The Callindra Chronicles Book 3: A Fall of Stars – Chapter 71

“Oh please, simply call me Drake.” He said, smiling.  “I assure you the honor and pleasure of our meeting is certainly mine.”

She lowered her eyelashes and walked next to him, allowing him to guide her to a group of people sitting at a table.  “Pleasure can be shared, Count.” Flirting was not something she excelled at, but Rrayu had given her some tips and to her surprise, they seemed to work far better than she would have imagined possible.

“Indeed,”  Drake said, giving her a brief but through leer.  “Perhaps we can share more later.”

Callindra suppressed a shudder and kept her face down in case she couldn’t keep her feelings from showing.  “Perhaps.”

“Drake, you old letch!”  One of the men at the table laughed, “Always getting to the newest and prettiest girls first.”

“Come now; she’s not just a pretty face,”  Drake said with a smile. “This young lady is The Sol’Estin.”

Most of the courtiers at the table made polite noises, either ambivalent about or ignorant of the title.  Two of them stopped and gave her looks that did little to disguise their hostility.

“I thought they were warriors or sword fighters or something.”  A young woman in a low cut black dress said, “Or is that just a title?”

Callindra took a glass of wine from a passing servant, ignoring the question.  She focused on her surroundings and covertly kept an eye on the two hostile courtiers.  One was a woman of striking beauty dressed in a comparatively severe gown and the other was a man who looked old but still well-muscled and hale.

“Nay Kapirnika, the title requires training and skill.”  Drake said with a smile, “Rumor has it, Lady Callindra is quite accomplished with a blade.”

“Hardly seems proper for a Lady,”  Kapirnika said, giving Callindra a mildly scandalized look.

“Well, in this age, we all must make sacrifices,”  Callindra said, sipping her wine.

“Too true.”  The woman across from her said.

Before the others could comment further, the chime sounded again, this time followed by an officious voice.  “Lords Durrak Caverstorm and Lorin Blackthorn.”

The light illuminated the staircase and an odd pair, a tall and elegantly attired Elf standing next to a heavily armed and armored Dwarf.  They were chatting as they walked down the staircase, apparently not paying any attention to the eyes that followed them. The Dwarf pulled something from a belt pouch and blew a cloud of bright blue smoke into the air with an accompanying exclamation.

“That pair finally showed up at a ball,”  Drake said, looking at them with narrowed eyes.  “I wonder what our Lady offered or threatened them with.”

“I don’t think the Dwarf would respond to threats passively.”  The older man who had been glaring at her said.

“He has a history of obliterating threats quite actively.”  Kapirnika said enthusiastically, “I don’t think the Elf should be assessed as any less capable, however.  Have you seen him shoot his bow? Gives me chills.”

“Drake, see if you can get them to come over here.”  The severely dressed woman said, “I’d love to take a closer look at that polearm he carries.  Word has it Herself enchanted it for him so he could get his revenge on that menace of a dragon.  More power to him if he can, for all I think he’s insane to try.”

“Zinneah, you’re only ever interested in whatever magic someone has.” Kapirnika said, “Don’t you ever think of anything else?”

Zinneah glared briefly at her before her gaze returned to Callindra, focusing on her right side.  “Oh, I think of many things, Kapi dear, but I always come back to what’s important. Magic, power and weapons matter now more than anything else.”

Callindra toyed with the stem of her wine glass, “You mentioned a dragon?  Would that be Cerioth?”

“What would you know of that?”  She snapped, giving Callindra a more appraising look.  “How did you manage to make it here alive anyway? Your guards must be quite competent.”

“Please excuse me,”  Callindra said, setting her wine glass down as she rose.  “I must go and speak with Lord Caverstorm.”

The Callindra Chronicles Book 3: A Fall of Stars – Chapter 70

The ‘transport’ had turned out to be a handcart pulled by two burly men, and it was only big enough for Callindra to ride.  Since the rest of her friends were posing as her guards, she thought it was fitting that they walk, regardless of how much Reed grumbled about it.  Besides, there was no way she could have walked that far in the gown and shoes.  Even if it wasn’t so tight she could barely breathe, she would be worried about soiling her hem in the dirt of the street.

Following the winding wooden platforms that connected the dirt and cobblestone streets, they arrived at Ellen Eth ‘Orien’s mansion.  It was three stories tall, each story made of a different color of marble.  The courtyard was paved with gold coins instead of gravel, and guards in matching jet black livery stood at the polished blackwood doors.

