Al whipped around and took a step back when he recognized the speaker. “Ember? What are you doing here?”
“I am here to claim what’s rightfully mine, Alpine,” she said, her thin eyebrows knotting. “You owe me fifty gold and a chalice, if I’m not mistaken.”
“You are,” he said, licking his lips. “The fifty gold was to bring the chalice to you. You never specified when. And the chalice isn’t yours, or your ‘family’s’. If anyone can claim ownership it’s the Brotherhood.”
“The Brotherhood let it sit on some shelf for years,” she said, casually lighting a cigarette in its holder. “If they’d wanted it, they would have gotten it. It was I who found it, confirmed what it was, and made progress to get it.”
“Doesn’t make it any more yours.”
“And it doesn’t make it yours, either. Our contract actually would give credence to my stake, since our agreement means that you are still in transit with the chalice.”
“If you’d like, I’d be happy to give you the fifty gold back. You can even tell Jindahl and Stohr about the fire, about me assaulting one of their employees, and about being an unregistered switcher.”
Ember removed the cigarette from her mouth and laughed, something that would be flirtatious from a different woman. “Oh, Alpine. I’m so glad my plan worked. Too bad I won’t be able to see the fruits from that labor.”
“Plan?” What are you talking about?”
“I didn’t want some simpering, sniveling little coward to work for me,” she said, the smoke curling around her. “I wanted a man, someone who could take risks and think for themselves. Someone who wasn’t going to run to me every time there was an issue or problem. And that you were not.
“I had an opportunity to get you under my thumb, get a switcher to fill in all those positions I had to decline and lose money over. So, I devised our little three task situation, knowing you devoured those heroism books. You were more reluctant than I thought, especially for someone who claimed he would have single-handedly saved the Arvonnese royal family, but you did them in the end. And, unless my initial judgment of you is poor, you’ve changed. You’re not the timid little creature I remember. You’ve definitely got the bravado to walk back into the city where you’re still wanted for theft. You’re exactly what I was hoping those tasks were going to do: make you into a valuable employee.
“But, things have grown difficult for me since you’ve left. Jindahl and Stohr were quite upset that you left without notice. You’re relationship with them is beyond tarnished, so I doubt I could hire you again. And, of course, I’ve been accosted by the police and investigators despite having an alibi that evening. I wouldn’t stick my neck out for you even if you rained necklaces. I am, however, willing to keep quiet about your appearance in Whitney if you’ll bring me the chalice.”
“It wouldn’t help me, since I still have the inkwell,” he said. “And why would I bring you the chalice anyway?”
“I didn’t come alone tonight. My men are just around the corner, waiting to ambush you.”
“Are they?” Raulin asked, snapping his knives back to his sides as he turned the corner to the alley. “The big guys with the batons, right? I don’t think they’ll be ambushing anyone tonight.”
Ember’s eyes grew wide. “A trirec,” she whispered. “How…how did you afford…did you sell the chalice? Alpine, tell me you didn’t sell the chalice.”
“Wizard, I think it would be best to keep our mouths shut and depart as soon as possible.”
“Tell me you still have it!”
Raulin studied her quickly, the light from the streetlamp inadequate for most, but not for a trirec with an enhanced mask. On her he saw something that made their departure more than urgent. “We leave now,” he said, grabbing Al’s arm.
Al didn’t protest, but he did question the sudden insistence in his voice. “You saw something. What’s wrong?”
“Take me some place that we can talk, otherwise, shut your mouth.”
Al knew places, but most were legitimate businesses and well-lit streets that weren’t deserving whatever was going on. After collecting Telbarisk at an already set point, and moving him somewhere else, he led Raulin miles across the city, into Scarinjou, past the stunned looks of the men he once loathed calling him brother, and to a secluded cemetery on a hill. “This is the quietest place I know that no one would look for me.”
“’As silent as the grave’,” Raulin said, leaning against what he thought was a columbarium to catch his breath.
“Why did you want me to take you here?”
“She’s part of the Sun-Moon Guild,” he said.
“So? Wait, what’s that?”
“You remember how I told you there will be some things I won’t be able to tell you because it will endanger both of our lives? This is one of those things.”
Al sighed in frustration. “What can you tell me, then?”
“First tell me who she is.”
“Ember is the manager of Milxner’s, which takes care of the less reputable wizards’ work in Whitney. I mean, not all of it’s bad, like jobs for lifting crates or guarding, like what Aggie does, but some of it is, like…”
Raulin held up his hand. “I get what wizards can do. I’m interested in her.”
