Because there was no question of fires and of job dismissals in his mind, Al did sleep that night. It wasn’t a good sleep; it was restless and his stomach churned, pulling him from slumber several times, but it was enough. Still, he had dreams of intentionally drowning, people trying to pull him up to the dock he had jumped off of or walking the plank on a ship despite everyone giving him odd looks. He felt he needed to drown, but everyone around him thought it a queer idea. It had made sense when he was asleep.
Telbarisk was still asleep in the corner when Al finally opened his eyes. There was no early morning confusion; all his problems were still right there waiting for further consideration, mainly the question of how his madra could do what she had done.
Part of the problem, one that Al didn’t fully grasp, was there was a war of ethics going on in his mind. When his mother had learned that he was intellectually gifted, she had devised a path in life for him, as was her duty as the family head. She had been a woman with a profitable business and groomed to join the Council, but still a woman in a world of Ghenian men. She could never change that; even with the large percentage of Br’vani, Baradan hadn’t budged in that regard at all in the centuries her people had been trickling in to the rocky shores. So, she had learned from the best, her mother, and knew a way to get around that particularly frustrating situation.
Al’s grandmother had bent to Ghenian ways and had educated her older brother, Risha, who had shown promise like Al had. Risha had been a brilliant lawyer and could make his way in society and bend ears that no woman could. Sadly, he had died of consumption at the tender age of thirty-two. Al’s mother had wanted the same brilliant career, and accessibility, for her son; someone who could bridge the gaps she couldn’t.
And so, he had been well-educated. He was going to be a lawyer, she decided, or perhaps a banker if he took to mathematics well. She hadn’t expected him to excel in philosophy and ethics. No issue in her mind, since ethics could serve a lawyer or a politician well, but the ethics he had taken to heart was strongly Aroukean flavored. Morality was rigidly set by books and old men and didn’t incorporate the give and take that Br’vani was comfortable with. On more than one occasion she’d had to sit with her rino to explain why it was acceptable to cheat or lie a little here and there to get ahead.
If you had asked him about it, Al would remember the difficulties he’d had reconciling between the two. There were no ways around Aroukean philosophy. Stealing, cheating, killing, and lying were all wrong, evil things that corrupted men and eroded society. He liked that. It was very easy to be good. If he didn’t lie, he would be what Tichen had called a “virtuous monastic” and Al really enjoyed the idea of being something greater than just average in something tangible for him.
He’d had discussions with his indulgent madra about this. She had posed questions, he would study and return. “What if you lied for the good of a situation? What if by lying you saved a life?” Tichen said you would lose your virtuosity. “Is that the most important thing in your life, to be virtuous?” At the time it had been.
Al knew his mother didn’t play by the same rules she had asked him to learn. She was very open about how she lied to customers about the quality of a product or to partners about the price of an item. She had patiently explained how money worked, that the worth of a gold coin depended largely on what a buyer and seller agreed it was worth, that the quality of an item was based in the consumer’s mind. He didn’t like that. One gold should be worth one gold, always the same. Quality should be determined based on strict standards. It wasn’t that he didn’t get it; he just didn’t want to get it.
But Tichen had spoken about this, too. He had essentially said that bartering and purchasing was a complex system and that he couldn’t judge heavily those who cheated those who didn’t educate themselves. Al was complacent with this and ignored that which he didn’t understand. And that was more or less fine.
Murder, however… He couldn’t get over that particular sin. In his mind, his mother was paying a fee for a life because she couldn’t work around a problem. It didn’t matter if the man was slitting the throats of every Br’vani on the streets, it was for the law to determine whether he lived or died, not his madra.
He wiped his face with his hands and sat up just before he heard a knock at his door. “I brought you a warm pastry,” Anla said.
“Thanks,” he said, pulling a tunic over his head.
Anla handed one to Tel, who had awoken at the knock, then sat on the bed. Al chewed quickly and swallowed without enjoying the taste. “How are you feeling?” she asked.
“Fine, Anla, just fine.”
“I’m just concerned. It’s a lot for one person to discover.”
“Oh, do you mean it’s a lot for one person to discover that the person who raised him, the person who taught him right from wrong, has paid someone to kill another?”
“At least she didn’t do it herself.”
His gaze narrowed and snapped up at hers. “This is different! I didn’t mean to kill…”
“Shh,” Raulin said, standing next to Anla. “I don’t mind the discourse, but I can hear you clear through the walls.”
“Great. He knows. Did you tell him?”
“No,” Anla said. “You didn’t want him to know, so I said nothing.”
“I don’t know what’s going on,” Raulin said, “but I can guess. Someone dear to you was the contractor of the assassination I need to carry out. Since we’re in your childhood home, I’m assuming this is your sister or your mother.”
“My mother,” he said bitterly.
“And you discovered this and were upset because she told you when you were younger not to kill people, then she went ahead and hired me to kill someone.”
“I can see why you’re upset.” He stepped inside and closed the door behind him and Anla.
“I want you all out,” Al said. “I don’t want to talk about it. This is between my me and my madra, not you three.”
“You’re right,” Anla said, sitting on the bed. “This is personal. But friends have the privilege to advise their friends.”
“I know how this advice is going to go. ‘Al, you’re being too hard on your mother. You’re too strict. Maybe cut her some slack.’ No! She knows what she’s doing. She knows it’s wrong. Still, she doesn’t stop it.”
“Did you tell her she could?” Raulin asked. “My target is quite a piece of work, but I’d rather not have to kill someone. I get paid either way, and I don’t mind wasting the time, so why actually go through with it?”
