“There is a village ahead,” Tel said the next morning as they trekked farther south. “We will stop there.”
Raulin looked up quickly at the sky, shielding his eyes from the sun. “It’s only about two o’clock. I mean, if that’s what you feel we should do, then that’s fine. But I was hoping for a slightly faster pace.”
“You said I should listen to kouriya and lead us where it says to go.”
“I know, and I appreciate that. It’s just that we’ve only traveled about ten miles since I let you lead.”
“Kouriya isn’t always what you want it to be, Raulin,” he answered patiently. “It almost is never a fast thing. And it can bring bad things to people who then curse fate, not knowing that it might help them in the future.”
“I know, I know. It’s not a smooth path, or whatever metaphor you’ve said in the past. I’d still like to know why your brother being not assassinated is helping the Valley of the Cold Winds.”
“I love my brother, Raulin.”
“I didn’t mean that he should be killed, just that there was an opportunity for it to have happened and the motive seemed sound. Yet, nothing has happened to him. He still sits on the throne, making poor choices, discrediting his adversaries, framing and punishing his brother.”
“Do you think I don’t dwell on what he did?” he asked with some sadness. “I spent months in a cell before being rowed to Ouyadid, and then spent time there contemplating things. I have to believe that what he did was for the best for our people and that rejecting the help offered was what kouriya demanded.”
Raulin stopped walking for a moment. “What help, Tel? What help did you reject?”
He took a slow breath in as he closed his eyes for a moment, still leading the rest of the group south. “I was approached by several people who claimed to have a large group of people willing to fight for my cause. If I had given the word, they would have broken me out and overthrown my brother as king.”
Raulin let out a long breath. “And I feel like I know why you decided not to; kouriya said this was what was best for your path. Did you consider, though, that maybe it’s not the best for everyone? That maybe being a martyr for your faith wasn’t the best choice?”
“Kouriya isn’t ‘do what is best for you and everyone else’, Raulin. Kouriya is finding the current in a stream and letting yourself be taken by it, hitting the rocks and drowning if that’s what is called for. It’s not about doing something so that good will come to you. I may never reap the benefits of kouriya in my life, but I still believe and practice it.”
“Why would someone do something that goes against self-preservation?”
“Because practicing kouriya is truly about putting not just others but the world before yourself.”
Raulin shook his head in disbelief as Anla spoke up. “It’s his way to live. Why are you arguing with him?”
“I’m sorry if I offended, mezzem,” he said, using a cordial tone. “I was only asking Tel to clarify and understand why we will be staying in the upcoming town when we can possibly make the next today.”
“I’m not minding the slow pace,” she said. “You’ve finished fourteen of your twenty-four contracts in one third of a year. We’re doing well and are in no rush.”
“Of course, mezzem. You speak wisely.”
She gave him an odd look that passed quickly by.
Siasard was bisected by the main road they were traveling, the aptly named Route of the Woods, which ran perpendicular to a road that petered out in the west somewhere and a connecting route to points in Courmet. The town was tangled between pines and maples, a few larger oaks causing the road to twist around them. Despite the plethora of timber at their disposal, the inhabitants seemed less concerned about coordination and repair for their businesses and homes.
“I suppose I’ll look into an inn and getting rooms for us,” Raulin said.
“I want a room by myself,” Al said.
Raulin turned and looked him over. “If there is an inn. If they have enough rooms. You’ll pay for the extra cost.”
“I wouldn’t mind sleeping outside, since we’re not in a city,” Tel said.
“Then, you’ll owe Telbarisk. Feel free to wander the vast splendor of Siasard. We’ll meet at this unruly tree in an hour.”
Siasard had perhaps fifteen buildings that weren’t homes. Of those, four had rooms for rent, which wasn’t surprising for a town smack dab in the middle of a major trade route. Of the four, one was in such bad disrepair that a quick glance told Raulin he wasn’t going to consider it. One was nice, but overpriced at nine silver a night. The other two were within a silver of each other and had two rooms available. He went with the one that smelled nicer.
Their situation was going to be a little problematic for Raulin. He had assumed that it was going to be easy to suggest that Mr. and Mrs. Auslen continue their charade and share a room together. He’d sleep alone with Telbarisk on the floor, then they’d continue on the next day without any issue. But with the wizard’s peculiarities over the last few days, Raulin hadn’t wanted to argue over his insistence on rooming alone, especially not in front of Anla.
He wondered if this was why Telbarisk, or kouriya, was insisting they stop in Siasard for the night. Was it to force he and Anla together so that they’d have to discuss what had happened? Or perhaps it was to define what they meant to each other. He wasn’t sure if he relished this opportunity or if it was going to cause more problems between them.
