A Rock And A Hard Place Chapter 1
I think this whole mess began the morning he showed up at my door. He showing up anywhere is never a good sign, but showing up on my doorstep before my first cup of coffee? Now that was an apocalyptic sign if I ever saw one.
The smell of coffee roused me from my slumber and I rolled out of bed, stumbling a bit as I got my bearings, before I made it to my door and sluggishly down the stairs, Itzel in my wake.
The Aether Spirit really had no permanent form and I avoided looking at her before coffee because it made my head ache to look straight at her otherwise. The most solid thing about her were her eyes, which were a hypnotizing rainbow swirl in the middle of a semitransparent body of shifting pastels that had no real form.
“Gonna make it?” she teased.
I grunted and I knew she was smiling in her own way. She had been with me from the beginning and knew perfectly well that I needed coffee before civil conversation.
Squinting at the light from the open curtains in the kitchen, I entered the room and took a deep breath. Lolani was cooking something breakfast-like that smelled divine. Was that bacon and fresh waffles? She looked over her shoulder at me and gave me a bright smile.
Lolani is the Bird of Paradise, a strange little bird with many magical talents that, for reasons I have never been able to fathom, include changing her appearance to that of a human. The form has shoulder length brown hair in hundreds of braids that have every color of feather imaginable woven into them. Her profile is sharp and her eyes an extremely bright blue, but other than that she looks much the same as any other human I have met. This morning she was wearing a plain white t-shirt and jeans, going barefoot.
“Good morning, Mistress!” she chirped. “Coffee’s done and food’s on the way.”
I nodded sleepily and yawned, pulling my robe a bit tighter around me. The kitchen, though warm, was cooler than my bed had been and coffee was the only thought keeping me from heading back to it.
Pausing at the counter to enjoy the smell of fresh coffee in the air for a moment, I closed my eyes and inhaled slowly. Glorious. I sighed contentedly and plucked a mug from the cabinet. My hand was just going for the coffee pot when suddenly the quiet atmosphere was broken.
“It’s not important enough to disturb Coffee Time, Cahir!” I replied.
The Door groaned and I sighed, resigned.
“Who is it?”
“Mistress, it’s him!”
My head snapped up. I was awake now.
“Don’t you dare let him in, Cahir! You hear me? You already know that.”
“I know!” wailed my Door. “But, Mistress, he’s been out here for a while now and he just won’t go away no matter what I say and he’s threatening me with disenchantments if I don’t let him in!”
“He wouldn’t dare,” I growled, glowering at the wall in front of me.
“Mistress, I’m afraid that he’s serious!”
“He may disenchant you, but if you let him in I’ll turn you into kindling!” I snapped.
The Door gave a terrifying groan of wood put under too much pressure and my scowl darkened as I continued to stare at the wall. He really would do it, wouldn’t he? That little...
With an audible growl, I left my coffee mug on the counter and headed for the front Door. I opened Cahir just enough to look out of and graced my visitor with the same deadly scowl that I had used on the wall moments ago. It seemed to have had more effect on the inanimate object.
Yes, it really was him.
He was one of the MAGI or Magical Armed Government Intelligence. His clean shaven face, pristine black hair, perfectly pressed suit, and piercing black eyes always put me on edge. He flashed a smile at me, showing off his too-white teeth.
“What do you want?” I growled, none too graciously.
I knew he had Giant blood in him somewhere down the line because he towered over me and would have to duck a bit if he ever made it past the doorway, but he was mostly of Dwarfish decent. That showed in his broad shoulders and muscular build, though he was a bit leaner than most Dwarves I had met.
A hint of danger flashed through his smile and was gone just as fast, but I eyed him warily. Clearly, he was angry about my orders to Cahir, which were never to allow him entry into the house, and probably the fact that he’d been outside for longer than he wanted to be.
“Etti, so good to see you again too,” he replied sweetly. “Your hospitality still seems to be lacking in the extreme.”
