Perry woke in her room in the Academy. She was still dressed in her underclothes, though someone had taken care to fold her robes. Her stomach heaved, and she chose to vomit into her chamber pot.
Her head was filled with searing pain. She cleaned and left her room and went back to the Scribe's Lament and washed and dressed in casual linen slacks and a long blue blouse that she belted around her waist. Utrin was there eating breakfast, and Perry approached him.
"You look terrible."
"Thanks. You were here last night, right?"
"You don't remember, huh?"
"You got pissed and fell asleep and I carried you to your room. Your drinks are on your tab."
Perry glanced over her shoulder at the slate board with the white marks. She fished coins from her pocket and paid her bill through the last two weeks. Fear choked her throat, and she realized she didn't have the leather scroll. She rushed to Utrin.
"Do you remember me having a leather roll last night? My work for Baso?"
"Nope. Your coin purse was in your robe. That's all."
"Damn. Thanks. Where is everyone?"
"It's Earthday. Master Iuju's doing his thing in the fields, and the others are keeping the locals away so he can work in privacy. If you left something here, maybe Creed knows? He was the one working last night."
Perry sighed. "I remember that much. I know I had it in the market, but... once I got here, everything's a blur."
"Next time you want to pass out, you ought to just take a bottle to your own room. Less work for me, at least."
"Thanks again, Utrin."
Perry left the Scribe's Lament and walked across the city until she came to the tenement housing where the laborers lived with their families. She followed the widest streets and continued for another half-hour until she found the Red Palace. The doors were closed and children were outside playing in the dust.
She went to the door and knocked, and then pushed her way inside. The windows along the back of the building were open and light poured in. A woman glanced at her for a moment, confused, and then inhaled from a long pipe. The stink of Opal filled the air, and in the shadows, Perry found lounging figures.
A man quickly approached her. "Madame, here to smoke?"
"Ah... I'm really ropey. Can I have some water?"
"One silver for a water pipe if you want your own."
"That's fine," Perry said, and paid. The man led her to a series of pillows and she sat. He brought a tall cylinder made of enameled glass and placed a burning coal inside, and then mixed drops of sticky white ichor with sweet grass and dropped the bundle onto the coal. He replaced the lid and tugged the tip of a metal pipe that extended from the device, revealing a leather hose.
"Should I start this for you, or are you able?"
"Go ahead, please..."
He puffed heavily on the hose until smoke came, and then Perry took the tip and sucked on it. She let the smoke of the Opal flower fill her lungs, and at once the pain in her head was gone. Two more pulls and she was floating on clouds. She opened her eyes and saw a dusty man with greasy hair sitting next to her.
"You should share," he reprimanded with a charming smile.
She handed the tip to him without thinking, and he inhaled.
"What's your name?" he asked as he let the vapor leave his lungs.
"Oh... call me... Mistress Gold, won't you?"
"Don't do this much, eh?" he said, toying with a strand of her blonde hair.
"Does it show?"
"You're almost gone," he laughed. She felt his hand on her chest, and she squirmed. The touch was pleasant but unwanted, and she pushed him away. A spark of fear kindled in the back of her mind, but was strangled by the haze of the Opal flower.
He pulled his hand to her elbow and settled into the pillows. His other hand held the tip of the hose to her mouth and she inhaled. She felt him touch her again, but didn't know where or how, and didn't care. Her sides were warm, and she turned her head, and another woman had joined her. She blinked again, and her shirt was high around her chest, and her purse was gone.
"My... what? Are you robbing me?" she mumbled, turning her head to the side, but the man had gone.
She glanced down at the warmth on her stomach, and the brown-haired girl was using Perry as a pillow. She returned the tip, but Perry refused and struggled through the fog. There were smears of yellow on the back of the girl's neck, and Perry toyed with the shirt and saw where the sores had burst. She quickly wiped her fingers on a nearby pillow. A burst of panic shook her, and she pushed the other girl away and sat.
She glanced over at the windows and could see the beams made in the smoke-filled air as the sun rose overhead.
"Where's my money?" Perry asked the girl.
"I don't know. Joab took it, I guess. He's just smoking on your coin. He'll give it back if you ask."
"Where is he?"
The girl pointed to another corner, and Perry stood and approached. She saw two figures writhing in the shadow. The greasy man was there underneath a woman. She grabbed her purse from a pillow and found that half the silver had vanished.
"Thanks. Ta," Joab grinned.
Perry slipped the pouch into her boot and returned to the pillows.
The girl pulled on the hose. "The coal went out. It's almost time to go."
"How long have you been sick?"
"What? A few months. It's wasn't... want to get some more? There's enough time."
"Before daddy gets home."
"Come home with me."
Perry knelt. "I have more Opal at home. I don't want to get molested again. You can trust me. What's your name?"
