Guild of Blood – Chapter One

Bael

Despite what other people might think or say, waking up midafternoon has its advantages. For example, you needn’t bother with breakfast or lunch, which pretty much everyone can agree are the most boring meals of the day. Instead, you can hop right to afternoon drinks, evening drinks, and then dinner if you can manage it. Only on the way to after-dinner drinks though. I rarely did, but I never felt it to be much of a loss.

My twin sister would be furious if she knew how little I ate, but who could spend precious sho on food when there were exotic liquors to be drunk and locally sourced drugs to partake in? Not me for one.

I slowly opened my eyes after a long, drug induced sleep, and looked out the window only to see the sun was on the downturn. Perfect timing. I yawned and stretched and surveyed my surroundings. On one side of me was the nude form of an elven man, and on the other, some chap of orcish decent. Memories of the night before came back to me and I smiled to myself. What a night it had been.

 I glanced out the window once more, barely able to see through it for the layers of dust and dirt and god knows what else. If the sun was setting, it meant it was nearly half past four, and I’d need to run to catch the ferry back to the mainland tonight. The thought of running always made my bones ache, and I considered putting it off until the morning. But if I stayed another night then the local drug lord, Xander Ralston, would call in my tab, and I couldn’t be around to have him do that.

 I reached for my satchel and extracted my well-loved wooden flute, then put it to my lips, softly blowing. A glowing red aura radiated around me as it imbued my bones and sinew with a temporary boost of strength. It was one of the simpler spells I could do, and I would need it based on the stiffness I could feel from sleeping on a wood floor.

I was one of the blessed of this world, one of the lucky ones who had been born with the ability to channel magic. I used instruments, mainly my flute, to channel mine. Magic in mortals was rare, and all the world’s magic existed as the result of some civil war in the celestial homeland of Empyrean. They used so much magic during the war that it drifted out into the world and became instilled into the blood of select children in their mother’s wombs. I was one of those children. And it was a good thing too, because magic was probably the only thing that could get me out of here unnoticed, and without running into Ralston.

I reached for my trousers and belt, and my linen shirt, which I could have sworn was white when I put it on a few days prior. Now it was a murky gray from being tossed in a puddle of — something. I dared not try to guess what that something might be as I slipped it on.

It was only slightly damp.

Tomorrow would be our weekly guild meeting, and as the guild master’s son, they would expect me to be there. If I didn’t show, then my father would come looking for me, and having the guild master of the Rimmelon Convocation dragging you out of a brothel was never a good look for my underworld reputation.

I investigated the mirror on the back side of the door and smirked, then tousled my ruddy brown hair the way I liked it. It wouldn’t matter if I was there or not really. I was a disappointment to my father whether I was the pride of La Roix’s prized guild, or a corpse in a ditch. Might as well have a bit of fun on my way to one of those two destinations.

I winked at my reflection, and he returned the favor. My blue eyes looked gaunt in a way that I didn’t recognize as myself, and I rubbed at them, hoping to bring them to life. Then I turned towards the door and took a last look at the two bedfellows I’d enjoyed last night with. Would they both live through the week? The copious empty vials of lillefot suggested not.

The door creaked as I slid it open, and I shut it behind me with the greatest of care, eager not to draw attention to myself. The sounds of the pub at the other end of the hall told me that the fun for the evening was getting started, and once again my gut ached to stay and enjoy myself rather than go back to the guild, and my father’s disapproval. But my sense of duty — or rather fear — pushed me onward, and I softly tread across the rickety floorboards and made my way for the back exit of the crumbling pirate inn.

The Lusty Mermaid was a hovel, somewhere a cockroach would feel most at home. The smell was indescribable, but there were definitely notes of genitals and stale beer. The clientele wasn’t much better. The ladies–and gents—were unattractive and riddled with disease, which was still better than their patrons.

A floorboard groaned behind me unexpectedly, and I froze as a hand grasped my shoulder.

