There was a light knock on Raulin’s door that evening. “Come in,” he said, turning around from the desk in his new room. The last innkeeper had seemed disappointed they had left after one night and Raulin had been unsure whether it was due to the loss of business or the loss of gossip. For either reason, it had been good to move. The room he was in was nicer and a little less expensive.
Anladet scooted inside with her knapsack. “Am I interrupting?”
“No,” he said, “just renegotiating our distances. I’ll likely be doing that every evening that I’m not out somewhere. I see you have your things. Two nights in a row? How does your ‘husband’ feel about this?”
“My ‘husband’ was the one who suggested it,” she said, putting her knapsack down.
“Hmm.” This was going to be interesting.
“Did you have a nice day?”
“I did. I’m happy to report that Remint was pleased to see me and invited me to his party tomorrow night. I also used the afternoon to check in with a tailor and bought a birthday present for Vanif.”
“I’m glad you’re happy,” she said, putting a little emphasis on ‘you’re’.
“All right. Enough with the pleasantries. What negotiation are we entering?”
She sat on the bed, her ankle crossed under her knee. “I am speaking on behalf of the other two on this. We understand that you have contracts to fulfill over the course of our time together. We understand that you will dictate where we go and when and in what manner. But, we are also people who have needs. And while we’re very grateful that you are no longer yanking us along and that you’re telling us more about your itinerary, we can’t just sit around and look at horses all day.”
“The wizard got what he wanted. He has two new books to read and whatever else he can get his hands on.”
“Even he said he would have enjoyed a little less sitting around today. He’s appreciative of your generosity, and so am I, but you can’t expect us to be happy about being shoved off for most of the day.”
“I still have my work to do…”
“We understand that. But, we have our lives to live as well. And spending four hours looking at horses is not living.”
“What does the group recommend, then?”
“When you’re not working, let us choose what we want to do.”
“That would be fair, if I wasn’t always working.”
“You’re not always working…”
“I am. If I’m not planning, I’m researching. If I’m not researching, I’m executing. And if I’m not doing any of those, I’m escaping or traveling. That’s all my life is going to be from now until I finish my docket. When the remaining nineteen are finished, I promise I will treat you three to a nice vacation wherever you’d like doing whatever you’d like.”
“It’s not enough, Raulin.”
“It’s going to have to be.”
She sighed, adjusting her posture. “Can I negotiate one day out of every four?”
“That’s going to set me back an awful lot.”
“And so would terrible weather. And so would still being stuck in that cellar. And so would having to spend weeks finding a piece of information that I or Al might be able to help you with.”
“I’m going to have to think about this,” he said, bringing his candle to the bed. “That’s my final offer for the night, so you can go back to Al’s room if you want.”
She looked away for a few moments. “Does it matter?”
“I believe it does. You are supposed to be married to the wizard. It’s best if you took the advice I gave him, that when in public you two should keep up your pretenses.”
Anla left without another word, far too quickly. While having the room to himself to think was nice, he wished she would have fought him on that point.
* * *
“Where are we going?” Al asked.
“Somewhere someone wanted to go,” Raulin responded. “And if you figure it out, don’t tell him.”
“Tel? Where did Tel want to go?”
“I wanted to see the trains,” he answered.
Raulin sighed. “Well, you ruined it for yourself, Telbarisk. I wanted it to be a surprise.”
“I will still enjoy seeing the trains.”
They took a few more streets west before the grid opened up into a train yard. Steam rose from a train that appeared to be boarding passengers, pointed south towards Hanala. A few others sat in the yard dormant for the time being. There were a few on the side, smaller passenger trains to more local destinations, and long, flat beds with crates and boxes for the distribution of goods.
“May I?” Al asked.
“Go right ahead,” Raulin said.
“You see the train carriages that have gold filigree on the side? Those are the luxury cars. You can have fancy dinners there and the bedrooms are much nicer. The ones with the red are the class cars. I took one of those on my way down from Whitney to Hanala. They’re nice; not as fancy as the luxury cars, but my bed was comfortable and the food was good. In the back are the steerage cars. Very cheap, open, and the food isn’t good. The food is edible, nothing rotten or moldy, but not very tasty.”
Telbarisk was quiet for a moment. “They’re not real?”
“Huh?” Al asked. “Of course they’re real. Can’t you see them in front of you?”
They stood over the only bridge that spanned the tracks and allowed traffic to pass from Ash River to the Fells. Telbarisk leaned closer to the yard. “I thought they were real things. These are wood and metal.”
