A rush of wind wrapped around the inn as a night storm approached, a night I’d now be spending alone because of my…. stupidity. It mattered, but it didn’t; anything in excess wasn’t a good thing, and we’d renewed our ‘affections’ that afternoon. Truth is, that probably was a mistake as well, but if I didn’t survive, I’d have lovely memories while the life leaked out of me.
Alazne and I had worked things out; we were going to kill Jonas Noll first, she said, because it would quickly dishearten the others, maybe even cause them to run. We’d start tracking him in the morning. The next planning session was with Amia, to find out what she was going to do about Malika. If she was as powerful as Amia said, and found out what we were doing, she wasn’t likely to stand idly by and let us go unfettered as we wrecked her plans. I was and wasn’t looking forward to that. Sprawled out on the bed, quieting my thoughts with deep breathing, letting the candle gutter, I heard the rumble of distant thunder; it sounded like a giant snoring under a blanket, and the sky began to flash with the heated brilliance of lightning gathering power. It had been a long day, and I had a lot to think about, but it was late and I was tired.
I closed my eyes, and stopped thinking of the details that still niggled at my mind; this was not going to go perfectly, no matter how well planned. I’d lived long enough to know that nothing ever really does. I wasn’t even sure of my motivation for doing it. Was it to rekindle what I had once with Amia? She’d changed so much, grown so powerful, no longer the innocent ingénue she actually was when we first met, that a reunion of substance didn’t seem likely. In looking back at how I filled that time between then and now, there’d been no real progress;
I was, at heart, a mercenary, mostly playing at bounty hunting. The work suited my temperament, and I traveled in the process, meeting a wide variety of crazy people, getting into harrowing situations, and somehow still coming out alive, if not always victorious. And who were these women Amia wanted to join?
Having no interest in magic myself, it had sometimes been at the periphery of things I was working on, whispers and rumors I dismissed as superstition and spent no time investigating, since it never impeded my pursuit and capture of the person I hunted. Who would benefit from them retaining their foothold, and how did Amia really know their true intentions if she had not yet been admitted to their ranks?
And then there was Alazne: young, enigmatic, maybe a hundred pounds soaking wet, stealthy as a spider and just as quiet. Why was she with Amia? Where did she come from, and how much of wood lore and weaponry did she really know?
She was tough to get a read on, and if it was just bravado (I didn’t think it was, I just wasn’t sure), we were both going to die by Jonas’ hand. So much for letting go. I turned, pulling the covers over me, reliving the events in my mind of a long, pleasantly physical afternoon that I could have actually been reliving…actually. It would have to suffice, for now.
Sleep was a while in coming, but eventually, her soft fingers lowered my lids, and a thought drifted up like a tendril of mist from warm soil on a chilly morning.
Great, a mid-life crisis on a rainy night. Only you, Haskell. Only you…
Sometime before morning, a floral fragrance filled the room; I knew all of Amia’s perfumes, and this wasn’t among them. Alazne, who I had no doubt could get into any room she desired, always smelled of earthy loam: a combination of soil and pine and creature.
The storm was over, and the sky outside was paling, but there was, as yet, no physical light. The woman who sat on the stool beside my bed looked at me with gentle eyes and a small smile on her lips, as if she were watching a baby she didn’t know who’d aroused her maternal instinct. Her hands reposed in her lap, weaponless, but that meant nothing in a being of magic.
“Hello, Haskell,” said a dulcet and mellifluous female voice.
I pulled myself into a sitting position, and studied her back. The smile grew a bit more, and the eyes didn’t waver, but locked with mine, inviting me into their depths.
I knew without knowing, and named her. “Malika.”
She inclined her head, and strands of a glorious raven mane draped her cheeks. Her eyes were the blue of snow in moonlight, a soft and pale shadowy blue; everything about her was still, and calm. Had she not spoken I might have believed her a piece of painted sculpture.
“Let me guess,” I said. “You’re here to tell me not to help Amia.”
She took a little breath, pulled the strands off her cheeks, a pretty, feminine and elegant gesture; I found myself wishing I’d done it for her first.
“On the contrary, Haskell. I’m here to tell you that I’ll help you do it.”
I let that sink in; it took awhile, but she waited, calm as a boulder in a raging river.
“Because we want the same thing, but I’m about to tell you something Amia doesn’t know yet, and you’re not to breathe a word.”
This was getting to be tangled roots, and that was never a good thing, but I waited.
She gauged me a while longer than needed, and I found myself getting uneasy under that soft blue gaze. After a moment, she seemed to steel herself to trust me with her secret:
“Amia is my cousin.”
I cleared my throat, sat up straighter. “She wants to kill you.”
“And that’s why I’m here, because you have to stop her.”
“Let me guess; without letting her know who you are?”
“How am I to do that?”
“Well, you spent the afternoon…planning…with her and Alazne; let’s spend what remains of the night planning this.”
Sleep had vanished around the corner, and the horizon began to bleed a thin stream of color.
She smiled that quiet smile again, and my heart skipped a beat.
This was going to be a problem…
© Alfred W. Smith Jr. 2015