Al felt lost in Iascond. It was like the first time he had set foot in Whitney, his prospects infinite, but his bravery waning. He had thought the nervous and overwhelming uneasiness at being in a new city would have left him with the maturity of seven years in Amandorlam, but he still felt it just as keenly. He was unsure of where to go, what to do, what his purpose was. He felt just…lost.
He wasn’t physically lost. He was precisely two blocks down from the hotel he was staying at, mere yards from the sausage vendor he had bought his lunch at. But, he hadn’t wanted sausage and he didn’t want to be sitting in a park under a shaded tree. He also didn’t know what he wanted and those options had at least felt safe to him.
What did he want? It was a question he had kept from thinking about, but haunted him peripherally. Tel wanted to help his people. Anla wanted to find her siblings. Even Raulin had a purpose for the next year. But Al had nothing. He knew that, when the year was done, he wouldn’t be returning to Whitney. Mere weeks away had taught him that it wasn’t his home and had likely never been his home. As much as he missed Marnie, he didn’t miss work nor his wife.
He had briefly considered getting a roaming permit for wizardry, but knew them to be expensive and incredibly tedious with paperwork, full of red tape and taking forever to get approved. Besides, all the recent traveling had shown he was a man who hated instability. Given the opportunity, he’d rather pledge himself to someone who needed him rather than have the freedom to venture. All he needed was a respectable person who could provide the basics and had a decent library. They could travel a little, between estates, and he wouldn’t mind a tiny bit of adventure or pressure to excel at something. Nothing extreme; a little daily touch wizardry to reduce negativity, maybe some guard duty at events, but mostly a lot of time to study and write.
So, eleven months to find a man, or woman, who needed a cross-switching wizard in some capacity. It wasn’t impossible. He had known several students at Amandorlam who had been placed right after graduation in some capacity. A few teachers had even suggested the idea to him, since his reputation would draw in offers, but he didn’t have the connections and was afraid he’d be stranded somewhere without the options he wanted.
Connections. Kriskin malor. What if the man was the Duke of Sharka? Al hadn’t even thought to ask if he had any positions available in a year’s time. He had been shackled to Anla, who’d had her own reasons for traveling. But they could have kept to the duchy and returned frequently, even using the duke’s resources in exchange for money or work. And the duke was a man of integrity, a well-read administrator who saw his position as more than just reaping benefits.
Had he missed his opportunity? There was nothing to do but wait and see if…
“I’ve heard that eating sausage sandwiches cold can be bad for your health,” a voice said. Al looked over and saw a woman with a simple dress sitting on the grass a few feet away. She was plain looking, but more as in she had no outstanding features than someone who was homely. Her teeth were crooked, but she had a nice smile, an expressive feature that seemed like she was comfortable speaking with him and interesting in conversation.
“I’ve heard the same thing,” he said. “Something about the fat congealing in your stomach and blocking it like a stopped up sink.”
She nodded at the sandwich, encouraging him to finish. When he was done, she smiled and moved closer to him. “Thank you. I detest the scent of pork and didn’t want to come closer, but you seemed like a man heavy in thought. I wondered if you wanted company.”
“I suppose. At least it’s a good day to spend outside.”
“Oh, I know!” she said. “It’s rained more days than not in the last two weeks. It’s nice to have a day to let things dry out.” She held her hand out in that dainty way women did. “Tenia.”
Al’s took her hand. His choice was to bend her fingers slightly in greeting or to kiss her hand to signify interest beyond acquaintanceship. He chose the latter on a whim, briefly brushing his lips on her knuckles. He caught himself before introducing himself with his wizard name and corrected the information. “Fiar Auslen, here on a business trip.”
“Oh, what business?” she asked, turning to face him fully.
“I buy and sell collectibles, antiques, and jewelry,” he said.
She ‘oohed’ at the revelation. “Are you by yourself then or a group of men?”
“Actually, you could call it a family business. I’m here with my wife, my ledgerer, and my guard,” he said. He realized he had made a mistake, greeting her the way that he had, and realized that he was going to have to make Auslen a philanderer to make up for it. Only if she brought it up, though. He continued. “We’re beginning to think of the ledgerer as a cousin, now. He’s so good with numbers.”
“And what of the guard? You don’t like him?”
“I hardly know him. I don’t even remember his name. It might be ‘Rellen’ or something like that.” Al was very pleased that he added that detail.
