Naltu screamed and cried whenever he stirred, and so Metta kept a lit brazier and inhaled the smoke of the Opal flower, and filled his lungs from her mouth. She cleaned the basement with boiling water every morning, and she wiped the oozing blood from his skin. His face twisted even when the lights were dim, so she worked in the dark.
She fed him wine for three days. Metta crushed carrots in a mortar and Aina held Naltu's head while they forced the food into his stomach. He soiled the pallet, and she turned him and used cloths. She wrote the letters in Libbonese. Perry read these, and on the fifth day, Perry came to the Jade Palace wearing the blue mask. The Magister wore a black cloak that consumed her entire form, and Leredith did not bow, so that his clients did not know. She told Metta that she should not give him the Opal flower, then retrieved the ivory book.
Naltu screamed until his eyes cleared. He found Metta's face. He saw how her smile tore when he was staggered by pain, and he learned to scream only inside his mind so that she could not hear. She cleaned him, but the wounds did not heal, did not scab. He shrunk as he twisted. The blood came more freely. The droplets crystallized onto the floor and into black grains of emptiness.
Perry returned again on the seventh day and spoke with Naltu. He could not move. She told him that Baso believed his work with the iron rod had changed him in a way that affected the Ordeal. The carvers had cut into all his flesh. They had not suffered so severe a fate as he, but they could not sleep, for only dreams of the Ordeal came, and they imagined they lay on the table and suffered those hours of agony.
Naltu wandered in his dreams. He spoke with Myristoyla, Goddess of Plagues and Pain, and Ryusupo, God of Healing and Flesh. He saw Jihintasula, Goddess of Fire and War, and Riyadh, God of Air and Travel. He drank with Chokimero, God of Light and Wisdom, and crawled with Meghor, Goddess of Nature who brings order to the things that creep. Dreaming, he spoke aloud. Metta wrote all his words and sent them on.
His skin began to burn, not with fever and corruption as Metta feared, but with green fire. She touched him with clean linen soaked in strong wine, and the fire lingered on her own skin, and she felt alive and full of lust. She wrote of this, and read her words to him, and sent those words to the Academy, and let other words float far away.
Aina brought a chamberpot and food, and began to take the letters. Metta did not leave Naltu's side, and though the green flames grew brighter, she did not warn the others. The Magisters came to watch Naltu twice, and left without a word.
The revels came, and Aina brought the gown from Ansuz, and Metta dressed and danced in the blackness of the basement. Naltu stirred, and his eyes opened, but he said nothing, his thoughts were empty. Stranger things happened, and Metta woke dreaming of running beside Naltu through the frozen forests he had once told her of, and another woman who sat by Naltu's side at the fires in the cold plains filled with tall grass, and of children.
She dreamed of war and disease and wrote all this. Baso returned once again, and tested her with quartz and glass and needle, and found Naltu's Talent permeating her blood. He left. Naltu slept and stirred. Iuju came in his mask, and gave her bottles of foul water, and she fed him each day.
His skin began to grow again, though the new flesh was black as coal. Hairs grew, too, on his face and head, with the color of ash from a roaring fire, and his brown eyes turned to green. She traced the patterns in the darkness and found them beautiful.
Naltu woke to clarity at last. His first words were thankful and of memories of Metta's careful touch. She wrote two letters to the Academy. Perry came without her mask. Leredith descended the stairs. Naltu was carried to the hall, where he ate boiled grain and found his legs. He kissed Metta's cheek.
"Thank you. I wish to return home."
"That's good," Metta agreed. "We couldn't get the blood out of your clothes. Mistress d'Oncil took the furs. I can loan you a cloak, you're too thin for the cold."
"The cold will be good for me. My head aches and I simply wish to be alone for a time."
She left and returned with a black tunic and a length of rope. Leredith followed her into the room.
"Shall we hire you a cart?"
"No," Naltu sighed. He paused for a moment while his stomach theatened to heave. "I must move. Leredith. Twenty gold."
Leredith hid his surprise. "She's worth more than that, but you have my agreement. When will you come?"
"When is today?"
"Omensday," Metta answered.
"Next Omensday, then."
"A week? You want for me to care for her so long?"
"Things must be arranged," Naltu responded.
Naltu reached out a hand and clasped Leredith's wrist.
"Very well. She'll clean and work the kitchen while she's here. You'll bring the gold on Omensday?"
"Of course," Naltu said.
"You look unsteady, friend. There are few more than the three of us who could claim having spent a month in the Jade Palace," Leredith laughed. "Let me arrange a horse for you."
Naltu smiled and shook his head. He caressed Metta's back and then followed Leredith out. His feet were bare, and the cold air shocked him.
"If you don't return in a week, I'll have to assume you froze to death."
Naltu inhaled deeply and laughed. He moved down the stone steps, then jogged along the street. He kept to the stone for a moment, then moved to the dirt and dead grass on the sides when he could, avoiding the trash and detritus.
He went to the Scribe's Lament. Creed loaned him a pack and filled it with hearty bread, dried meat, and soft potatoes. He took this and returned home.
He struggled to bring wood and coal inside, then stoked the stove high. He put the meat into a pot with water. He boiled the meat until it made a broth, and soaked the potatoes, and ate the meal without regard to flavor. The food could have been enough to satisfy him for a week, but he grew hungry as the sun fell. He returned to the market, dressed in proper clothes, and bought bits of liver that had been buried in the snow, and preserved tallow. He found a man who kept ducks in his home, and bought all the eggs, and then purchased two rolls of honey-soaked bread.
He boiled the eggs and meat and ate all this, and then the bread, and though he was thin, felt stronger. He found the poison in his blood, and left his cabin, and blackened the snow with his water.
Perry visited him each day. They played the game, sipped coffee, and spoke. She told him that Haiche asked after him. She brought a wool cloak and a comfortable frock for Metta, and some simple brushes. There was an exhaustion that refused to leave Naltu's body, and his joints ached.
Nights passed, and Naltu returned to the Jade Palace. Leredith expected him and was waiting. They walked up the stairs, slowly.
"You know of the fantasy of the Jade Palace?"
Naltu glanced to his side and glared.
Leredith shrugged. "A fine place, full of young courtesans who seek the hearts of noble men. You've lived in that fantasy for a year, you know this, right? Here, we watch ourselves through a looking glass that shows us what we wish to see."
"What do you pry at?"
"You've broken the mirror. I won't keep her here for you," the fat man warned, and took Naltu to a room. Leredith knocked and hefted a piece of stained vellum.
"Do you know what this is?"
Naltu turned, eyes low. "She's told me."
Leredith opened the door. Metta was there, perched on a padded stool. Her face was painted, hair filled with brass clips and green feathers. Naltu remembered his first night with her. Her clothing was unusual. She didn't wear the fine satin-trimmed dresses of the women who gathered below. The front of her blue tunic hung over her knees, and the back fell from her thighs and down the sides of the chair. The cloth was worn and too large, and the cuts at the side extended above her hips and past the rope belt that held the cloth at her stomach. Her dress was as a peasant's, though her face shone with beauty.
