13-9

Anla ran her fingers through her wet hair as the three walked to the government district. “In hindsight, it wasn’t the best time to take a bath. I’m sorry I was cross with you,” she said to Raulin.

“I actually didn’t think you were that upset,” he said, leading the way. “I don’t think I’d handle being evicted from such comfort as well as you did. You seemed very relaxed.”

She gave a reluctant nod. “I rarely get to take a nice, hot bath. It’s odd how just hot water and quiet can be such a luxury.”

“Enjoy life while you can. It’s always been my-”

In unison, the three of them double over and groaned. A man walking in the opposite direction startled, then raised his cane to see if there was an obstruction he was about to run into. He gave them an odd look before continuing on his journey.

“Ugh, he’s not stopping!” Raulin said, on his knees from the nausea. He powered through his pain and began running towards the spot he had left Al, alleviating the nausea. Telbarisk collapsed against the side of a building and took a few deep breaths before continuing.

When Raulin arrived at the corner where he had left Al, he found him, not surprisingly, gone. He looked back at Anla and Tel, then gestured right towards the boulevard before heading out that way.

How far ahead was the wizard? More importantly, why didn’t he stay where he was? Raulin felt bad that his first reaction had been that the wizard had gone rogue, since there were plenty of other explanations. What if he had looked suspicious and someone had nabbed him? Or someone paid by that woman had knocked him out and taken him?

He fingered his blades, not realizing his pace and gesture made him look rather menacing to passers by on the street. “Raulin!” Anla said and he stopped to look wait for her. “The buildings,” she said, and he looked over to see a broken, wavy white line on the brick.

“Well, I’ll never make fun of the wizard for bringing his enormous backpack again.”

They followed the trail until it dipped down at the corner. Assuming Al had indicated a turn, Raulin led the other three across the street and hunted for the next line.

They arrived in front of an Aroukean restaurant where a big X was placed on the corner. Raulin pondered what to do in the alley next to the restaurant.

“You can pose as the wizard’s wife and look for him,” he said. “We’ll get him out and then find the nearest place to tar and feather him.”

“That helps get him out, but what do we do about your target?” Anla asked.

“I don’t like how exposed I’ve been thus far, but we’ll just have to regroup and come back…”

“He’s in the water closet,” Al said, strolling down the alley.

Raulin slowly turned his head. “Wizard, what part of ‘stay here’ didn’t you understand?”

“They were moving away,” he said. “I didn’t want to lose the trail.”

“If you had just told me which direction they went it, I would have been happy,” he said in a harsh whisper. “I could have waited for the target to come back the way he came, then follow him to his house tonight after coming up with a solid plan for later tonight.” Solid plan? That didn’t sound like a familiar thing to Raulin. He took a few deep breaths and calmed down. “Now, I risk discovery of the plot, which means I have to be extra careful when I…”

“When I said ‘he’s in the water closet’, I mean I killed him and his body is in there.”

Raulin’s neck snapped back. He looked at Anla, who’s mouth opened. “Wizard…where? Show me where.”

Al brought him down the alley and pointed to an entrance. “It’s the first door on the right.”

Raulin slowly opened the door and ducked his head around. No movement. He opened it wider and saw a short hallway, garish mauve wallpaper above dark walnut wainscoting. The first door on the right was open a crack and he slipped quickly inside.

The wizard had been specific; the man in the navy coat was dead and on the water closet, his trousers pooled around his ankles. Raulin shook his head at the indignity of it, then checked his neck for a pulse. His skin was already cool to the touch and there was no heartbeat Raulin could find. Still, like he had in Iascond, he pulled out his slightly curved kraesh blade and dug out the man’s neck vessels, dancing to the side when the blood gushed out the side in one final spurt.

Outside again, Raulin gestured for the group to leave before he reached them. “Thanks for keeping him sedated, Wizard. It allowed me to kill him without a struggle. We need to head back to the hotel, collect our things, then move to a place near the temple. In the meantime, we’ll provision and make sure we’re ready for Ashven. There won’t be many places there that…”

“I thought he was dead,” Al interrupted.

“No, he was just asleep. But, thank you for the thought.”

Anla smiled at Raulin and gave him a quick nod. He nodded in return, then led them back to the hotel, still too surprised at what Al had done to think about it.

* * *

“It was too much to hope that we would have an easy time of it,” Raulin said, looking around the corner of a building.

In front of the temple were the team of trackers they had met at the hotel, accompanied by a few men not in their uniform, and one very agitated priest in gray robes. They milled about the entrance to the temple as if waiting for something or someone.

“We need to get rid of them. There’s no point in retrieving the inkwell if they see us do it.” Al began to walk out into the street before Raulin caught him by the collar of his shirt and shoved him back. “Wizard, you’ve done enough for today.”

“I can do it,” Anla volunteered. “What god is this temple for?”

“Kabidon? Yes, Kabidon,” Al said. “God of storms, the moon, and priests, mainly.”

She nodded once, fixed her hair and clothing, then crossed the street. She made for the temple, but was waylaid by one of the younger trackers. She stopped and began talking to him, then another when he walked over.

“What are they saying?” Raulin asked.

“Uh, flirtatious things, mostly,” Al said after listening for a few moments. “’You’re very pretty’, ‘do you want to come with me for a drink?’, things like that. She’s being coy about it, giggling, but not committing to anything.”

“Oh,” was all Raulin said.

She sat on a stone ledge, her skirt hiking up just over her knee before she fixed it. This attracted one of the suited men, who walked over and entered the conversation. The priest walked over, still agitated, but calmed down after speaking with her for a few minutes. He walked inside the temple peacefully.

One by one, the rest of the group approached her and left the area for whatever reasons, including the captain of the group. Left with the three young men, Anla escalated her charms and began laughing more in earnest, touching the mens arms, and pretending embarrassment at certain jokes the men said.

Raulin opened and closed his jaw, working the tension out as best he could. “What is she doing?” Al asked.

“Influencing the men to leave with her magic.”

“But, they’re not feebleminded like they usually are.”

“Anla has expanded her magical abilities. She can now subtly suggest to a person that they do something they wish to do anyway, an empowering nudge in a certain direction. It leaves them with full capacity of their minds, if they had that to begin with.”

