They had set out south the following morning, hugging the eastern coastline. It would be a straight shot to Miscomme where ferries departed for Genale, Ailetol, Anistaf, and Tektorn, just a few days of travel.
The first village had been nice, but had little in the way of interest outside of a tavern where a bard played the quiet, classical tunes the folks there appreciated with soft applause. “You don’t see many of them,” Raulin explained to Anla. “They have to memorize dozens of songs and poems from every country in Noh Amair. He has to master three instruments in order to get his stripes.” He tapped on his own neck to illustrate where the distinction was. “He has silver, which means five, I think. Definitely not an easy feat.”
“How many have you seen?” she asked.
“Two, now three, and I’m not entirely certain this guy isn’t the copper I met earlier in his career.”
They were miles down the road the next day when Al said, “I’m putting forth a request.”
“Which would be what, Wizard?”
“I want to spend a night in the next town, even if we have time to travel.”
“What’s so great about it?”
“It’s like the pinnacle of wizardry. Only the most talented get to work in Analussia. It’s supposed to be beautiful and have hot springs, which I didn’t get to use in Mount Kalista. I’d really like to.”
Raulin had been walking next to Anla, so he noticed when she stopped short at the name. “Are you all right?”
“I am,” she said, by then back to walking next to him. “It’s just…is there any way to go around it?”
“That’s not fair!” Al began. Raulin turned and pointed to his ears, his eyes, then put a finger in front of his mouth.
“We’d have to go back to the last town, a few miles at least, until we hit a crossroads. Then we’d have to circle around it. It would add a few days to our trip.”
She hugged herself as the wind from the sea picked up. “It’s fine,” she said.
“All right, Wizard. We’ll stay in Analussia for one night.”
There was no sound as they crested the last hill before town. There was no one walking across the street to the beach. By that point Anla had pulled up her cowl and was hugging herself tightly. Al was slightly on edge, since he was listening and he could hear nothing but the wind over the courtyards in town.
Nothing changed as they got closer. They stood past the large outcroppings of rock that marked the beginning of the town to stillness.
Al scratched his head. “This is strange. Maybe they boarded up for the winter. I thought they were open year round, though.”
“Let’s go take a look,” Raulin suggested. “If they battened the hatches against an oncoming storm, we should get inside quickly.”
They soon realized that the emptiness of the town wasn’t temporary. Brown weeds crept out between the broken tiles in the plaza. The fountain sprayed into the air, but the water in the basin was clogged with leaves and was a murky green color.
Raulin stepped inside a shop. “Hello?” The place was covered in a layer of dust that touched all the completely bare shelves. The till was wide open and empty.
“They were in a rush to leave,” Al said.
“Or looted afterwards.”
“How could you tell the difference?”
He opened the door to the back and immediately stumbled back out. “Well, your answer is in there.”
Al opened the door and began gagging from the smell. A skeleton sat at the table, its face turned towards them in a plate of rotten food. “Why did you make me look! I would have believed you if you had told me!” he said.
Raulin held his breath and opened the door again, looking quickly at the man. The cause of death was easy to spot; a part of the man’s head was bashed in and there was a sticky puddle of blood on the table. “Okay, out, out,” he said, shooing Al and Tel out of the shop.
“What passed?” Al asked.
“The shop owner, I’m presuming that was him, was murdered while eating his meal with a blunt object years ago. That’s all I can tell you.”
“But what does that mean?”
“I don’t know, Wizard.”
They went to several places, each either empty or with the skeletal remains of a resident. In a particularly grisly discovery, they found a giant pile of bodies behind the police station. The hotel was empty, at least, dusty but still beautiful with its luxurious touches.
“I counted over a hundred bodies,” Raulin mused as they walk through the plaza. “Some seem like they were surprised while others resisted. The only thing I can think of is pirates or raiders attacking and pillaging unexpectedly.”
Al shook his head. “I know we don’t have much of a standing army or navy, but our towns are well guarded.”
“To some extent. The fact that I’m here sort of proves otherwise.” Al give him a flat look. “Yes, yes, I’m highly trained and pretty damn good at sneaking in places.”
