"What about Drunk?"
Even though I was almost comatose I should have remembered the name of the guy speaking. He was the closest to a friend I had at the time and was hesitating by the table as our two drinking buddies stopped and looked back at me who was resting my forehead on a mug of beer.
"We'd probly haf to carry'm," one of the pair said drunkenly. "If we leave'm, he my sober up 'nuff 'fore they throw 'm out for 'm to crawl home." The one by the table, whose name I couldn't remember, poked me, and when this provoked no response, shrugged and followed the other two.
"Is not like he 's got anything worth stealing anyways," said the other of the pair as he caught up with them and they left the tavern.
I wasn't really asleep, merely very, very drunk. I knew I was resting my head on a mug only because I seemed to remember looking at the grain of the wooden table before keeping my eyes open became too much of a bother. I thought that I could hear someone by the bar talking, but I wasn't sure if it was only in my mind.
"Is he actually called Drunk?" I thought I heard someone say.
The barkeeper answered, at least in my mind, "That's all he goes by as far as I know, and what he is most of the time as well. Don't know how he manages it, but I swear he's usually already drunk when he arrives."
Not true, I thought. It might seem that way, and it's what I aim for, but I can't even afford to get drunk every night, much less in the daytime.
The people who knew me as Drunk knew me as a dockhand who spent all his money on drink. The company deducted bread and board before paying me. I didn't have to worry about putting any money aside. So when I wasn't working or sleeping, I was drinking or drunk. Occasionally someone in charge would notice I wasn't as dull as I appeared to be, and try to promote me to loading supervisor or something similar, but my refusal to take a step up from pure manual labour always convinced them they had been mistaken.
I knew I had already been extremely lucky once, to move from orphan urchin to where I had been. I had been a child of the street until I got employment as a scullery boy in a tavern. With amazing speed I climbed from there and ended up as manager of a pub when the owner of the tavern expanded. Then, to crown my luck, I inherited the pub when the old man died. I didn't think I would have that kind of luck a second time so I preferred to stick to undemanding work where I could stay in the continuous mindless trance of hard labour and strong drink, rather than try to better myself and have to constantly remember how I had brought myself down to where I was now.
Somehow I realised my drunken nostalgia was about to take me through the fateful card game where I managed to gamble away everything I owned, and I decided I wasn't drunk enough. I opened my eyes to check if there was anything left in the mug I had been resting my head on and found it empty. By force of habit I patted my vest and shirt even though I knew there was only one pocket in my whole outfit, the empty one in my trousers. The two small coins in my shoes weren't enough to buy another mug of beer, and judging from the way the room was spinning, I was now doomed to sit there and feel sorry for myself until I could actually stand up.
Suddenly an image of a room filled with gold coins appeared in my mind--no, not a room--a hall, a castle. My head spun from more than the drink and I realised that I could hear the ringing of a coin spinning to a stop on the bar, and that it was this piece of metal that had brought on my vision.
It was a knack I had, part of what had brought me to riches, besides my luck, to know the value of a coin by the ring of it. I could tell false coins from good ones, even when the gold was only slightly impure. That most coins were tampered with by royal and imperial minters, sometimes by order of kings and emperors that felt they had the right to cheat their subjects, made it tricky to tell which coins were truly false and which were merely government standard false, so the fact that I could had convinced me my talent was, at least in part, magical.
I was even more sure when I looked up and my mind screamed that the black and white disk I saw on the darkwood bar was worth more money than I knew numbers for. The coin was picked up by a hand and I saw that it was all pitch black and pure white. The metal was not one I had ever heard of, and had to have some amazing magical properties to induce such a sobering reaction in my alcohol steeped brain. I stared at the coin as it started to flip back and forth over the first joints of the hand that had removed it from the bar. My attention drifted from the coin to the hand as I realised how out of place it was in this grimy harbour pub. Slim, clean fingers, perfect nails done up in some shade of red, a small fortune in jewellery. My eyes started moving up the arm the hand was attached to. That it belonged to a woman was obvious from the nails and the build of the hand and arm, but I was honestly surprised when the arm disappeared into the sleeve of what had to be a very expensive dress. Being a man, my eyes were drawn on to discover that the dress was probably cut a little lower than fashion dictated this summer, and that even though the angle didn't allow me to see any flesh, the curve under the green fabric bore evidence of a body worthy of a lady of such incredible means.
The concept of lady slammed into a part of my brain concerned with politeness and not staring at the tits of your betters, but those thoughts were drowned by the idea of all the gold in the world equal to the one coin my attention moved back to. As I noticed it was still flipping back and forth, the hand suddenly turned palm up, and instead of falling to the ground, or being gripped by the hand, the coin continued to be flipped back and forth by the lady's fingers, defying the laws of nature.
My jaw dropped and my eyes flashed to the lady's face in open-mouthed wonder. I had time to notice light skin, dark hair, and a mischievous grin before my eyes returned to the hand. As the coin was now once again obeying the laws that cause objects of metal to fall to the ground, I felt a bit uncertain of what I had actually seen and lowered my eyes.
They came to rest upon a beautiful ankle that was showing in the short split in the lady's skirt, due to her having her legs crossed. I followed the movement as the ankle disappeared behind the skirt, and I was admiring the undoubtedly expensive shoes when I realised their owner was now standing and walking towards me.