“Raulin, that’s not good. I don’t like that.”

Raulin tore his eyes away and looked at Al. “And why not, Wizard? Anla is freed by this option. She hated commanding people against their wills. This way she’s only intimating something that a man might do on his own with the right influence.”

“Yes, but how do I know she hasn’t done that to me already?”

Raulin turned to face him. “You wouldn’t, save an instantaneous, strong desire to fulfill whatever issue was brought up while you were just talking. I would think by now she would have earned your trust for all the times she’s helped you without malice or machinations to her advantage.”

“There’s no way I can figure out if she changes her mind, though. Before there were signs. She told me that I would expect a blank of time in my recollection and a change in location or position.”

“She told you this and yet you still don’t trust her?”

“It’s much easier to trust someone’s words that you can verify.”

“Trust isn’t about verification. Trust is trust.”

“How can I…?”

“Wizard, we aren’t discussing this anymore, and if you vex Anladet about her powers, I’m going to be very upset with you.”

An impressive fight broke out between two of the men, who subsequently knocked each other out. The third man, who had guarded Anla from any errant punches, began pulling her towards the alley next to the church. She turned to the corner where Raulin was and sent a whisper that carried across the street to him. “Intimidate him about your inkwell.

He’d needed fewer words than that to spur him into action. He ran across the street, hugging the corner of the building next to the temple just long enough to make sure they were alone. Anla had her back pressed against the building, the young man’s arms penning her in. Raulin made a loud scrape with his foot that caught the attention of the tracker, who startled away from her and laughed nervously.

“What, ah, what…?” he began.

“What do you want with my quarry?” Raulin asked.

“The girl? N…no, she’s not…I didn’t…”

“Not the girl. The inkwell,” he said, slowly walking towards them. “You and your men have been buzzing around what I’ve been tasked to steal. And I will steal it, without you idiots getting in my way.”

“Oh,’ he said.

“So, if I leave you to run away and decide to spare you a toe-to-head flaying at low tide, will you let me do my job?”

“Yes,” he said, clearing his throat. “I’ll go home and report to work tomorrow and tell them then?”

“Plenty of time,” he said. When the man hesitated, Raulin flipped out his knife, looked down at it, then slowly raised his head to the tracker. He could have kicked up dust at the speed in which he ran out of the alley.

“You all right?” Raulin asked, sheathing his knife.

“Of course. ‘Toe-to-head flaying at low tide’? Sounds grisly.”

“The idea is to start peeling the skin of the foot when you have them tied to a dry rock. When the sea level rises, you move up to the ankles, the legs, and so on. Each body part gets flayed, then soaked in salt water. Grisly, yes. Practical? Eh, probably not. I’ve never done it, only heard about it.”

“Have you done any of the other threats you’ve said?”

“No. I’d rather exhaust other avenues before torture. Creative threats work so much better; people can imagine much worse than I could ever explain.” Al and Tel walked down the alley and met with the two of them. “Okay, Tel. Like we did yesterday.”

The temple of Ap Caston had several stone towers that merged into one of the framing walls around a large courtyard and building. Raulin stood in front of the wall and put on his leather gloves while Telbarisk pushed the stones in enough to create footholds for Raulin to climb. “Remind me where it is again,” he said, taking the first opening.

“It next to the third window up. You said the indentations on it reminded you of Anladet’s face.”

Raulin looked down for a moment and made a slightly pained noise before continuing. Anla laughed lightly, surprised that even though she had heard some pretty lewd jokes made at her expense from the young men, that comment was the only thing that day that made her blush.

“That’s quite high,” Al said. “Maybe you could have magicked Raulin into being braver, so that he wouldn’t have problems.”

“I have no problems with heights, Wizard, and I can still hear you. Keep to my request or I’ll take the short way down from the wall with you as my cushion.”

“I was just thinking that I wasn’t comfortable with heights, but not afraid. And the Unease helps with balance. She could have warped my sensibilities and I would have made quicker time than you.”

“I don’t warp peoples sensibilities, Al. I nudge them in a direction.”

“And have you nudged me?” he asked, crossing his arms. “Are you the reason I went to visit my mother in Baradan or why I killed the Commons Rep.?”

“Wizard…” Raulin warned from a story high.

“No. As a matter of fact, I’ve never used that spell on you. Not once. I know how you feel about what I am and what I can do, so I leave you alone about it.”

“Not once? You…”

“And don’t you dare blame your strange actions on me. You’re acting unusual, but that’s all your doing.”

“’Unusual’?” Al scoffed. “Why is helping someone who helped you unusual? He didn’t have to hide the inkwell for me. And look at what he had to do to hide it and retrieve it. He could have turned it in to the trackers at any point and told me to deal with it, that it was too much of an effort. But, he didn’t. He’s shown me that he’s willing to help me even when it’s something that doesn’t seem consequential.”

“Okay,” she said quietly, taking a step back from the conversation. Besides Al’s “quid pro quo” feelings on this contract, he was also viewing his life in Whitney as a razed field. He had no job, no home, no family, and not even his best friend to return to. It wouldn’t seem so unusual if he had decided to finally lean in to the group and fill the void each had already decided to fill on their own, to find friendship with Raulin instead of adversity.

“Al, I promise that I’ve never used my influence on you. The only time I’ve ever used magic on you was when that man crushed your windpipe at Tel’s trial and you were dying. And you said ‘yes’ to that. I promise that I won’t use my magic on you without your consent.”

“Catch!” Raulin said from his perch. He tossed the inkwell down, which Al caught with ease. “Check to make sure I didn’t accidentally get another inkwell.”

Al opened the inkwell quickly, smiling when he saw the two rings still embedded in wax. “Thank you,” he said.

Raulin landed on the ground, took off his gloves, and retrieved his pack from the alley. “I’m not going to assume that the tracker will keep his word. We need to take a train to a city we can rest at that would be annoying for them to travel to. What sounds possible, Wizard?”

“There might be a train to Carbise. That’s a few hours trip.”

“All right then. Back to the train station and let’s head out for Ashven.”

