“It’s one of the few times being poor has saved me money,” Raulin said, tossing his room key up and catching it mid-air.

“I still don’t know why we don’t just get horses and ride places,” Al said.. “It would save us a lot of time. And I wouldn’t have so many blisters on my feet. They can get infected, you know, and then you might have to chop them off. Then where will we be?”

“Plenty of people deal without having legs, Wizard. You shouldn’t be so attached to them. But, to answer your question, the reasons, the many reasons, why we don’t have horses are because they are expensive to buy, they require upkeep, some scare easily, there are few that would be large enough for Tel, and finally, so I don’t have to pay stable fees in expensive cities like New Wextif.”

“Tel doesn’t mind walking. And so long as you take care of your horse, the initial cost will make up for time saved and potential medical expenses.”

“All true, but there is one major reason I didn’t give.”

“And what’s that?”

“Do you know how to ride a horse?”

Al pressed his lips together. “No. But, it’s easy to learn, right? You just sit in the saddle and go.”

“If a horse were smart enough to know exactly where you wanted to go, and was very obedient, then, sure, all you would need to do is sit in the saddle and go. But you need to learn to control the horse. You need to learn to tell it where to go, how fast, and when to stop. They’re not like personal trains.” He turned to the innkeeper. “Do you have any maps of New Wextif?”

“What does that have to do with horses?” the innkeeper said, snapping his jaw shut quickly and looking for a map.

Raulin gave a long, sideways look to the man before heading upstairs with the rest of the group. “We’re leaving tomorrow so don’t get comfortable. I don’t like nosy innkeepers.”

He entered his room and closed the door without much thought to what anyone else was doing. Anla felt a little warmth leave once he was gone and she found herself somewhat lost and confused. She took a deep breath and followed Al into their room, but the feeling didn’t go away.

“I don’t suppose the innkeeper has a bucket I can soak my feet in,” Al said as he peeled the socks off his feet. “Look, a blister. I hope it doesn’t get infected.”

“Then we’d have to strap you to a horse.”

“That’s what I’m saying! Why can’t I just strap myself to the saddle and let it go down the road? It’s not that hard!”

“Right,” she said, sitting next to him. “We should get you a nice, gentle mare that plods along slower than a human.”

Al massaged his feet. “No, I’d want a faster one. One that can fly like the wind on a dark, summer’s night, his mane undulating like he was underwater. Like Chestnut, Kiesh the Black’s horse.”

“Fast horses like that are pricey, especially the ones with a good temperament.”

“Yeah, I suppose I’d want a nice horse.”

“No, I mean one that doesn’t bite.”

He looked up sharply. “Bite? Horses don’t bite…do they?”

“I knew a man who owned a bar who was missing the tip of his left middle finger. He used to be a cattleman out west in Swaystard, or somewhere like that. He said one particularly ornery horse chomped it clean off when he wasn’t being careful.”

Al scoffed. “He was probably lost it gutting a fish on the wharf.”

“Why would you lie about that? Or at least, if he was going to lie, why not make it something grander?”

“Liars can take all they can get.” His tone sounded unconfident, which Anla assumed was the closest she was going to get him to drop this whole horse thing.

“I’m switching rooms tonight.”

“Wait, why?” he asked, looking alarmed.

“I want to discuss plans for New Wextif. I’m not keen on sitting around, twiddling my thumbs for the next few months. I think it’s time we discussed our partnership with Raulin.”

“Do you need help?” he asked.

“No. Enjoy having the bed to yourself tonight.”

She knocked lightly on Raulin’s door before entering. His back was facing the door as he leaned over the desk. “Horses are still out of the question,” he said.

“Agreed. I may have shaken him from the idea; he was unaware that horses bite.”

Raulin turned to look at her. “Thank you. I feel our wizard is like a burr in the woods; hard to pull him off once he has a firm hold on an i-deer.”

She put her knapsack down and sat quietly on the edge of the bed. “Is there something I can help you with?” Raulin asked.

“I wanted to see if you needed any help, actually,” she said, putting her knapsack down.

“It’s hard to make definite plans, but I’m trying to find the best course of action for New Wextif. I have two thefts and six spying jobs. The thefts are concrete in location, but the spying jobs are not. They may occur somewhere, they may be some random thing I overhear at a party.”

She walked over to the desk and looked at the map. “Do you know where the upper crust lives?”

“Other than Shingden, there are several dozen neighborhoods.” He listed off the ones he remembered and pointed to them.

“It seems like they cluster with some gaps in each. Why don’t we travel in a spiral and find a moderately priced neighborhood to stay in near each of the pockets?”

