20-4

There was a knock on the door.  “Raulin?  May I come in?”

“Tel!  Yes, of course.  Welcome to my humble abode.”

Tel ducked his head as he entered and sat on the floor.  Raulin didn’t offer him a chair, since he had already missed his opportunity at good manners.  “How are you doing, my friend?”

“It’s a little boring, I have to admit.  There’s only so much knife practice I can do.  At least the wizard brought me several books to read about a week ago and none of them are alley novels.”

“I’m sorry I haven’t visited sooner,” Tel said.

“I wasn’t making a dig at you…”

“I’ve been thinking.”

Raulin waited for Tel to speak.  There was a rut between his thick eyebrows, and his heavily lashed brown eyes were sorrowful.  “Tel, what’s wrong?”

“I think…I think you were right, Raulin.  I think I should have fought against what my brother was doing.  I think I should have let the people help me take over.”

“This is surprising, coming from you.  What happened to kouriya?”

“Kouriya is a hard thing to keep your faith in.  Even those with the most unwavering loyalty to that lifestyle have their doubts.  This may be my time.”

“But why?” Raulin asked, crossing his legs and leaning forward.  “You and I talked about things right before I was arrested.  What happened since then?”

Tel’s head sagged and waved back and forth.  “I have been watching my homeland.”

“How?”

“I am able to fly over the land with kil.  This is how I can see the clouds and know what the weather holds for us.  And I do this across the land, the sea, and then to Ervaskin.”

“I didn’t know you could do that.  It’s extraordinary!”

“You humble me.”

“Maybe I do, but that’s an amazing ability.  You can see anything, then?”

“No.  I can feel instead of see.  It doesn’t allow me to perceive details, but I can tell when things are different.”

“And things are different back home?”

“Yes.  There’s been some major changes in Nourabrikot.  I believe my brother has started to consolidate his power.  My family has been confined to their homes or the palace.  And there were…” He sighed.  “…there were people hanging from trees.”

“Tel…I’m so sorry.  Did you know any of them?”

“There were two and both were people who were outspoken against my brother’s decisions. They were good men.  They only wished for the best for our people.”

“Which is what your brother wants, despite doing it in the most heavy-handed way possible.  He thinks that by opening the Valley to the world will make your people stronger. Or him richer.  Either way, he wants change and change is never easy.”

“I wouldn’t mind change, if it didn’t mean killing men for it.”

“And I think most people would agree, but their ambitions wind up outweighing their sanctity towards life.  They will do whatever it takes to put their agenda in place.  They will lie, cheat, kill, manipulate, anything.  And it seems like your brother is one of those people.”

Tel buried his face in his hands for a minute before looking up.  “Should I have overthrown my brother?”

“I don’t think I can answer that.  There was a reason why you didn’t, wasn’t there?”

“Because kouriya told me not to.  But, what if I was wrong?  What if I’ve always been wrong about kouriya?”

Raulin exhaled loudly.  “I never thought I’d see the day when you, of all people, has a crisis of faith.  I don’t know what to tell you.  If there’s some great cosmic plan for me, then I think the gods have a cruel sense of humor about it.  So, don’t ask me.  Why don’t you ask the wizard?”

“Alpine has been busy and doesn’t seem in the mood to speak to me about it.  He doesn’t seem particularly pious.  He takes the name of Kriskin in vain, which he says is blasphemy.”

“He does and it is, from my understanding, but I wasn’t talking about his piety.  I meant his devotion to this idea that Arvonne will rise again some day, that some royal family member is still alive and will walk out of some alley and start a revolution against the Kalronistic government.  They’re all dead, Tel.  There’s not a shred of evidence that they aren’t.  But he keeps marching along as if it was a possibility.  I don’t know how he does that.  Even after his breakdown, when he questioned everything about his life, he never wavered on that.  I’ll admit that my annoyance has actually turned to admiration on that subject.”

“The key, then, is not to question it, to always believe no matter what is said.”

“That’s…one way, his way.  I’ve always thought that faith needs to be tested, otherwise it’s obedience.”  He thought for a few moments.  “You have faith in other things.  Your love for Kelouya, for instance.”

“I can test that.  I feel that, always, and I know she feels it, too.  I can’t test kouriya.”

“You sure can.  Tell me all the times you felt kouriya and then acted upon it.”

It was close to an hour later that Telbarisk finished his list, all the little things he had done from leaving the island to sitting there in that room.  Raulin might have interrupted him at some point, but he had nothing else to do and it was interesting in its scope.

