Raulin was very pleased at the eventual progress. He, Al, and Anla went to the president of WSI the next day and laid out all the evidence they had gathered. Presenting the evidence against his son Marchen had been disheartening, but the president seemed to take this with less emotion than Al had shown. Raulin had found too many pieces that pointed to his son being the blackmailer and the man had seemed to understand the situation with a sort of calm resolution.

The identities of the two embezzlers came with much more relish. Anla handed him a list with all the details she remembered, including dummy account names, particular schemes, and actions they would be taking within the next few weeks. The president eyed the paper quickly, then sat back in his chair. “Kinsoval? That’s a huge account. You’re certain that was the name they used?”

“Absolutely certain,” she said. “I got the impression that, while they only stole relatively small amounts for each fraud, there were a few larger ones. ‘Breakwater’ was another account they were monitoring.”

The president winced and sighed. “All right. This will take some extensive work. I thank you for your bad news. I assume everything’s been taken care of?”

Raulin opened his notebook and pulled a folded letter out, flattening it on the president’s desk. “I’ll need your signature next to everything you feel was satisfactorily handled. This,” he said, pointing to the bottom of the page, “assures that I will check in at the end of two weeks time to make sure you’re completely satisfied. Which, not to put a fine point on it, means you have two weeks to make sure you feel your contract was adequately handled.”

The president signed next to all lines and handed the form back to Raulin. “Thank you,” he said. “I don’t think I’ll be needing you if these three avenues pan out.”

Later, as they sat in a restaurant for lunch, Al asked, “The two week thing…doesn’t that necessarily mean you could work for them indefinitely?”

“Due diligence,” Raulin said. “Your eight hours per day counts towards the twelve daily hours I need to put into working for WSI. So, I’d only need to give him about five days if he’s unsatisfied.”

“So, we’re done with WSI then?”

“Effectively. Ah, yes. Payment. We really hadn’t discussed what payment was going to be. You may keep whatever they paid you, Wizard.”

Al scoffed. “Three copper per day?”

Raulin gave a small chuckle. “Ah, you didn’t let me finish. I will also pay you five gold for every day you were here. I think that’s, what, 125 gold? And whoever identified the three men will receive fifty gold a piece. Is that another 150 for you?”

Al thinned his lips. “That’s Anla’s work. She gets the money.”

“All right. Was there something else you wanted?”

“No,” he said quietly. “Thank you for the tickets.”

“You’re quite welcome, Wizard. I hope you enjoyed. Now, that leaves us with two contracts to deal with. Anla, how are you coming along with the Mesh?”

“It’s been disappointing, to be honest,” she said with a sigh. “A lot of rumors and some dead-ends. People are afraid of the Cumber. They think that they know everything, that by telling me anything concrete their families will be put in jail and that they’ll be sent to the Viyaz Desert. I’ve followed fourteen leads only to have the person renege at the last moment.”

“You know what the solution to that?” She shook her head at his question. “Money.”

“I’ve already offered a few gold for solid information.”

“A few? You have to really give them a reason to sacrifice their security. I will give you a pouch of thirty gold. That should be enough so that they could uproot themselves should they need to.”

“That might help.”

“Now, our missing viscount. I’ve put that one on the back burner, since the others were so large in scope, but that’s now our priority. Tel and I did a ground survey of the estate and you two did an interview with his family. Our general conclusion was that, since there were no signs of struggle and no ransom notes, that he left of his own accord. True?”

“Yes,” they both said, but Anla was hesitant. When Raulin picked up on it, he asked her to elaborate. “His parents said there was no reason why he would run away, but there was something off in their tone. I would press them a little more about it.”

“Well, I suppose it doesn’t matter why he left, just as long as he was nudged. That gives us more of a reason to believe he wasn’t kidnapped, which means we don’t explore those avenues.”

“What if he was?” Al asked.

“If the kidnappers were clever enough to take the viscount without any signs whatsoever, then I’m not likely to find him. It’s easier for me to explore the more likely path, that he left on his own.”

“How do you find someone who doesn’t want to be found, then?” Anla asked.

“He’s a viscount, not a baron, and his family’s estate looked rather posh. I’d gather he doesn’t have a good grasp on how to live on his own. He might have the education to find a job, but no connections to secure a good one. No survival skills, so he wouldn’t be on the streets, and since no money or possessions other than his clothes were missing, no way to leave New Wextif. He had to have been taken in by someone.”

“All family members nearby and friends’ houses were checked,” Al reminded him.

“Yes, but we haven’t checked.”

“You think he’s been hiding out in someone’s basement since March?”

Raulin clicked his tongue. “Probably not. That’s a good point, Wizard. Why escape whatever issue’s going on at home only to live in a prison? He would likely be somewhere he could move around and interact with people, unless he was a shy man. Hmm.”

“Do you think he was trying to leave the nobility?” Anla asked.

“Why would anyone want to leave the nobility?” Al asked. “You’re rich, well-connected, and you have everything you could want at your fingertips. I never understood why someone would make themselves a ceri.”

“I’ve heard being noble described as a ‘pretty yoke’,” Raulin said. “There’s little choice for your future. You have to accept that your life will be dictated for you; you’ll marry who they say you’ll marry and you’ll have the career they say you’ll have. Sometimes love and freedom are worth more to people than security.”

