Foreign Affairs: Chapter 11


Rowan spent the next morning staring out his window. The view was mostly the other wing of the residential buildings, but it was still nice enough. Not quite enough to distract him from thinking, then re-thinking all the fatal errors of the previous night, mind, but it made a dent.

As had his fussing. The maids would probably wonder why every piece of furniture in the room was ninety degrees from where it was yesterday. Though if he told them: ‘Oh, I was just thinking about how I tried to talk dirty to the Queen while we were having anal sex last night and flubbed the line,’ the stares would be worse than if he just shrugged his shoulders. The books… Well, they were probably used to his rearrangements. Alphabetical now. A was for ‘A Short History of Dunmuir’ and ‘Agh you idiot why did you think grabbing a monarch by her horns while you were plowing her was a good idea?’ B was for ‘Battle-cry of the Harpies’ and ‘Bloody idiot, you probably didn’t even make her cum and now you should probably consider whether anyone has ever enjoyed sleeping with you now that you’re aware you have such a limp dick,’ and so on for the rest of the alphabet.

Going to the ministry and doing his job with Sophia would have at least given him that awkwardness to sort out instead of stewing. A dent in the paperwork backlog would be a nice side-effect even if speaking to his deputy didn’t turn out.

But no, here he was waiting for Arlene. Not that he blamed her—there was more on her plate than any mortal should reasonably be expected to handle—but it did leave him in an awkward position. He was dressed, booted and had everything he thought he might need for the trip there and back. All that was left was to pace, stop, check that he still had all the items, then continue pacing. Bag-coins-knife-book-quill-ink-biscuit-cloak-spare socks was now a mantra more than a list.

Three businesslike taps. Not so quiet they could be mistaken for one’s neighbour dropping something, but not so loud that a man absorbed in writing a letter might jump and smudge the ink. It was too perfect to be anyone but the woman he expected.

Though it felt foolish now, his imagination pictured her attending this entire venture in an immaculate maid’s uniform. The black travelling cloak was familiar enough to the usual, but the laced leather riding pants and boots joined by a light shirt that exposed her shoulders was strange indeed. 

Practical was the word that fit. Tight and windproof clothing with a breathable shirt so she didn’t overheat. They weren’t attending a formal event and this would draw less attention than a palace uniform. It fit the mindset of a woman who rarely said more than necessary and it didn’t hurt that it looked excellent on her.

“Good morning, Minister. Are we ready?”

“I think so.” He knew so with perfect certainty, but checked again anyway. “Perhaps we should drop the title for our ‘date?'”

A flicker of displeasure journeyed across her face before it arrived at acceptance. “As you wish, Sir.”

It was a start. Advertising their professional positions to a group of unknown wizards wasn’t good practice even if they didn’t need to fool the palace staff. He beckoned her inside. “Would you like to come in?”

She stepped in and he shut the door behind her.

“Are you hoping for something before we leave?” She took off her leather gloves as her eyes drifted down his body.

“Questions! Just questions. There was a guard outside who was about to raise an eyebrow at us and I’d rather we didn’t get into specifics out in the open.”

“Ah. Very prudent.” She dropped her broom into a decorative bronze vase which had been at the foot of his door until this morning’s reorganisation.

That’s what those are for?”

“Not the line of questioning I expected, but yes, Sir.”

“Sorry. No, I mostly wanted to know what we’re in for. Do we know much about these wizards? What do they do?”

“It’s hard to say, since they weren’t considered notable by Gisland or Dunmuir. They only buy minerals outside foodstuffs, then sell them off again in a few months. It’s profitable enough that the merchant we spoke to goes out of his way to visit.”

“They’re out of the way?”

“Very, but that’s not uncommon. The tower they live in played host to several hermits in the past.”

“Hm.” That meant they were wealthy at the outset of their venture. Whether that meant they were well-funded in the present was up in the air. “They approached us?”

“They did. The letter rambled, but the gist was that they were aware of how to increase Gisland’s number of wizards and their respective power. And that they were willing to be bargained with, naturally.”

“No suggestion of what they wanted?”

“None.”

Stating a flat price would indicate desperation, but a hint might have been nice. Most likely they’d have an ambitious request that he would need to feel out when he got there. What he wouldn’t give to bring Tara and have her translate all the arcane terms and processes into language he could make sense of.

“Well, I think I’m as ready as I’ll ever be, as long as you are.”

She took a deep breath in and pursed her lips. “About that, Sir.”

Was something wrong? …Was this all just a trick to have him incriminate himself? He did have significant doubts that a woman who managed to worm her way into the Queen’s good graces and every important position in the palace would turn coat, come to think of it-!

“I… intend to do my best, but I’m not a proper witch the way you may be accustomed to.”

After his heart rate returned to normal, Rowan felt strong enough to respond. “What do you mean?”

“I’m second-rate among the normal magicians of the capital. Almost every spell I’m capable of involves cleaning in some way or another, so-“

“Arlene.”

“Yes, Sir?”

“You don’t have to apologise for your ability.” Witnessing her be anything less than certain of the entire world put a bad taste in his mouth. Nervous wasn’t an adjective that made sense attached to her. “I’m aware that Queens and Ministers of Magic would be in a league of their own. I’m just glad to have someone who can cast magic better than Adalard or I could pull off.”

“I’ve been known to act… erratically when exhausted.”

“And I act erratically when I’m nervous. Have you seen the state of this room?”

“That’s… part of who you are, Sir.”

“I could say the same to you.” He placed what he hoped was a reassuring hand on her arm. “You just worry about getting us there and I’ll take care of the rest. If you act differently than usual, it might help hide your identity anyway.”

“Are you sure?”

“Positive.”

❈❈❈

Riding with Arlene was still far faster than a horse would have been, but even half-hour legs forced her to sit for a few minutes each time. With his weight on the broom, it was more than twice what she was used to carrying and he didn’t dare distract her with chatter.

They were headed off to the northeast, into the mountain range that the palace backed onto. There was far more life than Rowan would have expected: every valley seemed to have its own little hamlet or cluster of farms on any halfway flat land and shepherds watched their flocks on the steeper slopes. 

The last leg of their journey was up a valley so narrow that it was little more than a crevice between two peaks that ended in a third, nearly a league from the last signs of life. Slowly but surely, a path rose out of the gravel and continued up the ridge of a squat slope. The track was merely a line of stubborn dandelions and scrubby grass that was tramped down, but it remained the best indicator of their destination.

Once he strained his eyes to find the end of the path, he was just barely able to make out the outline of a tower on the flattest part of the ridge, obscured by ash trees and ivy. Arlene set down in front of the structure and they dismounted. 

“Are you alright?” Rowan caught her shoulder as she wobbled dangerously. She didn’t get any words out, but she waved him off and took a sip from a bottle in the bag slung over her shoulder. 

The door to the octagonal tower was up a set of tilting, uneven stairs. A defensive measure, no doubt, since it meant that drunks and people busy dodging fireballs had no chance of scaling them. He held out his arm for Arlene without a second thought and she took it with a sigh.

Rowan was beginning to have his doubts by the time they arrived at the door. Was this tower inhabited? They saw several others on the way over that looked more… well, populated. Banners, well-kept masonry, laundry lines and that sort of thing. A mossy hole in the wall led to a sun-bleached, splintery door which hardly inspired confidence. At least the wood was sturdier than its age would belie and transmitted Rowan’s knock without buckling. 

A moment passed and there was no answer. He was a little gentle for fear of making a poor first impression by knocking down the front entrance. He banged a little louder and was met with a voice:

“Hold your horses! We’re getting decent!”

Ah. 

‘Getting decent’ took another few minutes. Hardly a bad thing, since it let Arlene catch her breath and regain her quiet, stern-faced composure. When the door finally opened, they were treated to… quite a sight. 

Perhaps Rowan was too used to high society and higher fashion, but the two men who answered the door were dressed—to put it gently—horrendously. The one in the front was draped in a robe of an unwholesome russet colour that only accentuated his blotchily ruddy face. The man in the rear wore a better-executed blue, but his robe fit him like a burlap sack; too loose and too short simultaneously. That left him with all the grace of a wandering skeleton. 

That would all be fine, really. Plenty of workaday commoners didn’t pay attention to how they dressed, and Rowan grew up around those. No, the problem started around the hats and trickled down from there. Men didn’t typically wear witches’ hats, what with their feminine associations, and these must have needed reinforcement to stay perfectly straight up in the air, rather than be the soft shapes they normally folded into. For whatever reason, hat and robe alike were dotted (seemingly at random) with stars, moons and suns cut out of scraps of linen and haphazardly sewn on.

The one dressed in blue leaned over to the other and whispered something. 

“A guest, by my interference.”

Another whisper.

“I don’t know if I’d call her a girl. She’s got a broom, so I’d wager she’s old enough to make stones blush.”

And a shrug. They both turned to Rowan.

“Well, man? We’re not a broading home.”

Oh no. Rowan hated dealing with this kind of oration. You had to pretend they weren’t misspeaking every time whatever pompous man you were dealing with stumbled over words he was unused to seeing outside of books. There was a delicate balance to play—advanced vocabulary was appreciated, but the second you used a word he wasn’t used to he would get embarrassed and consequently rather angry. A soft, polite opening was called for.

