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“Do you have to go?”

Her sister’s eyes creased in swift sympathy, “You know I must, milady.” One disappeared when Lucia’s bangs fell forward, but she only tucked the long strands back again with a thoughtless gesture. “Too long by himself, and my husband will let the servants start bossing him around. Last time I came home they almost had him scrubbing the floors.”

Elincia smiled despite herself, “I still can’t believe so gentle a man was given reign of a country.” Perhaps that was hypocritical when her detractors had said the same for many years, if not quite so decorously.

Lucia offered no disagreement, her shoulders lifting in a brief shrug as she fastened her cloak. “Pellas rarely speaks of it, but I’m not sure he was ever really in charge.” She snorted to herself then, a brow quirked Elincia’s way, “Not that he is now either.”

Elincia felt her smile brighten, “Not even between the sheets?”

An old jibe; one that had always amused Lucia so. Even now the corners of her lips pulled high, laughter bubbling from her throat. “Of course not,” she returned, her words accompanied by so endearing a wink, “but you know that’s how I like my men.”

One would think them children with how they giggled, cheeks flushed like spring maidens. But the gaiety did not last. Soon Lucia was gone, a farewell kiss and a wave of her hand the last Elincia would have of her truest friend for some weeks.

Already she was lonely, the quiet around her now so displeasing when oftentimes Elincia was beside herself to find a silent moment during the day. But at least then Lucia was beside her, the constancy of her presence a distraction from the many frustrations spawned by virtue of the crown.

Lucia would no longer know those frustrations. She would take her place at the beside her uncle at the head of Delbray and laze in the comforts of a lord. Attendants would serve her, stewards would take the briefest moments of her time, and when the day ended Lucia would not be alone. She would pass the twilight hours in her husband’s embrace, warmed by his lips and hands, by the sort of sweet heat that Elincia had not known in more than a year. 

Evny curled around Elincia’s throat like a serpent.

She did not often think herself a jealous creature, but there was just something so…so unsatisfactory in the knowledge that she had not that same ease in finding companionship as did those around her. Even temporary companionship, the momentary presence of another more than enough to bring her some ease.

Useless thoughts. Unnecessary frustrations. 

Elincia pushed from her chair and stepped from her study. There were far more important things she could be doing than-.

Oh.

There was the Fireman.

He was standing at the entrance to an archive down the hall. He did not look up as he adjusted a strap at his hip, but it seemed unlikely that he didn’t realize her presence.

Bastian appeared a moment later, his back to Elincia as he murmured something too low to hear. He was away just as quickly, though the Fireman did not follow, his expectation of her presence clear as he continued to fuss with the undone straps of his sheath.

Despite that Elincia did not immediately go forward, the opportunity taken to look the Fireman over as a thought occurred.

There was nothing about him that displeased her taste. She knew he was a handsome man beneath his mask, and more importantly that he was a discreet man. One had to be when in his sort of profession. Rumor was that he would take any contract, though Elincia couldn’t be sure if such was more hearsay that actual fact.

Either way, the contract she had in mind was hardly something he’d balk at. 

Maybe-, goodness, maybe this might even become an arrangement.

Her flesh heated pleasantly at the thought. “Sir Fireman.”

He finally glanced her way but gave no greeting.

Elincia approached regardless. “Have you a moment?” 

He looked past her, the hall beyond scanned even as he spoke, “A few.”

A few was all Elincia required, “I’d like to purchase your services.”

The Fireman’s eyes returned to her, though she doubted he would look so disinterested for long, “What do you need done?”

Maybe this should have been humiliating, but Elincia was too pleased with the situation to give the thought much attention. “Myself,” she said, rather amused at her own pluck. “Tonight, preferably, for so long as you are capable. How much will that cost?”

He did not immediately give her a price.

“…Yourself.”

Elincia nodded.

“…As in-.”

“Yes, in exactly that way,” Elincia assured as she smiled. “Now I don’t mean to cast doubt on your skills, but I do require satisfaction.” Perhaps unnecessary to mention, but she could not stand the thought of going to this trouble and then having the Fireman just roll off after finding his own release. “Do you have a set figure in mind, or would you prefer-.”

“No.”

“No?” Elincia returned, her brows high, “What do you mean?”