Naltu's heart began to race. A glimmer of something rose in his mind, a desire, and not the sort he was accustomed to. Leredith pushed passed him and into the room. The fat man held the letter and beckoned to Naltu.
He opened his purse and made four stacks of gold, five coins each, on a table. The coins were fresh-minted and unmarred. Leredith set the vellum on the table and scooped the coins, one by one, into his hand, then his pouch.
"The things I have asked of you, I release you from those obligations. You know Naltu. He owns you now, body and soul. You'll obey him, of course?"
Naltu's face paled. A flicker of magic filled his blood as he lifted the slip of vellum. He felt aroused, his breathing quickened. Naltu opened his palm and she saw the letter.
"Fair. If she's to be yours, so must this. Take care with your words while you hold this calfskin, she'll linger on every one. It's different from the usual sort in a manner those of your guild are familiar with. You'll not burn this or let it be taken from you. The man who made this told me that a piece of the girl's spirit is bound within. Metta is your property, now, and your responsibility. I need you to say it."
Metta watched. Naltu sighed twice and spoke.
"I agree. She's my property, and my responsibility."
"Excellent," Leredith said, rubbing damp palms together. "The others wished her to be bound. I trust that's not necessary?"
Her eyes were wide. Naltu watched her for a moment, then shook his head.
"And the last issue we must reach agreement on. She's little to take with her. As you know, I've paid my own coin for the pleasantries of the Jade Palace, and these things belong to me. There are certain possessions I've held in her stead, and others she's borrowed. You'll be responsible for all that. She's no debts I know of. You might inspect what she's taking with her, to ensure the lack of anything objectionable."
Metta moved to a burlap sack at the floor and began to untie the knot.
"Not now. Naltu, open that, place it on the table," Leredith said. His chest was high.
Naltu unrolled the vellum. The top was embossed with the imperial seal of Spheria. Numbers were scorched onto the corner on both sides. A brief paragraph stated that she had entered bondage willingly, and had dismissed the protections of the state. There were signatures at the bottom, two sets of three names each. The first noted her entrance into bondage and was signed by a Spherian cipher, the Magister who had broken her, and a scrawl in the place of the name of the property. The second set of names were similar, the Magister, Leredith, and the same scrawl.
Leredith scratched new lines and signed his name. Naltu wrote the characters of his name. Leredith beckoned to Metta and she walked over. Her hostile gaze fell on the paper, water forming in her eyes.
"Metta's agreement is required in this, too?"
Leredith shrugged and gestured that Naltu should pass the pen. "Not as such, it would be lawful to coerce the signature. It's a simple protection, were the documentation to be stolen, or were she to run away. The transfer is not legal without both signatures."
Metta wiped her face with her forearm, smudging the makeup. She made her mark for the third time on the vellum.
Naltu shook his head and placed the slip into a pouch at his waist. "We are agreed."
Leredith clasped Naltu's shoulder with one hand, and took Naltu's forearm with the other. He cackled. "You're always welcome here, friend. I hope to see you soon. I expect you will keep her in the city, which would not have been my preference." His face tightened, serious, and his eyes shifted between Metta and Naltu. "If there is an issue, perhaps with a former patron, come to me. I will resolve it."
Leredith turned and walked out. He left the door open behind him.
"I'm panicking right now," Metta admitted, panting. Her eyes traced the scars on his neck. "What's going to happen?"
Naltu lifted the cloak Perry had bought and draped the rough fabric over her shoulders. He knelt and lifted the sack. "Come with me."
They walked through the hallway to a second staircase, then down, and exited the Jade Palace through a side door in the basement. Metta wiped more of her face on the sleeve of her cloak until her eyes were red and the paint was gone.
They were silent for a while, until the torches of the market came into view.
"What's your name?"
Metta stopped and stared at Naltu. Her hand came free of his elbow and dropped to her side.
"Please, don't play."
"I couldn't read the name you signed on the contract, but it was not what I call you."
Her eyes went wide. She hissed, "Who are you running from?"
"I don't understand,"
"We both have secrets. Leredith never asked me my birth name."
Naltu shrugged. "You wish to go back to that place?"
"I didn't have an uncomfortable life."
Metta watched the flash of red cross Naltu's cheeks. Her swollen eyes shifted, her lips tipped into a familiar smile. "I'm sorry. I'm being mean. Your furs are very comfortable, and I'm glad to warm you. Is that the life you want for me?"
Naltu laughed, pain escaping his chest. His voice made fog in the night air. He pulled a pipe from his furs, already packed, and lit the sweet grass with a small flint. He turned, and they crossed under the aqueduct and walked near a small tavern. She did not recognize the path, and she slowed.
"We must go before the elders of Dosille," Naltu insisted.
They walked to a large house and knocked. They were led inside to a lobby that served as a tavern. Naltu waved to a seat and Metta rested. A butler inquired, then brought a glass of wine and a small plate of dried meat, fruit, and hard bread.
Naltu took a mouthful, then gave the butler a handful of clay coins.
"Stay here," he said, and followed the butler to an office.
A clerk waited in the office. Naltu presented the vellum and explained the price he had paid. The clerk made scribbles on a piece of paper.
"And you can pay the taxes now?"
Naltu gave the man two gold coins and a small stack of silver. The man dropped the coins into an iron box, then made a new mark on the vellum. He inspected the vellum for another moment.
"There's no conviction."
"I don't understand," Naltu replied.
"This a lifetime bond, Master. Does she have the marks on her skin?"
Naltu nodded. The clerk raised his hands. "Please understand. I can't do what you'd asked. It's not a simple contract, she can't be restored."
"I don't understand."
"Listen, unless you petition, no guard in Dosille is going to give her difficulty. I think we're done with this."
Naltu breathed deeply for a moment, forcing calm. "I see."
He scooped the vellum into his hand, rolled it, then tied it with a small ribbon. Others had come in to the lobby and were drinking, but Metta had moved, kept away from those. She was in the corner near the door.
They left. She slipped her arm around his and shivered.
"I've been called Metta for seven years. It's a name I chose when I sold my life for a tiny vial of oil."
She paused for a moment. "I didn't mean... damnit." Her arm curled around his waist. "You've been so, so good to me. And I hope, until this bitter night, that I've returned your sweetness."
Naltu let a sigh that could have come from a horse. Metta giggled at the sound. They reached the house. He emptied his pipe on a stone and unlocked the door. Metta entered and removed her sandals and the cloak and frock. She folded these, neatly, into a pile on the floor. The fire was hot and the room was deliciously warm.
"Could I take a bath?"
Naltu led her into the room. She dropped a linen slip to the floor, then tightened the barrel's drain-screw. She turned the dripping tap and waited until the barrel was half-full of steaming water. She entered the water, soaked herself, and beamed at Naltu. He sat nearby, brushing the snow from his furs.
