Hanala was a long day’s walk from Libsin, full of the normal stares from people that passed them by. They stayed at an inn on the edge of the city, crashing after a long day of too many steps and not enough of the food and friendship they normally shared on the road.
“Feels like I was just here,” Anla said at breakfast. “Then again, it feels so long ago.”
“A lot can happen in six months, and it has for you,” Raulin said.
“I know. I’m just having a strange feeling when I try to reconcile the two thoughts.” She sipped on her tea in thought. “How do you do it?”
“A lifetime of knowing nothing else? I enjoy the time I have in a place, then remember all that when I return. It’s my job to do so, though, so maybe it’s different for you.”
“I think I’d like to go back to Yue Begule, check on my place, see if maybe either my brother and sister are there. Or maybe they left a note…”
“I have no problem with that.”
“I have something I’d like to do as well,” Telbarisk said.
“Really? Something you need help with?”
“I want to see if my friend Jormé is at the land.”
“’At port’, they say. I can help with that. Wizard?”
Al had been pushing his beans around on his plate. “Um, yes, actually. Depending. I’ll tend to that on my own, though.”
“Seems we’re going to be busy. Anla, since you know the layout best, what’s the most central location for Yue Begule, the wharf, and…”
“The Ducal palace,” Al filled in.
Anla stared at him. “He doesn’t owe us anything for another half-year.”
“I know. I have other business with him.”
“Al, please don’t demand more money or try to…”
He held up his hand. “It’s nothing like that. Trust me. I’ll tell you once I’m finished.”
She pressed her lips together, then said, “All right. I trust you. Um, actually Cherryfire is fairly central to those three, which is good because I have a quick stop I want to make there.”
There were only a few patrons inside Onlard’s tavern when Anla opened the door. His wife poked her head around the corner from the kitchen, then yelled for her husband, who came hustling down the stairs. He sighed and his shoulders sagged when he saw her. “I t’ought t’at you weren gone, girl. I haven’ been seein’ ya fer a while now. ‘Course, I was hopen ya weren’ dead, neit’er.”
“Thank you, Onlard. You’re a sweet man for your concern.”
“T’oh,” he said, flapping his bar towel at her. “Wha’ ken I be helpin’ ya wit’, t’en, girlie?”
“I’m here for a drink, actually,” she said, sitting at the bar.
“Kinna early in da day, innit? Ya be more uf a nigh’ girl.” His smile dropped. “I meanen, not t’at way. Ya weren busy durin’ da days is all.”
“Chieri Rose, if you have it.” As he quickly made the drink she said, “I worked hard during the day, yes. And I rarely had money at the end to rent a room and eat.”
“Id’s no’ a rare t’ing un t’a city.”
“No. There are a lot of kids in the city who didn’t get someone who gave them meals and a warm place to sleep out of the rain. I was lucky to find you.”
“I need to get going. I’ve been doing a lot of traveling, so my time here is brief. I just wanted to thank you, Onlard.”
“Ya be welcome, sweedie.”
She placed five gold on the counter. “Keep the change.”
When he noticed how much he had given her, he said, “Girlie, I cannid be takin’ t’is much!”
She said nothing, leaving before he could come around the bar and demand she take the money back. She smiled as she rejoined her friends across Criard Street. “Now, the wharf is a few miles over and to our left. We’ll need to go a little farther for the booking offices. One of them should be able to help us.”
Tel had been anticipating this meeting since he had met Anla and Al. He had so many things to tell Jormé , from the trial then meeting Raulin again to the volcanic eruption. Sadly, it wasn’t meant to be; Jormé was at sea and wouldn’t be back for another few weeks at the least. They did find out that he had been promoted to captain after the Gueylard and was in charge of the Happenstance. Telbarisk could smile at that. It was all his friend had ever wanted.
