Short story (by Ilona Andrews)

[This story is now available in ebook format – grab it guys.]

Days of Swine and Roses

Alena took a deep breath. “I’m not going on a date with Chad Thurman.”

A deafening silence descended on the dining room. Mother’s face assumed a thoughtful expression. No doubt she was already stringing persuasive and weighty logical arguments in favor of the date in her head. To Mother no was simply a yes that hadn’t had a chance to hear her out.

Next to Mother, Aunt Ksenia looked aghast. No surprise there. Aunt Ksenia was all about duty to the family. There was no support to be had in her corner.

Behind Ksenia’s chair, Cousin Boris checked his mother’s face and carefully arranged his face into a mask of patronizing disapproval. If he ever did manage to formulate his own thought, it would likely knock him senseless.

Alena glanced across the table. Her older sister Liz looked troubled, her bottom lip caught between her teeth. Her husband Vik must’ve found the situation highly amusing, because corners of his mouth crept upward in a half-realized smile. Alena mentally steeled herself and looked to Father leaning against the wall. Alexander Koronov’s eyes plainly told he was not amused. Like staring straight into a storm.

“You-” Ksenia began, but Mother raised her hand.

“Why not?” She asked calmly.

Alena knew exactly what would come next: all of her protests would be dismantled to pieces like an old clock taken apart gear by gear, but she had no choice. She had to at least try to put up a fight. “I don’t like him.”

Mother rose, took a soup plate from the cabinet, filled it with water, and set it on the table. She touched the surface of the water with her fingertip and murmured a single sharp word. The water surged up and blossomed into an image of Chad in all his glory.

“Could you be more specific?” Mother said. “What exactly don’t you like about him?”

Looking at him, Alena had to admit that physically there was nothing wrong with Chad. There was a lot of right about him even. He stood tall, his shoulders wide and thick and his build muscular. His red hair was cropped very short, and he somehow managed to escape the really sensitive skin of most natural redheads. Taken by itself, free of his expression, his face might even be considered handsome, but there was something about Chad, something in the eyes and in the set of his stubborn jaw, that telegraphed “thug” louder than any words.

The city, and Old Town in particular, had long been divided between the prominent magic families into territories. It was customary that young guys from local families banded together to defend their combined neighborhood from outsiders before moving on to real business ventures. It was a right of passage, but Chad really took that job seriously.

“He’s…” Alena paused. Chad wasn’t exactly stupid. On the contrary, he was quite shrewd at times. Just last week he and his guys trapped some unfortunate kid from the rival clan’s territory. They could’ve beaten the guy and left it at that, but no, Chad had Marky conjure up some rabid looking mutts and used them to chase the guy into the burned out warehouse down on River Street. The guy didn’t have enough magic to see through the illusion, but he did manage a panicked sending back to his family yelling that he was being attacked by a pack of wild animals. Chad sat there until the guy’s friends came to rescue him and then claimed it was an invasion of Thurman territory. The rival family had to pay restitution.

Chad wasn’t dumb and he would do quite well for himself; he just had no interest in whatever she would have to say and she had no interest in whatever he had to do. “He’s cruel and dangerous,” she said.

“You’re a Koronov,” her father said. “Thurmans respect us. He won’t lay a finger on you without your permission. And if he does, you have my permission to do what’s necessary.”

Not having permission wouldn’t exactly stop her, but pointing that out didn’t seem like the smartest move at the moment.

“You grew up together,” Mother said.

“That’s exactly the problem! You’re making me to go out with a guy I’ve known since he was seven and I was four. I’ve seen him wipe his snot on a smaller kid’s hair. When I was five, he broke my sleigh going down the stone staircase on Butcher Street and I hit him over the head with it.”

“So you don’t want to go out with him because he broke your sleigh twelve years ago?” Mother said slowly.

Alena unclenched her teeth. “No, Mother, I don’t want to go out with him because he’s a thug. And his family is full of thugs. What would we even talk about? He barely finished highschool. We have nothing in common!”

“You’re both young and attractive,” Mother said.

