As they left the shipping warehouse, Anla grabbed Al’s arm and squeezed. “You really did miss your calling. Well done.”
“Thanks,” he said, grinning. “It reminded me of getting Tel off the hook down in Wyok. At least I get paid this time.”
They started walking across the street to the point they were supposed to meet up with Raulin. “What made you think it was Vint?”
“It was when Gerark said he had…”
“Hey!” The two turned and saw Crossel standing fifteen feet behind them.
“Yes?” Al asked.
The worker crossed the difference in space and stood in front of Al, despite it being the middle of the street. He sniffed and thumbed his nose. Anla’s mouth pursed around the “w” sound of “watch out!” right before Crossel cocked his arm back and slugged Al across the jaw.
Al staggered to the side, tripping over his feet. “Stay out of people’s business, khalit!”
“Hey!” Al said, standing his full five feet, five inches. Crossel turned back and was decked in the face full-force by Al’s fist.
Anla stood by, shocked by the first punch, then stupefied by Al’s response. Crossel had a good one hundred pounds on Al’s frame, but even still was being pommeled by the diminutive Al, a cordial glass slamming into a mug over and over again. When Crossel fell, Al jumped on him, saddling his hips and getting better angles.
The look of shock hadn’t left Crossel’s face during the rain of blows. He at least had started to defend himself, only to have his hand broken or sprained when it was crushed between Al and his own face. Al, for his part, was honed in on Crossel’s face, looking for openings and muttering the whole time. Most were swears, but she overheard him say once, through clenched teeth, “I hate you, Aggie.”
“Whoa! Hey! No need to audition for the butcher!” she heard and broke out of her trance when she saw Raulin scoop up Al’s arms from behind and haul him off the already puffy-faced wizard. Al yanked back and forth, trying to slide out, but gave up after a few moments and let himself be dragged off the man.
Crossel turned to the side, coughed, and spat blood. Through his slit eyes he looked over at Al, but Anla couldn’t tell what expression he was making. It was like trying to read a lumpy potato.
Anla followed them across the street to an alley where Raulin stood, guarding the entrance from Al’s escape. Al was putting the bellows to mend, his hands on his knees. “What was that about?” Raulin asked to the both of them when she joined them.
She shook her head in response, partially because she didn’t know and partially because she didn’t want to say what she did know.
“Well, I do have to thank you, Wizard, for always fighting me with words instead of fists. Not sure how distinguished I’d look with an angry woman’s cookie sheet across my face.”
“Let’s go back to the hotel and get him patched up. We can talk about what we learned and discuss how much money you owe Al.”
“Already? Well, that explains the fight a little more. Come on, Wizard. I know you’re spent, so I promise to poke holes in anything that gives you so much as a raised eyebrow.”
* * *
Al had somehow managed not to spill a drop of blood on his clothes, despite having five knuckles split open and the other three abraded. Besides the swelling on his lip and hands, he was fine. Raulin gave him his remaining unguent from Alistad to patch his hands.
“All right,” Raulin said, settling on Al and Anla’s bed. “Shake your fruit.”
Anla smiled at this. “You always say that about someone else, unless you want them to dance. It’s ‘whistle your tune’.”
“So much to learn about Dickery. Okay, Wizard, whistle your tune.”
Al had remained aloof up until that point, sitting on the floor in the corner and drawing himself out only a little. “Vint is the guy.”
“Vint? Who’s he?”
“The clerk for Gerark and Sons. I got Crossel to admit that Vint was blackmailing him into letting him tag along to his deliveries and being quiet about it.”
“Nicely done, Wizard. Was Crossel the guy you sculpted into a hatbox?”
Al nodded meekly.
“Well, I hope you didn’t knock Vint out, too.”
“He wasn’t there. We told the owner to switch the deliveries around so that he’ll be going with Crossel on Tuesday to the Brautivards.”
“I know you can’t see it right now, but I am grinning like a dog behind a rotisserie shop. That’s fantastic work. I’m going to have to give you another bonus.”
Al should have smiled to that, but he continued to seem withdrawn.
“You were saying it was the man’s illness that set you off. Why?” Anla asked.
