Raulin knew he should have waited a few more days.  He was still weak and had to take so much longer to walk or do anything he was used to doing.  Time was of the essence, though, and he had no option.  They had to press on.

He had taken his fourth contract only because he knew he was going to be nearby on the specific date he had to complete it. He had expected to be in New Wextif by that point, getting “Marin Liasorn” outfitted, groomed, and reacquainted with the contacts he had maintained since his last trip to Gheny.  Miachin was supposed to be a leisurely carriage-ride back south when he needed to. Instead, he had four days to travel two and a half days’ worth of road and he still needed to go back into Iascond.

“We can’t go here,” Al said once he realized where they were headed.

“I didn’t ask you,” Raulin responded, not even bothering to look behind him.

“Alistad said the city was already on alert due to the assassination you did.”

You did,” he corrected. He did turn back then and noticed the wizard flinched at that. “I have no choice. There’s one more thing I must do before I leave Iascond. You three can resupply while I do my errand in the city.”

“Can we at least skirt around the city?” Anla asked.

He said nothing at the suggestion, but took the first left after the western gate. After some time, he snapped around and faced the three of them. “Go. I’ll meet you at the northern gate in one hour.” He approached Al, who watched him warily. “Chalk.”

The wizard pulled a piece from his pack, gave him a wry smile, and snapped it in half before handing him one of the smaller bits. “Cute,” Raulin said and left.

The corner of the brick building had been washed clean. He panted as he crossed the street and dashed a series of symbols on the wall, not caring who saw him. He waited farther down the alley, hoping the agent would show up before he had to rejoin the other three. Then again, he also wanted to catch his breath before someone noticed how weak he was.

Raulin heard the bells tolling and assumed that, since Zayine’s temples only rang at ten in the morning, that should the time.  No luck with the agent arriving quickly, then.  He began to walk slowly north. The journey was irritatingly slow, but at least there were no interruptions due to sharp, sudden illnesses.

The northern gate, like all the other gates he’s seen in the other Ghenian cities, was a show piece that did nothing more than delineate the border to the suburban town of Criek. It had no actual door or guard station and therefore had no function for protection. Instead, it was a masterfully crafted work of art. The fence of impeccably straight tree trunks were flattened every so often into a book-sized square with an intricate engravings of flowers, waves, and cloud-filled skies. Surrounding the entrance was a border of the same carvings that boasted of goods available with a shop’s name at the top. He spotted Honeyed Moon’s, a beautifully stained tile with grapes, bottles, and cheese, just above eye level on the left.

To further the divide between Iascond and Criek, there was a manicured path that ran parallel to the fence. He went to the right and found a shady tree to lean again. It only felt like a minute had passed when he sensed the presence of someone standing nearby. He cracked his eyes open. “Thank you for coming so quickly,” he said, giving the agent their three-fingered salute.

“I’ve been expecting your signal after what happened,” Curvot said. “Where are your charges?”

“Shopping. They’ll be by soon.”

“I see.  Is that wise?”

“They have only small amounts of cash on them and most of their purchases have been shipped elsewhere,” he lied smoothly.  “They wished to be alone and I agreed it would be wise if you and I met without any interference.” He caught his breath discretely.

“Wise choice.  So, where is the mask?”

Raulin slung his knapsack off his shoulders and pulled it from his bag, studying it for a few moments.  The mask looked almost identical to every other one produced by Arvarikor, but Raulin could almost see his mentor’s face below, filling out the angles and curves. He handed it over to the agent and said, “He fought valiantly and bravely, in honor of the code.”

“May he forever bring honor to Arvarikor,” the agent responded somberly.

Raulin repeated the phrase, then pulled the bag of Afren’s beads from his bag and handed it to Curvot. He would have felt dirty about the ordeal if he didn’t plan to hand it over to Afren’s wife as soon as he could.  “Just mark it for now. I will exchange them in Hanala when I’m finished with my docket.”

Raulin hadn’t looked inside. Curvot opened the pouch and pulled out one row of eleven orange beads, one turquoise, and one red. They both stared at the amount, Raulin with a smile across his face.

“1,175 gold,” Curvot finally said, pulling out a notebook and listing the amount. “I’ll send this note to Hanala.”

“Thank you,” he said.

The agent put his notebook away while Raulin slung his pack over his shoulders again.  He was about bid farewell to Curvot when the agent lunged out with his arm.  He grasped Raulin’s right wrist and yanked up his sleeve in one motion. Raulin hissed in pain as Curvot ripped the linen from his forearm to reveal the marks.  “Thought so,” he said before he pulled off the bottom part of his mask and spat on the ground. He left before Raulin could explain.  Not that it would have helped.

Trirecs had a very intricate code that they began learning well before they ever handled a knife. Their world was tenuous and volatile and needed a variety of laws to keep some order, or else trirecs would be killing each other for their beads and their contracts. One of Raulin’s other mentors had likened it to surrounding a swarm of hornets with twine; the more you can wrap around them, the more contained they’ll be.

In the case that two trirecs were pitted against each other, the duel to the death must be honorable. No trickery, no deceit, and no stopping until either one was dead. If that was the guard, then, and only then, could the assassin kill his target. Should an outside force intervene, like a hired accomplice, it was considered a dishonorable killing.

Raulin fingered the still fresh wounds on his forearm. The wizard would never understand what he had robbed from the trirec.  It didn’t matter that Al hadn’t known those rules, or that he hadn’t meant to kill Lacront, or that Raulin had been distracted by his fight with Afren.  The only thing that mattered was that Raulin had failed to kill his target by his own hands.

He had never been bothered by the fact that his hair was likely the shortest in the order.  The exchange with the other trirecs back at the Hanala had been playful to him.  “You may have longer hair because you haven’t been arrested, but at least I get the job done.  Here are the beads to prove it.”  He had won that because he saw results from his work.  It was sloppy, but it was done and done honorably.

Curvot would write to Hanala and tell Arvarikor that he had killed Afren Merak and taken his beads, because of the honor of his job, but he would also in Raulin’s dishonor because of Curvot’s spite towards him.  And he didn’t blame him.

Until that moment, he hadn’t really cared about his reputation, didn’t really care what other trirecs thought of him.  He had always, always been that Noh Amairian kid they had let in late.  He was strange and foreign and never good enough.  He’d rarely had friends and his teachers often singled him out for punishment.  But, they had respected him and that had only grown once they had presented him with his mask and let him loose on the world.

Now, it was all gone.  They would all know, and with that any of the perks he’d had in the past.  He wouldn’t get to slide by punishments, like he had in Hanala.  He wouldn’t get advances nor priority in anything.  All of those compound tailors and blacksmiths had dropped everything else to get his new arong-miil made and to sharpen his knives.

Worst of all, he had lost Isken.  They had been friends, but that’s not something that would survive that news.  And he didn’t blame him, either.

It wasn’t the first time in his life that he understood loneliness, but it was definitely the most poignant.

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