Rubbing his tired eyes with the back of his hand, he brushed his viewing glass aside. The scroll he had been reading sprang loose and spontaneously re-rolled itself.
“Very good,” he said tiredly, “but not good enough. No prize for you this week. Now, speak your name, and get your szamár out of my office.”
There was no response. That was unusual. He was known throughout the College (and the Realm, for that matter) as a tolerant man who encouraged cleverness and ingenuity among his students. He knew, for example, about the game called “soft-step”, whereby acolytes challenged each other to purloin an object from the Master Magister’s office, and return undetected, with large numbers of drinks (and occasionally more exotic forfeits) at stake. There was no danger in it; the College’s wards were sufficient to keep genuine thieves at bay, and Kalestayne found that it helped to keep him on his toes. It helped his control, too; it had been years since he’d accidentally unleashed his full might against anyone. He even kept a number of non-lethal spells ready in his arsenal for such occasions.
Hardly a day went by when he didn’t apprehend some stumbling newcomer making a clumsy foray into his sanctum. Far more rarely, the odd object occasionally vanished. Kalestayne only had two rules: anything taken had to be returned within a day; and he did not guarantee the safety of anyone who disturbed him while he was trancing.
He glanced around. Still nothing. “Last warning,” he said, sitting up abruptly. “Show yourself now, or things are going to get magical.”
The wizard whirled in his chair and stared. The voice seemed to be coming from one of the windows overlooking the quadrangle between the towers. He clenched his fingers, and a sparkling, scintillating ball of pure energy appeared in his palm, crackling and snapping with barely-contained might.
“Puh-reeze!” the voice squealed hysterically. “No k-k-kill I! Puh-reeze!”
He sighed. This was neither a student, nor any ordinary thief. “Aku berbicara bahasa hutan,” he said gently, quenching the energy ball with a snap of his fingers, letting the power trickle away into the air. “Aku tidak akan merugikan Anda.”
I speak the forest tongue. I will not harm you.
“Pukhta! Syahdu pukhta!” Excellent! Most excellent!
He blinked. The voice wasn’t coming from outside. Flanking the window were two enormous clay pots, each of which contained a riotous growth of ivy. The plant’s tendrils coiled up the side of the portal and met above its lintel. As the wizard watched, caution etched into the lines of his face and his fingers already crooked to deliver a boiling mass of arcane devastation, the left-hand pot began to tremble. Broad, verdant leaves shook as if in a high breeze.
And then, from out of the tangled mass of foliage, there stepped a woman.
Kalestayne frowned. No; he amended mentally; not a woman. Her eyes were as green and bright as his own, but there any resemblance to Kindred ended. The form was feminine enough, to be sure; but where he would have expected smooth, white skin, there was rough, brown-gray bark; and instead of a long fall of ebon hair, her head was crowned with a tangled mass of leaves.
“Aku Sembunyi Lazat,” the newcomer whispered.
A dryad, Kalestayne thought. Wonders would never cease. “Welcome,” he replied in the same language. He couldn’t bring himself to repeat her name; in the Elven tongue, Sembunyi Lazat meant “stealthy-delicious”, and he didn’t think he would be able to control his chuckling. “How can I be of assistance?” he said softly. The dryadii were notoriously skittish.
The wood-woman glanced around his office. Clearly, she was looking for something. Her words confirmed his impression a moment later.
“He was here,” she said softly. “But he is gone now.”
“ ‘He’?” the wizard frowned. “Child of Hutanibu, many folk pass through this office. Whom is it that you seek?”
“Centang Lewat,” she replied. Her voice, low and husky, took on a dreamy tone. “Pembebesan Hutanibu is near. The Threefold Benison is upon us – especially the Third, which has not been granted in a thousand hands of turnings of the seasons.” She shivered with obvious anticipation.
Kalestayne cocked an eyebrow. He’d had two dozen visitors that day alone. While they’d all been mortals, with mortal problems and mortal potential, none of them had seemed in any way extraordinary. He had no idea who she was talking about.
You’re not Fey, you old fool, he reminded himself. You probably wouldn’t recognize the Last Warden if you stubbed your toe on him.
Maybe that ‘Beck’ chap, he thought suddenly. The one whose colleague had called him by the corrupted ancient name, ‘Breygon’. He certainly looked woods-crafty enough.
Or maybe not. Whomever it might be, he didn’t dare finger anyone by mistake; if the Fey were trolling for Lewat on Slaughter’s-Eve, they wouldn’t be satisfied with a substitute.
He shrugged. “I’m sorry,” he told the visitor. “But I don’t know the one of whom you speak.”
“He was here,” she said dreamily, stepping out of the stoneware pot, leaving twigs and little piles of dirt here and there. Her toes, he noticed with a start, looked like roots. “I can taste him on the air!”
The wizard took a cautious sniff. Nothing. He shook his head, annoyed at his presumption.
“There!” the woman said decisively, stepping towards the door, pointing her target like a hunting dog.
Evidently the Dryad’s senses were more potent than his own. Not surprising, he shrugged mentally. She breathed with her whole body.
As if struck by a sudden thought, she turned back to him and bowed slightly. There was a creaking, crackling noise from her midriff. “I beg pardon, Child of Bræa, for disturbing your equilibrium. Drink deep.”
“Drink deep, forest daughter,” Kalestayne smiled. “Go and find your Warden.”
“Aku akan.” I shall.
And with that, the tree-creature stalked out of his office door. Moments later Kalestayne heard a series of shouts and squeals echoing up the levitation shaft. Presumably his colleagues and students had encountered his visitor, too.
Hara’s mercy! he thought wearily, pulling his viewing glass back into place. One just never knew, where the daughters of the Forest Mother were concerned.
A girl sidled forward, her thighs bumping the cluttered table.
The man seated behind the table didn’t look up. “Stage, cage or sheets?”
“Stage,” the girl replied, a little nervously.
The man behind the desk nodded. “Voice or instrument?”
“Both,” the girl said, holding up a long-necked vithelle.
“Good.” The man scribbled something on a scrap of parchment. “Name?”
The girl hesitated, looking panicked.
“Relax, bella,” the man said, rolling his eyes. “Doesn’t have to be real.”
She pursed her lips. “…Iolanna?”
The man scratched at an ill-healed scab on his chin. “Where’re ye from, girlie?”
“Good enough,” he grunted. He tore the scrap of paper from the bottom of the sheet and handed it to her. “Down the stairs, red door. Give this to the stage-master.”
She took the paper and was about to depart, when he added, “Hang on.” He looked her up and down, grimaced, and said, “Blue door first. Find something more appropriate to wear. And remember, less is more.”
“What?” she asked, again.