“Pardon me, gentlemen,” Rowan recited. “I believe I’m supposed to be meeting with you. I am Gisland’s delegate for today’s discussion.”

“And your bug whatever-you-like? We don’t fancy women entering sensical magical spaces and mucking up crucial work.”

“She’s-”

“A servant.” Arlene bowed to the wizards like it was second nature.

“Right, yes.” A lie with a grain of truth was most likely to succeed anyway. She certainly had practice at playing the humble maid. “She’s very prudent, so would you mind letting her in?”

The two huddled together and conferred amongst themselves for a few moments. 

It took a few seconds before Arlene grew impatient. “I would happily sit on my master’s lap to take up as little space as possible, my lords.”

“No!” The one in red yelled. “No. We would typically ask guests to hitch their animals outside, but we’ll make an exception for you.”

“Thank you for your kindness.” She bowed in the absence of a skirt to curtsy with. “I neglected to pack any rope for myself and would hate to impose.”

The wizards squirmed. Was ‘erratic’ the word Arlene used? It was hard to tell whether this was out of or perfectly in character. That unflinchingly straight face she wore while she toyed with them reminded Rowan of how she revealed she was a spy. Of course, the wizards wouldn’t receive an apology or retraction, the poor men.

Rowan cleared his throat in the hope that the air would follow. “Might I ask how we should refer to you?”

“We ought to dispense with names until the equatable time. Together, we are the Crystalline Concord.”

So, what? He was perfectly happy not to give them his own or Arlene’s name, but ‘no names’ was profoundly unhelpful. ‘Tall’ and ‘Fat’ wouldn’t go over well if he uttered them, so he elected to go by the colour of their robes.

‘Blue’—that was, the gangly one—whispered something to Red—the squat one—in quite a hurry.

“We didn’t agree on anything and I’d like to point out that I still refuse to be called a ‘covenant.’ It makes us sound like a gaggle of chatty women who sit around in wimples and discuss theology,” shot Red.

“To speak of discussion,” Rowan interjected, “might we come in? I would hate to ask you to repeat yourselves over the wind if we’re going to talk business.”

“Oh! Yes. Visitants are rare on these mountaintops, so you must forgive our imperceptibility.” He gestured for them to come in while inelegantly squeezing his bulk against the doorframe to make space.

Inside was… difficult to describe. ‘Academia-shaped mess’ were the first words to paddle to the front of Rowan’s mind, though even those were inadequate. Wands, mysterious equipment and tools laid on any surface that would accommodate them, and on top of those, books. They were everywhere, generally unmarked and many looked to be little more than a few folios stitched together to keep the loose pages from separating and joining the fallen sheets accumulating into a bed on the floor. 

If the roof wasn’t wood, he would have assumed the stones strewn about were from a ceiling collapse in the last fifteen minutes. Arlene technically did tell him that these wizards bought minerals, but that hardly prepared him for the volume. Some were clamped to observation apparati, many formed a distinct strata above the books in the world of clutter, but most-

Rowan sucked a breath in through his teeth and fought not to curse when his toe bounced off a chunk of pyrite. Most of the rocks were on the floor and only narrow trenches of safety ran through the debris field.

“Left at the next turn,” Red instructed from his place behind them.

So they knew. They knew they lived in absolutely filthy conditions and that navigation was best done via game-trails through the morass of junk. Why? They knew they would have visitors, clearly, but had they even made an attempt? Oh, sweet Order. What if this was the attempt and it was even worse before? Forget rats and insects, societies of human sized rat- and insect-people could rise and fall in that without detection. 

As their safari progressed, they eventually arrived at their destination—a table strewn with dishes atop the usual items, and critically, only two chairs. 

“The seats may be… Unhegemonic at the moment. A bit dirty, in fact. I might go so far as to not suggest them.”

What to do? Standing up while the wizards sat was a definitive statement on how much Gisland’s diplomats would put up with and told these wizards they could make whatever outrageous demands they pleased. Worst of all, it wouldn’t be far from the truth. With a less consequential deal, Rowan would be turning around to leave, but magic was a resource Gisland was remarkably poor in.

Thank goodness for Arlene. She brushed past him with a: “One moment, Sir,” and got to work.

She stacked the jumble of tomes scattered around the area like a master bricklayer until she built a reasonably large bench that could accommodate the two of them. As a final flourish, she dusted off the top of the new seat and laid her handkerchief across it before presenting the spot to Rowan. 

Red cleared his throat after they took their new seat. “Well, as luck would have it, she stacked them in the right order.”

“Not at all, Magister. The organisation was obvious at a glance and I merely had to keep like with like.”

“Hrm.”

“She’s the finest maid a man could ask for,” Rowan added gratefully.

“Shall we discuss the price for our knowledge now?”

Ah. Amateurs. Overconfident ones were more difficult to deal with than professionals, since they rarely knew when compromise was necessary on their demands. At least there were tried-and-true methods of softening them up.

“Before all that, Magisters, I would rather hear about the nature of your work from the horse’s mouth. Your offer has been through so many intermediaries that I don’t feel as if I truly grasp it.”

A smile. Pride. That was a crack in Red’s facade that would fit the tip of a chisel nicely. 

“Well, it’s as simple as it is complex. We seek the Truth. Nothing more and nothing less.”

“I can’t claim to be as well-educated on mystical matters as either of you, gentlemen. Might you instruct an aspirant on the finer details of the truth?”

“No, no. The Truth,” Red said, emphasising the melodramatic delivery. “It is the way of the world and the way of men at once. The gears that turn the millstone of knowledge and the ox drawing the cart of mysticism.”

Arlene caught sight of Rowan’s confused eyes. “They’re saying they’re thaumologists, Sir.”

That didn’t help at all. What did Rockston’s Compendium say again? He swore he looked up something thaum-ish months ago when he looked over Tara’s reports.

“Quite a reductive insult for masters of the arcane hunting down the inner workings of magic like bloodhounds at the crack of the entomological dawn!”

“With respect, Magister, that is precisely what is meant by ‘thaumology,’ less the insects.”

Ah. That helped. 

A certain amount of pressure was excellent to make Rowan look better in comparison, though he wished Arlene would avoid pointing out his vocabulary mistakes going forward. Red looked rather hurt. To avoid having their negotiating partners pout—or worse, kick them out with nothing to show for their effort—Rowan decided to stroke their egos.

“While I’m sure my servant simply wants to be helpful, both of us lack your deep knowledge of the subject.” A few placated grumbles came out of the wizards. “Of course, I’m in no position to demand tutelage from you.”

“Hrm. I suppose you aren’t.” As expected, Red scooted himself higher into his chair, squirming in delight at the power he was bestowed. “Though…”

He leaned over to Blue and they exchanged whispers for a moment. Rowan, of course, made sure to wear the expression of a wide-eyed, eager pupil for their occasional glances toward him. 

It was the easiest method, given the situation. A little pretend-concession to make the wizards feel as if they had more control than they did. A more savvy negotiator would throw the line right back in his face and point out that he was indeed demanding tutelage, but they also wouldn’t have made so many mistakes in so little time.

“If you are so ignoramant as you claim, you could hardly be expected to know the value of the preposition we’re offering.”

“My thoughts exactly.”

“Well, I should hope you were able to at least peruse our letter? We were able to trim the generalities down to around fifty pages for laymen.”

Rowan was hardly surprised. With his experiences handling Stowell and Halske under his belt, he had no doubt the small book they sent Gisland was rambling at best and incoherent likeliest of all. How many of Gisland’s court wizards played this little game with him when he was younger? 

“I’m afraid that a document of even that level of comprehensiveness had to be kept remarkably safe—what with its ramifications.” Sage nods were the response, though a twinkle in both wizards’ eyes told him that the top-secret spy narrative was appreciated. “So the fact of the matter is that the only man who got to read it was the Archduke himself.”

“Then Gisland’s agents are more astucious than we might have thought.” Red failed to stroke his long beard into a shape that wasn’t ‘unkempt bush’, though not for lack of trying. “We could hardly make an apprentice of you without years of time, you understand.”

“Oh, decades, I expect.”

“Quite right. But there’s nothing for it, I’m afraid. We’ll show you what wonders we have inventoried here and then we will speak. One moment.” Red sat up from his seat and picked his way through the mess to the other side of the tower.

Don’t look at it. The stress that came along with the clutter around Rowan wasn’t worth watching the wizard—ugh, he was throwing things around and making it worse. 

He had to speak to Arlene anyway. To her credit, she noticed the look in his eyes long before he said anything and leaned in to listen. 

“Try not to push so hard when he makes a mistake. I think he’s sensitive about his vocabulary,” he whispered.

“I’m sorry, Sir. Perhaps I really should wait outside?”

Rowan pushed down the feeling that ‘sir’ said in a hoarse whisper gave him. “No, no. If you push a little, I can make it seem like you’re the voice of criticism and that I’m already on their side. Summarising the magic for me was perfect, and it looks like we have more to go.”

Arlene looked troubled, but was interrupted by a pile of stones that was dumped onto the table before them. 

Red dusted off the part of his robe that served as an impromptu rock basket. “Trouble?” 

“Oh, some,” Rowan responded. “Just mentioning that she should mind her verbiage while our discussion takes place.”