“If it were pirates, wouldn’t we have found corpses in the open with pirate clothes?”
“Likely in that big pile of bodies. And ‘pirate clothes’? Do you mean a tricorn hat with a skull and bones, a sash, and a cutlass?”
“That’s what they always where in Kiesh the Bl…okay, yes, I know it’s fiction. But sometimes these things are based on real facts, so pirates very well could have dressed like that.” Raulin gave a snorting laugh. “Well, I’m not wrong about the roads. How many highwaymen have we encountered in the last six months? Three bands, two of which scarpered off once they saw Tel or you.”
“That’s a fair point. It probably isn’t worthwhile to eek out a living robbing people or towns when you’re likely to get the hangman’s noose early in your career.”
“Out west it’s more common, so I’ve heard.”
“Not from a Kiesh the Black novel, I hope?”
“No,” Al said, holding out the syllable. “From some of my wizarding professors who were stationed there.”
“Well, then we’ll have to…”
“Would a lawman kill a lawman for any reason?” Tel asked.
Both Al and Raulin turned to face him. “What do you mean?”
“When we were in the station, there were two men on the ground wearing the same clothes. One was holding the other. They both had knives stuck in them.”
“Show me,” Raulin said.
As he had said, the two men laid on the floor of one of the cells. “Either they didn’t stab each other and they liked each other a lot or one of those men was a pirate dressed as a police officer.”
“Or something else,” Al offered.
“What are you thinking?”
“I don’t know. I just have a queer feeling that there’s something else I should be considering.”
Raulin moved his gaze around the room slowly before he got a strange, instinctual nudge. “Tel, where’s Anla?”
“She’s down at the beach,” he said.
Raulin took off running across the plaza, the road, then onto the beach. He looked back and forth, not seeing her anywhere. Finally, he spotted a dark form laying down, the seawater lapping over her. He ran to her and saw she was Anla, her cowl up over her head, her body curled up like an infant.
“Anla? Anla, are you okay?” he asked, landing on his knees. “Are you hurt?”
She continued to gaze forward blankly in a way that scared him for a moment until she blinked. A wave came up and crashed into Raulin, soaking his shirt. He almost hissed from the saltwater touching his wound, but the fact that it was freezing helped somewhat. The water passed over her body, over her head, but still she didn’t move.
“Anla,what’s wrong?” He risked any further injuries by picking her up before she drowned in the ocean. He stood and started walking towards the hotel. She needed to be warm and safe.
Al and Tel were standing on the road. “What happened to her?”
“I don’t know,” Raulin said. “She’s not talking.”
“I did it,” she whispered.
“What?” he asked, moving his ear closer to her lips.
“I did it.”
“What did you do?”
“I killed them. All of them.”
* * *
They broke the expensive teak chairs and started a fire in the marble fireplace. Anla was shivering so hard her teeth where chattering. Raulin wasn’t faring much better. Al and Tel found several blankets in the hotel rooms on the first floor and piled them next to the two. Anla barely moved when Tel gently stripped her clothes off and bundled her, letting her curl on the floor.
The stores of food in the basement had been untouched, but most of it had rotted a long time ago. The tea would be stale, but drinkable. Al brought that up with a full kettle and serviceware, some cheese, crackers, jars of pickled vegetables, dried beans, rice, and some nuts. He made a decent stew from some of the items and handed it to Raulin in a mug.
Raulin thanked him, then went back to staring into the fire. He had a lot to think about. From the beginning, he had honestly told her that her magic scared him. Now he saw the proof of what she was capable of when unchecked. It was what Al had been worried about, had chosen to dismiss her safety over, since he felt she needed to know the ramifications of her powers. It had been pointless; she didn’t need to consider it because she already knew.
He could admit he was scared. She promised him time and time again that she wouldn’t embark in revenge. How strongly did she hold onto that, though? Did she have a breaking point? Had he been days, hours from having his free will ripped from him and being forced to kill Lady Karninth? Or would it have absolutely never happened?
And what did this mean between them? Could he still love someone that had killed over a hundred people in one go? Ah, but he was being hypocritical. Who had the higher kill count? That wasn’t even fair; who had the most consecutive kills? He definitely did. He had made the choice to end another person’s life time and time again for the last twelve years without much remorse. This ate her up inside, forged her life, made her stay her hand when she could have a comfortable life.