“Nova, yes?” He rolled his eyes, again. “Your pay’s based on how long you’re on stage, and you’re on stage as long as the assembled company likes listening to you and looking at you. The more of you they can see, the longer you’ll play, and the more you’ll make. Your choice, miss…” he glanced down at his notes “...miss Iolanna. Of Capavallis.”
He jerked a thumb at the stairs. “Off you go. Next!”
She went. Another girl stepped forward.
The man behind the table – his name was Perductorian, but his friends knew him as ‘Perdo’ – turned to another fellow seated nearby. “What d’ye think?”
The second man shook his head in awe. “I think you have the best job in the world!” he laughed.
“Some days, sure,” Perdo shrugged. “Others...”
The other man – one Laestor – nodded. “Seems pretty easy,” he remarked.
“Oh, it’s easy enough.” Perdo looked up at the next girl. “Stage, cage or sheets?”
“Sheets,” the girl replied. Her voice was low and musical.
Perdo shot his friend a glance. “What d’ye think?”
“I’d take her,” Laestor replied earnestly. “In a heartbeat!”
Perdo nodded agreement. This girl was Third House, but of some exotic branch. Some odd combination of bloodlines had given her dusky skin, almond-shaped eyes, and a silhouette that was the stuff of which dreams were made. Her voice was low and sensual, and she radiated a delicious scent that made it difficult for him to think straight. “Name?” he asked, clearing his throat first.
The girl eyed him frankly. “Why don’t you pick one,” she purred.
Perdo pursed his lips. He glanced at his friend again. “What does she look like to you?”
“My next lifemate,” Laestor laughed. “I dunno. A kitten, maybe?”
“How does that sound, missy?” Perdo asked. “ ‘Felisetta’?”
The girl dropped a seductive wink. “Meow.”
Perdo cleared his throat again. “ ‘Kitten’ it is,” he said hoarsely. “Up the stairs…”
“…and behind the green door,” the girl whispered. “I remember.”
“You’ve been here before?” Perdo asked, surprised.
Her only answer was a wink. She undulated gently away. Both men watched her until she had disappeared down the stairs.
When she was gone, Laestor whistled. “Gods above and below! Hard lot you’ve got, you bastard!”
“ ‘Hard’ is certainly the word for it,” Perdo grunted.
Perdo had been behind the desk for decades; his friend Laestor was a newcomer. The two men were the first contact that many of the more adventuresome citizens of the Realm had with the ‘Furious Fang’. The Fang was one of the capitol’s legendary dens of ill repute – a vast, sprawling establishment that catered to all races, offering every conceivable entertainment allowed by law, some that weren’t, and a great many that fell into the gray area resulting from the inability of a stolid man like Dîor Fell-Handed to imagine the full potential of mortal vice. The place was considered so unsavoury by the Duodeci that most avoided it completely – at least, when anyone was watching. In reality, many members of the Houses, both Great and Lesser, patronized the Fang regularly, while some even served, even if only temporarily, on its rotating staff. As a result, it was an article of faith among the Fang’s patrons that, at any one time, fully half of the hoods, masks and veils in the audience hid noble features. Of course, nobody knew for sure. That was part of the Fang’s unique charm.
The ‘attraction’ part of the equation was the principle thing that made the place famous – or rather, infamous – throughout the Realm. Its owners happily welcomed citizens who felt like taking a walk on the wild side of life, asking no questions when a well-dressed, obviously well-moneyed lady showed up incognito, wanting to serve rather than simply observe. The place offered such adventure-seekers three choices. The first two were to serve on ‘the stage’ – that is, performing, whether alone or in company; and to serve in ‘the cage’, that is, dancing for the amusement and pleasure of the other patrons. Under both of these arrangements, performers were remunerated on a basis of how long they performed, which was in turn decided by audience acclaim.
The third option was to serve ‘between the sheets’, a self-explanatory euphemism for amateur exploration of the oldest profession, and one that was chosen by a surprising variety of the local, chronically bored blue-bloods. Because such conduct was so blatantly opposed to the tenets of the Codex, aliases were required, no questions were asked, and the management neither demanded nor offered payment. Disguises were almost de rigeur, and whatever changed hands, if anything, was a matter for discussion between patron and servant. The management merely took a cut. Often no money was passed at all; the Fang was a favourite haunt for nobles who, sated by a glut of living, were looking for something different. A little spice. And for those seeking spice, there was no better place in all the Realm to find it.
The ‘stage’, as the name implied, was fairly prosaic; an elevated platform at one end of the Fang’s great hall where aspiring skalds performed for a base salary and whatever coins – or pastries, or beer mugs, or furniture – that might be flung their way. The Fang’s most startling feature lay at the other end of the hall. Fifteen feet above the floor, suspended by iron chains from the ceiling, was the skull of a colossal green wyrm. The bone had been transformed by magic into crystal, and the thing had been given a transparent floor – a sheet of pure force, erected and maintained by magic. Each of the dozens of crystal horns and spines protruding from the transformed cranium had been enchanted to emit flickering, sparkling, multicoloured light.
The ‘cage’ was, in fact, formed by the dragon’s monstrous fangs. Its purpose wasn’t to keep the dancers confined, but rather to protect them from the unwanted attentions of some of the Fang’s more exuberant patrons. The interior of the evacuated cranium was fully twelve feet long, and varied from a few feet wide at the front of the jaw, to more than eight feet wide between the eye sockets. There was sufficient room inside the thing for half a dozen girls to dance at once. Or a dozen, provided they were slender, friendly, sufficiently well-acquainted, and not over-dressed.
Like the musicians, the girls who volunteered for ‘the cage’ were remunerated on a basis of how long they performed before the crowd lost interest. The longer they went – and the less they wore – the higher climbed the rates. It was not unusual for a capable dancer unburdened by excessive modesty to make upwards of a hundred aureae in a single evening. Students at the College made up a surprising proportion of the performers, both because students always need money, and because most of them had access to spells capable of disguising – and, more importantly, enhancing – their appearance.
“So you get to pick all the girls,” Laestor said, shaking his head in wonder.
“Yup,” Perdo replied. His face bore a look of vast contentment.
“Ever reject any?”
“All the time!” Perdo exclaimed, shocked. “It’s in my interest to make sure we don’t let any turpes through!”
“Really?” Laestor blinked.
“Gotta keep the quality up,” his friend shrugged. “It’s important. I don’t get paid; I just get a percentage of the house.”
“Half a point,” Perdo chuckled. “Pretty sweet, yes?”
Laestor looked sceptical. “That’s not a whole hell of a lot.”
“Isn’t it?” The table-man burst out laughing. “This place,” he chortled, “turns twenty thousand a night. Easily!”
