"I still can't believe you slept out here."
"Why nah?" Gripping one end of the cord in his teeth, Alrek pulled the knot taut around the bedroll. "Ish chea'er, 'egger 'shca'e rook—"
"I literally can understand the horse better than you."
He took a deep breath. "Ish cheaber, baggar eshake eroo—"
"Yes, please, talk louder and slower, that helps a lot."
"He says it's cheaper," piped up the stablemaid, slipping past them both to reach the horse with her brush, "and has a better escape route."
Alrek pointed emphatically at the stablemaid and nodded. Larya scowled. "You got that from his grunting?"
The stablemaid giggled. She was a stark contrast to the other three occupants of the room—where Alrek was rough, short and a bit stocky, and Larya was tall, willowy and graceful, and the horse was a tall, muscular heavyweight, she was of average height, a bit round, and seemed to move more in careful spins and light bounces than ordinary footsteps. Between Alrek's black, Larya's auburn and the horse's gray, she was also the only redhead present. "He talks like my grandmother. She's always chewing on something, especially this time of year."
Alrek rolled his eyes and spat out the cord, tying the rope into a loose bow and strapping the bedroll to his backpack. The rogue looked up at Larya, who blinked down at him calmly. "Don't you have shit to pack, too?"
"Oh, I guess." The druidess glanced back towards the exit. "I thought I'd see if you needed any help. I know you and horses don't mix."
"We mixed fine. This one's a draft horse." Alrek stood up and patted the beast on the side. "Draft horses aren't normal horses."
"Not how horses work," piped up the stablemaid from the horse's other side, "but sure." She was barely able to peek at Alrek over the horse's back. "If you're not done here, I can see to the other horses first. I didn't mean to barge in. Not used to people, you know, sleeping in our stables."
"Maybe you should brush Alrek." Larya giggled, reaching to feel Alrek's straw-mussed hair. "What a mess. Do you even wash it?"
"Off, druid!" He jerked back, smacking her hand away. She knew he hated being touched.
"Is that your name?" the stablemaid asked. "I heard you say it was Snatch when you two checked in."
Larya and Alrek blinked. Alrek's eyes narrowed.
"Oops." Larya bit her lip. "I'd, um, better go pack up my room."
She fled Alrek's baleful glare.
"Your partner is very strange," the stablemaid said, her tone carefully neutral as she busied herself with brushing. The old draft horse nickered.
"She get up to fun in there last night?"
The stablemaid reddened. "W-Well... now that you mention it. Is... you two aren't, um..."
Alrek dug around in the hay, finally finding a long, slightly tarnished hunting knife. He tucked it into his left boot and started looking for his right. "If you're asking me what I think you're asking, definitely not. You kidding? We'd murder each other." He grimaced. "We're not even partners. We just... keep going on missions together. Or she keeps following me around when I go on missions."
"Okay, good." Her shoulders relaxed a little. "Because she and a couple barmaids did spend the night together. There were vines and flowers... growing in there this morning. Before she got rid of them, of course."
"Druids." He snorted. "Sorry if all that made any trouble for you."
"Oh, don't be!" She waved the apology away urgently. "After all the help you gave us with those bandits, we can take a little druid weirdness! It's hard to find adventurers who keep their word out here in the Western Plains." She paused. "My name's Alassa, by the way."
"Yeah, good to meet you. Do you see any boots over there?"
She glanced over her shoulder. "One, in the corner. Should I go deal with a different horse first? I feel like I'm definitely, um, intruding."
"Yeah." Alrek hesitated, realizing from the way her eyes lowered that this probably sounded rude. "I mean, I don't mind talking or anything," he lied, clearing his throat, "I just don't have the nimbleness to squeeze myself around in here when there's someone else."
"Okay, then." She smiled and patted the horse's snout. It snorted. "I'll be right back, Claire. Be nice to the guest."
Alassa bounced out of the stall.
As soon as she was gone, Alrek sighed with quiet relief. He edged around 'Claire' and retrieved his remaining boot. Ugh, how did it get horse hair in it?
Alrek was busily shaking the boot clear of debris, wondering where the knife was that went in this one, when he heard the doors swing open. Two male voices echoed in the cramped stable.
"... can't believe that bastard. Probably still in Carriope screwing around with the local girls."
"Maybe he didn't hear the rendezvous point right?"
"Nah, he heard me. The idiot just got sidetracked. Literally everyone told him this was a fuckin' scouting campaign, and all he heard was—oh, hello!"
From the stablemaid's squeak, Alrek gathered they had just opened the stall door where she'd gone. He spotted the right-boot-knife beneath the draft horse and grinned, retrieving it with care. This was his favorite between the two, and his second-favorite knife overall.
"H-Hello, sirs!" stammered the stablemaid. "Um, I'm awfully sorry—didn't mean to, um, intrude—"
She sounded spooked. Alrek stiffened.
