11-14

Bracefort, now that was a castle. A massive one, too, with dozens of towers and turrets, battlements that lined the entire wall, arrow slits, murder holes, machicolations, and ramparts a plenty. And it was all stone, too, with only banners of blue, red, and white to break up the monotony.

Should an army or a gang of pirates decide to attack Shingden and somehow make it past New Wextif’s defenses, they’d have the difficult task of entering Bracefort made almost impossible by additional security. The only direct access point for an intruder would be through the general gate, but the bridge to the barbican would be drawn and the moat surrounding it treacherously wide and deep. Each church of the Twelve occupied a part on the wall had an entrance, but they were often heavily guarded and not easy to navigate, a bottleneck that could clog easily. And the Amanstri Gate was available only for blooded individuals, and most pirates were unlikely to be noble.

The gate let blooded individuals through and also those with masks that nullified certain magic. It was a well-guarded secret what the exact properties the soft, gray metal inside the trirec masks could do and even Raulin didn’t know all of them. But in this case, all he had to do was saunter through the gate and pen a fake name to a guest book in the nearby booth. Too easy, sure, but when it came to the Cumber, he’d take whatever advantages he could find.

The actual keep of the royal family, Bracefort, rose to his left. The main entrance was to the south to reduce the ease of access and was guarded by a company of guards. He ignored it, not needing nor wanting a tour.

The sunset cast a beautiful rose-gold glow against the paned windows of the shops that lined the street. As this was the place that nobles arrived and congregated, the buildings were well-cared for and sold higher quality items. The people strolling in the street here were mostly dressed well, though there were a few people who were likely servants based on their attire. A woman with a stained apron and worn leather boots almost bumped into him, quickly leaving even though he said nothing to her.

Raulin shook his head. Al had warned him that having the Unease transferred would make his sight and hearing better, sometimes to the point of distraction. He looked at his map discretely and began plotting his course and moved ahead down Main Street.

The neighborhood soon roughened to tighter buildings and mixed materials. It was a far cry from some slums Raulin had seen, and, in fact, nowhere in Shingden was it really poor, but it was still less aesthetically pleasing.

About a mile down the road he spotted the blue-tiled building that took up a full block length-wise. A sign proclaiming it to be the incorporated business owned by the Farestri brothers hung over the door to a shop that sold books, newspapers, pens, ink, and other writing implementations. Those paying attention would note that the store was tiny, just a fraction the size of the long building, but no one seemed to pay attention to it.

To the side, underneath a canopied walkway, was the door that would be the easiest access for Raulin. It would mean he’d have to pick the lock between the minute-long interval a guard wasn’t present, which hadn’t set well with him. He’d practiced earlier in the day, but it wasn’t going to help him much when it came to doing it under pressure.

As he stood across the street, a thin, muffled voice swirled around him. “That’s it,” Anla said. “Tel says there are twenty men inside and there are three above-ground levels and two below-ground. The man standing at the corner across from you is the guard. Good luck.” Ah, he wished she would stay with him while he did this. He could have snuck her in, too, but he realized this was going to be the safest way should something happen.

He looked across the street and saw a bearded man lighting a cigarette. His vision was so fine-tuned that he could read the words on the side of the cigarette box if he wanted to, but instead leaned against the building, holding up a broken pocket watch like he was waiting for someone. The man took a few puffs then turned to his left. Raulin watched as he made a very inconspicuous route to the back of the building, stopping here and there to examine paint on the side of the building or scuffed his boots on the gravel. He was guarding the secret more than the contents of the building.

Hoping that Telbarisk hadn’t missed another guard perched somewhere, he bolted down the alley to the side of the building and found the door with little trouble. He examined it, surprised that not only was there only one lock, but it was an old skeleton key system instead of the newer, more difficult tumbler locks he’d had to deal with frequently. Still, his sweaty hands made it harder than it needed to be. He heard the guard turn the corner just as the bolt slid and he slipped behind the door.

Raulin re-locked the door and slipped his mask on, appreciating it’s ability to soak in what little light was in the room and heightening it. He was in a short, nondescript entrance with a door about ten feet from where he was standing. That, too, was locked, but again with just a simple skeleton key system. The bolt clicked and he paused to hear if anyone was moving on the other side. Silence.

