The Callindra Chronicles Book 3: A Fall of Stars – Chapter 77

“Where are my other retainers?”  She demanded, eyes sweeping the room.  “My reeve needs immediate attention, and I find myself reluctant to trust any help that might be provided here.”

The room remained silent; everyone still staring at her in shocked silence.  “God’s balls!”  She cursed, thrusting her hand into her bag to withdraw the hilt and first inch of Shadowsliver’s blade.  An effort of will brought the Winds to do her bidding, and she sent them to bring her words to her companions.

A blast of wind flew out from her in every direction, resolving into a half dozen little zephyrs that each carried her words with them as they flew.  They also blew every plate of food and glasses of wine and spirits off every table, tore hair free of pins and combs, unbuttoned shirts and coats, and plastered skirts against legs.

Half the people in the room ran for the exits in a panic at the sight of the blood or because of the overt use of magic.  The other half were cursing and wiping at their clothes, pulling concealed daggers and glaring at Callindra.

“Don’t.”  She said, helping Reed to sit before turning to face the room.  “Enough blood has been shed tonight; there is no need to add yours unless you have a burning desire to die.”

“You think there’s a chance you could stand against us.”  A man in a black silk tunic splattered with wine sneered.

“Without a doubt.”  She said calmly, drawing Shadowsliver fully from her bag.  “I have no desire to kill any of you.  Yet.  I suggest you keep it that way.”

The others looked less confident now that she was holding her sword.  Before any of them decided to attack or retreat, a rush of wind came back through one of the doors bearing Kain’s voice to her ears.

“I am coming.”

She glanced at Reed and saw that although his eyes were closed, blood still flowed from between the fingers he still had clamped over his neck.  Thank the gods; he was still alive.

“Just put the sword down.”  A young woman said, a ring on her left hand glittering briefly.  “We’re all friends here.”

Callindra blinked, wondering why she was threatening these people.  They clearly meant her no harm, and she had recklessly blasted them with magic.  Her good friends began to come closer, but she had a nagging feeling that something was wrong.  They weren’t smiling, why weren’t her friends smiling?

Shadowsliver’s tips sang with a discordant complaint as her left arm relaxed enough for him to touch the stone floor, and the spell shattered.  Five enemies were arrayed in a semicircle, all holding daggers.  The woman who had charmed her was gathering Weave into a handful of bright white darts that hovered over her right hand.  None of them seemed to have noticed that she’d broken free.

The first of them came within reach of Shadowsliver’s chain, and she flung her sword like a spear, stabbing him in the chest.  She quickly ripped her blade back to her hand with a sharp yank on his chain, leaving a ragged wound behind.  The man cursed and dropped his knife to staunch the bleeding.

“Well, now I’m afraid you’ve given me a reason to show you the color of your blood.”  She said calmly, whipping her sword to one side to flick the blood off the blade.  If she used magic in this close of quarters, the odds were she would hit bystanders, so she settled for intimidation.  “How much of it do you want to see today?”

The mage released the bolts she’d summoned, and they flew in a series of zigzagging lines, skirting around tables and people to slam into Callindra, knocking her back into the wall.  With coordinated precision, her other four assailants lunged forward with blades out.  She staggered, trying to draw a breath and twisted to avoid one dagger, parried another, and took one in the arm and one in the side.

With a snarl of defiance, she cut left and right, felling two more of them and ducking a thrust but taking a slash across her thigh.  The mage began chanting, and something began to form between her hands.  Desperately, Callindra tried to run toward the woman, but her skirts wouldn’t allow her to, and she nearly tripped on them.

She hurled her sword at the mage, but she smoothly stepped back out of range and parted her hands.  A dark green sphere rotated into existence, and a black arm with emerald green veins reached through.  The remaining bystanders in the room ran at the sight of the monster crawling from the Abyss.

