Derin complained of the heavy skins of vinegar and wine that he carried, and Naltu bid him drink. Derin grew compliant and the three marched for days until the wine ran low. Perry scolded Naltu for procuring such supplies, and as Derin sobered, the boy wondered why the three could not hire horses. Naltu agreed, though he preferred to walk, and paid for the steeds from his own purse.
The three rode the horses through the plains and north to the dry sands. The horses were quick when they moved, but tired easily. As the plains diminished, there was no footing and no food, so Naltu let the horses go to wander home.
The sand was gritty and gray. Naltu let his bare feet soak in the sharp soil, but did not understand why the sands were not wet, as they were in the south. Perry spoke of the sun and the wind and the trees, but Naltu did not see through her words, and Derin laughed. The three came upon a caravan of traveling nomads and filled the skins with fresh wine sweetened with the syrup from sugar-cane, and Perry consented.
The winds were cold and Perry complained. Naltu held her as he slept, and Derin watched, face full of strained anguish. Naltu asked the boy if he desired Perry, and the boy denied it. He accepted the statement, understanding the hot blood of youth, and moved north. Stalks rose from the soil, the stone-like remains of long-dead plants curling towards the sky.
Perry grew sore and Naltu touched her skin. Derin writhed in contempt, sent away by his own discomfort as the two rested in the twisted forest, and returned, face twisted with anger. Naltu again asked if Derin desired Perry, and the boy refused to answer, and spat on Naltu's boots. In the south, Naltu would have accepted the challenge, but he dismissed the insult for the sake of the Academy, and they traveled until they reached old mountains scarred deeply by the sand and the wind.
Green men bid Naltu welcome and the tribesman traded. Derin called Naltu a savage and worse, though Naltu rewarded the boy with wine and sweet smoke. Perry's face thinned though she worked no magic, and Derin and Naltu grew strong with exertion. The dried meat was gone, and Naltu hunted small lizards and gutted them and ate the rest whole, sizzling and crisped from the fire. He relished the flavor, knowing and promising what was to come, but Perry and Derin did not join him, so he left them with the powdered meal from the green men.
Both grew thin as Naltu grew thicker still. The tribesman ate the fatty ants that crawled the caves. The grain ran out, and more days passed, and the others ate only the thin cactus that sprouted in the sand, and the weeds that made them sit for hours. Naltu warned of the strength of the grimkin, but Derin only complained, and Perry found her stoicism. Omensday had come twice, and Naltu felt ashamed that he did not visit Metta.
The water in his nose told Naltu he had reached the place. The caves were many, and deep and wide, and as the sun fell and the full moon rose, black flecks flew overhead, screaming and chittering. Derin wished to hunt during the day when the things slept, and Perry agreed. The three moved towards the caves, though Naltu warned that the path would be fruitless, for he wished to wait and stalk the predatory grimkin.
The rocks were light and gray and shone against the sun. The sky was clear of clouds, and the sun seemed hot though the wind was cool, so the three sweated. The nights were bitterly cold, and the wind swept the sand into the sky. Rains came frequently in the darkness, though only for moments. They made a more permanent camp so that they could explore the rocks without their packs. The grimkin left the group alone, excepting a bold few who landed long enough for one of the Magisters to make with a burning Talent or a weapon.
Naltu discarded his traveling clothes to the sand and Derin tied his robe around his shoulders. They crept in several of the hollows, and Derin's ambitions proved Naltu wrong when the wind blew across the mountain, dragging air from the caves, and along with it, ephemeral fumes with no odor that made the lungs spasm and lurch.
Perry was closest to the opening and ran from the cave, mouth full of poison. Derin wet rags with a great quantity of clean water. He wrapped his face with the cloth. Derin entered the cave and Naltu followed. The fluid in the cave was deep as the knee, and Derin pierced an empty wine skin with a needle and cut the cap away. He filled the skin with the water and the thick blue slurry that grew on the surface. He let the contents drain and then carried the blue mass out. He entered again, bolder, and walked deep. The sun descended below the mountains, and Naltu insisted on leaving, but Derin did not abide. Finding darkness and seeking light, Derin flicked his fingers, and fire covered his hands.
Naltu rushed to Derin's side as the grimkin awoke and howled and dove on the boy. Glowing hands flailed and touched the fetid fluid and fire came forth from the water. Naltu screamed as the fat on his face and stomach cracked. Derin reacted, pulling his robes around his face and shoulders. Naltu grabbed the silk around the boy's waist and was blessed that it did not break free as he dragged the boy away. The fire spread and the cave burned, and Perry watched, eyes full of fear, as Naltu carried the boy out of the cave and collapsed, leather remnants ruined and steaming.
The creatures shrieked and poured out of the cave and fell to the soil smoldering. Some were whole enough to survive for more than a moment, and continued into the sky as smoldering sparks of light they failed.
The pain Naltu felt was exquisite and unique. He fought to remain conscious, and flooded his body with energy, and felt the burns, and his mind screamed again. The burns did not leave simple wounds that could be knit. No pattern formed in his mind, and Naltu screamed aloud as Derin cried.
