1-13

Ember kept Alpine waiting, like she always did. This time, however, she made a very poor show of disinterest. While Al sat in his seat, his hands folded in front of him, she kept glancing up from her tea. She’d put the cup down and continue writing, only to look him over quickly to see if he had the chalice on him. The third time she did that she caught his eye. Al gave her a smirk as she put down her pen.

“So, you have returned,” she said, taking off her pince-nez and letting them hang by the chain attached to her brooch. “How did last night fair?”

“It was exciting, to say the least. I was chased across half the city by a group with tracking abilities. Let’s just say I didn’t get enough sleep last night.”

Her eyes narrowed. “Then you stole something else? Why? I warned you about the consequences.”

“You did.” He shrugged. “My greed got the better of me. Since I was stealing one thing, why not steal something else?”

She looked a little surprised at Al’s admission. “Well, you did get away in the end and you didn’t connect the acquisition to me or Milxner’s. I suppose I have no quarrels with you taking a little something for yourself.” Ember graced him with a small smile. “Now, about the chalice…”

“Yes. I did get it.”

Ember sighed, her shoulders dropping as she sat back. “And? Do you have it with you?”

Al got comfortable in his seat. “I thought it might be dangerous to bring it here.”

“I see. Why is that?”

“Ember, I didn’t just steal an additional item from Berlont’s last night. I also stole the card attached to the chalice. Would you care to explain how a deitic artifact is a family heirloom?”

Al watched her carefully. She quietly sipped on her tea with a placid look on her face. She almost set her cup down, then took another sip. He had a hunch that whatever she was about to say was going to be a lie, but he’d listen anyway. “I assume, that with your particular taste in hobbies, you know of the Divine Bestowal?”

“Of course,” he said. “Royalty are the chosen leaders of their lands because they are blood descendants of Magrithon. He fathered children with a few of His aps and they went on to found countries and rule them.”

“It wasn’t just Magrithon who fathered mortal children.”

Ember let the silence hang as Al thought of what she was implying. “That’s ludicrous. I’ve never once heard of anyone speak about Mikros fathering humans.”

“We like to keep it under the rose, my family. We’ve tracked our lineage as far back as Ap Nourith. She was responsible for the Noh Amair Accord and founding the Sisterhood of Sancilot. She also was the only ap of Mikros to sire the Brother’s children.”

Alpine shook his head. “This is hard to believe…”

“Trust me, it is. It was a great surprise to learn of my heritage when I came of age. I learned it right before my family sent me off to Amandorlam, in hopes of learning more about where my ultimate grandfather’s treasures are.”

Ember put down her tea and stood, walking around her desk to stand in front of him. “We’ve been searching for generations. It means a great deal to my family to finally return our heirlooms to their home. Alpine,” she said, pausing before placing her hands on his forearms, “Al, please. I beseech you to do what is right and return the chalice to its rightful owners.”

Something seemed off about Ember’s story. Al had only a few things he trusted his life with, and knowledge was one of them. Magrithon had mortal descendants only because he had been stripped of his powers temporarily by the others as a punishment for many abuses against both the pantheon and mortals. Mikros, on the other hand, had always been a calm, benevolent god. He couldn’t think of a single myth involving Him that suggested moral ambiguity, never mind the fits of grandeur His brother was renowned for.

Al’s mind trailed a little while he left Ember waiting. She wasn’t used to it. In fact, the longer he made her wait, the more fretful she became. She took his silence as not contemplation, but as Al trying to figure a polite way to turn her down. “Al, do you want money?”

He looked up. “Money?”

“Yes,” she said, opening a locked drawer in her desk and pulling out a blue velvet cinch-bag. “Here. Take this. I assume this will buy your silence over what we spoke of?” She placed the bag in his hand and folded his fingers over. “I can pay you the same when you bring the chalice here.”

“Okay,” he said, giving her a dopey smile. “I’ll be right back.”

Thankyou,” she said, moving out of his way so he could leave.

Alpine walked through Milxner’s, through the maze in between to Jindahl and Stohr. He opened his office, lit a few candles, and quickly counted the money. Fifty gold? That was over two months wages for Al. Another fifty was waiting for him, when he brought the chalice to Ember. One hundred gold.

What could Al do with that much money? If he could get Ember’s protection, he could put a down payment on a nicer house. He could woo his wife back. He could put the money away for Marnie’s education.

What he’d probably do, given the opportunity, would be to start his own business. He was only one of three Touch wizards in the whole city, as far as he knew. He could start fresh, bring his clientele with him, and start implementing all the little things he wished he could suggest to his bosses. Maybe he could get an office closer to his home, so that he could rest better.

But, in the end, he knew what he was going to do. The whole ordeal had taught him a few things about himself that he’d never known. Mainly, and most importantly, he was better than this.

He smiled sadly, grabbed a piece of paper, and wrote down two words. He locked his office and handed the paper to Peni along with the key. “Please give this to Mr. Jindahl or Stohr when you see them next.”

“Why, Al? What does it say?”

“’I quit.’”

* *

As usual, it was twilight when Burdet fumbled with the front door and stumbled in. Al was reading by candlelight, a book he liked but didn’t treasure. It took her a few moments before she saw him.

“Where were you last night?” she slurred.

