14-7

Anla sat with hands steepled in front of her lips.

“Why do I feel like I teach you something, and then you be teach me nothing?” Sakilei said.

“Shh. I’m trying to think of a way to explain this. It’s not easy like the encapsulation.”

He shifted in an annoyed way, but held his tongue.

“Try imagining that you’re sucking all the air out of an area, but instead of air, it’s the sound.”

He closed his eyes, more in concentration than to block out the almost-gone light, and muttered to himself in Elvish. Anla quickly looked over at the fire and saw that Casquio was picking his teeth by the fire, spitting into it occasionally and causing it to sizzle at the moisture.

The young man, Akmillan, sat down next to his boss and she took the opportunity to listen in on their conversation. “Perimeter is clear, boss,” he said.

“Good. No sign of those men she was with?”

“No, and I haven’t seen them since the town.”

“Excellent. I was a little worried about the wizard wanting to keep someone like her under his thumb, but maybe it was too much trouble for him.”

“I haven’t seen him at all, with or without the other two men.”

“Sakilei,” she said, turning back to the half-elf.

“What? I am concentrating and am working on this ‘sucking out of sound’ you babbled about. If you could be quiet and let me…” There was a hollow pop as the sounds around them were muted. He blinked a few times and she saw him mouth the word, “Oh.”

A few moments later and the silence was lifted. “That was it?”

“Um, no,” she said. “That’s the opposite of what you want, at least for that spell. You want the silence to be outside of your area, so that people can’t hear you instead of you not hearing them.”

He sighed and closed his eyes again. “Wait,” she said. “I have one question.”

What?

“How did the bounty hunters find me?”

Sakilei opened his eyes. “It was lucky timing for them. The gentleman checked in at a post office in Kikiyan and there was a brand new bounty placed on you. You made a lot of noise up in that city in Eerie, Whitney? You upset the Blacksmiths of Yorqui and they were more than happy to tip the Nui-Breckin Alliance of what you had done.”

“Blacksmiths of Yorqui? Nui-Breckin Alliance?”

“The men with the jackets and the buttons. They work for the Skethik priesthood and they find things missing that have spells on them. The Alliance is a group of bounty hunters paid to seek out and capture half-breeds to make sure the Ghenians don’t piss their pants in fear of our kind.”

“Ah,” she said. It had been rather bold of her to use her influence on members of a group she didn’t know much about. “What did the bounty say? Do you know?”

“That you were traveling with a wizard who stole an item, possibly a group, and that you were seen heading south from Whitney. The Man With the Coin gambled that you would be headed towards Kikiyan and he moved us north up the Route of the Woods until we saw you in that town. From there you made it easy for us to get you, very quiet.”

“They said nothing about anyone else in my group?”

“Two other men. That was all. Now, I’d like to work on this spell, so be quiet.”

The Blacksmith that Raulin had scared must have actually been so frightened that he hadn’t told his order about him. And no one had seen that she was traveling with a trirec. The bounty hunters were severely underestimating the quartet, especially putting an unseasoned scout as their only defense.

“I need you to explain this again,” Sakilei said after he tried a few more times.

She went over it once more. “It will take some time. It took me weeks to get this spell correct. Practice and it will come.”

* * *

On Ervaskin, Raulin had needed to spy on one of the king’s council members. He casually mentioned it to Telbarisk, who had volunteered to assist him. Raulin had thought it a fair trade, since he was doing it pro bono to make sure the council member wasn’t plotting Tel’s murder.

As most of the city of Nourabrikot was actually outdoors, the meeting Raulin had learned about was going to be in a rather open section of woods with little to cover him. Tel assured him that this wouldn’t be a problem. And it hadn’t been. The two of them were practically invisible in the brush. Holding his hand out in front of him, Raulin had found it difficult to find. He’d been almost too fascinated by it to pay attention to what was said at the meeting.

Here, again, he was amazed at how well he blended in to the surroundings. His hand appeared to become the leaves and branches, though he was still a man of flesh and blood crouched inside a bush. Tel was behind a nearby tree, and if he hadn’t known where he was, he wouldn’t have been able to see him. His magic would have been a great asset in the hedge maze theft…

Raulin’s mask helped, too, but the fire from the camp threw off his seeing-in-the-dark ability. He was also relying more on Tel’s ability to sense people than he was at finding them himself. He crept over to his friend and whispered, “Locations?”

“Three by the fire. Two not far in that direction,” he said, pointing west. “Another one just over there, a little farther from the fire.”

Raulin’s stomach clenched for a moment. He didn’t want to ask, but he had to know. “What are the two over there doing?”

“Sitting across from each other. Talking, I would assume.”

He felt the tension leave his jaw and throat. “Any of them have a coin?”

Telbarisk paused in thought. “They all have coins on them in pouches by their sides. Not the two over there, but the other four.”

“All right. I’m going to assume that those two are Anla and the half-elf I saw in the tavern. His role in what might happen is a gamble; I don’t know if he will help her or hurt her, so I need you to come up with a way to nullify him if he tries to hurt her.”

“I don’t think I can stop him using his magic, if it’s the same as Anladet’s.”

“No, and I don’t expect you to. Just keep him busy or incapacitated. Now, if I were leading a group, I’d probably stick with them, to make sure everyone was behaving. That leaves those three by the fire; the older guy, the young one, and the well-dressed one. I’d lean towards the latter; leaders get the most money and that one obviously has the money to dress well. We’ll need to wait until they’re asleep, anyway, before I can take their coins.”

“We’re robbing them?”

“I’m assuming that the coin Anla said I should steal is in one of the pouches. It’s unfortunately going to take me an awful long time to figure out which one of those is the right one. I’ll return the rest to them, minus whatever they stole from Anla. And, of course, a slight fee for inconvenience. That’s all.”

“So, we’re robbing them.”

“No…we’re just…yes, we’re robbing them. Let’s circle around and have a little chat with our lone man over there. And by ‘little chat’ I mean interrogation at knife point.”

They took their time, moving from tree to bush to boulder, until they were feet away from the fourth man. He leaned against a tree, a crossbow resting on his lap, listening for highwaymen and predatory animals far less dangerous than a very angry and very skilled trirec.

At least, skilled in combat. Skulking he was pretty proficient in, but since most of his skulking was done in the city, he wasn’t an expert in woodland craft. This was evidenced by slipping on some fallen leaves and landing noisily on the ground.

A bright, white flash went across Raulin’s vision and he jerked to the side instinctively, a bolt kissing the air next to his head. He froze for only a second before taking Axiom Fifty-Six (“an archer reloading cannot be an archer brandishing another weapon”) into account and rushing the man. The archer did abandon winding the contraption sooner than Raulin had expected, but he wasn’t very good at knife fighting. A few slashes and the man dropped his knife.

The archer was taking a breath to yell when Raulin slipped in behind him, pulled his knife against his throat, and said, “Hi. Speak and you’ll be the newest addition to the blood choir. Fight and I’ll make sure you’ll go in the soprano section.”

The man swallowed and nodded his head in understanding, slowly and carefully.

“Good. Did you get a good look as to what I am?” There was a small shake of the head. “I am a trirec.” He took a risky moment to tap his mask with the knife at the man’s throat, making a slight metallic ting. “Can you guess why I’m here in your camp, with a knife to your throat?” Another shake of the head. “I am guarding a few people. The other two aren’t your concern, but the fourth is. Do you know who that is?”

“The girl?” he asked quietly and hoarsely.

“The girl, yes. I’m glad you’re a smart man. Smart men understand the stakes better than stupid men. Or brave men. You aren’t one of those, I hope.” The former archer shook his head. “Smart and self-preserving. Excellent. Now, there are three men sitting by the fire. Which one of them is the Man With the Coin?”

The man’s shoulders dropped a little. “Casquio. He’s the older one with the hat.”

“There were two men with hats.”

“One is young and wears a bowler. The other is older with a mustache and has a wide-brimmed hat.”

“And where is his coin?”

“Around his neck.”

