Part 4: The Interloper, The Alchemist's Illusions

Chapter 38: Linza’s Nook

Most of Linza’s favorite places in the city were in and around the JSMI campus. Part of it was that she’d lived there for so long and knew the area better than her current neighborhood.

The other part of it was the nostalgia, the strange pleasure of being back on campus but with no homework, no projects, nothing on the schedule…

Linza led Grun past the enchanted statue of the founder at the front gates, a plump goblin woman in a pointed hat, who greeted each passerby with “Hello!” or “Welcome to JSMI!” courtesy of the Magic Mouth spell. Of course, the official casting was not the only one, and fourth years with cash to burn were always trying to sneak in additional triggers. Linza showed how whenever the statue heard “sixty-nine” she said “nice”, though Linza was disappointed to find that the enchantment that responded to “shut up” with “I shut your mom up with this fat cock” had been removed.

Then Linza pulled Grun by the hand through the gardens, showing him her favorite spots to go and sketch or think.

They even ducked past the student staff and snuck into the library, and Linza lead him all the way up to her favorite nook on the fourth floor. Here, the gaps between the book-stuffed shelves were so narrow that Grun’s shoulders brushed them on either side. Linza hooked a right at the seventh intersection, and in the shadow at the end of the narrow aisle, there was still a squat little chair tucked against the wall. She’d ‘borrowed’ it from a nearby common room during her second year.

“I always felt alone with the books up here,” Linza whispered, running her fingers down the leather spines. Few people bothered to learn the labyrinthine upper floors—these were the books that hardly anybody wanted, but that the librarians couldn’t bear to throw away. So they just packed in tighter and tighter each year.

Grun’s eyes twinkled. “Alone with the books, you say?”

Linza narrowed her eyes. “Yeeeeah…”

“You seem to have so many memories here. Why not add one more?” Grun’s smirk was unambiguously lewd.

Linza’s heart quickened as her blood heated. She’d never been interrupted in this spot, but finding a quiet place to finish a term paper was one thing. Doing what Grun was suggesting was another entirely…

Linza bit her lip. “But what if someone catches us?”

Grun smirked. “What are they going to do, expel you?”

A smile cracked across Linza’s face. A few short months ago she wouldn’t have even considered, but now…

Grun stepped closer, and his heat reached around her.

“I suppose that’s a good point,” Linza said, unable to pull her eyes from Grun’s sea glass stare.

He brushed his fingertips against the edge of her jaw, his tongue running along one of his pointed canines.

“I’ve never done anything like this before,” Linza breathed. “I was a bit of a boring student…”

Grun leaned down until his lips were just above her ear. “A chance to make up for lost time, then?”

A shiver coursed down Linza’s spine and unleashed her, and her hands found the bare skin of Grun’s chest and back as she pulled his lips to hers.

Grun pressed her against the wall, one hand on her cheek and the other on the small of her back. His cock throbbed against the front of her hips, and just as her hand found him, he pulled away and kneeled in front of her.

Before Linza could ask what he was doing, he was under her skirt, holding her panties to the side and pressing his tongue against her clit.

Linza gasped, then bit her lip to keep quiet. It was too risky, too inappropriate—but fuck did it feel good. She knew she could ask him to stop and he would, but… she didn’t want him to. Not with the way the base of his tongue stroked her clit, and how the tip of it reached inside of her, the heat of his hands on her thighs, the jolts of pleasure zipping down her limbs.

The greater her arousal, the more enticing the idea of someone catching them—turning down the aisle to the scandalous sight, or peeping from an aisle over, or listening from down the hall. What would Linza have done in her little chair if she’d looked just right through a gap in the books to see someone having sex in the next aisle over? Would she have watched? Let her arousal build? Maybe pulled up her skirt and let her hand find the wetness there…

Linza couldn’t wonder any longer because she was cumming, her hands braced against the wall, her breath held, her hips bucking against Grun’s face, her memory of the little nook forever changed.

As she finally relaxed, Grun emerged from under her skirt with her wetness glistening on his beard and a smirk across his lips.

“How was that for making up for lost time?” Grun said.

