Neither Pen, Nor the Sword
“Kevin?” Anji shifted on the bed to face her husband, curling her head onto his shoulder.
“mmm.” Kevin pulled an arm around her on instinct, staring sleepily up at the ceiling.
“I’m… tired.” Anji bit her lip, sighing. “Of leading, I mean.”
“You don’t have to,” he told her softly. “Not here. It’s just a job, love. You’re the best one for it, but others will fill in if you don’t.”
“No one would want the position.” Anji pulled herself up, her hair tickling the man’s neck. “No one… Wants anymore, I guess. We’re fighting, but we do it because we get food at the end of the day, and even then people are working a half-day and calling it done.”
Kevin looked at Anji with concern. “That’s just your end-of-day exhaustion talking, sweet. You should take a vacation, come back to it when you’re less stressed.”
Anji rolled her eyes, and settled back down, nestling next to him. “Maybe you’re right, Kevin. But… I really think something’s wrong.”
“Where are you getting--” With a soft plop
, a small human form deposited itself on the bed between them. Anji tensed, immediately pushing away and putting a hand to her hip, while Kevin patted the boy’s head in surprise. “What are you doing here, little man?”
“I couldn’t sleep,” Malakhi explained, wriggling up toward the pillows.
Anji relaxed, and fell gratefully onto the pillow, hand moving up to tousle Kevin’s hair. “At all?”
“I wanted your help.”
Kevin grinned. “All right, Malakhi, how can we help you sleep?”
The little boy curled up in between them, closing his eyes. “Like this.”
Anji looked at Kevin tensely.
Kevin stroked her hand, and pulled the blankets over the three of them. “Sleep well, little man.”
“Come on, Malakhi.” Anji urged, slipping out of bed. “We need to get you to school.”
“But I don’t want
to,” the boy complained, clinging to the pillow. “School is boring
. Can I just follow you an’ Kevin?”
“No.” Anji said, pulling knives into their sheaths. “We’re just doing boring paperwork things, anyway. Just like school. Except we don’t get recess. You want recess, right?”
boring paperwork things,” Malakhi claimed, smiling mischievously.
“Then you’ll do perfectly fine at school.” Anji pulled her hair up into a ponytail, frowning sourly at her reflection for a moment before giving up and pulling on her boots. “You’ll even get to play with friends, and Kevin and I will pick you up at the end of the day! Doesn’t that sound more fun?”
“And I’ll tell you what,” Kevin said, emerging fully-dressed from the washroom. “Get ready really quickly, and we might have time to take you to school in a spaceship.”
“A spaceship?” Malakhi said excitedly, before sprinting out of the bedroom.
“A spaceship?” Anji echoed.
Kevin winked at her, and nodded. “A spaceship.”
Anji bit her lip, and focused on tying her shoes.
Kevin knelt beside Anji, pulling the shoelaces out of her hands. “Allow me,” he said, mock-gallantly, gazing up into her eyes as he tied them.
Anji half-smiled, leaning down to kiss him gently. “I’m gonna go ahead and get to the guildhouse, okay?”
Kevin nodded, standing. “I’ll meet you after the spaceship, beautiful.”
Anji smiled widely at him, and moved closer as if for a hug, before pulling away and walking out of the room. Kevin heard the outer door close, and Malakhi ran back in, with both shoes untied and his shirt only half-buttoned. “We can go onna spaceship now? Right Mister Kevin?”
The man laughed, bending down again to tie Malakhi’s shoes. “The spaceship will wait while we get a little fixed up, Mal. I’ll do the shoes, you do the buttons.”
Malakhi nodded, and began fixing his shirt, ending with it only a little crooked. “Now we can go on the spaceship?”
Kevin nodded, with a wide grin, and swooped Malakhi up in his arms. “Ready for takeoff?” he asked, as he walked down the stairs of the apartment.
“Yeah!” Malakhi laughed, whooping as they went down the stairs and out into the street.
“All right…” Kevin carried Malakhi down the street, swinging him up and around with quick motions, making the occasional fake spaceship sound effect. He gathered a few laughs from passersby, and a few more odd looks, but he paid no attention to any but his chosen four-year-old one-man audience. The boy laughed and hollered down the street, enjoying the feeling of flying through the air.
Anji glanced around the nearly empty house, littered with bits of broken bottle and discarded trash. Whirling on the first member she found, she demanded. “Who made this mess?”
A man looked up from his cup, swaying dangerously. “Wot’s it matter to you, girlie? We’s just havin’ some fun, is all?”
Anji glowered at the man angrily. “Pick this up, Carter. Any damages are comin’ out of your pay.”
The drunk looked up at her, laughing to himself quietly and elbowing his friend, already passed out. “She thinks she’s a godsblessed queen, she does.” Turning back to Anji, he looked her up and down appraisingly. “Ye ain’t much, girl. Ya won’t be takin’ none o’ my pay.”
Anji stared him down, taking a deep breath before quickly relieving both men of their pendants. “Get out.” she ordered, voice filled with disgust. “You are no longer members of Severed Storm.”
The men grumbled, and Anji turned on her heel, striding into her office and slamming the door behind herself.