“Not going yet, are you? My little cricket.”

I turned to find Ralston staring me down in a half menacing, half lascivious way. It was the most unnerving of gazes, and I cringed in discomfort. Ralston held it as a point of pride that he had bedded me more than a dozen times as payment for my… habits. He was filthy, and a brute of a man, who liked to call me his “little cricket,” mocking the fact that I often played music.

Today I couldn’t stomach paying my bill with my body and I silently hoped he wanted sarcasm and a jaunty tune as payment because that was all I had to offer right now. My pockets were empty.

Ralston grinned at me, his dirty black hair hanging loosely around his face. His teeth were sparse and the color of sand in the best spots. It took everything in me not to heave at the thought of his hands on my body again.

“Just going for a smoke,” I said in what I hoped sounded like a nonchalant way. I flipped my hair out of my eyes and shoved my hands into my trouser pockets, then hummed a little tune, summoning a joint of thistle weed into my hand.

Occasionally when I couldn’t find my flute, or using it to do magic was too conspicuous, I would hum or whistle instead. It produced far less powerful effects, but for simple things like summoning small objects, it was powerful enough.

 I smiled at him, thankful it had worked, and pulled the spliff from my pocket to show him as evidence that I was intending to hang about. Then for good measure, I added,

“Would tonight be an appropriate time to settle up? I finished a massive job in Thron with my sister last week, and the pay came in today. What do I owe you, two hundred? Two fifty?” I could hear myself rambling, and I was certain the nervousness in my tone would give me away.  Anxiety was coursing through me, and I deliberated on whether I would be able to casually pull my flute from my bag and hit him with a charm that would suggest he forget the debt entirely.

But before I could decide, he grabbed me by my arm, pulling me close enough that I could smell he’d had meat for his lunch. He took a deep sniff of my hair and I felt myself gag.

“Let’s call it three hundred to be safe. Find me after your smoke.” He released my arm, sending me tumbling backwards and into the door.

I wasted no time getting to my feet and sprinting for the docks before he could change his mind. Hoping beyond hope that I could run fast enough that he didn’t notice my absence until I was halfway across the sea, headed for La Roix. He knew better than to seek me out at the guild, to collect debts or otherwise.

I ran faster than I ever had in my life, thankful the charm to imbue strength into my legs hadn’t yet worn off. I didn’t stop until I was below deck on the ferry, and I didn’t relax until we were at least a mile offshore.

I sat down in a corner of the cargo hold, away from prying eyes, and I clutched my chest as I tried to calm the panic that had become a regular part of my life. I wanted to wave goodbye to this gods forsaken place once and for all, but I knew better than to think that would ever happen.

When I could breathe again, I searched my bag for a vial of blue lillefot powder I had snatched off Ralston when he had held me close. It was a skill I had gleaned from Wren while I watched her train with Elise. Wren was my perfect twin sister who did nothing wrong in our father’s eyes. It was unbelievably annoying, especially when our father hated my guts.

I had never been prone to seasickness, but thinking about Axel Warrick’s judgmental eyes scanning me for anything he could find wrong made me feel like a witch’s cauldron, liable to bubble over at any minute. I was thankful when I heard the ship’s watch yell, “land ho!”

I dragged myself to my feet and dusted off my clothes as if it would make any bit of difference against the level of filth already covering me, then I made my way up to the top deck to disembark. The only good thing about getting back to the guild hall was that I’d finally be able to have a bath.

The aroma of the fresh sea air, and the sour scent of La Roix’s streets clashed in a mixed bag of smells as I took my first steps on dry land once more. I always found it simultaneously comforting and nauseating. It was the smell of home but was gods damned unpleasant. It was a wonder I wasn’t nose blind to it, having grown up with the smell since the day I had the misfortune to be born into this world, soft, and the male twin to a girl who was the equal of any heroine in an adventure novel.

