After a life too long to be remembered from beginning to end, Liam thought he was done with surprises. Working for Simon Nair never ceased to prove him wrong. It turned out that spying on assassins and spies when they had no expectations of being watched was easier than getting a well-trained golden retriever to fetch. All you really had to do was stay out of sight and be very patient. The Aliway family turned out to be the thorn bush in the bramble patch this time around, because nobody is more paranoid than a master artist working on her latest masterpiece. Ironically, Liam wouldn’t have even bothered with the Aliway family, if the first day had gone smoothly. While the other families came alone, the Aliway family came with attendants. On paper, they were there to carry the luggage and art supplies. In reality, they were there to keep sneaky noses, such as the particularly sneaky one that belonged to Liam, thoroughly out of Aliway business.
Two days had gone by since he had been given the assignment to spy on the guests at the Nair house. Those two days had proven to be quite eventful overall, and he had made some real progress. That just left the Aliway family and then he could knock off early to some well-deserved rest. The Aliway family was staying on the fourth floor of the house, a floor Liam had only been to once. The door to their apartment was isolated and towards the end of a hall. Sneaking towards it was quite impossible, and the first time Liam had attempted it he was given the gentleman’s rush by the attendants. A gentleman’s rush is much like a bum’s rush, except you don’t get tossed down a flight of stairs. Given that he was unfamiliar with the floor, he decided now was the time to use the secret passages around the house and let the architecture do some of the work for him.
Having seen the plans for the mansion, Liam knew just how much of the building was comprised of secret passages and hidden nooks behind false bookcases. More of the building than he had realized was off limits by virtue of being secret. Even the stairwell he used to get up to the third floor was reserved for family members only. The more Liam thought about it, the more he realized how closed off from the world the Nair family had allowed themselves to become.
Shaking his head to clear his thoughts, Liam focused on the job at hand. The best secret passage was nearby in Simon’s study. It was one of the two central hubs for the secret passages that allowed quick access to most of the house. It explained how Simon knew exactly where Liam kept booze around the Nair mansion, if nothing else. At this hour in the day, Simon would be out meeting with some guy for some reason; Liam didn’t really care. Sneaking into his office, he scanned the bookshelves until he found the book he wanted. War and Peace. Liam wondered if Simon had picked that book himself as he pulled it gently, stepping back as the bookcase nearest to him clicked and slowly swung open. Closing it behind him, Liam paused and let scents and sounds sweep over him. In the distance, he could hear steps. He could hear many steps, which surprised him at first. If there were so many people wandering around these secret passages, than why did Simon need him to spy on these people?
It didn’t take long for the question to answer itself. In all the time Liam had been in the Nair mansion, he had never noticed servants. Food simply appeared and then the plates would vanish just as mysteriously. After all this time, Liam had finally found the servants quarters. Making his way back up to the fourth floor became a new and trying challenge because in the tight corridors, there was just no room for him. Once he reached the fourth floor, he found a perch above the fireplace in the rooms the Aliway family occupied.
The small hiding spot above the fireplace lay right next to the flue and required Liam to contort his body in ways that screamed overtime and time off. Renata sat in the middle of the room in front of a canvas. She had her palette in front of her with a brush hovering in the air, but the canvas remained a stunning portrait of a snowstorm at noon on a sunny day. She wore a dress very similar dress to the one she had worn at the meeting, but Liam could see a few old paint stains on it.
As she sat, hesitating in front of her easel, a young man entered the room, “Still having trouble, Renata?” He was short, with long black hair tied up loosely behind him. He had a sort of frantic energy that drove him when he moved, as though his passion for life were coming out of every pore. He shared Renata’s light blue eyes, but his mannerisms and his way of holding himself set him apart.
“I’m sorry, Alexander. I know I promised you another painting, but I can’t seem to concentrate.”
It finally hit Liam where he had seen that face before. He had been the Aliway attendant at the Five Families meeting.
“May I join you? It’s been some time since we had a conversation.”
Renata scooted over and made room for Alexander to sit. She smiled an extremely rare smile, “You’re such a sweet boy to talk with me, Alexander.”
Pulling up a chair and a small box, Alexander set up a new canvas and began setting out a palette and some paint, “This is the only way we seem to understand each other.”
