As the sun set outside, Lina stood in her room and glared angrily at her reflection in the mirror. The hard flagstones of the floor in her small room felt like they were made of ice, which was all the worse against her bare feet. With a long sigh, and pausing to scratch the back of her calf, Lina opened her wardrobe and began rooting around inside.
The courting rituals of Rowen were simplistic. Most marriages were arranged, or marriages of convenience. Not many people were wed out of love, despite the popularity of romance. In her distant youth, Lina had dreamed the idealized dream of romantic love, but such thoughts were mostly shattered when she left home.
In any event, the notion of ‘dating’ really didn’t exist. You married someone you were close friends with, or your parents arranged your marriage for you. You didn’t date; there was no courtship process, so silly rituals like this were unnecessary.
Rummaging through her scant wardrobe, Lina found mostly training clothes and traveling clothes. She had a few things to wear around town and a few for just lounging, and that was basically it.
She did not have ‘date’ clothes.
Deep in the disused corner furthest from the door, Lina found both her formal gowns. In the three years she had been here, she’d been invited to exactly two posh, formal receptions in some of the many highly decorated halls of the Keep. For each occasion, she had hastily gone out and purchased an elegant evening gown, worn it once, and shoved it to the back of the wardrobe. It was the closest thing she had to a ‘nice’ outfit.
Cringing, Lina checked to ensure that her door was tightly locked, and quickly slipped into the less revealing of the two dresses. It was fairly difficult to find things in her size, even more difficult to find modest attire. Most of her clothes in Arindell had either arrived with her and been kept in repair, or were purchased while on trips outside of the valley. The city was what most of the alliance called ‘modern’, and modern apparently meant plunging necklines and tight pants, at least when it came to women’s clothing.
Attired in her finest, Lina wrapped a lace shawl around her shoulders and bundled up in a warm cloak. It was close enough to spring that the snow had mostly melted, but the air was still biting cold outside.
Thankful that the common areas were mostly abandoned for the time being, she slunk out of the trainee’s quarters and began the long walk out of the castle. Once beyond the gates, it wasn’t far to the restaurant Hunter had specified for their ‘date’.
Not owning a pair of high-heels, Lina had instead chosen her least-dingy-looking pair of travel boots. They were made of soft leather and were fashionable enough, though Lina was now well beyond caring.
It was apparently a very high-end restaurant, the kind meant to cater to the Alliance heads of state. Visiting dignitaries, high ranking officials, generally people with way too much money. It was also the sort of place where a glass of tap water cost more than Lina might spend in a year.
She was greeted warmly by a host at the door, who immediately took her cloak. Even inside it was fairly cold and she was somewhat hesitant to part with it, but she still had the shawl underneath and it would have to be warm enough.
After being escorted through the dim interior, Lina finally found herself face to face with Hunter. Dressed better than she’d ever believed him capable, he was standing patiently next to the table and immediately pulled a chair out upon Lina’s arrival.
Almost convulsing with anger, Lina sat and allowed him to push the chair in behind her. It was sickening how polite and proper the man was being. Now furious, Lina crossed her arms, slouched in her chair, and scowled as darkly as she could across the candle-lit table adorned with fine porcelain and silver.
“I’m here,” Lina announced sourly.
“And a fine good evening to you, too,” Hunter replied, tipping a glass goblet of ice water in her direction before taking a drink.
“Why do you do this?” Lina demanded.
“Because I’ve been trying to get you to go out with me for two solid years,” Hunter shrugged. “Now I finally have something you want badly enough to put on a dress for. Seems only fair.”
“You are without a doubt the worst person I have ever met,” Lina snarled.
“But I look good in black,” Hunter grinned.
A waiter arrived just then carrying an ornately-decorated folio, and politely inquired if they would like to see the wine list.
“Ah, no thanks,” Hunter declined. “We do have an important day tomorrow.”
“Oh, I’ll take some,” Lina waved, grinning sadistically at Hunter. “You’re paying, right?”
“Well, I am a gentlmen,” Hunter admitted.
Lina was offered the list but held up her hand.
“I don’t need to see it,” she said. “Just bring us a bottle of your most expensive red, and your most expensive champagne. That should do nicely.”
The waiter nodded and retreated, leaving Lina with a smug, superior smile.
“It won’t work,” Hunter replied coolly.
“Oh, but I haven’t even started,” Lina growled as she picked up her menu.
“You won’t need that,” Hunter waved.
The waiter returned then carrying a cart with two glass bottles on ice. He offered the corks to Hunter to smell, and then poured a small amount of each into glasses for Lina. Once she had sampled them, the waiter inquired if they were ready to order.
“I’ll be having the rack of lamb,” Hunter said. “And the lady will have the roasted pheasant.”
“Now, hold on,” Lina interrupted. “Just what on earth makes you think I want that?”
“Because you love pheasant, and theirs happens to be fantastic,” Hunter replied. “Trust me.”
He nodded to the waiter, who retreated, leaving them again alone in relative isolation. Lina filled her nearest wine glass to the top and took a long draft, glaring at Hunter over the rim.
“Before I get on with making you regret this evening,” she growled. “I want to see the map.”
“Well, I guess that’s where I get caught in the small problem,” Hunter admitted with a sigh. He reached under the table, and with one hand lifted up a very large, heavy, metal case, which he slammed down on the table, rattling the plates and silverware.
“THAT’S the map?!” Lina half screamed.
“Part of it,” Hunter sighed.
“What happened to that stupid little folded piece of paper you had before?!” Lina demanded.
“That was also part of it,” Hunter replied. “A much smaller part.”
Lina gripped her glass angrily and gulped down the rest of the wine, then moved on to the champagne.
“Again, I ask you,” she slurred. “Why would you do this?”
“It’s a forty-thousand square-mile area,” Hunter explained. “The map is broken down into one-twenty-four-thousandth-scale chunks, which on a round world translates into seven-point-five-minute quadrangles.”
“And in Common, professor?” Lina growled as she brought the glass to her lips once more.
“It means it takes a whole crap-load of maps to cover the area,” Hunter sighed. “Honestly, when I ordered these things, I wasn’t expecting to get a thousand pages.”
“You,” Lina slurred as she pointed with an unsteady finger. “Are a you.”
After failing to grasp the stem of her wine goblet, which had been miraculously refilled by the stealthy wait staff, Lina simply leaned down and took a big slurp off the top, narrowing her eyes to glare angrily at Hunter.