8-8

The trirec looked at him, then down at the corpse, then back at Raulin. “You killed him. He was poaching your quarry and so you killed him to take the sword.”

Though he didn’t sound upset, Raulin still didn’t like being accused of things that weren’t true. “Does that make sense? I would have taken the sword, then, and I would be long gone. Besides, he was killed with a bow and arrow. Do you see that on me?”

“How did you steal my contract?” the trirec asked forcefully.

“I didn’t. I bet you and I have identical contracts. And so did he,” Raulin said, gesturing to the dead man. “I bet there may be others in this maze, making their way to this spot, only to be killed.”

“I’m going to take it and I will kill you if you get in my way.”

The trirec moved towards the body. “Wait!” Raulin said, and he stopped. “Listen for one moment. What’s your name?”

“Jakith Onlin,” he said. It translated to “fights with others”. Joy, Raulin thought.

“Okay, Jakith, I’m Raulin Kemor. I want…”

Jakith tensed. “You’re that miartha trirec I’ve heard about, the one who breaks the rules.”

“Careful,” Raulin said. “I’m Merakian like you are, according to Arvarikor. Both my classmates and I were caned for saying otherwise.”

“So, you stole a contract and…”

“Stop. Jakith, listen to me. Stop for one moment and think. Several trirecs were contracted to do the same thing. Why do you think that is?”

“Because they definitely wanted it done.”

“Besides that.”

“Because…”

“Yes?”

“Because they wanted several trirecs in the same place at the same time.”

“Good. And why would they want that?”

This proved to be too much for Jakith. “I’m taking the sword. Don’t stop me, Kemor, or I will kill you.”

“Wait!” Raulin said, just before Jakith touched the object. Surprisingly, he looked up. “Since I can’t stop you, do one thing for me. One you have the sword, I want you to run for cover against attacks from the west. You can come to me, or behind the pedestal or to the sides there. Just don’t stand there.”

“Is it so I will run into a trap?” he asked.

“No. I have no traps, no one else here. Just, please. I don’t want to have to turn in another mask.”

Jakith stared at Raulin, snatched the sword, and ran behind the base of the pedestal. “View halloa!” they heard before an arrow hit the dirt six inches behind where Jakith had run from.

“What…?” he heard from the trirec.

“We’re being hunted,” he hissed. “There are marksmen on the roof taking aim at us.”

“Why? What sort of twisted miartha game is this?”

“It’s not a blasted ‘miartha game’! This is the work of sick men who think we aren’t…we aren’t people.” He sighed deeply. “They think we’re animals.”

Why?”

“Jakith, I don’t know. Maybe they want to get rid of trirecs. Or maybe they’re bored with foxes and wolves and they want to hunt something more challenging. Either way, they will shoot us if we give them the chance and they are damn good shots.”

“Tell them not to hunt us! Speak Miarthan; I don’t speak it.”

It wasn’t a bad idea. It might make them think of the trirecs in terms of equals instead of lesser beings. In the least it would warn any other trirecs in the maze. Raulin shed his Merakian accents for a Ghenian one. “Hello there on the roof! Hello! Why are you shooting at us?”

In response, an arrow skimmed off the very center of the pedestal.

“I don’t think they want to talk,” Raulin said.

“Then what do we do?”

“I’m going to…”

Raulin was interrupted by a third trirec, who stumbled in from the east. He froze, looking at Jakith, then Raulin, then to the corpse, then back again at Raulin.

“Run,” Raulin said, gesturing to him. Surprisingly, the trirec didn’t hesitate; he skirted around the corpse and dove into the spot next to Raulin, greeting him with three fingers.

The new trirec caught his breath. “What passes?”

“Ask the miartha. He has it all figured out. Or,” he said, holding out the syllable, “he’s in on it.”

“Miartha?” the trirec asked, turning his head to look at Raulin. “Oh. I’ve heard of you.”

“Raulin Kemor,” he said, shaking the man’s hand. “And for what it’s worth, Arvarikor doesn’t acknowledge that I’m a miartha. I won’t say anything, but maybe we should stop calling me ‘miartha’.”

“Kobet Riand.” Placid in battle. Great, Raulin thought. A scaredy-cat and a mule.

“That’s Jakith behind the pedestal. He has the sword I assume you were tasked with stealing. I bet we were all given identical contracts to lure us here at the same time so that we can be hunted. The men are on the roof of the mansion west of here, aimed at us. Only Jakith is actively being hunted, as far as I can tell. I don’t know when or if you and I will be hunted, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they did whenever they felt like.”

“Okay,” Kobet said.

“’Okay’?” Jakith spat. “We’re being hunted by vile miartha and you’re fine with it?”

“Axiom fifty-six: The sooner you can accept your situation, the sooner you can assess your situation.”

“He speaks with the wisdom we studied poorly,” Raulin said to Jakith, then turned to Kobet. “What have you assessed?”

“That the contract obligations have been canceled, because one of us has died trying. Therefore, we should abandon normal rules and engage as if we were in a battle; one side versus another.”