“Shh,” he said, putting his finger up to his lips. “Marnie is sleeping. I was out, like I said.”

“You said it was only going to be an hour or two. You didn’t get in until past midnight! I knew it! You’re cheating on me.”

“I’m not cheating on you,” he said. “I have never cheated on you. I have been a good husband, despite the fact that you’ve been a terrible wife to me.”

She made to leave for the kitchen when Al said, “Sit.” Stunned by his force, she complied. “We should have spoken a long time before now.”

“I don’t want to speak with you. I have to.”

“What went wrong, Burdet? We loved each other once. We were happy.”

“I’m getting wine,” she said. She went into the kitchen and returned with the full, uncorked bottle of Caudet Al had been saving for a special occasion. It irked him as he watched her take a long draw from it. She was drinking to get more drunk, to loosen her tongue so that she could say the cruelest things to him.

“I was happy…until I wasn’t. One day I realized you weren’t the man I thought you’d be.”

“I thought we had been pretty honest with each other. Who did you think I’d be?”

Successful,” she spat. “You were the smartest man to come out of Amandorlam in generations. You almost set a record as the youngest. You were bright and passionate and ambitious! And now look at you! You practically beg for scraps, lay down on the ground like a good dog for those stuck-up, snobby women. You’re smart! Why aren’t we rich?”

“That’s all you ever wanted from me? To make you rich?” he asked quietly.

“I deserve better than this,” she said, holding her hand out and almost dropping the bottle of wine. “Any woman deserves better than this. You don’t have the money to buy me things. I’m the poor, pitied girl at work because my husband doesn’t buy me what their husbands do.”

“It must be terrible, having a cup full but not overflowing.”

She threw the bottle against the mantle of the fireplace. “You don’t understand what it’s like!”

“You’re right, I don’t. I don’t know what it’s like to have people pity me. I don’t hear the gossips say, ‘Poor, Al. What a good man he is, taking care of that bastard child his wife cuckolded him with. Tut tut.’”

“I wouldn’t have cheated on you if you had just given me a good life.”

“So, it’s my fault that you broke your vows?” he said, his voice rising. He took a deep breath to calm himself. He had promised himself not to say things out of anger. “I provided for you. I gave you a house, food, clothing. You wanted more, so I said, ‘Get a job, then’. And you resented me for that? Some husbands won’t let their wives leave the home and make their own way in life. They leave them at home to keep house and they deal with what they get. You, however, get your freedom and your extra money and you’ve been spending it not on your child, but on drinking.”

“I don’t love you any more.”

Al was surprised hearing that didn’t hurt nearly as much as he thought it would. He sat up, grabbed a large backpack he had filled with clothes and things he couldn’t bare to part with, and moved towards the door. “I think we’re in agreement there.”

“Where are you going?”

“I stayed to make sure Marnie wasn’t alone.” Then, he said the lie he wished was true. “You know where I’m going, where I always wanted to go. I have passage booked on a ship taking off for Arvonne they day after tomorrow.”

Burdet was dumbfounded, but she wasn’t stupid. She closed the gap between them, placing her hands on his shoulders. It was some farce like the last three years had never happened, that they were young and in love again with their whole lives in front of them. She searched his eyes and smiled. “We…we can make this work out, Al. We can talk. I’ll stop going out at night and you can go out with your friend more often.”

He leaned over and kissed her high on her cheekbone. “It’s done and so am I.”

“No! You can’t leave! How am I supposed to support our daughter?”

Yourdaughter,” he said, although it hurt him to say it. He was truly going to miss Marnie. “Maybe you should find her father, have him marry you and acknowledge her.”

“Maybe I should!” she shouted so loudly, Al was sure Marnie was going to wake up. “He’s a wizard, you know. He makes so much money he can afford to buy me earrings and rings. See this!” She turned to show him the comb in her hair. “Stalagmite bought me that because he said a man needs to buy his woman pretty things.”

“Stalagmite?” And he didn’t think anything involving this was going to hurt him.

“Yes, his name is Stalagmite. Why, are you going to fight him over me? You’d lose, you know.  He’s very strong and…”

“You’re right, I would.” Al took off his wedding band and placed it on the table by the door. “You’re going to need all the help you can get. Sell it,” he said, before closing the door.

1-12

Al looked back to see that the men had regained their footing and were heading towards him. He sped up, running as fast as he could before the exertion caught up with his lack of endurance. He started gaining distance, first at half a block, then a full, then one and a half by the time he saw the sign that confirmed he was going the right way.

Scarinjou had been its own town once, hundreds of years ago, and was situated a few miles from the center of Whitney. It’d had the misfortune of too many critical losses of notable residents, legislature, and businesses over time so that the support for Whitney being the chief city in the area won out. In turn, it became the forgotten town where police rarely patrolled and money for improvements didn’t even trickle in. It had once included several other neighborhoods that had since renamed themselves, distancing themselves from Scarinjou as much as possible. Teakwood was safe enough to walk at night, Old Mavingold might have a few drunks stumbling down the street, but only Scarinjou made people take long detours around in order to avoid its streets.

