In this scene I send my elven assassin, Taliesin, on a blind date with the female embodiment of every romcom heroine cliche one can think of.
With a force reserved for popping off troll heads, the kitchen airlock door slammed shut as a mopey elf dug through the cabinets looking for anything to wash away the past two hours. His fingers lingered upon a canister marked "Orn's Secret Stash! Do Not Open!" Tempting, but the handwriting looked dangerously official and he moved on.
"Nice shirt, kill someone fancy?"
Taliesin flipped around, a blot of uncategorized sauce falling onto his nice shirt staining the azure fabric. He didn't notice the Dwarf squatting at the back table when he entered the kitchen, or --sweet tree of life -- the captain sitting beside him, dropping some dice onto the table with the flick of her wrist. The elf was immersed in such a frazzled state he walked past two breathing organics without noting them. His old instructors would have his head for that. And for missing class for the past seventy four years.
"Meeting go badly?" Variel asked, casting one eye up from her game to the elf.
"What makes you ask?"
Her head tilted towards the door, but she didn't say more, letting her chips fall into a pile. It was Orn who took up the thread, "Thought you were gonna send that thing straight through the ship and onto the docking bay."
"Better than picking it up outside," Variel said.
"Yeah. You'd probably make me do it and I hate wearing those oxygen suits."
Taliesin sensed a chance for freedom as the captain and her pilot picked up their old bonding rituals, bickering like a pair of old enemies, unaware or uncaring about his plight. "If you will excuse me..." he said to the two butting heads as the door opened and the headwaters of his misery flounced in.
"You are back!" Brena shouted, clapping her adorned hands in joy, smudging up the notes she spent all day on, "How did it go?"
The elf glanced to the two aliens pretending they were absorbed in their game. "Now is not the best time."
"Did you enjoy her? Did she enjoy you? Will there be a second meeting?" Brena talked over him, lifting one of her brows in curiosity along with the edge of her mouth. Taliesin tried to wave for her to lower her voice but he was too late.
"'Second Meeting?' Oh ho," Orn said, turning away from his cards, "Does that mean our little elf boy here was..."
"On a date, yes," Taliesin sputtered, "And it was horrible, terrible, therefor not worth mentioning."
Orn lit up, the entire confusing game Variel probably made up tossed to the side, "Oh, that's where you're wrong. The only dates worth talking about are the terrible ones. Right Cap?"
She tried to bury a grin, not a cruel one, but the elf felt the looming hand of shame about to yank up upon his under things. There was no easy way to escape it short of jumping out a window, which would put him back on the station he just fled.
"Come on, lover boy, give us the details," Orn said, shoving the piles of cards away and patting the chair beside him.
Taliesin ignored it, preferring to keep himself upright and able to move around in the event the lights sputtered, or gravity failed, or a chest bursting alien broke on board and he could secure a quick escape. "I attended a first meeting, it did not end well."
Orn scoffed, but it was Brena who shook her head, "Brother, you can do much better than that."
Had she turned on him as well? Her eyes were linear, with nary a hint of cruelty in the edges; but a dark part of him suspected this entire night was some plan of her to conjure fodder for her stories. "Very well. Where shall I begin?"
"I try the beginning myself, starting at the end and flashing back is just lazy," Orn said, placing his boots up on the table and leaning back.
* * *
I was early, an unsurprising fact as I am always early. Puncturing the perimeter for holes, tracing all methods of tracking equipment, noting the armed and not as armed guards is like securing ones laces for assassins. Though we do that as well in case running is involved. It passed the time as I sat upon a plastic bench painted to mimic wood, yanking upon the buttoned shirt my sister insisted "was better than all that black stuff." Perhaps, but it also puckered in an unpleasant way and cut under the arms. The host, a human in a frightfully strange wig as if two small canines became amorous upon the top of his cranium, nodded his head towards me a few times. I knew I reeked of that special mixture of fear and loathing that only a blind first meeting can bring about.
