She walked slowly up the drive in the quiet morning mist, the gravel crunching beneath her boot soles; loud no matter how much care she took in placing her foot down. Her breath was shallow and too hurried. She stopped and forced herself to relax, automatically doing the movements she’d practiced hundreds of times. Shoulders down and back, jaw and fists unclenched, feet relaxed, deep breath in through the nose… inhale… exhale…
She felt exposed and a little ridiculous standing here on the gravel, surrounded by beautifully kept gardens and exotic trees. She knew she was probably being watched, but she maintained her stillness anyway.
“Never be afraid to stop and think”, Master Shen had said. “Thinking again rarely got anyone killed. Rash actions often do.”
She didn’t think she was being rash here. All the same, she felt the need to hesitate, to pause her movement as though her trajectory at her original speed had been somehow wrong. She tried, without moving her head – or even her eyes – to decide where the watcher was located. Perhaps more than one. She knew they were seeing a skinny figure in a long, loose black coat, unbelted, over loose black trousers and boots. A broad-brimmed black hat above her white face and long brown hair. Hands held loosely by her sides, waiting. A crow, perhaps, from a distance, or a magpie for that flash of white. Or a woodpecker, she thought wryly, moving one hand to unbutton her coat so the red fabric of her jacket was visible.
Fully revealed, she continued moving towards the building, now stalking arrogantly as if she had been in the grounds of this castle many times before. As if she owned the part ruined, part expensively renovated construction before her.
She passed an ornamental fountain, its waters falling quietly into a large green-tinged marble basin. And then she was in front of the huge doors – no fortress portal this, but impressive nonetheless, with huge black studs in the paler wood. There was a massive black ring set into the centre of each door, but before she could even begin to reach out for one of them, the doors opened inwards, revealing a tall, thin, grey-haired man wearing clothing not entirely unlike hers, in colour at least.
“I’m expected”, she said, proffering the stiff white card of the invitation.
“You are indeed miss”, he said with something approaching a bow. “Welcome to the Castle.”