The girl reached out and tugged a strand of Perry's hair, and then stood. Perry stumbled towards the door, and the girl followed.
"Birra Melson. Are you really Mistress Gold?"
"No," Perry laughed. "But you'll use that name. Let's go."
The girl was filthy under the setting sun. Her face could have been pretty, but she wore a bruise on a cheek, and her lips were cracked. Perry frowned and waved that the girl should follow faster, and walked through the stone tenements that housed the poor, under the aqueducts, and far to the east until she reached the city wall and the mountain.
"We're far away. I don't think we should be here."
"This is where the Academy is. We'll be in trouble."
"It's fine, I promise. Come on," Perry said.
They continued north along the wall, and then followed a dirt path that branched six times. She followed one of the branches and came to the small wooden home. She went to the door and inserted a key, and the lock came open. The door creaked, and Perry gestured, and the girl entered.
"I have to go home now," the girl whined. "Daddy's going to be mad. He'll think I'm fucking someone else. He won't think the kids are his."
Perry washed her hands and dropped her jacket to the floor. She sighed and searched through Naltu's cabinets. The girl took stumbling steps towards the bed, and Perry quickly tugged the furs off and shoved them into a chest. She grabbed the girls arm before she could sit and pulled her into the washroom.
"Take your clothes off."
"You said we could smoke."
"First you need to take a bath. Here," Perry offered.
She turned a tap and water poured into the tub. She scraped small bits of fragrant soap from a cake and tugged at the girl's clothes, and then helped her into the tall barrel. The girl shivered, for the water was crisply cool.
Perry tossed the girl's clothes in the hearth and made a fire, and then scrubbed her own hands again under a tap. She made a lap through Naltu's house, hiding the valuables, and finding two pipes. She took the longer one, and went through Naltu's reagents and mixed a wad of fresh Opal bud with sweet grass.
She took a flaming bit of coal from the stove and dropped it into the pipe and puffed, and then returned to the bathroom and let the shivering girl smoke. She filled the stove with more wood and the small house quickly became warm.
The girl sank into the water until only her face was floating, and she smoked and sighed. "Can I go home now?"
"Is Daddy your father or your husband?"
"He's Daddy. He's daddy of my little ones."
"Fine. I burned your clothes, they were disgusting. Here, we're going to scrub you down."
Perry disrobed and found a cloth and worked at the pustules that covered the back of the girl's shoulders. They burst with little agitation, and the yellow pus floated on the water. Perry stepped on a lever and the tub began to drain, and she turned the tap on and rinsed the girl's bleeding sores.
She went to the stove and turned a knob, and a hissing came as water flowed through a manifold built into the cooking surface. She returned to the tub and checked the water temperature. It was too warm, but the girl did not complain, and the tub was quickly filled, and Perry continued scrubbing.
"How old are your kids?"
"Maris is ten and Del is thirteen. He wants to find his own job. Poor things."
"You leave them alone?"
"They're not alone. They're together. I wanted to smoke."
The girl fell asleep and Perry drained the tub low enough so that she could not accidentally drown. Perry washed herself again, and dressed, and ran along the dirt road to the north gate of the Academy's grove, and then to the building.
Baso was in the hallway, and he was surprised by Perry's state of dress. She bowed and rushed to her room and gathered her clothes and some food in a sack.
"Mistress d'Oncil, wait," Baso ordered as she rushed by.
"Master, I don't have time. I need to see Haiche and get some bandages and spirit."
"Master Utrin told me of last night. I'm concerned."
"Don't be. I'm just doing what you told me to, and someone's waiting on me. Can we talk about this tomorrow?"
"Very well," Baso sighed, and Perry rushed to the cellar. Haiche was gone, though the ledger was out, and so she printed her name and that she had taken six rolls of bandages and a small cask of pure spirit and another of rum, and two large Opal buds.
She rushed out of the Academy and returned to Naltu's house. The brown-haired girl was shivering, sitting on Naltu's bed. Her back was streaked with blood and yellow fluid, and her arms were over her chest.
"It's night time, isn't it?"
"Birra, would you like some rum?"
Perry tapped the cask and poured two small cups and gave one to the girl. She refilled the hearth and set a kettle on to boil. She searched a drawer and found rags and wet one with the pure spirit and wiped all the grime from the girl's back. Birra clenched her teeth and squealed in pain, but she suffered the treatment.
"Did you really burn my clothes?"
"Why? That's all I had."
"They were ruined. Here, I'll give you some of mine."
Perry searched into her sack and brought out linen pants and a tunic.
"Put your arms up and be still."
Birra did. Perry unraveled three rolls of bandages and wrapped them across the girl's back and around her shoulders and neck so that all the sores were covered.
"You're not going home tonight. Will Daddy take care of the kids?"
