12-10

“Oh, look,” Raulin said, holding out his hand, gloved due to the cold. “Do you see this? This is exactly what I wanted to avoid.” Against the black wool, a single snowflake stood out in his palm.

“It’s nice, isn’t it?” Telbarisk said in an almost dreamy tone.

“Nice? It’s…” He paused to look at his friend. “It’s wonderful.”

“Do you think we could stop by a beach before we leave? I’d like to see the snow falling into the sea, at least once more.”

“Even if we can’t, we can,” he said, turning the group away from the train station. “Well, Wizard? A moderately priced hotel near the ocean? Perhaps a beach we haven’t seen before?”

Al nodded and began leading them south without a word. After a few miles of winding streets and dockside shops, with the air taking on a progressively saltier tang, the street opened up to a gull-infested beach in line with the road. The snow laid on the sand, swirling white dust against the tan dunes.

Tel began to walk the beach, disturbing the gulls who seemed more annoyed than scared. Al alternated between watching the snow fall on the ocean and collecting seashells. Raulin and Anla sat hip-to-hip, crossing their inside arms. “Is he okay?” Raulin asked. “He seems awfully pensive.”

“Al? I think he made peace and might be mulling things over.”

“Oh, do you think he’s going to stop nagging me about my job?”

“I don’t know,” she said. “We’ll have to see. I’ll do my best to encourage it, but…”

“But…?”

“Well, it’s not terrible for you to meditate on what you do.”

“Not you, too,” he said, his sigh somewhere between joking and dismay. “You know I do think about it.”

“I’m not saying you don’t. In fact, I know you do. And if I had to guess, I’d say you’re starting to feel differently about it.”

“Why would you say that?”

“I listen. When you speak about doing your work and being a trirec, you don’t sound as proud about it as you did when we first met.” She sucked air in through her teeth. “Not proud, but…confident in your position.”

“I’m not,” he said. “My two major advantages, preferential treatment in my order and anonymity on the streets, are gone. The Umber knows there’s a Noh Amairian trirec and Arvarikor has no reason to help me when I need it. I don’t know which is worse.

“I didn’t say much to you about this last contract, but it was more difficult for me than they normally are. I kept second guessing happenstances. I watched behind my shoulder more. I waited much too long and didn’t take the chances I normally do. All that, far away from other trirecs or the Cumber. I feel too shaken over what’s happened these last months.”

“So, what would you do?”

“That’s the problem,” he said. “I’m not skilled in practical things. I wasn’t really around tradesmen growing up, so I never picked up any skills. All I know is how to spy, steal, and kill, and I don’t want to live my life as some wharf thug-for-hire. I might have enough money to start a business and to buy a piece of land, but actually working them doesn’t mean I can make a living at it.”

“At least you’re thinking about it,” she said, blowing on her hands. He ungloved his own, grabbed hers, and began rubbing them, massaging warmth back into her fingers.

“I’m not supposed to, but I do, at least to have a backup. Of course, I’ve dreamed many plans when I’ve been in instances of misfortune. Once, while awaiting trial in Kipraud, I dreamed to one day be one of those horsemen out in the western parts of Gheny, the ones that tend to cattle. Lonely work, but good pay, from what I hear. Something to do for a few years while you save your money and spend it wisely, then head back east and find a lady to settle down with.

“But, escaping Arvarikor is another matter. That’s my biggest obstacle. You don’t quit being a trirec; you either retire as a trivren or you die. And trivrens are still in Arvarikor. So, unless you know a way for a man to die, but not actually die, then I’m stuck doing this.”

“We should run it by Al,” she said. “He’s good at finding loopholes.”

“While I agree that he’s quite good at thinking of alternative methods, I doubt the wizard would help me.”

“I think that getting you to stop being a trirec would align with his wants. Just, maybe wait until he’s had some time to think.”

They sat for some time more until the wind began to blow hard and they grew too cold to stand it. Despite the chill, Telbarisk seemed comfortable in just his bakinar, shirt, and pants. Al was freezing.

“Not used to this,” he said, leading them inland and to a hotel.

“It’s not this cold in Whitney?” Raulin asked.

“You might see a week’s worth of snow over the whole winter, and the snow doesn’t start falling until close to the end of the year.”

“Excellent to hear. I hope to be in and out, then, with plenty of time to spare before we see any more cold weather.”

“Definitely. It’s far too early for snow. It’ll be nice outside, a little cooler than it was in New Wextif, but comfortable.”

“All right. There is a ten-thirty train to Whitney tomorrow morning. We will be on it. Settle your accounts tonight, because we aren’t coming back here. Everyone fine with that?”

“Yes,” Al said. Though he still had a lot to parse through, he had to admit that he felt rather peaceful over his decisions. And that in and of itself was something he was going to need to understand.

12-9

Al spent the next few days in his room. He would rise,get dressed, shave, then spend the rest of the day lying in bed, his back to the door. Anla and Raulin left him alone, save to check in on him and bring him food.

There was a lot for him to think about. For Al, it was two crushing forces moving against each other, trying their hardest to win out over each other in a battle for his soul. At least, that’s how Kiesh the Black would think of it, had he been inside Al’s head. It was really Al just trying to hold two opposing thoughts at the same time and failing to do so for some time.