“Is he scary looking? I always think of guards as hairy men with scars and broken noses.”
“I actually don’t know; he’s a trirec.”
Tenia gasped. “A trirec! You must be rich in order to afford one. What is he like?”
She seemed so interested that he hated to lie to her. “He keeps to himself. We tell him where we’re going and he leads us. He picks suitable housing and watches over our wares, and us if he can. It’s just directions and suggestions.”
“Oh,” she said, looking away. “I’ve always wanted to know about trirecs. Do you know anything interesting about them? If he takes off his mask, will it turn men into stone? Can he disappear into thin air?”
It was killing him that he couldn’t correct her, but he was beginning to take Raulin’s warning seriously. Would he rather correct this woman or keep his neck? He smiled and shrugged. “I don’t know, but maybe we should make sure he keeps his mask on then.”
“You don’t know anything about him?”
“Nothing? Not a tidbit?”
“Not a scrap. Now, I could tell you something about my ledgerer. He’s a…”
Her face fell and she stood and left without saying so much as ‘goodbye’ to him. He thought it was rude of her and grumbled to himself as he made his way back to his hotel room.
“Sir!” he heard behind him. He recognized the hollow sound of Raulin’s voice behind a mask and turned to greet him.
“Yes?” he answered in an authoritarian way.
When he was close to Al, he murmured, “I’ve changed my mind and have decided I do need assistance after all. Are you still interested?”
“Yes!” he said, then reduced his enthusiasm. “What do you need?”
“I need you to confirm that the book I need is in the shop where it’s supposed to be. I feel it’s too risky for me to be poking around and need someone with a good reason to be looking into rare and collectible books.”
“Well, I just happen to know the man,” Al said.
“Good. Do you see that shop with the red and tan awning just down the street?”
Al looked down, then across the wide street. A horse-drawn carriage blocked his view for a moment, then he saw which place Raulin meant. “Barely. I’m not…wearing my spectacles right now, so all I see is the awning.”
“That’s all you need to know. It’s a bookstore called On Summer’s Ev’ning. The owner is an older man with a very large mustache named Perkol. He owns quite a few books for pleasure, but a few nicer ones. The one I want you to find has a deep red leather cover with the title Entrant in gold. It’s written by C. Howgan.
“Now, I don’t want you to buy it or haggle on the price. I want you to look at a few of his more expensive tomes, three or four. One of the other ones will catch your eye and you’ll say a few nice words about it’s quality, but ultimately need to consult your notes and will not make the purchase.”
“Shouldn’t I buy the other one, though, to throw off the scent? He won’t expect a man who bought another book to steal another one.”
“But you will have left a paper trail. When the police come investigating, they’ll jog the man’s memory and ask who in the last week or two has expressed interest in the book. And when he remembers you were such a person and that you bought another book, he’ll fetch his ledger and give your name and description to the police. It’s best to be as discreet and forgettable as possible.”
They stopped across the street, where Al could see all the stacks of tomes waiting. He closed his eyes and anticipated the smell of books, that dry, woody, yet somehow earthy and chemical aroma that reminded him of peaceful days of research in Amandorlam.
“Remember, you’re not wearing business clothing. Say you happened to see the shop on the way back from lunch. And don’t volunteer anything unless you have to. I’ll meet you back at the hotel.”
“Okay,” he said, crossing the street without looking back.
Al took a moment to pretend surprise and read the information in the window before entering. The door creaked loudly, making the chimes attached redundant. He turned after closing the door and surveyed the room slowly, appreciatively, and tried to mimic a cultivated gaze.
“Sir! What can I do for you today?”
A small, older man with a mustache that impressively ran from his upper lip all the way past his jawline hustled from a back room, wiping his hands on a cloth. He looked expectantly at Al, patient in the moment but likely for only a short amount of time.
“I was interested in some of your more valuable books,” Al said.
“Ah, very good, sir,” he said, putting down the cloth on his counter and stepping over to the curio cabinet to Al’s right. “I have a few rare books that might be interesting to you.
“This,” he said, removing a large, but thin book, “is an herbarium of plants indigenous to Ervaskin. This was cataloged by one of the first Ghenian envoys to those lands seven years ago. Only one of its kind.”
Al thought it might be nice to get for Telbarisk, if only to reduce his homesickness. He made a noncommittal nod and the bookkeeper continued.
