“Here’s the situation,” Raulin began when everyone was settled. “We have a stolen item that can be tracked resting in a difficult but not impossible place to get. It buys us a few days, perhaps a few weeks if they aren’t connected to anyone important, but eventually someone will draw the paperwork to excavate. Our best course of action is to finish my contract as quickly as possible, retrieve the inkwell, and leave for Ashven.”
“I would leave it,” Al said miserably.
Raulin took a few moments. “Do you…are you saying you want me to leave the inkwell behind, Wizard? I thought you cared an awful lot about it, or at least the contents inside.”
“I do. I’m just thinking that, if I were in your shoes, I would have turned it over, and me, to the police. It’s a stolen item, I stole it, I’m a thief. I don’t understand why you’re helping me.”
Anla shared a look with Raulin. “We help each other out, Al. You and I helped each other out and we saved a little girl from being sacrificed. It’s been working well ever since.”
“But why him?” he asked, gestured to Raulin. “Why does he help me? Why not turn it over, or sell it, or look inside?”
“Because it means something to you,” he responded. “There’s no reason why I can’t err on the side of kindness here and protect your asset, save what I said about our dilemma.”
“Is it because I’ve helped you before? Because I helped heal you in New Wextif and gave you the Unease for your Cumber job?”
Raulin opened his mouth to speak, but Anla held her hand up to stop him. There was something in Al’s tone that seemed different. She didn’t know what it was, but he didn’t sound like his normal, accusatory self. He was confused, she thought. “Are you having issues understanding why Raulin would do something nice?”
“I do nice things,” Raulin protested.
“But you do many that aren’t.”
“Al,” Anla began, “Raulin isn’t bad. I know you see him as an assassin, but he is a person. And he does good when he can.”
“Thank you,” he said quietly.
“You’re not understanding me,” Al said. “I’m saying why haven’t you hamstrung me? It’s what I would do in this situation, if I were you.”
“He’s not being personal,” Tel finally said. “He thinks that someone with Raulin’s background would have made a smart decision by turning him in and disposing of the item.”
“Yes!” Al said, splaying his hands. “Tel gets it!”
“Because I don’t want to, Wizard, just like I didn’t want to chastise you about who I found you speaking with the other day. Just like I accompanied you to your rendezvous tonight, since I had a feeling things weren’t going to go in your favor. There’s no need for me to be cruel, so I’m not going to be when I don’t have to be.”
Al put his head in his hands and shook his head. Raulin and Anla exchanged a glance, then looked at Tel, who shrugged. “Wizard, I was thinking of asking you for help with my contract, despite knowing how you feel about assassinations, but since your acting…”
“Yes!” Al said, removing his hands and grinning, “and I won’t owe you anything.”
“You don’t…you don’t ‘owe’ me anything right now.”
“I do, though! This is the way it works.”
No one said anything for a few moments as they tried to figure out exactly what was going through Al’s mind. “Is that what you want?” Raulin finally asked. “I don’t feel like you owe me anything. You helped me escape in Iascond. You healed me in New Wextif. We’re even as far as I’m concerned.”
“But, this means more.”
Raulin was a little concerned at Al’s tone, which seemed almost desperate to be free of whatever burden he felt. “Will you feel better if you help me take out Herodoti?”
“What do you need?”
“Well, I need to kill him.”
“I know. What can I do?”
Raulin looked at Anla and splayed his hands in resigned confusion. “I’m not sure. It’s always good to have a sharp pair of eyes and ears, both of which, for you, are sharper than most. You know this city better than anyone I could find. And you know things that would take me ages to ask or bribe people to get. I’ll try to keep your involvement more intellectual than physical.”
“That sounds fine.”
“All right, then we start early tomorrow.”
Anla followed Raulin to his room. “I don’t know,” he said preemptively as she closed the door behind them. “He’s acting strange and I don’t know what to do other than keep a short leash and let him do what he wants to do.”
“I can’t figure out what he’s feeling, which at this point means I know he’s not lying and I know he’s not sad.” She sighed bitterly.
“I’ll get to the bottom of it. And don’t be upset with yourself. You’re making progress with your magic. You’re untrained, there’s a lot to cover, and there’s very little to go on. It took me almost eight years before I reached a competent level as a trirec, even with teachers and tried and true methods.”
“You make a good point,” she said. She stalled while he started taking off his boots. “I think I should stay with Al tonight, to make sure he’s all right.”
“I agree,” he said, though he’d much rather her stay with him. He found he slept more peacefully than he normally did when she was by his side.
The next morning Raulin was surprised to find the wizard ready for the day in the common room. He dog-eared the page he was reading and shoved it into his pack without complaint.
“You’re up early. That’s…unusual,” Raulin said. “I don’t think we’ll be needing your pack, Wizard, but I admire your willingness to be prepared.”
“I don’t mind,” he said, slinging the straps over his shoulder. “I have lots of things in here that might come in handy. Remember how you needed the piece of chalk in Iascond?”
“Yes, but…well, how much does that thing weigh?”
Al unslung it and handed it to Raulin, who almost dropped it to the ground. “Whew, that’s got to be over fifty pounds.”
“It’s fine. I don’t really notice it anymore. It’s worth it, should you need something.”
“True, but I doubt I’ll need more than knives and rope at this point,” he said, handing Al his pack. The two left the hotel and began walking northerly down the street. “I’m going to need you to take us to the government district in a more scenic way.”