“Yes,” Al said slowly, “but they are still real. We can go over to the yard and you can touch them. You might even be able to go inside quickly, before the train takes off.”
“You said they had tracks.”
Raulin moved and stood next to him. “Right below us are the tracks.”
“Yes, but animals have tracks. You can see the impressions their feet made in the snow long after they’re gone.”
“Ohh,” Raulin said. “Oh, I get it now. I’m sorry, Tel. Trains aren’t animals.”
“What?” Al asked, laughing. “That’s stupid! Why would he think that?”
“Wizard,” Raulin said, whipping his head to meet Al’s gaze. “Do not call him stupid. It’s not his fault he interpreted what we said wrong.” He turned to his friend. “Tracks are footprints, you’re right. But they’re also wooden slats and metal rails that the train travels on. The trains themselves are hollow metal and wooden compartments. People go inside them.”
“I miss home,” he said.
“I know. You thought trains were big animals, like the ones you have on Ervaskin. I’m sorry.”
“I’d never thought I’d miss a migelsau, but I do.”
“What’s that?” Al asked.
“They’re big rodents, like a rat, only their shoulders come to here,” Raulin said, touching his mid-thigh. “They smell and they take up a lot of room, but they’re docile.”
“Giant everything, pretty much. Wizard, how big is a squirrel?”
Al paused, then held up his hands a bit apart.
“Tel, show him how big your squirrels are. The, uh, titaskree?”
Tel nodded and moved Al’s hands so they were three and a half times wider. “That’s without the tail,” Raulin said. “Tel’s used to creatures being larger on Ervaskin. So, it’s only natural he would think that a train would be a large creature that sets down tracks like that and that he’d want to see something that reminded him of home.”
“Elves are larger, too,” the grivven offered. “They are not creatures. Anla is little for an elf.”
“I’m actually tall for an elf,” she said. “It’s because of my father.”
“Female elves are as tall as Raulin.”
“Huh,” the trirec said. “Never met one, so I wasn’t sure. Anyway, Wizard, Telbarisk’s understanding of things are different than ours, not ‘stupid’.” He looked at Al and jerked his head to the grivven.
Al cleared his throat. “I am sorry, Telbarisk. I will keep in mind that you’re still learning for the future.”
He turned his head and smiled, though it didn’t quite touch his large eyes. “This is okay, Alpine. I need you to teach me all about Gheny. I should have asked more questions.”
“Do you still want to go look at the trains?” Raulin asked. Tel gave a somber shake of his head and the trirec led them back to more reputable areas of New Wextif.
In a later moment where Tel and Al were caught up in a conversation, Anla matched her pace to Raulin’s and waited until she knew she had his attention. “Thank you,” she said.
“For what? It seems as though I’ve failed so far.”
“You tried, though, and that’s what I hoped you were going to do.”
“Well, don’t think this is charity; I plan on using you three today while I make a purchase.”
Her mouth quirked up. “It sounds terrible. Could we just go look at some horses? I’m still unsure which saddle I should buy, should I ever feel the need to get a horse.”
“No, I’m sorry, mezzem. I’m afraid you will have to go out and see the city for a good part of the day. In fact, I’m also going to have to insist we sit down for some lunch before we proceed.”
It wasn’t fancy by any means, merely a hearty meal of soup, crust, and beer, but no one complained. Raulin broached his plans to the rest of the group after the meals arrived.
“I need your help,” he said. “I need to buy a present for a friend for his birthday.”
“And?” Al asked, sitting down his mug. “You’ll need to tell us more than that. I can suggest something for every letter of the alphabet, ‘x’ included. Money’s important. That’s the difference between a xylocarp and a xebec. And who is this person, to you, to society, to his friends? What does he enjoy?”
“I’m impressed by your thoroughness, Wizard. Was there a course on that at Amandorlam?”
“No. I’m just a good gift-giver. I’ve thought of some great gifts to give different people, all at different price points.”
“I’m sure they appreciated it.”
“Um, well, I just thought of them. Didn’t have the money or…” He chose that moment to take a spoonful of soup.
“Ah, um, so the person is a friend of mine. He is thirty this year, so it should be something a little grander, though I don’t have the money to buy him a xebec: ships are right out. He enjoys art, fashion, appearances, snooker, and is fascinated with inventions. That’s why he’s brought his family into great wealth; he has a fantastic eye for industry and investing in what is profitable.