"He loves them. They really are his, no matter what he says. I didn't start until he wouldn't pay for my Opal."
Perry shook her head. "This isn't really my house. It belongs to a friend. You don't leave, and you don't touch anything, alright? He's a very mean man, and he knows your name now, and if you take his things, he'll hunt you down."
"Fine... can I smoke again?"
Perry produced the small white globe. "I have lots of Opal. Lots and lots. And more rum, too. I just want you to stay with me for a bit, and be happy, alright? I want to help with your sickness. Can we do that?"
"If I can smoke..."
Birra fell asleep on Naltu's bed, and Perry went to the bathroom. She scrubbed the tub with lye and hot water and soap, and bathed, and scrubbed the tub again. She put her clothes in the water on the hearth and let them boil for half an hour, and then ate bread and cheese.
She slept on the floor in Naltu's fur blanket. She woke and scratched at the crook of her elbow on her right arm, and then stared at the tiny red mark. She swore and cast off the furs and searched for any sign of blood or pus that might have erupted.
She inspected the red lump and found it to be little more than the beginning of a pimple. She cleaned it with spirit and cursed herself. She cut a piece of bandage from one of the rolls and wrapped it. Birra was still asleep. Perry tore a piece of bread from the loaf and left the rest on the table. She cut a bit of Opal bud and made a mixture for Birra, so that the woman might not panic when she woke. Perry filled the stove with firewood, and left and locked the door. She rushed through the dirt roads and under the aqueducts, heading towards the risen sun until she came to the tenements. She went to Aina's house and knocked.
The old woman was surprised to see Perry. "Mistress d'Oncil."
"I know you're going to be so mad at me. Please," Perry started.
She tugged at the bandage on her arm and showed the small pimple to Aina.
"You think this might be the disease?"
"Could be. Have you come into contact?"
"Oh gods, Aina, I did something so stupid yesterday. I went to the Red Palace and smoked Opal. I kidnapped a girl. I've touched her a lot-"
"Wait. You kidnapped a girl?"
Perry's brow furrowed. "It's hard to explain. She's an Opal addict. She followed me home... to my friend Naltu's home... shit. The whole place is contaminated now, and me, too. I wasn't thinking straight."
Aina shrugged. "You know what to do already. Where's this girl? Still in Naltu's home?"
"I locked her inside. I left her a pipe. She's an addict, I think it'll be alright."
"Mistress d'Oncil! You can't do such a thing!"
"Come with me, Aina. I'll pay you. I need help."
Aina sighed. "Fine. I can't catch the disease regardless. Wait here for a moment while I pack a night bag."
Perry waited outside and her heart pounded in her chest. Aina returned and the two walked east towards the far side of the city. Perry wished to hurry, though Aina was older and slow, and so she struggled to keep pace. They arrived at Naltu's house. Perry opened the padlock and let Aina in. Birra was not in the main room, and Perry panicked, though the wooden shutters were still closed over all the windows.
The women went into the bathroom, and Perry gasped in relief. Birra was there in a steaming tub full of water, and she was puffing softly on the pipe.
"I'm sorry," Birra said. "I was cold."
Aina went to Naltu's bed and stripped the linens. She pointed to the furs on the floor. "Mistress, did you touch those?"
"You are Mistress Gold?" Birra asked.
Perry glared at Aina. "Mistress Gold."
Aina nodded and saw the moist spot on the wooden floor next to the bed. "I suppose I'm Mistress Gray, then."
"Her name's Birra," Perry offered. "Is anyone going to be looking for you?"
"Sometimes I do this. Daddy will worry, but he'll be happy when I get home."
"Daddy?" Aina asked.
"Her husband, I guess. Birra, is he the one who gave you the marks on your face?"
"No," Birra laughed. "Daddy's nice. Grif's the one who punched me. He said I wasn't giving him his full cut."
"I think she's been whoring herself in the Red Palace to pay for her addiction," Perry explained.
"Yeah," Birra confirmed.
"You've got bandages and spirit. Girl, when's the last time you kept a meal?"
"It's been nice, I'm not hungry anymore."
"She's late, Mistress," Aina said.
"Could you keep the rum?"
Birra put her arms over the barrel's rim and stared at Perry. "You're nice, Mistress Gold. I threw up. I put it down the toilet. I'm sorry."
Aina glanced at the table. "Why did you mix the Opal with sweet grass?"
"I don't know. That's what they were doing in the Red Palace. I assumed that's how she likes it. I didn't want her to run away."
"I won't go anywhere."
"I'll go shopping for you. Can you give me some money?" Aina asked.
Perry crept close to Aina. "Will you watch her while I go? I can go to the Academy and get things without paying."
Aina shook her head. "If you're sick, you need to stay here. I'll go. While I'm gone, scrub everything you've touched, even things like tap handles and the lever on the door. This is important. You'll have to keep doing this. You'll need a lot more spirit than you've got. And I'm not sure how we're going to keep you out of jail when this girl comes missing."