Al knew he had crossed the line into Scarinjou based purely on the cobblestones popping up every so often, causing him to trip and falter even with the extra balance he got from magic. He slowed his pace due to the thicker crowds and to watch his step better. At this time of night, the streets were filled with snake oil salesmen, corrupt priests, cheap wizards, prostitutes, thugs, and the men looking to hire any of them, even in the pouring rain. It wasn’t easy to see with only the light from the windows of taverns and brothels keeping him from slamming into the walls of buildings, but he managed to feel a sense of safety returning.

Now that he had made it, he needed to get out of sight and hole up for a bit. He wiped the stream of water from his face and was treated to the laughing calls from a few men leaning outside of a bar. “How are you doing, brother?” one asked.

“He looks like a frightened mouse!”

Al gave a low wave and slowed down as he passed them. “Brother”. How dare they? It wasn’t like Al was like them, the scum of the city. He was an honest and hardworking man who paid his taxes and was polite to people. Not like them at all. They moved on to different conversation and ignored him, swears and rude phrases peppering their conversation. They spat into the street and began catcalling a group of whores who saddled by them, catcalling them back. It was all so sickening to Al, like the stench of curdled milk. He didn’t just need to get out of sight, he wanted to.

He spotted a narrow, stone stairway across the street that led up past where he could see. He shouldered past a guy standing at the corner who looked like he was going to charge Al a toll if he felt like it. He gripped the railing and took the steps two at a time, being careful to avoid slipping on the wet moss that clung to certain areas.

At the top he looked around and almost laughed. I sometimes wonder, Kriskin, if I shouldn’t really worship you. You have a knack for eking your way into my life.

The cemetery he was in was small and haphazard, much like the layout of Scarinjou. He walked carefully along the worn path, likely used more as a shortcut than to remember the ones buried. In the corner, deep out of sight from the road below, was what Alpine first thought was a columbarium. As he approached, Al realized it was too small to house urns. It was some sort of an open shrine, two crumbling walls a story high bracketing the corner of the graveyard. It had the disorderly look of a place untended, but used frequently by those who had no pride in aesthetics. Melted candle wax stained the stones red, black, and yellow from the melted wax. Feathers, and what was once attached to the feathers, littered the corners like windswept trash.

Would the miscreants from the streets rat him out if, no when, the trackers came through? It was hard to say. They might buck at the authority or they might want the entertainment of seeing him dragged through the streets. Likely, though, it didn’t matter and a silver or two would convince them to wag their tongues. It was only a matter of time before the trackers made there way up here

The front of the shrine was too messy and exposed. The back of the shrine, however, had some trees and shrubbery. Al walked over and around the wooden posts used to mark graves and slipped behind the walls. He plopped down to the ground, unconcerned about his clothes.

He began breathing slowly and evenly. His heart had been racing for hours and he was starting to feel bone weary from the chase. The Unease was gone and he felt the tingle he almost felt from using magic leave him. If he was caught, he could shift back quickly, but staying in either the Calm or the Unease for too long brought lasting side-effects.

He wasn’t being overly cautious. After learning how to tap into magic, students at Amandorlam were taught the repercussions to long term usage immediately after their first foray with the power. It was a lesson Alpine took to heart, mainly the reason why he had refused to do Unease work. He knew what it would do to him.

The exhaustion hit first. He closed his eyes, unable to keep them open any longer, and rested his forehead against the side of the stone wall. His teeth chattered and he rubbed his arms trying to warm himself. Those symptoms he would get those even if he wasn’t out in the cold. He watched for the next, a feverish madness that manifested as paranoia, an overly high humor, and loneliness.

Alpine pulled the inkwell out to look at the rings again. He visualized himself as a pig in mud wearing loads of jewelry and he began laughing. Two people that had been walking through the graveyard turned heel and ran, which made Alpine laugh all the harder. He had to slap his hand over his mouth to quell the mania as best he could.

He peeked outside to see if those people had returned and saw a man come up the stairs. He was wearing that same dark uniform with gold trim that the trackers wore.

Al held his breath and moved farther behind the part of the wall that wasn’t crumbling. It was going to be very important for him to be very quiet. Except, the man looked like a puppet from a show involving inept policeman Al had seen several times as a child. He took deep, ragged breaths trying to calm himself and found tears stinging his eyes.

Another man with the same uniform came up from the opposite way. If he had bothered to turn his head when he reached the top, he would have seen Alpine. “No sign,” he said to the first tracker. “I feel the information we got from the vermin below was false.”

“Then we continue to search using our normal strategy. Bribing rarely works. Let’s not make the same mistake again and rely upon the chattel for information.”

They looked around the graveyard briefly before leaving the way Al had used. They were gone. Or were they? Was it a trap? Would they be waiting for Al below if he tried to leave? What about the other way? Why did they leave together? Would he be caught if he stayed there?

Normally the paranoia was just a nuisance until it left him, but now it was self-preserving. He wasn’t sure if it was too strong, though. Both the choice to stay or go racked him with doubts and fear that he’d be caught. They wouldn’t have bothered with the conversation if they knew he was there.  Unless they were pulling a charade and would catch him one he left down the stairway.  They went down the front stairway, though, and both together.  The back way was safe, unless they again were pulling a dramatic farce, pretending they didn’t know he was there and had the back stairway covered as well.  Then why not just ambush him?  He was on a hill that was boxed in by thick woods and a steep angle.  There was nowhere for him to go, other than down the stairs.

