It started even before Raulin handed his invitation to Vanif’s valet standing at the gate. People would eye him, turn to their partner or friend, and begin to whisper about him, eyes flickering back and resting. Who was he? Why was he alone? How did he know Remint? Why didn’t anyone know him?

At this point, he realized It might have been smarter to play Marin as aloof, but the character was established and too late to change. He met curious gazes with smiles and small bows as he made his way through the crowd to the house. As tempted as he was to start making connections, it would be rude to ignore the host.

Vanif was at the top of the stairs, leaning over the balustrade and shouting down to a group below. Corrin was by his side, his notebook tucked underneath his arm and a glass of rosé in the other. Raulin looked around for his wife, who should be at his side, but didn’t see anyone that could be her.

Corrin nudged his employer and used his glass to point at Raulin. “Marin!” Vanif said, his arms open. “Come join me up here!”

As part of Marin’s nescient charm, he got away with presenting the box to the earl instead of placing it in the designated pile in the foyer, and watched eagerly as Vanif ignored the custom as well. He oohed when he opened the box, Corrin leaning in to see what his boss had been presented.

“Are these from Arvonne?’ he asked.

“From Eri Ranvel, my home, though I admit I didn’t carry them here. I hope you enjoy; they are some of my favorites.”

“I’m going to sneak one now,” he said, plucking a bourgainberry truffle from the middle. He had Corrin try a tiny bite before he popped the rest in his mouth. “I can tell you I won’t have anything served tonight nearly as good in quality, though I want you to see if I’m wrong. I haven’t tried everything yet,” he whispered.

“I recall your taste in food being impeccable,” Raulin said. “I’m sure your chefs have made some delicious treats.”

“For what I’m paying, I sure hope so!” he laughed. Raulin laughed with him, though he had no doubt the cost of this party wasn’t much to Vanif.

Taking the comment as a dismissive one, Raulin left to do one of the things he did best: mingle. He’d been trained in it for such a long time that it might have come naturally to him, even though he’d been taught the secret behind it far sooner than joining Arvarikor. That secret was a truth he had seen confirmed on many occasions: people loved to talk about themselves. Oh, there might be a few shrinking violets here and there, dragged to a social occasion by their spouse or an obligation, but the vast majority went to social events to paint themselves in gold leaf and diamonds.

Raulin had a knack for plucking out people who had juicy gossip they were dying to share. It wasn’t always the loudest with the most people around them; quite often these people made the shadows their home and kept a sweeping gaze on the crowd. They tended to be harder to converse with, since they were often shrewd and grew suspicious of too many compliments, but once you were in their good graces the rumors and scandals simply poured from them.

He moved from circle to circle, trying to find that right person. The first group was holding an in-depth conversation on their livelihoods, something to do with positions in the government. One of them might have some juicy gossip, but none seemed interested in speaking to anyone outside their circle. The women on the arms of two of the men looked rather bored and likely were holding internal checks about what kind of glass they were drinking their wine out of or the style of dress people were wearing. The next group were a bunch of very young men that were likely not established enough to offer any worthwhile contacts to Raulin. And lastly for those inside was a couple who were discussing art and seemed more compelled to collect sycophants around them than to hold a conversation.

So, Raulin moved outside, taking a glass of red wine from a servant’s silver platter. Vanif’s garden was much more interesting than the flat beds of flowers mixed with herbs that he had seen at other estates. After strolling on worn pavers for just a few minutes, he came upon a raised platform bordered by moss-covered rocks with a small pond in the middle that trickled down to another small bond. Two curved bridges gave access to the stairs leading up, which he almost took before spotting a woman sitting on a bench below a pergola with wisteria dripping onto the respite. She was fanning her open mouth, a plate of food abandoned next to her.

Raulin luckily tracked down a servant with Queen’s Kisses, a drink served with chocolate liqueur, cream, and pieces of strawberry, and took one for the lady. “Pickled chutney?” he asked as she downed the drink without a word.

“Pickles are not supposed to be that spicy!” she said.

“If it were just pickles, then you would be correct. But, I’ve been told that chutney is a Kintanese word for ‘surprise’. They often load it with basrain, mustard, pepper, chili, or ginger. Perhaps you got one that used all of those.”

The woman coughed, then downed the rest of her drink. “What did you give me?”

“A drink with milk. I find those help best when one is overwhelmed by spices.”

“It was delicious. Perhaps you and I can walk and find another one of those.”