Kevin walked into Anji’s office a little breathless, holding out a fresh cinnamon bun for her. “I miss any fun?”
Anji shook her head, taking the bun wordlessly. She settled into the corner of the room, devouring the bun.
“Cleaning out the trash?” he asked, jerking his head toward the door and the men he’d passed on his way in.
This garnered a snort from the woman, and she tossed the two pendants to him, before returning to her breakfast.
Kevin toyed with the pendants in his hand. “Lot of thugs in the old Severed Claws because Hector could physically command their respect, or at least obedience,” he said. “They don’t need to be here… but too, you don’t need to handle them all yourself, love. Guild’s big enough that you can deputize.”
Anji offered him the rest of her bun, turning to her desk. “It’s getting worse. That’s the tenth sack I’ve made this week.”
Kevin pushed the pastry back to her. “I’ve had mine. You could appoint lieutenants,” he suggested. “Put Hector in charge of keeping that lot in line, give some of them to Ben, some to Oracon… Or you could rebrand. Make a statement about what Severed Storm stands for, so any who want out can leave themselves. Throw a ball.”
“Uh… Throw a ball?” Anji shrugged, and set the pastry down on her desk.
Kevin nodded enthusiastically. “A dance. A formal-dress party. Show
people that you expect your guild to be civilized, and while we’re gathered there you’ve got the opportunity to announce whatever you’d like, for the guild’s ears and those of all the other important people we invite.”
“...Okay…” Anji smiled. “But I don’t know how to plan for a ball, or for anything like that, really.”
Kevin pulled a chair over to Anji’s desk, sitting close beside her. “You are in luck, my love. You happen to be married to a man who is as versed as any could possibly hope to be in how to plan a ball.”
Breakfast ignored, Anji pulled out a piece of paper, smiling softly. “Well, let’s see how it goes, then.”
- room dressing
- hired help
Anji sat back, eyeing the list with some speculation. “What’s the cost going to be?”
“Depends on this,” Kevin said, tapping the list with his forefinger. “We could save some on venue if we host it in our guildhall, though we’ll have to make sure we’ve got the space. Invitations, catering, entertainment, room dressing-- all vary widely based on what decisions we make. Shouldn’t be inordinate, though; there aren’t so many dignitaries here to invite.”
“You know what you’re doing.” Anji ran her fingers through her hair nervously. “I trust you can handle it.”
Kevin smirked. “What, you’re not even going to join in the fun of planning your own party? Come on, I know
you’ll have strong opinions on whom to invite.”
“Yes, and you… You’ll probably handle it better.” Anji played with the hilt of a knife. “Dunno this stuff, Kev’.”
“I’ll teach you.” Kevin smiled encouragingly, pulling a new blank paper between the two of them. “It’s more fun to work together.”
Anji rubbed her jaw, and nodded, settling back next to him. “What do I need to know?”
“The list is there as our guide,” Kevin said. “So first, we’re going to draw up a list of the people we want
at the ball. First the must-have dignitaries, and the guildmembers of Severed Storm, and then anyone else we think should be there. I’ll start-- we need Legias and Adam, and Lori, if we want this to be respected.”
“Respected?” Anji looked at him with confusion. “Not like there’s royalty coming.”
“Other than the hostess.” Kevin laughed. “You want people to take this seriously, right?”
“Well, you do, mainly.” Anji shot back, sticking out her tongue.
Her husband sighed. “You want people to take you
seriously. And your authority.”
“Then we do this right. And we have the important leaders from the city in attendance, because that shows that they
take you seriously.”
Anji nodded, sitting back. “You’re the boss.”
Kevin jotted down some names, adding, “The other guildleaders. Salvantas, Seire Valefar… anyone I’m missing? You know the guild scene better than I do, dear.”
“If you say so. What do you think of a few generic Loreknight invitations with Lori’s?” he suggested. “I don’t know her people well, but she’s important enough to expect to bring some deputies with.”
Anji grinned widely. “Can you invite Fern?”
“You’re the boss.” Kevin wrote the name down, and asked, “Who’s Fern?”
“He’s a friend of mine.” Anji smiled shyly, and glanced away.
“Maybe I should meet this friend.”
Anji rolled her eyes, and punched him lightly. “You met him already, I think.”
“Short guy? Circumlocutes?”
“Talks funny. Like that.”
“Yeah, he’s nice.” Anji smiled again.
Kevin ruffled Anji’s hair. “Any other nice guys I should be worried about?”
“There’s one. Average, blonde hair, thinks he’s Dragon’s gift to mankind.”
“mmmm. He sounds handsome.”
“Yeah, he would say something like that.” Anji kissed him on the cheek, and turned back to the list. “Hector?”
“Absolutely. And what about that mage, Marcus’ friend?”
“Uh.. Mirae? Sure.” Anji glanced at Kevin, “Make sure you invite Marcus.”
“He’s in the guild, silly.” Kevin pretended to punch her on the arm. “You think I’m going to leave out members just because they get on my nerves?” He scribbled Marcus’ name down on the list of Severed Storm members.
“Well,” Anji glanced outside. “Guess it’s time to go pick up Mal. You stayin’ to plan?”
