There was an odd comfort about the shrine, especially for a place that Anla had never been to before. It took her a few moments to realize it was because the architecture and ambiance of the place was a strange facsimile of the elvish style. They didn’t use the forest magics that pure-bloods had to twist trees into arcs or to smooth stones without rasps, but there were curves and carvings in the details that were not things she’d seen in Ghenian buildings.
She stood slightly behind and to Raulin’s right as he spoke to a woman behind the desk, Anla’s arms hanging loosely by her sides and her shoulders low. Her gaze swept casually over the man who politely took their packs down the hallway and disappeared into the darkness unlit by the dim sconces. She took a slow breath and met Raulin’s gaze as he turned back to give her his arm.
“This is yours,” he said, handing her a velvet pouch. Whatever was inside jangled as she handled it. “There are rings inside that you need to present in order to gain access to things like classes.”
“Interesting,” she said. “What kind of classes do they have here?”
“Seemed to vary quite a bit, depending on the day.”
Their room, twelve, was in the same building as the desk and dining hall, a few turns from the front desk. The bellhop opened the door and invited them in, placing their belongings next to the bureaus. The lamps were already lit, the feather bed turned down. Anla actually smiled at this, a room immaculately clean and comfortable. No dust, no moth-eaten sheets, no creaking floors.
She noticed there was a door in between two foggy windows and went outside to see where they were staying on the grounds. “Darrick,”’ she called, since the footman was just bowing to leave, “come look at this.”
“Beautiful,” he said, standing behind her.
Colored glass bubbles hung from the trees and thin, wooden hooks in the middle of a pond of steaming water. Her mouth collected the moisture from the mineral spring as she breathed in the humid air. Raulin returned in a few minutes with a thin book and a candle. “The guide to the shrine says many of the rooms are connected to one of the springs on the grounds. Dips in them are supposed to cure anything from melancholia to consumption.”
Without another thought, she removed her clothes and waded into the waters. He joined her a few moments later, bringing a provided robe that he hung on an empty hook that stood in the water. “It’s been a while since I’ve been in one of these,” he said, sinking neck-deep and sitting on a submerged rock.
“There are a few in the Dreelands, but most are either too hot or give noxious fumes that poison the air. There was a safe one not too far from my village.” She passed her hand gently over the top of the water. “I liked doing this there. I called this ‘feeling the silk’. If you’re soft and slow enough, the top of the water feels like something else, like swishing your thumb over the skin of a peach or a batting of silk. I used to sneak away to the spring when I had decided to do something that I was anticipating with some anxiousness, like taking up a challenge from the other kids. I’d do this and it would calm me down.”
He tore his eyes from her body and smiled as he caught her eye. “That would beg the question as to why you’re doing it right now.”
She tilted her hair back to soak it in the waters and sighed before using her magic to create silence around them. “Honestly, I was like this every time I’ve worked with you. Maybe the libertine ball was the worst. I just didn’t have a hot spring available. So, what are we doing here?”
“We’re pretending to be a young couple in the area for a holiday. We’ve stumbled across this place and we’re going to take in what we can while we’re here. Meanwhile, we need to keep our eyes, and ears, peeled for suspicious activities.”
“Define ‘suspicious activities’.’
He closed his eyes and leaned his head back against a nearby rock. “Anxious behavior, absences, things that don’t fit a pattern. There are a lot of possibilities. Here I would expect there to be some sort of hierarchy reflective in the clandestine portion, the owner being a priest, his wife or son being the deacon. They would be the ones to watch.”
“Have you noticed anything thus far?”
“Too soon. I haven’t surveyed the grounds, I haven’t met everyone, haven’t counted the rooms.”
“Counted the rooms?”
“Assuming they keep double occupancy rooms in the same area, there would be two people times however many rooms. It allows me an estimated head count. Or, I could take a peek behind the front desk and see how many are in the ledger.”
“What do you want me to do?”
“If you could familiarize yourself with the staff and tell me if anyone is lying and about what, that would be helpful.”
The air popped lightly when she lifted the spell. He noted it by opening an eye and watched her as she waded over to him. “Mind if begin our charade?” she asked as she stood before him.
She leaned in and kissed him, wrapping her fingers around the back of his neck. He smoothed her hair from her shoulders, but as he promised made no other moves. Part of her wished he would, kissing her neck like he had in the carriage ride in New Wextif, but she knew it would likely lead to a bad situation. And, as had been proven to her time and time again, it always soured.
She hoped it would be different with Raulin, if things moved further. If. That felt like a joke to her. Men always wanted more. Almost always, she corrected herself. Yes, there were a few men like Onlard, the tavern owner with the Hanalaian accent, that would help her just to help her because he was a good man. Most wanted more and would grow hostile when they realized they weren’t getting it from her. She was lucky if they just cursed her or spit on the floor. How many times had she ensorcelled a man into leaving her alone once it reached that point? She’d stopped counting.
