Raulin had always enjoyed bargaining in markets.  He took delight in talking a merchant down a few silvers, feeling he got the best of the deal. The seller would lament that he’d be put out of business if Raulin bought any more pomelos ,Raulin assured him that he didn’t have anyone else he knew that loved their taste as much as he did, and they’d shake hands.  That was the whole game, of course; a fine dance of words over merchandise that left both parties feeling well enough at the end.

Neshihon stripped any and all joy out of it. She was ruthless and barely understood the value of any item, making her feel like she was always being cheated. Her position was also disadvantageous against the merchants, which made the dealings between the two more like a chore for Raulin. Since he had refused to help her carry anything to her boat, she also needed someone to deliver her goods to the dock as well as to stock everything in barrels or sealed crates, which barely anyone had.

Raulin had only the best intentions for Neshihon when he began scouring the stalls at the open-air market. After seven tries, he began to cut to the chase early. He began by asking if they delivered, then if they had barrels. Those that passed those initial tests, usually suspicious by that point, were rewarded with two words Raulin would murmur out the side of his mouth: ‘start high’.

They found six stalls out of about seventy that met the requirements. Every time, Neshihon would butt in between Raulin and the merchant after a few exchanges and aggressively whittle down the merchant with angry gestures until she was satisfied. It was more like flaying than negotiating, in his esteem, and he was mentally exhausted after an hour.

When all was said and done, Neshihon had spent every but a gold and three silver on barrels of river eels, seasoned cod and halibut, beer, peas, salted venison, dried apples, citrus, and several kinds of spices. She might have scored more but Raulin had put his foot down when she had balked at tipping the delivery men.  He considered giving them more money after they had dealt with her.

“You have some money left, but not enough to buy another barrel. Would you like to buy anything else? Maybe give a little bit to your favorite trirec for all his hard work?”

“I want those cookies from earlier.”

He sighed. “Okay, let’s see if we can find a vendor to sell them.”

They wandered around for a long while until he found a patisserie kitty corner from the market. They had a spare crate that the owner filled with as many of the iced sugar cookies they had already baked, then added a few other assorted pastries to make up the cost. Neshihon didn’t bother to argue at the price and hugged the crate close to her chest.

Lastly, they collected all the delivery men and led them to Neshihon’s craft. She deftly lashed the barrels to the back of her raft, tying the rope in a net around the barrel in just a few minutes. Raulin stayed to make sure everything was delivered. No one cheated the to’ken and he said his goodbyes to her in a long speech, ended with a sincere and heart-felt thanks. Neshihon looked up once, waved, then ignored him.

Raulin didn’t run, but definitely did hustle back to the headquarters. The door slid open shortly after he wrang the bell and the gate was opened as quickly as possible. As soon as the door closed, he whipped off his mask and rubbed his face, sighing deeply.

The trivren, now maskless himself, smiled as he stood from his respite in the garden. “Now, we do have some business to attend to. I suggest you make yourself comfortable and find me later.”

“Thank you, master,” he said, grasping his wrists in a sign of deference.

The layout of the headquarters was similar to the ones he had been to in Noh Amair, so that he didn’t need to wander around to find what he needed. Most of the southern part of the grounds, behind the window where Isken had stood, were a courtyard for practicing exercises, the ground bald of grass in neat rows. The middle area had a building for administration and housing the trivren, and the most northern of all for utilities and smaller quarters for the regular trirecs. He headed there to gather fresh clothing and draw a bath, requesting one of the servants to bring him a hot meal.

He loved running water. Plumbing was a fairly new invention that had been keeping the miners and plumbers in high demand. Most home owners couldn’t afford the daily cost or to repair the damage it would do to their houses, but many public places were finding it worth the cost. The home of trirecs, Arvarikor, wouldn’t have it for quite some time since Merak was always a few decades behind. In places where it was easier to draw the pipes to a water source, like Hanala, they splurged.

It was too warm outside for a hot bath. A tepid one that was immediately available sounded heavenly. While he soaked, Raulin began to retrain his thoughts. Being behind the walls of the compound meant subservience, devotion, and the lies that went with them. Arvarikor wasn’t anywhere near as bad as many other institutions were when it came to training their students. They had rules, of course, but preferred to let there be a thousand paths to the same end. Part of the philosophy of Arvarikor was to let the trirec use their strengths, not fit into an unattainable mold. Raulin, for example, was what they considered ‘chatty’. Instead of forcing him into silence, they suggested using his mind to craft lies. He excelled. And he had turned it around on them.

Like his patriotic friend on the to’ken raft village, Raulin Kemor was a man without a past and without a future. Arvarikor didn’t mind about the future part, so long as you understood it was with them, but his past was supposed to be a blank. His devotion wasn’t to his family, but to them. It was one of the few demands in his training that he forget his former life.

He hadn’t, of course. There was no way to take a child of ten and expect him to forget his parents, his siblings, his home. Orphans after the age of four were rarely accepted by Arvarikor for just that reason. Raulin was a good example of why that rule shouldn’t be broken and he was reminded of it every time he engaged with other trirecs. He had to play the game of the dutiful and respectful trirec, happy to be a part of the organization and not full of the thoughts he had when he was marooned.

Raulin shaved his beard, then changed into the outfit he had taken: a pair of loose fitting trousers that reached his mid-calves and a wrap shirt that belted close, hitting the top of his thighs and exposing most of his forearms. It had once been dyed black but was now a worn, dark gray. He didn’t bother with the slippers and walked barefoot across the grounds.

He clutched his pouch of beads in one hand and made his way to the center building. Curvorn, the trivren from earlier, was speaking to another elder when he noticed Raulin. “Kemor, are you all set for your tribunal?”