Beautiful, smart, athletic, not to mention the fact she was one of two guild certified assassins. The gruesome things I’d seen my sister do with as little as a spoon were wholly impressive. That being said, it had the habit of making my lack of boldness even more obvious. It was like a brightly colored mosaic screaming to our father, “dispense your unbridled rage here.”

The guild hall came into sight as I made my way up the main drag of La Roix, and I couldn’t help but feel a kinship with the sagging building that was my home. It had once been beautiful and glorified, now it looked as shitty as I felt. As I walked closer, I pulled the vial of lillefot from my pocket and unscrewed the cap gently, careful not to spill even an ounce of the precious elixir.

Sobriety be damned. I would need something stronger than the La Roix air to get through the next twenty-four hours.

Toran

The wheels of the carriage creaked and groaned against the cobblestones as we approached our destination. The seven-hour journey had been as dull as watching paint dry, and anticipation was churning the acid in my stomach. Looking out my window at the streets, it was clear La Roix needed significant repair in most aspects.

La Roix was the major port city in the country of Rimmelon, the last bastion of the west coast of Shoterran. Rimmelon was home to a diverse population and wheat-based exports, and its most thrilling attribute, the guild for hire — and dogs of the king — The Rimmelon Convocation.

The smell of the air was a sickly mix of fresh sea water breezes and sludgy murk. This was very unlike the scent of my home country of Thron, which nearly always smelled like warm stone, as the breezes over the desert swept south over my family’s land.

And unlike Thron, Rimmelon had unpredictable weather, raining one minute, scorching sun the next resulting in a very humid setting nearly all the time. I lifted my hand to my wavy hair and attempted to smooth it, trying to combat this unfortunate moisture.

 Still, I couldn’t help but smile as I took it all in. The sights, the smells, the city folk going about their day, unaware my entire life was about to change, and I planned for this city to be the backdrop of my grand adventure.

At the first sight of the guildhall, I motioned to the coachman we were close enough, like a child who wants to disassociate with their parents on their first day of school. The horses chuffed and came to a halt. My heart pounded, and my palms sweat, as they did when I got nervous. My eyes fixated on the building, and I felt my confidence waiver.

This was the site of legendary deeds. This had been home to Gyris the Hammer, and Arvid the Holy Shield, and I felt a warmth spread over me as I basked in its magnificent history.

But staring at it now, the edifice was less regal than the illustrations had shown in my books. Its roof was drooping, and a window in the front bore a large crack. It held a presence over the street before it, though, like the tomb of an ancient soldier.

Tales of its victories were nearly the only thing that kept me sane at my all boys’ private school, Vodsurry. I had spent twelve hellish years of my life there, and as a quiet boy with unusual physical features, I needed an escape from the constant verbal torture. Daydreaming of the Rimmelon Convocation and its glory were that escape.

The moment the carriage had stopped completely, I lunged from the cabin, eager for my epic tale to begin at last. Eager to escape the humdrum of noble living. Eager to — SPLAT.

A soggy feeling crept over my foot, and I found myself ankle deep in mud and god knows what else. I felt my sock soaked within my boot, and my insides squirmed at the possibilities of the liquid’s composition. Well, this was a fine start to the glorious life I had planned before me. Only a single step into my marvelous adventure and I was ankle deep in filth.

I beckoned for the coachman to help me retrieve my belongings and bristled as I almost slammed one of my brass wings in the cabin door. The damned things were constantly in the way, and not only physically. I never failed to draw the attention in a crowd, despite my natural preference for wanting to avoid people’s gaze.

In my days at Vodsurry, I had been quite the easy target for my schoolmates.

“Freak”, they had taunted, “Monster!”

There had even been a night when I woke in the early hours of the morning to the feeling of fists plummeting into my gut repeatedly. The other boys lit my bedsheets on fire and one boy, an odious son of a bitch called Fredrick Cummings, had found delight in piercing my wings with a few pocketknives.

