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Wisteria in the Falling Snow

by Kevin Turner

She was only barely five feet tall. I don't think she grew an inch in the entire time I knew her. No one would ever say she was svelte, either; nor would most in any way agree she was comely. Of course, height and weight had very little to do with our relationship, but they always mattered to her. I guess she felt like she had something to prove since she wasn't everyone's definition of beauty.

What it did was to make her mad. By no means was this her only defining characteristic. Far from it, she was intelligent as well, funnelling that anger into something viable.

Of course, this is all my armchair psychology. But even a blind man could have told you that she had a chip on her shoulder whose size would rival a local lord's keep. I know all of this and a lot more: she was my partner for eight years.

The last time I saw her, she was exercising her greatest ability...

She was breathing heavily, her long black hair wet with sweat and snow. I could smell her, since she was so near, and it was divine. A little bit of exertion and a whole lot of her.

"I can't stand it anymore!" she cried. "There's nothing here! No action, no night life! I need the big city...I need to go to Murmonn."

There was a grunting sound, metal clashing. I felt her tense and move against me, deceptively fast, her leather creaking with the motion.

"This doesn't count as night life?" My breathing was coming in gasps and my right arm was aching furiously. With a yelp, I threw myself at the ground, just under a wild swing, rolling and coming up on my opponent's blind side. Before he could react, my sabre took him in the throat. He collapsed noisily.

What? Oh. You were thinking something else was going on here. Partners we were, but lovers we were not. Somehow, I had always gotten the feeling that physical contact between us would have been wrong. Not out of someone's imposed moral sense, mind you, but because she wouldn't welcome it. That was odd, since she was one of the most open and touchy-feely people I had ever met. The feeling remained, and at times even intensified into a positive wall that encompassed all our dealings. She was still my partner, though, and my friend.

She ducked left, catching her opponent's blade on her main-gauche and pushing it down and away. She turned and slashed heavily across his face with the rapier in her left hand. He shrieked in pain, trying desperately to free his sword from her parrying dagger before her next blow fell. Blood cascaded over his eyes, obscuring the sight of her rapier curving back from its backhand swipe to ram through him just below the sternum. More blood came out of his mouth as he toppled over, the lights going out in his eyes.

She spun, hungrily looking for more enemies, but there were none. There was fire in her black eyes, her vicious teeth showing in a snarl, her chest heaving in well-toned athletic breaths. Two locks of wet hair had fallen down into her face and she ignored them, burning with battle-lust. The only lust I was burning with was for her. She looked magnificent. The leather breastplate clung to her curves, the linen shirt hanging loosely from her arms. Leather gauntlets gripped her swords, and the soft leather boots came up to her knees. Her right ear was pierced in four places, in the manner of the high-seas buccaneers, the lowest with a dangling siver crescent moon. All that, with the wet, straight black hair and her magnificent curves, set me afire. Her breath steamed in the falling snow.

I swallowed hard. "None left, my dear."

"You sure? You look dangerous..." she smiled, wiping her rapier on the cloak of one of the fallen, and sheathing her blades.

"Around you, I'm always dangerous."

She snorted. "You're nowhere near enough for me."

"Try me."

"Not on your life."

"How about on yours?"

Her smile faded. There was a problem here, of course. She was tough-skinned, but extremely bitter about males. Her romantic life had not been the most picturesque, though I had envied the fools who she had ended up with: they had no idea of the treasure they toyed with. I felt blessed that she consented to be my partner, and I was constantly worried that my mere presence, coupled with my constant needling, would do irreparable harm to our relationship. I wondered if sometimes I didn't stray too close to her pain with my jesting.

"I wonder why we keep getting targeted for assassination attempts?" she mused. She was always very good at changing the subject when she thought I was getting carried away with my commentary. Except for that first time.

I was "in my cups," so to speak, at the Silver Goblet. I had just moved to Sonrasax, and had had little success as yet. Trying to make a name for yourself on your first trip to a larger city is difficult at best, and this wasn't "at best." The Silver Goblet was my refuge. Nestled in among comfortable buildings on Horn Boulevard, it wasn't a pub in the traditional sense. The Goblet was more on the intellectual side. Philosophers debated, touring drama troupes advertised for new members and occasionally performed there. Books lined the walls: mostly the journals and adventures of explorers and soldiers, interspersed with trophies and rare vintages. It was a classy place, populated by not a few mages, and occasionally uppity.

So I had become a regular, when I wasn't out hunting for work. I didn't do mercenary-type stuff, so I wasn't in high demand, especially with no reputation locally. I was more of a manhunter; I liked the detective work best. Don't get me wrong, fighting was fun, but the brain-work was much more interesting and satisfying.

