Heart of Magic
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“Are you lost,” he asked, voice amused, deep and as comfortable being in the shadow.
Panting, the red silk of her gown moved against the curve of smooth breast, The same gown hugged her waist, slowed down behind her almost like a wedding train, but in the brightest red. Violet eyes stared up at him, trying to decide if he were a friend. The question was hard to answer. “I....”
He leaned a little, his smile confident, engaged. Dark eyes seemed to swallow her whole as if she were a sugar cube melting in his champagne. “Well, what is it, my pretty cardinal?”
Almost as if compelled, as if tell him the truth were her most sweetest desire, she admitted, “I came in with the offering girls because I’m looking for my brother. I think the king is holding him because he’s a journalist and an activist for democracy.” Both her hands covered her mouth, those violet eyes wide with shock.
“You think the king keeps political prisoners,” he said, on hand now resting on the wall beside her head and she realized her back was now against said wall, “in the palace?”
He was so close to her. He smelled of cinnamon and cloves. His dark hair was just long enough to brush against his cheekbones, high cheekbones, strong face, like a Persian prince, with eyes made of the same shadows she’d been trying to hide in.
“I thought there might be clues,” she said, both hands against the wall, her heart racing.
“Do you like this democracy idea,” he asked, eyes on her for a moment, then down the hall, which reminded her that any moment the guards she was running from were going to come down this way.
“I think all people should be free. It’s the only way to be able to trust love or friendship. When people aren’t free, they are always in fear.”
“Um,” he said, long elegant fingers petting his neat black goatee, “You think it’s possible for love to be true then? But only between equal and free people?”
Her voice was barely above a whisper. He was so close to her that strength bridged the distance between them, so somehow the silk seemed tighter around her, her lips felt alive as if his touch might happen at any moment. “Don’t you also think that is the obvious truth?”
His smirk made him look like a teenager and all the debonair grace and gravitas evaporated faster than it had built. “I don’t think love is real,” he said, but gently, those fingers slipping into the pile of curls on her shoulder. “But that shouldn’t stop you from believing in it.”
It was like electricity traveled up her curl to set her skin on delicious fire. Her eyes watched his finger, innocent wonder at what might come next. His words broke the spell though. “Love is real! It’s the only thing that’s real!”
“Really? I see you are willing to go to great lengths to save your hapless brother.”
“He’s not hapless! He’s brilliant and brave. Don’t you have family you’d fight for?”
He dropped her curl, stepped back, but it was like time itself had blinked. One moment he was close enough to kiss, the next he was a foot back, with no transition in between. “Not in many, many years,” he said. Now he seemed aged, even though nothing physical had changed. There were no lines on his smooth face, no touch of the ages, but the weariness pulled the color from the air. His smile was almost sadistic, inhuman. “I’m going to help you.”
The tingle that went over her scalp then was pure fear. Whatever he was, he wasn’t a dinner guest in the palace.
Handlers and guards were just coming round the corner, the noise of their boots and clattering weapons loud alien to the strange otherworldly dignity the hall had had.
He held up a hand and they all rumbled to a halt like a pack of puppies. That pack of puppies carried lethal weaponry though and rage at having the palace penetrated by an intruder.
“I’m keeping this one,” he said, as simple as if he’d just selected a menu item.
“She wasn’t cleared,” Hanser snarled. “She hasn’t been vetted.”
Time folded again and the Persian was so close to the head of the guard, not touching, nothing even remotely inviting, as those dark lips, now close enough to blow in the shorter man’s ear, “Are you questioning me?”
“No!” Hanser said, backing away, backing into his men. “Not at all, My Lord. There’s no better place for her than your able hands.”
“Thank you so much,” he said, a dark glittering energy almost visible around him.
The men who’d been chasing her, faded a bit, almost as if there were a clouded wall between them and her and the man. He smiled brilliantly at her, again back to being a wildly enthusiastic teenager. “Come my friend. I’ll teach you some magic.”
