/ Language: English / Genre:sf_fantasy, / Series: The Kingkiller Chronicle

The Name of the Wind

Patrick Rothfuss

I have stolen princesses back from sleeping  barrow kings. I burned down the town of Trebon. I have spent the night with Felurian and left with both my sanity and my life. I was expelled from the University at a younger age than most people are allowed in. I tread paths by moonlight that others fear to speak of during day. I have talked to Gods, loved women, and written songs that make the minstrels weep. You may have heard of me. So begins the tale of Kvothe—from his childhood in a troupe of traveling players, to years spent as a near-feral orphan in a crime-riddled city, to his daringly brazen yet successful bid to enter a difficult and dangerous school of magic. In these pages you will come to know Kvothe as a notorious magician, an accomplished thief, a masterful musician, and an infamous assassin. But THE NAME OF THE WIND is so much more—for the story it tells reveals the truth behind Kvothe’s legend.

Patrick Rothfuss

THE NAME OF THE WIND

The Kingkiller Chronicle: Day One

To my mother, who taught me to love books and opened the door to Narnia, Pern, and Middle Earth.

And to my father, who taught me that if I was going to do something, I should take my time and do it right.

Acknowledgments

To . . .

. . . all the readers of my early drafts. You are legion, too many to name, but not too many to love. I kept writing because of your encouragement. I kept improving because of your criticism. If not for you, I would not have won . . .

. . . the Writers of the Future contest. If not for their workshop, I would never have met my wonderful anthology-mates from volume 18 or . . .

. . . Kevin J. Anderson. If not for his advice, I would never have ended up with . . .

. . . Matt Bialer, the best of agents. If not for his guidance, I would never have sold the book to . . .

. . . Betsy Wolheim, beloved editor and president of DAW. If not for her, you would not be holding this book. A similar book, perhaps, but this book would not exist.

And, lastly, to Mr. Bohage, my high school history teacher. In 1989 I told him I’d mention him in my first novel. I keep my promises.

PROLOGUE

A Silence of Three Parts

It was night again. The Waystone Inn lay in silence, and it was a silence of three parts.

The most obvious part was a hollow, echoing quiet, made by things that were lacking. If there had been a wind it would have sighed through the trees, set the inn’s sign creaking on its hooks, and brushed the silence down the road like trailing autumn leaves. If there had been a crowd, even a handful of men inside the inn, they would have filled the silence with conversation and laughter, the clatter and clamor one expects from a drinking house during the dark hours of night. 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 pair of men huddled at one corner of the bar. They drank with quiet determination, avoiding serious discussions of troubling news. In doing this they added a small, sullen silence to the larger, hollow one. It made an alloy of sorts, a counterpoint.

The third silence was not an easy thing to notice. If you listened for an hour, you might begin to feel it in the wooden floor underfoot and in the rough, splintering barrels behind the bar. It was in the weight of the black stone hearth that held the heat of a long dead fire. It was in the slow back and forth of a white linen cloth rubbing along the grain of the bar. And it was in the hands of the man who stood there, polishing a stretch of mahogany that already gleamed in the lamplight.

The man had true-red hair, red as flame. His eyes were dark and distant, and he moved with the subtle certainty that comes from knowing many things.

The Waystone was his, just as the third silence was his. This was appropriate, as it was the greatest silence of the three, wrapping 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.

CHAPTER ONE

A Place for Demons

It was felling night; and the usual crowd had gathered at the Way-stone Inn. Five wasn’t much of a crowd, but five was as many as the Way-stone ever saw these days, times being what they were.

Old Cob was filling his role as storyteller and advice dispensary. The men at the bar sipped their drinks and listened. In the back room a young innkeeper stood out of sight behind the door, smiling as he listened to the details of a familiar story.

“When he awoke, Taborlin the Great found himself locked in a high tower. They had taken his sword and stripped him of his tools: key, coin, and candle were all gone. But that weren’t even the worst of it, you see . . .” Cob paused for effect, “. . . cause the lamps on the wall were burning blue!”

Graham, Jake, and Shep nodded to themselves. The three friends had grown up together, listening to Cob’s stories and ignoring his advice.

Cob peered closely at the newer, more attentive member of his small audience, the smith’s prentice. “Do you know what that meant, boy?” Everyone called the smith’s prentice “boy” despite the fact that he was a hand taller than anyone there. Small towns being what they are, he would most likely remain “boy” until his beard filled out or he bloodied someone’s nose over the matter.

The boy gave a slow nod. “The Chandrian.”

“That’s right,” Cob said approvingly. “The Chandrian. Everyone knows that blue fire is one of their signs. Now he was—”

“But how’d they find him?” the boy interrupted. “And why din’t they kill him when they had the chance?”

“Hush now, you’ll get all the answers before the end,” Jake said. “Just let him tell it.”

“No need for all that, Jake,” Graham said. “Boy’s just curious. Drink your drink.”

“I drank me drink already,” Jake grumbled. “I need t’nother but the innkeep’s still skinning rats in the back room.” He raised his voice and knocked his empty mug hollowly on the top of the mahogany bar. “Hoy! We’re thirsty men in here!”

The innkeeper appeared with five bowls of stew and two warm, round loaves of bread. He pulled more beer for Jake, Shep, and Old Cob, moving with an air of bustling efficiency.