Though it’s hard to say the extent of the damage emotionally, physically it had been bad enough my father, Lord Sebastian Eventide, had spent the rest of the year in negotiations with the headmaster ensuring not only was that teacher removed from the staff, but I was given a personal guard to escort me everywhere. Because having a personal guard follow you around as a twelve-year-old boy didn’t target me for other kinds of humiliation.

But my father had meant well. He always meant well. He and my mother, Magnolia, had always wanted the best of the world for me. Even being my adoptive parents, they never treated me as any less than a beloved son.

I still remember the look in my father’s eyes as we sat in the headmaster’s office, of sadness and pity and rage. I knew it arose from the knowledge I would never be an equal among my peers. So, I began looking for other options. Anything besides going to court and being their punching bag for the rest of my life.

If I could build a reputation for myself with the guild, one that demanded respect and regard, the other lord’s sons, and anyone else who had ever believed me to be less, would have no choice but to concede I wasn’t so different from them.

I flung open the trunks and sift through my possessions, attempting to decide which of my things was most vital to my existence in a place where simplicity and selflessness king. I had heard of the altruistic lifestyle the guild held dear and had prepared to give up nearly anything to be in their ranks.

Besides my clothes, the biggest case I had brought held my tools to repair my gun. An interesting, up-and-coming weapon, which relied on gunpowder to shoot projectiles called bullets. Tinkering with these mechanical marvels was a hobby of mine, expensive, but endlessly fascinating.  

I was about to close the case, when a lanky figure stumbled across my path and knocked me off my feet, sending me headlong across the cobblestones. The man must have been less than steady himself, because our impact had also sent him tumbling to the ground.

A drizzle of mud sprayed across me as he landed, and I wiped it away from my face and hair to see who had collided with me.

It was a man who looked no older than twenty, with sharp, gray eyes the color of a rain cloud, and disheveled chocolate colored hair. He looked as surprised to see me as I was him, most likely because he’d never seen someone with wings before, and I noted the pointed ears which peeked through his tousled mop.

Elven kind.

His face wasn’t elongated and refined enough to be a high elf, but the ears were always an indicator of fae blood. A rakish smile spread across his lips as he appeared to take in my appearance.

“Well…” he said, a suggestive tone leaking through unabashedly, “I haven’t seen you before”.

Something about his tone reminded me all too well of the one person who had ever bothered to befriend me at Vodsurry. My best — and only friend, Tobias Lockhall. Tobias was in a similar situation as me, friend wise. Someone caught him kissing a boy at the Wynmaer family’s summer solstice ball when we were thirteen. We had banded together in our mutual status as the school’s “most likely to be beaten within an inch of our lives”, and a friendship formed.

Tobias and I had been inseparable, doing absolutely everything together. We had planned to run away to Rimmelon to join the guild once we had escaped the clutches of the aristocracy. But only I had made it this far.

Our last year at the Vodsurry Academy for Noble Boys found Tobias tangled up in a scandal, as he was caught figuratively and literally with his pants around his ankles. He had been having an affair with our arithmetic’s professor.

Typical Tobias played it off as if being caught was hardly worth mentioning, but a week later I came back to our shared room to find all his belongings, and Tobias, gone.

Now, staring into this young man’s blue eyes, hearing his purring tone as he greeted me, I wondered once more where Tobias had gone, and if he had ever found happiness.

I struggled to get to my feet so I could help the other man up. The need to always remain the gentleman, an unfortunate compulsion of my aristocratic upbringing.

“Are you all right?” I asked him with genuine concern as I noticed a slight trickle of blood evacuating his nose. “It’s that you’ve got a little…”

I pointed to the ruby streak was descending his upper lip. The presumed half elf furrowed his brows and reached up to touch where I had pointed, examining the ruddy liquid.

It shocked me when his reaction was not one of horror, but amusement. He used the sleeve of his now muddied, gray shirt to wipe it away as his eyes grazed over my trunks of possessions. He cast a speculative gaze over me, a smile playing across his lips.

