On Her Guard
A Magic University Teaser Tale
Nia clawed nonchalantly at the dirt by her feet. She sat splayed on the stoop, her silver scales glinting in the sun. Glancing briefly over her shoulder at the sturdy oaken door behind her, she heaved a ragged sigh. Her current position was all a result of being good at thinking fast on her feet, but not quite so good at planning.
Astrelle, her mentor, had forced Nia out of her quarters at the point where the reptilian woman’s money had run out, to “make room for a paying student,” she had said. She had not allowed for any compromise – no offers of work Nia could do in exchange for Astrelle’s services, no willingness to accept any form of promissory note, and not even the inclination to extend Nia enough time to beg, borrow or steal another payment. Astrelle had happily ploughed her way through every cent of Nia’s savings, abusing the situation every way possible while she did so. In addition to being a student, Nia had also been little better than a slave, playing glorified baby-sitter to Astrelle’s children, occasional maid, and harried gopher at her mistress’s beck and call. This was the thanks she got. No more money and Astrelle had showed her the door,
That left Nia with a dilemma. She needed some means of at least making enough money to support herself until the Magic University Admission Trials. Beyond that, she hoped it wouldn’t matter. She could sign up for one of their standard “scholarships” and survive on what the University would have to offer her. That was if she won one of the three elite seats, but she was going to place top three. She had to. She had nowhere else left to go and nothing else she really wanted to do.
Nia staggered to her clawed feet, bare, as they tended to be. Her toes extended far beyond those of human feet and the one off of her heel made finding shoes that fit impossible. She certainly wasn’t about to pay for anything custom-made, so that meant she went without. She didn’t mind. Her kind generally didn’t wear anything on their feet. Nature intended them for striding, springing and climbing, all things that were difficult to do if her claws were not exposed.
She started making her way towards the closest tavern. She wasn’t sure why. Astrelle had not even had the decency to leave her a sprinkling of pocket change. If she wanted a drink, she would have to rely on the kindness of strangers. That meant she would have to catch the eye of someone who would appreciate the exotic; that or someone with a seriously kinky libido. She had stooped that low to put food in her belly before, but she had sworn at the time that she would never do such a thing again. She didn’t want anyone to ever think of her as chattel that could be bought or sold.
Nia wasn’t without her strengths. She was stronger than the average human female, physically fit, trained to use a sword in addition to a reasonable number and variety of spells, and she wasn’t stupid. There had to be someone out there who had work for someone like her, with her healthy qualifications.
There as a community bulletin board affixed outside of the tavern, and as Nia approached, somebody’s scrawny house-boy was posting something new there. He startled when he saw her approaching and scampered away. Nia was accustomed to that initial reaction from children. While she had a human form, her scaled skin, lack of hair and clawed hands and feet was alien enough to send them running. It was the worst part of having to live in exile, away from her kind.
While the children and some of the women with fragile psyches found her appearance disturbing, most men considered Nia intriguing. She had a beautiful face, a shapely athletic body and a lovely shimmer to her scales. Those who were not xenophobic usually found her attractive. Despite this, because of Astrelle’s demanding apprenticeship, Nia had not bedded a man since she had started training with the Master mage. She has as hungry for sexual satisfaction as her grumbling belly was for food.
Nia paused by the new posting prior to entering the tavern. The boy had put up a help wanted notice. A local nobleman was looking for a manor guard, but not just anyone would do. He was specifically looking for a female protector, primarily to keep watch over his wife while he was away on business. From what Nia could see, she met all of the qualifications, and the purse they offered would be enough to buy her another round of lessons with Astrelle, or serve as a partial payment of tuition if she didn’t place first seat. Either way, the money would be a boon towards her current objective.
She decided the posting was worth investigating, and ignored both hungers to seek out the address listed for the potential employer.
Marquis Sewell was not from old money. His father, a wealthy merchant, had earned what he had through trade and had bought his title. The young Marquis had taken up the family business begrudgingly, and was now forced to manage affairs after the early passing of his workaholic father. He was lazier, self-indulgent and for the most part indifferent to anything with no direct bearing on him. But the young Marquis had a problem that did affect him directly, and her name was Beatrice.
Beatrice, Marquis Sewell’s wife, was a good match for her husband in some ways. She was shallow, just as self-indulgent and just as lazy. But unlike her husband, who prized and adored his trophy wife, Beatrice had grown bored with her mate and especially lost interest in him whenever he was forced to travel. Mistrusting the woman he supposedly loved, the Marquis had taken to hiring someone to keep an eye on her while he was away. He discovered after his last voyage that having a guard in place had pitfalls of its own, if that guard was male with a healthy libido. That was why the Marquis had chosen to go with a woman this time.
