A Rock And A Hard Place Chapter 20
I glanced over the new designs and suppressed a sigh of boredom. Well, neither of them would be winning any awards for creativity or artistic skill, but they had new flags nonetheless.
“This is fine,” I said, setting the parchment back on the table. “You will each return to your own countries and order the destruction of all the old flags and begin having these produced and sent out. I will be checking in periodically, but unless there are problems, I don’t plan on having to show my face in either kingdom again.”
I leaned forward, looking at each of them darkly.
“Don’t make me show my face again. Hm?”
The smile I gave them was cold and dangerous. The Queen and Duke nodded in understanding.
I stood abruptly and walked out as I called over my shoulder.
“Aaron, we’re leaving.”
I heard the MAGI and Bird following me and I headed straight for Akata-Zan, who had been waiting and patiently watching. Stopping in front of the Great Dragon, I bowed.
“Mighty Akata-Zan, I thank you for your assistance today. Will you take us back to the House?”
‘Of course, little Nixie, and then my part will be complete.’
Akata-Zan extended his leg and let the three of us climb up, me in front followed by Aaron and then Lolani. I looked down to see my father standing at the tent line watching us.
“Father!” I called. “Come with us!”
He looked surprised and then gave me a sad smile, but he came forward nonetheless, and paused next to the Dragon.
“Are you sure?”
“Of course I’m sure. Come with me.”
He smiled again and started to climb up, but Akata-Zan shifted, stopping him. Then the Dragon looked over his shoulder at me as I gave him a confused look.
‘Are you sure you wish to bring him along, little Nixie?’
“He’s my father. Why wouldn’t I want him to come along?”
Akata-Zan looked at me a little closer but I didn’t shy away.
‘Are you sure, little Nixie?’
Now, normally when a Dragon asks you if you’re sure you want to do something, it should make you pause and rethink your actions. When you say you’re sure and he asks a second time, you really need to rethink your actions. The problem was, I couldn’t find anything wrong with what I was doing. That meant the Dragon knew something I didn’t and he wasn’t going to tell me what, even if I asked.
All I knew was that it had something to do with my father and taking him along was apparently a bad idea. But why? He was my father. What could be wrong with taking him along?
Then a thought occurred to me. Dragons didn’t abide dark hearted people and Akata-Zan had stopped my father from climbing on. So the real question became, was my father dark hearted or was there something dark in his heart? If the first, Akata-Zan would have simply refused to let him on. If the second, the Dragon would allow him to ride if I insisted.
“Yes, I’m sure, Mighty Akata-Zan.”
The Great Dragon’s head bowed just a bit in respect of my wish and he extended his leg to let my father up.
‘Very well, little Nixie.’
My father hesitated, looking up at the Dragon with a bit of fear, so I motioned him up.
“It’s alright. Come on.”
He hesitated only a moment longer before climbing up behind Lolani. Then we were off. We rode in silence, mostly because the strong wind made talking difficult. Personally, I was too lost in my own thoughts to make conversation.
We reached the House quickly enough and Hewney came running out to greet us. He nearly knocked Lolani and I off our feet and we both hugged him back as I laughed and the Bird grinned.
“Mistress! Lani! I’m so glad you’re both alright! I’ve been so worried.”
“We are happy to be back too,” I said, grinning down at the Salamander.
Hewney poked his head around to see my father climbing off his cousin.
“Mistress, who’s that?”
I pulled the Salamander toward my father as the Elf came forward with a friendly smile.
“Hewney, this is my father. Father, this is the Salamander, Hewney.”
My father put his hand out and Hewney shook it a bit shyly.
“Nice to meet you,” said the Elf as the Salamander watched him, wide eyed.
“Nice to meet you too,” was the quiet reply.
“Hew,” I said, getting the Salamander’s attention. “Will you show my father to one of the guest rooms? He’ll be staying with us for a while.”
“Of course, Mistress!” he chirped, happy to have something to do. “This way!”
He motioned my father toward the House and my father followed, a small smile playing on his lips. I watched them until they were inside and then turned to see Aaron watching me. I sighed and turned to Akata-Zan with a bow.
“Thank you once more for your help, Mighty Son of the Sky.”
The Dragon dipped his head.
‘It was my pleasure, little Nixie.’
He paused, looking at me as though debating with himself what exactly he wanted to say next.
‘Watch yourself, little one.’