There was also a lot of hypocrisy mixed in to his contemplation. He had abandoned his family because of duty and law. Then, he had broken that same law because he deemed it not applicable, which contradicted what had told Raulin in that he would obey all laws set forth in Gheny. And there was a lot of other things he needed to be honest with himself about.

In the end, it was what Telbarisk had said about family and time not being a given that made him break away from his main arguments and try to see things differently. If he left in a few days and never spoke to his madra because he was mad at her, then she died, how would he feel? Would he regret not telling her the truth? Would he regret leaving her with reason to be heartbroken every time she thought of him? She was his mother, after all. What man could do that to his mother, over something that didn’t even involve him?

He awoke early on the third day, wore his nice suit, had his face completely shaved, and ventured to his madra’s business. He hadn’t been there in a long time, but the smell brought him back to playing in the dirt and picking flowers for his little sister.

She arrived not long after he did, Glendina at her elbow. “9:30 with Tanask, 10:00 with Aviz Holdings.”

“Mai’am,” the secretary said, handing her a piece of paper.

She scanned it. “The Baradan Times would like a few comments on what happened last night, ma’am.”

“When do I have a break?”

“Madra?” Al said, interrupting her planning.

His mother stopped for a moment. Glendina turned, her mouth an O. “Hold off Tanask as long as possible,” she said to her assistant, then beckoned her son to follow her into her office.

She poured herself some tea, sipped, then poured him a cup. Al almost ignored the sequence, but remembered that tea was an integral part in determining status in meetings. His madra had made it clear that she had the upper hand, but that she still wanted to hear what he had to say.

“You’ve heard the news, then,” she asked, “and you wish to negotiate your terms?”

“No,” he said, perplexed. “What news?”

“Tonen Whiskef’s throat was slit last night while he slept,” she said. “Someone managed to sneak past an impressive number of guards and servants in order to achieve this, so most are saying it’s a trirec.”

“Not as impressive as a count’s,” he muttered under his breath.

“Let me explain what this means for my business and the community.”

“I don’t care,” he said, meeting her eyes.

“Well, then.”

“I don’t care because it’s your business. I don’t understand it. I think it’s wrong to kill people, but I can’t sit here and judge you for it. It would be hypocritical.

“Madra, I lied to you. I’m not a vizier, I’m a touch wizard who makes a pittance. My wife cheated on me and I left her a few months ago. Since then I’ve been traveling Gheny, doing better for myself, but there is no lord that I work for. The woman you met is a fr…acquaintance of mine. The trirec you wound up hiring is also, which is how I knew what that sigil was. And I’ve…done some terrible things. I killed a man. It was an accident, but he is still dead just the same. I think that’s why I didn’t want you to keep your contract. I know what it feels like and I pain over it. I didn’t want that for you.”

She sipped her tea for a few moments. “Knowing you, I think there was a fair amount of moral preeminence included in your offense.”

“Yes, there probably was.”

“And, you felt the need to confess so that you can walk away feeling better about yourself?”

“No.”

“So, why are you here, then?”

“Because I don’t know when I’ll see you again.”

“Which means you don’t know when you’ll be around to make sure I’m punished for my crime?”

“No! It’s because I love you! I…I was fine with not seeing you and everyone else because I didn’t think there would be a time when I couldn’t write to you or take a train here if I wanted to. But I thought about how I would be leaving soon, angry at you, and you knowing I was angry at you. I decided that I’d rather not leave like that.

“I don’t approve…”

“A given,” she said.

“…and I am still upset that you hired a trirec to kill someone. But, I don’t want to leave like this.”

“How would you like to leave?”

“Like this. Talking to you. Leaving things open and good, or mostly good.”

She placed her hands softly on her desk. “Well. I can’t say this is something I expected from you.”

“I know.”

“You must know that you’re always welcome at home. You can stay, if you want.”

“I need to go with them.”

“Whenever you’re finished, then, you can come home. I have my disappointments in you as well, but you are my rino and nothing will change that.”

“I understand.”

His madra sighed and sipped her tea. “She’s not your wife?”

“Anla? No.”

“Anla. She’s invited, too, if she wants a job. Her ability to read people and situations was uncanny.”

“I’ll tell her you made that offer.”

She stood, walked around the desk, and cradled Al’s head against her chest. “So, when you are finished wandering, sowing your wild oats, you will return?”

“Yes. If.”

“If?” she asked, looking at him.

“I told you I was a vizier because that’s what I really want to be. And if I find a noble who wants a wizard on-call to heal him or be a guard, then I’m going to take that opportunity. But, if not, then I will visit you next June and we can talk.”

“I’d like that. And you’re welcome to come to dinner tonight, you and your acquaintances.” She stood and smoothed her blouse. “I need to get back to work. There’s a bit of a power vacuum and I’m sure there will be moves to fill that void.”

“I understand,” he said. “Good luck.”

