12-7

“That’s…no,” Al said, standing with his fists clenched. “That’s wrong. She would never hire a trirec!”

“Do you know what else it could be?” Anla asked.

He stared at the icon. “I don’t know everything. It could be…a Br’vani antique, or something to do with the Twelve, or…or anything, Anla!”

“It could be,” she said soothingly, “but why would she hide it?”

“To make sure no one stole it. This could be worth a lot of money. It looks…”

Anla walked over and gently took it from Al, holding it up to the oil lamp in the corner. “It looks tarnished, Al, and there are scratches and dings. If it’s an antique, it’s not well cared for.”

“Maybe it’s rare,” he said. “Maybe this is the only one.”

“Why hide a priceless antique? Why would someone buy that, only to hide it in a secret location?”

I don’t know!

She placed the icon on the nightstand and waited a few moments. “There’s only one way to find out.”

Al grabbed the icon from the table and walked toward the door, freezing before he reached the threshold. “I can’t,” he said, turning towards Anla. “I can’t ask her that.”

She let him wrestle with his thoughts for several minutes. She couldn’t imagine what was going through his mind, whether he felt conflicted, betrayed, hurt, or all. Finally, he sighed angrily and left the room.

He stomped down to his madra’s room and pounded on the door. When she didn’t open immediately, he opened her door and stormed in. “What is this?” he asked.

His madra was sitting up, tying the sash around her robe. “Dominek, what is the meaning of this?”

“This,” he said, waiting for her to light her oil lamp before holding it up. “What is this?”

She walked over to him and snatched the icon from his hands. “This is none of your concern, rino. Just because you’ve taken an abendi wife and you work for an abendi doesn’t mean you are one. You should be ashamed at asking your madra about her business.”

“No.” Her eyes narrowed and her mouth tightened, but he didn’t back down. “I will not feel shame at asking you about this. Tell me, does this mean you hired a trirec?”

She looked down at the icon. “Dominek, there are things in this world you don’t understand…”

“Madra, no.”

“Do not judge me! I have made tough decisions, terrible decisions, for the greater good.”

“This isn’t what you taught me. You said…you said that I had to obey, that I had to be good. Play by the rules, you said. You laid them out before me, taught me to be a good person…”

“Rino,” she said with a sigh. “Sit. Listen to what I have to say.” She sat on the edge of her bed. Al decided to stand. “He doesn’t play fairly.”

“Who?” he asked.

“His name is Varan Whiskef. He is a competitor of mine.”

“And since when does that make it okay to kill someone?”

“It doesn’t. I know that. And I know what I taught you. But he isn’t just competing with my business. I wouldn’t have a problem with that. It’s how he does it.

“He’s turning the people of Baradan against not just me, but against all Br’vanese. He spreads vicious rumors, tries to get me arrested on false charges, sabotages the boats… Those are honest, hardworking people he’s hurting just to get at me. His men have already killed three Br’vanese workers. Another dozen were arrested. This isn’t an assault on my business; this is against all of us living here.”

“There are no exceptions to murder,” he said, shaking his head. “You always said there are things that way heavily on a woman’s soul because she knows they are wrong. If you have this man murdered, you will hate yourself for it.”

She folded her hands in her lap. “I’m willing to accept it.”

“Madra!” he said in exasperation. “How can you say this?”

“I have put much thought into this, Dominek. Whether I am caught or cannot bear the guilt, I am willing to take on this burden.”

“Madra…it’s not too late. If he still lives, you can reverse the assassination.”

“Dominek!” she said, standing. “My decision is final.”

He ground his teeth for a moment, then turned to the doorway to see Anla standing not far from the entrance. “We’re leaving,” he said.

She had moved their bags to the doorway, just in case, and grabbed them. He led the way to the front door, his mother right behind them.

“Al,” she said once they were outside, “are you sure you can’t talk this out with your mother?”

“I don’t speak with hypocrites,” he said, turning to flash a glare at his mother, who stood impassive in the doorway.

All other attempts at starting a conversation were met with silence. They walked the distance back, the air cold and the sunset just a smudge of orange and fuschia on the horizon. She took a moment to fish her wool cloak out from the bottom of her pack, shaking off bread and cheese crumbs. Al wouldn’t offer her his suit jacket no matter how hard she shivered. She had always thought him oblivious to recommended social graces, but after spending time with his family, she thought there might be another reason.

She thought back to the bet he’d made and was confused. He must think her a capable woman, one who’d take care of her own warmth or hunger, but still needed intervention to preserve her good name. Maybe it had nothing to do with her and everything to do with Raulin, specifically how Al felt about his morality. If Al thought Anla was worse than Raulin, would he have tried to “protect” her? There was definitely something in her past that she was never going to tell Al about.

Anla would have tried to talk with him, but Al went to the room he was sharing with Telbarisk and closed the door. He needs time, she thought, and went to her room.

Raulin was sitting at the desk in the corner, reading by oil lamp. He reached for his mask until she said, “It’s just me.”

He turned. “I thought you said you and the wizard were going to be gone until tomorrow.”

“Change of plans,” she said, taking off her cloak and hanging it on the peg behind the door. “How is your contract coming along?”

“I’m within striking distance. I’ll be done soon, likely two or three days, then we can leave for Whitney.”

“Is there any way you can wait a little longer?” she asked.

He raised his eyebrows. “You want to stay here? Haven’t gotten your fill of chowder yet?”

“It involves the thing Al asked me not to talk about.”

“Ah,” he said. “Well, I will be following my target tomorrow, and the next day, and the next. If I see an opportunity, I’ll have to take it. But, I can exercise more caution than I normally do. Should put me in with the sane people for once.”

“Thank you,” she said. “Anything I can help with?”

He clicked his tongue for a few moments. “Well, you’d make a very striking distraction, should I need it. I’ll try on my own first. Thank you for the offer.”

She nodded her head and smiled. “What are you reading?”

He sat the book down on the desk. “Promise you won’t say anything? I thought I’d read one of those alley novels the wizard loves so much.”

“Really?” she said with a laugh. “I’m a bit surprised.”

He shrugged. “The curiosity got the best of me. My mark is at a late meeting tonight, so I had some time to waste.”

“And?”

“Anla, it’s pure drivel. It’s melodramatic, far-reaching, and sloppily written. But,” he said, pausing to sigh, “I get why it’s so addicting. If you crave the hope this book supplies, I bet you’d run to the book store to get the next.”

“Are you saying Al needs hope?”

“Why not?” he said with a shrug and a grin. “A lot of people do.”

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