17-5

It began at lunch. Anla saw people standing in line for food at the buffet look at her, then turn to the person next to them and whisper something. Then, that person would turn to look at her and stare. To her credit, she plastered on a smile that didn’t waver even when the couple sitting at her table got up abruptly and left with piping hot tea still on the table. The flushing was harder to hide.

Funny how Olana had done nothing wrong, but she was still suffering for it.

She was picking at her rabbit, mushroom, and sage pasty when three people sat at her table. It took her only a few moments before she realized they were the musicians from last night. “We can spare a couple of minutes for you. Looks like you need some friends.”

She gave the fiddler an appreciative smile and began talking about music with the trio. They would be playing that evening, so she wouldn’t see them when she visited the village, but they promised they would dedicate a song to her.

Things felt better after their visit. She almost forgot about her situation until she showed up for the nature appreciation class to find Lady Karninth already there. Grané looked at Anla with wide eyes. She returned his stare with a quick eye roll and a shrug.

At first the Lady was content to follow the crowd and shoot smarmy looks at Anla, who did her best not to ignore the woman, but to feign disinterest in her presence. When that failed to ruffle Anla’s feathers, the Lady began asking questions and walking next to Grané, generally feigning interest in whatever he pointed out.

After she began touching his arm to grab his attention, he moved away and said, “All right. Who would like to earn a crystal ring?” The group perked up at this as he took one out of his pocket and held it aloft. “I’m going to ask questions until someone gets three correct answers. That person will be our winner.”

He lobbed a few easier questions that some of the other guests answered before she could, such as “Name three wildflowers that are yellow” or “Give me one herb that people use medicinally”. When Anla answered the tough ones, Grané made sure to heap on his praises. And when she won the ring, she gave it to one of the older women on the tour who had looked at her with admiration and had murmured nice things about her intelligence under her breath.

Dinner seemed easier, though there were still people who needed informing about her ordeal. She pretended to be unperturbed by any of it. The shop had liquor for purchase, so she bought a bottle of wine for the villagers and had a good evening with them.

She thought about sleeping on the couch in her room, but decided that she could move to the edge of bed when Raulin came in that night. He never did. She laid awake, waiting for him for some time, realizing how much she treasured his company, how much she loved waking up with him close to her.

Anla kept to her schedule. She noted that the couple didn’t appear in her room again, and after the third time she caught them on the wall and didn’t bat an eyelash, they stopped that as well.

The Lady decided to sit in an empty seat at her table for a few minutes a few days later, dressed in a fine pink dress. “How are you, my dear?” she asked.

“I’m doing well,” Anla responded, her tone suggesting she was both puzzled and amused. A dozen catty responses came to mind, but she held her tongue, instead asking how she was doing.

“Marvelous. Tired, though,” she said, stretching for effect. “I haven’t been getting much sleep.”

“Chamomile tea works well for that,” she answered, pretending she didn’t get the innuendo.

“Yes. Well, maybe I should try it. Do you like my brooch?”

Having been warned of her past misdeeds by one of the workers, Anla had hidden what little jewelry she had and asked the village smith to make her a few cheap pins to put with her things.

“It’s…lovely,” she said. “Where did you get it?”

“I saw it somewhere and just had to have it.”

“Ah. Well, it’s not really my taste, but I think it looks smashing with your ensemble today.”

She continued eating as the triumphant smile slipped off the Lady’s face. “I thought I saw you wearing something similar the other day.”

“No,” she said in between bites. “I’ve never seen it before in my life.”

The confusion on her face was worth at least a little bit of what she was doing to her.

With a few days left, Anla finally dared to ask the question that was their whole purpose at the shrine. She’d brought a bottle of brandy to dessert with Grané and Tien and played Maccre as they ate cake. “Is this place actually a shrine?”

“It used to be,” Grané said, rearranging his hand, “maybe thirty years ago. People thought the springs were a holy site or something along those lines and they would trickle in during the summer and fall months. Then, the owners had the smart idea of buying the land and building a resort. It’s very popular with the wealthy and it’s in a great spot, so it’s only gotten bigger as the years have gone on.”

“Really? I’d heard a rumor that this place was still an actual shrine or that rituals were held here.”

“Let me guess, you heard it from the townsfolk,” Tien said, not looking up from her cards.

“Yes. They were rather adamant.”

“We have an interesting relationship with the townsfolk. We need them for supplies and they need us for the money travelers bring on their way here. But, they feel like we look down on them figuratively, since we do literally, so we’re all snobs up here, living in opulence. It’s not the first time I’ve heard them spreading rumors.”

“It is rather nice here,” Anla said.

“Pfft. Have you seen the houses in town? They’re gorgeous! When enough tourists pass through and spread their money around, you can afford the nicer rugs and all the repairs you need. Look, we’re not poor here, but they definitely are getting the better end of the deal.”

Grané played his hand, winning that round. “There is Minuetar. He’s a fanatic devotee to Zayine, thinks the mountain is going to blow any day, even though it’s been dormant for centuries. He has a personal shrine to Her in the woods and invites us to his services, but he’s not a priest. That’s about as religious as we get.”

“What about the nighttime ceremony in the main house?”

“That’s a leftover from the old days,” Tien said, spreading her hand. “It makes people feel good, but it doesn’t do much other than getting people to buy things. It works, too. We often sell a dozen or more of those pendants in the shape of the statues in the front of the hall after the ceremony. I hope you’re not disappointed.”

“We paid good money to come to a place to enjoy ourselves and relax, not to find one of the Twelve.” She dropped her shoulders at the thought of “we”.

“How are you holding out?” she said, holding Anla’s gaze.

“I’m still doing well, but I don’t think I could do this if we were staying longer.”

“I think the worst is yet to come. Be careful.”

Indeed, the next morning Lady Karninth had convinced Raulin to accompany her to a blue-ring breakfast, flirting with him unabashedly while Anla wasn’t too far away eating her red-ring food. She laughed too loud, was too doting, and looked in Anla’s direction far too often. It was that breakfast that the nice woman from the walk decided to eat with her and held a distracting conversation that Anla found genuinely interesting.

Her dip in the hot springs was accompanied by those two. She simply lowered herself in the water and shut out any of the moans and giggles she was supposed to hear.

She was going to spend a ring to get away for another mud treatment, but she realized that all her rings for the day were gone. Luckily, Tien was working at the front desk and slipped her two reds for meals when she explained what had happened. She went for a long walk instead and noticed quickly that she was being followed by the illicit couple. For what it was worth, it didn’t seem like Raulin knew what the Lady was doing, making the same drastic changes Anla was in order to follow her.

The last thing she wanted was a confrontation. She’d rather not even have a pleasant conversation with them. An intense craving to be gone from this place overtook her. She would give anything to be away from the shrine, but there were two more full days and Raulin would need all that time for a due diligence on this contract.

When she turned into the woods at the halfway point of the trail, she immediately bolted off the path and hid. As a child, she hadn’t had the elven magic that helped the children with seeking games, so she’d had to rely on physical skill to disappear into the brush. She was completely concealed when they walked past her, then stopped. The Lady looked confused for a few moments, searching around.

“Something wrong, my love?” Raulin asked. Anla’s stomach lurched. There was no falseness to his words; he really did love her.

“Nothing, my sweet. I was just taking in the scenery.” She took his head in her hands and kissed him deeply. “Must you leave me in a few days?”

“Yes. We’re expected in Atri soon. There’s also no availability; I checked in with the front desk.”

“Write a letter and tell them you’ll be late. And you can stay in my room. You know my bed is always open to you.”

“I do need to think about my wife.”

She waved her hand carelessly. “She can stay with her lover. It will work out.”

“I’ll think about it.”

No, Anla thought. No, please. Her stomach roiled at the thought of staying here any longer than she had to, even with her friends in the village. If it came to that, she would leave and admit defeat. She couldn’t continue to keep analyzing things, of worrying and trying to guess what Lady Karninth was going to do next. It was exhausting.

She wished they would leave. Instead, they stood there, kissing and speaking like he was in port setting off on his next voyage. And while Anla grew more and more nauseous at the words, she at least understood how the Lady had ensnared him so well.

They spoke a lot about Anla, but it was mostly the Lady asking questions and Raulin answering them, followed by an affirmation or a correction. A snippet of their conversation went something like:

“Why did you marry her?”

“She was beautiful and delightful to be around. It was easy to talk to her, laugh with her. She had a keen mind and she was great to work with.”

“But not now. It’s hard to think of someone as beautiful when they’re so inhumane to other people. And I thought you said you hadn’t laughed with her in a long time.”

“I did? It has been a while.”

“It happens. You love someone when you’re both young and happy, then you start to see them every day. You notice the little things that bother you about them. Then, you start catching them doing things you’d never imagine them doing. You didn’t know she was a thief when you married her, did you?”

“No.”

“But you saw all of my brooches in her drawers.”

“I did. I returned them to you.”

“I know. Thank you, my sweet. Remember that my rings went missing, too?”

“And we found your bag in her room. It’s something I’ll watch out for in the future, now that I know she’s like that.”

There was an Arvonnese idiom that Anla’s father used: “He put a hot skillet in cold water.” He’d say that when he was talking about someone who was so emotionally confused that they couldn’t speak, the implication being that they were steaming and forever warped by the quick temperature change like a pan dipped too early.

It was outrage, fury, indignation. Being accused of stealing on the streets meant being cast out of places you had been welcome in before, which meant less chance of food and warmth, possibly death. She took it very seriously and was more sensitive to it than most people. The only silver lining was that Lady Karninth at least didn’t have her perfume nor her two necklaces.

It was nausea, anxiety, confusion. Anla had moments listening to their long conversation where she questioned if she had done some of the things Raulin agreed she had done. She wondered if Raulin had been harboring bad feelings towards her for a while now or in a strange, paranoid thought, if he had a contract out on her and had been playing a long con.