“That’s the one he uses to control the baerds?” A nod of the head this time. “Good. Here’s how this is going to work out. I don’t care about your life; you peddle in flesh and that makes you less than human to me. However, you have given me information and I think that deserves to be rewarded. I am going to tie you up and gag you. Your money is forfeit, but I will let you keep your clothes, your boots, and your effects.” He picked up his knife and bow and tossed them aside. “I will return your knife to you, so that you may cut yourself loose, after I am finished. Tel?”

The man didn’t need much supervision as vines slowly curled around the tree, around him, and around his mouth, holding a handkerchief in place. “I hope he’s been in good health lately,” Raulin said to Tel.

The man’s eyes flickered over to Telbarisk and widened as he flinched. “I never know if they’re more afraid of me or you.”

“If they’re smart, it would be me,” Raulin responded. “All right. Older man in the hat with a mustache. Wait. One, two, thr…. Oooone, twooo… Tel, where’s the third man? The one that was dressed well?”

Tel closed his eyes. “There’s now one person sitting where there were two and two people have moved to the west, walking.”

“Nice of him to make ‘divide and conquer’ easier for us. Let’s go.”

The farther from the fire they went, the harder it was to see them and the easier it was for Raulin to spot movement in the now dark forest. He put out a stiff arm and stopped Telbarisk from moving forward when he saw two figures in between the trees, one about his height and the other slighter and shorter by about eight inches. They stood facing each other, the taller one almost lumbering towards the shorter one, who was stepping backwards. Though her posture was confident for most, Raulin could sense that Anla was uncomfortable by the way her head turned back and forth and by the way her fists clenched at her side.

When she finally ran out of room and bumped into a tree trunk, the man in the bowler hat closed the distance between them and yanked her jaw up to kiss her. There could have been a small army with lances and bows between them and Raulin would have forgotten everything but those two. He spanned the thirty or so feet in seconds, flipped the man’s hat off, and yanked his head back by his hair hard before pressing his knife to his throat.

The man’s hands dropped from Anla’s jaw and chest and he stepped back with Raulin, making a muffled “gah” sort of noise as blood trickled down his neck from the pressure of the knife. “Hi, Anla,” Raulin said.

“Hi, Raulin.” Her voice sounded steady, but there was a slight hitch and waver he picked up on.

“Did I interrupt anything?”

“For him, I’m sure you did.” She adjusted her shirt. “He thought I was going to tumble with him in the hopes that he’d…what was it? Buy me? No, it’s was kill the rest of the crew and take possession of the coin.”

“You agreed,” Ripole said.

“No, I bought time.”

“On your knees,” Raulin said and Ripole slowly sank to the ground. “Anla? What would you like to do with him? Your call.”

“He has a substantial amount of money on him. I know; I stole his purse.”

“Bitch,” he said. In return, she spat on his face.

“That’s not for me,” she said. “That’s for all the other girls you promised to help and then abandoned. Apologize.”

He turned to the side, his jaw tight and his right eye closed from the saliva. “She’s given you the choice, fancy boy. You apologize or you die.”

“I’m sorry,” he said.

“Tie him up,” she said. “Take his things.”

“Yes, mezzem,” he said and she was surprised to find how calming the sobriquet was to her.

She turned and saw Telbarisk walk towards them, ran to him, then hugged him. “Thank you for coming,” she said.

“Are you okay?” he asked.

“Yes. We need to finish this.”

Ripole was forced against the tree and Telbarisk used kil to curl the tree around his wrists and ankles. He had started screaming when the first lick of bark tasted his flesh, but Anla had wisely used her silence spell around them. She took delight at opening his coin purse, dumping the spoils into her own knapsack, then shoving it into his mouth before letting Tel gag him with a vine.

“Mezzem, who do we take out next?”

“Sakilei…” she said. “Raulin, don’t hurt him. We just need to incapacitate him for a little while.”

“This the guy who kidnapped you?”

“Yes, but…it’s complicated.”

“All right.” He looked back to the fire, then swore. “We’re missing one of the…”

“Raulin?” Tel asked. Both the trirec and Anla turned to see the scout, Akmillan, with his knife to the grivven’s back.

Raulin started to move towards him when he heard the click of a crossbow being cocked. He turned and saw the Man With the Coin slipping a bolt into the bow and lifting it to aim. “You’ve lost,” he said “Down on your knees.”

Anla took three quick steps and stood in front of Raulin. “I’d rather die than have you take me to New Wextif.”

“I’m sure you would, but you still have to obey me. Move away from him.”

Anla made a frustrated growl in her throat as she moved to the side. Raulin took the opportunity to run behind the scout and press his own knife to his back.

“That was stupid,” Casquio said. “I can still shoot your tall friend here.”

“Yes, but that bolt will travel through him and into your kid, here. Both will die.”

“She’s worth a lot of money. I can retire on the amount she’ll bring me. And, if not, I can always get another scout.”

Raulin felt the blond man stiffen when he heard those words. “Greed always trumps loyalty,” Raulin said in the young man’s ear.

“He won’t shoot me,” Akmillan said.

“Are you so sure about that? I’d imagine a thousand gold sale would only be sweeter split fewer ways.”

“Tel, amarink dialek ta sian avrio lidrik lo balanta re?

Seis sa.”

“Good. Do it and then I’ll count.”

“What are you two jabbering on about?” Casquio asked.

The wind picked up, the trees beginning to sway in a fierce and sudden breeze. “Three,” Raulin said, “two, one…”

It happened in less than a fraction of a moment. Tel stepped forward, away from Akmillan, just as Raulin stepped to the side. Casquio shot his crossbow, stunned for a moment when it missed Telbarisk completely, who had moved to the side, and sank in the throat of Akmillan. The scout tried to stagger forward, but his feet were planted to the ground, his ankles wrapped with vegetation.

“Tel! Tel, are you okay?” Raulin asked.

“Yes,” he replied, a little shaken, but unharmed save for a graze from the bolt on his arm.

“Good,” Raulin said as he crossed the distance to the Man With the Coin. He spurred to action, trying to reload the crossbow, but couldn’t get his hands coordinated in time to cock the weapon. Raulin tackled him, sending him sprawling backwards towards the fire.

“I want the coin,” he said, both knives at the man’s throat as he straddled him. “I’ll take it from your corpse if I have to.”

Casquio took a moment, then cautiously raised his hands to his neck and undid the clasp, handing him the necklace. Raulin tucked it into his belt and moved off the bounty hunter, still holding his knives close to the man’s chest. “What are you going to do?” Casquio asked.

“I came here to get Anla back. I am freeing your captives and taking your valuables, so that you’ll find it difficult to come after us. This is mercy. You are no better than a slaver, and I should kill you for what you’ve done.”

“The law…” he began. “We are sanctioned by the king to do this…”

“I’m a trirec. Please guess as to how much I care about laws and regal decrees. Tel, let’s make it uncomfortable for this man. I’m thinking the rocks.”

Casquio collapsed back, fully supine and defeated. Tel moved a large rock to the man’s right wrist, shaping the stone into a cuff that laid too heavy for him to lift his arm.

“How will I get out of this?” he asked. “You said ‘mercy’.”

“I’m giving your archer his knife back. He should be able to free your fancy boy next. The two of them might be able to crawl to a stead or a town and find someone with a sledgehammer who’ll be willing to break your chains for you. I’d hope for your sake they’re very precise or else you’ll walk away with some broken bones.”

Raulin thought he heard a pained breath escape from the bounty hunter, until he looked up and saw the noise had come from the half-elf from that night in the tavern. “Do you have the coin?” he asked Raulin.

“It’s in my belt…” he started to say before Sakilei ran to Casquio’s side and yanked the knives from Raulin’s hands.

“Sakilei,” Anla said. “Revenge is permanent. Think about what you’re doing before you’re doing it.”

“I have,” he said, giving no hesitation before plunging one of the knives into Casquio’s belly. Raulin jumped away as the man gave an odd yell somewhere between laughter and anguish.

Tel put the rock down and helped Raulin stand as Sakilei wreaked carnage on the hunk of flesh that quickly turned from body to corpse. “If you ever see your brother-in-law again,” Raulin said to Anla, “I’ll tell him ‘cattle’ or whatever makes the best mincemeat.”

