12-8

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Fine, Anla, just fine.

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

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

“At least she didn’t do it herself.”

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

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

“Great. He knows. Did you tell him?”

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

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

“My mother,” he said bitterly.

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

“Yeah.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It wouldn’t happen.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No, stop. Killing is wrong…”

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

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

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

“I don’t.”

“Explain your friend Aggie, then.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s different.”

“How?”

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

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

“Yes!”

“So, this is personal, then?”

“Ye-.” He stopped.

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

“Um…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

12-7

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I don’t know!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Madra, no.”

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

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

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

“Who?” he asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And?”

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

“Are you saying Al needs hope?”

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

12-6

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And your mother?”

“Also born here, in Ashven.”

“Where do they live?”

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

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

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

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

“That’s a better idea,” Anla said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Migan and Sons?”

“Push it off.”

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

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

“Yes, ma’am. Westlake, Harsham, and…”

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

Glendina nodded and left.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Pretty on the nose.”

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You should see my madra’s,” he said.

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

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

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

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

“No Arvonnese alley novels?” she asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What is it?”

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

“Al…” Anla said.

“What? What is it?”

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

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

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

12-4

Al hadn’t been completely forthright with Anla about his fears, but only because he hadn’t been totally forthright with himself. While he had been deeply concerned that his mother or one of his family’s friends was slated to be assassinated, he also had another fear to overcome, one that had been a large root for his hemming and hawing. He was afraid to see his mother.

Amandorlam had not been a cheap place to attend school. It had cost his mother hundreds of gold each year for classes, housing, board, and expenses. He’d had the school bill his mother, but told them not to elaborate on what they were billing her for. He’d scrimped on things he’d considered distractions anyway, rarely going out for drinks or entertainment like the rest of his classmates, and it helped him to save some additional money. He managed to fly through the coursework, all sub rosa, his mother none the wiser until he wrote to her at the end of his fifth year and told her what he’d done.

He’d known she’d be upset. She’d wanted her son to be a lawyer or politician, not a wizard. And, without malice but also without pride, she’d cut him off and told him he’d have to return home if he wanted a copper more. That’s when he’d applied the extra money he’d saved and finished the remaining wizard classes in two years. And he’d only written to her once, to thank her for her support, but to let her know he couldn’t speak with her anymore due to the law.

He’d never received a return letter and had assumed she was angry with him. But, given the choice between facing a wrathful mother or a dead one, Al believed the first was slightly better. Without saying a word, Al got up very early the next morning and left the hotel. He ate a nice breakfast, got a shave, and bought himself a new suit, one that was presentable and not cheap. And then, with a roiling stomach, he made his way to Gystik Heights.

Merry Street was lined with trees that blossomed pink in the spring. Right now the leaves twirled to the ground in vivid golden oranges and scarlets. He brushed his fingertips along the trunk of one, tracing the letters “D.C” carved in the bark. There would be another tree farther down the road with several initials, but that was the only one with only those.

The road curved to the left and went up a short hill. The yards increased in size from a comfortable place to have a few gardens to one where a family could keep horses, raise fish in ponds, or even have a courtyard to connect several buildings. They all shared familiar features that a trained eye would notice: stone facades on the windward side only, thin, twisting columns, and costly glass-infused doors that shone a rainbow of colors on the atrium during a large part of the day.

Al stood at the gate of one of these houses and took a deep breath before entering the yard. He stumbled for a moment as he tried to figure whether he should knock on the servants’ door, the side door for receiving guests, or the front door. He chose the latter and waited.

A short, dark-skinned woman opened the door as if she had intended to walk outside. She stopped cold, her mouth frozen in an “O” shape. “Hi, Glendina,” he said.

“Oh, ma’am,” she began, turning around. “Ma’am, you need to come here.”

Another woman, slightly taller and thinner with a rod-straight back and a streak of white across her left brow, entered the atrium from a side room. Her hands clutched her pants, a deferring sign Br’vani women made to appease who they called abendi, others, those not of their ways. She was focused on Glendina and didn’t see him until she was only a few feet from the door.

She froze and dropped her hands. “Dominek,” she whispered.

“Madra,” he said. “I was…I was in town and I thought I’d stop by to see you. If…if you…”

She closed the distance between them and pulled him into a tight embrace, pulling his head down to her chest. “A ba rino,” she said, rubbing his back. “My baby” was what she had crooned.

“Madra,” he said again.

