20-1

It took the group a full week to reach Miscomme, the port city at the tip of the Sharkan peninsula. Every day the weather grew a little bit warmer, the seas a little bit greener, the skies a little bit clearer.

Things had bounced back to normalcy between Anla and Raulin and Tel quickly. However, things were still estranged between Anla and Al. He was having a hard time grasping at an acceptable decision regarding Analussia.

He kept attacking the dilemma like one of the trees he hacked down every day; chopping at it until he could remove the branches, hoping to get at the main trunk at some point. He had determined that this was a matter of scope; he couldn’t equate killing one person to killing over a hundred. That was one limb off the tree, but there was still a lot to go.

Al considered her youth, the circumstances surrounding the crime, the restrictions she had given, and her lack of magical training against the calculation of the act, her knowledge of the law under the tutelage of her father, and the inherent sense of morality she should have. Another limb.

Then he questioned her actions since then. She was remorseful. She had shown exemplary restraint since that point, scraping by on the streets and using her magic only in self-defense instead of using her magic for personal gain. She felt guilty. She clearly regretted doing it and had admitted to regretting it once she realized the gravity of the situation. The pruning was going well.

And finally, he looked at the ramifications of her existence within the law. She hadn’t surrendered in the three years since she had committed the offense. What would that have looked like? A swift trial and a hanging, he thought, but his stomach curdled at the thought of what would happen if someone was savvy enough to sell a half-elf to the wrong people.

It was then Al had quite a bit to think about on the stability of the law, corruption, and whether anarchy should reign in the wake of legal failure (though maybe that was a bit extreme). There were also a few days of existential quandary over whether man really needed laws or he would always revert to his basic instincts, that the law was really a cracked dam groaning against a reservoir with a storm on the horizon.

Al’s dreams had been strange since Ashven and the one he had in their first night in Miscomme was no different. It was something about Uvarna tossing him across the ocean to retrieve the chalice, which had melted into a crown that he wore. He had to give it back to the king, though, after he had felled a giant tree. There was a sense of urgency about it, the beginning portions of justice and morality needing an answer. Unheard were the words “chop, chop”.

Anla awoke shortly after he did and he took the opportunity to speak about his thoughts. “I’ve been dwelling on what you told us in Analussia.”

“I’ve noticed,” she said, yawning.

“What I’ve decided is that it’s not my decision. I don’t condone it and I will never support you doing anything else like it, but since it’s in the past for you, it’s not something I want to be involved with. It’s too significant and massive for me to be a lynch pin. I’m going to let it be.”

“To correct you, it’s not in the past for me; I think about it all the time. I’m still not sure what I want to do about it myself. But, thank you. I know that you’ve taken a lot of time to consider this and you didn’t fall back on the laws as the only way to respond.”

“I feel like I know too much to do that.”

He watched as she opened the curtains to their wide window overlooking the Gamik Sea. It was gray and stormy, the beaches dyed a deeper shade of tan by the rain. She turned and saw something on the desk and bit her lip, smiling genuinely. Her eyes trailed across the paper as she read the note, nibbling on the sweet left on top. When she finished, she laughed softly.

“Another token from Raulin, I assume?”

“Mhmm.”

“It must be nice to be courted.”

She looked up from re-reading the note. “If it doesn’t work out between us, I’ll tell Raulin you’re next in line.”

“I meant that you seem happy with the arrangement. Are you? You seemed to have forgiven Raulin for what happened in Mount Kalista.”

Her smiled dropped a little. “I like Raulin, Al. He’s shown me he’s sorry about what happened and I forgave him. I won’t forget it, but holding on to it isn’t going to help anyone. And I also forgave you for what you did, or didn’t do, with the baerd hunters.”

“That’s true. I was just…well, those women I’d see in my office would probably go back to their husbands. I don’t want you to think you have to…”

“I know I don’t,” she said. “And don’t judge those women for that. How many of them had the means to get away? It was the same for us street kids; we put up with a lot of abuse so that we could live another day.”

He sighed. “This went the wrong way. What I mean, really, is that you’re happy. I haven’t seen you smile much since…lately. And I’m pleased to see you in good spirits. That’s what I meant.”

“Thank you, Al.”

They went downstairs to breakfast. The hotel was enormous, five floors with at least thirty rooms across. The first floor had several lounges, a ballroom, and a grand dining hall filled with dozens of four-seat tables with white cloths and blue napkins in rings. It was quite busy, but Telbarisk always made tasks like finding him and Raulin in a crowded room easy.

“Wizard!” Raulin said. “Glad to see you down so early despite having done your morning exercises.”

Al paused, sighed, then turned back towards the stairs.

“Poor Al,” Anla said, sitting down and placing the napkin in her lap.

“I warned him it was going to be hard work and that he was going to have to do it every day. He was good about it when you two were camped outside the retreat, yes?” he asked Tel.

“He said it gave him structure and he enjoyed it.”

“I just don’t want him getting what they called ‘the skinny bear’ in Merak. We’d get wet caned for it.”

“And what’s that?” Anla asked.

“It’s when you pour a bucket of water over the child before switching him so it stings more.”

“No, I mean the ‘skinny bear’ thing. Did they really do that to you?”

“Yes, though it wasn’t for that. I kept forgetting that I was supposed to have no training before I became a student at Arvarikor. Whenever a teacher would compliment me on horseback riding or fencing or learning languages, I would tell them how long I’d trained for. Immediate wet caning. It was several weeks of daily caning until one of the older kids took pity on me and told me to say I had natural talent.

“’The Skinny Bear’ was a fable they told in the region about a bear being excited to hibernate too early and not eating enough before he enters his cave. He awakens in the middle of winter to find there’s no food and he starves to death. Same with learning a skill and thinking you’re good enough and that you don’t need to practice any more. After a month or so of practicing a new technique or weapon, kids would start picking fights with each other to show off or develop a cocky attitude when practicing. He’s about on time.”

Anla was about to ask him more questions when the waiter came and took her order. She heard her name called from across the room just as the waiter was leaving her side. She twisted to her right and saw a young man with thinning, blond hair tied in a tail waving at her. He might have been an excellent example of a fop if he didn’t look so disheveled, and came across more as a fribble with the mannerisms to match.

“Oh, joy,” Raulin said.

The man was followed by a another man who, though plain and obviously in employment by the other, seemed both more handsome and in control than the first. He was serious, his dark eyes gazing over the three of them as if sizing up their worth. He raised an eyebrow at Raulin, who in turn gave him a little upward nod.

“Anla, it really is you!” the man said.

“Lord Cavrige,” she said, standing briefly to allow him to take her hand and kiss the back of it.

“I haven’t seen you in years! You ran away from me, stealing my heart.” Another man would have made that playful, however true it was, but he sounded achingly, and embarrassingly, in pain from it.

“I’m sorry. It wasn’t my choice,” she said, eyeing the man next to him. “I was drawn away quickly and couldn’t say goodbye to you.”

“Best not do that again!” he said, his laugh a high-pitched, nervous giggle as he placed his hands on his hips. “That was very naughty of you.”

“I apologize,” she said.

“I’m off to Acripla, to meet a woman who may become my wife. I’ll be taking tomorrow’s ferry.”

“Really?” she said. “We’ll be going to Acripla, too.”

As if he just realized there were other people at her table, he looked at both Raulin and Tel, then back at Anla. “Then I’m sure we’ll see more of each other. I hope,” he added, grinning at her, tucking his weak chin into his neck. He stood by awkwardly in the silence, then left for his table without saying goodbye.

“I take it you’ve met him before,” Anla said to Raulin.

“Well, I haven’t but Marin has. I think he was in New Wextif, attending some social event. He hasn’t changed a bit.”

“That seems like the same Jeurd I remember. And he still has his lackey, Mayin. He’s the one who paid me ten gold to disappear when Jeurd was getting too attached to me.”

“I don’t think he was pleased to see you. I’d say he was shooting daggers at you, but I know weapons and those weren’t sharp enough to be knives. Toothpicks, maybe. He’s warning you to stay away.”

Anla shrugged. “We’re going to be on the same cramped ship for the better part of a month. He can’t expect me to avoid him completely.”

“Don’t worry about him. If he threatens you, I’ll just show him an intimate view of the Great Ghenian Bay.” He paused. “But only if you can’t take care of him yourself.”

