The Woman

As beautiful as Xan could be, or at least as the poets made it out to be, Eli hated the rainy season. Calla, however, loved it, which of course meant that he went out in it more often than he liked. The plant had draped itself across his shoulders and up his neck, around the top of his head like a crown. Her lone bloom rested behind his left ear. Her leaves just barely sheltered his eyes from the rain coming down in huge heavy drops that felt like he was being pelted with stones.

Much to Calla’s disappointment, he ducked into Nirvana. It was the capital’s very own slice of Terra Prime – or at least its music was supposed to be. Nirvana’s claim to fame was its old Earth music and cuisine. He didn’t know how accurate that was, but it was a good place to feel alive, to experience the city’s pulse first hand. Cal unwound herself from his head to move around his arm, she loved to brush against people, to explore and to learn. Eli didn’t mind that. She never seemed to get beat up or disheveled from the experience. If anything, she thrived on the experience. Her sweet scent always brought people to him, they didn’t always know it, but they came.

Cal added life to any room, even while she seemed to feed off of it. She made his life more interesting and he loved her for it. Even if he felt better being alone.

He made his way now to the edges of the room and to the bar where he ordered a drink before settling back to examine the room. The pulsing bodies appeared to have almost nothing to do with the music but he drank it all in – the emotions and life that filled the room. Cal had begun releasing a sweet smelling pheromone. Men and women alike were being drawn to him and none of them seemed to know why.

“Cal,” he chided softly, moving in and out of the gathering people around him, avoiding as many of their hands and pressing bodies as he could. “I’m not in the mood for that tonight.”

Cal eased up on the pheromones, leaving only her usual sweet smell. While it still attracted people it was no longer quite so intense, they were more aware of their actions and his presence. He much preferred it when the people around him knew what they were actually doing. It was a kind of attention he didn’t need to draw. He didn’t want Cal to be taken from him. As far as he knew, she was the last of her kind. If the empire decided to take her from him he didn’t know what they would do to her. They destroyed the rest of her kind decades ago, they’d probably do the same to her if the emperor didn’t decide to put her in his menagerie.

He yawned into his hand and plucked a piece of fruit from a nearby tree. He made eye contact with a man across the dance floor that he’d never seen before. New people were always intriguing.

Calla tightened around him excitedly.

“Easy, might as well enjoy ourselves a little bit,” he said, gently stroking her leaves. “Besides, I’m not sure I’m ready for that tonight.”

He frowned. There was always a price for the help he needed to fall asleep. Sometimes it was monetary, other times it required more intimate forms of payment, though none of the people that he sought help from saw it as payment. They rather saw their own contribution as payment for what they wanted from him.

He leaned against a pillar, watching, reveling. The rhythm of the music and the flashing of the lights created a sort of electric charge in the room, he could feel the pulsing of life as warm bodies tangled on the dance floor and as the music grew wilder he let himself be pulled into the fray.

Cal rubbed her flower against his ear, enjoying the life around them as much as he did.

~ ~ ~

Eli didn’t see who it was, but as he reveled in the crowd he felt someone touch him and it was like cold fire running out his arm. His knees went weak and he felt himself falling.

“Whoa there! Too much to drink, little brother?” came a soft voice as strong arms caught and steadied him.

Cal put her bloom under his nose and he started to feel a little better but everything felt a little wrong still. Like he’d just run a marathon without stopping for water.

He looked up at Ezekiel, his older brother was dressed in his city guard uniform and a heavy black rain cloak with the emperor’s seal embroidered on the breast in red and gold thread. His hat still had drops of water on it. Looking around him Eli saw that there were other members of the guard in the nightclub.

“What are you doing here Z? Aren’t you all on duty?”

Z laid one of his heavy hands on Eli’s shoulder, steadying him as he swayed. “Just making rounds. Had a call from the bartender about a couple people with IDs that didn’t look right.” His brow furrowed and he leaned in quietly. “It wasn’t you, was it? I thought Mother took care of that.”

Eli shook his head, looking around for whoever it was he’d brushed up against. “No, it wasn’t me.”

Z nodded. “Well let me see them anyway, make a show for the guys.”

Eli handed over the papers and Z pretended to examine them thoroughly. They were real, they just didn’t tell the truth and Z knew it, part of why Z had joined the guard was to help keep Eli’s secret, to keep the empire from realizing just how powerful Eli was.