"This is my second bath today, you know. I'm sorry about all that. Could you give me a bit of soap?"
Naltu did, and she scrubbed the last of the paint from her face. She was quiet, she knew where Naltu kept his things, and found a bit of chew to clean her teeth with. She spat that into a pit and turned to him. The hair-brush was a surprise, and Naltu explained. She stood nude before him, the last bits of water falling down her stomach and dripping onto the floor.
Naltu unpacked his pouches and locked the vellum letter into a drawer. He did not hide the location, though he returned the key to a pouch. She dried herself with a piece of linen, hung that near the stove, then found a place under the furs of his bed. They found sleep early in the night.
The sun rose. The stove was cooling. Naltu went to build the flame. The early winds of spring came, and little coal was required before the cabin was comfortable.
She had spread the contents of her pack out. The silver pen was there, and half the contents seemed to be papers. She had written once across the paper, then on the back, and turned it and wrote more words on each side, so that each sheet contained four pages. Her writing was tiny and precise. Her tunic was neatly folded on the table, set beside two books. She wrapped herself in a linen sheet taken from the bed.
"If it pleases you, Leredith let me have my words to myself, and I would appreciate the same."
Naltu nodded and his eyes left the words. "You have brought little."
Metta examined the contents of the table. There was no clothing, just the writing, and small glass vials of perfume, tiny pouches, and bits of paint for her face. "We shared most of the clothing. Leredith had given me all the coin for the books, so he said those, except for these, belong to him. He reminded me of his generosity in letting me leave with this."
Naltu sighed. "You have no clothing other than what you wore?"
"No," Metta agreed. She brushed her hair from her face and turned her head over her shoulder. She searched for words for a moment, and returned his gaze with a controlled smile.
"What would you like me to do today?"
Naltu was flustered. "Whatever you wish. I'm going to the Academy to find Baso."
Metta sniffed. "I can make you breakfast. In the Jade Palace, we ate, then we would clean the hall and the rooms and talk until the night would come. I'll find you fresh eggs, if you can wait an hour."
"I see. Metta, I don't know. This irritates me. I don't want you asking me what you should do. You must find your own path."
Metta crumbled inside, though she forced a pleasant laugh for show. "I'm sorry for my words last night. That evening wasn't as I had imagined it."
"No," Naltu admitted.
"I can sleep here? In your bed? More than just the once?"
"You know this."
"What if my desire is to make eggs for us? Even if it's that stupid letter, if it makes me happy... is there anything I can help you with, in your trade, or at the Academy?"
Naltu was silent. The thoughts that came to his mind were things he dared not speak.
"I'm not like you. I can't survive alone in the wilderness."
"I can teach you," Naltu laughed. "There is a favor I owe to Master Baso. The formulation for Leredith's elixir. I have books on the grimsalve and old ways, but I am a fool and do not read well."
Her eyes were bright. "You mix at the Academy?"
"I fail at it," Naltu said with a warm laugh.
"Ah! I can be of value. Are there implements I might borrow?"
He was unsure. "That is possible. Are you going to wait here, or will you join me?"
She returned her things to the pack and replaced the sheet on the bed. She pulled the blue tunic over her head and worked at the rope belt.
Naltu pulled at her hand. "No."
He took the frazzled belt and untied the knot and tossed it away. He stared at her for a moment, and she returned his gaze with confusion. He sniffed at the tunic and turned up his nose. He went to the shelves and found a gray tunic and tossed it to her. She was careful to fold the blue tunic and set it on the floor, and then pulled the gray cloth over her head. The fabric was larger than the first.
Naltu pulled six orange pelts from the shelf and worked at the buckles. He belted them together into a single piece the size of a small blanket. Metta came close, and Naltu wrapped the pelt around her hips, and tightened the buckles at the top. She was surprised by the weight, but the pelt held tightly in place, falling naturally, covering her knees. She stepped into her sandals and Naltu grumbled.
He glanced at her. The coat was suitable, but too much of her bust was revealed through the top of the tunic. Naltu searched through his shelves and found a brown leather vest. The vest was made of three panels, held together with laces under the shoulders. Naltu buttoned the front and loosened the laces, and then pulled the vest over Metta's arms and head. She kept her arms outstretched as he tightened the laces in the back, and when the panels met, the vest fit well enough around her chest. He buttoned the collar high so that her neck would be warm. The cut was not suitable for a woman, and ballooned at her waist, but Naltu believed it modest enough, and so he was satisfied.
He found a wide black belt and wrapped it around the narrowest portion of her waist and fastened the first buckle. The belt pulled the vest in to her stomach. He wrapped the belt around her, looser, so that the length hung against her left hip and over the fox fur. He buckled the belt again, and used the remaining length to place a second length that laid on her right hip. Metta poked at the buckles, and found them made of brass filigreed with silver wire. The skirt was strange and misshapen, not at all elegant, but comfortable and warm.
Naltu pushed her back and examined her work. She gave him a pleased smile and spun for his inspection. He was pleased. She took two steps and fidgeted with a small buckle at the bottom.
"It's too tight at my knees. I can't walk."
He bent in front of her and adjusted three straps at the side of her leg, and created a split in the skirt. He apologized.
"Is this how the women dressed in your home?"
"No," Naltu laughed. "But this is all I have."
She sorted through her sack and found a pin to bind the loose fabric of her tunic.
"This is great, Naltu. You made all this, didn't you?"
"I did not make the tunic or the buckles. You could go to the market and buy clothing to your liking."
"I don't have any money. I could go to Leredith and see if he'd let me work. He pays the women well. Two gold for a good moon's work. If you want," she said, "we could keep things the way they were."
Naltu shook his head and placed two full silver coins on the table. He glanced at her hip and found a small fur pouch on the shelf. He put the coins inside and pulled the drawstring tight. He tied the purse tightly to the belt on her hip. He stared in her eyes.
"That's not who you are."
"I could find other work. I'll go to the market like you said. I'll have your clothes cleaned and folded on your shelf when I return."
"We haven't broken fast."
Naltu found a medium-sized pack with a single strap, and hung the bag on Metta's shoulder. She took some of the things from her burlap cloth and placed them in the pack.
"Oh. Those eggs?" she asked.
"There is a place I prefer."
She grasped his elbow and followed him south. They passed through the iron gate of the Academy's grove. They continued past the large building, walking around, and then followed the road to another iron gate and then a tavern.
They were met by a mustachioed man with long hair, tied in a knot. He smelled of fragrant smoke, of scented sweet grass. He was dressed not unlike Metta, with a vest over a tunic, though he wore linen trousers.
"Good morning, Master Naltu. I was glad when your appetite returned, but the larder is nearly empty."
"Morning, Creed. I do hope to visit the markets." Naltu responded.
"Ma'am," the man responded, turning to Metta. "Erik's warming bacon and biscuits, and we'll have a few duck eggs boiled soon. The lady is an Academy guest?"
"She is my guest," Naltu agreed.