After Nia had presented herself at the manor in response to the posting, she soon found herself shuffled away to a back room to meet with the Marquis. He was an androgynous-looking young man, not manly enough to have that rugged appeal and not pretty enough to be attractive in a foppish way either. His svelte build and pasty skin did not give Nia incentive to make any suggestive moves on the noble, in spite of the fact that she craved a man’s attention at that moment. While wealth was an aphrodisiac of sorts, Nia liked her men either macho or beautiful, not somewhere in between. The fact that the Marquis was married and was hopefully her soon-to-be employer meant nothing to Nia, only that he held no lustful stirrings for her.
“I need a proper guard for my wife,” the Marquis informed her. “And by proper, I mean someone capable, which you appear to be, and whom I will not come home to find in her bed. She dallied with Horace, the last guard I had watching her, and I might not have known had I not come home early from my trip. I don’t want her sullying herself in such a way, marring my reputation, and bearing bastard children of lesser men. I’ll have no such fears with you. I’m willing to hire you on the spot if you guarantee me that you’ll do whatever it takes to keep such unsavoury characters away from my Beatrice.”
Nia agreed, pleased with her change in circumstances. She suddenly had a roof over her head, the offer of food in her belly, and the promise of money in her pocket. All this for a job she didn’t see as any sort of challenge.
Nia got to meet Beatrice later that evening, after the scaled woman had settled into her new quarters and received a tour of the manor. She had free reign, as part of her job, to enter any part of the estate she deemed necessary to prevent anyone from intruding upon the lady of the house. It was a large structure with ornate walls, flat roofs and multiple means of entering or exiting from various directions. Nia decided her best bet would be to watch Beatrice from as close a position as possible, following the Marquis’s wife like glue and planting herself just inside or outside whatever room she happened to be in.
Beatrice was the type of woman Nia would describe as a frilly little piece of fluff. There was nothing to her other than a gorgeous face, preened hair and well-manicured nails. Her slender body had pale smooth skin, but nothing in the way of muscle-tone. Two vapid cornflower blue eyes stared at the reptilian woman from their place above two artificially-rosied cheeks and equally unnaturally plump red lips. Men would find Beatrice attractive, but there was nothing real about her. There was also something inexplicably cruel and self-serving in the way she held herself and looked down her nose at Nia.
“This? This is what you have guarding me?” Beatrice whined. “She’s some sort of animal. Why not just shackle a slobbering, barking dog to me while you’re away.”
“The thought crossed my mind,” the Marquis muttered under his breath. “Nia is a trained Master novice as well as being a skilled fighter. I’m quite willing to trust that you will be safe in her hands…”
“You mean claws,” Beatrice grumbled.
“Making her all the more capable to protect you, even disarmed,” the Marquis countered without missing a beat. “Now I leave in the morning. I will be away only briefly, three days, and I’ll be back again for three more before my next trip. That one will require a lengthier absence of two weeks. Consider this first one a test of Nia’s services. If she watches you well, I’ll extend our contract for the second trip also.”
Nia slept comfortably that night, her quarters at the manor offering more luxury that the buckled cot by the hearth that Astrelle had offered her as lodging during her training. She was at Beatrice’s side the next morning when the Marquis left at dawn, and shadowed the superficial woman from that moment on, accompanying her into town while the lady was running her errands for the day, which mainly involved spending as much of the Marquis’s money as was possible.
The trip was fraught with dangers, but not the kind that Nia was used to dealing with. Everywhere they went men gawked and leered at Beatrice. It was not the men however that were the problem. Rather, it was the odd occasion that Beatrice invitingly returned some stranger’s stare that kept Nia on her guard. Every time there was any receptiveness on the part of the Marquis’s wife, Nia was forced to step in and make it clear that their attentions were not welcome, even if Beatrice were suggesting otherwise. This was something that Nia was actually unaccustomed at doing, normally welcoming such attention herself.
The first couple of times Nia intervened, Beatrice grew pouty, and heightened her attempts at flirtation. Every single attempt was caught and foiled by a highly alert Nia. She had promised herself she would not fail this test. She needed that money.
By the end of their trip, Nia was burdened by her charge’s purchases and Beatrice by a heavy heart. She sulked all the way home, casting a glare at Nia from time to time that would have been lethal if looks could kill. Nia considered each look of this sort a badge of honour, proof that she had done her job properly. The Marquis would be grateful.
The second day Beatrice set about applying a new strategy. Instead of venturing out into a marketplace of strangers, she accepted a dinner invitation where she would be surrounded by her husband’s colleagues and casual acquaintances. Nia could not as easily interpose herself between Beatrice and someone who was actually known to her and the Marquis.
