Anla found Raulin later that day draped over the bed in his room, his arms resting behind his head as he stared at the ceiling. She sat softly on the edge of the bed and watched him, his stomach rising and falling with each breath too shallowly to mean he was asleep. “We haven’t thought of anything,” she said. “I was wondering if you wanted to go out for a walk or for dinner, to get out of the hotel for a bit.”
He didn’t even hesitate to stand up and grab his knapsack. They were out the door and down the street in just a minute, Anla struggling to keep up until he ducked into a narrow alley and shed his mask. When she looked up, she saw that he looked paler than she remembered, with dark bruises under his eyes.
“You haven’t slept, have you?”
He shrugged in response. “What would you like for dinner? I believe the world is your oyster in New Wextif. Even within a mile from the hotel, we could find whatever food your heart desires.”
Her eyebrows knit as she set the pace onto a main road. Smells of all kinds filled the streets, noises of horses and people and sellers of all kinds. In a way, it reminded her of Hanala, but she knew she would be lost here if she had a destination. “I don’t know.”
“Anything you want. What’s your favorite food?”
“Pasta, I suppose.”
“Suppose? You don’t know?”
“We ate what we could gather, grow, or hunt at home. I’ve had some interesting meals when my father decided to take us places, but you have to be selective with four children in tow. I know some fish and seafood that I like, some of the hearty Aroukean food, but not much else.”
“Hanala has some great restaurants, too. Why didn’t you even try them?”
“If I had two silver to rub together for a meal, I wouldn’t gamble on something I might not like. I wouldn’t eat something fancy; those small plates that taste good are worth two or three day’s cost for a quarter day’s need. And I never tried something I didn’t think I’d like, unless it was free.”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t think about that.” He scratched his chin. “How would you like a gastronomic education?”
“I’d like to teach you about food. It’s one of the best subjects to learn, since part of your learning involves, well, eating. And eating is best done with company you enjoy. I’d much rather have dinner with you than alone.”
“That sounds nice, Raulin. It’s a deal, so long as you don’t mind me pushing away something I don’t like.”
“I’d never force you to dine on something you don’t enjoy. I’ll even make you a deal: I’ll take you to a pasta place afterwards and you can get your fill there if you don’t enjoy dinner.”
She gave him a warm smile. “All right, then. What’s my first lesson?”
“There are essentially three kinds of meals: home-cooked, restaurant, and fine dining. Home-cooked is basic, simply, but hearty, meant for giving sustenance to a hard-working husband and feeding a brood of children cheaply. This all comes down to how well the wife was taught by her mother and how much did she absorb. Not every man is lucky to have a woman who cooks well.
“On the streets you’ll see plenty of restaurants. Here the cook’s reputation is up at every plate he makes, since a restaurant isn’t going to survive if it serves bad food. The chefs are likely trained, though maybe not, and the ingredients range with the price. My favorite part about dining in restaurants is the trip you can take to the place the food is from. Regions, styles, countries, these all play into what goes into every meal.
“And finally, fine dining. You’re eating for taste and atmosphere with fine dining. The freshest and best ingredients, the highest trained chefs or wizards, the ambiance down to the color of the napkins set against the plates. It will be the best food you’ve ever tasted, but you won’t feel stuffed from the light fare.”
“Are we going to a fine dining place now?” she asked.
“I’ll start you off with restaurants. It’s easier to order a new meal if you don’t like the first one and it won’t be terribly expensive. Let’s start with Noh Amair. You’ve tried Aroukean food, you said. The hearty stuff: meat, potatoes, root vegetables, pies, gravy, seafood, soups, and stews. Sound familiar?”
“Yes. I even had a dish that was from the eastern part once. It was a little spicier and the bread was flat and aromatic.”
“Gongray, likely. Let’s skip Arouk, then, and move easterly to Tondeiva. Their cuisine is similar, more fish, more pickling, less heavier meals. They love sauces and will drench their foods in them. Tondeivans have an interesting way of eating, too.” He pointed to a restaurant across the street. “Let’s go there.”
The restaurant’s walls were decorated in wallpaper, a white background against yellow crisscrosses, and thinner, orange crisscrosses over those. Inside the white diamonds were a sprig of orange flowers tied together with a yellow ribbon. She found it nauseatingly pleasant and bright.
“In the mood for anything in particular? You order dinner according to the meat, so fish, chicken, beef, or pork. They’re some of the best fish cooks in the world, but I think the sauces that go with the pork are amazing.”
“I’ll try the pork, then,” she said.
“I’ll have fish,” he said to the hostess, who nodded and sat them in a table by the window. They were served cold, brackish water and a bitter tea as empty plates were laid before them, Raulin’s white and Anla’s red.
