Naltu stoked the iron stove in his cabin and the air became comfortable quickly enough. A tapping came from the door and Perry joined him.

He was dressed in comfortable linens that hung from his shoulders to his feet. His hair had grown, and so his skin was red, as he had paid a barber to pluck it from his skin with threads earlier in the day.

Naltu bowed low before her and offered her a small tray of berries. He had raised the plants that brought the bounty inside the cabin. She turned sideways, staring at him.

"Naltu, I haven't seen you in a week. I was surprised when you sent me that letter. You're my closest friend, you should have written sooner. How are you?"

"I have been busy. Trading and learning from Derin."

"Baso said a book went missing from the library. A book on flesh weaving. I've been trying to track it. The old man is concerned."

"Ah," Naltu said, and closed his eyes. "Very well. You know I have it. I need help, Perry. I trust you more than anyone else I know."

"You trust me more than your whore?"

Naltu nodded slowly. "Yes."

"Why don't you buy her freedom?"

Naltu rubbed his bald head and sat on the bed. "There is an agreement between Master Baso and myself. To do so prematurely would be a grave insult, and besides, it is not my will to own a slave."

He pulled a chest from under his bed and pressed a latch. He removed an ornate iron rod wrapped in a thick bundle of leather. Beneath the rod was an old book bound in cracking suede.

"What's this?"

"Ryuten called this a breaking rod. Flesh weaving can mend skin, but can also twist the mind. This is a cruel thing meant to force obedience."

Perry blinked. "What are you doing with it?"

"The tome does not say how the mark can be removed. Ryuten did not care for freedom."

Her fingers went to her lips. "Metta. You should tell Baso what you're doing."

Naltu shook his head. "You know of that? Baso would not accept this. He does not like my whore from the Jade Palace. He does not approve of my Talent. He would prefer her bound to me than free."

He unfolded a piece of linen, flat and ironed like paper, and placed it on a table. He crumbled a crimson stone into dust. The cloth flared with red light. Naltu dipped the tip of the rod in the light. Frost formed on the metal surface.

"What are you doing?" Perry stepped back, nervous. "I'm not going to let you brand me."

"No," Naltu sighed, and touched the rod to his arm. The flesh popped and a blue spark jumped from the side of the metal to his skin. He dropped the rod in surprise, and a welt rose and healed, leaving a complicated sigil.

"You idiot!" Perry chastised.

"I'm certain Ryuten did this. He could not have understood otherwise. He did not think the words worth the effort to write. Take the letter."

She did. "Perry, command me to do something I would not do."

She closed her eyes and thought. Her eyes opened and fell to the floor. "Kiss me like you kiss your whore."

The sensation was odd, and Naltu frowned. She was an attractive woman, and his dearest friend, and he wished to please her. He wondered if he was betraying Metta, and remembered the whore's occupation. There was no reason he should not kiss Perry, and it was a simple thing, and would make her glad.

Naltu did, and Perry stood, face limp.

"You want me like this, Perry? You have said nothing."

She pushed him away. "I don't want you, fool. I just wanted to know how it felt, because I've never had a slave to love me. Now what?"

"Keep the letter, and be careful what you ask of me, for..."

"Naltu, find your sharpest knife."

He lifted a blade from the desk. The steel gleamed against the fire in the stove, and the handle was made of bone. She stepped to his side. "Hold the edge to my arm."

The blade came up. "Naltu, there's something else we should know. If I asked you, would you hurt me?"

"No. I do not think the compulsion is that strong. I did not make the rod with skill."

"Fine. Cut my arm until I scream."

Naltu realized that she had, after all, asked him. The demand was a dare, and she wanted to see if he was strong enough to draw blood. He would prove to her that he was powerful. She wouldn't have pleaded like she did, if she hadn't wanted the wound. Some people found pleasure in suffering. Perhaps she did. He thought to her suffering in Criest, and hadn't she smiled? Even without the breaking rod, if she needed him to cut her, perhaps for Scientia, or certainly for pleasure, he would have, and without cajoling. She was his closest companion, and she trusted him, and she desired this.

