Gheny was much more boring than Raulin remembered. They had stepped back onto the Route of the Woods after another overnight in Anla’s village. A passing caravan driver had given them an odd look when they had emerged onto the crossroads from the directions pointing to the Dreelands. The Route was just a route, dirt, stones, trees and grass if it wasn’t cut back. It wasn’t interesting.
Raulin felt as if he had lost something important. Everyone else actually had. Identity, hope, a friend. None were feeling great about walking towards Declinst, a large town in the southern third of Ashven. All four might have agreed to turning around at the crossroads and returning to the Dreelands, but none suggested it. Whether they wanted to or not, they had promised Raulin he would finish his docket by the end of their year together. Anla still needed to find her siblings, Tel needed to learn about Gheny, and Al still needed to figure out what he wanted to do with his life.
It took them almost a week to walk to Declinst. They took two inn rooms in town and ate a meal of chicken cordon bleu, carrots, and wild rice for dinner, Tel preferring a vegetable-laden casserole with the meat picked out. It was pouring, the rain dripping from the window next to the private booth they had taken at one of the restaurants in town.
“Can we help you with this contract?” Anla asked quietly.
Raulin clicked his tongue. “You could help, but…”
“Well, let me explain the situation and see if you come to the same conclusion I have.” He met her eyes, then shifted them Al for a moment, then back to her. She caught the motion and nodded slightly. “This is an unusual contract in that I may have to do nothing more than talk with the target. He’s doing something certain people don’t like. My job is to get him to not to do it anymore.”
“And you think Anla can do that with her magic?” Al offered.
“Yes. But the question isn’t whether she could or couldn’t, but should she? Anla could easily put this man under her mesmerization spell, make him averse to doing what he’s doing, and bring him out. He’d stop his work and live to do something else. But, that choice wouldn’t be his.”
Al opened his mouth to speak a few times, each time looking unhappy that he said nothing. “What do you think, Al?” Anla finally asked.
“It’s…it’s a tough call. We learned about something in Amandorlam called Father’s Height, in which the monarchy and the government often make choices on behalf of Ghenians behind closed doors, like a father would meet a stranger’s gaze at a different level than a child. As wizards, we were taught to honor Father’s Height. Personally, it never settled well with me, but I didn’t think about it often.
“In this case, Father’s Height would suggest that we have this person’s best interest in mind when forcing him to abandon something he may be very passionate about. You could say it’s down to the choice of life or soul.”
“And what would you choose?” Raulin asked.
“I don’t know. Would I rather live and have the ability to do magic removed? I…I can’t say anymore. I don’t know.”
The three waited for him to continue, but he sat back and sipped on the glass of Caudet he’d ordered with his meal. “Tel?”
“I would council letting the person make the choice. Perhaps by explaining his choices clearly he might make one that satisfied everyone.”
As she had never favored alcohol, she drank a glass of watered down wine called Chieri Rose in Hanala, though here it was named Sunset Blush. She swirled it a few times, then said, “I think you’re forgetting a variable here, Raulin.”
“Whether the person who can force the man is willing to force the man.” Her eyes flashed and her tone was laden with venom. “You just assumed that I was willing to take away a man’s free will because I could. I don’t like doing it, Raulin. I’ve said this many times before.”
“All right, all right,” Raulin said in a placating tone. “You make a great point and I’m sorry I didn’t ask before adding you into the equation.” She folded her arms over her chest, then gave a surly nod. “I’m thinking our collective answer is to give the man a chance, then, and if he chooses death, then that was at least his choice.”
Later, back in the inn, Anla sat on the edge of the bed and took off her soaked shirt in the room she was sharing with Raulin. He stood in the doorway and cleared his throat. “Are you upset with me?”
She turned her head, furrowing her eyebrows. “No, why?”
“You seemed…animated at dinner.”
“I though that’s what you wanted. You gave me that look and I thought you wanted me to embellish my aversion to Al so that he might get that through his head that I really don’t want to enthrall people.”
“Oh, no,” he said with a light laugh. “I meant to keep the discussion on him, see where his mind went. I was hoping he’d come to that conclusion, that you shouldn’t use your magic, but that we could sort of control things so that he would understand your position in choices like that.”
She put her shirt on and turned. “I was supposed to figure that out from a look?”