A few couples entered the restaurant, that fish place off the dwarven made indigo lake with the fiberglass trout outside. All were Elven and all eyed up the hosts wig with the same fright I did upon entering. In the candlelight, it mimicked one of the deadly spore clouds on Cangen that could burst into face melting toxins at a moments notice. The human swelled under the elves attention.
As I returned to my meditations, plucking at the pearl buttons running across my chest, the door clanged open somehow knocking over a plant that had been nowhere near it. An elf entered and skittered across the dirt she spilled all over the floor. Her hands pinwheeled in disturbing arcs but she managed to catch herself.
Every cell in my body chimed in with, this is your date, the one Brena insisted was "So nice" and "Really funny" and "You'll love her." You have the fate of one destined for a life chasing after his trousers as the blow away in the breeze, Taliesin. The sooner you accept this fact, the easier the downslide will be.
Sure enough, once the plant killer regained her balance, she cast her eyes about the room scanning the happy couples in the throes of love and walked towards me, the only man who appeared about to gnaw his leg off for freedom. I cringed inwardly as she stood before me and asked, "Taliesin?"
There were no bandits, no pile of gnomes bursting into the restaurant, no tumbling chandelier or plume of smoke from a misplaced explosive, and the wig cloud didn't erupt. Typical, just when you want a bomb there's none to be found. I had no choice but to rise from my position and say, "Yes, I am Taliesin."
"I'm Ahmee," the woman said, pointing towards herself and tilting her head so the matted hair fell into her eyes. She batted at it as if she were a cat but did not put it up.
"No, Ah-mee. You have to stretch the me," the voice was strange, high-pitched the way one would coo at children or small animals. It caused my back teeth to shiver.
Her skin was spotted, not unheard of for Dulcens but not common place either, with puckers of white dotting amongst the tan and brown swirls. A strange mish mash of clothing covered her body, the skirt looking as if it hadn't been pressed in its very long life. The bodice, or top, or whatever had lace torn on the edges, probably from the trip through the restaurant's foliage.
"Damn it, get to the good stuff," Orn interrupted.
"What 'good stuff' would that be?"
"What'd she look like out of those clothes?"
Moving on past any interruptions, she stared at my body as if she were searching for hidden weapons -- of which I came equipped with three --
"You bring weapons on a date?" Orn interrupted again.
"You don't?" Variel asked, playfully poking her pilot in the shoulder.
He rubbed the spot and rolled his eyes, "No, but I don't get into shoot outs when I stroll into the barbers either."
"It was one time! One time! And I had nothing to do with someone filing a complaint about his lost eyebrows."
"Shall I end my tale now while you discuss the trip to the hair salon?" Taliesin asked, hoping they'd let him off the snare.
"Shutting up!" Orn said, zipping his mouth shut with his fingers.
"Wasn't even a very good haircut in the end. It was all lopsided from the stylists hands shaking," Variel muttered, dragging her fingers along the ends of her short hair.
The elf reached out and pulled upon my folded arm. Sighing, I let her take it, praying she did not accidentally sever it off at the elbow and we walked towards the human mushroom cloud.
"Do you have a reservation?"
I glanced behind his booth's curtains to the half empty tables and sighed, "Taliesin, Taliesin Kesahtnan."
The human drug his finger through the empty lists and asked, "Of the elven Kesahtnans?"
"No, of the Dwarven Kesahtnans." I patted my head and quipped, "I ate all my vegetables as a child to grow big and strong." Unthankfully, the human ignored my jibe at his small talk and did not throw us from the restaurant in a rage. Instead, he smiled politely and slotted a menu display under his arm. "Right this way."
After seating ourselves, I poked through the menu, trying to find something that hadn't been freeze dried and rehydrated three times over from the planet below. Army picked up her fork and began to play with it. My fingers inched for the bread plate to act as a shield in case something went wrong, but she set it down before stabbing her own eyes and asked, "Could you order for me?"
"I'm not very worldly in matters of fine cuisine," she answered, trying to blink something out of her eye.
"It is a fish shack orbiting above an ocean world. The only thing fine is what the health inspector would slap upon it if a Dwarf cared."
