“I couldn’t possibly eat another bite!” I laughed.
Michelle’s eyes brightened with mischief and a slight smile played across her lips. She motioned for the waiter before turning back to me. “Just a small dessert. I promise it is worth finding room for just one more bite.”
She continued to grin as she looked up at our waiter. “The spring berries with cream and…hmmm… a cup of java for each of us.”
The man nodded crisply and turned to make his way back to the kitchens. I leaned back in my chair to marvel at the room. This was the second most expensive restaurant in port city of Domsmith and it was living up to its reputation. The floor was a dark red oak that must have been imported from the forest far to the north. The handcrafted tables were from the woodworkers in the southern continent. The columns were made from marble with small inlays of gold work.
And then there was the food. I had never tasted such food. Savory fowl with crisp vegetables; lemon and herb fish with potatoes and a stew that practically made me moan in pleasure.
“If this is the second best restaurant, the best must be divine.”
“Oh it is.” Michelle frowned briefly. “I wish I had planned enough in advance to make reservations, but that is the way of things.”
“Well I for one am happy we couldn’t get into that other place. I might have exploded.”
She smiled. “I promised you a grand adventure and a grand adventure you will receive.”
I turned back to the woman seated across from me. My breath caught as our eyes met. She was stunning and alluring and breathtaking and simply wonderful. Gods she made every intelligent thought run out of my head.
“You are blushing, again! I swear I can’t take you anywhere.” She laughed and gave me a wink. She leaned forward. “Are you enjoying your day so far?”
“Let me see. I was treated to the best room in the best inn, then I slept late and had breakfast in bed and now I am eating a four course lunch at the second best restaurant in the city.” I gave a long sigh. “I’m simply having the worst day of my life.”
Michelle let out a loud laugh but turned serious as the waiter brought out our dessert. “I’m afraid we must depart as soon as this course is devoured. I believe this will cover our food with extra for your good service.” She handed the man two gold coins and the waiter’s eyebrows shot up. It was a gross overpayment, but the man quickly pocketed the coins and bowed low.
I watched him disappear before rounding on Michelle. “That…where…how…”
She merely held up her hand. “The commoners here get paid very little and I have it to spare. Now eat up, we still have much to see.” As though she were setting an example, she picked up one of the berries, dipped it into the cream and plopped it into her mouth.
We finished our dessert and headed back out into the chill autumn day. Michelle’s smile broadened as she breathed in the salty tang of the air. Her cloak wrapped tightly around her body as a breeze blew up from the gulf. Her tunic and pants looked far more suited for the weather than my long dress and petite coat. I tried to pull the coat tighter around my body, but the bite of the breeze found its way to my skin.
Michelle continued to smile in delight and twirled with the wind, a ballerina practicing with an invisible partner. Her body moved to the rhythm of the air around her, swirling, dipping and pausing with the flow of the currents. She laughed as multicolored leaves swirled around her long brown hair and whipped around her body. She played with the innocence of a child not caring about the looks the others caste our way.
I pulled my coat closer to my body and tried to ignore the gawkers. I faded into the background while Michelle took center stage. She was a rare beauty that challenged the notion of how a woman of means should act. She laughed out loud, smiled at noblemen and beggar women alike, danced among the fall leaves; in short, she was a young woman that lived outside of the rules.
She twirled once more and her smile faded as she noticed my discomfort. She quickly took off her cloak and wrapped it around me. “I forget you are from a much warmer place.”
“Won’t you be cold?”
“Not in the least. Come, we must hurry before your surprise closes.”
I started to ask, but she grabbed my hand and pulled me into motion. Her steps never faltered as we raced down the street dodging through crowds of shoppers. In comparison, I felt like toddler just learning to walk. My steps were heavy and I bumped into people more often than I dodged them. My heels were not made for this kind of scramble, but Michelle was relentless. Her eyes darted, taking in every obstacle. She moved like the wind she had played with, sliding around lamppost and people, skipping over puddles and ducking under signs.
