The large building located in the northern part of the compound housed the trirecs in splendor. The honor was in reality a cubicle with a bed and a bureau, barely ten paces in each direction. It was divided on either side and the hallway with wooden walls, but the fourth side was more of a giant, slotted window than a facade. This was much more than a majority of the servants received, Raulin reminded himself.
He laid on the hay-stuffed mattress and stared at the beams in the ceiling. The breeze through the massive window actually aired the room out enough that it was comfortable. Still, he laid awake and tried to make sense of the tangle in his mind. He should feel safe here among his brothers, but he had been more comfortable sleeping in the nook of Neshihon’s boat. It was hard to shake the feeling like he was on a theft job, waiting to get caught in the act. He was on edge and he wasn’t totally sure why.
Raulin would have preferred to be in a hotel nearby, eating rich foods and sleeping in a luxurious room with a down mattress and pillows, lamps, and a Westerner-style painting or two. He was going to have to conserve his funds for the time being, so he had taken the free room and board at the compound instead. One hundred and fifty gold gone to rewards for saving his hide. Another twenty to thirty to replace the bare minimum of clothing and shoes he’d need to travel throughout Gheny, not including the fancier attire he’d need for the social callings in Courmet. A new arong-miil, the dark, specialized outfit he wore when assassinating or stealing. It was everything he’d had to buy to start when he began his career nine years prior.
Annoying and unfair, but he was alive.
He awoke with the gray of the morning, his eyes and mouth sandy. He spit out the swallow of water he’d taken from the pitcher on top of the dresser, then headed to the courtyard. He joined the rest of the trirecs, some fifteen others, in the morning exercises in the courtyard. It was a sea of black hair and deep reddish-olive skin in the same gray outfits that Raulin wore. As always, they started with the stretches that kept the body limber, then moved into positions most would find difficult to hold for any length of time. They slowly moved from crouch to extension, moving very slowly. He felt his muscles shake from weeks of neglect.
After the stretches and holds, the trirecs lined up and took two wooden practice knives from a bin and returned to their positions. They ran through the second half of their morning ritual: close-range attacks. It was in an order they had been taught years ago, slashing the air in front of them in unison.
When he finished, sweat beaded his skin. He wiped it down with a wet cloth. A few of the trirecs, a woman and two men, looked at him and teased him about how short his hair was. He gave a forced smile and pulled out all the beads from his pouch. Their teasing smiles dropped into scowls and Raulin secretly gave himself a point.
He donned his shirt again then grabbed breakfast of oatmeal with apples and bacon along with his required morning tea. If only he had thought to spend some money yesterday on pastries. Food had been up there on his list of things he would relish if he was rescued. A good Ghenian wheat bread smeared with honeyed cheese sauce and toasted slightly to crust the cut edges was needed immediately.
He redressed into his laundered traveling clothes then turned in a string of black beads, ten gold in all, and a rare orange for another hundred gold. He asked the canrak, the woman responsible for relations with Gheny, for their list of tailors and cobblers. Before he left the grounds, he turned in all but one of his knives for sharpening to the blacksmith and put on his mask.
Arvarikor was particular about what demanded secrecy and what didn’t. Raulin would be measured for his arong-miil by the tailor they had on premesis. He wore it only once in a while, when the job called for a rare break-in at night. Mostly he wore regular clothing to blend in, whatever was the latest fashion. For those, he used a regular tailor.
It wasn’t far to get to a recommended shop run by two cousins, a cobbler and tailor combined. They were noted for being pleasant, quick, and ammenable to working outside normal Ghenian measurements. And, most importantly, they also shut their mouths about anything they overheard involving trirecs.
They fawned over Raulin as he was measured for several sets of clothes, then later two pairs of shoes, all in the latest fashion. The waist on his trousers was fit lower than he recalled and was no longer the short-legged breeches favored three years ago. The shoes were hard, shiny laced things that cramped his toes. His shirts were the same, at least: a short coat, a vest, an undershirt and cravat. He had two of those sets made as well as three traveling outfits of a tunic, breeches, and soft leather boots.
Two days, they said, stating they’d halt everything they were working on for him. True or not, he tipped them two gold for their time and professionalism. They bowed several times as he left, each exclaiming compliments more flattering than the last.
He bought some Ghenian wheat bread from a vendor, his mouth watering from the smell, and asked the man to point him in the direction of the temple to Queyella. He took in the pleasant morning on the stroll over, passing the wharf where Neshihon had tied her craft.
The sanctuary was a tiered marble building overlooking the sea and clinging to the side of a cliff. He bowed low as he entered the main room, an area open to the sky and rains. Pools collected water from fountains and flowed to adjacent rooms. It was peaceful, serene even, reminding him of the times when Arvarikor sent the children for contemplation into the mountain caves.
A woman entered, unaware that someone was standing there for several minutes. It gave Raulin the opportunity to study her while she attended to her duties, drawing water from the central pool with a vase and pouring it into a side basin. She was exquisite, a finely boned, petite woman of dark hair and eyes that drew him in. He felt his face heat up and was glad for the mask, for possibly only the third or fourth time since he began wearing it at fifteen. After several pours, she dipped her finger into the basin and tasted the water, closing her eyes and savoring the taste.
