10-8

The Mirana Estate was aglow with torches lining the front walkway and lit candelabras and chandeliers inside. For an event that was supposed to be conspicuous, it certainly didn’t appear so.

Anla’s arm was draped lightly over Raulin’s. With the sky beginning to darken, her dress appeared almost black, the highlights winking in the torchlight. Even before they reached the front door, people had begun to stare or turn their heads towards them, and Raulin was positive he was no longer the intriguing one. He felt her hand tense.

He bent in to speak in her ear. “Last thing. At the end of the day, when things are again normal, I am first and foremost your guard. If at any point you feel unsafe, I am not unarmed. We can leave at any point and I will not hold that against you in the slightest.”

“I’m fine,” she whispered back. “Let me see what I can do tonight to help you with your quest.”

He opened the door for her and they were not spared a scandalous entrance. The atrium had four pairs of men and women dressed as one of the seasons waiting for guests to arrive. Winter stepped forward and attached themselves quickly to the two of them, prying them apart. The female leaned into Raulin, covering her technically dressed form with her body. Anla shot a slightly confused look to Raulin as the male walked behind her, holding her arms up in a promenade as they walked into the party.

“Need anything? Want anything? Want anyone?” the female winter asked.

“Not now, but thank you,” he said, breaking away to see where Anla had gone. His gaze swept the crowd, so thick you could barely move. There had to be over two hundred people drinking, laughing, and talking in the foyer alone, an area that was perhaps forty by forty feet. He pushed through, feeling hands move liberally over his body. Someone grabbed his shirt and kissed him. When Raulin pulled back, he realized it was a man in a woman’s wig, makeup, and dress.

“I don’t know you, but you’re adorable! Care to move somewhere else?” the man asked.

“Thank you, but I just arrived and wouldn’t want to slake my thirst too early,” Raulin said over the crowd.

He moved through the rest of the crowd until coming to the center of the room where the air cleared a bit from the humidity of bodies being so close together. Here there were couches, all spots occupied and some even doubly occupied. In back there was a grand staircase leading to a U-shaped mezzanine with several doors. There were wings to the right and left and an area below the mezzanine where servants dressed only slightly more than the seasons were serving guests champagne and finger foods.

He spotted Anla in the left wing, a flute of drink in her hand. She was looking ahead, a nonplussed look on her face. The young man next to her leaned in and said something. She turned slightly, gestured with her arm, and said something in return. Raulin followed her gaze and saw a woman dressed as what he suspected was a Ghenian interpretation of an elf. She wore some ear cuff jewelry that gave her pointed ears. Anladet probably wouldn’t have any issue with that, but the woman also wore a ripped and stained shift with blood smeared over it and her face. He looked back at Anla and saw the man run his finger along the helix of her ear. Raulin’s stomach seized, but he was relieved when she smirked and slowly batted his hand away.

He took a deep breath. He had three jobs to do. One was watching over Anla, to make sure she was fine, but the other two involved not watching her. He needed to mingle and he needed to find where in this mansion the necklace was, then steal it. So, he turned away and began to move around, speaking, flirting, and searching.

The searching, however, was an exercise in suppressing bashfulness. Every room he entered was occupied, and not with people conversing about the latest taxes. In the kitchen a trio of men were eating food off a woman wearing only her stockings. In the library, books were knocked onto the floor by a pair of bibliophiles, or perhaps just nymphomaniacs. And even Raulin was thoroughly flustered by what he interrupted in the billiards room. The right wing was entertaining, but not the typical place for keeping ones jewelry, so he left before turning completely red in the face.

He might have spent the whole evening popping into rooms, interrupting lovers for a moment and apologizing, if he hadn’t bumped into the right person. Raulin had moved to the area under the mezzanine to take a quick break, nibbling on some cheeses and sipping champagne.  As he stood in front of the table of food, a woman reached across him to select a plum tart in a suggestive shape. She was the embodiment of fire, her ragged red and orange dress glittering with jewels that almost seemed alive in the light.  “I’ve been watching you,” she said. “I’m curious: are you actually looking for someone or are you just a voyeur?”

He gulped his champagne hard and coughed. “The former. I came here with a woman, a friend’s cousin. She’s new to the social scene, so I promised I would keep an eye on her, make sure she doesn’t drown tonight.”

