“Chigrant,” Iyessa said as Raulin sat down.

“Chigrant, really? And here I thought I knew my stoneworkers.”

“He’s a local artist based in Kikiyan, a friend of my lord’s.”

“Hmm, I might have to look him up and ask him for some pointers. Chocolate-covered peanuts?” he asked, holding a small burlap sack with the candy.

She took one, her mouth curling into a mischievous smile. “Do you like sweets or is this because Caudin gave Asuedet the same thing on their first date in Temper and Temperance?”

“I like sweets,” he said, but returned the smile.

Their conversation steered towards alley novels, not surprisingly. Raulin felt less interest in it than the day before, but then again, he wasn’t making idle conversation for his benefit. He sat and watched as she discussed the same things the wizard would and realized what a difference charisma made. And perhaps attraction.

He walked her back to work, where she casually mentioned some of the finer stone work in the house. Marble fireplaces, granite balusters fixed with gold, a table in the grand dining room made of a solid slab of quartz. He let his eyes sparkle as she teased him about it.

“What I wouldn’t give to run my fingers over them,” he said.

Iyessa said nothing, but gave a far away mischievous smile he was beginning to understand was part of her fiber.

When they reached the corner again, he asked, “I don’t suppose you know of any good places for a nice meal? Perhaps one that will have a lovely woman there who loves to read?”

“Oh, I know of one such place,” she said, “and it’s not too far from here. Griesk has great stuffed pastas and caubidrem and it’s three blocks down and two blocks over on this very road ahead of us. And I heard there will be a lady there of the description you gave at about 6:30 this evening.”

“Then I’ll be there, waiting for her and the caubidrem. More for one than the other.” Again, he kissed the back of her hand before watching her saunter past the guards into the estates.

She arrived a few minutes late (not that Raulin was surprised), her auburn locks half upand her dress a deep green with a tartan apron in the maltan fashion. Dinner was delicious and pleasant, though she became thoughtful as they ate dessert.

“I’d love to know what’s on your mind,” he asked, sipping his steel wine.

“I was thinking,” she began, “that while I don’t have any marble fireplaces or even a stone sconce in my apartment, I’d still like to show you it.”

“I can withhold my pretension easily and enjoy the company I’m with, not the things I’m surrounded by.”

He paid for dinner, waited for the right moment to kiss her, and walked with her to her place. “I’m sure every woman says this, but I don’t usually do this,” Iyessa said as she unlocked her door.

“You don’t seem like that type of woman,” he assured her. Maybe that was true, but he’d known enough who’d said that line that he knew did that. It mattered little to him, but he was sure a great deal to her. He had no need to tarnish her reputation, at least as much as possible.

She closed the door behind them and lit the candelabra on the dresser to her apartment, a two room home of a bedroom and a sitting room. Clothing was strewn about and piles of books were everywhere, but she didn’t seem concerned by it.

He gave her a few moments after she was done before he kissed her again, gently backing her into her bedroom. She was pliant, returning his kisses just as deeply, holding him just as tightly. When the back of her legs hit her bed, she laid down, grabbing his shirt and pulling him down with her.

After, when her hair was splayed on her pillow and her chest rising and falling to catch her breath, she said, “Tomorrow.”

“Lunch?” he asked, rolling to his side to look at her, wincing at the pain in his shoulder.

She thought about this, biting her lip. “Yes, but across the street from the estate.”

Raulin smirked at this, then began to dress gingerly. “I’ll see you then,” he said, once his glasses and sling were back on.

He awoke the next morning in the hotel with the odd presence of being watched. Anla’s head was pressed into his back, her arm draped around him and her hand dangerously close to his waist. He didn’t want to move, but he finally noticed a dark shape in the room and realized Al was watching him sleep. He startled and Anla awoke, too.

“Wizard?” he asked.

“What passes?” she asked, yawning.

“The wizard is just standing here, watching us.”