Callindra stepped from the cart, gratefully accepting Reed’s hand to steady herself when her bloody skirts nearly tripped her.  Now she understood why Ladies had attendants.  Approaching the guards at the door, she gave them a slight inclination of her head and walked through the door.  The ballroom was so breathtaking it took her a moment to notice her companions hadn’t entered behind her.

A man in black livery with a staff of office stepped from behind a podium, looking at her appraisingly.  “And you are?”  He inquired in a voice that suggested she was dressed in strips of rotting meat.

Her temper flared, and a gust of wind swirled around her before blowing an inkwell over onto a stack of paper before also blowing the documents to the floor.  “Invited.”  She said shortly, gliding past him as he jumped to try and save the parchment.

“My attendants should be joining me shortly,”  Callindra said over her shoulder, and then she had to focus on her surroundings.  The arched entrance led down to a floor inlaid with gold and jade in intricate swirling patterns.  Richly dressed men and women stood in groups, talking and listening to an orchestra playing in a minor key.

As she walked through the archway, a gentle chime sounded, and the assembled folk turned to look in her direction.  A light above illuminated her as she walked down a wide staircase, and a servant in white livery came to offer escort.  A man in a perfectly tailored suit of dark red satin with lace ruffles at the cuffs and collar approached and bowed.

“Delgrin did not introduce you, but I gather you must be Lady Sol’Estin?”  He took her hand and brushed it with his lips.  “I am Count Drake Ardent.”

Callindra took her hand back to curtsey as Rrayu had taught her, “I am indeed, it is a pleasure to meet you, Count Ardent.”

The Callindra Chronicles Book 3: A Fall of Stars – Chapter 69

“She’s barely left that room for two days.”  Vilhylm said, “I can’t imagine something’s going to have significantly changed in such a short time.”

“Maybe not, but I ain’t gonna be the one to mess up my part,”  Reed said, helping himself to a glass of wine.  “We’re all supposed to be escorts.  You’re all guards of one nature or another; that sounds easy enough to me.  I gotta be like a runner or something; hopefully, I can chat up some of the servants.”

“None of us have to change who we appear to be.”  Holt said, “She is undertaking a much more difficult task.”

“I’m certainly not a guard.”  Connor said, “I should probably just stay behind so I don’t mess anything up.”

The door to Callindra’s room swung open, and a vision in forest green silk with a matching handbag hanging from her right wrist on a delicate silver chain swept into the room.  The lines of her dress made a gentle hourglass shape, the bodice and skirt accentuating her figure.  Velvet slippers peeked out from the gold-embroidered hem.  Subtle touches of color highlighted her cheekbones and the seafoam green of her eyes.

“You shall indeed remain here and employ your arcane talents to study our situation further.”  She said, “The rest of you are to attend me at Lady ‘Orien’s ball.  Accord yourselves well and do not embarrass me.”

They all stared at her in momentary shock.  Reed was the first to find his voice.  “Callindra?  You actually look like a Courtier.  Gods and bloody demons, you SOUND like a Courtier.”

“Language Reed.  Holt, please close your mouth before you catch flies.”  The corner of her mouth quirked, and she started to laugh.  “By the nine hells, you should see your faces!”

“You’ve worked very hard, and the results are plain to see.”  Vilhylm said with a smile, “I didn’t think you could accomplish so much in such a short time, you will do us all proud.”

Callindra gave him a hug, a slight flush coloring her cheeks.  “I feel so bedamned awkward.”

“You look the part quite well,”  Holt said, seeming to recover from his shock.  “Hiding your sword in your magical bag is brilliant.”

“We need to be ready to depart shortly.”  She said, falling back into character.  “Please make yourselves presentable.”

Callindra moved to a table and sat primly, gesturing for Rrayu to bring her refreshment.  The others looked at her for a moment before realizing she was serious.  They left to make final preparations before presenting themselves for Rrayu’s appraisal.  She made minor adjustments, straightening and smoothing before sighing that they’d do.

“My Lady, I have asked for transport to be brought, they should be out front now,”  Rrayu said, giving Callindra a final once over.  “Gods all bless.”

