19-3

“How well did you sleep last night?” Raulin asked Al when he walked downstairs to the common room.

“Not well. I dreamed…” he began, but trailed off.

“That’s all right, Wizard. I don’t think I need to hear what your mind came up with after yesterday’s foray into the dark world. Come. We’re going to train.”

He moaned. “I was hoping to have a day off.”

“No. And don’t think I’ll take pity on you because of what happened.”

Al trudged up the stairs and back into his room. Raulin came in with the coat rack from the hallway, putting it next to the door until the two had finished their stretches. There wasn’t much room to work in, but this wasn’t going to be a lesson involving the full arch.

“Raulin, I’m going to chop this stick into kindling in two minutes.”

“No, you’re not. When you’re out in the woods and there’s no one around, you can chop whatever tree you want as much as you want in any way you want. When we’re in a city and you can’t chop your tree, you need to work on something else.

“This rack is a fairly good representation of the height of a man. I want you to swing, but instead of sinking your ax in, I want you to feel what it feels like to miss. Step back, the rack is just a line for you. Good. Now, swing and feel the ax’s weight.”

“I’ve done this before, when you made me work on my swings.”

“Yes, it’s not novel, but now you have a guide to make sure you’re hitting the vital areas. Maybe I can get a few ribbons to tie around it so that you know the correct points.

“Now, number two is what’s called a mercy strike. When you have enough control, and please don’t try it beforehand, I want you to practice swinging into the rack and stopping just before you hit. Your goal is to get to a razor thin distance from it.”

“How does that help?”

“So, the ax is a particularly bad weapon to fight with for a number of reasons. The one I’m concerned with is momentum. When you do, say, a diagonal chop,” he said, gesturing for him to do one, then holding Al’s arm down, “you are totally exposed for lengths of time that would allow a fencer to wreak havoc.

“There are three possible solutions that I can see. The first is to continue the swing into a spin and attack again the same way. Not bad for an occasional hit, but you can’t maintain a dervish style indefinitely, even with your enhanced balance. The second is to transfer the weapon to your non-dominant hand and attack again quickly. That works well if you’re ambidextrous, but it still has its issues.

“The last would be to stop the momentum and make your next strike. I’m curious to see if this is possible for you. It’ll take above average strength to do so, which you possess, and some training to get to that point.”

“You’re ‘curious to see’? What did your order teach you?”

“My order taught me that, if you’re caught in the woods and you have a few moments to grab an ax from a stump, you should probably try ripping a tree limb down instead. Axes are like a knife-mace combination with none of the advantages. I’m sort of making this up as I go and tailoring it to your abilities. It’s the best I can do, Wizard.”

“I know. I just wish there was some advantage.”

“There are. The weight you can put behind this will lodge itself into a man with deadly force. One hit and the fight is done. Other than that, no one will really know how to fight against an ax, so you’re going to confuse even the most seasoned of swordsmen.”

Raulin noted that Al looked a little dejected, so he changed the subject while the wizard continued to train. “What did you wind up choosing last night?”

“I told her,” he said.

“All of it?”

“No. I thought about what the knowledge was doing to me and thought ‘what if that had happened to my sister? Would I want someone to tell me that?’ I couldn’t say ‘yes’. It seemed unnecessary to make the situation more painful for her. Her sister is dead, that’s enough.”

“For what it’s worth, I would have made the same choice. She needed to know, but she didn’t need to know more than that.”

Al nodded and continued swinging while Raulin stood appraising. “How are you and Anla?”

“Good. Do you know something different?”

“No, I was just curious…I lost the bet, didn’t I?”

Raulin said nothing for a few moments. “A long time ago. I wasn’t going to hold you to it, since you’ve actually taken it upon yourself to be more quiet than you used to be.”

“Tell me you’re treating her well.”

“I’m courting her, actually. It’s only in the beginning stages. She seems pleased with where we are, though, and that’s enough.”

“But you’re not pleased?”

“I won’t deny that I’m a man who has other wishes.”

“…that you can satisfy when you bed some girl to get whatever information you want.”

“That’s off the table.”