“Yes, very important, verbiage.” Though he managed to pronounce the word more like ‘vor-beedge.’ “Especially when a servant sits before her retainer.”

“My apologies for the earlier indiscretion, Magisters. I shall endeavour to only speak when necessary to the conversation.” She didn’t even mention that she was the retainer and Rowan was the one retaining her service. 

“Hm. I didn’t expect you’d have her under such tight control, er… what did you say your name was again, my good man?”

“I think following your example would be prudent for this discussion. Simply think of me as a knight in Gisland’s service.” So they really didn’t know who Rowan was. He was more than happy to throw them off the trail by implying he was one of Adalard’s knights.

“Very well then, Sir Knight.” Red gestured at the pile of stones on the table. “Our topic is these. We began looking into their power before we even left that wracked Institute in Dun Peak.” Red arranged a number in front of him and tapped each for emphasis as he spoke. “Even if those deplorant witches don’t acknowledge it, the ancient dwarves knew how powerful these nuggets of earth are. Quartz. Sapphire. Amethyst. Samples of diamond are hard to come by, but rest assured that it is the home of their greatest Archon.

The lecture on geography was a bit insulting for a professional diplomat. Worse, Vasilias was what the King of Diamond styled himself, not Archon—though only as an attempt to distinguish himself among his peers. Still, Rowan bore it and picked a response that would make the wizard feel intelligent. “I suppose that’s also why most of them are named after stones?”

“Precisely! In any case, we started with using arcane techniques on stone, and found it was possible to make some glow with power.”

“A prospectors’ incantation, Magisters?” Arlene asked.

“A bit of a simplification, but of a sort.”

She leaned in and whispered to Rowan. “Very common spell. It’s for telling types of ore apart based on the colour they emit.”

Curiosity got the better of Rowan, though this was an excellent way to buoy the wizards’ opinion of him. “Hm. Now, I hate to impose, but I haven’t seen such a thing before and it might be an excuse to show off your mystical acumen…”

“Ha! Serendipity itself. Just a moment, Sir Knight.”

The wizards nodded to each other and held their hands over the arrayed stones before them. Blue murmured below any attempt to make out his words, but Red’s booming voice could still be heard. “Enlighten-presumptuate-glowinate-differentiate-fluorate-separate-illuminate-”

“It may be of interest that chanting for small spells is only done by apprentices or the profoundly untalented, Sir,” Arlene added.

“I don’t think half of those words are even real.”

“It helps a caster form a picture in her- pardon, his mind. He could say the opposite of what he wants to do, as long as it stimulates the imagination.”

Slowly but surely, the rocks began to change. It was a strange sight, frankly. Specks and chunks glowed- No. Their colour became brighter as if they were giving off light, but they cast no shadows and neither did they project any colour onto their surroundings. Like a painter who added a block of colour into a landscape and neglected to make it interact with its context.

“Ha! How’s that?” Red’s face was slightly blotchier and a film of sweat covered his features. 

“It’s fascinating. I can only imagine the kind of art you could create with this.”

“The effects are transmittory, I’m afraid. A few hours at most for this sort of spell, but it’s what led us to where we are today. It took many years of research, but we made a breakthrough once we were rid of that foul Chancellor.”

“What was it?”

“Both of us wear a necklace that bears a special variety of crystal we’ve discovered. We can’t divulge any information about their manufacture until we are assured of Gisland’s intentions, you understand.”

“No, er… that’s alright. What’s so special about them?”

“We were conducting a certain mystifying ceremony together when we noticed the raw minerals glow white. It’s how we knew we were on to something. Even just wearing one around your neck can give you confidence and power in all sorts of situations as long as it remains charged.”

A short silence was born as Rowan attempted to work out what that meant in practical terms. Metaphor again? ‘Confidence’ was a well-worn weasel word and ‘power’ wasn’t much better. Arlene must have noticed the impasse and inserted herself. “You speak of ‘charge’ as though it’s storing magic.”

“Hm. Who’s to say?”

“Certain parties might ask whether you’re overselling a casting-delay focus. I’m sure magisters of your calibre will remember what a fuss those were before they… fell short in terms of practicality.”

Red’s moustache twitched and he stroked his facial hair back into place like it was a misbehaving kitten. “No! Or- yes, of course we would remember. Like that one, er…” Arlene made no attempt to fill in the missing information and the wizard’s sweat rose to such heights that his forehead could have been used as a mirror. 

Blue’s whisper was just loud enough that the tone was obviously a grumble, even if the words were inaudible.

“Now hold on!” Red dug through the rocks on the table until he found a milky-white crystal under a piece of sandstone. “We’ll give this one to your master and he can make his own decisions on its efficiency.”

Once a piece of leather was strung through a hole at one end, the necklace was thrust into Rowan’s hand. If ‘confidence’ was what it was supposed to inspire, the magic didn’t work. Even having the prism sit in his palm made his stomach do flips. Who knew what this thing actually did? It might make him sick, brainwash him or something even more awful.

“Perhaps I’ll do that… later.” Never, preferably, but unfortunately he wasn’t in a position to have Tara look at it for him. Maybe he could just pass it along to Adalard and someone else could have a look at it. For now, he would just hang it on his belt right beside his prayer-

Oh. His heart was doing flips now, too. 

Just when he hoped for a little divine protection, his prayer beads were gone. They were always on his belt. Where could he have possibly dropped them? Just on the floor of his bedroom, surely. No, the maids were more attentive than that. Where else? 

…Rhiannon’s sitting-room. The only place he ever undressed outside his personal space. He wasn’t attached to the beads themselves—being nothing but a gift from Adalard, after all—it was only that they were quite comforting in situations like these. Magic was a sort of a physical representation of Change, so what better than a little Orderly activity to ward it off? Probably. The real issue was that he now had the extremely unpleasant task of asking for a lost accessory back from a Queen that he was rather anxious about speaking to. It was bound to happen eventually, but now there were magic artefacts involved, untested rogue wizard magic and Balance knew what else. 

As his brain came to terms with its new reality, he noticed that he was slapping the spot on his belt where his prayer beads normally hung. Quite hard, actually. TAP. TAPTAP. 

“I, ah… I hope I haven’t offended you, Sir Knight? None of us would intend to be on Gisland’s bad side.” The red wizard cast his wide eyes back and forth between his comrade and Rowan.

Glaring again. Damn it. “No, no. I neglected to bring something I meant to.”

“Shall I carry the stone for you, Sir?” Arlene asked.

“Oh. Yes, that would be helpful. Thank you.”

At least Rowan hadn’t appeared to be the coward he really was, but his mind buzzed with questions. They couched this as a gift, but did they expect payment for it? If Red was a smart negotiator he wouldn’t have visibly lost control when Arlene pushed, which meant he might be stupid enough to put a price on this necklace instead of treating it as a gift. Was there enough money in his coinpurse for frivolous demands? The wizards could have the damned rock back for all he cared, but the question of what it actually did and whether Gisland’s wizards would get anything out of it remained.

The Blue wizard whispered something in his compatriot’s ear. Red nodded, then cleared his throat. “Now, Sir Knight, my partner has been quite impressed by your respectfulness as a proscriptive student. He would prefer to deliver his findings to you personally.”

“Oh, by all means,” Rowan answered. 

“On account of his poor expatriations—worse than even mine, mind—he doesn’t speak at all when women are present. Your servant here, in this case.”

Aha. True or not, it did separate him from his main source of magical knowledge. An excellent move on their part. Unnerved as he was by this unknown magic business, he could think of no reason to turn the offer down. He’d have to be careful, sceptical. The last thing he needed was to have the wool pulled over his eyes because he was unescorted for five minutes.

At least it wasn’t zombies again.

“You don’t mind waiting, do you, Ar-” Damn. Did he forget his own request? Arlene’s name was far worse to let slip than his own, considering that she wasn’t an actively known agent of Gisland. This was a grey area for him, but definitive treason on her part. What was he supposed to call her? Everyone was staring now. He cleared his throat and proceeded with the first words that came to mind. “My dear?”

Her face was stone-still, though her wings buzzed indignantly. Probably a step too far, though that seemed to be this week’s theme with the women he dealt with daily. After a few blinks, she at least divined his intent and shook her head. “Of course not, Sir.”

“Excellent. Well, er… I’ll let you lead the way, Magister.”

Blue stood and silently picked his way toward the staircase on the opposite side of the room. Rowan followed after a moment’s hesitation. That was probably the best sign he’d get from a man who didn’t speak.

Up the stairs wasn’t any tidier than the main floor, though there was a new stratum of dirty laundry that joined the fray. What appeared to be a pair of shrines to the stuff in the centre of the room was, in fact, two canopy beds with a nightstand of piled books between them. 

“Ugh, finally.” Blue’s voice wasn’t at all what he would have imagined. What came out of the knock-kneed, lanky man sounded confident. Masculine, even. “He hardly says half of what I tell him when there’s one of those wretched women around. If I didn’t know better, I’d think he was trying to impress it.”

He talked as if women were some exotic species that one could avoid—so long as one didn’t visit a palace menagerie. It was probably important that he not learn how exotic and varied Rowan’s… intimate associates could be, then. 

