3 And there appeared another wonder in heaven; …a great red dragon, having seven heads and ten horns, and seven crowns upon his heads.
4 And his tail drew the third part of the stars of heaven, and did cast them to the earth…
7 And there was war in heaven: Michael and his angels fought against the dragon; and the dragon fought and his angels,
8 And prevailed not; neither was their place found any more in heaven.
9 And the great dragon was cast out, that old serpent, called the Devil, and Satan, which deceiveth the whole world: he was cast out into the earth, and his angels were cast out with him....
12 ¶Therefore rejoice, ye heavens, and ye that dwell in them. Woe to the inhabiters of the earth and of the sea! for the devil is come down unto you, having great wrath….
History of the World PA (Post Apocalypse)
The three plagues heralded the beginning of the Battle of Armageddon: the seraphim, led by the Angels of Punishment, ravaged the earth with weapons of genocide, killing more than five-sixths of the population, Darkness rose from the depths its minions attacking humans and the seraphim alike, bringing warfare between the High Host and the Fallen, between mankind and evil, between man and man. Most great cities were reduced to rubble; communications were devastated; trade was totally disrupted. The year was 2011.
In the aftermath of the apocalypse, the United States still stood—those parts that survived the blast of Light and earthquakes that took out much of the southwest coast. Washington, DC remained a place of human political power. Large-scale food production was protected under seraphic domes in the Napa Valley and Kansas. Hollywood reinvented itself in northern California, far from an angry sea. New York was usurped by seraphs as their own, becoming a Realm of Light.
Africa became a wasteland where bleached bones were scoured by winds bringing death to any who trespassed on its soil. Europe survived as small pockets of modern life, some slipping back into superstition, a new Dark Age. The China Sea grew devoid of life; the East went silent for over sixty years, and is only now, in the year 105 Post Apocalypse, beginning to regenerate its fabled technology and industrialization, creating a shipping industry unrivaled in the Post-Ap world. South America was largely untouched by warfare. Or so they say. And an ice age commenced, glaciers creeping quickly from the poles.
Into the chaos of the end of the Last War were born the few babies who were conceived just prior to the first plague, and who had survived in vivo through the Last Days—the plague of blood, the plague of sores, and the plague of insanity and judgment. They were born perfect in mind and body, beautiful beings who carried the hope of mankind within them. Until they reached puberty. Then their gifts opened and they discovered their abilities to manipulate leftover creation energies—the powers of earth, air, stone, sea, fire, metals, or water. Soulless beings who understood the mathematics of energy and matter and could wield them, shape them, use them. They were wild mages with no one to teach them, and they brought a second devastation upon an earth still reeling from the horrors of spiritual warfare. Humans looked upon them with fear and the neomages were slaughtered by the thousands until the seraphs intervened and set places aside for them - places sacrosanct, under holy protection. The Enclaves.
A new society developed in the Enclaves, where today the neomages experiment and train, breed and grow, though breeding is difficult as the females must achieve mage-heat in order to produce viable ova. Only the over-flight of seraphs, or the rare permitted visitation of one, can bring on such a heat with ease, and because the rut is uncontrolled, it is looked upon with moral and righteous horror by humankind.
Over the next decades, trade began between humans and the Enclaves. Permanent diplomatic missions opened in Atlanta and in Washington, DC, and consulates were licensed. The Administration of the ArchSeraph began regulating the presence of neomages in the human world, and because of their vigilance, mages have begun to be accepted by humans, with the exception of the fundamental orthodoxy of the kirk.
With the permission of the AAS, this religious minority hunts down and kills any unlicensed neomage. The punishment is grisly and horrific and approved by the High Host of Seraphim and the Most High—God the Victorious.
I am Thorn St. Croix, once a .maker of stone trinkets and jewelry. Now that I am a licensed neomage, my life has been turned upside down by the things I have learned. Things about the nature of evil and good. Things about myself.
