The guard walked down the cobbled streets, head leaned back enjoying the warm air of the midday autumn sun. Around him the good citizens of Breeford went about their business, nodding politely to the uniformed guard who strode languidly down the street.
He smiled and nodded back.
He was in a good mood.
This was his first major assignment, the first time he had been entrusted with something of real importance. He had only arrived in town this morning, having ran two horses to death attempting to reach Breeford in time. A bubble of laughter rose in his chest at the memory of their slack-jawed dead faces half-buried in the soft loam of the high road that ran through the Alvian mountains. His master had been very clear about the deadline, and he did not take failure lightly. He still remembered the feeling of warm blood winding its way down his legs as his master gleefully opened his back lash by lash, exposing raw muscle and bone.
He scratched at an armpit subtly. The guard hadn’t washed his clothes very well. He could feel lice crawling over his skin. No matter; the man’s form was only a convenient means to an end. He’d wash later.
He stopped beside a bakery, leaning against a wooden fence that overlooked the river, pulling out a small, grubby folded piece of paper from inside his creased leather uniform. Crude lines and landmark names scrawled over each other untidily, marked here and there with names. He looked at the intersection in front of him, smiled and folded the paper back up, sliding it away. He strode down one of the streets, whistling for the sheer joy of it. There was a kite shield bearing the city crest strapped to his back that weighed heavily on his shoulders, and he adjusted the straps to make it a little more comfortable. He wondered if these guards ever slid into dangerous situations on their backs, like attack turtles. The thought of attack turtles made him snicker with amusement.
The houses along the street he walked were large and elaborate, standing far away from the cobbled boulevard, hidden seductively behind towering oak trees or perfectly manicured hedges, each one hiding behind the apparent security of a gate or fence of some kind. To his left a stone manse rose powerfully, complete with two turrets joined by a covered bridge. To his right an open, airy villa curved around a manicured duck pond replete with quacking inhabitants.
The numbers on the gates were rising and he kept an eye on them, tucking another strand of long brown hair behind his ear.
There it was. He pulled a little piece of paper from inside his leather jerkin and double-checked the number.
The house was magnificent, a red-bricked bastion with emerald green ivy snaking over it’s powerful walls. Manicured grounds sprawled in front of it, flowers still in bloom despite the lateness of the season. Alistair pulled on the strong black iron gate that closed the gravel entryway from the cobbled boulevard. Locked, and strongly too.
But what luck was this? A liveried maid was walking up to the gate, strolling casually past the sculpted grounds. Her uniform was a black buttoned blouse over black tights that fit snugly over her well-defined legs. He leaned casually against the iron bars.
“Can I help you?” She was pretty; long black hair was braided elegantly around her head, framing her small but graceful features. She batted long eyelashes at him curiously.
He smiled smoothly, showing off the guard’s well-cared for teeth. “Well that all depends.” His voice resonated warmly in the cool morning air. The maid walked closer to the gate, a sly smile creeping up her young mouth.
“On what?” Her eyes were brown and locked on his. It was almost too easy sometimes, Alistair reflected distantly.
“I’m doing a routine inspection of the security in this area. Would you be able to direct me to the…back area?” He let his eyes flicker subtly down to her bosom. Not lingeringly, just long enough to prove his interest. “I just need to check that the service entry is properly secured, you understand.” She noticed his gaze, and a rosy bloom colored her cheeks. He was in uniform, shield and everything. Why would she doubt him?
“Anything I can do to help the city guard.” She purred. She pointed down the street.
“Head that way and take a left along the little alley. When you get to the first junction, turn left. We’re the first house. There’s a red shield on the wall. I’ll wait for you?” She phrased the last part as a weighted question, arching a delicate eyebrow. He nodded, his smile widening.
He turned and walked down the street, following her instructions. His heart began to beat faster. This was the fun part; the chase. His mark had no idea he was getting closer.
He felt a glow of pride at his work so far. No one would know.
Sure enough, the young maid was waiting for him just inside the gate along a small deserted alley full of neatly organized garbage pails. Behind the red-bricked house was a large vegetable garden teeming with the last greens of fall. A shed stood solidly against the corner of the wall that ran around the grounds.
“This way.” She whispered, taking his hand. She was breathless and excited. She led him to the shed, pausing to look furtively around before opening the door and pushing him inside. It was a gardening shed; the smell of musty earth and cold iron tools filled the air.
There was a pile of burlap sacks full of soft mulch that filled the corner that she pushed him towards, giggling. Her mouth tasted of cherries, and was sweet and warm. The rest of her was warmer.
When her throaty gasps had subsided to content sighs, he wrapped one large strong hand around her mouth, another around her throat. She was naked and surprised; her struggles were feeble, pathetic. Her face turned red before darkening into a subtle cobalt blue; he held her until her muscles went slack and the breath left her body. He laid her out on the burlap sacks, arranging her arms and legs into a spread-eagle so he could inspect every inch. He hadn’t had the time to study her as he usually like to study his subjects but no matter. She was merely a means to an end.
His skin shimmered, turning warm and pliable, flowing at his command like liquid. He willed his muscles to change shape and proportion to this new form, stretching tautly. He closed his eyes, relishing in the power that was his gift, his birthright. He felt himself getting smaller, the muscles surrounding his abdomen tightening underneath youthful perky breasts that swelled and grew from his chest. His arms became delicate and slender. His new hair grew, flowing down his graceful arching back.
He stretched his new form languidly, admiring the tightness of his new muscles. He picked her clothes off the floor, zipping into her pants and buttoning her blouse over his new breasts.
He piled the guard’s equipment on top of the fresh corpse carefully, pausing to cock his head and the mottled blue that spread through her cheeks. Death had a fascination for him, a kind of beauty. It stripped people of their frills and decorations, revealing who they really are. The guard had been a simpleton; the maid a whore. Everyone was equal in death.