“She won’t. She feels it’s best for the greater good.”
“And therefore she’s completely evil,” Anla said.
“No, she’s not evil. She’s just…part of the problem. Look,” he said, taking on his favorite opinionated tone, “people should all act within the limits of the law. If they don’t, they should pay penalties for their crimes. No exceptions.”
“No exceptions? I can think of fifty scenarios off the top of my head where obeying the law makes society worse,” Raulin said. “You’re saying that if King Taneus was ordering all children to be slaughtered, you’d allow that to happen?”
“It wouldn’t happen.”
“In hypothetical situations, anything can happen. Say it did. Say he signs a law into place saying all Ghenians under the age of seventeen are to be butchered.”
“Gheny is a constitutional monarchy. He can’t just sign laws into place.”
Raulin sighed. “Say the parliament goes along with it. What do you do?”
Al at least had the decency to look ashamed. “There would be a good reason. Some disease that caused suffering to children or a madness that caused youths to kill their parents.”
“No! There is no good reason for the wholesale slaughter of an entire group of people! I can’t believe you’d think that was acceptable! ‘A nation’s youth is its most valuable resource, Alghorin.’ ‘Children bring treasures unimaginable to all around them, Breckin Jr.’ And what did Tichen have to say about that?”
“Don’t. I know what Tichen said about children. But he also said that…”
“…he also said it’s important to be virtuous and obey the law, blah blah,” Raulin said, waving his hand. “Yet, he contradicts himself, he and all the others. Why? Because morality isn’t something you be definitive about. It shifts, it warps, it changes.”
“No, stop. Killing is wrong…”
“It is…most of the time. And then there are times when it’s right. I try not to form opinions about those in my contracts because it causes problems on my end. Every once in a while, though, I get an assassination that I don’t really mind doing. This is one of those times. I really can’t say your mother made the wrong decision here.”
“It’s a man’s life. That should be enough.”
“Al,” Anla said. “I don’t understand why you think it’s okay for one person to be terrible but not another.”
“Explain your friend Aggie, then.”
He had to think about this. “It’s different.”
“No, it isn’t. You just finished explaining to us that morals don’t depend on circumstances. Yet, you have no problem being friends with someone who cheats on his wife, lies to women about who he is in order to bed them, and spends beyond his means in order to keep his ruses.”
“If I didn’t have Aggie, I wouldn’t have anything,” he said sadly. “You’re right that I don’t do anything. I should. But I know that if I lectured him every time he did something wrong, he wouldn’t talk to me. I’ve never helped him, though. Okay, once he asked me to keep one of his beaus stalled, but I didn’t do it and she and the other girl wound up fighting. I listen to him and I keep my opinions to myself, because I know his life is going to be short.”
Anla let out an exasperated sigh. She was about to give up and let him make a huge mistake when Telbarisk cleared his throat. “Alpine, do you love your mother?”
Al turned his head to the corner where Tel sat. “Of course I do. She’s my madra.”
“You said you’re friends with Aggie, even though he’s someone who does things you don’t agree with. Why can’t you speak with your madra?”
“Because there are things too horrible to allow. I won’t go to the police; I don’t have enough evidence. But she should be punished for her crime and the only way I can do that is to not speak to her.”
“And this is because you know she has paid for the life of a man? What if your friend Aggie has killed someone, but you don’t know this?”
He wanted to argue that Aggie wouldn’t kill someone, but it was all too easy for Al to picture a jealous lover receiving the steel end of a knife in the ribs in a bar fight. “I’d never speak to him again if I knew that.”
“Then your basis for shunning is knowledge. Yet, you speak with all of us knowing even though I believe all of us have killed someone.”
“It’s…you three aren’t upstanding. I expect you to commit crimes.”
Anla snorted at this, but Telbarisk continued unaffected. “You don’t expect your mother to hire an assassin because she is upstanding.”
“So, this is personal, then?”
“Ye-.” He stopped.
“You have feelings of pain over this discovery? Betrayal, indignation, perhaps embarrassment?”
If Tel wanted to win the argument, he could have stopped there. But Tel wasn’t interested in besting Al with words. He wanted to help. “Alpine, look at me.” Al did, with some difficulty. “I am a long ways from home. I miss my family. If I could see any of them, even my brother, I would do whatever I could to do so.”
“Yeah, but your mother didn’t hire a thug to kill someone.”
“You have a mother,” Anla said. When Al looked back to her, he saw Raulin’s standing behind her, his hand on her shoulder.
“Wizard, you can’t find perfection in people,” he said. “There will always be something you don’t like or don’t approve of in people. And that’s fine. Don’t be friends with them and live a lonely life. But, family is family. That’s different than friendship. Your mother raised you. She fed you, she clothed you, she wiped your tears from your face, she held you when you were scared. That’s…that’s something so very, very precious. I couldn’t even tell you what I would give to hug my mother once more. Arms, legs, hell, I’d fall on a sword for that opportunity.
“So, if you don’t want to speak to your mother ever again because she did one terrible thing, then that’s your choice. But think real hard about what you’re giving up because you feel slighted. Don’t assume you’ll have the chance to patch things up with her, because there’s no guarantee you’ll get that opportunity.”
Anla reached up and squeezed his hand, then softly asked if he wanted to go into town. The two left Al, who seemed very troubled.
“I’ll leave you alone, Alpine,” Tel said, “but I’ll be down in the common room. If you need to speak to someone, I’ll be available.”