“How well did you
sleep last night?” Raulin asked Al when he walked downstairs to the
“Not well. I
dreamed…” he began, but trailed off.
right, Wizard. I don’t think I need to hear what your mind came up
with after yesterday’s foray into the dark world. Come. We’re going
He moaned. “I
was hoping to have a day off.”
“No. And don’t
think I’ll take pity on you because of what happened.”
Al trudged up the
stairs and back into his room. Raulin came in with the coat rack
from the hallway, putting it next to the door until the two had
finished their stretches. There wasn’t much room to work in, but
this wasn’t going to be a lesson involving the full arch.
going to chop this stick into kindling in two minutes.”
“No, you’re not.
When you’re out in the woods and there’s no one around, you can chop
whatever tree you want as much as you want in any way you want. When
we’re in a city and you can’t chop your tree, you need to work on
“This rack is a fairly good representation of the height of a man. I want you to swing, but instead of sinking your ax in, I want you to feel what it feels like to miss. Step back, the rack is just a line for you. Good. Now, swing and feel the ax’s weight.”
“I’ve done this before, when you made me work on my swings.”
“Yes, it’s not
novel, but now you have a guide to make sure you’re hitting the vital
areas. Maybe I can get a few ribbons to tie around it so that you
know the correct points.
“Now, number two
is what’s called a mercy strike. When you have enough control, and
please don’t try it beforehand, I want you to practice swinging into
the rack and stopping just before you hit. Your goal is to get to a
razor thin distance from it.”
“How does that
“So, the ax is a particularly bad weapon to fight with for a number of reasons. The one I’m concerned with is momentum. When you do, say, a diagonal chop,” he said, gesturing for him to do one, then holding Al’s arm down, “you are totally exposed for lengths of time that would allow a fencer to wreak havoc.
“There are three possible solutions that I can see. The first is to continue the swing into a spin and attack again the same way. Not bad for an occasional hit, but you can’t maintain a dervish style indefinitely, even with your enhanced balance. The second is to transfer the weapon to your non-dominant hand and attack again quickly. That works well if you’re ambidextrous, but it still has its issues.
“The last would be to stop the momentum and make your next strike. I’m curious to see if this is possible for you. It’ll take above average strength to do so, which you possess, and some training to get to that point.”
to see’? What did your order teach you?”
“My order taught me that, if you’re caught in the woods and you have a few moments to grab an ax from a stump, you should probably try ripping a tree limb down instead. Axes are like a knife-mace combination with none of the advantages. I’m sort of making this up as I go and tailoring it to your abilities. It’s the best I can do, Wizard.”
“I know. I just
wish there was some advantage.”
“There are. The weight you can put behind this will lodge itself into a man with deadly force. One hit and the fight is done. Other than that, no one will really know how to fight against an ax, so you’re going to confuse even the most seasoned of swordsmen.”
Raulin noted that Al looked a little dejected, so he changed the subject while the wizard continued to train. “What did you wind up choosing last night?”
“I told her,”
“All of it?”
“No. I thought
about what the knowledge was doing to me and thought ‘what if that
had happened to my sister? Would I want someone to tell me that?’ I
couldn’t say ‘yes’. It seemed unnecessary to make the situation more
painful for her. Her sister is dead, that’s enough.”
“For what it’s
worth, I would have made the same choice. She needed to know, but
she didn’t need to know more than that.”
Al nodded and
continued swinging while Raulin stood appraising. “How are you and
“Good. Do you
know something different?”
“No, I was just
curious…I lost the bet, didn’t I?”
nothing for a few moments. “A long time ago. I wasn’t going to
hold you to it, since you’ve actually taken it upon yourself to be
more quiet than you used to be.”
“Tell me you’re
treating her well.”
“I’m courting her, actually. It’s only in the beginning stages. She seems pleased with where we are, though, and that’s enough.”
“But you’re not pleased?”
“I won’t deny
that I’m a man who has other wishes.”
“…that you can
satisfy when you bed some girl to get whatever information you want.”
