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Stone Towers

Part 2

With a snap of the wizard's fingers, candles and torches flared to life, lighting the storefront. As he flipped the ‘closed' sign to ‘open,' Aaron Dane looked out of the plate glass window of his front door. Stone Towers, the capital of Tir Et, was already bustling with the start of the day's business. Carts trundled by, pulled by lazy horses with feedbags strapped to their noses. Merchants swept their doorways in preparation for the day's first customers. Turning back to his own shop, Aaron shook his head.

With another snap of his fingers, fairy lights flickered in the front window, illuminating the odds and ends sitting on display in the sill. He walked behind the counter and pulled out his ledger. Inventory was his least favorite of tasks, but when running a business, it was a necessity. He plucked the only sharpened quill from a jar and dipped it into the ink well. As he scrawled out the headings for the day's inventory, the bells on the front door jingled. Aaron looked up.

"Welcome to The Forgotten Parchment," he said with a smile. "What can I do for you?"

The young woman looked nervous, to say the least, and she browsed a moment before answering. "I… I'm looking for something special, for my husband. It's his birthday and he fancies the magical arts."

"Ah." Aaron nodded and set down his quill. "Well, what does he enjoy specifically? Books? Cards? Perhaps a crystal ball?"

"Cards?" the woman offered tentatively. "I think his old set is too worn to read now."

Aaron rounded the counter and ushered the woman to a small cabinet. Sets of cards lay in their boxes, the lids removed to show the fine artwork. "Which do you think he would like? I have dragons, fae, symbolic artwork…"

"Dragons," she said with more certainty. "He loves dragons."

"Then I have the perfect deck." Aaron unlocked the cabinet with a key hanging from his wrist, then reached in to retrieve a beautifully done set of cards. Dragons in varying colors graced the cards, the symbols of each card surrounding the serpentine bodies. The woman's face lit up, then she frowned slightly. Aaron knew that look well.

"How much?" she asked quietly. Aaron studied her for a moment, noting the less-than-sturdy clothing. He smiled. "For you, my lady, one gold piece."

"One…one gold piece?" Her eyes were wide as saucers, reflecting her surprised smile. Aaron nodded. She fished a gold coin out of her small cloth purse and handed it to him. Aaron gave her the cards in return, then was surprised as her arms wrapped around him.

"Oh, thank you! He'll love them!"

"You're quite welcome. Tell him to have a wonderful birthday." He waved as she walked out. Normally, he didn't cut so much off of a price, but he knew what it was like to be in such a position. Five years ago, he had been near begging on the streets. Besides, chopping three gold off of a deck of cards would not hurt his business, if anything, it might have guaranteed a repeat customer. He chuckled and returned to his inventory, immersing himself in his work until the bells on the door rang again.

Nikolai's gaze darted nervously over the shop as he entered. Seeing the clerk, he slowly approached him. Just how much help he could find here, he wasn't fully sure on. Smoothing his features into an imperturbable mask, he eyed the clerk with a faint smile. Resting his hand on the counter, he said, "I would like to speak to the owner of the shop."

Setting his quill aside, Aaron nodded. "That would be me. How may I help you?"

A piercing, dark gaze traveled slowly over Aaron in a measuring fashion. "I've heard you are extremely skilled, Aaron Dane. Is there any place we can speak with more privacy?"

Aaron studied him silently for a brief moment, then nodded. "Follow me."

He normally would never take anyone upstairs to his apartment, but something about this man had him rather intrigued. As they started up the steps, he snapped his fingers. The lights died out and the sign on the door flipped itself back over.

Following Aaron silently, he studied the wizard's backside with a faintly appreciative gleam before he reined in his own thoughts. Being a walking dead man didn't go over well with him, and he'd run out of options. Normally he should have been able to run a sword through his problem and have done with it. Unfortunately it wasn't an acceptable method in dealing with an obsessive female.

Candles lit as Aaron stepped through the arched doorway leading into his sitting room. He waved towards one of the plush, red velvet chairs and sat down. "Please, have a seat." He settled back in his own chair, his elbows resting on the arms and his fingers pressed together, touching his lips in thought. "Now, tell me what you need."

"Other than a safe place to hide?" Nikolai started out with a dry tone as he sat in the chair. "I am in the market for either a protection spell to keep me from a certain person's notice. Or if I'm really lucky, an anti-obsession spell. Either will do if you have the skill."

Aaron remained silent, wondering on the wisdom of this. Normally, he would never offer harbor, lest his own safety be forfeit, but this handsome man's mask of calm was shaky at best. The man was desperate; Aaron could see it in the dark brown depths of his eyes.

"I can offer you shelter, but only for a short time," he said finally. "Two days and nothing more. As for the spells, I'll do whatever is needed, but it will take some time. Protection spells are easy. Changing someone's will by the use of an anti-obsession spell is much more difficult."

Surprise flickered in Nikolai's eyes since he hadn't truly expected an offer of sanctuary. Nor did he have any intention of dragging the wizard into any of the potential problems Racia would cause. "I appreciate the offer, but I was only being sarcastic in mentioning it. How long will it take to make something strong enough to change my problem's mind?"

