Thank you to Alyssa for so patiently and thoroughly beta-reading this.Hit the Ground Running
It was, all in all, a beautiful day. Bakers hustled behind the glass windows of their shops, crows and pigeons fought over the stale bread tossed out, and a few taxi-cab horses dozed forlornly at the street corners, cabbies slumped over the reins. The summer sun had just begun to win the battle against the ever-present early morning fog that was the river's most obvious gift to the city. Unbeknownst to those calmly flitting about their tasks in the street below, this tranquil scene of urban domesticity was not to last.
"Goddamn it to hell, why the fuck does this happen every single morning?!"
At the sound of piercing female shrieks of outrage, the pigeons took flight. At the accompanying outburst of profanity (hardly fit for a lady), children were pulled inside by concerned mothers.
Lina Inverse was up.
This, from the point of view of the lady herself, was not a happy development.
She was, at the moment, sitting up, dwarfed by the huge bed she had bought with the paycheck from her first big job, red hair writhing wildly, flung by static and the currents of magic disturbed by her anger into sticking almost straight up. She cradled her left hand in her lap and glared at the offending nightstand before getting up and hauling on some clothes, giving said nightstand a sound kick on the way. The morning ritual of toss and turn, smack hand on nightstand, get up had become routine by now. This did not in any way lessen Lina's abiding hatred of the Mazoku-cursed, ill-carved lump of wood.
After the appropriate morning ablations, Lina exited her apartment and went in search of breakfast. On her way to the corner café, she steadfastly ignored the pointed stares and sharp whispers she generated on passing. Lina did not care in the slightest that her clothing was scandalous. For the work she did, she much preferred trousers and shirt to the constricting attire polite society deemed "suitable for a lady." She had long ago come to the conclusion that it was impossible to do magic in a dignified manner while wearing a skirt. This had been a great relief, as she had never liked the damnable things anyway. So Lina, cheered immensely from her customary morning funk by the prospect of an imminent breakfast, skipped, shoved, and elbowed her way over to the café, leaving a wake of outraged, shocked visages behind her, too cowed by infamy of Lina Inverse to say anything that might possibly give offense.
By the time she returned to her apartment, temporarily sated, Lina was back to her usual energetic self. On her way up, she checked the mail, hoping for a job offer. The thing about working as a mage-for-hire was that although the jobs paid extremely well, they were few and far between. By the time people were willing to overcome their prejudice against magic-users, Lina could usually tack on a danger fee and a couple of extra bonuses in addition to her normally exorbitant price, enabling her to live very well indeed. Now however, she had gone without working for two straight months. If she didn't come up with something soon, she would have to ask her sister for help paying the next month's rent. Lina was becoming desperate.
She quickly sorted through the letters, creating a small flurry of paper as envelopes were ripped apart and bills discarded with perfunctory disgust. At the end of this feeding frenzy, she was left with one mysterious envelope, neatly lettered, but sans return address. Holding her breath, she carefully pried it open, extracting the single sheet of paper encased within.
I have it on good authority that when it comes to matters magical, you are an expert. I require assistance locating an item. You will be provided with backup and all expenses incurred during your employment will be covered. I am prepared to offer 1500 pounds upon completion.
1500 pounds? That was almost three times what Lina normally charged. And "all expenses covered?" That was music to her ears.
You may, of course, request whatever additional pay you feel is justified.
At this, Lina ran a double check to make quite sure she was not hallucinating. Her greed was infamous enough to have acquired the status of legend. In some quarters, to say that a business partner was "as greedy as Lina Inverse" was considered grounds for immediate termination of further business relations. Whoever this guy was, he must be loaded to think seriously of hiring her on those conditions.
If the offer interests you, we can discuss it further on the sixteenth at 7:00 at the Fox and Hen at 112 Westlake Avenue.
Your Servant,Zelgadis Greywords
Lina sat back and thought. The offer was definitely interesting. It needed to be treated cautiously, though. Greywords was offering an unheard-of price for her help – meaning that he must be really desperate. It was too good to pass up, but she wanted to meet this guy in person and ask him some questions first before committing herself. That letter had been worryingly bare of detail. She quickly glanced at the calendar on the wall. The sixteenth was the next day. No previous engagements to cancel or rearrange (In fact, the entire month was bare of previous engagements. Lina just kept the calendar for show.), so she ought to be able to discuss the matter at length with Mr. Greywords.