She leaned up to the floating menu pivoting in the middle of the table and pouted, "So many big words to describe the meal. I'm afraid I can't make most of them out. Like this one," she said, pointing a fuchsia claw at the zoomed in text.
"You don't know 'broiled?'"
"I'm a simple girl experiencing the wonders of this rich and famous lifestyle for the first time," she shrugged, trying to blink her eyelash off.
"Fine, yes," I sat back, flicking off the menu and signaling to the waiter. Her words made about as much sense as an Orc operetta but I didn't care. The sooner this meal was over, the sooner I could return to my room and away from this farce. The man assigned to serve to our whims tonight appeared, his head also decked in the mushroom toxin. Perhaps there was a hat sale earlier. "I'll have whatever wasn't deep fried two days ago and the...woman shall have the same."
"Two ice salads," the waiter shouted, pushing a few buttons, scooping up the menu, and scurrying back to the kitchen.
A candle popped up in the middle of the table and lit itself. Army tried to blink out whatever was jammed inside her eyelids while scratching an itch upon her lip with her teeth. The entire top row were already stained from whatever crimson dye she'd added to her lips. I leaned back in my chair, covering my eyes with my hands, and begging the seven seeds to save my soul now lest they be unable to later.
"Taliesin, what is it that you do?"
I dropped my hands and stared at her, "I'm an assassin."
"A what?!" she shrieked as if I'd thrown a glass of water upon her. "Killing is wrong. Terrible. I can't believe you would ever do that!"
"You do not know me?" I asked the air, afraid that in some other time dimension this strange and disturbing woman did know me. If so, I need to put other dimension Taliesin out of his misery.
"Killing should never ever be done. Ever!"
Yards of questions formed in my mind. Surely Brena told her my occupation. It isn't exactly a secret, it says as such in the family name. One of the family names. And working for the assassin's guild is an honored profession, sometimes gifted with too many accolades as many people tripped over themselves to keep the trained killer happy. But all I saw was an opportunity to weasel out of this date quickly.
"If you feel that way, then we should perhaps part ways..."
I began to rise, but her hand snapped on top of mine, and she tried to peer up through her eyelashes at me either in an attempt at being coy or to appear demonic. She failed at the first but achieved the latter so well my legs crumpled on their own. "I like that you kill people. It makes you bad."
"But only a moment ago you said killing is wrong."
"It is. Terrible and bad and no one should ever do it. Unless it's to save their one true love," she sighed heavily and leaned back, releasing my hand which felt sticky from her touch.
"Then why continue to associate with someone whose life's work is ending lives?" I asked, embracing the descent into madness.
She whispered, "Because it makes you a bad boy."
Ancestors, I thought, smacking the back of my head against the chair. Not this dreck again. I am friendly with old ladies, I will chat up inquisitive toddlers who wish to share half eaten snacks, and I have even helped lost animals find their way back home. The only marking upon my body is from a vaccination shot that went awry, and a scar from when my lartimus became inflamed and had to be removed. I am the furthest thing from the bad boy trope one could find before running into sainthood. I also happen to have built a career of assassinating bad people who fell outside the law and that work requires a certain uniform composed of more leather than the average person wears.
I shut my eyes, willing my self out of my body and to any other corner of the universe it could find. But a cold plate of wilted greens jarred me from the emptiness and my eyes opened to find Army gnawing so hard upon her lip a trickle of blood descended down her chin. I banished my eyes away from her face and poked into the limp lettuce, when her high voice called across the way.
"And I bet I can change you."
Orn's snort echoed through the kitchen as he jumped up to his feet. "I can change you, my big bad boy," he said in a high pitched voice, walking about on his tip toes as if he were in heels and swinging his arm wide. It was a pantomime of a womanhood that never existed but in the minds of men.
"But if she changes you, then you won't be bad anymore. So she wouldn't want you," Variel said, resting her fist against her face, "It's a dating paradox. Someone alert the Time and Space enforcers!"
Taliesin sighed and rolled his eyes to his sister. She'd been quiet, absorbing his words with the occasional shoulder tap of sympathy but there'd been no story tablet filling with sentences, no requests for a repeat of what he'd said. Maybe she really believed she'd been doing him good.
