11-18

Raulin was warm and comfortable, covered and dry and satiated. He heard the soft sound of a woman humming, but knew immediately it wasn’t his mother. His mother’s voice had been full-throated and trained; this woman’s song was reaching, searching for a particular note or tone. It wasn’t a song for comfort but for some other purpose.

He cracked open his eyes, or at least one since the other was swollen shut. Anla was leaning over him, a compress in her hands. “Good morning,” she said kindly.

His forearms were cleaned and bandaged as well as his head. “Good morning,” he croaked. She brought a teacup of water to his lips and he drank until his throat no longer hurt. “How long?”

“Just the night. Telbarisk brought you in around midnight and it’s nine o’clock now.”

“Why were you humming? I’ve never heard you do that before.”

“It’s one of the things a baerd can do, from what I’ve read. Not only can they manipulate sound and it’s structure, but manipulate how people hear the sound and its effect on them. It’s like when I influence someone, but instead of stoking their fear or desire, I’m encouraging healing. At least, I’m trying to.”

He gingerly touched his face. “It doesn’t seem as bad as I was expecting. Well done.”

She smiled. “Actually, that was likely Al’s doing. He put you into a deep sleep and helped you heal with the Calm. He was reluctant to do so, but did it.”

“He didn’t..?” He touched his bare face again, mapping out the swelling. Definitely not the worst he’d had, but he doubted Marin Liasorn would get many donations looking like he did.

“He was upset about it, saying it was best done where he could see if the magic was affecting you and how, but agreed to help without any light to see by.”

“That was kind of him. I know how he feels about healing me.”

“I think he was more afraid of killing you, since the last time he used the Calm he killed a man.”

Raulin closed his eye for a moment. “I need to apologize to you.”

“I know,” she said, placing the cool compress on his face. “I assume you met your betrayer last night and you’ve realized it wasn’t us. I forgive you, but only if you tell me who it was.”

“Three rogue trirecs who took it upon themselves to punish me further for killing Afren.”

“Ah,” she said. “It would have been my guess, but you didn’t want to hear it.”

“I didn’t,” he said. “I’m sorry. It’s still hard for me to trust people as much as I’ve been trusting you three. Your work has been exceptional, and because of that I keep feeling like something is going to come along and ruin it. It almost seemed expected that one of you was going to betray me.”

“And that’s not something I can tell you you’re wrong about. You’ll just have to see that we won’t again and again.”

“On that note,” he said, feeling queasy in his stomach, “I’ve been meaning to talk to you and apologize about that night a few months ago at the libertine ball.”

The crinkle around her eyes disappeared. “I should be apologizing for that. I wanted to show you that I was worthy of a partnership and wound up forcing my magic on you. That was unfair.”

“I should have trusted that you could handle yourself, especially since I knew you could.”

“We’re even, then?”

“Yes,” he said, trying to smile with swollen and cracked lips. “And I want to help you learn more about your magic. When we’re traveling, I’d like to set aside some time to give you an opportunity to experiment.”

“That’s quite a leap in faith!” she said. “Thank you.” She rose and brought over a bowl of soup. “Since you’re awake, I’ll have you sit up and eat this broth. Al’s at the apothecary, since one should be open now, and he’ll bring back some healing salve for your cuts. I’ll leave you to rest some more.”

Before she left, she turned from the doorway. “For what it’s worth, you’re a really great kisser.”

He stopped mid spoonful. “I’m sure someone else has kissed you like that before.”

“No, definitely not,” she said, smirking, before closing the door.

Later that evening, snugly masked, Raulin went to the adjourning room where Al, Anla, and Tel were sitting, eating a take-away dinner. Without saying a word, Raulin got to his knees, folding his arms behind his back, and bowed.

“What is he doing?” Al asked.

“Asking for forgiveness,” Raulin replied. “I will stay like this until it is accepted.”

“So, we could leave you there for hours?”

“Al,” Anla chastised. “We forgive you, Raulin.”

“Thank you. I was starting to feel faint.” He took a seat on the desk. “I regret to inform you all that I did not get the funding I needed for the next portion of our journey. It’s not dire; I still have some funds in my account, but I would prefer to exchange with Arvarikor agents and leave a paper trail. That way they won’t suspect I have monetary means outside their control.”

“I think we should take the train up to Whitney,” Anla said, “and let you rest a bit more. I’m sure I can cover our tickets.”

“Ispen first. There are no agents in Whitney or anywhere north of there. I’ve decided to switch things up and go to Baradan first. It’s starting to cool there and I’m afraid we might get caught in a snowstorm if I leave it for later. Besides, at this point I’d rather have my order confused as to where I’m going, should someone else want to take liberties with my schedule.”

