Part 4: The Interloper, The Alchemist's Illusions

Chapter 35: Dinner

Linza stood in front of the mirror in her little apartment, fussing over her reflection. The dress from Wyn was emerald satin, off-the-shoulder and tight through the hip.

Linza had been shocked to learn that Wyn owned anything that was a solid color.

She wondered if Wyn had bought it for her, just in case, because it fit Linza like a glove. It was just the sort of thing Wyn would do—especially because Linza would never knowingly allow Wyn to buy clothes for her. Linza would have to thank her properly later.

The dress alone probably cost as much as one of Linza’s loan payments, not to mention the diamond necklace and makeup that she’d also borrowed. 

She hardly recognized herself in the mirror. It had been years since she’d dressed this fancy. JSMI had an annual gala, but she’d skipped it her last two years at university because it was the week before finals. She didn’t realize how much she’d missed dressing up. Practicality had dominated her wardrobe since she’d graduated. She’d been so focused on dressing to be taken seriously, she’d almost forgotten what she liked.

She liked to feel… pretty.

Would Grun think she was pretty?

Why did she care what he thought?

The door bell chimed. Linza nearly jumped out of her skin, then snatched her clutch from the table, locked up, and hurried down the stairs to meet him.

She swung open the front door, and their expressions became mirrors of each other—surprised, blushing appreciation.

Linza could not remember ever seeing a suit fit someone so perfectly. He wore a shirt this time, white and neatly tucked into well-tailored trousers. The black coat traced his shoulders and then his waist, sweeping down to coattails. His hair was slicked back to a bronze clasp at the nape of his neck, but he’d left a few curling strands to frame his face. He smelled of vanilla and sandalwood.

They each came to their senses at about the same time.

He bowed to her. “You look lovely this evening.”

“I look lovely always, thank you very much.” The mock arrogance was only a half step over from self-deprecation. The prospect of actually accepting the compliment was much too terrifying.

“It’s true,” he said.

It sounded like he meant it. Linza’s cheeks blazed hotter and she hoped he thought she’d overdone her makeup. “Your… outfit is quite nice, also.”

“Thank you.”

Linza was relieved to find that he hadn’t commissioned a carriage or anything so ostentatious. In fact, he’d planned for them to ride the trolley, where they were far overdressed compared to the after-work crowd. Linza had to admit it was a bit fun, being so done-up in such a mundane place. She half expected that they’d similarly end up at a normal dining establishment. That would be a clever spin on the fancy date.

She was wrong.

They got off the trolley in a fancy part of town close to where Wyn lived, and he led Linza to a restaurant that she had heard about from Molly but never been to.

Even at the door, the smell of spices and herbs and roasting meat washed over her.

Inside, she recognized elements that were like those at the estate. The lighting was dim, close. The seating was arranged in booths with high backs, private. The upholstery, curtains, and carpet were all velvet.

A woman in a slim black dress guided them to a booth that had already been set for two.

Linza looked around, wide-eyed. “I’ve never been any place like this before,” she whispered.

“Really?” he chuckled. “I assumed that this would be the standard of living to which you were accustomed.”

Linza snorted a laugh, which was as much proof as anything else that she was no socialite.

“You did?” she said.

“I did! I’ve never been any place like this before, either!”

They leaned closer, now co-conspirators in their imitation of the well-to-do.

“Will either of us know the etiquette?” Linza said.

Grun smirked. “I’m sure that on your worst day, you’d be more polite than nine out of ten people that actually come here. Rich people are assholes.”

Linza snickered, a spark of thrill from the bold statement. “I can be an asshole too, you know.”

“No, you can’t,” he said.

She folded her arms. “How do you know?”

“How do you not know?” he said.

Linza tried to glare at him. She wasn’t sure if someone who riled up her competitive streak so easily was good for her. But Wyn and told her to enjoy herself… and she was, so far. 

A slender man in a black silk robe, similar to the first woman’s dress, appeared next to them and asked what they’d like to drink.

“What do you have?” Grun asked.

What ensued was a verbal essay describing each of the wines available and the details of their vintage, the conditions of their soil, the weather of the years of their harvest, the reviews of the local wine experts.

Linza did her best to follow along, but she was soon totally lost.

The man finished his speech, then waited.

“That last one sounded absolutely perfect,” Grun said.

The man bowed and left.

“What was the last one?” Linza said, grateful that Grun seemed to have been able to keep up.

“I have no idea,” Grun said.

She scoffed at him, but laughed despite her best efforts to look indignant. “We’re bad at this!” Linza said.

“Are we? I’m pretty sure that’s how rich people pick, too. Or they’re like, ‘oh, a horse pissed within three miles of those grapes on the third moon of their ripening? I love horses! I’ll take that one!’”

Linza snorted and covered her mouth with a hand. She felt out-of-place in such a fancy venue, but sitting across from Grun… that felt right. Easy. Conversation flowed between them, especially once the wine arrived.

When it was time to order food, the list of specials was also overwhelming. Linza struggled to understand even the first item. She could do whole alchemical proofs in her head, and yet for whatever reason, remembering a verbal list of food options was totally beyond her capacity.

After the server finished, Grun asked her, “Are there any foods you don’t like or can’t eat?”

“Not really, I like most things.”

“Great.” He then ordered two different things based on their primary meats, and assured Linza that they could swap if she didn’t like hers.

She marveled at how he took the lead, but he was still very attentive. It was like how he’d marched right up to the madame, stated his case, and then listened to her. Listened so very closely…

Needing to chase away that particular memory lest she behave even more inappropriately, Linza asked Grun how he’d heard of this place if he was new to town. He shared about friends he’d made at the estate, and then they talked shop. It was perhaps not the most appropriate topic for the fancy restaurant, but Linza was two glasses of wine in and she didn’t care.

After forty minutes that passed as quickly as five, their meal arrived—a hock of lamb nestled in potatoes cut like flowers, and a swordfish steak ringed with clams and purple rice. It was almost too pretty to eat. Almost.

Whether it was the wine or the company or truly the food, Linza could not remember ever tasting anything so delicious—the lamb melted on her tongue, the potatoes were soft as silk, the rice was a backdrop for herbs she’d never had before and probably couldn’t pronounce.

But the sweetest taste of all was her laugh. Grun was equal parts clever and naïve, earnest and snarky, and he found every chink her in her armor and every gap in her guard.

It felt like dinner had hardly been served—despite their empty plates, empty bottle of wine, and the conspicuous progress of the clock—when their dessert arrived, chocolate mouse with fresh raspberries.

They both tucked in and groaned with happiness.

His groan set her heart racing. It was inappropriate. She needed to get a hold of herself. But… she didn’t want to.

If she’d wanted to keep a hold of herself, she wouldn’t have drank half a bottle of wine.

“I’m very glad I made this bet,” he said.

“How’d you know I couldn’t half-ass anything?” she said. This was the real question, these were the real stakes, not her silly little inhibitions. If he had a suitable answer, she’d have no reason to not throw herself at him. If he didn’t, then she might be able to finally walk away.

