The thick forests of Sharka changed over the next few days to the fringes of trees that lined the ripe fields of corn, wheat, barley, and hay. Southern Courmet was the breadbasket for the duchy and every rich acre was planted to the inch with crops. There were still occasional thickets and woods that flooded during the rainy season where a small group could stay for the night, so they at least had some cover during the night.
It worried Raulin. He had been considering for some time what they were going to do with Telbarisk once they reached New Wextif. Being without his magic wouldn’t kill him, but he understood that any person without all their capacities brought its own emotional adjustments. Tel was a strong man, but Raulin had often wondered if his constant influx of kil might have something to do with it. For now, though, Telbarisk was happy and aside from some minor sunburn on his face, was healthy.
The wizard was still playing their game. Raulin knew this because, instead of working on his issues towards Anla, Al had decided to sabotage him. When they ate meals together, or even when Raulin and Anla sat aside or worked on a task together, Al would butt in with some comment on Raulin’s character. A few “don’t you know this is a man who beds women frequently?”s and a smattering of reminders of his trade had cropped up since their discussion. Raulin was unsure if it was going to work or not. He’d had a few occasions when he had gone for a lady at a ball or soiree, only to be beaten out by the poisonous tongue of a rival suitor. This had the double sting of wounded pride and a failed opportunity in a contract, and it made him more doubtful of his abilities. He guessed that Anla wasn’t the type to listen to slander, but he had been wrong before.
Raulin had ignored it so far, but it was starting to grate on his nerves. He took the opportunity to speak to Al one afternoon when Telbarisk had warned of a thick, but quickly passing squall. Lunch was finished and Al was still setting up his tent for their shelter when he approached him.
“Blasted frame!” the wizard grumbled from under the canvas.
“Need help in there?” Raulin asked.
“I’m just missing one of the…thank you,” he said when Raulin handed him the pole he knew he needed.
“You’re welcome.” He held part of the roof up so that Al could navigate the inside more easily. “Making any headway with Anladet?”
“Yes, as a matter of fact. She asks me a lot of my opinion of you and I’ve dug you pretty far down in the mud. Don’t be upset; it’s just business.”
“I’m not. I was just curious if that was working. I find it to be an unreliable tactic, but I’ve seen it work.”
“I think it is. How often have you two been talking over the last few days? Not as frequently.”
“Maybe it’s because you’ve decided to start butting in now?”
“Or, maybe it’s because she doesn’t like you anymore.”
Had Raulin taken one step back from the conversation, he would’ve realized Al was just manipulating him from a cloud of bravado. He’d often made uncorroborated suggestions to the wizard in much the same way. But, he was starting to feel like maybe there was some information outside of his control. It bothered him. He was usually in charge of these things.
“So, Wizard, what do you suggest I do then?”
“Give up,” he answered quickly, after opening a flap and stepping outside.
“Wouldn’t be much of a victory to savor then.”
“That’s the difference between you and I; you’re in this for a feather in your cap. I, however, have altruistic motives and a higher purpose. I’m saving her from you.”
“Classic ‘ends justifying the means’ mentality. Good. At least I know you’ll stoop to hamstringing me in order to win.”
“Barlaby noted that sometimes you need to use every weapon in a room in order to stab your opponent.”
“Barlaby, huh? No Tichen this time? What would Tichen say about this?” When Al didn’t answer, Raulin said, “’Victories are hollow without honor, and hollow victories erode the foundations of civility.’ I believe that was from Pages of Practicality.”
“It was Paupers of Morality.”
“Ah, so you have read it, then. Interesting that it’s always Tichen that arises in conversations, unless he doesn’t support your actions, then it’s Barlaby. Maybe I shouldn’t leave this up to dead prophets, hmm? I should go ask her myself.”
“That would break the code!” he sputtered. “You never tell the party the bet is made on about the terms.”
“I didn’t say I was going to ask her if your charms were working. I can just as easily ask how she feels about me without being totally upfront. It’s just so…heavy handed. Not really my style. Where is she?”
“She said she was bathing in the river.”
“Oh, even better! I’m liking this idea very much so,” he said, walking towards the stream they refilled their flasks in when they first stopped.
“Oh, no, Wizard. Perversion means a deviation from the norm. There’s nothing wrong with a man wanting to spy on a naked lady.”
“It’s a perversion of order and manners!” Al yelled. But Raulin was already on the path down to the river and ignored this.
Five minutes of walking had barely passed when the soil abruptly turned sandy and the trees thinned to expose the bank of the river. He looked up and down the bend, about one hundred yards in either direction, and breathed in the serenity. The trees curled over the water, branches dipping their leaves down to the waters. Birds chirped all around the area, singing to one another, then trailing their calls in the air as they flew. The stream bubbled and babbled over rocks and exposed roots, filling ten paces across with cooling water, even in the drier season. He breathed in the serenity and smiled.