Raulin couldn’t understand what was it about her that was fascinating him. Her dress, flowing silk in mottled blues and greens, was very flattering, but not unusual. The same with her beauty. There had been quite a few women on the streets he had passed today that might be considered more comely than she was, dressed better, and displaying finer decorum. He still found this woman more attractive.
She finally noticed him when she switched sides, startling and clutching the vase to her chest. “Oh, I’m sorry I didn’t notice you!” she said, walking towards him. “Is there something I can help you with?”
“Um, well, yes. I wanted to give honor and a small donation to Queyella. I’m not sure if I’m in the right place.”
“Follow me,” she said, “I’ll take you to where you need to be.”
The room to the right was carved from the rock of the cliff. It was meant to give people an array of seats to watch the sea from. She waited behind him while he got comfortable in a nook in the corner, out of the way of any other visitors, then sat next to him.
He noted that her first priority was for worship, not for the donation. It went a long way with him. She sat, transfixed to the sea ahead of them. Raulin tilted his head so he could appear to be looking forward, but was actually looking at her.
“We usually don’t have many trirecs attend,” she said.
“I have a good reason.”
“I’ll bet you have an interesting story.”
“I suppose,” he said, spending several minutes recounting his tale. Her eyes didn’t leave his as he spoke, hushed by his words. She leaned forward slightly, as if she could hear his words better. “So, as promised, I’m here to make my donation and give Her thanks for saving me.”
“You were chosen by Her,” she said, somewhere between an awed and an assured tone. She moved forward until her knees touched his. “How did She bring you back?”
“A to’ken happened to pass by and I bargained for my passage back.”
“They are Queyella’s chosen people,” she said. “I’ve never met one but I hear they are wonderful.”
“Well, I would say she was kind enough to get me here, so they’re fine in my book.” There was no need to break this woman’s illusion.
She stood. “I’ll leave you here to meditate in peace,” she said.
He grabbed her hand, unsure why he was being so forward. “Stay.”
She paused, then sat so close to him that they almost touched. He noticed she was looking at him unabashedly. He watched the sea while she watched him. It was comforting, peaceful. There was no one in the gallery but the two of them. Things felt right for a change.
Several minutes passed. He moved his hand from his thigh to the floor. He was pleased to feel her slender fingers move over his skin with a rhythm that felt deep and natural.
He turned to look at her. “You’re beautiful,” he said. She didn’t look away in that bashful disbelief that most women he knew used. It was almost as if she hadn’t heard him, since she continued to study him.
“Must you wear it always?” she asked, her fingers brushing his mask.
“Not necessarily,” he said. “Close your eyes.”
She obeyed, her lashes making a thick line below her eyelids. He took off his mask, placing it next to him. He took her hand and brought it to his face. She traced the line of his jaw, which was strong like his father’s, and his nose, which was small like his mother’s. When her fingertips traced his lips, he kissed them lightly before gently pushing her head towards his.
A voice inside said he should stop it from happening. He wasn’t a man who enjoyed brief trysts, especially since most ended in bitter heartache. But, this was so free and easy. The attraction was as strong with her as it was with him. She kissed him, her hands sliding up to his neck while his slid down to her waist. She moved herself on top of him as much as he moved her. They didn’t slow, they didn’t stop, and didn’t exercise any caution to who or where they were.
It happened so fast that it seemed otherworldly to Raulin. Normally there were arduous steps that he would have to take with a woman, layers of flirtations, of shy rejections that were hard to decipher as true or invitations to try harder. Even in his luck with priestesses, he’d never had an encounter so primal and spontaneous.
He shook his head slightly and watched as she breathed slowly, her eyes still closed. She touched his face before she moved off of his lap, next to the wall and into the crook of his arm. He turned to face her as she reached up to continue the tracing of his ears, his forehead, and his hair. After a few minutes she turned and embraced him tightly, then sat up and moved forward, closer to the ocean.
He put on his mask again, wishing he didn’t have to, but understanding that there needed to be a finality to their meeting. This had happened at least a half-dozen times before, leaving someone he cared for. She seemed so interesting, so beautiful, but also so magnetic to him. But he couldn’t stay with her.
“This is what I promised to give, no more, no less,” he said, placing the pouch of coins next to her. He needed to break this off before he started to grow attached, like he usually did. He also wanted to be very clear that the amount of money he was giving had nothing to do with what had just transpired between them. Raulin stood and left her staring out to the sea, her knees curled up to her chest.
As he was leaving, he turned back to look at her one last time and the sun reflected off the water, blinding him for a moment. Ah, that was it. That’s why she had been so alluring to him. She reminded him strongly of the girl from the dream, the one who had been in front of the ocean on the ship. He was fairly certain she was not her, but he at last understood his attraction.
He knew what the dream meant, finally. It was a meddling message sent from deep within, in a dark space he had told himself to forget. He clenched his jaw as he stepped out of the temple and whispered, “No, no. A thousand times no.”