“Our guest is going with me,” the director said, speaking loudly into the hallway. As Raulin left, he saw several men with crossbows on either end in what was called the Pinned Rood Formation; five men, two resting their weapons on the shoulders of the middle man and the other two resting theirs on their knees. One false move and he’d potentially have ten bolts in places he didn’t want them, namely his body. He was flattered.
Fremark led him up all four flights of stairs to an office that took up four smaller office spaces. He invited Raulin to sit and offered him a drink. “Brandy? Wine?”
“Water, if you have it,” conceding that his throat was burning from thirst. “I never drink when I’m on the job.”
“I do appreciate a man with a good work ethic,” he said, pouring him a glass from a pitcher. Raulin sniffed the glass and tongued the rim, testing for poisons. He knew the man didn’t want him dead, but incapacitated or eager to please were likely possibilities. Thankfully, the serums he knew to do either had distinctive smells. He gambled that the Cumber didn’t have their own and drained the glass.
“Fascinating,” Fremark said, gesturing to the bottom piece of his mask. “May I?”
Raulin tucked it away in his knapsack as an answer. “You were saying something about a proposition.”
“Yes,” the director said. He sat behind his desk, which blocked the two windows in the room, and lit the gas lamp. “Trirecs are one of very few people on Yine that are the bane of the Cumber’s existence. Every time we investigate a situation that involves one of your order, we are left befuddled. You sneak in like a shadow, kill or steal without difficulty, and vanish in the night. It makes us nervous and frustrated.”
“Thank you, and it should.”
Raulin could tell from the man’s look that he didn’t take kindly to his response, but he said nothing, sipping on his own glass of whiskey and weighing his words. “Do they teach you of western history?”
“Some. It’s always good to know things.”
“Do you know of the Skirmish of Carmitage, which took place in Okil against the Kitstuaran clansmen that took it upon themselves to reclaim lost territory?”
“If I remember correctly, the Kitstuaran clansmen dressed as Okilians and slaughtered many village heads and nobles over the course of a few nights.”
“Correct. It was brought up in a meeting about our ongoing trirec problem. Not a precise example, but if we could ‘dress’ like a trirec, we could in turn know how to prepare ourselves against one. We could learn to be one in order to fight one.”
“And I take it I’m that tailor.”
“Just a fraction of your secrets would make us the best in the world,” Fremark said. “And we would pay handsomely for them.”
Raulin paused, considering the implications. “Just so I understand, you took out a contract against yourself, in hopes of luring a trirec to take it, so you could catch him and offer him the opportunity to commit treason against his order by divulging all of Arvarikor’s secrets, thus hoping to nullify the order.”
“That’s the crux of it.”
“I’ll have to pass, with respect.”
“You haven’t even heard my offer with it…”
“I don’t need to,” he said, leaning back in his chair. “Betraying my order would be suicide. You think your service has eyes and ears everywhere, you haven’t seen what Arvarikor is capable of, even in a foreign country where each of its men sticks out on the streets like a poorly set cobblestone. It would take one, just one, trirec to hunt me down and kill me.”
“What if I said you’d be protected all day, every day by my men?”
“I’d say your men would have to be trained very quickly to combat whomever they send against me.”
“It would be our priority.”
“And after I spill my secrets and train your men? How quickly until I find myself garroted in the middle of the night or have an unfortunate ‘accident’?”
Fremark chuckled. “You have a healthy appetite for dark futures.”
“No, I have a firm understanding of what men do with old mares and worn clothing.”
“I’m sure some organizations would do that once they have what they need. But, why would we kill a well-trained spy? You would be recruited, of course, and rushed through our ranks until you’re at an appropriate level. We’d pay you well and you’d receive some perks I believe you can’t enjoy as a trirec.”
As well as Raulin was holding against the idea, he had to admit that was a bit tempting. He didn’t care about the pay, of course, but a wife? Kids? A home? For one very long moment, he thought a future where he courted Anla and married her, found some quiet place outside the city, and raised a family. “Would I get a nice uniform?” he asked brightly.
