early September, 1514
somewhere on the west coast
(sometime between Mulehide 17 and 19)
Harmony was sitting at a little table against the wall reading when the two elves came in. The tall one had blond hair pulled back in a not-very-secure ponytail; his clothes were fairly clean and well-made, if worn, and a very nice longsword hung from his belt along with a couple of smaller knives and a dagger. His friend was shorter and darker and dressed in shades of gray, and carried a good number of sharp, shiny weapons, as well as an odd-looking gun in a hip holster. They were arguing as they sat down, not far from her, and she tried to listen to what they were saying.
"Don't you ever learn?" the short one demanded.
"What?" said the blond, innocently. "You didn't think she was cute?"
"Cute nothing, Jace, she was just gonna get you drunk and steal your stuff again."
Hm, Harmony thought, so it works on elves, too. Then the shorter elf pinched a bar-maid; she shrieked, he giggled, she turned and slapped him, his taller friend and some men at the next table broke out in laughter, and whatever else they might have said sank into the sea of general tavern conversation.
Harmony was a professional avenger, exacting appropriate vengeance for people who couldn't do it themselves. It was a religious thing. She was trained in various disciplines, including some of the more widely known far eastern martial arts; she could pick a lock, pick a pocket, walk in shadow, and speak a couple of languages passably well. She was a fair shot with a crossbow, a better shot with throwing knives, and best either hand-to-hand or with two short swords. She expected that one day she would become a paladin, a priest with a sword, a holy assassin for her shadowy, secretive goddess.
She'd been trailing a guy for two months, following leads that zigged and zagged im-probably all up and down the coast, and this was the first promising thing she'd seen in weeks. She wasn't sure if this dark little elf was the man she wanted, but he matched the profile so closely--a short elf, about 200 years old (give or take), with black hair, a number of aliases, and two distinguishing marks--an arcane symbol tattooed on his upper arm and a bull's-eye over his heart. She'd been assigned this particular vengeance because she'd been training so hard and hadn't had a good challenge in a long time; she felt like she'd been on vacation almost all year and was more than ready to get to work.
She'd been in Palasach in January for the Festival of the Goblins; it had taken all of a day and a half to find the woman she wanted and exact the revenge she'd sworn, and then she'd just stayed around to enjoy the festival. She'd gotten in four bar brawls (one of which she took a little credit for starting), lost a dagger and three throwing knives, drank too much, slept with a complete stranger for no good reason for the first (and so far only) time in her life, foiled seven pickpockets, and bought a knit hat with embroidered rabbits and mittens to match. That had been a better party even than the New Year's she was in Port Sarnwog and fell off a bridge into the river.
Harmony watched the short dark elf joking with his tall blond friend and wondered how she was going to get him to take off his shirt so she could tell if he really was the man she wanted. She guessed she could trail him until he decided to take a bath, or until he stripped off his clothes for another reason. Elves really weren't her thing--too arrogant, too hard to kill, too close to godlike immortality--no one should live that long--and she wasn't exactly thrilled about maybe having to seduce him just to see if he had a tattoo on his arm and another one on his chest.
Sitting at a table between Harmony and the two elves was a girl with her hair in braids scribbling in an open book; she had a slightly crazed look on her face and she talked to herself.
"Ok, ok," she was saying, "where was I.... 'Tell me, is there balm in Gilead'--where is Gilead, anyway.... 'Quoth the Raven'...ok, here, Raven, 'I forgot my line'...."
Harmony listened to her for a few minutes, since she couldn't hear the elves, and then she stuck her book in her pack, left some coins for her lunch, and walked out.
She strolled around town for a while, tried to formulate a plan to get close to her short elven quarry. She eventually decided to just wait and see what came up. She found a nice secluded spot in which to say her prayers as the sun set, and then she deposited her pack in the inn where she'd taken a room and went back to the tavern. The two elves were still there; they'd attracted another fellow drinker (this one human) and two pretty girls--a blond in not much of a red dress and a brunette in tight green pants and what looked like a silver filigree bra. A scraggly band of musicians started a song and the two women got up to dance. Harmony watched the girl in the green pants drag the blond elf to his feet while her friend coaxed the human newcomer onto the dance floor. The dark elf--the suspect--sat at the table and watched them, scowling a little. Harmony walked over to him and asked if she could sit down.