“Educated guess,” he said.

“Educated by what? By whom?” If the madame or Nephis had told him, then she would not be so impressed.

“Some hints from Tanyth. They’re quite fond of you, you know.”

Her stomach twisted. Maybe she’d had too much wine. What had they told Grun? Did she want to know? “They’re fond of you, too.”

She took a breath to do the right thing, to tell Grun exactly how Tanyth liked him, when he said, “Why do you always defer compliments like that?”

Linza hesitated. “It feels… immodest to accept them.”

“Why do you want to be modest when you’re talented?” He was insistent, borderline concerned, his own inhibitions softened by the wine.

“I’d be too ashamed to brag.” She avoided his gaze. It was too steady, too knowing, like he might really see her whole heart laid out if his eyes met hers.

Grun gripped his fork tighter and frowned at her. “Who taught you that?”

She blinked. “You’re angry?”

“Well… yes! Of course!”

Linza felt the spark of new understanding, like finally learning a new spell. So Linza repeated to Grun the explanation from the madame’s assistant about the centers of knowing, about how hers was shame—and his might be anger.

He ran his fingers through his beard. “You’re going to have to tell me about that again when we’re sober and I’ll remember better. That’s… that’s something important.” He reached across the table and touched her hand. “But I’ll tell you right now, I don’t think you should be ashamed. Not of being talented, or smart, or pretty. Or knowing that you are.”

Linza’s heart struggled to flutter out of her chest, her throat tightening to hold it in place as her eyes misted. C’mon, hold it together. Not here. You’re on a date. He doesn’t want to see this.

“Oh!” His voice softened. “Are you alright? Did I— I didn’t mean to say anything hurtful, I’m sorry if— I just meant—”

She shook her head. She couldn’t speak yet, lest she actually start crying. She felt so ashamed—she was making him regret being so kind to her.

He straightened in his seat. “Do you want… do you want a hug?”

She nodded.

He stepped around to her side of the table and put his arm around her.

And then she was surrounded by his warmth and the smell of vanilla and sandalwood. She took a deep breath, trying to steady herself. She focused on the sound of his heartbeat, the rise and fall of his chest against her cheek, the soft wool of his suit coat and the smooth cotton of his shirt, the firmness of his thigh pressed against hers, the pressure of his hand against her hair.

And as she leaned in close and breathed deeply, smelling his musk mingled with the vanilla, a heat that was not entirely from the wine flooded her cheeks and curled between her legs. It was utterly inappropriate, a violation of trust, a poor response to such a kind gesture, and yet… was it just her, or did his breath hitch? Was that a stray shadow or the throb of his cock against his tightly tailored pants?

She had not been about to cry because she was sad, but because she was overwhelmed. And the closeness of him was like a catalyst, alchemizing that overwhelm into desire.

Her breathing quickened, her fingers curled possessively around the lapels of his coat.

He tensed with the strain of an impulse tugging at its leash.

She owed him an answer for his kind words and concerns. That wicked, slithering thing looped over her shoulders, trailed down between her breasts and coiled around her thigh, brushing its scales between her legs as it went.

The only answer that seemed right was her mouth around his cock and her fingernails scraping his skin.

A black-clad server walked by, paying them no mind, but reminding Linza that she did need to keep some modicum of control over herself here in the restaurant, lest they never be invited back.

With great conscious effort, she forced her hands to release his lapels and smooth the wool. Stroking his chest proved no less tempting, however, especially as she saw his imploring eyes.

She dropped a hand to his upper thigh.

He froze, except for the throb of his cock against his trousers.

Linza’s fingers brushed higher.

Grun jolted. “R-ready to head out?” He stood and stepped back around to his side of the table.

Linza cursed herself. Was he aroused, or truly uncomfortable? That had been a stupid, stupid thing to do. What would she have done if Grun had attempted the same?

That slithering thing looped happily between her legs, filling her mind with the image of her melting back into the booth, mouth gaping in shadow as Grun subtly slid his fingers up her skirt, finding the wetness there and then plunging easily inside—

“We’ll take the check, please,” Grun said to the passing server, who nodded politely.

Linza needed to get a handle on herself. She was dizzy and overwarm and making bad choices and it was definitely not just the wine. 

She should have asked Grun, right then, whether she had made him uncomfortable. Whether his hurry to leave the restaurant was to flee her or attend to his arousal or both. She should have said that if he was game, she was game.

But she didn’t. The words died in her throat, unable to surmount the fear of how she might feel if he really did want to leave. That thought was enough to sober her.

For the first time that night, they didn’t chat as they waited for the check.

As it arrived, Linza reached for her clutch, but Grun waved her off. “Hey, now. I won our bet fair and square.”

“But I don’t mind—”

Grun smiled, his blue eyes twinkling like circles of sea glass. “You can get the next one.”

The next one. Hope welled in Linza’s chest, igniting and flaring into arousal. Her breathing quickened. There would be a next time. She hadn’t ruined everything.

A second date!

Tanyth was going to be devastated.

Guilt curled icy claws around her chest, thickening the air.

It was just like the calligraphy. She was supposed to half-ass it—lose the contest, ruin the date, keep the peace.

But she’d forgotten. 

She was physically incapable of half-assing anything.

And… Grun understood that about her in a way that Tanyth didn’t. Tanyth was kind to her, yes… but in the way that they were kind to everyone. And if Linza could get over her crush on Tanyth, then… Tanyth could get over Grun too. Like Wyn said, they were an adult.

And so was Linza. And she did indeed want to do very adult things with Grun.

As they stepped out of the restaurant, she found a reason to restart the conversation, and the conversation flowed easily again as they took the trolley back to her place.

As they reached her front door, she was in the middle of a story about her freshman year at JSMI, so she leaned back against the railing of the stairs up to her door and finished the story. That reminded Grun of something, which reminded her of a different thing, and so they just kept talking for another half hour. Linza would have stayed for hours more if the chill of the night hadn’t cut right to her bones, even through the suit coat which he’d draped over her shoulders while they were still on the trolley.

She had resolved to invite him upstairs before they’d even left the restaurant, but now, in the moment, it was so much more intimidating. What if he said ‘no’?! She’d wither away and die, if she didn’t just start sobbing immediately. And she certainly did not want him to agree out of pity or guilt.

But the idea of giving him his coat back, watching him walk back towards the trolley, knowing that he’d been waiting for her to ask… no, that was much worse.

At the next break in the conversation, she said, “Looks like you’re getting a bit chilly too. I can think of some ways to warm up… want to come inside?” Alright, that was actually pretty smooth.

“That’s my favorite place to come.” Grun smirked.

Linza snorted, smoothness gone. She smacked his shoulder. “Oh my gods, shut up and get in here already.” 

He quirked an eyebrow at her.

“You know I just meant my apartment, don’t be an asshole.”

His smirk didn’t fade. “So does that mean you don’t want…”

Her cheeks flushed with heat. She did her best to still sound suave. “I didn’t say that.”

