Telbarisk needed several breaks in the half-mile walk back to Tryna, but each one was shorter than the last. His appetite had returned enough that he was hungry for fruit and ate some on the edge of town.  Anla watched him with a warm smile on her face, especially after she looked at Raulin doing the same.

“Put your scarf around your face so that you don’t upset the air element,” Al said when they moved again.

“It’s called a bakinor,” Raulin said. “Only kiluids may wear it.”

“It’s not important to me what he calls it. I know what he meant.” Tel lifted it so that it covered his nose down and tucked the remainder into the collar of his shirt.

Al and Anla shopped in the general store while Raulin stayed outside with Telbarisk, filling him in on the events he had missed.  Raulin was too preoccupied to notice the figure standing nearby wishing to speak to him until Tel looked past him and nodded his head her way.

“Rayani! We were heading to your forge next. We wanted to thank you again for your help by sending your son to Iascond. A Zayine priestess cured Telbarisk and I think he’ll be good as new soon.”

“Thank you,” Tel said, bending his neck. “You have my deepest appreciation for your sacrifice.”

“No sacrifice,” Rayani said. “My son was more than happy to prove his maturity with the task. His father can be a little on the strict side in his upbringing and I was glad an outside party forced that lesson.” She held out her hand. “It’s nice to meet you, now that you’re awake.”

Raulin held out his hand, gently moving it down and away. “We’re being careful, trying to restrict his contact with people, No disrespect meant.”

“Oh, yes. Of course,” Rayani said. “Before you leave, I was wondering something. I noticed the state of your equipment while I was in your camp and wondered if there was anything you needed.  A paring knife, perhaps?  Or maybe a new pot?  The one you have is cheaply made and I guarantee that handle will fall off in a month.”

“Oh, that’s very generous of you, but we plan on selling our equipment once we reach New Wextif.  I’m sure your pieces would fetch a handsome price even second-hand, but it would hurt me to part with something you made.”

She giggled and stepped closer to him.  “You’re such a flattering man.  Perhaps I should offer something else then.  Now, this wasn’t my idea; it was His, so you can’t say ‘no’.”

“Oh?  What does Skethik wish you to gift us and how much will it cost me?”

“Hmm,” she purred.  “There are payments I’d rather have than coin, so don’t worry about the cost.”

“Yes, but a wonderful mother and wife like yourself wouldn’t be interested in that sort of payment.”

She sighed. “No, I suppose not. Fine. We normally charge forty-five gold for a new ax, plus an additional fifteen for the spells of ever-sharpness and increased binding.”

“And with craftsmanship like yours, sixty gold is a steal. We just don’t have the funds to pay for such a wonderful item.”

“How about two then?”

“Two? You’re going from sixty gold down to two?”

“And a kiss.”

Raulin’s shoulders slumped slightly. Al and Anla walked out from the general store, chatting about something. “Out of sight and you have a deal.” He turned to the wizard. “Sir, pay the lady two gold.”

“Two gold? What am I paying her for?”

“A great investment forthcoming. You and your wife will thank me for the piece.”

Begrudgingly, Al paid her and Raulin and she walked to the same copse of trees Telbarisk had used a few days earlier to nap. Raulin noted the triumphant smile she turned to give Anladet and knew this wasn’t going to be an easy transaction.

Raulin returned alone after a short while, clicking the bottom part of his mask back into place. “I should have figured it was going to devolve into that.”

“You didn’t…” Anla said, her mouth slightly open. The group began to move eastward at a slow pace to match Telbarisk’s gait.

“No, no, not that. Just a lot more passion than I had hoped. And it’s only been about ten minutes, my lady; give me some credit, please.”  

Al gave him a disgusted look. “So, I wound up paying her two gold for you to paw her for a few minutes? Hardly seems like a ‘great investment’.”

“I will pay you back upon my word. Two gold is worth it for me to walk away without…well, to walk away. I still have my legs, so I say it’s a good day.”

“Hey!” they heard and Raulin turned around quickly.  When he saw who it was, he moved in front of the other three and tensed in anticipation of a fight. “Bay. Hello. How can I help you?’

Bay was not an overly large man, but well-muscled and holding an ax with both hands. Raulin raked his thumbs up the side of his hip and tucked his tunic behind his knives, trying to remain neutral, yet prepared.

“This is yours,” he said, holding the ax out.

“Thank you,” Raulin said cautiously. “I still don’t think I’m paying enough for it.”