Creed nodded and placed a pitcher of mild ale, spiced and warmed on the hearth, onto the table. Naltu poured two cups and passed one to Metta. She sipped at the warm, flat drink and stared at Naltu.
"I recognize the names on the wall. You all come here a lot?"
"Yes. This place serves as our... a kitchen to the Academy. When I first came to Dosille, I lived here in a rented room."
"I'd always heard not to go to the Scribe's Lament. They say people disappear from here."
A chubby, wrinkled man moved past, hustling with two black-iron crocks, one full of bacon, and the other with duck eggs poached in white gravy. Naltu followed Erik to the counter where he made a plate. Metta took her own food, and they returned to the table and ate. Other patrons entered, ate quickly, and left. None of those who broke fast paid, and she wondered at the place.
Naltu waved to the keeps and they left. They walked along the streets and to the Academy, through the iron gate and grove that had become familiar to Metta.
"You do mean to follow me?"
"I'll go somewhere and wait, the market... if that's what you..."
Naltu shrugged. "No, come. When you go to the market, I prefer to accompany you, and I can not yet do this. I'll need to make introductions of you today. There are those here who might already know your name, so be free with it. Do not turn your ears from the scorn that will come."
They went to the library and Naltu searched for a particular book, one which the Academy maintained two copies of, a comprehensive treatise on fauna.
Metta pointed to the equipment on the long table at the back. "Is that for use?"
"Yes. I do not have my own equipment, and do not use it well. I mean to impose on one of my friends to learn."
"Surely you don't mix in this room?"
"The fumes would damage the books. There are workrooms below. Tall rooms with drafty chimneys to the sky. I'm going to meet with the quartermaster."
Naltu checked a slate panel and made a mark in chalk in a particular corner. "We will have the room numbered three below. It is early and I wish to meet with Haiche to gather from his supplies before others come with orders."
"Would you wish me to take this below to the workroom?"
"If you wish. Only that," he said, pointing to a particular device. He pointed the way to the door behind which stairs led to the cellar. He went below and met with Haiche, and the two men perused the tome and searched through tiny cabinets for jars of dried materials.
Metta found candles and a lidless wooden box, lined with cheap velvet, in a drawer. She disassembled the alembic into four pieces and placed them in the box, then added the candles to her pack. There was another pouch that she placed into her pack. Satisfied, she lifted the box.
Baso coughed and placed his hand on her arm, gently, so that she wouldn't drop the box.
"Who are you?" he asked, more of an order than a question.
She was startled, for the library had been empty when they came to the Academy. Baso had moved silently. Metta bowed politely and set the glass alembic aside. Baso stood close, and her neck hurt as she looked up to meet the man's gaze.
"Master? My name is Metta."
Baso hummed for a long moment, glaring in judgment. "I have not seen you here before. What are you doing in my library?"
She pointed to the slate Naltu had marked. "I'm working for Master Naltu. He asked me to fetch some tools to a workroom in the cellar."
"I see. Ah. You're his whore, then?"
Perry entered the library and smiled at Metta. She wore a suede robe over modest sleeping clothes and picked at bread flecked with bits of hard butter.
Metta closed her eyes and sniffed. "I'm his, yes. What should I call you, Master?"
"Have you taught him respect as well? I am Master Baso, civil head and custodian of this place. This room is filled with secrets, and Master Naltu has his own. I think he is a fool to bring you here. Will you betray him?"
"Master, never. I know not to speak of what happens here." she promised.
Baso turned to Perry and told the woman to follow Metta, that she should not be left unattended. Perry agreed and followed her down the stairs to the workroom. Baso came as well after a moment.
Naltu had filled glowstones with life. The room was lit, though he was not present. Pouches and glasses were scattered on a bench. Metta set the alembic on the bench, placing the leather pouch nearby. She took the things from the pouch and laid out small measures and tiny candles to the side of the jars of the alembic. She set iron stands in place. Two of the three jars had a glass spout. The first spout extended from the top of a jar and fit into an opening on the bottom of a second jar. Metta rubbed the spout and the opening with a small fragment of rough soap to ensure a seal. The second jar had a spout that left the side near the bottom, and a third jar was connected through an opening in the top to collect the results of the distillation. Metta shifted the jars carefully so that the weight of the reagents and solvents would be born entirely by the iron stand and not the glass.
"You know the ways of alchemical equipment? Did Leredith teach you?" Perry asked.
"Mistress, he did teach me a little," she agreed. "I mixed fragrant oils and perfumes for the girls of the Jade Palace."
"You mixed with the alembic? Like this one?"
"Yes," she said, face proud. She forgot her place, and added a word, "Mistress," bowing quickly.
"Demonstrate," Baso rumbled.
She trembled for a moment, then lit the small candles. She hunted through her things and returned with a flask of pure spirit and filled the lower jar of the alembic, and added a careful measure of dried powder.
"You do not measure the liquor?" Baso scolded.
She blushed. "Master, I didn't think it was important. The reagent's what matters. I'm not crossing ratios."
Perry sighed. "Tell me of Aleister's Ratios."
Metta stopped for a moment. "Mistress. The ratios? I don't know the tables, but I could use them from a book."
Perry rubbed grit from her eyes and inspected her finger, bored. "How?"
Metta lifted the pouch of powder in demonstration. She felt as if she was a child being quizzed. She searched her memory for a while before speaking.
"Mistress. In dilution, the properties of a reagent decrease as more solvent is used. Then, those properties cease to be present, and new properties emerge if the solution is further diluted with different solvents. The ratios are tables for that, types and quantities, necessary because the results are not apparent. The alchemists use this for medicines, but I haven't had the need in a long time. I'm only mixing for primary properties, so only the reagents and amount of solution at the end matters."
Perry inspected the pouch. "Nightshade? You mix a drink for Naltu," she said, nodding with approval.
Metta's eyes went wide. She thought the woman to have been speaking in harsh jest, but the sincerity in Perry's eyes told Metta she had been mistaken. "No. Mistress, I mix drops the whores wear to make our... the eyes sparkle. I was hoping to earn some coin in trade with the Jade Palace, since Leredith is too lazy... I spoke improperly. I did not leave with any coin. None of the girls left there make the drops. This is new to me, and I'm shaking. You asked for a demonstration... that... I was allowed to take some nightshade, this is what came to mind."
Baso grumbled and moved his thin hair from his face. "Ah. You will not speak so again, whore. You will know your place and not shame your Master."
She sniffed and bowed her head. The spirits boiled. Metta collected the drippings from the alembic and returned the black liquor to the lower jar.
Naltu returned and watched her work, setting small piles of herbs in neat rows on the table behind her. She waited until the spirits fell low, and Baso frowned.
"If the alembic burns, it will crack," the old man scolded.
"Yes, Master," she said, and poured thick syrup from a tiny leather flask into a copper measuring funnel, and fed the alembic.
"And what's that?" Perry asked.