Al stopped in surprise for a moment. “You’re not…”

“No. Some men enjoy pursuing several women at once. I think your friend Aggie would fall into that category. I’m not one of them; it’s just how I was made.”

“But why would you take gestures over…” It dawned on him. “You love her.”

“See what you can puzzle out when you’re observing. Tel has been teasing me for some time now about it, in his own way.”

“I’m surprised you aren’t denying it.”

“Maybe I’m curious of your opinion on it.”

He stopped his exercises completely to dwell on it. “I don’t think I know the full brunt of what happened at the Shrine, but looking back at our conversations about it, I can tell she was hurt. Something in her tone or the way she looked down quickly when I asked about you. And with that in mind I would tell you to stay away from her. But, I understand that you’ve distanced yourself from her and I can only assume it’s because you’re repenting and you’ve put some thought into what’s best for her. If that’s the case, then I have nothing to say.”

“Nothing? You’ve changed considerably from the time when we were vying over her hand.”

“Maybe because my stake has changed. She can take care of herself and make her decisions…did you know she was seventeen?”

“Yes. She doesn’t appreciate being patronized about her age. She also requested I not say anything.”

“I understand. She’s young, but she manages to act more mature. And I’m learning to trust that I don’t need to hold the spear for the packholder, the way us Br’vanese are taught. But, she still means something to me, a great deal more than I realized. So, I think I need to say that if you ever hurt her again, Raulin, you and I are done.”

Raulin let the words sink into the atmosphere. “I think that if I hurt her again, I’d be hurting myself more. It won’t happen.”

* * *

The conversation actually did weigh on Raulin. Less on hurting Anla; while he considered himself rather lucky that she was a forgiving woman, he felt it wasn’t something he’d test again. It was more on the metaphor Al had used about the packholders.

Br’vani was a harsh country, especially in the south. Traders had to travel through deserts with few outposts and many creatures they preyed on humans. When families went together, the men would carry spears to protect their women, who would carry the packs of goods. It seemed like a strange tradition for a country where women were in charge and often were able to take care of themselves without a man, but their interpretation of it was simple: women can’t be concerned with two things at once. A woman would rather spend her years mastering trade and know every grain of rice in her pack than how to fight. That was the man’s job.

And so Raulin spent a few hours that afternoon tracking down a certain threat. He asked around without his mask, he found the place, and then as a trirec paid a little visit. That evening, he brought the group to a little pasta restaurant on Mask and Fortnight streets and waited.

Anla didn’t want to be there. While she was happy to see Isky again, and thanked him for sending his letter to her quickly, there was someone else she’d rather not see. She barely looked up during her meal and was therefore surprised when she looked and saw Tiorn standing next to the table.

“Hi, Anla,” he said.

She put her fork down. “Hi, Tiorn.”

Anla barely recognized him. Both his eyes were swollen almost shut, his bottom lip cut, and his left arm in a sling.

He licked his lips and his eyes flicked to her right before returning to her. “I…I wanted to say that I’m sorry…for…all those times…”

She nodded. “Thank you, Tiorn.”

“It won’t happened again,” he mumbled before shuffling off quickly.

Anla took a steadying breath, then narrowed her eyes as she thought about things. Her eyes moved from her plate to Raulin’s gloved hands. She grabbed his left and stripped the leather off. His knuckles were cut and swollen.

“How could you?” she whispered as she dropped his hand.

“What did I miss?” Al asked.

She looked up with sharp, angry eyes. “Raulin took it upon himself to enact revenge on someone who had wronged me, even though I’ve expressly said many times that I don’t repay people for their cruelty.”

“It wasn’t revenge,” Raulin said and she turned to look at him. “It was prevention. I’ve given mercy to men before to find them back at the same crimes the next day. Disturbed men will continue to be disturbed. Every once in a while, a good roughing up will change their minds.”

“So, you beat him bloody in hopes he won’t try it with someone else? Do you really thing that will work?”

“No. But, I put the fear of the unknown into him. I told him there was a contract out on him should he ever touch a woman inappropriately again. I’ll check up on him when we pass through Hanala, to show him that I’m watching him. And I hope he tells everyone what happened to him, so that they don’t think they can do the same.”