12-8

Because there was no question of fires and of job dismissals in his mind, Al did sleep that night. It wasn’t a good sleep; it was restless and his stomach churned, pulling him from slumber several times, but it was enough. Still, he had dreams of intentionally drowning, people trying to pull him up to the dock he had jumped off of or walking the plank on a ship despite everyone giving him odd looks. He felt he needed to drown, but everyone around him thought it a queer idea. It had made sense when he was asleep.

Telbarisk was still asleep in the corner when Al finally opened his eyes. There was no early morning confusion; all his problems were still right there waiting for further consideration, mainly the question of how his madra could do what she had done.

Part of the problem, one that Al didn’t fully grasp, was there was a war of ethics going on in his mind. When his mother had learned that he was intellectually gifted, she had devised a path in life for him, as was her duty as the family head. She had been a woman with a profitable business and groomed to join the Council, but still a woman in a world of Ghenian men. She could never change that; even with the large percentage of Br’vani, Baradan hadn’t budged in that regard at all in the centuries her people had been trickling in to the rocky shores. So, she had learned from the best, her mother, and knew a way to get around that particularly frustrating situation.

Al’s grandmother had bent to Ghenian ways and had educated her older brother, Risha, who had shown promise like Al had. Risha had been a brilliant lawyer and could make his way in society and bend ears that no woman could. Sadly, he had died of consumption at the tender age of thirty-two. Al’s mother had wanted the same brilliant career, and accessibility, for her son; someone who could bridge the gaps she couldn’t.

And so, he had been well-educated. He was going to be a lawyer, she decided, or perhaps a banker if he took to mathematics well. She hadn’t expected him to excel in philosophy and ethics. No issue in her mind, since ethics could serve a lawyer or a politician well, but the ethics he had taken to heart was strongly Aroukean flavored. Morality was rigidly set by books and old men and didn’t incorporate the give and take that Br’vani was comfortable with. On more than one occasion she’d had to sit with her rino to explain why it was acceptable to cheat or lie a little here and there to get ahead.

If you had asked him about it, Al would remember the difficulties he’d had reconciling between the two. There were no ways around Aroukean philosophy. Stealing, cheating, killing, and lying were all wrong, evil things that corrupted men and eroded society. He liked that. It was very easy to be good. If he didn’t lie, he would be what Tichen had called a “virtuous monastic” and Al really enjoyed the idea of being something greater than just average in something tangible for him.

He’d had discussions with his indulgent madra about this. She had posed questions, he would study and return. “What if you lied for the good of a situation? What if by lying you saved a life?” Tichen said you would lose your virtuosity. “Is that the most important thing in your life, to be virtuous?” At the time it had been.

Al knew his mother didn’t play by the same rules she had asked him to learn. She was very open about how she lied to customers about the quality of a product or to partners about the price of an item. She had patiently explained how money worked, that the worth of a gold coin depended largely on what a buyer and seller agreed it was worth, that the quality of an item was based in the consumer’s mind. He didn’t like that. One gold should be worth one gold, always the same. Quality should be determined based on strict standards. It wasn’t that he didn’t get it; he just didn’t want to get it.

But Tichen had spoken about this, too. He had essentially said that bartering and purchasing was a complex system and that he couldn’t judge heavily those who cheated those who didn’t educate themselves. Al was complacent with this and ignored that which he didn’t understand. And that was more or less fine.

Murder, however… He couldn’t get over that particular sin. In his mind, his mother was paying a fee for a life because she couldn’t work around a problem. It didn’t matter if the man was slitting the throats of every Br’vani on the streets, it was for the law to determine whether he lived or died, not his madra.

He wiped his face with his hands and sat up just before he heard a knock at his door. “I brought you a warm pastry,” Anla said.

“Thanks,” he said, pulling a tunic over his head.

Anla handed one to Tel, who had awoken at the knock, then sat on the bed. Al chewed quickly and swallowed without enjoying the taste. “How are you feeling?” she asked.

“Fine, Anla, just fine.

“I’m just concerned. It’s a lot for one person to discover.”

“Oh, do you mean it’s a lot for one person to discover that the person who raised him, the person who taught him right from wrong, has paid someone to kill another?”

“At least she didn’t do it herself.”

His gaze narrowed and snapped up at hers. “This is different! I didn’t mean to kill…”

“Shh,” Raulin said, standing next to Anla. “I don’t mind the discourse, but I can hear you clear through the walls.”

“Great. He knows. Did you tell him?”

“No,” Anla said. “You didn’t want him to know, so I said nothing.”

“I don’t know what’s going on,” Raulin said, “but I can guess. Someone dear to you was the contractor of the assassination I need to carry out. Since we’re in your childhood home, I’m assuming this is your sister or your mother.”

“My mother,” he said bitterly.

“And you discovered this and were upset because she told you when you were younger not to kill people, then she went ahead and hired me to kill someone.”

“Yeah.”

“I can see why you’re upset.” He stepped inside and closed the door behind him and Anla.

“I want you all out,” Al said. “I don’t want to talk about it. This is between my me and my madra, not you three.”

“You’re right,” Anla said, sitting on the bed. “This is personal. But friends have the privilege to advise their friends.”

“I know how this advice is going to go. ‘Al, you’re being too hard on your mother. You’re too strict. Maybe cut her some slack.’ No! She knows what she’s doing. She knows it’s wrong. Still, she doesn’t stop it.”

