Villains R Us

Okay folks. I need some help. As I mentioned in an earlier post, I am starting back up on a writing project I began during last year’s NaNoWriMo. Since I know several people who follow my blog are also writers, and let’s face it, you are a well-read bunch, I would like to ask for some advice.

I am still developing my main antagonist for my story. I have a few ideas. Due to the current political atmosphere, I’m thinking that a smarmy politician might work. They would need to be a leader, someone currently in power that needs to eventually be brought down. But I don’t just want a transparent, one dimensional villain. I want something with a bit more depth.

And so I turn to you, dear readers. In comments, please tell me about your favorite bad guys and what makes you like them so much. What made them powerful and what led to their ultimate demise. I would greatly appreciate it. 🙂

Heritage · Writing

Heritage – Part 10

A quick note – or actually, just a question. I’ve noticed a drop in participation in the polls for the Heritage posts. Has the interest in this story completely fallen off? Does anyone want me to continue with it, or find another feature to do with my Monday posts? Please give me your thoughts. In the meantime, here’s the next bit of the story.

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Heritage Icon

Minellye was nothing like Noshli expected.

Instead of tall, elegant elven features, Minellye looked very similar to Noshli herself. Was she also a half-breed? Noshli couldn’t think of another reason. Minellye’s elven features were still prominent – pointed ears, silvery eyes that seemed to glow softly in the dim light, white blond hair that fell nearly to her waist. But instead of the usual willowy build of an elf, Minellye was nearly the same height as Noshli. Come to think of it, Gimlineth wasn’t quite as tall as a full blooded elf would be, although he was taller than his sister. Noshli wondered if their half-breed status was part of what led to their banishment, but shook her head. She didn’t want to think of her father’s people being that ruthless. It meant nothing good for her future.

A future which would include trying to calm down one very angry elf.

Minellye glared at them from the door to the apartment. Althea took a step back, but Noshli pulled her to stay with her. It was obvious that Minellye’s anger wasn’t directed at them, but at her brother. “A word,” she said, grabbing his arm and hauling him into the room. Turning back to Noshli and Althea, she said, “Please give me a moment to speak to my brother.” The door snapped shut.

“Should we try to listen?” Althea asked.

“I wouldn’t,” Noshli said. “She doesn’t seem the type to mess with.”

“You’re right about that.”

Whatever Minellye had to say to her brother, it was brief. After a few minutes, in which Noshli hadn’t heard a thing from beyond the door, the door swung open again. “Please forgive my rudeness,” Minellye said. “You are welcome here. My brother says that you are friends who might be able to help us.”

“Friends may be a bit of an exaggeration,” Noshli said, with a hard look at Gimlineth. “You have information we need, and we have skills that can assist you. A mutual partnership.”

“Of course,” Minellye said. “Have a seat. We seem to have a lot to discuss.” She stepped further into the sitting room to where a small table and chairs sat next to a fireplace. As she took a seat, the firelight illuminated her arms, which were dotted with dark bruises. Noshli looked closer, but halted at the expression on Minellye’s face. “It’s nothing,” Minellye said. “An occupational hazard, if you will. I hardly notice it anymore. And with your help, I may not have to worry about it anymore.”

“I can’t guarantee anything,” Noshli said quickly, taking a seat and gesturing for Althea to do the same. Gimlineth did not sit, but chose to stand behind his sister’s chair.

“Understood,” Minellye said. “But you agreed to try, and that’s more help than we’ve had before.” She looked closely into Noshli’s eyes. “You have a great deal of power, don’t you.”

“I . . . I guess so,” Noshli said. “I haven’t spent much time around elves, so I don’t have anything to compare it to.”

“No, I can see it,” Minellye said. “You have more than I used to, that’s for certain. And way more than Gim ever had.”

Noshli glanced up at Gimlineth to see his reaction to Minellye’s claim, but his eyes remained impassive. “I have a question for you both,” she said. “You’re both half-breeds, aren’t you?”