She rounded the corner several feet ahead of me and whirled. “Close your eyes.”
I took a deep breath and closed them. I felt her hands clasp over mine. They were rough with calluses and immensely strong. I could feel the barely contained power she held back through my gloves. In that moment I knew that she was more than just a nobleman’s niece.
Before I could examine that thought, she pulled me forward the last few steps and whispered into my ear, “Open your eyes.”
My breath caught. The Art Galleria of Mellistraid was bathed in afternoon sunlight and radiated its beauty to all who were graced with sight. Even the local people paused to take in the magnificent creation of man. Carriages slowed, hawkers became quite, and even children paused to witness the golden hued magic.
Towers of gold and glass spiraled up from three glass domes. Sunlight kissed the cool white marble walls until they warmed to a rich yellow. The fountains that surrounded the courtyard showered diamonds down into the clear waters below while maple trees added ruby red fall leaves to the brilliance of the scene.
“Breathe.” Michelle whispered into my ear, but I didn’t want to breathe. I wanted this moment to last forever. If I took another breath, time would move forward and pull me along with it. I had dreamed of this place since I was a child and now I was here. Now I was standing across the street from the greatest collection of art in the world.
Michelle squeezed my hand, a gentle reminder that my body needed air. I turned to her with tears in my eyes. “You remembered.” I whispered.
She smiled and quickly gave me a kiss on the check. “Of course I did. Why do you think I chose this city? Now come on before it closes.”
I stepped back. “But it is only for the nobles of this kingdom. We can’t go in there!”
She rolled her eyes. “Gold will get you everywhere. Come.”
I wanted to resist. I wanted to protest that we’d get into trouble, but the words died on my lips as soon as the guards held the doors open for us. I walked into the beauty of heaven and completely forgot everything.
We stayed long past closing. Michelle had been right; gold got us everything including a private tour by the head curator. I stepped out into the cold night air feeling as though I had been walking through a dream. This could not have been real. This day could not have been possible. Just being able to experience the luxury was amazing enough, but being with Michelle made the day magical. Seeing her so lively, and carefree made me want to never leave, to never go back to the country that would only frown at us but would use her skills to it’s advantage, to never go back to the arranged marriage that awaited me.
It was just a tiny thought but one that made my happiness dim. She was a spy, or at least that’s what she had confided. I would never truly know what she did for the king or for her uncle. All I knew was that from the moment we had met in the library, I loved her and I would never be allowed to be with her if we stayed in the kingdom of Arelion. My marriage had already been arranged and the date set. In a little more than a month I was to wed and become a proper wife. This one trip was to be my only chance to experience true freedom.
“A frown on a day like this?” Michelle wrapped the cloak around my shoulders once more. “What more can I do to make you smile?”
“Nothing. I told you, this is the worst day of my life.” I tried to keep a stern expression, but I couldn’t resist those kind eyes. I’d have this little vacation, this one moment of freedom and store it away as a bright memory to use when the world turned dark once again.
She stuck her tongue out at me and then waltzed down the marble stairs. I laughed as she pretended to stumbled towards the fountain. But then she kept falling, landing in the icy waters of the fountain. I rushed down the stairs, but she stood up smiling at me.
“Are you mad? You’ll catch your death like that.” I hissed.
Michelle’s eyes still held a hint of irony as she jumped from the fountain. She rushed to me and took my face into her cold hands. “You have no idea how true that saying almost became. Luckily the arrow missed and the cold water will numb my body to pain that will come.”
I tried to jerk away, but was held fast. She leaned closer. “I am so sorry. I never, ever meant for this to happen. I tried to lose them, but they found me and there are too many for me to take on in this wide-open space. They are going to take us and there is nothing I can do.”
She looked me in the eye and I knew she was telling the truth. This was not another joke. My heart thundered and I almost sank to my knees, but again she held me.
