“Are you jesting?” he heard Al said. “I have to pay him twenty gold for the luxury of not yanking us all over Gheny?”
“Look at it as an investment in safety,” Anla said. “He can’t kill you if he’s guarding you.”
“He shouldn’t be trying to kill me anyway. A decent person wouldn’t go around threatening people. Besides…”
“Still on that, Wizard?” Raulin said as he entered the camp. “I’ll make you a deal. I will read all of Tichen’s works if you shut your mouth for the remainder of the year.”
“It’s not about just reciting his works!” the wizard said, standing in his indignation. “Look, let me explain things to you, very simply, so that you can understand. If a man…”
Raulin held up his hand. He had taken in the campsite and noticed the small cooking fire, the pan of cooling sausage, and Telbarisk lying on his side in a fetal position. Raulin walked over and crouched down next to him. “How are you feeling?”
“Warm,” he said, opening his eyes. “I’m still getting used to the hotness of the air in Gheny.”
Raulin looked back at Anla and Al. “How long has he been like this?”
“All day yesterday,” the wizard said. “Actually, he didn’t look well since the time we spent in the cave. Does he get some sort of illness from using too much magic?”
“He doesn’t, at least not like wizards. He might feel unhappy or be in dis-ease if he can’t refill his kil, but you’ve been walking through the forest. He would have recovered his reserves by now.”
“Could it be because of the chalice sickness? Maybe what you did yesterday affected him strongly.”
“Are either of you sick?” Raulin retorted. “I’m not. You two look hale. It’s not the chalice at work.”
Tel’s skin was pale and clammy, as if he were sick with a disease, not something temporary. Since they didn’t know everything the chalice did, there was some merit to the wizard’s consideration (not that Raulin would admit it aloud). There might be some punishment involved with the group separating for longer periods. He made a note to research the artifact as soon as possible.
Telbarisk sat up slowly, wiping his face. “I’m all right. I had a restless night, so I’m tired.”
“Would you like some more time to sleep?” Raulin asked.
“No, no,” he said slowly, as if the words took too much energy to say.
“Would you like breakfast? Did you guys think to buy food that wasn’t meat?”
“Yes,” Al said, “we have some cheese remaining and some fruit. It would have been a better selection if we had gone north towards Kikuyan…”
“Eat, Tel, and take your time. I need to make sure our wizard here understands the terms of the contract.”
“Anla explained them to me,” Al said. “I still think it’s unfair that I have to pay you, since you were the one that grabbed the chalice out of my hand and drank with bloody fingers.”
“By the end of the year it will be a wash,” he said. “I’ve already paid a few gold for the supplies and food for the escape. Or did you think they just magically appeared?”
“And I paid for the rooms,” Al retorted. “I think you still owe me.”
“Fine. When we get to Iascond, I’ll pay for our rooms and dinner.”
“Fine,” Al said, crossing his arms.
“Most importantly, I need to make sure you understand that you must feign complete and utter ignorance should anyone ask you questions about trirecs. Remember what you knew before you met me, put it in an imaginary book, and only access that information. Your ears will be filled with cotton and your eyes bleary with sleep for the rest of the year.”
“No, you don’t. This isn’t about me. My order will punish me severely for accidentally spilling secrets, but they won’t kill me. I’ll be sent on my way because I’m too lucrative for them to kill me over minor infractions. They will not, however, abide people roaming the lands with intimate knowledge of our operations. If they catch wind you know things you shouldn’t, and you will likely be tested on that, a lifetime of servitude in a compound is the kindest existence you could hope for.”
Al glared at him. “If someone approaches me on the street and says, ‘Good sir, I see you’re traveling with a trirec. Could you tell me some things about him?’ I would say that I barely spoke to you and knew very little. If they asked what I knew, I’d tell them they wear masks and sometimes kill people.”
“Good. Don’t get into your cups, either, and think to show off. That Caudet sometimes rots people brains, like when a man accidentally drinks turpentine.”