Anla walked them inland again, then south. It was late afternoon, the streets busy with people taking strolls, on their way to appointments, or delivering goods throughout. At some blurred point, the peoples’ ensembles appeared dirtier and patched, their hair dirty or uncurled like even the servants kept it. The buildings appeared to be fine at first glance, though unlikely to have the usual quaint, homey additions, like intricate paint work or tiles on the doorstep…or doors. The deeper they went into Yue Begule, the worse it got. A slight smell would betray that the building they walked next to was a hollow shell from a fire, only to be outdone by the smell coming from the alley next to it.
“There it is,” she said in a wistful tone.
There was no roof and the second floor was half gone. The paint on the bricks was chipped. The trash that collected around it, broken bottles, piles of rotting food, and rusted appliances, looked like ticks festering in the ear folds of a mangy dog. But the way she looked at it, it could have been a noble, rich palace filled with the most precious of things. And in a way it was, though instead of jewels, feasts, and coins it was filled with memories.
With an aggressive body slam, Anla opened the door and stepped inside. Motes of dust floated in what sunlight filtered through. “Watch where you step,” she said, moving around a dead squirrel.
No one said anything as she walked to the back of the building and laid her fingers on the wall. I love you and miss you. I’ll find you some day, it said in chalk, a lonely message. She bowed her head, then rejoined the group.
“I’m sorry,” Raulin said.
“I didn’t think I’d be so lucky that they’d be waiting for me. In fact, I hoped that they wouldn’t be; not the greatest part of the city. But, I had hoped that one of them returned at some point to let me know that they were okay, that they were still alive.”
He held out his hand for her, to help her past the threshold of the door, and she took it. “This might mean they’re in a better situation far from here.”
“It could mean worse.” She sighed and balled her fists in frustration. “I just want to know, one way or the other. I feel terribly for Raidet, but at least I know that she’s alive and she has a family. She’s made her choice of moving on and I respect that. But Sildet and Garlin are younger than I am. I could barely take care of myself, but I would’ve found a way if I had found them. And now that I can take care of them…”
“You’ll find them, I’m sure of it.”
Anla took point and lead them back to Cherryfire. Al dropped his pace and matched Raulin’s. “I think I would like your help,” he said.
* * *
The two left Tel and Anla at the inn and began walking west to the Ducal palace. Al spent the walk with Raulin asking question after question on negotiating with royalty, since he had spent enough time in their company.
“I think you’ll do fine,” the trirec said, patting him on the back, “unless the Duke’s merit is deals, then you’ll have problems. I haven’t heard of too many nobles having that power, though.”
“Thanks. Like I’m not jittery enough about this.”
“If it’s worth anything, I think it’s a kind gesture and a noble cause.”
Most servants and guards were allowed inside the gates as entourage for their masters. Raulin, however, waited outside, leaning against the gate next to a very nervous looking guard.
Al was admitted, though he waited for over two hours to see the Duke. He was escorted into the same office he’d been in before and sat in front of a busy Duke of Sharka, who read and signed no less than fifteen pages of paperwork before finally looking up. “.rd Gray. You’ve come early for your dues.”
“No, Your Grace.” Remembering what Raulin said, Al asked, “How is your daughter?”
The Duke’s face darkened. “Are you here to exploit the fact that you rescued her?”
“No, not at all, sir! I was just making polite conversation.”
The Duke relaxed, but still didn’t smile. “She’s quite well, .rd. She asks of you often. Feel free to write to her, if you wish. You and your lady friend…partner…”
“Anladet, sir. I’m sure we’ll be doing that in the future.” Al took a deep breath and forced himself to drop his shoulders. “I’ve come to ask a favor.”
“A favor? Are you referring to the one I owe you?”
“No, sir. I’d be willing to pay for this, from my future reward.”
“I take it this is outside of Tichen’s teachings, then?”
“No, sir. I just haven’t had the opportunity to discuss it with Anladet.” He cleared his throat. “I would like access to some records.”
“Unusual. Which records?”
“The ones involving those of the Nui-Breckin Alliance.”
He raised an eyebrow before sitting back in his seat. “Why would you want that, .rd Gray?”
