Ezmerelda sighed as she scanned the board. Unexpected events had sapped her savings and she was short on rent for the month. Usually only two jobs were necessary to cover her monthly expenses. Her next selection would be her fourth. The extra work was cutting into her practice time. A wizard's life was supposed to be spent in intense study and training, not traipsing around the countryside doing odd jobs to ensure a roof over her head. Ezmerelda gritted her teeth and suppressed the urge to punch something.
Her eyes slid over requests paired with commissions for removing curses, creating talismans, and killing monsters. One item on the board piqued her interest. Her hand closed on the right corner of the flyer as another hand closed on the left one. A quick tug did not free the piece of paper. Her eyes started at the callused hand with dirt under its fingernails, trailed up the long sleeved shirt, and settled on the face of Roman.
"Let go. I saw it first," she growled.
"Look, I need the money and this is the only job I think I can do. Can you pick another?"
"Go hug a shrub. This one is mine." Her voice unintentionally rose in volume. The clinking of glasses stopped and heads at nearby tables turned towards them. An island of silence formed in the noisy drinking hall. Roman's face scrunched up as he considered his next words.
"Aye. Aye. This hullabaloo is harshing my buzz," boomed the voice of Timander. The squat guild master held a large crockery mug in each hand. Both Ezmerelda and Roman jumped at the sound of his voice. Timander chewed his bottom lip idly causing his wide, lantern jaw to swing back and forth.
"Both of you go." Foam slopped over the lip of the mug as he gestured with it still in hand. "Split the commission. Since Roman is the junior guild member he'll get forty percent."
Ezmerelda did some quick mental math and decided her potential cut would still cover her needs.
"Yes, sir," the unlikely teammates replied in unison.
Ezmerelda muttered under her breath as she stuffed clothes into her pack. She disliked rookies. They talked too much, froze during fights, and their magic was rarely useful. Mostly they could perform tricks that were meant to dazzle slack-jawed onlookers. The month kept getting worse with each passing day.
Her patience nearly exhausted, she tapped her foot on the tile floor as she waited in the lobby. Men took forever to get ready. While her attention was fixed on the stairs, a shadow fell across her.
"You return alone far too often," Marylise hissed into her ear.
Ezmerelda craned her neck to stare at the heart-shaped face with its delicate nose and rosebud mouth. The dark blue eyes were devoid of warmth.
"I didn't want him to come along," Ezmerelda said as she struggled to keep her voice calm.
"Make sure he comes back in one piece or you will answer to me."
She shivered as Marylise walked away. Ezmerelda was five years her senior, yet the younger woman made her uneasy. Moments later Roman sauntered down the stairs. He was half a head shorter than her and always wore two-tone long sleeved shirts in earthy colors. His breath smelled faintly of mint as he offered a quick apology and settled a leather pack on his back.
"Can you afford a horse?" she asked.
Roman shook his head.
Ezmerelda sighed. "Me either. We've got a long walk ahead of us. Don't dawdle." She pulled the heavy guild hall door open and looked over her shoulder. Marylise had her arms crossed over her chest and her eyes were firmly fixed on Ezmerelda. She shivered as the door closed behind her.
The first day passed easily. Begrudgingly, Ezmerelda admitted that Roman was a pleasant traveling companion. He didn't try to fill silent moments with awkward conversation nor did he request rest breaks. With her long legs and considerable endurance, she had set an aggressive pace yet he maintained it without complaint. Before the sun set they found a clearing off the road and set up camp. Roman gathered firewood while she unpacked her bedding. After a brief supper both settled in for the night. A tugging of her hair roused her from sleep.
"Roman, I don't know what you're doing, but cut it out."
"Huh?" His voice was thick and groggy.
The tugging intensified.
"I'm serious, knock it off."
"What are you talking about? I'm trying to sleep," he replied.
Ezmerelda pulled an arm out of her bedding and reached towards her head.
"Stop," hissed Roman.
She cracked an eye and stared at him across the still smoldering fire. Both of his eyes were opened wide and filled with nervous excitement.
"It's a Sykora." His voice was heavy with awe. "I never thought I'd actually see one. They are perfectly benign unless they are startled. Just hold still and it should leave. It's probably just looking for nesting material."
