Naltu returned to the Academy. He found Iuju and handed the old man a thin purse filled with the dried remains of crushed nightshade berries and asked for direction. Iuju retrieved a pen and scribbled across paper in Old Libbonese. The old man gave the paper to Naltu, certain that the dumb savage couldn't read.
He checked the directions with Perry and Derin and then followed them. His eyes grew full of false lights and his stomach would not move for days, but the effects became tolerable and Naltu's powers grew. Where he could sprout a single vine or throw a lone sharp leaf, another moon passed, and many plants came to his command.
Naltu visited the Jade Palace on each Omensday. The wind grew cold. On Thundersday following his fourth visit with Metta, Baso called Naltu to his office for an appointment. The old man had a stack of letters and silver coins littered across his work space.
"Do you understand discretion, Naltu?"
Naltu shrugged. "I do not speak of the Academy's business."
"We've all heard that you're wasting your time with the whores of the Palace."
Naltu bowed low. "This is so."
"The Red Palace?"
"No, never. Only the Jade Palace."
Baso continued with slow, precise words. "Good. You know the women of the Red Palace carry the weeping sickness. If you touch them, you could bring the sickness to all of us. Magisters are resistant, but Iuju and I are old, and we have no wish to deal with oozing sores. I'd rather you not visit the Jade Palace, or any woman of low class. If you'd like, I can make an arrangement with someone to your liking. There are aristocrats who owe us obligation, and mature girls in the schools. Boys, too, if that's to your liking, and all would be as untouched as you wish, bright, and at your whim. I have my own concubines, and Master Liang his, and Master Derin will as well. That is a boon of the men who are Magisters. Mistress d'Oncil and Mistress Ghindi could have concubines too, if they wished it, but they do not."
"I will not bring the weeping sickness to you."
"You will not. If you do insist on returning to the Jade Palace, I'll burden you with continued discretion and a task. There's a reason they don't have the weeping sickness there, but discord arose between the Academy and the Palace seven winters past. Mistress d'Oncil uncovered the existence of the cure in her treatise and failed to elicit the details. This is what I require."
Naltu bowed low. "There is an oil the women take beneath their tongues."
Baso laughed and leaned forward. His thin braids fell into his face, and he brushed them away.
"Ah. You know of this already?"
"I asked. The girl told me."
"The whore. I see. Just the one girl, then?"
"Yes," Naltu blushed, dropping to a squat. He wondered why he let his tongue so free around Baso.
"Common lives are worth little, Apprentice. There are few under the sun who would change the world. You could be one of those, and you should not waste your energy on trivial people."
Naltu's eyes rose. "I hear your words, Master."
"Does it shame you that she warms the bed of others, Naltu? I grew impressed when I learned of what Derin had done before your duel. I did not know until Mistress d'Oncil spoke of this when she'd heard of your departure. I would have stopped the challenge had I heard. I'd not have sent him with you to Krigsgud."
Naltu closed his eyes and let his lips fall near the floor. "Yes."
"Bring me the formulation and you will be the only man she lays beside. The Academy will take care of your needs, Naltu, if you first meet ours. This is the our way."
Naltu went and found lunch and strong ale in the tavern. He swallowed the thick suds with a smile, and lifted bites of roasted lamb into his mouth. He cut the marrow from the flavorful bones. The meat was swimming in a thick sauce made from peppers, and he used wooden sticks to pick the meat out, until it was gone, and he felt full. He enjoyed the heat in the food, for he was reminded of the distant summer.
A hand touched his shoulder. He startled and turned and stared into the clouded eyes of his mentor Mellosin.
"Shaman, you have come north?" Naltu whispered in the Spherian tongue, without thinking.
Mellosin sat beside Naltu and they spoke to each other in the language of the tribesmen. "I came to rest. Have you heard the winds? The Tlictal have been dispersed. I would not take sides in that conflict, so I am forced north."
"Why? What of my brother?"
"Your brother is a fool. The women you and I brought from the slavers to him, he kept. He gave the women to his men. He did not tell the other tribes, or let the women depart. But many did not recognize the conquest, because you and I are Shaman and left them alone. He could have brought the warrior's wives home, and he could have been chieftain of many tribes. Instead, he is chieftain only of himself."
Naltu watched Mellosin's face. He seemed younger, and the brown rot in his teeth was gone. They were still filed to a point, and Naltu asked Mellosin if he wished for food, and the old man agreed. Naltu ordered a roast chicken for Mellosin, and fresh ale for both.