Alena drew back. “So you want me to prostitute myself, is that it?”

Mother arched her eyebrows. “There is no need to be so melodramatic. He’s a handsome boy.” She nodded at the watery image. “It’s natural that there might be some attraction between the two of you. In fact, I think you do protest too much.”

Alena nearly choked. “Attracted to what? Mom, he carries brass knuckles in both pockets!”

“You will go,” Father said.

Mother shot him a warning glance. “Do you recall how we discussed the purchase of a car last Monday and you told me that it’s time you were treated as an adult?”

Alena hesitated. The sudden turn threw her off balance. “Yes?”

Mother smiled. “Do you know what separates adults from children? Self-discipline. We don’t want to go to work, we don’t want to do our chores, we don’t want to make unpleasant decisions but we do all those things because we’re aware of the consequences which will follow if we don’t. Now, I will treat you as an adult, since you are seventeen, and I’ll be very blunt. Our family was never rich, as you know. However, your Grandfather was a very respected man. Many families owed him a favor. He had a certain influence. When he died, part of that influence died with him. ”

” Your father was your Grandfather’s advisor, that’s why family invested so much in his education. He was never groomed to be your Grandfather’s successor. That role belonged to Uncle Rufus; however, he also died.” Mother threw an apologetic glance at Aunt Ksenia. “The other families in the area are aware of this. Even now, they’re moving in on our business interests, in particular on our investments in the water communications. To avoid financial ruin, we need a large loan, which would offset the costs of your Grandfather’s funeral and let us settle various smaller debts, making us appear strong and financially secure. All of our business accounts are housed through SunShine Bank. Do you know who owns the controlling interest in that bank?”

Alena shook her head.

Mother’s voice held no mercy. “The Thurmans. Now, you can go on this date with Chad Thurman, with no obligation, I might add, or you can refuse this invitation, insult the Thurmans, and destroy our chances of obtaining the loan. Nobody here will force you. We’ll leave the choice entirely up to you.”

All arguments died in Alena’s throat. She swallowed. Every cell in her body rebelled against going but now refusing would make her look like a spoiled selfish brat. If it meant that much… The future of her family hung in the balance. She would do everything she could to keep it from falling off a cliff.

“I’ll go,” she said softly.

“Thank you,” Mother said.

#

It was all Dennis’s fault, Alena reflected, rummaging through the clothes in her closet. She had been seeing Dennis Mallot for about a year, always in public. They hadn’t done anything physical like kissing or holding hands. They just met, strolled along River street, gossiped, and told each other how bad their parents treated them. They were friends. She was a nerd, a smart girl, and he was an odd, quiet guy.

Their families didn’t mind. Koronovs and Mallots stood close on the social ladder, both solid families with roots in Old Town, both magically adept. With the exception of Grandfather and Uncle Rufus, all Koronovs had graduated well and went on to academies, while most of Mallots made their living in the field of medical magic.

All was going nicely and then Father had a bright idea to send her off to the boarding school for the year to “challenge” her. Squeezing two hundred teenagers into a campus and blocking access to the outside world made for some heavy social drama. After almost a year of watching stormy break-ups and broken hearts followed by clouds of endless gossip, Alena was ready for a real boyfriend. Not a sort-of-boyfriend, like Dennis, but the actual, real, head over heels love. As soon as she got home, she bought a dress the color of dark red wine that left absolutely no doubt that she was female. She curled her dark hair, she put on her make-up, she slipped on criminally high heels, and headed to her old school to catch up with her friends.

Dennis had nearly fainted. Even now, she grinned at the memory: him standing against the wall, his eyes bulging, his mouth slack. It had been the most satisfying moment of her life, a triumph. Everything about her had said, “Yeah, so I’m a nerd, but I clean up nice. See what you’ve been missing?”

Dennis had called the next morning, inviting her to May Ball, a huge outdoor celebration when recent and old graduates came out for a night-time party. There would be food, bands, and magic shows. Everybody would be there. She agreed.

