The morning began early with terns and seagulls squawking overhead, looking for delicious morsels in the low tide. The sky was a pink and champagne sunrise, the sun sparkling the water as it rose. “I am sure going to miss this place,” Al said as he came in from the balcony.
“I’m sorry we couldn’t stay longer,” Anla said, though this wasn’t really true. “Maybe you can find the same in New Wextif.”
“I doubt it.” He pulled his enormous backpack on and led the way downstairs. Raulin and Tel were already sitting at breakfast and enjoying a simple fare of tea, warmed bread, and porridge. Raulin had slices of ham while Tel had a copious amount of fruits on the side.
As Al and Anla sat, Raulin took his plate and cup and found another place to eat within eyesight. Anla gave Tel a quick look, but decided not to discuss anything with Al present. They finished their meal, then thanked the innkeeper and his wife and left for Miachin, which the couple promised was only about ten miles west of Calaba.
Raulin took point and Al walked a little behind him, lost in his own thoughts. Anla kept pace with Telbarisk as well as she could. “So, how was your evening?”
“It was fine,” he said, and then lowered his voice. “I did speak with Raulin about what we discussed. It was brief. I think on Ervaskin I would use the phrase, ‘a fish’s chance of walking’.”
“I was going to say it’s not hopeless, but it needs a lot of hope. Shall we change strategy?”
“No. We need Raulin to open up to us first, then we can proceed. It’s going to take a while; I’m expecting the next few months. We’ll need to look for opportunities when he’s in a good mood or chatty, and then we need to press him for conversation.”
“Okay. What does he like to talk about?”
Tel chuckled. “Food. His travels, especially in Kinto and Genale, maybe some shows or performances he’s seen, but he loves to talk about food.”
“That’s good,” she said. “I can ask him about places to eat in New Wextif, maybe ask him to share a few meals while he’s guarding.”
“I think he would like that, Anla, even if he doesn’t show it.”
* * *
Miachin was a village on the side of a sloping hill, its walls rendered mostly useless thirty-five years ago with the treaty between the elves and Gheny. Instead of posted guards, villagers had taken to raising flower gardens on the turrets, with ivy and thyme creeping up the towers. The beautiful stone of the wall still appeared intact after centuries of war, but only because the region of Vladi was rich with stone and marble deposits that were labored by the townsfolk and any holes or crumbling was quickly and efficiently replaced.
Besides stonemasonry, the people who lived inside the walls were employed by the household of the Marquess of Vladi or held jobs that supported those people, like teachers and grocers. All roads led to the spacious manor in the center, itself walled with climbing plants.
Raulin would have preferred to leave the other three outside, but since he had changed his duties, he had to take them with him. It would be safe inside Miachin and they could find entertainment there.
The bar he found didn’t even have a placard. It was a short staircase down into a cooler sub level with stone floors. The windows needed a good wash; the light was filtered through mud-splattered panes and wasn’t efficient enough even in mid-day to see the list of drinks on the wall behind the bartender. There was no need to, anyway; the bartender offered cheap wine, whiskey, and Chapman’s Water.
“Oh, I like that stuff,” the wizard said. “It’s thick and chewy.”
Of course he did, Raulin thought. He would drink swill and think it swell.
“Goodman, I was wondering if you could point me in the direction of the marquess’s gardens,” Raulin asked.
A man at the end of the bar lifted his head in interest. “Another one?”
“Quiet,” the barkeep said, flapping his stained towel at the man. “I might be inclined to tell you if you bought something.”
Raulin sighed internally. “A Chapman’s Water for Mr. Auslen, then.”
The barkeep pulled the tap on the barrel and handed Al his mug. “It’s about a mile and a half southwest of here. The marquess has a country estate that way with extensive gardens.”
“Thank you. Mr. and Mrs. Auslen, would you mind waiting here while I attended to some business? I’ll borrow your ledgerer for the transaction and be back by the evening.”