“Tribunal?” he asked, his stomach seizing. “I wasn’t aware I was having one. Shall I change into something more formal?”

“I don’t think it will be necessary. There isn’t anything to be worried about.”

He was led into a casual meeting room. It wasn’t the judicial room and it helped him to relax slightly. He was sat opposite six trivren.  Each looked similar, of dark eyes, reddish-brown skin, and long hair pulled into braids.  Two were engaged in an easy conversation before Curvorn spoke. “Raulin Kemor, your mask bounty was collected today. From my understanding, the organization has only seen this happen to a live trirec a handful of times. I have to ask, why did you not promise the to’ken a reward instead?”

“It was a rash decision,” he said. “Having just survived a shipwreck, I knew she wouldn’t believe me when I said I could pay her. I had lost everything but my mask, my clothes, and these,” he said, opening the palm containing his pouch. “I needed something that was more ironclad, something she possibly may have heard of before.”

“I see. That was rational. Unfortunately, we cannot allow this way of thinking to circulate amongst our ranks. It would set a bad precedent, both in the public and in our organization. I would hate to think of people trying to kidnap trirecs in order to get the bounty. Trirecs who do poorly in their duties might think it a wise idea to find someone to collaborate with and split the reward.”

Raulin began to protest, but bit his tongue. There’s no way anyone trained would do that, he wanted to say, but he couldn’t guarantee that definitively. In Merak, where Arvarikor was not just the name of the organization but the compound where they were trained, trirecs were so common that they often battled for contracts. They were like rabid dogs, fighting for scraps of meat. Who could say what desperation would make a man do?

“Therefore, we have decided to tack on the unmasking punishment as well.”

Raulin inhaled sharply. No, they wouldn’t…

“Of course, we can see that you didn’t unmask. Your neck is red and blistered whereas your face is still pale in color. You will swear to us that you weren’t unmasked in front of anyone?”

“I swear it,” he said quickly. “I wore my mask from Vakisol, on the ship Spirowan until it was sunk in the Gamik Sea. I wore it when the to’ken found me, when I was aboard the village Onshalitha, and when I sailed the rest of the way with Neshihon on her raft. At no point did anyone see my face.”

They muttered amongst themselves quickly, nodding and turning back. “We believe you,” Curvorn said. “Which is why we will forgo the actual punishment. Your records will show you were accused and found guilty, but not whipped.”

Raulin’s shoulders slumped in relief. “Thank you.”

“We do feel that you should go through the re-training, as a formality. We can proceed if you are ready.”

He squared his shoulders and set his hands by his sides. “I am.”

They delivered a grueling series of questions that lasted more than an hour. Did he serve Arvarikor and all it withheld? Yes, he said, over again and in many different ways. He believed in their ideal path, he would execute his job to the best of his ability all while remaining true to the trirec organization. He was still hungry and thirsty from the day, but he tolerated it knowing what the alternative was. He would have been forced to turn around and arrive back in Noh Amair, to journey weeks to Merak, for training that would last months. He would have to prove he knew everything all over again, then pass all the trials.

That would be, if he passed the first part. Unmasking was the worst offense a trirec could make. It was seen as the ultimate insult against every fellow trirec, risking their lives by what was seen as defecting. To balance the ledger, one would have to take a lash for every trirec in the lands. It was tantamount to a death sentence. Raulin had never seen or heard of a man attend Arvarikor for retraining.

While he answered the questions, he knew this was the best they could do for him. It was already far too lenient. Raulin was sure people would whisper here and in Merak. “Ah, see, they bend the rules, but only for Raulin Kemor.”

It wasn’t because he wasn’t often in predicaments like this. No, it was due to his value. Raulin had paid for his mask in record time, three years to most trirec’s six. In those eight years since, he had managed to bring quite a revenue to the organization. Those same trirecs that fought for tooth and nail for jobs in Merak would find things much different if they only took the time to explore outside the continent. Some did find work in the Noh Amairian nations that bordered Merak, but many never strayed beyond those.

Raulin did. He was able to saunter in to any western country and pick the nicest jobs with the fattest rewards. In Arouk, an assassination cost five times what it would in Merak. In Gheny? The arrangements smelled strongly of desperation. He knew the Ghenian offices sat on dozens of lucrative contracts. They took half of the final cost of those plump commitments, so it was in their best interests to keep him alive.

“Satisfied?” Curvorn said after almost two hours. The rest of the trivren nodded. “Then I believe we’re finished. Congratulations, Raulin Kemor. That was the fastest retraining ever managed.”

“Thank you, masters,” he said, bowing his neck. He almost smirked, but it wouldn’t do well to mock the proceedings, even though they were a bit of a farce.

The trivern filed out, leaving just the two of them. “I wished to ask you a few more questions about your travels.”

“Whatever you wish, master.”

“I suppose it’s too much to hope that you were either unburdened or you somehow managed to keep any records dry.”

He had forgotten about that. “Master, I am sorry. I was carrying records across the sea from our offices in Arouk, but I lost them with everything else.”

“I had figured, but thought I should ask, just in case. Of course, you understand we can’t pay you the courier fee?”

“Yes, master. I wouldn’t expect it.”

“I suppose your coffers will be low, then, when you are finished replenishing everything you’ve lost.”

He hadn’t expected they would grant him any help there, either. “As I said earlier, I expect it to be an expensive day for me.”

“I’m sorry to hear that. I suppose you’ll be taking quite a few contracts then?”

Always the greed disguised as concern. “Yes, master. I expect I’ll take a full docket.”

“Excellent,” Curvorn said, clapping his hands together. “We can begin tomorrow.”

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