“Your friend does seem the type to lose himself in his own conversational tangents, if nothing else.”

“He’s excited to have visitors for once. We ran out of conversation topics aside from new books or research years ago.”

“The price you pay for solitude, I suppose.”

“And much worth paying. I’d rather not see another witch for the rest of my days and women are a close second.”

“That bad?”

“That bad. Men have been fools for too long and the world just pretends that only women are capable of great magic because they’re more ‘sensitive.’ Ha! Even the greatest liar in the country couldn’t call them the fairer sex after a day with those social climbers at the Institute.”

This sounded like a magnificent topic to sidestep. Rowan knew the type. He’d go on for hours about his past and they’d fail to circle back to the topic at hand or spoil his mood for any negotiation that did occur. “Hence the research on making mundane men into magicians.”

That part is easy. All it takes is the right practice and willpower, though you can spoil it when you’re young. What we’re researching is raw power. I assume you have an interest, with your desire to be an apprentice to us?”

‘No, not really,’ Rowan would have loved to tell him. ‘And in fact, I’d consider myself a fairly unambitious person even if we were to discount my reservations about magic in general. I’m barely over the fact there’s an unending stream of magic in my vicinity without a wizard half-mad from a grudge putting magic inside me. The first and only time a spell affected my insides, I instantly vomited. Whether that was panic or some kind of allergy to the arcane is still up in the air and I’m not sure I want to find out.’

“What man wouldn’t be?” He responded. ‘Rowan of Waterton’ remained the silent answer.

“Good. The crystal is the first stage—I’m sure you’ve worked out that much. We use the ritual to charge it and wearing it strung around our necks already provides a noticeable increase in power output.”

Or so they claimed. If Arlene was certain that magic couldn’t be stored, it was all suspect. 

From beneath one of the beds, Blue produced a small wooden box. Mostly plain, though with a padlock on the outside and a brass label proclaiming the contents to be ‘TAX DOCUMENTS’. “So the question was: what if the power source could be put inside the body. Less waste? More powerful?”

“It makes sense from first principles, if the magic comes out on all sides.” There was some presence in the pit of Rowan’s stomach that warned him they were headed down a dangerous path. Swallowing them would cut up one’s insides over time. What if they cut open their skin and embedded them there? Perhaps they crushed them into a powder and tattooed themselves until it was one agonising sheet of crystal trying to escape their skin every time they moved? It was still his duty to find out what these wizards were up to, but…

“I do have to reveal part of our work by showing you this. It’s immediately obvious, so I’d like you to swear on your honour as a man that we’ll see some conclusion of a deal today. Even if it’s just payment for this moment.”

On his honour as a man. The wizard wouldn’t last a second in politics, but the naivete was charming. 

“Here.” Rowan reached into his coinpurse. It embarrassed him to be unaware of the face value of much of Dunmuir’s currency, but a small handful of silver never went amiss. He could afford the expense two dozen times over this month and it might reveal enough that Gisland could puzzle out their secrets free of charge. “A man should settle his debts as soon as he’s able, no?”

Blue pocketed the coins in appreciation without even bothering to count. “Then you’re a fine man, Sir Knight.”

“I appreciate the compliment from someone who obviously values that. You were saying, Magister?”

“Yes. Right. There is a way to—’tune’ is the word thaumaturgists use in situations like these—the crystal to specific types of energy. Pyromancy, illusions, physical shields and so on. The only method of storage is hitting the right combination of type, crystal, form of the object and a few other factors. Do you follow?”

“So far. It’s all down to perfect specificity?”

A nod. “That’s why we’ve only been able to narrow down one type as of yet.”

The wizard opened the box with a key hung beside the crystal on his necklace and revealed the contents. There were poetic ways to describe the contents, certainly. Graceful curves, classical proportions, a fine, mirror finish…

Fundamentally, however, it was one of the milky-white crystals set into an anal plug made of magically-conductive bronze. He wouldn’t be surprised if Conan sent him one just like it in the crate of unwanted sex toys he’d just disposed of. 

Now Rowan felt silly for taking the perverted mountain hermits seriously. Oh, please take the scary necklace Arlene, it might give me an erection. Blue even admitted that it had nothing to do with becoming a wizard. If that part was so easy, hopefully they’d give up a useful secret. Balance willing, this whole bit was a prank to test his tolerance for mischief. Just a little hazing for someone they thought wanted to be an apprentice. It would be impossible to meet a Gisland mage’s eye ever again if their power really was amplified by these things.

“Fascinating,” Rowan managed.

“I assume it’s obvious why we tried this method of embedding first, then.”

“Perfect sense, given the school you’re working with.” He suddenly felt weary. Wasn’t sex magic just a trick charlatans played on important nobles? …Could Rhiannon do it? Delightful. Not learning firsthand was a bitter comfort in the face of this charade the wizards were playing. “I hope you’ll forgive me if I don’t try it out.”

“No expectations in that direction, Sir Knight. Only to say that these improve one’s ability to cast the appropriate magic by as much as ten percent when charged.”

”I’m sure that number is something our wizards will be rather enticed by.” The impressive number was nothing next to the knowledge that his hosts had a thumb’s length in bronze up their rear ends for this entire visit. The one time it wasn’t attractive women and this is what Rowan got. “Dare I ask about your charging methods or production?”

“Secrets of our trade until we’ve come to a conclusion, I’m afraid. All I can tell you is that the crystals are exceptionally difficult to create and attune, but the charging process isn’t difficult as long as you have two men working in tandem.”

“Well, I see why you wanted to show this off yourself when so much delicate explanation was required. Was there anything else I should see while you’ve got me?”

“Nothing that couldn’t wait until an apprenticeship,” the wizard said with a wink.

Just another hour at most, Rowan. Be polite, be perfect and refuse to ever return here even if Adalard threatens you with death. “Then I suppose I should thank you for the conversation while you can still respond.”

“Likewise. I look forward to speaking with you in the future.”

❈❈❈

“Well,” Red concluded, “have we been appropriately enleavened?”

“You might say that.” You might also say that Rowan was so ‘enleavened’ that he was now determined to wring the last of their secrets out of them for as little recompense as possible and wash his hands of this entire situation. “At this point, I only wonder why you don’t take this to the Institute in Dun Peak.”

A scornful cough came from Red and even Blue shook his head in disgust. “Ridiculous. They exile their own for an excess of brilliance, so men are laughed out of the room on principalities.”

“Ah. I’ve certainly seen my share of that. I went to visit a witch out in the countryside a few months ago, only to find she’d made a breakthrough in her field. And they had the gall to put her on trial for forbidden research, of course.”

“Hrmph. Typical behaviour. We’re in the centre of the magical world, droves of people of all sorts wander in from terra incognitant, and the council’s cronies still manage to be closed-minded. In any reasoned country, kings would be on their hands and knees for us or your friend. We’re just cast-offs here.”

“Shocking, as a man from Gisland.” Rowan nodded. “I’m sure you know we take much better care of our luminaries. Frotlaick of Newley, for example.”

“Can’t say I’ve heard of many Gislanders aside from that Waterton fellow. Tell us more.”

It was a charming experience to be without his unearned star power. If only fewer people knew who he was. “Well, humble beginnings, of course. Much easier to work your way up to influence when there’s no cadre of women ten times your age telling you your business.”

“Nightmaresque here, really.”

“The man worked as an apprentice chandler, I understand. He got to toy around a little with cauldrons, as you might expect, and he managed to concoct a tonic that helped our knights recover from battle twice as quickly as usual. After that, it was onward and upward until he published a treatise on alchemy that’s in every physician’s workshop.” He readjusted his sitting position as he waited for the wizards to process the information. Now, Frotlaick wasn’t a man suggesting anal plugs as a solution for low magical capability in men, but the point stood.

“You paint quite an attractive tapestry, Sir Knight.”

“It’s only right for genius to be rewarded, wouldn’t you say?”

“Quite.” Red used the act of smoothing down his beard to cover up a growing smile.

“I hope you’ll forgive a bit of assumption on my part—” A pause went uninterrupted. He had them, but monologuing too long let minds wander and opinions change. “—but I feel as though I’ve come to understand the two of you at least as well as I understand your critical work. It occurs to me that payment in kind might profit two forgotten sages more than a lump sum.”

Both wizards locked eyes for a split second and Red’s beard-stroking became more thoughtful. “What are you prophesying?”

“A home in New Gisdorf, a well-fitted laboratory and eager apprentices would be little more than a well-advised investment, to start with.”

That they even bothered whispering to each other was a surprise. Whatever the discussion was, Blue was so adamant that he was very nearly audible. His partner’s head tilted this way and that, but eventually they came to enough of an agreement that Red turned back to Rowan. “I’m afraid our current faculties contain too much delicate work to simply pack up. We’ll be staying here.”

Rowan was shaken. Did Blue foresee that the Archduke could evict them if the wizards failed to provide results? If they were angling for payment, he had no way to appraise what they were selling. They had some kind of magic on their hands, but whether it was worthless minutiae or the secret to creating magicians out of peasants was yet to be seen. 

“Apprentices would be of prime necessity, of course!”

“Ah, a journey and a climb up a mountain would certainly test their mettle.” His mettle was being tested, too. If moving was off-limits, what did they want? Red must have noticed his impatience with the situation and finally spluttered out what Rowan wanted to hear.

