17-4

“I’m sorry,” Grané said. “A lady such as yourself shouldn’t have seen that.”

“I’m fine,” Anla replied, slowing down.

“You don’t seem fine, if I may say so. You look a little peaked. Maybe you should sit down for a moment? I could go get you some tea or water.”

“I’ll be okay, Grané.” She had an overwhelming need to put as much space between her and Raulin as possible. The last thing she wanted was to talk to him.

“She does that,” he said, holding her arm from underneath to catch her if she fainted. “Lady Karninth. I know that some of the higher staff have talked with her about being more discreet with her affairs, but she continues them all the same. There’s not much we can do, since she’s a guest here. I hope you understand.”

Anla licked her lips. Her mouth was dry and she wished she’d taken Grané up on his offer for tea. “What?”

“The woman back there, Lady Karninth. She picks some younker staying here for a week to seduce then flaunts him, and the affair, in front of the guests. She’s bored and loves spectacles, which gives us a headache when we have to hear about her indiscretions from the other guests.”

“I don’t care,” she said, continuing to march back to the main building.

“You don’t? But, you seemed upset that…he…oh.” He was mercifully silent for ten seconds. “I take it this is your husband’s first liaison?”

She nodded her head, not wanting to continue this conversation. Seclusion would be blessedly wonderful. Barring that, some place where she could avoid an inevitable conversation would work almost as well.

“Ma’am, would you like to come back to the village? Just for a little while, so that you don’t have to be around other people.”

She stopped. “Yes, I think I’d like that. And you don’t have to call me ‘ma’am’. Olana is fine.”

There was only one dirt road into the village, which had about a dozen buildings with several apartments in each. The buildings were smack dab in the middle of the forest and clung to the available terrain like lichen on rocks. Where the road ended was a commons taken up by communal things: toys for the children, a roasting spit, a wash station. To the back, in a gap between two buildings, was a large covered work area that housed tools for repairs and a forge.

An older man waddled over to Grané when he saw them, clearly upset, and they held a conversation out of most people’s earshot.

“You know you can’t bring guests here,” he said.

“She’d had a rough day, Minuetar. She found out her husband was having an affair with her.”

“Not a good enough excuse! We could get in serious trouble with the uppers over this.”

“If she isn’t going to them about her then I think we’re safe.”

Grané walked back to Anla. “Come,” he said. “You can meet my family.”

It wasn’t what she wanted to do. She wanted a few minutes alone to sort out her thoughts. But, it would be rude to refuse. She gave a tight smile and followed him to his apartment.

The smell of garlic overpowered all the potted plants in Grané’s living room. “Tien?”

A tall, dark-haired woman poked her head out of the kitchen. Anla recognized her as one of the welcome desk workers. “Oh, who’s this?”

“This is Olana. She’s going to have dinner with us tonight.” He turned to her and said, “Make yourself at home.”

She sat on the couch and pretended that she couldn’t hear Grané tell her tale to his wife. To her ear the tone of his words had a removed coldness, like briefly touching a statue. Pity, she thought. They pitied her. An appropriate feeling for Olana, but what about Anla?

Anla still didn’t quite know how she felt about the situation. It was not good, but why? She knew Raulin conducted affairs with women, even had to for his job. She had seen him sneak into a room with a woman at the libertine ball and didn’t recall feeling anything about it. There hadn’t been a problem with that aspect of his job until now.

She felt angry and hurt. It took her some time sitting on their couch with her hands folded in her lap that she realized she felt like Raulin had cheated on her. They weren’t romantic, though. While they kissed and were permissive with each other’s boundaries, they weren’t beaus. She had no right to expect him to remain chaste.

Still, the pain of loss and betrayal was all she had felt for a few moments. It had almost robbed her of her breath, a pressure suddenly grabbing at her neck and choking her. Something had seized her stomach and clawed it, twisted it, burned it for a few seconds before the icy cold had washed over her. Even then, sitting on their couch, she couldn’t recall that scene without an attack of the same misery and ache clenching her again.

Tien walked out of the kitchen with a mug of tea and handed it to her before sitting next to her. “What are you going to do?”

“What do you mean, divorce him?”

