A wolf. Just a wolf. Better than a demon.
Selissa admitted to herself that it still wasn’t good. Especially seeing how she was hanging upside-down, caught in a poacher’s trap that worked remarkably well on mercenaries as well as animals.
“I won’t taste good,” she told the wolf. “All sinewy, you see.”
The wolf walked closer, snow crunching beneath its paws.
“Can’t we talk about this?” she asked, straining her neck in order to keep her eyes on her new friend.
The wolf bared its teeth, a low growl rising from its throat.
“Guess that’s a no, then,” she said. Her attempt at putting some distance between her and the wolf only resulted in her dangling rather pathetically from the tree. She had a knife tugged in her boot, but even if she could reach it, she wasn’t entirely sure whether she could deliver an effective blow from her current position.
She wasn’t eager to find out what would happen if she missed. It was a rather big wolf.
‘Magic is always an option,’ a voice said in her mind, and Selissa did a snarl to rival the one on the wolf.
‘I am not talking to you,’ she told him. You had to stick to your principles.
If that meant she was going to get eaten, so be it.
A blast of light hit the snow in front of the wolf, spraying both the wolf and Selissa with a shower of snow as it exploded. The wolf yelped and took off, leaving Selissa hanging by herself for a moment before she heard the sound of someone approaching.
“How the hell do you keep getting yourself into these situations?” the gruff voice of Orrell asked as the mage captain stepped into the line of Selissa’s upside-down vision. Trying to maintain her dignity, she offered him a winning smile, as if this had been the plan all along.
“Talent,” she said, still swaying slightly from the blast of the spell. “Help me down, will you?”
She had just enough time to regret her choice of words before Orrell’s rapier sliced through the air, effortlessly cutting the rope holding her feet. With a string of curses, Selissa crashed to the ground, landing in an undignified heap in the snow.
“Was that strictly necessary?” she asked, spitting out the tangle of hair and snow in her mouth.
“No,” Orrell said simply.
Why does this guy hate me? she wondered. Sure, they hadn’t met under the best of circumstances, but for once it hadn’t been her fault.
That she had had little to occupy her time with for the past two months and had spent most of it bugging the mage captain might factor in to it, but Selissa felt that taking down a couple of near-invincible mage-hunting demons together should have bonded them. Admittedly, her approach to making friends might have been a bit unconventional, but that was how she mainly met people these days.
“What are you doing out here, anyway?” she asked him, glancing at the walls of Var’nori in the distance. “Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad to no longer be on the dinner menu, but you don’t strike me as the type to go hunting for distressed damsels to save.”
“You’re still within the defensive perimeter of the city,” Orrell said. Just a month ago he would have refused to waste time explaining himself to her, but he seemed to have realized that answering her questions was the only way to get her to leave him alone. “I was doing a routine inspection of the wards.”
Selissa blinked up at him. “Wait, you have wards all the way out here? Why the hell am I getting attacked by wolves, then?”
“Believe it or not, mercenary, Var’nori does not have the same issues you appear to have with wildlife,” Orrell said, raising an eyebrow in that condescending manner that would have been utterly infuriating to her if Selissa hadn’t already waved goodbye to her dignity while hanging from the tree moments earlier. “What are you doing out here?”
“Besides almost getting eaten, you mean?” Selissa said. “Mostly hiding from mages.”
Orrell’s eyebrow climbed another notch. “Another thing you’re not good at, obviously.”
Ouch, Selissa thought. Not holding any punches, are we?
“I’ll have you know that I have been out here all morning without anyone trying to discuss the theory behind modern spell techniques with me,” she said. Figuring that she should probably get off the ground before the melting snow she could feel at the hem of her pants made it to her undergarments, she untangled herself from the remains of the trap and got to her feet awkwardly. Orrell was already losing interest in her.
“Just go home to Feryll,” he said over his shoulder as he turned to head back into the sparse woods. Selissa made to follow him, but her feet had gone numb from hanging in the trap and she immediately fell over into the snow. By the time she was done cursing and caught up with him, Orrell had already made it to the horse he had tied to a tree some way back.