"Oh, I can't read the menu," Orn's voice pitched so high it was nearly into the range only dogs could hear, "can this big strapping man come save me from all those cruel letters?"
"But no killing them," Variel added, a very undignified smirk across her face.
"Right, because killing is wrong. Only bad boys kill," Orn continued, "Mmmm, bad boys."
"Do you intend to keep up this farce or shall I finish my story?"
"Holy shit, there's more?" Orn said, dropping his voice and arm back into normal range. "I assumed you'd killed her and fed the body through the fryer. Then offed any witnesses and were hiding from the long thorax of the law."
The Dwarf scurried back to his chair, pulling it closer to the elf, "Please, continue. This is getting good. Alloys, I wish I had some popcorn."
She insisted upon a stroll through the exotic gardens built on the station. Exotic is code for a handful of trees, some weeds, a few of those pom pom like flowers, and one thorian. Yes, I attempted every excuse imaginable to get out of it. Not even talk of a rampaging case of inner ear fungus could pry her away. I tried to fall a few steps behind her, hoping to find a break or at least a dark corner to blend into, but she kept stumbling into impossibly minute debris and she fell back beside me. Upon her third splat to the ground, as she clung to my arm while rising to her feet she shrugged, "I'm a wee bit clumsy."
I nodded as if she'd informed me she also couldn't breathe in the vacuum of space or hover freely in the air. Clumsy was, by a wide margin, an understatement. Her ability to discover the smallest misalignment in the sidewalk and turn that into near total limb collapse should be weaponized somehow.
"Do you like to read?" she asked suddenly, switching up the conversation of listing every one of her faults building in my mind.
"When I have the pleasure," I admitted. It'd been a busy few months on the killing people front and the light of a book did not blend well into shadows.
She clapped her hands, not once but thrice, as if she were trying to smash a few wayward insects Her eyes grew disturbingly large, even for an elf. I was momentarily afraid they might pop from their sockets and dangle about on the stalks. "Me too! I adore the works of Shalan."
"She is a classic for good reasons," I said, surprised to be sharing an intellectual moment with a woman who couldn't order a salad, "with an untouchable skill to delve into the elven condition and dance it upon a rhythmic scheme that many find impossible to master even into their tenth century."
Her awed eyes didn't waver for a moment, as if every word I spoke tumbled into a shallow pool and evaporated in the sun of ignorance. "You know the best ode of all?"
"I am partial to Malaceth myself. A bit on the ear given my profession, but the endless struggle of ones self upon what the path has set versus what one has inside the heart, what constitutes true evil, can we ever fight that which is predetermined is..." I trailed off as she hummed under her breath, ignoring my words. Sighing, I asked, "What is the best ode of all?"
"Eliose and Alabard," she clutched her gloved hands to her chest and breathed heavily, "It's so romantic."
I should have known. "A young adolescent seduced by her much older instructor who then fakes her own death to try and escape her father's attempts to free her from Alabard's grasp?"
"Star crossed lovers," she sighed again, "meant to be together forever. Meeting across time and space to save themselves for each other."
"You find a woman sent to an asylum for the havoc a half administered dose of poison wrought and a man castrated because of his crimes romantic?" my voice gurgled, as I slowed my steps terrified that her answer would be a giddy "yes," then the knives would come out.
She scrunched up her nose, her eyes slightly crossing -- which might explain her inability to not fall face first into every spec of dust crossing her path, "Is that how it ends? I never read the whole thing."
I wish I could say I screamed loudly at her, administered a long spiel about how the entire crux of a work cannot be altered due to ones ignorance, and how declaring a cautionary tale of keeping your children away from grooming predators something romantic is an abomination unto the good Bard's name. But the scream died in my throat, the threats and gargles morphing to little more than a resound sigh as she scampered off trying to chase after a floating light fixture that failed to adhere to the dead tree's brittle branches.
At least it gave me enough of a chance to mend something of a false smile onto my face to cover up the abject horror I'd scream into my room later; a bad move, as she coyly tried to blink off her eyelashes and waved her fingers at me. "I picked these for you," she said, holding out a pair of stems with white spikes emanating from the top.