"Does he live?"
"And Yegha and the child?"
"You know of the child? Ah. I thought you went wandering before she swelled. And have you learned of your father?"
Naltu shook his head. "I knew Yegha was with child. Nothing of Hisimtu."
"She died in birth. Sijhi took the infant, a girl. She lived with me in the caves of the mountains until I left. Why did you wander across the sea? You could have calmed your brother and sent the women home. Did you take the Stones? Are you Shaman?"
Mellosin smacked his lips and filled his belly and wiped the grease on a cloth. He listened to Naltu speak.
"I am not my brother's chieftain, Shaman. I did take the stones, but I am not Shaman. The Gods rejected me. They showed me my weakness. The green men nursed me to health. The dreams of my childhood filled my mind, thoughts of wearing silver and silk. I came north. I fought the slavers here."
"I understand. I heard tales of Ingram and his men who raided the north and returned with gold and carbines. The green men grow strong as the tribesmen war. There is no conflict yet, but the Ghislail grow hungry and taunt the green men with raids."
"You have not told me why you came here. Did you come to find me?"
"No, Naltu, but I heard from the loose-tongued of one from the tundra, so I came to Dosille. This is not the first time I have been north, and you will return south in time. The eyes of Shaman search wider than those of the hunter, though they would not know this. You think I learned all my ways in the stinking swamps and cold hills? I was born with my talents, more even than you."
Naltu sighed and waved to a leather-clad man who brought the two another pitcher of ale. Mellosin produced a clay pipe and filled the hollow with sweet grass and herbs and puffed. They drank for some time, silent, and then exchanged words slowly and deliberately.
"This is my home now, I think, Mellosin. I am no Shaman."
"The Gods test all who take the Stones. They are fickle and it is their way."
"What do you know of Riyadh and Meghor?"
"Riyadh? Meghor? I don't know these names."
"And of the flowers that grow in the swamps?"
"The Amethyst. You took this Stone, too?"
"I found the witches. They told me of Riyadh and gave me the flower. They spoke of you, too, of the winters that have passed."
Mellosin sighed, exhaling fragrant smoke. "Kertu searches for you, Naltu. He thinks of revenge."
"Revenge? Against the tribesmen?"
"Against you. He blames you for the loss of his tribe and his wife. He hunts in the name of the Gods against some imagined offense. But he was arrogant and too bold to keep the women of the other tribes. Still, he will find you, and he is your elder."
Naltu bowed his head low. "Perhaps I have offended the Gods. Yegha's child was mine, for my brother's heart beats empty."
Mellosin finished the chicken, tearing meat from the bone with his sharp teeth, and swallowing without chewing. Naltu thought the man seemed to be an animal, and for a moment, understood how the people of New Spheria might view him.
The old man's eyes flashed. "You never saw her belly swell. When I retreated with one of the girls, you retreated with another. She was First Weaver and his. With any of his wives, any other, he might have understood and given her to you. But Yegha... I see. Perhaps it is right that he find you, then. The sea will grow fast as the sun warms the earth and he will hunt you. No chance to make amends."
Naltu nodded, accepting the statement with shame. Mellosin stood. "I can not smoke with you, not until the Gods have cleansed your blood. I'll go to the mountains and wait for peaceful winds."
He let Mellosin go. He found a scrap of paper and a pen and wrote, then paid a messenger to bring the paper to the Academy. He returned to his cabin, cleaned the cart outside and covered the wood with linen. On the linen he stacked twenty bolts of fine silk, and he walked to the Jade Palace, arriving as the sun was overhead.
He knocked and bid Leredith and the women to come outside to see the cart. The women, few and ten in all, came to him. They wore thin uncolored linens made for comfortable sleeping. Naltu enticed them to pet the fabrics.
"Where did you get all this?" Leredith questioned with a scowl.
"Master, I have seen the gowns these girls wear, and the gowns worn by the aristocrats. I traded for silk from a ship in Krigsgud when the Academy could not find any in Dosille. I bought my own share. This is the finest silk that will come this year. It was meant for the aristocrats in Spheria to the north, but if they frown and bicker like the women in the rich huts of Dosille, I would rather this silk veil the smiling faces of your Palace. I obtained this at a bargain on the docks, and I'll trade with you for a fair price."
"This was not necessary, if you meant to earn favor. I have a token for the asking." Leredith sorted through the bolts, inspecting the fabric and finding few flaws. "This has not been picked through by the aristocrats?"