“That’s wonderful!” Al said. ” I’ll show you all the sights and take you to the best restaurants.”

“One other thing. I’ve decided to help Anla learn more about her magic. I’m hoping that you’ll extend her the same courtesy.”

“Oh,” Al said. “I’ll…have to think about it.”

“Better than a ‘no’, I suppose. I’m going to go lay down again and we can set out in a day or two.”

At some point in the night, Raulin awoke to find Anla curled up next to him, her head on his bare chest. He sighed and pulled her closer, closing his eyes and falling deeply asleep.

11-17

“You can barely see them in the lamp,” someone said in a language that was familiar, but not comfortable to him.

“He should have done a better job,” another said and he felt someone touch his forearms.

Raulin must have passed out again because he didn’t remember anything else being said. He awoke to the searing pain of someone cutting his arm, deep and without remorse. He screamed through clenched teeth and tried to break free of the bindings that kept him seated in a chair.

“Stop!” he yelled in Ghenian. “Why are you doing this?”

They didn’t listen. Five more times the sharp pain throbbed as knives sliced his flesh, warm blood trailing to the sides and dripping onto the floor. Without his mask and in the dim light, he couldn’t see much more than vague shapes and flashes of silver. It wasn’t enough in his current condition to guess beyond basic feelings of pain, anger, and a little bit of fear.

When it was done, he sagged and breathed heavily. He only had a few moments before someone struck him across the face. “Now, let’s talk, Raulin Kemor,” someone said in the same language, his voice reedy and young sounding. Raulin was conscious enough at that point to recognize it was Merakian.

“Who are you?” he asked. Merakian meant home-not-home, the place where he had learned to do just what they were doing to him. These were his brothers, but not his kin.

There was a meaty whap sound and the pain along his jaw blossomed. He spit out blood, but remained silent. Apparently, they didn’t want an equal exchange of information and his only reply to his inquiries would be injury.

Someone grabbed his jaw and he looked up to see a man in a mask, silver and darker in strips across the man’s eyes, nose, and mouth. Trirec. Yes, things were just starting to pass through the haze. “Admit that you killed him.”

“Who?” he asked and was rewarded with another punch to the face. His teeth felt loose and he spit another glob of blood onto the ground. He was here to exchange beads for money and was ambushed in the dark by… other trirecs?

Him. You killed him dishonorably, you cur. Admit it.”

“I’ve killed a lot of men. You’ll have to be more specific.” They had re-sliced his forearms into the shame sigil. The connection almost reached him.

“Stop,” another man said. “We won’t be able to understand him if we keep hitting his face.”

Which trirecs were these three, assuming the agent was in on it? He didn’t know many, other than those he had led out of the hedge maze in Miachin and Isken. The only other ones he’d encountered had been agents. He nodded slightly to himself. Agents in Iascond and in southern New Wextif who had made a note about what had happened with Afren. They must have gone rogue and decided to take justice into their own hands.

“You mean Afren Merak. Yes, I killed him,” he said and croaked as he was punched in the stomach, gasping for air.

“Tell us what happened.”

When he could finally breath again, he said, “It was not what I wanted.”

“Lies!” another yelled and he was clubbed in the head again. While it made him woozy, and he suspected he was bleeding heavily from thisnew wound, it didn’t knock him out. He moaned and slumped forward, hoping he could be given more time to recover while they waited for him to awake.

The first man who spoke sighed angrily. “You wanted answers, Ratzik. You cannot keep hitting him or else we will kill him.”

“Let’s,” the second said and Raulin heard him cuffed on his head.

“We cannot kill him. We have discussed this.”

“But, he killed my master…”

“Go, Ratzik. Curvot and I will handle this.”

Curvot? Yes, that was the agent from Iascond. Ratzik must have been the northern New Wextif agent, since the man asking the questions seemed to have the same calm demeanor he remembered from the southern agent. Raulin groaned and lifted his head slowly.

“Again, Kemor. Tell us what happened.”

“Happened?” he asked, then added quickly, “Afren. We were…pitted against each other. He was guarding a man that I was contracted to kill. We fought, more like we talked, and while we did someone else killed his employer.”

“Lies!” Ratzik said, though this time from the corner. “Afren would never have let a man sneak in and take the life of his protected!”

“I didn’t see him, either. We were distracted.”

“And so?” the first man asked.

“When we checked on his employer and found he was dead, we both enacted the code. I cut my arms, then slit his throat. It was hard.”

“That’s not what you said when we spoke,” Curvot said.

“Was I supposed to admit that I loved him like a father? We can’t form attachments. We can’t show loyalty or appreciation or favoritism. Why would I tell someone who would whisper back to the trivren in Hanala?”