“We are,” Gimlineth said. “It isn’t as noticeable with me, physically anyway. It’s part of why I have next to no magic at all. Minellye inherited magic, but fewer physical elven traits, much like yourself. Trust me, if I had magic on my side, we wouldn’t be in this situation.”

“And my magic has been waning ever since Nadine tricked me,” Minellye said, her face darkening. “I didn’t have that much to begin with, but then once she took the necklace . . .” Her voice trailed off. “It was all I had of my mother’s. She was sent away once they discovered that she was carrying a human’s child. Once she found out she was carrying twins, she convinced the clan to take us in. They weren’t happy about it, but they did it. We did the best we could to fit in, but it was never easy.”

“Why were you banished?” Althea asked.

“That is none of your business,” Gimlineth said quickly. “And that’s enough history for tonight. You agreed to help us in exchange for information on Naleniehl’s whereabouts, yes?”

“We did,” Noshli said. “Are you sure you know where to find him?”

“The clan travels to five different locations during the course of the year,” Minellye said. “They move with the seasons, usually twice during the summer. Always to the same places. We can tell you where they are now, and where they will be in three months.”

“Truly?” Noshli whispered. It was almost too good to be true.

“Truly,” Minellye smiled, but it didn’t quite reach her eyes. She looked exhausted. “Naleniehl is your father, yes?”

“He is.”

“Then he will help you,” Minellye said. “It would be dishonorable not to. Now, to the matter at hand. We need a plan to get you into the brothel so you can retrieve the necklace. Nadine keeps it in a chest in her private chambers. The chest is locked, of course. I’ve tried to pick the lock, but nothing has worked. If I still had my magic, I would be able to open it easily, so I assume you will be able to as well.”

“Probably,” Noshli said. “I don’t make a habit of picking locks, but I could probably figure it out.” She tapped her finger on the table, tracing the grain of the wood. “The easiest way to get in would be to ask her for employment.”

“What!” Althea said. “You can’t be serious!”

“We’re not really going to do anything,” Noshli said. “You remember how much she loved your hair? And how she kept staring at me? She’ll take us on.”

“I, well, I suppose . . .”

“You can go back home if you wish,” Noshli said. “You don’t need to stay. I would understand.”

“No,” Althea said, her voice becoming stronger. “I can do this. I will stay and help.”

“Very well,” Minellye said. “Arranging to see Nadine will be easy. Once you are hired, let me know and I’ll show you where the necklace is.” She held out her hand. “Are we agreed?”

Noshli didn’t hesitate. After so long, she finally had a clear plan and a clear path to her father. “Agreed.”

Heritage · Writing

Heritage – Part 9

Good morning! Welcome to the next bit of my story, Heritage. Guess what! I found some title art that I actually like! The problem is that I have no idea who to credit for this image. The picture was being used on a role playing site to represent someone’s character, but they had found it somewhere else and didn’t credit it. Also, I’ve cropped the image and added the title to this piece, so it’s been changed a little. The point is, if anyone knows who drew this picture, please let me know and I will gladly give credit for it (the RPG folks wouldn’t answer when I asked, which means either they don’t know or they think I’m going to bust on them for using it – oh well).

* * * * * * *

Heritage Icon

“Give us a minute, please,” Noshli said. She grabbed Althea’s arm and pulled her to the far side of the room, as far away from Gimlineth as they could get. A quick glance back at him convinced her that he would not try to eavesdrop. He looked determined to get their help, and if that meant providing them with some courtesy, he would do it. She still didn’t trust him completely – there was something about him that rubbed Noshli the wrong way. Still, if he truly knew her father . . .

“What should we do?” Althea asked, her lips barely moving. “What are you thinking?”

“My first instinct is to agree to his plan,” Noshli whispered back. “I don’t know if that’s a good idea or not, but that’s what my gut is telling me.”

“I can’t believe I’m saying this,” Althea muttered, “but I feel like we would be betraying Bella. And we met her first.”

“It’s not Bella we have to worry about,” Noshli said. “It’s Nadine. If she’s really trying to hold girls like Minellye against their will, then we need to do something. Besides, you saw how Bella reacted when she saw me. She hasn’t seen Minellye, that’s certain. And Bella seems to be there willingly, remember? She was practically gloating about working at the brothel.”

