Raulin sucked in his breath. “We have to go back.”
“What?” the wizard asked. “I thought we were leaving for the road when we woke up.”
“I have to see if she’s all right! She could be dead!”
“Katerin!” It had been bad enough that he’d had to leave her. Imagining her dead was unbearable to Raulin.
He heard Al ask the whore who that was, but she didn’t answer the question. She did agree that they should go back and at least she was being agreeable, for once.
They trekked back through the town. It was several miles in one go, but Raulin marched them in a feverish pitch. He completely ignored the devastation in the town of Mount Kalista. Roofs had toppled, walls crumbled, and one street was heaved upwards by several feet. But he didn’t care. She was so close. Please let her be all right, he prayed.
Finally, jogging the last few hundred feet, Raulin mad it to the shrine. He left the three of them and ducked into the brush to remove his mask, stuffing it deep into his pack. Once free, he felt light and giddy, almost skipping as he bounded inside.
The main building had been soundly built. It wasn’t without its damage, though; the shingles had dislodged, the glass from the main door was everywhere, and the walls had cracks, like thin ivy and wisteria. Overall, it had held well in the earthquake. The main entrance was cluttered with chunks of plaster and all the decorations that had hung on the walls, including some shelves, but it was navigable. He stepped around the larger pieces and raced down the hallway.
A steadying breath, then a knock for courtesy. Katerin had loved his manners, said she loved being treated with that kind of respect. He was about to open the door when he heard her say, “Was that someone at the door?”
“Maybe another painting falling,” a man’s voice responded.
Raulin should have been dissuaded by this, but his mind gave her an excuse. A guard or housekeeper was helping her clean her room after the debris had fallen. He opened the door.
She was in bed and had taken the opportunity of being awoken to have another go with her new lover. (She had done that for the first few knocks that one night that the whore had set those noise traps for them.) He couldn’t see much more than motion in the faint dawn light, but he could definitely hear enough to know what was happening and when it was finished.
Raulin had lost all sensation in his body. If he breathed, if his heart kept beating, he wasn’t aware of it. He had to swallow a few times before he croaked out, “Katerin?”
She startled and rolled off the man, who bolted upright. “Who the hell are you? Why are you intruding?”
“Want me to take care of him?” the man asked her.
“Katerin, it’s me, Darrick! I came rushing back once I’d heard about the eruption.”
The man made a lewd joke and his love laughed her beautiful, tinkling little laugh and swatted the man’s arm. “Give me a few moments,” she said and leaned down to kiss him.
She put on one of her silk robes and belted it as she closed the door behind her. “What do you want?”
“What do I…Katerin!” He leaned down to kiss her but she placed her hand on his chest, still bound from her sprain, and pushed him away.
“You left me, remember? You could have sent your wife away and stayed here with me, but you chose to leave with her. You chose to go back to your whore. How many men did she have here? I saw four myself. That gardener took her in the greenhouse three times that I saw. And yet, that was fine. That was acceptable to you, to go back to that slut.” She leaned in and whispered in his ear. “You didn’t care that she was going to think of all those men when you bedded her again. You didn’t care that she was going to cuckold you the next chance she got. You didn’t care about how she laughed at your advances and told all those people how she’d rather gouge out her eyes than warm your sheets. Even after she had taken some of them two at a time, you still left me for her.”
“I had no choice. We have business in Atri…”
“You had a choice!” She shoved him, wincing, as he staggered back a pace. “You were supposed to choose me! You chose her! And I grieved when you left. I pined for you…”
“For four days.”
“Oh, Darrick. You were gone and I was lonely. You know how badly I craved your touch. I needed you, but you weren’t here.”
The only sensation that had returned was the thumping of his pulse in his neck. As if a distance away, he could tell he was red in his cheeks and that his hands were twitching. That wasn’t him, though. This wasn’t happening. “And so you bedded another man.”
