An experienced person will be able to tell the ocean is close by certain signs. A step on the ground with soles soft enough, perhaps, will give away that the composition as higher in sand than farther inland. A trained eye will see a change in the landscape, trees stunted by the salt air, terns and gulls crying and circling overhead, the land turning marshier. Most, though, pick up stronger distinctions and feel it in their blood rather than their mind. They smell the salty tang in the air, they feel the moisture on their skin, and they know the sea is just over that way, past the reeds and the worn rocks, and awaiting its lovers.
The highway was fairly bisecting two halves of the outskirts of the city, the farms on the north and the shops and wharves on the south. Libsin was ahead of them, coated with an inch of snow from an earlier dusting. The people strolling along the boardwalk had an odd glee about them, those of a younger heart stopping to scoop up crunchy flakes and toss the clump at friends, the ball powdering the air and all but disintegrating before it could hit its target.
A lamplighter walked the streets in a top hat, scarf, and thick, moth-eaten wool coat that looked like it was taken out only a few times per year. He tipped his hat to any lady who walked by, adding a little bow to certain ones, perhaps they very pretty ones. Anla got a bow, but she was too busy taking in the scenery to notice him.
“It’s really pretty here,” she said to Raulin, who was in step with her. She was watching the sunset as it painted the white buildings in shades of gold and orange, reflecting in the window panes and the silver signs that hung above the shops.
“Pretty, yet cold,” he said, clicking off the bottom of his mask and blowing warm air into fists held against his lips. “We’re going to need to find a place for the night quickly. I know he’s enjoying himself,” he said, motioning to Tel, “but I find nothing comforting about the temperature.”
“I have a joke about that,” Tel said. “How many grivvens like the cold?”
“All of them?” Raulin answered.
“Yes, all of them,” he said.
He waited a few moments, then said, “Okay, well, you’re still working on your sense of humor.”
“Anladet was laughing.”
She pressed her lips in, but her eyes twinkled. “The situation was amusing, at least.”
“Hmm. Well, here? Any thought or kouriya on where we should stay tonight?”
“I think Anla should choose,” Tel said after a few moments.
“Hmm,” she said, then clicked her tongue, mocking Raulin’s way of expressing thought. He flicked her gently on her shoulder. “It will have to be one near the water overlooking the sea. I want it to look homey. And it has to have a quaint name in scroll on the sign.”
“Oh, and is that all, mezzem? Shall the owners serve high tea and leave mints on the pillow?”
“How about that one?” Al asked, pointing ahead. The white sign hanging from the holder read “Rock Hollow by the Sea” in flourished gold writing.
“That has potential,” she said, stepping off the road and a few steps to the porch.
“How are you and Anladet?” Tel asked Raulin.
Raulin turned and waited for Mr. Auslen to enter the inn behind his wife before saying, “Better, I suppose. We’re speaking, she’s accepted the few days of courtship I’ve done, she smiles at me. But, it’s not the same. I don’t know if you noticed she flinched a little when I flicked her on the shoulder. I was teasing her back, but she’s still wary of me.”
“You hurt her badly?” Raulin thought this was almost not a question.
“I did. I know I did. And I’m trying to make amends.”
“With this ‘courting’?”
“I realized that I’m sort of protecting her from myself. Before, I had already assumed she was mine when she wasn’t. I think I needed that definition, something concrete to let me know where I stood and how far that was before I got what I wanted. When I thought she had given away what I had worked so hard to attain, it burned me with anger. And, I think, I’m also predisposed to thinking people are treacherous.
“But, now things are clear cut. I am hers and she knows that I’m sacrificing for her. I know where we stand. It’s given me a surprising peace of mind; I thought I was going to be more annoyed by it.”
“I’m happy that things are well between you two. I hope that things work out.”
Tel thought he was finished speaking, until a minute or so later he said, “She makes me think dangerous thoughts, Tel. I can’t think of the future. That’s a luxury I can’t afford.” Anla stuck her head out, a smile on her face as she waved them in. Raulin sighed. “But, I might be willing to pay anything for it.”