Sakilei stopped, catching his breath in heaves. He wiped the blades on the bottom of Casquio’s pants, really the only accessible cloth remaining that wasn’t soaked in blood, and silently handed Raulin his knives back. He wiped the splattering of blood off his face and said, “I serve.”

“Is that part of the ‘serving’?” Raulin asked, nodding his head towards the mangled corpse.

“I was with him for over a decade. He made me do some despicable things that I couldn’t even say ‘no’ to. So long as you don’t make me do the same, I won’t touch you.”

“That’s…good to know. I’d hate to free you then have you attack me for it.”

“Free?” he asked.

“Yes. You and Anla come over to the fire.”

The four of them sat down, Sakilei still looking gruesome with speckles and smears of dark blood across his face. Raulin took the coin from his belt and held it up. The echoes of what Al said of what kind of power they had, and what kind of power he now had over their magic, crossed his mind. He knew what he would do with it. Just one night, he thought, which turned his stomach immediately. The temptation burned, but he wanted her, not some thrall of her. All or nothing.

“What do I do?” he asked Sakilei. “I don’t want to miss anything.”

“I think you have to say who you are and that you are now the new Man With the Coin. Then, dismiss all bindings we have. Tell us we can use all of our magic again, tell us we no longer have to obey the Man With the Coin, tell us…tell us we are free.”

“What do I do with this?” he asked, holding up the coin. “If someone finds it in the fire or buried, they could seek you out and enslave you again.”

“It’s just a symbol and has no magic of its own. Tell us it means nothing and it will.”

“All right. My name is Raulin Kemor and I am the new Man With the Coin…”

After five minutes of intense instructions that he consulted Telbarisk on, he threw the chain and coin into the fire. “You’re free now. There is no longer a Man With the Coin.”

“Thank you,” Anla said. “And thank you for coming for me, us.”

Sakilei let a breath out, ragged and full of an emotion no one there would ever understand. He buried his head into his knees for a few moments, then lifted his head. “What do I do now?”

“Well, we need to finish a few loose ends here,” Raulin said, standing. “Then, we’re going back to our camp to rest. It’s been…a tiring night. Anla?”

“You are welcome to join us.”

He nodded and stood, immediately going to Casquio’s tent and removing everything inside.

Raulin returned to the archer, picking up the knife. He looked at the knife, his eyes widening before speaking. “Ah yuh fugu afha! Yuh kid deh!”

“Hey, I’m just giving you the knife like I promised. And though you have to reason to believe me, your leader shot the kid and then the half-elf took care of him. Thought I should warn you; it’s a pretty grizzly scene.

“The fancy boy is tied up not far from here. It’s up to you if you want to free him or not. As a bit of advice, I’d think twice about reporting us to the authorities. I’m letting you live today, but I may reconsider that in the future.”

He put the knife in the archer’s lap and headed back to the group. “Where’s Al?” Anla asked. “I’m surprised he wasn’t here.”

Raulin sighed, too exhausted to explain. “You can ask him yourself. I’ve had my fill of that situation and I’d rather just go back to the camp.”

14-6

While the days were still hot, or at least comfortably warm, the nights were cool to the point that Anla was pulled from sleep several times. She and Sakilei slept far from the fire, which even as embers was usually enough to keep her asleep and happy with her group.

She missed them. She missed them more than she had realized she would. She missed the ever-present stability and dependability of Telbarisk, she missed the passion and quirkiness of Al. She missed Raulin, though, with a slight ache in her chest her soul had previously reserved only for her family. She missed the way his words and his look would latch onto her, causing her to think about them minutes or hours later. She missed the little jokes they had that she couldn’t share with him then. She missed the way he called her “mezzem” with a mixture of respect and playfulness. She realized it wasn’t the fire she was missing; it was the warmth.

Sometime in the early morning she awoke to someone saying “Elf” over and over. She turned to see Ripole nudging Sakilei with his boot, getting more forceful until he sat up. “I lost my money. Do that thing again.”

Sakilei rubbed his eyes, then sat up. “Where did you lose it?”

“If I knew that, I wouldn’t be asking you, now would I?”

“I mean, around here, around your camp, on the road?”

“Start here,” he said. By this point Anla had stirred and was looking at Ripole, yawning. “Good morning, little lady.”

She nodded and was startled when Sakilei banged two rocks together loudly. She looked at him and saw him concentrating on something. He stood up and moved closer and closer to the place where she had ditched the purse last night, close to a bush that Ripole had strolled by after he had propositioned Anla the night before. “Here,” he said, holding it up, putting the loose coins back in for the gentleman.

“Hmph,” Ripole said, snatching it from Sakilei’s hand and taking off without another word.

“What was that?” she asked Sakilei when he returned to his bedroll, which he started to roll up.

“I have my own names for things. I call that ‘kawsguh‘. Certain things have a sound that will return to you. If you know what metal sounds like, you can make a sound and that sound will change when it comes back to your ear. Then, you will know where the metal is, even if you cannot see it.”

“Oh!” she said, pulling the paper from her knapsack. “They called that ‘echoing’.”

“A Ghenian word,” he spat.

“I only have the Ghenian words for some of the things we can do. I read them in a book that said what baerds can do.”

“Let me see,” he said and she handed him the paper. He scanned the page, snorting at a few items. “I think this was written by a fool. Some of these are impossible, even if you’re very talented. ‘Cause earthquakes’? ‘Melt iron’?”

“I only wrote down what the book said. I’ve been trying to figure out which ones are true and which ones aren’t.” She began to help with the break-down of their camp. “Would you teach me?”

“Why?” he asked.

“I want to know what I’m capable of.”

“The Man With the Coin won’t allow it. It would be suspicious.”

“It would make me more valuable at the auction,” she offered.

He snorted, but stopped to take off his knit cap and scratch his head. She noticed his cropped black hair was peppered with gray. “What do you know?”

“Mesmerization, influence, projection, amplification, nullification, seeking, isolation…”

Husk,” he said, and she stopped speaking. “Describe what you know.”

She went over the list again, this time giving a quick synopsis as to what each was. She finished with, “I’ve been working lately on tone, which is when you listen to the words someone says and try to figure out what emotion is tied to what they’re saying. I can tell when someone’s lying, for instance, and I’ve started to understand ‘sadness’, ‘anger’, ‘joy’, and a few others. Those are a bit harder.” Her eyebrows furrowed. “How is it that you lied to me in the bar?”

By this point, Sakilei was in the center of camp, restarting the fire. He asked her to fetch him the pots and pans he had stacked on a rock outside the boundaries of the circle. When she returned he said, “I didn’t lie to you. Not that I remember, anyway, and not until I started to use rewhing on you, the sweet sound that makes one do what you want. I don’t know if one person cannot use our magic if they are already under a spell or if rewhing makes you forget about your magic.”

She broke into Elvish and whispered, “Can you use the controlling magic on the hunters?”

He rolled his eyes at her. “Of course not. This would be against my binding. You can’t, either. I had to take away the dangerous magics. And your tongue is terrible.”

“I haven’t seen my people in five years,” she said. “I’ve been in Hanala since my parents were killed.” She told him briefly about the vacation, the trial, their hanging, and living on the streets. She didn’t mention meeting Al, Tel, and Raulin, nor who they were exactly.

“Why didn’t you go home?” he asked, setting lashers of meat on the hot pan above the fire.

“It’s south of here, but I don’t know where exactly. I was twelve the last time I was with my tribe.”

He thought for a few moments. “You are just barely a full-grown in their eyes, yes?”

“My seventeenth birthday was two days ago.”

“That’s too bad; they don’t force children to work as trackers. If the Man With the Coin thought you were too much of a hassle, he might have abandoned you. Then again, he also might have killed you and cut off your ears for the trophy-reward. They do that, too.”

“What are you two conspiring about?” Casquio asked as he opened the flap to his tent. “I don’t want you speaking that gobbledygook to each other.”

“We were talking about magic, sir,” Anla said. “I asked Sakilei to teach me the kinds I might be missing.”

“Absolutely not,” he said, putting on his stained Boss of the Plains hat.