She had made a mistake, one brutal mistake made in youth. He looked at her, still staring off in the distance, and knew that he didn’t love her one drop less for it. Maybe this was one of things that couldn’t be touched by love; you were either in love or not.
They decided to sleep on mattresses pulled from rooms. The building was too cold away from the fireplace and the rooms would be uncomfortable. Raulin redressed when his clothes were dry, then knelt in front of her. He squeezed her hand and said, “I’m here.”
It was deep into the night when he awoke to the sounds of sobbing. He thought for a moment it was Al, but then remembered where he was and what had happened. “Anla?”
He tried to move closer, but she said, “Stay away from me.”
“All right. Are you okay?”
“No. Didn’t you hear me? I killed them, Raulin.”
“I know,” he said. “It’s okay, Anla, it happened in…”
“It’s not okay!” He heard Tel and Al stir at her yell. “It’s not okay!”
She began panting heavily in between her sobs, sitting up so she could move farther away from them. Not knowing what else to do, he said, “Tell me about what happened.”
Anla stopped, but rested her forehead on her knees. Finally, she turned her head. “It was the winter after I turned fourteen. For Hanala, is was brutal, rainier and colder than normal. It broke the street kids; they all set out for other jobs or gave up and went to the orphanage. Or other places,” she said darkly. “Sildet and Garlin had gone missing and Raidet finally left when the weather turned unbearably raw. I was alone, trying my best to make money every day, but it was never enough. I’d make enough to eat, but not enough for a warm bed and definitely not enough to save for the next day.
“Then, I couldn’t find any work and I had nothing. I was huddling against the cold when a man walked by, looked me over, and said some suggestive things. I knew Ghenians considered it a bad thing when women whored, but I needed money and I was willing to do whatever it took to eat again. I agreed. He seemed surprised, but he took me out to the alley and…” She stopped and stared ahead for a full minute. It appeared as though she was drifting to wherever she had been earlier, but she spoke again. “It hurt. When he finished, he buttoned his trousers and began to walk away. I couldn’t think in that moment, but I managed to tell him to pay me. He laughed. ‘Stupid whore, always get the money first’. I begged him. ‘Please, I haven’t eaten in four days, I need the money.’ He shrugged, almost at the end of the alley, and said, ‘That’s not my problem’. I felt so angry, so miserable, so desperate. ‘Pay me!’ I yelled and he stopped walking. He turned in a daze and gave me all the money in his pocket, a few gold, more silver, and a lot of copper. He stumbled away. I went to the nearest restaurant and at a bowl of stew and a loaf of bread and almost got sick from eating them so fast.
“I left and was looking for a place to stay for the night when he caught me off guard and rushed me. I thought he wanted me again and I struggled to get away. I was going to give him his money back when he grabbed my wrist and forced me to take a pouch of money before he shuffled away again. It had twenty gold in it, enough to easily get me through the winter. My instincts took over and I was running down streets and over alleys, trying to put space between us. I thought it meant he had bought me and I was his slave, though that doesn’t make sense at all. I didn’t know enough about it.
“I hid in a building, trying to gather my thoughts, when he found me again. He still had the dazed look, but he was covered in blood. He made me take more money, a few gold that time. I asked him why he was doing this, what did it mean, but he left. I ran, he found me again, a few silver and him now drenched in blood. I was so scared that I yelled, ‘Stop!’. He stood for a few more seconds before collapsing, dead.
“I took the money and fled from the area. I found a room, my hand shaking as I gave the innkeeper the coins. I crawled underneath the covers, but I couldn’t sleep. All night I laid awake thinking about what had happened. Then I realized I had spoken and he had obeyed. I asked him to pay and he kept paying me until I told him to stop. He had stopped everything, including his life. I’d had this power over him. Was it just with him or other people, too? And how did I do it?
“I tried it out the next day. I remembered I was very angry the first time, so I thought about my parents dying and my brother and sisters being taken from me. It seemed to work. I had people do simple things, nothing bad, since they weren’t bad people. I figured out that I could do it without being angry. And after a few weeks, when I thought I had the technique down, I walked to Analussia.”
