10-13

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.”

“Why, though?”

“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.”

“Who’d pay?”

“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?”

“Yes.”

“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.”

10-12

Raulin looked over the notes they had taken, impressed by Anla’s attention to detail. “Just because everyone was cleared by the police doesn’t mean I’ll clear them,” he said. “Someone is doing this and, thus far, they’ve been lucky to have snuck by the notice of everyone. We’ll go over everyone, then we’ll go over them again, and again, if necessary.

“Of course, if either of you have any guesses to make it easier, I’m very interested.  I’ll even hear those theories of yours, Wizard.”

Anla spoke first. “This seems like an obsessive, passionate crime. Someone is going to great lengths to keep Amirelsa in his fist through intimidation. Why would you do that to someone you didn’t know? I think they do know her, and it’s someone the family trusts. Someone who is protective and suspicious himself. My bet is on the shipping clerk.”

“But he’s been cleared,” Al said.

“Yes, but as Raulin said, he hasn’t been cleared by Raulin. If he’s smart enough, he’ll have fake alibis for every single instance he left dead squirrels and beheaded dolls in her room. He’s cozy with the family, but beneath them. He knows he can’t have her, so he frightens her from leaving her home so he can see her more. Besides, his tone suggested he was hiding something.”

Raulin was both pleased and relieved to see the excited spark back in her speech. She was either distracted from the events of last night or past the awkwardness he had caused. “Interesting theory. I’ll take the shipping clerk into high consideration then. Wizard?”

Al pursed his lips. “I keep thinking of ‘Daddy Long-Legs’.”

“What? The spider?”

“It’s a game we played as children. I’ll show you. Put your hands out, palm up, and close your eyes.”

“I’m not sure what this has to do with your theories.”

“Just humor me, please.”

“All right…”

Al placed his fingers on Raulin’s palms. “Daddy long-legs, dancing, dancing. Daddy long-legs, walking, walking,” he whispered, moving his fingers across his palm, pressing some a little harder. “Daddy long-legs, eight feet, eight feet. Daddy long-legs, crawling, crawling.”

“What is this supposed to do?”

“Shh,” Al said and continued to chant. Finally, Raulin did what Al had expected, which was jerk his hand away and itch a knuckle.

“Was there some sort of lesson I missed?”

“You were so busy concentrating on my fingers that you forgot about my thumbs. I used those, too, so that you thought there was a real spider on your hand.”

“I thought my hand was itchy.”

“Well, like I said, it was a kids’ game. At that age you get more scared at things like that. Most of the girls would shriek.”

“A fun exercise into your past, but what does that have to do with our situation?”

“I think there’s someone who has access to the house that shouldn’t, but gets a pass for some reason. He wasn’t put on a list, which is why he was never challenged. I’m thinking some sort of fill-in, maybe someone who gardens occasionally, or fixes damaged appliances, or helps with shipping. Someone they call when they’re busy or someone’s sick.”

“That’s very plausible. What made you think of that?”

“You, actually. I was remembering that time that I had to deliver wine in Monsard to save you from the cellar. If someone investigated who took that bottle of wine, they would come up empty-handed in the guild you pretended to be from.”

“That is solid thinking. Tomorrow I’m going to look into the shipping clerk. Today, at least, we can look into the businesses associated with the Brautivards. Let’s start with the shipping company.”

* * *

Gerark and Sons was a thirty-year-old shipping company, modest in size, that dealt as the middle-man between the ships that came into New Wextif and the buyers. Their volume was steady and, judging by the repairs and state of the clothes of the workers, they were doing well.

The owner, a corpulent man with tied back, thinning ginger hair, frowned at the introduction of Al and Anla. “We’ve already been investigated several times by people. No one here’s guilty. Makes a man second-guess his work relationship with people, if you know what I mean.” He gave a weak smile. “I’m joking at that.”

“Very good, sir,” Al said. “All the same, we do need to take a peek at your workers. The sooner this is solved, the sooner you won’t be bothered by anyone else.”

“This is true. I was joking about the partnership thing, I hope you know that. I actually do feel very sorry for Lady Amirelsa. Please let her know that.”

“We’ll let her know,” Anla said. “Could we have a tour of your building?”

“Sure. We’re getting ready for the next week, so I’ll ask that you stay out the way of my guys.”

The warehouse had a few men who were moving and stacking crates. Some of the men were taking two large crates at once and Al belatedly realized that some of these men must be wizards. He made a note of that, pleased that he might be able to bring his knowledge to the table.

“Do you have a list of your employees?” Anla asked.

The man gave an exasperated sigh. “I already gave the list to the police, the Cumber, and several investigators. There are only six men who deliver to the Brautivard’s estate and I was pleased to find, again and again, that they were all upstanding men. Well, except Erauli, but it was a dumb thing he did when he was just a kid and he’s paid his dues.”

Al jotted that information down. “And who else works here?”

“Me, my two boys, Vint, the clerk, and the supervisor, Crellan.”

“Any of them here today?”

“Just my son, Watick. Why, you want to talk to him?”

“For a few minutes.”

Gerark lifted his fingers to his mouth and gave a shrill whistle. A boy looked up from across the room, set down the crate he was lifting, and walked over to where his father and the two quartet members were. Anla had already suspected him of being underage before his father introduced him as a “junior partner”.