“And not once have you seen what happens when you engage in kouriya?  I know I have. I let you lead by kouriya and Anla got caught by the baerd hunters.”

“I didn’t want Anla to get caught by those men, Raulin.  It hurt me to think of what she went through.”

“But that’s kouriya, as you’ve explained it to me; neither good nor bad.  It just is.”

“It’s hard when you do something and see something negative happen, especially to those you love.”

“I can understand that.  All you can do is either reject it or continue to put your faith in it.  In your case, you have to hope that the great cosmic plan involves reuniting with your family and ruling your kingdom, soon.  And if it doesn’t, I’ll help you out.  You know this year together isn’t going to end with me waving goodbye.  I’ll make sure you’re taken care of.”

“Thank you, Raulin,” he said, rising.  “I feel better.”

“Good.  Try to get a word in edge-wise with the wizard.  He might help you.  Don’t let him talk your ear off about Arvonne, though.

* * *

Al didn’t have any time to talk about Arvonne, never mind kouriya or anything else Tel wanted to speak about.  He had spent his time tailing the Earl Brashef’s entourage.  He knew where they were staying, their names (which was much more professional than the nicknames he had given them), what their titles were, even a description of most of their wardrobe.  He had taken extensive, meticulous notes on their whereabouts, activities, and people they preferred to associate with.  He had confirmed with Raulin which three had been at the scene of the crime and he had followed them very carefully.

It was at the halfway mark of the month-long voyage that he realized they knew Al was following them and that they didn’t care.  In fact, they probably wanted that.  They never spoke of the murder and they were all nobles, so what exactly was he going to figure out?  Not who the killer was, that was for sure.

He had kept up with it for another week, not knowing what else to do, and had quit in exasperation.  “I don’t know what else to do,” he told Anla at dinner.  “I’ve exhausted every avenue I have.  And Lord Cavrige refuses to speak with me.  He runs when he sees me or his valet waylays me.”

“I tried, Al,” she said.  “He’s more than willing to speak to me, but not about the murder.  I tried influencing him, but he really doesn’t want to speak about it.”

“Could you mesmerize him?” he asked, clawing his fingers through his hair.

“I’d rather not,” she said, frowning.  “I haven’t exhausted all my options.”

She took tea with Jeurd that evening, trying to nudge him towards telling her about what he had witnessed.  The problem she had realized some time ago was that he wasn’t going to talk because it was more beneficial that he didn’t.  People had flocked around him, given him condolences and marveling at his association with the crime.  He hadn’t been that popular in his entire life, not even when he had hosted his own parties.  And why would a man give up those privileges? To please a woman he loved? Maybe Raulin would, but that’s not who Jeurd Cavrige was.

So, she strolled with him and listened to his banal conversation about whatever he wanted to speak about, almost wincing at his high-pitched giggle that he loosed at things no one else found funny.  They walked to his room, one of the nicer chambers, though not the nicest, and when he asked her inside, she accepted.

They sat in the armchairs below the portholes, the sound of the waves lapping against the boat the only sound for a few minutes.  “Why do you seem so tense?” she asked.

“Tense?  I’ve never felt better!”

“No.  You seem frazzled.  Is it because of the murder?  Maybe if you told me about what you saw, it would make you feel better.”

“Agh!  How many times do I have to tell people, it won’t make me feel better!  I don’t need to tell anyone!”

“Are you sure?” she asked, disappointed that the influence spell didn’t work.

He sighed dramatically.  “Yes! No, I don’t know.  Maybe.  But every time I think about it, I begin to shake and my throat closes.  It’s too much for me.”

Anla bit her lip.  She knew that they needed his witness account and that Jeurd was reluctant to give it.  There were two ways that she might get him to speak.   She could mesmerize him, like Al had suggested, or she could sleep with him.  Neither were great options. 

She had decided sometime shortly after Analussia that she wasn’t going to use the mesmerization spell unless it was a life or death situation.  This wasn’t that dire. She had another option that wouldn’t hurt anyone, wouldn’t enslave them, wouldn’t enthrall them. That option wasn’t pleasant, but she had slept with Jeurd before and had survived.

Despite having told Raulin she didn’t need to whore every again, she found herself in a situation that called for exactly that.

She stood.  “Jeurd, is there something I could do to help you feel comfortable?”

“Maybe you could read some poetry to me? I’d like that.”