He looked up at her and his scowl turned to speculation. She knew what he saw--a human girl, maybe 18, maybe 20, as tall as he was, night-black hair cut just below her chin, an intense dark blue gaze, well-defined muscles under tight black leather pants, black leather vest, faded red shirt with the sleeves rolled up. Her flat-heeled knee-high boots had pointed toes and plain silver spurs. A short sword hung from each hip, along with daggers and throwing knives and a pewter wolf charm painted white and gray. He couldn't know (or maybe he could) she had other knives secreted on her person, and the metal stars sewn to her vest were more than mere decoration. She was beautiful, she knew--her blessing and her curse. A blessing because there were many advantages to be had by being pretty and batting one's eyes and swinging one's hips, and a curse because people remembered her. Although, if she got in trouble with the law as the result of an assignment, the temple always took care of it.
"Sure," he said, "take a chair. Why not."
"What's your name?" she asked, and sat.
"Lusiphur. You got a cigarette?"
"I can roll you one."
"Fine." He watched her produce a little tobacco pouch and a packet of rolling papers; the tobacco pouch was leather, dyed dark red and embroidered with little brown lizards. "Lizards, cute."
"That's what I thought, too." She licked the edge of the paper to seal it and handed the cigarette to Lusiphur. "Did your parents have a sick sense of humor, or what?"
"No, it's...forget it, call me Luse."
"Ok, Luse, call me Harmony." At his skeptical look, she smiled. "I can be very serene." He nodded agreeably, produced a match, scratched it across the table, and lit his cigarette.
"Serene is good." He inhaled, exhaled, pointed across the bar at his elven friend, who was starting to show off and looked kind of goofy. "Would you go home with him?"
"Blonds aren't my type." Blond elves weren't, anyway.
"That's Jace, he thinks he's everybody's type. Pretty good road trip buddy, though."
"Pretty bad dancer, that's for sure." She peered into the pitcher on the table, wasn't surprised to find it empty. She got a barmaid's attention and ordered more beer. "Where are you guys traveling to?"
"Mandratha." Luse blew a smoke ring.
"Yeah? I was there, oh, three-four years ago. Pretty fun city, inept cops, weird thief problem. What takes you that way?"
"An old friend of mine lives there now, thought I'd drop in on her, mess with her life a little." He grinned at Harmony. "She'll be surprised, all right. I've been planning to get up there for a while, thought I'd get a tattoo, do something that won't endanger me or society at large."
"Cool. I've got two--this one I got in Port Sarnwog"--she held out her left arm, displaying a bracelet tattoo around her wrist, a narrow band composed of circles and triangles--"and one here that the priests did." She put her other hand over her heart. Luse regarded her chest thoughtfully.
"Priests?" he repeated.
"I work for a temple." She shrugged. She didn't really like to talk about her religion and her work with complete strangers; they always jumped to conclusions and she didn't want to deal with that. Besides, she usually got the job done better when the quarry didn't know what was in store.
She rolled herself a cigarette, drank her beer, and chatted with Luse about temples and priests and tattoos and other unimportant stuff. After barely two pitchers (most of which he drank) Harmony was thinking she'd made a mistake, and then he leaned across the table.
"Can I tell you a secret?" he whispered conspiratorially. "I'm a wanted man. Elf. Whatever."
"Yeah?" she prompted.
"Yeah. I stole a diamond and broke out of prison and killed a countess and this war-lord and trashed all these inns.... I beat the crap out of a demon 'cause he took my eye, that's what wrecked Amineta--"
"I heard about that. Someone told me some wizard miscast a spell and destroyed the whole town. You did that? Are you a wizard?" He certainly didn't look like one.
"Nah, crazy shit just follows me around. I killed a doppleganger in Lowe and got stuck dragging his carcass all over the damn place, almost got killed myself by this dimension-jumping assassin thing--twice--oh, hey, you ever hear of an eve?"