“You’re right,” Althea said. “So . . . we trust him?”

“I didn’t say that,” Noshli said, with another glance to Gimlineth. His face pointed towards the door, but Noshli could tell that he wasn’t really looking at it. His mind was far away. She wondered briefly what he had done to deserve banishment. “But he’s the closest lead we’ve had. We’ll try to help him. For now.”

Althea nodded. Noshli turned back to Gimlineth, who snapped back to attention at their approach. “We’ll try to get the necklace back,” Noshli said, “but we’ll need your help. And we need to speak to Minellye.”

Gimlineth winced, but nodded. “I didn’t tell her I was coming here,” he said. “She probably won’t be happy about it.”

“Why not?”

“Gods above, don’t you see? She’s embarrassed! To be exiled was humiliating enough, but what Nadine did has crushed her spirits so badly, she can barely do magic anymore. Still, if you can help us . . .” His voice trailed off. His face still looked troubled, but he stood up and replaced his hat quickly. “We can go right away if you like,” he said. “She should be home by now.”

“Why would she be getting home in the morning?” Althea asked. “Shouldn’t she still be asleep? It’s so early.”

“She was working all night,” Gimlineth said shortly. “Let’s go.”

Althea’s face turned bright pink, clashing with her auburn curls. “You really should know better than to ask questions like that,” Noshli said. With a chuckle, she pulled on her hooded cloak and followed Gimlineth out the door.

The streets were nearly empty this early in the morning. They walked past the fountain they had passed last night, that had marked the street where the brothel was. Gimlineth turned down the next street, then immediately ducked down a narrow alley, coming out into a much shabbier part of town. Lots of people were sleeping on the street, makeshift tents on either side with campfires, still choking out smoke after burning most of the night. Gimlineth ignored them and continued until he stopped in front of a building that had the look of an inn, but one that had gone to seed. He opened the door and beckoned Noshli and Althea to enter. A woman sat in the foyer behind a counter of sorts. She didn’t look up when they came in, but kept her head buried in a newspaper.

“She got home a few minutes ago,” the woman said. She looked up and stared past Gimlineth at Noshli and Althea. “Probably in no fit state for visitors.”

“It’s alright,” Gimlineth said. “I can handle her. Let’s go.” Noshli followed him up the stairs, Althea staying very close behind her. She suddenly worried about what they would find.


Heritage · Writing

Heritage – Part 8

Noshli stared at Gimlineth, who looked back at her calmly. So he wanted a favor, did he? She should have expected as much. “What do you want from me?”

“You are acquainted with Nadine, Minellye’s employer, yes?”

“We’ve met.”

“When we first met her, Minellye was only looking for someone to buy her ring. We were short on money, you see. When we were banished, we could only take as much as we could easily carry. Her ring was small, but had a few precious stones embedded in it, so we hoped it would fetch a decent price. Minellye met Nadine in the market. Nadine offered to buy the ring, but she was more interested in Minellye’s necklace. Minellye didn’t want to sell, since our mother put several protective charms on it, but when she left the market, she realized that the necklace had fallen off.” His face darkened. “Of course, Nadine was responsible. She has a few younger girls, too young to officially work in the brothel, but very good at picking pockets.”

“Didn’t you confront Nadine about it?” Althea asked. She had been uncharacteristically silent ever since Gimlineth arrived.

“Of course we did,” Gimlineth snapped. “We went to the brothel and demanded it back. She didn’t even try to deny it. Instead she told us that she wanted Minellye to work for her. Minellye refused, but Nadine threatened to expose the two of us if we didn’t do what she wanted.” He sighed, his face dropping his hostile expression. Despite the morning hour, he looked exhausted. “She’s fascinated with elves, Nadine is,” he said. “She’s promised to give back the necklace after a time, but each time we’ve asked for it, she has denied us. If we could get the necklace back, Minellye could leave. We both could. So that’s my price. Steal the necklace back from Nadine. Grant my sister her freedom.”