“Precisely! Naturally, we couldn’t put them up for free…”

Easy. In fact, with Stowell’s situation lingering in his mind, he had just the solution for them. “Naturally, my good man. I would like you to keep in mind that the Dukes will have to keep their direct involvement strictly secret for reasons of security and international stability, but-”

They both hung onto his every word, and Red leaned forward to catch more juicy vocabulary to misuse. So Blue wasn’t against the whole concept, he just wanted to stay away from the women that happened to exist in cities. Fine. Dreams were free of charge and Rowan had plenty of attractive ones to sell them.

“On an unofficial basis, there would be a certain budget available for a small research practice working for Gisland’s benefit. We have a few such ateliers, like the one Master Frotlaick runs.” 

“That sounds… agreeable.” Excitement radiated off both of them. “And might we ask how much?”

“Now, it wouldn’t do to skimp on such a valuable investment.”

“No. Very much so.”

Also free of charge were guarantees of unspecified amounts. Gisland didn’t give him a budget, but the categories were obvious. “I can promise a reimbursement for necessary research materials, first and foremost. That much is a given.” Necessary would be decided by a master-wizard who was a stingy miser, but they didn’t have to know that. “An amount for renovations made in preparation for apprentices, a stipend to feed and house them, and of course a salary for each of you.”

Arlene produced a pair of coinpurses out of her bag and set them on the table in front of the wizards. “An expression of His Primacy’s gratitude and a taste of what is to come. A gold piece’s worth each, in local currency so as not to arouse suspicion.”

Rowan could kiss her. Two gold pieces was nothing in the scheme of a government budget. If that was what they offered for the totality of the research, they’d be justified to walk away from the table for such a lowball. But a year’s wages for a labourer and the vague promise of more? Both men’s eyes nearly popped out of their sockets and Blue unsubtly scooped the bags toward them as Red generated pleased guffaws. 

It was time to strike while the iron was hot. “Well, gentlemen? I’m afraid I’m not authorised to offer any more today, but results will dictate further compensation.” Which might mean that this was the last pay they would ever see. The Archduke would be bemused by their methods, to say the least.

“I can say with no calms that we have a deal, Sir Knight.” Both wizards gave enthusiastic, whole-arm handshakes and Blue’s eyes twinkled with unspoken hope. “In fact… Pray tell, what age are you? Less than thirty?”

“Just.” The median age of his colleagues was likely over a century. That knowledge alone gave Rowan a good deal of perspective of how young he was and would continue to be for decades yet.

They conferred in whispers for a few moments, but the wizards nodded to each other before long. “Since our payment has been received and all accounts are settled, neither of us see any reason to disregard your request for tutelage any longer. Cover the woman’s ears a moment, would you?”

Arlene beat him to the punch and kneeled in front of him before he had a chance to stand. She meant well—it just so happened that the posture she took felt… compromising. There was no need to stand, but a slight lean forward was made all the more embarrassing when it moved his lower body closer to her face. 

He’d never really considered how fluffy Arlene’s hair was. It was remarkably soft as he ran his fingers through the feathery mop and the smell of a gentle soap rose off of her. There was no need to linger, but after a moment of searching, he wasn’t sure he was even looking in the right place. The pressure was only increased by her impassive stare as she waited for him to stop ruffling her hair.

Ah, there were her ears. Small, unassuming and even round like a human’s. Who knew how awkward this would have become if ‘Er, do you hear through your antennae or is there some other hole I’m missing?’ was uttered. 

Red cleared his throat to regain the room’s attention. “To ask the impertinent question, Sir Knight, are you a virgin?”

Sorry?

“If a man knows naught but the touch of his own hand until his thirtieth summer, there are ways that his power may bloom after that. So…?”

“I, er…” He wasn’t one before he came to Dunmuir and now he was close to developing a reputation as a womaniser. Come to think of it, he ‘knew the hand’ of the woman whose face was less than an arm’s length from his crotch. She caught his glance down at her and lifted an eyebrow. 

“Say no more.” Red must have noticed Rowan’s cheeks getting warm from the accusatory eye contact. “That’s a surer sign than any that you’re at the gates of grandiosity.”

There wasn’t any point to correcting them to his detriment. Rowan didn’t even lie, should Red or Blue happen to discover the truth. 

“When the time comes, offer a prayer to the Green Man during your nightly session. Contact us after that and we will set the wheels of your apprenticeship in motion.”

Praying to a foreign male deity in the midst of masturbation was a hop, skip, jump, sprint and swim to the opposite side of an ocean past what he was willing to do, thank you. Even the Dunmuirians didn’t worship the deceased god of nature and magic, even if they claimed His corpse had formed the world at the beginning of time. He certainly couldn’t be as powerful as a metaphysical concept like Change if He went around dying, and Rowan had no plans to beg his own gods for that.

“I’ll do that,” Rowan replied. “Is there a message you’d like me to pass to the Archduke?”

“Just our regards. But if you happen to see his court wizard, we’d be obliged if you’d deliver our peculiars to him.”

Peculiar indeed. Rowan was happy to say his goodbyes and let Arlene fly them back to Dun Peak.

❈❈❈

The return trip took even longer than their way out. Toward the end, Arlene was visibly flagging and her broom tended to drift off to the right when it wasn’t lowering them toward the ground. She claimed that she was alright but put up little resistance when Rowan told her he would walk once they got into town. 

They set down near the Institute and she wobbled again. 

“Arlene?”

She only managed a grunt in response and tried to shake the last few drops of a bottle into her mouth. 

“Are you thirsty? We could refill at a well.”

She put it back in her bag with gritted teeth. “Potion.” 

Ah. Probably something for the exhaustion. “Here, take my arm and I’ll carry the broom.” She complied without a word and he guided her back toward the palace. A tired woman wrapped around his arm was a good look for their alibi, but would their trip through the guilds district be enough to allay any suspicions? “Do you think we should finish out the fake date in public somewhere? Nobody will have seen us all day, so we might look suspicious.”

“Don’t care.” Arlene ground her aching forehead into her palm like she was trying to bore a hole in her glove.

“Would food help the headache? Tea and dinner, maybe?”

“Sure.”

“Is the Gilded Lily alright? We’re practically there already.” And more likely to be noticed by people from the palace, of course. 

“Ugh. Upstairs please.”

“I didn’t know there was an upstairs. Is it quieter?”

She nodded, hand still adhered firmly to her forehead.

Upstairs was filled by entire private rooms, as it turned out. It was a smart business move on Olin’s part. A comfortable home away from home if any palace affairs needed conducting and soundproofed well enough that even loud complaints about important people wouldn’t be heard. Rowan waved at a few familiar faces before they entered theirs. 

It was, for all intents and purposes, a booth with some standing room. Two padded benches faced each other across a sturdy oak table and a trapdoor was built into the far wall with a string beside it. As soon as they closed the drapery-covered door, they were alone in silence again. He sat down first, more to get out of Arlene’s way than anything. He was terrified the poor girl would collapse. 

When she threw her cloak and gloves onto the bench across from him, he half-expected her to lie down and sleep. It came as a surprise, then, when she sat down next to Rowan and rested her head against the cool wood of the table. Maybe she hadn’t even thought of it with what must have been a monumental migraine. 

“It’s not as though I don’t appreciate beautiful women sitting next to me, but I don’t mind ordering for you if you’d like to get some rest?”

A long moment passed and his uncertainty built. Was she mad at him for even suggesting it? Wait. No, it made more sense if she was already asleep. He was halfway into taking off his robe to drape it over her as a blanket when the response came.

“…Undignified.”

“As long as you’re sure,” Rowan said. He finished taking off his robe, folded it as neatly as he could (for the extra dignity it might earn him in front of the professional maid) and set it next to him as though it was his plan all along. 

Before long, someone with a saccharine voice tapped on the door. “Milord? Milady? Would you like to place an order?”

“Ah, yes please!” Rowan was a little over-eager to answer in Arlene’s stead.

“Is it alright if I step in? I can’t hear you very well by design.”

“Of course!”

The red-haired fox woman who opened the door and leaned inside matched the voice well. She had tall, perky ears and an attentive smile that made her look as if every day of being a waitress was a dream fulfilled. 

“Er… was it Selma or Samantha? I only saw the two of you briefly at the Girians’ welcome dinner.”

“I’m honoured you even remember that much, Sir Rowan! I’m Selma, the one who usually handles brewing the drinks.”

“It’s nice to meet you properly then, Selma.”

“Likewise! What would you and your companion like, sir?”

“If you’ve got any fish in today, I wouldn’t mind that.”

“Of course. And for you, Milady?”

“I overflew.” Arlene didn’t lift her head off the surface of the table. 

“A fish dinner, one pot of restorative tea, and a bowl of beef and barley soup?” Selma noted down the list as soon as Arlene nodded. “I’ll send up your orders with the elevator at the end of the table there, and if you’d like anything else, the cord is connected to a bell in the kitchen. I won’t disturb you for anything else, so please feel free to relax!”

“Thank you, Selma.” Rowan shot her an appreciative nod.

“We should thank you for coming so often!” She bowed out of the door with one elegant movement, radiant grin still plastered to her face.

