The next morning as they set out from the inn, Al’bert was both disturbed and intrigued to find he was suffering from an unusual level of distraction over
As they moved into the sunlight from underneath the shade of the inn’s front porch, he felt none of the sure optimism his reason told him he should be feeling at this moment.
He did have a fairly decent, if variegated, group put together, and with their combined abilities he should be more than able to do exactly what it was that Fang expected of him.
There was a problem with Fang, though. He knew what Fang was doing with the “empire”, but he didn’t know how Fang expected to succeed at it. Al’bert dismissed that thought in his mind and decided the best thing to do would be to focus on his own immediate problems, which included managing four very different personalities that were now in his employ.
The Wiz seemed to think that Al’bert was inexperienced and uneducated, for he was continually leaning his formidable knowledge and judgment on Al’bert’s slight shoulder. It took all of Al’bert’s negotiating abilities to keep the Wiz from wresting control of the group from him altogether, and though a power struggle was something which he didn’t need or desire in the slightest, he kept the Wiz with him if only because his father so highly recommended the fellow.
The thief was consistently uneasy, and Al’bert wondered how long it would take for that to grate painfully on his nerves. His few attempts to make polite conversation with the fellow wound up making him feel like an interrogator, as the thief’s reactions were always of the denying sort.
Steev, on the other hand, was as indifferent as possible and possibly the one of the four who required the least maintenance. He seemed content and even vaguely pleasant, as long as he got paid. Al’bert had reconciled himself to the fact that the half-ogre was a “he” and not an “it”, and had a few proud moments over his liberal mentality.
“By cart or pigeon?” asked the young carrier, holding a letter Al’bert had written and sealed to his dear sister.
“Pigeon,” replied Al’bert, handing him several coins before turning to view the road beyond the small canyon town. This would be the last he would be able to correspond with Camilla until he came to civilization again, and Al’bert had no idea when that might be.
“Who’s Camilla?” asked
“Did you actually read that from there?” responded Al’bert irritably.
She replied with a nonchalant shrug and began walking down the road, lithe with indifference.
Al’bert caught up with her quickly enough to say, “She’s my sister.”
“Oh?” she said carelessly. She was still walking at a rather intense pace, which Al’bert knew they couldn’t continue for the entire day’s movement, so he took her arm to slow her.
His hand slowed her in more ways than one, and Al’bert suddenly felt sharply aware of her and released her to continue. Her sea-green eyes found his and he made quick conversation.
“She is in Schloeffelonia,” he said. “Have you been there?”
“No,” she replied. “Aren’t only elves allowed there?”
“Of course not,” he chuckled, although he realized he’d rarely seen anyone who was not an elf in his home country for his entire life. He added an afterthought: “We don’t get many visitors, though.”
“Why do you think that is?” she asked him, and he wasn’t sure if she was mocking him, for her delivery was suspect.
“I don’t know…” he said. “Perhaps other races don’t quite feel at home there?”
“Perhaps,” she replied.
“We don’t get out much,” he went on. “This is my first leave of the country in my life, although I’m quite young.”
She studied him for a long moment.
“How young is ‘young’?”
“I’m sixty-one,” he said.
“Good cripes, you’re an old man,” she said to him, her smile merry with amusement.
“I am not,” he replied indignantly.
“Of course you’re not,” she said, the timbre of her voice changing in an instant and her eyes restless and upon him. He felt the flush and vertigo again, and drew a breath to relieve himself as he concentrated on the road.
“Where are we going?” she asked him.
“The Prince passed through here about two weeks ago, and we’re following his trail.”
“What will we do once we find him?”
“Kill him, I suppose,” said Al’bert, although merely saying it made him inwardly recoil. “That’s what Fang wants, anyway.”
“Why does Fang want him dead?”
“The Prince is the only person who can contest Fang’s right to rule Schloeffelonia,” explained Al’bert with as little emotion as possible. “So in order to preserve his total leadership of the country, Prince Sangwine has to die.”
“And I suppose you’d suggest I change it to Al’ice,” she grinned at him.
“Well, it does have a nice lilt to it,” he said, glancing her way. He felt a twinge of pleasure at the familiarity of this exchange, and his old manipulations began to surface in a new world. He wondered if he could convince her to change her name for him, and accepted his own challenge. He had to do something to entertain himself, anyway.
“You’re self-absorbed, aren’t you?” she asked him in a way that sounded as if she had caught him with his hand in the cookie jar. This was entirely not what he had expected.
“Oh come now, Al’bert,” she laughed. “You think I should change my name to sound more like yours?”
