As I made my way home, I stopped and grabbed some food for Slies and myself from work. The openers made no comment on my disheveled, exhausted appearance. They merely handed me my food and drinks, and nodded, not willing to engage me in conversation. It was good to see my usual resting bitch face was still enough to strike fear into the hearts of mere mortals.
I’d hit overload. My mind was empty and my body was floaty, as though I was made from nothing more than wisps of a cloud, breaking apart in the face of the rising sun. The drive through town was uneventful, and after I pulled into my parking spot I turned off the car and dropped my head back against the headrest.
Sleepiness made my limbs and eyelids heavy, and I had to yank the latter open before I fell asleep in my car. I grudgingly gathered my things, locked my car, and trudged to my apartment door. With my arms full, I toed my shoes off, and went to kick at the door to get Slies to open it. He opened the door before I could connect with it, and I lurched through the entrance as I met with no resistance.
He deftly side-stepped me as I caught myself just over the threshold before I wrecked myself.
“Oh, good, you brought food,” he said, and took everything from my hands before I could drop it. He took the food inside, leaving me standing near the entrance, empty-handed, blinking against the sleepiness trying to drag me under.
I grumbled something incoherent—even to myself—and grabbed my shoes from outside and put them on the mat just inside the door. I shuffled toward the kitchen and stopped like a deer caught in headlights.
Slies had been a busy boy.
Gone was my futon, replaced by some black leather monstrosity that took up almost the entire tiny room, the rest of which was occupied by a large-ish television screen.
“Um…” I prompted, and gestured languidly toward the living room.
Slies was busy digging in the paper bag and didn’t answer, but he’d heard me, as his ears curled in anticipation for more shrieking. In all honesty I didn’t have the energy, but there was something working its way from the back of my brain, trying to tell me to make an issue of this. I was just too tired to know why.
“So, did ya learn anything new?” he asked, and took a bite out of some kind of sausage breakfast sandwich.
My brain shifted gears at his words. “Yeah, it wasn’t Celinwel,” I said, and started shuffle-stepping toward the bedroom door.
Slies appeared in front of me, crumbs from the sandwich across his mouth, and I almost stepped on him. I jerked to a stop to keep from doing just that, as he finished chewing and swallowed.
His expression was more curious than shocked, as he tilted his head slightly to his right. “Whatcha mean she didn’t do it?”
I sighed, cast a weary glance at the couch, and headed over to sit down. I sank down into the buttery softness of the cushions, and though they were cool to the touch, they warmed immediately beneath my body heat. I groaned in pleasure and closed my eyes. Slies gave me a few moments, almost long enough for me to fall asleep, before he cleared his throat.
I cracked open one bleary eye. He was in front of me with one eyebrow raised and his arms crossed over his chest. At least he was fully clothed.
I went through the arduous process of recounting the night, from the time I got to work until Celinwel left. Nothing else was of note, really, other than Thea’s warning, which was more for me than anyone else.
“So she was in cahoots with the human, and some guy?” he asked, more to himself than me.
Still, I lolled my head forward in the laziest of nods. “Seems so,” I mumbled, my chin against my chest.
“No mention of who this mystery dude might be?”
“Mm, nope,” I said, making a little popping sound with my mouth with the letter ‘p’.
Slies harrumphed, and his footsteps moved away over the carpet. Next thing I knew a blanket was being thrown over me, and I mumbled some form of thanks before drifting off into blissful sleep.
I awoke with a major crick in my neck and back. The new couch was comfy, I’d just ended up in an odd position. The sun’s last rays of the day streamed in through the line of holes in the apartment blinds. How did I manage to be in a perfect position to have them right across my eyes, like some kind of blinding death ray from a B monster flick? It was just my usual luck.
Luck of the cursed, maybe, Rational Brain noted scathingly.
Coming over to see my side of things, eh? Going all superstitious and paranoid? Primal brain chortled.
In your dreams, Neanderthal.
