Anladet found his trail surprisingly easy to follow. While Raulin had been almost silent in the count’s mansion, he walked through the woods carelessly. Even on a worn trail, Anla could hear the leaves scrape against the dirt and an occasional twig snap when he had stepped on it.  Perhaps at some point she could gently broach the subject and give him a few pointers.

Raulin’s camp wasn’t far from where the other three had stayed for the night. Anla took a deer trail off the main road for about a hundred yards, then found his camp.  His bedroll was already clipped together and breakfast was warming next to a tin cup of tea on the stones of a small campfire. Raulin, however, was nowhere to be seen.  She sat on a nearby log and waited for a minute until she saw him farther down the trail.

He was in a meadow, as wide as a ten second sprint in any direction. The grass was still dewed save for the darker green where he had stepped, mostly in the middle of the field. She was going to shout out to him, to let him know she was there, but found herself interested in what he was doing.

She wanted to say he reminded her of the wizard-acrobats she had seen perform as a child, but his routine was much slower, far less showy, but more impressive. He moved fluidly from one position to the next, holding each for several minutes. None of them looked like easy forms to hold. He crouched on one foot, holding the other off the ground and straight in front of him. He swung that leg behind him, held it, then moved into what would be the splits if his thighs touched the ground.

Anla moved quietly to a small but flat boulder and sat. She convinced herself that she was being polite, waiting until he finished, but she knew it was eavesdropping.  She didn’t care, though; she was fascinated, impressed, and a touch enticed by the routine. He still wore his mask, but he was stripped to the waist and barefoot. He wasn’t impressively muscled, like some men she had known, but he was toned and defined in a way that showed he used his body in far more ways that heavy lifting.

For his last hold, he stood on his hands while moving his legs slowly up until he was inverted. He lifted his left arm up so his weight was solely on his right arm. After a minute, he moved to his left. She heard him groan between clenched teeth before his legs began to wobble. After perhaps twenty seconds he suddenly collapsed and groaned again.

Raulin got up quickly, dipping his head down for a moment as he caught his breath. He skimmed his hands over the wet grass and cleaned the dirt from his side before picking up his two knives he had set aside. From there he battled against an invisible opponent, jabbing, stabbing, and cutting with precision and speed. Raulin would move in a burst of action, then subside for a few moments to catch his breath. There seemed to be some rhythm to it, some connection between the forms, but it was impossible for Anla to tell what they were.

He sheathed his knives, then stood still for a moment. He knelt down to the ground, feeling around until he found a small rock. He stood, tossed it in the air a few times, then turned swiftly and chucked it at Anla.

She winced and stayed still, even when she heard the rock hit the tree nearest to her. Her heart pounded in her chest for a good minute. As he walked towards his camp, rubbing his right wrist, she rose to meet him.

“I apologize,” she said as he walked past her. “I didn’t mean to spy on you, Raulin. I just…want to talk. To discuss how things are.”

He said nothing. He moved his bedroll so it was close to the fire and sat on it before beckoning her over. “”That was the sort of thing I wanted to keep you three ignorant on.”

She sat on the same log from earlier. “We can’t know that you stretch and exercise?”

“It’s part of the package of secrets that I keep. Would knowing just that be enough to get us in trouble? Likely not, but if you know this then you’ll know other things. You already know a majority of the myths about us are bunk. You know that we master escaping, that we’re flesh and blood, that we have fears.

“I stress that this isn’t about me. If I was caught, I’d be whipped, but I’d heal. It’s in their best interest to keep me alive, since I make so much money for them. You three? I have no idea what they’d do.”

She saw an opening. “Then you do care about our well-being.”

“Did you think I don’t? The fact that the wizard still lives should be testament to that.”

“No! No, no. I was just…establishing a fact.”

“Ah,” he said, leaning forward on his knees. “You’re opening deliberations, then.”

“Yes. I think we can all agree that our arrangement right now isn’t working. It’s not good for our well-being. And yours as well, since you’re affected just as we are.”

He twisted to his side and grabbed his cup of tea, popping the bottom off his mask before sipping it. Anla could see his jaw was rather strong with a small nick of an old cut near his chin. “What was your name again?”

“Anladet,” she whispered, frowning.

“No, I know that,” he said, holding up a hand. “I’m sorry. When Merakians engage in discussions, they always make sure to state their names beforehand.” He touched his fingertips quickly to his chest. “Raulin Kemor”

“Anladet Deerborn Auchindol, though that’s not on any Ghenian papers.  ‘Deerborn’ is the name of my mother’s tribe.”

“Auchindol?” he said, clearing his throat. “I thought you said your father was a traveling doctor.”

“I did and he was,” she said.

“What was his name?”

“Martin? Why?”

He pursed his lips for a moment, then quickly took a sip of his tea. “It’s just part of the Merakian negotiations thing; father’s names are important. All right, now that we’re…it’s not insulting to you, me being partially undressed? I can put my shirt on.”

She shrugged. “It’s the Ghenians who are so uptight about clothing, not the elves.”