“That’s off the
Al stopped in
surprise for a moment. “You’re not…”
“No. Some men
enjoy pursuing several women at once. I think your friend Aggie
would fall into that category. I’m not one of them; it’s just how I
“But why would
you take gestures over…” It dawned on him. “You love her.”
“See what you
can puzzle out when you’re observing. Tel has been teasing me for
some time now about it, in his own way.”
“I’m surprised you aren’t denying it.”
curious of your opinion on it.”
He stopped his exercises completely to dwell on it. “I don’t think I know the full brunt of what happened at the Shrine, but looking back at our conversations about it, I can tell she was hurt. Something in her tone or the way she looked down quickly when I asked about you. And with that in mind I would tell you to stay away from her. But, I understand that you’ve distanced yourself from her and I can only assume it’s because you’re repenting and you’ve put some thought into what’s best for her. If that’s the case, then I have nothing to say.”
You’ve changed considerably from the time when we were vying over her
my stake has changed. She can take care of herself and make her
decisions…did you know she was seventeen?”
“Yes. She doesn’t appreciate being patronized about her age. She also requested I not say anything.”
“I understand. She’s young, but she manages to act more mature. And I’m learning to trust that I don’t need to hold the spear for the packholder, the way us Br’vanese are taught. But, she still means something to me, a great deal more than I realized. So, I think I need to say that if you ever hurt her again, Raulin, you and I are done.”
Raulin let the
words sink into the atmosphere. “I think that if I hurt her again,
I’d be hurting myself more. It won’t happen.”
* * *
actually did weigh on Raulin. Less on hurting Anla; while he
considered himself rather lucky that she was a forgiving woman, he
felt it wasn’t something he’d test again. It was more on the
metaphor Al had used about the packholders.
Br’vani was a
harsh country, especially in the south. Traders had to travel
through deserts with few outposts and many creatures they preyed on
humans. When families went together, the men would carry spears to
protect their women, who would carry the packs of goods. It seemed
like a strange tradition for a country where women were in charge and
often were able to take care of themselves without a man, but their
interpretation of it was simple: women can’t be concerned with two
things at once. A woman would rather spend her years mastering trade
and know every grain of rice in her pack than how to fight. That was
the man’s job.
And so Raulin spent a few hours that afternoon tracking down a certain threat. He asked around without his mask, he found the place, and then as a trirec paid a little visit. That evening, he brought the group to a little pasta restaurant on Mask and Fortnight streets and waited.
Anla didn’t want
to be there. While she was happy to see Isky again, and thanked him
for sending his letter to her quickly, there was someone else she’d
rather not see. She barely looked up during her meal and was
therefore surprised when she looked and saw Tiorn standing next to
“Hi, Anla,” he
She put her fork
down. “Hi, Tiorn.”
Anla barely recognized him. Both his eyes were swollen almost shut, his bottom lip cut, and his left arm in a sling.
He licked his lips
and his eyes flicked to her right before returning to her. “I…I
wanted to say that I’m sorry…for…all those times…”
“Thank you, Tiorn.”
happened again,” he mumbled before shuffling off quickly.
Anla took a
steadying breath, then narrowed her eyes as she thought about things.
Her eyes moved from her plate to Raulin’s gloved hands. She grabbed
his left and stripped the leather off. His knuckles were cut and
“How could you?”
she whispered as she dropped his hand.
“What did I
miss?” Al asked.
She looked up with
sharp, angry eyes. “Raulin took it upon himself to enact revenge
on someone who had wronged me, even though I’ve expressly said many
times that I don’t repay people for their cruelty.”
“It wasn’t revenge,” Raulin said and she turned to look at him. “It was prevention. I’ve given mercy to men before to find them back at the same crimes the next day. Disturbed men will continue to be disturbed. Every once in a while, a good roughing up will change their minds.”
“So, you beat
him bloody in hopes he won’t try it with someone else? Do you really
thing that will work?”
“No. But, I put the fear of the unknown into him. I told him there was a contract out on him should he ever touch a woman inappropriately again. I’ll check up on him when we pass through Hanala, to show him that I’m watching him. And I hope he tells everyone what happened to him, so that they don’t think they can do the same.”