Then the night of the party came. Perfect hair – check, makeup – check, that same red dress -c heck, spiked heels – check, Dennis…? Dennis didn’t show. She kept walking out on to the balcony, wondering why he was late, thinking she would see him down the street. That’s when Chad Thurman had seen her. He was passing by, glanced up, and nearly took a dive onto the pavement. Guess she took him by surprise.

Dennis never did show. The gossip vine said he had gotten drunk with his friend Jeremy instead. She’d felt so stupid and hollow in her perfect makeup and killer dress. So very stupid and pathetic.

The Mallots were told in no uncertain terms that the insult to the family wouldn’t be forgotten and Dennis was no longer welcome. But now Chad Thurman had come to cash on her misfortune and the family was only too happy to push her out the door into his arms. And the problem was that if Chad did like her, nobody else would date her either. Chad had the kind of reputation that made rivals run for cover. Still, she would do it. The family needed the loan.

Alena picked out a nice jean skirt, not too short, not too long, a white peasant blouse and new white shoes that were only a hair shorter than that red pair. She put the outfit on and looked at herself in the mirror. Favorite blouse, favorite skirt, brand new shoes. The date would suck enough. At least she could feel comfortable in her favorite clothes.

#

The door bell rang and then Mother’s voice called, “Alena!”

She sighed and emerged into the foyer. Chad had arrived with two dozen blood-red roses in one hand and a bottle of expensive vodka in another. Flowers went to her mother, while vodka went to her father. Thurmans were an Old Town family, after all. They did things properly.

“You have fun,” Mother said pleasantly.

A sinking feeling claimed Alena’s stomach. She didn’t get premonitions often but in that moment she realized with absolute certainty that this date wouldn’t end well.

Outside Chad paused for moment, his face deadly serious. She’d seen that look before, usually when he plotted some sort of battle strategy. “You look very nice,” he said quietly, his gaze pausing on her breasts.

“Thank you.” Alena smiled. “You too.”

He did look nice in jeans and a black T-shirt.

They stared awkwardly each other.

“I thought we’d go and see a movie,” he said.

“That sounds great. What kind of a movie?”

“It’s fighting flick from Kitai Empire. Gonzo the Spear Carrier.” Chad glanced at her as if expecting a hysterical fit.

“I love historical dramas,” she said and forced and smile.

“Good.” He offered her his elbow.

Alena rested her hands on his forearm and realized that it was the first time she actually touched a guy on a date. The thought almost made her sigh in regret, but she killed the sigh before it had a chance to start.

They strode down the street heading toward the theater. Chad stared straight ahead, his jaw set.

After about five minutes, the silence had become strained. “So what books have you read lately?” she asked to say something.

“Don’t read much,” Chad said.

“Movies?”

“I liked Marauder III,” he said. “Good movie.”

Like pulling teeth. “What did you like about it?”

“Not sure,” Chad said.

What do I say now?

“Hold on a second.” Chad stepped away from her and barked at the guy across the street, “Hey! Hey, who the hell are you?”

The guy stopped. “I’m here to deliver a package to my uncle. Who the hell are you?”

Chad strode across the street. “Who’s your uncle?”

It took them a good five minutes to straighten out who was who and who had a right to be where. For the first minute Alena had looked at her feet, then she looked at the sky, then she counted the fence posts on the long iron fence that guarded the slope of the hills. The whole city was one hill after another with the River Street at the bottom of it all.

Chad trotted up. “Don’t worry,” he said. “We won’t be late.”

She just nodded. The sooner they got done, the better.

They didn’t speak on the way to the theater.

Just before they reached the old theater building, skinny, dark-eyed Marky stopped them again. Chad and he spoke in hushed tones, until Chad cut him off. “Screw this shit, I’ll do it myself.” Marky paled and took off. Chad turned to her as if nothing happened and led her inside. He offered to buy her popcorn and coke, but she declined.

The movie was awful. Long, tedious, odd, it didn’t make a bit of sense. After the first half she had grown numb to its monotony and simply tuned out. She thought about the book of plays she wanted to finish reading that afternoon and mentally rewrote a couple of them in her head to bring them to a much happier conclusion.