“I guess I could, at that,” he said. “Sunday night sound good to you?”
“I won’t see you ‘till Sunday?”
“Silly,” Kevin rolled his eyes. “I mean, can I set the party for Sunday? If we’ve got a date and you’re set on holding it in the hall here, I can go ahead with invitations.”
“Sure,” Anji smiled. “I can take care of all the work during the party, so we can save there, all right?”
Kevin made a face. “Leave the fine-tuning to me, love. All you’ve got to do is drag Malakhi along and make your speech.”
Anji bit her lip. “About the speech… Is it necessary?”
Kevin swung Anji playfully into his lap. “I thought that was what this was all about.”
“Y-yeah, but I thought you were making the speech.”
“I can, too,” he answered. “But you’re the guildleader. You’re the one everyone’s supposed to listen to. And you, my love, are the hostess.”
Anji swallowed hard, and nodded, biting her lip. “I’ll go get Mal now, okay? What time you think you’ll be home?”
Kevin grinned. “I bet you dinner I’ll beat you home.”
“You’re on.” Anji smiled, running out of the office.
“Come on, Mal.” Anji begged, kneeling by the toddler. “We’re gonna go home, buddy.”
“I can’t go home now
,” the boy insisted. “I need to take the dragon back to his house!”
“The dragon.” Anji said, raising her eyebrow in confusion. “What happened to him? You know all dragons need to be in their houses by sunset, right?”
“His house is in our classroom,” Malakhi explained. “Behind our coats. But he wanted to go for a walk so I let him out at lunchtime and I promised
I’d take him back home but he’s waiting for me so I can’t leave yet!”
“Ah.” Anji reached into her satchel, producing a small jar. “Well, why don’t we take mister dragon home with us then? I’m sure he’d love to see your room, and everything in the apartment. And then you can bring him back tomorrow morning.”
“But I promised
! Can I just run back and put him in his house really quickly? The coats are gone so it will be fast.”
Anji glanced at the empty yard, with a janitor turning the last key and walking down the street. Glancing at first the door, then the boy, Anji asked, “Mind if I follow you? I won’t look, I promise. But I want to make sure mister dragon gets in his house safely.”
“You can come,” Malakhi said, warning, “but don’t get too close. Dragons eat people, you know.”
Anji nodded sagely, and began walking up to the door, glancing around for any monsters. Pulling a set of hooks out of her pocket, she quickly undid the lock, glancing around the street calmly while ushering the boy in. “Hurry now, Mal! I don’t know how long I can keep the monsters distracted.”
“Okay, come on, Dragon,” Malakhi announced, striding stoutly into the school. He made a beeline for the back of his classroom, where he walked along the wall, tapping the coathooks with his hand. “Now this is your house, dragon, so you have to go home now.”
“Mal?” Anji called. “Is mister dragon safe now?”
so,” the boy said. He wandered over to a set of plastic toys, plopping himself down on his stomach.
“Mal. It’s time to go.” Anji strode into the room, hair blazing in the setting sun. “We’re going to be late for dinner.”
“Up we go, buddy.” Anji swung him up onto her shoulders, quickly walking out of the building.
Malakhi squirmed and giggled, waving back toward his classroom. “Bye, dragon!”
Anji stepped out of the school, scanning up and down the street before pulling the hooks out and resealing the door. “There. Now mister dragon will be safe.” She looked up at Malakhi, and asked, “Ready to go home?”
The boy nodded, throwing his arms around Anji. “Thank you, miss Anjali.” As an afterthought, he added, “Dragon says thank you, too.”
Anji set him down, stretching for a moment before offering her hand. “Come on, little guy. Time to go make dinner.”
Malakhi hugged her arm with both of his, bounding happily down the street.
Anji swung him up the last steps to the apartment, sighing tiredly and opening the door.
“Welcome home,” Kevin’s voice called from the kitchen.
Anji threw her satchel on the couch, ignoring Malakhi’s playful giggling as he raided the small toy chest in the living room. “Hey. If you’ll give me a moment, I’ll start dinner.”
Kevin snorted, and walked to the doorway with a steaming frying pan in his hand. “No need, beautiful. This is for us. And this
,” he added, deftly picking up a gold-edged square card from the table in his off hand and holding it out to Anji, “is for you.”
Anji took it, careful to not dirty the paper. “What’s it?” Smiling, she looked back up, “Oh, so I’m making my own meals now, eh?
Kevin swatted at her with a hand. “Didn’t I say winner makes dinner?” he asked innocently.
Anji rolled her eyes, settling down on the table. “So, what’s the shiny for?”
“I figured you deserved an invitation,” Kevin said, beginning to portion out the cooked beans and cheese. “Even if you are
Anji looked at the paper wonderingly, light reflecting the gold paper against her eyes. “It’s pretty. Must ‘ave cost a fortune.”
He rolled his eyes. “Less than you think. Not worth a thief’s time,” Kevin teased.
Anji bit her lip distractedly, smile twitching on her face. “Thanks for dinner.”
“Hey, I owed it to you.” Kevin tweaked her on the nose. “Next time you beat me home, you cook.”
Anji put her head in her hands, taking a deep breath before sitting up and digging into the meal, contributing little to the dinner conversation of how dinosaurs and dragons always fought with each other constantly.