The flash faded after many heartbeats. Angry howls came from deeper within the cave, where stone had blocked the ignition. Claws scrabbled against tunnels the size of a man, and shadows took to the sky from other openings.
Ice formed in the air, and sharp blades fell and swirled with the wind, cutting the grimkin that dove with tooth and fang ready, and blood soaked the earth. The sky was filled with the bright scream of Scientia. Naltu felt the life leave his injured flesh, and watched Derin's blinded eyes dim, and talons sunk into Perry's shoulder, and she, too, cried out. The ice swirled around them all, rending. The attacking grimkin were driven away, others poured from the cave and followed those that fled to easier prey.
Naltu shouted the names of his gods and forced the pain away.
"Ryusupo, I give my soul to you," he chanted in desperation through darkened teeth and cracked lips.
Ryusupo listened, and Naltu's flesh lit with the force of his spirit. He walked to his companions and the wounds of Derin subsided, and Perry quieted.
The tribesman vanished, and Perry watched a man made of green light stand before her. He touched her wounds, and they closed, though her blood filled with poison that clouded her mind and numbed the pain. The smell of almonds filled the air, and her mind swam, and water filled her lungs. She vomited, and the green man went to Derin, and the boy soiled his clothes as his flesh became pink and whole. Naltu moved the boy onto his side, and he, too, vomited.
Naltu collapsed, his body thin, tight skin taut around his bones. Perry cried, finding the tribesman's body light enough that she could lift him on her shoulders. Derin dropped his silk and leathers and scrubbed himself with sand. He wrapped the fire-proof robes around his nakedness. He followed and the three moved away until the moon set and the sun rose.
Perry dripped wine into Naltu's mouth. His breathing became shallow, and she was sure that he would pass. She cried for him, and her tears touched the sand. She dug with her hands and pulled water from the earth, filling the skins. Derin found the lizards and killed them from afar with streaks of flame, burned them wholly in his hands. He ground them into paste, and forced the meal into the tribesman's face.
Naltu vomited yellow bile full of blood, but the meat held in his stomach, and Perry found a vial made of heavy black glass among her things. She poured the thick drops between his charred teeth, and he stirred, dreaming. They built a fire. The moon fell and green men found the three and told stories of Ychatl's conquest of the north.
Perry fed Naltu a thick broth of lizard paste, and another broth of boiled mushroom, and Derin watched with dismay. She slept at his side, covering him with her body, and Derin stirred alone in his tent. Naltu moved when the sun rose again, opening heavy eyes, full of gladness to see the green men and Perry and Derin.
Naltu stumbled to the heavy, wet sack of stuff that had been dragged from the caves and sighed deeply. He gave silver coins to the green men, and they left and returned with a heavy iron pot and built a fire. Naltu poured the stinking stuff into the pot and the green men filled it with liquor. Derin lit the fires with his fingers, and the green men were in awe.
Perry let a quill pen scrape across paper, describing Naltu and Derin as they built the fire high until the iron pot became red with the glow of Jihintasula. The green men hunted the lizards and the turtles and the cactus of the desert, and for coin, fed the pink men.
Derin cried at night, dreams full of memories of the grimkin and the fire and the tearing cuts, though he could not remember any of this during the day. Perry comforted him with warm blankets and a gentle touch. Naltu turned his head and chanted with the green men beside the fire. The green men brought a cart and carried the three until the sands became loam.
The three grew stronger. Naltu was silent, but Perry and Derin grew bitter. Naltu carried the rendered mass in his pockets, wrapped in oiled rags to hide the odor. They walked until they could hire horses, and then they rode until they reached Dosille and the gates of the Academy.
Perry slept for a week. Naltu brought the oil-wrapped distillate home, and he filled his belly in the markets, and found his own bed too comfortable. Derin came and inquired.
"So, that's mine, right?"
Naltu knew of the substance and its value as a curative in preserving leather. The book spoke of another purpose, that it could be used as a poultice so that a woman's womb would twist, and that she would not carry a child to live birth. For this reason, the stuff was rare.
"Can I have it?"
"There is enough. We should share."
"Whatever, just give it to me."
He broke a substantial portion from the mass and replaced the rest in a lacquered wooden chest. He rendered it again, removing the rancid fat, and poured wax and camphor and gave the block to Derin. He did so with the rest as well, and the boy knew, but Derin was satisfied with his portion, for he needed but a fragment. Derin was grateful for Naltu's processing, but he would never admit so.
The tribesman rested until Omensday and returned to the Jade Palace. Metta was there, and her face was full of joy when he came. They shared a pitcher of wine and then retreated above.
"I missed you," she promised. "Where have you been?"
"My trade took me away. I'm sorry I could not hide you from the obese men," he laughed.
"I was worried you weren't coming back. Naltu, promise me that if you do leave Dosille for good, that you'll come and say goodbye to me. Any night of the week. I'm always here, or in the market. I'll make time for you."