Anla sighed and
looked around until she saw Al staring ahead. “What are your
thoughts?” she asked him in a somewhat exasperated tone.
It was one of the more difficult discussions he’d been pulled into, knowing things involving other people that he couldn’t explain to her without breaking confidence. The part of him that would almost gasp when Kiesh the Black did something like this for some star-crossed love of his wanted to shake Anla and ask why she wasn’t swooning at the gesture. The other part of him that appreciated laws and obedience to a once fanatical level wanted to cuff Raulin upside the head and demand he turn himself in to the police.
But he wasn’t a
man of warring parts anymore. “I think I should stay out of this.”
She looked at him for a moment, winning the battle when he looked down at his meal and took a huge mouthful of pasta. She turned to Raulin. “Should I be thanking you?”
“I didn’t do
this to indenture you to me. I did this because I felt it needed to
After a few
moments, she nodded and continued eating. The rest of the meal would
be well-described as “quiet” as was the walk back to the inn.
Unable to chop firewood, Al practiced the mercy strike. Tel went for
a walk. Anla decided to borrow one of Al’s books and was reading it
in front of the fire in the common room.
Raulin had gone to
his and Tel’s room. He wondered if he had done the wrong thing, or
more accurately, had he done the right thing for the wrong person.
He’d admit to himself that he’d done it for her knowing full well
that she wasn’t going to like it. It had surprised him that her
objection had been the fact that it was revenge and not that he was
trying to protect her like he owned her.
How is it that she could move beyond the need for retribution? Just a slight reminder of his family and what had happened to them would set his blood boiling, would make him grind his teeth in the frustration that he could never kill enough of certain people to make him feel good again. In the entire time he’d known Anla, and in all the stories they’d shared, not once had she ever shown her need for vengeance. She preached mercy and forgiveness. Raulin wished he had her strength.
There was a knock
at the door, one that was unfamiliar. He’d just managed to slip his
mask on before the door was slammed open. Two trirecs stood there.
“You come with us,” one said and he immediately knew this was
going to be a painful night.
* * *
Raulin made his steps loud across the floor to the inn, successfully attracting the attention of Anla. She turned in her seat, wide-eyed, as he passed by with the two other masked men, giving her a quick gesture not to worry about it.
They walked south by many blocks until they came to Hyelk Hill, the prestigious neighborhood in Hanala that held the Arvarikor complex. As always, Raulin’s stomach seized a little as he felt that anxiousness of being in trouble. Only this time, he was.
One of the two
trirecs pounded on the massive gate, which opened shortly thereafter.
Raulin was shoved forward and he walked past the small sitting area
and through the next gate, then was directed into the building in the
center of the compound.
The trivren were
already assembled in the lounge where he’d had his other tribunal.
At least this was still on the casual side of legal proceedings; if
he’d been led upstairs into the open room, it would be because he was
being tried. He recognized all the trivren save one, a new seventh
who seemed younger without any of the facial growths and blooms age
gave to elderly Merakians. A quick glance at the man’s oddly bent
and atrophied leg told him why he’d gone into an early retirement.
Curvorn said, gesturing to a hard, wooden chair across from the plush
couches that the trivren sat in. He braced his forearms in
reverence, removed his mask, then sat, schooling his features to
“So glad you
decided to join us,” Stavro said, a triumphant smile on his face.
Raulin tried to think of what he had done to make him so pleased.
Curvorn continued, “how long have you been in Hanala?”
“This is my
third night, masters.”
“And when were
you going to check in at the base?”
He blinked a few
times at this. “I wasn’t aware that I was summoned…”
interrupted. “It’s a rule that you must report to an
Arvarikor headquarters within twenty-four hours whenever you are in
that it was a suggestion, not a requirement.”
“And who told
“One of my
Stavro had a
delighted look in his eye. Raulin strongly suspected he knew what
had happened in Iascond with Afren, his mentor. “It is still your
fault even if you were trained wrong.”
again. “Kemor, is it true that you assaulted someone who is not a
target in your docket?”
internally. They had been watching him and he hadn’t even known it.
