15-7

“Wizard?” Raulin asked.

The curtains had been drawn, so it was hard to see detail in the suite, even with his mask on. Al laid on the bench, but his chest heaved as he sobbed. “What do I do?” he whispered.

Raulin walked over to the edge of the bed and sat, unsure of what to say. So, he waited.

“I’m nothing. I’m less than nothing, I’m useless,” Al whispered again.

“You’re neither nothing nor useless,” Raulin said.

“I am, though. I have nothing in my life, nothing. My wife and I are through and my step-daughter is out of my reach. I have no job. I have no home. My best friend sold me out. All I had was you three, and now neither of you wants to talk to me.”

“Well, you did stab Sakilei and abandoned Anladet to be sold into slavery. Neither are things that are exactly endearing.”

Al sat up and wiped the tears from his face. “I know you won’t believe me, but I did have a plan to help her. If we could have pushed those bounty hunters back into Eerie, she would have been free. It’s against the law.”

“Did you know she was almost raped?” Raulin asked. “They took away all the defenses she had and made her obey whatever the leader told her to. She was declawed, to put it in such terms, and she couldn’t even kick the man attacking her to stop him. She couldn’t fight back, she couldn’t run, she couldn’t yell for help. Maybe your plan would have worked after she had been abused a few times, but I still doubt it.”

“Oh,” Al said.

“Yes, ‘oh’, Wizard. She’s fine, by the way, and her magic was returned. And I don’t know how much you remember of the last week, but she’s been caring for you, making sure you’re fed, bathed, and not trying to jump off cliffs. And, again, she could have used her magic at any point to make you better or do something so that Sakilei didn’t have to pull a cart from a town and then return it just so we could carry you, but she didn’t.”

Al said nothing. Raulin thought he might have slipped back into his trance, but he wouldn’t let him. “An apology will do wonders, Wizard. I’m sure of it. One to her and one to Sakilei.”

“What else do I do? I think I’ve been doing things wrong. People don’t seem to like me.”

Raulin raised his eyebrows at that. It was more insight into his own character than he’d ever shown before. “While you’re not pretentious like most of your ilk, you still like to make sure people know you’re smart to a point of annoyance. You spend a lot of time wondering where people fall on your scale of good and evil, even though you yourself would judge yourself poorly by now. And you’re so disconnected from what’s in front of you at times that you don’t realize that you should react to the world and not make the world react to you.

“But, you’re also intelligent, helpful, and resilient. You’ve gone through quite a bit in just a few months and have come out stronger for it. That’s a start at change.”

“I don’t know how to be, though.” He began to rub his arms in a desperate manner. “I don’t want to be the way I am anymore. I need you to help me, tell me how to act and what to say.”

“Absolutely not,” Raulin said, shaking his head. “I am who I am, but it doesn’t mean I am always proud of who I am. Nor do I think I’m right about who I am. But, most importantly, telling a man how to be ultimately robs him of the choice to find out how to be himself. This is what I’ve been trying to tell you about your obsession with Tichen; you keep wanting to be this virtuous monastic person that he wrote about, without understanding how Alpine Gray can accomplish that feat as himself. You’re trying to boil water in a pot made of ice. You’re just not the type of man who can achieve that. And that’s okay. I don’t think I’ve ever come across someone who could claim to actually obey all of Tichen’s prerequisites for that lifestyle.”

“It wasn’t a stasis, it was a pinnacle,” Al said. “Tichen said that it was something to strive for constantly.”

“And do you think you ever achieved it?”

He thought about this for a few moments. Even on an average day, when he hadn’t complained about caring for another man’s child, when he swallowed the angry words he wanted to have with his wife, when he had meekly earned his wages and plied his trade in peace, he couldn’t admit that he had attained anything close to what Tichen wanted. “No,” he admitted.

“It’s a high bar, Wizard, and very hard to attain in the real world.”

“It was something to aim for. It gave me purpose.”

“Then you need to find another purpose.”

Al let out his breath deeply. “That’s what I’m trying to say. I have no purpose. There is no reason for me to continue living. You shouldn’t have saved me.”

Raulin bent his head for a moment in thought. “I don’t consider myself a faithful man. I’ve been let down too much in my life for that, I think, or maybe that’s not the kind of man I am. But, sometimes you have to have faith that you’re here for a purpose that you don’t yet know about.”

“You sound like Tel,” Al said, bitterly.

“Maybe I do. Maybe he has a point. Maybe there’s something to kouriya that I don’t quite get, but makes sense when you add faith to it.”

“Kouriya is why Anla was captured.”

“Yes, but kouriya also brought you three together. There’s something to be said about that.”

“I need direction, though. Please tell me what to do.”

“What do you want to do? What would you have done if I or anyone else hadn’t been here?”

“I would have opened up the window and stepped outside.”

“Why? It would have been a terrible waste, you must know that. You’re an incredibly brilliant man, Al, one of the sharpest minds in Gheny if not Yine. You set records in Amandorlam that won’t be broken for a long time. How can a smart man want to end all that?”

Al’s head hung down. “The problem is not this,” he said, pointing to his head, “it’s this.” He slapped his palm over his chest. “I know that I should be figuring out what to do next, examining my surroundings, determining what the best course of action is. I can’t feel it, though. I should be excited, hopeful, determined. I’m not; the spark is not catching the wood.”

“What do you feel then?”

“Nothing, most of the time. A wet cotton-stuffed web of hollow that catches all my emotions and burns them clean. That’s the good time. The other is this pining ache for peace at last, to be done with it all and stop having to worry and disappoint everyone in my life. I’m just…weary and tired of it all.”

He understood what he was saying, but finding the right way to stop a man from killing himself was never an easy task. “Wizard, I think you’re having the wrong conversation with the wrong man. I don’t know what to say, but I know I don’t want you to die.”

“Why not, though? I’ve been a terrible person,” he said with an attitude that would be flippant if it was so pitiful. “It would be easier if I was not here and you three could continue on your journey without me.”

“Because friends don’t give up on each other like that.”

“Friend? How am I your friend? What kind of friend does what I’ve done?”