Anla sighed and looked around until she saw Al staring ahead. “What are your thoughts?” she asked him in a somewhat exasperated tone.

It was one of the more difficult discussions he’d been pulled into, knowing things involving other people that he couldn’t explain to her without breaking confidence. The part of him that would almost gasp when Kiesh the Black did something like this for some star-crossed love of his wanted to shake Anla and ask why she wasn’t swooning at the gesture. The other part of him that appreciated laws and obedience to a once fanatical level wanted to cuff Raulin upside the head and demand he turn himself in to the police.

But he wasn’t a man of warring parts anymore. “I think I should stay out of this.”

She looked at him for a moment, winning the battle when he looked down at his meal and took a huge mouthful of pasta. She turned to Raulin. “Should I be thanking you?”

“I didn’t do this to indenture you to me. I did this because I felt it needed to be done.”

After a few moments, she nodded and continued eating. The rest of the meal would be well-described as “quiet” as was the walk back to the inn. Unable to chop firewood, Al practiced the mercy strike. Tel went for a walk. Anla decided to borrow one of Al’s books and was reading it in front of the fire in the common room.

Raulin had gone to his and Tel’s room. He wondered if he had done the wrong thing, or more accurately, had he done the right thing for the wrong person. He’d admit to himself that he’d done it for her knowing full well that she wasn’t going to like it. It had surprised him that her objection had been the fact that it was revenge and not that he was trying to protect her like he owned her.

How is it that she could move beyond the need for retribution? Just a slight reminder of his family and what had happened to them would set his blood boiling, would make him grind his teeth in the frustration that he could never kill enough of certain people to make him feel good again. In the entire time he’d known Anla, and in all the stories they’d shared, not once had she ever shown her need for vengeance. She preached mercy and forgiveness. Raulin wished he had her strength.

There was a knock at the door, one that was unfamiliar. He’d just managed to slip his mask on before the door was slammed open. Two trirecs stood there. “You come with us,” one said and he immediately knew this was going to be a painful night.

* * *

Raulin made his steps loud across the floor to the inn, successfully attracting the attention of Anla. She turned in her seat, wide-eyed, as he passed by with the two other masked men, giving her a quick gesture not to worry about it.

They walked south by many blocks until they came to Hyelk Hill, the prestigious neighborhood in Hanala that held the Arvarikor complex. As always, Raulin’s stomach seized a little as he felt that anxiousness of being in trouble. Only this time, he was.

One of the two trirecs pounded on the massive gate, which opened shortly thereafter. Raulin was shoved forward and he walked past the small sitting area and through the next gate, then was directed into the building in the center of the compound.

The trivren were already assembled in the lounge where he’d had his other tribunal. At least this was still on the casual side of legal proceedings; if he’d been led upstairs into the open room, it would be because he was being tried. He recognized all the trivren save one, a new seventh who seemed younger without any of the facial growths and blooms age gave to elderly Merakians. A quick glance at the man’s oddly bent and atrophied leg told him why he’d gone into an early retirement.

“Sit, Kemor,” Curvorn said, gesturing to a hard, wooden chair across from the plush couches that the trivren sat in. He braced his forearms in reverence, removed his mask, then sat, schooling his features to neutrality.

“So glad you decided to join us,” Stavro said, a triumphant smile on his face. Raulin tried to think of what he had done to make him so pleased.

“Kemor,” Curvorn continued, “how long have you been in Hanala?”

“This is my third night, masters.”

“And when were you going to check in at the base?”

He blinked a few times at this. “I wasn’t aware that I was summoned…”

Stavro interrupted. “It’s a rule that you must report to an Arvarikor headquarters within twenty-four hours whenever you are in the vicinity.”

“I understood that it was a suggestion, not a requirement.”

“And who told you that?”

“One of my mentors.”

Stavro had a delighted look in his eye. Raulin strongly suspected he knew what had happened in Iascond with Afren, his mentor. “It is still your fault even if you were trained wrong.”

