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The book that Hap was reading slipped from his hands, and he sprang from his chair to the window. Afire with hope, and braced for disappointment, he pressed his face to the bars.
Far below was Barkin on his chestnut-colored horse, trotting up the causeway to the Aerie, the carved pillar of rock that Lord Umber called home. Hap glimpsed the corner of a box lashed to the horse, behind the saddle. “I think he got it,” he said aloud, and his heart turned a cartwheel.
He flew down the stairs, out the door, and into the gatehouse as Barkin rode in. The cargo looked like a strongbox: a little wider than it was tall, and made of wrought iron. There was a keyhole embedded in its side, and hand-size padlocks secured the thick chains wrapped around it, side to side and top to bottom. Barkin looked road-weary but proud, and he grinned when he saw Hap bouncing from foot to foot. “Hello, Master Happenstance. Something I can do for you?”
“Don’t tease me, Barkin,” Hap begged. “Not about this.”
Barkin’s devilish smile turned sympathetic. He dismounted and rapped the box with his knuckles. “Ah. Something important to you, inside this crate?”
Hap’s nod was a blur. “Very.” He didn’t offer more; Umber preferred to keep these matters quiet. But that strongbox might hold all the lost secrets that Caspar, Umber’s former archivist, had stolen from the Aerie. Caspar was dead, slain by an arrow intended for Umber, on a faraway island. But he’d given the box to his cousin for safekeeping, and Barkin had retrieved it.
Welkin and Dodd, Umber’s other guardsmen, came forward. Welkin had a mug of ale for Barkin, and Dodd a bucket of water for the horse. “Did you have much trouble?” Dodd asked.
“Only a tad,” Barkin said, with his tongue pressing the inside of one cheek. “Caspar’s cousin wasn’t eager to part with it. In fact, he wouldn’t even admit to having it. Also, he didn’t fully believe me when I told him that Caspar was dead. He thought I was trying to trick him, even when I offered him Lord Umber’s bag of gold.” Barkin untied the strongbox and talked over his shoulder. “I could see he was tempted, but he asked me to come back the next day, after he’d thought about it.”
“And what did he say the next day?” Welkin asked.
“How should I know? I was long gone by then. I came back that same night, knocked the fellow out with Umber’s sleeper bottle—handy stuff that is—and searched his place until I found it.”
“You stole it?” Hap cried.
Barkin spread his hand on his chest in a parody of indignation. “I paid for it! Left the bag of gold in its place, with a note of heartfelt apology. Oof, heavy,” he said, hefting the strongbox.
Dodd patted Hap’s back. “Don’t forget, Master Hap. The stuff in that strongbox was stolen from Umber in the first place. He told Barkin to use any means necessary, short of violence, to bring it back.”
“So it was perfectly justified,” Barkin said. “Not to mention fun. I felt like such a scoundrel! Now, I wonder what’s inside?”
“Old papers, I think,” Hap said.
“More than that,” Barkin said. “Listen.” He tilted the box one way and the other. Something thumped against the side, rolled back, and thumped again. “Wonder what that is?”
“A skull, knowing Umber,” Welkin said. He tired of holding the ale for Barkin and downed half of it in a gulp.
“We’ll find out soon enough. Assuming Umber can get this open,” said Barkin.
Welkin rolled his eyes. “You didn’t bring back the keys?”
“Couldn’t find them,” Barkin said. “I’m sure Lord Umber will manage.”
Hap nodded, knowing there would be no problem. Umber had a key that could open any lock in the world—one of his remarkable magical possessions. No, unlocking the strongbox was not the trouble.
Umber himself was the trouble.
Hap searched the gardens at the top of the Aerie. Umber was not in his usual haunt, on the bench under his favorite tree, which was bursting as always with a variety of fruits and berries. And he was not on any of the other seats or benches, or leaning on the balcony. The door to his little, round rooftop tower was shut and locked, but the window to his study high above was open, with the shutters flung wide. A curtain billowed, animated by a passing breeze. He must be moping in there, Hap thought. He considered leaping high to sneak a look, but decided against it.
Shortly after their return from Sarnica, where they’d recovered a cache of stolen dragon eggs, along with a living infant dragon, Umber had slipped into this hopeless melancholy. There were triumphs on that journey—a kingdom liberated, tyrants deposed, mysteries unraveled. But upon their return they were met with dreadful news: Prince Galbus, a good man who stood to inherit the throne from the ailing king, had died. It was that news, and everything it meant to Umber’s hopes for the kingdom, that had sent Umber tumbling.
Umber was a man of extremes. Most often his mood was one of giddy, wild-eyed, fearless exuberance. But too often something—a reminder of the devastation he’d left behind in the world he’d escaped, or dreadful news such as the death of Galbus—would drive him into a suffocating sadness. His spirit flagged, his energy vanished, his appetite failed, and he refused all companionship.
“Lord Umber?” Hap called again. He stepped backward and finally saw the top of Umber’s head as he sat slumped in the chair by his desk. “Barkin is back. He brought a strongbox that must contain your archives. We can finally learn about the Meddlers. Isn’t that exciting?”
Umber’s head listed to one side.
“But the strongbox is locked,” Hap said. He looked around to see if anybody else had followed him onto the terrace. “I’m sure you can get it open, though . . . if you understand my meaning.” He waited, but no reply came. His hope that the news might nudge Umber out of the gloom began to fade. He stomped his foot, aching to see what secrets the box contained. “Or maybe I could open it, if you don’t mind,” he said.
Umber stood up and moved toward the window. Hap’s heart seemed to pause in its rhythm. He thought Umber might say something to signal the return of his happy nature. Or at least he might toss the key down for Hap to use.
Instead Umber reached out for the shutters and pulled them closed. Hap watched the drawn gray face vanish from sight, a face devoid of joy or cheer.
© 2011 P. W. Catanese