Eli made eye contact with a woman across the dance floor. She was watching him. Not with attraction, not like Cal was trying to pull her in or even like she was generally curious about him. No – her’s was a face of concern. It was as though she was frightened of him and also morbidly curious. She was the one he’d brushed against, he was certain of it. There was no other explanation. She’d felt something too, something that concerned her as much as it did him.

Z handed him back his papers but he took them without really looking. Cal squeezed his arm tightly, trying to bring him back to reality. He glanced down at Cal and then at the papers Z had handed back to him.

“You look like you’ve just seen a ghost.”

Eli shook his brother’s hand off his shoulder. “I’m fine,” yet – when he looked up the woman was gone. The other guards were proceeding in their task while Z was watching him. “You should get back to work, we’re drawing attention from your friends.”

“Mother is worried about you, kid. Go see her.” Z ignored his words.

“She knows I can take care of myself,” he was irritated now. “Just get on with your job and leave me be. I’ll see her when I see her.” He started off, away from his brother and in search of the strange woman but his brother’s hand stopped him again. More guards were watching now, a few moving closer. “Ezekiel, let go of me.”

“I want you to get out of here, Eli. There’s going to be trouble.”

Eli jerked his head at the other guards moving toward them and the uneasy crowd that was already disturbed by the guards’ presence. “Yeah, and you’re causing it. Let go of my arm before your friends intervene.”

Just as Z let go of his arm there was a clatter from the exit. Guards had drawn their weapons. It seemed someone’s papers were out of order and they were putting up a fight. Zeke had already started summoning magic to himself, stepping in front of Eli, the fool had always had a protective streak. Eli didn’t need it. He was already gathering more discreet and subtle magics to himself. Cal reared up over his shoulder like a viper, not that the little plant could really do anything to help in a fight. The last thing he wanted was to be caught in the middle of some kind of brawl tonight.

While his brother and everyone else was focused on the scuffle at the doors Eli’s eyes found the woman again. Se stood out in the sea of swirling magic in a way that he doubted anyone else could see. In his experience only the natives and those on the brink of becoming elementals could see magic the way he could. Magic was spiraling in and around and through everyone except for her. Around her it was as though magic went dark. It went towards her and then seemed to disappear before ever touching her. He watched as she did her best to get out quietly and slip by the guards unnoticed.

It wasn’t enough. The guards saw her and one of the bigger men started toward her while his team was handling the scuffle at the door. He motioned to Z who stepped toward the woman as well. She tried to get out and away before they reached her, but there were too many people barring her escape.

Eli’s hands were growing warm and he was grateful for the gloves he’d chosen to wear tonight. If he caught fire now not only would he be outed for lying on his papers about what kind of magic he could do, Z could lose his job of not spotting the false papers just now. His brother was a powerful wind mage, but he was nothing compared to Eli, who while also registered as an air element mage was capable of all four elements at higher levels than any human magus in the entire capital, if not on all of Xan.

Ezekiel’s body language was changing even as Eli watched. His shoulders were growing tense and the magic around his swirling faster. The general breeze in the room was picking up. Not enough for most to notice, but Eli had dealt with his brother too long and knew the tells. Something didn’t feel right to Zeke, even if he didn’t know it himself. The verdict was sealed when Eli saw his brother hand the papers over to the guard officer with him. the woman seemed to know it too.

The officer, a non-magus, put a hand on the sword hilt at his side and though Eli could not understand what was being said he felt like he had to do something. He didn’t know this woman, but he knew what could happen to magic users caught lying to the government. It wasn’t pleasant, especially not for women.

Eli lashed out with his magic, pushing the guard down with a gust of wind and calling for one of the nearby fruit trees to wrap two of its branches around the officer and Zeke both. The tree obeyed, its branches shooting out toward the two officials and Eli watched as his brother formed a blade out of thin air, slicing through the branches that were coming at them, but missing the roots that had come up to trip them. The woman made eye contact with Eli for a brief moment. How she knew it was him, he had no idea, but she nodded in his direction before taking off. The guards were too busy fighting off his magical attacks and subduing the two young men who had presented false papers at the door to stop her.

One guard rushed past them but Cal, wound up from all the excitement lashed out, releasing pollen in the guardswoman’s face. She dropped to the ground hard, not knowing what could have hit her.

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