“So…you pull a hundred orry a night?” Laestor exclaimed, looking suddenly ill.
“Yup,” Perdo said again. “More on feast days and high holidays. Except the Twelve-Day; we’re closed then, of course.”
“Of course,” Laestor muttered.
Great forest gods! A hundred!?
They sat in silence for a while. At length, Laestor asked, “So it’s all pretty girls, then? That’s all you pick?”
“Well, they’re all pretty when they come in, or it’s out the door. But by the time we’re done with them, they’re irresistible,” Perdo chortled.
“ ‘By the time’… Hang on. You just said you rejected the unattractive ones.”
“There are no unattractive ones,” Perdo said with absolute conviction. “Not once I decide they’ve got the magic, so to speak. We have wizzies on call from the College. If any of the little ladies need it, the magic boys just give’em a touch-me-over before they go on.”
“That must get expensive!” Laestor exclaimed, his eyes wide.
“Nope. The wizzies don’t get paid either,” Perdo chortled. “But they do get to spend the night hanging around a dressing room full of half-skinty girls.
“ ‘Course,” he added pensively, “it doesn’t pay to make’em too beautiful, does it?”
“There’s such a thing?”
“Sure,” Perdo shrugged. “But it’s a bad idea.”
“Why?” his comrade asked, surprised.
“Don’t need a riot,” Perdo snorted. “Hard on the furniture. It happens every now and then. Last time was back in Lastreap. Instead of a wizard, we had a druid in, from the Protector’s sacred grove or some such. Had three girls dancing together; good dancers, nimble as you’d like, but plain as perch. A real shame. Had the tree-boy give’em a touch-me-over. He did a little too good a job of it.”
“What happened?” Laestor asked, curious.
“Well, basically, he turned all three of’em into wood-maidens. Nymphs, you know. About half a minute later, the place looked like the last charge of the Hand Knights at Duncala. This round-eye from Kelva – you know them, big mountain lads – ‘e was swinging from the bottom of the Skull like a gods-damned ape! Trying to get in at the girls, you see. Couldn’t resist’em.”
“Great gods!” the other man exclaimed. “What happened to him?”
“Nothing good,” Perdo laughed. “He forgot – or didn’t know, most probably – that the College is just up the street. Half our performers might be apprentices, but half our clientele are magecraft masters. I’ve never seen so many spells fly all at once.”
“They were protecting the girls, I suppose,” Laestor nodded.
“Hardly,” Perdo laughed. “If they hadn’t been straw-armed wizzies, they’d’ve been swinging on the rafters with the Kelvan. Naw, they vaped him ‘cause he was blocking their view. Dropped’im like a pole-axed steer. He took out two tables on the way down. Quite a mess.”
“It sounds like you live an exciting life, my friend,” Laestor said, shaking his head ruefully.
A hesitant step sounded on the stairs outside the door.
“Lot’s’o folks think so,” the other acknowledged. “Lesser House types in here all the time, mostly watching, but occasionally some up on stage. Greater, too. Had a Cælestis girl come in a few weeks back. Terrible dancer, but pretty as a peach. Went half an hour in the Skull ‘afore she stumbled and broke a tooth.” He shook his head. “Laughter’s no way to end a set, let me tell you.”
The door at the front of the hall opened, and a girl squeezed through. She was as black-haired and green-eyed as the majority of her countrywomen, but there the resemblance ended. She was shabby-looking, her hair slightly unkempt, and her clothing plain and worn.
As they eyed her curiously, she padded over to the table where the two men sat. She halted, clutching her cloak nervously at her throat.
“Looking for someone?” Perdo said, wondering if she were lost.
“Is this…is this the…the ‘Furious Fang’?” she asked, obviously nervous.
Perdo bit his lip. “It is,” he said quietly. “How can I help?”
“I…I want to…to serve,” the girl murmured. She seemed to be looking at a spot above their heads.
“I see. Name?”
There was a long pause. The girl looked flustered and opened and closed her mouth several times.
“Doesn’t have to be real,” Perdo sighed.
Perdo rubbed the bridge of his nose wearily. “That’s a man’s name.”
The girl’s lower lip trembled. “Kovégom…ar…a?”
“Your name’s ‘Kovégomara’?” he said, staring at her in disbelief.
Laestor, deaf to the girl’s pathetic estate, was snickering.
“Your parents,” Perdo sighed, “named you ‘Bucket-arse’? In Orcish?”
The girl’s eyes filled. “I…I just…”
The table-man pursed his lips. “How old are you?” he asked quietly.
“I…I passed without the walls two years ago,” she replied, trying to feign indignation, and failing miserably.
“I see,” Perdo answered. He glanced back at Laestor, who shrugged. “Very well. Stage or cage?”
The girl blinked. “Sh…sheets,” she stammered.
The table-man stared blankly at her for a long moment, while she trembled and bit her lip. “I’ll be switched if you’ve seen a century,” he said at last. “What’s going on here?”
There was a sudden thunder of boot-heels on the stairs.
“I want to serve,” the girl insisted stubbornly. Her lip quivered. “I’m of age, and I want…I need…”
Laestor was looking at the door in alarm. “The Guards?”
“Nec. They’re paid off. Gotta be something else.” Perdo nodded at the girl. “Stand over there,” he commanded, pointing at a long line of cloak-hooks near a window. “And keep you quiet.”
The girl looked dismayed. “But I…I want…”
“Move!” Perdo commanded.
The girl did as he said, scuttling over to the wall.
An instant later the door banged open, and yet another woman swept through it. This one was taller by a handspan than the quivering girl, and much more elegantly dressed, in a hooded cloak of soft, midnight wool that stretched from her shoulders to the floor. Her hair was expertly coiffed, and her makeup exquisite. Her features, though, were invisible; above the nose, they were concealed by a diaphanous mask of gold wire and black silk in the shape of an enormous ebon dragon. Its outstretched wings were studded with tiny gemstones.
As she stomped towards them, boot-heels echoing against the floor, Perdo shot a quick glance at his comrade. “Stand up!” he hissed under his breath.
Laestor, no fool, complied.
The woman thundered to a halt before the table. Perdo bowed immediately. “Good evening, milady.” Laestor, to his relief, mimicked him without being prompted.
The woman regarded the two men without expression. “The cage,” she said firmly. “And then the sheets. My usual room.”
“Of course,” Perdo nodded. Laestor noted that his friend didn’t pick up his pen.
With a contemptuous gesture, the woman unhooked her cloak, whirled it off, and tossed it at Laestor. “Hang this up,” she commanded.