“He had a history of abusing one of my charges. It was a
preventative measure to insure her safety.”
Stavro asked, leaning forward on his cane. “Do you mean you have a
There was no point
in lying. They had the paperwork. “I do. I acquired one while I
was traveling, a couple that works in antiques and rare collectibles
and their ledgerer. They are traveling the same path as I am, so it
made sense to take on the work and earn more money and glory for
“And how many
contracts do you have during your cycle?”
He took a deep
breath. “Twenty-five, master.”
“And how many
contracts are you supposed to take in one year, Kemor?”
“Ah. That seems
like one more than you should. It’s a bit greedy, don’t you think?”
Stavro asked, addressing the group of trivrens. “Why couldn’t you
have given that contract to another trirec?”
“By that time, I
had established a rapport with the group. They wouldn’t have chosen
another trirec.” He explained what had happened in Carvek and
their escape, glossing over anything he felt would be incriminating,
like the amount of help they had provided him.
“Is it possible
to strip him of one of his contracts and give it to another trirec?”
asked another trivren.
“How many have
you completed, Kemor?” Curvorn asked.
“And how many
more months do you have?”
He heard the younger trivren let out an impressed sigh. “You only have six remaining, then. Which ones are those?”
“I have four
spying contracts, one theft, and one assassination. One is in
Hanala, the rest in the south, in Tektorn and Genale.”
“We can consult
with Ageka,” Curvorn said to the rest of the trivrens, “to see if
she thinks any of the trirecs in the south can take the assassination
or the theft. I’d rather not remove Kemor from the spying
The rest nodded in
agreement, even Stavro reluctantly.
dismissed, Kemor. Stay nearby and await our summons.”
He clasped his
forearms again, then sunk to his knees, holding his arms behind his
back and bowing low. “I am sorry for my ignorance and
insubordination. These things will not happen again.”
He felt his forehead press against the ground hard as one of the trivren stepped on his neck. He was surprised to find that he found the sensation comfortable, a completion to the ritual. When the weight was lifted, he took his mask and left the room.
Raulin felt it was best to relieve some of his tension by practicing in the courtyard. He grabbed an ax from the stores and began getting a feel for the weapon, swinging it around. He didn’t handle Al’s ax unless he had to show him something, so it was strange to hold it and move with it.
About twenty minutes passed before he was summoned again before the tribunal. Stavro didn’t look pleased, which Raulin took as meaning he had wanted a worse punishment for him and the group hadn’t agreed upon it.
“There are three infractions we will be addressing,” Curvorn said. “The first is ‘failure to report in’. We believe you acted not in malice, but in ignorance. For this, the punishment is keyutik-fo-rabin.” He would be lugging a heavy log of wood over his shoulders for three hours. Not a terrible punishment, especially with gloves.
“The second is
‘excess of contract limits’. Ageka says none of the agents will be
able to take your theft or assassination, so you must carry those out
yourself. Instead of reclamation, the punishment is
manrik-abi-robrin-abilin.” He’d have to climb to the top of
the building one hundred times. At least that would help build his
muscles and skill for the theft or assassination contracts.
“The last is
‘punitive measures outside of a contract’. We do not believe that
your actions against the Hanalese citizen were justified. The
punishment is kark, nami-di-rob, naskinta.”
inhaled. Ten switches, blindfolded, waist-up. It could be worse,
much worse. There were a variety of different whips they could
proscribe, from a tawse to a beraki, a long cat o’ nine tails
with metallic claws on the end. A birching was on the lighter side
of scourging, not a terrible punishment, but the added stipulations
that the whipper could hit his face, arms, and stomach made it worse.
On top of that, he’d be blindfolded, so he’d be unable to see the
switch coming and tense his muscles or flinch away from those more
“You can choose
when and in which order these punishments will be taken, but you must
take one right now. This matter is closed.”