The story was set aside while the men tended to their dinners. Old Cob tucked away his bowl of stew with the predatory efficiency of a lifetime bachelor. The others were still blowing steam off their bowls when he finished the last of his loaf and returned to his story.

“Now Taborlin needed to escape, but when he looked around, he saw his cell had no door. No windows. All around him was nothing but smooth, hard stone. It was a cell no man had ever escaped.

“But Taborlin knew the names of all things, and so all things were his to command. He said to the stone: ‘Break!’ and the stone broke. The wall tore like a piece of paper, and through that hole Taborlin could see the sky and breathe the sweet spring air. He stepped to the edge, looked down, and without a second thought he stepped out into the open air. . . .”

The boy’s eyes went wide. “He didn’t!”

Cob nodded seriously. “So Taborlin fell, but he did not despair. For he knew the name of the wind, and so the wind obeyed him. He spoke to the wind and it cradled and caressed him. It bore him to the ground as gently as a puff of thistledown and set him on his feet softly as a mother’s kiss.

“And when he got to the ground and felt his side where they’d stabbed him, he saw that it weren’t hardly a scratch. Now maybe it was just a piece of luck,” Cob tapped the side of his nose knowingly. “Or maybe it had something to do with the amulet he was wearing under his shirt.”

“What amulet?” the boy asked eagerly through a mouthful of stew.

Old Cob leaned back on his stool, glad for the chance to elaborate. “A few days earlier, Taborlin had met a tinker on the road. And even though Taborlin didn’t have much to eat, he shared his dinner with the old man.”

“Right sensible thing to do,” Graham said quietly to the boy. “Everyone knows: ‘A tinker pays for kindness twice.’ ”

“No no,” Jake grumbled. “Get it right: ‘A tinker’s advice pays kindness twice.’ ”

The innkeeper spoke up for the first time that night. “Actually, you’re missing more than half,” he said, standing in the doorway behind the bar.

“A tinker’s debt is always paid:
Once for any simple trade.
Twice for freely-given aid.
Thrice for any insult made.”

The men at the bar seemed almost surprised to see Kote standing there. They’d been coming to the Waystone every Felling night for months and Kote had never interjected anything of his own before. Not that you could expect anything else, really. He’d only been in town for a year or so. He was still a stranger. The smith’s prentice had lived here since he was eleven, and he was still referred to as “that Rannish boy,” as if Rannish were some foreign country and not a town less than thirty miles away.

“Just something I heard once,” Kote said to fill the silence, obviously embarrassed.

Old Cob nodded before he cleared his throat and launched back into the story. “Now this amulet was worth a whole bucket of gold nobles, but on account of Taborlin’s kindness, the tinker sold it to him for nothing but an iron penny, a copper penny, and a silver penny. It was black as a winter night and cold as ice to touch, but so long as it was round his neck, Taborlin would be safe from the harm of evil things. Demons and such.”

“I’d give a good piece for such a thing these days,” Shep said darkly. He had drunk most and talked least over the course of the evening. Everyone knew that something bad had happened out on his farm last Cendling night, but since they were good friends they knew better than to press him for the details. At least not this early in the evening, not as sober as they were.

“Aye, who wouldn’t?” Old Cob said judiciously, taking a long drink.

“I din’t know the Chandrian were demons,” the boy said. “I’d heard—”

“They ain’t demons,” Jake said firmly. “They were the first six people to refuse Tehlu’s choice of the path, and he cursed them to wander the corners—”

“Are you telling this story, Jacob Walker?” Cob said sharply. “Cause if you are, I’ll just let you get on with it.”

The two men glared at each other for a long moment. Eventually Jake looked away, muttering something that could, conceivably, have been an apology.

Cob turned back to the boy. “That’s the mystery of the Chandrian,” he explained. “Where do they come from? Where do they go after they’ve done their bloody deeds? Are they men who sold their souls? Demons? Spirits? No one knows.” Cob shot Jake a profoundly disdainful look. “Though every half-wit claims he knows . . .”

The story fell further into bickering at this point, about the nature of the Chandrian, the signs that showed their presence to the wary, and whether the amulet would protect Taborlin from bandits, or mad dogs, or falling off a horse. Things were getting heated when the front door banged open.

Jake looked over. “It’s about time you got in, Carter. Tell this damn fool the difference between a demon and a dog. Everybody kn—” Jake stopped midsentence and rushed to the door. “God’s body, what happened to you?”

Carter stepped into the light, his face pale and smeared with blood. He clutched an old saddle blanket to his chest. It was an odd, awkward shape, as if it were wrapped around a tangle of kindling sticks.

His friends jumped off their stools and hurried over at the sight of him. “I’m fine,” he said as he made his slow way into the common room. His eyes were wild around the edges, like a skittish horse. “I’m fine. I’m fine.”

He dropped the bundled blanket onto the nearest table where it knocked hard against the wood, as if it were full of stones. His clothes were crisscrossed with long, straight cuts. His grey shirt hung in loose tatters except where it was stuck to his body, stained a dark, sullen red.

Graham tried to ease him into a chair. “Mother of God. Sit down, Carter. What happened to you? Sit down.”

Carter shook his head stubbornly. “I told you, I’m fine. I’m not hurt that bad.”