The knife flicked, splitting flesh, and she shouted and scrambled away. Naltu's eyes were wide with horror and the blade crashed to the floor. He rushed to her side and closed the wound with green light.

"Naltu, you know what this means?"

Naltu closed his eyes. "You have courage, Magister."

"We'll figure this out," she promised, and left with the book.

***

Naltu knelt before Baso.

"I warned you before, Master Naltu."

"Master?"

"You are growing strong. I'm reminded by the others that you're older than any Apprentice who has not passed the Ordeal. What do you know of our ways?"

"Perry... Mistress d'Oncil has shown me the marking on her skin. You tear away the skin and the Apprentice becomes Magister."

Baso laughed. "Yes. Well, Master Herr says you are still an imbecile, but you toy with powers beyond those of an Apprentice. I'll make you a Magister soon enough. The carvers come from the Spherian city of Basgan for Master Herr and for you. The time will be set. There's little preparation required."

Naltu was not concerned. He had seen the marks on Perry and Iuju and the wounds were small and would heal quickly. The day passed, and Naltu bathed and traded and studied the rites to prepare his body for the ceremony.

He met in his cabin with Perry, and Derin learned of his desire to remove the seal, and the three played a child's game to craft the crystals that might fuel the transformation. They created six colors, and following old words, made six new stones that were bright, lit from within.

A tapping came from the door. Metta rushed inside, unbidden. She crashed into Naltu's arms, ignoring the strange sight on the table. He did not wait to embrace her. Her eyes were full of water, and Naltu held her as she shook. She calmed and spoke.

"This is the last time I'm going to see you. What a mess our time together has been."

"I don't understand?"

"One of the girls let it slip. I'm to be sold, and the other slave girl Baeth from the Jade Palace, and eight slaves from the Red Palace. We're to be given to men from Krigsgud and taken west across the sea."

Naltu's face reddened with rage, but he smiled at her. "I will make a different deal with Leredith."

She sniffed and swallowed. "It's already done. I've been in the Palace long enough to see other slaves go. They're going to lock me up until the traders are ready for me, so that I don't run. Leredith's going to be mad. I can feel the brand, he's calling me back. I must leave, so listen. Many man have told me they loved me, and I quickly learned those words were deceptive. Say it to me, before I go, and even if you're lying, I'll believe you."

He whispered in her ear, and she reached inside her coat, and gave him a small glass vial with two drops of blue liquid inside. She kissed him, and ran out the door. Naltu's eyes were wet, and Perry rushed to his side.

"If you need money, I have fifteen gold now and twice as much more if you could wait, and there might be others who can help. Leredith's a greedy man. Find the price and we'll pay it."

Naltu let a sad laugh escape his lips, and lifted a board from the floor and took his full purses. He counted the coins and inspected the stones. He wondered if Perry had used the linen to ensure his participation in the purchase, but he had no worry. If she was so concerned, she would have bought the girl herself.

He rushed to the Academy and found Baso in the library. He knelt low before the Magister and spoke in a whisper.

"Master, I mean to make trouble with the Jade Palace and with slavers."

"What? Stand. Why are you covered in sweat? What has happened?"

Naltu rose to his feet. His jaw was clenched tightly, and his veins bulged. Baso had not seen Naltu so enraged, not even during the duel, and feared.

"The Master of the Jade Palace means to sell my friend to slavers. I'll interfere. I will make him an offer."

"You have not fulfilled our bargain. What do you want from me? Money?"

"No, Master, I have my coin. I seek your blessing in this."

Naltu reached into his pocket and removed the glass vial. He placed it on Baso's desk. The old man inspected the liquid in the light of the glowstone over him.

"What is this?"

"She did not explain. She has found a way to give me this drop of Leredith's elixir. Two ingredients are readily discernible to my nose. Both are rarities I have in my house. I'm certain there are others, and will require help in recreating the stuff."