"Nesting material? It's in my hair. Do something."
He shrugged. "It's an animal. I'm not good with those."
Something wet and rough caressed the side of her face. She sucked in her breath.
"No. No. No," Roman pleaded as he waved both hands downwards.
Ezmerelda screamed. Startled birds fled their nests while leaves on nearby trees shook. The Sykora hissed loudly. Long blades of grass sprung up, wove themselves together, and swallowed Roman.
"Close your eyes and hold your breath," he called from inside his green cocoon.
The tugging in her hair ceased while an odd tingling sensation spread across her. With her eyes and mouth squeezed shut she struggled to keep calm. Her heart hammered in her chest rattling her ribs with each beat. A seed of panic took root and sprouted as the seconds passed. Her lungs burned and ached for another breath. Every fiber of her body demanded she relent when she finally heard Roman declare them safe.
She gulped in air while he tossed two branches onto the campfire. As the new wood was consumed light spilled across the camp. She was ringed by broad-leafed ferns that had not been there when she had lain down. Her bedding disintegrated as she sat up. Small bits scattered in the soft breeze.
Ezmerelda noticed Roman's eyes fix on her chest before he jerked them away. She glanced down. Her shirt had gone the way of her bedding and her cargo pants were tatters that concealed nothing. The only clothing on her left unscathed were her slinky black bra and panty set.
"It was laundry day. My good ones were dirty," she said and blushed slightly at the lie. Contrary to her outward appearance, Ezmerelda had a soft spot for delicate undergarments. Punching a monster in the face while satin caressed her skin made her feel delightfully feminine. As best she could, she covered her body with her hands and bolted for her pack. As she scooped it up the leather crumbled away in her arms. Scraps of her spare clothes fell through her fingers and disappeared in the night air.
"I warned you not to scare it," Roman said. "A Sykora's breath attack is highly acidic."
She spun on the smaller man and planted her hands on her hips. "So, you had me wait it out?"
"That acid cloud would have chewed away several layers of my skin or at worst killed me but you're an enhancement wizard, so you're tougher than most. That's why, I had you hold your breath while I did all I could to disperse it."
His eyes flicked down and Ezmerelda became aware that she had stepped into the fire light and given him a fine view of her panties.
With her teeth grinding against one another, she stalked away, and attempted to calm down. She squirmed around on the ground trying to find an acceptable spot. Rocks and uneven ground conspired to make her chronically uncomfortable. After an hour of frustration she swallowed her pride.
"Roman, I'm cold."
A long sleeved shirt fluttered out of the darkness. She easily plucked it from the air, pulled it on, and stepped into the firelight. Roman moved to the side and lifted up a corner of his blankets. Ezmerelda slid in next to him
"You lay a hand on me and I'll break it," she growled.
Roman shrugged and rolled to put his back towards her. Firelight revealed a raised welt of scar tissue across his back. She traced it with a fingertip.
"What's this?" she asked.
"Keep your hands to yourself."
The soft light of dawn teased Ezmerelda from her sleep. She growled and tugged the blanket over her head. She was warm, comfortable, and wanted to savor it for as long as possible.
"Ez, it's time to get up."
Ezmerelda growled once again and reluctantly opened her eyes. Her head was resting on Roman's shoulder with her nose nestled in the crook of his neck. She felt his chest rise and fall underneath her right arm. In her sleep she had somehow draped a leg across his hips. The cloth of his trunks was soft against her inner thigh.
"Ez, my arm is asleep."
She bolted up and gathered the blanket around her waist. "Don't call me Ez," she said as her face heated.
Shortly after she stirred, Roman handed her dried meat held between two thick slices of cheese sandwiched by dark, crusty bread. While he stirred water into the ashes of the fire, she sifted through the remains of her belongings. A hair brush and a cake of soap were all that could be saved from the items that had been in her pack.
"My coins are gone," Ezmerelda called out as she combed through the grass by her ruined bedding.
"Huh. I think I've read that Sykoras are attracted to shiny objects. It probably made off with them. I don't have much but we'll have to make do."
.... There is more of this story ...