Perry stretched against the mattress and felt her back pop. She groaned and swung her feet onto the floor. She stumbled to her chest and found fresh socks and underclothes and dressed, and then took a gray silk robe from a rod hanging from a wall hook. She shook the robe clean of the dust that had settled the last time she wore it. She glanced at the piles of linen and silk on the floor and thought to call a clerk from the Scribe's Lament to come and take her laundry.

She unfolded the layered robe and placed the heavy outer layer on her bed. She wrapped the inner layer around her body, placing her arms through slits in the fabric, and tied the sides so that the silk hung from her shoulders like a fitted tunic. She lifted the second layer and pulled the silk over her head, and the fabric came just below her chest. She shook the silk into place and tugged the hood down so that it lay against her back.

Perry picked a chunk of stiff brown substance from a pouch and chewed. Her mouth tasted strongly of cinnamon, and she felt the dried bristles clean her teeth. She spat into her chamber pot, then covered the metal urn with a lid. She carried the chamber pot to the end of the hall and dumped the contents into a pit that led to the Academy's cesspool. She rinsed the pot with a small amount of water from the tap and dumped that into the pit.

Returning to her room, she opened a small wooden chest. Inside, frost coated the surface, and a small pat of butter sat beside three iridescent blue stones. Perry sighed and bundled her dirty clothes into a pile and left the room. She thought to make marks on the slate on her door, but remembered that the clerk from the Scribe's Lament would not come until Frostday, and three days would be too long.

She wrapped the pile of clothes in a sack and decided to break fast at the tavern. She plodded slowly down the stairs and opened a wooden drawer at the bottom. Inside were many small cubbies filled with footwear, and she took her boots and strapped them to her feet.

"Mistress d'Oncil, Master Baso is looking for you."

"Oh. Did he mention why?"

"No, and who knows but him? He probably wants some clean ice for his liquor."

Perry smirked. "Thanks, Mistress Ghindi."

She went to the door marked 'Master Jusdan Baso,' and knocked. A cough came from behind the wood, and a single word.

"Enter."

Perry came into the office. She waited and faced Master Baso as he scrawled across a piece of paper. He blotted the ink and replaced his quill pen on a silver disk. A blob of ink poured from the pen into a small depression in the plate, and Baso sighed.

"Mistress d'Oncil. You've struggled to mentor Master Naltu."

Perry paused for a moment. She caught herself and then nodded in agreement. "I don't have the knowledge. I can't teach him the advanced things he wants to learn, only basic crafting."

"He's only an Apprentice. How is your relationship with him?"

"I don't understand? We're on good terms."

Baso shrugged. "He will be gone for some time."

"He told me. A month, perhaps. He's asked me to care for his affairs in Dosille until he returned."

"Ah. There is a vote in two weeks. Will you represent his interests then?"

Perry nodded. "He's had no interest in the government. He's cast all his ballots by proxy through me since he became a landowner."

"I see. Good terms, then. Do you wish for me to find for him a different mentor?"

"If... I'm doing a poor job, I'd rather see him prosper than let him rise to his title with faulty learning."

"Then he remains in your stead for now. Because your ward is gone while you remain here, I wish to assign you a different duty."

"Of course, Master. I certainly hadn't made plans to enjoy my free time."

Baso shook his head. "No. Master Naltu has been your only duty, and perhaps not worth your full time. If not for your performance in Criest, I might consider reprimanding you."

Perry's face flushed. "Yes, Master Baso. How might I be of service?"

"You have a moon. I want one hundred pages written on the weeping sickness. You will deliver a tome worthy of inclusion in the library. We have little knowledge of the disease, and so the contents will be yours as you see fit. You may meet with Haiche and requisition supplies as necessary, though as Naltu is gone, you might find little other than paper and ink."

Perry bowed her head. "Yes, Master Baso. I'll deliver the pages to you for review in four weeks."

"Not to me," Baso sighed. "You are a full Magister, and I expect that I do not need to review the quality of your work."

"I'm... I have no knowledge of the weeping sickness."

"No one does," Baso replied, bothered by her faltering confidence. "We start all things from the same place. Now go, I've other matters to attend to."

Perry pressed her hands together and bowed quickly. She left and closed the door behind her. Her stomach growled and she glared at the students in the hall. She went to Haiche and asked for paper and ink, and though she had some in her room, she requisitioned enough to complete the whole of the work.

She walked to the lobby and searched through the closet and found her linen cloak, fastened the buckles around her chest, and slipped her arms through the slits. She took her sack from the hall and left the Academy and walked the short distance to the Scribe's Lament.

Few were in the tavern. She took a spoon and a tin plate and went to the pans on the hearth. She scooped fried potato wedges, porridge, and sausage onto the plate, then took a seat. She ate her breakfast, the food was hot and full of flavor, for the herbs of autumn were fresh and in favor. The Scribe's larder was full, for Naltu had made a series of prosperous deals with some farmers.

