It was, at least, a kind gesture, one that had good intentions and heart. But, not all plans have the expected outcome.

Raulin called on Vanif that evening and invited him to lunch as soon as possible. His friend was puzzled, but moved around his schedule to see him the next day. The evening he had made those plans Raulin slept so soundly that Al missed his opportunity to pull off his mask and see his face.

The pretense of the meeting was asking Vanif about Arvonne and if he could see anything worth investing in at the time, to help earn money for the reclamation of the throne. Vanif appreciated the question and threw himself into the conversation, giving a dozen options, stating that, even though the economy was in ruins, there were always commodities that were solid, and some that were better in Arvonne. Wine, non-perishable foods, luxury items needing skills to make, raw materials, all were valuable assets for Arvonne, even if not sold inside Arvonne. “There are markets open here and in several other countries, if you can ship them. No one can make Arvonnese jewelry outside of Arvonne. Even an ex-patriot is only making Arvonnese jewelry from Gheny, with Ghenian products and help from Ghenian labor. That Arvonnese label is invaluable if it’s not distilled.”

“This is true. When my country was vibrant and flourishing, it was easier for us to sell things to others based only on our name. Arvonne was dependable.”

Vanif threaded his napkin through the ring and placed it to the left of his plate. “That reputation has been trashed with hundreds of empty promises your government has made You can rebuild that Arvonnese name again, but it will be difficult, especially if things are left intact.”

Raulin copied Vanif before the two stood and left, the meal having already been paid for by Raulin. “We have a phrase back home: ‘Corbrisses ontui wal-e farda esw cosceben wald eimenla‘. You cannot plow a carrot farm without persuading an ox with a carrot. As it is, we cannot sell anything because of our reputation, and we cannot repair our reputation because we cannot sell anything.”

“Start small,” he said as they walked out onto the street. “Find one person, one company that will buy from you. Let them be so pleased with your quickness and quality that they have to tell others. It is a slow growth, but it will help repair things. And distance yourself from your government! Put your company name all over it and say nothing about your premier or his cabinet.”

“How would I do it faster?”

Vanif thought for a few moments. “Create a market. That takes extreme luck, or a handy merit,” he said, winking, “but has a great pay-off.”

“And is there a product that would be good?”

Vanif gave a twisted sort of smile. “Yes. I’ll tell you, but you must promise not to bring it to Gheny. A family friend has already cornered that and I wouldn’t want her to find competition based on my say.”

“I promise, so long as you guide me as to where the best market would be.”

He laughed. “A two-for-one deal. Good bartering. What I have in mind is those books that your people treasure so much, those romantic ones about the king returning.”

“Alley novels?” he asked, trying to keep the disgust from his voice.

“Those, yes. I know they’re popular in Arvonne and Gheny, somewhat in Arouk, but those are the only places they are shipped to. I can see them being popular in the southern countries, the Empire and Br’vani especially. Maybe also in Kipraud, Tondeiva, or Kitstuar. I’d avoid Sayen; they don’t seem to type to go for that. And most of the other countries seem too concerned with their own problems to care about Arvonne’s. Get them translated and ship them there.”

“Thank you, I will consider it,” he said. His gaze passed over the designated corned and he saw Anladet waiting there. “Odd.”

Vanif followed his gaze. “What is odd?”

“I believe that’s a piscarin. You don’t often see them so far away from the docks. Come! I think it would be droll to get our fortunes read.”

Vanif followed him across the street, though he didn’t seem enthused by the idea. They stopped nearby and she looked up at them through her thick, darkened lashes. “Three coppers, unless you’d like a stronger connection.”

“What a bargain!” Raulin said, fishing out a silver from his pocket. “For both of us, then, my friend first.”

“I don’t…” Vanif began, but Anla gently grabbed his hand and began reading his palm.

“Wealth surrounds you,” she began. “I see coins and numbers from your birth, only growing as you age. Things are well. Love, happiness, friends, wealth, health, family…until…”

“Until when?” he asked, flatly.

“Very soon. Moons, perhaps just one. It starts here,” she said, pointing to some imaginary line, “and all your world is toppled. Love, happiness, friends, wealth, health, family…you lose all but two, my lord.”

“And how can I stop this?”

“A child,” she said. They had argued over this line, but Raulin had told her to press the point, in case he had some lustful feelings towards women. “A child is hope and solidarity. All your worries will disappear and your bounty will increase tenfold.”

“Very good,” he said impatiently, gently yanking his hand away. “Must I wait?” he asked of Raulin.

“No,” he said, telling Anla to keep the change while he caught up with Vanif. “I take it you didn’t like what you heard. It sounds dire.”

“It usually does. They say things like that to coax more money from you.” He looked over at Raulin. “Don’t tell me you believe in that pig tripe.”