He couldn’t have weighed more than one hundred and fifty pounds, despite his occupation. Pimples dotted his face, one framed by dark hair that must be from his mother. “Yes, Pa?” he asked.

“These people want to ask you a few questions.”

“This about the lady again?”

His father gave a serene nod. “Answer their questions.”

“Do you know Lady Amirelsa?” Al asked.

“Never met her.”

“So, you don’t deliver?”

“No, sir. I only started working here officially a few months ago.”

“And you’ve never assisted someone delivering?”

He looked at his father quickly. “Just my pa. Only a few times, and that was to get a sense of the business.”

Al was about to ask another question when Anla touched his arm briefly. He met her eyes and she shook her head slightly. “Okay, thank you, Watick.”

“Satisfied?” his father asked after the boy had left to return to his job.

“Where are the other three workers?”

“My other son is in Amandorlam. He showed talent as a wizard, so I’m sending him there to learn the hard side and return to run the business.” Al frowned at this but said nothing. “Crellan works Monday through Friday and days we have major shipments coming in. Vint works those same days. They both have the day off.”

“Would either of them work if you had someone sick or injured?”

“Crellan, maybe. His back bothers him, so I gave him the supervisor position. He’s great at getting the guys moving and ordering the place. He’ll help out if he’s having a good day. Vint, no. Definitely not. He’s too sick himself.”

“So, Crellan might have gone to the Brautivards if you were short on men.”

“Yes.”

“Hmm,” said Al, looking pleased.

“But, I put him on the list, too, just in case. He was cleared.”

“Oh.”

Anla picked up on Al’s disappointment, but had an idea to remedy that. “Why wouldn’t Vint help out? Surely there’s been days when your list of men was too low and you needed to pull everyone in.”

Gerark at least considered this for a few moments. “Yes, of course. And maybe two years ago we used Vint, but not since the doctors told him he has sweet-blood. He’s too weak. His fingers and toes are starting to get numb, which makes him a liability. He keeps the books right, so I ignore the occasional days when he comes in late.”

“Sweet-blood?” Al asked. Judging by the look on his face, Anla had just lost the bet.

“Yeah. I know he’s doing everything he can to stay healthy, but a business owner can’t pay a shipping clerk a fortune.”

“No, that’s understandable,” he said. “Do you mind if I check your records for something?”

“I do.”

Al sighed. “It’s important. Again, if we can solve this, you’ll never be bothered by someone like us again.”

They followed Gerark into his office and Al pulled out one of the pages supplied by the Brautivards, a list of the days in which malicious letters and gifts were left. After scanning the owner’s books and the list, Al asked, “Is Crossel here today?”

“He is. He was cleared, too. In fact, he was vouched for by Tevens, the Brautivard’s own clerk.”

“I’m not concerned about Crossel. I just need to ask him a few questions.”

When Gerark left them alone, Anla whispered, “What do you have, Al?”

“Crossel was there every day the letters and gifts were left. He was cleared, I know, but what if Vint went with him and nobody but Crossel knew that?”

“A stowaway.” She saw that Gerark and another man were headed across the floor. “Press him, Al. Come on hard. Don’t let him say he doesn’t know anything. Throw everything you have at him. This is just like the muddy shoes at the trial.”

The door opened and the two men entered. “This is Crossel. He’s one of our wizards. Ask your questions.”

“Do I have to answer them?” he asked his boss. “I’ve got work to get back to.”

“Just do it. I want them out of my sight. If you can make that happen, I’ll let you go home early today.”

Al pretended to look at his lists. Crossel grew impatient. “What do you want?”

He was about to speak up again, when Al looked him straight in the eye. “What does Vint have on you?”

“What? Nothing. There’s nothing he knows.” While his jaw was jutting, his eyes darted around a little too much.

“No. This is too suspicious. You know of the Brautivards, yes?” When Crossel nodded, Al continued. “Some sick man is leaving the poor daughter terrifying letters and dead animals on her bed. He’s gaining access to their house, violating their trust, and frightening an innocent woman.”

“It wasn’t me! I always stay with Tevens, I unload, and I get back here. I’ve never even been inside their house.  Ask him.  Ask Tevens.”

“But what about Vint?” Al asked and Crossel’s neck straightened. “He’s going with you. It’s awfully coincidental that every time one of these crimes has been committed, you’ve been there. And since you have a strong alibi, it’s got to be someone else, someone who’s not on any list. Someone who wants to go. Maybe someone who filled in two years ago, caught the sight of a beautiful young woman, and was immediately smitten. Someone who has dirt on you, Crossel, and has been blackmailing you. He doesn’t tell whomever it is that’s involved and you don’t tell anyone, the police, the Cumber, the private investigators, that he came with you.”

Crossel clenched his jaw and said nothing. “Tell him,” his boss said, “or you’re fired.”

When he said nothing still, Al said, “Here’s what I think, Gerark. I think Crossel’s been stealing from you. Not that much; one or two expensive items from a box of a hundred. Crossel either has a spoiled mistress or he’s making a little extra cash on the side. Vint caught him when the numbers didn’t add up, and he promised to say nothing so long as Crossel paid him a little, which was later changed to silence for silence. And he kept his word when everyone came knocking.”

Gerark looked from Al to Crossel and back again, settling on his employee. “Answer him. Last chance.”

“I only did it a few times. I haven’t done it for a year. And it was gambling debts I needed to pay off.”

“So, you admit that Vint went with you?”