She asked after the keep, that he would have her clothing laundered, and she took four loaves of fresh bread, six jars of fresh jelly, and ten large links of cured sausage. She placed all the food into her sack and left and walked to the opposite wall of the city, through the markets and to the Jade Palace.

The doors were open and the hall was cool. She saw Metta and another slave girl scurrying about with mops, scrubbing the floor. Fumes from the cleaning fluids evaporated and filled the air with a sweet smell not unlike lamp oil.

"Madame, we're closed," a bare-chested guard rumbled from behind the open door.

Perry startled for a moment, and then composed herself. "Ah. I'd meant to ask after Aina."

"Aina? Madame, it's daylight outside. She's gone home."

Metta hollered from across the hall. "You need Aina? Is everything alright?"

Perry glanced at the guard. "Do you mind if I talk with Metta for a moment?"

"I don't care," he said, and waved.

Perry approached Metta, carefully stepping around the water accumulating on the floor. Metta continued washing around Perry.

"Sorry to be rude, but the sooner I get this done, the sooner I get to sleep, and I'm really tired."

"Hey. So... did you get the letter?"

"Thanks for that, and I do appreciate the knowing. Aina's not working until Omensday. If you want, I can get a message to her. I know where she lives."

"Do you think you could just tell me?"

Metta looked up and grinned. "Nope. Not allowed. Listen, Academy girl. There's a book I want in the market. Promise you'll get it for me, and I'll have your message to Aina before the clock chimes noon. It's just a Nalinese print, so it'll only cost a few clays. I don't have my own money, so... what say thee?"

"Ah, that's how it is?"

"I'll be missing an hour's sleep. But... if you haven't the coin, and promise me this is important, I'll do it as a favor."

Perry gave a sincere smile. "What's the name of this book?"

She spoke the title in perfect Nilanese, and then continued in that tongue. "The Darkest Heart, by Anzej Roguki. Now, the message?"

"Oh. Well, ask Aina if I could meet her tonight. That's all."

"That's fine. I need to finish up here, then I'll go. She'll be here for you."

"Leredith won't mind you running my errand?"

Metta laughed. "Oh. Nevermind that. I'm ensuring an additional patron tonight, and if you had told him of your want, he'd have sent me regardless, and I wouldn't get a book out of the exchange. Good day, Mistress d'Oncil."

Perry bowed politely and backed away, careful not to step on the wet floor. She glanced at the subtle tracks she had left on the dry surface and felt slightly ashamed. She left the Jade Palace and headed north, continuing into the western market, though there were no booksellers. She continued past the giant tent of the central market, and further east to the tents that sold luxuries to the aristocrats. There, she found a bookseller, and traded two clays for a sheaf of thread-bound paper with the promised title.

She opened the book and found the poems incomprehensible. The author used strange metaphor, and she was certain this Anzej Roguki was a Magister of Nilan. He spoke of flowers and stones and elements, though in terms of beauty, void of the words of ritual.

Perry bought coffee in a cafe and completed her read through the book. The prose was brilliant, she decided, and wondered if she should not purchase her own copy. She could not penetrate the flowery words, though she was certain she recognized truth in the allusions.

She returned to the Scribe's Lament and retrieved her laundry, and with her sack full, went to the Academy and her room. She placed the meat and the jam in her wooden box and wrapped the bread tightly in waxed linen. She grumbled for a moment and searched through her chest and found a handful of silver coins.

Perry went to the library and searched the catalogue. There were two books on the topic of disease, but both treatises were antiquated and rooted in theories of illness that were not useful. One explained that disease was the result of unfamiliar spirits entering the body, and another discussed the accumulation of bodily fluids that did not exist.

She wrote two pages, in fine blue ink, of the simple conclusion that she had drawn. Her education in the function of the body had been delivered by a Libbonese man through chalk inscribed on a slate board. She thought to those lessons, and knew them, too, to be flawed, though less so than the books.

Perry returned to the Scribe's Lament and ate a fast dinner of ale and stew. The stew was satisfying, made from boiled turnips and bacon, and was thick and spicy. She had a second portion and then took the small book and walked through the markets again, and returned to the Jade Palace.

She showed her silver token and was allowed in without cost. She went to the bar and purchased a tall pitcher of crimson wine, then seated herself. She watched Metta from the corner of her eye as the other woman moved among the tables, delivering drinks and flirting with the men.

Metta brought a pickled salad to the bar and squeezed Perry's shoulder. "Hey. I told Aina you'd be here at your usual time. She promised to be here, but I think you're early."

"Oh. That's fine. I've brought your book. I must confess, I tried to read it, and did not understand."

"Roguki's... difficult. Naltu's brain would melt out his eyes if I made him work through this. Thank you though. Do you have a pen?"

"No, sorry."

Metta reached into a silk pouch at her side and produced a small wooden cylinder. She tugged for a moment at the cap, and exposed a metal leaf.

"Please... write your name on it. Or Naltu's, if you wish. I'm not allowed to own things, but if... I'll tell Leredith you loaned me the book, and we won't have trouble."

Perry frowned and printed her name carefully in the corner of the first page.

"Thanks. I have to do my service, now. I'm sure Aina will come for you when she arrives."

