Raulin had returned late in the night under the pretense of having just come from his contract. Al was reading and had a plate of cheeses and grapes he was nibbling from. “I saved some for you, should you be hungry.”

“Thank you, Wizard, that was thoughtful of you,” he said, slinging off his knapsack and sitting on his bed to pull off his soft leather boots.

Al put the book face-down on his nightstand and sat up. “Was the drop off difficult? Kiesh the Black always has to use code words and meet under the cover of darkness to secure what he needs.”

Raulin blinked a few times, looked at the book, then back at Al. He finally realized what had been going on in Al’s mind and why Mr. Auslen had been so keen to help recently. “Ah, as a matter of fact, yes. I had three sets of passwords I had to use. One was to access a locked gate, the next when someone answered a door, then finally when I met the man who wanted the book.”

“You met him?” he asked, leaning forward towards Raulin. “What was he like?”

“He was…heavy set with a thin mustache he kept twirling. He had a pocket watch he kept looking at, as if he were expecting someone to show up.” He pulled off his socks and knuckled the soles of his feet to relieve some of the ache.

“Did you almost get caught?”

“I noticed I was being followed. There was a man who kept tailing me throughout most of the city. I gave him the slip just before making it to the drop-off point.”

“What’s the next job?” When Raulin said nothing, Al asked again.

“Wizard, how about we leave this one alone and you take a nice vacation. You can visit the Dinapli Gardens. I hear they’re beautiful. Or even some of the temples. I’d skip the Zayine one, since you don’t want to come across Alistad or deal with any of the infected people.”

“It’s an assassination, isn’t it?”

“Wizard, I will pay you one full gold not to start with me. Think of all the alley novels you can buy with that. And, hey, you even know a guy who might sell them to you for a discounted rate!”

“You should think about this before you do it. It’s a man’s life you’re about to take, not a book or a necklace.”

“My offer is rescinded,” he said, laying back on his bed. “No gold for you.”

“I am serious. Think about this for once.”

“Do you think I don’t dwell on it? I have. It comes down to my knife at their throats or my order’s knife at mine. Kill or be killed. Those are my choices.

“My family died and I was sold to Arvarikor. It is unfair that any child should have to be without the love of their mother and the strong guidance of their father, but that is life: cruel, unfair, and blessedly short. I have learned to live with the fact that they are gone and I am a trirec. I have no choice but to be a trirec. And as a trirec, I have to kill men who do not deserve it. I know this. I understand it. Whether or not I think about it and hate myself for it, I still have to do it.”

“You can leave. You can stop being a trirec.”

“No. I. Can’t,” he said slowly. “If I leave, I will be hunted down and killed by the best hunters in the world.” He sighed. “You don’t think I’ve thought of this, but I have. I would choose freedom and poverty over chains and riches any day.”

“Then do it.”

He turned a growl into a sigh. “And do what, Wizard? I have no skills, no money, and no land.”

“If you truly wanted to stop killing, you would find a way.”

He sat up, jammed his boots back on, and left before he could say something regretful. Free men never understood how hard it was to break chains.

* * *

Raulin had already started his research towards the assassination earlier that day, just prior to speaking with Al. With a name, address, and the words “Honeyed Moon” with his notation next to it meaning he owned that business, he began asking around. He discovered rather quickly that Honeyed Moon was the name of a wine cellier of excellent repute in the Redcott Hill district of Iascond. The grocer who told him had looked down at him with his head high, in a gesture saying it was a luxury quarter, perhaps the only one in the city.

He had located it and entered into the small nosiery across the street. Bottles of different color, shape, and size lined shelves in the window and around the perimeter of the shop. The sun hit the glass and bathed the white center counter and gleaming wood floor with hues across the spectrum, soaking the store in a rainbow of colors. The smells were overwhelming and difficult to identify, but were at least pleasant.

Two women stood around the island, each with a parasol, a pair of gloves, a fan, a purse in their hand, an elaborate shawl draped over their shoulders, and a small chapeau perched on their head. A man stood at the register, dressed in a suit befitting a salon meeting but sans the expected coat.

“Good afternoon, sir,” he said as the shop’s bells chimed.

“Good afternoon, goodman,” Raulin replied, realizing he was underdressed in his hapless seller’s outfit from earlier, even with the bowler hat on his head.

“Have you been in a nosiery before?” He had, but when he shook his head and gave him a sheepish smile, the man came out from behind the register as he wished. He escorted him to the other half of the room.

“Here we have scents bottled from across the world. Some may seem familiar, some exotic, but all are of the highest quality. I can assist you in finding a premixed aroma or we can have a little fun experimenting something tailored for you. Did you have a scent in mind, sir?”

“Natural,” he said immediately. “Something woody or musky, perhaps. Alluring and mysterious.”

One of the women on the opposite end of the counter leaned in to her friend. He overheard the words “…for a trollop” before they laughed, looked over at him, and cleared their throats before fanning themselves.

Raulin pretended to be dismayed. “I just wanted something for my wife,” he said in a soft voice.

“I apologize, sir. I’m sure we can find something suitable for your sweetheart. You said natural? Earthy, perhaps, with a hint of floral?”

“That sounds…nice,” he said, following the man over to the wall. The two women had to move to the other side to make room.

