She kissed me!
Hey Victor, you already said that.
Oh I know, but it left an impression on me. I didn’t want to wash my cheek ever again.
Did I what?
Wash your cheek.
Well of course I did, we Velderlanders are civilized. I showered at least twice a week. Now don’t say anything about my cleanliness, you moderns and your fancy plumbing facilities have it easy. We had to build a fire under our shower boilers to get hot water. If you stoked the fire too hot it would scald the skin off your back, not hot enough and you shivered.
I finished up work on her rifle. A quick spring replacement was all that was required to get it sparking properly. When I finished I went to the office door and peeked out the keyhole. The last of her students were clustered at the door, slowly walking out.
I waited a few moments and opened the door. Carolyn was already headed my way.
She scowled, “Are you finished yet?”
I smiled, “Yes, and your students are gone.”
Her smile returned, “Well It’s about time. Why don’t you show me what you did with it?” We went back into her office and she closed the door.
“Carolyn, what’s with the act?” I asked.
She picked up her hunting carbine and shouldered it. She cocked back the hammer and pulled the trigger, a hefty amount of sparks showered down the frizzen into the flash pan. “Good work Vic. Act what act?”
“You know, the gruff exterior, upset with me.”
“How do you know I am not upset with you?”
She had me there, I didn’t. But her cute chuckle and smirk reassured me she was playing.
I rolled up my tools and tied the leather thong. “Carolyn, I do have one question before I go.”
“Oh? Well I may have an answer.”
I looked down at my new boots; they had started to get scuffed. “What was the… kiss for?” From the heat I felt in my face I knew I was blushing.
She smiled and set the flintlock down. “I like you.”
“I don’t understand why.”
She sighed, “Victor, for a talented Armsmaker you can be quite the dunderhead.”
“Dunderhead?” That hurt, I wasn’t the sharpest chisel in the toolbox but I considered myself fairly astute.
“Yes Victor, you need to be more confident. You saved my life when Tent City was raised.” She pulled out a stool and sat. “I recall laying on my back, my mount slain, in pain. A hideous Skaji Rider hovered in the air above me.”
I remembered aiming down the sights of a carbine trying to make the shot count. It gave me chills remembering the first man I’d killed.
“When I saw the firebomb in his hand I knew I was dead. I had all but resigned myself to meet the Velder Lords. The next thing I knew you picked me up and hauled me out of the burning tent.” Tears welled up in the corners of her eyes. “If it hadn’t been for you I’d be dead.”
She sat silent for a while. I didn’t know what to say so I did what all wise men do when confronted with such a situation. I kept my mouth shut.
I stared into her azure eyes. I could see the pain she was carrying; Carolyn had stared into the gaping maw of death and survived, we both had. Despite being a might worker of magic, strong, intelligent and tough, inside was a little girl that needed comfort and love.
Words were unimportant; they would have just gotten in the way. I wrapped my arms around her and held her tight. She resisted, her body stiff at first; moments later she laid her head on my shoulder and let the tears flow.
“It’s alright.” I whispered as I rocked her back and forth.
My tears followed and we shared a moment that words cannot express.
After a while she whispered, “See, you are a good man.”
I looked in her tear streaked eyes and kissed her soft lips. The Velder Lords surely knew what they were doing when they created this woman.
I’m not sure how long we sat there kissing, but like all incredible things their time must surely come to an end.
After taking a deep breath Carolyn said, “Victor, I’m sorry but I think it’s time for you to go.”
I nodded, “I know, it would be unseemly for me to stay here much longer.”
She pulled away and rubbed a hand through my scruffy three day old beard. “You shouldn’t shave, beards are… nice.”
I promised right then to toss my shaving kit down the deepest hole I could find. “So, next week then?”
“Actually the more I think about it, you probably shouldn’t return.”
I felt like she had just kicked me in the stomach, “What? Why?”
She sniffed, “Some of my colleagues may become… suspicious.”
“To the hells with what they think.”
“Victor,” She wasn’t pleased, “I… I like you. I needed someone’s shoulder to cry on and well what we shared tonight was lovely, but I cannot toss everything I’ve worked for in the rubbish pile.”
“Victor please, do not come back.”
My heart was pounding and my head ached, “Carolyn, why don’t you leave this place. Don’t you high an’ mighty upper crust kinds escape from here now and again?”
“Yes… but I don’t see how this will work out.”
I sighed and sat down, “Please do something for me.”
“Appeal the decision to bar me from Magus training.”
She shook her head, “Victor, I…”
“I’ll see what I can do.”
I left the University as the sun began setting, throwing color in the clouds that could not be replicated by man, even with magic ink.
I made my way back to the boarding house, lost in thought. As I approached the rougher neighborhood where I lived I made a big mistake. I wasn’t paying attention to where I was and who roamed the streets.
The city watch patrolled these areas, if infrequently. Ne’er do wells on the other hand were a frequent encounter.
“Hey mister, got’s a coin ta spare?” An urchin asked slinking from the shadows of a brick building.
I pressed on trying to ignore him.
“Think you’s better than me eh?”
I heard his footfalls approaching; I reached beneath my jacket and grasped my pistol by the barrel.
“Hey I is talkin’ at ya!” He growled as he put a hand on my shoulder and tried to turn me around.
I spun faster than he expected. I coiled my arm back lashed out with the brass butt of my pistol, clocking the man in the head. He dropped to the stones like a sack of potatoes.
