“I just love the world of Patrick Rothfuss.” —Lin-Manuel Miranda • “He’s bloody good, this Rothfuss guy.” —George R. R. Martin • “Rothfuss has real talent.” —Terry Brooks
DAY TWO: THE WISE MAN’S FEAR
“There are three things all wise men fear: the sea in storm, a night with no moon, and the anger of a gentle man.”
My name is Kvothe. You may have heard of me.
So begins a tale told from his own point of view—a story unequaled in fantasy literature. Now in The Wise Man’s Fear, Day Two of The Kingkiller Chronicle, Kvothe takes his first steps on the path of the hero and learns how difficult life can be when a man becomes a legend in his own time.
Praise for The Kingkiller Chronicle:
“The best epic fantasy I read last year.... He’s bloody good, this Rothfuss guy.”
—George R. R. Martin, New York Times-bestselling author of A Song of Ice and Fire
“Rothfuss has real talent, and his tale of Kvothe is deep and intricate and wondrous.”
—Terry Brooks, New York Times-bestselling author of Shannara
"It is a rare and great pleasure to find a fantasist writing...with true music in the words."
—Ursula K. Le Guin, award-winning author of Earthsea
"The characters are real and the magic is true.”
—Robin Hobb, New York Times-bestselling author of Assassin’s Apprentice
"Masterful.... There is a beauty to Pat's writing that defies description."
—Brandon Sanderson, New York Times-bestselling author of Mistborn
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
The Kingkiller Chronicle:
Day One: THE NAME OF THE WIND
Day Two: THE WISE MAN’S FEAR
Copyright © 2011 by Patrick Rothfuss
All Rights Reserved.
Cover cobblestone alley photo: Getty Images: Ed Freeman
Cover shadowy figure photo: Getty Images: Matthias Clamer.
Cover designed by G-Force Design.
DAW Book Collectors No. 1540.
DAW Books are distributed by Penguin Group (USA) Inc.
Book designed by Elizabeth M. Glover.
All characters and events in this book are fictitious.
Any resemblance to persons living or dead is strictly coincidental.
The scanning, uploading and distribution of this book via the Internet or any other means without the permission of the publisher is illegal, and punishable by law. Please purchase only authorized electronic editions, and do not participate in or encourage the electronic piracy of copyrighted materials. Your support of the author’s rights is appreciated.
First Printing March 2012
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
To my patient fans, for reading the blog and telling me what they really want is an excellent book, even if it takes a little longer.
To my clever beta readers, for their invaluable help and toleration of my paranoid secrecy.
To my fabulous agent, for keeping the wolves from the door in more ways than one.
To my wise editor, for giving me the time and space to write a book that fills me with pride.
To my loving family, for supporting me and reminding me that leaving the house every once in a while is a good thing.
To my understanding girlfriend, for not leaving me when the stress of endless revision made me frothy and monstrous.
To my sweet baby, for loving his daddy even though I have to go away and write all the time. Even when we’re having a really great time. Even when we’re talking about ducks.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
A Silence of Three Parts
DAWN WAS COMING. THE Waystone Inn lay in silence, and it was a silence of three parts.
The most obvious part was a vast, echoing quiet made by things that were lacking. If there had been a storm, raindrops would have tapped and pattered against the selas vines behind the inn. Thunder would have muttered and rumbled and chased the silence down the road like fallen autumn leaves. If there had been travelers stirring in their rooms they would have stretched and grumbled the silence away like fraying, half-forgotten dreams. If there had been music…but no, of course there was no music. In fact there were none of these things, and so the silence remained.
Inside the Waystone a dark-haired man eased the back door closed behind himself. Moving through the perfect dark, he crept through the kitchen, across the taproom, and down the basement stairs. With the ease of long experience, he avoided loose boards that might groan or sigh beneath his weight. Each slow step made only the barest tep against the floor. In doing this he added his small, furtive silence to the larger echoing one. They made an amalgam of sorts, a counterpoint.
The third silence was not an easy thing to notice. If you listened long enough you might begin to feel it in the chill of the window glass and the smooth plaster walls of the innkeeper’s room. It was in the dark chest that lay at the foot of a hard and narrow bed. And it was in the hands of the man who lay there, motionless, watching for the first pale hint of dawn’s coming light.
The man had true-red hair, red as flame. His eyes were dark and distant, and he lay with the resigned air of one who has long ago abandoned any hope of sleep.
The Waystone was his, just as the third silence was his. This was appropriate, as it was the greatest silence of the three, holding the others inside itself. It was deep and wide as autumn’s ending. It was heavy as a great river-smooth stone. It was the patient, cut-flower sound of a man who is waiting to die.
Apple and Elderberry
BAST SLOUCHED AGAINST THE long stretch of mahogany bar, bored.
Looking around the empty room, he sighed and rummaged around until he found a clean linen cloth. Then, with a resigned look, he began to polish a section of the bar.
After a moment Bast leaned forward and squinted at some half-seen speck. He scratched at it and frowned at the oily smudge his finger made. He leaned closer, fogged the bar with his breath, and buffed it briskly. Then he paused, exhaled hard against the wood, and wrote an obscene word in the fog.
Tossing aside the cloth, Bast made his way through the empty tables and chairs to the wide windows of the inn. He stood there for a long moment, looking at the dirt road running through the center of the town.
Bast gave another sigh and began to pace the room. He moved with the casual grace of a dancer and the perfect nonchalance of a cat. But when he ran his hands through his dark hair the gesture was restless. His blue eyes prowled the room endlessly, as if searching for a way out. As if searching for something he hadn’t seen a hundred times before.
But there was nothing new. Empty tables and chairs. Empty stools at the bar. Two huge barrels loomed on the counter behind the bar, one for whiskey, one for beer. Between the barrels stood a vast panoply of bottles: all colors and shapes. Above the bottles hung a sword.
Bast’s eyes fell back onto the bottles. He focused on them for a long, speculative moment, then moved back behind the bar and brought out a heavy clay mug.
Drawing a deep breath, he pointed a finger at the first bottle in the bottom row and began to chant as he counted down the line.
Catch and carry.
Ash and Ember.
He finished the chant while pointing at a squat green bottle. He twisted out the cork, took a speculative sip, then made a sour face and shuddered. He quickly set the bottle down and picked up a curving red one instead. He sipped this one as well, rubbed his wet lips together thoughtfully, then nodded and splashed a generous portion into his mug.
He pointed at the next bottle and started counting again:
Moon at night.
This time it was a clear bottle with a pale yellow liquor inside. Bast yanked the cork and added a long pour to the mug without bothering to taste it first. Setting the bottle aside, he picked up the mug and swirled it dramatically before taking a mouthful. He smiled a brilliant smile and flicked the new bottle with his finger, making it chime lightly before he began his singsong chant again:
Stone and stave.
Wind and water—”
A floorboard creaked, and Bast looked up, smiling brightly. “Good morning, Reshi.”
The red-haired innkeeper stood at the bottom of the stairs. He brushed his long-fingered hands over the clean apron and full-length sleeves he wore. “Is our guest awake yet?”
Bast shook his head. “Not a rustle or a peep.”
“He’s had a hard couple of days,” Kote said. “It’s probably catching up with him.” He hesitated, then lifted his head and sniffed. “Have you been drinking?” The question was more curious than accusatory.
“No,” Bast said.
The innkeeper raised an eyebrow.
“I’ve been tasting,” Bast said, emphasizing the word. “Tasting comes before drinking.”
“Ah,” the innkeeper said. “So you were getting ready to drink then?”
“Tiny Gods, yes,” Bast said. “To great excess. What the hell else is there to do?” Bast brought his mug up from underneath the bar and looked into it. “I was hoping for elderberry, but I got some sort of melon.” He swirled the mug speculatively. “Plus something spicy.” He took another sip and narrowed his eyes thoughtfully. “Cinnamon?” he asked, looking at the ranks of bottles. “Do we even have any more elderberry?”
“It’s in there somewhere,” the innkeeper said, not bothering to look at the bottles. “Stop a moment and listen, Bast. We need to talk about what you did last night.”
Bast went very still. “What did I do, Reshi?”
“You stopped that creature from the Mael,” Kote said.
“Oh.” Bast relaxed, making a dismissive gesture. “I just slowed it down, Reshi. That’s all.”
Kote shook his head. “You realized it wasn’t just some madman. You tried to warn us. If you hadn’t been so quick on your feet …”
Bast frowned. “I wasn’t so quick, Reshi. It got Shep.” He looked down at the well-scrubbed floorboards near the bar. “I liked Shep.”
“Everyone else will think the smith’s prentice saved us,” Kote said. “And that’s probably for the best. But I know the truth. If not for you, it would have slaughtered everyone here.”
“Oh Reshi, that’s just not true,” Bast said. “You would have killed it like a chicken. I just got it first.”
The innkeeper shrugged the comment away. “Last night has me thinking,” he said. “Wondering what we could do to make things a bit safer around here. Have you ever heard ‘The White Riders’ Hunt’?”
Bast smiled. “It was our song before it was yours, Reshi.” He drew a breath and sang in a sweet tenor:
“Rode they horses white as snow.
Silver blade and white horn bow.
Wore they fresh and supple boughs,
Red and green upon their brows.”
The innkeeper nodded. “Exactly the verse I was thinking of. Do you think you could take care of it while I get things ready here?”
Bast nodded enthusiastically and practically bolted, pausing by the kitchen door. “You won’t start without me?” he asked anxiously.
“We’ll start as soon as our guest is fed and ready,” Kote said. Then, seeing the expression on his student’s face, he relented a little. “For all that, I imagine you have an hour or two.”
Bast glanced through the doorway, then back.
Amusement flickered over the innkeeper’s face. “And I’ll call before we start.” He made a shooing motion with one hand. “Go on now.”
The man who called himself Kote went through his usual routine at the Waystone Inn. He moved like clockwork, like a wagon rolling down the road in well-worn ruts.
First came the bread. He mixed flour and sugar and salt with his hands, not bothering to measure. He added a piece of starter from the clay jar in the pantry, kneaded the dough, then rounded the loaves and set them to rise. He shoveled ash from the stove in the kitchen and kindled a fire.
Next he moved into the common room and laid a fire in the black stone fireplace, brushing the ash from the massive hearth along the northern wall. He pumped water, washed his hands, and brought up a piece of mutton from the basement. He cut fresh kindling, carried in firewood, punched down the rising bread and moved it close to the now-warm stove.
And then, abruptly, there was nothing left to do. Everything was ready. Everything was clean and orderly. The red-haired man stood behind the bar, his eyes slowly returning from their faraway place, focusing on the here and now, on the inn itself.
They came to rest on the sword that hung on the wall above the bottles. It wasn’t a particularly beautiful sword, not ornate or eye-catching. It was menacing, in a way. The same way a tall cliff is menacing. It was grey and unblemished and cold to the touch. It was sharp as shattered glass. Carved into the black wood of the mounting board was a single word: Folly.
The innkeeper heard heavy footsteps on the wooden landing outside. The door’s latch rattled noisily, followed by a loud hellooo and a thumping on the door.
“Just a moment!” Kote called. Hurrying to the front door he turned the heavy key in the door’s bright brass lock.
Graham stood with his thick hand poised to knock on the door. His weathered face split into a grin when he saw the innkeeper. “Bast open things up for you again this morning?” he asked.
Kote gave a tolerant smile.
“He’s a good boy,” Graham said. “Just a little ditherheaded. I thought you might have closed up shop today.” He cleared his throat and glanced at his feet for a moment. “I wouldn’t be surprised, considering.”
Kote put the key in his pocket. “Open as always. What can I do for you?”
Graham stepped out of the doorway and nodded toward the street where three barrels stood in a nearby cart. They were new, with pale, polished wood and bright metal bands. “I knew I wasn’t getting any sleep last night, so I knocked the last one together for you. Besides, I heard the Bentons would be coming round with the first of the late apples today.”
“I appreciate that.”
“Nice and tight so they’ll keep through the winter.” Graham walked over and rapped a knuckle proudly against the side of the barrel. “Nothing like a winter apple to stave off hunger.” He looked up with a glimmer in his eye and knocked at the side of the barrel again. “Get it? Stave?”
Kote groaned a bit, rubbing at his face.
Graham chuckled to himself and ran a hand over one of the barrel’s bright metal bands. “I ain’t ever made a barrel with brass before, but these turned out nice as I could hope for. You let me know if they don’t stay tight. I’ll see to ’em.”
“I’m glad it wasn’t too much trouble,” the innkeeper said. “The cellar gets damp. I worry iron would just rust out in a couple years.”
Graham nodded. “That’s right sensible,” he said. “Not many folk take the long view of things.” He rubbed his hands together. “Would you like to give me a hand? I’d hate to drop one and scuff your floors.”
They set to it. Two of the brass-bound barrels went to the basement while the third was maneuvered behind the bar, through the kitchen, and into the pantry.
After that, the men made their way back to the common room, each on his own side of the bar. There was a moment of silence as Graham looked around the empty taproom. There were two fewer stools than there should be at the bar, and an empty space left by an absent table. In the orderly taproom these things were conspicuous as missing teeth.
Graham pulled his eyes from a well-scrubbed piece of floor near the bar. He reached into his pocket and brought out a pair of dull iron shims, his hand hardly shaking at all. “Bring me up a short beer, would you, Kote?” he asked, his voice rough. “I know it’s early, but I’ve got a long day ahead of me. I’m helping the Murrions bring their wheat in.”
The innkeeper drew the beer and handed it over silently. Graham drank half of it off in a long swallow. His eyes were red around the edges. “Bad business last night,” he said without making eye contact, then took another drink.
Kote nodded. Bad business last night. Chances are, that would be all Graham had to say about the death of a man he had known his whole life. These folk knew all about death. They killed their own livestock. They died from fevers, falls, or broken bones gone sour. Death was like an unpleasant neighbor. You didn’t talk about him for fear he might hear you and decide to pay a visit.
Except for stories, of course. Tales of poisoned kings and duels and old wars were fine. They dressed death in foreign clothes and sent him far from your door. A chimney fire or the croup cough were terrifying. But Gibea’s trial or the siege of Enfast, those were different. They were like prayers, like charms muttered late at night when you were walking alone in the dark. Stories were like ha’penny amulets you bought from a peddler, just in case.
“How long is that scribe fellow going to be around?” Graham asked after a moment, voice echoing in his mug. “Maybe I should get a bit of something writ up, just in case.” He frowned a bit. “My daddy always called them laying-down papers. Can’t remember what they’re really called.”
“If it’s just your goods that need looking after, it’s a disposition of property,” the innkeeper said matter-of-factly. “If it relates to other things it’s called a mandamus of declared will.”
Graham lifted an eyebrow at the innkeeper.
“What I heard at any rate,” the innkeeper said, looking down and rubbing the bar with a clean white cloth. “Scribe mentioned something along those lines.”
“Mandamus …” Graham murmured into his mug. “I reckon I’ll just ask him for some laying-down papers and let him official it up however he likes.” He looked up at the innkeeper. “Other folk will probably be wanting something similar, times being what they are.”
For a moment it looked like the innkeeper frowned with irritation. But no, he did nothing of the sort. Standing behind the bar he looked the same as he always did, his expression placid and agreeable. He gave an easy nod. “He mentioned he’d be setting up shop around midday,” Kote said. “He was a bit unsettled by everything last night. If anyone shows up earlier than noon I expect they’ll be disappointed.”
Graham shrugged. “Shouldn’t make any difference. There won’t be but ten people in the whole town until lunchtime anyway.” He took another swallow of beer and looked out the window. “Today’s a field day and that’s for sure.”
The innkeeper seemed to relax a bit. “He’ll be here tomorrow too. So there’s no need for everyone to rush in today. Folk stole his horse off by Abbott’s Ford, and he’s trying to find a new one.”
Graham sucked his teeth sympathetically. “Poor bastard. He won’t find a horse for love nor money with harvest in mid-swing. Even Carter couldn’t replace Nelly after that spider thing attacked him off by the Oldstone bridge.” He shook his head. “It doesn’t seem right, something like that happening not two miles from your own door. Back when—”
Graham stopped. “Lord and lady, I sound like my old da.” He tucked in his chin and added some gruff to his voice. “Back when I was a boy we had proper weather. The miller kept his thumb off the scale and folk knew to look after their own business.”
The innkeeper’s face grew a wistful smile. “My father said the beer was better, and the roads had fewer ruts.”
Graham smiled, but it faded quickly. He looked down, as if uncomfortable with what he was about to say. “I know you aren’t from around here, Kote. That’s a hard thing. Some folk think a stranger can’t hardly know the time of day.”
He drew a deep breath, still not meeting the innkeeper’s eyes. “But I figure you know things other folk don’t. You’ve got sort of a wider view.” He looked up, his eyes serious and weary, dark around the edges from lack of sleep. “Are things as grim as they seem lately? The roads so bad. Folk getting robbed and …”
With an obvious effort, Graham kept himself from looking at the empty piece of floor again. “All the new taxes making things so tight. The Grayden boys about to lose their farm. That spider thing.” He took another swallow of beer. “Are things as bad as they seem? Or have I just gotten old like my da, and now everything tastes a little bitter compared to when I was a boy?”
Kote wiped at the bar for a long moment, as if reluctant to speak. “I think things are usually bad one way or another,” he said. “It might be that only us older folk can see it.”
Graham began to nod, then frowned. “Except you’re not old, are you? I forget that most times.” He looked the red-haired man up and down. “I mean, you move around old, and you talk old, but you’re not, are you? I’ll bet you’re half my age.” He squinted at the innkeeper. “How old are you, anyway?”
The innkeeper gave a tired smile. “Old enough to feel old.”
Graham snorted. “Too young to make old man noises. You should be out chasing women and getting into trouble. Leave us old folk to complain about how the world is getting all loose in the joints.”
The old carpenter pushed himself away from the bar and turned to walk toward the door. “I’ll be back to talk to your scribe when we break for lunch today. I en’t the only one, either. There’s a lot of folks that’ll want to get some things set down official when they’ve got the chance.”
The innkeeper drew a deep breath and let it out slowly. “Graham?”
The man turned with one hand on the door.
“It’s not just you,” Kote said. “Things are bad, and my gut tells me they’ll get worse yet. It wouldn’t hurt a man to get ready for a hard winter. And maybe see that he can defend himself if need be.” The innkeeper shrugged. “That’s what my gut tells me, anyway.”
Graham’s mouth set into a grim line. He bobbed his head once in a serious nod. “I’m glad it’s not just my gut, I suppose.”
Then he forced a grin and began to cuff up his shirt-sleeves as he turned to the door. “Still,” he said, “you’ve got to make hay while the sun shines.”
Not long after that the Bentons stopped by with a cartload of late apples. The innkeeper bought half of what they had and spent the next hour sorting and storing them.
The greenest and firmest went into the barrels in the basement, his gentle hands laying them carefully in place and packing them in sawdust before hammering down the lids. Those closer to full ripe went to the pantry, and any with a bruise or spot of brown were doomed to be cider apples, quartered and tossed into a large tin washtub.
As he sorted and packed, the red-haired man seemed content. But if you looked more closely you might have noticed that while his hands were busy, his eyes were far away. And while his expression was composed, pleasant even, there was no joy in it. He did not hum or whistle while he worked. He did not sing.
When the last of the apples were sorted, he carried the metal tub through the kitchen and out the back door. It was a cool autumn morning, and behind the inn was a small, private garden sheltered by trees. Kote tumbled a load of quartered apples into the wooden cider press and spun the top down until it no longer moved easily.
Kote cuffed up the long sleeves of his shirt past his elbows, then gripped the handles of the press with his long, graceful hands and pulled. The press screwed down, first packing the apples tight, then crushing them. Twist and regrip. Twist and regrip.
If there had been anyone to see, they would have noticed his arms weren’t the doughy arms of an innkeeper. When he pulled against the wooden handles, the muscles of his forearms stood out, tight as twisted ropes. Old scars crossed and recrossed his skin. Most were pale and thin as cracks in winter ice. Others were red and angry, standing out against his fair complexion.
The innkeeper’s hands gripped and pulled, gripped and pulled. The only sounds were the rhythmic creak of the wood and the slow patter of the cider as it ran into the bucket below. There was a rhythm to it, but no music, and the innkeeper’s eyes were distant and joyless, so pale a green they almost could have passed for grey.
CHRONICLER REACHED THE BOTTOM of the stairs and stepped into the Waystone’s common room with his flat leather satchel over one shoulder. Stopping in the doorway, he eyed the red-haired innkeeper hunched intently over something on the bar.
Chronicler cleared his throat as he stepped into the room. “I’m sorry to have slept so late,” he said. “It’s not really …” He stalled out when he saw what was on the bar. “Are you making a pie?”
Kote looked up from crimping the edge of the crust with his fingers. “Pies,” he said, stressing the plural. “Yes. Why?”
Chronicler opened his mouth, then closed it. His eyes flickered to the sword that hung, grey and silent behind the bar, then back to the red-haired man carefully pinching crust around the edge of a pan. “What kind of pie?”
“Apple.” Kote straightened and cut three careful slits into the crust covering the pie. “Do you know how difficult it is to make a good pie?”
“Not really,” Chronicler admitted, then looked around nervously. “Where’s your assistant?”
“God himself can only guess at such things,” the innkeeper said. “It’s quite hard. Making pies, I mean. You wouldn’t think it, but there’s quite a lot to the process. Bread is easy. Soup is easy. Pudding is easy. But pie is complicated. It’s something you never realize until you try it for yourself.”
Chronicler nodded in vague agreement, looking uncertain as to what else might be expected of him. He shrugged the satchel off his shoulder and set it on a nearby table.
Kote wiped his hands on his apron. “When you press apples for cider, you know the pulp that’s left over?”
“Pomace,” Kote said with profound relief. “That’s what it’s called. What do people do with it, after they get the juice out?”
“Grape pomace can make a weak wine,” Chronicler said. “Or oil, if you’ve got a lot. But apple pomace is pretty useless. You can use it as fertilizer or mulch, but it’s not much good as either. Folk feed it to their livestock mostly.”
Kote nodded, looking thoughtful. “It didn’t seem like they’d just throw it out. They put everything to use one way or another around here. Pomace.” He spoke as if he were tasting the word. “That’s been bothering me for two years now.”
Chronicler looked puzzled. “Anyone in town could have told you that.”
The innkeeper frowned. “If it’s something everyone knows, I can’t afford to ask,” he said.
There was the sound of a door banging closed, followed by a bright, wandering whistle. Bast emerged from the kitchen carrying a bristling armload of holly boughs wrapped in a white sheet.