“This reminds me of the countryside not too far from here.” He removed the tester, tapped the excess liquid off, and waved it in front of Raulin. “Bright, but not overwhelmingly floral or citrus. Warming and woodsy.”

Raulin shook his head quickly. “Deeper.”

The man jumped a few bottles over and down a few shelves. “A trek through the forest on a wet autumn day.”

“Too bitter. I’m thinking of the allure of Genale with the strength of Ashven.”

The two women tittered at this, adding their own comments about both duchies. Raulin saw the man’s jaw clench briefly. “Let’s try this then.”

As he breathed in the aroma, he was hit with a wave of nostalgia. It was like someone had distilled some childhood memory of his and had bottled it. It wasn’t what he had been going for, but he couldn’t resist buying at least a little. “What is that called?” he asked.

“Biashka,” the man said, reading the label on the side. “You like this one?”

“Yes. How much for a vial?”

“We sell in two dram increments.” He turned the bottle upside down and read. “Six silver, seven coppers per increment.”

It was important that Raulin not balk at the cost, though he wanted to badly. That price was higher than the cost for two nights in the double hotel room he was sharing with the wizard. He smiled and nodded, not even bothering to haggle. “Tomorrow is an important night for us,” he said. “Our first anniversary.”

“Congratulations, sir!” the shopkeeper said, taking a moment to stop dripping the perfume into the amber bottle to give him a genuine smile. “Do you have any plans?”

“I wanted to surprise her with a romantic meal, but I’m unsure where. I wanted it to be a picnic with some nice wine, but I’ve barely begun preparations.”

“If it’s wine you want, you’ll have to go across the street to Honeyed Moon. Imperial spiced, Arvonnese reds and whites, Sayenese steel wine, anything you could imagine!”

“Really? How late are they open?”

“Quite late, sir,” the man said, bringing the bottle to the till.

“If Nabel isn’t out greasing palms,” one of the women said.

The man at the register blew air out through his nose as he placed the corked vial into a velvet pouch. Raulin turned to look at the women. “Greasing palms?”

“Our Nabel is quite the politician. He’s on the city council and has been known to make sure taxes are paid.”

“That doesn’t sound bad,” he said.

“I didn’t say he made sure he paid his, just that everyone else pays their’s.”

“Oh,” he said, paying the man the agreed price. “So, he closes the shop early?”

“On some nights. Usually a few days before a big shipment is due in.”

“I should go now, then, in case the trade winds have been fair.”

The women gave little waves to him that he thought were sarcastic somehow as he left for the shop across the street. He had expected to press the shopkeeper. He had forgotten about the need for bored, middle-aged women to gossip.

So, there was potential that whenever he planned his job, the man might not even be in his home. He could either trail the wine merchant to his meeting and assassinate him there or he could plan as well as possible and hope he’d be home. One of those was not flashy and had a whole lot less risk involved. He’d try that one first.

Nabel Lacront’s house was a modernly built three-story townhouse that rested on the corner of Petrie and Seagrass. The man apparently loved greenery and gardens; his house’s footprint took up only two thirds the space it could. The second and third stories were supported by beams that staked the edges of a shade garden full of mosses, lettuces, and pops of color in deep purple and white flowers. A thin fringe of grass framed the outside of the building and encouraged the jasmine that climbed and twisted across the bricks and windows of the house.

With that information gathered, Raulin moved on to advanced gathering. He returned the next day and knocked on the door in the morning, past the point Lacront would be home. A valet answered the door that was tucked into the garden. Surprisingly, it was a middle-aged woman in a feminine version of the button-up uniform he had seen on many valets in the past, some even on the streets of Iascond recently. In houses of single gentlemen, such as Lacront, a large staff for the household was unnecessary and often redundant. A single valet or butler would be hired, depending on the man’s needs, who would dress, cook, organize, launder, and accompany their boss wherever he needed. Raulin had never seen a female in that position.

She looked down at the package, then back up at Raulin. “Item, name, and response?”

“Silver buttons from Lord Beckwind. No response needed.”

“Good day, then,” she said after carefully taking the box.

The two cousins in Hanala that had prepared Raulin’s clothing had gone on about the latest fashion trend on the eastern seaboard. Highly decorative buttons were stitched to collars, shoulders, and sleeves to be removed and traded for others on different occasions. The ones he had given Lacront were rather cheap, silver-plated and stamped, likely to be resold or gifted and not worn by someone with his kind of money. They had only been worth two silver, five copper for the four and worth the glimpse he had gotten inside his house.

The bottom floor appeared to be the atrium, kitchen, and simple rooms for the staff on the other side of the stairway. Raulin guessed the second floor had guest rooms and places for eating and entertainment and the top floor would be his private apartment.

If he came late enough at night, he could sneak past the valet, hope that the guest rooms were unused, and slip quietly up to the top floor. Raulin wasn’t the best lockpicker, but so long as he was quiet he could take his time.

He couldn’t complete his last task, checking the dock schedules, due to the distance. Iascond’s wharf district, aptly named The Seas, was on the water and several miles from their hotel. It was all right by him; he would try the next night and hope for the best. If not, he could try again the night after. He would still have two contracts done in less than two weeks and that was right on his preferred schedule.

Everything was going swimmingly. Now, if only he could shake the nagging feeling that he was missing something.

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