Ammet Monsard was a five-mile detour west off the Biashka Highway, neatly advertised on a signpost a few days north of the river.  It was much less hillier than they were used to, though there was still a gentle ripple to the fields that nestled the town of several hundred houses, farms, and buildings.

“Somewhere down there is something you need to steal,” Anla asked Raulin from the tallest point in several miles.  “It’s like a needle in a haystack.”

“It’s not as bad as that,” he said, flipping quickly to the page with the information on his fifth contract and continuing to walk when he had it.  “I’ve learned to sift through the information I get and know what’s important.  I rely on patterns and educated guesses to fill in the rest.  And then I figure out what I don’t know and solve that issue by talking with locals or doing a little spying.  At that point, my success rate is high enough to try.”

“What do you need to do in Monsard?”

“Things that sound suspiciously like things I’m not supposed to talk about.”

“But there are some things you can talk about,” she answered without skipping a beat.

Raulin looked over at her and sighed.  “Yes, I suppose.  I have a checklist I run through when I enter the area of entry, the beginning of the contract fulfillment, which, in this case, is  Monsard.  The first is to establish a base of operations, which is usually my hotel room or a camp.  From there I figure out where the target is, usually or permanently, what my obstacles are, and any peripheral information that may interfere with plans, like festivals or parties.  This is all in balance with any instructions given by the contractee, like whether or not they want it to be witnessed or if I need to kill someone in a particular way.”

“People want things to be witnessed?” she asked, incredulously.  Raulin was surprised that she had glossed over the last bit of information.

“You have to understand that quite a few contracts are taken out as status markers among the wealthy, a sort of ‘see what I can afford with my money’.  They pay trirecs handsomely to steal things that aren’t worth anything to them, but might be worth a lot to someone else.  Those people like things very visible.  Those jobs usually involve me making grand shows or stealing things and not replacing them with copies.  They want the owners to feel embarrassment and shame and, when they realize who did that to them, anger.”

“I don’t understand.  Why would they want retaliation?”

“It’s a game the nobles play.  It’s stupid, but it keeps us trirecs knee-deep in contracts.  Say you’re an earl or viscount, some titled brat with too much money and too much time.  You have rich and bored friends, and enemies, also in the peerage.  You and your friends get drunk at some soiree and you start plotting against your enemy.  Wouldn’t it be fun if you paid someone to steal their favorite horse or the diamond cufflinks the queen gave them for some service?  What a hilarious gag that would be!  So, to prove that money is no object, you hire the best of the best: a trirec.  And they steal that horse or those cufflinks, or some medal or piece of jewelry or a diary, whatever sentimental junk you think would hurt them the most.”

“They do that?  They waste money on things like that?”

Raulin chuckled.  “You don’t know nobles very well, I take it.”

“I’ve only met the Duke of Sharka and he didn’t seem like a man concerned with petty games of what is essentially capture the flag.”

“That’s because he’s probably not bored.  I’m talking about the young third or fourth sons of men whose sole responsibility is to make sure the grapes are growing well this season.  They’re probably in their late teens or twenties, sowing their wild oats with scandalous parties or dangerous hobbies, like spear fishing or hunting exotic creatures.”  It was hard for him to keep the bitterness from his voice.

Anla rubbed his arm briefly.  “I’m so sorry you had to go through that.”

“It’s…part of the job.  And illustrates my point; people shouldn’t ever have the ability to do things like that.”

“I wouldn’t mind a little more money and time,” she said smiling.

“And I think someone who comes into or earns that is fine.  But, I’ve seen way too many people who were born into a life of luxury that don’t understand how money works or what common decency is or how life would work if everything was taken from them.  Don’t misunderstand me; I’m more than willing to take their money.  And they’re usually well-paying and low risk.  But, I don’t like them and I don’t like the people that hire me for them.”

“Is this one of those jobs?” she asked, gesturing to the town.

Raulin clicked his tongue in thought.  “I’m not sure.  It’s likely, since I don’t always know the aftermath.  I don’t remember the contractee writing anything that gave me any indication, but I don’t think the item is anything someone is coveting, either.”

“What is it?”

He shook his head.  “No, nothing about the current job.”

“But I’m curious,” she said, turning out her bottom lip.

“You’re not a cat; you won’t die of it.  It’s something consumable or collectible.  That’s all I’ll say.”

“And you think you can steal it easily?”

“This doesn’t appear to be a town under the shadow of a noble, like Miachin was, so I take it there are no nobles to steal from.  The person might be rich, but they won’t likely have the household staff that usually trips up an easy in-and-out job.  I’d say yes; this won’t be a difficult job.”

“On to step one, then?’

He nodded. “Let’s go find our hotel.”