"No, though I will bring my cart to them to sell what you do not buy."
"We can't buy silk bolts in the markets," Leredith sighed. "The aristocrats burn what can not be worn so that my girls do not shine as those hobbling women do. I would buy all of this and burn it for spite, but my purse is not heavy enough. What's your price?"
Naltu could earn any price, for Haiche had paid enough for the bleached silk to return all his costs excepting the glowstone. "Six bolts of this silk will clothe all your women in winter finery. I carry twenty. A gold coin for two bolts, Leredith. Ten and the aristocrats will have nothing. I'll charge them double this price or more, Master of the Jade Palace."
Leredith laughed and grinned and stepped close to Naltu. "I thought you might have wanted something else that I own, even though this is not enough."
Naltu let his eyes fall over the crowd. "A discussion for another time."
"I see," Leredith grinned. "Very well. Naltu, you come at a time when I have great expenses. You are generous, but I can only pay for half. I'll bring the gold, and each girl, the ten who are bold enough to gather around, will select one she likes best."
Naltu and Leredith clasped hands. The women picked through the fabric and scurried away with ten heavy bolts, and coins fell into the tribesman's palm.
Metta wandered outside, rubbing sleep from the earthy rivers in her eyes. Naltu's chest lurched when he saw her, and she stumbled to him and gave him a friendly embrace.
Metta glanced at Leredith. "I might invite you inside, but the Jade Palace is closed, are we not, Master?"
"It is so," Leredith agreed.
"What is all this?"
"You slept too long, girl," Leredith cackled.
Metta nodded and glanced at the ground. Naltu pulled a bundle from his coat and untied a soft ribbon.
"What do you think of this?"
She let the sheer black fabric fall on her hands, and her hairs stood on end, and the skin on the back of her neck flushed, for she knew she held wealth. Leredith flinched at the sight.
Naltu flashed his teeth. "The men of the west call this Dragon Skin. It's silk. A single layer is thin enough to let light through, and strong enough to stop an arrow from piercing a man's heart. The Western aristocrats wear it as armor."
"It's beautiful, Naltu. What's going on?"
"I have traded well. Metta, do you know the tailor Ansuz near the south wall?"
"I'll bring this fabric to him. Mistress d'Oncil has told me of the feast of Revelsday after the next full moon. I am told of the dances in the fields and I am reminded of my homeland. I will dress in this silk, and I would have you visit this Ansuz so that you may have a gown to match."
Leredith laughed, and his fat wriggled as he clapped and danced. "I see, Naltu. Well met, and my favor is earned. All of my girls will be dressed in silk that night! Ah, what envy, when the men bring their women and sons and all see that whores wear the freshest finery!"
The fat man's green cloak swirled around him as he spun. He stumbled up the decaying stone steps and returned inside. Metta wrapped an arm around Naltu and he spoke.
"I do not obligate you, Metta, I only ask. The oil that cures the weeping sickness. Can you tell me about this?"
She shook her head. "What? No. Leredith hoards it. We get drops in the morning. He makes us open our mouths so that we can't take it to the Academy, for I know they'd pay a price. He told me the Magisters would ruin the Palace if they had the oil, so he protects it. I'm sorry. All I could tell you is that it has the color of the summer sky and tastes like cloves and tallow."
"Ah, well, no matter. It would be valuable in trade, but if Leredith will not share, I will avoid his displeasure. It would be better if you did not mention my question to him."
Naltu visited the aristocrats and then Haiche and returned to his cabin with an empty cart and an uncomfortable sum of fifty gold coins in his purse.
Baso glared at Perry. "Master Herr tells me Master Naltu studies arts I have forbidden. What do you know of this?"
"He took one of the volumes of Ryuten. A thick book bound in hide, filled with discourse on ancient arts that are best left forgotten. I should have burned the book or locked it away, but we've lost too much that way. Tell me, Magister, the tribesman saved your life once. Where does your obligation lie? To him, or to the Academy?"
She dropped to her knees and bowed her head. "Master, the Academy, but if he has wronged you, I would beg you to forgive Naltu. He has suffered hardship at our hands."
"He has not done anything that requires forgiveness, except perhaps for lacking discretion. It is for concern for his sanity, and not from anger, that I demand this. Find the book and take it from him. Tell me why he took the book and what he learned. The words were written in Old Libbonese. I've no doubt Master Naltu would struggle to find meaning in the letters, but I worry that he might seek out someone beyond the Academy to reveal the secrets in the pages. I would not tolerate the passage of this knowledge beyond our number."