“If I said it was for a good cause, would you trust me on that?”
The Duke of Sharka leaned forward on his desk and pressed his lips into his folded hands. “I would think you would believe it’s a good cause. But, I find those of us who dedicate our lives to behaving with an exemplary code of honor have a hard time navigating the rough waters of reality. Do you understand what I mean, .rd Gray?”
“I absolutely do, sir.”
“You struck me as a man close to zealousness about Tichen and his teachings. Perhaps you don’t understand that getting involved in something like that will mark you. People will take notice of your inquest today and wonder why you’re asking about this. It will worry some. I can do my best to shield you, to ask them to ignore it as a man slaking his curiosity, but they will not like the idea of someone knowing things the public shouldn’t know. ‘Murky ponds are rife with things unknown…’”
“’…and best left unclean until the world can dam it sufficiently’.”
“Exactly. Two hundred gold.”
“Fifty,” Al countered. “It is only two names I seek. It will take less than a half-hour.”
“One hundred gold.” You’re not paying for the Alliance’s time; you’re paying me to cover up your interest, which I will assume will end after you leave today. And no more favors, save the one you request in the future. You can’t come to me whenever you have an urge to lean on our arrangement. I am allowing this because my daughter still speaks of you two highly and I believe you two handled the situation as well as I could have asked. I thank you again for not shielding her from the horror of the situation while also treating her with as much kindness as possible.”
“Again, Your Grace, your daughter couldn’t have been easier to rescue. She’ll grow up to be a fine lady some day.” Al shook his hand before the Duke changed his mind.
“I’ll be sending a man over with you who will grant you access. Your guard…” he shook his head. “I don’t know why or how you came to have a trirec guard, but he will stay out of the building with my secretary. He will not leave his post or the two of you will be arrested immediately. The last thing I need is a trirec getting his hands on those records; talk about the proverbial fox in the chicken coop.”
“Thank you, Your Grace.”
Al found Raulin outside, chatting up the guards who seemed a lot more comfortable. “Ready, Wizard?” he asked.
“Ready. You have to stay outside the building while I check.”
He grunted in annoyance. “It’s going to rain, Wizard. Better make it snappy.”
Black lettering over the large window stated it was, indeed, the Nui-Breckin Alliance and the iron boot scraper on the entrance looked well-used, but it could have been any of a hundred businesses they had passed by earlier in the day. Raulin folded his arms and leaned against the green painted wood, holding his hand palm up with curled fingers to signify Al was to hurry up.
The Duke’s secretary spoke briefly to a man in the front, who gestured for Al to follow him past the break room where several men in rough clothes sat around a table drinking and eating. They climbed the rickety wooden stairs and down a short hallway to a room filled with ledgers. “I’ll be back in a half-hour,” the man said.
“Wait! How is this ordered?”
The man looked annoyed before waddling over to the shelves and jabbing a pudgy finger to the label. “This is by duchy, where they were caught. Years go top to bottom. Anything older than seven is in another room. Anything over fourteen is destroyed.”
He nodded and the man left, a few moments later the men downstairs cheering his return. He was obviously not going to be any help, so Al started looking at the labels. Thankfully, each shelf had its own duchy and each duchy was in alphabetical order.
Sharka’s had less boxes than most. More than, say, Eerie (which he was upset to see had a full box even though bounty hunting was illegal in that duchy), but nowhere near some of the western and mid-duchies. It was easier, but he had no idea when Anla’s parents had been killed and how long ago that was. He guessed she was no younger than twenty and that she had been twelve. Her sister likely disappeared within a year after that. To be thorough, he would begin with this room, then move on to the next room.
He pulled out a box at eye level and quickly peaked in to see which year it was. Three years ago. He pulled the ladder out from the corner and started at the top.
It was one book of names that he had to scan quickly, hoping that her siblings had given their real names. Each page had twenty and each book had ten pages. He was amazed at how many half-elves there were just in Sharka, a duchy so densely populated by Ghenians.
