“Not too much farther, sir,” Raulin said. “Just one more block.”

“This is good. My feet are tired and I do not wish to walk much more,” Al replied.

“Why are his feet tired?” Raulin asked lowly. “He walks a lot while traveling and he has no ailments.”

“Because…his horse threw a shoe and he had to walk from Hanala to Iascond?” Al sighed. “I don’t know, Raulin. Why do you keep nitpicking at me?”

“Because I’m trying to teach you substantiation. Every lie you tell must be backed up with something plausible, even if that’s also a lie.”

“But then I need to back that up, then back that up, all with lies. It’s exhausting to keep all of it straight.”

“It is. Thankfully, you won’t need to actually explain yourself to people, since most are trusting and believe whatever you say. You will come across a rare person here and there who wants to get to know you or needs the truth. Expect to speak with someone when you say things and you won’t start saying things you can’t prove.” Raulin looked ahead. “Ah, there he is. Now is your debut.”

“Where I don’t…” Al started to say, then saw the glint of the sun on a mask. “I thought you said he was an agent, not a trirec.”

“Our agents are trirecs. We don’t trust anyone outside of the order. Better to wash your hand with your other hand, as they say.”

The meeting place was a very small park of a square with a fountain, several benches, and a few potted flowers. The trirec was sitting in the shade on a bench against a local haberdashery. Raulin slid three fingers of his right hand over three fingers of his left in greeting, which was returned by the agent.

“Here he is, sir,” Raulin said. “Let me just establish things first.”

“Fine,” Al said and gave a gesture of dismissal so offhanded that it impressed Raulin. Al moved a few feet closer to the fountain and pulled out Raulin’s notebook to “read” as a prop, even though it was written in a code.

The agent stood and introduced himself as Curvot Milesh, which translated to “bumbling idiot” in Merakian. Raulin was immediately on alert, knowing how exactly his order gave names to their trirecs. “What was wrong with that bird you drew?”

“Um, he’s dying. Dead, by now, I think, of terrible artistry. It’s a disease that afflicts people in major cities. Raulin Kemor,” he said and gestured to Al, also known as Fiar Auslen.

“Yes, you are,” Curvot said with a sly tone. “That does explain a few things.”

Raulin ignored this. “I ran into this merchant in my travels and he persuaded me to guard him, his wife, and his ledgerer for the next eleven months. They will be traveling north, though it will be some time before we reach the office in New Wextif. I thought it best to contact someone quickly to settle this.”

Curvot reached to the side of the bench and pulled up a briefcase, which contained paperwork and a cartridged pen. “Fee?” he asked, sitting again.

“Sixty gold.”

“For eleven months of guarding three people?” he asked, looking up.

“I’ve…never guarded before. Is that too much?”

“Too little. Far too little. You could get half that per month.”

Raulin sighed dramatically. “I should have negotiated better. I will make up any losses to Arvarikor.”

“I’m sure it’s not too bad of a loss. What made you decide to agree?”

“Their planned route is similar to the one I’ll be taking and any differences aren’t an issue to them. It seemed like wasting money if I didn’t take their contract.”

Curvot filled in some of the lines on the sheet. “Are you maxed for contracts already?”

“No,” he said. He hoped that Isken would receive the paperwork and would neglect to inform the trivrens in Hanala that he was over by one.

“Excellent. Could you ask your employer to come over to answer some questions?”

“Yes?” Al asked after Raulin brought him over.

“I need to know your name, occupation, and the names of everyone else in your party.”

Al wisely chose to keep Telbarisk’s name the same, but Anladet became Mayasena Auslen. “I am a merchant of rare collectibles, trinkets, and jewelry. We’ve been robbed once this year already and have decided it’s worthwhile to hire a trirec.”

“Collectibles? So you must know Ouvid who runs the antique shop over there?” Curvot pointed to a little place with large windows and a dazzling display of items in them.

Raulin did his best to make eye contact with Al and shake his head very slowly. “Oh, no,” Al said after a pause. “I’m not from here.”

“Really? You sound like you’re a Ghenian.”

A few moments passed as Curvot filled in the paperwork. “That’s because he’s from Aviz,” Raulin said. “I believe that’s what you said, sir.”

“Yes,” Al said carefully. “It’s just too darn hot to be traveling all over the west coast!”

“So instead of moving north to Winstad or Breachil, you chose to move out here?”