"Fine. Go to the Academy. Ask for Haiche. Tell him whatever you'll need. He'll give it to you, or give you coin for it. Tell him I promised that. The door will probably be open, but don't just barge in. Wait in the lobby and shout if no one comes. There's secrets there."
"Where's the Academy?"
Perry laughed. "Oh gods. Just follow the road. Mind your way back, it's easy to get lost. It's close. South along the dirt road, through the iron gate, and then there's only one road to follow."
"I'll go," Aina said, and she left.
Birra was draining the tub, for the water had grown cold, and the tap was on, and the tub was refilling.
"Will you put more wood in the stove? This water's not as hot as I'd like."
"Birra," Perry laughed. "Are you mad at me?"
"No," she drawled.
"I'm your friend, right?"
"Yes, Mistress Gold. More wood?"
Perry nodded and filled the stove with coal. Birra waited for the stove top to heat before she filled the rest of the tub.
"I want you to eat."
"I said I'm not hungry. I'm not anymore. I think Opal's all I need. I want some more rum."
Perry decided the rum could be considered nourishment, and the girl kept it in her belly. A knocking came at the door, and Aina was there, and Utrin was waiting outside with a small cart.
"Everything you wanted, Mistress," Utrin said. "Baso wants to talk with you now, though."
Perry pulled her sleeve high and showed Utrin the yellow sore. "I can't. I have the weeping sickness. I can't come near the Academy. I'm going to stay here until I'm better. If Naltu comes back... I don't know. I might need a lot of help."
Aina glanced at Perry. "We should rent our own tenement for this. I don't want our friend to be sick when he returns."
Utrin nodded. "I can arrange for something in the Artist's District."
"No," Perry sighed. "I'll take care of that. Damnit, plenty of other people walk around the city sick as all, why shouldn't I?"
"I'm not concerned about the city," Aina sighed. "Just about our friends. If we can convince that one sore to heal, you'll be well. All it takes is plenty of porridge and hygiene."
"Thanks, Utrin, so much," Perry said with a smile.
"Sure," he replied. "Oh, and we found your scroll. Creed had it, so it's in the cart."
"Wonderful! Now if I can only keep this together..."
Aina and Perry returned inside. Birra was asleep in the tub.
"Is she going to spend all her time there?" Perry wondered.
"Her body is dying. She's very sick, though the Opal hides it. We're going to make porridge, and the next part you will not enjoy. We must force-feed her."
"She's compliant. I think she'll eat if I told her to."
"You don't understand, Mistress. Her stomach will revolt. We must get the food past and into her gut where it can be taken. I'll boil the grain. I want you to get her out of that tub and bandaged up. We'll need to bind her to a chair so she doesn't thrash. I've been in that chair, we need to do this."
"It's fine, Mistress. That was a long time past. We'll save this girl's life, and you'll have your book."
Perry gave Birra a full pipe. The girl smoked until her eyes were glassy and her arms were limp. Perry tilted her head back and the girl complied. Aina pressed the bottom of a copper funnel into the girl's mouth, and Birra gagged for a moment as the funnel tip her throat, though she did not resist.
"Baby, make this easy and swallow every drop, alright? Just keep swallowing until we're all done," Aina crooned.
"Unh-huh," Birra agreed. She lifted the pipe and the mouthpiece clanked against the funnel. Perry took it and set the pipe on the table, and stood to the side and held Birra's head between her arm and her chest.
Aina checked that the porridge had cooled, then poured a large bowl into the funnel. She pushed it through the spout with a wooden spoon, and Birra behaved, and swallowed. Aina had made the porridge very thick. The girl began to tremble, and then the porridge rose. Aina pressed the bottom of the spoon into the spout, and most of the food could not escape. Birra began to cough and streaks of porridge and spit ejected from the sides of her mouth and onto Perry's clothing.
Aina quickly poured another bowl into the funnel. Birra cried as the food was forced into her, and began to bite down on the funnel.
"Don't," Perry said, and slipped a gentle finger into Birra's mouth, and spread her jaw. The girl relaxed, and a second wave of vomit came. The sores were bleeding through the bandages, and Birra cried again.
Aina poured a third bowl of the porridge into the funnel. The last of the substance quite solid. She was careful with the placement of the funnel, and to watch the vomit and Birra's breathing, so that the girl did not suffocate.
"She can't eat that much!"
"She's vomited most of what we gave her, so she will." Aina managed to get the contents of the funnel into Birra, and she held the top plugged with the wooden spoon for half an hour, and Birra squirmed and cried, but she did not plead or fight.
At last, the funnel was removed, and Birra spat a final mixture of porridge and vomit onto the floor. She coughed violently, but the food held in her gut.
