In regards to the competition, not much changed for Raulin.  He continued to chat with Anladet as often as he had been, talking about the same things, and keeping things as chaste as they had been.  It was how things had been when the wizard had made the assumption that he had ulterior motives, that the trirec had been embarking on some process to bed Anla.  He had been surprised at that; it had been the furthest thing from his mind. But since he’d had a few discussions with Telbarisk over his actions towards her, perhaps Al’s assertation hadn’t been far off the mark.

So, he chatted with Anla and flirted and joked just as he had.  She loved hearing about the places he had been and the people he had met.  He told her about some of his more memorable heists and his most daring escapes, complete with humorous anecdotes when applicable.

And she enjoyed it.  Raulin had spoken to enough people in his life to know the difference between polite indifference and engagement.  If she was faking interest, she was the best he had ever seen. Her eyes had twinkled with mischief when he had told her about having to run naked from a countess’s manor to escape being caught by her husband.  She asked questions about the details of a wonderful performance of dancers he had seen in Hiben, of all places, making him remember the colors, the music, the moment he held his breath in awe.  And he had even caught her almost grabbing his arm during a tense story of the time he found himself falling from a cliff hundreds of feet to a shallow river.

Anla pulled her hand back.  “How did you survive that?

“Quick wit, dazzling reflexes, and remembering that I am the best lassoer in the world.” He mimicked tossing a rope and yanking.

“But, didn’t that hurt?” she asked.

“Exquisitely.  Yanked my shoulders almost out of the sockets and then smacked hard against a boulder.  I had bruises on the left side of my body for weeks.”

“Ooh,” she said, “that could have been worse, though.”

“It was, apparently, a soft boulder.”

She laughed.  “It must have been a delicate-tite.”

“Cute. I like it.”

She looked up at him and smiled.  “You know, I’m happy you haven’t been lying.  Maybe a little embellishment, some artful carving of certain details, but overall you haven’t told me any stories that aren’t true.”

“Why make up things when you can draw from so many great ones that are true?”

She shrugged.  “Protection, I would think.  I remember how you feel about your past.”

“Distant past.  Anything before my time at Arvarikor is a void in recollection.  Anything after is occasionally censored, but open.”

“How would you feel if I guessed? About your past, I mean.”

“I would be extremely impressed.  I doubt anyone would ever guess the specifics of my childhood.”

“I could try.  Let me see your hand.”

“Oh, yes.  I had forgotten you did that.  I spent several engaging hours watching you read other people’s palms.  I am curious what you can get from it.”

She held up his hand as they paused in their walk of the Birchik Highway.  They would catch up to Al and Telbarisk after they were done. “I read runes better than palms, since I did a lot more of the first.  I’d still like to try.”

“Why?” he asked.

“Because your stories are interesting, but they don’t tell me who you are, just what you’ve done.”

“No, I meant why don’t you read palms?”

“Runes aren’t personal.  I grab a few from my pouch and say some things and it’s done.  Men can get the wrong impression when you touch them.”

“What kind of impression should I be getting from this?” he asked, gesturing to her tracing of his palm.

“That I’m interested in who you are,” she said, not taking her eyes off his hand.  “Your head line is strong, but your life and heart lines are fragmented.  Even still, it has a distinctive fork, as if there is a great decision you will have to make.”

A chill ran down Raulin’s spine.  No sun backlighting her, no ocean nearby, and that wasn’t exactly the phrase.  It’s not her. “Soon, or later on in my life?”

“It’s hard to tell.  This line has a few loops, meaning big events in your life.  If this loop was when you were ten, then this seems like it’s about a third through your life.  Perhaps twenty-five?”

“So, I may have already made the decision?  I’m twenty-six.”

“Perhaps.” She looked closer.  “Of course, once you make this decision, you should be wary of something else.  Something happens and someone does something major.  You see this line right here?  It comes from nowhere and shifts your whole life line.  It feeds into it, so I would say someone saves your life.”

