The door swung open easily and he entered quickly, shutting it as softly as he could. There was only one candelabra lit in the room, on the other side of a very large room. He wished he had his mask, which would have improved his sight considerably. Instead, he was forced to find where Mirana and Anla had gone by the soft sounds of conversation and kissing. His jaw clenched and he stumbled his way to them.

Raulin couldn’t hear anything she said, but he heard Mirana speak. “Yes, my pet. So exquisite and positively thrilling…of course…I shall have you, as soon as you say what I want to hear…”

Risking the remaining few yards, he ran until he was close enough to see them clearly. They were on a chaise lounge, the earl draped over her recumbent form. His head was buried unto her decolletage and he kept kissing her neck and chest like he was a bird pecking for worms in the ground. While he was doing this, Anla was trying to push him off. She grasped the sides of the bed and pushed, only for the earl to readjust so that he was deeper into her neck. He saw the earl’s hand reach to her leg, pushing up her skirts, and that was more than Raulin could stand.

“Unhand her at once,” he said.

Both forms on the couch startled and looked up at him. “Who goes there? Why are you interrupting us? Leave at once!”

“I’m here to escort the lady away,” he said, moving closer.

“Oh, my lord! I’m so sorry!” Anla said and Raulin froze in confusion. “I recognize him. He’s a jealous former lover of mine. Give me a moment and I’ll straighten things out with him.”

“My. I hope he doesn’t mean to fight me,” Mirana said, sitting up.

Anla rose and yanked Raulin’s arm, dragging him until they were almost at the door. “What are you doing?” she hissed.

“What…what are you doing? I told you to keep a quiet profile and here you are tangled up with the host of the party!”

“I’m distracting him so that you can go steal the necklace!” she said through clenched teeth. “In case you hadn’t figured out where it was, I was mere minutes away from getting him to tell me. Now I’m going to have to start using my magic heavily in order to smooth things over.”

“I…you looked like you were in trouble.”

“I looked like I was pleased I got him after hours of working my way up to him and was telling you to go find the blasted necklace.”

“My pet?” the earl asked. “Is everything fine?”

“Everything is wonderful, my lord,” she answered, purring her response. “Just a moment.” She turned back to Raulin and whispered, “Go. I’ll try to fix this and buy you time.”

He thought a better idea was to take her with him, but he said, “I’ll bang loudly on the door when I’m done.”

Raulin reviewed everything as he was walking to the countess’s room. What had gone wrong there? He had been sure she was in peril.  She had appeared frightened and out of her depth, he was sure of that.  Or was he?  Well, she said she was fine.  And she did have the ability to ensorcell men to her bidding.  Maybe he had been wrong.  He decided it was what she had told him earlier about her age that had made him react poorly and not other feelings impeding his work.

He re-read the description of the necklace quickly in the light of a lit candelabra before checking the area quickly and opening the door to the countess’s rooms. It was dark inside and he had to wait until his eyes adjusted.

When he had been trained, Raulin had been taught that there was an ordered list of places people kept their valuables. Of course, this list had been for Merakians and it had taken him a few break-ins to realize that most miartha didn’t keep their jewels in the straw of their bed. He’d tossed that list out and made a new one, one for Noh Amairians: jewelry box, vanity drawers, top of the bureau, top drawer of the bureau, safe. Unless they were clever or really concerned about theft, the necklace would be in one of those places.

If he were a common thief, he’d rifle through everything without care, ripping out the drawers and tossing their contents on the floor. It would be blatant to anyone entering what had happened and he didn’t want that, especially since there was a slight chance Gielska could connect him to the theft. The more time he put between this party and the discovery of the theft, the better chance he had of never being caught.

So, starting with the countess’s jewelry box, he methodically yet quickly moved through each place. He was frustrated to find there was nothing in the first four and he didn’t see a safe of any kind in the room. Where was the blasted necklace?

He took a few deep breaths.  Don’t make mistakes because you don’t want to think about her and him in the next room over.  Again. Jewelry box, vanity, bureau, top drawer of the bureau. This time he pressed more slowly against the bloomers and shifts, opened the drawers and ran his finger along the backs. Nothing.

There was a room that abutted the earl’s rooms, a bathroom with a soaking tub and changing area. He saw someone pass by and he froze, ducking as they ducked. A mirror. He stood, walked over to it, and was about to move on when he saw a slight wink of metal behind it, reflecting what little light made it to the alcove. And lo, behind the looking glass were wrought iron trees of jewels.

Makin-frek,” he whispered, a Merakian phrase not unlike “Eureka!”. The countess had loads of necklaces, earrings, bracelets, hair pins, and brooches, but only one piece with pearls as big as a man’s thumb. He pulled this from the top, examining the square, silver pendant for the sun and crown motif. He put this inside a pouch attached to a thin cotton belt around his ribs. Before leaving the room, he remembered a similar costume necklace in her vanity and used that to replace the stolen necklace, again to increase the time in between the party and the discovery of the theft.

As he walked by the earl’s room, he kicked the door loudly and made his way down the stairs. He grabbed a drink below and spoke to a few people before moving to the front. He held a carriage and waited for Anla, who appeared maybe ten minutes later. The look she flashed him as she climbed in told him all about how the ride to the ember man was going to go.

She sat opposite him looking out the window, her arms and legs crossed. For a few minutes the clopping of the horses’ hooves were all he heard. It finally drove him mad enough to start the conversation. “You’re upset with me.”

“Furious,” she corrected.

“Because I didn’t believe someone who’d never been in a social situation like that would be able to get herself out?”

