At least on this occasion Raulin got to save some money before losing it. As a ‘man’s event’, he wasn’t expected to dress well or arrive in a carriage for Vanif’s game night. One of the outfits from Hanala, trousers, and a button-up shirt was sufficient and he took the horse-drawn trolley as far as he could before walking.

The manor seemed relatively quiet without any party attendees chatting in groups on the lawn. Everything would be inside, since this was technically an illegal event and subject to the police’s whims, should they be notified about it.

The door opened to a smiling Corrin, who gestured for Raulin to enter. “I saw you coming up the walkway. Welcome!”

“Good to see you again, Corrin,” Raulin said cheerfully, though puzzled as to why Vanif’s majordomo wasn’t taking this job.

“You as well, sir. Affects?”

“None but my money, and I won’t let you take that from me. I’m sure Vanif will be doing that later.”

Corrin grinned and gave a slight bow. “The hall is all set up and ready for you, sir.”

The atrium was still as it had been during his first visit, but all the furniture in the left wing was pushed against the wall. Several collapsible tables were in the middle, green felt tacked on top and several chairs surrounding each. In the center was a roulette wheel, a craps table, and even a swilget loom. He hadn’t seen one of those since his last tour through Kinto. He was early, so there were only a dozen or so people talking or taking a chance at one of the stations.

The first table had no dealer and was set up for a four-person game or two two-person games of maccre. Even if there had been someone waiting for a partner, Raulin would have skipped it. He found that maccre, like chess, was a game that rewarded people that could plan far ahead. He didn’t quite have the head for it.

At the next table was a dealer leading a game of twenty-one. Raulin liked twenty-one. The rules were simple, and though you could win by counting the cards, you could also win by playing well and having a little luck. He was also only playing against the dealer, meaning he didn’t have to make enemies to make money.

He didn’t gamble often, finding it boring after a certain amount of time, but found himself absorbed by the game. He heard the crowd around him grow, getting louder. Several drinks and likely an hour later, Raulin was pleased to stand up from the table a little richer.

The crowd had tripled at least. There was no room at any of the tables and someone scrambled to take his spot once he stood up to leave. He noticed a few women dressed in typical parlor wear, two thin muslin scarves belted with green at the chest and hips, exposing a fair share of skin. They weren’t Iondikan priestesses, but they were there to help with luck and make the men feel good about attending.

Also in the crowd were a few women participants, wearing wide trousers, tucked vests over blouses, and hair simply pulled back in queues or braids. He was pleased to see Lady Amirelsa among those at the craps table, cheering on a man with a good run.

And Vanif was standing off to the side, watching everyone with his arms crossed. Raulin thought the opportunity and the last piece of information he noted melded together nicely, so he approached his friend with the opening. “I thought this was a mens event,” he said, making himself sound curious and not accusatory.

Vanif tore his eyes away to look at Raulin and smiled. “I always make a few exceptions for those I know won’t object to a little debauchery and crude language.”

“I wouldn’t have thought Amirelsa was one of those types.”

Vanif’s eyes flicked over to her spot and back to Raulin. “She’s an exception to an exception. I’d describe her as refined, maybe not someone interested in this type of party, but she begged to come tonight. She’s newly free, did you hear?”

“Free? I only met her briefly at your last party, so I’m not sure what you mean.”

“Ah. She had a man who was following her, leaving her terrible letters and gruesome little presents. Very disgusting. The family couldn’t figure out who it was that was haranguing their poor girl. They tried the Cumber, the police, private investigators, everyone. Finally, they took out a contract with a trirec and,” he snapped his fingers, “in three days he figured it out. The stalker is now rotting in jail and our darling there was bursting to taste her liberties. I couldn’t say no.”

It was so rare that Raulin got to do good in his profession. He gave a small smile, a fraction of what he felt, and said, “I’m glad to hear she’s safe again.”

“Indeed. I think we all are. I like to think of us nobles as closer than merely distant cousins. We’re brothers and sisters, uncles and aunts. Not one of us likes to see a family member distressed or hurt.”

Raulin raised his glass of an iced mixed drink called an Ap Jorsen and cheered to his words. “I haven’t seen you gambling. Content just to make money and not lose it?”

Vanif snorted. “I’m not making much, if any. Parties need to be staffed and staffs cost money.”

“Speaking of staff, your Corrin seems to be doing very well in his position.” The two looked over to see the secretary engaged in conversation with a newly arrived man while he took his coat, gloves, and umbrella. “I recall him being equally as attentive at your last party.”

“He is a gem, that one. He was a lackey at one of my family’s law firms, spending his days fetching tea and making appointments. He was talented in that capacity, but I knew when I saw him that there was so much more potential. We spoke and I offered him a position doing what he had been doing, with the understanding that I may need him for other tasks. And everything I’ve thrown at him, he’s excelled at. He’s in charge of my parties, now. I say what and when, and he’s already planned them down to the flatware. He buys all my presents, too, so if you ever decide to pull yourself off the market, you’ll know who put the thought into your wedding gift. The list goes on.”

