My eyes caught the girl as soon as she stepped into the tavern. She couldn’t have looked more out of place if she’d been draped in glow-worms.
Of course, I wasn’t the only one to spot her arrival, her appearance, and I knew it. All around the dim, damp, musty room, the scum of Calaphel shifted in their seats, hands straying towards weapons.
We all sensed wealth, and we hungered for it.
The girl, of course, caught none of this. She merely looked around, lost and confused, and then started for the bar. A Hexalian brawler stared down incredulously at her as she squeezed into a narrow space next to him.
“Um, a drink, please?”
Oh dear gods of the north, I groaned to myself as I leapt out of my seat. This was going to end in a bloodbath.
“Ah, Madame!” I called out loudly as I ran up and threw an arm around the girl’s shoulders, forcefully steering her away from the bar as I flashed a smile to the many watching eyes. “So good of you to come join me! But please, I have a table for us to discuss our business right over here.”
“Who are you?” the girl asked me, although she at least managed to do it quietly.
“The one saving your damn fool life, that’s who,” I replied back to her through a gritted smile. “Now shut up before you get us both killed.”
The eyes of the rest of the patrons followed us back to my little booth. No one was going to let this flashy, rich prize go so easily. However, the dregs of society also knew how to measure the life expectancy of the first one to make a move, and it would be measured in seconds.
“Right,” I grunted, as I forced the girl into my little booth and then pushed in beside her. “Now, who are you? I may need you to spell the name for your tombstone.”
I would have rolled my eyes, except I feared that they might pop loose from their moorings. “Look, you’re clearly not from around here,” I pointed out. A single gesture took in her perfectly combed raven black hair, the light gauze shawl she wore draped around her shoulders, pale skin that had never seen the burning sun of a hard day’s work. “Aristocracy? Daughter of a noble, deciding to slum it with us commoners? What’s your deal?”
Purple eyes, I noted to myself. They glared back at me, filled with sudden anger. Something about them seemed to draw me in, as if she could read my mind. “Don’t think that you know me, peasant.”
Peasant. Yup, definitely a noble. “Listen, princess,” I hissed. “I don’t know why you’ve got a death wish, but couldn’t you have picked a different tavern? I don’t want to hear your screams echoing in my head when I go to sleep tonight.”
Out of the corner of my eye, I caught a shadow slowly rising from his seat on the other side of the tavern. I recognized the hulking figure, and cursed under my breath. It took a while for a thought to find its footing in the empty space inside Big Thad’s head, but woe betide anyone who got in the ogre’s way.
The girl, meanwhile, had hotly opened her mouth to reply. I automatically tuned out her words, which meant that it took a second before I realized that she hadn’t said anything.
Strange. I looked back at her, tearing my eyes away from the slowly swelling shape of Big Thad with an effort, and saw her gazing sadly down into her lap. “Not a princess, no,” she murmured, more to herself than to me. “Not any longer.”
“You know,” I hissed at her, “this might not be the best time for an existential crisis. The last thing I want to hear before I die is some tragic sob story about how you got written out of poor Daddy’s will and noble titles.”
Once again, those purple eyes blazed, curiously enchanting as they bored into my own. “If I didn’t know better, peasant, I’d say that you were curious about my tragic backstory.”
I managed to briefly pull away from those purple eyes, and saw that Big Thad now stood on his feet. I felt the floor of the tavern vibrate with each step as he approached us. Not good.
And unfortunately, although my booth gave me a prime view of the tavern, it also revealed no exits in sight. Between Big Thad’s bulk and the evil, malicious grins of the onlookers, I didn’t see any way out.
I spun back to the woman. “Fine, whatever,” I hissed. “I’ve only got a few more seconds of life, so why don’t you make them interesting? Why’d the nobles kick you out, princess?”
“Because of this,” the woman replied, and lifted a hand.
My eyes screamed as a brilliant bolt of pure white light shot from her hand. It connected directly with Big Thad’s chest, and he stared down stupidly at his skin as it boiled away. The sight burned itself into my retinas.
A moment later, the ogre exploded. Blood and gore sprayed across the tavern, extinguishing most of the guttering candles that provided illumination.
I didn’t hesitate. I grabbed the girl’s hand, praying that she wouldn’t blast me with another one of those beams. Jumping up, I ran as fast as my legs would carry me across the slippery floor, towards the tavern’s rear door.
Part of my mind felt paralyzed, gibbering in fear and shock at what I’d just seen. Magic! That had to be magic! But it couldn’t be – magic hadn’t existed in centuries, was little more than a legend of a bygone age! Yet this woman somehow had the power to-
Thank the gods of the north that my preservation instincts appeared to function separately from my higher thought. I half-pulled, half-dragged the girl out through the back door, out into the alley.
“Can’t stop here,” I panted to her, picking a direction and trusting my mental compass to guide me to safety. “Come on!”
I didn’t stop until we’d gone nearly a mile, including two switch-backs and a jump across a gap between roofs, just to evade any dogged pursuers. Finally, on top of a squat building, I let myself stop, gasping for air.
The girl had managed to keep up with me, although she looked just as winded as I felt. I stared at her, trying to find the words to explain the impossibility I’d just witnessed.
I couldn’t think of anything, so I just stuck out my hand.
“Locke,” I greeted her.
For a moment, she glared distrustfully back at me with those violet eyes. After a second, however, she shrugged, and took my hand in her own pale, delicate fingers.
“Eleanora,” she replied.
For a second or two, we just held each other’s hands. Finally, with nothing else to do, I burst into laughter. At first, Eleanora just stared at me as if I’d lost my mind – but then, slowly but surely, she joined in, as we exulted in still being alive, in our narrow escape.
“You know what, princess?” I finally said, wiping a tear from my eye. “I think I would like to hear that tragic backstory of yours, now.”
Eleanora smiled back at me. “If you provide the drinks. Peasant.”