Baso stood in the smoke-filled room. Braziers full of pungent herbs and incense smoldered. Naltu bowed in the center, dressed in the black robes Perry had given him. He could not help but inhale the fumes, and his stomach lurched, and his hands trembled.
A young man introduced himself to Naltu as Master Derin Herr. He was tall, just shorter than Naltu, and his build was slight and toned. His hair was dust-colored, and his eyes were dark brown. He might have seen sixteen summers, Naltu decided, and took the boy's hand in friendship. His skin was smooth, marred by strange pink splotches that seemed to be scars, but were smooth with the texture of tallow.
"I came to see you fail," the boy laughed.
Derin guided Naltu to a chair, then set the board in front of him. He spilled a bag of stones on the table and began to configure the board in the traditional manner. He swatted Naltu's hands away when the savage tried to help.
"Play," Naltu was ordered.
Naltu did not understand. Perry had done this, but never from the original configuration. He sought the eyes of the others expectantly, and saw the confusion in Perry's face that mirrored his own. He moved a piece and waited. The clock chimed a half-hour and Naltu waited. He rested, kneeling before the table, and closed his eyes.
Baso coughed. "We don't have all day to waste, young man. Play."
Naltu's eyes opened. He saw the board. Six figures were seated around it. The serpent moved a stone, and the eagle moved another. The wolf moved a stone, and the bear followed. A hovering wasp lifted a stone and placed it, and then Naltu flicked a stone into a new place, and fangs bit his hand.
"You're wasting our time," the serpent hissed. "Go away."
The others played their game. They conversed and ignored him. Naltu protected his stones, moving around the others, and was not threatened. He was invisible and worked silently. He changed his own position and interfered with the others only when forced. He toyed with Meghor and Ryusupo, he took their pieces, and they took his in absent-minded steps. The game progressed until the sun fell, and the room grew dark, and the Magisters watched.
At last all the pieces were gone, except for a single green stone belonging to Meghor.
Baso clapped and Naltu turned his head. For all in the room, only minutes had passed, and where the board had been empty, a single green stone lay. The old man approached Naltu and grasped his shoulder and head and anointed his face with sour oil, a sign that he was worthless. The serpent left, and the wolf followed, bored. The eagle flew away, and the bear chased. The insect buzzed into the sky, and the man walked outside.
Naltu cried on the stone path, and his tears filled the gray slate with blackness, and he felt lessened, and could not understand why. Perry held him while he shook.
"Are you alright?" she asked.
Naltu's face touched the earth. He found Perry's eyes, and his forehead was covered in sweat and dust. "I don't know why I feel like this. How?"
"The trial. Baso went inside, and the others have gone home. Naltu, you don't have to say anything, just listen. When I took my test, I came out here and cried for an hour. My mentor came and put his hands on my shoulders.
He told me of his trial. So I'll tell you of mine. I played against my mother and my sister. Both died of the weeping sickness before I could know them. We talked of the life they hoped for, the life that had been snatched away from them. I played against my father, and he told me how glad he was when the Academy came and took me. He told me of how he could finally succumb to the Opal buds and live in bliss. I took his stones, and watched him rot away, as my mother and sister had. And I played against two elders in the Academy, and all my stones were taken away. Baso came outside and told me that..."
Baso arrived, and pushed Perry away, and she stumbled, puffy-eyed, back to her home. Thin arms spread around Naltu's broad shoulders.
"Flesh weaver, I fear for you. I fear that you'll create horror for the people of this land and others. I'm certain this will come to pass. But you've failed the test, and because of this, you must be trained. Perhaps this can change things. You'll be admitted to the Academy as Apprentice. Swear to me you'll be bound to my words and the words of your mentor Mistress d'Oncil, and take the silver coin as proof and burden."
Naltu began to speak, but Baso placed a finger across his lips. "Not yet. Come to me when you are rested."
He rose and returned to the tavern and rested for two days. He woke to plates of cold bread and flat ale and filled his stomach. A man in the front told Naltu his room was paid for the remainder of the week, and gave him a message from Perry, that he should return to the Academy when he was ready.
Naltu went to the Academy and found Master Baso in his office. The old man searched through piles of books and letters until he came to a soft bundle wrapped in linen. He lifted the bundle and gave it to Naltu.
"Has Mistress d'Oncil taught you your vows?"
"Vows? There was no time."
Baso shook his head and searched through his desk. He found a slip of paper. He lit a candle with a small piece of flint and made space nearby for the paper. He opened a tiny jar of ink and mixed the contents with a small wooden spatula, then found a quill in his desk. With a knife, he made a new tip on the quill.
"Repeat my words.
I, Naltu, Orphan of the Ghislail of Ghidiun, am bid commissioned and accept freely. In accepting my office as Apprentice in the Academy Guild, I will uphold the obligations of the Academy and my Masters as set forth.
First, I will not reveal the trade knowledge of the Academy to others who are not commissioned. Knowledge is the blood of the Academy, and lack of discretion is violence against my Guild.
Second, I will meet the demands of any Master who comes to me with authority to command.
Third, I will serve at the whim of the Civil Head of the Academy of Dosille. I may be dismissed for disobedience or incompetence.
Forth, I will uphold the qualities and value of the Academy, and will defend the Guild with my strength, blood, and life."
Fifth, I will not engage in prohibited behaviors. My reputation is the reputation of the Academy. I will not mar it.
Sixth, I will not research the arts that are forbidden by the Kingdom of Spheria. These arts are banned for my protection, and for those of the people.
All this I swear for the benefit of the Academy."
Baso made Naltu repeat the oath three times. He then took a small needle and drew a drop of blood from Naltu's finger. He placed the drop of blood into ink and continued stirring, then presented the quill to Naltu. Naltu wrote his name on the papers. Baso placed one slip of paper into a large satchel, and placed the other slip into a small leather wallet. Inside the leather was a small silver coin with six arrows along the circumference. Naltu took the wallet and placed it in his pocket.
"It's done, then. Mistress d'Oncil is your mentor and master. She's accountable for your wrongdoing, so you'll do as she demands. You've sworn as much thrice and signed with your own blood. Go find your mentor."
Naltu bowed and left the office, closing Baso's door quietly. He wandered the hall back towards the entrance and scanned the wood-carved placards on the doors. Most of the doors contained the same placard, 'Library', and were locked. A large double-door half-way between Baso's office and the entrance lobby was open, and he peered into the library.
A middle-aged woman with brown skin stood from a padded bench. She set a book to her side and approached Naltu.
"I'm Mistress Ghindi. Are you Naltu?"
"I am Naltu," he said, clasping her offered hand.
"Good to meet you. Are you looking for Master Baso's office?"
"I have come from there."
"Ah! You haven't taken your vows yet, have you?"
"I have done so."
"Damn! Perry wanted to be there, and Baso knew. Well, I'm sure she's in her room. I'll walk you."
Naltu followed Ghindi past Baso's office and around a corner. She lifted a heavy latch on a door and led him through. He found himself in a second lobby, and coats and boots were laid about on shelves and in open chests. Artwork lined the walls, and beyond a few paces, the floor was covered in fabric.
"Leave your footwear here, if you don't mind?"
Naltu removed his boots and set them aside. Ghindi slipped her sandals from her feet and placed them on a shelf. She walked up carpeted stairs, and the roof was low on the second floor. They walked down the hall to a room. A piece of slate was on the door, and the name 'Periwinkle d'Oncil' was written in old chalk. Ghindi knocked on the door, and Perry answered.
"Hey! Is it time?"
Ghindi glared at Naltu for a moment. "I could not catch him in time. Baso already heard the oath."
Naltu produced his small wallet. "I have this, now. I did not know I was supposed to wait."
Perry grunted and shook her fists beside her hips. "It's my fault. Baso wouldn't have let you wait. I should have been downstairs in the lobby to welcome you. Ah, well. Come see my meager abode."