“This, “ he said, pulling a red leather book with gold writing that must be the book Raulin mentioned, “is Entrant by Howgan. Not a popular author, but definitely sought out by collectors for its historical significance with the uprising in Arvonne.
“And a third, if you’re interested,” he said, pulling a meticulous-looking book with a carved wooden cover and handing it to him, “is a rare Tichen. Far and Few Between. Only fifty were printed before the title was corrected; of those, only about one or two dozen exist. Tichen is a very easy author to resell. So many people inquire about it. Just last night I had a gentleman asking about it.”
“I’m sure,” Al said.
“I can tell you like it, sir. Shall I wrap it for you?”
“Hmm?” he said, shaking his head to break his reverie. He had never seen an original Tichen. The books he had poured himself over in Amandorlam had all been copies, handwritten on blank pages with a boring cover. He hadn’t even known what a real Tichen looked like before that moment, never mind held one. It was beautiful.
“I can tell you’re interested in it. Tichen is a master in philosophy and has brought great significance to the field.”
“I know,” Al said.
“Good. See, I have an eye for connecting customers and items. I’m offering it for 110 gold.”
Al staggered at the price internally, but felt he reacted minimally on the surface. “And I’m sure it’s worth that price, but I’ll have to decline. I never make a purchase without consulting my ledgerer or my wife, both if possible.”
“I’m sure both would agree it’s a fair price! Perhaps, though, it would be wise to save a few gold to buy the missus a nice trinket in celebration of such a great purchase. How does 105 gold sound?”
“It sounds like neither are here for me to discuss,” Al said, growing a little irritated.
The owner sniffed and wiggled his mustache. “I dare say I couldn’t part with a Tichen for less than 102 gold.”
“Don’t worry, goodman. You won’t be parting with it today. I will see about tomorrow, because it is a fantastic discovery and I would like to see if it will make a good addition to my wares. Today, however, I will just have to settle for a nice leisure book. Do you have any alley novels or anything about Kiesh the Black?”
The owned wiggled his mustache again before taking a dejected tone of voice. “I do, sir. Over there.”
Al walked out of the shop pleased and couldn’t wait to speak to Raulin. When he returned to accompany his wizard friend for dinner, Al was practically walking on his toes. He waited until they were seated and Raulin had popped the bottom off his mask.
“So,” he said, in between sips of red wine, “what did you discover, Wizard?”
“It’s there! The owner pulled it out and showed me. That, and a Tichen book. He tried to offer it for 102 gold, but I wound up buying an alley novel for three silver. I at least knew those and could haggle him down safely.”
“Good,” Raulin said, smiling, “well done. Did he take your name?”
“No,” he smiled broadly. “I told him I wasn’t even going to buy that if he bothered me with paperwork.”
“I like your style, Mr. Auslen. Now, do you remember where he kept the red book?”
“It was on the top shelf of a wooden curio cabinet on the right side as you enter.” He swirled his glass of Caudet and savored its deep aroma before sipping. “He put it back in the same place when he was finished.”
“Good eye. Did you happen to notice any traps or anything that would trip me up?”
Al thought for a moment. “The door was squeaky and had a bell on it. I didn’t see any spells on any of the books I looked at, but I also wasn’t looking for any. The place isn’t tidy and you might kick or step on a pile.”
Raulin sat back in his chair. “That’s all impressive information, Wizard. I wouldn’t have expected you to be so keen in observation.”
“Well, those novels you think are trash have taught me a lot.”
“Perhaps there’s some good in them after all,” he said, raising his glass before taking a swig. “I’ll be heading out tomorrow to complete the contract. I…”
“You mean tomorrow night?”
Raulin blinked a few times while he watched him closely. Al watched him and was surprised to find that Raulin’s eyes were blue, not black, as he had always thought. His companion asked, “How do you think I should approach this?”
“Cover of night, definitely. You should take advantage of the squeaky door and dress like a mender, so that if anyone catches you, you have an excuse.”
“Good advice,” Raulin said. “I’ll keep it in mind.”
“Make sure to wear your other suit, so that people don’t see you.”
Raulin nodded. “I’ll be out for most of the day tomorrow. Are you going to be all set in the hotel?”
“Yes,” he said. “I have an alley novel.”
“Enjoy, then. I’ll be back after I’m finished.”
* * *
“Telbarisk, it’s me,” Anla said softly.
