"My name is Master Baso. I'm the civil head of the Academy of Dosille. You can call me Master or Master Baso, but I do insist on formal address."
He was old and staggeringly tall, his shoulders towering over Naltu. His face was thin and wrinkled. He wore robes of green velvet. His skin was hairless, and long black locks fell to his shoulders from the sides of his head where the baldness had not encroached. His voice was deep, his lips thin, and Naltu knew his black eyes held a terrible strength, the sort of which was earned.
"Naltu. Tribesman of the south, orphan of the Ghislail, friend to the Tlactil. You may call me Naltu, I have no other name."
Baso laughed. "Very well, Naltu. Mistress d'Oncil told me of what befell her in Criest. She said you practice Scientia without a Token or a mark."
"I don't know of this Token or mark, or Scientia. I am only a tribesman."
Baso handed Perry a knife. "Naltu, I don't have time for trivialities. Can you demonstrate what you know?"
Naltu watched her. Her face paled slightly and she rolled her sleeve up.
"No," Naltu grunted, and held out his hand. "I do not ask another to bear such a burden."
Baso nodded and Perry handed the short knife to Naltu. He cut his own forearm. The wound was shallow, the length of a finger. He raised the wound to Baso and let blood drip onto the floor. The wound glowed with a green light and Naltu's eyes closed. He felt the split, the nerves and blood vessels and life pouring out of the cut. He felt the fat and skin. He focused on one corner of the cut and pushed energy through the wound, pulling the edges closer, linking the flesh, knitting the wound with the thread of his spirit. When his eyes opened, the wound was healed, though the blood still marred his arm and the floor.
"You're a flesh weaver," Baso scolded. Perry sucked in her breath.
"He's a healer, Master."
"Healer, flesh weaver, not much difference, Mistress d'Oncil. That's a secret you shouldn't know. There were true healers once, girl, but Scientia doesn't work like that any longer. Naltu, have you ever killed a man?"
Naltu grunted. "Hmph. I've killed many men."
Baso laughed. "Of course. Flesh weavers never did have much in the way of ethics. Read of Ryuten's sins, for they are still fresh in the memories of those older than you, Mistress, before you speak of this one."
Naltu shook his head. "No. Slavers who took my brother's wife and a woman who once loved me. Pirates who sent those slavers across the sea. And I dream of them every night. I wish all those men I've sent to the bosom of Jihintasula had been born farmers instead. Sijhi and Yegha would have been comfortable, and Ychatl would never have grown full of rage. And Naltu's heart is heavy with hate."
"What do you want to do, Naltu?"
"I want Master Baso to give me a Guild Token. I want to buy mushrooms for the green men of the mountains of Criest so that the children do not go hungry when the moon and the sun do not warm the hills."
"That's true," Perry added. "It's all he talked about on the way over."
"You believe in those superstitions? You know Jihintasula is not real."
Naltu laughed. "Real? The blood in your veins is not real, old man."
Baso withered, but Naltu bowed his head, and continued talking.
"I do not show respect. This is why I am not always welcome among the Tlictal, even though my brother is chieftain. My tongue betrays me. But what I say is what I believe. Chokimero is real in the hearts of the Tlictal, and when they lay with another, the bellies of the women do swell."
"Chokimero, hmm? Have you met her in the forest, then?"
"I have met Chokimero in the forest, Master. She sang a sweet song that only my ears could hear, and showed me a beauty that only my eyes could see. I understand the ways of the men of the south."
"And you were chewing the Opal buds when you saw her, of course? We call that hallucination."
"Yes," Naltu capitulated. "The Opal makes men see only what is in their hearts."
"Are you a shaman, Naltu? Do you dance for the weather and war?"
Naltu laughed loudly, exaggerating for effect. Perry shrunk away. "I am no Shaman. I stood before the Gods and I was cast aside. I am not worthy."
The Magister grinned, wide-eyed. "You judge yourself. Not the Gods."
Baso handed a piece of paper to Naltu. "These are the rules of the Academy. Do you see the one numbered ten?"
Naltu scanned down the sheet. His finger stopped at the tenth sentence. "Naltu can not read."
"Illiterate. How did you learn Scientia, then?"
"I do not know Scientia."
"Your flesh weaving. The Talent. What do you call it?"