“I…guess not. You usually think the same way I do, but that might have been a bit too subtle. Speaking of things misunderstood…where, uh…where are we? You and I?”
She gave a quick shrug. “I’m not sure.”
“Because you kissed me in the Dreelands and then nothing, so I was making sure I didn’t do anything to upset you.”
“I’m trying to figure it out as I go. It felt right to do it then and I don’t regret it. It made me feel…better.”
“Okay,” he said, taking off his mask and shirt. “Thank you.”
“For what it’s worth, I’ve never kissed a man before.”
“You said you had two beaus before…”
“They always kissed me.”
He nodded and laid down, turning towards the door. “Have a nice sleep, Anla.”
“Raulin,” she said, putting her hand on his shoulder. He turned towards her and was surprised when her lips touched his. She held his head between her hands, kissing him deeply until she touched her forehead to his. He ran his hand down her hair, pushing it from her neck before catching himself. She put her head on his shoulder and fell asleep there.
It hadn’t really answered his question. He was still confused, or at least not willing to assume meager evidence meant something more. With another internal sigh, he told himself he needed to stop leaning into her words and gestures and just let her do what she wanted. That was easier said than done. He saw her every day, all day, and slept next to her at night. He never considered him impatient, but seven months seemed like not enough time at this pace.
There was nothing to do about it. He tipped his head down and kissed the crown of her head. Hopefully it would be just a little while longer.
* * *
The camp, or more accurately the cabin with two shacks on either side, had taken quite a while to find. Even with detailed instructions from a few people in Declinst who knew where it was, it was hard to navigate through the thick Ashven forests, swamp lands, and past rougher, elevated terrain. It must have been just winding, however, since Raulin had traveled at least a few miles. Tel was stationed at the entrance point of the faint trail and the chalice spell had never been triggered.
For his efforts over the hours, Raulin had been chewed alive by mosquitoes, his boots were soaked and his feet had fresh blisters despite the moleskin he’d used before he set out. He was tempted to just slit the man’s throat and be done with it in five minutes. But, no. He’d give the man a chance.
He hid behind a silver outoak, it’s trunk wide enough to provide plenty of cover. He scanned the area, looking for anything he could use to help him: signs of attachments, a group or family, perhaps. He’d hate to use a child’s life to extort the man’s promise, but it might be better for everyone all around if he did.
There were just the three buildings. Several crates of food were outside one of the shacks near the cabin. The shack itself was crudely made by someone who didn’t have the same skills as whomever built the cabin. Uneven planks of wood and stacked trunks made a lean-to over barrels and equipment covered loosely with a tarp. The other shack’s door was open and appeared to have a bed with rumpled sheets, a table with dirty dishes, and a stove to heat the sad little room in winter.
The cabin was spacious in comparison, easily three times the size of the domicile. Several stacks on the roof poured smoke or gas and Raulin paused at that. His notes said the man’s was a doctor, Dr. Abenor Ritchik; perhaps he was a doctor in the learned sense of the title, not a man who cured disease or sewed flesh.
His notes gave him little to go by and Raulin refused to spend days watching a building boil and stew. He did give it a half-hour, in case there were several people who used the grounds, but since there were no worn trails leading to or from the camp, he found it unlikely.
There were no shouts when he approached the cabin. He knocked on the door and pushed it open. “Leave it outside,” a man inside said.
The lighting inside was good for daytime, but there were no lamps or candles to light the darker corners. Therefore, the man was silhouetted, his hair unkempt and sticking out in tufts. It reminded him of Jemerie, a man he’d known in his youth, who despite his class always looked disheveled and fresh from his bed.
Raulin took a few very loud steps to announce his presence. The man growled and turned, adjusting his glasses. “Who are you? What do you want?”
“My name is Raulin Kemor and I represent the Sun-Moon Guild.”
“Eh? Why should I care? Leave me to my work.”
“Your work is exactly what caught the attention of the Guild and has brought me here today.”
At this the man turned around and gave Raulin his full attention. “Sun-Moon Guild? I’ve never heard of them.”
“They’d like to keep it that way. All you need to know is that they take interest in advancements in certain fields of science. There are things they would like to not be discovered. Failing that, they’d like people’s findings to be kept private.”
