13-7

Al felt the tell-tale echo-y shift around him that indicated Anla had silenced what they were saying to anyone outside their circle. “What’s going on?” he asked, having a slight fear that he knew exactly what was going on.

“Several men came to the hotel saying there was a stolen item they were looking for. They had some contraption that pointed towards our room, Al. I barricaded myself inside and plead hysterics, then escaped out the window.” She hefted his bag to him. “I couldn’t find the chalice quickly so I took the whole thing.”

“It’s not the chalice they’re after,” he said.

“It’s not?” Raulin asked.

“No. Tracking spells, or any other kind of spells, won’t stick to deitic artifacts.” He rummaged around until he pulled out the inkwell. “This is what they want.”

Raulin reached out to take it, but Al snapped it back. “I was curious as to what was so important that you left everything for.”

“It’s King Aubin’s inkwell. It was sitting on the shelf, gathering dust, in a curiosity shop. I…couldn’t leave it there. Yes, I stole it. Yes, I know that’s against the law. But, I couldn’t leave it.”

“Are you certain it was genuine? I would hope you didn’t run for a forgery.”

Al felt doubt for a moment, then said, “If it was a forgery, why would they send a team of trackers after it? Besides, it’s not the inkwell that’s important but what’s inside.”

“Which is?”

Al had few secrets left to keep. This was one of the last, and he wasn’t ready to tell it. Not yet, at least. “You’ll have to trust me on this; I know absolutely that this is what they’re after. It has the tracking spell on it. We need to hide this until we can leave Whitney.”

“All right, Wizard,” Raulin said, “I’ll trust that you don’t have anything really terrible in that tiny box. Ideas, and quickly, before they realize the inkwell is gone from the room. We need to stash this somewhere that only we can reach until the time is right.”

“Some place tall? Like, the top of Ap Caston’s Temple?” Al offered.

“As much as I’d love climbing to place it, Wizard, someone else could potentially get it.”

“In the ocean?”

“Too shallow and they can find it. Too deep and we can’t retrieve it. I don’t suppose your gift involves air pockets for breathing, Anla?”

“Not that I know of, but I don’t think we’ll need it. Telbarisk was able to hollow out that boulder and stuff us inside. Could he do that again for the inkwell?”

“That…would work. Anla, take Al’s pack and head back inside. Make it appear like you never left, if possible. Tel and I will go hide the inkwell. Wizard, you need to face the trackers and clear your name, if you can. We’ll bust you out of jail if we need to.”

Al relinquished the inkwell. “Promise me you won’t look inside.”

“If it means that much to you, I won’t,” Raulin said before heading down the alley, Tel in tow.

There were two trackers milling about outside the hotel entrance. You know nothing and will be surprised, Al told himself over and over again, trying to become the confused, innocent man instead of pretending to be him.

The two guards outside let him pass inside without so much as a second glance. Al was feeling disappointed when one of them said, “That’s him.”

He was quickly surrounded by four trackers, the buttons on their overcoats flashing in the dim lamplight. “I’m sorry?” Al stuttered. “I need to get to my room.”

“Yes, go right ahead,” said a dark-haired man with craggy skin. “Your wife has been most uncooperative with our investigation.”

You know nothing and will be surprised. “Investigation? What passes?” he asked, turning the key in the lock. “Anladet?”

“Oh, Al! Those terrible men were trying to steal our clothes!” she said, running into his arms. “Don’t let them in!”

“Why did you scare my wife?” he asked, turning to face the nearest man. “Why are you trying to steal our things?”

Sir, we were led here to recover an item that was stolen several months ago…”

“So, why are you in my room?” he asked as the men squeezed past him and starting opening drawers and pulling things out of his pack. “What is the meaning of this?”

“We have reason to suspect you to be that man. We will search your things until we are satisfied either way.”

“Excuse me! You have no police with you and therefore this search is unlawful! If I find one item missing…”

One of the men upturned his pack and a very loud, metallic clang filled the mostly quiet room. “What was that?” one of them asked.

“Oh, one of you brutes must have dropped my hairbrush!” Anla said. “Al, make them leave!”

“Gentleman, I’m giving you to the count of three before I started yelling and throwing fisticuffs at you lot. I don’t care who you say you are; this is vulgar harassment and you are upsetting my wife!”

“Boss, it’s not here,” one of the men said, holding a hexagonal box in his hands. The arrow on the dial in the middle pointed to the corner and moved slightly to the right as he walked towards the area.

The man who’d been speaking took a deep breath and looked like he had swallowed something bitter. “Men, out. Sir, I apologize for the intrusion.”

“You’d better! I should call the constable himself and make a complaint! I hope you’re…”

Anla put her hand on his arm. “Dear, let’s clean up and forget about this. They haven’t stolen or damaged anything. Besides, I’ve been meaning for you to reduce your pack. Maybe you can finally do that.” She gave him a steady, knowing glance that was obvious enough for him to read as “let it go”.