Fremark blinked. “For official capacities we have uniforms, but as a spy you’d wear regular clothing. We’d keep your identity a secret.”
“Aw. No fancy cape? No pretty buttons on my cuffs?”
“You’re mocking me.”
“Of course I’m mocking you,” Raulin said, folding his arms. “This idea is ludicrous. The Cumber is quite the network, I’ll grant you that. You have the support of Gheny, the law, and the king. You’re hard to find and work well in the shadows. But, you’re not Arvarikor. We are everywhere and we are ruthless. That doesn’t hinder us from doing what we need to do to get the job done.”
“You kill indiscriminately, muck up treaties, and sow chaos.”
“Would it help if I told you we aren’t indiscriminate? We get dozens of assassination contracts yearly for some very high profile people that we reject. Even we understand that killing monarchs and bishops is a bad idea, for us if not for everyone; a nation in political turmoil is generally not a place that’s conducive to contracts nor is it safe enough for trirecs.”
“That helps a modicum, but you’re still operating outside the law. We are tasked with keeping the law. Two opposite ends that can be bridged by cooperation. All we need is you.”
“Why haven’t you gone to the offices in Riyala or Hanala and spoken with one of the heads?”
“A bit risky, to be honest, and not likely to get the results I want.”
“Mmm. So, you wish for me to break my honor and code of ethics so that you can in turn break Arvarikor and achieve what I’m sure will be some personal glory.” He stood and Fremark jumped to the ready. “My answer is ‘no’ and I’m sure you’ll find the same no matter how many contracts you issue.”
“I’m sorry we couldn’t come to a pleasant arrangement,” the director said, pulling his blade. “We’ll have to do it the hard way.”
“Ah, so that’s the choice, then: accolades or torture. I hope you won’t think me rude if I’m not around for the latter.”
“Escape? I have my men stationed in the hallway.”
“Yes, but there’s only one man standing in between me and the window. And now I present a choice for you: what do you value more?” He leaned forward and knocked the lamp to the floor, instantly igniting the oil.
Surprisingly, Fremark ignored it and engaged Raulin, who had ducked to the left side of the desk. Knives usually had the advantage in close range, and Raulin also had his light-intensifying mask, but it only took one mistake for the point of the director’s rapier to pierce his chest in a shallow wound. It would have been worse had the man not grab his wrist in pain and drop his sword.
“Who are you?” he asked, his eyes wild in the flames.
“Why do you ask questions you should already know the answers to?” Raulin asked before climbing out the window and dropping two stories to the top of the covered walkway, rolling to avoid breaking his legs.
The alarm was raised immediately and he set off running to the Amanstri Gate. He ducked into alleys when he could, zig-zagging to shake his tail. He could either run through the gate and risk people realizing his secret or hide and wait for the commotion to die down. Neither was a great choice, but one of them wouldn’t endanger his order’s security.
For the next hour he played an exhausting game of cat-and-mouse. He led the guards all throughout Shingden, moving them back towards the main gate, hiding in alleys, behind crates, in shops and restaurants, running once he heard them approach. He took to the roofs and watched as they floundered to find him, finally looking up and pointing him out to their comrades.
And then he led them back to the Amanstri Gate and hid in a cart parked outside a shop. He heard the posse catch up and calls were made to split up to search for him. He itched to run, but held out. If they did discover him, at least there would only be a few of them to give chase.
He risked taking off his mask and pretended he had just woken up from a drunken nap. He didn’t see anyone around, but that didn’t mean no one saw him. He took his time meandering to the Amanstri Gate and slipped through, Scot-free.
It was a long walk back to the hotel. The three were waiting in the common room, jumping up when he arrived. “How did it go?” Anla asked. When he said nothing and walked up the stairs to his room, she followed. “Raulin?”
He ushered them in and waited until they were all seated before locking the door. He turned and asked, “Which one of you betrayed me?”