Before he could reply she went on. “Now I do wonder if all elves are like you or if you’re merely unique that way.”
Neither point that he could argue was favorable so he changed the subject.
“Sangwine is a derivation of sanguine,” he said. “And it means passionate or red.”
“Now that’s a nice name,” she thought out loud, and seemed impressed. Al’bert felt a tinge of irritation. “Red?”
“The color of blood, to be precise.”
“Well,” she said. “Before you kill him off, I’d like to meet him first.”
She grinned at him, and he gave her an incredulous look.
“It wouldn’t be fair to judge the entire elven race off of just one specimen, would it?” she asked him directly. “Unless you’d say you’re a good example of what most elves are like?...”
She’d caught him in some kind of rudimentary conversational snare, he suspected, although it was full of holes, and it made him feel cornered and strange as he weighed between agreeing to let her meet Sangwine before his death and agreeing that he was like all other elves, which he most assuredly wasn’t. The former was not only a bad idea, but it gave him an odd taste of jealousy that brought him no small amount of distress. He felt jealousy and was forced to acknowledge it, and his precise and analytical mind knew exactly what that meant and he didn’t like it at all.
“You can meet all the elves you want, as far as I’m concerned,” he said shortly. “Just don’t get in the way of the mission.”
He moved away from her with the intention of turning his attention to the wizard, who was behind them on the road. It was a narrow road, barely wide enough for one cart, and it wound downward out of the canyon into the broad plains that separated this range of mountains from a smaller, gentler range to the east.
She’d have none of it, though, and took his arm, which he enjoyed but refused to indicate it by any means.
“Al’bert…” she said to him, smiling as she always did with her own brand of lopsided insincerity mixed with pleasantness. He looked at her and knew they’d moved on to war, and, realizing he’d been flagging and predictable, decided to change everything.
He put his hand on hers and caressed it, briefly, and watched as her face colored slightly. Then, after pulling her hand from around his arm, he left her and moved into conversation with the Wiz.
For the rest of the day he ignored her, except to occasionally meet her glance with his own which increased slowly in heat as the day wore on. Tonight he was certain things were going to change drastically.
And they did.
Camp was made at the base of the mountains in a very small clearing within a large grove, or even a small forest, of pines and birch trees. Once everything was settled, more or less, Al’bert left to wander the forest, with the sole intention that
He was anxious, and he was dreadfully aware of it as his limbs trembled under the conscientiousness of foraying into uncharted waters. Drawing a deep breath, he looked up at the sky through the canopy above him and saw a pine tree growing very tall and dark like a sharp swath, seemingly unmovable and unaffected by the entire world around it. A birch grew beside it, its leaves so delicate they shimmered in a breeze he could scarcely feel, but he could hear it, like water, faint and running through and under and beside. He closed his eyes and focused on that sound, exhaling with slow, fluid release and willing the trembling to leave his physical form.
When he opened his eyes,
She was standing probably about ten feet away, watching him, and her eyes were restless yet challenging. He wondered how to proceed when she pulled a knife from her bodice and threw it at him.
At least that’s what he thought at first (and not without a small amount of alarm), but instead the knife ran into the edge of his sleeve and pinned his arm to the tree behind him. For a moment all he could do was feel impressed over her ability to aim, but she was approaching him, and everything else fell away like water as she drew near and wholly kissed him.
It was unlike any other kiss he’d ever experienced, and he’d experienced quite a few, but they were all with elven girls and he found himself slowly in the way of thinking that if this were how humans kissed he could get lost in this particular wilderness. She was strong, fierce, and passionate, and if this had been a dance she would have wrested control and led where she would have him across the floor. There was nothing to be done but be kissed, and she did kiss him, on the mouth until he was forced to gasp for breath, and then in a gradual, sensual line to his neck, where she lingered until he felt a white pinch and jumped back in shock.
“Did you just… bite me?” he asked her incredulously. She stepped back one step, then another, the leaning smile always on her face and her eyes a simmering storm. He felt the absence of her presence against him and had to give it to her that she had the whole ‘feast or famine’ technique down fairly well.
She looked over her nails in a remarkably casual way, and then shifting her eyes like a strike at Al’bert said, “Yes.”
The sound and timbre of that word, spoken in that way and in that moment shattered something reserved in Al’bert and released something mindless. He tore his sleeve from the tree and, pulling her into his arms, he kissed her. He kissed her again and again, forgetting and blind with madness, and as he delved with abandon into the want of this woman no matter who she was or what she was, he was entirely unaware the trembling had returned.
He really wouldn’t have cared, anyway.