“I don’t know, Wizard,” he said, feeling some of that weariness Al had spoken of. “Maybe it’s one-sided, but I consider you a friend. You saved me in Iascond, you still talk to me even though I was cruel to you after that, you’ve helped me immensely with my contracts. I trust you, maybe not with a butter knife, but for most of the rest. I don’t have many friends in this world, so I try to protect and help the ones I do have.

“As far as your actions recently, Anla thought about what you’ve been going through and she thinks this was a major backlash due to magic overuse. If that’s the case, then you were acting poorly because you were ill, and I think that’s forgivable. Do you think she had the right idea?”

Al seemed surprised at this, considering the idea for a few minutes. “I would say ‘yes’ but everything is usually gone within hours, maybe a day. It’s never been this horrible.”

“But, you’ve been using for a while now, yes?”

“I don’t know. I can’t control it anymore. It’s just…there, even though I haven’t tapped into it. The body was never meant to sustain the Unease or the Calm for long periods of time and I don’t know how long I’ve been going for each time.”

“What does Amandorlam say about extended uses of magic?”

“We actually have to test how long we can go at some point in our training so that we know the signs when we’ve gone too far. Using for a long time also increases your tolerance to magic temporarily. And sometimes using extended amounts of magic will allow a wizard to pass into the next level. I was able to tap into the Calm first, then became a switcher after our second prolonged magic use test. At some point I became a cross-switcher, though I’m not sure when.”

“Huh. What if this means you’re becoming a…cyclical wizard?”

Al snorted. “If I were cyclical wizard, I wouldn’t be like this,” he said, indicating his state. “I’d be in equilibrium, constantly healing myself so that I’d be in that pleasant state without the problems that go with it. I’m far from that now.”

“So, you couldn’t heal your heart with the Calm?”

“Stopping the cycle of vexation and melancholy in someone might be enough to heal them of it, but the Calm doesn’t mend the mind like it mends the flesh. Basically, it will make me feel better until the tide comes in again.”

This was the most engaged Raulin had seen Al in the better part of a week. He wasn’t well, but his face showed emotion and his eyes had that sparkle he got when he spoke about things he was passionate about. He’d seen women and men in deep melancholia before, wasting away because life had lost all interest. For them, even the most skilled doctors had failed to bring them out of their fugue.

Al was different, though. This was a temporary situation. If he could buy some time, he was sure he’s recover. “How about this? I’ll make a deal with you. I want you to heal yourself with the Calm for the next two weeks. I want you to talk to Tel and Anla, and even Sakilei if you want to. I want you to think and feel and explore and plan. And then, if at the end of those two weeks you still want to end your life, you come to me.”

Al nodded his head slowly.

“You have to try, though. Promise me that you’ll try.”

“I promise.”

Raulin was about to continue when he looked to his right and saw Anla standing in the doorway. He stood and walked past her, saying, “He’s trying.”

Anla took Raulin’s seat and sat across from Al. And she waited. Al did everything but look at her. She knew that he was thinking about what to say to her and she gave him that time.

Finally, he said, “I’m supposed to say ‘I’m sorry’, but I don’t feel sorry. I don’t feel anything, really.”

“Sometimes people say they are sorry when they don’t really mean it,” she said, “though I could tell if you didn’t mean it. Would you have been sorry if I had been harmed?”

“Yes,” he said quickly and firmly.

“Would you have been sorry if you had never seen me again, if the bounty hunters had broken the spell and escaped Raulin and Tel and wound up selling me in New Wextif?”

“No one deserves that,” he said. “Yes.”

“So what you grapple with is the disappointment that I wasn’t taught a lesson about my magic?”

He struggled with this point. “That’s what I remember feeling then, but it’s not what I feel now.”

“Why is it so important that I be taught a lesson? Why can’t I already be a master at understanding what my magic can do?”

“Because people mishandle magic all the time. I saw it so many times even while we were learning magic in Amandorlam, and those were supervised and trained wizards. You have no formal training, so how can you know what you’re doing to other people?”

“I’ve learned from every mistake I’ve made. No, I never had a teacher or a school or even a book up until recently, but I know what damage I can do. Why can’t you trust me on that?”

“I think I trust rarely. No, that’s not true; I think I trust poorly,” he said, thinking of Aggie.

“At least we agree on that,” she said, leaning forward. “What will it take for you to trust me?”

After some thought, he said, “Maybe…if I taught you? Not the magic, of course, but the magical ethics.”

“That I can agree to,” she said. “I think Raulin is finished, so we’ll likely leave Kikiyan in the morning. We’ll start then?”

He held out his hand to shake and she complied before leaving him alone. Al had a lot of healing to do, but at least talking with Raulin and Anla had brought some peace to his situation. He sighed, laid back on the davenport, and closed his eyes to think.

15-6

“Chigrant,” Iyessa said as Raulin sat down.

“Chigrant, really? And here I thought I knew my stoneworkers.”

“He’s a local artist based in Kikiyan, a friend of my lord’s.”

“Hmm, I might have to look him up and ask him for some pointers. Chocolate-covered peanuts?” he asked, holding a small burlap sack with the candy.

She took one, her mouth curling into a mischievous smile. “Do you like sweets or is this because Caudin gave Asuedet the same thing on their first date in Temper and Temperance?”

“I like sweets,” he said, but returned the smile.

Their conversation steered towards alley novels, not surprisingly. Raulin felt less interest in it than the day before, but then again, he wasn’t making idle conversation for his benefit. He sat and watched as she discussed the same things the wizard would and realized what a difference charisma made. And perhaps attraction.

He walked her back to work, where she casually mentioned some of the finer stone work in the house. Marble fireplaces, granite balusters fixed with gold, a table in the grand dining room made of a solid slab of quartz. He let his eyes sparkle as she teased him about it.

“What I wouldn’t give to run my fingers over them,” he said.

Iyessa said nothing, but gave a far away mischievous smile he was beginning to understand was part of her fiber.

When they reached the corner again, he asked, “I don’t suppose you know of any good places for a nice meal? Perhaps one that will have a lovely woman there who loves to read?”

“Oh, I know of one such place,” she said, “and it’s not too far from here. Griesk has great stuffed pastas and caubidrem and it’s three blocks down and two blocks over on this very road ahead of us. And I heard there will be a lady there of the description you gave at about 6:30 this evening.”

