Telbarisk had been good for making Al feel calmer about his situation, but didn’t give him an answer as to what he should do. Anla had been better.
“Al, why is it that you never apply your calculating knowledge to yourself?” she asked after he had finished talking about Burdet and Marnie and what he should do for them.
“What do you mean?”
“I’ve seen you tear apart laws and contracts trying to find the loophole, sometimes to brilliant success. But when it comes down to one you’ve entered yourself, you refuse to apply your cold logic to it. Look, you got married on Ap Jorsen’s Day, yes?”
“That’s…Aliorna’s lover, right?”
“So, you two married for love. That’s what your marriage contract was based on?”
“I don’t…yes, I think so. ‘Til our love runs dry’ or something like that.”
“And neither of you loves each other?”
“Anla, it’s not meant to be taken literally…”
“Just like the ‘wizards can’t communicate with family after graduating’ law?”
“No, you’re expected in excess of your promise. You’re married until you stop loving each other, but if that fails, you’re still expected to stay married.”
“Expected, but not authorized?”
“I never married her with the understanding that things were always going to be wonderful, just the hope.”
“Really?” she said, folding her arms. “You, the man who still thinks there’s a prince somewhere who didn’t die as a child and is waiting to return to his throne when the time is right has no hope in something much more common and mundane?”
“Arvonne is in terrible shape, but it hasn’t collapsed completely. It’s speculated that the reason is because at least one from the monarchy still lives, otherwise the whole country would…”
“Al. Did you expect marital bliss when you married Burdet? Honestly.”
He sighed. “Yes.”
“And you realized at some point that love was broken?”
“I’m pretty sure it dawned on me when she said she was pregnant with another man’s child.”
“Don’t get sassy; I’m trying to help you. In my eyes your contract was broken at that point. I’m sure in a lot of other people’s eyes, it would be broken, too.”
“But abandoning her isn’t the right thing.”
“You’re right,” she said. “Abandoning someone after you’ve caused problems isn’t fair.”
“So, you agree that I’m in the wrong?”
“No. You didn’t cause her problems. From what you’ve said before, she would rather drink and socialize than take care of her child. And she made an extended mistake with someone that caused your step-daughter to be conceived. That person abandoned his child. You put a lot of time and money into Marnie when you didn’t have to; she’s not yours. But you did anyway. And you put up with a lot from your ex-wife. Why can’t the man who is Marnie’s father finally take over?”
She left sometime during his extended silence as he pondered what she had said. When he realized what time it was, he stumbled from his room and made his way to the entrance of the hotel.
“Going shopping?” Raulin asked from the chair in the parlor.
“Yes,” Al replied.
“Clothes again, I suppose?”
“Torn between two scarves.” If Raulin asked him any more questions, he didn’t hear him. He left the hotel.
Al needed more time to think, so he took a longer way to the bar where he was going to meet Aggie. Two streets from his destination had a clock on the side of an important building, or a building made important by the contraption. He was twenty minutes late, a half-hour later than he’d ever been, and he couldn’t muster the energy to care about it.
Aggie was sitting in one of the booths they usually picked looking annoyed. He was already three-quarters done with his beer. Al slid into the bench and Aggie looked up, suddenly very happy to see him. “Hey, buddy. I didn’t think you were coming.”
“Ran late. Did you get anything for me?”
“Oh, uh, no.” After a few awkward moments, he went to the bar and brought him back his own mug. “There we go. Your favorite.”
“Caudet is my favorite drink, not Chapman’s Water.”
“Oh,” he said, standing once more to get a drink at the bar. Al slid the mug over and sat back.
Aggie returned with a glass of blood red wine and watched as Al held the base and swirled, smelling the bouquet before sipping. “Ah, good vintage,” he said.
“What’s with the wine? Is this something you picked up on the road?”
“No, I’ve always liked Caudet.”
“Huh. Why didn’t you ever tell me?”
“Because you never asked.” He continued sipping, smacking his mouth to enhance the taste.
“Are you all right? You’re acting a bit odd.”
“I’ve been thinking, that’s all.”
“You do that well!” Aggie said with a friendly smile. It dropped when he realized Al was not returning it.
“I’ve always told myself you’re a good friend, Aggie,” he began. “You would take me out after work, to relax and chat about things. And I appreciate that. But, why did I always pay? Why did we always talk about your affairs? Why did you always drag me into your trouble?”