She moved over to him and put her hands on his shoulders, kneading his back and neck. “There’s something else I think you’d rather have.”

It took him a few moments until he realized what she meant.  He leapt up and grabbed her, slobbering over her lips, pushing her back to the bed.  She felt a cold detachment to it, even when his warm hands moved up her legs. 

Just a few minutes.  She didn’t look at him, didn’t think of anything other than she wished Al would barge in and stop it, saying she didn’t need to continue, that he had found the missing clue.  But, he didn’t, and she laid there until Jeurd7e collapsed on top of her, painting to catch his breath.

“I knew you still loved me,” he said, rolling next to her.

She couldn’t bring herself to lie about that.  It was bitter on her tongue.  Instead, she pulled his head to her breast and stroked his hair, waiting until his breath deepened.  “Jeurd, how are you feeling?”

“Good,” he mumbled sleepily.

“You feel safe and happy?”

“Yes.”

“Like when you read your poetry?”

“Mmm.”

“Were you reading it in the library?”

“Yes.”

“And then you heard a struggle?” He said nothing and she thought he had fallen asleep.  “Jeurd?”

“Yes.  I was in an alcove, reaching for a book when I heard the other man grunt.  I ducked down and hid.”

Anla’s stomach seized.  “Did you see anyone?”

“No.”

“You didn’t get a look at the man who killed Dombray?”

“I was scared.  I covered my head and prayed to the Twelve that he wouldn’t find me.”

Her throat tightened.  It had all been for nothing.  He was useless to her, couldn’t even do one helpful thing for her.  

He snored lightly. She moved him off her and let herself out, barely glancing at Mayin as she strolled down the hallway.

* * *

There were four days left. The ship was in open waters, having moved past the breaker islands in the bay, and would arrive in the capital of Tektorn early in the morning. Their hope of freedom for Raulin was waning by the hour.

It was raining, and though it was warm, it was torrential. The decks were slick with puddles, so Anla took the long way around to reach the brig. Along the way, she saw Mrs. Garda and greeted her. Mrs. Garda, in return, gave her a hard smile, a minimal expression you’d give someone only because politeness dictated it. Anla was surprised at this, but kept going.

Anla nodded and smiled at the men in the brig. One stood, sword drawn, and unlocked the door. Raulin was laying on his cot, his fingers laced behind his head, but he turned as the door opened. “Hey, Takin.”

“Hi, Raulin. Everything fine?”

“As well as it could be. Four o’clock already, huh? Did you win your card game last night?”

“A little. Not as much as Brint, but enough.”

“Good, good.”

Raulin sat up and gave space for Anla to sit as they waited for Tel and Al to show for the meeting the wizard had called, but said nothing to her. He wiped his hands on his pants and finally said, “I’m sorry I haven’t been able to court you while I’m in here. I’ll make it up to you when we get to Acripla.”

“I’m glad to hear you think you’ll be free when we disembark. We’re doing what we can to free you. And, of course, “ she said quietly, “we’ll do what we can should things not end well.”

He nodded. “I’m sure you’ll figure out something. Will, um, is…is Cavrige coming with us?”

Anla gave an incredulous laugh. “What? Why would he do that?”

“Because you are together?”

“We are not,” she said with some weight behind the words.

“Oh. You, um, tumbled with him. Many times.”

She snorted. “I tumbled with him once, to try to get him to tell me about what he saw in the library. Nothing, by the way; he cowered in a corner and almost wet himself. He was less than helpful. How do you know about it?”

“He’s apparently been telling everyone he can that he and you are quite intimate and that he might call off his arranged meeting to marry you instead. Guards talk.”

“Well, I think I’ve underestimated his imagination. There’s nothing to worry about.” She shook her head, then looked at him. “Were you? Worried, that is?”

“Our agreement said you could do what you wished. I had hoped that you wouldn’t pursue other avenues, but it is your freedom.”

“What, did you think I had fallen in love with Jeurd?”

“I really don’t have much else to do in here other than think, Anla. I heard what the guards said. They like me well enough to tell the truth. So, I wondered what I had done wrong. Obviously it was not paying enough attention to you.”

“That kind of makes me sound like a flighty tart.”

“I don’t mean that, I mean…I felt like I hadn’t upheld our end of the bargain and therefore you had decided to find someone better suited to court you.”