The moving feet kept me captivated long enough for them to reach my table and I wondered if she would have her servants beat me up for staring at her so obviously. Thinking this was a distinct possibility, even though a lady like her had no business being in a pub like this, I managed to move my eyes past her folded arms and her indeed admirable décolletage without much of a pause. She was looking at me with a small frown, not disapproving, but measuring in a way I found slightly unnerving. At least she didn't look like she was going to order me caned for ogling my betters, but the way she seemed to be looking through my eyes and into my soul, and not liking what she saw there, made me shudder and look away. I looked back down on her shoes, or actually low boots, and startled myself by wondering if she would let me kiss them. The feet moved again and disappeared under the table. Staring down at the table I told myself to get a grip on myself, this was a woman, not a goddess, even if she was very beautiful and I was very drunk. If I were to fantasise about anything it should at least be about resting my head on her bosom, not kissing her feet.
Her hands suddenly appeared on the table in front of me. The right hand had a ring on each finger, black, silvery grey, white and a slimmer gold one on the little finger. The left was still deftly playing with the coin, back and forth, back and forth.
"Care to make a bet, Drunk?" A dulcet voice suddenly broke my trance and my attention flashed up to the woman's face. Not an extraordinarily beautiful face, but on the attractive side of ordinary.
"What?" I tried to say, but it came out as a cross between a grunt and a cough.
"A bet," the woman said and held the coin up in front of me. The design was a woman's head in profile, strange white metal on strange black metal.
"White design, you do me a favour," she turned the coin so the woman's profile in white was replaced by its twin in black, "Black, I do you a ... favour."
My eyes dropped down to the cut of her dress for a moment, and when I caught myself and looked back up, I was certain there was a hint of contempt behind the laughing eyes and the slightly crooked grin. I felt myself flush--surely my face was now a deep red--and muttered, "Wha' 'bout the edge?"
The lady's clear laughter took away some of my embarrassment and she answered that then we'd both owe the other a favour. Without further ado she flipped the coin up into the air and snatched it from the air right over the tabletop without looking away from my eyes. She smacked the hand down on the table and lifted it to show the white design.
"You didn'a give the edge a chance," I muttered, and felt the blood rise to my face again when I realised I sounded like a sullen child, insisting that the impossible be given a shot when I had obviously lost.
The lady didn't seem to mind though; she just eased my embarrassment with her honest laughter and flipped the coin again. I followed the grey blur upwards as the coin rose almost to the rafters--it seemed to pause at the top, but that was probably just my numbed mind playing tricks on me--and then came down as flashing white and black. I closed my eyes hard, shook my head, and checked the coin again. It was indeed standing on edge. Our eyes met over the coin, mine wide open and amazed, hers twinkling with pleasure. Then she suddenly blew the coin over so it once again lay there, white design up.
"I win," she said and picked up the coin. Like a fish's, my jaws worked on open air as I tried to get out a word. "Just pulling your leg. You need another one of those?" she asked, pointing at the empty mug. I nodded without knowing why, unable to decide either way.
The world was all white and soft, so clearly the gods had judged my life more kindly than I would have. Somehow I hadn't expected my body to feel like this in the afterlife though. An unpleasant headache made it hard to think. Maybe I had been beaten to death by disappointed robbers while crawling home last night and the blows to my head had somehow followed me to the afterlife. This made sense for several minutes, until the soft white surroundings suddenly turned into a canopy bed.
Not dead then, just very confused. It took a lot of willpower to try to examine the depths of my memory looking for some event explaining my present whereabouts. Unfortunately, a couple of years of alcohol had not been kind to my mind, and what I remembered of yesterday blurred together with all the other days of the last couple of... was it years? With a groan I burrowed my head in the all too soft pillows and made an attempt to escape back into sleep. I was failing miserably at this when the curtains at the foot of the bed parted and a goddess appeared.
"Not feeling very well this morning?"
The memory of last night's encounter, up to the point where she had steadied me as we left the pub, came pouring into my conscious mind. Next I wondered what I had got myself into, and then last a more immediate concern rose to attention. Where were my clothes? Quite unnecessarily I clutched the sheets, already covering me completely, to my neck. Her delighted laughter brought back memories of last night as well. I had not thought to ask her what she wanted of me, only answered all her questions about me and about my past. Her laughter had felt like approval when it accompanied my good, or lucky, decisions and their result, and when she seemed delighted to hear of my missteps it was like a release, allowing me to forgive myself even the incredible stupidity that had led to my current life of misery. It didn't make me feel less naked now though, and I shifted my body to be absolutely sure the sheets didn't have any embarrassing humps.
"Have you become shy all of a sudden?" She smiled and said, "Why, it isn't like I missed much last night when I paid you your 'favour'." At the last word she grinned wickedly.
A groan of remorse escaped me and I pulled the sheets up over my head. Just when I had let go of my past idiocies and felt like a new man... my train of thought derailed at this point when I pondered this. I did indeed feel like a new man, or perhaps an old. The last few years of drunken self-pity had transformed overnight to a dull memory, like something left behind and half forgotten. I marvelled at this glorious feeling, then wondered if I had indeed escaped that rotten existence. What did this lady want from me, and did she regard me as anything but a stupid brute after I had demanded a favour of the flesh that I didn't even recall? Insistent probing of my mind didn't bring forth any memory of last night after we left the pub. Examining in my mind her well formed body with and without her rich clothing I wondered whether I most regretted having asked this as my favour or having forgotten that I had received it. Although wanting just to lie there cursing myself for one or the other, I realised I would seem dumber still if I stayed under the sheets while she stood there looking at me. A little unwillingly I postponed the recriminations of my traitorous mind and pulled the sheets back down.