“How many were there?” Graham said.

“One,” Carter said. “But it’s not what you think—”

“Goddammit. I told you, Carter,” Old Cob burst out with the sort of frightened anger only relatives and close friends can muster. “I told you for months now. You can’t go out alone. Not even as far as Baedn. It ain’t safe.” Jake laid a hand on the old man’s arm, quieting him.

“Just take a sit,” Graham said, still trying to steer Carter into a chair. “Let’s get that shirt off you and get you cleaned up.”

Carter shook his head. “I’m fine. I got cut up a little, but the blood is mostly Nelly’s. It jumped on her. Killed her about two miles outside town, past the Oldstone Bridge.”

A moment of serious silence followed the news. The smith’s prentice laid a sympathetic hand on Carter’s shoulder. “Damn. That’s hard. She was gentle as a lamb, too. Never tried to bite or kick when you brought her in for shoes. Best horse in town. Damn. I’m . . .” He trailed off. “Damn. I don’t know what to say.” He looked around helplessly.

Cob finally managed to free himself from Jake. “I told you,” he repeated, shaking a finger in Carter’s direction. “There’s folks out lately that would kill you for a pair of pennies, let alone a horse and cart. What are you going to do now? Pull it yourself?”

There was a moment of uncomfortable quiet. Jake and Cob glared at each other while the rest seemed at a loss for words, unsure of how to comfort their friend.

The innkeeper moved carefully through the silence. Arms full, he stepped nimbly around Shep and began to arrange some items on a nearby table: a bowl of hot water, shears, some clean linen, a few glass bottles, needle and gut.

“This never would have happened if he’d listened to me in the first place,” Old Cob muttered. Jake tried to quiet him, but Cob brushed him aside. “I’m just tellin’ the truth. It’s a damn shame about Nelly, but he better listen now or he’ll end up dead. You don’t get lucky twice with those sort of men.”

Carter’s mouth made a thin line. He reached out and pulled the edge of the bloody blanket. Whatever was inside flipped over once and snagged on the cloth. Carter tugged harder and there was a clatter like a bag of flat river stones upended onto the tabletop.

It was a spider as large as a wagon wheel, black as slate.

The smith’s prentice jumped backward and hit a table, knocking it over and almost falling to the ground himself. Cob’s face went slack. Graham, Shep, and Jake made wordless, startled sounds and moved away, raising their hands to their faces. Carter took a step backward that was almost like a nervous twitch. Silence filled the room like a cold sweat.

The innkeeper frowned. “They can’t have made it this far west yet,” he said softly.

If not for the silence, it is unlikely anyone would have heard him. But they did. Their eyes pulled away from the thing on the table to stare mutely at the red-haired man.

Jake found his voice first. “You know what this is?”

The innkeeper’s eyes were distant. “Scrael,” he said distractedly. “I’d thought the mountains—”

“Scrael?” Jake broke in. “Blackened body of God, Kote. You’ve seen these things before?”

“What?” The red-haired innkeeper looked up sharply, as if suddenly remembering where he was. “Oh. No. No, of course not.” Seeing that he was the only one within arm’s length of the dark thing, he took a measured step away. “Just something I heard.” They stared at him. “Do you remember the trader that came through about two span ago?”

They all nodded. “Bastard tried to charge me ten pennies for a half-pound of salt,” Cob said reflexively repeating the complaint for perhaps the hundredth time.

“Wish I’d bought some,” Jake mumbled. Graham nodded a silent agreement.

“He was a filthy shim,” Cob spat, seeming to find comfort in the familiar words. “I might pay two in a tight time, but ten is robbery.”

“Not if there are more of those on the road,” Shep said darkly.

All eyes went back to the thing on the table.

“He told me he’d heard of them over near Melcombe,” Kote said quickly, watching everyone’s faces as they studied the thing on the table. “I thought he was just trying to drive up his prices.”

“What else did he say?” Carter asked.

The innkeeper looked thoughtful for a moment, then shrugged. “I didn’t get the whole story. He was only in town for a couple hours.”

“I don’t like spiders,” the smith’s prentice said. He remained on the other side of a table some fifteen feet away. “Cover it up.”

“It’s not a spider,” Jake said. “It’s got no eyes.”

“It’s got no mouth either,” Carter pointed out. “How does it eat?”

What does it eat?” Shep said darkly.

The innkeeper continued to eye the thing curiously. He leaned closer, stretching out a hand. Everyone edged even farther away from the table.

“Careful,” Carter said. “Its feet are sharp like knives.”

“More like razors,” Kote said. His long fingers brushed the scrael’s black, featureless body. “It’s smooth and hard, like pottery.”

“Don’t go messing with it,” the smith’s prentice said.

Moving carefully, the innkeeper took one of the long, smooth legs and tried to break it with both hands like a stick. “Not pottery,” he amended. He set it against the edge of the table and leaned his weight against it. It broke with a sharp crack. “More like stone.” He looked up at Carter. “How did it get all these cracks?” He pointed at the thin fractures that crazed the smooth black surface of the body.