I learned that evil has a personal interest in me. I learned that the Administration of the ArchSeraph and their enemies, the Earth Invasion Heretics, may be secret allies. I learned that my own past is not as simple as it seemed. My parents were killed by a Prince of the Dark. My sister may be a captive of the same beast. May be. A world of possibility in those two words.
Me? I am a stone mage, a soulless being, one whom the religious call a mistake of the Most High. I think perhaps I am also a battle mage. I have fought against the Darkness living under the triple peaks of the Trine, a mountain north of Mineral City, Carolina, in the Appalachian Mountains. Using my gifts, I have fought beside seraphs, and though mage-heat threatened, it was held at bay by the fighting-lust that comes upon me in warfare.
But time is running out. One of the Powers and Principalities of Darkness that was bound at the end of the Last War has been loosed and will be soon be free. And there is nothing in this world I can do about it.
I’d been feeling itchy all day, like something was about to happen. As if the lynx—my personal portent—was about to howl. As if the skies were trying to drop down a mega-omen with the destructive potential of a nuclear warhead. As if my life was about to change. Again. So I picked up on his presence nearly a mile away, and my teeth were aching from grinding my jaws together long before he walked into the shop.
In stereotypical mage style, he was contemptuous of everything he saw, the retail shops, the grocery, the kirk, the dour fashions of the local citizens, the dented and rusted El-cars whizzing up and down the ice-covered street, even the town meeting hall in the old Central Baptist Church. If he’d worn a sign that said he was too good for Mineral City—and for me—he couldn’t have been any more onerous. And like most of the mages I remembered from my first fourteen years in Enclave, he walked with his nose in the air. Quite literally. When he appeared in the front windows and entered the shop, I nearly shuddered.
He was mid-thirties and stood about five-five, with mousy brown hair and nondescript features. Except for his clothes he was totally forgettable. A mage-style fashion plate, he was dressed for the dance floor and the mating floor, wearing a velvet cloak that covered him from head to toe. Gold-foiled leather boots peeked from under its hem. And his hat, the latest trend in Hollywood, was bright pink, with an honest-to-God feather in it. To further endear himself, he grimaced when he looked around Thorn’s Gems, the jewelry shop owned by me and my best friends. It was the prissy, looking-down-his-nose expression that ticked me off most, that is until he spotted Rupert, one my of business partners, and sneered, letting me see he had mean streak a half-mile long.
He was, however, violently, lethally homophobic, his mind open and clear as a faceted gem. He envisioned spitting Rupert on a spike, and when his hand twitched toward the sword at his hip, I lifted my longsword and advanced with mage-speed. In two strides, I reached him.
Before I could complete the opening form of the lion rising, he had drawn his sword, swatted my blade aside with contemptuous ease and completed two counter strikes I almost didn’t block. Either of the moves would have been fatal, and had Audric not advanced and thrust a sword point under the mage’s raised left arm, stopping a third, I would have been toast.
My champard’s quick reaction ended with his blade lightly touching the mage’s skin, sliced deep through his fancy velvet cloak. That effectively halted the fight. We stood in the center of the shop, the stranger’s sword point under my chin, Audric’s poised to pierce his heart, and my blade hovering for a thrust through his lungs. I was boiling mad, but I waited for his next move.
No fear showed in his chocolate brown eyes as they measured me, and his back to Audric was a screaming insult. “You’re a sloppy swordswoman,” he said. “You broadcast your intent before you drew your weapon. And your mule is useless.”
My rage flared at the insult to Audric, but I kept it off my face and out of my voice. “You have sloppy thoughts,” I said. “You broadcast your intent when you were still on the train, and your insults as you sauntered up the street. And violence when you walked in the door. I knew you intended to test me, and wondered if you were as good as your ego claimed. Look down.”
When the mage spotted my new kogatana, a gift from Audric, pressed between his ribs, his brows went up. I suspected that was high praise. The kogatana, a long-bladed dagger, was poised in a killing strike. I elected not to tell the mage he’d have killed me if I hadn’t been privy to his thoughts.