Kote nodded grimly and rubbed his hands together. “Lovely. Now how do we—” His eyes narrowed. “Are those my good sheets?”
Bast looked down at the bundle. “Well, Reshi,” he said slowly, “that depends. Do you have any bad sheets?”
The innkeeper’s eyes flashed angrily for a second, then he sighed. “It doesn’t matter, I suppose.” He reached over and pulled a single long branch from the bundle. “What do we do with this, anyway?”
Bast shrugged. “I’m running dark on this myself, Reshi. I know the Sithe used to ride out wearing holly crowns when they hunted the skin dancers.…”
“We can’t walk around wearing holly crowns,” Kote said dismissively. “Folk would talk.”
“I don’t care what the local plods think,” Bast murmured as he began to weave several long, flexible branches together. “When a dancer gets inside your body, you’re like a puppet. They can make you bite out your own tongue.” He lifted a half-formed circle up to his own head, checking the fit. He wrinkled his nose. “Prickly.”
“In the stories I’ve heard,” Kote said, “holly traps them in a body, too.”
“Couldn’t we just wear iron?” Chronicler asked. The two men behind the bar looked at him curiously, as if they’d almost forgotten he was there. “I mean, if it’s a faeling creature—”
“Don’t say faeling,” Bast said disparagingly. “It makes you sound like a child. It’s a Fae creature. Faen, if you must.”
Chronicler hesitated for a moment before continuing. “If this thing slid into the body of someone wearing iron, wouldn’t that hurt it? Wouldn’t it just jump out again?”
“They can make you bite. Out. Your own. Tongue,” Bast repeated, as if speaking to a particularly stupid child. “Once they’re in you, they’ll use your hand to pull out your own eye as easy as you’d pick a daisy. What makes you think they couldn’t take the time to remove a bracelet or a ring?” He shook his head, looking down as he worked another bright green branch of holly into the circle he held. “Besides, I’ll be damned if I’m wearing iron.”
“If they can jump out of bodies,” Chronicler said, “why didn’t it just leave that man’s body last night? Why didn’t it hop into one of us?”
There was a long, quiet moment before Bast realized the other two men were looking at him. “You’re asking me?” He laughed incredulously. “I have no idea. Anpauen. The last of the dancers were hunted down hundreds of years ago. Long before my time. I’ve just heard stories.”
“Then how do we know it didn’t jump out?” Chronicler said slowly, as if reluctant even to ask. “How do we know it isn’t still here?” He sat very stiffly in his seat. “How do we know it’s not in one of us right now?”
“It seemed like it died when the mercenary’s body died,” Kote said. “We would have seen it leave.” He glanced over at Bast. “They’re supposed to look like a dark shadow or smoke when they leave the body, aren’t they?”
Bast nodded. “Plus, if it had hopped out, it would have just started killing folk with the new body. That’s what they usually do. They switch and switch until everyone is dead.”
The innkeeper gave Chronicler a reassuring smile. “See? It might not even have been a dancer. Perhaps it was just something similar.”
Chronicler looked a little wild around the eyes. “But how can we be sure? It might be inside anyone in town right now.…”
“It might be inside me,” Bast said nonchalantly. “Maybe I’m just waiting for you to let your guard down and then I’ll bite you on the chest, right over your heart, and drink all the blood out of you. Like sucking the juice out of a plum.”
Chronicler’s mouth made a thin line. “That’s not funny.”
Bast looked up and gave Chronicler a rakish, toothy grin. But there was something slightly off about the expression. It lasted a little too long. The grin was slightly too wide. His eyes were focused slightly to one side of the scribe, rather than directly on him.
Bast went still for a moment, his fingers no longer weaving nimbly among the green leaves. He looked down at his hands curiously, then dropped the half-finished circle of holly onto the bar. His grin slowly faded to a blank expression, and he looked around the taproom dully. “Te veyan?” he said in a strange voice, his eyes glassy and confused. “Te-tanten ventelanet?”
Then, moving with startling speed, Bast lunged from behind the bar toward Chronicler. The scribe exploded out of his seat, bolting madly away. He upset two tables and a half-dozen chairs before his feet got tangled and he tumbled messily to the floor, arms and legs flailing as he clawed his way frantically toward the door.
As he scrambled wildly, Chronicler darted a quick look over his shoulder, his face horrified and pale, only to see that Bast hadn’t taken more than three steps. The dark-haired young man stood next to the bar, bent nearly double and shaking with helpless laughter. One hand half-covered his face, while the other pointed at Chronicler. He was laughing so hard he could barely draw a breath. After a moment he had to reach out and steady himself against the bar.
Chronicler was livid. “You ass!” he shouted as he climbed painfully to his feet. “You…you ass!”
Still laughing too hard to breathe, Bast raised his hands and made weak, halfhearted clawing gestures, like a child pretending to be a bear.
“Bast,” the innkeeper chided. “Come now. Really.” But while Kote’s voice was stern, his eyes were bright with laughter. His lips twitched, struggling not to curl.
Moving with affronted dignity, Chronicler busied himself setting the tables and chairs to rights, thumping them down rather harder than he needed to. When at last he returned to his original table, he sat down stiffly. By then Bast had returned to stand behind the bar, breathing hard and pointedly focusing on the holly in his hands.
Chronicler glared at him and rubbed his shin. Bast stifled something that could, conceivably, have been a cough.
Kote chuckled low in his throat and pulled another length of holly from the bundle, adding it to the long cord he was making. He looked up to catch Chronicler’s eye. “Before I forget to mention it, folk will be stopping by today to take advantage of your services as a scribe.”
Chronicler seemed surprised. “Will they now?”
Kote nodded and gave an irritated sigh. “Yes. The news is already out, so it can’t be helped. We’ll have to deal with them as they come. Luckily, everyone with two good hands will be busy in the fields until midday, so we won’t have to worry about it until—”
The innkeeper’s fingers fumbled clumsily, snapping the holly branch and jabbing a thorn deep into the fleshy part of his thumb. The red-haired man didn’t flinch or curse, just scowled angrily down at his hand as a bead of blood welled up, bright as a berry.
Frowning, the innkeeper brought his thumb to his mouth. All the laughter faded from his expression, and his eyes were hard and dark. He tossed the half-finished holly cord aside in a gesture so pointedly casual it was almost frightening.
He looked back to Chronicler, his voice perfectly calm. “My point is that we should make good use of our time before we’re interrupted,” he said. “But first, I imagine you’ll want some breakfast.”
“If it wouldn’t be too much trouble,” Chronicler said.
“None at all,” Kote said as he turned and headed into the kitchen.
Bast watched him leave, a concerned expression on his face. “You’ll want to pull the cider off the stove and set it to cool out back,” Bast called out to him loudly. “The last batch was closer to jam than juice. And I found some herbs while I was out, too. They’re on the rain barrel. You should look them over to see if they’ll be of any use for supper.”
Left alone in the taproom, Bast and Chronicler watched each other across the bar for a long moment. The only sound was the distant thump of the back door closing.
Bast made a final adjustment to the crown in his hands, looking it over from all angles. He brought it up to his face as if to smell it. But instead he drew a deep lungful of air, closed his eyes, and breathed out against the holly leaves so gently they barely moved.
Opening his eyes, Bast gave a charming, apologetic smile and walked over to Chronicler. “Here.” He held out the circle of holly to the seated man.
Chronicler made no move to take it.
Bast’s smile didn’t fade. “You didn’t notice because you were busy falling down,” he said, his voice pitched low and quiet. “But he actually laughed when you bolted. Three good laughs from down in his belly. He has such a wonderful laugh. It’s like fruit. Like music. I haven’t heard it in months.”
Bast held the circle of holly out again, smiling shyly. “So this is for you. I’ve brought what grammarie I have to bear on it. So it will stay green and living longer than you’d think. I gathered the holly in the proper way and shaped it with my own hands. Sought, wrought, and moved to purpose.” He held it out a bit farther, like a nervous boy with a bouquet. “Here. It is a freely given gift. I offer it without obligation, let, or lien.”
Hesitantly, Chronicler reached out and took the crown. He looked it over, turning it in his hands. Red berries nestled in the dark green leaves like gems, and it was cunningly braided so the thorns angled outward. He set it gingerly on his head, and it fit snugly across his brow.
Bast grinned. “All hail the Lord of Misrule!” he shouted, throwing up his hands. He laughed a delighted laugh.
A smile tugged Chronicler’s lips as he removed the crown. “So,” he said softly as he lowered his hands into his lap. “Does this mean things are settled between us?”
Bast tilted his head, puzzled. “Beg pardon?”
Chronicler looked uncomfortable. “What you spoke of…last night …”
Bast looked surprised. “Oh no,” he said seriously, shaking his head. “No. Not at all. You belong to me, down to the marrow of your bones. You are an instrument of my desire.” Bast darted a glance toward the kitchen, his expression turning bitter. “And you know what I desire. Make him remember he’s more than some innkeeper baking pies.” He practically spat the last word.
Chronicler shifted uneasily in his seat, looking away. “I still don’t know what I can do.”
“You’ll do whatever you can,” Bast said, his voice low. “You will draw him out of himself. You will wake him up.” He said the last words fiercely.
Bast laid one hand on Chronicler’s shoulder, his blue eyes narrowing ever so slightly. “You will make him remember. You will.”
Chronicler hesitated for a moment, then looked down at the circle of holly in his lap and gave a small nod. “I’ll do what I can.”
“That’s all any of us can do,” Bast said, giving him a friendly pat on the back. “How’s the shoulder, by the way?”
The scribe rolled it around, the motion seeming out of place as the rest of his body remained stiff and still. “Numb. Chilly. But it doesn’t hurt.”
“That’s to be expected. I wouldn’t worry about it if I were you.” Bast smiled at him encouragingly. “Life’s too short for you folk to fret over little things.”
Breakfast came and went. Potatoes, toast, tomatoes, and eggs. Chronicler tucked away a respectable portion and Bast ate enough for three people. Kote puttered about, bringing in more firewood, stoking the oven in preparation for the pies, and jugging up the cooling cider.
He was carrying a pair of jugs to the bar when boots sounded on the wooden landing outside the inn, loud as any knocking. A moment later the smith’s prentice burst through the door. Barely sixteen, he was one of the tallest men in town, with broad shoulders and thick arms.
“Hello, Aaron,” the innkeeper said calmly. “Close the door, would you? It’s dusty out.”
As the smith’s prentice turned back to the door, the innkeeper and Bast tucked most of the holly below the bar, moving in quick, unspoken concert. By the time the smith’s prentice turned back to face them, Bast was toying with something that could easily have been a small, half-finished wreath. Something made to keep idle fingers busy against boredom.
Aaron didn’t seem to notice anything different as he hurried up to the bar. “Mr. Kote,” he said excitedly, “could I get some traveling food?” He waved an empty burlap sack. “Carter said you’d know what that meant.”
The innkeeper nodded. “I’ve got some bread and cheese, sausage and apples.” He gestured to Bast, who grabbed the sack and scampered off into the kitchen. “Carter’s going somewhere today?”
“Him and me both,” the boy said. “The Orrisons are selling some mutton off in Treya today. They hired me and Carter to come along, on account of the roads being so bad and all.”
“Treya,” the innkeeper mused. “You won’t be back till tomorrow then.”
The smith’s prentice carefully set a slim silver bit on the polished mahogany of the bar. “Carter’s hoping to find a replacement for Nelly, too. But if he can’t come by a horse he said he’ll probably take the king’s coin.”
Kote’s eyebrows went up. “Carter’s going to enlist?”
The boy gave a smile that was a strange mix of grin and grim. “He says there ain’t much else for him if he can’t come by a horse for his cart. He says they take care of you in the army, you get fed and get to travel around and such.” The young man’s eyes were excited as he spoke, his expression trapped somewhere between a boy’s enthusiasm and the serious worry of a man. “And they ain’t just giving folks a silver noble for listing up anymore. These days they hand you over a royal when you sign up. A whole gold royal.”
The innkeeper’s expression grew somber. “Carter’s the only one thinking about taking the coin, right?” He looked the boy in the eye.
“Royal’s a lot of money,” the smith’s prentice admitted, flashing a sly grin. “And times are tight since my da passed on and my mum moved over from Rannish.”
“And what does your mother think of you taking the king’s coin?”
The boy’s face fell. “Now don’t go takin’ her side,” he complained. “I thought you’d understand. You’re a man, you know how a fellow has to do right by his mum.”
“I know your mum would rather have you home safe than swim in a tub of gold, boy.”
“I’m tired of folk calling me ‘boy,’” the smith’s prentice snapped, his face flushing. “I can do some good in the army. Once we get the rebels to swear fealty to the Penitent King, things will start getting better again. The levy taxes will stop. The Bentleys won’t lose their land. The roads will be safe again.”
Then his expression went grim, and for a second his face didn’t seem very young at all. “And then my mum won’t have to sit all anxious when I’m not at home,” he said, his voice dark. “She’ll stop waking up three times a night, checking the window shutters and the bar on the door.”
Aaron met the innkeeper’s eye, and his back straightened. When he stopped slouching, he was almost a full head taller than the innkeeper. “Sometimes a man has to stand up for his king and his country.”
“And Rose?” the innkeeper asked quietly.
The prentice blushed and looked down in embarrassment. His shoulders slouched again and he deflated, like a sail when the wind goes out of it. “Lord, does everyone know about us?”
The innkeeper nodded with a gentle smile. “No secrets in a town like this.”
“Well,” Aaron said resolutely, “I’m doing this for her too. For us. With my coin and the pay I’ve saved, I can buy us a house, or set up my own shop without having to go to some shim moneylender.”
Kote opened his mouth, then closed it again. He looked thoughtful for the space of a long, deep breath, then spoke as if choosing his words very carefully. “Aaron, do you know who Kvothe is?”
The smith’s prentice rolled his eyes. “I’m not an idiot. We were telling stories about him just last night, remember?” He looked over the innkeeper’s shoulder toward the kitchen. “Look, I’ve got to get on my way. Carter’ll be mad as a wet hen if I don’t—”
Kote made a calming gesture. “I’ll make you a deal, Aaron. Listen to what I have to say, and I’ll let you have your food for free.” He pushed the silver bit back across the bar. “Then you can use that to buy something nice for Rose in Treya.”
Aaron nodded cautiously. “Fair enough.”
“What do you know about Kvothe from the stories you’ve heard? What’s he supposed to be like?”
Aaron laughed. “Aside from dead?”
Kote smiled faintly. “Aside from dead.”
“He knew all sorts of secret magics,” Aaron said. “He knew six words he could whisper in a horse’s ear that would make it run a hundred miles. He could turn iron into gold and catch lightning in a quart jar to save it for later. He knew a song that would open any lock, and he could stave in a strong oak door with just one hand.…”
Aaron trailed off. “It all depends on the story, really. Sometimes he’s the good guy, like Prince Gallant. He rescued some girls from a troupe of ogres once.…”
Another faint smile. “I know.”
“… but in other stories he’s a right bastard,” Aaron continued. “He stole secret magics from the University. That’s why they threw him out, you know. And they didn’t call him Kvothe Kingkiller because he was good with a lute.”
The smile was gone, but the innkeeper nodded. “True enough. But what was he like?”
Aaron’s brow furrowed a bit. “He had red hair, if that’s what you mean. All the stories say that. A right devil with a sword. He was terrible clever. Had a real silver tongue, too, could talk his way out of anything.”
The innkeeper nodded. “Right. So if you were Kvothe, and terrible clever, as you say, and suddenly your head was worth a thousand royals and a duchy to whoever cut it off, what would you do?”
The smith’s prentice shook his head and shrugged, plainly at a loss.
“Well if I were Kvothe,” the innkeeper said, “I’d fake my death, change my name, and find some little town out in the middle of nowhere. Then I’d open an inn and do my best to disappear.” He looked at the young man. “That’s what I’d do.”
Aaron’s eye flickered to the innkeeper’s red hair, to the sword that hung over the bar, then back to the innkeeper’s eyes.
Kote nodded slowly, then pointed to Chronicler. “That fellow isn’t just some ordinary scribe. He’s a sort of historian, here to write down the true story of my life. You’ve missed the beginning, but if you’d like, you can stay for the rest.” He smiled an easy smile. “I can tell you stories no one has ever heard before. Stories no one will ever hear again. Stories about Felurian, how I learned to fight from the Adem. The truth about Princess Ariel.”
The innkeeper reached across the bar and touched the boy’s arm. “Truth is, Aaron, I’m fond of you. I think you’re uncommon smart, and I’d hate to see you throw your life away.” He took a deep breath and looked the smith’s prentice full in the face. His eyes were a startling green. “I know how this war started. I know the truth of it. Once you hear that, you won’t be nearly so eager to run off and die fighting in the middle of it.”
The innkeeper gestured to one of the empty chairs at the table beside Chronicler and smiled a smile so charming and easy that it belonged on a storybook prince. “What do you say?”
Aaron stared seriously at the innkeeper for a long moment, his eyes darting up to the sword, then back down again. “If you really are …” His voice trailed off, but his expression turned it into a question.
“I really am,” Kote reassured him gently.
“… then can I see your cloak of no particular color?” the prentice asked with a grin.
The innkeeper’s charming smile went stiff and brittle as a sheet of shattered glass.
“You’re getting Kvothe confused with Taborlin the Great,” Chronicler said matter-of-factly from across the room. “Taborlin had the cloak of no particular color.”
Aaron’s expression was puzzled as he turned to look at the scribe. “What did Kvothe have, then?”
“A shadow cloak,” Chronicler said. “If I remember correctly.”
The boy turned back toward the bar. “Can you show me your shadow cloak then?” he asked. “Or a bit of magic? I’ve always wanted to see some. Just a little fire or lightning would be enough. I wouldn’t want to tire you out.”
Before the innkeeper could respond, Aaron burst into a sudden laugh. “I’m just havin’ some fun with you, Mr. Kote.” He grinned again, wider than before. “Lord and lady, but I ain’t never heard a liar like you before in my whole life. Even my Uncle Alvan couldn’t tell one like that with a straight face.”
The innkeeper looked down and muttered something incomprehensible.
Aaron reached over the bar and laid a broad hand on Kote’s shoulder. “I know you’re just trying to help, Mr. Kote,” he said warmly. “You’re a good man, and I’ll think about what you said. I’m not rushing out to join. I just want to give my options a look-over.”
The smith’s prentice shook his head ruefully. “I swear. Everyone’s taken a run at me this morning. My mum said she was sick with the consumption. Rose told me she was pregnant.” He ran one hand through his hair, chuckling. “But yours was the ribbon-winner of the lot, I’ve gotta say.”
“Well, you know …” Kote managed a sickly smile. “I couldn’t have looked your mum square in the eye if I hadn’t given it a shot.”
“You might have had a chance if you’d picked something easier to swallow,” he said. “But everybody knows Kvothe’s sword was made of silver.” He flicked his eyes up to the sword that hung on the wall. “It wasn’t called Folly, either. It was Kaysera, the poet-killer.”
The innkeeper rocked back a bit at that. “The poet-killer?”
Aaron nodded doggedly. “Yes sir. And your scribe there is right. He had his cloak made all out of cobwebs and shadows, and he wore rings on all his fingers. How does it go?
“On his first hand he wore rings of stone,
Iron, amber, wood, and bone.
The smith’s prentice frowned. “I can’t remember the rest. There was something about fire.…”
The innkeeper’s expression was unreadable. He looked down at where his own hands lay spread on the top of the bar, and after a moment he recited:
“There were rings unseen on his second hand.
One was blood in a flowing band.
One of air all whisper thin,
And the ring of ice had a flaw within.
Full faintly shone the ring of flame,
And the final ring was without name.”
“That’s it,” Aaron said, smiling. “You don’t have any of those behind the bar, do you?” He stood on his toes as if trying to get a better look.
Kote gave a shaky, shamefaced smile. “No. No, I can’t say as I do.”
They both startled as Bast thumped a burlap sack onto the bar. “That should take care of both Carter and you for two days with plenty to spare,” Bast said brusquely.
Aaron shouldered the sack and started to leave, then hesitated and looked back at the two of them behind the bar. “I hate to ask for favors. Old Cob said he’d look in on my mum for me, but …”
Bast made his way around the bar and began herding Aaron toward the door. “She’ll be fine, I expect. I’ll stop and see Rose too, if you like.” He gave the smith’s prentice a wide, lascivious smile. “Just to make sure she’s not lonely or anything.”
“I’d appreciate it,” Aaron said, relief plain in his voice. “She was in a bit of a state when I left. She could do with some comforting.”
Bast stopped midway through opening the inn’s door and gave the broad-shouldered boy a look of utter disbelief. Then he shook his head and finished opening the door. “Right, off you go. Have fun in the big city. Don’t drink the water.”
Bast closed the door and pressed his forehead against the wood as if suddenly weary. “She could use some comforting?” he repeated incredulously. “I take back everything I ever said about that boy being clever.” He turned around to face the bar while leveling an accusatory finger at the closed door. “That,” he said firmly to the room in general, “is what comes of working with iron every day.”
The innkeeper gave a humorless chuckle as he leaned against the bar. “So much for my legendary silver tongue.”
Bast gave a derogatory snort. “The boy is an idiot, Reshi.”
“Am I supposed to feel better because I wasn’t able to persuade an idiot, Bast?”
Chronicler cleared his throat softly. “It seems more of a testament to the performance you’ve given here,” he said. “You’ve played the innkeeper so well they can’t think of you any other way.” He gestured around at the empty taproom. “Frankly, I’m surprised you’d be willing to risk your life here just to keep the boy out of the army.”
“Not much of a risk,” the innkeeper said. “It’s not much of a life.” He hauled himself upright and walked around to the front of the bar, making his way to the table where Chronicler sat. “I’m responsible for everyone who dies in this stupid war. I was just hoping to save one. Apparently even that is beyond me.”
He sank into the chair opposite Chronicler. “Where did we leave off yesterday? No sense repeating myself if I can help it.”
“You’d just called the wind and given Ambrose a piece of what he had coming to him,” Bast said from where he stood at the door. “And you were mooning over your ladylove something fierce.”
Kote looked up. “I do not moon, Bast.”
Chronicler picked up his flat leather satchel and produced a sheet of paper three-quarters full of small, precise writing. “I can read the last bit back to you, if you’d like.”
Kote held out his hand. “I can remember your cipher well enough to read it for myself,” he said wearily. “Give it over. Maybe it will prime the pump.” He glanced over at Bast. “Come and sit if you’re going to listen. I won’t have you hovering.”
Bast scampered for a seat while Kote drew a deep breath and looked over the last page of yesterday’s story. The innkeeper was quiet for a long moment. His mouth made something that might have been the beginning of a frown, then something like a faint shadow of a smile.