Ghindi bowed quickly. "Perry, I'll return to my studies."
"Thank you, Mistress."
Naltu followed Perry into the room. She laid a linen quilt on her mattress and smoothed the wrinkles, and then sat, and patted the spot next to her. He placed the bundle on the floor and joined her on the bed.
"Baso says I must do as you say."
"Yes. You're my servant now. You should have taken the ship back to Ghidiun."
Naltu smiled and shook his head.
"So how much did Baso explain about how this all works?"
"He did not. He said to find you."
"Well... let's open your package first."
Naltu untied the cord and pulled the linen wrapping away. Inside were two large robes made of gray silk, and linen blanks for cutting underclothes, and soft leather shoes.
"You can wear whatever you want. The robes are free, the Academy pays for them, but you're not allowed to sell anything you requisition."
"In a bit, we'll go down to the cellar. I'll introduce you to someone who can explain all that. We have a quartermaster who takes care of making sure we all have what we need. Clothing, books, supplies, whatever. Baso has to approve everything, of course, but he rarely cares."
"Fine. I do not need to wear the robes?"
"Not if you want to keep your southern clothing. Though the silk is comfortable and affords a certain degree of respect in the city. You won't be asked for your Guild Token by the experienced merchants, because only people who are full members of the Academy have Tokens."
"I am a full member, or Apprentice?"
"Apprentices are full members. Usually, they're just young people with a promising Talent. You'll find the other Apprentices are much younger than you, but don't worry about that. They work in the Scribe's Lament cooking and cleaning, and in the library copying books, whatever their mentors want when they aren't studying. I won't have you working with them unless you really want to. You have too much to learn to waste time scrubbing pots."
"This is good."
"So Perry Rule Number One. No using your power without asking me first. Emergencies like saving the life of stabbed Magisters excepted."
"Why? I have a coin."
"Because if you get in trouble, I get in trouble. The Spherian King Aenwyn the Fifth outlawed flesh weaving during the war. He doesn't have dominance here, but the military men in the city all obey his orders. Do you understand what happened in the war?"
"Let's go meet Haiche, and then we'll get lunch, and I'll give you the short version."
Perry stood and led Naltu out of her room. They went down the stairs to the lobby. She donned her own sandals and Naltu tied his boots to his feet. They went around a corner and down a second set of stairs. The area was lit by tiny glowstones that had been embedded into the stone foundation during the construction of the Academy. The cellar was large, and columns supported the weight of the structure above.
There were no walls but those of the foundation. The room was filled with low shelves that were piled high with all manner of supplies. A tapping came, and an elderly man with a cane and a limp came to meet Mistress d'Oncil and Master Naltu.
"This is our newest Apprentice?"
"Yes. Haiche, this is Master Naltu. Naltu, Haiche is our quartermaster. His role is in the procurement and management of our supplies. Baso's in charge, but Haiche does all the work."
Haiche laughed. "Mistress, you are too kind. I do what I can. You see before you the wealth of the Academy. Some of this is available for your use, but much is not. The Academy collects certain valuables and antiquities for safe-keeping. Not so much in Dosille, and so our wealth is measured in old wine and coveted spirits. These are meant for preservation and not intoxication. Otherwise, you may wander freely, and you may put a request in my ledger. If the materials are here and do not require approval, I will give them to you. Anything you might buy for clay in the market is like this. Otherwise, I must see Baso and receive his stamp. If you require something not here, I make trips to the market once a month, sooner if required. I'm certain I can not consume more of your time, so I invite you to visit again when you are able."
"Oh, Haiche, and we haven't talked with Naltu of accomodations money. Usually Apprentices live in the Academy, but you're a lot older."
Haiche scoffed. "There are no rooms upstairs. We have been using the spare rooms to store all of Iuju's peculiar soil so that he may work here. We could make space in a few weeks. I could speak of Baso regarding Master Denelsohns property. It has been empty, perhaps we could board Naltu there until we have space."
Naltu frowned. "I am not sure I wish to live in this building. I wish more space."
"Apprentices aren't normally paid, Naltu. I won't tell you where to live, but if it's not here, it'll cost money. Baso will be tolerant until there's a room."
"What demands will you place on me, Mistress?"
"You're a grown man... whatever you want. I just mean for you to learn, and maybe help me with a bit of crafting."
Naltu nodded. "Lunch, then?"
Perry agreed and they returned to the Scribe's Lament. They were given bread and small bits of preserved meat and emptied two tall pitchers of ale. Perry's head was light when she began to explain the war.
"It was an ugly disaster, and the Academy in Spheria was at the center, so we're all quite... careful. The story starts in 1750, seventy-five years ago. A necromancer named Ryuten rose to the head of the Academy in Spheria. He trained some other necromancers and was well-liked, and he kept watch against bandits and wild animals. There was a border dispute in 1780, and by then, he had a strong following, both Magisters and common folk. The Academy, under his leadership, occupied northern Nilan. The occupation was legal and just, and the Nilanese benefited from the institution of laws and the economic support of Spheria. But that wasn't enough for Ryuten and his most fervent followers in the Academy."
"I have known men like this."
"I hope not. During the occupation of 1780, there was no use of Scientia. But Ryuten never had a proper army, so... it became a crutch for him to gain power. He spent the next twenty five years of his life practicing proper necromancy - raising dead soldiers to fight for him on the battlefield. He did all this in secrecy, sparking a civil war in Libbon so that he could have corpses for his experiments. He came back to Spheria with an army. He invaded Nilan, and the Nilanese invaded Spheria in response, and both countries brutalized each other. After each conflict, Ryuten would bring the dead soldiers back to life, and they would slaughter the living. The battles were in the desert between the countries, and so few survived, that word did not spread quickly enough. Ryuten was the elected head of the Academy by then, though he was always in the field. The Academy found out about the massacre and we had our own schism. The necromancers... flesh weavers... rose against the others and tried to maintain dominance. In the end, the necromancers were executed by the Spherian army, and Ryuten died from a poison the Academy administered by force. It's said, all in all, more than a million men died in Spheria and Nilan, and the Libbonese civil war never ended, and there's still a small ember. Most people don't blame the Academy because we were very careful to distance ourselves and oppose the necromancers using violence and great force. To them, the Academy means the schools and the fertile fields and the things we sell in the markets. People don't knowingly associate with Magisters. Everyone knows we're here, but are content to pretend otherwise as long nothing uncomfortable happens."
"I see. And this is also why the token? Perhaps the necromancers did not carry tokens?"
"Yes, exactly. And the vows. There are a lot of political factors you don't need to be concerned with, because of your station, and also because we aren't in Spheria."
"You are comfortable of talking about such things in this place."
Perry glanced around. "There are three other people here and I know them all. You should know, we tolerate a lot of false rumors. This is a safe place, and so is the Academy, but not all would agree, and this is best. City folk are welcome here, though, so you must hold your tongue around them. Let's go back to the Academy."
They did, and Baso had scrawled a note on Perry's door. She sighed and brought Naltu to the office. Baso passed a slip of paper to Perry.
"Haiche informed me of the situation with the rooms. He recommended your Apprentice's lodging in Master Denelsohn's old property. Do you agree to such an arrangement?"
"I don't mind," Perry said.
"Naltu, you may pay rent to the Academy, or you may buy the deed outright."
"Good," Naltu agreed.
"Go see Haiche before he returns to his home. Make arrangements tonight. We won't pay for his room at the Scribe's Lament any longer."
Perry was glad for Baso's help, but annoyed at the interference.
Haiche was in the basement smoking a small pipe. Naltu bowed before the old man. Perry explained their purpose and gave Baso's note to Haiche.
"It's a comfortable home, with glowstones and plumbing. As spacious as any tenement. The price is ten gold outright, or fifty silver per month in rent."