She was still looking at me, her lips a little pursed like she was suppressing more laughter.
I cleared my throat and asked, "Eh, m'lady, would by chance my clothes be nearby?"
"No," she answered, "the maid threw them away. There are some new ones on the chair by the tub. You can come downstairs for breakfast when you've bathed and dressed."
With another grin she let the bed curtains fall and left. Breathing a sigh of relief I relaxed and wondered what kind of favour she was looking for. If she was after sex, why did she call it her favour to me? And what else could it be?
I gave up with a shrug and swung my legs over the side of the bed. After a bit of searching I found the split in the curtain and stood up. The part of the room I could see looked nice, but not rich. Over in the corner stood a large wooden bathtub; from the steam rising I could see that the water was nice and warm, and the air in the room being a bit too cold for standing around naked I walked over and got in at once.
Submersed to the neck I could almost feel the grime dissolving all over my body. For a long time I just sat there with my eyes closed enjoying the feeling. I opened them again to look for scrub and soap and saw somebody standing in the door. Her.
She grinned at me. "You should really wait until a lady has left the room before you start walking around in just your skin."
"M'lady, I... I..."
"I'm not a lady, remember?"
Remember what? My mouth opened and closed a few times and I felt like a fish suffocating on land. "You can call me... Miss. Miss Sesi, if you have to." Turning to leave she glanced back at me over her shoulder. "Oh, and by the way, I was kidding about last night. I still owe you ... something." Hearing her laughter and footsteps receding down the stairs, I sat there feeling the fool again. What was with this lady?
Breakfast was a wonder to a man used to stale bread and greenish meat. We talked little over the meal, but I figured out approximately how much I had told about myself the night before. She definitely now knew I had gambled myself into poverty and alcoholism, and that I had been a fairly bright person before that. I tried to worry about not knowing what the future might bring but found I couldn't manage. Just being in her company made the future seem like an opportunity, instead of a curse.
A full four hours later and I still didn't feel my usual hungry self. I was still in the dark about what she wanted though. I had tried to query her about the coin too, but she only answered "What coin?" We had been riding back and forth through town and she had briefly visited several well-known taverns--well known because they were where games were to be had in the city.
We talked little. She would go into the tavern while I waited outside, but after each brief visit she just came back out frowning and shook her head before getting back in the car and asking me directions to the next. After the first few she had developed a small frown. She brightened up each time I came up with another place to visit, but with less and less energy.
This was the last one I knew about though, unless you counted the occasional card or sometimes dice games in most every pub in town. When I told her this, her frown deepened further. She snorted and drummed her fingers on the side of the one-horse. Suddenly she relaxed, grinned and took the reins. I considered asking where we were going, but after we had circled back twice I got to thinking she didn't actually know.
Without warning she pulled on the reins and we came to a halt outside a very nice, very new inn. She looked at me, and I looked at the building. "I just remembered one more place where fools and their money part, Miss," I said. The lady laughed with childish glee and got the horse moving again.
When we returned in the evening, I still didn't know what the lady was up to, but I did have a second suit of new clothing, this one fit for a man with a lady such as she on his arm. She was wearing a dress belying her claim to not being a lady, and had warned me to speak as little as possible. I might have been well off, but my accent was still a far cry from the speech of the nobility.
I tossed the cabby a coin and led her up the steps.
The reason I hadn't thought of showing her the Häuschen was that it wasn't exactly catering to my class. The Häuschen was gambling for the nobility, and looked the part.
I have never been an architect or engineer, but to me the large room we walked into seemed too large and too open. I'd heard it said that the construction relied partially on magic, and I could believe it. The roof was too high, I didn't trust the thickness of the walls, and I strongly felt there should have been several thick beams supported by equally stout posts in addition to proper stone walls. But as I mentioned, I know nothing about constructing buildings.
Most of the room was occupied by a dining area. Small tables and chairs, instead of the benches I was used to, with no more than four people sitting by each. Several of the tables were occupied. Three well off gentlemen dining at one table, a lord and his lady at another, a single lord at a table in the corner, and so on.
The lady led me towards the big doors at the back of the room, but changed her mind right underneath the large don't-enter. Instead she turned us around and we sat down at one of the tables.
"When the waiter arrives, order today's dinner, something light for your wife, and a bottle of northern red," she whispered to me. I was startled by the bit about "my wife," but she didn't notice. Her attention was on the door and the don't-enter, even if she at a glance seemed to be staring at nothing, like a lady pretending to be patiently waiting for something, in this case first the waiter and then the food.
When the dinner of the day arrived, it was a huge chunk of meat and some, to me, unknown greens. The beef didn't look like it had been cooked properly, as it was still bleeding, but I had eaten worse before, and this meal probably cost a fortune. To my surprise the meat was extremely tender, even though it was practically raw, and for the next 15 minutes or so I was lost to the world enjoying this feast.
When the last bit of sauce had been mopped up with a piece of bread I noticed that the lady was now looking at me. Her face had a perfect stuck up mién, but the twinkle in her eyes gave her enjoyment away as she told me, "You have no manners, dear." With a slight movement of the hand she signalled me to rise, and when I stood up she followed suit and took my offered arm.
"I feel a bit faint," she said in a normal voice and leaned against me.
"Go through that door, play black and red three times each on the wheel, then meet me in the west alley," she whispered quickly as she pressed some coins into my hand. "I'll retire, you go on and play, dear," she said in a normal voice again and let go of my arm. Before I had time to respond she was on her way out the door.