“Yes,” he said, looking at the floor.

“And he went inside the Brautivards?”

“I don’t know. I did my job and ignored what he was doing.”

“And you lied to the police?”

“It was my job…”

“I should fire you,” Gerark said, his face flush with anger. “I should pummel your face into the concrete. Instead, I’m going to take it out of your hide. How much was it? How much did you steal?”

“I don’t know.”

What?

“I don’t know. A hundred gold, maybe.”

“Then you owe me two hundred gold. I can dock it from your pay or you can work extra days. If you walk, I turn you into the police. Got it?”

Crossel said nothing, but returned to the floor. “I should have fired him,” the boss said.

“We’re glad you didn’t. We need you to say nothing to Vint. Assign Crossel to the Brautivards the first chance you can and notify us.”

“Tuesday,” he said, after he sat behind his desk and looked at his schedule. “I’ll move people around and make sure Vint hears about it.” He sighed. “And I’ll start looking for a new clerk.”

10-11

After spending the better part of the morning coming up with aliases and a list of questions to ask, the quartet checked out of the hotel and set their things up in a new one, closer to Lady Amirelsa’s home. It was more expensive, but they were willing to settle after two hotels refused the group based on Raulin’s presence.

Al and Anla changed into respectable clothing, both of them wearing the nicer outfits that had been given by the Duke of Sharka, and followed Raulin to the estate. “This is real, right?” Al asked along the way.

“Yes. This is a real contract. I’ve been honest with you about this.”

“If this is another ‘busy work’ situation, I promise I won’t speak to you ever again, no matter how much you need my help.”

Raulin was sorely tempted to pretend it was a fake contract after that. Instead, he pulled out his notebook, opened it to the page of the contract, and handed it to Anla. “If you could, mezzem, I’d appreciate it.”

She scanned the page and handed it back. “It’s everything he told us. Lady Amirelsa Brautivard, being stalked by an unknown man. Need to discover who he is and catch him in the act. I can also tell he’s been honest with us by how I hear him speak.”

Al said nothing for a few minutes, then, “Brautivard…is her family the same one associated with the printing company called Brautivard?”

“Not sure,” Raulin said, “though I remember a few people saying that family did a few things, one of them being printing.”

“Brautivard is the company that distributes the alley novels in Gheny.”

“Interesting,” he said, checking his notebook again. “Just two more blocks.”

Two more residential blocks amounted to only four houses. Here, the buildings were relatively ancient, since the southeast was one of the first places settled when Aroukeans came to Gheny four hundred years prior. The streets were lined with old silver outoaks, the branches heavy with age and dripping with silvery-green moss the swayed in the light breeze. The houses themselves used plaster and stucco, small corners and chunks crumbled and as yet unpatched. Brick walls ten feet tall or higher surrounded the houses, with only gates as breaks in the line.

Raulin stopped kitty-corner to a mansion with an extensive amount of ivy and vegetation covering its outer walls. “That’s it right there,” he said, pointing. “Are you two ready?”

“Yes,” Anla said, pulling the board and paper that had been purchased earlier today.

“I mean, sure, but how are you going to get over the wall and in…oh,” Al said, turning to see that Raulin was gone. “He could have finished the conversation.”

Anla set across the street with Al trailing after a moment later. He did manage to scramble ahead of her to open the gate, to which she nodded her head politely.

The courtyard was mossy and lush, thin octagonal pavers pushed deep into the ground from years of use. To the right was an old building that once might have been a stable, but now held dozens of wooden crates under its eaves. Anla walked under the pergola with hanging wisteria and was about to climb the two half-flights of stairs to the front door when a noise startled both her and Al.

“Oy! What do you think you’re doing?” a man said from the stable.

They turned and Anla spoke. “We’re here to interview Lady Amirelsa about her…ongoing case.”

“I haven’t heard anything about letting people in today,” he said, moving towards them. “You’ll have to leave.”

“Are you the Brautivard’s majordomo?” Al asked, taking over.

“No, I’m just the shipping clerk for their company.”

“We’d be happy to wait while you fetch him, then. I was told to mention ‘Arvarikor’ as proof of our integrity.”

He gave them an odd look. “If anything comes through, tell them to wait before dropping it off. You two wait here and don’t wander. I’ll have your hands if you touch anything under this roof.”

“Understood,” Anla said when she noticed Al was going to retort to his attitude. The man took off inside and they sat on a wrought iron bench under the pergola.

“He was rude,” Al said.

She moved her board to her lap and made a note. “Don’t get emotional about it, just do the part you came her to do.”

He took her advice and wrote “Shipping clerk: rude” on his paper.

The day was overcast and foggy, but thankfully warm and dry. They noticed two different men walk by with rapiers at their sides. After about ten minutes, the clerk and another man in a uniform stepped down into the courtyard from the house, the clerk moving back towards the stable. They rose as the man approached. “I’m Attark, the Brautivard’s majordomo. You’re here to interview Lady Amirelsa?”

“Yes,” Anla said. “We’ve been hired by a man to do some investigative work while he attends to his business. I’m Layess Kayiz and this is my co-worker, Disteni Soudrar. We were told we’d be given access to the household and Lady Amirelsa to conduct our interview.”

“We hadn’t heard about this before hand. If you’re familiar with her situation, you can understand why we’re hesitant to allow two people without credentials into the estates unannounced.”