“Then I’ll be there, waiting for her and the caubidrem. More for one than the other.” Again, he kissed the back of her hand before watching her saunter past the guards into the estates.

She arrived a few minutes late (not that Raulin was surprised), her auburn locks half upand her dress a deep green with a tartan apron in the maltan fashion. Dinner was delicious and pleasant, though she became thoughtful as they ate dessert.

“I’d love to know what’s on your mind,” he asked, sipping his steel wine.

“I was thinking,” she began, “that while I don’t have any marble fireplaces or even a stone sconce in my apartment, I’d still like to show you it.”

“I can withhold my pretension easily and enjoy the company I’m with, not the things I’m surrounded by.”

He paid for dinner, waited for the right moment to kiss her, and walked with her to her place. “I’m sure every woman says this, but I don’t usually do this,” Iyessa said as she unlocked her door.

“You don’t seem like that type of woman,” he assured her. Maybe that was true, but he’d known enough who’d said that line that he knew did that. It mattered little to him, but he was sure a great deal to her. He had no need to tarnish her reputation, at least as much as possible.

She closed the door behind them and lit the candelabra on the dresser to her apartment, a two room home of a bedroom and a sitting room. Clothing was strewn about and piles of books were everywhere, but she didn’t seem concerned by it.

He gave her a few moments after she was done before he kissed her again, gently backing her into her bedroom. She was pliant, returning his kisses just as deeply, holding him just as tightly. When the back of her legs hit her bed, she laid down, grabbing his shirt and pulling him down with her.

After, when her hair was splayed on her pillow and her chest rising and falling to catch her breath, she said, “Tomorrow.”

“Lunch?” he asked, rolling to his side to look at her, wincing at the pain in his shoulder.

She thought about this, biting her lip. “Yes, but across the street from the estate.”

Raulin smirked at this, then began to dress gingerly. “I’ll see you then,” he said, once his glasses and sling were back on.

He awoke the next morning in the hotel with the odd presence of being watched. Anla’s head was pressed into his back, her arm draped around him and her hand dangerously close to his waist. He didn’t want to move, but he finally noticed a dark shape in the room and realized Al was watching him sleep. He startled and Anla awoke, too.

“Wizard?” he asked.

“What passes?” she asked, yawning.

“The wizard is just standing here, watching us.”

“How long has he been there?” Anla threw her shirt on and hopped out of the four-poster bed.

“I don’t know.”

She guided Al back to the davenport and tucked him in, though he seemed to resist her help.

Raulin had already curled up under the blankets, since it was far too early to wake, but he had trouble falling back asleep. He awoke sometime in the late morning, Anla gone and breakfast left on the table for him. He ate everything available, highly suspecting that there would be no lunch.

He leaned against the wall across the way from the Cosilly estate at noon. Not five minutes later did he see Iyessa emerge from the front door and walk to the front. She spoke with the guards for a few minutes, a lively affair that started with shaken heads and crossed arms and ended with arms thrown in the air. The situation had needed a woman’s touch; he’d seen his own mother wear his father down to exasperated agreement like that on more than a few occasions.

She waved him over and he waited until a passing carriage went by before making his way to the front gate. “This the guy?” one of the guards asked.

“Yes,” Iyessa said. “Don’t give him grief; he’ll be gone as soon as he can fix the mantle in the master suite.”

“Why doesn’t he have any tools with him?”

Raulin hated observant guards. At least Iyessa was thinking ahead and came up with a clever response. “He already dropped them off this morning when Dengar and Alick were on duty. He was working with his boss on another project and wanted to get going quickly before you-know-who returns tomorrow.”

“Just be more careful, Essa. I don’t know why or how you were carrying a hundred pound planter, but they’ll dismiss you if you keep breaking things.”

“I know, Grith,” she said, patting him on the cheek. “This way the master doesn’t have to know.”

Raulin was let past the guards and Iyessa walked quickly to the front door. “Did you really chip the mantle?”

“No,” she said, opening the door, “but they don’t need to know that.”

This was probably the three hundredth estate or manse Raulin had been to in his life, but Chayen was a man who worked with simpler projects and had rarely seen such grandeur. The wide foyer and crystal chandelier impressed him mightily and he stopped to gawk for a moment. “This way,” Iyessa said, leading him up the stairs.

They went to the left wing of the house, past several hallways and rooms, until they came to a small wing where the woman he called Haubret was dusting. When she saw the two of them, she stopped and winked at Raulin. “Keep an eye out and make sure Manyen stays away.” Haubret grinned and gestured for them to continue on their way.

There were three bedrooms they passed; a spare bedroom, the countess’s chambers, and one on the end that was likely the earl’s. They turned into the duchess’s,, a rather comfortable room in red and gold. “Since I’m not hear to fix a mantle, what are we doing here?” he asked, confident he could scrape together an idea.

She turned towards him, her demeanor and tone changing to something more demure. “My lord, we have little time together before you need to leave to go to Eri Ranvel . Give me a few minutes to make myself acceptable for what little time together we have.”

“Of course, my lady,” he said automatically, bowing before he left. Back in the hallway, he stood on the other side of the closed door, wondering what was happening. She had never been so formal with him before and he had never mentioned traveling to Arvonne. He sighed once the candle was lit in his mind; it was a charade she was conducting, he a nobleman and she some woman giving herself to him in passion. Good. It meant he had five, perhaps ten, minutes to check the earl’s room.

Raulin suspected it wasn’t going to be easy, even if he had hours to look. He needed to find a pin, a silver embossed decal that signified the earl was a member of the Order of Rose Cliff. It wasn’t something a smart man would leave around, since he would need to wear that to all official functions and losing it would mean he would insult the host. Which, if it were the King would be a very upsetting situation.

Then again, some men were very organized. All it took was a quick rifle through some key places before he found a closet dedicated to cuff links, buttons, pins, and other kinds of jewelry. The pin was on a velvet cushion next to a few other societal pins, the rose picked out against the silver background in red and green. He plucked it out, attached it inside the bottom of his cuffed pant leg, and closed the door, returning to the hallway.