The passage to the hall with the gaming tables had the traditional "Don't enter" sign that is said to be a request in the old language to the Lady of Luck. The actual meaning, depending on whom you ask, differs from "Please don't interfere with chance," to "Stay out, bitch!" The class of people who can read the old language do not have much use for gambling dens though, so I guess it could mean either. The sign had the familiar runes in the middle, but had a lot more decoration around the border than any I'd ever seen. I didn't pay much attention to it at the time though, and after entering the room beyond I forgot about it entirely.
If the first room seemed unsafe, this went double for this hall. It would have been a courtyard if it wasn't for the glass roof, and the supports for this roof seemed quite adequate for the undoubtedly light glass panes. On the other hand, they looked distinctly inadequate for the huge, iron chandeliers. Unconsciously I zig zagged so I didn't have to pass under the things. I suddenly realised I was also craning my neck and looking like a fool, so I quickly stopped and hoped no one had spotted me as less than an overwhelmed out-of-town noble.
The black and red of the wheel is said to represent two of the high gods--I can't remember which ones--and the numbers probably have some religious significance as well, but right now I was just going to play black and red with the six coins I'd been given. I started with one on red and almost turned back into a gawking commoner again when I noticed the denomination. My single coin was worth as much as the rest of the stakes on the table. I wasn't the only one shocked though; I caught several people looking at me from the corners of their eyes, and the guy who ran the wheel looked even more uncomfortable.
The wheel was spun and the little ball brought into action. A sigh escaped from the gathered nobility when it landed on black, though they were quick to hide their emotion. The staff looked relieved. I was not though, and when this had repeated itself four more times, as I played first twice more on red and then twice on black, I must have looked just as uncomfortable as anyone would expect. Nevertheless I placed my last coin on black. As the ball bounced over the spinning wheel I wondered why I didn't just grab the coin and run. I could live quite well on that for at least a couple of years, and then I wouldn't have to face the lady after losing her a fortune. I was feeling distinctly ill, and the feeling only abated a little when luck finally went my way. I picked up my winnings, two coins to the six I had started with, and tried to look calm as I walked away. Telling myself the whispering behind me would have been natural even if I'd been what I pretended to be, I walked straight out of the building, turned left into the alley, and threw up my expensive dinner.
"I take it you lost," a voice behind me suddenly said. I had forgotten about her waiting for me, and the shock caused me to lose the rest of the contents of my stomach. My hand was shaking as I turned around and offered her the two coins remaining. I expected a furious glare and a demand for my head on a platter so I was totally unprepared for laughter and a look of pity. "Awwww, you poor thing," she said and pulled a handkerchief from somewhere. I felt like a child who'd fallen and skinned his knee as she wiped my lips and chin. My mouth snapped shut when I noticed it was hanging open, and I tried to gather my wits.
She laughed again, but stopped when she saw the confusion rising again in my face. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I should have told you before," she said and took my hand with the coins, closing it over the remaining third of her fortune. "I was expecting to lose." My jaw dropped again. "You can keep the rest of the money, really, it's alright!" She laughed again, and despite the purity of it I lost my temper.
"Who the hell, what the hell are you? And why? How? Who? Where?" I spluttered. She grinned and I felt ready to explode.
"Calm down, calm down and I'll tell you," she said and patted my arm.
I took a few deep breaths and said as calmly as I could, "Well then, who are you?"
"I'm a... an agent, for... certain... powers that be, who... don't approve of crooked gambling," she said. I noticed her hesitation and tried to think of some way to get her to tell me more.
"Who are these powerful people, and who are you, to be throwing away gold like that?"
"Did I say people? I don't think I mentioned people. I didn't mean to anyway, and I'm... well off. I do this for the excitement. Come on, we have a back door to sneak in through."
Maybe I had got some more information--I certainly had no fewer questions--but I was forced to run to catch up with her, since she had eagerly sprinted off.
We had to run around the entire building, as the gambling palace was back to back with a bank, and the only other entrance was a side door in the other alley. That is, there was a kitchen entrance on the other side, but there was fairly steady traffic through that, while this one looked abandoned, so for sneaking in, this was our best bet.
I tried the door, but it was locked, and I said so.
The lady frowned and paused for a moment. "Step back," she said, and I did.
A reddish glow surrounded her fist as she put it against the lock, and the wood of the door started to smoke. My jaw dropped to my chest. I had seen magic done before, a few times, by serious old men or women in wizardly robes, with lots of waving of the arms and chanting of mysterious syllables. I had never seen it performed by young ladies, with no preparation and no... mystique. My feet took a few steps backward as my body prepared for flight, even though my brain had shut down.
"Voila," she said and pressed the handle down. Nothing happened. The handle didn't even move.
"Oh..." She frowned a little and tried to loosen the now totally rigid door handle.
"Hmmm," she said as she pursed her lips and seemed to try to stare the door open.
My feet had given up the idea of flight as no orders came from my brain, which was busy being totally amazed. And the amazement wasn't about to end either. Magic appeared as a glow around her hand again, this time with a bluish tint, and I could see that it appeared most luminous around her set of rings. She balled her hand into a fist and drew it back before smashing it into the iron lock.
I could hear the bones crack, and she turned her back to the door with her hand cradled against her chest and her mouth open in a silent scream. With a sick feeling in my stomach I stepped forward to help her. Her eyes were closed tight and she had started hyperventilating but she held up her left hand to stop me.
Amazed, I stared as she probed her broken right hand with the left and then shook and flexed it. She grimaced as she kneaded the hand and muttered, "Gods! That hurt!"