He clasped his forearms then bowed on the ground again. The pressure on his neck was painful from being stepped on this time, a small pebble on the floor cutting into his forehead. When he arose, he saw it was Stavro who was staring at him with a look of raw determination, like a hunter who had let a rabbit escape and hungered for coney stew.
Raulin would take the punishments as they had been ordered, starting with the log runs. It was a stump wider than his shoulders and weighed around one-hundred pounds. The whole thing might have been easier if he hadn’t needed to put it down and pick it up again after each time around the courtyard, as the punishment decreed. His back, shoulders, and thighs were on fire by the time he finished.
The courtyard was
illuminated by torches and there was no moon in the sky. He wanted
to finish the climbing punishment before he slept and his muscles
went stiff, but the lighting was poor. He did it anyway, hoping to
get back to Anla, Tel, and Al as soon as possible. He slipped a few
times, especially at the end he when he grew very tired, but finished
before the midnight bell hit.
As the head trivren, Curvorn was in charge of meting out punishments and had to watch him the entire time. Raulin walked over to the bench where he was sitting, his muscles trembling, and said, “I will take the third tomorrow.”
he said, rising slowly. “You are free to use the facilities.”
“May I send word
to my charges of my delay?”
“We have sent a
trirec to watch them until you return, at your expense.”
“May I collect
my beads for my finished contracts and turn them in for coins?”
“Yes, but not
all. Fifty percent maximum. I’ve seen how much money you’re making
this docket. Very good job, Kemor.”
master” he said.
me. And stop getting into trouble. There are some who wish to see
you fail, even at our expense.”
He changed out of
his sweaty travel clothing and into one of the gray outfits worn by
the trirecs in the compound. The hems were too short. He didn’t
care. He found an empty room and collapsed onto the rolled out
mattress. He could have fallen asleep in less than a minute, but he
heard a hissed whisper from the hallway. “Raulin?”
“Can we talk?”
His brain was fuzzy with the craving for sleep, so it took him a few moments to puzzle out who would be speaking to him in an almost friendly manner. “Isken?”
“Can I come in?”
“Sure. I don’t
know if I’ll be great company.”
Raulin sat up and
turn to face him. Isken knelt on the floor, clasped his arms behind
his back, and bowed. “I am sorry, Raulin. It’s due to my
negligence that you almost died in Miachin. I should have done
“I think it’s
asking a lot for you to memorize all the details of every contract
coming in. I worried for you, since I knew they wouldn’t go without
punishing you for it.” He tapped Isken’s head lightly.
“Thank you,” he said as he sat up. “They gave me five with the beraki for every trirec that died, thirty-five all together. You saved me fifteen. I think you may have saved my life; I don’t know of anyone who’s taken more than forty-five and survived.”
“I’m glad you’re
still with us.”
There was a moment
of quiet when Raulin thought Isken was going to say goodbye, but he
said, “I’m learning Arvonnese,” in the same language.
“Why is that?”
he said, switching to that tongue.
“I want to be
“I didn’t think
they had a headquarters there anymore.”
I’m pressing to reestablish one.”
Raulin yawned as
he thought about this. “You wanted to talk with me, knowing I’m
Arvonnese, and you don’t want anyone else to overhear us. Curvorn
“He’s asleep in
the main building. I need to talk to someone about my thoughts. I
feel heartsick all the time and I can’t speak with anyone about it.
I think I can trust you, though. You’re like me.”
“How am I like
you?” he asked carefully.
“Please tell me I didn’t make things up in my head. You want to
leave the order, too.”
This wasn’t out of the blue for the trirec. He constantly peppered his conversations with seditious content. Raulin had known Isken was unhappy with the order for some time. But, he was a little surprised he had decided to act on it. He always assumed he was a grouser who complained because he wanted a record to show he didn’t agree.
Had it been anyone
other than Isken, had it been another language, he’d probably play
coy. But he understood him and he had to agree with his assessment.
“Yes, I do.”
Isken breathed out
as his hands slapped down on the straw mat. “Thank you. I don’t
want to be a trirec, but I do want to live.”
understand that. Why do you want to leave?”