She paused and looked around at the three of them. Raulin took the opportunity to pass her a mug of stew. She sipped on it, then continued on in her unemotional voice. “I don’t think I’ve told any of you that this was the town that hanged my parents. This was the place where they were given a shoddy trial, sentenced, and killed to uphold a law that punishes love and respect and understanding, all the beautiful things my parents had between them. I returned for vengeance.
“The town was busy with early spring travelers. I took up a room for one night in the town and began speaking to people. When I had a moment alone with a young man, I made sure to use my magic to tell him that at noon the next day he was going to start killing. No women, no children, no elderly, no one that wasn’t responsible in some way for my parents’ deaths, though that was hardly true or fair. Most of the men that were slaughtered were on holiday with their families and hadn’t been there when my parents were hanged.
“I watched from my hotel room as the bells rang and the screams began. I kept waiting to feel relief, some happiness at the redemption, but I didn’t feel anything. I walked down into the street to find an older woman that I knew would be safe from the carnage. She was the one that had bought our horse and carriage for a pittance and shooed us away after the hanging. I wanted her to feel anguish as her world collapsed, as she realized she couldn’t prey on others anymore because there wouldn’t be anyone. I found out later she had died the previous summer and I was robbed of that experience. I think, though, that I wouldn’t have felt what I was looking for if she had been alive and I had found her. Fifty steps out of the hotel and I was already sickening from everything.
“It wasn’t the gore that bothered me. I had seen the aftermath of elven patrols being patched up after they were attacked. Unlike Ghenians with their animals butchered behind closed doors, my villagers would skin and disembowel animals in front of the children. The blood didn’t bother me but the tears did, the cries of women hunched over their husbands taken by surprise by a crazed man, the wails of children who had seen atrocities. Despite my instructions, accidents happened. I made orphans that day.
“I knew I couldn’t stop it, but I made myself watch. And when every man I’d ensorceled had been taken down, my parents were still dead, my siblings were still missing, and I was still where I was, alone, desperately needing my family, still wanting to feel glee over this, but hating myself instead.
“I walked back to Hanala. I didn’t touch my magic for months and when I did, it was only in defense. And I haven’t allowed myself to even consider revenge since that day. I’ve had enough.”
The fire crackled and popped, but otherwise there was silence. Al rose after a minute and walked outside without a word. Raulin tried to think of something to say to her, but he looked at Tel quickly and saw he was shaking his head. When he looked back, Anla had piled her blankets over her and was sleeping. Or crying.
They said nothing when they awoke in the morning. Breakfast was made and served with nods of thanks or tight smiles. Anla ate nothing, but followed them when they set out south for the next town.
The whole time Raulin thought of dozens of ways to start a conversation with her, but failed to pick one he thought was meaningful enough. So, he tried one that had nothing to do with her revelation. “I noticed you didn’t take your flowers this morning.”
She looked over at him, her eyebrows furrowed. “How can you think about courting me?”
“You’re right,” he said quietly. “It’s a tough, emotional time for you. It was insensitive of me. I hope you’ll forgive me.”
“No. How can you think about courting me? After what I told you I had done.”
“Ah. You think that I’m going to abandon our relationship because of what you said.”
“Why wouldn’t you?”
“I’m not exactly standing on high moral ground, now am I?”
“Yes, but I killed hundreds of people…”
“A little over one hundred, not two or three. And should I tick off how many I killed? I killed my first love and almost all my friends, Anla, about fifty-three in one go. After that…five or ten a year? Sixty-seven, no I’m up to seventy-two now, not including people I killed outside of contracts and incidents. I’ve had the opportunity to say ‘no’ to killing over a hundred times, and yet I still do it. You only had that one time and you realized halfway through you’d changed your mind.”
“It’s different. You have to kill. I didn’t.”
He sighed. “I really hate to say the wizard is right, but he is. I can leave whenever I want and stop many future deaths, but I don’t.”
“They’ll kill you and someone else will take your place.”
