Raulin awoke with the early dawn, still foggy from a few hours of missed sleep. Anla was still sprawled out next to him, her hair falling onto her face in a way that was almost artistic. He breathed in that moment, then turned away to put on his mask and shirt.
After his exercises and breakfast, he sat on the couch downstairs and reviewed what he knew of Lady Amirelsa’s situation. In his notes, he stated her address (several miles to the southeast), that her family had taken the contract out on her behalf, and the why: persistent, aggressive, and threatening stalking by an unknown individual.
He also looked at what information he had on the Mirana Estates necklace. He had two thefts in New Wextif and one was a necklace of varying stones and settings at the mansion of Earl Kipet Mirana, one of the men who’d been at Vanif’s birthday party and who had personally invited Raulin to his libertine ball. At the time, he had been silently ecstatic to have an invitation to the house he needed to rob land in his lap, but as he thought about it more, it seemed a bit odd. Libertine balls were very discreet affairs. The fact that someone had invited him without knowing his reputation meant the man was either not holding a true libertine ball or he was an idiot.
There were a lot of gaps to fill and he did this using three basic precautions he had learned through trial and error. He wore his blandest, least identifying clothes and took off his mask off as soon as he had ventured well enough from curious eyes. He spread his choice of establishments wide, staying within a half-mile radius around the hotel, sitting and listening while reading a newspaper or browsing the wares or sipping a beer, and stayed for just a short while in each. And he rarely asked questions about Amirelsa or Mirana directly, only guiding the conversation towards gossip instead of interrogating his conversation partner.
It had to do with suspicion. He’d been caught or nearly caught by the police several times in the past for being conspicuous. Normal people didn’t ask questions unless they were up to no good. People did enjoy rumors, though, and Raulin was practiced enough to make it seem like he was just an interested bystander. Shop owners in the same neighborhood talked and it was easy for an officer to canvas a vicinity and find several people who could offer plenty of information on him. And people wearing clothing that could be remembered in detail were those who were begging to get caught. These were mistakes he only made once.
Throughout that day and the next one, he went out to bars, taverns, restaurants, wizard galleries, bakeries, bookstores, craft suppliers, markets, candy stores, curiosity shoppes, and precisely one haberdashery. He found the loudest or drunkest people, sat nearby, and waited until he could join the conversation without being intrusive. The gaps were filled in nicely.
He didn’t find too much about Mirana, but he didn’t need to; he was going to waltz his way through the party and mazurka to the sidelines as fast as possible. Amirelsa’s plight, however, was something of interest to more than a few people in New Wextif and the opinions of it were divided. Some saw it as a man preying on an innocent, young woman. Others saw it as an undying romance by a scorned lover. After what Raulin learned, he saw it as obsession and lunacy run amok.
What Vetreya had told him was confirmed and elaborated upon. The notes began some two years ago, letters expressing her beauty and grace, the missives pungent with flowery imagery. She spoke of those to friends at parties with a slightly embarrassed flush, obviously flattered. Then came presents of bouquets, chocolates, small paintings, and blank journals with engraved leather bindings. (The last was a thoughtful gift, since her family dealt in printing, both newspapers and books.) She had spoken about each with modesty, having loved the paintings the most. Sadly, her parents disapproved and she had to sell everything, but she had enjoyed receiving them nonetheless.
Then, nothing for a few months. It had been a rough time for the family, having major setbacks and halting all transactions, so she had expressed hope that her admirer would cheer her up in those gloomy times. There were talks of marriage, an alliance to help with cash flow, but things turned around and her hand was unclaimed. Still, the admirer was furious and the letters became threatening. The presents turned cruel, the flowers dead, the chocolates disgusting, the paintings of dark and morbid things.
The jilted phase had been ongoing for almost a year-and-a-half. He stalked her when she left her family’s estates, a man in a black cowl that stayed far enough away to be just barely noticed, but close enough for her to feel scared. A guard was hired to protect her. She stayed at home more often than not. Still, he had managed to penetrate the mansion’s defenses and had left macabre gifts inside despite the protection. Most who knew her before the ordeal would say she had lost the luster she once had. She slept less, had lost weight, and rarely smiled.
A part of Raulin would have done this for free. The other part simply relished the challenge and wondered how he was going to solve this. Methodically, and without prejudice, he thought, though he was still deciding how he was going to approach it. There were no marks that the contractee wanted it done discreetly or with flourish. It was up to him, and he thought it was going to be very important to start interviewing people.
Just not yet; he had a ball that evening. Because he didn’t want to stifle yawns by ten o’clock, he slept in ’til mid-morning and sauntered downstairs. He only saw Anladet, who was sitting in a chair until she saw him. She jumped up and walked over with that same determined look she had given two days previous, and before that a few days prior. He always loved to see her, but maybe there were times he was less enthusiastic about it.
“Mezzem, good morning,” he said as she walked next to him.