“Whoever you are,” I said, “get out of Thorn’s Gems and out of my life. No one who thinks insulting thoughts about this town, my shop, or my friends is welcome here.”
“So.” With a fancy flourish, he batted Audric’s heavy battle sword away and sheathed his slim-bladed weapon. It went along his hip and down the length of his leg, which was clad in winter-weight black wool and cashmere, elegantly tailored as a tuxedo. “They were right. You can read my mind.”
“Yeah. Lucky me,” I deadpanned. I kept my blades out and in play. So did Audric, his face impassive, even after the mule slur, but he’d nicked the mage through the velvet and several underlayers, which he’d never do by accident. I could smell the blood and wanted to grin.
“Then,” the neomage swirled back his emerald cape and stepped away from Audric, “you’ll be needing this.” With his left hand, he tossed an amulet into the air. I glimpsed a blur of snowflake obsidian strung on a cord. Still moving fast, I set the dagger on the glass display case and snatched the leather thong. I could sense his intention to pull his sword when I was distracted, so I never took my gaze off him. My longsword never wavered from his chest.
The nugget bumped against my hand and his thoughts disappeared. As it swung away, I sensed his curiosity. When the stone hit my hand again, his thoughts were gone. The stone swinging away on the leather cord brought his thoughts flooding back, and his interest grew at whatever showed on my face. I gripped the nugget. My temper and his violent tendencies washed away as blessed silence filled my head.
“Audric,” I said, backing away. He stepped close and disarmed the petite mage, the big half-breed towering over the smaller supernat as he removed the sword and two throwing blades. They clanked on the case near my kogatana, the pile growing to include a small long-barreled semiautomatic pistol, which the mage carried in a holster strapped at the small of his back, a Pre-Ap style, cellular satellite phone with a built-in camera, and a belt made of metal rings and discs on leather. The metal was charged with incantations I could see in mage-sight. Audric was familiar with mages, having grown up in an Enclave on the West Coast, knew not to touch them in case they were spelled.
Several cleverly hidden throwing stars clinked to the glass, the kind of steel stars ninjas used in old Pre-Ap movies. These looked nasty, all sharp edges and points. When he was as disarmed as Audric could make him without stripping him naked and probing body cavities, I sheathed my longsword in its walking-stick sheath and backed away, keeping a hand on the prime amulet that composed its hilt. “Watch him,” I said. “He’s more than he appears.”
Audric nodded and pulled a vicious looking knife designed for close-in fighting. “Hands on the case,” he directed. The velvet-cloaked man sighed and placed his palms on the counter. My champard slipped a beefy, dark-skinned arm around the thin neck, pressing the knifepoint against the mage’s carotid artery and esophagus.
I inspected the amulet. It was an Apache Tear, a teardrop-shaped, obsidian nugget naturally rounded and smoothed by wind and water. Undrilled, it had been wrapped in copper and sterling silver wire and strung on a fancy dyed and knotted leather thong.
I’m a stone mage, able to manipulate creation energies through the crystalline matrix of stone and minerals, but stones corrupted by eons of contact with the lighter elements weren’t something I could usually use, not without a lot of prep time. And obsidian was beyond the scope of most stone mages. This Apache Tear was different in a lot of ways.
Obsidian is produced by volcanoes, the heat creating a type of glass occurring when felsic lava freezes before crystal growth. Crystals in lava make gems and various minerals, while obsidian is mineral-like, but not a true mineral because it’s not crystalline, hence not stone. Yet, I had discovered in my teens that I could manipulate some obsidian, a fairly rare trait in stone mages.
And it contained a powerful conjure.
It felt greasy against my fingertips, practically vibrating with power. Audric, poised over the deadly mage, his blade ready to rip out the intruder’s throat, asked, “What is he?” The mage bristled at the blunt query, but it was an appropriate question for my champard—my half-human, half-mage bodyguard cum teacher cum friend, among other things. The friend was the most important part, though he took the other duties seriously. Perhaps too much so; Audric had once nearly died taking them seriously.
