Leopold and Raven walked along the road, pretending to enjoy the sunshine but actually examining the surrounding terrain. A storm had blown in last night complete with howling wind and lots of snow fall. It had died down before dawn leaving the landscape beautiful and flawless, the driven snow covering all the imperfections.
“What do you think?” Raven asked. She didn't specify what she was talking about, but Leopold knew. After all, they were out here for a very specific reason.
“The approach path is terrible,” Leopold said. “The bushes and shrubs by the road would provide decent enough cover if I blended into them, but they’re all covered with snow. I’ll stick out like a sore thumb against the white.”
“I thought that might be a problem,” Raven agreed. She looked worried and Leopold knew why. Going against Daniel’s suggestion to not take this job had been gutsy on her part. Now that it appeared as if the wizard might have been right, she was becoming very anxious.
“Look Raven, for every problem there’s a solution,” Leopold said. “All we have to do is figure out what it is.”
“This might be the one problem that we can’t fix,” Raven said.
“That seems extraordinarily unlikely,” Leopold said. “Remember I broke into Castle Rajikline. This is a horse stable. I’m pretty sure I can figure something out.”
“I don’t know,” Raven trailed off. Her confidence was nowhere to be seen.
“I do know,” Leopold said, “and we are going to pull this off. You’re great at planning and I appreciate that. But stealth is my game. I let you do your job, now let me do mine. I'll find a way to pull this off for you, just like I always do for Daniel.”
"If you say so," Raven said. She still didn't appear convinced.
"I do say so," Leopold said. "Let's see what's further down the road."
They spent the next two hours walking leisurely toward the target's house. Leopold was able to identify many more problems with the approach, but also a few features he could use to his advantage. In all, it might be painfully slow going, but it would certainly not be the hardest thing he had ever done. Entering the compound itself, would be a different story. Though Leopold had been convinced that it would not be difficult, he began to have second thoughts as soon as he saw the place. The setup was exactly as Midas had indicated, but the number of guards had doubled.
"As long as you can get here, you should be able to get inside, right?" Raven asked. "This doesn't look hard at all. The wall is relatively short, and the barriers are pretty insignificant."
"Remember when I told you I left the planning up to you so you needed to leave the stealth up to me?" Leopold asked. "Here's another perfect example. Getting in is going to be the hardest part of the whole plan."
"Why?" Raven asked in genuine confusion. "There isn't much for you to circumvent. Just some relatively short walls a barrier fence."
"What else is there?" Leopold asked. He looked at Raven as she tried to nonchalantly examine the compound's defenses. "Let's keep walking or people are going to think we're up to something."
They began to stroll parallel to the wall, far enough away from it as to alleviate suspicion. Despite the cold and the snow on the ground, the weather was actually very nice. If only they were not here on a job, Leopold thought, he might be able to appreciate this more. As it was, going for a stroll with Raven was never his idea of a bad time.
"I still don't get it," Raven finally spoke up. "There's something there that I can't see, isn't there?"
"No, you can see it alright," Leopold assured her. "You just don't know what you're looking for or why you're looking for it. Once I tell you, it's going to be painfully obvious."
"Then tell me," Raven said.
"One more chance," Leopold said. "See if you can find it for yourself. Believe me, it's very obvious."
"I don't know," Raven said after a moment. "People?"
Leopold touched his index finger to his nose , then pointed at Raven.
"That's exactly correct."
"I always thought people were easy for you to get past," Raven commented.
"They are," Leopold said. "A single person is one of the easiest things to get around because of their idiosyncrasies. They blink, they fall asleep, they don't walk their entire route but cut the ends off. If you're good, you can stay out of their line of sight, gauge what they will do and when they will do it, travel through areas when they aren't watching them. The problem is that with more people, those idiosyncrasies tend to cancel each other out. With 100 people, the chances that none of them will be looking at a specific area is much smaller than with only 10 people."
"So, people are harder to deal with than I thought," Raven reiterated. "I'm assuming you have ways of dealing with them since you haven't told me it's impossible yet."
"Of course I do. That's my job," Leopold said. He was so engrossed in analyzing the defenses that it was several moments before he noticed Raven again. She was still strolling nonchalantly beside him, but the look on her face showed that she was still worried. Leopold knew mystery was most often what caused concern; ostensibly the more information he shared with Raven, the more at ease she would feel.
"Look at the east end of the castle," Leopold said. "What do you see over there?"
