Ember kept Alpine waiting, like she always did. This time, however, she made a very poor show of disinterest. While Al sat in his seat, his hands folded in front of him, she kept glancing up from her tea. She’d put the cup down and continue writing, only to look him over quickly to see if he had the chalice on him. The third time she did that she caught his eye. Al gave her a smirk as she put down her pen.
“So, you have returned,” she said, taking off her pince-nez and letting them hang by the chain attached to her brooch. “How did last night fair?”
“It was exciting, to say the least. I was chased across half the city by a group with tracking abilities. Let’s just say I didn’t get enough sleep last night.”
Her eyes narrowed. “Then you stole something else? Why? I warned you about the consequences.”
“You did.” He shrugged. “My greed got the better of me. Since I was stealing one thing, why not steal something else?”
She looked a little surprised at Al’s admission. “Well, you did get away in the end and you didn’t connect the acquisition to me or Milxner’s. I suppose I have no quarrels with you taking a little something for yourself.” Ember graced him with a small smile. “Now, about the chalice…”
“Yes. I did get it.”
Ember sighed, her shoulders dropping as she sat back. “And? Do you have it with you?”
Al got comfortable in his seat. “I thought it might be dangerous to bring it here.”
“I see. Why is that?”
“Ember, I didn’t just steal an additional item from Berlont’s last night. I also stole the card attached to the chalice. Would you care to explain how a deitic artifact is a family heirloom?”
Al watched her carefully. She quietly sipped on her tea with a placid look on her face. She almost set her cup down, then took another sip. He had a hunch that whatever she was about to say was going to be a lie, but he’d listen anyway. “I assume, that with your particular taste in hobbies, you know of the Divine Bestowal?”
“Of course,” he said. “Royalty are the chosen leaders of their lands because they are blood descendants of Magrithon. He fathered children with a few of His aps and they went on to found countries and rule them.”
“It wasn’t just Magrithon who fathered mortal children.”
Ember let the silence hang as Al thought of what she was implying. “That’s ludicrous. I’ve never once heard of anyone speak about Mikros fathering humans.”
“We like to keep it under the rose, my family. We’ve tracked our lineage as far back as Ap Nourith. She was responsible for the Noh Amair Accord and founding the Sisterhood of Sancilot. She also was the only ap of Mikros to sire the Brother’s children.”
Alpine shook his head. “This is hard to believe…”
“Trust me, it is. It was a great surprise to learn of my heritage when I came of age. I learned it right before my family sent me off to Amandorlam, in hopes of learning more about where my ultimate grandfather’s treasures are.”
Ember put down her tea and stood, walking around her desk to stand in front of him. “We’ve been searching for generations. It means a great deal to my family to finally return our heirlooms to their home. Alpine,” she said, pausing before placing her hands on his forearms, “Al, please. I beseech you to do what is right and return the chalice to its rightful owners.”
Something seemed off about Ember’s story. Al had only a few things he trusted his life with, and knowledge was one of them. Magrithon had mortal descendants only because he had been stripped of his powers temporarily by the others as a punishment for many abuses against both the pantheon and mortals. Mikros, on the other hand, had always been a calm, benevolent god. He couldn’t think of a single myth involving Him that suggested moral ambiguity, never mind the fits of grandeur His brother was renowned for.
Al’s mind trailed a little while he left Ember waiting. She wasn’t used to it. In fact, the longer he made her wait, the more fretful she became. She took his silence as not contemplation, but as Al trying to figure a polite way to turn her down. “Al, do you want money?”
He looked up. “Money?”
“Yes,” she said, opening a locked drawer in her desk and pulling out a blue velvet cinch-bag. “Here. Take this. I assume this will buy your silence over what we spoke of?” She placed the bag in his hand and folded his fingers over. “I can pay you the same when you bring the chalice here.”
“Okay,” he said, giving her a dopey smile. “I’ll be right back.”
“Thankyou,” she said, moving out of his way so he could leave.
Alpine walked through Milxner’s, through the maze in between to Jindahl and Stohr. He opened his office, lit a few candles, and quickly counted the money. Fifty gold? That was over two months wages for Al. Another fifty was waiting for him, when he brought the chalice to Ember. One hundred gold.
What could Al do with that much money? If he could get Ember’s protection, he could put a down payment on a nicer house. He could woo his wife back. He could put the money away for Marnie’s education.
What he’d probably do, given the opportunity, would be to start his own business. He was only one of three Touch wizards in the whole city, as far as he knew. He could start fresh, bring his clientele with him, and start implementing all the little things he wished he could suggest to his bosses. Maybe he could get an office closer to his home, so that he could rest better.
But, in the end, he knew what he was going to do. The whole ordeal had taught him a few things about himself that he’d never known. Mainly, and most importantly, he was better than this.