“Nelly fell on it,” Carter said. “It jumped out of a tree and started to climb all over her, cutting her up with its feet. It moved so fast. I didn’t even know what was going on.” Carter finally sank into the chair at Graham’s urging. “She got tangled in her harness and fell on it, broke some of its legs. Then it came after me, got on me, crawling all over.” He crossed his arms in front of his bloody chest and shuddered. “I managed to get it off me and stomped it hard as I could. Then it got on me again. . . .” He trailed off, his face ashen.

The innkeeper nodded to himself as he continued to prod the thing. “There’s no blood. No organs. It’s just grey inside.” He poked it with a finger. “Like a mushroom.”

“Great Tehlu, just leave it alone,” the smith’s prentice begged. “Sometimes spiders twitch after you kill them.”

“Listen to yourselves,” Cob said scathingly. “Spiders don’t get big as pigs. You know what this is.” He looked around, making eye contact with each of them. “It’s a demon.”

They looked at the broken thing. “Oh, come on now,” Jake said, disagreeing mostly out of habit. “It’s not like . . .” He made an inarticulate gesture. “It can’t just . . .”

Everyone knew what he was thinking. Certainly there were demons in the world. But they were like Tehlu’s angels. They were like heroes and kings. They belonged in stories. They belonged out there. Taborlin the Great called up fire and lightning to destroy demons. Tehlu broke them in his hands and sent them howling into the nameless void. Your childhood friend didn’t stomp one to death on the road to Baedn-Bryt. It was ridiculous.

Kote ran his hand through his red hair, then broke the silence. “There’s one way to tell for sure,” he said, reaching into his pocket. “Iron or fire.” He brought out a bulging leather purse.

“And the name of God,” Graham pointed out. “Demons fear three things: cold iron, clean fire, and the holy name of God.”

The innkeeper’s mouth pressed itself into a straight line that was not quite a frown. “Of course,” he said as he emptied his purse onto the table then fingered through the jumbled coins: heavy silver talents and thin silver bits, copper jots, broken ha’pennies, and iron drabs. “Does anyone have a shim?”

“Just use a drab,” Jake said. “That’s good iron.”

“I don’t want good iron,” the innkeeper said. “A drab has too much carbon in it. It’s almost steel.”

“He’s right,” the smith’s prentice said. “Except it’s not carbon. You use coke to make steel. Coke and lime.”

The innkeeper nodded deferentially to the boy. “You’d know best, young master. It’s your business after all.” His long fingers finally found a shim in the pile of coins. He held it up. “Here we are.”

“What will it do?” Jake asked.

“Iron kills demons,” Cob’s voice was uncertain, “but this one’s already dead. It might not do anything.”

“One way to find out.” The innkeeper met each of their eyes briefly, as if measuring them. Then he turned purposefully back to the table, and they edged farther away.

Kote pressed the iron shim to the black side of the creature, and there was a short, sharp crackling sound, like a pine log snapping in a hot fire. Everyone startled, then relaxed when the black thing remained motionless. Cob and the others exchanged shaky smiles, like boys spooked by a ghost story. Their smiles went sour as the room filled with the sweet, acrid smell of rotting flowers and burning hair.

The innkeeper pressed the shim onto the table with a sharp click. “Well,” he said, brushing his hands against his apron. “I guess that settles that. What do we do now?”

Hours later, the innkeeper stood in the doorway of the Waystone and let his eyes relax to the darkness. Footprints of lamplight from the inn’s windows fell across the dirt road and the doors of the smithy across the way. It was not a large road, or well traveled. It didn’t seem to lead anywhere, as some roads do. The innkeeper drew a deep breath of autumn air and looked around restlessly, as if waiting for something to happen.

He called himself Kote. He had chosen the name carefully when he came to this place. He had taken a new name for most of the usual reasons, and for a few unusual ones as well, not the least of which was the fact that names were important to him.

Looking up, he saw a thousand stars glittering in the deep velvet of a night with no moon. He knew them all, their stories and their names. He knew them in a familiar way, the way he knew his own hands.

Looking down, Kote sighed without knowing it and went back inside. He locked the door and shuttered the wide windows of the inn, as if to distance himself from the stars and all their varied names.

He swept the floor methodically, catching all the corners. He washed the tables and the bar, moving with a patient efficiency. At the end of an hour’s work, the water in his bucket was still clean enough for a lady to wash her hands in.

Finally, he pulled a stool behind the bar and began to polish the vast array of bottles nestled between the two huge barrels. He wasn’t nearly as crisp and efficient about this chore as he had been with the others, and it soon became obvious the polishing was only an excuse to touch and hold. He even hummed a little, although he did not realize it, and would have stopped himself if he had known.

As he turned the bottles in his long, graceful hands the familiar motion eased a few tired lines from his face, making him seem younger, certainly not yet thirty. Not even near thirty. Young for an innkeeper. Young for a man with so many tired lines remaining on his face.

Kote came to the top of the stairs and opened the door. His room was austere, almost monkish. There was a black stone fireplace in the center of the room, a pair of chairs, and a small desk. The only other furniture was a narrow bed with a large, dark chest at its foot. Nothing decorated the walls or covered the wooden floor.

There were footsteps in the hall, and a young man stepped into the room carrying a bowl of stew that steamed and smelled of pepper. He was dark and charming, with a quick smile and cunning eyes. “You haven’t been this late in weeks,” he said as he handed over the bowl. “There must have been good stories tonight, Reshi.”