Arlene stretched out her wings. “Flirting with a married waitress?” 

“What? No! I just wanted to make her feel valued is all. I try to do the same for the maids.”

The dumb-waiter rose on a squeaky pulley and Arlene wasted no time snatching her tea and pouring out a cup for herself. She guzzled down the first cup before the herbal scent even hit Rowan’s nostrils. 

Some of the colour returned to her face and she began pouring another cup. “And several of them would happily fill in for me if the Queen assigns someone to make you fill a wine glass again.”

“…I, er…”

Arlene peered at him the way a mother looks up at a child who had interrupted her knitting with some inane comment. She would certainly be looking over the top of her spectacles, had she owned any. “You really are terrible with sexual comments, Minister. You’re making a face like I kicked your cat and you’re worried you’re next.”

“I just… It caught me off-guard! You’re so serious, normally.”

“I’m normally the piece of furniture the Queen and palace staff need me to be. Decades of serving Her Majesty have taken their toll on my sense of humour, is all.”

“That long?”

“I was younger than you are when I started working for her. Now if your Greenglass had a sense of humour, she would be worse than I am. They met as teenagers.”

“You must have been through a lot, then.”

“The Queen has had me under the table for many more meetings than just yours.”

Well, that sounded like Rhiannon’s modus operandi. No wonder Arlene was happy to work for Gisland. “I do worry I‘ll accidentally kick you every time I have a chat with her.”

“Don’t worry. It’s only happened the once with you and now that you’ve had sex with her, she wouldn’t bother hiding it.”

Rowan pushed his bangs back as if airing out his forehead would let the headache out. “I have been wondering what to do about that situation.”

“What do you mean?”

“I don’t know… Is it alright if I get into it? I don’t want to make you uncomfortable.”

She raised an eyebrow. “We’ve seen each other practically naked, worked together as the Queen’s sexual entertainment, I’ve read every one of your sex reports to the Queen and I practically work in a brothel with how many young women come in and out. You don’t need to pretend to respect me.”

“Hang on, hang on.” There was self-effacement and then there was throwing one’s self-esteem in the gutter. “I do respect you. A lot.”

“Minister, I’m probably the least respectable person you know. I’m just a servant, whether that means taking out the garbage or being a sex partner.”

“Arlene.” Rowan rested a hand on her shoulder. A nice, physical action would help her escape her own head for a moment. He certainly knew what it was like to struggle at that. “Why wouldn’t a servant deserve my respect?”

She furrowed her brow as the force of her convictions were redirected and spun until the wind had left her sails. It was natural for the other servants to be respected for their work, so a retort that servants were fundamentally unrespectable was impossible. 

And a follow-up to set the tone of his opinion. “You’re a leader and the perfect professional in the face of… a lot. Much more than I could know, I’m sure.”

“I… look, I’m sorry I got us off track. I’m open to whatever you want to ask me about, Minister.”

A redirect. But it looked as though he gave her a little food for thought, so he decided to leave the argument at that before he annoyed her. “You can just use my name, you know.”

“…Do I have to?”

“Not at all. I just want you to know that I’m coming to you as a peer and you don’t need to be deferential.”

“I don’t want to contradict you, but we-”

Rowan held up a hand. “Aren’t peers, I know. You’re the Queen’s head maid that she trusts with the day-to-day affairs of the capital’s palace on top of handling all her daily business. I’m just a commoner from the middle of nowhere with a knighthood given to me as a sex joke, a ministry my secretary runs for me and a ‘noble’ title that confers as much status and land as claiming to be the rightful king of the sea.”

Arlene let out a dramatic sigh that was coloured by the mirth of an unreleased chuckle. “Fine, Rowan. What can this maid do for you?”

“Aha. Well, er…” He was a bona fide professional in charm offensives. He had sit-down classes with theory on them under his belt. Building up Arlene with a few kind words was no problem at all compared to admitting his anxiety. Couldn’t they just go back to that for a while? “I was just thinking about my situation and I have a pair of problems that Tara or the other ministers couldn’t help with. And that’s assuming I could even admit it all to them.”

“Could you be more specific?”

A ding heralded the arrival of their meals. The short interruption of moving plates and bowls around allowed Rowan the time to couch his question.

“…If Sophia has been around so long, do you have any idea of how I could win her back over? I never really meant for her to be humiliated like that.”

“Oh, if it were up to me she would be put in her place far more often.”

So her expression during Sophia’s ‘punishment’ really was satisfaction. “I assume you have history?”

“Yes.”

“Would you like to tell me about it?”

“Not particularly.”

Well that wasn’t helpful at all. It wasn’t his main worry, but being on speaking terms with his deputy was only second to being on speaking terms with his employer. “I suppose I’ll figure something out, then.”

“I apologise for not being more helpful. One simply hopes it requires closely reading paperwork you’re holding in front of your stomach.” Arlene bounced back quickly, he’d give her that. The passive snark was a retreat back into comfortable normalcy.

But Rowan wasn’t done talking to the woman behind the stiff upper lip and dead eyes. “If I didn’t know better, I’d think you wanted to be in my position for that.”

She choked on a mouthful of soup and waved a hand in front of her. “She’s only halfway attractive because Her Majesty bullied her into taking care of her appearance. I can’t stand her and I doubt she’d have any idea of what to do between a woman’s legs.”

“I apologise, but one simply hoped to make a sexual comment to lighten the mood.”

The gears took a few seconds to turn, but the jab was rewarded by a sparkle that lit up Arlene’s eyes. “Cheeky.”

“If I’m going to be stuck with the Queen for a decade, I may as well adapt now.” 

“An admirable position. What’s this other problem?”

Rowan was loosened up a little, at least. Even if Arlene didn’t take Sophia seriously, she was listening to him and unafraid to make her position known. Better still, her relationship with the Queen was far better and she might have something valuable to say. He steeled himself and made his more pressing complaint. “I think I went too far with Rhiannon. I’m not sure how I’m going to face her from now on and one of the guards was watching the whole thing.”

“Rumours are circulating, but you should give me the real story.”

“If you’re sure it’s alright.” He scratched his head. “Things started off pretty well, but I noticed she was doing all the work and didn’t seem to be enjoying it that much. So I asked if I could make it feel better for her and then it sort of got out of hand.”

“Go on.”

“She practically had to coach me! The dirty talk was stupid, she wasn’t comfortable getting more intimate and then I tried to make her feel better and just grabbed her by the horns because I wasn’t thinking. She ended up just tossing me out at the end.”

“Did she say she wasn’t enjoying herself?”

“No, but I think it’s pretty obvious what she thought.”

“You should talk to her then. I’ll guarantee she hasn’t given your performance a second thought.”

“I guess.” She’d probably had terrible lovers before, but they didn’t have to face her down daily.

“Good. She isn’t half as thoughtful as she seems.”

“Rhiannon’s said that herself, but it never really feels like a chink in her armour.”

“Ha. Is that what it looks like?”

Yes. More than yes. Every move and word out of her mouth had a theatrical grandeur that turned her into the leading lady of any room. Neither Archduke that Rowan had met was possessed of half her presence. “She looks like a fairytale queen, if you discount what she does in the bedroom.”

“Oh, you’ve seen her slip up with her little facade before. Don’t you remember that party with the Girians?”

“She seemed fairly level-headed even if she was a bit drunk.”

“Do you remember when she shot herself back toward the palace?”

“Yes?”

“Crashing through a wall wasn’t intentional.”

“Wait, what? I saw some dust or something, but I assumed I was seeing things.”

“She put a hole in the Ministry of War’s tower with her head, stood up and escorted herself to bed.”

Rowan blew his breath out between his teeth. Every available dossier about the Queen indicated a talent for body-strengthening magic, but putting herself through solid masonry and only complaining of a hangover the next day was another level entirely. 

“I help her play it off in public, but you’ll catch it if you look.” Arlene took another sip of tea while a thought formed. “There’s that Sicorathi outfit she wears sometimes, for example.”

“Er… the pink one?”

“With the transparent silk.”

“It’s…?”

“Oh, she’ll be very disappointed that your eyes weren’t wandering enough to notice. In any case, she likes the veil, but never remembers it’s there. Just the other day she went to take a sip of wine as she was flirting with a girl and spilled it down her front.” Arlene mimed the spill, then pushed up an imaginary set of breasts much larger than her own. “Not even a second’s hesitation before she said ‘care for a drink?’”

“There’s no way! She must have planned it.”

“She bragged to me afterwards about how it was all improvisation.”

A professional diplomat should really have been able to intuit that everyone was a real person on the inside. Somehow, though, adding an internal monologue to a woman who was an unassailable edifice in his mind was unbearably funny. His laughing had him in tears when he layered: ‘Er, fuck. Shit. She’s looking at me now. What do I say? Seductive. Shoulders set. I mean, let’s be honest Rhiannon, you’ve got great tits. She’s been looking at them. We could do something with… Oh!’ over the visual of the scenario. 

“She must be… interesting to work for.”

“Rowan, if you get me started on little anecdotes like these, I’ll end up keeping you here until some time next week.” She cocked an eyebrow to dare him as she finished the last sip of her drink.

“That tea must be doing wonders if you’re this talkative now.”