Aggie scowled. “Because you had more money than I did and your life was boring.”
“I didn’t, though, and it wasn’t. And even if it was, maybe listening when I did have something going on would have been nice.”
“If it bothered you so much, why didn’t you say anything? I thought the way things were was fine.”
“I let it be fine, sure, but you’re not socially inept. I’m not going to accept that you don’t know how to be a decent friend.”
Aggie sipped on his beer, thinking for a few moments, then relaxing into something cheery. “Why don’t you tell me what you want.”
“I want to do something other than drinking.”
“Not a problem. What do you want to do?”
“I don’t know,” he said, trying to think of something Aggie might like. “A wizard sporting event.”
“They do a lot of drinking there,” he said, laughing. “Speaking of which, you should drink up. I’m paying tonight, so take advantage of the free wine.”
Al only sipped. “I want you to pay attention to me and not just talk about your mistresses all the time.”
“Yeah, you said that. I guess I haven’t been a great friend. I’m sorry. We can start tonight, if you want. Tell me about what you’ve been up to over the summer.”
“And…and I want you to take care of Marnie.”
Aggie blinked a few times. “Who’s Marnie?”
“She’s your daughter.”
“Al, I don’t have a daughter, just the boys.” He paused for a few moments, then laughed lightly. “You’re talking about one of my bastards. Those women I date always find some poor sap to take care of them. Don’t worry about it.”
Al almost choked on his wine. “Aggie, I was one of those ‘poor saps’.”
“What? What do you mean? I thought you’d been married for a while.”
“My wife’s name, my ex-wife’s name, is Burdet. I never introduced you two, but you somehow managed to introduce yourselves. She cheated on me, with you, and got pregnant a little over two years ago. Your daughter’s name is Marnie. She’s a great kid. You should at least see your daughter.”
Aggie sat back in the booth, stunned. “Burdet…she didn’t tell me. We fizzled out a while ago and…I didn’t know, Al.”
“I figured you didn’t. And it’s not like I’m angry about it. Things had been poor between Burdet and myself and I knew the child wasn’t mine from the beginning, so I was never really cuckolded in the ornithological sense of the word. She’s my step-daughter and I love her, but she needs you in her life, now.”
“Are they okay?”
“Not really. Burdet’s sick and they’re living in Coggin’s Rails in a one-room apartment.”
Aggie winced. “Well, if you come back you…” He stopped for a moment. “You know what, you’re right. I should at least take care of…Marnie, yes? Marnie. I’ll go looking for them and give them some money tomorrow.”
He stood. “I’m going to go hit the head. We can go for a walk once you finish your glass and talk about things.”
Al nodded, feeling good about the situation. He’d thought it was going to be much harder than that to convince Aggie to change. For a brief moment, he actually considered returning to Whitney. Things weren’t going to be as bad as he’d thought.
“You need to leave, Wizard. Now.”
Al turned to look over the back of the booth and saw Raulin peeking over. “Why did you follow me? Again?”
“Because a man who never lies is unpracticed and generally bad at it, and you were acting suspicious. Again. And despite us knowing the truth behind our agreement, I am still your guard. Tonight I am guarding you from making mistakes.”
“I am out having drinks with a friend. That’s all.”
“Then why lie?” When Al said nothing, Raulin continued. “It’s because you know this is dangerous.”
“Because you fled this city a wanted man. And if I’m not mistaken, you still hold the item you stole. That might not be a problem, if you’re quiet about it. But, you decided to visit your friend and your ex-wife, two people too many, if you ask me.”
“Neither of them would betray me,” he said quickly, but without conviction.
“I don’t think your ex-wife would, despite what riches it might bring her, but this friend of yours is too nice. I’ve heard you speak of him; people don’t change that quickly. He’s looking to get you drunk and keep you by his side. Why?”
Al suddenly felt cold. “I don’t know.”
“Let’s play it safe, then. Leave, out the back. If you bump into him again, make some excuse as to why you left early. I’ll meet you at the hotel.”
Al scanned the room quickly, though he didn’t notice Raulin leave. Nothing seemed strange. Aggie was still gone, but that wasn’t abnormal. Maybe Raulin was being hyper vigilant.
He pushed open the back door to the alley and saw it was clear. He relaxed, put on his coat, and was about to turn the corner to the street when he heard a familiar voice. “.rd Gray, I think we need to have a talk.”