Rayani turned around and walked backwards on her tiptoes, looking back at her forge and home but mostly at Raulin. She gave him a devilish smile. “We’re alone,” she said.

They were.  They had cleared the post with the town’s name a few minutes earlier.  The bend in the road made it so all they could see were trees and each other.  “We are, but only for a half-mile or so. My clients are not far off the road, so we should get to them quickly.”

“In the meantime, though, may I ask you some questions? It’s not every day I get an opportunity like this.”

“I never begrudge a man, or woman, for asking, but there are plenty of questions I cannot answer. If you can live with those terms, then feel free to inquire.”

“So polite,” she said. “Do they teach you to speak so formally at…wherever you learned your trade?”

“They taught me many things, including the ability to show respect through speech.”

“Your respect is noted but unnecessary. You’ve met my family, so we’re friends now.”

Raulin inclined his head. “You are still appreciated.”

Rayani walked playfully with her arms folded behind her back. “’Raulin Kemor’. What does that mean?”

“’Foreigner’, more or less. I wasn’t born in the part of Merak where most of the orphans are taken to train.”

“They gave you that name?” He nodded. “Doesn’t that bother you?”

“I don’t take it personally. They give names like that to all the children. They do whatever they can to shove wedges between us, so we don’t form friendships and bonds. Another example: my teacher, Afren Merak. He didn’t have many faults or differences to distinguish him for his name, so they named him ‘greatest in Merak’. It’s to imply he thinks he’s full of himself, which is far from true.”

Rayani made a soft, sympathetic sound and touched his forearm lightly. “It seems cruel to take from a child what little he has left.”

“It’s fine. It’s just the past,” he said. “But what about yours? An Imperial woman in the middle of nowhere. That must be a story.”

She shrugged. “Hardly. I was called by Skethik when I was just starting to look at boys. Since then, he’s been the only man for me and I do what he says. It included traveling to Gheny for training, where I met Bay.”

“And how does your husband feel about that?”

She gave him a twisted smirk. “The three of us have worked out an arrangement. As much as I love my god, I know he has many other loves, none of whom He can please in a marital sense. Bay and I work well together, as partners in business and in life. But he understands he will always be the second in my heart.”

Her poor husband. Raulin hadn’t had any intentions of sleeping with Rayani, but hearing that really sealed his thoughts from a slight possibility to something that was absolutely not happening. He’d slept with plenty of married women, but they had all been aristocrats. They had their own games spawned by boredom and spite and jealousy, but mostly because it was the status quo. They all cheated on each other, turning balls and soirees into places of flings and liaisons. Rayani and Bay were commoners. He knew commoners cheated as well, but there was often more heartache involved. Nobles knew what they were getting into; commoners were often blindsided.

“He’s a wizard, isn’t he?” Raulin asked.

“He’s a Gold. It’s one of the reasons we work well together. I’m a blacksmith in my own right, but I do better with the spells and intricate work. Bay has this incredible gift to shape pieces with the metal, not forcing, but finding its purpose. He creates the base, I add to it.”

“You mentioned spells. What do you cast?”

She giggled, which would be an odd sound coming from a forty-something-year-old woman if it wasn’t her. “We don’t ‘cast’, we bless. We sell far more utilitarian pieces then weapons, so it’s usually’ rust reduction’ on pots or ‘ever-sharpness’ on cleavers. I have to do a ‘glory in battle’ everyone once in a while or else He gets upset.”

“And He’s not someone you want upset. As a curiosity, is there any way to reverse a spell?”

“I could place another spell to nullify the first, but it doesn’t always work well. And it takes twice the magic to maintain, so it’s more than frowned upon.”

“What about an artifact?”

Her eyes widened. “Oh, definitely not. I place spells on objects, because I’m merely a priestess and not even the most in tune. Deitic artifacts are infused with a spell, usually hundreds of them. If Bay were both a wizard and a priest of Skethik, it would be like him blessing something new in it every minute he forged. Only Aps had that ability.” She paused. “Why, which artifact are you talking about?”

“No,” he laughed and pulled out one of his fighting knives. “I was curious if I could turn one of these into an artifact. Just a silly thought.”

She took the blade and tossed it lightly, to test its weight. She held it up and turned it around, running her finger along the handle. “This is a Merakian knife, not surprisingly. A shiast-krest, I believe. I could add a ‘thirsty blade’ spell to both of yours.”

“How long and how much?”

Rayani smiled again before deftly holstering his knife for him. Raulin felt the act involved too many nimble fingers too close to things he didn’t want her touching as well as a very sharp object in the mix. “A week or two. And don’t mind the cost. We can work something out.”

“Ah, yes,” he said, hastening his pace. “Unfortunately I have to travel as soon as possible. There are people that need stabbing.”

“You’re sporting about it, I hope?”

“Generally not, but when I can be I am.”

“That’s all He asks for.” Her eyes traveled up to his mask. “I don’t suppose I could take a little peek. I’ve always been curious about trirec masks.”

He popped the bottom off and handed her the piece. “This is our secret. I’d be tied naked to a bull the night before branding if my order found out.”