The Angel Murders – Jack Part IV

Miss Fitsimmons smiled at Jack as he walked into the library, “Hello there Jack, I haven’t seen you in a few weeks.  You’re looking well, how are things?”

Jack gave her a wide smile.  “Things are great. I just wanted to get a little time to myself.”

“I’ve seen you surrounded by friends.”  She said, “I’m glad things are finally turning around for you.”

“I never thought they’d be more annoying as friends than when they were hassling me.”  He said, “But turns out even friendly people can get on your nerves when they won’t leave you alone.”

“True, well go ahead and find respite in the stacks.”  She said, “I won’t bother you, dear.”

“You know, somehow I feel lonelier now than I did before.”  Jack shrugged, and walked back into the tall bookshelves.

‘How can you feel alone?’ Lorethla asked, ‘I am with you always.’

“Sure, but I can’t see you or touch you anymore.”  He said bitterly, “I know those people don’t actually like me.  They’re just doing what I say. You’re the only one who really likes me and I can’t even hold your hand.”

“You mortals are so tied to this place.”  She said, “There is so much more beyond the prison of your meat body.  The things I could show you if you were to give it up.”

Jack shivered.  Her voice was full of terrible hunger and desire that made his pulse race.  He couldn’t imagine what could engender such an emotion. He wasn’t sure he wanted to.

The smell of old books was familiar and comforting.  Jack drew in a deep breath through his nose and caught another scent; something like iron filings or rust.  It instilled a primal fear that seemed ingrained in his very bones.

‘Jack!  Run!’ Lorethla all but shouted in his mind.

He responded without thinking about it; sprinting toward the emergency exit at the back of the library.  Something was coming, and it smelled like old blood. The fire alarm started screaming when he slammed the door open and pelted out into the snow-covered parking lot, but Jack didn’t stop running.

The sounds of the city ceased and their absence made his heart sound like rolling thunder.  The gently drifting snowflakes stopped in midair all around him and Jack looked wildly around, nearly tripping over his own feet.  A figure floated behind him on huge white wings

“Jackson Alden Jones.” The angel said, “You have allowed one of the Ones Below to corrupt your soul.  You have brought it into the World Between and used the power it has granted for your own selfish ends.”

He tried to run faster, to escape into a small copse of trees, but when he was crossing the street, pain exploded in his back.  Jack stumbled and his voice joined Loethla’s in a scream of agony. The angel floated in front of him, his beautiful face smiling down.  Blood coated each of his index fingers.

“Now you face judgment.”  The angel spread his arms and more pain wracked Jack’s body as blood was torn from the two wounds on his back.

Jack’s body landed in the middle of the street, the bloody wings falling around him to paint the snow red in the precise shape of wings.  

The Callindra Chronicles Book 3: A Fall of Stars – Chapter 68

“What was his name?”  Rrayu asked, eager to be helpful.  “Perhaps I know him.”

“He didn’t introduce himself.”  Callindra said, “Now I understand why.  He was above average height, wore clothing that usually had armor over it, and carried his longsword as though it was a part of his body.”

“What color were his eyes?  His hair?”  Rrayu asked, “I could narrow the number of people, but he sounds like one of the city guardsmen.”

“I have no idea what color his eyes were; I think his hair was black or dark brown.”  Callindra said, “Why would I notice things like that?”

“A Courtier needs to look at all the subtleties every person shows.  Their hair color and style can reveal much about who and what they are.  Their eyes can give the lie to any tale they may try and spin.  The cut and fit of their clothes can speak to their ability to choose their servants and how they treat them.”  Rrayu sighed, “But I suppose you are new to the ways of court.”

“Sounds like I have a lot to learn in the next two days, then.”  Callindra said, “I accepted a formal invitation to attend a ball and it’s up to you to make sure I don’t make a complete ass of myself.”

“Two days?”  Rrayu squeaked, “I cannot possibly even get you a proper gown in two days!”

“I’ll try to be the best student I can be, but I don’t know the first thing about being a Courtier.”  Callindra said, “I didn’t choose you as a servant exactly, but I’m choosing to trust you to with this.  Let’s see how good my judgment is.”

“Get out of those clothes immediately,”  Rrayu said, rising and moving briskly to the closet.  “If you wish to pass as a Lady, you will need to spend every waking moment getting accustomed to stays and skirts.”

“Shadowsliver sort of ruins the image though, doesn’t he?”  Callindra smiled lovingly at her sword.  “I’ll never pass for a Lady I’m afraid.”