"Hey, hey, it's okay!" assured one of the men. His tone reminded Alrek of how Larya had soothed Claire last night. "It's okay. We're just here to get our horses."
"Very kind of you to see to them so," added the other, and Alrek heard the stall door closing behind him. "See? We appreciate it."
Alrek couldn't quite place that accent. It wasn't local, and it wasn't northern. It was very... posh.
"It's... nothing." Alassa gave a nervous laugh. "Just doing my job, right? Wouldn't want your horses to be all matted on the road."
"No, we wouldn't," agreed the first man smoothly. "That's so kind of you to consider. You're very kind. Very kind."
"Um, thank you?"
"You don't need to thank me. I'm just saying you're kind."
Alrek finished replacing the knife in his boot and sat up slightly, his eyes narrowed. He didn't like that soothing-the-animals tone one bit.
"It's Alice, isn't it?" asked the second man. "Alice. You showed us to our rooms last night."
"Um. That's right. It's Alassa, though."
"You did a good job, Alice."
"Thank you." Alassa's voice was getting smaller. Alrek picked up the manure shovel as he stood up.
"You left so soon, though..." murmured the first man, who was definitely moving around the stall. "We wanted to thank you, Alice."
"Um. Thank you. I mean—"
"Don't they tip the girls over here?" asked the first man suddenly. "Do they not do that?"
"You know, Brucil, I don't think they do," said the second. "When they do pay them at all, it's just coin up-front. They never get a tip."
"Such a shame," the first man said softly. "They just pay them in petty coins, with no... special reward for extra-good service? For an extra-pretty smile?"
They were getting noisier—pacing around in there. Surrounding her. He could actually hear the stablemaid's wavering breath.
Alrek turned and walked out into the aisle, barely holding in a growl.
Chosen. That was the accent—that slight drawl, that carefully posh enunciation. They were from the Kingdom of the Chosen, the would-be empire on the eastern peninsula. Scouts, they'd said? Son of a bitch.
The stall door was closed, but he could see the tops of their heads—a very tall man by the door, the other on the far corner. There wasn't room for anyone to flee, not with the door blocked, not with the horse in the way. The barmaid appeared to be cornered.
"I. Um." Alassa's voice was very soft. "Please, I must see, um..."
"Now, now, Alice," purred the man by the door. "Don't you want to accept his tip? You've been so good so far..."
"You wouldn't know what to do with all those wages," cooed Brucil, advancing on her. "They've got you so confused..."
Alrek reached up as high as he could, over the stall door, and clanged the man by the door on the head with the manure shovel.
In the cramped acoustics of the stable, the impact rang out like a gong, and there were startled shouts and cries of alarm as the man slumped limply to the ground. Alrek kicked the door open, ready to swing again if the other man tried any—
Alrek had only heard two men. Only seen two men tall enough to be seen over the stall door.
But there had been, in fact, three Chosen soldiers in this stall with Alassa and the horse.
And the two remaining were armed.
Alrek sucked in a breath through his teeth. Shit. Should've slept in the inn.
~ ~ ~ ~
"It's literally barely a damn scratch, druid."
Alrek leaned against the back of the cart, nursing his wound with a rag drenched in something that fizzled painfully and probably did next-to-nothing.
"It was very noble," Alassa said, eyes wide and shimmering, her hands clasped over her mouth. "I mean, I was about to yell for help—and I mean, you could have just made it clear you were in there and they probably would have backed off—"
"It wasn't noble," Alrek growled, his head throbbing with pain where the soldier's stupid axe had decided to make some mischief. He was lucky that there had been no room to swing with any real force, so it had practically been a tap. With an axe. On the head. "I just fuckin' hate Chosen even more than I hate head injuries. Those fuckers're all going to the gallows, right?"
The innkeeper fretted with his beard. "Well, we don't have a gallows, but they're certainly going somewhere, that's for sure! We've contacted the Baron up north, Baron Iswiel. I expect he'll send some, erm, 'diplomats' to explain the error of their ways and the equality of all peoples, and, erm, that sort of thing."
Western Plains 'indulgent diplomats' were very, very good at persuading people of things like that. They were usually busy serving in the Plains Barons' constant infighting, but nobody here liked outsiders causing trouble. Especially outsiders from the peninsula.
"Great." Alrek scowled up at Larya. "See? If I hadn't done... whatever it was I did, the scouts probably would've rode off and reported all their findings. People around here don't even have a gallows. Hell, the innkeeper gave them rooms!"
"One room," the innkeeper corrected miserably. "I—I mean, was I supposed to pick a fight with them? They weren't doing any harm, I thought."
Alrek gestured at the innkeeper, holding Larya's green gaze.
Larya's arms were folded, and she raised a skeptical eyebrow. "Yes, Snatch, and I'm sure you knew that the local political infrastructure was ill-equipped to handle technically nonviolent agents of a violent military force when you ran at them with a ladle or whatever."