The Callindra Chronicles Book 3: A Fall of Stars – Chapter 76

Durrak was going to follow anyway but was distracted momentarily by Lorin coming back.  He glanced away from Reed, “Ah Lorin, I did be wondering where you did be getting to.  This youngster do be looking for Lady Sol’Estin.”

“What youngster are you talking about?” Lorin asked, pouring himself a glass of mead.  He took a drink and made a wry face, spitting it back into the glass.  “Ugh, this mead has a bad aftertaste.”

Looking around, Durrak saw that Reed had vanished, “He did be right here.”  He said, annoyed.  Picking up the bottle of mead, he dipped a thick finger into it and tasted it before quickly spitting it out.

“Tastes awful, doesn’t it?”  Lorin asked with a grimace, pouring a glass of wine instead.

“It do be xepherin,”  Durrak said, spitting again.  “Xepherin do be a type of poison that do be loosening the tongue.”

“That could be bad depending on what kind of questions Ellen Eth asked.”  Lorin said, “We should think about getting out of here.”

“I no do be feeling right about leaving that girl here after she do be drinking xepherin,”  Durrak said with a frown.  “But that Reed boy do seem to be capable enough.”

Callindra tried to walk in a straight line, but the room felt like it was tilting to one side and she moved with a distinct weave as she tried to remember where the exit was.  She knew that she hadn’t had that much to drink, not even a single glass of mead all told, so something else must be wrong.

“Pardon me.”  An elegant lady said, gliding to one side to avoid her with a look of disdain clear on her face.

“Not bloody likely,”  Callindra said, and the woman gave her a startled look.  “Where’s the god rotting exit?”

“Well!”  The lady turned and stalked off.

“Ya can’t talk to Lady’s like that.”  Reed’s voice made her jump slightly, “I thought you knew better.”

“God’s balls Reed, I just about soiled myself.”  She said, “Where the hell did you come from?  Where are you for that matter?”

“Gods and demons, you’re drunk!”  Reed said, emerging from the shadows to grab her by the forearm.  “Come on; we gotta get out of here.  Some of these supposed servants are trying to pick fights with the boys and I don’t know how much abuse they’re willing to take before someone gets hurt.”

“I am not drunk.”  Callindra said indignantly, “I didn’t even finish a single glass of mead, and I’m certainly not slurring my words you little ass.  Something is not right though; I don’t quite know what it is.  Like I’m off balance or like I’ve lost a lot of blood in a fight.”

“Oh, hell, they drugged you,”  Reed said, looping her arm over his shoulders.  “Come on and lean on me.  I gotta get you to Kain before there’s damage.”

“I – drugged?”  Callindra stopped and blinked, “Yes, actually, that would explain a lot, I think.”

“What do you think of me?”  Reed asked, giving her a shrewd look.

“You’re sort of a pain in the ass and can be god rotting rude at times, but I know you’re loyal and that you have my back.  I think you’re running from something, but really who isn’t?”  She said without hesitation.  “Why do you ask?”

“Oh.”  Reed gave a strange little laugh, “Yeah, a truth serum I think.”

“That’s not good,”  Callindra said, biting her lower lip and trying to remember exactly what she’d told Ellen Eth.  “I just got done meeting with Lady ‘Orien.  I probably said some things I shouldn’t have.”

Reed began cursing in a low voice, displaying an impressive variety of languages and creative phrasing.  “What did you tell her?”  He asked once he’d exhausted his vocabulary of profanity.

“I don’t remember.”  Callindra said, “But I think something about the gods?”

They reached an unobtrusive door, and Reed reached forward to open it.  He grunted in pain and stumbled sideways, looking in surprise at the knife sticking from his neck.  The drugs raging through her system made Callindra a half second slow, but she didn’t run or freeze in shock like the attacker likely thought she would.  With a defiant shout, her hand dipped into her purse and withdrew a pace long razor sharp twin tipped sword.