Laestor, his eyes nearly bugging out of his skull when he saw what the stranger was wearing – or, more properly, not wearing – caught the thing only just in time. “Of course, milady,” he said, sounding as if he were being slowly strangled.
Without another word, the newcomer stalked down the hallway, boot-heels clacking on the floor. She climbed the stairs without a word, and disappeared.
Laestor blew out his breath with a startled whoosh. “Great gods of the forest!” he exclaimed. “Who…who was…”
“She calls herself ‘Letifera’,” Perdo replied. “It means ‘Deadly’.”
“I know what it means. It suits her, I’ll bet,” Laestor chortled. “But what’s her real –”
Perdo cut him off with a gesture. “Never ask,” he said firmly. “And if by some evil fortune you should happen to find out, never, ever tell.”
“Why not?” the man exclaimed. “She…she was…”
“Yes, she was,” Perdo agreed. “She was indeed. But it’s hard to pick up a wine glass when you’ve naught but pitch-sealed stumps at the end of your cheaters, and little use drinking it when you’ve a maggot-hole in your weasand. So take my advice, my duck, and keep you silent, too.”
Laestor glanced over his shoulder to where the woman had disappeared up the stairs, and shook his head. “Aye.”
Perdo sat again. Then he noticed the girl cowering by the window, and sighed heavily. “You! Come here.”
Obediently, the girl scuttled over to the table. She glanced involuntarily towards the stairs where the well-moneyed woman had disappeared.
Perdo snapped his fingers, and her eyes flashed back to him. “You need money,” he said quietly. “Is that it?”
“Yes…yes sir,” she nodded miserably. “I want to…to try…”
Shaking his head, Perdo grabbed the girl’s wrist and turned her hand palm-up. He reached into a chest below the table, grasped a handful of coins and, without counting them, slapped them into the girl’s fist.
“There,” he said gruffly. “Compliments of the Fang.”
Stunned, the girl hesitated. “I don’t…sir, I can’t…can’t repay…”
“It’s a gift, not a loan,” Perdo said brusquely. Standing, he stepped around the table, slipped his hands under the girl’s cloak, parted it, and gave her a good looking-over. She was wearing a simple, well-worn peasant gown, but there was nothing at all wrong with her figure.
“As I thought,” he commented. Grasping her chin, he turned her head to left and right, looking deep into her eyes, searching professionally for any sign of imperfection.
Clear eyes, clear skin, good teeth, he thought. And fair features, if a little grubby. He glanced over his shoulder at Laestor. “She’s beautiful.”
The girl blinked at that. Her cheek even twitched, as if she were thinking, ever so briefly, of smiling.
Perdo grasped the girl by the shoulders and kissed her on the forehead. “Take the money, little one. There’s no need to ever return it, or even to set foot in this place again.
“But if you do,” he added in a forceful whisper, “wait ‘till you’re of age. And when you come, come because you want to. Not because you have to.”
“All…all right,” the girl stammered. She turned and walked toward the door. Before walking through it, she glanced back over her shoulder. “Thank you, sir.”
Perdo pointed at the portal. “Out!”
She smiled once, and vanished. Perdo listened for her heels on the steps.
Once he was certain she was gone, he glanced over at his comrade. Laestor was giving him an odd look. “What?” he said gruffly.
“I don’t think I understand your business model,” the man said drily. “Are you really supposed to pay girls not to...”
“She needed the money,” Perdo cut him off with a growl.
“You’re pretty soft-hearted,” Laestor grinned. “For a pimp, that is.”
“I’m just a good businessman,” Perdo replied. “Look, you saw ‘Letifera’, a moment ago, there. She’s going to make us a thousand orry in the cage tonight, and another two thousand, maybe three, between the sheets.” He jerked a thumb at the door. “What d’ye think yon twitchy virgin would earn me? Two arjies? Maybe five? And meanwhile, how many customers would she drive away with her flinching and her tears?
“But,” he nodded sagely, “you also saw the look on that chit’s face when I gave her the coin. I know the type. Seen’em a hundred times. She’s not a wine-soak or a weed-head; she’s just down on her luck. Needs the money for something honourable, no doubt. Sick brother, indebted father, elderly mother. That sort of thing. So she figured she’d hit the sheets to earn some glitter, and that’d be it. Except it’s not that simple. Never is. Takes some iron, and she hasn’t got it. Not yet, anyway.
“I don’t want her type,” Perdo sighed. “She thinks this is easy. Thinks she’s better than this. Thinks what our girls do is a dodge, a scam. She don’t understand that the regulars here…they’re here because they love it. Those are the girls I need, Laes. The ones who want to be here.
“That money?” he nodded at the door. “That was nothing. About fifty orry, give or take. I’ll wager you another fifty right now that yon babby’ll be back here inside of a year, ready to go, and eager to pay off her debt. She’ll be bright-eyed, happy, and full of pride and fire. I’ll send’er ‘ome again and again, too, because she’ll still be south of six-score. And she’ll come back again and again, because doing so’ll make her feel strong, not weak. By the time she’s old enough, she’ll be ready, and she’ll want to be here, and I’ll let her stay as long as she likes. And by the time she’s had’er fill of it – if she does, some of’em never do – I’ll have made back a hundred times what I gave’er tonight. And that’s a thousand times what I’d’ve earned off’er if I’d let her go out there, looking and feeling like she did.”
He snapped his fingers happily. “Hells, if she keeps filling out, she might make me a thousand times what I gave her. Sweet little thing like that – you just never know, do you?”
“You make no gods-damned sense,” Laestor complained.
Perdo heaved a vast sigh. “Look,” he said patiently. “Women aren’t horses or cattle or dogs or sheep. They’re not herd animals. You can’t lead’em, ‘cause they won’t follow, and you can’t drive’em, ‘cause they’re too gods-damned contrary. What does that sound like to you?”
Laestor shook his head. “No idea.”
“Cats,” Perdo said, exasperated. “Cats, man! Women are cats! How do you get a cat to do what you want it to do?”
Laestor spread his hands. “Never owned a cat,” he said truculently. “Can’t stand’em. How?”
“Tell’em they can’t,” Perdo replied. “Tell’em it’s not allowed. Tell’em they don’t want to, that it’s no fun, that they’d rather be doing something else.” He smirked. “And if that don’t work, tell’em some other woman said it’s too hard, or they’re not good enough. Make sure you tell’em that ‘some other woman’ said it, though. That’s like raw meat to a tiger, my duck.” He buffed his fingernails against his lapel. “Works every time.”
“You’re quite the philosopher, my friend,” Laestor commented, smiling.
“Gotta know your product,” Perdo shrugged. “As for the orry...look, suppose I were to give that same handout to ten girls. Even if only one of them returned with a smile on her face and a twinkle in her eye, I’d end up making my money back, and then some!