But worst it was the agony of hearing a friend savor her misfortune. When the Lady brought up how rewarding it had been when people had started talking about her, Raulin admitted that she deserved it, since she had slept with so many men at the shrine and had been a whore a few times before they had met, but withheld the same from him. And he admitted that if he could trade the two of them, he’d take his Lady over Anla in a heartbeat.

This was Raulin saying it. There were no lies in his admissions. There was no rock-grinding sound to any of it. He wasn’t playing some angle to fool the Lady into telling him something, like she had secretly hoped. And that was why she cried.

Anla never cried. Her eyes had teared right before she’d slapped Al a few weeks ago and when Raulin had made her confess to the embarrassing things Tiorn had made her do in Hanala, but she had not cried. And there she was, listening to the words Raulin was saying, her back against a tree and tucked into a bush, with tears streaming down her face.

They moved away finally, speaking of what they were going to do to each other when they reached her room. She had stolen him from her completely. Anla fully gave in to the awareness that the Lady had won; Anla was hysterically bawling and she couldn’t stop. Her throat burned, her body shook, and her head pounded, but she couldn’t stop sobbing. She had been broken.

It took so long to stop the flow of tears that she missed the nature appreciation walk. She found Grané in the greenhouse. He took one look at her and was instantly livid. “What did she say to you?” he asked.

She recounted everything to him, the crushing headache stopping her from crying again. When she finished, he stopped his work and brought her to his apartment, where she washed her face and sipped on valerian and peppermint tea.

“I don’t know if I can go to dinner tonight,” she admitted, her hands still shaking.

“Then don’t go! You don’t have to suffer any more for some notion of winning or because you feel the need to win your husband back or whatever your reasons are.”

“I don’t want her to win.”

“Not showing up at dinner isn’t a win for her. She doesn’t know why you won’t be there. If you want, us villagers can come up with an excuse. We could have a barbecue set up in an hour and we’d keep them away from it.”

She shook her head. “I’m feeling better. I just don’t know if I can get back to that solid place I was at before I heard all those things. It was like I was wearing armor.”

“Stay here. Make yourself at home. I’ll be back in a little while.”

Grané left and Anla finished her tea. She closed her eyes and fell asleep in one of their chairs until Tien came home and woke her up. Her friend’s nostrils flared and her leg was bouncing on her knee by the time she finished.

“I don’t even know what to say, Olana. I’m speechless. I can’t tell you how badly I want to tell every single guest here what she’s doing.”

“You’d lose your job. And those guests would only wind up being confused.”

Her husband returned and sat down on the couch next to his wife. He pulled something out of his pocket and handed it to her. “This is your armor.”

She looked down and saw that Briven, the shrine’s resident blacksmith, had made her another brooch in the same style as the others. “Thank you,” she said. “I’ll wear it under my skirts.”

“Why?”

“She’ll just accuse me of theft and Darrick will give it to her anyway.”

Grané smiled. “Look on the other side.”

The pin was a twisted piece of metal that was slightly convex. On the side that curved in was the clasp and the letters “OF” in globs of solder. Tien looked over and grinned. “I’d like to see her accuse you of stealing that.”

* * *

Anla wore her brooch proudly, brushing her fingers along one of its ridges when she felt raw and pitted. She didn’t want to be at dinner, but at least she felt like there were fauna in the flora, ghosts and winds of people there to help her if she needed it again.

She attended the nightly ceremony where she was pulled up in front of everyone. Lying supine, one of the attendants dressed in a long, white alb shook a turtle shell rattle over her while another brushed the end tufts of Indian grass over her body. She knew Tien had said it was hogwash, and she really didn’t enjoy being the center of attention, but she felt at peace once the gathering was done. She even saw a few warm smiles cast her way.

After that, and a good night’s rest, she was ready to face anything. She took a class on making a shallow basket, thinking it would be a handy skill to know for their travels. Her soak in the hot springs was undisturbed. Lunch was pleasant with a few people from the ceremony or another class speaking briefly with her. She gave Grané a grand smile when she met up for his class. She hadn’t seen either the Lady or Raulin all day and it made her feel like this place was hers, not theirs.

At dinner, she sat with her acquaintance from the walk, her husband, and another couple from the ceremony. She was listening to a story the woman was telling until she saw everyone close their mouths and look slightly past her. She turned and saw Lady Karninth standing next to her, looking a little frazzled. Dark circles were under her lids and her eyes were red and puffy.

To be polite, Anla stood to see what the Lady wanted. She was barely erect when Lady Karninth slapped her across the face, the force of the attack knocking her head to one side.

It was the sort of noise people instinctively knew meant “look in that direction, there’s going to be entertainment” The sound in the dining hall evaporated, allowing Lady Karninth’s words to carry clearly from wall to wall. “You little bitch. You think you can play these games with me and win? Who do you think you are?”

Anla straightened herself and said, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Last night! And all the other things you’ve done! You make me sick, you disgusting little whore!” She raised her hand to strike Anla again, even though it looked like the blow had caused her more pain, but her wrist was caught by Raulin. She turned and began wailing in his chest, tears streaking her face when she lifted her head after a few moments.

“I’ll speak with her,” he said, his face also bruised beneath his eyes. He fixed Anla with a gaze that shocked her by its vehemence, then grabbed her by the arm. “Come,” he said.

“Stop,” she said. “You’re hurting me. Please.”

He didn’t, dragging her on her tiptoes down the hallway to their room, closing the door behind him. She put up a spell of silence and said, “Raulin, she slapped me.”

“You deserved it,” he spat, cradling his arm.

What?”

“The dirt, ripping her clothes, and the pins. That was also cute what you did, keeping us up all night with your magic. You used your ward spell to set off a loud bang every half-hour in our room.”

She rubbed her arm, trying to stop herself from shaking. “I don’t know how to do that. I can’t time my ward spells. Someone would have to break them for that to work, and I wasn’t in her room last night. I was here, sleeping. Besides, I only used that spell here, in case you came in the room while I was in the hot spring.”

He glared at her, not believing. He looked down at her dress. “And you stole this from Katerin! Give it here.”

She looked down at the brooch. “This isn’t hers, it’s mine. Briven gave it to me.”

“Who’s Briven? Is that the guy who’s plowing your field?”

She clenched her jaw for a moment. “Briven is the blacksmith here. He made it for me. Here,” she said, pulling it off her dress and turning it over. “O.F., Olana Freston. That’s mine and so are the other three she stole from me. She can keep them; stolen goods look great on her.”

He cocked his left arm back, but didn’t throw the punch. “You’ve done enough damage to that poor woman. I have precious little time left with her. I want you to leave us alone.”

“Leave you alone? I haven’t gone near you two at any point!”

“And I want you to stop bewitching people into hating her. One of your knights in shining armor poured his tea in my lap at lunch and loudly declared that my wife must be heaven sent to put up with my infidelity.”

“I didn’t ask anyone to say that. The only time I’ve used my influence in the two weeks here was to get that couple to talk about my schedule. I’m being honest, I haven’t lied to you this entire stay. Two spells, that’s it. I haven’t bewitched anyone nor will I.”

“Then explain why people give her glares and speak ill of her.”

She continued to rub her arm and said nothing.

Raulin grabbed her chin and forced her to look at him. “Say it.”

Anla shook his hold loose. “I’ve already told you why, Raulin. You won’t listen to me. I’m not going to try while you’re like this.”

“Like what?”

Poisoned. She’s turned you against me. You’ve known me for five months, but you’re taking the word of a woman you just met over mine.”

“And if I said I was listening to you?”

She held his gaze and didn’t back down.“No. I’m through. I’ve spent my two weeks here absolutely miserable because of you two. I can show you ample evidence as to why, but you won’t believe any of that. You think I’m jealous or bitter and that I feel like hurting someone because I have nothing better to do when that’s not true! I have done what you asked me to do. There is no secret cult here, there is no threat to the Twelve. This is just a retreat that uses self guidance to help people. Meditation, affirmations, things like that.”

“I know.”

“Are you sure? I’m surprised you found time to look into it when you were so busy with your head between her breasts.”

“And this is supposed to make you sound free of jealousy?”

“Again, I am not jealous. I am hurt by your betrayal. And that is all I am going to say about you and her. If you speak to me again, it will be with an apology and seventy gold.”

Seventy gold? For what? Are you accusing Katerin of stealing something now?”

“No. You hired me to accompany you to the retreat and discover whether there was something here that Albrever should be concerned with. I gave you my report. I am due wages.”

He snorted. “I’m not paying you. I never officially hired you.”

“Oh, but you did. You said, and I quote, ‘Anla, we’re here to do a job’ before you talked about how I should be prepared for people not to like me if I did it. I just didn’t think it was going to be you.”

He soured at this, but didn’t argue. Instead, he said, “Last time. Leave us alone. If I catch you doing that spell again on our door, I will find that fancy boy baerd hunter and pay him for front row seats.” He slammed the door on his way out, still cradling his arm.

She took a few moments to stop herself from shaking, then returned to the dining hall, passing a sobbing Lady Karninth on Raulin’s arm. She didn’t look at them and stayed clear of their path. Several people nodded to her, a few even stopping to see if she was well. She sat at her table and ate the rest of her meal before returning to her room.

Anla was thinking of spending the last day in her room, save for meals, but decided she wasn’t going to change one damn thing. She wasn’t in the wrong and had no reason to feel guilty over it.

She definitely wanted to go to another celebration at the village. When they recognized her, the group of several dozen workers cheered and clapped, toasting to her. “You broke her!” Tien said, passing her a glass of whiskey. “I saw her sobbing in the courtyard this morning.”