He couldn’t shake the feeling that he was being watched or set-up for capture.  It wouldn’t hurt if he just gave the situation some time.

Al stayed. His mind continued to race with a constant feed of possibilities. Some were ridiculously absurd, like the fear that they had a pet mammoth they were going to get to sniff him out, that he began laughing all over again. This happened for another quarter hour until he felt the excitement wane. It was replaced by the hollow loneliness he had been expecting.

While it was the most devastating symptom of withdrawing, it was also the one Al was most prepared for. He was always lonely. Even when he was with a patient or in a crowd, he felt detached and observing. The only person who made him feel wanted was Marnie, and that wasn’t a full relationship. It was one of need, one of duty and total trust. She had to love him because no one else did. And he sometimes felt he loved her only because of that.

It wasn’t the best time to make decisions regarding his future, but he had the time and he needed to think things through. He’d go into work tomorrow, bring Ember the chalice, and pretend nothing ever happened. She’d keep her end of the bargain and let him work in peace.

Al brushed his hair out of his eyes and sighed. Even if he could set aside his conscience and pretend he didn’t care that he’d been used, that it didn’t feel right giving her the chalice, there was one problem that he’d just realized. One of the men chasing him knew he was a wizard. They all knew what he looked like, more or less. And Berlont knew Ember had an interest in his prized item. How long would it take for someone to draw connections between Milxner’s and Jindahl and Stohr, then to Ember, and then finally to him?

But, he was registered as a Calm wizard only and had used the Unease. If he kept his head low, he might be able to feign ignorance, even if he matched the description of the wizard they had fought. So long as they used Ghenian law and not Uvarnic, it assured him that he couldn’t be convicted unless they could positively identify his face. It was how trirecs got away with walking the streets with their masks on even though they were likely on their way to commit a crime.

Still, the legal system could draw him into a nasty and long fight. He’d lose clients, work, possibly his job, and his license over this. It was probably best if he avoided any kind of confrontation.

He could return the items, leave them inside Berlont’s door with an apology. But then he’d need to do another favor for Ember and he was so tired of this game she was playing. That is, if she’d even consider another task. Maybe she was at the end of her patience. Maybe she wouldn’t give him another chance. He didn’t understand her motivations and so he couldn’t even guess as to where they were.

The last thing he wanted was to leave, but it was the only option he had that left him satisfied. It was a thought he’d almost had so many times. It would float up, almost to the surface, before Al would push it back down. He hadn’t let himself consider it for many reasons. He didn’t have the money. He had clients that depended on him for their well-being. He was a responsible family man with a business he’d built from nothing. To walk away from seven years of work and marriage, it was a lot to ask a man who enjoyed his comforts and routines.

He sat there for a little while longer, then left the graveyard down the back way. He trekked the miles home, through neighborhoods he was discovering for the first time, heading roughly in the direction he thought was home. Al stopped every once in awhile to check if he was being followed, but it seemed he had slipped away. He had escaped, but he wasn’t sure for how long.

1-10

I have to get out of here. Now. 

He forgot his masterful creep-step and walked as quickly as he could to the front of the shop. He heard his feet slapping and squelching, looked down, and realized how much water he had tracked into the shop. Right at the moment he had the thought to slow down and be careful, he slipped and fell into the case to his left. He steadied himself by reaching for the top. Instead of the smooth, glass case, he wound up pulling the exquisite jewelry box he had seen earlier, the one with the mother-of-pearl inlay. No sooner than he had touched it did a high-pitched wail emanate from somewhere in the shop. Al froze for a full second, then ran out of the shop.

In his panicked state, he started running down the street to Milxner’s. Then, he remembered he couldn’t connect himself, Milxner’s, or Ember to the crime, so he turned around and ran the other way, dodging through streets with the chalice cradled under his arm. People stopped to stare at him, some even stepping out of the way before he collided into them.

He ran from street to street until his lungs burned. Al slowed down and checked his surroundings while he sucked in lungfuls of air. He was heading towards the docks. Not good.

Even though it had been over two weeks since he and Aggie had slipped past the collective, neighborly defenses of the wharf, he could be spotted and outed by the whores they’d had the displeasure of meeting. He took the next side alley, then another and another, until his route circled around to the Heart of Whitney.

He stood at the mouth of an alley and caught his breath, propping himself against the brick wall of the building’s corner. It was cold and slick from the light rain that had begun to fall as he had whipped through the Heart. He wiped his hand on his shirt, a mostly wasted effort at drying it, and pulled out the card again. Alpine had to find the right angle that allowed him to shield it from the rain with his arm, but not block the light from the nearest lamp. He hadn’t been mistaken. The card definitely said “The Mikros Chalice”. Not achalice of the Brother, or even “one of the chalices”, but the chalice. His chalice.

What Al knew of the gods and their works was limited to what he had learned at Amandorlam, which amounted to three classes out of hundreds. In the intermediate level, they delved beyond who the gods were and what they did and focused on their legacies. It had covered the divine servants, Aps, and how they had created prosperity for their gods after they had left the mortal realm. The professor had gone on to explain how many Aps had created divine instruments, extensions of their masters’ powers, to continue to propagate each god’s religion. Therefore, if this chalice was truly Mikros’s chalice, then there was no possible way this was an heirloom of any family, Ember’s included.