Naltu frowned. "That seems a great sum of money."
Perry shook her head. "That's a good value, Naltu, either way. You'd pay as much in renting a tenement in the ward of Stone to the west of here, where the laborers live. A tenement in the ward of Stone to the south will cost far more. How much money do you have?"
"May I trade freely in the markets to earn my wealth?"
"You are a trader?" Haiche asked.
"This could be beneficial for me. Mistress d'Oncil, Apprentices should learn humility through service, and I am old and could use help. Would you let me send him to the market to fill requisitions as you and he please?"
Perry glanced at Naltu. "That's up to you. It's a few days a moon of work. Haiche, could he earn coin?"
"I have no permission to pay him. But perhaps if he is a skilled trader, he could inspect the ledger for the prices I have paid for goods in the past. I would pay him the same price as I've paid others in the past, and if he's able to haggle, he could keep the difference."
Naltu grinned. "I enjoy the thought. I will read your ledger."
"Alright. And the house? I'm tempted to loan you the money, Naltu. Are you going to stay in Dosille for a while?"
"I will make terms with Haiche. I will buy the house with my own gold."
Perry flinched. "How do you have so much wealth? We're the same age. I don't have much more than that, and I've done well for myself."
Naltu was annoyed by the comment, so he let his emotion show with a glance. "I am just older than you, Mistress d'Oncil. Why wouldn't I have my own wealth?"
Haiche nodded. "There is are terms to the purchase. If you wish to sell, you must return the deed to the Academy, and you will be given a fair price. The second is that if you pass and your heirs are not full members of the Academy, ownership of the property will revert to us. I'll give you the key now in trust, and you bring the money when you can."
Naltu searched through his purse and pulled, one by one, ten gleaming gold coins out. He handed the stack to Haiche, and the old man shrugged.
"You shouldn't carry that kind of money around with you," Perry grumbled.
"I should leave my money in a room in a tavern? No. Besides, I no longer have gold."
"Oh. Well, I'm not going to worry about your money, then. Congratulations. Haiche will need to have the deed signed by Baso and the counsel, and then you'll be a legal landowner inside the city. That's a distinction, very few of the people who live in Dosille live in homes they own."
Naltu nodded. "You do not own your home."
"No," Perry laughed. "But I'm cheap. I do own farmland that I lease to share-croppers beyond the city wall. There's two houses there that I draw rent from. I live here because I choose to."
"You have a small room," Naltu chided.
"You haven't seen your house yet," Perry laughed.
Haiche gave Naltu two simple iron keys and waved the pair off.
"Where is the house?" Naltu asked.
"I know where. Let's go so I can show you the way before the sun starts to set. I don't like being out after dark, not this time of year."
"Thank you, Mistress."
They walked out of the Academy and to the north, through the grove and past an iron gate. The trees were fewer, but still present, and where the soil had not been compacted into a dirt road, the ground was grass and clean.
"There's probably not anything in the house, you know. You might need to buy a bed."
"This is fine. I have stones from the green men I can use in trade. Mistress, your tone changed in the cellar. I hope I have not offended you?"
"No... just... never mind that. I was thinking about you as I perceived myself when I was an Apprentice."
They arrived at the house. The construction was wood, not stone. Large shutters hung over windows and were locked shut with iron rods. The roof was flat but angled so that snow and rainwater would not accumulate. Perry showed Naltu how to open the padlock across the main door.
The interior was dark. Perry struggled to find the glowstone in the main room. She touched it and light came. The walls inside were as outside, flat logs coated in thick lacquer. The seams were precise and tight, with none of the voids that required large amounts of mud to seal.
A small stove was placed near the middle of the room. On the rightmost side stood a small wash-basin, and a second room could be reached through an opening in the interior wall. There were no doors or shelves, and no bed. The windows were not glazed, and the lacquer used to seal the shutters in place kept the elements at bay.
There was a small pile of firewood outside, but it was old and dry. Perry brightened the light in the second room and cheered.
"You have a bath!"
A cast-iron barrel sat in the center of the room. The bath was tall and wide, and a copper pipe snaked up the side and connected to a bung at the top. The bottom of the barrel was connected to the floor by a funnel. There was a chair bolted to the floor at the rear of the room with a hole in the center.
"And a toilet. There must be a cesspit below the house. We'll have to find your neighbors and find out if it's tied in with the city sewer, or if you need to have it emptied. Denelsohn built this house and lived here for ten years, but he left in a hurry. He was a nice man, but always quiet. I don't know if any of us have actually been here."
Perry knelt and touched the floor. "It's dusty in here, too."
She glanced over her shoulder through the open entrance. "The sun's getting lower. I think I'm going to go back to the Academy for the night."
"I am happy," Naltu mused.
"Good! You're close to the Academy. I think you'll like this house. I'll make a list tonight of things I think you need to buy or know to pretend at being civilized. You're staying at the Scribe tonight, right? Let's go."
Naltu hummed and followed Perry out of the house. She led the way, and the sun was low when they arrived at the Scribe's Lament.
A young man came to the table. "Ah. Master, Mistress. Ale?"
"Please," Perry said with an honest smile. "Naltu, when do you want to move? Maybe on Omensday? That'll give you tomorrow and Earthday to get the place cleaned up and a few things."
"You're leaving us?" the man named Creed asked.
"I have a new home. I could sleep there tonight." Naltu replied.
"No! You need a bed and a broom first. Besides, there's no good firewood."
Naltu touched his fur jacket. "I have my pelts, and have slept under the stars before. I need little."
"Creed, one other thing. Naltu's been comissioned with the Academy, so... that means he's not our official guest anymore. Once he moves his things out of the Scribe, by Omensday I'd think, he needs his own tab."
"That's fine. Master Naltu, if you wouldn't mind, write your name on the slate behind the bar. We'll make marks for your meals and libations, and you can pay when it's convenient. Mistress, I'll assume you're his second?"
She nodded, red-faced from the ale.
For dinner, Naltu asked for the roasted chicken, and Perry was content with stew made from mushrooms and ox-bones. The Scribe's Lament was crowded, though there were seats for a hundred. The food came, and Naltu ate the bird. Perry ate half the large bowl placed before her, and Naltu finished the rest, then swallowed two large rolls. Naltu walked with Perry through the grove and back to the Academy, and then returned to his room, and slept.
The morning arrived. Naltu took his things from his room and told Creed that he did not expect to require the space any longer. He went to the house and set his things on the floor, and then broke the lacquer and unlocked the shutters. The light came in and made beams through the small windows, illuminating all of the dust that was stirred by his footsteps.
Perry came and saw the cloud of dust that continued to erupt from the door. Naltu was inside. He had cut a small limb from a nearby evergreen and was brushing the dirt from the wooden floor. She carried rags and a broom and bucket, and she waited outside until heard her calling. She was dressed in old linens, not unclean, but worn. Naltu stepped outside and addressed her.
"I stopped by the Scribe this morning for breakfast, and to find you. I was surprised when Erik told me you had taken your things. Do you want some help cleaning? You're doing it all wrong, you know."
He let the dust settle. She came inside and filled a bucket with water from the tap and doused the floor and walls. He was surprised at the effectiveness, and was delighted to find that the floor was angled in such a way that the dirty water flowed to the sewer connection below the tub.
The house was not cold, but the water brought a chill as white flakes of snow fell from the sky. Naltu shoved firewood into the stove and made a small flame with tools in his pack. He puffed, and a draft formed, and the stove began to heat the house. Perry closed the front door and poured water on the floor until it ran clean.
Naltu had exhausted half the firewood before the house was comfortable without a jacket. The lacquer on the floor repelled the water, and the house was soon dry.
Perry inspected the stove. "You can have coal delivered. They mine it in the mountain behind Dosille and sell it in the market."
"Coal is left after fire?"
