"What are we going to be doing?” Aizen asked.
Murdia, the woman in charge of the servants, looked at them critically. “Hm. What can you do?”
“We can chop things,” Aizen said.
“As well as clean horse stalls and the horses,” Akun said, although Aizen gave him a scowl. Akun noticed that Aizen scowled quite often. If he did it any more often, it might ruin his face permanently.
“We can run errands. I’m a fast runner.”
“Or we can clean things.”
Murdia raised her eyebrows and looked at Luda, who shrugged. “You said you needed help,” he said.
“Not boys. They’ll probably cause a bigger mess.”
“Just let them try.”
She glared at Aizen and Akun. “You can help the cleaning staff. You are to make sure the entire mansion is cleaned and not a single layer of dust is found in any corner. Everything is to look presentable at all times.”
“Great.” Akun moved from side to side with a grin. “Where do we start?”
She eyed their clothing. “First, you’re not going to clean anything of the mansion before you get out of those rags and burn them.”
Murdia walked off and left them with Luda. “She is like that with everyone, lads. I have to get back to work. I’ll see you two at supper.”
“The clothes aren’t that bad, are they?” Akun looked down on himself.
“Just go,” Aizen said.
Aizen peered around the corner to make sure no one was near. They were in the shed just three hours after beginning their roles as the cleaning boys. Satisfied that they were still alone, he faced Akun.
“Did you find anything?”
“No one strikes me as a spy. They’re all lowly paid servants. I thought they knew better than to pay servants such a low income. It gives them more reason to accept bribes,” Akun said. “Although their magic user makes my leg twitch.”
“That old fart can’t even cast a proper light spell,” Aizen snapped out.
“Oh? Are you jealous that someone can use magic and you can’t?”
“I don’t need magic. You shouldn’t have magic,” Aizen said. “Magic users attract one another’s attention, which is one reason for why you shouldn’t be my partner on errands.”
“Oh, don’t you worry,” Akun said quietly. “I hide my presence very carefully. He may sense me, but he has no idea what it is he is looking for. Besides, I won’t be a human all the time to let him get a good grip on me. I’m going back to being a rat at night to do some actual sniffing around.”
Aizen rolled his eyes. “Anything else?”
“What, didn’t you hear anything?” Akun said. This caused Aizen to glare at him.
“Don’t forget that this is my errand, and you’re just helping me. So don’t you go and start acting all bossy. I was stuck cleaning the room for a guest that’s arriving tomorrow.”
Akun nodded. “The guest is Leal, the Duke’s son. He’s a cousin.”
“Leal? Duke?” Aizen frowned in puzzlement. “That sounds familiar.”
“You might have heard of him.”
“It probably doesn’t matter. The thing is that I haven’t seen a single one of the nobles yet.”
“You’ll see them soon. Keep looking around.”
Akun shrugged. “That’s what I plan to do. Oh, and look out for the servant named Murdia. Something’s suspicious about her.”
They went their separate ways, with Akun entering the cool shadows of the house to rub away a stubborn stain in the hall. Then he slowly made his way to the stairs. It was amazing how much dirt could gather in a mansion.
“Are you a new servant?” He looked up and saw a young woman at the top of the stairs. One look at her told him that she was the daughter of the lord and lady.
He bowed. “I am, my lady.”
“Welcome,” she said and walked down. “I’d love to stop and talk, but I need to be elsewhere.”
“Of course,” Akun replied and bowed again, and stayed with his back horizontal until she was out of sight. He cocked his head and twitched his nose and sniffed. Arala Vanson, the daughter of Lord and Lady Vanson. Now for the rest of the family to appear, he thought with false cheerfulness. If they’re all as absentminded as her, they wouldn’t know if we told them that there was a spy in the household.
He made sure to note down all the exits he found and observed the servants that he passed. He even managed to strike up a conversation with another boy who helped with the cleaning of the mansion.
“You don’t want to cross her,” he said when Akun asked about Murdia.
“Why? Is she that mean?”