“I’m tired of
everything. I don’t want to kill people. I don’t want to help
people kill people. I don’t want to help those people kill each
other. Raulin, I’m so sorry about Afren.”
He sighed. “You
did as much as you could. I hated killing him.”
I ask you a question? Why are you kiskgia
now?” he asked, gesturing to the scars on his forearm.
All of his
training told him not to trust Isken. But the next few minutes found
him pouring out everything that had happened in the last year, the
spell, his new friends, their help, and most of all, Anla. “She’s
so beautiful, Isken. She has these gorgeous eyes that sparkle when
she laughs. I couldn’t even tell you what color they are; I just
want to stare in them for hours and try to figure it out. She’s an
amazing kisser, down to my toes jolts of heat every single time we
embrace. I am absolutely smitten with her.”
“Does she feel
don’t know,” he said, shaking his head. “If I could find some
extra time…If I didn’t have to sail off to Noh Amair when this
whole thing was done…I know I don’t deserve her, especially after I
completely botched my contract in Mount Kalista. She
was the only reason why I finished it and I hurt her so deeply. And
yet, she forgave me. How many women would do that?”
“She sounds like an amazing woman. I’m happy for you, Raulin.”
“Thank you. How are you planning on getting out?”
“Arvonne is in
shambles right now and there is no trirec presence. It is a large
country. If I travel through and get ‘lost’, I think I would be able
to find something to do. I’ll take my money and buy something
cheaply, a shop maybe, and just live a quiet life where I don’t have
to keep checking my back for knives.”
“I have an idea. Let’s make a pact to find and help each other when we get out. A bit more incentive to do so, huh?”
“I like that
idea.” He turned to leave, but stopped. “I was learning some
new words last week and there was one that stuck out. ‘Eraule’. Is
that where your name comes from?”
“Yes. ‘Eh-raul-ay‘” he corrected. “It means ‘not from here’, ‘foreign’. They drop the ‘es’ and add ‘in’ to men’s names, so ‘Raulin’ means ‘not from Arvonne’. And, as you know, ‘Kemor’ means ‘from the west’. So, my name really means that no one wants me.”
“Then I hope you
find a home someday,” he said before leaving.
“You as well, my
body was stiff when he awoke. Maybe that would help with the
whipping, he thought.
It didn’t. Not at all. The anticipation of the lash was the hardest part, the waiting between the connections, knowing that he was about to have a line of white-hot pain cross his body but not knowing where it was going to be. Whoever whipped him was completely random as well. At least he didn’t hit Raulin’s face.
After a minute or
ten, he couldn’t be sure, it ended. He put his shirt and mask back
on, collected his money, and left the compound for the hotel. He was
ravenous, but also a jittery kind of exhausted. He wasn’t sure what
he wanted to do other than get away from Hyelk Hill.
He decided to lie
down. He opened his room to see Anla on the floor, propped against
the bed, nodding off. She awoke when he closed the door, looking
confused for a moment. “Raulin, are you all right?”
“More or less.
I had some business to take care of with my order.”
“It took all
“Raulin, you’re being evasive with me. What happened?”
He sighed and
pulled off his shirt. She stood and looked at his back and chest,
her mouth slightly open. “Why did they do this?”
“For roughing up Tiorn. I broke the law because I felt it was right to do that, I wound up making you angry, and upset my order enough to punish me for it. I don’t think I’ll be doing anything like that again.”
“Raulin, I’m not
angry with you.” She moved over to Tel’s pack and fished out the
jar of salve Tel had asked for in Mount Kalista. She nodded her head
to the bed and he laid down prone. Only one of the switchings had
broken skin and she applied the cold medicine to his skin. He
relaxed when she began to heel and knead his shoulders, in between
his blades, and his arms.
he said when she sat up from the bed.
I’ll get some food for you and leave it here.”
She was almost at
the door when he asked, “How do you not want payback for all the
injustices in your life? How do you do it?”
“I think real
hard about the consequences,” she said softly before shutting the