“Yet, you admit your feelings.”

“I’m as guilty as you three are. Leaving your posts, going rogue to enact your vengeance on behalf of a cherished teacher. Whether you’re friends or just in a pact, you’ve broken the same code I did.”

“Never mind what we’re doing…”

“Oh, I will mind. And so will Arvarikor when they hear of this.”

“I wouldn’t breath a word, Kemor,” Curvot said, “unless you want them to know about the man and woman you keep company with, the ones who did your contracts for you.”

And then it finally clicked. “You told the Cumber. You’ve been watching me, waiting for me to strike on that theft so that you could tell them I was coming. How deep are you with them?”

“They are stupid miartha who thought they were getting a wonderful deal. Capture you, deliver you to us for one day, then we bring you to them to be arrested.”

“Idiots,” Raulin hissed and saw the two in front of him tense. “They tried to recruit me. The told me you had turned on me and tried to get me to join them. Did you think they were actually going to turn me over? They were going to either make me turn or torture me for the information they wanted.”

“Since you’re here it means you’re one of them,” Curvot said.

“No, I escaped because I am of Arvarikor and they are just the Cumber. If I was one of them, would I have come here to exchange money?”

“It could be a trap,” Curvot said to the first man.

“It’s not a trap,” Raulin said. “I told them how incredibly stupid it was to try to recruit one of us, then showed them by escaping their own building and city. Though I do promise that if you don’t let me go, I will do exactly what you did and will assist the Cumber until all three of you are caught.”

“Not if we kill you first,” Ratzik said from his corner.

“And to quote my friend here, I also have partners who check in on me. The Cumber isn’t coming for you, but my partners are and all three are skilled in magic.”

There was silence as the three trirecs thought about their situation. “Look,” Raulin said, feeling his head lurch for a moment, “if you plan on killing me, then finish me off. You’d be doing me a favor, really. I’m sure everyone in Arvarikor knows I’m dishonored and I’ll never get special treatment again. And now the Cumber knows there is a Noh Amairian trirec, so my one advantage is wiped out. I’ll never be able to do a full docket again and one false step will have me whipped to death anyway.”

“He’s right,” the first man said. “He’s worse off living than he would be dead.”

“But, he killed Afren!”

“Did he call you ‘son’, too?” Raulin asked. “Did he tell you about his wife and daughter?”

“Kemor, you spread vicious lies…”

“Yes,” Ratzik said, and that realization broke Raulin’s heart a little. He had always thought Afren and he had a special connection, a boy looking for a father just as much as a man looking for a son. It wasn’t that at all. Afren had picked at least one other to forge the same bond. He was just that type of man.

The first man pulled Raulin’s boot knife out and held it to his throat. “Our terms: We are finished. We will not speak of this day or what happened during it. No retaliation by our hands or the hands of any other. No trivren will learn of this or be involved. We will leave, then you will. Agreed?”

“Agreed,” he said. The knife was removed and the straps to his left arm were cut.

“Know the day you find yourself damned, and you will, we will celebrate by pissing on your grave.” The door opened then closed, and Raulin almost fainted. He cut his straps quickly and was surprised to find that, other than his mask being removed and put on the desk, they hadn’t touched his weapons or beads.

He seemed fine going down the stairs, but he stumbled once outside. Somehow he walked foot in front of foot until he reached Telbarisk.

“Raulin? Are you fine?”

“Take me… to the…ho…” he said before he passed out.

11-16

“What?” Anla asked in a hoarse whisper. “Betrayed? Raulin, what happened?”

“You, Wizard?” he asked, turning to him. “My money is on you.”

“Did what? I just gave you the Unease. It should have worn off by now.”

“I’m not talking about your magic. I was caught by the director and somehow the Cumber knew I was coming, knew my name, even knew I was Noh Amairian.”

“Well…he is the director of the Cumber…” Al began.

“He specifically said, ‘Your people gave you up’.”

“What if he meant another trirec told him? Wouldn’t they more likely be ‘your people’ than us?”

Raulin gave a mirthless laugh. “A trirec tip off the Cumber? It would be like a wolf bathing a rabbit.”

“I don’t know what to tell you,” Al said, “but I didn’t say anything. I mean, sure, if you were jailed in New Wextif, I might be able to take some additional courses at Amandorlam or study in the King’s Library, but what’s the point if I’m tethered? And what happens if you’re found guilty, tried, and even executed before the year is up? I couldn’t pretend to be a lawyer here. I got away with it in Carvek because it’s a hick town too far away from Quisset. New Wextif would know immediately that I’m not a lawyer and then I’d be jailed. And there goes reading back copies of Kiesh the Black and Arvonnese alley novels.”

