1-7

“And how was last night?” Ember asked, pouring herself some breakfast tea at lunch.

Al slouched forward in his seat, his hands holding his head in a vice grip. Doing so made the headache a fraction less strong and every little bit counted when it came to hangovers. “Went drinking. Aggie stiffed a whore. Twice. We ran. I made it home and my wife and I fought. Then she walked out. All in all just a lovely evening.”

“And how did you feel?”

He gave her an incredulous look. “I was drunk, Ember. I don’t remember much until Aggie and I had to run away from the docks. I was concerned with not getting beaten into a pulp by fifty armed men. Once we escaped, I walked home in peace. Then I had to take care of Marnie. I’d say most of my evening was spent being either scared or sad.”

“Your wife was quite perturbed?” Ember asked.

“I believe that’s an understatement. I haven’t seen her since she left last night. I hope she made it into work.”

Ember sipped on her tea and thought. Al used the break in conversation to massage his temples and breath deeply. It had been quite a morning already. He felt better about his routine since he had to say barely anything in order to get his food along the way to work. Everyone was their usual cheery and polite selves, reaching automatically for his bread or vegetables. Work, however, had been rough. He’d had to rely on the Unease, which only made his headache worse, making it difficult to manage pleasant conversation. He had told his clients he was having a “transformative day”, requesting as much silence as possible to help him concentrate on making a breakthrough. When the grogginess had been too much, he had taken a knife to his upper arm to keep the Unease sharp.

“I think I’ll know what your third task should be, Alpine. You need to patch things up with your wife. Take her out tonight, show her a pleasant time, then make things up to her. Romantically.”

“>No,” he replied quickly and without thought.

“’No’?” she repeated, putting her tea down. “You didn’t have any qualms about drinking or fighting, but having relations with your wife seems to be a problem?”

“I said ‘no’. I’m not going to do it.”

Ember looked perplexed. “It’s how you make up. You get in a fight, then you rip each others clothes off and all is forgiven. She’ll be…”

“Ember, stop,” he said, feeling embarrassed by the conversation. “Think of another task or go ahead and tell our bosses. I don’t care right now.”

“Are things that atrocious in the Gray household? When was the last time you and her…?”

“None of your damned business, Ember,” Al snapped.

She looked like she was burning to ask him more questions about the situation, but Ember was nothing if not careful. She sipped on her tea as Al returned to his vice grip position.

Years, he thought. It had been years since things had been well between him and Burdet. He wasn’t sure exactly when things started to go sour between them, but he suspected it was around three years ago. The last time he remembered kissing his wife tenderly was around that time. They had exchanged anniversary gifts (three for wheat),had spent a nice day in the park, but things had seemed strained. He had cracked jokes, she had given him a hard smile. He had hugged her, she had pulled away quickly.

Later, they had fought. And when they threw barbs at each other, they had gone to bed angry and hurt. The pain hadn’t gone away. Neither apologized, neither of them ceded an inch in a war they hadn’t realized they had entered. Their home changed into a house, growing colder every time they spoke.

Burdet had taken a job, to help offset Alpine’s failure to make it big and afford all their expenses. She resented it, he knew that. “I’m going to work,” she said, before leaving without a touch or even a look his way. She began to stay out late, having drinks or seeing shows with friends. She’d come home well after Alpine had gone to bed, well after he had waited and hoped she would come home and eat dinner with him.

A little over two years ago she had said two words to him. “I’m pregnant.” They were supposed to be happy words. They were words to commence the journey towards a family. He had hoped to hear them years before the time had changed their meaning. He had said nothing, wouldn’t let Burdet see how fast his mind had worked. He had connected the dots quickly. She had cheated on her marriage vows, on him.

He should have divorced her, but his upbringing was too strong. Men didn’t divorce women, only women had the right to ask for one. If they did, it was the man’s fault for not keeping their marriage together. Besides, the thought of kicking a pregnant woman onto the streets seemed detestable. He’d been angry enough to want to, but he couldn’t do it.

Burdet had left her job when the nausea was too much for her and gave birth to Marniva a few months later. Burdet’s sister watched her during the day, Al watched her at night, and Burdet watched her hardly ever.

Al had never resented Marnie. It wasn’t her fault she had been born a bastard and he certainly wasn’t going to hold it against her. He took to fatherhood rather well and enjoyed watching her go through the stages of life. He loved chasing her around the house, threatening to get her while she shrieked with laughter. He loved it when she fell asleep on his chest. He loved going for walks with her to the nearby park and watching her fall down on the grass.

But, she wasn’t his daughter. And Burdet was only his wife because their finances worked out better with two incomes. They were only married to keep the sham going and there was nothing he had tried that could fix it. Al had bought Burdet flowers, sweets, and little trinkets. The flowers rotted in the vase, the sweets were uneaten, and he had found some of the trinkets dotting the edge of their property in the rear of the house. He had tried, once, but had given up rather quickly.

Al rubbed his eyes and looked up. He realized it had been several minutes since either he or Ember had said anything. She had her pince-nez on and was using a cartridged pen to write in her ledger. She glanced up at him, but went back to writing.

“If that’s all you can come up with, Ember, I’ll have to pass.” He stood up, slowly, and took a few steps towards the door.

“I perused the wizard’s catalog with the city, Alpine,” she said, not looking up. He stopped. “You aren’t registered.”

“Yes, I am!” he said, turning back around and wincing at the pain. “It was the first thing I did when I arrived here.”

“You are registered as a regular wizard, yes, but you aren’t registered as a switcher. That is very problematic for you and for our employers. How would it look if Jindahl and Stohr was accused of hiring someone who can’t follow law?”

Al sat again, his headache growing worse. “You’re the only one who knows I can switch. We’re at the same point as before.”

“Can you cross-switch?” she asked, looking very interested. “Use the Calm for Unease jobs?”

“No,” he lied.

“Hmm,” she said. “You’re bleeding through your shirt sleeves.”

I should have kept my robe on. “I did some yard work this morning. Must have cut up my arms worse than I realized.”

“Too bad. It would solve the problem of not wanting to use the Unease. It would make you a valuable asset. I’m sure I could find plenty of jobs that would give us both what we wanted out of this situation.”

Al sat forward in his chair. “I want things to remain as they are, for better or worse.”

Ember sighed and shook her head. “Alpine…You know that can’t happen. Our arrangement is broken. I need to inform our bosses of your change in abilities.”

“I know. At least I tried.”

His hand was on the doorknob when Ember said, “Wait.”

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