“I just stayed the course. I’m not sure what happened. I was at dinner last night and she said I did something to her, then she slapped me.”

There was a hefty silence before Tien said, “We’re sorry. We didn’t know she would hit you.”

“What do you mean?”

“We’ve been helping you along a little bit. We messed up her room and her things a little and had the night watchman knock on her door every time he passed on his rounds.”

“Oh,” she said.

“I’m thinking the sleepless night might have made things worse.”

“Maybe. Either way, I hope she starts treating you all better.”

Tien raised her cup. “Never mistreat the staff,” she said to which everyone drank.

Anla said her goodbyes that night with hugs and thanks. She ate breakfast the next morning, took a final dip in the hot springs, and left for Tel and Al’s camp, pleased that she had accomplished what she had set out to do, but glad to be rid of the place.

17-4

“I’m sorry,” Grané said. “A lady such as yourself shouldn’t have seen that.”

“I’m fine,” Anla replied, slowing down.

“You don’t seem fine, if I may say so. You look a little peaked. Maybe you should sit down for a moment? I could go get you some tea or water.”

“I’ll be okay, Grané.” She had an overwhelming need to put as much space between her and Raulin as possible. The last thing she wanted was to talk to him.

“She does that,” he said, holding her arm from underneath to catch her if she fainted. “Lady Karninth. I know that some of the higher staff have talked with her about being more discreet with her affairs, but she continues them all the same. There’s not much we can do, since she’s a guest here. I hope you understand.”

Anla licked her lips. Her mouth was dry and she wished she’d taken Grané up on his offer for tea. “What?”

“The woman back there, Lady Karninth. She picks some younker staying here for a week to seduce then flaunts him, and the affair, in front of the guests. She’s bored and loves spectacles, which gives us a headache when we have to hear about her indiscretions from the other guests.”

“I don’t care,” she said, continuing to march back to the main building.

“You don’t? But, you seemed upset that…he…oh.” He was mercifully silent for ten seconds. “I take it this is your husband’s first liaison?”

She nodded her head, not wanting to continue this conversation. Seclusion would be blessedly wonderful. Barring that, some place where she could avoid an inevitable conversation would work almost as well.

“Ma’am, would you like to come back to the village? Just for a little while, so that you don’t have to be around other people.”

She stopped. “Yes, I think I’d like that. And you don’t have to call me ‘ma’am’. Olana is fine.”

There was only one dirt road into the village, which had about a dozen buildings with several apartments in each. The buildings were smack dab in the middle of the forest and clung to the available terrain like lichen on rocks. Where the road ended was a commons taken up by communal things: toys for the children, a roasting spit, a wash station. To the back, in a gap between two buildings, was a large covered work area that housed tools for repairs and a forge.

An older man waddled over to Grané when he saw them, clearly upset, and they held a conversation out of most people’s earshot.

“You know you can’t bring guests here,” he said.

“She’d had a rough day, Minuetar. She found out her husband was having an affair with her.”

“Not a good enough excuse! We could get in serious trouble with the uppers over this.”

“If she isn’t going to them about her then I think we’re safe.”

Grané walked back to Anla. “Come,” he said. “You can meet my family.”

It wasn’t what she wanted to do. She wanted a few minutes alone to sort out her thoughts. But, it would be rude to refuse. She gave a tight smile and followed him to his apartment.

The smell of garlic overpowered all the potted plants in Grané’s living room. “Tien?”

A tall, dark-haired woman poked her head out of the kitchen. Anla recognized her as one of the welcome desk workers. “Oh, who’s this?”

“This is Olana. She’s going to have dinner with us tonight.” He turned to her and said, “Make yourself at home.”

She sat on the couch and pretended that she couldn’t hear Grané tell her tale to his wife. To her ear the tone of his words had a removed coldness, like briefly touching a statue. Pity, she thought. They pitied her. An appropriate feeling for Olana, but what about Anla?

Anla still didn’t quite know how she felt about the situation. It was not good, but why? She knew Raulin conducted affairs with women, even had to for his job. She had seen him sneak into a room with a woman at the libertine ball and didn’t recall feeling anything about it. There hadn’t been a problem with that aspect of his job until now.

She felt angry and hurt. It took her some time sitting on their couch with her hands folded in her lap that she realized she felt like Raulin had cheated on her. They weren’t romantic, though. While they kissed and were permissive with each other’s boundaries, they weren’t beaus. She had no right to expect him to remain chaste.

Still, the pain of loss and betrayal was all she had felt for a few moments. It had almost robbed her of her breath, a pressure suddenly grabbing at her neck and choking her. Something had seized her stomach and clawed it, twisted it, burned it for a few seconds before the icy cold had washed over her. Even then, sitting on their couch, she couldn’t recall that scene without an attack of the same misery and ache clenching her again.

Tien walked out of the kitchen with a mug of tea and handed it to her before sitting next to her. “What are you going to do?”

“What do you mean, divorce him?”

She gave her a crooked smile.“Well, that’s an option. I was thinking about tonight, after dinner. Are you going to go talk to him? Are you going to go back to your room?”

“I don’t know,” she said truthfully. “I have to be careful. He and I are business partners as well as being married. I have to think about both futures at the same time.”

“It sounds like you need a little time, then. Why don’t you stay here until you’ve figured things out?”

“Thank you,” she said, “but I don’t want to inconvenience you any more than I already have. There’s a bed waiting for me back at the main house.”

Tien pursed her lips. “It’s probably not my place to say, but your bed might not be unoccupied.”

Anla sipped on her tea, feeling the steam rise and cool her cheeks.

“She might not do it this time, but it would be a first.”

“How many time has Lady…has she done it?”

“Lady Karninth arrived here in the spring. Her first month was quiet, other than harassing the staff with demands and insults. That must have grown boring for her rather quickly. Since May it’s been one married man after the other, maybe twenty or so in all. If it’s any consolation, she likes to pick the men she finds the most challenging, the ones with the pretty wives who seem very happy with each other.”

Anla sighed. “Does she move on fast at least?”

“Not until one of two things happens. Either the couple leaves miserable at the end of their stay or she makes the wife leave, usually in tears. She’s a cruel woman.”

“What does she do to them to get them to cry?”

Tien pressed her lips together. “Do you really want to know? Olana, it’s a bad enough situation as it is. I don’t want you to suffer any more.”

“I think being unaware of what could happen would be worse.”

“Okay,” she said, crossing her legs and steepling her hand in front of her face. “She’s going to try to break you. She wants you crying in the middle of the dining hall, screaming at your husband, threatening her and him in hysterics. Until she gets that, she’ll carry on with your husband in places she knows you’ll likely be, like your room or near some place you frequent. She’ll turn the other guests on you, making sure everyone knows that you’ve been cast aside, the pretty little wife, for her. Then she’ll spread rumors amongst them that will reach your ears. Usually it’s about how unfaithful you were to begin with and how your husband took solace in her arms.

“If you’re the the type not to care, say you’re a dutiful wife who knows her place or you’re used to him carrying on affairs, she’ll start speaking to you directly. She’ll tell you how wonderful he is, how well he’s taking care of her, what he’s spent on her. Then, she’ll start playing the both of you, telling your husband and you that she’s so happy with him that she’s thinking of leaving her own husband to be with the sop, begging pardon. I’ve only seen two or three wives of the twenty survive a full week.”

“How do you know all this?”

“After the fifth or sixth time, her methods were as worn and predictable as the beat path from the mayor’s house to the bank. We’ve been keeping an eye on her, to prepare for the inevitable, and we keep each other abreast of the situation. Someone needs to help those poor women and it’s good to know who it’s going to be and about when the hysterics are going to happen.”

“Have you ever intervened like this?”

“No, actually. You seem shrewd. Most of the women are beautiful ornaments, lovely to look at but without the acumen to survive something like this. You’re not a noble, are you?”

“No, just used to surviving.”

She turned to Tien. While she still felt some turmoil when she thought of Raulin, she’d found a new sort of strength to approach the problem at hand. She wasn’t pleased, but she knew she’d need to take some action. “So, how do we break her?”

* * *

After dinner, Tien spread word amongst the other workers in the village that Anla was staying the night and that she was planning on resisting Lady Karninth. She had person after person approach her with suggestions and hints, or at least with a ‘good luck’ and a squeeze of their hand in hers. The pain still lingered, but she was growing more detached towards him and the situation.

There was a fire that evening. A few of the musicians who had the night off assembled a lively trio to play folk tunes. Spirits were passed around and Anla didn’t refuse like she usually did. The whiskey burned down her throat and warmed her. After a few hours of drink and talk, she was in a muddled state. The candle in her mind was lit as to why people drank; it made the pain recede enough to exist for just a little while without a care towards it.

The villagers put her up in the bachelor’s house, insisting that she would be cared for there. If she had been more sober, she would have refused, afraid of what a thing meant. The men staying there were aloof, but kind and thankfully nothing untoward happened.

She woke later than she normally did the next morning with a mild headache and the spins. There was a mug of tea next to her bed that she picked up and smelled before quaffing. She thought it might be just peppermint, but the vile, bitter taste made her think it was white willow bark as well.

As she waited for her cure to work, she thought about her strategy. A lot of the tips on how to deal with Lady Karninth were helpful, but the advice hadn’t been. She had to deal with the situation not as a spurned lover but as the relationship between her and Raulin dictated. They were partners. She was here to help him complete a task. They were co-conspirators in this contract.

But, she hesitated. It took her a little while to finally realize that her pain from yesterday wasn’t from being cheated on. That was the wrong label for it. It was betrayal. She had felt betrayed when he had brought someone else into the fold and hadn’t said anything to her about it. This Lady Karninth had been some unknown entity that had instantaneously shaken her security. She knew Raulin and he made her feel warm; she didn’t know this woman and seeing them together had been an icy chill for her.