Perry watched Metta work through the men in the hall. She knew Naltu would be incensed to see the seemingly genuine laughter that Metta gave upon hearing the words of the men.

The bartender made a forceful negative gesture to Perry, and she glanced over her shoulder. A man backed away, hands raised in the air in apology.

"Thanks, Wesley. Gods. I've been coming here for a few years, and just when I thought I'd figured out how to ignore the girls here..."

"I'm surprised you didn't get to know Metta earlier. She's a sweet one, though I've never met a soul that could twist a word's meaning as she can. Or handle as much Opal."

"I'm dressed in Academy robes. Why the hell would someone think I'd be interested in them?"

Wesley shrugged. "No reason. Well, you're real, but... two weeks ago, Leredith had a damned masquerade on Revelsday, so he might have a right for being confused. What's the point of them robes, anyway?"

Perry laughed. "Really? Um, well, not all of us wear robes. I'm cheap, though, I'm saving my money to buy property. Despite the silk, the robes are actually free for us. It's a presence thing, though. We don't want people to be scared of us. Familiarity makes people unafraid."

"Well, what do they have to be afraid of? It's not like your Academy has monsters chained in the basements."

"We don't chain the Magisters up, Wes."

"And our time is up. Hey, Aina. Need anything?"

Aina touched the back of Perry's neck, and the robed woman felt warm for a moment.

"My usual."

"Hot water and not a clay for me," Wesley complained.

Perry tossed an enameled coin to the bar. He scooped the gesture into his pocket and winked.

"Unafraid," he said with a solemn face.

Mistress d'Oncil followed Aina out of the hall and up the stairs. They continued to the end of the hall and entered a clean room. The walls were un-decorated and coated in white plaster. There was no hearth. Wardrobes lined the walls, supporting a number of lit candles. A padded bench was set in the center. Perry disrobed and Aina neatly folded the clothes into a pile.

A knock came at the door. Loosa brought an iron kettle full of boiling water. Aina arranged her things, pouring the water into a double-walled pot that contained a small amount of fragrant oil.

"It's only been two weeks since I've seen you last. How are you doing?"

"Oh, I'm healthy enough."

"I was worried when Metta came to my house."

Perry laughed. "It's alright. Actually, I wanted to talk with you, though I won't deny your income or your touch. It's a difficult topic."

Aina poured oil into her hands and then began pushing on Perry's muscles. Her hands were strong and deft, and her fingers quickly found the strands that connected Perry's bones. She closed her eyes and saw a golden field marred with streaks of blue and red. Her hands shifted and she felt Perry's texture, and she separated the colors.

"Well? I don't think you're pregnant."

Perry laughed, though her position made the utterance throaty and awkward. "No. Worse than that. I wanted to talk about the weeping sickness."

"Turn over."

Perry did.

Aina inspected the girl carefully, and then lifted Perry's calf into the air and began to work her leg. "You don't have it."

"No. That's not it. I want to understand the sickness."

"You don't. I can promise that."

"It's important. There's not a lot written on the disease, or so I'm told. I couldn't find much in the Academy's library or in the market. I've been asked to collect the knowledge of Dosille on the disease into a book."

Aina's smile was bright and satisfied. "And so you came to me? I'm not certain if I should be insulted or pleased."

Perry's eyes closed as she felt Aina's fingers press into her feet. "I've been walking all damned day. That feels so good."

"Excellent. I'm afraid I don't know much of the weeping sickness. I pay Leredith for his elixir and I have never contracted it. So that my patrons don't, I boil all the linens. Anything that can not be boiled is scrubbed with spirit. This is the way of the Jade Palace."

"Boiling? That's odd. That seems to work, to prevent the spread of the disease?"

"Leredith learned quickly that soiled bed sheets spread the disease. It's not a difficult decision, though, when the pustules burst and make stains."

"That's pleasant. I don't mean to be rude. You've seen patrons with the weeping sickness?"

"Of course. I'm often called by the midwives to help with sick women and swollen bellies."

Aina finished Perry's legs and moved on to the woman's face. "You should talk with some of the other women who visit with patrons in a more sensual manner than this old crone. You might convince them to talk with a few clays. Metta is sociable and experienced, and you seem to know her."

"I don't know that I want that. Master Naltu's my friend, and if I knew too much of Metta, I might cringe to know that he visits her."

"Alright, then... I would betray confidence to say much else. I could spread word of your question, and you might be answered privately on another night. And there is the Red Palace."

"The Red Palace?"

"There is not a clean girl there. Leredith owns a share of that place, too, but the profits do not justify a contribution of his elixir. Mind you, do not set foot in the place. The... if you wish to... Mistress d'Oncil, is this a serious matter?"

"It's my job," Perry sighed. "I've got to do this well."

"And you are clean. You have not had the disease?"

"I don't think so..."

"You would know. Are you content with my work, Mistress d'Oncil?"

Perry laughed and rolled off the bench and onto her feet. She quickly gathered her linens and robes and dressed. "Yes, Madame Olury. If you would pass my question, when should I return for an answer?"

