Naltu preferred traveling alone, but Metta insisted the trip would be safer with a caravan. She took Naltu's coin and purchased an ox and a covered wagon. The caravan was ten wagons in all, informal. A small militia had been hired for escort, and she asked them for recommendations on supplies to suit for travelers. Between the wagon, ox, and consumables, she spent an entire gold coin.
He hired two additional horses, for the wagon was small and full, and he did not trust only the single ox in case of injury. He bought straw that had been thrashed with a cane and filled the wagon with the material for comfort. The wagon found a spot in the center of the caravan. Naltu watched the morning sun rise in his face as the group moved east. Metta was convinced that their wagon was the most well-equipped.
Derin found his place asleep among the straw. Metta struggled to write in the wagon during the day, when she was not seated on top of Naltu's horse and in his arms. The three on the horses wore linen robes and pulled the hoods low over their faces to block out the sun.
On leaving Dosille, the militia told the travelers that the roads were safe and well-patrolled. There were few traveling houses between the cities, but other merchant caravans coming from Seat ensured a reliable supply of food and essential supplies. The militiaman hinted that the caravan had the support of the Academy.
"Tell me of these machines under the city?" Naltu asked.
"We don't know much. Derin read a book, but it's old and rotten. He copied what he could before we left. The Magisters a hundred years ago buried things to tend the soil and the air so that the people could prosper without intervention. These are things like the clock in Dosille, or the auto-forge where steel is pressed into blades. Many of the machines, buried so, have died, and the builders are long gone," Perry explained.
"And Baso wants us to learn to repair this?"
Perry tugged the rein of her horse and drew closer to Naltu. "I think he'll be content if we provide a report on what the machine actually is, and what's wrong. He might hire mechanics from Spheria or Fashil to aide us, if the task is beyond the Academy."
Despite the promises of safety, the city had fallen two days past the horizon when screams came from the dense forest to the north, in a place where the trees encroached on rocky hills. Metta shifted to awareness, and found only two others nearby. Naltu rose, sitting, shaking off the morning weariness, and struggling out of the heavy blankets he shared with his concubine.
Warriors clad in leather charged from the forest. The people of the caravan screamed and cowered. Fog quickly fell from the sky, obscuring vision until Naltu could not see his fingers held in front of his face. He searched the ground with his hands until he found his sword. Metta led him to the wagon. He lifted her in, though he freed his blade and rushed towards the sound of steel ringing.
Metta followed him out of the wagon, and he shouted at her to return, but she refused.
"You can't even see, you idiot," she hissed. "Come back here!"
The sky roared. He pushed into the fog, and she clung to his free arm. "Naltu, no!"
She tugged him away, and a man stumbled nearby. Naltu saw the brigand's desperate face, and swung his blade down. The blow was parried, and Naltu kicked the man's thigh. The bandit tumbled to the ground. Metta tackled Naltu as knives made of ice whirled through the air, missing the bandit. The shards tore into the skin of other brigands who were standing. They wore armor, and the sharp ice was brittle and shattered. The wounds were grievous and the injured bled and cried on the ground.
"Naltu, get up!" she ordered. "He's right next to-"
Her shout was cut short as the bandit changed direction and sought out the voice. Naltu buried his blade in the man's exposed back. He gasped in the fog, face dripping with water, and reached out his free hand. Metta found him.
More screams came, distant, and Metta cried and begged Naltu to return to the caravan. Naltu wiped his blade on the dead bandit's clothing, then followed her to the wagon. The screams stopped, and the sun rose high, burning away the fog. An old militiaman walked with a sledge hammer and crushed the skulls of the wounded bandits. Twelve corpses littered the ground.
The cries of vultures came and the caravan buried few bodies. The bandits were given to the carrion predators of the hills. Perry was inside the wagon again, retching and clutching her stomach. Metta left Naltu and put her arms around Perry's neck. Derin sat in the dark corner of the wagon, his eyes glittering.
"It's over," Metta promised. "I think I saw a Magister. I'm sure others did, then."
Perry's eyes rose. She wiped the slickness from her face. "I couldn't see anything in that sudden fog."
Metta tried to console Perry with a contrived grin. "That was a Magister's work, I'm sure. I saw him run into the forest after the bandits. He wore shimmering green."