The dark-haired man bowed stiffly. “Again, sorry for the intrusion,” he said before leaving.

Anla let her breath out. “That was close.”

“Yeah,” Al said, dropping down to his knees to pick up all the items on the floor. “You think I really do need to reduce what’s in my backpack?”

“Not unless you want to. You’ve had some handy things in there, like the chalk and the salt and pepper. I’m surprised they didn’t say anything about the ax.”

“An ax is probably fine. An ax with a Skethik spell on it is a little harder to explain.”

“So, why didn’t their box point to that?”

“Each spell is slightly unique, even spells with identical consequences. It’s like when someone copies a letter; it’s still the same content, but they probably looped their Bs a little differently. There is a piece of paper in the tracker those men use that corresponds specifically to the spell on the inkwell.”

“Out there somewhere is the paper that created the chalice then?”

He shook his head, holding up a pair of tongs and remembering he had used them to help make Tel’s medicine before tucking them deep into his pack. “The chalice is different because it was created by an ap in direct link with his god. The ‘paper’ that corresponds to the spell is in the chalice itself, bound with the gold and jewels that make it. It’s very hard to create something like that, having the spell interwoven instead of on the surface.”

“And I’m guessing it’s impossible to destroy?”

Al’s eyes widened. “Destroy it? That would have catastrophic consequences. The gods have to keep balance and they do that through their intermediaries, including any artifacts. The fact that the chalice is in play means that the gods are active in restoring the balance.”

“Does it?” she asked, amused at the thought. “Or is it just a man happened to find himself in a situation where he chose to act unlawfully to save himself from losing his job?”

“It could be, but the more I think about it and the further I am from the situation, the more I feel like I was pushed. There were several occasions before in the weeks leading up to that moment where I felt the same need to just break my normalcy. I was tired of my life; I just didn’t know it until I acted before thinking about the ramifications.”

She was about to retort that the idea had no merit when Raulin and Tel came into the frame of their window. “It’s taken care of. Those trackers will be scratching their heads for hours, trying to figure out why it’s pointing inside solid stone three stories up on a church, all while in one of the busiest streets in Whitney.”

“You didn’t look inside the inkwell, did you?” Al asked.

Raulin sighed. “No, Wizard. You asked me not to. You’re welcome for hauling the damn thing up the side of a building, by the way.”

“He didn’t,” Anla said to Al, who sighed in relief. To Raulin she asked, “Just out of curiosity, would you say you’ve felt prodded into a certain path, like you’ve been repeatedly asked to do something and only recently decided to follow it?”

Raulin crossed his arms and leaned against the sill. “I don’t think so. I suppose this year-long docket has been different for me, taking on partners and working together, but I don’t think I was pushed hard in that direction. I came to the decision to let you work with me on my own. Why do you ask?”

“Al and I were just discussing how odd it was for him to start this whole thing and he mentioned how he felt prodded repeatedly to come to the decision to lash out instead of bottling up his emotions. I was considering my own path and wondered if there was any merit to the idea.”

Telbarisk ducked down into the window. “Hayinfal experience feelings like that. Those that don’t listen well to kouriya claim to feel a subconscious whispering or jolts in an odd direction.”

“But Al and I aren’t hayinfal,” she pointed out.

“There is no one here to confirm you’re hayinfal, but I actually have thought you two are very likely to be one. You both have been pulled into something greater than your lives normally would, enacting change along the way.”

“What change?” Al asked. “We haven’t done anything.”

“That is the mystery of being a hayinfal. You may never know when you did something that enacted a great change. Usually, though, you do, and I suspect it hasn’t come yet.”

“Something to look forward to,” Raulin said. “Speaking of change, I do need to talk with everyone. Perhaps in your room would be more private?”

13-6

Al whipped around and took a step back when he recognized the speaker. “Ember? What are you doing here?”

“I am here to claim what’s rightfully mine, Alpine,” she said, her thin eyebrows knotting. “You owe me fifty gold and a chalice, if I’m not mistaken.”

“You are,” he said, licking his lips. “The fifty gold was to bring the chalice to you. You never specified when. And the chalice isn’t yours, or your ‘family’s’. If anyone can claim ownership it’s the Brotherhood.”

“The Brotherhood let it sit on some shelf for years,” she said, casually lighting a cigarette in its holder. “If they’d wanted it, they would have gotten it. It was I who found it, confirmed what it was, and made progress to get it.”

“Doesn’t make it any more yours.”

“And it doesn’t make it yours, either. Our contract actually would give credence to my stake, since our agreement means that you are still in transit with the chalice.”

“If you’d like, I’d be happy to give you the fifty gold back. You can even tell Jindahl and Stohr about the fire, about me assaulting one of their employees, and about being an unregistered switcher.”

Ember removed the cigarette from her mouth and laughed, something that would be flirtatious from a different woman. “Oh, Alpine. I’m so glad my plan worked. Too bad I won’t be able to see the fruits from that labor.”

“Plan?” What are you talking about?”