Noshli stepped backwards, the force of his glare nearly knocking her over. Before she could say anything, Althea jumped up beside her.

“And if we agree to this, how do we know you can help us?” Althea said. “If the two of you are exiles, are you in any position to help Noshli find her father?”

“Althea, please!” Noshli hissed. The more she looked at Gimlineth, the less she wanted him to know anything about her. She felt sorry for his sister, but that didn’t mean that Gimlineth could be trusted. If anything, his desperation made him dangerous.

“Your father?” Gimlineth said, his eyebrows raising. “Is that who you’re looking for? Who is he?”

“His name is Naleniehl,” she said after a moment. “I haven’t seen him in over ten years, but . . . what’s wrong?” Gimlineth’s face drained of color at the mention of her father’s name.

“I know him,” Gimlineth whispered. His eyes went flat, looking more like slate than silver.

“You do?” Noshli stared at him, not believing her luck. “How?”

“He was the one who banished us,” Gimlineth said. “He’s the leader of our clan. I know exactly where to find him. If you can help us, I will take you to him. Well?”

Heritage · Writing

Heritage – Part 7

Happy Labor Day to all my American friends! Hope you are enjoying a nice three-day weekend (or if you are working today, hope it goes quickly for you)! Here’s the next installment of Heritage. Question – does anyone know someone who could do so fan art for this? I’d like to have a banner of some sort to put with these posts, but I’m having a hard time finding anything suitable.

* * *

Noshli didn’t sleep at all that night. She stared at the ceiling, stared at the clouds passing over the moon out their tiny window, and listened to Althea’s muffled snores. Every time Noshli tried to close her eyes, they would spring open again. Finally she just stopped trying to sleep at all.

Slowly, the sky outside the window lightened from darkest blue to lavendar and pink. Noshli sat up and rubbed her eyes. It was morning. Nadine hadn’t said what time someone would be arriving. Just in the morning. It could be any time at all, couldn’t it? Who knows what hours those people worked? Noshli drew her knees up to her chest and rested her chin on top of them, her eyes glued to the window as the sky continued to change color. Good weather today. That was something.

A loud grunt issued from the other side of the room. Althea sat up and looked around blearily. Noshli glanced at her before returning her gaze to the window. Her head was already starting to pound and she did not want to deal with Althea’s guesses as to who would be arriving soon. She had had enough of that last night.

“You don’t think she’s sending another one of them to help us, do you? It’s bad enough we got saddled with that Belladonna woman. I know we had to accept their help, they’ve been the only people to even show an interesting in helping, but stil, they just make me so nervous! They could be sending anyone here! Anyone! Maybe we should just leave . . .

Yes, Althea had babbled on and on about her concerns. Noshli had no idea why the girl hated prostitutes so much. They didn’t bother Noshli. While she had never considered the profession herself, she didn’t begrudge those other women for making their way in the world. Perhaps they enjoyed their work, perhaps they didn’t. It didn’t matter to Noshli. Who was she to judge?

The sun rose higher in the sky when there was a soft knock on the door. Althea gave a small squeak and jumped out of her bed. Noshli also stood, running her fingers through her hair to smooth it down as best she could. She walked to the door, Althea jumping behind her, and opened it.

She couldn’t contain her gasp of surprise. Standing on the doorstep was another elf.

Yet this elf looked different from others that she had seen. He wore a knit cap on his head, which obscured his distinctive ears, but nothing could hide his silvery elf eyes. Although, Noshli noticed that his eyes were not quite as brightly colored as hers were. Maybe he wasn’t a full blooded elf either. She had no idea, but realized she had done nothing but stare at him for several minutes.

“I’m sorry,” she stammered. “Please come in.”

The elf raised an eyebrow, but stepped into the room. Noshli tried to step back to give him space, but Althea prevented her from doing so. The elf looked around the room, at the two mussed up beds, before taking a seat at the small table on the other side of the room. “I must say,” he said, “you don’t hesitate much before inviting strange men into your room. A tad unwise, don’t you think?”