“Did you tell her she could?” Raulin asked. “My target is quite a piece of work, but I’d rather not have to kill someone. I get paid either way, and I don’t mind wasting the time, so why actually go through with it?”

“She won’t. She feels it’s best for the greater good.”

“And therefore she’s completely evil,” Anla said.

“No, she’s not evil. She’s just…part of the problem. Look,” he said, taking on his favorite opinionated tone, “people should all act within the limits of the law. If they don’t, they should pay penalties for their crimes. No exceptions.”

“No exceptions? I can think of fifty scenarios off the top of my head where obeying the law makes society worse,” Raulin said. “You’re saying that if King Taneus was ordering all children to be slaughtered, you’d allow that to happen?”

“It wouldn’t happen.”

“In hypothetical situations, anything can happen. Say it did. Say he signs a law into place saying all Ghenians under the age of seventeen are to be butchered.”

“Gheny is a constitutional monarchy. He can’t just sign laws into place.”

Raulin sighed. “Say the parliament goes along with it. What do you do?”

Al at least had the decency to look ashamed. “There would be a good reason. Some disease that caused suffering to children or a madness that caused youths to kill their parents.”

“No! There is no good reason for the wholesale slaughter of an entire group of people! I can’t believe you’d think that was acceptable! ‘A nation’s youth is its most valuable resource, Alghorin.’ ‘Children bring treasures unimaginable to all around them, Breckin Jr.’ And what did Tichen have to say about that?”

Don’t. I know what Tichen said about children. But he also said that…”

“…he also said it’s important to be virtuous and obey the law, blah blah,” Raulin said, waving his hand. “Yet, he contradicts himself, he and all the others. Why? Because morality isn’t something you be definitive about. It shifts, it warps, it changes.”

“No, stop. Killing is wrong…”

“It is…most of the time. And then there are times when it’s right. I try not to form opinions about those in my contracts because it causes problems on my end. Every once in a while, though, I get an assassination that I don’t really mind doing. This is one of those times. I really can’t say your mother made the wrong decision here.”

“It’s a man’s life. That should be enough.”

“Al,” Anla said. “I don’t understand why you think it’s okay for one person to be terrible but not another.”

“I don’t.”

“Explain your friend Aggie, then.”

He had to think about this. “It’s different.”

“No, it isn’t. You just finished explaining to us that morals don’t depend on circumstances. Yet, you have no problem being friends with someone who cheats on his wife, lies to women about who he is in order to bed them, and spends beyond his means in order to keep his ruses.”

“If I didn’t have Aggie, I wouldn’t have anything,” he said sadly. “You’re right that I don’t do anything. I should. But I know that if I lectured him every time he did something wrong, he wouldn’t talk to me. I’ve never helped him, though. Okay, once he asked me to keep one of his beaus stalled, but I didn’t do it and she and the other girl wound up fighting. I listen to him and I keep my opinions to myself, because I know his life is going to be short.”

Anla let out an exasperated sigh. She was about to give up and let him make a huge mistake when Telbarisk cleared his throat. “Alpine, do you love your mother?”

Al turned his head to the corner where Tel sat. “Of course I do. She’s my madra.”

“You said you’re friends with Aggie, even though he’s someone who does things you don’t agree with. Why can’t you speak with your madra?”

“Because there are things too horrible to allow. I won’t go to the police; I don’t have enough evidence. But she should be punished for her crime and the only way I can do that is to not speak to her.”

“And this is because you know she has paid for the life of a man? What if your friend Aggie has killed someone, but you don’t know this?”

He wanted to argue that Aggie wouldn’t kill someone, but it was all too easy for Al to picture a jealous lover receiving the steel end of a knife in the ribs in a bar fight. “I’d never speak to him again if I knew that.”

“Then your basis for shunning is knowledge. Yet, you speak with all of us knowing even though I believe all of us have killed someone.”

“It’s different.”

“How?”

“It’s…you three aren’t upstanding. I expect you to commit crimes.”

Anla snorted at this, but Telbarisk continued unaffected. “You don’t expect your mother to hire an assassin because she is upstanding.”

“Yes!”

“So, this is personal, then?”

“Ye-.” He stopped.

“You have feelings of pain over this discovery? Betrayal, indignation, perhaps embarrassment?”

“Um…”

If Tel wanted to win the argument, he could have stopped there. But Tel wasn’t interested in besting Al with words. He wanted to help. “Alpine, look at me.” Al did, with some difficulty. “I am a long ways from home. I miss my family. If I could see any of them, even my brother, I would do whatever I could to do so.”

“Yeah, but your mother didn’t hire a thug to kill someone.”

“You have a mother,” Anla said. When Al looked back to her, he saw Raulin’s standing behind her, his hand on her shoulder.

“Wizard, you can’t find perfection in people,” he said. “There will always be something you don’t like or don’t approve of in people. And that’s fine. Don’t be friends with them and live a lonely life. But, family is family. That’s different than friendship. Your mother raised you. She fed you, she clothed you, she wiped your tears from your face, she held you when you were scared. That’s…that’s something so very, very precious. I couldn’t even tell you what I would give to hug my mother once more. Arms, legs, hell, I’d fall on a sword for that opportunity.