“They’ll come by with the sauces, then the food as it’s cooked. You should take a moment to get accustomed to the vraidishk, the utensil they use to eat.”
Anla picked it up, a sharp, metal stick with indentations and a break where it snapped in half. “I have no idea what to do with it.”
He took her vraidishk and nestled it between her thumb and index finger, right where the topmost indentation was. “You hold it like a pencil. During the meal, you keep it broken. When you’re finished, you pop it back into place. They cut and cook the food so it’s easy to spear. You collect what you want to get different tastes from your bites, like pork and apple for something sweeter, or radish and cucumber for something cleaner. Your finger is your end point; don’t stack more than that. And feel free to taste your sauces with your fingers, just not your thumb.”
“Interesting,” she said, staring at the utensil.
While they were waiting, Raulin spoke of his brief venture to Tondeiva. He hadn’t had a contract there, he said. Instead, he had met with the team of trirecs that were to sail to Ervaskin, where he had met Telbarisk. He’d stayed for a few days in port, watching the sea blow cold mist onto the shore, the gray mornings blending to gray afternoons, then finally giving a respite in night.
“I like stillness. I like peace when it finds me. I don’t always need flash and excitement and celebration. But, I think I might have gone mad if I’d had to stay there for one more day.”
“Besides that town, did you enjoy Tondeiva?”
“Like everywhere, it has its own sort of beauty. I road horseback throughout the open lands and it’s a place that has astounding sunsets. Large rocks litter fields for miles, looking like some massive creatures playing marbles in the landscape. Locals think that trolls live inside the boulders.”
“Trolls don’t live in boulders,” she said. “They live in petrified logs of redwood trees, usually in swamps.”
She kept from biting her lip and smiling at him for an impressive five seconds. “You had me there,” he said. “Are there any creatures living in the wilds of Gheny I should know about?”
“No. Legends from other tribes, but nothing odd. We know of some creatures the Ghenians don’t know about, but they’re animals, not people.”
He nodded, then looked out the window. She watched him, trying to figure out what he was thinking. “I still don’t understand the rationale behind the laws regarding nobles, but it wouldn’t be the first. And it’s not like I haven’t been affected by it myself.”
He turned back with a puzzled look. “You were affected?”
“I mentioned before, at the ball, that I knew Lord Cavrige. That’s because I was his…mistress, I suppose. I’m not sure what you’d call the situation.”
“Cavrige,” he said, his eyebrows lifting. “But he’s so…”
“Unburdened by wonderful traits, I know. But, he was rich, at least richer than a barmaid at a Hanalese tavern, and he took quite a liking to me. I would dare say he was enamored with me, especially since he began dropping some not-so-subtle hints that he wanted to marry me.”
“Wow. I shouldn’t be surprised, given his reputation, and I have to admit he has great taste in this particular instance, but how was that for you?”
“Well, I could get past his looks, especially in dark rooms. His personality, though, was grating. I know he meant well, and he was a sweet and thoughtful man, but his spine could have been a dishrag and his attempt at humor was insulting, especially once he realized I was half-elven. But, he didn’t ask much from me and he worked hard to keep the debts between us even.”
“What happened then?”
“I’m sure I had more or less consciously made the decision to end it when I was approached by some servant in his household, on behalf of his parents. Ten gold for me to disappear. I was insulted, of course; I wasn’t raised on the streets from birth, so sometimes I don’t know my place. I argued, they insisted, threatening to expose my heritage if I continued. I left my job and did my best to set myself up near Cherryfire in Hanala.”
“Did you regret making that choice?”
The server set the sauces down while she pressed her lips in thought. “He could be a trying man And he wasn’t popular. But, he was still a man, someone in love, with dreams and hopes and plans. I’d like to think he was used to it, but still, I have no need to hurt people.” Especially since I’ve hurt enough of them, she thought.
“You understand my dilemma, then.”
“I do. I keep thinking about your mentor.”
“Afren, yes,” he said, his eyes downcast. “Vanif won’t be the first painful choice I’ve had to make. Nor the second, either.”
She hesitated to ask. He was already so upset over the situation with Vanif, but perhaps he needed to unburden his thoughts. “What else have you had to do?”
“I wasn’t even full-fledged yet. As a novice, you accompany your mentor on jobs and assist them, the only time when we work together. As an apprentice, you’re given your own assignments and check in frequently with your mentor. I was put in Hiben with a few orders, but nothing as elaborate as I’d been taught I’d be doing for contracts. I didn’t need to steal anything, sow discord, kill anyone, or discover secrets. All I needed to do was indoctrinate myself with the townspeople and get a job. I was left alone for months and I started to suspect that Arvarikor was dumping me there so that I wouldn’t have to finish my apprenticeship and they could ignore me.
