Residence on Morrow Lane, South Hill, Marrowshire
Mid-Morning Bell, Payday, 17th of Postharvest, Year 1126
Brysys Silverstone fingered polish along the curved length of his nicely sharpened horns, admiring their brilliant ebony shine in the mirror. A little powder to lighten his faintly reddish skin and play down the sharpness of his angular features. He bared his immaculate teeth and flicked off a blemish with a pinky nail. Narrowing golden eyes he studied his reflection and smoothed his eyebrows. Ah yes, Sune’s gift to the girls. If only he could impress Naomi’s mother as much as Naomi. Arch-magi were so damn thorny and suspicious. He had to play it right though, or he’d end up getting fire blasted.
He finished dressing. Shame that they couldn’t go out in the evening, but with monsters jumping out of every orifice, Lady Elderbranch insisted they keep their date short and in a public place. Meh. He suspected she had other reasons, but he would just have to play it by ear.
Brysys stepped into the commons, eying his coat and then his armor. He grabbed his chain-shirt, if monsters got into town and he let Naomi get even a scratch… he shuddered. He’d rather not go on a date dressed like he was heading into battle, but if it made a good impression— definitely a wise decision. Slipping into his boots he grabbed his battle rod, slid it into his belt, and headed out the door.
Heading down the lane, he glanced toward the center of town. Old man Devers had locked down the mill, and the windows of the Boughs of Glory Inn were shuttered. A group of what were probably militia were gathering near the entrance to the Shrine of the Morning Mist. The problem with the delving was really getting out of hand. Stupid outsider adventurers putting on airs and acting like they knew what they were doing. Fools. Half of that Silverbolt team dead or worse, and now the town was being over run. What had the idiots done? Hopefully there would be explanations in the city meeting this evening.
He turned down the lane and climbed the steps in front of the manor. He glanced up into the eves noting the stylized caryatids of marble. Lady Elderbranch had certainly done well for herself. Naomi told him her mother worked for King Edmund when he was still actively ruling Ivaneth, and that she had apprenticed with the famous Cassandra Kel’Ishtauri. From what he heard she still taught at the academy in Malan, but managed the Libros Fantasticos store on North Hill.
Following the tiled path into the vestibule he paused at the massive ironwood door decorated with a pair of black iron dragon heads holding knocker rings in their teeth. He flicked a few strands of hair into place, a drew a breath. Heaven and hell, heaven and hell, it will get better— it will get better… she’s worth it—hotter than a dragon shot… With a final hitch of his resolve he gripped the ring and gave the door three sharp whacks.
Barely three heartbeats, and the huge portal unlatched and swung in.
Brysys’ heart jumped and the blood in his veins seemed to turn to ice. The person who answered the door was definitely not Naomi. Dressed in emerald-colored robes, the woman was neither tall or heavy. She wore her dark hair pulled back and plaited in the style of the court ladies. Though she was obviously getting on in years, she had the smooth features of a maiden, a slim nose and delicate mouth. A beauty at this age, and no-doubt breath-taking summers before, it was easy to see who Naomi took after.
“Mis-ter Silverstone,” the woman said in a tone that could slice steel. “Good morn to you.”
The illusion of beauty vanished. He swallowed, trying not to look into the woman’s dark eyes. The lady was frelling rich, couldn’t she afford servants to answer the damn door? He drew a cleansing breath, calling upon Sune for compassion and understanding. Don’t let them smell fear. If you fear, all is lost. All is lost.
He straightened up and cleared his throat. He put on his best smile and bowed. “Lady Elderbranch! Sune’s blessings on you, I must say you look stunning today!”
Saroncil Elderbranch folded her arms and stared at him with narrowed eyes. Her lip curled. She raised her chin. “What’s the armor for? Some delusion about fighting off my daughter?”
He gritted his teeth, but kept his face smooth. “Milady, be at ease, I wore it in case the incursion takes a turn for the worse unexpectedly.”
She raised an eyebrow. “Trying to act responsible now, is it?”
He swallowed. Bloody mages. “Milady, it is not an act, Sune’s teachings are to abide with passion.”
The woman sniffed. “You say that now. I know you smooth talking Sunnites, all you’re interested in is—”
Saroncil’s words were cut off by the rapid slap of slippers. The door was yanked all the way open, and a young buxom brunette dressed in a frill-front blouse threw herself into his arms. “Bry!”
He caught her, feeling his pulse quicken as her warm flesh pressed against his. She smelled of starflowers, and her hair carried the scent of spice fruit. “Hey Hot—” he coughed, remembering her mother was only a pace away. “Naomi!” He pushed her back so there was some space between her ample breasts and his chest. “Good morning.”