“So, if you don’t want to speak to your mother ever again because she did one terrible thing, then that’s your choice. But think real hard about what you’re giving up because you feel slighted. Don’t assume you’ll have the chance to patch things up with her, because there’s no guarantee you’ll get that opportunity.”

Anla reached up and squeezed his hand, then softly asked if he wanted to go into town. The two left Al, who seemed very troubled.

“I’ll leave you alone, Alpine,” Tel said, “but I’ll be down in the common room. If you need to speak to someone, I’ll be available.”

12-7

“That’s…no,” Al said, standing with his fists clenched. “That’s wrong. She would never hire a trirec!”

“Do you know what else it could be?” Anla asked.

He stared at the icon. “I don’t know everything. It could be…a Br’vani antique, or something to do with the Twelve, or…or anything, Anla!”

“It could be,” she said soothingly, “but why would she hide it?”

“To make sure no one stole it. This could be worth a lot of money. It looks…”

Anla walked over and gently took it from Al, holding it up to the oil lamp in the corner. “It looks tarnished, Al, and there are scratches and dings. If it’s an antique, it’s not well cared for.”

“Maybe it’s rare,” he said. “Maybe this is the only one.”

“Why hide a priceless antique? Why would someone buy that, only to hide it in a secret location?”

I don’t know!

She placed the icon on the nightstand and waited a few moments. “There’s only one way to find out.”

Al grabbed the icon from the table and walked toward the door, freezing before he reached the threshold. “I can’t,” he said, turning towards Anla. “I can’t ask her that.”

She let him wrestle with his thoughts for several minutes. She couldn’t imagine what was going through his mind, whether he felt conflicted, betrayed, hurt, or all. Finally, he sighed angrily and left the room.

He stomped down to his madra’s room and pounded on the door. When she didn’t open immediately, he opened her door and stormed in. “What is this?” he asked.

His madra was sitting up, tying the sash around her robe. “Dominek, what is the meaning of this?”

“This,” he said, waiting for her to light her oil lamp before holding it up. “What is this?”

She walked over to him and snatched the icon from his hands. “This is none of your concern, rino. Just because you’ve taken an abendi wife and you work for an abendi doesn’t mean you are one. You should be ashamed at asking your madra about her business.”

“No.” Her eyes narrowed and her mouth tightened, but he didn’t back down. “I will not feel shame at asking you about this. Tell me, does this mean you hired a trirec?”

She looked down at the icon. “Dominek, there are things in this world you don’t understand…”

“Madra, no.”

“Do not judge me! I have made tough decisions, terrible decisions, for the greater good.”

“This isn’t what you taught me. You said…you said that I had to obey, that I had to be good. Play by the rules, you said. You laid them out before me, taught me to be a good person…”

“Rino,” she said with a sigh. “Sit. Listen to what I have to say.” She sat on the edge of her bed. Al decided to stand. “He doesn’t play fairly.”

“Who?” he asked.

“His name is Varan Whiskef. He is a competitor of mine.”

“And since when does that make it okay to kill someone?”

“It doesn’t. I know that. And I know what I taught you. But he isn’t just competing with my business. I wouldn’t have a problem with that. It’s how he does it.

“He’s turning the people of Baradan against not just me, but against all Br’vanese. He spreads vicious rumors, tries to get me arrested on false charges, sabotages the boats… Those are honest, hardworking people he’s hurting just to get at me. His men have already killed three Br’vanese workers. Another dozen were arrested. This isn’t an assault on my business; this is against all of us living here.”

“There are no exceptions to murder,” he said, shaking his head. “You always said there are things that way heavily on a woman’s soul because she knows they are wrong. If you have this man murdered, you will hate yourself for it.”

She folded her hands in her lap. “I’m willing to accept it.”

“Madra!” he said in exasperation. “How can you say this?”

“I have put much thought into this, Dominek. Whether I am caught or cannot bear the guilt, I am willing to take on this burden.”

“Madra…it’s not too late. If he still lives, you can reverse the assassination.”

“Dominek!” she said, standing. “My decision is final.”

He ground his teeth for a moment, then turned to the doorway to see Anla standing not far from the entrance. “We’re leaving,” he said.

She had moved their bags to the doorway, just in case, and grabbed them. He led the way to the front door, his mother right behind them.

“Al,” she said once they were outside, “are you sure you can’t talk this out with your mother?”

“I don’t speak with hypocrites,” he said, turning to flash a glare at his mother, who stood impassive in the doorway.

All other attempts at starting a conversation were met with silence. They walked the distance back, the air cold and the sunset just a smudge of orange and fuschia on the horizon. She took a moment to fish her wool cloak out from the bottom of her pack, shaking off bread and cheese crumbs. Al wouldn’t offer her his suit jacket no matter how hard she shivered. She had always thought him oblivious to recommended social graces, but after spending time with his family, she thought there might be another reason.