"Shit shovel. I would've been lucky to have a ladle." He pointed bitterly to his injury. "I wouldn't have a scratch on me if I'd had a ladle. I once broke a troll's arm with a ladle."
"Why didn't you just knife them?"
"Horses smell blood, Larya."
"Oh, for—" Throwing her hands up in the air, Larya looked over to the barkeep. "Isn't there any healing magic here?"
"I just need some willowberry gum," Alrek grumbled. "Just want the throbbing to go away, and maybe for you to stop echoing your voice like that. I can barely feel it."
"That's because it's a head injury, Snatch."
"You're a head injury."
"See, I know you're hurt way worse than you say, because you're usually even worse than that at comebacks!" Hand on her hip, Larya waited for the innkeeper's response.
The innkeeper mopped his brow with a rag, looking around uncertainly. "I mean... no, I'm afraid. We had some preserved peaches from the patron dryad, but those bandits took it. Probably used it on themselves after you thrashed them."
"A peach dryad?" Larya's eyes lit up. So did her cheeks. Alrek gritted his teeth. "Might we, um..."
"Asleep for the winter, of course."
"There... is a healer up the hill, though." He pointed hesitantly, off into the part of Alrek's vision that just got all blurry and blue. "She helps the village out sometimes, when we run out of peach nectar. She's from the Rose Tower, though. You know how Tower mages are. Reclusive."
"A Tower mage? Here?" Larya grinned at Alrek. "That's brilliant! We'll have you fixed up in no time!"
Alrek nodded. He was having trouble keeping up, but he was still able to limply brush away Larya's hand when she tried to feel his head injury again. "Stop doing that."
Alassa was saying something he didn't catch. Larya frowned at him. "What? I'm just trying to check on it."
"You're just poking it. What do you think you're gonna learn from just poking it?"
"Excuse me for being concerned about my partner's well-being."
"We're not partners. We're just workin' together for a time. And your concern's that whenever I say something's wrong, you gotta poke it."
Alassa was arguing with the innkeeper, heated words in their drawling, twangy local language. He couldn't follow; Alrek's Southwestern was about as bad as his signing, even when he wasn't concussed.
Larya huffed, pulling his attention back. "I do not!"
"Every time. 'Oh, Larya, that knothole's got a lust bug nest in it.' 'Oh, really?''" He did a very squeaky impression of Larya. "'Golly, better stick my hand in it! Oh no!'" He flailed drunkenly. "'Why wasn't I warned?'"
Larya's cheeks reddened until she looked like a very angry apple, her round, heart-shaped face only worsening the resemblance. "I do not sound like that."
"'Hey, Larya,'" he went on, as she climbed into the cart and got the draft horse going—they had been loaned Claire, fittingly enough, on the condition that they dropped her off at the innkeeper's cousin's when they got to the next town—"'I got bit by a raccoon, hurts like fuck, what do I do?' 'Ooh, neat, lemme poke it a bunch! Wow, blood sure is red!'"
"I'm forgiving this only because you have a head injury."
"'Ooh, quicksand, you say? Better give that the old once-over OH NO HOW COULD MY PLAN GO SO WRONG?!'"
"I think I actually like you better when you're concussed."
"I like you better when I'm concussed, t—ow! Would you stop poking it?"
"I'm a tactile learner."
"Well, fuck off!"
~ ~ ~ ~
Meanwhile, Alassa and the bartender argued in furious hushed tones.
"They can't go to Poppy's!" hissed Alassa. "You know what folks say about her!"
"Poppy keeps people alive." The bartender and bookkeeper of the village inn rolled his eyes. "They asked. Besides, you can't trust the gossip of random vagabonds. The brewster says she's fine."
"The brewer visits her every week."
"So she's fine! He wouldn't do that if she wasn't."
Alassa glared fiercely. "Didn't you hurt your hand a month ago? How did that get better?"
He blinked. "What? What are you talking about?"
Her eyes lit up in anger, and she slapped her palm and switched back to speaking Western. "See? I'm telling you, the rumors—" She spun to face the adventurers.
The cart rolled off into the distance, already a half-mile away.
"Did they just... ride off without saying goodbye?"
"Adventurers." The barkeep chuckled and strolled back inside. "Treat everyone else like side characters in their grand, exciting story. Rude as devils. You can't blame 'em, though, with the head injury. And the other's a druid, so..."
"Did they even remember to pay for their rooms?"
The barkeep froze in the doorway.
"Adventurers," he muttered.
~ ~ ~ ~
The woman who answered the door was almost certainly not the mage. At least, Larya hoped she wasn't. She had thick, wavy black hair down to her shoulders, her complexion a soft, rosy varnish. She was slightly below average height, but her form was full in a way that made up for it—not quite plump, but soft-looking. Her clothes were plain but well-made. Most notable were two sunrise-pink poppies nestled in her hair behind her ear, the vines of which appeared to be holding up her half-bun.