Perry's eyes flicked up. "Libbonese. I see. Can I approach him on this directly?"
Baso shrugged. "I was told of Master Naltu's work in confidence. I would be disappointed if the one who spoke to me were viewed with anger for fulfilling his obligation to the Academy."
"I'll return the book," Perry promised.
She went to the Jade Palace, and spoke with Leredith, then walked to the market and waited with a pitcher of coffee and a plate of hard cheese and tough crackers, dressed in her warm clothes against the cold. She rested at the tables near the far side of the market, exposed to the open air, and few others dared defy the wind.
She passed the morning, sipping slowly, reading a fresh tome on the emerging politics of the Spherians and Nilanese and the Libbonese. The Spherians were strongest in their mastery of Scientia, with Academy schools in most cities, though Magisters lived in only a few. The Academy brought stability and wisdom to the Spherians, and other things in secrecy. The Nilanese practiced Scientia as well, and had many Apprentices who played at the arts in the taverns for coin. Few Nilanese could reach the focus required to become Magister.
The Spherians were pleased that the Nilanese had not attained, and though they claimed the Academies were siblings, there were words which were kept, so that the source of strength of the Spherian Magisters was not revealed. The Nilanese believed mastery was a function of training, wisdom, and will, and they were right to a point, though the Spherians knew there were other elements of transformation and sacrifice.
Leredith's words were true, and Perry's purpose came to be fulfilled. Metta ordered a meal. Perry stood and clasped Metta's shoulder. The girl was dressed in a thick frock with several colorful scarves wrapped around her shoulders and draping low. Metta smiled in jovial recognition. Perry stood beside her at the large table.
"I saw you, but I believed interruption to be impolite. I've been rude enough to you, Mistress."
"I was sitting at a table alone. Bored. How's that interrupting?"
Metta thought of the coin Perry once offered. "Yes, darling."
Perry's voice dropped. "Don't you dare call me that!"
Metta grinned wickedly. "Ah, after our date, I thought you might wish to know of my fondness. I'm accustomed to you, after you'd done so well for me. Alas. What is an appropriate title for an aristocrat?"
"Am I dressed like I wished to be called aristocrat?"
"You're dressed in silk, hmm? You own land in the city. You have a voice in the councils."
Metta laughed. "All who come to the Palace are either wealthy aristocrats or impoverished soldiers, and Leredith works to keep the second type away. I'd wager and win saying that half the men who come, appear only so that they can brag of having spent a night in our comfortable linens. No matter how close our friendship, I could not help but to show you respect. The truth is, you remind me of my mother."
Perry spun, and then turned again and sat. "I'm glad to see that Leredith has allowed you out again."
"He was interested, that when one guest did not come on Omensday, another did, and reliably. You do a slave a kindness that she's not worthy of. I can see the pity in your eyes, and I'll ask you to stop, Perry. I don't have a bad life. Most of the women there chose that path, and in my own sort of way, I did, too."
"What do you mean?"
"Do you want to write my story?"
Perry closed her eyes. "No, but I sense I should listen."
"I don't get to tell it often, so I appreciate your indulgence. Fifteen summers had fallen past my eyes, and I met a boy who promised me the world. I followed him from my family's... manor. My father was a cipher and tracked money for the Academy, and this boy talked of adventure and the seas. I followed him north across the water, and we loved each other. We sailed to the military city of Jurn. He enlisted for the war. He said he would write and send me his salary, that he'd come back for me in a year. I had some coin I'd taken from my parents, and that lasted a month. After, a year passed while I lived on the streets."
"Was he killed in the war?"
"He never wrote me. Not once. Naltu's written more for me than that boy ever did, and he's barely literate. I don't care if Azul was killed. You should know of my interest in the success of your book. I came down with the weeping sickness. I wasn't even whoring then, I couldn't bring myself, I was simply destitute. Sores rose across my neck and my chest, and I could not keep food, so I waited in the gutters to be found empty and carried away. A man came and told me he would give me a cure for the disease. He told me the price, to be sent south to the Jade Palace, and this sounded like a life of comfort, and it has been. The curative worked quickly, and the marks faded within a week."
"Leredith found you in Jurn?"
"No, not Leredith. Someone else bid me come here."
"I thought slavery was illegal in Dosille. And in Jurn?"
