“Where are you two going?” Al asked.

Raulin and Anla both turned to look at him as he sat in front of the fire, poking it with a stick, though one could argue it was more like jabbing. “For a walk,” Raulin said. “It’s good to stretch your legs.”

“You could just walk around this area here. Why are you leaving this place?”

“Because the fire has made me uncomfortably hot, Wizard, and I think it would be silly to climb a tree to cool off.”

Anla and Raulin gave each other a quick look before leaving through a thicket of ferns. Al continued to poke or jab the fire, sending sprays of sparks in the air. “They’re talking about me,” he said to Telbarisk, matter-of-factly.

“Do you think so?”

“No, I don’t think, I know. They did yesterday after lunch and I heard them speaking this morning while I pretended to sleep. They were speaking in Arvonnese. There’s no reason to do that unless they don’t want me to know what they’re saying. They’ll do it again, now that they’re away from me.”

“Is this a bad thing? You often speak about them to me.”

“That’s different. I might complain about them, but I don’t plot against them.”

“And you think that’s what they’re doing?”

“No, I don’t think, I know. Raulin has been working with Anla on her magic. They were doing it on the train ride while I was reading. They thought I wasn’t paying attention, but I was, I surely was. Why would they need to do that, help her get stronger in her magic? Hmm?” he asked, pointing the glowing stick at Tel.

“To help her become a better baerd?”

“No!” he said, banging the stick against the flat rock he was using for cooking. “They’re doing that so that they can figure out how to best manipulate me into doing what they want. They’re figuring out how they want to do it, then Anla will get me alone and whisper into my ear. Then, I’m done for.” He shivered. “They’ll do it to you, too.”

“Why, though?” Tel asked quietly. “There doesn’t seem to be a purpose to that. If Raulin asks me to do something, I do it. If Anla asked me, I’d also do it. You also do everything they ask.”

“Yes, which is suspicious. I think they’ve already put a suggestion into my mind, one that made me kill the Commons Rep in Whitney. You know me, Tel. When would I not only agree to help kill someone, but then make the initiative to do it on my own?”

“I thought you were repaying kindness with kindness. You seemed appreciative of Raulin’s efforts in protecting your inkwell.”

Al grabbed the backpack he had kept next to him and found the item in question, fingering the silver overlay. “I think he wants it for himself.”

“He could have taken it by now. He is a thief, after all.”

“Yes, well, he’d probably feel better if I gave it to him, since he is such a virtuous man.” He pulled a heavier shirt out from his pack and put that on over his cotton tunic.

Telbarisk wanted to continue the conversation, to figure out Alpine’s sudden change and why he was thinking the way he was. But something told him that this was a conversation that could only feed and grow his bad thoughts further. So, he stopped in order for Alpine to hopefully change his mood, and also because Al had brought his bedroll close to the fire and had fallen asleep quickly.

Al was correct that Anla and Raulin spoke about him, though the direction was completely different. “What did you do?” she asked with interest and not accusation.

Raulin held up his gloved hands in protest. “I swear, I didn’t say or do or even not do anything that would cause the wizard to get upset. I didn’t tease him about sleeping too much, I thanked him for making lunch and dinner yesterday, I even joked a little with him about something. And he laughed at it.”

“Al laughing at one of your jokes is quite suspicious,” she said as she walked towards a clearing in the woods. “Although, anyone laughing at your jokes is suspicious.”

“Wounding my pride already,” he said. “And here I am, being extra kind and bringing you presents.”

“Oh,” she said. She turned and walked backwards, pretending to look hard for something. “Maybe your pride needs a little wounding if you think your presence counts as a gift.”

“Fine, then. You’ll have to be disappointed that no one is celebrating your birthday.”

She stopped for a moment. “You remembered. Today is the second?”

“It is.”

“Then I think I like the look of that place over there, then,” she said, pointing at a little place. “It looks close.”

They sat next to each other, Raulin eschewing his mask before holding up his hands, palm out. “Pick one to start.”

She touched her finger to her lips, then pointed to his left hand. He tugged off his glove and handed her a small vial. “I would use this sparingly. It’s potent, so you don’t need much, but it’s also not cheap.”

“What is it?” she asked, holding it up to the fading, golden light of the evening.

“Take of the top and smell.”

She did and smiled. “Perfume. I’ve never owned any before. Thank you,” she said, dabbing a bare drop on her neck below her ears.

“And your second gift,” he said, taking off his right glove. “Hold out your hand.”

She did and was delighted to see a beautiful necklace, silver with blue and clear stones. “It’s gorgeous. Where did you get it?”

He paused, then laughed. “I suppose there’s no point in fabricating a tale, since you’ll know I’m lying. I bought it at the fair in Carvek.”

“Well, thank you,” she said, putting it on. “And I’d rather hear the honesty; I don’t need to be flattered or led up the garden path.”

“I’ll remember that,” he said, laying down on the ground with his hands laced behind his head. He took in a deep breath and let it out softly. “It’s a nice day.”

She laid down next to him, looking up at the sky through the trees. She had to agree. The sun filtered gold through the trees, the clouds passing in front of the light causing it to glimmer. Even though it was fall and things were beginning to dry out, this forest still seemed lush and inviting. It was almost as if a sigh hummed throughout the trees and brush, calming her.

“I’ve never asked about your family,” he said, turning to look at her. “I’ve met your sister, briefly, but I don’t know anything about your mother or your other sister or your brother. What were they like?”

“I was closer to Garlin than my sisters. He’s quiet, nice, inquisitive. He was easy to take care of and he appreciated it when I would take him to interesting places, whether that was to a tidal pool or a toy shop in a city we were visiting or a cave near our village…”

He watched and listened as she went on to describe Sildet, her mother, her father, and even Raidet, before she had grown moody and distant. She didn’t speak of Analussia, of how her parents had died nor how she had lost her family. She only spoke of the good.

When she finished, he leaned in and kissed her.

It was softer than when he kissed her during the carriage ride home, less with heat and more with warmth. She kissed him back, feeling something of what she had felt then and something else as well, something that swelled in her chest and radiated out to her limbs. He pulled back, looking in her eyes and moving a strand of hair from her face before giving her a slight smile. “Why?” she asked.

“It was the only thing I could think to do that would make this day more beautiful.”

She smiled and said, playfully, “How many times have you used that line on a woman?”

The smile on his face dropped and he moved away. “Never.”

“Never? But, it’s a good line.”

“I suppose.” He laid back down, saying nothing. Had he misunderstood her this whole time? In every expression she had given him, he had seen interest and the potential for more. She smiled and laughed at him, touched him often, even slept holding him or with her head on his chest. She shared an intimacy with him that he honestly had found only in one other woman. Then again, they had been childhood friends that were betrothed, not lovers.

In any other situation, Raulin would pursue from a different angle. He’d pause and take into account that maybe he’d been too forward or not forward enough, or some other possibility. Then again, the women he romanced were looking for that attention, either as a noble playing high society games or as a single woman interested in an affair. Anla was neither, and not only did he not with to ruin what they had, but he knew that miscalculations could lead to schisms that would hurt their dynamic. He had to think more broadly.

They returned to camp some time later, after he had spoken of his family to her, the kiss possibly forgotten or at least buried for the time being. Since he had other things on his mind, Raulin didn’t ask Telbarisk about the dormant wizard and if he had said or done anything that should worry the group.

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