A big grin swept across her face when she saw them.
"Hello!" she squeaked, her big, green eyes widening with pure delight. "Oh, like, you aren't from the village! What's your names? I mean, what are your names?" She giggled, brushing a loose strand of hair from her eyes.
Alrek turned and started walking away. Larya caught him by the shoulder and smiled politely. "Um, hi. My name is Larya Nuptuel. This is my friend, Snatch."
"Larya," Alrek hissed.
Larya hesitated. "Oh, yes! He wants you to know that he picked his name as a thief name, and when he picked it, it didn't mean—"
"No, I don't want her to know that, because we're leaving." Alrek tried to tug free, but Larya was a lot stronger than him right now, and she managed, with difficulty, to keep him in place.
The little cottage they had arrived at stood at the top of a small hill. It was surrounded by wildflowers, hued like a striking sunset. Dandelions, poppies and pink primroses abounded, and countless orange morning glories climbed up the walls and peeked into the windows.
"My name is Nessa," sang the woman, extending her hand to shake. Larya's hands were a bit full wrestling her thrashing colleague, but Nessa kept holding her hand out expectantly. She didn't seem... too bright, Larya supposed, nor old enough to be an accomplished mage. Healing magic was notoriously complex, and this girl didn't look a day over Larya's or Alrek's age—she probably wasn't even well above the local drinking age. "It's, like, soooo nice to meet you!"
Larya stared at the hand as Alrek twisted and writhed himself right into a headlock. He was almost pathetically weak right now—she felt like a bit of a bully, but the fact that he was this easy to hold down only strengthened her certainty that he needed medical attention. "Um... are you the healer?"
At this, Nessa burst into giggles, clutching her belly with her free hand and nearly doubling over. "Oh! Oh, no, certainly not!"
Alrek's struggles dropped slightly. Larya held onto him, just in case. Plus, he felt sort of like he'd just collapse if she let him.
"So..." Larya chewed her lip, concerned. "Okay, so who is the—"
"Ooh, Nessi, are those guests?" chirped an only slightly deeper voice, as a man with shoulder-length blonde hair and bright blue eyes leaned in, mashing his cheek against Nessa's to beam at the arrivals. He, too, had several poppies in his hair, probably picked from the flowers growing all around the cottage. If anything, he looked like he could be a year younger than Nessa. Twenty, maybe, but just as curvy.
"They sure are, Cetti!" Nessa beamed at him, not pulling back from the contact. Her head snapped back to Alrek and Larya. "Hi, so this is Cettlen! He's, like, my best friend." She took his hand and squeezed it. "Cetti, this is, like, Larya and Snatch! They're thieves!"
"Ooh, that's so cool!"
Larya's eyes widened. "Um—he's a thief—" she sputtered. "I mean, he was a thief. Now he's an adventurer. Which I am, too."
"Oh." Both seemed slightly disappointed, but they recovered quickly, practically bouncing outside to greet the pair. Nessa offered her hand again. "That's super cool, too!"
Larya finally shook Nessa's hand. It was surprisingly warm, and a little bit slippery with sweat. Larya hoped that meant it was warm inside—it was a chilly fall morning. "So are you two, um... the healer's, um..."
"We're Poppy's assistants!" Cettlen said, giggling. He also offered his hand. It, too, was warm and slick. "Like, we help her with her patients, and, um..." He bit his lip, clearly thinking hard. He looked a little lost as his eyes crossed slightly, then un-crossed. "Um, she has us... has us... it's like, um... gosh, what do we do, Nessi?"
Nessa reached over across Larya and tousled his hair. He giggled. "Silly Cetti, Poppy told us just over breakfast! We cook, we clean, and we..." Her confident expression faltered. "... we..."
She, too, trailed off.
Larya looked between the two pouting apprentices.
"Well, I'm sold," Alrek muttered.
"You must excuse them," said a voice like warm glue, sticky and sappy but lush and gentle, thick with an accent Larya couldn't quite place. She turned to see a woman coming up the slope behind them—and this had to be the healer. Larya sure hoped so.
The newcomer had brilliant red hair the same color as the poppies filling her two baskets, which were slung over the staff she wore on her shoulders like a yoke. The hair spilled down past her elbows, luxurious and almost sparkling in the sunlight. She was dressed in a classic healing mage's attire—a white dress shirt with red trimming, a knee-length white skirt, and a pretty but simple nurse's cap. She had the figure of a Thriae, with wide hips and a bust that her blouse did little to disguise.
As she came closer, Larya noticed that the healer's nails and lips were both painted ruby-red. She looked to be in her early-to-mid thirties, with the mature confidence to match.