She thought back to the bet he’d made and was confused. He must think her a capable woman, one who’d take care of her own warmth or hunger, but still needed intervention to preserve her good name. Maybe it had nothing to do with her and everything to do with Raulin, specifically how Al felt about his morality. If Al thought Anla was worse than Raulin, would he have tried to “protect” her? There was definitely something in her past that she was never going to tell Al about.

Anla would have tried to talk with him, but Al went to the room he was sharing with Telbarisk and closed the door. He needs time, she thought, and went to her room.

Raulin was sitting at the desk in the corner, reading by oil lamp. He reached for his mask until she said, “It’s just me.”

He turned. “I thought you said you and the wizard were going to be gone until tomorrow.”

“Change of plans,” she said, taking off her cloak and hanging it on the peg behind the door. “How is your contract coming along?”

“I’m within striking distance. I’ll be done soon, likely two or three days, then we can leave for Whitney.”

“Is there any way you can wait a little longer?” she asked.

He raised his eyebrows. “You want to stay here? Haven’t gotten your fill of chowder yet?”

“It involves the thing Al asked me not to talk about.”

“Ah,” he said. “Well, I will be following my target tomorrow, and the next day, and the next. If I see an opportunity, I’ll have to take it. But, I can exercise more caution than I normally do. Should put me in with the sane people for once.”

“Thank you,” she said. “Anything I can help with?”

He clicked his tongue for a few moments. “Well, you’d make a very striking distraction, should I need it. I’ll try on my own first. Thank you for the offer.”

She nodded her head and smiled. “What are you reading?”

He sat the book down on the desk. “Promise you won’t say anything? I thought I’d read one of those alley novels the wizard loves so much.”

“Really?” she said with a laugh. “I’m a bit surprised.”

He shrugged. “The curiosity got the best of me. My mark is at a late meeting tonight, so I had some time to waste.”

“And?”

“Anla, it’s pure drivel. It’s melodramatic, far-reaching, and sloppily written. But,” he said, pausing to sigh, “I get why it’s so addicting. If you crave the hope this book supplies, I bet you’d run to the book store to get the next.”

“Are you saying Al needs hope?”

“Why not?” he said with a shrug and a grin. “A lot of people do.”

12-6

Anla refused to go shopping for another outfit to impress Al’s mother, instead wearing the tan blouse and multi-threaded wool skirt that somehow matched her blue-gray-brown eyes. His mother would have to understand that they traveled and that her apparel needed to be more functional for living on the road. Still, she had bathed the night before and made sure her hair was as neat as possible. She arrived at the house bleary-eyed but three minutes early, according to the tarnished pocket watch of the hansom driver.

His mother was already coming down the trellised path with Glendina, so Anla waited by the wooden gate. Another hansom clopped and creaked down the cobbled street, passing the one Anla had taken. She was ignored by Al’s mother, then ushered into the carriage by Glendina, who sat in the middle.

The two women talked the whole ride about the upcoming day, mainly about whatever projects or accounts that needed their attention. Glendina supplied Al’s mother with meetings and time lines. Their tiny world was all business and Anladet had no part in it, no way to get a word in edgewise.

The hansom stopped in front of a wooden building. It was located in Topely Square, which was predominantly Br’vani in housing and business. Most of the women she saw at the nearby market or in the stores wore something similar to what she herself was wearing, the new fashions of Gheny adopted by those adopting tradition only when it called for it . The men wore Ghenian outfits, too, sometimes in materials and cut slightly different.

The office was shockingly different from the outside. Out on the road it appeared to be a building that could have once been a house with white shutters against red clapboard. Inside it was a peaceful serenity with a paved walkway lined with boxes of flowers. Potted plants, likely not of Ghenian origin, were hung and tucked into corners, bringing bright fuschias and purples to a neutral room in a light golden brown.

There was a man at a desk in the front near the door who stood quickly and took any effects the women had, which were basically gloves and shawls. Anla had none, since effects had commonly been things forgotten or stolen, and therefore she had never grown used to the idea of parasols, overcoats, and bonnets. Her wool cloak was usually the only source of heat and comfort she needed.

Glendina took off to some other place in the building. Anla followed behind Al’s mother into her office and stopped short when his mother turned around. Though taller than Glendina, she was a small women, even shorter and thinner than Anla herself. “Now,” she said, pouring herself a small cup of tea. “You’re a pretty girl and you seem smart, but are you taking care of my son?”

“As well as I can,” she said. She was going to stop there, but she felt his mother wanted more reassurance. “He was a bit naive when I first met him. I had to help him understand how to barter and negotiate with vendors so they wouldn’t take advantage of him. There were a few other things like that. He’s smart, just very trusting.”

“As he should be,” she said, crossing her arms. “I know you abendi do things differently, but here its how things are.”

“Of course,” she said carefully. “He was wasting a lot of money, though, so it became a necessity. Otherwise we’d have little to spend and save.”

She nodded and finally sat, gesturing Anla to do the same. “You’re Arvonnese,” she said.

“Yes. My father was from Tapenstri, along the southwestern coast. I was born here in Gheny.”

“And your mother?”

“Also born here, in Ashven.”

“Where do they live?”

She swallowed the lump in her throat with a hot mouthful of tea. “They, um, they live in Hanala. We visit them as often as we can.”