"Nothing," Raven said at first. It was followed quickly by "A lake."
"Right," Leopold agreed. "People think that lakes are hard to cross because they're flat and have nothing to hide behind. Consequently, they tend to put fewer lookouts on the lake side of a castle or compound. For the most part, this is a descent strategy. It would be practically impossible to get an army across a lake without it being noticed."
"But you're not an army," Raven cut in. "You're just one person."
"Correct," Leopold agreed. "I can sneak across a lake easily enough, and since there are fewer guards on that side, the chances of them seeing me are significantly less than anywhere else."
The explanation was good enough for Raven only for a moment.
"But it's winter. The lake is cold, but it isn't frozen over. You can't swim it or you'll freeze to death, right?"
"Well, there are suits of clothing that would allow me to swim through frigid water without freezing," Leopold explained. "On the other hand, I don't happen to have any such clothing."
"Then the lake idea won't work," Raven said.
"Don't count it out yet," Leopold cautioned. "The approach I would normally use is almost certainly a wash, but there's still the possibility of modifying it to some workable solution."
They had reached the end of the compound wall and turned to walk back the other way. Leopold extended his arm, and Raven took it. They would look less conspicuous this way, he argued with himself. And that's precisely why you did it, his brain taunted sarcastically.
"There's a lot of other details to consider besides the lake," Leopold said to shut up the voice in his head. "What else do you see that might help?"
They walked back down the wall of the compound to the gate, discussing the various aspects of Leopold's approach. Though he tried to make it sound as easy as possible, he knew it would be difficult. There were just so many people here, and everything was white. It was possible that he could use the terrain color to his advantage; he would have to think about it.
Then again, maybe he wouldn't have to. Midas was astride a horse, cantering in their direction. A girl sat astride another of the beasts and was waiting on the road. This would be the girl he had talked about last night, his ticket into the compound.
"Hello, Midas," Raven said when he had pulled his horse to a halt and slid out of the saddle. "You're keeping attractive company these days."
"Ha, ha, very funny," Midas said. He was clearly not amused.
"I really meant it," Raven said. "She's quite good looking. I can see why you appreciate her company."
"Cut it out," Midas said. "Look, I told you last night that I got offered a job, right? Well, I mentioned the two of you, and she offered you jobs as well."
"I'm assuming that she is the woman sitting on the horse," Leopold said, assessing her as he spoke. "You said she offered us jobs? Who is she exactly?"
"The best that I can figure is that she must be the guy's daughter," Midas said. "The lord of the compound's daughter, I mean."
"I don't know what I think about this," Raven said. "It could be a trap."
"Nonsense," Leopold countered. "They would have to know we were coming to set a trap. Midas, did it smell like a trap at all?"
"Not that I could tell," Midas answered.
"Then I'll take the job," Leopold said with a sidelong glance at the compound walls. "If it gets me inside, I'll take my chances."
"It'll get us inside alright," Midas said, turning to head back to the road. He led his horse with his left hand, so Leopold took the right side. "Besides getting paid, we'll also be put up inside until the job is completed."
"Sounds like a sweet enough deal," Leopold agreed.
"Maria, these are the friends I was telling you about," Midas said when he was close enough to the woman to speak. She had dismounted her horse and stood just off the road.
"They look a little young," Maria said, sizing up Leopold and Raven.
"It's a negotiating ploy," Raven whispered to Leopold. "She's just buying time to evaluate us. I've seen people do this plenty of times."
"Good to know," Leopold whispered back. "For a second there I thought she actually had something against us."
"Of course she doesn't," Raven whispered. "She hired Midas and he's not much older than us."
"But he's bigger and looks older," Leopold shot back.
"They also seem to whisper a lot," Maria noted with a crooked smile. "I'm Maria, by the way, since Midas neglected to introduce us."
"I'm Raven," Raven introduced herself, "and this is Leopold."
"It's a pleasure to meet you," Maria said. "Midas has been speaking very highly of you. Exactly what skills do you bring to the table?"
"Raven is incredibly smart, has quite a head for tactics," Midas butted in. "And 'ole Leo is great at sneaking and stealth."
"Is that true?" Maria asked in genuine interest.
"Raven is very intelligent," Leopold answered. "She's one of the best planner slash organizers that I have ever met. She would certainly be a benefit to you if you put her in the right capacity. Also, when it comes to fighting she's certainly no slouch."
