“You can barely see them in the lamp,” someone said in a language that was familiar, but not comfortable to him.

“He should have done a better job,” another said and he felt someone touch his forearms.

Raulin must have passed out again because he didn’t remember anything else being said. He awoke to the searing pain of someone cutting his arm, deep and without remorse. He screamed through clenched teeth and tried to break free of the bindings that kept him seated in a chair.

“Stop!” he yelled in Ghenian. “Why are you doing this?”

They didn’t listen. Five more times the sharp pain throbbed as knives sliced his flesh, warm blood trailing to the sides and dripping onto the floor. Without his mask and in the dim light, he couldn’t see much more than vague shapes and flashes of silver. It wasn’t enough in his current condition to guess beyond basic feelings of pain, anger, and a little bit of fear.

When it was done, he sagged and breathed heavily. He only had a few moments before someone struck him across the face. “Now, let’s talk, Raulin Kemor,” someone said in the same language, his voice reedy and young sounding. Raulin was conscious enough at that point to recognize it was Merakian.

“Who are you?” he asked. Merakian meant home-not-home, the place where he had learned to do just what they were doing to him. These were his brothers, but not his kin.

There was a meaty whap sound and the pain along his jaw blossomed. He spit out blood, but remained silent. Apparently, they didn’t want an equal exchange of information and his only reply to his inquiries would be injury.

Someone grabbed his jaw and he looked up to see a man in a mask, silver and darker in strips across the man’s eyes, nose, and mouth. Trirec. Yes, things were just starting to pass through the haze. “Admit that you killed him.”

“Who?” he asked and was rewarded with another punch to the face. His teeth felt loose and he spit another glob of blood onto the ground. He was here to exchange beads for money and was ambushed in the dark by… other trirecs?

Him. You killed him dishonorably, you cur. Admit it.”

“I’ve killed a lot of men. You’ll have to be more specific.” They had re-sliced his forearms into the shame sigil. The connection almost reached him.

“Stop,” another man said. “We won’t be able to understand him if we keep hitting his face.”

Which trirecs were these three, assuming the agent was in on it? He didn’t know many, other than those he had led out of the hedge maze in Miachin and Isken. The only other ones he’d encountered had been agents. He nodded slightly to himself. Agents in Iascond and in southern New Wextif who had made a note about what had happened with Afren. They must have gone rogue and decided to take justice into their own hands.

“You mean Afren Merak. Yes, I killed him,” he said and croaked as he was punched in the stomach, gasping for air.

“Tell us what happened.”

When he could finally breath again, he said, “It was not what I wanted.”

“Lies!” another yelled and he was clubbed in the head again. While it made him woozy, and he suspected he was bleeding heavily from thisnew wound, it didn’t knock him out. He moaned and slumped forward, hoping he could be given more time to recover while they waited for him to awake.

The first man who spoke sighed angrily. “You wanted answers, Ratzik. You cannot keep hitting him or else we will kill him.”

“Let’s,” the second said and Raulin heard him cuffed on his head.

“We cannot kill him. We have discussed this.”

“But, he killed my master…”

“Go, Ratzik. Curvot and I will handle this.”

Curvot? Yes, that was the agent from Iascond. Ratzik must have been the northern New Wextif agent, since the man asking the questions seemed to have the same calm demeanor he remembered from the southern agent. Raulin groaned and lifted his head slowly.

“Again, Kemor. Tell us what happened.”

“Happened?” he asked, then added quickly, “Afren. We were…pitted against each other. He was guarding a man that I was contracted to kill. We fought, more like we talked, and while we did someone else killed his employer.”

“Lies!” Ratzik said, though this time from the corner. “Afren would never have let a man sneak in and take the life of his protected!”

“I didn’t see him, either. We were distracted.”

“And so?” the first man asked.

“When we checked on his employer and found he was dead, we both enacted the code. I cut my arms, then slit his throat. It was hard.”

“That’s not what you said when we spoke,” Curvot said.

“Was I supposed to admit that I loved him like a father? We can’t form attachments. We can’t show loyalty or appreciation or favoritism. Why would I tell someone who would whisper back to the trivren in Hanala?”

“Yet, you admit your feelings.”

“I’m as guilty as you three are. Leaving your posts, going rogue to enact your vengeance on behalf of a cherished teacher. Whether you’re friends or just in a pact, you’ve broken the same code I did.”

“Never mind what we’re doing…”

“Oh, I will mind. And so will Arvarikor when they hear of this.”

“I wouldn’t breath a word, Kemor,” Curvot said, “unless you want them to know about the man and woman you keep company with, the ones who did your contracts for you.”

And then it finally clicked. “You told the Cumber. You’ve been watching me, waiting for me to strike on that theft so that you could tell them I was coming. How deep are you with them?”

“They are stupid miartha who thought they were getting a wonderful deal. Capture you, deliver you to us for one day, then we bring you to them to be arrested.”

“Idiots,” Raulin hissed and saw the two in front of him tense. “They tried to recruit me. The told me you had turned on me and tried to get me to join them. Did you think they were actually going to turn me over? They were going to either make me turn or torture me for the information they wanted.”

“Since you’re here it means you’re one of them,” Curvot said.

“No, I escaped because I am of Arvarikor and they are just the Cumber. If I was one of them, would I have come here to exchange money?”

“It could be a trap,” Curvot said to the first man.

“It’s not a trap,” Raulin said. “I told them how incredibly stupid it was to try to recruit one of us, then showed them by escaping their own building and city. Though I do promise that if you don’t let me go, I will do exactly what you did and will assist the Cumber until all three of you are caught.”

“Not if we kill you first,” Ratzik said from his corner.

“And to quote my friend here, I also have partners who check in on me. The Cumber isn’t coming for you, but my partners are and all three are skilled in magic.”

There was silence as the three trirecs thought about their situation. “Look,” Raulin said, feeling his head lurch for a moment, “if you plan on killing me, then finish me off. You’d be doing me a favor, really. I’m sure everyone in Arvarikor knows I’m dishonored and I’ll never get special treatment again. And now the Cumber knows there is a Noh Amairian trirec, so my one advantage is wiped out. I’ll never be able to do a full docket again and one false step will have me whipped to death anyway.”

“He’s right,” the first man said. “He’s worse off living than he would be dead.”

“But, he killed Afren!”

“Did he call you ‘son’, too?” Raulin asked. “Did he tell you about his wife and daughter?”

“Kemor, you spread vicious lies…”

“Yes,” Ratzik said, and that realization broke Raulin’s heart a little. He had always thought Afren and he had a special connection, a boy looking for a father just as much as a man looking for a son. It wasn’t that at all. Afren had picked at least one other to forge the same bond. He was just that type of man.

The first man pulled Raulin’s boot knife out and held it to his throat. “Our terms: We are finished. We will not speak of this day or what happened during it. No retaliation by our hands or the hands of any other. No trivren will learn of this or be involved. We will leave, then you will. Agreed?”

“Agreed,” he said. The knife was removed and the straps to his left arm were cut.

“Know the day you find yourself damned, and you will, we will celebrate by pissing on your grave.” The door opened then closed, and Raulin almost fainted. He cut his straps quickly and was surprised to find that, other than his mask being removed and put on the desk, they hadn’t touched his weapons or beads.

He seemed fine going down the stairs, but he stumbled once outside. Somehow he walked foot in front of foot until he reached Telbarisk.

“Raulin? Are you fine?”

“Take me… to the…ho…” he said before he passed out.

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