A few weeks passed into September, not that it made too much difference in the way of weather. A few more heavy storms ripped through, dumping inches of rain and flooding certain parts of the capital, but for the most part the weather remained warm and humid.
Raulin whistled as he made his way to Vanif’s estate. Today was going to be a garden party with high tea served. The fact that no tables or chairs were placed outside didn’t hinder his route, since he had expected this day to come, but for the role’s sake he looked around in confusion.
The valet answered the door and bade him to stand while he got Vanif. He would have sat again, but all the furniture was covered in white sheets. A pit of grief began to well in his chest until he saw Vanif emerge from his rooms and jog down the stairs.
“Marin, I apologize. I didn’t know where to reach you, so I didn’t send a cancellation notice.”
“That’s all right, my friend. Is everything fine with you?”
Vanif chewed on the inside of his mouth. “I take it you’re not caught up on gossip, are you?”
“I tend to ignore the things I hear. I can’t bother to keep up with what you Ghenians find important, since it will all change by the next time I’m here.”
“Well, this is on the permanent side. I’m moving and might not see you again.”
Raulin feigned alarm. “What? Why? Is it something I did?”
“Not you. I’m…taking a break from society and reducing my profile in Gheny.”
He waited to see if he was going to be more forthcoming, then finally asked, “Did something happen?”
Vanif began walking down the corridor and Raulin followed. It took some time before he stopped, turned to him and said, “I’m being stripped of my titles and my family has disowned me. I will still be managing their affairs, but only as an employee, and my monthly retainer has been slashed. I will have to live outside their estates. There will be no more parties, no more soirees, no more teas. Oh, and my marriage has been annulled, so I can’t look to Gretza’s family, either. So, I can’t help you in the future, Marin. You’ll have to navigate Ghenian society on your own.”
Raulin broke decorum and hugged Vanif, who seemed a little surprised by this. “I will miss you, my friend. You have always been true to me and it’s something I’ll always treasure.”
Vanif cleared his throat and moved away. “Yes, well, I feel I’m no longer an important friend to have.”
“It doesn’t matter; I’m not an instated count, so both you and I are blooded but without titles.”
“It’s a little different. You, at least, have hope to one day be a count again.”
“Never give up hope. ‘A man who loses control of a county may one day lead a country’.”
Vanif gave a non-committal grunt. “So, this means there’s no tea today.”
“Did you want to do something else? We can go out for a repast or for a drink.”
“I don’t think it’s a good idea for you. Tarnished image and all.”
“I’m not bothered by a tarnished image. I’ll be leaving soon with plenty of their money. I doubt they’d ask for it back or risk tarnishing their own image.”
Vanif took a deep breath. “Yes, I could use a drink.”
They went to a nearby parlor that Vanif frequented. He downed absinthe after absinthe and was sozzled within fifteen minutes. Raulin watched this without comment and listened when Vanif began a drunken tirade against almost everyone he’d known. It was a side he’d never seen of him, but Raulin had seen this same scenario played out a few times in others. When given the opportunity to let their guards down, all the polish and deportment of the nobility vanished and left anger, self-loathing, and fear in its place. And Vanif’s guard wasn’t just down; it was gone.
He railed against everything he couldn’t change; his family, the system, his marriage. Then, he began crying. “I love him,” he said.
“Corr’n,” he said in a very faint whisper. “‘ve never loved anyone like I love him. I can’t leave him. I can’t live without him. If you ever find som’ne like that, som’ne who it would hurt to breath without, marry them. If you can,” he added bitterly.
What could he say to that? He remembered the sunlit woman from his dream aboard the ship and knew that he felt like that about her. It had ached so badly when he had awoken. It was a small sliver of empathy he could feel for his friend, though he hoped never to meet her. He couldn’t offer he what she would want.
He convinced Vanif to walk back home after another drink, though walking was a generous term for what he did. Raulin slung his friend’s arm around his shoulder and half-dragged the man across the few blocks to his soon-to-be former home. They were within sight when Vanif managed to lift his head and asked, “Waz it you?”
“Was it me what?”
“People say things. I don’t like it, but it almost makes sense. They think yer not a noble, but som’ne who works for the Cumber. Or a trirec, but thaz not right.”
“Aren’t trirecs Merakian? Short and darker skinned?”
“‘s what I said. But, anyway, you came here and then thiz happen’d. Is hard to ignore that.” Vanif suddenly dug his fingernails into Raulin’s shoulder, releasing just a moment later. “‘kay.”
“If I can ever help you in the future, you know I will. But, I have to return to Arvonne.”