“It’s bread upon the waters,” he added with an unpleasant grin. “Girls like her…they’re a natural resource, my friend. We’ve got to husband them, nurture them, take care of them. Or we’ll run out.”
Laestor nodded slowly. “I understand. At least, I think I do.”
“It’s pretty obvious,” Perdo shrugged. “Once you think about it.”
A light, almost unnoticeable footfall announced another arrival. They turned their eyes to the door.
A sweet, floral scent wafted in from the hall. Their nostrils flared, and both men involuntarily sat up straighter.
“What’s this, now?” Perdo breathed.
When the portal swung open, their jaws dropped to the table. Behind the door stood a creature of ethereal beauty. She looked for all the world like an elf; but she was impossible to categorize. Her hair was a deep, rich auburn, her eyes piercing green, her skin as fair and white as snow, and her figure, scarce hidden by undulating wisps of gossamer, was the stuff of dreams.
Spying the two men, she smiled. Teeth flashed like a bolt of sudden skyfire. Without appearing to move, she floated – she couldn’t be said to be walking, not really – over to the table.
Perdo felt a fist of ice grip his heart. He could hardly bring himself to meet the woman’s unearthly gaze. “Y-y-yes?” he gasped at last.
The stranger fixed him in place with her glorious eyes. It was as though twin spears of mithral had been driven into his orbs, through his heart, and down into his groin.
Her voice, when she spoke, was like the soft thrum of angels’ harps, with larks’ song for accompaniment. “I am looking,” she murmured softly, “for Lewat. Have you seen him?”
Perdo smiled idiotically. Then his eyes rolled up in his head, and he toppled sideways off his stool.
Laestor didn’t notice. He was smiling dreamily at the girl. “You know,” he sighed happily, addressing no one in particular, “you really do have absolutely the best job in the world.”
“Karrick?” Valaista stepped tentatively through the darkened offices. Her hesitation wasn’t due to the lightless shadows; she could see as well without lamplight as she could under the full Lantern. Indeed, she could’ve navigated the cluttered place with her eyes closed.
But the room was big, and unfamiliar. She was alone. And she could smell something…unsettling.
His shout was most welcome. “In here, girlie!”
She blew out her breath in a vast sigh of relief. Tip-toeing the last few yards, she rounded the corner and stepped into the sitting room.
The warrior – in absolute darkness – was perched on the edge of the red velvet sofa she had observed earlier that morning. He had dragged it into the centre of the room, mid-way between the doors leading to the offices and the gaping hole where the concealed vault door had once stood. He was seated on the back, his boots planted on the cushions, running his whetstone over his sword’s edge.
Valaista paused in the entryway. “No lights?” she whispered.
“Don’t need’em,” Karrick grunted. He tossed the sword onto the sofa and tapped the side of his face with a finger. “Old Father Shields gave me a little touch-up. I can see as well as you. For a few more hours, anyway.”
“Oh. That’s...that’s...” She snorted suddenly. “Sorry, but can’t you smell that?”
“ ‘Course I can,” the warrior shrugged. “It’s blood.” He slid down to the cushions with a thump, and with one booted toe, nudged a shadowy lump lying at his feet. “Don’t trip over the head; it’s around here, somewhere.”
Valaista glanced down at the corpse. It was indeed headless. “It doesn’t smell like…like blood,” she murmured, taken aback.
“Well, there’s bile, too,” he added clinically. “Got th’other one in the gut.” He nodded at one of the walls of bookshelves, where a second recumbent form lay huddled.
“In the gut,” she repeated in a fascinated whisper.
“He rushed me,” Karrick explained. “I’d’ve liked to have questioned them, but…” He shrugged.
“Oh,” the girl said in a small voice. She swallowed audibly. “Who are...er...who were they?”
“Dunno. Elves, by their ears. I’ll look into it in the morning.”
“Have you...have you searched them?”
“Yup,” Karrick nodded. “Nothing special. A few odds an’ends, Lockpicks, wax, tallow, ropes, hammers, spikes, a few coins. The usual rubbish.” He chuckled. “One of’em even brought a pry-bar, if you can imagine. A pry-bar ‘gainst that vault.”
Valaista glanced at the gaping hole where the vault door had been. A pry-bar seemed excessive to her. “Any weapons?”
“Couple o’knives. This one – ” he toed the headless corpse at his feet a second time “- he brought a crossbow. Didn’t do’im much good, though. Only got one shot off.”
“You got him first, then?” she asked, sounding relieved.
“Nah, I was dealing with his friend,” Karrick replied, sounding embarrassed. With a finger, he flicked something protruding from his right bicep.
Valaista looked closer. The butt of a bolt stuck an inch out from Karrick’s arm, wrapped in messy, bloodstained bandages that appeared to have been torn from a shirt. She emitted something that sounded like a cross between a gasp and a squeak. “You’re wounded!”
“This?” the man snorted. “Barely nicked me. Shields can deal with it in the morning.”
“What if it’s p-p-poisoned?” Valaista stammered. Stepping gingerly over the body at Karrick’s feet, she took a closer look at the embedded projectile, taking care not to touch it.
“I think I’d know by now,” the man said reasonably. “Look, stop fretting, Val. It’ll be fine.”
“You should let me take it out for you,” she said faintly.
Karrick cocked a skeptical eyebrow. He was watching her hands, and they were shaking. “How many arrow wounds’ve you dressed?”
“Well...none,” she replied. She looked queasy.
“Yeah, that’s about what I thought,” he laughed. “With your finesse and my luck, the barbs’d catch on the bone and you’d tear my arm off. I think we’ll leave it for now.”
“But…” She reached for the missile.
He caught her hand, gently. “Thanks. Really. But just…leave it be.”
She looked rebellious for a moment, then sighed. “All right.” She plopped herself heavily down onto the couch beside him. “So…any more excitement?”
Karrick shrugged. “Nothing much. A couple of giant mushrooms looked in.”
Valaista turned slowly to stare at him. “Giant mushrooms?”
“Mmm-hmm,” he replied. He picked up his sword and went back to work on the edge.
The dragon-girl waited for him to expand on his observation. When he didn’t, she asked hesitantly, “What…what did they want?”
“Looking for the half-elf,” the warrior shrugged. “I gave them directions to the lady’s house, and they left.”
Valaista blinked several times. At last, she said, “I’m sorry. ‘Giant mushrooms’?”
“Yup. ‘Bout my height,” he said, pursing his lips. “Eyes, mouths, feet. Little spindly arms. Spears, too.”
“Giant mushrooms…with spears,” Valaista muttered. “Really.”