“Because you didn’t believe me.  You know me.  You’ve seen me use my magic before.  Do you know how hard I worked to help you tonight? I spent the whole time moving from partner to partner, entering into conversations so I could find out who the earl was and get him to tell me where the necklace was. I could’ve even gotten him to hand it to me. But you had to charge in, like I was some hapless damsel who needed to be saved. Of the two of us, who’s needed to be saved more?”

“I have, but that’s beside the point. You didn’t tell me any of that. I just assumed that you were out of your league and needed my help. I wasn’t about to abandon you to that situation.”

“I was in control. You didn’t even stop to assess the situation; you just barged in and almost tossed everything I’d been working for out the window.”

“You could have easily put him under your magical influence again.”

“But I wasn’t using influence! It’s what I was trying to tell you earlier. I’ve been working with Telbarisk and Al and figured out how I can use my magic to just suggest something. If someone has a desire for something, all I need to do is emphasize certain words and they’ll act on it. They aren’t under my control and they don’t suffer from any memory or time loss.”

“So, you were with Mirana and you had even less control than normal.”

She snorted and looked away again. “Do you really think a man would host a libertine party and not be interested in taking advantage of it? I saw the way he looked at me when I was introduced and knew that his defenses were already very low. He wanted me, just like so many other men there.”

“Still, you took a big risk…”

“You’re not listening! It wasn’t a big risk. If at any point there was a problem, I’d have used the stronger spell.  But, I didn’t have to and do you know how important that is to me?  I hated myself every time I used that spell.  I knew I had to at certain points, to save myself or others, but I still hated to do it.  But, to be able to influence instead of overpower…I feel so much better.”

He shook his head.  “You’re using a newly discovered spell without knowing everything about it.  That’s a risk.”

“I know what I’m doing,” she hissed.  “Fine, let me show you that I’m not helpless and that I understand what I’m doing.” She moved so that her palms were against the cushioned back of the seat and her right leg was free. “Kill me.”

“What?” he said, not moving an inch.

Kill me.”

“No! What are you doing? Why are you saying that?”

She relaxed her posture. “You have no interest in killing me. It didn’t work.”

“Don’t do that,” he said, his eyes still wide with shock.

“Now, let me show you what I did tonight. Kiss me.”

Anla had forgotten how fast he could be. No sooner did she finish the suggestion than his lips where on her’s, soft and warm. He parted her mouth with a desperate speed that slowed after a few moments when he moved to her jaw and neck.

She was free to stop him, but she didn’t and that surprised her. Her arm moved to the back of his neck, her fingers curling lightly in his hair. Anla sighed and felt a warmth grow inside her. She wanted to hold him closer, to embrace him like she had after they’d left Miachin and he’d changed back to the Raulin they knew. She wanted him to hold her like he had after she’d seen her sister.

Raulin moved his lips back to hers and for one brief moment their eyes met. She was relieved to see that he was there; his gaze not the blank stare she’d grown accustomed to seeing with her magic. She kissed him back, hearing a sharp intake of breath from him. Her hands moved to hold the sides of his head and his hands her shoulders. She felt the material of her skirts shift and his hands, slightly sweaty but warm, rested on her knees. He moved forward, his hips pressing against hers, his lips again moving down her jaw and neck. They didn’t stop, though. He kept moving to her collarbone, then along the lines of the necklace she wore, moving farther down her chest.

Anla didn’t want to say no. This was the first time she’d been kissed by anyone like that and had actually enjoyed it. Even the men she’d thought she’d loved had pressed their lips against hers in some gesture that might have meant affection but felt more like they were robbing her breath and pushing and scratching her face with their stubble. This was so many things at once that she couldn’t even untangle her thoughts. But, she knew this was poorly timed and unfair.

“Stop,” she whispered. His hands moved farther up her legs, just a little, as he adjusted his weight. “Raulin, stop.”

He froze and was back on his side of the carriage in a flash. Anla didn’t know what to do. Her hands folded themselves and settled in her lap. Her faced was burning, her outfit feeling too warm for the first time that evening. She stared ahead, thinking of what to say and coming up short.

When she finally looked up, Raulin was looking out the window. She saw the side of his face in a slowly moving bar of light from a street lamp, flushed, though she didn’t know why. He didn’t look at her when he said, “Never do that again.”

The rest of their trip was quiet. Raulin walked her inside the ember man’s shop, the one with the snooty lady and her daughters, though the girls were asleep by then. Anla was taken back to the same room. Before Raulin left, he spoke with the ember man, putting a piece of gold on the counter. “She is not a whore,” he said.

“Very good, sir,” the tailor said, putting his fingers out to collect the coin.

Raulin stopped him by putting his fingers over the man’s and pressing into his counter. When the tailor looked up in alarm, Raulin repeated himself, holding his gaze. “She. Is not. A whore.”

The man nodded and went into the back. When the woman came in to help her undress, she was kindly, almost motherly. She brushed out Anla’s hair after the hat was unpinned and washed her face in warm water, humming all the while. “Did you have a nice time tonight?” she asked.

“Yes. We went to a party. The food was delicious and I met a lot of nice people.”

“I’m glad, dear. I have your things here for you. If you could change for me, I’ll be back in a few to make sure everything’s fine. Would you like something to drink?”

“No, thank you,” she said and began disrobing as soon as the door closed.

Raulin met her out front in his normal travel clothing. He still said nothing and Anla felt it was the first time in their friendship that things felt uncomfortable. She thought of things to say, but everything sounded forced or idiotic.

He left her to enter the park from earlier, returning with his mask on and Telbarisk. She followed them as the three returned to the hotel.

Without saying anything, the two men took one room and Anla was in a whirl of confusion over the events of the day.

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