He needed a place to think. Al was sure it was some unknown thread in his mind that had tugged his body to this part of Whitney, the part included one of the nicer parks, several government buildings, and a library. While he didn’t hear of anyone yelling for a thief or a large posse running down the streets, Al still made his way over to the library by keeping to the shadows.

Mikros was one of the twelve major deities, along with Aliorna, Magrithon, and the one that concerned Alpine at that moment, Cyurinin. The latter was the god of commerce, knowledge, contracts, and charity. He did not have temples or priests in the way the rest of His family did. His church was the library and the doors were always open for worship. While Al didn’t consider himself a religious man, if ever chose to he’d probably find himself joining Cyurinin’s church over any other.

Many of the city’s downtrodden and desolate would sleep in the alcoves and under the tables during the worst weather. Whitney had the occasional snowfall, but the hardest nights were usually the windy, rainy, and cold ones. As Alpine made his way up to the top of the stairs, he mentally checked off two of those three conditions. It was going to be crowded.

He wrung out his street clothes, a dark brown tunic and breeches that reached his mid-calf in the style of the bourgeois, though much less refined in cut and material. Al flicked his hands to remove any moisture and entered the library, carefully stepping over the people sleeping on the floor. He inhaled, taking in the scent of aged parchment and warmed candle wax, and relaxed.

Cyurinin loved order, and so all of his libraries followed the same regulations. Tables were in the front, pleasure books on the fringes, and factual books on cases in the middle. He headed to the freestanding bookcase that was to the farthest left and began there. He pulled random tomes out, read the titles quickly, and replaced them. He did this for three more shelves until he found books on the other gods, then finally the ones on Mikros Himself.

He brought twenty books to one of the tables, hoping one would contain just a few paragraphs of what he wanted. It was difficult for Al, since he kept being pulled in by whatever subject the book was about. It didn’t matter if it was about legends, the relationship between the gods and humans, or even just proper temple architecture, he wanted to cram in as much information as possible. He’d never asked himself what he’d do with all the knowledge, as did most academics knew. Learning was the journey, not the destination.

Al narrowed it down to three books and was rewarded with the first. It was written in Old Kolestien and appeared to be a primer on Ap Krivalt’s history and his works for his god. Al’s Old Kolestien was rusty, but there were a couple of diagrams throughout the book that made skimming much easier. One was a sketch of the man in his later years. Another, the temple to Cyurinin in Farrick. And, the most gratifying to behold, one of a chalice.

The page only had the outline, including bumps to indicate the jewels Al could feel inlaid in the cup as he ran his finger over it. The picture filled in some of the areas with the overlay and text around the base, but most of the outline was blank. Invisible to the eyeit said to the right. The writing afterwards spoke of a man who shared the cup with three of his brethren in what Al believed was translated as a blood offering. They were tied to each other for one year. They could not walk far from each other without feeling some great pain.

That was all. He sighed and grumbled, but a picture and a few paragraphs were better than nothing. Al turned the card from Berlont’s shop over to copy the text down word-for-word when he noticed a shine that played across its surface. He turned it back, then over again, noticing again the glimmer on the back. He closed the book and stood quickly.

That would be the reason why a man keeps a shop full of valuables wide open. Al wondered how many times thieves had broken into Berlont’s and stolen his merchandise before the owner realized it would be cheaper to put tracing and alarm spells on some of his prized possessions. He’d probably spent a fortune just in replacing the glass on the front door every time it was smashed. The jewelry box Al had bumped into must be the first thing a thief would be enticed to grab. Maybe that scream would be enough to scare off a potential bandit.

Al calmed down while he thought. Perhaps Berlont had come down from his apartment and thought just that: some thug had tried to nick an antique and gotten scared when the alarm went off. Since the box was still there, he might have reset it and gone back to bed. Alpine breathed a sigh of relief and grinned. He might have gotten away with it!

Then his face fell. The puddles. It had been raining out, so his clothes had been soaked enough that he had left a trail of water from the front past the box, to the back, then to the front again. Would Berlont check that shelf and see the inkwell and card missing? Would he check to see if the chalice was still there?

Al pulled out the inkwell. It seemed to be missing that same shine the card possessed. It might be an artifact like the chalice, in which case Berlont couldn’t have a spell on it. Skethik priests spent much of their time placing spells on items. As the lord of war, any priest-blessed weapon did greater damage and pain than one without augmentation. And, of course, any Skethik holy object could be imbued with whatever they wanted to place upon them. But only the Skethik priesthood could imbue objects and those objects couldn’t be another god’s artifact. They couldn’t touch the chalice, but they most certainly could touch the card Berlont had used to describe the item.

Not wanting to leave any evidence, Al returned the books to their general location. He was finishing up when the doors to the library opened, the wind blowing rain onto the beggars sleeping in the atrium. They complained, loudly, and made it difficult for the group of men in matching, dark uniforms with gold bars across their chests to step over them. It gave Al enough of a warning. He walked brusquely to the back of the library, searching along the wall for an exit. It was off to the right, beyond the sections that would contain Arvonnese alley novels, romances, and Merakian duel books.