“I didn’t want some simpering, sniveling little coward to work for me,” she said, the smoke curling around her. “I wanted a man, someone who could take risks and think for themselves. Someone who wasn’t going to run to me every time there was an issue or problem. And that you were not.

“I had an opportunity to get you under my thumb, get a switcher to fill in all those positions I had to decline and lose money over. So, I devised our little three task situation, knowing you devoured those heroism books. You were more reluctant than I thought, especially for someone who claimed he would have single-handedly saved the Arvonnese royal family, but you did them in the end. And, unless my initial judgment of you is poor, you’ve changed. You’re not the timid little creature I remember. You’ve definitely got the bravado to walk back into the city where you’re still wanted for theft. You’re exactly what I was hoping those tasks were going to do: make you into a valuable employee.

“But, things have grown difficult for me since you’ve left. Jindahl and Stohr were quite upset that you left without notice. You’re relationship with them is beyond tarnished, so I doubt I could hire you again. And, of course, I’ve been accosted by the police and investigators despite having an alibi that evening. I wouldn’t stick my neck out for you even if you rained necklaces. I am, however, willing to keep quiet about your appearance in Whitney if you’ll bring me the chalice.”

“It wouldn’t help me, since I still have the inkwell,” he said. “And why would I bring you the chalice anyway?”

“I didn’t come alone tonight. My men are just around the corner, waiting to ambush you.”

“Are they?” Raulin asked, snapping his knives back to his sides as he turned the corner to the alley. “The big guys with the batons, right? I don’t think they’ll be ambushing anyone tonight.”

Ember’s eyes grew wide. “A trirec,” she whispered. “How…how did you afford…did you sell the chalice? Alpine, tell me you didn’t sell the chalice.”

“Wizard, I think it would be best to keep our mouths shut and depart as soon as possible.”

“Tell me you still have it!”

Raulin studied her quickly, the light from the streetlamp inadequate for most, but not for a trirec with an enhanced mask. On her he saw something that made their departure more than urgent. “We leave now,” he said, grabbing Al’s arm.

Al didn’t protest, but he did question the sudden insistence in his voice. “You saw something. What’s wrong?”

“Take me some place that we can talk, otherwise, shut your mouth.”

Al knew places, but most were legitimate businesses and well-lit streets that weren’t deserving whatever was going on. After collecting Telbarisk at an already set point, and moving him somewhere else, he led Raulin miles across the city, into Scarinjou, past the stunned looks of the men he once loathed calling him brother, and to a secluded cemetery on a hill. “This is the quietest place I know that no one would look for me.”

“’As silent as the grave’,” Raulin said, leaning against what he thought was a columbarium to catch his breath.

“Why did you want me to take you here?”

“She’s part of the Sun-Moon Guild,” he said.

“So? Wait, what’s that?”

“You remember how I told you there will be some things I won’t be able to tell you because it will endanger both of our lives? This is one of those things.”

Al sighed in frustration. “What can you tell me, then?”

“First tell me who she is.”

“Ember is the manager of Milxner’s, which takes care of the less reputable wizards’ work in Whitney. I mean, not all of it’s bad, like jobs for lifting crates or guarding, like what Aggie does, but some of it is, like…”

Raulin held up his hand. “I get what wizards can do. I’m interested in her.”

“I don’t know her well, since she was in a different part of the building. She caught me punching a wall and it led to blackmail and then me running away with the chalice.”

“Punching a wall?”

“It shook the whole building and almost burned the place down.”

Raulin whistled. “I’ll have to remember you don’t do things in small measures. Actually, I shouldn’t be surprised; I saw what you did to that guy in New Wextif outside of the shipping yard. You beat him like a rug.” He clicked his tongue in thought. “So, what I can tell you is that the reason why she had you steal the chalice was she needed it for a group.”

“She said her family was descended from Mikros and that she wanted it brought to its rightful place.”

“I’m pretty sure that was a lie.”

Al’s spine straightened. “Wait, was the part about having a working relationship with her family a lie, too? Did I break a law that I thought was inconsequential but actually isn’t?”

“I don’t know, Wizard, but just because someone lies about one thing doesn’t mean they lie about everything. Personally, I think you’re safe. Why would the Cumber waste resources on one wizard who has no ties to the peerage?

“What I can tell you about the Sun-Moon Guild is that it’s a group that’s pretty powerful in shadowy ways. They’re a bit regressive, though, obsessed with the Twelve. In order to join the guild you need to present a deitic artifact.”

“How do you know that’s what she wanted the chalice for?”

“Her brooch,” he said, tapping on his collarbone. “She’s awaiting induction, otherwise it would be filled in with color.”

“And how do you know about this ‘Sun-Moon Guild’?”

“That would be the point where we stop our discussion. What I’ve told you thus far is on par with all the other things I’ve told you about being a trirec, which is already too much.”

“Do you really think I’m going to be captured by someone and beaten until I spill your secrets? Besides, I can handle it.”

“Wizard, you probably shouldn’t say that unless you’ve been tortured before.”