“It would be good to add at auction that she’s also a master baerd. She’d fetch a record price at that point. I bet Marshoz would be very envious. He may even buy her from you.”

“Wouldn’t I like to see him eat that,” Casquio said. “Well, we have a few weeks before we make it to the city. You can teach her some things, but they have to be innocuous. And you aren’t allowed to speak Elvish.”

“Thank you,” she said once Casquio had left.

“I’m bored, that’s all.” She noted the rock-grinding sound to his words.

“Just the same, thank you.”

“Do you want to work on the kawsguh first?” He began to plate the cooked meat for the four bounty hunters, cutting the burnt and bad parts out for their portions.

“Actually, do you know the encapsulation spell?”

* * *

Since Telbarisk was far from the city, he walked without the strapped things Raulin had called “sandals”, his feet free to embrace the earth. The roads here had more rocks and they were dustier, but it was still better than the stones of the city roads that hardened his soles and occasionally cut his toes.

It helped him get a better sense of his surroundings and in turn made him more comfortable to where he was. And he needed a little bit of comfort in the wake of last night.

Raulin was in a foul mood that hadn’t abated after a night’s rest. He was a bottled storm of tension and anger, kicking things, slamming down plates, keeping away from he and Alpine. Shunning the wizard Tel had understood; he would say nothing, but he felt it showed poorly on his character that he was willing to abandon Anladet like that. Tel didn’t understand why Raulin didn’t speak with him, like he often did when he was troubled, until he realized after an angry flash of a look from the trirec that Raulin was angry with him, too. And it didn’t take long for Tel to piece together that Raulin had finally understood what kouriya meant and he was blaming him for her capture.

So, the three of them walked down the road that moved them east in silence, back to the large city where they didn’t want to go. They were several hundred paces apart, Raulin leading and not seeming to care whether the other two were actually following him.

Tel ached for his friend. He knew how Raulin felt about Anladet. He empathized being away from the one you loved, though he had the peace of knowing Kelouyan was safe and well-cared for by his family. Raulin still had to deal with the barbs of unspoken things, of words and actions that he should share with Anladet, but couldn’t. Losing that opportunity, perhaps permanently, was cutting him up inside.

As always, though, Tel was there for him. He was there for Alpine, too, because he knew that something strange was going on in the wizard’s mind. But mostly he wanted to help Raulin, who didn’t want help. He wanted pain and blood.

Tel walked in the middle of the road, avoiding the ruts left by the wagons and carts that still held rainwater from a few days ago. Raulin was ahead and had missed something that Telbarisk felt with his bare feet.

As he picked up his foot to move it to the next step, the balls of his foot slid on something smooth. Since he was in the practice of collecting small, yet interesting rocks, he bent down to pick it up on instinct.

It wasn’t a rock. It was a copper, one of the coins the Ghenians used to trade with instead of bartering. Raulin had always told him that any money abandoned was fair game and that he should pick it up, since even a copper every once in a while could add up to a silver.

His foot slipped again some hundred or so paces down the road. Another copper, which he picked up and placed in his bakinar with the other one. He’d put them in the knapsack later.

Another hundred paces and a third copper was on the ground. “Raulin?” he asked, projecting his voice enough to get his attention. Raulin turned and walked back towards him without his characteristic swagger.

“What?” he asked and Telbarisk held out his hand with the three coins.

“These have been in the road at almost the same distance apart. I thought maybe someone had lost a coin, but this seems deliberate.”

By this point Al had caught up with the two of them and looked into Tel’s palm. “Nice. Maybe you can buy us a loaf of bread next time we’re in a town.”

“Are you saying you think Anla is leaving us a trail?” Raulin asked.

“That’s a stupid plan,” Al said. “We know she’s on the road. There’s no need to tell us that.”

“Don’t. Call. Her. Stupid,” Raulin said through clenched teeth.

“Raulin, Alpine is right that the plan is not helpful, but you are also right that Anladet is not stupid. She’s very smart and wouldn’t waste any money she has telling us she is going in an obvious direction.”

“What’s her plan, then?”

“Maybe she’s trying to tell us something else.”

The three of them, quietly, impatiently, walked to where the next coin should be. Telbarisk easily sensed it, being an object of different material around its surroundings. Raulin snatched it up before he could, held it up to examine it, then gave it to Tel to hold on.

“This is the last one,” Tel said as they approached the fifth coin.

“Five coins,” Raulin muttered. “What’s the significance of that number?”

“Of the Twelve, five are considered the true ‘masters’ of the gods. That would be Kriskin, Kabidon, Mag-”

“Shut your mouth, Wizard. You said you didn’t want to help us. Have you changed your mind?”

Al glowered at him, but said nothing.

It was only when Raulin picked up the last coin that he understood what her plan had been. Telbarisk heard someone speaking, turned to see Raulin closing his eyes for a few moments. “She wanted to make sure we got the last coin, which had a message.”

“What did she say?” Tel asked.

“Not sure I understand it. ‘The Man With the Coin has my magic. Get the coin.’”

“You have to get the coin, Raulin. You know, the coin,” Al said mockingly. Raulin’s knife was at his throat so quickly that it took him a moment to register it. His smile dropped and he stepped back a step.

“Go,” Raulin said to him, pointing ahead in the road. “I don’t want to see your face or hear your voice until she is back with m…us.”

When Al was outside of even his earshot, Tel said, “We’ll find her, healthy and whole, Raulin. At least we have a clue as to what to do.”

Raulin shook his head. “It’s still far from a plan. I’m going to need your help to get her back.”

Telbarisk said nothing other than to put his hand on his friend’s shoulder.

14-5

“Are you sure you didn’t need anything else?” Chockwell said. “I don’t mind lending you some money or clothes or food. Do you need food? We can go to the market and get some food.”

“You’ve been more than helpful,” Raulin said. “All we needed was the information, really.”

“I can give you the money,” the plump little priest said. “You don’t have to return it.”

“We’ve enough money. Again, we thank you for your help, but we must be off.”

“I can go with you,” he tried again.

“No, you need to tend to your flock here. You’re a good priest with good people.”

“But…”

“Come, Tel. We need to make haste in order to catch up with our associate.”

With that, Raulin left the despondent priest standing in the crossroads while they headed east. “You’re sure you don’t have any royal blood?” Al asked. “It’s odd that clergymen fawn over you like that.”

“No royal blood,” he said. “It’s just a thing about me, Wizard. Now, I have a conundrum for you. Why would a group of men kidnap Anla? Why haven’t they gone beyond our radius and why hasn’t she escaped?”

“Well, what makes you think she was kidnapped? You said yourself you saw her bed a man last night. Maybe they’re running off together.”

“I didn’t see her bed him. I saw them go upstairs. I reached a conclusion that seemed likely, but might not be the truth.”

“Oh, well, it seems likely enough. What if he enjoyed the night and wished to marry her, or bring her to some place where he could make a lot of money selling her?”

Raulin ground his teeth. Telling the wizard about his jealous suspicions had been a very poor course of action. He worked his jaw and admitted that he probably deserved the pain it was causing him. “That makes sense if only she was willing to withstand crippling pain when she moved beyond a mile of us.”

“What if she’s drugged?”

“Then why haven’t the drugs worn off?”

“Continual drugging?”

“Possible, but the man would have to be prepared with the concoction in the event he happened to meet a charming woman he wished to kidnap. And he’d have to also have the means of moving a sedated woman a long distance. The priest mentioned they didn’t have any animals nor a cart with them, nor were any of them carrying her. Which also begs the question of why a group of men joined the first man this morning.”

“That does sound premeditated. The first man lured her into a situation, but had the other men standing by?”

Raulin continued the thought. “She trusts the man and goes upstairs for some reason. He waylays her for an entire night, keeping her unconscious since she could use her magic to escape, but then with her full capacity still walks out to the group of men and leaves. I’m still missing why she wouldn’t have struck earlier to protect herself and didn’t seem to struggle.”

“Does it matter?” Al asked. “We’ll be upon the group soon enough and we can sneak in and take her back.”