Al was nothing if not honest. Besides, this would be a perfect opportunity for him to bask in Raulin’s misfortune, which he wasn’t doing. “Tel? Did you say something to someone on the streets?”

His eyebrows furrowed. “No, Raulin. I always said I was here with friends when I talked to people. The only time they saw me with you was when you needed me to sit for a job and during the things involving Kazithu.”

He turned and didn’t, couldn’t, even ask her. “No,” Anla said, shaking her head. “None of us hamstrung you, Raulin. I swear it. Al and Tel are telling the truth and so am I.”

“Since none of you are willing to admit it, I’m going to have to make some changes. There will be no more jobs. There will be no more rewards, no more payments. You three will sit in the hotel all day, unless I tell you to stay somewhere else.”

“No, Raulin, please don’t…” Anla began.

“I can’t trust you! After all this!” He clenches his fists to stop them from shaking. “You pressed me for more. ‘Share your jobs, Raulin. Trust us, Raulin, let us help.’ And what do you do but run to the Cumber and ruin my one remaining advantage! I used to be able to do my jobs with ease because no one expected a Noh Amairian trirec. Now…” He sighed, exhausted from the night’s events.

Anla began to speak, but Tel put his hand on her arm and shook his head. Instead, Al spoke. “This is what you deserve after you betrayed me, telling me that you needed my help back in Iascond when you were just playing me for a fool.”

“So it was you,” he said, ready to rip his throat out.

He snorted, not realizing his immediate danger. “There’s a difference between schadenfreude and treachery. I’m just glad to see you in a position where you can finally understand what it feels like to be hurt like that. I didn’t do it. I don’t even know how I would get into contact with the Cumber. I suppose I’d go to a police station, but why would they pass my petition along? The only one of us who could have done it was Anla, since she’s the best connected.”

“Al,” she hissed. “I didn’t do it.”

“No, I’m not saying you did. I just mean that you’d be most likely, but you didn’t. Why would you?”

Raulin looked at Tel and crooked his finger. “Pack your things. We’re leaving as soon as I finish my affairs in New Wextif.”

“Where are you going?” Anla asked, but his answer was a slammed door.

It was past midnight and Raulin knew he wouldn’t get to see the agent for north New Wextif tonight. He broke into an accessory shop, took yellow and orange ribbons, and left a generous five silver to make up for the inconvenience. He tied those around a flagpole at the designated spot and returned to walk back to the hotel with Telbarisk.

The grivven had been silent on the way to the meeting spot and remained so for most of the walk back until he turned to Raulin and said, “If you need to speak to someone, I’ll be available.”

Raulin sighed bitterly. “And why would I speak to you?”

“Because you know none of us betrayed you.”

“I don’t know that, actually. It seems very likely that one of you did. You, Anla, and Al were the only ones to know I was going to the Cumber. How else can it be explained?”

“Many things have answers that we will never know,” he said. “Why do the stars shine in the sky? Why are there deserts and lush lands? Why are we here?”

“Save the corner-priest wisdom for another day, unless you can figure out a solution.”

When they returned to the hotel, he told Telbarisk to join Al and Anla and slept alone that night. He had a lot of thinking to do and he didn’t want anyone to bother him.

The next day he dragged Telbarisk out again and made it to Breakhorse Hill, where his orange and yellow ribbons had been replaced with a green one requesting a meeting. Perhaps they were heeding the yellow ribbon he’d left and wanted to be very cautious. Still, it was odd that they wouldn’t want to get the bead-to-coin exchange done quickly.

The address was a few blocks away and was set for this evening. Raulin had nothing to do for eight hours but take in the sights, eat, and shop. He did all of those, but mostly his down time was spent thinking more about what had happened last night.

What had stopped him from choking the wizard outright is the sliver of doubt he entertained about the matter. Had the director been telling the truth? He’d learned some interrogation techniques in Arvarikor that saved your hands from breaking on your target’s face, namely to be friendly, isolate, and make whatever promises you think your prisoner wants to hear. The viscount had done just that in his recruitment. He had invited Raulin to his office after some banter, told him his people had given him up, and offered him a comfortable future.

Raulin’s gut was telling him that the director had been telling the truth, though. He hadn’t pressed hard on the fact, just mentioning it as an aside. And it was a valuable piece of information to give away for free, warning him that he was being back-stabbed.

Which brought him again to who his people were. To be fair, he considered Merakians, Arvarikor, and Noh Amairians as well, but couldn’t understand how it could be anyone but Al, Anla, or Tel. Arvarikor knew he was in New Wextif, yes, but to have the dates pinned down was impossible. The fake time line he had given them had assumed he’d be looking into the Cumber in a few months.