She stood back, her hands on his arms and tears in her eyes. “Let me look at you. Oh, what is this?” she said, thumbing the hair above his lip. “You look like an abendi. I like your hair style, though. Someone managed to tame your wild locks. You look good, Dominek.”

“Alpine,” he corrected. Glendina pursed her lips, but said nothing.

“Yes, of course,” his mother said with a bit of tartness to her voice. “Well, what brings my wizard son back home? Have you come to ask for money or lavish gifts upon your mother?”

How many times had Aggie regaled Al with some tale about him impressing a woman with an elaborate line? So many times that Al no longer questioned his motives. Aggie lied to women to bed them, but he must also find some excitement in the risk. Why else would he claim to be a nobleman or a rich merchant other than to challenge himself for a thrill?

As Al stood before his mother, thought, he realized that he had dismissed the other reason, maybe the real reason. That was because he’d never been in a situation where there was so much at stake, namely the admiration and appreciation of someone he loved. She wanted him to be happy and successful. It was all she had ever wanted, the reason why she had agreed to spend so much money sending him to Amandorlam. And, with all her hopes and dreams instilled, he had returned nothing to her. He had deceived her, cut off all communication, and removed any chance she had at having him in the family.

She looked up at him, eyes wide with the promise of optimism. He said, “I’m sorry, Madra. It was an oversight. I’ll bring you presents soon.”

Both women relaxed. “It’s okay, rino. How is your job treating you?”

“I’m… a vizier. I travel with my employer wherever he wants and make sure he is comfortable and cared for. He’s a good man and he pays well. He decided he wanted to visit Baradan and gave me a little time off, so I am here.”

“Ah,” she said, smiling. “So, you’ll be here for some time, then?”

“It is up to my lord’s wishes.”

“Do you think you could come to dinner? I can write to Ashven and have him come over tonight. And your sister was just affianced, so we can celebrate that as well as your career.”

“I don’t know,” he said. “It would be if I could get the night off.”

His mother snorted. “No son of mine can’t argue for what he wants. You work hard! Tell him that, your lord. Tell him that you wish to visit your family that you haven’t seen in ten years. Push him and return to us with your wife.”

“Wife?” he asked.

“Yes, that abendi you married. What was her name?”

“Burdet, ma’am,” Glendina offered.

“Yes, Burdet. I assume she must travel with you. I’ll finally get to meet her. Do you have children? Does she make you happy?”

This was already getting too deep for his tastes, but he was committed. “Yes. She makes me happy, but we have no children. My lord assures me he plans on retiring soon, and though he’ll still retain me, he’ll stay more or less in one place. It will be better for our family then.”

“Well, you’ll have to tell me all about this tonight. Right now Glendina and I are running a little behind. I have a council meeting in an hour and I want to check in at the store before I go. We’ll see you around five o’clock, a ba rino.”

“Yes, Madra.”

Glendina and his mother left the house in a hansom and Al was left to make his way back to his hotel. The only reason he even challenged the propriety of them not sharing the carriage was due to his years away in abendi culture; with the Br’vani, men walked unless they had the level of respect sometimes brought by having a well-paying career above their station. It was neither as it should be nor wrong. It was Br’vanese.

He walked as fast as he could back to the quaint inn they were staying at, hoping Anla was still there. She was in the two-table dining room downstairs, eating breakfast with Raulin. Al stood in the doorway, catching his breath.

“Al. You’re up early,” she remarked.

“Perhaps he visited the winery without us,” Raulin posited.

“Anla. May I speak with you for a moment? Alone?”

Raulin began to stand when Al motioned for him to remain seated. Anla sighed and stood, following Al to his bedroom. “What’s wrong, Al?”

“I need some help. Can you be my wife for a day or two?”

“I already thought I was your wife.”

“I mean, not Mrs. Auslen. I need you to be Alpine Gray’s wife.”

She raised an eyebrow at this. “Sure, but I think you should tell me what’s going on before I actually escort you anywhere.”

He sat on the bed. “I saw my mother this morning.”

“Ah,” she said, nodding her head slowly. “That’s good, Al.”

“And she wants to meet my wife.”

“Hmm. It doesn’t seem like you to lie.”

“I know. It’s not good, Anla. I know that.”

“It’s fine, just a little surprising. Yes, I will help you, but you need to coach me. What’s my name?”

“Burdet,” he said.

“Burdet. So, I’m Arvonnese, then?”

