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Although the wine was delicious, she had her reservations of drinking with abandon as Augustus did.  She took tiny polite sips as the conversation continued.  She had wanted to say to her husband that this was not a smart place to get drunk, but was too worried the others would hear her concern.  That wasn’t a remark to be voiced so openly.

But as she watched Augustus she noticed his deception.  He would make a show of filling his own glass, and taking a drink from his glass whenever he would begin to say something in the conversation and everyone looked at him, but if attention was elsewhere he wouldn’t drink at all.  She understood what he wanted, outwardly they must present themselves as carefree, but in secret, they must stay vigilant.

“Tell me, Cladius,” asked Augustus, topping off his almost full glass with just a little bit more wine.  “When I left, you were working on a deal with the Sentellius family.  How did that go?”

“It went well.  We finalized the contract with them a week or so after you left.  They agreed to sell our dyed linens in Carthas.  It’s amazing how much of a premium those on the outer reaches of civilization will pay for something new.”

“They live in wastelands, of course they will pay for something to take their minds off their dreary lives,” said Augustus with a mischievous grin. “Fine linens for their goats, to pretty them up before bedding them.”

Marielle felt a tinge of disappointment from that statement.  Except for her, the group erupted in laughter.  Although she didn’t know people personally from Carthas, it wasn’t far from Dunlowe.  It felt as if, with those words, Augustus had shown his true feelings of the place where she grew up.  After all, Carthas couldn’t be all that different from Jorland.

Cladius laughed hardest of all. “Good one,” said Cladius. “I’ve still never been there, and hope to never set foot there, to be honest, but nevertheless their coin is just as heavy as our own.  The contract has been quite profitable.”

“So you are on good terms with the Sentellius family?” asked Augustus.

“Yes.  Are you hoping for an introduction?  Want me to introduce you so you tell them some more about bedding goats?”

“I would like an introduction, yes,” said Augustus while taking a sip from his wine. “You see, the key with the goats is to get them right up against a cliff, that way they back up into you because they are afraid of falling off.”

The group laughed again.  “Augustus, that’s an old joke,” said Pascal.  “But it still does the trick every time.”

“I will set up the introduction then.  Anything for my dear brother.”  Cladius grabbed the hand of his wife, who stood beside him.  “Send someone over to my home tomorrow, and we will set up a time and place.  For now, though, I must go talk to some of the others in attendance before we need to take our arranged seats.”

Once Cladius took his leave, the group began disbanding.  “I’ll talk to you two more during the dinner,’ said Pascal as he began walking away, taking a direct path towards another group that was in a conversation.

With the two temporarily alone, and the music loud enough to disguise their words, Marielle seized the opportunity to speak the words she didn’t want others to hear.  “I have something I should tell you,” she said.

“What is it?” Augustus responded, his whimsical attitude lifting to a stern and emotionless one.

“During the introductions with Yolanda, Giovannus’ wife, I had to agree to make plans for a day out with her.  To an eatery, or to shop for fashionable clothing.  I agreed to other plans too with other members of the family, but I am most concerned about anything to do with Yolanda, considering your relation with her husband.”

“That was just politeness,” said Augustus nonchalantly.  He broke eye contact and searched the room for his next place to mingle, brushing aside Marielle’s concern.  “We will worry about it if they follow up after the party.  I don’t think they will.”

“She made the plans in front of your mother,” said Marielle suspiciously.  Her understanding of the family dynamic, and politeness, was that it would be considered embarrassing to claim to do something, then simply forget to do it.  It would be seen as brash and irresponsible.  Two things Giovannus wouldn’t want to be seen as. “Surely if they made a promise in front of Julianna, they wouldn’t break it without a good reason.   They must intend on following up.”

“Trust me,” said Augustus, just as dismissively as before. “It’s not something you need to worry about.”

“Why did you say that about people from Carthas?  About the goats?”

“It was a joke.”

“Carthas isn’t that far from Jorland.  They are farmers.  There’s nothing wrong with farming and growing food.  This city depends on the farmers from Jorland and Carthas to not be thrown into chaos.”

“It’s just the way we talk.  We can talk about this stuff later, for now, I just need you to act your part.  Mingle on your own with the other women, make connections, especially any we can use.  I trust in your judgement, try to also have trust in mine.”  Augustus stood up and walked away, leaving his wine glass half full on the table.  A servant came by and took the unattended glass away.

She sat there in silence, listening to the music by herself at an empty table.  The room was large enough that even with the high attendance of the dinner, there was room enough for an expanse between Marielle and the other guests.  It was a difficult thing for her, always had been, to introduce herself to strangers.  To take those few steps to stand next to people, waiting for an opening in the conversation, then they would all look at her, and she would have to say something.  But she would never have anything to say, no way to smoothly join the conversation.