Perry laughed for a moment, and lost composure and vomited again. Naltu jumped outside and went to find ginger root from one of the other wagons. Metta boiled water over a small firestone and wiped Perry's face.
"Naltu killed someone," Metta whispered to Perry. "I've never seen someone die before."
Perry turned and wept. "It's hard watching death, even if they were bandits. They might've been dead of starvation in a day. He's a capable fighter, girl, didn't you know that?"
"I suppose so. No, actually, no. I didn't. I was always surprised that Leredith let him bring that sword in. I thought it was for show, like the aristocrats with the fancy wooden pistols."
"Did we lose anyone from the caravan?"
"Three, I think. How do you feel?
Perry swore. "Derin, I'll be sick for days. I need you and Naltu to post watches. Can you do that? I don't want to be surprised by thieves again."
The night came and Derin made two campfires. The first was roaring, and Naltu filled an iron pot with potatoes and bacon and water, and placed it into the flames. Derin let that fire diminish, and stoked the other, and the food cooked.
They ate, and the sky was clear. Metta stared at the stars until she was tired, and she put her head on Naltu's leg, and she snored softly. Derin returned alone to the wagon and found sleep among his blankets on the straw.
Perry shifted and moved next to Naltu.
"She's asleep?" Perry whispered.
Naltu pulled the hair away from Metta's eyes. "It would seem so. You are troubled."
"One of them died right in front of me. Criest was the first time I'd ever been in a fight."
Perry began to shake, and her eyes were wet, though her voice remained steady. Naltu put his arm on her shoulder, and her face cracked with pain. Tears came from his own eyes.
"I killed eight men. I murdered them, and I can see their faces when I close my eyes. I'm horrified at myself right now. Is that how you felt when it happened?"
"No. But you and I are different. I killed out of... fervor, and had a journey to consider it. I was ready and excited. This was a surprise for you. You should have woken me."
"I didn't want to wake Derin or her," Perry whispered, gesturing to Metta. "The thought of letting him kill someone... he's still a little boy in my eyes. I'd rather have done it. It'll have to be one of you next time. Derin said Liang taught him how to kill. Ghindi taught me the ways of the ice and fog. I cut the grimkin apart enough, but the bandits... Gods, that man Hajin had to finish things because I didn't even have the guts to make it clean. If I was faster, three people wouldn't have died. I tied the damn straps on my robe. I didn't have to do that."
"Not your fault. The slavers that died at my hand killed themselves. So did those bandits. The militiamen and the trader who died, did so for the bandits evil, not yours. I will handle the fighting my own way, with a sharp blade, and I will sleep easily."
"The people look to the Magisters for protection. I can't turn my back."
"I'm not asleep," Metta sighed, mumbling. "Shit. I'm sorry. I didn't mean to deceive you."
Naltu pressed the tips of his fingers to Metta's scalp.
Perry began to sob. "Bitch."
Metta was silent and her face went red. "If you take my letter and tell me not to speak of this, I never will. And if you don't, I still won't talk."
Perry glanced at Metta and put her wet hand on the other girl's ear. Metta put her hand on Perry's.
Mistress d'Oncil's sobs grew louder, and Derin came outside the tent.
"What's wrong?" he asked with a harsh, tired tone.
"Go inside," Metta insisted.
"It's fine, he can stay," Perry said. "Derin, it's alright. I'm just working through what happened this morning."
Derin scowled. "But I've seen you do that before, when we fought the grimkin."
"Those were beasts," Naltu hissed. "Men died today."
Metta sat up from Naltu's lap and shifted over until she was behind Perry. "Mistress, can I touch you?"
Perry nodded quickly, and Metta put her hands to Perry's shoulders and softened the tight muscles. "How much did you hear?"
"I suspected you, Mistress. As I said, no scribe's hands are so clear of ink."
"What did you tell her?" Derin asked with a scornful frown.
"Shut up," Naltu spat.
"Please don't fight. Not right now. I trust her. She won't say anything."
Metta continued working down Perry's spine. Naltu knelt in front of the blonde woman, and slumped so that his face was level with hers.
"The first time I killed, my blood was hot for hours. I was proud of having killed the slavers. We rescued women and they were fond of my actions. That made my situation easier."