In another instance, it would have been the moment to find them and introduce herself, ask if they needed help. But, Lady Karninth wasn’t an ally. She was actually a hindrance. She was going to have to be careful when she spoke with Raulin, as if he were spying for the lady and not for himself.

She washed her face, brushed her hair with her fingers, and took a deep breath. This was going to be trying.

On her walk back to her room, she walked slowly and smiled cheerfully at other guests passing by. She hoped Raulin hadn’t said anything to the lady about Anla catching them. If she could hold off on gossip being passed amongst the guests for a little while longer, this would be more tolerable. She’d have to play the part of a woman who had no idea what was happening behind her back.

Anla needed to speak with Raulin, though, before she knew with certainty where he stood with this woman. She actually smiled when she realized that he must be playing her, not the other way around, and he was using her to get his information. That made sense! He must have found out that the lady had been there for some time and must know if there was any secret temple or worship happening on the grounds.

She spent a red ring on breakfast, enjoying quiche and bacon with Mr. and Mrs. Brelont of Hanala, who suddenly had an interest in speaking loudly about the hot springs. Anla exclaimed cheerfully that she loved taking a dip after breakfast when it was quieter, which was agreed upon was a great idea.

After her new addendum of a soak, she took a class on meditation, then a small lunch, a class on exercising, then her nature appreciation walk with Grané. He nodded to her, then guided the tour, finally ending at the arranged point and walking with Anla to the greenhouse. “How are you today?” he asked when they were alone on the trail.

“Better.”

“My wife told me what you’re doing. If you need any help, just ask.”

“I will.”

After a half-hour in the greenhouse, movement outside caught her eye and she looked up to see Raulin and Lady Karninth again at the stone wall. The pain was still intense, but at least it dissipated quickly.

“Grané? Are you finished?” she asked.

“Just about, why?”

“I need you to escort me to the dining hall.” He wiped his hands on a towel and took her arm without question. “The other arm, please.”

He switched so that she was closer to the two lovers and he startled when he saw what was happening at the wall. “You’re showing her that it doesn’t bother you,” he said after they had passed.

“Something along those lines.”

“It’s incredibly brave of you to do that.”

She thought about what he had said. “When I was younger, I saw a business owner attacked by brutes. They stole his goods, smashed his windows, and cracked his skull open. They left, but the man came out of the door to his shop, yelling at them with blood dripping into his eye. They came back and broke his leg. He still rose, yelling at them. He didn’t stop until he was knocked unconscious. He might have been brave. The person next to me said he was stupid, asking for all that pain. I thought he just wanted to show those men that if they came back, they’d have a real hard time of it if they did again.”

The next day she ate breakfast and went for her soak in the hot springs. She was just starting to relax when she heard a high pitched whistle from inside their room from the ward spell. Her stomach churned for a moment in anticipation, but she knew she had to do this.

Anla stepped out of the steaming water and put on her robe, letting it hang open and loose around her shoulders. She hummed loudly as she walked to the door to her room, bracing herself for what she was going to see. Her pulse throbbed in her throat, but she ignored it.

It was Anla’s first look at Lady Karninth. She pretended to let her gaze wash over the two of them, Raulin standing next to the bed, holding the lady’s wrist as if he were trying to pry her hand from his shirt. She sat on the bed, the skirts of her red and gray dress hiked up over her knees. Anla tried to find something memorable about her face, but she was plain and forgettable, dark, round eyes with thin lashes that met hers without a hint of surprise.

Raulin stepped away and the lady dropped his shirt, fixing her skirts but not rising from her spot. Anla gave a quick smirk at the scene and took a few moments to retrieve a towel from their bathroom. “I thought you said she was prudish,” the lady said sotto voce.

Anla sauntered back in, drying her hair casually. “We should talk,” she said to Raulin in Arvonnese.

While she occupied herself, Raulin said a quick farewell to his annoyed paramour, promising to see her later. Once she had left, he said, “So?”

She continued in her father’s tongue. “I haven’t seen you around. I thought I should check in with you, report what I’ve seen and to see if you needed any help.”

“You weren’t here last night,” he said, also picking up the language. “Were you upset about yesterday?”

“I met some people that might help us. I think I’ll be able to ask for their help soon in figuring out if this place is religious in nature or not.”

He turned his head away. “Could you put some clothes on, please?”

“Never bothered you before.” She tightened the sash around her robe. “Did you get her to whistle her tune?”

“What?” he said with a little bit of annoyance.

“It’s Dickery. You’re trying to get her to give up her secrets, tell her about what’s going on her pertaining your contract.”

“I’m not using her,” he said, no hint of a lie to it.

She blinked at this. What if he had no clue about Lady Karninth’s reputation? Surely if she told him, he’d stop. “You know she’s using you.”

He looked back. “Using me? I doubt that.”

“I thought you picked her because you knew she’s a long-term guest here. Raulin, you’re now a part of a game she’s playing. She finds some young man with a good situation and seduces him, then dismisses him when she grows bored. You’re just one in a long line of men who’ve distracted her from her ennui.”

He blinked a few times and swallowed hard, then said thickly, “Who said this?”

“Those people I mentioned I met were the staff. I spoke with a lot of them last night. They’re rather disgusted by her behavior, to be honest, and wish she’d leave.”

“Did you think that perhaps the staff just doesn’t like her? She’s a wonderful woman and that can cause some jealousy that spreads.”

It took her a moment to realize he wasn’t joking, he wasn’t posturing at all. He actually felt protective of the noble woman and couldn’t see her faults. “Do you mean dislike a spoiled rich woman who consistently ruins women’s lives by stealing their husbands from them?”

“Ah, so you are jealous because of what happened the day before yesterday,” he said, folding his arms over his chest.

“Perhaps I’d be jealous if we were actually married, Raulin, but since we’re not, I’m only repulsed. Don’t you think it’s rather tacky that she made you come here to tumble in our bed so that I’d catch you?”

Raulin snorted. “She had no idea you’d be here.”

“She did because I announced it rather loudly at my breakfast table yesterday. And she knew I’d be at the greenhouse yesterday because I’ve been going there every day.”

“Yes, visiting your own lover. A bit hypocritical, don’t you think?”

Her neck straightened in shock. “Grané and I aren’t lovers, Raulin. He’s married with three children. I met them all last night.”

“Because married men can’t carry on affairs?”

“No, because some men actually care about the promises they made.”

“I didn’t make any vows to you, nor you to me.”

“Why, did you want one?” She took a deep breath. The conversation had veered far off course. “I’ll be honest that what you did hurt me. I just hope you’re careful and that you find what you need for your contract.”

He turned to leave, but stopped. “Why did it hurt?” He looked back and forth between her eyes, as if he was searching for something.

“Because,” she began, “for all intents and purposes, I am Olana Freston. And even though my husband isn’t actually carrying out liaisons behind my back, it still hurts. It’s embarrassing to hear people judge you and whisper about you. It’s restricting when those same people snub you. And it’s painful when you don’t share something like that with me. We’re supposed to be working together, not against each other.”

“Anla, we’re here to do a job. Do you know how often I have to pretend I’m dumber or less skilled than I actually am and have people laugh at me for it? All the time. It’s not a career where I can afford to feel badly about people disliking me.”

With that he left.

17-3

There was an odd comfort about the shrine, especially for a place that Anla had never been to before. It took her a few moments to realize it was because the architecture and ambiance of the place was a strange facsimile of the elvish style. They didn’t use the forest magics that pure-bloods had to twist trees into arcs or to smooth stones without rasps, but there were curves and carvings in the details that were not things she’d seen in Ghenian buildings.

She stood slightly behind and to Raulin’s right as he spoke to a woman behind the desk, Anla’s arms hanging loosely by her sides and her shoulders low. Her gaze swept casually over the man who politely took their packs down the hallway and disappeared into the darkness unlit by the dim sconces. She took a slow breath and met Raulin’s gaze as he turned back to give her his arm.

“This is yours,” he said, handing her a velvet pouch. Whatever was inside jangled as she handled it. “There are rings inside that you need to present in order to gain access to things like classes.”

“Interesting,” she said. “What kind of classes do they have here?”

“Seemed to vary quite a bit, depending on the day.”

Their room, twelve, was in the same building as the desk and dining hall, a few turns from the front desk. The bellhop opened the door and invited them in, placing their belongings next to the bureaus. The lamps were already lit, the feather bed turned down. Anla actually smiled at this, a room immaculately clean and comfortable. No dust, no moth-eaten sheets, no creaking floors.

She noticed there was a door in between two foggy windows and went outside to see where they were staying on the grounds. “Darrick,”’ she called, since the footman was just bowing to leave, “come look at this.”

“Beautiful,” he said, standing behind her.

Colored glass bubbles hung from the trees and thin, wooden hooks in the middle of a pond of steaming water. Her mouth collected the moisture from the mineral spring as she breathed in the humid air. Raulin returned in a few minutes with a thin book and a candle. “The guide to the shrine says many of the rooms are connected to one of the springs on the grounds. Dips in them are supposed to cure anything from melancholia to consumption.”

Without another thought, she removed her clothes and waded into the waters. He joined her a few moments later, bringing a provided robe that he hung on an empty hook that stood in the water. “It’s been a while since I’ve been in one of these,” he said, sinking neck-deep and sitting on a submerged rock.

“There are a few in the Dreelands, but most are either too hot or give noxious fumes that poison the air. There was a safe one not too far from my village.” She passed her hand gently over the top of the water. “I liked doing this there. I called this ‘feeling the silk’. If you’re soft and slow enough, the top of the water feels like something else, like swishing your thumb over the skin of a peach or a batting of silk. I used to sneak away to the spring when I had decided to do something that I was anticipating with some anxiousness, like taking up a challenge from the other kids. I’d do this and it would calm me down.”