  *     *     *

“I’ve been patient, though,” Anladet said to Telbarisk the first chance they got to be alone.

“It might be something that you never get to see.  It all depends on how much he trusts you and if he thinks the risks are worthwhile.”

She blew her breath out and rested her chin in her hand.  “I know.  It’s still going to be a boring year if he doesn’t include us in his endeavors.  Two days inside this hotel is enough to make me go off my rocker.”

“Patience,” he said.  “It has to be his idea and he has to do it in his own way.”

“I’m sorry, Tel.  I realize that I’m being immature.  I should wait for him to include us.”

Telbarisk gave her a level look over his breakfast of scones, clotted cream, and berries, also exercising patience.  She sighed.  “I didn’t mention it before because there’s not enough evidence, but the Cyurinin priest at the library in Calaba mentioned he saw another half-elven woman come by recently.  That was almost a week ago.  I overheard some merchants staying here mention they saw pilgrims on their way south, about a day’s ride north yesterday.”

“You think your sister is that half-elven woman?”

“I don’t know,” she said, playing with her strawberries.  “But, it’s the first lead I’ve gotten on the whereabouts of my siblings.”

“Can you hear her?” he asked.  “Is it stronger?”

She shook her head.  “I hear them so rarely.  It’s hard; too many voices to sift through and too much time in between the last time I heard them.  Raidet went north, I think; I’ve never been sure.  Garlin went south, but it was so long ago.  And Sildet…I’ve never heard her.”

She suddenly put her hands over her face.  “I’ve been so concerned with Raulin and the group that I forgot to do my own work.”

“Can I help?” he asked.

“Yes,” she said, wiping her mouth with her napkin.  “I’m going to need you to…”

She paused when she saw Telbarisk looking not at her but at a point to her left.  She turned and saw Al standing next to her with an oddly reserved posture.  “I bought you something,” he said.

“For me?  Thank you, Al.  What is it?”

“I noticed that it’s hot out and that you sweat a lot.” He winced.  “I mean, you look uncomfortable.  I thought it might be nice to pull your hair back off your neck, so I got you this.”  He handed her a silk brocade ribbon, cream in color with a deep red pattern of flowers.

“Oh, it’s beautiful.  Thank you.  Do you think it’s okay for me to wear it now?”

He blinked a few times as he watched her gather her hair, exposing her ears.  Al looked around the breakfast nook of their inn for other people.  “Um, I think in town might not be the best place, but only because…it’s…well, not hot in here?”

She put her hair down and gave him a smile.  “You’re right.  Maybe when we’re out on the road again.”

“Yes!  That sounds good.  I…need to…go get something.”  He left for the stairs, likely to race back to his room to read.

“That was kind of him,” Telbarisk said.

“It was, but it wasn’t a point ahead for him.” When Tel gave her an inquisitive look, she continued.  “Al’s not a man who thinks in subtext.  If a woman approached him in the street and tried to start a conversation about how hot the weather was, he’d insist she start using her fan.”

“I’m afraid I don’t understand that, either.”

“Yes, because you’re not from Gheny.  Al doesn’t have that excuse.  All right.  So, a woman is interested in a man and wishes to be forward about it but doesn’t want to be overt.  She approaches him and chooses a topic that gets his mind wandering, like the weather being too hot.  If he’s interested in her, he might think about her cooling down with a bath or disrobing.  I’ve been told it’s a technique courtesans use, the old adage being prostitutes shout and courtesans whisper.”

“They say one thing to light a candle in one’s mind?”

“Hopefully to start a fire, yes.  In the case of Al, I was wondering if he was saying something more with his gift, that being if he approved of me showing off my heritage in public as well as the concern for my comfort.  As I suspected, he just wanted the latter and still doesn’t accept that I can’t help who my parents are or what combination of their blood or magic made me a baerd.”

“I think he’s trying, but it’s a hard concept for him to appreciate.”

“I know.  I’m not holding it against him.  The ribbon was a thoughtful gift.  However, if he’s trying to get the most points to win this stupid competition with Raulin over my heart, he needs to try harder.”

Telbarisk’s already large eyes widened more.  “You know?”

“Yes, of course,” she said, rolling her eyes. “They started courting me heavily at the same time and Al’s running a pretty strong smear campaign against Raulin, more so that usual.  It was beyond suspicious.”

“You don’t seem that angry over it.”

“I’ll admit I’m not happy about it, but I’ve gotten used to setting my emotions aside if it benefits me.  In this case, I’m getting free meals and nice gifts from Al and Raulin is sharing a lot about himself.  All the while, I’m trying to bridge the gap between the two by mentioning the other whenever I can.”

Telbarisk grinned for a moment.  “I think it’s going to take more than that.”

“Definitely.  I don’t think I’m making much headway, but I’m trying.”

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