He laughed. "How could I let you go? I'll tell you a story some time of when my skin was dry and I wished only that you could touch me with your oils and perfumes."
He was too thin to her eyes, and she wondered about the journey. Traders did travel, she knew, but in comfort. She remembered his clothing, though, and Leredith's bitter warning, and she wondered where his lies began.
She sighed and he held her for a short while.
"Naltu, um, you like poetry and Diana."
He gave a content smile. "Yes."
"I wrote you my own poem."
She read to him, and he was filled with secret joy.
"Diana's poems are meant to be sung. Some are, in the taverns, the bawdy rhymes, but I think all are meant to be sung. Is this so?"
Metta's laughter filled the room. "I can't sing. You're right, though, they're meant to be heard, and not read. I think that's why you enjoyed them so much when you couldn't read on your own. Do you remember Aina? Come again next Omensday, and she'll sing Diana's words to you. And mine, if you wish to hear your poem again!"
Naltu loved her and left. He read while the season of spring came in full, with the first shoots of grass and buds on trees. He gave money to wealthy farmers in return for a promise of a portion of the coming year's harvest. A week passed, and he was not tasked by Perry or Baso, though he was chided.
He went again to the Jade Palace. Leredith met him as he waited. The proprietor was wobbling, succumbing to wine and opal. He was smiling and made polite conversation for a moment before asking a question.
"You intend to keep coming here? Perhaps we could make an arrangement."
"What sort of arrangement?"
"I've heard your name spoken a few times at the bar, and not in regards to your affairs here. I'll have to think of it. But you would be interested?"
Naltu grumbled, unsure as to the man's attention. "We will talk," he agreed.
Leredith snapped his fingers. Aina came into the center of the bar. She began to shout.
"There's a new song, this one written by our own girl."
Naltu laughed and clapped. Others turned to face the older woman, and Metta snuck a seat behind Naltu. He felt her hands around his chest, and her head on his shoulder. Aina began to sing, and others joined. The song was bawdy, changed slightly from the poem Metta read.
"I had to change the words to make it sound better," she admitted.
Naltu grasped her hand. Another woman pointed Metta out, and Naltu, and swore that the events in the song were true. Metta climbed up Naltu's back, her head towering over his, and shouted in agreement. The girls swarmed the few patrons there and insisted they learn the song and join. Some of the girls made social with Naltu, too.
Leredith laughed. "See? A good repeat customer is always pleased. Perhaps some of you noble men might avail yourself of more than just ale?"
Metta led Naltu up the stairs to cheers. The song was repeated thrice while they made love. The morning came and Leredith was pleased at the manner in which Metta had managed to fill more than one room.
He returned to Baso. The old man let him take books from the library. He searched through the books and chose elementary codices on the four elements. The authorship style of the Magisters was odd, and the lessons were framed as exercises to be repeated. Naltu struggled to understand the concepts, though the words were made more clear through his study.
Naltu clambered into the hills behind Dosille. Guardsmen near the accessible portion of the aqueduct barred his passage until he produced the silver Academy token. He climbed higher to the lake and rested, staring over the city.
He brought a particular book and copies of the pages. He left his pelts and leathers near the stone bank and walked into the water. He felt his spirit and let the energy course through his veins, and though he focused, the essential water eluded him. Mistress d'Oncil would teach her art to him gladly, but he would not ask as a fool.
He tossed droplets of water into the air and bade them froze, yet they fell unchanged. Naltu grew frustrated and spent hours shivering and wet under the night sky. He could not feel even the most elementary connection that was promised by the book, and so he left the lake and let himself dry.
He walked along the aqueducts into the city and followed the stone path under the bright moon. He walked near the grove of the Academy, and watched the windows of the Jade Palace in the distance. Men were gathered outside smoking and cheers came through the tall chimneys.
Naltu continued along the aqueducts and explored the city from above. He ducked low so that the moonlight would not give him away, and he was careful to avoid the water so as to not pollute it. He struggled to clamber around the grates and pools that were used to allow sediment and debris to settle out of the water.
He had not known the city was so large until his legs were tired, and his path let him move, for once, without so much concern for the stares of the people below. He found the Red Palace for the first time, and in the night, the iron-strapped stone walls seemed hostile. He crept longer still until he was above an alley.
His legs grew strong and he dropped from a great height, and his bones did not shatter. Naltu peered about and none had seen his fall. He brushed himself and continued along the alley.
He recognized the girl, Anya, one of the singers the night before. She shared a dirty pipe with three men and her eyes were gone.
"I know you," she spat. "Don't have the coin for the Jade Palace tonight?"
The men turned to Naltu and scanned him. Naltu's purse was heavy enough and the sack over his shoulder sagged with the weight of the books and paper.
Naltu shrugged and shifted his belt so that his curved sword came from the side to the front. He flicked the leather strap and gripped the hilt.
"You mean to rob me?" Naltu asked of one man whose hand was already on his knife.
"No problem, brother. Why not spare a coin for the poor?"