I looked at the mage, at his belt, his weapons, and his expressionless face. “I think he’s a metal mage, but that’s not all he is.” The mage’s eyes didn’t exactly flicker, but I knew I had surprised him. “I don’t know what else, but I’d sooner trust a starving devil spawn at my back than him.” Though it was intended as a gross insult, the mage smiled. I really, really, didn’t like that smile.
As if to prove me right, the mage seemed to go limp. He slid down, almost out of Audric’s grip. It was a boneless move, fluid, like water from a pitcher, and so fast he seemed to blur with mage speed.
Almost as if expecting it, Audric caught him and yanked him up, slamming the mage against the display case and crushing his face into the wood that braced the glass. I heard the old wood creak. And I managed not to blink.
I sharpened my mage sight and looked the mage over. His aura glowed a clear blue that fractured into a scintillating fire like rainbow fluorite. He wore an amulet ring, a conjure encapsulated in the sterling band, the stone an empty vessel. A metal ring on a gold chain hung around his neck, glowing with the steady power of his legally required mage visa. The GPS locator device embedded in the gold bracelet on his left wrist shone with both technology and a conjure, and a fourth talisman, probably a chain, encircled his ankle, clasped beneath his boot.
That talisman made me pause, as it glowed with peculiar energies, like a link to a mega-strong energy sink. It was way too much power to carry around safely. Unless he had great control, he could go blooey, scattering bits and pieces of himself around the environment. Backing up until I touched the wall, I leaned into it for balance. Stabilized, I opened a mind skim, blending the two senses into a single scan, a trick that caused vertigo and made me want to toss my cookies. Not the impression I wanted to make. In the scan, the anklet was a horrid smear of brown and yellow enwrapping his lower leg. And his eyes, passionless brown, were shadowy holes, giving nothing away, even in the scan. This guy was scary.
“What are you doing?” he asked, voice sharp.
Fairly certain I wouldn’t pass out, fall down, or get embarrassingly sick, I levered my weight away from the wall and onto my feet. “Looking you over.”
“I got that. But with what?” He pushed with his hands and Audric let him up, slowly. The mage rocked his head, as if the threat of Audric’s knife wasn’t real, or as if it didn’t matter, and that meant he was either very stupid, or was lot more deadly than I thought. And I didn’t think the visiting mage was stupid. His eyes narrowed with interest. “I saw the sight for an instant and then I thought I saw a skim, but it disappeared.”
Audric glanced a warning at me. “My mistrend is uninterested in answering questions.”
“Yeah. But we have a few,” Rupert said from my left. “Let’s start with who you are, and why you’re here. And let’s see your visa.”
I had questions of my own, like—you mean you’ve never blended senses? Why not? And for Audric, the obvious ones, of—this isn’t normal for mages? And, Why didn’t you tell me I was doing something weird? And, How did he know what I was doing at all? But I kept the questions to myself.
“Cheran Jones, metal mage, at your service. I’d bow, but circumstances prevent grand gestures,” he said with a hard, acerbic edge that promised retribution. “My visa, papers and tickets are inside my vest. I would present it as requested, but I’d like to keep my throat, so perhaps we’ll forego the diplomatic niceties for a more auspicious moment; perhaps when I’m no longer being threatened at knifepoint. I’m here as an emissary from the New Orleans Enclave. Name, rank, and mission specifications, as requested.”
“My mistrend said you were something more,” Audric said. “What more?”
I wanted to cringe at the use of the formal word. Mistrend—mistress, friend, miss—as in error—and end, as in life. Too many champards died in the course of their sworn duties and I was still getting used to the idea of being responsible for two sentient beings who wanted to serve me and fight with me, and who would die for me. It gave me the willies.
“The fine points of diplomacy do not require me to discuss my personal life. However, I will say that I am here to discuss the Flames and the prophecy.” Without turning his head, he raised a hand off the case and pointed over the doorway of the stairs to my loft. Above it was a framed needlepoint of the prophecy proclaimed by the Enclave priestess when my twin and I were born. A Rose by any Other Name will still draw Blood.