“That’s a good idea. I’ll need to sit with my information once I have an idea. I don’t have that, yet. I’ll be visiting Remint tomorrow to remedy my ignorance.”

“Who’s Remint?”

“Vanif Remint is the Earl of Corrish, one of the counties that’s out west somewhere.  It’s low in population and doesn’t need much upkeep, so he lives here. His family is very connected and very rich, partially in thanks to him. He has a fantastic eye for business and trends. He also happens to have a birthday coming up and assured me that, if I were ever in the city again, he would love it if I dropped by.”

“Sounds like he’s a good gatekeeper.”

“Excellent gatekeeper,” he corrected. “That was a very lucky friendship to make. Having a contact point in a major city is invaluable, since I have no ins with the Cumber nor do I know anyone on the street. ‘Go high, go low, or go behind.’”

“Well, I can’t help with the king’s spy network, but I might be able to help with the other, especially if they speak the same kind of Dickery they do in Hanala.”

“You speak Dickery?”

“I can kiss the waves and hit the fence.”

“I take it that means ‘yes’. Hmm. I never thought to ask you if you did. This is extraordinary. If I could buy information off people through a trusted contact, I could save a lot of time and money.”

“Not saying I’m guaranteed to be that ‘trusted contact’, but I’ll help. I will forewarn you by saying that the Mesh, the street people, are principled. We don’t like causing trouble for ourselves and for certain people,and we don’t like being treated like dirt.”

“Wouldn’t dream of it.”

She crossed her arms and looked at him for a moment. “You’re being unusually open.”

“Seems pointless when you can read my journal anyway.”

“This is true.  May I ask why you chose Arvonnese in reverse?”

He ran his hand along the grain of the desk. “My journal is to protect my contracts from not just your average nosy Ghenian, but other trirecs as well. I know a few languages fluently enough to read and write. I couldn’t use Ghenian, and by default, Aroukean. Merakian was obviously out as well as Walpin, since most know that language, too. I know Sayenese, but they have an extensive presence in spy markets. So, it was down to Arvonnese and Kintasian, and I know the former better.”

“It just surprised me. You seem to hate Arvonne so much.”

“No, I don’t hate Arvonne. Actually, it holds a special place in my heart. I just have a grudge against the people.”

“If I can lend some advice: grudges are heavy things. Learn to let it go.”

“I don’t want to talk about this,” he said, extinguishing the candle on the desk with wet fingertips. He sat on the edge of the bed, taking off his boots, saying nothing for a few minutes.  Then, he sighed and said, “They killed my family, Anla.”

“I know.”

“None of this, none of this,” he said, gesturing to his mask, “would have to be if they were still alive.”

“It’s unfair.”

“Of course it is! A child shouldn’t have to go through the destruction of everything he loves. No one should, but especially not a child.”

“And that’s why you hate them.”

“They killed them!” he said, turning. “They butchered them like animals. And those that didn’t stood by and let it happen.”

“So, you were in Arvonne when it happened?” He said nothing to this. “I never knew what was worse: having someone invade your home and destroy it or having someone stomp all over hospitality by destroying your life far from your comforts. They both hurt, so I suppose they’re both terrible in different ways.”

He stripped his shirt and laid on the bed, his hands behind his head. “My parents were wealthy enough to move around Noh Amair, doing business and making connections. We were in Eri Ranvel at the time. After they were killed, I was secreted to Walpi by a friend, but there was no one who could take me in securely. So, I was an orphan with a lot of money and with a need to be away from the people who killed my family. It was suggested I try to bribe my way into training with Arvarikor. They saw an opportunity with me and very reluctantly decided to accept the money and me as a pupil.”

While there was hesitation at some points, what he had said was the truth. “I appreciate your openness.”

“You don’t deserve lies. And, you’d be upset that I told them anyway.”

“That’s true. For what it’s worth, I’m sorry you had to go through that.”

He rested one ankle on his other knee and twisted it back and forth. “It’s hard for me not to think of Arvonne as the place where my family’s murderers live. I just want to raze the whole country. Then, I try to be civilized about it. I think of the people outside of the capital who didn’t know and couldn’t have done anything. It doesn’t help, though. I’m still boiling over it, and it’s been almost seventeen years.”

“I don’t know what to say, other than I understand your pain. I’m here if you want to talk about it, even though I’m part of the enemy.”

He sighed. “Your father left before it ever happened. I don’t blame someone who was out of the country at the time.”

“Thank you.”

He pulled himself under the blanket and Anla took it as a sign to turn the gas lamp off. “Good night,” she said as she, too, got under the comforter. She had just started to doze off when she heard a light thud on the nightstand next to Raulin, then the sound of his mask sliding away.

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