Viola used the last of her bread to sop up the meat around her plate. The steak was cooked almost perfectly, with the smokey taste of wood and charcoal instead of the bitter taste of magic. She wadded up the bread and popped it into her mouth.
Knowing the other mages wouldn’t ask about her situation was nice, almost calming. She could relax without worrying about the constant questions about the date or her now ex-fiance.
Sitting at the table, however, made her feel like she was sitting in isolation. Her thoughts still brought up Ravin’s face when he stormed away, or the next morning when he came to gather his supplies without a word. She sniffed as the emotions rose up.
“Where is Wathin?” Eulen interrupted a debate on magic techniques between Able and Mudd.
Viola knew the answer. It was strange that Eulen was asking though. It was her job to track every mage and guard across the city.
Mudd looked around with a frown on his face. He sat back. “Probably having sex in the alley behind the restaurant. He should be back in three minutes. Why?”
“Just curious,” said the older woman.
Eulen’s eyes flickered toward her.
There was a tension, a moment where the question teetered between spilling out of Viola’s lips or sinking back into the darkness. She thought about the days of crawling underneath blankets and the growing joy of just being outside. The question came out. “How does he do that?”
Eulen smiled. “Do what?”
“Have so many relationships? I never hear of him getting dumped out the window. There is always some beautiful guy or girl on his arm when he’s off duty.”
Mudd picked up his fork. “They don’t last long. Wathin doesn’t let anyone in his life beyond a few months at most.”
There was a sudden tightness in his face and hand but then he relaxed. Viola noticed but decided to pay attention later. It was rare when Mudd lied.
She felt tears rising. “How does he avoid getting dumped?” she asked in a quieter voice.
“He’s an asshole.” Eulen shook her head before sitting forward. “He is also good about being up front with his nature. His lovers know that he’s going to dump them before they take off their clothes. It isn’t personal, it’s just games.”
“Six days, three hours average,” Mudd said impassively. “I think the longest he’s gone is three months.”
Viola thought about the other mages. She knew that Mudd and Able didn’t have lovers, none of them had ever talked about family or friends. They didn’t wear marriage rings or torcs.
With a sigh, she leaned against the table. “Is that how it ends? Being lonely?”
“No,” said Eulen and Mudd at the same time.
Wiping her face, she turned to her partner. “How can you say that? You are the pickiest man I know. What Ravin hated, that’s you too.”
The wrinkles on Mudd’s face deepened. “He tried to organize?”
She sighed and slumped back. “My books on the shelves.”
The other three mages groaned.
“Always the books,” Eulen. “Or covering sigil, losing time keepers, or moving artifacts from one side of the house to the other. My husband is always putting my guard cloak in the hall closet instead of the bedroom where I need it.”
Viola shook her head. It was frustrating. How could she have lost Ravin because she needed books in a certain order. “Is it bad? I have them that way for a reason. Why couldn’t he just respect—?”
Then Eulen’s words registered. “You’re married?”
The other woman nodded. “Forty-three years now. We got married when I was twenty-two.” That made her sixty-five, older than Viola guessed.
“How did it work?”
Eulen held up her hands. “He’s a farmer out of Klosten-Meyers. Most of the year we live separately. In winter, he comes into town for the snow. In summer, I visit for a few weeks.”
That sounded painful. “How… how can you be apart that long? Don’t you get…” She held out her hand before she finished, ”… lonely?”
Eulen chuckled. “The books. Like you, I’m an ordered mage. I plan my magic, I use rituals and guides. My house is arranged exactly the way I want it. But, when he visits, I adapt. Move things when they are out of place, try not to get upset when he doesn’t understand why the blue glasses have to be on top or why I don’t like him touching my small clothes.”
“It sounds exhausting.”
“It is, but I’m willing to make it work. It doesn’t always, I have divorced him three times now.” Her smile softened. “But he stole my heart… but literally only once.”
Mudd leaned over. “He’s also a licensed mortician and a former guard. He was Able’s old mentor.”
Able nodded and returned to writing notes.
“There is a reason we tell you to never get involved with guards,” Eulen said. “I made that mistake twice.”
“So all it takes is just more work?”
Eulen held up one hand. “Finding a mate is exhausting. You have to change your thoughts and beliefs to mesh with theirs. They have to grow into you at the same time. It takes time and hurts.”
She held up her other hand and continued, “Being a mage requires growing away from humanity and embracing the arcane. You have to change, alter, and adapt to rules that humans don’t follow. It also hurts.”
Viola knew the pain of learning new magic too well. Learning how to mesh with the telepathy network—that Eulen maintain—had given her a headache for a month.
Eulen’s hands came together. “To do both? Extra hard. I have to schedule time for my husband. I force myself to pull away from magic to spend time with him just as I find myself giving up time with him to focus on my craft. So, I had to create rules for myself. I had to work it out with him because I needed to enforce balance between the two.”
Viola frowned. She never thought about being explicit about rules. Maybe that was what went wrong with Ravin? She glanced at Mudd. “Is that why you don’t go out?”
His eyes crinkled for a moment. “I have never been able to relax enough to allow someone into my life. I’m too limited by magic to allow another.”
“Me either,” Able said from his plate. “Never had sex, never going to.”
Viola frowned. She didn’t like that idea. As much as she struggled with Ravin, he was an excellent lover.
Mudd held up his finger. “I don’t have a wife but I do enjoy the company of women. I just happen to pay for it on the rare occasions I’m looking for human comfort. Just bringing it up as an option.”
“Isn’t prostitution illegal for city guards?”
His eyes narrowed. “Discouraged, not illegal.”
“I never realized that.”
“Well, it’s kind of rude running around telling people whom you paid to have sex with.” Mudd gestured toward the restaurant. “Ignoring Wathin’s lack of manners, I prefer to keep the specifics private.”
The armed mage came strolling out of the restaurant with a smile and rubbing his hands. “Wathin did who else?” asked Wathin looking around.
Eulen said, “Fucking random waiters for a good time.”
Wathin grinned. “He didn’t mind. Why should you?”
He brought his spear up to his shoulder. He waved. “I have to run, there was a robbery on Oats and Agate. A pawn shop, at least two dead.”
Able stood up. “I’ll go with you, that’s closer to my place.”
Wathin gave the medical examiner a hard look. “You live in the fucking sewer.”
“Well, I live in the sewer near that intersection.”
Together, they hurried off.
The three mages said nothing for a long moment.
Mudd broke the silence. “Your apartment should be cleaned by now. I have already paid them, so don’t unless you feel like giving them a tip. Average is twenty-two marks for a good job.”
“You need to go?”
He favored her with a short smile. “I feel… you are…” He sighed.
Eulen interrupted. “The goals he had in mind to help you out of your depression appear to have worked and he is now withdrawing because he feels uncomfortable getting too close to anyone.”
Mudd glared at her.
“Oh, and the telepath shouldn’t speak for him.” She winked at him.
“Yes,” he finally said. He pulled out a wad of bills and set them carefully down on the table. “Are you okay, Viola?”
After thinking a moment, she nodded. “I think so.”
“Good. If you call in sick for three more days, I’ll probably be back.”
“I won’t. I’ll be in work tomorrow.”
He rested his hand on the table next to her for a moment before withdrawing.