They followed the winding river for a few miles before the early evening hours of a near-winter’s night faded fast. It was still comfortable, but the temperature was likely to drop to the forties or fifties that evening. Right then, they desperately needed a bath, since the trek had left them sweating and covered in dirt.
Raulin went to the river to fill his flask. Anla was there in the reeds, pressing a cloth to her neck and chest. Just the simple motion of her enjoying the sensation of water on her skin made his breath catch and caused him to stare.
She turned and saw him watching her. In the almost two weeks since their last talk, things had improved slightly. She no longer flinched when he came within a few yards of her person, for example. She wasn’t as formal with him, nor did she avoid him in an obvious way. Things were far from where they had been, though, and he hoped to change that.
He walked next to her, filled his flask, then asked, “Can we talk?”
She nodded, then walked over to a flat area of ground and sat, folding her hands in her lap. He joined her, taking off his mask, and said, “I miss what we were.”
“I do, too.”
“Is there any way we could go back?”
This was something she took quite a few moments to think about. “I don’t know, Raulin. I honestly don’t. From where I am right now, I would say ‘no’.”
He had expected that, but it was still a painful answer to hear. “This is because I spent time with Katerin instead of doing my job. Because I bruised your arm. Because I called you a whore and was mean to you. Because I was a terrible friend.”
“Yes to all that.”
“You forgave me, though. I didn’t think that meant the tide would come back in, but I was hoping it meant there was some potential for us to be the way we used to be. But, you’re saying ‘no’. And while I think I acted terribly, I’m not sure I understand your decision.”
She closed her eyes for a moment, took a deep breath, then said, “I heard you.”
She frowned, her mouth quivering a little before she sucked in her lips and spoke. “Do you remember taking a stroll with the Lady the afternoon of the day before she slapped me?”
“I think so. Why?”
“Did you see me at all?”
“I think I was paying attention to her.”
“You were walking with her and she was following me. I went out to get some fresh air and be away from her, yet she still harried me. She kept changing direction in order to keep you two behind me. I grew frustrated with it and hid in the woods, hoping to shake her from my trail. Instead, she stopped and started talking to you about me. Questions about you and I that she twisted around to her entertainment. Do you remember that?”
“I don’t remember many details from those weeks. It feels a lot like rain on the surface of a pond, if that makes any sense. Vaguely.”
“So, you don’t remember what you said during that conversation?”
“I do. They’re etched into my mind. ‘She’s a whore, Katerin. I’ve always thought of her as a whore. Even though she tried so hard to live a normal life, I know a woman can’t be pure after that. It was hard not to think of her bedding every man she held a conversation with. We stayed in hotels and inns and I wondered how much money she was making while I slept.’”
His face went red with shame. “I said that?”
“’She seemed so eager for the touch of everyone but me. It doesn’t surprise me when you say you heard her with the waiter and the gardener at the same time. She’ll have to get her fill so that when we’re back on the road, she can go back to ignoring me.’”
His mouth and throat had gone completely dry. Swallowing didn’t even help.
“’Katerin, I don’t care about her. I hold no love for her, only you. She could die tomorrow and I wouldn’t blink. And if she continues her campaign to make you miserable, I will help her to that fate.’”
He bowed his head. He couldn’t look at her.
“And of course, there was back in the room when you told me to leave you two alone. ‘I will find that fancy boy baerd hunter and pay him for front row seats’. Would you like to clarify that statement?” When he didn’t speak, she continued. “I’m pretty sure you were threatening to find someone to rape me for your enjoyment. Does that sound like what you meant by it?”
He nodded his head heavily.
“And you’re wondering why I might be saying ‘no’? It took you so little to turn your back on me, to abandon me and wish the most horrendous things for me. How?”
“I don’t know,” he whispered hoarsely. “In retrospect, it feels like a mind disease of some sort. She was very, very good at what she did and she infected me totally and completely. It never occurred to me that someone would try to seduce me for their own sick gains, so I never thought she would be lying. I should have.”
“Do you know what put you into a rage like nothing else, what you kept bringing up with such malice and contempt?” He shook his head. “Me sleeping with other men. I didn’t understand at first why it mattered to you at all. If I decided to conduct affairs or whore for whatever reason, why should it matter to you? I thought that, being my guard, you might be upset at watching over me, that it might be annoying that I kept putting myself in danger and making your work harder for you. But to wish pain and torment upon me for something you should have no real concern about…
“And then it dawned on me that you want to bed me.” He looked up at her sharply. “I should have realized it a long time ago. Lots of men want to bed me, and you’re a man, so it makes sense. But, you were respectful and I thought we had something a bit more meaningful than the usual ‘what’s your fee?’ or ‘how long do I have to keep buying you dinner?’ that I get in those situations. We talked and laughed and you listened to me. I let my guard down and shared things with you that I never have with anyone else. We were friends.
“And we decided to change that. I thought our arrangement was working. I liked kissing you and I felt safe and unrushed. I don’t know what you would label what we were; we never really discussed it. So, I’m unsure as to why you thought I was yours so strongly.”
Raulin finally found his voice. “I can only guess that it’s my overwhelming need to protect you and any other woman in my life….while simultaneously hurting them,” he said. “If I’m not using them, I’m leaving them. The only women who I haven’t left hurting were the ones who understood what we were and accepted that. But, that never stopped me from trying to soften the blow when I could, whatever lie or action I could do to make sure they got over us quickly. And when I can’t protect them from harm, it rips me to shreds. I think, in this case, I was afraid that your reputation would get you in trouble, that men were lining up for expectations and if they didn’t get what they wanted, they’d hurt you.”