“Only to you.”
His smile froze and then slowly dropped. Apparently Cahir had wasted enough of his time that he didn’t feel like going into the act any further.
“Listen, we have to talk.”
“I don’t, but apparently you have something you want to say.”
There was a long silence between us as we starred each other down, each showing our own level of annoyance with the other. Finally, he sighed in exasperation.
“Are you going to invite me in?”
“Etti, I’m serious. I have to talk to you. It’s urgent.”
“So spit it out.”
“Not out here.”
“Then it’s not that urgent.”
“Etti,” he growled, annoyance level rising in his eyes. “It’s a matter of delicacy. I can’t just start talking about it out here on your doorstep. We need some privacy.”
I gave him my best ‘I could care less’ look and waited. He sighed in exasperation.
“Fine. Look, I need your help.”
“I need you to act as a liaison.”
That caught me and I blinked a couple times in confusion.
“A liaison for what?”
He sighed, suddenly dropping his gaze and refusing to meet my eyes for the first time. That didn’t bode well. Then he took a deep breath.
“Between the Duke of Yetts and... King Malyon.”
I shut Cahir in his face. I’m sure if Cahir hadn’t been soundproof that I would have heard all the reasons that I should open my Door again and probably quite a few unpleasant names called in reference to myself. But that’s the beauty of soundproofing. I petted Cahir like I would a cat.
“Thank you, Cahir. You did a good job. Don’t let him in, okay?”
“Yes, Mistress!” purred my Door happily.
I wandered back to the kitchen and retrieved my abandoned mug, filling it with my morning drug. I inhaled appreciatively and then added my creamer. As much as I loved the smell of coffee, I just couldn’t stand the stuff straight.
I took my seat at the breakfast table and sipped at my coffee, enjoying the sensation of my body slowly beginning to wake up as the drink hit my system. Then I realized something was missing. Looking around the kitchen more closely, my eyes finally landed on Lolani, who was dishing out the waffles.
“Hey, where’s Hewney?”
Lolani paused in thought, cocking her head to the side in a very bird-like fashion.
“Hmm. Well I sent him out to the human store first thing this morning, but that was a while ago. He should be back soon I would think.”
I settled back down into my seat for a moment, hands wrapped around my mug and my first smile of the day beginning to form on my lips. I took another sip of coffee, closing my eyes to enjoy it.
Then the thought hit me like a lightning bolt, destroying the moment. My eyes flew open in alarm and my mug hit the table with a bang, making Lolani jump and nearly drop the plate of waffles and bacon she was bringing to the table.
“M-Mistress?” she asked in alarm, eyes wide as I jumped up and looked in the direction of the Door.
“He wouldn’t,” I said in a low voice, not wanting to believe that I would have to deal with a hostage situation this early in the morning.
“He would,” said Itzel quietly, knowing where my thoughts were.
I knew he would if he was desperate. Damn him!
With dread growing in my stomach, I slowly moved to the Door. Pausing behind it, I took a deep breath and slowly let it out.
“Cahir, does he have Hewney, by chance?”
The Door was silent for a long moment and then replied uncomfortably.
“Yes, Mistress. I didn’t know if I should tell you now or wait until he started making demands.”
With a sigh, I cracked my knuckles and slowly opened the Door enough to see Aaron’s hulking form still standing there, but now holding Hewney under one arm. Hewney saw me immediately.
“Mistress! I’m so sorry!” he wailed.
His silver-blue hair was disheveled from the struggle I assume he’d attempted. The whites of his eyes were actually blue and the irises were white, the opposite of what a human’s would be, and were filled with tears. He stood no more than five feet tall and looked very much like a human child, even though he was actually a Salamander.
“It’s not your fault, Hewney,” I said with a sigh.
My gaze flicked up to Aaron’s expectant face and I scowled.
“Let me come in and talk with you and you can have him back. No harm done.”
“Letting you past the Door is harm enough,” I growled.
