Naltu left the library, having given the last of the reagents to Derin. He was offended at the boy's demeanor, accepting Metta's gift without a thankful word.
Perry glared at Derin after Naltu left.
"He's arrogant," Derin spat. "He thinks he's stronger than me."
"Naltu saved your life," Perry sighed.
"No, he didn't. I would have been fine. My robes and Scientia protect me. I wasn't hurt badly. He's the one that nearly died."
"I was hurt, too."
Perry closed her eyes. Derin didn't know that his body had been badly burned, his memories were gone, but she had seen the wounds, and she had seen Naltu heal him. She remembered her own shouts as the grimkin tore her. She had fought the beasts off alone, with her own strength, but her arm might have been crippled if not for Naltu's healing.
Derin's bitterness grew alongside his power. He made the mass taken from the grimkin into a potion, diluting the liquid with stinking oil and liquor to the proper proportions. He drank the potion. His body absorbed the poison, and the mastery of flame grew in his bones. Liang openly praised the boy as one of the most capable Apprentices the Dosille Academy had seen during his long tenure.
Frostday came again, and Derin found a purple disk in the Academy basement and went to the Jade Palace. He found the wooden booth where Metta traded caresses for coin during the busy night. He desired Naltu's whore alone, but was denied by the crowd, and spent his coin instead on ale. Derin bragged of what he saw, and planned to return on Revelsday. The tribesman listened and heard, as was his way, and his face fell grim.
Naltu was there on Revelsday as well, though he did not partake in the festivities of the crowded hall. He watched the wooden booth where Metta worked, obscured by transparent cloth and scented by sweet smoke. She did not see him, and he left full of pity, and found his cabin. He slept, heart full of sadness and anger, and dreamed of the boy's flesh melting in his fingers.
The next day, Derin found Naltu in the outskirts of the forest near the Academy, and in front of others, challenged Naltu's strength. Naltu accepted the challenge, uncertain as to the rules, and the conditions were explained to him. There was no wager, and the contest was a simple demonstration of focus and aptitude. Naltu and Derin would fight outside the city, with only their knowledge of Scientia. To quench rage, the Academy required that the Apprentices wait a week between the challenge and the event.
Perry was upset and spoke to Derin to discourage him from the course. But Derin and Naltu were both Apprentice and so the challenge was valid. She explained the hazard to Naltu. He shrugged, hearing her words, but his anger kept him from considering the danger. Perry told Naltu that Derin was stronger, and Naltu laughed.
"You don't understand, do you? Baso forbid you from flesh weaving. If you use that art, he'll slay you where you stand. I couldn't teach you of the ways of Nature, and who could?"
"I'll recover from his flames and strike him with my fists until he breaks and bleeds."
"You can't. This is not a battle of force, but only of the mind. The Magisters will strike you down if you violate the conditions. You may only use Scientia."
Naltu shook his head. "Wolves have sharp teeth. Poisons are born of Nature."
"Men kill wolves," she gasped, "and Derin's stronger than any man. Won't you talk with him, ask him to let you withdraw?"
The savage paused and tensed his muscles. "What will happen if Derin wins? Will I die?"
"I'll be there, Naltu. If you fight honorably, if you stand and fall, I'll knock Derin down myself."
"Then I'll win, on my own terms," Naltu promised, and Perry trembled.
"Seek out Iuju," she bid. "He could teach you enough that you could make a show. I'll talk with Baso so that he can't refuse again. You don't have a proper mentor in me... I'm sorry."
Naltu did, and Baso insisted that Iuju cooperate. The old man provided Naltu with a proper attunement and transferred six small books on the nature of herbs and seeds. Naltu remained in the Academy for three days, learning, while Iuju worked the fields.
He went to the Jade Palace on Omensday. Leredith met him as he entered, and mentioned that he wished to speak for a moment.
"Do you wish any of the girls in particular tonight?"
"You know I come on Omensday to spend the night with Metta."
"She's yet occupied with her duties. Wait in the hall and have some wine, and you'll be serviced when appropriate."
Naltu went to the wine and traded one token, then another, for pitchers of wine. He drank the pitchers alone, studying a small book and scribing notes with a pen made from black wood inscribed with gold filigree.
Leredith came and brought another pitcher of wine and his own cup. He set both before Naltu and then perched on a stool.
"Naltu. I've a mind not to let you see Metta anymore."
Naltu's face turned red, and he struggled to contain his tongue.
"Have I offended you?"
"It has... if I were to come into your home, eat your food, sleep in your bed... without your welcome, would you not be insulted?"
Naltu nodded. "I... how have I offended you?"
"Beyond my purview and rules, you have toyed with something that belongs to me."
The tribesman squirmed for a moment. He wondered how much Leredith knew, and of the proprietor's actions in response to this knowledge.
"Have you harmed her?"