"Mellosin called it the work of the Gods. To me, it is like walking. It came with practice, but was meant to be."
"Ah. Mellosin was your mentor? Surely he gave you books. If you don't read Nalinese, surely you read Spherian? Or is there some Ghislail language we don't know?"
"No," Naltu said, sadly, and produced the small book of poetry from a pocket inside his vest. "This is all I have. I can read one poem, taught to me before I came to this land. I hunger for more."
"You hunger for poetry, but not power?" Baso swallowed. "Mistress d'Oncil, I don't know how we could teach an illiterate adult our ways. I think it's best if Naltu returns to his home and his people before he has trouble with the military."
Naltu's head bowed low. "I am strong enough already. Jihintasula blesses those who enter battle with courage. Without Jihintasula's blessing, Ryusupo can not protect the wounded. Without Ryusupo, one will die, and go to Agrima. This is the way of the tundra. What is the way of Dosille?"
Baso turned, thinking. "That's a strange thing to say. Are you asking me what will happen to you if you stay against my wishes?"
"How circuitous. You're too old for training of children, Naltu. Mistress d'Oncil, what do you think? You've known him for longer. Could he pass the Apprentice's Stone?"
Perry nodded. "You saw him heal that wound. Maybe he's just got the one Talent, but if you gave me a few weeks, I could work with him. I owe him my life, so if that's what he wants in payment, I'll teach him what I can. I won't say he'll pass, but..."
"Very well," Baso continued. "Naltu, will you accept these terms? I want you to take a test in two weeks. If you pass, I'll give you a Guild Token, and you'll be an Apprentice, and we'll teach you our ways. If not, you'll go back to your homeland. I'll set events in motion to ensure you remain in the frozen isles. Otherwise, I'll make sure that happens regardless."
Naltu turned. "Thank you. I accept."
Baso sighed. "Fine. I've other things to attend to, so please leave me alone."
Perry bowed low and Naltu followed her gesture with his own. She led him out of the Academy and into the surrounding grove, and then the city. She shivered.
"I'm sorry. Baso's harsh, but I didn't think he'd be so difficult. You did well, Naltu. I didn't know you'd killed people before, but..."
"What does flesh weaver mean?"
"Oh... necromancy. I think Baso's wrong. It's a forbidden art. Magisters who brought the dead back to life. A group of them raised an army and ravaged the... it's a long story, but don't use those words around other people. Naltu, it's probably best that no one knows what you can do. There are those who remember that war."
Naltu nodded. "I understand. I hid my gift when I was a child. I will hide it here. You must buy mushrooms for me."
Perry laughed, confused for a moment, and consented. They returned to the market, and found the vendor, and showed him her Academy coin. Naltu haggled the price low, arguing that the mushrooms were old and over-priced. He bought the carts as well, and laughed with joy as he convinced Perry to part with her own coin. He carried the mushrooms away himself through the night, and laid them on stones in the fields in the last lingering heat of the autumn sun. The mushrooms shriveled and dried properly, and Naltu gathered them as the lightest snow began to drift from the sky.
Traders passed through the city, eager to distribute the bounty taken from the sparse fields. Naltu hired two men to bring the carts to the mountains of Criest, and to sell them for ten gold coins. Naltu hoped they would return with six.
Perry brought Naltu into the academy chambers and trained him in a children's game. Many stones were placed in a wooden board in divots. The divots were arranged in a shape with six sides, and were staggered five-deep, meeting at a crest in the center of the board. The stones, each the size of a fingertip, were of six colors, and to Naltu, all glowed with an inner light that he knew the folk could not see. Perry taught him the game, and explained that the stones were crystallized Scientia. The game had many complex rules, and by following the rules, the stones could be moved about the board in particular ways.
When the stones followed the proper paths, change came. Naltu learned the game slowly, and Perry sat with him until he could play with her. She brought others into the game, and Naltu watched them play. The fingers of the others were quicker, and the stones changed color. Naltu's dreams were full of the patterns that formed and flickered in his mind. A week passed, and Naltu understood the most basic concepts. The board had little to do with the stones and the change of color, and was a distraction and a crutch. The close, careful passage of stones near each other in particular patterns and sequences changed something intrinsic to the material. That second set of rules, hidden within the first, eluded Naltu.