“It does matter. I love dashing into an easy theft, taking what I need to, and leaving as soon as possible, but even I know I need some foundation of the situation or else we could stumble into something unpleasant. Off the top of my head, I’ve had at least three instances where a theft would have turned into me taking the blame for murder if I hadn’t been more careful.”

It was a few minutes before Telbarisk shared his thoughts. “I think you both are forgetting that Anladet isn’t just a woman. She’s part elven, and if I remember what she told me correctly, that holds a bit of danger for her here in these lands. It’s why she wears her hair down most of the time.”

Raulin looked over at Tel. “That’s a good point. It still doesn’t explain why she didn’t resist.” He clicked his tongue. “Wizard, can you give me a list of ways someone familiar with magic could coerce another into incapacitation? Let’s start with those common to Liyand and work our way to more exotic kinds.”

“Soft wizards can make someone unconscious, or at least potentially malleable through induction of a pleasing state. Hard wizards can cause a panic in someone and stoke the fear to their advantage.”

“She definitely wasn’t afraid, nor unconscious. I won’t rule out he was a skilled soft wizard, but it seems unlikely. Good, keep going.”

“A priest of the Twelve might have a spelled item that could do the actions you described.”

“I don’t recall him giving her anything other than a bowl of stew. It didn’t seem out of place at the time, the bowl or spoon, and I don’t remember him taking it with him when she finished the meal. What would it entail for a priest, or anyone, really, to have an item like that?”

“You’d need a Skethik priest to place the spell and I think an Aliornic priest to make the spell. They would both have to be fine with the spell being put on an item that is usually associated with Zayine. I recall that general idea being scorned by most priests. I doubt Rayani, for instance, would stoop to do that.”

“But not an impossible object to have, just unlikely to be made. Not all priests are so picky when money is involved. Let’s shelve that idea at the top for the moment. Anything else?”

Al recited from the master list he had memorized in school each kind of magic followed by either him scratching the entry or explaining the way each might have been used against Anla. Piscarin enchantments, dobi fire magic, Tektornian shaminism, and Ukilian kameseno written spells made the short list of potential types of magic used against her.

“Amandorlam knows of Ukilia?” Raulin asked. “That’s fairly far out in Merak. I thought Ghenians assumed everyone in Merak was Kachilan, the short reddish-skinned people that make up all trirecs. Well, almost all.”

“Amandorlam knows of the different people of Merak. The average person, though, I’m not sure.”

“What of the baerds?” Tel asked.

Al thought of this for a moment. “They didn’t teach anything about them because they were supposedly wiped out by the Nui-Breckin Law.”

Both he and Raulin inhaled sharply. Raulin said, “Here I was thinking her magic was so rare that we’d never see another baerd. Of course, it fits. And now that I’m picturing the man in my head, he could be a half-elf. His ears were covered by a knit cap I thought out of place, since most men wear bowlers and top hats. It would make sense he was covering his heritage. And the rest follows if she had her own magic used against her.”

“About time,” Al said.

“What was that, Wizard?” he asked sharply.

“It’s about time that she had her own magic used against her.”

“Are you celebrating the fact that a young woman was kidnapped by a group of men and is now currently being carted off to some place for reasons that can’t be good?”

“I’m just saying that someone that powerful should understand what it’s like to have that power turned on them. That way, she might think twice before using that power carelessly or thoughtlessly.”

“When have you seen her do that?”

“I would think you of all people would be upset about her flagrant use of magic. She did stop you from escaping the count’s room.”

“As did your mouth,” he retorted, “and I hold it against neither of you while Telbarisk gets accolades for beaning that guard over the head with the vase.”

“In Amandorlam, we regularly had required sessions in which we had teachers use the Unease and Calm on us, so that we could understand what we were doing to others. She’s never had to deal with knowing what it’s like to be under her spell.”

“And yet she’s been rather responsible about it. I’ve had conversations with her about how reluctant she is to use the abilities she has that are morally questionable. She was quite pleased to rely on her new spell that only influences instead of enslaves.”

“It’s not like a lesser evil isn’t an evil,” Al said. “That spell is still repugnant.”

“I can guess you weren’t complaining about her using magic on you when you were gasping for air like a landed fish on the floor of that courtroom. She saved your life and still asked for your permission, knowing how much it bothered you.”

“And how do I know she hasn’t used it again? Why would I suddenly decide to kill a man, huh? It makes no sense. She had to have whispered in my ear at some point to do it.”

“I have no idea why you did that. It was unnecessary. But, you did it and I know she didn’t use her magic on you.”

How do you know that?”

“We discussed this back in Whitney. Because either you would have a blank when you tried to remember that time or you would want to kill. Do you secretly desire to use your magic to murder, Wizard?”

“No,” he said quietly.

“Then she has left you alone. Now, if we’re done with this conversation, and I know I am, we need to find this group when they make camp tonight. We’ll observe them from a distance and see if there’s a way to extract both Anla and the other half-elf without alerting the rest of the camp. They’re sure to have…”

“No,” Al said.

Raulin stopped short and turned around. “Did you just say ‘no’ to me, Wizard?”

“I did. I’m bowing out from this rescue.”

“Care to explain why before I smash your face and turn your mouth into a beak?”

“I think she needs to learn her lesson about her magic before I help her. A few days, a week at most, and I’ll help.”

Al began backing up as Raulin stalked towards him. “Raulin…”

Raulin shoved him against a tree. “She’s saved your life. You owe her.”

“This is the best thing for her.” He had to step on his tiptoes as Raulin grabbed his tunic and pushed him farther up the trunk.

“You think life hands people opportunities all the time,” he said through clenched teeth. “You think we’ll be able to save her whenever we feel like it. You forget what a group of men might do to an unarmed woman. I swear, Wizard, if one hair on her head is harmed because you decided to take your sweet, damn time, I will carve her screams into your chest so that…”

Telbarisk put a hand on Raulin’s shoulder. “This isn’t helping,” he said. “Give him time.”

Raulin opened his hand and Al dropped down to the ground. “If you’re not with me, you’re against me. I don’t want you to speak to me unless the words ‘I’ve changed my mind’ are uttered twenty feet away from me.”

Thinking he had calmed down and was joking, Al asked, “Why twenty feet?”

“There’s potential that I might miss if I’m throwing a knife at you at twenty. I wouldn’t try then. Otherwise, feel free to speak to me at thirty. Let’s see what happens.”

* * *

The bounty hunters stopped just before dusk, moving off the road to an area that, while wasn’t flat, had a good fringe of trees that blocked their site from the road. Sakilei was busy with setting up everyone’s tents and cooking dinner, so Anla was left alone. She almost joined him to help, but couldn’t figure out whether she’d feel more comfortable with him or in the company of one of the other men.

She thought the quartet would have rescued her already. Raulin should have realized something was wrong when she didn’t come back to their room. She could only assume he went to check on her and no one was forthcoming with information on where she had gone. He must have hunted around town the next morning, surely, and someone must have seen her walk away with a group of men. They would come for her.

Those was her thoughts on the situation until that evening, at least. She began to worry about their safety. What if Raulin had tried to save her, but the group had surprised him and Al and Telbarisk and hurt them, or worse, killed them? She had felt secure for a moment that the latter wasn’t true, since the book she had read in Calaba had said that she would have felt it, but she had been mesmerized for half a day. What if they had all died and she didn’t even know it? The thought physically hurt.

Why would Casquio (she refused to think to herself of him as the Man With the Coin) ask about the “vagabonds” she was with, though? False hope? It would be better for him to quash her dreams of escape from the beginning. No, they were still alive, she told herself. They would be coming as soon as they could. And they might need some help.

One of the men approached her casually, taking his time across the exposed roots and large rocks in the area. “Here,” he said, handing her a bowl of pea and ham soup. “Normally you fetch your own food, but I’m feeling kind tonight.”

“Thank you,” she said, taking the bowl and spoon. He invited himself to sit next to her. Though in traveling clothes, he still presented a polished aura. The cut and material of his shirt and pants were high quality, his bowler hat was clean, and his face had recently been shaved except for the swaths of hair along the sides of his face.

“What’s your name, little lady?”

“Anladet.”

