Raulin entered a busy restaurant and noted the usual wary looks people were giving him. There was something to be said about being feared; you were either unbothered or fawned over. He shoved past the apprehensive maitre d’, stopped, and looked around as if he was searching for someone. No one said anything; in fact, he thought they were holding their breaths. He spotted the entrance to the kitchens and swung the doors open easily. The chef de cuisine turned mid-rant and snapped his jaw shut, stepping out of Raulin’s way as he pushed through the lines.
Past the kitchen was a corridor that turned once before ending at a door to the back alley. He hastily changed into the fashionable but more casual set of clothing he’d had made in Hanala and removed his mask, of course listening to make sure no one was going to let curiosity get the better of them by peeking into the corridor. He pressed as many of the wrinkles out of his trousers and short coat as possible, then stepped outside as Marin Liasorn, Count of Aubrige.
Marin was a character Raulin had developed long before he had first stepped foot on Gheny’s soil some four or five years prior to this journey. Despite his aversion to the Arvonnese, he had met a few people from the country that he had liked and they had taught him the language as well as many of the finer points of aristocracy. He had used this knowledge when forging Marin, a man desperate for the monarchy to regain its foothold so that he could re-inherit his lands.
It was a perfect cover. Pretending he was from any other country might find him inconveniently bumping into someone from that very place, revealing his lie. Not so with Arvonne, a land of thousands of titled nobles who had been forced into actual menial labor. Only very few ever left the country and fewer still made it to Gheny. Marin himself only made the journey across the Gamik Sea to drum up donations to the underground resistance that didn’t exist, which, by necessity, meant he needed to attend many functions of high society and hob nob with the elite.
Nobility forgot you quickly if you didn’t constantly remind them that you were there and you were interesting. In order to reintroduce himself, he needed to reconnect with someone who was a hub of society who was interested in reconnecting Marin. Someone like Earl Vanif Remint. And in order for Marin to call upon Vanif, he’d need a good reason. Something like an upcoming birthday. And, or course, one needed a present for a birthday.
He ducked into an accessory shop and began changing into Marin, a humble, patriotic, optimistic man who was a little daft on Ghenian social customs. Raulin dropped his swagger and found a lovely pair of light blue-coated buttons with a sprig of phlox embossed into silver and had them wrapped. It was almost ten gold of his newly received hundred, but it was well worth the cost.
The shop was in Verity Hill, the same neighborhood where Vanif’s house was located. The streets were oddly placed, so he had a tough time find Ardor Court, but new he was in the right place once he turned the corner and saw the half-circle of houses. Like a large knot on the side of a tree, six houses fanned out from a straight residential road. Vanif’s was like the others, with extensive gardens of manicured color, the ivy growing only where it looked the most appealing, and a tranquil pond of porgies in the front yard.
Like a common deliverer, Raulin opened the gate to the house, walked the stone pathway, and knocked on the front door. Normally a house call would be arranged with a formal invitation and Raulin arriving in a hansom or carriage, but he had no time to wait and no residence he could even pretend was semi-permanent. He, therefore, wasn’t surprised at his treatment by the valet.
“May I help you?” he was asked by the formally dressed gentleman. Raulin would have been greatly surprised if the man could have given him a more annoyed and condescending look.
“Yes,” Raulin said, affecting an Arvonnese accent. “I am here to see the earl.”
“Do you have an appointment?”
“No. I am a friend of his and I just arrived in town.”
The valet was suddenly fascinated by the cleanliness of his glove tips. “The master sees no one without an appointment.”
“I understand this, but I cannot get an appointment before his birthday. I wished to give him this present before he turned thirty.”
“I’m sorry, sir, but the master is busy and cannot be disturbed.”
“I wait, then?” He took a seat on a bench and gave the valet a sunny look before he could say otherwise.
He heard the valet breath slowly through his nose. “Very good, sir,” he said before leaving.
Raulin didn’t mind waiting. He had admired Vanif’s taste in décor the last time he’d been in his house, and he’d only improved it since then. Whereas most nobles tended to either keep the place cluttered like their parents had, or splashed their rooms in reds, violets, gold trim, and fancy curled frames, Vanif had chosen a much different palette and style. His drapes were not heavy brocade but chiffon in a deep blue, save the silver ones on the balcony windows. The carpets weren’t classical depictions of the gods, but a pattern of green stones in a pool of water. And the chandelier reflected the light of the candles through the crystal, not illuminating the room with a bold statement of brass or wrought iron. It was fresh and updated, serene in its power.
