In which we continue the serial tale of murder, revenge, cauliflower and a small dog named Lucy… oka, that’s a lie. We’re really continuing Ben’s tale of arcane murder and pointy-eared homicidal tendencies…
The Lily, Merywyn
Liz watched condensation run down the side of her tankard and bit back a grimace. At least the ale was cold, which was better than most taverns in this part of the city. On the other hand, puddles of condensation were probably the closest these tabletops ever came to being wiped clean. Captain Elizabeth Lawley of the Cygnaran Reconnaissance Service liked clean tables. Unfortunately, her cover, the criminal mage Lizzie Bullets, liked grimy dives. The Lily would have to do.
Liz lifted the tankard, leaning back in her chair. She lifted her gaze from the disappointing tabletop to the chipped and faded fleur-de-lys painted above the door. Just like Merywyn. Just like all of Llael. Elegant, noble, beautiful in concept, but fallen on such hard times as to make past glories unimaginable. Liz remembered a time before the Khadorans had come. Before her fellow Cygnarans had allowed Llael to fall. She took a slow drink. Now there was only this, a dingy wreck of a once-proud country. Perfect for shadowy dealings. This was no place for Elizabeth Lawley, but Lizzie Bullets was right at home. It was too bad that the fallen city could very easily conceal both the mercenary Ioryssa and the assassin from Roderick’s mansion. Assuming they weren’t the same person.
Liz wasn’t quite ready to make that assumption.
She set the tankard down, propping her elbows on the table and letting her face sink into her hands. She let out a soft growl, pulling on the hair that slipped from beneath her hat. If Ioryssa was the killer, Liz just had to pin her down long enough to take her out. That shouldn’t be too hard. But if she wasn’t the killer, the time it would take to do that would guarantee the real culprit’s escape. It was very unlikely that there were two shaven-headed Iosan women with facial tattoos in Merywyn. But it wasn’t impossible. Liz growled louder and pulled harder on her hair. The best jobs were always the hardest.
“You’re closed.” The voice wasn’t loud, but it carried. Liz didn’t move her head, but stole a glance through the fringe of her hair. A tall figure in a long coat stood at the bar. As Liz watched, a slim gloved hand set down a stack of coins. The barkeep began stuttering an objection, but Liz didn’t hear him. She saw pointed ears, a smooth shaved scalp and an intricate black tattoo beneath a narrowed right eye.
Armour. The word sprang to the front of her mind unbidden, but Liz surrendered to the impulse, let it fill her. The interior of the Lily momentarily flashed blue as arcane forces pulled around Liz’s body, shrouding her in a protective barrier. Ioryssa was here, and could only be here for her.
The elf woman turned at the flash of light. Her face tightened, somewhere between a smile and a scowl. Without looking at the barkeep, she slid the stack of coins closer to him. “I said, you’re closed.” The other patrons began vacating their seats. Even the ones who didn’t know Lizzie Bullets knew well enough to be afraid of magic in close spaces. Ioryssa began stalking towards her.
“Yo-rissa.” Liz twisted her mouth around the name, striving to pronounce it better than Louis had. Her voice stayed calm, but her heart was thundering. Her target had come to her. That was never, never a good thing. “Congratulations on finding me so quickly.”
“Louis said he finds you here.”
“Louis is going to regret that.”
Ioryssa put one hand on the back of the chair opposite Liz, the other one casually gripping her belt buckle. Equidistant between sword and pistol. “Lizzie Bullets, huh? An odd name, since I don’t seem to remember you using a gun.”
Liz slid a slow, wide smile onto her face. “I don’t remember needing one.” That got a twitch from Ioryssa’s mouth, too fast to tell if she was amused or annoyed. “You seem to think you do, though.” Liz nodded to the position of Ioryssa’s right hand. She moved the tankard aside and turned her own hands palm up on the table. Ioryssa frowned, sharp lines cutting her already sharp features. Her right hand tightened on her belt buckle.
“I remember you trying to kill me,” she spat, teeth flashing with each word. “Forgive me if I didn’t come here to relax.” It seemed the Iosan was easily provoked. That could be a useful quality or a very dangerous one. Liz settled further back into her chair, spreading her hands a bit wider on the tabletop. Ioryssa would read the body language, and surely she would know it was deliberate, but there was no sense in pushing her farther than necessary.
“I was never trying to kill you, Ioryssa. I just wanted to talk to you. You’re wanted on some very serious charges.” Liz spoke calmly, but took care not to sound condescending.
“So you’re not just a gangster, then. Law enforcement, or even intelligence.” Ioryssa’s frown twisted like she’d just smelled an unbathed gobber. “I hope it isn’t intelligence. That would just be too ironic, considering how dumb you are.”
Liz had to struggle to keep the smile in place. Ioryssa was making her nervous. She was too tall, too alien looking, too severe. Liz remembered well how fast she was. Now the Iosan was trying to bait her, and to Liz’s shame it was almost working. “What makes you say that?” She heard the edge in her own voice. She sounded like an amateur. Damn this elf!