“Yes. Her grandfather was from there.”

She paused at this. “Al, are you married?”

“It’s…no. Yes. Sort of. We’re divorced. Or, technically separated, but I’m not returning to her. I gave her my ring and I assume she knows my decision is final.”

Anla pressed her lips together. “And your mother knows this?”

“No. The last time I wrote to her was to tell her that I was settling in Whitney and that Burdet and I had just married…and that I wasn’t allowed to correspond to my family anymore, since I was licensed. Really, I shouldn’t have even written her at that point, but I wanted to say I was doing well and goodbye.”

“Why?”

“It’s the law,” he answered quickly. “Wizards pledge their allegiance to the king and the royal family and leave behind their own familial ties. That way, no other family could grow too powerful and take control of the throne with the fear of a wizard army.”

“I thought you said a god-blooded person has to be in charge of the country in order for it to thrive.”

“They don’t need to kill the royal family, just hold them hostage and sedated. Any hard wizard is worth five men on a battlefield, and an additional small team of soft wizards would be able to keep a family in a fugue state. That’s actually the plot to several Arvonnese alley novels, that one of the princes is being held against their will…”

“So, it was the threat that spurred you to see her?” she said, interrupting.

“That and I was told that it’s more of lex vellat situation, something people use only if they’ve noted a problem. And the more I think about it, the more I believe it. I don’t they wouldn’t arrest me on charges of conspiracy against the king, which is what my professors assured us students would happen, unless I was deep in an actual conspiracy. I don’t forsee anyone kicking up a fuss because I visited my mother.”

“Al,” she said softly. “You gave up your family and you didn’t need to?”

“I guess not.”

“Let’s make up for it, then. Tell me what you want me to do.”

“Just be nice and act like a wife. Oh, and please don’t tell Raulin about this.”

“Raulin? Oh, I thought he was going to play your employer,” she said with a smirk.

“Oh, trust me, I will not let this go that far.”

12-3

Barrows-by-the-Sea was one of those delightfully literally-named places right by the sea on a rocky overlook above a salt marsh. It was located in Veltable, a spit of land that formed a small neighborhood that shared the aesthetic of weathered wood, many paned windows, and small signs plastering the first story of each business. The restaurant, therefore, blended in and would have been hard for Raulin to find on his own, even with detailed instructions.

It served soup. The menu idea wasn’t something that seemed interesting at first, as soup isn’t exactly an interesting option, but Al assured them it was worthwhile. “This place serves some of the best soup in the city, trust me. I mean, their minestrone is fine, though a little on the bland side, and I don’t care for their burnt onion soup, but the chowders and bisques are amazing.”

They were seated at a square table with the middle portion sunken down and lined with quilted and stuffed cotton in a pattern of lighthouses and sea creatures. There was an uncovered, raised section in the middle lined with tile. The idea was to order canteens of soups that would be set in that section so that everyone could ladle whatever they liked into their bowl. Raulin let Al choose a seafood chowder, a squash bisque, a beef stew, and a chicken vegetable soup.

The waitress brought out two hunks of bread and a variety of crackers right before two waiters brought the soups, strapped to a yoke as if they were bringing milk pails back from the stable. The soups were good and Raulin lavished his praise on Al for his excellent choice in food.

“Baradan is diverse and provides everything you need,” Al said. “It might not be a place for the best fine dining in Gheny, but it will make you happy and satisfied.”

“Oh, there was a metaphor here!” Raulin said. “And I asked for a good place for a newcomer to eat at first, so this was wonderful.”

“Yes?” Al wondered aloud.

“Yes. In the future I will ask for all Baradanian feasting advice from you.”

Al sopped up the rest of his chowder with his bread and ate it hungrily, as if he hadn’t just had five bowls of soup. “Do you want to go to a briarch later?”

Raulin knew what that was, since he’d been to Br’vani, but he looked at Anla quickly, who seemed confused. “I don’t know what that is, but if it involves food, then I’m likely a ‘yes’.”

Al brought them to Harbor Beach for a few hours until the sun began to set. Tel loved it, especially since Al pointed out that this was likely the closest he’d be to Ervaskin while on Ghenian soil. Anla and Raulin sat next to each other, talking on the beach and trying to stay warm while the wind whipped their hair around and the temperature dropped.

