"You're not going soft on me, are you, Midas?" Raven asked. "We do the job that pays the bills; that's the way it's always been."
Leopold and Raven had been taking a nap in their room in the compound when Midas had burst through the door, back from his errand. he had barely dropped the luggage on the floor and shut the door behind him before he started raising concerns about the job they were doing.
"Yeah, make sure that Maria isn't getting into your head," Leopold said. "The last thing we need is for a woman to ruin our operation. It isn't great, but it's the best we have."
"I'm not letting her get into my head," Midas argued. "And I'm not soft, just concerned. Guess what I just found out about our horse?"
"It's a stallion?" Raven asked sarcastically. "I don't know; what did you hear?"
"You know how the client said he wanted us to kill a man's horse which was why I assumed there was a lord of this castle?" Midas asked. "Well there's a baron or some sort of nobility coming to visit. He's just passing through on his way to a horse competition or show or something and guess what he's bringing with him?"
"His prized horse," Leopold said. "Unless you were going someplace entirely different with that."
"So we've got our horse now," Raven commented, ignoring Leopold's comment. "I say we wait for it to arrive, do the job, and get out of here."
"I would normally say the same thing, but something here doesn't feel right," Midas said. "Warning bells are going off like crazy in my head and I can't shut them up no matter how hard I think about it."
"He's right," Leopold agreed.
"I am?" Midas asked in surprise. He hadn't really expected either of his friends to side with him and had been prepared to argue them both.
"Yes, something is really screwy about this whole thing," Leopold said. "I've thought that from day one."
"We're going to do the job, and that's final," Raven said with such authority that the boys looked at her in surprise. "I'm tired of you questioning my reasons and my decisions. Leo, you told Maria that I was a good planner. Did you mean that?"
"Of course I did," Leopold answered. "You're one of the smartest people I know."
"And do I ever tell you how to do your job?" Raven asked. "Do I ever say 'maybe you shouldn't try that approach to sneaking into the castle'? Do I ever tell you which shadows I think are dark enough to hide you and which ones aren't? And Midas, do I tell you how to swing a sword? Do I tell you where the weak spots in armor are, or how to exploit them?"
"No," Midas admitted.
"I let you do your jobs, now trust me to do mine," Raven said. "Rule one of my job is we do the jobs that bring in money, not the ones we want to do. We do this job because it pays well."
"Look, Raven, I'm not saying that we shouldn't do the job," Leopold said, trying to calm her. "It's to kill a stupid horse; I've done much worse things without batting an eyelash. All I'm saying is that we should do what we always do. If the baron is getting here today, I won't be able to do anything until tonight at the earliest. We should case the area and make sure that nothing is out of the ordinary. The last thing we want to do at this point is walk into a trap."
"Fine, you have until tonight to convince me," Raven said. "If you haven't found anything by then, we're going ahead with the job."
"Agreed," Midas said, "but we all need to look. We work best as a team, not three individuals."
"He's right," Leopold commented. "We all look for different things. Take even one of us out of the picture and we stand a chance of being caught."
"Fine, I'll help look, but we won't find anything," Raven said a bit sullenly.
"That's okay by me," Leopold said. "I want to get paid as much as you do. Just promise me that you'll actually look instead of assuming that you'll find nothing."
"Fine, I'll do it," Raven said, throwing her hands up in exasperation. "You're one persistent person, you know that Leo?"
"I've heard that," Leopold said with a smile. "People not on the receiving end of it say that it's one of my best qualities."
"Well, let's get moving," Midas said. "There's no time to waste if we're going to find out what's really going on here."
"Let's go," Leopold agreed, "but Midas, promise me that whatever we decide tonight, we will all be one hundred percent behind it. Trust the team; if there is dirt to be found, we will find it."
"Yes, little brother," Midas said and was out the door a moment later, moving with a purpose. He was certainly on a mission to find something, anything wrong with the mission that they had been given.
"It's because of Maria, isn't it?" Leopold asked, watching his brother stride across the compound.
"It's definitely because of Maria," Raven agreed. "Well, are you ready to go find some dirt?"