The Fox and Hen was smoky and ill-lit, raucous and noisy, reinforcing Lina's overall suspicion that this job was not entirely aboveboard. She inquired of Mr. Greywords from the bartender, who opened his mouth to sneer something uncomplimentary, but quickly closed it when Lina let a few threads of flame lick over her hands in preparation for a fireball. Instead of following through on his initial impulse, the bartender instead chose the wiser course of action and simply pointed to a table in the back of the room, well away from the rowdy tables at the center, occupied by a barely discernable figure enveloped in shadow.
Lina made her way through the crowd, sidestepping raunchy drunks at every turn, and finally arrived at her destination.
At her inquiry, the figure glanced up. It was impossible to know what he looked like. He was wearing a high collared black overcoat with a hood pulled far over his face. Squinting through the smoke, she saw he hadn't stopped there. What wasn't concealed by the hood was hidden under a mask. Even his hands were gloved.
Lina's eyes narrowed even further. Come on, said the nice side of her brain. There must be plenty of perfectly innocent reasons for someone to cover himself entirely like that.
Alright. So she couldn't think of any.
"I take it you're Ms. Inverse?"
"Just Lina, please, if we're going to do business."
Without waiting for an invitation, Lina slid into the seat opposite him and ordered the usual breathtaking amount of food, watching him wince at each additional item. He ordered nothing. She hadn't really expected him to. Someone who conceals himself with such determination is unlikely to blow his cover just for the sake of a little mediocre food. Speaking of which….
"So what's the deal with you? If you're trying to be inconspicuous, you're really going about it entirely wrong, you know. You couldn't look more suspicious if you'd shown up in chain mail and a petticoat."
He stiffened a little, and the glitter of his eyes directed themselves at a point just over her left shoulder as he replied.
He was lying, of course. The refusal to meet her eyes effectively stripped away any credibility the flimsy excuse might once have possessed. "Skin ailment," my ass.
"Not contagious, I hope?"
"No. Definitely not contagious."
That had been immediate and bitter, with a hint of cynical amusement lurking behind the words. Lina deliberated. To call him or not to call him on it?
"That's complete bull."
"Yes," he said, the equitable reply belying the tenseness she saw in his shoulders, "and I'll tell you the truth if you take the job, but unless you do, I refuse to put myself at risk simply to satisfy your curiosity."
"Fair enough. What is the job anyway?"
"Next week is the first Midsummer's Eve of a new century. Someone is making a Philosopher's Stone."
Lina's eyes widened with greed. The complex spells and alchemical calculations required to manufacture a Philosopher's Stone could be performed only once in a century. The Stone itself was a mouth-watering artifact. It was magic amplifier, sovereign remedy, talisman, and spirit lure all in one. This was definitely an interesting job.
"You want me to help you obtain it, right?"
He nodded and Lina pushed her greed down (albeit with some difficulty) to ponder the proposal. It would be theft, no doubt about it. But since when had petty moral concerns prevented Lina Inverse from attaining her goals? It would definitely be dangerous. Every mage in the city and the surrounding country would have caught wind of this by now, and the lure of a genuine Philosopher's Stone was too powerful to be ignored. Lina positively glowed at this prospect. She loved fights. Violence and explosions added spice to life. Zelgadis would probably want to keep the Philosopher's Stone for himself. She scowled a little. He was trying to hire her after all. Well, she could burn that bridge when she got to it. The chance at an honest-to-goodness Philosopher's Stone was just too good to pass up.
"Alright. I'll do it. You want to get started as soon as possible, right?"
Some of the tension flowed out of him, and he nodded again. They eventually agreed to meet early the next day at the café Lina regularly victimized for her breakfast. They walked out the door together and separated, Zelgadis stalking off into the shadows to disappear as if he had never been, and Lina cheerfully jogging back to her apartment.
It was with deep satisfaction that she snuggled into the sheets that night. Finally. Things were looking up. She was sure this job would prove both lucrative and interesting.