Anla returned from her evening pleased with her haul. Over the last few days she had managed to make four and a half gold, two roses, and a lemon pastry doing her piscarin séance work. The flowers were in a cup on the dresser in her room and had been given by a man who returned after his reading with those as a tip.

She had begun to amass a small crowd of onlookers who waited for her in Thistle Park. They had pointed to her that morning, four people standing near the bench she used, and began to excitedly speak. They watched as passersby  would stop in curiosity and have a session with Dumiha. She had never had such a crowd with this work, nor such a positive response, and wondered if Iascond had any piscarins or if she was a novelty to them.

Despite the sudden fame, she still changed out of her clothes and washed as much makeup off her face before she reentered Browson Hall. The girls that lived there as well as the mistress that ran the dormitory seemed like judgmental people and she really didn’t want that attention.

In fact, she did what she could to avoid the gaggles of tittering and eye rolls. She kept her head down, said nothing, and kept to her room. It took a few “Miss!”s from the desk clerk before she bothered to look up and realize she was looking right at her.

“Miss Auchindol?” she asked. When Anla nodded, she handed her two letters.

“Thank you,” she said, surprised that the second had arrived so quickly. She checked and indeed it was from Isky and had all the instructions she had requested he put on the outside, in case they needed to leave in a hurry. The letter must have traveled at breakneck pace and with a lot of luck to get back so quickly.

Anla removed her shoes outside her door, as requested by the mistress, and sat on her bed. The first letter was as expected: a long paragraph in Al’s hand that sounded like he was “spouting Tichen”, as Raulin put it, with the word “tomorrow” underlined. Good. She had wanted to get some better food to Tel tonight and have a little feast.

The second she opened carefully, gently breaking the unmarked blob of wax and unfolding the letter and smoothing it out on the bed. She scanned it quickly, butterflies in her stomach, then breathed out a sigh of relief. Raulin would be pleased to know that a priestess in the Queyellan temple did undergo a rather severe punishment, but survived almost miraculously. Though no one knew what she had done, it had been the talk of Hanala for a solid week.

She didn’t stay in her room long, instead spending the next hour shopping in the nearby market and surrounding stores. It was a well-spent half a gold worth of food, vegetables, fruits, high-end cheeses, bread, crackers, and a few desserts. The accomplishment brought a spring to her step.

Anla passed the house that had a bar, windows still lit, and knew she was close. Weeds and vines obscured the path leading to the cemetery, making it hard to distinguish where to turn. The bar was the mark for her to pay attention and find the familiar tree with the low, crooked branch just past the entrance. She could barely see even that and stepped lightly to make her way to Tel’s campfire.

“Anla!” Tel said, standing in a cloud of ash. “I have a story to tell you!”

“A good story, I hope? You can tell me over the delicious dinner I got you.”

“I don’t know if it was good, but it was certainly exciting.”

A group of men, likely spurred by rumors of some frightening creature near their cemetery, had snuck up on Tel with shovels and hoes. He had been so startled that he had accidentally greeted them in Grivfia, an “oo-eet” sort of noise, and approached them. They had screamed and ran away.

“I’m not sure why,” he said. “Perhaps they were upset that I didn’t speak Ghenian to them.”

Anla was crying from laughing so hard. She took a few gulps of air and calmed herself enough to explain. “I told you that you looked ghastly in all that ash. They must have taken one look at you and thought you were a ghost! They make a sort of ‘oooh’ sounds, like the wind howling in winter, and when you said something like that to them, they spooked and ran off.”

“I feel badly. I did not want to scare them.”

“It’s okay, Tel. The town will at least leave you alone for tonight and tomorrow. I got the letter from the boys that Raulin is trying tomorrow, so it’s only a little while longer.”

“I enjoy being in the forest, but I don’t like being lonely.”

“Neither do I. I’d rather be here with you at night than in Iascond.”

They ate a third of the food each, saving a portion for tomorrow’s lonely meal for Telbarisk. He enjoyed every crumb and thanked her for the gift.

“Oh!” she said. “I forgot to mention that Raulin’s priestess is still alive! I got a letter back from some friends in Hanala.”

Tel sighed. “This is good news. He seemed very angry with himself over that. We will tell him tomorrow.”

“Likely the day after. I don’t think we’ll see him tomorrow.”

They ate their pastries in silence for a few minutes, then Anla asked a question she had been meaning to ask Tel for a while. “What do you know of Raulin?”

“I know a lot and very little,” he said. “He is the type of man to paint a beautiful picture in exquisite detail, but never tell you where he learned his craft.”

“He didn’t speak of Arvarikor?”

“I mean further back than that. He gave off-handed pieces about life in Merak, but they were stale and dry, as if he had nothing to give to that place. I felt as though he hated it as well as suffered in his love for it.”

“What do you mean?”

“Arvarikor was the place he was raised after everything was taken from him. It filled the void with discipline and duty and sacrifice. It’s not a place to look back fondly at, but it’s all he has of childhood and coming into his own.”

“I see,” she said. “Did you know he watched after you? He said he guarded you, afraid that your brother would try something He told us this when you were sick.”

“No, but I see it now. I believe he and I are friends because we enjoy each others company, but I think partly we both found in each other something that was missing. He is a brother who watches over me and I am someone who loves him unconditionally.”

“He’s a man in pain, then?”

“Constantly. He does his best to live with it, but I can tell when something bothers him. I don’t know if he knows that, though.” Tel gave a low chuckle. “He likes to think he’s great at pretending he’s other people, but when he’s pretending to be Raulin, I can tell his mistakes.”

“Pretending to be Raulin?”