Finally the credits rolled on the screen. She got up and quietly followed Chad out of the theater.

Outside Chad’s face took on the look of serious concentration again. The movie had been an utter failure and now he had to do some damage control. She wondered what his next move would be.

He steered her toward Lion Park, where marble statues of lions guarded a huge three-tier fountain. Of course. The ice-cream stand. Chad followed the Old Town manual of dating to a T: having done the movie, no matter how awful, he would now buy her ice cream.

They walked in silence.

“That movie sucked,” he said.

“Yes.”

More silence. This was so not working out.

Chad came to a sudden halt. She glanced in the direction of his stare and saw the ice cream shop. A big CLOSED sign hung up front.

Chad looked almost pained. For a moment she actually felt sorry for him. Chad realized that verbal seduction was quite beyond him and her family name prevented him from simply grabbing her and giving her breasts a squeeze, as he obviously wanted to do. What was more, thirteen years of childhood made for a lot of memories and these memories sat between them like an impenetrable barrier.

“Do you remember a couple of years ago, you pushed me off the pontoon?” she said suddenly.

Chad glanced at her.

“My mother forbade me to go swimming because of the factory dumping waste upstream from the pontoon, but I came anyway. I was wearing a black dress with red and yellow dots on it. You pushed me off the pontoon, and I felt something odd with my foot, but I climbed out. And then you pushed my friend Sveta in. The blonde? She wore a white T-shirt. You pushed her in, and when she surfaced, a dead body came up behind her.”

She vividly remembered a pale body rising through the murky water the color of tea. Sveta had screamed and screamed. Even when the cops wrapped her in a blanket, she still made these tiny squealing noises, like something was broken in her chest.

Light gleamed in Chad’s eyes. “I remember that. He was a wizard from the local academy. He’d gotten drunk, tried to swim the river at night, and got cut by a propeller.”

Alena nodded. “You probably made me step on the dead body.”

Chad smiled.

She stared at his grin in disbelief and took a deep breath. “Look, the movie was bad, the ice cream is absent, and we won’t even count the broken sleigh or the dead guy. Thank you for taking me out, but I’d like to go home.”

A dark shadow passed over Chad’s face. He squared his shoulders. “Okay,” he said finally.

They headed down the sloping street toward the river. She did try. She gave it her best shot. No doubt everybody would be very disappointed that she failed to hit it off with Chad. But to sit in the park next to him, while he figured out what would be the fastest way to feel her up really was beyond her. Especially after that self-satisfied smile.

They turned the corner and stepped onto the River Street. Three blocks, then up the slope and she would be home.

A hoarse howl of outrage rolled down River Street. Alena stopped.

With a loud squeal something small dashed from behind the stone warehouse. A second later Marky and Pol, two of Chad’s finest, whipped around the corner and chased after it.

The thing veered left and bolted toward them. Alena squinted. A pig! A small brown furry pig. What in the world…

“I’m going to kill that fucker,” Chad snarled.

She glared at him, sure she misheard.

He charged at the pig. The little beast dodged right, and Chad collided with Marky. The smaller guy bounced off Chad like dry peas from the wall. Chad whirled around, his face contorted with rage.

Oh God, he really is going to kill the pig, flashed in Alena’s head. Oh no. No, you don’t. A date was fine, but if he thought she’d stand by and let him murder small animals, he was in for a big surprise. She had to catch that beast before he did.

The pig headed straight for her, all but flying above the asphalt.

Twelve feet.

Ten.

Six.

She lunged for it. The pig swerved left. Her fingertips brushed its bristles and then it was off, running for its life down the street.

There was no way she could catch it in her heels.

Shoes or the life of a little pig? It took her less than a second to decide and then she was running after the beast in her stockings. Behind her heavy thudding of boots announced the three guys giving chase.