"No... it's a stone that burns. That's what we burn in the stoves in the Academy. We have the Fire Magisters start the stoves because the coal is hard to burn."
"Stone would seem difficult to burn," Naltu agreed. "Do you have work for me?"
"I meant to help you get settled for a few days. If you're looking for something to do, we can start, but... do you want to go to the market? The food at the Scribe is good, but you only get to pick from what Erik and Creed decide to cook, and all the artisans and craftsmen are there on Moonday, so we can find some furniture and bedding for you."
Naltu agreed, and they walked for a half hour south, past the city's clock tower, to the market where aristocrats shopped.
"Men trade only in gold and silver. I must get more."
Perry squirmed for a moment, wondering what Naltu meant. He continued past the tables meant for the wealthy who were browsing, and to the center where the jewelers and gemcutters worked. Perry followed him. He pulled a green lump the size of a calf's eye from his pocket and presented it to a gemcutter.
Her shoulder was touched by another, and Perry turned.
"Ah, Mistress d'Oncil," a plump woman said with a light tone.
She was dressed in fine clothing. She wore a pleated skirt of purple velvet. The pleats were tightly stretched over hidden metal strands so that the skirt expanded and was as an inverted flower, hanging from the woman's hips. Her blouse was simple and low-cut, exposing too much of her goose-pimpled bosom in the cold air. Her shoulders were protected by pleated balloons of green velvet and white silk.
Perry felt under-dressed in her silk Academy robes. She squinted for a moment and searched her memory. "Lady Erika Ikos? Well met."
"Well met, then. Call me Lady Rassen now, for I've been married to Jawin Rassen, and he's taken his father's title. Do you shop for jewelry?"
"This is a fine emerald, young man." The gemcutter glanced over Naltu's shoulder at Perry. "Do you have a purpose for it?"
"For sale," Naltu replied.
He glanced over his shoulder, and saw Perry talking with an older woman. He squinted and focused his mind on the trade.
"I'm here with my pupil," Perry said to Lady Rassen, and gestured towards Naltu. "He's my student, a man from Ghidiun. I'm teaching him our ways and language."
Erika clapped. "How exciting. You should be more observant of him, though, for I suspect the fault would be yours were he to leave with any of these baubles."
Perry turned and shook her head. "I've no worry. He's a trader. I think he's trying to sell some of his own gems. It would seem he's among the elite of the frozen isles."
"Elite? How interesting. Could it be that Mistress d'Oncil shares more than her words with such a rugged man?"
Perry blushed and glared at Lady Rassen. "Of course not. Such a thing is forbidden by the Academy. He's my pupil only."
Erika bowed, scolded, and apologized. "Certainly. Ah, but I have my own business here, so I must depart. One last query?"
Perry's brow rose to accept the question, though she remained silent.
"My father says you visit the Jade Palace?"
"Your father talks of his visits to the Jade Palace?"
"Not in any way my mother might know, of course. As a woman, perhaps, I wonder why another might visit?"
Perry crossed her arms under her chest. "There is service other than that the whores provide. Too small for your liking, though."
Erika nodded, believing herself understanding. "Well then, Mistress d'Oncil. I shall write to invite you to tea. It's well if all those who vote in the counsel know of each other and our mutual interests. My father and his heir, my brother, would be well-advised to introduce themselves. We shall see you again, and soon."
Perry meant to make a polite statement, but Lady Rassen spun and moved away too quickly. The conversation had made her feel tired, as if she had been sweating. She turned and watched Naltu.
"Hmm, I'll have to cut it to see the quality. I can charge you for the cut and polish, and you might sell the result yourself, or I could buy this for... how much did you pay for this?"
"I traded with the green men who cut it from the earth," Naltu said. He produced his wallet and showed the Academy coin to the gemcutter.
"Of course you did. Some of their stones are flawless, and others worth not so much. I could likely cut two good stones from this lump, so I'm willing to give you a full gold coin for this before cutting it."
Naltu shook his head. "There is one polished stone behind the roughness of this jewel. You will cut it and see. The stone is from Ghidiun, and the mountains are deep."
"Ghidiun? Ah. Ten silvers and I'll cut the largest stone from this rock that I can."
"Ten is too much. Perhaps five, and I will present any offer I receive from the other jewelers to you for your refusal."
The gemcutter glanced at Perry again. "Ah, I did not take you for a trader. Emerald is hard to cut and harder to polish. I'll have to do this myself. The apprentices are not skilled enough. My offer of a gold coin is not a bad one."
"How long until you finish the polish?"
"For ten silvers, I can do this in two days."
Naltu grumbled and fished a large silver coin from his purse. He gave the man the coin. He walked around the tent, and Perry followed.
"Master Naltu!" a jeweler shouted. Naltu approached the man.
"I don't have your stones here, for I didn't expect to see you until later in the week. Your rough rubies are excellent, and I will make you an offer tomorrow night, once you see the quality of my man's work."
Naltu grinned. He glanced at the glazed display case on Donovan's table. "I think perhaps I will ask three gold coins for the five stones."
Donovan nodded. "I might sell them myself for three, wrapped in gold of their own. Where did you get them?"
"I told you. Ghidiun, in the mountains."
"But you bought them off a ship in Krigsgud?"
"No. I went to the mountains and traded with the green men. They greatly value certain things I can buy with gold, as you value stones."
"Ah. These mountains are mostly coal and gold. Do you have more?"
"I have given an emerald tonight to the man Galding to cut."
"You should have come to me. I'd make you a better offer than he could."
"You will give me three gold, then?"
Donovan laughed. "No. One and five silver is as much as I can do. The settings will weigh the same as gold coin, and I suspect I'll make far less profit than you, though you've earned it for braving that wild."
Naltu hummed. Perry was peering through the case.
"Madame, is there anything you would like to inspect?"
"Oh, no. I'm waiting for Naltu. We're going shopping for far more mundane things than rubies."
"I see. Well, come back tomorrow night. I'll have the scales and calipers and we can negotiate over the stones individually, though I ensure you, my offer is fair."
Naltu knew he needed the gold, and so he closed his eyes. "Very well. I will accept your offer. Emeralds are worth more than rubies, no?"
"Ah, well, it depends on the stone," Donovan said. "Rubies are typically of quite high clarity. Emeralds vary, and the poor ones can be sold, though for far less coin. Galding's a good enough cutter. What else might you have?"
"Many more stones, though not all came from Ghidiun. Some come from the mountains west of here. The quality is inferior."
Donovan withdrew a gold coin and five silvers from an iron case. He held the coins to Naltu. "We have a deal, then?"
"We do. I think my emerald is worth far more than Galding believes. You should come to terms with him before I return."
"I will," Donovan said. "Thank you, Master Naltu, Madame."
Perry smirked. "Mistress, Sir."
"Ah, my apologies. Fair to make your acquaintance, and come again if you wish to examine my wares."
They left and returned to the outside expanse of the tent. Perry led Naltu on a weaving path, and they passed clothiers and tailors and came at last to a carpenter sitting on comfortable pillows.
"Hello Mistress," the man nodded. "Master."
"Do you remember me?" Perry asked.
"Ah... Mistress... d'Oncil? And was your friend a Mistress Ghindi? Yes. I think so."
"You do! Excellent. This another friend, Master Naltu. Naltu, this is Alim, a superior carpenter. Naltu's new with us at the Academy, and he's found a home, and requires outfitting. The place is cozy and empty of furniture."
"Thank you for bringing your friend, Mistress. I assure you, Master, my work is the best you'll find. Quality wood and workmanship that will last a lifetime, mine at least, for if anything I build fails, I'll come and repair it. Perhaps Mistress d'Oncil knows I've lived in Dosille my whole time, so I'm not likely to vanish."
Naltu was silent, and he fidgeted with a buckle for a moment. Alim gave Perry a nervous glance, and then continued.
