6: An Illusion
We left the church far behind us and ambled wordlessly through the city streets. Eventually, I ducked into an alleyway, dragging a confused, yet amiable Larke behind me. I wondered what she thought of all of this. Alone, I turned to face her. Her beauty startled me again, though it shouldn’t have. Mama Jude told me she was beautiful, told me everything about her, even warned me about her, but seeing her in person, her eyes glaring into mine, still surprised me. They were hazel, the lightness offset by the tan of her skin and the sleek black of her hair, which cascaded down her back in a long, perfectly twisted braid.
“If I’m going to take you to The Raven, I’m going to have to blindfold you. Nobody is allowed to know where our stronghold is,” I said conversationally, belying my seriousness.
I looked around, lips pursed, for something to blindfold her with. I settled for tearing a strip off the hem of my pants. She lowered her head, allowing me to tie the bit of cloth around her eyes. Mama Jude sure had gotten me into something interesting. This Larke was something to behold – she had looked so fierce, even sitting alone in the Serran Church on a pew, looking at nothing. She was energy coiled, waiting to strike. I tied the blindfold tight around the back of her head, trying my best not to pull her hair into the knot.
My close proximity to her overwhelmed me, and I sensed her aura of pure energy, blinding and white hot. Whatever she was, she was certainly a mage. I hid my surprise, backing off from her after I’d secured the strip of cloth over her face. As a mage myself, I could usually sense if somebody had some measure of power. Unlike the Usurper, who could discern much more about the mage’s strength and potential, and from a larger radius. Most mages can simply recognize a presence, a vague hint of energy, in another mage. I concealed my surprise, allowing no reaction to reflect on my face.
Once she was blindfolded, I led her through some confusing turns in the city alleyways, just in case she got too familiar. Couldn’t make it too easy for her to figure out where we were going, especially since we hid in plain sight in the capital. Eventually, we reached the house where the Naga gang resided, and my home. From the outside, thanks to the illusion magic I had imbued into the stones themselves, it appeared to be a simple stone cottage, just on the outskirts of the city. I had modeled it after one I had known a long time ago, a gesture for a friend. Simple, but habitable. It looked like a commoner’s home, no more likely to be a center of criminal activity than a farmer’s field. In reality, it was a small fortress, complete with thick stone walls, a massively tall tower that overlooked the city, and rooms upon rooms for those seeking refuge. I loved everything about it.
I led Larke to the front door and slipped her makeshift blindfold off of her eyes. She would only see a cottage with a shoddy wooden door that I held open for her, at least until we went inside.
“This is it?” she questioned, looking confused and bewildered.
“You expected more?” I smiled.
“Something else,” she nodded, looking wary and confused.
I took her hand in mine and led her through the wooden cottage door into an impressively decorated front room, complete with tapestries depicting ancient Rynish history. Candles, evenly spaced on the walls, lit the way. I paused for a moment to allow her to look around, but if I was being honest with myself, I just wanted to keep touching her. Her hands were curiously calloused and strong. It made me wonder if the rest of her was just as curious to touch.
“You can keep the blindfold off; I think I can trust you enough for that, now,” I said boldly. I had no reason to trust her at all. In fact, I had every reason not to.
Keeping her hand in mine, which felt oddly comforting, I led her towards the room where The Raven liked to meet guests. It was the house’s original great room, where the lords of the past hosted feasts and parties. Now, it was bleak and empty, save for a few pieces of furniture. The Raven primarily used it now to intimidate those she did not trust. Often as not, she was known to sit in there, thinking and planning. I assumed she would be sitting there, probably waiting for us. The other residents in the stronghold would’ve alerted her to both my return and my newest acquaintance by now.