18-3

To the others, Tel appeared to be napping against a tree. He could feel his surroundings in a removed way, the scents of the fire and food wrapping around him and dispersing unsmelled, the ground beneath him there for support and not for comfort. His body remained, but his mind was far gone.

The sunset tonight would be brilliant and fiery, orange and gold at the horizon, pink above, and the clouds a deep blue-purple. He knew this because the sky sang to him, its song unique but familiar to the many other nights he’d traveled across the clouds.

He moved northeast past the thick forests of Ashven and the plains across the southern part of Courmet. There was a thrilling sense of abandon as he leapt off the coast and onto the waters, twisting in the air, dashing through clouds. It would only be a few more minutes before he reached Ervaskin.

This was vraska, one of the first things he had learned as a kiluid, but also one of the more difficult to master. At it’s core, it was being able to sense everything around him without using any of his senses, to see without looking, to listen without hearing, to feel without touching. It had been difficult for him to grasp that concept. Then again, he had started training at five years of age, barely old enough to talk, still diapered and tripping over his feet every few hours. Once he had learned how to grasp nature in the palm of his hand, things grew easier. He could use the wind to feel, the sun to see, and the wildlife to listen.

It took a inherent grasp of the universal for Telbarisk to be able to understand the situation in full. He knew Nourabrikot so well that it took little for him to perceive the tiny changes that pulled at the fabric and made a new, momentary tapestry. The way the wind was blowing, what the sea held, the heat from the rocks rising, what the clouds brought, how many animals were nearby, if there had been any trees felled, all this added to the particular semblance of the ever-shifting life of his home. There was something that seemed a little off and not something that was temporary, either. He’d check on that in a moment.

He found his mother in the gardens at what Raulin had called the palace. (While it was his family’s home, he nor anyone else he knew had ever treated it with the reverence Ghenians did for their castles and manors.) She was cutting the ice blossoms, which meant that Akilshta, the celebration of the coming of winter, was only a day or two away. He loved that holiday.

His father was inside, speaking to some men. He could try to find his sisters, but they were all married and with children, each in their own home. He had watched Seisuka and his nephews play just before his feverish days, when it had been so hard to keep still, his body beyond agitated at the volcano’s impending eruption.

His brother, the king, was at a banquet with other men. There were a few that were much smaller than the others, diplomats from some country. Raulin had been trying to explain to him the good and the bad of having them there. Tel had thought he was bad at gauging those kinds of situations, which worried him about returning and helping his brother rule, but Raulin had explained that politics was a very complex subject for even a devious Noh Amairian. It still felt strange to see strangers in his home and he still didn’t know what it meant, so he appreciated Raulin’s reassurance, but he doubted he would ever be ready to deal with people like the Ghenians, with their double-speak and provisions and loopholes.

The vraska drifted and tugged him in another direction, out of his home and towards the hills in the north. There a woman who was crouched low to the ground, picking the last harvest of herbs before the lands were blanketed in thick snow for months. The moist coastal air held it back today, but he could tell that snow had already touched Nourabrikot and melted many times.

As she placed a bundle of valaditra in her basket, he swirled the air around her hair. She froze and stood. He pressed the air slowly around her face in as close as he could get to a caress. She closed her eyes and touched the place where the wind had blown, then raised her other hand in front of her. This was their game. She would raise her fingers one at a time and he would brush the tips, not knowing how she felt other than it made her smile. He warmed the air and placed it as a mantle over her shoulders. She reached up and touched the sensation. It was his way of pretending that he was wrapping his arms around her from behind, as he had done so often when they had been together.

He touched her face again and found a tear running down her cheek. She hunched down again and made a few motions in the dirt. Grivfia was hard for non-native speakers to read. It appeared as circles with thin or thick lines in different orders with a character in the center. The letter represented one of their many hundreds of genii locorum they worshiped as gods and the lines told how their embodiment reacted with the people and things involved. Some were intricate, many lined circles that expressed complex thoughts. Others, like what she wrote, were so simple it didn’t take much more than a quick pass to know what she had written.

I miss you.

She stood again, hugging herself, the tears falling more freely. He brushed her lips and pressed them gently. She touched her fingers there before he swirled the air around her hair in a goodbye.

He didn’t know if he should do that anymore. Each time it was sadder, more painful. She cried harder. He pined for her more. At least he could tell her, in some way, that he was still alive and he still loved her, but the cost was getting to be too high, the anguish at parting stronger.

Telbarisk rose higher, much higher, and breathed in the atmosphere. There was something off. It wasn’t threatening nor was it bad, but there was something different that he felt was significant. He moved off of Ervaskin, back the way he came, until he came back to Gheny. He trailed the curiosity until he found it concentrated just northwest of where their camp was.

Ash and smoke still spewed into the atmosphere from Mount Kalista, thickening the clouds. It projected west, but the air generally traveled in an easterly way, often tipping up to the north but often enough to the south. Perhaps on its own, and because of the time of year, it wouldn’t be a major thing. But there was already ash in the air from another eruption earlier in the year. Together it was enough to change things drastically. He spent a quarter to a half hour surveying the area, working with what he knew, before he opened his eyes. He looked around the camp and saw Anla napping. A short distance away he sensed two people moving around a short area, one more still that the other. He also heard them pretty well, too.

“…it again,” Raulin said in a patient yet determined voice. “You trained yourself without my guidance, so I’m having to crack some of your bad habits, like re-breaking a badly set bone. It’s going to be painful.”

“I feel like I’m going to fall over.”

“You do now, but don’t practice and wait and see when you’re in a battle and you do that move with your current posture. Feet, hips, shoulders, head.”

“It sounds like a child’s song,” Al said. “’Eyes and ears and mouth and nose…’”

“Ten of each. Focus.”

Al did three before dropping his ax in frustration. He said something Tel couldn’t hear.

“Come on, you have twenty of each now.”

“Twenty! But, I wasn’t complaining!”

“You were grousing, and grousing is an unpheasant thing. Twenty.”

“I wasn’t grousing, for the record.”

“Are you complaining about complaining, ’cause that will get you forty-three times.” Before Al could say anything, Raulin said, “Compounded interest is a sour flower, now get to it.”

Tel stepped into their clearing. “Raulin, there’s something we need to discuss.”

He watched Al for a minute more, then walked over to his friend. “What is it?”

“We might have an issue as far as our journey is concerned.”

Tel gave him his quick synopsis. Raulin nodded in thought, then said, “All right, Wizard. You get a reprieve. We need to go have a group discussion.”

They woke up Anla and stoked their fire. “Tel tells me that the volcanic eruptions, both Kalista and Eruska, are playing havoc on the weather. The ash in the air is going to make the weather colder and we might have some travel issues if it’s a wet season.

“My original plan was to have us travel along the western border of the Great Gheny Bay, through Ekistol, Ailetol, and Anistaf, then to Tektorn for my contracts there. But, if we have to slog through feet of snow to get anywhere, that’s going to be a problem. We could risk that or we can backtrack a few miles to the crossroads we passed and try for the Sharkan Peninsula.”

Al pulled out his book that had the map of Gheny. “We could also try for the water. Libsin is a small port city on the northern shore of the bay. Maybe we could catch a ship from there to Riyala or Acripla.”

Raulin clicked his tongue. “Not a bad suggestion. I’m going to side on ruling that out only because of the time of the year. If they do have ships available during winter, they would likely just be barges for supplies, which are slow and make frequent stops. It would delay us too much.”

“Hanala to Acripla by ship?”

“Less likely to have the same issues, but possibly. I think that problem is more that the travel time is much longer due to the islands off of Genale. It could take two or three months.”

“So, by land then. Wouldn’t Sharka suffer the same problems, though?”

“It’s always raining in Hanala,” Anla said. “The weather is overly moist compared to the other side of the bay.”

“The choices, then, are snow or rain?” Al asked. He looked at Tel. “How strongly do you feel that the weather is going to affect us?”

“Pretty strongly.”

“Put a number to it.”

“Um, eight?”

“Eight out of…?”

“Four?”

Al blinked. “Right, I forgot about the math. Sorry.”

“It comes down to rushing down the coast and risking the snow or taking the slightly longer way and risking the rain.” Raulin poked the fire. “The former will require us to move at a rapid pace to try to beat any storms. We can moved more deliberately in Sharka. Personally, the latter has my vote.”

“I think we’re in agreement?” Al asked. “Sharka it is.”

