Raulin and Al’s discussion on the way to Mount Kalista was a difficult balancing act for the trirec. If he knew with absolute certainty that Al could figure out how to get him out of Arvarikor, he would have told him everything. But, he couldn’t give in to that hope. He wouldn’t give himself a future, not until he could see the potential of it crystallize into a firm possibility.

Raulin only told him as much as was safe, perhaps a little beyond, but not more.

“So, there are trainees,” Al said, “trirecs, and agents. I’ve seen a few of them with you. Agents are trirecs?”

“Yes, they’re trirecs who act as support for other trirecs on behalf of Arvarikor. They are basically a bank, newspaper, clerk, and solicitor all in one.”

“Could you become an agent, then? You could just spy and hand out money.”

“That’s not my decision to make, unfortunately. Agents are chosen because they’re best at the spying end of things.”

“But that’s your forte!” Al exclaimed. “You said yourself that’s what you do best.”

“Indeed, but compared to all the other trirecs, all three are my forte. I’m not boasting, Wizard. I am one of the best trirecs they have simply because I’m Noh Amairian and people don’t think to challenge the notion that all trirecs are Merakian. Arvarikor would never turn a trirec who fills a full docket every year into an agent.”

“Are there any other positions?”

There were quite a few that Raulin could rule out, not even counting the numerous ones involved in the Sun-Moon Guild. He’d never be given any of the higher ranking ones in Merak anyway. “Mentors and trivrens. Oh, and I suppose ambassadors, but that’s not permanent. I’ve only done that twice and I doubt they’d have me do it again, unless they decide to sail to Eschuetso or Taidan Kan.” He snorted at the thought. “Mentors teach a novice or apprentice at the end of their training but before their test. That’s chosen. They’ll likely pick me to mentor the other Noh Amairian children if and when they become an apprentice. Trivrens are retired trirecs.”

“Can you retire, then, and become a trivren?”

“By age or permanent injury only.”

“I’m guessing that’s out of the question, then.”

“Hmm,” Raulin said. “I assure you that I do not need you to disfigure me, Wizard.”

“Could we fake an injury?”

“They would likely make me an agent or a mentor, then. Not the worst outcome, but I’d prefer to be out completely.”

“Fake your death?”

“It would have to be an airtight plan.”

“I can work on that.”

They went on to discuss the finer details of contracts, which didn’t seem to help Al much, until they reached the first house on the edge of Mount Kalista. “We’ll need to cease this topic, Wizard, until we leave for the road again.”

“But you haven’t told me enough. I don’t know how to help you, yet.”

“What you’re doing is admirable,” he said, nodding at a woman who stopped beating her rug to stare at him, “but you just started. We have more than half a year together. Give it time. This might be another thing for you like training with the ax; your solution might not come quickly.”

“But this isn’t a thing like the ax. This is one of the things I do best.”

“Wizard, a man enters a room and slits the throat of another man. Why?”

“I don’t have enough information to answer that.”

Raulin patted him on the shoulder.

“No one can answer that question. That’s not fair.”

“Exactly. We’ll take this up again and you’ll get your clues. For now, let’s enjoy Mount Kalista.”

The town was very comely. Houses were made of wood, but often had chimneys and columns of light gray brick with occasional stamped pieces. The people were proud and kept tidy walkways and gardens. Fences were whitewashed, shutters were painted, and roofs had no signs of ill-repair. Streams wove in and out of the streets, clean with sturdy wooden bridges. There was the odd house or two that was likely owned by the town drunk and his cousin, but by and large it was quaint if not charming.

They found a square with a fountain and asked a few passersby where a good inn was. After a few tries, they were pointed down a street and found the inn with blue shutters, as described. They had no rooms. Nor did the other inn they were given directions to.

It was finally the shabby inn with dusty shelves and moth-eaten sheets that took them in for the same price the other inns were charging. “This is robbery,” Al said as they settled into their rooms.

“No, this is discrimination,” Raulin explained. “Those other inns might be full. This inn might charge as much as the others. But, what I think is that all three didn’t wish to rent their rooms to us and only this inn was desperate enough to make it difficult but not impossible for us to stay in Mount Kalista.”

