10-2

“Are you awake?” Anla whispered.

Raulin cracked open one eye and looked to his left. She had wound the blanket so that it covered the top of her face and head, leaving her nose and mouth exposed. “Yes, I’m awake.”

“Okay. I didn’t peek. Let me know when your mask is back on.”

He sat up and stretched, enjoying the freedom of a bare face for the first time in a month. “Do you mind if I shave quickly before I do that? Feel free to get ready for the day.”

“I’ll face the door,” she promised. Part of him wished she wouldn’t, that she would sneak a glance “accidentally”. And then he’d pretend he was upset, but get over it quickly by saying the damage was done and there was nothing he could do about it.

But, she was honest and changed out of her outfit facing the door, netting another loss for Raulin. He glanced at her a few times in the mirror, her back bare as she changed from her dusty traveling tunic to a respectable blouse. She turned once when she reached for her hairbrush and Raulin nicked himself with his straight razor. He finished and staunched the bleeding with a towel quickly, knowing how laughable it would look if she saw a master of knives unable to shave properly.

“So, what’s on your agenda today?” she asked, turning to face him once he had given her the all-clear.

“I need to visit an agent for more money. There’s one…” he said, consulting his journal, “in Cabbesh Market, which I believe is not too far from here. I’ll need someone to help lengthen the spell, though. Hmm. We should come up with a name for that person.”

“I’ve been calling them folds in my head.”

“I like that. I should probably be fair and take the wizard this time. Do you think he’s still bitter about Iascond?”

“Leery? Yes. Bitter? If he is, I think some mild conversation or a treat might take care of it, at least superficially.”

“You’ll be all right here with Tel? I bet he wouldn’t mind looking at the horses. I think I saw a small park northwest of here, should he prefer that.”

She nodded tersely and left the room with her knapsack. He followed her downstairs after his exercises and was surprised to see Tel and Al sitting neatly on a davenport in the entryway. (The quartet had long ago agreed to absolve the Al of breakfast duties, due to his tendency to sleep in.) He was engrossed in a book while Tel was looking out the window at the horses.

“Tel? Would you like to walk around the stables with Anla?”

He turned. “I’ll get to see where the horses stay?”

“Yup. Al and I will be out today. We’ll find a new hotel and run a few errands before we return.”

Raulin looked back at Anla once before he and the wizard left. She was frowning and holding herself, looking down at the floor. He paused to consider it, but knew she’d tell him something if it were important.

Al tagged behind Raulin, his nose still in his book. “Watch where you’re going,” he said.

“I am,” Al said without looking up.

Al hadn’t bumped into anyone or anything yet, so he let it go. “First on the agenda is to meet with an agent.”

That got Al’s attention. He stuck his finger in between the pages and looked up at the trirec. “I’m not drawing any birds or anything.”

“No, you won’t need to. The code is different for every agent and this ones doesn’t involve chalk.”

“Did the other ones?” he asked quietly.

“Yes, why…?” He thought about this for a moment. “I didn’t make that up to mock you or anything like that.”

Al frowned, but nodded once and went back to reading. They passed into Falsinger Square, which was cobbled and clean, a slight step up from where they had stayed last night. White Street was picked in shops of different varieties,  hotels and apartments above with balconies and climbing ivy on the walls. The only light seen was at intersections, causing the street to seem abnormally dark for the late morning.

Carts of flowers in jars and pots took up most of the sidewalk in front of a shop with checkered curtains pulled back from the windows and doors. Raulin led them there and stood outside, remembering Arvarikor’s color code. He selected several flowers and bought them, then had Al hold most while he plucked three marigolds and a buttercup from his bouquet. The colors indicated that he needed money and that he was accompanied by someone outside the order. He consulted his notebook again and walked a few streets over to a corner tavern. Outside were several flower beds hanging from the sills of the windows, the one closest to the junction empty. He placed his flowers inside and walked across the street to wait in the alley.

“What do you want me to do with the rest?” Al asked.

“I think you should give them to Anla. It’s romantic to show your beloved that you’re thinking of her when you’re apart.”

Al cleared his throat and looked down. “She’s not…I didn’t wind up fulfilling our bet.”

“I figured as much. You didn’t make a peep about her staying with me last night.”

“Neither of us did.”

“No, which puts us back at where we began. I’ll call it a draw if you will.”

“I suppose, though I’d like an option to review it later.”

“Fair enough.” He took notice of a glint of silver at the end of the alley as a trirec turned the corner. “Look sufficiently annoyed that I made you come here, Mr. Auslen.”

Al leaned against the wall and opened his book with his free hand. Raulin nodded to himself over that, then turned to give the three-fingered salute to the agent.

“Is he why you warned me?” the agent asked in Merakian.

“Yes; there’s nothing else that I know of. This is the employer for my guard job.”

“Very good,” he said, pulling his small briefcase up. “How much do you need?”

“One hundred,” he said, holding one of his orange beads up. “Gossip, too, if you don’t mind.”

“I do.” He pulled a pouch out and snapped the case closed. “Unless you’d like to pay.”

Raulin furrowed his eyebrows. “I meant general gossip, not specified information.”