18-2

They followed the winding river for a few miles before the early evening hours of a near-winter’s night faded fast. It was still comfortable, but the temperature was likely to drop to the forties or fifties that evening. Right then, they desperately needed a bath, since the trek had left them sweating and covered in dirt.

Raulin went to the river to fill his flask. Anla was there in the reeds, pressing a cloth to her neck and chest. Just the simple motion of her enjoying the sensation of water on her skin made his breath catch and caused him to stare.

She turned and saw him watching her. In the almost two weeks since their last talk, things had improved slightly. She no longer flinched when he came within a few yards of her person, for example. She wasn’t as formal with him, nor did she avoid him in an obvious way. Things were far from where they had been, though, and he hoped to change that.

He walked next to her, filled his flask, then asked, “Can we talk?”

She nodded, then walked over to a flat area of ground and sat, folding her hands in her lap. He joined her, taking off his mask, and said, “I miss what we were.”

“I do, too.”

“Is there any way we could go back?”

This was something she took quite a few moments to think about. “I don’t know, Raulin. I honestly don’t. From where I am right now, I would say ‘no’.”

He had expected that, but it was still a painful answer to hear. “This is because I spent time with Katerin instead of doing my job. Because I bruised your arm. Because I called you a whore and was mean to you. Because I was a terrible friend.”

“Yes to all that.”

“You forgave me, though. I didn’t think that meant the tide would come back in, but I was hoping it meant there was some potential for us to be the way we used to be. But, you’re saying ‘no’. And while I think I acted terribly, I’m not sure I understand your decision.”

She closed her eyes for a moment, took a deep breath, then said, “I heard you.”

“When?”

She frowned, her mouth quivering a little before she sucked in her lips and spoke. “Do you remember taking a stroll with the Lady the afternoon of the day before she slapped me?”

“I think so. Why?”

“Did you see me at all?”

“I think I was paying attention to her.”

“You were walking with her and she was following me. I went out to get some fresh air and be away from her, yet she still harried me. She kept changing direction in order to keep you two behind me. I grew frustrated with it and hid in the woods, hoping to shake her from my trail. Instead, she stopped and started talking to you about me. Questions about you and I that she twisted around to her entertainment. Do you remember that?”

“I don’t remember many details from those weeks. It feels a lot like rain on the surface of a pond, if that makes any sense. Vaguely.”

“So, you don’t remember what you said during that conversation?”

“Not really.”

“I do. They’re etched into my mind. ‘She’s a whore, Katerin. I’ve always thought of her as a whore. Even though she tried so hard to live a normal life, I know a woman can’t be pure after that. It was hard not to think of her bedding every man she held a conversation with. We stayed in hotels and inns and I wondered how much money she was making while I slept.’”

His face went red with shame. “I said that?”

“’She seemed so eager for the touch of everyone but me. It doesn’t surprise me when you say you heard her with the waiter and the gardener at the same time. She’ll have to get her fill so that when we’re back on the road, she can go back to ignoring me.’”

His mouth and throat had gone completely dry. Swallowing didn’t even help.

“’Katerin, I don’t care about her. I hold no love for her, only you. She could die tomorrow and I wouldn’t blink. And if she continues her campaign to make you miserable, I will help her to that fate.’”

He bowed his head. He couldn’t look at her.

“And of course, there was back in the room when you told me to leave you two alone. ‘I will find that fancy boy baerd hunter and pay him for front row seats’. Would you like to clarify that statement?” When he didn’t speak, she continued. “I’m pretty sure you were threatening to find someone to rape me for your enjoyment. Does that sound like what you meant by it?”

He nodded his head heavily.

“And you’re wondering why I might be saying ‘no’? It took you so little to turn your back on me, to abandon me and wish the most horrendous things for me. How?”

“I don’t know,” he whispered hoarsely. “In retrospect, it feels like a mind disease of some sort. She was very, very good at what she did and she infected me totally and completely. It never occurred to me that someone would try to seduce me for their own sick gains, so I never thought she would be lying. I should have.”

“Do you know what put you into a rage like nothing else, what you kept bringing up with such malice and contempt?” He shook his head. “Me sleeping with other men. I didn’t understand at first why it mattered to you at all. If I decided to conduct affairs or whore for whatever reason, why should it matter to you? I thought that, being my guard, you might be upset at watching over me, that it might be annoying that I kept putting myself in danger and making your work harder for you. But to wish pain and torment upon me for something you should have no real concern about…

“And then it dawned on me that you want to bed me.” He looked up at her sharply. “I should have realized it a long time ago. Lots of men want to bed me, and you’re a man, so it makes sense. But, you were respectful and I thought we had something a bit more meaningful than the usual ‘what’s your fee?’ or ‘how long do I have to keep buying you dinner?’ that I get in those situations. We talked and laughed and you listened to me. I let my guard down and shared things with you that I never have with anyone else. We were friends.

“And we decided to change that. I thought our arrangement was working. I liked kissing you and I felt safe and unrushed. I don’t know what you would label what we were; we never really discussed it. So, I’m unsure as to why you thought I was yours so strongly.”

Raulin finally found his voice. “I can only guess that it’s my overwhelming need to protect you and any other woman in my life….while simultaneously hurting them,” he said. “If I’m not using them, I’m leaving them. The only women who I haven’t left hurting were the ones who understood what we were and accepted that. But, that never stopped me from trying to soften the blow when I could, whatever lie or action I could do to make sure they got over us quickly. And when I can’t protect them from harm, it rips me to shreds. I think, in this case, I was afraid that your reputation would get you in trouble, that men were lining up for expectations and if they didn’t get what they wanted, they’d hurt you.”

This was not exactly the truth, but telling her that he loved her and that the thought of any man touching the woman he wanted burned him up at this time was very foolish.

She sighed. “And again, you cannot trust me with my magic, if what you feared was even the case.”

“Most of the women I know don’t have the capability to help themselves. I’m still getting used to the idea.”

She nodded and made to stand. “Wait,” he said and she stopped. “How do we…fix this?”

“We need to start trusting each other. That’s my guess.”

“You don’t trust me, then?”

She took a deep breath. “Raulin, you’re a trirec. I looked past that because you were always friendly and easy to speak with. You never wanted to hurt me; even when I influenced you in the carriage after the libertine ball, you had no will to strike me. But now that I’ve seen that you actually can, and will, hurt me, I’m…I’m frightened of you. It’s been a struggle for me this last month not to use my magic to insure you won’t decide suddenly that I was too friendly with some man and slit my throat in my sleep.”

“I wouldn’t do that. I would never do that.”

“Once I didn’t think you would, but I had the proof to show that’s not true.” She rubbed her arm absently. “I’ve gotten past most of the fear. I figure that there’s been enough time where, if you wanted to hurt me, you would have.”

“I swear to you that I will never hurt you again.”

She gave a quick, sarcastic laugh. “That’s nice to hear, but I’m sure you’ll hurt me again. I won’t hold you to it, like I’ve forgiven you for this. I think you understand some of what I went through and you feel badly about it. It’s just going to take some time for us to reach a good point.”

She stood and he followed, trying to think of some way to make it better. He didn’t want their conversation to end like this. She deserved more, a better gesture than just waiting. And then he was going to have to trust her first. “I’m not Walpin.”

“What?” she asked, blinking a few times.

“You came to the conclusion that I’m Walpin, but I’m not.”

“You said it was your home before you went to Merak…”

“That wasn’t a lie; it was. I was entrusted to a caretaker after my parents died and we stayed in Walpi for a few months while he figured out what to do. It was my last home.”

“But you get so upset when people make fun of them.”

“There was a woman in the village, an aged widow, who watched over me and took me in. We bonded over our grief and she helped me heal. The whole village was kind to me, really. So, yes, I am sensitive when people make light of their situation. They have a tough choice; constantly fight the border incursions or give in to the Merakians’ demands. People don’t think about what those people have to go through. Calling them cowards makes me angry. I think of them and I think of her, some of the best people I’ve ever met.”

“So, what are you then?”

He swallowed. “I’m Arvonnese.”

She stopped for a moment and raised an eyebrow. “You’re…Arvonnese?”

“I was born in Eri Ranvel. Like you, though, only my father was born in Arvonne. My mother is from Sayen.”

“That’s…not something I would expect.”

“Understanding my feelings on the people, I’m not surprised.”

“Thank you for sharing. I understand that it’s a hard thing for you to do.”

“May I court you?” he asked.

She frowned. “Raulin…Have you listened to me at all today? Do you understand how I’m feeling? No. That seems like a terrible idea at this point. We’re barely friends.”

