Part 4: The Interloper, The Alchemist's Illusions

Chapter 33: Three for Three

Two days later, Linza had hardly entered the estate before Tanyth appeared beside her, this time in their lilac robes.

“Linza, Linza, Linza! Grun said you wanted to learn calligraphy too?”

“I do— I only told him that yesterday, though. There’s no hurry.”

Tanyth smirked. “Grun said you might say something like that. You don’t have to be bashful if you’re excited! I’m happy to teach you!”

Linza was annoyed both that Grun had fibbed and that Grun had guessed correctly that there was no way that she would burst Tanyth’s bubble.

It should have been easy to stoke her dislike for the half-orc, to cultivate a polite disdain that would make it easy to brush off his flirtations or any requests for another illusion session. But instead, she was intrigued. The way that she related to Grun was so opposite to Tanyth—lust versus love, these irritatingly accurate assumptions versus Tanyth’s endearing obliviousness.

Tanyth didn’t even wait for Linza’s answer before they grabbed her hand and pulled her towards the same administrative building as housed the lecture hall.

The room that they lead her to was something in between a classroom and an office. There were a few large tables set around the room and cubbies in the walls with sheafs of parchment, pots of ink and stacks of quills.

Tanyth had already set up three stations at a table. Each had a tilted easel, a pot of ink, and a wooden pen with a metal nib.

Grun looked as smug as a chess master about to say ‘check, mate’. 

Linza glared at him.

He smiled sunnily.

“Alright!” Tanyth sang. “Class is in session!”

For the next hour, Tanyth walked them through exercises for each letter of the alphabet. The movements different from normal writing. This metal nib could flex to spread the ink more widely on the paper and produce a line of varying thickness, even when held at the same angle. Exact pressure and smooth movements were essential to the letterforms.

Linza sunk into the practice like ink into paper. It was soothing, rhythmic, the kind of sensual, creative experience that had drawn her towards the School of Illusion. She used to think that if she’d only learned the art and none of the magic, she’d have been content.

After they had made it through the whole alphabet, Tanyth finished the lesson by having them each write a sentence that incorporated each letter, ‘The quick brown dog jumped over the lazy fox.’

Linza completed the last flourish on the ‘x’ and then leaned back to evaluate her handiwork and stretch out her wrist.

Grun stepped around behind her and Tanyth, winked at Linza, and then snatched the two pieces of parchment from their easels.

Linza grasped after them, but she was too slow. The parchment fluttered out of reach as Grun stepped back.

Linza put her hand to her forehead and groaned. “Here we go.”

Tanyth looked excited. “What’s he doing?”

Linza sighed. “This stupid bet.”

Grun stepped out into the hallway, a parchment in each hand. 

Linza didn’t move to follow.

He turned back over his shoulder. “You have to pick the passers-by, remember?”

Linza sighed. “Fine, fine.”

Those walking through the hall were mostly staff, since they were in an administrative building. At least she wouldn’t be publically embarrassed.

Eager to get it over with, she pointed at the first person.

“Excuse me,” Grun said. As he stepped towards them, the parchment fluttered. “I’m trying to prove a point. Could you please describe any notable differences in the penmanship between these two samples?”

The middle-aged woman in a prim pantsuit stopped to look. She shook her head. “No, they both look quite lovely to me.” And she continued on.

Grun smirked. 

Linza clicked her tongue. “She was obviously just in a hurry.”

Linza ignored the next two passers-by, who looked similarly hurried, then pointed at a man dressed in an avant garde robe, which bloused around his torso and nipped in at the waist. He seemed like he’d have a discerning eye.

Grun repeated the prompt, and Linza was sure she’d be right.

The man frowned at the parchment. “Well, calligraphy is so last year, anyway. It all looks the same to me.” He shrugged and continued on.

Linza scoffed. “Well, that doesn’t count!”

“Of course it does,” Grun said.

“Ugh, fine. At least we’re done, then,” Linza said.

“Nuh uh. I said three.”

“Well, it’s already two out of three!” Linza said.

“You are clever with numbers, but I’m not done proving my point, you see.”

Linza rolled her eyes, but blushed as he flagged down the next passer-by, a young woman from the bakery who still wore her apron. She, too, took a quick glance and reported that they both looked lovely. 

“Well, they barely looked at them! Of course they wouldn’t see a difference.” More than a cursory glance and they’d surely see her shaky lines, her inconsistent angle.

“The wager was not based on the exacting eye of an art critic, but on the casual assessment of a layperson. Therefore, I win.” Grun beamed.

Tanyth had watched the whole thing with excitement and confusion. “What do you win? What’s the bet?”

Linza’s heart sank and curdled in her stomach as she realized what Tanyth was about to hear. And it was all her fault. She truly had forgotten to half-ass the calligraphy, to throw in a clear rookie mistake or two, so engrossed she’d been in the rhythm of it.

Grun flourished his wrist, the parchment still in his hand, and bowed with mock gravitas. “A dinner with m’lady.”

Linza rolled her eyes and crossed her arms more firmly. “Fine. Whatever.”

