One Day At A Time
It’s a quiet cell. Peaceful, really. Even has a fresh straw pallet, which I think is a nice touch. Kaelie and I have it to ourselves for the evening. The other prisoners mostly insisted after a polite discussion and a broken nose Kaelie graciously offered to heal.
We lay together, exhausted and a little singed, and doze. At first we talked quietly about this or that, now we just snuggle under the thin blanket the guards have provided – with nothing else to do, we might as well get some sleep. All things considered it could have been worse. I think back on our day as Kaelie nestles against me and tries to get comfortable.
“Honey, come get some breakfast.” I hear Kaelie call from kitchen as I come through the front door. She pokes her head into the living room, wrinkles her nose at me, and adds. “Clean up first.” She smiles as she says it, and doesn’t seem to mind when I pull her in for a kiss as I pass through to leave my gear on the rack built onto the back porch. I’ll clean it all carefully later.
Between the hunt and the run back from Dirge I’m drenched in sweat, caked in ash and burnt blood where the lava drakes got lucky or I was too slow. It’s late morning and I’ve been out since before dawn, just taking a little exercise to keep my hand in. My muscles feel like water and a dozen screaming aches remind me that I’m nothing like fighting fit. Civilian life has taken its toll.
“Still”, I think as Kaelie drapes her arms around my neck, “I wouldn’t trade it.” She’s warm and soft against me, and we nuzzle as we take our time getting reacquainted. A few yards away my daughter is asleep in a crib that will soon be too small, our glacial-white ilithic cat watching from the bench in the bay window that streams light into the nursery. Cat likes to keep Daeyrean where he can see her. It’s a good life, and even if I’ve gained an inch on my waist I have no regrets.
When we finally part there’s soot on Kaelie’s nose – and all over her night shirt. She laughs and shoves me toward the tub. “We’re going to be late to the market…” she says firmly.
“Yeah, I’m looking forward to that…” I grin slowly and she rolls her eyes, but she presses close this time and it’s a minute before we’re moving again.
“Go!” I do.
She thoughtfully hurls a bar of soap after me, and I tell myself she probably wasn’t aiming for my head. Then she joins me as I’m washing down. We take our time with breakfast, after, and neither of us worries about being late.
The plaza is bustling with shoppers bundled against the biting cold of the early autumn morning. Kaelie and I weave from stall to stall, hunting our quarry – baby clothes, again, and groceries. The kids eat like food is going out of style, and somehow they clean us out every week despite having moved out.
After months of this the vendors mostly know us, and have our usual orders ready. Coffee for me, yarn for Kaelie. The little needs and wants that come with our domestic life. Our last stop will be a sweets stand where a bag of chocolates and two steaming mugs of creamed and sweetened coffee, will already be waiting.
We’re picking through tiny jackets when the prickling starts between my shoulder blades. The instincts that kept me alive in the bad old days, the bloody days, are wired so deep they may never go away. Learning to cope with a settled life has been a daily challenge. I pay half my attention to the horse-patterned coat Kaelie’s showing me – that Daeyrean will be able to wear for a month – and surreptitiously scan the crowd. I’m not sure what set me off. Maybe nothing – that happens a lot. I can’t stop myself from starting the familiar pattern of Swirling Winds.
I feel a hand slip into mine and the familiar tingle of Kaelie’s presence. It snaps me out of the moment. Kaelie can do that when nothing else will. I look at her with a bashful half smile and she grins back.
“Hey..” Her voice is gentle, and I realize she’s been watching me for a minute. She kisses my cheek and asks “What about that one? With the cats on?”
“What if the next one’s a boy?” They’re white cats, on pink velvet..
She rolls her eyes. “What if you’re getting a little ahead of yourself?”
“Today might be our lucky day. Never know.” I slip my arm around her waist, and she laughs.
“It already was.”
“Good things happen in threes…”
“Now you’re DEFINITELY getting ahead of yourself.”
We banter as we shop, her hand stays in mine, and I almost relax. I let the spell slip out of mind but nagging feeling doesn’t go away, so I indulge myself and study the people around me.