“Just don’t. She is such a sneaky woman. Before you know it, you will be dismissed from the household. We’ve always suspected that she is the one who reports false accusations if she doesn’t like us. She has total control over the servants,” the boy said and sloshed more water on the marble floor of the great hall.
Akun knelt down with his own cloth. “That sounds scary. Why do people put up with her?”
“We don’t,” he said. “We do little things that tick her off, but we have to be careful. Everyone hates her. She's always going on about how the Guards aren’t doing their duty and about how they are not actually catching the criminals ‘n all.”
Akun narrowed his eyes in disagreement. “I see the Enzla Guards working whenever they're on the streets,” he said. “They are certainly doing their best to catch the criminals. Didn’t you hear of the kidnapper they managed to find after a few weeks? They also found all the little ones the kidnapper stole.”
“Yes! I’ve been following that too,” the boy said with a grin.
They continued to talk of crime even as Akun thought that Murdia was starting to sound like a very unlikable person.
Meanwhile, Aizen was on the second floor walking along the corridor. He tried the knob of every door. Most were locked. For the ones that weren’t, he was able to enter and had the excuse of cleaning the room while he looked for any clues.
“Why do they need so many rooms? Only two on this floor looked used. The rest are just filling up space to be rat nests.” He shook his head and left the room.
And almost collided with Murdia.
“Watch it, boy, or I’ll have you spanked,” she scolded.
“Just cleaning,” Aizen said meekly.
“Then you better hurry and get on with it, not stand around day dreaming,” she snapped out and went down the stairs.
Well, wasn’t she in a hurry. He followed.
She was going into the kitchen, but he continued to follow her for another minute. She abruptly turned into another corridor so quickly that Aizen has to run to see where she went next. He caught sight of her apron and ran after her.
He could hear the chirping of birds and could see sunlight streaming out of open windows to the inner courtyard. He stayed hidden in the shadows and pressed himself flat against the wall.
Murdia had a rolled up piece of paper in one hand and a pigeon in the other. The paper was a pale orange, different from the ones he found all over the mansion. There was also something about the seal and string that bothered him. Aizen left after he saw her release the bird.
Maybe it was time to clean the library.
“You took your time,” Akun said when Aizen joined him and Luda at their table.
“The library was bigger than I thought it would be,” he replied and set his tray of food down. He gobbled the cheese and bread. Then drank the soup.
“If I just met you, I would think that you haven’t eaten anything since dawn,” Luda said in dismay.
“I haven’t,” Aizen said and plucked another piece of bread from the bowl set on the table.
Luda clucked and shook his head. “You have to eat! Anyway, you shouldn’t be dusting in the library unless it’s morning. The lord and his family go to the library often at night to do their studies. They are always in the library and don’t like to be bothered.”
“How come they don’t just get someone to fetch their books?” Akun asked as he ate his meal at a more reasonable pace.
Luda laughed as though Akun had told a joke. “Servants can barely read or write. What would be the point of sending one of us to the library to pick up a book if we cannot read the title of the book they want?”
“Right,” Akun said and nodded.
Aizen smacked Akun's head.
“What the—?” Akun glared at Aizen. Aizen continued to eat. His other finger was tapping on his thigh as if he was in a hurry to leave the mess hall. Akun suspected that he may have found something so he quickened his pace as well.
“Is there anything else for us to do? We’re tired from our work and travel,” Aizen said to Luda.
“No, go right ahead. There’s an early start tomorrow. You’ll need your rest. You know where we sleep. I’ll enjoy my meal a steady pace, unlike you lads. Always in a hurry. Pah.”
Aizen and Akun were the only ones in the servants’ sleeping quarters.
Aizen began in a soft whisper. “I found out that Murdia is sending messages to someone using an Ician seal. Going by that, the blue string is probably part of the message. We don’t trade with Icians, so there is no way she could have found paper dyed orange in a market.”
“That’s one of the colours from the code that Icians used.”
“Orange,” Aizen said. “Orange is for “report”. White is for urgent, and blue for special details that might change plans.”
“She’s our messenger,” Akun said. “I’ll look for their letters tonight.”
“At this rate, we might finish before the day after,” Aizen remarked and prepared his spot on the floor to sleep.