"Master, what do you require? Perhaps a bed, tables, and shelving?"
Naltu peered around, confused and searching for the furniture that had been described. "Where are your wares?"
Perry laughed and Alim was gracious. "Master, if you wish to see my work, inspect the sturdy tables and cabinets the nearby merchants sell from. My goods are built to order at your home and to your specification.
Naltu's face went blank and Perry cringed. "This is how it works, Naltu. How much are you comfortable spending to have furniture?"
"I don't know. I have never had furniture."
Alim laughed. "And you've a strange accent. Where do you hail from, friend?"
"I am from the south. Ghidiun, the frozen isle."
"So you have slept on the ice and under the stars?"
"Most of my life."
"Naltu is going to want a bed and a workbench and some chairs. I'm willing to spot the money if he's short."
Naltu shook his head. "Lending is forbidden in the south."
Perry waved the thought away. "Whatever. Alim, how long would it take until you could have those things together for him?"
Alim rubbed his chin. "You did not see me build Ghindi's house up. I brought the wood already smoothed and painted as she preferred. I use glues and nails so that there is no mess, and make alterations as required. I have a good supply from the summer, and business is slower in the winter. I would need access to the house for perhaps two full days, and could work this week's end."
"Naltu, is that good? You can stay at the Scribe until he's done."
"Are there specifications?"
Naltu stared at Perry for a moment and raised his shoulders.
"Hmm. Give him a bed the same size as the one Ghindi bought. And a table big enough to seat six comfortably, but mind you may have to work it, because the house is small. The walls and floor are stained red and lacquered, so I would think the furniture should match."
"How much money?"
"Well, for what she's mentioned, I could do the work for... say... five silvers, and then two more for the materials?"
"Seven. That is-"
"Naltu, don't haggle. He's a craftsman."
"Fine. Seven silvers. Does this include cushions or mattress?"
Alim shook his head. "No, just the construction. And that won't be the true price, for I'll charge you based on my exertion. I can only promise it will be no more than seven. My wife is a seamstress, and she works with canvas, wool, linen, and down. I can include the mattress in the seven silvers, since you're a hardy man, and if you want something softer, you'll need to pay for the down cushion on top. I'll take your money come Sunday night when I'm done."
Perry tipped her head to Naltu. Her smile was wide, and she was excited to see the results of Alim's work. "You'll be all set, then. Now we just need to find you some coal and some basic things like soap and washing powder. Maybe a curtain for the bath."
"How will I find your home?"
Perry explained the directions to Alim, and confirmed that the walkways and roads were wide enough for a horse-drawn cart. The carpenter seemed confident that Naltu would enjoy his furniture.
"You're enjoying this?" Naltu said, surprised.
"Soon, we'll be buying you pillows and carpets for the floor and your house is going to be so comfortable. I am excited. A while ago I thought of buying it myself. You're going to have a nice home."
"Ah. You are content to spend my money."
They left Alim and went to the western market where the laborers and commoners shopped. The basic wares were often identical, but far more inexpensive, because the aristocrats would not tolerate the presence of the poor while they shopped.
A horse pulled a cart of coal to Naltu's house, and he and Perry followed, and deposited the other wares inside. The sun was setting, so Naltu walked with Perry back to the Scribe's Lament, where they ate stewed lamb and soda bread. They returned to the Academy as the last of the day's light vanished.
"It's been a long day. There's a counsel meeting tonight that I should attend."
"Oh. The governing counsel of Dosille. All those who own land in the city and those who own significant parcels outside the walls are invited to appear and cast votes. There's perhaps a hundred people, and once your deed is signed, you'll be welcome as well. Gods, my legs are tired. I'm going to go see who's going from the Academy. It's a long walk and I don't want to go alone."
"Ah. You do not trust the night?"
Perry shook her head. "Dosille's a safe city, so they say. But there is a lot of poverty. The Red Palace... a lot of people crazed on the Opal flower. Not so safe for a petite girl."
"I will walk with you."
"They won't let you in. You'd have to wait outside."
"You spent your day helping me fill my house. I will escort you, if you wish."
Perry smiled. "Well then, I do, actually. It'll give us some time to plan out what we're going to do for the next few days."
Naltu followed Perry to the southern end of the city. She entered an elegant tavern. He waited outside and smoked his pipe for three hours during the meeting. He walked north with her and other members of the Academy that he did not know. He passed by and went to his home and tied the pelts of his pack into a makeshift bed of the same sort he always slept on. The floor was no harder than the frozen tundra, and though the bed was not comfortable, he slept soundly.
The sun rose announcing Earthday, and Perry was at Naltu's door with bread and cheese. They broke fast together, seated on the floor, and she unpacked her large sack. She set the wooden game-board Naltu had played during his Apprentice's Stone test. She placed a flask of dust to one side and a triangular vial filled with black liquid to the other.
"Now, we're going to do some real work. And we'll find out if you can keep a secret. This is the second one, after our names. Do you remember this board?"
"Inspect it. Tell me what you see."
"This one is different from the one you taught me with. There is writing under the stain and in the bowls where the stones rest."
"Exactly. Now, pour this dust, just a pinch, in the seven holes where the blue stones - the water stones start."
Naltu did. Perry opened the bottle and placed a single drop of black liquid onto each of the piles of dust. She spun the board so that the element of water faced him.
"I want you to put your fingers on the corners of the board."
Naltu did, touching two corners of the hexagon with the pads of his forefingers. He looked up at Perry.
"Now... listen until I'm finished before you do anything. You're going to push just a little bit of energy into the board. It's going to start pulling, and hard. You'll probably have hallucinations and you'll feel terrible afterwards. The board's going to rip out a little bit of your spirit and use the energy to fuse the dust and liquor into stone fragments. The spirit damage, just like when you did this before, will heal in a few days. That's the first step in making the stones. Go ahead and try."
Naltu did, cautiously probing the board with his spirit, and felt a weightlessness and a surge, as if he had fallen and struck the ground. He glanced up, and Perry was there, smiling at him, but there was no meat, only bones, tendon, and clothing.
He blinked away the illusion and gasped. "That is not pleasant."
"This isn't the first secret you've learned, but it's the secret behind the Apprentice's Stone. The real reason for that test is to ensure that an Apprentice can add at least some measure of value to the Academy before go through the expense of training. There are a few Magisters in the Spherian cities who do nothing but sleep and play at this board, crafting stones. In Dosille, all of us are talented enough for other work, and so we all have to craft ourselves."
Naltu inspected one of the blue fragments. It began to crumble in his fingers.
"Be careful," Perry whispered. "Here, give it to me."
He placed the fragment in her hand, then she carefully plucked the other fragments from the divots.
"What is the bottle?"
"That's a secret you're not allowed to know, and don't try and figure it out. It's for your own safety. It's a liquid only Magisters who are strong with water are allowed to touch. You can fuel the transformation with your spirit, but the liquid catalyzes it. When you are attuned with an element, you'll be taught the catalysts for your art."
She held her hands out, cupping the fragments. "Now give me some water."
Naltu quickly spat into her hands. She jumped in surprise, and disgust crossed her face.
"By light! I meant you go to the tap and get me some water!"
Naltu blushed, humiliated. "I misunderstood."
"What's in your mouth is called spittle. What's in the tap is called water. Damnit!"
The fragments melted and became as a woodworker's putty, though the blue hue became strong. "Whatever. Gross."
Perry worked the fragments. Naltu brought a cup of water, though Perry ignored his gesture. She worked the fragments until the putty dried, and then dipped the blob into the cup, and continued working it, twisting and pinching and pulling in her fingers.
"When you're attuned, you can start to feel the structure of the stones. Think of the gems you have sold. Do they not seem to have a natural shape?"
"The emeralds have the same shape as the game board."
"Exactly! Well, stones do too. We're crystallizing Scientia."