“Finally up, then?” Slies’ voice cut through the brain chatter.
I groaned in response and sat up, my couch quilt lovingly sewn by my father’s crotchety old grandmother was tangled around my legs. It’d been a gift to my parents on their wedding day with the note; ‘Since your wife can barely keep your house clean, I assumed she doesn’t know how to sew.’ Unsurprisingly, my mother had jumped at the second chance to get it out of her house when I moved out for college. The first had been my brother, who had refused to take it with him.
“It might behoove you to know,” Slies began, and I turned to look over at him as he leaned against the counter, “that Gozuk had Celinwel captured, and the gnome king has stated that if his daughter is not returned within the next three—well, two now—hours, he’ll waste no time waging a war to end all wars,” Slies informed me, in a bored tone, picking at his nails with one of his daggers.
I blew out a sigh. “Well, that sucks for her.” It was difficult for me to sympathize with someone who recently tried to kill me.
He nodded. “Sure does. Of course, it sucks for you, too, because she was supposed to work tonight and you’ll be a person short. Well, I guess if she dies you’ll be short all her shifts. Combine that with being short for all of Stribs’ shifts, and you’re looking at one hell of a week. Probably two or three until you can hire someone else.” He stretched, dagger still in hand, but when his hands came back down to slip inside his pants pockets, the dagger was gone.
I spluttered. “You make it sound like I have a choice.”
Slies smiled a particularly nasty smile that immediately sent a cramp through my belly. I was not going to like this.
“Well, the gnome king has demanded your presence to help establish his daughter’s innocence, as per the conversation you overheard. However, you’re technically under goblin protection at the moment, so he can’t force you to appear without kidnapping you from under us. Gozuk won’t go out of his way to make sure you’re there because he hates Celinwel, and will use any excuse to put her head on a pike—literally.”
“But…” I prompted. I was too damn tired to try and figure out political machinations I couldn’t work my way through if I was awake, and fueled by enough caffeine to power a legion of people trying to get through a 24-hour gaming marathon.
“But,” he continued, not making me work too hard for it, bless his little green soul, “Gozuk never relayed anything about stopping you if you tried to show up on your own.”
“That sounds like a lot of work for someone I don’t particularly like, and who doesn’t like me in return,” I said, weighing which would cause me more work in the long-run.
Ugh, why can’t people just not get themselves killed and have their murderous, yet innocent, girlfriends get captured by goblin kings, Primal Brain muttered.
Do you even comprehend what you’re thinking when you think it? Rational Brain asked.
“True, but she can break down a grill like nobody’s business,” Slies pointed out.
“Fair enough,” I grumbled, and threw the blanket off my legs. I checked the time, and of course I had four-ish hours before I had to be to work. By my estimation—utilizing my limited knowledge of how gnome-goblin hostage situations function—I had enough time to try and save Celinwel. Unfortunately.
I looked down at my work clothes and wrinkled my nose.
“Yeah, these things aren’t formal affairs, but that probably isn’t appropriate,” Slies said, while regarding the grease stains on my shirt and pants.
“Fine, I guess I’ll change, but I don’t have anything more formal than jeans,” I warned.
“Jeans will do,” Slies said.
I grumbled as I stood up, and then I shuffled into the bathroom to get ready for something I was going to regret.
About forty minutes later we were back at The Salty Wench. Slies explained it was the closest thing to neutral ground they had, since Dymas would summarily kill anyone who harmed anyone else under his roof. It was an ancient custom to give protection to those who eat and drink in your home, and Dymas considered The Wench as such. He didn’t care about any of us, one way or the other, he just didn’t want rampaging supernaturals destroying all he worked for. Having neutral ground for the various factions to meet on was Dymas’ compromise to paying property taxes. Apparently, even supernaturals weren’t immune to bureaucracy. Go figure.
