Part 4: The Interloper, The Alchemist's Illusions

Chapter 32: The Bet

Linza had finished her shift and was heading up the main street of the estate when heavy footsteps tromped up behind her.

Grun waved as she turned. “Hey, do you uh, have a second?”

If she had first met Grun like this, with his hair up in a messy bun and his tailored trousers and blazer with no shirt underneath, his face flushed and his sea-blue eyes looking hopeful, she might have formed a very different impression of him. Her heart fluttered up towards her throat like a caged bird looking for a way out.

She was a mess. Everything was a mess. The memory of Grun’s recent climax still tingled between her legs, even as her stomach churned with the nausea of exhaustion and uncertainty. She still wasn’t sure if he’d figured out it was her in the break room, and she also wasn’t sure what she was hoping for.

Giving in to whatever chemistry there was between her and Grun was irresponsible in every way—general professionalism, her ethical obligation to the craft, her sense of herself as a relatively sane person, and, most importantly, Tanyth. The memory of their hopeful fretting over Grun sat heavy on her chest.

Still, she couldn’t bring herself to be cold. She checked her watch. “I should make sure I’m at the trolly stop, but it’s not due for another quarter hour or so.” She kept walking, and he followed. “What’s up?”

“I, um, I learned that— I saw that, well— I mean, I asked about the schedule, I— I know it was…” There was a long pause. “…you.”

What was it about the towering man’s stammering awkwardness that undid her? Too many emotions to name crashed through her. Linza’s organs seemed to liquify and boil inside of her, and she had no idea how she managed to not vomit at his feet, except that perhaps her stomach itself had turned to mush.

But Linza would have to be literally dead to not just soldier through. She did her best to shove the feeling aside, to remove herself from her own body. “Hm? Oh! Yeah. I’d have mentioned, it’s just part of the experience that I don’t say unless you ask. I hope that didn’t bother you!”

“No! Not at all, all— all good.” He tucked a strand of hair behind a pointed ear.

Linza smiled politely and nodded. “Good.”

“You’re… really good at that, y’know.” His cheeks tinged pink under the green of his skin.

“I know.” Linza shrugged with mock arrogance. “All in a night’s work.” Despite her attempt to shrug off his words, they sunk in and sent a shiver down her spine to stir the tingle between her legs. He had liked it, and next time, she’d— but, no. There couldn’t be a next time. She couldn’t be that cruel to Tanyth.

“Yeah, you… I’m sure you make everyone feel that special, yeah? That’s impressive.” He rubbed the back of his neck, like he had down by the docks.

Linza nodded. “That’s the idea.” Was that a tinge of regret in his voice? Did he sound like she had sounded, reasoning that Tanyth’s apparent affection was just part of their professional demeanor, and nothing personal?

No, she was surely just imagining things.

“How did you learn to do that?” he asked.

“At university, actually. I went to JSMI.”

He tilted his head at her. “There’s a sex magic university here?!”

Linza snorted a laugh. “No, that would be too good to be true. It’s taught as a combat illusion, but it has many more uses than that.”

“So you spent four years learning how to fuck with peoples’ minds?”

“Actually, I majored in alchemy. So I only spent about a semester’s worth of classes learning how to fuck with peoples’ minds. The rest I spent learning how to fuck with physics.”

“Oh! Numbers. Right. You’re good at a lot of things, aren’t you?” His half-grin made his eyes twinkle like sunlight on the waves.

Linza’s cheeks heated, her stomach doing a different kind of somersault. She should have been more suspicious of the compliment, shouldn’t have let it sway her, but… he seemed sincere.

She shook her head, trying to clear her thoughts. “No more than other folks here. Tanyth has much broader talents than I do, they’ve worked nearly every role here.” There, she could leverage his attention to put in a good word for Tanyth. 

“They’re certainly not lacking in enthusiasm.”

Linza laughed, easily imagining what kind of quick-talking ball of nerves Tanyth became in Grun’s presence, if Tanyth’s later debriefs were anything to go by. “They said they’re really glad you decided to join.”

“Oh! Thanks. You know them well?”

Too well, she thought. “Yeah, they trained me, too.”

“Oh, great! Did they…” He hesitated. Looked for words, tried to downplay the pause. “Did they write you a fancy letter to start?” It seemed like too quick and too small a question to be what he had really meant to ask.

“They did. That’s a good reminder, I need to ask them to give me calligraphy lessons.” Could he have been about to ask whether Tanyth had flirted with her, like they were most certainly flirting with him?

“Adding yet another talent to the roster?” he said, eyebrows raising.

Her cheeks heated even more, but to her great surprise, that wicked and slithering creature inside of her stirred and smirked. “Not necessarily. I might totally fail.”

“I’m sure you’d be excellent at it.”

“For all you know, I could have wretched penmanship.”

“Then bet on it.” They’d reached the trolley stop. He crossed his arms, grinning. “Take one lesson with Tanyth. If I can tell the difference between yours and theirs, then you win. If I can’t, then I win.”

Linza crossed her arms back. “Alright then, what’s the wager?”

“If I win, then you have to go out to dinner with me. If you win, I’ll still buy you dinner but you don’t have to eat with me.”

She tilted her head. “Well, then won’t I just have bad penmanship on purpose?”

His grin deepened. “I don’t think you can. I don’t think you could half-ass something if you wanted to.”

That slithering thing hissed. Linza’s mouth twitched towards a frown as she felt suddenly naked. How in the world had he pegged her so quickly? Had Tanyth been talking about her? Had the madame? Was she more transparent than she thought? Or was he more perceptive than she’d given him credit for?

She grasped for a way out that wouldn’t totally incriminate her. “Well. Can’t you just pretend you can’t tell the difference and ‘win’?”

He ran his fingers through his beard. “That’s a fair point. I’ll poll three passers-by. You can pick them, so that you don’t have to worry I’ve planted someone.”

It was a logical, thorough suggestion and not at all what she’d expected. “Fine. Tanyth has been studying for years, I’m sure. Matching their penmanship after one lesson is a stretch, even for me. So, I’ll take your wager.” Linza even managed a haughty tip of her chin.

The trolley rattled around the corner, bell dinging as it approached.

Grun nodded. “Deal. See you tomorrow.”

The trolley pulled up, and she stepped inside, grateful that he didn’t come up with some excuse to follow her. She was going to need some quality alone time to sort through the tangle of her thoughts.

Questions ran circles over each other. What made him so confident that he’d see her the next day? What exactly had she gotten herself into?

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