“Any volunteers for a mission?” Anji called, sweeping into the main room from her small office, door slamming behind her. Several members glanced up from their cups, only to turn back to them. A few, large and burly, stood, and strode silently out. Anji rolled her eyes, biting her lip anxiously for a moment before noticing a familiar form, head on his arms and snoring quietly on one of the tables.
Snorting with amusement, she walked up to the man, punching him lightly on the arm. “Marcus? Wake up, you lazy ass.”
The fighter jumped in his seat before turning to glare at Anji, his eye glittering. “For the love of heavens, Anji, what is it?”
“Need some help.” Anji turned to look at the now-empty commons, before sighing with frustration. “Want to?”
Marcus then glared at the empty room. “Well, I suppose you need it. What’s wrong with these guys? I hardly take local jobs anymore since Mirae and I are off exploring so much; why do they avoid them like the plague?”
Anji shrugged tiredly, and began walking out of the building. “I’ve been running ragged trying to keep things runnin’. Nobody wants to deal with… this anymore.” She gestured broadly at the city and surrounding land.
“Idiots,” he said as he walked alongside her. “We live in one of the most dangerous places ever and now the threats are closer than they ever have been before. We need to watch this place or it’ll come back to bite us in the ass.”
“Thank you, Master Speaker,” Anji snapped, making a left. “I’m sure those riveting words will inspire thousands.”
“Well, someone is testy today,” Marcus drawled back. “Besides, I already tried ‘inspiring,’ either I’m not very good at it or it’s just not what people want to hear, but regardless I’m clearly wasting my time trying to be anything but blunt.”
Anji snorted. “There seems to be somethin’ on the outskirts of town, harrasin’ workers at night and scaring kids. Up to us to figure it out an’ stop it.”
“Wow, that is positively mundane. No obvious magic, odd details or mysterious hooded figure performing odd ceremonies in the park.” Marcus rolled his shoulders and took on a nostalgic tone of voice. “Reminds me of when we were all just starting out here.”
“Yeah, no responsibilities.” Anji cracked a smile, quickly sobering.
“Liar,” he replied cheerily. “You started a guild within a week of getting here and brought Zi with you; you’ve always had responsibilities. You just hardly noticed till now.”
“Yeah, well, it can go to Wolf for all I care.”
“One of these days you’ll have to tell me what the Wolf did to piss you off so much.”
“He… Oh, forget it.” Anji turned a final corner, and began inspecting the alleyway. “I don’t see any recent prints.”
“Anji, that’s cobblestone,” Marcus said. “You are in desperate need of some sleep.”
“‘n your mother was a cockatoo.”
Marcus glared angrily. “Anjali, what did I say about bringing up my family while you’re insulting me?” he growled.
“Oh, stow it.” Anji turned back to the dumpster, clambering onto it confidently.
The warrior made further noises of irritation in his throat before forming a coherent question. “So, was anyone able to give you a description of what this thing looked or sounded like?”
“No one had a clear description, but every report said it was large.” Anji turned back to face the man, sliding to the cobblestones easily. “Large enough to knock a man over, and spill his groceries, taking a full half-roast of beef with it.”
“That’s… odd. Sounds more like a human stealing something than any animal. You sure this isn’t a werebeast? We had lots of those in the home country. We even had this story about a mage who reanimated a monster made of…” He trailed off catching her glare. “....Well, it’s really not important.”
“They… There’re beasts like that?” Anji asked, chewing her lip.
“Yeah, not exactly the most common of things, but then again, we’re several miles up in the sky right now,” Marcus replied, shrugging his shoulders.
Anji nodded, and began exploring the crumbling wall, peering into the open spaces for a few moments before moving on. She wandered a bit away from Marcus, before suddenly disappearing into the wall.
Marcus waited for a minute before throwing up his hands in frustration. “You know, Anji,” he called out to the surrounding buildings, “werebeast or not, it’s still a bad idea to separate while we’re looking for this thing.”
Anji tumbled back out of the hole, falling into a roll that ended with her head banging painfully into the cobblestones. Moving quickly, she stood, scrambling up to pull another knife free, blood dripping down her arm. “Marcus!
” she screamed, backing away from the wall. “I found it!”
The tawny cat leapt at her from the shadows, pulling the smaller redhead down and pinning her arms.
However, before the cat could truly begin to harm Anji, a box soared in from the side and collided with the creature, knocking it off the small woman. Dusting off his hands, Marcus pulled out his mace before speaking. “See, that is exactly what I was talking about.”
Anji threw a quick knife, fear giving her speed as she backed away from the werecat, allowing Marcus to step in. The big man stepped forward and glared at the creature. “Look here, you. I don’t know if you’re a were or just a stupid animal. If you are a were, then I know you’re aware of your actions. If so, then you should really just surrender and I’m sure we can find you an honest job that doesn’t require you to frighten people in the middle of the night, but fighting us is just a dumb idea. We’ve both taken on much worse than you.”
The were shuddered, snarling at the club angrily. Standing on its hind legs, it began a slow transformation back to the trembling body of a man, curled up in a ball on the street.