She nodded slightly in thanks. “His only concern is that Jeurd doesn’t do something stupid, like elope with a commoner. I very much doubt that will happen, at least with me.”

“Hmm, though what about the marriage part?”

She gave him an odd look. “I don’t care that he’s going to inherit his father’s earldom. Maybe it would have been nice when I was destitute, but I made the choice not to tie myself to him. After I saw my sister, I was glad I made that choice, though I doubt Jeurd would be as horrible as my brother-in-law is.”

“Yes, good point, I suppose.” The waiter delivered her plate of eggs and sausage. “Out of curiosity, what kind of man would you marry?” Tel regained interest in the conversation and leaned forward to hear her answer.

“Elven,” she said. She looked up from her plate. “I honestly hadn’t given it much thought since my parents died. I always assumed the man I’d marry would be an elf, or at least half-elven. You?” Her smiled dropped. “Sorry, I was just returning the conversation.”

“I’ve considered it. I can have dreams, too, though they’re usually mired in what kind of life I’d be leading and how I’d have to get there.”

“Your mentor did it. I’m sure you can, too, Raulin.”

He watched her for a few moments,then said, “I’m going to go secure our places on the ferry. I’d rather not risk that the time of year would stop people from booking all the cabins.”

As he left, Anla continued to eat, though a strange excitement filled her stomach. He thought of marriage? He’d always said he tried not to think of the future.

Tel insisted upon cutting all his fruit into tiny pieces whenever there was cutlery, so he was still eating. “Do you think Raulin would make a good husband?” she asked him.

“If he had the right type of women to share his life with, yes. If he was still a trirec, she’d have to deal with that, including him being away for long periods of time and the danger of being discovered by his order. I don’t see many women agreeing to that.”

“My mother had to go through that with my father. He’d be on the road for a few weeks at a time and we’d visit places and have to deal with the possibility that people could find out about my parents’ illegal relationship.”

“Even if he wasn’t a trirec, he’d still need someone who either understood his past or could accept him without knowing that part of him. I think he’d prefer the first, though.”

“Do you think he would tell her, though? He’s never been forthcoming with his secrets.”

“With the right people he is. If he found her, I think he’d share everything with her.”

She chewed on her sausage thoughtfully. “What country did he tell you he was from?”

“He didn’t. As I said, I had to figure out that he wasn’t Merakian. He admitted it to me, but never volunteered the information. I assume it’s Walpi, as you said a while ago.”

This surprised Anla. She had always assumed that Raulin had shared almost everything with Tel and kept it from everyone else.

There was a thought buzzing in her head, but she didn’t give it the attention it deserved. She ate her breakfast, sat with Al when he came downstairs, and spent her day speaking with different people. There was a celebration for the new year the next night, which was also Ap Livint’s Day, an ap of Kriskin who had created the calendar. She danced at the ball with Raulin, who was light on his feet and well-versed in the latest styles of dances.

And finally, on the morning of the first day of the year, they embarked for Tektorn. It would be some time before she thought more about her conversation with Telbarisk.

19-4

They had set out south the following morning, hugging the eastern coastline. It would be a straight shot to Miscomme where ferries departed for Genale, Ailetol, Anistaf, and Tektorn, just a few days of travel.

The first village had been nice, but had little in the way of interest outside of a tavern where a bard played the quiet, classical tunes the folks there appreciated with soft applause. “You don’t see many of them,” Raulin explained to Anla. “They have to memorize dozens of songs and poems from every country in Noh Amair. He has to master three instruments in order to get his stripes.” He tapped on his own neck to illustrate where the distinction was. “He has silver, which means five, I think. Definitely not an easy feat.”

“How many have you seen?” she asked.

“Two, now three, and I’m not entirely certain this guy isn’t the copper I met earlier in his career.”

They were miles down the road the next day when Al said, “I’m putting forth a request.”

“Which would be what, Wizard?”

“I want to spend a night in the next town, even if we have time to travel.”

“What’s so great about it?”

“It’s like the pinnacle of wizardry. Only the most talented get to work in Analussia. It’s supposed to be beautiful and have hot springs, which I didn’t get to use in Mount Kalista. I’d really like to.”

Raulin had been walking next to Anla, so he noticed when she stopped short at the name. “Are you all right?”

“I am,” she said, by then back to walking next to him. “It’s just…is there any way to go around it?”

“That’s not fair!” Al began. Raulin turned and pointed to his ears, his eyes, then put a finger in front of his mouth.

“We’d have to go back to the last town, a few miles at least, until we hit a crossroads. Then we’d have to circle around it. It would add a few days to our trip.”

She hugged herself as the wind from the sea picked up. “It’s fine,” she said.

“You’re sure?”

She nodded.

“All right, Wizard. We’ll stay in Analussia for one night.”

There was no sound as they crested the last hill before town. There was no one walking across the street to the beach. By that point Anla had pulled up her cowl and was hugging herself tightly. Al was slightly on edge, since he was listening and he could hear nothing but the wind over the courtyards in town.

Nothing changed as they got closer. They stood past the large outcroppings of rock that marked the beginning of the town to stillness.

Al scratched his head. “This is strange. Maybe they boarded up for the winter. I thought they were open year round, though.”

“Let’s go take a look,” Raulin suggested. “If they battened the hatches against an oncoming storm, we should get inside quickly.”

They soon realized that the emptiness of the town wasn’t temporary. Brown weeds crept out between the broken tiles in the plaza. The fountain sprayed into the air, but the water in the basin was clogged with leaves and was a murky green color.

Raulin stepped inside a shop. “Hello?” The place was covered in a layer of dust that touched all the completely bare shelves. The till was wide open and empty.

“They were in a rush to leave,” Al said.

“Or looted afterwards.”

“How could you tell the difference?”

He opened the door to the back and immediately stumbled back out. “Well, your answer is in there.”

Al opened the door and began gagging from the smell. A skeleton sat at the table, its face turned towards them in a plate of rotten food. “Why did you make me look! I would have believed you if you had told me!” he said.

Raulin held his breath and opened the door again, looking quickly at the man. The cause of death was easy to spot; a part of the man’s head was bashed in and there was a sticky puddle of blood on the table. “Okay, out, out,” he said, shooing Al and Tel out of the shop.

“What passed?” Al asked.

“The shop owner, I’m presuming that was him, was murdered while eating his meal with a blunt object years ago. That’s all I can tell you.”

“But what does that mean?”

“I don’t know, Wizard.”

They went to several places, each either empty or with the skeletal remains of a resident. In a particularly grisly discovery, they found a giant pile of bodies behind the police station. The hotel was empty, at least, dusty but still beautiful with its luxurious touches.

“I counted over a hundred bodies,” Raulin mused as they walk through the plaza. “Some seem like they were surprised while others resisted. The only thing I can think of is pirates or raiders attacking and pillaging unexpectedly.”

Al shook his head. “I know we don’t have much of a standing army or navy, but our towns are well guarded.”

“To some extent. The fact that I’m here sort of proves otherwise.” Al give him a flat look. “Yes, yes, I’m highly trained and pretty damn good at sneaking in places.”

“If it were pirates, wouldn’t we have found corpses in the open with pirate clothes?”

“Likely in that big pile of bodies. And ‘pirate clothes’? Do you mean a tricorn hat with a skull and bones, a sash, and a cutlass?”

“That’s what they always where in Kiesh the Bl…okay, yes, I know it’s fiction. But sometimes these things are based on real facts, so pirates very well could have dressed like that.” Raulin gave a snorting laugh. “Well, I’m not wrong about the roads. How many highwaymen have we encountered in the last six months? Three bands, two of which scarpered off once they saw Tel or you.”

“That’s a fair point. It probably isn’t worthwhile to eek out a living robbing people or towns when you’re likely to get the hangman’s noose early in your career.”

“Out west it’s more common, so I’ve heard.”

“Not from a Kiesh the Black novel, I hope?”

“No,” Al said, holding out the syllable. “From some of my wizarding professors who were stationed there.”

“Well, then we’ll have to…”

“Would a lawman kill a lawman for any reason?” Tel asked.

Both Al and Raulin turned to face him. “What do you mean?”

“When we were in the station, there were two men on the ground wearing the same clothes. One was holding the other. They both had knives stuck in them.”