It would be too painful if Raulin did the same, if he became one of those men. Every interaction that they’d had told her that he wasn’t like that, that he wouldn’t grab her and try anyway. But, then again, he’d used other women to get what he wanted. He said there was an unspoken agreement, that they wanted it, too, but why would any women want that?
On the other hand, kissing him felt good. She did feel warmth between them, to the point where she could almost invite more, except that she didn’t want lines to be crossed that she couldn’t uncross.
There was so much to think about. She tired of it sometimes, worrying that what she said and did would ruin everything. She was tired of it then and hoped. She pressed herself against him, her arms sliding down to encircle his shoulders. His matched her move and he held her tighter.
Her head swam and she thought of nothing but that moment. It still felt so good. Thoughts crept in eventually but they were of him, of the lines of his face as he had rested in the waters, of his smell, of the strength of his arms. His shoulders were smooth where her fingertips ran across his skin, save for the groove on the left side where a sword had cut him in Carvek. A growl formed low in his throat as he pressed her closer.
She had to cease. Like in the carriage ride, she had to stop them because she knew he wanted more. So did she, actually, but it was only when she could be absolutely sure that there was no way it would ruin things could she allow it. Anla moved back and he let his arms drop.
He let out a frustrated sigh.
“It’s nothing.” That was a lie. He was upset, but at least he wasn’t pressing anything.
“I’m going in. Care to follow?”
He sunk into the water. “Give me a few minutes.”
* * *
The next morning, her first discovery was how the ring system worked. She had brought her pouch in case she needed it, but noticed most guests were wearing them on their fingers or had tied them to their person somehow. There was a line for the dining area that was patrolled by one of the uniformed staff. Anyone who held up a blue or red ring was pulled out and brought through the door ahead of everyone else. As she stood on her tiptoes, she saw that those guests were seated in a different area and given menus to order from. Ahead of this group was a buffet of grains, fruits, and soups. So, the higher cost of the room gave you the ability to “buy” better meals. She looked at today’s classes and services and saw colored circles next to them. Some classes had blue or red next to them, meaning there was a higher entrance fee. Guests weren’t paying higher prices for better rooms, they were paying for better access.
She used one of her two reds to buy a table seat shared with an older gentleman with thick mustaches and his wife, who paid no attention to her. The waiter informed her that she could have whatever she wanted off the menu, which seemed so much better than what they were eating at the buffet. She got a glass of mineral water to go with her sausages, eggs, and a berry-filled crepe dusted with powdered sugar.
While the other two table members read the newspaper. Anla studied the map provided by the welcome desk. There were dozens of buildings and landmarks on the grounds that stretched a lot farther than she expected. There was a stroll after breakfast that cost no rings and was open to the public. She would have passed on it, but it was a great way to get a lay of the land.
The guide was pleasant and cheery as she walked the noisy crowd of two dozen along the pathways, pointing out signs to point them back to the main house, should they get lost. She was full of information and managed to make even a sitting area seem glorious.
There was a class outside on painting at half-past ten that was taught by the resident artist. She sat near him and hoped to gain his ear, but he seemed solely interested in artistic development and barely glanced at her painting. She did better in the afternoon class on natural appreciation, but that was led by one of the gardeners, not anyone important.
“Do the owners teach any classes or dine with the guests?” she asked the man, bearded with hazel eyes on the younger side of middle-aged.
“Who, Mr. and Mrs. Vangaught? I don’t see them that often. They do occasionally teach a class, but the Mrs. has been feeling the vapors as of late. You might catch the Mr. Vangaught out for his morning stroll or sometimes at the blue ring dinners.”
“Thank you,” she said, and to erase suspicion, continued on. “I wanted to thank them for creating such a wonderful place. My husband and I were looking for something like this on our holiday and we didn’t fathom one was right here in Ashven. It’s really lovely.”
She was surprised at how large his smile was. “And thank you. It’s so wonderful to hear that from our guests. Are you staying here long?”
“Ah, then I’ll pass your gramercy along to the owners.”
Raulin joined her for dinner. They used their blue rings and enjoyed fresh seafood, surprising since they were so far inland. He had examined all the buildings and didn’t find anything strange, nor did he find anything in the woods surrounding to indicate something abnormal. He was pleased by her work and hoped that the good word with the owners panned out.
They attended a nightly gathering where people played soft music while the guests were encouraged to relax. Attendants went around and adorned each person with scented oils and flower crowns before the group canted affirmations. Anla felt calmed by it, but was unsure why some people were crying afterward.
She enjoyed the springs outside their room and Raulin joined her shortly after she did. After complaining about his sore muscles, she knuckled his shoulders and pressed her thumbs into his back. After a few minutes, she moved in front of him and kissed him again, stopping herself from kissing his neck to see if he would like it as much as she did. Soon, she thought. She could almost trust him with that.