Leredith laughed. "Would you punish a blanket for keeping a brigand warm? The girl is my property. Chattel, in my use, that brings me wealth, though I am disappointed that she did not obey me. There are few ways to rectify disobedience, though I am a man given to calm discipline. I was surprised, though, because I had thought my pet was well-kept and had not strayed. I've heard the rumors. Have you bound her in some enterprise, or were the visits merely for pleasure and company?"
Naltu sighed and thought through his words. "I might burn a blanket that had been with a diseased man. The actions I were to take would not be one of offense, and so I know your preference for order and obedience, and I do worry for the girl's health at this moment."
"Well said. If we're men of law and honor, then, tell me. How often has this happened?"
"Just the once. She spoke of a difficult night and came to me for friendship and solitude. You must know we did not first meet in your Palace."
"Ah. She never told me that. She has been... punished, though not to the extent of which I am capable."
The tribesman was thankful he carried too much wealth, and he reached inside his purse and wrapped his fist around a gold coin. He further fetched a large silver coin. His closed fist came to rest on a napkin, and he let both coins settle.
"For my pleasure at my home, and for the insult, and this night. For her presence in my home again when I request it. Would you consider this appropriate?"
Leredith's eyes turned to the glittering coins, and he was surprised at the wealth. He left the coins in place and glanced around, ensuring the patrons at the bar were too far into their cups to notice. He made a subtle gesture to the men who enforced his peace, that they should be ready, but should not come close.
"Though you are perhaps generous, you are too bold. I'm not inclined to accept such an agreement. You've paid for this wine. Enjoy it and return to your home. You will not be given another token for a moon. I do not mean to insult you or punish you, friend. But I must maintain order in my house. You'll not offend me again, if you wish to be welcome in my house and enjoy my property."
Naltu trembled with rage, and the blood left his face. The smell of the Jade Palace became a stink to his nose, and he stood. Leredith watched the tribesman walk away, out through the doors. The fat man clenched his jaw and wondered if he had made a mistake, for the tribesman's coin was good.
Perry came on Thundersday to Naltu's cabin, and he gave her a silver coin, and bid her find Metta and ensure her health. He explained what Leredith had said, and Perry was outraged. She promised to speak with Leredith, and she did, though the proprietor would not relent. She told Naltu of the truth, that Metta's thighs were bruised, and that she had hired the girl alongside Aina for song and massage.
Naltu slept only twice as three more nights passed. He studied Iuju's books and followed the old man in the fields. His rage simmered and did not fade. The poison in his heart gave him focus, and he practiced on his own flesh, and learned enough to wound.
The time came as the day's namesake rose in the sky, and Naltu rode a horse alongside Perry from the time when the sun rose until it was overhead. He came to a barren field, and the city had fallen beyond sight. Few others had appeared, only Baso and Iuju, and Naltu was certain cautious stares would come only to him.
Derin wore fresh red robes embroidered with iron stitching. Naltu traveled in his pelts, but stripped until he wore only his leather breeches. His flesh would heal, and he would not waste the pelts, though they might diminish his pain. Derin knew he had the advantage. The boy knew Naltu's Scientia was based on Nature and that the tribesman would not be effective against flames in combat.
The boy's hands flickered full of heat, and orange streaks rode along his body, fueled by some invisible vapor, drawing letters in the air His chest puffed out, and his hair twisted in the heat. Naltu laughed, and plucked a handful of dirt from the ground, and rubbed the grit against his chest, mocking the proud boy. His skin grew hard and thick with callous, and Baso wondered the precise art Naltu had employed. Derin's eyes fell, and he made a circle of charred earth around himself, darts of fire erupting from his fingers.
Naltu shouted. "This boy has wronged a friend who could not defend herself. I stand for her."
Derin cackled. Perry cringed.
Baso struck a bell with a copper rod. Streaks of fire cut Naltu's cheeks, but no blood came. Naltu remained still. Derin brought burning embers from the ground onto Naltu's shoulders. Skin blistered, and Naltu was stoic. Perry covered her ears with her hands and waited. Only Baso could end the fight.
Vines erupted from the soil, thin and sickly with soft thorns, and Derin tripped. The plants snaked and tore at Derin's robes, but his flesh was left unscathed. Naltu's sores closed as Derin brought elemental fire through the air. Naltu tumbled to the ground, darting aside, and sharp leaves of deep green whipped by Derin's face and neck, cutting the elaborate silk into shreds. Derin's robes fell about his shoulder, and blood seeped from the boy's cheek, and Naltu charged, jumping, and gently slapped Derin on the face. Forcible contact was prohibited, but Naltu let the fumes of Myristoyla fill the boy's blood, and so the attack was permitted.
Derin grew dizzy, and his hands rose, white-hot, and branded Naltu's shoulders. Naltu accepted the pain, standing still and stoic, and caressed Derin's face with a gentle finger. The petals of a red flower bloomed forth from his cheek, and Derin screamed, and his energy focused through his fingers into a blue heat that scorched Naltu's breast to the bone. Naltu's chest was steaming, though he stood for a moment, and Derin fell to the earth, exhausted. Naltu, too, fell, though only to his knees, and his blood and molten fat seeped like hot wax onto the ground.
