Anla’s friend Riyan had once broken down people into three types. “The privileged are the people who like to pretend there’s nothing wrong with the world. Maybe they don’t know. Maybe they’re like horses, with blinders on so they don’t spook away from things. Privileged people don’t know what a back alley looks like, don’t know what a wharf smells like. They think everyone has a mama and a dada and they get food every day. It’s not just lords ‘n’ ladies, neither. Normal folk, people livin’ on farms in the country or merchants in the city.
“Criminals are the people who know there’s stuff wrong with the world and take advantage of that. They ain’t got no morals and so long as the get what they want, they’re okay with it.”
“Is that what we are, criminals?” Anla had asked.
“No, no, no,” she said, rubbing Anladet’s shoulder. “You ‘n’ I, Anla, we’re survivors. That’s different from criminals. We know there’s stuff wrong, but we try to play by the rules. We don’t hurt friends, we don’t steal from those in need, and we don’t kill lessen the guy wants to hurt us.” She had thought her friend was going to tell her to keep striving to be one of the privileged or that someday something would break her and she’d fall into the pit of illicit activities. “Naw,” she had said. “Us survivors are the best there is. We make hard choices. We can change, us, the world, and everyone around us. Always stay a survivor, Anla.”
The hard part, Anladet had come to understand, wasn’t figuring out what the differences between the privileged and the other two were; those people always found a way of letting you know that they were above you. It was figuring out what made someone just a survivor and not a criminal. Why did some feel less remorse over killing and stealing while others avoided it? What laws were okay to break? Which ones would she hate herself less for bending?
She had to ask herself these things constantly. Sometimes she had to sacrifice the guilt she felt so that she could eat. Sometimes she broke a law and didn’t think much of it. But mostly she had to stop herself from doing what she knew she could.
Case in point was her relationship with Al. They had backtracked east of the town by a few miles. During the hour or so it took them, Anladet had realized that Al was one of the privileged people. He did understand that there were problems in the world, criminals, whores, corruption, but none of that affected him. He’d never had his wallet stolen; if he had, Anla suspected he’d spend days searching for the money instead of cutting his losses and moving on. He’d never lost a job because some politician decided on a whim to buy the business out.
She had to check herself several times from using little manipulations she knew she could slink into conversation. Guilt, seduction, hostility, playing with his moods, they were all weapons she had learned to use to get just ahead of starving. She was good at it, taking advantage of people, even without any of her usual augmentations.
So it came down to whether it would be best to steer their relationship and keep things where she would have control. That would serve her, but Anla ultimately felt that Al didn’t deserve it. He was naive and overly trusting, maybe even a touch annoying, but he was kind and generous. He was being a good partner, a potential friend. Anladet did not reward that by making him a victim. There was no need for her to do anything, at least not yet.
She listened to him and asked him questions every so often. It was mostly pleasant talk. Al spoke of his life as a wizard, how he decided to travel without his family and vacation south of Eerie for a few weeks. He wanted to get out, to explore and see the country, he had said. This was not the total truth. She knew he was holding back, speaking a watered down truth, but Anla didn’t mind. In return she spoke of her life in Hanala and neglected to mention many important facts about her life.
She led him off the road, up an embankment. It was muddy from recent rains, but that only made the dozens of tracks more prevalent. “The locals said this is an old elvish trail,” she said. “The people we’re after went this way sometime in the last few days.”
“Check the ground, Al. Why so many tracks if hardly anyone uses it?”
He nodded. “You’re very good at this. What do we know about this situation?”
Anla waited until the two of them had crested the ledge leading into the forest before she began. “Lady Silfa is the third daughter of the Duke of Sharka, Iasont Frenrell,” she said. “Most people I spoke with in Hanala believe it to be a political issue, that some marquess or earl had the duke’s daughter kidnapped for leverage. Personally, I don’t believe it. There’s no ransom note, for one, and no one has come forward to claim responsibility or make any demands. Why would you kidnap someone for power and be silent about it?”
Al rubbed his chin. “Not political, not monetary. Revenge? No, you’d want to announce that loudly. Perhaps she ran away, maybe into the arms of someone she couldn’t marry?”
“No, Lady Silfa is eight, I doubt that.”
“And there was no way for her to have accidentally left for any reason?”
“She was sleeping in her chambers. It appears that several men climbed in through her window and abducted her, based on what a guard told me. There was trampled grass and stomped flowers in the beds outside her window.”
“Unprofessional, then. Not a hired hand and definitely not a trirec. They work alone anyway, from what I know.” He gave it some more thought before shaking his head. “I’m stumped. Do you have a theory?”
“Not really. They are very determined, whomever they are. They’ve made quickt time, especially for the size of the group. I’m guessing they’re a dozen strong but likely more. I think they have some need for haste, some purpose in mind, but I couldn’t begin to figure out what.”
“Then we have the advantage of speed. We’ll outstrip them eventually if we travel quickly.”
They walked for maybe three quarters of a mile before Al sighed deeply. “Can you travel faster?”
“Yes? I’m walking at your pace. You’re not lagging behind so I wasn’t going to say anything.”
“I thought so. You’re very spry in the woods, hopping over boulders and roots easily. It would be nice if I was, too, but I’m not used to walking through forests. It would be better if you moved as fast as you can, then stop and make sure we’re still on the right track while I catch up.”
Anla hadn’t realized she had been obvious about her upbringing. “Are you sure?”