Tanyth leaned closer. “Dinner like a date?”

“No,” Linza said.

“Yes,” Grun said at the same time, winking because he’d expected Linza’s answer.

All Linza could think about was easing Tanyth’s apparent distress. Would it be best for her to play up her annoyance? Would that make Tanyth feel comforted that she wasn’t a legitimate ‘threat’? Or would it only make them resentful that Grun was interested in someone who wasn’t enthusiastic for his company? 

Except… maybe she was eager for his company. Her heart fluttered and her fingers tingled at the thought of sitting across from the half-orc. Could she make him stammer again, leave him desperate for her touch?

Her mind tumbled over what to say to Tanyth, who looked at her expectantly. “He’s just teasing me,” she said. “He was giving me a hard time about wanting to learn calligraphy, and bet that after one lesson with you, mine would look halfway decent. I thought there was no way. What I didn’t count on is that you’d be such a great teacher.”

Tanyth beamed and giggled. “Well, you were both good students. But you did learn really quickly, Linza!”

“Lots of related practice, with all the other art stuff,” she said.

Tanyth couldn’t see, because Grun was behind them, but Grun rolled his eyes dramatically.

“So,” Grun said. “When’s your next free evening?”

Linza had to find a way to deflect this, lest she succumb to the panic that was fizzing in her stomach. “Free evening? I was thinking an hour, tops.”

“Nope, whole evening. I’ve got something special planned.”

Planned? You were mighty confident, weren’t you?”

He shrugged. “I had a feeling.” He smiled warmly, eyes twinkling.

Linza’s breath turned to ice in her lungs. She couldn’t breathe. So she just gave her best imitation of a wry smile and started to clean up the ink and pens.

She wished he’d asked her out plainly so that she could have said ‘no’ and been done with it, but he’d probably known that. Now, she couldn’t say ‘no’ without going back on her word. And the bet itself… it was now much harder for her to write him off as just an arrogant, horny half-orc. Especially when he smiled at her like that.

Grun placed the pieces of parchment back on their easels and lingered in front of them as Linza wiped down the table. Tanyth was across the room, rinsing out the nibs.

Grun said, his voice soft, “The bet’s already over so you might actually believe me—I honestly can’t tell the difference.”

Linza looked over the two pages and easily recognized hers. The uneven downstroke, the wobble on the thin lines, the hesitation in the flourish. 

She took hers from Grun and rolled it up.

His was still on the easel. His letters were very shaky, though he’d obviously tried. His pen had run dry mid-stroke a few times, leaving gaps. The paper was smudged with ink, and his hands were still dirty with it.

“See,” he said, with a wry grin. “This is horrible.”

“No, it’s not!” she said. “I can read it, for one. You got both widths of lines. You were getting the hang of the letter forms, too. It takes lots of practice.”

“Not for you,” he chided.

Her cheeks heated. “I have lots of other related practice.”

“How can you be so kind to others and yet so cruel to yourself?” He tilted his head.

Linza blinked at stared at him, thoughts and words scattered like spilled ink. He was right. She’d never thought of it that way, but… he was completely right.

His voice was low and soft, a precious thing just for her. “So, when are you free?”

He’d won and he knew it. And if he’d gloated or jeered, she would have easily dismissed him—maybe even cancelled the bet. But instead, he took the opportunity to show her this tenderness.

As tender as she’d been when she stroked his hair.

“The end of this week works for me,” she breathed.

“Sounds good.”

If Grun hadn’t turned away then to finish cleaning, Linza might have actually collapsed. 

He stepped towards Tanyth and clapped the little half-elf across the shoulder, nearly knocking them off their feet. “Excellent work, teach!”

Tanyth looked towards Linza and forced a smile. “I sure helped you win that dinner, huh?” They tried to look cheery, but they were a terrible liar.

Linza could do nothing but stare at them like a panicked deer.

“Yep!” Grun beamed.

Tanyth gave the most awkard thumbs-up that Linza had ever seen, and then ducked out from under Grun’s hand and scurried towards the door. “You kids have fun, then!”

Linza stepped after them. “Tanyth, wait—” But Tanyth was already gone.

And Linza was alone with Grun.

He stepped up behind her. “Hey, Linza, if you don’t actually want to go to dinner with me, that’s fine. I wouldn’t want to… I mean if you…”

Linza’s emotions writhed and battled in her chest, held captive only by the hard knot in her throat. This was her opportunity. She could set it right, fix things with Tanyth, pretend like Grun had never asked her out.

She should have said, Thank you, you’re right that I’d rather not, or even, you ought to ask Tanyth instead, they’re very enamored with you.

But her mouth did not listen to her mind, and instead she said, “I’d like to dinner. With yes. With you.”

And the way that Grun’s face warmed with relief was an arrow through her chest.

“Okay. Good. I’ll uh… I’ll see you then,” Grun said. Then he nodded, half-bowed, winced, and then strode out of the room after Tanyth.

Finally alone, Linza collapsed into the chair closest to her.

This was going to be a disaster.

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