So, it was back to his three companions. He didn’t suspect Tel, which is why he was taking him as his tether. If Tel had told someone from the Cumber about Raulin, it would have been accidentally and not maliciously, perhaps someone asking him questions on the street that he innocently answered. If Tel had turned on him, his whole world would be upside-down.

The wizard had the motivation and the desire to really rake Raulin over the coals. He wouldn’t understand the consequences; he’d just hurt him as much as he could. But did ratting someone out go against his morals? Those were unbendable, so long as they were explicit. Raulin had no doubt that, given the opportunity, Al would turn him in. But when they were still attached for another nine months? Doubtful. And the stupid blighter didn’t have the backbone for treachery. Raulin was sure he’d read enough about it one of his novels to hate it, too.

Anla, however, was the only one other than him that knew that a quick sentencing and death would mean freedom for the other three. She had the access, as Al had pointed out, and could have run messages through the Mesh to the Cumber. But, she had no motive. He was sure she was still irked at least a little about the night of the libertine ball, but since then things seemed well between them. She enjoyed eating dinner with him and loved to learn about cuisine. She had appreciated the work and the freedom that came with it. It baffled his mind to think it was her.

And so he spent the day running scenarios and possibilities through his mind until it was twilight. No closer to an answer, he formulated his plan as he walked back to Breakhorse Hill. What if he spoke to Al and Anla separately and told them he’d pay fifty gold if they could come up with hard proof that the other had betrayed him? He’d promise to drop all the restrictions as well. Or perhaps he didn’t need to offer gold to Anla; she’d do it just to have her freedom back.

The building seemed nondescript of some drab-colored brick and tiled roof. The meeting was on the second floor, up a flight of stairs and into an office. He’d seen a few agents hold small rooms as a place to work on contracts or an easier place to be found.

The door was open, so he didn’t bother knocking. It was dark save a lamp lit in the corner. The agent was sitting next to it and he beckoned Raulin over.

A flash of white struck his mind and he jerked down. It didn’t save him from being hit, but he wasn’t knocked out, like he would have been. He whirled, his knives drawn, stalking the circle around him for enemies. He turned right, trying to put his back to the wall for a better vantage against his opponent.

It would have worked if there had been only one. He wound up walking right past another man with a club, who struck him directly on the head. He barely remembered the black overtaking him as he fell unconscious.

11-15

“Our guest is going with me,” the director said, speaking loudly into the hallway. As Raulin left, he saw several men with crossbows on either end in what was called the Pinned Rood Formation; five men, two resting their weapons on the shoulders of the middle man and the other two resting theirs on their knees. One false move and he’d potentially have ten bolts in places he didn’t want them, namely his body. He was flattered.

Fremark led him up all four flights of stairs to an office that took up four smaller office spaces. He invited Raulin to sit and offered him a drink. “Brandy? Wine?”

“Water, if you have it,” conceding that his throat was burning from thirst. “I never drink when I’m on the job.”

“I do appreciate a man with a good work ethic,” he said, pouring him a glass from a pitcher. Raulin sniffed the glass and tongued the rim, testing for poisons. He knew the man didn’t want him dead, but incapacitated or eager to please were likely possibilities. Thankfully, the serums he knew to do either had distinctive smells. He gambled that the Cumber didn’t have their own and drained the glass.

“Fascinating,” Fremark said, gesturing to the bottom piece of his mask. “May I?”

Raulin tucked it away in his knapsack as an answer. “You were saying something about a proposition.”

“Yes,” the director said. He sat behind his desk, which blocked the two windows in the room, and lit the gas lamp. “Trirecs are one of very few people on Yine that are the bane of the Cumber’s existence. Every time we investigate a situation that involves one of your order, we are left befuddled. You sneak in like a shadow, kill or steal without difficulty, and vanish in the night. It makes us nervous and frustrated.”

“Thank you, and it should.”

Raulin could tell from the man’s look that he didn’t take kindly to his response, but he said nothing, sipping on his own glass of whiskey and weighing his words. “Do they teach you of western history?”

“Some. It’s always good to know things.”

“Do you know of the Skirmish of Carmitage, which took place in Okil against the Kitstuaran clansmen that took it upon themselves to reclaim lost territory?”

“If I remember correctly, the Kitstuaran clansmen dressed as Okilians and slaughtered many village heads and nobles over the course of a few nights.”

“Correct. It was brought up in a meeting about our ongoing trirec problem. Not a precise example, but if we could ‘dress’ like a trirec, we could in turn know how to prepare ourselves against one. We could learn to be one in order to fight one.”