“When I was his mistress a few years ago, he bought me presents. I’m not sure if you’d say he was courting me, since it would be a backwards sort of courting, but nonetheless, he bought me presents. At the time it was nice; I got to eat things that I couldn’t afford, I wore things that made me feel rich. But, nothing ever felt personal. He knew what to buy a woman but not me. I know that sounds spoiled, but I never felt like he understood me. I never quite understood that I felt that until one day he gave me a comb with ladybugs on it. I sold it as soon as I could. He never knew why I never wore it. You do, though.”

“You got a ladybug caught in your hair when you were younger and you’ve been afraid of them since.”

“Yes! See, why would I want to be with a man who doesn’t understand that? I mean, not specifically that, but he and I were never at a point where I felt like it would be worth my breath to share something like that. He’d tease me about it or forget it soon after.” She sighed. “He’s already cost me for that. Mrs. Garda didn’t speak to me when I saw her earlier. She thinks I cheated on my husband with Cavrige after she told me to sweep it under a rug and wear long sleeves. More Ghenian nonsense.”

“What would your people do in a situation like that?”

“Which one? Mrs. Garda? Elves don’t usually snub people. If we’re angry enough at someone, we’d stab them. Or did you mean what an elf would do if someone made unwanted advances towards them?”

“I was actually curious about fidelity amongst elves. Is that common? What happens if it is and one cheats on the other?”

“I often speak of the elves as my people and as humans as the other, but in all fairness I am from both worlds. They can be similar or strikingly different in their own ways. I have no training in how to deal with it sometimes. All I can do is forge my own path and hope that it’s the right one.”

“Then how did you feel about Lord Cavrige?”

She narrowed her eyes. “Are you upset with me over this?”

“I’m relieved that you aren’t with him, Anla. Yes, you did tell me that you didn’t care much for him, but people change and I understand that. So I felt like this was my fault. I could have been smarter and not goaded by Brashef’s men. I could be out there, protecting you like I should be. I’m upset, but with myself, not you.”

“It came down to either tumbling with him or ensorceling him. I suppose I could have had him kidnapped by Al and tortured until he told us what we needed to know, but that’s what ensorceling him would have felt like to me. I slept with him because I wanted to help you. I thought it was going to be like it was years ago with him. And it was during, but after, as I walked the decks, I didn’t feel well about it. I know what our agreement is, but I still feel like I broke a promise. I know I didn’t, but I still have that guilt like I did. You’re not happy. I like seeing you happy.” She took a breath. “That’s about all I can say. Those are my thoughts.”

He took her hand and entwined his fingers. “Thank you. You were honest. I feel a lot better.”

There was a knock on the door and both Al and Tel entered as Raulin squeezed her hand and pulled it away. Neither of the two men looked like they were in their finest. Each had dark circles under their eyes, a gaunt appearance, and couldn’t have more rumpled clothing if they had fallen off a mountain.

“I’m missing something,” Al said before he even said ‘hello’. “I know I am. I have that feeling like I’ve broken an egg and part of the shell got it, but it keeps sliding around when I try to pick it out.”

“You look sort of like a broken egg, Wizard. Maybe you want to take a day off, enjoy the weather.”

“It’s pouring out. And I can’t. I need all the time we have.”

“Doing what, though? You said that chasing after Brashef and his men was pointless, that you’ve parsed all the clues you could, and that there’s nothing else but to think. You need to be in the right frame of mind. Pulling your hair out isn’t helping you at all. You need to relax, calm your mind, maybe work on your ax forms that I’m sure you’ve forgotten to do these past few weeks.”

“What, I was supposed to drop all my work twice a day?” Al snapped.

“Yes, exactly. There’s always going to be something. Weather, tight quarters, your friend being framed for murder. If you want to be an ax wielder, you have to always wield your ax. I think you should go practice, get your mind off the subject.”

Al’s shoulders sunk and he sat on the floor. “I don’t want to give up.”

“You’re not giving up. You told me once that you had to take care of yourself before you could take care of your clients, that if you don’t stop to freshen yourself you’ll do incremental damage that will add up and cause major ramifications. So, go take care of yourself. I am. I’m teaching my friend Takin to play cards.”

“It’s a good thing they don’t have important jobs to do.”

“Well, so long as people behave, there’s no need to. The route is fairly calm and well-traveled. It’s an easy job, comparatively speaking. The ensign was just telling me that they often taken low ranking seamen aboard for their days of service, to get their next rank. Ferries are an easy way to do that. So, don’t be harsh on them. These men will move on to other ships and be fine sailors.”