She gave her a crooked smile.“Well, that’s an option. I was thinking about tonight, after dinner. Are you going to go talk to him? Are you going to go back to your room?”

“I don’t know,” she said truthfully. “I have to be careful. He and I are business partners as well as being married. I have to think about both futures at the same time.”

“It sounds like you need a little time, then. Why don’t you stay here until you’ve figured things out?”

“Thank you,” she said, “but I don’t want to inconvenience you any more than I already have. There’s a bed waiting for me back at the main house.”

Tien pursed her lips. “It’s probably not my place to say, but your bed might not be unoccupied.”

Anla sipped on her tea, feeling the steam rise and cool her cheeks.

“She might not do it this time, but it would be a first.”

“How many time has Lady…has she done it?”

“Lady Karninth arrived here in the spring. Her first month was quiet, other than harassing the staff with demands and insults. That must have grown boring for her rather quickly. Since May it’s been one married man after the other, maybe twenty or so in all. If it’s any consolation, she likes to pick the men she finds the most challenging, the ones with the pretty wives who seem very happy with each other.”

Anla sighed. “Does she move on fast at least?”

“Not until one of two things happens. Either the couple leaves miserable at the end of their stay or she makes the wife leave, usually in tears. She’s a cruel woman.”

“What does she do to them to get them to cry?”

Tien pressed her lips together. “Do you really want to know? Olana, it’s a bad enough situation as it is. I don’t want you to suffer any more.”

“I think being unaware of what could happen would be worse.”

“Okay,” she said, crossing her legs and steepling her hand in front of her face. “She’s going to try to break you. She wants you crying in the middle of the dining hall, screaming at your husband, threatening her and him in hysterics. Until she gets that, she’ll carry on with your husband in places she knows you’ll likely be, like your room or near some place you frequent. She’ll turn the other guests on you, making sure everyone knows that you’ve been cast aside, the pretty little wife, for her. Then she’ll spread rumors amongst them that will reach your ears. Usually it’s about how unfaithful you were to begin with and how your husband took solace in her arms.

“If you’re the the type not to care, say you’re a dutiful wife who knows her place or you’re used to him carrying on affairs, she’ll start speaking to you directly. She’ll tell you how wonderful he is, how well he’s taking care of her, what he’s spent on her. Then, she’ll start playing the both of you, telling your husband and you that she’s so happy with him that she’s thinking of leaving her own husband to be with the sop, begging pardon. I’ve only seen two or three wives of the twenty survive a full week.”

“How do you know all this?”

“After the fifth or sixth time, her methods were as worn and predictable as the beat path from the mayor’s house to the bank. We’ve been keeping an eye on her, to prepare for the inevitable, and we keep each other abreast of the situation. Someone needs to help those poor women and it’s good to know who it’s going to be and about when the hysterics are going to happen.”

“Have you ever intervened like this?”

“No, actually. You seem shrewd. Most of the women are beautiful ornaments, lovely to look at but without the acumen to survive something like this. You’re not a noble, are you?”

“No, just used to surviving.”

She turned to Tien. While she still felt some turmoil when she thought of Raulin, she’d found a new sort of strength to approach the problem at hand. She wasn’t pleased, but she knew she’d need to take some action. “So, how do we break her?”

* * *

After dinner, Tien spread word amongst the other workers in the village that Anla was staying the night and that she was planning on resisting Lady Karninth. She had person after person approach her with suggestions and hints, or at least with a ‘good luck’ and a squeeze of their hand in hers. The pain still lingered, but she was growing more detached towards him and the situation.

There was a fire that evening. A few of the musicians who had the night off assembled a lively trio to play folk tunes. Spirits were passed around and Anla didn’t refuse like she usually did. The whiskey burned down her throat and warmed her. After a few hours of drink and talk, she was in a muddled state. The candle in her mind was lit as to why people drank; it made the pain recede enough to exist for just a little while without a care towards it.

The villagers put her up in the bachelor’s house, insisting that she would be cared for there. If she had been more sober, she would have refused, afraid of what a thing meant. The men staying there were aloof, but kind and thankfully nothing untoward happened.