Marcus glanced over at Anji in triumph. “See? I told you blunt was a much better option for me.”
Anji grumbled, wiping blood off of her face. “Just give him your jacket. It’s freezing out here.”
“Fine,” Marcus replied, walking over and covering the man with his jacket. “Have you considered just investing in one of the local apothecaries? They might see fit to give you a discount on all that salve you go through.”
“Why bother when I can just get some from you?” Anji said, pulling herself to a standing position. Wobbling, she walked over to the pair. “You got any on you?”
“I always did wonder where that one jar went to. You swiped it off me after Hara stabbed me in the back, didn’t you?” he accused, before producing another jar and beginning to rub the substance on her wounds.
“Of course not.” Anji objected, wrinkling her nose at her torn jacket. “I’m an upstanding citizen. What do you take me for, a thief?”
“You are a thief!” Marcus exclaimed. “If not after Hara, then when did you steal that jar? And don’t tell me it wasn’t you; no one else steals salve when the church will treat anyone for free.”
“Too much paperwork,” Anji complained, before wiping a stream of blood from her nose. Rolling her eyes, she pinched the back of her nose to stop the flow. “It bas that night. Bibn’t fink you’b nobice, what bif the apothecawy you cawwy arounb.”
“That’s why I noticed. If I don’t keep track of what I have, then suddenly I don’t have what I need to make salve and other medicines when I need it,” Marcus pointed out. “Also, the fact that I had to buy a new jar to put the salve in was kind of a giveaway.”
Anji glared at him. “Fink I could cop off somma thab salbe?”
“Have you ever considered just filling a bath with salve so you can just soak whenever you’re hurt? With most people it’d cost too much, but I think you’d get your money’s worth out of it,” he replied blithely, ignoring her question and finishing tending to her wounds.
Anj sighed, and reached in her pocket, producing a small pouch of coins. “C’n I buy ib?”
Marcus snatched the coins and rattled the pouch next to his ear before handing her the rest of the jar. “How did you even function before you met me?”
“Oh geb off ib.” Anji stood, carefully releasing her nose. “Can you take care of him for me? See if there’s a spare bed at the guildhouse.”
Marcus nodded. “Yeah, no problem.” He turned and walked over to the shifter. “All right, buddy, let’s get going.” He pulled the other man to his feet and began guiding him toward the guild hall.
Anji limped into the apartment, sighing heavily as she settled the heavy sword against the wall. Grunting with pain, she slid out of a leather jacket, shredded in several places, and walked slowly towards the bedroom. After showering, she slipped carefully into the kitchen, fingers moving slowly to prepare dinner.
Kevin walked into the apartment, Malakhi talking animatedly about the games he’d played at school. When the boy paused for breath, the man called out a hello to Anji. “What smells so good?”
Anji called back, voice filtering into the room. “Just some soup, nothing big.”
He came over to give her a kiss on the cheek. “Want any help?” Kevin offered.
Anji winced, “It’s almost done, just needs to… do that soupy thing.”
Kevin chuckled. “We can let it do the soupy thing, then, love.”
Anji smiled at him tiredly, and limped into the living room, settling on the couch.
“Long day?” he asked.
Anji nodded, face scrunching in pain as she adjusted more comfortably. “Yours?”
“Only ‘cause I missed you.” Kevin snagged a couple of pillows from the other chair, arranging them around her. “Sorry, love. I shouldn’t have said you should make dinner when you take everything so seriously.”
Anji lay back, closing her eyes. “Do not.”
Kevin put a gentle arm around her. “If I hadn’t said anything, would you have started cooking, or would you have taken a much-deserved rest?”
“Mmm…” Anji relaxed, “Mal needs to eat.”
“And our soup needs to not burn.” Kevin jumped up, going to the kitchen to take the pot off the heat.
Anji followed him, rubbing the back of her neck. “Sorry… Shoulda remembered.”
“That, my love,” Kevin said fondly, “is crazy talk.” He pointed a ladle at her, in the process of spooning the soup into three bowls. “You need to worry less and relax more. That’s what I’m here for.”
Anji looked at him balefully, “Not your job, Kevin.”
The man frowned. “You married me.”
“Yes, you did.” Anji smiled wistfully. “I’m gonna go lay down. ‘k? Call me if you need help with Mal.”
Kevin shoved her bowl into her hands. “Eat in bed, then, love. I won’t have you starving yourself. Especially when you slaved over this meal.”
Anji grimaced, and walked over to the couch, draining half of the bowl before curling up, slipping into a light doze.
“Good morning, beautiful.” Kevin kissed Anji and grinned, remembering his plans. “Ready for a day of glamourous party planning?”
Anji groaned, and pulled the pillow over her head.
“Sorry, sweet. I’d let you sleep, but we need to get Malakhi to school, bright and early.”
“Mmmm...” Anji sighed, pulling herself up carefully. “Needa go to work, don’t I?”
“Oh, you’re not going to work today.” Kevin smiled widely.
Anji looked at him, eyes bleary with sleep. “Wha-? ‘Course I gotta work.”
“Today,” Kevin said firmly, “you are coming with me.”
Anji leaned back on her elbows, one eyebrow raised. “I am, now? And why would I do that?”