He nodded thoughtfully, his eyes still on the page. “So much of my young life was spent trying to get to the University,” he said. “I wanted to go there even before my troupe was killed. Before I knew the Chandrian were more than a campfire story. Before I began searching for the Amyr.”
The innkeeper leaned back in his chair, his weary expression fading, becoming thoughtful instead. “I thought once I was there, things would be easy. I would learn magic and find the answers to all my questions. I thought it would all be storybook simple.”
Kvothe gave a slightly embarrassed smile, the expression making his face look surprisingly young. “And it might have been, if I didn’t have a talent for making enemies and borrowing trouble. All I wanted was to play my music, attend my classes, and find my answers. Everything I wanted was at the University. All I wanted was to stay.” He nodded to himself. “That’s where we should begin.”
The innkeeper handed the sheet of paper back to Chronicler, who absentmindedly smoothed it down with one hand. Chronicler uncapped his ink and dipped his pen. Bast leaned forward eagerly, grinning like an excited child.
Kvothe’s bright eyes flickered around the room, taking everything in. He drew a deep breath, and flashed a sudden smile, and for a brief moment looked nothing like an innkeeper at all. His eyes were sharp and bright, green as a blade of grass. “Ready?”
EVERY TERM AT THE University began the same way: the admissions lottery followed by a full span of interviews. They were a necessary evil of sorts.
I don’t doubt the process started sensibly. Back when the University was smaller, I could picture them as actual interviews. An opportunity for a student to have a conversation with the masters about what he had learned. A dialogue. A discussion.
But these days the University was host to over a thousand students. There was no time for discussion. Instead, each student was subjected to a hail of questions in a handful of minutes. Brief as the interviews were, a single wrong answer or overlong hesitation could have a dramatic impact on your tuition.
Before interviews, students studied obsessively. Afterward, they drank in celebration or to console themselves. Because of this, for the eleven days of admissions, most students looked anxious and exhausted at best. At worst they wandered the University like shamble-men, hollow-eyed and grey-faced from too little sleep, too much drink, or both.
Personally, I found it odd how seriously everyone else took the whole process. The vast majority of students were nobility or members of wealthy merchant families. For them, a high tuition was an inconvenience, leaving them less pocket money to spend on horses and whores.
The stakes were higher for me. Once the masters set a tuition, it couldn’t be changed. So if my tuition was set too high, I’d be barred from the University until I could pay.
The first day of admissions always had a festival air about it. The admissions lottery took up the first half of the day, which meant the unlucky students who drew the earliest slots were forced to go through their interviews mere hours afterward.
By the time I arrived long lines snaked through the courtyard, while the students who had already drawn their tiles milled about, complaining and attempting to buy, sell, or trade their slots.
I didn’t see Wilem or Simmon anywhere, so I settled into the nearest line and tried not to think of how little I had in my purse: one talent and three jots. At one point in my life, it would have seemed like all the money in the world. But for tuition it was nowhere near enough.
There were carts scattered about selling sausages and chestnuts, hot cider and beer. I smelled warm bread and grease from a nearby cart. It was stacked with pork pies for the sort of people who could afford such things.
The lottery was always held in the largest courtyard of the University. Most everyone called it the pennant square, though a few folk with longer memories referred to it as the Questioning Hall. I knew it by an even older name, the House of the Wind.
I watched a few leaves tumble around the cobblestones, and when I looked up I saw Fela staring back at me from where she stood thirty or forty people closer to the front of the line. She gave me a warm smile and a wave. I waved back and she left her place, strolling back to where I stood.
Fela was beautiful. The sort of woman you would expect to see in a painting. Not the elaborate, artificial beauty you often see among the nobility, Fela was natural and unselfconscious, with wide eyes and a full mouth that was constantly smiling. Here in the University, where men outnumbered women ten to one, she stood out like a horse in a sheepfold.
“Do you mind if I wait with you?” she asked as she came to stand beside me. “I hate not having anyone to talk to.” She smiled winsomely at the pair of men queued up behind me. “I’m not cutting in,” she explained. “I’m just moving back.”
They had no objections, though their eyes flickered back and forth between Fela and myself. I could almost hear them wondering why one of the most lovely women in the University would give up her place in line to stand next to me.
It was a fair question. I was curious myself.
I moved aside to make space for her. We stood shoulder to shoulder for a moment, neither of us speaking.
“What are you studying this term?” I asked.
Fela brushed her hair back from her shoulder. “I’ll keep up with my work in the Archives, I suppose. Some chemistry. And Brandeur has invited me into Manifold Maths.”
I shivered a bit. “Too many numbers. I can’t swim those waters.”
Fela gave a shrug and the long, dark curls of hair she’d brushed away took the opportunity to tumble back, framing her face. “It’s not so hard once you get your head around it. It’s more like a game than anything.” She cocked her head at me. “What about you?”
“Observation in the Medica,” I said. “Study and work in the Fishery. Sympathy too, if Dal will have me. I should probably brush up my Siaru too.”
“You speak Siaru?” she asked, sounding surprised.
“I can get by,” I said. “But Wil says my grammar is embarrassingly bad.”
Fela nodded, then looked sideways at me, biting her lip. “Elodin’s asked me to join his class, too,” she said, her voice thick with apprehension.
“Elodin’s got a class?” I asked. “I didn’t think they let him teach.”
“He’s starting it this term,” she said, giving me a curious look. “I thought you’d be in it. Didn’t he sponsor you to Re’lar?”
“He did,” I said.
“Oh.” She looked uncomfortable, then quickly added, “He probably just hasn’t asked you yet. Or he’s planning on mentoring you separately.”
I waved her comment aside, though I was stung at the thought of being left out. “Who can say with Elodin?” I said. “If he isn’t crazy, he’s the best actor I’ve ever met.”
Fela started to say something, then looked around nervously and moved closer to me. Her shoulder brushed mine and her curling hair tickled my ear as she quietly asked, “Did he really throw you off the roof of the Crockery?”
I gave an embarrassed chuckle. “That’s a complicated story,” I said, then changed the subject rather clumsily. “What’s the name of his class?”
She rubbed her forehead and gave a frustrated laugh. “I haven’t the slightest idea. He said the name of the class was the name of the class.” She looked at me. “What does that mean? When I go to Ledgers and Lists will it be there under ‘The Name of the Class’?”
I admitted I didn’t know, and from there it was a short step to sharing Elodin stories. Fela said a scriv had caught him naked in the Archives. I’d heard that he’d once spent an entire span walking around the University blindfolded. Fela heard he’d invented an entire language from the ground up. I’d heard he had started a fistfight in one of the seedier local taverns because someone had insisted on saying the word “utilize” instead of “use.”
“I heard that too,” Fela said, laughing. “Except it was at the Horse and Four, and it was a baronet who wouldn’t stop using the word ‘moreover.’”
Before I knew it we were at the front of the line. “Kvothe, Arliden’s son,” I said. The bored-looking woman marked my name and I drew a smooth ivory tile out of the black velvet bag. It read: FELLING—NOON. Eighth day of admissions, plenty of time to prepare.
Fela drew her own tile and we moved away from the table.
“What did you get?” I asked.
She showed me her own small ivory tile. Cendling at fourth bell.
It was an incredibly lucky draw, one of the latest slots available. “Wow. Congratulations.”
Fela shrugged and slipped the tile into her pocket. “It’s all the same to me. I don’t make a special point of studying. The more I prepare, the worse I do. It just makes me nervous.”
“You should trade it away then,” I said, gesturing to the milling throng of students. “Someone would pay a full talent to get that slot. Maybe more.”
“I’m not much for bargaining, either,” she said. “I just assume whatever tile I draw is lucky and stick to it.”
Free from the line, we didn’t have any excuse to stay together. But I was enjoying her company and she didn’t seem terribly eager to run off, so the two of us wandered the courtyard aimlessly, the crowd milling around us.
“I’m starving,” Fela said suddenly. “Do you want to go have an early lunch somewhere?”
I was painfully aware of how light my purse was. If I were any poorer, I’d have to put a rock in it to keep it from flapping in the breeze. My meals were free at Anker’s because I played music there. So spending money on food somewhere else, especially so close to admissions, would be absolute foolishness.
“I’d love to,” I said honestly. Then I lied. “But I should browse around here a bit and see if anyone is willing to trade slots with me. I’m a bargainer from way back.”
Fela fished around in her pocket. “If you’re looking for more time, you can have mine.”
I looked at the tile between her finger and thumb, sorely tempted. Two extra more days of preparation would be a godsend. Or I could make a talent by trading it away. Maybe two.
“I wouldn’t want to take your luck,” I said, smiling. “And you certainly don’t want any part of mine. Besides, you’ve already been too generous with me.” I drew my cloak around my shoulders pointedly.
Fela smiled at that, reaching out to run her knuckles across the front of the cloak. “I’m glad you like it. But as far as I’m concerned, I still owe you.” She bit at her lips nervously, then let her hand drop. “Promise me you’ll let me know if you change your mind.”
She smiled again, then gave a half-wave and walked off across the courtyard. Watching her stroll through the crowd was like watching the wind move across the surface of a pond. Except instead of casting ripples on the water, her passing turned the heads of young men.
I was still watching when Wilem walked up beside me. “Are you finished with your flirting then?” he asked.
“I wasn’t flirting,” I said.
“You should have been,” he said. “What is the point of me waiting politely, not interrupting, if you waste such opportunities?”
“It isn’t like that,” I said. “She’s just friendly.”
“Obviously,” he said, his rough Cealdish accent making the sarcasm in his voice seem twice as thick. “What did you draw?”
I showed him my tile.
“You’re a day later than me.” He held out his tile. “I’ll trade you for a jot.”
“Come now,” he said. “It’s not as if you can study in the Archives like the rest of us.”
I glared at him. “Your empathy is overwhelming.”
“I save my empathy for those clever enough to avoid driving the Master Archivist into a frothing rage,” he said. “For folk such as you, I only have a jot in trade. Would you like it, or not?”
“I would like two jots,” I said, scanning the crowd, looking for students with a desperate wildness around their eyes. “If I can get them.”
Wilem narrowed his dark eyes. “A jot and three drabs,” he said.
I looked back at him, eyeing him carefully. “A jot and three,” I said. “And you take Simmon as your partner the next time we play corners.”
He gave a huff of laughter and nodded. We traded tiles and I tucked the money into my purse: one talent and four. A small step closer. After a moment’s thought, I tucked my tile into my pocket.
“Aren’t you going to keep trading down?” Wil asked.
I shook my head. “I think I’ll keep this slot.”
He frowned. “Why? What can you do with five days except fret and thumb-twiddle?”
“Same as anyone,” I said. “Prepare for my admissions interview.”
“How?” he asked. “You are still banned from the Archives, aren’t you?”
“There are other types of preparation,” I said mysteriously.
Wilem snorted. “That doesn’t sound suspicious at all,” he said. “And you wonder why people talk about you.”
“I don’t wonder why they talk,” I said. “I wonder what they say.”
Tar and Tin
THE CITY THAT had grown up around the University over the centuries was not large. It was barely more than a town, really.
Despite this, trade thrived at our end of the Great Stone Road. Merchants brought in carts of raw materials: tar and clay, gibbstone, potash, and sea salt. They brought luxuries like Lenatti coffee and Vintish wine. They brought fine dark ink from Arueh, pure white sand for our glassworks, and delicately crafted Cealdish springs and screws.
When those same merchants left, their wagons were laden with things you could only find at the University. The Medica made medicines. Real medicines, not colored stumpwater or penny nostrums. The alchemy complex produced its own marvels that I was only dimly aware of, as well as raw materials like naphtha, sulfurjack, and twicelime.
I might be biased, but I think it’s fair to say that most of the University’s tangible wonders came from the Artificery. Ground glass lenses. Ingots of wolfram and Glantz steel. Sheets of gold so thin they tore like tissue paper.
But we made much more than that. Sympathy lamps and telescopes. Heat-eaters and gearwins. Salt pumps. Trifoil compasses. A dozen versions of Teccam’s winch and Delevari’s axle.
Artificers like myself made these things, and when merchants bought them we earned a commission: sixty percent of the sale. This was the only reason I had any money at all. And, since there were no classes during admissions, I had a full span of days to work in the Fishery.
I made my way to the Stocks, the storeroom where artificers signed out tools and materials. I was surprised to see a tall, pale student standing at the window, looking profoundly bored.
“Jaxim?” I asked. “What are you doing here? This is a scrub job.”
Jaxim nodded morosely. “Kilvin is still a little…vexed with me,” he said. “You know. The fire and everything.”
“Sorry to hear it,” I said. Jaxim was a full Re’lar like myself. He could be pursuing any number of projects on his own right now. To be forced into a menial task like this wasn’t just boring, it humiliated Jaxim publicly while costing him money and stalling his studies. As punishments went, it was remarkably thorough.
“What are we short on?” I asked.
There was an art to choosing your projects in the Fishery. It didn’t matter if you made the brightest sympathy lamp, or the most efficient heat funnel in the history of Artificing. Until someone bought it, you wouldn’t make a bent penny of commission.
For a lot of the other workers, this wasn’t an issue. They could afford to wait. I, on the other hand, needed something that would sell quickly.
Jaxim leaned on the counter between us. “Caravan just bought all our deck lamps,” he said. “We only have that ugly one of Veston’s left.”
I nodded. Sympathy lamps were perfect for ships. Difficult to break, cheaper than oil in the long run, and you didn’t have to worry about them setting fire to your ship.
I juggled the numbers in my head. I could make two lamps at once, saving some time through duplication of effort, and be reasonably sure they would sell before I had to pay tuition.
Unfortunately, deck lamps were pure drudgery. Forty hours of painstaking labor, and if I botched any of it, the lamps simply wouldn’t work. Then I would have nothing to show for my time except a debt to the Stocks for the materials I’d wasted.
Still, I didn’t have a lot of options. “I guess I’ll do lamps then,” I said.
Jaxim nodded and opened the ledger. I began to recite what I needed from memory. “I’ll need twenty medium raw emitters. Two sets of the tall moldings. A diamond stylus. A tenten glass. Two medium crucibles. Four ounces of tin. Six ounces of fine-steel. Two ounces of nickel …”
Nodding to himself, Jaxim wrote it down in the ledger.
Eight hours later I walked through the front door of Anker’s smelling of hot bronze, tar, and coal smoke. It was almost midnight, and the room was empty except for a handful of dedicated drinkers.
“You look rough,” Anker said as I made my way to the bar.
“I feel rough,” I said. “I don’t suppose there’s anything left in the pot?”
He shook his head. “Folk were hungry tonight. I’ve got some cold potatoes I was going to throw in the soup tomorrow. And half a baked squash, I think.”
“Sold,” I said. “Though I’d be grateful for some salt butter as well.”
He nodded and pushed away from the bar.
“Don’t bother heating anything up,” I said. “I’ll just take it up to my room.”
He brought out a bowl with three good-sized potatoes and half a golden squash shaped like a bell. There was a generous daub of butter in the middle of the squash where the seeds had been scooped out.
“I’ll take a bottle of Bredon beer too,” I said as I took the bowl. “With the cap on. I don’t want to spill on the stairs.”
It was three flights up to my tiny room. After I closed the door, I carefully turned the squash upside down in the bowl, set the bottle on top of it, and wrapped the whole thing in a piece of sackcloth, turning it into a bundle I could carry under one arm.
Then I opened my window and climbed out onto the roof of the inn. From there it was a short hop over to the bakery across the alley.
A piece of moon hung low in the sky, giving me enough light to see without making me feel exposed. Not that I was too worried. It was approaching midnight, and the streets were quiet. Besides, you would be amazed how rarely people ever look up.
Auri sat on a wide brick chimney, waiting for me. She wore the dress I had bought her and swung her bare feet idly as she looked up at the stars. Her hair was so fine and light that it made a halo around her head, drifting on the faintest whisper of a breeze.
I carefully stepped onto the middle of a flat piece of tin roofing. It made a low tump under my foot, like a distant, mellow drum. Auri’s feet stopped swinging, and she went motionless as a startled rabbit. Then she saw me and grinned. I waved to her.
Auri hopped down from the chimney and skipped over to where I stood, her hair streaming behind her. “Hello, Kvothe.” She took a half-step back. “You reek.”
I smiled my best smile of the day. “Hello, Auri,” I said. “You smell like a pretty young girl.”
“I do,” she agreed happily.
She stepped sideways a little, then forward again, moving lightly on the balls of her bare feet. “What did you bring me?” she asked.
“What did you bring me?” I countered.
She grinned. “I have an apple that thinks it is a pear,” she said, holding it up. “And a bun that thinks it is a cat. And a lettuce that thinks it is a lettuce.”
“It’s a clever lettuce then.”
“Hardly,” she said with a delicate snort. “Why would anything clever think it was a lettuce?”
“Even if it is a lettuce?” I asked.
“Especially then,” she said. “Bad enough to be a lettuce. How awful to think you are a lettuce too.” She shook her head sadly, her hair following the motion as if she were underwater.
I unwrapped my bundle. “I brought you some potatoes, half a squash, and a bottle of beer that thinks it is a loaf of bread.”
“What does the squash think it is?” she asked curiously, looking down at it. She held her hands clasped behind her back.
“It knows it’s a squash,” I said. “But it’s pretending to be the setting sun.”
“And the potatoes?” she asked.
“They’re sleeping,” I said. “And cold, I’m afraid.”
She looked up at me, her eyes gentle. “Don’t be afraid,” she said, and reached out and rested her fingers on my cheek for the space of a heartbeat, her touch lighter than the stroke of a feather. “I’m here. You’re safe.”
The night was chill, and so rather than eat on the rooftops as we often did, Auri led me down through the iron drainage grate and into the sprawl of tunnels beneath the University.
She carried the bottle and held aloft something the size of a coin that gave off a gentle greenish light. I carried the bowl and the sympathy lamp I’d made myself, the one Kilvin had called a thieves’ lamp. Its reddish light was an odd complement to Auri’s brighter blue-green one.
Auri brought us to a tunnel with pipes in all shapes and sizes running along the walls. Some of the larger iron pipes carried steam, and even wrapped in insulating cloth they provided a steady heat. Auri carefully arranged the potatoes at a bend in the pipe where the cloth had been peeled away. It made a tiny oven of sorts.
Using my sackcloth as a table, we sat on the ground and shared our dinner. The bun was a little stale, but it had nuts and cinnamon in it. The head of lettuce was surprisingly fresh, and I wondered where she had found it. She had a porcelain teacup for me, and a tiny silver beggar’s cup for herself. She poured the beer so solemnly you’d think she was having tea with the king.
There was no talking during dinner. That was one of the rules I had learned through trial and error. No touching. No sudden movement. No questions even remotely personal. I could not ask about the lettuce or the green coin. Such a thing would send her scampering off into the tunnels, and I wouldn’t see her for days afterward.
Truth be told, I didn’t even know her real name. Auri was just what I had come to call her, but in my heart I thought of her as my little moon Fae.
As always, Auri ate delicately. She sat with her back straight, taking small bites. She had a spoon we used to eat the squash, sharing it back and forth.
“You didn’t bring your lute,” she said after we had finished eating.
“I have to go read tonight,” I said. “But I’ll bring it soon.”
“Six nights from now,” I said. I’d be finished with admissions then, and more studying would be pointless.
Her tiny face pulled a frown. “Six days isn’t soon,” she said. “Tomorrow is soon.”
“Six days is soon for a stone,” I said.
“Then play for a stone in six days,” she said. “And play for me tomorrow.”
“I think you can be a stone for six days,” I said. “It is better than being a lettuce.”
She grinned at that. “It is.”
After we finished the last of the apple, Auri led me through the Underthing. We went quietly along the Nodway, jumped our way through Vaults, then entered Billows, a maze of tunnels filled with a slow, steady wind. I probably could have found my own way, but I preferred to have Auri as a guide. She knew the Underthing like a tinker knows his packs.
Wilem was right, I was banned from the Archives. But I’ve always had a knack for getting into places where I shouldn’t be. More’s the pity.
Archives was a huge windowless stone block of a building. But the students inside needed fresh air to breathe, and the books needed more than that. If the air was too moist, the books would rot and mildew. If the air was too dry, the parchment would become brittle and fall to pieces.
It had taken me a long time to discover how fresh air made its way into the Archives. But even after I found the proper tunnel, getting in wasn’t easy. It involved a long crawl through a terrifyingly narrow tunnel, a quarter hour worming along on my belly across the dirty stone. I kept a set of clothes in the Underthing, and after a dozen trips, they were thoroughly ruined.
Still, it was a small price to pay for gaining access to the Archives.
There would be hell to pay if I were ever caught. I’d face expulsion at the very least. But if I performed poorly in my admissions exam and received a tuition of twenty talents, I’d be just as good as expelled. So it was a horse apiece, really.
Even so, I wasn’t worried about being caught. The only lights in the Stacks were carried by students and scrivs. This meant it was always nighttime in the Archives, and I have always been most comfortable at night.
THE DAYS TRUDGED PAST. I worked in the Fishery until my fingers were numb, then read in the Archives until my eyes were blurry.
On the fifth day of admissions I finally finished my deck lamps and took them to Stocks, hoping they sold quickly. I considered starting another pair, but I knew I wouldn’t have time to finish them before tuition was due.
So I set about making money in other ways. I played an extra night at Anker’s, earning free drinks and a handful of small change from appreciative audience members. I did some piecework in the Fishery, making simple, useful items like brass gears and panes of twice-tough glass. Such things could be sold back to the workshop immediately for a tiny profit.
Then, since tiny profits weren’t going to be enough, I made two batches of yellow emitters. When used to make a sympathy lamp, their light was a pleasant yellow very close to sunlight. They were worth quite a bit of money because doping them required dangerous materials.
Heavy metals and vaporous acids were the least of them. The bizarre alchemical compounds were the truly frightening things. There were transporting agents that would move through your skin without leaving a mark, then quietly eat the calcium out of your bones. Others would simply lurk in your body, doing nothing for months until you started to bleed from your gums and lose your hair. The things they produced in Alchemy Complex made arsenic look like sugar in your tea.
I was painstakingly careful, but while I was working on the second batch of emitters my tenten glass cracked and tiny drops of transporting agent spattered the glass of the fume hood. None of it actually touched my skin, but a single drop landed on my shirt, high above the long cuffs of the leather gloves I was wearing.
Moving slowly, I used a nearby caliper to pinch the fabric of my shirt and pull it away from my body. Then, moving awkwardly, I cut the piece of fabric away so it had no chance at all of touching my skin. The incident left me shaken and sweating, and I decided there were better ways to earn money.