“What else could it be?”

“Marriage, but I’m again using outside information to steer my guesses.  Your heart line doesn’t support it anyway.  You have lots of lines feathering into it, many loves, but at some point you either find someone or stop looking.  It’s hard to tell; it’s very messy.  If you do get married, it will definitely not be a normal marriage.”

“How so?”

“Well, I usually see lines like that on sailors.  They are married, but they are at sea for months at a time.  It’s a different arrangement from the norm.”

“I see.  Could it mean something else, then?  It doesn’t make much sense for my circumstances.”

“A partnership, an arrangement of some kind.  Your heart line speaks of friendships as well as romance.”


He was about to pull his hand back when she pulled it in for a closer look. “You have that same star I do, on the base of your pointer finger.” She held her hand up next to his.  “It has something to do with a connection to the gods somehow.  I don’t remember which god was that one.”

“Thank you,” he said.  “I appreciate these readings you do.”

“You know how I feel about them.  I would accept your thanks if I felt that I was doing something more than giving hope or confidence.”

“Again, I think you’re selling yourself short.”

*          *          *

“Wow, you’re actually by yourself,” Al said, handing Raulin a bowl of stew.

“Yes, I spend time alone frequently,” he responded.  He took the bowl of stew and unclicked his mask, setting it aside before he smelled dinner.  “Thank you, Wizard.  It smells good.”

“You’re welcome,” he mumbled.  “Do you think you could spend less time with Anla?  If I don’t have any time with her, I can’t win this competition.”

“So, I’m not exactly motivated to change things…”

“But, it’s not fair!  You’d be cheating.”

Raulin slurped the broth.  “It’s not cheating if I’m still obeying the one rule, which is just ‘get a kiss from her’.  I could actually trick her into kissing me and I’d still be within boundaries.”

Al scoffed.  “You would.”

“I wouldn’t, actually.  There’s a difference between winning and succeeding.  Only one of those is worth savoring.”

“If you get a kiss from her because you hogged all her time and elbowed me out, is that winning or succeeding?”

Raulin grinned at his words.  “Winning.  Which is why I’m going to not only give you more opportunities with her, but I’m going to help you.”

This took Al a few moments to consider.  “You’re saying that I’m a bumbling idiot when it comes to women?  I’ll have you know that I’ve had more success in love than you have over the last ten years.”

“Yes, but did you savor your successes?” Raulin chewed on a piece of pork while Al thought about this.  “I’m not saying that you don’t have your own way of charming ladies, Wizard.  I bet you’ve had plenty of beaus and trysts since Amandorlam. But, I’ve been trained to woo women a thousand different ways and I have done so dozens and dozens of times.  This competition would be like a running a race with a one-legged man.”

“I’m not a…”

“Okay,” Raulin said, holding up a hand.  “Bad analogy.  How about a wizard versus a regular man?”

“So I’m not a professional paramour.  So what?  Women love men who trip over their tongues and make fools of themselves all the time.”

“Perhaps in those books you read.  Books are written for two reasons: to instruct or to give hope.  Those books give hope to those who feel they have no chance at a happy life with someone else.  Instead of reading, they should be out practicing.”

“Practicing what?  You make it sound like there are schools that teach lessons on the best way to kiss a lady’s hand or the proper time to introduce her to your friends.”

“There is.  It’s called ‘life’.  You go out and speak with people, talk with women, find out what works and what doesn’t.  And you learn.”

Al shook his head and sat.  “You are assuming that everyone out there has that capability.  It’s the same as other forms of learning.  Some people at Amandorlam spent hours, days even, studying for classes and failed.  Some didn’t even show for the class and got perfect marks.  I did well, but I needed to attend classes and study hard for tests.”

“Maybe you’re right; maybe some people can’t ever grasp social graces.  But, you just said you weren’t in the hopeless group, so you can be taught.”

Al’s eyes narrowed.  “You want to teach me to, what, level the playing field?  That’s awfully kind of you.  I think it seems more likely, however, that you’re going to poison the well, to give me bad advice in order to win.”