Al looked up from his hands. “Boat.”

“No, ship. Takin was very particular about that.”

“Port?” His face looked pained.

“That’s a good wine to relax with. I’d even recommend Caudet, if that’ll let you mellow out.”

Al darted to the door and pounded on it. “Third Mate Takin?” he asked.

“Yes?” a man said, his head coming around the corner.

“You need to get the captain to round up the men and figure out which one isn’t a sailor.”

“That might be difficult, sir, with shifts and all.”

“I strongly believe that one of them either killed an ongoing sailor or is impersonating one, and also killed Viscount Dombray. It will free Raulin.”

He blinked a few times. “I’ll see what I can do.”

* * *

They decided on a less dramatic action. Starting at the bottom ranks, and with those seamen who could be vouched for, the first mate began conducting interviews. Was there anyone acting suspiciously, someone who didn’t seem like they were doing their job well or made mistakes? Perhaps a man who kept to himself?

There was a long list of names given. After twelve interviews, one name had appeared eight times: O.S. Zaparin. Al waited as the man was found sleeping in his quarters and escorted to the first mate’s office. Cap in hand, he stood before his superior and said, “Captain? You wanted to see me?”

The first mate raised an eyebrow and shared a look with Al. “I’m not your captain,” he said.

“Sorry, sir. I was napping during my break. Still a little disoriented.”

The man looked up and made eye contact with Al, who stood in shock. “You!”

Realizing the jib was up, he turned and tried to run out of the room. Two sailors with swords, who had been stationed just outside the room, enticed him to stay for the chat. “Mr. Auslen, you know this man?”

“With longer hair, yes. He’s the man that fought the duel for Earl Brashef and was seriously injured. I discounted him since he was listed as ‘departed’ and I had quite a few witnesses who said as such.” Al turned to the man. “Why? Why did you do it? You got a second chance at life! You should have gone home!”

The man said nothing. A sailor knocked and entered the room. “In with his stuff, sir,” he said, placing a poignard across his desk.

The first mate looked up from the knife to the accused. “This looks very bad for you. How would you like this to go? Already you have impersonating a sailor, stowing away, and possession of a weapon, perhaps theft of said weapon. I’ll drop all those charges if you tell us who gave you that knife.”

The man set his jaw and said nothing.

Al held up his hand to the first mate and interjected. “That’s not just a knife. That’s the small blade of a nobleman’s triad. Only those in the major peerage carry a set like that. It will likely match a short and regular sword with an insignia for his house on it.” He held his hand out and the first mate placed the blade in his hand, which he turned so it pointed down. “My, what do you think the ‘B’ on the hilt stands for?”

The man now looked worried. “Did he promise money?” the first mate asked. “Connections? He won’t be able to provide you anything when he’s in jail. A few of his men, too, likely his closest companions. They’ll be implicated as well.”

“Brashef,” he said, his head dropping.

“Earl Din Brashef?” the first mate asked without surprise.

“Yes.”

He called to one of his men, who took the murderer to one of the other brigs. Al was about to leave when the first mate said, “Tell me, are you really an investigator?”

“Honestly? No. Will you be charging me with impersonation as well?”

He laughed. “I’m not the type to cross my Ts. I got what I wanted and you put in your time. I won’t be paying you, though. That will be our waiver.”

Al might have let that go. The old Al definitely; he would have felt relieved at not being prosecuted. And the new Al didn’t care a whole lot for money. He had enough and he was frugal in most things. However, there was something he wanted not for himself, but for someone else.

He crossed his arms. “No. I did days of hours worth of work on this. I got you your man and the whole conspiracy with it. I want fair payment.”

“Hey, now, you should be lucky that I’m…”

“I want you to reimburse the trirec his ticket.”

The first mate considered. “That’s thirty-five gold. That’s all you’re charging then?”

“I want you to apologize and I want you to upgrade him.”

“And you as well?”

“If you want to. I’m not asking for it, though. Just him.”

The first mate rubbed his chin for a moment. “All right.”

20-2

Al was a sick as a dog. He hung over the railing of the ship, sipping on water in between his bouts of vomiting it back up a few minutes later. If he laid down, his seasickness was a little better, but he had to keep his eyes closed and not interact with anyone else.

He suffered through a day of this before waking up with it mysteriously gone. He was so giddy that he almost skipped to breakfast with the group.

“My, you’re looking much less green,” Raulin said as Al sat down.