Reshi was another of the innkeeper’s names, a nickname almost. The sound of it tugged one corner of his mouth into a wry smile as he sank into the deep chair in front of the fire. “So, what did you learn today, Bast?”

“Today, master, I learned why great lovers have better eyesight than great scholars.”

“And why is that, Bast?” Kote asked, amusement touching the edges of his voice.

Bast closed the door and returned to sit in the second chair, turning it to face his teacher and the fire. He moved with a strange delicacy and grace, as if he were close to dancing. “Well, Reshi, all the rich books are found inside where the light is bad. But lovely girls tend to be out in the sunshine and therefore much easier to study without risk of injuring one’s eyes.”

Kote nodded. “But an exceptionally clever student could take a book outside, thus bettering himself without fear of lessening his much-loved faculty of sight.”

“I thought the same thing, Reshi. Being, of course, an exceptionally clever student.”

“Of course.”

“But when I found a place in the sun where I could read, a beautiful girl came along and kept me from doing anything of the sort,” Bast finished with a flourish.

Kote sighed. “Am I correct in assuming you didn’t manage to read any of Celum Tinture today?”

Bast managed to look somewhat ashamed.

Looking into the fire, Kote tried to assume a stern face and failed. “Ah Bast, I hope she was lovely as a warm wind in the shade. I’m a bad teacher to say it, but I’m glad. I don’t feel up to a long bout of lessons right now.” There was a moment of silence. “Carter was attacked by a scraeling tonight.”

Bast’s easy smile fell away like a cracked mask, leaving his face stricken and pale. “The scrael?” He came halfway to his feet as if he would bolt from the room, then gave an embarrassed frown and forced himself back down into his chair. “How do you know? Who found his body?”

“He’s still alive, Bast. He brought it back. There was only one.”

“There’s no such thing as one scraeling,” Bast said flatly. “You know that.”

“I know,” Kote said. “The fact remains there was only one.”

“And he killed it?” Bast said. “It couldn’t have been a scraeling. Maybe—”

“Bast, it was one of the scrael. I saw it.” Kote gave him a serious look. “He was lucky, that’s all. Even so he was badly hurt. Forty-eight stitches. I used up nearly all my gut.” Kote picked up his bowl of stew. “If anyone asks, tell them my grandfather was a caravan guard who taught me how to clean and stitch a wound. They were too shocked to ask about it tonight, but tomorrow some of them might get curious. I don’t want that.” He blew into his bowl, raising a cloud of steam around his face.

“What did you do with the body?”

“I didn’t do anything with it,” Kote said pointedly. “I am just an innkeeper. This sort of thing is quite beyond me.”

“Reshi, you can’t just let them muddle through this on their own.”

Kote sighed. “They took it to the priest. He did all the right things for all the wrong reasons.”

Bast opened his mouth, but Kote continued before he could say anything. “Yes, I made sure the pit was deep enough. Yes, I made sure there was rowan wood in the fire. Yes, I made sure it burned long and hot before they buried it. And yes, I made sure that no one kept a piece of it as a souvenir.” He scowled, his eyebrows drawing together. “I’m not an idiot, you know.”

Bast visibly relaxed, settling back into his chair. “I know you’re not, Reshi. But I wouldn’t trust half these people to piss leeward without help.” He looked thoughtful for a moment. “I can’t imagine why there was only one.”

“Maybe they died coming over the mountains,” Kote suggested. “All but this one.”

“It’s possible,” Bast admitted reluctantly.

“Maybe it was that storm from a couple days back,” Kote pointed out. “A real wagon-tipper, as we used to say back in the troupe. All the wind and rain might have scattered one loose from the pack.”

“I like your first idea better, Reshi,” Bast said uncomfortably. “Three or four scrael would go through this town like . . . like . . .”

“Like a hot knife through butter?”

“More like several hot knives through several dozen farmers,” Bast said dryly. “These people can’t defend themselves. I bet there aren’t six swords in this whole town. Not that swords would do much good against the scrael.”

There was a long moment of thoughtful silence. After a moment Bast began to fidget. “Any news?”

Kote shook his head. “They didn’t get to the news tonight. Carter disrupted things while they were still telling stories. That’s something, I suppose. They’ll be back tomorrow night. It’ll give me something to do.”

Kote poked his spoon idly into the stew. “I should have bought the scrael from Carter,” he mused. “He could’ve used the money for a new horse. People would have come from all over to see it. We could have had some business for a change.”

Bast gave him a speechless, horrified look.

Kote made a pacifying gesture with the hand that held the spoon. “I’m joking, Bast.” He gave a weak smile. “Still, it would have been nice.”

“No Reshi, it most certainly would not have been nice,” Bast said emphatically. “ ‘People would have come from all over to see it,’ ” he repeated derisively. “Indeed.”

“The business would have been nice,” Kote clarified. “Busy-ness would be nice.” He jabbed his spoon into the stew again. “Anything would be nice.”

They sat for a long moment, Kote scowling down into the bowl of stew in his hands, his eyes far away. “It must be awful for you here, Bast,” he said at last. “You must be numb with boredom.”

Bast shrugged. “There are a few young wives in town. A scattering of daughters.” He grinned like a child. “I tend to make my own fun.”

