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Finals

by Michael "The Roach" Janszen, copyright 2000

Night had already proceeded well along its way to inevitable morning when the window slowly opened. To an observer, the bluish light of the moon would have revealed a woman with long, gray hair, clad in similarly drab gray clothes. As the building also was light gray in color, detection by the city guards patrolling the street was highly unlikely; assuming someone would have even thought of suspecting a burglar here of all places.

The woman's stealthy movements were not due to her being afraid of trouble; theoretically, she was entitled to enter this building in any way she liked. But in this special instance she would have been disappointed. She stepped away from the window and looked around.

The room she was in didn't have a curtain. The woman seemed to be prepared for that and removed her long, gray skirt–which proved to be a wraparound–revealing another, much shorter, brown skirt underneath. The long skirt was then draped over the window, where it completely blocked any light from entering or escaping. Thus certain she would not be detected by a chance look upwards, she lit a candle and started examining the drawers of the big desk.

Suddenly, steps sounded from the hallway, and light came in through a crack under the door. Noticing this, the woman quickly extinguished the candle with wet fingers. But then the person outside–whoever it had been–passed the door and the light disappeared again.

The woman thought long and hard. The long skirt had been used to block the window as planned. However, she had forgotten the crack under the door. Without much hesitation she took off her blouse and stuck it into the door crack. She didn't seem to mind standing bare-breasted, but then again, there was no one there who could have enjoyed the unusual spectacle. The woman checked the door even further and shook her head when she saw the key holes. With one fluid motion, she took off her long gray hair–revealing very short-cropped brown hair–and hung the wig over the door handle, where it would block the keyhole. The second keyhole, however, seemed to present more of a hassle. It was used to unlock the second half of the door, which could then be folded aside to move the two halves along one of the walls. The problem was that there was no handle to hang anything on; after unlocking, the door was still managed with the handle that already bore her wig.

Finally, she came to a decision. She took some of the candle wax, which had almost solidified, and spread some of it above and below the square hole. Then she stepped out of her last remaining piece of clothing and stuck it to the door using the wax as glue, so that the hole was blocked as well. If anyone enters now, she thought, they'd probably be very surprised.

Finally, she lit the candle again and returned to examining the desk. The drawers in particular seemed to be highly interesting. She looked at the handles–which were shaped like Griffin heads–carefully, and was about to open the top drawer when she hesitated. She put the candle on the floor and cautiously checked the underside of the handles. A slight smile played upon her lips.

"Uncle, you are an old fox!" she breathed almost inaudibly.

Using utmost care, she pressed the almost invisible stud that formed some kind of goitre in the griffins' neck, and pulled the drawer open. From it, she drew several parchments, which she quickly scanned. One of the parchments, however, managed to capture her attention. She studied its text carefully before returning all the parchments to the drawer. She then re-dressed after extinguishing the candle again with wet fingers. During the dressing procedure, it became evident that her blouse had detachable sleeves. Finally she climbed out of the window, closed it behind her, and then made her way back to the streets, making sure no city guards were nearby.

The woman in the long skirt and with the long gray hair continued through the streets of nighttime Miran. No one paid any attention to her, even though it was late in the night and the new dawn announced itself by slowly turning the sky pink. Still, she managed, hidden in a dark alleyway, to slip out of the skirt, the arms of her blouse and the wig, before returning through a window into a sedate-looking house–which was used as a school–near the garrisons.

She had barely undressed and slid into her bed when a loud ringing noise announced the beginning of a new day.

The whole day long her teachers scolded her for not paying any attention, and during fighting lessons N'gesi, a native of the southern jungles, tried to gain her attention by painfully hitting her several times, leaving her gasping for air.

Still, she used the lunch break to again leave the building against regulations and wander around Miran. Here, she visited a small store with a board offering spice and herbs. She bought a small bottle with some fluid which, upon returning to the school, she hid in the straw of her bed. As soon as the lessons ended in the evening, she exhaustedly hit the bed, curled up and slept.