The sun has warmed the air and the market’s teeming with shoppers and sight-seers . I spot parents with kids, two stalls away. They have the helpless look of adults who have lost a fight to six year olds and aren’t sure quite how it happened. The grocer hands the kids buttered pastries while the wife counts out some bronze pieces.
No threat, so I move on.
A dozen men and women are drinking beer from rented mugs across the square. I give them a cool appraisal in an eyeblink. They’re fit and armed – no pattern to their gear or dress, no insignias or rank badges. Look like they’ve had some training and seen some action without the wariness that comes from having much of either. The nearby guards are watchful and the waitresses step wide around the men, who try to grab them all the same. They’re not watching us, though, and their posture is wrong for intentionally not watching us, so I file them away to watch and move on.
A pale elven woman dressed in nothing special and not very much of it hangs off a black-furred rakash by the fountain. There’s no accounting for taste, I guess. She’s got to be freezing. She certainly looks it, through a light cotton blouse, though she doesn’t seem to mind. They’re clearly very drunk and only dangerous to each other, or maybe to a guard if her hands move any lower, so I let my gaze wander while I absently fend off my wife’s gentle elbow.
Then I spot her. She’s not much to look at – a short, whipcord thin Prydaen in a cheap imitation shadowsilk cloak with the hood down. Young and calico. I spot the telltale bulge of a crossbow slung for a hip draw and she favors her left side like she’s got a dagger in her boot – one she’s not used to. She’s been loitering at the next stall, pretending to inspect a length of satin cloth, but has glanced over twice and no woman would hold a solid salmon swath against a tangerine stripe for more than five seconds unless she were up to something.
She’s also two paces nearer than when I last noticed and slides a casual step closer as I watch. When she’s an arm’s length from Kaelie she digs in her pocket. I put myself between Kaelie and the cat then I’m on her in an eyeblink, yanking her around into the stall, body checking her against the counter so hard the heavy wood shivers. It happens so fast the other shoppers barely notice, but the stall clears quickly when I slam her face into a pile of booties and start to frisk her.
“If you try to run this gets so much worse.” I keep my voice deadly calm. “Why were you stalking us?” Items get tossed on the counter as I find them – a straight razor from her pocket, a pouch full of dirt, a few grimy black cubes, a vial I very carefully set where it can’t fall and shatter. The heap gets more impressive as I find more pockets.
I step on her tail, hard, and she yelps. “Try again.”
Kaelie, the captive, the owner (I vaguely remember his name is Mikael) and I are the only ones in the stall now. Mikael looks pale and he’s dry washing his hands like he wants to run or call the guards or both. But he knows us – we’ve shopped here since Daeyrean was born – and he’s sensible enough to wait politely.
“Mazrian?” Kaelie looks at me, touches my arm. Then she turns her green eyes on my captive and her lips quirk in amusement. “Just shopping, right?”
“But I wasn’t..”
“I’m wearing heels, dear. It’ll HURT when I do it.” Kaelie interrupts sweetly and gives the girl her warmest smile. That’s Kaelie. She goes with it, and trusts me to explain later. I love that woman. The Prydaen gulps, eyeing Kaelie, and starts talking. Turns out her name is Charovra, and she spills her story in just a couple of minutes.
Over twenty years ago, I murdered her mother.
It wasn’t personal. My comrades-of-the-moment and I had engaged a group called the Fervid Shade in a guerilla battle that raged through the Crossing for two nights. Hunting them while they hunted us. Joshuan and Queslo had been tithing us in blood and they had to die, so when I got a tip over the albredine that both targets were in the same place…it was too sweet to pass up. Problem was, that place was in front of the Crossing bank.
They were hiding, camping behind bystanders who were nothing to them but living shields. It was a dirty tactic in a dirty, bloody fight and I countered it the only way that I could – rolled in and laid down the lightning until nothing moved but settling ash. I didn’t count the dead. Only two of them mattered. Pity about the collateral damage, but to make an omelette you have to break some eggs.