He leaned towards her, his vanilla and musk and sandalwood scent curling around her. That slithering thing vibrated with glee.

But he stopped, just a hand’s breadth from her lips. Deferring to her. She pushed up onto her toes, bracing a hand against his shoulder. But just before her lips brushed his, she paused. Not out of fear—but because that wicked thing inside of her whispered a better idea in her ear.

His breath shuddered, his expectations subverted. But he didn’t move to close the gap.

“How long would you wait for me like this?” she whispered, her lips brushing his as she spoke.

“Forever,” he breathed.

She hooked her hands around the back of his neck and pulled his lips hungrily against hers. There was only the softness of his lips, only the heat of his neck on her palms, the steel of his chest against hers, until her tongue snaked out to part his lips and taste him.

His arms wrapped around her, fingertips digging into her ass as he lifted her into him. She moaned at the closeness of him, then purred at the throbbing of his cock against the front of her hips.

He groaned and broke the kiss, scooping her up into his arms.

She yelped and giggled.

“What floor?” he said.

“Sixth!”

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Part 4: The Interloper, The Alchemist's Illusions

Chapter 34: Sleepover Talk

“You’re going on a date with him?!” Wyn said.

Linza buried herself under one of Wyn’s pillows.

They were meeting for lunch the next day, but Wyn had quickly moved them from the kitchen to the bedroom since this was, as she had put it, ‘sleepover talk’.

Linza was grateful to be able to curl up in a ball and hide as she told Wyn all about what had happened.

“Well, do you like him?” Wyn asked.

“I… I don’t mind talking to him! He seems not nearly as bullish as when I first met him.”

“And that thing… with the illusion… that was so sweet!”

“I know!”

“And he didn’t try to machismo, like, ‘oh I just did that on a dare’ or whatever, he just wanted you to know!”

“I know!”

“He wanted to know if you liked him or not and you said ‘all in a night’s work’!”

“I know!” Linza huffed and pulled the pillow over her face.

Wyn pulled it back. “So what’s the problem? You weren’t nearly this shy about telling me about Tanyth.”

Linza bit her lip. “Tanyth…”

“OH. Tanyth likes Grun, don’t they?”

Linza nodded.

“Well. Did they actually tell you that, or did you assume?” Wyn asked.

“They explicitly said they had a crush on him, remember?”

“Hm. Right. But don’t they like, have a crush on everyone?”

“Not me!” Linza had meant for it to come off as self-deprecating humor, but her voice had wavered and she just sounded pathetic.

Wyn sighed. “Well. It’s not like they own him. They know you’re going on a date with him, right? So it’s on them. They can be like ‘hey, sis’. Otherwise, if they’re not making a move, that’s not your problem.”

“But… It is my problem!”

“Why?”

“Because Tanyth is my friend!” And because she loved Tanyth, even if they didn’t love her back. 

“They’re also an adult.”

“Uuuugh.” Linza buried her face in the pillow again. “I don’t want to be an adult.”

“What?” Wyn leveled an incredulous look.

Linza sighed and lifted her head back up. “I don’t want to be an adult.” She pouted.

“Yes you do,” Wyn said. “I think you want to be very adult with Grun.”

Linza blushed. “Maybe, I…”

“Why do you feel like you owe Tanyth all this? Or better yet, just ask them if it bothers them.”

Linza had always admired Wyn’s assertiveness. “What if they say ‘yes’?!” Because as anxious as she was… she really did want to go to dinner with Grun.

“Then say, ‘Thank you for telling me. This is still happening. I hope we can still be friends’.”

Linza shook her head. “I could never.” She wished she could. Wyn was right. 

Wyn heaved a long-suffering sigh. “Alright. The kingdom wasn’t built in a day. Baby steps for you. Just go on this date with Grun and enjoy yourself okay?”

Linza muttered into the pillow again.

“What’s that?”

“I don’t have anything to wear.” She pouted. “He said I have to be fancy. So I don’t know if I can go.” Grun had flagged her down on the way back to the trolly to ask for her address and tell her when he’d pick her up and that she had best wear formal attire. He’d told her nothing else, though. He was clearly enjoying being mysterious.

Wyn gave her a flat look. “Dearest Linza. Have you forgotten who you’re talking to?”

Wyn’s closest was nearly as big as Linza’s bedroom.

And while Linza wasn’t as buxom as Wyn, they were about the same size and Wyn was an expert at knowing what things of hers would look good on Linza.

“Alright, alright!” Linza said. She should have known that Wyn wouldn’t let her off that easily.

“Yes!” Wyn grabbed her by the hand and dragged her to the closet.

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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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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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Part 4: The Interloper, The Alchemist's Illusions

Chapter 31: Pretty Little Thing

Wyn had offered to torch both Tanyth and Grun with fireballs, and Linza had the uneasy feeling that Wyn actually would if Linza asked her to. Linza, of course, declined. But the genuine promise of violence was a token of affection from Wyn, and Linza once again thanked the stars for her friend.

The rest of the week was manageable, and Linza was able to focus on both her day job and her night job without too much further trouble. Her conversations with Tanyth still made her a bit queasy, and she manufactured excuses to dodge a couple of their conversations, but overall, it was alright.

Tanyth was clearly enamored with Grun, though Grun did not seem to reciprocate their flirtations.

Wonder what that’s like, Linza had snipped to herself.

“How frustrating!” she had said. If only Tanyth had known the irony.

Linza had been looking forward to the weekend, not so much for the lack of work as for the distraction of it. She was off the second day, and she and Wyn had planned a proper girl’s day.

Her shift had been mostly regulars since new guests didn’t tend to book a weekend midday. She was coming up on a slot that had cancelled last minute. In those cases, other staff were welcome to come take the slot. Otherwise, it would be a free break for her.

It was two minutes past the start of the slot and Linza was just gathering her things to step out for her break when there was a firm knock at the ornate door.

“Come in!” Linza called.

Grun entered. His long hair was up in a bun and his beard trimmed short. He now wore fitted trousers and a blazer with no shirt underneath. Had Tanyth taken him shopping? Or was this his own preferred style? 

He looked around the little room, his eyes hovering over the grate for a moment.

Linza reeled, reminding herself that he couldn’t see her lest she totally give in to the panic sizzling in her limbs.

 “Hi! I’m, uh… Grun. I’m new here and I figured it’d best if I, y’know, knew what all there was here. Tanyth said I ought to, since lots of folks start in my department and then ask about other things. The vanilla department, that is. I— um, I’m totally rambling.” Grun sat down awkwardly on the bamboo mat.

She was reluctant to admit how much his awkwardness settled her. She could do without the arrogant swagger. Seeing him so nervous, she almost liked him. Almost.

Did he know that it was her? If he asked her name, she’d tell him. Otherwise, it was expected that the illusionist in this scenario spoke as little as was necessary, and usually only answered direct questions. Not all guests liked the idea of being watched. The screen made it easier for them to imagine that they were alone with their illusion.

“H-how does this work?” he asked.

