Raulin led them back out to the trail, taking care not to touch any wet leaves or step in any puddles.  He was humming one of the working shanties he had heard on the ship when he noticed Anladet had come up beside him. “What brings you to the interesting part of the group?” he turned and asked.

“I just wanted to thank you for how you reacted to Al’s accusation. I don’t know many who would have taken it in stride.”

“I try not to let fleabites wound.  When I enter a house for a job, I don’t know if I’ll be walking out or be carried out. The thought of my death is always right here,” he said, holding his hand in front of his forehead, “so I tend to think less of holding grudges and being petty. It’s easier to move on.”

“Do you fear death?” she asked.

“Of course I do.”

“Hmm.  I’d always thought trirecs were fearless.”

“No,” he said. “If I didn’t fear anything then I’d be terrible at my job. It’s the preservation of my life that keeps me from making mistakes.”

“But don’t fearful men make terrible thieves?”

“There is a difference between having healthy fear and being petrified. I scale walls and fear I may fall, but it doesn’t freeze me in my spot.”

“Do you have anything that makes you petrified?”

“Yes,” he responded slowly. “I think every man does and those that say they don’t are either lying or haven’t lived enough.”

“You won’t say what yours is, though?” she said, smiling at him.

“I think you already hold all the cards here, my lady. There’s no need to give you more power. Besides, knowledge is a commodity I’ve given enough to you for free. My usual rates are four to one.”

“You want me to give you four secrets for the price of one of yours? It hardly seems fair.”

“If you wanted to know badly enough, it would be.”

“What would you want to know?”

He thought about this for a few moments. She spent the time tapping branches and leaves to shake off the water. “A fear, a shame, an embarrassment, and something else you hide from others.”

She raised her eyebrows and took in a slow breath. “Those are very personal things.”

“So is what you’re asking me.  One might argue it’s an occupational hazard for you to know it.”

“Okay. I should probably start with something I hide from others. Watch.” She tucked her hair behind her left ear.

Raulin actually stopped walking in surprise. “You’re an elf!”

“Half-elven, actually.”  She turned her head and squinted her eyes, as if she could read what he was thinking. “Is that a problem for you?”

“No! Actually, quite the opposite. We don’t have elves in Merak, and none came to the cities on Ervaskin, so I’ve never met one before. I’ve always wanted to, though. Why do you hide that from people?”

“The Nui-Breckin Act. My father was from Arvonne, one of the selfish, stupid backstabbers, as you put it…”

He touched his fingertips to his chest. “I apologize. I’m sure not everyone from Arvonne is as terrible as I imagine.”

Anladet gave a short nod and continued. “He was a traveling doctor and met my mother when passing through the Dreelands in western Ashven. Education was important to him, so he taught my sisters, my brother, and I many things of the world. He felt that vacationing in places was necessary, to experience life outside the village, but it was always at a risk. We were at a beach when I yelled out to him, identifying him as my father and not the guard he had been portraying. It was later the next day that he and my mother were arrested, sentenced, and hanged for breaking the Nui-Breckin Act. That is my shame; I caused their deaths.”

“It is hard for me to find words to say how I feel. I was orphaned as a child, so I understand the pain of not having them in your life anymore. It is a hollow ache that cannot be filled by anything or anyone.”

“That is how it feels to me. I miss them every day. My siblings still live, but we’ve lost each other over the years. I hope to find them.”

“That is a noble cause. Have you any luck?”

“No,” she said. “It’s been hard enough just making enough money to eat and find shelter during the cold or rain. Which brings me to my embarrassment…” She sighed. “To my mother’s people, unmarried relations weren’t a terrible thing, so long as it wasn’t your close family. Still, I’d rather they didn’t know what I’ve had to do in order to not starve.”

“You’re speaking of selling yourself?”

She looked down and nodded. “Just three times, and only because I hadn’t eaten in several days. I never wanted to be a whore, but I also didn’t want to die.”

“I have to disagree with the label you gave yourself. I’ve had to shoe more than one horse in my life, yet I don’t call myself a farrier.”

“It’s different and it’s still an embarrassment. I’d rather people didn’t know, company behind us included.”

“I thought I mentioned all this was confidential. Hmm. It might give our magniloquent magician something else to harp about, but I’d still have to hear him speak. Yes, I will definitely forget to mention this.”