* * *
The inn they were staying at was too nice for a bar, so they went down the street and over a few blocks to The Promise, a bar that Raulin thought might be something else, since brothels tended to have names like that. But, no, it was just a bar with a good-sized crowd, farmers and fishermen mingling with those who were a little more well-off and those whose tab grew to insurmountable proportions.
They took one of the few open tables, Raulin buying the group their favorite drinks: two waters, a glass of Caudet, and a Chieri Rose. “I could have just bought you another water,” he said as he put the glass in front of Anla with a flourish.
She shrugged. “I’m not overly fond of liquor, so you wouldn’t be upsetting me.”
“Like good food, I was never able to afford pricey drinks. There was no sense in gaining a dependency on it and blurring my senses in the rough parts of town was a bad idea.”
“More or less why I don’t drink it with the mask on, but I do enjoy it when I can.”
“What’s your drink of choice?” Al asked.
He paused for a slight moment, having gotten almost used to Al’s newfound ability at discussion. “Caudet,” he said.
Al gave him a flat look. “That’s not something I’m prepared to change. I know a good wine when I taste it, Raulin, and this is good wine.” He swirled the glass and held it up to his nose. “Can you smell the bouquet?”
Raulin leaned over and took a whiff. “Smells like blue grama.”
“It’s a grass from Arvonne that has no strong smell.” When Al cocked his eyebrow, he said, “It often grows in horse manure.”
Al snorted, but he at least took the joke well. Anla laughed, sharing a knowing look with Raulin, who knew and had known since the four met that Caudet was a cheap wine his countrymen made. It still surprised her at times that he was Arvonnese.
The wizard drummed his fingers on the table for a few moments, then asked, “Anla, could you read our fortunes?”
Both of her eyebrows shot up. “Yes,” she said, reaching down for the pouch she brought just in case there was an opportunity to make a little money tonight. “I have to admit I’m surprised at this, Al. You’ve never been okay with this.”
“Well, I still don’t like piscarins, but from speaking with you I think you understand what you’re doing. And so do I.”
She smiled and plopped the bag on the table. “Who should go first?”
“Raulin,” Al said.
“Why, so that I can draw yaw, dah, and raw again and have him shrug and not listen?”
“What does that mean?”
Anla flicked her eyes at Raulin, who answered, “She doesn’t think I should be a trirec, is what that means.”
“I’m finding myself in agreement with the tiles.”
“Ah,” Raulin said, leaning back and crossing his arms, “it’s going to be one of those nights, is it? Attack the trirec from both ends of the alley. Was this your game, Wizard?”
“No. I think I’ve made my opinion on the matter very clear. I was just saying that because the opportunity presented itself. So, what do the stones say for Raulin?”
“Actually,” she said, tossing her hair over one shoulder, “none of those tiles came up.” She drew three more tiles and mixed them on the table with her eyes closed until she felt they were in the right order. She held his gaze and said, “Be careful. Something bad will happen if you don’t obey the rules. Something from the dark, from people you don’t trust or like.”
“Does that mean anything to you?” Al asked.
“It could mean many things. As someone who frequently breaks laws in countries full of people I don’t like, I don’t find this advice very helpful. But,” he added quickly, “it’s always a good idea to consider threats that might be closer than one would think.”
“What do you draw for me?” Al said. He was trying to be casual about it, but Anla could tell he was interested. Perhaps he always had been, but his rigid obedience to certain rules had made it difficult for him to see beyond his schooling enough to try it.
“You’re going to learn something. Either that or you’re going to get to ride that horse you always wanted to.”
“How do you see that?”
“Ah is for animals, but also means intelligence and decision making.”
“That doesn’t make sense.”
“It does if you’re an elf. We see ourselves as animals, part of the herd of everything that runs and eats and drinks in this world. It’s physicality. That’s different from ih, which is raw emotion, from instinct up to the complex feelings of, say, grief, sacrifice, or unrequited love. That’s conception. So, even though animals work on instinct, we classify them and us as physical beasts that feel, two separate things.”
“All right, so intelligence…”
“…and ha for the unknown and ess for action. You are doing something to learn about the unknown. Likely you’ll find out something. It’s an interpretation of what I draw in the tiles.”