“That’s good, Bast.” There was another silence. Kote took another spoonful, chewed, swallowed. “They thought it was a demon, you know.”

Bast shrugged. “It might as well be, Reshi. It’s probably the best thing for them to think.”

“I know. I encouraged them, in fact. But you know what that means.” He met Bast’s eyes. “The blacksmith is going to be doing a brisk business in the next couple days.”

Bast’s expression went carefully blank. “Oh.”

Kote nodded. “I won’t blame you if you want to leave, Bast. You have better places to be than this.”

Bast’s expression was shocked. “I couldn’t leave, Reshi.” He opened and closed his mouth a few times, at a loss for words. “Who else would teach me?”

Kote grinned, and for a moment his face showed how truly young he was. Behind the weary lines and the placid innkeeper’s expression he looked no older than his dark-haired companion. “Who indeed?” He gestured toward the door with his spoon. “Go do your reading then, or bother someone’s daughter. I’m sure you have better things to do than watch me eat.”

“Actually . . .”

“Begone demon!” Kote said, switching to a thickly accented Temic through half a mouthful of stew. “Tehus antausa eha!

Bast burst into startled laughter and made an obscene gesture with one hand.

Kote swallowed and changed languages. “Aroi te denna-leyan!

“Oh come now,” Bast reproached, his smile falling away. “That’s just insulting.”

“By earth and stone, I abjure you!” Kote dipped his fingers into the cup by his side and flicked droplets casually in Bast’s direction. “Glamour be banished!”

“With cider?” Bast managed to look amused and annoyed at the same time as he daubed a bead of liquid from the front of his shirt. “This better not stain.”

Kote took another bite of his dinner. “Go soak it. If the situation becomes desperate, I recommend you avail yourself of the numerous solvent formulae extant in Celum Tinture. Chapter thirteen, I believe.”

“Fine.” Bast stood and walked to the door, stepping with his strange, casual grace. “Call if you need anything.” He closed the door behind himself.

Kote ate slowly, mopping up the last of the stew with a piece of bread. He looked out the window as he ate, or tried to, as the lamplight turned its surface mirrorlike against the dark behind it.

His eyes wandered the room restlessly. The fireplace was made of the same black rock as the one downstairs. It stood in the center of the room, a minor feat of engineering of which Kote was rather proud. The bed was small, little more than a cot, and if you were to touch it you would find the mattress almost nonexistent.

A skilled observer might notice there was something his gaze avoided. The same way you avoid meeting the eye of an old lover at a formal dinner, or that of an old enemy sitting across the room in a crowded alehouse late at night.

Kote tried to relax, failed, fidgeted, sighed, shifted in his seat, and without willing it his eyes fell on the chest at the foot of the bed.

It was made of roah, a rare, heavy wood, dark as coal and smooth as polished glass. Prized by perfumers and alchemists, a piece the size of your thumb was easily worth gold. To have a chest made of it went far beyond extravagance.

The chest was sealed three times. It had a lock of iron, a lock of copper, and a lock that could not be seen. Tonight the wood filled the room with the almost imperceptible aroma of citrus and quenching iron.

When Kote’s eyes fell on the chest they did not dart quickly away. They did not slide slyly to the side as if he would pretend it wasn’t there at all. But in a moment of looking, his face regained all the lines the simple pleasures of the day had slowly smoothed away. The comfort of his bottles and books was erased in a second, leaving nothing behind his eyes but emptiness and ache. For a moment fierce longing and regret warred across his face.

Then they were gone, replaced by the weary face of an innkeeper, a man who called himself Kote. He sighed again without knowing it and pushed himself to his feet.

It was a long time before he walked past the chest to bed. Once in bed, it was a long time before he slept.

As Kote had guessed, they came back to the Waystone the next night for dinner and drinks. There were a few half-hearted attempts at stories, but they died out quickly. No one was really in the mood.

So it was still early in the evening when the discussion turned to matters of greater import. They chewed over the rumors that had come into town, most of them troubling. The Penitent King was having a difficult time with the rebels in Resavek. This caused some concern, but only in a general way. Resavek was a long way off, and even Cob, the most worldly of them, would be hard pressed to find it on a map.

They discussed the war in their own terms. Cob predicted a third levy tax after the harvests were in. No one argued, though there hadn’t been a three-bleeder year in living memory.

Jake guessed the harvest would be good enough so the third levy wouldn’t break most families. Except the Bentleys, who were on hard times anyway. And the Orissons, whose sheep kept disappearing. And Crazy Martin, who had planted all barley this year. Every farmer with half a brain had planted beans. That was one good thing about all the fighting—soldiers ate beans, and prices would be high.

After a few more drinks, deeper concerns were voiced. Deserter soldiers and other opportunists were thick on the roads, making even short trips risky. The roads were always bad, of course, in the same way that winter was always cold. You complained, took sensible precautions, and got on with the business of living your life.

But this was different. Over the last two months the roads had become so bad that people had stopped complaining. The last caravan had two wagons and four guards. The merchant had been asking ten pennies for half a pound of salt, fifteen for a loaf of sugar. He didn’t have any pepper, or cinnamon, or chocolate. He did have one small sack of coffee, but he wanted two silver talents for that. At first people had laughed at his prices. Then, when he held firm, folk had spat and cursed at him.