“The only thing I have ever seen a Lady carry is perhaps a small bag,”  Rrayu said, gesturing to Callindra’s coin purse still tied to her belt.

“Ah, then perhaps I can simply carry a small bag.”  Callindra grinned, picked up her coin purse and thrust Shadowsliver inside.  Despite the sword being many times longer than the pouch, it vanished into the magical space, disappearing from view.

“My Lady, that is purely inspired,”  Rrayu said, relief evident in her voice.  “Now out of those clothes while I select you some appropriate after-dinner attire for you.”

With a sigh, Callindra began removing the garments she’d worn to the common room.  Rrayu began pulling garments out of the closet, muttering to herself and discarding them one after another.  She finally brought a set of strange looking undergarments, a dark blue dress with a cream bodice.  Matching tights and slippers completed the outfit.

“That’s a bit elaborate for me in my own sitting room, isn’t it?”  Callindra asked, looking at the pile of fabric.  “I’m not expecting any visitors.”

“This is the simplest and least constrictive garment that still meets the requirements of propriety.”  Rrayu said, “I’m going easy on you because I don’t think you’re ready for something more.”

Callindra stood and allowed Rrayu to help her into the tights, strap the stays over her chest and tie her into the dress.  The restrictive skirts forced her to take much shorter steps than usual and the pressure of the stays and bodice made it impossible for her to take a full breath.  If someone attacked her, she would be unable to defend herself properly.

“I don’t like this.”  She said, “I can barely move.”

“You can move as much as you need to.”  Rrayu said calmly, “A Lady’s battlefield does not require the use of swords.”

Callindra tried to sigh but found the bodice wouldn’t allow it.  She tried to flop down in a chair but found that the rigidity of the stays kept her back straight, and she ended up awkwardly perching on the edge.  The extra heat generated by the layers of clothes combined with her nervousness made her feel like she would sweat to death.

“I can’t do this.”  She said, clutching the coin purse that held her sword.  “I’m too vulnerable.”

“You have attendants who will deal with your personal safety Lady Sol’Estin.”  Rrayu said, “You must rely on them for that purpose and they will depend on you for defense against the politics of court.  I will do as much as I can to provide you the proper weapons to go along with your armor.”

Callindra let out her breath and tried to imagine that the clothes she now wore were armor, that the way she spoke to others would be like sword strokes.  “The first Korumn is of the Breath.”  She said, breathing gently in through her nose and out through her mouth.  Her shoulders relaxed as a feeling of calm descended over her.

“If this is what it takes to be a leader, then I will find a way to rise to the challenge.”  Squaring her shoulders, she looked Rrayu in the eyes.  “Teach me what you can.”

The Callindra Chronicles Book 3: A Fall of Stars – Chapter 67

A woman wearing an elaborately pleated green silk gown swept across the dance floor and favored Callindra with a dazzling smile and a graceful curtsey.  “Lady Sol’Estin, I am Miss Dinneh, may I join you?”

Callindra smiled back and gestured toward the seat across from her.  “Of course, Miss Dinneh, please have a seat.  Reed, won’t you pour her some refreshment?”

Reed barely missed a beat, pouring a goblet of mead and placing it before her with a flourish.  “With your leave, my Lady?”  He said, waiting for her nod before vanishing onto the dance floor, already taking a laughing girl by the hand.

“What brings you to my table?” Callindra asked, sampling her mead.

“I am an emissary from the Lady Ellen Eth ‘Orien.”  She replied, lifting her goblet in salute.  “I am here to bid you welcome to this last bastion of civilization in a world gone mad.  The Lady graciously offers to shelter you beneath the wings of her benevolent protection.”

“I confess, I find you a much more congenial companion than the last messenger the Lady sent my way,”  Callindra said, nibbling on a small sweet bread.

“Our sincere apologies, we were unaware that you possessed a Title.”  She winced,  “My Mistress wished to ascertain if you were an imposter and may have sent a rather less polite representative to see what sort of reaction would result.”

“Judging by your appearance here, I gather I passed her test?”  Callindra asked, raising an eyebrow.

“She sent me here to offer an invitation to a ball she is putting on two days hence by way of apology.”  Dinneh said, “I am here to bring your response back to her.”