Curvorn spoke again. “Kemor, is it true that you assaulted someone who is not a target in your docket?”

He winced internally. They had been watching him and he hadn’t even known it. “He had a history of abusing one of my charges. It was a preventative measure to insure her safety.”

“’Charge’?” Stavro asked, leaning forward on his cane. “Do you mean you have a guarding position?”

There was no point in lying. They had the paperwork. “I do. I acquired one while I was traveling, a couple that works in antiques and rare collectibles and their ledgerer. They are traveling the same path as I am, so it made sense to take on the work and earn more money and glory for Arvarikor.”

“And how many contracts do you have during your cycle?”

He took a deep breath. “Twenty-five, master.”

“And how many contracts are you supposed to take in one year, Kemor?”

“Twenty-four.”

“Ah. That seems like one more than you should. It’s a bit greedy, don’t you think?” Stavro asked, addressing the group of trivrens. “Why couldn’t you have given that contract to another trirec?”

“By that time, I had established a rapport with the group. They wouldn’t have chosen another trirec.” He explained what had happened in Carvek and their escape, glossing over anything he felt would be incriminating, like the amount of help they had provided him.

“Is it possible to strip him of one of his contracts and give it to another trirec?” asked another trivren.

“How many have you completed, Kemor?” Curvorn asked.

“Eighteen.”

“And how many more months do you have?”

“Six.”

He heard the younger trivren let out an impressed sigh. “You only have six remaining, then. Which ones are those?”

“I have four spying contracts, one theft, and one assassination. One is in Hanala, the rest in the south, in Tektorn and Genale.”

“We can consult with Ageka,” Curvorn said to the rest of the trivrens, “to see if she thinks any of the trirecs in the south can take the assassination or the theft. I’d rather not remove Kemor from the spying contracts.”

The rest nodded in agreement, even Stavro reluctantly.

“You are dismissed, Kemor. Stay nearby and await our summons.”

He clasped his forearms again, then sunk to his knees, holding his arms behind his back and bowing low. “I am sorry for my ignorance and insubordination. These things will not happen again.”

He felt his forehead press against the ground hard as one of the trivren stepped on his neck. He was surprised to find that he found the sensation comfortable, a completion to the ritual. When the weight was lifted, he took his mask and left the room.

Raulin felt it was best to relieve some of his tension by practicing in the courtyard. He grabbed an ax from the stores and began getting a feel for the weapon, swinging it around. He didn’t handle Al’s ax unless he had to show him something, so it was strange to hold it and move with it.

About twenty minutes passed before he was summoned again before the tribunal. Stavro didn’t look pleased, which Raulin took as meaning he had wanted a worse punishment for him and the group hadn’t agreed upon it.

“There are three infractions we will be addressing,” Curvorn said. “The first is ‘failure to report in’. We believe you acted not in malice, but in ignorance. For this, the punishment is keyutik-fo-rabin.” He would be lugging a heavy log of wood over his shoulders for three hours. Not a terrible punishment, especially with gloves.

“The second is ‘excess of contract limits’. Ageka says none of the agents will be able to take your theft or assassination, so you must carry those out yourself. Instead of reclamation, the punishment is manrik-abi-robrin-abilin.” He’d have to climb to the top of the building one hundred times. At least that would help build his muscles and skill for the theft or assassination contracts.

“The last is ‘punitive measures outside of a contract’. We do not believe that your actions against the Hanalese citizen were justified. The punishment is kark, nami-di-rob, naskinta.”

He sharply inhaled. Ten switches, blindfolded, waist-up. It could be worse, much worse. There were a variety of different whips they could proscribe, from a tawse to a beraki, a long cat o’ nine tails with metallic claws on the end. A birching was on the lighter side of scourging, not a terrible punishment, but the added stipulations that the whipper could hit his face, arms, and stomach made it worse. On top of that, he’d be blindfolded, so he’d be unable to see the switch coming and tense his muscles or flinch away from those more vulnerable areas.

“You can choose when and in which order these punishments will be taken, but you must take one right now. This matter is closed.”