She checked what she was about to say. “I find it odd that you use the Arvonnese word for ‘young, unmarried woman’ to address me.”
“I’m being respectful of your heritage. I have a feeling you didn’t wait for me this morning to discuss titles.”
“No,” she said as they walked outside. “The other day was nice. I appreciate it. But, again, we’ve had to spend the last two days mulling about inside. We had no idea where you went, since you left so early. I’m, again, not asking for specifics. But, you did promise you’d at least us know the general area…”
“I didn’t know myself,” he said. “I used the entire radius around our hotel to gather information on a few contracts. I needed to move every half to full hour to different places to avoid suspicion. The best I could have told you was ‘a half-mile from the hotel’.”
“Just an offer: I could have helped. I did spend a little time yesterday trying to make contact with the Mesh.”
He raised his eyebrows. “Any luck?”
“No, but I feel that the foundation is laid. I met with a few people who were less ‘what are you saying?’ and more ‘do you know what you’re doing?’. I hope that means someone will find me in a few days and let me ask some questions.”
Raulin let the silence between them grow as they strolled down the street. He occupied himself with a game of percentages, trying to figure out how pedestrians people saw him. Half were too concerned with themselves or their partners to notice him. Another ten or fifteen of a hundred gawked, staring and tugging on people’s sleeves to point him out. The remainder gave him a quick nod and went on their business.
He waited. He had watched her, cataloging her expressions and gestures. She ran her index finger over her fingernails, her way of considering things. She often paused in her stride, catching up to him through the traffic only because he would slow down a little. Finally, she bit her lip. “Raulin, is there any way I can help you?”
“Besides contentedly reading books at the hotel?”
“Besides that. I don’t like sitting around. I’ve spent too long needing to be up at dawn, working every hour for coppers so that I can eat, and then searching all day for a place to sleep. I always thought that, if I were rich, I’d lay around my manse eating tarts and listening to music being played on my piano. I…I don’t think I can do that.”
“The rich are hardly idle. They often busy themselves, whether it’s working hard or socializing or enriching themselves.”
“As someone who is at least functionally rich, I don’t know how to be rich. Or what to do with myself with all this free time.”
He had an idea where this conversation was going and began to walk with a purpose. “If you had your way, what would you like to be doing?”
“Helping you,” she said without hesitation. “I’ve had to get information from people discreetly before. You could have gotten twice the information, or spent half the time, if I’d been there. Or, honestly, I’ll even admit that I wish I could have gone with you to that party. I’ve never been. I think, just once, I’d like to go.”
“You understand my obstacle with that. If you help, you know too much. If you attend something I’m unmasked in, you’ve seen my face. And that is very dangerous for me.”
“I know,” she said with some disappointment.
“But, this won’t end, will it? You and Tel and the wizard won’t be happy while I’m working. One out of every four days isn’t enough. And it’s unfair for me to expect your help for nothing in return.”
She gave him a quizzical look as he continued. “You know my price,” he said, and her eyes widened.
“You’re…going to show me your face?”
“More than that. I’m going to take you to a ball tonight.”
Her jaw actually dropped. “I’m…I’m speechless. Why? I mean, I’m really happy, but this is a sudden change.”
“Not really, not from my end. I thought mostly about it when I was in that basement in Monsard. Being at the mercy of your rescue, I reconsidered my position in things are realized that, while I have to be the one to drive our momentum, I’m not necessarily the leader.
“We have agents and trirecs and trivren in our order, but we also have people called ‘spirit climbers’. They are people that either owe a great debt to Arvarikor or are blackmailed to a certain extent, more that Arvarikor holds that information and they do nothing with it, so long as the spirit climber helps when needed. Therefore, I have a shoddy excuse for showing my face to you; if you give me the information I want, I’ll consider you a spirit climber.”
“What do you want to know?” she asked.
“I want to know, first, what you discovered in Calaba. Yes, I followed you to the library. You were in there for a few hours, then you bolted to Telbarisk and spoke for some time. What did you learn?”
Already this was proving to be an expensive exchange for Anla. She couldn’t tell him the truth, not the part about the sacrifice by the end of the year, but there was consolation she could give him. “I learned a lot. But I think what you want to know is, if one of us dies before the end of the year, there would be no consequence other than a severe emotional backlash.”
“Hmm,” he said. “That’s not what I was hoping to hear. Part of your conditions, then, are not to mention that to the wizard. I don’t trust that he wouldn’t use that information. If I were him, I’d turn me over to the police as soon as he was ready to.”
“I promise not to say anything to Al,” she said. “What else did you want to know?”
“Since I mentioned him, I want you to tell me something about the wizard I don’t already know.”
She thought about this for a moment. “He’s married. I believe he has a child, too, but I’m not certain. When we met, he had mentioned he wasn’t looking for love, having just been in a relationship. And in Miachin, he let it slip that he had a wife when we were waiting for you.”
“Huh,” Raulin said. “I am…more than a bit surprised. Our wizard is quite a hypocrite.”
