9-9

“I don’t know what it is, I’m just supposed to bring it here.”

It was morning, judging by the fact that it was no longer pitch black in the cellar but dark gray. The voice sounded familiar, though the attitude was foreign. Raulin stood and crouched in the corner, prepared to move at a moment’s notice.

“The master prefers if we organize wine by country and region, so not knowing where it’s…”

“Do you want it or not? I have a dozen other deliveries today. I’m sure my next wouldn’t mind taking this off my hands…”

“No, no,” the man said, defeated. “Just…place it in the middle of the room. We’ll deal with it later.”

There were foot scrapes on the silted stone and the jangle of keys. Before the metal connected with the lock, there was a loud sneeze, followed by another a few moments later. “Damn cold,” the first man said, sniffling loudly.

Raulin heard a disgusted sigh and the retreat of footsteps. “Tell me when you’re done,” the second man said from outside.

The door creaked open and in stepped a slight man of dark skin with something held over his shoulder. He looked around, spotted Raulin, and waved while he pretended to sneeze loudly again.

Raulin didn’t need the stars to line up twice for him. He ran to the door, slipped around, and hid on the other side of the stone wall.

“What was that?” the man outside asked.

“What was what? What are you talking about?” the other man, just putting down the cask, asked.

“There was a shape. It looked like a man ran out from the cellar.”

“I didn’t see anyone in here. Sure it wasn’t a ghost?”

Raulin only had a few moments before he heard the scraping footsteps coming down the stairs. He ducked behind a barrel and, when he realized most of his body was exposed, struck an strange pose with his legs at odd angles and his arms holding on to the corner of the wall. “I don’t see anything,” the first man said.

“Hmm. Maybe…maybe it was the light. Are you finished?”

“Yeah. I’ll be on my way, then.”

Raulin had just started to feel the ache in his mucles when he heard the door creak close, the keys jangle, then the click of the door locking. Both sets of feet scraped up the stairway and Raulin carefully relaxed his position. He waited maybe a half-hour before he finally moved from his spot and moved up the stairs.

“Hey!” he heard from the yard as he walked towards the front of the house.

“Yes?” he asked as a man rushed over to him, though “rushed” was a kind word to describe what he was doing. He waddled, his buttoned uniform heaving and straining against his flesh. A stained apron bunched at his waist as he pumped his legs from the house over to Raulin.

“Who are you? How did you get in here?”

Raulin pretended to look around confused. “I’m here for my master’s quote? Gundrick and Farson? I have to learn to make fair estimates as part of my training and this was one of my stops.” He lifted his belt, then dusted off his pants that were covered in the plaster that had been in the corner. “I don’t think I’m going to go easy on this one.”

“But…I didn’t see you come in. Who let you in?”

“Um…it was a boy,” he said, wincing because he hated to cause more trouble for the lad.

“Were you down in the basement an hour ago?”

“No? I think I’ve been here for fifteen or twenty minutes.”

“And what do you have in your pack, there?”

“Samples of the plaster and my lunch. Do you want to see?”

“No,” the man said, wiping his brow. “Just…go.”

Raulin gave him a funny look, then moved around the front of the house. He pretended to check his bag, waiting to see if the man followed him. When he didn’t, Raulin hopped over the small stone dividing wall between properties and hid in the bushes below. He pulled his mask on, took off the belt and kerchief, and walked through the gate of the other house undisturbed. It was far from a perfect wipe between role and soul, but it was the best he was going to do with the three waiting for him.

He managed to sneak up on Al, whose attention was solely on the other house. “What are we waiting for?”

“Raulin. He was supposed to be…oh, it’s you,” he said, turning around. “What took you so long?”

“I had to make sure that guy lost his suspicion. I’m guessing he was the fat one? He still didn’t, but at least I could use the time as a cloak. Where are Anla and Tel?”

“Napping in a park nearby. Let’s go.”

Al led Raulin down and over streets, past houses and businesses with lingering smells of cooking and baking. “I don’t suppose you brought anything to eat?”

“Huh? Oh,” he said, reaching into a smaller knapsack, which looked to be the one they had bought for Tel to carry food. He handed Raulin a round loaf of pumpernickel bread that had been bowled and stuffed with cream cheese, pastrami, and sauteed onions. “You can thank Anla for that; she made sure we got that at the market.”

“Mind if we stop while I devour this? I haven’t eaten in almost a day.”

Al found an alley off a quiet street and leaned against the wall while Raulin sat on a crate. “So, what happened?” Al asked.

“Fat guy locked the door on me and there was absolutely no other exit,” he said, dangling the onions above his mouth. “Thank you, by the way, to all three of you. Extra thanks to you; I was pleasantly surprised by your wine delivery character. You’ve gotten a hang of it.  I’m genuinely impressed.”

“I was just being surly and not taking any gruff from him.”

“That’s what acting is; being you, but in a different way. I wasn’t actually sure it was you until I saw you waiting out here.”

“How did you hide? I didn’t see you at all.”

Raulin took a chunk of the bread and draped the pastrami over it. “It’s hard to see a whole person in the dark, so people are really looking for familiar lines and shapes. So long as I can make myself not look like a person, I can hide safely.”

“Huh,” Al said. “So, uh, you didn’t make any side trips or anything?”

“Yes, I know I told Anla I was going to be just a little while. Sometimes things pop up in my jobs that I have no control over. Had that man not needed liqueur, the door would have been locked and I would have returned later. Or had it been open, I would have been back on time. But I happen to get stuck in between that. It was bad luck.”

“Oh,” he said, sounding disappointed.