For these experiences, Linza used her ‘reading voice’ which was smooth and controlled and different enough from her conversational tone that he might not notice. “You tell me what you’d like. Almost anything at all. You’ll feel it, like it’s real. At any time, if you reject the illusion, the effect and the feeling will stop, and it will look translucent. It will last up to fifteen minutes.”

He nodded and ran his fingers through his beard.

He didn’t seem to have noticed that it was Linza. Here, sitting at her stool in the cozy little room, cloaked in shadow, the grate between them, it was easy to treat him like she would any other guest. 

As he described what he wanted, the image formed in her mind.

And then as she chanted the words and traced the gestures, the image formed in front of him.

The image was a woman, as much taller than him as he was taller than Linza. She was half-orc, hair in a ponytail, golden hoops lining her ears and one in her lip. She was naked, her breasts laying against her chest with nipples darker green than the rest of her skin.

“Why, aren’t you a pretty little thing?” Her voice was sweet and smoky.

He looked up at her, enraptured.

“C’mere!” She wrapped around him from behind and started pawing at his clothes. He unbuttoned them and soon was naked too.

Linza tried to maintain a merely professional appreciation of his body, ignoring the tingle of heat between her legs at the breadth of his shoulders, the muscles of his legs and ass, the slight softness of his stomach. She couldn’t help but remember the way all those muscles had strained on the veranda as he’d worked to control his release. His shaft throbbed quickly to its full length and girth, noticeably thicker in the middle.

Usually, Linza imagined the figures in the illusions as characters separate from herself, which made it easier to prompt them to say or do things that Linza herself wouldn’t do. But her professionalism wavered and though she couldn’t say why, she wanted very much to be that massive woman who towered over him.

The illusory orc woman gently pressed at Grun’s shoulders and he spun obediently, facing her and straddling her hips.

With one hand, she ran her fingers up his now hardened shaft.

He shivered and gasped.

Her other hand reached over his leg and easily cupped his whole ass cheek in her fingers. She squeezed, tugging at his rim.

He moaned.

“Why, you’re so ready to spread yourself for me, aren’t you?” she said.

He blushed and sputtered, just like he said he’d like to.

“Must be because you’re a greedy little slut,” she crooned.

“I am not, I—”

“Shhh.” She lifted her hand from his shaft to put a finger to his lips. She then ran that fingertip gently over his lower lip. As his jaw slacked, she pressed her finger to his tongue. He licked and sucked, eager to please.

With her hand on his ass, she pressed him closer into her soft stomach. 

Reflexively, he bucked his hips, grinding against her. He whimpered, desperate for more sensation, but too deferential to demand it.

Heat blurred the edges of Linza’s vision, her imagination all too eager to merge her with the illusion, to provide the phantom sensation of his throbbing cock against her stomach. It was risky and unprofessional to lose control like this—too likely to result in a bad experience for the client, an illusion that wasn’t to their liking. But what he’d asked for was exactly what she wanted to do to him, and she couldn’t bring herself to stop, not with his eyes rolling back and his breath shuddering with anticipation.

She withdrew her finger from his mouth and stroked his shaft in her hand, her palm nearly enveloping his entire length.

He gasped and moaned at the relief.

Her hand on his ass gripped tighter, stretched his rim more.

He whimpered with ecstasy.

A wicked, toothy grin parted her thick green lips. “You seem like you might like something like this…” She inched her fingers over and ran one fingertip lightly over the edge of his rim.

“Y-yes!” he said.

“Oh yeah? Do you like… this?” She brought the fingertip further over, running circles across his whole rim, still stroking him with the other hand.

“Yessss…” he moaned. He slumped forward, cheek against her breast.

Through the illusion, he would feel the softness of her skin, hear the thunder of her heartbeat, experience his weight melting into her, even as in reality he still held himself upright.

“F-fuck… you’re making me drip…” he said. His whole body shook with his trembling breath.

Linza slowed, not wanting to give it to him so easily, only halfway remembering that he had indeed asked to be edged. The pause allowed her good sense to catch up to her, and she forced herself back into her body, back to the awareness that the illusion of the orcish woman was outside of her.

Anyone other than her or Grun would just see the half-orc man kneeling on the bamboo mat with his legs spread wide, his cock throbbing into the air and his head steadily dripping pre-cum.

The thought had the opposite of its intended effect. With just her mind and her magic, Linza had reduced this swaggering man into a panting, pleading mess. He would explode onto the floor without a single touch to his cock, not from himself or anyone else, simply because of what she did to his brain.

She had been working this job for months. She didn’t know why it was now and with him that she finally understood exactly what she did, exactly what kind of power she wielded with her chants and hand signs and the rattle of a crystal.

It was even more intoxicating than the arousal.

“Good,” she said through the illusory orc, dipping her finger in the puddle of pre-cum forming on the bamboo mat. “I want more. Do you want more?”

He nodded.

“Say it.” She teased his rim harder.

He gasped and whimpered.

“Use your words.”

“P-please! I want you inside of me, please!”

Something long-dormant awoke within Linza, unable to resist the half-orc’s desperate call. It slithered through her mind, gorging itself on the knowledge of her power, writhing sensuously in the honey of the half-orc’s pleading. 

Gods, how she loved to see him squirm. 

Unlimited by the physical mechanics of lubrication and perfectly calibrated to the right level of sensation by the desires of his mind, she pressed her finger inside of him.

“Fuck! Oh gods, fuck, oh…” His whole body trembled, every muscle taught, just as when he’d wrestled to control himself for the madame. 

“You like that quite a lot, don’t you?”

“Yes! Fuck, you feel so good… fuck, I’m dripping…” His cock throbbed into the empty air, a steady drip of pre-cum joining the puddle, even as he felt her slick palm slide under his tip.

“Oh? And I haven’t even found your spot yet.”

“My— Ah!” He cried out as the sensation overwhelmed him.

This was the special power of the illusion. She needed only suggest it and Grun’s mind would select his most intense, most perfect, most pleasurable memory and serve it up for him, like a waking dream. He would feel her fingers curling within him, pressing against the muscular wall, activating every single nerve of pleasure.

He moaned from his very core.

She gave him a moment to adjust, then withdrew her finger and pressed harder again.

His eyes rolled back, cheeks flushed, breath hitching. “F-fuck that’s gonna make me…”

Linza slowed the sensation, licking her lips as if she could taste his sweet desperation.

Through the orc’s husky voice, she crooned, “Gonna make you what?”

He groaned. “Gonna make me cum…”

“Do you want to cum?”

“Yes! Please!” He looked up at her with pleading eyes.

She would have teased him forever if not for the way that his begging stoked her own arousal, made her hunger for release, even vicariously.

Her own breath coming fast and shallow, she started up the sensation again, stroking him and pressing against his spot.

His whole body quivered, pleaded. Gradually, his breathing quickened again. His groans deepened.

“F-fuck I’m… I’m so close I… can I?” He quivered like a drawn arrow, so close and yet so obedient, earning his release by providing such a delicious display.

“Cum for me,” she purred.

His eyes rolled back and his whole body tensed.