Krot was nowhere to be seen, and instead a grumpy goblin guard paired with an equally grumpy gnome guard opened the door and let us in. Both were in run-of-the-mill, medieval, ‘we’re going on a castle raid’ armor. Nothing was visible on them except dark eyes and an air of irritation that wafted off them like stink from garbage.
The door closed behind us, leaving us in the semi-dark of the entry hall.
“For meetings such as this, the kings tend to revert to the old ways, no matter how modern they might be otherwise,” Slies said, not bothering to keep his voice low.
“Just like a goblin to mock tradition,” said a voice in a scornful tone from the main room.
“And just like a gnome to cling to them so fiercely he’d let his own daughter die,” Slies said, and angry silence followed. “Granted,” he continued, apparently unable to help himself, “she is a raging bitch.”
There was a scuffling form the other room, and raised, angry voices all talking over one another. When I looked down at Slies, he had a half smile on his lips, immensely pleased with himself.
“If you get me killed because of your smart mouth, I’ll haunt you,” I said, deadpan.
“You couldn’t haunt your way out of a wet paper bag, let alone enough to make me miserable,” he paused, and chuckled, “but I’ll do my best.”
Hardly reassuring, Rational Brain said.
I simply scowled at him.
He made his way into the main room, and when I was able to take in the whole of it, it looked like an episode of West Side Story meets World of Warcraft. Dymas was sitting on the other side of the bar. He must have grabbed a stool from somewhere, because his feet were propped up on the bar, and he was filing his already wickedly sharp claws.
Not so subtle threat display, Primal Brain noted.
Both sides were a grumbling, seething mass of fury, and all that was missing was a wrestling ring and an easily distracted referee so one king could murder the other and walk away with their hands clean. I recognized the other goblins from when I’d been summoned to view Stribs’ corpse, though only one of them was focused more on his fellow goblins than the gnomes. Zeec, I think his name was, the healer. His interest was more on Gozuk, and even at a distance, I could see his right eye twitch.
Given the situation, though, his wonky behavior wasn’t what drew my attention. The gnomes were what grabbed that.
Where the goblins were more mafia, the gnomes came off more like the scum of Wall Street. Book smarts versus street smarts. The kind of people that screwed old ladies out of their retirement. I’d like to say I could see the family resemblance between the king and Celinwel, but in all honesty all the gnomes looked alike. Did that make me racist (species-ist)? The biggest difference was the hair style: his was short and spiky, as well as growing out of his ears, and his nose was bulbous and took up most of his face.
My overall nervousness boiled down to the fact that I was surrounded by super-pissed short beings who could slice and dice me with their copious number of blades before I could blink an eye. My only option, as we’d discussed on the way over, was to let Slies be my representative.
Oh, how the not-so-mighty have fallen. I’d gone from hoping I’d make it out of this alive, albeit slightly maimed, to hoping for a quick death instead of evisceration—given the average height of those who wished for said death.
“Slies, why are you here?” Gozuk asked, his voice like the rumbling of the earth before it swallowed you whole.
Slies made a low, scraping bow, with one hand across his mid-section, and the other with his palm forward and away from his body. “Simply following protocol. Holly decided to attend the meeting, and, as her duly appointed—by you—protector, I simply came along for the ride,” he said, maintaining his position.
Gozuk’s eyebrows were low and knotted over eyes that never wavered from Slies, whose head remained tilted down along with his gaze. His long ears curled, and the green of the tips deepened, which I guessed was the equivalent of human ears reddening. His mouth was a thin, compressed line, and his nostrils flared.
“It’s a little more self-serving than that,” I said, diverting the goblin king’s angry stare before he set Slies on fire from its intensity. My stomach churned as I came under scrutiny, and I did my best not to cower.
“Oh, yeah?” he asked, at the same time the gnome king said, “Typical Ord.”
Despite my desire to remain among the living, my head snapped over to meet the eyes of the gnome king. “Call me Ord again, short stack, and I’ll bury you in a hole so deep, even your earth-dwelling subjects can’t hear you scream,” I growled.