“I know,” he said. Barely friends. Deserved, but still painful to hear. “Hear me out…please. I’m making things official for your benefit, not mine. What I’m suggesting gives you all the control. We would start from the beginning, a clean slate. Nothing physical, unless you want that, of course. I would do something for you or give you something. You would accept it or reject it. I would do that for a few more days, then move on to the next gift. You say what we do and when we do it.”

“And if I reject your advances enough times?” she asked. They were already a few feet apart, but she still widened the gap.

“Then it will end. And I would thank you for the opportunity and know that it was my fault nothing happened.”

“It seems a bit restrictive. We’re both tying our hands into lover’s knots.”

“Actually, you get more freedom than I do.”

“Such as?”

“I have to adhere to a strict set of moral obligations that you are not required to in return.”

“’Moral obligations’?”

“The usual: chivalry, politeness, patience, discretion, courtesy, chastity.”

Chastity? Doesn’t that affect your job?”

“Yes. It would be easier if seduction was still available for me. But, if I have to rely on it, then I must not be a very good trirec.”

“So, we’re going from you tumbling multiple times with a woman and getting angry with me over the perceived notion that I was sleeping with multiple men, when I wasn’t at all, to you saying that I can bed any man I want and that you will bed no one.”

“Yes. I have a lot to make up for.”

“And I can string you along for months, accepting tokens, keeping you locked in an arrangement that you get absolutely no benefit from, and I don’t even need to kiss you?”

“I would hope you wouldn’t, but yes, though seeing you happy is a reward enough.”

“And there are no hidden agendas, no fine print, nothing you’re leaving out?”

“It is like I say it is.”

“Then I accept on the condition that ignorance of something missing from our discussion nullifies our verbal agreement.”

He whistled. “You have been speaking quite a bit with the wizard. He couldn’t have said it better himself. But, yes. I’m not trying to trick you into something.”

Having arrived back at their camp, she put on her cloak in anticipation of the chillier temperature, and sat in front of the fire to think. Just speaking with him had made things feel better. His behavior hadn’t been excusable, but she could see things from his side. And his attempts at reconciliation were rather strong. She felt a warm buzzing of sorts, a relief and a wringing out of worries, fears, and anger. There was still pain, of course, but holding on to it was detrimental to not only her but the whole group. And she was damned if she was going to take them all down because of his stupidity.

When she awoke the next morning, Raulin’s blanket was covering her and a bouquet of wildflowers and foliage was next to her head. The pain and fear still resided somewhere inside, but she told herself that he was trying and that holding on to the past would do nothing for her. She took the small bundle and tied it to her pack, then began to make breakfast.

18-1

Anla’s, Al’s, and Tel’s new friends, whom they helped while Raulin was busy tailing Lady Karninth, were more than happy to direct them to the town hall when they asked. The quartet made their way there slowly, past blocked off streets and piles of debris they had to climb over or double-back.

The building didn’t stand out very much from its surroundings, save for its size and the snapped flag pole on the ground. It had the same gray stone and blue shutters that the other houses and shops had. It even had planter boxes where the corpses of ash-covered flowers were the only tribute to those that had died.

Al knocked on the door and waited. After a few minutes, he leaned against the wall. He knocked again, then sat. The others milled around, finding seats, kicking rubble with their toes. Finally, a man ran up from one of the bars nearby. “There’s no one in there.”

Al turned. “Do you know where we can find someone in charge? The mayor, perhaps?”

I’m the mayor. I’m a little busy, though. We had an earthquake a few days ago, as you might have noticed.” He seemed too frazzled to be sarcastic. “You’ll have to come back in a week or two.”

“We came to offer help.”

“Help?” he asked. “We?”

Al pointed to his three friends. Raulin fanned his hand in a slight wave. “We.”

“Thanks, but we can’t pay you anything. We’ll need all our taxes and whatnot to rebuild.”

“We know. We don’t need money. If you can find us a warm place to sleep and give us three square meals a day, we’ll consider it even.”

The mayor seemed perplexed. “Well, that’s nice, but what can you do?”

“I’m a cross-switcher wizard. Alpine Gray, by the way,” he said, shaking he man’s hand. “I can help heal or move heavy objects. My other three friends have their own gifts.” With the recent issue with the baerd hunters, they had determined that announcing what Anla was could be a bad idea.

“If we’re giving away rooms and food, you best work. We have precious little of it to go around.”

“We’re not here for a handout,” Al said. “We want to help because we were nearby and because your town needs it.”

“Well, all right,” the mayor said, dubious. “Let me get back to you.”

He walked back to the bar and Al joined the rest of the group. “He thinks we’re insane, doesn’t he?” Raulin asked.

“Something like that. Actually, he thinks we’re hear to mooch food and shelter.”

“We’ll just need to prove him wrong.”

The mayor returned a half-hour later. “Follow me,” he said.

He led the group to a large wooden building two stories high alongside the narrow river that cut a quarter of the town from the rest. “We don’t have any rooms, but if you want to make yourself cozy here, that’s fine. Come to the bar for your meals or if you want to check in to see where your help is needed.”

With that he walked away and left the group to their own devices.

The wheel in the gristmill still churned as the river flowed, but no one was grinding meal. The first thing Raulin did was to pull the chains to shut the sluice gate and stop to flow of water. The damsel stopped turning and the mill was blessedly quiet.

“That’s better. Now, Wizard, did you have a plan once we got to this point?”

“Well, I know what I’m going to do. I’m not sure about everyone else.”

“I suggest you and Tel team up. There’s a lot of things he can do with his kiluid magic that would work well in this situation. He can find people. He can break down things over time, change the air temperature, create ladders and bridges to reach places. He can get you somewhere you need to go in order to help someone.

“Anla I would suggest calming people and acting as a diplomat, perhaps nudging people not to hoard and to help other people.

“I’m going to police. My guess is that most people will cooperate and just try to go back to the way things were. There will be a small percentage who will take advantage of the situation by breaking whatever laws they think they can get away with.

“Everyone needs to stay within a mile of this place, though Al and Tel feel free to stretch that a little if you need to. Everyone good?” They all nodded. “Then let’s set out. Remember your ax, Wizard.”

Al felt a bit lost at first. All he saw were ruins and had no idea where to start, until he remembered that his partner had a different skill he could use. “Tel, what does kouriya tell you?”

He stopped and closed his eyes for a moment. “We should be here,” he said. He walked over to a chunk of wall that had fallen down and tugged a blanket out from underneath, placing it across the street on top of a mailbox. Al had seen him do acts like this before, pulling rocks from treads in the road or putting them in, taking a single leaf from a tree and moving it elsewhere, tossing an acorn far into the woods. He’d never connected it before to kouriya.

“What does that do?” he asked, pointing to the blanket. “I know kouriya is telling you to do that, but why? What will it accomplish?”

“I don’t know,” he said. “Kouriya is not about reward or even seeing the end results. It’s about helping things come together that should.”

“So, you’re some sort of agent of destiny?”

“I suppose you could call me that,” Tel said with an amused smirk.

“That sounds like a fine title to have.”

Tel turned and headed in a westerly direction, almost back the way they came. “I am having a thought and a feeling. Tell me if I am right. You find kouriya appealing because it feels like something from one of the books you enjoy.”

“Maybe. There is a seeress in the Kiesh the Black novels who can see his future. He comes to her when he’s lost the trail of his enemies or sometimes when he’s lost hope that he’ll ever clear his name. It’s implied that they are lovers, though some booksellers I spoke with think she’s not real, she’s just a metaphor for him following his destiny or have divine intervention. Anyway, Kiesh has someone or some thing in his life that nudges him to a certain fate. I’ve always liked that idea, that there’s always a lantern hung for you. Being the person that lights the candle seems sort of romantic to me.”

“I assure you it’s nothing quite so enchanting.”

“Then why do you do it?”

“Because I hope that other people are doing that for me, nudging me in the right direction, hanging the lantern, as you say. I reflect upon where I am right now and I don’t come up short.”

“We haven’t always been in great situations. We’ve been imprisoned, you’ve been sick.”

“But I am still alive, among friends, in a beautiful land learning about its people. A man’s fate isn’t always positive. Sometimes a man’s fate is to die at sea or be hanged by people who say he killed a man. That wasn’t my fate. You helped me with the latter.”

“Would you ever know if it wasn’t your fate, though?”

