Valyrna carefully set the tray in the center of the table where everyone could reach it. She glanced over the spread: roast quail, creamy mashed potatoes, fluffy biscuits, and her mother’s special smoked paprika gravy. For being out of practice, she felt pretty proud of how dinner turned out.
Mr. Maison and Illano hadn’t been idle. They spent their evening preparing dessert - blackberry pie topped with some kind of sweet-smelling cream and crushed walnuts.
From where he sat at the table, the older man took in a deliberate whiff of the food. Then he looked up at her with a wide smile. “You seem to be a young lady of many talents. This looks delicious.”
Illano appeared inclined to agree. “I think my sister may need to take some lessons from you. She can barely boil an egg.”
Though flattered, the hunter took that as an exaggeration. “Corie can’t be that bad,” she said as she took her own seat. “She hasn’t poisoned you yet, right?”
He shrugged. “If she did, she’d have to run the shop by herself. Pretty sure she barely tolerates the work I give her as it is.”
She bit her cheek to keep her amusement in check. Her jokes were lost on that man. He had a logical response to everything.
Truth be told, though, this was kind of nice. Had she not been thrown into a hunter’s life, she knew she would have enjoyed the mundane existence many people found boring. Hell, sometimes she’d give anything to have that kind of life.
If only for today, she relished the chance for a break.
Mr. Maison’s voice cut through her thoughts. “Miss Valyrna, may I ask how long you plan to stay in Clorenthia?”
She took a second to ponder her answer. Eleya had actually given her two full months off from work, but she didn’t want to overstay her welcome here. Though she would love to visit longer, she said, “Probably about a week.”
Conversation remained steady and enjoyable throughout dinner - although the hunter noticed the younger man contributed very little. He only spoke if someone addressed him directly, and even then, he kept his answers short. He seemed distracted, possibly uninterested.
After they finished their meal and the dishes had been collected, Mr. Maison cut up the pie and offered a slice to each of his guests. And then he gave some flimsy excuse to leave the room and wandered away.
The man sure didn’t try to be subtle. Just the same, she had to admit she liked the old fart. His plucky antics reminded her of her own grandfather.
She stole a quick peek at Illano. He’d long since gone quiet again and fixed his focus on his dessert. He didn’t seem too intent on eating it and instead poked at it awkwardly with his fork.
Better break the silence.
“It’s nice that you do this for him, you know. Helping him out like you do.” She took a bite of pie and held back a contented sigh. The savory dessert almost melted in her mouth. “You said he used to watch you and Corie when you were kids?”
The shopkeeper nodded, his attention still on his plate. “Yeah. And after what happened to Lukiel’s family, he became really protective of us. I owe him a lot.”
A grin crept onto her face, but it faded again when a thought occurred to her. “Speaking of which ... what exactly did happen?”
Beyond the fact that the McNallies had been killed some years ago, she knew nothing of the situation. She didn’t want to be inconsiderate and ask the vampire directly, and she hadn’t been around Adonai long enough to pose the question to him. Illano seemed like a safe third party.
Technically, it wasn’t her business, and normally, she wouldn’t ask. But at the same time, she figured she better be in the loop. If nothing else, she didn’t want to say something to accidentally trigger Lukiel or his younger brother.
The shopkeeper’s expression grew dark. It was a stark contrast to his usual reserved demeanor. “The vampire that looked like Lukiel murdered his parents and sister,” was all he said.
Wait. The doppelganger the guys brought to the Guild was the one responsible?
Then something clicked. She had a hunch she knew now what Mr. Maison meant about “letting her go.”
She tensed. Oh, god. I shouldn’t have asked Illano, either.
Completely nauseated at her own insensitivity, she stood and turned to leave the table. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have brought it up.”
To her surprise, he also rose and caught her gently by the arm. His previous distraction appeared to have faded. “No, no. It’s all right. Everyone in town knows what happened. You helped Lukiel, so it’s only fair that you do, too. So you know your efforts weren’t in vain.”
She smiled a little, relieved that the tense atmosphere had finally eased. “Oh, I never doubted that. Not since I saw the look-alike for myself.”
Illano lowered his gaze to where he held her arm. He became red-faced and promptly pulled his hand away, clearly embarrassed. Poor guy might have turned tail if he thought he could get away with it.
