Al wanted to run outside and confront Raulin immediately, if only to explain what a big mistake he was going to make. He didn’t know he was bound to them. Whatever he did to them, he would do to himself. He needed to know this before he made a huge mistake.
But, instead of hopping up and paying his bill, Al swirled his glass of Caudet and waited for his slice of cherry gateau to arrive. There was no need to rush from his meal. He could sit back and let the chips fall where they may, for no matter what Raulin did, he would have to undo. If he turned the other three in, if he trapped them somewhere, if he got them arrested, he would have to rescue them in the end. And, while the trirec was dealing with that issue, Telbarisk and Anla would see what kind of man he really was: a backstabber.
Al actually smiled and greeted the waiter kindly when he brought the cake to his table. A man may find commerce in these things other than coin: love, friendship, and knowledge. He didn’t care what the trirec thought of Tichen; he was a wise man who had taught Al many things. In this particular case, he had taught Al that he was slightly richer than the thief.
His walk back to the inn was more of a saunter despite the light rain. He arrived before the other three, took one of the rooms, and moved Anla’s affects into it. He toweled his hair dry and changed into a dry pair of breeches and a tunic, both brown and well-crafted by the tailors under the Duke of Sharka’s care. Finally, he lit the lamps on the nightstands and laid in bed with a book from the inn’s modest library. It was an older publication of Kiesh the Black, a gentleman fencer who was falsely accused of a crime he didn’t commit who had spent years trying to clear his name. This was volume ten of a series he knew had crested fifty. Poor Kiesh was still trying.
Anla closed the door behind her and tiptoed in the room, though the floorboards creaked anyway. When she saw him watching her, she stopped and smiled. “How was dinner?” she asked.
“Very nice. The meal was delicious. It’s too bad you and Telbarisk missed out on it.”
She began stripping her wet shirt and trousers and Al went back to reading. Her lack of inhibition when it came to nudity always surprised him and tested his sense of decency. “We had a nice dinner, too,” she said, her voice muffled under her shirt.
“Nobody choked or accidentally had a fork stuck in their leg?”
“No, Al, just a nice meal. Telbarisk had greens and tried a mango for the first time. He liked it. I had sausage and mashed potatoes with green beans. I feel beyond full. Raulin ate a pasta dish. He accidentally hit his fork and it flew way high in the air, but he managed to catch it before it landed on the floor. It was quite impressive.”
He put his book down on the nightstand when he felt the bed shift with her weight. He wondered if he should tell her, then thought it was best to be sly about it, like Kiesh. He always asked questions instead of bluntly announcing his plans. “Do you like him?”
“Raulin?” she asked, turning towards him. “I hardly know him. We’ve only spoken for a few hours at the most. He was receptive to conversation, which was more than I thought I would ever get from a trirec.”
“What did you speak of?”
“We had an exchange of knowledge.” She hesitated before speaking again. “He seems afraid of my magic and wanted to know how it worked. I asked him questions that would help me figure out how best to form a pact with him over escaping. Which seems a waste now that he’s bound.”
“Should we tell him?”
She sighed and laid down next to him. Al took this as a sign to turn down the oil lamp. At least that’s what his wife had preferred.“He’ll find out soon enough. We should probably handle it carefully.”
“How, though? He hasn’t killed us yet, but who knows what will pass through his mind when he realizes what’s happened.”
“I believe him when he says his work and his preferences are different.”
“He can walk away whenever he wants to! Instead, he is continuing to do his work. He enjoys it, Anla.”
“Al, it’s not always like that. Sometimes you have to do things in life in order to survive. You have to make difficult choices and figure out where your integrity lies, what you will do reluctantly and what you will never do. There is a difference between wanting to do wrong and being forced to do wrong.”
“It didn’t sound like he was really upset over this assassination.”
“Maybe he wasn’t because he’s accepted this is a part of his life he can’t change, like being poor or crippled.”
“That’s not the same thing, Anla. Those are things you can’t change. One is…”
“Al, I know,” she said, patting his arm gently. “We can talk about this for a long time; I know you’d like to. But, we need sleep. It’s going to be a long day tomorrow.”
“Fine,” he said. With the light from the town through the small window, he saw her raise her fist again, sigh, and then turn onto her side. He laid awake knowing that there were so many plans he needed to make for when Raulin lamed their escape tomorrow and fell asleep only after a long time of worry.