Kevin went to the dresser and tossed her an outfit to put on. “Because you, my dear, have a party to plan. I invoke my right as husband to steal you away, and my authority as your deputy to assign your duties for the day to other guild members.” At the look on her face, he clarified, “Ben and Marcus are probably grumbling this very moment about the extra work they have to do.”
Anji smiled up at him softly, before beginning to dress, legs still firmly entwined with the blanket. “So, you’re kidnapping me for the day, huh?”
“My wife catches on fast,” Kevin said approvingly.
“I really don’t have a say in this, do I?” Anji laughed.
“You’re totally helpless.”
Anji stood, walking gingerly over to the man before enveloping him in a hug. “I’m excited, then.”
Kevin tilted his head down to kiss her. “So am I.”
After they saw the little boy safely off to his classroom, Kevin grabbed Anji’s hand, a boyish grin on his face. “Come on!”
Anji smiled back, following him quietly for a few minutes. “Where’re we goin’?”
“Clothing store,” Kevin told her. “Need to get Malakhi proper evening wear.”
“Yeah,” Anji smiled again, turning her head up to meet the sunlight. “Bet he’d be cute all dressed up.”
Kevin nodded distractedly, as he led her the rest of the way to the shop.
The store wasn’t large, but it was full. Dresses hung everywhere in the small space: silken slinky dresses, and huge poofy ballgowns, and every dress in between.
Anji’s eyes widened at all the finery, and she quietly slid her hands into her pockets, feeling small.
“Which one do you like?” Kevin asked.
Anji started, and looked around nervously. “What d’you mean, want? I can’t… I can’t afford any of this, Kevin.”
Kevin raised an eyebrow, putting a hand over her mouth. “Tell me which dress you want, Anjali. I wouldn’t offer you something that we can’t afford.”
Anji nodded, moving silently through the tiny shop.
“You can try out a few,” Kevin suggested, with a smile. He beckoned to the shopkeeper, a young woman with pins in her hair. “My wife would like a room to try on some of your dresses.”
The shopkeeper nodded, giving an appraising look towards the other woman before disappearing into the back of the shop. Anji glanced wonderingly at a dress, quickly looking away from it to turn to Kevin. “What do you think?” she blushed, looking again at the dresses. “I don’t know what to pick, honestly.”
“That’s why you get to try them on,” Kevin said. “I can even go in with you, tell you what I think.” He pulled the dress off the rack, slinging it over an arm.
Anji nodded, biting her lip. “You sure you’re okay with this? I’m sure I can find a dress second-hand or something.”
“Nova,” Kevin said gently, “I brought
you here. My wife is not hosting a ball in a second-hand dress; she will be wearing the best. Because she is the best.”
Tears filled Anji’s eyes, and she smiled again. “Thank you.”
“I love you,” Kevin told her softly. “Now let’s go try on some dresses.”
Anji nodded, and held out an arm. “I can help you carry those.”
He shook his head resolutely. “You need your hands free to point out exactly which ones you want to try.”
Anji bit her lip for the thousandth time, and nodded, quietly going through the dresses. She added a few to the pile. “Okay… I think that’s enough.”
Kevin nodded, leading her to the door that the shopkeeper held open for them. “If you aren’t satisfied with these, we can always go and look some more,” he reminded her, hanging the dresses up in the small mirrored room.
Anji nodded, slipping into the room. She emerged a few minutes later, poking her head out to call for her husband. “Hey, do you think I could get your help with the buttons, Kev’?”
“Of course.” He slid smoothly into the room, pulling the door closed behind him. Kevin fastened the buttons and laces that ran up Anji’s back before walking around her to get a look at the dress. “You’re beautiful, love.”
Anji blushed, staring down at the dress. “It’s this beast. I didn’t do anything.”
The blond man shook his head. “No, you were beautiful before you put it on. But you make it beautiful, too.”
Anji looked up at him, small smile on her face. “You really like it?”
“It’s flattering,” Kevin conceded. “Brings out your best.”
“Can I keep it?” Anji looked up at him pensively.
“It’s yours,” he said simply.
Anji beamed as they left the store, the dress wrapped in delicate paper, folded inside the bag that hung from her arm. She looked up at Kevin for a moment, before leaning her head on his arm.
Kevin hugged her around the waist tightly. “Now we probably should get something for Mal to wear,” he said. “Are you up for another shop?”
Anji nodded. “What about you?”
“I’ve got a dress uniform,” he admitted. “No real idea why I brought it, but it is
“Oh.” Anji glanced at the shop, and said. “You should get yourself something.”
“What do you recommend?” Kevin asked, grinning. “I am yours to command, Princess Anjali.”
Anji rolled her eyes. “‘m not a princess, you louse.”
“You married a prince.”
“You married a thief.” Anji produced a wallet, smiling impishly.
“I’d insist you give that back, but I think it’s mine.”
“It’s Marcus’, actually.”
“Oh. Okay.” Kevin shrugged, sauntering on to the shop.
Once they had purchased the dress clothes, Anji glanced at the midmorning sun. “So, what else you have planned, your royalness?”