“I know what you meant, Raulin Kemor. Word travels fast. I’m surprised you didn’t stab me for the rest of the money I have. Don’t even think of it; I have a partner who checks in frequently.”

Again, it was too tangled and too pointless to argue with anyone over what had happened in Iascond. It still hurt as much as a punch to the gut, but to waste time with it would be futile. He took the pouch, gave the man the three-fingered salute, and left without any more conversation.

“Merakian is a funny sounding language,” Al said once they were on the street. “You gulp and cough with every other word, like you’ve swallowed something too spicy. Then, every other sentence, you say ‘eesh’, like the heat finally went away and you’re acknowledging the difficulty has passed.”

Raulin gave a light laugh at this. It wasn’t particularly funny, but it did break through the shame he felt at the agent’s words. “Something like that, I guess.” He looked down at Al’s book. “What are you reading?”

“Nothing,” he said, moving it away from him.

“I’m not going to touch it, I promise.”

“It’s not my book; it’s from the library in the hotel. If you destroy it, you’ll have to pay them. So, I don’t care if you rip it or throw it into the sewer. I just don’t want you to make fun of it.”

“And if I promise not to do that?”

“It’s a book you don’t like. I’m not going to talk about it so you can sneer and mock something that brings me happiness.”

They walked a few blocks before Raulin tried again. “I’ve been unfair to you, Wizard. It isn’t kind to pick apart things that people love just because you hold your own opinions. I’d like you to tell me about this book. I promise I won’t make rude comments or judge it, no matter how distasteful I find it.”

Al’s eyes narrowed slightly. “Fine. First snippy comment and you owe me…a pastry.”

“A pastry. That sound fair.” He shook out his shoulders, unaware of the startled look a man who had been walking by gave him.

“It’s an Arvonnese alley novel.”

Raulin grimaced. “Okay.”

“It was published in Arvonne in April. I was very surprised to find it in a book exchange in a hotel. I mean, not even three months and it was shipped from there to here…”

“A fast turn-around, then?”

“Very! It was originally printed in Arvonne in January, which means the translation to Ghenian was done lightning fast.  So, it’s rare and that’s why I’m trying to read it before we leave.”

“You could just steal it.”

Al scoffed. “No. Chalices, sure. Books, never.”

“You have a code, then? Hmm. So, what is this book about?”

“Arvonnese alley novels always follow the same plot. One of the royal children, the Alscaines, somehow escaped the Coup fifteen years ago. They’ve either been kept away from Arvonne, usually as a slave or a servant somewhere, or they had amnesia and only just remembered who they were. The main character, usually a female, finds them in an alley somewhere, begging for help. The lady nurses them back to health and they fall in love. Then, the prince fights to regain his crown from the government. There’s usually an underground resistance, most often of former nobles, who help him.”

“It sounds…a bit far-fetched.”

“Well, yes. It’s a romance novel, though not so much of the prince and the woman falling in love, but more of perfect expectations and happy endings.”

“You say the plot is always the same. Why do you read these if you know how it’s going to happen?”

“It’s not exactly the same. I mean, the prince always wins, yes, but the main character and he don’t always marry at the end. Sometimes it’s bittersweet, because she knows he needs to marry a princess of a foreign land in order to secure his lineage and finances for the ailing country. And, it’s not always Aubin who’s the deuteragonist. In most he is , but close to half of them feature Caudin.” He held the book up. “This is a Caudin feature. I actually prefer those.”

“Really?” he said, surprised. “Do you? Why is that?”

“I believe the authors may have known the princes in their youth. No matter who’s writing, Aubin is always cast as very straight-laced and unwavering. I’ve heard him described similarly in certain books I’ve read about the royal family. Caudin is different. He’s fun and jokes around. He’s a bit mischievous, like he supposedly was as a kid. His plans to overthrow the Kalronistic government are always outlandish, but genius. He makes for more of an enjoyable read.”

Raulin paused at this.  “This is a bit exploitative, don’t you think?”

“You promised…”

“I’m not mocking. I’m asking your opinion on the matter. It sounds like the royal family was wiped out and a new government took over. Instead of accepting this, someone decides to take advantage of the destitute morale of the people by introducing books that give them hope that their monarch could return.”

“The hope was there to begin with; the authors are just keeping it alive.”

“…and making a good bit of money in the meantime.”

“…at a considerable risk! Those books are banned in Arvonne. The authors and the publisher, both pen names and a ghost operation, have already been charged with treason. If they’re caught, they will hang.”

Raulin had to stop himself, more because his next words were going to be heated and reaching to win the argument. He had to remind himself that he was trying to repair and perhaps build their relationship. “You’re not Arvonnese, though. Why do you care about their plight?”

“It’s a story that any man to enjoy. I’m not Arvonnese, but these stories make me want to be.”

Raulin said nothing. Instead, he led them to a bookstore. “I owe you one. I think it’s fair that I buy you another as well. I’ll even buy you the pastry, even though I don’t think I was rude.”

After Al bought the latest Kiesh the Black adventure and an older alley novel, he parked himself at a cafe. “I’ll be back by 2 o’clock, or else I’ll have someone send you a note.”

Al looked up for a brief moment, then delved back into the loaned book. Raulin sighed and left, wondering what was the point of sharing information if it wasn’t even registered.

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