I turned away to quickly hide the rest of my things, pulling out a leather backpack and beginning to fill it with only the essentials. My pistol, my tool kit, some clothes. I debated for a few minutes on whether to leave behind the shining badge all VS graduates received. It was an insurance of sorts, guaranteeing your acceptance in situations involving high society, and we all carried them.

I gambled it would come in handy eventually and pocketed the damned thing.

I then stuffed my remaining belongings back into the carriage, asking the driver to “please take them back to my parents’ estate as I won’t be needing them”. Even I doubted the air of confidence in my voice.

As I watched the coachman urge his horses away, I looked up once more at the legendary guild hall that was collapsing in on itself. In fact, I wasn’t sure the awning which hung over the front door hadn’t sunk a few inches since I last looked.

“Is that building the Rimmelon Convocation guild hall?” I asked, realizing the young man was still staring at me.

“You’re going to the guild?” he asked. I nodded in what I hoped was a brave-looking gesture before he replied, “How unfortunate for you.”

This would be the last step I needed to take to forge my destiny. To take control of whatever shit lot I was dealt in life and to make something of myself.  Something beyond the son of a lord or a graduate of VS, or even beyond the awkward and unusual, winged creature most people saw me to be. My heart steeled in resolve.

What did he mean by, “How unfortunate for you?”

Wren

I looked up at myself in the mirror of the disgusting bathroom, my blue eyes looking back at me in judgement. I glared at my reflection. How dare she judge me?

I brought my bleeding finger to my lips and licked the rusty tasting red pearls of blood from it. This wasn’t the first time I’d slipped; it wouldn’t be the last, and I still won. I reached down for the bottom of my shirt and tore a piece off to use as a bandage for lack of a better alternative, only pausing for a moment to consider if it was sanitary.

Regional Five Finger Fillet Champion. Gambling on my knife skills had won and lost me more sho than I could count, and yet I always came back for more. Travelling the taverns and challenging big, burly men to a game of risk was a thrill unlike any other.

Perhaps my greatest loss to date, though, had been the tip of my pinky finger, which I could swear had affected my balance. A costly mistake for someone whose livelihood revolved around their ability to be stealthy. It was a dangerous hobby, but victory was a high better than any drug I’d ever put in my body. And I’d partaken in quite a few in my youth.

When I had staunched the bleeding, I left the bathroom; the door creaking on its hinges, to pursue anesthetic. The kind that was liquid and made all your problems vanish into a haze of cheerful carelessness and smoky taste.

I sidled up to the bar and laid down several sho from my most recent winnings, waving to get the bartender’s attention.

“Ale. Consider this prepayment for what I intend to consume, ” I said as he glanced up. He raised his eyebrow, and I laid out a few more, challenging him to say something.

The coin could have bought a drink for every person in the pub, but my track record would show it was also the same amount needed to get me well and smashed.

Harry, the bartender, gave me a side eyed look, challenging my desire to consume that volume of liquor. I returned his look and made a hand gesture at him that told him to mind his own damn business. He reached for a pint glass to fulfil my request.

The mahogany counter glistened as he slid the frothing beverage down the bar to me, leaving a trail of moisture in its wake. I grabbed the ale and took a deep, deep drink before setting it down once more and gesturing to Harry that he might as well prepare for the next.

The liquid was cool and bitter in my throat. It worked as more a placebo than a curative, with the anticipation of drunkenness being the remedy. I felt the throbbing in my ring finger already starting to fade.

I was just starting to relax when I felt a shoulder brush mine and a man slid into the seat beside me. I didn’t move my head, instead using my peripheral vision to size up my neighbor before deciding whether or not he was a threat.

It wasn’t uncommon for me to be on edge about people being this close to me. As an assassin, plenty of people wanted me dead. As a woman of some traditional beauty, plenty of people wanted me in their bed. In either scenario, I had to be cautious.