“Morning,” Naomi pouted, obviously noting the way he had pushed her back. “It’s almost noon and I’ve been waiting sooo long!”
“Hey, to…” He froze in mid-quip feeling as though a hole were being burned in his right shoulder. Over Naomi’s head he saw Saroncil staring at him with fists on hips. Those dark eyes were fixed on him. An aura of crimson flecks spiraled and snapped around her body. “Naomi-chan, I had a hard night is all. Forgive me?” He smiled.
“Of course!” Naomi giggled and gave him a squeeze. “Let me finish getting ready!”
At Naomi’s back, Saroncil pointed at her eyes then aimed a sparking fingernail at him. Brysys experienced a full body shudder. An angry arch-magi could be very unhealthy. Why couldn’t her mother be a wealthy flower arranger instead of one of Ivaneth’s most accomplished battlemages?
Naomi disappeared back into the manor leaving him alone with the arch-mage.
The lady drew a breath. “You take care of her,” she sniffed. “I think you know what will happen if you don’t.”
He bowed. “Milady, she is safe with me. You have my word as an ordained of Sune!”
Saroncil eyed him. “I’m angling she’ll see through you before long.” She reached up and touched his chin. For an instant her eyes glinted with something besides suspicion and mistrust. She sighed. “Handsome, yes. Taught Sune’s passionate persuasive ways, yes.” She flicked his chin away. “All devil. If she does get serious, I’ll have more of you than your word.”
Brysys bowed. “Milady, I shall endeavor to win your trust.”
The mage blew out her cheeks and tilted her head. “I’ve lived too many seasons to rule out anything. I’ll keep an open mind.” She held up a tiny space between her fingers. “You take care of her.”
Brysys heard the scuff of boots come from the back part of the manor. Willowy Naomi appeared from the shadows of the house and swung up to her mother and kissed her on the cheek. The smaller woman hugged her daughter.
“You don’t have to hover, Mother,” Naomi chided. “Bry is always a perfect gentleman.”
Saroncil fixed her daughter with an all-knowing motherly gaze. “Namikins, just look,” she flicked a finger toward Brysys. “He’s a gentleman with horns. You don’t get those from being half deva.”
Naomi sputtered. “That’s not fair and you know it. Appearances aren’t everything. It’s the heart that matters!”
The older woman didn’t flinch. She patted her daughter’s shoulder. “Exactly.” She made a dismissing gesture. “Have fun and stay inside the city walls.” She turned and strode off into the house.
“I’m sorry Brymikins,” Naomi said with a pout, kissing him on the cheek. “Mom is just grouchy.”
He captured her hand and gave it a kiss. “Don’t worry about it, it’s just because she loves you so much.” He fingered a long curving horn. “Mistrust kinda comes with these.” He raised his chin, and looked at her wiggling his eyebrows. “Not everyone can be as sexy as me.”
Naomi giggled and hugged his arm, pressing her body against his. He sucked a breath, hotter than dragon-fire, yes indeed.
Together they headed toward town. Naomi glanced toward the shrine and the guards gathering there. “So, the thing with monsters from the delving hasn’t stopped?”
“Doesn’t look like it,” he answered. “They’ll tell us one way or the other at the meeting tonight.”
“Where are we going anyway?” she asked.
“The unicorn,” he answered. “We can sit on the patio.”
“Nice,” she responded, snuggling up to him.
They walked for a bit, strolling down the hill to the broadway bridge. All around the town perimeter he saw signs of doubled and tripled guard patrols. If it got any worse they’d be calling up civilians. As a staff member at the Shrine he’d be called up.
“Bry,” Naomi asked.
“Was Mom mean to you while I was dressing?”
He glanced down at her. “She simply made her position clear, that’s all.”
“She’s not allowed to bully you,” she said with a serious expression. “I won’t allow it.”
They were at the apex of the bridge looking down into the stream. He stopped and focused on her. “No.” He tapped her on the nose. “Do not. Leave her be. She’s too old and too powerful, and giving her an ultimatum will just get her back up. Trust me, neither of us want to try to out-stubborn her—we’ll lose—by Sune’s love… we’ll lose sooo big.”
She pursed her lips. “You think so?”
He took her shoulders and gave her a gentle shake. “Let me handle her. You just be a good obedient daughter.”
She stuck out her lower lip. “It just makes me mad. I don’t like the idea of her picking on you.”
