“Are you sure this is the right place?” Anla asked.
“Yes,” Al said, looking back at her with furrowed eyebrows. “The outfit you got from the duke is nice, but I’d like to get your something nicer.”
“If you say so.” The outside of Kitsen’s was fancy, with gold filigree in the corners of its crystal clear windows. The door handles were polished brass, worn from use but not tarnished by the natural oils of a customer’s skin. Even the tinkling bell at their entrance wasn’t harsh like most stores.
Anla fought the urge to ask once more if Al meant for them to go to this shop. Dresses adorned mannequins also accompanied with hats, gloves, and shoes tucked under the hemline. She fingered the closest skirt, admiring the lace edge and the quality of the fabric.
An attendant approached them, helped them choose a lovely dress in brown silk brocade that looked stunning on her, and was about to close the deal when the price was mentioned. Anla smiled and said to Al, “Oh, it is a lovely dress, but I think I liked that one with the pearls at the other shop better.”
“This one’s fine,” he said.
“No, no,” she said, giving a nervous, tinkling laugh, “I think that other dress is the one, dear.”
She smiled toothily while facing the attendant and said, “Al, no. Let’s go.”
Anla all but dragged him outside. “Absolutely not, Al. Seventy gold! Seventy gold for a dress I’m going to wear once, maybe twice, and would be difficult to carry? I mean, if you’re trying to gift me something for helping you today, you don’t need to.”
“No,” he said. “You’re meeting my mother. You have to wear something nice.”
“But we can find something nice that isn’t seventy gold.”
“Yeah, you’re right.”
He seemed so dejected that she felt the need to cheer him up. “Some of the dresses that shop makes find their way to second-hand stores. I bet we could find a very nice dress for less than ten.”
He led her wordlessly to the nearest shop that was far less nicer, but had what they needed. She bought a gray dress with purple piping, a little large for her but not unseemly, for twelve gold.
Al was still unhappy, so she didn’t balk when he flagged a hansom for the two of them. They road in style and in silence across town to Gystik Heights. Anla began to crane her neck at the houses when Al said they were close.
“Here,” he said as the driver halted the horses.
Her eyebrows raised. “Here?”
“Yes. This is where my family lives.”
“Well, I get the seventy gold dress now,” she said as she took his hand to steady herself as she left the hansom. “What does your family do?”
“My mother is a businesswoman, mostly in consumables,” he said, escorting her to the house after paying the driver. “She is on the Council, a small group of influential women that wield a lot of power in the city and dictate a lot of the trends and purchases. Outside of Br’vani itself, my mother is one of the most powerful Br’vanese women in the world.”
“Al, this would have been immensely helpful of you to bring up earlier. How am I supposed to act in front of someone like that?”
“Like yourself. My mother isn’t going to expect an abendi woman to act like a Br’vanese woman.”
“All right,” she said as he tapped the knocker.
Glendina opened the door with a large smile. “You made excellent time,” she said.
“An…Burdet, this is Glendina. She’s my mother’s carinvadi, a second-in-command of sorts. She runs the household and the business, so she’s a very busy woman.”
“But happy to be busy,” she said as she took their affects.
“Glendina, this is Burdet, my wife.”
“Yes,” she said, giving an appraising look. “The mistress will be pleased with you, Dom. Er, Alpine.” She gave a wink to Anla as she led them down the hallway past the grand staircase and into a great room with an area for tea, a sitting area, and a dining room. They sat in the first and an earthy, rich tea was served in small porcelein cups with a design of red leaves set against a dark brown sky.
When they were alone, Anla whispered, “Al. Just this room is larger than the house I grew up in times four!”
“My mother does well,” he said nonplussed.
“Very well. What was your childhood like living here?”
“I had my brothers and sister to play with, so it wasn’t lonely. And my brothers and I went to public school, so I had friends there.”
“But, it must have been different for you.”
“Most of the children in the public school were from affluent families. Things got a little different when a few of my teachers told my mother that I was exceptional, for a boy, and that they would recommend honing my talents with a tutor. So, I spent evenings studying science, law, mathematics, and languages. My mother wanted me to be a lawyer, which is how I got her to pay for the first five years of Amandorlam.”
It didn’t sound very exciting to her, but then again, her education had been a bit different than most children. She’d studied similar subjects at her father’s knee, as well as many lessons she didn’t think would have matriculated into Ghenian schools, like woodlore and elvish myths. Perhaps there was something to be said about someone who could set aside childhood for ambition. At least it answered a few questions Anla had about Al.
“Dom!” she heard coming from a side room. A young woman, perhaps a few years older than Anla, came running towards them. Al stood up quickly and embraced her when she came flying into his arms.
“Arista. How are you? Let me look at you.” He took a few steps back, then ruffled her unadorned head. “You’ve grown, danrini a sayir.”
She grinned. “Not so little now! I’ve been working with Madra for a few years now and I’m getting married in three months.”
“I heard! Congratulations!”
“Can you come? I’d so love it if you could be there.”
He shook his head sadly. “I have to travel and I can’t take time off. I would so love to, you know it.”
“All right,” she said with some level of disappointment. “You’ll come and visit Ranith and I next year, though?”
They chatted for a few minutes and Anla took the time to observe them. Arista and Al seemed to favor each other, from their thick, black hair to their dark skin and eyes. Even the shape of them, large but sharp, suggested that they shared blood. His sister was not a traditional beauty, her features a little mismatched, but her enthusiasm seemed to light her up and give her an adorable radiance.