Warm shimmers still swirled through Linza’s mind. “Yes, um, good. Very good.” As Linza’s balance returned, she leaned forward and brushed a hand down Grun’s bare chest to the button of his trousers. “You have something I want…”

Grun smiled knowingly, shivering at her fingertips, his cock throbbing just below.

And then the sound of footsteps thudded around the edge of the aisle.

Linza gasped and shot to her feet, smoothing her skirt and finding a very interesting spine on the shelves.

Grun chuckled and stood with less of a hurry. Just as he leaned towards Linza, a mousy young man with a halo of curly hair stopped short at the end of the aisle. He squeaked and then turned to leave.

“We were just leaving!” Linza said, stepping towards the aisle. 

“Oh, no please don’t leave on my account,” the young man said.

“I was just visiting an old haunt, fourth floor is all yours again,” Linza said.

The young man’s cheeks tinged pink, and he fidgeted with his book bag’s strap, but nodded and stayed.

Linza scurried out of the aisle, with Grun striding close behind.

Two aisles later, a thought struck her like a switch on the rump of a horse and she nearly sprinted the rest of the way out of the library. She had completely forgotten to clean the cushion, and the mousy young man would find it soaked and smelling like sex. As they reached the courtyard around the corner from the library, Linza’s panic dissolved into laughter and she struggled to tell Grun what was so funny between giggles.

“I daresay he might have trouble focusing on his studies,” Grun said. “You naughty girl, sabotaging a poor, innocent student.”

“It was your idea!” Linza hissed, but she was beaming.

Wyn was hardly going to believe that Linza did anything so bold. And Tanyth would—

Linza’s glee dimmed. Tanyth would be crushed. She tried to push it out of her mind, but the thought nagged at her for the rest of the day, through their lunch at the JSMI cafeteria, their wandering through the courtyards of the dormitories, their shameless people-watching and quipping about students and professors, their racing each other up the sport field (Grun won, but only barely), their detour to Linza’s favorite art shop, their dinner at a local seafood place, and their ceaseless flirting throughout.

The more fun she had, the darker the thought loomed:

What in the world was she going to say to Tanyth?

Part 4: The Interloper, The Alchemist's Illusions

Chapter 37: Sick Day

Linza awoke to the sound of the neighborhood clock tower chiming and to the warmth of Grun’s arms around her. She snuggled into Grun, and then realized that if the clock was already chiming, she was already going to be late for work.

“Shit!” She jolted up.

“That’s not regret I hear, is it?” Grun teased. He seemed to have already been awake.

Linza stilled for a moment. She leaned over and kissed Grun’s cheek. “Not at all. I’m just going to be late!”

She scrambled out from under the covers but his hand found her waist.

“That doesn’t seem so bad,” Grun said. He ran his fingers up over her breast and then down her waist again and to her ass, humming with appreciation. “Why don’t you let me send you off properly? Give you a little breakfast?”

“That is very tempting,” Linza said, and she meant it, “But I really can’t.” She wiggled out from under his hand and rolled out of bed, taking the half step over to her wardrobe and rummaging around for a suitable outfit. She’d have to get ready in record time.

Her plans crashed headlong into a brick wall at a singular, captivating sound.

Grun’s indulgent, luxuriant moan.

Linza spun.

Grun had shrugged the cover down to his thighs and he was lying with one hand behind his head and the other stroking his cock, his eyes fluttering towards the ceiling in abject bliss. He was still naked, his wavy hair splayed out on the pillow, the muscles of his chest and abdomen rippling in time with his stroking.

“What are you doing?” Linza hissed.

Grun lifted the hand from behind his head to wave her on. “You go on, I can… nnnngh… take care of this…”

Linza turned reluctantly back to her wardrobe, but couldn’t manage anything beyond staring blankly at it. And then a rivulet of moisture ran down her inner thigh, the remnants of Grun’s ample deposit.

Grun moaned again.

She turned a skeptical eye towards him to see if he was playing it up on purpose. But he didn’t seem to be. It just… felt that good.

Linza’s mouth watered and she put her hands on her hips. “Well, I can’t leave with you like this!”