“And I take it I’m that tailor.”

“Just a fraction of your secrets would make us the best in the world,” Fremark said. “And we would pay handsomely for them.”

Raulin paused, considering the implications. “Just so I understand, you took out a contract against yourself, in hopes of luring a trirec to take it, so you could catch him and offer him the opportunity to commit treason against his order by divulging all of Arvarikor’s secrets, thus hoping to nullify the order.”

“That’s the crux of it.”

“I’ll have to pass, with respect.”

“You haven’t even heard my offer with it…”

“I don’t need to,” he said, leaning back in his chair. “Betraying my order would be suicide. You think your service has eyes and ears everywhere, you haven’t seen what Arvarikor is capable of, even in a foreign country where each of its men sticks out on the streets like a poorly set cobblestone. It would take one, just one, trirec to hunt me down and kill me.”

“What if I said you’d be protected all day, every day by my men?”

“I’d say your men would have to be trained very quickly to combat whomever they send against me.”

“It would be our priority.”

“And after I spill my secrets and train your men? How quickly until I find myself garroted in the middle of the night or have an unfortunate ‘accident’?”

Fremark chuckled. “You have a healthy appetite for dark futures.”

“No, I have a firm understanding of what men do with old mares and worn clothing.”

“I’m sure some organizations would do that once they have what they need. But, why would we kill a well-trained spy? You would be recruited, of course, and rushed through our ranks until you’re at an appropriate level. We’d pay you well and you’d receive some perks I believe you can’t enjoy as a trirec.”

As well as Raulin was holding against the idea, he had to admit that was a bit tempting. He didn’t care about the pay, of course, but a wife? Kids? A home? For one very long moment, he thought a future where he courted Anla and married her, found some quiet place outside the city, and raised a family. “Would I get a nice uniform?” he asked brightly.

Fremark blinked. “For official capacities we have uniforms, but as a spy you’d wear regular clothing. We’d keep your identity a secret.”

“Aw. No fancy cape? No pretty buttons on my cuffs?”

“You’re mocking me.”

“Of course I’m mocking you,” Raulin said, folding his arms. “This idea is ludicrous. The Cumber is quite the network, I’ll grant you that. You have the support of Gheny, the law, and the king. You’re hard to find and work well in the shadows. But, you’re not Arvarikor. We are everywhere and we are ruthless. That doesn’t hinder us from doing what we need to do to get the job done.”

“You kill indiscriminately, muck up treaties, and sow chaos.”

“Would it help if I told you we aren’t indiscriminate? We get dozens of assassination contracts yearly for some very high profile people that we reject. Even we understand that killing monarchs and bishops is a bad idea, for us if not for everyone; a nation in political turmoil is generally not a place that’s conducive to contracts nor is it safe enough for trirecs.”

“That helps a modicum, but you’re still operating outside the law. We are tasked with keeping the law. Two opposite ends that can be bridged by cooperation. All we need is you.”

“Why haven’t you gone to the offices in Riyala or Hanala and spoken with one of the heads?”

“A bit risky, to be honest, and not likely to get the results I want.”

“Mmm. So, you wish for me to break my honor and code of ethics so that you can in turn break Arvarikor and achieve what I’m sure will be some personal glory.” He stood and Fremark jumped to the ready. “My answer is ‘no’ and I’m sure you’ll find the same no matter how many contracts you issue.”

“I’m sorry we couldn’t come to a pleasant arrangement,” the director said, pulling his blade. “We’ll have to do it the hard way.”

“Ah, so that’s the choice, then: accolades or torture. I hope you won’t think me rude if I’m not around for the latter.”

“Escape? I have my men stationed in the hallway.”

“Yes, but there’s only one man standing in between me and the window. And now I present a choice for you: what do you value more?” He leaned forward and knocked the lamp to the floor, instantly igniting the oil.

Surprisingly, Fremark ignored it and engaged Raulin, who had ducked to the left side of the desk. Knives usually had the advantage in close range, and Raulin also had his light-intensifying mask, but it only took one mistake for the point of the director’s rapier to pierce his chest in a shallow wound. It would have been worse had the man not grab his wrist in pain and drop his sword.

“Who are you?” he asked, his eyes wild in the flames.

“Why do you ask questions you should already know the answers to?” Raulin asked before climbing out the window and dropping two stories to the top of the covered walkway, rolling to avoid breaking his legs.

The alarm was raised immediately and he set off running to the Amanstri Gate. He ducked into alleys when he could, zig-zagging to shake his tail. He could either run through the gate and risk people realizing his secret or hide and wait for the commotion to die down. Neither was a great choice, but one of them wouldn’t endanger his order’s security.