When she awoke, he was already gone. She spent one of her higher tokens on a body treatment where a woman smeared mud on her bare skin and wrapped her in leaves and hot towels. She got the attendant to speak about the owners, but she didn’t have anything new to say about them.
The list of classes in the afternoon seemed sparse and none other than the natural appreciation tour seemed interesting to her, so she attended it again. The same man guided it (she caught this time that his name was Grané) and gave her a quick rise of the eyebrows and a smile in recognition as he led the four or five other guests along the pathways.
There was nothing new to this class, but repeating her schedule was a good idea she had stumbled upon. Grané might be a good acquaintance to have, even if he didn’t rank very high. And what if someone wanted to approach her, like the owner, but couldn’t find her? She was sure people would come to realize that she would be right here, on this walk, at the same time every day.
The walk was physically led by Grané, but what he spoke about was dictated by the questions asked by the guests. What kind of tree was that? How much food did they grow themselves here? What was that over there, off the trail? He was very knowledgeable and answered everything, sometimes spending several minutes talking about one particular plant.
On the third day, Raulin now very scarce, she was greeted by a very sunny smile from Grané. “Ma’am,” he said as the class was gathering, “it’s good to see you again.”
“Hello, Grané. It’s a fine day for a walk. I hope the sun hits the Killsten Pond like it did yesterday.”
“It should.” He waved the small class to him and they began walking, though he continued to speak with Anla. “So, you appreciate the aesthetics of our land?”
“I do. I can sense that there was great care taken in how this place was created, the placement of things, what flowers were chosen for which beds, things like that.”
“And you enjoy these walks because you get to see them again?”
She paused at this question. It was hard to gauge what Grané wanted her to say. “No,” she said. “There’s something peaceful about walking through here, especially with a group of people who are also enjoying the time spent in nature.”
He gave her his large smile again and said, “It’s nice to know that you’re like me” before turning to begin the tour.
Over the next two days she attended a class on pottery and another on nutrition, the latter being a strange idea for someone who early in the year had eaten raw, bruised potatoes and dry pasta for food one day, taken from a trashcan behind a restaurant. The afternoons she spent with Grané, since she only saw Raulin when she woke in the middle of the night. She began accompanying the gardener to the tucked-away greenhouse after the strolls, helping him with a few chores before dinner.
“How long have you been here?” she asked him on her fifth day at the shrine.
He looked up for a few moments from pulling a few weeds . “Oh, I think it will be thirteen years next April.”
“And how did you come to stay here?”
“I went to Amandorlam for agriculture, if you can believe that. Most of the smart kids learn farming from their fathers.”
“I have a friend who went to Amandorlam for wizardry.”
“Hopefully he’s more successful than I am. Not that I regret my job, not one bit, but it hardly pays the same as groundskeeping for a marquess.”
“You don’t seem to care much about things like that.”
“I don’t,” he said with a wry smile. “I’m sure my wife would like more jewelry and my children more sweets, but we’re happy here.”
“Be content with that,” she said from across the aisle of potted plants. “My husband and I travel a lot. I think we’d both like to put down roots, but we have obligations for a little while longer.”
He nodded. “I see a lot of people come through here. Some enjoy that lifestyle. Others pretend to enjoy it. A few have reached the same conclusion you have.”
After a short lull in conversation where she continued watering the herbs, she asked, “Is this a good place to put down roots?”
“I found it to be. There’s a rich community here of workers and attendants and heads of departments, such as myself. We have gatherings every so often, large picnics or celebrations. We had a party last week for two of the staff who got married.”
“It sounds like you’re rich without the coin.”
“You said you were head of your department?”
“Indeed,” he said, flashing her a smile. “All those young guys out there trimming the lawn and pruning the trees are under my supervision.”
He was a department head, which meant he was probably much closer to the top than she had originally thought. She was about to continue the conversation when some motion outside caught her eye. Grané looked up, then followed her gaze. “Oh, ma’am,” he said, clearing his throat, “I wouldn’t pay attention to that. Sometimes, when we think the guests are away, we staff members make a stitch and hope not to get caught.”
Anla barely heard him. As if in a daze, she picked up her skirts and walked outside the glassed house. A stone farmer’s wall ran perpendicular, stopping short by fifteen feet from the doorway. It was at the near end of this a woman in a gray dress sat, her skirts hiked up around her hips. Her head laid on the shoulder of a man while they rocked together.
When she was younger, she’d stumbled upon a few young lovers in the forest who had shooed her away with laughter before continuing. The act wasn’t embarrassing or foreign to her. She wouldn’t have cared, wouldn’t have breathed a word to anyone else about it. But, as she stood watching, she grew very cold and very lightheaded.
“Ma’am,” Grané said, catching up to her, and Raulin turned his head to see who had spoken. His eyes widened in shock as he met Anla’s gaze for one moment before she stormed off.