“What else? He’s newly married. He’s a veri-earl. That’s an earl that’s next-in-line, Telbarisk, so one day he will inherit his father’s title. He’s wealthy and has probably bought anything he would ever need…”
“So, you need to buy him something personal,” Al said. “You said he was your friend and the fact that you just waltzed back into his life and received an invite to his party means it’s requited. He’d value your touch on something. Hmm. What about buttons? They’re not too expensive, they’re personal, and they cover his interest in fashion.”
“That’s what I gave him for his wedding present. I showed up with the buttons as a birthday present, in case he didn’t invite me to his party, and I needed to ingratiate myself a little more. He took them and expected another gift.”
Al raised his eyebrows. “He received them as a wedding present? That’s…odd.”
“There are very specific gifts you’re supposed to give Ghenians for weddings, noble or not. First, they can only be black and white. Second, they have to be functional. And third, they have to be shared between the couple.”
“I didn’t realize that. Well, I can’t take them back; he definitely wanted those for the wedding and something else for his birthday.”
“Maybe a personalized knife?”
“A knife? Why?”
“That’s what I would think Raulin would get a friend.”
He gave a chuckle to this. “No, I’m not Raulin Kemor to my earl friend.”
Al waited, then made a scooping motion with his hand. “It’s kind of critical that you share more about who you are if you want me to help.”
“All right, but I want absolutely no conjecture from anyone about his background. It made the most sense for me. His name is Marin Liasorn and he’s the Count of Aubrige.”
Al held his spoon of soup in front of him, pausing to give Anla a long, shared look. “Oh, okay. Um, so substantial and Arvonnese, but not too expensive. Does he like to drink? You could get him…”
“No, Wizard. I’m not getting him Caudet.”
“Oh. Does he read? You could get him a…”
“No, Wizard. I’m not buying him an alley novel.”
“Oh. Hmm. Well, there are several things Arvonne is known for. You could get him a Somstair pocket scarf in a petturo tartan.”
“Hard to find those. Arvonne doesn’t make many luxury items nowadays, so it would be incredibly expensive.”
“How about a woven blanket from Alistrari?”
“Nice idea, but it seems a bit…peasant. Poor people tend to offer goods like that to their lords. Blankets, yarn, chickens, things like that. Keep going, you’re doing well.”
Al sighed. “Another kind of wine? A pen set? A pool cue? Is there anything you actually love about Arvonne?”
Raulin thought about this. “Actually, there is one thing I absolutely love about Arvonne. You’ll have to help me with the selection, though. I hope you don’t mind a hunt and some sampling.”
“Depends on what I’m sampling,” Al said, but Raulin didn’t elaborate.
They found themselves in front of a confectionery. “I would like to state for the record that I love sampling,” Anla said.
“I, as well,” Al said.
“I didn’t doubt it. However, I need to see if this store sells Arvonnese chocolate or Arvonnese-style chocolate. I’ve seen a few stores here and there try to reproduce it and it’s just not the same. I need imported chocolate.”
It took several hours, but they finally found a shop that sold imported chocolates from Eri Ranvel. Raulin bought three that he split into pieces with the other members of the quartet. Six gold for those and a gift box of eight was, all in all, a steal.
Raulin returned the three back to the hotel they were staying at and dashed off to an ember man, a tailor that did more on the side for certain customers. His face was shaved, his nails cleaned, his hair was washed and styled, and he was dressed in an appropriate outfit for the day, all for one price and reducing the need for tools or clothing. He flagged a hansom driver and relaxed as he was brought to Ardor Court.
It had been a pretty satisfying day. He had appeased his companions and gotten a great idea for a gift that saved him from spending an unreasonable amount of money. Best of all, Anla had been happy. She had been quiet, but every time he had looked at her, she was looking at Tel or Al with a smile on her face.
She had really enjoyed the chocolates, too. Raulin sat back for a moment. There was an entire city here with every food, dessert, or drink imaginable. She had likely never experienced fine dining and maybe that was something he could remedy. He had really loved watching the expressions on her face, naked in her enjoyment.
Good. The group was happy with him. Now, to focus on his upcoming task. Marin was a man who was a little reserved, a little eager, and most definitely a man who loved to talk to people. He crossed his leg and leaned forward, the box wrapped in white with a gold brocade bow resting on his ankle. He spotted the house ahead, abuzz with party-goers leaving carriages or already entrenched in the party, fans and wine glasses in hand. As the hansom driver halted the horses, he heard the loud clack of billiard balls hitting and an uproar of laughter from somewhere else.
Plenty of action, then. Plenty of opportunities.