Baso had made a shout to stop the challenge even before Derin had struck his last blow, and so the bell rang and he declared Derin the winner. Perry covered Naltu with brown cloth, and beneath the fabric, the wounds began to close. He smirked as he searched for his feet and clasped his arms around her, accepting her aid in standing. Derin scowled from far away as Naltu's blood colored Perry's blue silk robes. Baso was glad to see the tribesman rise, if only for a moment, for the wounds were lethal.
Perry led Naltu away from the field and toward the city, taking a route away from the road. Baso found the two on grass. The following was not difficult, for the grass was tall, but the horses were taller still.
"You are dying?" Baso asked, surprised at the posture of the man.
"The north is not rid of me," Naltu grumbled.
"You and I know what happened," Baso hinted.
Naltu nodded and bowed low. "Yes, Master. I gained more honor in losing this challenge than in winning."
"I'm proud of you, Naltu. You've surprised me in these past months. I was ready to enter the field if you let your strength get the better of you, but you let that boy spill all his rage, and you proved yourself strong. You're not hurt at all, are you?", Baso asked.
Naltu slipped the thin cloak from his bare chest, and draped the fabric over the horse's neck, and soaked in the light. "No, Master. I've healed myself."
The statement was not entirely true, for scabs and scars covered Naltu's chest. But there was no hint of mortal injury. Naltu brushed at the skin and flecks fell onto the ground below his horse.
"And Master Herr won't sleep for nights because of the wounds he inflicted on himself. Long shall he remember the rend he put in your chest. He'll wear those scars for his life. You'll forget about this in a few moons."
"I'll sleep well tonight, and without wine," Naltu promised. He shifted and pushed Perry's steed away. "The boy is moved to shame me," he added, drawing close to Baso.
Baso hunched over and his voice softened. "I know. He's just a child, though. Forgive him."
"He's a man enough. He's bragged."
"I don't listen to rumors or braggarts. There are not many Magisters and those of Magister blood are the strongest. Your people are primitives, but I suspect if we were to trace your mother and father's bloodlines, we would find shaman and witch. That must be protected."
"So Derin should lay with Perry to strengthen the blood of the Academy?"
Perry flustered and Baso continued. "You know what I mean, Naltu. You spill your seed on whores that do not bear fruit, and you were shamed for it. Who is the blame for that on? I came to the challenge because I thought you might try to kill Master Herr. If you both were commoners, this would be a tavern brawl. When I called the fight, I was certain you'd have killed him if that had been your intention. I meant to stop that, and worried when you touched his face, but even those manipulations I have seen from Master Iuju. Still, you could have broken him on your knee, and I could not have stopped you. Such is the trust I have placed in you, Master Naltu."
Naltu closed his eyes. "I've dreamed in recent nights of watching his bones shatter in my grip."
"But you did not let that dream control you. All men harbor such rage when insulted. I do not expect you to be any different."
Perry turned away and Naltu continued. "Derin tried to shame me, but he could not, because I accept the shameful things I do. In the south, I thought that I was high and strong, serving the Gods and not men, but here, you treat me as if I am low. But I know all of this is an illusion, even if I will sleep tonight sad that Derin has used a slave girl to pain me."
"Slave girl?" Baso questioned.
Perry put her fingers to her lips. Baso changed the course of his words. "Lucky for him that you have enough self-control, then, Naltu. Were you Shaman in the south?"
"I have told you I was not. I heard the call of the Gods and fell short."
"I know, Naltu, you are not ready for the next Ordeal. Do you know of those ways?"
"Some. There are many ordeals. Birth and death. Bondage and freedom. Forgiveness. There are others that are not in the books."
Baso laughed. "You have spent much time in our library, but there is another library in the north that contains vast knowledge. There are two true ordeals you should know of, and more than seven in all. One is the Ordeal of Mastery. You should be trained for five years by a Magister before attempting this. The other is the Ordeal of Service, and you have already proven yourself."
"You wish me to follow Magister Perry for five years?"
"What would you say if I commanded you to follow Master Herr for five years?"
Naltu's face went white, and his hairs pricked, and his scalp burned. "Derin has nothing to teach me."
"He knows more than you do, of Spherian, though you say you know that language, and Nalinese, though you lie about that as well. Master Herr could teach you the way of dilution and the way of distillation. Won't you learn these things from him? You're old enough, Master Naltu, older than Mistress d'Oncil, and you should know these things already. Only by grace do I allow you here in your ignorance."
Naltu dropped his gaze to the soil. "I see. I am humbled."
Baso left the plains, though Perry remained, and she comforted him with words and touched his shoulder, drawing her sure-footed horse close.