"He's a thief himself," Anya said. "This one's not a good mark. Who'd ya rob tonight, brute?"
"Thief, hmm? Who says that?"
"I don't know, might've heard a song in a tavern. Might've just found you in an alley."
Naltu nodded, his face trembling with rage. "I've not visited the Red Palace before. You work there as well?"
"No," Anya cackled. "I'm in competition with your little lover. I might be wantin' for what's in your pouch there."
"This isn't for you," Naltu admonished. "I had not meant to be stopped."
"We won't have a problem, will we?" Anya whispered.
Naltu shook his head. "No. I was not here. You were not here."
"Well, I've been known to sell baubles to the men who visit me, to bring to their wives as an excuse. How'd you get back there, anyway?"
"What do you mean?"
"There's not a door or a connection from this alley."
Naltu turned behind him and glanced up. "Hmm."
"You're damn good, aren't ya? I can't imagine you brutes learn to clamber down brick in the south. Who taught ya? Not that slave girl, surely! I'll have words with her, doing such things. She ain't playing nice again."
"No," Naltu spat. "I don't want her troubled. I was not here."
One of the men, the largest, his face covered in scars, spoke. "Ye must tithe, eh? Keep that blade down and I'll only take that purse."
Naltu shook his head.
"No!" Anya hissed. "Gran, if he leaves as anything but a friend, I'll have problems."
Gran's knives came free. "Then git won't be leavin' tonight."
Naltu's blade was in his hand and the tribesman rushed. His fist smashed into Gran's face, and the other man bowled over in laughter. Naltu turned to the second man, and saw that the other's hands were still empty. Closer, Naltu realized the laughing man was not yet old enough to grow whiskers."
"Forgive Gran," Anya whispered. "He's drunk off his perch. I'm comfortable with your terms. I didn't see you tonight. But if you mean to keep at this, you best make friends so we don't have any misunderstandings."
Naltu nodded. "I'm not a thief," he swore.
"Me neither," the boy giggled, and stepped so that his back was against the wall. Anya winked and put her arm around Naltu's elbow and escorted him from the alley, though she watched over her shoulder. They continued in silence through another street, and she left him at the entrance to the Red Palace. She did not return to the alley, and instead lost herself in the crowd of those outside, and then departed. He heard the drums in the Red Palace, and peered through the door.
There was no fire, but the men and women danced. Smoke hovered low in the air, and the smell was one of sweat and urine and sex. He was not invited in, and a host glared at him for a moment across a distant table. Naltu wished for the odor to leave his face, and so he turned away.
He continued and worked his way through a silent residential area. He searched his memory and worked through the path of narrow streets to the market, and found fire dancers outside the closed tents. New carts had arrived, small things with covers, light enough to be pulled by hand.
Liang was there, haggling with a merchant over a small gemstone. Naltu approached and peered. The stone did not seem to have much worth. It was dirty and porous like the cheap marble in the Jade Palace.
Naltu offered to help, but Liang waved him away. He continued, perusing the carts, and purchased a bit of meat wrapped in bread. He watched the fire dancers as the clock of Dosille chimed, and he gave them clay coins from his purse. A longing grew for a moment, and he missed the loud outdoor revels of Ghidiun.
He returned to his cabin and slept until the sun was overhead. He gathered the book and emptied his purse, regretting carrying so much wealth in the city. He had not thought Dosille unsafe, and was certain that for him, there had been no danger. But he wondered of his friends.
Naltu arrived at the Academy and went to the library. Perry was there with a pen and a book. He sat and waited for her to finish the transcription. He produced the book from his pack and opened it.
"I tried this yesterday. There was no victory."
She glanced at the book, and then took it, and made a close inspection. "You're trying to learn my art? Why didn't you tell me this earlier?"
"I don't want to seem a fool."
"It's not foolish to ask for help. I'm your mentor, that's my place, Naltu. Have you tried any of the other arts? Fire or air? Nature?"
"No," Naltu replied. "I wanted to try this."
"Well... you should. I mean, I can't do anything related to your Talent, or Derin's. I've got a very weak ability to work with Air. It's not just a matter of following the directions. There's something unique to you that dictates when you'll be successful. Maybe that wasn't true at one point, for it's said hundreds of years ago people learned to work all the elements. Remember what I said, though? We've forgotten a lot."
Naltu nodded. "I went to the lake above Dosille. I hoped to... what did your mentor tell you, when you were as me?"
Perry laughed. "You won't like this, but be calm. He gave me this same book, and I went to the lake, as you did, and I followed the steps, and it worked for me. But I was already flourishing with a Talent in water. You don't have that boon."
"So I will never be strong?"
"I didn't say that. Besides, what's strength? Haiche talks about you every time I add a request to his ledger. Our store-rooms never been so flush with supplies, and our coffers are full. Baso would be glad to have you spend all your time trading for us."
She came close. "And you're very powerful, in a way that you can't show anyone. Derin told Baso about the healing, and the old man wasn't upset. Not too upset, at least. If you give it a few years, earn Baso's trust, he might not be so opposed to letting you practice your Talent. Not openly, but perhaps in the workrooms below. Do you really need to demonstrate power before people to feel strong?"