That had been two span ago: twenty-two days. There had not been another serious trader since, even though this was the season for it. So despite the third levy tax looming large in everyone’s minds, people were looking in their purses and wishing they’d bought a little something, just in case the snow came early.

No one spoke of the previous night, of the thing they had burned and buried. Other folk were talking, of course. The town was alive with gossip. Carter’s wounds ensured that the stories were taken half seriously, but not much more than half. The word “demon” was being spoken, but it was with smiles half-hidden behind raised hands.

Only the six friends had seen the thing before it was burned. One of them had been wounded and the others had been drinking. The priest had seen it too, but it was his job to see demons. Demons were good for his business.

The innkeeper had seen it too, apparently. But he wasn’t from around here. He couldn’t know the truth that was so apparent to everyone born and raised in this little town: stories were told here, but they happened somewhere else. This was not a place for demons.

Besides, things were bad enough without borrowing trouble. Cob and the rest knew there was no sense talking about it. Trying to convince folk would only make them a laughingstock, like Crazy Martin, who had been trying to dig a well inside his own house for years now.

Still, each of them bought a piece of cold-wrought iron from the smith, heavy as they could swing, and none of them said what they were thinking. Instead they complained that the roads were bad and getting worse. They talked about merchants, and deserters, and levies, and not enough salt to last the winter. They reminisced that three years ago no one would have even thought of locking their doors at night, let alone barring them.

The conversation took a downward turn from there, and even though none of them said what they were thinking, the evening ended on a grim note. Most evenings did these days, times being what they were.

CHAPTER TWO

A Beautiful Day

It was one of those perfect autumn days so common in stories and so rare in the real world. The weather was warm and dry, ideal for ripening a field of wheat or corn. On both sides of the road the trees were changing color. Tall poplars had gone a buttery yellow while the shrubby sumac encroaching on the road was tinged a violent red. Only the old oaks seemed reluctant to give up the summer, and their leaves remained an even mingling of gold and green.

Everything said, you couldn’t hope for a nicer day to have a half dozen ex-soldiers with hunting bows relieve you of everything you owned.

“She’s not much of a horse, sir,” Chronicler said. “One small step above a dray, and when it rains she—”

The man cut him off with a sharp gesture. “Listen friend, the king’s army is paying good money for anything with four legs and at least one eye. If you were stark mad and riding a hobbyhorse down the road, I’d still take it off you.”

Their leader had an air of command about him. Chronicler guessed he had been a low ranking officer not long ago. “Just hop down,” he said seriously. “We’ll get this done with and you can be on your way.”

Chronicler climbed down from his horse. He had been robbed before and knew when there was nothing to be gained by discussion. These fellows knew their business. No energy was wasted on bravado or idle threats. One of them looked over the horse, checking hooves, teeth, and harness. Two others went through his saddlebags with a military efficiency, laying all his worldly possessions out on the ground. Two blankets, a hooded cloak, the flat leather satchel, and his heavy, well-stocked travelsack.

“That’s all of it, Commander,” one of the men said. “Except for about twenty pounds of oats.”

The commander knelt down and opened the flat leather satchel, peering inside.

“There’s nothing but paper and pens in there,” Chronicler said.

The commander turned to look backward over his shoulder. “You a scribe then?”

Chronicler nodded. “It’s my livelihood, sir. And no real use to you.”

The man looked through the satchel, found it to be true, and set it aside. Then he upended the travelsack onto Chronicler’s spread cloak and poked idly through the contents.

He took most of Chronicler’s salt and a pair of bootlaces. Then, much to the scribe’s dismay, he picked up the shirt Chronicler had bought back in Linwood. It was fine linen dyed a deep, royal blue, too nice for traveling. Chronicler hadn’t even had the chance to wear it yet. He sighed.

The commander left everything else lying on the cloak and got to his feet. The others took turns going through Chronicler’s things.

The commander spoke up, “You only have one blanket, don’t you Janns?” One of the men nodded. “Take one of his then, you’ll need a second before winter’s through.”

“His cloak is in better shape than mine, sir.”

“Take it, but leave yours. The same for you, Witkins. Leave your old tinderbox if you’re taking his.”

“I lost mine, sir,” Witkins said. “Else I would.”

The whole process was surprisingly civilized. Chronicler lost all of his needles but one, both extra pairs of socks, a bundle of dried fruit, a loaf of sugar, half a bottle of alcohol, and a pair of ivory dice. They left him the rest of his clothes, his dried meat, and a half-eaten loaf of incredibly stale rye bread. His flat leather satchel remained untouched.

While the men repacked his travelsack, the commander turned to Chronicler. “Let’s have the purse then.”

Chronicler handed it over.

“And the ring.”

“There’s hardly any silver in it,” Chronicler mumbled as he unscrewed it from his finger.

“What’s that around your neck?”

Chronicler unbuttoned his shirt, revealing a dull ring of metal hanging from a leather cord. “Just iron, sir.”

The commander came close and rubbed it between his fingers before letting it fall back against Chronicler’s chest. “Keep it then. I’m not one to come between a man and his religion,” he said, then emptied the purse into one hand, making a pleasantly surprised noise as he prodded through the coins with his finger. “Scribing pays better than I thought,” he said as he began to count out shares to his men.