“I see,” she said. “There’s no issues for wizards visiting their in-laws, I presume?”

“None that I know of.” She cleared her throat. “He spoke of you often. He wished he could visit you, especially when we traveled to Baradan. It was only recently that he began to question it. We did our research, spoke to other wizards, looked into past legal cases, and realized that it wasn’t quite as dire as he had been taught. He’s still concerned about breaking the law, but his intent isn’t against the king. We felt it was worth a quick visit.”

Al’s mother sipped her tea. “Despite the intent, I think he shouldn’t have broken the law. I’m glad to see him, and to finally meet you, but in the future it might be wise to take a different course of action. If his line of thinking is true, then perhaps in the future he could write to Amandorlam and ask for permission instead of asking for forgiveness if he’s caught.”

“That’s a better idea,” Anla said.

“I would think I taught him better. He knows to follow the rules and how to work within the confines of them, figuring out how to stretch the letter of the law ’til it bends.”

Things about Al’s morals were becoming more clear to Anla. “I think that he saw Amandorlam as the giant he didn’t want to fight. They teach law there and have plenty of experts in the field on staff. It would have been difficult and expensive. Our employer is generally patient, but that would have stretched his good graces to break.”

“Tell me more about this employer of yours. You said you were a clerk for him, so I assume he’s a businessman of some kind.”

“Yes. He specializes in rare and antique items,” she said, using the ploy she had become familiar with these past few months. “He maintains a store down in Riyala and a smaller one in Hanala where he collects and sells his wares. I have to keep meticulous records as to where he buys each item and from whom, a description, likely materials used in its making, and how much he bought it for.”

“Interesting. Does he have any interest in Br’vani antiques?”

She pretended to think about this. “Not particularly, but he has bought a few. It’s more where he thinks the market is and if he can resell it. Like fashion, antiques trend and are more valuable or less depending on what people are buying.”

“I may want to talk to your employer then,” she said. “Could you arrange a meeting with him before you leave Baradan?”

“I will definitely pass your interest along to him.”

“Now, I have several meetings here today. You are welcome to sit in on any you’d like, but I will expect you to speak to me before speaking to my client. Otherwise, feel free to explore where you’d like.”

Al’s mother was not cold per se, but still unyielding towards her. She was unsure if this was how she was or if she didn’t like Anla for some reason. If attending meetings could endear her to the woman, and also help improve her magical skills, she would do it. “Are there any you think I could help with?”

She tilted her head at this. “Likely not. Do you feel you have better instincts than your boss when it comes to purchases?”

“Sometimes. There have been a few occasions when he’s bought things I thought he was being swindled on, and we discovered later that he had been.”

“Then perhaps there are a few meetings I wouldn’t mind your input. Come back in one hour.”

As Anla was standing to leave, Glendina poked her head in the office. “A few things before you meet with Rashial. Um, Carasan?”

“Push it off,” she said, waving her hand.

“Migan and Sons?”

“Push it off.”

“But, ma’am, that’s three months overdue…”

“I’m not going to repeat myself,” she said, icily.

“Yes, ma’am. Westlake, Harsham, and…”

“Glendina, I have the utmost faith that you can handle those for the time being.”

Glendina nodded and left.

Anladet spent the next hour exploring the business. The first floor only consisted of Al’s mother’s office, the secretary’s post, a waiting area, and a bathroom with plumbing. Upstairs were several offices, including Glendina’s. A few other workers occupied some of the rooms, none of them really interested in speaking with her.

There was a basement, but Anla felt her journey there would be both uninteresting and prohibited. She spent a large portion of her remaining time on the second floor, watching the street below from an open window and listening to the pedestrians.

A man was at the front door giving the secretary his hat when she returned again to Al’s mother’s office. She looked up at her knock and gestured to a chair that had been put in the corner. She sat and waited for the gentleman to be introduced about five minutes later.

The meeting wasn’t overly long, perhaps twenty minutes. They discussed matters boring to Anla that she would need a better understanding of Baradanian business to understand, new laws, ordinances, numbers, projections, and guesses as to whether or not what Al’s mother said could be done would be done. From what Anla gathered, her business was much like the one in New Wextif where the clerk who had stalked the lady had worked; some sort of middleman between shipping and train suppliers and buyers in Baradan. Only, her business wasn’t just a few companies, but a majority share of the market.

“Any comments?” Al’s mother asked after the man had left.

“If I had to use the same instincts as I had before, I’d say he’s withholding something about the government’s support. I don’t think he believes the lawmakers are going to enact the legislature you wanted.”

“Really?” she said, making a few notes. “How correct have you been?”

“Pretty on the nose.”

“Hmm. For curiosity’s sake, I’d like you to stay for the next meeting, then.”

She did. It was another tedious back-and-forth, this time with a man and a woman about projected sales and interested parties and shipments and delays and demand. “They were lying about the Winekept. Something about his mannerisms when discussing it…” And that rock-grinding sound about its minimal delay, she thought.

Al’s mother turned and raised an eyebrow. “If my son hadn’t introduced you, I’d think you were too good to be true. I received word yesterday through other channels that theWinekept was lost at sea. Hmm. How would you like to go to a luncheon meeting?”

