The two men stood facing one another. A minute passed, then two. Finally, Afren spoke. “They are cruel,” he spat.
“No,” Raulin sighed. “It’s my fault. I was forced to take this contract because I’ve gotten away with too much over the years.”
“I’ve said it before: stop blaming yourself for things that are outside of your control.”
“It’s all I know how to do.” In his head he meant to say it with a humorous tone, but it came out as a whisper.
“This is just another thing,” Afren said, ignoring his comment. “We have no choice but to settle this.”
“There is no way out that will keep us both alive, is there?”
Afren sighed. “I’ve considered this possibility since I took this job. I haven’t thought of one, at least not one that doesn’t involve running from Arvarikor for the rest of my short life.”
“Aviz is nice. It’s on the west coast of Gheny. There is almost no trirec presence there.”
“And therefore no work for me. I have nothing to fall back on, unlike you. You have a choice. You can always go home…”
“I will not!” he snarled.
“Careful, you wouldn’t want me to vex you into a mistake.”
Raulin breathed in deeply. “What do we do?”
“What we have to do,” he said, taking a defensive stance, which Raulin snapped into as well.
They circled each other for some time, neither finding any weaknesses nor interested in feinting attacks to draw one out. Raulin was amused to realize he was in the opposite situation from the fight he had been in two weeks ago; he had the reach and the virility of youth, but Afren had the experience and talent. They both knew the same stances and techniques, but Afren had fought enough times to know what worked and what didn’t.
“Who was it?” Afren asked.
“That forced me into the contract? No one. I chose it, but only because I had to take at least a few assassinations. I’ve decided to pull away from that line as much as possible, but Stavro insisted I take more than four.”
Afren flipped his knives a few times. “Pulling away? Why?”
“I was shipwrecked transferring to Gheny. I made a promise to kill less while I was hoping to be rescued.”
“The goddess of the seas, Queyella.”
“Oh, hmm. Yes, I suppose if you’re here that must mean something. So you tried to take less assassinations, but Stavro stepped in and forced you to take more? I’m not surprised. He would have made you take this one if you hadn’t already. I bet he thought this was a win-win situation for him.”
“He doesn’t like me because I get special treatment. Why doesn’t he like you?”
Raulin pulled back as Afren swiped his knife across his chest. It wasn’t a serious attack; Afren didn’t follow up with anything nor did he turn it to his advantage. He was testing his pupil’s defenses only. “I’m more successful than he was in his prime. He was a trivren when he was three years younger than I am now and he hobbled his way to that point. He’s easy enough to understand; he doesn’t want any luminaries in his home. You and I shine too brightly.”
“Shall we make a pact, then? Survivor smothers the old man in his sleep.”
“That’s a deal. I think it would be worth the risk.”
Raulin almost tripped when he bumped into a coffee table. He sucked in a breath to stop from hissing in pain. Afren didn’t take advantage of the mistake even though Raulin was sure he noticed.
“So, how have you been? I haven’t heard from you since Kitstuar.”
“That’s not our official story,” Raulin said with a laugh.
“Right, but I don’t see anyone here who would punish us.”
Raulin lunged deep to the right and managed to slide his knife along his teacher’s arong-miil. He didn’t slice into the material, but it made him look down for a moment. “Nothing new, except the location. I have a full docket and another guard job as well. This is my third.”
“Hmm. How did you land a guard job? They only give those out to men past their prime, but still spry enough to stave off retirement.”
Afren lunged in quickly, stabbing at Raulin’s chest. He rolled to the side and pulled his mentor’s arm forward to the right, ghosting his knife along Afren’s neck. Afren panted for a few moments. “There’s something you’re not telling me.”
Raulin retook his position while Afren recovered. Now would be the best time for him to press the attack, but the conversation had just started getting interesting. “The miarthan gods have artifacts that are powerful. One is a chalice that makes a blood bond to another person should you drink from it. I mistakenly did that and have been chained to three others for the next year. The guard position is a cover, should anyone ask questions.”
His mentor could always broadcast his emotions through subtle movements. Here he paused completely, then slowly turned his arms out in consideration of what Raulin had just said. “This is very dangerous, for you especially.”
“You are far too trusting. You can’t tell them about us and you can’t tell them about you. That is a lot of silence you crave to fill.”
“Who are your new companions?”