Leopold look at Raven. The fact that she had phrased the statement the way she had indicated she was with him on this one. If there was something to be turned up, she would find it.
Over the next several hours they criss-crossed the compound, looking for something, anything out of the ordinary. It looked exactly like Leopold had figured it would with one exception. Everywhere they went, people were putting up decorations, the most prominent of which were always the trees. There was never any variation, there was always a pine tree standing in the most prominent location in every building. There was even a team of workers raising a massive one in the compound courtyard, right in the middle of the path from the gate to the castle. How exactly they planned to keep it from toppling was beyond Leopold.
But raising a tree was never enough. It was always accompanied by decorations, the more the better. Some were expensive looking made of glass, silver, or even gold, but the majority of them were very cheap in nature. Decorated pine cones was a favorite as well as long strings of shinny material which Leopold learned were called tinsel. No matter the size of the tree or the extravagance of the decorations, they were always topped with a star.
"I don't get it," Leopold told Raven in one particularly decorated building. The decorations were plentiful, and the rule seemed to be the cheesier the better. The tree was the most ridiculous of all, barely fitting under the low ceiling of the room. Decorations covered it from the bottom to half its height and then stopped conspicuously. As with the rest of the building, the decorations were of the cheapest quality imaginable. Strings of popcorn covered the branches, decorated pine cones abounded, and paper angels and stars could be found on every branch.
"Which don't you get, the decorations or the fact that they're particularly crappy in this building?" Raven asked.
"Both," Leopold answered.
"I can give you some insight, if you'd like it," a voice behind them offered. They turned to see a young man, perhaps thirty years in age. He was clothed in the standard garb of the area; nothing was particularly unusual about him. Several days worth of stubble was visible on his face and from the condition of his hands, it looked as though he was no stranger to hard work. Nevertheless, Leopold recognized the glint of intelligence in his eyes. This man was no fool, that much was certain.
"Sorry for calling the decorations crappy," Raven muttered, looking around the room.
"Oh, it's no insult to be sure," the man said. "The children made them so it's not a surprise that the quality is what it is. My name is Simon, by the way."
Leopold and Raven introduced themselves and shook Simon's hand. He had a strong grip and an unwavering gaze, two things that Raven had dealt with before and greatly appreciated.
"And by 'the children' you mean..." Raven said.
"The orphans, of course," Simon answered. "Do you not know? But you wouldn't if you are not from around here. The lady Maria has set up this building as a home for all the orphans in the area. They were the ones who made the decorations."
"In that case, they are lovely," Raven said. "How many children do you have living here?"
"Seventeen right now," Simon answered. "It used to be a much smaller number, but there was a bad outbreak of the plague about a year ago."
"I hate to be the guy who gets off topic," Leopold cut in, "or back on again as it would be, but I'm still wondering about the decorations in general. And the trees. Why are there trees everywhere?"
"Christmas decorations are beautiful, are they not?" Simon asked.
"Christmas," Raven said thoughtfully. "A man we were talking to in the tavern mentioned that word. Wasn't someone supposed to have been born or something?"
"Not church goers, I see," Simon said.
"Not a single time in my life," Leopold confessed.
"I used to go when I was small, but I don't remember much," Raven said. Leopold looked at her in surprise. He hadn't known that, though in retrospect that wasn't much of a surprise. As he had learned today, he didn't know much about Raven's past.
"Well, basically the church is founded on a man named Jesus, the Son of God," Simon explained. "It's rather a long story, but as it happens, there is going to be a service on the subject tonight. We'll be reading through the story."
"From the Bible, right?" Raven asked. "It'll be in the chapel I assume."
"Normally we hold services there, but everyone from the town comes to this one. The large volume of people means that we always hold it in the receiving hall of the manor."
"We'll be there," Raven promised. "I hear children's voices, so I'll let you go, but I have one other question before I do. When exactly is Christmas?"
"In two days," Simon answered.
"That wasn't very objective of you," Leopold commented as they left the orphanage. This wasn't necessarily unusual except that it was Raven he was talking about. She was typically the most objective of anyone in The Group.
"It hasn't been a real objective day so far," Raven countered and Leopold would have to agree with her.