“That’s fine,” Anladet said.
“We’ll be here,” Al said. “I’m switching to Caudet after this, though.”
Raulin left Telbarisk to meditate in the woods as soon as the estate became visible. He checked his notes again: a jeweled sword in the middle of the hedge maze, at precisely three o’clock, on June the 28th at the Miachin Gardens.
Nothing about this situation was pleasing him. It was in the middle of the day and he would therefore be very exposed as he made his way to the center. There were men working on the roof and he hated witnesses. Did three o’clock mean he should begin the attempt or steal it then? And what was the need for the precision?
He spent the time remaining surveying the grounds. A manor smaller than the one in Miachin, three stories high with towers, dormers, and belvederes raising the height by a story or two in some places. The manse was extraordinarily beautiful with an immaculate blue fish-tile roof, marble quoins in the corners, and polished trim work under the eaves. It sat to the west side of the estate and blocked the sun over most of the gardens, which were twice the width of the house and a with full story high hedge.
Raulin climbed a tree to get a better look at the layout, but was unable to get high enough to see over the outside edges. He dusted himself off, put on his gloves, and entered from the eastern side.
He felt unusual. While his instincts were telling him to abandon this contract, he was also filled with a nostalgic fear. He had been in hedge maze when he was younger. Though smaller and simpler than this one, he had gotten lost and had started to panic. There was never any real danger. He had known that. Still, the hedges had loomed overhead, the wind blew and swayed them so they grabbed his clothes and pulled him to the wall. It had started to rain and he knew he had to go inside because that’s what the adults wanted. And just when he was about to scream for help, he rounded a corner and there had stood Belisant with an umbrella and a pleased look on his face.
Belisant had addressed Raulin and gave him a hithering gesture. Raulin had run to him, vicing the poor man’s leg. “Come, come, what’s the matter?”
“I got lost,” he whispered.
“But you came the right way. I was waiting right here for you.”
“I didn’t know.”
“Did you get scared?”
Raulin had nodded, still holding on to Belisant’s leg.
“You know the way to not get scared about these things?”
Raulin had shaken his head.
“Fear comes from not knowing. Let’s try to learn about this maze.” He took Raulin’s hand and led him back. “We’re going to make it to the center. To do that, you have to remember everything about it. And to do so, you have to know all your opportunities.”
And they had. Though the rains had continued, Belisant walked back to the beginning and turned around. “Tell me all the choices you see,” he said.
Left, right, right, left, split at the end that goes in either direction, Raulin thought as he mapped the first corridor in the marquess’s maze.
“A little hint,” Belisant had said. “It’s likely not going to be the exit that seems the most tempting. The maze is here to challenge you.”
It’s not going to be the split; that’s too close to the middle, Raulin thought. .He turned around and picked his first right, remembering that it was actually the last left, and took that to the end. That had several trails, so he took the third left, which took him farther from the middle.
“Labyrinths are sneaky things,” Belisant had said when Raulin had asked why they were moving farther from the center. “Oftentimes when you feel you need to go in the opposite direction to get what you want.”
Raulin continued to label the paths, turning around when he needed to, enjoying the statues in the nodes. He had seen three by the time he realized they were all supposed to be aps of Iondika, complete with polished armor and weapons.
He rounded a corner and found himself finally at the center. There was a marble pedestal in the middle. Too easy, he thought, then amended his stance. He had, after all, traveled through a difficult labyrinth to get his prize.
It was still too easy. Too perfect, actually. Now that he was in the moment, it felt like all those other contracts he had sifted through, the ones that might romanticize his profession. The sword was on the pedestal, in the middle of a garden, like a poem or a ballad.
His instincts were screaming. Just grab the damn thing and run out. He knew the way; he had it memorized. Five seconds to the pedestal, two seconds to grab it, five seconds back to where he stood.
But he didn’t move.
What was wrong?