"I am like a child..."
"Like a fool?" Perry said, and laughed. "Get over it. If it's all the same, you should spend some time getting to know the other Magisters here. I'm not going to be able to teach you most of what you need to learn, not if you can't work with water."
She reached forward and put her hands on his ears. "Besides, you haven't been attuned with water. You've been attuned before, though. Who did that? Your old Shaman in the south? Or one of us?"
"Mellosin? I don't know of attunement."
"What kind of Talent does he have? Same as you?"
Naltu thought. "No. I don't think so. From my childhood, he asked me to perform much of the ceremony. I relished the... recognition."
"Oh. I mean, but he had to have Talents, right?"
"Hmm. He taught me of... a way to make scent come from your skin, so that others might fear you, or might follow."
"That still sounds like flesh weaving."
"He made great poisons, but I can make those, too. There is no Talent involved in that."
"What sort of poisons?" Perry pointed across the room to glassware implements. "Did you use things like those?"
"No. Like when I boiled the stuff for Derin, and made the wax. We took things from the swamp and cooked them and wrapped them so that they would choke. We dipped darts in venom squeezed from the fangs of the spiders, and a cut would make a man fall and shake. I have seen him use Talents, perhaps to make a fire grow, but not as Derin does."
"What else? I mean, is that all Shamans do? Poison? What about crops?"
"We do not grow crops in Ghidiun. The trees give us enough."
"So what did he do? He sounds useless."
"Do? The girls. I worked, and he wooed and drank. He is an ugly man, and so he was pitied and touched for the pleasure of the Gods. He was not useless. He gave me knowledge, though I wonder now if the practice of wisdom was not as lost on him as these words of water are not useful to me."
Perry placed her book back among the shelves, and Naltu's as well. She led him through the Academy to the workrooms on the lower level. They found a man hunched over an old desk. He had kind eyes, but he was lost in study of a germinating seed under a spyglass. He grumbled for a moment, and then popped the sprout into his mouth, and chewed slowly. His lips curled in a sneer, and he spat the germ on the wooden desk, and turned.
"Magister Iuju. Do you know my apprentice, Master Naltu?"
Iuju offered a dirty hand, and Naltu accepted.
"No. I've seen you, young man. I'd meant to make contact, but I've been busy working the seeds. The field overseers have mentioned you. The fields have not bloomed as they should. Yet you are studying the art of water?"
Perry smiled. "He's not sure what his path should be. I haven't worked with him enough to know for sure, but I don't see my art in his future. I would ask you to work with him, to see if your own path might be more appropriate."
Iuju shrugged. "I work with the crops. I work great hours now. If you wish to wait until winter, Naltu, I will sit with you. But not until the harvests are over. Perhaps, if you wish to work a circuit, others would suit you until then."
Perry frowned. "Wouldn't you like help, though? Certainly you've heard Naltu's a skilled trader, and his back is strong enough. Perhaps he could help speed your work?"
"Certainly... Naltu's... I've heard other things, Magister d'Oncil, that perhaps this one has found his Talent, and that perhaps it is best he remain a trader. I came from Basgan, across the sea in Spheria. I knew Ryuten. He was polite enough as a young man, and the madness did not come until he was older. I have little wish to work with another like him."
Naltu bowed again. "I have no wish to offend you, then, Magister Iuju. Winter will come, and perhaps you might teach me then."
"Talk with Magister Baso first, whelp. I want his permission and support in what you do."
Perry agreed and led Naltu out.
"Well, that wasn't what I had hoped for."
"I have told Baso long ago that I wished to learn of Nature. That he has not gone to Iuju is disappointing."
"Baso... he's not going to do something for you that he thinks you can do yourself. He rarely interferes, and when he does... it's always unpleasant for those on the wrong side of his decisions. I wouldn't want Iuju to have that sort of cajoling. Listen, you might irritate him a great deal... but I think you should follow Iuju into the fields. Help him, he's an old man, carry his things, whatever you can. Iuju won't thank you, and he probably won't teach you, not for a while."
"I understand," Naltu said.
He returned to the library and searched, and then returned home.
The morning came and Naltu returned to the Academy. Perry was in the hall with Derin, and the boy was laughing. Naltu joined them and spoke of lunch. The three went to the Scribe's Lament and ate. Perry mentioned Naltu's predicament.
"Well, there's not much you can do if Iuju is too busy to train you. He's the only Nature-attuned in Dosille. You're going to have to wait until winter."
Naltu shook his head. "Can I not learn of fire?"
"You left a green stone on the board, idiot. That means Nature. Why don't you just try and make some seeds grow, or whatever useless thing they do."
Perry closed her eyes. "Derin, the Nature-attuned bring most of the wealth into the Academy."
"Whatever," he grumbled, and finished his food. "We shouldn't be talking about this here, anyways. Tell you what, savage. Play me a game, and if you win, I'll help you figure out if you can use any of my sort of art."
