Kaab stood like a shadow, silent breath ghosting white. The courtyard was still dark, though light was beginning to infiltrate the sky, a cold pale light of early winter. It was so early that not even the cooks were astir. But she stood a moment, listening, to be sure. And moved on, treading softly across the compound toward the inspector’s rooms.
The inspector was not there. He and his entire entourage, down to his body servants, had been entertained last night at the Cocom compound for the wedding of a Cocom daughter to a distant cousin newly arrived in the Land. By tradition the festivities went on most of the night and were followed, after a sleep, by a magnificent breakfast. The inspector and his people would not return before the afternoon.
Giving Kaab a not-to-be-missed opportunity to learn more about him.
Ever since David Rook had reported that the inspector seemed to hold some personal dislike of her, she had been uneasy. She had no way of knowing who the inspector had been before he had shed his identity by entering the Batab’s service. It was improper even to speculate. But if he was holding on to a grudge from his earlier life, he too was breaking the rules. Deeply as she respected the inspector’s position, reverent as she was toward his holy office, her loyalty to her family came first. She had wrestled with the problem for days before deciding that the danger of discovery was less harmful to the Balam than the danger of ignorance. The inspector was up to something; Kaab needed to know what it was.
The inspector was housed in the eastern part of the compound around a small courtyard that, in summer, smelled of Landish roses. Now, in the depth of the Xanamwiinik winter, it smelled of nothing but damp. Kaab crossed the courtyard cautiously, alert as a hunting jaguar. Though reasonably sure the wing was deserted, she knew that did not mean the rooms were unguarded. The inspector was no fool, to leave his private papers to the mercy of whoever might enter.
She opened the door slowly, watching for surprises, and looked in without entering. The outer chamber was the room where the inspector would receive visitors: There would be nothing of interest there. It was sparsely furnished—a heavy carved chair on a dais, a fresco depicting the World Tree, the great Ceiba, on the eastern wall. Someone had spread a red and violet ceremonial cape over the chair.
In the northeast corner, a second door led to the inner chamber, where the inspector wrote his letters, where he and his secretaries worked. She would search there first, then, if necessary, break into his bedchamber.
Kaab crossed the tiled floor, and drew matches and a candle stub from her pouch. Having lit the candle, she drew the flame slowly down the length of the door. There, a foot above the floor—the candlelight caught a faint gleam between door and frame. Kaab wet her fingertip, touched one end, and slowly, hardly daring to breathe, drew out a gossamer strand and examined it. A length of the thinnest thread. If she had opened the door without checking, she would have broken it. Kaab wet her finger again and stuck the fragile strand to the doorframe. She would have to remember to replace it when she left.
Kaab opened the door and observed the room. Seeing no sign of any other traps, she went straight to the inspector’s desk. It was very old, an heirloom from Cousin Aavin’s family, built of polished cedar wood. The painted top was obscured by neat stacks of papers weighted with smooth stones; she gave them a cursory examination—nothing of interest would be out in plain view. Her eye fell on a large mahogany box, carved with the plumed coils of a feathered serpent, whose head lay upon the lid in such a way that the lock could only be reached by putting a hand between its obsidian-fanged jaws. The box was very impressive, very beautiful, and, Kaab suspected, very dangerous to the health and well-being of any unauthorized person who tried to meddle with it.
The lock itself presented no problem: Her mother, Ixmoe, had herself taught her to pick locks at an early age. Oh, how Aunt Ixkuklin had swatted her when she’d caught her breaking into the cabinet where the honey was kept! The punishment for attempting this lock was likely to be much harsher.
Kaab stooped to peer into the serpent’s mouth. Feeling in her pouch, she pulled out her lockpick, then hesitated. It was short, the better to bring her fingers close to their sensitive work. Perhaps too close?
She exchanged the lockpick for her long obsidian knife. With the utmost care, she introduced the tip between the dragon’s jaws and into the lock. Though she was half-expecting it, she gasped as the sharp black teeth closed upon the blade with an evil mechanical snick.
Kaab allowed herself a grim smile of satisfaction. If she had been more unwary, she would now be bleeding from multiple punctures, her blood an unmistakable sign of an...