Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Antaria: Rogue Business (Part 1)

Celestine ambled down one of Lorendheim's side streets, humming a little tune as she did so. She had heard it wafting from one of the smaller chapels scattered throughout the city, and the music stuck to her mind as much as any religious hymn did.

More than a few eyes watched her as she moved purposely down the alley. Under normal circumstances, this would have been a precursor to some heinous crime. At the very least, any observer would have immediately expected the sounds of a struggle, perhaps followed by the clatter of running feet and some screams for assistance.

It was Celestine's robes that made the difference, though. The young woman wore blue and purple in a very distinct cut, enough for the many prying eyes to recognize a Metrian on sight. And as opportune as the situation was, no sane person -- thief or cutpurse alike -- relished the thought of having their eyebrows set on fire. Or worse.

Presently she began to sing. This grated on the humans who watched from the shadows, not just because Celestine couldn't carry a tune, but because it mocked the unlikelihood of the situation. A few hardened cutthroats slunk back into their dens, their minds unable to shake off the improbability.

Celestine turned a corner and saw light up ahead. This was such a nice day, she thought.

She passed a doorway, oblivious to the darkness that shifted about. After a second or two, a voice came to her ears. "Good afternoon," it said.

Celestine turned, the song suddenly disappearing from her head. When she didn't see anyone or anything that could have made the voice, she ventured a response.

"Good afternoon," she said. Then, as if this wasn't quite enough, she added: "It's a nice day, isn't it?"

"Yes," said the voice, as though it were leather baked into a wearable appearance. "It's a good day."

A slim, wiry figure emerged from the doorway. He was a man of medium height, with thick leather breeches and a dirty white shirt. His dry leather gloves clutched at the stone walls on either side of the alley, and his two silver teeth shone in what little light there was.

He smiled at her.

In her defense, Celestine was simply not used to this kind of situation. She smiled back.

"Now what would a young woman like you be doing in a place like this?" the man asked.

Celestine gave him a curious look. "You mean Lorendheim?" she asked.

The man laughed. "I mean, this street here. This alleyway."

"Oh," Celestine said. "Well... I'm a little late, you see. And I had to bring something back to the Guild because my mistress is expecting it, but the messengers at the Western Gate are always late, and my mistress says that she would rather not wait for a whole week again."

"Ah. And your mistress would be..."

"Mistress Imogen Stormbane, of the Metrian Guild," Celestine said without hesitation. "She's a grand old lady. She can bend lightning, you know."

"You don't say."

Celestine nodded enthusiastically. "She's been trying to teach me how to do the kind of magic that she does, only I'm just an apprentice and not as good as the others yet."

The man smiled. "So... this package that you were supposed to pick up... is it supposed to help you with your studies?"

Celestine laughed. "No, it's something for my mistress. She had to put a special order for it, from the Great Library in Allandria. I'm supposed to take good care of it on the way home. It's quite valuable."

"It is?"

"Yes," Celestine said. "It must be."

"I find that hard to believe," the leather-clad man said. "If it comes from a library, then it must be a book or a scroll. I have been to plenty of libraries, and I have already seen a great many of those. I have yet to see one that was truly valuable."

Celestine frowned. "This one is," she told her new friend. "Mistress Imogen says that it's a very rare copy, and that the Library has had it for years and years."

"Do you think so?"

"Yes," Celestine said. She reached into her robes and pulled out a small package wrapped in smooth cloth. "It's old," she said, "and some of the gold leaf is falling off, so we have to keep it wrapped up tight."

"May I see it?" the man asked, holding out a thinly-gloved hand. "I know a little about books, and if you say that it's quite valuable, then I'd like to have a look for myself."

Celestine thought nothing of it. She neatly deposited the cloth-wrapped bundle into the man's hand, then stepped back so that he could admire the work.

"It's a little heavy," the man said, weighing it in one hand.

"Mistress Imogen says that they made thicker parchment back in those days," Celestine said, helpfully.

"Ah," the man said. "That would explain why. Say, young lady... what does your mistress look like?"

"Mistress Imogen? She's tall, and she's quite handsome even though she's a little old. She has short white hair..."

"Really?" the man remarked. "Is that her, then?" he asked, beckoning towards the far side of the alley.

Surprised, Celestine turned. She didn't expect her mistress to be out and about at this time of day, much less crossing the alleyways as she did. Unable to catch a glimpse of her teacher in the shadows of the buildings, Celestine glanced around a few times, thoroughly confused.

"Your pardon, sir," Celestine said, turning back to her companion, "but I don't see her around. You must be mistaken."

But all she saw of him at that point was a lone figure running off into the distance. The leather-clad man was much faster than he looked; two leapfrogged barrels and a scaled fence later, Celestine realized that he was far beyond her line of sight.

She took a single step forward. Then, as though trying to convince herself that the whole encounter was a figment of her imagination, she reached into her robes and felt to see if her mistress's book was there. It was not.

She stared for a few more seconds. The silence of the alley seemed to be laughing at her.

Finally, Celestine's fragile mind settled on a single course of action, which seemed only too appropriate for the situation. She paused, drew a single long breath, and screamed her lungs out.


Dominique said...

Well, that made me laugh. But is that the complete story? Great beginning for a longer tale, but feels a little lacking after the punchline. (And the reason it's so funny is that I remember an incident involving a neighbor and her bike....)

Sean said...

Dominique: No, it's just the first part. I'm trying something new here -- rather than taking weeks or months working on a really long story (as a result of my schedule), I'm putting one together in installments.

Although this sort of thing has never happened to me, I did base it on the experiences of a couple of people I know. That said, I still feel sorry for Celestine... :)