I stepped forward and gently took her hand in mine. It was whole. I turned it over and she hadn't even scraped her knuckles. They looked slightly bruised though, and I carefully poked at them as I looked up at her face.
"Ow," she said and smiled mischievously, if a bit strained. I let her hand go as if I had been burned. She grimaced again as she continued to knead and probe her hand, and I looked at the door.
It was open a few inches. The lock was cracked, and parts of it had fallen out. Not even a sledgehammer could have delivered a blow like that, and once again I felt totally paralysed.
Noticing I was staring over her shoulder, and deducing from my slack jaw that she had succeeded in opening the door, she spun around with a giggle.
"It worked, hah!" she said and pushed the door open far enough to slip through it and out of sight.
I just stood there rooted to the spot until I heard a thump and a curse; then I belatedly ran to the rescue.
Unfortunately for me there was nothing to rescue the lady from. She was sitting in the middle of the dark corridor rubbing her forehead, so the best I could do was to offer her a hand up. I had barely got around to congratulating myself on my usefulness when magic erupted again. The set of rings lit up with magic glow again and the lady Sesi punched the air--only half way through the swing it wasn't just air--and a shield of flickering, varicoloured light appeared, blocking the corridor and seeming to reverberate from the strike until it, edges first, faded into nothingness.
I hadn't even got around to considering asking what had just happened when Sesi finished hyperventilating after the second injury to her hand, muttered something to herself, and ran out with a quick, "Meet me here in five hours!" shouted over her shoulder.
Staying where I was, was certainly not an option. The corridor was dark, the noise had to have attracted some kind of attention, and I could see nothing except dancing light in the darkness. Remains of the magic shield, light burnt into my eyes, or both, it didn't matter. I was scared and I could afford a drink.
Lucky for her it was already late in the evening when she said five hours, so when the owner kicked me out of my chosen watering hole after four, I didn't have many options besides going to meet her. My landlady was unlikely to open the door this late when she wasn't expecting me, and she wouldn't be, after my absence the night before, and for some reason I had refused the offer of a room when the taps closed. I tried hard to remember why this was, but couldn't. It had to have something to do with the fact that I'd convinced myself the wildest of my memories were drunken imaginings. That there hadn't been any magic and that I hadn't heard the lady Sesi say she worked for powers that weren't people, had been easy to believe inside a warm tavern. Outside in the night, especially on the streets where there were no lights, the charms of a lady and the lure of gold suddenly seemed much less important than the fact that the lady in question had busted a cast iron lock with her fist. I started wishing I had spent some of the gold instead of only drinking for the change left over from the cab ride and dinner.
The street in front of the Häuschen was being patrolled by two professional-looking guards. They kept to the front and the alleys on either side, so I vanished into a dark side street a little further down the road to hopefully catch the lady when she arrived. I thought it was about five hours now, but I was cold, every minute of waiting seemed like hours and there was no one on the street except the guards and once, a constable of the watch.
After what seemed to me like ages, my back started to feel warmer. I wondered for a second if that was a sign of hypothermia, or if I remembered wrong, but then I felt the breath on my neck.
The hair on my neck rose and I thought, What kind of beast sneaks up and warms a man's back before breaking his neck?
Only my recognition of the voice whispering "Boo!" in my ear stopped me from wetting my pants, and I collapsed to the cobblestones.
"Did I scare you?" the voice asked in a mock surprised tone and I could see her delighted grin in the light from the main road.
"Gods! Who and what are you?!?" I whispered as loud and insistent as I dared.
She was still grinning and I wasn't sure that the light of mischief and delight in her eyes was just reflected from the street lamps.
"No time for explanations, we have some breaking and entering to do."
"Are you crazy! There are guards outside. And after what you did to... whatever it was... the owner is probably sleeping inside!"
"The guards are no problem, since we're going in through the roof, and the owner- or one of his trusted servants was sleeping inside, but he and the rest of the household are busy now with the fire I set to his manor."
"The roof! Fire!!!! You set??" I couldn't help being incoherent, and my voice rose above the insistent whisper and attracted the attention of the guards. While I was looking at them looking towards me and willing them not to investigate, the lady disappeared.
I stared into the darkness but couldn't see any sight of her, but then I heard a sound above me. I looked up and there she was, scaling the wall rapidly.
"Come on, there's practically a ladder here," she whispered to me.
That's when I realised she had changed her clothing, I thought I had glimpsed a rope too. And she was right of course. The wall was so full of deep cracks, crevices and protruding timbers that it was almost like a ladder. Even so, I was tired, slightly drunk and not a skilled façade artist so it took me a while to reach the roof.
The roof was easily scaled too, having supports to assist roofers and chimney sweeps, but even so I moved much more carefully than the lady did. She waited by the edge until I had clambered onto the roof, and then almost ran to the ridge of the roof and on towards the alley separating this building from the Häuschen
The moon supplied sufficient light to traverse the roof by, but even so I kept to my hands and knees all the way. It hurt some, and probably ruined the fine clothing I was still wearing, but at least it made it less likely I'd stumble and fall to my death.
"Where did you get the board?" I asked when I reached the edge of the roof and discovered we now had a bridge to the next roof.
She pointed and I could make out a stack of boards on the roof of the Häuschen. I decided not to ask. Either she had jumped across or she had used magic. Thinking about the first option made me queasy as I imagined plunging to my death in the alley; thinking about the second just scared me.
