Xavier sat on his cloak in his accustomed spot near the center of the hedge maze, his legs crossed and his bright new rapier laid across his knees. It gleamed against his fine dark leggings, reflecting the white of his shirt skyward. He smoothed the cloak fastidiously against the newly wet grass, then rested his fingertips on the sword, one hand on the hilt and one on the blade. A black leather scabbard rested by his side. Closing his eyes, the black leopard sought the meditative state he required to weave lightning into the metal. After several centering breaths, he reached out to the storm’s still-lingering energy, praying silently as he did so. Lord Dvalin, master of sky and storm-
"Excuse me, I'm a little lost. Can you help me out?"
The leopard jumped, startled, and scowled at the grubby-looking man bending over him. The man's breath reeked of garlic, strong enough to make his eyes water. Xavier’s hand leapt unbidden to shield his sensitive nose. "Gah! That way, your second left, to the T, turn right, then your first left," Xavier said hastily, stabbing his finger to the left. He'd memorized the maze, and his directions would get the man out as quickly as possible. Anything to get away from that stench!
"Thank you most kindly, sir, and I'm sorry about the garlic," the man drawled in a slow, ambling manner, not moving an inch. "Y'see, my wife, she dearly loves the stuff… She's crazy, y'know, but in a nice way. Wags her tail all friendly-like, all the time. And she -loves- the garlic." He leaned down with a conspiratorial whisper. "Why, just the other day-"
Xavier's ears lay back, his head swimming from the man's pungent breath. "Just go! Please!" the leopard yelled, waving him away and coughing, trying to remember the words for a wind spell that would bring him some fresh air.
"Now, now, no need to get all fussy, mister cat, sir" the man said, frowning. "I was just-"
The look that Xavier gave him hustled him on his way without any further comment, chased by a gust of wind that the leopard finally remembered how to call. After a few more fitful coughs and a swirl of air that rippled and eddied through his shoulder length silver hair, tugging at the binding of his ponytail and the loose sleeves of his shirt, Xavier finally got the smell cleared away and settled back into his meditation. Lord Dvalin-
"And did you see the dress she had on? Absolutely scandalous. Why, you'd think she was a streetwalker dressed like that."
Xavier sighed as two female voices passed behind him on the other side of the hedge, gossiping snootily, secure in their mistaken belief that there was nobody around to overhear them. They paused nearby, chattering away while the leopard's battered patience frayed. Finally, after hearing about what one of their aunt's second cousin's tailor had heard, he snapped, "Would you two please find some other place to talk? I'm working here."
Two startled "eek!"s were followed closely by a matched pair of "Hmmph!"s and the sound of feet stalking away. Xavier smirked and closed his eyes again, returning to his prayer to Lord Dvalin. It wasn't that the prayer to the god of weather was necessary to the spell, but he made a habit of starting with it in gratitude to that first great thunderstorm that had inspired him to become a weather mage.
He actually managed to get halfway through before the next interruption.
"Whatcha doin', mister?"
The leopard opened his eyes and choked down a frustrated snarl at the sight of the child standing before him. Seated, the tall leopard was still above eye level for the little girl, who stared up at him with wide brown eyes like a fawn.
"Were you sleepin'?" the girl asked. "Mama says people aren't supposed to sleep here."
"I was not sleeping," Xavier grumbled, unable to keep a hint of a growl from his voice as he felt the storm's energy dying away. It would take much longer to get the rapier enchanted and charged without that boost, and these delays were aggravating. "I was meditating."
Xavier sighed and rubbed his temples, feeling a headache coming on. "Look, kid, what do you want?"
The kid looked down and shuffled her feet, her brown shoes matching the simplicity of her plain dress. "I'm lost. I can't find my mommy."
The cat groaned. Yes, definitely a headache. "Where did you see her last?"
"Outside, talkin' to Mista Damontee. I wanted to play hide and seek-"
"And now you can't find your way out." The leopard sighed, sheathed his sword, buckled it to his hip, and got to his feet. He shook his cloak dry and draped it over an arm, then offered the little girl his hand. "Come. I'll show you the way. What's your name?"
The little girl grabbed the twitching tip of his tail instead of his hand and stroked its velvety black fur, tracing the darker spots with a fingertip. "Pretty…" She smiled up at Xavier. "My name's Sarah," she said, seeming to prefer her handhold. "What's yours?"