Perry explained the concept to him for the remainder of the day, and Naltu did not understand well, for he could not touch the stone and work it. Perry promised him that the time might come soon enough. She completed her work and left the small stone fragment with him. She collected her things, and asked him to find her in the Academy after lunch on the next day.
The morning came and Alim arrived with his cart, and left a great quantity of lacquered wood on Naltu's floor. He also brought an empty canvas sack that he promised would become the mattress, and thick piles of scraps, the sort that were made as excess in tailoring.
Naltu tolerated the unexpected delivery and went to the Academy. Perry had found a workroom and played with him. She used the fresh water stone as one of the game pieces. They played until dinner, then took a break at the Scribe's Lament.
"If we can finish a few more games, I think we'll be done for today."
Naltu hummed and twisted in his seat. "I had meant to go to the Jade Palace tonight."
"Well... I was going to finish the stone tonight after we were done. It's not that late yet, so... give me another hour?"
"Of course. I did not know you had an intention for my time."
They worked and finished. Naltu went to the Jade Palace and found his way home at daybreak. He washed and went to the Scribe's Lament and ate, and then went to the market. In the eastern market, he haggled with Galding and received five gold coins for the large stone, and bought stable food for his house. He returned home with bread, cheese, lard, and mushroom powder. He went to the Scribe's Lament a second time, and he gave his laundry to Creed, and ate lunch with Perry.
She gave him a velvet pouch. He shook the contents onto the palm of his hand, and abruptly dropped the hazy blue stone onto the table. It was bitterly cold, and a mote of frost crossed his palm.
"When Alim comes tomorrow, have him build a small chest for you. Put this inside, and whatever else you put in the chest, eggs, dairy, meat, will freeze and keep."
"This is good, Mistress d'Oncil. I had wondered. We hung our food from the trees in Ghidiun so that it would stay intact in the air. You craft this with ease."
"This is how I earn my coin. That one will last a few months. Since you've got the coin to visit the Jade Palace, I've decided that if you want another, you'll have to pay for it. If you pay the price of spirit, I'll only ask you for three silver, otherwise, twice that."
Naltu nodded. "This is a generous gift, then. I have a wonder. Could I hunt beyond the city walls, for the fur of the fox and wolf?"
"Uh... I... there are laws about that, but I have no idea. You can probably pick up your deed at the next counsel meeting, so why not come and ask there?"
Naltu nodded. "Linen is not warm. I thought the fabric of the north would be comfortable, but my own furs give more than what I've bought here."
Perry laughed. "Of course they do. Go find some fur like that in the market if you can. I'm certain the forest near the city is hunted barren, for I've heard that spoken of, and so the price might surprise you. How was the Jade Palace?"
"One other favor. May we agree that my nights on Omensday are my own, to spend as I wish?"
"You want to keep going to the Jade Palace on Omensday?"
"Is it the same girl, or did another suit you last night?"
"The same one. Is that not acceptable?"
"Oh, it's fine, I'd just like to know. You're an adult, and I don't want to... crowd you, but you're still my ward, and your well-being is my responsibility. You'll recognize a lot of faces between that place and the counsel meetings, so be discrete. You don't want any enemies in the counsel. Naltu, if you ever do get into trouble, it's best if you tell me right away, even if I'm asleep or busy. Have you learned how to hire messengers?"
"Messengers? Yes. I have been communicating with a ship's captain in Arbor to sell Opal flower across the sea to Ghidiun. I have been wondering if it is safe to use such a mechanism to send gold."
"Guild Messengers are as honest as they come, but you'll pay more. Silver for the safe delivery of gold. They have an interesting system. If you send gold to Arbor, say, they don't carry the coins. They carry a slip of marked paper that is worth gold in the destination, and keep your coin here. It's quite safe, the Academy uses that mechanism with frequency, but you'll pay silver for the guarantee."
"Is it rude to ask to see the Guild Token?"
"No... it's the law, actually. You'd perhaps spend a few days reading the regulations in the library. Once you've spent all your money on furniture, I'll have to break the nasty truth about taxation to you. I don't think you'll like it."
"I know taxes. How the aqueducts are kept. Haiche told me and demanded three silver for the year."
"Ah, good. Let's meet tomorrow morning? I have some work for you that I'd like to do in your home, if you don't mind. Let's go back to the Academy. I can explain in the workroom, and you won't be able to start until Alim is gone."
They went to the Academy workrooms, and Perry taught Naltu of the extraction of dust from his spirit. The process was simple but slow. He spent the day crushing glass fragments in a mortar, and was careful to keep the growing dust from becoming airborne, for the raw glass would draw blood and coughing.
Alim made the furniture and Naltu was pleased, and gave the man a full gold coin in return for sturdy wall-mounted shelves and two locking chests. The carpentry was completed on Moonday, and Naltu continued making the dust. Perry brought the peculiar board and requisitioned drops of a small amount of a unique liquor from Haiche.
As with the water stone, she directed Naltu in the creation of a new stone, though the working was all his own.
"We're making a glowstone. It's about the only thing Spherian Magisters know of the arts of Light, and it's such a simple device that even an unattuned Apprentice can begin the work. Some of the Magisters sell these in the markets, and you could, too."
Naltu made two glowstones. The first was rough and ugly, and Perry taught him to crush the stone into nightdust.
"The dust you make from glass is unattuned. But if you crush a stone, the result is attuned dust. This stuff is useful, and if you can, you should maintain a collection. I've got enough dust in my room among various pouches to fill a small chest. Night dust does little but make the glowstones light. When you fill a glowstone with your spirit to produce light, it's the normal sort given by a candle or hearth. But if you use enough nightdust, the light is different. It casts no shadow, and is not blocked by barriers. In the presence of a glowstone lit by a substantial quantity nightdust, you can see clearly. The effect is good for reading and studying, and some craftsmen like jewelers prefer it."
"If I were to crush a water stone, and put the dust into another water stone, what would happen?"
"Hsst. The stone becomes cold. Fire stones will burn things. Nature stones heal poison and make plants flourish. Air stones can purify smoke. You can find many of these things in the homes of aristocrats and even in the soil if you know how to look."
"And... if I put night dust in a water stone?"
"We'll get there when you're ready. There are some combinations that are not safe. Almost anything in a fire stone can be deadly. There is an element of the crafter's talent that is important, too. I can use an air-charged water stone to walk across water, but you couldn't."
"Is there a flesh stone?"
Perry blinked for a moment. "Remember the ban on necromancy... flesh weaving? Such a thing could exist, but does not, and it is said there are no good effects that can come."
"Then I did not ask."
Three weeks passed and Naltu's glowstone grew to the size of his fist. He carved a tribal mark of the Ghislail into the alabaster surface. Perry watched his progress and guided his crafting. She was surprised by how quickly he learned the Spherian and Nilanese languages, though she spent little time teaching him of much but the crafting and use of stones. He did not speak of his visits to the Jade Palace on each Omensday. He listened to the talk in the Academy and filled orders for Haiche.
Naltu covered his mattress in linens and grew uncomfortable. He hunted in the woods at night and softened wolf pelts and sewed them into a blanket for his bed. Winter grew full, and he relished the small iron stove that kept him warm.
Omensday came on the darkest night of winter. Naltu went to the Jade Palace. He brushed his furs clean with bristles and configured the pelts with stitching into a coat with clean lines and straps hidden underneath. He wore a belt high on his waist, hanging his traveling sword behind him, with his leather pouches at his front. The outfit was not as warm as it could have been, but he meant to make an impression with his appearance.
He gave the purple disk and his fee and entered. Three hearths burned full of wood, though Naltu felt the draft as he went through the doors. He asked after Metta, but she was busy, and so he said he would wait to see if she could come, and went to the tables for a pitcher of wine. The night was cold, but the floors and walls were warm.