“He wasn’t always Raulin Kemor. He was a different person before his family died and that boy will claw his way to the surface occasionally. We were back home, in Nourabrikot, when I first saw a glimmer of him. We were walking in the woods and he sat on a large boulder that was split from some slow catastrophe. We chatted about things and we got on the subject of the other trirecs. I asked him what it was like for him and why he was so different from the others, so warm and open and friendly. There was a crack in him and he told me that he had never fit in and never would, so he didn’t try. I don’t think it was because he was so lighter or taller than them; it was more than physical. I think those years he spent training were more lonely than any person has ever had to endure. He had been awash in a sea of difference, a light in the darkness, a leaf hanging on to a long dead tree.”

“I pity him, but he’s not the type of man who wants that, is he?” she asked.

“That’s smart to notice that. He doesn’t get angry quickly like some men, but I think that would set off his temper.”

“Thank you, Tel. I appreciate your insight.”

She laid awake that night repeating snippets of the conversation until she realized something Tel had said. Anla slowly inhaled and nodded her head. He was different. Very different. And that was both exciting and terrifying in its implications.

* * *

Raulin had decided that it was worth the risk of discovery and had tailed the entrepreneur the next night. Lacront had left his store at six precisely and met with some friends at a local restaurant. His valet had accompanied him, holding his hat and umbrella as well as the bottle of wine he would give as a gift for the meal.

The sun was just setting when he left the restaurant. He gave sharp orders to his valet, who somehow managed to look collected while holding several items and writing while walking. Still unmasked, Raulin now took his time following the two of them, keeping tabs only to make sure they weren’t going elsewhere.

His house was lit for his arrival and that should have made him think twice about his job that evening. He didn’t even question who had lit the lamps. The valet had been at the restaurant while Lacront ate, helping to serve him, and hadn’t left her employer’s side since the end of the work day.

The lights in the house were extinguished floor by floor, starting with the top. It was difficult without the moon or the stars in the sky to determine how long he stood in the dark alley, but he figured it was close to a half hour. He put on his mask and gloves and crossed the street.

He ditched his knapsack in the bushes near the door and got to work. The lock to the door took him longer than he would admit, should anyone ask, but he picked it quietly. That had been the important part. The carved door was well-greased and opened quietly. He opened it just enough to peek in and be sure that the valet’s quarters were either dark or closed off.

He closed the door behind him and walked quietly to the stairs, keeping to the plush carpets. The stairs were wooden, so he kept to the edges and rolled the balls of his feet to his toes. There wasn’t so much as a hint of a creak.

The stairs to the next level were on the same axis. He paused, making sure he heard no one stirring, and was about to turn when he froze. It was instinct that was calling him to pause, to listen, to try once more to figure out what was happening that night.

Nothing. He turned, then a lightning strike of white blinded his vision. His body snapped backwards of its own accord as he felt the breeze of a thrown knife pass by his chest. He froze for one second before running to take cover behind a wine rack against the right wall.

“I was hoping it was going to be easy,” he heard someone say in Merakian.

And then he remembered what Isken had said. One of the contracts you’re taking is poisoned…be careful. Isken had known that one of the contracts Raulin was taking was already being guarded by another trirec.  There had been nothing his friend could do but warn him.  And he had forgotten his warning until now.

It was unfortunate.  A guard’s life was tied with his contractee’s.  Raulin had to kill the contractee, which meant the guard had to kill Raulin in order to protect his employer.  A trirec would die tonight, and Raulin would do everything he could to make sure it wasn’t him.

Right now he was hidden.  The other trirec wanted him to speak so that Raulin would give away his position. He maintained his silence. The guard had almost all the advantages in this set-up and Raulin wasn’t about to give him the last one. Still, the trirec tried again. “I do hate to take your life, but it is my job. It’s nothing personal.  You know how this needs to end.”

Raulin wondered if he could make it up half the flight before the trirec realized it, but knew it was the obvious next move. The voice was closer. “We should begin before my employer and his servant wake up. I’d prefer to follow the code and not involve the miartha.  How about you?”

At least the other man was honorable. Both would do their best to settle this between the two of them, fairly and within the code. Of course, if the trirec could lodge the other throwing knife in his throat before they engaged in hand-to-hand combat, that would also be honorable and within the rules.

Raulin felt a scarf hanging from a coat-rack, balled it up, and threw it towards the stairs. A moment later he heard a dull thud as a knife lodged into the stairs.

“Nice move.  I have no more knives and I speak honestly. If you would like to fight face-to-face, I’m here waiting.”

And so he was. Raulin’s mask allowed him to view the parlor well enough to see the man standing in a guarded position, facing the stairwell. He rose, waiting to see if he was being honest, then pulled out his set of fighting knives.

“Good. Now we may begin,” the guard said and Raulin froze.  That voice.  It had connected with some memory that had slipped away.  It was so familiar, but he couldn’t place who it was.  He had heard its rich timbre, deep for a Merakian, before.  He had heard it laugh, heard it bark orders crisply and without malice, had even heard it sing songs from his homeland in a rare gesture of sympathy.

“I wish it didn’t have to be this way,” Raulin offered cautiously, hoping to draw the answer.

“Likewise, but that is life: cruel, unfair…”

“…And blessedly short,” Raulin choked. Not him. Not him.

“Raulin?” the man asked.

“Afren?” Raulin asked, knowing full well that he had guessed correctly.  It was the voice of the man who had taught him that who Raulin was wasn’t a curse, but a gift and that he was full of ways to beat the odds.  The man who had been his favorite mentor.

The man whom he thought of as his second father.

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