“No, that’s true. It’s impossible…”

A woman rounded the corner and tripped, falling to her knees. A man and a woman caught up to her and pulled her up despite her protests. She began keening and fighting against their grip.

Thinking she was being taken against her will, Al walked over to the group. “What’s passes?”

“My baby!” the woman cried, her head bandaged and bleeding.

“Dear, he’s gone,” the woman said with a worn patience. “He’s with the dabbins in Kriskin’s realm. He’s happy there.”

“No!” she moaned. “I need to find him!”

“What if we looked?” Al asked. “Is that okay?”

The man glared at him. “We need to take her back. The sooner she heals from both wounds…”

“Maybe it will give her closure when we find his body. Just tell us where to look.”

The man sighed through gritted teeth and jerked his head to the crumbled house to their left. The older woman sighed and dropped in front of the younger and held her head in her hands.

Al circled around the house, trying to find a way in. Both doors were blocked by rubble. The roof had collapsed in, but there was nothing connecting it to the ground. The only way he found in was a picture window, and as lithe as he was, Al didn’t think he could squeeze through.

“Tel, do you think you could help me so I don’t have to smash a hole in the side?”

He closed his eyes and began pulling stones out the side of the building. Al stepped up to the first foothold, just deep enough for the toes of his boot. He’d always done poorly at the exercises in Amandorlam, but here his balance was fine tuned. He was pleased that the training he was doing with Raulin was paying off.

Al pulled himself up to the top floor and flexed his fingers. Dust motes floated in the shafts of afternoon light. He stood in the master bedroom, the legs of the four-poster fallen through the boards of the floor. He squinted and saw in the dark corner of the room a wooden cradle.

He sighed, his stomach seizing at the thought of succeeding. He tossed his ax to the ground, since he wouldn’t be needing it, and began his walk over.

The lessons came back to him. Though he had passed because he had memorized the theory, it had never clicked with him. He could never move his feet or shift his body in ways that were necessary to prevail against the tight beams, rolling balls, and steep inclines of his class in proprioception. Here was his redemption, he hoped.

Find the best path. He could go up on the roof then down, jump on the bed and then over, or try the rubble on the right. The last choice was the one he felt wasn’t going to lead to the floor giving out.

Use your surroundings. They often taught of using belts to hold on to objects or finding sticks to disperse your weight. If you didn’t have to step down, you decreased your risk of falling. This didn’t prove to be helpful here.

Listen. This was the hardest one for him. He could never “listen” to what his body was supposed to be telling him. He would lumber across pine boards in class, hearing the cracks but not reacting in time, falling. His teacher would ask him what he did wrong. He told them, but he could never fix the problem.

So, he walked verrry sloowwly. The wall that had fallen over felt sturdy, but there! He felt it pull apart, widening his foot. He moved and pressed down. That was fine, so he shifted his weight, pulling himself up. Good. Step. Fine. Step. No, step back. To the left? No, to the right, closer to the middle of the house. Good.

He had concentrated so hard on his journey that he hadn’t thought about the end. The baby was in his crib, the sheets wet and kicked off. Though chubby with slits for his eyes and mouth, his skin was purplish and blue-tinged. Al sighed and closed his eyes. He had said he would do this.

He remembered Marnie as a child and the thought of her like this caught his breath once in his throat. He reached down and placed one hand on the babe’s neck, the other under his rump, then turned to look around. There’s no way he could climb down with a child in his arms, so he found the crooked staircase inside and made his way downstairs.

To the left he saw a thin hole in the stone that had been hidden from the outside. It was only inches wide, but the stones were loose from the quake and wiggled free when he held the babe in the crook of his arm and pushed with his free hand. In a few minutes he had an opening large enough and he crawled through.

Again, with deference, he held the baby by the neck and backside and walked to the back of the house. He had almost turned the corner when the boy flailed his arms and sucked in a breath to cry.

“Kriskin malor!” Al yelped, almost dropping him. “Oh, not today for you, little one! Death will take no one!”

And he ran to the woman, all three of them wide-eyed in shock. “He’s cold,” he said, handing him off to his mother. “You need to feed him and change him, quickly! Blanket! We need…”

A blanket.

He sprinted to the mailbox and yanked on the comforter, moving back to the trio. “Here,” he said. “Swaddle him in this.”

The woman with the bandaged head was already nursing him, sobbing with her exhalations. The other woman, the grandmother, perhaps, pulled Al aside and kissed him on the forehead. “Thank you, young man,” she said. “Whatever can we do to repay you?”

“Just tell other people that we’re here. Maybe we can save more.”

He felt jittery as he walked back to Telbarisk. His hands could make aspens jealous. “Was that kouriya?” he asked.

“I don’t know,” said Tel, “but it certainly feels like it.”

* * *

The word spread quickly throughout the town: if you knew someone missing, you found the tall man and the brown-skinned man. They kept on street corners and by important buildings for visibility and the people came. In the first thirty-six hours (since they stayed up all night), they saved fifteen cold, starving, injured people from broken houses and buildings. Grandfathers, daughters, fathers, aunts, a doctor, a few bakers, and one nobleman who promised them anything they wanted if they ever visited them in Quirr down in Tektorn.

It wasn’t without it’s tragedies. Six bodies were recovered during that time. After the two of them slumped against a wall and each other in exhaustion, the ratio of dead to living began to increase. The stories from those surviving became more from luck and skill, such as a young teenage boy pulled up drunk from his parents’ basement from surviving for four days on whiskey and wine. The tearful thanks from people reunited turned to nodding acceptance or quiet blame.

The requests slowed by the fifth day, so they went back to helping people move debris out of the roads and secure places for people to stay until their houses were fixed or rebuilt.

Raulin and Anla worked well as the carrot and stick of Mouth Kalista, but they worked at opposite times, Anla during the day and Raulin during the night as well as a before and after. Anla walked the streets speaking with people, many who just wanted to talk about what had happened. She listened to their fears, their uncertainty of picking up where things left off, their crippling despair at having nothing but the clothes on their backs. She gave soothing words and influenced a few of them into better thoughts. Raulin mainly caught thieves and put the fear of the Twelve in them. It worked sometimes. Other times he felt filling the men he put jail cells for a few nights should remain there longer.

On the tenth day, Al waited for the three of them to eat breakfast (there was a lot to choose from, since people dropped off whatever they could in thanks) before diving in to a discussion. “I think we should take our leave.”

Anla looked up from her bowl. “Is it because you’re not getting any appreciation anymore?”

“We haven’t been getting that for some time. No, I’ve been thinking about it and I’m trying to be fair. Most of the town seems like they’re at a point where they don’t need us anymore. I heard a little girl laughing last night. I understood in that moment that things were going to be all right for Mount Kalista.”

Tel shook Raulin awake into wide-eyed startlement. “We’re leaving,” he said.

“You’re done, Wizard?”

“I think so.”

“Today?”

“We should check in with the mayor before we leave, but likely.”

The mayor was in agreement, in the end, though he did try to solicit their unpaid labor for as long as they wanted to stay. After a long conversation, he admitted that though they had done a fine service, that they could, in fact, take it from there.

He handed Al a pouch. “I know I said we couldn’t pay you, but this is from the townsfolk on their own accord. They wanted to thank you.”

“We don’t need it,” he said, “but we really do appreciate it. Out of curiosity, how much is it?”

“A little over a hundred gold.”

“That’s very generous. I think that would be best used for those suffering the most. Make sure the children are taken care of. I know there is a brother and sister no older than ten that are orphaned and have been staying with their neighbors.”

“You’re a good man. Is there anything we can get for you? Anything at all, just name it.”

Al turned and asked the group. Anla and Raulin shook their heads. He was about to turn back when Tel said, “Three things.”

“Yes?” the mayor asked.

“You have a strong, but thin thread you make from the caterpillars in this area.”

Keshwa, yes?”

“A spool of it, please.”

“All right.”

“If we could have some of the salve that helps with cuts, that would help. There was a woman with black hair and a part that was white who made it.”

“Ah, Mrs. Gitz. I can ask her for some.”

“As much as she can give.”

“And the third?”

“Wine.”

“Wine?” He laughed. “We have plenty of that! I’ll even give you something from my own stocks, what remains of it, anyway.”

The mayor left to gather those items. “Why those?” Al asked.

Tel shrugged.

“Why ask for anything, then?”