Aaron waited, not saying anything. He knew I couldn’t leave Hewney out here forever and that the only way Hewney would make it back inside was if the MAGI was allowed in as well. Aaron looked down at me, a slightly superior look on his face. I shot him an ugly scowl.
Then with one more glance at Hewney, I relented. It wasn’t the Salamander’s fault that the brute had chosen this morning to insist on a house call. Slowly, I pulled back, bringing the Door with me, and let Aaron in.
As soon as the MAGI was safely inside and the Door closed behind him, he set Hewney down. The Salamander immediately ran to me, crying full out now, and nearly knocked me over with the force of his hug.
“I’m so sorry, Mistress!”
I smoothed his hair down, smiling a bit at the top of his head as he wailed into my shirt.
“It’s alright, Hew. It wasn’t your fault.”
He looked up at me, tears only threatening now, and sniffing loudly.
“Really. Now, go help Lolani. I think breakfast is ready.”
The Salamander detached himself from my waist, wiping his eyes on his sleeve, and nodded, before running back to the kitchen. I waited until he was gone and it was just Aaron, Itzel, and me. Then I looked at Aaron. I thought about saying something vaguely civil, but I hadn’t had a full mug of coffee yet and he was the one who was preventing that. So instead, I chose to ignore his presence for the time being and followed Hewney to the kitchen.
Aaron followed and I reclaimed my seat and picked up my mug once more, closing my eyes as I sipped. The kitchen was quiet. I knew they weren’t sure if they should talk to the MAGI or not since their Mistress was clearly ignoring him, but finally Lolani, being the friendly bird that she is, broke the silence.
“Why don’t you join us, Mr. MAGI?”
“Thank you,” said Aaron, pulling out one of the chairs and sitting.
I cracked an eye open just enough to see and schooled my face to keep from smiling. The giant Dwarf cut a strange picture indeed, sitting in a human sized chair in his perfect suit, legs scrunched up under the table and the seat clearly not big enough for him. Then again, perhaps he was used to such uncomfortable chairs since he had grown up with his family, who were of course Dwarves, and would have Dwarf-sized furniture. Or maybe they had larger furniture since they had Giant blood in them and knew some of their offspring might show signs of it?
Closing my eye again, I took another sip from my still-steaming mug. I could hear Lolani and Hewney begin eating but Aaron was starring at me. Hearing him take a breath to speak, I held up a hand to stop him.
“No. Not before I finish my coffee. Since you’re clearly intent on ruining my day, you will at least let me enjoy this one little pleasure before you spoil everything else.”
I opened one eye to look at him and found him watching me, mouth firmly shut. With a nod, I closed my eye again and went back to ignoring him as I drank my coffee as slowly as possible. Lolani and Hewney continued eating in the uncomfortable silence. We all knew I was stalling, but I didn’t care. He was the one who had barged in and I refused to feel even remotely guilty about making him wait.
He knew perfectly well that I was going to continue to refuse to help. There was no way I would ever go back to the Elven Kingdoms as long as King Malyon’s family ruled. It would never happen. Never.
As I slowly drained the last of my coffee, I gently set the mug down and opened my eyes, looking over at the Bird and the Salamander. They were both watching me, eyes begging to be gone. I sighed and waved a shooing hand at them. Gratefully, they both dumped their dishes in the sink and darted out of the room. Leaning back in my chair, I looked over at Aaron.
“You have to help me, Etti.”
“I don’t have to do anything, Aaron, and it will be my dead body that you drag back to be liaison between those two. There is nothing you can say to change my mind about that.”
The MAGI leaned forward over the table so that he was looming again and I glared up at him, crossing my arms defiantly.
“Really? Nothing at all?”
I didn’t like the superior tone of his voice and my glare darkened as I sat up a little straighter.
He smiled and crossed his arms on the table in front of him, nodding thoughtfully.
“Interesting. What about, ‘you owe me’?”
Damn. He had me there.