The Fireman’s eyes fell away, but only to finish threading the buckle on his sheath, “I’m not accepting the job.”

Elincia’s eyes were very very  wide, “Excuse me?”

He did not look at her again, “Find someone else.”

Find someone else? Did he truly think that was so simple a task? “You must tell me why,” Elincia demanded. It was not vanity so much as-, as astonishment that the Fireman would so immediately refuse her.

But he only turned, dismissal in his stride.

Elincia could do nothing but rush after. “Sir Volke!” He only paused when she moved in front of him. “You owe me a reason, at the very least!”

He was irritated, his brows tight and together. “Eight hundred.”

Oh, this absolute cad! 

Elincia put a hand to the pin of her broach with barely a moment’s hesitation. It was a gaudy piece that she wore every fifth day out of filial duty, woven with rose gold and bronze and beset with far too many pearls. Grandmother had evidently had a rather elaborate taste, and Elincia hardly knew guilt as she tossed the horrid thing towards the Fireman’s chest. “You’ve been paid. Tell me.”

He caught the broach, but there was such irritation in his bearing. He looked a moment from flinging it back at her before his brows smoothed in so evident a resignation. 

“…I don’t-,” the Fireman gestured at her, a vague wave of his hand that explained nothing. “I don’t, that’s it.”

Elincia couldn’t help the confused curve of her brows, “You don’t what?” She held her arms away from herself and looked down, as if she might be able to spot his aversion. “What reason could you possibly have?” It could not be her looks, nor her apparel. Elincia was absolutely stunning today! Her face was clear of blemishes, her hair freshly washed. And this gown had only just been sewn! There was not a wrinkle, not even a single crooked seam.

The Fireman was unmoved.

Or no, maybe he wasn’t. He still wasn’t looking at her, and the skin above his mask seemed some measure darker. Was he flustered? Embarrassed? But embarrassed by what? Surely Elincia was not the first to have requested such a contract!

But still he refused her, “I’m not available, that’s all the reason you need.”

“You were available a moment ago,” Elincia argued. She didn’t mean to be so-, goodness, so harpish, so very demanding, but how could the Fireman just refuse her like this? It would be so lovely an arrangement, the absolute thing to lessen her frustrations. Perhaps Elincia could manage her own pleasure, but that act was nothing the same as moving against the heat of another, of being serviced and satisfied by hands not her own. “I don’t understand why you would-.”

She forced herself to silence when steps sounded from an adjacent hall, from where a known voice then echoed, “What are you doing here?”

The Fireman glanced aside as Geoffrey stepped forth a second later. No answer was given, but Geoffrey’s attention shifted the moment he caught sight of Elincia. His handsome face was then pinched in too familiar a discontent. “Your Grace, I’m glad I caught you.” He came to a halt at the Fireman’s side and spoke before Elincia could try and hurry him away, “I’ll need to postpone our meeting with the treasury.”

Elincia was not in the mood to care, but Geoffrey must have mistaken her expression for critique.

“We must,” he insisted, as if she had tried to argue. “Apparently there was an accident in the stables, I have to-.”

“Very well,” Elincia agreed, a moment from shooing him with her hand. Impolite, maybe, but she just could not stand the thought of Geoffrey somehow determining what she and the Fireman were discussing. “I’ll have arrangements made.”

Geoffrey made to rush away, but the Fireman caught his attention, “Hey-.”

Geoffrey did not pause, “I have to go.”

The Fireman even grabbed at his arm, the strange man, “Just-.”

Geoffrey swung back around, but only shook his head, “I really don’t have a moment.” 

And-, oh dear, and then Geoffrey kissed him. 

It was barely a kiss, really. Brief and rushed, a fleeting press of his lips right over the Fireman’s mask, “I’ll see you at supper.”

And then he was away, the swift echo of his steps ringing like judgment in Elincia’s ears.

She licked her lips, her mouth so very very dry, “…You are not available.”

The Fireman did not disagree. He did not even look at her.

Elincia could not resist the embarrassed heat climbing her throat, or the insistence to cover her face with her hands, “How much for you to never speak of this?”

The Fireman began to retreat, Elincia’s broach pocketed as she looked out from between her fingers, “...This is plenty.”