Aina leaned against the wall and laughed. Her old eyes glittered in the candlelight. "As of late, you're my only patron. My hours are vacant. It's still early enough, and though you are a bit drunk, we could still meet tomorrow for lunch. Do you know of the place called the Broken Horse?"

"Of course. Lunch, then, at the Broken Horse? Perhaps when the clock tolls that the sun is overhead?"

"I might bring a guest, if I can convince anyone. Many of these girls, myself included, are not so inclined to coin as an aristocrat like you. Could you perhaps promise to cover the expense of the visit?"

Perry's eyebrows rose for a moment. She glanced to her side. "I... of course."

Aina followed Perry down the stairs, and then moved into the hall. Perry left through the main doors and walked through the brightly-lit night market and to the forest grove that surrounded the Academy. She crept through the ironwork fence that surrounded the grove and entered through the main doors. The glowstones were dark and she remembered the path to her room, practiced since childhood, and stepped carefully.

The morning sun came too easily. Perry rose and dressed only in her underclothes and the bottom half of her robe. She bundled her robes in her sack and then rushed to the Scribe's Lament. She went to the back and found two others in the bathroom. Liang was there, scrubbing his body with a harsh brush, and Mistress Kilsh remained dressed, waiting for Liang to leave.

Perry checked the barrels and found the one that contained hot water that had not been used. She turned her back to Liang and quickly disrobed before falling backwards into the tub. She reached beyond the tub for her soap and her oil and her sponge, and she quickly cleaned herself. Liang had not left when she was finished. She did not mean to be impolite, so she stood from the tub and onto the floor, and quickly dressed in her linens and her robes.

Kilsh was still waiting when Perry was finished in the bathroom. The red-haired girl seemed miserable, and so Mistress d'Oncil ordered Magister Liang back to the Academy. The man grumbled and managed to pull his wrinkled body from the tub. He apologized and dressed and followed Perry out of the bathroom.

She went to the hearth and found breakfast, a simple meal of sweetened porridge, butter and stale bread that had been crisped near the fire. Perry ate quickly, scraped the remains of her plate into a small pail, then left the tavern. She returned to the Academy and the library and read until the clock chimed.

Aina had arrived at the Broken Horse, and she was seated alone at a small table. A large pot of coffee was steaming. When Perry approached, the older woman uprighted two small cups and filled them with black liquid. They spoke for a moment, and the clock bells chimed, and two others arrived.

"I assume we all know each other?"

Ouji nodded. "I know of Mistress d'Oncil."

Metta smirked. "Thinking of leading a life of vice, Perry?"

"Not a chance," Aina scolded. "She's invited us to a fine lunch. Mistress, I've explained the nature of your questions."

"Perry, you're too generous," Metta winked. "You've been so kind to me as of late."

A man came to the table with the morning's meal. Bread had been baked freshly in the morning, and was topped with a soft cheese and the flakey flesh of a broiled fish, bright purple in color. Golden seeds and fragments of onion were placed on top of the sandwiches. The coffee was finished and small goblets were set about the table, and were kept full of bubbling wine.

They ate and were satisfied, and Ouji began the discussion.

"You wanna know about the weeping sickness, eh?"

Perry nodded. "I do. I don't mean to be unclear, so... I am in the employ of the Academy, and I am tasked to scribe your words. We only mean to write the story of the weeping sickness."

Ouji nodded. "Promise not to use my name. Not the one I gave you, and not any you might ever learn."

Perry blinked. "Of course. I sit with Mistress Red and Mistress Gray and Mistress Black. Does this suit the table?"

Aina laughed. "I suppose I must be Mistress Gray? I don't have much to say, but to bring you with my friends. So you could leave Mistress Gray out, but I won't demand it."

Perry closed her eyes. "Where do we start? Perhaps..."

"I had it," Mistress Red confessed. "For three weeks. My mum shoved porridge down my throat, and I puked all over me bedroom and linens. I made such a mess she kicked me to the streets to die. Mistress Red is made of hardy folk, and no such thing happened, so here I be, answering yer query."

Mistress Black blinked. "I'm... suddenly shy."

Mistress Red laughed. "You ate her food, now tell her the tale."

"Ah... some of the men I've seen in the Jade Palace have the weeping sickness. As... so I'm ordered to keep watch over the linens, and to boil those in lye."

"Lye?" Perry said, raising her brow.

Aina shrugged. "I don't know the details. I didn't mean to mislead you, for I've not done much of that work."

Mistress Black nodded, continuing. "Yes. I wear oiled gloves and heat the barrels in the cellar with embers. There are three sets of bed-linens in the Jade Palace, and one set covers the beds on each night, one is washed, and one is laid aside for stitching and to dry. Lye's what I use, for it's what I've been taught, and I'm confident few grow sick in the Jade Palace, and none by us."

"As she says," the red-haired woman continued. "Our protection is conveyed for a moment by the deed. It's in the water that comes from us. Perhaps it's our fault for the rumors."

