Written by Aaron McQueen
Illustrated by Rachel Mrotek
Copyright July 1st, 2017
This story is dedicated to my family, my friends, and my most generous subscribers, whom I have listed below. Without their help, support, and contributions, this production would not be possible.
“Now that’s not fair. You and I both know it’s worth more than that.”
The wagon master leaned back in his chair.
“This is the last caravan before winter. Everyone is trying to get inland to wait it out. You want a ride to Selapak? Pay.”
“We can’t afford what you’re asking.”
The man crossed his arms and smiled.
“Then I suggest you head back to the coast and take up ice fishing.”
Nathanius growled. It wasn’t as though he didn’t understand the man’s position. In his place he would be doing the same thing. Soon the pass would close and the Notch would be buried by snow and avalanche, but with Misery destroyed there was no way they would survive the long dark on the coast. They didn’t have the skills.
They had to get to Selapak. At least there they might be able to fight or steal their way into some kind of food and shelter. He’d managed it several times, and without help. This time would be easier.
They just had to get there.
The crowd in the bar suddenly erupted into catcalls and applause. The noise took Nathanius by surprise. He spun around on his chair, half expecting to find Asterious in the middle of a bar fight.
Instead, he saw Ellyn.
She was seated at the far end of the room near the fireplace, tuning a guitar in her hands. She’d pulled back her hood, revealing her face—not to mention her gender—prompting the reaction from the crowd. Asterious sat close by, keeping the mob at bay.
Her fingers brushed over the strings.
The room quieted.
Music wasn’t uncommon on the continent. A quick tune and a handful of bawdry lyrics could put a man in a warm bed with a full stomach, but no one would call the amateur melodies of the beerhall bards real music. They were workaday rhymes, the bread and butter of journeyman beggars; not without their charm, but subtly lacking in altitude. Ellyn’s chord washed over the room like the sunrise, a long moment of warmth that carried on and lingered in the air.
Then she began to play.
It was like watching a painter. The song began delicately at first, fine lines of colour on canvas; then, as the composition began to take shape, bolder hues began to appear, filling the room with a complex harmony of strength and beauty, until every man, no matter how rough-hewn, sat mesmerized by the swirling pattern in the air.
Nathanius watched, entranced like all the others, as Ellyn took the crowd in thrall. The games stopped. The dice stilled. The people scarcely ate or drank; they only stared, wide-eyed, at the forgotten spectacle of music.
Nathanius forced himself out of his reverie and nudged the wagon master to attention.
“Sir,” he said. “I think maybe we can work something out.”
Azarelle sat. She wasn’t used to meeting Lon in his office.
“It’s a lot of money,” he said.
She twirled a lock of hair around one finger nervously. He was right. It was a lot of money, but Polly had to be paid, and there wasn’t much time. According to her friend, the closer winter came the less currency would be worth as the citizens of Selapak scrambled to gather stores of fuel and food. She hoped to use this point to carry her argument.
“The ingots won’t hold their value forever. We may as well spend them now before the merchants stop taking them.”
Lon sat, considering.
“What do you need it for anyway?”
She was ready for this. She didn’t want to reveal the nature of her work, not even to Lon. There was too much at stake.
He would probably think she was crazy.
“I’m working on a new creation for the winter, a smokeless stove that doesn’t require fuel.”
“I’ve heard of those. They’re expensive.”
Azarelle smiled. That was good news. It would have been hard to explain otherwise.
It wasn’t necessarily a lie. She was going to make the stove, and they were indeed costly. It’s what made it such a good alibi. She’d just fudged the numbers a bit. That’s all.
She answered him.
“They are, but I believe it can be done in the time we have left. We can’t eat ingots, or burn them. It might be a good idea to invest them in something we can use.”
“You mean invest them in you.”
She smiled back.
“You’ve been satisfied so far.”
Okay, so she was laying it on a little thick, but she really needed the money.
Lon sat back.
“Very well, you can have your ingots. How soon will the stove be ready?”
“A few weeks.”
“I’m drawing most of the enchantment from memory. There will be some trial-and-error.”
“Just don’t set the house on fire.”
Azarelle smiled as she stood up.
“At least we’d be warm.”
She went to the door. Lon stood up.
“Hey, wait a moment.”
He approached quietly, running a hand through his hair and hastily straightening his clothes.
“I’ve been meaning to ask you something.”
Uh oh. Azarelle tensed. She should have anticipated this. It was the first time they’d spoken since he’d gifted her the pin, and she’d worn it to the meeting.
“Would you join me for lunch tomorrow afternoon?”
And there it was.
She paused. Idle flirtations were one thing, but this was different.
It wasn’t as though she didn’t like the idea a little. It was just hard to reconcile dating someone while at the same time asking them for huge sums of money. The whole thing just seemed a little too…professional. She already felt guilty enough.
And then there was the vision.
She felt her cheeks starting to blush and forced the image from her mind, casting about for anything she could use as an excuse.
His face fell.
Now she really felt guilty.
“I just mean not lunch! I have to pick up a delivery you see, and I was supposed to meet them at noon. Maybe we could meet later?”
He picked up and a sly grin grew across his face.
“You knew I would give you the ingots, didn’t you?”
She smiled weakly.
He swept in and embraced her. She squawked in alarm, but he held her fast, wrapped up gently but firmly in his arms. A fleeting second passed; then the surprise began to yield, and Azarelle felt her shoulders relax and tease her with an unfamiliar feeling of content.
Then it was over. He let her go and withdrew.
“Two days then.”
She stammered out a reply and backed out the door, still struggling to process the encounter.
What else could she have said?
She went back down the corridor and headed for her office. A date. It was just a date. It was nothing. She could always cancel, or she could go and just…make conversation. That would work, right? They could talk about work and the weather and at the end of the night she would thank him for dinner and tell him that it would probably be best if they kept their relationship professional.
She shut the door to her office and thumped her head back against the wood. Ugh.
What a mess.
She looked at the pile of contraband on the table, heaped up on top of her notes. At least she got her ingots, moral reservations and all. She could pay Polly and keep the goods flowing. They would use some of the money to rent an out-of-the-way place to store their stash. If it came to it, the two of them would hopefully have enough supplies to escape, and if she was very lucky she would already be finished her work.
She walked across the room and flopped into bed, snatching up her notebook and a quill. She began sketching out Lon’s new stove. Part of her hoped fervently that somehow he and his brothers would find a way to fight off the invasion. That would be the best of both worlds.
She found herself doodling on the page. The drawing was an angel.
The meeting was tomorrow.
Maybe she would finally get some answers.
The viewing glass trilled softly into silence. The walls closed and were opaque again.
Valis sat back.
This was going to be more difficult than he thought.
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