Metta trembled, and struggled to cap the bottle. Her tongue refused to work. "Mistress... it's.... this is sweet oil... the spirits extract the essence, and the oil does not... it is soft... it doesn't hurt... for eyedrops..."
The vapors slowed and stopped, and she extinguished the candle with her fingers. She poured the contents of the alembic into a glass vial and capped it with a wax pellet.
"Leredith taught you all of this, girl?"
Metta shook her head. "Master Baso, no. I spent six years at the Academy School in Seat."
"Six years," Perry muttered. "An Apprentice?"
"No, Mistress, a failed scholar. My father paid in gold for my training. He hoped I would become a cipher like him."
Baso turned to Naltu. "She writes Libbonese like a scribe and mixes as an Apprentice. I had wondered what you found so compelling in a slave whore."
"Yes, Master Baso," Naltu agreed. "I'd not hear her called slave or whore again."
"No? Choose a better title. A slave can never be more than a servant or a concubine to you."
Naltu turned and peered over his shoulder. "Concubine, then."
"Well, then, concubine. You are welcome here, but you will not use the Academy's reagents for trade, and if you foul any tools, you will replace them with your own coin, or your master's. You did speak praise of her, Mistress d'Oncil, so she is as much your charge as Master Naltu's."
"What of this, Master?" she asked.
"If the reagents were yours, so is the product, provided all this is cleaned and returned intact." Baso agreed. "Do you know the formulation of Leredith's elixir, then?"
"Master, no, but I have tasted it every morning for eight cold winters, and we will extract from these herbs and mix until my tongue leads me true."
"Then it is a shame Naltu paid your price before I could. Serve your Master well, or the Academy will mete out the consequences that the savage heart could not."
The old man left and Naltu held her close.
"Master, you drink nightshade?"
Naltu laughed. "He said this?"
Perry frowned. "That's my fault. I'll leave you two alone to work. Make some time, we'll have coffee tomorrow."
"Master, He said you have secrets. This is one of them. I'll not betray you."
"Do not call me Master when we are alone, Metta."
"Master, I know my place. I'm your slave, and so gladly your concubine while you wish it. I know you would prefer I was strong and free like the women of the south. It is not so. I will sleep on the streets if you wish, but I will still be yours."
"My home and my furs are always open to you, Sidhe, as long as you need."
Her face split and her marbled eyes beamed without focus. "Do not make such a promise to me unless you mean it."
The two concocted until the moon fell, filling a hundred vials with the liquors of as many herbs. The sun was rising when they left the workroom. Naltu asked Baso if they might leave their work in the room so that they could rest, and he agreed.
They returned to Naltu's house and slept until lunch came. Metta cautiously found a fresh tunic and the clothes she had worn the day before. She began to dress.
"Naltu? You don't mind if I wear these things today?"
"No. Dress as you like."
Metta nodded. She remembered the intricate arrangement of the buckles at her hip. Naltu gathered the gray tunic and the blue one, and socks and the linens from the bed. He bundled them together into a sack and tossed it over his shoulder.
"Perry said we could have coffee with her today. What do you think?"
Naltu nodded. "She would be at the Academy. We'll find her, and then I must deposit the linens at the Scribe's Lament for washing."
Metta blinked for a moment. She thought to ask whether he wished for her to wash the clothing at his home, but held silent. She finished tightening the buckles and followed him out of the house. They walked to the Academy. Naltu took Metta past the first lobby, asking her to wait in the second, where the sleeping quarters were.
He climbed the stairs and returned after a moment with Mistress d'Oncil. She took Metta's hands.
"I'm sorry about Baso yesterday. He's an old man and views things in particular ways. Imagine him as an overbearing father."
"He was here when we left," Metta whispered.
Perry laughed. "He doesn't leave his office except to bathe and eat. I don't think he can stand his family."
"Perhaps, to the market?" Naltu suggested.
The trio left the Academy and went south. Snow fell gently from the sky and made the hard stone streets slick. Men came from their homes and poured ash from the stoves onto the streets. Metta frowned, for her feet were blackened from the soot. She shivered as drafts touched her bare calves.
Perry slipped her hand through Naltu's arm. Metta followed, sulking. They came to a tent and entered. Perry and Metta sat at a table. Naltu purchased a pitcher of coffee and a plate of bread from a nearby stand and joined the women.
"I like your clothing," Perry said.
Metta nodded. "It's all Naltu's. I'd meant to find something more proper in the market."
Perry glanced at the man. He wore his usual clothing of wolf pelts tied tightly to his body, though he was still thin from the Ordeal.
"Well, you two certainly match. I've never seen you wear fox pelts?"
"No. I had not yet collected enough to clothe myself."
Perry turned her eyes to Metta. "What sort of clothing do you need? I know the shops here well enough, and could use some time away from my studies."
Metta inhaled and sat still for moment. "Everything, I suppose. Leredith didn't let me take much. The coin in my purse is all his, so this is my master's preference."
Perry hummed. "I think fur suits you. We could buy some small things of lace and linen, and Naltu could find fur enough for a coat? Could you do this, savage?"
Naltu chuckled. "The hunting is easier in winter. What of the dresses? Are you not accustomed to such attire?"
"Oh... if you wish to see me so, Naltu, of course. And I must have a corset."
"A corset? You have a choice, and you'd wear such a thing?" Perry asked.
Naltu finished his coffee and watched the exchange.
"I'll get you into a corset, too."
Perry stood and smoothed her silk robes. "Well, let's go, then. The market here is quite opulent. Would you prefer to go west to the Central Market first?"
Metta nodded. They walked out of the tent, and their feet sounded against the accumulating snow. Perry glanced at Metta's feet.
"Sandals? In weather like this?"
"That's all Leredith gave me. Besides, we don't wear boots..."
"Right," Perry sighed. "First stop, proper footwear."
"My feet are gross from all this ash."
Perry sighed and led west, beyond the market, and the snow fell heavier. They continued and found more tents. At the outskirt, Perry bid Metta sit on a bench. She knelt and scrubbed Metta's feet with a handful of snow. Metta squealed in discomfort, though she did not struggle.
"This is how we clean ourselves in the south," Naltu said.
"Now carry her so that her feet aren't filthy by the time we get to the cobbler. I'm hoping we can find something that will fit."
Naltu lifted Metta into his arms. He struggled for a moment, for much of his strength was gone, and she was tall. She tucked the front flap of her tunic between her legs for modesty, then clung tightly to his neck. He followed Perry into the tents. Perry led him to a particular area where a carpet hid a small booth. Loud taps came from within as the cobbler hammered at something.
Naltu picked a pair of soft stockings from a table. He sat on a bench, letting Metta come to rest on his lap. He glanced at her face. She seemed quite pleased. He stretched the stockings on his fingers and struggled to slide them over her feet, succeeding only after a brief battle with the squirming girl.
"Hey! Cobbler! You've got a customer," Perry shouted.