He tore his eyes from her body and smiled as he caught her eye. “That would beg the question as to why you’re doing it right now.”

She tilted her hair back to soak it in the waters and sighed before using her magic to create silence around them. “Honestly, I was like this every time I’ve worked with you. Maybe the libertine ball was the worst. I just didn’t have a hot spring available. So, what are we doing here?”

“We’re pretending to be a young couple in the area for a holiday. We’ve stumbled across this place and we’re going to take in what we can while we’re here. Meanwhile, we need to keep our eyes, and ears, peeled for suspicious activities.”

“Define ‘suspicious activities’.’

He closed his eyes and leaned his head back against a nearby rock. “Anxious behavior, absences, things that don’t fit a pattern. There are a lot of possibilities. Here I would expect there to be some sort of hierarchy reflective in the clandestine portion, the owner being a priest, his wife or son being the deacon. They would be the ones to watch.”

“Have you noticed anything thus far?”

“Too soon. I haven’t surveyed the grounds, I haven’t met everyone, haven’t counted the rooms.”

“Counted the rooms?”

“Assuming they keep double occupancy rooms in the same area, there would be two people times however many rooms. It allows me an estimated head count. Or, I could take a peek behind the front desk and see how many are in the ledger.”

“What do you want me to do?”

“If you could familiarize yourself with the staff and tell me if anyone is lying and about what, that would be helpful.”

The air popped lightly when she lifted the spell. He noted it by opening an eye and watched her as she waded over to him. “Mind if begin our charade?” she asked as she stood before him.

“Charade?”

She leaned in and kissed him, wrapping her fingers around the back of his neck. He smoothed her hair from her shoulders, but as he promised made no other moves. Part of her wished he would, kissing her neck like he had in the carriage ride in New Wextif, but she knew it would likely lead to a bad situation. And, as had been proven to her time and time again, it always soured.

She hoped it would be different with Raulin, if things moved further. If. That felt like a joke to her. Men always wanted more. Almost always, she corrected herself. Yes, there were a few men like Onlard, the tavern owner with the Hanalaian accent, that would help her just to help her because he was a good man. Most wanted more and would grow hostile when they realized they weren’t getting it from her. She was lucky if they just cursed her or spit on the floor. How many times had she ensorcelled a man into leaving her alone once it reached that point? She’d stopped counting.

It would be too painful if Raulin did the same, if he became one of those men. Every interaction that they’d had told her that he wasn’t like that, that he wouldn’t grab her and try anyway. But, then again, he’d used other women to get what he wanted. He said there was an unspoken agreement, that they wanted it, too, but why would any women want that?

On the other hand, kissing him felt good. She did feel warmth between them, to the point where she could almost invite more, except that she didn’t want lines to be crossed that she couldn’t uncross.

There was so much to think about. She tired of it sometimes, worrying that what she said and did would ruin everything. She was tired of it then and hoped. She pressed herself against him, her arms sliding down to encircle his shoulders. His matched her move and he held her tighter.

Her head swam and she thought of nothing but that moment. It still felt so good. Thoughts crept in eventually but they were of him, of the lines of his face as he had rested in the waters, of his smell, of the strength of his arms. His shoulders were smooth where her fingertips ran across his skin, save for the groove on the left side where a sword had cut him in Carvek. A growl formed low in his throat as he pressed her closer.

She had to cease. Like in the carriage ride, she had to stop them because she knew he wanted more. So did she, actually, but it was only when she could be absolutely sure that there was no way it would ruin things could she allow it. Anla moved back and he let his arms drop.

He let out a frustrated sigh.

“Raulin?”

“It’s nothing.” That was a lie. He was upset, but at least he wasn’t pressing anything.

“I’m going in. Care to follow?”

He sunk into the water. “Give me a few minutes.”

* * *

The next morning, her first discovery was how the ring system worked. She had brought her pouch in case she needed it, but noticed most guests were wearing them on their fingers or had tied them to their person somehow. There was a line for the dining area that was patrolled by one of the uniformed staff. Anyone who held up a blue or red ring was pulled out and brought through the door ahead of everyone else. As she stood on her tiptoes, she saw that those guests were seated in a different area and given menus to order from. Ahead of this group was a buffet of grains, fruits, and soups. So, the higher cost of the room gave you the ability to “buy” better meals. She looked at today’s classes and services and saw colored circles next to them. Some classes had blue or red next to them, meaning there was a higher entrance fee. Guests weren’t paying higher prices for better rooms, they were paying for better access.

She used one of her two reds to buy a table seat shared with an older gentleman with thick mustaches and his wife, who paid no attention to her. The waiter informed her that she could have whatever she wanted off the menu, which seemed so much better than what they were eating at the buffet. She got a glass of mineral water to go with her sausages, eggs, and a berry-filled crepe dusted with powdered sugar.

While the other two table members read the newspaper. Anla studied the map provided by the welcome desk. There were dozens of buildings and landmarks on the grounds that stretched a lot farther than she expected. There was a stroll after breakfast that cost no rings and was open to the public. She would have passed on it, but it was a great way to get a lay of the land.

The guide was pleasant and cheery as she walked the noisy crowd of two dozen along the pathways, pointing out signs to point them back to the main house, should they get lost. She was full of information and managed to make even a sitting area seem glorious.

There was a class outside on painting at half-past ten that was taught by the resident artist. She sat near him and hoped to gain his ear, but he seemed solely interested in artistic development and barely glanced at her painting. She did better in the afternoon class on natural appreciation, but that was led by one of the gardeners, not anyone important.

“Do the owners teach any classes or dine with the guests?” she asked the man, bearded with hazel eyes on the younger side of middle-aged.

“Who, Mr. and Mrs. Vangaught? I don’t see them that often. They do occasionally teach a class, but the Mrs. has been feeling the vapors as of late. You might catch the Mr. Vangaught out for his morning stroll or sometimes at the blue ring dinners.”

“Thank you,” she said, and to erase suspicion, continued on. “I wanted to thank them for creating such a wonderful place. My husband and I were looking for something like this on our holiday and we didn’t fathom one was right here in Ashven. It’s really lovely.”

She was surprised at how large his smile was. “And thank you. It’s so wonderful to hear that from our guests. Are you staying here long?”

“Two weeks.”

“Ah, then I’ll pass your gramercy along to the owners.”

Raulin joined her for dinner. They used their blue rings and enjoyed fresh seafood, surprising since they were so far inland. He had examined all the buildings and didn’t find anything strange, nor did he find anything in the woods surrounding to indicate something abnormal. He was pleased by her work and hoped that the good word with the owners panned out.

They attended a nightly gathering where people played soft music while the guests were encouraged to relax. Attendants went around and adorned each person with scented oils and flower crowns before the group canted affirmations. Anla felt calmed by it, but was unsure why some people were crying afterward.

She enjoyed the springs outside their room and Raulin joined her shortly after she did. After complaining about his sore muscles, she knuckled his shoulders and pressed her thumbs into his back. After a few minutes, she moved in front of him and kissed him again, stopping herself from kissing his neck to see if he would like it as much as she did. Soon, she thought. She could almost trust him with that.

When she awoke, he was already gone. She spent one of her higher tokens on a body treatment where a woman smeared mud on her bare skin and wrapped her in leaves and hot towels. She got the attendant to speak about the owners, but she didn’t have anything new to say about them.

The list of classes in the afternoon seemed sparse and none other than the natural appreciation tour seemed interesting to her, so she attended it again. The same man guided it (she caught this time that his name was Grané) and gave her a quick rise of the eyebrows and a smile in recognition as he led the four or five other guests along the pathways.

There was nothing new to this class, but repeating her schedule was a good idea she had stumbled upon. Grané might be a good acquaintance to have, even if he didn’t rank very high. And what if someone wanted to approach her, like the owner, but couldn’t find her? She was sure people would come to realize that she would be right here, on this walk, at the same time every day.

The walk was physically led by Grané, but what he spoke about was dictated by the questions asked by the guests. What kind of tree was that? How much food did they grow themselves here? What was that over there, off the trail? He was very knowledgeable and answered everything, sometimes spending several minutes talking about one particular plant.

On the third day, Raulin now very scarce, she was greeted by a very sunny smile from Grané. “Ma’am,” he said as the class was gathering, “it’s good to see you again.”

“Hello, Grané. It’s a fine day for a walk. I hope the sun hits the Killsten Pond like it did yesterday.”

“It should.” He waved the small class to him and they began walking, though he continued to speak with Anla. “So, you appreciate the aesthetics of our land?”

“I do. I can sense that there was great care taken in how this place was created, the placement of things, what flowers were chosen for which beds, things like that.”

“And you enjoy these walks because you get to see them again?”

She paused at this question. It was hard to gauge what Grané wanted her to say. “No,” she said. “There’s something peaceful about walking through here, especially with a group of people who are also enjoying the time spent in nature.”

He gave her his large smile again and said, “It’s nice to know that you’re like me” before turning to begin the tour.

Over the next two days she attended a class on pottery and another on nutrition, the latter being a strange idea for someone who early in the year had eaten raw, bruised potatoes and dry pasta for food one day, taken from a trashcan behind a restaurant. The afternoons she spent with Grané, since she only saw Raulin when she woke in the middle of the night. She began accompanying the gardener to the tucked-away greenhouse after the strolls, helping him with a few chores before dinner.

“How long have you been here?” she asked him on her fifth day at the shrine.

He looked up for a few moments from pulling a few weeds . “Oh, I think it will be thirteen years next April.”

“And how did you come to stay here?”

“I went to Amandorlam for agriculture, if you can believe that. Most of the smart kids learn farming from their fathers.”