“How long has he been there?” Anla threw her shirt on and hopped out of the four-poster bed.

“I don’t know.”

She guided Al back to the davenport and tucked him in, though he seemed to resist her help.

Raulin had already curled up under the blankets, since it was far too early to wake, but he had trouble falling back asleep. He awoke sometime in the late morning, Anla gone and breakfast left on the table for him. He ate everything available, highly suspecting that there would be no lunch.

He leaned against the wall across the way from the Cosilly estate at noon. Not five minutes later did he see Iyessa emerge from the front door and walk to the front. She spoke with the guards for a few minutes, a lively affair that started with shaken heads and crossed arms and ended with arms thrown in the air. The situation had needed a woman’s touch; he’d seen his own mother wear his father down to exasperated agreement like that on more than a few occasions.

She waved him over and he waited until a passing carriage went by before making his way to the front gate. “This the guy?” one of the guards asked.

“Yes,” Iyessa said. “Don’t give him grief; he’ll be gone as soon as he can fix the mantle in the master suite.”

“Why doesn’t he have any tools with him?”

Raulin hated observant guards. At least Iyessa was thinking ahead and came up with a clever response. “He already dropped them off this morning when Dengar and Alick were on duty. He was working with his boss on another project and wanted to get going quickly before you-know-who returns tomorrow.”

“Just be more careful, Essa. I don’t know why or how you were carrying a hundred pound planter, but they’ll dismiss you if you keep breaking things.”

“I know, Grith,” she said, patting him on the cheek. “This way the master doesn’t have to know.”

Raulin was let past the guards and Iyessa walked quickly to the front door. “Did you really chip the mantle?”

“No,” she said, opening the door, “but they don’t need to know that.”

This was probably the three hundredth estate or manse Raulin had been to in his life, but Chayen was a man who worked with simpler projects and had rarely seen such grandeur. The wide foyer and crystal chandelier impressed him mightily and he stopped to gawk for a moment. “This way,” Iyessa said, leading him up the stairs.

They went to the left wing of the house, past several hallways and rooms, until they came to a small wing where the woman he called Haubret was dusting. When she saw the two of them, she stopped and winked at Raulin. “Keep an eye out and make sure Manyen stays away.” Haubret grinned and gestured for them to continue on their way.

There were three bedrooms they passed; a spare bedroom, the countess’s chambers, and one on the end that was likely the earl’s. They turned into the duchess’s,, a rather comfortable room in red and gold. “Since I’m not hear to fix a mantle, what are we doing here?” he asked, confident he could scrape together an idea.

She turned towards him, her demeanor and tone changing to something more demure. “My lord, we have little time together before you need to leave to go to Eri Ranvel . Give me a few minutes to make myself acceptable for what little time together we have.”

“Of course, my lady,” he said automatically, bowing before he left. Back in the hallway, he stood on the other side of the closed door, wondering what was happening. She had never been so formal with him before and he had never mentioned traveling to Arvonne. He sighed once the candle was lit in his mind; it was a charade she was conducting, he a nobleman and she some woman giving herself to him in passion. Good. It meant he had five, perhaps ten, minutes to check the earl’s room.

Raulin suspected it wasn’t going to be easy, even if he had hours to look. He needed to find a pin, a silver embossed decal that signified the earl was a member of the Order of Rose Cliff. It wasn’t something a smart man would leave around, since he would need to wear that to all official functions and losing it would mean he would insult the host. Which, if it were the King would be a very upsetting situation.

Then again, some men were very organized. All it took was a quick rifle through some key places before he found a closet dedicated to cuff links, buttons, pins, and other kinds of jewelry. The pin was on a velvet cushion next to a few other societal pins, the rose picked out against the silver background in red and green. He plucked it out, attached it inside the bottom of his cuffed pant leg, and closed the door, returning to the hallway.

“My lady?” he asked, opening the door slightly. “Our time together wanes.”

