17-5

It began at lunch. Anla saw people standing in line for food at the buffet look at her, then turn to the person next to them and whisper something. Then, that person would turn to look at her and stare. To her credit, she plastered on a smile that didn’t waver even when the couple sitting at her table got up abruptly and left with piping hot tea still on the table. The flushing was harder to hide.

Funny how Olana had done nothing wrong, but she was still suffering for it.

She was picking at her rabbit, mushroom, and sage pasty when three people sat at her table. It took her only a few moments before she realized they were the musicians from last night. “We can spare a couple of minutes for you. Looks like you need some friends.”

She gave the fiddler an appreciative smile and began talking about music with the trio. They would be playing that evening, so she wouldn’t see them when she visited the village, but they promised they would dedicate a song to her.

Things felt better after their visit. She almost forgot about her situation until she showed up for the nature appreciation class to find Lady Karninth already there. Grané looked at Anla with wide eyes. She returned his stare with a quick eye roll and a shrug.

At first the Lady was content to follow the crowd and shoot smarmy looks at Anla, who did her best not to ignore the woman, but to feign disinterest in her presence. When that failed to ruffle Anla’s feathers, the Lady began asking questions and walking next to Grané, generally feigning interest in whatever he pointed out.

After she began touching his arm to grab his attention, he moved away and said, “All right. Who would like to earn a crystal ring?” The group perked up at this as he took one out of his pocket and held it aloft. “I’m going to ask questions until someone gets three correct answers. That person will be our winner.”

He lobbed a few easier questions that some of the other guests answered before she could, such as “Name three wildflowers that are yellow” or “Give me one herb that people use medicinally”. When Anla answered the tough ones, Grané made sure to heap on his praises. And when she won the ring, she gave it to one of the older women on the tour who had looked at her with admiration and had murmured nice things about her intelligence under her breath.

Dinner seemed easier, though there were still people who needed informing about her ordeal. She pretended to be unperturbed by any of it. The shop had liquor for purchase, so she bought a bottle of wine for the villagers and had a good evening with them.

She thought about sleeping on the couch in her room, but decided that she could move to the edge of bed when Raulin came in that night. He never did. She laid awake, waiting for him for some time, realizing how much she treasured his company, how much she loved waking up with him close to her.

Anla kept to her schedule. She noted that the couple didn’t appear in her room again, and after the third time she caught them on the wall and didn’t bat an eyelash, they stopped that as well.

The Lady decided to sit in an empty seat at her table for a few minutes a few days later, dressed in a fine pink dress. “How are you, my dear?” she asked.

“I’m doing well,” Anla responded, her tone suggesting she was both puzzled and amused. A dozen catty responses came to mind, but she held her tongue, instead asking how she was doing.

“Marvelous. Tired, though,” she said, stretching for effect. “I haven’t been getting much sleep.”

“Chamomile tea works well for that,” she answered, pretending she didn’t get the innuendo.

“Yes. Well, maybe I should try it. Do you like my brooch?”

Having been warned of her past misdeeds by one of the workers, Anla had hidden what little jewelry she had and asked the village smith to make her a few cheap pins to put with her things.

“It’s…lovely,” she said. “Where did you get it?”

“I saw it somewhere and just had to have it.”

“Ah. Well, it’s not really my taste, but I think it looks smashing with your ensemble today.”

She continued eating as the triumphant smile slipped off the Lady’s face. “I thought I saw you wearing something similar the other day.”

“No,” she said in between bites. “I’ve never seen it before in my life.”

The confusion on her face was worth at least a little bit of what she was doing to her.

With a few days left, Anla finally dared to ask the question that was their whole purpose at the shrine. She’d brought a bottle of brandy to dessert with Grané and Tien and played Maccre as they ate cake. “Is this place actually a shrine?”

“It used to be,” Grané said, rearranging his hand, “maybe thirty years ago. People thought the springs were a holy site or something along those lines and they would trickle in during the summer and fall months. Then, the owners had the smart idea of buying the land and building a resort. It’s very popular with the wealthy and it’s in a great spot, so it’s only gotten bigger as the years have gone on.”