“Ugh.” Her lips drew out into a thin, nearly-but-not-quite frown. If she made the expression when they weren’t touching shoulders, it would have been easy to miss. “I apologise. This is why I wanted to warn you.”

Wait, wait. What he meant was ‘I’m very glad you’re not as tired as you were when I half-carried you here.’ As in an invitation to talk more. “That isn’t what I meant. I feel as if I’d waste your time if I stopped you to chat, so I’m glad we have a while to spend together.”

“I can make time. I do owe you for dinner and putting up with me acting strangely, after all.”

“I like seeing you loosen up a little.”

“Hm.” Arlene leaned into his shoulder. “And here I thought you were just ‘seeing where the night took us,’ My Dear.”

He hoped she’d forgotten that particular slip of the tongue. “I-it’s easy enough to fake a report about that kind of thing, so you don’t have to force yourself.”

For the first time that night, she locked eyes with Rowan. Not a furtive glance or a general look to his face for confirmation of some point, but a long stare that made him wonder if she even needed to blink. It was an intense experience, but he’d never really stopped to appreciate the gentle honey-brown of her eyes or how they complimented a face as still and beautiful as marble. 

It startled him when she reached up and brushed a lock of his hair behind his ear. “Do I seem like I would hate it?”

“Er…” His mind thrashed under the weight of her stare. The little diplomat in the back of his mind begged him to lie, to figure out a weakness or at least say something charming. But why? She was being perfectly honest with him, so it was only right to return the favour. “…You’re a little hard to get a read on.”

She laid a hand on his thigh. “Does this help? I don’t mind seeing where our night is going, either.”

Perhaps all the assumptions Rowan made about her were built on shaky foundations. Arlene did seem to have a sense of humour—even if it was hard to detect—and no qualms discussing sex. Maybe he should have anticipated that she might enjoy a night out with someone of her choosing. For now, though…

She hummed with satisfaction when he leaned over and kissed her. He played things delicately, softly pressing their lips together and laying a hand over hers. It was nice. Nothing untoward or hurried. Arlene followed his lead as they shared gentle pecks and took their time getting to tongue. 

The moment stretched out into a small eternity as they enjoyed each other. When they separated to take a breath, they stayed nose-to-nose. 

“Better?” Rowan asked. “I’ve been on my back foot so much lately that I wasn’t sure I should push.”

The ghost of a smile—nothing more than one corner of her mouth and her eyebrows lifting slightly—seemed to light up her face with more confidence and life than he would have imagined he’d see out of her. “I happen to know you play rougher with former princesses.”

“Is it so wrong that I want to take my time with a normal encounter?” He wasn’t joking. No business, no rush, no panic or forced interaction here. He hadn’t noticed how much he missed being able to kiss a girl until Rhiannon expressed no interest in it. 

She turned her face away coquettishly. “It’s not a servant’s place to take control of such things, Sir. Least of all when the gentleman feels he’s been put upon the back foot.”

He played along and turned her chin back to face him. “I suppose it’s my place to reward such thoughtful service, then?”

Her hand caressed his thigh. “I wouldn’t force you if you didn’t request me to.”

And mysteriously, he felt like doing it anyway. Rowan pulled her petite body closer to his own and practically smothered her with a kiss.

If her eager tongue and the antennae brushing through his hair were anything to go by, the reward was appreciated. With their eyes closed, they fumbled around in the self-imposed darkness like sailors on a moonless night. The hand on his leg slid teasingly higher, always stopping just short of his manhood before trailing back down. If that was how she wanted to play, he could be a little more forceful.

His fingers wandered down her back and over her wide hips until they reached the supple leather of her riding breeches. The next time Arlene neared his crotch, he grabbed a handful of her butt. He imagined softer from its size, but evidently her daily laps of the palace did wonders to build springy muscle. 

As if she’d been waiting for him, her hand finally made it onto his dick and squeezed his shaft through his pants. 

Rowan shifted his hips unconsciously. Some deep, reptilian part of his brain moved instinctually for more stimulation and he could only disguise it as readjusting his sitting position. 

He felt Arlene’s lips curl into a self-satisfied smirk. She broke the kiss with one final peck and leaned over his shoulder. Her hot breath tickled his ear, hovering so close that her lips brushed against his skin.

“Good boy.”

Oh, good. She’d found something else to call him that made him squirm and opened a pit of arousal deep in his stomach. If he wanted tips on improving his dirty talk with the Queen, he should clearly be consulting the professional. 

Arlene thumbed his tip, fingers still tight around his shaft to measure his reaction. “Or was ‘Sir’ more to your taste? Perhaps we missed an opportunity for me to call you ‘Master’ in front of those wizards?”

Yes. Or no. Er, All of those were good, not that she needed to be told. He couldn’t see her face, but heard the mirth in her voice and felt her squeeze him every time his dick throbbed.

Fine. Two could play at that game.

To whisper in his ear, her bare neck and shoulder were practically in his face already. It didn’t take any effort at all to let one hot, heavy breath hit her neck before he kissed it. Arlene’s breath hitched for a moment, only ending in a soft exhale when he kissed the spot again.

Her tells were much smaller than he was used to, frankly. Quiet exhales, a tremble he mistook for a stretch and nary a word from her mouth. He’d kissed all the way down to her collarbone before she set a hand on the back of his head. Rowan was hardly even sure he was doing a good job until he glanced up for validation and found her cheeks a becoming shade of pink.

The blouse she wore had kept him on edge all day. Perhaps he’d never admit it with a mind unclouded by lust, but it posed so many questions. Was it just the swell of her small bust keeping it from slipping down? Was she exposing so much skin to him on purpose? Was she even wearing anything underneath? There was no hint of any straps under the linen or any other covering. The way her corset rose high to frame her breasts made the thought all the more titillating. 

All it took was one finger in the neckline and a quick tug to expose the answer. She squeezed him a little tighter as her bare breasts spilled out of the daringly thin fabric.

“I’ve had to stop wearing shirts like this in front of Her Majesty for just that reas- ah.” Arlene’s train of thought ground to a halt as he kissed his way down to her areola and ran his tongue over it.

Rowan could feel her shudder as he repeated the motion, so he reached up and cupped her other breast with a free hand. Unlike the Queen, she fit comfortably into his palm and was just pliant enough to highlight her stiff nipples. 

“A-are you a baby? I don’t have much down there, you know.” Her voice wasn’t nearly as confident as before—not that he needed confirmation when she was using his ponytail as a handle to control his tongue. 

He glanced up with the next lick. Experience told him how stimulating eye contact could be and the reaction was stunning. Arlene bit her lip so hard that she looked to be on the verge of drawing blood, and she redoubled her effort to jerk him through the thick wool of his pants. 

His tongue trailed lower, but just as it touched her stomach, she pulled him away by his hair.

“I’m ready.” Her voice quavered and he could feel her heartbeat pounding through her breast.

“Are you sure?” In truth, he was sort of looking forward to her reaction to getting some ‘service’ for herself.

“You just sit there and watch.” Arlene stood, leaning against the door to give him the best possible view.

Each clasp on her corset came loose with a distinct pop until the whole thing came free and dropped to the floor. She seemed to thrive on the attention Rowan gave her and ran a hand over her stomach. 

“Am I still to your liking, Sir?”

The break from foreplay must have helped her regain her composure, because she grinned when he nodded dumbly.

“Hm,” she half-sighed, half-moaned as her hands slipped into the waistband of her pants. “And would you like to see more?”

“Please,” he managed.

In one movement, her blouse came out of her pants, off her body and landed on his lap. There wasn’t any time to appreciate the ingenious arrangement for her wings or the sweet scent of her sweat wafting off before she moved again. 

Her antennae danced atop her head as she gave him a sultry stare. With ill-feigned innocence, she interlaced her fingers and stretched her arms above her head to expose her chest to him. A shiny streak where he licked her remained, hardly visible on her flushed skin. 

Once he’d gotten an eyeful, she turned her back to him and bent down to unbuckle her tall boots. The first thing to catch his attention were her gossamer wings. Or so they seemed at first—the tissue that connected each large vein looked thick and pliable, despite their translucence. Both flicked and buzzed periodically over what Arlene was no doubt inviting him to stare at. 

Her leather-clad ass was well within arm’s reach and was even more impressive now that it was at eye level. The dark material accentuated her feminine curves beautifully and kept just enough shine that her rear looked to be carved from polished stone. 

“If you’re so keen on helping-” she stood back up and undid the laces holding the breeches tight to her legs. “-then pull.”

And pull he did. As soon as the leather slid over the curve of her butt, he was hit with a wave of the smell of arousal. Once her pants were around her ankles, his nose was a hand’s breadth from her panties. Before his base instinct to grab or lick or bite could take over, she sashayed away. 

In the space of three steps she somehow managed to flick her panties down to her knees, then take a graceful step out of each leg in turn. Rowan found himself unconsciously standing to follow her, only to stumble to a halt when she circled back to the table.

Arlene spun on the ball of her foot and leaned against it. With a confident grin, she gestured to her body like a meal she might present to the Queen. 

The confidence was well-earned. Though she wasn’t as tall or curvy as Rhiannon, Gwen or Greenglass, the combination of her perky breasts, wide hips, soft thighs and understated desire created an eroticism of its own. When she set one hand on her hip, it naturally guided his gaze to her womanhood. She kept a small tuft of hair above it whose shape led his attention lower, down to her slick lips and the bead of liquid they leaked down her leg.