“Does it happen often?”

Raulin frowned and nodded his head back and forth. “Very rarely, but every once in a while I hear of one. They’re usually barons who don’t have much to walk away from in the first place. Viscounts leaving is even more of a rare occurrence, though it happens from time to time. The higher up the chain, the rarer. I do know of an Arvonnese don-principal who left everything to choose his own career as a doctor. It shocked the nation for some time.”

“It doesn’t make sense, though. Surely one could just learn to accept their problems.”

“Like being a Uranian?” Anla said tartly.

“Oh,” Al said. “Yes. Sorry, Raulin. I had forgotten about that.”

“Mmm,” he said sadly. “That reminds me; I should check in with Vanif, see how he’s doing. I assume the letter has done its damage. Anyway, places for runaway nobles to hide and live out their lives.”

“I can ask around the Mesh,” Anla offered. “I’m sure someone will have heard of a rogue noble.”

“He has a birthmark on his arm. That might help. Wizard?”

“Maybe he went to Amandorlam for training?”

“Not if he had no money, which none was missing. Wait, nobles can be trained as wizards?”

“Yes. They’re human, which means they have a one in four shot of being able to tap into either the Calm or the Unease. I knew a few lower-ranking nobles or third sons that attended.”

“Interesting. I should have realized one could have two forms of magic.  I’ll need to think about this more.”

* * *

It was that shift in thinking of nobles as humans and not just nobles that finally touched the match to the candle in Raulin’s mind. He journeyed to Varash Square early in the day, before the parade and well before the show, slipping inside the large tent. He made his way to Kazi’s room, relaxing in the hammock until Kazithu opened the door.

“Thanks, I’ll be sure to…kashratlet! Raulin, you will kill me some day. My heart doesn’t take well to trirecs sneaking in to my room.”

“We need to have a chat, Kazi. Sit, please.”

“Is there something wrong?” he asked, his eyebrows furrowing. “You have me a bit worried.”

“I need you to take me to him,” he said, sitting up.

“Who?” he asked, giving a nervous grin.

“Kazi. I promise I won’t hold this against you and I won’t be angry with you over any past transgressions. But, from this point on, you are impeding me in my contract and I won’t be happy about that.”

Kazithu looked away for a few moments, then gave a short shrug. “Follow me.”

They left his room and made their way back to the mess hall at the back of the tent. He put out his hand to stop Raulin, then beckoned someone in the room. The man who had seemed confused at Raulin’s request to meet with Kazithu, the one who had the strange conversation with Kazi on the night of the creveir party, left his lunch. “Master? You need me?”

Kazi moved to the side and the man saw Raulin standing there. He looked confused until Raulin grabbed his left arm and rolled up his sleeve. Sure enough, there was a birthmark that vaguely looked like a fish on his forearm.

“I’m sorry, Fietro, but I said we’d hide you only as long as you stayed hidden.”

He tried to jerk his hand back, but Raulin didn’t let go. “Leave me be! You have no right to do this!”

“I do. Your family hired me to find you. Seems they found you worth the price.”

“I can pay you.”

Raulin laughed. “No, you can’t. You ran away with clothes and nothing else, not even a copper. Are you going to find two hundred gold somewhere?”

“They only paid that much because of the betrothal. That’s all I am to them, some bargaining chip.  Please.”

“Regardless of what you are, you need to come with me. You can cooperate, or I can knock you out. Which would you prefer? I’ll admit I only hit that sweet spot on the side of the head once out of every three, so I might need to rough you up a bit.”

Fietro clenched his jaw, but answered, “I’ll cooperate.”

They turned and Raulin nodded at his friend. “Kazi.”

“I hope to find you in better circumstances next time. You owe me a story.”

The two were about halfway to the Kiinvar Estate when Fietro broke down. “Please, let me go. I don’t want to get married. I won’t say anything to anyone, I swear. Just let me go back to train as a creveir.”

“You don’t mean it.”

“Yes, I do! I was doing well at it! You can even ask Kazithu; he was helping to train me as a creveir.”

“If you really meant to leave the nobility, and I mean leave, you wouldn’t have been so careless. You would have saved money. You would have learned how to live as a commoner faster. And you would have cut your birthmark off and dyed your hair.

“You were just playing at running away. Sooner or later you’d look at your life and realize what you gave up and how miserable you were without your soirees and your fine clothing and trips to the Oloran Mountains. Four months is impressive, but I’m sure you were starting to miss your old life.”

“No! I loved it! I can’t go back to my family, please.”

“I have no choice in the matter, just like you don’t.”

He began to cry at that point. “I don’t want to marry her. I don’t even like her.”

Raulin sighed, his heart moved with pity for the kid. “Then negotiate. You’re an adult and this little stunt of yours should show your parents that you’re at least somewhat serious about leaving. Threaten them with the same if you don’t get what you want in life. And, no, joining the circus is not reasonable, but perhaps attending Amandorlam is. Or having your own estate, to get away from them. Whatever you want.”

Fietro seemed to think about this and said nothing even after Raulin dropped him off at his parent’s estate.

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