“I’d rather you not use that against him. He’s hurt by it, I can tell. I suspect he left because they are actually divorced and my gut is telling me he didn’t instigate it.”
“I make no promises not to mention it ever, but that sounds like a rather sharp knife to use. I would save that for a tougher hunk of meat.”
“All right. The third piece?”
“Me. I’d like to know something about me.”
She looked up at him, her eyebrows furrowed. “But, you know everything you’ve told me.”
“I’m not interested in that. I want to know what I didn’t tell you that you know.”
“Like my piscarin stuff?”
“Or your gut feeling. Or maybe I spoke in my sleep.”
“You didn’t do that,” she said, smiling. “Um…you’re not supposed to be a trirec.”
“This,” she said, gesturing to his mask. “I keep getting these hints that you were never destined to be a trirec. A general or a leader, maybe a politician or a company owner, but not this. Not that you’re bad at it; you’ve just made the best of a bad situation. But, this isn’t what you’re supposed to be doing with your life.”
“And now Telbarisk?” she asked, hoping.
“Tel is an open book to me. Anything I want to know, he’d tell me. No, mezzem, I want to know something about you.”
“I’ve been working on some new magic techniques. I don’t have to use full persuasion on someone. I can instead…”
“Not something trivial; I want to know something that you hold close to your heart, something that you don’t tell anyone because you’re afraid of what they would think.”
“You realize I’m very hesitant to share something with you after what happened in Iascond.”
“I know. It was a poor decision on my part to say what I said. I hurt you, and for that I am deeply sorry. But, if you want to fulfill your end of the bargain, you have to tell me.”
Raulin already knew some of the worst about her. It left two to consider. And, as with the chalice spell, she had one secret she was not prepared to tell him, and another that was a consolation. That she agreed to, though she was afraid to say it. “I’m sixteen.”
He took three more steps, spun on his heels, and began walking back to the hotel. “Wait!” she said, turning around to stop him. “I kept my end of the bargain!”
“You did, but I am not taking a child to a libertine ball,” he said. “I thought you were…twenty! Or twenty-one! I…”
She moved ahead of him and shoved him to stop. “You promised. Four pieces of information for the chance to help you tonight. If you renege on this, I will make you pay me back with something else that you probably won’t like.”
He took a deep breath and sighed deeply. He turned and began walking slowly the way he had been and she followed. “I’m not a child,” she said. “Yes, Ghenian law means I am not an adult until October, but I stopped being a child when my parents died and I started living on the streets of Hanala. Every day I spent there was one less iota of my youth. Some of the harder decisions robbed me more than others. I haven’t thought of myself as someone who needed looking after or protecting or coddling in years.”
“What about your mother’s side?”
“How would they feel about my age? Inheritance and adulthood and coming-of-age are all human ideas. Elves become equals to adults when they’ve proven they are. They can marry when the tribe agrees they can handle a relationship and parenthood. That’s that. Birthdays aren’t even celebrated. The only reason why I know the day I was born was because my father was a human and a doctor.”
“I can respect that. Your ways are different. But, do you know what a libertine ball is? It’s not a place you take a sixteen-year-old, especially not a female sixteen-year-old.”
“Yes, I know what they are. The street kids talked about them all the time.” Honestly, she knew generally what they were, but no one had ever shared details as to what went on during one with any specifics. They were bawdy and indecent. She’s been in raucous taverns late at night. She’d seen it all before.
“They can be…imaginative. The rich enjoy parties and soirees and galas and balls, but after a while, seeing the same people with the same decorum gets boring. Libertine balls drop the decorum. Things get a bit wild.”
“I can handle wild.”
“All right. I’m obligated to take you, but if anything makes you uncomfortable, we can leave early. I can always steal it later.”
“I’ll be fine, Raulin. It’s not like I haven’t seen that on the streets.”
He sighed. “I…I’m really having a hard time negotiating this.”
“Forget I told you. In a few months, it won’t mean anything anyway. I’ll be an adult under Ghenian law. Until then, just treat me like you have been and I promise to treat you equally when you show me your face.”
“All right,” he said. It was a few more minutes before they reached a small park, tiny compared to other areas they’d seen in Iascond and Carvek. In fact, it was more like a pass-through, a wooded path from one busy street to another. There was a fountain in the middle and several benches, but also trees lining the buildings and bushes. One side had a hotel with balconies; Raulin chose the other side.
They stood behind a copse of trees. He paused, looked out and counted the people in the area, then waited a few more minutes. “What are we waiting for?” she whispered.
“If we were followed, the person would have likely shown themselves by now. I’m also seeing if anyone’s acting strangely.”
“Isn’t that overly cautious?”
“You see my head, yes?” She nodded. “It’s still attached to my shoulders, so I think I’m taking necessary precautions. Okay,” he said, reaching behind his head and tugging on the braided leather. He wiggled the mask off, the light in the area poor but enough that she could see his face as he turned to look at her.