13-8

“Here’s the situation,” Raulin began when everyone was settled. “We have a stolen item that can be tracked resting in a difficult but not impossible place to get. It buys us a few days, perhaps a few weeks if they aren’t connected to anyone important, but eventually someone will draw the paperwork to excavate. Our best course of action is to finish my contract as quickly as possible, retrieve the inkwell, and leave for Ashven.”

“I would leave it,” Al said miserably.

Raulin took a few moments. “Do you…are you saying you want me to leave the inkwell behind, Wizard? I thought you cared an awful lot about it, or at least the contents inside.”

“I do. I’m just thinking that, if I were in your shoes, I would have turned it over, and me, to the police. It’s a stolen item, I stole it, I’m a thief. I don’t understand why you’re helping me.”

Anla shared a look with Raulin. “We help each other out, Al. You and I helped each other out and we saved a little girl from being sacrificed. It’s been working well ever since.”

“But why him?” he asked, gestured to Raulin. “Why does he help me? Why not turn it over, or sell it, or look inside?”

“Because it means something to you,” he responded. “There’s no reason why I can’t err on the side of kindness here and protect your asset, save what I said about our dilemma.”

“Is it because I’ve helped you before? Because I helped heal you in New Wextif and gave you the Unease for your Cumber job?”

Raulin opened his mouth to speak, but Anla held her hand up to stop him. There was something in Al’s tone that seemed different. She didn’t know what it was, but he didn’t sound like his normal, accusatory self. He was confused, she thought. “Are you having issues understanding why Raulin would do something nice?”

“Yes!”

“I do nice things,” Raulin protested.

“But you do many that aren’t.”

“Al,” Anla began, “Raulin isn’t bad. I know you see him as an assassin, but he is a person. And he does good when he can.”

“Thank you,” he said quietly.

“You’re not understanding me,” Al said. “I’m saying why haven’t you hamstrung me? It’s what I would do in this situation, if I were you.”

“He’s not being personal,” Tel finally said. “He thinks that someone with Raulin’s background would have made a smart decision by turning him in and disposing of the item.”

“Yes!” Al said, splaying his hands. “Tel gets it!”

“Because I don’t want to, Wizard, just like I didn’t want to chastise you about who I found you speaking with the other day. Just like I accompanied you to your rendezvous tonight, since I had a feeling things weren’t going to go in your favor. There’s no need for me to be cruel, so I’m not going to be when I don’t have to be.”

Al put his head in his hands and shook his head. Raulin and Anla exchanged a glance, then looked at Tel, who shrugged. “Wizard, I was thinking of asking you for help with my contract, despite knowing how you feel about assassinations, but since your acting…”

“Yes!” Al said, removing his hands and grinning, “and I won’t owe you anything.”

“You don’t…you don’t ‘owe’ me anything right now.”

“I do, though! This is the way it works.”

No one said anything for a few moments as they tried to figure out exactly what was going through Al’s mind. “Is that what you want?” Raulin finally asked. “I don’t feel like you owe me anything. You helped me escape in Iascond. You healed me in New Wextif. We’re even as far as I’m concerned.”

“But, this means more.”

Raulin was a little concerned at Al’s tone, which seemed almost desperate to be free of whatever burden he felt. “Will you feel better if you help me take out Herodoti?”

“What do you need?”

“Well, I need to kill him.”

“I know. What can I do?”

Raulin looked at Anla and splayed his hands in resigned confusion. “I’m not sure. It’s always good to have a sharp pair of eyes and ears, both of which, for you, are sharper than most. You know this city better than anyone I could find. And you know things that would take me ages to ask or bribe people to get. I’ll try to keep your involvement more intellectual than physical.”

“That sounds fine.”

“All right, then we start early tomorrow.”

Anla followed Raulin to his room. “I don’t know,” he said preemptively as she closed the door behind them. “He’s acting strange and I don’t know what to do other than keep a short leash and let him do what he wants to do.”

“I can’t figure out what he’s feeling, which at this point means I know he’s not lying and I know he’s not sad.” She sighed bitterly.

“I’ll get to the bottom of it. And don’t be upset with yourself. You’re making progress with your magic. You’re untrained, there’s a lot to cover, and there’s very little to go on. It took me almost eight years before I reached a competent level as a trirec, even with teachers and tried and true methods.”

“You make a good point,” she said. She stalled while he started taking off his boots. “I think I should stay with Al tonight, to make sure he’s all right.”

“I agree,” he said, though he’d much rather her stay with him. He found he slept more peacefully than he normally did when she was by his side.

The next morning Raulin was surprised to find the wizard ready for the day in the common room. He dog-eared the page he was reading and shoved it into his pack without complaint.

“You’re up early. That’s…unusual,” Raulin said. “I don’t think we’ll be needing your pack, Wizard, but I admire your willingness to be prepared.”

“I don’t mind,” he said, slinging the straps over his shoulder. “I have lots of things in here that might come in handy. Remember how you needed the piece of chalk in Iascond?”

“Yes, but…well, how much does that thing weigh?”

Al unslung it and handed it to Raulin, who almost dropped it to the ground. “Whew, that’s got to be over fifty pounds.”

“It’s fine. I don’t really notice it anymore. It’s worth it, should you need something.”

“True, but I doubt I’ll need more than knives and rope at this point,” he said, handing Al his pack. The two left the hotel and began walking northerly down the street. “I’m going to need you to take us to the government district in a more scenic way.”

“Like, along the river?” Al asked.

“More like along alleys and side streets. Normally I’d go without my mask so that I wouldn’t get the looks I’ve been getting already, but I’m keeping it on today. And so, it would be best to be as inconspicuous as possible.”

“It wasn’t a problem in New Wextif,” Al said, and Raulin noted his voice lacked the slight hostility he usually had when speaking to him. In fact, he sounded almost servile.

“I could walk around New Wextif masked with one of you three with more ease because it’s a city that’s likely to have people who could afford the ten or twenty gold per day a trirec guard would cost. The larger the city, the less likely strange things would stand out. And I’d rather you keep a low profile as well. You’re also a suspicious man wanted by certain groups.”

“Too bad that’s not the good kind of wanted.”

Raulin laughed. “Now you know a little of my life.”