Larya licked her lips. She knew little about healing magic, but she'd seen a lot of healing mages during the conflicts of her hometown. She'd gotten used to it. Apparently, the suggestive garb was better for keeping patients 'focused,' or something like that.
None of the healing mages had looked this good, though.
The newcomer strolled up the hill, seemingly not even bothered by the slope—at least she was wearing some casual moccasins and not something absurd, like heels. She came to a stop before them and set the baskets down with a relieved sigh. "Goodness, that takes quite a lot out of you. Nessi, sweetie, would you and Cetti please take all of this inside?"
"What, some flowers?" Alrek asked brusquely, as the two apprentices hurried to oblige.
The healer smiled. "The flowers go on top because the truffles will crush them, and the potatoes will crush the truffles, and then we'll have nothing to eat but potatoes and nothing to heal with but... potatoes." She sighed. "You must excuse my apprentices. Sweet as candy and dumb as lavender." She stroked Nessa's hair as the apprentice bounced past. Nessa giggled and allowed this, even leaning back slightly to extend the touch. "Nessa ran afoul of a cherry wine dryad some years ago, and never quite recovered from it. She's a bright girl, really, just... easy. I think she'll make a fine mage someday, if she can master some impulse control."
"Bless his heart." She extended a hand, and Larya shook it. "My name is Poppy. I'm the village healer. It's such a pleasure to meet you."
"Larya Nuptuel. Snatch." Larya withdrew her hand. "My frie—colleague here took a hit from an axe."
"Close quarters, though." Poppy nodded knowingly. "You can tell from the shallow wound, the direction the axe went in—they weren't able to swing fully. That's very lucky, because I'm really a disaster at advanced tissue. You'd be quite out of luck."
"But you can fix him?" Larya asked.
"I'm not a dog," Alrek complained, still leaning on Larya's shoulder.
Poppy put a finger to her lips. It really was a striking shade of red, Larya noted, her eyes crossing to look down at the painted nail. She hoped Poppy wasn't another vampire. Alrek had already made her swear never to speak of the harem incident again. Poppy did seem awfully effervescent in the sunrise...
"I should think so," Poppy said at last, nodding decisively. "I can heal the minor tissue, and it looks like he avoided a serious skull fracture, which is wonderful news. The concussion can be alleviated, or at least reduced. Yes." She smiled at Larya. "I'll have your colleague back up and griping by noon, I should think."
"Cost." Alrek coughed. "Cost."
"What's it cost?" Larya asked, though Poppy could obviously hear him.
"Well..." Poppy chewed her upper lip. "Normally there's no cost, but you're not from the village, so we ask for a gratuity. You understand. The magic is quite taxing, and the village needs to make up for my lost time somehow."
"Twenty gold?" Larya offered.
Poppy's pupils visibly dilated. "... I suppose I can make do with that. It will cover expenses, anyway, and you seem like lovely people." Her voice cracked slightly as she called, "Nessi! Cetti! Come and show our, ah, lovely guests to the waiting room." She gave Larya a big smile.
Darn, Larya thought, swallowing. Maybe twenty gold was too much. I should've haggled.
At least Alrek's too badly hurt to complain about it.
~ ~ ~ ~
Alrek was in a haze as they were shown into the "waiting room"—a quaint little sitting area with a crackling fireplace and several comfy chairs, one of which both Nessi and Cetti seemed happy to share, giggling as they shared a bowl of chocolates they'd set up for the guests.
"Cetti," Poppy said, smiling indulgently at her buxom bimbo apprentices, "Nessi, would you be dears and keep Miss Nuptuel entertained while I'm healing her friend?"
Cetti seemed delighted, but Nessi pouted. "Aw, but Nurse Poppy, aren't we gonna help heal?"
"You can help me soon, darling, but this is so very important." Poppy reached down and put a hand on Nessi's shoulder. "I need you to make sure Miss Nuptuel doesn't get terribly bored. You can show her all the ways my apprentices help me!" She batted her eyelashes in a way that even in his daze, Alrek found distinctly flirtatious. "Like keeping guests entertained!"
"Ooh, yeah," Cetti said, "that's a super important job!" He giggled and kissed Nessi's cheek. She joined in his giggles. "Remember how important that job is? We don't just cook and clean, we, like, keep guests from getting bored!"
"Ooh. I guess!" Nessi nodded happily, then beamed up at Larya. "Okay, Miss Nuptuel! You can wait here. We can fix you something to eat! We love cooking for guests!"
Larya hesitated. She'd stiffened slightly, Alrek noticed. "I'd... rather stay with Snatch, if you don't mind. Last time I left him alone, he got his head split open."
Alrek rolled his eyes. Touching, but... "Don't worry about it, druid. I don't need a babysitter."
If this was the village healer, well, at least this Poppy knew her shit. A lot of the folk in the Western Plains didn't even use herbs, so that she collected truffles and some kind of poppy indicated she at least recognized magic was only a partial answer. Dopterines had worked that out centuries ago, obviously, but nobody ever asked them.