Ioryssa’s too-angular face shot towards Liz’s, her left hand slamming onto the tabletop even as her right slid to the butt of her pistol. Liz’s runes flashed again, her protective spell refreshing. Her eyes widened. She couldn’t help it. “Someone who looks like me did something bad, and now I’m taking the blame, right?” Spit flew past teeth that were just sharp enough to make Liz’s jaw tighten. “You can’t even tell two non-humans apart, can you? You want to arrest me on the ‘very serious charges’ of being Iosan!” She jerked backwards, shoving the table hard enough to rock it. Liz’s tankard bounced to the floor with a loud bang and a soft splash. No loss. Even cold, the ale had been terrible.
Liz slowly turned her hands over, ready to push back from the table herself. Ioryssa’s anger was real enough. Righteous indignation, or was she just upset at being caught? “The description of the person I’m looking for goes well beyond ‘Iosan’. I’m looking for a woman, her head shaved, with a tattoo on her face.” Liz pointed an exaggerated glance at Ioryssa’s right cheek. “If I was looking for a human, I’d consider your appearance quite distinctive.”
“But you aren’t.” The words hissed past gritted teeth as Ioryssa’s left hand began to rasp her sword from its scabbard. Liz shoved away from the table, hands coming up in front of her. Ioryssa’s right hand slipped the pistol from its holster, but she kept it pointed at the ground. Seeing her like this, weapons drawn, arms spread, leaning slightly forward, Liz was forced to acknowledge just how very big a woman Ioryssa was. “You’re looking for an Iosan.”
Liz began slowly stepping back, angling towards the bar. The barkeep had vanished. Good. Ioryssa, equally slowly, followed. “So these things are common? Tattooing your face is a normal thing for Iosans to do?”
The heat faded instantly from Ioryssa’s eyes. They became very, very cold. “I’d bet there’s a pendant somewhere under that jacket of yours. Maybe a tattoo, or a patch sewn into your clothing. A sunburst, perhaps a menofix, maybe even Thamar’s symbol. This is the same.”
“I hardly think a tattoo on your face is the same thing as wearing a pendant.” Liz had almost made it to the bar.
“That’s because you don’t understand Iosans. And you have no desire to.”
The pistol snapped up and thundered. Liz leaped for the bar as the table beside her exploded into splinters. Black smoke and the smell of burnt powder filled the room. Liz rolled across the bar top, glasses and tankard tumbling out of her way, dropping behind it as something solid clunked into it just behind her. She caught herself in time to see Ioryssa’s smoking pistol thump to the floor beside her. She smiled in spite of herself. The crazy woman had thrown the empty gun at her.
“You’re right, I don’t understand Iosans!” Liz shouted, runes beginning to swirl around her hands as her mind sorted through appropriate spells. “Tell me, Ioryssa, what does your religion say about sneaking into other countries and murdering wizards?”
With a thump and a swirl of heavy cloth, Ioryssa vaulted onto the bar. Strike. No time for cleverness, Liz shot a hand out and let the burst of raw light and force thump forwards. Ioryssa’s sword came down. The arcane bolt took the Iosan woman square in the sternum. She hissed, but did not falter. Her sword stopped, levelled directly at Liz’s face. The shelter of the bar had become a cage.
Ioryssa did not attack.
“I am not a damned Mage Hunter,” she grated.
“You said that last time, too. I hope you understand that I can’t just take you at your word.” Liz held Ioryssa’s frozen gaze. Would her barrier hold long enough for her to hit the elf again? Would another bolt be enough to put her down?
“Oh, I get it.” Ioryssa’s knuckles whitened around the sword hilt, less than a yard from Liz’s eyes. “You need your scapegoat and here I am. But I’m not giving you the satisfaction of thinking you’ve found your woman.” Slowly, carefully, without moving her sword, Ioryssa reached down and retrieved her pistol. Then, in one fluid motion, she straightened and leapt back off of the bar. Her sword sliced upwards through a smooth arc, away from Liz’s face towards the shelves of bottles above her. There was a crash of glass, a glug and splatter of liquid. From somewhere on the other side of the bar, Ioryssa said, “I’ll let you pick up the tab for those.”
“I can find you again, Ioryssa! You aren’t exactly subtle!” Liz called after her. She could barely keep the relief from souring her words.
“That’s right, I’m not. A Mage Hunter would be, but I’m not a Mage Hunter.”
Slowly, Liz stood, meeting Ioryssa’s gaze once again. The Iosan stood by the door, weapons still drawn. “Say I don’t come after you. What will you do now?”
Ioryssa kicked the door open. “Only thing I can do to prove my innocence and get you off my back. Catch myself a Mage Hunter.”
Liz barked a laugh. Ioryssa grinned as she stepped back through the door. “But Lizzie? If you do follow me, I’ll happily show you that I don’t have to be a Mage Hunter to put you down.”