For the next hour he played an exhausting game of cat-and-mouse. He led the guards all throughout Shingden, moving them back towards the main gate, hiding in alleys, behind crates, in shops and restaurants, running once he heard them approach. He took to the roofs and watched as they floundered to find him, finally looking up and pointing him out to their comrades.

And then he led them back to the Amanstri Gate and hid in a cart parked outside a shop. He heard the posse catch up and calls were made to split up to search for him. He itched to run, but held out. If they did discover him, at least there would only be a few of them to give chase.

He risked taking off his mask and pretended he had just woken up from a drunken nap. He didn’t see anyone around, but that didn’t mean no one saw him. He took his time meandering to the Amanstri Gate and slipped through, Scot-free.

It was a long walk back to the hotel. The three were waiting in the common room, jumping up when he arrived. “How did it go?” Anla asked. When he said nothing and walked up the stairs to his room, she followed. “Raulin?”

He ushered them in and waited until they were all seated before locking the door. He turned and asked, “Which one of you betrayed me?”

11-14

Bracefort, now that was a castle. A massive one, too, with dozens of towers and turrets, battlements that lined the entire wall, arrow slits, murder holes, machicolations, and ramparts a plenty. And it was all stone, too, with only banners of blue, red, and white to break up the monotony.

Should an army or a gang of pirates decide to attack Shingden and somehow make it past New Wextif’s defenses, they’d have the difficult task of entering Bracefort made almost impossible by additional security. The only direct access point for an intruder would be through the general gate, but the bridge to the barbican would be drawn and the moat surrounding it treacherously wide and deep. Each church of the Twelve occupied a part on the wall had an entrance, but they were often heavily guarded and not easy to navigate, a bottleneck that could clog easily. And the Amanstri Gate was available only for blooded individuals, and most pirates were unlikely to be noble.

The gate let blooded individuals through and also those with masks that nullified certain magic. It was a well-guarded secret what the exact properties the soft, gray metal inside the trirec masks could do and even Raulin didn’t know all of them. But in this case, all he had to do was saunter through the gate and pen a fake name to a guest book in the nearby booth. Too easy, sure, but when it came to the Cumber, he’d take whatever advantages he could find.

The actual keep of the royal family, Bracefort, rose to his left. The main entrance was to the south to reduce the ease of access and was guarded by a company of guards. He ignored it, not needing nor wanting a tour.

The sunset cast a beautiful rose-gold glow against the paned windows of the shops that lined the street. As this was the place that nobles arrived and congregated, the buildings were well-cared for and sold higher quality items. The people strolling in the street here were mostly dressed well, though there were a few people who were likely servants based on their attire. A woman with a stained apron and worn leather boots almost bumped into him, quickly leaving even though he said nothing to her.

Raulin shook his head. Al had warned him that having the Unease transferred would make his sight and hearing better, sometimes to the point of distraction. He looked at his map discretely and began plotting his course and moved ahead down Main Street.

The neighborhood soon roughened to tighter buildings and mixed materials. It was a far cry from some slums Raulin had seen, and, in fact, nowhere in Shingden was it really poor, but it was still less aesthetically pleasing.

About a mile down the road he spotted the blue-tiled building that took up a full block length-wise. A sign proclaiming it to be the incorporated business owned by the Farestri brothers hung over the door to a shop that sold books, newspapers, pens, ink, and other writing implementations. Those paying attention would note that the store was tiny, just a fraction the size of the long building, but no one seemed to pay attention to it.

To the side, underneath a canopied walkway, was the door that would be the easiest access for Raulin. It would mean he’d have to pick the lock between the minute-long interval a guard wasn’t present, which hadn’t set well with him. He’d practiced earlier in the day, but it wasn’t going to help him much when it came to doing it under pressure.

As he stood across the street, a thin, muffled voice swirled around him. “That’s it,” Anla said. “Tel says there are twenty men inside and there are three above-ground levels and two below-ground. The man standing at the corner across from you is the guard. Good luck.” Ah, he wished she would stay with him while he did this. He could have snuck her in, too, but he realized this was going to be the safest way should something happen.

He looked across the street and saw a bearded man lighting a cigarette. His vision was so fine-tuned that he could read the words on the side of the cigarette box if he wanted to, but instead leaned against the building, holding up a broken pocket watch like he was waiting for someone. The man took a few puffs then turned to his left. Raulin watched as he made a very inconspicuous route to the back of the building, stopping here and there to examine paint on the side of the building or scuffed his boots on the gravel. He was guarding the secret more than the contents of the building.