Perry was kind and patient and Naltu forced himself to be dedicated. He found focusing on the game difficult, though he could wait for hours in the forest hunting shy prey. More days passed, and Perry began to console Naltu. After wine, she told him that she thought he would fail the test, and that he would have to return home.
He slept in the tavern and ate well enough, and enjoyed the hot baths and the promised scent of the north. He bought bristles and brushed his furs until they shined, and treated the hide with a thin oil that vanished after a moment and made the skin supple.
Sullen, he asked remembered the girl, and asked Perry again what the purple disk meant. She laughed and admitted she knew, and that she had gone to the place. The sun fell and she told him to bring four full silver coins, no more, and to follow her.
She led him to the Academy and then beyond, to the other side of the city. She warned him of the place, that it was a palace of pleasure, and that he should guard his tongue and purse. She arrived at a wooden building colored with thin flakes of jade and false gold encased in clear lacquer, where a man waited, dressed in black linen.
Naltu stared up at the walls, lit by torches in sconces, and let his eyes rest on the satin curtains blocking dimly lit windows in the second floor. A woman stared down at him for a moment, and slid a heavier curtain closed over the first. The building was large, set away enough from the city that the trees and other buildings did not block his view of the sky. Smoke from the chimney and torches clouded the sky.
Perry approached the man and fished a silver-colored disk from her pocket. The design was similar to his own, but he knew the material for metal. She flashed only her own token, and was allowed entrance. Naltu approached and fished the clay disk from his pocket and rubbed the enamel.
Naltu gave the man the purple disk.
"Five silvers, sir," the man responded.
Naltu gave the man a large silver coin, and received five smaller silver coins in return, alongside two black disks made of painted clay. Perry had entered, and Naltu followed. She greeted another man and spoke with him for a moment. Naltu examined the other man, who wore green silk. His face was fat, with a jowl hanging below his chin, and his skin was smooth and clean, though his hair thinned.
He was led into a large lobby with a winding staircase in the center. Glowstones in the ceiling were dimmed. The translucent alabaster disks held lumps of light-giving dust that gave cool light safer and sweeter than any candle. Perry explained to Naltu that she would not be with him that night, that she had her own appointment. She was led up the stairs by a young man wearing heavy leather, with a curved blade at his waist.
Naltu approached the green-clad man.
"Your first time here, hmm?"
"Well met, sir. Are you Mistress d'Oncil's companion? Ah, nevermind that."
The fat man stared over Naltu's shoulders at a pair of silk-garbed men who had entered, and his words sped.
"Welcome to the Jade Palace. Your tokens are worth drinks from the bar. You can relax and drink here, or else... well, the girls will explain things. We've rooms for the night you might hire. Our rooms are filled with comfort and warmth."
Naltu bowed respectfully and passed the man, finding a seat in the empty dining hall. There were few chairs. Instead, low padded benches had been dragged about, and the tables were stooped, so that one was forced to sit to comfortably address a meal.
There was a bar, like in the taverns, and two women wiped a spill from the wood. A fat man in sweat-soaked linens apologized and filled his face with fried bread.
A woman garbed in a bulbous blue dress approached him and took one of the black disks. She brought a pitcher of ale and a small plate of vinegar salad. Her eyes were painted to match the dress, and dark lines shaped her mouth. She sat near his leg and writhed for a moment.
"My name's Loosa. And you?"
Naltu grinned and told her.
"You wanna go upstairs, or stay here for a bit?"
Naltu blushed. "I don't understand."
She laughed at his thick accent. "What do you like?"
Naltu was silent and took a deep swallow of ale. She refilled the cup. Another woman approached and swatted the air with her hands. The blue-garbed girl grabbed Naltu's ear and tugged hard enough to pull his head, and he ached.
"You found me," the gray-gowned woman said through curved lips. Her face was painted white with sharp black lines around her eyes. She wore iridescent feathers that flashed purple and gold behind her ears, and her gown covered the curves of her body with fabric that promised translucency and drew Naltu's eyes. She laughed. The other girl poured another cup from Naltu's pitcher and swirled away, blue fabric flowing in the low light.
"You're staring again. That's not polite," she said.
Naltu locked eyes with her and recognition crossed his face.