The man came out after a moment and glanced at the three. Metta twisted in Naltu's lap until her hands were pressing the skirt between her legs low, and her feet rested on the bench. She grinned at the cobbler.
"I would like some boots. Can you help?"
He glanced at the brown stockings and grasped her feet. "Ah. Of course, miss. My boots are made of fine calfskin, light enough for Dosille's summer, sealed with oil against water and cold. Would you prefer half-height or full-height?"
"Full-length," Perry answered.
The man rushed into the back, returning after a moment with a pair of tall boots crafted from black leather. He unlaced the sides and opened the leather. The boots ballooned like funnels. Metta had no trouble placing her foot inside. The man quickly wrapped the laces around studs up the length of her foot, tying a knot just below her knee. He pressed at the tip of the boot, feeling for her toe, and was satisfied. He placed the second boot on her other leg and tied it so.
"These would suit you, miss? A full silver for the boots, and six clays for the stockings."
Metta's hands went to the purse at her hip. She untied the thong, though Naltu stopped her, and paid the cobbler from his own coin. She struggled from Naltu's lap and stood on her own.
"Ah! Mistress d'Oncil, you do know your way around the markets."
The man glanced at her. "You are pleased, then?"
"Yes! Though I should ask, I need more than a single pair of stockings."
"That's all I have," the cobbler said. "In that style, of course. It's cold outside, and all who have coin wish to be warm, as you do."
Metta nodded. "Fine. Thank you, um?"
The man blinked. "My name? Hancil Greer, miss."
"Thank you for the boots, Hancil. Is there a mirror nearby?"
Hancil pointed across the way. "On the other side of that booth. Madame Rae sells frilly things and has a mirror. If she pushes you away, tell her I sent you."
Naltu stood and put his arm around Metta's waist. The three walked around the booth. Metta stood square in front of the mirror, her arms on her hips.
"I am gorgeous."
Perry doubled over, laughing. "And humble. You're the prettiest bandit I've ever seen."
Metta turned to Naltu. She whispered in a low tone only he could hear. "You seem displeased. Would you rather I weren't wearing any of this?"
Naltu blushed and did not respond. Metta turned in front of the mirror, tugging the belt and fur into place. Madame Rae approached from behind, making eye contact with Metta's reflection.
"What suits you, Madame - oh!"
Metta turned, startled by the woman's surprise. Rae was only just older, dressed in a clean blue vest over a purple chemisette. Rae clenched her jaw. Metta struggled with the face, searching for recognition. She bowed after a moment, bobbing so that she met Rae's eyes, glancing just upwards.
"Madame... Henra... Rae...?"
Madame Rae made a feminine grunt. "How brash, to see you here. Have you come to make an apology, or perhaps to peruse my wares?"
Metta's face was red in the cold tent, and her skin flushed further. "I'm sorry, Madame Rae. I have never meant-"
Rae's face was white, and she lifted a necklace made of lacquered sea-shells, and toyed with the many strands. "Has he returned?"
"I can't speak of such things."
Rae's eyebrow rose. "So he has."
"No... I did not say that."
Naltu glanced at Metta. "This is of Leredith? His words do not bind you."
Metta turned to Naltu and faced him, grasping her hands over her stomach. "It's not that. There's a certain order to things. Madame Rae, if I were to tell you one thing, and another were to ask me, and I were to feign ignorance, that would be as the same as the confirmation you search for. I can't answer your query."
"I must know!" Rae hissed.
"You need sleeves, not hair-pins," Perry whispered.
Metta agreed and stepped back. "Madame, ask your husband, then."
"I don't trust his answer."
"Then you don't need mine," Metta said, and sniffed politely.
Rae was stunned. The three walked away from the booth.
"I have the Academy's business to attend to. This will not take long. Will you follow me, or shall we meet in an hour?"
Metta's eyes went wide. She grasped Perry's shoulder. "Corsets."
They met and Naltu led them back to the eastern markets where the aristocrats shopped. He kept his arm around Metta's shoulder so that she would not shiver. The eastern market was no warmer, for the wood-smoke would foul the wares.
They moved through the larger market. Metta glanced longingly at a booth selling silver pipes and fresh Opal buds, though she followed Naltu. He came to the central tent and pushed inside.
"This is where the jewelers live," Metta commented. "I don't need anything here."
Perry laughed. "Naltu does a deal of business with the gemcutters and the jewelers. Perhaps he led us here for his own needs?"
Naltu nodded, and walked to a table. He picked at the linen covering the table for a moment, waiting patiently. A familiar face came and greeted Naltu with a warm handshake.
"Donovan, show what you have for me."
The man turned impolitely and brought a tray forth. Small stones sparkled under the strange light of the glowstone that lit his shop. Naltu took the tray and turned to Metta.
"What do you think of these?"
Metta knelt and inspected the stones, though she touched none.
"Are these real? Sapphire and ruby, or are these just colored glass?"
Donovan laughed loudly. "Miss, we do not trade in glass in such a place as this. All those stones are as authentic as they seem, gifted from the heart of Ghidiun."
Naltu shrugged. "It is as he says. Do you prefer ruby or sapphire, then?"
Metta blinked. She held her breath for a moment. "When I was younger, I had a fine pair of sapphire earrings."
Naltu plucked a stone from the tray and placed it on the table, and then set the tray down. He pointed at a locket hanging from a silver chain. "Place this stone in that, I'll take it. Otherwise, as per our arrangement."
Metta stumbled away from the booth. Perry followed.
"He's not buying that for me, is he?"
"Of course not. Why would he do such a thing, girl? Do you think he has some degree of fondness for you?"
Donovan's deft hands worked, completing the work after a moment. Naltu took the necklace and walked to Metta. He placed the locket around her neck and locked the clasp. She fondled the locket and kissed the blue stone set in the center.
"Sapphire and fox-fur. This suits you, I think."
Metta's eyes were wet. She inspected the necklace. "Is this a gift, then?"
"This is far too much, Naltu. Thank you."
Naltu touched Metta's face and tilted her head down so that he could kiss her forehead. "I trade in gems from Ghidiun. I send letters worth coin to Krigsgud, and that coin is traded for Opal, linen and meal, and these are sent south to my homeland. The green men there dig in the mountains to find room for their city, and they send the rough stones to me in trade. In this way, I have coin. You spoke of corset. Did you find this in the western market?"
"No, the corsets were all the same as what Leredith owns. I couldn't wear that sort of thing."
"I know of a place that sells bespoke trivialities," Perry said. "Quite a bounty you've made this day. Have you two come to an arrangement?"
Naltu glared at Perry. Metta rubbed her mouth for a moment, thinking. "I've only been at his house for two nights." She turned her eyes.
Perry swallowed and pulled Metta behind her, away from the jewelers and out of the tent. "Fair, then. We'll find corsets and sleeves, and you'll be dressed proper."
"Proper?" Metta asked. "Proper for what? I feel fit for a travel through the snow."
Naltu responded. "Proper for mixing, for we've much to do. Would you perhaps be content with supper and a night in an Academy workroom?"