“Oh.  Hmm. That sounds tricksy and, again, I don’t do ‘tricksy’, Wizard.  Besides, I’m giving you advice.  You are more than welcome to take it or leave it.  I won’t be insulted.”

“Okay,” Al said with a dubious tone, “let’s see what this advice is like.”

“Let’s see what I’m working with here.” He mopped the rest of the stew with his hunk of bread and set both aside when he was finished.  “Name a situation when it’s appropriate to approach a woman and what you might say when you do.”

“There are…a lot.”

“Just pick one.”

“Okay,” Al said, thinking a little before he responded.  “Continuing on my last example, as a student at Amandorlam, I could approach another student in my class.  I would discuss something neutral, like what the subject matter was.  If she seemed receptive and engaged, then I would talk about a few more neutral things before asking if she would like to go some place public to talk one-on-one, like a café or a park during the day.”

“It’s a bit fast, maybe, but all right.  No compliments, though?”

“Well, of course, though you don’t want too many too quickly.  It comes across as too strong.”

“Very good.  But, you’re beyond that; you’ve known Anladet for some weeks now.  What sort of compliments would you give her?”

“I would tell her that she’s pretty.”

“You and every other man, including the blind ones.  Imagine she has many suitors all clamoring for her attention. Stand above the crowd.  Tell her something personal or something that connects the two of you.”

“Well, I’ve noticed she’s gained a little weight since we met.  She looks better, healthier.”

Al hadn’t even finished before Raulin was shaking his head.  “No, no, no.  You never mention a lady’s weight.  Women are either skinny tramps or too plump to fit into their corsets.  They are never happy with their size and you will never give them the right compliment.”

“But, what if they are a ‘skinny tramp’.  Wouldn’t you always want to say they’re looking healthy and fit?”

“That might work, but it’s quite a gamble. One of the best rules I learned was always avoid using compliments you would also give a horse.”

“I’d think a skinny tramp would love any compliment given to her.  Why can’t I tell her she’s a great runner or that she has nice teeth?”

“It makes her sound like an object you would buy.  Even though you do purchase her time, you should never make the most destitute of people feel worse.  Besides,” he said, smirking to himself, “you never look gifted whores in the mouth.”

“So, what compliments would you give Anladet, then?”

“Haven’t quite reached that decision, actually.  I’m not starved for time, so I’m going slowly.  I think she is amused more than flattered by flowery prose; she doesn’t roll her eyes, but she doesn’t take it seriously, either.  I seem to be making some headway with complimenting her talents, but she seems uncertain with some of her abilities.”

“It would be a good idea to make her feel more confident, then?  Compliment her a little on her cooking and I’ll win?”

“Wizard…” He held up his empty bowl.  “You’re a good cook.  You’re a good cook because she is and she showed you a few things.  I’m also a good cook and I’m sure once Telbarisk gets a handle on Ghenian food he’ll do splendidly.  Sort of a dime a dozen, if you ask me, but go right ahead and compliment her on her culinary expertise.

“What I meant was her magic and her piscarin talents.  She’s very good at telling fortunes and surprisingly versed in baerdic ways, especially for someone who’s had no formal training and barely has a grasp on what it the possibilities are.  She seems most pleased by the praise I’ve given her for that.  She doesn’t deflect it or step around it; she considers it.

“Which is why I knew from the beginning of this little game that I would win.  I can take all the time I want with Anla because this game isn’t about me and you; it’s about you and her.  You may find her pretty.  You may enjoy her company.  You may even appreciate your friendship with her, but you don’t respect her.  She’s still a half-elven woman with abominable powers and disgusting survival techniques to you.  And she will never love a man who doesn’t respect her.”

Raulin stood and dusted off the back of his pants.  “I can teach you everything I know and it still won’t help you win.  So, that’s my advice to you, actually; learn to understand her and then, and only then, will you succeed.”

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