He clasped his forearms then bowed on the ground again. The pressure on his neck was painful from being stepped on this time, a small pebble on the floor cutting into his forehead. When he arose, he saw it was Stavro who was staring at him with a look of raw determination, like a hunter who had let a rabbit escape and hungered for coney stew.

Raulin would take the punishments as they had been ordered, starting with the log runs. It was a stump wider than his shoulders and weighed around one-hundred pounds. The whole thing might have been easier if he hadn’t needed to put it down and pick it up again after each time around the courtyard, as the punishment decreed. His back, shoulders, and thighs were on fire by the time he finished.

The courtyard was illuminated by torches and there was no moon in the sky. He wanted to finish the climbing punishment before he slept and his muscles went stiff, but the lighting was poor. He did it anyway, hoping to get back to Anla, Tel, and Al as soon as possible. He slipped a few times, especially at the end he when he grew very tired, but finished before the midnight bell hit.

As the head trivren, Curvorn was in charge of meting out punishments and had to watch him the entire time. Raulin walked over to the bench where he was sitting, his muscles trembling, and said, “I will take the third tomorrow.”

“Very well,” he said, rising slowly. “You are free to use the facilities.”

“May I send word to my charges of my delay?”

“We have sent a trirec to watch them until you return, at your expense.”

“May I collect my beads for my finished contracts and turn them in for coins?”

“Yes, but not all. Fifty percent maximum. I’ve seen how much money you’re making this docket. Very good job, Kemor.”

“Thank you, master” he said.

“Keep impressing me. And stop getting into trouble. There are some who wish to see you fail, even at our expense.”

“Yes, master.”

He changed out of his sweaty travel clothing and into one of the gray outfits worn by the trirecs in the compound. The hems were too short. He didn’t care. He found an empty room and collapsed onto the rolled out mattress. He could have fallen asleep in less than a minute, but he heard a hissed whisper from the hallway. “Raulin?”

“Unh?”

“Can we talk?”

His brain was fuzzy with the craving for sleep, so it took him a few moments to puzzle out who would be speaking to him in an almost friendly manner. “Isken?”

“Can I come in?”

“Sure. I don’t know if I’ll be great company.”

Raulin sat up and turn to face him. Isken knelt on the floor, clasped his arms behind his back, and bowed. “I am sorry, Raulin. It’s due to my negligence that you almost died in Miachin. I should have done better.”

“I think it’s asking a lot for you to memorize all the details of every contract coming in. I worried for you, since I knew they wouldn’t go without punishing you for it.” He tapped Isken’s head lightly.

“Thank you,” he said as he sat up. “They gave me five with the beraki for every trirec that died, thirty-five all together. You saved me fifteen. I think you may have saved my life; I don’t know of anyone who’s taken more than forty-five and survived.”

“I’m glad you’re still with us.”

There was a moment of quiet when Raulin thought Isken was going to say goodbye, but he said, “I’m learning Arvonnese,” in the same language.

“Why is that?” he said, switching to that tongue.

“I want to be transferred there.”

“I didn’t think they had a headquarters there anymore.”

“They don’t. I’m pressing to reestablish one.”

Raulin yawned as he thought about this. “You wanted to talk with me, knowing I’m Arvonnese, and you don’t want anyone else to overhear us. Curvorn speaks Arvonnese.”

“He’s asleep in the main building. I need to talk to someone about my thoughts. I feel heartsick all the time and I can’t speak with anyone about it. I think I can trust you, though. You’re like me.”

“How am I like you?” he asked carefully.

Isken sighed. “Please tell me I didn’t make things up in my head. You want to leave the order, too.”

This wasn’t out of the blue for the trirec. He constantly peppered his conversations with seditious content. Raulin had known Isken was unhappy with the order for some time. But, he was a little surprised he had decided to act on it. He always assumed he was a grouser who complained because he wanted a record to show he didn’t agree.

Had it been anyone other than Isken, had it been another language, he’d probably play coy. But he understood him and he had to agree with his assessment. “Yes, I do.”

Isken breathed out as his hands slapped down on the straw mat. “Thank you. I don’t want to be a trirec, but I do want to live.”