“Absolutely. We were given little time to prepare ourselves. However, I can assure you that we’re committed to finding out who has been harassing the don-countess and to put this issue to rest for her and her family.”

“Who were you hired by?”

“A trirec by the name of Raulin Kemor.”

He paused at this. “I’d heard that they worked alone.”

“We are only here to conduct the interview and give him our impressions, therefore we are working for him, not with him. I can’t comment any further on trirec matters.”

“I understand. Well, I suppose it wouldn’t make the situation any worse. The press is already aware and I don’t see why the stalker would hire two people to interview us.” He thought about this for a moment and frowned, but turned to escort them inside.

They were brought to a waiting room and served tea and cookies. The floors were wood instead of marble or tile and gave the room a cheery warmth. The wing-back chairs they sat in sent up a dust cloud when Al slapped his hand on his arm rest. There was a little fraying on some of the quitra-style rugs on the ground, which also appeared faded.

“Traditionalists,” Al said, waving his hand in front of his face.

“I like it. It feels comfortable.”

The majordomo walked into the room accompanied by a young woman wearing a gray dress in a cut a working woman would wear, but of higher quality material and make. Her hair was half swept up and the rest in sausage curls, the spirals cascading down past her shoulders. She was petite and with a young appearance, her wide blue eyes and small nose making her seem like a doll.

They stood and gave the appropriate bow for their genders and class. In return she gave them a nod at the neck. “My majordomo tells me you’re helping with the investigation surrounding my pursuer. If there’s anything I can do to help, I’d be only happy to oblige.”

“We’d like to conduct an interview with you or whomever was in charge of arranging any other investigations,” Anla said as the four of them sat. “We understand that some work may have already been done.”

“Yes, miss,” the majordomo said. “I handled that part. We tried the police, the Cumber, and five private investigators before contacting your employer. They all came up empty-handed.”

“We assume that everyone who has access to the grounds has been investigated?”

“Several times. All our employees have been long-term employees. All had alibis during the times the, um, items were left. No one has any justification for those actions.”

“Any family members of your employees?” Al asked. “Perhaps any young men?”

“Only a few were allowed to bring their children in during work, and we cut the age off at eight.”

Al jotted a note down. “How about temporary workers?”

“We don’t have any that have stayed less than five years.”

“I apologize. I meant, anyone that you hired for a specific time for some purpose, then dismissed them when they were no longer needed. Construction people, caterers, maybe someone to deal with pests?”

“All investigated and cleared, though our last project here was plumbing and that was several years ago. I do have that list here,” he said, handing them a paper with several business names.

“What of your businesses? We ran into your shipping clerk outside. Any deliverers? Partners in the industry?”

“They were all investigated as well. Every one of the delivery men, anyone who’d ever met with the lady personally.”

“Friends? Family members?”

Amirelsa spoke up. “I gave the investigators the name of all my close male friends, anyone who might have possibly been interested in courting me or were in talks of marriage. I know hundreds of men through social gatherings, so I wouldn’t be able to give all their names. Everyone who investigated this approached this as an infatuation gone awry, so I never gave any family members’ names.”

“May I ask which businesses your family is involved with and which you’re personally involved with?” Anla had to hide a smirk at Al’s eager question.

“My family is mainly in publishing and printing, though we own a few shops in New Wextif. Those are more a ghost partnership and we’re not involved with the day-to-day functions. We do occasionally offer loans, invest in new businesses, and front money for shipping cargo from Noh Amair.”

Anla softened her tone a little. “May I ask what happened about a year ago?”

Amirelsa took a breath and nodded. “We overextended ourselves; too many loans, too many investments, too little cash flowing in. One of the ships with a large shipment of books was lost at sea. It appeared bleak and there were the beginning talks of marriage arrangements, to help recover our losses through a partnership. I believe this may have angered my pursuer, since it was after then his attitude towards me soured.”

“Ah, so that’s why last year’s August edition of the Arvonnese alley novels was late,” Al said.

“Yes,” she said. “You read those books?”

“Love them,” he said.

“If you secure my safety again, I will give you my copy of this August’s edition. I help my parents secure quality, so we always get a crate of the shipment to look through.”

“It’s a deal,” he said, smiling broadly, then looked down at his next question. “How about neighbors?”

“They were all questioned as well.”

“So, everyone that has access to your house has been cleared, then? None drew any suspicion?”

“Not entirely,” she said, drawing her hands into her lap. “When you hire people, you never know everyone’s past. A few had criminal records, one specifically breaking-and-entering.”

Another hand-written list was passed to Anla from the majordomo. “I take it these men must have passed the same checks everyone else did?”

“They all had alibis for the next few times the letters and things were left.”

“Was this before or after the fact?” Al asked. “I mean, were they watched during the time or did they give alibis after the fact?”

Amirelsa looked to her majordomo. “After, I believe.”

“That’s not strong enough. It’s easy to bribe or coerce someone into providing an alibi after the fact.”

“I suppose that could be true,” he admitted, “but we did ask for three separate occasions.”

Al quickly wrote a paragraph’s worth of words down. “I don’t suppose you kept any of the leavings?”

“We gave the items to the police or the investigators,” the majordomo said, his nose wrinkling. “The letters…”

“I did keep those,” she said, “but I have them locked away downstairs.”

“I’d like to see them,” he said.