Perry wrote in flowing script, and she held her hand high for a moment so that she could complete the passage. "Rumors?"

"Well, there's truth in it," Mistress Black admitted. "So more's the horror. Those of us with the oil are safe, and those who touch us most intimately are, too. But there's no oil in the Red Palace. And so men, fools that they are, think that the cure's in release. The women grow sick, and so do the men. Travelers frequent the Red Palace. I wonder how many farmer's wives they've made sick."

"True," Mistress Red agreed. "It's their own fault. I've no pity."

"How many people have the disease?"

"In the city? Mayhaps one in four have suffered," Mistress Red sighed. "Too many. I don't mind a few pimples, for I've those on a bad morning. It's the splattering cysts. I won't touch a man with those. It's easy to see the pestilence."

"Splattering cysts? Mind you, I've never seen the symptoms of the disease."

Mistress Red laughed. "Alright. First you get pimples. Then they swell and burst, and there's too many. You can't hold your food down. As I said, my mum forced it into my mouth, and for that, I'm alive."

Mistress Black agreed. "That sounds right. Sometimes people come, and they can't... function... I'm not scared of the disease anymore. I've touched it enough I'm confident I'm safe. But it's still disgusting. I tell them what I can. Eat, even so as you spew, eat more."

"And that's the grand cure," Mistress Red said. "It's not the disease that kills, it's the hunger. The pus is the disease. They at the Red Palace, they don't wash. You can see the yellow streaks on the skin. Comes off in hot water, but travelers haven't got the means to make a hot bath."

"I'm very careful. We all are. We clean the men before we touch them. It's not clear how much of what we do is helpful, and what is excess. But there's rarely a queue waiting to enter the Jade Palace, so we must maintain our reputation if we wish to eat."

"Has it always been like this in the Jade Palace?"

"Since before I came," Mistress Black agreed. "Mistress Gray and the others taught me what I know about it. The same treatments as a midwife might perform are effective. It's a simple enough disease, but... we're in polite company, so I'll say it. Men are too stubborn and stupid. If they'd keep their pricks in their pants, the weeping sickness would be gone in a year."

"And ye'd be starving," Mistress Red cackled. "So don't do too much to incite such a thing. You'd best know, though, and this is not to be written, so promise me."

Perry nodded. "I'm listening and not writing."

"I'm telling ye so ye don't write it ever. Leredith's oils aren't only a preventative. It's said they are stronger than that. It's said aristocrats can pay him a great sum of gold for an amount of the oil suitable as a curative."

"That's true," Mistress Black said. "He has a very small quantity, I'm certain, or he would sell it to many for a lesser price."

"That's yer thievin' mind. He's inclined to promise the health of those who support him, see? Anyways, the point is not to write of Leredith, for he'll know who told ya. Promise, then?"

"I promise. I won't write of Leredith, and I'll obscure the Jade Palace."

"Do you only mean to write of the sickness, or will the Academy take action?"

Perry turned her eyes to Metta. "I don't know. I've only been asked to write of it."

"If you want to see it, you should talk to those who might frequent the Red Palace. Leredith owns the place, yet he himself won't go. You shouldn't, either, Mistress. I wouldn't, for as clean as I've been, I'm not certain I'd tolerate it. But perhaps you might find a merchant who frequents the Red Palace. He might show you his sores."

"The sores, aye," Mistress Red agreed. "That's how it's spread, as said, in the pus. Stay away from the stuff and you'll be clean enough. Even if you go to the Red Palace, touch nothing, not the seats, and certainly not a body, and you'll be clean. And if not, you could hire me to stuff porridge down your throat till ye wake, and that's all."

"Are you not concerned that... you tell me the spread of this disease relates to your profession."

"No," Mistress Black said, and slowly. "There are many men who visit us and are clean. A man is better visiting the Jade Palace than a girl in the fields, and I'm sure of it. It's the truth, but you know... can you imagine if your words incited the military to turn against the women of the Palaces? Be so very careful with this, friend, for the rumors already fill the streets with tales of rats and crows, and there are now few of both in the city. Think if those rumors were turned to whores. There's no one to defend us."

Perry winced. "So you're telling me the whores are a source of the disease, but you won't want anyone to know."

Aina shook her head. "You misunderstand. Mistress Black has explained that poor hygiene is the source of the disease. The Jade Palace is clean."

Metta nodded. "Hygiene is important, but there are dirty farmers who never catch ill. The men who work the earth with bare hands seem to have the same sort of resistance as we. It's the tradesmen and soldiers who are most stricken."

"Soldiers don't have to the coin to come to girls as tender as these but for rarely, so they turn to the Red Palace. The same's true with the merchants who haul wagons of sweet grass to the ports of Arbor and Krigsgud," Aina said.

"All I can offer's been told," Ouji finished.

"Wait, one more thing. Um. Do you perhaps know how often your patrons have the disease?"

Mistress Black blinked. "Men rarely come to the Jade Palace when they know they're sick. It's a truth I'm grateful for. What do you think, Red? Once a month?"