This time the offender was an older man with a long white beard, and the distinct features of a dwarf. He appeared to be leering at me drunkenly. If only he knew how much of a mistake it would be to ruin my quiet victory, he probably wouldn’t have even bothered.

As usual, my first action was to move away from this unfortunate individual, who had absolutely no idea upon what he had stumbled. But like most situations of this nature, he ignored my disengagement and grabbed for my wrist.

“Where you off to, girly?” he said in a tone dripping with sexual appetite. I smiled to myself, despite my disgust. This stupid, stupid bastard.

I slowly turned to face him, trying as hard as I could not to let my anticipation show on my face, the excitement of this idiot engaging me bubbling through me.

I took a low, slow breath.

“I will give you one chance,” I said to him in my most polite, but firm, voice. “One chance to remove your hand from me.”

The room fell silent.

Those who were regulars here had seen this scene play out repeatedly, and I could hear them in hushed tones, placing bets against their less savvy drinking mates. The dwarf appeared to hear them too, but regrettably for him took the wagers as encouragement to continue his pursuit.

My fingers twitched as I resisted the urge to reach for my knives, instead choosing an unarmed technique for dealing with this irritation.

“I warned you.”

I closed the gap between us. Then I used both of my hands, and all my strength, to propel the man from his seat and onto the floor. He hit like a ton of bricks and I was instantly upon him.

His lust had turned to anger, which had then morphed into fear as I used both of my knees to pin his hands to the floor, purposely putting all of my weight into the points of contact I knew would be the most painful. He made a noise which sounded like a cry for help, but the patrons of the pub sat in awe and silence.

I moved so one of my boots took the place of my knee and dug into his hand, making sure I heard each finger crack as the bastard yelled in pain. My blood rushed through my body and it was all I could do to stop myself from continuing the retribution.

I held my breath to steady myself, and then, after one final grind of my boot into his fingers, I stood and re-braided my hair before walking back to the bar.

Returning to my ale with a satisfied smile, I gulped it down and told Harry to keep the remaining money. Then I made my way out of the pub and into the soggy afternoon streets of La Roix. If there was one thing I had learned over the years, it was you could either pick a fight, or finish drinking, but you could never have both.

I meandered through the city for a while, sipping from a flask I usually carried on me, and wondering what other trouble I could get into. Regretfully the pub I had left was the only one in the city that hadn’t banned me yet for fighting their customers, so it seemed I would nurse my flask for the foreseeable future.

One fight always led me to wanting another, and my brother, Bael, was returning home tonight from his week-long bender. There were hundreds of things I could have fought him over, but he will be in a weakened state and would probably put up a disappointing defense.

Bael was my mirror in most ways. Both shared the same eyes, gray from a distance, but up close a starburst of blue, green, and gold. We had the same cascade of rich brown hair framing our faces, though my hair was considerably longer. We both had the soft, symmetrical, fae imbued faces of our mother, who had been a Fayrin from Greater Osenree. However, Bael bore the gaunt, wraithy, look of someone who ate far too little and filled his body with things other than sustenance.

Our mother had died of a fever when Bael and I were eight years old, and our father, Axel, guild master of the Rimmelon Convocation, was emotionally unavailable. Not that he didn’t care about us, but rather he lacked the essential foundations for caring for children. So, our father dealt with this lack of ability in the way he still handled emotional failures to this day and ran off to another country to resolve someone else’s issues.

A guildhall is not a place for children, even more so if they leave the children to fend for themselves. Which is how I came to wake at dawn every morning at age 8, taking on guild jobs to ensure Bael and I had what we needed.

I would pull weeds in people’s gardens or use my child sized sword, barely a dagger, to chase wererats from people’s basements. Any job which would ensure I had sho in my pocket and food in our bellies.

By the time I was thirteen, I discovered a new type of contract available at the guild. Assassinations.

Any normal parent would take one look at his thirteen-year-old daughter, holding out the paper request, asking for permission to take another life, and would have crumbled. To any normal parent, this would surely be a sign of their failure. But not our father. He couldn’t have been prouder the day I asked him to let me become an assassin.