Al beamed at this before asking, “What is your life like, outside of this situation?”

“Lonely. I have a lot of acquaintances, but no real friends, a lot of trysts, but no real loves. I bounce around a country or countries, spending only days or a few weeks in one place before making a clandestine egress to my next target. You?”

“Nothing,” he said after a few sad moments. “Kiesh the Black makes what you do seem…nicer.”

“Kiesh the Black is a character in a romanticized novel for people who want to think that someone like myself has a good time doing what they do. Normally, I don’t have a problem with them because I don’t read them. I don’t talk about them and I don’t acknowledge them. But when people tell me my life sounds wonderful, it gets me a little irritated because I know what my life is like, and it isn’t anything like what’s in those books.”

“You did say you give yourself a nice vacation when you finish early.”

“I do. And I do my best to not be a trirec for a few months. I take a vacation mostly from myself, rather than away from everything.”

Al pondered this as they continued to wind their way to the government district. Raulin wondered if he had gotten too testy about himself. “How long have you lived here?” he asked Al.

“Almost eight years. I requested a posting and Amandorlam picked Whitney for me.”

“And you were okay with this choice?”

“The next on the list was Oukitz, in Fresta.” When Raulin gave a slight shrug, Al said, “It’s one of the cities in one of the wide, open duchies that has nothing around it for days but rocks and cacti. It butts against the Viyaz Desert.”

“Sounds scintillating.”

“I know I’m not what people would call a socialite, but even I didn’t want that kind of life.”

“Would you prefer to sit around a hotel reading books or joining in on events?”

Al took a deep breath. “I’ve made a decision since I’ve started traveling with you three. When the year is done, I want to be a vizier. That’s a catch-all wizard who will perform everything from Touch wizardry to scouting to personal guarding for one person or family, usually a noble. Picturing myself in that capacity, I would want to do a mixture of serving and relaxing.”

“I think most people would. Everyone wants to achieve a nice balance in life.” Raulin clicked his tongue in thought. “Wizard, would you like me to ask around, see if any of the nobles I bump into are looking?”

“You’d do that?”

“Well, not me, but Marin Liasorn would. I wish you had said something when we were in New Wextif. An unattached, cross-switching wizard that works well either alone or on a team is an easy sell.”

The grin that spread across Al’s face was so genuine and bright that Raulin hated to interrupt his hopes. “We’re here,” he said. He was guessing, but unless pubs started raising copious amounts of flags on their facades, this was the government section of Whitney.

“There are a lot of buildings here,” Raulin said. “I don’t suppose you know…”

“Tarrint Hall,” Al said, pointing down the boulevard. “Or, well, a building on the property. Tarrint Hall is the seat for the viscount and his family. There’s one building for non-noble employees of the city.”

“That doesn’t seem good for my position. I’m guessing there’s lots of guards and limited access?”

“Yes.”

“I don’t suppose you know where Herodoti lives?”

Al shook his head. “I could tell you a few potential neighborhoods that some of my old clients lived in, but it would be incomplete.”

“Thought I’d ask. I’m assuming he’ll be working until the evening?”

“Unless he has other functions. Or there’s a session. Or he’s sick…”

Raulin clicked his tongue. “Okay, how far down this street can you see?”

Al stuck his head around the corner, gripping onto the granite corner for support. “Eight buildings down with enough clarity to differentiate between two people standing next to each other.”

“Gods, man, that is impressive. All right. I need to go fetch Anla and Tel. We’re close to the edge of our tether, so don’t move from this spot. Just watch Tarrint Hall. If you see him leave, remember where he goes and with whom. It’ll help immensely.”

Al leaned against the building, trying to look casual. To Raulin, he was broadcasting his intentions by examining his nails and looking up every three seconds, but he held his tongue. Things were going well between them and he wasn’t sure how much good cheer he had racked up with the wizard today.

Twenty minutes later, Al looked up to see a small group of men in black uniforms with yellow and navy striped sashes over their coats. Al could see the light glinting off the swords by the mens sides as they formed a cross protecting a man in the middle. Since he wore a formal navy coat, Al highly suspected he was Herodoti, the Commons Representative.

Al stayed right where he was, glancing up every half-minute to keep his eye on the group. He was content to obey Raulin, until they moved five buildings away. Then, six, seven… They were slowly paced, but it was only going to be a few minutes before they walked out of his visual range.

Raulin, Anla, and Tel would be coming soon. They’d see him walking down the street, he convinced himself, before he began a brusque pace down the boulevard.

13-7

Al felt the tell-tale echo-y shift around him that indicated Anla had silenced what they were saying to anyone outside their circle. “What’s going on?” he asked, having a slight fear that he knew exactly what was going on.

“Several men came to the hotel saying there was a stolen item they were looking for. They had some contraption that pointed towards our room, Al. I barricaded myself inside and plead hysterics, then escaped out the window.” She hefted his bag to him. “I couldn’t find the chalice quickly so I took the whole thing.”

“It’s not the chalice they’re after,” he said.

“It’s not?” Raulin asked.

“No. Tracking spells, or any other kind of spells, won’t stick to deitic artifacts.” He rummaged around until he pulled out the inkwell. “This is what they want.”

Raulin reached out to take it, but Al snapped it back. “I was curious as to what was so important that you left everything for.”

“It’s King Aubin’s inkwell. It was sitting on the shelf, gathering dust, in a curiosity shop. I…couldn’t leave it there. Yes, I stole it. Yes, I know that’s against the law. But, I couldn’t leave it.”

“Are you certain it was genuine? I would hope you didn’t run for a forgery.”

Al felt doubt for a moment, then said, “If it was a forgery, why would they send a team of trackers after it? Besides, it’s not the inkwell that’s important but what’s inside.”

“Which is?”

Al had few secrets left to keep. This was one of the last, and he wasn’t ready to tell it. Not yet, at least. “You’ll have to trust me on this; I know absolutely that this is what they’re after. It has the tracking spell on it. We need to hide this until we can leave Whitney.”

“All right, Wizard,” Raulin said, “I’ll trust that you don’t have anything really terrible in that tiny box. Ideas, and quickly, before they realize the inkwell is gone from the room. We need to stash this somewhere that only we can reach until the time is right.”