She was delighted. "You remember my name? Perfect. So tell me, tribesman," she said, crawling into his lap, and laying her legs flat on the bench. She was tall, and her head was high above his as she rested, and so she slid to the side of the bench, and let her knees linger on his thighs. She pulled his arm around her waist and clasped his fingers.
"Why should I be interested in you?"
"I don't know," Naltu responded without thinking. His skin was red and his unplucked hairs stood on end. Women had approached him like this in the south, but they were not so beautiful, and they did not smell so intoxicating. He remembered the stories and knew they were full of truth.
The chimes rang outside - an hour had passed - as he told Metta about the beautiful things he remembered in the south. She took the second black token from him, and asked if he wouldn't mind wine instead of ale, and he agreed.
Naltu took his first sip of the wine and liked it. He had tasted little of the fermented grape, and the flavor lingered on his tongue. The green-clothed man arrived as Naltu and Metta emptied the pitcher of wine.
"I did not properly introduce myself to you, sir. My name's Leredith. I'm the proprietor and manager. Are you enjoying yourself?"
"Yes," Naltu muttered as Metta relaxed in his arm.
"As I have mentioned, we have warms rooms for rent, and as you have perhaps found, the means to fill those spaces with comfort. Would you like to spend the night here, sir?"
Metta nuzzled Naltu's neck with her lips. She stopped and whispered near his ear. "Say yes."
"Ten silvers, then, for a small room."
Naltu flushed, and handed the man a single shining coin.
Leredith bowed quickly.
Metta stood and walked to the bar and brought another pitcher of wine. She collected the two cups and placed them on a small tray with the pitcher. She took Naltu's hand and led him to the stairs. Her sleeve tugged on an exposed knob of wrought iron, exposing a brand on her forearm, of the detailed and elegant sort that warriors did not wear. Naltu stopped and touched the mark.
"I don't understand," Naltu said.
Metta glanced at the floor, ashamed for a moment, and then glared at Naltu with a longing smile. "Then don't think about it"
He whispered. "You're a slave? If this isn't your will, I won't."
Her eyes widened. "No, Naltu. Look at those fat men at the bar. This is a cold night. We'll enjoy it together. I promise. Let me show you."
Naltu nodded and let Metta guide him up the stairs.
The level above was lit like below with glowstones. Metta led him to a small room with a small hearth and a wide bed. The fire was already burning. Deer pelts covered the floors and carpets were hung on the walls. She pushed Naltu onto the bed.
He remembered a lecture from Mistress d'Oncil. "Wait. This is not polite, but of the weeping sickness?"
Metta laughed and let her clothes fall to the floor, all too quickly. "Do you see sores on me? No. This brand," she said, pointing to her arm, "and this," she said, pointing to an identical scar on her thigh, "are all my imperfections."
"And of children?"
"You've never done this before, have you?"
Naltu shrugged. "I have been with women."
"No, with a whore. Listen, men come to the Jade Palace because we are clean and simple. We have an oil that protects us from the weeping sickness and other problems, prevents what happens naturally when man and woman couple. Children. Besides, let me work. You won't be releasing inside me. That's not how I want it, unless you insist, because I might have other guests."
She knew her words were too harsh, but she was unused to so direct a query. She had expected him to know, though he was not from Dosille, and so he did not understand. His tone, though, broke apart the fantasy she worked to hold in her mind.
She wet a cloth with water from an iron bowl on the tiny hearth. She plucked a small piece of soap from a bowl, and the cloth turned a deep shade of violet. He watched, and she climbed onto the bed, and wrestled with his pants. She washed him carefully before tossing the cloth into a metal bin near the door.
"You're quiet now. Have I offended?"
"No. That was just an awkward conversation I'd rather have happened downstairs." Her eyebrow arched and she continued. "Talking about disease is an uncomfortable topic for so warm a place, don't you think?"
Naltu poured the wine into the cups and passed one to her, and she sat beside him and sipped. He plucked a feather from her hair and let it fall across her neck.
"That's mine," she insisted, and made a gentle attempt to retrieve the feather. He pulled away, and his long arm kept it just beyond her reach.
"Please be careful with that."
Naltu nodded and placed the feather on the small table at the edge of the bed. He removed the others and set them to the side. He ran his fingers into her hair, and removed the metal clips that kept her locks tight and restrained in place.
"You want to make a mess of my hair?" she asked, and took another swallow of wine.