Grun stirred from his reverie and looked towards her. “Oh yeah? Why not?”

She bit her lip and despite her best effort, her eyes drifted to his cock.

Grun smiled. “This isn’t getting you all—ngh—hot and bothered, is it?”

“No, of course not!” Linza huffed. She didn’t know why she was being contrary, other than that if she wasn’t, she really wouldn’t make it to work. 

“Then why can’t you leave?” Grun teased.

“Because… because, well, I can’t leave you here, I have to lock up.” It was true enough.

“Hm, that seems fair. You’d better come hurry me along then, huh? Otherwise these things just… nnnnngh…” This time he was being dramatic on purpose as he took a long, slow stroke. “… they just take time.”

Linza crossed her arms. It was not Grun she was fighting at this point, so much as the realization that her sense of responsibility was really going to lose to her horniness. “Oh yeah? And how can I ‘hurry you along’?”

Grun beckoned her towards him with two fingers.

She eyed him suspiciously but stepped over to the bed and kneeled next to him.

He swept those same two fingers under her and to her vulva, then stopped just as he touched her. She was still wet, still so ready to be touched.

She quivered with anticipation, heat flaring under her skin as a gasp escaped her lips.

He paused, finding her eyes, looking for any sign of apprehension or protest. There was none. He slipped his fingers inside.

“Gruuun… I, I have to go to work…” Linza said.

“Do you?” He circled his thumb over her clit.

She gasped and shuddered.

“You don’t look like you have to go to work…” He pressed his thick fingers slightly further inside. 

She whimpered.

“You don’t sound like you have to go to work…”

“W-well I do have to…”

He curled the tips of his fingers back towards himself. He pressed exactly on her spot. She moaned.

“I don’t think life should be lived from ‘have tos’,” he continued. “I like… ‘want tos’. What do you want?”

He pressed insistently, rhythmically at her spot, thumb still circling over her clit. Her own moisture mixed with the remnants of his seed and dripped down his hand.

“F-fuck you’re right on my spot!” she said. With every press, her resolve slipped a little further out of her grasp.

“I said… what do you want?”

“Fuck, I want to cum!”

His hips bucked. “Gods, I like it when you talk like that. I like it when you tell me what you want.”

His affirmation was as intoxicating as the lust. She put her own hand to her clit, pushing his thumb away and rubbing herself eagerly.

He shifted his hand slightly so that he could press more easily against her spot, moving his fingers in and out.

“Gods, right there,” Linza whimpered. This differed from his fullness in her— this was more intense, more direct. This was no gently tended ember, this was a bellows put to the flame. Like steam expanded to fill every available space, so the heat filled her even to the tips of her fingers and toes.

It was almost too much to bear, almost so much that she asked him to stop, but she didn’t want it to stop. If he stopped, the heat would dissipate only very slowly, like a steam engine with a clogged release valve.

Ironically, unbearably, rapturously—release would only come through greater pressure. Something, somewhere, would finally give. 

But not yet. Her grasping hand found his upper thigh, her fingers curled to claws and dug into his skin. “I want to cuuum…” Her other hand worked vigorously at her clit.

He moaned with deeper pleasure, his attention drifting towards stroking himself. “Fuuuuck… I’m close…”

Linza panted. “Wait for me.” Whatever part of her that would have deemed such a request as ‘too selfish’ had melted in the heat.

Grun moaned and stopped stroking. “As you wish.” He returned his attentions more fully to her, to his fingers inside of her.

The hints of pre-orgasmic pleasure quickened. “Right there… just like that… fuck, don’t stop… don’t stop…” The wanting and waiting were torture, but they allowed every molecule of her being to align to a singular goal.

Then, the cork holding back all that heat and pressure budged. A shift and her breathing quickened. A wobble and her heart thundered. And then Linza’s heat exploded. “Oh, oh fuck, oh fuck, oh fuck, I— Ah— Aaaaaaah!”

As she quivered with sensitivity, Grun turned his pressing into steady pressure, which was exactly to her liking. His reason was more instinctive, though. The sound of her climax had pushed him into his own inescapable need. As soon as he started stroking himself, he was on the edge.

