Raulin startled awake when he heard a pounding on the door the next morning. “Go ahead and let him in,” he said to Tel.
“Is it Alpine?” he asked, standing as he yawned and rubbed the sleep from his eyes.
“Well I sure hope it isn’t Lord Mirana.”
The door opened with a click and Raulin opened one eye to see who it was. “Good morning, Wizard. Must be something important if you’re up so early.”
Al stood there with his hands on his hips. “What did you do to Anla?”
“Nothing? Why, did she say I did anything?”
“No, but she’s being quiet.”
“She usually is quiet.”
“Not like this! She won’t talk about last night. What happened? Where did you go? What did you do or say to her?”
Raulin sat up. “She assisted me in one of my contracts. Nothing went wrong. She was in control of the situation the entire evening.”
“So, why is she upset about it?”
“Maybe she’s not upset about it. Maybe she’s upset because you snored the whole night.”
Al lingered for a few more moments before leaving in a huff. Raulin put his feet on the ground and looked over at his friend, who was looking at him with his thick eyebrows raised. “I kissed her.”
“Oh,” Tel said. “Was this a good thing?”
“I’m not sure. She was using her magic to prove a point, so I’m hoping she’s not going to hold it against me. I don’t think that’s what is upsetting her, though.”
“There was something else?”
“Yes. And it’s not something I’m going to talk to the wizard about.”
Raulin began his stretches. They always helped to clear his mind and let him focus on the tasks ahead of him. “Because it would mean he was right, that I acted exactly as he said men should act towards women. He said women needed to be protected, I said they should make their own decisions. And last night I dashed into a situation like a prize idiot and almost ruined her part of the plan.”
“Did you succeed?” he asked, sitting cross-legged on the floor.
“I’d consider the night a success, since I did steal the necklace. However, the part about working with others was a failure, on my part. I didn’t plan it well enough and I didn’t trust the person I was working with.” He gave a snorting laugh. “Arvarikor has burned that well into my mind.”
“So, you’ll go back to working alone then?”
Raulin held the split he was in, his legs almost touching the floor. To strengthen the pose, he lashed his arms out around him in random movements. He took a deep breath, then dove forward, his hands holding his body off the floor while he slowly swung his legs behind him. “I’m not a man who likes being corralled. I can see the big picture here, that it’s unfair to you three to be dumped in a room all day, like luggage or a musty jacket. But, I also don’t like being yoked into doing something I don’t want to do, even though I know it’s inevitable. I kick and scream like a little baby. I think the only reason why I eventually broke and began to take my trirec training seriously is only because I was caned so much that every inch of my back was welted.
“I need time. I know I’m supposed to let you guys help, or at least make things more interesting for you. But it’s hard for me to throw out my training. I just…need to think about this more.”
“This is a wise course of thought,” Tel said. “I’m glad you’ve come this far. Don’t worry about me; I’ve been observing things and writing them down in my journal. That is all I need right now.”
Raulin had finished his side poses and moved to look at the ceiling, his arms straight behind him and supporting his weight. His muscles strained as he lifted each leg as high as possible. “That helps, thank you. It was honestly never really you I was worried about. Your needs are clear.”
“I think Alpine and Anladet’s are as well. Anladet likes to feel useful. Alpine wants to remain honorable while also being challenged.”
“I think you’re right,” Raulin said. “I may have a solution to both of those as well as it being something I’m willing to let go.”
* * *
Al and Anla were already at breakfast, an affair of just tea and scones. Not too far away from their hotel was a bakery, where Raulin purchased a dozen pastries and brought them back to the lobby. Al’s face scowled when he saw him. Anla must have found something fascinating in her tea by the way she studied it.
Raulin sat on the couch across from them, Tel joining and diving into the frosted sweets. “I have a contract that is rather difficult and would appreciate your assistance.”
“I’m not killing anyone,” Al said quickly.
“It would surprise me if you wanted to. Actually, you might like this contract, Wizard. It involves a damsel in distress, a man plaguing her, and the mystery behind who he is.”
“I’m…open to hearing about it,” he said, grabbing a danish.
“There is a lady, the eldest daughter of an earl, who has been stalked for almost two years now. At first it was poetry and sonnets, followed by gifts sweethearts would give to each other. Then, something angered him and everything turned sinister. The letters were belligerent, the gifts used, broken, or macabre. At some point he began following her. I’m guessing the family suspects her life is in danger.
“I’ve marked this as a lucrative contract, which tells me that the family is well-to-do and that they’ve exhausted all other avenues: the police, private investigators, and the Cumber. I’m not surprised at the police; they tend to do due diligence on cases like that. The Cumber only works on cases that effect the monarchy, so they may have tried because of the family’s ranking, or they may not have. I’m surprised the private investigators came up empty, though.”
“What if they were embarrassed and didn’t want people to know?” Al said.
“A good thought, but there are rumors in plenty across New Wextif. When the relationship was favorable, Amirelsa didn’t seem shy about speaking about it.”
“What else do you know?”
“Not much. I’m assuming that a thorough investigation was made into all people surrounding Amirelsa and they came up with nothing.”
“What if it’s her?” Al asked.
He paused at this. “What? What if she’s…why would someone do that?”
“I’ve read a few stories where people of splintered minds do things without the knowledge of their conscious. Or perhaps she does it for the attention, since you said she spoke to people about it.”
Raulin bowed his head and took a deep breath. “I won’t throw out theories, especially if we grow desperate to solve this, but perhaps we should look at more obvious solutions. We’ll put the ‘she’s the victim and the culprit’ in with the ‘it’s a vengeful ghost’ and the ‘it’s the king’ possibilities and set those aside for now.”
“You haven’t given us much to go on. How are we supposed to solve this?”
“Ah,” Raulin said. “You are absolutely right. I haven’t given you much to go on. But, I’m offering you the opportunity to remedy that, if you’d like.”
“Today I’d like to tour the estate of Amirelsa’s family and see if there’s anything I can notice. While I do that, I would like you two to interview her and see if there’s anything you can tell about the situation.”
Up until that point, Anla had been listening, but slowly sipping on her tea. When he said that, she looked up and held his gaze. “Why both Al and I?”
“Well, I think you both have unique perspectives to this investigation. Al is well-learned and read, so he has a lot of knowledge to draw from. You are very perceptive and you are also something Al isn’t, which is namely female. Amirelsa is understandably agitable over this situation. I think that the both of you would be able to put her at ease enough to get the answers we need.”
“We’ll be paid?” she asked.
“I think that’s fair,” he said, feeling like he just bought a round for the bar and wound up purchasing the tavern.
“Fifty percent,” Al said.
Raulin chuckled. “No.”
Anla put her hand on Al’s arm. “How about a set price for conducting a thorough investigation and a bonus if we give you information that leads to the capture of the stalker?”
“That information would be a substantiated theory. But, yes, I like that better. Five gold each for the interview, twenty percent of my take for the information. And keep in mind I may have other jobs available. “
“I think that’s fair,” she said, returning to sipping her tea.
“Forty-eight percent?” Al asked.