As soon as his door closed, he knew he’d gotten himself into something he hadn’t expected. The girl, so innocent and lost, nearly drowning in red silk and the overwhelming glamour of the palace was now a woman. Her red evening gown had been standard course for girls brought to the palace. Now it was a blood red trench coat that hung around her like a well deserved bad reputation. Those blonde waves that had framed her face as sweetly as vanilla makes birthday cakes had lengthened and darkened into a thick brown braid. Her eyes were a telltale violet, a beginning of twilight blue, the color of those given magic at birth and great amounts of it and he completely forgot what color they might have been hiding under before. She held out a still elegant and almost delicate hand, her fingers closing around a blackest of black staff. At the top of the staff, an energy scythe swirled into being, dark greens and vivid emerald lines of energy writhed and rolled into the curved form.
He found himself smiling, elated to have someone so accomplished and exotic in his personal space. In comparison, he felt down right mundane. He was classic Italian when the word Roman had little more meaning than the word Etruscan. His dark hair was short, neatly trimmed and styled, his clothing expensive and elegant, but nothing that wasn’t nearly a uniform in the palace. His eyes were dark green and they sparkled with excitement as he smiled at her. “Well, hello Little Red Riding Hood.”
Her chin tucked a little, head tilting as she grinned. “Hello, Big Bad Wolf.”
He held up both hands, still smiling. “I realized that you’ve likely come to fight. I absolutely love your cover when you came in. That was expertly done. Could I perhaps interest you in some wine and poetry before we get down to combat?”
She spun her scythe around, the staff shorting as it spun, magically singing the air as it went. “We don’t have to fight. You could just give me what I want.”
“What is it you want, my darling,” he asked with an overconfident smile. The proper way to talk to a woman had changed a great deal in the two and a half millennia that he’d been walking the path. What almost always worked was being one’s true self. Even if it failed, at least the failure was justified.
“I want the universal key.”
“I haven’t got it,” he said honestly, shrugging, palms up.
She rested her scythe on her shoulder, those dark eyebrows rising as she stared at him. “We both know that’s only true because of semantics. You are the universal key.”
His clothing shifted becoming jeans, which he settled his hands in the front pockets, and a tie-dyed tee-shirt he had literally bought at Woodstock. “You’re going to have to make it worth my time if you want to use me like that. Ms. Maxwell, just where do you think you want to go to so badly?”
“I need to get into Hell.”
“There are easier ways,” he pointed out.
“They’re more permanent.”
“So why do you want to go to Hell?”
“I need to see my dad.”
“Family drama is so blasé. We could have so much more fun.”
She squished up her face in disgust and he’d never felt so old. “You’re a little bourgeois for me.”
He mimicked her face squishing and gestured for his favorite Queen Anne chair to run across the room so he could sit down on it. He crossed his legs. He let his hair grow out a bit, down to his shoulders, the same hairstyle he’d worn to Woodstock, as he rested his chin in his palm, bare elbow on the decadent brocade arm of the chair. “You clearly think you’re very bad assed. You’ve gotten into the palace, but just how do you think you’re going to get out? Do you really think you can take me by force, my darling?”
He loved the more serious thought that dampened her expression, carved her from harder space in his world. Sitting there with his chin resting on his palm, remembering Hendrix and the lovely open air, he thought she might be the most beautiful magic user he’d ever seen. Falling in love always came out badly. The wall behind him shifted as if his room were a theater stage in a set change.
“I guess we’re down to that combat, aren’t we?” she asked.
He leaned back, gestured and a cup of tea on a neat matching saucer appeared in his hands. “Not at all, if you can get us out of the palace alive, I’m delighted to come on an adventure. If we get the chance to take tea with your father, perhaps he will be less ageist.”
“Yeah? He’s married and loves his husband. You’re going to just walk us both out of here. We’ll talk terms of your release after my mission is completely.”
Hadrian sipped his tea, those green eyes watching her calmly. “You can call me Harry, by the way. What do your friends call you? Also, if I could have just walked out of here, I’d have done so a couple of centuries ago. I fear you’ve turned yourself into a canary toy, my dear.”
She shook her scythe, powering it down. A moment later the whole thing disappeared and she slowly turned in a circle, scanning the room, the palace around them. “Fuck.”
He summoned a matching chair for her and a table with a nice cup of tea. “Well if anyone can do it, I expect it would be the daughter of Death and Peace.”
She sank down into the chair, forearms on her knees, jaw shifting as those violet eyes considered the puzzle. “EeeBee.”
“My name. My friends call me EeeBee.”
“I’m delighted to make your acquaintance, Ms. EeeBee.”“I’ll get us out of here.”
Sipping his tea, he couldn’t look away from her. “I look forward to it.”