"Thank you for protecting us," Metta added, and wrapped her arms around Perry. "Momma bear protected the cubs. We love you."
Perry sighed and leaned back onto Metta. "Can you please stop saying that?"
"Yes, mom," Metta teased. "We have plenty of tea in the cart, and rum. Would that be nice?"
Perry snorted until she could talk. "I might turn into a gibbering mess."
Naltu turned to Derin. "We should go find firewood."
Metta glanced around and shook her head. "No. Please, I appreciate the gesture, but I'd much rather both of you stay right here with us."
"Very well," Naltu agreed.
"Um, I'll get the tea?" Derin offered.
Metta nodded, and the boy returned with the kettle and cask of rum. He poured water into the kettle and set it on the dying embers that had cooked the night's meal.
Derin poured the water into clay cups and added the tea leaves. He placed the four cups before the others.
"Now pour some rum in," Metta insisted as she worked Perry's back with her hands.
"Do it," Metta nodded. "Just a bit."
Derin pulled the bung from the cask and carefully poured rum into a fifth cup, and then dumped a portion into each of the small cups. Perry waited for a moment, then lifted her cup and sniffed it for a moment. She began to sip the hot liquid, and the others followed.
"Surprisingly, this isn't terrible," Perry said.
"Can I be selfish?" Metta asked.
"You usually are," Perry chided.
"Am I in trouble? For what happened?"
Derin shrugged. "It was bound to happen. We'll have to kill her now."
Naltu's nostrils flared, and he glared at Derin.
Naltu shook his head.
"You're fine. It's my fault for blabbing, and you won't suffer for that. Now, were you to blab..."
"I'm good at not blabbing," Metta said. "Now that I'm not in trouble, I've got to speak with Naltu for keeping secrets that might concern me."
"You have your own secrets," Naltu said.
"I beg you not to ask, but I'd tell you anything."
Perry grumbled. "This was my turn for whining, and you stopped rubbing."
Metta resumed her touch. Derin slurped the last of his tea and returned to the wagon.
"I don't feel better," Perry admitted. "My mind's sick from the memory, my body from the exertion."
Naltu sighed. "Do not always take every challenge on yourself. I will support you."
Perry glanced sideways. "I just realized you haven't done much for me, Naltu."
He grinned. "What would you have me do?"
"Kill the bandits. In a way that I won't have to see."
Naltu nodded. "This is easy. I am a savage. We do such things before breaking fast. We eat the corpses. There will be nothing left behind."
Sleep came, and then the morning. Naltu glanced and saw that Perry had fallen asleep with his leg as a pillow, and Metta was on his other side. A warm feeling overcame him, and he knew the thoughts of those in the tribes. In the north, family names divided the people, but in the tribes where people struggled for life, such prudence was welcome. The people were not expected to trade affection for comfort and safety, and in the cold, all slept together. The tribe would flourish and suffer as a whole.
The group woke and ate the remains of the night's meal, and then broke camp. Derin left the wagon and walked alongside the caravan and met with the militiamen. He was grown and strong enough. Though he didn't carry a sword, he seemed confident. The militiamen tolerated his presence, for they had lost two of their own.
They made no secret that they preferred the tribesman's presence. He was intimidating from a distance, with his stature, carbine and machete. Other travelers walked with the group, making a show of strength. Metta watched with jealousy as the women in the front of the caravan made stew for the militia and brought clay bowls and leather pitchers around.
Perry's stomach grew stronger the day after, and she walked beside the wagon, leading the horses and talking with Metta.
"Mistress d'Oncil, are you ill?"
Perry looked to Metta. "I'm fine, now."
"The disorder Aina helped you with? That's from your..."
Perry laughed quietly, covering her face. "Yes."
"If what I did helped, Aina taught me a little of her ways."
"Thank you. Her talent was unique."
"She never would teach me much. She said there wasn't much demand for her talents, and so she didn't want competition. Most of the women who come to Aina are with child."
Perry climbed into the moving wagon. She stretched out a hand so that Metta could follow easily.
"What's my place?"
Perry leaned against the wall of the wagon and stretched her legs out on the straw floor. The road was soft and so the trip was smooth enough, and the clatter of horse-hooves hid all conversation.
"That's really bothering you, isn't it? Spending your whole life knowing who you are, and then having to figure it out for yourself? Welcome to freedom."