Tel tilted his head in thought. “Something I have learned while I’ve been here is that Ghenians have a strange way of trading in things. They pay coin for things instead of trading like for like. When someone pays them a kind gesture, they feel the need to repay this with things. Coin for life, coin for help, coin for comfort. They need to repay this immediately, not understanding that kind gestures are given all the time and aren’t expected to have a price on them. But, this is the way they do things. And when you do not take the payment for your kindness, they often get upset and insist you take something, getting angry with you when you don’t.

“I thought it was best to avoid that possibility, hoping the town could think of us fondly when we’re gone. When Al refused the gold, I suggested some things we might need, things they have in abundance here that we might not find elsewhere. That way, the town has the gold, we have some items, and there are no hard feelings for anyone.”

Raulin nodded his head in appreciation. “Those are some fair observations, Tel. And I think that was the right course of action.”

The mayor returned within the hour, also bringing a sack of foodstuffs for the road that he insisted they take. Al didn’t decline in light of what Tel had said. “Now, I took the liberties of giving you my best double snub bottle of wine. I hope you don’t mind that it isn’t from Kalista.”

Raulin took the bottle once he realized what it was. “Cavr-e dansk, the king’s wine. That is a very good vintage. I hope we have cause for a celebration to meet the caliber of this drink.”

“And may you find it,” the mayor said, waving goodbye as he left for the tavern.

17-8

Raulin’s plan, in retrospect, had been rather romantic and dramatic, a fitting ending for one of Al’s alley novels, but not so much for his taste. He had planned to meet Katerin somewhere where a bunch of people were, then cold-shoulder her. Anla was going to run to him and kiss him, then a bunch of volunteers were going to come out of the woods and harass Katerin while she left in tears, humiliated. It had only been at the rough draft stage and hadn’t been his finest plan, anyway.

Instead, he tailed Peder and waited until he was alone after breakfast. The man was alone on one of the trails, heading to a class or service, perhaps, when Raulin caught up to him. “A moment of your time.”

Peder looked Raulin up and down quickly and squinted his eyes. “Leave me alone, goodman. I have nothing to say to you.”

“I promise no harm. I just want to talk.”

Peder had picked up the pace. “I’d rather not. She warned me about you.”

“Funny, she warned me about you, too. Violent temper, mad with jealousy, stay away at all costs. She then told me she was going to get rid of you and that I was to meet her in about an hour or so, where I was going to have the pleasure of giving her a green gown. Let me guess, she said something like I was a jealous ex-lover and that you were to avoid me in case I tried to fight you. Hmm,” he said, pretending to think, “that’s probably not devious enough for her. I bet she told you I was doddering your wife, too.”

“Why, are you?” he asked, his anger tempered with doubt. He slowed his step so that Raulin could catch up to him.

“No. I met her for the first time a few hours ago. We spoke about you and how much she loves you, how she was worried sick because you were with Katerin tonight and she didn’t know if you survived the earthquake.”

Peder scowled to himself. “If she loves me so much, then why is she coupling with every man she speaks with?”

“Let me give you a golden piece of advice when reviewing your past days here: Katerin was lying. She was always lying. Your wife never slept with anyone, no matter how many times Katerin told you she caught her in the act. Your wife didn’t steal anything from her. Your wife hasn’t gossiped or turned anyone against her. Everyone hates Katerin because she is a vile hag who ruins people’s lives for pleasure.”

“And how do you know all this?”

“Because she wrote the same theater for me and my wife last week. My wife tried to tell me, begged me to listen to her, but I was so enthralled by Katerin that I wouldn’t. Then the earthquake hit and I was sick with worry that Katerin had died. I raced back only to find her tapping the firkin with you. And then I spoke with your wife and found that her story and the one my wife told me matched with eerie coincidence.”

Peder had stopped in his tracks by this point. He blinked a few times, his eyebrows furrowed. “But, we were going to run away…”

“…to Lake Havershim?” The man’s eyes widened. “I had wondered if she changed the place or used the same one for every man. Guess I know now.”

“I think I need to sit,” he said. Not finding a nearby bench, he fell woozily to a squat, his hands laced behind his neck. “What possesses a woman to do something like that?”

Raulin crouched down next to him. “I’d say all women are a devious sex and truly evil, but my wife has forgiven me and is taking me back, so that’s hardly fair. Besides, I think most of them are actually the same as men, in regard to being good or evil, that is. Katerin just happens to be of the darker persuasion. I’d suggest you fix your mind on getting your wife to forgive you and forget about Katerin. I know I am.”

When he looked at Raulin, there were tears in his eyes. “She won’t take me back. Why would she? I’ve been a fool!”

“You owe it to her to try, and grovel, and make it up to her. And if you fail, at least you showed her you were sorry. Last I knew she was in the guard’s station, resting.”

Peder nodded, stood, then took off back towards the main building

Raulin followed more slowly, on his way to make his appointment with Katerin. He had a more taxing, but better plan in his mind. He knocked on her door and she opened it a crack. “Oh, Darrick!” she said, flinging herself into his arms. “He was brutal! I thought he was going to strike me, he was so angry!”

She wrapped her arms around him and kissed him deeply. He kissed her back, surprised at how easy it was to slip back into that comfort with her. It was like a silk glove…around his neck.

“You’re all right then, my love?” He lifted her chin and moved her face left and right. “Yes, still beautiful,” he lied. At least he could admit that he had never found her as breathtaking as Anla. Katerin wasn’t even close.

She looked down, then up through her lashes with a small smile on her lips. Raulin didn’t think that Kazithu could give a better performance, but then again, he’d never watched his creveir friend with the intention of plucking his feather mattress. Karenin was extremely deliberate and perceptive, he realized, as her eyes watched him. He recalled countless times with her, especially in the beginning of their affair, that she would make a gesture, use a certain tone, say a phrase, and use that same look to see if he liked it or not. He was sure that by the end of that first afternoon with her, he had more hooks in him than the prized fish in a tiny pond.

Karenin walked backwards, opening the door with her back. He buried himself in her neck as she sighed, gripping his belt. “Oh, I missed you.”

He closed the door behind him and she whispered, “Here, against the wall.”

“No,” he said, kissing her collarbone. “I want to see you in that agate necklace and nothing else.”

“I’ll wait for you on the bed,” she purred.

He had taken her once on the bureaus, so he knew where they were even in the dimly lit room. He opened the first and saw lacy garments and corsets. He looked in the other dresser and saw one drawer chock full of adornments, in addition to the items she had laid out on the top. He pulled a large burlap sack from his pocket, popped it open, and began dumping all of her jewelry, scarves,and loose jewels in. There were clear of a hundred pieces. If he hadn’t seen the proof of it, he would have strongly suspected she was a thief with an interesting angle and not a noblewoman.

“Darrick?” she called. “What’s taking so long?”

“I can’t fit all your jewelry into the sack,” he answered back in the same sweet tone.

“Pardon?” she asked after a moment.

“Your jewelry. I’m stealing it, you stupid cow.”

He heard the whisper of a silk robe on bare skin feet from behind him. “What?”

“I. Am. Stealing. Your. Jewelry. Are you deaf as well as ugly?”

“My love, why are you doing this?”

He stopped, fully irritated. “Drop the act, it will save us more time.” He crammed the remaining necklaces into his pockets.

“I’ll…I’ll call the guard!”

“Go ahead,” he said with a snigger. “Do you think anyone here will lift a finger to help you? You’re a harridan, a shrew who abused the staff with every chance you got. They would rather see you gone then take your money and I’m going to help them with that.”

“Oh?” she said ,crossing her arms. “How will you do that when I call the constable in town?”

“You mean the one extremely busy at the moment helping people escape from shattered buildings? That one? Yes, I’m sure he’ll spare a moment for some missing jewelry.”

She shrugged. “I’ll just have Peder get them back. He’s stronger than you are.”

“That may be, but I am far more skilled and richer than he’ll ever be. Besides, I set him straight. He’s back with his wife.”

Her gaze darkened, but she wouldn’t admit defeat. “What do you hope to accomplish? You’ll leave here and I’ll get more jewelry when I move on to the next man.”

“You will not,” he said, the playfulness in his voice gone. “You have two choices: leave this place or stop your games.”

“And how will you enforce that? You have to leave for your…thing,” she said, waving her hand. “You’ll be gone in a few days and I’ll just start again.”

“You remember that part where I said I was rich? Sometimes I’m also lucky. I was in town earlier and I happened to see a trirec. He was displaced due to the earthquake and also out his possessions. I told him I’d pay him a great sum of money to tail you and make sure you don’t have any more trysts. If you happened to be sneaky enough to get around him, he is to persuade your new lovers by any means necessary.”