“Well, the bright side is I had a lot of time alone to think. I know you won’t think much of it, but I’ll try anyway: I apologize for how I treated you after Iascond and in Calaba and since then. I’ll buy you a new alley novel, if you want, though I still think they’re garbage. I actually enjoyed spending time with you in Iascond.”

Al didn’t say anything for some time. He stared ahead, his arms crossed and his foot propped against the wall. After a minute or so, he turned to face Raulin, who was savoring the soggy bottom of the loaf. “What happened, in Iascond? In that house?”

“The phrase ‘there is no honor among thieves’ isn’t true when it comes to trirecs. We have a code and the code states that all assassinations must be done by your own hand or methods. This is why trirecs don’t have partners or hire people to help them; we are penalized for it. When you murd- accidentally killed- the man I needed to kill, you unknowingly sullied my reputation. I know,” he said, holding up a greasy hand to stop Al from interrupting, “you didn’t mean it, but I still had to deal with it. And the punishment was to slice my arms and escape to my base before I bled out. Makes it difficult and also marks me as dishonorable to other trirecs.”

“You cut yourself because your brotherhood says you have to?”

“It’s the rules. I cooperated and so did the other trirec. And all other trirecs I’ve come across have played by the rules. We may do despicable acts, but people know that when they hire a trirec guard, he will protect them with his own life.”

“That’s what happened to the other trirec?”

Raulin wiped his fingers and his face with the guild kerchief. “Yes. His life was tied to my quarry. He fought to save his and his employer’s life and I fought to keep my own.”

“You knew him.”

Raulin paused. “Yes.”

“I don’t know why I just realized that. Who was he?”

“After school, but before we become trirecs, we go through stages of training. Apprenticeship is the second and it’s done one-on-one with an experienced mentor. We have three. Afren was my second teacher and I dare say I loved him as a son loves his father.”

“But you still had to kill him.”

“My relationship with him didn’t change the situation. Killing is hard, but sometimes almost impossibly difficult.”

Al was still pensive and it dawned on Raulin why. He rose and waited for the wizard to guide him to the other two. “How are you holding up? I know that situation was unpleasant for you.”

“I…try not to think about it.”

“If I may give some advice: do think about it, but just enough so that you understand that it happened, and it was an accident, but he is still dead. You have to learn to accept it before you can move on from it. Take it from a master in that.”

Al looked at his hands. “I just don’t know what went wrong. I slowed his heart down, but I didn’t stop it. I should have been able to bring him out of torpor. They do that all the time in hospitals.”

“Well, ‘they’ are likely well-practiced in that technique. And Lacront was also an old man, perhaps someone who didn’t lead a healthy lifestyle. Our ritual took a while, too, so that might be a factor.”

“Yes, but…I heal. I’m a healer, not a killer. I’m not like you.”

Raulin felt that any additional reassurance would either fall flat or help keep Al’s misery circular. He decided to change the subject. “As I said, I had some time to think in the cellar. I’ve decided to withdraw from our contest, however you wish to view that. You’ve won. I won’t stop speaking to Anla, because she’s a friend and that’s unkind, but I won’t pursue her romantically.”

Al gave him a puzzled look. “Why? You were winning.”

“Perhaps, but I realized that by continuing I was being hypocritical. I still don’t believe she needs someone to step in on her behalf, which is what I was doing by wooing her.”

He also felt keeping the peace was worth losing this contest. He had done enough damage and it was time for him to reconcile, if not pay for his transgressions.

“So, I get to see your face?”

“You already saw my face today. But if you fulfill your side, then I will allow a very brief glimpse.”

“Just like that? You always fight so hard against us seeing you.”

“A bet is a bet.” He looked ahead to see Tel and Anla waving from the edge of a park. “Go ahead and collect your reward. Personally, I think the kiss is the best part of winning.”

Al walked brusquely to his companions, elated to have won the bet. While he had missed the aching tone of Raulin’s voice over Anla, he had figured some time ago that he didn’t like arguing with a man who wore a mask. It made him seem cold, like he was arguing with a statue. When Raulin wore it, he held the concept of what a trirec was and wore it as an unspoken shield. The week when he had really turned cold had been quite chilling to Al; he hoped that when he was able to see the flesh beneath it, he’d be able to argue with him without the slight fear that tinged his arguments.

But, as he crossed the distance, he had a moment to take Raulin’s words and turn them to advice. He had moved aside and let Al win because he stuck to his convictions. Al hadn’t really thought about anything but winning, hadn’t considered how Anla would feel about this if she knew. Considering Al’s upbringing, it was really an oversight that he hadn’t considered the fact that she was more than capable of handling herself. She had just coordinated the location and rescue of a group member, something he couldn’t admit he could do himself. He hated to admit it, but she also had magic that made her more powerful than common courtesy dictated. She didn’t need to be mollycoddled or protected.

But, the thought that really struck him the most, the one that cascaded into the previous thoughts, was the fact that he didn’t love her. She was beautiful. She was smart and capable, shrewd and kind, qualities he had always appreciated in women. She had an endearing laugh and could shift Al’s mood with just a look. But, there was no spark there. There really hadn’t been a spark with Burdet, either, but he had felt a slower kindle with his ex-wife. With Anla he cared and appreciated and even adored in some ways, but he didn’t love her.

“Hi, Al,” Anla said, waving off a yawn. “Glad to see we were successful.”

He turned back to see Raulin about thirty paces away. Al shrugged and let his hands drop. “Yeah, I am, too. Now we can get going to New Wextif. I’ll show you guys where some great restaurants are.”

“Excellent,” Raulin said, finally catching up to the remaining group. “I’m always up for some good food.”

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