Metta crossed her arms over her chest, and sat opposite Perry, and became comfortable, and fell asleep.
Derin returned and climbed into the cabin. He took a perch next to Perry, and was glad that Metta was unconscious. He watched her snore quietly for a moment and then spoke.
"I don't have any friends, do I?"
Perry thought for a moment and tugged her hair out of her face. "I don't think so. Perhaps if you did not treat the people who have helped you in such an appalling manner... Is there still tension between you and Naltu?"
Derin touched his face. "I still wear his scar. He's kind to me, polite like all the aristocrats are."
The boy's eyes fell on the sleeping woman. "Gods, that was stupid of me. I deserved it."
"Yes. I'm glad you're starting to understand."
"We're going to be attacked again," Derin promised.
"Naltu said it. He says we're being tracked."
Metta stirred. "Where is he?"
Derin sighed. "Setting up camp. He's got some sort of savage trick to keep us from being ambushed in the night. I don't know."
The three left the wagon and made a fire outside.
"Are there Magisters in Seat?"
Perry picked at a roast hare, and turned to Metta. "Some have property in Arbor and Seat, but all live in Dosille."
"I went to school in Seat. It's a nice city." Metta offered. "Did you... did the Academy punish Naltu? Is that why that happened?"
Derin laughed and Perry's hands went to her lips. She thought for a moment before speaking slowly. "What happened to Naltu... it was not any sort of punishment. Not bad, I don't think, just strange. Ask him what happened, and wait for him to tell you, and if you must know the truth of his words, tell them to me, and I'll confirm. But if he's not ready, I must respect that."
Naltu returned, leaning low, and his face nuzzled Metta's neck, and she squirmed, giggling. "Ready? Metta, have you seen the mark below Mistress d'Oncil's neck?"
"The tattoo? It's pretty."
"All Magisters receive one. Mine covers my whole body. This is all."
Metta's face paled. "Oh."
"Only Magisters descended from the Spherian tradition," Perry added. "Our marks are made in a particular way that can be tested for truth. That's rarely done, of course, but... never mind."
"Kill any bandits?" Derin taunted.
"You wish to see more blood?" Naltu asked. He tossed two rusty knives to Derin's feet.
Derin lay his chin in his hands. "No."
Metta grinned. "You'd join a war if you could, Derin. I can see you riding off with a rifle across your back."
The black-haired woman stood and walked away, searching for relief. Naltu watched her as she became a shadow in the growing darkness.
"I wouldn't, you know."
"Hmm?" Perry asked.
Derin flicked his fingers and sparks came. "I don't need a rifle."
Long days passed without privacy or entertainment, and Metta grew bored and begged Naltu for silver, which he gave her in plenty. She bought two casks of wine, and candles, and filled her alembic. She distilled the wine to liquor, and sold enough from Revelsday to Revelsday to repay Naltu. More she sold, and a face familiar to Naltu came to the wagon to trade.
"Shaman. I thought you said you would go south?"
Mellosin laughed. "Not yet, Naltu. The men talk of the one who rained sharp ice. Was that you?"
Metta watched Naltu's face. He spoke in the strange language to the old man, and she did not understand.
"No. I have no such power. I think the Magister came from the forest to hunt the bandits. It is said the military patrols this road."
Mellosin's hair was groomed carefully, and the leather clothing was brushed and smooth. The Shaman did not smell of the smoke of the caravan, but had his own scent. Naltu wondered which wagon Mellosin rested within, for he had not seen the man on his walks with the militia.
"Very well. Naltu, who are these who you ride with?"
"Others who trade as I do," Naltu answered, and Mellosin was satisfied. Naltu did not see the Shaman again, though he watched. He was careful not to speak of the old man, for he knew the ears of the Gods listened far.
Metta found the old man alone near the foothills when the caravan stopped at night, and learned he spoke halting Spherian.
"Did you know Naltu in the south?"
"Know Naltu since child."
"Oh. So you're like family?"
"Sidhe is a southern word, right?"
"What does it mean?"
"Sidhe?" Mellosin said with a hesistant tongue. "Lover. Husband and wife."
Metta blushed, and she gave him a small flask of liquor for his answer.