“I will, Akata-Zan.”
With one final look while we moved away, the great Dragon spread his wings and launched into the sky, disappearing as quickly as he had come before, with a great crash of thunder and a flash of lightning.
Aaron gave a low whistle.
“Was his entrance as impressive as his exit?”
“More so. There were lights and chanting and whatnot for that,” I shot back with a grin.
He nodded ruefully.
“Too bad I missed it.”
Then he looked over at me, face deadly serious.
“Etti, we need to talk.”
I sighed heavily.
“I know, I know. Come on. We’ll talk in my rooms.”
I waved for him to follow and he quickly caught up to me and fell in step.
“Why in your rooms? Wouldn’t one of the Five Rooms be better for a private talk?”
I snorted, laughing just a bit.
“Because you think those would be better warded? They’re not. Actually the safest rooms in the House are my rooms. The Five Rooms are close runners up.”
He looked at me, confused, as we entered the House and led the way up the stairs.
“Why would your rooms be better warded than the Five?”
At that I laughed out loud and paused halfway up the staircase to look down at Aaron, which was an unusual spot to be in since he was already towering over me. There was still a grin on my lips as I responded.
“You never did meet my Master, did you?”
I laughed again and continued up the stairs and headed to my rooms.
“Well, he’s why these rooms are even safer than the Five.”
I paused at my bedroom door and looked back at Aaron to see he was still confused.
“Don’t worry about it. Just know that it’s true.”
The MAGI shrugged as I opened the door and led the way in, then closed it behind him. The back of the door had a beautiful rose pattern carved into it. Tapping a certain sequence of roses, I watched with my Nixie eyes and saw the effect for the first time instead of just feeling it. As the last rose was tapped, white light shot out from it, spreading across the walls and floor and ceiling and then it was gone, but the feeling of the Seals remained and I knew we couldn’t be heard now.
Turning back to Aaron, I saw him standing awkwardly behind me, clearly unsure where he was allowed to sit or stand and not quite sure what to do with himself. I suppressed a mischievous, and perhaps slightly evil, smirk at his very obvious discomfort and reminded myself not to be overly mean.
“Alright, Aaron,” I said as I moved around him and untied my outer robe. “What do we need to talk about?”
I glanced back to see him starring and raised an eyebrow at him. He cleared his throat nervously.
“W-What are you doing, Etti?”
“I’m changing. These are my rooms, after all, and I’ve just had a very busy day. I would like to relax. Now, what did we need to talk about?”
He starred at me a moment longer and I rolled my eyes, hiding an evil grin. Success. Now, remember, don’t be too mean.
“Aaron, I’m not going to strip in front of you,” I said, letting impatience creep into my tone. “That look you got while we were at the palace was a fluke. Believe me, that won’t be happening again if I have any say in the matter.”
That seemed to snap him out of his dumbfoundedness and he shook his head.
“Right, speaking of the palace, that’s one of the things that’s bothering me. What became of the assassin?”
I hung my outer robe back up in it’s place and sighed.
“I don’t know. Maybe since they came to an agreement there’s no reason to come after me anymore. I mean, why else would an assassin be coming after a liaison?”
“I don’t know either, Etti, but it’s bothering me. I feel like it’s not over yet.”
“Then I’ll just be on my guard when I leave the House,” I replied, heading to the bathroom. “He can’t possibly touch me in my own House.”
I started the water running in the tub, feeling the need to simply relax and not move for a few hours.
“I don’t know. I still have a bad feeling about it. You should be on your guard until things are settled with the assassin, regardless of where you are.”
With a sigh, I turned to look at him, now standing in the doorway between bathroom and bedroom.
“Aaron, I can’t constantly be on guard, watching my back. I have to sleep. I have to relax. I’m going to be vulnerable at some point and if he’s still after me, he’s going to strike the moment he gets the chance. There’s nothing I can do about that.”
“You can put wards on yourself. Protection spells. Any number of things.”
I sighed and crossed my arms.
“I have those, Aaron, and he still attacked me. Do you seriously believe adding a few more will make a difference?”
He opened his mouth to reply and then closed it with a sigh.
“I suppose not,” the MAGI admitted quietly. “I just don’t want you getting yourself killed.”
“Now, Aaron, if you’re not careful I might start thinking you don’t actually hate me.”