Besides, from the way Larya kept 'subtly' glancing at Poppy's chest, he was a bit worried she would prove a distraction, and then he'd end up with a hand sewn to his ass, or his hair magicked into dandelions.
Larya reluctantly released him and went to sit over by the apprentices, and he staggered over—rejecting Poppy's hand—to the healing chamber.
It looked sort of like someone's study, but in place of a desk, there was a reclining chair-bed sort of situation. Alrek eyed it suspiciously. He'd not been to a healer since he was a child, dragged there by his... well, by people who wouldn't let him keep ignoring his own health. He'd complained all the way, of course.
It had been a while since he'd had someone force him to see a healer like this. He wasn't sure how to feel about it now.
"Go ahead and take a seat," Poppy said, her hand very lightly tapping his back. Alrek stiffened, but obliged, settling back into the rather uncomfortable chair. She hummed slightly. "Very good! Let me just get some information." Her finger glowed, and she began to write in the air, swirling sparkles accompanying the letters. "Your name?"
She paused. Her eyelids half-lowered. "Your real name, please, dear?"
"Snatch does just fine."
Poppy leaned around the glowing words, frowning down at him. "Dear, I need a real name, please."
"You've got as real a name as you need. The magic doesn't need my birth papers, does it?"
"Hm." Her nose wrinkled slightly as she wrote accordingly. "Cause of injury, dear?"
"You already know it's an axe."
"An axe swung by...?"
"An arm." He cleared his throat. "So, how long is this gonna—"
"Were you born in this body?" Her voice was crisp and calm, cutting across him with no acknowledgement. "And I do need to know that for the magic, dear. If you ever sought transformative magic, or took poultices..."
"I was born in this body," he said firmly. "And I don't need you to heal my dick, so nah, you wouldn't need to know that."
"Hm. That answers my next question." She had a slight smile that infuriated Snatch. Part of him still wanted to just get up and leave, but they'd already paid, damn it. "So, dear, how are you feeling?"
"Like we got overcharged."
She giggled. "Oh dear, you're a bitter grape, aren't you? I'm going to ask you some general questions now." She sat down in a chair right next to him, looking down with a disarming smile. "I promise none of them are compromising. I just want to be sure you're... intact. I'm going to start casting now while you answer. Please do try to stay calm for this. I would never harm anyone in my care, I guarantee it."
Her painted nails started to glitter as she raised a hand over him. A warm fuzz tugged at him like static, and he instinctively resisted before realizing it was just basic healing magic, scanning his mind for imperfections.
"Where are the gods?" she whispered.
"Dead." As he spoke the word, a faint tingling buzzed through his head.
"What year is it?"
"A hundred and fifteen years before. Fall. I think it's Ivormoon, but who follows the King's Calendar these days?" Again, the tingling.
"What is your full name?"
She sighed. "What for the immortals, they of broken soul?"
"The then for the dead, the now for the fey and the soon for the fiend." The tingling was especially pronounced here, probably because it took more thought to recall this particular version of the old saying.
"Why is the sky blue?"
"Because Bottleman, God of All the Colors, let the trickster god Birdcatcher into his workshop, and it spilled a bunch of blue ink. That's also why so few, um—" he winced as the tingling went on, "—why it's hard to get natural blue pigments. It all got used up."
Light glimmered in his eyes, and he winced again as the nurse's fingers wove and sparkled. "Very good, dear! Very good! It looks like a mild concussion and a basic injury. I can heal this quite easily. Isn't that wonderful?" She patted his hair.
He flinched away. "Don't touch my hair."
"Oh, but I do have to, dear," she tutted. "I understand if it's annoying to you, but I do need to have contact near the injury. I promise I won't poke and prod, though." She winked. Her hand continued to gently stroke his hair, in a manner altogether too affectionate, too maternal for his liking.
He grimaced. "It's not just annoying to me, it's—"
"Aw, I know, I know," she cooed. "But just think about how much better you'll feel afterwards." She patted his head. "Isn't that such a small price to pay? Such a small price to pay to feel better? It will just take a second, dear, just a second. And then you'll feel all better, and you won't have to deal with me anymore!"
He glared. He was being handled. He hated being handled. "Just start casting the spell already."
"Oh, very soon!" She nodded, turning to a cabinet and procuring a small bottle full of something very thick and very red, almost like cough syrup. "But you see, dear, it's actually more complex than that. Magic is only a partial solution on its own!"
He gritted his teeth. "I know that."
"Oh, wonderful! So I don't have to explain how I need herbs to complement the healing process?" She smiled indulgently down at him as she poured the thick, thick syrup into a wooden spoon. Setting the bottle aside once again, her hand returned to twirling fingers through his locks. "You already know that!"
"I do already know that!"