“Really? I’d heard a rumor that this place was still an actual shrine or that rituals were held here.”

“Let me guess, you heard it from the townsfolk,” Tien said, not looking up from her cards.

“Yes. They were rather adamant.”

“We have an interesting relationship with the townsfolk. We need them for supplies and they need us for the money travelers bring on their way here. But, they feel like we look down on them figuratively, since we do literally, so we’re all snobs up here, living in opulence. It’s not the first time I’ve heard them spreading rumors.”

“It is rather nice here,” Anla said.

“Pfft. Have you seen the houses in town? They’re gorgeous! When enough tourists pass through and spread their money around, you can afford the nicer rugs and all the repairs you need. Look, we’re not poor here, but they definitely are getting the better end of the deal.”

Grané played his hand, winning that round. “There is Minuetar. He’s a fanatic devotee to Zayine, thinks the mountain is going to blow any day, even though it’s been dormant for centuries. He has a personal shrine to Her in the woods and invites us to his services, but he’s not a priest. That’s about as religious as we get.”

“What about the nighttime ceremony in the main house?”

“That’s a leftover from the old days,” Tien said, spreading her hand. “It makes people feel good, but it doesn’t do much other than getting people to buy things. It works, too. We often sell a dozen or more of those pendants in the shape of the statues in the front of the hall after the ceremony. I hope you’re not disappointed.”

“We paid good money to come to a place to enjoy ourselves and relax, not to find one of the Twelve.” She dropped her shoulders at the thought of “we”.

“How are you holding out?” she said, holding Anla’s gaze.

“I’m still doing well, but I don’t think I could do this if we were staying longer.”

“I think the worst is yet to come. Be careful.”

Indeed, the next morning Lady Karninth had convinced Raulin to accompany her to a blue-ring breakfast, flirting with him unabashedly while Anla wasn’t too far away eating her red-ring food. She laughed too loud, was too doting, and looked in Anla’s direction far too often. It was that breakfast that the nice woman from the walk decided to eat with her and held a distracting conversation that Anla found genuinely interesting.

Her dip in the hot springs was accompanied by those two. She simply lowered herself in the water and shut out any of the moans and giggles she was supposed to hear.

She was going to spend a ring to get away for another mud treatment, but she realized that all her rings for the day were gone. Luckily, Tien was working at the front desk and slipped her two reds for meals when she explained what had happened. She went for a long walk instead and noticed quickly that she was being followed by the illicit couple. For what it was worth, it didn’t seem like Raulin knew what the Lady was doing, making the same drastic changes Anla was in order to follow her.

The last thing she wanted was a confrontation. She’d rather not even have a pleasant conversation with them. An intense craving to be gone from this place overtook her. She would give anything to be away from the shrine, but there were two more full days and Raulin would need all that time for a due diligence on this contract.

When she turned into the woods at the halfway point of the trail, she immediately bolted off the path and hid. As a child, she hadn’t had the elven magic that helped the children with seeking games, so she’d had to rely on physical skill to disappear into the brush. She was completely concealed when they walked past her, then stopped. The Lady looked confused for a few moments, searching around.

“Something wrong, my love?” Raulin asked. Anla’s stomach lurched. There was no falseness to his words; he really did love her.

“Nothing, my sweet. I was just taking in the scenery.” She took his head in her hands and kissed him deeply. “Must you leave me in a few days?”

“Yes. We’re expected in Atri soon. There’s also no availability; I checked in with the front desk.”

“Write a letter and tell them you’ll be late. And you can stay in my room. You know my bed is always open to you.”

“I do need to think about my wife.”

She waved her hand carelessly. “She can stay with her lover. It will work out.”

“I’ll think about it.”

No, Anla thought. No, please. Her stomach roiled at the thought of staying here any longer than she had to, even with her friends in the village. If it came to that, she would leave and admit defeat. She couldn’t continue to keep analyzing things, of worrying and trying to guess what Lady Karninth was going to do next. It was exhausting.

She wished they would leave. Instead, they stood there, kissing and speaking like he was in port setting off on his next voyage. And while Anla grew more and more nauseous at the words, she at least understood how the Lady had ensnared him so well.

