“They were sisters!” Al said. “Can you believe it?”
“Hmm?” Anla said. She shifted her focus from the puddle of water on the bar back to Al. “Oh, wow. That’s…quite a situation.”
“I know!” he said, dinging his mug with his fingertips. He stopped to consider this for a moment, then continued. “Aggie figured it out, though. He made sure to date one girl in Brace Square and the other ‘cross town in Quiet Park. It worked, ’til the sisters got t’gether and talked and stuff one night and…well…”
She leaned her cheek on her fist, her gaze again drifting. Anla had counted the bottles under the bar several times now, her mind fixated on one with a peeling label. It had a faded orange print that she had been trying to read for a good hour and a half. She thought it said “Small Patch Bye”, but that made no sense. It must be rye, but what was the middle word?
“…fights that were ever seen in Whitney. I didn’t know women had so much…stuff that went under their clothin’. They ripped each other down to petticoats and corsets, ripped out the others curls. People just stopped to watch in the square…But. Oh!” Al put his hand on Anla’s arm and she looked back at him. “Not me. Not me! I looked away! It was embarrassin’. And my wife wouldn’t like it, but she wasn’t there. She woulda known, though, and I woulda been in trouble.”
Wife? Anla thought, her eyebrows raised. That deserved a long conversation, but she said nothing. It was not the right time. It wasn’t really the right time for anything, not with that much wine and beer on an empty stomach. Hoping not to hear any more about Aggie, she changed the subject. “I hope everything’s all right. They’ve been out there a long time.”
Al patted her arm. “They’re fine. ‘Member that Raulin is a super thief and he can…he can steal anythin’.” He snorted. “Wouldn’t it be funny if I hired him to steal somethin’ that wasn’t possible? Raulin, I want you to steal the sun!” He started laughing at his joke. “I want a cloud souffle baked next to the sun and sprinkled with some hail. Steal me that!”
“You have the money to hire him?”
“Nooooo, but…I was just bein’ funny. Wouldn’t it be funny if he looked at his stupid book and he read his next job and was all ‘Damn it! I can’t steal this! This is crazy!’.”
“Sure, Al,” she said.
The bartender put a shot of whiskey down in front of her. “I didn’t order this,” Anla said.
“I know. It’s on the house. I thought it might help.”
She mouthed a thanks and downed it.
“Another time Aggie was datin’ this woman named Astinia. Beautiful, but she was a little off her chump. She came down to Milxner’s one day, ready to give…”
Anla’s attention shifted immediately when she heard the heavy footsteps of someone coming down the stairs to the bar. When she saw the person ducking, she jumped off the stool and grabbed her backpack.
“Uhh?” Al said, turning around. “Oh, Tel! Hiiii!”
“We are ready to go,” he said. “Unless you want to stay a little…?”
“No,” Anla said quickly, running to staircase.
Al managed to remember to settle the tab. Before he left, Anla heard the bartender say, “Usually there’s dining along with the wining. Try that next time.”
“It’s almost night out!” she exclaimed when she popped out onto the street.
She was about to ask Tel what took them so long when she saw Raulin leaning against a building across the way. He unfolded his arms, stood, and sauntered over in that cavalier way of walking she remembered he’d had prior to Iascond. She looked up at Telbarisk. With a slight smile, a tiny shrug, and a quick quirk of his eyebrows, he told her what she had been hoping to see.
“How?” she whispered.
“Some other time. He just needed to take off his mask and use it to reflect upon things.”
What happened during this contract? she wondered. as she walked over to follow him. Thoughts and possibilities raced through her mind. Did he have to kill someone else? Did he see something barbaric? What if the owners of what he had to steal were destitute and pleaded with him not to steal it, but he still had to?
“How was your evening, mezzem?” Raulin asked, stepping in next to her.
“It was great,” Al said, catching up to the rest of the group. “I was talkin’ about my friend Aggie and all the bizarre tales of his life. Y’know, come to think of it, he reminds me a lot of Telbarisk.”
“Aggie reminds you of Tel?” Anla asked. “How?”
“Well, they’re both big guys. They’re both great friends.”
“But, Aggie sounds like…an ass! He sleeps with a lot of women, even though he’s married, and hurts a lot of people. You, too, Al. He kept dragging you into his messes and expected you to fix them. That doesn’t sound like Tel at all.”
Al stopped walking and thought about this, looking like a wharf with too many fishing boats. “I don’t think I can explain it.”
“How many drinks did he have?” Raulin asked quietly.
Anla blew air out of her mouth, rustling the hair that was in her face. “Five, I think. It may have been six.”
“I’m fine,” she said. Three glasses of wine and a shot of whiskey had almost done her in.
It may have been more waspish than she intended, since Raulin’s tone softened. “I’m just asking because you and he seem a little…cup-shotten. And I think it’s going to be a bad idea to stay here tonight. My questions were to figure out how far we can go and what would be the best direction.”
“A little less than normal for me. Al…I think a few miles. Perhaps two people standing on either side would help.”
“All right,” he said, laughing lightly, before leading the group north past the castle. “We’ll find a place not far from here. We’re going to need extra security tonight: two watching, two sleeping. I’d rather we wait until we set up camp to discuss the finer points.”
And now her curiosity burned. “Shouldn’t we double-back, to throw off anyone who see us leave?” she asked.
“There would be no point if they use the hounds.”
Hounds? She had to physically bite her tongue to keep herself quiet.