His face and body tensed. His moan was the first sign, and then the first convulsion coursed through him. The second brought a spurt of cum multiple feet in the air, then the next, and the rest flowed out over his hand and onto his stomach, like sea foam over green waves.

As he relaxed, she pressed her hand over his and held his palm against her mound, his fingers inside of her, until her last waves of pleasure faded.

Grun stirred and put his fingers to his tongue, sucking her wetness off of him. He propped himself up and grinned at her. “You don’t seem in any sort of state to go to work,” he said confidently.

“I don’t?” Linza said, though her hair was a tangle and she still floated in the hazy afterglow.

He shook his head. “It’s my professional opinion that you need a day off. You are simply indisposed.”

Linza brought herself back down to reality. She did indeed have an allowance of paid leave. She hadn’t used any since she’d started working, not even when she’d actually been sick. It felt… risky, scandalous, guilty to play hooky. It also felt… exciting, interesting, lively.

She couldn’t be the only one who just… needed a day off now and again, right?

“Mmmmm okay, fine. Just this once. What, do you want to stay in and fuck all day?”

Grun sighed as if at a fond memory. “I certainly would not protest. But I was thinking… I haven’t actually seen much of the city. Maybe we could go on a tour? You can show me some of your favorite spots?”

“Oh! That sounds really nice.” And then Linza blushed. It made little sense to be shy given how they’d just fucked, but… a day on the town, practically a second date, the idea that he’d want to just spend time with her, sex aside… it felt good, and a little frightening.

Linza distracted herself by getting dressed, but then realized Grun had only his suit. While Linza searched for her most oversized sweater just in case he might be able to squeeze into it, he simply put on his pants and hooked his suit coat over his shoulder, neatly folding his shirt and setting it aside. Once he caught his hair up into a messy bun, he was instantly the picture of fashion.

Though someone might have taken offense at a human or even an elf walking around the city without a shirt on, nobody was about to tell a half-orc what they could or could not wear.

But fuck, was she going to have a hard time not staring at him the whole time.

Linza re-tucked her shirt into her skirt for the third time. Next to Grun, she felt… under-dressed. Over-dressed? It’s not like she had much of a choice—her entire wardrobe was more of the same. Linza reassured herself that if Grun had thought her usual outfit looked silly, he wouldn’t have flirted with her in the first place, so she’d better just stop fretting and get on with it.

After a brief stop by the nearest pigeon coops, where Linza delivered the letter to her employer explaining her absence for the day, she and Grun set out into town.

Part 4: The Interloper, The Alchemist's Illusions

Chapter 36: Dessert

Grun carried her up all five flights of stairs as easily as she carried her clutch. He held her as she dug out her keys and unlocked the door, and she would have had him carry her right to her bed, except she really needed to pee.

Mischief twinkled in his eye, but he thought better of it, and Linza scurried off to the bathroom, cursing her basic bodily functions.

As she emerged and saw him standing on the other side of the room, shirt mussed, trousers still tracing his muscular legs, hands tucked in his pockets, she paused.

He, too, hesitated.

For all their mutual voracity, a quiet and insistent hush fell over them. It was as if they each noticed a rare creature, one that might flee should they speak too loudly or move too quickly.

Grun stepped forward first, with his gentle yet intractable momentum, like a ship gliding on a calm sea.

He reached her like a spray of salt water, upon her all at once but nowhere harshly, his fingertips brushing her chin.

Her hands washed up onto his chest, crested around to his sides, his waist.

He folded around her, kissed her neck. She pulled him in closer, fingertips curling to claws.

His teeth met her skin.

She gasped. Her hands found the firmness in his trousers.

He groaned and unzipped the back of her dress.

She undid his buttons.

He slipped the dress down her shoulders and around her hips and it crumpled to the floor. His fingertips traced her spine, his palm pressing tight against the flat of her back, his breathy moan pouring over her neck.

Despite how conflicted Linza had felt, despite how many questions remained, in that moment she knew exactly what she wanted. She unbuttoned his shirt and traced her tongue over the arc of his pectorals, dropping to swirl over his nipples and earning a gasp and a wiggle.