He titled his head back, and looked down his nose at me, which was impressive under the circumstances. His mouth curled on one side, and his lower lip was pushed up, curving his mouth downward.
“So keep your slurs to yourself, and maybe I can help keep your daughter from dying so we don’t have to train a new hire,” I said, spitting the words at him like a hissing cat.
His eyes narrowed, and though he didn’t nod, he simply turned back to Gozuk, ignoring me. Which was fine, considering my legs had turned to jelly and I was ready to vomit.
“You would protect such a crass creature, Gozuk,” the gnome king said, his eyebrows lifted slightly with disdain, and eyes relaxed and filled with contempt.
“Who I choose to protect is my business, Dakwor.”
Dakwor looked me over from the corner of his eye. “Yes, and her manners suggest she’s just as illegitimate as your business.”
Before my head could explode from the sudden surge in blood pressure and rage I experienced, Slies laughed.
“If you want to talk illegitimate, I have hard-proof of your daughter’s misadventures into the unlicensed pharmaceutical business, which she dragged a few of your cronies into,” Slies said.
The gnome king flushed and his eyes narrowed, but he regained his composure quickly and threw his shoulders back.
“My daughter simply wanted to try her hand at entrepreneurship before settling down to the family business. Where’s my daughter, Gozuk? Or have you already dispatched of her, and are ready to agree on the terms of engagement?” he asked, his fists clenching and unclenching at his side.
I’m assuming they’re not talking about the marriage type of engagement, Primal Brain said.
They’re talking about war, Rational Brain said, tone grave. While I don’t value most humans very highly, this wouldn’t bode well for the ones we actually like.
Not to mention we might lose our job. I mean, two dead employees in just about as many days as we’ve worked there doesn’t look too good, Primal Brain noted.
That too, Rational Brain agreed.
Considering they were rarely in agreement, we were up shit creek without a paddle.
“The little wench is no more dead than your pitiful soul, Dakwor,” Gozuk said, and held his hand up in a lazy, couldn’t give a shit if you paid me, gesture.
The comment didn’t appear to reassure Dakwor, which let me know just how much Dakwor thought of his soul and what he knew of his daughter’s behavior.
The crowd of goblins parted like the green sea, and from their center they dragged a squirming bundle of pissed off Celinwel. Rope bound her entire lower body, except her feet, and her mouth was covered with run-of-the-mill silver duct tape, which would not be a fun experience pulling off later.
When her eyes landed on me, she started trying to yell behind the tape and wriggle toward me. Odds were even between her trying to kill me again and cursing me to the deepest pit of hell, or if she was asking for help. Considering her constant state of nastiness toward me, she’d probably kill me even if it spited her and she wound up dead as a result.
“I want my daughter released, now,” Dakwor growled, and he bared his teeth in a feral snarl. His minions behind him rustled like an angry wind, making their metal armor rattle and leather armor creak.
“Of course, there’s just the matter of clearing up her killing my son, and you can all be off back to your little holes in the ground,” Gozuk said, unconcerned by the angry mob of gnomes.
Slies nudged me, and I started, as I’d been focused on the back and forth between the kings.
“Uh, I’m pretty sure she didn’t kill him,” I said.
Gozuk’s head turned slowly to me, and he did not look happy at my interruption. Dakwor and Celinwel scowled, but I think that was simply because they both hated me.
I held my hands out in front of me. “Don’t get me wrong,” I continued, “she definitely had a plan to do so, but someone else got to him first.”
“Who?” Gozuk asked.
“I don’t know,” I admitted.
“See? You’ve got nothing but an overheard conversation, and—“
“Actually,” Dymas interrupted, and everyone in the room froze, having forgotten where they were, “I can confirm that Celinwel came to The Salty Wench during the time Stribs was murdered, because I distinctly remember kicking her out. She was peddling her, ‘entrepreneurship’, and that will not be tolerated at The Wench.”
