Judge Not


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Topping the list of magical beings that you never want to meet should be wizards.  People think that vampires are scary, and darklings, and werewolves and gargoyles and demons, and they are.  But vampires can be staked, gargoyles can be turned to stone, darklings can be cursed and demons banished; once a wizard sets his sights on you, the only remedy is to give him exactly what he wants and hope he moves on.  Wizards have no natural enemies and no weaknesses.  Faced with one, even Chuck Norris would piss his pants.

So why my grandmother thought I should marry one was a complete mystery.  Still, I was a young, broke magical princess in the most expensive city in the world, so having someone else pick up the dinner tab at my favorite Indian place in SoHo seemed like a good idea, even if he was a terrifying, all-powerful twelve-hundred year old being who neither adhered to nor recognized the laws of the Concordat Animatum.

Note to self: blind dates with terrifying, all-powerful twelve-hundred-year-old beings?  Never a good idea.

I was early, having been driven out of my postage-stamp-sized apartment by my grouchy unicorn, Hlada, still complaining about being stuck out on my Iron fire escape.  I’d told her not to teleport up there, but nooooooo.  No one listens to the princess.

I sat down in the corner booth closest to the kitchen in order to bathe in the orgy of smells coming from that direction.  As broke as I was, even the smell of something that wasn’t Ramen or Chef Boyardee seemed a luxury, and my Gran had raised me to squander nothing.  I ordered a pot of chai from the waiter, another indulgence, and sat back to wait for the wizard.

This would be the sixth wizard with whom my grandmother had set me up.  I had no clue where she found them.  Wizards as a whole are not social creatures, shunning most of the Shimmerworld in favor of each others’ company in whichever strange and far removed universe they congregate.  That my Gran could find six who would deign to even speak with a human, even a magical princess like me, spoke volumes of my Gran’s powers of persuasion.  The wily, human kind of persuasion – no one is stupid enough to try to spell a wizard.

The waiter came back with my chai and a small basket of startlingly hot pakoras, a kind of veggie fritter that I loved.  Hissing, I tossed a pakora back a forth between my hands and snatched a quick bite.  Steam erupted where I had broken into the crust.  I closed my eyes in bliss.  This would absolutely be worth another evening with another wizard.

So far, in all the blind wizard dates I had had in the past four months, the wizards had shown up, the first surprise.  Being practically (or maybe totally, no one really knew for sure) immortal, I wasn’t sure going in if they would all be wizened old men, Gandalf-the-Grey types with pointed blue Merlin hats, or what.

So naturally when my first wizard date ever looked about ten human years old, I was distressed.  I wondered if the aging process for wizards was that much slower than humans, or if he really was that young.  God knew where my Gran had dug these wizards up.  And it wasn’t like I could just ask him.  Despite being perpetually broke and harangued by fairies and gargoyles, I mostly liked my life.  I wanted to keep it, and I didn’t know if wizards had a sense of humor about that kind of stuff.

Date Two reminded me of Ringo Starr.  He didn’t speak, but he did spring for dessert.  We were at this place down in Little Italy that my friend Joss had recommended, so I had tiramisu and real café italiano.  As dates go, it wasn’t bad – he didn’t insult me or grope me, but he did vanish into thin air when we left the restaurant.  Literally.  I didn’t hold my breath for a repeat performance.

The third wizard’s name was so long and complicated I gave up before I even tried and just decided to call him “Mo.”  Or I would have called him Mo if I had ever gotten a word in.  He looked like a smooshed-face Harvey Keitel.  We ate Chinese and he proceeded to seriously not impress me by listing all the ways in which humans, brownies, elves, vamps, and pretty much the entire Shimmerworld were nothing more than pathetic pansies pretending to the greatness that was wizard-dom.

Number Four took me to a sports bar where he ignored me in favor of the big screen.  It was a Jets-Ravens preseason game so it wasn’t exactly riveting TV.  Maybe I should have introduced him to Mo, who could have shared with him the finer points of wizard-to-human condescension, since apparently Number Four was unaware that wizards are a serious and powerful group uninterested in petty mortal concerns.  Number Four was so interested in our petty concerns (the Jets? really?), I doubt he realized that I “went to the bathroom” during halftime and never came back.

