Oh man, you cannot imagine the stress that this chapter caused me! Whilst I was editing I realised that I had my bearings all wrong and ended up drawing a diagram of Prague in order to figure out what side of the river things were located on and in which direction the characters would have to look to see them... Needless to say, it took me ages to get everything right! :D
Thanks so much to everyone for the encouraging reviews - I really do appreciate them all. I hope that this chapter starts to answer a few of your questions and does justice to the beautiful landscape of Prague.
Early the next day Lara stood awkwardly in the middle of arrivals at Prague Ruzyně Airport, clutching her satchel tightly against her shoulder as she scanned the crowds with a growing sense of anxiety. She was not sure what she had been expecting as she stepped onto the rumbling plane from Heathrow that morning, but Kurtis was nowhere to be seen. Twenty minutes had passed since her flight had landed and the steady ebb of passengers from the arrivals gate had now completely tailed off.
The airport was larger than Lara had expected, its food court teeming with the usual franchises that the Western world had imposed upon the East. Every terminal was beginning to look exactly the same. A well-polished floor swept off into the distance beneath a sign directing her towards a line of payphones and an ATM. Lara paused and dug in her pocket for her boarding pass. She assured herself for the third time that she had gotten the correct flight and the correct time. If she had known that Kurtis had been lying to her all along then she would have upgraded to business class and charged his credit card for every extra penny.
Wearily Lara collapsed into a nearby seat and hauled the heavy satchel off her shoulder. She was wearing a black tank top and her old bomber jacket, along with a rather worn pair of jeans; her hair was scraped back into a messy braid. For about ten minutes she simply rested her aching legs and watched the steady flow of people going about their business. Then she rummaged through her bag for her purse and set off to go and exchange some money at the tourist information desk.
Kurtis was obviously not coming to meet her.
It was not long before Lara used a payphone to order a taxi. It was still early, but the traffic into the city was unforgiving. Lara contented herself by flicking through the city guide she had picked up at the terminal, pausing every now and then to stare out of the window or else exchange broken conversation with her driver. Perhaps she could make the most of a bad situation, she thought, and allow herself to relax for a few days before catching a return flight home.
It took about thirty minutes to reach the city centre. As Lara climbed out of the taxi and paid the extortionate fare she pulled her bomber jacket close and suppressed a shiver. The landscape of Prague was awash with red-and-cream brick, broken here and there by jagged church steeples and bursts of trees. In her strollings Lara stopped to buy a coffee at a side-street nook. It was almost nine o'clock by now. At some point of the night it had snowed, leaving every building covered in a fine blanket of white. It looked like a scene from a Christmas card. Lara felt her face tingling with the unfamiliar cold as she made her way slowly through the paved streets.
A chill wind picked up as she approached the Vltava. All paths converged here at Charles Bridge, which stretched for almost a mile across the icy river and still showed signs of damage from the recent heavy floods. A guard tower surmounted the bridge at either end; the adjoining structure they flanked was adorned with rows of old-style lanterns and baroque statues. Lara felt like a quiet witness of medieval times as she walked amongst this array of solemn figures.
A few scattered people were ambling along the bridge, stopping to take pictures or watching the vendors and buskers setting up their stalls. In only a few hours the area would be crawling with tourists. Lara stopped a moment and looked out upon the water faintly glimmering in the morning sun. To her left—on the west bank of the river where she had arrived—rested the small borough of Malá Strana; just beyond its sprawling houses and medieval palaces there rose a hill, crowned with the distant turrets of Prague Castle. Somewhere beyond this district was the ruined Strahov complex.
Lara stood overlooking the river next to the weathered statue of St. Anne. Eventually someone broke away from the growing crowds and came to stand beside her. Silence lingered between them as Lara took a slow calculating sip of her coffee.
"And you didn't meet me because…?"
Kurtis gave a shrug.
"I don't like airports."
A gust of wind swept up her braid as Kurtis Trent took a drag of his cigarette. Lara carefully measured him out of the corner of her eye. It surprised her how little he had changed, or at least how little the years had affected him. Perhaps the stubble was heavier about his jaw and the shadows beneath his blue eyes more pronounced, but they still held that same mischievous glint that had fascinated her so at the Louvre.
He was dressed in a pair of army boots and jeans, with a green shirt and a rather battered leather jacket to keep out the cold. She felt a tinge of jealousy as she turned back to look at the water below. How dare he look so together? She suddenly felt the overwhelming urge to punch him.
"Nice flight?" he asked her.
Lara wrapped both hands about her coffee cup. Two of her knuckles were heavily bandaged beneath her fingerless gloves.
"I've had better."
He took another drag of his cigarette. Lara bristled slightly as he blew a cloud of smoke into the air.
"How have you been?"
"I've been fine." She took a sip of her coffee. "You?"
"Also fine." He took another drag. He was now mimicking her by staring resolutely at the water instead of her. "I half-expected to see your name all over the papers."