“I appreciate it. Are we even, then?”

“Your fear is still unvoiced.”

“Ah, yes,” she said. “Ladybugs.”

Raulin laughed. “Seriously? The little red beetles with the black spots?”

“Yes. I know it’s strange. When I was little, I had one get stuck in my hair. It was right next to my face, so I could feel the little black…”, she paused to shudder, “…legs crawling, scraping next to my ear. Since then, I get hysterical whenever I see one.”

“I’ll do my best to protect you from them. I cannot guarantee your safety in the event of a swarm.”

“Please don’t put the thought I my head,” she said, laughing lightly.

“Other than the ladybug attack, did you have a good childhood?”

“I did.  It’s peaceful in the Dreelands, for the most part.  There are tensions because we lived so close to Ghenians, but for the most part it was what I understand you’d find in most small villages.  I loved my family and life was wonderful with them.”

“I would have thought it would be a little different.”

“Of course it was.  Our gods are different, our food is different, our clothes, our speech, our celebrations.  Our ears, of course, and even our skin is darker than most of the pale Ghenians.  But shake out the details and it’s the same.”

“How often did your village come into contact with Ghenians?”

“Not often, since the signing of the peace treaty.  Every once in a while someone will try something in a band or by themselves; that’s what they thought my father was doing.  But for the most part we live away from them.

“There was only one problem we had to face on a daily basis,” she said, her voice quieting in conspiracy.

“What was that?”

“People not fulfilling their end of the bargain.” She gave him a sweet smile that he returned, though she didn’t see it.

“My past,” he said.

“You fear your past?”

“I fear it being exposed. Trirecs are taught that our lives begin when we are brought in for training. Nothing exists before that; no friends, no family, no allegiances. Our loyalty is to the organization and only them.

“I was adopted a little later than most children are. I remember more. I have no one to return to, but it doesn’t mean I don’t pine for home. Or think of making a new one. And I can’t let them know that. So I always fear that someone will remember me and it will cause me a huge complication in my life.”

“Enough that you would freeze?” she asked.

“Yes. It’s happened once or twice, in small ways. People speaking of coincidental things or someone states that I look familiar.”

“Would it be that bad, going back?

“Besides having a bounty placed on my head for defection by Arvarikor, yes. I don’t want to return home. I don’t want anyone to make me return home.”

“You make it sound like you are important somewhere.”

“No, no. It’s just the way things are, where I’m from.”

“They make people return to their home in Merak?”

“Yes, in parts. It’s more of an enfolding of lost people. In some places they pretend strangers are their missing relatives and they welcome them, sometimes forcing them to stay.”

“That might not be a good situation for someone to get tangled in.”

“Not at all. May I ask why you asked about this?”

Anladet pursed her lips and took her time speaking. “We’ll be with each other for some amount of time. I try to be respectful of people’s needs. While I’m curious about you and what your life has been like, I will avoid asking questions about your past. Or anything else you don’t want me to ask.”

“Truly? That’s very kind of you. I feel badly about trading with you now.”

“I got to know you better. I’m fine with it, should you keep quiet in return.”

“You have my word.”

Raulin contemplated this while they moved ahead in silence. While he had given up a piece of information he’d rather people didn’t know, he at least could put his mind at ease. He couldn’t stop thinking of the woman from his dreams and had been considering if Anladet was her. She wasn’t. He was sure of it. He didn’t have the feelings for her that he’d had for that woman. And while he could develop them, there wouldn’t be time. He also hadn’t looked at that woman and thought about her heritage at all, which he would have if he were involved with someone half-elven. He could let it go for now, at least with the people he was with at the moment.

Telbarisk caught up with them. “You asked me to keep you updated on some things.”

“Yes,” Raulin said, turning towards his friend.

“The weather is clear. The party is still behind us; they have recently turned onto the trail we are taking. And there is something coming up that I think might be what you are looking for.”

“Excellent. Thank you, Tel.”

“What are you guys talking about?”

The wizard had grown jealous or paranoid and had caught up to the group holding a dead squirrel. “Nothing, though I will need your help in a few minutes. How good are you at creating fake rituals?”

Al blinked a few times then laughed. “Oh, I am very good at those.”

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