“Can we do that?” Raulin asked. “I remember clearly from our lessons that we’re not allowed to band together or help one another in any way.”

“That’s if we are engaged in a contract. We are allowed to help one another if we are not actively pursuing the points of a contract.”

Raulin clicked his tongue while he thought. “This would be ‘escape’.”

If we are still actively pursuing the task. If we all choose to abandon the task, which we are allowed, maybe even obligated to do now that one of us has perished on duty, we are considered non-active participants. Just like trivrens and agents, we will be allowed to support each other without penalty.”

“What about Jakith? He still wants to complete the contract.”

“We can support his escape, like that childhood game with the flags. However, I still think that the contracts are void and there is no reason to finish the task. The contractee broke the rules and his fee is forfeited, so we will be paid our percentage. “

“And what if I’m not paid?” Jakith asked.

“You can always petition the trivren at a tribunal,” Kobet said. “I think they would be justified in paying you, since this is an error of the dorong-hi-leus.”

Raulin sucked in his breath quietly. Yes, Isken was going to get in a lot of trouble for this and there was nothing he could do to soften the eventual blow. “Jakith, I took the trirec’s mask and beads to return them to Arvarikor. My contract was for 120 gold, if I remember correctly. The mask reward plus the beads should compensate any loss you would have over this if you don’t get paid. I’ll give it to you if you abandon the contract. ”

There was a clang as metal hit marble. “All right. So, we’re free. The sword is back on the pedestal. Now what do we do?”

“Kobet? What do you think?”

The trirec turned back to look above him, then murmured to himself for a few moments. “If we wait another five hours, the sun should be too low for them to see. We should wait it out.”

Raulin pinched his lips for a moment. “Well, that’s a thought. It’s also assuming that the men on the roof are alone, will stay there that long, and don’t have a plan should this last into the night. Jakith?”

“We should chop down the maze, escape, and storm the house where we will kill the miartha devils for doing this.”

“We don’t kill outside of contracts!” Kobet hissed.

“He’s right; as much as I’d like to find the archer that shot our brother, jam a bee’s nest up his arse, and wait until he pisses honey, we don’t kill unless we absolutely have to. Which means we’re stuck escaping, and soon, before they change their tactics.

“Our assets: our knives, our training. Anyone have anything else?”

“I have rope,” Jakith said.

“I’m not sure. I have several items that might help, but nothing particular comes to mind when solving our major problem.”

Raulin took a quick look inside Kobet’s pack and almost laughed. He and the wizard would get along splendidly. “I don’t suppose you have a shield in there or…oh.”

“Oh? What are you thinking, Raulin?” Jakith asked.

“The statues. Where did you two enter the maze and where did you enter this area?”

“East-north,” Jakith said.

“I entered from the south and wound up coming in from the east,” Kobet said.

“Did you see the statues? Did they have armor on them?”

“They were white and…no,” Jakith said.

“That answers that, then. I entered from the south, spent most of my time in the southwest quadrant, and entered here from the south. I saw several statues that had things we could use: helmets, breastplates…the last one had a shield, I’m certain.

“Here’s the plan. We’re going to use our one advantage for protection: angles. Even though they have the advantage of the high ground, they aren’t high enough to see us if we are below a certain point on north-south running hedges We can crawl to the first node, take the shield, and use it to block any attacks after that point, making the journey faster.

“First step: everyone needs to start here,” Raulin said, pointing in front of him, “so Jakith needs to make his way to us. Kobet, how do we feel about the mask rule?”

He took a deep breath, thinking. “Our masks protect us from identification. We are punished only if the connection is made between our faces and our profession. It will be risky, but I see the benefit in taking that risk. The archers might be using the glare from the metal as focal points and without them, they might have a hard time targeting us.”

“That’s what I thought,” Raulin said. He hated to concede a point to the wizard, but he remembered the conversation they’d had about his mask’s vulnerability in both Carvek and Ammet Bronsto. “Three o’clock is a dandy time for the sun to be out of their eyes, but still enough to give them a reflective target. You two take off your masks and put them away. I’m going to use mine to distract the archers while you run to us, Jakith. Got it?”

The three wiggled their masks off their faces. Kobet had the same pronounced features as any other Merakian, the large eyes, the high cheekbones, the thick lips, but there was a gauntness that made his cheekbones stick out more than most. He reminded him of a darker colored Telbarisk, for some odd reason. “Ready, Jakith?”

“Ready. You count.”

Raulin’s stomach burned with the fear and anticipation of what he was about to do. There was a strong possibility that he was about to get an arrow right through his forearm. He stood, took a few calming breaths, and counted down. On one, he stuck his mask out as far as he could.

Ting!

As soon as Jakith, had dove into the hedge, he pulled the mask back and let go of his breath. “Did you arrive safely, Jakith?”

The trirec dusted himself off, his wide face looking up at Raulin. “Well, I’m not imitating an ambitious sapling, so we’re doing well.”

“All right, good,” he said, jamming his mask into his knapsack. “Step one complete. Are we ready to escape?”

“Yes, sir,” they both said in unison.

“Excellent. Let’s begin.”

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