Linza nearly lost concentration on the illusion, so eager she was to watch his cock as it throbbed in the empty air. 

The spasm started at the base of his cock, his balls pulling tight as his face twisted into a grimace and a growl curled in his chest. With a shudder, he burst, ropes of cum spurting in mesmerizing arcs and then puddling on the bamboo mat.

She kept up the sensation until his cum ran clear, signaling the end of his climax, and she gently slowed as he relaxed. Then she curled around him, humming gently and stroking his hair with her hand that was almost the size of his head.

The tenderness surprised Linza almost as much as the slithering wickedness had. What exactly had Grun awakened in her?

Whatever it was, it faded as exhaustion settled heavily over her, as much in sympathy to Grun’s afterglow as in indication that she was pushing the edge of her magical capacity.

She nudged him down gently onto the bamboo mat and smoothed his hair down, then released the magic.

Grun sighed, eyes closed and expression serene.

Linza sat on the little stool, her breathing slowing as she tried to account for what had just happened. There was now no denying that Grun affected her how no one else ever had. Surely it was wrong to enjoy making someone squirm so much, and yet… he liked it, didn’t he? Was this the ‘chemistry’ that Wyn talked about?

But why did it have to be with him?

And why did it have to turn her into this slithering, wicked thing?

She suddenly wasn’t sure if she liked it—if she liked any of it. Nausea tugged at her stomach—she’d lost track of time and pushed her limits. Maybe that’s all this was—just magical exhaustion making her woozy. Like lack of oxygen or sleep, magical depletion could have strange effects. Fortunately, her last two slots of the day were just for Minor Illusions.

Grun stirred and stretched, disturbing Linza from her thoughts. She was too tired and confused to do anything but watch him. He dressed again, but paused by the door as he went to leave.

“Thank you,” he said.

Linza didn’t reply.

He left.

Muscle memory took over as she slid open the screen and cleaned the room. Within minutes, nothing remained of what had just transpired.

The same could not be said for Linza’s mind.

All she could see when she closed her eyes was his climax, over and over again.

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Part 4: The Interloper, The Alchemist's Illusions

Chapter 30: Love Sick Day

The cooler air of nightfall swept over Linza and out towards the ocean as she walked up the main street and towards her place of work.

There was a string quartet playing in the central square, and the soothing music lulled the crowd into a sensual hush.

Then a voice like a singing bird cut over it and came directly towards her. “Linza, Linza, Linza!”

Tanyth wore a sharp suit again, looking distinctly masculine, but their voice was all girlish glee.

Linza herself was feeling more pensive than anything, but still she grinned empathetically and mirrored Tanyth’s energy as they reached her and took her shoulders in their hands.

“Linza you will not believe this but—” they paused a moment to catch their breath, “I’m training Grun!”

“My goodness, yes!” Linza said as she thought, Oh what a fucking mess. “Starting when, what for?”

“Well, tonight!” Tanyth breathed. “And, vanilla stuff. Which will be nice to get back to—I haven’t worked those roles in a while.”

Vanilla stuff comprised what most people thought of when they thought of a brothel—penetrative sex, blow jobs, hand jobs, et cetera. And as with the teahouse’s famous ice cream, it was the best damn vanilla you’d ever had.

Linza pulled open the costume trunk in her mind and rifled through a few options for a mask that she felt would be appropriate. She settled on a facade of encouraging and conspiratorial. So, she grinned a bit coyly and said just quietly enough to inspire interest. “So are you gonna… y’know. Do hands-on training?”

Tanyth turned nearly bright red. “Oh I hope so! But I hope not! Oh I don’t know if I could stand it.” They fanned themselves with their hands.

Linza wondered how she’d ever convinced herself that they were attracted to her. It would have been obvious. As she’d learned, Tanyth was a terrible liar.

Did people assume that she was bad at lying because she was so earnest? Perhaps that’s why they didn’t look too closely at the subtle discrepancies between what she said and how she felt.

“You’d better tell me all about it, whatever happens,” Linza said.

“I will, I will! Oh, I hope he doesn’t dislike me.” They seemed startled into fear by the sudden realization that such a thing was possible and covered their hand with their mouth.

Linza put her hand on Tanyth’s shoulder. “Tanyth, you’re lovely. If he doesn’t like you, he’s an asshole.”

The tension dropped out of Tanyth’s little body. “You’re the best, Linza. I needed to hear that. And I need to run, or else I’ll be late!” They tipped up onto their toes and pecked Linza on the cheek. “Thank you!” And then Tanyth dashed off through the main street and was gone.

Linza felt like a fish in a bowl in the hands of too young a child, shaken around in their gleeful exuberance and now spinning dizzily in the water, disoriented and queasy.

She soldiered on towards her shift, though the feeling of the bowl around her did not subside. The sounds were muffled, her awareness not reaching much further than an immediate circle around her.

She nearly walked into the madame’s assistant where he stood at the bottom of the stairs up to the rooms where she worked.

“Oh! Hello!” she mustered.

“Something’s troubling you,” he said. It was a statement, not a question.

Linza looked up at him, realizing that it was now she that looked like the startled cat, wide-eyed and frozen. “I… I won’t let it interfere with my work.”

“Might you conjure a little illusion for me?” the assistant said.

“Of course,” Linza said. It would be like the exercise she’d done with Tanyth—the very same one that had revealed her feelings for them. She was nervous, but she couldn’t deny the madame’s assistant.

“Dog,” he said.

The dog was snarling.

“Cat,” he said.

The cat was frozen in fear.

“Touch,” he said.

A hand shoving away another’s chest.

“Emotion,” he said.

A face contorted in silent, anguished scream.

“Love,” he said.

Linza curled up in a ball in her apartment, all alone.

Tears welled in her eyes as a hard knot twisted in her throat. She looked up at the assistant, horrified.

His face was soft and comforting. “Are you angry, afraid, or ashamed?”

“Ashamed, of course!” Linza wrapped one of her hands around the opposite elbow. “I shouldn’t be letting it get to me this way.”

“Do you expect that anyone in your position would feel ashamed?” He tilted his head, an amusement twinkling in his night-sky eyes.

Linza doubted herself, but in the spirit of the question, she answered as truthfully as she could. “Well, yes, I think. Is that… wrong?”

“Where I come from, we say that there are three ways of knowing. The gut, instinct. The heart, feeling. The head, thinking. We all use all three. We each lead with one. Each has an underlying issue. For the gut, anger. For the heart, shame. For the head, fear.”

Linza forced a wry smile. “I think I’m that shame one.”

The assistant nodded deferentially. “In that case, then let me say, there is no shame taking a night off when your heart is troubled.”

“But, the schedule! I can’t possibly ask anyone to cover for me last-minute,” she said. Her clients would be so disappointed! She couldn’t bear it.

“What would you tell Tanyth, if they felt how you felt now?” he asked.