Somewhere in the back of her mind, she noted how endearing he looked when he got flustered.
However, the thought soon gave way to the matter at hand. She knew she should quit while she was ahead, yet she heard herself ask with hesitation, “So, um ... is Lukiel’s sister the one he meant?” She nodded toward the other room where Mr. Maison had gone a few moments ago.
He relaxed, if only a tiny bit. “Yeah. Olivia and I ... we were engaged.”
He said something else, but Valyrna didn’t hear it. Her shoulders drooped, and she almost laughed outright at her foolishness. “I’ll shut up now,” she grumbled.
She expected him to be upset at her thoughtless curiosity. At the very least, it should have been the end of the conversation. Surely he wouldn’t want to talk about this anymore.
Instead, she felt a pair of arms wrap loosely around her shoulders.
Illano had leaned down to pull her into a hesitant embrace. He muttered an apology for being so bold, and then he said quietly, “You remind me of her a little bit. Especially how you were with Mr. Maison today.”
Valyrna froze. Of all the things he could have done, she hadn’t seen this coming. The tightness in her muscles eventually began to fade - but her mind stayed blank. She didn’t know how to respond. And when that happened, she had a tendency to fall back on childish retaliations.
This time, it was no different. When she remembered some of the pie still remained, she grabbed a chunk of it and mushed it into Illano’s face.
Realizing what she did, she quickly backed away and threw a hand over her mouth. The shopkeeper now sported a new look of blackberries, cream, and pie crust. It took some self-control not to laugh out loud.
Poor Illano, on the other hand, appeared rightfully upset. He wiped some of the filling away, wincing when it got in his eye. Under his breath, he growled, “And people wonder why I keep to myself.”
Damn it. Now she felt bad again.
Even so, she couldn’t quite hold in a snicker as she reached for a dishcloth. She dipped it in the water bucket by the stove and wrung it out. “I’m so sorry. I don’t know why I did that.”
She didn’t wait for permission before she started to clean his face, taking extra care around his eye. After a moment, she tipped his chin up to take a closer look. “Gotta say, though,” she teased, “I think the blackberries are an improvement.”
He sent a bit of a glare her way - but then it warped into a smirk. “Then you wouldn’t mind a little improvement yourself.”
The elf suddenly felt cream smear across her face and heard laughter from the shopkeeper. She shrieked in surprise before she burst into a fit of giggles herself and retaliated by throwing the dishcloth at him.
“Would you two kids just kiss already?”
She spun around to find Mr. Maison watching them from the doorway. Who knew how long he’d been there, but his presence only made her laugh harder.
Illano spoke up sheepishly. “I think she’s more of a fighter than a lover. She’d probably kick my ass if I tried to kiss her.”
Perhaps she was just caught up in the moment. Maybe she wanted to prove a point. Whatever the reason, before she realized it, she’d thrown caution to the wind.
It only took a couple steps to close the gap between her and the younger man. She tugged on his shirt to bring him down to her level and pulled him in for what was only supposed to be a quick kiss.
But then she caught herself lingering. Something suddenly felt ... different. A nervous flutter stirred in her chest, and yet she didn’t find it unpleasant.
As she eased away, she noticed the flush on Illano’s face under the blackberry smudges. She couldn’t hold back a grin at the sight. “More like I’d kick your ass if you didn’t.”
Mr. Maison laughed loudly. “Hold on to that one, Illano. She’s got spunk.”
She turned to wink at the old man and stuck her tongue out. If only he knew.
The shopkeeper’s demeanor had shifted, too. Though he still spoke quietly, his words carried a little more confidence and conviction. “I wouldn’t mind it if she stuck around a little while longer.”
She returned her attention to him and flashed a genuine smile. “I think that could be arranged.”
The butterflies returned when he leaned in as if to kiss her a second time - but instead, he rubbed his cheek against hers to spread the remaining blackberry filling on her face.
He quickly jumped away and bolted for the door. “I’ll see you later, Mr. Maison!” he called, his tone much more cheery than before.
She stood still as he hurried out of the house, unsure whether to laugh at his antics or slap him the next time she had him within reach. Deciding against either, she simply smiled and lifted a hand to wipe away the fresh mess under her eye.
Illano could be a stinker, too, when the fancy struck.