"I know desperation when I see it," Aaron said casually. "Two days of no running--a warm bed, safety. All I ask in return is that you stay out of sight from the general public. I cannot have any trouble in my shop." Aaron thought for a moment, lowering his hands to his lap. "It will take a week to gather the needed ingredients for the spell. A venture out of the city itself will be needed as I cannot find some of the lesser known herbs here."

"A week." At this rate, Nikolai would have to leave the city himself. He was already near to running out of hiding places, and they seemed to do him no good. Racia had an uncanny knack for tracking him down. "And the price?" As he asked, he slid his hand into the pocket of his jacket and drew out a black velvet bag. Gold was no problem to him.

"Twenty-five gold for the spell," Aaron said. "No charge for the room." He didn't move, but simply looked the man over. "With whom do I have the pleasure of doing business?"

"I don't need the room." Withdrawing a handful of the coins, Nikolai counted out twenty-five of them before he leaned forward to hand them to Aaron. No way in hell did Nikolai want to seem anywhere near as desperate as he truly was. "The name is Nikolai Conis, and I thank you for your help."

Aaron took the coins and slipped them into the pouch tied to his belt. "Nonsense. It won't do any good to spend a week gathering ingredients for a spell if you aren't around to use it. Take the room."

"At least you will already have the gold for your trouble, Dane." Dropping the rest of the coins back into the bag, Nikolai returned it to the inner pocket of his jacket. "But you wouldn't want the trouble that will come your way for sheltering me."

Aaron sighed and stood, looking down at Nikolai with a measuring stare. "Do not worry about me. My spells are tailored to those they are made for. If you come across any ill fortune before it is finished, it will do me no good." He went to a wardrobe and pulled the doors open. A few minutes later, he returned to Nikolai's side with a blanket. "Follow me."

Nikolai refused to move from the chair as his gaze followed Aaron's movement. "My enemy has an uncanny knack for finding me. The woman must have eyes where they shouldn't be. You really should be careful what you offer before you have the full story." Finally standing, he held out his hand to Aaron and waited expectantly for him to shake it.

Aaron chuckled and reached out, grasping Nikolai's hand firmly. "My shop is enchanted and cannot be entered until I've opened it. You are safe here."

The brief touch of Aaron's hand to his left a slightly tingling in its wake, causing Nikolai to blink in reaction. A faint smile twisted the corners of his lips. Nikolai had the serious feeling the wizard wouldn't take no for an answer. "Then it will be on your head if you walk in and have no shop left."

"It would not be the first thing to be on my head." Aaron turned and led the way down the hall. He opened a door and stepped aside. "This is my only spare room. I apologize for the clutter. I tend to use it to store texts that I've run out of room to place elsewhere. The washroom is down the hall, across from my room should you need anything."

Nikolai really hoped the wizard understood what he might be stepping into, though he doubted it. "I'll not be in your way more than the offered two nights, and I won't leave your shop." Entering the room, Nikolai looked slowly around. He even managed to remain steady on his feet as he flashed a smile at Aaron.

Lifting an eyebrow, Aaron looked Nikolai over. The man's posture of casual elegance remained in the forefront, though there was a strong touch of arrogance there. He looked to be in pain. "You look pale. Sit. I'll bring you something to drink and something to ease the pain you're obviously in." He placed the blanket on the bed and walked out.

Before Nikolai could open his mouth to argue with the wizard, Aaron was already out the door. Sighing quietly to himself, he sat heavily down on the edge of the bed. The cost of the façade was wearing him out. Closing his eyes, he lifted his hand to rub at them. He'd had the wound on his thigh, and the one at his side, sewn up. Painful throbs from both areas reminded him of the injuries even as he tried to ignore them.

A few minutes later, Aaron returned with a flask of wine, a goblet, and a small jar of tiny blue pills. "Here. Take one now and another before you sleep. They will ease the pain."

Nikolai immediately straightened. "I'm fine, Dane, but I thank you for the attention. The doctor has already taken care of me."

"You look like you're going to faint," Aaron mused. "Take them, and for the gods' sakes, stop arguing with a wizard." A wry grin curled his lips then. "Or do I have to force them down your throat myself?"

To spare an argument, Nikolai took the jar of pills and opened it. As he popped the pill into his mouth, he muttered, "You sound worst than my mother."

"Perhaps," Aaron laughed. Then he leaned down to whisper in Nikolai's ear. "But there are places I could put those where they would work just as well, that I'm sure your mother would never dream of."

Nikolai almost choked on the pill. Clearing his throat, he turned his head, eyeing the wizard. "Maybe you can tuck me in afterwards as well." The after taste left in his mouth from the pill made him grimace as he shuddered slightly. Licking at his lips, he tried to swallow down the bitter taste.

"Do not tempt me," Aaron said as he straightened. "You're quite an attractive man. I will be downstairs should you need me."

Aaron's comeback startled Nikolai, but he managed to hide the fact behind a faintly smiling mask as he reached for the flask and goblet. "Take care of your business, wizard. I'll be perfectly fine up here."

With a soft chuckle, Aaron nodded and turned, walking out of the room.

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This is a work of fiction. Names, places, characters and incidents are either the product of the author's deranged imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to any actual persons, living or dead is entirely coincidental.

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