"I will abide. Do not involve the Academy or the Magisters in scandal. If the Palace will not consent, will you confront the slavers? Or would you smash the city?"

"Master. I slaughtered slavers like goats in Krigsgud and will do this again to have my way."

Baso flinched. He stroked his face for a moment, thinking. "I see. Don't involve the Academy in that, not even if you must. The trade of slaves is forbidden here, so bring the militia to the slavers, let that unfold. I trust the wisdom I've seen in you. The carvers come tonight. You'll be here, whole and ready, or you'll be leaving New Spheria without your whore tomorrow morning."

"Yes, Master."

Baso tugged on his own hair, pulling the braids tight in anxious thought. He had hoped to use Naltu's interest in the girl to secure the savage's obedience. He wondered what sway he would hold over the flesh weaver come the next morning.

"One other thing. Mistress d'Oncil tells me you've constructed a slave rod. She says you haven't used it for anything but research. Is this true? Have you bent a will to your own?"

"Master, Mistress d'Oncil speaks truly."

"Have you used it?"

"Only on myself."

"I don't wish to know why you've done this, but I want the device, and your promise not to construct another. I suspect your purpose, and I'll let this pass until I am proven wrong in trusting you. The last time such a tool was made, the device was a herald for the start of a war."

He looked up. "I know of Prince Anwyn. I will obey, Master."

Naltu left and rushed to the Jade Palace. He pushed past the guard and through the doors, and Leredith met him in the entrance with anger across his face.

"I rather suspected she found you."

Naltu bowed low and whispered. "I hope to make your purse heavy. Master Leredith, I would present an offer to you for Metta."

Leredith peered around and saw that the tribesman was drawing attention. "Follow me to the basement. We'll talk there."

Naltu followed Leredith to the stairs and down into the basement. The walls were cold stone and the dirt floor was damp. The basement was divided into halls and cells, separated by iron bars and hanging linen, and Naltu wondered at the original purpose of the construction. Large hams and casks of ale and wine lay on top of rotting wooden pallets. The area smelled unpleasantly of the Palace's cesspool, and there were pits for relief, though these were covered with fragments of wood.

"You should have asked for her when you could have. I've made a deal already, Naltu, and these aren't traders with silks."

Naltu dumped a purse onto the table and Leredith choked. Sixty gold coins scattered and rang.

"How did a savage obtain such wealth?"

"Silks, perhaps. I am a trader, Leredith. Will you free her?"

"Naltu, she's not worth half that. She's... she can't be free, and she only pleases you because she's mine. With a purse like that, you could woo any aristocrat's daughter. Any of my women would follow you home if they knew what you carried on your belt. Forget the slave girl and receive another. I'll find you a clever girl who knows how to please a man, or one untouched, if that would slake your appetite."

"I understand the brand, more than you, perhaps. You see my offer. Why do you resist?"

"Because these traders are bringing me something that gold can't buy. And we're not going to haggle over her. As I said, the deal has been struck. Take any girl in the hall and satisfy yourself."

Naltu forced calm to his face. "Not the first I've heard such an offer. What deal did you strike? I'll give you one better."

Leredith waved his shaking hands and placed a clay pipe filled with sweet grass to his lips. He pulled a burning ember from a lantern on the desk and lit the weed. Naltu was glad for the scent, for though it was bitter, it hid the other odor.

"You can't. They bring me a substance from beyond the seas that men have forgotten how to make. Something I need."

"For your oils? The Magisters could help you. You don't have to trade life for herbs."

Leredith closed his eyes. "Years ago, I made a pact with a Magister. He branded Metta with the rod, and the other girls, and showed me the ways of the oils. I was a lowly Academy alchemist. Now I'm king of the Jade Palace. These slavers wanted half my wealth for the substance I need to operate this year, or the girls. That Magister took women, too, Naltu, and he tortured them. I'd rather work with slavers, despite the farmer's love for the masked men who make the crops grow high."