I covered a fellow student’s observation shift in the Medica in exchange for a jot and helped a merchant unload three wagonloads of lime for halfpenny each. Then, later that night, I found a handful of cutthroat gamblers willing to let me sit in on their game of breath. Over the course of two hours I managed to lose eighteen pennies and some loose iron. Though it galled me, I forced myself to walk away from the table before things got any worse.
At the end of all my scrambling, I had less in my purse than when I had begun.
Luckily, I had one last trick up my sleeve.
I stretched my legs on the wide stone road, heading to Imre.
Accompanying me were Simmon and Wilem. Wil had ended up selling his late slot to a desperate scriv for a tidy profit, so both of them were finished with admissions and carefree as kittens. Wil’s tuition was set at six talents and eight, while Sim was still gloating over his impressively low five talents and two.
My purse held one talent and three. An inauspicious number.
Completing our quartet was Manet. His wild grey hair and habitually rumpled clothes made him look vaguely bewildered, as if he’d just woken up and couldn’t quite remember where he was. We had brought him along partly because we needed a fourth for corners, but also because we felt it was our duty to get the poor fellow out of the University every once in a while.
The four of us made our way over the high arch of Stonebridge, across the Omethi River, and into Imre. Autumn was in its last gasp, and I wore my cloak against the chance of a chill. My lute was slung comfortably across my back.
At the heart of Imre we crossed a great cobblestone courtyard and walked past the central fountain filled with statues of satyrs chasing nymphs. Water splashed and fanned in the breeze as we joined the line leading to the Eolian.
When we got to the door I was surprised to see Deoch wasn’t there. In his place was a short, grim man with a thick neck. He held out a hand. “That’ll be a jot, young sir.”
“Sorry.” I moved the strap of my lute case out of the way and showed him the small set of silver pipes pinned to my cloak. I gestured to Wil, Sim, and Manet. “They’re with me.”
He squinted at the pipes suspiciously. “You look awfully young,” he said, his eyes darting back to my face.
“I am awfully young,” I said easily. “It’s part of my charm.”
“Awfully young to have your pipes,” he clarified, making it a reasonably polite accusation.
I hesitated. While I looked old for my age, that meant I looked a few years better than my actual fifteen. To the best of my knowledge, I was the youngest musician at the Eolian. Normally this worked in my favor, as it made me a bit of a novelty. But now …
Before I could think of anything to say, a voice came from the line behind us. “It’s not a fake, Kett.” A tall woman carrying a fiddle case nodded at me. “He earned his pipes while you were away. He’s the real thing.”
“Thanks, Marie,” I said as the doorman gestured us inside.
The four of us found a table near the back wall with a good view of the stage. I scanned the nearby faces and staved off a familiar flicker of disappointment when Denna was nowhere to be seen.
“What was that business at the door?” Manet asked as he looked around, taking in the stage, the high, vaulted ceiling. “Were people paying to get in here?”
I looked at him. “You’ve been a student for thirty years, but never been to the Eolian?”
“Well, you know.” He made a vague gesture. “I’ve been busy. I don’t get over to this side of the river very often.”
Sim laughed, sitting down. “Let me put this in terms you’ll understand, Manet. If music had a University, this would be it, and Kvothe would be a full-fledged arcanist.”
“Bad analogy,” Wil said. “This is a musical court, and Kvothe is one of the gentry. We ride his coattails in. It is the reason we have tolerated his troublesome company for so long.”
“A whole jot just to get in?” Manet asked.
Manet gave a noncommittal grunt as he looked around, eyeing the well-dressed nobles milling on the balcony above. “Well then,” he said. “I guess I learned something today.”
The Eolian was just beginning to fill up, so we passed the time playing corners. It was just a friendly game, a drab a hand, double for a counterfeit, but coin-poor as I was, any stakes were high. Luckily, Manet played with the precision of a gear-clock: no mislaid tricks, no wild bids, no hunches.
Simmon bought the first round of drinks, and Manet bought the second. By the time the Eolian’s lights dimmed, Manet and I were ten hands ahead, largely due to Simmon’s tendency to enthusiastically overbid. I pocketed the single copper jot with grim satisfaction. One talent and four.
An older man made his way up onto the stage. After a brief introduction by Stanchion he played a heart-achingly lovely version of “Taetn’s Late Day” on mandolin. His fingers were light and quick and sure on his strings. But his voice …
Most things fail with age. Our hands and backs stiffen. Our eyes dim. Skin roughens and our beauty fades. The only exception is the voice. Properly cared for, a voice does nothing but grow sweeter with age and constant use. His was like a sweet honey wine. He finished his song to hearty applause, and after a moment the lights came back up and the room swelled with conversation.
“There’s breaks between the performers,” I explained to Manet. “So folk can talk and walk around and get their drinks. Tehlu and all his angels won’t be able to keep you safe if you talk during someone’s performance.”
Manet huffed. “Don’t worry about me embarrassing you. I’m not a complete barbarian.”
“Just giving fair warning,” I said. “You let me know what’s dangerous in the Artificery. I let you know what’s dangerous here.”
“His lute was different,” Wilem said. “It sounded different than yours. Smaller too.”
I fought off the urge to smile and decided not to make an issue of it. “That sort of lute is called a mandolin,” I said.
“You’re going to play, aren’t you?” Simmon asked, squirming in his seat like an eager puppy. “You should play that song you wrote about Ambrose.” He hummed a bit, then sang:
“A mule can learn magic, a mule has some class,
Cause unlike young Rosey, he’s just half an ass.”
Manet chuckled into his mug. Wilem cracked a rare smile.
“No,” I said firmly. “I’m done with Ambrose. We’re quits as far as I’m concerned.”
“Of course,” Wil said, deadpan.
“I’m serious,” I said. “There’s no profit in it. This back and forth does nothing but irritate the masters.”
“‘Irritate’ is rather a mild word,” Manet said dryly. “Not exactly the one I would have chosen, myself.”
“You owe him,” Sim said, his eyes glittering with anger. “Besides, they aren’t going to charge you with Conduct Unbecoming a Member of the Arcanum just for singing a song.”
“No,” Manet said. “They’ll just raise his tuition.”
“What?” Simmon said. “They can’t do that. Tuition is based on your admissions interview.”
Manet’s snort echoed hollowly into his mug as he took another drink. “The interview is just a piece of the game. If you can afford it, they squeeze you a little. Same thing if you cause them trouble.” He eyed me seriously. “You’re going to be getting it from both ends this time. How many times were you brought up on the horns last term?”
“Twice,” I admitted. “But the second time wasn’t really my fault.”
“Of course.” Manet gave me a frank look. “And that’s why they tied you up and whipped you bloody, is it? Because it wasn’t your fault?”
I shifted uncomfortably in my chair, feeling the pull of the half-healed scars along my back. “Most of it wasn’t my fault,” I amended.
Manet shrugged it aside. “Fault isn’t the issue. A tree doesn’t make a thunderstorm, but any fool knows where lightning’s going to strike.”
Wilem nodded seriously. “Back home we say: the tallest nail gets hammered down first.” He frowned. “It sounds better in Siaru.”
Sim looked troubled. “But the admission interview still determines the lion’s share of your tuition, doesn’t it?” From his tone, I guessed Sim hadn’t even considered the possibility of personal grudges or politics entering into the equation.
“For the most part,” Manet admitted. “But the masters pick their own questions, and they each get their say.” He began to tick things off on his fingers. “Hemme doesn’t care for you, and he can carry twice his weight in grudges. You got on Lorren’s bad side early and managed to stay there. You’re a troublemaker. You missed nearly a span of classes toward the end of last term. No warning beforehand or any explanation afterward.” He gave me a significant look.
I looked down at the table, pointedly aware that several of the classes I’d missed had been part of my apprenticeship under Manet in the Artificery.
After a moment, Manet shrugged and continued. “On top of it all, they’ll be testing you as a Re’lar this time around. Tuitions get higher in the upper ranks. There’s a reason I’ve stayed an E’lir this long.” He gave me a hard stare. “My best guess? You’ll be lucky to get out for less than ten talents.”
“Ten talents.” Sim sucked a breath through his teeth and shook his head sympathetically. “Good thing you’re so flush.”
“Not as flush as that,” I said.
“How can you not be?” Sim asked. “The masters fined Ambrose almost twenty talents after he broke your lute. What did you do with all the money?”
I looked down and nudged my lute case gently with my foot.
“You spent it on a new lute?” Simmon asked, horrified. “Twenty talents? Do you know what you could buy for that amount of money?”
“A lute?” Wilem asked.
“I didn’t even know you could spend that much on an instrument,” Simmon said.
“You can spend a lot more than that,” Manet said. “They’re like horses.”
This made the conversation stumble a bit. Wil and Sim turned to look at him, confused.
I laughed. “That’s a good comparison, actually.”
Manet nodded sagely. “There’s a wide spread with horses, you see. You can buy a broken old plow horse for less than a talent. Or you can buy a high-stepping Vaulder for forty.”
“Not likely,” Wil grunted. “Not for a true Vaulder.”
Manet smiled. “That’s it exactly. However much you’ve ever known someone to spend on a horse, you could easily spend that buying yourself a fine harp or fiddle.”
Simmon looked stunned by this. “But my father once spent two hundred fifty hard on a Kaepcaen tall,” he said.
I leaned to one side and pointed. “The blond man there, his mandolin is worth twice that.”
“But,” Simmon said. “But horses have bloodlines. You can breed a horse and sell it.”
“That mandolin has a bloodline,” I said. “It was made by Antressor himself. It’s been around for a hundred and fifty years.”
I watched as Sim absorbed the information, looking around at all the instruments in the room. “Still,” Sim said. “Twenty talents.” He shook his head. “Why didn’t you wait until after admissions? You could have spent whatever you had left over on the lute.”
“I needed it to play at Anker’s,” I explained. “I get free room and board as their house musician. If I don’t play, I can’t stay.”
It was the truth, but it wasn’t the whole truth. Anker would have cut me some slack if I’d explained my situation. But if I’d waited, I would have had to spend almost two span without a lute. It would be like missing a tooth or a limb. It would be like spending two span with my mouth sewn shut. It was unthinkable.
“And I didn’t spend all of it on the lute,” I said. “I had a few other expenses crop up too.” Specifically, I’d paid off the gaelet I’d borrowed money from. That had taken six talents, but being free of my debt to Devi was like having a great weight lifted off my chest.
But now I could feel that same weight settling back onto me. If Manet’s guess was even half-accurate, I was worse off than I’d thought.
Fortunately, the lights dimmed and the room grew quiet, saving me from having to explain myself any further. We looked up as Stanchion brought Marie up onto the stage. He chatted with the nearby audience while she tuned her fiddle and the room began to settle down.
I liked Marie. She was taller than most men, proud as a cat, and spoke at least four languages. Many of Imre’s musicians did their best to mimic the latest fashion, hoping to blend in with the nobility, but Marie wore road clothes. Pants you could do a day’s work in, boots you could use to walk twenty miles.
I don’t mean to imply she wore homespun, mind you. She just had no love for fashion or frippery. Her clothes were obviously tailored for her, close fitting and flattering. Tonight she wore burgundy and brown, the colors of her patron, the Lady Jhale.
The four of us eyed the stage. “I will admit,” Wilem said quietly, “that I have given Marie a fair amount of consideration.”
Manet gave a low chuckle. “That is a woman and a half,” he said. “Which means she’s five times more woman than any of you know what to do with.” At a different time, such a statement might have goaded the three of us into swaggering protest. But Manet stated it without a hint of taunt in his voice, so we let it pass. Especially as it was probably true.
“Not for me,” Simmon said. “She always looks like she’s getting ready to wrestle someone. Or go off and break a wild horse.”
“She does.” Manet chuckled again. “If we were living in a better age they’d build a temple around a woman like that.”
We fell silent as Marie finished tuning her fiddle and eased into a sweet roundel, slow and gentle as a soft spring breeze.
Though I didn’t have time to tell him, Simmon was more than half right. Once, in the Flint and Thistle, I had seen Marie punch a man in the throat for referring to her as “that mouthy fiddler bitch.” She kicked him when he was on the ground, too. But only once, and nowhere that hurt him in a permanent way.
Marie continued her roundel, the slow, sweet pace of it gradually building until it was trotting along briskly. The sort of tune you would only think of dancing to if you were exceptionally light on your feet, or exceptionally drunk.
She let it build until it was beyond anything a man could dream of dancing to. It was nothing like a trot now. It sprinted, fast as a pair of children racing. I marveled at how clean and clear her fingering was despite the frantic pace.
Faster. Quick as a deer with a wild dog behind it. I started to get nervous, knowing it was just a matter of time before she slid or slipped or dropped a note. But somehow she kept going, each note perfect, sharp and strong and sweet. Her flickering fingers arched high against the strings. The wrist of her bow hand hung loose and lazy despite the terrible speed.
Faster still. Her face was intent. Her bow arm a blur. Faster still. She braced herself, her long legs planted firmly on the stage, her fiddle tucked hard against her jaw. Each note sharp as early morning birdsong. Faster still.
She finished in a rush and gave a sudden, flourishing bow without a single mistake. I was sweating like a hard-run horse, my heart racing.
I wasn’t the only one. Wil and Sim each had a sheen of sweat across his forehead.
Manet’s knuckles were white where he gripped the edge of the table. “Merciful Tehlu,” he said breathlessly. “They have music like this every night?”
I smiled at him. “It’s still early,” I said. “You haven’t heard me play.”
Wilem bought the next round of drinks and our talk turned to the idle gossip of the University. Manet had been around for longer than half of the masters, so he knew more scandalous stories than the three of us put together.
A lutist with a thick grey beard played a stirring version of “En Faeant Morie.” Then two lovely women, one in her forties and the other young enough to be her daughter, sang a duet about Laniel Young-Again I’d never heard before.
Marie was called back onto the stage and played a simple jig with such enthusiasm that it set folk dancing in the spaces between the tables. Manet actually stood for the final chorus and surprised us by demonstrating a pair of remarkably light feet. We cheered him, and when he took his seat again he was flushed and breathing hard.
Wil bought him a drink, and Simmon turned to me with excitement in his eyes.
“No,” I said. “I’m not going to play it. I already told you.”
Sim deflated into such profound disappointment that I couldn’t help but laugh. “I’ll tell you what. I’ll take a turn around the place. If I see Threpe, I’ll put him up to it.”
I made my slow way through the crowded room, and while I did keep an eye out for Threpe, the truth is I was hunting for Denna. I hadn’t seen her come in by the front door, but with the music, cards, and general commotion there was a chance I’d simply missed her.
It took a quarter hour to methodically make my way through the crowded main floor, getting a look at all the faces and stopping to chat with a few of the musicians along the way.
I made my way up to the second tier just as the lights dimmed again. I settled in at the railing to watch a Yllish piper play a sad, lilting tune.
When the lights came back up, I searched the second tier of the Eolian: a wide, crescent-shaped balcony. My search was more a ritual than anything. Looking for Denna was an exercise in futility, like praying for fair weather.
But tonight was the exception to the rule. As I strolled through the second tier I spotted her walking with a tall, dark-haired gentleman. I changed my path through the tables so I would intercept them casually.
Denna spotted me half a minute later. She gave a bright, excited smile and took her hand off the gentleman’s arm, motioning me closer.
The man at her side was proud as a hawk and handsome, with a jawline like a cinder brick. He wore a shirt of blindingly white silk and a richly dyed suede jacket the color of blood. Silver stitching. Silver on the buckle and the cuff. He looked every bit the Modegan gentleman. The cost of his clothes, not even counting his rings, would have paid my tuition for a solid year.
Denna was playing the part of his charming and attractive companion. In the past I had seen her dressed much the same as myself: plain clothes meant for hard wear and travel. But tonight she wore a long dress of green silk. Her dark hair curled artfully around her face and tumbled down her shoulders. At her throat was an emerald pendant shaped like a smooth teardrop. It matched the color of the dress so perfectly that it couldn’t be coincidence.
I felt a little shabby by comparison. More than a little. Every piece of clothing I owned in the world amounted to four shirts, two sets of pants, and a few sundries. All of it secondhand and threadbare to some degree. I was wearing my best tonight, but I’m sure you understand when I say my best was not particularly fine.
The one exception was my cloak, Fela’s gift. It was warm and wonderful, tailored for me in green and black with numerous pockets in the lining. It wasn’t elegant by any measure, but it was the finest thing I owned.
As I approached, Denna stepped forward and held out her hand for me to kiss, the gesture poised, almost haughty. Her expression was composed, her smile polite. To the casual observer she looked every bit the genteel lady being gracious to a poor young musician.
All except her eyes. They were dark and deep, the color of coffee and chocolate. Her eyes were dancing with amusement, full of laughter. Standing behind her, the gentleman gave a bare hint of a frown when she offered me her hand. I didn’t know what game Denna was playing, but I could guess my part.
So I bent over her hand, kissing it lightly in a low bow. I had been trained in courtly manners at an early age, so I knew what I was doing. Anyone can bend at the waist, but a good bow takes skill.
This one was gracious and flattering, and as I pressed my lips to the back of her hand I flared my cloak to one side with a delicate flick of my wrist. The last was the difficult bit, and it had taken me several hours of careful practice in the bathhouse mirror to get the motion to look sufficiently casual.
Denna made a curtsey graceful as a falling leaf and stepped back to stand beside the gentleman. “Kvothe, this is Lord Kellin Vantenier. Kellin, Kvothe.”
Kellin eyed me up and down, forming his full opinion of me more quickly than you can draw a short, sharp breath. His expression became dismissive, and he gave me a nod. I’m no stranger to disdain, but I was surprised how much this particular bit stung me.
“At your service, my lord.” I made a polite bow and shifted my weight so my cloak fell away from my shoulder, displaying my talent pipes.
He was about to look away with practiced disinterest when his eye snagged on the bright piece of silver. It was nothing special in terms of jewelry, but here it was significant. Wilem was right: at the Eolian, I was one of the gentry.
And Kellin knew it. After a heartbeat of consideration, he returned my bow. It was barely more than a nod, really. Just low enough to be polite. “Yours and your family’s,” he said in perfect Aturan. His voice was deeper than mine, a warm bass with enough of a Modegan accent to lend it a slight musical cant.
Denna inclined her head in his direction. “Kellin has been showing me my way around a harp.”
“I am here to win my pipes,” he said, his deep voice filled with certainty.
When he spoke, women at the surrounding tables turned to look in his direction with hungry, half-lidded eyes. His voice had the opposite effect on me. To be both rich and handsome was bad enough. But to have a voice like honey over warm bread on top of that was simply inexcusable. The sound of it made me feel like a cat grabbed by the tail and rubbed backward with a wet hand.
I glanced at his hands. “So you’re a harper?”
“Harpist,” he corrected stiffly. “I play the Pendenhale. King of instruments.”
I pulled in half a breath, then closed my mouth. The Modegan great harp had been the king of instruments five hundred years ago. These days it was an antique curiosity. I let it pass, avoiding the argument for Denna’s sake. “Will you be trying your luck tonight?” I asked.
Kellin’s eyes narrowed slightly. “There will be nothing of luck involved when I play. But no. Tonight I am enjoying my lady Dinael’s company.” He lifted Denna’s hand to his lips and gave it an absentminded kiss. He looked around at the murmuring crowd in a proprietary way, as if he owned them. “I will be in worthy company here, I think.”
I glanced at Denna, but she was avoiding my eyes. Her head tilted to the side as she toyed with an earring previously hidden in her hair, a tiny teardrop emerald that matched the pendant at her throat.
Kellin’s eyes flickered over me again. My ill-fitting clothes. My hair, too short to be fashionable, too long to be anything other than wild. “And you are… a piper?”
The least expensive instrument. “Pipist,” I said lightly. “But no. I favor the lute.”
His eyebrows went up. “You play court lute?”
My smile stiffened a bit despite my best efforts. “Trouper’s lute.”
“Ah!” he said, laughing as if things suddenly made sense. “Folk music!”
I let that pass as well, though less easily than before. “Do you have seats yet?” I asked brightly. “Several of us have taken a table below with a good view of the stage. You’re welcome to join us.”
“The lady and I already have a table in the third circle.” Kellin nodded in Denna’s direction. “I much prefer the company above.”
Outside his field of vision, Denna rolled her eyes at me.
I kept a straight face and made another polite bow to him, barely more than a nod. “I won’t delay you then.”
I turned to Denna. “My lady. Might I call on you some time?”
She sighed, looking every bit the put-upon socialite, except for her eyes, which were still laughing at all the ridiculous formality of the exchange. “I’m sure you understand, Kvothe. My schedule is quite full for the next several days. But you could pay a visit near the end of the span if you wish. I’ve taken rooms at the Grey Man.”
“You’re too kind,” I said, and gave her a much more earnest bow than the one I had given Kellin. She rolled her eyes at me this time.
Kellin held out his arm, turning his shoulder to me in the process, and the two of them walked off into the crowd. Watching them together, moving gracefully through the throng, it would be easy to believe they owned the place, or were perhaps thinking of buying it to use as a summer home. Only old nobility move with that easy arrogance, knowing deep in their guts that everything in the world exists only to make them happy. Denna was faking it marvelously, but for Lord Kellin Brickjaw it was as natural as drawing breath.
I watched until they were halfway up the stairs to the third circle. That’s where Denna stopped and put a hand to her head. Then she looked around at the floor, her expression anxious. The two of them spoke briefly and she pointed up the stairs. Kellin nodded and climbed out of sight.
On a hunch, I looked down at the floor and spotted a gleam of silver where Denna had been standing near the railing. I moved and stood over it, forcing a pair of Cealdish merchants to detour around me.
I pretended to watch the crowd below until Denna came close and tapped me on the shoulder. “Kvothe,” she said anxiously. “I’m sorry to bother you, but I seem to have lost an earring. Would you be a dear and help me look for it? I’m sure I had it on me just a moment ago.”
I agreed, and soon we were enjoying a moment of privacy, decorously searching the floorboards with our heads close together. Luckily, Denna’s dress was in the Modegan style, flowing and loose around the legs. If it had been slit up the side according to the current fashion of the Commonwealth, the sight of her crouching on the floor would have been scandalous.
“God’s body,” I muttered. “Where did you find him?”
Denna chuckled low in her throat. “Hush. You’re the one who suggested I learn my way around a harp. Kellin is quite a good teacher.”
“The Modegan pedal harp weighs five times as much as you do,” I said. “It’s a parlor instrument. You’d never be able to take one on the road.”
She stopped pretending to look for her earring and gave me a pointed look. “And who’s to say I won’t ever have a parlor to harp in?”