As he shrugged out of his shirt, she dropped to her knees before him and freed his throbbing cock.

She had noted the size of it when he had stroked himself, but now that her own small hands wrapped around him, she truly appreciated the scale. She could just barely wrap one hand around his head and his base, but his mid-shaft swell forced her fingers apart. The base of his shaft was the same grey-green as the rest of his skin, but he darkened to purple towards the tip and his glans was soft pink under the sheath of his foreskin.

Grun moaned and shuddered at the sensation of her fingertips exploring him. “Y-you don’t have to—”

“I want to,” Linza crooned, swirling her tongue under his tip.

Grun’s entire body went stiff, vibrating with the effort of saying upright as he groaned. “I-I insist…”

That wicked, slithering thing draped over her shoulders and snickered.

Linza smirked. “Is that so?” She gripped just behind his head and gently pushed down towards his base, the skin sliding with her and revealing more of his glans. She flicked the tip of her tongue at his frenulum. 

He shuddered and grunted.

She slowly stroked him. “Insist away. No, really. Feel free to stop me any time.” She leaned down and sucked at his tip.

“Fuck! N-not fair…”

“If it makes you feel any better…” She lifted her other hand to cup his balls, learning the weight of them in her hand and earning another barely-contained moan. “You did get to go first. I… I really appreciated what you said at dinner.”

“N-not sure how it earned this, but… I’m glad…”

Linza gently squeezed his testicles, noting the way it made his eyes roll back.

Gods, she never would have dreamed of doing anything like this—of being anyone like this—six months ago. But between the illusions and the lectures and all the smut she’d been writing, she’d become much more sure of herself than she’d realized.

“I’m an alchemist, remember? You give me compliments, I give you…” She took him into her mouth and swirled her tongue between his frenulum and his foreskin.

“Oh, fuck!” His breath shuddered.

Every gasp, every moan, every shake ignited the heat between Linza’s legs. She loved having such an effect on him, loved making him lose his composure. Not that it was particularly difficult… but it was still very satisfying. 

She lost track of time kneeling before him, stroking and sucking and exploring, teasing out groans and twitches and pre-cum. His breathing accelerated.

“L-Linza… If you keep that up, I’m gonna…”

Linza slowed, giving a teasing suck to his tip. Grun’s hips bucked into her hands, desperate to keep up the sensation.

“S-sorry! It’s okay if you don’t—”

“I just have one question. How soon before you’re good to go again?”

His husky laugh stirred the heat between her legs. “I’m a half-orc, what do you think?”

“Good.” Linza started up again, full-tempo. After the brief pause, the sensation was even more intense.

“Fuck! Gods, that feels good…”

His shaft throbbed, his head oozed pre-cum onto her tongue, his balls tensed. She remembered his load on the veranda, remembered how badly she had wanted to try and swallow all of it, and her whole body went dizzy with arousal. Her panties were soaked, her sex throbbed, but she could wait. She wanted everything that he could possibly give her, and she moaned around his shaft, hoped that he would understand her wordless request.

“Oh shit… Linza, I’m… I’m gonna… Linza!”

If there were such a thing as a sympathetic orgasm, Linza had one right then, her whole body buzzing with the pleasure.

And then his first spurt hit the back of her tongue, and her entire awareness narrowed to drinking down as much of him as she could. His seed was hot and bitter and earthy and she wanted more of it, all of it, and she sucked and swallowed at his tip until he put his hand to her cheek. Linza leaned back and licked her lips.

“Good gods, Linza, you play so fucking hard to get and then…” He shivered. “And to think I was still worried you didn’t actually want to come to dinner.” His breathing slowed and his shoulders relaxed, but his cock showed no sign of softening.

She kissed his tip. “What can I say? You’re persuasive.”

Grun smiled and growled. “I could say the same to you. Nice guys finish last, and now you’ve gone and turned me into a jerk.” He leaned down and scooped her up off the floor and carried her back towards the bed.

“You were already a jerk.”

“Hey, since when have I been a jerk to you?”

“You interrupted my lunch!” Linza smacked his chest, and then he tossed her back onto the bed.