“Like, along the river?” Al asked.
“More like along alleys and side streets. Normally I’d go without my mask so that I wouldn’t get the looks I’ve been getting already, but I’m keeping it on today. And so, it would be best to be as inconspicuous as possible.”
“It wasn’t a problem in New Wextif,” Al said, and Raulin noted his voice lacked the slight hostility he usually had when speaking to him. In fact, he sounded almost servile.
“I could walk around New Wextif masked with one of you three with more ease because it’s a city that’s likely to have people who could afford the ten or twenty gold per day a trirec guard would cost. The larger the city, the less likely strange things would stand out. And I’d rather you keep a low profile as well. You’re also a suspicious man wanted by certain groups.”
“Too bad that’s not the good kind of wanted.”
Raulin laughed. “Now you know a little of my life.”
Al beamed at this before asking, “What is your life like, outside of this situation?”
“Lonely. I have a lot of acquaintances, but no real friends, a lot of trysts, but no real loves. I bounce around a country or countries, spending only days or a few weeks in one place before making a clandestine egress to my next target. You?”
“Nothing,” he said after a few sad moments. “Kiesh the Black makes what you do seem…nicer.”
“Kiesh the Black is a character in a romanticized novel for people who want to think that someone like myself has a good time doing what they do. Normally, I don’t have a problem with them because I don’t read them. I don’t talk about them and I don’t acknowledge them. But when people tell me my life sounds wonderful, it gets me a little irritated because I know what my life is like, and it isn’t anything like what’s in those books.”
“You did say you give yourself a nice vacation when you finish early.”
“I do. And I do my best to not be a trirec for a few months. I take a vacation mostly from myself, rather than away from everything.”
Al pondered this as they continued to wind their way to the government district. Raulin wondered if he had gotten too testy about himself. “How long have you lived here?” he asked Al.
“Almost eight years. I requested a posting and Amandorlam picked Whitney for me.”
“And you were okay with this choice?”
“The next on the list was Oukitz, in Fresta.” When Raulin gave a slight shrug, Al said, “It’s one of the cities in one of the wide, open duchies that has nothing around it for days but rocks and cacti. It butts against the Viyaz Desert.”
“I know I’m not what people would call a socialite, but even I didn’t want that kind of life.”
“Would you prefer to sit around a hotel reading books or joining in on events?”
Al took a deep breath. “I’ve made a decision since I’ve started traveling with you three. When the year is done, I want to be a vizier. That’s a catch-all wizard who will perform everything from Touch wizardry to scouting to personal guarding for one person or family, usually a noble. Picturing myself in that capacity, I would want to do a mixture of serving and relaxing.”
“I think most people would. Everyone wants to achieve a nice balance in life.” Raulin clicked his tongue in thought. “Wizard, would you like me to ask around, see if any of the nobles I bump into are looking?”
“You’d do that?”
“Well, not me, but Marin Liasorn would. I wish you had said something when we were in New Wextif. An unattached, cross-switching wizard that works well either alone or on a team is an easy sell.”
The grin that spread across Al’s face was so genuine and bright that Raulin hated to interrupt his hopes. “We’re here,” he said. He was guessing, but unless pubs started raising copious amounts of flags on their facades, this was the government section of Whitney.
“There are a lot of buildings here,” Raulin said. “I don’t suppose you know…”
“Tarrint Hall,” Al said, pointing down the boulevard. “Or, well, a building on the property. Tarrint Hall is the seat for the viscount and his family. There’s one building for non-noble employees of the city.”
“That doesn’t seem good for my position. I’m guessing there’s lots of guards and limited access?”
“I don’t suppose you know where Herodoti lives?”
Al shook his head. “I could tell you a few potential neighborhoods that some of my old clients lived in, but it would be incomplete.”
“Thought I’d ask. I’m assuming he’ll be working until the evening?”
“Unless he has other functions. Or there’s a session. Or he’s sick…”
Raulin clicked his tongue. “Okay, how far down this street can you see?”
Al stuck his head around the corner, gripping onto the granite corner for support. “Eight buildings down with enough clarity to differentiate between two people standing next to each other.”
“Gods, man, that is impressive. All right. I need to go fetch Anla and Tel. We’re close to the edge of our tether, so don’t move from this spot. Just watch Tarrint Hall. If you see him leave, remember where he goes and with whom. It’ll help immensely.”
Al leaned against the building, trying to look casual. To Raulin, he was broadcasting his intentions by examining his nails and looking up every three seconds, but he held his tongue. Things were going well between them and he wasn’t sure how much good cheer he had racked up with the wizard today.
Twenty minutes later, Al looked up to see a small group of men in black uniforms with yellow and navy striped sashes over their coats. Al could see the light glinting off the swords by the mens sides as they formed a cross protecting a man in the middle. Since he wore a formal navy coat, Al highly suspected he was Herodoti, the Commons Representative.
Al stayed right where he was, glancing up every half-minute to keep his eye on the group. He was content to obey Raulin, until they moved five buildings away. Then, six, seven… They were slowly paced, but it was only going to be a few minutes before they walked out of his visual range.
Raulin, Anla, and Tel would be coming soon. They’d see him walking down the street, he convinced himself, before he began a brusque pace down the boulevard.