Noshli scowled. Whatever spell his appearance had cast on her, it had just been broken. “You aren’t a strange man,” she said with venom in her voice. “You’re an elf and an expected visitor.”

“I’m expected, am I?” the elf said. Noshli wanted to smack the smirk off his face. “That’s good, at least. Glad to know one’s reputation preceeds them.”

“I know nothing of your reputation,” Noshli said. “Although I can guess at a few things. Nadine said that she didn’t have any male elf customers, but I guess she was lying about that.”

“I am not one of her clients,” the elf said. Noshli smiled at the sudden fire in his voice. Not so cool and confident after all. The elf sighed and pulled his hat off, revealing his thin, pointed elf ears and his head, which had been completely shaved. Noshli stared at him. Most elves who tried to live among humans kept their hair long in an attempt to hide their ears. She had never seen one with a shaved head before.

“If you aren’t one of her people, then who are you?” Althea asked, finally finding her voice. “She said you might be able to help us.”

“My name is Gimlineth,” he said. “I know Nadine because . . . because my sister works for her. We were exiled from our clan and had nowhere else to go. I can’t take on employment, obviously, but Minellye found herself in high demand on the streets before coming to work for Nadine. Nadine’s place is safer, since she can screen the men coming in. Minellye got quite a few beatings before that.”

“That’s terrible,” Noshli said. “Why were you exiled?”

“That is not your concern,” Gimlineth said with a glare. “Nadine mentioned that you were looking for someone. I can try to help, but it will cost you.”

“We don’t have much,” Noshli said.

“I don’t want money,” Gimlineth said. “Minellye takes care of that.” He stood and crossed his arms over his chest. “Here’s what I need from you.”

Heritage · Writing

Heritage – Part 6

Belladonna tapped the tip of her spoon against her chin, her eyes looking upwards in thought. She had been silent for several minutes. Her fingernails kept catching Noshli’s eye as they glinted in the light from the fireplace. They were painted in a multitude of colors, with curly cue flower designs on every other finger. Noshli couldn’t take her eyes off of them.

“I just don’t know,” Bella said at last. “It’s possible that there have been elves in the city, but if they were, they were very well disguised.”

“I thought you knew everyone in town,” Althea said.

“That I do, youngling,” Bella said. “But these elves you’re looking for wouldn’t live here, now woud they. They’d be outsiders, just like you, and probably trying just as hard to stay hidden.” She dropped the spoon on the table and stretched her arms up over her head. “We get a lot of travelers that come through here. Aerindan is a major thoroughfare for those heading to the mountains or to the coast. The Great East Road goes right through the center of town.”

“So now what do we do?” Noshli said. The faint stirring of hope she had when Bella had first sat down slowly drained out of her. At least now they might be able to get rid of the woman quickly. There was something about Bella that made Noshli nervous. She was already regretting asking for the woman’s help. Bella seemed like someone who you didn’t want to owe a favor.

“Even if I haven’t seen any of them, it doesn’t mean that I don’t know someone who has.” Bella smiled, her eyes twinkling. “I think you should come with me.”

Noshli glanced at Althea, who shrugged. “Fine,” Noshli said. “Let’s go.”

Bella winked and rose from the table. Althea stood up and rushed to Noshli’s side. “Are you sure about this?” she asked. “Do you know who she is? What she is?”

“She’s someone who is willing to try and help us,” Noshli whispered back. “What else are we going to do?”

“Are you coming or not?” Bella called from the door.

“Yes,” Noshli said. “We’re coming.” She pulled Althea towards the door. Fritz nodded to them from behind the counter, his eyes following them.

Shadows streaked across the streets, the sun dipping behind the buildings. Noshli barely registered anything other than a fountain shaped like a giant boar and a large building surrounded by a thick metal gate. Bella ducked down another street and walked up a set of narrow stone steps. She knocked on the door at the top, then opened it and walked in.

Noshli stepped through the door. The foyer was lit with an bronze candelabra sitting on a wooden desk. Behind the desk was another woman, her silvery gray hair drawn into a bun with whisps framing her face. After a few brief whispers between the two of them, the woman rose and approached.