"He's confused," she explained. "He's confused because he taught Derin himself, and you appear out of the wilderness, and you're illiterate, and you're stronger than Derin. Scientia is fueled by knowledge, you talk like a fool, Naltu, but I'm certain you're wise. We all are. All of us were found as children because of our Talents. Everyone here knows, when the kids get creepy, write to the Academy. Effortlessly, I walked across the surface of a river as a child. That rose that blossomed from Derin's cheek, it's like watching a Talent. Baso's scared that there's something wrong with the way we teach."
"I studied for half my life under Shaman, and still I am a fool." Naltu turned his eyes. "Perry, I learned of confidence in your words, and I confide in no one."
"I don't understand," she responded. "Naltu, you can tell me anything."
"Can I? You judge me by Metta, as do Baso and the others."
Perry's eyes closed and tears streamed. "No, I don't, Naltu. You said it already. She's a slave, not a whore. The world is not a kind place. I think you'd be happier if you could forget about her. That's what Baso meant. You've changed the countryside as a farmer's scythe sweeping through the fields. Do you understand, the first night we met, you stopped what could have been a war? Can you imagine the response from the military and the Academy if the green men had murdered a Magister sent to treat?"
She paused, and the horse shifted away. "Now you're sharpening, and Baso says that soon you'll have a proper edge. Baso thought Derin his strongest Apprentice, and unhoned, you could have crushed him. Do you understand? I'm sorry to be the one to tell you this, but you're a person, and that means people are going to judge you by what you do. Not all of it's going to be good."
"No one says bad things about you, Mistress d'Oncil."
Perry cackled. "Oh, you have no idea. You're my pupil, Naltu, they won't talk around you. They tease me for having the figure of a boy, of frigidity, of only having earned my mark for my family's wealth, that I will have no heirs, and that the Academy will inherit my land."
They returned to the Academy, and even with the passage of time, Naltu did not understand. The others did not respect his training under the Shaman Mellosin, but he had already been made hardy by Ghidiun's frost. He left the hall and went to the basement and spoke with the quartermaster Haiche, and brought the man a flask of fine spirit.
Haiche told him that the school was want for the washed silk used to craft robes and pouches, knowing Naltu took joy in trade, and hoped to give the tribesman a task that would put his plainer skills to use. Haiche said the goods he required would not be found in the market.
Naltu went to the market and found only bare threads of linen and flax, worn before, for no new supplies had come to Dosille from across the sea. The wind was bitterly cold. Summer faded, ice fell from the sky and melted into the streets. Naltu returned home and gathered his furs. He dressed and filled his pack in the market and told Perry that he was going south to trade for supplies for the Academy. Baso heard this and insisted that Derin accompany Naltu to Krigsgud. Naltu's heart lurched, though he did not argue, and waited for three chimes in the library, and took an old book from a broken chest. He wrote a kind letter and paid a messenger to deliver it to the Jade Palace early in the day.
Derin bought the warmest clothes he could find, his pack filled with sweet biscuits and sausage, and the two moved west across the plains for a day. Naltu pulled his hood low and tightened the straps, and the ice fell and Naltu was shielded while Derin trembled.
The storm subsided and still Derin shivered and bound cloth around wood and made a torch. Naltu complained that the torch would give them away during the night, but when Derin lit the flame, the light was dim and purple. The torch gave enough heat that the boy would sweat if he carried it for too long, and Naltu admitted the fire was comfortable.
"Some of the others, Perry and Utrin say that you won our duel. Not me. Why do they say that?"
"Baso declared you victor."
"Neither of us submitted. It's because you were still standing at the end, and I passed out. I asked Perry and she said you could have walked up to me and cut my throat. Perhaps she was even pleased by the thought. She spat at me because you gathered my reagents, and she spoke true. But that's not what the duel was about. Baso should have let me wake, and we would have continued."
"No, you are right. Your command of the elemental Fire is greater than my knowledge of Nature. You have years of experience and I can not compare."
"I wanted to see all your strength. That's why I went to the Jade Palace and..."
Naltu stopped and let his eyes linger on the rocks covered in soft snow. "Why? You try and shame me? The girl is not my property. Your words would harm her more than me. She was beaten. I mean not to let that happen again."
Naltu's speech was soft, but Derin saw the fury in the tribesman's eyes, and he knew the weight of the promise. Derin shivered, and bumps rose on his skin, and he feared the savage more than any of the horrors in the dark night.
"I don't know why I did that. I did want to hurt you. I'm sorry. Perry found out and told them not to let me in again. She's really upset at me." Derin's eyes found Naltu. "I don't feel like I hate you, not right now, but that morning, and the mornings before, I did. I don't know why."
"Your skill was far stronger during the duel. You threw fire enough to kill men."
"I know. You kept absorbing the attacks, so I pushed harder. I've never been able to do that."
"And I attacked weakly. My skin is clean but you might wear those scars for all your time. And listen, for all your bragging, hurt is all you know."
Derin touched his cheek, where the rough black scar lay, where the roots of the flower that blossomed still lived within his skin. The texture was soft, like threads holding his skin together, under his fingertips.
"I can't heal like you can, Naltu. That's not fair."
"No, it is not fair. But it is why I won."