Balancing along the board to the other roof looked simple when she did it, but as I had already gone through every aspect of crashing to the ground below, I felt unable to even go closer to the edge.
"Oh, come on! We don't have time for this."
Disdaining the danger of slipping and being crushed after a long fall, the lady came back and took my hand.
"We don't have time for this, don't look down."
I didn't. Instead I looked at the other roof. Unlike the one we were leaving, it was flat. It was almost as if they had just stopped building right after laying a floor. The walls were higher than the roof, giving it a slight castle feel, if castles had large flat roofs and really thin walls. I almost had time to wonder about the drains, and then we were across.
The glass roof of the Häuschen was even more impressive when examined up close. The panes were of a quality usually found in very small items in the possession of very rich people. The supports were thin metal and the seams were covered with some kind of tar, probably to keep water out. Unfortunately the technical marvel didn't only keep water out, but also us. There were no hinges, and the panes were glued down tight by the tar. There was no access from the roof into the building. There were no doors, no vents, and no windows, except for the huge glass roof that the lady was looking at in a way I found disturbing.
"Toss me a boot," she suddenly said, after failing to stare a hole in the glass.
I took my right boot off and she hammered through the glass, and then kept banging on the pieces around the edge until there were only a few small jagged triangles of glass left in the tar. The pane on the right had broken as well, showering the gambling table below with more glass. The pane to the left had several cracks going all the way from one edge to the other.
The lady tossed me my boot and then the rope she was carrying and told me to secure it to something. Putting the boot back on I looked around for something that would reliably hold my weight. The flat roof offered no options except the stack of boards. They looked heavy enough, but there was no way I could get the rope around the whole stack. As clouds moved away from the moon, I noticed footprints and skid marks in the dust where the lady had jumped across and walked over to the stack of boards. That she hadn't used magic didn't help me fasten the rope though. Fortunately the rest of the building, the bank, was built in the traditional way and had regular gutters. They looked like they could handle a little weight, so I fastened the rope with what I thought was a good knot, and pulled hard. Nothing gave so I took the chance it wasn't going to give when I put my weight on it.
The lady shimmied down the rope like she had done nothing else in all her life. I was several times slower. Firstly I had to get through the hole without cutting myself on the few pieces of glass remaining in the frame; secondly I was not a practised rope artist, and thirdly I had to ask myself over and over again what the hell I thought I was doing.
When I finally put my feet down on the wheel table, glass cracked under my soles. Down here the weak moonlight didn't do much, but I could glimpse that the whole table was dusted with small glass pieces and a few larger ones, as was the floor around the table. I couldn't see the lady in the gloom, and I wasn't sure which of several shadows she was. Waiting in silence sent shivers down my spine, so I spoke up.
"Now what?" I asked.
One of the shadows moved as if startled and said, "Hmm?"
I walked toward it and asked again, "I said, now what?"
"Ah," she said and fell silent again. Standing right next to her, I could make out her face; she looked absent. After another minute or so, she came back from wherever she spent her time while thinking. "I thought whatever spell is on this place would be a part of this room, but it doesn't look like it is."
"Yes, the one that caused you to lose my money, and that created that barrier. I have no idea what kind of spell it is, but it is powerful, and there are no decorations or adornments here that could be part of it."
"How can you tell? It's pitch dark."
She gestured and the chandeliers came to life. The sudden light blinded me and I closed my eyes tight while waiting for them to adjust. After a few seconds I could stand the new level of light if I squinted.
I didn't know anything about spells but felt I should at least try to help, so I tried to think hard about the problem. Surprisingly enough I came up with an idea.
"What about the don't-enter?"
"No, that's just the regular request to not meddle with the games. A bit richer and more decorative than the usual ones, but it couldn't actually keep me out. Or prevent me from meddling." She grinned as she said the last.
I felt certain I had missed some important point in what she'd said, but I couldn't remember the words properly and my mind was busy wondering why I thought I had any business trying to figure out where a powerful spell was hiding among the gambling tables.
Still deep in thought, the lady let her eyes wander across the whole of the room and then upwards to the glass ceiling. I looked up as well but all I could see was the reflection of the room in the panes, except for the black triangle that was our entry point.
I stared at the black hole and the few stars that outshone the mirror light until the lady broke the silence.
"Let us find the cellars."
Every time we entered a room, the lady waved her hand and torches and candles lit up. The cellar, when we found it, was just your ordinary storage area, but she had me move barrels and crates until we found the entrance to a lower level. A staircase spiralled down between thick stone walls that made me think that these were probably the cellars of the original building. At the bottom was a short corridor with several locked doors.
The lady tried to kick each of the doors down. When none of them budged an inch she frowned in thought and brought the coin out again. She flipped it in front of each door in turn. Evidently not happy with the result she muttered, did it twice more and ended up selecting the door at the end of the corridor. This was slightly larger than the others and set in a stone arch.
This time the lady managed to open the door with her magic instead of fusing the lock and we stepped into the room beyond, a room that even unlit, felt strange. Then the lady waved her hand and an array of torches caught fire all around the circumference of the vaulted room.
The woman might have been pretty when she was alive. Lying naked on her back on a stone altar, her flesh white and loose, she just looked dead. Her arms hung down on each side, blood slowly dripping from her cut wrists. The drops of blood fell down into a groove cut in the stone floor and spread out in the pattern the groove was a part of.
Everyone knows blood is thicker than water, and even water doesn't spread out over stone surfaces like these drops did. The pattern was at least 15 feet across, but the single droop of blood spread out over most of it in an instant. The outer circle went almost to the walls of the chamber and was right in front of my feet, filled with a dark, brownish substance. Old dried blood.