Al sighed and slumped his shoulders in defeat. For one moment Raulin thought he was going to give up and admit the truth. He was ready to punch him in the teeth to stop that from happening when he heard Al say, “I lost too much money to a competitor, Montrime Verald, and couldn’t get a foothold back in the market. What can I say? No man likes to admit that he’s been defeated, but he won and I’m here, testing my luck in the east.”

Curvot looked up briefly, nodded, and went back to writing. “I’m sorry to hear that. Hopefully your prospects will be better here. I need you to sign and pay.”

Al paid the fee and took his time writing out ‘Fiar Auslen’ on the paper on the back of the briefcase. “Things are already looking better. My wife and I found a lost jewel for the Duke of Sharka and he rewarded us handsomely. Then we discovered our ledgerer, who is has been a great addition.”

The trirec stood. “Excellent to hear. Arvarikor hopes Raulin Kemor will make a good guard for you and your people and hopes you will consider us again once your contract is completed.” He turned to Raulin. “Was there anything else?”

“A small exchange,” he said, pulling out the pouch on his belt. “Twenty should cover things until New Wextif.”

He gave Curvot two yellow beads, who in turn pulled the money from a pouch in the lining of the briefcase. Raulin repeated the three-fingered gesture and left the square with Al.

“He seemed quite short and tanned compared to you. Kriskin malor, why was he so nosy?” he asked.

“He was making conversation with you, but happened to ask questions that you hadn’t thought of already. That’s why I recommended working on Auslen before meeting with the agent. By the way, you did excellent. I’m quite impressed.”

“You are?” Al said, a pleased smile crossing his face.

“Yes. Where did you come up with that bit about your competitor?”

Al laughed. “That’s actually the plot of the Kiesh the Black story I was reading in Ammet Bronsto.”

“And Anla’s new name? You decided she was Kintanese?”

“She could pass as one. Her skin is too light to be Br’vani, though I could have explained that she was half-Arvonnese, like she actually is. I’m not sure about her name. I remember hearing it once and liking it, but I don’t remember where.”

“It’s the name of the queen of Kinto.”

“Oh.” He dwelled on this for a moment. “Oh, is that bad then? Is it like in Arvonne where no one names their children after the monarchies?”

“No, but it is a rarer name. I think you’ll be fine, just call her ‘Maya’. Most people won’t bother to ask what her full name is. Also, work on your signature. As a collector, you will have signed your name many times. After a while you get tired and it gets sloppier.”

“I can do that while we work on your theft contract.”

“’We’?” Raulin said, stopping. “Why all of a sudden are you on board with my work?”

“I’m not. Mr. Auslen is, however. He knows that sometimes you have to crease palms and build pills, and sometimes you need to filch things outright. So, if you need his help to set up a theft, then he’s your man.”

Raulin refrained from correcting him on his idioms, but unfortunately had to burst his bubble on the rest. “I have to work alone, Wizard. It’s part of our code. I can’t risk someone finding out you helped me.”

“You told me to work on Mr. Auslen and I did,” he said with some force. “Now you’re telling me that I can’t be who he is. There has to be something I can do other than sit in our hotel room and read!”

“Okay,” Raulin said, gesturing for his notebook. “My first contract in Iascond is to steal a book.”

“A book. Any book?”

“No, a particular book.”

“Like a rare or collectible book?”

“Likely so. I know where you’re going to go with this- no. You’re not ready yet. Besides the fact that you’ll call unneeded attention to yourself in a place that we’ll be in for a week, a place not far enough away from Carvek for my own liking.”

“Then what was the point of me creating Mr. Auslen then? I’ve done all this work for nothing!”

“Wizard,” Raulin began, “you didn’t do it for nothing. It’s the foundation for how you will need to act for the next year, minus a few suns. You still need to work on it and perfect it before I’m willing to let you loose on a city.”

“So I’m supposed to sit in my hotel room and perfect for the next week.”

“I’m not jailing you; you’re free to go wherever you please. I just need you not with me when I fulfill my contracts. Anla and Tel, too; none of you are allowed to help.”

Al looked so bitter and miserable during their walk back to the hotel that Raulin reconsidered. He wouldn’t just let him help, no, no. That would be disastrous. But, there were other ways he could make Al feel important. And so, while he did the first leg of his work that evening, he made a few little side trips on behalf of their new relationship.

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