“Tell them everything you know about me. You won’t be protecting me by keeping silent. Tell them everything. Keep talking it’ll buy more time.” She kissed me passionately and I wanted to cry. Everything was spinning. The world was disappearing from beneath my feet. I could hear shouts coming from all directions, could hear the sounds of boots on cobblestones, but I could not break away from her. I could not let her go.
She paused for a moment to whisper, “I will come for you, just keep talking. I love you.”
I jerked back just as rough hands came out of the darkness to pull her away. I started to scream, to reach out, but another set of rough hands clamped over my mouth and forced me into a covered carriage.
It had been the happiest day of my life, insane and wonderful, a day of wonder and magnificent beauty in a life shrouded in monotone tediousness. I tried to cling to those memories as I was blindfolded and gagged. I tried to cling to the sight of Michelle dancing in the wind as rough hands forced my arms behind my back and bound my wrists. I tried to remember the golden hues of the galleria at sunset as tears flowed down my face and the carriage surge forward. I tried, but failed.
Oh gods, what had gone wrong?
My heart pounded against my rib cage as my mind supplied the answer. It was simple really. Michelle had said she was a spy and from the way she had been spending money, she was probably a very talented spy. Talented spies were worth a lot of money alive, but sometimes they were worth even more dead, especially if they spilled their secrets before they took their final breath.
Tears continued to roll down my face as my imagination supplied the worst possibilities. I was just the daughter of a scholar. My whole life had been the study of books and art. I had never read a book about adventure, never dreamed about exploring the world other than to see the beautiful works of the Mellistraid artisans. I loved art and music and most of all I had loved my simple life. Then Michelle walked into the library and for the first time I wanted to know what it was like to be with a wild flame. I only wanted a small part of that beautiful fire.
Gods, oh gods, why was this happening? Was this a punishment for having one happy moment?
The carriage stopped and I was forced out. The rough hands tried to force me to walk, but my knees buckled. A man gave a grunt behind me and then I was lifted into the air and slung over someone’s shoulders. Breathing became very difficult as I dangled upside down. The man’s boney shoulders cut into my abdomen and he hadn’t bothered with a bath in the past month. I tried not to retch, but it was almost impossible.
We walked downstairs for what seemed like an eternity. Mold and stagnant water smells mingled with the smell of the man’s unwashed body and this time I couldn’t stop myself, I started to retch and was quickly thrown to the ground. I coughed and gulped down air until I could get my stomach under control. My captor waited silently then grabbed my arm and forced me into a room.
I was forced into a chair and bound before the blindfold came off. I squinted in the poor light from the candle, but couldn’t make out anything more than vague shadows. Oh gods, what were they going to do to me?
“Tell me what you know of your…special friend?” A voice purred from the shadows.
“I…I…don’t know much. I met Michelle in the library at Bryanbridge and –”
A hand shot out from the dark and hit me in the stomach. Every last bit of air was forced from my body. I choked and gasped trying to get more air into my lungs. Tears rolled down my face from the pain.
“Her name is Lilith. A fitting name for a devil of a woman, wouldn’t you agree? Now no more lies. Tell me, who Lilith is working for?” The voice said.
Tell them everything. That was Michelle’s command. I swallowed and said, “She’s a spy. That’s what she told me. She gathers information for the king and sometimes her uncle.” I wanted my voice to be strong, but it came out as a whimper. Was Michelle already dead? What were they doing to her?
Another punch came out of the darkness. My head rocked to the side and I saw stars. A warm trickle of blood slowly flowed down my face. “What?” I cried. “That’s all I know.”
“A pity for you then.” The voice drawled.
Another strike from the darkness and I fell to the ground, chair and all. A man picked me up and placed me up right. “We were friends. She was sent by her uncle to learn from my father. She would go away some times. I never knew what for until a month ago when she showed up with bruises on her face. When I asked she said she was a spy and that she needed to leave Bryanbridge. She wanted me to come with her on the first leg of her journey and I said yes.” I was babbling and crying, but I couldn’t stop.
“Foolish, foolish girl.” A shadow moved and I could make out the outline of a third man. “Sell her to the brothels. At least we’ll get some money out of her.”