“I…” she knew the answer instantly, and she felt ashamed to say it aloud. But that was the point, wasn’t it? That was the challenge? She could rise to meet a challenge. “I’d absolutely insistent that they take the night off. I’d help find someone to cover for them. I’d… remind them that they must consider the guest’s quality of experience, as well. A raincheck is better than…” She couldn’t bring herself to say ‘bad service’ aloud.

The assistant put his hand on her shoulder. “Take the night off. I’ll take care of the schedule.”

Linza held her breath, lest tears escape. She paused a moment, inhaled, exhaled. “Thank you.” She turned to leave, not wanting to waste any more of his time. Then, she turned back, expecting him to already be gone, but he waited there. As if he’d known what she was about to ask. “Could I… ask you again, sometime, about the ways of knowing? It sounded like there’s a whole framework there.”

He nodded. “There is. I’d be happy to elaborate. Inquire any time.”

She bowed, then left. And she knew exactly where she was going. She bought a box of a dozen chocolate tarts at the estate’s bakery and then boarded the trolly to Wyn’s.

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Part 4: The Interloper, The Alchemist's Illusions

Chapter 29: Crushed

The gentleman left, and then Tanyth and Linza returned to a table on the balcony. It was quieter now that it was in between teatime and dinner time. 

Tanyth sighed and rested their chin on their hands, their elbows on the table. “What did you think?”

“It was fun! Did he masturbate?” Linza asked.

“Not today, though sometimes, yeah. I’m sure he will tonight, though.” Tanyth sighed dreamily. “Glad you enjoyed it. Though you’ve already been very patient! What did you want to talk about?”

Linza took a deep breath, steeling herself. “You know that new guy, Grun?”

Tanyth’s eyes lit up. “Oh. My. Gods. What a hunk!” They giggled and hid their face in their hands. “Ugh, I already have such a crush.”

Linza had made peace with the butterflies, but she had not yet negotiated with the nausea. The reaction was so quick, so visceral. It was like all the tea had turned to spoiled milk in her stomach.

She was jealous, of course. Not just of the gentleman, but now of Grun. He was so rude and pushy and odd, and Tanyth liked him? She knew them and cared for them and she was just a student to them?

She had convinced herself that perhaps Tanyth just had a rule against anything with newer staff, and that’s why they had rejected her. 

But, no.

They had a crush on Grun.

Linza dug deep and mustered as sincere a smile as she could. “Aha! I thought you might like him! Is he totally your type?”

“He’s totally my type,” Tanyth moaned. 

If Tanyth noticed her blushing, they probably attributed it to arousal.

Linza let Tanyth drive the conversation after that. She’d already gotten the answer to her question, and then some. 

She couldn’t possibly tell Tanyth that Grun had been flirting with her. It would crush them. 

Like they’d just crushed her. 

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Part 4: The Interloper, The Alchemist's Illusions

Chapter 28: Under the Table

Linza made her way over to the private dining area behind the one-way mirrors. There were about a dozen tables and four were occupied—five after Linza sat down.

The folks in the room looked like regular patrons. Sipping tea, reading the paper, scribbling in a notebook.

The one-way mirrors ran nearly floor to ceiling, and the view through to the rest of the teahouse was clear. It was easy to forget that the rest of the teahouse couldn’t see you. And that was the point. 

Linza snuck glances at the other patrons, trying to figure which one was here for Tanyth. In the back corner was an older man with salt and pepper hair smoothed back and an emerald corduroy suit. Linza would have bet a whole night’s pay that was him. Everything about his demeanor said ‘gentleman’.

Tanyth dropped off her tea with the usual formalities and then fluttered over to the gentleman. They leaned close to him and spoke quietly, pressing their fingers to their lips.

But it was improper to stare—those were not the parameters of this experience—so Linza sipped her tea and watched idly out over the teahouse.

Fortunately, she didn’t have to wait long. Tanyth stopped by the main counter to end their shift, though it wouldn’t appear to the other patrons that they had.

They carried a little tray of shortbread cookies with them as they returned to the private room. They delivered these to the gentleman, with whom they shared another flurry of whispers.

Tanyth picked up one cookie and placed it between the gentleman’s lips, and he bit off a piece. Then he took the rest of the cookie and licked playfully at Tanyth’s fingers. Tanyth blushed and giggled.

The two continued, the gentleman becoming more forward, licking further up Tanyth’s hand, making their skin flush.

It was impossible to see through their skirt, but Linza knew that underneath the petticoats was a throbbing erection.

If Linza snuck a glance at the gentleman’s face, she could just make out what he was saying by the movement of his lips. He placed a hand on Tanyth’s waist. “Come, now. Haven’t you got any other sweet treats for me?” He beamed up at them like they were the loveliest thing in the whole world.

Linza’s heart twinged, just a little. She was happy to know that Tanyth cared for her. But she still wished for someone to beam at her that way, someday.

The gentleman’s hand slipped around to the small of Tanyth’s back. Tanyth said something from behind their fingers and he laughed.

“Oh,” he said. “Clumsy me, you’ve got a touch of crumbs.” He brushed off the front of Tanyth’s skirts but pressed more firmly than necessary.

Tanyth’s eyes fluttered at the stimulation, the gentleman finding their erection through the petticoats.

“I-I think I’m quite clean now,” Tanyth said.

“Still, something seems to be bothering you,” he said.

“N-nothing at all! You’re a perfect gentleman,” they said.

“Hm. Perhaps therein lies the conflict… Am I being too much the gentleman and not enough the man?”

Tanyth’s eyes widened as they fanned their heated cheeks with a delicate hand. “What are you saying?”

He reached out and caught Tanyth’s hand and pressed it to his lips. Lingered.

Tanyth gasped, looked faint.

He reached towards them with his other hand, but conspicuously knocked the empty tray onto the floor. “Would you look at that? Clumsy me.”

He kneeled down to get it.

“Oh, you must let me!” Tanyth said.

“No, no, let me be a gentleman.”

Linza was not the only one whose sidelong glances became more and more frequent. The idea was for them to both watch and pretend to not watch. 

The gentleman kneeled to the floor and looked up.

Everyone else glanced quickly away. 

There was a rustling of fabric, and then the gentleman was gone.

Tanyth gasped. They made a show of rearranging their skirts, only partly succeeding at disguising the movements underneath.

Linza thought this kind of complicit voyeurism was quite clever. You didn’t actually need to be subtle. You just had to pretend to be, and everyone else would also pretend you were. So, you could have a bit more fun.

Tanyth’s eyes fluttered and their skin flushed even brighter and they clutched their skirts. The gentleman’s clever tongue had found their shaft.

Tanyth did their best to contain themselves, but a few gasps and squeaks still escaped. And that was what made it especially exciting—how a dress falling off a shoulder could be more arousing than a nude.

Linza wanted dearly to watch Tanyth’s face more closely, but she couldn’t outright stare. Or… could she?

Linza imagined herself sitting there and reading a newspaper. She held out her hands like she might have held the paper. She traced the gesture for a minor illusion, and the newspaper appeared propped on the table in front of her. To those convinced by the illusion, it would be opaque. To Linza, it was translucent like the mirrored windows.