“Show me,” Raulin said.

As he had said, the two men laid on the floor of one of the cells. “Either they didn’t stab each other and they liked each other a lot or one of those men was a pirate dressed as a police officer.”

“Or something else,” Al offered.

“What are you thinking?”

“I don’t know. I just have a queer feeling that there’s something else I should be considering.”

Raulin moved his gaze around the room slowly before he got a strange, instinctual nudge. “Tel, where’s Anla?”

“She’s down at the beach,” he said.

Raulin took off running across the plaza, the road, then onto the beach. He looked back and forth, not seeing her anywhere. Finally, he spotted a dark form laying down, the seawater lapping over her. He ran to her and saw she was Anla, her cowl up over her head, her body curled up like an infant.

“Anla? Anla, are you okay?” he asked, landing on his knees. “Are you hurt?”

She continued to gaze forward blankly in a way that scared him for a moment until she blinked. A wave came up and crashed into Raulin, soaking his shirt. He almost hissed from the saltwater touching his wound, but the fact that it was freezing helped somewhat. The water passed over her body, over her head, but still she didn’t move.

“Anla,what’s wrong?” He risked any further injuries by picking her up before she drowned in the ocean. He stood and started walking towards the hotel. She needed to be warm and safe.

Al and Tel were standing on the road. “What happened to her?”

“I don’t know,” Raulin said. “She’s not talking.”

“I did it,” she whispered.

“What?” he asked, moving his ear closer to her lips.

“I did it.”

“What did you do?”

“I killed them. All of them.”

* * *

They broke the expensive teak chairs and started a fire in the marble fireplace. Anla was shivering so hard her teeth where chattering. Raulin wasn’t faring much better. Al and Tel found several blankets in the hotel rooms on the first floor and piled them next to the two. Anla barely moved when Tel gently stripped her clothes off and bundled her, letting her curl on the floor.

The stores of food in the basement had been untouched, but most of it had rotted a long time ago. The tea would be stale, but drinkable. Al brought that up with a full kettle and serviceware, some cheese, crackers, jars of pickled vegetables, dried beans, rice, and some nuts. He made a decent stew from some of the items and handed it to Raulin in a mug.

Raulin thanked him, then went back to staring into the fire. He had a lot to think about. From the beginning, he had honestly told her that her magic scared him. Now he saw the proof of what she was capable of when unchecked. It was what Al had been worried about, had chosen to dismiss her safety over, since he felt she needed to know the ramifications of her powers. It had been pointless; she didn’t need to consider it because she already knew.

He could admit he was scared. She promised him time and time again that she wouldn’t embark in revenge. How strongly did she hold onto that, though? Did she have a breaking point? Had he been days, hours from having his free will ripped from him and being forced to kill Lady Karninth? Or would it have absolutely never happened?

And what did this mean between them? Could he still love someone that had killed over a hundred people in one go? Ah, but he was being hypocritical. Who had the higher kill count? That wasn’t even fair; who had the most consecutive kills? He definitely did. He had made the choice to end another person’s life time and time again for the last twelve years without much remorse. This ate her up inside, forged her life, made her stay her hand when she could have a comfortable life.

She had made a mistake, one brutal mistake made in youth. He looked at her, still staring off in the distance, and knew that he didn’t love her one drop less for it. Maybe this was one of things that couldn’t be touched by love; you were either in love or not.

They decided to sleep on mattresses pulled from rooms. The building was too cold away from the fireplace and the rooms would be uncomfortable. Raulin redressed when his clothes were dry, then knelt in front of her. He squeezed her hand and said, “I’m here.”

It was deep into the night when he awoke to the sounds of sobbing. He thought for a moment it was Al, but then remembered where he was and what had happened. “Anla?”

He tried to move closer, but she said, “Stay away from me.”

“All right. Are you okay?”

“No. Didn’t you hear me? I killed them, Raulin.”

“I know,” he said. “It’s okay, Anla, it happened in…”

It’s not okay!” He heard Tel and Al stir at her yell. “It’s not okay!”

She began panting heavily in between her sobs, sitting up so she could move farther away from them. Not knowing what else to do, he said, “Tell me about what happened.”

Anla stopped, but rested her forehead on her knees. Finally, she turned her head. “It was the winter after I turned fourteen. For Hanala, is was brutal, rainier and colder than normal. It broke the street kids; they all set out for other jobs or gave up and went to the orphanage. Or other places,” she said darkly. “Sildet and Garlin had gone missing and Raidet finally left when the weather turned unbearably raw. I was alone, trying my best to make money every day, but it was never enough. I’d make enough to eat, but not enough for a warm bed and definitely not enough to save for the next day.

“Then, I couldn’t find any work and I had nothing. I was huddling against the cold when a man walked by, looked me over, and said some suggestive things. I knew Ghenians considered it a bad thing when women whored, but I needed money and I was willing to do whatever it took to eat again. I agreed. He seemed surprised, but he took me out to the alley and…” She stopped and stared ahead for a full minute. It appeared as though she was drifting to wherever she had been earlier, but she spoke again. “It hurt. When he finished, he buttoned his trousers and began to walk away. I couldn’t think in that moment, but I managed to tell him to pay me. He laughed. ‘Stupid whore, always get the money first’. I begged him. ‘Please, I haven’t eaten in four days, I need the money.’ He shrugged, almost at the end of the alley, and said, ‘That’s not my problem’. I felt so angry, so miserable, so desperate. ‘Pay me!’ I yelled and he stopped walking. He turned in a daze and gave me all the money in his pocket, a few gold, more silver, and a lot of copper. He stumbled away. I went to the nearest restaurant and at a bowl of stew and a loaf of bread and almost got sick from eating them so fast.

“I left and was looking for a place to stay for the night when he caught me off guard and rushed me. I thought he wanted me again and I struggled to get away. I was going to give him his money back when he grabbed my wrist and forced me to take a pouch of money before he shuffled away again. It had twenty gold in it, enough to easily get me through the winter. My instincts took over and I was running down streets and over alleys, trying to put space between us. I thought it meant he had bought me and I was his slave, though that doesn’t make sense at all. I didn’t know enough about it.

“I hid in a building, trying to gather my thoughts, when he found me again. He still had the dazed look, but he was covered in blood. He made me take more money, a few gold that time. I asked him why he was doing this, what did it mean, but he left. I ran, he found me again, a few silver and him now drenched in blood. I was so scared that I yelled, ‘Stop!’. He stood for a few more seconds before collapsing, dead.

“I took the money and fled from the area. I found a room, my hand shaking as I gave the innkeeper the coins. I crawled underneath the covers, but I couldn’t sleep. All night I laid awake thinking about what had happened. Then I realized I had spoken and he had obeyed. I asked him to pay and he kept paying me until I told him to stop. He had stopped everything, including his life. I’d had this power over him. Was it just with him or other people, too? And how did I do it?

“I tried it out the next day. I remembered I was very angry the first time, so I thought about my parents dying and my brother and sisters being taken from me. It seemed to work. I had people do simple things, nothing bad, since they weren’t bad people. I figured out that I could do it without being angry. And after a few weeks, when I thought I had the technique down, I walked to Analussia.”

She paused and looked around at the three of them. Raulin took the opportunity to pass her a mug of stew. She sipped on it, then continued on in her unemotional voice. “I don’t think I’ve told any of you that this was the town that hanged my parents. This was the place where they were given a shoddy trial, sentenced, and killed to uphold a law that punishes love and respect and understanding, all the beautiful things my parents had between them. I returned for vengeance.

“The town was busy with early spring travelers. I took up a room for one night in the town and began speaking to people. When I had a moment alone with a young man, I made sure to use my magic to tell him that at noon the next day he was going to start killing. No women, no children, no elderly, no one that wasn’t responsible in some way for my parents’ deaths, though that was hardly true or fair. Most of the men that were slaughtered were on holiday with their families and hadn’t been there when my parents were hanged.

“I watched from my hotel room as the bells rang and the screams began. I kept waiting to feel relief, some happiness at the redemption, but I didn’t feel anything. I walked down into the street to find an older woman that I knew would be safe from the carnage. She was the one that had bought our horse and carriage for a pittance and shooed us away after the hanging. I wanted her to feel anguish as her world collapsed, as she realized she couldn’t prey on others anymore because there wouldn’t be anyone. I found out later she had died the previous summer and I was robbed of that experience. I think, though, that I wouldn’t have felt what I was looking for if she had been alive and I had found her. Fifty steps out of the hotel and I was already sickening from everything.