“I’m not going back there,” she said stubbornly. “And even if I did, I would end up right back here in Var’nori after stabbing him, and at least right now no one is forcing me to sleep in the dungeons.”
“Var’nori’s history has several famous cases of patricide,” Orrell said while he untied his horse. “You would be added to the records right below the mage Ezahr who invented seventeen different new killing spells just to be able to take over his father’s spot on the Council.”
Selissa winced at the word ‘patricide’. She was only barely coming to terms with her and Feryll’s family relation in her head. Hearing it acknowledged out loud still felt bizarre.
“I don’t want to go over in mage history,” she said. Then her curiosity got the better of her and she added, “Seventeen? How hard was that old man to kill?”
“You don’t get to sit on the Var’nori Council without a certain level of skill,” Orrell said, getting into the saddle. “Ezahr Senior especially had a skill for walking other people into any traps set for him.”
Selissa accepted the hand the captain offered her — though he did so with a long-suffering sigh that said he knew he was going to regret his decision — and let him pull her onto the horse behind him. Wrapping an arm around him, she hoped he would believe it was to avoid falling off, and not just because the snow had melted through her clothes and Orrell was a good deal warmer than his grumpy exterior would suggest.
“What spell finally did the trick?” she asked as the mage kicked his horse into motion.
“None of them did,” Orrell said. “Ezahr Junior eventually just put poison in his father’s wine and the old man croaked in the middle of dinner.”
“See, I keep saying that you mages try to make everything more complicated than it needs to be,” Selissa said. “You can’t beat the classics.”
“Are you just trying to avoid the subject of Magister Feryll?” Orrell asked, but Selissa caught a slight twist of his lips that meant he was either amused or considering throwing her off the horse.
“Very much so,” Selissa said. She had spent two months avoiding the subject of Feryll and she wasn’t about to stop now that she had finally made most of the mages in Var’nori understand that bringing it up would be bad for their health.
If she ever found the gossipy old coot who started the rumors in the first place, she might just need to learn some of Ezahr Junior’s spells.
“You know he came to see you again last week?” Orrell said.
The captain was feeling annoyingly chatty this afternoon, it seemed. The reason why Selissa liked him was exactly because he usually didn’t give a flying rat’s ass about her messed-up life – as long as it didn’t directly affect his ability to do his work – but for some reason he decided to wait until she was trapped on a horse with him to take up smalltalk.
“I know,” she said sullenly. “I had to hide out in the university kitchens for six hours before he gave up and headed back.”
“How mature,” Orrell said dryly.
“Who asked you?” Selissa said with a huff. “I bet you come from a lovely, completely normal family where no one has ever performed shady magical rituals on their children or returned from the dead after a decade.”
“I do, actually,” Orrell said calmly. “My parents own a farm out west. My father and I mostly discuss livestock when I visit.”
Selissa pursed her lips. “You’re no fun, you know that?”
She received a noncommittal grunt as reply.
They lapsed into a silence that was only slightly uncomfortable compared to their previous conversation while Orrell steered the horse toward Var’nori. Soon they hit the main road leading to the city and Selissa noticed that they were not alone in traveling that way. Like any city Var’nori had its fair share of visitors, but there was currently an unusual number of high-class carriages heading toward the gates.
“I think we might be a bit underdressed,” she commented as they passed a carriage pulled by two horses with peacock feathers decorating their headdress. “What’s going on?”
“Some kind of diplomatic gathering,” Orrell said. “We have had aristocrats coming in all day.”
There was something in his tone suggesting he would rather be dealing with rabid demons. Selissa could hardly blame him. But he dealt with mages every day, so he should be used to handling self-important prigs. She, on the other hand, belonged to a class where even the nobility’s servants considered themselves too good to talk to her. Her point was proven when another fancy carriage passed them and the coachman – a man who likely spent an awful lot of his time shoveling horse dung – took one look at her and turned up his nose with the expression of someone who had just smelled something distasteful.
Yes, Orrell and his spellchuckers could keep their aristocrats. Selissa was going to stay as far away from them as she could.
Expected release: Summer 2020