Nobody had been paying her any mind, so she expected it would be convincing.  And even if another patron noticed the illusion, them catching her in such shameless voyeurism would be its own fun, wouldn’t it?

She stared right at Tanyth’s face. 

They were beautiful. Their cheeks flushed, their eyes fluttering. They bit their lip as they attempted to stay quiet, to play it off. Their blue pigtails bounced as they trembled. 

A few minutes passed like that.

Tanyth shook. They wouldn’t be able to stand much longer. They awkwardly shuffled and then sat down where the gentleman had been, turning to face the table and scooting the chair as close to it as they could.

And then their expression melted into bliss again. 

They propped up a menu in front of their face, but Linza could still see their pigtails quivering. 

And so several more minutes passed. Linza’s illusory newspaper must have been convincing, because a patron across from her slipped their own hand under the table. He was out of sight for everyone except Linza, and she had a clear view right under his table to where he unbuttoned his trousers and carefully released his throbbing shaft.

He stared up at the ceiling as if daydreaming and then stroked himself.

If a little gasp just behind Linza was any indication, the woman behind her had also started to furtively masturbate.

Linza’s attention returned to Tanyth as they leaned further over the table. They whispered somewhat loudly, for the benefit of the audience, “C’mon, that’s enough!”

“But I always have cream with my tea.”

Tanyth’s eyes and resolve fluttered again. “They’ll notice!”

“Not if you’re quiet.”

“I can’t be— mmmm…” Tanyth’s eyes squeezed shut. They gripped the edge of the table, and their shoulders quivered. 

Linza inferred that the gentleman had enveloped Tanyth again, and he seemed intent on pushing them to climax. 

Tanyth’s breath was quick and shallow. They bit their lip again. Then, their eyes flashed open. They looked like a cat frozen in the sudden light of a front door swinging open. 

They arched their back, head tilted back, moaned, and then reached their hands above their head.

It was almost a convincing stretch.

Almost. 

A slight knocking sound of knuckles on wood caught Linza’s attention, and she turned just in time to see the man across from her burst onto the floor in front of him. 

Waves of heat overlapped each other throughout Linza’s body. Nobody else would have minded if she slipped her own hand under the table—in fact, the other voyeurs would have appreciated it. But she was still a bit shy for that, and ultimately she liked to push herself, to see how much stimulation she could stand before she broke. Like the bet with Tanyth on her first day in the breakroom, she liked the challenge.

Tanyth quivered for quite a while. They must have been quite worked up indeed, to cum for so long.

Eventually, the gentleman reappeared across from Tanyth, with a moderate effort at subtlety. His hair was a bit untidied, but his demeanor remained polite.

He licked his lips at Tanyth. 

They put their face in their hands and then peeked at him through their fingers and giggled.

“Was I enough of a man for my perfect lady?” he said.

They nodded emphatically, ringlets bouncing.

“I am afraid I must get back to business, you understand.”

Tanyth pouted. “Must you?”

“Aaah… you know I have such trouble leaving you when you make that face. A few more minutes.”

They chatted a bit longer, though quieter now and Linza could hear less of what they were saying. She also was not as interested in eavesdropping on the more personal aspects of their conversation. 

And her arms were getting tired from pretending to hold up the newspaper. When enough eyes were averted from her, she let the paper melt away to nothingness and returned to sipping her tea, which had turned cold. Oh well—she had no regrets about where she’d put her attentions.

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Part 4: The Interloper, The Alchemist's Illusions

Chapter 27: Butterflies

Linza needed to debrief about Grun. Wyn would immediately jump on the ‘Grun is an asshole’ train and in this case, Linza wanted a true second opinion.

She was sure Tanyth would have noticed the newcomer. They might even be training him.

It was the following weekend and Linza was on a break, though she knew Tanyth was still working. They’d be at the teahouse. Some tea sounded nice and it’d be a good way for Linza to casually gauge whether talking to Tanyth would be a good idea or not.

It had actually been some weeks since she’d talked to them at all. The butterflies had probably faded.

The teahouse’s main serving area was on the second floor of an ornate building on the main street. Tiny round tables in a tidy grid filled the interior and spilled out onto the balcony that overlooked the street. Each table had a frilly table cloth in ruby, emerald, and sapphire and was ringed by matching velvet chairs. 

The staff were similarly decorated. None were taller than Linza, and they each wore the fanciest dresses Linza had ever seen—snug corsets, billowing bustles, many-layered petticoats, layer upon layer of bows and ribbons and frills. Some dresses were solid, while others were printed with panels of art—scenes of the ocean, unicorns and woodland creatures, pictures of tea settings. The staff wore elaborate hats, bonnets, or pigtails and bows.

Tanyth’s hair was tied up in two pigtails of sky blue ringlets with lilac bows that matched more bows on the ruffled skirt of their dress. The bustier was padded to suggest cleavage, and the corset nipped in at the waist. With the volume of the bustle, Tanyth radiated youthful femininity. Their pointed ears and elfish charm were the cherry on top.

They stepped around the corner as Linza appeared, and they noticed her right away. “Linza! Take a seat by the balcony and you’ll be in my area.” Their voice was especially girly. 

Linza’s stomach flipped. Okay, so the butterflies weren’t totally gone. Linza could manage, of course. She was an adult. This nervous spark with Tanyth was so different from the unbidden heat that Grun evoked.

She went to her seat and waited. The street below was a stream of people, babbling and jostling. A few minutes later, Tanyth fluttered to a stop at the table, ribbons tailing behind them. If Linza hadn’t known better, she would have assumed that Tanyth was a girl. But she was understanding rule number two, nothing taken. Taking someone’s gender for granted, even if it seemed obvious, could be unintentionally hurtful. Tanyth was neither a boy nor a girl, and yet both. Tanyth was themselves.

Linza admired the confidence of their expression. It made her realize how timid she herself could be. She’d avoided frilly dresses at university for fear that her classmates might not take her seriously. And her fear was probably justified. Tanyth themselves probably had to be more careful out in the kingdom. But here at the estate, it was safe to be oneself, both for the patrons and the staff.

Tanyth curtseyed to Linza and then clasped their elegant little hands under their breast. “What can I get you this fine afternoon?”

“A honey milk tea and an estimated time of when you’ll be off shift,” she said.

“Ooh! You caught me at a good time. I’m just about done with my floor shift, and then I’ve just got one experience booked before I’m off for the evening,” Tanyth said.

“Ooh, what kind of experience?” Linza asked.

Tanyth leaned in close and cupped their hand around Linza’s ears and whispered the details. Their voice sent shivers down her spine, but it was their words that sent pulses of heat through her core and legs.

“Oh my,” Linza said. “That does sound lovely.”

Tanyth nodded excitedly, and all their curls and ribbons bounced. “And actually, since you’re already here…” They chewed on their lip for a moment in the cutest way. Linza could see why they were popular here. “We’re short a few voyeurs, tonight. You’d be paid, of course.”

Was it just Linza, or was Tanyth blushing? Surely they were just excited about the experience, and not whether Linza would be there or not. 