“Some place tall? Like, the top of Ap Caston’s Temple?” Al offered.

“As much as I’d love climbing to place it, Wizard, someone else could potentially get it.”

“In the ocean?”

“Too shallow and they can find it. Too deep and we can’t retrieve it. I don’t suppose your gift involves air pockets for breathing, Anla?”

“Not that I know of, but I don’t think we’ll need it. Telbarisk was able to hollow out that boulder and stuff us inside. Could he do that again for the inkwell?”

“That…would work. Anla, take Al’s pack and head back inside. Make it appear like you never left, if possible. Tel and I will go hide the inkwell. Wizard, you need to face the trackers and clear your name, if you can. We’ll bust you out of jail if we need to.”

Al relinquished the inkwell. “Promise me you won’t look inside.”

“If it means that much to you, I won’t,” Raulin said before heading down the alley, Tel in tow.

There were two trackers milling about outside the hotel entrance. You know nothing and will be surprised, Al told himself over and over again, trying to become the confused, innocent man instead of pretending to be him.

The two guards outside let him pass inside without so much as a second glance. Al was feeling disappointed when one of them said, “That’s him.”

He was quickly surrounded by four trackers, the buttons on their overcoats flashing in the dim lamplight. “I’m sorry?” Al stuttered. “I need to get to my room.”

“Yes, go right ahead,” said a dark-haired man with craggy skin. “Your wife has been most uncooperative with our investigation.”

You know nothing and will be surprised. “Investigation? What passes?” he asked, turning the key in the lock. “Anladet?”

“Oh, Al! Those terrible men were trying to steal our clothes!” she said, running into his arms. “Don’t let them in!”

“Why did you scare my wife?” he asked, turning to face the nearest man. “Why are you trying to steal our things?”

Sir, we were led here to recover an item that was stolen several months ago…”

“So, why are you in my room?” he asked as the men squeezed past him and starting opening drawers and pulling things out of his pack. “What is the meaning of this?”

“We have reason to suspect you to be that man. We will search your things until we are satisfied either way.”

“Excuse me! You have no police with you and therefore this search is unlawful! If I find one item missing…”

One of the men upturned his pack and a very loud, metallic clang filled the mostly quiet room. “What was that?” one of them asked.

“Oh, one of you brutes must have dropped my hairbrush!” Anla said. “Al, make them leave!”

“Gentleman, I’m giving you to the count of three before I started yelling and throwing fisticuffs at you lot. I don’t care who you say you are; this is vulgar harassment and you are upsetting my wife!”

“Boss, it’s not here,” one of the men said, holding a hexagonal box in his hands. The arrow on the dial in the middle pointed to the corner and moved slightly to the right as he walked towards the area.

The man who’d been speaking took a deep breath and looked like he had swallowed something bitter. “Men, out. Sir, I apologize for the intrusion.”

“You’d better! I should call the constable himself and make a complaint! I hope you’re…”

Anla put her hand on his arm. “Dear, let’s clean up and forget about this. They haven’t stolen or damaged anything. Besides, I’ve been meaning for you to reduce your pack. Maybe you can finally do that.” She gave him a steady, knowing glance that was obvious enough for him to read as “let it go”.

The dark-haired man bowed stiffly. “Again, sorry for the intrusion,” he said before leaving.

Anla let her breath out. “That was close.”

“Yeah,” Al said, dropping down to his knees to pick up all the items on the floor. “You think I really do need to reduce what’s in my backpack?”

“Not unless you want to. You’ve had some handy things in there, like the chalk and the salt and pepper. I’m surprised they didn’t say anything about the ax.”

“An ax is probably fine. An ax with a Skethik spell on it is a little harder to explain.”

“So, why didn’t their box point to that?”

“Each spell is slightly unique, even spells with identical consequences. It’s like when someone copies a letter; it’s still the same content, but they probably looped their Bs a little differently. There is a piece of paper in the tracker those men use that corresponds specifically to the spell on the inkwell.”

“Out there somewhere is the paper that created the chalice then?”

He shook his head, holding up a pair of tongs and remembering he had used them to help make Tel’s medicine before tucking them deep into his pack. “The chalice is different because it was created by an ap in direct link with his god. The ‘paper’ that corresponds to the spell is in the chalice itself, bound with the gold and jewels that make it. It’s very hard to create something like that, having the spell interwoven instead of on the surface.”

“And I’m guessing it’s impossible to destroy?”

Al’s eyes widened. “Destroy it? That would have catastrophic consequences. The gods have to keep balance and they do that through their intermediaries, including any artifacts. The fact that the chalice is in play means that the gods are active in restoring the balance.”

“Does it?” she asked, amused at the thought. “Or is it just a man happened to find himself in a situation where he chose to act unlawfully to save himself from losing his job?”

“It could be, but the more I think about it and the further I am from the situation, the more I feel like I was pushed. There were several occasions before in the weeks leading up to that moment where I felt the same need to just break my normalcy. I was tired of my life; I just didn’t know it until I acted before thinking about the ramifications.”

She was about to retort that the idea had no merit when Raulin and Tel came into the frame of their window. “It’s taken care of. Those trackers will be scratching their heads for hours, trying to figure out why it’s pointing inside solid stone three stories up on a church, all while in one of the busiest streets in Whitney.”

“You didn’t look inside the inkwell, did you?” Al asked.

Raulin sighed. “No, Wizard. You asked me not to. You’re welcome for hauling the damn thing up the side of a building, by the way.”

“He didn’t,” Anla said to Al, who sighed in relief. To Raulin she asked, “Just out of curiosity, would you say you’ve felt prodded into a certain path, like you’ve been repeatedly asked to do something and only recently decided to follow it?”

Raulin crossed his arms and leaned against the sill. “I don’t think so. I suppose this year-long docket has been different for me, taking on partners and working together, but I don’t think I was pushed hard in that direction. I came to the decision to let you work with me on my own. Why do you ask?”

“Al and I were just discussing how odd it was for him to start this whole thing and he mentioned how he felt prodded repeatedly to come to the decision to lash out instead of bottling up his emotions. I was considering my own path and wondered if there was any merit to the idea.”