“My job is to help…” He shut his mouth and mumbled something. “I don’t see how some group can barge into people’s lives and tell them what they can and can’t do. How is that fair or good for the scientific community?”
“I didn’t say it was. And to answer your first point, money, mostly. Money and might. You know what I am?”
“You’ve heard of trirecs?”
He shook his head, his cloud of wild hair waving around.
It was rare that Raulin found someone who didn’t know a thing about trirecs. Then again, this was a man who seemingly lived by himself in the middle of the woods with a focus on matters that didn’t involve his world. It would explain why he hadn’t shown a shred of fear since Raulin entered his cabin. “I am a man trained as an assassin. I do other things as well, which I prefer to do, but mostly I kill people for money.”
“You’ve been sent here to scare me, then?”
“I’ve been sent to have a discussion with you. Again, it’s what I prefer to do over the killing.”
“I’m not a man to be scared out of doing what needs to be done. I don’t care who you are or who sent you, there are things I need to do for the greater good!”
Raulin pulled out one of his knives and began cleaning his fingernails with it. It was a cliched motion he’d stolen from a play he once saw, mostly because he thought it was a good way to show his target that he had a knife without doing something stupid like twirling it, which might lead to him dropping it. He also liked sitting or leaning on tables at this point, to show that things didn’t need to escalate, but there were no surfaces uncovered and by the smell, safe. “Yes, the greater good. I’m glad you appreciate that notion. You can still achieve things for ‘the greater good’ and also continue with your work. The Sun-Moon Guild estimates that you’re very close to achieving the right mixture for black powder. You cannot succeed. You must leave this alone or, and this is a very generous offer, you may work for the Sun-Moon Guild.”
“Black powder?” he said, then nodded. “The saltpeter mixture. Yes, very close. I hate to disappoint your employers, but I do have buyers for the mixture when I figure it out.”
“My employers will pay you handsomely. It’s not a bad offer at all; they appreciate minds such as yours and like to have them on their payroll.”
He shook his head. “I’m not interested in money.”
“What then? Fame? I hate to vex, but you’re certainly not the first man who’s discovered black powder. You wouldn’t even be in the single digits. But, perhaps there are other things? Escape from your buyers? Release from duress? A quiet plot of land somewhere to work?”
“I’m fairly sure that your Sun-Moon Guild isn’t interested in giving me what I want.”
Raulin put his knife down by his side. “Let’s hear it. They’re fairly reasonable people.”
“I’m making the combustible powder for the Freeman’s Army.”
When the doctor didn’t continue, Raulin said, “I consider myself a man of the world. I wind up knowing a little bit about a lot of things, but many little things miss my understanding. Pray tell, what is the Freeman’s Army?”
“We are a group of enlightened people who wish to make some changes to the current political situation.”
“’Changes’? You wish for certain legislature to be passed in the House?”
“We wish there was no House.”
“Ah,” Raulin said, holding out the syllable. “You’re revolutionists. You wish to use your black powder to topple the monarchy and install some other form of government. I’ve heard that worked real well for Arvonne.”
“Arvonne was butchered,” Dr. Ritchik said in an acerbic tone. “Those Kalronists were disorganized to a loathsome degree. They had no supply chains in place, no allies, no surpluses. They collapsed the country in weeks and haven’t been able to pull it up from the ashes in the seventeen years since then.”
“I’m sure they were where your Freeman’s Army was at some point. Do you trust your men can do it differently?”
“Absolutely. We have people from all walks of life helping, men with degrees and experience. And we have hope. If Arvonne has shown us nothing good, at least it has shown us that a country doesn’t need a monarchy to survive. It was always some far Berothian tale.”
“Oh. You plan on taking out the monarchy?”
“If need be. That will likely have to be a sacrifice.”
Fool, Raulin thought. He felt the heat rise to his face, his free hand clenching into a fist. “So, you cannot be swayed, then?” he said quietly through a tightened throat. “You’re in this for the greater good.”
Raulin stepped forward. The doctor looked around quickly, grabbed a beaker, and smashed it against his table. “Don’t move,” he said, holding the jagged edges of glass towards Raulin.
The trirec took a considering breath before charging in against the doctor. The man’s eyes looked as wild as his hair as Raulin grabbed the doctor’s arm, held it out, then stabbed him in the stomach.
