A southern wind drifted in from across the bay, bringing with it the underlying scent of salt and fish. It stirred the drapes around the edge of the balcony entrance, and gently caressed the two tangled bodies that lay half-covered by the thin linen sheets.
“You realize we’re dead men if Hisbral finds out,” the left-most of the pair said, chuckling softly. He appeared to be in his mid-forties, curling brown hair and stubbled beard with a frame that at one time was well-muscled but in recent years had been softened by less physical work. Scars criss-crossed the pale flesh of his back, chest, ribs, and torso.
The second man smiled as he closed his eyes and stretched, his dark-toned and unmarked flesh contrasting against the white of the sheets. “Because I’m an Islander, or because I’m spoken for?”
“Both”. The first man reached out and playfully smacked his companion on the flank, his whiter flesh stark against the darker of his partner.
The second man’s smile faded slowly and his voice took on a serious tone. “Things have changed, Ian.” He sat up abruptly, and placed a hand on his lover’s shoulder. “I know you mean well, but you don’t know what it is like out there for my people right now.”
Ian’s face clouded, his brow furrowing. “I’m not blind, Pascal.”
The Islander smiled again. “Don’t take offence.” His hand caressed Ian’s stubbled jawline. “I merely meant that seeing is not the same as living it. The constant threats. The fears. We may not have the markings of Sunaria on our flesh, but the implications are there when people see us walking down the streets. Foreigner. Stranger. From across the water. Not to be trusted.”
“The War has taken its toll on far too many liberties.” Ian grunted slightly as he pushed himself out of bed. He walked over to the cabinet on the far side of the room and chose a bottle out of several, then filled two glasses halfway full. The sharp scent of brandy wafted upwards. “These damned socialites living their cushioned existences. They would shit themselves at breakfast if they knew what was really going on across the sea.” He returned to the bed and handed one of the glasses to Pascal.
The Islander accepted and took a long swallow, closing his eyes briefly as he savored the drink. “And that is why we must be careful. They may not know, but half-truths and rumors do more harm than good, and right now anyone not Lucimian is potentially an enemy in the eyes of the common people.”
The lighter-skinned man swirled the liquid in his glass, staring at it in the faint moonlight for several moments. A brief flash of memory stirred, blood and sand and hot steel, flashes of lightning in a clear sky, men and horses alike cloven in two, the sharp scent of charred flesh still acidic even in memory. “War changes everything,” he muttered. He tossed the brandy back and drained it in a single swallow.
Pascal did not reply, merely sipped his own in silence.
Ian’s gaze roamed out towards the water. He placed his empty glass on the table next to the bed and strode out onto the balcony, leaning against the railing as he looked over Fingil Bay. There were hundreds of ships docked below, from merchants and river vessels prepping for travel up the Whitemist River, to several war galleons from the Royal Navy. They moved eerily on the water in the dead of night, lanterns aglow here and there with randomness, bobbing to and fro with the ebb and flow of the water and the wind.
His gaze slid from the war ships up towards the palace, high above the rest of the city near the top of the hill that sloped down to the bay. It glowed faintly in the night as all Dwearhe-hewn stone from the Rithcullmarin Mountains did, a soft orange-rose hue that tinted the creamy white stone in the darkness. Did the royals sleep sound at night, behind those walls? Were they somehow protected from the deaths of those across the seas? Or were their dreams as plagued as the rest of humanity? A scar on his left arm twitched suddenly, and he grimaced as the too-familiar imagery flashed again before his eyes: the blazing sun in an ever-cloudless sky, high against the dunes, the sand burning through his boots. Blood, sweat, the searing heat of his flaming blade as it cut, the lifeless eyes behind countless scarred and tattooed faces, the screams as the emerald flames cut them from the thread of existence. The faces of his dreams. He shivered and shook his head to clear the memory.
Pascal was not wrong. But the Islander had also never seen first-hand the brutality of the Sunarians, or faced the undead hordes across the open sands. It had taken every shred of influence left at his disposal, and all of his coin, to ensure that he was neither discovered nor sent back. Five years was more than enough time served. He was more than happy to live out the rest of his years as a tavern owner, and leave the war to the damned. He gripped the edge of the balcony with all of his strength and clenched his teeth as he pushed the memories back into their rightful place. Deep down.