Anla was already at the oak when he approached. While she wasn’t oblivious that something was going on with Raulin, she was too distracted to consider it. Right then she was beneath a tree whose shade touched another tree’s, and so on for miles and miles until the forest reached her people. They were in Ashven now, and she held a growing hope that somehow her brother and sister had returned to their tribe and she would see them in only a few weeks.
“Mezzem,” he said, interrupting her thoughts. “I neglected to ask if you wanted your own room this evening.”
“Hmm? No, the usual arrangements are fine. Best to save money. In fact, I think I’m going to see if this town is interested in having a piscarin visit for a night.”
“Oh? Do you need a silver in your bucket from me?”
“No, but thank you. If they’re not interested, I’m not going to be disappointed; I’ll find other ways to occupy my night. Besides, I know what you’re reading is: you’re supposed to be something else, something grander than a trirec. You wouldn’t listen anyway.”
He handed her the key to their room and told her where the inn was. “Should I? Listen, that is.”
She shrugged. “You know how I feel about what I do. I can’t and won’t say what you should do with your life based on how I reached inside a bag and pulled out some tiles.”
“I might want to see if anything is different.”
“Come find me in a few hours, then.”
Anla spent that time alone, inspecting the town and its residences. She wasn’t as critical to Siasard as Raulin had been; while she saw the hanging shutters and the roofs that needed patching, she also saw that most merchants were busy with an acceptable amount of wares for sale. They had a blacksmith in the middle of repairing an axle, fresh fruit in the market, and a busy mail station. She peeked into dusty, multi-paned windows and saw that, even though it was before dinner, there were quite a few people inside both tavern rooms.
In the end, she chose the one with the kinder looking bartender. She donned her piscarin outfit and sat herself quietly in the corner, casting runes and peering over them until she caught the interest of some of the men. After the bold and annoying had weeded themselves out, she began to get a steady enough line of customers that she wound up charging a full silver. Raulin had suggested she charge more and no one seemed to balk at the price, so she decided it was going to be a permanent change.
Anla was just beginning to feel the pangs of hunger when a man straddled the seat across from her and gently placed a bowl of stew and a spoon in front of her. He was a slight man, familiar looking, wearing traveling clothes and a dark, knit woolen cap she’d seen favored by the working men in the area. “You’ve been here for a while and I thought you might want something to eat.”
“Thank you. How much do I owe you?”
“Nothing,” he said with a friendly smile. “Though, if you’d like to do a reading for me, I’d call us even. Though, please, eat first.”
After she ate, she dabbed her face with a napkin and drew three stones from her bag. Kuh, wheh, and way, three unusual stones. He sat patiently, awaiting her interpretation. She, in turn, wondered whether to rely on what the runes were actually saying, which would be an odd reading involving something with magic and capturing, or to use something tried and true. “You’re looking for a woman,” she said finally said.
He gave a shy smile. “Go on.”
“You’ve traveled far to find her. And you’re getting close.”
“That seems rather on the spot.”
She pretended to look over the runes. He moved his chair a quarter around the table, so that he was sitting right next to her. At this distance, she realized he reminded her of Garlin, her younger brother, though a few decades older. “You’re hoping to be with her, maybe permanently.”
He smiled again. “I feel a deep sort of love for her, something that time apart hasn’t diminished. I just hope she feels the same way, too.”
Anla felt a genuine smile creep across her face. “She sounds like a lucky girl.”
The man leaned back and shrugged. “May I ask how you do it?” he said, gesturing to the tiles. “I’d love for you to tell me about it.”
“It’s guessing, really,” she said immediately. “I can tell more about what you want to hear than I could ever get from these.”
“Ah, so nothing so interesting as a connection to spirits, just plain, old cleverness.”
She nodded, feeling the heat rise to her face. “You think I’m clever?”
“Absolutely. You’re a smart, capable woman. I could tell that from when we first spoke. Beautiful, too, but that I could tell from across the room. May I ask what the pretty lady’s name is? Your real name, not the one you’ve been telling these townsfolk all night.”
“Oh! So your father must be Arvonnese, then? ‘Det’s for girls and ‘din’s for boys, is that right?”
“For the names whose first part ends in a vowel, otherwise there’s no ‘d’.”
“That explains things! I always wondered why my friend Alcharin had no ‘d’ in his name.” He smiled at her and she felt something like when she saw Raulin remove his shirt. “How do you feel about this bar? Do you want to go somewhere else?”
“No,” she said, but she still smiled at him.
He frowned and sighed. “Mind if I tell you a secret, then?”
“I love secrets. Go ahead.”
They both leaned in and he whispered, “Aanladett, you will go with me upstairs to my room and you won’t fight our ddeparturee.”
She sucked in a breath and remembered nothing else of that night.