She glanced down at his ill-tied bandage. “How much blood have you lost?”
Karrick heaved a vast, irritated sigh. “They’re called ‘Myconids’, girlie. They live underground, or in the deep forest. Vesterskov’s full of’em, back home. Tribal. Worship one of the elf-gods. One of the two even said ‘e was a priest. Of ‘Hutanibu’.”
“The Forest Mother,” Valaista nodded.
“Whatever,” Karrick shrugged. “Said they were looking for ‘Lewat’. You know, what that big tree called Breygon, a week or so ago. Said they wanted to advise him, concerning something they called tiga berkat. The ‘three-fold benison’.”
“I didn’t know you spoke sylvan,” the girl said, surprised.
“I don’t. They were talking man-talk.”
Valaista nodded. “So,” she said, with the air of someone who was summarizing an argument, “two giant mushrooms, with spears, show up speaking the traveling tongue, and when one of them tells you he works for the Forest Mother and asks you where to find our comrade…you told them?”
“Why?!?” she exclaimed.
Karrick frowned, considering her question. “I suppose,” he said at last, “because he had an honest face. The priest-mushroom, I mean.”
“Mushrooms don’t have ‘faces’!” Valaista shrieked.
“These ones did,” he replied reasonably. “Look, girlie, calm down. You’ve not been at the adventuring business long. This sort of thing happens all the time. If a day went by without a robbery or a murder, or something getting set on fire or obliterated, or some bloody revenant popping up and trying to bite my face off – then I’d start to worry.”
“That,” she said through gritted teeth, “is insane.”
“Good,” he said happily. “I knew you’d understand.
“So,” he went on, leaning back into the plush upholstery. “What brings you here tonight? The boss send you to check up on me?”
She took a deep breath. The warrior braced himself for another expostulation, and was pleasantly surprised when she made a visible effort to relax. Instead of yelling again, she said, “No. I just wanted to...to see if you needed anything.”
“A wheelbarrow,” Karrick smirked, giving the corpse at his feet another kick. “And some food would be nice. These fellows look tasty enough, but elves’re all bone’n’sinew.”
The girl grinned at that. Slinging her pack down off her shoulder, she produced a large, stoppered wine-skin, a white loaf wrapped in a towel, and – to Karrick’s astonishment – a lidded stoneware crock. She lifted the cover with a flourish. Inside was a whole goose, roasted a mouth-watering golden brown, nestled in a bed of vegetables.
The warrior clapped his hands, crowing with delight. “Vara bless you, girlie! And your tight, white a…ahhh…”
He stopped himself at the last instant. “Thanks,” he said instead, looking embarrassed.
Valaista acknowledged the praise with a bow. “Never let it be said,” she intoned solemnly, “that I am a slow learner.”
Karrick bit the stopper out of the flask, levered the thing up over his elbow, and took a long, deep draught. When the vessel was half-empty, he lowered it again and offered it to the girl. “Your turn. There’s a lot that’s wrong with this bloody country, but they do know how to make wine.”
The dragon-girl accepted the skin, did her best to emulate the warrior, and managed to only slightly soak her tunic. She coughed and spat. “How do you manage it?”
“Practice,” Karrick said sympathetically. “Lots and lots of practice.”
He reached for a leg of goose, but the moment he touched it, his face fell.
“What’s wrong?” Valaista asked, alarmed.
The warrior heaved a great sigh. “It’s cold.”
His eyes narrowed. Then he glanced at her, and grinned hopefully.
She eyed his expression for a long moment, puzzled. When she realized what he was asking, her face went flat. “You’re not serious,” she said stonily.
Karrick winked. “Please?”
Valaista rolled her eyes. Then she stood, grasped his sword, speared the goose on the end of it, raised it shoulder-high, took a deep breath, and exhaled sharply. A blast of superheated air tinged with glimmering sparks and bright, orange flame enveloped the roasted bird. Its skin immediately darkened and crackled.
She chopped her exhalation off in mid-fume, coughing slightly as she did so. Twin jets of spark-speckled smoke shot from her nostrils.
“Skidegod!” Karrick laughed, applauding. Yellow afterimages glowed and shifted behind his eyes, and he had to blink to clear them. Once he could see again, he plucked the smoking bird off the sword-blade, juggling the carcass from hand to hand, tore a leg from it, and fell to with a will.
Valaista was still coughing. “Do you have any idea,” she hacked uncomfortably, “how difficult it is <COUGH> to...to break off a breathblast like...<COUGH>...like that?”
“Imathe init butuff,” he mumbled around a mouthful.
She shook her head in disbelief. “I swear, you make me look like a dainty eater,” she muttered. She plunked herself down on the couch again. After another disbelieving glance at her companion’s table manners, she pulled a fresh towel from her pack, picked up his sword, and began to clean the burnt goose fast from the blade.
Karrick smiled to himself. He very carefully avoided noticing the close, professional attention she paid to the weapon. “You could’ve just let’er all fly,” he said as offhandedly as he could manage.
“There would’ve been nothing left of your dinner but a cinder,” she sniffed. “And I’d have burnt down half the room. I presume that if the master had wanted the place incinerated, he would’ve done so himself while he was obliterating the vault door.”
The warrior chuckled at that. He tore the second limb from the goose and offered it to her. “Leg?”
“I’ve already dined, thank you,” she said somewhat primly. She noticed a flaw in the blade’s edge, picked up the whetstone, and addressed it carefully. Karrick tore a piece from the loaf and continued with his meal, keeping a close eye on her stone-work.
She noticed him watching this time. “Of course,” she said mischievously, “if I were to feel at all peckish, there’s always...” She kicked at the corpse lying at their feet.
Karrick laughed until he choked. When he started to turn blue, Valaista put the sword down and pounded him between the shoulder blades until he could breathe again.
They spent the rest of the night talking and laughing quietly. Despite repeated urging, however, Valaista – to Karrick’s immense disappointment – declined to eat the two thieves he’d killed.
Hand in hand, they ran.
Down the long, treacherous slope of the mountain, plowing like beasts through waist-deep drifts, and skidding on the ice where the wind had blown the landscape clean. He was booted, but her feet were bare, and before long she was limping, hobbling, gritting her teeth with grim determination, holding herself aloft by will alone.
When he saw the bloody trail of footprints behind her, he cried out and swept her into his arms, holding her to his breast, her arms about his neck, and his face all but buried in the fresh, floral fragrance of her hair. Bearing his love aloft, he ran, his face wet with sweat, his heart pounding, pounding with exertion, pounding with fear. Fear of the wind and the sky; fear of the clouds and the snow. Fear of the terrible thing that he had tricked, and that followed after them...