Three blocks flew by. The pig made a rough left turn and charged into the old soccer field being remodeled into a tennis court. Ha! Nowhere to go: twelve foot high chain fence enclosed the field to keep the soccer balls from flying in to the neighboring apartment house. Alena squeezed out a burst of speed and shot out into the soccer field.

Where did he go?

A hint of movement caught her eye. There he was. The beast had scrambled up the pile of red clay the construction crew was using to smooth out the field and perched there, covered in orange dust.

She jogged to the pile on her toes, trying to appear friendly and non-threatening. The pig watched her advance with a weary look. Carefully Alena began to climb the pile.

“Here little beast.” The powdery clay smooshed between her toes, her stockings shredded by her run. “I won’t hurt you.”

The pig glared at her but stayed put. Almost there. A-a-almost.

She reached for it, moving as slowly as she could manage.

Behind her Chad’s deep voice warned, “Easy…”

Easy my foot, he wouldn’t be getting his hands on the pig. Alena leaned until she was almost on all fours, her face level with the pig’s nose. Sad brown eyes looked at her from the fuzzy muzzle. “Don’t worry,” she whispered. “I won’t let Chad get you.”

She inched forward, hair by hair, her outstretched hands reaching for the small brown body.

The beast squeaked and darted down the pile.

“Shoot!” Alena straightened in a sharp jerk. The momentum pitched her off balance. She teetered on the apex of a pile, waving her arms like an overgrown stork about to take flight.

Clay crumbled under her feet. She clawed the air, trying to hold on to something, but the sky rolled back, replaced by the view of the apartment house, and Alena plunged down, sliding down the slope until the green soccer field grass slapped her face.

The world swam. She shook her head and pulled herself upright. A wide smudge of orange clay marked her side: from the remnants of her stockings across her blouse all the way up to hair hairline.

Out of the corner of her eye she saw Chad and his thugs skirt the pile and halt, staring at her open-mouthed. She staggered to her feet. Her left side stung. Her right ankle was sore.

In the distance the pig shrieked as it tried to squeeze through a hole in the fence.

Surprise twisted into predatory mask of glee on Chad’s face. “He’s stuck!”

They charged after it like a pack of ravenous dogs. Alena chased after them. They wanted the pig badly, but as much as she was scared for it, and her fear drove her so hard, she caught up with them at the end of the field.

With a heroic tug, the pig squeezed through the hole, leaving clumps of brown fur on the wire. Chad swore. Pol ran to the fence door and struggled with the piece of wire hooked through the lock to keep it shut.

The pig cleared the path from the soccer field and ran onto the old wooden staircase. The stairs led down, back to River street. On the left rose a huge yellow apartment building, on the right sat a row of old storage sheds, covered in grey waves of fibrocement roof. The top of the stairway was just about level with the storage sheds.

The pig looked left, looked right, and backed up a couple of steps and leaped onto the roofs, its hoofs clacking on fibrocement.

Pol finally worked the door open and they filed out onto the path. The pig backed away from them. It had reached the edge of the roofs, and it had nowhere to go.

Chad measured the distance between the stairs and the sheds with his gaze.

“You’re too heavy,” Marky said. ‘The roof will break. Let me…”

Chad was too heavy, but she wasn’t. Alena took a running start and jumped. The fibro cracked under her but held. Step by step she began to advance. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Chad, Marky, and Pol run down the staircase, trailing her.

Step. Another step.

The pig gathered itself into a tight clump. Long red scratches scoured its sides, where the fence had torn off the skin when it tried to escape the soccer field.

“It’s okay,” she told it. “It’s alright. It will be okay.” Her feet really hurt from all the barefoot running. A stray thought zinged through her brain: this can’t really be happening, can it? She pushed it aside, bent down, and grabbed the pig.

It didn’t struggle. It just looked at her with huge dark eyes and she was struck by an oddly sad expression in their depths…

With a thunderous crack, the roof collapsed.

Alena plunged into darkness, pig pressed securely to her chest. Her damaged feet hit something hard. Suddenly there wasn’t enough air. She choked, coughed, and realized she’d landed into a pile of coal stored for the winter.