She liked it very much, whether or not she actually enjoyed it. And she also liked sitting in the corner for every other meeting Al’s mother had that day. What she actually liked was sitting in the middle on the hansom ride home.

Al was there waiting when they arrived. He looked at Anla, eyebrows raised, eyes darting between her and his mother. She gave him a big smile and he relaxed.

* * *

Dinner was less formal, since only Arista and his padra were there besides Al and Anla. Still, as he always had when he was younger, he sat and folded his hands, awaiting his mother’s arrival. Most households didn’t bother with the tradition unless it was a major holiday, but the Choudril’s always did.

“Your employer had no qualms with me borrowing Burdet today?” his mother asked as the wine was being poured.

“No, he was fine with it. He took a rest day and I saw to his comfort while he enjoyed reading some books and sipping wine by the fire.”

“I hope he feels better. I might get to meet this employer of yours soon.”

Al looked at Anla, who gave an apologetic look. “If he’s not too busy. Today would have been the best day, since he cleared his calendar.” He paused for a few moments. “Why did you want to meet with him?”

“Why, to convince him to retire early and let me steal you two away from him. I was very impressed with Burdet today. And I’m sure I can find you a job in the city, doing your wizard thing. Or something else. You’re not too old for an apprenticeship. I’m sure someone with an Amandorlam degree would be highly sought after here in Baradan.”

“Thank you, madra.” He was genuinely happy for a few moments. He had forgotten briefly that everything he’d told her thus far had been a lie.

Conversation shifted to Arista’s work, then to Al’s father’s day, who worked near the dockyards as a fishmonger. Al picked at his food and listened half-heartedly. His mind was elsewhere, thinking about how things had been when he lived here. He missed it. It had been simple; just do what your mother tells you to do, and do it. Make her happy and proud.

They sat in the great room near the fire, telling stories. His mother liked Anla, who seemed to have won her over that afternoon. It surprised him, since she didn’t like many people. She’d never liked any of the beaus he’d had in secondary school and hadn’t warmed to any of his friends.

Since his mother kept early hours, they retired not long after sunset. “Al,” Anla said, “your bedroom is bigger than my family’s whole house!”

“You should see my madra’s,” he said.

It was as he had left it, save dusted and laundered by a maid. Anla walked over to his wall of books, brushing her fingers along the titles. “These are educational books. Geometry, history, law, philosophy. Oh, wait,” she said, moving her finger along. “There we are. Tichen, Tichen, Tichen. Nine books by Tichen?”

“He wrote fifty-six, not including eighty-something articles and hundreds of letters to friends.”

“Yes, but, didn’t you read anything for fun?”

He quirked his eyebrows up and smiled, walking over to a bureau near the bed. The drawers had been cleared, which made wiggling the bottom out from one much easier. Al pulled several paperbacks out and tossed one to Anla. “Oh!” he said with a laugh. “I haven’t read Firzy and Boge in a long time!”

“No Arvonnese alley novels?” she asked.

“I didn’t get into those until I left for Amandorlam. Kiesh the Black, however… I have a few of those hidden here.”

“They’ve been writing those for fifteen years now?” she asked.

“More like thirty-five,” he said, walking over to his bookcase. “Some say the author, Kreslen Dimarth, sold the series to someone else who writes under his name. The arc with the Brostchik Brothers seems to be a departure in writing style for Dimarth.”

“I see,” she said with mock seriousness. “What if Dimarth suffered a stroke or amnesia? Maybe he had to learn to write all over again?”

“That’s a thought about it, but I don’t believe it,” he said. “Now, shh, I don’t want my madra to find out.”

“Why? You’re a grown man with a job and a wife. You can do whatever you’d like.”

“Being a rino, a little boy, never ends,” he said, looking over at her “I will always be my madra’s little boy. I will always be cared for and protected, but I will also always be held to a high standard. Rinos did their schoolwork and didn’t spend their allowances on frivolous tales of adventure. And I’d like my madra to think that I always behaved, even when I didn’t.”

“I can understand that. Your mother molded you into the man you are today.”

“She tried.” He began fiddling with a grate near the bookcase.

“What are you doing? Is that another hiding place?”

“Br’vanese houses have these little cubbies to hold strong scented wax or herbal oil in dishes. When the fire gets warm enough, they give off aromas to make the room smell good. I used to put my latest Kiesh novels in those, though I doubt they’re still there.”

He finally unscrewed the grate and pulled it off. He reached inside, brushing past the warm silver dish to the back of the hole. Instead of paper, he found something hard and warm. “Huh,” he said, pulling it out.

“What is it?”

He pulled it out and held it up to the fire. It was a metallic icon with three horizontal lines, each getting shorter the farther down they went. “A Brother’s cross? No, there are two extra arms.”

“Al…” Anla said.

“What? What is it?”

“It doesn’t look familiar to you?” She walked over and took the icon, holding it up to her face.

It took him a few moments to realize what she meant, and another to get over the sinking feeling in his stomach. “A trirec symbol? But why…? You said my madra wasn’t his target.”

“She isn’t, Al. She’s the one who hired him.”