It was a low point for me. I was renting rooms nearby, down on Harborline, and was running out of silver. Munyon, the proprietor of the Goblet and incidentally my landlord, was not known for his lenience with debtors. He worked hard to keep the riffraff out of his establishments, and debtors definitely counted on that score. I was on the verge of giving up and heading back to Greenleaf where I had come from, hoping to cash in once more on the reputation I had there, and attempt to recoup the losses I had incurred here. Greenleaf was only a couple of days hiking to the south, on the edge of the Restless Forest, and it wouldn't take long there to get more money and return to Sonrasax. All I had to do was track down one or two missing caravans and I'd be home free. Things like that happened often in the Restless Forest, hence its name. Things like paths and bridges just didn't stay for long there; like the forest really didn't like our human attempts at permanence. I had toyed with the idea of going on to Murmonn, the capital of the West, but I reasoned that if my reputation was inconsequential in a smaller city like Sonrasax, I would be no more than another fool in the biggest city in the world. Besides, I like to be somewhat known in general. I like to stroll through the streets and see people I know. It makes me feel wanted. Even if I did get lucky and develop some reputation in Murmonn, the place was so big that I would hardly make a ripple on that lake of life.

So I was drinking away the last of my silver on a warm autumn day, trying not to feel too depressed that I hadn't made it on my first try. I was wondering what the folks at home would say when they saw me many jibes would I have to tolerate? I was sitting at a table for four next to one of the place's two windows, getting some fresh air and avoiding the other regulars. I certainly didn't want to tell this elitist mob that I was leaving.

Alone at a table for four, now that was just my style. I looked up from my dark musings of failure to find someone standing next to my table. Obviously female by curvature and dress, she basically was at my eye level while I was seated.

"You waiting for a carriage, or what?" I asked, eager to be alone. "The carriage drop is two doors down at the Red Bear Inn."

She said nothing, but still stood where she was, seeming to calculate the situation and not liking the answer she came up with. I squinted. She had very pointy and long ears. A wide-brimmed black felt hat was over her long black hair at a jaunty angle, covering her left ear and displaying the silver rings hanging from her right one. A white linen shirt, laced at the throat, and a pair of black silk pantalons met at a wide leather belt, on which hung a rapier (shorter than the ones I normally encountered) and a curiously-hilted dagger. Her gauntleted hands rested on her hips, which were well-rounded and brought to mind images of hunger. Still she said nothing while I was busy drinking her in. She smelled faintly of blossoming wisteria.

"Ah," I said, "I see they still don't speak a civilized tongue in the Southern Lands." I took a long pull on my ale and leaned my chair back against the wall. It was a sweet, creamy ale, flavored with raspberries, and I was going to miss it when I left. Munyon brewed it himself.

Her eyes narrowed and finally she spoke: "I was going to say that I thought it customary to treat a lady chivalrously, but I think I'll amend that to, 'You're rude.'" Her voice was a sensual growl, full and throaty, supreme with confidence; offering a lot of superiority and the promise of many things unspoken and unguessed. I stood, bowed to her, and took her hand.

"A thousand pardons, my dear. I had no idea you had intelligence and culture to match your beauty. Won't you please join me?"

She didn't move for a moment, but tilted her head sideways to consider me. Then she laughed and dropped my hand, heading for a seat. She moved with grace, loping easily as if she had more energy than was plainly visible, but kept in calm focus. She sat next to me, also with her back against the wall, and took in the breeze that blew from the opposite side of the room and out the window between us.

"So what brings you to Sonrasax, my dear? And more importantly to my table? Looking for adventure? Romance? Quick money?" I shot her a hopeful look, praying that my job fortunes were about to change for the better.

"I came here to learn, to teach, to become a part of life. I found the bottom of my coin purse and a village pretending to be a city instead."

"What, then, leads you to me?""I've seen you here for two months. You talk to many, but stay with none. Your business I'm not exactly sure of, but it's conducted with privacy and minimal bloodshed, else Munyon would never rent you space. Mages speak of you deferentially. I thought, perhaps, I could be of some assistance. I'm good in a fight, and my detective work is not all that bad."

I was astonished. I had no idea of any of this, least of all that someone had been tracking me. "I'll say your detective work isn't bad. Yeesh! What kind of underwear am I wearing?"

"Probably none...that's what I prefer."

"Oooh...I think I'm going to like you..." I said, leaning closer.

"Not that well, you won't," she replied, driving her left fist into my solar-plexus. I doubled over in a coughing fit and she smiled sweetly. That was unnerving, to say the least, since her teeth all looked razor-sharp, and there were an awful lot of them. Come to think of it, I suppose that's just what she wanted.