“It wasn’t the gore that bothered me. I had seen the aftermath of elven patrols being patched up after they were attacked. Unlike Ghenians with their animals butchered behind closed doors, my villagers would skin and disembowel animals in front of the children. The blood didn’t bother me but the tears did, the cries of women hunched over their husbands taken by surprise by a crazed man, the wails of children who had seen atrocities. Despite my instructions, accidents happened. I made orphans that day.

“I knew I couldn’t stop it, but I made myself watch. And when every man I’d ensorceled had been taken down, my parents were still dead, my siblings were still missing, and I was still where I was, alone, desperately needing my family, still wanting to feel glee over this, but hating myself instead.

“I walked back to Hanala. I didn’t touch my magic for months and when I did, it was only in defense. And I haven’t allowed myself to even consider revenge since that day. I’ve had enough.”

The fire crackled and popped, but otherwise there was silence. Al rose after a minute and walked outside without a word. Raulin tried to think of something to say to her, but he looked at Tel quickly and saw he was shaking his head. When he looked back, Anla had piled her blankets over her and was sleeping. Or crying.

They said nothing when they awoke in the morning. Breakfast was made and served with nods of thanks or tight smiles. Anla ate nothing, but followed them when they set out south for the next town.

The whole time Raulin thought of dozens of ways to start a conversation with her, but failed to pick one he thought was meaningful enough. So, he tried one that had nothing to do with her revelation. “I noticed you didn’t take your flowers this morning.”

She looked over at him, her eyebrows furrowed. “How can you think about courting me?”

“You’re right,” he said quietly. “It’s a tough, emotional time for you. It was insensitive of me. I hope you’ll forgive me.”

“No. How can you think about courting me? After what I told you I had done.”

“Ah. You think that I’m going to abandon our relationship because of what you said.”

“Why wouldn’t you?”

“I’m not exactly standing on high moral ground, now am I?”

“Yes, but I killed hundreds of people…”

“A little over one hundred, not two or three. And should I tick off how many I killed? I killed my first love and almost all my friends, Anla, about fifty-three in one go. After that…five or ten a year? Sixty-seven, no I’m up to seventy-two now, not including people I killed outside of contracts and incidents. I’ve had the opportunity to say ‘no’ to killing over a hundred times, and yet I still do it. You only had that one time and you realized halfway through you’d changed your mind.”

“It’s different. You have to kill. I didn’t.”

He sighed. “I really hate to say the wizard is right, but he is. I can leave whenever I want and stop many future deaths, but I don’t.”

“They’ll kill you and someone else will take your place.”

“Yes, that’s what I tell myself. We’re good at that, us trirecs, telling ourselves little lies and twisting morality for our benefit. I almost forget to check myself sometimes and I actually do think it.

“You, however, haven’t done that. You made one terrible mistake and you have beaten yourself up every day over that. You reluctantly use your magic, fearing just a sliver of what happened in Analussia. That’s the best you can do with this situation.”

“I can turn myself in. I should have done that a long time ago.”

“You could. Next town, you could walk up to the sheriff and confess. If he believes you, you’d await a trial and a sentence, likely death by hanging. Will that bring back everyone who died? Will it stop any baerds from doing anything like that again? Will it stop you from doing it again? A good law protects the people and doesn’t give in to bloodlust. You would be giving up your life to satisfy the victims’ need for revenge, not stop this from happening ever again.”

“You’re right,” she said dryly. “You are good at twisting morality for your benefit.”

He sighed, looked up for a moment, then said, “Why don’t you ask someone who has almost no stake in the outcome, then?”

She looked back at Al, who was ardently studying the seascape. She sighed, nodded, and dropped her pace to match his.

“I think it’s time for me to listen real hard to what you have to say about magical ethics, Al.”

He shook his head. “I can’t teach you anymore.”

“Oh,” she said quietly. “I understand.”

“What I mean is I don’t think I can teach you anything more about it. It mostly comes down to exploring what is right and what is wrong. Somewhere along the way you discover that morals come down to what is inherently, instinctively needed and what society currently believes is needed. Either way, you need to either blindly believe what is told to you or experience it for yourself.

“What I was always concerned with was you using your magic on people and not understanding the morality of it. I wasn’t prepared to accept it blindly; I didn’t know you’d had your experience. You’ve already carved your rules into your flesh. You know where you’ll stop and what lines you’ll cross. I can’t teach you any more.”

“What are your thoughts on my story?”

“I don’t know, Anla!” he snapped. “I know what I would have said. Now, you three have been telling me to ease off, to listen, to step back, to not be so hard, to not think of things in black and white. And I have been. But I don’t know what to think about something like this, something so…monumental. I need to think. Alone,” he said, eyeing Telbarisk.

“And you?” she asked the grivven. “What would they think of what I did in Ervaskin?”

He thought about this for a few moments. “I don’t think I’m the best person to ask, Anladet. My ways are different then your ways.”

“Humor me.”

“Well. When I spoke with my friend Jormé, he said that people believed grivvens to be peaceful. I think that’s true when it comes to our own, the people we live with and see every day. We don’t cuff our children when they misbehave, we don’t get drunk and pick fights, we don’t plot against each other. Maybe my brother, but not most grivven.

“This isn’t true of the others and us, though. There are grivven who do not live in towns and do not respect peace. There are gtivven who live across borders in other lands who are not our own. With them we fight. They attack and we attack, then we keep going back and forth or we break. It was one such skirmish where I killed a man with my magic to protect the warriors guarding the town I was living in and I do not regret his life ending by my hands.

“That is war. I know your people signed a treaty with the Ghenians, but it seems like it has been broken time and time again. You both pledged not to kill one another, yet your parents were hanged. To me that would seem like the first act in a war. They drew first blood. And when you grew in strength, you drew second blood. Then, they retaliated by trying to take you. You didn’t let them. You didn’t kill, but you didn’t allow them to take you, either. We would consider your first reaction within the laws of war and your second honorable.

“This all comes down to the war you have within you. I can see you fighting to keep each feet in both your parents’ worlds, trying hard to honor your mother’s people while adhering to the laws your father’s make you obey. It is his that are making you feel guilty while it is hers that made you feel vindicated in the first place.

“The question you need to ask is not how I or Al or Raulin feel about it, nor anyone else, it’s ‘who will win?’.”

Anla blinked a few times at his words, then nodded before take the rear position of their group.

It wasn’t something she could decide quickly, she realized after much thought. It might not be something she would ever come to a decision on, whether she was more elf or more Ghenian, whether she’d had justification in killing all those people. She did have to live for the moment and she wasn’t going to punish herself with crippling guilt until she decided she needed it. She braided her hair the next day and decorated it with the holly Raulin had left on her nightstand.

19-3

“How well did you sleep last night?” Raulin asked Al when he walked downstairs to the common room.

“Not well. I dreamed…” he began, but trailed off.

“That’s all 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 to train.”

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.

“Raulin, I’m 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 something else.

“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 help?”

“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.”

“You’re ‘curious 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,” he said.

“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 Anla?”

“Good. Do you know something different?”

“No, I was just curious…I lost the bet, didn’t I?”

Raulin said 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 table.”

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 was made.”

“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.”

“Maybe I’m 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.”

“Nothing? You’ve changed considerably from the time when we were vying over her hand.”

“Maybe because 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.”

* * *

The conversation 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 the table.

“Hi, Anla,” he said.

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…”

She nodded. “Thank you, Tiorn.”

“It won’t 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 swollen.

“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 be done.”

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.

“Sit, Kemor,” 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 neutrality.

“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.

“Kemor,” 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…”

Stavro interrupted. “It’s a rule that you must report to an Arvarikor headquarters within twenty-four hours whenever you are in the vicinity.”

“I understood that it was a suggestion, not a requirement.”

“And who told you that?”

“One of my mentors.”

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.”

Curvorn spoke again. “Kemor, is it true that you assaulted someone who is not a target in your docket?”

He winced 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.”