She shook her head.
"I needed a break."
"It's been two years, Lara."
"Some things take more than two years of your life to get over, Kurtis."
He smiled slightly and snatched a glance at her. She felt her cheeks burning but refused to meet his gaze.
"So," he said, very slowly, "are you over it yet?"
Lara did not acknowledge the question. Instead she turned to leave.
Kurtis reached out and grabbed her arm. She wrenched it from his grip and turned to face him, her heeled boots clattering nosily upon the stone paving.
"Kurtis, what was this all really about?" He gave a shrug and brushed past her, walking out onto the bridge proper. She followed him with determined steps. "You can't just call me out of the blue, dump me on a flight to Prague and except me not to be just a little bit suspicious." He was still not answering. With a scowl Lara yanked the cigarette out of his mouth and pitched it into the water below.
"Listen to me," she said, jabbing an angry finger at his chest. "I am only helping you because I want to get some closure on this whole thing. And the Periapt Shards are yours by right, so if they keep them in that museum, well, then, I'm never going to hear the end of your whining."
Kurtis raised an eyebrow.
"I never realised that you cared."
Lara turned away, laughing softly. She took another sip of her coffee as she watched a boat gliding across the waters below. There was a soft click as Kurtis lit up another cigarette.
This time Lara threw away the entire packet.
"You do not smoke in my presence," she growled. "Not now. Not ever."
"But what am I supposed to do after we've had sex?"
She just stormed off, and he followed her with a smirk.
Lara could not help but dwell upon her last stay in Prague. After she had defeated Pieter van Eckhardt and prevented him from awakening the Sleeper, Lara had left the Strahov building to find a dying Kurtis clutching his stomach and kneeling outside in the blood-stained snow. He had been run through with a skewer by the creature Boaz during their desperate battle - Lara had no idea how he had survived, let alone found the strength to drag himself away from the arena before collapsing on the street outside.
She found the reporter Luddick's car abandoned in the piled snow near the warehouse entrance; the door was hanging open and the keys had been left sitting on the tattered front seat. With some difficulty she got Kurtis into the back and drove him to the nearest hospital. After several hours in emergency surgery he had somehow pulled through with nothing but an ugly scar.
They quickly bonded over his hospital bed. That was when Lara first learnt his surname: Trent. It was not his given name, for he had changed it from the German Heissturm after joining the Foreign Legion. He did not like to be reminded of his Lux Veritatis lineage, and had been trying to escape from his father and his duty for many years. She could relate to the feeling of being the prodigal child.
Lara spent months of limbo in Prague, nursing a perpetual headache as she cleared her name with Interpol over the murder of Werner Von Croy. She was pleased to simply put the whole grisly business behind her, but she was left drained and unsatisfied by the manner in which it had been handled. She knew that her reputation had been forever damaged by her association with the Monstrum, but once the case had been settled Lara was in no hurry to leave Prague behind. There was only one reason for that.
The skyline was nothing but a mass of crucifixes and lanterns as she idly wandered Charles Bridge, Kurtis lagging a few steps behind her. A number of houses lined the riverbank nearby, painted in the same pastels which made up the vast cityscape of Prague. Beneath the trees Lara noticed a number of parasols and café tables rendered useless by a soft layer of snow.
"I wouldn't go near that statue if I were you."
Lara turned her head, and noticed that Kurtis had stopped.
He nodded his head to something behind her.
"You see that statue there?" Lara turned around and followed his line of gaze. She found herself looking up at a statue of a figure dressed in monk's robes and holding out a sprig of lilies. An angelic child was at his feet, offering him a basket of bread. "St. Nicholas of Tolentino, patron of those holy souls still lingering in Purgatory."
"I never took you for an authority on Catholicism," she said.
Kurtis shrugged in answer.
"Sometimes you just gotta know your enemy." Lara studied him closely as he walked past her and came to lean upon the edge of the bridge. He gestured towards one of the houses on the riverbank. "You see that balcony on the top floor? The one with the Madonna?" Lara nodded. There was a lantern fixed to the iron railings of the balcony, which was decorated with a few small potted plants. Kurtis looked at her and smiled strangely. "They say that if the lantern goes out when you pass by then you will die within the year."
Lara raised an eyebrow.
"Don't tell me you're superstitious."
Kurtis turned back to her and leant back on his elbows. He shrugged again.
"And you're not?"
She laughed derisively.
"I break into tombs and steal artefacts for a living. If I thought that some ancient curse would come hunting me down every time then I wouldn't be a very good tomb raider, would I?"
"So that thing with Set was… what?" he ventured. "Just a glitch?"
Lara did not reply for a moment. The wind picked up and blew her hair about her face. She tucked a wayward strand behind her ear.
"There was a prophecy," she said. "It was fated to happen."
"Don't tell me you believe in fate."
Lara had no answer to this, and they soon continued on.