“He seems invaluable,” Raulin remarked.

“Beyond so. I don’t think I can function without him. Do you know he has a crystal memory? If you flash a letter in front of his face for three seconds, then take it away, he can recite anything from it. I’ve never heard of a mind being so sharp!”

“Really? That’s fascinating. I’d like to see that. Are you sure he isn’t secretly noble and that’s his merit?”

Vanif barked a laugh. “Sure seems like he’s gifted.” He caught his secretary’s eyes and waved him over. “Corrin, could you recite the second paragraph of the letter Lord Witterbri sent today?”

Corrin blinked a few times before stating, “‘I’m writing to ask you to spare a few moments of your time to discuss the latest version of Article 43, Section 8 of the motion ratified last week by Parliament over tariffs involved with the sale of metal components for our newest inventions, including several clocks, wind-up toys, Warshan’s automaton, and…'”

Vanif waved him quiet. “Impressed?” he asked Raulin.

“Yes! That was extraordinary!”

“Comes in quite handy. I have a reputation for having a good eye for certain inventions that tend to do well. I’ve had my notes stolen before, only to see my instincts commandeered by others who profit. Since I’ve hired Corrin, I haven’t had that problem.”

“Makes for a good partnership,” he said. “Speaking of which, where is your wife, Gretza?”

Raulin was watching for it, so he noticed the two men share a knowing look. “This isn’t really Gretza’s preferred past time. She is retired for the evening, reading books or writing letters.”

He wondered what the look was about. Perhaps Corrin had suggested this event and Gretza didn’t like it. Or maybe Vanif had wanted it and there had been a fight over it. Either way, a look was not incriminating, nor did it shed any light on any problems.

Raulin held conversation with them for a little longer, until Corrin left to attend to a new arrival and Vanif decided to try his hand at swilget, now that there were enough people to make it interesting. Raulin followed him and watched as people took turns dumping beads over the top and racing to put their bowls at the bottom of the tall box of criss-crossed string. The beads would fall randomly along the strings and land in one of the bowls. The participants would then sift through their bowls to see if they got the colored beads that would correspond to different winnings. On Vanif’s first try, he got the black bead. He grinned as he received half the bets and the good-natured cries of cheating from the crowd.

After some time, Raulin wandered away and began striking conversations with men smoking outside or taking a break for some refreshments from tables on the far end of the hallway. He kept up his pretense of trying to secure money to reclaim the Arvonnese throne and a few promised to pledge money if he called on them. During his last tour of Gheny, he had taken some money so that his cover wouldn’t look suspicious, and deposited into a bank that he had drawn from to pay the wizard his bonus. He still had several hundred gold in it, just as he had in a Kintanese and a Kitstuarian bank. That practice was forbidden by Arvarikor, who wished to be the only supply line for its trirecs. Raulin, however, wasn’t trusting enough, and made sure to hide his extra assets well from the order.

He returned inside after sweeping the gardens for anything that would stand out to help his case. He doubted he would find anything and was correct when he came up empty-handed. Raulin tried his hand again a twenty-one, but found his luck only kept him slightly below even and he quit playing after ten rounds.

He spent more time stalling, trying to drag out the time. Whenever he saw a crowd gathered around a table, he joined it. Whenever he noticed someone off to the side, he sidled up for a conversation. Still, it was rather boring. He could sit in a bush for hours waiting for night to fall without a problem, but being lonely in a room full of people seemed to be a challenge.

Finally, close to one in the morning, people began to have their items retrieved by Corrin and bid farewell. When there was only a dozen people left, Raulin approached Vanif, who was still watching the players with a gleam in his eye. “Do you mind if I use a restroom on your second floor? The one down here is being used.”

“No problem,” he said. “It was kind of my father to install plumbing when he bought the house fifteen years ago.”

“I’ll see myself out then?”

Vanif turned and embraced Raulin. “Good to see you again. I hope you make your rounds for your country and are attending plenty of events. If not, I’ll likely be having another party next week. Check in with Corrin.”

“Thank you. I’ll try to make it.”

He did check in with his secretary, since that was going to be an easy in to the house if he needed it again. Corrin informed him that it was going to be a tasting party featuring hard-to-find cold and winter foods. Raulin thanked him and he almost salivated thinking about the iced creams and chilled cranberry chutney that was sure to be served.

The house was asymmetrical, so the left wing was the only wing it had. When Raulin got to the top of the stairs, he opened the door to the hallway flush against the back of the house. The main rooms were above the hallway, kitchens, and dining room downstairs and the bathroom was at the end.

He turned to the room to the left of it and opened the door slowly. The lighting in the hallway was poor, just enough to cast a light glow inside the room. Two desks were arranged on either side, surrounded by bookcases, paintings, knickknacks, inventions, and a table with chairs in the middle. One side of the room was organized and clean whereas the other was looked like an artful storm had blown through.

