After crossing unchallenged onto the outermost part of the palace grounds, both bandits stopped and stared. The paths were paved with stones cut into intricate patterns that fit seamlessly together. Not so much as a single blade of grass poked up from between the pieces. Neatly trimmed hedges separated the sections of the palace from each other. Fountains could be heard off in the distance as they splashed in private gardens. Music, soft voices, the wicker of horses, and an impatiently mewing cat, among other indistinguishable sounds, floated in the air.
“Now where?” Kinrou whispered.
Jiken led him down the path, heading straight for the main building. “The treasury is on the other side,” he replied with the same hushed tone.”
“I can’t believe we’ve made it this far.”
“See? My plans don’t all fail.”
Kinrou grinned, even though he knew Jiken couldn’t see it. For the first time since leaving Mt. Dorayen, he dared to believe that something good would come out of this venture. He had to admit that disguising themselves as Acolytes was a stroke of genius.
They made it into the palace with no one so much as batting an eye. Their disguises seemed to put people at ease.
That won’t last for long.
They passed through the next two gates with little incident. Jiken had a chance to use his story of attending a cousin’s ritual, making him much happier. When they reached Temple Row, both stopped to stare. The streets were paved with much nicer stone than the previous Rows had been. Small shops dotted the streets selling flowers, sweets, fruit, music, fine jewellery, and religious paraphernalia. Closer to the Great Temple there were stalls offering candles and incense.
Kinrou looked around. “Incredible. I’ve never seen anything like this.”
“The small temples in the northern towns don’t do it justice, even though all temples in Telvan are supposedly modelled on this one. It’s just so much more elaborate. The impressive thing? I hear the palace is even grander and more elaborate.”
“I’d think so, but I can’t imagine it.”
“We’ll find out for sure when we get there.”
Kinrou shook his head, continuing to look around as he walked. He spotted a large group of people heading towards the Great Temple. He tapped Jiken on the arm with the back of one hand and headed towards the group, walking a short distance behind them. They were close enough that the casual observer would assume they were together, but not close enough that the people in the group would think they were being followed.
Both tried not to gawk as they passed the stone dragon statues and climbed the massive staircase. It became clear that their attempts had failed when a young woman in the rusty coloured robes of a junior priestess approached them. “This is your first visit to Karath?” she asked and then smiled. “It’s easy to tell. All those who see this temple for the first time look as you do.”
“I’ve heard about it, but I didn’t expect the reality,” Jiken told her.
She smiled. “Are you here for a casual visit or for a funeral?”
“The second. A cousin of ours died in the recent fighting.”
“I grieve for your loss.”
Kinrou shook his head. “Save your grief for someone who needs it.”
At the priestess’ miffed look, Jiken added, “We didn’t know our cousin very well. His loss is sad, yes, but it isn’t having an adverse effect on us. We’re here as we were the only family members that could make it on such short notice.”
“If you’ll excuse us, Priestess, we’d like to go find out when our cousin’s ritual will be held or if we’re too late.”
“Should you require any assistance at all, do not hesitate to ask.”
“I’ll be sure to mention your help in my prayers tonight.”
“My name is Inhari Devanaliil,” she supplied.
Jiken bowed. “Farewell, Priestess Inhari. May Kal Sharash eternally light your path.”
“And yours as well.”
Both watched Inhari as she walked away. When she was out of sight, they slipped down a hallway off to the side. A heavily embroidered silk tapestry partially concealed the entrance. Kinrou figured the gold thread used in the embroidery was worth enough money to keep a small village fed for half a year. It led to a smallish room. Open cubicles lined one side, some holding neatly folded piles of clothing and footwear. The wall opposite to the entrance held cloak hooks. The last wall, to the right of the entrance, had shelves full of dark red hooded robes.
After examining the robes, Kinrou determined that they were arranged by size with the smallest ones nearest to the door. He grabbed one close to his size and put it on over his clothing while Jiken did the same. Pulling the hoods up they headed back out into the temple, keeping their heads down to avoid being recognized.
Doing their best to stay anonymous, they walked towards the exit, mimicking the stately gait the other priests affected. As they walked, they passed groups of people asking for their blessing. Both made the gesture of blessing: crossed forearms with the fingers splayed open. It seemed to satisfy them, allowing the two bandits to continue on their way.
It was dark by the time they reached the part of the palace where the treasury was located. To either side of the door was a soldier in full armour carrying a massive pole arm with a wickedly hooked blade. Each man also carried a sword at their waist and a long dagger strapped to the outside of their left boot.