“It just…evaporated all of a sudden,” he said with a grin and a flair of his hand. “I woke up and it was gone and I am loving life again.”

“Well, I’m happy,” Anla said. “I kept worrying all night if you were going to make it to the porthole.”

Everyone’s breakfast was included in the cost of the ticket, so Al was sure to order plenty of food to make up for the previous day. He tucked into his, eating heaping portions of bacon, sausage, ham, hard-boiled eggs, crepes, and a few slices of toast with jam. He washed it all down with glasses of apple juice and Caudet.

“Where does he put it all?” Anla asked, her mouth quirking up.

“Good question,” Raulin said. “The normal end of the joke is that it’s stored in his head, but since that implies he’s stupid and it’s so grossly wrong, it wouldn’t be funny, would it?”

“I have a new joke,” Tel said. “How many hand-sized rocks can a grivven hold?”

“Two?” Anla asked.

“Five,” he answered.

Raulin laughed. “Explaining it won’t help, but grivvens love stacking rocks. It’s a sort of meditation for them, some making an art form out of it. So, he’s implying that they wouldn’t just carry rocks in their hands and on the backs of their hands, but try for one more after that.” Raulin turned to Tel. “It was good, but let me explain context…”

They were in the middle of a deep discourse on how the audience needs to understand the premise of the humor when there were shouts and an immediate evaporation of sound in the dining room. The table turned and they saw two well-dressed gentleman standing close to one another. “Then go ahead, Dombray, show us what you Tektornians are made of!” one gentleman with dark red hair said, giving a look to a few of his cronies nearby that elicited a chorus of laughs.

“Seconds!” the other man, Dombray, yelled. He was easy to spot as he was dark-skinned with curly black hair.

“Hmph.” The red-haired man turned to his cohorts, consulting with one before saying, loudly, “First choice waved.”

The other man licked his lips. “I choose…Duson Kilval.”

A young man near him stood from his table and bowed, taking his position next to his friend.

“Fine. I choose the trirec.”

All eyes in the dining hall searched around until they landed on Raulin. He stood, faced the commotion, and said, “The trirec rejects the request.”

He started to sit down when the red-haired man said, “Ah, but you are honor-, and law-, bound to fight in an official duel.”

“That would be legally true for Ghenian citizens, of which I am not. As for the first part, well, I am a trirec. I wish you luck.” And he sat down.

People still stared at him until the red-haired man spoke again, choosing someone else. With the highlights done, the diners began to speak again, though many still shot looks at the quartet’s table.

“I do have to admit that I would rather not be here right now,” Raulin said in recognition of the attention.

“Care to show me some techniques?” Al asked. “I missed yesterday’s training and I’d like to make up for it.”

“Sure, Wizard, that’s a good idea.”

The two made there way to Al and Anla’s cabin, a room about the same size as a cheap hotel room. When they were inside, Al asked, “Why did you need to get away?”

“I’m a thief, Wizard, and therefore dislike being noticed. That’s all.”

“Oh.”

“So far you’ve been working on offensive moves,” Raulin began, moving right into the lesson. “I’m going to show you how to defend against different kinds of weapons. As a future vizier, you’re most likely to encounter some sort of a blade trying to assassinate your employer, likely a knife. If that’s the case, I’m here to tell you that he’ll probably win. All you can do is hope to hold him off as long as possible in order to give your employer time to run away.

“If this guy happens to pick a face-to-face brawl with you, you’ll need to keep him as far away as possible.” He pulled out his favored set of knives. “Like you with your ax, my job is to get as close to my victim as possible before they realize I’m there. I stab, multiple times if possible, and get as far away as I can. You have to stop that from happening. Show me how.”

“You haven’t taught me that.”

“I’m giving you an opportunity to apply your understanding to a problem and come up with a solution.”

Al looked at his ax for a moment, then placed the head of it against Raulin’s chest, holding the end of the haft with one hand.

“Good, for about two seconds. You’d have to be able to keep pushing against the assailant and making sure he moves backward. However, if I slip to the side here, I can slice your arm, then turn and stab your kidneys in two seconds.” He demonstrated with the hilts of his knives before moving back to his first position. “You also never want to extend your weapon like this. Look how weak your control is.” He pressed on Al’s hand and the ax sagged. “And I can also disarm you easily” He pressed his hands between the head and pushed against Al until he lost his balance.

“All right, so not that,” Al said with a little annoyance.