Derin laughed. "You said you lost."
"Why does your face twist in anguish when Magister Perry comforts me? You say you do not desire her, but your actions betray you."
Derin settled his face in his hands. "I don't desire her. I mean, she's pretty enough, so not more than any other boy. I don't know what upsets me. I think it's you. I'm... I mean it. I'm sorry about Metta."
The boy's eyes rose. "I worked for my whole life for this. It's not fair. I sacrificed everything for my power, and you come along, easy as wine, and Perry's all over you and... gods, you've got a whore to take a beating to be with you."
Derin's words stung Naltu. "Mistress d'Oncil is my teacher and closest friend, and not once my lover. You think I was born this strong, fool? I earned this. I've paid in blood, once more at your hands, and still I walk. Do you think I do not flinch? I have never asked someone to pay my price. Perhaps..."
"You stood there while I burned you. It's easier for you."
"No. Not easy. Pain and I are old friends, and it is true we can turn our backs to one another without becoming enemies. Even so, we both are always together. I'll not sleep tonight. Do you think it is because I am strong and do not grow tired? I am more tired than you, but watch must be held. You don't respect me because you think my prowess unearned, but you judge me not knowing my stories. You northmen tell tales of the frozen beasts, and I tell you, I've fought them and bled and risen victorious. The northmen fear you Magisters, but I'd rather face Baso or Liang or Iuju than the skittering things I've conquered in the cold night."
Derin laughed. "My one hope was that maybe you're truly fake. You're taking that away from me, old man. I tried to burn away these roots you left in my face. I burned until I scorched, and still they remain."
Naltu smiled. "Iuju gave me the seed of the redsword to eat, knowing my skin might harden to your flames. But I tasted the germ and another purpose arose in my mind. The plant is hardy against the fires of the mountains, and the roots dig deep."
"So I can't remove this? Is it going to keep growing?"
"I did not need to read of Ryuten to know how one's life can fuel another. My own life can summon the power to shape flesh into form. But I can draw from the energy of another, as well, and you'll know how I feel when you burned me. Would you draw from your own life to remove that flower?"
Derin laughed. "I've already tried. What do you mean, though, draw from your own life? Liang says you're a flesh weaver. He said that's how you healed."
Naltu bowed low. "Yes. Baso calls this my Talent, though I am attuned with nature. You'll grow thin and sick for a time if I do this for you, but this is my condition. Know my struggles. Pay the price for my Talent, for I will not do this for you."
"Fine. Do it. Pluck these roots from my skin, will you?"
The tribesman sighed gladly, and held the palm of his hand near Derin's face. Green sparks flowed through thick air, slowly into Naltu, and then the skin of Derin's face opened. Naltu plucked the roots free, whole and perfect, and tossed them to the snow. Derin shivered, paralyzed under the force of the work, and his face came together, and the skin was whole and smooth.
Derin fell to the snow and screamed at the night sky. He writhed, and turned and his empty stomach lurched onto the snow. Naltu watched as the boy turned onto his knees, and struggled, fighting, and wiped his face with snow. More convulsions came, and Derin spat blood and foam and yellow bile. The logs of the small campfire grew thin before Derin spoke again.
"That's what it feels like to heal?"
Naltu laughed at the pale boy's face. "Your art burns hotter. But, yes."
He handed the boy a bowl filled with boiled beans. "You need to eat. You'll be sick if you do, but worse if you don't. I spent a season growing the force of will to tolerate food after healing."
Derin's eyes were wide, and the teeth of hunger nipped at his bones. He held the bowl to his lips, pushed all the beans into his mouth, and swallowed without chewing. He stared at Naltu, satisfied, and after a hundred heartbeats, he spewed whole beans onto the fire. His body lurched with pain, and he cried.
"When I heal, my blood fills with poison. When I made your skin whole after the grimkin, and Perry's, I held this pain inside me for a week. Do you understand now why I seemed to sleep on the sands?"
Derin gasped and vomited again, his stomach revolting and lurching dry and empty. "You've learned to tolerate the pain."
"I pass out from the pain, and still am not left alone. Healing my skin is easiest."
Derin wiped his face with snow and touched the smooth skin. "You left the other scar you gave me?"
Naltu slapped the boy's arm. "You did not pay for your face to be so clean. You asked only for the redsword to be plucked. If you pay, I'll use my Talent. Well?"
"No? The scar shows that I'm a man of action, right? Is Metta... did you heal her?"
"I haven't seen her since you betrayed me. The price of her affection has been my unwelcome."
Derin's face twisted with shame. "I don't mean to sound condescending, but Baso said I should teach you. I don't know what."
Naltu glanced at the flame. "How do you maintain power for so long? When I use my powers, my belly grows thin, yet you do not falter."
"I suppose healing is a lot harder than elemental work."
Naltu shook his head. "No. Even Nature drains me."
Derin sat back against a rock and drained a wineskin. "Maybe you're just really inefficient. Maybe you didn't learn that in the south. You only had your Talent when you came to us?"