“Yes, that’s what I tell myself. We’re good at that, us trirecs, telling ourselves little lies and twisting morality for our benefit. I almost forget to check myself sometimes and I actually do think it.
“You, however, haven’t done that. You made one terrible mistake and you have beaten yourself up every day over that. You reluctantly use your magic, fearing just a sliver of what happened in Analussia. That’s the best you can do with this situation.”
“I can turn myself in. I should have done that a long time ago.”
“You could. Next town, you could walk up to the sheriff and confess. If he believes you, you’d await a trial and a sentence, likely death by hanging. Will that bring back everyone who died? Will it stop any baerds from doing anything like that again? Will it stop you from doing it again? A good law protects the people and doesn’t give in to bloodlust. You would be giving up your life to satisfy the victims’ need for revenge, not stop this from happening ever again.”
“You’re right,” she said dryly. “You are good at twisting morality for your benefit.”
He sighed, looked up for a moment, then said, “Why don’t you ask someone who has almost no stake in the outcome, then?”
She looked back at Al, who was ardently studying the seascape. She sighed, nodded, and dropped her pace to match his.
“I think it’s time for me to listen real hard to what you have to say about magical ethics, Al.”
He shook his head. “I can’t teach you anymore.”
“Oh,” she said quietly. “I understand.”
“What I mean is I don’t think I can teach you anything more about it. It mostly comes down to exploring what is right and what is wrong. Somewhere along the way you discover that morals come down to what is inherently, instinctively needed and what society currently believes is needed. Either way, you need to either blindly believe what is told to you or experience it for yourself.
“What I was always concerned with was you using your magic on people and not understanding the morality of it. I wasn’t prepared to accept it blindly; I didn’t know you’d had your experience. You’ve already carved your rules into your flesh. You know where you’ll stop and what lines you’ll cross. I can’t teach you any more.”
“What are your thoughts on my story?”
“I don’t know, Anla!” he snapped. “I know what I would have said. Now, you three have been telling me to ease off, to listen, to step back, to not be so hard, to not think of things in black and white. And I have been. But I don’t know what to think about something like this, something so…monumental. I need to think. Alone,” he said, eyeing Telbarisk.
“And you?” she asked the grivven. “What would they think of what I did in Ervaskin?”
He thought about this for a few moments. “I don’t think I’m the best person to ask, Anladet. My ways are different then your ways.”
“Well. When I spoke with my friend Jormé, he said that people believed grivvens to be peaceful. I think that’s true when it comes to our own, the people we live with and see every day. We don’t cuff our children when they misbehave, we don’t get drunk and pick fights, we don’t plot against each other. Maybe my brother, but not most grivven.
“This isn’t true of the others and us, though. There are grivven who do not live in towns and do not respect peace. There are gtivven who live across borders in other lands who are not our own. With them we fight. They attack and we attack, then we keep going back and forth or we break. It was one such skirmish where I killed a man with my magic to protect the warriors guarding the town I was living in and I do not regret his life ending by my hands.
“That is war. I know your people signed a treaty with the Ghenians, but it seems like it has been broken time and time again. You both pledged not to kill one another, yet your parents were hanged. To me that would seem like the first act in a war. They drew first blood. And when you grew in strength, you drew second blood. Then, they retaliated by trying to take you. You didn’t let them. You didn’t kill, but you didn’t allow them to take you, either. We would consider your first reaction within the laws of war and your second honorable.
“This all comes down to the war you have within you. I can see you fighting to keep each feet in both your parents’ worlds, trying hard to honor your mother’s people while adhering to the laws your father’s make you obey. It is his that are making you feel guilty while it is hers that made you feel vindicated in the first place.
“The question you need to ask is not how I or Al or Raulin feel about it, nor anyone else, it’s ‘who will win?’.”
Anla blinked a few times at his words, then nodded before take the rear position of their group.
It wasn’t something she could decide quickly, she realized after much thought. It might not be something she would ever come to a decision on, whether she was more elf or more Ghenian, whether she’d had justification in killing all those people. She did have to live for the moment and she wasn’t going to punish herself with crippling guilt until she decided she needed it. She braided her hair the next day and decorated it with the holly Raulin had left on her nightstand.