Wind sprang up around her, whipping her hair free from the pins holding it in place.  She drew the Weave from Shadowsliver, unleashing a flurry of blades made from air that slashed through a tapestry, obliterated a vase, and opened dozens of cuts on a man who had his arm pulled back getting ready to throw another dagger.  Reed gurgled something that might have been a curse, pulled the knife from his own throat, and hurled it into the would-be assassin’s left eye.

Reed’s injury and Callindra’s drugged state made escape doubly difficult, but they didn’t stop to see if anyone had noticed the altercation.  Holding her sword and channeling some of the Weave had helped to clear Callindra’s head, and she felt slightly more stable on her feet.  Reed was holding his hand over his neck, but blood was pouring out between his fingers.

“Show me where to go Reed.”  She said, reluctantly shoving her sword back into her pouch.  “I’ll carry you if you need me to, but I have to get you to Kain.”

He was pale from blood loss and leaning heavily against her, but stubbornly refused to let her try to carry him.  They walked down a corridor meant for servants to a staircase that ended in a large open room where a variety of people stood in groups or sat at tables chatting.  All conversation stopped as Callindra staggered through the door, supporting Reed, soaked in blood.

The Jade Court Part VII – Submission

“Pardon the intrusion Mistress.” Tan Son Shu knelt outside the door, sliding the rice paper covered panel aside a few centimeters.

“Son Shu, you are a welcome intrusion.” Sai’Li said, “Come and have some sake with me.”

“Mistress, there is a man who claims to be from one of the Houses.”  He said, still kneeling.  “He wishes to respond to an offer?”

She moved a hand slightly and a black pearl the size of her thumb rolled from her sleeve.  Even as it stopped rolling, it swelled into a glistening black spider the size of a Labrador and silently skittered out of the open window.  Son Shu felt cold sweat break out on his forehead.

Sai’Li poured sake into a pair of beautifully lacquered cups and reclined on her couch, running her hands though the tiger’s fur that lay next to his own large dish of liquor.  Her kimono was loose, showing the alabaster white of her legs all the way above her knees and parts of an intricate tattoo coming over her left shoulder.

“Come drink with us Son Shu.”  She said with a smile, “Our guest will join us shortly.”

Not being able to ignore a direct command, he came and knelt at the low table.  Lifting the cup, he took a sip and savored the exquisite taste.  Sai’Li packed her kiseru with tobacco and struck a match, lighting it and exhaling a cloud of fragrant smoke.  Son Shu found it easier to relax than he had anticipated, his mistress’s easy manner was infectious.

The elevator chimed and Son Shu looked to his mistress.  She inclined her head and he went to the door.  “Please master Yashida, won’t you join us for a drink?” He asked, sliding the door aside.

Tanaka was wearing a rumpled black suit and had an unlit cigarette clamped between his lips.  Son Shu extended a lighter on reflex and Tanaka seemed to respond on reflex as well, leaning in to light his cigarette and bowing slightly to Sai’Li.

“Lady.  Circumstances have caused me to reconsider your offer of patronage.”  He said, stepping into the room.

“Please Tanaka, come and have sake with us.”  Sai’Li said, “Let us discuss whatever troubles you.  But I insist that you drink with me.  I find sake to ease difficult conversations.”

He hesitated, but removed his shoes and came to kneel at the table.  Sai’Li herself poured him a cup of sake.  She waited for him to settle, taking the opportunity to refill her pipe.

“I find myself in need of assistance.”  He began, “I am not certain what made me think you could offer it, but I had the idea that your offer of protection was genuine.”

“Indeed.”  She said, exhaling smoke from her nostrils in curling trails.  “I do not make promises lightly Tanaka Yashida, nor do I take them lightly.  What promise are you making?”

Tanaka backed from the table and bowed from a kneeling positon, pressing his forehead to the floor. “If you can save my people, I swear fealty to you Lady.  My blood shall be spilled at your whim.  My life spent at your desire.”

“I do not spend the lives of those who swear themselves to me without cause.” Sai’Li said, “Although I must confess that blood may be a significant motivator.  Do you promise me your blood?”