The next room was also on the small side, likely both were the bedrooms of future children. This one was clean and made for a guest. At least that’s what he thought until he saw a neat stack of letters on the dresser addressed to Corrin. Raulin blinked a few times at this; servents’ quarters were almost always in a wing away from the family’s quarters. Barring that, they would sleep in small rooms in the basement. The two were apparently very good business partners.

He backed out of the room quietly and almost startled when he saw a figure out of the corner of his eyes. “May I help you?” Gretza asked, holding a candle and wearing a thin silk robe.

He gave a sheepish smile. “I apologize. I was looking for the bathroom and got lost.”

“Odd. Most bathrooms are marked with a spike of wheat, much like the room at the end of the hallway.”

“The light was poor.”

“I can see it from here.”

There was silence as the two looked at each other for a few moments. “Well, thank you for your help. I’ll…”

“You’re Vanif’s friend, the Arvonnese count.”

“Yes. Marin Liasorn, Count of Aubrige,” he said, bowing.

“Yes,” she said. “I think we should talk about your lack of direction.” She didn’t wait for a reply before she retreated to the next room, leaving the door open a crack.

If Raulin were stupid or a gambler, he would have walked away. But, the time spent at the party had proved he was at least not a gambler and he hoped that by not being a gambler, he was also not stupid. She had caught him snooping. She was telling him that her silence could be bought, but it was best not to discuss prices out in the hallway, within potential hearing of anyone else drifting upstairs.

She was lighting more candles in her room when he entered and closed the door behind him. He grasped the pouch of coins on his hip, estimating he was twenty gold richer at perhaps seventy. He hoped she didn’t want all of that.

When she was finished, she stood on the thick quitra rug just a few feet in front of him. He bowed, his hand resting on his chest, and said, “My lady, I apologize for my indiscretion. If there’s anything…”

He stopped as she quickly untied her garment and, with a few practiced motions, disrobed completely. She stood still as he took her in, skin pale, hips round, and stiffly holding herself as she fought not to cover herself again. He was unsure how he had mistaken her for Anla, since there was hardly anything the same about them. Gretza paled next to her, but she was still an attractive woman.

“You said ‘anything’,” she said quietly.

“I did,” he responded, moving closer. “This?”

“This,” she said, though she lacked any enthusiasm.

Was this the problem in the household, her infidelity? Maybe this wasn’t an issue that was Corrin’s fault but, in fact, Gretza’s. If she refused to bed her husband, instead preferring the company of other men, especially those foreign and just passing through, then it would explain the lack of heirs and why her family thought there was a schism in the Remint family.

Raulin was relieved he could prove his friend’s innocence in one hour. He leaned down to kiss her and she moved her head to the side, his lips landing on her cheek. It took a great deal of time before she relaxed and backed herself to her bed. And even then, she still held her breath, clenched her hands, and flinched from his touch until she arched her back and cried out It was a little more enjoyable after that, but Raulin had still been prepared to jump away if she had said one negative word. He didn’t think much about it, his thoughts consumed with other things, only chalking it up as poor chemistry between them.

Afterward, though, as he sat naked on the edge of her bed, he did think. And he was not happy. He’d never been in this position before, sleeping with a friend’s wife. Even though he had just proved that his friend was innocent, he still felt terribly guilty over it. He deserves better, he thought, but what if he loves her?

The house was quiet enough to hear the gas leak from the sconces. He opened the door to the balcony and was close to descending the staircase when he heard light laughter and hushing sounds following. He moved back and hid behind one of the large floor-to-ceiling curtains, like some common thief, just before he saw movement at the bottom of the stairs.

It was hard to see past the curtain without giving away his position, but at least he could hear well enough. He heard a throaty moan followed by the unmistakable, wet sound of two people kissing. Before he could make any guesses as to the identity of the two participants, he saw the profile of Vanif pressing against someone. At the angle they were at, he couldn’t see who it was until the other person pushed lightly against Vanif’s chest and said, “We’re being too loud.”

Raulin’s breath caught in his throat. It was Corrin.

“Too loud? Everyone has gone home, even the staff.”

“I worry about being careful. I swear she’s caught us at least once.”

“Don’t worry about her.”

And Corrin didn’t. He grasped Vanif’s shirt and pulled his lips to his, reaching up to run his fingers through his employer’s hair. Vanif pulled back and stared for a few moments. “You’re so beautiful.”

“Hmm,” Corrin said, moving up the stairs. “Now I definitely know what you want.”

“Hey,” Vanif said, yanking on his wrist and pulling him Corrin back against him. “No one but you.”

“No one but you,” he repeated, kissing him for a few moments before the two walked upstairs, past the curtain Raulin was behind, and through the door to the bedroom.

Raulin, still stunned, couldn’t move for a few moments. Two minutes either way and he would have falsely accused Gretza of being the reason their marriage was bad. Two minutes either way and one of his dear friends would be free to continue his life as he wished. But he had landed right in the middle of four precious minutes and now held the key to his friend’s destruction.

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