Telbarisk ducked down into the window. “Hayinfal experience feelings like that. Those that don’t listen well to kouriya claim to feel a subconscious whispering or jolts in an odd direction.”

“But Al and I aren’t hayinfal,” she pointed out.

“There is no one here to confirm you’re hayinfal, but I actually have thought you two are very likely to be one. You both have been pulled into something greater than your lives normally would, enacting change along the way.”

“What change?” Al asked. “We haven’t done anything.”

“That is the mystery of being a hayinfal. You may never know when you did something that enacted a great change. Usually, though, you do, and I suspect it hasn’t come yet.”

“Something to look forward to,” Raulin said. “Speaking of change, I do need to talk with everyone. Perhaps in your room would be more private?”

13-6

Al whipped around and took a step back when he recognized the speaker. “Ember? What are you doing here?”

“I am here to claim what’s rightfully mine, Alpine,” she said, her thin eyebrows knotting. “You owe me fifty gold and a chalice, if I’m not mistaken.”

“You are,” he said, licking his lips. “The fifty gold was to bring the chalice to you. You never specified when. And the chalice isn’t yours, or your ‘family’s’. If anyone can claim ownership it’s the Brotherhood.”

“The Brotherhood let it sit on some shelf for years,” she said, casually lighting a cigarette in its holder. “If they’d wanted it, they would have gotten it. It was I who found it, confirmed what it was, and made progress to get it.”

“Doesn’t make it any more yours.”

“And it doesn’t make it yours, either. Our contract actually would give credence to my stake, since our agreement means that you are still in transit with the chalice.”

“If you’d like, I’d be happy to give you the fifty gold back. You can even tell Jindahl and Stohr about the fire, about me assaulting one of their employees, and about being an unregistered switcher.”

Ember removed the cigarette from her mouth and laughed, something that would be flirtatious from a different woman. “Oh, Alpine. I’m so glad my plan worked. Too bad I won’t be able to see the fruits from that labor.”

“Plan?” What are you talking about?”

“I didn’t want some simpering, sniveling little coward to work for me,” she said, the smoke curling around her. “I wanted a man, someone who could take risks and think for themselves. Someone who wasn’t going to run to me every time there was an issue or problem. And that you were not.

“I had an opportunity to get you under my thumb, get a switcher to fill in all those positions I had to decline and lose money over. So, I devised our little three task situation, knowing you devoured those heroism books. You were more reluctant than I thought, especially for someone who claimed he would have single-handedly saved the Arvonnese royal family, but you did them in the end. And, unless my initial judgment of you is poor, you’ve changed. You’re not the timid little creature I remember. You’ve definitely got the bravado to walk back into the city where you’re still wanted for theft. You’re exactly what I was hoping those tasks were going to do: make you into a valuable employee.

“But, things have grown difficult for me since you’ve left. Jindahl and Stohr were quite upset that you left without notice. You’re relationship with them is beyond tarnished, so I doubt I could hire you again. And, of course, I’ve been accosted by the police and investigators despite having an alibi that evening. I wouldn’t stick my neck out for you even if you rained necklaces. I am, however, willing to keep quiet about your appearance in Whitney if you’ll bring me the chalice.”

“It wouldn’t help me, since I still have the inkwell,” he said. “And why would I bring you the chalice anyway?”

“I didn’t come alone tonight. My men are just around the corner, waiting to ambush you.”

“Are they?” Raulin asked, snapping his knives back to his sides as he turned the corner to the alley. “The big guys with the batons, right? I don’t think they’ll be ambushing anyone tonight.”

Ember’s eyes grew wide. “A trirec,” she whispered. “How…how did you afford…did you sell the chalice? Alpine, tell me you didn’t sell the chalice.”

“Wizard, I think it would be best to keep our mouths shut and depart as soon as possible.”

“Tell me you still have it!”

Raulin studied her quickly, the light from the streetlamp inadequate for most, but not for a trirec with an enhanced mask. On her he saw something that made their departure more than urgent. “We leave now,” he said, grabbing Al’s arm.

Al didn’t protest, but he did question the sudden insistence in his voice. “You saw something. What’s wrong?”

“Take me some place that we can talk, otherwise, shut your mouth.”

Al knew places, but most were legitimate businesses and well-lit streets that weren’t deserving whatever was going on. After collecting Telbarisk at an already set point, and moving him somewhere else, he led Raulin miles across the city, into Scarinjou, past the stunned looks of the men he once loathed calling him brother, and to a secluded cemetery on a hill. “This is the quietest place I know that no one would look for me.”

“’As silent as the grave’,” Raulin said, leaning against what he thought was a columbarium to catch his breath.

“Why did you want me to take you here?”

“She’s part of the Sun-Moon Guild,” he said.

“So? Wait, what’s that?”

“You remember how I told you there will be some things I won’t be able to tell you because it will endanger both of our lives? This is one of those things.”

Al sighed in frustration. “What can you tell me, then?”

“First tell me who she is.”

“Ember is the manager of Milxner’s, which takes care of the less reputable wizards’ work in Whitney. I mean, not all of it’s bad, like jobs for lifting crates or guarding, like what Aggie does, but some of it is, like…”

Raulin held up his hand. “I get what wizards can do. I’m interested in her.”

“I don’t know her well, since she was in a different part of the building. She caught me punching a wall and it led to blackmail and then me running away with the chalice.”

“Punching a wall?”

“It shook the whole building and almost burned the place down.”

Raulin whistled. “I’ll have to remember you don’t do things in small measures. Actually, I shouldn’t be surprised; I saw what you did to that guy in New Wextif outside of the shipping yard. You beat him like a rug.” He clicked his tongue in thought. “So, what I can tell you is that the reason why she had you steal the chalice was she needed it for a group.”

“She said her family was descended from Mikros and that she wanted it brought to its rightful place.”

“I’m pretty sure that was a lie.”

Al’s spine straightened. “Wait, was the part about having a working relationship with her family a lie, too? Did I break a law that I thought was inconsequential but actually isn’t?”

