We walked back in silence; that is to say, Alazne and I were silent. The thick forest was alive with sounds of the creatures of night, hunting and being hunted, croaking, cricketing, rustling, whooshing, hooting, clicking, buzzing and glimmering.
Alazne knew the way back, with no second guessing. As a tracker and hunter, I was impressed, if a little unnerved. She had advanced skills for someone her age, and I had questions I didn’t want answers to, so I stayed quiet and followed in the wake of light from her lantern.
Walking down the paved path to Amia’s door, my heart began to beat faster, part nervousness, part excitement, and if I had to really analyze it, part fear. It had been years since we were together, and though I had no idea how time had been to her, I knew what it had done to me, and it wasn’t pretty, and it hadn’t been kind.
She sat in the light of a healthy hearth fire, her legs curled under her, her auburn hair gleaming in the firelight. Her evening dress was a sky blue trimmed with dark blue curlicues that ran the length of her sleeves and around her waist.
Fixing her bright green eyes on me, I almost stumbled.
“Haskell, my friend! It is good to see you.”
She rose from the chair like a queen about to spit on a peasant’s head, and kissed me lightly on the cheek.
Alazne had made herself disappear; I could tell it was something she had a lot of practice doing.
“Sit, please.” Amia indicated the chair opposite her. I sat, and she poured something into a cup and passed it to me. It was steaming, and smelled like bitten warm plums in high summer.
“The best of Inkara wines.”
“I’ve always liked Inkara.”
“You’ve always had reason to.” She smiled at me, and against my better judgement, I smiled too.
“It’s where we met,” she reminded me.
“How could I forget?”
“If you didn’t forget, why didn’t you come for me?”
“If I’d known you wanted to be found, I would have.”
“You left me, Haskell. I can’t begin to tell you what I needed to do to survive.”
“Do I need to know?”
“You selfish, pigheaded–”
I put the cup on the table next to me, and stood up.
“Where are you going?”
“I’m leaving again. You have no claim on me, Amia, and I’ve none on you. Whatever game you’re playing, I want no part in it. I don’t know how you found me, I don’t know why you sent a child I don’t know to bring me here, but to invite me here to reprimand me because I’m not a mind reader–”
She stopped, and seemed to collect herself. “I’m sorry, Haskell. Please, sit down.”
“Suit yourself,” she said, sitting. “I need your help.”
“Yes, Haskell. I need your help. I have no one else to turn to. I made inquiries, and they told me you were traveling here, to my homeland. I left this place, but I had Alazne stay and tend it, and keep away intruders.”
I sat, curiosity getting the better of me; Alazne was slight of build. She looked like a waif that would reach a weight of ninety pounds in a soaking rain.
“Who is she?”
Amia smiled. “There’ll be time for that later. She’s more formidable than she looks.”
I let that pass, and after an appropriate moment, I brought it back to the subject.
“What’s your problem?”
“I came across some information I wasn’t supposed to; there’s a council gathering against the Priestess Guild. They’ve been accused of sorcery. I need to warn them.”
“Are you part of them?”
“I made my attempt, and they were to get back to me. I don’t know my status.”
“So what role does the council play?”
“They want to kill them. They’re afraid of the arts the priestesses use, and they think they’re going to take over the land.”
“They have more than enough power to do that if they want; the council should know that.”
“The old council did. This new one is headed by a firebrand named Malika. She’s made it her mission to disband the Priestesses and see them executed for witchcraft.”
“But they’re mostly Healers, right?”
“There are some who dabble in the darker arts. We, or I should say, ‘they’, have their secret sects as well, but they are not involved in a take-over bid. That isn’t true, and the council knows it isn’t.”
I sipped some more of the plum wine, and savored it this time.
The fire crackled cheerfully in the silence we’d left as Amia took a sip for herself.
I sighed, knowing I shouldn’t have asked, but those green eyes were pulling me back out of the center of myself, and my resistance crumbled like a fortress of sand.
“What do you want me to do?”
She threw a purse of gold and a rolled up scroll at my feet. “Hire some mercenaries, or whoever you trust, and kill the men on the council. Their names are on the scroll. Take as long as you need to, and don’t say a word to them; I know how much you like to talk, even during a fight.”
I swallowed. She had the truth of it; if I knew I was better than the person I was against, and going to win, the taunting was inevitable, though completely unnecessary. I couldn’t help it.
Her green eyes sparkled like emeralds with a phosphorous center. It gave me chills, and I quickly suppressed the memory of the last time I saw that fire.
“I’ll take care of her. Since I’m not one of them yet, it can’t count as betrayal.”
“All right.” I picked up the pen and signed the agreement, then the other form for the supplies. “Where do I sleep?”
Amia laughed, and it was like chimes ringing in a major key, in a gentle wind, on a cloudless day.
“Alazne will show you out,” she said.
Alazne was at the door, holding it open, lantern in hand, the wind frippering her cloak about her.
I chuckled at my stupidity, but there it was.
I made a grand sweeping motion with my arm.
“Lead on, Alazne,” I said, slipping out after her as the door closed by itself behind us, driven by Amia’s power, and I heard the lock click.
© Alfred W. Smith Jr.