I glared across the table at the woman sitting there, her eyes not meeting mine as she toyed with her cup of mead. “Magic,” I repeated. “You can use magic.”
Purple eyes flashed up at mine, anger and distrust warring in her irises. “Yes.”
I took a deep breath, and then let it out in a whoosh as I realized that I didn’t have any real response to this. “Good gods, woman, what have I gotten myself mixed up with?”
At least we weren’t likely to get into much of a fight in this tavern. Bartleby’s might not attract the wealthy crowds, but the drinkers came here looking to get away from the rest of the world, not to challenge it. As long as the woman didn’t start summoning up dragons or something, we’d probably be all right talking openly here.
Eleanora glared back at me. “You were the one who got up to drag me off to your table-”
“Because I thought that you were going to get killed!” I snapped back at her. “Noble women don’t go wandering into shitty dockside bars like that, not if they ever want to be seen again!”
Her chin rose up. “I can handle myself.”
“I realize that now.” I shuddered. Every time I closed my eyes, I saw that bolt of brilliant white light shooting out of Eleanora’s hand, straight into the chest of Big Thad. I remembered how the magical bolt burned a hole in his chest cavity before reducing him to little more than droplets of gore.
Trying to clear that horrifying image from my mind, I took a long pull of my mead. The sweet alcohol burned in my throat, but it didn’t wipe the pictures from my brain.
“So why, then?” I finally asked, putting my cup back down.
“The tavern. Why did you go there?”
Eleanora paused, those big, purple eyes drinking me in. “Because someone’s hunting me, and that’s the only place that I didn’t think they’d follow,” she finally replied.
I gaped at her; she pretended not to notice my open mouth. “Why is someone- oh, the magic,” I said, answering my own question. “But who?”
She shrugged, but I could see through her veil of nonchalance. “I don’t know.”
“Then how do you know that you’re being hunted?”
For a good minute, she just sat there. Her eyes stared down at the rough wooden table in front of her, and she traced her finger through a puddle of spilled mead. I guessed that she was putting her thoughts together, so I took the chance to size her up.
Dark hair, wavy, cascading down over her shoulders. Pale skin, indicative of her time spent relaxing inside instead of breaking her back at (somewhat) honest labor like the rest of us. Those purple eyes, so big and commanding in her soft face. Expensive clothing, although somewhat dirtied and torn from our hurried exit from the previous tavern.
If I didn’t notice the eyes, she looked just like any other noble. Only when I caught a flash of purple did I sense something different about her.
“I wasn’t born with this magic,” she finally said, the words reluctant. “I found it, unlocked it from a hidden place. But only after I found it did I realize that I wasn’t the only one searching for it.”
She found the magic? I wanted to learn more, but I didn’t interrupt.
“Two days later,” Eleanora continued, looking up at me, “someone attempted to burn my quarters – while I slept inside them. I barely escaped.”
“And then you fled?” I guessed.
“No, I stayed with a friend. But the very next day, as I emerged from her quarters, someone shot at me with a crossbow bolt.” Eleanora paused for a moment, and then tugged up one sleeve, revealing a pale, delicate arm.
Halfway up the arm, I saw a long scar, still reddened and scabbed over. “They nearly hit,” she said softly.
“And so you fled,” I filled in the next part of her story.
“And so I fled,” she agreed. “I didn’t know where, just that I had to get away, someplace that this person, whoever they are, couldn’t follow. I ran down to the docks, into that tavern, and thought that perhaps I could find a plan of some sort as I drank.”
I shook my head at her innocence. “Listen, you’re gonna get yourself killed if you keep on trying this,” I told her. “You need a plan.”
“Maybe… maybe you could help?”
I paused, staring at her. “Haha. Ha. Not a chance that you’re dragging me into this danger.” I started to rise from my seat, planning on getting out of there.
“Locke,” she said softly, those purple eyes on mine.
Damn. I never should have told her my name. I knew that the smart thing to do was to get up now, walk away before I added any more danger to my life. I needed a job, not a magical companion with dangerous, shadowy forces out to kill her.
“I can pay you,” she added desperately.
Well, that changed things, didn’t it? “How much are we talking?” I asked, settling back down into my seat. I still kept my legs tensed, however, ready to move quickly if I needed to get away. I remembered that beam of white light, and I cringed a little as I felt it pierce me in my imagination.
“I’ve still got access to my funds from the vaults,” Eleanora replied. “Name your price, please.”
I sat there, on the edge of my seat, weighing my options. Name your price. That could get me very wealthy – or very dead. This screamed of danger, and every instinct in my body told me to turn tail and flee. I shouldn’t get myself mixed up in magic. Eleanora spelled trouble.
“I’m not signing any contract,” I finally told her. “I choose to leave whenever I want, and you pay me by the day.”
She nodded. “Please.”
“Okay, okay,” I gave in. “Let’s talk, then. We need a plan, first of all.” I ran my eyes over her. “And we’re going to need to change those clothes.”
Eleanora’s eyes went wide at the mention of her clothing, but I pressed on. Even as I talked, however, I couldn’t get that image of Big Thad, his skin boiling and bubbling away as the beam of white magical light cut him down.
Please, gods, I prayed. Don’t let that happen to me.