They had the calendar on their side, it being only a little over a week since the solstice. They traveled the road easterly until they couldn’t see the lines of their hands in front of their faces, which was close to nine o’clock. Tel pointed out a flat, secluded spot on the side of hill that had better defenses than most sites would.
Anla volunteered to stay up for the first half of the night. She took the opportunity to do laundry, noting that Raulin’s shirt needed it badly. With a fire shielded behind some pines roaring, the clothes hanging from a line, and a warm supper in her belly, Anla sat next to Raulin and stared into the flames.
Al hadn’t even bothered with his tent; he had passed out on his bedroll as soon as it was unfurled. Telbarisk was sitting cross-legged on top of his some distance away, breathing deeply. It almost seemed as if he were asleep.
Raulin snapped out of his trance and turned towards her. “They hired me and several other trirecs to hunt, you see. Like deer or boars. We escaped and turned the tables on them, capturing the marquess and tying up several of his men. They are trained marksmen; they shot Thenik when he was sprinting to the woods. So, I expect that if they do want to enact revenge on me, they’ll be coming for us tonight. They’ll bring hounds and as many men as the marquess can gather. Either that or he’ll leave me alone. I get the feeling that, with his level of detail and precision, the marquess isn’t a man to do things halfway. He’s either a force or a farce at this point.”
“They hunted you?” Anla asked quietly.
“Like…like an animal?”
“Yes,” he said, hanging his head for a moment.
Anla tucked her feet underneath her so she that she was kneeling and hugged him. “I am so sorry,” she said. It took him a moment, but he returned the hug, wrapping his arms around her perfectly and comfortably. She discovered that she liked hugging him.
“Thank you,” he said when she moved away, “but I’m the one who should be saying he’s sorry. I do apologize. I shouldn’t have read your letter. I shouldn’t have confronted you about its contents and I should definitely not have forced you to say what you did. I know as much as anyone else what survival means and the tough choices people have to make. I didn’t judge you on your past trials then and I don’t know. Still, what I did was vile and rotten. Please forgive me.”
Anladet sat for a moment, staring at the flames. She hadn’t thought she would ever get a direct apology from Raulin. If things had ever returned to some semblance of normal, she assumed it would be gradual and far from this day. When it came to that part of her life, she had grown a callus to people’s thoughts on the matter. She liked Raulin. Having someone she actually liked shame her over it had ripped away some of her defenses. It had been more painful than she would have thought.
So, she hadn’t been prepared for this moment. She knew she would forgive him and not even because it was best in light of the chalice spell’s rules. But, how exactly would she forgive him? She had an idea and gave him a devilish smile.
“I think I’m going to take a page from your book. It hurt, what you did and said, but it is something I’m prepared to forgive you over. However, in good faith, I would like two things from you. One, I want to know what brought you to the decision to do that. I assume it’s whatever happened in Iascond. And two, I want to hear something equally as shameful about the same subject. I know you claim to be quite the paramour, but I’m sure there must be something you’d rather not admit.”
“Hmm,” he said. “I’d rather wait on the first, if you don’t mind.”
“I didn’t say you had to do it right now.”
“Thank you. The second…sure, I suppose we could both use a good laugh.
“As I said before, Arvarikor prefers to use their students’ negatives and turn them into positives. One of those are the needs young teenagers feel and that drive them later on in life. Unlike other organizations, they don’t restrict tumbling with people. In fact, they encourage that as a way to obtain information when spying.
“They began giving us the bitter tea I’ve grown used to drinking long before they started telling us thirteen-year-olds about seduction. Not the actual techniques and whatnot; you don’t teach eggs how to fly. They would just…hint at things to come. Then they established rules. Then they nonchalantly gave everyone a lesson in the basics, tucked in between the proper uses of a shisham knife and the correct way to navigate a parapet, and dismissed us early. In fact, they gave us extra leisure time for a full week to pursue our new interests.
“I am not attractive by Merakian standards. What drives those women crazy is whipcord muscles, a rich, even, bronze and copper tan, and a rippling power to a walk like a bottled thunderstorm. And there I was, gangly, awkward, pale Raulin. I held out some measure of cautious optimism that some girl would find me interesting enough for a tumble, but no one approached me by the end of the first day. Nor the second, nor the third. The fourth day, however, I was enjoying the nice spring weather when one of the older girls sized me up and dragged me to a bush. I forgot any of the lessons or tips I had heard some of the other guys trade and was pathetically quick. I stammered an apology, hoping she’d give me another shot the next day or later on, but she rolled her eyes. ‘I didn’t pick you because I like you. I plan on transferring to Noh Amair and thought it would be smart to try one out, to see what they’re like.’ She stood up, brushed off her clothes, and said, ‘Not really worth the tea.’”
“Aw,” she said, laughing a little. “That’s a little funny, but poor little Raulin.”
“Poor little Raulin accepts your pity. I’m sure he would have loved it.”
“So that’s what ‘not worth the tea’ means, huh?”
“I’ve grown into quite the suave gentleman. I can’t accept invitations from all the ladies who clamor for my attention.”
“Suave and humble. Such a dashing combination.”
“I am honored you noticed. If you’d like, we can speak more about my wonderful qualities.”
Anla laughed, then put her hand on his arm. “I’m glad you’re back. I missed these little talks.”
“You mean laughing at me?”
“No, you know that. I miss talking to you about anything.”
Subjects were changed several times over the next few hours. When Telbarisk and Al came to switch shifts, she was actually sad that the night was half over.