“Well, Sir?”

Rowan closed the gap with a single step and kissed her like she was winning an important negotiation. With their tongues dancing desperately around each others’ mouths, their wandering hands followed suit. His fingers drifted down Arlene’s stomach, over her pubic mound and teased open her labia. A gentle brush over her clit made her tense up so much that her grip on his ass dug in to the point of pain.

Once their breath could be put off no longer, they separated and locked eyes. Arlene’s were hazy and content, darting from his lips to his chest and then lower. 

As though he uttered a spell, his pants fell and pooled around his ankles. When did she…? The underwear joined his pants shortly after and his dick bounced against Arlene’s stomach. There was only one thing left to do. 

A bed might have been a better choice of venue than a restaurant, but the table was mostly clear. Reaching behind Arlene was another chance to press himself against her as he moved her long, dangling braid over her shoulder. 

“It makes a better handle from behind, you know.” A confident expression and unbroken eye contact made her look even bolder than the Queen, despite her stature. 

Now he had to say something clever or charming to maintain the mood. Well…

Rowan grabbed her hips and pulled her in, putting them nose-to-nose. “I’d rather hold this, if it’s all the same to you.”

A hum of satisfaction. It was the right call not to tell her ‘I’m worried I’ll dunk your hair into the remains of your soup if I lean you back or thrust too hard.’ He cradled her head for one more kiss, then laid her down onto the table. 

Though he planned to take it slow, the sight of Arlene’s body laid out before him spurred him to impatience. She spread her legs invitingly, small breasts heaving with excitement. 

As soon as Rowan lined himself up, he pushed in as deeply as he could. She was stiflingly tight, and even halfway in her body shuddered. He paused his long, slow push and touched her face to catch her attention. “Are you alright?”

“It’s just… just a little thicker than fingers.”

“Do you want to stop?” This is exactly why he wanted to do a little more foreplay, regardless of how eager she was. She said herself that she hadn’t been with a man in years.

She shook her head and readjusted her hips. 

Another thrust got him deeper, then one final effort buried him to the hilt. A sheen of sweat was already developing on his partner, so he allowed himself a moment for them to recover. 

“…There.” The confidence returned to her face, though the words sounded like he’d pushed all the air out of her lungs. 

With both hands on her hips, Rowan pulled most of the way out before he pressed into her again. A pleased sigh and a flit of her wings encouraged him to take another stroke, then another until he built up a lazy rhythm. 

So what if he wasn’t in a bedroom with the lights put out? Arlene made him feel wanted, normal even. The way she didn’t resist another deep kiss and pulled him in with an arm around his neck was a level of intimacy he hadn’t felt in a long time. Even before he came to Dunmuir. 

Only his professional sense woke him up enough to notice his own emotions. ‘Don’t fall head-over-heels in love with the first woman to treat you well,’ it said. ‘We’ve seen how that ends before, remember?’

What he really wanted was to give Arlene a reprieve from her duties in the Queen’s bedroom that obviously weren’t satisfying her. If it went a little way to repay her for how much she’d helped him lately, then all the better.

At the risk of boring her to death with nothing but languid thrusts, he began to tease her body again. A caress of her thighs slid down her legs so he could massage her plush ass.

Her pussy involuntarily clenched around him when her cheeks spread slightly and exposed her other hole. When he repeated the motion, Arlene rocked her hips and let out a breathy sigh. “Re-ah-considering your choice?”

“Just trying to find out what you like.” He switched to kneading her breast as he spoke and ran the heel of his palm over her nipple at the apex of his thrusts.

Though her breathing became increasingly shallow, the reddening of her face was the only visual sign his teasing worked. “Don’t… don’t let me stop you, then.”

It was nice the booth was soundproofed. Arlene’s moaning was broken up by the wet slapping of flesh against flesh, making it remarkably easy to hit all the right spots for her. Even without putting in much effort, she was gripping the table as if it was her only piece of driftwood in a storm. 

Arlene locked her ankles behind his waist and pulled his cock deep inside of her as she trembled. Watching her teeter on the brink of orgasm as her long eyelashes flickered was nearly enough to give Rowan a final push himself. When he tried to move she only pulled him in more roughly to hold him still. 

It seemed like forever that they waited there, joined together without movement. Her breath slowly descended from its fever pitch, settling into something stable enough that she could speak. She pulled his face close enough that her shaky whisper tickled his skin. 

“I want you to fuck me hard, Rowan.” Her honey-brown eyes met his and her voice raised an octave. “Can you do that for me, Sir?

Even this far in, she knew how to play him like a fiddle. A tingle ran from his loins, up his back and all the way to his head. Fine. He’d give her exactly what she wanted. 

He tensed his legs, well-trained from his daily ordeal of climbing hundreds of stairs, and slammed his cock as deep as her body would allow. The table shook dangerously, but it held. Arlene, on the other hand, covered her mouth and stared up at him with wide eyes.

The teacup clattered off the table on his next thrust, but he didn’t have the mental energy to spend on the mess. It was all put into building up a rhythm to his hips as he relentlessly pounded Arlene.

To Rowan’s surprise, it wasn’t difficult. Even fucking her as hard as he could wasn’t tiring him. The hope was not to run out of breath or stamina to keep it up, but he had the privilege to watch his partner struggle to hold on.

The slow, intimate loving they were doing before hadn’t brought out her full eroticism. Now that she was being plowed like an animal in heat, the professional calm was slipping away. A feminine moan slipped out of her mouth every time he rammed himself back into her, despite how she gritted her teeth and closed her eyes.

A panicked flutter of her wings nearly sent a plate to join the fallen teacup when he yanked her deeper onto his cock. The force of their bodies colliding pushed Arlene further away with each movement and her sweating hips gave him less grip with each passing moment. 

Guilt vacated his body with each thrust. She wanted it hard. Grabbing her wrists only made sense.

The extra grip allowed him to use her entire body as a sheath for his cock. Everything from her burning-hot pussy all the way to the tips of her toes trembled to the rhythm of his savage pounding. 

He teetered on the verge. A pressure built in his stomach and a tingle all the way down his loins. Arlene stared at the ceiling as she held on for dear life, unresponsive even to Rowan panting her name.

It took every drop of self-control Rowan had to pull out. The voice of reason was barely audible over the electric feeling of pleasure rushing through him and begging for just one more second, one more thrust. 

Arlene let out one more strangled moan as he pulled himself free and spattered his seed over her stomach and breasts, then fell limp.

It might have been the afterglow, but there was something beautiful about her as she laid across the table, trying to recover her breath. The soft light of the lamps illuminated her flushed body, accentuating the curve of her heaving chest and the shadow of the hand resting over her face. Even the cum splattered over her looked like it was painted by an artist’s hand.

Oh, sweet Order. Here they were in a restaurant and he’d made this amount of mess on the table. Rowan dug around in the pile of clothes on the floor until he found his handkerchief. Poor Arlene was already exhausted before he used her like his personal plaything, so the least he could do was-

She made an attempt to stop him, but her trembling hands were too weak to push him away. The job wasn’t perfect without access to a bucket of water, but there wouldn’t be stains on her clothes, at least.

It took a few minutes before she managed to catch her breath and focus her eyes again. “I… didn’t expect that.”

“Sorry, I-”

“Quiet.” She failed to push herself up and settled for beckoning him closer. When Rowan leaned over, she put her arms around his neck and kissed him. “Now, as much as I appreciated how Greenglass looked with cum dripping off her face, you could’ve just finished inside to avoid the mess, you know.”

“I wasn’t sure how safe it was and we didn’t have any protection.”

Arlene blinked a few times before she managed to formulate a response. “Rowan, that’s… very sweet of you.”

“It’s not as though I hate the idea of having children eventually, but I don’t know if we’re-”

“Why don’t we just leave it at ‘had sex.’ I’d be even happy to do it again as long as you don’t ruin the mood with another ‘what are we?’”

“…Sorry. I run my mouth when I can’t figure out what to say.”

She allowed herself a gentle smile. “That’s fine. You don’t have to worry about getting me pregnant, though.”

“Is something…?” No. Shit. Start again. “I obviously don’t want to bring up anything traumatic, but-” It was an impressive feat of gymnastics that allowed him to step on a pitfall and put his foot in his mouth at the same time.

“Let’s say you were a woman who could use magic to do whatever you wanted. What’s the first thing you would do?”

“…Money? I’m not sure.”

“More important than that. Fundamental.”

“Food?”

“I’d rather eat gruel every day than have one week out of every month be absolutely miserable. The nice side-effect of turning that off is that you don’t get pregnant either.”

“Oh! That would be really…” Extremely convenient, in fact. Anyone with half a brain and the capability would love turning that off. Even if there weren’t any other benefits, just the ability to have sex worry-free would be alluring. Someone like Rhiannon would jump on that opportunity without question. 

It would be a matter of public knowledge that she’d never have to explain.

Oh no.

“…I think the Queen is under the impression that I made a flimsy excuse to ask for anal sex.”

Arlene slapped a hand to her mouth a second too late to suppress a snort of amusement.

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