"Gods, I wish Nal... Master Brute was here."
"He'd find this much easier than I," Perry said. She wiped the porridge from her hands and clothes and then washed her face. She filled the tub full of hot water again, and stoked the stove. Aina cleaned the kitchen and wiped Birra with rags.
"Why'd you do that? It wasn't nice," Birra complained.
"And we're going to do it again tomorrow morning, and as long as it takes until you can hold a meal down."
Birra frowned. "I wanna get in the water now."
"Let Mistress Gold and myself wash up first."
Perry did, and she took her scroll and filled the pages. Aina washed Birra and then settled the girl into the bed. Perry peeled the bandages back and spent the night making detailed drawings and descriptions of her own tiny sore, and then Birra's extensive geography.
"You need to eat, too," Aina scolded. She handed a bowl of porridge to Perry.
"All I can see is... earlier..."
"Just eat it. I made a large pot. You'll be living on this stuff. Your man Utrin couldn't find any jam to sweeten it with. I thought the Academy would be bigger?"
Perry blushed. The last of the jam was in her ice box. "Well, it's not big? That's the main building you went to, where things are run. If you head south out of the grove, that's where the school for children is, and there's a tavern we own called the Scribe's Lament."
Aina glanced at the bundle of tied furs. "You're contaminated and I'm not. I'll take that bedding, and you can have my linen blankets. Is that fair?"
"Oh, sleep. What a wonderful idea."
"Not yet, not for you," Aina sighed. "I'm an old woman and need my rest. But you, my dear, need to boil everything, and scrub the tub and everything that's been touched. Spirit, as I said."
"How many times did they have to force-feed you before you could take food?"
"A week, though I did not have the benefit of Opal and sweet grass. That seems to be a potent mixture, and perhaps the reason why not as many die this decade as when I was sick."
"I always thought smoking was a vice, not a curative."
"Not a curative, I agree."
Aina curled into Naltu's fur blankets and Perry wrote and boiled and wrote more. The sun had risen when Perry was completed, and she was glad Utrin had brought more paper and ink with the scrolls.
Three days passed until Revelsday came. Perry finished her words and struggled to judge the transformation from a hundred-fifty slips of paper into a hundred. Her own sore vanished, and Birra's back was covered in scabs where the pustules had been. The girl smoked and Perry opened the window shutters and let the stink out, and the warmth. Utrin came again with a large packet of Opal bud and a cask of fermented sweet grass.
Aina inspected Perry's arm. "You, my dear, are now no longer at risk of the disease. She's still sickly until her skin is whole, but perhaps you should consider returning your hostage?"
Perry turned to Birra. "Do you want to go home?"
"To Daddy? No. Not yet. I want to smoke now."
"You can't stay here forever," Perry laughed.
"I know. I miss the kids."
Aina sighed. "You're going to owe Master Savage a new mattress, and that was a nice one, I think."
"Least of my problems," Perry sighed.
"I want money for Opal. Can I have some silver, Mistress Gold?"
Perry shook her head. "I don't have any silver for you. Maybe I should seperate you from that pipe."
"One problem at a time," Aina admonished. "Let her solve that one on her own. I'm concerned that if you let her go now, she's not the means to keep herself clean. You don't have a bath at home, do you?"
"The tub's below the lobby in the tenement, but the taps don't work. We wash in the basin down there with cloths. It's always cold. I wish I could stay here."
"Just a little while longer," Aina promised. "Then we'll walk you home."
A week passed while Aina carried Perry's words to the Jade Palace and Perry ensured Birra's health. Metta transcribed them on fine paper and edited very little. Utrin provided a needle, binding thread and leather and tied the pages into a book. Perry carried the leather-bound book into Baso's office and showed him the heft.
"Good," he responded. "Are you pleased with your efforts?"
"And you're clear of the weeping sickness?"
"I wonder if there's not another New Spherian with such a mastery of the topic as yourself, Mistress d'Oncil."
"Everything I gained, I learned from whores and addicts."
"That may be so, but is the weeping sickness not also a problem they bring on themselves?"
"I won't blame disease on a person. The expense of the production surprised me."
"Then I wonder at whether there's another Mistress holding an Academy Token who is so lavish. We are blessed that Master Iuju brought us enough coin to cover it."
Baso reached into his desk and produced two gold coins. He placed them on the table. "A boon in addition to your salary, for your personal expense. It might be mindful of you to provide a gift to those who helped you in this, to cement their affections."
Perry bowed, insulted for a moment. She had meant to do so without the reward. "Thank you, Master. May I place the book in the library?"
"Ensure it's written into the catalog correctly. Fare well, Mistress."