"This time of year, yes. I see more men than you do. There was a man with sores on his legs tried to go into the wet room last week. He was sent away, more for the comfort of the other patrons than whoever was in the box. I think I want to keep my name. Mistress Red. Perhaps I shall have a bodice dyed?"

"You can't," Mistress Black said. "These are our scholar names. If you call yourself Mistress Red in the Palace, you could get in trouble."

Perry relaxed in her chair, letting her shoulders slump. "I won't identify anyone. This is about the disease, not you."

Metta winked at Perry. "Well then, my food is gone, my stomach turns with the discussion, and I've nothing left to tell you. Naltu is gone. Will you come on Omensday and share a great deal of wine with me?"

"We'll see," Perry replied.

Metta and Ouji stood, waving, and walked away. They murmured to each other and then parted after a short distance. Ouji headed north, back to the tenements, and Metta went west towards the Jade Palace.

"Was that useful?"

"Very," Perry said agreeably. "I think perhaps I'd like to hear more. Is it possible for me to meet someone with the disease safely?"

"The disease is quite contagious," Aina explained. "There was a hospital in Arbor for a short time. The place failed because the caretakers grew ill. Are you satisfied with what you've learned? Will this complete your project?"

"No. This is only the beginning. I'm modeling my book off another. I mean to have illustrations and a discussion of the stages of the disease. I wonder what I'll do if I catch the disease?"

"For the sake of your friends, then, boil your laundry. Don't wear leather or fur that can not be cleaned. Watch your skin carefully."

Aina made a mark on a piece of Perry's paper. "Send a message to my home if you believe you might be sick. Don't come to the Jade Palace, or see your friends. Do you live alone?"

"No," Perry sighed. "I have a room in the Academy proper."

"We'll talk again if you see the pustules. You should buy drinks for the girls. They both know more than they say. You must earn trust, so that they know your words will not bring harm to them."

Perry thanked Aina and paid for the meal and returned to the Academy. She went to the basement and placed a requisition with Haiche. He gave her a silver pen, an expensive device designed for travel, and a leather scroll. Twenty sheets of paper were lightly stitched to the scroll with silk thread. The thread could be cut and the paper could be removed and replaced easily.

Her script was large and the paper small enough, and she made the twenty pages full before Omensday's night came. She asked Ghindi to review her words and left for the Jade Palace.

The place was quiet. Four other patrons were there, and six girls worked. Perry found Metta, but not Ouji, and invited the girl to the bar, and purchased a pitcher of hot wine.

"I'm making rolls," the black-haired girl offered.

"You cook, too?"

"Oh, between Baeth, Wesley, and me, we do just about everything. Scrub, cook, scrub, play, scrub, sleep, scrub... The rest of the girls just play."

"She speaks the truth," Wesley laughed, and gave the steaming pitcher and two glass mugs. Perry handed gave Wesley a handful of clay coins.

"We've got some fresh Opal," the bartender offered. "If you're interested in that sort of thing. It's fermented and spiced, harvested in New Odrin. A new sort of stuff."

Metta squirmed for a moment, and then fidgeted with her hands. "Do you smoke?"

"No. I can't stand the way my head spins."

Leredith waved a finger to Wesley, and a pitcher of mild ale came. "Mistress d'Oncil, do you wish to hire a room for the night? You know Aina is not here."

"I came for company. I'm content for now."

"Metta, go finish those rolls, would you? I've an appetite, and I'm sure the patrons do."

"Mistress, would you excuse me?"

Perry shrugged and said nothing. She waited for an awkward moment before she understood that Metta was waiting for an actual response and proper dismissal. "Oh, no, go ahead. I'm interested to try what you've made, if you're sharing."

"It's for everyone," Metta promised. She finished her cup and scrambled away to the back and to the kitchen.

"Do you have a moment to discuss an issue of a political nature?"

"I suppose. What do you mean?"

"Next Moonday, at the council meeting, there's to be a vote that could effect changes on the way I operate. As you perhaps know, what happens here is not prostitution. Rooms are rented, and the girls are shareholders in my operation, and receive a portion of the night's profits. They are here to ensure my rooms are as full as possible, I do not sell them."

"I'm not sure I agree with your intent. Particularly not after how you treated my friends."

"Ah. That was... listen, even Metta will tell you. Rules must be obeyed. That is simply the way of things. The vote, though. Spheria has passed a decree last winter that prohibits harlotry and fornication. It's a strangely-worded letter."

"I'm familiar with it. The Academy receives copies of all the laws so that we may educate the children in what is right."

"Those laws are not valid here, but there are some who might wish for this particular decree to be enforced. Wealthy, bitter wives who worry that their husbands linger here."

"When the wives are bitter, the husbands probably do linger here."

"Would you see this place shut down, and the women put to the street, or worse? It's said in Spheria, whores have been sent to the gallows for sleeping with the wrong men. You and I both know there is little difference between the count of the men in the counsel chambers and those here."

"Fine. So you want me to vote against this law."