"That is agreeable," Naltu laughed, though Perry knew Derin's purpose.
They returned to a workroom and Derin configured the board with three colors and twenty-seven stones. Naltu played well, and Perry supported him so that he would win. Derin cackled, though, and changed his strategy, and quickly swept Perry's pieces from the board, changing the blue stones to red, and then crushed Naltu.
"Well, you won't be a Magister of Fire," Derin laughed as he took Naltu's last piece.
Naltu's face flushed with blood. Perry scolded Derin, but the boy only dropped the stones into the velvet pouches and replaced the board on a shelf.
"You don't know enough to learn Scientia," Derin said. "Maybe in a few years, if you've got the patience. Why don't you pull carts for Haiche until then?"
Derin left the room.
"If you're really interested in fire, we'll get Liang to work with you."
"What don't I know?"
"Well, language is a big part of it. You're getting very good at Spherian and Libbonese, though. If that... damn, I shouldn't encourage it, but that girl's really working with you, keep at it."
"Would you show me what books I should read?"
"I suppose that's a good idea. You can't bring them to the Jade Palace. These books are all secret. You understand that, right?"
"Baso explained when he gave me permission to bring a book home."
"How are you on money, then?"
"I charge Haiche less than the numbers in his old ledgers. The Academy is not poor, and I barter for the best goods, and keep the difference in coin. Baso knows this. I do not keep much, for I send the rest away in trade goods."
"Good. Magisters earn stipends from the Academy, but it's not much. Well, more than some tavern-keep might earn, but... I was worried about all your visits to that Palace. And your house?"
"I pay the taxes, and there are no debts."
Perry blinked. "Oh!" She sneered. "So wealthy, a landowner who frolics in the Jade Palace every week. To think, I paid for your damn mushrooms.
I'm not going to worry about you anymore, then. Derin's cruel, but he's right. Have patience. It took me three years to master Libbonese. If you can do so by winter, it'll be worth the gold you'll spend. Well, I do need to get back to my studies. Be patient."
"Scientia is not like hunting. One does not kill in the morning and feast at night. It is like the growth of the trees. I remember the saplings from my childhood that towered when I left Ghidiun. I will be patient as the trees."
"And you will grow. It will take years, Naltu. I'll find you in a few days."
Naltu followed her out of the workroom and into the Academy proper. He went to the library and checked the record-book there, and Perry had signed his book as returned. He scanned back, and reached the beginning, and then dove through a consolidated record below. Iuju had taken every Nature book, but Naltu recorded the titles, and made mind to watch.
Omensday came, and he slept while the sun was overhead and went to the Jade Palace at night. Revelsday passed, and Perry and Derin arrived in the morning with the board and stones, and they played until the night fell.
The morning came on the day named after the sun, and Naltu went to the market. He bought boiled eggs and ate, and then hired a cart and produced a ledger. He perused the requisitions. He bought iron for Liang, and sulfur for Ghindi, and pure spirit for Utrin. He bought two casks of ale for Baso and sand for Kilsh. He was disappointed at the ledger, for he could ask Haiche only for a few silvers for all the goods. Still, he was pleased, for he had only moved the goods, and not taken part in the creation.
Iuju was in the basement when Naltu arrived with the parcels.
"Ah good. You're going to market today?"
Haiche glanced at Naltu. "The boy's returning, Master."
"Perhaps I am not finished?"
Iuju laughed. "Perhaps not," he agreed, and handed a slip of paper to Naltu. The old man asked for a great deal of fire salt.
"Fire salt? If I bring this now, will you show me what you mean to do with it?"
Iuju hissed, exasperated. "I have a signed requisition for delivery today. You'll bring the fire salt and leave me alone. Now, hurry!"
"This will be a great expense," Haiche sighed. "Naltu, can you handle this?"
Naltu nodded. "I will bring the fire salt. Must this be clean, for curing meat, or would the stuff in powder barrels suffice?"
"Powder barrels? I'm not curing meat."
Haiche glanced at Naltu and mumbled. "I've always bought what I could find. He's never complained."
"No, I haven't," Iuju chided. "Not until today, harassed by stupid questions. Go!"
Naltu bowed and took the cart and returned to the market. The fire salt was easy to find, and he bought six tall barrels of the stuff, mined in Nilan and shipped across the sea. He was asked for three gold coins, though he paid only two. He returned to the Academy and Iuju was waiting in the grove.
"Good. Come on. Come with me."
Sweat covered Naltu's face. He followed Iuju out of the grove and the old man climbed into the cart and sat nestled between the barrels.
"Go to the main gate. Be mindful of your step, I'm old and have no desire to be crushed under all this."
Naltu pulled the cart and fatigued and reached the outside of the city. Iuju gave directions and Naltu obeyed, dragging the cart along the road and to the east as the sun set. A man recognized Naltu. He pointed the savage to his friends and they laughed. They came to a farm. Naltu pulled the cart through the fields, and they reached an old barn. Iuju bid Naltu move the barrels in the barn, and Naltu did. Iuju demanded that Naltu pull him back on the cart, and the night sky was black when the pair reached Dosille.