“He has sweet-blood. It means you have to eat carefully or else your body starts shutting down. Most with sweet-blood have some ailments, which is why they saw a doctor. I’m guessing that Vint has blurry vision and numb fingers, which explains why the letters he left for Lady Amirelsa looked so erratic and splotchy. And I bet he has to use the restroom a lot. He likely asked to use the Brautivard’s and bumped into the lady. I bet he uses it as an excuse for when he goes with Crossel to deliver. And finally, one of the treatments for sweet-blood is bloodletting. It’s a pain for doctors to get rid of excess blood in their clinics; it’s one of the taboo items, like certain chemicals, that can’t be dumped into the sewers legally. I’m sure Vint’s doctor is more than happy to let him take his blood home, which is where he’s getting his ink.”
“Amazing,” Raulin said. “And you just knew all that?”
“I remembered it from class and it clicked when Gerark said it.”
“All right. I’m going to go have a little talk with Ol’ Whole-Mourning at the warehouse and get him to…” Raulin looked at Anla.
“Roast his coffee,” she said.
“…roast his coffee, thank you.”
When Raulin had left, Anla turned to Al. “Are you okay?” she asked.
“Yes,” he said with little enthusiasm.
“You don’t seem okay.”
He sighed. “I lost control. It’s something I promised would never happen. I don’t even know when I tapped into the Unease or when I started punching him. I can’t really remember much from that time, just the feeling of my fists smashing into his face.”
“You called him Aggie and said you hated him.”
Al looked dumbstruck for a moment. “I don’t hate Aggie, though. He’s my best friend.”
“Because he was always there for…well, he listened to…he hung out with me. Whenever I said, ‘I need to get out of the house’, he would take me somewhere. To the bar or a restaurant, maybe just out walking. And he’d take my mind off things by telling me stories about himself.”
“Well…his wife didn’t work and he had four children, so it just made sense for me to pay.”
“And did you tell him stories?”
“What did he think about them?”
“Well, listening was never Aggie’s thing.”
“And how often did you get into trouble with him during these times?”
He shrugged. “A bunch, but it made for some interesting tales.”
Anla stood and sat on the floor next to Al. “I haven’t had many friends in my life, but when I do, I’ve noticed why. They all have things in common: they listen, they share, and they help. I know you don’t like my heritage and I know you hate my magic. But, you and I both listen, share, and help each other. I consider you my friend, Al.”
“But you used me. The only reason we’re together right now is because you tricked me into the chalice bond.”
“I did. I didn’t know you then. But, I do now, and I think there’s something to be said of someone who uses someone and then halts that when they befriend someone and something to be said of someone who befriends someone and then uses them.
“Raulin put the thought of coffee into my mind. There’s a cafe two blocks away that smelled delicious when we walked by earlier. Would you like a cup? My treat.”
Al seemed puzzled for a moment, then said, “Okay.”
* * *
Tuesday couldn’t come fast enough for Raulin. He had high hopes for the day, but tried to keep his giddiness to a cautious optimism. Everything was prepared, the wizard’s logic was sound, but Raulin’s track record was cursed. The one time he had managed to escape unfettered from his theft, he had managed to bungle things with Anla. This time, though, this time was different. It was noble. It was valiant. And, maybe a little bit brilliant, but mostly the other things.
Three days. Just the thought of getting a contract done in three days versus the three and a half days he had allotted for this made him grin again. That was three more weeks in Genale, and oh, how he loved Genale.
Patience, he thought as he stood behind the wardrobe in Amirelsa’s room.
He didn’t have to wait too much longer. Their was a metallic rattling as the knob to her bedroom door slowly twisted. After a click, the door opened and a man slipped inside. He was pasty and aged; though he had been told he was in his mid-thirties, he looked closer to fifty. The skin hung off his frame in a way that suggested he had once been rather portly, but was now pooling in his poor health.
The man looked around quickly, too quickly, and moved to her vanity. Raulin’s mouth curled a little as the man held up her bristle brush, plucked a few strands of hair, and rubbed them on his face. He tucked those into his pocket, then moved on to a few cosmetic brushes, breathing deeply of those. When he finished, he turned and eyed the bed. He stood in front of it, rubbing the fabric first tenderly, then frantically for several minutes before finally taking out a letter and placing it on the coverlet.
When he turned around, Raulin was right in front of him. “You must be Vint.”
“Wha?” he said, his face growing somehow paler.
“Let’s see what you left for her this time.” He plucked the letter off the bed and began scanning. When Vint tried to maneuver around him, he flashed out a knife and said, “Ah, tut tut. You wouldn’t want to run out on your audience. Hmm. ‘You left your home on Wednesday to attend the party of that degenerate. I’ve told you several times now that if you stay at home, I will protect you from everything evil in this world.’ How would you do that? Not show up around here?”
