1-8

Alpine sat again and gave Ember several minutes to think. She looked conflicted, even biting her painted lips and smearing makeup on her teeth. Finally, she sighed and looked at him with resignation.

“You know of Berlont’s shop, just down the alley in the back?”

“The antique and artifact shop? Yes.”

“We will be squared away if you retrieve something from there instead.”

“Retrieve?” he said, cocking an eyebrow. “That’s an interesting way to say you want me to steal it.”

Ember folded her hands and placed them on top of the desk. “When I say ‘retrieve’ I do mean ‘retrieve’. I come from a respectable family. We’re part of the nobility, if you can believe that. Nothing as high as a duke, but many barons and viscounts, maybe even an earl or two.”

“Yes, I’m quite sure the Sierras are grand,” Al said.

“You know I’m not talking about the Sierras.”

He tensed. “Now, hold on. You get in my face about not using my full first name, about not registering as a switcher, and here you are talking about your old family like you belonged to them. You’re a Sierra and only a Sierra. We wipe our slates clean when we take our new names. No old familial ties, that’s the rule.”

“You actually followed that?” Ember said, genuinely surprised. “No one really follows that rule, Alpine. People place their talented offspring into Amandorlam to become wizards so that their family may become prestigious by their talents. I’m sure you knew quite a few students in your class who were of noble blood. Do you think they were really going to drop their titles to become a wizard?”

“I did,” Al said, quietly. “I moved from Quisset to Eerie. I haven’t talked to my family since I left for school.”

“That’s very sad, Alpine,” she said, reaching out an arm and looking deeply into his eyes. He thought she might be genuinely sorry for him, for a brief moment. “Perhaps you stick to the rules given a tad too much.  Some aren’t all that important to follow.  I never once thought I was going to turn my back on those who raised me for some fatuous order that makes no sense.  Why must we wipe out our history?”

“You took the same oath I did, Ember.  We pledge our loyalty to the king, who in turn lets us learn our scholarship without fear of any noble family or common group rising up against the monarchy.”

She waved her hand in impatience.  “Yes, yes, I understand all that.  I’m not saying it’s a poor oath to take.  We need the stability the king brings and he is, actually, a good ruler, and so on and so on.  What I’m doing, what my family is doing, doesn’t undermine his authority in any way.  We just want our lost heirlooms returned to the rightful owners.

“Why don’t you hire someone, then? Pay a trirec if you’re so desperate. ”

“Mmm, I said we were noble, not rich. They’re not always the same thing. Trirecs aren’t cheap from the research we’ve done. Besides, I’ve made some strong inquisitions into buying the item back. Berlont knows who I am and why I’m so interested. If anyone steals the item, it will be traced back to either me or my family.”

“But, I’m connected to you,” Al said.

“You work in the same building.  I wouldn’t say we’re connected very strongly.  And many don’t know that Jindahl and Stohr and Milxner’s are run by the same people.  I suppose one of my crew could mention to someone that you and I have had a few meetings recently.  And despite your lack of experience in thievery, they might follow up on their suspicions.  You,” she said, pointing at him, “don’t breath a word to anyone about our agreement.  I will honor my side, so long as you honor yours.”

Al had always heard that reciprocal blackmail was ironclad, tighter than any contract signed.  “All right.”

“Good,” she said, finally pleased. “First things first, I’m putting a time limit on this. I don’t want you stretching this out in order to stalemate me. You have two weeks.”

His mouth popped open. “That’s not enough time! I’d have to scope things out, plan things, figure out how to do it without getting caught…”

“It’s probably not enough, but I have faith in you. I figure there must be some intelligence to a man who graduated a Gray even though he should have been a Sierra.”

“You know that?”

“Yes. How did you do it?” she said, folding her arms on the desk and leaning forward. “I heard you even started school early.”

“I was admitted a year early, when I was fifteen. I studied hard, Ember. There’s no big secret to it.”

“How many classes did you fail?”

“None.”

Ember raised her eyebrows. “Some of those classes are designed to be failed. And it’s incredibly stressful. Hmm.  Yes, I suppose if you didn’t fail anything, absolutely nothing, you could finish school in seven years instead of ten. It’s quite impressive.”

Al shrugged as if he didn’t care, but he secretly enjoyed the praise. It was the only pride he’d had in his career, from the moment he stepped into Amandorlam to where he was at that moment. He’d ignored the normal distractions that caused many students to fail classes. He’d had a few acquaintances he studied with, but he had found most of his classmates stupid for wasting their schooling. Alpine attended school six days a week and studied for seven. Everyone else skipped classes, failed to turn in assignments on time, or didn’t bother studying. They failed the classes that Al passed with high marks. In fact, Al had set records for attendance, overall completion, and grades. One of the best students to pass through those hallowed halls.

And now here he was, the shining luminary of Amadorlam, eking out an existence as a touch wizard. “What would you like me to steal?” he asked.

I would like you to retrieve a chalice. It is about a hand and a half high with four indentations on the outside of the bowl, towards the bottom. Slightly above and in between the indentations are four stones in a trillion cut. The stem is ornate, easily felt, and the gilding on it travels down to the base.”

Al waited for more. When she said nothing, he asked. “What metal is it made out of? What color are the stones? What pattern is the gilding?”

“It doesn’t matter.”

“Why not?”

“Because it is invisible.”

Al slouched back in his seat. Was she having a lark? She wasn’t smiling, not even smirking. “I can’t steal an invisible cup, Ember. I’d have no idea where he’d keep it or if I got the right one. ”

“That I can help you with.” Ember opened a drawer in her desk and withdrew a crude map. “The shop has a simple layout. Two rows of cases and shelves behind those against the walls. If you walk down the middle aisle, you’ll reach a counter,” she said, tapping on the point. “Behind that, to the left, is his desk. It faces the window. On the wall above that is a shelf with his most prized possessions. There is a small, alabaster statue of the goddess Aliorna, said to be commissioned by Ap Jorsen himself. There is a priceless inkwell from the Alscaine family collection, silver with ornamentation. There is a contraption I think is a miniature astrolabe or sextant. And, amongst those objects, is a space where the chalice resides.”

“Anything else you can help me out with?”

“I’d advise you don’t touch anything other than the chalice. I have no idea if Berlont paid to have any spells worked on any of his items. Knowing his reputation, I’d say he has. Other than that, I haven’t been able to find anything that would help me procure my heirloom.”

That’s it, then? That’s all I have to work with?” Alpine sighed deeply. “Two weeks, huh? It will take a miracle.”

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