Seraph stones. He was here to rake me over the coals and meddle in my life. And how did he know where the prophecy was hung? He hadn’t looked that way when he entered.
Cheran glanced at my left cheek and I didn’t need my unique mage gift to read his slur. He thought the crosshatch scars on my cheek were ugly. Well, so did I, but there wasn’t much I could do about them. I had a lot of scars I couldn’t do anything about.
Rupert had opened the papers and tickets, and said, “He originated in New Orleans Enclave, stopped for a rest and change of trains in Birmingham and came on straight here.” He rustled papers and read, “Cheran Jones, litter of four, metal mage of the New Orleans Enclave, licensed to visit the consulate general in Mineral City in the mountains of Carolina. Hail to Adonai.” Rupert looked up at me. “Blow it out Gabriel's horn. What’s all that mean?”
The door to the shop opened and a dry, thin voice asked, “Something going on here I need to know about, Miz Thorn?” Shamus Waldroup, the town kirk’s senior elder and the highest-ranking of the town fathers, owned the bakery across the street. He kept an eye out on me, which, at the best of times, like now, could be comforting. Of, course, the feeling of being spied on was always there too. “Is this another mage come a-visitin’?” His bald, dark-skinned head caught the light as he shuffled inside, his brown robe of office dragging the floor. He was followed by a second wizened man, also in kirk robes, who closed the door behind them.
Waldroup indicated the other man and said, “Ernest Waldroup, my brother and the chief bishop of the Atlanta kirk.” Seeing no threats in the newcomers, I dropped the blended scan and tucked the sheathed walking-stick sword through my belt, drawing on the prime amulet of its hilt to steady myself. The kogatana went beside the longsword.
The new elder was mostly Caucasian and seemed to share not a single genetic or ethnic trait with Shamus except for the bald head, but after the end of the world and the deaths of nearly six billion humans, ethnic traits had become pretty intertwined as men and women formed alliances for survival. Families often looked nothing alike. Or too much alike, which was another kind of problem entirely.
The elders inspected the tableau of the shop, Rupert and me, armed and silent, the pile of weapons on the counter, and Audric holding a velvet-cloaked stranger at knifepoint. Ernest seemed amused at the scene, and Shamus was grinning ear to ear. I suppose I was high entertainment in Mineral City. It made me want to wring Jones’ neck.
The new elder, a chief in the largest kirk on the Atlantic seaboard, could be construed as an additional threat to my security in Mineral City, but he merely nodded to me as he looked Cheran over. He said, “You mages wear the most gosh awful clothes a man ever did see.” I converted a laugh at Cheran’s reaction into an unconvincing cough. Elder Ernest poked Cheran in the side with his walking stick as if Audric, holding a knife to the mage’s throat, didn’t exist. “You got a visa, pretty boy?”
Audric didn’t budge. Silently, I set the Apache Tear on the counter. Cheran saw the movement and glanced at me as his thoughts flooded into my mind. Rage. Fury. Visions of disemboweling Audric. And deeper, muddy thoughts I couldn’t follow, thoughts his temper obscured as he tried to control it. Thoughts he didn’t want me to see.
But the anger was real. Fury at the mule holding the knife. Wrath that he had been embarrassed in front of the locals on his first independent mission. Hatred at the gay men. Rage directed at me because it was all my fault. I wanted to say, bite me. Instead, I blew out a resigned breath. “Let him go,” I said to Audric. “Yes, Elders Waldroup, he’s a neomage and he has a visa.” More’s the pity. Without one, he’d be quickly dispatched; not to jail, but dispatched as in dead. Unlicensed mages were killed on sight.
Not happy, but unable to do anything about it, Audric stepped away, and Cheran shook himself to settle his cloak. I could smell his blood from the nick under his arm as anger made his pulse race faster. He executed a mage-fast martial-art move as he turned, which positioned him neatly to pick up his weapons. Before bowing to the elders Waldroup, he chose the small gun which he stuck in his waistband. It was a good defensive ploy, but a terrible one for making friends. The town officials backed up fast.