I was pretty sure Five was a girl.  Hard to tell under all the makeup and the Liberace-inspired costume, though.  The voice gave me no clues, and neither did the name, another unpronounceable abomination that I had to shorten to “B” in my head.  I think it began with a “buh” sound, anyway.  Did wizards even use the English alphabet?  I waited out the whole date – at a sushi bar no less, yuck! – to see which bathroom s/he would use, but s/he never left the table.  After almost two hours I had to escape the smell of rotting fish, without an answer. 

At the very least, I was certain to be entertained whenever Six decided to show up.  I sipped my chai, nibbled at my pakora, and stared at the front door, wondering.  Maybe he’d have the head of a penguin.  Or be five feet tall.  Or speak only German (possibly a blessing, if he shared Mo’s views).  He could be the Gandalf-the-Grey I’d imagined before beginning this odyssey; my Gran had let slip that he was twelve hundred years old.  I’d never known the age of any of my previous dates.  Maybe he’d still be a toddler.

By the time I had finished my second cup of tea, the front door had admitted a family of three, a couple entirely too wrapped up in themselves who nearly knocked over the waiter on the way to their table, and a grandmother who joined the family of three in the opposite corner from me.

I glanced at my watch.  Ten past.  I itched to pull my book out of my bag.  Stephanie Plum and Joe Morelli had been making out on his couch when the last chapter had ended, and I was the captain of Team Joe.  Spending the night with my book would definitely not be a hardship.  Letting go of the five in my wallet for the chai might.

Did wizards have a concept of mortal time?  Maybe he’d flash in like Q on Star Trek.  Wizards have a similar moral compass, so it wasn’t that far-fetched.  My imagination wandered and got lost again: he could have blue skin or three eyes or a stutter.

Then he walked in the door, and my brain stalled.

I was always making fun of my best friend Joss for reading all those bodice-rippers featuring overly muscled Vikings with shampoo-commercial hair.  Now I would have to eat my words.  Not only did they exist in real life, they apparently walked around Manhattan in faded jeans and a dark green T-shirt from a Counting Crows tour.  They also visited excellent barbers; his white-blond hair fell artfully across his forehead, and in the back it brushed the collar of his Ducati motorcycle jacket.

He was anywhere between six and seven feet tall – hard to tell in the dim lighting and with me sitting down in the far back.  He wasn’t Arnold-Schwarzenegger-muscled, bulging like an overinflated balloon; he conjured images of jungle cats, sleek and savage and swift.  Ignoring the hostess, he sauntered toward me, hands in his pockets.

Now here was a wizard who could make Chuck Norris piss himself.

“Hello, Alexandra,” he said, sliding into the booth across from me.  Holy God of Three-Legged Bunnies.  He was British to boot.  I could feel myself approximately twelve seconds away from spontaneously combusting.  All it needed was a sexy upper arm tattoo or a small kitten for him to cradle, and he would pretty much be the man I would order from a catalog if such a thing were possible.

This was the opposite of good.  I had grown up in the backwoods of nowhere in rural Vermont, a magical princess in hiding.  My social skills were nil.  I’d spent my high school years attempting to control the raging magics let loose by my raging hormones.  The nicest thing most people had to say about me in high school was, “That girl is some kind of freak.”  The only boy I’d ever talked to without choking was my best friend Joss’ brother, Palmer.  Palmer was as cool as second-season Wesley Crusher, and even he avoided me on the regular.

“Um,” I said, trying to remember where we were in the conversation.  Had there been conversation yet?

“Seriously, you’re a wizard?”  Apparently my brain had clocked out for the night.

His right eyebrow lifted.  “Seriously, you’re a princess?”