She brought them up, about eight in all, the pages warped and curling. She set them down in front of Anla and Al, then retreated to the other end of the room, deciding to get some work done by examining some of those books. What they saw was a brutal attack not on Amirelsa’s current qualities, but on how those would change after he did what he wanted to in this situation. His threats were calculated, cruel, and utterly demeaning. And all the words were splotched and a deep, dark red, some eerily creeping off the page.

“Disgusting,” Al said.

“Of course, but also written by someone learned and intelligent.  What do you think the ink is?”

“It’s…Ugh, I think it’s blood.”

“That’s what I thought.  So, it’s someone with access to a lot of blood.  A hospital worker, perhaps?”

After they finished, they put the letter aside and Amirelsa rejoined them. “Do you have any ideas?” she asked.

“Some,” Anla said. “We were going to ask if you had any.”

She thinned her lips. “I’ve been over the possibilities for the last year. Who do I know would do this to me? What did I do?”

“For what it’s worth, he didn’t blame you. In his letters, he points out that he knows you have no say in your betrothal. It seems to be your father’s fault and not something you did to anger him.”

“I know. Still…”

Anla looked past her and saw Raulin standing in the doorway. “Sir,” she said.

Amirelsa and the majordomo turned, rising from their seats when they saw him. “Sit,” he said, using his flat hand to put them at ease. “I’ve just finished examining the grounds.”

“Anything to report?” the majordomo asked.

“Your security is lacking. I passed by your guards several times and they didn’t notice me.”

“Sir, you are a trirec,” he pointed out.

“That is very true. I was going to ask you not hold it against them. It doesn’t appear that your bedroom gives easy access, lady. No trellises to climb, no passages connecting to the main part of the house. I’d venture your man isn’t just breaking in whenever he feels like he needs to leave something for you.”

“Do you mean…we know him?” Amirelsa said, paling a little.

“I’m saying he has access to your house. Those two almost always go hand-in-hand, but not necessarily. What I’d like someone on your staff to do is have every person who walks through your gates sign in, just until the next letter or item is left. If they refuse to sign their names, I want you to note that.”

“Yes, sir,” the majordomo said. “Anything else?”

“I will likely be here daily, so if you need to contact me, just set a scarf on one of the benches out front. Otherwise, no. I’ll be conducting this investigation in waves. Once I’m certain those close to you have been cleared, we’ll move on to other circles.”

“Do you think you can solve this?” the lady asked.

“I’ve done so before. I’m confident that I can again.”

She smiled and relaxed a little. “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome. I’ll be collecting my interviewers and leaving to discuss what they learned. If they return, please grant them access to any information they ask.”

“Yes, sir,” the majordomo said, rising. He led the three of them to the gate and thanked him again for taking the case.

As they began walking to the hotel, Raulin asked, “I don’t want to discuss details just yet, but overall what are your impressions?”

“I’m baffled,” Anla said. “It seems like every rock was turned over before your contract. It seems hopeless.”

“Wizard?”

Al tented his hands in front of his lips. “I actually don’t think so. I have a few theories that seem plausible.”

10-10

Raulin startled awake when he heard a pounding on the door the next morning. “Go ahead and let him in,” he said to Tel.

“Is it Alpine?” he asked, standing as he yawned and rubbed the sleep from his eyes.

“Well I sure hope it isn’t Lord Mirana.”

The door opened with a click and Raulin opened one eye to see who it was. “Good morning, Wizard. Must be something important if you’re up so early.”

Al stood there with his hands on his hips. “What did you do to Anla?”

“Nothing? Why, did she say I did anything?”

“No, but she’s being quiet.”

“She usually is quiet.”

“Not like this! She won’t talk about last night. What happened? Where did you go? What did you do or say to her?”

Raulin sat up. “She assisted me in one of my contracts. Nothing went wrong. She was in control of the situation the entire evening.”

“So, why is she upset about it?”

“Maybe she’s not upset about it. Maybe she’s upset because you snored the whole night.”

Al lingered for a few more moments before leaving in a huff. Raulin put his feet on the ground and looked over at his friend, who was looking at him with his thick eyebrows raised. “I kissed her.”

“Oh,” Tel said. “Was this a good thing?”

“I’m not sure. She was using her magic to prove a point, so I’m hoping she’s not going to hold it against me. I don’t think that’s what is upsetting her, though.”

“There was something else?”

“Yes. And it’s not something I’m going to talk to the wizard about.”

“Why not?”

Raulin began his stretches. They always helped to clear his mind and let him focus on the tasks ahead of him. “Because it would mean he was right, that I acted exactly as he said men should act towards women. He said women needed to be protected, I said they should make their own decisions. And last night I dashed into a situation like a prize idiot and almost ruined her part of the plan.”

“Did you succeed?” he asked, sitting cross-legged on the floor.

“I’d consider the night a success, since I did steal the necklace. However, the part about working with others was a failure, on my part. I didn’t plan it well enough and I didn’t trust the person I was working with.” He gave a snorting laugh. “Arvarikor has burned that well into my mind.”

“So, you’ll go back to working alone then?”

Raulin held the split he was in, his legs almost touching the floor. To strengthen the pose, he lashed his arms out around him in random movements. He took a deep breath, then dove forward, his hands holding his body off the floor while he slowly swung his legs behind him. “I’m not a man who likes being corralled. I can see the big picture here, that it’s unfair to you three to be dumped in a room all day, like luggage or a musty jacket. But, I also don’t like being yoked into doing something I don’t want to do, even though I know it’s inevitable. I kick and scream like a little baby.  I think the only reason why I eventually broke and began to take my trirec training seriously is only because I was caned so much that every inch of my back was welted.