She laughed. “A trirec. I’m to believe that?”

“Try me.”

“Oh, I have. I found you lacking.”

“Better than sagging and wrinkled. I think you’ve helped me realize I like my women mature but young.”

“Like your wife?” she said, snickering. “She hates you. You have totally broken your vows and she’s lost her trust in you. At least I have you there.”

“Who, Olana?” he asked, laughing. “She’s not my wife. I’m not married. That’s not even her real name. And Darrick isn’t mine. ”

She stopped to consider this, her arms crossed. “Then I’ve cost you money. I still win.”

He pretended to think a moment. “You do have a point. I have an arrangement to send a stipend to that trirec, but he isn’t cheap and I’d rather not go a week. Hmm.” He turned and walked to her wardrobe, opening both. “Twelve dresses, I see. I’m going to have my trirec steal and burn one for every man you seduce. I wonder if you’ll last a day!”

Raulin ducked as she tossed a vase at his head. “I will ruin you!” she said through clenched teeth.

“Woman! Throwing the good décor when everything else is broken?” he said, laughing. “Yes, that does seem like something you’d do. But how will you ruin me? You don’t even know my real name. How will you ever find me?”

She sunk on the ground, rubbing her already damaged wrist. “I will end you.”

“No,” he said. “I don’t think you will.”

He passed by the guard’s station at the end of the hallway and poked his head in. “Hey! I stole Lady Karninth’s jewelry.” He jiggled it in front of the guard he’d seen earlier, who was looking a bit haggard from a long night.

“Okay. Have a nice day.”

“Where are the Carffeys? I think some of this is the wife’s.”

He gave the room number and Raulin made his way to it. They answered the door looking serious and with red-rimmed eyes. He was sure they were having a long conversation that he didn’t need to be a part of, so he held up the bag for her to search immediately. She was grateful to him for returning her locket and bracelet and kissed him on the cheek.

And with that, he changed into his arong-miil, his mask, and put Anla’s cloak on and hooded his head.

Lady Karninth had only taken a short while to recuperate and began again within a few hours. Raulin watched as she plied her skills, flirting like she was playing an instrument, deftly and without abandon. He let the man make his choice instead of intervening, a mistake he didn’t make twice. He scared the piss out of him by catching him post-coitus, ducking out from a tree. He was thoroughly convinced to leave the lady in less than five minutes. Raulin ripped her gray dress at the hem, left the scrap on her empty bed, and tossed the rest into the hot spring. He heard her shrieks that night from the woods where he had made his camp.

It took two days to break her completely and only three dresses. He admitted he’d cheated a little; those last two men hadn’t slept with her, but only because he’d scared them off before anything could happen. She slunk away with her bags stuffed haphazardly right before lunch.

He wanted to make absolutely sure she would quit Mount Kalista, so he gathered the quartet, letting them bid farewell to the new friends they had made, and left down the mountain.

The town had not been spared as the Shrine had, though the latter was closer to the vent. In his feverish race to make it up the mountain, he hadn’t seen the devastation. The inn they had stayed at, for instance, had half-slid into the street looking like the frozen moment when the dirty water of a washtub was splashed onto the grass. The rooms they had stayed in were crumbled. Anla and Al would have perished under the roof of their room if they had slept there another hour and by their solemn faces, they knew it.

He continued to survey the streets. His look under his mask was one of apathetic remorse, something he had learned quickly to affect in the poorer quarters of cities or else be without all his coin in no time. The weather had continued to be dry and the town was still covered in plaster and ash, as were most of the townsfolk. The Caudet-red dress worn by Lady Karninth stood out vividly against the dismal canvas.

“I’ll be back shortly,” he told the group, taking off after her.

Raulin reached for his mask, intending to take it off and antagonize Katerin further, but stopped. He wasn’t going to lie to himself and say that Darrick gloating over her departure was going to help anything other than his esteem. She was leaving and that was what he had set out to accomplish. But, damn did he want her to hurt.

He did, however, feel it was worthwhile that she know the consequences if she changed her mind. So, he found an alleyway across from the post office (only slightly disheveled, being on the opposite end of town) and waited until a carriage arrived. Katerin emerged from the building. He was pleased to see she had to share it and load her own luggage, her hands and neck unadorned and making her appear like a poor girl with a pretty dress. He stepped out and leaned casually against the wall, twisting the sharpened end of his knife into his pointer finger. She saw him, her eyes widening before she entered the vehicle. She stared out the window as the driver cracked the whip and the team drove off, perhaps wondering if he was going to follow her. He didn’t. It would be warning enough to anyone who was smart enough not to cross a trirec.

It took him a little while to find his group again. Anla was talking with a woman while Tel and Al helped a few other men lift debris out of the road. “Are we ready to go?” he asked.

Al stopped. He spoke with a man, holding up one finger, then approached the trirec. “Raulin…” he began.

He drew a deep breath, having an inkling of where this was going. “Yes, Wizard?”

“We know you have to go to your next contract. And we know you don’t want to be anywhere cold. But, we were talking…”

“About what, Wizard?”

“About where we can best spend our time. We know you want to finish your remaining, what, six contracts so that you can vacation for a few weeks before you have to leave Gheny. We want you do have as much time as possible. But, we’ve also followed you since Carvek. Wherever you needed to go, we went. And we’ll continue to do that. We’ll help you see everything out. But, we want to help the people of Mount Kalista, at least until they have semblance of normalcy.”

“Define ‘semblance of normalcy’.”

“Businesses starting to open, all the essential services running, everyone accounted for. Raulin, there are still people missing here. They need help.”

He gave it a moment, to pretend like he was considering. “All right, Wizard. We might have some problems, since the people here didn’t seem to like my presence very much, but I will stay and help.”

He grinned. “Thank you.”

“Three days,” he said.

The smile dropped. “Three weeks.”

“One week.”

“Two weeks.”

“Deal,” he said, then laughed lightly. “Anla was right; your bartering skills are getting better. Let’s go up to your camp and fetch the extra wood you chopped, then find a central place to store our things before we begin.”

17-7

Raulin sucked in his breath. “We have to go back.”

“What?” the wizard asked. “I thought we were leaving for the road when we woke up.”

“I have to see if she’s all right! She could be dead!”

“Who?”

“Katerin!” It had been bad enough that he’d had to leave her. Imagining her dead was unbearable to Raulin.

He heard Al ask the whore who that was, but she didn’t answer the question. She did agree that they should go back and at least she was being agreeable, for once.

They trekked back through the town. It was several miles in one go, but Raulin marched them in a feverish pitch. He completely ignored the devastation in the town of Mount Kalista. Roofs had toppled, walls crumbled, and one street was heaved upwards by several feet. But he didn’t care. She was so close. Please let her be all right, he prayed.

Finally, jogging the last few hundred feet, Raulin mad it to the shrine. He left the three of them and ducked into the brush to remove his mask, stuffing it deep into his pack. Once free, he felt light and giddy, almost skipping as he bounded inside.

The main building had been soundly built. It wasn’t without its damage, though; the shingles had dislodged, the glass from the main door was everywhere, and the walls had cracks, like thin ivy and wisteria. Overall, it had held well in the earthquake. The main entrance was cluttered with chunks of plaster and all the decorations that had hung on the walls, including some shelves, but it was navigable. He stepped around the larger pieces and raced down the hallway.

A steadying breath, then a knock for courtesy. Katerin had loved his manners, said she loved being treated with that kind of respect. He was about to open the door when he heard her say, “Was that someone at the door?”

“Maybe another painting falling,” a man’s voice responded.

Raulin should have been dissuaded by this, but his mind gave her an excuse. A guard or housekeeper was helping her clean her room after the debris had fallen. He opened the door.

She was in bed and had taken the opportunity of being awoken to have another go with her new lover. (She had done that for the first few knocks that one night that the whore had set those noise traps for them.) He couldn’t see much more than motion in the faint dawn light, but he could definitely hear enough to know what was happening and when it was finished.

Raulin had lost all sensation in his body. If he breathed, if his heart kept beating, he wasn’t aware of it. He had to swallow a few times before he croaked out, “Katerin?”

She startled and rolled off the man, who bolted upright. “Who the hell are you? Why are you intruding?”

“Want me to take care of him?” the man asked her.

“Katerin, it’s me, Darrick! I came rushing back once I’d heard about the eruption.”

The man made a lewd joke and his love laughed her beautiful, tinkling little laugh and swatted the man’s arm. “Give me a few moments,” she said and leaned down to kiss him.