“Sure. Vetreya iz helping me, a little. Write to her.”
Raulin opened the front door and saw Corrin standing nearby. “He needed a drink…or ten. Take care of him?”
He slid himself under Vanif’s arm to take his weight from Raulin. “I always do,” he said.
* * *
“How did it go?” Anla asked.
He sighed and sat on the edge of the bed. “It could have been worse, I suppose. I think he’s going to be okay eventually, but he’s not taking the change well.”
“So, they disowned him?”
“Yes, but his family is at least employing him to handle the businesses. The same as what he’s been doing, but much less freedom and money.”
“At least he’s not on the street.”
“Yes.” Al entered the room in front of Telbarisk and the two got comfortable on the floor. Raulin stood and closed the door. “Okay, one last time before we review our plan; is everyone on board with this? Breaking into the Cumber could have some serious repercussions for you three. Even just assisting me means you risk serious problems in your future. I can’t even list all of them.”
“We’re aware,” Al said, sounding a little bored. “It’s not like I have anything to go back to anyway.”
“I thought you said you were on vacation,” Anla said.
“Well, it’s been almost three months, so I’m guessing my spot has been filled. I think I should look for a new job anyway, something like a vizier position with a noble.”
“The noble might not hire you if you’ve been blacklisted by the Cumber,” Raulin said quietly.
“The right noble would overlook that.”
“All right. Anla? Tel?”
“I have enough money to travel back to my people, should I want to, or leave the country. I’m not concerned.”
“I’ll stay with you,” Tel said.
“I appreciate your solidarity. Now, let’s discuss our intel. Anla?”
She straightened her back, trying to get comfortable on the lumpy bed in Raulin’s new room. “After about five weeks of scared informants, dead-ends, and no-shows, I’ve finally gathered concrete evidence that the Cumber is definitely in Shingden. Not only that, but I can tell you which building it’s in and what you’re likely to encounter as far as guards or workers.”
“You’re certain this is true?”
“Unless they knew a way to fool my ear and corroborated with two other people they didn’t know, it’s true.”
“Good. So, we have the place and we can figure out a time. I’ll bring Anla and Tel with me; I don’t think I’ll need you with me, Wizard, since your talents wouldn’t help on location.”
“The gate,” he said.
“What? What do you mean?”
“You can’t bring Anla and Tel past the Amanstri Gate, since they’re not nobles, and it’s going to be nearly impossible to get them past the church gates and the main civilian gates. Same goes for you as well.”
“Oh, that’s right. Well, I wouldn’t worry about the gates; I have a way around that issue.”
“Really?” Anla asked.
“Yes. I mean, it’s a little dicey and it still won’t nullify the problems with sneaking past guards, but I should be able to get past the Amanstri Gate.”
“How?” Al asked.
“That I can’t divulge.”
“But…scholars have been studying that gate for centuries. It was said to have been crafted by the gods themselves. No one has gotten around it.”
“And I doubt those scholars have studied Merak or trirec tricks. I’m not concerned about that part of the plan. What concerns me is the actual implementation of the heist once I reach the building, the possibility of getting caught, and then escaping. And now I don’t even have you three to help, should something go wrong.”
“At least we know where you’ll be,” Anla said. “We’ll be on high alert, stationed as close as possible.”
“I know, but I was hoping to have Tel help with the entrance and your silence spell.”
“I can help from a distance,” Tel said.
“But, it might be hard for you to know who I am in a crowd. Shingden is a small city with nobility and workers surrounded by twelve churches. That’s thousands and thousands of people within a few neighborhood’s worth of space.”
“I can try,” he said, but both were doubtful.
They ran over the plans for hours, guessing at potential issues that might cause major issues. Raulin was trained to deal with most of them, like a guard appearing where he shouldn’t, but for everything else he was grateful for the sharp minds of both Al and Anla.
When he went to bed that night he felt uneasy and strange. It wasn’t due to this being a very high risk situation; he was used to that, and frankly, the risks all felt the same to him when he was ducking into shadows and listening for noises. What felt unusual was the teamwork. This was their first cohesive task since their escape from the dungeon in the Count of Carvek’s castle, and he hadn’t expected this arrangement to be permanent then. With the time to think about it, he felt almost like he had when he’d been out at sea, right before he’s been resigned to dying there. And he had an additional worry: he was now worried he’d fail and disappoint them.
The last was gnawing at him, keeping him up into the night. He usually slept better with Anla at his side, but he couldn’t find that heaviness of sleep. At least, not until she turned in her slumber and wrapped her arm around his side. After the slight shock, he found his breathing deepened and he was asleep soon after.