Naltu turned. "You trade her life for a year's business? What will come next summer? Half your wealth, then?"

"No. The Jade Palace will be no more in two years. Without the oil will come the weeping sickness among the aristocracy, and with the weeping sickness, the military's tolerance for this place will falter. Metta will live in the harems of the Western lords, for beautiful women are rare in Libbon. That's as good a life as a common girl could find, and rich as you are, perhaps better than the one you could offer. Your purse reveals your desperation, but you're a fool. You think she can walk beside you on the street and in the markets? Every aristocrat in the taverns, every merchant in the high tent has toyed with that woman. This is the Jade Palace and she's been here for a very long time. You've never come here on Revelsday, so you have not seen the wet booth. Go upstairs and find two of the girls to show you what they do inside."

"You speak too much," Naltu spat, his face bulging purple with rage. He spoke through a closed jaw. "I have seen Revelsday's night. You have not seen the cages of the slavers as I have, or the iron-tipped whips, or heard the lies. Cloves and tallow. You trade Metta for grimsalve? What else?"

"Grimsalve? Ah, I've worked so hard to hide my secrets, and a whore betrays me. I did trust her too much. There are consequences for that. These slavers will burn the Palace if I do not deliver the women. The slaves have already been sold across the seas. Why do you not see, these things are not the same as you or I?"

Naltu laughed, hostile. "I come from beyond the sea, Leredith. Tell me how much they have promised?"

"You shake and think me cruel, but I'm not. A thimble-full for a year, Naltu. But you won't find it in the markets, not here, not in Seat, not in Krigsgud. I have searched and bought all that could be found in the years past."

"I'll bring you the grimsalve tonight. You won't deal with the slavers."

Leredith shook his head. "I'm of mind to bind you, Naltu. I won't have you bring these slavers or the military down on my shoulders!"

Two men grabbed Naltu's shoulders. He shook them away and turned. "I'll bring the grimsalve, and slavers will never come near the Jade Palace again. Are we agreed?"

"Naltu, I told you, I already struck a deal! I've signed my mark to vellum!"

The tribesman walked up the stairs, forcing his way past the guards. Fear forced their consent to his passage. Green sparks no common man could witness flickered in his eyes. He left the Palace.

He found the block of grimsalve, the remains he kept from Derin after the journey to the caves, in a locked chest. He wrapped the waxy white stuff in a fresh scrap of linen. Perry had written a note on his table that she and Derin returned to the Academy.

Naltu went to Leredith again and set the brick on the podium in the entrance to the hall. Leredith was aghast and chastised Naltu for returning, and the two went to the basement again. Leredith sniffed the brick and rubbed it with his finger. He knew the residue on his fingers, that he could only wash away, was worth silver.

"I thought you were going to rob the slavers. But the stuff they had was old and brittle and not a fraction of this. So you got this from the Magisters? Did you filch this from them, then? I'd not have thought they were such an easy mark."

"I did not steal this, Leredith."

"I know you. You're a thief who plays at trade. Anya has said as much."

Naltu produced the silver coin from his shirt. "I trade for the Academy. Anya is the only thief in your Palace."

Leredith shivered and his eyes fell. "I thought we would be friends. I offered you any of my women. What don't you understand when I say a deal has been made?"

"We are friends, Leredith. This is why I came to you with all my wealth, and not my arms. Do you understand? You talk of slavers with fear on your lips. Do you think I walk the dirt roads and rocky slopes empty-handed?"

Naltu tugged at his fur jacket, opening a flap and revealing the face-mask of a wolf. The eye-holes had been filled with steel studs. "I cut the fangs and claws from every pelt I sewed into this. I did not use the northern carbine, but only a knife. I sleep in the skin of those I have felled. Wolves more fierce than any man, and I am stronger still. Where do the slavers wait?"

"I don't know. What? You're going to go kill them? Will you be back when the clock chimes again with a bag full of heads for trade?"