The light outside was barely tinged with pink when Raulin stood in their doorway with Telbarisk at his back. “We leave.”
“What time is it?” Al asked, trying to keep his gritty eyes open.
“It doesn’t matter. Get out of bed, get your things, and get moving.”
Al turned to shake Anla awake, but found she was already sitting up and stretching. She stepped into the pair of drawstring trousers from yesterday and put on her boots while Al stuffed his items into his pack and slipped on his loafers. “Ready,” he said after less than a minute.
“Let’s go,” Raulin said, ushering them through the door with haste.
The sky was a light blush as they headed farther down West Street, then turned north at a crossroads. Everyone seemed alert and functional to Al, who still needed to rub his eyes for some time.
I need to focus, he thought, remembering what was Raulin was planning. He gouged his fingernails into his forearm, leaving little moons in his flesh. He snapped into the Unease after a minute of gouging and began to look around.
They were on a road wide enough for two carts to pass, as evidenced by the ruts in the dirt. The forest was cut back, some branches hacked just as they crossed from the underbrush to the route. The air was humid and smelled of the flowering trees that dotted the woods.
Besides the flowers, Al couldn’t smell anything abnormal: no campfires, no beasts of burden nearby, nothing to indicate an ambush. He heard nothing but the songbirds and the low conversation between Raulin and Telbarisk. Somewhere down the trail ahead of them was a cart with a squeaky wheel and two donkeys, but it was moving steadily farther from them. The road itself didn’t hold any clues, but he wasn’t the expert in tracking, thought there was someone who might help him.
“Could you do me a favor and tell me if you hear anybody coming after us?” he asked Anla.
Her eyebrows furrowed. “It’s hard for me to hear people behind us. There’s a lot of ambient noise.”
“I mean ahead of us. Has anyone used this trail in the last day?”
“Yes,” she said immediately. “There’s been several people with carts, a few groups walking.”
“Any of them veer off into the woods?”
“I won’t know until we reach the point they veered off.”
“Let me know,” he said just as Raulin turned around and began walking backwards.
“Telbarisk tells me there is a storm approaching, a short deluge that shouldn’t take long, but will definitely soak us through. He’s found a cave up ahead. We’re going to stop until it passes. I’d rather it happen later on, during lunch, but Kabidon isn’t a god who abides by meal times.”
Al watched Anla, who gave no sign that where they left the trail had been used recently by anyone else. He almost slapped his forehead. They could have gone through the forest the whole time. Or some other trail.
He didn’t pay attention to the fact that it had indeed started to sprinkle. Al was too busy looking around at the greenery, trying to put use to skills he had only read about in books. Every broken branch he saw only added to his conspiracy.
The cave was an overhang much like the one he and Anla had used when they rescued Lady Silfa. They put their packs down behind them and sat on the ground, a blanket of leaves providing some cushioning.
After a few minutes of listening to the hard percussion in the woods, Anla broke the silence.
“May I ask you a question?” she asked Raulin.
He turned to face her, his silver mask glinting in what little light spilled in the cave. “You can ask me anything. Whether I answer it or not is a different matter.”
“Have you ever killed a man except for those you are paid to kill?”
Al turned to watch the trirec, whose neck snapped back in surprise at her question. Perhaps he was winning her over. “Hmm. Well, it is required by my order that you kill a man in your fifteenth year in order to enter training to be a trirec. I wasn’t paid for that, nor the other three I had to kill under my apprenticeship.”
“Besides those. Did you kill anyone not sanctioned by your brotherhood?”
“Oh, I see. You’re worried about the myths. No. I’ve never killed anyone I didn’t have to. And I have no intention of killing any of you, despite the fact that you’ve been close to me or looked at me or spoke to me or anything else.”
“How about stealing?”
“I’m sure I have,” he said and Al almost interrupted with a ‘See!’. “Nothing is coming to mind that I couldn’t pay for…No, wait. I’m sure I stole some clothing at one point when I needed to blend in after an escape.”
“What if those were that person’s only clothes?” Al asked. “What if they couldn’t afford another set and missed work or something?”
“I was in a bit of a rush, but I do remember throwing some money on the ground I thought was equivalent. Same with the cart, though I don’t know if the man was able to catch all the coins.”