"Mm-hm." She finished pouring and set the bottle aside, leaning down. "So, dear, I'm going to need you to open wide and say 'ah.' See?" She pulled her other hand away. "I'll stop touching your head while you take it. Deal?"
His eyes narrowed and face burning, Alrek opened his mouth. He did not say 'ah.'
"Very good!" she cooed, sticking the spoon into his mouth. "Now, drink all of that down. Very good. You're doing wonderfully, dear."
"Mm," he growled, reluctantly drinking down the sickeningly sweet medicine. It had been so long, he'd forgotten the cardinal rule of dealing with doctors and nurses: if you pissed them off, they had ways to make you regret being born without speaking a single untoward word. He knew she might stop talking down to him if he cooperated, but that just made him madder about it all.
"I know," she said sympathetically, pulling the spoon out. "It tastes very unpleasant. But now you've finished, see? No more for now!" She made a point of showing him that yes, the spoon was indeed empty.
"F'r now?" he mumbled. His tongue felt a bit numb.
Her fingers ran over his head, caressing his hair. He felt a funny sort of magic different from the last, and realized to his shock—was she... cleaning his hair?
"What're you—" he sputtered.
She blinked down at him, her expression innocent. "I need to have a clean area to work with," she said. "I could make it all fall out, too, but isn't this nicer?" She stroked his hair lovingly.
It did feel a lot nicer, not that Alrek would ever, ever admit it. He had a sensitive scalp, and washing it was such a pain he rarely bothered. For similar reasons, he hated when people touched his hair, no matter how delicate they were.
He felt oddly warm. A bit calmer, albeit still pissed off. A little groggy. "What... did that medicine do?"
"Dreampoppy oil," Poppy said happily. "Oh, that's a wonderful question, too! I love it when my patients are curious." She had that sickeningly-sweet condescension that indicated she didn't really care to answer his questions about her methods. "Dreampoppies were first created by a nymph from the Glade of Desire. It's very famous because they were used to capture a demon who was also named Poppy!" She giggled down at him and winked. "No relation, of course. My mothers just loved the flower."
"I wasn't asking about their history." Alrek spoke slowly, trying to avoid slurring his words. Unfortunately, this led to his voice sounding very quiet.
"Aw, I'm sorry." She tsked, continuing to stroke his hair. "The dreampoppy oil makes you a little bit sleepier and numbs the pain."
"Cou'n't... willow gum..."
"Willowberry gum! Ooh, you're quite the chemist, aren't you?" Her deep brown eyes were molten with false sincerity as she started twisting her fingers into arcane gestures above his head, lips pursing to deliver several short, soundless whistles. A warm pink-ish glow started to suffuse the room. "Willowberry gum is less effective and blocks most mental magic—including healing. Besides, it also numbs all sensation. Dreampoppy oil only numbs the pain."
For emphasis, she booped his nose. He blinked and flinched, glaring fiercely. Gods, if they hadn't already paid, he would crawl out right now, even if his head had been cut clean off.
Her hand ran over his head, over and over again, slow, calming strokes. "I need you," she breathed, "to relax, now, dear. Can you do that? Just relax."
The rosy glow started to settle around him, and he began to feel warmer. Drowsy. Heavy. Thick. "Um... but..."
"That's good," she whispered, as her fingers traced nonsensical designs over his cheek, his neck, as her hand gently petted him. It sort of tickled, but mostly, it just felt... well, nice. "That's very good. Just... relax..."
His eyelids fluttered. He could feel the magic approaching, and he knew it was going to heal him. Knew he had to let it heal him. "I..."
"You must be good, now," she breathed in his ear, her whispers clicking and dripping with that Northern accent. "I know, you're very strong, but the magic doesn't work if you don't relax. I'm going to heal you. Trust me, dear."
His breaths were getting slow, languorous. Everything was glowing. Poppy was a beacon of rosy light as she smiled down at him, her touches so pleasant, her petting so... soothing...
"You mustn't worry," she whispered, stroking him, leaning over him, and Alrek felt a sudden awareness that he was numbed only to pain, his traitor body reacting when his eyes slipped up to her massive chest as it jiggled right above his head. He stared at her breasts, face red, as her fingers continued to run over his scalp, her voice in his ear growing softer and softer. "You feel safe here, don't you? I'm going to keep you safe. Relax... relax..."
And when he finally relaxed, Poppy's magic started to pour into him, and he reluctantly allowed it. His head buzzed and tingled with the intensity of the magic, but he forced his gaze away from the lovely view and focused on the simple but rather attractive amethyst chandelier above them both.
Idly, while Poppy worked, whispering her spells in his ear, petting him, stroking him, fixing him, a few inches from outright smothering him, he watched the chandelier and calculated its value, and how hard it would be to steal. It had to be the most valuable item in the house—not that he had any plans, but it was a habit from his thieving days, an easy distraction. The chandelier would be difficult to acquire, since a mage lived here and this room had no windows. Probably some spells. Two other tenants to account for. Maybe enter through the window right outside the chamber, bring a newt along to test for traps...