Nia was fairly certain that Beatrice hoped to distract her, perhaps ply her with drink, and then steal away with the latest object of her fickle affection, unattended by her watchdog. Nia was prepared for such unoriginal tactics and avoided all forms of alcohol that evening, her keen eyes upon Beatrice at all times. Nia also managed to spoil Beatrice’s fun in other ways. The Marquis’s wife did not even get much chance to flirt that night, because it turned out her host and hostess, and the majority of the other guests, had never seen a reptilian before and were fascinated by Nia. They asked her question after question about her culture and her travels, ignoring Beatrice in the process. By the time they left, once again, Beatrice was sulking.
The third day, the last day the Marquis would be away, Nia knew was the most important one. Beatrice would be pulling out her sneakiest tricks. The Marquis’s wife actually went nowhere that day, remaining in the manor, but Nia caught sight of her handing off a small sealed letter to the same house-boy who had posted the job notice by the tavern. Once the boy had left the manor, Nia caught up with him and snagged him by the shoulder. He froze and then twisted to face her, regarding her with fear.
“Let me see the letter, boy,” she demanded.
He swallowed hard and shook his head.
“I can’t, ma’am. My orders are to deliver this to a specific person. If I don’t do as I’m told, I’ll probably get a whipping, or they may even toss me from the manor. I have nowhere else to go. I need this job.”
“Who said anything about not delivering it? I only asked to see it. I’ll give it back so you can do as you’ve been told. Nobody else needs to know we ever spoke,” Nia assured him, holding out one clawed hand.
The boy hesitated, but was actually more frightened about what would happen if he didn’t do as she had asked then he was what might happen if he did. He placed the cream coloured notelet in her hand.
The letter was addressed to “Horace my Love” asking the former guard to wait until nightfall and them scale her westward window. She would be waiting for him, eagerly, and looked forward to another passionate night with him just like they used to have before he had been dismissed from his position.
“Oh you think so, do you?” Nia murmured.
She was terrible with fire spells, so she resorted to the heat from an electric spark cantrip to reseal the notelet. The mini flash of lightning crackled across her fingertips, melting the wax just enough to reapply the seal. Nia grinned mischievously and returned the letter to its keeper.
“Hurry then, boy. I’m sure that Horace will be happy to see you,”
Her counter attack was simple. At dusk, she would stealth away from her place in front of Beatrice’s door. As the adulterous woman waited at her window for Horace to make his appearance, Nia would be watching for his arrival from atop the roof. She would make sure that he would never reach her charge.
When the sky lights dimmed with twilight, Nia snuck away and clambered up to the rooftop. Climbing was something her kind did very naturally, and she had no fear of heights; in fact, she found them rather exhilarating, even arousing. She was reminded just how much her body yearned for some form of release as she lurked far above the ground, following the shadows down below with hungry eyes. Her heart thrummed in her chest with excitement as they finally shifted in a way that suggested more than just wind-tossed trash or alley cats. Someone had begun scaling the wall towards Beatrice’s window.
Nia had two choices. She could pelt the intruder with spells in an attempt to deter him. That could end badly. It would be noisy and chaotic and would likely draw unwanted attention. It also might do more damage to Horace than intended, perhaps even the permanent kind.
Or, Nia could climb down the wall and meet Horace head-to-head, part way. This would be more dangerous for her, especially if he reacted violently, but Nia wasn’t one to back away from a situation just because it was risky. She preferred the latter choice.
Without allowing any real time for internal debate, Nia cast a minor lightening spell, to protect her in case she did fall, and lodged her claws into the wooden siding of the building in order to begin her descent. With cat-like precision, she nimbly picked her way down the sheer surface of the wall to meet Horace where he was still struggling to make his way up. She perched on the edge of some decorative moulding and stared at him until he noticed that she was there.
He was so startled to find her there that he almost fell, and actually would have if Nia had not reached out and grabbed his arm. Even in the fading light, she could immediately see why Beatrice had found him appealing. Horace was everything that the Marquis was not. He was tall and well muscled, he had rugged features, his square jaw and wide face lined with the faintest trace of stubble, but he also had beautiful high-cut cheekbones and pretty eyes almost the same shade of gold as Nia’s. Having none of her own, Nia rarely noticed hair, but his was the colour and consistency of spun-gold. The gesture entirely unconscious, Nia licked her lips.
“Sorry, Horace. I can’t let you in that room. The Marquis is paying me to do a job, and I have every intension of doing it. I can’t understand why you would be interested in that over-sexed little piece of fluff to begin with.”
He smirked up at her, recovering his nerve after his near fall. His golden eyes glinted orange in the colourful light of the setting sun.
“Because beggars can’t be choosers and that little piece of fluff is the only one offering right now. She’s not exactly my type. She’s pretty and all, but high maintenance and whiny. I’d prefer someone a little more adventurous and a touch more pliant.”