“But, after some time it didn’t matter. I worked as a farmhand and worked hard at it. I gained the respect of the farmer and his wife quickly, the townsfolk not too long thereafter. I befriended a few boys in the town who showed me all their haunts and hollows. And I met a girl. Her name was Mara and she was my first love. We’d meet after dinner, take walks in the forest, tumble in her family’s barn. I felt normal, like for that one season my family hadn’t died and I hadn’t been sold to Arvarikor. And I began to wish that they had forgotten about me, that I could just be a farmhand there in Hiben, that I could save my money, buy a farm, marry Mara, and forget about all that.
“But that was foolish. I always knew that my mentor would come back. And he did, right in the middle of the first harvest of wheat. I stood before him and reported everything as I had been taught, arms at my sides and voice without emotion. He nodded when I was finished, said that my order was pleased with my progress, and handed me a vial. ‘Poison the well, I’ll be back tomorrow’ was all he said before leaving.”
The waitresses returned with several platters and pots, and began loading their plates with meat, vegetables, and fruits. She ignored them and stared at Raulin, waiting for him to continue, though knowing that if he sat before her, she knew what had happened. When the waitresses finally left, she said, “I’m so sorry.”
He closed his eyes for a few moments. “It was just a test.”
“It wasn’t poison, then?”
“No, it was poison. I meant my order was testing me, to see if I would throw away everything I wanted for obedience. Would I raze my home for them, kill my love and comforts because they wanted me to? Yes. I did it. Very few survived. Mara didn’t. One of the five boys I hung around with did, but he was left weak and hardly able to tend to his dead parents’ farm. The old and young definitely didn’t survive. I did, because I skipped work and got drunk on the farmer’s grain liquor for two days.
“When my mentor returned, he checked to be sure that I had done the deed, chastized me for drinking on the job, then dragged me to the square. A few people gathered after he started shouting. I was pleading to leave, but he ignored me. Instead, he loudly proclaimed that I had been the one to poison the well. Then, he tied me to a lamp post and left me.
“I couldn’t and still can’t tell you which was worse: the slaps and blows or the spitting. Maybe it was the stares as they looked into my eyes, trying to figure out how, how could I have done that to them. My mentor left me there until the darkest part of night. He cut me down without a word and made me walk until the next night.
“When I awoke the next morning, he said, ‘Raulin, why do you think I made you do that?’. I thought it was because I had grown too attached, but I had learned long before that if I didn’t know an answer, I begged forgiveness for my stupidity and hoped they’d answer, so I did. ‘It’s because what we do is destroy lives,’ he said. ‘If you are smart about your work, you will never stick around to see the aftermath.’
“‘So, I should have left?’ I asked.
“‘No, you did what was asked of you. You were meant to be caught and shamed. And now you will never, ever want to be caught again.'”
Raulin stabbed at his food listlessly. Anla reached across the table and squeezed his hand. “Danawv aku awb ik aku. Your pain is my pain.”
He looked at her, a few emotions crossing his face in a matter of a few moments. She wasn’t sure if he was easy to read for her or he was an expressive man. Either way, she enjoyed trying to figure him out, even when his face read pain. “What if you’re next?” he said. “What if I have to make that same choice with you on one end and my life on the other?”
“Can they do that? Lock you into a no-win situation where you’ll die either way?”
His eyebrows perked for a moment. “I had forgotten I was your guard. No. At least they thought that through. You can’t have two contracts that contradict each other.”
“So, you’re safe from that, at least. I can’t help you with your friend, unless I take out a contract for your protection against him.”
He looked hopeful, for a second, then shook his head. “It would be whichever was accepted first. Keep going. Maybe you’re on to something.”
She tried a half-dozen ideas, trying to stay within reason and sanity. No amount of finagling could change the outcome for Raulin, who by the end of dinner had at least changed from his somber state to one of resignation. After he paid, and they took a stroll around the city, he said, “Thank you. It was an evening marred by my plight, but you helped make it as palatable as possible.”
“You’re welcome. Thank you for dinner. I enjoyed learning about Tondeiva and eating it’s cuisine.” She paused a moment, looked up at him. “Have you decided?”
“Yes. Really, the only choice I can make. I won’t be able to save him from his fate, but I can hope his in-laws will work something out, or maybe not act upon the knowledge. And I can stall for him. If I send it to the Riyala office, it’ll buy him another week. It’s all I can offer him.”
“And keep him in your mind. Perhaps, down the road, you’ll be in a position to help him recover.”
“I hope so. I’m locked in right now.”
She smiled at a sudden stroke of brilliance. “I know you can’t warn him, but how do you think he feels about piscarins?”
He stopped and tilted his head for a moment, then hugged her. “It’s really the best we can offer, isn’t it?”