I followed the grooves in the floor and tried to make sense of the pattern, or maybe I just tried to avoid the sight of the dead woman. The lady did the same thing, walking along the edge of the pattern, examining it. Inside the outer circle there were several ovals of different sizes. The blood that was slowly dripping from the woman's wrists fell into the largest of them, which went around the altar. Following the lady around the circle I noticed the symmetry in the pattern and got the impression the ovals were the petals of a giant flower traced on the floor.
"Amazing," the lady suddenly said. "If you had asked me if it could be amplified like this I would have said a definite 'No'. I wonder how it was done."
"What?" I blurted out.
"This is a simple spell for good luck. Created by one of the more vain high gods for his people. But it's supposed to be traced with a pricked finger on something small that you can carry with you, not in the stone of a temple floor 15 feet wide. And even if you did, the power of the spell shouldn't be amplified like this. At least that's what I thought. I wonder how it works." She paused for a second. "Well, I guess that can wait. If we are to save the girl and break the spell we will need some help."
"Save her? But she's dead! You can't raise the dead!" At least I hoped she couldn't, but from what I had seen I could only tell that she could do some magic, not that necromancy was not beyond her. Fortunately my worry was unfounded. Necromancy was not on her mind.
"She isn't dead. If she were, would she still bleed? Look at the blood here at the edges, it's been drying for a long time. And besides, if you look carefully you can see her chest moving. She still breathes, although slowly."
I took her word for it; the thought of the white, dead body made me shiver even more when I knew it wasn't actually dead.
"Then again, killing her would probably end the spell. What do you say? Go for help, or cut her head off?"
I couldn't tell if her grin was that of an irrepressible joker or a bloodthirsty lunatic. Though the first was by far the more likely, I shuddered, and she laughed out loud. "I am kidding," she said and stepped into the pattern. "We'll bring her with us."
Ripping my shirt produced suitable bandages that the lady used to bandage the wrist wounds. She then turned the rest of the shirt into a makeshift skirt and tied my jacket around the woman's breast.
"Why don't you put it on her", I asked.
"Because then I couldn't do this", she answered and folded the woman's arms over her breast, sticking her hands in under the jacket to hold them in place. "Pick her up, we're leaving," she said as she finished.
She was warmer than she looked, and also much younger, 18 or 19 I guessed. Possibly she was prettier as well; even so I wished I still had my shirt on. My skin seemed to burn where it touched hers, and I could just imagine the magic that was keeping her alive eating into my stomach. But I had no choice so I followed the lady back up, carrying the girl in my arms. Once I looked down to see how she was doing, but the way her neck looked as her head hung loosely and bobbed up and down with every step I took made me sick. So I kept my eyes raised for the rest of the trip back to the game room.
There I put her down on a card table in the middle of the room, next to the glass-covered wheel table, and worked up the courage to ask the lady whom we were going to for help.
"My superior," was her short answer as she started climbing the rope.
"How are we going to get her out?" I was thinking of the girl.
"Don't worry about that, everything will work out just fine."
Just as she said that vibrations from her tugs on the rope caused the cracked pane to break and a shower of glass strafed her and almost caused her to lose her grip on the rope.
"I'm okay," she said, just as the roof supports started bending under the weight of the chandeliers and the walls tipped inwards.
My head hurt terribly, and I wasn't certain, but I thought I could feel blood trickling down my cheek. I really had been mugged, I thought, and now I've woken up from my hallucinations again. Then I noticed I was lying on top of a girl, a very pale and almost naked girl. I rolled off of her and winced when I hit unpleasantly sharp-edged rubble. Looking up I could see the card-table I had covered under. The legs had broken on one end, but it had protected me--and the girl--from most of the falling rubble. The roof was gone, and the walls were reduced to half their height, and I couldn't see the lady anywhere.
I told myself this was because I was lying on my back halfway under a broken table, but when I managed to stand I still couldn't see her. Where I would have expected to see her, on top of the wheel table where she would have landed, was only a small amount of blood spread out on the broken glass and on the iron girders from the roof. Not enough blood for her to have bled to death, I thought. On the other hand, the girders partially embedded in the table looked fairly deadly. But if she was dead, where was the body?
The slight feeling of relief I had felt when I discovered I wasn't dead was slowly giving way to slight panic. Maybe she had left when her job was done and gone back to wherever she came from. Maybe she had died and her body had just vaporised. Maybe...
My mind was quickly spinning into the irrational when I heard a noise from the other side of the bloody table.
"I guess the spell was broken when we removed the girl," she said when she noticed me looking down at her. Part of my mind saw her lying in a pool of blood and cried, She is going to die! Fortunately a different part took control and I started to dress her wounds. Most of her wounds were superficial cuts, but she had at least one broken bone and a deep wound in one shoulder. When I started tearing her sleeves up for bandages she grinned weakly and tried to joke about me undressing her. Instead she started coughing, and blood spattered her lips. The scared part of my mind whimpered and tried to panic me again, but once again it was kept under control by a more rational part. Coughing up blood could mean she was about to die; it could also mean she had a nosebleed. Having no idea how to treat punctured lungs I concentrated on the wounds I could treat.
While I bandaged her deeper wound and cuts and dabbed at the others, she mumbled that everything would be all right. Although not entirely certain myself, I nodded. With her clothing torn into bandages and her skin pale from blood loss, she reminded me of the girl I had left under the card table. I didn't know what else to do for the lady for the moment; she was mumbling something about death and was rubbing the strange black and white coin absentmindedly. I told her I'd be right back and went to check on the girl.