"And you?" Maria asked.
"I'm good at sneaking, like my brother said," Leopold commented nonchalantly. "You could call me 'Ghost' for as much as you'd see me if I was trying to stay hidden."
"Really?" Maria said with a laugh. "And do many people call you that? Ghost, I mean."
"No," Leopold admitted, his ears turning a bit red. "I'll be honest, that sounded a lot cooler in my head. I am good at sneaking though. I could give you some insight as to how to make this place harder to sneak up on."
"Well, I was almost sold with Midas' recommendation, but you're awkward sense of humor put you right over the top," Maria chuckled. "Come on inside and I'll show you around."
The gates to the compound were open as they had been when Leopold and Raven had first arrived, and Maria led The Group through them. The guards barely gave them a sidelong glance as they passed by. Clearly Maria was important to merit this treatment. The walk from the walls to the main compound was about a hundred yards in length, just as Midas had indicated the previous night. There was not much there except for a few guard shacks and a lot of empty space. Leopold took in as much as possible, but there simply wouldn't be a lot of cover if he were required to sneak across the expanse for some reason.
"Welcome to Mountain Manor," Maria said as they passed through the gates into the main compound. She and Midas handed off their horses to servants, and she led them toward the main structure. It could almost be counted as a castle if one was being charitable.
"I don't understand the name," Raven said.
"What, besides the fact that we really aren't on a mountain?" Maria asked. "It does seem a bit out of place. I have no idea where the name came from."
"Probably the 'Plane Palace' was already taken," Midas offered. Maria seemed to think that was very funny.
She led Midas, Leopold, and Raven around the main building toward a large, plain one. Doors covered the outer face of it and staircases scaled the walls to give outside access to the upper floors. It appeared as though the building itself was divided into multiple rooms, each of which was accessible from the outside. For a brief moment, visions of an orphanage raced through Raven's head. They were from a part of her life that was long over and which she hadn't thought about in a long time. Not that the memories were necessarily unpleasant; she simply hadn't given them much thought of recent.
"You'll be staying in this building," Maria was saying. "I would normally give you two rooms, but with the influx of guards, we don't have the space at the moment. Will you be able to make do with one?"
"We'll make it work," Midas told her.
"This one will be yours, then," Maria said and swung open a door. Leopold's jaw almost dropped to the floor when he saw the inside. It was at least twice as large as their room at the inn with two beds and partial room dividers. The furnishings were much nicer than they were used to, and there was even what appeared to be a shower room in the back. Leopold's eyes could have been playing tricks on him, but it appeared as though there might even be faucets with running water. That was a rare commodity, especially in this area, off the beaten path as it was.
Maria watched as Leopold, Midas, and Raven stepped into the room and examined it, each with the same look of awe on their face. Midas recovered first and flopped onto one of the beds. It was much softer than the beds at the inn and certainly much more comfortable than the straw ticks that he was accustomed to. It felt like he was lying on a cloud, though he would never admit it. Such comments would be damaging to his reputation if he could ever get one started.
"Where were you staying?" Maria asked after a few minutes. "I can have your things brought here if you would like."
Leopold stuck his head out of the wash room (it did have running water) and saw Raven's poke through the doorway of a small adjoining room. They certainly didn't want to give Maria that information. If she found out about Daniel, she might get suspicious.
"Don't worry about that," Midas said as he rolled off the bed and walked toward the room door. "I'll go and pick up our stuff later today. It's not much, so it's not a big deal."
"Very well," Maria said. "You are welcome to use a horse from the stables if you need it."
"Thank you very much," Midas said.
"Well, I will see you later, I guess," Maria said and turned to leave.
"One other question before you go," Raven said, stepping out of her room.
"Yes?" Maria responded, turning around quickly, almost as if she was hesitant to leave in the first place.
"When will we meet him?" Raven asked. "I mean, the lord of the castle, or whatever you want to call it."
"Whatever I want to call it?" Maria asked. "By 'it,' do you mean the lord or the castle?"
"Both I guess," Raven answered.
"Well, I'm very flattered to hear you call this place a castle," Maria said. "As to the lord, I'm afraid you won't get to meet him since there isn't one. You see, I'm the one in charge around here."
She smiled at the look of utter surprise on Midas' face and pulled the door shut after her. It was supposed to be a smooth get-away, but her dress got caught in the door. It was all very embarrassing for her.