“Why, have you?”

“As a matter of fact, yes,” Raulin said, wiping his hands nonchalantly on his sleeves.

Why?

“Oh, you know, I was bored and I thought it might be fun to try out.” He scoffed. “Wasn’t my idea. Arvarikor does everything to you that you could possibly have to endure, short of disfigurement and permanent damage. It’s good to know where your breaking point is, so that you’re prepared to go further when that moment arises. You learn a lot of things, I suppose.”

“Oh,” Al said.

“Now, you’re going to walk back to Telbarisk, then our hotel. You remember where he is? I’m going to follow you and make sure you’re not being followed by someone else. And I want you to do me one favor while we’re going to the hotel.”

“What’s that?”

“I want you to think on how Ember knew you were going to be at that bar at that time. Go.”

Raulin moved to a darker part in the cemetery, only visible to Al because he had seen him move there. He led them down through the other side, down to the main road and on to the park in Dryside where Tel was resting, or collecting kil.

And, Al thought. There was a glaring answer to the question of how Ember knew where to find him and when, but he wanted to be fair. He gave it some serious consideration, pondered many alternatives, and returned right back to his original assumption.

“Aggie sold me out,” he said to Raulin, once Tel was with them.

“Yes.”

“I was his friend. How could he do that to me?”

“Likely for the money, which I’m sure he has a hard time holding on to. She is his boss, too, and brownie points are always nice. I’m sure when you left earlier this year she offered a reward if you ever came back, to set you up for a trap.”

“I’d never sell him out! I’ve never told his wife about his infidelities. Maybe I should, though. Maybe he deserves it.”

“Maybe he does deserve it, but think of who you’d be hurting the most there. As it is, he’s married with children and he supports them. If you tell his wife, she’ll either be forced to divorce him or forgive him, which is tantamount to sanctioning his dalliances. Either way, she’ll be the one in pain, not him. He may still love her, but he stopped respecting her a long time ago.”

“But, it’s only fair! I’m glad I found out my wife was having an affair; I’d hate to go through life not knowing.”

“That’s you. As someone as prolific and as sloppy as Aggie seems to be, I doubt he’s been perfect in covering his tracks. Likely, she strongly suspects already, if she doesn’t know. Don’t force her to make the next step.

“And also ask yourself: would you be telling his wife to help her or because you want revenge against Aggie?”

That gave Al some pause. He was about to answer, falsely, that it had nothing to do with revenge when the three of them heard a “psst!” from an alleyway two streets down from the hotel. Raulin, telling them to hold off for a moment, turned down the alleyway and waited until Anladet moved out from the shadows.

“We have a situation,” she said.

13-5

Telbarisk had been good for making Al feel calmer about his situation, but didn’t give him an answer as to what he should do. Anla had been better.

“Al, why is it that you never apply your calculating knowledge to yourself?” she asked after he had finished talking about Burdet and Marnie and what he should do for them.

“What do you mean?”

“I’ve seen you tear apart laws and contracts trying to find the loophole, sometimes to brilliant success. But when it comes down to one you’ve entered yourself, you refuse to apply your cold logic to it. Look, you got married on Ap Jorsen’s Day, yes?”

“Yes.”

“That’s…Aliorna’s lover, right?”

“Yes.”

“So, you two married for love. That’s what your marriage contract was based on?”

“I don’t…yes, I think so. ‘Til our love runs dry’ or something like that.”

“And neither of you loves each other?”

“Anla, it’s not meant to be taken literally…”

“Just like the ‘wizards can’t communicate with family after graduating’ law?”

“No, you’re expected in excess of your promise. You’re married until you stop loving each other, but if that fails, you’re still expected to stay married.”

“Expected, but not authorized?”

“I never married her with the understanding that things were always going to be wonderful, just the hope.”

“Really?” she said, folding her arms. “You, the man who still thinks there’s a prince somewhere who didn’t die as a child and is waiting to return to his throne when the time is right has no hope in something much more common and mundane?”

“Arvonne is in terrible shape, but it hasn’t collapsed completely. It’s speculated that the reason is because at least one from the monarchy still lives, otherwise the whole country would…”

“Al. Did you expect marital bliss when you married Burdet? Honestly.”

He sighed. “Yes.”

“And you realized at some point that love was broken?”

“I’m pretty sure it dawned on me when she said she was pregnant with another man’s child.”

“Don’t get sassy; I’m trying to help you. In my eyes your contract was broken at that point. I’m sure in a lot of other people’s eyes, it would be broken, too.”

“But abandoning her isn’t the right thing.”

“You’re right,” she said. “Abandoning someone after you’ve caused problems isn’t fair.”

“So, you agree that I’m in the wrong?”

“No. You didn’t cause her problems. From what you’ve said before, she would rather drink and socialize than take care of her child. And she made an extended mistake with someone that caused your step-daughter to be conceived. That person abandoned his child. You put a lot of time and money into Marnie when you didn’t have to; she’s not yours. But you did anyway. And you put up with a lot from your ex-wife. Why can’t the man who is Marnie’s father finally take over?”