“Oh, now, isn’t that a lovely picture,” she said, a wicked smile lighting her face.

“I apologize. That was a little crass of me.”

“Let’s make things even, then,” she said, pulling his ear down towards her mouth. What she murmured was low and throaty with a hint of that giggle he was finding hard to resist. What she said was far racier than what he had said, and involved some interesting events.

Raulin straightened his spine quickly. “Oh, uh,” he said, chuckling, “I consider myself a limber man, but I still don’t think I could do that.” Her poor husband.

“Raulin, I do believe you’re turning red,” she said laughing. Thankfully her eyes drifted down and she was distracted by the lower mask piece. “I see. This is the mechanism…” She pressed one of the buttons. “Yes. Clever. What’s this? This on top is a silver alloy, but this metal underneath is unknown to me.”

“It’s called chayirathra. It has some interesting properties to it.”

She flipped it over. “Oh, it looks like worm-eaten wood. Why?”

“It helps to channel the moisture off my face so I’m not constantly sweating from being under a mask.”

“Interesting,” she said before smirking. He was tiring of trying to figure out what mischievous thought had crossed her mind, but at the same time he was also enjoying her company and her flirtatious ways. She grabbed his arm lightly to stop him, then held his mask piece up to insert it herself.

She stopped and ran her finger along his chin. “How did you get this scar here?”

“Well, that’s an interesting story…”

The remainder of their walk was spent with him telling an old tale involving a dashing fight to the death against some crime lord he had been paid by a small village to assassinate. In reality, he had tripped in Arvarikor and scraped his chin against the sharp corner of a cabinet. He had bled like a snapped pen and almost threw up because he was so worried he was going to die.

Beautiful women didn’t want to hear that, though, so he told them what they wanted to hear. The story behind the scar changed for the situation, but it was always nine parts fabrication to one part pain.

There was a marker on a tree and he turned to lead Rayani in to their camp. “Ah, not much farther,” he said, trying to keep the relief from his voice. Her actions had grown more intimate while he was telling her the story. He hoped that she might be put off by an audience. Luckily, she was so busy flirting with him that she didn’t notice it was Al’s stole tied to the tree, something that might blow their cover.

Tel hadn’t moved, which Raulin actually appreciated. It meant that nothing was clouding his mind, telling him to fight against the other two. He lay under the pine tree with Anla, who knelt by his shoulder and pressed a damp cloth onto his forehead. A fire was nearby with Al’s pot suspended over it by a high bar, boiling water or stew. The wizard had his back to them and was poking the fire.

Anla heard them approach and looked up. “Raulin, he’s been…”

“Hello, Mr. and Mrs. Auslen,” he interrupted. “How has your ledgerer been?”

Al was stripping trees of branches and stopped when he heard them, his eyebrows furrowed. Anla understood, though. Her reception changed immediately, her tone changing from something familiar and friendly, to something more formal “Ah, he’s been alternately burning up and freezing.” Raulin noted her cloak was off to the side of Telbarisk. “We’ve been trying to keep him comfortable and giving him water when he seems fine enough to drink. He hasn’t woken up, but he keeps moaning.” She dabbed Tel’s forehead and smoothed back his stringy, sweat-soaked hair.

Raulin kept his overwhelming feeling of appreciation in check. “That’s all you can do for him, for now. Mr. and Mrs. Auslen, may I present Rayani. She’s a priestess of Skethik and an amazing blacksmith. She’s married, too.”

Rayani rolled her eyes, then knelt next to Telbarisk. “He’s a grivven?”

“Yes, from Ervaskin,” Anla said. “It’s a long story, but he wound up being our ledgerer. Al and I prefer to give those in need a little hand, if we can. He was in need of a job and we were in need of someone to catalog our sales.” Behind Rayani’s back he rubbed his first two fingers and his thumb. She nodded slightly. “He does an excellent job. Despite the high amount of numbers involved with our business, he keeps our books down to the copper. We’ve made quite a profit so far.”

She gently felt Tel’s forehead with the back of her hand. “We’ve been together for almost a year now. He’s such a darling man; I feel rather familial to him. I hate to see him so sick.”

Rayani nodded. “I’m sorry to hear about your friend. My son, Chian, will be headed to Iascond. He’ll fetch a doctor for him. You should be very specific about what’s wrong with him, so that the doctor will be sure to bring the right medicines.”

“That’s so kind of you to help us out,” Anla said. “Thank you.”

Rayani swatted her hand and stood. “What’s cooking? It smells delicious.”

“Vegetable stew, for now,” Al said, gesturing for her to sit by the fire with him. “We’ll add some pork after we’ve fed Tel, since he doesn’t eat any animal flesh. You’re more than welcome to have some, though I think the potatoes aren’t quite done yet.”

“Thank you,” she said, accepting a bowl. She held up the spoon Al had passed her and held out her hand to look at the ladle, making disproving noises.

Raulin jerked his head to the side when he caught Anla’s eye. She quietly stood and followed him far enough away so that they couldn’t be overheard. “Nice improvisation,” he said. “I have another task for you.”