“’Charge’?” Stavro asked, leaning forward on his cane. “Do you mean you have a guarding position?”

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 Arvarikor.”

“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?”

“Twenty-four.”

“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.

“Eighteen.”

“And how many more months do you have?”

“Six.”

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 contracts.”

The rest nodded in agreement, even Stavro reluctantly.

“You are 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.”

He sharply 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 vulnerable areas.

“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.”

“Very well,” 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.”

“Thank you, master” he said.

“Keep impressing me. And stop getting into trouble. There are some who wish to see you fail, even at our expense.”

“Yes, master.”

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?”

“Unh?”

“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 better.”

“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 transferred there.”

“I didn’t think they had a headquarters there anymore.”

“They don’t. 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 speaks Arvonnese.”

“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.

Isken sighed. “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.”

“I can 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.”

“May 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 the same?”

“I 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 friend.”

Raulin’s whole 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 night?”

“Yes.”

“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.

“Thank you,” he said when she sat up from the bed.

“You’re welcome. 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 door.

19-2

Hanala was a long day’s walk from Libsin, full of the normal stares from people that passed them by. They stayed at an inn on the edge of the city, crashing after a long day of too many steps and not enough of the food and friendship they normally shared on the road.

“Feels like I was just here,” Anla said at breakfast. “Then again, it feels so long ago.”

“A lot can happen in six months, and it has for you,” Raulin said.

“I know. I’m just having a strange feeling when I try to reconcile the two thoughts.” She sipped on her tea in thought. “How do you do it?”

“A lifetime of knowing nothing else? I enjoy the time I have in a place, then remember all that when I return. It’s my job to do so, though, so maybe it’s different for you.”

“I think I’d like to go back to Yue Begule, check on my place, see if maybe either my brother and sister are there. Or maybe they left a note…”

“I have no problem with that.”

“I have something I’d like to do as well,” Telbarisk said.

“Really? Something you need help with?”

“I want to see if my friend Jormé is at the land.”

“’At port’, they say. I can help with that. Wizard?”

Al had been pushing his beans around on his plate. “Um, yes, actually. Depending. I’ll tend to that on my own, though.”

“Seems we’re going to be busy. Anla, since you know the layout best, what’s the most central location for Yue Begule, the wharf, and…”

“The Ducal palace,” Al filled in.

Anla stared at him. “He doesn’t owe us anything for another half-year.”

“I know. I have other business with him.”

“Al, please don’t demand more money or try to…”

He held up his hand. “It’s nothing like that. Trust me. I’ll tell you once I’m finished.”

She pressed her lips together, then said, “All right. I trust you. Um, actually Cherryfire is fairly central to those three, which is good because I have a quick stop I want to make there.”

There were only a few patrons inside Onlard’s tavern when Anla opened the door. His wife poked her head around the corner from the kitchen, then yelled for her husband, who came hustling down the stairs. He sighed and his shoulders sagged when he saw her. “I t’ought t’at you weren gone, girl. I haven’ been seein’ ya fer a while now. ‘Course, I was hopen ya weren’ dead, neit’er.”

“Thank you, Onlard. You’re a sweet man for your concern.”

“T’oh,” he said, flapping his bar towel at her. “Wha’ ken I be helpin’ ya wit’, t’en, girlie?”

“I’m here for a drink, actually,” she said, sitting at the bar.

“Kinna early in da day, innit? Ya be more uf a nigh’ girl.” His smile dropped. “I meanen, not t’at way. Ya weren busy durin’ da days is all.”

“Chieri Rose, if you have it.” As he quickly made the drink she said, “I worked hard during the day, yes. And I rarely had money at the end to rent a room and eat.”

“Id’s no’ a rare t’ing un t’a city.”

“No. There are a lot of kids in the city who didn’t get someone who gave them meals and a warm place to sleep out of the rain. I was lucky to find you.”

“T’oh.”

“I need to get going. I’ve been doing a lot of traveling, so my time here is brief. I just wanted to thank you, Onlard.”

“Ya be welcome, sweedie.”

She placed five gold on the counter. “Keep the change.”

When he noticed how much he had given her, he said, “Girlie, I cannid be takin’ t’is much!”

She said nothing, leaving before he could come around the bar and demand she take the money back. She smiled as she rejoined her friends across Criard Street. “Now, the wharf is a few miles over and to our left. We’ll need to go a little farther for the booking offices. One of them should be able to help us.”

Tel had been anticipating this meeting since he had met Anla and Al. He had so many things to tell Jormé , from the trial then meeting Raulin again to the volcanic eruption. Sadly, it wasn’t meant to be; Jormé was at sea and wouldn’t be back for another few weeks at the least. They did find out that he had been promoted to captain after the Gueylard and was in charge of the Happenstance. Telbarisk could smile at that. It was all his friend had ever wanted.

Anla walked them inland again, then south. It was late afternoon, the streets busy with people taking strolls, on their way to appointments, or delivering goods throughout. At some blurred point, the peoples’ ensembles appeared dirtier and patched, their hair dirty or uncurled like even the servants kept it. The buildings appeared to be fine at first glance, though unlikely to have the usual quaint, homey additions, like intricate paint work or tiles on the doorstep…or doors. The deeper they went into Yue Begule, the worse it got. A slight smell would betray that the building they walked next to was a hollow shell from a fire, only to be outdone by the smell coming from the alley next to it.

“There it is,” she said in a wistful tone.

There was no roof and the second floor was half gone. The paint on the bricks was chipped. The trash that collected around it, broken bottles, piles of rotting food, and rusted appliances, looked like ticks festering in the ear folds of a mangy dog. But the way she looked at it, it could have been a noble, rich palace filled with the most precious of things. And in a way it was, though instead of jewels, feasts, and coins it was filled with memories.

With an aggressive body slam, Anla opened the door and stepped inside. Motes of dust floated in what sunlight filtered through. “Watch where you step,” she said, moving around a dead squirrel.

No one said anything as she walked to the back of the building and laid her fingers on the wall. I love you and miss you. I’ll find you some day, it said in chalk, a lonely message. She bowed her head, then rejoined the group.

“I’m sorry,” Raulin said.

“I didn’t think I’d be so lucky that they’d be waiting for me. In fact, I hoped that they wouldn’t be; not the greatest part of the city. But, I had hoped that one of them returned at some point to let me know that they were okay, that they were still alive.”

He held out his hand for her, to help her past the threshold of the door, and she took it. “This might mean they’re in a better situation far from here.”

“It could mean worse.” She sighed and balled her fists in frustration. “I just want to know, one way or the other. I feel terribly for Raidet, but at least I know that she’s alive and she has a family. She’s made her choice of moving on and I respect that. But Sildet and Garlin are younger than I am. I could barely take care of myself, but I would’ve found a way if I had found them. And now that I can take care of them…”

“You’ll find them, I’m sure of it.”

Anla took point and lead them back to Cherryfire. Al dropped his pace and matched Raulin’s. “I think I would like your help,” he said.

* * *

The two left Tel and Anla at the inn and began walking west to the Ducal palace. Al spent the walk with Raulin asking question after question on negotiating with royalty, since he had spent enough time in their company.

“I think you’ll do fine,” the trirec said, patting him on the back, “unless the Duke’s merit is deals, then you’ll have problems. I haven’t heard of too many nobles having that power, though.”

“Thanks. Like I’m not jittery enough about this.”

“If it’s worth anything, I think it’s a kind gesture and a noble cause.”

Most servants and guards were allowed inside the gates as entourage for their masters. Raulin, however, waited outside, leaning against the gate next to a very nervous looking guard.

Al was admitted, though he waited for over two hours to see the Duke. He was escorted into the same office he’d been in before and sat in front of a busy Duke of Sharka, who read and signed no less than fifteen pages of paperwork before finally looking up. “.rd Gray. You’ve come early for your dues.”

“No, Your Grace.” Remembering what Raulin said, Al asked, “How is your daughter?”

The Duke’s face darkened. “Are you here to exploit the fact that you rescued her?”

“No, not at all, sir! I was just making polite conversation.”

The Duke relaxed, but still didn’t smile. “She’s quite well, .rd. She asks of you often. Feel free to write to her, if you wish. You and your lady friend…partner…”

“Anladet, sir. I’m sure we’ll be doing that in the future.” Al took a deep breath and forced himself to drop his shoulders. “I’ve come to ask a favor.”