Bay scowled. That wasn’t what I meant, Raulin thought. “I mean, she’s practically giving it to me, us. I only paid her two gold and nothing else, not other means of payment or anything…”

“I know,” he said. “She returned to our house in a terrible mood both now and the other day.”

“I’m sorry,” Raulin said. “I didn’t mean to make her unhappy.”

The blacksmith looked down. “In this case, I think I’d prefer it.”

Raulin walked calmly to the smith and took the ax from the man’s hands. “Thank you. If it means anything, it’s not you and it’s not her.”

Bay stiffened and left saying nothing else. “What was all that about?” Al asked when he rejoined.

“You didn’t notice?” Anla said as they began walking east again. “Rayani was trying to sleep with Raulin since she first saw him. And Alistad was practically tripping over herself to impress him. You seem to have quite an affect on women when you need to.”

“I’ve always had a knack with the clergy of the Twelve,” he said, shrugging. “They seem to like me, for some reason.”

“Do Merakians have royalty?” Al asked. “That would explain it, if you had royal blood that you didn’t know about.”

“You’re speaking of the attraction between the clergy and the dynastic houses of Noh Amair. I don’t think Merakian royalty works the same, though I couldn’t be completely sure. Merak is a large place and they might have some kings and queens somewhere. But I don’t have royal blood anyway.”

“How would you know, though? You said that tea wipes your memories from childhood, that you don’t remember your parents.”

Raulin eyed Telbarisk quickly, who only briefly raised his eyebrows at the lie. “You’re right, Wizard. Perhaps I do after all. Or maybe women who are cloistered in houses of ritual and prayer find any mysterious, charming man irresistible.”

Al scoffed. “A gentleman never brags about the women he’s bedded.”

“Whoever said I was a gentleman? Why can’t I say who I’ve been with?”

“Because it besmirches a lady’s reputation.”

“But, I’m not naming names, just numbers. And deities, I suppose. That number can’t rise any higher.”

“You’ve slept with a priestess from every temple?”

“No, no. I haven’t been that busy. Just every order.”

“Ha!” Al said, pointing at him. “Caught you in that lie. No priestess of Queyella would be caught dead with you.”

“Oh?” Raulin asked, amused. “And why not?”

“Because Queyellan clergy take vows of purity, adhered through honesty, piety, and abstinence from many things, but especially casual relations. Should a priest break their vows, they’ll perform some ritual of cleansing that involves wearing weights at certain tides and swimming out to corresponding lengths. The weight a woman would wear for casual relations with a man would be so heavy, it would practically be a death sentence. That’s why. No Queyellan priestess would risk her life in order to sleep with you.”

After a few moments, Raulin cleared his throat and spoke in soft tones. “You’re right, Wizard. You caught me. I’ve never slept with a Queyellan priestess.”

“And probably not as many as you’ve said. Cut the paramour act. It makes you look desperate.”

Raulin said nothing. Al began to speak to Telbarisk about the care he should be taking to avoid catching another disease, including burnt offerings of certain items, to balance the elements.

It was left to Anla to puzzle out why Raulin suddenly grew quiet and distracted. When she tried small talk with him, his answers were brief. When she hinted that she was interested in knowing what he was thinking about, he said nothing. And when she told tales from her childhood, remembering that he showed some interest in her mother’s people, he just sighed occasionally.

The obvious solution would have been to ask him directly. She still thought of him as a man behind a mask, though, and one who would be reluctant to talk about personal things. He had already been adamant about them not asking questions of his profession. She assumed that was the case for everything.

Anla had already begun to categorize people’s tones in abstract and poetic terms. Raulin’s normal attitude, when he wasn’t holding back the aggravation of arguing with Al, reminded her of finding a glen just on the edge of her home: a little exciting and a little breathtaking. A river ran through this place. Moss grew on the trees and rocks, which were placed in a way that made her think that someone visited the glen and had arranged things in a certain way. It was warm and comfortable, the summer sun having kissed places that radiated sighs and tenderness. Most of the time it felt like the evening with him, just as the fireflies came out to dot the air with lights. It was a place where something monumental had once happened, but now only held a secret vigil to the event.

And so, she had never been afraid of him, at least since their first conversation in the cell. But now she feared for him. The rain poured and the glen had flooded into a swamp. Raulin even appeared as if he were walking through thick mood, slowly and with weight. She liked him. She hated to see him drown.

Had it been the discussion about royalty? She hadn’t noticed his tone straying too far from normal, just a little cautious and perhaps a bit of what Al’s voice sounded like when he was lecturing her. Was he actually shy when speaking about former lovers? No, he actually had seemed a little cocky about that, but not enough to cause Anla to roll her eyes.