“I gratefully accept both apology and invitation,”  Callindra said, smiling to keep the look of panic off her face.  “I look forward to meeting your Lady and her court.”

“Wonderful,”  Dinneh said, rising gracefully and dipping another curtsey.  “We shall be honored to host the Sol’Estin.”

Callindra kept her face impassive until the other woman had moved out of sight.  Someone had let her secret slip, and if there was anyone from The Order in the Undercity, she would be in danger.  More than that, she had told Rrayu specifically not to tell anyone and nobody other than her friends knew of her title.  It was time to go and have a chat with her maid.

She climbed the stairs with determined strides and flung open the door to her chambers.  “Rrayu, come here right bloody now and by the gods and demons explain to me why you revealed my Title to Ellen Eth!”

“Please, my Lady, I swear I did not say anything!”  Rrayu entered the sitting room, wringing her hands in supplication.  “I have not even made a report yet; I could not have betrayed your secret!”

Callindra looked at her with skepticism, “Where else would Lady ‘Orien’s agents have found out about it?”

“I don’t know my Lady, but please believe me; I didn’t breathe a word of it to anyone.”

A thought struck Callindra, and she knew her maid was telling the truth.  “It was that man.”  She said in a flat voice.  “He must have been from The Order.  I should have known by how he carried his sword.”

The Callindra Chronicles Book 3: A Fall of Stars – Chapter 66

With a sigh, she squared her shoulders and led them downstairs.  The eyes of hundreds of people followed them as they entered the common room.  An obviously freshly scrubbed barmaid led them to a table without them having to ask.

“I love the music.”  Trying to soothe the nervous maid as she leaned Shadowsliver’s naked blade against the table.

“Yes, Lady.” She said, bobbing an awkward curtsey.  “Drinks?  Food?”

“Please,”  Callindra replied, inclining her head in what she hoped was a regal manner.  Reed was obviously trying not to laugh.  She pulled a handful of gold coins from a belt purse that shouldn’t have been able to fit her fist, let alone that many coins, and put them on the barmaid’s drinks tray.  “Bring us some of whatever that heavenly roasting scent is, any vegetables you might have, some mead, some ale, and a round for the bar as well.”

This last pronouncement brought a ragged cheer from the patrons close enough to hear her.  She smiled in what she hoped was a magnanimous way.  The barmaid looked at the gold and glanced behind the bar.  Hagar nodded, and she smiled, striding away to a chorus of calls for drinks.

When the food came, it was far better fare than they’d had in months, and the drinks were as good as any they’d tasted.  The music continued, including some dance numbers, which added to the carnival atmosphere.  A few people started to dance and soon first Reed, then the other men at the table were pulled onto the dance floor.  Callindra sat, half wanting to join in and half relieved that she wouldn’t have to.

“If you put up your steel, I’d love a dance, Lady.”  A man dressed in clothes that, although clean, had noticeable wear marks from where armor straps were usually cinched.  He was extending a hand that had clear sword calluses on it.

“Ah, well, that’s not really possible,”  Callindra said, feeling a bit out of place in her fine clothes.  “We’re a bit joined, and I don’t have a sheath.”

His eyes followed the chain on the hilt to her right wrist with interest.  “Why no sheath?  That seems awkward.”

“That would be a long and dull story, why don’t you join me for a drink and tell me about yourself instead?”  She poured him a tankard of something random and gestured to an open seat.

He looked at her with a raised eyebrow for a moment before sitting, his foot moving to kick the scabbard of his longsword aside as he sat.  Callindra blinked; she hadn’t noticed that he was wearing a blade. It moved like it was a part of him.

“Lady Callindra!”  Reed sat down, his face flushed from drink and the exertion of dancing.  “Who’s yer friend?”

“Apologies, I fear I neglected to introduce myself.”  She stood and offered her hand to the man, “I am Callindra Sol’Estin.”

“I know who you are.”  He said, rising himself.  “Perhaps we’ll meet again.”  He spun and moved off into the crowd.

“Who the hell was that?”  Reed asked, “He seemed like a rude bastard.”

“I don’t know.”  Callindra said, “But I’m sure he’s going to be trouble.  He was asking me to dance as a pretext to get me to leave my sword behind.”

“You’re talking even fancier with the fancy clothes on.”  Reed grinned, “But you still get suspicious of anyone who tries to part you from that blade.  I think you’re just getting jumpy, relax and have some fun.”