"I know a guy who married one."
"His wife. That's her name. Eve."
"That's not what I meant, forget it." He drained his mug. "Hey, more beer over here!" he yelled. The nearest barmaid, the redhaired girl whose butt he'd pinched earlier, rolled her eyes at him and held up a finger, maybe telling him he only got one more beer before they cut him off. Harmony didn't care as long as she got to see him without his shirt. She was pretty certain he wasn't the man she wanted, but she had to make sure. Besides, he was starting to be fun.
"I got kidnapped in Palasach," he went on, "forced into Gilles root withdrawal, not fun, that's the first time I met little Danny Dipshit over there--" He pointed across the bar, but Jace was gone. "Damn, he left! Did you see him leave?"
"Crow, he's got one brain cell left and it ain't in the head that's doing his thinking, he's gonna wake up with a hangover the size of the Samwahawns and I'm not gonna talk his sorry ass down from it this time. And if he left with that blond chick I owe him thirty crowns."
"That sucks," Harmony said sympathetically. "I was in Palasach in January, for the Festival of the Goblins. That's some party."
"Hey, that's when I was there!" He eyed her suspiciously. "If you work for the Nick I think I'm gonna have to kill you."
"I wouldn't worry."
"Crazy old fart...." He made a face at his mug, then looked up at her. "But y' know, I haven't killed anyone since June and I'm actually starting to like him--Jace, I mean--he's not the smartest elf to walk out of the Steps but he's, you know, a good guy. Served under Ailwon, that's more weird shit, I don't know how to tell him I killed the guy."
"Ailwon, Ailwon San Fennlach? The war duke? You killed a war duke?" Harmony was impressed. It wasn't every day she got to meet someone who claimed to have killed an elven warlord, even though Luse had already said he destroyed Amineta, was chased by a dimension-jumping assassin, and killed a doppleganger, and those were things that might happen to someone stupid (or skilled) enough to kill a war duke.
"Yeah, people have this tendency to die around me, I figure the best I can hope for is someone I can at least tolerate for a couple months, and that's not too many people, you know what I mean?"
"Most people, all they want is to eat and drink and have sex, and whoever's on top of the food chain gets the best beer and the best-looking women, and whoever's at the bottom gets screwed. Which is me, lately." He made another face at his mug. "Why's this still empty?" he demanded.
"Are you always depressed like this?" Harmony asked, waving at the barmaid. "Or is it a seasonal thing?"
"You ever have one of those days?"
"Every now and then, sure, who doesn't?"
"Me, I have one of those lives. You name it, I've lived it. Pisses me off. Sometimes I just wanna settle down, maybe get married again, stop wandering all over, find someone to love who loves me back, yadda yadda yadda, and then sometimes I think, what the hell, I was married once and it didn't work out, why would I want to do that to myself again? I'm having fun, dammit!" He slammed the empty mug on the table. "Bring us more beer!" The other barmaid, the one with the brown braids, appeared and deposited a fresh pitcher on the table.
Harmony poured beer and contemplated the elf across from her. Now she was positive Luse wasn't her target; he didn't really fit the profile. But she kind of liked him, at least to drink with, and maybe he could be some help.
"Hey, maybe you can help me," she said, "I'm looking for this elf--"
"Why do all you humans think elves all know each other?"
"I don't, but he looks like you, maybe you've been confused for someone else?" He shrugged and shook his head, so she decided to change the subject. "You were married?"
"Crow, don't remind me. Frickin' sorceresses."
"We just weren't compatible, I guess. Ah, it always turns to shit anyway."
"Does anything good ever happen to you?" She noticed his mug was almost empty and refilled it, then refilled her own. It briefly occurred to her that if he was paying more attention he might think she was trying to get him drunk on purpose.
"Well, I got a cool sword--Ailwon's sword, Cinlach--I'm goin' to Mandratha with someone I can probably be friends with, for a change, got beer--" He gestured grandly with his now-full mug, accidentally hitting someone at the next table and sloshing beer on him.
"Hey," the guy said, brushing futilely at the wet patch on his shirt, "what the fuck was that?"
"I was making a point, you moron."