“Well, first, I had better treat my victim to a gourmet lunch before she eats me. Then I was thinking we could do some preliminary set-up in our venue.”
“What’s gourmet?” Anji asked, blushing again.
“Very, very tasty.” Kevin ruffled her hair, turning down a street toward an area more rife with restaurants. “What are you in the mood for?”
Anji shrugged, “This is a nice part of town. Do… You come here often?”
“Silly. I’m with you often. Sometimes I wander to look for new places to take you, get a feel for a map of the city.” Kevin reached for Anji’s hand again. “You’re on holiday, love. That means you get to be treated to food someone else makes, while you sit back and relax.”
Anji glanced hungrily at each of the restaurants. “Do you have a favorite?”
“Never eaten at any of these places,” Kevin told her, shaking his head. “Only sniffed around. Besides, this is your day. What do you want?”
“How about this place?” Anji pointed to the store on their right.
“This place… is a grocery store.” Kevin frowned at her. “I want to give you something nice, Anjali sweet.”
“Sorry.” Anji looked at the bag, filled to bursting. “You’ve already given me so many nice things.”
“Good,” Kevin said amiably. “You deserve nice things. And now you deserve a nice lunch.” He smirked, leaning closer to her ear and dropping his voice. “It’s not like I’m generously giving all this stuff to you, sweetest. We’re married. The money belongs to both of us. I’m just nudging you along because I know you’d never treat yourself.”
Anji blushed again, and looked for a restaurant, finding a small cafe on the corner. “Here?”
Kevin rolled his eyes, and dragged her over to the steakhouse next door to the cafe. “How about here?”
Anji nodded, slipping into the restaurant. They were seated at a table, and Anji asked, “You have places like this at your home?”
“You mean in Orono?” Kevin asked, confused for a moment. “Similar, yes.”
“You eat there lots?”
He shook his head. “Think I went once. Had a pretty girl with me. But I have a prettier one now, whom I love, to boot.”
Anji ducked her head to hide a blush, and slowly met his eyes, her own twinkling. “You fell in love with your hair again, didn’t you?”
“Silly silly beautiful Anjali.” Kevin opened his menu, pushing the other across the table to her. “And afterward we can go over there.” He indicated the patisserie across the street.
“Pastry shop. Can’t stint on your dessert.”
Anji rolled her eyes, setting down the menu. “You’re trying to make me into some fat old maid, aren’t you?”
“mmmm. You’ll never be an old maid, darling. You’re my wife.”
Anji snorted, and began sliding her chair closer to her husband’s. Upon arriving, she leaned against his arm, entwining her hand in his.
“Move the table to the left, please.” Anji said, motioning to where she wanted it placed. Glancing down, she smiled to herself as she smoothed her dress, enjoying the feel of the fabric. Hearing a crash, she glanced up sharply, rolling her eyes. “No, you louse, you move the table to the left!”
The startled servant hastened to put the furniture in position as indicated. Across the room, Kevin was embroiled in last-minute discussion with the caterer.
“The dessert is entirely the most important part of the buffet! What do you mean, half supplies?”
Anji walked over quietly, and tapped the man on the shoulder.
“Hm? How’s everything, love?”
“Beautiful.” Anji smiled. “Except for this one guy. He’s always yelling? Bit of a grouch really. I don’t know who invited him.”
Kevin frowned. “Who is it? I’ll have a word with him.”
“Oh, you should.” Anji intoned seriously. “He’s about average height, blonde, bit of a stick, really. Dunno why the hostess is in love with him.”
Kevin narrowed his eyes at her. “Excuse me,” he told the caterer gravely, before he kissed Anji squarely on the mouth. “You silly, silly goose,” he told her fondly.
Anji smiled, and turned to the caterer. “Any way you can make a last minute run to the market? We could just have fresh fruits instead of an actual dessert.”
The caterer opened his mouth to argue, and Kevin caught his eye. “Yes, ma’am,” the man sighed, hurrying off.
Anji turned back to Kevin, eyes shining. “You look… Like a prince. It’s a good look for you.”
Kevin smiled. “And you, my Nova, look the dazzling princess.” A servant bustled over and Kevin gave a nod, not tearing his eyes away from Anji; the doors of the guildhall were thrown open to let in the guests.
“Lotta people,” Anji said anxiously.
“That’s good,” Kevin said calmly. “Means they’re listening.”
Anji swallowed hard, biting her lip before remembering the makeup on it. “I’m scared.”
“Here.” Kevin reached out, snagging two glasses of wine from a passing servant’s tray, and handed one to Anji. “One to cool your nerves. It’s going to be fine, love.”
Anji downed the drink in one go, arm trembling as she handed the glass back. “Thank you.”
“I’m here with you,” Kevin said, smiling reassuringly at her.
Anji smiled back, wiping her hands on her dress. “You’re loving this, aren’t you?”
“Any excuse to dance with my wife. Speaking of,” Kevin nodded at the small band, beginning to play their music.
“I don’t know how to dance
.” Anji hissed.
“Relax,” Kevin insisted. “I’ll lead.” He put one of her hands at his waist, resting the other on his shoulder, and arranged his hands to match. “Just follow me, sweet.” Kevin grinned mischievously and added, “And after this, everything else will be a breeze for you.”