Too angry now to notice their reactions, the visiting mage went through his intro again, and held out the GPS bracelet and the visa as required by international law. But I had to wonder at his tactics. I didn’t know much about consulate etiquette, but picking up a gun didn’t seem real conducive to achieving peace and harmony between races. Cheran Jones was either sloppy or devious. Or he wasn’t a visiting consulate at all. My blood chilled at the thought. Was he an imposter? What was he? That was part of what I couldn’t read in his mind and I didn’t like it. Not at all.
Shamus, stooped and irascible as ever, recovered quickly and winked at me. Though he couldn’t exactly be called a good buddy, he was more than fair where I was concerned. He watched as his brother inspected the visa, and read the purpose of the visit on the metal disc. Shamus said to me, “That says he’s a teacher. What is he’s here to teach?”
“I am to be Thorn St. Croix’s instructor in swordplay, diplomatic protocol for humans and seraphs, media relations, and whatever else I discover she needs to know as a mage living in this town. She is thought to be woefully lacking in the necessary skills and diplomatic procedure. And she won’t be stuck in a backwater like this for long,” Cheran said, his lip curling. “She needs schooling.”
At the tone, Jones’ face and thoughts cleared of anger and he seemed to realize he had made a mistake. I read, clear as a seraph-bell, that he was here on probation. After all, how much trouble could a quick-tempered man make in an unimportant place like Mineral City? But this was his last chance to make good.
“Manners ain’t a problem for our Thorn. She’s been doing all right without your help the last decade or so,” Shamus said. “Miz Thorn, you willing to take responsibility for anything else stupid he does?” I could have hugged the old man. Rupert chuckled under his breath. Cheran’s mind went coldly quiet.
“I’ll take care of him,” I said, following the mage’s thoughts.
The baker’s brother added, “And get him into some decent clothes, not this girly rag he’s got on.” Elder Ernest jerked on the emerald velvet cloak, released the visa, and hobbled to the door, rudely turning his back on the visitor.
Shamus followed, saying, “Some orthodox factions are difficult enough these days without another catamite prancing around. Your pardon, Rupert, Audric.”
Cheran drew himself up and I gleaned from his mind that this time it was honest insult. “I’m not a catamite, you—”
“Careful there, son,” Waldroup said over his shoulder as he opened the door into the cold. “You got to teach all that diplomatic stuff to our town mage. You don’t want to be deported from a backwater posting following a diplomatic incident before you get it all taught.” Chuckling, the two elders shuffled out and closed the door.
“Our town mage?” Cheran repeated softly, obviously surprised. He’d been painstakingly prepped for this mission, tutored to deal with recalcitrant humans, and instructed on how to pull my butt out of almost any fire. He had expected to find me in danger and up to my armpits in diplomatic troubles, but nothing was going like he’d expected. I wasn’t what he’d expected. And that fact affected his secondary mission. I caught that before it disappeared beneath other thoughts.
He studied me closely. “What’s our town mage supposed to mean?” When no one answered, he looked from my hand to the Apache Tear, still on the counter. His mind went quickly blank, as he envisioned a candle flame, one of the first mind-clearing mediation techniques taught to a neomage child. It was the last clear thought I got from him. Below that it was all a cloudy muddle, shadowed by the flame. As a hint, it was pretty direct. I picked up the obsidian and looped it around my neck. His thoughts died away.
When we all continued to stare, silent and assessing, he said, “Our town mage, huh? Fine. I’m adaptable. What’s wrong with my clothes? They were made according to the cut and style of the official neomage emissary to Atlanta. They’re modest and suitable to this miserable cold, and yet still have a certain flair.” He flipped the hem of the cloak in example.