"If you wish. When will they come for Metta?"

Leredith closed his eyes and pulled his hair. "Tomorrow, she'll be gone from Dosille as the sun rises. She'll be moved to a barn in a farm outside the city with the others. If I tell you where, will you promise that I'll not be involved in whatever you do?"

Naltu bowed low. "Friend, you say a thimble-full will fill your flasks for a year, and so this lump will fill your flasks until you are old and too tired for this place. You say a thimble-full is worth half your wealth, and I say this brick is a gift. All traders know friendship has a price, and you know mine."

Leredith flustered, weary. "It's time for you to go, friend Naltu."

Naltu climbed the stairs.

Leredith, alone, mumbled to himself. "I'm already old and too tired for this..."

The moon set and a pouch arrived for Leredith as the sun began to rise, with a small pebble of brown wax and a sheaf of cured calfskin, the ink layered over with soot. The fat man inspected the skin and understood.

***

Naltu was full of anxiety when the moon rose over the Academy. He longed to return to the Jade Palace, to ensure Metta's presence. Two men with pouches full of knives, all tiny and curved, bid him come. He would leave after the ceremony and rushed with them. He desired the ceremony, to be marked with the signs of respect.

The three smoked unfamiliar flower-buds from an iron pipe. Naltu stripped and lay on a stone bench. The first cut came, and a spark of green came from Naltu's skin, and the carvers were filled with delight and delirium. Naltu's spirit flowed into them, a fragment of his will becoming their own, and they wished to cut.

The knives worked for a moment. Naltu heard the distant screams in his mind. The work was over in a single beat of his heart, but his blood covered the bench and floor. Iuju had come to welcome Naltu as Magister, but the old man's face was stricken with fright.

The two carvers were thin and shook on the floor. Naltu's chest and arms and legs were cut with whorls and lines likened to the artist's map of the ocean. Thin strips of skin had been peeled away, though the flesh had not been flayed to the full depth. Creeping vines of blood crossed his body, as if the thick veins of his muscles had been laid bare. Streaks decorated his shoulders, tight spirals shone from the tapestry over his spine. Naltu wrapped his clothes around his legs and chest to hide the trail of blood, and stole two burlap robes to hide the rest. Green energy filled his veins, but his skin would not heal, and so he traded his strength for blood enough to rush. He ran to the Jade Palace and collapsed on the stone floor as the sun rose outside. Blood leaked from his sleeves and hood, staining the floor.

Leredith was glad the hall was empty and awoke his men and Metta and Aina. Naltu was carried to the basement and locked behind a wooden door, and Aina made a pallet of thrashed straw beside him, while Metta scrubbed the blood from the stone in the hall.

Iuju found Baso in his office, tired and slumped over his desk, and Perry in her bed, waking in the Academy. They were both surprised and upset that they slept until the sun crossed the horizon. The ceremony was not a quick process and Dosille's clock had chimed twice during Derin's cutting.

Perry dressed in traveling clothes and ran to Naltu's home, and then to the Jade Palace. Armed men surrounded the place, though they didn't interfere with her. She confronted Leredith and Aina.

"You remember my friend Naltu? Is he here?"

"No," Leredith answered. "Is something amiss?"

Other women were in the hall, cleaning, eating and dressing. Perry glanced about, searching for a particular face. She produced a stack of silver and handed the coins to Leredith. "If Naltu comes, keep him safe. I think he's hurt. Write me a letter at the Scribe's Lament, and tell no one."

Leredith bowed, promising. Perry left and returned to the Academy and told Baso what she saw.

Baso gathered Derin and Iuju and Perry, and the Magisters dressed in colored robes and pulled porcelain masks from within. They donned black cloaks and walked to the Jade Palace and reached the door at mid-day, well-prepared.

Leredith crowed when the Magisters pressed through the heavy doors, dropping black linen and revealing colored silk. The fat man gibbered and kissed Baso's polished leather shoes. Baso stared down at the man's head, and his voice rang out like the tolling of a bell.

