Trace pushed himself up, quickly set his clothes right, and extended a hand to Lydia, who smiled at the gesture.
He turned his back as she adjusted her clothes too.
“Such a gentleman,” she teased.
He smiled, but she couldn’t see it.
“Thank you for not leering, after…”
He just nodded.
“So many men just stare…”
“I get it; you don’t need to explain.” He remembered the view the king had as she knelt before him…
She nodded, finished dressing. “I’m done.”
He turned around.
“I’m sorry, Lydia. I was…”
“Trace, I swear, if you say ‘weak,’ I’m going to thrash you. We’re not betrothed.”
She laughed, “We’re not even lovers, in the real sense of the word, and we’re certainly not family.
“You were tense, and I…helped you.”
He smiled again, and she returned it.
“So what happens now?”
“You help me solve the murders, and we’ll take it from there.”
She turned it over a moment.
“Who’s the child? What’s his name?”
“Arrick, but he’s asleep by now.”
“We’ll have to wake him up.”
“I wouldn’t; his mother’s a bear of a woman, in temperament. If she thinks you’re up to no good, I warn you, she really will thrash you; I haven’t seen you in action, but if you lock horns with her, unless you use magic, you’re not sure money.”
“Where are you going after work, you know all this stuff?”
She grew peevish from something she sensed he was implying.
“I’m not riffraff, Trace. I have to navigate the back roads sometimes; they’re not savory places. You’re not the only one with an edgy circle of friends and rivals.”
“Fair enough. I didn’t mean anything by it, Lydia. No need to get defensive, at least with me.”
“Forget it; no offense taken. Let’s be on with it.”
“You know this place better than I do.”
“And I know that you’re a mage, and I need not wander creation to find what you can easily summon.”
Trace found his respect for her growing; for a serving girl, she had a bit too much spine, and he found himself wanting to know more about her, but in her reprimand she overlooked one very simple truth, and he teased her with it now.
“But Lydia, you know what he looks like.”
“Oh.” She reddened, and he smiled, and she swatted his arm playfully as she walked out ahead of him.
Lydia knocked, and Arrick’s mother answered, not pleased at the late night interruption.
“Arrick? I’ll not wake him!”
She went to slam the door in their faces, and it didn’t budge.
Hissing, she clutched her wrist at the sudden resistance to the force of pushing it.
Trace moved in, and something in his eyes brought Arrick’s mom to a quivering stillness.
She turned away, leaving the door open so they could see her, and she woke Arrick, who rose quietly, and rubbing his eyes, looked at the stranger standing in the door. The blonde girl next to him he knew from the kitchens. She was kind to him, and snuck him chocolate treats; sometimes he shared them with his mother, but sometimes he didn’t, though he always felt guilty then.
“Arrick, you know what happened tonight at the banquet, right?” Lydia prompted to warm him up to the subject as he continued staring at Trace.
“Yes. The king and queen were killed.”
They were taken aback by how articulate he was for his age.
“You saw who did it, Arrick?”
“No. Their head was covered.”
“Was it a male or female?”
“A female; there was a perfume smell.”
Lydia smiled at that, and as his story unfolded, Trace realized the murderer was far more powerful than he thought.
This was going to be a battle of wills as much as a physical war.
And now there was Lydia to consider as well.
If she still wants to go….
Trace’s lips twisted in a rueful smile, but then he noticed Arrick’s face paled.
There was a perfume smell, and it receded, along with the unnerving weight of the kitchen girl’s subtly threatening stare, which she gave him over the mage’s shoulder.
She would kill him if he told the truth; Arrick didn’t doubt that for a second. In the doing, she would not be kind, and it would not be a treat.
How could he be a mage, and not feel the evil emanating from her? She was standing just over his shoulder.
Arrick grew cautious, and his first instinct was to protect himself and his mother.
“All I saw, sir, is whatever you saw me see in your vision. I didn’t follow whoever it was.”
“That’s fine,” said Trace, not believing it for an instant.
Arrick wondered if she’d seen his knee sticking up; he’d slid on the floor up against the cabinet, and had to bend his knees.
Lydia shifted restlessly.
“It’s late, Trace.”
He spent a moment longer staring at Arrick, then turned to Lydia.
He turned back to Arrick and put his hand out, and Arrick shook it lightly.
“Thanks for your help, Arrick.”
He shrugged as his mother all but stumbled over him to close the door.
“So what happens now,” Lydia said, another nervous smile on her face.
“I’m going home; the royal brats haven’t left yet, so you’ll stay here. Meet me tomorrow, late morning, and we’ll pick it up from there.”
“What if someone comes to kill me later?”
“You can handle yourself, Lydia. Don’t pretend otherwise; there’s more to you than you’re letting me see.”
He walked past her, and left her staring after him, though she said nothing, and didn’t try to catch up to him.
She looked at the closed door once more, her eyes narrowing, and then, smoothing out the frown, she went back to her own place, and went to bed, a knife under the pillow.
And dreamed of Trace.
His naked back was to her, and she slipped the knife from beneath her pillow…© Alfred W. Smith Jr. 2015