“When you learn to appreciate the finer things in life, talk to me.” Al stood, gathering his pack. “So, I suppose we’re off to Iascond then? Not Ashven?”
“Don’t be bitter, Wizard. It would have been rather foolish of me to tell you where I was really going. I have two contracts there. The constable can’t charge me for being a trirec, but there are so many little laws people break constantly that he could tie me up in. I’d have rather you didn’t have the opportunity to whisper sweet nothings into a lawman’s ears.”
Anla brought Tel his breakfast and the three of them broke camp. “I don’t suppose either of you have a map of the area?” Raulin asked.
“I have a book on Gheny that has a map in it, but it’s small and doesn’t have a lot of places on it.”
“Besides the place with the mill that we stopped at, I’ve only seen signs for a few farming villages since we’ve left Bronsto. This trail is traveled enough that there should be some some settlement soon, at least a post. I’m wondering if we should continue east or backtrack and take the fork to Ashven.”
Al thumbed through the book he had retrieved from deep within his pack. He held the page out for Raulin, who peered closely at it. “Only Iascond and Carvek are marked on here. Not even Bronsto, though that’s merely an afterthought of Carvek. Hmm.” He handed back the book and thought. “I’m going to guess that anyone wanting to deliver to Kikuyan from Iascond will have to take this trail. If so, there should be a settlement, maybe even two, on the way there. East will be our best bet.”
“I don’t see any point in backtracking,” Al said. “We could be wasting time. If we keep at it, we’ll hit Iascond definitely.”
“We’re settled then?” Raulin asked the other two, who made no objections. “Um, Tel, if the lady is not offended, you might want to take off your bakinar and shirt, to cool down.”
“The lady is not offended,” Anla said.
“Cold,” Tel muttered, hugging himself.
“You’re cold now? Hmm.” Raul squatted in front of Tel and felt his forehead again. “You’re burning up.”
“It’s fine,” he said as he stood. “I’ll be better once I’m walking.” Though he said it with a neutral tone, it was the closest Raulin had seen to Tel snapping at anyone.
“Fine, but at least eat some of the fruit Anla gave you.”
He tucked the food in his bakinar and began walking, forgetting that they needed to break camp. He leaned against a tree while he waited, appearing to fall asleep as he breathed deeply.
Raulin said nothing as he kicked the fire cold and waited while Al broke down his tent. Ervaskin was a very different place than Gheny. Nourabrikot was the most southern city in the Valley of the Cold Winds and still saw snow for six months a year. The summers were mild, rarely reaching a point of uncomfortable humidity. Raulin had lived for many years in Arvarikor, which was of a similar climate, but he had lived for some of his life in warmer lands. Telbarisk had never experienced temperatures such as these. He had only been here for a week and hadn’t had time to acclimate.
What if his friend was like this for the whole year? What if he continued to shiver on days that were blazing hot by mid-morning?
Even though Raulin’s pace was already slow, Telbarisk lumbered behind them and fell behind more than a few times. The fact that he had wandered off into the woods a half-dozen times didn’t help with their speed, either. Still, Raulin said nothing and chose to walk next to his friend instead of complaining about the lag.
By late morning they had begun to notice the route widening and a few roads with signs leading off to the north and south. Raulin might have tried one of the villages promised at the end, but he knew the farms along the road were growing closer together, which meant a convergence should happen soon.
Sure enough, as their stomachs began to rumble, they came to a sign declaring the road was bifurcating Ammet Tryna. The road was dirt and the buildings had no more than two stories, but the people were very friendly, even with a trirec and a grivven among them. The buildings alongside the road were well cared for, the paint fresh and the flowers in the window boxes watered and blooming. Raulin even noticed there were four streets that ran from the main road that contained several houses with small lawns.
“Interesting,” he said.
“What is?” Al asked.
“This town has a little bit of money that seems spread evenly. I wonder what their secret is.”
“Oh, do you mean like a hidden gold mine in the mountains or a brotherhood of thieves that rob travelers in the night?”
Raulin turned to look at the wizard for a long moment. “I was thinking more along the lines of ‘what are they selling here that people can’t buy elsewhere?’.”
