9-6

“Anladet,” Raulin stated.

“Why her?” Al asked. “Seems convenient.”

“Just taking turns, Wizard. You had Iascond and Tel had Miachin.”

“But…”

When Al could voice no objections, Raulin continued. “Everything is set up. I can slip in tonight, drop off the item, and be back here before dinner.”

He heard Al grumble about leaving anyway as he and Anladet left the room. “Off to stage three of your contract?” she asked.

“Four, actually. Sometimes I skip the ‘testing’ part and head straight in, but it hasn’t served me well lately.”

“Is it us?” she asked as they left the hotel.

He shook his head. “I can’t blame you guys for my incompetence; that’s not fair. If I had done more preparation, I would have known the count was entertaining company and that your room happened to be the one I slipped into. Thus, why I have spent three days working on this when all I needed was one.”

“So, no mistakes this time.”

“No. None. I’m slipping in, going right to where I need to go, picking out the item, and leaving. Worse case scenario, one half-hour, and that’s if I can’t find it right away.”

“Ah, so it’s like a book, then?”

“Yes, like a book. That’s a good substitute.” He fingers danced in the air before him. “I need to rifle through a few things in a limited area and select the right one.”

“And then the escape, and finally the drop.”

“The dead drop, yes, which isn’t very far from the job.” He stopped walking and looked around. The dirt street, rutted and pocked, ended in a square with a public well in the center. There were a few shops kept neat, but most of the buildings were tenement housing with laundry drying on lines, snapped stairway steps, and windows patched with boards and sheets. “I was going to leave you here, but I think I’d like to backtrack a little.”

“Why?” she asked.

“It seems a little…unsafe. Seedy.”

“It feels familiar to me. This is nicer than many of the places I slept in Hanala.”

“If you’re sure. I won’t be gone long.”

“I’ll be fine,” she said, smiling. “I appreciate the concern, but I can take care of myself. Besides, this will be a good place to work on things.”

“You’re fortune telling here?”

She shook her head. “I’m working on my ability. At the library in Calaba I found a book that outlined what baerds could do. It’s given me something to think about, to see if I can replicate any of those skills.”

“Interesting,” he said. “Tell me if you make any headway. I always like to know if I get more techniques at my disposal.”

“I will,” she said, waving as she found a bench to sit on.

Raulin had eyed a park on the walk over and chose to unmask behind a tree that obscured him from the public. He tucked that into his knapsack, put on a flat cap, added a few more items to his costume, and took a path through the park to the street on the other side. Here the street was lined with stately rowhouses, their walls shared and the lawns gated but tiny. A few blocks over, the street was cobbled and had trees and beds lining the raised sidewalks that concealed a comprehensive sewer system. He could hear the water rushing below his footsteps as he walked purposefully to a richer house.

Becari Gardens was the fifth house on the left of Briordic Street, a classy enough neighborhood that they didn’t even bother with numbers. It had the gray, curved tile roof and tiny paned windows common in the houses, but was a sandy-gray stucco that stood out amongst the white and blue, and had an impressive front display of plants indigenous to the northern Noh Amairian countries. It looked stately and crisp, more tidy than lush.

Raulin was to play the part of a mason’s apprentice checking on his master’s estimate. He was wearing the double-knotted belt of an apprentice and the kerchief of the guild his character belonged to tied around his shoulder. His name, family, location, even the name of his sweetheart were all picked out and waiting for someone to ask him.

No one did, however, and Raulin felt a little irked by that. He was, of course, glad that he was able to open the gate and confidently walk to the back of the house without being bothered. But, to put all that time into work without need annoyed him.

The cellar was right where he had expected. He had made due by casing other easier to see houses in the neighborhood, all which had basements roughly behind the kitchens, the stone stairways leading below the house. He was pleased to note the masonry did actually need work.

There was a sandy, musty smell below ground that filled his nostrils. Raulin tried to appreciate scent when he was able to, since his mask usually cut that sense down considerably. There was also a little bit of parchment and mildew, both evidenced by a stack of books against the farthest left wall and puddles of stagnant water along the way. The books were, apparently, not important to the owner. The wine, however, was, as it was stacked carefully in a room behind a grated metal door.

Raulin couldn’t see any more than the dark outline of casks and bottles, so he struck a match to the candle inside the lantern that hung from the center of the basement. It cast enough light that he was able to barely read the labels of the wine on the shelves. He reminded himself of the name, written down carefully in his journal, and set to work.

He hadn’t anticipated the sheer volume of libations the owner enjoyed. At least he could skip the casks and the liquors on the right wall. His fingers skipped over the titles, much like the gesture he had made to Anla, and raced across row after row. After some time he began to just read the first word and pull any bottles that potentially matched his quarry.

Raulin must have gone through eight dozen labels when he heard a scuffing sound, followed by the tapping sound of footsteps. “Seriously, boy, how hard is it to find the cherry liqueur?”

“I looked and looked!”

Raulin heard a thudding sound that might have been the older man cuffing the younger on the back of the head. As quickly as he dared, he tiptoed to the corner farthest from the rack and sunk against the wall. “Here’s a choice, boy. Either you can go in there and find what you were sent here to get, or I can. And trust me, you don’t want me to find it.”

The boy, more likely a young teenager, marched into the room and began hunting for the bottle. His back was to Raulin, but the trirec still kept low behind the rack of wine that mostly obscured him. After five minutes, he pulled a bottle from the bottom shelf and said, “Is it the one with the cherries on it?”

“Is it the one with the cherries on it?” the man said in a mocking tone. “Get out here.”

The boy left the room and Raulin heard another thud. “You make me come down here in the middle of cooking again and I’ll find a way to tan your hide with the oven mitt. Git!”

He heard the sound of someone running up the stairs before the man shouted, “Wait! Forgetting something?”

The footsteps reversed and he heard the sound of keys jangling. The door to the alcove was shut and locked before both left.

At least the lantern was still lit. Raulin placed a hand on the nearest shelf and slipped, grabbing a bottle of wine and sitting back down on his behind. He held up the bottle and read the label. “Dammit,” he said, putting it in his knapsack before checking out his situation.

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