“Moment of truth, Kinrou. Now we find out just how good this plan is. If we go forward and this fails, we’ll be thrown in prison until they execute us. If we turn back now, no one will know we made it this far in.”
For a moment, Kinrou debated turning around and going home, but only for a moment. Some part of his mind desperately wanted into that treasury while another wanted to flee. He opted to listen to the first part. The Dragon Crown was worth a fortune, but who knew what other treasures lay inside?
“Let’s do this.”
“Any idea on how to get past the guards?”
“Simple. We’re Acolytes; we can go virtually anywhere we want.”
Kinrou swallowed. “I hope you’re right about this.”
The guards saluted as Kinrou and Jiken approached. “Is there something we can do for you, my lords?” asked the one on the left.
“We need access to the treasury,” Jiken replied.
“Might I ask why?”
“We were sent to retrieve a few items from inside by one of the higher ranking priests. I forget which one.”
“Of course.” He turned and pulled the door open for them.
“My thanks,” Kinrou said, entering the treasury with Jiken right behind him. Once they were inside, the door closed.
The treasury was lit by lanterns and cleverly placed mirrors to reflect the meagre light they put off, amplifying it until every corner of the room was lit as if it were high noon. It didn’t look at all like the way the poets described it at all. All the treasures and precious objects were arranged on shelves or stored in boxes.
“I expected piles of coins and gemstones,” Jiken commented, looking around.
“This makes more sense, though. It’s much easier to find what you’re looking for.”
“Granted, when you’re looking for the single most valuable and important object in the country, it’s not that hard to find.” Jiken took his robe off and set it aside.
“What are you doing? Won’t we need those to get out of here again?”
“That’s my backup plan. I’m hoping to go out through that window over there.” He pointed to a small window near the ceiling on the left wall.
“It’s a little small don’t you think?”
“We’ve gotten through things tighter than that. Remember that manor house in Onjelaria?”
“Oh yeah, that widow’s crawlspace.” Kinrou smiled. “We’ll be fine. That’s just a window.” Then it dawned on him. “Wait, if you knew that was there, why did we come in the way we did?”
“It’s locked on the inside. Sure, we could break all the glass, but we’d still get cut trying to crawl in that way. Then we’d get hurt falling down. I had no idea what would be under the window, so there was a chance that we’d knock something over. In any event, the crash would alert the guards.” It makes a better escape than entrance.”
That made sense to Kinrou. He took his robe off and stashed it with Jiken’s.
On the far end of the room was an altar made from red wood and decorated with gold. It was large enough to hold a single lidded coffer. Beside the altar was a pair of stone statues. One was shaped in an approximation of a woman’s body and the other like a man’s. The male statue was bare, but the woman’s wore ornate robes with the Dragon Crown perched on its head.
“Look at it Kinrou,” Jiken breathed. “It’s amazing!”
He walked up to it and caressed the gold with a finger, tracing the contours of the horns and wings. Jiken studied every inch with eyes trained by years of banditry. The craftsmanship was so fine he could barely see the spots where the horns and wings were joined to the band.
Kinrou, however, wasn’t paying the slightest bit of attention to the crown or his friend. Rather, his eyes were fixed on the lidded coffer. There was something about closed boxes that he found irresistible. Slowly, he walked towards the altar. His mouth went dry the closer he got. His skin felt hot as though he was running a mild fever. His pulse pounded in his ears. He licked his lips, raising his hands to touch the sides of the lid. The tips of his fingers tingled at the contact.
He pried the lid back on its hinges. Nestled inside the coffer were Gemstones. Oval shaped and in various shades of red, they gleamed in the light. He picked on up to examine it closer. As he caressed its smooth surface, his vision went red as though he was staring into the heart of a raging inferno.
When it cleared, Jiken was standing in front of him, holding the crown. There was a look of deep concern on his face. “Are you alright?”
Before Kinrou could reply, the treasury door opened. They both turned to see an elderly man dressed in the elaborate scarlet and pale gold robes of a very high-ranking priest. Behind him were two soldiers, two priestesses in rust coloured robes, and a man in a long scarlet robe.
The two groups stared at each other for a few moments before the scarlet robed man ordered the soldiers with him to arrest the intruders. One of the priestesses pried the Gemstone out of Kinrou’s hand. The scarlet robed man took the crown from Jiken. He glared at the two bandits.
“I don’t know who you two are or how you got in here but rest assured. You will pay for your crimes with your lives. Take them away!”