I arrived at Wizards Are Us shortly after the cock’s first crow the next morning. After a long wait, the stout wooden door was unbolted. Soon I was soon tapping my fingers on the arm of one of the comfy couches, listening to the vacant-headed receptionist chomp away. An even longer wait ensued until finally Mitzi popped out, accompanied by an even shorter gal with close-cropped black hair and large brown eyes. Despite a stern gaze that tightened her features into sharp points, she was quite pretty.
“Sir Roger, I’d like you to meet Rosa, your new wizard assistant.”
My jaw nearly unhinged as Rosa abruptly stuck her hand out. It was only then that I noticed her robe, which reached only to mid-thigh, was indeed embroidered with stars and half-moons and other wizardly symbols. I took her hand reluctantly, and she squeezed it with an impressive grip.
Pleased to meet you, Sir Roger.”
“Bu… bu… but you’re a gal! Gals are supposed to be witches!”
She frowned, anger sparking her eyes, and jammed her fists against her hips.
“No man’s going to saddle me with a broomstick or put me behind a cauldron! I can do a wizard’s job as well as any man!”
The venom in her voice shoved me back a step or two as my hands flew up of their own accord to ward her off.
“Hey, I’m sorry. I never met a female wizard before.”
“Well,” said Mitzi smoothly, “I’m glad to see you two are getting along so well.” As she placed a hand on both of our backs, gently ushering us towards the door, she said, “Rosa, make sure you check in when your job is done so we can get you a new assignment. Sir Roger, I’m sure you’ll be quite pleased with Rosa’s work and I hope you’ll choose Wizards Are Us for any future needs that arise. Goodbye!” And with that, the door shut firmly, leaving the two of us alone together on the landing above the rickety stairs.
“So mister big shot mercenary, who’s this princess wench I’m supposed to help you find?”
I cocked an eyebrow at her language.
“Sorry,” she said, “my mouth sometimes gets carried away. Let me rephrase that. Won’t you please inform me about the princess I have been hired to help you save from some fate worse than death?” The sarcasm in her voice dripped thicker than molasses.
Sighing, I pulled out the oil portrait of my mysterious princess from within one of the deep pockets inside my tastefully gold-inlaid cloak. Rosa yanked it from my hand to study it.
“Well, she’s certainly ugly enough to be a princess.”
“Ugly? Are you nuts?”
“What! You think she’s good looking? Her nose is crooked, her eyes offset, her hairstyle a century old. Where do you men get such strange ideas?”
“Well, I, uh, that is…”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah. Typical male. Can’t defend yourself when faced with the facts. But if we’re gonna get anywhere, you’d better tell me all you know about this wench.”
I took a deep breath and slowly uncurled my fists before relating to Rosa what little the boss had mentioned to me prior to his demise, including his unfinished warning.
As I finished, Rosa let out a big sigh. “Princess Lalena, huh? Well, from what I’ve heard, I suppose you may have a point about her attractiveness. Still, there are rumors about her…” Rosa’s voice trailed off ominously.
I was about to ask her what she meant when a furtive flicker across the street caught my eye. Distracted, I missed what Rosa said next but I did indeed spot a heavily cowled figure hiding behind a column across the street. It seemed to be staring at me. What is it with me and all these heavily cowled figures?
“Sir Roger, did you hear me?” said Rosa, disturbing my thoughts. “Can I go ahead with the spell?”
“Uh, oh, uh, yeah, sure, whatever.” What spell was she talking about? I returned my attention to the heavily cowled figure, who was striding rapidly down the street towards us.
I’m still not exactly certain what happened next and in what order, but here’s my best approximation: Rosa uttered something arcane that sounded like a cat with its tail being cut off. A weird glow surrounded us and everything but Rosa and myself grew hazy. I remember a loud whoop and the cloaked figure racing toward us with a long dagger raised in one hand. The hood fell back and for a brief instant before everything disappeared I glimpsed the face of our attacker. She looked very familiar but ephemeral. Then all faded…