"You speak truthfully. I do not understand efficiency, though Perry has told me of the word."
"Well, I can teach you that, at least. We should have done this before I asked you to clean my face! Do we have more beans?"
Naltu stirred the pot and scraped the last for the boy. Derin stopped and pointed at the snow. Flames flicked from his fingers for many breaths, and the ice melted in a patch wide enough for the two to sit in. The water steamed, and the earth grew dry and warm.
"Make something grow there."
Naltu closed his eyes and visualized a seed and spoke the name of the plant inside his mind, and remembered the flavors of the germ on his tongue. He touched his finger to the ground and a tiny blade of grass sprouted. He panted and the plant grew.
"You were trembling the whole time," Derin scolded. "You did that through force of will. The same as your attack?"
Derin touched his face and Naltu nodded. "When we fought, my heart raced. Now, I am tired, and my heart grows still."
"Does that hurt as much as your healing?"
"No, this is only exhaustion," Naltu admitted.
A wisp of smoke fell from Derin's finger and the grass wilted. "Talents are strong even when you aren't skilled, but the mark of a real master is efficiency. Do you know Liang? He's a scholar on the topic, respected on the continent. One blast of fire's something a child could do. Liang can melt the mountains and not fatigue."
"Liang is your mentor?"
"He says a Magister has to stop focusing on the results and instead concentrate on managing energy. He's had me drink blue water every day for two years."
"Blue water? Like the falls from the aqueducts where they rot?"
"Right. Normally, Fire Magisters consume iron to make our energy resonate, but copper is much more potent. It makes you very sick, though. I wish I could heal myself," Derin offered, and pulled his sleeve high. Naltu touched the series of fresh scars.
"I have to cut myself every Revelsday to get the blood poisoning out. Even doing that, I get really sick. Liang's been taking lead mined from the mountains for the past few years. He says he doesn't get sick anymore, but his hair's all gone, and he's only seen thirty winters. That's not much older than you, right?"
Naltu held Derin's arm, and plucked each wound away, tossing the damage onto the fire, and leaving clean flesh. Derin's breathing was heavy, but the sensation was tolerable.
"I don't understand. Why do you eat iron and copper?"
"Didn't Perry or Iuju explain this to you?"
"They have told me nothing. Perhaps this is why Baso asked you to accompany me?"
"Ugh," Derin spat, poking the ground with his finger. "Well, you're attuned to Nature, so that's nightshade and hemlock. Perry's a water mage, so she probably takes quicksilver now, since she's a full Magister. Before that it would have been asp venom."
"I know nothing of this. I should eat nightshade to grow stronger?"
"Er, well, Iuju's the senior Nature attuned, so you should talk with him first. I don't want to be responsible if you poison yourself. But you build up the proper ratios into potions and you drink every day. You can't just find the stuff in the swamps and chew it, you know? That would just kill you."
"You can teach me how to prepare these?"
"Well, I could teach you distillation and dilution, but really, you need to sit with Iuju so you can work up a regimen and understand the finer details. Do you know how to use an alembic?"
"Distillation. Dilution. Baso used these words, but I do not know what he meant. In the cold of the south, life comes from... being willing to walk in the dark. I do not know how to say."
Derin pushed the fire high with his fingers, and the water boiled, and Naltu tossed two handfuls of beans into the pot.
"And you didn't ask Baso what he meant?"
"It does not seem wise to show weakness to that man."
"How else will you grow stronger?"
Derin filled his belly, scraped the pot clean again and moved into his blanket. Naltu watched the stars with numb eyes as the boy slept. The sky was dark, and a narrow slice of light slid across the new moon, and fell to the horizon.
He carefully scrubbed his hands with the snow and unwrapped the book. Secrets were hidden in pressed vellum, and he filled the pages with a fragment of energy so that they would remain whole. Derin snored, and so Naltu used a small glowstone. He read of the essence of Scientia, of Light, and of the mastery of self. He covered the tome and slept.
They woke and climbed the mountains and found the green men under the morning sun. Naltu made another fire and shouted. Derin was silent while Naltu bartered for two sturdy horses and sacks of grain. The beasts were short and thick and covered in thick hair, and Derin had never seen their kind on the plains. They rode the tiny horses across and down the mountains, and then through the frozen grasslands. Derin was glad for the respite of his feet, but the horses jarred his spine and smelled horrid. The packs grew light as the two ate, and Naltu began to hunt, and brought the meat of deer and wolf for Derin to cook. In the night, Naltu read the tome thrice, and Derin pretended to sleep.
Naltu cleaned the pelts and soaked them in brine and tied them to his pack. Derin turned his eyes and did not care that Naltu used the same pot. The tiny horses were hardy and the grain lasted until they reached Krigsgud. The tribesman told Derin stories of the slavers and pirates, and the boy had not known Naltu had fought and killed men.