The hall was crowded, the bar was full, and trays of wine moved about the room freely. Men brought their own women and took sips from metal pipes, exhaling the fragrant smoke of the Opal flowers. Naltu felt his chest flutter as the remnants in the air came to him, and his head grew light.
Perry was there and her face was relaxed. She wore a long coat made from leather dyed the deep blue of the night sky. Underneath, her dress was linen, simple and brown. Her own pitcher was empty, so he joined her at the table and made to share his. She ignored him for a moment, and he filled her cup, and replaced his own empty pitcher with another.
Her words were slurred and sharp, and she sniffed wetly, but she wore a smile on her face.
"Where's your favorite whore?"
"I don't know. Busy."
"And you're waiting your turn? Why don't you want one of these other women? Or are you attached?"
Naltu laughed. "Perhaps. Would you be satisfied with any of these women? You wait for your own whore?"
"I wait for a professional who knows how to ease the weakness from my bones. I don't know that Aina still visits with... patrons, like your girl does, and it wouldn't matter if she did. I don't think it's the same for you."
Naltu lifted his shoulders. "Perhaps you don't understand. There are reasons I choose Metta."
"I see," she offered with a smile. "Affection. Don't fall in love with a whore, Naltu."
Naltu shrugged again. "I have not seen you this week."
"Baso has kept me busy. Actually, he wanted me to talk with you. Do you know Derin?"
"Yes. He is the... he is full of bile. He does not like me. Most of the Academy turn their eyes when I walk by. It is because I am stupid."
"You're not stupid," Perry laughed.
Metta came from the stairs and found Naltu's lap with a wide grin on her face. She wore a tied dress the color of the sun against the cold night, falling on the lines of a corset laced tightly underneath. Perry gave her a scolding glance, and she blushed and shifted as Naltu wrapped his arm around her waist.
"I'm sorry, Mistress. I'm not imposing?"
"You are, actually."
Metta hopped away from Naltu and bowed low. "I apologize, Master, Mistress. I'll bring you another pitcher of wine."
The girl scurried away and Perry's glare fell on Naltu. "A good little pet, hmm? Baso wants me to take Derin to some dank caves where nasty things crawl. We're hunting grimkin. I think you should join us. Well, Baso thinks you should join us. He thinks you might be useful in dealing with wild animals, since..."
Naltu leaned against the wall, his eyes becoming slender. "What is grimkin?"
"Something Liang's researching. They're winged creatures with sharp teeth and claws."
"Derin does not like me."
"I don't know why anyone wouldn't like you," Metta giggled. She set the pitcher on the table and filled three cups. "Sir, should I leave you alone?"
"Sir," Perry cackled. "Sit, whore. Tell me why Naltu finds you intriguing. I know he comes each Omensday. I brought him here his first night."
Metta glanced at Naltu and then pulled a stool and sat opposite the two. A flicker of memory crossed her eyes, and she winked at Naltu. "I remember you, Mistress. But I can't answer your query."
"How long have you been a whore?"
Naltu glared at Perry. "You're being cruel."
"No, Naltu, I'm making a point." Perry's heard turned. "I mean no disrespect, but please answer my question."
"Seven years, Mistress."
"You're a polite enough pet. How many men have you been with?"
"I can't answer that, Mistress."
"Ten, or perhaps more?"
Metta laughed quickly, hiding her discomfort. "Perhaps more, Mistress."
"A hundred, or perhaps more?"
Silence came, and a woman slid a tray of green salad made from fatty berries and tiny seeds and the juice of lemons onto the table. She added a cloth basket full of crisp bread, and darted away, delivering more of the trays to the other tables. Metta was glad for the respite.
"Perhaps more, Mistress," the pink-clad girl repeated, voice lower.
"You don't know, do you? Perhaps the number's a thousand. Perhaps ten thousand? I've been with three men, whore. Naltu?"
Naltu's face was buried in his cup. "What?"
"Do you know the names of the women you've had?"
"Seven women," he offered. "Ilgris, Sijhi, Nara, Janis, Ellas, Yegha, and Metta. In the cold, such was the way."
The girl blushed and squirmed, moving away from the table.
Perry's face was red and tight. "No, I'm sorry. Please, whore, crawl into his lap if that's what you want. Naltu remembers the name of every woman he's been with. I know the names of all my men. Do you understand that about your customers?"
Metta sniffed. "Most of the people who visit the Jade Palace are rich traders and aristocrats. We don't talk about such things. That's not polite. There's a fantasy here that's best left undisturbed."
"So you're calling me rude?" Perry asked, scowling. Her head twisted, and her jacket fell, revealing a patch of swollen red skin on her shoulder. She quickly tugged the fabric in place.
"No, Mistress," Metta said, bowing her head low, nose touching the table.
"Don't do that," Naltu responded. "Look Perry in the eye. Speak your heart truly. She may scold you for that, but I won't."
Metta did. "Mistress, forgive me, but my worth is what it is. I am not diminished for laying with many men, because I'm worth little. You're my better, I know it, and I'll please Leredith's customers or leave them, whatever they wish. I know my station, and I'm not the lowest of Dosille, but I do serve at the whim of those with silver."
Naltu sighed deeply. Perry slid a large silver coin across the table. "Alright. I'll take you up on that. Show me why Naltu favors you."
Metta turned and Naltu frowned, furious. "Perry, you have had much wine. You don't know what you ask."
"Naltu?" Metta sniffed. "What's happened is between you and I. I won't share that with you, Mistress. There are ethics, even in this."
Perry laughed and picked up the coin. "How bad could it be? What do you do to this poor girl, Naltu?"
Naltu closed his eyes. "Tell her, Metta."
She nodded and her head rose, proud for just a moment. "I read with him, Mistress. I read Spherian, and also Libbonese and Nilanese. I have books of poetry I've collected, I bring them and we read together until the sun rises."
Perry sucked in a shallow breath.
Naltu blushed. "This is my secret. You were impressed by my learning. This is why. I sought more time with teachers, and found this one."
"So you aren't fucking her?" Perry asked.
Metta's face turned red through the pale paint. Perry turned. "You are fucking her. Damn it, Naltu, you make whores blush?"
"You brought me here," Naltu spoke in a deep voice. "And you're frowning on the way I spend my time?"
A woman with fine wrinkles and long black hair approached Perry. "Mistress, I must apologize for your wait. I've prepared a chamber for you."
Perry flicked the coin to the woman. "Thanks, Aina. Um, I've had a lot of wine, and I'll be sleeping here tonight, if that's alright."
Aina bowed and led Perry away. Naltu followed Metta.
"That was difficult," she said, setting a pitcher on a table.
"I've not seen that side of her before."
"What is she to you?"
Naltu laughed. "I trade goods for the Academy. She is my superior and friend."
"Ah. I had mind to do things differently tonight. Will you indulge me?"
Naltu shrugged. "Ask."
She came close to him and kissed him roughly. He stood confused for a moment and put his hands on her hips.
"You've not done that before."
"No," she laughed in agreement. "Here are my terms. I've brought a book I found in the market that I read as a child. Don't be mistaken, it's not an easy book. You're to read it to me in whole and without help. If you can finish in an hour, there's a particular rare pleasure I'm willing to do for you. Otherwise, you must simply rub my shoulders as I have done for you until I fall asleep, and you must pine away unsatisfied until next Omensday."
"I do not accept your terms."
He pushed her to the bed and kissed her mouth and turned her onto her stomach. She squealed and laughed. "That's not fair!"
His thumbs found the sides of her spine and she groaned.
"You make those sounds when you touch me."
"Oh, but this time, I mean it..."
She clasped her hands over her mouth, realizing what she had said, and twisted to face him. He would not let her.
Naltu laughed. "I don't care if you take pleasure from my presence."
"Then why are you soothing me?"
"You would not send me away cold on this winter night?"