She woke later than she normally did the next morning with a mild headache and the spins. There was a mug of tea next to her bed that she picked up and smelled before quaffing. She thought it might be just peppermint, but the vile, bitter taste made her think it was white willow bark as well.

As she waited for her cure to work, she thought about her strategy. A lot of the tips on how to deal with Lady Karninth were helpful, but the advice hadn’t been. She had to deal with the situation not as a spurned lover but as the relationship between her and Raulin dictated. They were partners. She was here to help him complete a task. They were co-conspirators in this contract.

But, she hesitated. It took her a little while to finally realize that her pain from yesterday wasn’t from being cheated on. That was the wrong label for it. It was betrayal. She had felt betrayed when he had brought someone else into the fold and hadn’t said anything to her about it. This Lady Karninth had been some unknown entity that had instantaneously shaken her security. She knew Raulin and he made her feel warm; she didn’t know this woman and seeing them together had been an icy chill for her.

In another instance, it would have been the moment to find them and introduce herself, ask if they needed help. But, Lady Karninth wasn’t an ally. She was actually a hindrance. She was going to have to be careful when she spoke with Raulin, as if he were spying for the lady and not for himself.

She washed her face, brushed her hair with her fingers, and took a deep breath. This was going to be trying.

On her walk back to her room, she walked slowly and smiled cheerfully at other guests passing by. She hoped Raulin hadn’t said anything to the lady about Anla catching them. If she could hold off on gossip being passed amongst the guests for a little while longer, this would be more tolerable. She’d have to play the part of a woman who had no idea what was happening behind her back.

Anla needed to speak with Raulin, though, before she knew with certainty where he stood with this woman. She actually smiled when she realized that he must be playing her, not the other way around, and he was using her to get his information. That made sense! He must have found out that the lady had been there for some time and must know if there was any secret temple or worship happening on the grounds.

She spent a red ring on breakfast, enjoying quiche and bacon with Mr. and Mrs. Brelont of Hanala, who suddenly had an interest in speaking loudly about the hot springs. Anla exclaimed cheerfully that she loved taking a dip after breakfast when it was quieter, which was agreed upon was a great idea.

After her new addendum of a soak, she took a class on meditation, then a small lunch, a class on exercising, then her nature appreciation walk with Grané. He nodded to her, then guided the tour, finally ending at the arranged point and walking with Anla to the greenhouse. “How are you today?” he asked when they were alone on the trail.

“Better.”

“My wife told me what you’re doing. If you need any help, just ask.”

“I will.”

After a half-hour in the greenhouse, movement outside caught her eye and she looked up to see Raulin and Lady Karninth again at the stone wall. The pain was still intense, but at least it dissipated quickly.

“Grané? Are you finished?” she asked.

“Just about, why?”

“I need you to escort me to the dining hall.” He wiped his hands on a towel and took her arm without question. “The other arm, please.”

He switched so that she was closer to the two lovers and he startled when he saw what was happening at the wall. “You’re showing her that it doesn’t bother you,” he said after they had passed.

“Something along those lines.”

“It’s incredibly brave of you to do that.”

She thought about what he had said. “When I was younger, I saw a business owner attacked by brutes. They stole his goods, smashed his windows, and cracked his skull open. They left, but the man came out of the door to his shop, yelling at them with blood dripping into his eye. They came back and broke his leg. He still rose, yelling at them. He didn’t stop until he was knocked unconscious. He might have been brave. The person next to me said he was stupid, asking for all that pain. I thought he just wanted to show those men that if they came back, they’d have a real hard time of it if they did again.”

The next day she ate breakfast and went for her soak in the hot springs. She was just starting to relax when she heard a high pitched whistle from inside their room from the ward spell. Her stomach churned for a moment in anticipation, but she knew she had to do this.

Anla stepped out of the steaming water and put on her robe, letting it hang open and loose around her shoulders. She hummed loudly as she walked to the door to her room, bracing herself for what she was going to see. Her pulse throbbed in her throat, but she ignored it.