“A pretty name for a pretty girl. I’m Ripole.”

“Sakilei called you ‘the gentleman’.”

“That’s my title as much as anything else, though I’d like to think I’m that way in personality as well. I’m in charge of securing us work, dealing with the public, purchasing rooms and entertainment, and eventually working with the auctioneers. But, that’s messy business talk.”

“I understand why I was captured and what you have planned for me.”

“You don’t seem worried about it.”

“I am,” she said carefully, putting down her meal. “I’ve never been one to dwell on the negative things that happen to me. At least I’m to be sold to someone that will have it in their best interests to keep me alive.”

“True,” he said, “but there’s no guarantee they will keep you alive and well-kept. I’d think about buying you myself, but you’re likely to fetch an incredible price. Of course, maybe I could help you escape and you could repay the kindness somehow.”

His voice told her that he had no intention of either buying her, nor of helping her escape. “I couldn’t leave the Man With the Coin,” she said with a touch of false adoration.

“No, but the Man With the Coin is always just any man with the coin. Do you savvy what I mean?”

She shook her head, though she highly suspected what he was going to tell her.

“One knife thrust and the seizing of a chain and I become the new Man With the Coin. And I’d be willing to do this, if someone gave me proper motivation.” He moved so that he was sitting next to her. “I’m sure you understand now what I mean.”

She tensed for a moment, then moved so that her leg was touching his. He smiled and said, “That’s my girl.”

He sighed when she ran her hand up his thigh, then groaned in annoyance when she took it away. “Perhaps not tonight, though?” she asked. “It would seem suspicious. I bet they’ll be watching me closely, at least in the beginning.”

“Yes,” he said reluctantly. He sat for a few minutes before making an annoyed noise in the back of his throat, then standing. Before he left, he said, “You’re a pretty thing and I like pretty things. We have a few weeks before we reach New Wextif. I won’t be satisfied with a couple of times right before we get there. I’d recommend sooner rather than later.”

“Thank you,” she said, swallowing the bile she felt rising in her throat. Once he was gone, though, she smirked and tossed his coin purse in the air.

14-4

Raulin had promised himself that he would remain cordial to Anladet, to give her space. He had decided that, looking over their conversation more closely, it made the most sense that he had been a little too strong in his actions. She might be concerned that, having to spend the next eight months together, any leap into a relationship could be a foolish idea. He still felt there was something there, though, and he wouldn’t give up. He’d just be slower and more friendly.

Of course, he was also still her guard. And as her guard, it was his duty to watch over her and make sure she was safe. He had peeked in a few times throughout the night, in between wandering the town, and saw she was drawing in enough customers to nullify his need to pay her table a visit. He still made sure she was doing well that evening.

He should have been watching out for Al. Even though he had been acting strangely, he was sitting in his room, so Raulin thought him safe enough. Maybe it would have been better for Raulin’s emotional state if he had let Anla take care of herself.

One of the men sat and gave her a bowl of stew. He thought that was a good idea, an excuse to talk with her that he should have thought of. He watched as the man had his reading, then moved closer to her. This was the point she normally would have stiffened her posture, been more formal, and closed herself off from his advances.

But, she didn’t. She leaned in. She rested her chin in her hand and she smiled. Perhaps she knew him? He continued to watch, even though he would have told a man in his position that he was being foolishly naive.

Anla suddenly straightened her spine and he thought the man had finally said something that she found too indecent. Instead, she stood, took his hand, and led him to the stairs to the rooms on the second floor.

He couldn’t recall ever having the same feeling in his life. He’d had women move on from him while he still thought there was some relationship between them, but the passion had usually been waning. Once it was plainly because the girl liked it when men fought over her. Neither had bothered him very much. This, however, cut him from his gut to sternum in a hard, stinging sensation.

She didn’t want him. Not only that, but instead of remaining alone, she had picked some man she had just met to bed, someone who had spent less than an hour in her company. Raulin had hoped that part of her initial rejection was due to the lack of general interest, since he’d never seen her with another man in the months they’d been traveling together, but he had been wrong.

Gutted, he walked back to their, his, room at the inn, locked the door, and laid down in his. He didn’t fall asleep for some time, though he wasn’t sure if it was because he was thinking about her or because she wasn’t there.

By morning, he was over the worst of his anguish, but he still had a simmering anger over the events. It wouldn’t do to let her know how much she had hurt him, but there was still a way to get a few barbs in, to let her know that her actions weren’t appreciated.

As he had expected, Telbarisk and the wizard arrived at the oak tree before her. Al waited about five minutes before asking where she was. “Oh, I’m sure she’ll be along soon,” Raulin said. “Let’s give her some time.”

“Do you know where she is?” Al asked.

“As a matter of fact, I do,” he said, folding his arms and leaning against the tree. “She’s at the other inn.”

“Let’s go get her, then, and we can hit the road and be away from all these people.”

“I said let’s give her some time. She’s still busy, or maybe saying goodbye.”

“To whom?”

“The man she was with last night.” He kept his tone as casual as possible, but the thought lit a fresh fire in his chest. “It’s not polite to pry, so we’ll just let her come at her own pace and say nothing when she arrives.”

“Why couldn’t she have just done her piscarin-lying instead of prostitution? Did she need money?” Al mused.

Raulin paused at this. What if this wasn’t romance? She had seemed happy, he thought, and she’d be here already. “I think she still has a lot of gold on her person. But, what she does in her spare time is not any of our concern.”

Al seemed to agree to this. Telbarisk, understanding nothing of whoring or of what had really happened or why Raulin would be upset over the whole thing, sat perfectly content against the trunk.

And so they waited. And waited. The morning passed into lunch time. Al read half of a Kiesh the Black novel, though he had read it before and was glossing through quite a bit of it. Raulin grew more and more irritated that she was also waylaying them.

“Should we check on her? What if the man she was with was rough or didn’t want to pay?” Al finally asked.

“Feel free,” Raulin said, almost snapping at him. “If she gets cross with you, don’t be upset with her.”

The wizard disappeared for some ten minutes, then came back alone. “The innkeeper says that all the rooms are empty. She’s not there.”

Some other situation, where they weren’t tethered together, would make him think she had decided to run off with the man and that their group were disbanded. But she knew there were strange circumstances with them. This was beginning to puzzle Raulin, who led them to the inn.

The innkeeper was at the bar, which was through the one door in the lobby. “Would you prefer our room tonight, sir?” he asked, remembering Raulin from the day before.

“Actually, I’m looking for a woman. You might remember her from last night. She would be the dark-haired girl who sat in the back and read people’s fortunes.”

“Ah, her,” he said. “I’ll have to thank her if I see her; I noticed a bit more than usual buying my drinks. She went upstairs with a man after dinner and I haven’t seen her since.”

He clenched his jaw for a moment. “Is there anyone who might have seen her leave?”

The innkeeper nodded, then called out for his wife. A plump woman with dimples on her flour-smudged face and her hair back in a kerchief came in from the front, wiping her hands on her apron. “Kiena, did you see where that oracle girl went this morning? The one from last night?”

She twisted her mouth to the side. “She left with that man in room three early this morning.”

“Did you see which way they went?” Raulin asked.

She shook her head. “I had to get on making the pies for tonight. I saw a few other men joined them out in the street, but I didn’t see which way they headed.”

Raulin sucked in his breath and walked brusquely to the door. He turned after some thought. “Thank you. Do you happen to know of anyone who’s also up at that hour that has a shop on the crossroads? The blacksmith, perhaps, or a grocer?”

The innkeeper responded. “Old Ranvi would be too busy to pay attention, but you can try him at his forge. Maybe you’ll get lucky. The market and most of the other shops that are open early are farther down the street.”

Raulin’s shoulders slumped. “Thank you again for your help.”

“There’s Chockwell,” Kiena said. “He’s usually up early.”

“Chockwell?”

“He’s the priest that takes care of the shrine to Queyella.”

“Queyella?” Al asked. “The Sea Goddess has a shrine hundreds of miles from the shore?”

“She’s the goddess of travelers,” Kiena said, laughing in a patronizing way. “We get a lot of travelers, so it’s fitting that She cares for them.”