Before he left the library, he stashed the card in a book. Hopefully it would stall the group in the front long enough for Al to escape. And then he ran, ten streets over and six down, until his lungs couldn’t keep up with body’s need to breath.

1-9

For most of the fourteen days since his discussion with Ember, Al had managed to perfect the craft of procrastination.  In fact, not only did he take no action, he tried as well as he could not to think about it, either.  Every time the thought surfaced, he’d skim it out of his mind with an imaginary ladle, like he was removing the foam to make clarified butter.

This kept him happy and sane for most of the two weeks.  About three days before his deadline, after a series of steady and displeased looks from Ember, he ventured down the alley behind Milxner’s to Berlont’s.  He walked inside quickly, noting that though the map had been correct, Al’s imagination had been lacking.  He browsed quickly until Berlont himself had come out from his workroom. Al had smiled nervously, then left before the shop owner could ask him if he needed help.

There was no master plan, no clever way he could break into the shop, and Al was out of time.

Ember had been up front when Al had entered Jindahl and Stohr on that last morning, speaking with Peni and Taritha about something. When he entered, she had looked up, tilted her head to the side and raised her eyebrows. He had nodded brusquely and opened his office door, sitting down on the bench and sighing deeply.

He at least had the forethought to let Burdet know he wouldn’t be home in time to pick up Marnie at the usual time.  It hadn’t gone well. “I thought you said you wouldn’t go out drinking again!” she’d said.

“I’m not going out to get drunk. I’m just going out for a few drinks and to chat with Aggie. That’s all. I should be back just a few hours later than normal.” He’d smiled at her. She’d glowered at him and left the living room in a huff.

It hadn’t been a total lie. While he hadn’t gone out drinking with Aggie, he had been drinking. Berlont didn’t close his shop until well past sunset and Al needed to kill some time before he attempted whatever it was he was going to attempt.

Had Al been a richer and more respected man, he’d be drinking Coujenet in a salon with friends, discussing all his favorite books and his appreciation of art. Since he was neither, he drank in a tavern bar alone.

When he was not fraternizing with Aggie, he preferred to sip a deep red Arvonne wine called Caudet, “the watcher-lady”. It was named after a legend of a woman whose husband had never returned from sea. Long after she had died, people still saw her ghost walking the cliffs near the vineyards of Tapenstri with a lantern, trying to guide her husband home to her. Al didn’t really believe the story, but he had tasted Caudet enough over the years to form an appreciation for the vintage and the romance it implied.

It was on his third glass that he started to feel his favorite stage of inebriation: the wistful feeling that he had once visited Arvonne and had forgotten it after a feverish illness. It was a haunting, mysterious comfort with a hint of clove and raspberry undertones that lingered on his tongue long after he had swallowed everything but the dregs.

He swirled the bottom of the glass in an attempt to form a sigil. “Oh, hallowed Preshrinor, guide me to your lands and bring me closer to the heavens,” he said, mocking the piscarins. “Let me feast upon your glory and slake my thirst with your knowledge.”

He snorted and looked up, quickly eyeing the room and seeing that no one was paying him any attention. He looked at the bottom of the glass. The dregs looked surprisingly like they were spelling out the letter ess, the sigil of movement and action. He sighed. He really didn’t want to go out in the rain, but it was time. He paid his tab, and left the bar.

His walk was just a few streets over. Having noticed he was warm despite the downpour, giddy, and staggering a little, he used the time to tap into the Calm and burn out a little of the alcohol in his system. As far as he knew, no one had created a successful spell, potion, or ritual that would sober a man instantly. Several blocks of walking proved that Al wasn’t either the man or it wasn’t the night for an epiphany.

While he had been planning, Al had realized the hardest part was going to be the first part, breaking into the shop. Even if he had practiced as much as he possibly could in two weeks, he knew he still wouldn’t have the skill to pick the lock. He couldn’t blast the door open or break a window without alerting people in the neighborhood and potentially Berlont himself. He didn’t have the tools to cut the glass. There was nothing in his bag of tricks, either with applied knowledge or wizardry, that he knew to enter a locked shop.

Al passed by the front of the business, hoping to see something out of place that could help him. An open window or perhaps a man standing outside, willing to steal something for very little money. Or nothing. That would be ideal. He was so intent on looking around the building that he didn’t even notice the handwritten sign on the front door:

CLOSED

PLEASE DO NOT BREAK GLASS

DOOR IS UNLOCKED

Al blinked a few times, made to move around the shop, then stopped. He pivoted on his heels and re-read the sign to make sure his eyes weren’t tricking him, even brushing the rain aside to read more clearly. He tried the door and found that, as promised, it opened for him without so much as a squeak.

Through the haze of inebriation, Al paused and wondered why someone would leave their shop available for looting like that. Was it a trap? Was Berlont secretly trying to rid the city of thieves by luring them in with easy bait? Or was he lying in wait, ready to stab Al the moment he walked in the shop?

He shook his head, turning it into a sway that felt kind of good for a moment. It might be a trap, but no one spent their nights waiting for a crime, hoping that someone would stumble in and try to steal something. When would Berlont sleep?