I looked back to the floor and gave as much of a shrug as I could manage. “It’s good enough for learning, I suppose. How are you liking it so far?”
“It’s better than the lyre,” she said. “I can already see that. I can barely play ‘Squirrel in the Thatch,’ though.”
“Is he any good?” I gave her a sly smile. “With his hands, I mean.”
Denna flushed a bit and looked for a second as if she would swat at me. But she remembered her decorum in time and settled for narrowing her eyes instead. “You’re awful,” she said, “Kellin has been a perfect gentleman.”
“Tehlu save us all from perfect gentlemen,” I said.
She shook her head. “I meant it in the literal sense,” she said. “He’s never been out of Modeg before. He’s like a kitten in a coop.”
“So you’re Dinael now?” I asked.
“For now. And for him,” she said, looking at me sideways with a small quirk of a smile. “From you I still like Denna best.”
“That’s good to know,” I said, then lifted my hand off the floor, revealing the smooth emerald teardrop of an earring. Denna made a show of discovering it, holding it up to catch the light. “Ah! Here we are!”
I stood and helped her to her feet. She brushed her hair back from her shoulder and leaned toward me. “I’m all thumbs with these things,” she said. “Would you mind?”
I stepped toward her and stood close as she handed me the earring. She smelled faintly of wildflowers. But beneath that she smelled like autumn leaves. Like the dark smell of her own hair, like road dust and the air before a summer storm.
“So what is he?” I said softly. “Someone’s second son?”
She gave a barely perceptible shake of her head, and a strand of her hair fell down to brush the back of my hand. “He’s a lord in his own right.”
“Skethe te retaa van,” I swore. “Lock up your sons and daughters.”
Denna laughed again, quietly. Her body shook as she fought to hold it in.
“Hold still,” I said as I gently took hold of her ear.
Denna drew a deep breath and let it out again, composing herself. I threaded the earring through the lobe of her ear and stepped away. She lifted one hand to check it, then stepped back and gave a curtsey. “Thank you kindly for all your help.”
I bowed to her again. It wasn’t as polished as the bow I’d given her before, but it was more honest. “I am at your service, my lady.”
Denna smiled warmly as she turned to go, her eyes laughing again.
I finished exploring the second tier for the sake of form, but Threpe didn’t seem to be around. Not wanting to risk the awkwardness of a second encounter with Denna and her lordling, I decided to skip the third tier entirely.
Sim had the lively look he gets around his fifth drink. Manet was slouched low in his chair, eyes half-lidded, his mug resting comfortably on the swell of his belly. Wil looked the same as ever, his dark eyes unreadable.
“Threpe’s nowhere to be found,” I said as I took my seat. “Sorry.”
“That’s too bad,” Sim said. “Has he had any luck finding you a patron yet?”
I shook my head bitterly. “Ambrose has threatened or bribed every noble within a hundred miles of here. They’ll have nothing to do with me.”
“Why doesn’t Threpe take you on himself?” Wilem asked. “He likes you well enough.”
I shook my head. “Threpe’s already supporting three other musicians. Four really, but two of them are a married couple.”
“Four?” Sim said, horrified. “It’s a wonder he can still afford to eat.”
Wil cocked his head curiously, and Sim leaned forward to explain. “Threpe’s a count. But his holdings aren’t really that extensive. Supporting four players on his income is a little…extravagant.”
Wil frowned. “Drinks and strings can’t amount to much.”
“A patron’s responsible for more than that.” Sim began to count items off on his fingers. “There’s the writ of patronage itself. Then he provides room and board for his players, a yearly wage, a suit of clothes in his family’s colors—”
“Two suits of clothing, traditionally,” I interjected. “Every year.” Growing up in the troupe, I never appreciated the livery Lord Greyfallow had given us. But these days I couldn’t help but imagine how much my wardrobe would be improved by two new sets of clothing.
Simmon grinned as a serving boy arrived, leaving no doubt as to who was responsible for the glasses of blackberry brand set in front of each of us. Sim raised his glass in a silent toast and drank a solid swallow. I raised my glass in return, as did Wilem, though it obviously pained him. Manet remained motionless, and I began to suspect he had dozed off.
“It still doesn’t add square,” Wilem said, setting down his brand. “All the patron gets is lighter pockets.”
“The patron gets a reputation,” I explained. “That’s why the players wear the livery. Plus he has entertainers at his beck and call: parties, dances, pageants. Sometimes they’ll write songs or plays at his request.”
Wil still seemed skeptical. “Still seems like the patron is getting the short side of it.”
“That’s because you only have half the picture,” Manet said, pulling himself upright in his chair. “You’re a city boy. You don’t know what it’s like growing up in a little town built on one man’s land.
“Here’s Lord Poncington’s lands,” Manet said, using a bit of spilled beer to draw a circle in the center of the table. “Where you live like the good little commoner you are.” Manet picked up Simmon’s empty glass and put it inside the circle.
“One day, a fellow strolls through town wearing Lord Poncington’s colors.” Manet picked up his full glass of brand and jigged it across the table until it stood next to Sim’s empty one inside the circle. “And this fellow plays songs for everyone at the local inn.” Manet splashed some of the brand into Sim’s glass.
Not needing any prompting, Sim grinned and drank it.
Manet trotted his glass around the table and entered the circle again. “Next month a couple more folk come through wearing his colors and put on a puppet show.” He poured more brand and Simmon tossed it back. “The next month there’s a play.” Again.
Now Manet picked up his wooden mug and clomped it across the table into the circle. “Then the tax man shows up, wearing the same colors.” Manet knocked his empty mug impatiently on the table.
Sim sat confused for a second, then he picked up his own mug and sloshed some beer into it.
Manet eyed him and tapped the mug again, sternly.
Sim poured the rest of his beer into Manet’s mug, laughing. “I like blackberry brand better anyway.”
“Lord Poncington likes his taxes better,” Manet said. “And people like to be entertained. And the tax man likes not being poisoned and buried in a shallow grave behind the old mill.” He took a drink of beer. “So it works out nicely for everyone.”
Wil watched the exchange with his serious, dark eyes. “That makes better sense.”
“It’s not always as mercenary as that,” I said. “Threpe genuinely wants to help musicians improve their craft. Some nobles treat their performers like horses in a stable,” I sighed. “Even that would be better than what I have now, which is nothing.”
“Don’t sell yourself cheap,” Sim said cheerfully. “Wait and get a good patron. You deserve it. You’re as good as any musician here.”
I kept silent, too proud to tell them the truth. I was poor in a way the rest of them could hardly understand. Sim was Aturan nobility, and Wil’s family were wool merchants from Ralien. They thought being poor meant not having enough money to go drinking as often as they liked.
With tuition looming, I didn’t dare spend a bent penny. I couldn’t buy candles, or ink, or paper. I had no jewelry to pawn, no allowance, no parents to write home to. No respectable moneylender would give me a thin shim. Hardly surprising, as I was a rootless, orphan Edema Ruh whose possessions would fit into a burlap sack. It wouldn’t have to be a large sack either.
I got to my feet before the conversation had a chance to wander into uncomfortable territory. “It’s time I made some music.”
I picked up my lute case and made my way to where Stanchion sat at the corner of the bar. “What have you got for us tonight?” he asked, running his hand over his beard.
Stanchion paused in the act of getting off his stool. “Is this the sort of surprise that’s going to cause a riot or make folk set my place on fire?” he asked.
I shook my head, smiling.
“Good.” He smiled and headed off in the direction of the stage. “In that case I like surprises.”
STANCHION LED ME ONTO the stage and brought out an armless chair. Then he walked to the front of the stage to chat with the audience. I spread my cloak over the back of the chair as the lights began to dim.
I laid my battered lute case on the floor. It was even shabbier than I was. It had been quite nice once, but that was years ago and miles away. Now the leather hinges were cracked and stiff, and the body was worn thin as parchment in places. Only one of the original clasps remained, a delicate thing of worked silver. I’d replaced the others with whatever I could scavenge, so now the case sported mismatched clasps of bright brass and dull iron.
But inside the case was something else entirely. Inside was the reason I was scrambling for tuition tomorrow. I had driven a hard bargain for it, and even then it had cost me more money than I had ever spent on anything in my life. So much money I couldn’t afford a case that fit it properly, and made do by padding my old one with rags.
The wood was the color of dark coffee, of freshly turned earth. The curve of the bowl was perfect as a woman’s hip. It was hushed echo and bright string and thrum. My lute. My tangible soul.
I have heard what poets write about women. They rhyme and rhapsodize and lie. I have watched sailors on the shore stare mutely at the slow-rolling swell of the sea. I have watched old soldiers with hearts like leather grow teary-eyed at their king’s colors stretched against the wind.
Listen to me: these men know nothing of love.
You will not find it in the words of poets or the longing eyes of sailors. If you want to know of love, look to a trouper’s hands as he makes his music. A trouper knows.
I looked out at my audience as they grew slowly still. Simmon waved enthusiastically, and I smiled in return. I saw Count Threpe’s white hair near the rail on the second tier now. He was speaking earnestly to the well-dressed couple, gesturing in my direction. Still campaigning on my behalf though we both knew it was a hopeless cause.
I brought the lute out of its shabby case and began to tune it. It was not the finest lute in the Eolian. Not by half. Its neck was slightly bent, but not bowed. One of the pegs was loose and was prone to changing its tune.
I brushed a soft chord and tipped my ear to the strings. As I looked up, I could see Denna’s face, clear as the moon. She smiled excitedly at me and wiggled her fingers below the level of the table where her gentleman couldn’t see.
I touched the loose peg gently, running my hands over the warm wood of the lute. The varnish was scraped and scuffed in places. It had been treated unkindly in the past, but that didn’t make it less lovely underneath.
So yes. It had flaws, but what does that matter when it comes to matters of the heart? We love what we love. Reason does not enter into it. In many ways, unwise love is the truest love. Anyone can love a thing because. That’s as easy as putting a penny in your pocket. But to love something despite. To know the flaws and love them too. That is rare and pure and perfect.
Stanchion made a sweeping gesture in my direction. There was brief applause followed by an attentive hush.
I plucked two notes and felt the audience lean toward me. I touched a string, tuned it slightly, and began to play. Before a handful of notes rang out, everyone had caught the tune.
It was “Bell-Wether.” A tune shepherds have been whistling for ten thousand years. The simplest of simple melodies. A tune anyone with a bucket could carry. A bucket was overkill, actually. A pair of cupped hands would manage nicely. A single hand. Two fingers, even.
It was, plainly said, folk music.
There have been a hundred songs written to the tune of “Bell-Wether.” Songs of love and war. Songs of humor, tragedy, and lust. I did not bother with any of these. No words. Just the music. Just the tune.
I looked up and saw Lord Brickjaw leaning close to Denna, making a dismissive gesture. I smiled as I teased the song carefully from the strings of my lute.
But before much longer, my smile grew strained. Sweat began to bead on my forehead. I hunched over the lute, concentrating on what my hands were doing. My fingers darted, then danced, then flew.
I played hard as a hailstorm, like a hammer beating brass. I played soft as sun on autumn wheat, gentle as a single stirring leaf. Before long, my breath began to catch from the strain of it. My lips made a thin, bloodless line across my face.
As I pushed through the middle refrain I shook my head to clear my hair away from my eyes. Sweat flew in an arc to patter out along the wood of the stage. I breathed hard, my chest working like a bellows, straining like a horse run to lather.
The song rang out, each note bright and clear. I almost stumbled once. The rhythm faltered for the space of a split hair.…Then somehow I recovered, pushed through, and managed to finish the final line, plucking the notes sweet and light despite the fact that my fingers were a weary blur.
Then, just when it was obvious I couldn’t carry on a moment longer, the last chord rang through the room and I slumped in my chair, exhausted.
The audience burst into thunderous applause.
But not the whole audience. Scattered through the room dozens of people burst into laughter instead, a few of them pounding the tables and stomping the floor, shouting their amusement.
The applause sputtered and died almost immediately. Men and women stopped with their hands frozen midclap as they stared at the laughing members of the audience. Some looked angry, others confused. Many were plainly offended on my behalf, and angry mutterings began to ripple through the room.
Before any serious discussion could take root, I struck a single high note and held up a hand, pulling their attention back to me. I wasn’t done yet. Not by half.
I shifted in my seat and rolled my shoulders. I strummed once, touched the loose peg, and rolled effortlessly into my second song.
It was one of Illien’s: “Tintatatornin.” I doubt you’ve ever heard of it. It’s something of an oddity compared to Illien’s other works. First, it has no lyrics. Second, while it’s a lovely song, it isn’t nearly as catchy or moving as many of his better-known melodies.
Most importantly, it is perversely difficult to play. My father referred to it as “the finest song ever written for fifteen fingers.” He made me play it when I was getting too full of myself and felt I needed humbling. Suffice to say I practiced it with fair regularity, sometimes more than once a day.
So I played “Tintatatornin.” I leaned back into my chair and crossed my ankles, relaxing a bit. My hands strolled idly over the strings. After the first chorus, I drew a breath and gave a short sigh, like a young boy trapped inside on a sunny day. My eyes began to wander aimlessly around the room, bored.
Still playing, I fidgeted in my seat, trying to find a comfortable position and failing. I frowned, stood up, and looked at the chair as if it was somehow to blame. Then I reclaimed my seat and wriggled, an uncomfortable expression on my face.
All the while the ten thousand notes of “Tintatatornin” danced and capered. I took a moment between one chord and the next to scratch myself idly behind the ear.
I was so deeply into my little act that I actually felt a yawn swelling up. I let it out in full earnest, so wide and long that the people in the front row could count my teeth. I shook my head as if to clear it, and daubed at my watery eyes with my sleeve.
Through all of this, “Tintatatornin” tripped into the air. Maddening harmony and counterpoint weaving together, skipping apart. All of it flawless and sweet and easy as breathing. When the end came, drawing together a dozen tangled threads of song, I made no flourish. I simply stopped and rubbed my eyes a bit. No crescendo. No bow. Nothing. I cracked my knuckles distractedly and leaned forward to set my lute back in the case.
This time the laughter came first. The same people as before, hooting and hammering at their tables twice as loudly as before. My people. The musicians. I let my bored expression fall away and grinned knowingly out at them.
The applause followed a few heartbeats later, but it was scattered and confused. Even before the house lights rose, it had dissolved into a hundred murmuring discussions throughout the room.
Marie rushed up to greet me as I came down the stairs, her face full of laughter. She shook my hand and clapped me on the back. She was the first of many, all musicians. Before I could get bogged down, Marie linked her arm in mine and led me back to my table.
“Good lord, boy,” Manet said. “You’re like a tiny king here.”
“This isn’t half the attention he usually gets,” Wilem said. “Normally they’re still cheering when he makes it back to the table. Young women bat their eyes and strew his path with flowers.”
Sim looked around the room curiously. “The reaction did seem …” he groped for a word. “Mixed. Why is that?”
“Because young six-string here is so sharp he can hardly help but cut himself,” Stanchion said as he made his way over to our table.
“You’ve noticed that too?” Manet asked dryly.
“Hush,” Marie said. “It was brilliant.”
Stanchion sighed and shook his head.
“I for one,” Wilem said pointedly, “would like to know what is being discussed.”
“Kvothe here played the simplest song in the world and made it look like he was spinning gold out of flax,” Marie said. “Then he took a real piece of music, something only a handful of folk in the whole place could play, and made it look so easy you’d think a child could blow it on a tin whistle.”
“I’m not denying that it was cleverly done,” Stanchion said. “The problem is the way he did it. Everyone who jumped in clapping on the first song feels like an idiot. They feel they’ve been toyed with.”
“Which they were,” Marie pointed out. “A performer manipulates the audience. That’s the point of the joke.”
“People don’t like being toyed with,” Stanchion replied. “They resent it, in fact. Nobody likes having a joke played on them.”
“Technically,” Simmon interjected, grinning, “he played the joke on the lute.”
Everyone turned to look at him, and his grin faded a bit. “You see? He actually played a joke. On a lute.” He looked down at the table, his grin fading as his face flushed a sudden embarrassed red. “Sorry.”
Marie laughed an easy laugh.
Manet spoke up. “So it’s really an issue of two audiences,” he said slowly. “There’s those that know enough about music to get the joke, and those who need the joke explained to them.”
Marie made a triumphant gesture toward Manet. “That’s it exactly,” she said to Stanchion. “If you come here and don’t know enough to get the joke on your own, then you deserve to have your nose tweaked a bit.”
“Except most of those people are the gentry,” Stanchion said. “And our clever-jack doesn’t have a patron yet.”
“What?” Marie said. “Threpe put word out months ago. Why hasn’t someone snatched you up?”
“Ambrose Jakis,” I explained.
Her face didn’t show any recognition. “Is he a musician?”
“Baron’s son,” Wilem said.
She gave a puzzled frown. “How can he possibly keep you away from a patron?”
“Ample free time and twice as much money as God,” I said dryly.
“His father’s one of the most powerful men in Vintas,” Manet added, then turned to Simmon. “What is he, sixteenth in line to the throne?”
“Thirteenth,” Simmon said sullenly. “The entire Surthen family was lost at sea two months ago. Ambrose won’t shut up about the fact that his father’s barely a dozen steps from being king.”
Manet turned back to Marie. “The point is, this particular baron’s son has got all manner of weight, and he’s not afraid to throw it around.”
“To be completely fair,” Stanchion said, “it should be mentioned that young Kvothe is not the savviest socialite in the Commonwealth.” He cleared his throat. “As evidenced by tonight’s performance.”
“I hate it when people call me ‘young Kvothe,’” I said in an aside to Sim. He gave me a sympathetic look.
“I still say it was brilliant,” Marie said, turning to face Stanchion, planting her feet solidly on the floor. “It’s the cleverest thing anyone’s done here in a month, and you know it.”
I laid my hand on Marie’s arm. “He’s right,” I said. “It was stupid.” I made a vacillating shrug. “Or at least it would be if I still had the slightest hope of getting a patron.” I looked Stanchion in the eye. “But I don’t. We both know Ambrose has poisoned that well for me.”
“Wells don’t stay poisoned forever,” Stanchion said.
I shrugged. “How about this then? I’d prefer to play songs that amuse my friends, rather than cater to folk who dislike me based on hearsay.”
Stanchion drew a breath, then let it out in a rush. “Fair enough,” he said, smiling a bit.
In the brief lull that followed, Manet cleared his throat meaningfully and darted his eyes around the table.
I took his hint and made a round of introductions. “Stanchion, you’ve already met my fellow students Wil and Sim. This is Manet, student and my sometimes mentor at the University. Everyone, this is Stanchion: host, owner, and master of the Eolian’s stage.”
“Pleasure to meet you,” Stanchion said, giving a polite nod before looking anxiously around the room. “Speaking of hosting, I should be about my business.” He patted me on the back as he turned to leave. “I’ll see if I can put out a few fires while I’m at it.”
I smiled my thanks to him, then made a flourishing gesture. “Everyone, this is Marie. As you’ve already heard with your own ears, the Eolian’s finest fiddler. As you can see with your own eyes, the most beautiful woman in a thousand miles. As your wit discerns, the wisest of …”
Grinning, she swatted at me. “If I were half as wise as I am tall, I wouldn’t be stepping in to defend you,” she said. “Has poor Threpe really been out stumping for you all this while?”
I nodded. “I told him it was a lost cause.”
“It is if you keep thumbing your nose at folk,” she said. “I swear I’ve never met a man who has your knack for lack of social grace. If you weren’t naturally charming, someone would have stabbed you by now.”
“You’re assuming,” I muttered.
Marie turned to my friends at the table. “It’s a pleasure to meet all of you.”
Wil nodded, and Sim smiled. Manet, however, came to his feet in a smooth motion and held out his hand. Marie took it, and Manet clasped it warmly between his own.
“Marie,” he said. “You intrigue me. Is there any chance I could buy you a drink and enjoy the pleasure of your conversation at some point tonight?”
I was too startled to do anything but stare. Standing there, the two of them looked like badly matched bookends. Marie stood six inches taller than Manet, her boots making her long legs look even longer.
Manet, on the other hand, looked as he always did, grizzled and disheveled, plus older than Marie by at least a decade.
Marie blinked and cocked her head a bit, as if considering. “I’m here with some friends right now,” she said. “It might be late by the time I finish up with them.”
“When makes no difference to me,” Manet said easily. “I’m willing to lose some sleep if it comes to that. I can’t think of the last time I shared the company of a woman who speaks her mind firmly and without hesitation. Your kind are in short supply these days.”
Marie looked him over again.
Manet met her eye and flashed a smile so confident and charming that it belonged on stage. “I’ve no desire to pull you away from your friends,” he said, “but you’re the first fiddler in ten years that’s set my feet dancing. It seems a drink is the least I can do.”
Marie smiled back at him, half amused, half wry. “I’m on the second tier right now,” she said, gesturing toward the stairway. “But I should be free in, say, two hours.…”
“You’re terribly kind,” he said. “Should I come and find you?”
“You should,” she said. Then gave him a thoughtful look as she turned to walk away.
Manet reclaimed his seat and took a drink.
Simmon looked as flabbergasted as we all felt. “What the hell was that?” he demanded.
Manet chuckled into his beard and leaned back in his chair, cradling his mug to his chest. “That,” he said smugly, “is just one more thing I understand that you pups don’t. Take note. Take heed.”
When members of the nobility want to show a musician their appreciation, they give money. When I first began playing in the Eolian, I’d received a few such gifts, and for a time it had been enough to help pay my tuition and keep my head above water, if only barely. But Ambrose had been persistent in his campaign against me, and it had been months since I had received anything of the sort.
Musicians are poorer than the gentry, but they still enjoy a show. So when they appreciate your playing, they buy you drinks. That was the real reason I was at the Eolian tonight.
Manet wandered off to fetch a wet rag from the bar so we could clean the table and play another round of corners. Before he could make it back, a young Cealdish piper came over to ask if there was any chance he could stand us a round.
There was a chance, as it turned out. He caught the eye of a nearby serving girl and we each ordered what we liked best, and a beer for Manet besides.
We drank, played cards, and listened to music. Manet and I had a run of bad cards and went down three hands in a row. It soured my mood a bit, but not nearly as much as the sneaking suspicion that Stanchion might be right about what he’d said.
A rich patron would solve many of my problems. Even a poor patron would be able to give me a little room to breathe, financially speaking. If nothing else, it would give me someone I could borrow money from in a tight spot, rather than being forced into dealing with dangerous folk.
While my mind was occupied, I misplayed and we lost another hand, putting us down four in a row with a forfeit besides.