“I do.” He said without hesitation.

Sai’Li shivered and licked her lips.  Tanaka noted that her canine teeth had grown long and sharp.  “I claim you and your clan once more as mine.  This pact shall be sealed in the old way, the ancient way.  My way.”

“If it will help my people, I consent.” He said, “Please hurry.”

“In this matter, I shall take my time.”  Said Sai’Li, she stood and swayed across the room, eyes smoldering.  “You have my word that no more harm shall come to what is MINE.”  At this last word, her eyes turned blood red

Her mouth opened wide and he saw those elongated fangs descending on his throat.  He wasn’t just powerless to resist, he wanted to feel them pierce his skin.  Tanaka Yashida lost himself in the terror of his new Lady’s kiss.

The Jade Court Part VI – Failure

“We can’t keep having these losses boss.”  Lon finished, shaking his head.  “Five of our last six deposits got jacked, Shinji and Li got shot in the head in broad daylight and someone got into one of our bases last night and did something.  Something weird.  Must have been like a biological weapon or something.”

Tanaka poured him a glass of whisky, lit two cigarettes in his mouth and passed one over.  “What do you mean weird?”

“They’d been melted boss.”  He shuddered and took the drink with a nod of thanks, “I ain’t seen nothing like it.  Like their flesh had been turned to jello.”

Tanaka poured whisky for Asahina and himself and took the opportunity to exchange a glance with her as she took the glass.  She nodded slightly, it was magic.

“I dunno what to tell you, boss, I’m sorry.”  Lon bowed his head, “I’ve failed you.”

“You should have brought this to me sooner Lon.”  Tanaka said, “But I made you a captain because of your independence, so the failure is mine, not yours.”

Lon kept his head bowed until Tanaka slapped him lightly on both cheeks, “I need you at your best, not feeling sorry for yourself.  Get back out there and keep your men vigilant.  You can rely on me to handle the rest.”

“Yes boss.  Thank you boss.”  Lon said, standing and bowing deeply before backing out of the room.

“What do we do about this?” Tanaka asked Asahina, “Can you do anything to defend against whatever magical attack this is?”

“Let’s look at the facts.”  Asahina said, “It appears most of these attacks have happened at night, other than the ones that seem to be from sniper fire.  Since it seems Lon didn’t vary his patterns much, I think it may be time to put out some bait and see if we can catch ourselves a rat.”

Tanaka’s mouth spread into a humorless smile.  “An excellent idea.”

The trap had been set, the bait dangled out for their enemy to see and all had been in readiness.  Tanaka had been waiting on a rooftop with a sniper rifle and night vision scope.  Asahina had been across the street on another rooftop, waiting to attack or defend with her magic as needed.  Men had been positioned in cars and cafes, waiting to move in when their attacker fell into the trap.

That’s when everything went wrong.

Tanaka sent a perfectly spaced pair of bullets into the head of the first would-be assailant.  He quickly turned his scope toward another figure and shot it in the chest, knocking it backward.  Asahina’s voice sounded in his earpiece.

“Tanaka!  Get out!  GET OUT!”

He saw the flash of magic from the rooftop where she was stationed and saw a half dozen figures converging on her location.  Before he could get a clear shot, a scrabbling sound made him look down.  Figures were clawing their way up the side of the building with unnatural speed.  Cursing under his breath, he dropped the rifle and took out his phone.

“I’m extracting, route three.”  He said.

“Negative sir!” The voice on the other end said, “We’re being hit, use-“ The voice cut off to the sound of screaming and awful crunching sounds.

The first of the things climbing the building pulled itself over the edge of the roof and Tanaka put a bullet through its head, but the thing only seemed to find it a momentary inconvenience.  A thrill of fear went down his back.  He turned and ran, pulling a pair of grenades from his belt, tossing one behind him and dropping one as he ran through the door.