She did not see Mellosin again. She sold as much of her liquors as she wished, and then refused to leave Naltu's side. She followed him even as he hunted in the woods, searching for bandits and tusked boars alike. He was annoyed, but said nothing, and taught her to creep in the shadows, to walk without breaking grass, to scent herself with the earth. She came quickly to the skill, for she had learned to be seen and unseen in the halls of the Jade Palace.
She learned to light the slow matches, aim the carbine, and clean the game, and the four of the uncomfortable wagon ate fresh meat. She brought small flasks of her liquors to the men as they marched, and they grew to know her name and her face.
The four roasted meat around a small fire. Metta opened the last of her casks of wine and tainted the liquid with her brandy. She passed the cups around. She waited until the liquor warmed Naltu, and rested. When his skin was red and relaxed, she leaned close to Naltu, and let her breath fall on his ear. "You called me Sidhe once. I found that old man, and he told me of that word."
Naltu turned his eyes. "Sidhe? I should not have used the tongue of Ghidiun, Metta. Our ways are unknown to you."
Metta shivered and sulked. "Am I, though? Is that how you feel? Or property, a fur to keep you warm? I'll accept your answer, though I would know."
Perry came close and placed a hand lightly on Metta's shoulder. "What's wrong?"
Naltu closed his eyes. "The ways of the south are savage as you say. Children bring prosperity to a man, to his tribe. Women claim men as Sidhe first, when warriors and hunters are proven. And Sidhe may be claimed by men in battle. I do not wish you to be claimed so."
"What are we talking about?" Perry asked, confused.
Metta curled close to Naltu, making space, and rested on his arm beside the fire. "In our culture, men trade gold and contracts are made. They celebrate with great revels. They make a family. There are duels and feuds, sometimes, over a girl's affections. Is that what you meant?"
"We're talking about weddings? Oh. Am I intruding?"
Metta turned with a smile. "No, it's alright. I'm just dreaming, is all. Are there revels in the frozen isle, Naltu, where men and women become Sidhe?"
Naltu agreed. "This is how it is, when bellies are full. In lesser times, there is little to celebrate."
Perry clapped, her face full of wine. "Magisters usually don't wed. I'll have concubines, maybe. Many men will service me."
Metta turned, her eyes wide. "I can find men for you."
"Ah, but they must be chaste. I think your sort are not."
"Naltu's my sort," Metta complained.
Derin sighed. "Mistress... Metta, I want to apologize."
"I heard what you said earlier. Naltu, did you truly give him that scar?"
"It's my fault," Derin started, cutting Naltu's words in half. "I picked a fight with him. I'm sorry you were... hurt... because of what I said to Leredith."
Metta sighed. "It was my choice to go to Naltu's house. I thought you were his friend, and I thought that meant I could have trusted you, and I can't. I'd gladly take a scar than lose the trust of my friends."
Derin sniffed, his emotions reeling. He took a sip of liquor and swallowed slowly. "Damnit. I don't know why I'm like that. I just get so mad. Not for a few minutes like Perry when she breaks something, but... for days and days and I don't care about anything else."
"Ah, such self-pity," Naltu chided.
"Oh, I wasn't hurt too badly. It's more humiliating than painful to be a grown woman and spanked with a belt."
Perry's head tilted to the side. "Can we talk of something else?"
"Mistress d'Oncil, if Naltu rejects me, may I be your concubine? Aina will teach me her ways, now that I am not of the Palace. I'll ensure it."
The blonde girl laughed. "How much have you had to drink? I will. If Naltu rejects you, I'll take you in."
Derin stood, face red. "Naltu wouldn't reject you."
The tribesman smoked his pipe and passed the clay to Derin. Metta laughed and kissed Naltu's face. "He couldn't reject me. Do you love me, Naltu?"
He turned. "You know what I whispered in your ear."
"I couldn't hear," she said, "not over my tears. Naltu, women would hear the men say it before others, so that there are no duels. Do you love me?"
Naltu's head bowed low, and he grumbled. "I do love you."
Perry cheered. "Finally, you oaf."
"I was wondering. A red mask, and a blue mask, and a white mask. The scent was of old leather and... cedar? Baso... Master Baso?"
"Shush," Perry scolded.
Metta shrugged. "My... Naltu is a Magister now? I am content with this. Is he paid well?"