“I somehow doubt having fun would be seen as very ladylike,”  Callindra said with a sigh, remembering Rrayu’s voice telling her about posture and poise.  “I’m supposed to keep up appearances, you know.”

“You’re carrying a sword chained to your wrist.”  Reed scoffed, “Nobody’s gonna think you’re much of a delicate flower.”

“I can tell you’re not a woman.”  Callindra said, “We’re rarely taken as seriously as we should be, especially when we’re dressed in pretty clothes.”

Reed looked at her, a quizzical expression on his face.  “Damn.  You gotta point there.  Your sword doesn’t look normal, and that chain looks a lot more delicate than it really is too.  I guess most guys would probably think it was just for show.”

“Precisely, young master.”  Callindra picked up her goblet of mead and looked at him over the rim before taking a sip.  “Just as they likely misjudge you due to your age.”

The Callindra Chronicles Book 3: A Fall of Stars – Chapter 65

“We are what is left of a group of adventurers who went on a mission given by the Gods themselves.”  She quickly sketched out the bare bones of their travels and misadventures, trying to gloss over as many of the finer points as she could.  Rrayu sat quietly and listened, her eyes getting wider as the tale progressed.

“After killing that thrice cursed squid Connor managed to hold the ship together until we could debark and then we made our way here.”  She finished.  “We’re looking for survivors to see if we can gather assistance to somehow turn the tide against the Taken or reverse the magic that is causing the plague to happen.”

“You’re fighting for the Gods.”  Rrayu said, a bit of awe in her voice.  “I thought them all but gone.  Betimes prayers would be answered in the past but with all that’s happened and them letting it happen I’d all but lost hope.”

“It’s not like they’ve been much help to us either.”  Vilhylm said wryly, “Almost more of a hindrance in most ways.”

“You said your swordmaster is Luftin?”  Rrayu asked, looking at Callindra with such an unabashed look of wonder that she began to feel uncomfortable.  “You’ve met him?  And Jorda?”

“Well, I didn’t know who he was.”  Callindra said, “I was pretty awful to him at first and he didn’t seem much like a god.  Jorda was a much different story; she was much more like what one would think of as a goddess.”

“Not everyone looks upon the gods with reverence.”  Vilhylm said with a frown, “We must ask you to keep this bit to yourself.”

“What are you hoping to find here?”  Rrayu asked, looking between them.  “This city is lost, most of the people here are dead, why would you come to a place like this?”

Again they all looked at Callindra and she said for the first time something she had been mulling over ever since she saw Luftin devoured by Cerioth.  She took a deep breath and forced her left hand to relax on Shadowsliver’s hilt.

“An ally told us there was some power center for the Abyss here, I want to find that gods bedamned dragon and get some answers.”  She said, “It ate my Master, it destroyed this city, it has been present at many of the worst moments in this war.  If anything knows what Morde’s plans are it does, and I have heard it comes and patrols Starvale.”

The room fell silent as they all stared at her.  Even her companions seemed stunned by her words.  “We should also look at those spheres.”  She said, pretending not to have noticed their reaction.  “Anyone powerful enough to have created those is likely powerful enough to fight well against the Taken.”

Connor nodded slowly, “I also want to look at those things.”  He said, “Perhaps we can find more information about how they resist the power of the Taken and of that dragon.  Could be that there’s a way for us to harness that protection for ourselves.”

“You’re off yer nut.”  Reed said, “You wanna fight that bedamned dragon?  What do you think we can do that a whole city of mages couldn’t?”

“We can talk more once we’ve had time to think about it.”  Callindra said, refusing to give ground.  “For now I think we need to go be seen if we’re to keep in Ellen Eth’s good graces.”

“You can’t be seriously thinking about fighting that dragon.”  Kain said, “You won’t have a dam to collapse on this dragon will you?  I don’t know if we’ll get that lucky again.”

Rrayu’s mouth dropped open in shock.  “You’ve already killed a dragon?”

“I might have left that part out of the tale.”  Callindra said with a shrug.  She hadn’t wanted to mention Terevelen, since most people wouldn’t understand making an alliance with a necromancer.  “Perhaps that’s a story for another time.  Right now I believe we need to be seen downstairs.”