“I can understand that. Why do you want to leave?”

“I’m tired of everything. I don’t want to kill people. I don’t want to help people kill people. I don’t want to help those people kill each other. Raulin, I’m so sorry about Afren.”

He sighed. “You did as much as you could. I hated killing him.”

“May I ask you a question? Why are you kiskgia now?” he asked, gesturing to the scars on his forearm.

All of his training told him not to trust Isken. But the next few minutes found him pouring out everything that had happened in the last year, the spell, his new friends, their help, and most of all, Anla. “She’s so beautiful, Isken. She has these gorgeous eyes that sparkle when she laughs. I couldn’t even tell you what color they are; I just want to stare in them for hours and try to figure it out. She’s an amazing kisser, down to my toes jolts of heat every single time we embrace. I am absolutely smitten with her.”

“Does she feel the same?”

“I don’t know,” he said, shaking his head. “If I could find some extra time…If I didn’t have to sail off to Noh Amair when this whole thing was done…I know I don’t deserve her, especially after I completely botched my contract in Mount Kalista. She was the only reason why I finished it and I hurt her so deeply. And yet, she forgave me. How many women would do that?”

“She sounds like an amazing woman. I’m happy for you, Raulin.”

“Thank you. How are you planning on getting out?”

“Arvonne is in shambles right now and there is no trirec presence. It is a large country. If I travel through and get ‘lost’, I think I would be able to find something to do. I’ll take my money and buy something cheaply, a shop maybe, and just live a quiet life where I don’t have to keep checking my back for knives.”

“I have an idea. Let’s make a pact to find and help each other when we get out. A bit more incentive to do so, huh?”

“I like that idea.” He turned to leave, but stopped. “I was learning some new words last week and there was one that stuck out. ‘Eraule’. Is that where your name comes from?”

“Yes. ‘Eh-raul-ay‘” he corrected. “It means ‘not from here’, ‘foreign’. They drop the ‘es’ and add ‘in’ to men’s names, so ‘Raulin’ means ‘not from Arvonne’. And, as you know, ‘Kemor’ means ‘from the west’. So, my name really means that no one wants me.”

“Then I hope you find a home someday,” he said before leaving.

“You as well, my friend.”

Raulin’s whole body was stiff when he awoke. Maybe that would help with the whipping, he thought.

It didn’t. Not at all. The anticipation of the lash was the hardest part, the waiting between the connections, knowing that he was about to have a line of white-hot pain cross his body but not knowing where it was going to be. Whoever whipped him was completely random as well. At least he didn’t hit Raulin’s face.

After a minute or ten, he couldn’t be sure, it ended. He put his shirt and mask back on, collected his money, and left the compound for the hotel. He was ravenous, but also a jittery kind of exhausted. He wasn’t sure what he wanted to do other than get away from Hyelk Hill.

He decided to lie down. He opened his room to see Anla on the floor, propped against the bed, nodding off. She awoke when he closed the door, looking confused for a moment. “Raulin, are you all right?”

“More or less. I had some business to take care of with my order.”

“It took all night?”

“Yes.”

“Raulin, you’re being evasive with me. What happened?”

He sighed and pulled off his shirt. She stood and looked at his back and chest, her mouth slightly open. “Why did they do this?”

“For roughing up Tiorn. I broke the law because I felt it was right to do that, I wound up making you angry, and upset my order enough to punish me for it. I don’t think I’ll be doing anything like that again.”

“Raulin, I’m not angry with you.” She moved over to Tel’s pack and fished out the jar of salve Tel had asked for in Mount Kalista. She nodded her head to the bed and he laid down prone. Only one of the switchings had broken skin and she applied the cold medicine to his skin. He relaxed when she began to heel and knead his shoulders, in between his blades, and his arms.

“Thank you,” he said when she sat up from the bed.

“You’re welcome. I’ll get some food for you and leave it here.”

She was almost at the door when he asked, “How do you not want payback for all the injustices in your life? How do you do it?”

“I think real hard about the consequences,” she said softly before shutting the door.

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