“I don’t know, Wizard, but just because someone lies about one thing doesn’t mean they lie about everything. Personally, I think you’re safe. Why would the Cumber waste resources on one wizard who has no ties to the peerage?

“What I can tell you about the Sun-Moon Guild is that it’s a group that’s pretty powerful in shadowy ways. They’re a bit regressive, though, obsessed with the Twelve. In order to join the guild you need to present a deitic artifact.”

“How do you know that’s what she wanted the chalice for?”

“Her brooch,” he said, tapping on his collarbone. “She’s awaiting induction, otherwise it would be filled in with color.”

“And how do you know about this ‘Sun-Moon Guild’?”

“That would be the point where we stop our discussion. What I’ve told you thus far is on par with all the other things I’ve told you about being a trirec, which is already too much.”

“Do you really think I’m going to be captured by someone and beaten until I spill your secrets? Besides, I can handle it.”

“Wizard, you probably shouldn’t say that unless you’ve been tortured before.”

“Why, have you?”

“As a matter of fact, yes,” Raulin said, wiping his hands nonchalantly on his sleeves.

Why?

“Oh, you know, I was bored and I thought it might be fun to try out.” He scoffed. “Wasn’t my idea. Arvarikor does everything to you that you could possibly have to endure, short of disfigurement and permanent damage. It’s good to know where your breaking point is, so that you’re prepared to go further when that moment arises. You learn a lot of things, I suppose.”

“Oh,” Al said.

“Now, you’re going to walk back to Telbarisk, then our hotel. You remember where he is? I’m going to follow you and make sure you’re not being followed by someone else. And I want you to do me one favor while we’re going to the hotel.”

“What’s that?”

“I want you to think on how Ember knew you were going to be at that bar at that time. Go.”

Raulin moved to a darker part in the cemetery, only visible to Al because he had seen him move there. He led them down through the other side, down to the main road and on to the park in Dryside where Tel was resting, or collecting kil.

And, Al thought. There was a glaring answer to the question of how Ember knew where to find him and when, but he wanted to be fair. He gave it some serious consideration, pondered many alternatives, and returned right back to his original assumption.

“Aggie sold me out,” he said to Raulin, once Tel was with them.

“Yes.”

“I was his friend. How could he do that to me?”

“Likely for the money, which I’m sure he has a hard time holding on to. She is his boss, too, and brownie points are always nice. I’m sure when you left earlier this year she offered a reward if you ever came back, to set you up for a trap.”

“I’d never sell him out! I’ve never told his wife about his infidelities. Maybe I should, though. Maybe he deserves it.”

“Maybe he does deserve it, but think of who you’d be hurting the most there. As it is, he’s married with children and he supports them. If you tell his wife, she’ll either be forced to divorce him or forgive him, which is tantamount to sanctioning his dalliances. Either way, she’ll be the one in pain, not him. He may still love her, but he stopped respecting her a long time ago.”

“But, it’s only fair! I’m glad I found out my wife was having an affair; I’d hate to go through life not knowing.”

“That’s you. As someone as prolific and as sloppy as Aggie seems to be, I doubt he’s been perfect in covering his tracks. Likely, she strongly suspects already, if she doesn’t know. Don’t force her to make the next step.

“And also ask yourself: would you be telling his wife to help her or because you want revenge against Aggie?”

That gave Al some pause. He was about to answer, falsely, that it had nothing to do with revenge when the three of them heard a “psst!” from an alleyway two streets down from the hotel. Raulin, telling them to hold off for a moment, turned down the alleyway and waited until Anladet moved out from the shadows.

“We have a situation,” she said.

13-5

Telbarisk had been good for making Al feel calmer about his situation, but didn’t give him an answer as to what he should do. Anla had been better.

“Al, why is it that you never apply your calculating knowledge to yourself?” she asked after he had finished talking about Burdet and Marnie and what he should do for them.

“What do you mean?”

“I’ve seen you tear apart laws and contracts trying to find the loophole, sometimes to brilliant success. But when it comes down to one you’ve entered yourself, you refuse to apply your cold logic to it. Look, you got married on Ap Jorsen’s Day, yes?”

“Yes.”

“That’s…Aliorna’s lover, right?”

“Yes.”

“So, you two married for love. That’s what your marriage contract was based on?”

“I don’t…yes, I think so. ‘Til our love runs dry’ or something like that.”

“And neither of you loves each other?”

“Anla, it’s not meant to be taken literally…”

“Just like the ‘wizards can’t communicate with family after graduating’ law?”

“No, you’re expected in excess of your promise. You’re married until you stop loving each other, but if that fails, you’re still expected to stay married.”

“Expected, but not authorized?”

“I never married her with the understanding that things were always going to be wonderful, just the hope.”

“Really?” she said, folding her arms. “You, the man who still thinks there’s a prince somewhere who didn’t die as a child and is waiting to return to his throne when the time is right has no hope in something much more common and mundane?”

“Arvonne is in terrible shape, but it hasn’t collapsed completely. It’s speculated that the reason is because at least one from the monarchy still lives, otherwise the whole country would…”

“Al. Did you expect marital bliss when you married Burdet? Honestly.”

He sighed. “Yes.”

“And you realized at some point that love was broken?”

“I’m pretty sure it dawned on me when she said she was pregnant with another man’s child.”

“Don’t get sassy; I’m trying to help you. In my eyes your contract was broken at that point. I’m sure in a lot of other people’s eyes, it would be broken, too.”

“But abandoning her isn’t the right thing.”

“You’re right,” she said. “Abandoning someone after you’ve caused problems isn’t fair.”

“So, you agree that I’m in the wrong?”

“No. You didn’t cause her problems. From what you’ve said before, she would rather drink and socialize than take care of her child. And she made an extended mistake with someone that caused your step-daughter to be conceived. That person abandoned his child. You put a lot of time and money into Marnie when you didn’t have to; she’s not yours. But you did anyway. And you put up with a lot from your ex-wife. Why can’t the man who is Marnie’s father finally take over?”

She left sometime during his extended silence as he pondered what she had said. When he realized what time it was, he stumbled from his room and made his way to the entrance of the hotel.

“Going shopping?” Raulin asked from the chair in the parlor.