They spoke a lot about Anla, but it was mostly the Lady asking questions and Raulin answering them, followed by an affirmation or a correction. A snippet of their conversation went something like:

“Why did you marry her?”

“She was beautiful and delightful to be around. It was easy to talk to her, laugh with her. She had a keen mind and she was great to work with.”

“But not now. It’s hard to think of someone as beautiful when they’re so inhumane to other people. And I thought you said you hadn’t laughed with her in a long time.”

“I did? It has been a while.”

“It happens. You love someone when you’re both young and happy, then you start to see them every day. You notice the little things that bother you about them. Then, you start catching them doing things you’d never imagine them doing. You didn’t know she was a thief when you married her, did you?”

“No.”

“But you saw all of my brooches in her drawers.”

“I did. I returned them to you.”

“I know. Thank you, my sweet. Remember that my rings went missing, too?”

“And we found your bag in her room. It’s something I’ll watch out for in the future, now that I know she’s like that.”

There was an Arvonnese idiom that Anla’s father used: “He put a hot skillet in cold water.” He’d say that when he was talking about someone who was so emotionally confused that they couldn’t speak, the implication being that they were steaming and forever warped by the quick temperature change like a pan dipped too early.

It was outrage, fury, indignation. Being accused of stealing on the streets meant being cast out of places you had been welcome in before, which meant less chance of food and warmth, possibly death. She took it very seriously and was more sensitive to it than most people. The only silver lining was that Lady Karninth at least didn’t have her perfume nor her two necklaces.

It was nausea, anxiety, confusion. Anla had moments listening to their long conversation where she questioned if she had done some of the things Raulin agreed she had done. She wondered if Raulin had been harboring bad feelings towards her for a while now or in a strange, paranoid thought, if he had a contract out on her and had been playing a long con.

But worst it was the agony of hearing a friend savor her misfortune. When the Lady brought up how rewarding it had been when people had started talking about her, Raulin admitted that she deserved it, since she had slept with so many men at the shrine and had been a whore a few times before they had met, but withheld the same from him. And he admitted that if he could trade the two of them, he’d take his Lady over Anla in a heartbeat.

This was Raulin saying it. There were no lies in his admissions. There was no rock-grinding sound to any of it. He wasn’t playing some angle to fool the Lady into telling him something, like she had secretly hoped. And that was why she cried.

Anla never cried. Her eyes had teared right before she’d slapped Al a few weeks ago and when Raulin had made her confess to the embarrassing things Tiorn had made her do in Hanala, but she had not cried. And there she was, listening to the words Raulin was saying, her back against a tree and tucked into a bush, with tears streaming down her face.

They moved away finally, speaking of what they were going to do to each other when they reached her room. She had stolen him from her completely. Anla fully gave in to the awareness that the Lady had won; Anla was hysterically bawling and she couldn’t stop. Her throat burned, her body shook, and her head pounded, but she couldn’t stop sobbing. She had been broken.

It took so long to stop the flow of tears that she missed the nature appreciation walk. She found Grané in the greenhouse. He took one look at her and was instantly livid. “What did she say to you?” he asked.

She recounted everything to him, the crushing headache stopping her from crying again. When she finished, he stopped his work and brought her to his apartment, where she washed her face and sipped on valerian and peppermint tea.

“I don’t know if I can go to dinner tonight,” she admitted, her hands still shaking.

“Then don’t go! You don’t have to suffer any more for some notion of winning or because you feel the need to win your husband back or whatever your reasons are.”

“I don’t want her to win.”

“Not showing up at dinner isn’t a win for her. She doesn’t know why you won’t be there. If you want, us villagers can come up with an excuse. We could have a barbecue set up in an hour and we’d keep them away from it.”

She shook her head. “I’m feeling better. I just don’t know if I can get back to that solid place I was at before I heard all those things. It was like I was wearing armor.”

“Stay here. Make yourself at home. I’ll be back in a little while.”

Grané left and Anla finished her tea. She closed her eyes and fell asleep in one of their chairs until Tien came home and woke her up. Her friend’s nostrils flared and her leg was bouncing on her knee by the time she finished.