She was fixing her stockings when he moved inside the room. She wore her undergarments and nothing else, her dress and petticoat moved to a chair nearby. He closed the space between them, taking a more melodramatic tack by looking deeply into her eyes,picking her up, then laying her on the bed.

He’d been here before. One of his lovers, Sisalia of Amanrei, a small port city in Kinto, had constantly playing these games. It had been a fiery relationship of five weeks, never growing dull because they were always doing something different. One day she would take on a strong personality, leading the night’s activities with harsh commands, then followed by a meek and demure performance the next day. He’d enjoyed the taste of her, but she wasn’t one he missed because he’d never really known who she was by the end of their time together. But, at least he’d had the experience.

Even though his job was finished and he would’ve liked nothing more than to leave, he gave her exactly what she wanted: softness and whispers, gentle touches and lingering looks. He knew what he was doing, but even still he wasn’t prepared for her to cry out the name Caudin.

He stopped, shocked. She looked up at him sleepily for a few moments, then confused. “What?”

“That’s not my name,” he said, moving away from her.

“I…” she began, but she couldn’t answer him.

Later, he’d dwell on this and realize that he actually felt upset for his own reasons and his reaction was genuine. But, this was a great way to end things and get out of that mansion faster than he would have otherwise. “I don’t care if you want to pretend I’m some high born noble, or a rich man; I make enough money that I don’t have to dream about being either. You can play your games where I’m something that I’m not, but not someone else.”

“I’m sorry,” she said, reaching out for him. He began putting on his clothes and ignored her.

“Shall I ask your friend to let me out, then?” he asked.

“If you wait a few minutes, I can…can we talk about this?”

“I don’t think I want to wait,” he said, and left.

He donned his mask a few streets over and stepped into an antique shop. The owner looked at him wide-eyed for a moment, then grinned. “You have something of mine?” he asked.

“Crushed rose,” he said, using the phrase he’d been told in his contract.

“Thorns and silver,” the man responded, exactly what Raulin needed to hear.

He dropped the pin in his outstretched hand, having no idea nor care as to what an antiques dealer wanted with that earl’s signet enough to pay for a trirec contract.

There was no one other than the wizard in the hotel suite, which annoyed Raulin somewhat, but also allowed him to perform a mental exercise he needed to do. It was one he had created to help sever any ties he felt guilty about breaking off. He sat on the floor, closed his eyes, and pictured a rope wrapped around his leg, held vertically taut by his hand. It was a thick hemp rope, not the light kansta rope he wore as a belt around his arong-miil. He imagined holding a serrated knife in his other hand slicing through the hemp, the fibers fraying and twisting away.

It was the guilt. He didn’t feel upset over what had transpired between him and Iyessa; he hoped that she hadn’t actually fallen for him, or barring that, she’d get over him quickly. What bothered him was what was to come for her. That pin would come up missing eventually. Someone would need to be blamed, and with at least three witnesses to confess that Iyessa had brought a man into the house to fix a mantle that didn’t need to be fixed, she’d be blamed for the theft. She’d lose her job and possibly her reputation because of him. Yes, she was often late and had broken things a few times, and maybe she’d lose her job because of that anyway, but he would likely be the reason. And while he didn’t mind carrying guilt that he felt he deserved, he couldn’t hold on to something like this, where decisions had been made in equality. Deceit from his end, but still her ideas.

The rope twisted in his mind, the weight of his imaginary hand causing it to creak with the strain. She had wanted something from him, he had wanted something from her. He pulled the knife across the last of the fibers like a bow across a fiddle. Everything had risks and she had made quite a bold choice inviting him inside. He could hear the sizzling sound as the blade cut back and forth, then finally a twang as it snapped. His hand flew up from the release of pressure and the rope dropped, though in reality he was still seated with his hands on his lap.

He sighed and opened his eyes. He didn’t feel completely better, but mostly. Raulin stood and dusted off his pants and was about to walk out of the room when he heard the sound of someone sobbing.

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