Instead, she watched the band play their music.  They were priests from the temple of Ophelia, dressed in their colourful robes and wearing the same masks as before.  There were five of them playing their instruments, each producing a different type of sound and all harmonizing perfectly.  They swayed to the rhythm of their music and one of them, a lady, sang the songs.  Marielle thought maybe it wouldn’t be so bad to just sit and watch them play for a while.  It was beautiful music after all.  She swallowed the thought and stood up, ignoring the knot in her stomach, stepping forward to where a group of women were standing and conversing.  A group of three, a redhead, a fair-skinned raven-haired lady, and one with brown hair and freckles.  Marielle tried, but failed, to remember their names.

“Pascal didn’t bring his runt today,” said a redheaded lady.  “That’s a relief.  He always tries to bug me.”

“I heard he’s swimming in gilden from his dealings with the magician’s guild,” said the brown-haired lady.

“I hear differently,” responded the redhead. “I hear, he’s almost broke.  He got into dealing with the magician’s guild because they promised they could cure his son.  And like a fool, he’s been spending all his coin funding their research.  You know what they say about fools.  Well if it isn’t the lady of the evening.”

“I guess I am that,” Marielle said meekly.  “Pascal’s son has an ailment? What is it?”

“He was born simple,” said the redhead.

“Oh, aren’t you supposed to give simple children to a temple?” asked Marielle.

“You are,” said the brown-haired lady.  “He didn’t.  I heard Augustus did well on his voyage to the Maysian isles.”

“Where did you hear that?” responded Marielle.

“Everyone has ears in the tax offices.  So, how successful was he on the voyage?” said the raven-haired lady.

Marielle had to weigh what to say.  In truth, she only knew that he made enough to at least cover his costs.  But, was there any advantage to deception?  If she lied and said it was a failure would that help her Augustus?  Or said it was a massive success, the likes no one would have imagined, would that be advantageous?  Or should she just without as much information as possible.  The two lies seemed risky and she didn’t want to make such a bold move without a plan or approval from Augustus.  Telling the truth seemed to hold no benefit, and could possibly be disadvantageous.  In the end, she decided the best decision was to withhold information.

“I’m afraid Augustus didn’t talk much about the finances of his expedition.”

“That means it was a failure.  If it was a success he would have talked your ear off about it,” said the brown-haired lady.  The other two ladies nodded their agreement.

“Is that so? So when your husband has a successful deal, is that all he can talk about?” Marielle pried.

“Yes.  A year ago, when Millius got back from the north, I couldn’t get him to stop talking about the profits he was about to make.  Believe me, I tried.”

She knew who Millius was.  Augustus’ cousin, the daughter of Bethany.  Millius was married to Assanna, so this brown-haired lady must be her.

“Please, your husband only ever goes on the most boring expeditions,” said the redhead. “You will always make a profit investing in a voyage up north, but it’s hardly worth your time.  Slim margins.”

“And what have you and Quintus been up to that's so exciting?” asked Assanna with a defiant tone.

Marielle knew who Quintus was as well.  He was Millius’ brother, so also a cousin to Augustus.  She knew he was married to Revenica, so that must be the redhead’s name.

“Nothing exciting really.  He just oversees our linen factories,” said Revenica.  That piqued Marielle’s interest immediately.

“Oh, is that the linen that our family is selling to the Sentellius family?”

“Some of it.  Most of the linen is sold within the city, or to our personal trading partners.  But since there is excess, Quintus sought to sell it to the Sentellius family.”

“I heard that was Cladius’ deal.  Wasn’t it?” asked Assanna.

“Assanna, you know well enough that Cladius wouldn’t lift a finger over some excess linens!” said Revenica, rolling her eyes.  The other ladies laughed. “Quintus had most of the arrangements done when Cladius found out about it.  He just took the credit, and half the profit from the deal.”

“So your Quintus must talk with the Sentellius family often?” continued Marielle.  Augustus had sent her to get connections, and earlier, when he talked with Cladius he had shown interest in the Sentellius family.  He must have a plan involving them.

“Yes, it’s a delicate deal.  We only sell the excess, allowing them to buy it at a discount, but they may only sell it in Carthas, a market we don’t have access to.  Every few weeks Quintus and one of their representatives have to renegotiate the price.”

“Revenica, didn’t we make plans to visit an eatery earlier?”

“Indeed we did, I know the perfect place to show you.  You haven’t had much Venocian cuisine yet, have you?” Revenica’s freckled face brightened up.

“I think I will quite enjoy that.  Be extra sure to send someone to cement the plans.”

“I wouldn’t dream of forgetting.  I’ll send someone over with a large bell, in vibrant colours so they couldn’t possibly be ignored.”

The music came to a slow stop and the crowd quieted in response.  Julianna was standing next to the band, with an immaculate posture.  The singer cleared her throat, then spoke with a loud booming voice, “If everyone would please have their seats, dinner is ready to be served.”

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