“I need time. I know I’m supposed to let you guys help, or at least make things more interesting for you. But it’s hard for me to throw out my training. I just…need to think about this more.”

“This is a wise course of thought,” Tel said. “I’m glad you’ve come this far. Don’t worry about me; I’ve been observing things and writing them down in my journal. That is all I need right now.”

Raulin had finished his side poses and moved to look at the ceiling, his arms straight behind him and supporting his weight. His muscles strained as he lifted each leg as high as possible. “That helps, thank you. It was honestly never really you I was worried about. Your needs are clear.”

“I think Alpine and Anladet’s are as well. Anladet likes to feel useful. Alpine wants to remain honorable while also being challenged.”

“I think you’re right,” Raulin said. “I may have a solution to both of those as well as it being something I’m willing to let go.”

* * *

Al and Anla were already at breakfast, an affair of just tea and scones. Not too far away from their hotel was a bakery, where Raulin purchased a dozen pastries and brought them back to the lobby. Al’s face scowled when he saw him. Anla must have found something fascinating in her tea by the way she studied it.

Raulin sat on the couch across from them, Tel joining and diving into the frosted sweets. “I have a contract that is rather difficult and would appreciate your assistance.”

“I’m not killing anyone,” Al said quickly.

“It would surprise me if you wanted to. Actually, you might like this contract, Wizard. It involves a damsel in distress, a man plaguing her, and the mystery behind who he is.”

“I’m…open to hearing about it,” he said, grabbing a danish.

“There is a lady, the eldest daughter of an earl, who has been stalked for almost two years now. At first it was poetry and sonnets, followed by gifts sweethearts would give to each other. Then, something angered him and everything turned sinister. The letters were belligerent, the gifts used, broken, or macabre. At some point he began following her. I’m guessing the family suspects her life is in danger.

“I’ve marked this as a lucrative contract, which tells me that the family is well-to-do and that they’ve exhausted all other avenues: the police, private investigators, and the Cumber. I’m not surprised at the police; they tend to do due diligence on cases like that. The Cumber only works on cases that effect the monarchy, so they may have tried because of the family’s ranking, or they may not have. I’m surprised the private investigators came up empty, though.”

“What if they were embarrassed and didn’t want people to know?” Al said.

“A good thought, but there are rumors in plenty across New Wextif. When the relationship was favorable, Amirelsa didn’t seem shy about speaking about it.”

“What else do you know?”

“Not much. I’m assuming that a thorough investigation was made into all people surrounding Amirelsa and they came up with nothing.”

“What if it’s her?” Al asked.

He paused at this. “What? What if she’s…why would someone do that?”

“I’ve read a few stories where people of splintered minds do things without the knowledge of their conscious. Or perhaps she does it for the attention, since you said she spoke to people about it.”

Raulin bowed his head and took a deep breath. “I won’t throw out theories, especially if we grow desperate to solve this, but perhaps we should look at more obvious solutions. We’ll put the ‘she’s the victim and the culprit’ in with the ‘it’s a vengeful ghost’ and the ‘it’s the king’ possibilities and set those aside for now.”

“You haven’t given us much to go on. How are we supposed to solve this?”

“Ah,” Raulin said. “You are absolutely right. I haven’t given you much to go on. But, I’m offering you the opportunity to remedy that, if you’d like.”

“How?”

“Today I’d like to tour the estate of Amirelsa’s family and see if there’s anything I can notice. While I do that, I would like you two to interview her and see if there’s anything you can tell about the situation.”

Up until that point, Anla had been listening, but slowly sipping on her tea. When he said that, she looked up and held his gaze. “Why both Al and I?”

“Well, I think you both have unique perspectives to this investigation. Al is well-learned and read, so he has a lot of knowledge to draw from. You are very perceptive and you are also something Al isn’t, which is namely female. Amirelsa is understandably agitable over this situation. I think that the both of you would be able to put her at ease enough to get the answers we need.”

“We’ll be paid?” she asked.

“I think that’s fair,” he said, feeling like he just bought a round for the bar and wound up purchasing the tavern.

“Fifty percent,” Al said.

Raulin chuckled. “No.”

“Forty-nine percent.”

Anla put her hand on Al’s arm. “How about a set price for conducting a thorough investigation and a bonus if we give you information that leads to the capture of the stalker?”

“That information would be a substantiated theory. But, yes, I like that better. Five gold each for the interview, twenty percent of my take for the information. And keep in mind I may have other jobs available. “

“I think that’s fair,” she said, returning to sipping her tea.

“Forty-eight percent?” Al asked.

10-9

The door swung open easily and he entered quickly, shutting it as softly as he could. There was only one candelabra lit in the room, on the other side of a very large room. He wished he had his mask, which would have improved his sight considerably. Instead, he was forced to find where Mirana and Anla had gone by the soft sounds of conversation and kissing. His jaw clenched and he stumbled his way to them.

