Now that the job was complete, it was time for Raulin to return to normal.  As he traveled down the road to Miachin from the marquess’s estate, he waited for the congratulatory glow he’d get from jobs like that one, ones where no one was killed and he had won.  The marquess’s nose was broken, metaphorically, his team almost pissing themselves to save him, and his two compatriots were taken care of.  On top of all that, he’d made two hundred extra gold, though he’d have to surrender half of that to Arvarikor.

But, there was no spring in his step and no smile on his face.  In fact, an icy chill had crept up his spine, seeping onto his skin and forming a cold, numb sheath.  He felt his neck, his fingertips feeling sweat and a racing pulse.

Kobit had died.  He regretted that.  If Raulin hadn’t slipped, he’d still be alive. He’d lost people before and had never felt the tremors that were shaking his hands, nor the difficulty in breathing.

The marquess was still alive.  He might regret that.  Hopefully the man lacked the pride that demanded retribution and was smart enough to be more covert and less daring in the future.  He might not be, though.  He might be mounting a hunting party this instant that would scour the woods for the three trirecs that dared best him.  It would explain the eerie pressure he had between his shoulder blades, the one that kept shifting depending on where he thought the arrow was going to lodge into his back.

He thought that perhaps that was justified.  He kept seeing men in the woods. Men high on branches, men behind trees, men jumping up from the brush. Every few moments his peripheral vision promised an attack that didn’t come and at almost a mile down the road, he was starting to grow tired.

Why am I like this? Did they drug me somehow? he wondered. He knew of some poisons that would explain his issues, like one that made your heart race until exploded or another that caused rapid chills that persisted until you died of hypothermia, even in the hot sun.  When, though, could they have poisoned him?  He hadn’t touched the sword.  His gloves and mask had been on for most of the time.  He hadn’t been shot.

His breathing grew shallower.  His head felt oddly heavy and woozy.  He began to stumble.  I should feel fine! I did everything I set out to do! 

The mask was constricting.  He couldn’t get enough air.  He ripped off his gloves.  He fingered the top of his arong-miil, trying to loosen it.

He was going to collapse.  He moved to a patch in the woods, running, running through the bushes and brush, over fallen logs and stones until he couldn’t breath anymore. He ripped off his mask, sat on the ground, and curled into a ball.  He shook.  He hugged himself.  He would give anything in that moment if his mother were next to him.

Time passed. It wasn’t quite dark out, but it was dark for him. Doubts plagued his mind, all the normal ones that he usually could address and push away when he was done thinking about them. His heart still raced and his breathing still shallow and fast. There were times he suspected he passed out, but he had no dreams and no safe way of telling.

And then there was someone near him, next to him, sitting and leaning against the tree. He was split as to whether he wanted to run screaming or stay a mess there.  The person didn’t say anything.  The person didn’t do anything.  He waited, and so did Raulin.

He had moved heavy footed through the forest, but had been quiet as well.  Unless elk learned to walk on two legs, the man beside him was Telbarisk. He didn’t know what to do or say. There was too much, too much to apologize for or tell him. He should tell him to go away. He should be pushing him away.

“If you need to speak to someone, I’ll be available,” Tel said.

Raulin wanted to say something, but it was so hard.  He opened his eyes and brought his hand in front of him, still shaking.  He mopped the sweat from his face and wiped it on his outfit.

Say you’re sorry.  Say you’ll do better.  Say there are men coming.  Say something.

But, he couldn’t say anything.  He was still the guard, the man who couldn’t be friends with the miartha he had to protect.  Afren was right.  If he kept his distance for the rest of their year together, he’d be able to break away from them painlessly.

And he had believed that was the right choice, until the moment he realized he needed them.  He couldn’t be the silent guard.  It didn’t fit him.  It was selfish.  He’d have to hurt them, over and over again, to make them keep their distance.  Sure, the wizard had been easy and  Anla likely hated him, too.  But, Telbarisk wouldn’t give up.  His presence there, in that moment, was a testament to that fact.  He wasn’t going to shake them and he didn’t want to.

It was still at least several minutes before Raulin spoke. “I feel like I’m falling apart,” he heard himself say.

“This is a different feeling for you?” Tel asked in his baritone voice, something rich and deep and comfortable and familiar.

“Yes.” It hurt to talk, but it felt good at the same time.