Outside something crashed and then the door was torn from its hinges. Bright light stabbed into the shed. Chad appeared in the light. He held a switchblade in his hand. “You did good,” he said. “Real good.”

She rose to her feet shakily, clutching the beast.

“Give me the pig,” he said.

Her voice came out dull. “No.”

“Give me the damn pig,” he snarled.

Something inside her broke, like a glass rod being snapped in two. Magic flooded her, roaring through her veins. Behind Chad, Marky backed away and she knew her eyes had ignited with pale green glow.

“No,” she growled. The magic swelled inside her and broke lose.

The shed exploded. Chunks of coal pelted the walls, going right through the soft wood. She took a step forward. Chad lunged at her and fell back, knocked aside like a twig.

That was her talent. She didn’t have anything elegant, like her father’s ability to precisely pinpoint a location miles away and establish that first tenuous connection which would allow the building of a water communication line. Nor was her magic complex like her mother’s ability to reconstruct images with her mind with perfect recall.

No, her power was simple and brutal, like her grandfather’s. Alena took another trembling step. Pol pulled out a knife and stabbed at her, trying to penetrate the invisible cocoon of magic. She let the magic tear the knife from his hand. The blade streaked past her and but into the nearest shed, sinking to the hilt. The magic brushed against Pol, and he went flying across the asphalt.

Such a simple magic, really. If she didn’t want an object within six feet of herself, it moved out of her way.

Streaks of silver shot in a continuous tornado around her, footprints of her power.

Chad had doubled around her and barred her way up the staircase. “Alena-”

“Move,” she said.

He held on for another second, his hands white-knuckled on the rails, and then he moved aside. Limping and shuddering, she climbed up the stairway, up the steep path to the gate of her wooden fence. As if in a dream, she opened the door, crossed the path between rose bushes, and came up three stairs to the porch. As Alena unlocked the door, she caught a flicker of her reflection in the glass. Orange clay covered her left side. Everything else was black with coal dust. Her hair flared from her head in a tangled filthy mess. Her eyes blazed with green. Even the pig she still held seemed to know better than to offer any resistance. It just sat in her arms, filthy with a mix of clay, coal, and its own blood.

She looked down at her feet. Her stockings were in tatters. Long scrapes marked her bare feet.

By this evening everyone in the neighborhood would know what happened.

Alena sniffled, reached into her pocket, pulled out a key and let herself in.

The family had just sat down for dinner. They saw her and froze. She looked at them, from the slack-jawed Aunt Ksenia, to the stunned face of her father, to her mother, petrified in mid-move, a pot of mashed potatoes in one hand and a big wooden spoon in the other, and hobbled past, to her room.

They watched her go. Nobody said a thing.

Inside, she locked the door, crossed the room to her bathroom, got inside, and slid to the floor. Her magic died. Tears swelled in her eyes.

She released the pig and it backed away from her.

“This was my favorite blouse,” she told it and wiped the tears away with the back of her hand. “This will never wash out. And the sad thing, I don’t even know why they were chasing you.”

She crawled up onto her knees, picked up the pig, and maneuvered it into the tub. “And you got all scratched up. Look, you’re bleeding everywhere. We need to wash that or it might get infected.”

She turned on the water and began to gently rinse the clay and coal dust from the pig’s sides. “And none of this would’ve happened, if that damn idiot hadn’t stood me up. That stupid sonovabitch. Do you know how awful that felt? I felt this small.” She held up two fingers with barely any space between them before picking up the soap and building it into lather on the pig’s back. “And it’s not like Dennis even was a decent boyfriend. It’s not like he ever even noticed I was a girl. It’s not like I wanted him to be all over me all the time or shower me with flowers. Just some small acknowledgment that I was pretty or at least female would’ve been nice.”