"Moron? Did you just call me a moron?"
"Sorry, you must answer to 'Ass-munch,' huh?"
"Oh, great," Harmony muttered, as the guy at the next table stood up. He was taller than Luse, and wider, and looked soberer. Soberer? Was that a word?
"You're dead, backbiter," the guy said threateningly, pulling out a sword and practical-ly climbing over the table in his effort to get to Luse. Luse jumped up, knocked over his chair, pulled his own sword--that must be the famous Cinlach, Harmony thought--and rushed the other guy. He suddenly seemed very sober.
"We were having a moment," Luse yelled, parrying with Cinlach and trying to reach his gun. "I don't need this crap!" The guy's friends joined the fray, one of them coming at Harmony as she was unsheathing her own swords. She ducked again, slid under him, lost her balance, landed on her ass. In the four seconds it took her to get her bearings, the man grabbed her arm and twisted it behind her. She pivoted, felt her shoulder pop, and drove her knee into his groin. He dropped her arm and his sword at the same time, and she punched him twice in the face before he hit the ground.
"Don't do that again," she told him calmly, lightly sidestepping someone brandishing a bottle in one hand and a short sword in the other. Her head was clear, her hands steady.
She glanced around to see Luse dangling four inches off the floor, the front of his shirt wadded in the big guy's big hand; as she watched, Luse stuck his gun in the guy's face but was suddenly flying across the room before he could pull the trigger. The gun fired anyway, spitting bullets into the walls and probably at least one bystander.
"Lusiphur, you DORK," Harmony yelled, as he crashed into the wall, a table, a chair, and the floor, in that order. She used her swords to clear a path, and prepared herself to get tangled in a bar brawl, because this was turning into a good one.
She reached the elf just as he pulled himself off the floor, shook his head, felt all over himself to make sure nothing was broken or missing. He was swearing under his breath, muttering things that could have curdled milk; Harmony was less than surprised to recognize words she herself had used in similar situations.
"That was interesting," she commented. "What do you do for an encore?"
"Rassa-frassin' mumble mumble mumble," he muttered incoherently. He glared daggers around the room. "Duck." She did and Luse parried a sword appearing about where her head had been.
"Thanks," she said. He muttered something that might have been "No problem" before jumping around her and plunging back into the fray.
Harmony climbed on a handy chair to get a good look around. She could see Luse swinging his sword with one hand and his fist with the other, and not looking too pleased about it; he must have either dropped his gun in his flight across the room, or he'd holstered it. The fighting had spread across the bar and she realized if she stood here and thought about it too long she'd probably get killed.
Ok, she thought, I'll dance. And she took a deep calming breath, jumped off the chair, and let the brawling mass engulf her.
Something less than fifteen minutes later, Harmony found herself being unceremoni-ously propelled out of the bar, a cut on her arm and a bruise forming on one cheek but otherwise unhurt. She was a girl for whom a good fight--a really good fight--was better than good sex (even really good sex), and bar brawls usually fell into the same category as one-night stands--they could be energizing but you wouldn't want to make a career out of them. She drifted across the street, getting out of the way as two more men fell out the door, looked around for Lusiphur, and settled herself on the front steps of a shop facing the tavern. She sheathed her swords and commenced rolling a cigarette, a little surprised that the pouch containing her tobacco and rolling papers was still attached to her belt. She didn't see Luse, which was disappointing but not tragic. He was fun to drink with, she supposed he would be good to fight beside and bad to fight against, he wasn't the man she'd been sent out to find, she didn't want to sleep with him, and it didn't matter if she never saw him again.
Which was good, because he was gone. And if what he'd said about Amineta and the demon and the doppelganger and the dimension-jumping assassin (and the death of Ailwon San Fennlach) was all true, it was probably just as well. Harmony liked adventure but she wasn't stupid. She blew a string of smoke rings and absently fingered the slash in her shirt sleeve and wondered if it was time to move on. She still had a tattooed elf to find and vengeance to exact and a job to do, after all.
November 1997-January 1998
Lusiphur, Jace, Ailwon, the Nick, and all the places they've been are © Drew Hayes.
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