Hoping that Telbarisk hadn’t missed another guard perched somewhere, he bolted down the alley to the side of the building and found the door with little trouble. He examined it, surprised that not only was there only one lock, but it was an old skeleton key system instead of the newer, more difficult tumbler locks he’d had to deal with frequently. Still, his sweaty hands made it harder than it needed to be. He heard the guard turn the corner just as the bolt slid and he slipped behind the door.

Raulin re-locked the door and slipped his mask on, appreciating it’s ability to soak in what little light was in the room and heightening it. He was in a short, nondescript entrance with a door about ten feet from where he was standing. That, too, was locked, but again with just a simple skeleton key system. The bolt clicked and he paused to hear if anyone was moving on the other side. Silence.

This had seemed easy, but as Raulin knew, even the most mysterious and frightening specters were tangible. This was a place that shrouded itself in obscurity, it’s people lurking in shadows. They bled when cut, the building burnt when set ablaze. It was no different than Arvarikor, its myths revealed in a puff of air.

To his right would be the fake storefront, so he went left and found two passages almost at the end of the building. The left led up, the right down, both barely wide enough to hold two people walking sideways. He used the sides of the stairs and the railing to reduce the noise, which he could barely hear in his borrowed state.

And finally, once he was through that door, began the menial task of hunting for one folder amidst thousands. There were twelve rooms on either side and two floors of what he guessed were mostly archives and reports. He walked to the end, opened the right-side door, and began inspecting.

He quickly swept each and every room, marking with borrowed chalk which were locked and which were unlikely to hold what he needed. The first round was quick, perhaps twenty minutes. The second, more methodical sweep, took hours. His eyes were starting to grit and the Unease felt like it was wearing off when he finally pulled a reddish-brown folder from a back cabinet with the required label and papers and stuffed it under the back of his shirt.

Raulin stood and froze. Something felt odd. The hair on the back of his neck stood as he turned to see a man casually leaned in the doorway. “We’ve been expecting you,” he said.

He stood facing the door, trying to figure his next course of action. The room’s one exit was blocked by this man. Rush him? What if there were guards in the hallway with crossbows? Tel had said there were twenty men in the building, but he wouldn’t have mentioned if they had weapons or armor. He couldn’t be sure he’d survive an escape.

Raulin slowly pulled his knives out and waited. The man, of average height, weight, and a mean pair of mutton chop sideburns, could have killed him or had him arrested already, so he wanted something. “There’s no need for a fight,” the man said. “Besides, I have a sword and a lot of training with it.”

“And I have the advantage of tight quarters as well as the fact that I’ve killed with my blades.”

“Ah, good. You speak Ghenian. I was worried you’d only speak Merakian, though I suppose if you got the right folio then you must.”

He fingered his blades, twisting the hilts. “Folio? I’m searching for a seal.”

“No, you’re not. On your person is a folio for a Thermi Alcomb, AN-136. I know because I was the one who hired you.”

His mouth went dry and his stomach curdled. A set-up. Another set-up. “So, I should be giving it to you, then?”

“If you wish. You’ve already succeeded and I have no plans of contesting the contract with Arvarikor, no matter what you choose.”

“Choose?” he asked.

The man shifted his weight so he stood on both feet. “First, introductions. My name is Dangic Fremark, Viscount of South Quissend but more importantly the Director of His Majesty’s Intelligence and Reconnaissance Service, also known as the Cumber. And you are Raulin Kemor, the first Noh Amairian trirec on record.”

A chill ran up his spine and spread across his skin, coating his whole body in cold. “That’s quite an accusation.”

“I wouldn’t accuse without proof. Your people gave you up, warned the Cumber you were here and were fulfilling your contract. They told us all about you, including your unique heritage.”

Raulin had never felt the unique sensation of feeling like he’d been punched in the stomach and slapped in the face at the same time. Betrayal was not an act he was familiar with, especially not the one being betrayed. He shoved aside the immediate swirl of accusations in his mind of which one of the three had sold him out to focus on his immediate situation. “This seems a rather odd conversation to have. You’ve caught me stealing from you. You could have me arrested and thrown in jail, but instead you’re introducing yourself and laying out your information. Why?”

“Well, I thought we could come to some other arrangements. If you’ll follow me, I’d like to propose something.”

“If it’s all the same, I’d rather be on my way now.”

“I’m sure you would,” he said with a quick snort of laughter. “While you stay within these walls, you are safe. However, if you leave without my blessing, I cannot guarantee you’ll live very long. I’d recommend at least hearing me out.”

“I suppose that’s fair.” Wherever he was taking Raulin, it had to be more adventitious to escape from than an underground room with no windows.