“My lady?” he asked, opening the door slightly. “Our time together wanes.”

She was fixing her stockings when he moved inside the room. She wore her undergarments and nothing else, her dress and petticoat moved to a chair nearby. He closed the space between them, taking a more melodramatic tack by looking deeply into her eyes,picking her up, then laying her on the bed.

He’d been here before. One of his lovers, Sisalia of Amanrei, a small port city in Kinto, had constantly playing these games. It had been a fiery relationship of five weeks, never growing dull because they were always doing something different. One day she would take on a strong personality, leading the night’s activities with harsh commands, then followed by a meek and demure performance the next day. He’d enjoyed the taste of her, but she wasn’t one he missed because he’d never really known who she was by the end of their time together. But, at least he’d had the experience.

Even though his job was finished and he would’ve liked nothing more than to leave, he gave her exactly what she wanted: softness and whispers, gentle touches and lingering looks. He knew what he was doing, but even still he wasn’t prepared for her to cry out the name Caudin.

He stopped, shocked. She looked up at him sleepily for a few moments, then confused. “What?”

“That’s not my name,” he said, moving away from her.

“I…” she began, but she couldn’t answer him.

Later, he’d dwell on this and realize that he actually felt upset for his own reasons and his reaction was genuine. But, this was a great way to end things and get out of that mansion faster than he would have otherwise. “I don’t care if you want to pretend I’m some high born noble, or a rich man; I make enough money that I don’t have to dream about being either. You can play your games where I’m something that I’m not, but not someone else.”

“I’m sorry,” she said, reaching out for him. He began putting on his clothes and ignored her.

“Shall I ask your friend to let me out, then?” he asked.

“If you wait a few minutes, I can…can we talk about this?”

“I don’t think I want to wait,” he said, and left.

He donned his mask a few streets over and stepped into an antique shop. The owner looked at him wide-eyed for a moment, then grinned. “You have something of mine?” he asked.

“Crushed rose,” he said, using the phrase he’d been told in his contract.

“Thorns and silver,” the man responded, exactly what Raulin needed to hear.

He dropped the pin in his outstretched hand, having no idea nor care as to what an antiques dealer wanted with that earl’s signet enough to pay for a trirec contract.

There was no one other than the wizard in the hotel suite, which annoyed Raulin somewhat, but also allowed him to perform a mental exercise he needed to do. It was one he had created to help sever any ties he felt guilty about breaking off. He sat on the floor, closed his eyes, and pictured a rope wrapped around his leg, held vertically taut by his hand. It was a thick hemp rope, not the light kansta rope he wore as a belt around his arong-miil. He imagined holding a serrated knife in his other hand slicing through the hemp, the fibers fraying and twisting away.

It was the guilt. He didn’t feel upset over what had transpired between him and Iyessa; he hoped that she hadn’t actually fallen for him, or barring that, she’d get over him quickly. What bothered him was what was to come for her. That pin would come up missing eventually. Someone would need to be blamed, and with at least three witnesses to confess that Iyessa had brought a man into the house to fix a mantle that didn’t need to be fixed, she’d be blamed for the theft. She’d lose her job and possibly her reputation because of him. Yes, she was often late and had broken things a few times, and maybe she’d lose her job because of that anyway, but he would likely be the reason. And while he didn’t mind carrying guilt that he felt he deserved, he couldn’t hold on to something like this, where decisions had been made in equality. Deceit from his end, but still her ideas.

The rope twisted in his mind, the weight of his imaginary hand causing it to creak with the strain. She had wanted something from him, he had wanted something from her. He pulled the knife across the last of the fibers like a bow across a fiddle. Everything had risks and she had made quite a bold choice inviting him inside. He could hear the sizzling sound as the blade cut back and forth, then finally a twang as it snapped. His hand flew up from the release of pressure and the rope dropped, though in reality he was still seated with his hands on his lap.

He sighed and opened his eyes. He didn’t feel completely better, but mostly. Raulin stood and dusted off his pants and was about to walk out of the room when he heard the sound of someone sobbing.

15-5

Avo sei concra, Raulin had decided that morning, a phrase that translated to “wounded bird”. It was is favored position, one that he had already acted in Carvek and in Iascond at the bookstore. There was something about being underestimated that he enjoyed, playing meek to disarm and never letting his true motivations show. People were more likely to help or befriend someone that didn’t threaten them. And, should a problem arise, Raulin always knew what he was capable of.

His arm was mending, but still in a sling. It wasn’t much more to complete the appearance than to don a pair of spectacles (since he’d always noticed that intellectuals had glasses and they were oddly considered unthreatening) and dress in a manner that made him look a little on the youthful side.

After his change in clothing, he ate breakfast while watching the entrance to the estate. It was eight in the morning by the tolling of the bells in Aliorna’s chapel just a few neighborhoods over, a tinkling sort of sound that made him smirk at memories from a decade ago. He’d say they were from his youth, but he still often felt like he was living it.

Not much long after the music played, one of the women in the blue dresses and pinned back hair arrived. He decided to call her “Willow” because she was tall and very thin, her arms bent and sticking out like tree branches. She gave a small nod to the two men guarding the gate, who let her pass without much fanfare.

“Haubret” came next. She was named after a woman Raulin had known in his childhood, the type of woman with a stature that would have pleased any husband who was a farmer: big-boned, heavy, and tall. Too bad the real Haubret had been a noble, a placid woman prone to spells of melancholy. This Haubret seemed to take after her in that aspect, too, since she stared at the ground and barely said anything to the guards.

The last woman came running down the road and only slowed herself once she reached the gate. She fixed her auburn hair and smiled at the guards, dimples popping on her round face. The guards seemed to cheer up at her arrival and the three spoke for a few minutes. She may have been flirting with them, or at least holding a conversation that was far from formal. If Raulin had to pick one based just on their arrivals, he would choose “Burgundy”.

He was prepared to sit until one left, which he had expected to be until eight like the previous night, but he was surprised to see Burgundy leave around lunch. Making sure the guards hadn’t noticed him, he followed a block behind her until she entered into a library of Cyurinin with a basket. He waited a few minutes before going inside and sat kitty-corner from her at a table.

