A cool breeze blew through the window, rippling the ratty, black lace curtains like cobwebs shaken from a dust rag. A second gust blew back a curl of brown bangs and glided across a perspiring forehead. Wintra Felanos ignored the refreshing change. She scrawled her signature across a contract and sighed. She ought to be grateful for the work. Business slowed in the summer. Hot weather dwindled her prospects to earn a living. She folded the contract and reached for a half melted stick of black sealing wax. She held it over a candle's flame and watched the wax spatter onto the parchment. She stamped the congealing pool with her seal--a crow ruffling its feathers. She picked up a quill to address the contract, and her office door banged open. A gangly youth in rumpled, food-spotted robes tumbled through.
“Cows!” he gasped.
Wintra rose to throw him out of her office. He stood up. His rust-colored hair stood at odd angles from his scalp. It amplified the crazed look in his green eyes. “I am not drunk,” he declared, guessing her thoughts. “The cows are everywhere!”
“Well, they must change pasture to find food--” She drew back with a wince. His breath smelled foul with the aroma of onions and aged cheese, but she detected no alcohol.
“No, they're evil!”
“Evil cows.” This might take all afternoon. Wintra sorely regretted sending her assistant home early. “How can cows be evil?” she asked with a morbid curiosity.
“They're vampires!” He wrung his hands. “Vampire cows!”
Wintra closed her eyes. She knew it wasn't the heat that suddenly exhausted her. “I see.” He was mad. Perhaps she should summon her assistant to consult with before taking definitive action.
“I'm serious. I miscast the spell, and the cows are on a bloodthirsty rampage!”
Finally, something interesting amid his incoherent babble. “What spell?” She surveyed him again. He impressed her even less than he had before—which was to say, not at all.
“Well,” he hesitated, eyeing her less kindly than he would a snake.
She pursed her lips. “Well, out with it, if you need my help.” She arched an eyebrow. “That is why you tumbled through my door?” He bit his lower lip until it bled. “When you're ready to talk, let me know. Otherwise, I have work to do.”
It was a lie, but she sat at her desk and started a letter to her bank, complaining about the lack of evening or early morning service hours. With her lack of business, the inconvenient hours mattered little at present. She was surprised, however, that they hadn't increased their hours already, given how people around her behaved like frightened little rats scurrying for cover. But perhaps they refused to change them because they would rather keep her away if they could.
Naturally, the bank had not turned down its nose at her business. Her money was as good as anyone else's, apparently. Greed. It was nice to know something could be relied upon in the world. Really, it made her feel almost connected to others. Almost.
She spied movement. “Yes?” Why was this buffoon still in her office if he didn't know whether he really wanted her help?
“Please,” he spluttered, “I need your...assistance.”
“With what? I don't have all day, you know.”
“With the vampire cows?” It sounded like a question rather than a statement.
“I gathered that." She may regret this assignment, but money was money, and she had precious little right now. “What spell?”
“Spell?” he asked blankly.
“The one that went wrong!” she thundered, abandoning all pretense of patience. “Explain yourself now, or I'll summon a crow and have him peck at your eyes until his beak wears down to the nub!”
He paled, and Wintra watched with interest as blood pulsed through indigo veins in his now translucent skin. Sweat dribbled into his wide eyes, forcing him to blink. He spoke softly, his voice obscured by chattering teeth. “I do n-need your help. Please, I am not kidding.”
Of course not, Wintra thought smugly. You wouldn't dare be so stupid. You're damned desperate just to come here in the first place. Whatever this nonsense is about, it has you much more scared of it than you are of me. “No, but you're taking an abominably long time to tell me about it. You said a spell went awry? What spell?”
“My own,” he said, with a mixture of pride and shame. “The extreme heat has caused a famine, leaving the cows emaciated.. A farmer asked me to help, and I invented a spell to increase the growth of a cow's muscle tissue, so he'd have more meat to sell at market. Beef is in high demand right now.”
“Yes, I see.” She made a face. “Actually, I don't. How can cows be vampiric? Do they suck the life out of the grass?” She laughed at the thought.
“It isn't funny!” he admonished. “Certainly not to the people the cows are attacking--”
She laughed harder at the mental image of a herd of cows chasing a startled farmer around his pasture.
She considered him soberly. “Why not? It's not like--” She stopped. If he knew she had nothing else to do for the time being, no other means of income, he had the advantage. “I can squeeze you into my schedule.” She smiled without warmth. “For a price, of course.”
“How much?” Beads of sweat glistened on his face.
“That depends on the situation's immediacy--”
“Right away!” he gasped. “They'll eat whole villages in the space of days!”
“--and the task's difficulty, plus any additional supplies, necessary travel expenses and the like...”
He groaned and flopped into a chair. She eyed a stack of papers on her desk. “Of course, if you wish to leave villagers at the mercy of ravenous, bloodthirsty cows...” She waited for him to arrive at the only logical solution with all due haste, desperation, and large monetary promises. Her fingers twitched and she slowly reached across her desk.
“I don't have much money,” he whined, earning a disgusted glare from her. “Sorry,” he apologized.
“Can't you calculate the preliminary total?” he inquired after a period of silence. “My guild should help cover the costs.”An absolute gibbering moron, she thought with glee as she plucked a contract off her desk. My favorite type of client. “I would be...” she searched for the correct word and tried not to sneer, “...happy to.”