"I wanted to inspire you. Nevermind." She struggled to turn again.
"Where is the book?"
"Behind you in the drawers. I stashed it earlier tonight."
Naltu unbuttoned the dress and removed the laces of her corset and then found the book. He opened it and set the book's spine on Metta's back. She squirmed at the sudden cold. He read from the tome as he worked her shoulders and arms and neck. He closed the book halfway through and set it aside.
"What is this rare pleasure?"
"You don't get to play my game by your rules, Naltu," she said.
Naltu shifted so that she could move, and she turned and wriggled out of the clothing. She found the book and opened it again and set it on her stomach, then covered her chest with her arms.
"Now finish reading. It's not fair. I didn't know someone else was teaching you, too, or I'd have found prose more difficult."
Naltu sighed and continued and found his interest in the prose replaced his lust. He learned of a young Libbonese prince who betrayed his father for a girl, and how that prince became emperor, and was betrayed in his own turn by his wife as she sought the favor of a foreign king.
"This is not a child's book."
"No," Metta agreed. "I was precocious. Is it a surprise that I ended up here? Ah - don't answer that."
"Where is my rare pleasure?" Naltu laughed, chiding her.
"You refused my game."
"I read the book."
She gave him a crooked grin, and he looked deep in her eyes, and she felt strange for a moment, as if she was lingering between sleep and wakefulness. The sensation passed and she laughed. "You only had to touch my shoulders if you lost. In doing so, you admitted defeat before you began. Or do you care for my pleasure after all?"
He leaned forward and cupped her chest with his hands, and she batted him away, first his forearms, and then his face, and he rolled to the side laughing.
"You are too forward, Sir! Goodness, that a girl is naked in a bed with you is no cause to molest her!"
Naltu was silent and confused. Metta watched his expression for a moment and found a great deal of joy in his face. She pulled his lips close and made love to him in a way that was at once too simple and too intimate for a brothel.
The morning came, and Metta followed Naltu outside. Perry sat on a stone bench waiting, shivering in the intense cold.
"Mistress," Metta gasped with displeased surprise, bowing low. Her woven eyes were glassy with exhaustion, and reflected the sunlit snow that covered the grass.
"Perry. Did you wait for me?", Naltu said.
"She's still with you? I did, but I just woke at the last chime of the clocks. Metta, I was unfair last night. I only meant that I would be disappointed if you did anything to upset my companion. Wine split my words and gave them edges."
Metta clung to Naltu's arm. "Mistress. Me, too. I'm sorry, I should have waited for Aina, but I intruded. I like it when Naltu comes on Omensday. I was excited and rushed to him, not as a whore, but as a friend. That's important to me, and I was selfish, and I hope I won't cause conflict."
"You both look exhausted," Perry laughed, "and I tossed from the wine all night. Let's go back the Academy."
Naltu bowed and stepped away. Metta leaned close. "Mistress, you're right. I do many things that would upset Naltu, and it's not my choice, and I am sorry. I would ask something rude, Mistress?"
Perry frowned. "Yes?"
Metta touched her shoulder and came to Perry's ear. "Don't be ashamed to answer. Do you carry the weeping sickness?"
Perry turned her face to the sky and cackled. "The weeping sickness. Oh, no, girl. That was a mistake." Her fingers dragged aside her jacket, and pulled the brown dress low. Her skin was clean.
"No, not that sort of sickness. I'm particular and so poisons build in my blood. Blame my bitterness on that, if you'd allow the courtesy, for Aina's hands work in a way so that I clear the poison during the night. Tell no one of that, girl, my secret's more guarded than the men who hide their sores. But it's not something that could bring harm to anyone else. Ask Aina if you're uncertain."
Metta felt small for a moment. "Bitter, perhaps, but not too cruel."
Perry squinted, confused, and Metta smiled. "You didn't ask where I was before I came down last night, though for a moment I could see the words on your lips. Since you didn't, I'll tell you. I was cleaning linens after a customer drank too much and soiled a bed. Master Leredith knew Naltu would be pleasant to me, so he gave me that duty first."
Metta ran to Naltu and kissed his cheek and returned to the Jade Palace. She did ask Aina, and she learned only of trust, silence, and consequences. Perry followed the tribesman as they walked toward the Academy.
"Grimkin," Naltu offered after silence.
"Since you can read now, I think you should do a share of the research. We'll meet tomorrow morning. Until then, you're on monster duty."
Naltu returned to the Academy and found the library. The room was large and brown, filled with books ordered by the date they had been authored. Small glowstones were set in the ceiling, and trackmarks in the floor showed the paths some Apprentice might have dragged chairs along while igniting the stones each morning, and extinguishing them at night.
Most of the books, he was told, were reproductions, though all were hand-scribed. There was value in the printing presses, but the set-up of the press was complicated, and the Academy did not own the necessary equipment. To press the books would mean trusting outsiders, and the Academy of Dosille rarely did such a thing. There would be a time when the Printer's Guild did not have a monopoly on the tools, but that time was not yet come.
The scent of smoke filled the library, made present by the braziers of coal and dried herbs used to discourage vermin from infiltrating the books. The shelves were made of wood, and full, and leather-wrapped tables and chairs lay between. On the most distant end from the entrance, the library maintained a selection of equipment used in the arts of synthesis, from the most basic copper still, to complex glass alembics and rare full firestones that could be used to make pure the most difficult ores.
He read through the day and by glowstone at night. His reading was slow, and he worked out the sounds by pronouncing each word aloud. He did not understand half of what he read. He asked to take the books, but Baso denied him this. The others watched him with scolding eyes as they passed him at the table in the library.
The books were written in Libbonese. The people of the western continent believed their language to be sacred, and so the symbols and enunciation had changed little through the generations. The Spherian and Nilanese tongues were different, always shifting with the geography, and full of dialects, and Metta had told Naltu that were he to go north across the sea to the continent the Spherians called Spheria, and the Nilanese called Nihon, he would struggle to speak with those there.
The grimkin were, Naltu learned, winged creatures, shaped like birds but without feather. The largest were the size of dogs and could carry away children. They were meat-eaters and preyed mostly on the small critters that hid during the night. They lived in large groups, hanging from the ceilings of caves, and tales were written of misfortune when unwitting hunters startled the creatures. The grimkin were brazen, then, and did not care about the size of their foe, only the call of meat.
Their feces dripped and pooled in the caves and was known to be inclined to fire. Naltu understood. Liang was training Derin in the ways of fire, and Baso had explained little enough. The raw detritus was a potent poison, but could be diluted in liquor, and the fluid could be tolerated for use by those who could survive fire.
Naltu found Perry inside the Academy when the time came, and told her what he had learned. Naltu explained that he did not understand much of the books, but she did not wish to look. The task was a favor, she explained, and she gave him large silver coins, and ordered him to assemble three packs with all the supplies that could be carried, to last a long journey.
He did so, buying oiled cloth and metal poles and dried meat. He met with Perry and Derin at the Academy, carrying the three packs, and kept the most weighty for himself. Still, Perry and Derin complained, and Naltu chastised. Derin scowled, angry, and Perry comforted the boy, young and not yet a man. Naltu frowned, concerned that the boy enjoyed Perry's touch without stating so much.
Baso confronted Naltu on the next day, and told the tribesman that he could not be a flesh weaver and a member of the Academy. Baso demanded that Naltu declare his element, and suggested that Naltu's affinity with the wild would bloom into strength in manipulating Nature. Baso explained that the element of Nature was essential to the Magister's ends, and that Naltu could help the farmers reach great harvest with the art.
Naltu agreed, sharing a pipe of sweet grass with Baso, and told the old man of the fertility festivals, of Chokinu and Solinu, one in winter, and one when the snow turned to soil and the trees dug deeply. Baso was well pleased by the decision and bid Naltu to aide Perry and Derin in their quest.
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