Nia leaned a little closer to him, not loosening her grip on his arm.
“So what are the chances, if I let go of you, you will simply go home? More likely, you’ll scope out the place for another way in, and I’ll have to keep second guessing you. You know this manor well, no doubt, from when you worked here. I’d rather not play those kinds of games. I can think of plenty of other games I would rather play.”
“You have your reason for being here, I have mine,” Horace said. “You aren’t offering me any incentive to go away and not come back. What I want is in there. I’ll get around you eventually.”
Nia chewed at her lip, searching for a solution while still clinging to the wall. Of course, there was the obvious…
“Do you find me attractive,” she asked quietly. She saw the opportunity to potentially kill two birds with one stone.
“You would have to be one of the most amazing creatures I’ve ever seen. I’m not sure why. There’s something sleek and powerful about you – something exotic. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t tempted.”
“You said she was the only one offering. What if I made you the same offer? You can consider it a trade-off: a night with me instead of a night with her.”
Horace’s face crinkled into a smile. She realized from the creases in his skin that she had underestimated his age at first, his build and features giving him a more youthful appearance. That didn’t bother Nia any. She appreciated a mature man; he brought with him experience and patience.
“I’d consider it a trade-up, lovely one. But could you at least tell me your name? You appear to already know mine.”
A thrill rushed through her. He was willing and she would be scratching a rather persistent itch as a result of her solution. She’d also be thwarting Beatrice for a third time, via the act. Nia was ready to celebrate this final victory.
“One other thing?” he added.
Nia perked up, awaiting his request.
“I think it would be awkward at this angle,” Horace continued. “Can we find somewhere a little more amenable to what we’re about to do?”
Nia laughed out loud, and then began pulling him up towards the roof.
Nia awoke to screams of rage. The sun was cresting the horizon. It was morning and she still lay, quite satiated, in Horace’s solid embrace, sprawled upon the roof. She peered over the edge to see what all the fuss was about. Beatrice was leaning out through the window and was furious to see the Marquis’s carriage returning without Horace having made an appearance in her room. She had endured her husband’s brief absence without a single act of infidelity, and not for the lack of trying.
Horace also approached the edge groggily, disturbed by the screams as well. As he glanced down, he knocked aside a few small pebbles that were lying loose atop the shingles. One of them fell and struck Beatrice, catching her attention. She gazed up at the couple on the roof and cried out in outrage, her face reddening with fury.
“You! What did you do?!! How dare you!! You were supposed to be guarding me, not interfering in my personal affairs…you treacherously vile vixen!!”
Nia shrugged and yanked Horace away from the edge, curling her limbs around him and giving him a long hard kiss. Then she laughed.
“You might want to powder your face before the Marquis makes his entrance,” Nia called out to Beatrice. “Red is absolutely not your colour.”
Horace moaned with pleasure as he and Nia toppled back down onto the roof.
The Marquis was hiding a smile behind his serious demeanour. Nia could tell.
“As much as I would like to keep you on, my wife is absolutely demanding that I terminate you,” he sighed. “She will make my life miserable if I refuse her, so I’m afraid our business arrangement will not be extending beyond these past three days. Let me assure you that I do this with great reluctance. You have been my most effective guard yet, and I applaud the lengths you went to in order to guarantee my wife was not visited by any unwelcome guests.”
Nia liked the flattery, but she was more than a little disappointed. She was counting on the full purse. Three days’ pay would certainly not pay for any new lessons with Astrelle and to make the money last until the Trials, she would have to resort to substandard lodging and pauper’s fare. Unless she found some other job, she would likely be in sad shape by the time the day arrived for the Admission Trials. Perhaps she had done her job too well.
“Here are your wages as promised,” the Marquis said, as he passed her the pittance she was expecting. It was good pay by the day, but she had been planning on more than five times the amount. She looked at the money and groaned inwardly.
“And here is a bonus for going above and beyond,” he continued. “If you like, you can view it as severance.”
He passed her a small purse. Nia didn’t dare look inside until she had left the manor far behind her. When she finally did take a look, she was so surprised that she counted it three times. He had given her half of the money that he would have paid her had she stayed of for the two week trip to follow. Nia hooted loudly and stowed the money away. It would give her enough to travel to Anthis in style and then wait out the time before the Trials in reasonable comfort.
Nia set off for the coach to Anthis right away, waving goodbye to Astrelle and all of the troubles that had come with her. She might not have as complete a novice education as she had wanted, and she would not have anything to spare for her tuition, but she had managed to return herself to a better path, and she had had fun doing it.
With a silent wish that the Marquis find another guard equally as diligent, Nia sauntered away, whistling a happy tune.