"That's logweed," I said, keeping my hands firmly behind my back. Her smile didn't waver as she kept forcing them towards me. "It causes a terrible rash if touched and blindness if ingested." Still she held out the flowers, ignoring my words. "Please put them down," I begged, and she opened her hand, letting the weeds scatter to the ground.
I glanced towards the false sky, shifting from the reds of sunset into a creeping indigo night. The screen projecting the mock clouds of an atmosphere would part soon to reveal the real stars below. That would be the perfect escape excuse, escorting the girl home quickly lest she ram head first into some strangers and cause them serious harm.
As I returned my gaze back to the ground, internally I jumped back. In my revere, the girl snuck up before me until the scent of her salad stung my nose, her eyes wavering from joy and terror at nanosecond intervals. "I have a secret to confess."
Oh joy of joys. Why would I possibly care what was the secret of a person I prayed to every dead available ancestor that I'd never see again? If it were 'I've killed an entire family and you're next' I would not be surprised. If it involved her patting a bunny on the head and then licking it, I also would not be surprised. I looked away, hoping she'd keep the damn thing to herself, but she inched up onto her toes, trying to reach my ear. Her legs wobbled and instinctively I reached out to keep her from causing more damage to the garden.
Warm breath glanced across my face and she whispered, "I'm a virgin."
"You're a what?!" I dropped her arm, staggering back from the woman pinwheeling her hands to get a semblance of balance. "In what twisted universe is that proper first meeting conversation? How would...why would..." words fled from the site of me as second hand embarrassment filled in for them. But the girl felt no shame at all in her highly personal secret that I had in no way any intentions on altering for her.
She blinked those eyelids again and gnawed down upon her lip as if she were starving, before staring up into my terrified eyes and saying, "And I've never, you know, touched myself."
Taliesin paused in his story. "Go on, get it out."
A snort like a combustion engine turning over escaped from the captain's mouth. She tried to stuff it back in with her hand but was too late and a few giggles joined.
"Holy...I can't...oh my...breathing, so hard," Orn gasped, as he vibrated heavily upon his chair, trying to cram some words in between his laughter. He clapped a hand over his mouth and his shoulders trembled, trying to get his reaction under control.
Variel looked at him as he dropped his hand and rolled his head. Then he returned the gaze and, after a beat, guffaws returned that could knock down an Ogre. "I've never touched myself," Orn cried in his high pitched voice as very undignified giggles followed, "I need you to know I'm a virgin."
"Oh gods," Variel gasped, fighting to get breath into her body.
Taliesin looked to his sister who'd spent most of his story with her head down muttering "Oh dear" and "oh my" when appropriate. Even she had a hand over her mouth, trying to conceal the grin that eclipsed her fingers reach. "I'm so sorry," she said, a small laugh breaking up her sentence.
"No, you're not," the assassin grumbled, shaking his head.
"I'm sure as shit not," Orn responded, patting down his belly as the sugar boiled in it from all the excitement, "This is a gold mine with a hidden geode vein."
"Please," Variel said, the first to gain back control of her laughter, even as some danced around the edges of her eyes, "that was it, yes? After her confession, you ran for the airlock."
"Oh Taliesin," Brena said, the first true concern for her brother showing.
"I'm afraid it gets worse," he admitted.
"Worse?" Orn gasped, bouncing up in his chair, "How could it possibly get worse?"
After her secret sharing that I never needed to know and feared I'd wake in a sweat screaming about for weeks to come, there was only one logical answer; my voice rose about five octaves and chirped, "OhThat'sVeryNiceIDon'tReallyCarePleaseGoAwayNow!"
I backed up beside one of the heat vents, the steam for the hot house rising from the partially rusted grate in a hiss. She followed me, her eyes still blinking away as she shuffled back and forth on two feet like she needed to use the lavatories. You know those moments when you can predict almost every move your opponent is about to make and your brain counters before you're even conscious of it? The perfect chess board?