Oh gods. My heart stopped; I couldn’t breathe.
Someone knocked on the door. The room grew silent for a moment then the door opened. Everything became a blur of motion and sound. Something flashed through the weak candlelight and the man next to me fell to the ground with a dagger sticking out of his throat. I started to scream, but in the next moment Michelle was standing in front of me. Her eye was starting to swell and there was blood running down her arm, but she didn’t seem to notice. Her eyes focused on mine. They were filled with tremendous sorrow.
“I am so, so sorry.” She bit her split lip then quickly cut my bonds. I jumped into her arms and continued to cry as she tried to sooth me. “Shh, Katiana. It’s ok. It will be ok. I have to finish this and then we will escape and go to someplace so magical, you’ll never want to leave.”
I looked up into her brown eyes and wanted to trust her. I shook my head trying to think. Could I just run away with her? I had only two real options. I could run away with her, or try and go back to my other life and be married to my father’s business associate. It wasn’t a choice really, but I had to know one thing. “Tell me the truth; who are you?”
She took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “I will tell you everything but I need to finish this. Wait outside, I’ll be with you in a few moments.”
“No, I’m not leaving your side. We almost died!” What I didn’t want to add was that I couldn’t have moved more than three steps. My legs were on the verge of collapse and my stomach was threatening to rebel again.
Michelle gave me a sad smile. A single tear slid down her face. “I don’t want you to see me like this. I don’t want you to see what I have to do.”
“Did you mean it?”
“When you said you loved me, did you mean it?”
I took a deep breath. “Good because I love you too and I’m not leaving you.”
Another tear rolled down her cheek. Her hand reached up to trace the line where the man had punched me. “You look ready to collapse. Sit down for a moment.”
I smiled back at her and did as she said. I watched as she walked over to the only man still alive and bound his wrist and ankles. She pulled a pair of leather gloves from his coat pocket and slapped him hard enough to send echoes throughout the room.
His eyes snapped open and he started to scream but she quickly put a knife to his throat, silencing any sound he was about to make. “I know that this dungeon is mostly sound proof from the outside, but there’s no need to wake the servants.”
“I won’t tell the whore of Arelion anything. You might as well run back to Bryanbridge and tell your king that his kingdom will fall.”
Michelle laughed. “The whore of Arelion. Now that is a new name for me. Let me ask you; how sharp is this knife?” She lowered the blade to his shirtfront, flicked her wrist and a button popped off. “Must be pretty sharp.”
“I am a torturer. Do you honestly think that you’ll get me to talk, spy?”
Michelle laughed again. “Spy! Spy? You think I am a spy?” Another button popped off. “I sometimes spy. It pays the bills between jobs.” A third button joined the first two. “I’m afraid you are mistaken. I’m not a spy, I am an assassin.”
The man’s face turned white and his eyes went round. “No. No, you can’t be. You can’t be Patrina. You…no.”
Michelle, Lilith, Patrina: gods who was this woman?
Michelle turned to look me in the eye. “My name is Patrina Michelle Bordeux.” She stood up and walked over to me. “I will understand if you want to run away from me. I’ll understand if you never want to see my face again. I just…I just wanted you have one of your dreams come true before you married. I am so sorry it turned out this way. I’ll get you passage back to Arelion and you’ll never see me again.”
No. No, this couldn’t be how it ends, not after two years. I knew the woman deep down. I didn’t care what name she called herself. I cared for the friend that I helped to tutor. I cared about the woman who wanted to give me my dreams. “No.” I finally whispered.
“No. If my options are to go home and lose you or stay with you, I chose you.”
She knelt down to my eye level. There was a fierceness in her eyes that I almost flinched away from. “I want you to close your eyes. I don’t want you to see this, not yet.”
I nodded and closed my eyes. I closed my eyes on the room, and everything that my life had been. I closed my eyes knowing that when I opened them, my old life would be shattered. I closed my eyes and trusted the woman that I loved.