There was no observable change, and I looked at her just long enough to make sure she was still breathing slowly and steadily. When I returned, the lady was gone.
The panic part of my mind finally got its way. I'm not sure how long I searched through the rubble, but I knew it was useless. Even if she had been able to move, she would have left a trail of blood, or at least scuff marks in the settling dust. Eventually I calmed down sufficiently to realise that magic had been at work again. Having realised this I firmly put the thought aside and concentrated on my situation, trapped in a ruined building with a spellbound woman. After that things went relatively easily.
Searching for a way out that would allow me to carry the girl drove me to the edge of sanity once or twice, but eventually I found that the side entrance the lady and I had "visited" earlier was accessible and not blocked by fallen masonry.
Travelling by foot through an awakening city in the state I was in wasn't an experience I seek to repeat either. I was unsure of my destination, but absolutely certain I didn't want to answer questions from anyone about why I was walking around shirtless with a comatose young woman in my arms. Worrying about where I should bring the girl soon became less of a priority than reaching my destination without dropping her or collapsing completely.
My destination was Miss Sesi's house, where I had spent the previous night. I didn't know whether the servants would let me in, but I thought it as good a choice as any when I left the ruins of the Häuschen. The servant who opened the door listened to my incoherent rant and decided to close the door on me. Fortunately a maid appeared and whispered something in his ear and he changed his mind. Stumbling through the door I managed to lower my burden to the floor before I collapsed.
While unconscious I met the lady for the last time. I was floating on a white cloud and wondering if I had been mugged, killed by fallen masonry, or if I had just busted my lungs on the trip through the city. I had come to the conclusion that I had drunk something poisonous and hallucinogenic and that everything from the appearance of the lady had happened in my mind when she parted the curtains of the bed and sat down beside me.
"You are healed," I said, noticing her lack of bandages and bloody clothing.
"No. I'm in convalescence like you, this is just a dream," she answered, and I had a brief vision of her lying in bed, sleeping peacefully, my crude bandages replaced with clean white linen.
"This was my worst accident ever and I could quite possibly have died if it wasn't for you, and the fact that this buys me passage to a good place for healing," she grinned and flipped the black and white coin.
"So I've come to thank you for your help," she said, "what would you consider to be sufficient payment for your troubles?"
I lay back on my dream bed and closed my eyes. Payment? I didn't know what to wish for. I didn't know what she could offer me. I didn't know what she was. When in doubt, err in the right direction, I decided.
"What is the going rate for assisting goddesses these days?" I asked.
She laughed, and said, "I'm not sure. They seem not to require assistance much. I seem to be an exception."
So she was a goddess! I tried to sift through my knowledge of deities big and small but came up blank. Religion was never my strong point. Could I ask her?
"Who are you really?"
"I told you," you she said grinning, "I'm Sesi. Now, would living happily ever after suffice?"
Happily ever after? What did that mean? I nodded.
"Good, sleep tight."
I felt the dream slipping away and tried to ask one last question, "I don't know any goddesses named Sesi... Who are you?"
She smiled and blew me a kiss, and then everything faded.
And then I lived happily ever after.
When I woke up the next morning I found ownership papers for the house, in my name, on the table next to the bed. With the papers was a purse filled with gold and a small amulet on a leather cord.
The no longer spellbound girl didn't wake up for several days. She ate and drank when food and water were offered though, and looked healthier each day. Eventually she woke up, and soon she was strong enough to hold a conversation. That is when I learned that she was the daughter of the owner of the Häuschen. The late owner that is. The fire in his mansion and the collapse of the Häuschen had ruined him, and he had died while arguing with creditors a few days later. The rumours about him and the disastrous fate of his property were many, but not a one had mentioned his daughter. Only by digging deep, I found out that his daughter had gone missing several years ago shortly after the disappearance of her mother.
Trying to get her to talk about the spell or her parents only made her close up, so I left off. When not in the dark, brooding mood brought on by such questions, she was very pleasant company, and eventually we were married. With some of the gold I bought a tavern, and before the rest of the gold ran out I was successful enough to start adding to it. In short, I lived happily ever after.
I never saw or heard from the Lady Sesi again. Asking the occasional priest or scholar only resulted in a shake of the head. No one had heard of a Lady Sesi, and they were unfamiliar with the amulet as well.
Then one night after I had told my tale for the first time in a long while, to a travelling storyteller, he asked to see the amulet. He turned it over in his hands and then drew on the bar with a wet finger the rune of the cross. Almost on top of it, but lower and a little to the right, he drew the same rune again, and then he put the amulet next to it.
And they matched! Because of the way the amulet was made and hung, it had never occurred to me that the intersecting lines were two simple runes put on top of each other.
"Do you know what it means?" I asked the storyteller. "It would mean a lot to me to know." I must have been a sight, a full-grown man so excited he didn't know what leg to stand on. "Your stay is on the house if you can tell me what it means."
"Very generous of you, but it is I who should thank you. Your story should keep me warm and fed in many a tavern, if you will let me tell it."
I didn't give it much thought, "Use the tale however you want, just tell me what the amulet means."
"You have been blessed with good fortune, kind sir," the storyteller smiled and said, "and I appreciate you letting some of it drip on to me. The rune of the cross equals 'h' in the most ancient languages, and only one goddess used as her mark only 'h h'. Hildi Hell, the Lady of Luck."