“Huh. Good point. That maybe wasn’t the best first impression for meeting a human, was it?”

“No! How’d you guess that I’m an overachiever and yet not realize that?”

Grun kneeled over her, a smile still dancing in his sea-glass eyes even as he pouted down at her. “Look, the barging in is a cultural thing. I’m sorry it ruined your lunch. But if my memory of that meeting is a bit… hazy…” His cock throbbed. “That is not my fault.”

A wicked grin pulled at Linza’s lips. She reached down and stroked his cock again. “I dunno, maybe if you weren’t so eager to show off how obedient you could be, you wouldn’t have cum your brains out.”

Grun’s eyes fluttered, and he whimpered, swaying as his legs slackened under him. “Hey!”

It was so much more intense a reaction than she’d expected. She loved it. “That really affects you, doesn’t it?”

“Yes,” Grun grumbled. “And for the record, I’m a switch. That lever goes both ways, and it’s just as touchy on either side.”

“Oh? What does it take to get it to go the other way?”

“Beg me to fuck you and you’ll find out.”

Heat thundered through Linza. She wriggled out of her soaked panties and offered them to Grun. “I could beg, but why don’t I let my panties do the talking.”

Grun breathed deeply, his eyes darkening with arousal. He growled and the sound curled down around her, arching her back. “Yeah. That’ll work. Careful though, I’m not sure if you’re quite ready for—”

Linza pressed a finger to his lips and then rolled over towards her bedside table. Grun shifted out of the way so that she could fish out a glass dildo nearly as thick as he was. “I’m a, uh… bit of a size queen.”

“Show off,” Grun said.

“I just didn’t think you’d believe me if I didn’t show you.”

“Well, now I’m obligated to prove to you that my cock is better.”

“Please do… try.”

Grun growled, grabbed her hips and hauled her towards him. He spotted the jar of lube on the nightstand and coated himself. He was all quick and efficient movements, right until he lined his tip up to her entrance.

Linza’s hips bucked reflexively towards him.

Grun smirked. “Now, now… beggars can’t be choosers… I’m going to take my time.”

“Hey, now, that’s not—”

It was Linza’s turn to be utterly undone when he dragged his tip up between her already-slick folds, circling over her clit before sliding down again. Linza shuddered and arched towards him, desperate for more and yet unable to ask for it because what he was already doing felt so good.

“First impressions are important,” Grun crooned, circling his tip over her clit again, “As you so kindly just reminded me. So I want to make sure you know…” He pressed at her entrance and she tensed eagerly, but he pulled away to brush over her clit again, drowning her protests in another spark of pleasure. “Exactly how it is… I like to do things.”

Grun leaned back and pulled away from her. A whimper escaped her before she could think to stop it. 

“Rutting is fun and all…” he continued. “But I prefer to take my time. And as you also so kindly just reminded me…” He leaned down over her, face moving towards her hips. “You smell delicious.”

As slowly and gently as she had reached up to kiss him, he lowered his mouth towards her sex.

Linza had always thought of herself as a relatively self-controlled person, but she realized in that moment that she had nothing on Grun—at least not when it came to sex. Because while he said he’d wait forever and he’d meant it, reveled in it, she could not keep her hips from bucking into his face.

Fortunately for her, he seemed just as eager to taste her as she was for his touch, and he growled eagerly and stroked his tongue along her. Just as she had when she’d kneeled before him, he started slowly, gently, learning what made her moan and shudder. This was skill, it was craft. It was the ‘work’ in sex work, and gods did it pay off.

Linza’s back arched and Grun teased her with a few swirls of his tongue before slipping a finger in as he slid his tongue up to her clit. 

“Size queen, huh?” He slipped a second finger next to the first. His hands were so large that just those two fingers together were the girth of an average human cock.

All Linza could do was nod, and then his third finger sent her spinning back into dizzy ecstasy. She loved the stretch, loved how it felt to squeeze around something that filled her so completely. Pre-orgasmic sparks of heat danced around his fingers. And then his tongue found her clit again as the pads of his fingers found her spot.

She whimpered as every muscle in her body tensed. “D-don’t stop!”