Raulin couldn’t hear anything she said, but he heard Mirana speak. “Yes, my pet. So exquisite and positively thrilling…of course…I shall have you, as soon as you say what I want to hear…”

Risking the remaining few yards, he ran until he was close enough to see them clearly. They were on a chaise lounge, the earl draped over her recumbent form. His head was buried unto her decolletage and he kept kissing her neck and chest like he was a bird pecking for worms in the ground. While he was doing this, Anla was trying to push him off. She grasped the sides of the bed and pushed, only for the earl to readjust so that he was deeper into her neck. He saw the earl’s hand reach to her leg, pushing up her skirts, and that was more than Raulin could stand.

“Unhand her at once,” he said.

Both forms on the couch startled and looked up at him. “Who goes there? Why are you interrupting us? Leave at once!”

“I’m here to escort the lady away,” he said, moving closer.

“Oh, my lord! I’m so sorry!” Anla said and Raulin froze in confusion. “I recognize him. He’s a jealous former lover of mine. Give me a moment and I’ll straighten things out with him.”

“My. I hope he doesn’t mean to fight me,” Mirana said, sitting up.

Anla rose and yanked Raulin’s arm, dragging him until they were almost at the door. “What are you doing?” she hissed.

“What…what are you doing? I told you to keep a quiet profile and here you are tangled up with the host of the party!”

“I’m distracting him so that you can go steal the necklace!” she said through clenched teeth. “In case you hadn’t figured out where it was, I was mere minutes away from getting him to tell me. Now I’m going to have to start using my magic heavily in order to smooth things over.”

“I…you looked like you were in trouble.”

“I looked like I was pleased I got him after hours of working my way up to him and was telling you to go find the blasted necklace.”

“My pet?” the earl asked. “Is everything fine?”

“Everything is wonderful, my lord,” she answered, purring her response. “Just a moment.” She turned back to Raulin and whispered, “Go. I’ll try to fix this and buy you time.”

He thought a better idea was to take her with him, but he said, “I’ll bang loudly on the door when I’m done.”

Raulin reviewed everything as he was walking to the countess’s room. What had gone wrong there? He had been sure she was in peril.  She had appeared frightened and out of her depth, he was sure of that.  Or was he?  Well, she said she was fine.  And she did have the ability to ensorcell men to her bidding.  Maybe he had been wrong.  He decided it was what she had told him earlier about her age that had made him react poorly and not other feelings impeding his work.

He re-read the description of the necklace quickly in the light of a lit candelabra before checking the area quickly and opening the door to the countess’s rooms. It was dark inside and he had to wait until his eyes adjusted.

When he had been trained, Raulin had been taught that there was an ordered list of places people kept their valuables. Of course, this list had been for Merakians and it had taken him a few break-ins to realize that most miartha didn’t keep their jewels in the straw of their bed. He’d tossed that list out and made a new one, one for Noh Amairians: jewelry box, vanity drawers, top of the bureau, top drawer of the bureau, safe. Unless they were clever or really concerned about theft, the necklace would be in one of those places.

If he were a common thief, he’d rifle through everything without care, ripping out the drawers and tossing their contents on the floor. It would be blatant to anyone entering what had happened and he didn’t want that, especially since there was a slight chance Gielska could connect him to the theft. The more time he put between this party and the discovery of the theft, the better chance he had of never being caught.

So, starting with the countess’s jewelry box, he methodically yet quickly moved through each place. He was frustrated to find there was nothing in the first four and he didn’t see a safe of any kind in the room. Where was the blasted necklace?

He took a few deep breaths.  Don’t make mistakes because you don’t want to think about her and him in the next room over.  Again. Jewelry box, vanity, bureau, top drawer of the bureau. This time he pressed more slowly against the bloomers and shifts, opened the drawers and ran his finger along the backs. Nothing.

There was a room that abutted the earl’s rooms, a bathroom with a soaking tub and changing area. He saw someone pass by and he froze, ducking as they ducked. A mirror. He stood, walked over to it, and was about to move on when he saw a slight wink of metal behind it, reflecting what little light made it to the alcove. And lo, behind the looking glass were wrought iron trees of jewels.

Makin-frek,” he whispered, a Merakian phrase not unlike “Eureka!”. The countess had loads of necklaces, earrings, bracelets, hair pins, and brooches, but only one piece with pearls as big as a man’s thumb. He pulled this from the top, examining the square, silver pendant for the sun and crown motif. He put this inside a pouch attached to a thin cotton belt around his ribs. Before leaving the room, he remembered a similar costume necklace in her vanity and used that to replace the stolen necklace, again to increase the time in between the party and the discovery of the theft.

As he walked by the earl’s room, he kicked the door loudly and made his way down the stairs. He grabbed a drink below and spoke to a few people before moving to the front. He held a carriage and waited for Anla, who appeared maybe ten minutes later. The look she flashed him as she climbed in told him all about how the ride to the ember man was going to go.

She sat opposite him looking out the window, her arms and legs crossed. For a few minutes the clopping of the horses’ hooves were all he heard. It finally drove him mad enough to start the conversation. “You’re upset with me.”

“Furious,” she corrected.

“Because I didn’t believe someone who’d never been in a social situation like that would be able to get herself out?”

“Because you didn’t believe me.  You know me.  You’ve seen me use my magic before.  Do you know how hard I worked to help you tonight? I spent the whole time moving from partner to partner, entering into conversations so I could find out who the earl was and get him to tell me where the necklace was. I could’ve even gotten him to hand it to me. But you had to charge in, like I was some hapless damsel who needed to be saved. Of the two of us, who’s needed to be saved more?”