“It’s nice, isn’t it?” Anla asked.
Raulin looked to his right about fifteen feet away and saw her head and folded arms posed over a large, flat rock. By then, he no longer arrested his life whenever she caught his eye. It was more of a string pluck in the center of his chest, something he recovered from usually with a slow exhalation of his breath. With her hair wet and dark, slicked back and clinging to her shoulders, he needed a few more, however. “Very peaceful,” he finally said.
“We still have some time before the storm, I think. I was waiting until the sun came out before drying myself.” At that moment the clouds passed and the area was flushed with sunlight quickly. “Ah! Great timing.”
She stood and deftly climbed on top of the flat rock, wringing out her hair. “This is nice. It was too cold earlier.”
“Cold,” Raulin repeated. He had, of course, seen women naked before, women of all shapes, sizes, and tones. Most wore their nudity with a sense of shame and he often found it disappointing. Some weren’t bothered by it, but it seemed they were annoyed he had been watching them gather their clothes. Once or twice had he met a woman possessed with the confidence to use her bare skin as a costume, to entrance him with her curves and rippling walk. They had known what was going to happen and had perfected their approach for one goal in mind.
Anla, however, managed to stun him without trying at all. She was so comfortable without clothing that she knelt on the rock without an ounce of bashfulness. Her skin was perfect, a dusky-golden color like walnuts or spelt that was creamy and smooth. She felt otherworldly to him for a moment, like some fairy tale from his youth, then he reminded himself that elves were legends in Noh Amair, long departed and forgotten from those lands until they were rediscovered in Liyand a few hundred years ago. She watched him and he forced himself to break his gaze. “Um, I came to…check and see if you were safe.”
Anla looked up from brushing out her hair with her fingers. “Yes, why wouldn’t I be? There’s no one around but us four.”
“Well, there are poachers and hunters that we might not know about.”
“I doubt that, with our combined skills. But, should a man find me here and wish to accost me, I think I could handle him.”
“Yes,” he said, still taking deep breaths. “But, what if there are two? Or one sneaks up on you?”
“Oh, a sneak attack? Well,” she said, laying down on her side, resting her head in her hand, “I think I’m covered there. That’s why I brought my valiant guard.”
“But I only just arrived a few moments ago.”
She gave him a brilliant smile before biting her lip to stifle a laugh. “You are a valiant guard. But, I meant Telbarisk. He’s down the river, bathing and protecting me from sneak attacks.”
Raulin followed her pointed hand and saw Telbarisk about fifty feet away, standing in the waters made shallow by his height. He gave Raulin a big smile and waved. “Hi, Raulin!”
“Oh!” Raulin said, looking away quickly. “Dammit, all right. I never thought I’d say this, but that’s enough nudity for one day.”
Anla giggled. “Well, I’m glad you appreciate mine more than his, especially since he has more to go around.”
“Yes, he does, and I wish I didn’t know that.”
“I’ll make sure he’s dressed before we come back to the camp.”
Raulin was about to leave when he turned back to face her. “Does it bother you that I am the way I am?” He took a frustrated breath; his tone should have been something inquisitive or conspiratorial, not serious or begging for an answer.
Anla’s eyebrows knotted for a moment. “Could you hand me my clothes, please?”
He looked to where she was pointing and saw her skirt made with different colored threads and her tan blouse. There was an easy to navigate path of worn rocks that he took without get wet.
She was still wet but pulled her clothing on despite the fact. “I like you, Raulin. I know you have your secrets and your mysteries, but I still enjoy talking with you. More importantly, I trust you. I don’t trust people lightly and I don’t trust many. You…I feel like you would go to great lengths to insure my safety and well-being. I don’t see much of a difference between a caring man that murders and an uncaring man that doesn’t.”
“Many wouldn’t agree,” he said, holding out his hand to guide her across the rocks.
“Many haven’t lived on the streets and depended on the kindness of strangers. I’ve seen you toss coins to beggars and tip musicians. You don’t ignore those who need help.”
“That doesn’t make up for what I do.”
“I think, if someone wishes to attain a ‘good’ status amongst his peers, there are many paths to doing so.” She gave him a smirk as she hopped to the sand. “Just because some stuffy, dead man wrote a bunch of books telling people how to live doesn’t mean he was right.”
“I feel rather transparent at the moment,” Raulin said.
“I think guessing that Al was harping on you earlier is not really guessing so much as understanding a worn path. Don’t let him get to you.”
“Thank you,” he said as the first drops began to fall.