The meeting hall, or "throne room" as Midas insisted on calling it, was an impressive room to say the least. The walls extended upward for two full stories and a balcony circled the whole place. This had been the first location that Leopold had thought to spy from. It was out of the way and since people didn't tend to look up would put him out of the path of scrutiny. It wasn't difficult to reach either which was his first indication that it might be too good to be true. Sure enough, when the baron was sighted by the lookouts and Leopold had headed to the meeting hall, there were guards stationed along the balcony, keeping an eye on the whole area. far from being stymied by this turn of events, Leopold reverted to plan B. Now he was perched on the catwalk used to access various sections of the room's vaulted ceiling. from here he would have an unobstructed view of the baron and his entire entourage.
Raven clamored onto the walkway behind him, at least it seemed like clamoring to him. In actuality she was adequate in stealth, enough so that none of the guards even looked up. She had insisted on tagging along and Leopold hadn't argued. Her abilities were sufficient for the task at hand, and she was technically in charge of this job. She would just be wondering and worrying until he got back and that wouldn't do anyone any good. Actually, it would be nice to have another person to analyze the situation. Raven rose to a stooped position and scurried to where Leopold was perched. She immediately began to scan the room and take in the surroundings.
Twenty-five feet below, Maria say on her throne. Or perhaps since she was a duchess, it was just a raised seat. Leopold never kept up with such things. In his mind he decided to refer to it as her "chair thingy." A single guard stood on the dais to the left of and behind the chair thingy and Leopold was taken aback to realize after several moments that it was Midas. How in heaven's name his brother had finagled this, he had no idea. In the back of his mind he was vaguely irritated that Midas hadn't told him, then again, maybe it was a last minute thing which couldn't be helped. Whatever the case, it would actually be nice to have a third set of eyes looking from a different perspective. He would be closer to the action, as it were, and might pick up on things that Leopold and Raven would miss tucked away in the rafters as they were.
"What the heck is he doing here?" Raven hissed. She was already on edge and the sudden change in plans hadn't done anything for her nerves.
"Stay flexible, Raven," Leopold said calmly. "He knows what he's doing."
"I just wish he'd keep us in the loop," Raven said.
"It was probably last minute," Leopold said. "Things change, and we have to be able to change with them. That's one of the most important rules of my job."
"I just wish I had known ahead of time," Raven said. "We could have planned for it."
"We did plan, and we're still going with that plan," Leopold said. "See, your version of a plan and mine are quite different. If you're going to learn how to sneak and spy, you'll have to leave what you know about planning at the door."
"What do you mean, Leo?" Raven asked, turning to look at him. Her face said that she had no idea what he was talking about.
"When you plan it's all cut and dry, or it is a lot of the time," Leopold said. "You examine the jobs, you look at the payouts, you evaluate the risks, and you choose what we do. I'm not saying that there's any one correct choice for you to make, but you follow your rubric and it takes you the same way every time. In an operational sense, that simply isn't possible."
"Of course it is," Raven said. "You make a plan, you do it, and then you leave."
"And what if it doesn't work?" Leopold asked. "Like today when we found out that guards stand on the second floor walkways."
"Then you go with plan B," Raven answered. "But that's still something that's been planned."
"That's just not the way it works," Leopold said with a shake of his head. "Something none of the plans work, but I still have to do the job. I don't have time to step back and think about it so I have to stay flexible and roll with the punches."
"Seriously?" Raven asked. This seemed to be a novel concept for her. "Give me an example."
"Easy," Leopold said. "Back in the marsh when that monster took you. You didn't see me do it, but you've heard the story enough time. I didn't really plan on sliding into its mouth, dangling upside down in its throat, and slashing its jugular from the inside, but that's the option that presented itself."
"So you're saying that you never plan ahead?" Raven asked in disbelief.
"That's not what I said," Leopold answered. "Of course I plan, but the chances of that working without any on-the-spot modifications is pretty low. The times when things come off without a hitch are the exceptions."
Raven was silent for several moments.
"That just seems like such an inefficient way of doing things," she finally said. "Why not just gather all the information and make a decision?"
"Because I don't always have all the information," Leopold explained. "The reason that you can plan and make decisions the way you do is because of the information I bring you. I don't have that luxury."
"Oh," Raven said. From the sounds of it, she finally got it.
The doors to the hall banged open a few moments later and what Leopold assumed was the baron's entourage began to enter.
"Here he comes," Leopold said. "It's show time."
The number of guards in the group was surprising low. On the other hand, this was inside of a friendly castle where the threat was presumably minimal. The group was mainly composed of fancy dressers, people who could have passed for aristocracy or wealthy tradesmen at the very least. Despite their disguises, it took Leopold less than thirty seconds to determine their true identity. The way they carried themselves, the way their eyes darted all around the room told the story; these men were guards even if they weren't dressed in armor.
The baron was easy to pick out amidst his entourage. As soon as Leopold saw him, he knew he didn't like him. Though he was a guest in the castle, he carried himself as if he owned the place. The servants he had brought with him scurried to get out of his way as he walked. They were good at it by now, but even so one unlucky soul didn't move quickly enough and was shoved roughly to the side. Beyond what was seen, something unexplainable tugged at Leopold's mind. He had seen many nobles in his life, some good, some bad, and had acquired a sixth sense about them. Something didn't feel right. If he had a guess, he's say that this man was among the worst.
The baron reached the dais and bowed to Maria. Even from where he was perched, Leopold thought the gesture looked forced or even sarcastic. Maria stood from her chair thingy and curtsied in return. The formalities out of the way, the two began to speak. This was the part of the meeting Leopold was really interested in. If something was suspicious about this man, its revelation would likely occur in what he said. He strained his ears to hear what was being said, but to no avail. If he had been standing on the second floor balcony, perhaps he could have made out what was being said, but not from this high perch.
"Can you hear anything?" Raven said in his ear. To him, the words were practically a shout.
"No," Leopold answered in a low voice, motioning downward with his palm to indicate that she be quieter. "It doesn’t matter though."
"Isn't this where we'll get any clues about if he's on the level or not?" Raven asked. "It seems like this is important."
"It is, but not overly so," Leopold said. "This is the first time he's meeting Lady Maria. He'll be paying close attention to what he says, so the chances of him slipping up are low. Also, Midas is down there, so he'll be able to tell us what they said."
"And you trust him to be able to determine what's going on?" Raven asked. "He's a sword's man; this isn't exactly his cup of tea."
"No it's not, but I think he'll do alright," Leopold said. "He's the one who's looking for dirt. If it's there, he'll probably find it. Worst case scenario though, I've already been able to see the baron, and I don't like him."
"Yeah, he's an awful guy from the looks of it, but that doesn't mean there's something shady going on," Raven countered. "It should be easier to kill his horse if you don't like him."
"It's not just that I don't like him," Leopold said. "There's something off about him that I can't place. I have a serious feeling that things are not what they seem."
"Well, we'll get together with Midas after and..." Raven was cut off by Leopold who motioned to the floor. The baron was leaving the hall now taking all of his servants and disguised guards with him. As he stalked toward the door, Leopold got a perfectly unobscured view of his face for the first time. His breath caught and, without taking his eyes off the man, reached for Raven.
"Did you see that?" he asked.
"What?" Raven said as the hall doors slammed shut. "What was I supposed to see?"
"The baron," Leopold answered. "He's the guy we met in the tavern. He's the client."
"Are you sure?" Raven asked as her eyes darted toward the closed doors.