She rinsed the pig off and examined the scratches. “Now see, all your battle scars are shallow.” She sniffled, blinking back the tears that kept wanting to break through her defenses into a full blown deluge. “After I’m done, we’ll put some nice poultice on your hide to keep you healthy. And you know, I perfectly understand that you can’t comprehend a word I’m saying. I never thought I’d end up in my bathroom looking like this pouring my problems onto a pig.” She paused and stared at it helplessly. “It’s just that I have nobody to talk to. And if I don’t talk, I think I’ll fall apart to pieces. And I don’t want to do that, because then my family will pity me.” She reached for the towel. “Let me tell you about Chad. You should at least know who you ran away from. It all started with a sleigh…”

Fifteen minutes later, the pig’s wounds were treated with cinnamon-smelling poultice and Alena had ran out of words and began to strip her own clothes off. “I think we’ll have keep you in protective custody,” she said, climbing into tub. “Until Chad gives up on his pig-killing dreams. I can probably guilt Father into building some kind of sty.”

She picked up the shower head and turned on the water. “So I-”

The pig jerked. Its brown hide boiled, expanded, twisted, like a rapidly inflated balloon, paled and snapped into a nude man. For a brief moment they stared at each other in total shock. Alena caught a flash of wide shoulders, young face, and dark intense eyes beneath brown eyebrows. The man raised his hand, uttered an incantation, and vanished.

That was too much. Alena dropped the shower head. Her knees buckled. She sat into the bathtub and collapsed into tears.

#

Someone knocked on the door. Alena ignored it.

Mother swung open the door and brought it a tray. “It’s been three days,” she said. “I understand you don’t want to come down for the family meals, but you have to eat something besides a sandwich a day.”

A sandwich a day had been great, Alena thought. That way she didn’t have to field questions from Boris and her sister.

Mother put the tray down and said next to her on the bed. “Would you like to talk about it?”

Alena shook her head.

Mother pursed her lips. “This isn’t what your father and I had in mind. Had we known it would turn out this way, I would’ve never let you out of the house. If it helps, the story hasn’t made the rounds. Everybody is talking about how Thurmans are in a heap of trouble. They’ve managed to offend one of the patrician families, very powerful. Not sure how in the world they would even have come into contact with them – must’ve been through their bank. Rumor has it, Thurmans have to pay out an enormous sum to avoid a feud. They’re liquidating their investments to raise cash.”

Alena looked up from her book. “So the date was completely for nothing?”

“It appears so.”

It figured. Maybe she was cursed.

The door bell rang. “I’ll be right back.” Mother pushed the tray toward her. “Eat. Please.”

Alena looked at the tray. French fries and a piece of baked chicken. At least it wasn’t a porkchop. She wouldn’t touch another piece of pork even if she was starving to death.

Mother appeared in the doorway. “Come.” Her voice left no room for negotiation.

Alena sighed and got up. What now?

She followed mother downstairs to the foyer. The outside door was open. She saw her father on the porch, wearing a plaintive expression she’d never seen before. Her mother pushed her lightly, propelling her out the door into the sunlight.

“Here she is,” she heard Father say and then he brushed past her into the house and shut the door.

Alena blinked against the sunshine and raised her hand to her eyes.

Wide shoulders, dark eyes, and brown hair.

“You’re!”

He nodded. “Yes.”

Heat rushed to her cheeks and she knew she blushed.

He was about twenty and taller than her by half-a-foot. Even with green T-shirt it was plain that he was muscular, but his wide shoulders and powerful chest slimmed down to narrow hips and long legs that looked very nice in blue jeans and boots. He stood with natural poise, light on his feet, and somehow elegant, despite his slightly disheveled hair. His skin was tan, and his face made her blush harder. His eyes were very dark, like bitter chocolate, and smart. He wasn’t strictly handsome, but he was definitely attractive and very masculine.

And he had seen her naked. After she chased him half across Old Town, clutched him to her breasts and carried him around for good fifteen minutes, and then told him her life story.

“Hi,” he said.

“Hi,” she echoed, wishing she could fall through the porch and vanish.

He dragged his hand through his hair. “This is really more awkward than I thought it would be.”

He would get no arguments from her.

He pushed his hand through his hair again. Something gleamed on his hand – a ring. Her shocked brain took whole three seconds to digest the significance of the crest on it. A patrician. Oh God. He belonged to one of the magical heavy-weight families.