Naltu blinked, suddenly self-conscious. "I am rude again. I thought for a moment that those adornments clothe you more than the dress did. How long will you stay?"
Metta laughed and sipped. "The room's yours until the sun comes up. Listen, if you can keep me busy for the whole night, I'm willing. But men come to me because when you're done, you can send me away, and Master Leredith won't let me sit idle."
"I'll keep you busy," Naltu threatened, and beckoned her.
She finished him, and washed herself clean with another hot cloth, and then wiped Naltu. She worked his hair with oil, then the muscles in his shoulders and arms carefully, and he wondered if he did not enjoy that attention more than the earlier moment. Her arms began to grow tired, and his eyes were sleepy, so she left the bed and found her dress from the floor.
"I should make you brush my hair out now," she said, laughing and searching for the hairpieces. "Are you satisfied? Did you want anything else? I can get more wine, but you'll have to pay for it."
Naltu turned over and gestured to her again. "No one watches us in this room?"
Metta smiled, suddenly uncomfortable, and she covered her chest with her arms. "Leredith and his guards are always close by."
"No, that's not what I mean. It doesn't matter," Naltu said, finding his jacket on the floor, and producing the small black book from his pocket. "I'm sorry. I want to read. I didn't want others to know. I should not have asked."
"What? No, explain. Please."
"You invited me because of this book?"
She thought for a moment. Her face lightened. "Oh!"
"I can't read on my own. My friends, now far away, read to me and showed me the letters. I would like for you to do that, too. Or you could return to your fat men. I won't keep you here, if that's what you choose."
Metta carefully folded the dress and lay on the bed beside Naltu. He moved to pull himself under the blanket, but she stopped him, and retrieved a simple linen quilt from a drawer, and spread it about.
"Cleaner," she insisted.
She read to him, pointing out the words and letters, until the sun rose and Leredith's guard pounded on the door, and ushered Naltu out of the Palace. In the light, the paint was old and dry and cracked, and webs hung in the high corners and rafters. Metta carefully stepped to Naltu's side and kissed his cheek and gave him another purple token.
Her voice was hoarse. "Tribesman, yesterday was Omensday, and is usually slow. Um, don't come on Frostday or Revelsday. Come next Omensday, we'll do this again, alright? I haven't talked that much in a great deal of time, so I need some rest!"
Perry emerged from the shadow behind a tree. "I waited for you all damned night. I hope you had a very, very good time. I was scared something horrible happened to you. Leredith said you hadn't left, but he refused to tell me anything else."
Metta rushed to her side, words full of apology. Perry waved her away with a harsh gesture, and the girl returned inside.
Naltu blushed. "I am sorry. I thought you... I am sorry. Next time I come, I will come alone, and you do not need to worry about me."
"Next time?" she scolded. "You're going to fail the test and Baso's going to tell the military about you. You'll be on a boat in a few days, idiot. Hope you enjoyed your taste of Dosille's finest."
"I'll win this test," Naltu promised.
They returned to the Academy and played the game. Naltu was distracted by the words of the poet Diana racing through his mind, and Perry was shocked at his skill. His intuition surfaced, and without thinking, he dominated the board in the game, capturing all the stones through sophisticated maneuvers that seemed obvious to him.
Satisfied, she scolded again. "Alright, you're to be tested in three days, and you've learned a quarter of what any child learns to prepare. That's good for two weeks, but not enough."
"Any child? Does this game help you make ice? You still have not told me of this test."
"The test is different for everybody. It's a puzzle, like that game, and played on the same board. And you owe me five silvers."
Naltu produced five small coins. "Why?"
Her eyes sagged, weary, and he knew she had not slept. Naltu felt sadness at having imposed on his friend so, when she had brought him to the place. But she had abandoned him too quickly the night before to say anything, and so he let himself relax.
"Because I usually only pay half-price, I only use a room for an hour and don't make a mess. I had to sleep there, waiting for you. My use of Scientia makes my muscles ache, and one of the whores at the Jade Palace knows how to make me feel better."
"I apologize. I did not mean to inconvenience you. I was promised the night, and I took it all."
"That poor girl. Aren't you tired?"
