She came up to me – didn’t give her name – and said in a thick accent I couldn’t place, “I hear you’re good with a sword and composite bow. I want to hire you to take me to Opet City.” She turned her scarf-covered face toward the doors leading to the Burning Coals tavern.
A perfume of jasmine escaped past her scarf and teased my nose, making me forget the smells of dead fish, kafia and turpentine. Only the rich could afford that scent. Perhaps her father owned all these wharves and warehouses along Dock Street. Curiosity piqued, I let her lead me into the tavern.
I trailed her so I could get a better look at her, but to my chagrin the hooded robe concealed her curves. She looked back at me … her eyes spit fire. Sweet goddess Larenia, I thought, her eyes are glowing! I’d never seen such blue eyes – a cat’s eyes. Kafia addiction could do that, I knew. I needed to see her fingernails; they’d glow too if she’d gotten a taste for kafia. I glanced down one of her sleeves, and swore under my breath. She wore gloves.
Directly ahead, above three sets of mage-lights, a mural famous throughout Setor City began to sparkle along its border, as if infested with lightning flies. She stopped to watch, catching me off-guard. I bumped up against her, prompting an angry retort, “You really are clumsy. Perhaps your skill with the bow and sword is exaggerated?” She deigned not to look back at me.
I gazed beyond her shoulder at the mural’s scene … a terrified boar caught in mid-stride as it strained to escape the spear of a mounted warrior woman. Suddenly, the wild boar came to life and raced along the wall. The warrior woman’s horse bounded after it, the woman flung her spear and its spearhead sliced through skin and muscle. The boar tumbled and the woman raised her fist in triumph. Then the scene melted away as if wet paint dissolved by a rainstorm – and a moment later reappeared in its earlier inanimate rendering.
Everyone in the smoke-filled common room cheered, and no one took notice of the robed woman or her glowing eyes. She turned suddenly, seized my arm, and guided me to the farthest table from the mural. Motioning me to sit, which I did, she sat adjacent to me, so close her robe brushed my knees. Perhaps she wanted to flirt. Why else sit so close? I reached out to caress a patch of skin between a glove and the end of her sleeve. She yanked her hand away from mine.
“I am not your plaything,” she growled, her voice sharp enough to cut the block of cheese the serving wench had left on the table.
“My apologies, My Lady,” I said in my most humble voice. I attempted to shift the subject away from my gaffe. “The boar mural … the owner’s brother, a mage, created it. A magnificent display of magic, don’t you think?”
“I would have preferred to see the boar turn and gore the woman’s leg.” She drew a money-purse from insider her robe, untied the drawstrings and let dozens of gold imperials rain onto the tabletop. “These are yours if you take me to Opet City. I’ve been told the Imperial Way is no longer safe since the Emperor’s stroke. Bandits raid with impunity. My source also said you are the best guide in the empire.”
I ran my hands over the coins, felt their sweet coldness. I wondered how we could safely exit the tavern without getting our throats cut. Drunkards and their dollops sitting at nearby tables were eyeing the coins too. “You were foolish to–”
“Move your hand away from the coins,” she commanded. As if her words were magic tinged, my hand jerked against my chest.
The coins and the money-purse vanished.
A damned sorceress, I thought to myself. Nonetheless, the stack of coins amounted to more money than I had ever seen in one sitting. I would have guided Blue Eyes to Opet City had the coins been half that number. I could buy a love slave with those coins and have my every desire fulfilled. Or buy a tavern.
“You have a deal,” I said, and noticed that our neighbors had grown subdued and slid their tables and chairs away from us. No one wanted a sorceress to take notice of them.
“Just a couple of stipulations, then I will retire for the night and meet you in the morning at McPeak’s Stables.” She reached inside the robe and I heard the jangle of coins. “I will bank these in your account at the Imperial Bank. Once we are on the road you are not to try to crawl into my bedroll or find excuses to rub up against me.” Suddenly, I felt invisible hands squeeze my neck, and then the pressure vanished. “Understand?”
“Perfectly, My Lady.” I cleared my throat. “If I may ask, why would a sorceress need a guide for protection?”
She laughed, a sound that reminded me of glass shattering. “Normally I wouldn’t. But I have this with me.” She opened her robe, revealing not just inviting cleavage, but a sleeping baby dragon. “When she’s awake, she drains my magic. Human babies drink their mother’s milk. Dragon babies drink their mother’s magic.”
I glared at my hands and forced them to stop shaking. In the morning, I would be traveling with a dragon in human form – and her child.