Boobie traps, his treacherous mind whispered, as the nurse's breasts came back into focus. No. No, he wasn't going to think about those. He refused to get aroused by any of this. He wasn't aroused. He was thinking about the chandelier, and how best to steal it. Not about Poppy's massive, quivering-with-every-motion, positively-straining-against-her-blouse...
"There," Poppy cooed, bringing him back to focus as she pulled away. "Isn't that so much better, dear?"
Alrek was starting to feel better, he had to admit. The unpleasant ringing was fading away, and though he couldn't really feel much pain right now anyways, he guessed that the wound was mending well. It was hard to think about the pain. He blinked rapidly, trying to clear any lingering... distraction.
"Yes," he managed.
She giggled. "Oh, we're so close to being done," she said happily, running her fingers teasingly through his hair. He scowled. "You're doing so, so well, too! We'll have to give you a candy after this!" She winked.
Alrek's cheeks were burning again. "I don't want a candy," he muttered, before realizing how petulant it sounded.
"Aw." She sighed, leaning over again. She was seated next to him in such a way that she could easily rest his head in her lap, he noted uncomfortably, as something like the opposite of pain started creeping into his mind from down below. In this rosy world, he couldn't help but admire how full her chest was, especially with that midriff-baring blouse. "Are you still mad about having to be here, dear?"
He frowned. Something felt off. Had it... always been midriff-baring? Hadn't it been covering, um, more of her before?
Her hand sent waves of tingly glitter into his mind, dazzling him, scattering his thoughts. "Don't you feel nice, though? So much better?"
His eyelids fluttered slightly as the healing magic brushed away his concerns. Despite the healer's frustrating treatment, he did feel better. Much better. And he probably hadn't noticed how she was dressed before due to his concussion. It wasn't as if it was that scanty. He couldn't even see much of her cleavage.
He squirmed slightly, feeling discomfort down below. Not that he was looking. It was just... hard to look anywhere else. She was smiling so condescendingly at him, he didn't want to look at her eyes. And it was hard to look elsewhere in the room with everything so foggy. It was easy to stare. But he couldn't be seen to stare.
"Dear?" He blinked hard, staring up at her. Focus. Focus. She was smiling that patronizing smile again. "Are you feeling better?"
He felt wonderful. A little too wonderful, with her breasts bouncing right above him, her ass so soft and plush as it squished against his face, that silken skirt brushing pleasantly by his cheek. She was like... like a second pillow, almost. And her touches kept sending those nice pinpricks of relief. A little too wonderful.
... wait. He managed to restore his frown. Was she sitting on the operating table now? Right next to him? When had she moved up there?
"No," he muttered, trying to think through the fog. She was being... too much. Too much touching, too much flirting. This felt wrong, even if the magic required her to do all of this.
She shook her head, eyebrows raising. "No? You don't? But you seem..." She blinked, glancing back to the cabinet. "Oh! Oh, poor dear, you're right."
She didn't answer, instead doing something just out of his admittedly limited field of vision. She turned back, now holding up a spoonful of... oh, no, not more.
She smiled brightly and patted him on the head like a puppy. "Say 'ah,'" she cooed, holding up the wooden spoon, full almost to overflowing with that horrid sugary syrup.
"You—" He didn't even manage a second word before his mouth was full of sappy, sticky goodness. "Mm!" he protested.
And her equally sappy, sticky, sugary voice was cooing, "There's a good patient for Poppy." All the while, she stroked his hair, petting him, rewarding him. Praising him.
He stirred slightly, lips smacking as the spoon pulled out of his unresisting mouth. He blinked up at Poppy. She was... sparkling...
She stroked his hair, and he couldn't help but sigh at the nice, comforting feelings her hands were pouring into him. "Such a good patient! So good. You're doing so well. Mm." She glanced down his body and lightly covered a giggle. "Oh, yes, Nurse Poppy understands the problem."
"Mm." He stared up at Nurse Poppy's bounteous bosom in a daze. Everything was pink. He felt so sleepy, but he couldn't quite fall asleep. He could only lie there, half-awake, and enjoy her stroking. Enjoy being petted by Nurse Poppy. Or... try not to enjoy it, for some reason.
"Oh, Nessi!" she called, her voice so pretty and musical he barely heard the words. "Nessi, Nurse Poppy needs you, sweetie!"
Alrek felt himself sinking into her every touch, into her nice, soothing petting, her tickling fingers gliding over his sensitive face and neck and arms. Sparkling. Tingling. Sending his mind spinning in misty, sleepy spirals.
He did feel some vague embarrassment, though, when he realized she'd been smiling at his tented trousers. He hoped she wasn't going to make a big deal about that.
TO BE CONTINUED...