“My name is Duncan. Would you like to go on a date with me?” he asked.

Alena recoiled. He felt sorry for her. “I don’t need charity.”

Duncan took a small step back. “I see. I understand, considering the circumstances. Well, if you do feel charitable, I’ve left my number with your father…”

“I meant that I don’t need you to go on a date with me out of pity,” she said and almost fainted from her own bravery.

“Pity?”

“Yes. I told you everything. You probably think I’m some sort of hysterical dimwit to be laughed at. Actually, it’s taking all of my willpower to stand here and speak to you and not run away screaming.”

“It’s taken pretty much all of my willpower to ask you on a date,” Duncan said. “I mean, I was a pig. There might be a worst way to be introduced to a beautiful girl, but I can’t think of any. If anything, I’m the laughing stock here. I’m a Class II pyro.”

Alena blinked. A Class II pyromage. He could incinerate entire city blocks in a matter of moments.

“I have been properly educated. And I’ve managed to blunder right into a trap set by three punks whom I should be able to take down blindfolded with one hand tied behind my back. It’s good the academy is out for the summer, or my desk would be filled with pig ears.” He growled low under his breath.

“How did you…?”

“A friend of mine had been chased by a pack of wild dogs into a warehouse in this area,” he said. “And then when his family came to get him, they were ambushed. A rabid dog is classified as an imminent danger illusion. It’s illegal. I came down to see if any traces of the illusion remained, followed the residual magic, and walked right into a trap. In my defense, it was a very good trap, a military grade short range transmutation mine. I don’t know where the hell Chad and his hangers-on had gotten it, but it’s illegal to posses it. More, while it’s not unlawful to defend a family’s territory, setting traps and summoning imminent threat illusions is carrying it way too far. Chad knew what he was doing would land him into hit water, and once they discovered me, he told the smaller guy…”

“Marky,” Alena supplied.

“Marky, to slit my throat.”

She crossed her arms. “He’s lost his mind.”

“He knew the mine magic would wear off eventually and he hadn’t a prayer of taking me on when I was human. It was a lot easier to eliminate me while I was a pig. Lucky for me, neither Marky nor his pal had the balls to do it. Apparently Chad resolved to kill me himself, but I decided not to go meekly to the slaughter. And you know the rest. Once the mine’s effect wore off, I ported back home and came back with cavalry. The thing about military mines – when they go off, they leave a magic trail that even an idiot could follow. We have Thurmans by the throat. That dumb stunt will cost them their financial security and if they play very nicely we might condescend not to bring charges. Look, I know we haven’t met under the best of circumstances. And nobody more than me wants to forget ever being a pig.”

“So why are you here?” And why is my heart beating a mile a minute?

Duncan smiled. He had a dazzling smile – it lit up his whole face, compelling her to smile back at him. “The truth is, I can’t get you out of my head. I tried. I told myself, ‘What will I say to her, oink-oink? She’ll laugh at me.’ But I just had to try. So here I am.” He spread his arms. “Come on a date with me, Alena. Please?”

What did she have to lose?

Alena took a deep breath. “Okay.”

He smiled again and she almost swooned. He reached for her hand, brought her fingers to his mouth, and kissed them gently. A tiny thrill ran through her.

“Are we going to the movies?” she asked him.

“Hell no.”

“Where then?”

“Fishing,” he told her.

“Fishing?”

He nodded. “The thing about going to the movies – you can’t talk to the other person. We’ll sit in my boat, drink soda from a cooler, watch the river and chat. Get to know each other. If you’re worried about baiting your hook, I can-”

She snorted. “I’ve fished in that river since I was seven. You just try to keep up.”

He grinned. “Deal. Thank you for saving my life, by the way.”

“You’re welcome.” She stepped close and kissed him on the cheek. She had no idea where she got the gall to do it, she just did.

“What was that for?” he asked softly, his eyes dark and warm, as if lined with velvet.

“For being a very brave little pig,” she told him.

END

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