“Don’t think of answering the question incorrectly as wrong. I’m not doling out points on a test; I’m showing you why and how you should learn from that. Any other ideas?”

Al held the haft with both hands and put it in front of him.

“In order for you to succeed, you’ll need quite a bit of luck. Look how little surface you have to use as a shield. It might work in a pinch against a sword, but not against a knife. It will deflect quickly. You might get their forearm, but you’ll have to be right in the middle, or else they can pivot their arm or wrist and stab you again. Never mind his second hand.” He saw Al’s face. “Not a bad idea, Wizard! It will just take a lot of practice to get that sweet spot. I think it has potential to break your attacker’s nose, too, should you get the thrust in.”

“What’s the answer, then?”

“Well, hoping you’re in an area far from other people, your answer is an overpowering offense as a defense.” He took the ax from Al and had him sit on his bed to give Raulin enough room. He started twirling the ax in his hand, circling his wrist so the weapon made a sagittal loop outside of his body. His arm pulled back and he crossed the ax in front of him, tucking his other arm close to his chest. He finished with a full rotation, letting the ax drop. “You have to be as frightening as possible to drive them off. Fast, showy, random. If they get a moment inside your defenses, you’re toast. And, please, do not try it this fast until you have a good feel for the weapon. If the head shifts, you’ll be slicing your side up at uncomfortable speeds.”

“Can…can I try it?” Al asked, his excitement renewed.

Raulin handed him the ax and showed him the motion very slowly. When he felt he was ready to do it on his own, he sat on the bed and watched.

“Something I was always curious about and never asked: are noble duels and the Noh Amairian Accords system related?”

“Somewhat,” Raulin answered. “The seconds system is a little different. Kings can only call for seconds if they’re grievously injured.”

“But it’s based on that merit that nobles won’t fight with each other.”

Can’t fight.”

Al stopped. “What do you mean ‘can’t’?”

“Something I’ve learned from playing a nobleman, because they’d really wish the general public not know this, is that they actually can’t hurt each other. If they try, they’re injured somehow from it. I worry about the day that trips me up, hurting someone in the peerage as a noble when I’m not supposed to be able to or vice versa.”

“Oh, so that’s why kings have to duel each other before a war can start. Nobles can’t duel each other, therefore the war can’t happen. Amandorlam wouldn’t tell us; they just stated it as a fact and no one really gave an answer.” He titled his head for a moment. “That’s actually a clever way of stopping war all together.”

“Skethik wasn’t too happy about it, I’m sure. But there are ways around it. You can have a battle of up to a thousand mounted knights and still have it be called a ‘skirmish’ three times before it’s called a war. I think Sonder thrives on that little loophole.”

“Those two men today couldn’t actually duel with each other, since they’re noblemen, so they called for commoner seconds to do it in their stead.”

“Yes. There’s a bunch of rules in place. Usually, by the time the duel has to happen, they’ve reconciled and there isn’t one. I’m not too sure about those two. We’ll see.”

“Why did you refuse?”

“My order doesn’t like us interfering in affairs like that. I could have accepted at an exorbitant fee, but there are no agents aboard the ship and I already have twenty-five contracts, which I was whipped for. I don’t want to know what they’d do for my twenty-sixth. And I didn’t like the red-haired man. He was goading the dark-haired one into that duel. Either he’s an ass or he’s plotting something. I’d rather not be on the good side of either if I can’t escape.”

* * *

Anla had decided to take in the view and was on the top deck overlooking the ocean. It was the first time she had been on a ship of any kind, even the wide sleeper-ferries that would keep to the calmer, shallower waters of the eastern part of the Great Gheny Bay, since her mother had been frightened of them. It wouldn’t be her last time on one, so it was fortunate that the sea brought the thrill of smelling the salty tang of the air and feeling the wind whip through her hair instead of seasickness, like poor Al.

She was musing on what it had been like for her father’s crossing when a woman in a wide-brimmed hat approached her. “Olana?”

Anla turned in surprise. “Mrs. Garda! It’s so good to see you!”

“I thought it was you!” They had met on a nature appreciation walk at the Shrine in Mount Kalista and the two had shared a table at meals for a few days. “How are you doing, darling?”

“I’m well. How are you and Mr. Garda?”

“We’re well. A lot of travel in the last few weeks, but we’ve managed. And you and…Darrick, was it?”