“Bella said that you were looking for someone,” the woman said. She stared at Noshli so hard that Noshli involuntarily took a step backwards. “I’m Nadine,” she continued. “This is my house and my establishment. I must say.” She took a step towards Noshli, her fingers outstretched. Noshli flinched as her fingers gently grazed her face. “You are quite lovely,” she said. “Those elvish eyes. Quite extraordinary.” She looked past Noshli at Althea. “My word,” she breathed. “Your hair. It’s breathtaking! I could charge double for a girl with hair like yours.”

“Not interested. Ma’am,” Althea said.

“Come on now,” Bella said. “You act as though you’ve never been in a brothel before.”

“I haven’t,” Althea mumbled, her eyes focused on the floor.

“Bella mentioned that you were looking for someone,” Nadine said again. “Another elf. I don’t believe we’ve had any male elf clients, but there is someone I think you should meet. Where are you staying?”

“The Painted Dragon,” Noshli said. “Room eight.”

“Very well,” Nadine said. She smiled at the girls, but her smile didn’t meet her eyes. “I will sent them along in the morning.”

Heritage · Writing

Heritage – Part 5

A brief note before we continue on with our story. Yes, I know I cheated just slightly in that the first person they meet is not technically one of the ones you could vote for, but you meet the winner of the poll just shortly after that. And that’s the one that’s going to be important, I think it counts.

* * * * * * *

Noshli tried not to stare as she walked down the wide city streets. Aerindan was nothing like she had ever seen before. The buildings were tall and made of heavy stone, not the poor wooden structures of home. Even the inn she had stayed in last night looked flimsy in comparison.  A strong smell wafted from a set of stables on the left side of the street. Noshli turned away from them, pulling Althea between the other travelers to the other side, near a very official looking building. She peered into the open door and saw a line of people leading up to a counter. Behind the counter was a woman with a very no-nonsense look about her who was handing out money and other goods. Noshli couldn’t help but stop and watch.

“It’s a bank,” Althea explained, seeing Noshli’s confusion. “People can store their money and other valuables there.”

“How do you know about those?”

“We had a small one, back at our town,” Althea said.

“But what’s to stop them from keeping the money?” Noshli asked. “Or for one of those other people to take it?”

“Those guards,” Althea said. There were too very large men standing on either side of the counter, their arms crossed over their chests. Both were heavily armed, one with an enormous sword, the other with a smaller sword at his hip and a bow and quiver strapped to his back. The one with the bow met Noshli’s eyes and frowned.

Noshli dipped her hood lower over her face. “Let’s keep moving.”

They passed a few merchants, a small, plump woman who ran a grocery and a large metalsmith who was hammering on a large object that he kept shoving into the fire. Noshli kept moving, her hand firmly on Althea’s arm. She desperately wanted some place out of the open. With the amount of people on the streets, someone was sure to see that she was a half-breed. The last thing she wanted was another incident

The street made a sharp right turn, but at the corner there was a large building with a sign carved into the shape of a large dragon. Strangely, the dragon was painted in several different colors, giving it the appearance of being covered by a patchwork quilt. Above the door were the words “The Painted Dragon Inn” in neat gold lettering.

“An inn,” Althea said gratefully. “We can stay here.”

“Fine,” Noshli said. She handed Althea a few coins. “You arrange things with the innkeeper when we go in. I’ll hang back so that they don’t get a good look at me.”

“Maybe people here won’t mind as much,” Althea said. “In such a big city, I’m sure they’ve seen lots of different people.”

“Best not to take chances,” Noshli said grimly. They walked up the stone steps and pushed open the door. The first room was large with a roaring fireplace at the far wall. It was also nearly empty, the patrons of the inn either up in their rooms or some where on the town. Only a handful of people sat at the tables. Althea walked up to the counter, where a large man with an even larger beard was cleaning a glass.

“Good evening, young miss,” the man said. “Would ya be likin’ a drink?”

“No, thank you, sir,” Althea said. “My sister and I would like a room for the night. Do you have one available?”