“A favor? Are you referring to the one I owe you?”

“No, sir. I’d be willing to pay for this, from my future reward.”

“I take it this is outside of Tichen’s teachings, then?”

“No, sir. I just haven’t had the opportunity to discuss it with Anladet.” He cleared his throat. “I would like access to some records.”

“Unusual. Which records?”

“The ones involving those of the Nui-Breckin Alliance.”

He raised an eyebrow before sitting back in his seat. “Why would you want that, .rd Gray?”

“If I said it was for a good cause, would you trust me on that?”

The Duke of Sharka leaned forward on his desk and pressed his lips into his folded hands. “I would think you would believe it’s a good cause. But, I find those of us who dedicate our lives to behaving with an exemplary code of honor have a hard time navigating the rough waters of reality. Do you understand what I mean, .rd Gray?”

“I absolutely do, sir.”

“You struck me as a man close to zealousness about Tichen and his teachings. Perhaps you don’t understand that getting involved in something like that will mark you. People will take notice of your inquest today and wonder why you’re asking about this. It will worry some. I can do my best to shield you, to ask them to ignore it as a man slaking his curiosity, but they will not like the idea of someone knowing things the public shouldn’t know. ‘Murky ponds are rife with things unknown…’”

“’…and best left unclean until the world can dam it sufficiently’.”

“Exactly. Two hundred gold.”

“Fifty,” Al countered. “It is only two names I seek. It will take less than a half-hour.”

“One hundred gold.” You’re not paying for the Alliance’s time; you’re paying me to cover up your interest, which I will assume will end after you leave today. And no more favors, save the one you request in the future. You can’t come to me whenever you have an urge to lean on our arrangement. I am allowing this because my daughter still speaks of you two highly and I believe you two handled the situation as well as I could have asked. I thank you again for not shielding her from the horror of the situation while also treating her with as much kindness as possible.”

“Again, Your Grace, your daughter couldn’t have been easier to rescue. She’ll grow up to be a fine lady some day.” Al shook his hand before the Duke changed his mind.

“I’ll be sending a man over with you who will grant you access. Your guard…” he shook his head. “I don’t know why or how you came to have a trirec guard, but he will stay out of the building with my secretary. He will not leave his post or the two of you will be arrested immediately. The last thing I need is a trirec getting his hands on those records; talk about the proverbial fox in the chicken coop.”

“Thank you, Your Grace.”

Al found Raulin outside, chatting up the guards who seemed a lot more comfortable. “Ready, Wizard?” he asked.

“Ready. You have to stay outside the building while I check.”

He grunted in annoyance. “It’s going to rain, Wizard. Better make it snappy.”

Black lettering over the large window stated it was, indeed, the Nui-Breckin Alliance and the iron boot scraper on the entrance looked well-used, but it could have been any of a hundred businesses they had passed by earlier in the day. Raulin folded his arms and leaned against the green painted wood, holding his hand palm up with curled fingers to signify Al was to hurry up.

The Duke’s secretary spoke briefly to a man in the front, who gestured for Al to follow him past the break room where several men in rough clothes sat around a table drinking and eating. They climbed the rickety wooden stairs and down a short hallway to a room filled with ledgers. “I’ll be back in a half-hour,” the man said.

“Wait! How is this ordered?”

The man looked annoyed before waddling over to the shelves and jabbing a pudgy finger to the label. “This is by duchy, where they were caught. Years go top to bottom. Anything older than seven is in another room. Anything over fourteen is destroyed.”

He nodded and the man left, a few moments later the men downstairs cheering his return. He was obviously not going to be any help, so Al started looking at the labels. Thankfully, each shelf had its own duchy and each duchy was in alphabetical order.

Sharka’s had less boxes than most. More than, say, Eerie (which he was upset to see had a full box even though bounty hunting was illegal in that duchy), but nowhere near some of the western and mid-duchies. It was easier, but he had no idea when Anla’s parents had been killed and how long ago that was. He guessed she was no younger than twenty and that she had been twelve. Her sister likely disappeared within a year after that. To be thorough, he would begin with this room, then move on to the next room.

He pulled out a box at eye level and quickly peaked in to see which year it was. Three years ago. He pulled the ladder out from the corner and started at the top.

It was one book of names that he had to scan quickly, hoping that her siblings had given their real names. Each page had twenty and each book had ten pages. He was amazed at how many half-elves there were just in Sharka, a duchy so densely populated by Ghenians.

He moved on to the next year, then the one after, and the one after that. He was beginning to think it would be smarter to spend his remaining time in the next room, though he remembered from Amandorlam how important it was to be thorough in research. He flipped the page, then went back to it. There, with a blob of ink at the top of the “t” was the name “Sildet”. Her tribe was listed as the Deerborn of Ashven. After her name was listed a bunch of letters in columns, followed by a man’s name, date, number, and fingerprint.

He continued looking, remembering it was within a year of Sildet’s disappearance that Garlin went missing. That year didn’t have his name, nor did the next one. He could say with a fair amount of assurance that, if Garlin had been taken, it hadn’t been by the Nui-Breckin Alliance.

The secretary was sitting behind his desk, dozing now that the men had left. “Uh…” Al began and the man startled awake.

“What?”

“What was all the stuff on the line after the tribe name? The fingerprint?”

He gave a lazy smile and Al realized the man was close to drunk. “Well, what we do here isn’t exactly a picnic and a show. You’re training from another office, right?”

“Sure. I was just curious how the filing was done here so that I might do it over there.”

“Yeah, sure. So, the hunters will come to your office and drop off one of the mutts. We keep ’em here until the end of the day, then we take ’em over to the building…you’ll have a building. Then, they’re auctioned off and we record the name and their owner’s fingerprint, so they don’t get any ideas about flapping their jaws.”

“Flapping their jaws?”

“Telling people what exactly goes on around here.”

“Why would they need to tell people about that?”

The man folded his short arms around his girth. “Well, you’re going to have to know sooner or later. We help the men after the sale, if you catch my drift.”

“No. What do you mean?”

“What were the letters after the name you saw?”

Al repeated them and the secretary spent a few minutes explaining exactly what those letter meant. “Then, we got a place for the bodies afterwards. Part of the price.”

“Okay, thank you,” Al heard himself say, too numb to give a goodbye.

“No problem,” the man said, his chubby fingers giving a sloppy salute.

Al walked outside in a bit of a daze and didn’t hear Raulin ask him if he was ready to leave the first few times. “Yes,” he finally said and started down the street in the wrong direction.

“Thank you for waiting,” Raulin said to the Duke’s secretary and turned Al around by the shoulders. “Wizard, are you okay?”

Al’s eyes went wide and he ran to the nearest alley, vomiting his lunch. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and breathed in heavily. “How…how can someone do that? To a child?”

“I take it you finally understand what was going to happen to Anla, then?”

Al spent another round vomiting anything that remained. “I don’t understand why it’s allowed to exist. It’s sick, Raulin.”

“What exactly did you find out?”

He didn’t want to repeat what the secretary had told him, but he managed to explain what he had discovered in something between the raw truth and a euphemism. Raulin listened to it, then said, “To answer your question, they allow it because Ghenians see elves and half-elves as something less than human. They are cattle, auctioned off pieces of meat that are consumed by whatever disturbing purpose the owner wishes. And no one cares because at least they aren’t Ghenians. They aren’t proper humans that are being mutilated before their slaughtered.”

“How do we stop it?” he asked weakly.

“How do you stop violence and perversion from taking root in the hearts of men?” he asked, helping Al move along. “You can’t. There will always be that filth, men who need to torture and rape and kill and experiment and whatever else the gods turn Their gazes away from. I haven’t been in an Aliornic temple since I was sixteen because I realized they kidnapped young women and kept them drugged to satiate the overwhelming amount of men who crave…that attention. I avoid Petrina all together because I can’t stand what rituals they do to their children when they reach a marriageable age.

“I’m sorry you had to hear of what happened to Sildet. That was truly a heinous thing for a child to go through, especially since that was her last memory in this world.”

“Did you know?”

“From what Anla told me what Sakilei and the fancy boy told her, I figured something like this was going on. I had hoped that if either or both of them had landed in this situation that whomever bought them sliced their throats quickly.”