That sounds callous, I know, and you can judge me if you want to. I have to look at myself in the mirror every day and nothing you can say will be harsher than that.
Burn a body bad enough and it becomes anonymous. A sculpture in black and white, ash and bone. Charova’s mother had been one that day and I’d stepped over her without even noticing, to make sure I’d gotten the job done.
She carried a torch after that.
“Mom had some favors so it was fine. But I had to hear that story for YEARS. Every time she got into the blood wine! She wanted to have his KITS and that’s not even POSSIBLE. Dad almost LEFT.” I’ve let her up, Kaelie has healed her, and we’re standing around in the stall while Mikael tidies the wares and tries to pretend he’s somewhere else.
“So then I saw him standing there and I had to get a closer look.”
She’s mostly talking to Kaelie and only glances in my direction when she thinks I’m not looking. I’m being crushed on by a teenage Prydaen because I killed her mother. This is not where I saw my day going when I woke up.
Kaelie seems to think this is all hilarious, and the two of them are laughing and glancing at me, which makes me blush, and that makes them laugh harder. I have to smile, and I find myself letting go of the moment’s tension and joining in.
Of course, that’s when the ambush happens. If you can call an attack that starts with running up behind me roaring “Turn and fight!” an ambush. I’m honestly dumbfounded. I’ve never been jumped this ineptly before, and because of that it’s going to work. Technically, I’m not surprised. But technically, the marauder blade whistling toward me is going to cave in my skull. So I’ll allow it. This once.
Kaelie saves my life. In mid sentence she drops her arm and the would-be attacker slumps to the ground behind me with a noise like a collapsing forge. She turns briskly, kicks the heavy blade under the counter, then ungently boots the plate-clad man onto his back. He snores.
Sometimes my wife is seriously scary. Just a harmless Empath, she’ll say of herself.
She grins at me. “You’re slipping, dear”
Then she glances down and chuckles. “Oh, a Paladin. Don’t feel bad, I know you have problems with them.” She says it so sweetly, with a kiss on my cheek. I’m still working on a really good comeback when commotion from outside cuts us short.
Four men and three women from the group who were drinking across the way advance in loose formation in the plaza outside, weapons drawn and edgy with them, tense and ready to fight. They’re led by a mountain of a human. Shorter than me, but not much. Twice as wide in his matte-black fluted damite plate armor. An oiled red beard hangs down to his waist in two elaborate braids, weighted down with animite goshawk charms on platinum chain. Young for a human, best I can judge – maybe mid thirties. He raises his gauntleted hand and they halt in a semi-circle around the stall’s entrance. Shoppers and merchants have fled for cover. The plaza is dead quiet. Dry leaves rustle and swirl in a gust of chill autumn air.
Why can I never get a set up like that?
“Step away from my Squire and surrender peacefully,” His delivery rings parade-ground perfect through the empty space. “and no one has to get hurt on your way to jail.” Then he lowers his voice, looks me in the eye. “Resist and we’ll put the boot in, give your wife a few rounds with the Staff of Idon.” A snicker from the hulking black Gor’tog on the right flank. “And you still both go to jail.” He throws his ermine-lined cloak over one shoulder to show a wicked-looking kertig hammer. It’s clear which way he’d prefer. “Your choice.”
Kaelie and I exchange a look. We know each other so well sometimes we don’t need words. “I trust you”, her eyes say. “Trust me, too.” I squeeze her hand, and let her play it her way.
“Look at the big, strong Paladin threatening a helpless Empath.” Kaelie can put a lot of scorn into a sentence, and her clear voice carries through the whole plaza. The words rock him back like a slap in the face.
“Beat me if we don’t go along? Really? Darius would be SO proud.” She pokes her finger into his plated chest and gives him a look that could wither a branch.
“Pick a fight with MY husband and can’t even do it in person? What was that poor boy supposed to do? Take care of business while your fat drunk self gnawed another turkey leg?”
When Kaelie gets into a harangue there’s no stopping her. She lets loose with language that would make a camp doxy blush and lays into him and his friends with a will. I doubt they’ve ever been dressed down like that. The would-be lawmen waver under the sheer brutal force of her tirade as their leader’s face turns the most interesting shade of purple.