"We should bring coffee this time. It helps."
"The Lament, then?" Perry asked. "I'm sure Creed would make coffee for us."
"You'll help, Mistress d'Oncil?" Metta asked.
"I think I should," Perry said with a joyful tone. "Wouldn't it be my fault if Naltu delivered a poisonous elixir to the Academy? If neither of you fully understand Aleisters Ratios, then you should mix with someone who does."
"Your help is offered and accepted," Naltu said. "I would enjoy a meal at the Scribe."
The three left the market and made the short trip to the Scribe's Lament. The tavern was as busy is it could be. Those who were in the employ of the Academy were there, eating and drinking. Creed and Erik were kept busy, and there was no time for conversation with the keeps.
Metta stood in front of the silvered glass that lined the wall near the bar. She twisted her head and body, searching for new ways to see herself. She drew scolding glances and whispered jeers. Naltu set a plate on the table for her, and she came and ate. They finished and went to the Academy. Perry suggest they focus on the herbs they knew could not be included in the elixir, and in doing so, reduced the candidates by two thirds.
The morning came, and with the rising sun, Metta procured a black satin corset and puff-ball sleeves that laced behind her back and underneath the vest. Her outfit was mismatched and she seemed to be some misplaced urban orphan lost in the woods, with the mixture of paint, linen, fur, and jewels.
Naltu left her alone in the workroom to mix another hundred vials of herbs. She combined drops of the solutions she believed most likely and least poisonous. Perry came and brought supper to the workroom, and Naltu had not returned.
"Where is he?" Metta asked, then stuffing a piece of hearty bread into her mouth.
"I don't know. He's not in the Academy. Do you want me to walk you home?"
"No, that's fine. I wouldn't want you to have to walk back."
"He left you alone here to do his work."
"Oh, it's alright. I spent a year earning enough of Leredith's trust to be allowed into the market during my days. Remember, I once asked if there might be a place for me in the Academy? I'm here. If you have a moment, could you show me where your book rests?"
Perry was chagrined. She led the dark-haired woman up the stairs and into the library. Metta took it from the shelf and tenderly turned the pages.
"I know it's your tome, but... I mean no offense, I take some measure of pride in this. The words are yours, but every drop of ink on this paper came from my pen. I sewed every stitch."
The door to the library opened and then closed. Muffled footsteps tracked along the wood floor beyond the wall.
"I wanted to thank you. Your illustrations are better than mine were, even though you hadn't seen what I had," Perry said.
"Ah, but I've seen enough sores. Naltu's still clean, you should know. If he does get the sickness, be certain you were not the source."
The library door opened again. Naltu moved across the room, the floor shaking with his amassing bulk. He was clean and smelled of lavender. He wore a fresh gray tunic over leggings, and a cloak followed him as he came to Metta's side.
"Hunting, hmm?" Perry asked.
Metta glanced at Perry, confused.
"Oh, he must have made a mess of his coat."
"Yes," Naltu agreed. "Time to come home?"
Perry took the book from Metta and replaced it among the others in the shelf. "Next time you leave Metta here, let me know before you leave, please."
"Oh, it's alright. I'm fine," Metta insisted.
Perry put her hand lightly on Metta's shoulder. "I don't mean to be impolite, but Baso insisted. It's not normal for people who aren't commissioned to have unfettered access to these halls and rooms."
"Of course," Naltu agreed. "I was too excited to hunt under the full moon."
"Well, where you successful?"
Naltu tugged at his shirt. "Yes. I think so."
Perry winced. "Why can't you just wear linen or silk like normal people?"
Naltu crossed his arms over his chest. "You will be cold tonight. I will not."
"I have no doubt of that," Perry replied, mocking him with a disgusted smile. "It's time then, and I'm off to freeze in my bed. Good night, dear friends."
Metta followed Naltu home. The stove was burning hotly when they arrived. She glanced at the furs stretched and tacked onto the wall. He had gathered two deer skins and various pelts from small things thick with fur. They ate a dinner of cold sausage and bread, then finished a cask of ale. Metta took Naltu to the bath. She found a brush and scrubbed the remains of his hunt from his fingers and hair, and they joined each other under the fur bedding.
Perry found Metta alone again in the workroom in the morning. The alembic was boiling and the room was scented with mint and vanilla. The odor would be pleasing if not so assaulting.
"You should have come and roused me..."
"I tried. You were asleep. Besides, Naltu's right down the hall. He's doing something I'm not allowed to know."
Perry nodded and ducked out of the room. She went to the next room. Naltu was there, with three boards of the element's game. He had a stack of small stones of various colors. Various piles of dust were carefully arranged on small patches of fine silk.
"Stones aren't needed for the elixir, are they?"
"Would Leredith know the crafting?"
"I don't think so. We could ask around, but I'd suspect he's no more learned than Metta. If he was a proper Apprentice and could craft stones, he would have been made Magister, and we'd know more of him."
"What can you tell me of high-tier stones?"
"Hm. Is that what you're doing?"
"Failing," Naltu said, his face sullen.
"If you're Nature-attuned, you can only make those stones. You need to ask one of us if you need something else. And... they are dangerous."
Naltu slipped something into his boot with one hand. In the other he presented a small green stone to Perry. "Nature and water."
"What are you hiding?"
Her face paled. "Oh, do you perhaps have a gift for me?"
"I don't understand."
"You're a poor sneak. Show me. I want my own ruby locket," she said, teasing to hide her frustration.
He plucked the red stone from his stocking. Perry examined the red marble. She took it to a glow stone. The color shifted. The usual warmth of a fire stone was lacking.
"Are you displeased?"
"Is this for the brand?"
Naltu produced the slave rod from his pack. He placed it onto the table. "The stone at the tip is made from flesh, my own blood mixed with the dust. I changed it again with a water-stone I found in the market in Krigsgud."
"So that's how it's done. Flesh and water compel."
"No. Flesh and water make the brand."
"Daring of you to do this in the Academy. You'd be in a great deal of trouble if anyone knew."
"I know. Thank you for keeping my secrets."
Perry examined the Apprentice's game board. "Wait. Did you make a second-tier stone in Krigsgud? I'm certain someone would have noticed if this went missing for a month."
"Ryuten did not have a board. I made the stone his way. I will not do that again, given the choice."
Perry blinked. "I've never heard of someone making a stone without a board."
Naltu took the stone from Perry's hand, giving her a smile in return. "I will show you if you wish to know."
Perry pulled a stool to the table and sat. "Why aren't you willing to do it?"
"Too much focus required. Without focus comes pain. The work is simple as holding the pattern scrawled on that board behind your eyes. The work can be done in your hand."
"Every Apprentice's heard of that. I've tried it myself. There has to be more."
"When I hunt, I wait silent, staring at the moon. I do this until the sun rises and my hands are empty. When Ghindi sits in the library, she listens to the music-box and leaves after a half-hour."
"So it's just a matter of discipline?"