“I have a friend who went to Amandorlam for wizardry.”

“Hopefully he’s more successful than I am. Not that I regret my job, not one bit, but it hardly pays the same as groundskeeping for a marquess.”

“You don’t seem to care much about things like that.”

“I don’t,” he said with a wry smile. “I’m sure my wife would like more jewelry and my children more sweets, but we’re happy here.”

“Be content with that,” she said from across the aisle of potted plants. “My husband and I travel a lot. I think we’d both like to put down roots, but we have obligations for a little while longer.”

He nodded. “I see a lot of people come through here. Some enjoy that lifestyle. Others pretend to enjoy it. A few have reached the same conclusion you have.”

After a short lull in conversation where she continued watering the herbs, she asked, “Is this a good place to put down roots?”

“I found it to be. There’s a rich community here of workers and attendants and heads of departments, such as myself. We have gatherings every so often, large picnics or celebrations. We had a party last week for two of the staff who got married.”

“It sounds like you’re rich without the coin.”

“Indeed.”

“You said you were head of your department?”

“Indeed,” he said, flashing her a smile. “All those young guys out there trimming the lawn and pruning the trees are under my supervision.”

He was a department head, which meant he was probably much closer to the top than she had originally thought. She was about to continue the conversation when some motion outside caught her eye. Grané looked up, then followed her gaze. “Oh, ma’am,” he said, clearing his throat, “I wouldn’t pay attention to that. Sometimes, when we think the guests are away, we staff members make a stitch and hope not to get caught.”

Anla barely heard him. As if in a daze, she picked up her skirts and walked outside the glassed house. A stone farmer’s wall ran perpendicular, stopping short by fifteen feet from the doorway. It was at the near end of this a woman in a gray dress sat, her skirts hiked up around her hips. Her head laid on the shoulder of a man while they rocked together.

When she was younger, she’d stumbled upon a few young lovers in the forest who had shooed her away with laughter before continuing. The act wasn’t embarrassing or foreign to her. She wouldn’t have cared, wouldn’t have breathed a word to anyone else about it. But, as she stood watching, she grew very cold and very lightheaded.

“Ma’am,” Grané said, catching up to her, and Raulin turned his head to see who had spoken. His eyes widened in shock as he met Anla’s gaze for one moment before she stormed off.

17-2

Raulin and Al’s discussion on the way to Mount Kalista was a difficult balancing act for the trirec. If he knew with absolute certainty that Al could figure out how to get him out of Arvarikor, he would have told him everything. But, he couldn’t give in to that hope. He wouldn’t give himself a future, not until he could see the potential of it crystallize into a firm possibility.

Raulin only told him as much as was safe, perhaps a little beyond, but not more.

“So, there are trainees,” Al said, “trirecs, and agents. I’ve seen a few of them with you. Agents are trirecs?”

“Yes, they’re trirecs who act as support for other trirecs on behalf of Arvarikor. They are basically a bank, newspaper, clerk, and solicitor all in one.”

“Could you become an agent, then? You could just spy and hand out money.”

“That’s not my decision to make, unfortunately. Agents are chosen because they’re best at the spying end of things.”

“But that’s your forte!” Al exclaimed. “You said yourself that’s what you do best.”

“Indeed, but compared to all the other trirecs, all three are my forte. I’m not boasting, Wizard. I am one of the best trirecs they have simply because I’m Noh Amairian and people don’t think to challenge the notion that all trirecs are Merakian. Arvarikor would never turn a trirec who fills a full docket every year into an agent.”

“Are there any other positions?”

There were quite a few that Raulin could rule out, not even counting the numerous ones involved in the Sun-Moon Guild. He’d never be given any of the higher ranking ones in Merak anyway. “Mentors and trivrens. Oh, and I suppose ambassadors, but that’s not permanent. I’ve only done that twice and I doubt they’d have me do it again, unless they decide to sail to Eschuetso or Taidan Kan.” He snorted at the thought. “Mentors teach a novice or apprentice at the end of their training but before their test. That’s chosen. They’ll likely pick me to mentor the other Noh Amairian children if and when they become an apprentice. Trivrens are retired trirecs.”

“Can you retire, then, and become a trivren?”

“By age or permanent injury only.”

“I’m guessing that’s out of the question, then.”

“Hmm,” Raulin said. “I assure you that I do not need you to disfigure me, Wizard.”

“Could we fake an injury?”

“They would likely make me an agent or a mentor, then. Not the worst outcome, but I’d prefer to be out completely.”

“Fake your death?”

“It would have to be an airtight plan.”

“I can work on that.”

They went on to discuss the finer details of contracts, which didn’t seem to help Al much, until they reached the first house on the edge of Mount Kalista. “We’ll need to cease this topic, Wizard, until we leave for the road again.”

“But you haven’t told me enough. I don’t know how to help you, yet.”

“What you’re doing is admirable,” he said, nodding at a woman who stopped beating her rug to stare at him, “but you just started. We have more than half a year together. Give it time. This might be another thing for you like training with the ax; your solution might not come quickly.”

“But this isn’t a thing like the ax. This is one of the things I do best.”

“Wizard, a man enters a room and slits the throat of another man. Why?”

“I don’t have enough information to answer that.”

Raulin patted him on the shoulder.

“No one can answer that question. That’s not fair.”

“Exactly. We’ll take this up again and you’ll get your clues. For now, let’s enjoy Mount Kalista.”

The town was very comely. Houses were made of wood, but often had chimneys and columns of light gray brick with occasional stamped pieces. The people were proud and kept tidy walkways and gardens. Fences were whitewashed, shutters were painted, and roofs had no signs of ill-repair. Streams wove in and out of the streets, clean with sturdy wooden bridges. There was the odd house or two that was likely owned by the town drunk and his cousin, but by and large it was quaint if not charming.

They found a square with a fountain and asked a few passersby where a good inn was. After a few tries, they were pointed down a street and found the inn with blue shutters, as described. They had no rooms. Nor did the other inn they were given directions to.

It was finally the shabby inn with dusty shelves and moth-eaten sheets that took them in for the same price the other inns were charging. “This is robbery,” Al said as they settled into their rooms.

“No, this is discrimination,” Raulin explained. “Those other inns might be full. This inn might charge as much as the others. But, what I think is that all three didn’t wish to rent their rooms to us and only this inn was desperate enough to make it difficult but not impossible for us to stay in Mount Kalista.”

“This is because of me.” Tel’s shoulders slumped. Casting someone out for their differences was a new concept for him, but he had spent enough time in Gheny to understand it.

“No, I don’t think it’s you, my friend.”

“Me?” Al asked. “Or Anla?”

“Anyone could tell by your accent that you’re Ghenian, Wizard. And Anla appears like one. Besides, she’s pretty and no one in their right mind turns down a pretty woman. If anything it helps business. No, this is because of me.”

“You?” Al asked. “The mask?”

“Absolutely. This is not the first time I’ve had to deal with situations like this one. It’s not even the first time on Ghenian soil.”

“I’ve never seen it.”

“That’s because I tend to get the rooms secured for the night alone. And some places are more leery than others. I’m a trirec; it’s not like I’m tossing gold behind me. People have a good reason to fear me or grow suspicious as to why I’m here.”

“It’s still not f-…it’s still distasteful.”

“It is. Now, let’s take a look at my two contracts for Mount Kalista. I have a theft and a spying one. The latter involves a rather lengthy one with official terms from some organization.”

“Which one?” Al asked.

Raulin slipped his notebook from the pocket on his belt where he kept it. “Albrever.”

“Ah. So this involves something to do with the Twelve?”

“I’m supposed to look into some shrine and determine if the people running it are undermining the collective Church. I suspect Gheny only allows the Twelve?”

“Yes. Usually the churches of the Twelve keep to themselves and don’t both in the affairs of the others, but for some matters they work collectively. Albrever insures things on their behalf, including upstart religions. The Twelve is the official religion of Gheny and any other is illegal.”

“Another reason why there were issues between elves and Ghenians,” Anla added. “The only reason why ours hasn’t been wiped out is because our lands aren’t technically Ghenian soil.”

“Ruthless, then?” Raulin asked. “That might explain why they asked for a trirec. I was scratching my head over it, since I’m sure they have agents that can survey the shrine. Either they’re terrible at it or they think their agency has been compromised.”

“It should be quick, then? We’ll check out the shrine tomorrow and move on to the theft.”

“I like your enthusiasm, Wizard, but I think this will take longer than one day. It was stressed that I exercise caution and discretion when I approach this. I’m going to ask you three to sit out until I know more.”

Doffing his mask and changing his clothes for good measure, Raulin walked into a public room and began chatting up his waiter about the local shrine. Though named specifically the Holy Shrine of the Shadowed Sun, it wasn’t actually religious, the man said. Or it might be.

“You’ll have to see for yourself, sir,” he said with a blissful look on his face. “It’s transcendental, a sublime experience. They invite the locals up once in a while to take in the ambiance of the place. If I can get the day off from work, I go.”

“What goes on there?”

“Oh, I wouldn’t want to spoil it for you. It’s something to be lived.”

“I might try it out,” he said over his glass of port.

“You won’t regret it. Tell them Reginer says ‘hello’.”

Raulin followed the signs pointing up the mountain to the shrine. There were a few other people walking, but most were taking horse-drawn carriages. In his mind, Raulin pictured the shrine as some serene spot, a beautiful place where people would spend an afternoon picnicking under parasols on blankets, looking at a pond or down from the mountain at the scenery. Some enterprising people might sell their wares or foods nearby. Perhaps there were statues scattered about for people to gaze at while they took in the views of the vineyards and the valley below.