She dropped her gaze and looked up at him through her lashes. He still wanted so badly to hold her, to tell her he was back and that he’d protect her. “Darrick, Peder doesn’t mean anything to me. I was weak. I…I pretended he was you while I was with him. I’ll tell him I don’t want him anymore. Come to me in a few hours.” She moved languidly to bridge the gap between them. Katerin wrapped her arms around him and placed her face on his chest. He sighed. That was how it should be. She tilted her head up and kissed him. He was on fire again, pressing her against the wall and moving his hands down her to her hips.
She purred, but broke the embrace, putting her hand on his chest lightly this time. “Give me time. I have to be careful with Peder. He has a temper and I don’t want him going after you.”
“I’m so sorry I left you,” he said and kissed her one more time before she stepped back into her room.
Her touch had reinvigorated him. He felt the heat of her head on his chest and her lips on his own pouring into his heart. There was a burning jealousy over the fact that she had been with someone else, but in time he could forgive her indiscretion. She was alive and he would be in her arms again shortly.
Raulin walked to the end of the hallway and left through the back entrance of the building. He sidestepped the debris and whistled a little tune. He’d have to think of a place where he could take a nap for a few hours. Maybe that small garden where he and Katerin first made love. He wanted to be well rested when he tasted her again. And after he’d exhausted himself, he’d fall asleep in her arms and ask her to come along with him. With the volcano looming above them, she would surely say “yes” to the proposal.
A motion to his left almost startled him. It was a ghastly figure covered in the ash that blanketed the whole place in a veneer of pallor. No, not a ghost, just a woman rising to her feet with a little difficulty, the thick dust falling in a cloud around her. It took him a few moments to realize that her awkward clutching and balance meant she was pregnant, especially since she seemed like she was a woman that took to the condition well. Despite her harried look, her blond hair unkempt, her jewel-green eyes bloodshot and puffy, and the skin beneath her nose red and raw, she had a glow about her and her skin was soft and smooth. “Sir,” she said, wiping her nose and her eyes. “Were you just inside?”
“I was, ma’am. Is there something I can help you with?”
“Did you happen to go to room five?”
“Is he all right?”
“Is who, ma’am?”
“Peder, my husband. I know that…I know…” She began sobbing. He stepped over the short wall and took her arm gently, wiping away the dirt and grass from her skirt and leading her over to a nearby bench.
“Shh,” he said. She turned and began crying on his shoulder.
“I know,” she began again, moving her head so that it didn’t muffle her voice. “I know he’s with her and that he’s going to leave me. I just wanted to make sure he wasn’t hurt by the earthquake.”
“He was fine when I saw him.” Raulin had wanted to pound the man’s face into a pulp, but he realized he couldn’t do that to a man who was going to be a father. “He’ll be fine when he returns to you. He’s not going to leave you.”
“Yes, he is,” she said, her breath coming shallowly and fast. “He’s going to…leave me for her. He said so. And so did she.”
“Your husband cheated on you. I’m sure he’s going to realize that he made a one-time mistake and be back in your arms tonight.”
She shook her head. “It wasn’t a one-time thing. He’s been gone since Sunday night.”
Raulin felt his neck straighten. “Sunday night? Well, maybe he hasn’t been sleeping with her the whole time.”
“He…he…I saw them, outside the painting class Tuesday morning. He was…he was…”
Katerin had told him she liked to tumble with him in public places. It added a little spice to things, almost getting caught. Raulin cleared his throat and spoke, trying to say the words softly. “Tell me everything.”
Every single time she spoke of a familiar thing, it was a gut punch that left him breathless for a moment, his head becoming more and more woozy and his heart aching stronger with every beat. This poor woman. Her husband had left her bed for another woman, who had poisoned his mind against her. Peder had accused her of sleeping around and had even questioned if the child she carried was his. Three, four, maybe six times, she wasn’t sure, Katerin and Peder had carried out the affair in public, in her view. He had already given Lady Karninth all the jewelry this woman had supposedly stolen, which was everything she owned but the wedding band on her swollen finger.