“This is because of me.” Tel’s shoulders slumped. Casting someone out for their differences was a new concept for him, but he had spent enough time in Gheny to understand it.

“No, I don’t think it’s you, my friend.”

“Me?” Al asked. “Or Anla?”

“Anyone could tell by your accent that you’re Ghenian, Wizard. And Anla appears like one. Besides, she’s pretty and no one in their right mind turns down a pretty woman. If anything it helps business. No, this is because of me.”

“You?” Al asked. “The mask?”

“Absolutely. This is not the first time I’ve had to deal with situations like this one. It’s not even the first time on Ghenian soil.”

“I’ve never seen it.”

“That’s because I tend to get the rooms secured for the night alone. And some places are more leery than others. I’m a trirec; it’s not like I’m tossing gold behind me. People have a good reason to fear me or grow suspicious as to why I’m here.”

“It’s still not f-…it’s still distasteful.”

“It is. Now, let’s take a look at my two contracts for Mount Kalista. I have a theft and a spying one. The latter involves a rather lengthy one with official terms from some organization.”

“Which one?” Al asked.

Raulin slipped his notebook from the pocket on his belt where he kept it. “Albrever.”

“Ah. So this involves something to do with the Twelve?”

“I’m supposed to look into some shrine and determine if the people running it are undermining the collective Church. I suspect Gheny only allows the Twelve?”

“Yes. Usually the churches of the Twelve keep to themselves and don’t both in the affairs of the others, but for some matters they work collectively. Albrever insures things on their behalf, including upstart religions. The Twelve is the official religion of Gheny and any other is illegal.”

“Another reason why there were issues between elves and Ghenians,” Anla added. “The only reason why ours hasn’t been wiped out is because our lands aren’t technically Ghenian soil.”

“Ruthless, then?” Raulin asked. “That might explain why they asked for a trirec. I was scratching my head over it, since I’m sure they have agents that can survey the shrine. Either they’re terrible at it or they think their agency has been compromised.”

“It should be quick, then? We’ll check out the shrine tomorrow and move on to the theft.”

“I like your enthusiasm, Wizard, but I think this will take longer than one day. It was stressed that I exercise caution and discretion when I approach this. I’m going to ask you three to sit out until I know more.”

Doffing his mask and changing his clothes for good measure, Raulin walked into a public room and began chatting up his waiter about the local shrine. Though named specifically the Holy Shrine of the Shadowed Sun, it wasn’t actually religious, the man said. Or it might be.

“You’ll have to see for yourself, sir,” he said with a blissful look on his face. “It’s transcendental, a sublime experience. They invite the locals up once in a while to take in the ambiance of the place. If I can get the day off from work, I go.”

“What goes on there?”

“Oh, I wouldn’t want to spoil it for you. It’s something to be lived.”

“I might try it out,” he said over his glass of port.

“You won’t regret it. Tell them Reginer says ‘hello’.”

Raulin followed the signs pointing up the mountain to the shrine. There were a few other people walking, but most were taking horse-drawn carriages. In his mind, Raulin pictured the shrine as some serene spot, a beautiful place where people would spend an afternoon picnicking under parasols on blankets, looking at a pond or down from the mountain at the scenery. Some enterprising people might sell their wares or foods nearby. Perhaps there were statues scattered about for people to gaze at while they took in the views of the vineyards and the valley below.

The Holy Shrine of the Shadowed Sun was none of that at all. Raulin didn’t notice it at first, since it was tucked away against the slopes of Mount Kalista and behind plenty of greenery, but it was actually a building, or technically a compound of buildings. The doors were full glass, save the handles and frame, and radiated the warmth of the well-lit interior. The wood on the exterior was stained a deep brown save the occasional steel support, both gleaming in the waning light.

He followed the trail of visitors to the clean and weeded entrance pavilion the the main building, the blue-gray tiles sitting perfectly flush with the ground pounded flat. There was a smartly uniformed gentleman greeting everyone with a dashing smile and warm demeanor. Raulin filed in behind a group and slipped past the man.