Naltu pulled Iuju to the Scribe's Lament. They ate, though Iuju said nothing, except to order Naltu to the grove at daybreak. Naltu obeyed, and he pulled Iuju and strange cargoes into the fields. The tribesman paid for all of the goods out of his purse, for he could find no time during the day to visit Haiche. Iuju ordered Naltu to bring his cart to Liang, and a trough and hollow metal bar were added.
On the third day, Omensday, Iuju met Naltu at the city gates with an ox. The ox was tethered to the cart, and then Iuju left Naltu and went to the fields. Naltu returned to the Academy and met with Haiche, and the old man was generous with reimbursement. He gave Naltu twelve gold coins, a sum Haiche was unaccustomed to handling.
Naltu went home and filled his tub with water and bathed. He poured drops of oil into the water as he washed. Derin had admonished him that only women wore scented oils, but Naltu did not care. The memories of the stink of the tribes could not be pushed far enough away, and no one but Derin complained. He mixed sugar and plucked the threads from his face.
He started a fire and heated a pot of water of the stove and made tea. He counted all his wealth and buried most of it carefully under a floorboard. He found a sharp knife and a plaque of wood, and he carved carefully, an image from a memory, of a hovering wasp.
The carving was not elegant, and he was disappointed. He prayed and placed the plaque in his stove and let it burn. He found a bristle-brush and swept the wood shavings from the floor and disposed of those, too. He ensured the cleanliness of his house, and then he left, latching the door with an iron lock.
He went to the Jade Palace and was entertained. He walked home on Thunderday's morning tired and with a smile on his lips, and he crawled into his bed, and enjoyed the perfume that lingered on his skin.
He followed a similar ritual for a month. He played games with Perry and Derin, he was given books to read, and he studied. On Omensday, he went to the Palace. On Revelsday, he hunted in the woods to the north of the city, and crafted comfortable clothes and blankets and carpets that he scented with oils.
That month passed as a peculiar sense of belonging began to overtake Naltu. He had not thought himself to be so comfortable among these people. But the things he relished were here, and the place was not so safe and uninteresting that he became bored. He enjoyed even Derin's taunting, for the boy's clever words amused him at time.
Revelsday came again and Naltu had returned home in the morning, purse full of silver from a good trade, when a tapping came at his wooden door. Metta was there, though her face was clean of paint. She wore linens, simple fabric touched by old dye, a long piece wrapped and tied around her, weaving down her torso and interlocking, knotted as each loop passed her back, until the fabric became a spiraling skirt held together with a thin chain. She wore a bleached leather jacket made of sheepskin for warmth. In her hands she carried a large clay pot, a tall thing with a lid and a high spout and a handle.
"Metta," he said, confused.
"Um. I brought coffee." She peered over his shoulder into the small cabin.
"You come to my house. I did not expect this."
"I saw you in the market this morning and thought you might like to share this with me." His face was low and tired. "Oh. I'm sorry, I shouldn't have come."
Naltu closed his eyes and breathed deeply. "No. I have business to attend to. I have visitors coming now. I was awake reading all night. I'd hoped to sleep before they arrived, but I am late."
Metta's eyes fell to the earth. She cradled the coffee close to her, and then held the pot to him. "I'll go, then. I'm sorry."
"How do you know where I live?" Naltu asked.
She sucked in her breath between tight teeth. "I've seen you walk into this house before."
"But this cabin is not between the Jade Palace and the market."
"I followed you from the market. Several times. I'm sorry. This is a most severe transgression. Naltu, I'm sorry. I shouldn't have done this. I won't come again," she promised.
Naltu smiled and touched her shoulder. "Metta, if you wish to know where I live, just ask. Do not skulk about in the shadows. I have seen you, too, but you do not come to me."
"I'm not supposed to, Naltu. It's against the Palace protocol, to see a patron outside Leredith's domain. I was just..."
"I understand. Metta, had you come earlier, I would have welcomed you into my home. But I must excuse myself."
"Ahem," came a distant voice, and a blonde face cradled a wry smile.
"Who's this?" Perry quizzed, arriving at Naltu's cabin. She stared for a moment, and then recognition and disappointment crossed her face. "Oh. You."
Metta stepped backwards, apologizing. The contents of her pot sloshed, and fragrant steam with the scent of cinnamon drifted from the spout.
"Is that coffee?" Perry asked. She and her companion were dressed in traveling clothes, with small packs hanging from their shoulders.
"If you'd like," Metta bowed, offering the pot to Perry in friendship. Perry smirked, the side of her face twisting up in a forced smile. "Naltu. House calls? Even I couldn't manage that with Aina."
Derin was confused, and pushed his way inside. Naltu turned to the two as they sat at his table. Metta's eyes were wide and she pushed the pot to Naltu. Lone fragments of snow defied the spring, drifting slowly from the sky and onto her hair.
