The air in the Rogue and Quiver was warm and fragrant. Oil lanterns threw a flickering orange light across the walls, and the red coals in the hearth added their own hue. The men inside wore carefree faces as the bard sang his song, a bawdy and unflattering rendition of ‘Untar’s Demise’. The old man behind the bar was tending to a couple that had just arrived. It was a typical workaday evening in the port city of Dargon, winding down towards the last bell. No one noticed a solitary figure seated alone at a small table.
Wide hazel eyes stared unblinkingly at the door from inside the grey hood of a travel-stained cloak. The woman’s pale lips betrayed no emotion, and the narrow shoulders were held high and still. Her hands trembled, though, as they nervously caressed her nearly-empty cup of wine, the faceted jewels on her fingers sending showers of sparkles dancing across the walls. She didn’t bother looking at the others in the room, for she knew they could pay her no heed. Her thoughts were elsewhere, and elsewhen.
How many years has it been, she thought, since I sat in a tavern like I belonged there, and waited for someone to come in the door? And how many times have I tried it? In her mind she could see the faces of her doomed lovers. How young and beautiful they had been! Their voices echoed in her ears and the memory of their fragrance teased her nose. Like a familiar fingertip, a tremble raced down her chest and across her belly. How they had moved her at first, each and every one. How she had loved them, and how she had used them. Like candles burning brightly at dusk, they were ashes now after the long hours of evening.
She thought she had moved beyond this hunger, this need. This was far below her status; trolling in a human bar for a human mate: wrong class, wrong species. Hadn’t her work filled her? Hadn’t it satisfied her? For decades she had felt whole, complete, even healthy. But then came the message from that accursed man, that thorn in their collective side: Anarr. Of course she had to go; duty demanded it. And once in the city, her errand over, she felt …
But no, that wasn’t really it, either. Because this wasn’t just any bar. This wasn’t just any evening. Anarr had released her last night. By now she could have been halfway home, instead of sitting trembling on a crude stool with a poor wine in her mug, shaking like a moist and eager girl on the eve of her first wedding. No, she had chosen this bar, just as she always did, because she had seen someone, had met them, by chance, by accident, and now felt the hunger, a hunger for that person. And she knew that she would meet that person again, here, tonight.
What had been the first one’s name? She had barely known it, even as a young Eelail adept still bent under her master’s training. He had been bathing in the woods, and she had been gathering leaves for a poultice. She was shocked at how coarse he looked, nothing at all like her bland male siblings. He had been shocked to see her at all. She followed him secretly back to his camp, and watched him as he laughed with his companions. Their next meeting was no accident, and he never saw his friends again. Time and time again she told herself he had died happy, had died well. And didn’t she love him? Didn’t she love them all? And didn’t she mourn them all? How lonely she felt! How she needed them!
She should leave now, she knew. No one would notice, no one would care. Her own kind, hidden far away, would never know, and these dolts didn’t matter anyway. No one would be hurt, no one would be harmed, and she would go on, as she had for millenia before. The hunger would fade, worn away by the daily success of her chosen role, and her eternal life would go on. Yes, that was best. Time to go on. The Eelail drained the mug, set it down, and placed an ancient human coin on the table as payment.
Then the door opened, and the Eelail shivered. In walked men and women, all dressed in the Duke’s leathers. They were jostling each other and talking in subdued voices. It was only a matter of three heartbeats before that familiar scent reached her nose. Without hesitation the Eelail stood and walked toward the bar.
The wind that accompanied the patrol into the Rogue and Quiver was cool and wet. The dancing orange light from the inn’s oil lamps glinted off wet brass and leather.
“… have to get some sleep if we’re going to be out there again,” Westerly said. “It’ll be a long march, and we’ll be in a hurry once we get started.”
Cael nodded. “I’m just glad you had time for a drink with me while you’re in town, and doubly glad I’m not on watch tonight. Wouldn’t that just be our luck?” The barmaid had barely placed his beer on the table when Cael snatched it up and raised it high. “To Maylis!”
Westerly and the others raised their mugs and joined the toast. Westerly was halfway through his drink when he felt just the slightest touch at his elbow. Somehow that touch, as infinitesimal as it was, sent a chill across his whole body, and he trembled. Lowering his mug, he turned and looked down into the deepest hazel eyes he had ever seen. He was stunned, speechless.
“Excuse me,” the slight woman said, fingering her brooch. Westerly nodded wordlessly. She slipped past him and stepped up to the smallest of the patrol, a woman.
“Do I know you?” the newcomer asked, her voice as pure and beautiful as silver bells. “You look very familiar. Have we met?”
“Wh … why yes, I … I think we have,” the soldier replied. “My name is Jenna.” She smiled, amazed. “We must have. How could I ever have forgotten those beautiful eyes?” She leaned in closer, breathing in deeply, her own eyes growing wide with innocent wonder.
Khaytr Llethryll, the scourge of the Fretheod, blood-queen of Zinisj’birm Khat, Eelail mage and witness to the eons, smiled sweetly in return. “Why, you have beautiful eyes too,” she replied and softly touched her new love’s hand. “What happy fortune that we chanced to meet.”