She had neatly stacked a few books and was eating her lunch of roasted fingerling potatoes, vegetables, and sliced roast beef. He settled down and pretended to read from his book, instead glancing at the titles of hers. Raulin almost let out a pained sigh and rolled his eyes; they were all Arvonnese alley novels.

He forced a smile and asked, “How’s that one?”

She continued to cut her meat for a few moments, then suddenly looked at him. “Oh! I’m sorry, I didn’t realize you were talking to me. Um, which one?”

“That one,” he said, pointing to the top book. “Another Season in Eri Ranvel.”

She lifted it, and ran her finger across an iconic gray-green cover with blue stamped words in a distinct font. It looked almost exactly like the one Raulin had read in Baradan with the hopes of connecting to the wizard. “This is one of my favorites. The prose is so beautiful and the characters just jump off the page.”

“I just finished Scattered at Sea not too long ago,” he admitted.

“Really?” she asked, her eyes widening. “You like alley novels?”

“I do,” he said, frowning. “Why, is that strange?”

“No! No, I’ve just…never met a man who read them.”

“Oh.”

She leaned forward. “Don’t feel bad about that one bit. That just makes you better than all the blockheads out there who think women like brutish men who can’t feel anything other than anger and hunger.” She smiled, her dimples forming, and went back to eating her meal.

“And you don’t?” Raulin asked.

“Not in the slightest. They try, though, and expect me to enjoy the attention.”

“What about men who aren’t blockheads trying?”

“Rarer than this meat,” she said, holding up a bite. “Why, do you know one?” She gave him a devilish smile and he found that he might actually enjoy this tryst.

He was about to suggest himself when the man who sat a few seats down from them slammed his book down loudly on the table. “That’s it,” he said. “I can’t stand people who eat and talk in a library. What if you get grease on the pages? I’m coming back with the priest.”

The man left and Raulin raised his eyebrows and pursed his lips into an “O”. The woman giggled quietly at his mocking look. “I know Sapsin. Don’t worry, we won’t get kicked out.”

The man and the priest returned a few moments later. “Hello, Iyessa. I don’t suppose you could quiet down…” he began, then noticed Raulin. He stared at him for a few moments, then cleared his throat. “Sorry there, sir. I didn’t mean to interrupt.”

Raulin stood and shook the priest’s hand. “Chayen,” he said. “I’m sorry if we were too loud for the other people reading. Perhaps there’s an alcove or a room where we can read and talk and eat in peace? That is, of course, if the lady here is interested and agrees.”

She grinned and nodded her head enthusiastically, picking up her books and meal. The man at the table rolled his eyes, but sat down and picked up his book with a snap of his arms. Sapsin led them not far to an alcove with a small table and two chairs. “Do you need anything, Mr. Chayen?”

“Oh, no thank you. I will most certainly find you and ask if I have any questions.” Sapsin lingered for a few moments, then tore himself away.

Raulin waited for Iyessa to settle into her seat before asking for her name again. “And you’re Chayen. It sounds Arvonnese.”

He shook his head. “I supposedly have some blood on my father’s side, but most of my family is from Arouk.”

She tilted her head for a moment. “Take off your glasses.”

“All right, but things get blurry for me,” he said, pulling off his spectacles. He blinked a few times to pretend he was disoriented.

“You look like him,” Iyessa said.

“Him?”

She tapped one of her books. “Caudin. You look like how I imagine he would look.”

“Oh,” he said, laughing as he put on his glasses again. “I thought he was blond.”

“Sometimes he’s written as blond, since he was actually blond as a child, but often the author says his hair went darker as he got older. Towheaded, I believe it’s called.” She speared a potato, chewed, and swallowed before asking, “Which one is your favorite?”

“Caudin or Aubin?” he asked.

“No, which book?”

Here he had to struggle to remember all the snippets of drivel he had heard from the wizard over the last four months. He would have paid more attention if he had the slightest inkling that information would prove useful at some point. “Uh, probably…The Masquerade?”

“Oh,” she said, clapping her hands together. “That’s my favorite, too. That was the best solution to taking back the throne that I’ve seen in any of the books. I mean, that one had less romance between Riyadet and Caudin that I would have preferred to read, but Caudin sitting on the throne, ousting the chancellor…” She gave a fake shudder. “Gives me goosechill.”

Their ensuing conversation was like talking to a more pleasant Al. The wizard often affected a tone that was somewhere between excited and pompous when speaking about Arvonnese alley novels. Iyessa had her opinions, but she was so cheery about it that Raulin didn’t mind discussing a series of books that he absolutely loathed.

After some time she pulled out a pocket watch and stood quickly. “I need to get back to work,” she said, gathering her dishes and books into a small basket she had brought with her.

“Would you mind some company?”

Another dimpled smile. “I would love company, though I’m running late so I might be brusque in my pace.”

He smiled back. “I have long legs.”

Since she asked, he told her the made up background as to why he was in Kikiyan. He was a builder who worked for a prestigious company that traveled around Gheny, contracting for rich men and nobles. He did every job they had, from masonry to carpentry to furniture building, even glass fitting and gardening, though he admitted he was better at some things than others. Unfortunately, he had taken a fall from a ladder and was recuperating in Kikiyan while the company finished a “quick” job in Iascond. He was to meet up with them in a few days in New Wextif.

“Will you be healed by then?” she asked.

“It’s mostly healed. I’m just being cautious.”

“So. You have just a few days left here?”

“I’ll take the train to New Wextif on Wednesday, Thursday the latest. I don’t want to miss the connection with them; it’s easier if I travel with them, so I don’t have to go to the office and track the address down.”

She nodded, the estate within hundreds of feet. He felt the strong urge to push another meeting with Iyessa, but wouldn’t. Based on her tastes in men, being forceful would be a mistake. It would either have to be an “accidental” stumble upon or she would have to make the move.

“This is where I work,” she said as they passed by the corner of the wall of the estate, “the home of Cosilly, Earl of East Markwich.”

“Beautiful stonework,” he said, pointing to a mural relief of a marsh scene. “That looks like Yurid’s work, if I’m not mistaken.”

“I’m not sure,” she said. “I could ask and get back to you.”