“How noble of you. No luck thus far? I suppose you’ll have to continue to ‘look for her’ then.” she asked, her full, painted lips turned up on one side in a smirk.

“I assure you, she’s real. Perhaps you’ve seen her? She’s wearing a brown and green dress with a feathered cap.”

“Oh, the elf! She was outside being introduced around by a young man who was insinuating she was his claim.”

Raulin clenched his jaw for a moment. “I suppose it doesn’t matter. She’s here, livening the party.”

She took a flute of fruit-laced wine from a servant then turned back. “I have a guess as to who you are. That accent and the fact that so few people have seen you means you must be Marin Liasorn. I’ve heard so much about you from the last time you were here.”

“Really?” he asked. “I think it’s fair then if you tell me what was said about me.”

She began to lead them to the left wing. “Only that you were charming and a passionate and generous lover. I’m curious if anyone left out ‘of the arts’ or something along those line.”

“I appreciate art, but not as much as other things,” he said. “I don’t think I could ask for much more in the way of gossip.” He still couldn’t see Anla. Perhaps she was outside. “Though, actually, some commentary on my good looks and dashing smile might be better.”

“I haven’t seen you smile yet, but I can make you feel better about your looks. Only if you do the same.”

She was at least not ugly, but not a startling beauty. Plain would be a fair description, a face of pretty parts but not the right combination of them. There were still features to work with. “Where to begin?” he asked. “Your lips make a man dream of kissing you. Your face is soft, a lovely thing to behold and touch. And your eyes have a way of piercing a man and stopping him in his tracks.” He never claimed to be an original poet, so most of those compliments were recycled.

“Charming indeed. You have the looks that would make any maiden giddy for an arranged marriage. You appear not to be brutish, but you’re still quite attractive. I’d have to say I enjoy your gaze the most, no offense to any part of your face that didn’t make the top spot.”

“None taken. What do you see in my gaze?”

“A man hunting, but not to conquer. A man looking to engage.”

She opened a door and he followed her inside. The room was a bedroom, already occupied by a man and the female forms of Winter and Summer engaged in a contest to see which ones weather was more extreme. “Shoo,” she said and the three left quickly.

“You handled that with authority,” he said.

She leaned back on the bed. “That’s because I have it. Since you didn’t ask, Gielska Mirana.”

“Ah, daughter, wife, or cousin?”

“Daughter. Second-to-last, actually.”

He moved to stand between her legs and leaned in close to her face. “At your own father’s libertine ball?”

“I have a select group of men I’m not to mingle with. You’re not on that list.” She grabbed his shirt and pulled his mouth to her’s.

“So,” he said, pressing himself against her, “you know where the best places are.”

“I do, but here is just fine.”

He kissed her jaw and moved down her neck. “And you know where the best wines are kept.”

“Mmm, basement, the blue cabinet.”

“And of course where all the jewels are,” he said, mixing enough playfulness into his tone so that he wouldn’t arouse suspicion.

“In my parent’s apartment upstairs, of course.”

“And you can command anyone here to do what you want.”

“I can,” she said, reaching down his shirt, moving below his belt, “and I will.”

It wasn’t what Raulin had planned to do with an hour of the evening, but it was worth the information she had given him. He redressed, tucking in his shirt, and was about leave Gielska’s room when she said, dreamily, “I love it when the rumors are true.”

The crowds had thinned in the foyer when he left Gielska’s room. Two women in light, thin dresses were splashing in the fountain in the center, their apparel now see-through. Whatever unspoken rule that had commanded people from going upstairs was broken and he took advantage of both that and the distraction to make his way up.

He started with the left and found what appeared to be an office. He believed Gielska, but in case she had been deflecting the real answer, he searched the room quickly for wall safes and curio cabinets. He stepped outside, mostly certain the necklace wasn’t in there, and turned to see Anladet being led by the hand by an older man. In fact, it was Lord Mirana, and he was opening the door to his room. Anla stumbled, then spotted Raulin before heading inside. The look she gave him was wide-eyed and unsure, darting her eyes to the side a few times. She disappeared inside a moment later.

Raulin moved towards the next door, likely the countess’s chambers. He was about to go inside when he paused and thought about the look on Anla’s face. She said she could handle herself. But she had never been in a situation like this.

He sighed. “Oh, hell,” he said and rushed towards the earl’s door.

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