With that, they began to paint together on the new canvas. The images flowed quickly. Alexander painted darkened windows onto a house, Renata added lights. Alexander painted himself, set far apart from the house and Renata simply linked him with alternating family and paintings. Alexander’s painting grew darker as time went on. Renata worked on the edges of his painting, adding stars and constellations above the house, twinkling beacons of hope in the darkness. With a shout of anger, Alexander broke his brush and the spell that had held Liam was broken at last.
“Weren’t you the one that told me art is more important than people?”
Liam blinked as he realized that the painting session had been the conversation. Renata put her brush and palette down and placed her calloused hands on Alexander’s cheeks, “Lovely child, you are my greatest work of art. You, and all my children. I have no regrets at all. I would agree to your demands, but with your father out there our entire family is in danger.”
“What?” Alexander’s voice was harsh and a little mocking, “Are you ashamed of me? I’m the most talented artist this family had produced in several generations. You have to hold up your end of the bargain so long as my father is out there. I’m the next head of the family, despite the order and origin of my birth.”
Liam felt lost. He knew very little of the Aliway family. Squabbles on who would become the next head of the family were common amongst the Five Families, and Liam had heard they could be very intense amongst the Aliway bunch. Whatever Alexander’s father held over Renata’s head that could change the family succession must have been pretty hardcore.
“I’m a lady of my word. You’ll be the next head of the family, regardless of what happens. I simply cannot condone your father George working with Adrian Denavi.”
Despite his barely having met Adrian and never having met George, Liam could almost feel that the two working together was a truly terrifying thing. The next five hours were spent listening to a long, rambling conversation about art. Liam watched in rapt fascination, suspecting that the conversation could end in either a loving embrace or a knife fight. Passionate families are very strange. By the end of the day, well ahead of schedule, Liam felt he knew everything he was going to learn about the other families and their involvement with the Society for the Protection of Humankind.
Making his way back to the study, Liam waited for Simon with his whiskey to keep him company. It was late by the time Simon arrived, locking the door behind him,
“So? What did you find out?” Simon managed to sit at his desk in a remarkably relaxed fashion for someone who was awaiting information he desperately needed.
“As you could have guessed, the Rever family is clean. The Neelan family is mostly clean, but it sounds like they have a mole and they know. Don’t count on the buggers to tell you about it though, they’re pretty tight lipped. The Aliway family has someone named George working with the Society, but I have no idea who that would be.”
Simon put his head in his hands, “Oh, George. Why would you do that?”
Liam perked his ears up at Simon’s reaction, “And who exactly is George? I feel like he’s someone I should know about.”
“George Aliway was the third son of the previous head of the Aliway family by some mistress or other. Gifted, talented and he had three children as well. Renata’s attendant at the meeting was his son, Alexander. He’s much younger than George or Renata’s other children. There’s a pretty nasty rumor going around that he and his adoptive sister, Renata, got into a relationship after their respective spouses had passed away. They aren’t technically related, but that still makes Alexander a bastard by birth.’
“That doesn’t really make a difference anymore, does it?”
Simon let his head hit the desk, “It does when your son becomes the heir to the Aliway family over trueborn children. George hit the road awhile back. That was the deal. Alexander inherits the family and George gets the boot. If he’s really working with the Society then maybe he didn’t take his exile as well as I had hoped.”
Liam rose to his feet and stretched out his aching muscles, “That sounds like an important person problem. I’m going home to get wasted. Call me if you need me…in like two weeks.”
When Simon didn’t respond, he left the Nair mansion for the first time in days. Or, at least he started to leave. He made it as far as the stairs down to the lobby before Liam felt something akin to guilt. It certainly wasn’t his conscience that pricked him, more his professional pride. What kind of professional tells a man something he already knows and then leaves to take vacation? Screw Simon, he was going to earn that vacation. He was going to earn it by going right to the source. As Liam reached the stairs, his legs grew wobbly and he had to put a hand to the wall. Adrian Denavi walked by him, continuing up the stairs towards the fourth floor. Though he could scarcely get his legs to cooperate, Liam followed him at a very discrete and relatively safe distance. It’s hard to follow someone at a safe distance when you don’t know how dangerous they are, so Liam gave him enough room to get away if the need arose. Knowing his luck, it would.