He put his arm around her waist and started walking the two of them west toward the Dulcet Unicorn. He tapped his horn and nodded toward her. “Don’t worry, Hon, I got thick skin. I’ll survive a little motherly brow-beating.”
Naomi frowned. “Are you sure?”
“Positive,” he said. “I just got to come up with a good plan that’ll win her over that I’m a good guy.”
“Plan?” She asked. “Win her over how?”
“Not sure,” he responded. “I’ll know it when I hear it.”
Together they strolled up the incline to the three story expanse of the Dulcet Unicorn, and up the steps to the brick terrace. He and Naomi waved to several regulars who greeted them as they headed over to the main counter.
As they stopped at the maid station Brysys saw a burly horned figure at the bar with flagon in hand. Dressed in black ring-leather his reddish skin etched with tattoos, it was obvious he was not a local. He felt a chill. There was something familiar about that figure.
Dressed in the brilliant blue bustier and white frill blouse, one of the Unicorn’s four serving maids flounced up to the counter.
“Fine morning to you master Silverstone,” she said with a bow. “And you as well lady Elderbranch!”
“Fine morning, Lady Gretchin,” he greeted in return. He smiled. “A couple lunch plates if you would be so kind, and a flask of fruit mead.”
“Right away, young master,” Gretchin chirped, heading back into the kitchen.
The figure at the bar swung around, revealing a blocky face with a heavy brow and deep set angular eyes that glowed with an amber light. The thick jaw and stick thin mustache and chin patch were features of a face he’d not soon forget.
“Oreck,” he muttered.
The burly tiefling pushed away from the bar and turned toward Brysys. He pulled at a silver ear festoon, a sign of the bounty-hunters guild and clomped over with an outstretched hand.
“Ho there,” he boomed in an ale-drum voice. “Bry ole buddy!”
Brysys didn’t take his hand. “Hold yer ho there.” He turned to Naomi. “Hon, can you go find us a table? I’ll bring it out to you.” He kissed her on the cheek.
Naomi glanced at Oreck and bit her lip. She nodded and headed out to the terrace.
Oreck watched Naomi sway away and made a growling sound. “Rawl rawl,” he clicked his studded tongue. “Wow, the old horndog is scoring some quality meat.” He waved his hand in a too-hot-to-handle gesture.
“Ixnay,” Brysys said in a low tone. “Ixnay on the orn-dog-say. She’s legit.”
“Legit?” Oreck leaned to catch sight of her through the window. “No waaay! Back on Jhedar you said you’d never settle down!”
“Down boy,” Brysys made calming gestures. “What are you doing here anyway?”
Oreck smacked his horn. “I’m here for the water.” He scowled. “A bounty obviously.”
“Yeah, here,” Oreck said. “Slippery little bastard too. Little bugger has a world gate key.”
“A world gate key?” Brysys frowned. He checked outside to make sure Naomi was okay. By Sune she was pretty with the sunlight reflecting in her shiny dark hair. He looked back to Oreck’s ruddy face. “I thought only families on the magocratic council had those.”
“Right,” the bounty hunter said. “He’s high lady Elsbeth’s grand nephew. Ran away from a post or some such.” He shrugged. “They’re offering sixty thousand talons to pick him up.”
Brysys gulped. “Sixty—thousand. You’re jesting.”
“I jest not, Buddy. When I tracked him to Titaan, I thought, ‘Hey, my old buddy Brysys lives there. I have to look him up.’ Low and behold, I track the slippery little puke and you live in the same town. Is that a coincidence or what?”
“Quite a coincidence,” he echoed. One of the Crowninshield royal family here in Marrowshire; small universe.
“Hey, so you’re legit now? No more bounty hunting?”
“Not recently,” he murmured. “So, you got a picture of this guy?”
Oreck pulled a parchment out of his vest and handed it over. Brysys examined the pastel drawing. He looked familiar. Summers might have changed his features. This didn’t bode well. For sixty-thousand talons, bounty hunters would be crawling out of the woodwork. Since when did the royal family hire mercenaries to do their hunting?
He handed the picture back. “I don’t know him.” He punched his old friend’s shoulder. “Word to the wise. This is a tough town. Pick a fight with the wrong person and you’ll be sleeping in Sune’s arms.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Oreck said making dismissing gestures. “Go make kissy face with yer legit girl.”
“I will,” Brysys said. “I hope you score.”
He took the plates from the counter and headed out to Naomi. He shook his head. He better enjoy their time together. The town thought it was in chaos now. Wait until a dozen trigger-happy bounty hunters were scouring the city for a sixty-thousand talon bounty…