“She is mine,” he said, quietly through clenched teeth.
“How can she be yours if you can’t even care for yourself?”
“I will get better.”
“I admire your hope, but we both know that’s not true. Sweet-blood is a slow death sentence.” He moved in front of Vint when he tried to leave. “She appreciated the letters and gifts before they turned ugly. Why the change?”
“She was going to be married to someone else, given away like some common whore.”
“Do you think she had much of a say in the matter? She’s a woman, a noble woman at that, and she needs to marry an earl. Unless I’m sorely mistaken, you aren’t an earl.”
“We were going to run away…”
Just then, the majordomo and Lady Amirelsa arrived and stood in the doorway. Vint stood there, stock still, with a smirk on his lips like he thought this situation was funny.
“You may want to flag the police,” Raulin suggested. “If you have a secure place to keep him, I’ll move him there.”
“But…I don’t know you,” Amirelsa said.
“You do,” he mumbled. “We’ve met many times.”
Her eyebrows furrowed and she slowly shook her head.
“You passed me in the hallway today! You looked at me, nodded, and gave me a smile. You knew what I was thinking, what I was going to say without even saying it!”
She looked at Raulin, who drew his thumb and first two fingers off his temple. He hoped she wouldn’t blame herself due to his mental problems. She looked down before backing out of the room.
“Get back here,” Vint said, his tone dangerous. When only the majordomo took up the doorway, he yelled, “Get back here!”
“On second thought, if you give me directions to the nearest police station, I’ll be glad to dump him there.”
“I’ll be happy to accompany you, so there are no mix-ups.”
“Tell her to get back here,” Vint demanded, which they both ignored. As he was led out of the house, he kept yelling for her until Raulin threatened to break his jaw. Still, it was several blocks of alternate whining, complaining, threats, and attempts to escape. “I’d stop,” Raulin said after the third time, “or I can help you out with your daily bloodletting right here and now.”
At the station, the perplexed officers locked up Vint and were given medical instructions, less because Raulin cared about the stalker’s health and more because he’d rather see the man serve justice. The majordomo served handy when Vint tried to claim it was Raulin who had left the notes and items.
On their return, the majordomo asked if there was anything he could get or do for Raulin. “My investigator would be very pleased if the lady kept to her end of the bargain, a book she said she’d give him.”
“Yes, I remember that.”
“Nothing else. You’ve already paid handsomely for my services.”
“If I may ask, how did you succeed when everyone else failed?”
Raulin gave this a few moments thought. “I had a good team.”
After he entered their hotel, he knocked on the other room and let himself in. All three looked up from their books or journals. Instead of saying anything, he ceremoniously placed the book, two piles of coins, and a pouch on the bed.
“You got him? It was Vint?” Anla said.
“Red-handed. That’s both your payments, Al’s bonus, and the copy of Lady of Sorrow, the latest Arvonnese alley novel by Forin Des…”
“It’s a Desuint?” Al asked, jumping up from his seat and snatching the book from Raulin’s hand.
“Yes? Your favorite, I assume?”
“Yes! He’s the most prolific alley novelist in Arvonne. There are others who do a great job, but he really gets it. He understands how the people feel and what they truly want, their deepest desires.”
Not even this would break Raulin’s spirits. He waited as Al thumbed through the beginning, then realized he was going to return to his seat and read the whole thing. “Did you want to take your earnings?” he asked.
“Hmm? Oh, yeah,” he said, and scooped up the coins and the pouch with his hand, not breaking his concentration in the slightest.
Raulin sighed. “Wizard, look in the damn bag.”
Al put the book down carefully and opened the pouch. “Kriskin malor! What?”
“That’s your bonus, twenty percent of my take. They paid Arvarikor eight hundred gold to solve this case. I get four hundred, and you get…”
“…eighty gold! I thought it was just twenty! Well, not ‘just’ twenty; that’s still a lot of gold. But…plus five!”
“It took you less than a quarter of a day to solve a mystery that stumped even the Cumber. I think that deserves eighty-five gold. You saved me weeks of work. Both of you,” he finished, looking at Anla.
“So, would you say this was successful?” Telbarisk said.
“Yes. And I think it’s time we have a long conversation about my work.”