She left sometime during his extended silence as he pondered what she had said. When he realized what time it was, he stumbled from his room and made his way to the entrance of the hotel.

“Going shopping?” Raulin asked from the chair in the parlor.

“Yes,” Al replied.

“Clothes again, I suppose?”

“Torn between two scarves.” If Raulin asked him any more questions, he didn’t hear him. He left the hotel.

Al needed more time to think, so he took a longer way to the bar where he was going to meet Aggie. Two streets from his destination had a clock on the side of an important building, or a building made important by the contraption. He was twenty minutes late, a half-hour later than he’d ever been, and he couldn’t muster the energy to care about it.

Aggie was sitting in one of the booths they usually picked looking annoyed. He was already three-quarters done with his beer. Al slid into the bench and Aggie looked up, suddenly very happy to see him. “Hey, buddy. I didn’t think you were coming.”

“Ran late. Did you get anything for me?”

“Oh, uh, no.” After a few awkward moments, he went to the bar and brought him back his own mug. “There we go. Your favorite.”

“Caudet.”

“What?”

“Caudet is my favorite drink, not Chapman’s Water.”

“Oh,” he said, standing once more to get a drink at the bar. Al slid the mug over and sat back.

Aggie returned with a glass of blood red wine and watched as Al held the base and swirled, smelling the bouquet before sipping. “Ah, good vintage,” he said.

“What’s with the wine? Is this something you picked up on the road?”

“No, I’ve always liked Caudet.”

“Huh. Why didn’t you ever tell me?”

“Because you never asked.” He continued sipping, smacking his mouth to enhance the taste.

“Are you all right? You’re acting a bit odd.”

“I’ve been thinking, that’s all.”

“You do that well!” Aggie said with a friendly smile. It dropped when he realized Al was not returning it.

“I’ve always told myself you’re a good friend, Aggie,” he began. “You would take me out after work, to relax and chat about things. And I appreciate that. But, why did I always pay? Why did we always talk about your affairs? Why did you always drag me into your trouble?”

Aggie scowled. “Because you had more money than I did and your life was boring.”

“I didn’t, though, and it wasn’t. And even if it was, maybe listening when I did have something going on would have been nice.”

“If it bothered you so much, why didn’t you say anything? I thought the way things were was fine.”

“I let it be fine, sure, but you’re not socially inept. I’m not going to accept that you don’t know how to be a decent friend.”

Aggie sipped on his beer, thinking for a few moments, then relaxing into something cheery. “Why don’t you tell me what you want.”

“I want to do something other than drinking.”

“Not a problem. What do you want to do?”

“I don’t know,” he said, trying to think of something Aggie might like. “A wizard sporting event.”

“They do a lot of drinking there,” he said, laughing. “Speaking of which, you should drink up. I’m paying tonight, so take advantage of the free wine.”

Al only sipped. “I want you to pay attention to me and not just talk about your mistresses all the time.”

“Yeah, you said that. I guess I haven’t been a great friend. I’m sorry. We can start tonight, if you want. Tell me about what you’ve been up to over the summer.”

“And…and I want you to take care of Marnie.”

Aggie blinked a few times. “Who’s Marnie?”

“She’s your daughter.”

“Al, I don’t have a daughter, just the boys.” He paused for a few moments, then laughed lightly. “You’re talking about one of my bastards. Those women I date always find some poor sap to take care of them. Don’t worry about it.”

Al almost choked on his wine. “Aggie, I was one of those ‘poor saps’.”

“What? What do you mean? I thought you’d been married for a while.”

“My wife’s name, my ex-wife’s name, is Burdet. I never introduced you two, but you somehow managed to introduce yourselves. She cheated on me, with you, and got pregnant a little over two years ago. Your daughter’s name is Marnie. She’s a great kid. You should at least see your daughter.”

Aggie sat back in the booth, stunned. “Burdet…she didn’t tell me. We fizzled out a while ago and…I didn’t know, Al.”

“I figured you didn’t. And it’s not like I’m angry about it. Things had been poor between Burdet and myself and I knew the child wasn’t mine from the beginning, so I was never really cuckolded in the ornithological sense of the word. She’s my step-daughter and I love her, but she needs you in her life, now.”

“Are they okay?”

“Not really. Burdet’s sick and they’re living in Coggin’s Rails in a one-room apartment.”

Aggie winced. “Well, if you come back you…” He stopped for a moment. “You know what, you’re right. I should at least take care of…Marnie, yes? Marnie. I’ll go looking for them and give them some money tomorrow.”

He stood. “I’m going to go hit the head. We can go for a walk once you finish your glass and talk about things.”

Al nodded, feeling good about the situation. He’d thought it was going to be much harder than that to convince Aggie to change. For a brief moment, he actually considered returning to Whitney. Things weren’t going to be as bad as he’d thought.

“You need to leave, Wizard. Now.”