Gozuk clenched his jaw. “Why didn’t you say anything earlier?”
Dymas shrugged. “You didn’t ask, but I won’t have undue violence unleashed in The Wench, no matter how much the receiver of such a punishment may deserve it,” he finished, and stared Celinwel down.
If she could have sunk through the floor, she probably would have done so, if only to avoid such a stare.
“Also,” he said, and looked at me, “the human may not have much in the way of manners, but she’s telling the truth. Or at least as much of it as she knows. There’s another in the room who knew the truth, and I can smell their fear as surely as rain falls from the sky in winter.”
“Who?” Gozuk and Dakwor asked.
Dymas smiled and enigmatic smile. “Remove the tape from Celinwel’s mouth, and she might just be willing to tell you, if only to save her own skin. The selfishness of a continued existence at the expense of another’s life is an easy choice for someone of her moral caliber.”
Gozuk swung a narrowed gaze to Celinwel, and snapped his fingers. The goblin closest to her—Brikt, the one who looked like he ate gym equipment for breakfast—reached down to pull the tape from her mouth, but Zeec jumped forward and cold-cocked the other goblin. Zeec then pulled a knife from his belt, raised it in the air, and lunged for Gozuk.
Between one blink and the next, every goblin within reaching distance of Gozuk, plus Slies and Dymas—who had moved too fast for my human sight to follow—had the business end of a blade aimed for every vital spot imaginable on Zeec.
Zeec was breathing heavy, and his eyes were brimming with hate at Gozuk.
“Well, that answers that question,” Dymas purred.
“Why, Zeec?” Gozuk asked. Not in a disappointed tone, or one of puzzlement, sadness, or any other emotion. Gozuk might as well have asked him what he’d eaten for breakfast for all the care he had for the answer. Like when we ask a customer how their day is going; it’s nothing more than forced small talk. In all likelihood, he simply wanted to know what drove Zeec through his horrible decision making process, so he could avoid such a thing again.
“She said if we killed both of you, we could move in on some of the territory, and she’d share the profit with me. Not to mention, she liked me more than Stribs, anyhow,” he said, belief in his words permeating every word.
What a poor, pitiful fool. She used him like a convenient Kleenex, Rational Brain said.
“Zeec, you well and truly are an idiot,” Slies said, almost sadly, and pulled his blade back. He then motioned for a couple of the goblins to move forward, and they disarmed and bound him.
Slies sighed and watched the spectacle. “Healers are a bitch to replace, too.”
“I wish I could’ve offed that pissant, though. Always calling me low class and laughing at me, throwing rocks and getting people to beat me up. He deserved what he got; I just wish it would’ve been me that did him in,” Zeec said and glowered. “I wouldn’t have been as nice as them.”
“Get him out of my sight,” Gozuk said, fury as cold as the mountains in winter coating his words.
I moved aside as they hauled him past me, six of them carrying him on their shoulders like pallbearers with a casket, and he caught my eye.
“This is all your fault, you fuckin’ Ord.”
That was the last straw. I was tired, my life was being turned on its head because some dumb goblin went and got himself killed, and this all could have ended if I’d just kept my mouth shut and let Gozuk have Celinwel. So in a way, he was right, and that made me even madder.
I slapped him so hard I thought I’d broken my hand against his thicker-than-a-human’s jaw, and the sound managed to echo in a space it shouldn’t have been possible. It rocked the goblin’s head back, the piercings in his ear jangling at the sudden movement, and he cursed at me as the other goblins continued on their way as though nothing had happened.
Laughter bubbled behind me, and I turned to find Slies holding his midsection trying to not laugh while Dymas’ eyes danced with merriment. My hand throbbed, but I refused to acknowledge it, and give them the satisfaction of knowing just how useless the gesture had been. I was pretty sure it hurt me more than Zeec.
Idiot, Rational Brain said, exasperated.
Worth it, Primal Brain countered.
Shut up, both of you, I grumbled.