His eyes snapped open. His heart was pounding, pounding, and his face was wet with sweat. He felt a sudden urge to leap to his feat, to bolt for the close comfort of the garden and the trees, but he squelched it mercilessly. Dominating his fear took every ounce of effort he could muster; but at last his limbs ceased their trembling, and his lifebeat slowed, and he breathed normally again.
A breeze whistled through the trees. They had bedded down in the Amatorium again, both in obedience to the sanctity of their nuptial chamber, and because he liked the privacy and the proximity to the slumbering winter splendour of the gardens. It did have certain disadvantages, though, especially when the winds were easterly; the sleeping platform was fairly well shrouded, but the occasional blast managed to throw back a blanket, showering them with crystal flakes of white, and raising what felt like an acre of gooseflesh.
He glanced to his left. There, in a tangle of sheets and blankets, her face half-concealed by the fluffy mass of her preferred pillow, lay his bride-to-be. She’d removed the last of her braids earlier that evening in order to offer a blank canvas to her hairdresser on the day of their nuptials, two days hence. As a consequence, she seemed to be shrouded from the waist up in a tangled, jumbled mass of midnight locks.
Her lips were parted in sleep, and such was her beauty that it took all of his remaining willpower not to awaken her. Instead, he reached out a gentle hand and ran a fingertip down her cheek. His reward was a sigh and a smile, and that was enough.
Enough. Composing himself, he lay back again and closed his eyes. The last image he saw before doing so was one of the nearby garden, of interlaced branches, new-burdened with a cargo of snow, and more snow falling...
...snow falling, falling more heavily now, bearing down the limbs of the firs and pines, weighing them down, crushing their life beneath the suffocating blanket of white. He brought the snow; their pursuer. It came with him, following them down the mountain, making each step heavier and more chill than the last. They could run no more; he lacked the strength to force his way through the towering drifts, and while she might have found a different path, walking lightly atop them, she refused to leave his side. Entreat her as he might, she would not go. She spoke her refusals not in words, but only in glances; and he could find no reply to the mute appeal in the deep, enthralling emerald of her eyes.
When he moved to tear the lower limbs from the trees to build a shelter, as men did, she cried out in dismay, halting him. He despaired then; for he knew no other means of keeping her safe and warm. He no longer had any thought for the thing that pursued them; the elements alone, the unnatural, deadly chill of the Winter-King’s rage, would end her. It would end them both, if he could not find warmer quarters.
In the end, they found a way. With gestures and signs, she motioned that he should build them a cave; a hole in the snow, covered over with blocks cut from hardened drifts. This, he could do; and with his knife, in a trice he had built a long, low house. They entered it together; and he closed the door with a plaque of ice, leaving no gap.
The cave was little more than a crypt, but it was sufficient; for though they were forced to lie together for warmth, such was in any case their one desire. And so they stayed there, for long and long, neither hungering, nor sleeping, but only touching and talking with one another. She spoke of her captivity at the Winter-King’s hands, and he told her of his long quest to find her, of the Wood-Maidens who had aided him, and of the Mountain-Dwarf who had betrayed him. And though they remained many days in that place, buried beneath the snows above, they did not falter nor fail, but had breath a-plenty. For such is the way of true love; each supplied what the other most needed.
Spring came to the mountain dales at last; for the Winter-King had been defeated by the strength and cunning of the man, and by the wit and steadfast courage of his love; and the cold and bitter hatred of the mountain-top could hie after or hinder them no more. The King of Winter had been banished from the mortal realm, forced by mortal courage to return to the depths of his icy fastness, in the dark, hidden places of the World Made. The snows began to melt; and when their ice-cave vanished, still they were there, holding each other, and revelling in each other’s presence. When the light of stars broke at last through the thin roof of snow above them, she placed her fingers on his lips, and then hers, and then his again; and she said...
“...Memberkati saya, Lewat.”
Breygon’s eyes snapped open. A yell of surprise rose in his throat, but he managed to choke it off before it escaped. His hand flew involuntarily beneath his pillow, his fingers feeling for his dagger’s hilt. It was only with difficulty that he halted and unclenched them.
Hovering above him, leaning over him, her face only inches from his own, was a vision of such transcendent loveliness that her merest smile, he feared, would shatter his heart. It looked like an elf-woman, but like no elf-woman he had ever seen, with the finest and fairest of features, brilliant blue-green eyes, full, delicious lips, and a fall of auburn hair streaked with gold that looked too beautiful to possibly be a creation of nature. There were, he noticed irrelevantly, oak leaves, holly and mistletoe, woven together into her tumbled locks.
“Memberkati saya, Lewat,” she repeated softly. Her breath caressed his lips, smelling like fresh leaves and the morning exhalation of lilies. “Berkatilah saya, saya mohon, sebagai Eldu diberkati Csæleyan.”
She was speaking the Western sylvan tongue, he realized. The instant the words registered, he started, glanced down, and gulped; she seemed to be clad in nothing but flowers, vines and a creeping, translucent veil of early morning mist.
His lifebeat thundered suddenly in his ears, and he felt the sweat start again.
“Apa yang salah?” the incredible vision murmured. Her eyes were sad, and her voice echoed in his ears like the sea in storm. “Apakah Anda tidak memberkati aku, Lewat?”
He forced himself to concentrate, shaking his head to clear it. “Oh, hells,” he muttered to himself. “It’s happening again.”
“Hmm, yes,” a familiar voice muttered in his ear. “That’s just what I was thinking.”
Breygon’s head spun to the left. Amorda was propped up beside him, her hand supporting her cheek, and was staring at him most intently, a dangerous glint in her eyes.
The half-elf cleared his throat. “Greet the dawn, wife,” he said hopefully.
Her expression didn’t change. “Care to explain that?” she snapped, nodding at the vision of delight leaning over their bed.
“Ah, so you see it too?” he joked weakly.
The elf-woman said nothing.
“Er...do you speak the forest tongue?” he temporized, still trying to wake up.
“I do not,” Amorda replied through clenched teeth. “But I speak ‘woman’ fluently, so I have a fairly good idea what she wants. Shall I translate for you?”
Breygon thought it best not to answer that. “She...er...says she wants me to bless her,” the ranger replied, a little unsteadily.
Amorda blinked, then laughed. “Is that all? Well, then, I apologize. Go ahead, Lewat. Bless away!”
“It’s not that simple,” he said desperately. “Your instincts were spot on. She...um...wants me to ‘bless’ her. You know, the way...the way Eldukaris ‘blessed’ Csæleyan.”
The elf-woman frowned. “And how was that, precisely? I’m not familiar with human legends.”
“Spit it out!”