He sat in front of a small fire, poking the logs with a stick. “I’m glad to see you again, Anla,” he said. “It has been lonely here.”
She laughed. “I think that’s a good thing, considering what could be keeping you company.”
“I hoped they would,” he said and her smile turned to a curious look. “There is much they can teach us.”
“Your people aren’t afraid of the dead?” she asked.
“It is considered a great rejoining. The body returns to the earth and the soul returns to the sky. They mix, bodies to make soil and souls to join in a great pool where emotions and knowledge and experience is dispersed. When a child is conceived, the food taken from the soil nourishes the mother and a drop from the pool fills the child’s heart.”
“I like that,” she said.
“I like the elven thoughts on death, too, even thought they’re different.”
“The Tree of a Thousand Leaves?” she asked, wondering if Ervaskin elves had the same myth.
“Yes. It’s similar, in the joining of souls into one thing, but with the idea that events in the living world can change how many leaves fall and turn into souls to be born. It’s beautiful. I’ve seen carvings and statues the elves made and was always fascinated by it.”
“It wasn’t taught strongly in my tribe,” she said. “I heard more about death from my father, who was very much into the legends and myths behind it. As a doctor, he saw it as something tangible, stealing his patients away, and that he was a knight trying to battle against it. The Arvonnese, and many Noh Amairians, feel that death is a bad and evil thing, that it is the end of life with no possibility of rebirth. Kriskin is the master of the after-world and judges where a man goes by his deeds in life. The rich go to Cyurinin, the wicked stay with Kriskin, mothers go to Beliforn, and farmers to Zayine.”
“Could a rich man also be a wicked man?” he asked.
Anla laughed. “They often are. There’s a saying in Hanala: ‘Always understand the full cost of your actions’. It means men have to consider whether or not what they’re doing will make money at the cost of sending their soul to a wretched hell.”
“Why did you think they might be here, then, if they’ve been judged?”
“Well,” she said, “it’s just a scary story. It’s to frighten children and keep them from playing in places that are to be respected and are full of stones they can hurt themselves on.”
“I should write this down when I get a journal,” he said. “I have many questions about your dead.”
“You can at least check off ‘what do ghosts look like?’. You took Al’s advice to heart. Is there any part of you not covered in ash?”
“He said all of me, including my hair.”
“I know, but sometimes Al thinks only in extremes. You probably didn’t need to get your clothes all sooty…”
“He said definitely the clothes, or else I’d have to burn them.”
“All right,” she said. “I just hope there’s a stream nearby so you can wash them.”
Tel continued to poke the fire. Sweat had left streaks on his face and neck. “May I ask you a question. It is something I’ve been thinking about.”
“Sure,” she said, ladling out some of the vegetable soup he had made earlier.
“Why did you cheat?”
Anla blinked a few times. “Cheat? When?”
“The game you played with Alpine yesterday morning. It seems like a game you cannot cheat at, but I feel that you did somehow. I was wondering why. And how.”
She sipped some of the broth. “You can’t cheat in Eri, Veri, Don but you can find advantages. You have a higher chance of getting an even number, so you pick evens, for example.”
“Which you let Alpine do.”
“I would have picked odds if he hadn’t. There are also certain numbers that people are prone to picking. Men tend to like five, since it’s the largest number and it makes them feel powerful. Women like fours and twos because in Hanala they are seen as feminine numbers.
“Al was different, though. He picked three, then two, then three. Odd numbers for a man; not very powerful, high numbers. I realized that Al probably doesn’t think of himself as powerful and had to hope he was going back to a safe, secure number like his first. He did.”
Tel nodded. “I guessed right that you lost on purpose, but I don’t know why. I’m wondering if you dislike Raulin and wished to be away from him.”
“Oh, no! I like Raulin. He’s easy to speak with, seems a gentleman despite his career, and has handled his situation with us well. I threw the game because Al doesn’t like Raulin and that’s a problem.”
“Ah,” he said, smiling. “You and I agree, then. I have felt for some time that there is a problem larger than I can perceive with those two.”
“I’m not even worried about anything other than I’m just tired of them always bickering with each other. I was hoping that, by forcing them together, they’d come to some arrangement that doesn’t involve fights over what makes a man good or bad and which one of those Raulin is.”
“He is a good man; I wish Alpine could see that.”
“I agree, but it’s not something we can tell him. He has to see that for himself.”