Within and without, he surrounded every nerve of her pleasure. She squeezed around him, chasing her release. And then her pleasure blossomed under the rhythmic pressure of his tongue and she screamed so loudly that the neighbors would certainly hear. But there was no stopping it—whatever part of her mind cared about the neighbors guttered out for that blissful moment as she crested her climax.

Linza moaned through the rhythmic pulses of her aftershocks, her body unraveling with each wave of pleasure. Grun gentled his touch, easing his fingers out of her as she settled.

It was thoughtful and appropriate, but her nerves sparkled with desire, and she was not so easily sated.

“Fuck me right now,” she breathed.

Grun’s muscles went taught as they had when she’d brushed his upper thigh under the table. “I’ll start slow,” he said, an edge in his voice as if he were reminding himself more than Linza.

She nodded. “You won’t have to stay slow for long, don’t worry.”

Grun found the jar of lube and slicked his cock again.

“You won’t break me,” Linza chided.

“Is that a challenge?” Grun’s eyes flashed.

That slithering thing writhed with pleasure. “Yes,” Linza said.

Grun leaned over her and pressed his cock between her folds, and she lifted her hips to meet him. He rocked just his first half into her, withdrawing and stroking again. The fullness was incredible and she wanted all of it, but Grun pulled away again. On the third thrust, Linza couldn’t stand the tease, and she grabbed his ass and pulled him in to the hilt, a moan blooming in her throat as her eyes tipped back. She squeezed around him to take the edge off the painful stretch, and her body trembled with pleasure. 

“Fuck, you feel good…” she moaned.

Grun’s hips bucked into her. “So do you…”

“Please fuck me.” Her fingernails curled to claws around his upper arms. “Please!”

He growled and thrust into her, then again, and again, his pace increasing as his restraint dissolved.

“Yes!” Linza became an expanse of glittering stars. She loved sex after an orgasm. Every stroke felt like a climax, but left her desperate for more. She couldn’t stand how intense it was, but she couldn’t get enough of it. She squeezed around him, milking every sensation she could from that thick, throbbing cock.

“Fuck, you’re tight…” he said. He slowed abruptly, and Linza wondered for an instant if he’d already finished. But if he’d finished, she wouldn’t be wondering. No, he was edging himself.

These slow, deep strokes were ecstatic torture. There was no heat or urgency to hide just how large he was inside of her, how much she stretched to accommodate him. She huffed, squeezing around him as hard as she could, desperate for more sensation.

“Just how will I know if I broke you, I wonder…” he crooned, his pointed canines just inches from her face. He thrust deep, to a point that only felt good if she was very, very warmed up. She was. A whimper escaped from her throat.

“We could wager something,” he continued. “What would you like to bet?”

Linza tried to form words, but every stroke of his cock blanked her mind.

“Oh, or did I break you already?” He increased his pace.

Her head tipped back, mouth gaping, and every exhale was a moan. She didn’t resent the smug look on his face anymore. She didn’t have anything to win that she wasn’t already experiencing, any place to put him except exactly where he was.

“Please…” she breathed. “Please cum in me… I want to f-feel you…”

He growled and punded her into the bed, sending sparks bursting through her body with every stroke.

“Yes, gods yes! Please!” She could hardly wait another second—it was too intense, she was too hot, too full—but she didn’t want it to ever end.

“Linza…” His breath sawed in ragged gasps. 

“Yes, yes!” She wasn’t cumming, but she might as well have been. Every nerve sparkled with pleasure, her mind drowned in it, her body throbbed with it.

“Linza!” And then he erupted. His cock throbbed with every pulse, stretching her over-sensitive nerves, filling her with his heat. It flowed out around him with every thrust, slicking the tops of her thighs, spilling out onto the bed. She wanted to be covered in it, covered in him, bathing in his warmth.

It was a minute or more before his stroking slowed and he eased down onto his elbows over her, his breath steadying and his cock still throbbing.

Thanks to Presdigititation, Grun’s cum didn’t ruin her mattress.

But Linza couldn’t say the same about herself.

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.


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!”


“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.

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.

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?

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.

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.

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.