Mirin pushed open the door of the tavern, the third she'd been to that night. She stuck her head in and quickly scanned the patrons. At last! Sitting at a table in the corner was the young knight.
She let the door swing shut again and took a deep breath. She tossed her hair to make it fuller, pinched her cheeks to make them pinker, bit her lip to make it redder. Her earrings were in place, and her amethyst ring sparkled on her finger. She'd worn her best gown, at least the best of those demure enough that the knight wouldn't be overwhelmed; she tugged the bodice up a bit higher, just to make sure.
Satisfied, she pushed the door open with a flourish, stepped through, and paused for dramatic effect. Many sets of eyes turned to her, admiring eyes, jealous eyes, lustful eyes. But not those of the young knight.
He sat across the table from a lovely red-haired girl. Holding her right hand in both of his own, he was speaking to her earnestly, and even from where she stood at the door Mirin could see his eyes shining with admiration.
Mirin rolled her eyes, sighed, and smiled. So much for the young knight! Of course, she could still have him; there was not a doubt in her mind. She had only to approach him. He would come. But the girl was not a member of the guild, Mirin was certain of that. This knight need not pay for his welcome. This knight need not pay for the smile that lit the girl's face, the light that shone from her eyes.
Mirin lowered her head and sighed. She'd just take the night off, maybe do some mending, maybe just bury her head under the covers again and try to dream. Maybe just dream of being looked upon the way the young knight looked upon the girl.
She turned to leave. The doorway was blocked. Filling it, his dark eyes boring into hers, was Maddox of Yorgren.
He extended his hand as if to touch her. It trembled. "Mirin." His voice shook, too.
She turned up her nose and met his eyes. "I was just leaving, my Lord." She took a step forward.
He did not move. "It's been over two years."
She did not move.
"That's a long time, Mirin."
"Too long." He ran the back of his hand down her cheek.
Mirin lowered her head as she felt tears stinging her eyes. She knew she should run, just run. She knew she should. But she did not move; she said nothing.
Maddox cupped her chin in his hand and lifted her face to his and smiled.
And still she did not move.
He slid his hand around her waist and pulled her to him. "Come," he whispered in her ear.
She turned her head. Across the room, so very far away, the young knight brought the girl's fingers to his lips, kissed them with reverence. The girl blushed as she gently drew her hand away with a soft smile.
Mirin felt Maddox' hand move up her back, entwining itself in the hair at the nape of her neck. His breath was hot. "Come," he said, and it was a groan. He turned her face to his.
She looked into his eyes, burning now, and she felt the heavy rings on his fingers, encrusted with gems, cutting into her neck, and she knew she would go with him. The rich fur of his cloak, so soft, lay upon her cheek, and the torchlight sparkled off the jewel in his heavy gold earring, and she knew she would go with him.
She did not look back as he drew her through the door.
Mirin slumped to the stones; her long hair fell over her face. Staring, unseeing, at her lovely gown, now torn, her eyes again blurred with tears.
She rubbed her arms. In the darkness of the alley, she couldn't see them, but she knew the ugly bruises were there. With a shaking hand she reached up to touch her cheek. There was no blood, at least. A great sob burst forth anyway; she'd probably have a black eye.
She should have known better. She had known better. Maddox of Yorgren had not been changed by the holy war. He never would.
Mirin shivered and cried and swiped at her nose, then struggled to her feet and took a wobbly step. A rat darted into the alley. It didn't move: its red eyes seemed to appraise her. She didn't flinch. She didn't cry out. Her mouth curved in a bitter smile; here was a fitting companion for the most expensive whore in Avacar.
Expensive, yes, but still a whore.
She stamped her foot. The rat scuttled away. With a sigh, she took another step. And gasped as a short, sharp pain cut through her head, then vanished as quickly as it came.
A thought entered her mind. She shook her head. Again. A thought. Not hers. She heard the thought in her mind as clearly as a voice.
"I've been searching for you for a long, long time."
It was a man's voice, elegant, melodic. Mirin, her eyes wide, frantically scanned the alley, looking for the speaker, knowing the voice was only in her mind but refusing to believe it.
Again he spoke, "Won't you answer me, my dear?"
She gasped again, throwing her hands up over her face. The voice in her mind was calling to her, caressing her with its silky tones. It had an old-fashioned quality to it, an unusual accent, a courtly grace. Although the language was the same, it sounded oddly formal, like something one might hear spoken in the holy tongue at temple.
"Please answer me, my dear, for I have at last found you and I do so wish to hear your thoughts."
Mirin was frozen with doubt, with fear. Was she going insane?
"No, my dear, you are not. Your voice is so beautiful, won't you speak to me?"
The longing in his thoughts unnerved her; she had never heard such longing in a voice. It was almost a wail now. "Please, please, you must answer me!"
Mirin stumbled madly down the alley, not knowing where she could go, what she could do. This was impossible!
"No, my dear, believe me, nothing is impossible. Certainly not this," crooned the voice in her head.
She must be going mad; it was the only explanation. Even the Chosen did not hear voices in their heads.
"Oh, but we do. We do." The voice was but a weary sigh.
She stifled another gasp. Where could she go? What could she do? Knowing nowhere else to turn, she ran toward the small temple near the south gates of the city.
Mirin had not been inside a temple since she was a child. As she threw open the doors, she was struck dumb by its beauty: the arched roof, the graceful pillars, the stained glass windows, and everywhere, carvings, paintings, tapestries, illustrating the stories of the gods.
Her knees shook. Her hands shook. Every part of her body trembled as she slowly made her way toward the altar. She drew in a deep breath and fell to her knees before it, pleading with the gods as if she were one of the devout, her hands clasped tightly together, trying to remember the words to prayers she had heard somewhere, long ago.
But her awkward prayers were being shouted over. The voice in her head was nearly a scream now. The gods would not help her. They never had. She would have to help herself. She always had. She rose from her knees.
She closed her eyes and thought, enunciating carefully the words in her mind, "Who are you?"
Her mind filled with laughter: delight, relief, sheer joy. She clasped her hands to her head. The laughter grew louder, wilder, pounded into her brain. In her mind she cried out, "No!"
Abruptly, the laughter stopped, and the sudden silence nearly made her reel. The voice spoke with great dignity. "I am Lucian, my dear."