“May I?” he asked. She put his tiles into the bag and watched as he drew three for her. “Okay, we got drop-of-rain, stick-person-throwing-a-ball, and book-falling-to-the-right.”
“Interesting that you drew these. Those were the three I talked about earlier for Raulin.”
“So you shouldn’t be a trirec?”
“I guess I shouldn’t,” she said with a smirk. “The three tiles are basically ‘sun’, ‘people’, and ‘greater’. I interpret that as he should do something to help society, like be a politician or a guard captain.”
“What would that mean for you?” Raulin asked.
She rubbed her nails against each other. “Maybe when the year is done I should go back to my people and help them. They need someone who understands Gheny and can fight for them peacefully, in a court. I’m not sure.”
She was about to put her bag away when someone dragged a chair over, turned it around, then straddled it. “How much are you charging?”
It took Anla a moment to take in the worn farmer’s clothes, the short hair, and the tan that was starting to fade and realize there was a person she knew behind it. She jumped up and ran around the table, almost pushing Al’s head into his drink. “Riyan!”
“Hey, girl,” she said, standing to accept her embrace.
“I haven’t seen you in over three years!”
“I’ve been here the whole time. Not that far from our old place.” She looked around the table. “These friends of yours?”
“Oh, yeah,” she said, “Al, Raulin, and Tel. I met Al about six months ago when we teamed up to save the Duke’s daughter.”
“That was you? I heard about it, but no one really knew who had done it. You’re serious?”
Anla fingered the necklace she was wearing. “The Duke gave this to me himself.”
“It’s true,” Al said, shaking Riyan’s hand, “but I don’t have any pretty jewelry to show off.”
“Nice to meet you all.” To Anla, she raised her eyebrows and nodded her head to the bar and walked over, her walk decidedly not the fluid sashay that Anla’s was. When both sat down, Riyan said, “I wanted to say I was sorry, about leavin’ you. I actually had to muster up the courage to come ‘n’ say ‘hi’. I didn’t actually think it was you until you pulled out your tiles.” She grinned. “Still on that trick, are you?”
“It’s made me a lot of money when I needed it.”
“How you doin’, girl? You need money, a place to stay?”
“And I was going to ask you the same, at least about the money. I have enough of that, but no home at the moment.”
“Do you need a place to stay? I’m working at a farm not far from here ‘n’ I don’t think they’ll mind you for a spell. ‘Course, I’ll have to ask my girl about it…” She grinned.
“Oh, you found someone? Congratulations!”
“Naw, she doesn’t really get it. Beautiful girl, not the brightest. I’m sweet on her, but it’s not going anywhere. Now, how about you ‘n’ your man?”
“He the one in the mask?”
“No, he’s the one that shook your hand.”
Riyan twisted her mouth. “You married to the brown guy but sleepin’ with the mask guy?”
“I’m not married to any of them. Al and I use the ruse that we’re a couple so that people don’t bother us when we’re traveling, but I’m not attached to any of them that way. Well…Raulin is courting me.”
“Oh, la dee da, look at you bein’ courted. What, he buy you emeralds ‘n’ lace ‘n’ things like that?”
“He picks me flowers, makes sure I’m warm, moves branches out of my way, things like that.”
Riyan leaned on her hand before a big, dopey grin crossed her face. “You like it. You like bein’ treated good. Yeah, you sweet on him, just don’t know how sweet.”
“I like him quite a bit, but we’re just seeing where things go.”
“I can tell you where they’re gonna go,” she said, winking at her.
Anla sighed and grabbed Riyan’s jaw, turning her head to face the table. “He’s a trirec, Riyan. Remember how we use to pretend we were trirecs when we were younger, sneaking around the building with scarves tied around our faces?”
She shook Anla’s hand off her face. “He’s a real trirec?”
“Wow. I thought he was just shy. You have good taste.”
“Riyan, trirecs can’t marry.”
“So, I’m not going to fall in love with a man I’m not going to marry. I have money, I don’t need someone unless he’s going to make my life worthwhile.”
“That’s cute, girl. Let me know how that works out.”
“Maybe you are, but you love who you love and nothin’s gonna stop that.” She gave her a sad smile. “Don’t fight things that don’t need fightin’.”