Kikiyan did not pass Raulin’s city quality test. He could dismiss the weird looks given by the locals, since not only did they have a trirec, but a man in a cart and a giant among them. The other two points failed by its own neglect: the streets were muddy and full of potholes and the houses were only two stories high, many disheveled and even crooked. He saw one house’s eaves propped up by raw timber. Since they hadn’t even left the Route of the Woods, he doubted the standard was going to be much higher.

There had to be nicer places, of course. He was there to rob a house and someone had paid three hundred gold for the contract. After asking directions to a nicer part of Kikiyan, they found their money stretched further than in New Wextif and they were able to rent a suite for a reasonable price.

It was a pleasant room, perhaps not grand, but far nicer than the cramped spaces and poorly decorated rooms they were used to. The master bedroom had a davenport where they deposited Al, who had been carried up the five flights of stairs over Telbarisk’s shoulder. The smaller room was decorated for a child with a toy chest, several dolls, and a model ship on a dresser. Sakilei stepped in, looked around, and said, “This will do,” before putting his satchel on the floor.

Raulin quickly looked around, not even conscious that he was checking for spy holes and false-backed furniture, like he had been trained to do. “Tel! Come look at the bathtub. It’s large enough for you to take a bath.”

“What’s a bath?” he asked while Anla ran to the bathroom.

“Mine!” she said.

“Hey, I found it first. I think I should get the first soak.”

She tried to squirm past Raulin, who caught her with his left arm and moved her back out into the common room amidst her laughter. “I don’t understand,” Sakilei said. “Why don’t you two take a bath together?”

Raulin let go of her immediately, paused for a few moments, then moved to put his pack in the master bedroom. Anla decided it was worthwhile to check out the bathroom without him. Sensing the tension, Sakilei turned to Telbarisk. “I’m confused. I thought they were…well, not married, but in some sort of relationship.”

“I don’t believe it to be a simple thing between them,” Tel said. “They seem happy with whatever they are to one another, so I say nothing and let them enjoy their affections.”

“It suppose it really never is a simple thing,” he responded.

Raulin returned from an early morning stroll the next day with breakfast for the group. Anla fed Al fruit and porridge and gave him a bath while the rest ate. Al chewed and swallowed, and listened when she asked him to do things, like walk to the bathroom, but he still wouldn’t speak or acknowledge anyone. He mainly slept or stared ahead.

“What are you doing today?” Anla asked Raulin once Al was back on the davenport.

“Initial observation,” he answered, eating an orange.

“Do you mind some company?”

“No,” he said after some deliberation. “I think it would be all right.”

She changed into her nicer clothing, the tan blouse and multi-colored skirt, and joined him as they left the hotel. He took his mask off in an alley and circled around to meet her on the street. “Do you know I’ve been here before?” she said. “It was a long time ago, but my father took us to Kikiyan for a vacation.”

“Really? So you can show me around then?”

“Hardly. I was four or five when we visited. Some things feel a little familiar, but I don’t remember enough to know where things are.”

“That’s fine. We’ll just be casual and ask a few helpful people for some directions.”

They walked arm-in-arm down Shausley, a wide street lined with some very impressive estates. “How do you approach your contract?” Anla asked. “You must be starting your planning already.”

“Absolutely. There are basically three ways to steal an item from a home. Four, actually, but that last one is unlikely. I need to fight in for it, sneak in, or be invited.”

“What’s the fourth?”

“Ask for it.”

“And has that ever worked?”

“No…yes, actually. Once. I was in Toldaum, in Arouk, and needed to steal a painting. I called in a lot of favors and did a little blackmailing, but wound up establishing myself enough that I could ask the owner to lend me the painting for an art exhibit. I had a forger make a copy and gave that back to the owner, giving the real copy to the man who wanted it. So, it’s possible, but neither I nor Marin Liasorn have any reputation here, so I’m going to rule that one out.”

“And the other three?”