“Why didn’t you raze that building?”

“Why haven’t you petitioned your lord to change the Nui-Breckin Act? You do live in a constitutional monarchy and you have that right.” He took in a deep breath. “As I said, there will always be evil in this world. I don’t have the time, resources, nor the allowance to do something like that. If someone hired me to, then I would destroy it with glee. I’ve done similar things in the past. But, I always have to remember that I am a part of that disgusting underbelly.”

“You’ve done that?” Al asked, aghast.

“Absolutely not!” Raulin said, fixing his gaze on Al. “I”m not too far from leaving my last meal behind me, knowing the same thing that you do. But, I do kill people and I destroy their lives and I steal from them. I do the dark deeds humans are capable of.”

“But, that’s not…that.”

“I’m not evil, Wizard. Some men enjoy that and some enjoy what I do and some enjoy taking advantage of others. I don’t. I’ve never been happy doing what I do. But, I still do it, and I take responsibility for it. I’m a decent man who does indecent things.”

Al’s thoughts swirled around in his head. A part of him kept pushing things out of focus, not allowing him to consider what he had just learned. He had known there were bad things in the world, but to see the price tag on a little girl, not even eleven years old, and what she’d had to endure before her life had been snuffed out was too much for him to take in.

“Wizard,” Raulin said in front of their hotel. “Look at me.” Al lifted his eyes to the dark blue ones behind the mask. “You and I both know something horrendous happened to someone loved by someone we care about. You did this for Anla, to give her closure. I think it’s a very kind gesture.

“But you now have a choice to make: if you’re going to tell her and how much. I know you’ve always valued open, brutal honesty, but I’m going to ask you to think real hard before you say anything to her.”

“What should I say?”

“I’m not going to tell you what you should say. I will suggest that, if you choose not to tell her, that you sort yourself out. You look like you woke up with a skeleton in your sheets.”

Al nodded and took a very long walk around the neighborhood. It was well past dinner when he returned. He wasn’t hungry, so that didn’t bother him, but it was getting late and he felt exhausted.

Anla was in the common room with Raulin and Tel. He walked past them and went into the room he shared with her and waited. Some time later (he didn’t have an accurate way of gauging the time, having thought it was still around four o’clock when he returned) Anla entered and saw him sitting on the bed. “Hi, Al. Are you all right?”

“Yes,” he said, breaking his stare to look at her. “I went to see the Duke today.”

“I know, you said you were going. How’s Silfa?”

“She’s well, though I didn’t see her. We can write her, if we want to.”

“Okay.” She waited a while for him to continue. “Is everything all right?”

“I paid the Duke to access the records of the Nui-Breckin Alliance.”

She sat on the bed next to him and took his hand. “What did you find out?”

“Um…” He swallowed. “So you’re seventeen?” He had done the math at some point during his walk, trying to think of something that wasn’t…that.

“Yes. Most people seem to take me less seriously when they realize how young I am, so I don’t mention it. Al, what did you find out?”

“They took Sildet about four years ago and killed her shortly thereafter.”

She sharply inhaled. “Thank you, Al. I can stop looking for her and begin to grieve.”

He turned and hugged her, surprised only slightly when he felt her shoulder shake. “I’m so sorry,” he said, rubbing her back.

She looked up, her eyes wet. “She was too young, Al. She died for just being what she was, not because she did anything wrong.”

“I know. Anla?”

“Yes?” she asked, wiping away her tears.

“I won’t let them do that to you. I will tear down buildings and break chains if they ever catch you. I’m…I’m sorry I didn’t choose that the first time.”

“Thank you, Al. I already forgave you for that.”

“And I wanted to show you that I really was sorry.”

“I appreciate it, Al. Did you find anything out about Garlin?”

“There was no record of anyone being captured with his name or from your tribe around that time. I probably should have checked to see if he was taken later, but I was running out of time.”

“Then he’s still out there, hopefully.” When they were under the covers, she gave him a quick hug. “Thank you again. I know it sounds strange, but it does mean a lot to me that you did that.”

“You’re welcome.”

There was silence, then she asked, “Was there something else?”

“No,” he said, and closed his eyes.

19-1

An experienced person will be able to tell the ocean is close by certain signs. A step on the ground with soles soft enough, perhaps, will give away that the composition as higher in sand than farther inland. A trained eye will see a change in the landscape, trees stunted by the salt air, terns and gulls crying and circling overhead, the land turning marshier. Most, though, pick up stronger distinctions and feel it in their blood rather than their mind. They smell the salty tang in the air, they feel the moisture on their skin, and they know the sea is just over that way, past the reeds and the worn rocks, and awaiting its lovers.

The highway was fairly bisecting two halves of the outskirts of the city, the farms on the north and the shops and wharves on the south. Libsin was ahead of them, coated with an inch of snow from an earlier dusting. The people strolling along the boardwalk had an odd glee about them, those of a younger heart stopping to scoop up crunchy flakes and toss the clump at friends, the ball powdering the air and all but disintegrating before it could hit its target.

A lamplighter walked the streets in a top hat, scarf, and thick, moth-eaten wool coat that looked like it was taken out only a few times per year. He tipped his hat to any lady who walked by, adding a little bow to certain ones, perhaps they very pretty ones. Anla got a bow, but she was too busy taking in the scenery to notice him.

“It’s really pretty here,” she said to Raulin, who was in step with her. She was watching the sunset as it painted the white buildings in shades of gold and orange, reflecting in the window panes and the silver signs that hung above the shops.

“Pretty, yet cold,” he said, clicking off the bottom of his mask and blowing warm air into fists held against his lips. “We’re going to need to find a place for the night quickly. I know he’s enjoying himself,” he said, motioning to Tel, “but I find nothing comforting about the temperature.”

“I have a joke about that,” Tel said. “How many grivvens like the cold?”

“All of them?” Raulin answered.

“Yes, all of them,” he said.

He waited a few moments, then said, “Okay, well, you’re still working on your sense of humor.”

“Anladet was laughing.”

She pressed her lips in, but her eyes twinkled. “The situation was amusing, at least.”

“Hmm. Well, here? Any thought or kouriya on where we should stay tonight?”

“I think Anla should choose,” Tel said after a few moments.

“Hmm,” she said, then clicked her tongue, mocking Raulin’s way of expressing thought. He flicked her gently on her shoulder. “It will have to be one near the water overlooking the sea. I want it to look homey. And it has to have a quaint name in scroll on the sign.”

“Oh, and is that all, mezzem? Shall the owners serve high tea and leave mints on the pillow?”

“Yes, definitely.”

“How about that one?” Al asked, pointing ahead. The white sign hanging from the holder read “Rock Hollow by the Sea” in flourished gold writing.

“That has potential,” she said, stepping off the road and a few steps to the porch.

“How are you and Anladet?” Tel asked Raulin.

Raulin turned and waited for Mr. Auslen to enter the inn behind his wife before saying, “Better, I suppose. We’re speaking, she’s accepted the few days of courtship I’ve done, she smiles at me. But, it’s not the same. I don’t know if you noticed she flinched a little when I flicked her on the shoulder. I was teasing her back, but she’s still wary of me.”

“You hurt her badly?” Raulin thought this was almost not a question.

“I did. I know I did. And I’m trying to make amends.”

“With this ‘courting’?”

“I realized that I’m sort of protecting her from myself. Before, I had already assumed she was mine when she wasn’t. I think I needed that definition, something concrete to let me know where I stood and how far that was before I got what I wanted. When I thought she had given away what I had worked so hard to attain, it burned me with anger. And, I think, I’m also predisposed to thinking people are treacherous.

“But, now things are clear cut. I am hers and she knows that I’m sacrificing for her. I know where we stand. It’s given me a surprising peace of mind; I thought I was going to be more annoyed by it.”

“I’m happy that things are well between you two. I hope that things work out.”

Tel thought he was finished speaking, until a minute or so later he said, “She makes me think dangerous thoughts, Tel. I can’t think of the future. That’s a luxury I can’t afford.” Anla stuck her head out, a smile on her face as she waved them in. Raulin sighed. “But, I might be willing to pay anything for it.”