He smiled as he picked up the hint. “And when will you be able to get back to me?”

“At the library tomorrow. I’ll be there for lunch and you’ll be there, too.”

“Well, it just so happens that I’m free for lunch tomorrow and I enjoy reading.”

His only push was to take her hand and kiss the back of it, not the fingertips. She gave a wicked little smirk at this, knowing it was subtle code for romantic interest, but only said goodbye as she strolled past the two guards.

Raulin walked casually out of the neighborhood, then picked up his pace once out of sight until he reached the hotel. He ducked into a water closet to change quickly before making his way up to the suite.

Telbarisk was hunched over the table across from Sakilei. “Hi, Raulin. Sakilei is teaching me how to play Maccre.”

“I hope not for money,” he said, putting his knapsack down near the front door. “That’s a cheap way of making cash off a chump.”

Sakilei absently held up a sack of peanuts, which Raulin saw were being shelled and eaten by Telbarisk. “At this rate, he’ll eat all the ‘cash’ and then I’ll have to move on to coppers.”

“Thank you for watching over the wizard. How has he been today?”

“We’ve caught him standing and staring for a while.”

“Out the window?”

“No, at a wall.”

“That’s…progress, I suppose. He’s moving around on his own. Has he spoken to anyone?”

Telbarisk shook his head sadly.

Raulin walked into the room where Al was sitting on the edge of the bed, staring at the couch. “How are you doing?” he asked. He said nothing, but Raulin hadn’t been expecting him to. “It’s too bad you’re not talking. I met someone I think you’d like a lot. Her name is Iyessa and she loves Arvonnese alley novels. Her favorite is The Masquerade.

He paused as he waited for him to acknowledge any part of that conversation. “I wish you would say something, Wizard. This is the one time you could talk my ear off about those books you love and I would be grateful for the knowledge. I’ll sit here as you list your favorite titles or who was the best love interest for Caudin and Aubin.”

There was no response.

“Do you mind if I read the books you have in your pack?” When Al said nothing, Raulin rifled through his bag and found the gray-green books. “I promise I won’t burn them.”

Raulin walked Al over to the couch and laid him down, covering him with the blanket Anla had nabbed from the davenport in the other room. He stuck his head out and asked Tel and Sakilei where Anla was. “She wanted to ‘take in the city’,” Tel said. “She said she’d be back for dinner.”

“If you two want to do the same, feel free. I’m guessing you’ve been cooped up all day, playing card games. My contract is stalled until tomorrow, so I can stay around here.”

The two took the offer and Raulin went back to settle on the bed and read, or skim, to be more precise. And he spent the next few hours trying to glean what kind of man would make Iyessa happy to be with, and maybe share an exciting adventure in sneaking a lover into a mansion.

15-4

Kikiyan did not pass Raulin’s city quality test. He could dismiss the weird looks given by the locals, since not only did they have a trirec, but a man in a cart and a giant among them. The other two points failed by its own neglect: the streets were muddy and full of potholes and the houses were only two stories high, many disheveled and even crooked. He saw one house’s eaves propped up by raw timber. Since they hadn’t even left the Route of the Woods, he doubted the standard was going to be much higher.

There had to be nicer places, of course. He was there to rob a house and someone had paid three hundred gold for the contract. After asking directions to a nicer part of Kikiyan, they found their money stretched further than in New Wextif and they were able to rent a suite for a reasonable price.

It was a pleasant room, perhaps not grand, but far nicer than the cramped spaces and poorly decorated rooms they were used to. The master bedroom had a davenport where they deposited Al, who had been carried up the five flights of stairs over Telbarisk’s shoulder. The smaller room was decorated for a child with a toy chest, several dolls, and a model ship on a dresser. Sakilei stepped in, looked around, and said, “This will do,” before putting his satchel on the floor.

Raulin quickly looked around, not even conscious that he was checking for spy holes and false-backed furniture, like he had been trained to do. “Tel! Come look at the bathtub. It’s large enough for you to take a bath.”

“What’s a bath?” he asked while Anla ran to the bathroom.

“Mine!” she said.

“Hey, I found it first. I think I should get the first soak.”

She tried to squirm past Raulin, who caught her with his left arm and moved her back out into the common room amidst her laughter. “I don’t understand,” Sakilei said. “Why don’t you two take a bath together?”

Raulin let go of her immediately, paused for a few moments, then moved to put his pack in the master bedroom. Anla decided it was worthwhile to check out the bathroom without him. Sensing the tension, Sakilei turned to Telbarisk. “I’m confused. I thought they were…well, not married, but in some sort of relationship.”

“I don’t believe it to be a simple thing between them,” Tel said. “They seem happy with whatever they are to one another, so I say nothing and let them enjoy their affections.”

“It suppose it really never is a simple thing,” he responded.

Raulin returned from an early morning stroll the next day with breakfast for the group. Anla fed Al fruit and porridge and gave him a bath while the rest ate. Al chewed and swallowed, and listened when she asked him to do things, like walk to the bathroom, but he still wouldn’t speak or acknowledge anyone. He mainly slept or stared ahead.

“What are you doing today?” Anla asked Raulin once Al was back on the davenport.

“Initial observation,” he answered, eating an orange.

“Do you mind some company?”

“No,” he said after some deliberation. “I think it would be all right.”

She changed into her nicer clothing, the tan blouse and multi-colored skirt, and joined him as they left the hotel. He took his mask off in an alley and circled around to meet her on the street. “Do you know I’ve been here before?” she said. “It was a long time ago, but my father took us to Kikiyan for a vacation.”

“Really? So you can show me around then?”

“Hardly. I was four or five when we visited. Some things feel a little familiar, but I don’t remember enough to know where things are.”

“That’s fine. We’ll just be casual and ask a few helpful people for some directions.”

They walked arm-in-arm down Shausley, a wide street lined with some very impressive estates. “How do you approach your contract?” Anla asked. “You must be starting your planning already.”

“Absolutely. There are basically three ways to steal an item from a home. Four, actually, but that last one is unlikely. I need to fight in for it, sneak in, or be invited.”

“What’s the fourth?”

“Ask for it.”

“And has that ever worked?”

