9-2

Whether they hid themselves well enough or the marquess fully understood what kind of war he could be starting, they were left alone for the following days. They made good time and hit the border of Courmet halfway through the third day.

“Congratulations, Telbarisk,” Raulin said as they passed under the wooden gate. “You’ve made it to your second duchy.”

“Is this a great honor, when Ghenians move from duchy to duchy?”

“No,” Al said. “I went from Quisset to Eerie to Courmet when I was fifteen, to go to school in Amandorlam. There was no one waiting for me at the train station. No one paid any attention to me; Raulin’s joking.”

“Ah,” he said, a little disappointed.  “When we move from the Valley of the Cold Winds to the Rocky Glens, there are people there who usually greet us or at least wave.”

“That’s probably because you’re a prince.  And that’s from one country to another; duchies are all part of Gheny.  There’s nowhere you can go in Liyand that will bring you to another land where the king doesn’t rule.”

Anladet cleared her throat.  “I know of a few places.”

“Yes, but your people don’t have kings or any sort of central government.  They’re more likely to take someone hostage than welcome them.”

“I feel like the same would happen in reverse,” she said frostily.

“You’ve spoken of the train before,” Tel said, feeling it was a good time to change the subject.  “I’ve only seen the tracks. When will I see one?”

Raulin joined in on the distraction. “They go by quickly and only at certain times. I’m sure you’ll see a bunch in the central station in New Wextif.”

“Station. That’s where the trains stay?”

“Yes. There’s probably a dozen or so there at any give time.”

“I think I’d like to see the trains, if it’s all right.”

“I think we can make a stop for you. You’ll see quite a few of the trolleys around, too. They’re like smaller trains. They run throughout New Wextif, so that people can get across town much faster.”

“Little trains. I see. I will have to wait, then.”

They stopped for lunch just off the Birchik Highway. Al had picked up a few pointers from Anla on cooking and was now in charge of meals. It was a good position for him; he was often tasked with shopping, so he knew what was needed and how much food he needed. His mid-meals at Jindahl and Stohr had also given him insight into vegetarian food, which helped when thinking of things to make for Telbarisk. Through trial and error, he had learned which types of foods carried and kept well and which should be eaten first.

Al had recently discovered that leaves could be stuffed with cheese, diced tomatoes, meats, and a number of other things, then wrapped into a little pouch. It was a nice change from bread trenchers or bowls of stew, even though the leaves were inedible. He’d considered lettuce, but knew it wilted too quickly and ripped too easily, so he had stuck with collecting the large fig leaves and using those.

He had finished assembling the ones with shredded chicken and was making the vegetarian ones for Tel when he looked up and scowled. Anla had been seated on a large rock, alone, before Raulin had decided he was entitled to her company and sat next to her. There wasn’t even enough room! He was leaning more than sitting, having some difficulty balancing while using both hands to eat his leaf pockets.

Al realized this had been going on since Miachin. Now that Raulin was speaking to them again and had gotten into Anla’s good graces, he was insinuating himself into her life. They traveled side-by-side on the road, speaking of whatever they saw or some story in their pasts. They ate meals together. They had been up speaking during watches, even when one was set to take their turn later.

Al had assumed that Raulin had made amends in some extreme way, perhaps by buying something expensive or by making great promises. Maybe Anla had even used her sorcery on him, making him more pleasant, though not to Al. Raulin was still his same irritating self.

It didn’t matter. Raulin said little to Al and Al refused to speak to Raulin until he apologized for tricking him. Anla and Tel hadn’t stopped talking to Al, and so if Raulin was trying to drive a wedge between them, it wasn’t working.

He was going to ignore the whole thing when he remembered something Aggie had once told him about his relationships with women. If he had been trying to court someone and, after a few days they were still on the same level, he would drop his communication with her to almost nothing.

“Wouldn’t that make her lose interest?” he had asked his friend.

“Sometimes. And then again, sometimes it will drive them crazy. ‘What did I do?’ they’ll think. ‘Did I say something? Did I upset him?’. And then they’ll seek me out. I’ll be cordial, cool to them. They’ll cling to me. And then they’ll do anything to get me to forgive them.”

It had made sense, in Aggie’s way. Al had even thought it was a clever plan at the time. But, seeing Anladet as victim of this tactic made him angry.

He waited until Anla had gone to wash her hands and approached Raulin. His hand was halfway to his mouth with his lunch when Raulin noticed he had company. “Yes, Wizard?”

“I know what you’re doing.”

“Having a delicious lunch prepared by master in the culinary arts?”

“Seducing Anla!”

Raulin put his lunch down and looked around him for a few moments. “Is this because I was sitting close to her?”

“Not just that! It’s been the last few days. The two of you are as thick as thieves.”

“Now, Wizard, there’s no need for name calling. I would hope you would have enjoyed my wit and banter enough to consider me anything but thick.”

“I’m not joking, Raulin! You’re luring her in with a game of hot and cold. You befriended her, then shut her out, and now she’s come to you and you’re letting her back in at her expense.”

“That’s not what’s happening,” Raulin said quietly.

“That is precisely what’s happening and I won’t stand by while you hurt her. I want you to stop your games and leave her alone.”

“Wizard, don’t you think she’s old enough to make decisions on her own? She’s not some stupid, doe-eyed girl who falls for the first man who kisses her hand. She is a capable woman who’s seen a lot and understands that she doesn’t need a man to survive in the world. I would have a hard time seeing her get her heart broken.”

“She is an unmarried woman. And since her family is dead, I’ve decided I will act in their stead to protect her…”

“Oh! That’s very benevolent of you, Wizard. Have you asked her if that’s what she wants?”

“It’s a man’s duty to protect the interests and virtue of a woman.”

Raulin rubbed his chin. “Huh. I don’t think Tichen actually said that.”

“He didn’t. It’s common practice where I’m from. So, stay away from her.”

Al turned to return to clean up from lunch when Raulin said, “Now, hold on. Since you said it’s a man’s duty to protect an unmarried woman, I’ve decided to throw in my gauntlet. I contest that she’s a free woman and should be able to make her own choices.”

“No, you’re not listening to me!” He wiped his mouth in frustration. “This isn’t a matter concerning her. This is between us. I am stepping in on her behalf to police my gender on matters regarding her.”

“I don’t see a difference. You’re still not allowing her to make her own choice here.”

“She shouldn’t even be put in that position. How about this: we’ll settle this as men usually do.”

Al rolled up the sleeves of his tunic and lifted his fists. Raulin stood, but kept his fists by his side.

“Wizard, I’m not going to fight you, as interesting as that would be. It’s rather unfair; one punch from you in the Unease and you’ll break my mask, never mind what you’d do to my face.  It’s an uneven affair, don’t you think?

“But, if you want some sort of a settlement between us, then why not a contest? That’s fair. First to win Anladet’s affections means that man’s philosophy will be put into place. Either I will leave her alone or you will let me befriend her.”

“That’s fair,” Al said and made to shake hands.

“Ah,” Raulin said, “before we agree. Let’s make it interesting. If I win, you have to be quiet for one full day.”

“If you win, you…you have to take off your mask.”

“Deal,” Raulin said, shaking Al’s hand.

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