Raulin was heartbroken, for this woman, for himself, but mostly for Anla. How could he have been so thoroughly taken in by a game he played all the time? No, it wasn’t the same thing, he told himself. He had never intended to hurt anyone when he seduced them. He didn’t play on insecurities nor did he hope to damage relationships. Not at all like Katerin.
That wasn’t entirely true, though, was it? Even though Raulin made sure to slink away in the night before their husband found them, he did sleep with married women. He told himself they were in on the court of affairs, that they wanted to be seduced, but was that always the case? He looked back on all the women he’d slept with since stepping to shore. Of the four, he could only say with assuredness that Lord Mirana’s daughter, Gielska, had been fully aware of the scope of their actions. The priestess in Hanala had almost died from her punishment. Iyessa would lose her job. Gretza, though her marriage to Vanif had been annulled, must have forced herself to take Raulin to her bed. At the time he hadn’t put much thought into it, but he strongly suspected she had been a virgin.
And now he had been played. He knew how it felt to be lied to and coerced, like he had been born yesterday. He had thought he had been noble about his profession, not raping, not hurting, not warping anyone’s minds, but he was still too close to Katerin’s sick, twisted manipulations for comfort.
And…Anla. His stomach twisted. Oh, Katerin had been crafty and positively cruel, but he had done and said everything of his own volition. He had been as much a player in Anla’s torment as Katerin had. “Could you wait here for one moment?” he said to Peder’s wife.
She nodded and sank forward, her face in her hands. Raulin found a bush he hoped was out of eyesight and dry heaved for a minute. He returned, made the woman stand, and hailed over an employee walking by with a brusque pace.
“Is there somewhere you can take her?” he asked. “She needs a quiet spot away from people, maybe a glass of water.”
“My office has a cot. Is she ill? Should I fetch the doctor?”
Raulin was prepared and he watched the man’s reaction, studying him with more scrutiny than an art appraiser. Though he only uttered the syllable “oh”, Raulin could hear nothing but the annoyance of yet another victim and the disgust at the situation at hand.
After the woman had been laid on the cot and the door was closed behind them, Raulin said to the guard, “I need you to tell me about Lady Karninth.”
“Sir, I can’t speak to you about that.”
“I need to know.”
“It would reflect badly on the Shrine of the Shadowed Sun if the employees gossiped about the guests.”
Raulin took out his pouch and pinched five gold coins between his fingertips, offering them to the man. “More? Tell me when I’ve reached your price.”
The man sighed and pushed Raulin’s hand away. “She’s been here since spring. She’s been bedding married men once every week or two. She’s not discrete about it at all. This poor woman is not the first I’ve had to help and I’m sure she won’t be the last.”
“Are you all right? You look like you could use a drink.”
“I think I’ve acted enough like a wine-sopped fool to in turn get all of Shingden drunk.”
“Oh,” the guard said, holding out the syllable. “You’re Late November.”
He sighed bitterly. “I think ‘The World’s Greatest Idiot’ works better.”
“If it’s any consolation, she’s done this to many, many men. She’s become really well versed in her tactics, got them down to a sharp finish, like a blacksmith whetting a sword. If she wasn’t such a harpy to the staff, I might even admire her for it.”
“Maybe I can some day when I don’t feel so heart sick.”
“If your wife’s still around, make it up to her. Oh, and nothing to anyone about this conversation, eh?”
“And I think you know she’s with Early December right now. No drama there. No fights or destruction.”
“I think you guys have enough to deal with. And I can’t blame him any more than I blame myself.”
“Good man,” the guard said, clasping his shoulder. “And I’m sorry about rapping on her door during my shift. We were hoping it would make you guys tired and stay in, leave poor Olana alone. We did a couple of other nasty tricks, too. That was pure revenge.”
He nodded heavily. All as Anla had said. “I’ll be around. Do you need help anywhere?”