Younger Raulin had stopped dead in his tracks, Belisant almost plowing into the back of him. “Here, what’s the matter?”
“I don’t know,” he had said.
“Instinct is a powerful thing. Let’s see if we can see why you paused.”
The two had surveyed the area until they had spotted a jay’s nest. Had Raulin gotten closer by a few feet, the mother would have burst forth from the hedge, haranguing the already scared child. “Well done,” Belisant had said.
And so, Raulin looked around the center more closely. The bushes were still and quiet, without any jay’s nests or even an out of place twig. The floor was undisturbed. The air…had a slightly metallic smell to it.
He looked at the pedestal, closely now.
There was no sword.
He ducked down quickly, walking in long lunges close to the ground. He circled until he saw a boot sticking out from the other side of the pedestal. He leaned forward and saw a body face-down in the dirt, on the smallish side and with distinct reddish-bronze skin visible at the ankle.
Raulin sat for a moment, then crept closer. It was. He was Merakian, short in stature and darker in skin tone than Raulin. He could tell the trirec wore the same mask Raulin did not by the metal, which was obscured by the ground, but by the braided leather chords that held it secure.
Even though it had been pounded into his head that Arvarikor wanted masks returned at all costs, he still felt vile taking things from a corpse. Raulin moved closer and the smell of blood grew stronger.
The trirec had an arrow sticking out of his neck.
It was a perfect shot, right through the middle between the trachea and the spine. A large pool of blood covered the dirt, soaking in and clumping it near his throat. In the trirec’s hand was a silver sword, though more like an ornamental falchion or shortsword. Jewels encrusted the blade and pommel, which held a thick ruby the size of an eye.
The fletching of the arrow was to the left, so Raulin turned that way to see if there was a device that triggered when the pedestal was touched. He saw nothing, even with a closer inspection. When he looked back at the trirec, he saw that the arrow was at an angle, pointed down not flat. It had come from above.
He sat in front of the hedges for a moment, thinking. Someone had contracted Raulin to steal this sword. Poaching contracts was perfectly acceptable under the trirec code of conduct. If you were stupid or lazy enough to leave your contract information lying around for someone else to read it, it was fair game. That’s why he wrote his down in a cypher no one could figure out. Well, no one except Anladet. Even though he had hurt her and she had been around quite a few people one-on-one just two days prior, he didn’t suspect she had told anyone. He deserved it, but he felt she wouldn’t do that. And he wasn’t being sentimental; he felt confident that she would have no idea how to contact another trirec to sell him the information.
That left a leak of some kind in Hanala and he trusted Isken. He wouldn’t intentionally make copies and pit trirecs against each other by giving them the same contract. Isken hated the idea of trirecs fighting against each other, enough to warn him about Afren guarding the house in Iascond. Besides, Arvarikor would flay him alive for wasting resources.
Isken wouldn’t make copies and hire multiple trirecs. But what would stop a contractee from doing that? The only contract that was outright denied were ones where a trirec had died attempting it. If someone had hired multiple trirecs to do the same job, no one would think to check laterally, just historically.
But, why would someone do that? To steal a sword and place it…
He checked his notes again. The Marquess of Vladi’s estate.
Raulin cursed an impressive string of obscenities he had saved for just such an occasion. It involved things that would make an Aliornic priestess blush. He quickly cut through the thongs holding the trirec’s mask in place, then took his beads and placed both in his knapsack. The man’s pack held some Ghenian coins, a rope, and his back-up knives, which he also put in his knapsack. He was about to stand when another trirec stumbled in from the north.
“Huh?” he said, looking at the trirec’s body, then at Raulin, who gave him the three fingered greeting.
“We need to get out of here,” he said after the trirec returned the salute.
“But, I need to grab a jeweled sword.”
“I know. But, if you touch that sword, you’re a dead man.”
Raulin could see the man’s dark brown eyes widening even across the distance of fifteen feet. “What? What are you saying?”
“I’m saying this is a trap.”