"Xavier Antony Marcus. But you may call me Xavier. Please take my hand." He quashed the impatient urge to shake his hand, and he watched her closely for signs that she was older than she appeared. He had a sneaking suspicion that these interruptions were not a coincidence.
Sarah, however, had already gone back to petting his tail, and ignored the hand. "You've got a funny name, Zayvier. But you've got a nice tail, like Mommy's. Why is your fur black? Mommy's is gold."
Lady Artela, grant me the strength not to strangle this child. Please. Xavier gestured her on toward the maze's exit. "Come. Let's find your mother." When she didn't move, he took his tail away and held out his hand again.
Pouting at losing her pretty toy, she took the leopard-man's hand and followed along. She only sulked a few moments before beginning a nonstop barrage of questions, pausing only for a breath between them. "How come you don't have spots like mommy? Why is your hair silver when the rest of you is black? What were you meddy-tayting for? Are we there yet?"
"Because that's the way it grew, likewise, to prepare a spell, no, and how old are you?" Xavier asked, rounding a third corner with the child in tow.
"No, really, how old are you?"
Sarah paused, frowning at the leopard as he stopped and turned, a stern expression on his face. "Rats. How’d you guess?" she asked.
Xavier's frown turned into a triumphant smirk. "I didn't, until just now. Before that it was just a hunch. Thank you so much for telling me." The storm was too far away now for him to do much enchanting, but perhaps, if he played his cards right, he could find out who was behind all this.
"Why, you sneaky little brat," Sarah replied with an impressed smile of her own.
The leopard threw back his head and laughed aloud. "Now, if that isn't a case of the pot calling the kettle black, I don't know what is."
Sarah laughed as well. "Alright, you've got me there. Looks like I'm out two crescents."
"Two crescents?" Xavier asked, ears and whiskers dipping back. It wasn't exactly a surprise, but who would go spending money like that, just to pester him?
"Yeah. That's how much they're paying me to come in and pester you. Same as the rest of the people they sent in."
"I'll give you four if you: one, point out who put you up to this; two, do it without tipping them off; and three, introduce me to your 'mommy' if she really exists." With each number, he flipped up a bronze coin between the fingers of his right hand and dropped it into his left. On the third, he flipped up two at once, and made sure they clinked when he dropped them.
Sarah's eyes widened at the appearance of the coins, seemingly from nowhere. "How'd you do that?"
"That, my dear, would be telling. So what will it be? Four bronze crescents, or none?"
The little girl grinned. "Yes, she really does exist, and she's my sister. I figured you would be interested. Now, if we do this right…" She beckoned the leopard down, and he laughed when she whispered her plan.
Five minutes later, Xavier watched through a small hole he'd opened in the hedge as Sarah walked out of the maze. Two familiar figures immediately walked up to her: a white-furred canine, and a black-furred sheep. "Drift and Wolfram. I should have known." He waited and listened as she explained how she'd gotten 'that grumpy cat' all riled up and that they should wait a few minutes before sending in the next person 'so he doesn't claw their face off.' The two pranksters paid the girl the promised coins, and she walked away toward the agreed-upon rendezvous. All that remained was to remind these two why annoying a weather mage is a bad idea. He grinned and started the spell, one he'd devised back when his older sister wouldn't leave him to his studies.
"I can't believe he hasn't figured it out yet and come out hunting for us," Drift murmured. "Maybe we should have the next one let him know what's going on."
Wolfram chuckled. "Nah… I've got cash for at least three more."
"Why're you throwing away your money? More importantly, why did I let you talk me into joining you?"
"I'm not throwing it away, I'm spending it on a good time. I'm a soldier. I could be dead tomorrow, so I'm going to enjoy today. As for you, you came because it's fun."
A rumble overhead drew their attention upward as dark clouds swirled into being about two feet above their heads. Drift had exactly enough time to say, "Uh-oh," before the tiny clouds opened up with an icy downpour. They bolted, but the clouds were 'tethered' to them and kept pace easily, their own personal rainstorms chasing the pair out of sight. Xavier laughed as he heard the Samoyed yell, "'Hey, Drift, let's prank the weather mage! It'll be fun! What could possibly go wrong?' Brilliant idea, Wolfram!" and he whistled through his teeth as he headed for the rendezvous with the clever if mercenary Sarah, and her (hopefully) attractive sister.