It wasn’t the best location in Finglis Mirror, but it served its purpose. The Potter’s Quarter wasn’t known for its influential citizens, but the people were solid, working class sorts. Which was why his dalliances with Pascal were such a risk from the commoner’s perspective; it was rare to see an Islander anywhere outside of the docks, and the way the common folk were stirred up by the daily criers against all thing strange and foreign…well, that was just one of the reasons they kept their meetings clandestine and under the cover of night.
The other was the simple fact that Pascal was one of Hisbral’s finest wares, and Ian was fucking him for free. That brought a rare smile to his face, and he almost chuckled as he tossed a glance over his shoulder at his lover. The Islander had finished his brandy and appeared to be fast asleep. While it was an exaggeration that Hisbral would kill either one of them, a beating for Pascal would more than likely be in store if they were ever found out. So there was incentive all around to keep things quiet.
And that’s how he preferred things. Nice and quiet. No blood, no violence, no death. Just good food, good wine, happy patrons, and a clean establishment. He gave the harbor one last look, cast a lingering glance at the moon as she slid slowly across the sky. It was another day tomorrow, and sleep was beginning to fog his mind. He lay down next to his partner, and closed his eyes to meet the faces in his dreams.
“…and that’s when I let him have a kiss from old Betsy here.” The man slurred heavily as he patted the sheathed blade that apparently held the name Betsy. Ian managed not to roll his eyes and let a fake grin spread across his face as he nodded in what he hoped was the appearance of rapt attention. There was always one drunkard every day who pushed the limits of his patience. Usually they didn’t make it in until later in the evening, but this one was getting an early start. He raised his own mug in a mock toast with the customer, pretending to take a swallow; it was empty and only for appearances, to keep the patrons spending.
Business was good. Good enough that he had almost recovered the amount of coin he had initially spent setting everything up those three years past. He had a steady stream of regulars with whom he was on a first-name basis, and he paid his dues to both the Watch and the Blackbirds to keep the place under watchful eye and protected on both sides of the law. Whoever said you had to pick a side obviously never understood how to negotiate. With enough coin in your hands, anything was possible without needing to choose one over the other.
The drunkard slid a few coins across the table; more than enough to cover his tab. Ian ducked his head slightly as a way of saying thanks as the man staggered off towards the front door. He quickly cleaned the bar from where the man was sitting, then turned to douse the rag in the bucket behind the bar. He wrung it out and hung it in its place before turning back towards the main room to take stock of his establishment. And felt his blood run cold as an Adena stepped through the front door.
From the Fire branch of the Aden’than, by the look of her ebony and blood-red robes. What possible reason could any of the Order have for coming here? In three years, this was the first, and his heart raced. Had he not covered his tracks well enough? Was this finally the end? Had they managed to track down the deserter, and were here to drag him off back to Sunarian shores? He steeled himself and put on his best smile as the hooded figure approached the bar.
“What can I get for you this fine day,” he asked as steadily as he could manage.
Slender hands came up and pushed back the hood to reveal a young woman. Pale white skin, jet black hair. Beautiful, in a cold and porcelain way. Her piercing green eyes bored into his own, and he felt his palms beginning to sweat. Several moments passed, and she finally spoke. “Spirathian spring wine, please.”
Ian tried not to swallow visibly. He bobbed his head. “Coming right up!”
His mind was racing as he stepped through the door behind the bar to make his way to the pantry and wine cellar. Einrath, the cook, cocked an eye at him as he passed the kitchen. “Everything all right, boss?”
He muttered something in reply and numbly made his way down the ladder from the pantry to the cellar below, the lantern nearly forgotten in his hands. Should he run? Was his cover blown? In three years there hadn’t been a hint of discovery, but an Adena showing up here, now, after last night’s talk with Pascal? It all seemed too coincidental. He pulled a bottle of spring wine from the shelf and climbed the ladder back up to the pantry, steeling his nerves as he did so. Best to know for sure, and then run if needed.
The cork slid free of the bottle with a muffled pop. The scent of pleto berries wafted forth, and he poured a half glass of the dark liquid before serving it to the Adena with an inclination of his head. She never batted an eye, merely gazed deep into the glass for several moments before raising it to her lips and taking a small sip. Her eyes closed as she savored it. “This will do. Leave the bottle.” And then she turned towards the common room, her back to him and the bar.
The next hour was living hell. He served a dozen other patrons food and drink while the Adena merely sat and drank, her features still and untroubled, never once looking at him. Eventually, she paid her tab in full, commented on the quality of the wine, left a healthy tip, pulled her hood up, and left. Ian promptly set the sign to “closed” despite the early hour, and waited impatiently until the rest of the patrons finished their food and drinks, practically shoving the last two men out the door. He made sure the locks were set on all the doors and windows, sent Einrath home for the evening, locked the back door after her, and retired to his quarters above the tavern.