Metta leaned close. "I have a brand on my arm. It's a northern sigil, legally placed and accepted, and lawful for all time. If I am found without a Master who holds my letters, I can be sold freely. The brand on my arm was made with fire. Dosille respects the mark for it was not made here. You and I both know many who work the soil beyond the walls are not compensated. It is tolerated so that the aristocrats may take credit for the comfort of the folk, and my life is not so different. There is another mark, on my leg, made by a Magister with cold steel. Leredith calls me compelled."
Perry's face flushed white in the cold. "Compelled? You mean geas? He tells you what to do, and you can't resist."
"He's only ever used that letter twice. The first, when he brought me to the Palace, he brought the others out. I was young then and now I'm the second eldest there, and I'm glad none of the women there except Aina remember this. He bid me squat on the floor and make a mess. I did this in front of all of them, and they laughed, and Leredith showed me my place. I was arrogant when I was a child, beautiful enough to charm the boys, and educated by the Academy, and Leredith taught me something the disease could not. There is a truth that none of us are truly above any other."
Perry sniffed and found both of her hands tightly gripping Metta's wrists. "I'm sorry, of the times I've been harsh to you, I didn't know. I should have, but I suppose I haven't listened."
"I maintain I don't want your pity, for it brings me shame. I'm comfortable as any woman, Perry, and Leredith has not asked me anything else, except to serve the patrons of the Palace with gladness on my face, and I have."
"Would you go with Naltu? I mean, what if he tried to buy you away?"
"Don't tease me like that, Perry. He's your friend, and you know him better than I, but... men do not come to the Palace because they want a familiar face each morning. I know what Naltu wants, and I've already asked far too much of him. He's fond of me, and I him, but in the morning, he leaves with a light heart. When I was younger, I was loved by many men. Now they number not so many, but still, I'm glad."
"Love? What of that, Metta? How many of those men have wives at home? You value obedience, I think, but what of the vows those men made?"
"I asked you this once, Perry, but I want to be clear. I know I'm beneath you. When I call you Mistress, it's with an honest tongue, and I don't mean to interfere. Should I not lay with him?"
"Doesn't bother me," Perry spat. "Well, I suppose I visit Aina in the Jade Palace often enough."
Metta winked. "You visit Aina for the same reason anyone does. Her hands are magic. She has done this for me, too, sometimes, when the night has been unkind. I asked her to teach me her secret so that when my wrinkles grow deeper, I'll have a reason for Leredith to keep me around. Else I'm afraid I'll be sent to the Red Palace."
"How much do you think Leredith would... you... for?"
Metta laughed. "I appreciate your heart, Mistress. Twenty gold coins, the last time he considered such an offer."
"Twenty?" Perry frowned. "I don't know if that's little or much."
"Perhaps too much, but listen. I know you don't want me, and so I warn you, I'll never be a free woman. I've accepted that. Share coffee with me and let Naltu come to me on Omensday until he finds someone worthy of his attention. If I am sent to the Red Palace, well, then you could buy me, and I'd gladly clean your mansion until I'm old and broken. You might need the company, for I sense you're becoming an old maid."
"Ah! But a man asked for my hand only two weeks ago. If I'm a maid, it's by choice."
"Your hand? Really? Who?"
"No one. Lord Pyotr Ikos."
"Ignore him. He's a bitter fruit."
Perry clapped. "I won't be able to afford a mansion if I have to rescue you. I'm reminded of something, actually. We loaned Naltu a book written in Libbonese, and you told me you were teaching him. I have better books if you want to read to him."
"Oh, a book? He hasn't said anything about that, the books we've read have been my own, histories of the north. But his Libbonese is... well, our savage is very clever. It's something he's not supposed to have, isn't it? Please tell me he has not stolen from you? There are rumors that he... takes things."
"No! He's never stolen from anyone that I know of... no, just a rare Academy book that should not have left the library. It was improperly placed, and so he did not know."
"You've spent enough coin on me, Mistress. When he's gone traveling again, I'm gladly yours."
Perry frowned. "Do you actually, well, with women? I shouldn't say that. I do enjoy the comfort of men, just rarely. The officer's garb is enticing, and yet the men who wear it always rotten."
Metta forced a blush and bowed her head. "I was teasing you, but I wouldn't object if you did want more than simple massage. To answer, it's not my preference either, except to satisfy the peculiarities of certain men. In my time, there's only been one woman who came to me alone, and I'm certain that was only to escape her brute of a husband. Love, indeed, there's no such thing."[ <= Previous | Up | Next => ]