Later that night when all the servants were asleep, Akun sat up and sniffed.
Aizen listened for any footsteps before he asked, “So how does your…thing work?”
“I just transform. I’ve done it enough times to be used to it but it’s still easier to revert back to my original form than to turn into a human. Do you know how many bones your species has?”
“Forget it,” Aizen whispered.
“Don’t even get me started on the organs and cells—”
Aizen made the mistake of watching Akun shift back to a mouse. Akun's head slowly collapsed in on itself and sprouted fur. His nose elongated and disappeared under whiskers. The soft clothing Akun the human had worn fell quietly to the warm blanket, with Rooster wiggling out of the shirt.
“Ugh!” Aizen said quietly. “At least warn me first…that’s gross.”
Rooster looked up at Aizen blankly. “I live to gross you out.”
Aizen glared and fell back to his bed roll. He heard the quiet clicking of a mouse’s nails against stone. Then it was gone.
Rooster found his way to Murdia’s small chamber. As the head servant, she was allowed her own room. Must easier if she’s alone, Rooster thought. He scurried to the side of the bed and listened to Murdia’s breathing for a minute to get the rhythm. Then he searched for the documents. It was fairly easy with the room flooded with light from the moon.
They were beneath a floorboard behind the door. He would have never been able to pry it open if it wasn’t always used. Thanks, Murdia, he thought as he looked at the papers hidden in the small gap. Many were curled from being rolled tightly into a tube. Others were folded and unfolded countless times, showing that Murdia had seen each and every one of them more than once. He began to take them all out, but paused. If she sent a message today, she was probably expecting a reply tomorrow.
With his keen hearing, he heard Aizen's foodsteps just outside of the room. Rooster made himself known and stared at Aizen with his beady eyes.
“The documents are over here. Do you have any replacements that we can use to fool her for a while?”
“Who do you take me for? Of course I do.” Aizen reached into his sleeve and pulled out multiple blank pieces of paper. “These are copy papers. I’ll use them.”
Rooster went to drag the papers out to the hall where there was less of a chance to wake Murdia. The copy papers in Aizen's hands still had the faint smell of magic. It was strange, but Rooster found that he could only smell magic in his animal form.
Aizen knelt by the papers. He examined each and every one of them quickly and used his knife to cut down the copy papers to the similar sizes of the originals. Then he placed the copy papers over them.
Slowly, Rooster saw text float to the surface of the copy paper. Within minutes, they had a replica for each message in their hands. Everything was then replaced the way Rooster found it.
“What are you doing?” Aizen asked after he eased the door closed. He looked at his right shoulder where Rooster sat.
“It’s faster this way.” Rooster thumped his small tail against Aizen’s shoulder. “Besides, I’m not so annoyed at you anymore.”
“Huh,” Aizen said with a frown. “I still don’t want to work with you after this.”
“Yes, and I will continue to say so! You cause me too much trouble. I never would have had to go through all this if I were doing this alone.”
“But it wouldn’t have been done this quickly,” Rooster countered.
Aizen snorted and shook his head. They re-entered the servants’ sleeping quarters. Rooster hoped off Aizen’s shoulder and into his cot.
“Oh, ancestors above and below. Don’t shift in front of me again.”
“I wasn’t going to.” Rooster rolled his eyes inwardly and shifted into his human form under the blankets. Aizen waited until he was sure that Rooster was done before speaking.
“I’ve met a few human…shifters before.”
“They don’t sleep in the shape they shift into.”
“Do you see them being surrounded by people who would wonder why a mouse is sleeping where Akun should be?”
“That’s not the point,” Aizen whispered. “They can’t hold onto the shape when they sleep. They have no control over it, so they revert back to their original form, or they shift to something else they dream up. Don’t you have that problem?”
Akun scoffed quietly.
Aizen left the matter drop when someone stirred. He still wanted to know how Akun got that leg injury and how he became a shifter.
Seeing as how they weren't on good terms and Aizen just told Rooster that he didn't want to ever work with him again, he was probably never going to know.ns 22.214.171.124da2