Manet glared at me while he gathered in the cards. “Here’s a primer for admissions.” He held up his hand, three fingers spearing angrily into the air. “Let’s say you have three spades in your hand, and there have been five spades laid down.” He held up his other hand, fingers splayed wide. “How many spades is that, total?” He leaned back in his chair, crossing his arms. “Take your time.”
“He’s still reeling from the knowledge that Marie is willing to have a drink with you,” Wilem said dryly. “We all are.”
“Not me,” Simmon chirped. “I knew you had it in you.”
We were interrupted by the arrival of Lily, one of the regular serving girls at the Eolian. “What’s going on here?” she said playfully. “Is someone throwing a handsome party?”
“Lily,” Simmon asked, “if I asked you to have a drink with me, would you consider it?”
“I would,” she said easily. “But not for very long.” She laid her hand on his shoulder. “You gents are in luck. An anonymous admirer of fine music has offered to stand your table a round of drinks.”
“Scutten for me,” Wilem said.
“Mead,” Simmon said, grinning.
“I’ll have a sounten,” I said.
Manet raised an eyebrow. “A sounten, eh?” he asked, glancing at me. “I’ll have one too.” He gave the serving girl a knowing look and nodded toward me. “On his, of course.”
“Really?” Lily said, then shrugged. “Back in a shake.”
“Now that you’ve impressed the hell out of everyone you can have some fun, right?” Simmon asked. “Something about a donkey …?”
“For the last time no,” I said. “I’m done with Ambrose. There’s no percentage in antagonizing him any further.”
“You broke his arm,” Wil said. “I think he’s as antagonized as he’s going to get.”
“He broke my lute,” I said. “We’re even. I’m ready to let bygones be bygones.”
“Like hell,” Sim said. “You dropped that pound of rancid butter down his chimney. You loosened the cinch on his saddle.…”
“Black hands, shut up!” I said, looking around. “That was nearly a month ago, and no one knows it was me except for you two. And now Manet. And everyone within earshot.”
Sim flushed an embarrassed red and the conversation lulled until Lily returned with our drinks. Wil’s scutten was in its traditional stone cup. Sim’s mead shone golden in a tall glass. Manet and I got wooden mugs.
Manet smiled. “I can’t remember the last time I ordered a sounten,” he mused. “I don’t think I’ve ever ordered one for myself before.”
“You’re the only other person I’ve ever known to drink it,” Sim said. “Kvothe here throws them back like nobody’s business. Three or four a night.”
Manet raised a bushy eyebrow at me. “They don’t know?” he asked.
I shook my head as I drank out of my own mug, not sure if I should be amused or embarrassed.
Manet slid his mug toward Simmon, who picked it up and took a sip. He frowned and took another. “Water?”
Manet nodded. “It’s an old whore’s trick. You’re chatting them up in the taproom of the brothel, and you want to show you’re not like all the rest. You’re a man of refinement. So you offer to buy a drink.”
He reached across the table and took his mug back from Sim. “But they’re working. They don’t want a drink. They’d rather have the money. So they order a sounten or a peveret or something else. You pay your money, the barman gives her water, and at the end of the night she splits the money with the house. If she’s a good listener a girl can make as much at the bar as she does in bed.”
I chimed in. “Actually, we split it three ways. A third to the house, a third to the barman, and a third to me.”
“You’re getting screwed, then,” Manet said frankly. “The barman should get his piece from the house.”
“I’ve never seen you order a sounten at Anker’s,” Sim said.
“It must be the Greysdale mead,” Wil said. “You order that all the time.”
“But I’ve ordered Greysdale,” Sim protested. “It tasted like sweet pickles and piss. Besides …” Sim trailed off.
“It was more expensive than you thought it would be?” Manet asked, grinning. “Wouldn’t make much sense to go through all of this for the price of a short beer, would it?”
“They know what I mean when I order Greysdale at Anker’s,” I told him. “If I ordered something that didn’t actually exist, it would be a pretty easy game to figure out.”
“How do you know about this?” Sim asked Manet.
Manet chuckled. “No new tricks to an old dog like me,” he said.
The lights began to dim and we turned toward the stage.
The night rambled on from there. Manet left for greener pastures, while Wil, Sim, and I did our best to keep our table clear of glasses while amused musicians bought us round after round of drinks. An obscene amount of drinks, really. Far more than I’d dared to hope for.
I drank sounten for the most part, since raising money to cover tuition was the main reason I’d come to the Eolian tonight. Wil and Sim ordered a few rounds too, now that they knew the trick of it. I was doubly grateful, otherwise I would have been forced to bring them home in a wheelbarrow.
Eventually the three of us had our fill of music, gossip, and in Sim’s case, the fruitless pursuit of serving girls.
Before we left, I stopped to have a discreet word with the barman where I brought up the difference between a half and a third. At the end of our negotiation, I cashed out for a full talent and six jots. The vast majority of that was from the drinks my fellow musicians had bought me tonight.
I gathered the coins into my purse: Three talents even.
My negotiations had also profited me two dark brown bottles. “What’s that?” Sim asked as I began to tuck the bottles into my lute case.
“Bredon beer.” I shifted the rags I used to pad my lute so they wouldn’t rub against it.
“Bredon,” Wil said, his voice thick with disdain, “is closer to bread than beer.”
Sim nodded in agreement, making a face. “I don’t like having to chew my liquor.”
“It’s not that bad,” I said defensively. “In the Small Kingdoms women drink it when they’re pregnant. Arwyl mentioned it in one of his lectures. They brew it with flower pollen and fish oil and cherry stones. It has all sorts of trace nutrients.”
“Kvothe, we don’t judge you.” Wilem lay his hand on my shoulder, his face concerned. “Sim and I don’t mind that you’re a pregnant Yllish woman.”
Simmon snorted, then laughed at the fact that he had snorted.
The three of us made our slow way back to the University, crossing the high arch of Stonebridge. And, since there was nobody around to hear, I sang “Jackass, Jackass” for Sim.
Wil and Sim stumbled gently off to their rooms in Mews. But I wasn’t ready for bed and continued wandering the University’s empty streets, breathing the cool night air.
I strolled past the dark fronts of apothecaries, glassblowers, and bookbinders. I cut through a manicured lawn, smelling the clean, dusty smell of autumn leaves and green grass beneath. Nearly all the inns and drinking houses were dark, but lights were burning in the brothels.
The grey stone of the Masters’ Hall was silvery in the moonlight. A single dim light burned inside, illuminating the stained glass window that showed Teccam in his classic pose: barefoot at the mouth of his cave, speaking to a crowd of young students.
I went past the Crucible, its countless bristling chimneys dark and largely smokeless against the moonlit sky. Even at night it smelled of ammonia and charred flowers, acid and alcohol: a thousand mingled scents that had seeped into the stone of the building over the centuries.
Last was the Archives. Five stories tall and windowless, it reminded me of an enormous waystone. Its massive doors were closed, but I could see the reddish light of sympathy lamps welling up around the edges of the door. During admissions Master Lorren kept the Archives open at night so all the members of the Arcanum could study to their hearts’ content. All members except one, of course.
I made my way back to Anker’s and found the inn dark and silent. I had a key to the back door, but rather than stumble through the dark, I headed into the nearby alley. Right foot rainbarrel, left foot window ledge, left hand iron drainpipe. I quietly made my way up to my third-story window, tripped the latch with a piece of wire, and let myself in.
It was pitch black, and I was too tired to go looking for a light from the fireplace downstairs. So I touched the wick of the lamp beside my bed, getting a little oil on my fingers. Then I murmured a binding and felt my arm go chilly as the heat bled out of it. Nothing happened at first, and I scowled, concentrating to overcome the vague haze of alcohol. The chill sunk deeper into my arm, making me shiver, but finally the wick bloomed into light.
Cold now, I closed the window and looked around the tiny room with its sloped ceiling and narrow bed. Surprisingly, I realized there was nowhere else in the four corners I’d rather be. I almost felt as if I were home.
This may not seem odd to you, but it was strange to me. Growing up among the Edema Ruh, home was never a place for me. Home was a group of wagons and songs around a campfire. When my troupe was killed, it was more than the loss of my family and childhood friends. It was like my entire world had been burned down to the waterline.
Now, after almost a year at the University, I was beginning to feel like I belonged here. It was an odd feeling, this fondness for a place. In some ways it was comforting, but the Ruh in me was restless, rebelling at the thought of putting down roots like a plant.
As I drifted off to sleep, I wondered what my father would think of me.
THE NEXT MORNING I splashed some water on my face and trudged downstairs. The taproom of Anker’s was just starting to fill with people looking for an early lunch, and a few particularly disconsolate students were getting an early start on the day’s drinking.
Still bleary from lack of sleep, I settled into my usual corner table and began to fret about my upcoming interview.
Kilvin and Elxa Dal didn’t worry me. I was ready for their questions. The same was largely true of Arwyl. But the other masters were all varying degrees of mystery to me.
Every term each master put a selection of books on display in Tomes, the reading room in the Archives. There were basic texts for the low-ranking E’lir to study from, with progressively more advanced works for Re’lar and El’the. Those books revealed what the masters considered valuable knowledge. Those were the books a clever student studied before admissions.
But I couldn’t wander into Tomes like everyone else. I was the only student who had been banned from the Archives in a dozen years, and everyone knew about it. Tomes was the only well-lit room in the whole building, and during admissions there were always people there, reading.
So I was forced to find copies of the masters’ texts buried in the Stacks. You’d be amazed how many versions of the same book there can be. If I was lucky, the volume I found was identical to the one the master had set aside in Tomes. More often, the versions I found were outdated, expurgated, or badly translated.
I’d done as much reading as possible over the last few nights, but hunting down the books took precious time, and I was still woefully underprepared.
I was lost in these anxious thoughts when Anker’s voice caught my attention. “Actually, that’s Kvothe right over there,” he said.
I looked up to see a woman sitting at the bar. She wasn’t dressed like a student. She wore an elaborate burgundy dress with long skirts, a tight waist, and matching burgundy gloves that rose all the way to her elbows.
Moving deliberately, she managed to get down off the stool without tangling her feet and made her way over to stand next to my table. Her blond hair was artfully curled, and her lips were a deeply painted red. I couldn’t help wondering what she was doing in a place like Anker’s.
“Are you the one who broke the arm of that brat Ambrose Jakis?” she asked. She spoke Aturan with a thick, musical Modegan accent. While it made her a little difficult to understand, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t find it attractive. The Modegan accent practically sweats sex.
“I did,” I said. “It wasn’t entirely on purpose. But I did.”
“Then you must let me buy you a drink,” she said in the tone of a woman who usually gets her way.
I smiled at her, wishing I’d been awake more than ten minutes so my wits weren’t quite so fuddled. “You wouldn’t be the first to buy me one on that account,” I said honestly. “If you insist, I’ll have a Greysdale mead.”
I watched her turn and walk back to the bar. If she was a student, she was new. If she’d been here more than a handful of days I would have heard about it from Sim, who kept tabs on all the prettiest girls in town, courting them with artless enthusiasm.
The Modegan woman returned a moment later and sat across from me, sliding a wooden mug across the table. Anker must have just finished washing it, as the fingers of her burgundy glove were wet where they had gripped the handle.
She raised her own glass, filled with a deep red wine. “To Ambrose Jakis,” she said with sudden fierceness. “May he fall into a well and die.”
I picked up the mug and took a drink, wondering if there was a woman within fifty miles of the University Ambrose hadn’t treated badly. I wiped my hand discreetly on my pants.
The woman took a deep drink of her wine and set her glass down hard. Her pupils were huge. Early as it was, she must have already been doing a fair piece of drinking.
I could suddenly smell nutmeg and plum. I sniffed at my mug, then looked at the tabletop, thinking someone might have spilled a drink. But there was nothing.
The woman across from me suddenly burst into tears. This was no gentle weeping, either. It was like someone had turned a spigot.
She looked down at her gloved hands and shook her head. She peeled off the wet one, looked at me, and sobbed out a dozen words of Modegan.
“I’m sorry,” I said helplessly. “I don’t speak—”
But she was already pushing herself up and away from the table. Wiping at her face, she ran for the door.
Anker stared at me from behind the bar, as did everyone else in the room.
“That was not my fault,” I said, pointing at the door. “She went crazy on her own.”
I would have followed her and tried to unravel it all, but she was already outside, and my admissions interview was less than an hour away. Besides, if I tried to help every woman Ambrose had ever traumatized, I wouldn’t have time left for eating or sleeping.
On the upside, the bizarre encounter seemed to have cleared my head, and I no longer felt gritty and thick with lack of sleep. I decided I might as well take advantage of it and get admissions out of the way. Sooner begun is sooner done, as my father used to say.
On my way to Hollows, I stopped to buy a golden brown meat pie from a vendor’s cart. I knew I’d need every penny for this term’s tuition, but the price of a decent meal wasn’t going to make much difference one way or the other. It was hot and solid, full of chicken and carrot and sage. I ate it while I walked, reveling in the small freedom of buying something according to my taste rather than making do with whatever Anker happened to have at hand.
As I finished the last bit of crust, I smelled honeyed almonds. I bought a large scoop in a clever pouch made from a dried corn husk. It cost me four drabs, but I hadn’t had honeyed almonds in years, and some sugar in my blood wouldn’t hurt when I was answering questions.
The line for admissions wound through the courtyard. Not abnormally long, but irritating nonetheless. I saw a familiar face from the Fishery and went to stand next to a young, green-eyed woman who was waiting to queue up as well.
“Hello there,” I said. “You’re Amlia, aren’t you?”
She gave me a nervous smile and a nod.
“I’m Kvothe,” I said, making a tiny bow.
“I know who you are,” she said. “I’ve seen you in the Artificery.”
“You should call it the Fishery,” I said. I held out the pouch. “Would you like a honey almond?”
Amlia shook her head.
“They’re really good,” I said, joggling them enticingly in the corn-husk pouch.
She reached out hesitantly and took one.
“Is this the line for noon?” I asked, gesturing.
She shook her head. “We’ve got another couple minutes before we can even line up.”
“It’s ridiculous that they make us stand around like this,” I said. “Like sheep in a paddock. This entire process is a waste of everyone’s time and insulting to boot.” I saw a flicker of anxiety cross Amlia’s face. “What?” I asked her.
“It’s just that you’re talking a little loudly,” she said, looking around.
“I’m just not afraid to say what everybody else is thinking,” I said. “The whole admissions process is flawed to the point of blinding idiocy. Master Kilvin knows what I’m capable of. So does Elxa Dal. Brandeur doesn’t know me from a hole in the ground. Why should he get an equal say in my tuition?”
Amlia shrugged, not meeting my eye.
I bit into another almond and quickly spit it onto the cobblestones. “Feah!” I held them out to her. “Do these taste like plums to you?”
She gave me a vaguely disgusted look; then her eyes focused on something behind me.
I turned to see Ambrose moving through the courtyard toward us. He cut a fine figure, as he always did, dressed in clean white linen, velvet, and brocade. He wore a hat with a tall white plume, and the sight of it made me unreasonably angry. Uncharacteristically, he was alone, devoid of his usual contingent of toadies and bootlickers.
“Wonderful,” I said as soon as he came within earshot. “Ambrose, your presence is the horseshit frosting on the horseshit cake that is the admissions interview process.”
Surprisingly, Ambrose smiled at this. “Ah, Kvothe. I’m pleased to see you too.”
“I met one of your previous ladyloves today,” I said. “She was dealing with the sort of profound emotional trauma I assume comes from seeing you naked.”
His expression soured a little at that, and I leaned over and spoke to Amlia in a stage whisper. “I have it on good report that not only does Ambrose have a tiny, tiny penis, but he can only become aroused when in the presence of a dead dog, a painting of the Duke of Gibea, and a shirtless galley drummer.”
Amlia’s expression was frozen.
Ambrose looked at her. “You should leave,” he said gently. “There’s no reason you should have to listen to this sort of thing.”
Amlia practically fled.
“I’ll give you that,” I said, watching her go. “Nobody can make a woman run like you.” I tipped an imaginary hat. “You could give lessons. You could teach a class.”
Ambrose just stood, nodding contentedly and watching me in an oddly proprietary way.
“That hat makes you look like you fancy young boys,” I added. “And I’ve a mind to slap it right off your head if you don’t piss off.” I looked at him. “Speaking of which, how’s the arm?”
“It’s feeling a great deal better at the moment,” he said pleasantly. He rubbed at it absentmindedly as he stood there, smiling.
I popped another almond into my mouth, then grimaced and spit it out again.
“What’s the matter?” Ambrose asked. “Don’t fancy plum?” Then, without waiting for an answer, he turned and walked away. He was smiling.
It says a great deal for my state of mind that I simply watched him go, confused. I lifted the pouch to my nose and took a deep breath. I smelled the dusty smell of the corn husk, honey, and cinnamon. Nothing at all of plum or nutmeg. How could Ambrose possibly know …?
Then everything came crashing together in my head. At the same time, noon bell rang out and everyone with a tile similar to mine moved to join the long line winding through the courtyard. It was time for my admissions exam.
I left the courtyard at a dead run.
I pounded frantically on the door, out of breath from running up to the third floor of Mews. “Simmon!” I shouted. “Open this door and talk to me!”
Along the hallway doors opened and students peered out at the commotion. One of the heads peering out was Simmon’s, his sandy hair in disarray. “Kvothe?” he said. “What are you doing? That’s not even my door.”
I walked over, pushed him inside his room, and closed the door behind us. “Simmon. Ambrose drugged me. I think there’s something not right in my head, but I can’t tell what it is.”
Simmon grinned. “I’ve thought that for a …” He trailed off, his expression turning incredulous. “What are you doing? Don’t spit on my floor!”
“I have a strange taste in my mouth,” I explained.
“I don’t care,” he said, angry and confused. “What’s wrong with you? Were you born in a barn?”
I struck him hard across the face with the flat of my hand, sending him staggering up against the wall. “I was born in a barn, actually,” I said grimly. “Is there something wrong with that?”
Sim stood with one hand braced against the wall, the other against the reddening skin of his cheek. His expression pure astonishment. “What in God’s name is wrong with you?”
“Nothing’s wrong with me,” I said, “but you’d do well to watch your tone. I like you well enough, but just because I don’t have a set of rich parents doesn’t mean you’re one whit better than me.” I frowned and spit again. “God that’s foul, I hate nutmeg. I have ever since I was a child.”
A sudden realization washed over Sim’s face. “The taste in your mouth,” he said. “Is it like plums and spice?”
I nodded. “It’s disgusting.”
“God’s grey ashes,” Sim said, his voice hushed in grim earnest. “Okay. You’re right. You’ve been drugged. I know what it is.” He trailed off as I turned around and started to open the door. “What are you doing?”
“I’m going to go kill Ambrose,” I said. “For poisoning me.”
“It’s not a poison. It’s—” He stopped speaking abruptly, then continued in a calm, level voice. “Where did you get that knife?”
“I keep it strapped to my leg, under my pants,” I said. “For emergencies.”
Sim drew a deep breath, then let it out. “Could you give me a minute to explain before you go kill Ambrose?”
I shrugged. “Okay.”
“Would you mind sitting down while we talk?” He gestured to a chair.
I sighed and sat down. “Fine. But hurry. I’ve got admissions soon.”
Sim nodded calmly and sat on the edge of his bed, facing me. “Okay, you know when someone’s been drinking, and they get it into their head to do something stupid? And you can’t talk them out of it even though it’s obviously a bad idea?”
I laughed. “Like when you wanted to go talk to that harper girl outside the Eolian and threw up on her horse?”
He nodded. “Exactly like that. There’s something an alchemist can make that does the same thing, but it’s much more extreme.”
I shook my head. “I don’t feel drunk in the least. My head is clear as a bell.”
Sim nodded again. “It’s not like being drunk,” he said. “It’s just that one piece of it. It won’t make you dizzy or tired. It just makes it easier for a person to do something stupid.”
I thought about it for a moment. “I don’t think that’s it,” I said. “I don’t feel like I want to do anything stupid.”
“There’s one way to tell,” Sim said. “Can you think of anything right now that seems like a bad idea?”
I thought for a moment, tapping the flat of the knife’s blade idly against the edge of my boot.
“It would be a bad idea to …” I trailed off.
I thought for a longer moment. Sim looked at me expectantly.
“… to jump off the roof?” My voice curled up at the end, making it a sort of question.
Sim was quiet. He kept looking at me.
“I see the problem,” I said slowly. “I don’t seem to have any behavioral filters.”
Simmon gave a relieved smile and nodded encouragingly. “That’s it exactly. All your inhibitions have been sliced off so cleanly you can’t even tell they’re gone. But everything else is the same. You’re steady, articulate, and rational.”
“You’re patronizing me,” I said, pointing at him with the knife. “Don’t.”
He blinked. “Fair enough. Can you think of a solution to the problem?”
“Of course. I need some sort of behavioral touchstone. You’re going to need to be my compass because you still have your filters in place.”
“I was thinking the same thing,” he said. “So you’ll trust me?”
I nodded. “Except when it comes to women. You’re an idiot with women.” I picked up a glass of water from a nearby table and rinsed my mouth out with it, spitting it onto the floor.
Sim gave a shaky smile. “Fair enough. First, you can’t go kill Ambrose.”
I hesitated. “You’re sure?”
“I’m sure. In fact, pretty much anything you think to do with that knife is going to be a bad idea. You should give it to me.”
I shrugged and flipped it over in my palm, handing him the makeshift leather grip.
Sim seemed surprised by this, but he took hold of the knife. “Merciful Tehlu,” he said with a profound sigh, setting the knife down on the bed. “Thank you.”
“Was that an extreme case?” I asked, rinsing my mouth out again. “We should probably have some sort of ranking system. Like a ten-point scale.”
“Spitting water onto my floor is a one,” he said.
“Oh,” I said. “Sorry.” I put the cup back onto his desk.
“It’s okay,” he said easily.
“Is one low or high?” I asked.
“Low,” he said. “Killing Ambrose is a ten.” He hesitated. “Maybe an eight.” He shifted in his seat. “Or a seven.”
“Really?” I said. “That much? Okay then.” I leaned forward in my seat. “You need to give me some tips for admissions. I’ve got to get back into line before too long.”
Simmon shook his head firmly. “No. That’s a really bad idea. Eight.”
“Really,” he said. “It is a delicate social situation. A lot of things could go wrong.”
Sim let out a sigh, brushing his sandy hair out of his eyes. “Am I your touchstone or not? This is going to get tedious if I have to tell you everything three times before you listen.”
I thought about it for a moment. “You’re right, especially if I’m about to do something potentially dangerous.” I looked around. “How long is this going to last?”