Derin cackled and squirmed. "He gets paid what I do, and I've never seen a salary."
Naltu took his pipe from Derin and inhaled deeply, and passed the clay to Metta. The girl filled her lungs and passed the pipe to Perry, and all felt well and whole, and the moon settled over the embers of the fire. Naltu watched Metta's eyes as they closed, and could see what she did not know she had lost.
More mornings came and the men went on march with t4he militia. Perry and Metta worked in the wagon, picking the dirt and stones from the floor, and cleaning the supplies.
"You're laying with him, aren't you?"
Perry glared at Metta. "Ah! I'd not touch Naltu."
Metta smirked. "Not Naltu. I know of the militiaman with the blond hair. Do you wish to swell with his child?"
Perry blushed. "No. How do you know that? I'm discrete."
"You have been, but boys rarely are. Is there some trick of the Academy to own your womb?"
"No. That was stupid of me, but it's rare for a Magister to conceive, woman or man. You should remember that."
"Perry. Here, take this, and place a drop under your tongue before you sleep. You'll be sick for a day, and you'll be free of any man's seed, and your moon's blood. I've another vial for myself, so I can share, but only this much."
"Please, Metta, don't tell anyone."
"He's a pretty boy, but Derin would be jealous. You know, though, I think that's an itch that can not be scratched."
"What do you mean? Is the former prostitute telling me not to lay as I would?"
The corner of Metta's mouth rose almost to the height of her eye. "Yes, if you'd allow me to say so without being rude. Don't you read Diana's poetry? If you've the choice, only with someone who cares for you. That straw knight will not, he has a wife in Dosille. I wonder at the Academy's knowledge of carnal arts. Does it surpass my own?"
"We don't study that sort of stuff. I suppose it would be considered healing or perhaps necromancy, and those arts are gone."
"Do you find release in the darkness?"
Perry wondered at Metta's continued smirk. "What do you mean? Oh, that's disgusting. Why would you ask me that?"
"I'm curious? You do, right? Is that only a whore's talent?"
"Gods, you're creepy."
"Do you know what the worst part about my brand is?"
Perry sniffed in response.
"When I fucked fat old men who stunk of cheese and garlic, I enjoyed it. Just until they left. And so I cried. Always."
"I... prefer the other conversation. It's not a whore thing."
Metta shrugged. "Perhaps when we return to Dosille, I will show you a book you do not have in your vast library."
The countryside was wide and long and became ripe. Naltu joined the men at the head of the caravan and cut the path with iron blades. The horses trampled the grass, and the wagons dug ruts as they moved one after the other.
"I'm glad we brought her," Perry confessed on the next day.
"Metta? This is good." Naltu asked.
"I've never traveled this far, and she's been on this path before. I was born in Dosille."
"She's flowering in the spring."
"What do you mean? She's a grown woman."
Naltu shrugged. "She grows more beautiful each night."
"That's because you're in love with her, Naltu."
Naltu's face grew red. "Yes."
"I hope you know what you have in that, tribesman. It's rare in the cold plains of New Spheria."
"Rarer still in the frozen isle of Ghidiun. You see, then? Why I waited for each Omensday to come, to be with her? You scolded."
"I was bothered when you came to the Jade Palace. I didn't wish to be seen there. I thought you would be sent away. I was selfish, and you did nothing wrong."
"The aristocrats want to be seen. Why hide, Mistress d'Oncil?"
"Etiquette, Master Naltu. Do you have a family name?"
"Not as you do. I am orphan. A shaman's true name is that. Shaman Naltu, if I had earned that burden. Perhaps Magister Naltu? If I were warrior or hunter, it would have been Naltu Ghislail as an orphan, or Naltu Hisimtuji were my father's bones worth burning."
"Why not celebrate with her? Even without a contract, you could celebrate. I think you want that."
"Silence. I know the brand and the letter I carry still compel her. I have not understood the technique of repairing the spirit of another."
"She's in love with you, too, Naltu."
"She says as much, but her love is empty. I fear to remove the brand, for I'll lose her. I come close to understanding the Scientia of Ryuten fully. I shiver at night. The sun draws sweat from my skin, and my heart is cold."
"I think... dearest friend, that perhaps things are best left as they are."
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