Okay, so I wasn’t looking my most princess-y.  But I’d expected a penguin-headed wizard or maybe one in high heels and hose like one of the King Georges (III?  IV?).  Dressing up had not been on my agenda.  Still, I was wearing clean clothes: stonewashed bootcut jeans and a black V-neck sweater that, amazingly, had remained free of cat hair.  Sneakers weren’t the sexiest choice, I admit, but it was fourteen blocks from the subway to the closet my landlord passed off as my apartment.  Meeting the Blond God of Lower Manhattan was a total surprise for my evening, otherwise I probably would have packed a pair of pumps in my bag and changed when I got to the restaurant.

Speaking of, the Blond God leaned back in the booth and laid his arms along the back of the seat so that his jacket splayed out like a pair of demon wings.  His shirt pulled taut over every ripple of chest muscle.  It was glorious, except for the fact that he was smirking at me.  Just what I needed.  A gorgeous, pissed-off, terrifying, all-powerful twelve-hundred year old being sitting across from me.

"Sorry, you're just ... nothing like any wizard I've met before."

He narrowed his eyes at me.  "And you've met a lot of us?"

"You're my sixth," I said, taking a sip of my tea.

"That's ... unusual."

"You're telling me.  Random question, though, do you guys use the Latin alphabet?  It's just I met this one wizard with a long, undecipherable name and in my head I kind of refer to her as 'B' because there was a 'buh' sound at the beginning, but then I was thinking -- is that even accurate?  I mean, you guys are super scary and I don't want to insult you, even in thought because -- can you read people's thoughts?  Shit, that's terrifying, don't tell me.  Forget I asked.  I have enough trouble censoring my mouth, I can't worry about my brain too or I'll give myself an aneurysm.  If you can do that.  Are you born with those?  I'll have to wikipedia it when I get home.  Do you want some tea?"  I gestured to the pot.

Blond God stared at me the same way every guy I'd tried to have a conversation with since the eighth grade had stared at me once my mouth had found its running legs. Like he had just been hit by the Metro North train, and he wasn't sure if liked it.  If history were anything to go by, Blond God would spend the next three weeks ducking into the bathroom to avoid me every time he saw me coming down the hall.  Or, you know, disappear into another dimension altogether, seeing as how he was a wizard and this was no longer the hell that is high school.

"Even for a human, you're cracked."

See?  This was the hell that is adult life.  You can tell because I have a purse instead of a backpack, and I have to pay my own rent.  Pretty much everything else is still the same though.

"Cracked."  I took a bite of my pakora, nibbled, considered.  "Sure, that seems accurate."  I bobbed my head.  "I am definitely cracked.  That's totally Hlada's fault, though.  She'd drive anyone to insanity in three seconds, and she's been with me for like, fifteen years now."

Blond God poured himself a cup of tea.  Fascinated, I watched him do the normal thing you do: pick up a sugar packet it, shake it, rip it, pour it, and toss the empty paper pieces to the side.  It seemed so mundane for something so a) powerful and b) pretty.  Like, there should be cartoon birds doing it for him.  Or he should be able to use the Force.  "Who's Hlada?"

"Hmm?  Oh, my unicorn."

Blond God sat up straight.  "Your what?"

I can feel my eyebrows hit my hairline.  "Are you surprised?  Didn't my gran tell you who I am?"

"Obviously I was not listening close enough.  Care to enlighten me?"

Before my brain could filter the action, I stuck my hand out to shake. "Alexandra Ryder, Judge of the Realm."

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Clydon Falls

"I like your hair like that," said Ryan Levy, my boyfriend of seven months.  He waved vaguely toward my face.  I tried not to roll my eyes.  I had been wearing my hair the same since I was twelve.  Ryan pulled this compliment out every so often when he didn't know what else to say.

As usual, I forgave him his cluelessness.  Ryan had been starting quarterback for three years of his high school career and two years at UConn, before a shattered knee had ended his scholarship and his future in the NFL.  His brain had not survived five years of sacks without incident.  And he was so pretty to look at, with his chocolate brown eyes and curly black hair, that it was hard to stay mad at him.  

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