Al turned to look over the back of the booth and saw Raulin peeking over. “Why did you follow me? Again?

“Because a man who never lies is unpracticed and generally bad at it, and you were acting suspicious. Again. And despite us knowing the truth behind our agreement, I am still your guard. Tonight I am guarding you from making mistakes.”

“I am out having drinks with a friend. That’s all.”

“Then why lie?” When Al said nothing, Raulin continued. “It’s because you know this is dangerous.”

“Dangerous? How?”

“Because you fled this city a wanted man. And if I’m not mistaken, you still hold the item you stole. That might not be a problem, if you’re quiet about it. But, you decided to visit your friend and your ex-wife, two people too many, if you ask me.”

“Neither of them would betray me,” he said quickly, but without conviction.

“I don’t think your ex-wife would, despite what riches it might bring her, but this friend of yours is too nice. I’ve heard you speak of him; people don’t change that quickly. He’s looking to get you drunk and keep you by his side. Why?”

Al suddenly felt cold. “I don’t know.”

“Let’s play it safe, then. Leave, out the back. If you bump into him again, make some excuse as to why you left early. I’ll meet you at the hotel.”

Al scanned the room quickly, though he didn’t notice Raulin leave. Nothing seemed strange. Aggie was still gone, but that wasn’t abnormal. Maybe Raulin was being hyper vigilant.

He pushed open the back door to the alley and saw it was clear. He relaxed, put on his coat, and was about to turn the corner to the street when he heard a familiar voice. “.rd Gray, I think we need to have a talk.”

13-4

Today was definitely not going to get better for Al. He, too, had needed information on someone and knew of only one place to get it. After being chewed out, he headed towards the location and suspected he was going to get another tongue lashing. But, it needed to be done.

The apartment Al was looking for was located in a dirty brick building in the textile district. The stairs creaked and moaned as he took flight after flight until reaching the fifth floor. Like the rest of the floors, the walls were dingy and the air smelled of coal, oil, and of rooms lacking proper sanitation.

Al stood before the door, his stomach seizing. Inside he heard a woman coughing and a child crying, followed by yelling. Stalling won’t make it easier, he thought, and knocked.

Burdet answered the door and Al was shocked by the change a half-year had wreaked on her. She brushed the stray hairs from her pale face, gaunt and waxy. Her eyes were bruised and glassy, staring through him for a few moments before finally meeting his gaze. “What do you want?”

“I came to see how you and Marnie were doing,” he said.

“Fine,” she said and started to close the door.

“May I see her?”

“No, and I need to be going.”

He looked into the cramped room to see one bed pushed against the wall, a wood stove rigged to blow exhaust out a hole cut in the window, and clothing strewn about. Marnie jumped up from the bed and ran past her mother, throwing her arms around Al.

“Dada!” she said.

He used Burdet’s fresh coughing fit to pick her up. “Hi, Marnie!”

“Dada go home,” she said, pointing behind them.

“You’re not taking her. She’s not yours,” Burdet said, trying to grab Marnie from his arms, who wriggled away and clung to Al.

“Burdet, I’m not taking her. I just wanted to see her.”

“Why? She’s not yours.”

“No, but…”

“Leave!” she said, shoving him. “You’ve had your lark. I get that you’ve come back to rub it in my face that if only I had been…a good housewife…and…” She began hacking into a cloth again, doubling over and resting against the door frame.

“Burdet… How long have you been sick?” he asked, shifting Marnie on his hip.

She looked like she wanted to snap at him again. Instead, she collapsed into a worn chair by the door and gasped for air. He was alarmed to see the cloth she was coughing into was stained red with blood.

“Have you seen a doctor?”

She shook her head. “Can’t afford it.”

Al reached into his pocket and grabbed the pouch of spending money he had brought, a little under ten gold in various coins, and handed it to her. “Take care of yourself. See a doctor.”

“I don’t want your charity!” she yelled, slapping the purse to the ground. Her eyes flashed, finally something that he recognized as his ex-wife.

“Then don’t take it for you; take it for her. You need to be well so that she has a mother. She needs food and better clothing. You’ll need to put her in school in a few years, so you’ll need to save for that.”

“I can’t do it,” she whispered.

“You can. You have to.”

She put her face in her hands. “Can you come home?”

He sighed. “No, but neither of us want that, anyway.”

She nodded, then stood, taking a very reluctant Marnie back. “I need to drop her off downstairs while I work.”

“You still have the job at Benstick’s?” She nodded. “Good. That paid well.”

“Not enough to pay for everything.”

“I’ll send money when I can.”

She nodded and closed the door behind her without any farewell. He heard Marnie cry from inside and he sighed.

Could he have done more? He had to admit that he hadn’t thought about Burdet much since he’d left, even though he knew he had saddled her with the debt of the house, taxes, and the remainder of his loans for Amandorlam. It had been easier to forget about it while he was off on his adventure, earning hundreds of gold and spending it on good food, clothing, and entertainment.