Anla froze her smile in place as she thought of what to say. Mrs. Garda knew full well what had happened at the shrine. They’d had a few conversations about what a woman’s place was and how they had to forgive and forget things like infidelity. In fact, sometimes they made the marriage stronger, she had said, though not the roughhousing he had done to her. She meant well and had been looking out for her best interests, but Anla had been too preoccupied with outmaneuvering Lady Karninth to actually consider what she had said.

Mrs. Garda would love to hear that they patched things up. Anla would have no problems parading Raulin around in front of her, but the whole thing was tricky. Raulin wouldn’t like being unmasked for very long on a ship where people might ask questions of who he was and where he came from. “We did reconcile, but we decided to tackle two different cases at the same time. We’ll be apart for a little while, which will give us some time to reevaluate our relationship.”

“Oh, I suppose that’s good then, dear.”

“He’s still very apologetic and misses me terribly. He’s written a few letters.”

“That’s romantic!” She seemed to brighten a little more.  “I’m so glad to hear things are looking better for you.”

“They are.  We’ll take a nice rest at home to get to know each other again.  I don’t think we have any contracts lined up after I’m finished with mine in Acripla.”

She looked at Anla and gave a knowing look before patting her arm and walking ahead of her.  “Coming, dear?” she asked.  Anla would rather watch the sea, but since they’d see a lot of that over the next few weeks, she took Mrs. Garda up on her offer.

The Constance on the Sea was a wide barge-like ferry that could house hundreds of people.  Mrs. Garda explained that this was only possible because the waters in the bay were relatively shallow and calm and the ferry didn’t sail during the stormy season.  It was propelled by a giant water wheel in the rear and auxilliary sails. 

“Lucky for you, dear, since I know quite a few of the people here.”  She led her into the covered part of the top deck, where people were sitting at tables playing cards, reading books, smoking cigars, napping, or holding conversation with those around them.  Most were well-dressed, like Mrs. Garda, and Anla felt only marginally above a pauper in her tan blouse and multi-colored skirt. “Now, what is it you and your husband do again?”

She panicked for a moment, trying to remember what she had told her in passing.  Anla hadn’t used the antiques and collectibles line, since she wanted to keep her identity with Al separate, but didn’t want the knowledge she’d picked up to go to waste.  “We work for a firm that inspects client’s homes and offers appraisals on items they own that they wish to sell or update client’s homes to the latest fashions.”

“I hope you’re discreet,” Mrs. Garda asked in a low voice.

“Absolutely.  All of our ledgers are kept in confidence.”  She had learned at some conversation at the libertine ball that no nobleman or well-to-do commoner would wish to appear like they were doing poorly by selling something in their home.

“Very good.  I shouldn’t have even asked; you kept your chin high and your mouth closed in a very trying situation.  I know what that nasty woman did to you; there was talk, I’m afraid.  I admire you for that.” She patted Anla’s arm again.

“Thank you, Mrs. Garda.”

The older woman, her graying hair piled in curls under her hat, walked slowly in her company, surveying the large room.  She would point out someone she recognized, give a quick description of them, and either introduce the two or look at Anla.  It took her a few times to realize that she was giving her an opportunity to duck out of a meeting with a potential client who had a solatious air about them.  This earl and his wife apparently lost a lot of money when their ship sank back in May.  That gentleman was single, had been single for a long time, but had a long string of male “assistants”.  Anla sighed internally at the prejudice against Uranians.

“Oh, that’s Earl Din Brashef of Kiber’s Port in Courmet,” she said, pointing to a younger man with red hair.  “He’s very well-to-do, but I’m not sure how you feel about that nasty business with his rival from earlier.  I’m not sure you want to be involved with a man who treats people like that.”

“One that duels?”

“No, no.  He and Eri-Viscount Dombray have been at each other’s throats for some time now.  Business affairs, mostly.  Brashef has been trying to do a hostile takeover for some time in Dombray’s holdings. Dombray isn’t without his nasty tactics, so I’ve heard.  Certain warehouses have gone up in flames and certain valued workers pilfered.  I believe this is their fifth or sixth duel?  Each has two losses on each side.  I assume the other one or two were just badly injured.”

Anla was curious about the rules surrounding duels, but it wasn’t the best time to ask.  She declined, more because she’d rather not get involved with a man who had crossed Raulin.

It was too bad she wasn’t actually in the business of reselling and decorating; she had quite a few conversations from people who were generally interested in her services.  Mrs. Garda looked at her proudly.  They ate dinner together, along with Mr. Garda, and enjoyed each other’s company.