“Hey what’d you do that fer? That’s cheatin.” Another urchin said as he scrambled toward his downed chum.
“My motto is ‘Decisive victory through cheating.’” I backed away, but soon a large group of scruffy looking men and boys had arrived.
The alpha male, a rather large man missing some teeth challenged me. “Why you beatin’ on one of mine? I should learn you a good lesson.” Some of his pals chuckled in agreement. They had knives, sticks, and rocks.
“Stay back.” I said as I leveled my pistol at the leader’s chest and thumbed the hammer.
“You gots only one shot, you canna shoot us all.”
I stared the thug down. “I don’t need to shoot everyone, just you.”
“Go ahead ‘n shoot then. I no think ya got the guts.”
“I’ve killed Skaji Wyvern riders, next to them you’re nothing.” I said as deadly calm as I could, even though inside I was shaking.
He stood defiantly until he realized I wouldn’t hesitate to put a ball in his chest.
“Let’s go boys.”
Once they were gone I holstered my weapon and hurried away keeping a better eye on my surroundings.
I made it back to the boarding house without further incident. Nana was waiting for me sitting in a fluffy chair.
“How was Carolyn?”
I plopped down across from her on a large cushion. The dogs came over, tails wagging looking for affection. I scratched their heads and backs until Nana shooed them out.
Nana smiled, “So you had a good time then?”
“But what Victor?” I could tell she wanted every juicy detail.
I sighed, “She doesn’t want me to call on her again.”
“Whatever is the matter?”
I explained the delicate nature of Magus Politics with her. She listened without saying a word. When I was done she took a sip of tea.
“Do you love this girl?”
I sighed, “I don’t really know her, but I guess I feel something for her.”
“You guess?” She set her cup and saucer on the piano. I raised an eyebrow, she had hollered at Marinda for less. “What kind of man are you Victor?”
“Don’t interrupt.” She adjusted her thick lenses, “Victor, you are a good man. I know that about you. But, you need to grow a backbone.”
I sat up straighter, a backbone? I was no coward, who did she think she was?
“Are you going to let one little bump in the road stop you from being with the woman you love?”
I held out my hands to stop her. “Nana, you assume much. I don’t… Hells, I hardly know her, we shared a few kisses, so what.”
Her mouth turned into a smile stretching from ear to ear, “That’s my boy! I knew you weren’t completely repellant to the fairer sex.”
Her smile evaporated, without looking she yelled up the stairs, “Marinda! Dropping eaves? I’ll have you scrubbing the floor with your dress for a week!”
Hurried footsteps retreated back up the stairs and a door slammed shut.
“Well Nana, it has been… enlightening talking to you, but I think I will retire.”
As I stood up a loud horns blew from somewhere down the street, moments later more horns sounded. “Air Raid!” I yelled as I ran to the lamp and blew it out.
“Air Raid? Are you sure… There hasn’t been one of those since the last war.” She listened to the horns blowing. “Lords! You’re right! I’ll never forget the sound of the Air Raid horns.”
“I told you, the Skaji are on the warpath!” I ran upstairs, nearly tripping and breaking my neck in the sudden darkness. I pounded on Marinda’s door.
She opened the door, “What?”
“Air Raid, lights out!”
“What’s an Air Raid?”
I shoved my way past her and blew out her lamp. “Don’t you push me in my room!”
Nana made it up the stairs, “Shut it girl, we need to get to the cellar! The Skaji are dropping bombs on the city!”
Some of the other boarding house residents came out of their rooms panicked. “Air Raid, everyone to the cellar!” I called trying to get everyone moving.
Muffled bangs shook the timbers of the house. Marinda screamed, I grabbed her hand and pulled her down the stairs. Reaching the cellar door; I pulled it open and started down the stairs. I ignited a lamp with a match and gave it to the red haired girl as I helped Nana.
More explosions rocked the house, dust drifted down from the floor above. The Fletcher family came down the stairs, their little children’s eyes wet with tears.
“Victor is that everyone?” Nana asked.
“I think so!” I yelled over the crying children as I closed the door.
“Where are Tuck and Toga?” Nana asked calling her dogs by name.
“I’ll find them!”
I left the relative safety of the cellar and searched the darkened house. The dogs were huddled together in a corner of the common room.
“Tuck, Toga! Here boys… come on puppies!”
They were reluctant to come at first. I called them, slapped my leg and they moved toward me, low to the ground tails between their legs. I passed a window on my way back to our makeshift refuge when the night lit up like the morning sun. I took a peek out the glass, flares were floating in the sky, lighting up the shadows of Wyvern and Raptors. They danced in the skies, trying to bring death to the other.
Air defense cannons fired, filling the skies with grapeshot. A Skaji balloon caught fire and fell disappearing amid city buildings. I realized how foolish I was standing in the common room separated from a bomb blast from a thin sheet of glass.
I retreated holding onto the dogs’ collars. As I shut the door a massive blast shook me off my feet; my ears rang as I clung to the banister to keep from rolling down the stairs. The dogs yelped, children cried, and adults muttered quick prayers to the Velder Lords.
We huddled in the cellar for the next hour waiting for the bombing to stop. I had no idea how the Skaji could keep up such a sustained attack. In the last war I read the bombings had been short and violent, as the Wyvern riders dropped a couple of claw held black powder bombs and retreated.
The smell of smoke drifted down from beneath the door, Nana’s boarding house was burning!