But, there it was, right in his face. Burdet was ill and living in what amounted to a hovel in the city. Marnie was miserable. Not that her life had been great before, but Al had noticed the bruises on her arms and face. Frankly, Burdet was a terrible mother and she had never really wanted Marnie. The right thing to do, what he should do, is return and take care of them. It was the reason why he had stayed in the first place.

He couldn’t. He knew then and there that, while he cared for his step-daughter, he couldn’t go back to his wife. Just the thought of it robbed him of any sense of happiness, instead filling him with the bored sensation of watching a clock, of waiting at a doctor’s office or of spending five more minutes in that depressing building. He couldn’t.

He walked back to the stairwell, feeling more than guilty about his decision, when he saw a dark shape to his right and startled, his mood souring. “Why did you follow me here?”

“Because you were acting suspicious, Wizard,” Raulin said, taking to the stairs next to him.

“Go ahead, then. Go ahead and lecture me on hypocrisy and abandonment. I’m sure you heard and saw everything, about how I’m a terrible husband and father, about how I can’t do anything to help them.”

Raulin sighed. “Wizard, why do you always expect the worst between us? I did see everything and I’m not lecturing you on anything.

“What I saw was a man returning to a woman who treated him with contempt because he felt beholden to. And, if I’m not mistaken, that little girl is too light-skinned to be yours. Yet, you gave your ex-wife money so that the both of them could have a better future, despite the fact that she had another man’s child. That speaks highly of your character to me.”

“But it’s only because Marnie was one of the few people to bring me happiness when I lived here. I only gave Burdet money because she’s the sole caretaker of Marnie. I don’t…I don’t care…” He stopped bobbing down the stairs for a moment.

“Husbands and wives fall out of love all the time,” Raulin said quietly, waiting for him to move again. “And all they have left is the promises they made to each other. When that is broken, there is nothing.”

“It doesn’t matter. I promised that I’d care for her,” he said, continuing his trek downstairs. “That’s me. That’s how I live. You are…you.”

“Only one on Yine.”

They left the building. “Well, I mean, you’ve never been married.”

“No. And I probably shouldn’t be giving advice on things I’m not experienced in. But, I think it’s just one of many things experienced in life and that, at least, I can give my opinion on. If you feel that it’s better to canvas, though, there are two other people back at our hotel whom I’m sure wouldn’t mind talking to you about this.”

Al nodded, still full of thought, but at least he had an outlet.

13-3

Al hadn’t had a Chapman’s Water since May and realized he hadn’t been missing very much. There had been too many other kinds of drink over the last few months to really enjoy the tastes of home. Not that he could admit he had enjoyed it much to being with.

He was pondering whether it was thick enough to write with when Aggie walked through the door. He scooted to the other side of the booth Al was sitting in and immediately chugged half the mug Al had ordered for him. “Thanks,” he said after wiping the foam away from his upper lip.

“No problem. How have you been?”

“Good! Nothing really too new, though you did miss the adventures with Micent back in August. Gorgeous, great under the sheets…loonier than a northern lake in fall.”

“Aw, sorry to hear that. I’ve been touring Gheny with…”

“I really tried to break it off gently with her, but as soon as I mentioned seeing other people, she got really quiet and told me that there was no way I was going to leave her.”

“Hey, I understand that!” he said, laughing at his own joke referencing the chalice spell, which Aggie obviously didn’t get.

“I mean, remember Astinia? She was…five times worse than her.”

“Oh, yeah,” he said, burying his head into the beer.

Aggie went into detail for about twenty minutes, which used to feel like two to Al, but there felt like an hour. Al had finished his beer, then started a second one, drinking because what else was he going to do?

“So, now that you’re caught up, what have you been up to? Why did you leave?”

Al brightened and moved his mug aside. “I’ve been on an adventure of sorts.”

“Yeah, I gathered, but you were the last person I’d ever expect to just vanish.” Aggie frowned. “You didn’t even say goodbye to me.”

“I know, and I’m sorry. I would have if I’d had the time, but I had to leave quickly.” He leaned in and lowered his voice. “I couldn’t tell you before, but Ember had me do three tasks or else she was going to get my license revoked. That’s why I started that fight with you, then went out drinking; that was one and two. The third was to steal something, only I didn’t bring it to her. I left instead.”

“Wow,” he said, laughing a little. “Al, you should have said something. I would have helped you out.” He took a few more sips of his beer, then furrowed his eyebrows. “Why was she going to get your license revoked?”

“Remember that really bad day I was having at the end of April?” Aggie showed no signs of remembering, so Al continued. “Well, I punched a wall in Milxner’s and almost set the place on fire.”

“What does that have to do with your license? It might have gotten you fired, if there were damage but…” He straightened his neck and raised his eyebrows. “You’re a switcher. Oh…that explains some things. Why didn’t you tell me? How come you didn’t do hard stuff with me, then? Ember could have gotten you a good job making a lot of money.”

“And how long would I have to enjoy it? I know hard wizards make good money, but I’d rather have a long, poor life than a short, rich one.” He didn’t bother to mention how often he’d been using the Unease since he’d left Whitney.