Raulin was admiring the new pieces of furniture, some with the fashionable eyelash pattern, when he heard a tsking sound coming from the balcony. Vanif rushed to the veranda, his cinnamon colored hair parted and cut short like many of the other men he’d seen walking the streets of New Wextif. He was a little plumper than Raulin remembered, but his mutton chops helped keep his face from looking doughy. He spotted Raulin, then flew down the stairs to embrace his friend. “Marin! I am so happy you’ve decided to grace our fine lands again with your presence,” he said, pulling back to look at Raulin. “My valet is new and didn’t know. My humblest apologies.”
“No need to apologize! I understand these things.”
“How was your trip across the Gamik? Unless you’ve been here for some time…”
“Not too long. I ported in Hanala a few weeks ago and made my way here as soon as possible. You were my first visit.”
“Honored,” he said, quickly brushing off his gray shirt. Raulin knew this wasn’t an insult; Vanif was particular about his appearance. “So,” he said slyly, “what brings you to my humble abode?”
Raulin presented the box and Vanif’s fingers danced for a few moments before he took it. “Happy birthday,” Raulin said.
“And to you as well! You’ll be…twenty-seven tomorrow, yes?”
“You remembered,” he said, giving him a broad smile. There were always details he chose to keep the same when creating a character to play. “And you’re moving into your next decade!”
“Shh,” Vanif said, holding his finger in front of his lips. “We mustn’t discuss that bit of unpleasantry. It’s bad enough that I was forced to marry before I turned thirty.”
Raulin raised his eyebrows and popped his mouth into an ‘o’. Marin always showed his emotions more than Raulin would. “Congratulations! I must get you a wedding present as well.”
“How about this will be my wedding present,” he said, shaking the box, “and you can bring a birthday present to my party tomorrow night. Let’s see…” He opened the box and gasped. “Lovely. I have a white coat these would look dashing on.” He hugged Raulin again then called up the stairs for someone named Corrin, a name that struck him as familiar.
Corrin was poor at hiding the fact that he had been listening to the conversation on the other side of the door. The young man opened the door immediately after being called and hurried down the stairs. “Sir?” he said, standing close to Vanif, whose proud smile lingered as he turned back to Raulin.
“This is my friend from Arvonne that I told you about. He’s here just in time for my party.”
“I’ll go get him an invitation and put him on the list!” he said, running back up the stairs.
Vanif turned back to Raulin. “I do so love working with people who can anticipate your needs and execute them without prompting.”
“I understand you completely,” he responded, thinking of Anla.
“Hmm. So, I got you first, eh?” He looked Raulin up and down while he placed a hand on his chin. “Well, the same holds still for your hair, though I’m sure you’ll argue with me over cutting it again. Shoes are decent. Will you, uh, be wearing that outfit tomorrow night?”
Raulin looked down at himself. “No. I have nicer clothes in my trunks. This is my travel wear.”
“Oh, good! There will be several important people there tomorrow. I think it might be in your best interest to make a good impression, for your cause. I take it you’re still trying to help retake Arvonne from those brutes who stole it?”
“Absolutely,” he said solemnly. “It was a travesty how they killed our monarch and his family. No one like that should stay in power. Who else will he kill? What if he decides to start invading other countries? The Noh Amairian Accord won’t hold between a commoner and a monarch!”
(A lot of war was held off due to a clause that, when two countries’ hostilities reached the point of aggression, the monarchs of both sides would have to face each other in a duel. This was a clever paradox written in because part of a god-blooded’s power prevented them from killing other god-blooded ‘cousins’ of theirs, making the duel impossible to complete.)
Vanif faked a shudder. “Soon he’ll be coming for our borders and our atrophied army will have to using their rusted swords. Think of the lost business, too! War is great for short-term investments, but not for the long haul. I don’t like that at all.”
Corrin ran down the stairs again and handed Raulin the invitation. “Thank you,” he said. He was about to leave when he remembered his pleasantries. “May I meet the lucky woman who married you?”
“Oh! Yes! Um, Corrin, could you go fetch Gretza?”
“She’s shopping, then attending a luncheon,” Corrin said, leaning in to his employer’s ear.
“Ah. Well, perhaps you’ll meet her tomorrow night then. I’ll see you there?”
“Absolutely,” he said, bowing gracefully before leaving.