Since Baradanians tended to work hard and work late, many left their offices after the sun set. Briarch restaurants catered to those from six in the evening ’til one, even two, in the morning. They served lighter food and drink that people might find at a cocktail hour, often with a theme of some sort. The one Al took them to looked like a weathered apothecary shop with drinks served in bottles and beakers, shrimp and mussels served on gold, weighted scales, and dips served from mortars.

The next day was a full breakfast, cold sandwiches, and a roast dinner with ventures to Aberli Park and the Maritime Museum in between, happily planned by Al. The day after was much of the same with dining out three times and exploring places and events in Baradan and the surrounding neighborhoods. And the third day, as well.

As they walked from lunch to a fruit-picking excursion, Raulin took Anla aside. “I’ve been patient,” he said. “I appreciate what he’s doing, but I have to get my work done. I haven’t had a minute to spare to do any preparation.”

“I know. You’ve been very kind to him. I’ve been meaning to chat with him, since I keep feeling like there’s something he’s not saying.”

“You think he’s setting a trap?”

“No, no, nothing like that. I don’t think he’s being intentionally malicious, just pensive.”

“Well, if we could do this the nice way, I’d prefer it, but after today I’m going to have to work on my contract.”

They bought two burlap sacks and began harvesting apples. “We’re not going to eat two bagfuls of apples, Wizard, not even if we stayed in Baradan for a month.”

“We can sell the bags back to the orchard when we’re done,” he explained. “We’re paying to have fun for an hour or two, maybe eat some fruit.”

“There aren’t any apples on the lower branches of these trees. We might be here for hours.” He paused. “On second thought, I’m going with Tel and I’m holding the bag.”

Anla was about to climb the nearest tree when Al said, “No! You can’t do that! You’ll break the branches and the owners will get angry.”

She dropped her hands. “How do we get the apples, then?”

“You have to hunt for them. Let’s go this way, to the back.”

Away from the intermingled groups of poorer and richer folk, they found several trees with enough red and green speckled apples to fill their sack. “So, where are we going for dinner?” Anla asked.

“Oh, I thought I’d see how you guys fared with real Br’vani food. There’s a place not far from our hotel that serves roasted pilash like my mother used to make. Or, well, that I had at home. You guys will love it.”

“And what are we doing tomorrow?”

“There’s a nice boardwalk near Estique Heights I thought I’d take you to. It’s not as large as Calaba’s, but it’s still good. And then there’s a winery we can go to in the evening.”

“And the day after?” she asked, taking a large bite out of her fruit.

“I’ll come up with some things for us to do, don’t worry.”

“Well, while we’re enjoying it, I’m wondering why you’re keeping us so busy.”

Al’s eyebrows furrowed as he turned to face her. “Raulin said to take everyone to restaurants and places in Baradan.”

“Yes, but I think he meant a day, maybe two. We’re on day four now. Raulin has to get to work so that he can…”

“I know why he’s here,” he said, twisting an apple to pop it off the branch.

“So, you know that, while we’ve enjoyed our time here, he has to finish his contract.”

“What if I know who it is he has to kill?” He paused for a few moments. “What if it’s my mother?”

“You know he has no choice in who he has to kill. He’ll have to do it anyway,” she said, before realizing Al’s motives. “He has to do it no matter how long you stall.”

“I’m just…afraid to ask,” he said, kicking a rotten apple. “I’m stuck between wanting to know and not wanting to know.”

“Well, prepare for the worst. If Raulin’s target is your mother, what would you do?”

“I’d…I’d go to the police.”

“And tell them a trirec is operating in Baradan? Would they arrest him on suspicion of murder? There’s no proof. And he’d have to be released at some point, then he’d kill his target anyway. No, I mean what would you reasonably do? You have the opportunity to maybe tell the future, but not to stop it. If you looked out upon the sea and saw a storm coming that you knew would kill your mother, what would you do?”

“I’d help her.”

“Good,” she repeated. “That’s a fair thing to do. You can warn her, you can watch over her, you can do what you can to save her. But, you might want to think about seeing her before you do that. Until then, we’ll go out to dinner, if you still want to, but I think we’ll pass on the winery tomorrow. Raulin can’t drink, anyway.”

“Okay,” he said with a sullen tone.

The two meandered in the orchard in silence. While Anladet had found a few good trees with ripe apples, Al was busy thinking. After some time, she approached him. “Are we done with the apples?”

He looked down at the bag, only half-full. “I think so. I’ll just have to get creative when we’re on the road again.”