“Yes,” Al replied.

“Clothes again, I suppose?”

“Torn between two scarves.” If Raulin asked him any more questions, he didn’t hear him. He left the hotel.

Al needed more time to think, so he took a longer way to the bar where he was going to meet Aggie. Two streets from his destination had a clock on the side of an important building, or a building made important by the contraption. He was twenty minutes late, a half-hour later than he’d ever been, and he couldn’t muster the energy to care about it.

Aggie was sitting in one of the booths they usually picked looking annoyed. He was already three-quarters done with his beer. Al slid into the bench and Aggie looked up, suddenly very happy to see him. “Hey, buddy. I didn’t think you were coming.”

“Ran late. Did you get anything for me?”

“Oh, uh, no.” After a few awkward moments, he went to the bar and brought him back his own mug. “There we go. Your favorite.”

“Caudet.”

“What?”

“Caudet is my favorite drink, not Chapman’s Water.”

“Oh,” he said, standing once more to get a drink at the bar. Al slid the mug over and sat back.

Aggie returned with a glass of blood red wine and watched as Al held the base and swirled, smelling the bouquet before sipping. “Ah, good vintage,” he said.

“What’s with the wine? Is this something you picked up on the road?”

“No, I’ve always liked Caudet.”

“Huh. Why didn’t you ever tell me?”

“Because you never asked.” He continued sipping, smacking his mouth to enhance the taste.

“Are you all right? You’re acting a bit odd.”

“I’ve been thinking, that’s all.”

“You do that well!” Aggie said with a friendly smile. It dropped when he realized Al was not returning it.

“I’ve always told myself you’re a good friend, Aggie,” he began. “You would take me out after work, to relax and chat about things. And I appreciate that. But, why did I always pay? Why did we always talk about your affairs? Why did you always drag me into your trouble?”

Aggie scowled. “Because you had more money than I did and your life was boring.”

“I didn’t, though, and it wasn’t. And even if it was, maybe listening when I did have something going on would have been nice.”

“If it bothered you so much, why didn’t you say anything? I thought the way things were was fine.”

“I let it be fine, sure, but you’re not socially inept. I’m not going to accept that you don’t know how to be a decent friend.”

Aggie sipped on his beer, thinking for a few moments, then relaxing into something cheery. “Why don’t you tell me what you want.”

“I want to do something other than drinking.”

“Not a problem. What do you want to do?”

“I don’t know,” he said, trying to think of something Aggie might like. “A wizard sporting event.”

“They do a lot of drinking there,” he said, laughing. “Speaking of which, you should drink up. I’m paying tonight, so take advantage of the free wine.”

Al only sipped. “I want you to pay attention to me and not just talk about your mistresses all the time.”

“Yeah, you said that. I guess I haven’t been a great friend. I’m sorry. We can start tonight, if you want. Tell me about what you’ve been up to over the summer.”

“And…and I want you to take care of Marnie.”

Aggie blinked a few times. “Who’s Marnie?”

“She’s your daughter.”

“Al, I don’t have a daughter, just the boys.” He paused for a few moments, then laughed lightly. “You’re talking about one of my bastards. Those women I date always find some poor sap to take care of them. Don’t worry about it.”

Al almost choked on his wine. “Aggie, I was one of those ‘poor saps’.”

“What? What do you mean? I thought you’d been married for a while.”

“My wife’s name, my ex-wife’s name, is Burdet. I never introduced you two, but you somehow managed to introduce yourselves. She cheated on me, with you, and got pregnant a little over two years ago. Your daughter’s name is Marnie. She’s a great kid. You should at least see your daughter.”

Aggie sat back in the booth, stunned. “Burdet…she didn’t tell me. We fizzled out a while ago and…I didn’t know, Al.”

“I figured you didn’t. And it’s not like I’m angry about it. Things had been poor between Burdet and myself and I knew the child wasn’t mine from the beginning, so I was never really cuckolded in the ornithological sense of the word. She’s my step-daughter and I love her, but she needs you in her life, now.”

“Are they okay?”

“Not really. Burdet’s sick and they’re living in Coggin’s Rails in a one-room apartment.”

Aggie winced. “Well, if you come back you…” He stopped for a moment. “You know what, you’re right. I should at least take care of…Marnie, yes? Marnie. I’ll go looking for them and give them some money tomorrow.”

He stood. “I’m going to go hit the head. We can go for a walk once you finish your glass and talk about things.”

Al nodded, feeling good about the situation. He’d thought it was going to be much harder than that to convince Aggie to change. For a brief moment, he actually considered returning to Whitney. Things weren’t going to be as bad as he’d thought.

“You need to leave, Wizard. Now.”

Al turned to look over the back of the booth and saw Raulin peeking over. “Why did you follow me? Again?

“Because a man who never lies is unpracticed and generally bad at it, and you were acting suspicious. Again. And despite us knowing the truth behind our agreement, I am still your guard. Tonight I am guarding you from making mistakes.”

“I am out having drinks with a friend. That’s all.”

“Then why lie?” When Al said nothing, Raulin continued. “It’s because you know this is dangerous.”

“Dangerous? How?”

“Because you fled this city a wanted man. And if I’m not mistaken, you still hold the item you stole. That might not be a problem, if you’re quiet about it. But, you decided to visit your friend and your ex-wife, two people too many, if you ask me.”

“Neither of them would betray me,” he said quickly, but without conviction.

“I don’t think your ex-wife would, despite what riches it might bring her, but this friend of yours is too nice. I’ve heard you speak of him; people don’t change that quickly. He’s looking to get you drunk and keep you by his side. Why?”

Al suddenly felt cold. “I don’t know.”

“Let’s play it safe, then. Leave, out the back. If you bump into him again, make some excuse as to why you left early. I’ll meet you at the hotel.”

Al scanned the room quickly, though he didn’t notice Raulin leave. Nothing seemed strange. Aggie was still gone, but that wasn’t abnormal. Maybe Raulin was being hyper vigilant.

He pushed open the back door to the alley and saw it was clear. He relaxed, put on his coat, and was about to turn the corner to the street when he heard a familiar voice. “.rd Gray, I think we need to have a talk.”