“I can tap into the Unease to move faster. It’s hard to reach it, then relax out of it, then get into it again. Um, it’s sort of like maintaining body warmth when you’re moving inside and out on a cold day.”
“So, it’s better for you to keep a steady, higher pace?”
“Yes. I think we can get more ground covered. Just, if you have to leave the path, wait for me.”
She smiled at him. “I hope you don’t take this the wrong way, but you’re not like any other wizard I’ve ever met.”
“Do you mean I’m not pretentious, snobbish, and condescending? I think I’ll take that as a compliment.”
“Then, yes, you’re none of those.”
“Most of my ‘brethren’ seem to think that education and enough wealth to attain it makes them better than others.”
“And you disagree. You believe that because you came from something and achieved something else, that you’re not better?” Her tone was more of surprise than accusation.
“I don’t think ‘better’ is the right word. Where I came from was not up to me. I don’t believe that things out of someone’s control should increase or decrease their standing in the world.”
Anladet said nothing in response to that. They were fine words, but she’d rather see them in action before she believed them. “I’ll see you in a little while then.”
The trees were growing dark against the sunset before Al caught up to Anladet, who was waiting for him. There was a small meadow just off the path that would be perfect if it weren’t so exposed. Anla would do what she could to protect them.
Al began unloading his enormous backpack, setting aside things they would need for the night. He held up a pouch and took out its contents of a rounded piece of steel and a rock in his hand. “This is flint and a striker. You can make a fire with it.”
She smiled indulgently, knowing full well what they were. “I’ll go get the firewood if you prepare a pit.”
Anla was as quick as she could be. The night was muggy. They wouldn’t need a campfire to keep them warm or to cook their food, but they were nice to have if you could make one. She gathered a few logs, but mostly kindling and returned with an armful.
Al was rummaging through his backpack. There was no pit. Anla was annoyed for a moment, thinking he was lazy or didn’t like taking orders from women. He was, however, an honest man and admitted his fault quickly.
“I’ve never camped before. I bought some things from a guy who told me they were essential.”
Anladet laughed lightly. “Oh, Al. Okay. It’s not a problem. Why don’t you go grab more wood and I’ll set everything up. Sticks, logs, anything you can find that’s dry.”
Anla had dug the pit with a firm stick and stacked the wood by the time he returned. She deftly struck the flint and starter until the sparks caught the dry grass on fire. Al just watched her the whole time. “How have you survived on the road so far?” she asked him, coaxing the flame to catch on the kindling.
“I’ve been staying in inns. There’s usually a village or town within a day’s walk.”
“And you got all this equipment…just in case?”
“I suppose. I figured I’d run across a town with either no inn or a full one. Um, I don’t suppose you know how to set up a tent?” he asked.
“Oh,” she said softly, eyeing the green canvas.
“You don’t have one?”
“No. They cost more than I usually have.”
“This may sound forward, but would you like to share? I promise I won’t try anything with you. Like I said, no romance.”
She looked at him for a moment, then smiled. “Yes, I’d like that.” She started unfolding the material. “Do you have a hammer?”
“Hammer? What do I need a hammer for?”
“How else are you going to get the stakes into the ground?”
“My bare hands?”
“Well, you need a lot of force, Al.”
He flashed her a smile and grabbed a stake. “Another bonus of being a wizard. Just show me where you want it.”
Alpine appeared to be praying for a few moments. He breathed deeply, his head bent and his lips muttering words that made no sense to Anladet. He shivered, then drove the stake into the ground with one strong push with his palm. She heard a loud chink as he drove it down into the earth. He unwrapped the cloth from around his hands and rubbed his palms.
“See, I’m not helpless after all,” he said.
“You’re not helpless, Al. You’re just…unskilled. You’ll pick up these things quickly, I’m sure.”
“But I should have known these things.”
Anla shrugged. “I wouldn’t expect a city dweller to be able to navigate the wilds well. Would you mind putting dinner together?”
Anladet finished setting up the tent while Alpine used his knife to slice the cheese, meat, and bread for a sandwich. They ate mostly in silence, enjoying the warmth of the fire. She thought Al was thinking until she saw his head jerk up, as if he were falling asleep. It had been a long day and he wasn’t used to the pace they had set. She understood; she was exhausted, too.
Al suddenly began laughing in a crazed manner. She startled, then froze. “Sorry,” he said, taking deep breaths, “I was just thinking about the bar. I just realized they must have thought I made out ahead of all of them when really nothing happened between us. I mean…you understand, right?”
Her hand was close to the knife she had used during dinner. “They were all trying to sleep with me, yes. Most men think piscarin have additional fortunes they can read.”
He laughed again, this time slapping his hand over his mouth to stifle it. “On their pillows,” he mumbled and bent over laughing again.
It certainly darkened her mood, but she wasn’t surprised. It wasn’t the first or the fifth dozen time someone had implied something like this. It was a little disheartening, though, coming from someone she had begun to trust. There was something else in his voice, something strange and false that stopped her from being totally insulted. She still didn’t feel threatened enough to keep the knife, so she wiped it and put it away before heading into the tent.
Al crawled in after her. When she bumped into him accidentally, she thought he’d jump through the canvas roof. “It’s just me,” she said, thinking he was so tired he had forgotten where he was or who he was with.
She laid on her back, curling her fingers in one by one until she made a fist. “What are you…” he started to ask, but dropped the question. She wouldn’t answer it anyway. She kissed her hand and dropped it, falling asleep quickly.