She put on one of her silk robes and belted it as she closed the door behind her. “What do you want?”

“What do I…Katerin!” He leaned down to kiss her but she placed her hand on his chest, still bound from her sprain, and pushed him away.

You left me, remember? You could have sent your wife away and stayed here with me, but you chose to leave with her. You chose to go back to your whore. How many men did she have here? I saw four myself. That gardener took her in the greenhouse three times that I saw. And yet, that was fine. That was acceptable to you, to go back to that slut.” She leaned in and whispered in his ear. “You didn’t care that she was going to think of all those men when you bedded her again. You didn’t care that she was going to cuckold you the next chance she got. You didn’t care about how she laughed at your advances and told all those people how she’d rather gouge out her eyes than warm your sheets. Even after she had taken some of them two at a time, you still left me for her.”

“I had no choice. We have business in Atri…”

“You had a choice!” She shoved him, wincing, as he staggered back a pace. “You were supposed to choose me! You chose her! And I grieved when you left. I pined for you…”

“For four days.”

“Oh, Darrick. You were gone and I was lonely. You know how badly I craved your touch. I needed you, but you weren’t here.”

The only sensation that had returned was the thumping of his pulse in his neck. As if a distance away, he could tell he was red in his cheeks and that his hands were twitching. That wasn’t him, though. This wasn’t happening. “And so you bedded another man.”

She dropped her gaze and looked up at him through her lashes. He still wanted so badly to hold her, to tell her he was back and that he’d protect her. “Darrick, Peder doesn’t mean anything to me. I was weak. I…I pretended he was you while I was with him. I’ll tell him I don’t want him anymore. Come to me in a few hours.” She moved languidly to bridge the gap between them. Katerin wrapped her arms around him and placed her face on his chest. He sighed. That was how it should be. She tilted her head up and kissed him. He was on fire again, pressing her against the wall and moving his hands down her to her hips.

She purred, but broke the embrace, putting her hand on his chest lightly this time. “Give me time. I have to be careful with Peder. He has a temper and I don’t want him going after you.”

“I’m so sorry I left you,” he said and kissed her one more time before she stepped back into her room.

Her touch had reinvigorated him. He felt the heat of her head on his chest and her lips on his own pouring into his heart. There was a burning jealousy over the fact that she had been with someone else, but in time he could forgive her indiscretion. She was alive and he would be in her arms again shortly.

Raulin walked to the end of the hallway and left through the back entrance of the building. He sidestepped the debris and whistled a little tune. He’d have to think of a place where he could take a nap for a few hours. Maybe that small garden where he and Katerin first made love. He wanted to be well rested when he tasted her again. And after he’d exhausted himself, he’d fall asleep in her arms and ask her to come along with him. With the volcano looming above them, she would surely say “yes” to the proposal.

A motion to his left almost startled him. It was a ghastly figure covered in the ash that blanketed the whole place in a veneer of pallor. No, not a ghost, just a woman rising to her feet with a little difficulty, the thick dust falling in a cloud around her. It took him a few moments to realize that her awkward clutching and balance meant she was pregnant, especially since she seemed like she was a woman that took to the condition well. Despite her harried look, her blond hair unkempt, her jewel-green eyes bloodshot and puffy, and the skin beneath her nose red and raw, she had a glow about her and her skin was soft and smooth. “Sir,” she said, wiping her nose and her eyes. “Were you just inside?”

“I was, ma’am. Is there something I can help you with?”

“Did you happen to go to room five?”

“I did.”

“Is he all right?”

“Is who, ma’am?”

“Peder, my husband. I know that…I know…” She began sobbing. He stepped over the short wall and took her arm gently, wiping away the dirt and grass from her skirt and leading her over to a nearby bench.

“Shh,” he said. She turned and began crying on his shoulder.

“I know,” she began again, moving her head so that it didn’t muffle her voice. “I know he’s with her and that he’s going to leave me. I just wanted to make sure he wasn’t hurt by the earthquake.”

“He was fine when I saw him.” Raulin had wanted to pound the man’s face into a pulp, but he realized he couldn’t do that to a man who was going to be a father. “He’ll be fine when he returns to you. He’s not going to leave you.”

“Yes, he is,” she said, her breath coming shallowly and fast. “He’s going to…leave me for her. He said so. And so did she.”

“Your husband cheated on you. I’m sure he’s going to realize that he made a one-time mistake and be back in your arms tonight.”

She shook her head. “It wasn’t a one-time thing. He’s been gone since Sunday night.”

Raulin felt his neck straighten. “Sunday night? Well, maybe he hasn’t been sleeping with her the whole time.”

“He…he…I saw them, outside the painting class Tuesday morning. He was…he was…”

Katerin had told him she liked to tumble with him in public places. It added a little spice to things, almost getting caught. Raulin cleared his throat and spoke, trying to say the words softly. “Tell me everything.”

Every single time she spoke of a familiar thing, it was a gut punch that left him breathless for a moment, his head becoming more and more woozy and his heart aching stronger with every beat. This poor woman. Her husband had left her bed for another woman, who had poisoned his mind against her. Peder had accused her of sleeping around and had even questioned if the child she carried was his. Three, four, maybe six times, she wasn’t sure, Katerin and Peder had carried out the affair in public, in her view. He had already given Lady Karninth all the jewelry this woman had supposedly stolen, which was everything she owned but the wedding band on her swollen finger.

Raulin was heartbroken, for this woman, for himself, but mostly for Anla. How could he have been so thoroughly taken in by a game he played all the time? No, it wasn’t the same thing, he told himself. He had never intended to hurt anyone when he seduced them. He didn’t play on insecurities nor did he hope to damage relationships. Not at all like Katerin.

That wasn’t entirely true, though, was it? Even though Raulin made sure to slink away in the night before their husband found them, he did sleep with married women. He told himself they were in on the court of affairs, that they wanted to be seduced, but was that always the case? He looked back on all the women he’d slept with since stepping to shore. Of the four, he could only say with assuredness that Lord Mirana’s daughter, Gielska, had been fully aware of the scope of their actions. The priestess in Hanala had almost died from her punishment. Iyessa would lose her job. Gretza, though her marriage to Vanif had been annulled, must have forced herself to take Raulin to her bed. At the time he hadn’t put much thought into it, but he strongly suspected she had been a virgin.

And now he had been played. He knew how it felt to be lied to and coerced, like he had been born yesterday. He had thought he had been noble about his profession, not raping, not hurting, not warping anyone’s minds, but he was still too close to Katerin’s sick, twisted manipulations for comfort.

And…Anla. His stomach twisted. Oh, Katerin had been crafty and positively cruel, but he had done and said everything of his own volition. He had been as much a player in Anla’s torment as Katerin had. “Could you wait here for one moment?” he said to Peder’s wife.

She nodded and sank forward, her face in her hands. Raulin found a bush he hoped was out of eyesight and dry heaved for a minute. He returned, made the woman stand, and hailed over an employee walking by with a brusque pace.

“Is there somewhere you can take her?” he asked. “She needs a quiet spot away from people, maybe a glass of water.”

“My office has a cot. Is she ill? Should I fetch the doctor?”

“Lady Karninth.”

Raulin was prepared and he watched the man’s reaction, studying him with more scrutiny than an art appraiser. Though he only uttered the syllable “oh”, Raulin could hear nothing but the annoyance of yet another victim and the disgust at the situation at hand.

After the woman had been laid on the cot and the door was closed behind them, Raulin said to the guard, “I need you to tell me about Lady Karninth.”

“Sir, I can’t speak to you about that.”

“I need to know.”

“It would reflect badly on the Shrine of the Shadowed Sun if the employees gossiped about the guests.”

Raulin took out his pouch and pinched five gold coins between his fingertips, offering them to the man. “More? Tell me when I’ve reached your price.”

The man sighed and pushed Raulin’s hand away. “She’s been here since spring. She’s been bedding married men once every week or two. She’s not discrete about it at all. This poor woman is not the first I’ve had to help and I’m sure she won’t be the last.”

“Thank you.”

“Are you all right? You look like you could use a drink.”

“I think I’ve acted enough like a wine-sopped fool to in turn get all of Shingden drunk.”

“Oh,” the guard said, holding out the syllable. “You’re Late November.”

He sighed bitterly. “I think ‘The World’s Greatest Idiot’ works better.”

“If it’s any consolation, she’s done this to many, many men. She’s become really well versed in her tactics, got them down to a sharp finish, like a blacksmith whetting a sword. If she wasn’t such a harpy to the staff, I might even admire her for it.”