"More than that. I wish to make a motion to have the ballots sealed. Men won't vote to protect whores when their wives watch. I will need a second. You're in a peculiar position to do so, as a reputable scribe of the Academy, and unbridled by marriage."

"I want your help in something, too, Leredith."

"Of course."

"I've been asked to collect the knowledge of Dosille in regards to the weeping sickness into a book."

Leredith grinned, though his discomfort was evident from his eyes. Metta returned and set four rolls at the bar between the two, and then moved to the other patrons at the tables.

"What exactly do you want?"

"Access to your girls. Here and in the Red Palace. I'm not asking you for your oil or the revelation of any secrets. The book will be kept in a locked Academy library."

"Are you working towards your own cure?"

"I wasn't asked for that. I'm a scribe. I write things. In a hundred years, people might want to know about the weeping sickness, and in the shorter term, yes, perhaps we will share some of the tricks people use in surviving it."

Metta returned and refilled the cups from the pitchers. Leredith waved his hand. "I see. My permission is granted, though... I'd ask that I am allowed to redact what you write."

"I can write the last copy, if you wish. Perhaps when I'm at last done here, there could be a life for me in the Academy?"

Leredith snorted. "I'm certain Mistress d'Oncil paid the Academy to become a scribe. It is not the opposite. But perhaps this is an acceptable ground. When you have found your words, my girl will ink them, and you'll pay me for the effort, the same as if you'd hired a room for the time."

"I can do that," Metta agreed.

Leredith nodded. "Then we're reached terms?"

Perry gave her hand to Leredith. "That bill won't pass. We've word of a nobleman's daughter who was executed in Jurn under the bill, and so even the Spherians are revolting. I'll tell the story at the council, and support your motion. I can't promise, but I'd suspect all those of the Academy would side with me, and so you might count on thirty votes out of the hundred. If you can convince twenty of your patrons, the vote will fail."

"Excellent," Leredith laughed, rubbing his hands together. "Metta, you'll take Mistress d'Oncil's coin, or you'll spend your time enticing the other patrons. Tell the others to accord familiar conversation. You're still not to leave the Jade Palace, not for this."

The fat man stuffed a roll into his mouth and took a second in his hand and wobbled away. Metta watched him leave, and poured for herself the last of Perry's wine, and glared at Wesley.

"Can I see what you've written, Perry?"

Perry produced the leather scroll and released the thong and spread the paper on the bar. "This is all."

"That's a beautiful pen. Is it made of real silver?"

Perry glanced sideways at Metta. "The sleeve is."

"How much did it cost?"

"Oh, I'm not sure."

"Is what Leredith... did he speak truly? Is there any hope for me of a place with the Academy? Even a lowly one?"

Perry frowned. "I don't... I'm not one for false hopes, so the answer is no."

Metta produced her own wooden pen from her pocket. "I made this myself. I carved the sleeve with a knife and bought the point in the market. When I was young, the life as a scribe seemed so boring. Now I'm told I'm used up. I must finish with the night's meal. Come again next Omensday, and bring your words?"

"Perhaps."

Perry left. In the morning she met with Ghindi and rewrote the pages with new clarity. Five days passed and the counsel met. Perry dressed in her robes and walked to the aristocrat's tavern, a large place called the Castle. The Castle was located in the southern part of the city, near Spine of Dosille that hid the manors and rowhouses of the wealthy. The aqueducts crept from the mountain in a complex network that gave the district the name. So much stone was above one's head that the stars could rarely be seen, and frequent columns supported graceful arches, providing a measure of privacy between the homes and businesses.

Ale and food were not served for the place was crowded with bodies. A hundred votes were cast at a time for six prior issues, though most of these were by proxy. Perry spoke as she had promised Leredith, and the decree punishing those who engage in prostitution was dismissed without a vote. The man who had delivered it promised that he would rewrite the language to address the concerns, and Leredith was not pleased.

Perry left the meeting and headed north. She walked north and came to the Night Market, where vendors hawked roasted meat and trivial jewels. The Spine was passing out of sight when she felt a hand at her shoulder.

"Lady d'Oncil?"

Perry turned and the hand fell away. Two others were behind her, a woman and a man, both dressed in clothing that was beyond the price of those who were not aristocrats. The woman was large though not quite obese. She wore a silk gown.

"Mistress, please. Lady Rassen?"

"Ah. This is my older brother, Pyotr. Young Master Ikos, if you will."

"Well met," Perry said, and tipped her head politely.

"We saw you at the counsel meeting. We were waiting outside during the vote."

Pyotr glared at Perry. "I think we've met. You were much smaller, and you cried a lot."

"Can I help you with something?"

"I only mean at conversation. Could we perhaps find something hot to sip?"

Perry agreed and the three went to a tea-house and sat on high stools before a wooden table. The pot was boiled and fragrant leaves were added, and three cups were set before them. Erika sipped the golden liquid, and Perry tasted her own, though Pyotr sat motionless.

"You're my brother's age, I think. Twenty or so?"

"Twenty-four."

"Hum. And you have no children?"

"No, Lady. No children."

Erika smirked and touched her stomach. "I'm with my first child now. It's a dream. What do you think?"