“I say we give ‘em a show.”  Reed said with a grin, “Enter with style, buy ‘em all a drink and talk a good game.  All we gotta do is get Ellen Eth’s attention, sounds like being flashy is the way to go.”

“Only if you all promise to only tell tall tales about yourselves and leave me out of it.”  Callindra said, “I have enough to deal with trying to be this ‘Lady’ you’ve all talked me up to be.

“Wouldn’t dream of doing otherwise.”  Reed said, not fooling anyone who knew him with his innocent expression.

The Angel Murders Part I

“Whaddya got for me?” Inspector Purdue ducked under the crime scene tape, lighting a cigarette.  “I was just about to eat dinner, this shit had better be good.”

“Right up your alley Inspector.” The uniform holding the tape said, “Your wife will forgive you.”

She took a deep drag on her smoke and looked at the figure sprawled in the snow.  “The fuck she will. Terese hates it when I don’t eat her home cooking. I hate it too.”

The boy was laying with his hands covering his face, the school uniform marking him as a middle school student from Carson, a prestigious local academy.  Purdue flicked the cherry off her cigarette and tossed the butt into a trash can. She sighed and pulled her phone from her breast pocket.  

“You did right to call me in, Jackson.  This is obviously related.” She began taking pictures of the corpse, and more importantly the outline of wings that projected from the body.  They were drawn in blood, presumably the victim’s blood, although the boy didn’t appear to have any visible wounds.

“Ya think?”  Jackson said, quirking an eyebrow.   “The chief said to bring you in on any of these fucking wing things.  Any chance you’re gonna tell me what the fuck is going on?”

“Whenever I figure it out, you’ll be on my goddamn list.” She said, bending to look closely at the body.  “Has anyone touched the corpse?”

“No.  I mean orders have been clear from the top down.   When we see the wing murders we block it off, take photos, and keep our hands to ourselves.”  He said, shoving his hands into his pockets.

“As long as you’re sure.”  She said, taking a pair of gloves from her kit and pulling them on. “I don’t want to report something falsely.  We don’t want someone to go down for this who doesn’t deserve it.”

Reaching into the boy’s mouth with a pair of tweezers, she pulled an ancient-looking piece of parchment from under his tongue.  She unfolded it and scrutinized it for a moment before placing it in an evidence bag and sealing it.

“Jackson, get this to the lab.”  She said and waited until he had gone before taking an amulet from around her neck and placing it on the boy’s forehead.  For a few moments, the tiny golden rosebud sat perfectly still, and Purdue was just about to let out a breath of relief when the petals began to quiver and open.

“Shit.”  Purdue rocked back on her heels and took another cigarette from the pack with shaking fingers and watched the flower bloom.  A flutter of motion caught her eye, but when she glanced at it she didn’t see anything moving. “Is this the one?”

She crushed the cigarette out and flicked it at a trash can.  The shaking of her hands made her miss. Cursing, Purdue walked over and plucked the butt from the sidewalk.  A gasp made her spin around. The boy was sitting up with wide staring eyes.

“He. Is. Coming. For. You.”  The blood leaking from the twin holes just beneath each of his shoulder blades connected him to the shimmering outline of the bloody wings gently fanning around his body.  He collapsed sideways, the blood splattering down behind him.

“That’s not very helpful.”  She said, plucking the charm from his forehead,  “You’ve fucked over my crime scene too.”

“I sent that paper off for analysis.” Jackson paused, “What the hell happened?”

“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.”  Purdue lit another cigarette, “It doesn’t matter anyway.  Goddamnit, I’m dead anyhow.”

“What?”  He had his gun in his hand in a heartbeat,  “Did you find something on the body? Are you getting threats again?”

“Easy killer.”  She exhaled twin streams of smoke from her nostrils, “Some things you can’t stop with a bullet.  Nobody is gonna kill me today, I’m just embracing the inevitable.”

“So what happened here?”  He demanded, holstering his pistol.

“The demon possessing half my soul awakened this boy’s last breath.  It was supposed to allow him to tell me who killed him or at very least give me valuable information about how to put a stop to it.”  Purdue lit another cigarette from the butt of her current one, “All he told me was that his murderer is coming for me. Hardly the most helpful statement since we don’t know who the FUCK has been doing this.”

“Jesus.”  Jackson shook his head, “If you didn’t want to tell me you could have at least made something halfway believable up.”

“Yeah.”  She shrugged, “Let’s go get some coffee and a doughnut.”

