A rush of saliva floods Cang’s jaw, his mouth watering at the prospect of getting into the chest. His fingers play across the iron hide of the padlock, follow its loop to where the seal is cracked.
Silently, he draws the lock from its place in the trunk, sets it down on the wood floor with a soft thunk. He hears the guards moving around below, even hears the shift of the princess in her soft sheets.
Holding his breath, Cang lifts the lid of the trunk, praying to Old Ajralan — though he’d never admit it — that the hinges won’t squeak.
Cang gets his wish, but not entirely. The hinges are silent, but the trunk’s contents are softly luminous — and moving.
Cang steals over to the trunk. Its construction is tough, clearly constructed for a considerable fee by a skilled professional. Undetected, he runs his fingers over the planed wood, takes in the rivets holding tight the iron.
Of course, a heavy padlock hangs from the front. Its keyhole is clean, undisturbed, as though this trunk is not often used. Cang draws a couple lengths of wire from a pouch sewn into his vest, and expertly fans them out with his fingers. Squinting askance, he selects a wire and inserts it carefully into the lock. Twisting and turning, he chooses another, puts it in too.
As guards move about outside the princess’ chamber, Cang hears the soft click of the lock popping open.
The noise of the tumbling figure cannot be concealed, so as other guards approach to investigate, Cang heaves himself over a window sill and into the princess’ structure, a palace woven of branches and ivy suspended in the twin trees. The floors, walls, and ceilings, all are made of living material.
The interior is a single, wide open room. Against one wall, a wide, four-poster bed stands draped in drawn silks. Away from their posts about the chamber are several grey skinned guards, now looking out windows for the disturbance’s source.
Cang keeps to the shadows as a guard calls for light. When the torch is struck, Cang sees it: a sturdy trunk set with banded iron at the foot of the princess’ bed.
Cang meets the guard’s gaze as soon as the branch cracks. He’s ready for it: time almost seems to slow, warp, and twist. The guard’s four-fingered hand drops to his belt with a long, blurred trail. He grasps a poison-coated bone dart, its green tip coated with wet ichor. The guard brings the dart up and arcs it in Cang’s direction.
Cang leaves the guard aside from his attention, focuses entirely on the dart. It cuts through the air, a slice of white against the deep green foliage. Cang raises his hand and as the dart reaches him, snags it from its place in the air, careful not to touch the poisonous tip.
The guard can’t tell he’s caught it until Cang throws it back. In an instant the dart’s sticking from the guard’s shoulder, and a second later, he collapses, tumbling to the ground below.
As the guard wanders over to investigate the harmless stone, Cang darts through his blind spot. He gets his back up against one the great twin trees, feels its rough bark through his thin vest. He calms his breathing, keeps his mouth shut firm.
Before the black-eyed guard returns, Cang tosses a loop of rope up past the lowest of the large branches. He feels the hair on the back of his neck rising as the soft crunch of boots grows louder, the grey creature returning to its post. Still, Cang stays calm, sets the loop, and scampers up to the branch.
He’s now a half dozen feet off the ground, and he peers silently up through the mass of branches above and the palace set within. He resets his position until a telltale cracking under his feet draws the creatures’ attention.
Cang watches closely as one of the sentries limps through his patrol. The guard makes several turns about the courtyard, keeping eyes alert, especially at the bases of the twin trees.
Another guard has a black eye: it’s ugly, purple, already swollen shut. Its wide mouth is turned down in a frown.
Cang gathers a couple of stones and waits for his moment. When the limping sentry is at the edge of his loop, Cang throws a stone the opposite way, which the black-eyed guard notices. His gaze tracks it, and he squints with his good eye to see what it might have been. To test his peripherals, Cang makes a quick, silent wave far at the edge of his vision — and the guard doesn’t seem to notice.
“Perhaps next time Shyan should blacken both their eyes,” Cang thinks with a cruel streak of glee.