“Aye, that we do,” the man said, his eyes drifting towards Noshli. She quickly averted her gaze from him. “Room eight is free. Just up the staircase on the right. Could I interest you gals in some dinner? We’ve a fine roast boar that’s been on the spit all day.”

Althea glanced at Noshli, who nodded. “That sounds wonderful,” she said. “We’ll take two.”

“That will be ten coppers for the pair of ya,” the man said. “Just have a seat and I’ll bring it to you shortly.”

They wandered into the large dining room and took a seat near the fire. The closest person to them was three tables away. Still, Noshli kept her hood up just in case. There was another person with a hood sitting in the corner, so she didn’t worry about looking out of place.

“This place seems nice enough,” Althea said. “And it will be nice to have a hot meal.”

“Definitely,” Noshli said.

“So what’s our plan for tomorrow?” Althea asked. “Rest up  tonight, of course. Then what?”

“I guess we’ll go into the town and make some inquiries,” Noshli said, feeling a rush of gratitude for Althea. It would be so much easier to ask questions if Althea was the one doing the talking. Her bubbly, cheerful personality made people feel at ease around her, not to mention her perfectly normal human features. “See if anyone around here has seen . . . you know. Some of them. My . . . family.”

“And just who would that be, girlie?”

Noshli froze at the unfamiliar voice, a woman’s voice. She hadn’t heard anyone approach them, but suddenly felt the presence of someone right behind her. The woman came around Noshli and leaned against their table. Althea gasped and Noshli looked up. The woman wore a low cut dress in a deep red color. The sleeves ended in a wide bell framed with dingy white lace. The woman’s face had been covered in stark white powder, her lips outlined in ruby red to match her dress. The makeup surrounding her eyes did little to mask how exhausted she looked.

“I’m sorry,” Althea said. Noshli was surprised to hear a note of coldness enter her voice. “But do we know you?”

The woman smiled. “Everyone in this town knows me, young lady. Which is why it’s clear that you aren’t from around here.”

“Belladonna!” Noshli jumped. The woman turned around and faced the innkeeper, who was carrying two plates. “You know you’re not supposed to bother my customers!” he said. “Leave these girls alone.”

“Why not? You bother my customers all the time. Besides, I’m not bothering anyone!” the woman said. She flicked a lock of her ink black hair over her shoulder. “You can ask them. Did I bother you?”

The innkeeper set the plates down in front of Noshli and Althea. “If you need me to throw her out, just let me know.” He straightened up and stared Belladonna in the face. “Don’t you dare try to recruit these girls. And leave their food alone. Do you understand me?”

“I understand just fine, Fritz. Now go away. Shoo.”

Noshli suppressed a groan as Belladonna dropped onto the bench beside Althea, which put her directly across from Noshli. “Now then,” Belladonna said. “You mentioned that you were looking for someone. I can help you with that, if you like. For a fair price, of course.”

“Do you really know everyone in town?” Althea asked.

“In my line of work, you have to,” Belladonna said with a chuckle. Then she gasped, a small, creaking sound of shock. “My heavens,” she whispered. Noshli closed her eyes in resignation and looked across the table. Belladonna was staring at her, as Noshli expected, but not with disgust or fear. She looked awed, her painted up eyes overly large, her red mouth forming a perfect O. “You’re one of them,” she said.

“We need to leave,” Noshli said. “We should never have stopped here.”

“No, please,” Belladonna said, her hand outstretched. “Don’t leave. I didn’t mean to startle you. It’s just that . . . I didn’t know . . .”

“Didn’t know what?”

Belladonna kept staring. It was starting to get on Noshli’s nerves. “Didn’t know you were real,” she whispered again, her voice sounding strangely childlike. “I’ve heard stories, of course, but I had no idea.” She stopped. “I’ll help you, if I can. If you will let me.”

Noshli shared a glance with Althea, who shrugged. It was odd, but Noshli suspected that Belladonna’s reaction was sincere. “Very well,” Noshli said. “You’re name is Belladonna, yes?”

“Oh please, call me Bella. Everyone does.” Bella pulled Althea’s plate over and scooped up a thin slice of pork. “So, who are you looking for?”