He helped her up from her seat and across the bridge to the pavers. “You’re not from around here,” she said. “I know just about everyone in Vanif’s circles and your accent gives you away.”

“You’d be correct.” Raulin introduced himself and she as Viscountess Vetreya Kior, recently widowed but not obviously mourning nor interested in anything but superficial companionship for the party.

“Seems like quite the tangle overseas,” she said, sipping on another one of the drinks Raulin had procured for her. She stopped for a moment and gave him a weary eye. “I hope you’re not going to ask me for money.”

He grinned. “Only if you want me to.”

“I think not,” she said, but didn’t leave. In fact, she placed one of her gloved hands gently on his arm as they continued their stroll. “My family does well for themselves, but Caspan Woods isn’t the wealthiest of cities, just nearby.”

“’Only a fool measures relationships only in coin’.”

“Oh, who said that? I appreciate philosophy when it suits me.”

“Janes Whitscolm, if I’m not mistaken. I know another man you might like,” he said, thinking of the wizard.

As they passed by trays, Raulin picked milder foods he thought Vetreya would enjoy and spoke of their origin and whether he thought they were tasty or not. In turn, as they passed by groups, the viscountess pointed out certain figures, introducing him to those she thought were important. Several extended invitations to events going on that he wrote in his notebook, one connection being very, very lucky.

He was pleased to have bumped into Vetreya. She was that gossip he had been looking for and spared no kindness for any person, save Vanif as a courtesy for hosting the party. One in particular caught his attention. “Lady Amirelsa,” Vetreya said, nodding her hatted head towards a young, petite woman. “I’m surprised she’s outside her estate, even counting Vanif’s influence. She’s been harangued by some mystery person, who keeps threatening to kill her. He leaves letters written in blood, beheaded birds on her sill, ghastly things like that. I’ve heard the poor dear is starting to lose her hair over it.” Amirelsa appeared pale with dark circles under her eyes, constantly sipping from a glass and casting glances around the party despite a rather imposing man at her arm.

Amirelsa wasn’t a common name and piqued Raulin’s attention. He dwelt on it while she introduced him to anyone else left in the yard. “I’m sure you have others to see,” she said as they finally came back around to the bridged pond.

“Only if you do,” he said.

“No, but I think I’d like to sit and enjoy some of this food we’ve collected. I’m sure I’ll see you around if my help has done anything.”

“It’s greatly appreciated. I’ll be sure to bring you only the best when I see you again.”

He entered Vanif’s house once more and found a powder room. He pulled his notebook from his breast pocket and flipped to the pages of the contracts in New Wextif. As suspected, Amirelsa was the subject of one, a young woman who needed to know the name of her stalker before she was killed by him. Perfect. He could get a leg up and start this one tonight.

As he left, he bumped into a woman he swore was Anladet for one brief second. “Excuse me,” he said, stepping out of her way. The dark-haired woman, far too refined and restricted to bear Anla’s wild aura, looked him up and down quickly, then dismissed him before stepping into the lavatory.

Amirelsa hadn’t moved and was listening to a man talk about his trip across the Gamik Sea. He inched closer and closer to her, until the man’s story was interrupted when Raulin was grabbed by the arm and tossed away. “Leave,” the man beside her said.

Raulin dusted his clothing and stood straight as Amirelsa chastised her guard. “It’s a party, for the gods’ sake. He’s allowed to be near me.”

“He was too close.”

“I apologize,” she said, addressing the group.

Raulin held up his hand quickly and turned to listen to the man continue, who seemed lost in his place. He heard a sigh as Amirelsa approached him. “And to you, personally.”

“It means nothing,” he said, making his accent stronger.

“May I ask your name?”

He turned towards her and bowed, giving his false credentials. “I was listening to this gentleman because I recently traveled across the Gamik and was wondering if he fared better then I did. I got stuck in a storm and was sick for days!”

“Terrible to hear it,” she said, then turned to her guard and spoke quietly. “See, it’s not him.”

“Not me? May I ask who I am not?”

“No one,” her guard growled.

She moved away from the group and Raulin pursued. The guard turned and shoved him with the heel of his hand. Raulin started to twist out of this attack instinctively, but realized it would look suspicious if he did it too well, so he stumbled a bit to compensate. “I apologize. I thought maybe I could help her.”