He didn’t pull a face or grin back. Instead, he looked at me solemnly for a moment and then replied softly.
“I told you before, Etti. I don’t hate you. I never have.”
The grin fell from my face and I turned away, suddenly the uncomfortable one in the room.
“Was there anything else besides the assassin? Paperwork you need me to fill out about the mission maybe?”
I heard him snort.
“No, I think I’ll fill all that out myself, if you don’t mind, but there are a few other things.”
I glanced over my shoulder, raising an eyebrow.
“What did you trade?”
My face fell again and I refused to turn around and look at him, busying myself pouring peppermint oil into the water. He waiting a moment and then came toward me, putting a hand on my shoulder and making me turn to face him.
“Etti, what did you trade?”
His voice wasn’t loud, but it was wary and urgent. I sighed, fixing my gaze in the middle of his chest so I didn’t have to meet his gaze.
“You won’t like it.”
“I don’t imagine I would. Tell me anyway.”
I bit my lip and then took a deep breath.
“I traded his help at a future date.”
“What do you mean?”
“Akata-Zan used his gift of prophesy to give me a warning about what’s coming in the future and to tell me that when it comes, he won’t help.”
“What was the prophesy?”
I sighed and repeated the verse.
“The dead will someday walk the land
Brought back by an evil hand
And when that day you will see
Do not think to call on me”
Aaron’s hands dropped from my shoulders as he starred down at me.
“Etti,” he said after a long moment. “How could you make such a trade?”
“Because I questioned him about it,” I snapped, glaring up at the MAGI. “Akata-Zan said that if I didn’t have his help today, it was very unlikely that I would succeed and even if I called on him when that day came, he still probably wouldn’t help. So it was a choice of making sure you and Lolani were safe today or gambling with your lives and maybe not having you here with me when such a horrible day comes.”
I paused, swallowing the lump that had formed in my throat. The thought of a day when the dead were brought back by evil was terrifying, but not having Lolani and yes, even Aaron, to call on wasn’t something I could deal with. Having to face that by myself wasn’t something I could do and I knew it.
Aaron was looking down at me with an expression I wasn’t sure how to read. It was sad and gentle and something else I couldn’t identify. Finally, he sighed.
“Alright. I don’t like it, but there’s nothing that can be done to change it now.”
“So glad you agree,” I replied, a little more snappily than I had intended. I softened my voice and expression before I continued, sorry that I had snapped. “So what else?”
He cleared his throat and glanced away from me.
“I hate to bring it up, but why did Akata-Zan hesitate to let your father ride?”
I bit my lip and checked the water level, adding more peppermint oil so that the whole room was permeated by it.
“I honestly don’t know. Akata-Zan wouldn’t say, but clearly there is something dark in my father’s heart. I’ve been away from him for so long that I don’t know what it could possibly be.”
“I can stay a while, if you want, to make sure he isn’t a danger to anyone in the House.”
I looked over my shoulder to see that the MAGI was being completely sincere and gave him a little smile.
“No, I don’t think I’ll find out anything if you stay.”
Turning off the water, I straightened and met his gaze.
“But thank you.”
“Two thank you’s in one day? Oh dear. The apocalypse must be near.”
I stuck my tongue out at him and tossed a towel at his head.
“Go on and get, you pest. I deserve some time to relax and I sure can’t do that while you’re here.”
I turned away and started undoing the front of my robe. Glancing behind me I grinned evilly to see Aaron quickly turning away, red to the ears and starting to close the door. He paused when the door was only a crack open.
“Was there something else?” I asked, throwing another look over my shoulder.
I saw him hesitate and then shake his head.
“No, nothing else. I’ll be going.”
“Safe trip,” I called as the door closed.
Letting my robe drop to the floor, I stepped into the steaming tub and listened to Aaron leaving. He paused and said something to someone out in the hall before I heard the bedroom door close behind him and then silence.
Sinking down into the hot water, I sighed in contentment and closed my eyes. Purposely, I marched through my mind, closing and locking all doors to unpleasant or work related thoughts. Right now, I needed a break and by gum I was going to have it.
Then I heard the bathroom door open and I frowned, opening my eyes to see who it was. I sucked in a breath of shock as my eyes widened, seeing a man in a tiger mask standing there, knifes in hand.
A/N: Didn't realize how long this chapter was compared with others until I was looking over it again. Lol. Hope you enjoyed! :)