“I have, but that’s beside the point. You didn’t tell me any of that. I just assumed that you were out of your league and needed my help. I wasn’t about to abandon you to that situation.”

“I was in control. You didn’t even stop to assess the situation; you just barged in and almost tossed everything I’d been working for out the window.”

“You could have easily put him under your magical influence again.”

“But I wasn’t using influence! It’s what I was trying to tell you earlier. I’ve been working with Telbarisk and Al and figured out how I can use my magic to just suggest something. If someone has a desire for something, all I need to do is emphasize certain words and they’ll act on it. They aren’t under my control and they don’t suffer from any memory or time loss.”

“So, you were with Mirana and you had even less control than normal.”

She snorted and looked away again. “Do you really think a man would host a libertine party and not be interested in taking advantage of it? I saw the way he looked at me when I was introduced and knew that his defenses were already very low. He wanted me, just like so many other men there.”

“Still, you took a big risk…”

“You’re not listening! It wasn’t a big risk. If at any point there was a problem, I’d have used the stronger spell.  But, I didn’t have to and do you know how important that is to me?  I hated myself every time I used that spell.  I knew I had to at certain points, to save myself or others, but I still hated to do it.  But, to be able to influence instead of overpower…I feel so much better.”

He shook his head.  “You’re using a newly discovered spell without knowing everything about it.  That’s a risk.”

“I know what I’m doing,” she hissed.  “Fine, let me show you that I’m not helpless and that I understand what I’m doing.” She moved so that her palms were against the cushioned back of the seat and her right leg was free. “Kill me.”

“What?” he said, not moving an inch.

Kill me.”

“No! What are you doing? Why are you saying that?”

She relaxed her posture. “You have no interest in killing me. It didn’t work.”

“Don’t do that,” he said, his eyes still wide with shock.

“Now, let me show you what I did tonight. Kiss me.”

Anla had forgotten how fast he could be. No sooner did she finish the suggestion than his lips where on her’s, soft and warm. He parted her mouth with a desperate speed that slowed after a few moments when he moved to her jaw and neck.

She was free to stop him, but she didn’t and that surprised her. Her arm moved to the back of his neck, her fingers curling lightly in his hair. Anla sighed and felt a warmth grow inside her. She wanted to hold him closer, to embrace him like she had after they’d left Miachin and he’d changed back to the Raulin they knew. She wanted him to hold her like he had after she’d seen her sister.

Raulin moved his lips back to hers and for one brief moment their eyes met. She was relieved to see that he was there; his gaze not the blank stare she’d grown accustomed to seeing with her magic. She kissed him back, hearing a sharp intake of breath from him. Her hands moved to hold the sides of his head and his hands her shoulders. She felt the material of her skirts shift and his hands, slightly sweaty but warm, rested on her knees. He moved forward, his hips pressing against hers, his lips again moving down her jaw and neck. They didn’t stop, though. He kept moving to her collarbone, then along the lines of the necklace she wore, moving farther down her chest.

Anla didn’t want to say no. This was the first time she’d been kissed by anyone like that and had actually enjoyed it. Even the men she’d thought she’d loved had pressed their lips against hers in some gesture that might have meant affection but felt more like they were robbing her breath and pushing and scratching her face with their stubble. This was so many things at once that she couldn’t even untangle her thoughts. But, she knew this was poorly timed and unfair.

“Stop,” she whispered. His hands moved farther up her legs, just a little, as he adjusted his weight. “Raulin, stop.”

He froze and was back on his side of the carriage in a flash. Anla didn’t know what to do. Her hands folded themselves and settled in her lap. Her faced was burning, her outfit feeling too warm for the first time that evening. She stared ahead, thinking of what to say and coming up short.

When she finally looked up, Raulin was looking out the window. She saw the side of his face in a slowly moving bar of light from a street lamp, flushed, though she didn’t know why. He didn’t look at her when he said, “Never do that again.”

The rest of their trip was quiet. Raulin walked her inside the ember man’s shop, the one with the snooty lady and her daughters, though the girls were asleep by then. Anla was taken back to the same room. Before Raulin left, he spoke with the ember man, putting a piece of gold on the counter. “She is not a whore,” he said.

“Very good, sir,” the tailor said, putting his fingers out to collect the coin.

Raulin stopped him by putting his fingers over the man’s and pressing into his counter. When the tailor looked up in alarm, Raulin repeated himself, holding his gaze. “She. Is not. A whore.”

The man nodded and went into the back. When the woman came in to help her undress, she was kindly, almost motherly. She brushed out Anla’s hair after the hat was unpinned and washed her face in warm water, humming all the while. “Did you have a nice time tonight?” she asked.

“Yes. We went to a party. The food was delicious and I met a lot of nice people.”

“I’m glad, dear. I have your things here for you. If you could change for me, I’ll be back in a few to make sure everything’s fine. Would you like something to drink?”

“No, thank you,” she said and began disrobing as soon as the door closed.

Raulin met her out front in his normal travel clothing. He still said nothing and Anla felt it was the first time in their friendship that things felt uncomfortable. She thought of things to say, but everything sounded forced or idiotic.

He left her to enter the park from earlier, returning with his mask on and Telbarisk. She followed them as the three returned to the hotel.

Without saying anything, the two men took one room and Anla was in a whirl of confusion over the events of the day.