"Close that door," Perry shouted. "It's cold outside. I hope you've brought enough for all of us?"
Naltu shrugged and pulled Metta inside and guided her to a shelf. Perry produced a piece of paper and laid it out on the table next to a stick of black chalk.
Metta was very particular in serving the coffee. She found Naltu's aqueduct tap and rinsed four porcelain cups, and then set them, full of water, on the edge of the stove until they warmed. She emptied the cups and waited for the steam to vanish, and then filled each half-full. She set the steaming glass on the wooden table in the center of the room and took her own and waited for Naltu to sip. He pointed to the bed along the wall and she sat, eyes turned to the floor.
"Well," Perry laughed. "Naltu. Remember what I said?"
"Yes," Naltu sighed.
Perry touched his hand. "Alright. Here's the list." She slid the paper to Derin, and the boy read the words to Naltu.
"Rose hips, blood orange, serrata, all normal things. We also need ambergris, elder fungus, night drops, and summer ice."
Naltu turned to watch Metta. She lay on her back, bare feet on his pillows, and spread her fingers deep into the rich furs that covered his bed. She returned a smile, coffee carefully balanced on her stomach.
"You will not speak of what you hear here? Ever?"
Perry turned and winked to the girl.
"No," Metta responded. "I'd be in so much trouble if anyone found out I came here. You have my silence."
Derin wondered at her words, considering whether the woman might be some man's wife, running into the arms of her romantic ideal. Bitterness filled Derin's throat, and he wondered what the girl found interesting beyond the savage's broken words and thick shoulders.
"What's ambergris?" Perry asked.
Naltu shrugged. "Very expensive. I've seen it in the marketplace, but only in small amounts. How much do you need?"
Metta heard the others finish their cups, and she stood and poured the rest of the coffee into the four cups.
Derin sighed. "Not much, just a drop in oil, but Baso didn't give me much money, either. I don't know how he expects to get all this stuff for a few silvers."
"If you need just a drop, Naltu, I can give you that," Metta said.
The tribesman turned. "You have ambergris? This is a potent herb, and rare. Speak."
"It's not a herb at all. It's fish vomit, but don't tell anyone. I make many of the perfumes in... well, I can help you with that one, at least. You all are trading spices?"
"Cover your ears," Naltu ordered, and Metta grinned. She set her coffee on the floor and rolled the warm furs of the bed around herself. She squirmed for a moment, and the length of blue linen she had worn fell from the bed, pushed out of the heap of pelts by her toes. Derin shook his head, upset.
"Naltu, well, since you've already got access to the ambergris, can you take care of the rest of this?"
"Yes," Naltu promised. "When do you need it?"
"My rit-", he paused, staring at the lump hiding under Naltu's furs, and sliding a bundle of coins onto the table. "We need the stuff in two weeks, so sooner to assess purity and prepare."
Metta snored while the three played a game of stones on an old wooden board. The sun grew low in the sky and then Derin left. Perry slapped the still figure in the bed with her hand and followed Derin out.
"I didn't mean to intrude," Metta promised, and pushed the pelts to the side, revealing underclothes made of ivory lace. "These furs feel amazing. I thought they'd be strange, but they're so smooth. This is luxurious! Did you buy all this in the markets?"
"I hunt the wolves myself," he said as he sat beside her.
"And you are a tanner as well? I thought they always smelled terrible, and had rough hands."
"We tribesmen do not treat leather like the men of the north. We do not use stone cut from the earth. Everything required to preserve the pelt is within the kill, and within the forests."
Metta's eyes were wide, and she gripped the fur in her hands and rubbed her sides. She traced the gray stripes along the blanket and the darker edges around the hide of each animal, and gasped.
"That's sort of morbid. I've seen blankets like this selling for gold in the market."
Naltu smiled. "It is sacred to kill for warmth, and not to be sold, though men do. Thank you for the coffee."
He moved to the bed, and they read together, and Metta felt the time was coming when she would be have little to teach him.
She smiled in a way that hurt Naltu's heart. "Can I sleep here tonight?"
"You won't be missed at the palace? It's Revelsday."
"The palace. Even slaves are given nights to rest on occasion. I had a rough night yesterday, and Leredith let me have today to myself. I don't mind leaving if you want, but I'd like to stay here if you're willing. The fires in the palace are stoked high tonight and I grow cold. Do you think you could warm me?"
"Are you asking for silver?"
"Haven't I been clear? Leredith would be outraged if he knew I was here. I spend most nights alone, Naltu, except for Omensday. Even when there are men in my bed. You owe me nothing, not ever, except that I'll cry when the day comes that I won't see you again. If you leave without telling me, I'll wither from longing."
Naltu walked outside and found wood and filled the stove until the cabin was warm. He wrapped Metta deep in the furs of his bed and then his arms, and he slept unsettled but glad. The smell of his bed was familiar to her, musky and desirable. The scent would linger. She left early so that she would be found, when Leredith checked, among the rags where she belonged.[ <= Previous | Up | Next => ]