He moved on to the next year, then the one after, and the one after that. He was beginning to think it would be smarter to spend his remaining time in the next room, though he remembered from Amandorlam how important it was to be thorough in research. He flipped the page, then went back to it. There, with a blob of ink at the top of the “t” was the name “Sildet”. Her tribe was listed as the Deerborn of Ashven. After her name was listed a bunch of letters in columns, followed by a man’s name, date, number, and fingerprint.
He continued looking, remembering it was within a year of Sildet’s disappearance that Garlin went missing. That year didn’t have his name, nor did the next one. He could say with a fair amount of assurance that, if Garlin had been taken, it hadn’t been by the Nui-Breckin Alliance.
The secretary was sitting behind his desk, dozing now that the men had left. “Uh…” Al began and the man startled awake.
“What was all the stuff on the line after the tribe name? The fingerprint?”
He gave a lazy smile and Al realized the man was close to drunk. “Well, what we do here isn’t exactly a picnic and a show. You’re training from another office, right?”
“Sure. I was just curious how the filing was done here so that I might do it over there.”
“Yeah, sure. So, the hunters will come to your office and drop off one of the mutts. We keep ’em here until the end of the day, then we take ’em over to the building…you’ll have a building. Then, they’re auctioned off and we record the name and their owner’s fingerprint, so they don’t get any ideas about flapping their jaws.”
“Flapping their jaws?”
“Telling people what exactly goes on around here.”
“Why would they need to tell people about that?”
The man folded his short arms around his girth. “Well, you’re going to have to know sooner or later. We help the men after the sale, if you catch my drift.”
“No. What do you mean?”
“What were the letters after the name you saw?”
Al repeated them and the secretary spent a few minutes explaining exactly what those letter meant. “Then, we got a place for the bodies afterwards. Part of the price.”
“Okay, thank you,” Al heard himself say, too numb to give a goodbye.
“No problem,” the man said, his chubby fingers giving a sloppy salute.
Al walked outside in a bit of a daze and didn’t hear Raulin ask him if he was ready to leave the first few times. “Yes,” he finally said and started down the street in the wrong direction.
“Thank you for waiting,” Raulin said to the Duke’s secretary and turned Al around by the shoulders. “Wizard, are you okay?”
Al’s eyes went wide and he ran to the nearest alley, vomiting his lunch. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and breathed in heavily. “How…how can someone do that? To a child?”
“I take it you finally understand what was going to happen to Anla, then?”
Al spent another round vomiting anything that remained. “I don’t understand why it’s allowed to exist. It’s sick, Raulin.”
“What exactly did you find out?”
He didn’t want to repeat what the secretary had told him, but he managed to explain what he had discovered in something between the raw truth and a euphemism. Raulin listened to it, then said, “To answer your question, they allow it because Ghenians see elves and half-elves as something less than human. They are cattle, auctioned off pieces of meat that are consumed by whatever disturbing purpose the owner wishes. And no one cares because at least they aren’t Ghenians. They aren’t proper humans that are being mutilated before their slaughtered.”
“How do we stop it?” he asked weakly.
“How do you stop violence and perversion from taking root in the hearts of men?” he asked, helping Al move along. “You can’t. There will always be that filth, men who need to torture and rape and kill and experiment and whatever else the gods turn Their gazes away from. I haven’t been in an Aliornic temple since I was sixteen because I realized they kidnapped young women and kept them drugged to satiate the overwhelming amount of men who crave…that attention. I avoid Petrina all together because I can’t stand what rituals they do to their children when they reach a marriageable age.
“I’m sorry you had to hear of what happened to Sildet. That was truly a heinous thing for a child to go through, especially since that was her last memory in this world.”
“Did you know?”
“From what Anla told me what Sakilei and the fancy boy told her, I figured something like this was going on. I had hoped that if either or both of them had landed in this situation that whomever bought them sliced their throats quickly.”
“Why didn’t you raze that building?”