Perry went to the market and purchased gifts. She bought a silver pen and jewelry. She wondered at a gift for Birra, but knew that if she brought anything of value, it would be traded for Opal. She bought fresh clothing for the children and for Birra. Perry ate a late lunch and then walked to the tenements and to the one she had returned Birra to.
She walked inside the building and up two flights of stairs and to a particular door. She knocked and a child answered.
"Is Birra home?"
The child wailed. "Mommy!"
Birra stumbled to the door. "Oh."
Her face was clean and calm. She still stunk of Opal. A man followed behind her.
"This is Nathan, my husband. Nathan, Mistress Gold..." Birra whispered.
"You're the one who took care of my wife? Come in, won't you?"
Perry followed them and set the small bundle on a table. Birra slowly unraveled the contents and listened.
"I thought of you, Birra, so I brought you some fresh clothes. I still feel bad for burning your old ones."
"That's fine," Birra said with a genuine smile. "Dex is better now, too, since I've been giving him the Opal and making him eat."
Perry glanced at the young boy who was perched on a seat, whittling a stick with a tiny knife. He glared at her for a moment and then returned to his work.
"Gods, I was so worried when Birra didn't come home for a week."
His voice grew low. "There's no high hope in the moments that come when your friends tell you your wife has been seen in the Red Palace. And then... a month later, and she doesn't come home... I didn't know if she was dead of the sickness, or murdered, or if she'd run off. At the time, I didn't know which one I would have preferred."
"You know she's addicted to Opal," Perry whispered. "You need to fix that if you want her back."
"I know. I just... when winter comes, when I'm able to spend my time at home."
Perry grasped Nathan's elbow. "I do need to leave. I only wished to visit and deliver the gift."
Nathan closed his eyes and put his hand over his heart. "We're grateful you found her. Goodbye, Mistress Gold."
Perry nodded, wondering what story Birra had told. She left and went south, past the western market and to the Jade Palace. Ouji was standing outside, hand on her hip, speaking with the guards. She was dressed in a skirt and a top made of a simple strip of fabric looped around her neck, across her bust, and pinned to the skirt. Only the shape of her body and careful movement kept such attire modest. Perry frowned, that she could never wear such clothing. Mistress d'Oncil approached Ouji.
"I completed my work."
"That's great!" Ouji said, confused. "You wrote a book or whatever?"
"Here, I brought a small token, in thanks."
Perry gave Ouji a tiny paper box, and the red-haired girl pulled the lid open and removed the earrings.
"Oh! How kind! Did you really bring these for me?"
Ouji did not wait for the response as she opened the clasps. The earrings were of the sort that were held in place by three small clips that pinched against the lobe. The clips were connected by a chain made of large silver links. Ouji put the decorations on her ear and smiled, peering to the side.
"Your words filled several pages of my book, and I'm grateful. You're welcome."
"I have to find a mirror now. Are you going inside?"
Perry nodded. The doors were held open before she showed her token, and so she entered. The festivity was underway, and the hall was crowded. There were no tables and no space at the bar. Ouji gave Perry a quick hug and then vanished up the stairs.
Leredith was surprised to see Perry on Revelsday and rushed to her side. He towered over her. His velvet clothes only added to his bulk. She felt swallowed in the shadow cast by his bulk, and so she stepped back.
"Aina's not working tonight. Metta is, and she's busy."
Perry nodded. "I have a gift for Metta, for her support. Can I offer this?"
A woman squealed with false delight in the hall as a man groped her. Perry produced the silver pen. Leredith inspected it for a moment and nodded. His voice was loud so that Perry could hear over the conversation of the hundred men in the halls.
"Metta's working until the end of the hour, and then I mean to give her time to clean herself before she returns to service. You might not enjoy the frivolities of this night."
"I don't think so," Perry said. "I'll return after the clock's chimed twice. I've another errand to run."
"She'll be ready for you. Until later."
Perry nodded and left and crossed two streets until she reached the tenement in which Aina lived. She climbed the stairs and tapped on the door and was answered. She delivered the jewelry. Aina was thankful and inquired after Perry's health. Mistress d'Oncil replied that she was fully healed, and that she had spent all her time scrubbing Naltu's home.
They visited for a while. Aina boiled water and made tea, and they talked of the disease and of more pleasant things for an hour.
"Mistress, have you made consideration of the others you might thank for your success?"
"I have a silver pen for Metta and already gave earrings to Ouji."
"Ah. That's good. Ouji will appreciate the gift. For Metta, perhaps you could do something else?"
Perry's eyes fell. "What's that?"
"She's rarely been allowed out of the Jade Palace since a certain event transpired."
"I got the impression she wasn't supposed to be out having lunch with us."
"Apparently not. She will enjoy the pen, too."
Perry left and returned to the Jade Palace. When she entered the hall, Leredith snapped his fingers, and Metta emerged from the crowd and embraced Perry warmly. Perry pushed away, for Metta was far too tall, and the dress too thin, and the touch was awkward.