“Al, it’s not that bad. It all depends on how you live your life when you’re not using your magic. You have to blow off some steam, have your little trysts, and enjoy things. I mean, you, yes, you’d probably die quickly because you bottle things up, but I would have been there to show you how to have a good time.”

Al realized in that moment that Aggie’s idea of a good time and his were far different. Drinking at a bar and living vicariously through his friend just didn’t cut it anymore. Had it ever?

“Do you still have the thing you stole?” he asked.

“Yeah, why?”

“Ember was snippy for a while after you left, but she’s a reasonable woman. I bet you could return it to her, sit down, have a nice talk, and come work for Milxner’s. She’d smooth things out with the bosses and pay you well. In time I bet everything will be forgiven and forgotten.”

“I can’t,” Al said.

“Sure you can. She’s not that scary.”

“No, I mean…it’s complicated.” How was he going to explain the spell, Anla, Tel, and Raulin to Aggie?

“I’m sure you can work it out. It can’t be easy, being on the lam, running from city to city, sleeping in alleys and stealing meals.”

Al blinked a few times. “Aggie, I’ve had more money in the last three months than I did in the last three years. I own nice clothes, I’ve been invited by a count to their castle, I’ve seen a creveir performance…Aggie, I’ve eaten at Vedroir. Vedroir.”

“Suuure,” he said, finishing off his pint. “Look, I’m just saying that you can have your old life again, even better than before. I’ll help.”

“I’ll…think about it,” was the best Al could give him.

“I’ll give you some time. Let’s meet tomorrow night.”

“I have some things to do.”

“Saturday, then. You should be able to get your ducks in a row tomorrow.”

“Yeah,” he said, unenthusiastically.

“You got this, right, since you’ve made so much money?”

“Sure,” he said, standing to pay the tab. By the time he was done, Aggie was gone.

He walked back to his hotel that was just a few blocks away. Already most of the snow was gone, merely piles that melted into the drains, if the streets even had them. If not, then giant puddles formed, highlighting the areas that needed re-cobbling next spring.

He took his boots off at the doorway and was about to walk to his room when Raulin cleared his throat. He sat up from the armchair he had been sitting in, putting the newspaper on the coffee table. “Good evening, Wizard.”

“Good evening,” he returned, a little confused.

“Did you forget that I asked to speak with you about Whitney and its geography? After dinner, and you said that was fine.”

“Sorry,” he said. “I…it slipped my mind.”

“Hmm. So, what were you doing?”

“I went shopping for clothes”

“Oh. I thought you did that yesterday. What did you get?”

“Nothing. I didn’t find any…there was a scarf that I liked, but it was too expensive.”

“If you didn’t want to help me, or if you changed your mind, you could have just said so.”

“I do want to help, well at least with directions and…well, you can look that stuff up in a library if you wanted to.”

“Looks a little suspicious, a trirec in a library. I actually almost got caught once by a nosy librarian who threatened to tell the constable what I had been studying.”

“What did you do?”

“Well, thankfully libraries are run by priests and priests like me a lot. I just had a chat with the Cyurinin head librarian and he dealt with it. Also gave me additional information about what I needed.”

“You could have done the same thing tonight.”

“Priests and wizards have different ideas about the same things. I’d rather listen to the wizard this time, especially one who’s lived in the city.”

Raulin led him to his room, a cramped space not much larger than a closet, and closed the door behind them. “Now, do you know anything about a…” he pulled out his notebook, “…Mayick Herodoti?”

“I don’t…wait. Herodoti?” He closed his eyes. Like he normally did to remember things, he took what he could see and put it against a black background. He saw the name against a star, no a circle…a ribbon. On a man’s chest. “He’s a politician. He ran for…Commons Representative three years ago and won.”

“Good. Now, which neighborhood would I likely find him?”

“Commons Rep. is the closest equivalent to the viscount Gheny has for non-nobility. He’s below the viscount, but still works at an almost partnership with him.”

“So…where are the government buildings located?”

“Oh, uh, mostly along the Everken, in Bridledale and Herrow. The official buildings fly the colors of Eerie, navy and yellow.”

“Excellent,” he said after he finished writing down the instructions. “Anything you can tell me about Herodoti? I was given a cask of thin air on this one.”

“If I remember correctly, he was young, at least for the position. Thirty-five, maybe forty? Brunette, light-skinned, had a smile I remember some of my clients said was very dashing.”

“I’m sure he’ll be surrounded by the normal goons and sycophants.”

“Yeah…oh. One of his secretaries was unusual looking. White hair, very pale, pink eyes.”

“An albino?”

“I don’t think anyone mentioned that, but that’s what I would guess.”

“That’s great information, thank you, Wizard. See, I wouldn’t have gotten this from a library.”

“Need anything else?”

“Not right now. I’ll call on you if I do.”

Al left for his own quarters and Raulin clicked his tongue in thought. “Hmm,” he said aloud.