And then she had it. He had lied about the Queyellan priestess. He had slept with her. Since she had been listening for it, she had heard the unmistakable grinding rock sound when he spoke, which clued her in to blatant lies that the person knows is a lie. It was then that she focused in on the facts and figured it out.

Anla moved closer to Raulin, interlaced his fingers with his, and squeezed once. He looked down at her. “You didn’t know.”

He shook her hand away. “I did know. I was too stupid to remember, to connect what we did to what they preached against. If she died because I couldn’t restrain myself…”

“I take it she didn’t have a say in the matter?”

“I didn’t rape her,” he said through clenched teeth.

“No, no! I didn’t mean that! I was about to point out that she could make her own decisions. She decided to proceed when she knew the consequences. Therefore, it was either worth it to her or she knew she’d be fine.”

“I’m not boasting when I say I have a knack with the clergy. If you have a sway over someone, shouldn’t you be more responsible with it? I was aware of it. It’s been adventitious thus far, so it didn’t bother me.” He sighed deeply. “I should have just left the offering and gone.”

“All this seems oddly familiar.” When he said nothing, she continued. “I control people with my voice. I have to concentrate, use a particular way of speaking, and they’re mine. But, I wonder if I can do it on different levels. When I speak to someone with my normal tone, am I subtly influencing them? When I laugh, am I brightening someone’s moment or am I casting a spell?”

“What conclusions have you drawn?”

“I haven’t, at least not yet. I’m constantly evaluating my interactions with people, wondering if they acted too much like I wanted them to.”

Raulin seemed to retreat back into himself. Anla tried again. “Would it help if we went back to Hanala, so you could check on her?”

“No. It would be several days out of our way. We’d also have to go through Carvek, which is a hornet’s nest for us.”

“What about if you wrote a letter to someone, to check on her for you?”

“I could write to Isken,” he started, then shook his head. “No. It would look bad if someone in my order intercepted it. They’d ask questions and my responses would get me whipped.”

“That’s so barbaric that they do that. Why?”

“Pain is an effective method to stop one from having dangerous thoughts and making stupid mistakes.” He lifted his tunic and showed her his back for a few moments before dropping the fabric and moving down the trail. “I only have a few because they started with caning first. They iron out any stubborn thoughts and attitudes by the time you become a novice, so that no person with defects makes it to the intense training portion.”

“Do you think it’s effective?”

“It did what it needed to. I just wish I learned to lie a lot earlier.”

“Do they often kill people for mistakes?”

“No. They would lose a lot of money doing that. They usually only give death sentences for repeat, severe offenses.”

“Because they would rather see a trirec learn than to kill him?”

“Yes. It doesn’t make sense to kill your best assets.”

“That sounds more effective then. Your organization is smart. Just like I suppose the Queyellan priesthood would be. Why kill your priestesses with ridiculous rules?”

“You’re assuming the churches of any of the Twelve are logical. Why mete out steep punishments? Because your deity told you to thousands of years ago. And that’s the way it has to be. Beliforn hates anything that doesn’t promote families. Children raised in households where she is the matron goddess who also happen to be a Sapphist or a Uranian are beaten until they change or die.”

“Are you serious?”

“Yes. I’ve seen it happen, or at least the aftermath. In certain countries, men, women, and children are kept as slaves and they work in the churches. Aliornic priestesses are usually very into free love, which means they contract diseases at a higher rate. And to keep up with volume in some cities, they drug women and keep them against their wills.”

“Why are you telling me this? It’s ghastly.”

“Because you are being kind. I know some who take kindness too far, nagging until they’ve convinced that the other person feels better. I don’t want to feel better. I don’t want to hope or push it aside or think things through until it actually seems reasonable that she’s fine. I want it squarely in front of me, to remind me that I am an idiot that deserves to feel terrible.”

“All right. If that’s what you need. But, what if there’s a solution? I could write to people I know in Hanala and they could check out the temple.”

“All right,” he said, “that sounds like a compromise.”

“Just please don’t fret in the meantime.”

“I make no promises. I’m appreciative of your offer, but until the confirmation is in my hands, I will find myself guilty.”

Anla sighed and rubbed his shoulder briefly. She understood where he was coming from. How many hours had she spent hating herself because she had been the reason her parents had been killed? Far too many. And since she had been through it, she knew the thoughts in Raulin’s mind needed to take the same course. Hopefully he would be vanquished or, barring that, would find peace with the burden. For now, he needed to think and be alone. And if he came out broken, she knew that she would try to be there for him.

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