It began to snow. Lara was silent as they headed for the east bank and passed under the Old Town tower. She discarded her coffee cup in the waste bin of a café on the way. Soon they were traversing the crowds which were slowly gathering as they reached the main city square and approached the statue of its namesake, St. Wenceslas, who sat astride a rearing house and held aloft a standard. About half a dozen people sat or stood about the steps at its base, chatting idly and taking photographs.
Lara came to a stop before the statue; Kurtis paused beside her. It was coloured that slightly weathered green of monuments often found in public parks. Rising up behind the figure of Wenceslas was the National Museum. It was more akin to a palace than a museum, with a grand façade lined with pillars and flanked by towers dotted with stone gargoyles and golden spires.
"So what are the security arrangements like?" asked Lara.
"I'll show you," Kurtis said quietly, as he slipped away from her side. "Come on. They're on display in the Pantheon."
It was cold inside the museum. They both stood for a moment in the entrance hall, brushing the snow from their jackets. A beautiful marble staircase rose up before them. The interior reminded Lara of a well-lit church, with polished walls decorated in medieval imagery and floors lined with strips of rich red carpeting. It was as impressive as any elaborate tomb.
Lara made Kurtis pay her admission fee, citing her taxi fare as a debt to be repaid. Most people seemed to be flocking up the stairs, so they slowly followed a buzzing crowd of Japanese tourists up the staircase and into the Pantheon. It was an immense room with a large domed ceiling sweeping up to the sky; various frescos adorned the four walls, and rich marble columns lent the room a pseudo-Grecian feel. The busts of local cultural heroes had been lined up against the far wall to make space for the museum's latest acquisition. In the centre of the room there now stood a tall glass case, roped off against the influx of eager visitors by a set of velvet ropes.
Lara and Kurtis hurried over to catch a glimpse of the display. Set upon a bed of dark cloth before them rested the three dagger-like Shards, their crystalline surfaces gleaming brightly in the glare of the overhead lights. It had been two years but Lara could swear that the blades themselves were burnished brighter, the etchings on the handles easier to read then when she had handled them last. She remembered reading in Werner's field notebook that they had been looted from the underground cities of ancient Turkey.
A note next to the Shards bore a description in both English and Czech. The last sentence simply read:
Of unknown origin.
Lara watched Kurtis' face closely as he studied the Periapt Shards. His expression was as unreadable as always, but it was as though a shadow had passed over him at that moment. He stared intently at the display for several minutes without saying a word. The large room was filled with the murmuring of voices and the clicking of cameras.
Finally there was a break in the crowd, and Lara and Kurtis moved away from the case and followed the marked route through the hall into the next room, which hosted an array of artefacts marking the history of Czechoslovakia. Lara paused next to a case containing the reliquary of St. Eligius and turned to Kurtis with a frown.
"What are we going to do?" she said. She kept her voice low in the echoing room.
Kurtis stood there with his arms folded.
"Did you check for security cameras?"
"There were two, one above the entrance and another in the opposite corner."
Kurtis kept his head down, attempting to remain disinterested as he walked to the doorway and snatched a glance back into the Pantheon. He turned back to Lara and gave a nod.
"I see them. It should be easy to disable them both."
"And you're positive that nobody will see our faces on camera?"
"Lara, relax, will you?" Kurtis shook his head and walked further into the exhibition room, his footsteps echoing down the long corridor. "We both managed to infiltrate the Louvre without the other's knowledge, remember? In comparison this place is a walk in the park."
Lara rolled her eyes and followed him. Despite the fact that she had spent the last two years as a virtual recluse in her Surrey mansion, hers was still a face that people often recognized and—most importantly—a face that Interpol would not readily forget. She did not wish to dredge up the past.
"What about guard rotation? And the alarms?" She spoke at almost a whisper, despite the fact that there were barely any people in here amidst the dusty relics and fossils from Bohemia and Moravia. "Have you marked out all the exits?"
"You act as though I've never robbed a museum before…" His words trailed off as he caught the stern look upon Lara's face. "Okay, maybe you should just forget that last part…" He sighed. "Just relax, Lara. I'm experienced in these things, and I know you would never admit it but you are too. I'm sure you've been beaten to an artefact before."
Lara's silence only served to affirm his statement.
It was not long before they had passed through the exhibition halls and wound their way back to the opposite end of the grand staircase; the layout of this building resembled a horseshoe. Lara noted every detail so that she could recall it later on, even under cover of darkness. They spent about an hour inside the museum in this way, pretending that they were interested in the exhibits as they made internal notes of potential hiding places and escape routes. Even so Lara felt compelled to voice her concern as they descended the grand staircase for the final time and headed for the exit.
"Seriously," Kurtis told her, "there's no need to worry." He gave her a confident smile and then turned and strode out of the front doors. "Since when have I ever led you wrong?"
Lara just shook her head and followed Kurtis out of the museum, slipping a few korun českých into the donation box by the entrance to allay her guilt at what they were planning to do.