Krigsgud was not welcoming to the two when they arrived at the borders. Tales of the goblin raiders had fallen past the ears of the sentries, and the furred horses the pair rode gave them away. Naltu engaged in debate with a guard for tense moments, until Derin produced an Academy seal, and then Naltu retrieved his own. They sold the horses for clay bits in a farm outside the city, and entered.
They waited in Krigsgud for two weeks, listening to conversation, and sleeping in comfortable taverns. Snow covered the refuse in the streets, and carts trampled the frost into ice. Krigsgud became treacherous to navigate by night, and the days were becoming shorter.
Naltu left Derin alone at night, and took his things to a secluded spot an hour's walk away. He worked at a peculiar sort of discipline, not in the style of Baso and obedience, but outright domination of the body. He learned of a script that worked like the slow match on a rifle, invoking power at a trigger. He learned how to die and to revive himself after a moment. He learned the separation between his self and the thoughts in his mind. He learned the lie that the Magisters called spirit and soul.
He bought iron and clouded gems from the merchants, and strips of leather. He made a tool with no function, too soft for a smith's hammer, too dull for a hunter's knife. The tool was not fragile like the Magister's alembic, but was common in a sense to this, and also to the warrior's carbine. It was a simple tool that acted as a container for something else.
Derin asked Naltu about this, and Naltu responded with the truth: that he did not need sleep, and so he went into the night to practice the art the Academy taught him. The boy was distrustful and inspected Naltu's pack and found the rod, though he did not understand the purpose. He found the book and recognized the author's sigil. Ryuten.
The city seemed asleep. Ships came across the sea in number, large vessels with steel bands across the bows. Long oars prickled from the bows, and the masts were tall and many in number. The winds had moved north, and the trading routes between Libbon and Spheria had closed. The Libbonese ships headed south to the island of New Spheria, in hopes of unloading the last of summer's cargo and earning coin. The Libbonese sold soft luxuries at a bargain, for their homeland was large and filled with laborers and a military hungry for the steel guns of the Spherian smiths.
The tribesman heard of a ship that was carrying silks from the western continent and went to the harbor, where the scent of the water lingered. The harbor was made of wooden piers, and the water between the pilings had frozen in place the night before. Loud taps came from the ice at the edges, and a lone man worked with a steel axe, chipping the thickest portions of the ice away so that a ship could be pulled in with ropes. Only two others were tethered to the piers, and they bobbed, scraping against the ice. In the winter, ten men would chip at ice, and only for them could ships dock, and so the waning summer was kind.
Naltu approached the ship with the red Libbonese flag high on the mast. He was dressed in his pelts, and had brushed them clean enough from the journey. He met with the ship's mate, and was asked if he sought work, but Naltu refused. Naltu told the mate that a trader had seen his hold and told him of the silks within.
The mate shrugged and found the captain in the tavern. The three returned to the ship and inspected the hold. The area was nearly empty, the captain explained that they hoped to move north to sell the last of the valuable cargo, and return home before the strong summer storms came.
The captain had a thick accent. He was a short man with a build that reminded Naltu of the green men. He showed a gold coin and told the man that he sought silk. The mate found an iron bar and pried open a wooden crate, and then another inside. His hands were covered in splinters and ink, and so the captain picked at his fingers, and Naltu stripped his gloves.
"You have soft hands, savage," the captain said, appraising Naltu's worthiness to inspect the fabric.
Naltu rubbed his hands together. "Perhaps. My skin has grown smooth in the north. But the tribesmen do not callous as you do. We have made a profound discovery we call gloves."
No common Spherian could have made the insult, but the captain was amused. "Alright. You're looking for bleached silk? I have enough of that."
Naltu peered into the crate. The silk was wrapped around long wooden rods, and the rods were stacked inside on top of one another. The captain pushed aside the rods until he reached the white silk at the bottom, and carefully removed the bolt from the crate. "Fine Libbonese silk. Is this what you're after?"
Naltu touched the fabric and remembered the feel of the robes. "This is. How much?"
"I've got ten bolts in this crate, and ten in the other. I'd hoped to earn perhaps two hundred silvers for all this in Jurn or perhaps Halsburg. Ten silvers a bolt, then?"
Naltu turned and thought aloud. "Two hundred silvers. Tell me of these other silks."
"The people of New Spheria are too frugal for such things, friend. The silk is made from dyed thread. It's a difficult process that takes a year to complete, and then the patterns are made with needles."
The captain removed a bolt of colored silk and touched it with a longing and a sigh that belied memory. He held the wooden rod at his eyes and unrolled a length to his knees. The silk was colored with a bright red dye, with the image of a golden-black serpent that fell from the captain's chin to his waist.
"It's all done by hand. Working with this sort of fabric is complicated if you wish to preserve the patterns. Spherian tailors can not tolerate the tiny needles managed in the west. A Libbonese weaver might spend two years making a bolt such as this, and those weavers are quite rare since the Edict of Mazin. It's not spoken for."
Naltu lifted a piece of silk, folded carefully between the bolts. The cloth absorbed the light from candles, and shifted like the shadows as the ship rolled gently. "And this?"