I knew she was going to stand up on those tottering toes of hers, I knew she was going to lift her hands for my ears, and I knew that still bleeding lower lip was coming for my face. So my brain offered up the only solution it could think of and my legs gave out of their own accord. I dropped straight down onto my back end, forcing her attempt to fondle touch only thin air. Unfortunately, my brain failed to compensate for the inept ability of her spine to keep her vertical.
She teetered around and fell face first into the heating vent. The rusting gate cracked from the weight and tumbled towards the lava hot furnace below. She'd have gone with, but I grabbed onto her shoes, her face smashing into the overheated metal and a sound of cracking bones reverberating through the garden.
"Call the medics!" I shouted to another couple wandering the grounds as I hauled the klutz back out of the heating vent.
I tossed her body to the ground and rolled her to the side to check for signs of life. Mostly her mousy hair bashed into the vent, singed to a crisp, but it protected her face from the brunt of second degree burns. The right arm dangled in a horrendous fashion, shattered at the elbow from the force and seeds know how many other breaks in her lifetime.
A familiar sound of the medic siren pierced the garden's breath, yellow and green lights beamed out into the stars. I turned back to Army and her eyes opened wide, the browns of the iris buried under a rise of allergy red. Probably inflamed from all that blinking earlier. Shock was to be expected, others are not used to such a close brush with death. I murmured something about how "help would arrive soon."
"Oh my inner goddess!" she shouted, her voice cracking from pure cut insanity, "you saved my life!"
"Just like Eliose and Alabard!"
"There was very little mention of heat vents in the ancient ode," I muttered, waving the medics near me and gesturing that they help the woman rising off the ground.
"We're meant to be! It is our destiny!" she shouted even as the two dwarves surrounded her, slotting the restraints in place before carting her to the hospital. As they lifted her off the ground upon a gurney she waved her one functioning arm towards me and cried, "I'll always love you, Taliesin!"
"What did you do?" Variel asked.
"I ran as quickly as my legs would allow and never turned back," Taliesin said, feeling a blush blossoming upon his cheeks. "Hopefully they keep her under restraint for a few days, for evaluation at least."
Thoughts of a crazed woman, her forearm dangling like a shredded piece of fabric as she walloped against the airlock door filled the captain with dread. Oddly, she'd always feared it'd be women beating down the door to get at Orn though not for the same reasons. "We're due to be pushing out tomorrow, but I don't see any reason why we can't speed that up a bit. Your wife's onboard isn't she?"
Orn nodded slowly, "And she's gonna love this story, positively cream herself over it."
"Orn..." Variel warned.
"Phrasing, right," he said, rising off his chair and scampering out the door to find his wife. "And Lover Boy, next time take a few smoke grenades on a date. You know, just in case."
Variel shook her head, but didn't say anything else as she headed towards the bridge. Putting in a warning about a crazed elf named Army that could be harassing her crew took a bit of time. As she opened up the bridge door the Dwarf's high voice called out, "Captain, just so you know, I'm a virgin."
"And I've never touched myself!" Variel answered back, chuckling as she shut the door.
Taliesin turned towards his sister who shrugged her shoulders, "She seemed nice when I met her."
"It's not as if you can easily find another Dulcen out here. We do not do the 'tourist' part well," she knitted her fingers and raised one shoulder, "I tried, right?"
"Yes, you did," Taliesin said, slowly opening up the door to find his room and lay down for a few days. "In the future, could you try a little less harder?"
Brena blew her hair up out of her face. She'd had high hopes that this could at least be the one to break her brother of his human habit. But even she'd have run screaming when the girl asked her to order dinner for her. She was impressed he'd stuck it out as long as he did. Perhaps there was some attraction on his end after all.
A beeping alerted Brena to her hand, and she flipped on her PALM. One new message awaited her. She scrolled through and didn't recognize the address, a strange thing as the Bard was always entering every person she met into her database for networking. Opening it up, Brena groaned.
It simply read "BEST DATE EVER!!! -- Ahmee 'Kesahtnan'" Her brother was never going to forgive her as long as she drew breath.
A little extra scene out of my Dwarves in Space series.