He whispered an incantation given to him by his Master and waved a hand at the body. The corpse and pile of armor shimmered and turned invisible. He’d come back for them later.
He closed the door to the shed and walked towards the back of the house, tying his hair away from his face with a practiced motion using a band of string the girl had worn on her wrist. This wasn’t the first time he had taken the form of a woman.
The tall manse had a single door open to the kitchen, the smell of baking bread lingering in the autumn air. He followed the scent like a hound. The kitchen was large and airy, letting in the sun from windows stationed high above the wooden floor. A fireplace the size of a large horse sported a merrily crackling fire beneath a simmering black cauldron that filled the air of room with the scintillating smell of mushrooms and leeks. A large woman with her hair in a bun was bustling around the two large farmhouse-style tables laden with bowls and cooling racks, vegetables and what looked like a rack of ribs in a wine marinade, nudging a timid young apprentice in a white apron with a oversized wooden spoon. It was warm from the fire. Alistair felt beads of sweat gather at his temple.
“Come now Mary, get on with that pie! If it doesn’t go in it won’t cool in time for dinner! You know how the master gets about his pies. Oh hello Thira!” She waved genially at Alistair, who waved back. “Are you here to take the master his tea?” She pointed her spoon at a tray laden with cookies, kettle and cup.
“Yes, indeed.” Alistair said demurely with the maid’s soft girlish voice. Internally he raised his fists with joy. Just point him the way, please and thank you.
“He’s in the cellar, going over his bottles for the dinner next week. If you give him a nudge he’ll come up and have it in the study. I don’t like it when he drinks it down there, the poor dear, the tea gets cold before he can drink all of it.” She clucked her tongue sympathetically. She nodded towards a doorway at the other end of the kitchen.
“Go on now miss.”
Alistair nodded the maid’s head politely and slipped out of the kitchen into a well-stocked linen room before emerging into an airy dining room surrounded by windows lined by white curtains fluttering in the cool breeze. Goosebumps slid up his elbows at the chill touch of the fall air after the warmth of the kitchen. To his left a door opened above a wide stairway headed down, lit by the flickering orange light of an unseen torch. He headed down the stairs, silently closing and locking the door behind him. The maid’s sensible heels echoed oddly on the polished wooden steps as he made his way down.
The wine cellar was a single, large room with vaulted ceiling and red brick pillars interspersed between towering racks displaying green bottles glinting by the light of several torches that perched in cast iron stands atop upright barrels. The floor was white and black checkered tile.
At the far end of the room was a stout halfling in rich red robes staring at a bottle of wine in his hand intensely. His face was wide and friendly, with a strong, clean-shaven jaw and a bulbous nose with a slight red ruddiness to it. Upon hearing the footfalls on the stairs he looked up, a smile spreading across his face. His teeth were straight and bore the faint yellow signs of someone who enjoyed rich tobacco.
“Ah Thira my lass! Come, I need a second opinion about this bottle.” He waved Alistair over genially, holding the bottle up for him to see. Alistair approached with an exaggerated sway of his round hips.
The halfling didn’t notice, or if he did he gave no indication of it. He patted the maid’s arm in a friendly way. “Now, this is a lovely red with a hint of fruitiness from the stormlands south of Medala. Now, you’ve met the lovely Ilerial, do you think she’d enjoy this, or a lighter white at the dinner next week?” He nodded towards a far shelf.
Alistair looked at the halfling with a careful eye, examining the way the man held himself. Upright, sort of with a jaunty thrust of the shoulders. He had one eyebrow slightly cocked above the other when he spoke, indicating a level of permanent skepticism. Probably how he did so well in the banking business, Alistair thought to himself. The halfling raised his eyebrow further as the maid continued to stare at him without responding.
“Thira? Something wrong?” His tone was cautious, more formal than it had been a moment ago. Quick to change attitudes then, Alistair noted. That would be good for future use.
Alistair struck the halfling with a clenched fist to the throat, knocking him against the shelf behind him. The wine bottle shattered on the tiles with a resounding crash, staining the floor blood-red. The man held his throat, his eyes bulging in surprise. Alistair brought a knee brutally into the halfing’s soft stomach, causing the short man to collapse to the floor, grunting in pain. Alistair kicked the fallen man, a smile growing over his delicate feminine features at the muffled groans the halfling made. He slipped on the pair of iron dusters he had concealed in the waistband of the maid’s tights, flexing his small fingers inside the hoops. He leaned over, exposing his soft cleavage in full view before punching the halfling across the nose, hearing it snap satisfactorily. Blood sprayed across the floor, running down the halfling’s strong, clean shaven jaw.
The halfling lashed out with a foot, kicking one of Alistair’s legs out from under him and sending the maid crashing to the floor in a heap. The halfling moved with surprising speed for someone his size, scrabbling towards the maid and grabbing the her arms in his powerful hands.
“Why?” He yelled in Alistar’s face, blood dripping from his nose. He slapped the maid open-handed across the face, hard. Alistair saw a flash of white and tasted copper. He was stronger than he looked, this one.
Alistair brought a knee up into the halfling’s crotch, grinning as the man stiffened with a strangled cry, rolling off the maid. Alistair leapt to his feet, spitting blood down at the sniveling man. He knelt and savagely grabbed the halfling’s throat in one hand, squeezing hard as he punched him in the face. The fight left the halfling in a rush as blood sprayed once more over the tiles. The man whimpered and held his face in both hands.
“Now then Ruda Ginsey.” Alistair said in the Thira’s soft voice. “You and I need to have a talk.” He grinned. He loved his job.