The reason didn’t matter; Al had to steal that chalice and it had to be that night.

He opened the door gently, closing it with a little more force than he intended, then readied himself for part two: sneaking. Alpine had once seen a play near the campus of Amandorlam during a rare break that he had given himself,. It had been a dry interpretation of Gilkarest’s Twenty Nights in Kinto. He remembered the halting movements of Persisco, the thief who stole the Parsa diamond, and how he strode lightly on the balls of his feet, creeping in between steps. Al mimicked the motion as he sneaked across the shop.

Step, creep, step, creep. Al was feeling pretty good about this portion of his task. He hadn’t made any noise and he had broken in without disturbing anything. If things went well, he might consider a career in thievery. Maybe he’d do better as a planner than a doer, but maybe he’d also switch in on a few missions.  He’d have two, no three, men underneath him, perhaps a boy that could get into tight areas, and he’d take a cut of fifty percent per job and…

He was so engrossed with his imaginary side business that it was a shock for him to look up and take in the whole of the room and its contents.

While he had seen the place during the day, he had been quite nervous and hadn’t stopped to enjoy what was there.  The shop was packed with knickknacks, gadgets, statuettes, boxes, holders, and accouterments of various sizes and shapes. Gold, brass, silver, velvet pouches, mother-of-pearl inlays, feathers, exotic woods, and all sorts of lacquer hit Al with a delicate magnitude, even though the light from the alley lamps barely shown through the window. Despite the wares being dusty, they shone with a majesty beyond what Al could handle. His eyes watered and he blinked the tears away.

Each item had a small, white card in front of it listing the name, origin, cost, and any additional trivia. Each had been painstakingly written in bold but neat handwriting that matched the closed sign on the front door. Al paused to look at a few. If any of them were to be believed, Berlont had a trove of magical pieces that could fix all the problems in anyone’s life. He suspected most were just beautiful things worth their weight in materials, but not in promises. The piscarins of snuff boxes and hand mirrors.

He made his way to the back of the store, sneak-stepping until he got to the counter. He crawled underneath the hole, pushing the counter flap up with his back when he tripped a little. He backed out and shook his head at his stupidity. He then pushed the flap on top of the bar over and walked through.

The desk Ember had described was in the corner. He walked over and looked up behind it, panicking when he saw the shelf was full of items. There was no empty space where an invisible chalice should be. There were no chalices on the shelf at all. Was her information faulty? Did Berlont change his layout since she’d been in?

He looked around and spotted a second, smaller shelf above the window. There were several items crammed along the wood, but a very conspicuous spot where there was nothing. Al moved the desk chair over to the wall very carefully. He stood on it, then steadied himself with the wall. He had to be careful. Ember had warned him that touching anything but the chalice could cost him.

But, as he stared at the objects, Al decided he really wanted that Alscaine inkwell. To have a piece of Arvonne in his hand, to hold an item once touched by the king himself! It was right there, the silver overlay almost winking at him. What if he just touched it? Just for a second…

What if he stole it? He was already stealing something, why not one more thing? Well, the other thing belonged to Ember’s family and it was stolen from them. Or had it been? What if it had been freely given or sold, but the buyer was having cold feet? Then Al would be really >stealing instead of stealing with good intentions. Did that even matter, the means justifying the ends? What would the law say? Did the law matter if he was an exception that could be excused? Al’s head hurt.

The chalice. That was it. He slowly moved his hand into the empty space on the shelf. Where air should be he felt cold metal. He reached around it and pulled it down to him, feeling the surprising heaviness of it. He held it up, trying to catch it in the light but failing. It was invisible, even in the brightest light, even from the highest height, even with a smiling bee, even with a frowning tree, even on…

Stop with the nursery rhyme. Focus. He was about to step down from the chair when he saw the white card in front of where the chalice had been. Al planned on moving it back, but he glanced at the top and read:

The Mikros Chalice

And just like that, Al had discovered a way to sober up instantaneously.

1-8

Alpine sat again and gave Ember several minutes to think. She looked conflicted, even biting her painted lips and smearing makeup on her teeth. Finally, she sighed and looked at him with resignation.

“You know of Berlont’s shop, just down the alley in the back?”

“The antique and artifact shop? Yes.”

“We will be squared away if you retrieve something from there instead.”

“Retrieve?” he said, cocking an eyebrow. “That’s an interesting way to say you want me to steal it.”

Ember folded her hands and placed them on top of the desk. “When I say ‘retrieve’ I do mean ‘retrieve’. I come from a respectable family. We’re part of the nobility, if you can believe that. Nothing as high as a duke, but many barons and viscounts, maybe even an earl or two.”

“Yes, I’m quite sure the Sierras are grand,” Al said.

“You know I’m not talking about the Sierras.”

He tensed. “Now, hold on. You get in my face about not using my full first name, about not registering as a switcher, and here you are talking about your old family like you belonged to them. You’re a Sierra and only a Sierra. We wipe our slates clean when we take our new names. No old familial ties, that’s the rule.”

“You actually followed that?” Ember said, genuinely surprised. “No one really follows that rule, Alpine. People place their talented offspring into Amandorlam to become wizards so that their family may become prestigious by their talents. I’m sure you knew quite a few students in your class who were of noble blood. Do you think they were really going to drop their titles to become a wizard?”