When the explosions shook the building he didn’t stop running until he was at the underground parking garage.  He paused, catching his breath and loading a fresh magazine into his pistol.  Looking through the small window, he could see several people who he was certain were waiting for him or his associates.

Tanaka opened the door and walked briskly out, ignoring the men who moved to flank him.  When the first one was close enough to be an easy target, he shot both of the man’s kneecaps out.  He knew the bullets wouldn’t kill whatever the things were, but nothing could run with the use of its legs.  The momentary distraction was enough for him to run to his car.  Silently cursing the necessity, he abandoned his men and ran.

Stay home and read…

Hey all, I’m home too.  This pandemic has stranded me at home without social contact.  I’m lucky enough to live in the middle of the woods with trails to hike and a forge where I can go and make axes and knives out of steel other people were throwing away, but I know some folks are stuck in cities and unable to even leave their houses for fear of exposure.  So.  I’m offering 50% off on ALL MY BOOKS at Smashwords. Here is the code for if you wanna buy my books for cheap.  All you need to do is use the code PJ64N and you can get any or all my books for half price.  I’m sitting here drinking a delicious glass of Irish Whisky, I raise it to your heath.  I love my fans! Much love.  Stay safe.  Stay healthy.  Stay sane.

-Benraven

The Angel Murders – Father Henderson Part 2

The Thurifer swung gently, wafting Frankincense into the air and Ralph Henderson intoned sacred words, drank blessed wine and lit candles.  The incense smoke swirled into a vaguely humanoid shape floating in the center of the Maltese cross he had drawn on the floor in pure salt.

“Mortal man.”  A voice echoed throughout the rectory, “What is thine request?”

“I can’t believe it.” Ralph whispered, “It actually worked.”

“This realm pains me, mortal.”  The angel said, “Make your request that I may depart.”

“Please, give me the power to help  those in need.” He said, kneeling in reverence.  

“Do you accept this power of your own free will?” The angel asked.

“Yes,” Ralph said, trembling in anticipation.

The Angel’s hand touched his head and pain exploded in his temples.

“What is stopping you from helping those in need?” The Angel demanded.

“I don’t have the money or connections.” Ralph gasped.

“Why do you lack these things?” The Angel asked.

“I-” Ralph hesitated, “Being a priest doesn’t pay well and-”

“If you are seeking material gain and your cause is just what is to stop you from taking what you require?”

Ralph’s eyes went blank and the pain spiked.  He answered with utmost honesty. “The law and lack of ability.”

“If your cause is true and just the law has no sway over you.” The Angel proclaimed, “The ability to take what you need shall be yours.”

The pain vanished and its absence was like a drug.  Ralph fell sideways, laying on the floor and panting.  There was a liquor store down the street. They sold alcohol, regardless of the lives it destroyed.  With the money from just one day of sales, he could feed the vulnerable in his parish for a week.

Ralph gathered some simple tools, pins, Allen wrenches, a screwdriver, wire cutters, and a flashlight.  The clothes he was wearing were already black. With a smile, the priest adjusted his collar, slipped on a thin pair of leather gloves, and slipped out into the night.

It was a matter of minutes to tease open the back door using the pins for picks and a small Allen wrench for a torsion wrench.  A glance at the security panel told him it was a simple model that would be easily disabled by cutting the ground wire. He twisted the panel open and snipped the wire.  The numbers kept counting down but he ignored them.

Ralph saw the camera pointed at the back door.  It took him a few minutes to follow the cables back to a closet and unplug the camera system.  He opened the system’s panel and removed the hard drives, slipping them into his coat pocket.

Moving to the safe, he knelt in front of it, gently testing the handle.  There was just enough play in it that he knew it hadn’t been set properly.  If a combination lock isn’t spun after the combination is put in, all one need do is put pressure on the handle and gently turn the dial clockwise.  When he got to 50, the tumblers clicked and the safe door opened.

“Praise God.” Ralph breathed, stuffing his pockets full of bills. “Thank you, Lord.”

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 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.”