This was not exactly the truth, but telling her that he loved her and that the thought of any man touching the woman he wanted burned him up at this time was very foolish.
She sighed. “And again, you cannot trust me with my magic, if what you feared was even the case.”
“Most of the women I know don’t have the capability to help themselves. I’m still getting used to the idea.”
She nodded and made to stand. “Wait,” he said and she stopped. “How do we…fix this?”
“We need to start trusting each other. That’s my guess.”
“You don’t trust me, then?”
She took a deep breath. “Raulin, you’re a trirec. I looked past that because you were always friendly and easy to speak with. You never wanted to hurt me; even when I influenced you in the carriage after the libertine ball, you had no will to strike me. But now that I’ve seen that you actually can, and will, hurt me, I’m…I’m frightened of you. It’s been a struggle for me this last month not to use my magic to insure you won’t decide suddenly that I was too friendly with some man and slit my throat in my sleep.”
“I wouldn’t do that. I would never do that.”
“Once I didn’t think you would, but I had the proof to show that’s not true.” She rubbed her arm absently. “I’ve gotten past most of the fear. I figure that there’s been enough time where, if you wanted to hurt me, you would have.”
“I swear to you that I will never hurt you again.”
She gave a quick, sarcastic laugh. “That’s nice to hear, but I’m sure you’ll hurt me again. I won’t hold you to it, like I’ve forgiven you for this. I think you understand some of what I went through and you feel badly about it. It’s just going to take some time for us to reach a good point.”
She stood and he followed, trying to think of some way to make it better. He didn’t want their conversation to end like this. She deserved more, a better gesture than just waiting. And then he was going to have to trust her first. “I’m not Walpin.”
“What?” she asked, blinking a few times.
“You came to the conclusion that I’m Walpin, but I’m not.”
“You said it was your home before you went to Merak…”
“That wasn’t a lie; it was. I was entrusted to a caretaker after my parents died and we stayed in Walpi for a few months while he figured out what to do. It was my last home.”
“But you get so upset when people make fun of them.”
“There was a woman in the village, an aged widow, who watched over me and took me in. We bonded over our grief and she helped me heal. The whole village was kind to me, really. So, yes, I am sensitive when people make light of their situation. They have a tough choice; constantly fight the border incursions or give in to the Merakians’ demands. People don’t think about what those people have to go through. Calling them cowards makes me angry. I think of them and I think of her, some of the best people I’ve ever met.”
“So, what are you then?”
He swallowed. “I’m Arvonnese.”
She stopped for a moment and raised an eyebrow. “You’re…Arvonnese?”
“I was born in Eri Ranvel. Like you, though, only my father was born in Arvonne. My mother is from Sayen.”
“That’s…not something I would expect.”
“Understanding my feelings on the people, I’m not surprised.”
“Thank you for sharing. I understand that it’s a hard thing for you to do.”
“May I court you?” he asked.
She frowned. “Raulin…Have you listened to me at all today? Do you understand how I’m feeling? No. That seems like a terrible idea at this point. We’re barely friends.”
“I know,” he said. Barely friends. Deserved, but still painful to hear. “Hear me out…please. I’m making things official for your benefit, not mine. What I’m suggesting gives you all the control. We would start from the beginning, a clean slate. Nothing physical, unless you want that, of course. I would do something for you or give you something. You would accept it or reject it. I would do that for a few more days, then move on to the next gift. You say what we do and when we do it.”
“And if I reject your advances enough times?” she asked. They were already a few feet apart, but she still widened the gap.
“Then it will end. And I would thank you for the opportunity and know that it was my fault nothing happened.”
“It seems a bit restrictive. We’re both tying our hands into lover’s knots.”
“Actually, you get more freedom than I do.”
“I have to adhere to a strict set of moral obligations that you are not required to in return.”
“The usual: chivalry, politeness, patience, discretion, courtesy, chastity.”
“Chastity? Doesn’t that affect your job?”
“Yes. It would be easier if seduction was still available for me. But, if I have to rely on it, then I must not be a very good trirec.”
“So, we’re going from you tumbling multiple times with a woman and getting angry with me over the perceived notion that I was sleeping with multiple men, when I wasn’t at all, to you saying that I can bed any man I want and that you will bed no one.”
“Yes. I have a lot to make up for.”
“And I can string you along for months, accepting tokens, keeping you locked in an arrangement that you get absolutely no benefit from, and I don’t even need to kiss you?”
“I would hope you wouldn’t, but yes, though seeing you happy is a reward enough.”
“And there are no hidden agendas, no fine print, nothing you’re leaving out?”
“It is like I say it is.”
“Then I accept on the condition that ignorance of something missing from our discussion nullifies our verbal agreement.”
He whistled. “You have been speaking quite a bit with the wizard. He couldn’t have said it better himself. But, yes. I’m not trying to trick you into something.”
Having arrived back at their camp, she put on her cloak in anticipation of the chillier temperature, and sat in front of the fire to think. Just speaking with him had made things feel better. His behavior hadn’t been excusable, but she could see things from his side. And his attempts at reconciliation were rather strong. She felt a warm buzzing of sorts, a relief and a wringing out of worries, fears, and anger. There was still pain, of course, but holding on to it was detrimental to not only her but the whole group. And she was damned if she was going to take them all down because of his stupidity.
When she awoke the next morning, Raulin’s blanket was covering her and a bouquet of wildflowers and foliage was next to her head. The pain and fear still resided somewhere inside, but she told herself that he was trying and that holding on to the past would do nothing for her. She took the small bundle and tied it to her pack, then began to make breakfast.