“No…yes, actually. Once. I was in Toldaum, in Arouk, and needed to steal a painting. I called in a lot of favors and did a little blackmailing, but wound up establishing myself enough that I could ask the owner to lend me the painting for an art exhibit. I had a forger make a copy and gave that back to the owner, giving the real copy to the man who wanted it. So, it’s possible, but neither I nor Marin Liasorn have any reputation here, so I’m going to rule that one out.”

“And the other three?”

“Likely ruled down to one. Every estate I’ve seen on this road has ten foot walls and guards posted at the gates. I could kill the guards, but even my bloodthirsty order suggests leaving that as a last resort. I could also climb the walls, but…” He gestured to his arm, still in a sling. “Maybe in a few days I’ll be fine to scale, but I don’t think it will be easy. I suspect the reason these houses are well-protected is due to the fact that Kikiyan has a wide gap between the rich and the poor and high crime rates because of it. Thus, there might be two guards at the gate, but what beyond?”

“Which leaves ‘be invited’. How are you going to get some nobleman to invite you into his house if you don’t know him?”

“I don’t.” He waited for her to give him a beckoning look before continuing. “A nobleman is only a fraction of the people that work or live in a house. You have maids, guards, valets, butlers, groomsmen, caretakers, chefs, attendants, footmen, clerks, and so on. Even those who live in the household will carry on with their own lives, leaving for their days off or for personal events.”

“So, you find some young man who wants to have a good time, take him out for a few drinks, and befriend him?”

“Hmm,” he said. What was the best way to broach this subject? Would Anla even care? “Ideally, if I thought I could get chummy with a fellow enough for him to bring me to his workplace, I’d do that. I’d need to find someone who is the type to be so impressed with a new friend that he would risk his job. Those kinds of lads tend to be weeded out quickly or collared by an older mentor, I’ve found.

“No, what works best, my tried and true method, involves women. There are a lot more avenues to pursue and it’s easier for me to adopt a scenario and character that fits the situation. Friendship is wonderful, but passion is better suited.”

She nodded slowly and straightened her spine. While he guessed she probably wasn’t pleased with the revelation, she shouldn’t be surprised. He’d admitted this was part of his job a long time ago. Besides, this was actually an ideal situation for Raulin. Anla had made it clear that she didn’t want to carry out a romantic relationship with him, therefore freeing him to find dalliances elsewhere. They were not tied to each other by any promises or understandings. She couldn’t object to this fairly.

“How do you find someone suitable, then?”

“I stake out the house and watch who enters and leaves, writing down times, descriptions, and additional notes. I prefer the ones in uniforms, especially those leaving a group. That means they work a shift and will be in the house for a period of time, but will also come and go with some freedom to do so.”

“And from there?”

“I pick one, tail them home, and observe what they do, trying to find an opening that will work. People have at least one hobby or regular place they go to, and I make it my focus to make it mine. I’ll then move quickly to establish a relationship, and try to get them to invite me to their work.”

“And what if they don’t want to have a relationship established?” she asked.

He had felt her hand stiffen on his arm when he first mentioned his plan. Now, he felt himself tense at her question. He dropped his arm and said, “If you’re implying what I think you are, then I’m displeased with where our conversation is going. I am a better man than that.”

“I was just curious at how hard you pressed a situation,” she said, not sounding apologetic at all.

“Not very hard. If I’m to get a woman to invite me into an estate, she needs to be amenable to the idea, offering it herself if I can manage that. Abuse of any kind tends to not work. Not that I’ve tried it,” he said with some disgust. “I’d imagine a woman who suddenly felt very uncomfortable around a man would find herself surrounded by allies at her work. I understand the wizard must have rubbed off on you somewhere, but I really have no interest in killing, stealing, raping, or fighting people if I don’t have to.”

She folded her hands in front of her and was quiet for a few moments. “You’re right. I’ve never known you to seek that sort of thing. I’m sorry to have questioned it.”

“Thank you,” he said, and stopped them across the street from his targeted household. As he had expected, there were high walls and guards posted at the gates. “This part tends to get boring. You don’t need to stay on my account.”

“I’ll keep you company for a little while longer. I can fetch you lunch.”

“That would be nice.”

She stayed by his side, offering her own observations as he wrote down what he saw in his notebook. She brought him a sandwich from a delicatessen down the street, and later dinner consisting of a noodle dish in a bowl with cheese and vegetables. She left after that and Raulin spent a few more hours watching the house. He didn’t need to, though. Shortly after Anla had left, a group of three young women in blue dresses with pinned back hair left together. He knew immediately that it was going to have to be one of them.

15-3

Anla’s hand was outreached, several feet away from the ledge. Then, both flew to her mouth, suppressing a gasp. She stopped and couldn’t move for a few moments from the shock. He was gone.

Then she heard two thuds, one after the other, following by a yell to her left. “Shit!” Raulin groaned through clenched teeth.

Her head snapped over and she saw the trirec on the ground, holding a taut rope wrapped in his left hand. His right was underneath him and something seemed off about it. She froze for just a moment, then ran to his side, grabbing the rope and pulling.

Raulin stood behind her and began walking backwards, hauling with as much force as he could with one arm. Anla ran to the side of the cliff and helped pull Al up and over the edge, his unconscious form dead weight for the two of them. When he was over, she examined his head, finding a cut on the back. She didn’t know if it was serious, but the bleeding seemed minimal.

She looked up at Raulin. “How…?”

He knelt down and tried to untie the knot from the rope with his left hand. “I got cold,” he said, pain lacing his words.

“What?”

“I woke up because I was cold. I was cold because you were gone. Since I was up, I figured the wizard must have tired himself out and that I should bring him back to camp. I didn’t think he was well enough, though, so I got my rope out to tie him up. When I got to the tree, he was gone. I followed the trail to here, saw you talking with him, had a bad feeling about where it was going, and just managed to get a lasso together and throw it before he jumped. It’s a good thing I was thirty feet away, and not twenty, or I might have missed.”

Anla shook her head and smiled, taking over the unknotting of the rope. “Sometimes I think you exaggerate without meaning to, but I can’t catch you in the lie. I was wrong about your skills.”