“Oh, Phoenix and Dragon, I’m going to murder you.” Anji complained, trying to match her feet to her husband’s.
“You’re dancing beautifully,” Kevin told her with a smile. “Murder me once the music ends.”
Anji glowered at him, moving quickly around the floor. A small, frustrated smile grew on her face, and she said, “You’re enjoying making me squirm in this lovely dress and be a girl, aren’t you?”
“I’m enjoying letting you be you in a different context,” Kevin countered. “Don’t pretend you aren’t having fun.”
“Yes, but now you have the added bonus of getting me out of my element for once, and into yours.” Anji stuck out her tongue for a moment, quickly glancing around at the people nervously.
Kevin laughed, steering her through the dance over to a table. “You should eat something, sweet. It isn’t dignified for our guildleader to have her tongue lolling out of her mouth.”
“Well, I’m sure that we could turn this into a regular fight instead.” Anji surveyed the open area seriously. “Could probably use the tables as seats, make a bit of cash.”
Kevin picked up a pastry and stuffed it into her mouth. “Enough of that, you.”
Anji smile impishly, swallowing carefully before speaking, “I’ll be right back, love.”
Kevin gave her a peck on the cheek. “Don’t start any fights, love,” he teased.
Anji rolled her eyes, walking quickly over to the bar. Glancing around, she quickly poured two drinks, adding a hefty dose of a clear, delicious liquor to one. Restraining a smile, she walked back to her husband, and offered him a drink. “You look thirsty.”
Kevin accepted the glass, sniffing absently. “Lemonade? Thank you, sweet.”
Anji sipped her own drink in reply, quiet laughter in her eyes. “Only the best for you, love.”
He downed the drink. “Interesting flavour. Not entirely… lemon-y.”
“Old Askinovian recipe.” Anji looked up at him innocently. “You like it?”
Kevin raised an eyebrow. “Thought we had caterers for that, love.” Absently, he unbuttoned the top button of his shirt. “Little warm in here.”
“We do,” Anji nodded, “But I wanted to make yours. Would you like another?”
Kevin narrowed his eyes. “Since when are you so anxious to feed me lemonade?”
“Since you shoved me into a dress and decided I was a princess.”
He kissed her on the cheek. “You were a princess ever since you married me. Before that, as far as I’m concerned.”
“I could get used to all this pampering.” Anji demurred, kissing him softly. “I bet you wouldn’t mind that at all.”
“Wouldn’t mind it one bit,” Kevin agreed. “I could live with some more of your lemonade, too. A nice non-alcoholic alternative so I don’t die of thirst here.”
“Oh yes, non-alcoholic.” Anji finished her drink, and kissed him again. “Be right back.”
She returned a few minutes later, wide grin on her face. “Here you are.”
“Thanks, sweet.” Kevin raised the glass to her in a mock-toast before drinking. “You should eat a bit more and then get up there. Music’s dying down, they’re waiting for you to talk.”
Anji paled, downing her drink. “Can’t you give it?”
Kevin grinned, patting her on the back. “I’ll talk after you do, loveliest. Just tell them what you called them here for.”
Anji took several deep breaths, and walked into the middle of the room, calling for attention. “Uh, Hi.
“I’m here today as a guildleader, and as a friend. We’ve been through a lot, and sometimes we’ve lost track of what we are. I think that we are all heroes, in our own way. Each of us fighting and contributing to a single goal, which is no longer to have fun and explore a new area.
“There’s something out there, something dangerous. It won’t play fair, or be nice. It doesn’t care about chivalry, and only respects gambles. In that, I place my bet on us. We are all capable of amazing things, if we try hard enough. If we work together. We are able to do whatever we want, because this… This place is ours. We fought for it, bled for it. We want
“So you know what? I’m gonna start trying to get more of this place. Make myself a home out of a land that hates me. I, uh, I invite the rest of you to join me.” Anji paused, nervousness flowing back, “Thanks for coming guys, I’ll see you ‘round.”
Kevin finished his lemonade and joined Anji on the dais, leading everyone in a hearty round of applause. “My wife, ladies and gentlemen,” he said proudly, flinging an arm around her.
Anji looked over at him, smile playing on her face. “You feeling okay, Kev’?”
“Jus’ won’erful, my love,” he answered, loud enough for everyone to hear. “And feelin’ inspired by your speech.”
Anji’s eyes widened, and she began pushing him lightly. “I think you had a bit too much, Kev’. Let’s get you some… water or something.”
He waved her away, facing the gathered people. “They say the stakes are rising. Well, I say, let ‘em rise. We’ll kill all the monsters, win every fight, until we find our goal. They say it’s impossible, but I’ve seen the impossible done. This is the Floating Castle, and nothing is out of our reach!
“We will do the impossible, vince the invincible… we will stare directly into the ineffable, and, by God, we will eff it.” Kevin stumbled backward as he waved his hand, and Anji covered her mouth in an equally amused and irritated gesture.
“Come on, you drunk.” Anji led him to an empty table, eyes sparkling merrily. “You’ve had a bit much, I think.”
“I jus’ had one glass,” Kevin protested, following her.