The Holy Shrine of the Shadowed Sun was none of that at all. Raulin didn’t notice it at first, since it was tucked away against the slopes of Mount Kalista and behind plenty of greenery, but it was actually a building, or technically a compound of buildings. The doors were full glass, save the handles and frame, and radiated the warmth of the well-lit interior. The wood on the exterior was stained a deep brown save the occasional steel support, both gleaming in the waning light.

He followed the trail of visitors to the clean and weeded entrance pavilion the the main building, the blue-gray tiles sitting perfectly flush with the ground pounded flat. There was a smartly uniformed gentleman greeting everyone with a dashing smile and warm demeanor. Raulin filed in behind a group and slipped past the man.

It took a few moments of quick examination to realize what the shrine really was: a health resort. A welcome desk sat across from the doors and a large bulletin of events was on the wall behind it, neat, curling handwriting announcing classes on subjects like home remedies, painting, and nutrition. Down the hall to the left were signs pointing to the mineral springs, the dining hall, and the boutique.

It couldn’t be as easy as that. There had to be something else going on, something deeper. With a small smirk, Raulin approached the desk and asked about fees, realizing he was going to need to ‘investigate’ further by attending the retreat.

The woman behind the desk, tall with dark curly hair and dressed similarly to the man outside in a dress with dark blue velvet and gold piping, gave him a smile as he approached. “Are you arriving, sir?”

“I wanted to inquire about availability.” He assumed they had rooms to rent, since he’d seen more than a few of those travelers going down the mountain with luggage.

“Very good, sir. We do have a few rooms available. As it’s sweet wine season, I recommend you reserve your room now, so that you won’t lose it to another arrival. How long do you plan to stay?”

Behind the clerk was a rates chart broken down by titles and length. There were three options with information he didn’t understand. “Depending on what ‘Robuchen’ and ‘Kildat’ entail.” Those were the bottom two, since he wasn’t going to consider fifty-six gold per week worthwhile, no matter what manner of cloud they stuffed into their pillows.

“We have rings,” she said, pulling up a few iron circles with colored chips in the setting from the desk drawer, “that we give our guests when they arrive for their experiences. When you attend any of our services or classes, you use one of your rings. Our experiences offer different types and amounts of rings. For the ‘Blizem’ experience, our best one, you receive five blues, three reds, and two clears per person per day. It’s quite the enchanting stay.”

He was sure it was, but he thought he could suffice with less. “Do you have a room at Robuchen for two weeks available?”

A two week stay normally brought a gleam to an innkeeper’s eye, but she just smiled and looked at her books. “I have a couple’s room available tonight.”

“How about tomorrow night?”

It took her longer to search, her finger running up and down the page. She shook her head. “Unless you want to forfeit your fourteenth night, I don’t have it.”

“All right,” he said, fishing out fifty-six gold for his stay.

She cleared her throat. “That’s for one person. We do discount a couple’s stay, but you still owe another forty-eight gold, sir.”

Raulin sucked in his lips, but paid the difference. While he was going to enjoy this holiday, its cost was a large chunk of what he’d been paid to investigate this place.

“Why does she always get to go?” Al asked as Raulin tried to whisk Anla away.

“Oh, next time I’ll take you, sweetheart. Don’t worry.” Al had given Raulin a flat look. “Because no one balks at a man and a woman journeying places together. Two men are a little more attention-gathering.”

“I understand. I’m just not enthused about reading books for the next two weeks.”

“Outside of training, you mean. Don’t think you can laze about just because I’m not around. I want your pouch filled with coin by the time we’re back.”

“But, we’re not near the woods…”

“Ah, but you will be. I need you and Tel to camp as close to the shrine as possible and not get caught.”

“For two weeks?” he asked.

“Are you complaining?”

“No, but I don’t know how you would ‘double work’ us camping outside.”

“You just need to be within one mile of us. There’s no reason why you and Tel can’t go on the high side of the mountain for your fortnight.”

“Oh,” he said.

After their camp had been settled, Raulin changed his clothes and settled into his new persona, Darrick Freston, husband of Olana. “How do you know Al’s not going to take his own coin and fill his pouch?” Anla asked as they walked up the rest of the way.

“I don’t. If I had cared, I would have nicked his purse and marked all his coppers. This is for him and he knows that. His drive to do this doesn’t come from a want, but a need. That’s the best motivator he could hope to have.”

“I worry that Tel isn’t going to find us in time if there’s an issue. He’s been acting odd as well.”

“I actually had noticed that, but unlike the wizard, he’ll talk to someone if he needs to. Now, how are you doing?”

“No complaints,” she said, her smile hard to see in the light. “Where is it exactly are we going?”

“I’m not totally sure myself.”

17-1

“Can I haggle?” Al asked.

“No,” Raulin said at the same moment Anla said, “Yes.”

“I don’t want to be here all afternoon,” he explained.

“He’s getting better at bartering,” she said. “I think it’s a good skill for him to work on.”

“All right,” he said, shrugging. “No more than a half-hour, Wizard.”

Al took off at a quick pace to the shops in Lacara, hoping to be rid of the weight of chopped wood for at least a few hours. The other three took their time, knowing that it was too late in the day to set out for Mount Kalista.

Al met them at the entrance and held out a flat hand, palm up, to show his wages. “I got three coppers for four logs.”

“Good,” said Raulin. “Now, do you have an extra pouch or bag?”

“I think so.” Al slung off his pack and rifled through it, finding a leather drawstring pouch and holding it up.

“Put your coppers in there and any money in the future. If you can manage to haggle a pair of work gloves for three coppers, then buy them. Otherwise, you can continue to wrap your hands.”

“I have money,” Al pointed out. “I’ll just go buy them.”

“I know you have money. I don’t want you to spend any of your money on your supplies; I want you to spend your ax money on it. Gloves, straps for holding bundles, holsters, whatever you need, you buy only with that coin.”

“Why?”

“Because most people, unless they’re particularly vain, have a hard time noticing incremental progress. They don’t see their muscles develop, they don’t notice their skills improving, but they can say ‘I chopped this much wood, sold it, and bought these gloves with the money’. And then they’ll chop more wood, sell that, and get a better pair. At some point they’ll be able to show off their beautiful pair of sturdy gloves with tiny stitches that don’t blister their hands and see how far they’ve come.”

“Oh,” Al said. “That makes sense. Did you come up with that?”

“Sort of. I’m basing it off of something my order did. I didn’t arrive in Merak knowing how to lasso like I do. I had to work at it. I chose to focus on that for two reasons. The first was I noticed it was something the kids my age weren’t training much in; they preferred throwing knives, foot races, strikes on opponents, things like that. The second was, rather than beads or high quality leather for our masks, the reward was a rope. It was practical, not flashy, extremely rare, incredibly light, and would never fray. It wasn’t something a Merakian would bother striving for, but I saw it for what it was immediately. So, I worked hard for it and wound up taking several records. I was the best they had at Arvarikor at any level, even the trivrens. It wasn’t raw talent, it was hard work.”

“I’m glad you won it,” Al said.

“Thank you. For your sake, I’m glad I did, too. So, think of what you want your ‘rope’ to be. You’re probably not going to do any better than your current ax, so I wouldn’t save for that.” They stopped in the center of the village and looked out. “My, that is quite a view.”

Lacara was at the north end of a very wide valley with rich soil that produced hundreds of flourishing vineyards, the grapes fat for the sweet wine harvest. Hills of yellowing green grass rolled gently between the hard border of an eastern forest and the slopes of a large, snow-capped mountain in the west. Off in the distance, towards the southern mouth of the plains, was a town that encroached on the slopes.

“I don’t think we’ll make that today,” Raulin said. “I’ll get us rooms at the inn.”

“How are you doing, Al?” Anla asked. “Tired?”

“Yes! But, it’s a good kind of tired.”

“This coming from the man who loves to sleep in, huh?” She gave him a teasing smirk.

“Well, yeah. It’s worth it.”

“While we’re waiting, did you want to start my magical ethics lessons?”

“I did agree to that, didn’t I?”

“I think you insisted upon it.”

“Ah, well.” He cleared his throat. “I can sum up my first class into two sentences: ‘Any form of magic can be sexualized, militarized, and commercialized. You should be very careful about how you use your magic when keeping those in mind.”

Anla laughed at this. “I’m not surprised Amandorlam said something like that. Do you agree?”

“Every kind of magic we’ve been taught about works under that criteria. It’s very easy to sell what you can make or your services. Most magic can harm someone else. And as for the other thing, please don’t ask me to elaborate.”

“Are you sure? I’d be curious to your thoughts on how those criteria apply to Tel’s magic. Telbarisk?” He turned from his intense study of the mountain. “Have you ever used your magic to make Kelouyan happy?”

“Yes,” he said. “I used to carve statues for her from rocks that I found. Sometimes I’d paint pictures on the water of the pond and I’d sketch things on the ice in the winter.”

“No, I mean…when you were with her, just the two of you, showing your love for each other.”

“Oh,” he said. “There was this thing I could do with a soft breeze that she loved. I would…”

“Yup, yes, I believe you,” Al said, putting his hands up in front of him. “No need to go on.”

“I think he’s blushing,” Anla said with a mischievous smile.

“I’m wondering why we were speaking about such things in front of him. He’s Ghenian and Ghenians are very bashful about coupling and nudity.”

“That they are,” Anla said. “I’m teasing him. Go on, Al. You said I should be very careful about how I use my magic.”

“Yes. It was once thought that the limitations of a person’s magical ability was an indicator from the gods that they should limit their magic. Then, they discovered other forms of magic that had no limitation. The choice became either to reject those kinds of magic as immoral and ban them or understand that not all magics are equal and to work around them.