“ ‘Bless’ her. You know, with...ah, with children,” Breygon said, flushing a little.
The nymph, perplexed by their exchange, sat back on her haunches, her magnificent, emerald eyes shifting between the speakers.
The elf-woman’s eyes widened. “Come again? ‘Children’?!”
“According to legend,” Breygon said rapidly, “after he rescued Csæleyan from Mælgorm, the Avatar of Winter, she and Eldukaris became lovers, and he sired the race of dryads on her.”
Amorda’s eyes narrowed. “Oh, really?” she grated. “And that’s all she wants?”
“I think so.”
One corner of her mouth twitched. “And you’re not worried about splinters?”
Breygon rubbed his face wearily. “There’s no way this ends well for me, is there?” he muttered.
“I shouldn’t think so, no,” Amorda grated. She took a deep breath, glanced at the nymph again, and said, “So you’re telling me that she came all the way from...from wherever it is she lives,” the elf-woman said, her voice growing louder with each word, “to ask you, my...my sponsa, to...to...”
Breygon put a gentle hand on her wrist. “She’s Fey, love,” he murmured. “They’re wild. They’re the very essence of wild. They don’t think or...or take mates, like we do. They do as they please. They take what they please. They…”
“I know what Fey are!” Amorda exclaimed.
“It’s bad enough,” the elf-woman went on, “that she wants to top my lifemate on the eve of our wedding!” Her face was flushed, and her eyes at least as wild as the nymph’s. “But the least she could’ve done,” she half-shouted, “was leave the audience at home!”
He blinked. “What?”
Amorda pointed at the garden. “Would you care to introduce me to your parishioners?” she said, a little too emphatically. “Lewat?” The way she said it sounded more like a curse than a prayer.
Breygon sat up abruptly. The nymph scuttled back and prostrated herself beside the bed, putting her forehead to the mattress in the gesture of submission that he had come to recognize and dread.
His eyes bugged out, and he scrubbed at them again. Behind the cowering beauty were hordes of animals – wildcats, wolves, a dozen hawks, and some sort of catlike owl that he was pretty sure was called a ‘chordevoc’, and was native to the Elf-realm. A trio of satyrs flanked a half-dozen Wildthorn warriors, all of them armed with unpleasant-looking spears and longbows. Behind this crowd, the bizarre mushroom-shapes of a pair of Myconids bobbed and weaved most alarmingly. One of them waved a spindly, thin-fingered hand at him. Without thinking, Breygon waved back.
Amorda, who had sat up at the same time as Breygon and was clutching a sheet before her, seemed to be attracting a good deal of attention from the satyrs, one of whom winked suggestively. The little goat-man made a variety of thoroughly unmistakeable gestures at her until she flushed to her ear-tips, and did not desist until the ranger cleared his throat meaningfully. The largest of the garden’s oaks, meanwhile, seemed to be sprouting a dryad, which emerged from the bark, stepping gingerly onto the grass and looking around with interest. One of the garden’s topiary animals – a boar, he thought inanely – galloped rustlingly past the Amatorium, scattering its last few winter-browned leaves hither and yon, followed closely by a mangy, branch-bare hedge-lion. And a veritable squadron of Pixies, Petals and assorted Sprites flitted here and there, zooming in close to examine the half-elf and his mate at close range, before flittering away again.
A sound of splashing followed by angry squeals drew their attention to the garden’s reflecting pool, and Breygon sighed again; a Glaistig, two Sirines and what he remembered as a Rusalka appeared to be hurling gouts of icy water at each other, which the Sirines seemed to object to, and the Rusalka appeared to be enjoying immensely. None of them were wearing much more than mist and spray, and when Amorda’s tooth-grinding became audible, he turned his attention hastily away. Beside the pool, two creatures he didn’t recognize at all – a grey-haired, burly-armed woman who looked for all the world like a miniature stone giant, and a bizarre, bug-eyed biped with a smooth, featureless face and an elaborate flute clutched in long, spatulate fingers – were engaged in an animated conversation.
Breygon leaned over to Amorda. “Those...creatures...over by the benches,” he whispered. “Any idea what they are?”
“You’re the ranger, my darling,” she hissed between clenched teeth. “You figure it out. It looks like I’m going to have my hands full keeping that...that...tree-tart away from you!” She waved a hand at the beauty crouching beside the bed.
“She’s not a...a tree-tart. She’s a nymph,” he corrected her without thinking.
“Is she?” Amorda grated.
Had her eyes been tapers, Breygon thought, both he and the nymph might have burst spontaneously into flame. “Be careful,” he muttered. “She can blind you with her gaze.”
“I can blind her with my nail-file!” Amorda snarled.
There was a muted <pop> beside Breygon’s left ear. A tickle of tiny toes on his bare shoulder and the flick of a wing against his ear announced Angin’s presence. “The grey one’s an Oread, Lewat,” the tiny eladrin whispered, “and the one with the flute and the funny eyes is a Banshrae.”
“Never heard of’em,” Breygon sighed.
Angin cast a sidelong glance at the simmering elf-woman at Breygon’s side. “Tell your mate she’d be wise not to upset the nymph,” the eladrin suggested sotto voce.
“You’re the one with spell resistance, damage reduction and wings,” the ranger hissed back. “You tell her.”
He glanced around in wonder. “Is this going to be a regular thing?” he asked despondently.
“Get used to it, Lewat,” the tiny creature grinned. “It comes with the title. Especially on the Slaughter. They’re here for the Threefold Benison.”
“Wonderful,” the half-elf sighed. “You’re going to have to explain that to me.”
“I will,” the tiny celestial promised.
He shook his head. “All we’re missing is a treant.”
Angin winced. “Actually...” she muttered, pointing upwards.
Breygon and Amorda looked up simultaneously. The elf-woman shrieked. Breygon, to his credit, did not.
Two enormous, emerald eyes stared down at them through the latticework over the Amatorium. The ranger winced; a colossal oak appeared to be leaning over the house.
“Hoom, hoom!” the thing bellowed in tones that dislodged icicles from the trellises. “Ha-hoom! Greet the dawn, Lewat!”
The ranger looked at his fiancée and smiled weakly. The monstrous tree had to be standing in the alleyway next to the house. He wondered idly how it had managed to find its way into the city unobserved. If it had.
Amorda smiled back. It was not her customary happy grin, but something rather more forced. “If we’re going to make this mating work, beloved,” she said evenly, “then, between the dragon-killing, the undead, the quest for fiend-summoning artefacts, and this sort of thing...” she waved a hand at the sudden menagerie “...we’re going to have to set some ground rules about you bringing your work home.”
“Yes, dear,” Breygon sighed.