“No more than eight hours.” He opened his mouth to continue, then closed it.
“What?” I asked.
Sim sighed. “There might be some side effects. It’s lipid soluble, so it will hang around in your body a bit. You might experience occasional minor relapses brought about by stress, intense emotion, exercise. …” He gave me an apologetic look. “They’d be like little echoes of this.”
“I’ll worry about that later,” I said. I held out my hand. “Give me your admissions tile. You can go through now. I’ll take your slot.”
He spread his hands helplessly. “I’ve already gone,” he explained.
“Tehlu’s tits and teeth,” I cursed. “Fine. Go get Fela.”
He waved his hands violently in front of himself. “No. No no no. Ten.”
I laughed. “Not for that. She has a slot late on Cendling.”
“You think she’ll trade with you?”
“She’s already offered.”
Sim got to his feet. “I’ll go find her.”
“I’ll stay here,” I said.
Sim gave an enthusiastic nod and looked nervously around the room. “It’s probably safest if you don’t do anything while I’m gone,” he said as he opened the door. “Just sit on your hands until I get back.”
Sim was only gone for five minutes, which was probably for the best.
There was a knock on the door. “It’s me,” Sim’s voice came through the wood. “Is everything all right in there?”
“You know what’s strange?” I said to him through the door. “I tried to think of something funny I could do while you were gone, but I couldn’t.” I looked around at the room. “I think that means humor is rooted in social transgression. I can’t transgress because I can’t figure out what would be socially unacceptable. Everything seems the same to me.”
“You might have a point,” he said, then asked, “Did you do something anyway?”
“No,” I said. “I decided to be good. Did you find Fela?”
“I did. She’s here. But before we come in, you have to promise not to do anything without asking me first. Fair?”
I laughed. “Fair enough. Just don’t make me do stupid things in front of her.”
“I promise,” Sim said. “Why don’t you sit down? Just to be safe.”
“I’m already sitting,” I said.
Sim opened the door. I could see Fela peering over his shoulder.
“Hello, Fela,” I said. “I need to trade slots with you.”
“First,” Sim said. “You should put your shirt back on. That’s about a two.”
“Oh,” I said. “Sorry. I was hot.”
“You could have opened the window.”
“I thought it would be safer if I limited my interactions with external objects,” I said.
Sim raised an eyebrow. “That’s actually a really good idea. It just steered you a little wrong in this case.”
“Wow.” I heard Fela’s voice from the hallway. “Is he serious?”
“Absolutely serious,” Sim said. “Honestly? I don’t think it’s safe for you to come in.”
I tugged my shirt on. “Dressed,” I said. “I’ll even sit on my hands if it will make you feel better.” I did just that, tucking them under my legs.
Sim let Fela inside, then closed the door behind her.
“Fela, you are just gorgeous,” I said. “I would give you all the money in my purse if I could just look at you naked for two minutes. I’d give everything I own. Except my lute.”
It’s hard to say which of them blushed a deeper red. I think it was Sim.
“I wasn’t supposed to say that, was I?” I said.
“No,” Sim said. “That’s about a five.”
“But that doesn’t make any sense,” I said. “Women are naked in paintings. People buy paintings, don’t they? Women pose for them.”
Sim nodded. “That’s true. But still. Just sit for a moment and don’t say or do anything? Okay?”
“I can’t quite believe this,” Fela said, the blush fading from her cheeks. “I can’t help but think the two of you are playing some sort of elaborate joke on me.”
“I wish we were,” Simmon said. “This stuff is terribly dangerous.”
“How can he remember naked paintings and not remember you’re supposed to keep your shirt on in public?” she asked Sim, her eyes never leaving me.
“It just didn’t seem very important,” I said. “I took my shirt off when I was whipped. That was public. It seems a strange thing to get in trouble for.”
“Do you know what would happen if you tried to knife Ambrose?” Simmon asked.
I thought for a second. It was like trying to remember what you’d eaten for breakfast a month ago. “There’d be a trial, I suppose,” I said slowly, “and people would buy me drinks.”
Fela muffled a laugh behind her hand.
“How about this?” Simmon asked me. “Which is worse, stealing a pie or killing Ambrose?”
I gave it a moment’s hard thought. “A meat pie, or a fruit pie?”
“Wow,” Fela said breathlessly. “That’s …” She shook her head. “It almost makes my skin crawl.”
Simmon nodded. “It’s a terrifying piece of alchemy. It’s a variation of a sedative called a plum bob. You don’t even have to ingest it. It’s absorbed straight through the skin.”
Fela looked at him. “How do you know so much about it?”
Sim gave a weak smile. “Mandrag lectures about it in every alchemy class he teaches. I’ve heard the story a dozen times by now. It’s his favorite example of how alchemy can be abused. An alchemist used it to ruin the lives of several government officials in Atur about fifty years ago. He only got caught because a countess ran amok in the middle of a wedding, killed a dozen folk and—”
Sim stopped, shaking his head. “Anyway. It was bad. Bad enough that the alchemist’s mistress turned him over to the guards.”
“I hope he got what he deserved.”
“And with some to spare,” Sim said grimly. “The point is, it hits everyone a little differently. It’s not a simple lowering of inhibition. There’s an amplification of emotion. A freeing up of hidden desire combined with a strange type of selective memory, almost like a moral amnesia.”
“I don’t feel bad,” I said. “I feel pretty good, actually. But I’m worried about admissions.”
Sim gestured. “See? He remembers admissions. It’s important to him. But other things are just…gone.”
“Is there a cure?” Fela asked nervously. “Shouldn’t we take him to the Medica?”
Simmon looked nervous. “I don’t think so. They might try a purgative, but it’s not as if there’s a drug working through him. Alchemy doesn’t work like that. He’s under the influence of unbound principles. You can’t flush those out the way you’d try to get rid of mercury or ophalum.”
“A purgative doesn’t sound like much fun,” I added. “If my vote counts for anything.”
“And there’s a chance they might think he’s cracked under admission stress,” Sim said to Fela. “That happens to a few students every term. They’d stick him in Haven until they were sure—”
I was on my feet, my hands clenched into fists. “I’ll be cut into pieces in hell before I let them stick me in Haven,” I said, furious. “Even for an hour. Even for a minute.”
Sim blanched and took a step back, raising his hands defensively, palms out. But his voice was firm and calm. “Kvothe, I am telling you three times. Stop.”
I stopped. Fela was watching me with wide, frightened eyes.
Simmon continued firmly. “Kvothe, I am telling you three times: sit down.”
Standing behind him, Fela looked at Simmon, surprised.
“Thank you,” Simmon said graciously, lowering his hands. “I agree. The Medica isn’t the best place for you. We can just ride this out here.”
“That sounds better to me too,” I said.
“Even if things did go smoothly at the Medica,” Simmon added. “I expect you will be more inclined to speak your mind than usual.” He gave a small, wry smile. “Secrets are the cornerstone of civilization, and I know you have a few more than most folk.”
“I don’t think I have any secrets,” I said.
Sim and Fela both burst out laughing at the same time. “I’m afraid you just proved his point,” Fela said. “I know you have at least a few.”
“So do I,” Sim said.
“You’re my touchstone.” I shrugged. Then I smiled at Fela and pulled out my purse.
Sim shook his head at me. “No no no. I’ve already told you. Seeing her naked would be the worst thing in the world right now.”
Fela’s eyes narrowed a little at that.
“What’s the matter?” I asked. “Are you worried I’ll tackle her to the ground and ravage her?” I laughed.
Sim looked at me. “Wouldn’t you?”
“Of course not,” I said.
He looked at Fela, then back. “Can you say why?” he asked curiously.
I thought about it. “It’s because …” I trailed off, then shook my head. “It…I just can’t. I know I can’t eat a stone or walk through a wall. It’s like that.”
I concentrated on it for a second and began to get dizzy. I put one hand over my eyes and tried to ignore the sudden vertigo. “Please tell me I’m right about that,” I asked, suddenly scared. “I can’t eat a stone, can I?”
“You’re right,” Fela said quickly. “You can’t.”
I stopped trying to rummage around the inside of my mind for answers and the odd vertigo faded.
Sim was watching me intently. “I wish I knew what that signified,” he said.
“I have a fair idea,” Fela murmured softly.
I drew the ivory admissions tile out of my purse. “I was just looking to trade,” I said. “Unless you are willing to let me see you naked.” I hefted the purse with my other hand and met Fela’s eye. “Sim says it’s wrong, but he’s an idiot with women. My head might not be screwed on quite as tightly as I’d like, but I remember that clearly.”
It was four hours before my inhibitions began to filter back, and two more before they were firmly in place. Simmon spent the entire day with me, patient as a priest, explaining that no, I shouldn’t go buy us a bottle of brand. No, I shouldn’t go kick the dog that was barking across the street. No, I shouldn’t go to Imre and look for Denna. No. Three times no.
By the time the sun went down I was back to my regular, semi-moral self. Simmon quizzed me extensively before walking me back to my room at Anker’s, where he made me swear on my mother’s milk that I wouldn’t leave my room until morning. I swore.
But all was not right with me. My emotions were still running hot, flaring up at every little thing. Worse, my memory hadn’t simply returned to normal, it was back with a vivid and uncontrollable enthusiasm.
It hadn’t been that bad when I was with Simmon. His presence was a pleasant distraction. But alone in my small garret room in Anker’s, I was at the mercy of my memory. It was as if my mind was determined to unpack and examine every sharp and painful thing I had ever seen.
You might think the worst memories were those of when my troupe was killed. Of how I came back to our camp and found everything aflame. The unnatural shapes my parents’ bodies made in the dim twilight. The smell of scorched canvas and blood and burning hair. Memories of the ones who killed them. Of the Chandrian. Of the man who spoke to me, grinning all the while. Of Cinder.
These were bad memories, but over the years I had brought them out and handled them so often there was hardly a sharp edge left to them. I remembered the pitch and timbre of Haliax’s voice as clearly as my father’s. I could easily bring to mind the face of Cinder. His perfect, smiling teeth. His white, curling hair. His eyes, black as beads of ink. His voice, full of winter’s chill, saying: Someone’s parents have been singing entirely the wrong sorts of songs.
You would think these would be the worst memories. But you would be wrong.
No. The worst memories were those of my young life. The slow roll and bump of riding in the wagon, my father holding the reins loosely. His strong hands on my shoulders, showing me how to stand on the stage so my body said proud, or sad, or shy. His fingers adjusting mine on the strings of his lute.
My mother brushing my hair. The feel of her arms around me. The perfect way my head fit into the curve of her neck. How I would sit, curled in her lap next to the fire at night, drowsy and happy and safe.
These were the worst memories. Precious and perfect. Sharp as a mouthful of broken glass. I lay in bed, clenched into a trembling knot, unable to sleep, unable to turn my mind to other things, unable to stop myself from remembering. Again. And again. And again.
Then there came a small tapping at my window. A sound so tiny I didn’t notice it until it stopped. Then I heard the window ease open behind me.
“Kvothe?” Auri said softly.
I clenched my teeth against the sobbing and lay still as I could, hoping she would think I was asleep and leave.
“Kvothe?” she called again. “I brought you—” There was a moment of silence, then she said, “Oh.”
I heard a soft sound behind me. The moonlight showed her tiny shadow on the wall as she climbed through the window. I felt the bed move as she settled onto it.
A small, cool hand brushed the side of my face.
“It’s okay,” she said quietly. “Come here.”
I began to cry quietly, and she gently uncurled the tight knot of me until my head lay in her lap. She murmured, brushing my hair away from my forehead, her hands cool against my hot face.
“I know,” she said sadly. “It’s bad sometimes, isn’t it?”
She stroked my hair gently, and it only made me cry harder. I could not remember the last time someone had touched me in a loving way.
“I know,” she said. “You have a stone in your heart, and some days it’s so heavy there is nothing to be done. But you don’t have to be alone for it. You should have come to me. I understand.”
My body clenched and suddenly the taste of plum filled my mouth again. “I miss her,” I said before I realized I was speaking. Then I bit it off before I could say anything else. I clenched my teeth and shook my head furiously, like a horse fighting its reins.
“You can say it,” Auri said gently.
I shook again, tasted plum, and suddenly the words were pouring out of me. “She said I sang before I spoke. She said when I was just a baby she had the habit of humming when she held me. Nothing like a song. Just a descending third. Just a soothing sound. Then one day she was walking me around the camp, and she heard me echo it back to her. Two octaves higher. A tiny piping third. She said it was my first song. We sang it back and forth to each other. For years.” I choked and clenched my teeth.
“You can say it,” Auri said softly. “It’s okay if you say it.”
“I’m never going to see her again,” I choked out. Then I began to cry in earnest.
“It’s okay,” Auri said softly. “I’m here. You’re safe.”
THE NEXT FEW DAYS were neither pleasant nor productive.
Fela’s admissions slot was at the very end of the span, so I attempted to put the extra time to good use. I tried to do some piecework in the Fishery, but quickly returned to my room when I broke down crying halfway through inscribing a heat funnel. Not only couldn’t I maintain the proper Alar, but the last thing I needed was for people to think I’d cracked under the stress of admissions.
Later that night, when I tried to crawl through the narrow tunnel into the Archives, the taste of plum flooded my mouth, and I was filled with a mindless fear of the dark, confining space. Luckily, I’d only gone a dozen feet, but even so I almost gave myself a concussion struggling backward out of the tunnel, and my palms were scraped raw from my panicked scrabbling against the stone.
So I spent the next two days pretending I was sick and keeping to my tiny room. I played my lute, slept fitfully, and thought dark thoughts of Ambrose.
Anker was cleaning up when I came downstairs. “Feeling better?” he asked.
“A bit,” I said. Yesterday I’d only had two plum echoes, and they were very brief. Better yet, I’d managed to sleep the whole night through. It seemed I was through the worst of it.
I shook my head. “Admissions today.”
Anker frowned. “You should have something, then. An apple.” He bustled around behind the bar, then brought out a pottery mug and a heavy jug. “Have some milk too. I’ve got to make use of it before it turns. Damn iceless started giving up the ghost a couple days ago. Three talents solid that thing cost me. I knew I shouldn’t have wasted money on it with ice so cheap around here.”
I leaned over the bar and peered at the long wooden box tucked away among the mugs and bottles. “I could take a look at it for you,” I offered.
Anker raised an eyebrow. “Can you do something with it?”
“I can look,” I said. “Could be something simple I could fix.”
Anker shrugged. “You can’t break it more than it’s already broken.” He wiped his hands on his apron and motioned me behind the bar. “I’ll do you a couple eggs while you’re having your look. I should use those up too.” He opened the long box, took out a handful of eggs, then walked back into the kitchen.
I made my way around the corner of the bar and knelt to look at the iceless. It was a stone-lined box the size of a small traveling trunk. Anywhere other than the University it would have been a miracle of artificing, a luxury. Here, where such things were easy to come by, it was just another piece of needless God-bothering that wasn’t working properly.
It was about as simple a piece of artificing as could be made. No moving parts at all, just two flat bands of tin covered in sygaldry that moved heat from one end of the metal band to the other. It was really nothing more than a slow, inefficient heat siphon.
I crouched down and rested my fingers on the tin bands. The right-hand one was warm, meaning the half on the inside would be correspondingly cool. But the one on the left was room temperature. I craned my neck to get a look at the sygaldry and spotted a deep scratch in the tin, scoring through two of the runes.
That explained it. A piece of sygaldry is like a sentence in a lot of ways. If you remove a couple words, it simply doesn’t make any sense. I should say it usually doesn’t make sense. Sometimes a damaged piece of sygaldry can do something truly unpleasant. I frowned down at the band of tin. This was sloppy artificing. The runes should have been on the inside of the band where they couldn’t be damaged.
I rummaged around until I found a disused ice hammer in the back of a drawer, then carefully tapped the two damaged runes flat into the soft surface of the tin. Then I concentrated and used the tip of a paring knife to etch them back into the thick metal band.
Anker emerged from the kitchen with a plateful of eggs and tomatoes. “It should work now,” I said. I started eating out of politeness, then realized I was actually hungry.
Anker looked over the box, lifting the lid. “That easy?”
“Same as anything else,” I said, my mouth half full. “Easy if you know what you’re doing. It should work. Give it a day and see if it actually chills down.”
I finished off the plateful of eggs and drank the milk as quickly as I could without being rude. “I’ll need to cash out my bar credit today,” I said. “Tuition’s going to be hard this term.”
Anker nodded and checked a small ledger he kept underneath the bar, tallying all the Greysdale mead I’d pretended to drink over the last two months. Then he pulled out his purse and counted out ten copper jots onto the bar. A full talent: twice what I’d expected. I looked up at him, puzzled.
“One of Kilvin’s boys would have charged me at least half a talent to come round and fix this thing,” Anker explained, kicking at the iceless.
“I can’t be sure.…”
He waved me into silence. “If it isn’t fixed, I’ll take it out of your wages over the next month,” he said. “Or I’ll use it as leverage to get you to start playing Reaving night too.” He grinned. “I consider it an investment.”
I gathered the money into my purse: Four talents.
I was heading toward the Fishery to see if my lamps had finally sold when I caught a glimpse of a familiar face crossing the courtyard wearing dark master’s robes.
“Master Elodin!” I called as I saw him approaching a side door to the Masters’ Hall. It was one of the few buildings I hadn’t spent much time in, as it contained little more than living quarters for the masters, the resident gillers, and guest rooms for visiting arcanists.
He turned at the sound of his name. Then, seeing me jogging toward him, he rolled his eyes and turned back to the door.
“Master Elodin,” I said, breathing a little hard. “Might I ask you a quick question?”
“Statistically speaking, it’s pretty likely,” he said, unlocking the door with a bright brass key.
“May I ask you a question, then?”
“I doubt any power known to man could stop you.” He swung open the door and headed inside.
I hadn’t been invited, but I slipped inside after him. Elodin was difficult to track down, and I worried if I didn’t take this chance, I might not see him again for another span of days.
I followed him through a narrow stone hallway. “I’d heard a rumor you were gathering a group of students to study naming,” I said cautiously.
“That’s not a question,” Elodin said as he headed up a long, narrow flight of stairs.
I fought back the urge to snap at him and took a deep breath instead. “Is it true you’re teaching such a class?”
“Were you planning on including me?”
Elodin stopped and turned to face me on the stairway. He looked out of place in his dark master’s robe. His hair was tousled and his face was too young, almost boyish.
He stared at me for a long minute. He looked me up and down as if I were a horse he were thinking of betting on, or a side of beef he was considering selling by the pound.
But that was nothing compared to when he met my eyes. For a heartbeat it was simply unsettling. Then it almost felt like the light on the stairway grew dim. Or that I was suddenly being thrust deep underwater and the pressure was keeping me from drawing a full breath.
“Damn you, half-wit.” I heard a familiar voice that seemed to be coming from a long way off. “If you’re going catatonic again, have the decency to do it in Haven and save us the trouble of carting your foam-flecked carcass back there. Barring that, get to one side.”
Elodin looked away from me and suddenly everything was bright and clear again. I fought to keep from gasping in a lungful of air.
Master Hemme stomped down the stairs, shouldering Elodin roughly to one side. When he saw me he snorted. “Of course. The quarter-wit is here too. Might I recommend a book for your perusal? It is a lovely piece of reading titled Hallways, Their Form and Function: A Primer for the Mentally Deficient.”
He glowered at me, and when I didn’t immediately jump aside he gave me an unpleasant smile. “Ah, but you’re still banned from the Archives, aren’t you? Should I arrange to present the salient information in a form more suited to your kind? Perhaps a mummer’s play or some manner of puppet show?”
I stepped to one side and Hemme stormed by, muttering to himself. Elodin stared daggers into the other master’s broad back. Only after Hemme turned the corner did Elodin’s attention settle back on me.
He sighed. “Perhaps it would be better if you pursued your other studies, Re’lar Kvothe. Dal has a fondness for you, as does Kilvin. You seem to be progressing well with them.”
“But, sir,” I said, trying to keep the dismay out of my voice. “You’re the one who sponsored my promotion to Re’lar.”
He turned and began climbing the stairs again. “Then you should value my sage advice, shouldn’t you?”
“But, if you’re teaching other students, why not me?”
“Because you are too eager to be properly patient,” he said flippantly. “You’re too proud to listen properly. And you’re too clever by half. That’s the worst of it.”
“Some masters prefer clever students,” I muttered as we emerged into a wide hallway.
“Yes,” Elodin said. “Dal and Kilvin and Arwyl like clever students. Go study with one of them. Both our lives will be considerably easier because of it.”
Elodin came to an abrupt halt in the middle of the hallway. “Fine,” he said. “Prove you’re worth teaching. Shake my assumptions down to their foundation stones.” He patted at his robes dramatically, as if looking for something lost in a pocket. “Much to my dismay, I find myself without a way to get past this door.” He rapped it with a knuckle. “What do you do in this situation, Re’lar Kvothe?”
I smiled despite my general irritation. He couldn’t have picked a challenge more perfectly suited to my talents. I pulled a long, slender piece of spring steel out of a pocket in my cloak, then knelt in front of the door and eyed the keyhole. The lock was substantial, made to last. But while large, heavy locks look impressive, they’re actually easier to circumvent if they’re well-maintained.
This one was. It took me the space of three slow breaths to trip it with a satisfying k-tick. I stood up, brushed off my knees, and swung the door inward with a flourish.
For his part, Elodin did seem somewhat impressed. His eyebrows went up as the door swung open. “Clever,” he said as he walked inside.
I followed on his heels. I’d never really wondered what Elodin’s rooms were like. But if I’d guessed, it wouldn’t have been anything resembling this.
They were huge and lavish, with high ceilings and thick rugs. Old wood paneled the walls, and tall windows let in the early morning light. There were oil paintings and massive pieces of ancient wooden furniture. It was bizarrely ordinary.
Elodin moved quickly through the entryway, through a tasteful sitting room, then into the bedroom. Call it a bedchamber, rather. It was huge, with a four-post bed big as a boat. Elodin threw open a wardrobe and started removing several long, dark robes similar to the one he was wearing.
“Here.” Elodin shoved robes into my arms until I couldn’t hold any more. Some were everyday cotton, but others were fine linen or rich, soft velvet. He laid another half-dozen robes over his own arm and carried them back into the sitting room.
We passed old bookshelves lined with hundreds of books and a huge polished desk. One wall was taken up with a large stone fireplace big enough to roast a pig, though there was currently only a small fire smoldering there, keeping away the early autumn chill.
Elodin lifted a crystal decanter off a table and went to stand in front of the fireplace. He dumped the robes he was carrying into my arms so I could barely see over the top of them. Delicately lifting the top off the decanter, he sipped at the contents and raised an eyebrow appreciatively, holding it up to the light.