“You don’t know what you’ve done,” he said, looking down.
“Fully aware, though I’m sure you think your death is more important than it really is.” He stepped to the side and slide his knife over the man’s throat. He choked on his blood and tried holding the dark liquid in to no avail. He slammed down to his knees and toppled over, dead, within a minute.
Raulin wiped his blade on the man’s shirt and sighed. He had no personal issue killing a seditionist, but a brilliant mind? That was a waste. Besides, this meant that the old piss and bones back in Hanala’s headquarters, Stavro, would take pleasure in the fact that Raulin was unable to complete this contract without killing the man.
He looked at the doctor’s notes quickly and wasn’t surprised to find that he had no idea what they were and if they were even the formulae and calculations that supported his theories. He was going to have to burn down everything and hope he didn’t keep copies some place else.
As he searched the cabin, he reviewed the contract. Could he have saved this man? Unlikely. He recalled the man’s tone, his animated gestures when he spoke of the Army. He wasn’t just a puppet funded by the group, he truly believed in their cause.
Should he report this to the Sun-Moon Guild when he wrote his letter? Or better yet, what would a trirec who hadn’t figured things out do?
The Sun-Moon Guild wasn’t just a secret society that horded deitic artifacts. That was just something they did that was in line with their philosophy, which was actually to suppress new technology and scientific breakthroughs that they felt would be detrimental to the world. He had learned during an assassination with a man who blabbered about everything in order to save himself that the Sun-Moon Guild had only released plumbing thirty or forty years ago after extensive research into the ramifications of that discovery. That was something that, for the most part was beneficial, reducing pollution and disease. He had no idea what black powder was, but he suspected it would be a long time before he or anyone else did.
Raulin was sure that, while problematic for the Guild, his knowledge wouldn’t be an issue so long as he kept quiet about it. No, what would likely get him killed in order to guarantee his silence was that he knew that Arvarikor was actually the bladed arm of the Sun-Moon Guild. They wanted technology and science suppressed in order to keep things manageable for their assassins to enact order. Oh, they dressed up their contracts and contacts to look like it was someone else submitted them, like they had for the one Raulin had taken and the detailed one found in the unencoded notes of a dead trirec Raulin had happened to find in Walpi, but it was Arvarikor that sent out their own to take care of these little problems.
He would be gutted on the spot if he told a soul, which is why he’d never risked speaking it aloud to anyone. Imagine the damage it would do to Arvarikor if he told the wrong person about how they had such immense control that they were stopping kingdoms from reaching their full economic potential. Gheny alone would die for anything that could get all of Liyand secured and settled. Weapons, transportation, whatever it took. He couldn’t even imagine what secrets the Guild had locked in their vaults.
Raulin found matches and a kerosene lamp in the doctor’s bedroom shack. He unscrewed the bottom reservoir and carefully spilled the oil in a line from table to table and out the door. A lit match and a toss later and the liquid was aflame.
He’d make it back to Tel in about two hours, maybe a bit more. Then they could get back to Declinst and he could eat at that nice restaurant in town. His steak had been perfectly cooked and the asparagus was…
A deafening roar came from the cabin and he was lifted mid-step into the air. There was a flash across his vision and he tilted his head back instinctively, barely escaping a clip from a branch that very likely would have broken his neck. He landed and skidded a few feet onto a clear patch of forest.
It took him a few moments to snap out of his daze and figure out what happened. He stood, his recently injured shoulder aching, and turned to look at the cabin. It was gone. So were the two shacks. Debris was scattered all across the clearing where the camp had been and into the forest.
He had once been in a city where a home with indoor gas lighting had combusted. He’d heard the loud booming roar early in the morning, then later seen the scooped out crater of the house. Here he’d asked if there was something he could have done to save the doctor; Raulin should have been asking if there had been something he could have done to save himself.
Two hours turned into over three as he limped back to Tel. “Raulin!” he said when he finally saw him. “Did you hear that loud noise?”
“What? Loud noise? Yeah, I heard it.” There was an annoying ringing in his ears and it felt like someone was putting their hands over them, muffling the sound.
“Raulin…you’re missing the back of your shirt.”
“And half my wits. Help me get back to the inn,” he said,leaning on Tel’s side. “I think I need to rest.”