* * *

The inn they were staying at was too nice for a bar, so they went down the street and over a few blocks to The Promise, a bar that Raulin thought might be something else, since brothels tended to have names like that. But, no, it was just a bar with a good-sized crowd, farmers and fishermen mingling with those who were a little more well-off and those whose tab grew to insurmountable proportions.

They took one of the few open tables, Raulin buying the group their favorite drinks: two waters, a glass of Caudet, and a Chieri Rose. “I could have just bought you another water,” he said as he put the glass in front of Anla with a flourish.

She shrugged. “I’m not overly fond of liquor, so you wouldn’t be upsetting me.”

“No?”

“Like good food, I was never able to afford pricey drinks. There was no sense in gaining a dependency on it and blurring my senses in the rough parts of town was a bad idea.”

“More or less why I don’t drink it with the mask on, but I do enjoy it when I can.”

“What’s your drink of choice?” Al asked.

He paused for a slight moment, having gotten almost used to Al’s newfound ability at discussion. “Caudet,” he said.

Al gave him a flat look. “That’s not something I’m prepared to change. I know a good wine when I taste it, Raulin, and this is good wine.” He swirled the glass and held it up to his nose. “Can you smell the bouquet?”

Raulin leaned over and took a whiff. “Smells like blue grama.”

“What’s that?”

“It’s a grass from Arvonne that has no strong smell.” When Al cocked his eyebrow, he said, “It often grows in horse manure.”

Al snorted, but he at least took the joke well. Anla laughed, sharing a knowing look with Raulin, who knew and had known since the four met that Caudet was a cheap wine his countrymen made. It still surprised her at times that he was Arvonnese.

The wizard drummed his fingers on the table for a few moments, then asked, “Anla, could you read our fortunes?”

Both of her eyebrows shot up. “Yes,” she said, reaching down for the pouch she brought just in case there was an opportunity to make a little money tonight. “I have to admit I’m surprised at this, Al. You’ve never been okay with this.”

“Well, I still don’t like piscarins, but from speaking with you I think you understand what you’re doing. And so do I.”

She smiled and plopped the bag on the table. “Who should go first?”

“Raulin,” Al said.

“Why, so that I can draw yaw, dah, and raw again and have him shrug and not listen?”

“What does that mean?”

Anla flicked her eyes at Raulin, who answered, “She doesn’t think I should be a trirec, is what that means.”

“I’m finding myself in agreement with the tiles.”

“Ah,” Raulin said, leaning back and crossing his arms, “it’s going to be one of those nights, is it? Attack the trirec from both ends of the alley. Was this your game, Wizard?”

“No. I think I’ve made my opinion on the matter very clear. I was just saying that because the opportunity presented itself. So, what do the stones say for Raulin?”

“Actually,” she said, tossing her hair over one shoulder, “none of those tiles came up.” She drew three more tiles and mixed them on the table with her eyes closed until she felt they were in the right order. She held his gaze and said, “Be careful. Something bad will happen if you don’t obey the rules. Something from the dark, from people you don’t trust or like.”

“Does that mean anything to you?” Al asked.

“It could mean many things. As someone who frequently breaks laws in countries full of people I don’t like, I don’t find this advice very helpful. But,” he added quickly, “it’s always a good idea to consider threats that might be closer than one would think.”

“What do you draw for me?” Al said. He was trying to be casual about it, but Anla could tell he was interested. Perhaps he always had been, but his rigid obedience to certain rules had made it difficult for him to see beyond his schooling enough to try it.

“You’re going to learn something. Either that or you’re going to get to ride that horse you always wanted to.”

“How do you see that?”

Ah is for animals, but also means intelligence and decision making.”

“That doesn’t make sense.”

“It does if you’re an elf. We see ourselves as animals, part of the herd of everything that runs and eats and drinks in this world. It’s physicality. That’s different from ih, which is raw emotion, from instinct up to the complex feelings of, say, grief, sacrifice, or unrequited love. That’s conception. So, even though animals work on instinct, we classify them and us as physical beasts that feel, two separate things.”

“All right, so intelligence…”

“…and ha for the unknown and ess for action. You are doing something to learn about the unknown. Likely you’ll find out something. It’s an interpretation of what I draw in the tiles.”

“May I?” he asked. She put his tiles into the bag and watched as he drew three for her. “Okay, we got drop-of-rain, stick-person-throwing-a-ball, and book-falling-to-the-right.”

“Interesting that you drew these. Those were the three I talked about earlier for Raulin.”

“So you shouldn’t be a trirec?”

“I guess I shouldn’t,” she said with a smirk. “The three tiles are basically ‘sun’, ‘people’, and ‘greater’. I interpret that as he should do something to help society, like be a politician or a guard captain.”

“What would that mean for you?” Raulin asked.

She rubbed her nails against each other. “Maybe when the year is done I should go back to my people and help them. They need someone who understands Gheny and can fight for them peacefully, in a court. I’m not sure.”

She was about to put her bag away when someone dragged a chair over, turned it around, then straddled it. “How much are you charging?”

It took Anla a moment to take in the worn farmer’s clothes, the short hair, and the tan that was starting to fade and realize there was a person she knew behind it. She jumped up and ran around the table, almost pushing Al’s head into his drink. “Riyan!”

“Hey, girl,” she said, standing to accept her embrace.

“I haven’t seen you in over three years!”

“I’ve been here the whole time. Not that far from our old place.” She looked around the table. “These friends of yours?”

“Oh, yeah,” she said, “Al, Raulin, and Tel. I met Al about six months ago when we teamed up to save the Duke’s daughter.”

“That was you? I heard about it, but no one really knew who had done it. You’re serious?”

Anla fingered the necklace she was wearing. “The Duke gave this to me himself.”

“It’s true,” Al said, shaking Riyan’s hand, “but I don’t have any pretty jewelry to show off.”

“Nice to meet you all.” To Anla, she raised her eyebrows and nodded her head to the bar and walked over, her walk decidedly not the fluid sashay that Anla’s was. When both sat down, Riyan said, “I wanted to say I was sorry, about leavin’ you. I actually had to muster up the courage to come ‘n’ say ‘hi’. I didn’t actually think it was you until you pulled out your tiles.” She grinned. “Still on that trick, are you?”

“It’s made me a lot of money when I needed it.”

“How you doin’, girl? You need money, a place to stay?”

“And I was going to ask you the same, at least about the money. I have enough of that, but no home at the moment.”

“Do you need a place to stay? I’m working at a farm not far from here ‘n’ I don’t think they’ll mind you for a spell. ‘Course, I’ll have to ask my girl about it…” She grinned.

“Oh, you found someone? Congratulations!”

“Naw, she doesn’t really get it. Beautiful girl, not the brightest. I’m sweet on her, but it’s not going anywhere. Now, how about you ‘n’ your man?”

“Who, Al?”

“He the one in the mask?”

“No, he’s the one that shook your hand.”

Riyan twisted her mouth. “You married to the brown guy but sleepin’ with the mask guy?”

“I’m not married to any of them. Al and I use the ruse that we’re a couple so that people don’t bother us when we’re traveling, but I’m not attached to any of them that way. Well…Raulin is courting me.”

“Oh, la dee da, look at you bein’ courted. What, he buy you emeralds ‘n’ lace ‘n’ things like that?”

“He picks me flowers, makes sure I’m warm, moves branches out of my way, things like that.”

Riyan leaned on her hand before a big, dopey grin crossed her face. “You like it. You like bein’ treated good. Yeah, you sweet on him, just don’t know how sweet.”

“I like him quite a bit, but we’re just seeing where things go.”

“I can tell you where they’re gonna go,” she said, winking at her.

Anla sighed and grabbed Riyan’s jaw, turning her head to face the table. “He’s a trirec, Riyan. Remember how we use to pretend we were trirecs when we were younger, sneaking around the building with scarves tied around our faces?”

She shook Anla’s hand off her face. “He’s a real trirec?”

“Yes.”

“Wow. I thought he was just shy. You have good taste.”

“Riyan, trirecs can’t marry.”

“So?”

“So, I’m not going to fall in love with a man I’m not going to marry. I have money, I don’t need someone unless he’s going to make my life worthwhile.”

“That’s cute, girl. Let me know how that works out.”

“I’m serious!”

“Maybe you are, but you love who you love and nothin’s gonna stop that.” She gave her a sad smile. “Don’t fight things that don’t need fightin’.”