"I have spent days awake hunting things that would haunt the dreams of most northmen. No. Naltu does not grow with the burden of sleep like others do. I have walked for a week, then slept for a week. Perry, at night I play your game. When I win this test, I will sleep for a moon."
Perry laughed, smile and tone returning to her face. "Enough. Listen to the secret behind the stones. There are three primary elements and three secondary elements. The primary elements are Fire, Nature, and Water. The secondary elements are Air, Flesh, and Light."
"Fire, Nature, Water. Air, Flesh, and Light."
"Right. Everyone has a primary element. Mine is water."
"Mine is flesh?"
"No, and don't say anything like that again. It's something you'll choose after the test. You have what we call a Talent. You're not attuned to any element. You just happened to be born with the ability to, well, weave flesh. Heal. Whatever. Most people have a Talent, but it's normally weak enough to escape notice."
"Flesh is a bad element."
"Flesh is what we're all made of. It's not bad. But most flesh weavers are, well, that element drives them mad. We're taught that it's because flesh is inside us, and I can make ice in the fields, and others can make fire in the skies. But flesh weavers can only practice on their own bodies. Baso won't let you attune on that element, even with your Talent, and Light's not an option, either, since we haven't got the lore this far south."
"There are six colors to the stones in the game."
"Yes, exactly. The colors, the elements, they're the same. It's all complementary. Listen, you've got six gods, right?"
"No. Four Gods, and Agrima, the Overseer."
Perry turned, angry. "Four gods? Ok. Meghor. Myristoyla. Jihintasula. Ryusupo. Riyadh. Chokimero."
"No," Naltu insisted. "Riyadh was Shaman. I do not know Meghor."
"Agh!" Perry shouted, thinking of the tome that had been written before her grandfather had been born. "The book I found said you tribesman have six. So just deal with it, alright?"
"No. Four Gods and Agrima."
"Fine, Agrima. Alright, I can work with this. Listen. Who is the child of Jihintasula and Ryusupo?"
"Myristoyla serves Jihintasula and Ryusupo, right? And Riyadh and Jihintasula bore Chokimero."
"I don't know."
"Fine. Listen. And Riyadh and Ryusupo?"
"Are both men. No child."
"No, Meghor, you idiot! Don't you understand?"
Naltu was taken aback. "How can I understand? You're lost!"
Perry fell to her knees. "I don't know how to explain it to you, Naltu. Not quickly..."
"I listen, Perry. Riyadh and Ryusupo bore Meghor."
"It's all connected. There are three forces, from three, there are six, and from six, there are twelve. They dance together. They consume and support each other according to a pattern that you already know. Or... I thought you might at least, according to your gods."
"Ah. I understand."
"I have seen it in a dream, though I did not know what it meant. A shape, like a star, like the snow on you. This is not the lore of the tribesmen."
"Now I don't understand, Naltu?"
"I do. Baso taunted the truth of the Gods, but we understand more than him. The Gods are as flesh and blood, though we do not touch them. The Gods are in the wine we drink, the tender touch, the star that crosses the sky."
Perry's eyes went wide. "I'm certain you've lost your mind. How much Opal did you smoke with that whore?"
Naltu turned, his eyes suddenly cold. "I... no. I have taken the Opal flower perhaps three times in my life, and was cast aside each time. I think because I did not know Riyadh and Meghor. We have forgotten the Gods, Perry. We punish ourselves. You show this book after I pass your test."
She closed her eyes. "We've all forgotten so much, Naltu. You don't understand. Baso taunted you because you can't read. But that's what's happening. We're forgetting things. There's no reason for it, not with the printing presses of Nalin in the north. We're forgetting important things. I'm weak. I'd be an Apprentice by the reckoning of the Magisters of a hundred years ago."
"You are weak," Naltu agreed. "You are weak because you expect to fail, and you suffer for it. No. When I pass this test, you understand. Strong warriors of the south expect only victory."
Perry hissed and shivered and her eyes glistened. "I'm sorry, Naltu. I'm exhausted. I need to go home. Can we meet tonight? We'll talk again."
He hugged her and held her until she found composure. She pushed herself away from him forcefully and grinned. "You're going to fail this test because you're an idiot. You're going to fail this test because you think that when I'm crying on the ground, I need you."
"That makes no sense," Naltu offered, and he turned and walked to the Scribe alone.[ <= Previous | Up | Next => ]