“I did,” Al said, quietly. “I moved from Quisset to Eerie. I haven’t talked to my family since I left for school.”

“That’s very sad, Alpine,” she said, reaching out an arm and looking deeply into his eyes. He thought she might be genuinely sorry for him, for a brief moment. “Perhaps you stick to the rules given a tad too much.  Some aren’t all that important to follow.  I never once thought I was going to turn my back on those who raised me for some fatuous order that makes no sense.  Why must we wipe out our history?”

“You took the same oath I did, Ember.  We pledge our loyalty to the king, who in turn lets us learn our scholarship without fear of any noble family or common group rising up against the monarchy.”

She waved her hand in impatience.  “Yes, yes, I understand all that.  I’m not saying it’s a poor oath to take.  We need the stability the king brings and he is, actually, a good ruler, and so on and so on.  What I’m doing, what my family is doing, doesn’t undermine his authority in any way.  We just want our lost heirlooms returned to the rightful owners.

“Why don’t you hire someone, then? Pay a trirec if you’re so desperate. ”

“Mmm, I said we were noble, not rich. They’re not always the same thing. Trirecs aren’t cheap from the research we’ve done. Besides, I’ve made some strong inquisitions into buying the item back. Berlont knows who I am and why I’m so interested. If anyone steals the item, it will be traced back to either me or my family.”

“But, I’m connected to you,” Al said.

“You work in the same building.  I wouldn’t say we’re connected very strongly.  And many don’t know that Jindahl and Stohr and Milxner’s are run by the same people.  I suppose one of my crew could mention to someone that you and I have had a few meetings recently.  And despite your lack of experience in thievery, they might follow up on their suspicions.  You,” she said, pointing at him, “don’t breath a word to anyone about our agreement.  I will honor my side, so long as you honor yours.”

Al had always heard that reciprocal blackmail was ironclad, tighter than any contract signed.  “All right.”

“Good,” she said, finally pleased. “First things first, I’m putting a time limit on this. I don’t want you stretching this out in order to stalemate me. You have two weeks.”

His mouth popped open. “That’s not enough time! I’d have to scope things out, plan things, figure out how to do it without getting caught…”

“It’s probably not enough, but I have faith in you. I figure there must be some intelligence to a man who graduated a Gray even though he should have been a Sierra.”

“You know that?”

“Yes. How did you do it?” she said, folding her arms on the desk and leaning forward. “I heard you even started school early.”

“I was admitted a year early, when I was fifteen. I studied hard, Ember. There’s no big secret to it.”

“How many classes did you fail?”

“None.”

Ember raised her eyebrows. “Some of those classes are designed to be failed. And it’s incredibly stressful. Hmm.  Yes, I suppose if you didn’t fail anything, absolutely nothing, you could finish school in seven years instead of ten. It’s quite impressive.”

Al shrugged as if he didn’t care, but he secretly enjoyed the praise. It was the only pride he’d had in his career, from the moment he stepped into Amandorlam to where he was at that moment. He’d ignored the normal distractions that caused many students to fail classes. He’d had a few acquaintances he studied with, but he had found most of his classmates stupid for wasting their schooling. Alpine attended school six days a week and studied for seven. Everyone else skipped classes, failed to turn in assignments on time, or didn’t bother studying. They failed the classes that Al passed with high marks. In fact, Al had set records for attendance, overall completion, and grades. One of the best students to pass through those hallowed halls.

And now here he was, the shining luminary of Amadorlam, eking out an existence as a touch wizard. “What would you like me to steal?” he asked.

I would like you to retrieve a chalice. It is about a hand and a half high with four indentations on the outside of the bowl, towards the bottom. Slightly above and in between the indentations are four stones in a trillion cut. The stem is ornate, easily felt, and the gilding on it travels down to the base.”

Al waited for more. When she said nothing, he asked. “What metal is it made out of? What color are the stones? What pattern is the gilding?”

“It doesn’t matter.”

“Why not?”

“Because it is invisible.”

Al slouched back in his seat. Was she having a lark? She wasn’t smiling, not even smirking. “I can’t steal an invisible cup, Ember. I’d have no idea where he’d keep it or if I got the right one. ”

“That I can help you with.” Ember opened a drawer in her desk and withdrew a crude map. “The shop has a simple layout. Two rows of cases and shelves behind those against the walls. If you walk down the middle aisle, you’ll reach a counter,” she said, tapping on the point. “Behind that, to the left, is his desk. It faces the window. On the wall above that is a shelf with his most prized possessions. There is a small, alabaster statue of the goddess Aliorna, said to be commissioned by Ap Jorsen himself. There is a priceless inkwell from the Alscaine family collection, silver with ornamentation. There is a contraption I think is a miniature astrolabe or sextant. And, amongst those objects, is a space where the chalice resides.”

“Anything else you can help me out with?”

“I’d advise you don’t touch anything other than the chalice. I have no idea if Berlont paid to have any spells worked on any of his items. Knowing his reputation, I’d say he has. Other than that, I haven’t been able to find anything that would help me procure my heirloom.”

That’s it, then? That’s all I have to work with?” Alpine sighed deeply. “Two weeks, huh? It will take a miracle.”