“Just stay away,” the guard said again and the two left. They didn’t appear to be leaving the party, but Raulin felt his chances for the evening had been dashed. Alone for a moment, he realized the situation would have been handled better by a member of the gentler sex. Yet another push into something he felt was almost inevitable.

As he pondered whether to attempt speaking to the guard, he heard the light clinking of metal on glass from inside the house. He and everyone else meandered in and after five minutes or so, Vanif had his audience. He stood again on his mezzanine overlooking the crowd, Corrin by his side and the woman he had bumped into earlier in the gathered crowd behind the earl.

“Thank you all for coming to my birthday soiree,” he began and the crowd quieted. “I hope you all have enjoyed yourself and the company of my loved ones on my thirtieth. A big one, or so they say. If age is an indication of successful benchmarks, I see only good things in the future!” The party-goers cheered at this.

“I’m not the only one celebrating tonight. Abscale’s heir was married last week to a charming young lady who’ll no doubt bring lovely grandchildren to the house in no time. Kitsco recently purchased an estate in Aviz. I hope this means you won’t be leaving us, Kitsco! And where is Marin?” Vanif swept the crowd with his drink until he spotted Raulin in the crowd. “Marin! Which birthday is it for you today?”

“Twenty-seven,” he shouted up.

“Twenty-seven! You have three more years until you reach the celebrated heights I’m at!” The crowd laughed again. Someone yelled something about it being as easy as walking up the stairs and the crowd laughed again. “Good idea! Join me, Marin.” Raulin was left with no choice but to hustle up the stairs and join his friend. “Well, plenty to celebrate tonight. Congratulations to all with blessings, happy birthday to my friend Marin, and happy birthday to me, as well! Cheers!”

The crowd tipped back their goblets. “You’re too kind,” Raulin said as soon as he was finished.

“Nonsense,” Vanif responded. “It’s a night to celebrate and only a fool thinks celebrations are about one person.”

Raulin still bowed from his neck and turned to face that young woman he had seen earlier. “My lord, you didn’t introduce me to your friend. I believe I acted rudely to him earlier this evening.”

“You’re right. Gretza, this is my friend Marin Liasorn, Count of Aubrige in Arvonne. Marin, this is my wife, Gretza, from the Tribelta clan near Hanala.”

The name sounded familiar, though he’d never met her before. He was sure of that. He took her hand to kiss it and she smoothly yanked her hand back so he was left kissing her fingers.  This was a sign that she was interested in more than a formal relationship. He looked up quickly, wondering if this was an accident, but her appraising look and smirk made him certain of her intention. “A count from Arvonne. I’ve always felt poorly about the Coup.”

Raulin straightened. “It pleases me to hear you call it that. The new government calls it ‘the Revolution’ and it smears the spilled blood of my people across the tongues who speak of it that way.”

“How fares the country?”

“Poorly. The government exists to make the government richer and to hell with everyone else. No one will trade with a country that has no king, therefore there are plenty of goods our fine craftsmen make that rots in warehouses. The people grow poorer, the rich grow richer, and no one will save the land.”

“You, though, are trying to? I hear you are here to gather funds.” She sipped on her champagne as she looked up through her thick lashes.

“I am trying. If I can secure assistance, we might be able to hire people to storm the capital and retake the throne.” It was hard for Raulin not to choke on the absurdity of those words.

“I wish you luck, then. We’ll be seeing you again, yes?”

She placed her arm on her husband’s shoulder and he turned back from the conversation he had been holding. “Yes, of course. I’m holding a little charity event next Wednesday. I hope you’ll come.”

“I thought this was a charity event,” he replied and Vanif laughed.

“What I mean is a quiet little affair with cards and games that no one will tell the king or the Cumber about so I don’t have to pay taxes.”

“Ah, I see. I shall have to make an appearance, then, though I hope to make a profit so that I can give to the reclamation effort.”

Raulin left later that evening and rode to the ember man’s to get his affects and to change out of the expensive clothing he didn’t own. It had been a good evening. Even if he had just gotten his face noticed, it would have been a great social event, but he had achieved far more than that There were plenty of balls and parties to attend, one being held by a man he needed to steal from. That was fortuitous. He had slipped up with Lady Amirelsa, but it hadn’t been important to get her input at that moment. He could achieve his job without speaking to her ever again.

He unlocked the room at the hotel and was surprised to see Anla already asleep in his bed. He was unsure what that was about, but found he didn’t care that much. He got ready for bed, put his mask aside, and fell asleep quickly.

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