The sho came much quicker after that.

A single completed assassination contract could buy us food for a week and even left money to ensure Bael had interesting things to fill his time with. He had always shown a natural penchant for music and instruments, so I spent any money that didn’t go into our mouths on beautiful things for him to wear, instruments for him to play on and books for him to read. I would return to the guild after a contract, exhausted and covered in dirt and blood, and Bael would sing me to sleep or read to me from his poetry books. It wasn’t the childhood we deserved, but we survived.

The older I got, the more I realized I had other skills in my wheelhouse, other weapons in my arsenal. I found that men took a special interest in me as my body became a woman’s, and it made me a far deadlier assassin.

As a child, I would have to concoct some ruse of hunger or injury to gain access to my hits, and even then, sometimes it didn’t work as people are cruel and self-absorbed creatures. But the more attractive I became to men, the more I found that it took but a simple flick of my hair, or a lick of my lips at the right person, and they were wrapped around my finger, until my hands were wrapped around their throat.

Gaining this advantage allowed me to take riskier contracts amongst deadlier enemies, sometimes even taking the contracts that were reserved for my mentor, Elise. Elise was appointed to train me by my father once he had approved me for assassinations, and for a long time, she and I were inseparable, a team. But once I got older and branched into her market of contracts, she became cruel and distant. Our once strong alliance shattering into a sharp and deadly rivalry.

But the thrill was short lived, and soon my twin and I diverged in daily life. Bael got high and sleep with anything he could, while I preferred to drink away my nightmares, only taking the company of men in bed when I knew it would lead to fulfilling a contract.

Those were the most satisfying of my hits. The transition from the pleasure of my naked form, to horror as they realized my true purpose, never stopped amusing me.

I trained hard to keep my movement fast and my mind even faster. And to combat the copious amounts of beverage I consumed, which had an annoying habit of going straight to my waist.

By the time I hit eighteen years old, my father started taking me aside for guild master lessons, as he intended me to be his heir. Another nail in the coffin of my brother’s self-worth. Bael buried himself further in the night life I was leaving behind, as though all the hurt and betrayal he’d ever felt would disappear if he attended one more party.

By the time I saw the guild hall come into view, the sun was setting. Clearly, my message had reached Bael, as he now stood before the building, speaking to someone I didn’t know.

“Decided to crawl out of the gutter, Bael?” I called out to him, hoping my scathing tone was clear.

Bael turned to me, about to say something rude, and I finally caught a glimpse at his companion.

A tall, handsome, young man, with brass wings like a dragon.

His eyes locked on to me and I couldn’t help but note how they sparked like wildfire. His skin was sun kissed and smooth, like a plane of perfectly even sand. His hands were those of someone who hadn’t needed to do manual work a day in his life, but strong, and his hair was tousled and wavy, a deep, rich brown that bordered on black and drooped into his face.

He looked flushed and then startled as he met my gaze.

“I’m Toran” the winged man said, his voice cracking. Lovely. The fortitude of a daffodil accompanied the good looks. As I stood before him, he was awkward, nervous, and appeared to have lost his way to court based on the tailoring of the clothes he was wearing.

“Wren,” I said, putting my hand out to shake his. He took it apprehensively, and I felt a weight hit me as Bael slung an arm over my shoulder.

“Darling sister, as charming as always. Lost any fingers lately gambling?”

“Lost any dignity lately while whoring yourself for drugs? Oh wait, you would have to have any to lose it.”

He gave me a rude gesture, and I put my hands on my hips and glared at him playfully. He returned the gesture and the expression in a standoff that occurred at least once every time we saw each other. I grumbled and kicked a loose cobblestone at him, nailing him in the shin before stomping away to the guild.

“‘It’s nice to see you too,” he called after me. And though I didn’t say so, I felt the same. I never knew if he would return when he went away to that place, and I could only breathe again when he came home.

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