“Have you had breakfast? I have some oatmeal and sausages and some water. I won’t offer you the tea; it’s very bitter.”

“I’m fine. Al and Tel are making food back at our camp. I’ll eat when we’re finished.”

“Let’s begin then. You don’t like our arrangement.”

“The only way we can tell you want to move is by getting very sick. We’re afraid to sit and eat or rest for fear that you’ll move outside of the one mile mark. We were all miserable yesterday. We can’t keep doing that for another year.”

“I’ll admit that I don’t appreciate random bursts of pain and nausea. And I am afraid of getting caught during a job because someone moved a few feet in the wrong direction But, we have three major problems to overcome if we are to merge.”

“What are they? I feel that, if we can fulfill them, we will. Or at least we’ll try.”

“The first is the nebulous fear that, when we reach Iascond, a certain birdie will whispers sweet nothings in a constable’s ear and I’ll be arrested and hanged quite quickly.”

“I take it you mean a little birdie that’s not-so-colorful?” When he nodded, she continued. “I asked Al before we drank together if the binding included death, to which he replied he wasn’t sure, but that he wouldn’t risk it anyway. He understands that any action he takes against you might mean his end.”

“Is it true?”

“I don’t know. He said he read some things in a book, but he couldn’t read much because he was being chased.”

“So, you can assure me that he won’t try to turn me in.”

“Al won’t turn you in. He’s too interested in making you admit he’s right.”

Raulin snorted and sipped his tea again. “I’m going to need you to remind him of this.”

“Naturally,” she said. “What is your second issue?”

“There are over one hundred trirecs in Gheny. Should one of them spot me in the company of three miartha and let my order know, it will be bad for everyone involved. I need a reason why I’m with you three for the next year. A good reason.”

Anla thought about this for a few moments. Raulin put his tea down and began eating his breakfast. There was something about the way he had presented his problem that made it seem like the answer was obvious, but he didn’t want to give it, like when her father had tried to coax the answer to a riddle from her and her siblings. What could she ask of him that he couldn’t offer?

“Is there some sort of contract we could pay you for? Could you spend a year, say, spying a piece of information that we’ll just give you in the end anyway?”

“No, that would create a bunch of questions.” he said, a light smile on his lips. “Trirecs do more than spy, kill, and steal.”

“You do? What else can you do?”

“A number of things, including guarding jobs.”

“Oh,” she said, understanding, “may we hire you for a guard position lasting one year?”

“Why, yes, I think I could work that out. We can submit a contract when I contact an agent in Iascond.”

“Can we pay you a token for this?”

“No. Arvarikor takes a fifty percent cut of the work I do. And I don’t receive payment in coins. It would have to be funneled and you wouldn’t get your money back.”

“How much are we talking?”

“Guard work, for one year? Well, there’s no set price. People put in an amount to persuade us to take their contract. The higher it is, the more likely someone is to take it.”

“Dare I ask what the going rate would be?”

“I’m actually unsure. I don’t take guard jobs; they give those to the more seasoned trirecs. I’d have to guess it would be a minimum of five gold per.”

Anla brightened. “Oh, that’s not bad! I think Al and I could come up with two gold, five silver each. I’m pretty sure Telbarisk doesn’t have any money, but that’s fine.”

“I meant…five gold per month.”

“Oh.” Could she get Al to fork over thirty gold? She doubted it. She could afford it herself; she had spent frugally and still had at least ninety to spare. But that money was supposed to go towards her efforts to find her siblings. Already she was going to have to put the search on hold to tag along with Raulin for the year.

“I would give a third,” he offered. “We won’t tell anyone where the money came from.”

Twenty gold was easier to negotiate and pay. She held out her hand. “Do we have a deal, then? We’ll look for someone to enter you into a contract to guard us for one year. I’ll pay twenty on behalf of Tel, Al will pay twenty, and you’ll pay twenty. We won’t speak of the chalice’s spell.”

He held out his hand, but paused. “Also, any sensitive information I say about trirecs and what I do during the position is to be held in secret.”

“Agreed,” she said and shook hands. Relief washed over her. They’d be free of the fear of illness. No snipping at each other, no dread, no bleary nights wondering if they’d slept too long. There was one more thing, though. “What was the third problem?”

“The wizard. He’ll need to be quiet for the entire year for me to accept this.”

“You know I can get him to agree to that.”

He smiled before he clicked his mask into place. Anla admitted that he had a very expressive mouth and a nice smile.  She hated that he had to cover it. “It was worth the gamble.”

She waited for him to finish breakfast, dress, and douse his fire before she led him out to the road and to their camp.  “For what it’s worth, I am glad things ended up this way.  I understand it’s inconvenient for you, but having support in something is always reassuring.”

“I won’t consider this ‘support’; at best I’m going to feel like I’m lugging you three around the country.”

“I hope it doesn’t feel that way for much longer,” she said.

“We’ll have to see, then.  We have a year.  Maybe things will change.”

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