"Where is the primitive, hmm? Naltu?"

"Master, he came and... he's below, in the basement."

"He is well?"

"Master, no. We moved him so that his screams could not be heard. We filled his lungs with smoke of the Opal flower, and now he sleeps. I'll have him brought to you!"

Baso patted Leredith's shoulder. The tones of his voice rose and then fell as if in song. "Rise. Where is the southman's whore?"

Leredith stretched his arm out along the length of the floor and snapped his fingers. A girl with a half-painted face came and rushed down the stairs. She returned with another girl, dark-haired, fingernails and bare forearms stained with flecks of blood. Metta's pupils were dilated, slits becoming diamonds, and she stunk of the Opal flower. She trembled and struggled for composure.

"Tell me your name," Baso spoke.

"Metta," she responded, prostrating herself as Leredith had.

"I have the grimsalve," Leredith whimpered. "I'll return it to you."

"Grimsalve?" the blue-masked figure asked.

"Yes?" Leredith questioned. "He stole from you?"

The red-masked figure laughed. The voice was loud and crackled like a burning hearth. Leredith fell again, cowering. Perry raised her hand, and Baso produced a blue-white coin from his sleeve. He grasped Metta's hand and pulled her to her knees. He pressed the coin between her fingers.

"You know what this is?"

Her eyes went to the coin, and she flipped it in her fingers. "Master, Iridium?"

"The greatest coin minted by the Academy. Worth a life. Would you agree?"

Metta had never seen such a coin. On one face was a map of the world, and on the other, an image of the stars in the winter sky. The shapes had been carved by hand. The coin was thick and heavy.

"Master, as you say," she replied.

"Can any of your whores write?" the Magister asked, addressing the air in front of his face.

"Master, my Spherian script is graceful."

Baso laughed. "And Libbonese?"

"Master, Libbonese, if you wish."

"I see. You're the one who taught Naltu that tongue?"

Her eyes found the dull orbs of the mask, and then fell so fast that her face tapped the stone. "Master, yes."

"Good. Give that coin to your Master Leredith."

Leredith took the coin. Baso continued. "I know nothing of grimsalve. Master Naltu has been free to trade as he wishes, and his ways bring wealth and prosperity to the Academy. Return him to me whole and that coin is yours, Master of the Jade Palace. He won't die, not of his injuries, if he is cared for well enough."

Leredith's face touched the floor. "We'll give him to you now, revered Magister, as you wish."

"You don't understand. He ran here. He's your ward until he chooses to return to us. This whore will write all that she sees. She will bring her letters to the Academy each morning before sunrise. This will not be pleasant for you, whore, nor you, Master, but you have heard the terms set by this Magister. Will you take the coin?"

Metta bowed and turned her eyes to Leredith. He nodded in agreement.

"I'll clean his wounds with spirits and boiled linens, and feed him what he'll take. What else?"

The blue-masked figure stepped behind Baso, around, and knelt in front of Metta. The girl stared into the porcelain eyes and held her breath. A green-gloved hand reached inside the robe, and produced a thin book bound in waxed linen. "This is precious. We did not have time to copy this for you. Copy it yourself, and be prepared to return the original quickly, for I'll come again soon."

Metta reached for the book, and stopped, inspecting her fingers. "Master, could you take the book? I'm unclean."

The fat man did. The tallest Magister turned and led the others out.

Leredith opened the book and puzzled at the Libbonese script. "Do I need to use the vellum, or will you do this? I know you hate me now more than ever," he added, flourishing with the blue-white coin.

Metta's eyes filled with water, and she rolled onto her side, and then sat. She held her hands out, palms up, and the red flecks on the pads of her fingers seemed black under the hearth's light. "You know the answer."

"Good," Leredith laughed. "Yesterday, your ward came to me to talk of your price. I've seen his offer and it's enough. We'll finish that conversation only when he's whole."

[ <= Previous | Up | Next => ]