“I wouldn’t quickly discount the thieves; they could be anywhere.”
“Yes, and I suppose I also shouldn’t discount the possibility of a retired pirate captain or ghosts that force men to surrender their wares to the townsfolk.”
“Those are good theories, too.”
Raulin sighed deeply. “Tel, this looks like a nice, cool stand of trees. Why don’t you stay here while the three of us get lunch and supplies? You can nap if you’d like. We’ll be back shortly.”
Tel just nodded his head and moved slowly to the place Raulin had pointed out.
The three went inside the general store, which had a separate section for the post office and another filled with a curiously large amount of kitchenware and utensils, with a few pieces of armor and weaponry. “I’m going to guess that’s their bread and butter right there,” Raulin said to his companions.
“They have knights?” asked the wizard.
“They…well, perhaps, but I’m thinking they have a forge and a talented blacksmith to make all those pieces. And if it’s quality work, they will travel from long distances to buy it.”
“It is,” the shopkeeper said, his arms folded over his chest. He looked warily at Raulin.
“I mean no disrespect,” Raulin said. “My question of their craftsmanship is only because I am ignorant of what is good and what is bad.”
Al laughed quietly under his breath.
“If you want to stop by the forge, I know for a fact Rayani would love to give you a lesson, maybe even a tour,” the shopkeeper said.
“Rayani is the blacksmith who made these?”
“Her and her husband. Easily the best metal works you’ll find between Hanala and the capital. Feel free to look around.”
Raulin walked over and began picking up a few items to inspect. “What, do you need more knives?” Al asked.
“One can never have too many knives, Wizard.” He held up a hammer and tested its weight. “Actually, I believe the shopkeeper feels very kindly towards their blacksmith family and I may have unintentionally upset him. It can’t hurt to look while you two get enough provisions for a few days.”
“And pay for them,” Al added.
“As I said, I’m paying for the next rooms, which will be much more than the food.”
Raulin made appropriate noises as he held up a metal buckler with precise etchings. He was no expert, but he did have a casual interest and knowledge of weaponry, enough that he could tell this was well made. It was symmetrical and had none of the tell-tale marks of a “good enough” blacksmith, like deep dents that weren’t hammered out enough. At least the pieces were worth the title the shopkeeper had given.
The three left and found Telbarisk dozing. “We have fruit for you,” Raulin said, taking an orange from Anla’s pack and peeling it.
Tel opened his eyes and smiled. “Thank you. I can smell it from here.”
“I haven’t seen you smile since I got back. That’s a good sign,” Raulin said as he handed the fruit to his friend.
“I found a map in the shop,” Al said. “If we continue east, we should hit Ammet Canyin tomorrow, and Iascond some time in the following two days.”
“Good,” Raulin said as the four began to walk. Tel wiped his chin and flicked his fingers to remove the juice. “Our time in Iascond should be relatively quick. I’ll need to signal an agent and wait before I can proceed with my two contracts, but I don’t expect to wait long.”
“We should work on our story,” Anla said, catching up to the two of them. “We should keep the ruse of Al and I being married. We’ve decided to hire an expensive guard for some reason. Why? Who are we that we’d need protection? And who is Telbarisk to us?”
“Merchants?” Al suggested. “We could be trying to buy some rare items of value and need a guard to protect them as well as us. Telbarisk could be our clerk.”
Just then the three heard a loud thud from behind. “Tel?” Raulin yelled as he bolted towards his friend.
Telbarisk had collapsed in the middle of the road. Raulin slapped his cheeks lightly, shaking him, anything to get him to respond. “Wizard, what’s going on? Is this heat poisoning?”
Al felt Telbarisk’s forehead and cheeks, lifted his eyelids, then felt his throat under his jaw. Al bolted back, then lifted Tel’s wrist to check his pulse. “His glands are swollen,” he said. “I don’t think he’s suffering from too much heat.” He held up Tel’s arm so that the other two could see his bare forearm covered in a red rash of small bumps. “I think he’s really sick.”