Arista turned suddenly and smiled at Anla. “Hi! You must be Burdet.”
Anla rose. “Yes, I’m Alpine’s wife.”
“It’s nice to finally meet you, sayi,” she said while giving Anla a tight hug.
“It’s nice to meet you as well.”
She took her hand and led her over to the dining room. “We’re having Dom’s favorite.”
Anla didn’t know what that was, so she said nothing. She was about to sit when Arista pulled her back next to her. Al sat, as did the three other men, two younger and one starting to gray. They laced their hands and put them on the table. “We have to wait until Madra arrives,” Arista whispered. “Then stand in front of your plate and place your hands on either side of your setting until our madra sits.”
Arista walked her over to the right of Al, then found her place to the left of the head of the table. Another woman stood across from her who seemed disinterested in her existence. Finally, a short woman with panels over her wide-legged trousers and a head covering entered the room. The seat was moved out of the way by the older man, who Anla assumed was her husband, and she stood with her hands on either side of the silverware. Anla followed the other two women, then sat after Al’s mother did.
Everyone unfolded their napkins and placed them in their laps. “Before we begin, I’d like to say a few things,” his mother said. “First, Dominek…Alpine Gray…is visiting us while he’s here in Baradan with his wife, Burdet. It’s lovely to finally meet you, Burdet. I hope you feel welcome here.”
Anla was about to thank her when his mother continued. “Ashven is here with his wife. It’s good to have you here again. I’m glad you found some time away from the hospital, Kalina.
“And, of course, Arista is here with her fiance, Ranith.” This was the first time Anla saw Al’s mother smile. “Arista took over the Masterlen’s account this week and has been doing very well.
“Welcome, everyone. I’m so glad to have so many of my children together. Too bad Tambor is still out fishing. Please, enjoy dinner.”
Al’s favorite meal was a nut and spice encrusted salmon served on a bed of fragrant rice and asparagus. Sure enough, he gobbled this down, barely pausing for breath.
And there, between dainty bites of fish from fine china, began the questions. Where did they meet? Where had they traveled? When were they having children? Anla spoke clearly and with confidence, hoping that the brief encounter this morning wasn’t enough time
“Does he still snore?” Arista asked with a twinkle in her eye.
“Yes. Not every night, but most.” At least she could answer truthfully about that one.
“What is your boss like? Does he treat you both well?” his mother asked.
Anla had given a little bit of thought to this subject, just in case they needed to use Raulin later on. “He’s a little strange. Even though he’s young, he wears a mask. I think it’s because he suffered a terrible accident or he was ill as a child. Other than that, he’s a nice man who pays us on time and doesn’t demand much from us.”
His mother looked up from her plate. “Young? I thought Dominek said he was close to retiring.”
“Yes,” she said, thinking quickly. “I thought it was odd, too, which makes me think that my guess about his illness might be correct. He appears taxed more often than not these days.”
The questions became more scrutinizing. What did she do for their employer? What were there plans for the future? What did they spend their money on? Anla felt like she breezed past them, but his mother was still a wall emotionally. She didn’t smile or give her a kind word. And for some reason, Anla wanted that, if only to make Al happy.
Perhaps that was why she started taking more liberties with her lies than she should. His mother asked about his health and if he was being cared for, especially since he used to be such a picky eater.
“He eats well, he just doesn’t put on any weight,” Anla said. “Trust me, he eats all his salad, steak, potatoes, and strawberry shortcake when we go out.”
She saw Al and his father’s forks suspend in the air. “Strawberries? Dominek is allergic to strawberries,” his mother said matter-of-factly.
Anla was figuring out how to recover from that gaff when Al said, “Oh, I got over that,” he lied, the stone-grating sound underlying his words. “There was a medical technique they tried at Amandorlam that worked. I’ve been eating strawberries as often as I can.”
“Hmm,” his mother said and continued eating.
After dessert Al was instructed to show Anla the house. As soon as they were alone, she said, “And that was why I wanted to talk more about our story. Your mother is absurdly shrewd!”
“She means well,” he said. “She’s just making sure I’m taken care of.”
“I know, Al, but she’s hard to lie to. We should say our goodbyes before she starts in on things I’m going to have a hard time answering.”
“You’re right,” he said, leading them back downstairs. “Madra? We had a lovely time, but we must get going back to our employer. He expects me to be available should he need my services.”
She looked over from her conversation with Kalina. “But you said you had the day off. I thought you’d stay the night.”
“Oh, well,” he said, and before he could agree, Anla pinched his arm.
“Our employer has already paid for our hotel room tonight,” she said. “It would be a waste of his money and generosity if we decided to stay elsewhere.”
“If he’s a good businessman, he shouldn’t be worried about small losses like that. But, it would be rude to do so without notice.” She thought for a few moments. “Ask for tomorrow night off then, Burdet. Explain the circumstances and say that you need more time. You can eat dinner here again and sleep overnight. And I’ll see you tomorrow at nine a.m. sharp, Burdet. I’ll show you our business while Dominek tends to the needs of your employer.”
Anla opened her mouth to protest, but this time Al pinched her arm. “I’ll be happy to,” she said.
After they had said their goodbyes and were walking down Merry Street, Anla grabbed Al’s arm hard. “We are not going to sleep tonight until you tell me everything I will need to know in order to survive tomorrow.”