It was Anla’s first look at Lady Karninth. She pretended to let her gaze wash over the two of them, Raulin standing next to the bed, holding the lady’s wrist as if he were trying to pry her hand from his shirt. She sat on the bed, the skirts of her red and gray dress hiked up over her knees. Anla tried to find something memorable about her face, but she was plain and forgettable, dark, round eyes with thin lashes that met hers without a hint of surprise.

Raulin stepped away and the lady dropped his shirt, fixing her skirts but not rising from her spot. Anla gave a quick smirk at the scene and took a few moments to retrieve a towel from their bathroom. “I thought you said she was prudish,” the lady said sotto voce.

Anla sauntered back in, drying her hair casually. “We should talk,” she said to Raulin in Arvonnese.

While she occupied herself, Raulin said a quick farewell to his annoyed paramour, promising to see her later. Once she had left, he said, “So?”

She continued in her father’s tongue. “I haven’t seen you around. I thought I should check in with you, report what I’ve seen and to see if you needed any help.”

“You weren’t here last night,” he said, also picking up the language. “Were you upset about yesterday?”

“I met some people that might help us. I think I’ll be able to ask for their help soon in figuring out if this place is religious in nature or not.”

He turned his head away. “Could you put some clothes on, please?”

“Never bothered you before.” She tightened the sash around her robe. “Did you get her to whistle her tune?”

“What?” he said with a little bit of annoyance.

“It’s Dickery. You’re trying to get her to give up her secrets, tell her about what’s going on her pertaining your contract.”

“I’m not using her,” he said, no hint of a lie to it.

She blinked at this. What if he had no clue about Lady Karninth’s reputation? Surely if she told him, he’d stop. “You know she’s using you.”

He looked back. “Using me? I doubt that.”

“I thought you picked her because you knew she’s a long-term guest here. Raulin, you’re now a part of a game she’s playing. She finds some young man with a good situation and seduces him, then dismisses him when she grows bored. You’re just one in a long line of men who’ve distracted her from her ennui.”

He blinked a few times and swallowed hard, then said thickly, “Who said this?”

“Those people I mentioned I met were the staff. I spoke with a lot of them last night. They’re rather disgusted by her behavior, to be honest, and wish she’d leave.”

“Did you think that perhaps the staff just doesn’t like her? She’s a wonderful woman and that can cause some jealousy that spreads.”

It took her a moment to realize he wasn’t joking, he wasn’t posturing at all. He actually felt protective of the noble woman and couldn’t see her faults. “Do you mean dislike a spoiled rich woman who consistently ruins women’s lives by stealing their husbands from them?”

“Ah, so you are jealous because of what happened the day before yesterday,” he said, folding his arms over his chest.

“Perhaps I’d be jealous if we were actually married, Raulin, but since we’re not, I’m only repulsed. Don’t you think it’s rather tacky that she made you come here to tumble in our bed so that I’d catch you?”

Raulin snorted. “She had no idea you’d be here.”

“She did because I announced it rather loudly at my breakfast table yesterday. And she knew I’d be at the greenhouse yesterday because I’ve been going there every day.”

“Yes, visiting your own lover. A bit hypocritical, don’t you think?”

Her neck straightened in shock. “Grané and I aren’t lovers, Raulin. He’s married with three children. I met them all last night.”

“Because married men can’t carry on affairs?”

“No, because some men actually care about the promises they made.”

“I didn’t make any vows to you, nor you to me.”

“Why, did you want one?” She took a deep breath. The conversation had veered far off course. “I’ll be honest that what you did hurt me. I just hope you’re careful and that you find what you need for your contract.”

He turned to leave, but stopped. “Why did it hurt?” He looked back and forth between her eyes, as if he was searching for something.

“Because,” she began, “for all intents and purposes, I am Olana Freston. And even though my husband isn’t actually carrying out liaisons behind my back, it still hurts. It’s embarrassing to hear people judge you and whisper about you. It’s restricting when those same people snub you. And it’s painful when you don’t share something like that with me. We’re supposed to be working together, not against each other.”

“Anla, we’re here to do a job. Do you know how often I have to pretend I’m dumber or less skilled than I actually am and have people laugh at me for it? All the time. It’s not a career where I can afford to feel badly about people disliking me.”

With that he left.

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