Linza herself had been getting the swing of things at the house and was curious to branch out into other roles. This seemed like a great start. She nodded firmly. “I’d love to. It’d be great for my… research, too.” Tanyth would know that said ‘research’ was for her illusions and her writing. 

“Oh! No pressure, but if you also write some smut of it for me, you’ll be my hero!” They said it with all the gleeful sincerity of a princess to a knight.

Linza’s heart turned over in her chest. Tanyth really meant it.

And then Linza realized something. Tanyth did love her. They knew her well and cared for her deeply. That was all Linza had ever wanted, really. The butterflies might want something else, but they were just butterflies. Fun, sure, but nothing to take too seriously.

Linza did not have to fake her smile as she said, “You bet your little ass I will.”

Tanyth put their fingers to their lips and giggled. “Alright. I’ll actually serve you your tea in the room. It’s set just off the cafe with one-way mirrors,” they gestured to a mirrored wall on the far side of the room, “so that they can get the feeling of being in the middle of the cafe without disrupting anyone else. You’ll be the only staff today, other than me. The rest will be esteemed guests, and our honored patron of course.”

Linza nodded, the house’s lingo now second-nature. “Excellent.”

Tanyth turned to leave, then popped back in a springing of curls. “Oh! And he’ll call me a girl and that’s alright. He asked me first and everything, it was all very proper.” Tanyth fanned themselves with a menu. “He’s one of my favorites.”

“How long has he been coming?” Linza asked.

“Years now, about once a month,” they said.

Years! It was difficult to imagine working anywhere for so long, but she’d thought the same thing about university as a freshman. Time would march on. 

Linza grinned. “You’ve been looking forward to this, haven’t you?”

“Of course!” Tanyth nearly whined. “We’ve been flirting all afternoon.”

Linza grinned a bit wickedly. “Must make it hard… to stay focused on your shift.”

Tanyth blushed brightly. “Not you teasing me too! Tsk!” They hid their face behind the bottom of the menu.

Linza giggled. “Alright, alright. I’ll head over to the room. See you soon.”

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Part 4: The Interloper, The Alchemist's Illusions

Chapter 26: Solicitations

Linza was eating dinner at a bench by the docks when a greenish shadow loomed over her.

It was the half-orc man from lunch. He still wore just the tight leather shorts, still moved with self-assured swagger.

Her heart surged to a thunder in her chest, her cheeks heating with the memory of not only lunch, but also her subsequent long session in the break room. She hated how hard—and how many times—she’d cum, thinking of the sweat on his chest and his look of enraptured relief. He had no right to affect her this much, and certainly no business just waltzing up to her like he had to the madame.

“Hey,” he said.

She wanted to snap ‘what do you want?’ but she was always so much sassier in her head than real life. “Hello,” she said. Apparently he decided that she existed after all. If he even remembered her from earlier.

“Do you mind if I join you?” he asked. 

She did mind. But she said, “No, it’s fine.”

“Great!” He sat down next to her, and the bench creaked.

He was so broad that his arm nearly touched hers. He smelled like musk, leather, and vanilla. Half of her wanted to lean closer into that smell. Half of her wanted to press as far to the other side of the bench as possible—or just leave. She sat stiffly in the tension between those warring desires.

He looked out over the docks and then the main street. “This place is amazing, huh?”

“Yeah, it’s pretty special,” she said, and she knew he had no idea just how special it was.

“You seem pretty special,” he said. 

She gave him her most skeptical look.

“I just mean, you know the madame?” he said.

So, he did remember her. “Sort of. I’ll be under her tutelage shortly,” she said.

“I’d love to be under her titty-lage…” he said with a smirk.

Linza was too polite to roll her eyes, and she certainly did not find it funny enough to laugh. 

His eyes scanned her face, and he seemed to notice and recalculate. He cleared his throat, smirk fading. “It’s just… It means a lot to see a half-orc be successful here, y’know? And not despite our nature, because of it.”

“Your nature?” Linza tilted her head. She was sure she knew what he meant, but she wanted to see what he’d say if she played dumb.

And he surprised her by going a bit shy and putting a hand to the back of his neck. “We tend to be… really horny.”

Linza scoffed a laugh. “I hadn’t noticed.”

He smiled. “They must keep them really well sated here, then!”

Linza wasn’t sure whether to clarify that she’d been sarcastic.

An awkward moment passed. 

“I’m Grun, by the way,” he said.

“Linza.”

“You worked here long?” Grun asked.

“Three months or so,” Linza said. She still wasn’t sure that she wanted to be in this conversation, but she wasn’t creative enough to lie either.

“Only that long and you’re having lunch with the madame?” He looked genuinely impressed.

“Well…” Linza faltered. His current behavior was making his earlier imposition seem more like ignorance than arrogance. Was he just trying to flatter Linza? Or get through her to the madame? Wyn would have already handed him his ass, but Linza couldn’t bring herself to be quite so brazen.

And Grun looked at her patiently, despite her long pause. She half expected him to continue on with whatever other questions he had in mind, but he didn’t.

“… I guess I’m a bit of an oddball around here, myself. I’m an alchemist by day, actually. I’m a numbers person. So that’s mostly why. More of a tutoring in… economics than erotics, you could say.”

Grun chuckled. “You’re clever.”

Linza blushed. “Well, math is like anything, it’s just all practice.” She didn’t know why she was deflecting the compliment, other than reflex. He was right! She was clever! Wyn was always telling her that she should stop selling herself short, but whenever the occasion arose, the rules of polite conversation held her captive.

He said, “I know you haven’t been here long yourself, but…”

Here it comes, Linza thought. He’d be asking about the madame, for sure.

“…I looked over this terms thing, and… well, it all seems very thorough, but I’m not much one for paperwork. I was hoping for an inside opinion. Do you think I should work here?”

Linza blinked. It took her mind a moment to wind back from the answer that she’d already been preparing to comprehend his actual question. Then she said, “Are you willing to learn?”

“Of course,” he said.

“To do things differently than you have before?” she asked.

“Absolutely,” he said.

“To consider every aspect of your work with the utmost care?” she asked.

“Yes,” he said, with that same attentive expression that he had given the madame.

“Then… yes. I do think you should work here. It is a special place. If you come at it selfishly, it’s not a good fit. I could see that you…” Linza looked for the right words. The memory of his quivering obedience surged to the front of her mind. Her arousal flared. “That you, well, you listen. That matters here.”

He didn’t seem to notive her flustering. He just nodded thoughtfully. His eyes were blue—she hadn’t noticed that before. She didn’t know if that was rare or usual for half-orcs. 

He turned those eyes to her, smiling. “Well. I’m going to join, if only to have you as a coworker. I think we’ll be a good fit.”

All she could imagine was the immense fullness of him inside of her, and her arousal flared again. Words failed her.

“I’ve already bothered you enough today,” he said, pushing to his feet. “Thanks for the advice. See you around, coworker!”

And then he strode away, back into the estate.

And her eyes followed the muscles of his ass under those tight leather shorts.

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