“Maybe I can some day when I don’t feel so heart sick.”

“If your wife’s still around, make it up to her. Oh, and nothing to anyone about this conversation, eh?”

“Promise.”

“And I think you know she’s with Early December right now. No drama there. No fights or destruction.”

“I think you guys have enough to deal with. And I can’t blame him any more than I blame myself.”

“Good man,” the guard said, clasping his shoulder. “And I’m sorry about rapping on her door during my shift. We were hoping it would make you guys tired and stay in, leave poor Olana alone. We did a couple of other nasty tricks, too. That was pure revenge.”

He nodded heavily. All as Anla had said. “I’ll be around. Do you need help anywhere?”

“Everyone’s accounted for and we’ve patched up the injured. I think we’re all right, so long as the lava continues to pour down the west side. Feel free to clean or pick up, if you want. We’ll get you a hot meal for your help.”

Raulin had one more question. He still clung to the tiny shred of hope that he wasn’t in the wrong, that this was all a dastardly plot concocted by Anla for some nebulous reason he wasn’t going to put effort into thinking about. He knew this possibility was far-fetched, but he needed to ask it.

He found the rest of the quartet in the greenhouse, picking up shards of glass, tipping pots upright, and sweeping the floor. Anla turned and saw him, flinching for a moment. He saw it and his heart ached anew. Then he looked at her arm and saw it was bruised in the shape of a man’s hand. It took him a few moments to realize that it was the impression of his hand. He had wrenched her from the dining hall. She had told him he was hurting her. He hadn’t stopped. He had a hard time believing he had been that far gone that he would do something like that, until he remembered he had also cocked his arm back and almost punched her.

Raulin caught his breath finally and said to her,”There is someone you should speak with. She’s in the head guard’s office.”

Anla nodded and left without saying a word, not even looking at him. Tel and Al stopped and waited for him to continue. “Since we set foot on this property, has Anla been out of your sights at any moment? Has she spoken to anyone?”

Al went back to sweeping. “No, Raulin. We headed straight here. She was hoping to have this cleaned up for her friend by the time he woke up.”

So there it was. Peder and his wife had arrived after Anla had left. She had been with the quartet since that point. There had been no opportunity for her to ensorcel that woman into making up a story about Katerin.

He nodded and slumped to the floor, his head in his hands.

“Raulin?” Tel asked. “What’s wrong?”

“I am. Utterly, horribly, disgustingly wrong.”

“At least you’re starting to scrape the surface,” Al said, and it wasn’t his old way of picking at Raulin whenever he could.

Raulin looked up. “What do you know, Wizard?”

“I know you hurt her badly. She refused to talk about it, but I think in this case a non-answer would be the same as admission. Her arm is bruised because of you. Her face is bruised because of some woman. And she is miserable. That’s all I know.”

“Why didn’t you say anything to me?”

“Because she asked me not to.” Al fought with himself for a moment, then said with some vehemence, “She has more class and dignity in her pinkie nail than you’ve ever had in your entire life. How could you do that to her? Kriskin malor, you hurt Anla of all people! How? I don’t understand.”

“Neither do I.”

“No, you do. Explain it.”

And so he did. He gave them the raw, stripped truth and he was brutally honest about the way he made himself seem. There was no sugar coating, no grazing over his idiocy, no mercy to his character. “So,” he said, finishing, “if you ever wanted me to feel the same way that you wanted Anla to feel about being ensorcelled, now is your moment.”

“I’m beyond that. Just curious, at what point did your brains fly out the window?” Al asked.

“About two seconds after my libido took over.”

Al stood with his fingers laced over the end of the broom, watching him. “So, what are you going to do about what you did to her?”

“I’m going to try to make things right.”

* * *

It took most of the early morning to find Anla in the collection of buildings the staff lived in. She was in the center with several other people, speaking and helping with the rebuilding and reorganizing efforts. One woman, tall with dark, curly hair, saw him walk towards the group and stopped speaking. One by one they quieted until Anla turned around, dropping the dazzling smile she’d had on her beautiful face.

“Can we speak?” he asked.

She nodded and began walking towards him. The tall woman stopped her for a moment and Raulin heard her say, “Stay where we can see you, in case he gets rough again.”

He would have thought the caution unnecessary up until a few hours ago. Now he sadly had to agree that they should be concerned for her safety, though the thought of ever hurting Anla again physically sickened him.

She walked to the edge of the clearing and waited, moving no farther. He handed her a bag of gold, then said, “This is going to look strange to your friends.” He knelt in front of her, clasped his forearms behind his back, and bowed, turning his head to one side.

“I forgive you, Raulin,” she said almost immediately.

He still held it for a few more moments. “Let me explain. We bow to humble ourselves in apology, to grovel. We turn our heads to the side when we’ve committed an offense so egregious that we feel our lives are fairly forfeit, should the affronted person wish to take it. More neck, easier for a sword or ax to lop off our heads.”

“Stand up. I’m not going to kill you.”

“Thank you,” he said, brushing his pant legs as he stood. “I am truly sorry about what you went through. I am sorry for everything I said or did while we were here. I am sorry I didn’t trust you. And I’m sorry that I ruined what might have been a good time for you.”

She gave him the slightest of nods, then looked back at the group with impatience.

“I know I’m in no position to ask anything of you, but I have three favors I want.”

“What are they?” she asked, her voice still flat and without mirth. He hadn’t remembered her ever speaking to him like that before. Even when they were still strangers, even during his foolish time after Iascond, there was still some emotion when she spoke with him. Now she sounded…cold.

“Um, I would like to borrow your cloak.”

“My cloak? Why?”

“I plan on staying here as long as you’d like, to help the staff recover. I’d rather err on the side of caution and assume that if they see a trirec with a tail like Darrick’s that they might connect the two.”

“Why don’t you just assume the identity of Darrick again?”

“I will, but there are certain people I’d rather not see me with my mask off.”

“Who, Tel and Al? Tel’s already seen your face.”

“He has?” This was surprising.

“After the maze, when you were in the woods.”

“Oh. Well, it wasn’t him I was as worried about.”

“You still think Al is going to turn you in for being a trirec?”

“I don’t know. It’s not a risk I can take.”

“All right. I’ll get you my cloak.”

“Thank you. The second would be to cover for me. Say Darrick’s in town or whatever excuse you’d like. Don’t speak with me if you see me with my mask on.”

“Done. Your last favor?”

“If you notice I gave you one hundred gold, not seventy. Consider it a hazard bonus, or payment for the last favor. I would like a kiss.”

“What?” she said, her mouth dropping open.

“Not now. I have a plan to get back at Katerin in a pretty spectacular way.”

“No.”

He waited for her conditions or an explanation. When she said nothing, he asked her why she had declined.

“First, I managed to pen Lady Karninth into a place where she couldn’t hurt me without the aid of my husband. I watched my own back, I made contingencies, I bit my tongue and stayed scarce. I did that. You were still tumbling with her every second you got, shirking your duties and helping her out.

“Secondly, I don’t enact revenge and I don’t help people do it. I managed to hurt her just enough to keep her from going for my throat, but I did nothing in offense. I protected myself; that was it.

“And thirdly, and I can’t stress this enough, I am not your whore or your tramp. I don’t take money to do anything sexual with anyone anymore. And the only reason why I did it in the first place was because I was dying of hunger.”

Her eyes had flashed as she spoke. He almost took a step backward from her anger, unsure whether he preferred this to the apathy she had given him prior. “Anla, I wasn’t asking you for more than that. Just a kiss. I promise that was all. And it was to show her that I had chosen you over her, to cut her off completely.”

“Find some other way. My answer is still ‘no’.”

“All…all right. You can still keep the coins. And because I haven’t said it enough, I don’t think, I am incredibly, deeply sorry over what happened.”

“Fine,” she said, turning to leave.

“You don’t believe me? I thought you forgave me.”

She gave an impatient sigh. “I once told Al that sometimes people apologize when they don’t really feel sorry. I think that’s true for people accepting the apology, too.”

“I am sorry, though.”

“I’ve heard other words from you in the last week that make me believe otherwise.”

“Like what?”

She glanced back at the group, who were still glancing their way. “It’s not the time to get into it. I have a lot of work to do.”

“I understand.”

He waited while she fetched her cloak, then left for other business. It hadn’t gone as well as he had hoped, but at least she was speaking with him. He’d take that, for now.