“How about when you’re contracted to steal. Do you steal anything else?” Al asked.
“Do you mean, if I have to steal a necklace from a lady and I see a nice pair of cuff links on her husband’s dresser and swipe them? We are coded against that, but I’m also not one to break that with greed.”
Al soured at the comparative history between them and was about to argue when Raulin continued. “It may sound odd, but I like spending money frugally. It’s not just an exchange of this for that; sometimes painting a man’s palm buys cooperation, or at least silence.”
“Do you like making money, too?”
“Sure. It keeps me alive. I have to eat and I enjoy sleeping comfortably.”
Al had wanted to wait for Raulin to make his mistake, to let the poison flavor the stew, but the waiting was agitating him. He couldn’t wait it out any longer. “How much do we need to pay you to call off the hunters you tipped off?”
There was silence for a few moments as the other two turned to look at Raulin. “I didn’t pay anyone off, Wizard. We haven’t expunged the trail yet, so I’m still beholden to help you escape.”
“I was watching you last night. You made your little tip-off across the street from where I was eating my dinner. I watched the whole thing!”
“Yes. You paid someone money. I saw you hand coins to someone in an alley and walk away. You gave money to get the hunters on our trail so that you could slip away whenever you wanted. The joke’s on you, however; you’re stuck with us!”
Raulin started laughing. Anla turned to face him completely and scooted away from him.
“This isn’t funny! You’re going to stab us in the back! I want you to admit it so we can deal with it…”
“I don’t have any knives that shiv like that,” he interrupted. “I’m only laughing because you befuddled me for a moment. I had to think about what you meant and when I finally did, I saw what you meant. You’re wrong, though.”
“Then what was that liaison last night?”
“Give me one moment,” he said as he reached into his pack. “I’ll show you what it was.”
Al, afraid he was going to hurt Anla, reached into the front pocket of his pack, pulled out his knife, and knelt as well as he he could under the short ceiling. “Don’t move,” he said, holding the knife out in front of him.
Raulin looked back at him and sighed. In one deft movement he grabbed Al’s arm and twisted until he dropped the weapon from the pain of the hold. The trirec took it and stabbed it into the ground next to him, making it difficult for Al to retrieve it. “Never use a knife as a shield. It’s an exclamation point, not a question mark.”
Al rubbed his hand. “What does that mean?”
The trirec turned back around to his knapsack. “It means if all you have is a knife, don’t wait until your opponent has attacked. Press the engagement before you lose your one advantage.” He pulled out a full bladder and a pouch, which he put in front of the group. “This is what I paid money for last night. I found a boy who was willing to do some errands for me as well as guard the edge of town and let me know if the hunting party was coming. That was why we left so abruptly this morning.”
“What’s in those?” Al asked, feeling his face begin to burn.
“You’ll find out soon enough,” he said as he put back his items. “I think as punishment for voicing your suspicions, you will be in charge of that project.”
“Can you blame me, though? You’re a disreputable man with no morals.”
“I have morals, just not ones you believe are worthwhile.” He clicked his tongue a few times. “Do you believe I would break a contract?”
“No. If anything would drive you to fulfilling a task, it would be money.”
“Then let’s renegotiate our situation. Our terms are still the same, but we will now be bound in a contract. My services of helping the four of us escape, which I should point out is going swell so far, are in equal cost to any skills you add. That is, the magic or tasks you perform add the same to the contract in cost that my leadership and experience do. No one will owe anyone anything at the end of this. Is this amenable?”
Raulin held out his hand. Telbarisk shook first, followed by Anla.
“Wizard?” he asked. “I didn’t get your deal hand too badly, did I?”
Anla would have said something if Raulin was lying. He had no choice but to believe him. He shook his hand quickly and turned away.
“There,” Raulin said. “How much longer until the rains stop?”
“A short while, likely less than a meal but longer than a game of rinbast.”
“Ah, good. Since my fun additional is partially spoiled, I’m going to ask everyone to look around and see if they find anything unusual. Sharp pointed rocks, feathers, bones, things like that.”
“Like this?” Al asked, holding up a bird’s skull.
“Just like that,” Raulin said. “We’re heading out as soon as the rain stops. And then we have some confusion to sow.”