"They call it Dragon Skin, friend. Have you ever seen the Libbonese fight?"
"No," Naltu admitted.
"We don't use guns like the Spherians. Our soldiers have mechanical bows that fire long darts. The darts are barbed so that they can not be removed without causing grievous injury. We Libbonese are not kind. Any of the worm silk, layered enough, can withstand the force of those darts, but the Dragon Skin is woven from a particular spider's strand and does not need to be layered. The Emperor himself wears a shirt of this silk, and owes his life to it."
Naltu laughed. "I had wondered at the value of all this. These two crates are the cargo you'd bring to Spheria?"
"Well," the captain laughed. "Yes. All that's left. I've done well enough and hoped to fill the hold with the woven linens and wools of New Spheria, and then head north."
"You'd do better with sweet grass."
"Perhaps, savage, but unless you'd like to buy my silks, I don't have the gold to fill this hold with sweet grass, and so I'll bring linens to the continent instead."
Naltu laughed and clasped the captain's shoulder. "How much for all of this? Both crates, and that Dragon Skin?"
The captain cackled. "All of it? Do you know something I don't?"
"Perhaps. I have seen the wives of the men who claim to own the land. I think perhaps they would buy this colored cloth from me. How much?"
The man thought for a moment. "I'd... hoped... to return home with my purse full. I don't think you have that sort of money. Fifteen hundred silvers, friend, and it's yours."
Naltu's eyes were wide. He opened his purse and removed a single gold coin, and then another, and another, until a stack glittered in the light. "Eight gold. Eight hundred silvers, then. You could use this money to buy sweet grass to fill your hold, and you'll earn another thousand over the value of these silks."
The captain turned to his mate. "How much would we pay to buy enough sweet grass? How much would we sell it for?"
"He's right enough, sir. You'll turn that profit, but even so, the silks are worth more than eight hundred."
The captain turned. "He's my man in money, and he's right. I'll need to hire a worthy crew with a full hold, and these silks are dear and rare. You'll do better at twelve hundred."
Naltu produced two more coins and added them to the stack. "This is all the wealth I've brought. You'll not earn that profit at all without my gold. I came far from Krigsgud to trade with you."
The captain frowned. "That's not enough for all of this. Perhaps a part? You won't have the Dragon Skin, but you could have half the colored silks and all the bleached?"
Naltu opened his pack and removed a large white orb. "I'll sweeten you with this. You light your ship with candles, but the Spherians illuminate with these."
He pulled a small piece of cork from the orb, removed a pouch from his pack, and sprinkled a bit of yellow dust into the opening. He replaced the plug, rubbed the orb gently, and it brightened.
"Nightdust. You know of these?"
The captain grinned. "The Libbonese know the glowstones of the Spherian Magisters."
"This one could illuminate a palace. Watch," Naltu said, and rubbed the glowstone until the hold was well lit. "Your cabin is deep within the quarterdeck, captain?"
The captain bowed. "Yes. So?"
Naltu showed his teeth and led the two out of the hold. "You see, glowstones are not like candles. The light they give is not bound by walls. It will penetrate fabric, even wood to a degree. Walk with me and see, for this is a stone of great quality."
They reached the cabin and the captain cheered. There was no apparent source of illumination, but he placed his lantern outside, and searched the room. There were no shadows, only strange, even lighting.
"This is a marvel. What is the worth of such a thing?"
The mate shrugged. "I do not know, but I'd take his offer."
Naltu grinned. "I'll take all your silks, packed in those crates, and you'll give me that cart as well. In return, you'll take the gold I've offered, and the glowstone, and that bag of dust. Be warned, that dust will light the stone generously for two years. Here, you could buy more from the Academy, but there are few Magisters in Libbon."
The captain held his hand out. "We've a deal, then, savage. Take the man's silk to his cart, and help him to the harbor. At his leisure."
Naltu returned to the tavern and found Derin, and told the boy they would be leaving come the morning. Derin grumbled, for the tavern's fire had been warm when they arrived, and the boy ensured the fire kept the building hot enough to bring sweat. The morning came, and Naltu met with the captain and his mate, and retrieved his cargo.
They tethered the cart to fresh horses and rode north, around the mountains, and towards Criest. Derin hid among leathers on top of the silks and slept, waking for brief hours during the day to eat, relieve himself, and stretch. Naltu cajoled the boy to explain the most coarse details of the arts of mixing, but spent most of the journey sleepy, with a clay pipe pressed to his lips, and the pelts drawn low over his brow. He, too, missed the warmth of the tavern.
The tribesman was welcomed by Ephan, the councilor and leader of the town. He bought a second cart full of grain and left the city and rode to the mountains. He sold the grain to the green men, taking payment in a pouch of flowers harvested from the swamps, tanned lizard skins, and rough colored stones dug from the deepest caves.
Naltu remembered the path he had traveled with Perry and followed it until at last the two returned to Dosille. More than a moon had passed.
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