"I wonder why someone wants us dead?" she repeated, snapping me out of my reverie.

"It's not like we've done all that smokingly well. We live okay, and we've brought down our share of the bad guys, but I can't think of anyone or any organization we've ticked off badly enough to have death warrants."

She said nothing. Her ears perked and twitched, and she looked around as if sensing a cage closing in on her. "Let's move on," was all she said at last.

We made our way cautiously down the cobbled Gate Street (so named because it made a great U-shape and connected the only two gates the town had: on the northeast and southeast sides of the city), and turned west on Harborline. Our place was a second floor pad with a lovely view out the front window, overlooking the majority of Sonrasax harbor. It was a prime location for various reasons. Since Harborline was home to numerous inns, it was there we often found our quarry, awaiting passage outward. It also kept us in good standing with the harbor workers and shipmen. As a matter of fact, we had an unwritten agreement with them. We watched out for their interests and used our influence with the officials and merchants, and they kept us appraised of any new information and happenings they heard about, as well as the latest information that came into the harbor from other ports. It was a cozy arrangement, and had worked well for us.

I paused at the foot of the stairs that led to our rooms. "Perhaps it's time we finally dispensed with the two-bedroom arrangement and gave in to our animal passions." I waggled my eyebrows to accentuate the point and the joke.

"Now, now. Whatever would your parents say?" She looked as if she were about to say something else, but her ears began to twitch violently, and her nostrils flared as if she had caught the scent of danger. From long experience, I trusted her intuitions.

"What's wrong?" I asked, hand straying to the hilt of my sabre.

Her sword came out of its sheath just as I heard a monstrous twang! from across the street. I snapped around, pulling my sabre into a defensive position while scanning the street for the source of the noise. There. Upon the rooftop of the building across the street there was a small ballista mounted on a tripod; the whole set being hastily disassembled by a pair of black-robed people. They wore red scarves on the tops of their heads, doubling as masks. As they disappeared over the roof line, I heard, "The Eyes have it!"

I tensed to go charging after them, but she was pulling heavily on my cloak. The smell of snow was being overpowered by something sticky, and her wisteria scent. I turned to see what she was balking at, and had to catch her as she sank slowly to the ground. A three-foot-long, inch-thick wooden shaft protruded from her chest. Burned into the wood was the representation of an eye.

Her breathing came in labored gasps. I couldn't fight the tears and they showed in my voice. I lowered her gently to the ground, hearing the metal-shod point of the projectile scrape the cobbles.

"No, no, no," I mumbled. "You can't leave me." I brushed the wet hair away from her face, ran my fingers along her pointed ears, which no longer twitched.

"I don't think I have any choice in the matter," she panted.

I stroked the red fur of her muzzle, not believing what was happening. "I love you. You can't leave me. You're the best friend I've ever had."

Her eyes widened, clear and deep. "You never told me that."

"I was always afraid I would offend you. With how you feel about men, how was I supposed to know how you would react to me telling you I love you and that you're the most beautiful woman in the world?"

She began to cry weakly, but said nothing.

I kissed her as best I could, taking her gauntlet off so I could hold her furred and clawed hand.

"I'm not even human," she wept. "How can you think I'm beautiful?"

"Because I know you. I don't care that you're of lupine descent. You are beautiful and I love you. You're the only person I trust with my life. I love you."

The fire in her eyes was fading. "I wish you had told me..."

I retired after that. I hung her swords, crossed, over the mantle at the Silver Goblet. I got my ear pierced and wore her earrings as my own. I fell to scholarly pursuits, tracking down manuscripts and trophies for Munyon. We're friends and partners now, and someday I hope to add my lost love's story to the collection on the walls at the Silver Goblet. I hope I never dishonor her memory, after all she meant to me. She was a friend to whom I could trust my life, who never judged me, and was the most beautiful creature ever to walk the planet. I miss her.

I did try to find out a little more about the mysterious "Eye," but what I found led me to abandon all hope of revenge. Scuttlebutt was that they were a heavily connected criminal and spy ring that had some of the finest weapon makers and magic slingers in the business. There were also rumors that they didn't exist now...that they existed in the future and possessed chronomantic technology. I gave up when I heard all of this. After all, they had pursued us and killed the better fighter and more alert of the two of us. What chance did I stand alone? I still don't know why they wanted us out of the way, but it worked. She's gone, and I have my quieter and more scholarly pursuits to contemplate.

Most of the wintertime I spend in our old rooms on Harborline, sipping spiced cider and watching the snow fall. I leave the window open, because I always smell wisteria when it snows.

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Copyright 1999, Kevin Turner. All rights reserved. Used by permission.