It took a few moments of quick examination to realize what the shrine really was: a health resort. A welcome desk sat across from the doors and a large bulletin of events was on the wall behind it, neat, curling handwriting announcing classes on subjects like home remedies, painting, and nutrition. Down the hall to the left were signs pointing to the mineral springs, the dining hall, and the boutique.

It couldn’t be as easy as that. There had to be something else going on, something deeper. With a small smirk, Raulin approached the desk and asked about fees, realizing he was going to need to ‘investigate’ further by attending the retreat.

The woman behind the desk, tall with dark curly hair and dressed similarly to the man outside in a dress with dark blue velvet and gold piping, gave him a smile as he approached. “Are you arriving, sir?”

“I wanted to inquire about availability.” He assumed they had rooms to rent, since he’d seen more than a few of those travelers going down the mountain with luggage.

“Very good, sir. We do have a few rooms available. As it’s sweet wine season, I recommend you reserve your room now, so that you won’t lose it to another arrival. How long do you plan to stay?”

Behind the clerk was a rates chart broken down by titles and length. There were three options with information he didn’t understand. “Depending on what ‘Robuchen’ and ‘Kildat’ entail.” Those were the bottom two, since he wasn’t going to consider fifty-six gold per week worthwhile, no matter what manner of cloud they stuffed into their pillows.

“We have rings,” she said, pulling up a few iron circles with colored chips in the setting from the desk drawer, “that we give our guests when they arrive for their experiences. When you attend any of our services or classes, you use one of your rings. Our experiences offer different types and amounts of rings. For the ‘Blizem’ experience, our best one, you receive five blues, three reds, and two clears per person per day. It’s quite the enchanting stay.”

He was sure it was, but he thought he could suffice with less. “Do you have a room at Robuchen for two weeks available?”

A two week stay normally brought a gleam to an innkeeper’s eye, but she just smiled and looked at her books. “I have a couple’s room available tonight.”

“How about tomorrow night?”

It took her longer to search, her finger running up and down the page. She shook her head. “Unless you want to forfeit your fourteenth night, I don’t have it.”

“All right,” he said, fishing out fifty-six gold for his stay.

She cleared her throat. “That’s for one person. We do discount a couple’s stay, but you still owe another forty-eight gold, sir.”

Raulin sucked in his lips, but paid the difference. While he was going to enjoy this holiday, its cost was a large chunk of what he’d been paid to investigate this place.

“Why does she always get to go?” Al asked as Raulin tried to whisk Anla away.

“Oh, next time I’ll take you, sweetheart. Don’t worry.” Al had given Raulin a flat look. “Because no one balks at a man and a woman journeying places together. Two men are a little more attention-gathering.”

“I understand. I’m just not enthused about reading books for the next two weeks.”

“Outside of training, you mean. Don’t think you can laze about just because I’m not around. I want your pouch filled with coin by the time we’re back.”

“But, we’re not near the woods…”

“Ah, but you will be. I need you and Tel to camp as close to the shrine as possible and not get caught.”

“For two weeks?” he asked.

“Are you complaining?”

“No, but I don’t know how you would ‘double work’ us camping outside.”

“You just need to be within one mile of us. There’s no reason why you and Tel can’t go on the high side of the mountain for your fortnight.”

“Oh,” he said.

After their camp had been settled, Raulin changed his clothes and settled into his new persona, Darrick Freston, husband of Olana. “How do you know Al’s not going to take his own coin and fill his pouch?” Anla asked as they walked up the rest of the way.

“I don’t. If I had cared, I would have nicked his purse and marked all his coppers. This is for him and he knows that. His drive to do this doesn’t come from a want, but a need. That’s the best motivator he could hope to have.”

“I worry that Tel isn’t going to find us in time if there’s an issue. He’s been acting odd as well.”

“I actually had noticed that, but unlike the wizard, he’ll talk to someone if he needs to. Now, how are you doing?”

“No complaints,” she said, her smile hard to see in the light. “Where is it exactly are we going?”

“I’m not totally sure myself.”

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