By the time Kaelie winds down a few minutes later the young Squire is awake and standing – somewhat sheepishly – beside me and Charovra. All three of us are trying hard not to grin. Wouldn’t do to spoil the moment.
She finishes with a sniff of total disdain and draws herself up to glare at him. My wife is a tall woman in her heels, and he can’t quite meet her eyes without looking up. “So take your boy, take your boyfriends, and GO. Or you can all nap together ‘til the real guards arrive to collect you.”
The women look scandalized, the men are shuffling their feet and looking anywhere but at us, and the “Staff of Idon” has tears streaming down his face as he tries to contain a belly laugh. I think the big, bearded Paladin might having a stroke.
“You…you bitch!” His voice all but cracks with inarticulate rage. “You can’t talk to me that way!” He’s so indignant he’s sputtering and that breaks the dam. Charovra and I chortle together and once we start we can’t stop. Even his squire joins in.
That should be the end of it. Then he backhands Kaelie.
The big tog sees it coming and lunges, wild-eyed, desperate to avert disaster, but the Paladin brushes him off like a child and the vicious blow cracks heavily across her cheek. Kaelie crumples to the ground with a startled cry.
Utter silence descends on the plaza.
“Not so clever now, are you.” The Paladin sneers down at her. He’s breathing hard. “Not so witty at all.”
His former comrades are backing away, dropping their weapons, watching me with wide eyes and faces gone white.
Kaelie slowly raises her head. Blood covers her delicate face but the damage is already healing, bone and flesh knitting back into place under the subtle power of her magic. She narrows her eyes and smirks up at him, ignoring the pain. In her line of work she’s had so much worse.
“You hit like a girl.” She spits blood at his feet. “Hope that was worth it.”
Whatever he’s about to say dies on his lips when the lightning strikes. There’s no time for words after that.
They let us go in the morning with no charges. Mikael and the Squire both speak for us and there’s no one in the courtroom to dispute their story. Kaelie was threatened and assaulted by a group of armed men, and I acted in her defense. Case closed. Please be more mindful of the scenery next time, Mr. Daemondred. Thank you.
The kids picked up our groceries and packages, thoughtfully, and everything’s waiting for us when we stumble home after dawn. The chocolate is all gone, but an iron pot full of coffee simmers on the stove and the baby is asleep in the spare room with Sioned. I’ll take it. Kaelie and I dive into bed and don’t leave the house for three days.
Damite shards are found as far away as the Reflex college for days. Business in the plaza is better than ever as people come to hunt for metal, and stay for the wares. Mikael even sends us the cat jacket with a thank-you note. Daeyrean loves it, and chants “CAT” with enthusiasm every time we dress her to go out.
The Paladin walked. We never did get his name. Of the others there’s no sign, though we do run into a bandaged-up Staff of Idon a week later at Taelbert’s. Turns out his name is Torrance. He bashfully apologizes and introduces us to his partner, a very nice Rakash man named Rashiied. There’s no accounting for taste but they seem happy, and we have a nice lunch.
Gauthus has some choice words for me when I finally make it back to the guild. Apparently the battle could be seen from the roof of the Crossing guildhall. I bite my tongue as he lectures me about my lack of restraint, irresponsibility, and poor aim. “Work on your Summoning, and you’ll be ready to advance” he finally tells me, then goes back to his paperwork in clear dismissal.
My guild leader is such a troll.
Months later I’m sipping coffee in the early morning, reading the news sheet, when there’s a knock at the door. I look over and Kaelie’s barely stirring, so I pad over in my slippers and poke my head out. No one there, but on the stoop… A dead shipyard rat, neatly dressed, with a red heart-shaped card tied around its neck. It would be touching but the heart is anatomically correct, and that’s a little gross. I gingerly pluck it free of the rodent and open it to read a childish scrawl. “There are no accidents. You need curtains. Be seeing you. XOXO.” The note smells faintly of rotting mackerel and sugar cookies.
To be continued…