“The elders didn’t kill him, so it looks like we have to keep him,” Rupert said, deliberately boorish, crossing his arms over his chest and leaning over a glass display cabinet. “But you do have to get him properly dressed. That hat has to go. Even I wouldn’t wear it, and I’m pretty gutsy with my wardrobe.” That was an understatement. Rupert was a fashion queen.
Cheran reached up and touched his hat, running his hand along the foot-long feather regretfully. “I can leave the hat. And the cloak. What else?”
“I can find you some suitable clothes. Something wool. Maybe a mustard brown tweed coat and a bowler hat in that green that Miz Abernathy came up with.”
“Mustard brown tweed? A bowler?” Cheran turned faintly pale at the description of local clothing.
Rupert grinned happily. Audric was smiling, undoubtedly at the mental image of Cheran Jones in local garb, and was picking his fingernails with the gigantic knife. No one could look equally amused and deadly like my champards. Far too casually Audric said, “Ernest Waldroup, Atlanta’s elder, came in today’s train. Did you not see him on route?”
Cheran said, “I traveled on the train by private coach, as befits a fully licensed mage, the same way I’ll return to civili—to Enclave,” he corrected, “when this assignment is over.”
Audric looked at me, pointedly. I pressed my lips into a thin line. It was clear that Cheran Jones wouldn’t fit seamlessly into the life of the town. I had the feeling that the mage wouldn’t fit in anywhere outside of Enclave, and getting him deported before he accomplished his secondary, covert mission, was high on my to-do list at the moment. Silently, I thanked the senior elders for the idea. Yet, part of me, admittedly a small part, hoped that Cheran was really here to teach me. There was a lot I needed to learn about the visa I wore. Like how to use the darn thing as more than an elaborate megaphone.
It was clear Cheran was finally getting a clue what to expect from this assignment and the culture shock was intense. I was about to make it worse. “Where is the coach now?”
“I left orders that it be stored behind the consulate and my bags be deposited by the bellman in an appropriate suite—” he stopped abruptly as if a frightening possibility had just penetrated his mind.
“Mineral City…doesn’t have a consulate,” Rupert said with wicked delight.
The mage stared at me, dread warring with suspicion in his gaze. “He’s joking.”
I shook my head. “No consulate.”
He recovered quickly, I’ll give him that. “As Mineral Town is deficient in that regard, it would be appropriate for you to put me up. I’ll stay here. Your servant and mule can care for both of us without undue difficulty.”
Audric’s mouth narrowed. I knew he had endured the last insult. Before he could bonk the mage on the head with a brawny fist or stick him through with the fingernail blade, I said, “It’s Mineral City. And you can get a room in the hotel across the street and down the next block, or you can ask Miz Essie if you can rent a room. She sometimes takes boarders.”
Rupert said, “Essie has three guest rooms with a bath down the hall, and serves two meals a day. Oatmeal for breakfast and a mystery meat stew for supper. You take your turn at cleaning the communal toilet and change your own sheets.”
The look on Cheran’s face was priceless. It was suddenly occurring to the unexpected visitor that he might have been sent to the backside of a hellhole with insufficient recon. “Down the hall,” he repeated.
My friends looked at one another and grinned happily. Sometimes the best weapon is the tongue. “The mattress is only twenty-four years old,” Audric said.
“Clean sheets once a month,” Rupert added.
“Whether they need washing or not,” Audric said.
“Once a month.,” Cheran repeated faintly. “A communal toilet. Not here?”
I shook my head no and tried to ignore the gleeful expressions on my champards’ faces. “No guest room,” Rupert said. “Just a loft my mistrend has no intention of sharing with anyone.”
“And who will be paying for this five star service?” he asked.
“Beats me,” I said, feeling almost sorry for him. “I was never given a diplomatic stipend. And if the Enclave didn’t send funds with you, you’ll need to hop a train back south, or figure out how to pay your way.”
A dozen thoughts crossed his face in an instant. I had only a moment to recognize surprise, cunning, and lastly horror. “Tears of Taharial,” he swore softly. “I’m in Hell.”
My champards thought that was hilarious. The bad part was, it might be true.