He smiled sadly, grabbed a piece of paper, and wrote down two words. He locked his office and handed the paper to Peni along with the key. “Please give this to Mr. Jindahl or Stohr when you see them next.”
“Why, Al? What does it say?”
* * *
As usual, it was twilight when Burdet fumbled with the front door and stumbled in. Al was reading by candlelight, a book he liked but didn’t treasure. It took her a few moments before she saw him.
“Where were you last night?” she slurred.
“Shh,” he said, putting his finger up to his lips. “Marnie is sleeping. I was out, like I said.”
“You said it was only going to be an hour or two. You didn’t get in until past midnight! I knew it! You’re cheating on me.”
“I’m not cheating on you,” he said. “I have never cheated on you. I have been a good husband, despite the fact that you’ve been a terrible wife to me.”
She made to leave for the kitchen when Al said, “Sit.” Stunned by his force, she complied. “We should have spoken a long time before now.”
“I don’t want to speak with you. I have to.”
“What went wrong, Burdet? We loved each other once. We were happy.”
“I’m getting wine,” she said. She went into the kitchen and returned with the full, uncorked bottle of Caudet Al had been saving for a special occasion. It irked him as he watched her take a long draw from it. She was drinking to get more drunk, to loosen her tongue so that she could say the cruelest things to him.
“I was happy…until I wasn’t. One day I realized you weren’t the man I thought you’d be.”
“I thought we had been pretty honest with each other. Who did you think I’d be?”
“Successful,” she spat. “You were the smartest man to come out of Amandorlam in generations. You almost set a record as the youngest. You were bright and passionate and ambitious! And now look at you! You practically beg for scraps, lay down on the ground like a good dog for those stuck-up, snobby women. You’re smart! Why aren’t we rich?”
“That’s all you ever wanted from me? To make you rich?” he asked quietly.
“I deserve better than this,” she said, holding her hand out and almost dropping the bottle of wine. “Any woman deserves better than this. You don’t have the money to buy me things. I’m the poor, pitied girl at work because my husband doesn’t buy me what their husbands do.”
“It must be terrible, having a cup full but not overflowing.”
She threw the bottle against the mantle of the fireplace. “You don’t understand what it’s like!”
“You’re right, I don’t. I don’t know what it’s like to have people pity me. I don’t hear the gossips say, ‘Poor, Al. What a good man he is, taking care of that bastard child his wife cuckolded him with. Tut tut.’”
“I wouldn’t have cheated on you if you had just given me a good life.”
“So, it’s my fault that you broke your vows?” he said, his voice rising. He took a deep breath to calm himself. He had promised himself not to say things out of anger. “I provided for you. I gave you a house, food, clothing. You wanted more, so I said, ‘Get a job, then’. And you resented me for that? Some husbands won’t let their wives leave the home and make their own way in life. They leave them at home to keep house and they deal with what they get. You, however, get your freedom and your extra money and you’ve been spending it not on your child, but on drinking.”
“I don’t love you any more.”
Al was surprised hearing that didn’t hurt nearly as much as he thought it would. He sat up, grabbed a large backpack he had filled with clothes and things he couldn’t bare to part with, and moved towards the door. “I think we’re in agreement there.”
“Where are you going?”
“I stayed to make sure Marnie wasn’t alone.” Then, he said the lie he wished was true. “You know where I’m going, where I always wanted to go. I have passage booked on a ship taking off for Arvonne they day after tomorrow.”
Burdet was dumbfounded, but she wasn’t stupid. She closed the gap between them, placing her hands on his shoulders. It was some farce like the last three years had never happened, that they were young and in love again with their whole lives in front of them. She searched his eyes and smiled. “We…we can make this work out, Al. We can talk. I’ll stop going out at night and you can go out with your friend more often.”
He leaned over and kissed her high on her cheekbone. “It’s done and so am I.”
“No! You can’t leave! How am I supposed to support our daughter?”
“Yourdaughter,” he said, although it hurt him to say it. He was truly going to miss Marnie. “Maybe you should find her father, have him marry you and acknowledge her.”
“Maybe I should!” she shouted so loudly, Al was sure Marnie was going to wake up. “He’s a wizard, you know. He makes so much money he can afford to buy me earrings and rings. See this!” She turned to show him the comb in her hair. “Stalagmite bought me that because he said a man needs to buy his woman pretty things.”
“Stalagmite?” And he didn’t think anything involving this was going to hurt him.
“Yes, his name is Stalagmite. Why, are you going to fight him over me? You’d lose, you know. He’s very strong and…”
“You’re right, I would.” Al took off his wedding band and placed it on the table by the door. “You’re going to need all the help you can get. Sell it,” he said, before closing the door.