“Why haven’t you petitioned your lord to change the Nui-Breckin Act? You do live in a constitutional monarchy and you have that right.” He took in a deep breath. “As I said, there will always be evil in this world. I don’t have the time, resources, nor the allowance to do something like that. If someone hired me to, then I would destroy it with glee. I’ve done similar things in the past. But, I always have to remember that I am a part of that disgusting underbelly.”
“You’ve done that?” Al asked, aghast.
“Absolutely not!” Raulin said, fixing his gaze on Al. “I”m not too far from leaving my last meal behind me, knowing the same thing that you do. But, I do kill people and I destroy their lives and I steal from them. I do the dark deeds humans are capable of.”
“But, that’s not…that.”
“I’m not evil, Wizard. Some men enjoy that and some enjoy what I do and some enjoy taking advantage of others. I don’t. I’ve never been happy doing what I do. But, I still do it, and I take responsibility for it. I’m a decent man who does indecent things.”
Al’s thoughts swirled around in his head. A part of him kept pushing things out of focus, not allowing him to consider what he had just learned. He had known there were bad things in the world, but to see the price tag on a little girl, not even eleven years old, and what she’d had to endure before her life had been snuffed out was too much for him to take in.
“Wizard,” Raulin said in front of their hotel. “Look at me.” Al lifted his eyes to the dark blue ones behind the mask. “You and I both know something horrendous happened to someone loved by someone we care about. You did this for Anla, to give her closure. I think it’s a very kind gesture.
“But you now have a choice to make: if you’re going to tell her and how much. I know you’ve always valued open, brutal honesty, but I’m going to ask you to think real hard before you say anything to her.”
“What should I say?”
“I’m not going to tell you what you should say. I will suggest that, if you choose not to tell her, that you sort yourself out. You look like you woke up with a skeleton in your sheets.”
Al nodded and took a very long walk around the neighborhood. It was well past dinner when he returned. He wasn’t hungry, so that didn’t bother him, but it was getting late and he felt exhausted.
Anla was in the common room with Raulin and Tel. He walked past them and went into the room he shared with her and waited. Some time later (he didn’t have an accurate way of gauging the time, having thought it was still around four o’clock when he returned) Anla entered and saw him sitting on the bed. “Hi, Al. Are you all right?”
“Yes,” he said, breaking his stare to look at her. “I went to see the Duke today.”
“I know, you said you were going. How’s Silfa?”
“She’s well, though I didn’t see her. We can write her, if we want to.”
“Okay.” She waited a while for him to continue. “Is everything all right?”
“I paid the Duke to access the records of the Nui-Breckin Alliance.”
She sat on the bed next to him and took his hand. “What did you find out?”
“Um…” He swallowed. “So you’re seventeen?” He had done the math at some point during his walk, trying to think of something that wasn’t…that.
“Yes. Most people seem to take me less seriously when they realize how young I am, so I don’t mention it. Al, what did you find out?”
“They took Sildet about four years ago and killed her shortly thereafter.”
She sharply inhaled. “Thank you, Al. I can stop looking for her and begin to grieve.”
He turned and hugged her, surprised only slightly when he felt her shoulder shake. “I’m so sorry,” he said, rubbing her back.
She looked up, her eyes wet. “She was too young, Al. She died for just being what she was, not because she did anything wrong.”
“I know. Anla?”
“Yes?” she asked, wiping away her tears.
“I won’t let them do that to you. I will tear down buildings and break chains if they ever catch you. I’m…I’m sorry I didn’t choose that the first time.”
“Thank you, Al. I already forgave you for that.”
“And I wanted to show you that I really was sorry.”
“I appreciate it, Al. Did you find anything out about Garlin?”
“There was no record of anyone being captured with his name or from your tribe around that time. I probably should have checked to see if he was taken later, but I was running out of time.”
“Then he’s still out there, hopefully.” When they were under the covers, she gave him a quick hug. “Thank you again. I know it sounds strange, but it does mean a lot to me that you did that.”
There was silence, then she asked, “Was there something else?”
“No,” he said, and closed his eyes.