He poured himself a glass of brandy, and drank it down in a single gulp, his hands shaking the entire time. He wiped his lips with the back of his hand and poured another drink, swallowed it down, and then a third. After five, his hands stopped shaking, and he felt his body begin to go numb. He poured himself a sixth and sat down on the bed, his mind still racing, but slightly calmer.
If she was here for you, he reasoned, you wouldn’t still be here. Which means the only logical explanation is that she was just here to enjoy a bottle of spring wine while on other business. There were plenty of reasons a member of the Aden’than would be in the Potters Quarter: helping with a child birth, tempering molds for one of the master glazers, or overseeing her own production line. He swallowed the sixth glass and reached under the mattress of his bed to pull out the sheathed sword strapped to the frame of the bed.
The leather was worn but still maintained; he oiled it regularly. The last remnant of the man he once was. A single memento that he could not let go of. He lovingly caressed the leather, and drew the sword halfway out of its scabbard. Rune-inscribed black steel glinted back at him. He silently mouthed the words carved into the blade, and caught a flicker of green flame within the depths of the engravings. He resisted the urge to fully draw the blade and say aloud the words that would burst her into full glory; it was like shutting off an orgasm mid-spurt. He shuddered and shoved the blade into its scabbard, then placed it back under the bed, breathing heavily. He sank back into the mattress, and this time he did not pour. He raised the bottle to his lips and drank.
His mouth was dry, his fingers slightly numb. He opened his eyes slowly. It was dark, but he wasn’t sure of the time. An empty bottle rolled from his chest onto the floor with a heavy thunk as he sat up on the edge of the bed, the room spinning slightly. He began to yawn and suddenly realized that he was not alone in the room: there was a hooded figure seated in the chair at his desk, watching him. Instinct kicked in, and he fumblingly reached for the blade underneath the bed, only to find himself frozen in the grips of an unseen force.
“It appears you haven’t completely lost your wits, Leran.” The voice was cool, and feminine. The Adena from earlier in the day. And she knew his real name. He groaned and strained his muscles, but to no avail; she was using magic and he was powerless against it without the sword in his hands. “And it also appears as though my patience has finally been rewarded. You were not an easy man to find.”
The figure rose from the chair and made its way towards him, his sheathed sword in one of her hands. Her entire figure shimmered softly with in an incandescent light in the darkness. She smiled slightly as she watched him strain. “There is no use in trying to escape. We both know that it is pointless. And I am not here to harm you, although I think you might believe differently, given your history as a deserter.” Her smile widened as she watched his face. “Oh yes, we both know what they do to deserters. In many ways, we are not so different than the Sunarians, no?”
He gave up trying to break free and attempted to muster up some steel into his voice and gaze. “What do you want, Adena? If you are not here to harm me, why hold me in this fashion?”
She chuckled as she slowly pulled his sword free of its sheath, softly speaking the words that caused the blade to flame to emerald life, a cold fire that in his hands allowed him to battle both Aden’than and Sunarian powers despite having none of his own. “A Jarkath Blade. Only a handful of these were ever given, Leran. Your talents are wasted here.” She spoke the words of slumber, and the blade returned to mere black steel. She sheathed it and placed it on the bed beside him. She turned to walk to the balcony, and suddenly he could move again. He reached for the blade and contemplated whether or not he could bury it between her shoulders before she had a chance to react.
“I care not for your desertion,” she continued as she stood on the balcony looking out over the bay. The ocean breeze moved the drapes, but neither her robes nor her hair moved with them. “There are forces moving here in Lucimia that require someone with your unique talents, someone who can move unseen within the realm.” She turned to fix him with her eyes; they glowed with a green flame not unlike that of his sword.
His grip tightened around the hilt of the sword. “What possible reason do I have for helping you? I left that life behind. My time as a Jarkath is over. I am just a tavern owner now.”
She smiled thinly. “A tavern owner with a secret he wishes to keep, no? A lover he wishes to keep safe?” She did not bother to hide the threat in her voice.
He grit his teeth and swallowed slowly, the scent of charred flesh and hot blood flaring his nostrils as undesired memories of battles long past surged fresh in his mind. A sense of dread spread through his body as he partially unsheathed the sword and stared at the swirling green patterns lying dormant within the engravings, flickering with deadly potential. War changed everything.
“What must I do?”