“I don’t even know what to say, Olana. I’m speechless. I can’t tell you how badly I want to tell every single guest here what she’s doing.”

“You’d lose your job. And those guests would only wind up being confused.”

Her husband returned and sat down on the couch next to his wife. He pulled something out of his pocket and handed it to her. “This is your armor.”

She looked down and saw that Briven, the shrine’s resident blacksmith, had made her another brooch in the same style as the others. “Thank you,” she said. “I’ll wear it under my skirts.”

“Why?”

“She’ll just accuse me of theft and Darrick will give it to her anyway.”

Grané smiled. “Look on the other side.”

The pin was a twisted piece of metal that was slightly convex. On the side that curved in was the clasp and the letters “OF” in globs of solder. Tien looked over and grinned. “I’d like to see her accuse you of stealing that.”

* * *

Anla wore her brooch proudly, brushing her fingers along one of its ridges when she felt raw and pitted. She didn’t want to be at dinner, but at least she felt like there were fauna in the flora, ghosts and winds of people there to help her if she needed it again.

She attended the nightly ceremony where she was pulled up in front of everyone. Lying supine, one of the attendants dressed in a long, white alb shook a turtle shell rattle over her while another brushed the end tufts of Indian grass over her body. She knew Tien had said it was hogwash, and she really didn’t enjoy being the center of attention, but she felt at peace once the gathering was done. She even saw a few warm smiles cast her way.

After that, and a good night’s rest, she was ready to face anything. She took a class on making a shallow basket, thinking it would be a handy skill to know for their travels. Her soak in the hot springs was undisturbed. Lunch was pleasant with a few people from the ceremony or another class speaking briefly with her. She gave Grané a grand smile when she met up for his class. She hadn’t seen either the Lady or Raulin all day and it made her feel like this place was hers, not theirs.

At dinner, she sat with her acquaintance from the walk, her husband, and another couple from the ceremony. She was listening to a story the woman was telling until she saw everyone close their mouths and look slightly past her. She turned and saw Lady Karninth standing next to her, looking a little frazzled. Dark circles were under her lids and her eyes were red and puffy.

To be polite, Anla stood to see what the Lady wanted. She was barely erect when Lady Karninth slapped her across the face, the force of the attack knocking her head to one side.

It was the sort of noise people instinctively knew meant “look in that direction, there’s going to be entertainment” The sound in the dining hall evaporated, allowing Lady Karninth’s words to carry clearly from wall to wall. “You little bitch. You think you can play these games with me and win? Who do you think you are?”

Anla straightened herself and said, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Last night! And all the other things you’ve done! You make me sick, you disgusting little whore!” She raised her hand to strike Anla again, even though it looked like the blow had caused her more pain, but her wrist was caught by Raulin. She turned and began wailing in his chest, tears streaking her face when she lifted her head after a few moments.

“I’ll speak with her,” he said, his face also bruised beneath his eyes. He fixed Anla with a gaze that shocked her by its vehemence, then grabbed her by the arm. “Come,” he said.

“Stop,” she said. “You’re hurting me. Please.”

He didn’t, dragging her on her tiptoes down the hallway to their room, closing the door behind him. She put up a spell of silence and said, “Raulin, she slapped me.”

“You deserved it,” he spat, cradling his arm.

What?”

“The dirt, ripping her clothes, and the pins. That was also cute what you did, keeping us up all night with your magic. You used your ward spell to set off a loud bang every half-hour in our room.”

She rubbed her arm, trying to stop herself from shaking. “I don’t know how to do that. I can’t time my ward spells. Someone would have to break them for that to work, and I wasn’t in her room last night. I was here, sleeping. Besides, I only used that spell here, in case you came in the room while I was in the hot spring.”

He glared at her, not believing. He looked down at her dress. “And you stole this from Katerin! Give it here.”

She looked down at the brooch. “This isn’t hers, it’s mine. Briven gave it to me.”

“Who’s Briven? Is that the guy who’s plowing your field?”

She clenched her jaw for a moment. “Briven is the blacksmith here. He made it for me. Here,” she said, pulling it off her dress and turning it over. “O.F., Olana Freston. That’s mine and so are the other three she stole from me. She can keep them; stolen goods look great on her.”