"Do you work, and the time passes too quickly, and the effort is too easy?"
Perry stood and put her hands on Naltu's shoulders. "I feel like that a lot. Even when I'm not working. You stop paying attention to time, and time stops paying attention to you. Opal does that, too. Makes a day seem like a moment."
"In the south, when one does not focus, one does not eat. The animals are smart and fearful in the hostile country. Here, one can approach a boar with soft steps, and there is no fear. In truth, I have made only the one stone that way, bound in that device of leather and iron."
The days ran together. Derin gave the remainder of the grimsalve to Baso. The block was given to Naltu and Metta, and they made a portion of the elixir. Metta promised to test it on herself. She was satisfied that the mixture was close enough. In time, Baso sold a vial to an aristocrat with a sick daughter. The disease was cured, and he took two gold coins as payment, and gave five full silvers to Naltu.
Naltu retreated to his cabin for rest. Time passed. Naltu filled a cold chest with fresh meat, and cured more behind his house. Metta spent her time in the bed with her pen and paper. She copied her words from smudged paper to fresh sheets, and used fast inks. She made order of Naltu's trading notes. They went to the market and were seen trading polite affection.
Naltu's house was warm when Perry came close. The smell of cedar smoke filled the air. Perry knocked and entered. Naltu was boiling water on the stove. Small urns with tiny plants were strewn about the floor near the walls, flourishing from the tiny nature-stones resting on the soil.
Perry touched the glass fixture on the table. The jars were perfectly transparent, lacking the dust of an ornament. "You bought your own alembic?"
"That is hers. Ghindi complained of her overuse of the shared instruments, and the glass was not so expensive."
"And you're letting her mix... in here?"
Naltu grinned, pointing to the plants. "She only makes perfumes. The smell is not offensive, except when there is a mistake."
"She's been here for a month. Is everything working out?"
"I am very pleased with this arrangement. She is content to sleep during the day, and I hunt at night. There is guilt. She calls me Master as a sign of respect, but I do not enjoy it. She does not use the word as you or Baso do."
"You're an aristocrat, she's a commoner. That's nothing unusual."
"Why does this matter?"
"You're owed respect in this city. The eager aristocrats would remind everyone that Dosille is nothing without us." Perry confided. "That means you're a Master, and I'm a Mistress, though those titles are also used informally. Baso uses them, as do the wh- girls of the Jade Palace. Few others will, outside of negotiation or service. Let her if she wishes."
"Yes. But I do not wear silk or fine leather, and the men stare down at me."
"The pelts you wear are worth more than silk, Master Naltu. With your Guild Token and your deed, you're an equal to any man or woman in this city. Maybe she's not thinking about the slave thing. She's in love with you and the happiest she's ever been. She's trying to figure her new life out."
"I don't think that is why."
"You could ask her. Gently."
"She answered as you did."
Perry closed her eyes. "She made me promise not to tell you." Perry looked up. "I know more of her past than she wishes you to know right now. Let this be."
"I sent her to the Scribe on her own."
"What? Why? So you could whine to me about how your girl loves you too much?"
"Just tonight, because I want your help, and I did not want her to see. Do you carry my letter with you?"
"Yes," Naltu agreed, removing his shirt. He pointed to a crimson stain on the floor, still wet. "She scrubbed for too long. She thinks I killed a fox in my cabin. She does not know what I did. I need you here for a moment to finish this."
Naltu removed a black stone lit from within by purple light. "This is a Stone of Abyss."
Perry's face twisted in surprise. "Where did you get that?"
"The crafting is forgotten by Baso, and perhaps even Ryuten. I crafted it from the shards Metta collected when I bled in the Jade Palace, and from a process I remembered in a dream. I did this on the game board I earned my Apprenticeship with. Have you brought the letter?"
Perry held the linen in her hand. "I only had it because I'm going to give it to her. That will make you equals, then there won't be any more whining from either of you."
Naltu laughed, gathering courage. He drew a knife and cut the brand on his arm. The flesh became liquid, black and deep, and he dropped the stone into the pool of blood. The skin knit and became whole. He grit his teeth, and his face grew flushed with pain, and he screamed. Perry rushed to him and held his shoulders as he dropped to his knees. The linen was pressed between her fingers and his arm.
He grasped the skin between his fingers and pulled and screamed again. The flesh broke away, and with the patch, he pulled blue tendrils from his arm. Light flowed in the air with the shape of the swimming sea jellies. He knelt before Perry and tears fell from his eyes.
"Perry, command me."
She held the linen. "You've removed the brand?"
"I don't know. The last attempt failed, but now the mark is gone."
"Naltu, shit on the floor like a dog."
The tribesman laughed and stood unsteadily. "You are cruel, Perry. No. I will not do this for you."
She dropped the linen and kissed her fingers. The fabric smoked and filled the room with the smell of sulfur. They went to the Scribe's Lament searching for Metta and found the girl alone at a table with two empty pitchers of wine.
"Hello, Master Naltu. I'm drunk," the tall girl said, sad. She toyed with a piece of writing coal, marking a piece of paper with smears.
Perry kissed Metta's cheek. "We're done with our business, Metta. You can have your man back. You should know he's asking why you insist on calling him Master."
"He made me wait alone in a tavern."
"You should have protested," Naltu said. He put his hands on her shoulders and waited. She tilted her head to the side and rubbed the corner of her eye against his knuckle.
"But I don't, do I, Master? Creed's roasting ducks in orange liquor. You should go ask after, or else I'll have to eat alone."
Naltu squeezed and went to the bar. He returned with three glass cups containing a blue spirit poured over fist-sized spheres of polished ice.
"I would like to celebrate."
"Why are we celebrating?" the girl asked, confused and groggy.
"I am making you a gift. Perry has helped. It is not ready, but soon. I prepare a gift that gold can not buy."
She smiled and kissed his face. He wore a cloak to hide the black marks on his neck, but her lips found the dark within, and Perry looked away, filling her face with her cup.
"There's something I need to tell you, Naltu. I should have brought this up earlier, but I thought Metta would have been home."
Metta found Perry's eyes as the blonde woman's face grew gray.
"Baso wants us to go to Seat. You, Derin, and me. One of the machines maintained by the Academy is not operating properly. We're to leave by Moonday."
"You're leaving in just two days? Seat is a moon's ride from Dosille."
"Yes," Perry said, nodding to Metta. "We'll be gone for a long time."
"Naltu, can I come with you? Oh. I meant to say something else. Naltu, I think I'll be going to visit Seat in a few days. My family is from the land to the north of Seat, and I long to remember it. Perhaps we'll travel together?"
Perry laughed. "That's how it is?"
Metta grinned and touched Perry's hands. "He won't ask me to do anything important, because of my stupid brand. You gave me good advice, Perry, so I've got to do what I want. And I want to go to Seat with you."
Naltu kissed Metta's cheek. "Mistress d'Oncil gives much advice, hmm? You will prepare our packs and arrange for horses."
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