazily over the carriage door handles. In no apparent order, but haphazardly sliding from one to another, an eight to a two, a five to a seven, on and on and on.
And who would have been entrusted with the key? Eli grimaced as he readjusted his plans. He would have to pull it from the mind of the head guard.