“Likely ruled down to one. Every estate I’ve seen on this road has ten foot walls and guards posted at the gates. I could kill the guards, but even my bloodthirsty order suggests leaving that as a last resort. I could also climb the walls, but…” He gestured to his arm, still in a sling. “Maybe in a few days I’ll be fine to scale, but I don’t think it will be easy. I suspect the reason these houses are well-protected is due to the fact that Kikiyan has a wide gap between the rich and the poor and high crime rates because of it. Thus, there might be two guards at the gate, but what beyond?”

“Which leaves ‘be invited’. How are you going to get some nobleman to invite you into his house if you don’t know him?”

“I don’t.” He waited for her to give him a beckoning look before continuing. “A nobleman is only a fraction of the people that work or live in a house. You have maids, guards, valets, butlers, groomsmen, caretakers, chefs, attendants, footmen, clerks, and so on. Even those who live in the household will carry on with their own lives, leaving for their days off or for personal events.”

“So, you find some young man who wants to have a good time, take him out for a few drinks, and befriend him?”

“Hmm,” he said. What was the best way to broach this subject? Would Anla even care? “Ideally, if I thought I could get chummy with a fellow enough for him to bring me to his workplace, I’d do that. I’d need to find someone who is the type to be so impressed with a new friend that he would risk his job. Those kinds of lads tend to be weeded out quickly or collared by an older mentor, I’ve found.

“No, what works best, my tried and true method, involves women. There are a lot more avenues to pursue and it’s easier for me to adopt a scenario and character that fits the situation. Friendship is wonderful, but passion is better suited.”

She nodded slowly and straightened her spine. While he guessed she probably wasn’t pleased with the revelation, she shouldn’t be surprised. He’d admitted this was part of his job a long time ago. Besides, this was actually an ideal situation for Raulin. Anla had made it clear that she didn’t want to carry out a romantic relationship with him, therefore freeing him to find dalliances elsewhere. They were not tied to each other by any promises or understandings. She couldn’t object to this fairly.

“How do you find someone suitable, then?”

“I stake out the house and watch who enters and leaves, writing down times, descriptions, and additional notes. I prefer the ones in uniforms, especially those leaving a group. That means they work a shift and will be in the house for a period of time, but will also come and go with some freedom to do so.”

“And from there?”

“I pick one, tail them home, and observe what they do, trying to find an opening that will work. People have at least one hobby or regular place they go to, and I make it my focus to make it mine. I’ll then move quickly to establish a relationship, and try to get them to invite me to their work.”

“And what if they don’t want to have a relationship established?” she asked.

He had felt her hand stiffen on his arm when he first mentioned his plan. Now, he felt himself tense at her question. He dropped his arm and said, “If you’re implying what I think you are, then I’m displeased with where our conversation is going. I am a better man than that.”

“I was just curious at how hard you pressed a situation,” she said, not sounding apologetic at all.

“Not very hard. If I’m to get a woman to invite me into an estate, she needs to be amenable to the idea, offering it herself if I can manage that. Abuse of any kind tends to not work. Not that I’ve tried it,” he said with some disgust. “I’d imagine a woman who suddenly felt very uncomfortable around a man would find herself surrounded by allies at her work. I understand the wizard must have rubbed off on you somewhere, but I really have no interest in killing, stealing, raping, or fighting people if I don’t have to.”

She folded her hands in front of her and was quiet for a few moments. “You’re right. I’ve never known you to seek that sort of thing. I’m sorry to have questioned it.”

“Thank you,” he said, and stopped them across the street from his targeted household. As he had expected, there were high walls and guards posted at the gates. “This part tends to get boring. You don’t need to stay on my account.”

“I’ll keep you company for a little while longer. I can fetch you lunch.”

“That would be nice.”

She stayed by his side, offering her own observations as he wrote down what he saw in his notebook. She brought him a sandwich from a delicatessen down the street, and later dinner consisting of a noodle dish in a bowl with cheese and vegetables. She left after that and Raulin spent a few more hours watching the house. He didn’t need to, though. Shortly after Anla had left, a group of three young women in blue dresses with pinned back hair left together. He knew immediately that it was going to have to be one of them.

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