“I don’t know her well, since she was in a different part of the building. She caught me punching a wall and it led to blackmail and then me running away with the chalice.”
“Punching a wall?”
“It shook the whole building and almost burned the place down.”
Raulin whistled. “I’ll have to remember you don’t do things in small measures. Actually, I shouldn’t be surprised; I saw what you did to that guy in New Wextif outside of the shipping yard. You beat him like a rug.” He clicked his tongue in thought. “So, what I can tell you is that the reason why she had you steal the chalice was she needed it for a group.”
“She said her family was descended from Mikros and that she wanted it brought to its rightful place.”
“I’m pretty sure that was a lie.”
Al’s spine straightened. “Wait, was the part about having a working relationship with her family a lie, too? Did I break a law that I thought was inconsequential but actually isn’t?”
“I don’t know, Wizard, but just because someone lies about one thing doesn’t mean they lie about everything. Personally, I think you’re safe. Why would the Cumber waste resources on one wizard who has no ties to the peerage?
“What I can tell you about the Sun-Moon Guild is that it’s a group that’s pretty powerful in shadowy ways. They’re a bit regressive, though, obsessed with the Twelve. In order to join the guild you need to present a deitic artifact.”
“How do you know that’s what she wanted the chalice for?”
“Her brooch,” he said, tapping on his collarbone. “She’s awaiting induction, otherwise it would be filled in with color.”
“And how do you know about this ‘Sun-Moon Guild’?”
“That would be the point where we stop our discussion. What I’ve told you thus far is on par with all the other things I’ve told you about being a trirec, which is already too much.”
“Do you really think I’m going to be captured by someone and beaten until I spill your secrets? Besides, I can handle it.”
“Wizard, you probably shouldn’t say that unless you’ve been tortured before.”
“Why, have you?”
“As a matter of fact, yes,” Raulin said, wiping his hands nonchalantly on his sleeves.
“Oh, you know, I was bored and I thought it might be fun to try out.” He scoffed. “Wasn’t my idea. Arvarikor does everything to you that you could possibly have to endure, short of disfigurement and permanent damage. It’s good to know where your breaking point is, so that you’re prepared to go further when that moment arises. You learn a lot of things, I suppose.”
“Oh,” Al said.
“Now, you’re going to walk back to Telbarisk, then our hotel. You remember where he is? I’m going to follow you and make sure you’re not being followed by someone else. And I want you to do me one favor while we’re going to the hotel.”
“I want you to think on how Ember knew you were going to be at that bar at that time. Go.”
Raulin moved to a darker part in the cemetery, only visible to Al because he had seen him move there. He led them down through the other side, down to the main road and on to the park in Dryside where Tel was resting, or collecting kil.
And, Al thought. There was a glaring answer to the question of how Ember knew where to find him and when, but he wanted to be fair. He gave it some serious consideration, pondered many alternatives, and returned right back to his original assumption.
“Aggie sold me out,” he said to Raulin, once Tel was with them.
“I was his friend. How could he do that to me?”
“Likely for the money, which I’m sure he has a hard time holding on to. She is his boss, too, and brownie points are always nice. I’m sure when you left earlier this year she offered a reward if you ever came back, to set you up for a trap.”
“I’d never sell him out! I’ve never told his wife about his infidelities. Maybe I should, though. Maybe he deserves it.”
“Maybe he does deserve it, but think of who you’d be hurting the most there. As it is, he’s married with children and he supports them. If you tell his wife, she’ll either be forced to divorce him or forgive him, which is tantamount to sanctioning his dalliances. Either way, she’ll be the one in pain, not him. He may still love her, but he stopped respecting her a long time ago.”
“But, it’s only fair! I’m glad I found out my wife was having an affair; I’d hate to go through life not knowing.”
“That’s you. As someone as prolific and as sloppy as Aggie seems to be, I doubt he’s been perfect in covering his tracks. Likely, she strongly suspects already, if she doesn’t know. Don’t force her to make the next step.
“And also ask yourself: would you be telling his wife to help her or because you want revenge against Aggie?”
That gave Al some pause. He was about to answer, falsely, that it had nothing to do with revenge when the three of them heard a “psst!” from an alleyway two streets down from the hotel. Raulin, telling them to hold off for a moment, turned down the alleyway and waited until Anladet moved out from the shadows.
“We have a situation,” she said.