‘Chocolate with bacon sprinkles.’ Nebecenezer demanded.

The Callindra Chronicles Book 3: A Fall of Stars – Chapter 64

“One more thing,”  Rrayu said, opening a drawer and removing a small case.  “Sit please My Lady.”

Callindra sat, giving the box a dubious look.  Rrayu opened it and pulled a few small pots and brushes from it.  With careful strokes, she applied subtle shading to Callindra’s face, just a hint of charcoal to her lashes and gentle pigments to highlight her cheekbones.  Although the changes were only minor ones, the effect was striking.

“I don’t know if I like it.  I look so different, like a beautiful, fragile delicate thing.  She smiled ruefully, “I suppose that’s the point.”

“You look presentable.”  Rrayu said, “Barely presentable, but yes, you begin to understand that there’s power in being feminine.  Yes, the clothing and the face paint has changed the way others will see you, but you are like an unpolished gemstone.  You can be beautiful and command the attention of a room while dressed in rags, and I can show you these skills.”

Three polite knocks on the door heralded the arrival of Holt.  He was looking quite dapper in a forest green velvet trousers and jacket with a white doublet underneath.  His hair was braided into twin tails tied off with silk cords. With his beard trimmed neatly, clean and dressed he looked decades younger.  Vilhylm cleared his throat and Callindra realized she’d been just standing there. Holt’s eyes widened slightly in surprise and she realized he’d been staring too.  

“I look ridiculous.”  She said, feeling a slight blush threatening to rise up her cheeks.  “But at least I’m close to meeting the expectations your little performances gave the locals.”

“I think you look wonderful.” Holt said, “But I generally do.”

To her frustration, Rrayu touched her shoulders and her chin, forcing her to a more regal posture.  “A Lady does not stare at her feet when presenting herself. She must be confident and poised.”

“Rrayu says I need to make an appearance for dinner.”  She said, looking over Vilhylm’s typical black attire. It was obviously new but looked very similar to what he had been wearing before albeit clean and not ragged.  Reed was wearing grey tunic and trousers with gold embroidery and Kain looked surprisingly urbane in dark blue, even his Mohawk looking like it fit. “Keep it civil and by the gods and demons don’t do anything to inflate their expectations any more than you already have.”

Reed gave her an innocent look that she didn’t trust for a second.  “Before we go shouldn’t we try and ascertain how to present ourselves?”  He asked.

“Well, we shouldn’t be too obvious about why we’re really here.”  Vilhylm said, “I’m not certain if there are any other groups of survivors here or not, but something tells me if there are they won’t be looked upon with friendly eyes.”

“There are some rumors of other enclaves.”  Rrayu said softly, “I’ve even heard that there have been some attempts to penetrate the floating sanctuaries, but I’m not sure what the results of those were if they actually happened.”

“What methods did they use?”  Connor asked, his eyes sparkling with interest.

“I apologize, Mage Connor, I do not know what methods they employed or indeed if the attempt is more than a rumor.” Rrayu didn’t meet his eyes but kept nervously glancing around the room instead.  “If it’s not too intrusive, may I ask who you really are? I am likely to be associated with you simply because of proximity.”

Callindra crossed her arms and gave her maid a level look.  “I offered to send you away and you begged me not to. Now you’re worried about being associated with us.  Something doesn’t smell right about this.”

Reed moved on silent feet to stand behind Rrayu, also placing himself between her and the door.  Her other companions moved slightly, ready to draw a weapon or line up a spell. If Rrayu tried to run or was something more than she had pretended to be she would be dead in seconds.

“Being sent away would be worse than being your maid.”  She said, talking quickly. “I will not lie, it is my intention to pass at least some of the information I gather from you along to whoever tries to get it from me.  I won’t tell them anything you have specifically asked me not to, but if I tell them nothing they will be certain we are working together toward some nefarious end.

“Please understand, I do not wish to betray you but I must find a balance between keeping your secrets and keeping them satisfied.  This city is not kind to those who displease her.” Rrayu met her eyes, giving her a pleading look.

To her surprise, Callindra saw all her companions turn to look at her.  It was just hours ago that her instructions had been completely ignored, but now they were all waiting for her leadership.  She thought about what Rrayu had done for her thus far and how honest the other woman had been just now. Weighing everything in her mind, she made her decision.