The following evening, she did her next trip into the city. Again, she had waited until all people in the building were sleeping deeply before leaving. This time however she had not dressed up as an old woman, but was wearing her regular clothing: the dark super-short skirt, and her sleeveless blouse. The only difference to her normal dress was the fact that she was wearing a pair of long socks.
 
 

*  *  *  *  *

The Emperor's castle in Miran was a proud building. Even though the night had well progressed, almost all its windows were lit by candles, as Emperor Han was accustomed to entertaining guests until deep into the night. The guards whose job it was to check all visitors were weary, but whenever someone approached, they proved to be alert nonetheless. Even at the back door used for the servants there were two guards holding pikes.

"Good evening. I am Lilliandarna Anturia Rosalinda Heidemarie Dormen, and I'd like to visit my brother Donf who is working here," a good looking young woman–almost still a girl–greeted them. The scented oil she had applied to her wrists a few minutes earlier was no longer detectable.

One of the two guards left the post, to return with her brother a few minutes later. The young man led her into a small room made especially for this kind of visits.

"Hi, Lilli," Donf said, "Where have you been? We haven't seen you for quite a while."

"I travel around a lot. You know, a bard has to do that if she doesn't have a noble sponsor. And since I happened to pass by Miran I thought I'd say hello to my bro. How are the others?"

"How should they be? Koryanda is about to leave her job; she has become infatuated with a nobleman from Willo who lives here, and Belmart ... Well, he is still busy convincing the priests that his birth date is not a bad sign."

They both chuckled.

"By the way, our uncle is at the court, too. You want to say hello?"

Lilli turned slightly pale. "No, no, I think I'd better not. I doubt he'd be glad to see me here."

"What? You still not on speaking terms?"

"Well, you know, he never got over G.C.E. throwing me out. It isn't my fault that I have no talent for magic."

"I still don't understand it. Shilona was so certain..."

"Even the court mage of our Most Deific Magnificence can err occasionally, can't he?"

They both chuckled again. Though the person they were talking about had been summarily evicted almost three years ago, there was no doubt he was one of the most knowledgeable mages in the world.

From deeper within the castle shouts sounded.

"Just a moment, Lilli, I'll be back in a wink."

In the meantime Lilli made herself comfortable. She spied a big, gray tomcat amble into the room; he had lost one eye in some fight. Carefully he closed in on Lilli, who went to her knees and offered him her hand. The tom sniffed it at first, then licked it and allowed her to pet him.

When Donf returned, the cat was purring loudly. The young man was astonished.

"What happened to Rohazil?"

"You mean the cat? He showed up and wanted to be petted. Why? Is something wrong?"

Donf shook his head unbelievingly while Rohazil left, grumbling.

"Normally he is very unfriendly and unapproachable! Even Emperor Han isn't permitted to pet him, usually. And someone he doesn't know usually can call himself lucky if an attempt at petting ends with nothing more serious than some deep scratches."

"Looks like I had lots of luck."

"You can say that again, little sis. Oh, our uncle has already left. Seems he was interested in our security setup again. I'd really like to know what's going on..."
 
 

*  *  *  *  *

When the young woman who had stripped to her birthday suit a few days ago came home, she had to quickly slip into her bed still dressed since she heard someone at the door. Quickly, she turned to the wall and tried to breathe slowly and regularly. A few winks later the door opened and a dark figure peered through the crack. Seeing Lilli apparently fast asleep, the figure closed the door again.

After five more minutes the woman sat up again. Quickly, she removed her socks and took a bracelet covered with gleaming stones from her ankle. This she put back into the straw, together with the small bottle she had bought a few days ago.
 
 

*  *  *  *  *



Count Dexter Dormen looked grim. This meant it was a normal day because his mien–capable of making the most hardened sinner confess just by looking unfriendly–could only be called remotely friendly on high festivals.