"I brought you something. I've already talked with Leredith."
Perry produced a velvet pouch, and Metta opened the strings and inspected the contents. She took the pen and inspected the ink bottle.
"Oh, this is too much."
"My book's in the Academy library now. That's a big event. Most... people can't do that."
"I understand," Metta said. "Thank you for the gift. Naltu should be returning soon, no? Has there been word?"
"No word yet, but you're right. Wait a moment."
Perry skirted around the room to Leredith. "You received the gold for the assistance the Jade Palace provided to the Academy?"
"I did," Leredith said with a toothy smile.
"Can I have her for the night? Let me take Metta out for a meal and some wine. This is for her happiness, and not mine."
"Not tonight. It's Revelsday, and I have too many patrons to lose her."
Leredith turned and waved. "Girl, come here."
Metta followed. "Master, yes?"
"Mistress d'Oncil wishes your company tomorrow. You'll finish tonight, and then I expect to see you return before sunrise on Moonday. Are we understood?"
"How should this happen? Should I come back tomorrow, after you've had time to sleep?"
"I don't know where your home is. You could tell me, and I'll come on my own, if you wish."
Perry grinned. "I live at the Academy. Since Naltu's gone, I've been keeping his house for him. I'll head back after I leave here."
"Naltu's house! I know where I'm sleeping tonight, then, for I mean to impose. I'll come after the sun rises?"
Perry went to Naltu's house and slept on the floor. She woke and went to the Academy and found an ornate tiered game board in a locked box. She took the board and a quantity of clear dust. She returned to the house and set the board on the table. She filled the hollows with dust and reached into her purse and found a small vial of blackened quicksilver. She placed a drop of the liquid into the center of the board and closed her eyes.
The board pulled at her spirit, draining her. She opened her eyes and much of the dust had fused, as if by heat, into large blue grains. Perry collected the unused dust in one pouch, and washed the board under the tap in the bathroom, and piled the granules, still wet, on the table.
She stoked the fire high and scrubbed the iron tub in the bath room, and then filled it with hot water, and cleaned herself. She heard a knocking at the door and shouted. Metta entered.
"I'm in here!"
Metta came and pulled a chair to the doorway between the main room and the bathroom. "Oh. Good morning. This place is in a strange state. A barrel of pure spirit, a broken water stone on the table, and Naltu's priceless furs are on the floor. I don't think he's going to be pleased with how you've used his home."
"You haven't the whole of it. The patient in my book? All that happened here. We force-fed the woman in the chair you're sitting in."
"Wonderful," Metta laughed. "Does that mean the bed's soiled?"
"I need to buy a new mattress for him today."
"So you wished for my help in cleaning the house?"
"Oh, I've taken care of that. I just thought you might want to get out of the Jade Palace for a day. Honestly, as long as you don't do anything to get me in trouble with Leredith or the Academy, I don't mind if you go out on your own. Or you're certainly free to help me with my boring errands."
"I haven't slept yet, so... gods, that water is so inviting."
"I'll finish up. Do you mind... go through the house and make sure there's nothing left that would get Naltu sick? Then you can take a bath, and we'll go to the market."
"And then I can take a nap in Naltu's new bed before he's had a chance."
"Fine," Perry laughed.
The remainder of the morning vanished. Perry could not guess at the value of the ruined down bedding. Metta thought herself clever and thought they should sell it, for the stains were light and bleached. Perry was concerned of spreading the disease and refused. Instead, she hired the men who brought the mattress to take the old one and burn it outside the city. She gave them silver for the task, and told them to be careful. Metta was disappointed. She spent half an hour flattening the down mattress with her hands.
"The furs, too. I slept in them once when I was sick."
"They're fine, Perry."
"I can't afford to replace them."
"You weren't bleeding, right? You didn't get any ick on them?"
"I was bandaged, but..."
"Not everything that's been touched by contamination needs to be burned! Things can be cleaned. We'll leave the blanket in the sun for a bit."
"I just... can't bear to get him sick."
"If he gets sick, it'll be just like you. A couple of small sores, and we'll keep him clean, and he'll be fine in a week. You wrote the book, Perry. You said yourself it takes months before someone is ill enough that it's of grave concern. Let it go. Many people get the disease and don't even know it. And what's worse, if he is made sick from bumping into the wrong person at a cafe, you'll blame yourself. The house is clean. You're clean. Understand?"
Perry sulked. "Yes."
"Good. Now, I didn't have a chance to sleep. Do you mind if I take that nap?"
"Of course not."
Metta slept and Perry kept her back to the bed and worked with the water stone fragments. She dipped them in the blackened water and fused them together, and worked the grains as if they were putty. Darkness came and Metta woke and the two left for the Night Market.