“Amandorlam chose the first approach until it didn’t work and their wizards began to feel pressure from both without and within. Wizards began to compete in a cutthroat fashion instead of working with their fellow man to get a slightly larger piece of the pie. Finally, Amandorlam established the ICMU, the International Committee on Magic Use, to help establish regulations. That’s why I was assigned to Whitney as a Touch switcher wizard. There were a few other wizards for a city that size; I wouldn’t be drinking like a gargoyle during a storm nor licking the rainwater from a drying puddle.”

“The lesson being not to use my magic greedily, since Amandorlam doesn’t like it.”

He sat on a stone wall near the village’s mill. “It’s more that you should feel brotherhood keenly with others who use magic, whether or not it’s the same kind. And you should take what you need or give what is needed, but no more.”

The mirth of teasing gone, she asked, “Did you ever feel like you got enough to cover your needs?”

“I took what I needed, and no more. It wasn’t me who was unsatisfied.”

She took his hand in hers and squeezed once. “My father always said that chivalry tarnishes quickly in a murky world. It’s hard to stay a noble man when everyone around you takes advantage of that.”

“I’m beginning to see beyond myself and I’ve noticed that.”

“Bad news,” Raulin said as he returned, “depending, of course, on who you are. It will take us a good day to reach Mount Kalista. Therefore, it would make sense to stay at the one inn in this village. Sadly, though, there are only three rooms and they are full of people with the same idea as us. Headed to a retreat, from what I heard.”

“So, we’ll go ahead a bit and camp?” Al asked.

“A little.”

“I don’t think we’ve ever camped on a plain. It was a little sparse south of New Wextif, but we still had some cover.”

“And we will tonight. We won’t venture too far from the village and we’ll take to the woods over there,” he said, pointing to the east, which was to their left. “I don’t camp out in the open unless I absolutely have to.”

“Oh,” Al said flatly.

“It seems Al was hoping to get a break,” Anla said.

“Three days and we’re complaining?” Raulin tapped his finger on his crossed arms.

“No! No. I’m not complaining.”

“Good. Because you know what happens to whingers.”

“No?”

“Double work.”

Al’s lips parted with the fear of that becoming reality. “I’m not complaining. It seems like a beautiful valley and I wondered what it would be like staying out there for a night.”

“Hmm. Seven months left. I’m sure we’ll see plenty of beautiful places. Off,” Raulin said, waving him away with hand. “You need to go get us more wood for our fire. See that pine that sticks out a little closer to the road? We’ll be near there.”

Al said nothing more, turning east and diving into the woods after a small tree to chop down.

Anla, Tel, and Raulin walked slowly past the edge of Lacara. “How is he doing?” she asked.

“He’s taking well to his training.”

“Do you think it’s a wise thing to teach a man who tried to take his life less than a month ago how to use a weapon?”

“It wasn’t what he asked me, but how. And also it was what he wasn’t asking me, that very thing we’re all still worried about.”

“He’s doing better,” she admitted. “But, I still worry that he’ll have another episode.”

“That’s why we watch,” Tel said. “We have to be vigilant, now that we know what to look for.”

“And we’ve left him alone in the woods, with an ax.”

Raulin turned around and walked backwards for a few moments.“We know the signs now and we know to look for them. He seemed absolutely fine when he left. He’s seemed fine the last few days. I know it seems dangerous to give the wizard his ax, especially after what he tried with Sakilei, but I actually think this will be good for him.”

“All right,” Anla said. “But we need to watch over him.”

Raulin clicked his tongue once. “You can’t patronize him. He’ll figure it out and he’ll get angry, just as he’s starting to come into his own.”

“What do you suggest? Tel and I aren’t trained to sneak around like you can.”

“Why sneak around? I’ve been keeping him on a short leash three times a day for a half-week. Or, I should say, he’s leashing himself. He wants to learn. He wants to keep himself busy. If you’re concerned enough to want to watch him, keep him occupied. Find something he wants to hear about, or ask him about something, and he’ll be happy enough to tie himself to you. I’d even say that whatever he asks, tell him.”

Their journey to Mount Kalista the next day was full of conversation. Anla could tell that Al wasn’t fully interested to hear about her people, but he did ask questions about things he had seen in the Dreelands that had confused him. Tel was suddenly very interested in the Br’vani, which Al was happy to speak about.

And Raulin continued Al’s training. At lunch, they veered off the road and found a scraggly copse of trees, a dozen in all if bushes counted. “Let me see the swings,” he asked Al.

Al donned the new pair of gloves he’d bought in Lacara after he’d sold the extra firewood. It wasn’t high quality and Anla’d had to sew the holes in between the fingers, but they were his ax gloves and they beat wrapping his hands in strips of cloth that slipped. He gripped the ax with both hands and positioned his feet as Raulin had shown him, then chopped overhead, at top angles, then from the sides, high and low. He then ran through the same one-handed. “Excellent,” Raulin said. “You’ll need to practice these every day while I’m on my contract, but you’re making good progress. Your body is beginning to gain its sleep-moves.”

“’Sleep-moves’?”

“After some time you will be able to perform any cut without thought, as if you were doing it in your sleep. Your body will react before your mind knows what it’s doing. That’s really the secret to being a great fighter of any kind; don’t think about fighting.”

“And what should my mind be doing?”

“Why does it need to do anything?” he said, leaning against one of the trees. “I spend large swaths of my day in fighting mode, not thinking about anything.” After a few moments he said, “A little self-depreciating humor, Wizard. I wish you would have laughed at that. It would make me think you didn’t agree.”

“Sorry,” he said, continuing the cuts in the rhythm and order Raulin had taught him. “I was busy not thinking.”

“Good,” Raulin said with an air of a laugh. “Now, I want you to try those against this tree.”

“What did the tree ever do to me?”

“Ah, I see you understand where this is going.” He took out his knife and made a few gouges in the bark. “Head,” he said, pointing at the top rounded mark, “collarbone, ribs, thigh. We’re starting with the major areas. I want you to do these with the tree to get a sense for hitting your mark. Bone doesn’t stick your ax as much as bark will, but you need to get used to that feeling. Note that I pointed above the collarbone and below the ribs. You really want to hit the neck and that space between the ribs and hip.”

Al paused at this for a moment before continuing. Yes, the idea was to kill a man if need be. His blade might some day chop a man’s body and drain his life before him. He did his best, though, not to think of those wood chips flying as blood spurting. “Mind if I ask you about something?”

“As always, ask away. Whether I answer or not is another matter.”

“What was your name before you became Raulin Kemor?”

He thought about this for a moment. He had suggested to Anla and Tel that they engage with the wizard as much as possible, so do brush him off would be hypocritical. “Derrin,” he said.

“Derrin,” Al repeated as he pulled the ax from the tree. “You were born that?”

“No. ‘Derrin’ means ‘boy’ in Merakian. I was called that with all the other students, novices, and apprentices in Arvarikor, save the girls, who were called ‘ashki’.”

“Must have been confusing.”

“Must have been effective. You had no identity and therefore you always made sure you were watching your teachers. If they looked at your and called out for your attention…well, let’s just say they wouldn’t try twice.”

Al tried to relate to this and failed. When he was a student, he was still Dominek and was awarded the privileges that came with it. “I’m sorry,” he said.

“It’s all right, Wizard. It gave us something to strive for. Work hard so that you could one day make a name for yourself. And a rope.”

“What was your name before that?”

Raulin took a deep breath. “That is something I can’t tell you. I’m sorry. Try something else.”

Al yanked on the ax, trying to pull it from the tree. It finally dislodged and he went flying back several paces. “You need to make sure you’re feet are always planted.”

“I know,” he said, feeling a bit foolish.

“If you know then do it.”

His nostrils flared, but he said nothing, continuing with his training. Several slips later and he growled from beneath his teeth, then looked quickly at Raulin, wiping the sweat from his brow. “I’m not complaining.”

“No, you’re venting your frustrations. It’s different. Whinging means you’re trying to convince someone either to do something for you or to stop it from happening. This is more like letting the steam out of the kettle; it let’s you know your getting somewhere.”

“I feel stupid.”

“Oh, is that what finally made you snap? A little ax stuck in a tree a few times? That made you feel stupid? You know you’re not; that stole of yours is proof enough. You’re just…uneducated in this. You’re not good at it, but you will be.”

“’Uneducated’. That stole of mine has no accolades about speed or strength. I’ve never been good at physical pursuits.”

“Did you try?”

“No. It was best to concentrate on what I could do well.”

“So, you’ve never pushed yourself? You’ve never spit-shined from copper to gold as they say in these parts?”

He had to think about that in between his swings. His academic pursuits had come fairly easy to him. The ones that were a little harder had required some studying, but he’d never had a mountain to climb. “No. Have you?”

Raulin flicked his knives out of their sheaths. “These did not come easily to me at all. It surprised and frustrated me because I had been taught fencing as a child. And like fencing and this,” he said, gesturing to Al’s work, “knife fighting is memorizing moves until you bolt up from a nightmare in a position. But, it’s so brutal and fast and savage. There’s no poetry to it. You expose yourself by running into your opponent in hopes that you can end the fight in seconds. Fencing is a sport that rewards good form with points. There’s no sport in knifing a man, just luck and bravado.”

“Can’t you return to it? Pick up a sword somewhere and use that instead?”

“For fun, I suppose, but my job is to avoid fights and then end them in seconds. Also, swords aren’t exactly easy to carry around stealthily. These are good weapons for a thief.”

Al stopped and turned towards him. “Answer me truthfully, without the sarcasm and airs you normally put on: if you could stop being a trirec, would you?”

“Yes,” he said quietly but without hesitation.

“Would you be willing to trust me with that task?”

“If you can find some way to release me that doesn’t involve my death or incarceration, then yes, I would.”

Al went back to his routine. “Let me do something for you that I’m good at.”

“What do you have in mind?”

“Loopholes.”