“One is a grivven, a man I met years ago when Arvarikor sent me to Ervaskin. Another is a half-elven woman from Ashven. The third is a Ghenian wizard, well-learned and resourceful.”
“The wizard sounds the most dangerous to be around.”
“No. He thinks I’m evil and refuses to participate in what I do, save for the last few days.”
“You didn’t have him join in, did you?”
“I had him do what I needed to do, only at another place. It kept the peace between us.”
“Hmm. You’re right; it’s not the wizard that’s the problem. It’s the woman.”
Afren kicked and connected with Raulin’s hip, sending him spinning. Raulin reset his position quickly, though Afren didn’t continue.
“Yes, definitely the woman. Tumble with her and be done with it or else you’ll be distracted.”
“You know how I am. I won’t be able to leave her if I do, physically and…” He trailed off.
“I understand perfectly. You and I were always alike in that aspect.” He paused and Raulin thought he was going to speak about their bond. He and Afren had met up several times after his apprenticeship had ended, always clandestine. Arvarikor strongly discouraged friendships for the very reason Raulin was dealing with at the moment, it being almost impossible for him to kill Afren and likewise in return.
Raulin opened his mouth to ask his mentor again what they were going to do when Afren spoke. It was something Raulin thought he’d never hear another trirec admit. “I have a wife.”
Raulin mimicked his mentor’s earlier gesture by pausing, then turning out his arms slowly. “Congratulations. I take it I’m only the third to know that fact.”
“Does she live here?”
“She is Monarean and lives with her people. I visit when I can.”
“Dare I ask?”
Raulin took a pained breath. A part of him had questioned whether or not Afren would let him win, seeing as he was the younger with more life ahead of him. Now he knew his mentor would put everything he had into the fight.
Yet, he still hadn’t.
“You need to separate yourself from your companions. Do not let them in, Raulin, or else you’ll end your year in pain. Or with a different destination.”
Raulin thought he saw a figure move across the way in the stairwell, but looked back quickly to his mentor. “I don’t know what to do. I feel everything unraveling. Even my fire for vengeance is down to the coals. And now, I fight to the death against the man who gave me what little I have. I can’t go on.”
“You must. Whichever of us survives must go on. If that’s you then, for me, you must figure out what path to take and live in peace over it.” He sighed heavily. “Now, let us end this honorably.”
“Yes, master,” Raulin said, then lunged forward.
If asked, Raulin would say he preferred to fence. He liked the sound of swords, the dance and connection one could make with an opponent. Each clang was a mark of progression, regression, or consideration, the sound almost satisfying. It was a sport of sound and sight.
Knife-fighting, on the other hand, was a brawl. It was instinct and pain and fear. It was blind engagements and silent passes, steel almost meeting flesh. He wasn’t rewarded in points or a metric of self-gratifying tings of metal clashing against metal. If he heard a noise at all, it was the wet sound of flesh being sliced.
So, Raulin was forced to duel in a less favorite manner with a man he didn’t want to duel with. It was impossible to disconnect the man from the body. He fought opponents with dispassion and apparently friends with heaviness.
Afren, too. They had sparred on many occasions when he had trained Raulin and even for old times sake when they had reconnected in Kitstuar. Though that was about five years ago, age couldn’t account for the sluggish way he moved, the mistakes and openings he gave. He wasn’t without his progress; Raulin had several cuts across his body, including one dangerously close to the cut he still had stitches in on his shoulder. Still, Raulin suspected he could have ended it by the time ten minutes of frenzied fighting had elapsed and he hadn’t.
They separated and caught their breaths. What if they pretended Afren had been gravely injured and Raulin killed the man? Afren would still be killed. What if Raulin abandoned the contract, citing impossibilities? He’d be whipped for insubordination, almost to death with the possibility of the injuries taking his life anyway. Was there some hidden law he wasn’t seeing that could nullify this contract? He suddenly wished Al was there. He was shrewd. He might know a way around this that neither trirec could see.
Afren attacked, dipping low to try for his thigh. Raulin sliced along his mentor’s ribs, cutting a gash that would bleed but not significantly. To get that close to Afren he sacrificed defense, which caused him to get pricked in the chest. He backed off, turned, and caught his breath as he saw the figure in the stairwell again.
“Wizard?” he said.
“I did it,” Alpine said and Afren turned. Raulin snapped his knives into their sheathes, knowing Afren wouldn’t attack him now.
“What did you do, Wizard?” he asked.
“I killed him, your target. He’s dead.”