“What did you have in mind?”

“Our new acquaintance has taken quite a shining to me.”

“I could tell. Her eyes barely left you. You’re not interested, though? Do you not like older women?”

He shrugged. “I like many kinds of women. What I don’t like are married women with jealous husbands who can make torturous devices in their sleep. It doesn’t matter how I feel about her; I enjoy having all my body parts intact more.”

Anla laughed lightly at this. “Well, I think most people do. How can I help you to remain wholesome?”

“I suspect Rayani won’t leave us today. I need you to pretend that we’re having an affair.”

“Oh? Is my husband aware or ignorant?”

“Ignorant. It suits him.”

“Raulin,” she said, giving him a disapproving look at the insult before sighing. “All right. So, discreet flirting, watching you when I think no one is looking, things like that?”

“Mmm, it is so nice that I don’t have to spell things out for you. Yes. I think you understand.”

“I think I do,” she said, trailing her fingertip up his arm before turning slowly and heading back to the group.

“Fascinating,” he heard Al say. “So, what’s it like having children who are half-Ghenian and half-Caiyuzen?”

“I…” Rayani began to say when she heard the two of them return. She turned and smiled warmly at Raulin. It was wiped away when she saw him draw his hand from Anla’s back. Her face clouded over when she saw the pleased look on Anla’s face and her wet lips. It lasted just a moment before she swallowed her anger and gave a hard smile.

“Al and I were discussing some things. We think that what your ledgerer has may be contagious,” she said.

“Then I’m sorry to have brought you here,” Raulin said. He sat on a fallen log behind Al and Anla joined him.

“I think it might be safe to quarantine myself with your group until we safely know whether I carry the disease.”

Raulin and Anla exchanged looks quickly, remembering his suspicions. “None of the three of us have what Telbarisk has,” he said. “We’ve been together for a few weeks now, so I’d feel one of us would show some symptoms.”

“I’m feeling a little hot,” Al said.

“Could that be because you’re sitting in front of the fire? Perhaps you should take a dunk in the river. Sir,” he added.

“And miss the conversation with this lovely woman?” Raulin noted that Rayani looked hopeful for a moment. “Besides, I’m watching over Telbarisk, too.”

“Yes, your ledgerer needs all the care he can get.”

It couldn’t have been fun for Rayani. She had to continue a rather banal conversation with Al while Raulin and Anla flirted within her sight. Every time she looked at them for respite, Anla was making coquettish glances at Raulin or giggling at his jokes. In turn, Raulin leaned in when she spoke and made his voice pleasant, but low.

Rayani might have said something to Al about his “wife”, but Raulin had ripped a page from the back of his ledger and was asking Anla for information. Of course, he made it as intimate as possible. Raulin had just removed a non-existent fly from Anla’s shoulders when they heard the thumping steps and wheezing breaths of two adolescent boys. Raulin moved quickly away, as if he had been caught doing something wrong, as Anla stood to greet them.

“We’re ready,” Chian said. “Ebri is with Sarnif. We’ll be back with her in three days, no later.”

“And you’ll brush her down and feed and water her tonight? Your father told you which inn to stay at?”

“Yes, Mother. The reason I’m so late is because Da spent most of the time lecturing me on stuff I already know.”

She walked over, hugged him, and gave him a kiss on his cheek. “Be safe. I love you.”

“Love you, too,” he said, looking impatient and embarrassed.

Raulin handed him the letter and two gold coins. “One for the doctor and one for your trouble. We appreciate you doing this.”

He nodded, a little stunned at the amount of money in his hands, and walked away. He turned and said, “Thank you!” before he picked up the pace and took off.

Rayani brushed her pant legs off. “Well, I think I should head back. My husband is terrible with cooking.”

“Oh, I thought you said you were quarantining yourself here,” Al said.

“Well, you did say none of you have any symptoms. And you three have already been in contact with many people in the town. I don’t believe it’s necessary for me to stay any longer.”

“We thank you for your generosity,” Raulin said.

She nodded at him rather coolly, but her eyes flashed when she looked at Anla. Almost too low to hear, Rayani said, “whore” to her before she walked out of camp.

Raulin saw Anla bristling and put out his hand to silence her. “Our priestess is hypocritical,” he said once Rayani was out of earshot. “Don’t be mad.”

“That’s exactly why I’m mad! The nerve of her. I’m the whore? She’s the one who’s married.”

“What was that about?” Al asked.

“Nothing, Wizard. Lady stuff. Best to stay out of it. Who’s idea was it to put your stole around the tree?”

“Mine,” he said proudly.

“Well, I thank you for the marker, but if you’re supposed to be a regular merchant, why would you have a wizard’s stole?”

Al opened his mouth the speak then closed it. Raulin moved next to him and lightly squeezed his shoulder. “We need to have a discussion about what information you allow people to know. No ‘I know, Raulin’. We’re going to hash this out. Sit,” he said, gesturing to the log near the fire. “Get comfortable. We’re going to be a while.”

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