When there was a knock on the door he grumbled something, which to the initiated meant "Come in". The door opened and Lilliandarna–who had expressed an aversion to meeting him the evening before–came in. In addition to her regular, minimalist outfit, she was carrying a small gift-wrapped package.

"Well met, Your Highness. You sent for me?"

"Right. It is time that your Final Examination should begin, despite the fact that your teachers have reported a curious lethargy about you lately. I have to assume that it still the after-effects of the investigation into that priestess?"

"That's quite possible."

"Now, don't assume I condone your tactics because you were successful in gaining the required information. It was not really necessary..." He looked at his niece as if thinking about a fit punishment.

"I am sorry, Your Highness, but considering the short deadline you had set, pillow talk seemed to be the best bet."

"All right, all right," Count and High Inquisitor Dexter Dormen waved the topic away. "Let us proceed to the current matters at hand. To wit, your final exam."

With trepidation, Lilliandarna watched him take a stack of papers from his desk. He took them gingerly and read them once more silently before clearing his throat and looking at her.

"Final Examination for Lilliandarna Anturia Rosalinde Heidemarie Dormen, code name Ostrich, cover identity as the bard Millefleurs, given in Miran, the 3rd day in the moon of Pirin in the twelfth year after the coronation of our beloved Emperor Han.

"The apprentice agent's task will be to appropriate the tawdry necklace worn by the court cat held by our beloved Emperor–may the gods smile upon him–and to hand it over to her coordinating officer, His Highness Dexter Dormen. As this task opposes that of a normal theft, since the necklace would not be the target of a normal thief, being of no value whatsoever, information about the plan but not about the agent will be passed on to His Deific Majesty. His Majesty will initiate appropriate security measures without mentioning special danger of theft or even the object of the task.

"As soon as the desideratum has passed into the hands of His Highness, Count Dexter Dormen, the vacation for agent Ostrich will begin, limited to the first day of the next year. The exact method does not have to be reported; also, there will be no need for a debriefing or a final report.

"Given and notified through His Highness, Count Dexter Dormen."

The Count looked at Lilliandarna. "If you wonder why a theft, considering your previous experience and training was concentrated on other subjects; that can be explained. Your grades during the training, as well as the results of the little tasks set for you in the interim, left nothing much to be desired. Only your capabilities in this area have never been tested. And since our policy says that a field agent has to be as versatile as possible, it was decided long ago that the final exam would be something from an area neglected during the training. At this very moment, His Deific Majesty is informing the court of the increased security. You might want to get a head start on them..."

"Thank you. If Your Highness would be so kind as to accept this as a token of my appreciation..." Lilliandarna handed the colorful package over. When Count Dormen made no motion to accept it, she simply put it onto the desk, where Count Dormen looked at it as if he expected a poisonous asp to slither out. At that very moment, there was a knock on the door.

"Come in," the Count grumbled, motioning Lilliandarna to step aside. A messenger in the imperial livery entered. He bowed and waited for Count Dormen to motion for his message.

"Reporting, His Deific Majesty is pleased to send his regards to Count Dormen. Regretfully, His Deific Majesty is unable to fulfil your Highness' request as an accursed thief has already lightened the bea... sorry, the Imperial Court Cat from his necklace."

Apprehensively, the messenger waited for the inevitable thunderstorm. To his amazement it didn't happen. The Count only looked at the package again. After several, uncomfortable minutes–for the messenger–Count Dormen dismissed him with a wave of his hand. "No reply necessary, I hope."

After the messenger had beat a hasty retreat, the Count sat still for several more minutes, staring at the package. Then he slowly looked up at Lilliandarna.

"Is that..." His voice faltered.

Lilliandarna snapped to attention.

"Agent Ostrich leaving for vacation, Sir," she said.

The Count just closed his eyes.

"And now, since I am on holiday ... Ciao, Uncle!" With these words, she turned around and slid through the open door, closing it behind her.

Outside, she stopped for a moment. Curiosity and the wish for security fought a short battle. In the end, curiosity won, and she pressed her ear to the door.

Loud laughter was her reward!

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