“I’ve seen some things,” he began. “I’ve had piscarin tell me about things there’s no way they could know.”

“And how many told you things that weren’t true? They read people. That one we just met was particularly good, but she still said some things that weren’t true. Or couldn’t be true.”

“I’m sorry if you disliked it. I worry about my friends. I thought it might be helpful.”

“I’m not going to take advice from some stranger. Now, if you told me your merit was Prediction and told me those same things, I’d listen.”

Raulin ground his teeth for a moment. That would have been smarter. “Good point.”

Vanif patted Raulin’s shoulder. “I appreciate your concern, but I’m doing well. I’ll see you next Tuesday for that tasting, yes?”

“I’ll be there,” he said and they parted ways. At least that was the truth. He’d go to as many events as Vanif invited him to, until he stopped throwing them.

* * *

After changing his clothes and donning his mask, Raulin returned to the hotel. Anla was waiting in small parlor downstairs, along with Tel and Al, both of whose noses were stuck in books.

“Did it work?” she asked, having changed out of her piscarin outfit.

He sighed and sat. “No. He didn’t buy the piscarin routine.”

“Smart man,” Al said, not even bothering to look up from his book.

“So what’s our next course of action?” she asked.

Raulin shook his head. “I think I’ve made my peace with the situation, at least as much as I’m going to at this point. I’ve stalled the process as much as I can and put a warning in his way. If there’s anything he can do to avoid his fate, then I’ve done as much as I can to push him to do so.”

“I’m sorry, Raulin.”

“So am I. All right, moving on to other things, how are we doing? Anyone need anything? Are you three entertaining yourselves enough?”

“I’m fine,” Al said, bringing the book up closer to his face.

“I’m happy,” Anla said. “I’m here to help you with your other contracts.”

“Tel? You’ve been awfully quiet. Are you doing well?”

“Oh, yes,” he said. “I’ve been walking around, watching people and things. I’ve already filled thirty-six pages in my notebook.”

“Impressive,” Raulin said. “Anything I can help with?”

“I have a few questions. Why do the people call me ‘straw man’?”

“Oh, uh, it might be your hair, I think. Perhaps also because you’re tall and thin, like the straw men that farmers put into field to scare crows away.”

“Do you think people find me frightening, then?”

“If they do, that’s their own problem. Don’t worry about it.”

“And what does ‘creveir’ mean? A little boy called me that in Hanala.”

“‘Creveir’? Those are performing wizards. They walk on stilts and have elaborate costumes. They conduct these amazing private shows full of acrobatics and lights and tricks. I’m guessing the little boy saw how tall you were and thought you were walking on stilts.”

“Oh,” he said. “They sound very interesting. I’d like to see them, if we can.”

“But if we could. There are three notable creveir circuses and they’re all in Noh Amair.”

“Is there a fourth one? There are signs for the creveirs not too far from here, though I’m still working on reading Ghenian.”

“Seriously?” Raulin asked, standing suddenly. “Show me where.”

Al stayed in the hotel, waving creveirs away as ‘freak wizards’, but Anla accompanied the two for several blocks to an alley plastered with posters. Raulin touched the wall with his fingers and said, “Yes, I think that’s him!”

“Who?” Anla asked.

“Kazithu. I first met him in Okil about five years ago. Surprised myself by stepping into a fight that I normally wouldn’t have and saved Kazi from a serious beating. He’s one of the senior creveirs in Espith Zein RoMari, the Western Creveir Circus. He often plays the more interesting roles, at least in my opinion.”

“Roles?” Anla asked. “I thought you said they were acrobats.”

“They are, it’s more of acting and acrobats mixed together. They will parade on stilts to the tent, to drum up an audience, while dressed as and acting in character. They’ll pick a mythological hero or a character from a famous novel to portray, and they spend days working on the costume, perfecting the makeup, and creating the perfect role. Kazi spends more than most, being a senior that garners more pay, but more responsibility. And he takes on those roles that are needed, but aren’t necessarily popular.”

“Like what?”

“Darker characters, villains, antagonists, evil creatures. He likes those best and he plays them well. He works well acting against other members of the circus, gets a healthy amount of the limelight, and revels in negative attention. Not that you’d know that if you knew him; he’s a very nice guy.”

“Would you like to take in a show, then?” she asked. “I’m sure it would be a great experience for Tel.”

“Not just that,” he said, looking thoughtful. “There’s another piece to what they do. The parade is during the day, the circus in the evening, but at night is where they make most of their money. The wealthy will rent their services where they will enrich any parties of theirs. In character, the creveirs play games, tell stories, hold events, have fake rituals, anything that fits their character.”

“So, they have access nightly to the upper crust.”

“And with that, someone like Kazithu will have picked up some juicy tidbits, perhaps pertaining to one of my contracts.” He rubbed his hands together. “All right. Let’s go drag the wizard off to the circus.”

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