“Everyone’s accounted for and we’ve patched up the injured. I think we’re all right, so long as the lava continues to pour down the west side. Feel free to clean or pick up, if you want. We’ll get you a hot meal for your help.”
Raulin had one more question. He still clung to the tiny shred of hope that he wasn’t in the wrong, that this was all a dastardly plot concocted by Anla for some nebulous reason he wasn’t going to put effort into thinking about. He knew this possibility was far-fetched, but he needed to ask it.
He found the rest of the quartet in the greenhouse, picking up shards of glass, tipping pots upright, and sweeping the floor. Anla turned and saw him, flinching for a moment. He saw it and his heart ached anew. Then he looked at her arm and saw it was bruised in the shape of a man’s hand. It took him a few moments to realize that it was the impression of his hand. He had wrenched her from the dining hall. She had told him he was hurting her. He hadn’t stopped. He had a hard time believing he had been that far gone that he would do something like that, until he remembered he had also cocked his arm back and almost punched her.
Raulin caught his breath finally and said to her,”There is someone you should speak with. She’s in the head guard’s office.”
Anla nodded and left without saying a word, not even looking at him. Tel and Al stopped and waited for him to continue. “Since we set foot on this property, has Anla been out of your sights at any moment? Has she spoken to anyone?”
Al went back to sweeping. “No, Raulin. We headed straight here. She was hoping to have this cleaned up for her friend by the time he woke up.”
So there it was. Peder and his wife had arrived after Anla had left. She had been with the quartet since that point. There had been no opportunity for her to ensorcel that woman into making up a story about Katerin.
He nodded and slumped to the floor, his head in his hands.
“Raulin?” Tel asked. “What’s wrong?”
“I am. Utterly, horribly, disgustingly wrong.”
“At least you’re starting to scrape the surface,” Al said, and it wasn’t his old way of picking at Raulin whenever he could.
Raulin looked up. “What do you know, Wizard?”
“I know you hurt her badly. She refused to talk about it, but I think in this case a non-answer would be the same as admission. Her arm is bruised because of you. Her face is bruised because of some woman. And she is miserable. That’s all I know.”
“Why didn’t you say anything to me?”
“Because she asked me not to.” Al fought with himself for a moment, then said with some vehemence, “She has more class and dignity in her pinkie nail than you’ve ever had in your entire life. How could you do that to her? Kriskin malor, you hurt Anla of all people! How? I don’t understand.”
“Neither do I.”
“No, you do. Explain it.”
And so he did. He gave them the raw, stripped truth and he was brutally honest about the way he made himself seem. There was no sugar coating, no grazing over his idiocy, no mercy to his character. “So,” he said, finishing, “if you ever wanted me to feel the same way that you wanted Anla to feel about being ensorcelled, now is your moment.”
“I’m beyond that. Just curious, at what point did your brains fly out the window?” Al asked.
“About two seconds after my libido took over.”
Al stood with his fingers laced over the end of the broom, watching him. “So, what are you going to do about what you did to her?”
“I’m going to try to make things right.”
* * *
It took most of the early morning to find Anla in the collection of buildings the staff lived in. She was in the center with several other people, speaking and helping with the rebuilding and reorganizing efforts. One woman, tall with dark, curly hair, saw him walk towards the group and stopped speaking. One by one they quieted until Anla turned around, dropping the dazzling smile she’d had on her beautiful face.
“Can we speak?” he asked.
She nodded and began walking towards him. The tall woman stopped her for a moment and Raulin heard her say, “Stay where we can see you, in case he gets rough again.”
He would have thought the caution unnecessary up until a few hours ago. Now he sadly had to agree that they should be concerned for her safety, though the thought of ever hurting Anla again physically sickened him.
She walked to the edge of the clearing and waited, moving no farther. He handed her a bag of gold, then said, “This is going to look strange to your friends.” He knelt in front of her, clasped his forearms behind his back, and bowed, turning his head to one side.