He cocked his left arm back, but didn’t throw the punch. “You’ve done enough damage to that poor woman. I have precious little time left with her. I want you to leave us alone.”

“Leave you alone? I haven’t gone near you two at any point!”

“And I want you to stop bewitching people into hating her. One of your knights in shining armor poured his tea in my lap at lunch and loudly declared that my wife must be heaven sent to put up with my infidelity.”

“I didn’t ask anyone to say that. The only time I’ve used my influence in the two weeks here was to get that couple to talk about my schedule. I’m being honest, I haven’t lied to you this entire stay. Two spells, that’s it. I haven’t bewitched anyone nor will I.”

“Then explain why people give her glares and speak ill of her.”

She continued to rub her arm and said nothing.

Raulin grabbed her chin and forced her to look at him. “Say it.”

Anla shook his hold loose. “I’ve already told you why, Raulin. You won’t listen to me. I’m not going to try while you’re like this.”

“Like what?”

Poisoned. She’s turned you against me. You’ve known me for five months, but you’re taking the word of a woman you just met over mine.”

“And if I said I was listening to you?”

She held his gaze and didn’t back down.“No. I’m through. I’ve spent my two weeks here absolutely miserable because of you two. I can show you ample evidence as to why, but you won’t believe any of that. You think I’m jealous or bitter and that I feel like hurting someone because I have nothing better to do when that’s not true! I have done what you asked me to do. There is no secret cult here, there is no threat to the Twelve. This is just a retreat that uses self guidance to help people. Meditation, affirmations, things like that.”

“I know.”

“Are you sure? I’m surprised you found time to look into it when you were so busy with your head between her breasts.”

“And this is supposed to make you sound free of jealousy?”

“Again, I am not jealous. I am hurt by your betrayal. And that is all I am going to say about you and her. If you speak to me again, it will be with an apology and seventy gold.”

Seventy gold? For what? Are you accusing Katerin of stealing something now?”

“No. You hired me to accompany you to the retreat and discover whether there was something here that Albrever should be concerned with. I gave you my report. I am due wages.”

He snorted. “I’m not paying you. I never officially hired you.”

“Oh, but you did. You said, and I quote, ‘Anla, we’re here to do a job’ before you talked about how I should be prepared for people not to like me if I did it. I just didn’t think it was going to be you.”

He soured at this, but didn’t argue. Instead, he said, “Last time. Leave us alone. If I catch you doing that spell again on our door, I will find that fancy boy baerd hunter and pay him for front row seats.” He slammed the door on his way out, still cradling his arm.

She took a few moments to stop herself from shaking, then returned to the dining hall, passing a sobbing Lady Karninth on Raulin’s arm. She didn’t look at them and stayed clear of their path. Several people nodded to her, a few even stopping to see if she was well. She sat at her table and ate the rest of her meal before returning to her room.

Anla was thinking of spending the last day in her room, save for meals, but decided she wasn’t going to change one damn thing. She wasn’t in the wrong and had no reason to feel guilty over it.

She definitely wanted to go to another celebration at the village. When they recognized her, the group of several dozen workers cheered and clapped, toasting to her. “You broke her!” Tien said, passing her a glass of whiskey. “I saw her sobbing in the courtyard this morning.”

“I just stayed the course. I’m not sure what happened. I was at dinner last night and she said I did something to her, then she slapped me.”

There was a hefty silence before Tien said, “We’re sorry. We didn’t know she would hit you.”

“What do you mean?”

“We’ve been helping you along a little bit. We messed up her room and her things a little and had the night watchman knock on her door every time he passed on his rounds.”

“Oh,” she said.

“I’m thinking the sleepless night might have made things worse.”

“Maybe. Either way, I hope she starts treating you all better.”

Tien raised her cup. “Never mistreat the staff,” she said to which everyone drank.

Anla said her goodbyes that night with hugs and thanks. She ate breakfast the next morning, took a final dip in the hot springs, and left for Tel and Al’s camp, pleased that she had accomplished what she had set out to do, but glad to be rid of the place.

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