“Thank you very much,” Raulin said, heading towards the door. “I think I’ve already gotten my share of luck today.”

* * *

The light was bright, which caused Anla to blink rapidly. It had been dark last she remembered, in a room dimly lit with lanterns hanging from the ceiling. Wood and a ceramic bowl, coins and runes, the smell of stew and beer. This place was green, cool but not cold, somewhat damp on her legs, birds twittering and the smell of smoke and fire.

Movement in front of her made her startle as her eyes focused. “Why won’t you move?” the figure asked.

“What?”

“You stopped moving, sat here, said you couldn’t walk any farther. Why?”

“I don’t know,” she said. The voice sounded a little familiar.

“You need to tell me or the Man With the Coin will be upset.”

This made her anxious and sad, but she didn’t know why nor who that was. “But I don’t know. Who are you?”

At that moment, things finally became clear enough to her. She was sitting in a forest clearing in front of the man from last night. “My name is Sakilei and you need to think. What would make you break my magic like that?”

His eyes. She hadn’t seen in the dim light, but they were the same color as her own, some puzzling hue between green and blue, gray and brown. His features, so much like her brother’s, not quite human and not quite elven, sharp eyes not totally feral, high cheekbones, but not strangely high. And, of course, his ears, not round, but not the sharp point and length of her tribe.

“You’re a baerd,” she said.

“Yes, and so are you. But somehow you’ve broken my spell and that has the Man With the Coin upset and worried.”

“No,” she moaned, again feeling the need to make whoever that was pleased.

“Will you walk if I promise not to put you under again?”

“I’ll walk.”

“Good. Now, normally the Man With the Coin will let me bring his bounty out of the spell only when we’re farther away from towns. You have to listen to me and obey the rules or else he’ll have to do some unpleasant things. Do you promise to listen and obey?”

She nodded enthusiastically.

“The Man With the Coin will be pleased to hear that. All right, listen because I will not repeat myself. You belong to the Man With the Coin. Since you are a baerd, you will fetch a good price in New Wextif. You should be thankful; half-breeds are usually sold cheaply at market and I hear their lives are unpleasant and short. You, however, will be sold to another bounty hunting group for a good price and you will help hunt down our kind until you are no longer useful, like the half-breed who found me.

“I have already impressed you while we were upstairs in my room, but I will tell you as well. You cannot escape. You cannot hurt the Man With the Coin or anyone else in his posse. You cannot sabotage they’re route nor can you ask for help from anyone. If the Man With the Coin tells you to do something, you will without hesitation, whether or not you want to.”

“If they try, I will fight them,” she said, understanding then the full gravity of her situation.

He frowned and narrowed his eyes. “No, you won’t.”

“You don’t think I will?”

“I know you would if you could, but you can’t. If they want you, they will have you.”

She felt sick at that thought and she must have looked upset enough because Sakilei continued in a softer tone. “For what it’s worth, they probably won’t. Casquio, that’s the Man With the Coin, feels that half-breeds are like animals and would rather rut with his horse. Akmillin, the young pup with the blond hair, is under his thumb, thinks he’s some sort of hero, and therefore also thinks you’re disgusting. He’s learning the ways of scouting, so he’s not around much anyway. Tellenhi is the archer and Ripole is the gentleman. I don’t know for sure with either of them, but the Man With the Coin won’t like it if things get complicated.

“You’re also a baerd. Higher price, especially if you’re untouched. Scarring or damaging you will drop your price as will as incapacitating you with a child. Just on that, I think you’re safe. And maybe your buyer will also be as considerate.”

“And you? What happened last night?”

“Nothing,” he said, looking away.

“Nothing? You had me under your spell and…”

He scoffed, his eyes flashing with anger. “Like begets like. One human, one elf, means one half-breed child. If they mate with an elf or a human, their children are safe. If they mate with another half-breed, they will have half-breeds. I won’t risk to bring another one of us into the world. It’s bad enough that I have to see my people, my kind, reduced to slavery; I couldn’t bear if it were my own child.”

His tone was nowhere near as warm and flirtatious as it had been last night, but it grew even colder than it had. “I brought you upstairs and you slept on the floor. That’s all.”

“Why don’t you escape?” she asked. “Why don’t you do something to stop this?”

“Stupid girl,” he said, glaring at her. “Don’t you think I would if I could? I am under the same rules as you, more of them. I cannot run away. I cannot ask for help. I cannot hurt the posse and the Man With the Coin. I cannot help the half-breeds run away. I cannot do anything that would help them run away. Many rules, few openings. I’ve tried to think of ways for many years. Nothing.”

“What if I can help you escape?” She whispered, “I was traveling with people who will save me.”

“Is this why you sat and couldn’t move?”

“Yes,” she began. She would have said more, but Sakilei stood up and moved towards Casquio, who was already walking towards them.

“She has a party she was with that might cause us problems. This is why she sat and didn’t move.”

“Oh,” the man said, though he smiled at the news. “I doubt a few vagabonds are going to give us much trouble.” He squatted down next to Anla and tipped her head up with his fingers. “None of them are trackers, are they?”

“No,” she said, thinking quickly. “They’ve probably already left with the money.”

“See, no problem.” He turned to speak to Sakilei. “How is she doing? Are we going to have any problems with her?”

“She has promised to obey,” he said.

He turned back, reached inside his shirt, and drew out a necklace with a gold Ghenian coin threaded with the chain, one side painted red. “I am the Man With the Coin. Sakilei has told you about what that means?”

“I obey your rules and do whatever you tell me to do,” she answered. Living on the streets had taught her many things, including when it was pointless to fight and that it was better to pretend to be meek to live another day.

“Good,” he said. “I am very pleased at this. Obedient, pretty, young, skilled, and in good health.” He pushed her chin down to open her mouth. “You have all your teeth, too. Yes, I think you will probably fetch the highest price I’ve ever seen at the market.”

“May I ask a question, sir?”

“Polite, good. One question.”

“Have you ever captured a little girl, maybe ten or eleven, in Hanala or a boy younger than that in Hanala or south of there?”

“Those your siblings?” he asked and she nodded. “No, I don’t recollect that, but maybe some other group did. We usually stick to the country, unless we get a nice request from someone, so we haven’t been in Hanala in a long time. Maybe we’ll look for them, though, before we head to New Wextif. Older sisters make great bait.

“All right,” he said to Sakilei, “we’re going to ditch camp and start moving, now that she’s sorted out. Ten minutes.”

When he was out of earshot, Anla turned to the half-elf and hissed, “Why did you tell him that? I’m trying to help you!”

“Don’t tell me anything,” he said sadly. “The less you say to me, the less I’ll have to tell him.”

“You have to tell him when I try to escape?”

“Yes, every time. So, don’t try, don’t tell me anything, don’t talk to me. It’s better that way. Just obey and you’ll get through this fine.”

14-3

“There is a village ahead,” Tel said the next morning as they trekked farther south. “We will stop there.”

Raulin looked up quickly at the sky, shielding his eyes from the sun. “It’s only about two o’clock. I mean, if that’s what you feel we should do, then that’s fine. But I was hoping for a slightly faster pace.”

“You said I should listen to kouriya and lead us where it says to go.”

“I know, and I appreciate that. It’s just that we’ve only traveled about ten miles since I let you lead.”

“Kouriya isn’t always what you want it to be, Raulin,” he answered patiently. “It almost is never a fast thing. And it can bring bad things to people who then curse fate, not knowing that it might help them in the future.”

“I know, I know. It’s not a smooth path, or whatever metaphor you’ve said in the past. I’d still like to know why your brother being not assassinated is helping the Valley of the Cold Winds.”

“I love my brother, Raulin.”

“I didn’t mean that he should be killed, just that there was an opportunity for it to have happened and the motive seemed sound. Yet, nothing has happened to him. He still sits on the throne, making poor choices, discrediting his adversaries, framing and punishing his brother.”

“Do you think I don’t dwell on what he did?” he asked with some sadness. “I spent months in a cell before being rowed to Ouyadid, and then spent time there contemplating things. I have to believe that what he did was for the best for our people and that rejecting the help offered was what kouriya demanded.”