“I forgive you, Raulin,” she said almost immediately.
He still held it for a few more moments. “Let me explain. We bow to humble ourselves in apology, to grovel. We turn our heads to the side when we’ve committed an offense so egregious that we feel our lives are fairly forfeit, should the affronted person wish to take it. More neck, easier for a sword or ax to lop off our heads.”
“Stand up. I’m not going to kill you.”
“Thank you,” he said, brushing his pant legs as he stood. “I am truly sorry about what you went through. I am sorry for everything I said or did while we were here. I am sorry I didn’t trust you. And I’m sorry that I ruined what might have been a good time for you.”
She gave him the slightest of nods, then looked back at the group with impatience.
“I know I’m in no position to ask anything of you, but I have three favors I want.”
“What are they?” she asked, her voice still flat and without mirth. He hadn’t remembered her ever speaking to him like that before. Even when they were still strangers, even during his foolish time after Iascond, there was still some emotion when she spoke with him. Now she sounded…cold.
“Um, I would like to borrow your cloak.”
“My cloak? Why?”
“I plan on staying here as long as you’d like, to help the staff recover. I’d rather err on the side of caution and assume that if they see a trirec with a tail like Darrick’s that they might connect the two.”
“Why don’t you just assume the identity of Darrick again?”
“I will, but there are certain people I’d rather not see me with my mask off.”
“Who, Tel and Al? Tel’s already seen your face.”
“He has?” This was surprising.
“After the maze, when you were in the woods.”
“Oh. Well, it wasn’t him I was as worried about.”
“You still think Al is going to turn you in for being a trirec?”
“I don’t know. It’s not a risk I can take.”
“All right. I’ll get you my cloak.”
“Thank you. The second would be to cover for me. Say Darrick’s in town or whatever excuse you’d like. Don’t speak with me if you see me with my mask on.”
“Done. Your last favor?”
“If you notice I gave you one hundred gold, not seventy. Consider it a hazard bonus, or payment for the last favor. I would like a kiss.”
“What?” she said, her mouth dropping open.
“Not now. I have a plan to get back at Katerin in a pretty spectacular way.”
He waited for her conditions or an explanation. When she said nothing, he asked her why she had declined.
“First, I managed to pen Lady Karninth into a place where she couldn’t hurt me without the aid of my husband. I watched my own back, I made contingencies, I bit my tongue and stayed scarce. I did that. You were still tumbling with her every second you got, shirking your duties and helping her out.
“Secondly, I don’t enact revenge and I don’t help people do it. I managed to hurt her just enough to keep her from going for my throat, but I did nothing in offense. I protected myself; that was it.
“And thirdly, and I can’t stress this enough, I am not your whore or your tramp. I don’t take money to do anything sexual with anyone anymore. And the only reason why I did it in the first place was because I was dying of hunger.”
Her eyes had flashed as she spoke. He almost took a step backward from her anger, unsure whether he preferred this to the apathy she had given him prior. “Anla, I wasn’t asking you for more than that. Just a kiss. I promise that was all. And it was to show her that I had chosen you over her, to cut her off completely.”
“Find some other way. My answer is still ‘no’.”
“All…all right. You can still keep the coins. And because I haven’t said it enough, I don’t think, I am incredibly, deeply sorry over what happened.”
“Fine,” she said, turning to leave.
“You don’t believe me? I thought you forgave me.”
She gave an impatient sigh. “I once told Al that sometimes people apologize when they don’t really feel sorry. I think that’s true for people accepting the apology, too.”
“I am sorry, though.”
“I’ve heard other words from you in the last week that make me believe otherwise.”
She glanced back at the group, who were still glancing their way. “It’s not the time to get into it. I have a lot of work to do.”
He waited while she fetched her cloak, then left for other business. It hadn’t gone as well as he had hoped, but at least she was speaking with him. He’d take that, for now.