"I'd be glad to have children. But circumstances aren't right."

Perry glanced at Pyotr. He was unusually thin for a man and wore fresh linens. His hands lacked the callouses of a working man, and he bore none of the scars of sport or youth.

"You're unmarried, yes? You support yourself?"

"That's so. As you might discern by my robes, I'm commissioned with the Academy."

"So you're a teacher? You work at the school?"

"I've taught lessons. I do what I'm asked."

"Teaching is good. It's a motherly trait."

Pyotr sighed. "This is a waste of time. Let us return home."

"Pyotr, hush."

"So you do have a purpose?" Perry asked.

Erika exhaled quickly, frustrated. "My father needs an heir. My brother has proclivities of which you might understand. You could have a title and enough wealth for your leisure."

Perry glanced at Pyotr, and he was frowning. She saw a spot on his shirt. "Ah. I'm..."

"Aren't the d'Oncils of Nilan quite wealthy?"

"Certainly."

"But you're not a Lady?"

"My parents died while I was young. His title passed to my uncle."

"Oh. But you're a Lady by birth, so why not accept the title?"

Erika glared at Pyotr. "That's a rude question, brother!"

"It is, but... I earned my title as Mistress through my guild commission. It was not given to me. I would delicately refuse your offer. You're sick, aren't you?"

Pyotr nervously touched his shirt, and his fingers came away sticky. Erika scolded him and daubed at his fingers with a napkin. Perry winced.

"My brother needs an heir. We're worried for his health."

Perry stood. "I'm not going to get sick to preserve your family's lineage. I'm sorry if I'm offending you, but I'm leaving. Good night."

Perry paid the host for the tea and went outside. She inhaled the cold night air and breathed out fog. She turned and faced the door, regretting her abrupt rudeness, and nearly collided with Lady Erika Rassen.

"Oh, you! You'll not speak of this, d'Oncil, unless you want the families Rassen and Ikos as your foe."

Perry closed her eyes. "Pyotr... Master Ikos, perhaps there is an arrangement that can be made."

"No," he spat. "I'm not interested."

"Lady Rassen, could I speak with your brother in private?"

Erika nodded quickly. "You could be married as soon as you could swell with my brother's child, and the coupling does not need to be a tender thing, only legal and discrete."

Perry waved to Pyotr and he followed her. Erika gave them distance, but not enough to avoid being overhead.

"Do you have your own house?"

"I'm sorry. Again, I've no interest in you."

"Alright, do you have a lover?"

"Of course I do. That's what this is about."

"And your lover is sick?"

"My lover is well enough."

Perry flinched for a moment, and understood Erika's intent. "Again, do you have your own house?"

"Of course. I'm a grown man."

Perry pulled her pad from a pocket. "Give me the address. I'll visit you in the morning."

"I don't think so."

"Block Fifteen, Flat Six on Bronze Street. One of the most southern rowhouses," Erika contributed.

"Sister, do shut up."

"Alright," Perry sighed. "I'll visit you in the morning."

She leaned close. "I don't want to marry you. Maybe I could help you with something else. I'm studying the weeping sickness, and might-"

Pyotr cut her off. "No. Go away. If you appear at my door, I'll cast you away."

Erika was shaking with rage, and she slapped her brother, striking him with all the force she could summon. He wailed and spun and fell to the ground. Perry clutched her scroll in her hands and stepped away.

"Get back here!" Erika ordered.

Perry turned and ran into the market, and through the tents, and to the other side. She stopped and breathed heavily for a moment, and then continued north to the Scribe's Lament.

She was offered a table but instead chose the bar.

"Wine, Mistress?"

"Damn, I don't suppose you have any of that southern spirit? The stuff made from apples?"

"Plenty, Mistress. Is that what you'll be drinking?"

"I mean to be out of my wits tonight, Creed. You might have to carry me home. I hate being out after dark. It's always ugly."

"I'm certain my wife would not approve," Creed taunted, and poured a tall glass of the liquor. "And at any rate, there are rooms here."

Perry told Creed the story of the Rassens and the Ikos and he laughed. He knew the names, for his brother worked as a farmer on Ikos land.

"In-breeding. They're all cousins."

"What do you mean?"

"How else do you keep money in the family? They all intermarry. Scrambles the brains. Where's Master Naltu? I haven't seen him in too long."

"Oh, I'm sure he's in Krigsgud by now. Trade business and all that."

Perry finished another glass of the liquor too quickly. Creed brought bread and ham and Perry nibbled.

"Do you know anyone with the weeping sickness?"

Creed paused for a moment. "Is that's what's bothering you? Some kind of problem?"

"No, I'm not sick. Just... in over my head."

He left a clay bottle on the bar so that Perry could serve herself.

"You're short, that's bound to happen a lot," Creed teased. "I'll be back in a bit. Gotta go feed the other customers."

He made his rounds. Perry sipped. He brought her salted crackers and water. She did not notice that the bottle of liquor had disappeared. She placed her hands on the bar and then rested her head on her forearms for a moment.

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