The dancers were there, spinning chains and long sticks that ended in rags soaked in strange oils. The oils burned red and green and purple, and the dancers had covered their own bodies in a different oil that would prevent burns. Men and women they were, dressed in fancy garments that covered only as much as underclothes might, but the fabric was stitched with gaudy pieces of glass and other false jewels.
"I smoked Opal in the Red Palace. I thought I hated the stuff... but..."
"I've had a fondness for that flower, and perhaps a loathing. I'm certain we could find an Opal house in the district."
"Some other time, I think."
Metta winked. "That's a promise I'll hold you to. Perhaps wine?"
Perry agreed. "The dancers are not gone, they've only moved inside. It's an entertaining art. I wish I could do such a thing."
"That could be your next book. Those people are all nomads. You can't just learn the dance in classes at the Academy school. Well, I imagine not, at least. You would know more than I."
"The school only teaches the sitting arts. Literacy, cipher, debate, weaving, and etiquette."
They wandered into the high tents of the market and found a table and a large glass bottle of fine spiced wine from Nilan. The price was high but honest, and they shared the ruby-colored syrup while nomads danced in veils made from delicate chain.
"You remind me of my mother," Metta whispered.
"She's stumpy like you, is all."
"I'm not stumpy!" Perry howled.
"No, you're not. She cared for everyone. I'll do it for coin or obligation, but... and I'm drunk."
"Me, too, a bit."
"Let's hire horses."
"What?" Perry asked again, louder.
"Yes! We'll hire horses, and ride through the fields outside the city."
"You're going to run away tonight?"
Metta saw the concern in Perry's face. "The thought is there, but I'm... obedient. I mean only to trample some cabbages."
"The farmers need those cabbages," Perry scolded. "And it's not safe outside the walls at night. And drunken?"
"Yep, you're exactly like my mother."
"Do you have family?"
"I'm not... sure. I never tried to find them after I went to the Jade Palace. Didn't really have the desire to tell my father his little girl grew to fill a whore's dress. I think he wouldn't be surprised. I'm sure he thinks I'm dead, and I'm more certain that he'd be disappointed to find out how I survived. I'm sorry, I don't mean to be a miserable drunk. Tell me, have you ever found love?"
"Love? I've a plan for when I find the means. For now, my commission absorbs all my time. Many of us at the Academy suffer too little leisure."
"I see. Well, I thought it was supposed to be a comfortable job? Teaching children? Or do you have to scrub the school when you're done?"
"Script," Perry laughed. "And you know. It takes a great deal of time to write a book."
Metta shook her head. "Remember how inky your hands were last week? If you were a scribe, they'd always be like that. I think perhaps you serve the foul Magisters."
"That is something you should never joke of, dear friend."
"I've heard of them in the fields, with their stone faces and all that. That's what Anya says, at least."
Metta waved to a young woman wearing the chained veils, and to a waiter, and purchased a pitcher of cheap wine with Perry's purse.
"My ladies, I am Nia of the Gash. what do you think of the dances of the nomads of the Spherian desert?"
"You're amazing," Metta gushed. "My friend would like to learn."
"Ah. We will leave to return to our travels before the winter comes, so there is not time enough. Perhaps you will come to the desert and find us wandering? If it is not too great an obligation to live among the waves of sand for half a year, you could master your movement as I have."
Perry blushed and shook her head. She gave a small silver coin to the woman as a gift. "Perhaps I might."
"Thank you," the woman nodded. "The sun be your friend."
Metta repeated the short prayer, and Nia smiled.
"I'm so tired."
"You wanted to ride horses."
"I wanted to hear what you'd say. Listen. Should I go back to the Jade Palace, or do you want to do something else?"
"This has been a romantic date," Perry chided. "I think I might like to read and then sleep. I imagine you're always welcome at Naltu's house."
"I'll give you the option. Bed and linens, or the floor and furs."
Metta glared. "Hmm. Tough one. I think I'll take the bed and furs. There's enough space to share, or are you too prude for such a thing?"
"I'm not prude. But I am tired and I do mean to read."
"Of course!" Metta replied, and shook out of her dress, and folded the linen onto Naltu's table. Perry folded her robes and crawled under the linens and fur. Metta began to snore after only moments, and so Perry dimmed the glowstones and slept.
Metta was gone when Perry woke, startled by an overwhelming fragrance of flowers. Perry sniffed and realized that Metta had sprinkled the bed with lavender perfume. Her silk robes had been washed and carefully hung from the ceiling to dry in shape. A plate with crisp toast, boiled eggs and a cut apple had been placed in the center of the table. A tiny scrap of paper was placed next to the plate. Perry examined the slip and read the two words made of curving script.
The sun crept through the cracks in the window shutters, and Mistress d'Oncil was satisfied.[ <= Previous | Up | Next => ]