I decided to try again. “Master Elodin, why don’t you want to teach me naming?”
“That’s the wrong question,” he said, and upended the decanter onto smoldering coals in the fireplace. As the flames licked up hungrily, he took his armload of robes back and fed a velvet one slowly into the fire. It caught quickly, and when it was blazing away, he fed the others onto the fire in quick succession. The result was a great smoldering pile of cloth that sent thick smoke billowing up the chimney. “Try again.”
I couldn’t help but ask the obvious. “Why are you burning your clothes?”
“Nope. Not even close to the right question,” he said as he took more robes out of my arms and piled them into the fireplace. Then Elodin grabbed the handle for the flue and pulled it closed with a metallic clank. Great clouds of smoke began to pour into the room. Elodin coughed a bit, then stepped back and looked around in a vaguely satisfied way.
I suddenly realized what was going on. “Oh, God,” I said. “Whose rooms are these?”
Elodin gave a satisfied nod. “Very good. I would also have accepted, Why don’t you have a key for this room? or What are we doing in here?” He looked down at me, his eyes serious. “Doors are locked for a reason. People who don’t have keys are supposed to stay out for a reason.”
He nudged the heap of smouldering cloth with one foot, as if reassuring himself it would stay in the fireplace. “You know you’re clever. That’s your weakness. You assume you know what you’re getting into, but you don’t.”
Elodin turned to look at me, his dark eyes serious. “You think you can trust me to teach you,” he said. “You think I will keep you safe. But that is the worst sort of foolishness.”
“Whose rooms are these?” I repeated numbly.
He showed me all his teeth in a sudden grin. “Master Hemme’s.”
“Why are you burning all of Hemme’s clothes?” I asked, trying to ignore the fact that the room was rapidly filling with bitter smoke.
Elodin looked at me as if I were an idiot. “Because I hate him.” He picked up the crystal decanter from the mantel and threw it violently against the back of the fireplace, where it shattered. The fire began to burn more vigorously from whatever had been left inside. “The man is an absolute tit. Nobody talks to me like that.”
Smoke continued to boil into the room. If it weren’t for the high ceilings we’d already be choking on it. Even so, it was becoming hard to breathe as we made our way to the door. Elodin opened it, and smoke rolled out into the hallway.
We stood outside the door, staring at each other while the smoke billowed past. I decided to take a different tack on the problem. “I understand your hesitation, Master Elodin,” I said. “Sometimes I don’t think things all the way through.”
“And I’ll admit there have been times when my actions have been …” I paused, trying to think of something more humble than “ill-considered.”
“Stupid beyond all mortal ken?” Elodin said helpfully.
My temper flared, burning away my brief attempt at humility. “Well thank God I’m the only one here that’s ever made a bad decision in my life!” I said, barely keeping my voice this side of a shout. I looked him hard in the eye. “I’ve heard stories about you too, you know. They say you toffed things up pretty well yourself back when you were a student here.”
Elodin’s amused expression faded a bit, leaving him looking like he’d swallowed something and it had gotten stuck halfway down.
I continued. “If you think I’m reckless, do something about it. Show me the straighter path! Mold my supple young mind—” I sucked in a lungful of smoke and began to cough, forcing me to cut my tirade short. “Do something, damn you!” I choked out. “Teach me!”
I hadn’t really been shouting, but I ended up breathless all the same. My temper faded as quickly as it had flared up, and I worried I’d gone too far.
But Elodin just looked at me. “What makes you think I’m not teaching you?” he asked, puzzled. “Aside from the fact that you refuse to learn.”
Then he turned and walked down the hallway. “I’d get out of here if I were you,” he said over his shoulder. “People are going to want to know who’s responsible for this, and everyone knows you and Hemme don’t get on very well.”
I felt myself break into a panicked sweat. “What?”
“I’d wash up before admissions too,” he said. “It won’t look good if you show up reeking of smoke. I live here,” Elodin said, pulling a key from his pocket and unlocking a door at the far end of the hallway. “What’s your excuse?”
A Civil Tongue
MY HAIR WAS STILL wet when I made my way through a short hallway, then up the stairs onto the stage of an empty theater. As always, the room was dark except for the huge crescent-shaped table. I moved to the edge of the light and waited politely.
The Chancellor motioned me forward and I walked to the center of the table, reaching up to hand him my tile. Then I stepped back to stand in the circle of slightly brighter light between the two outthrust horns of the table.
The nine masters looked down at me. I’d like to say they looked dramatic, like ravens on a fence or something like that. But while they were all wearing their formal robes, they were too mismatched to look like a collection of anything.
What’s more, I could see the marks of weariness on them. Only then did it occur to me that as much as the students hated admissions, it was probably no walk in the garden for the masters either.
“Kvothe, Arliden’s son,” the Chancellor said formally. “Re’lar.” He made a gesture to the far right-hand horn of the table. “Master Physicker?”
Arwyl peered down at me, his face grandfatherly behind his round spectacles. “What are the medicinal properties of mhenka?” he asked.
“Powerful anesthetic,” I said. “Powerful catatoniate. Potential purgative.” I hesitated. “It has a whole sackful of complicating secondaries too. Should I list them all?”
Arwyl shook his head. “A patient comes into the Medica complaining of pains in their joints and difficulty breathing. Their mouth is dry, and they claim to have a sweet taste in their mouth. They complain of chills, but they are actually sweaty and feverish. What is your diagnosis?”
I drew a breath, then hesitated. “I don’t make diagnoses in the Medica, Master Arwyl. I’d fetch one of your El’the to do it.”
He smiled at me, eyes crinkling around the edges. “Correct,” he said. “But for the sake of argument, what do you think might be wrong?”
“Is the patient a student?”
Arwyl raised an eyebrow. “What does that have to do with the price of butter?”
“If they work in the Fishery, it might be smelter’s flu,” I said. Arwyl cocked an eyebrow at me and I added, “There’s all sorts of heavy metal poisoning you can get in the Fishery. It’s rare around here because the students are well-trained, but anyone working with hot bronze can inhale enough fumes to kill themselves if they aren’t properly careful.” I saw Kilvin nodding along, and was glad I didn’t have to admit the only reason I knew this was that I’d given myself a mild case of it a month ago.
Arwyl gave a thoughtful humph, then gestured to the other side of the table. “Master Arithmetician?”
Brandeur sat on the left-hand point of the table. “Assuming the changer takes four percent, how many pennies can you break from a talent?” He asked the question without looking up from the papers in front of him.
“What type of penny, Master Brandeur?”
He looked up, frowning. “We are still in the Commonwealth, if I remember correctly.”
I juggled numbers in my head, working from the figures in the books he’d set aside in the Archives. They weren’t the true exchange rates you would get from a moneylender; they were the official exchange rates governments and financiers used so they had common ground for lying to each other. “In iron pennies. Three hundred and fifty,” I said, then added, “One. And a half.”
Brandeur looked down at the papers before I’d even finished speaking. “Your compass reads gold at two hundred twenty points, platinum at one hundred twelve points, and cobalt at thirty-two points. Where are you?”
I was boggled by the question. Orienting by trifoil required detailed maps and painstaking triangulation. It was usually only practiced by sea captains and cartographers, and they used detailed charts to make their calculations. I’d only ever laid eyes on a trifoil compass twice in my life.
Either this was a question listed in one of the books Brandeur had set aside for study or it was deliberately designed to spike my wheel. Given that Brandeur and Hemme were friends, I guessed it was the latter.
I closed my eyes, brought up a map of the civilized world in my head, and took my best guess. “Tarbean?” I said. “Maybe somewhere in Yll?” I opened my eyes. “Honestly, I have no idea.”
Brandeur made a mark on a piece of paper. “Master Namer,” he said without looking up.
Elodin gave me a wicked, knowing grin, and I was suddenly struck with the fear that he might reveal my part of what we had done in Hemme’s rooms earlier that morning.
Instead he held up three fingers dramatically. “You have three spades in your hand,” he said. “And there have been five spades played.” He steepled his fingers and looked at me seriously. “How many spades is that?”
“Eight spades,” I said.
The other masters stirred slightly in their seats. Arwyl sighed. Kilvin slouched. Hemme and Brandeur went so far as to roll their eyes at each other. All together they gave the impression of long-suffering exasperation.
Elodin scowled at them. “What?” he demanded, his voice going hard around the edges. “You want me to take this song and dance more seriously? You want me to ask him questions only a namer can answer?”
The other masters stilled at this, looking uncomfortable and refusing to meet his eye. Hemme was the exception and glared openly.
“Fine,” Elodin said, turning back to me. His eyes were dark, and his voice had a strange resonance to it. It wasn’t loud, but when he spoke, it seemed to fill the entire hall. It left no space for any other sound. “Where does the moon go,” Elodin asked grimly, “when it is no longer in our sky?”
The room seemed unnaturally quiet when he stopped speaking. As if his voice had left a hole in the world.
I waited to see if there was more to the question. “I haven’t the slightest,” I admitted. After Elodin’s voice, my own seemed rather thin and insubstantial.
Elodin shrugged, then gestured graciously across the table. “Master Sympathist.”
Elxa Dal was the only one who really looked comfortable in his formal robes. As always, his dark beard and lean face made me think of the evil magician in so many bad Aturan plays. He gave me a bit of a sympathetic look. “How about the binding for linear galvanic attraction?” he said in an offhand way.
I rattled it off easily.
He nodded. “What’s the distance of insurmountable decay for iron?”
“Five and a half miles,” I said, giving the textbook answer despite the fact that I had some quibbles with the term “insurmountable.” While it was true that moving any significant amount of energy more than six miles was statistically impossible, you could still use sympathy to dowse over much greater distances.
“Once an ounce of water is boiling, how much heat will it take to boil it completely away?”
I dragged up what I could remember from the vaporization tables I’d worked with in the Fishery. “A hundred and eighty thaums,” I said with more assurance than I actually felt.
“Good enough for me,” Dal said. “Master Alchemist?”
Mandrag waved a mottled hand dismissively. “I’ll pass.”
“He’s good with questions about spades,” Elodin suggested.
Mandrag frowned at Elodin. “Master Archivist.”
Lorren stared down at me, his long face impassive. “What are the rules of the Archives?”
I flushed at this and looked down. “Move quietly,” I said. “Respect the books. Obey the scrivs. No water. No food.” I swallowed. “No fire.”
Lorren nodded. Nothing in his tone or demeanor indicated any sort of disapproval, but that just made it worse. His eyes moved across the table. “Master Artificer.”
I cursed inwardly. Over the last span I’d read all six books Master Lorren had set aside for Re’lar to study from. Feltemi Reis’ Iron and Fire: Atur and Empire alone took me ten hours. I wanted few things more than access to the Archives, and I’d desperately hoped to impress Master Lorren by answering whatever question he could think to ask.
But there was no help for it. I turned to face Kilvin.
“Galvanic throughput of copper,” the great bearlike master rumbled through his beard.
I gave it to five places. I’d had to use it while making calculations for the deck lamps.
“Conductive coefficient of gallium.”
I’d needed to know that to dope the emitters for the lamp. Was Kilvin lobbing me easy questions? I gave the answer.
“Good,” Kilvin said. “Master Rhetorician.”
I drew a deep breath as I turned to look at Hemme. I had gone so far as to read three of his books, though I have a sharp loathing for rhetoric and pointless philosophy.
Still, I could tamp down my distaste for two minutes’ time and play the part of a good, humble student. I am one of the Ruh, I could act the part.
Hemme scowled at me, his round face like an angry moon. “Did you set fire to my rooms, you little ravel bastard?”
The raw nature of the question caught me entirely off my guard. I was ready for impossibly hard questions, or trick questions, or questions he could twist to make any answer I gave seem wrong.
But this sudden accusation caught me utterly wrong-footed. “Ravel” is a term I particularly despise. A welter of emotion rolled through me and brought the sudden taste of plum to my mouth. While part of me was still considering the most gracious way to respond, I found I was already speaking. “I didn’t set fire to your rooms,” I said honestly. “But I wish I had. And I wish you’d been in there when it started, sleeping soundly.”
Hemme’s expression turned from scowling to astonished.
“Re’lar Kvothe!” the Chancellor snapped. “You will keep a civil tongue in your head, or I will bring you up on charges of Conduct Unbecoming myself!”
The taste of plum disappeared as quickly as it had come, leaving me feeling slightly dizzy and sweating with fear and embarrassment. “My apologies, Chancellor,” I said quickly, looking down at my feet. “I spoke in anger. ‘Ravel’ is a term my people find particularly offensive. Its use makes light of the systematic slaughter of thousands of Ruh.”
A curious line appeared between the Chancellor’s eyebrows. “I’ll admit I don’t know that particular etymology,” he mused. “I guess I’ll make that my question.”
“Hold off,” Hemme interrupted. “I’m not finished.”
“You are finished,” the Chancellor said, his voice hard and firm. “You’re as bad as the boy, Jasom, and with less excuse. You’ve shown you can’t conduct yourself in a professional manner, so stint thy clep and consider yourself lucky I don’t call for an official censure.”
Hemme went white with anger, but he held his tongue.
The Chancellor turned to look at me. “Master Linguist,” he announced himself formally. “Re’lar Kvothe: What is the etymology of the word ‘ravel’?”
“It comes from the purges instigated by Emperor Alcyon,” I said. “He issued a proclamation saying any of the traveling rabble on the roads were subject to fine, imprisonment, or transportation without trial. The term became shortened to ‘ravel’ though metaplasmic enclitization.”
He raised an eyebrow at that. “Did it now?”
I nodded. “Though I also expect there is a connection to the term ‘ravel-end,’ referring to the ragged appearance of performing troupes that are out at the heels.”
The Chancellor nodded formally. “Thank you, Re’lar Kvothe. Take a seat while we confer.”
MY TUITION WAS SET at nine talents and five. Better than the ten talents Manet had predicted, but more than I had in my purse. I had until tomorrow noon to settle up with the bursar or I would be forced to miss an entire term.
Having to postpone my studies wouldn’t have been a tragedy. But only students are allowed access to University resources, such as the equipment in the Artificery. That meant if I couldn’t pay my tuition, I would be barred from my work in Kilvin’s shop, the only job where I could hope to earn enough money for my tuition.
I stopped at the Stocks and Jaxim smiled as I approached the open window. “Just sold your lamps this morning,” he said. “We squeezed them for a little extra because they were the last ones left.”
He leafed through the ledger until he found the appropriate page. “Your sixty percent comes out to four talents and eight jots. After the materials and piecework you used …” He ran his finger down a page. “You’re left with two talents, three jots, and eight drabs.”
Jaxim made a note in the ledger, then wrote me a receipt. I folded the paper carefully and tucked it into my purse. It didn’t have the satisfying weight of coins, but it brought my total up to more than six talents. So much money, but still not enough.
If I hadn’t lost my temper with Hemme my tuition might have been low enough. I could have studied more, or earned more money if I hadn’t been forced to hide in my room for almost two whole days, weeping and raging with the taste of plum in my mouth.
A thought occurred to me. “I should start something new, I guess,” I said casually. “I’ll need a small crucible. Three ounces of tin. Two ounces of bronze. Four ounces of silver. A spool of fine gold wire. A copper—”
“Hold on a second,” Jaxim interrupted me. He ran a finger back along my name in the ledger. “I don’t have you authorized for gold or silver.” He looked up at me. “Is that a mistake?”
I hesitated, not wanting to lie. “I didn’t know you needed authorization,” I said.
Jaxim gave me a knowing grin. “You’re not the first one to try something like that,” he said. “Rough tuition?”
He grimaced sympathetically. “Sorry. Kilvin knows Stocks could turn into a moneylender’s stall if he isn’t careful.” He closed the ledger. “You’ll have to hit the pawnshop like everyone else.”
I held up my hands, showing him the fronts and backs to make a point of my lack of jewelry.
Jaxim winced. “That’s rough. I know a decent moneylender on Silver Court, only charges ten percent a month. It’s still like having your teeth pulled, but better than most.”
I nodded and sighed. Silver Court was where the guild moneylenders had their shops. They wouldn’t give me the time of day. “It’s certainly better than I’ve gotten in the past,” I said.
I thought things over while I walked to Imre, the familiar weight of my lute resting on one shoulder.
I was in a tight spot, but not a terrible one. No guild moneylender would lend money to an orphan Edema Ruh with no collateral, but I could borrow the money from Devi. Still, I wish it hadn’t come to that. Not only was her rate of interest extortionate, but I worried what favors she might require of me if I ever defaulted my loan. I doubted they would be small. Or easy. Or entirely legal.
Such were the turnings of my thoughts as I made my way over Stonebridge. I stopped by an apothecary, then made my way to the Grey Man.
Opening the door, I saw the Grey Man was a boarding house. There was no common room where people could gather and drink. Instead there was a small, richly appointed parlor, complete with a well-dressed porter who eyed me with an air of disapproval, if not outright distaste.
“Can I help you, young sir?” he asked as I came in the door.
“I’m calling on a young lady,” I said. “By the name of Dinael.”
He nodded. “I shall go and see if she is in.”
“Don’t trouble yourself,” I said, moving toward the stairs. “She’s expecting me.”
The man moved to block my way. “I’m afraid that isn’t possible,” he said. “But I will be glad to see if the lady is in.”
He held out his hand. I looked at it.
“Your calling card?” he asked. “That I might present it to the young lady?”
“How can you give her my card if you aren’t sure she is in?” I asked.
The porter gave me the smile again. It was gracious, polite, and so sharply unpleasant that I took special note of it, fixing it in my memory. A smile like that is a work of art. As someone who grew up on the stage, I could appreciate it on several levels. A smile like that is like a knife in certain social settings, and I might have need of it someday.
“Ah,” the porter said. “The lady is in,” he said with a certain emphasis. “But that does not necessarily mean she is in for you.”
“You can tell her Kvothe has come calling,” I said, more amused than offended. “I’ll wait.”
I didn’t have to wait long. The porter came down the stairs wearing an irritated expression, as if he’d been looking forward to throwing me out. “This way,” he said.
I followed him upstairs. He opened a door, and I swept past him with what I hoped was an irritating amount of dismissive aplomb.
It was a sitting room with wide windows that let in the late afternoon sun, large enough to seem spacious despite the scattered chairs and couches. A hammer dulcimer sat against the far wall, and one corner of the room was entirely occupied by a massive Modegan great harp.
Denna stood in the center of the room wearing a green velvet dress. Her hair was arranged to display her elegant neck to good effect, revealing the emerald teardrop earrings and matching necklace at her throat.
She was talking to a young man who was…the best word I can think of is pretty. He had a sweet, clean-shaven face with wide, dark eyes.
He had the look of a young noble who had been down on his luck too long for it to be a temporary thing. His clothing was fine but rumpled. His dark hair was cut in a style obviously meant to be curled, but it hadn’t been tended to recently. His eyes were sunken, as if he hadn’t been sleeping well.
Denna held out her hands to me. “Kvothe,” she said. “Come meet Geoffrey.”
“Pleasure to meet you, Kvothe,” Geoffrey said. “Dinael has told me quite a bit about you. You’re a bit of a—what is it? Wizard?” His smile was open and utterly guileless.
“Arcanist actually,” I said as politely as possible. “Wizard brings too much storybook nonsense to mind. People expect us to wear dark robes and fling about the entrails of birds. And yourself?”
“Geoffrey is a poet,” Denna said. “And a good one, though he’ll deny it.”
“I will,” he admitted, then his smile faded. “I have to go. I have an appointment with folk who shouldn’t be kept waiting.” He gave Denna a kiss on the cheek, shook my hand warmly, and left.
Denna watched the door close behind him. “He’s a sweet boy.”
“You say that as if you regret it,” I said.
“If he were a little less sweet, he might be able to fit two thoughts in his head at the same time. Maybe they would rub together and make a spark. Even a little smoke would be nice, then at least it would look like something was happening in there.” She sighed.
“Is he really that thick?”
She shook her head. “No. He’s just trusting. Hasn’t got a calculating bone in his body, and he’s done nothing but make bad choices since he got here a month ago.”
I reached into my cloak and brought out a pair of small, cloth-wrapped bundles: one blue, one white. “I’ve brought you a present.”
Denna reached out to take them, looking slightly puzzled.
What had seemed like such a good idea a few hours ago now seemed rather foolish. “They’re for your lungs,” I said, suddenly embarrassed. “I know you have trouble sometimes.”
She tilted her head on one side. “And how do you know that, pray tell?”
“You mentioned it when we were in Trebon,” I said. “I did some research.” I pointed. “That one you can brew in a tea: featherbite, deadnettle, lohatm. …” I pointed to the other. “That one you boil the leaves in some water and breathe the vapor coming off the top.”
Denna looked back and forth between the packages.
“I’ve written instructions on slips of paper inside,” I said. “The blue one is the one you’re supposed to boil and breathe the vapor,” I said. “Blue for water, you see.”
She looked up at me. “Don’t you make a tea with water, too?”
I blinked at that, then flushed and started to say something, but Denna laughed and shook her head. “I’m teasing you,” she said gently. “Thank you. This is the sweetest thing anyone’s done for me in a long while.”
Denna walked over to a chest of drawers and tucked the two bundles carefully into an ornate wooden box.
“You seem to be doing fairly well for yourself,” I said, gesturing to the well-appointed room.
Denna shrugged, looking around the room indifferently. “Kellin is doing well for himself,” she said. “I merely stand in his reflected light.”
I nodded my understanding. “I’d thought perhaps you’d found yourself a patron.”
“Nothing so formal as that. Kellin and I are walking about together, as they say in Modeg, and he is showing me my way around the harp.” She nodded to where the instrument loomed hugely in the corner.
“Care to show me what you’ve learned?” I asked.
Denna shook her head, embarrassed. Her hair slid down around her shoulders as she did so. “I’m not very good yet.”
“I will restrain my natural urge to jeer and hiss,” I said graciously.
Denna laughed. “Fine. Just a bit.” She walked behind the harp and drew up a tall stool to lean against. Then she lifted her hands to the strings, paused for a long moment, and began to play.
The melody was a variant of “Bell-Wether.” I smiled.
Her playing was slow, almost stately. Too many people think speed is the hallmark of a good musician. It’s understandable. What Marie had done at the Eolian was amazing. But how quickly you can finger notes is the smallest part of music. The real key is timing.
It’s like telling a joke. Anyone can remember the words. Anyone can repeat it. But making someone laugh requires more than that. Telling a joke faster doesn’t make it funnier. As with many things, hesitation is better than hurry.
What People are Saying About This
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