This had seemed easy, but as Raulin knew, even the most mysterious and frightening specters were tangible. This was a place that shrouded itself in obscurity, it’s people lurking in shadows. They bled when cut, the building burnt when set ablaze. It was no different than Arvarikor, its myths revealed in a puff of air.

To his right would be the fake storefront, so he went left and found two passages almost at the end of the building. The left led up, the right down, both barely wide enough to hold two people walking sideways. He used the sides of the stairs and the railing to reduce the noise, which he could barely hear in his borrowed state.

And finally, once he was through that door, began the menial task of hunting for one folder amidst thousands. There were twelve rooms on either side and two floors of what he guessed were mostly archives and reports. He walked to the end, opened the right-side door, and began inspecting.

He quickly swept each and every room, marking with borrowed chalk which were locked and which were unlikely to hold what he needed. The first round was quick, perhaps twenty minutes. The second, more methodical sweep, took hours. His eyes were starting to grit and the Unease felt like it was wearing off when he finally pulled a reddish-brown folder from a back cabinet with the required label and papers and stuffed it under the back of his shirt.

Raulin stood and froze. Something felt odd. The hair on the back of his neck stood as he turned to see a man casually leaned in the doorway. “We’ve been expecting you,” he said.

He stood facing the door, trying to figure his next course of action. The room’s one exit was blocked by this man. Rush him? What if there were guards in the hallway with crossbows? Tel had said there were twenty men in the building, but he wouldn’t have mentioned if they had weapons or armor. He couldn’t be sure he’d survive an escape.

Raulin slowly pulled his knives out and waited. The man, of average height, weight, and a mean pair of mutton chop sideburns, could have killed him or had him arrested already, so he wanted something. “There’s no need for a fight,” the man said. “Besides, I have a sword and a lot of training with it.”

“And I have the advantage of tight quarters as well as the fact that I’ve killed with my blades.”

“Ah, good. You speak Ghenian. I was worried you’d only speak Merakian, though I suppose if you got the right folio then you must.”

He fingered his blades, twisting the hilts. “Folio? I’m searching for a seal.”

“No, you’re not. On your person is a folio for a Thermi Alcomb, AN-136. I know because I was the one who hired you.”

His mouth went dry and his stomach curdled. A set-up. Another set-up. “So, I should be giving it to you, then?”

“If you wish. You’ve already succeeded and I have no plans of contesting the contract with Arvarikor, no matter what you choose.”

“Choose?” he asked.

The man shifted his weight so he stood on both feet. “First, introductions. My name is Dangic Fremark, Viscount of South Quissend but more importantly the Director of His Majesty’s Intelligence and Reconnaissance Service, also known as the Cumber. And you are Raulin Kemor, the first Noh Amairian trirec on record.”

A chill ran up his spine and spread across his skin, coating his whole body in cold. “That’s quite an accusation.”

“I wouldn’t accuse without proof. Your people gave you up, warned the Cumber you were here and were fulfilling your contract. They told us all about you, including your unique heritage.”

Raulin had never felt the unique sensation of feeling like he’d been punched in the stomach and slapped in the face at the same time. Betrayal was not an act he was familiar with, especially not the one being betrayed. He shoved aside the immediate swirl of accusations in his mind of which one of the three had sold him out to focus on his immediate situation. “This seems a rather odd conversation to have. You’ve caught me stealing from you. You could have me arrested and thrown in jail, but instead you’re introducing yourself and laying out your information. Why?”

“Well, I thought we could come to some other arrangements. If you’ll follow me, I’d like to propose something.”

“If it’s all the same, I’d rather be on my way now.”

“I’m sure you would,” he said with a quick snort of laughter. “While you stay within these walls, you are safe. However, if you leave without my blessing, I cannot guarantee you’ll live very long. I’d recommend at least hearing me out.”

“I suppose that’s fair.” Wherever he was taking Raulin, it had to be more adventitious to escape from than an underground room with no windows.

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