“I could have introduced you to some trirecs that could have corroborated my story. Then again, they’re trirecs, so never mind.”

She nodded to his shoulder. “Are you okay?”

“Likely a dislocation. I’ve had one in each shoulder before. I’ll need a sturdy tree to pop it back into place and a friend to catch me if I pass out from the pain.”

“What do we do with Al?”

“That’s the tricky part. I’ll have to stay with him while you get Sakilei and Tel.”

The three returned as quickly as they could. Tel knelt next to Al, thumbing his forehead and stroking his hair. “Only a man in a lot of pain would try to end his life. I knew he was having a troubled time, but I didn’t know it was this bad.”

“I still don’t understand what’s going on,” Raulin said, still gritting his teeth. “Nothing he’s done recently makes sense.”

Anla sighed. “It does, and I should have realized it before now. I think we should bring him back to the fire and get you taken care of before I clarify.”

Raulin explained to Tel that he needed to catch him after he hit the tree trunk, in case he passed out from the pain. Tel stood with his arms waiting. Raulin jammed his shoulder against the tree and gasped, falling to his knees and onto his face.

“Tel…” he said, groaning.

“I’m sorry, Raulin,” he said, reaching down and scooping up his friend by the armpits. ” I thought you were going to fall back against me. Do you feel better?”

“Yes, but for missing me I’m going to make you bring the wizard back to camp.”

Sakilei, without a word, restarted the fire and cooked up breakfast for the group, setting aside a bowl of oatmeal and fruit for Al as well. Once everyone was settled and eating, Anla began. “Al and I rescued the Duke of Sharka’s daughter from a kidnapping by cultists back in the spring. Since they took her through rough terrain in the forest, he was forced to use the Unease for extended periods of time. He wasn’t used to it and he began to show side effects from it. The first was a queer sense of humor where he made jokes at my expense. He apologized afterward and explained what it was like to stop his magic after using it for so long. Later, after a long night of running with a heavy pack and an eight-year-old girl on his back, he collapsed into a deep melancholy where he neither spoke to us or could move. Afterwards, he told me that if it ever happened again, to watch over him and protect him from himself, since he might try to do harm without meaning to and that he’d be useless.

“It was when I was speaking to him at the cliff that the candle in my mind was lit. He apologized to everyone and said he needed to free us from each other, and to not be a danger to anyone anymore. That’s when I remembered that I’d failed him.”

“Anla, I don’t remember this being an issue in the past,” Raulin said.

“You do,” she said. “Remember when we escaped the hunters after Carvek? We pushed hard to lose them, going through the woods at a fast pace. And when we were in the cave that Tel made, Al started laughing maniacally, just like he did last night when we tied him up to the tree.”

“But, he’s been fine since Carvek.”

“I’m not completely sure, but I think he’s been using constantly since…well, at least New Wextif.”

“New Wextif? What makes you say that?”

“Little things. It used to take him a few moments to tap into the Calm, which is what he preferred to use if he could, since the backlash was far less worse than with the Unease. In New Wextif I saw him instantaneously do things he shouldn’t be able to do unless he was using magic, like overhear the conversations of men at Schoolinghouse that were very far away.”

“Like see eight buildings away and pick up a seventy-five pound pack like it was nothing,” Raulin said, shaking his head. “But, wait. As a cross-switcher, shouldn’t he be able to use the Calm to do Unease things?”

“If he can concentrate and focus, otherwise no. He can tap into the Calm to increase his strength enough to shove a tent spike into rock, but if he’s out walking and talking, he can’t.”

“Then he’s been potentially using the Unease for months now. And it finally caught up to him.”

Anla nodded her head sadly. “I think he had started to develop a tolerance, so he was able to go for longer stretches of time without getting his side effects, but this was too much for him. Now he’s going through the worst backlash he’s ever been through.”

“What do we do, then? I don’t mean to rush us, but we’re racing the season south. It’s been fine so far, but the nights will be getting colder and I don’t want to be stuck camping in freezing temperatures.”

“I don’t know how Al is going to be when he wakes up,” Anla said. “We should get him somewhere safe where we can watch over him. How far are we from Kikiyan?”

“Two or three days, by my best guess.”

“Could we wait a day and see how he is?”

“Of course,” Raulin said.

Al’s breath was steady and deep, which took some of Anla’s worries away. At some point later in the day he opened his eyes a crack, but didn’t move or say anything. Tel helped him to sit up propped against a tree, but his head fell against his chest and stayed there. Anla fed him stew, which he chewed and swallowed, but he wouldn’t feed himself. They laid him down on his bedroll and as a precaution tied him to the tree.

“That’s what he was like during our flight from the cultists,” Anla said. “He said he felt trapped inside his mind. He couldn’t feel anything, he couldn’t respond. He had no interest or motivation to do anything.”

“How long did it last?” Raulin asked.

“Half a day? Maybe less than that.”

“So, he should be better by tomorrow morning?”

“If it’s the same schedule,” she said, but she didn’t feel hopeful.

Al was still in a fugue by the next morning. He had barely moved, but at least he hadn’t tried to slip his ropes and leave. Anla fed him watery oatmeal and bathed him quickly with a cloth, changing his clothes before the others noticed.

After she returned from the river they had been getting their water from, she sat at the fire. “I think we need to discuss what to do if Al doesn’t snap out of this soon.”

Raulin thought about this for a little while. If it had been any other situation, they would have to make a travois to transport Al to the nearest town in hopes of getting a carriage or cart. As it were, they had an extra member who wasn’t bound by the same circumstances that they were. “Sakilei, given that I’m injured, Anla is caring for Al, and Tel has a tendency to wander, do you think you could follow the Route of the Woods to the nearest town and get help for us?” When he didn’t say anything for a few moments, Raulin continued. “I’d be willing to pay you for your troubles, of course, and you…”

Sakilei held up his hand. “I still feel I still owe you. I’ll go.”

They spent another night under the stars, the skies made clear by Telbarisk’s magic that pushed off any incoming storms. Sakilei returned the next morning with a cart he had somehow convinced a local man to lend out for a few silver. They cleaned up the site, loaded the still catatonic Al into the cart, and began towing him to Kikiyan.