Tel said nothing. He waited, maybe a minute, maybe ten before Raulin said, “I was hunted today. Like an animal. He paid us to run around his hedge maze and steal a sword. And when we touched it, they fired arrows on us. One of my brothers died in my arms. Another was shot through the leg. We managed to win, but I can’t help but feel like they’re still coming after me.”

“They aren’t,” he said. “There is no one around here for some distance. A few deer, some sleeping raccoons, but no men.  I’m sure of it.”

For a brief moment the tension released.  It came back, but the momentary relief had been beautiful. “Why can’t I let this go?”

“I think, perhaps, it’s because you’ve had too many of these to let go. In the last two months you have been the sole survivor of a shipwreck, were arrested and imprisoned, escaped from that, were told you were bound to three people for a year, were hunted, and had to kill…your mentor?…and two other men. That is so much more than one man should have to deal with in a lifetime.  Then, this today, a disgusting display of the dark way people can treat each other.  Pick one of those and a man has a tale to tell his grandchildren, with a life full of time to deal with it.  Pick all and you have the makings of an internal crisis.”

“It’s what I do, though,” he said, but he sounded doubtful. “We are trained to deal with this.  I move on from bringing death and chaos.”

“I’ve been considering that for some time. I know that we’ve never discussed your differences, even though you looked very different from the other trirecs, but I think we should. You are human. You are not Merakian, despite your training and years living there. And yet, you live your life as if you were. You expect things from yourself that perhaps a human cannot take.

“You aren’t anything like them. You told me that yourself. You prided yourself in the fact that the other trirecs were always strictly business. They didn’t make friends. They didn’t enjoy life. You did and it filled you with a sense of purpose. I think I can safely say it made you Raulin. And now you are trying to be like them and I see it’s not working. You seem miserable. I don’t know why you’ve chosen to shut us out, but we want to be there for you. We want to help.”

“He said it was the best way. If I shut you out now, if I shut her out now, it wouldn’t be so painful when the year ends.”

“Who is ‘he’? Was this your mentor?”

He raised his head, but didn’t turn to see him. “How did you know what happened with him?”

“The three of us pieced it together, though we were unsure if we were correct.”

“I killed him, Tel. I took his sacrificial knife and slit his throat, the same man who was like a father to me. Who does that? What monster kills the people he loves?”

“This is what your order does to you. They put you in a position where you must kill or be killed. You’re absolved from your guilt because you are ‘just the tool of balance’ or whatever phrase you’ve said to me that I know you don’t fully believe. And you return, for more. More stealing, more killing, more guilt. More opportunity for your circumstances to erode who you are and make you more like them.”

“I have no choice, Tel. I have to fulfill my contracts.”

“I’m not saying it’s a ‘do or don’t do’ choice. If you feel you have to fulfill them, then do so. I will still be here by your side. But, don’t do them their way; do them your way. Don’t assume that they, even your mentor, know the best way for you to live as a trirec. You are not like them. Listen to what works for you and do that.”

He held his hand out and felt Tel’s large, warm hand envelop his and squeeze. He let out a breath, sat up, and put on his mask again, noticing that it wasn’t as dark as he had thought it would be. “I still have to play by some rules, but perhaps you’re right. It meant something to me to save Thenik and Jakith, and even Kobit, though he was killed. All three would have left me to fend for myself, because that’s what we’re taught. Isken is right; if we learned to work together, things wouldn’t be so complicated and cold.

“I won’t be able to do what I truly want, Tel, but I can do something in the middle. First, let me apologize.”

“There is no need,” Tel said.

“Let me do it anyway,” Raulin said, turning towards him. “I said some things that were harsh and particularly cruel. I know you miss your family and Kelouyan and it was cutting to bring them up the way I did. I’m sorry for every word.”

“You are forgiven. Would you like to stay here for the night?  I can set up camp and watch over you.”

Raulin stood, brushing the grass and dirt off his clothes. After the maze, it was a hopeless cause, but he still wanted to try.  His skin still felt glass cold, but his pulse was lower and he could take deep breaths without gasping for the next. “I would like to stay here. Arvarikor would say I needed to return to my employers hours ago. My middle ground will be to fetch Al and Anla and set up camp south of here, so we can make our way back to the Birchik Highway.”

Tel stood and smiled. “Lead the way.”

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