Raulin stopped walking for a moment. “What help, Tel? What help did you reject?”

He took a slow breath in as he closed his eyes for a moment, still leading the rest of the group south. “I was approached by several people who claimed to have a large group of people willing to fight for my cause. If I had given the word, they would have broken me out and overthrown my brother as king.”

Raulin let out a long breath. “And I feel like I know why you decided not to; kouriya said this was what was best for your path. Did you consider, though, that maybe it’s not the best for everyone? That maybe being a martyr for your faith wasn’t the best choice?”

“Kouriya isn’t ‘do what is best for you and everyone else’, Raulin. Kouriya is finding the current in a stream and letting yourself be taken by it, hitting the rocks and drowning if that’s what is called for. It’s not about doing something so that good will come to you. I may never reap the benefits of kouriya in my life, but I still believe and practice it.”

“Why would someone do something that goes against self-preservation?”

“Because practicing kouriya is truly about putting not just others but the world before yourself.”

Raulin shook his head in disbelief as Anla spoke up. “It’s his way to live. Why are you arguing with him?”

“I’m sorry if I offended, mezzem,” he said, using a cordial tone. “I was only asking Tel to clarify and understand why we will be staying in the upcoming town when we can possibly make the next today.”

“I’m not minding the slow pace,” she said. “You’ve finished fourteen of your twenty-four contracts in one third of a year. We’re doing well and are in no rush.”

“Of course, mezzem. You speak wisely.”

She gave him an odd look that passed quickly by.

Siasard was bisected by the main road they were traveling, the aptly named Route of the Woods, which ran perpendicular to a road that petered out in the west somewhere and a connecting route to points in Courmet. The town was tangled between pines and maples, a few larger oaks causing the road to twist around them. Despite the plethora of timber at their disposal, the inhabitants seemed less concerned about coordination and repair for their businesses and homes.

“I suppose I’ll look into an inn and getting rooms for us,” Raulin said.

“I want a room by myself,” Al said.

Raulin turned and looked him over. “If there is an inn. If they have enough rooms. You’ll pay for the extra cost.”

“I wouldn’t mind sleeping outside, since we’re not in a city,” Tel said.

“Then, you’ll owe Telbarisk. Feel free to wander the vast splendor of Siasard. We’ll meet at this unruly tree in an hour.”

Siasard had perhaps fifteen buildings that weren’t homes. Of those, four had rooms for rent, which wasn’t surprising for a town smack dab in the middle of a major trade route. Of the four, one was in such bad disrepair that a quick glance told Raulin he wasn’t going to consider it. One was nice, but overpriced at nine silver a night. The other two were within a silver of each other and had two rooms available. He went with the one that smelled nicer.

Their situation was going to be a little problematic for Raulin. He had assumed that it was going to be easy to suggest that Mr. and Mrs. Auslen continue their charade and share a room together. He’d sleep alone with Telbarisk on the floor, then they’d continue on the next day without any issue. But with the wizard’s peculiarities over the last few days, Raulin hadn’t wanted to argue over his insistence on rooming alone, especially not in front of Anla.

He wondered if this was why Telbarisk, or kouriya, was insisting they stop in Siasard for the night. Was it to force he and Anla together so that they’d have to discuss what had happened? Or perhaps it was to define what they meant to each other. He wasn’t sure if he relished this opportunity or if it was going to cause more problems between them.

Anla was already at the oak when he approached. While she wasn’t oblivious that something was going on with Raulin, she was too distracted to consider it. Right then she was beneath a tree whose shade touched another tree’s, and so on for miles and miles until the forest reached her people. They were in Ashven now, and she held a growing hope that somehow her brother and sister had returned to their tribe and she would see them in only a few weeks.

“Mezzem,” he said, interrupting her thoughts. “I neglected to ask if you wanted your own room this evening.”

“Hmm? No, the usual arrangements are fine. Best to save money. In fact, I think I’m going to see if this town is interested in having a piscarin visit for a night.”

“Oh? Do you need a silver in your bucket from me?”

“No, but thank you. If they’re not interested, I’m not going to be disappointed; I’ll find other ways to occupy my night. Besides, I know what you’re reading is: you’re supposed to be something else, something grander than a trirec. You wouldn’t listen anyway.”

He handed her the key to their room and told her where the inn was. “Should I? Listen, that is.”

She shrugged. “You know how I feel about what I do. I can’t and won’t say what you should do with your life based on how I reached inside a bag and pulled out some tiles.”

“I might want to see if anything is different.”

“Come find me in a few hours, then.”

Anla spent that time alone, inspecting the town and its residences. She wasn’t as critical to Siasard as Raulin had been; while she saw the hanging shutters and the roofs that needed patching, she also saw that most merchants were busy with an acceptable amount of wares for sale. They had a blacksmith in the middle of repairing an axle, fresh fruit in the market, and a busy mail station. She peeked into dusty, multi-paned windows and saw that, even though it was before dinner, there were quite a few people inside both tavern rooms.

In the end, she chose the one with the kinder looking bartender. She donned her piscarin outfit and sat herself quietly in the corner, casting runes and peering over them until she caught the interest of some of the men. After the bold and annoying had weeded themselves out, she began to get a steady enough line of customers that she wound up charging a full silver. Raulin had suggested she charge more and no one seemed to balk at the price, so she decided it was going to be a permanent change.

Anla was just beginning to feel the pangs of hunger when a man straddled the seat across from her and gently placed a bowl of stew and a spoon in front of her. He was a slight man, familiar looking, wearing traveling clothes and a dark, knit woolen cap she’d seen favored by the working men in the area. “You’ve been here for a while and I thought you might want something to eat.”

“Thank you. How much do I owe you?”

“Nothing,” he said with a friendly smile. “Though, if you’d like to do a reading for me, I’d call us even. Though, please, eat first.”

After she ate, she dabbed her face with a napkin and drew three stones from her bag. Kuh, wheh, and way, three unusual stones. He sat patiently, awaiting her interpretation. She, in turn, wondered whether to rely on what the runes were actually saying, which would be an odd reading involving something with magic and capturing, or to use something tried and true. “You’re looking for a woman,” she said finally said.

He gave a shy smile. “Go on.”

“You’ve traveled far to find her. And you’re getting close.”

“That seems rather on the spot.”

She pretended to look over the runes. He moved his chair a quarter around the table, so that he was sitting right next to her. At this distance, she realized he reminded her of Garlin, her younger brother, though a few decades older. “You’re hoping to be with her, maybe permanently.”

He smiled again. “I feel a deep sort of love for her, something that time apart hasn’t diminished. I just hope she feels the same way, too.”

Anla felt a genuine smile creep across her face. “She sounds like a lucky girl.”

The man leaned back and shrugged. “May I ask how you do it?” he said, gesturing to the tiles. “I’d love for you to tell me about it.”

“It’s guessing, really,” she said immediately. “I can tell more about what you want to hear than I could ever get from these.”

“Ah, so nothing so interesting as a connection to spirits, just plain, old cleverness.”

She nodded, feeling the heat rise to her face. “You think I’m clever?”

“Absolutely. You’re a smart, capable woman. I could tell that from when we first spoke. Beautiful, too, but that I could tell from across the room. May I ask what the pretty lady’s name is? Your real name, not the one you’ve been telling these townsfolk all night.”

“Anladet.”

“Oh! So your father must be Arvonnese, then? ‘Det’s for girls and ‘din’s for boys, is that right?”

“For the names whose first part ends in a vowel, otherwise there’s no ‘d’.”

“That explains things! I always wondered why my friend Alcharin had no ‘d’ in his name.” He smiled at her and she felt something like when she saw Raulin remove his shirt. “How do you feel about this bar? Do you want to go somewhere else?”

“No,” she said, but she still smiled at him.

He frowned and sighed. “Mind if I tell you a secret, then?”

“I love secrets. Go ahead.”

They both leaned in and he whispered, “Aanladett, you will go with me upstairs to my room and you won’t fight our ddeparturee.”

She sucked in a breath and remembered nothing else of that night.