“I don’t suppose you could spare me a penny or two out of that?” Chronicler asked. “Just enough for a couple of hot meals?”

The six men turned to look at Chronicler, as if they couldn’t quite believe what they had heard.

The commander laughed. “God’s body, you certainly have a heavy pair, don’t you?” There was a grudging respect in his voice.

“You seem a reasonable fellow,” Chronicler said with a shrug. “And a man’s got to eat.”

Their leader smiled for the first time. “A sentiment I can agree with.” He took out two pennies and brandished them before putting them back into Chronicler’s purse. “Here’s a pair for your pair, then.” He tossed Chronicler the purse and stuffed the beautiful royal-blue shirt into his saddlebag.

“Thank you, sir,” Chronicler said. “You might want to know that that bottle one of your men took is wood alcohol I use for cleaning my pens. It’ll go badly if he drinks it.”

The commander smiled and nodded. “You see what comes of treating people well?” he said to his men as he pulled himself up onto his horse. “It’s been a pleasure, sir scribe. If you get on your way now, you can still make Abbott’s Ford by dark.”

When Chronicler could no longer hear their hoofbeats in the distance, he repacked his travelsack, making sure everything was well stowed. Then he tugged off one of his boots, stripped out the lining, and removed a tightly wrapped bundle of coins stuffed deep into the toe. He moved some of these into his purse, then unfastened his pants, produced another bundle of coins from underneath several layers of clothes, and moved some of that money into his purse as well.

The key was to keep the proper amount in your purse. Too little and they would be disappointed and prone to look for more. Too much and they would be excited and might get greedy.

There was a third bundle of coins baked into the stale loaf of bread that only the most desperate of criminals would be interested in. He left that alone for now, as well as the whole silver talent he had hidden in ajar of ink.

Over the years he had come to think of the last as more of a luck piece. No one had ever found that.

He had to admit, it was probably the most civil robbery he’d ever been through. They had been genteel, efficient, and not terribly savvy. Losing the horse and saddle was hard, but he could buy another in Abbott’s Ford and still have enough money to live comfortably until he finished this foolishness and met up with Skarpi in Treya.

Feeling an urgent call of nature, Chronicler pushed his way through the bloodred sumac at the side of the road. As he was rebuttoning his pants, there was sudden motion in the underbrush as a dark shape thrashed its way free of some nearby bushes.

Chronicler staggered back, crying out in alarm before he realized it was nothing more than a crow beating its wings into flight. Chuckling at his own foolishness, he straightened his clothes and made his way back to the road through the sumac, brushing away invisible strands of spiderweb that clung tickling to his face.

As he shouldered his travelsack and satchel, Chronicler found himself feeling remarkably lighthearted. The worst had happened, and it hadn’t been that bad. A breeze tussled through the trees, sending poplar leaves spinning like golden coins down onto the rutted dirt road. It was a beautiful day.

CHAPTER THREE

Wood and Word

Kote was leafing idly through a book, trying to ignore the silence of the empty inn when the door opened and Graham backed into the room.

“Just got done with it.” Graham maneuvered through the maze of tables with exaggerated care. “I was gonna bring it in last night, but then I thought ‘one last coat of oil, rub it, and let dry.’ Can’t say I’m sorry I did. Lord and lady, it’s beautiful as anything these hands have ever made.”

A small line formed between the innkeeper’s eyebrows. Then, seeing the flat bundle in the man’s arms, he brightened. “Ahhh! The mounting board!” Kote smiled tiredly. “I’m sorry, Graham. It’s been so long. I’d almost forgotten.”

Graham gave him a bit of a strange look. “Four month ain’t long for wood all the way from Aryen, not with the roads being as bad as they are.”

“Four months,” Kote echoed. He saw Graham watching him and hurried to add, “That can be a lifetime if you’re waiting for something.” He tried to smile reassuringly, but it came out sickly.

In fact, Kote himself seemed rather sickly. Not exactly unhealthy, but hollow. Wan. Like a plant that’s been moved into the wrong sort of soil and, lacking something vital, has begun to wilt.

Graham noted the difference. The innkeeper’s gestures weren’t as extravagant. His voice wasn’t as deep. Even his eyes weren’t as bright as they had been a month ago. Their color seemed duller. They were less sea-foam, less green-grass than they had been. Now they were like riverweed, like the bottom of a green glass bottle. And his hair had been bright before, the color of flame. Now it seemed—red. Just red-hair color, really.

Kote drew back the cloth and looked underneath. The wood was a dark charcoal color with a black grain, heavy as a sheet of iron. Three dark pegs were set above a word chiseled into the wood.

Folly,” Graham read. “Odd name for a sword.”

Kote nodded, his face carefully blank. “How much do I owe you?” he asked quietly.

Graham thought for a moment. “After what ye’ve given me to cover the cost of the wood . . .” There was a cunning glimmer in the man’s eye. “Around one and three.”

Kote handed over two talents. “Keep the rest. It’s difficult wood to work with.”

“That it is,” Graham said with some satisfaction. “Like stone under the saw. Try a chisel, like iron. Then, after all the shouting was done, I couldn’t char it.”

“I noticed that,” Kote said with a flicker of curiosity, running a finger along the darker groove the letters made in the wood. “How did you manage it?”

“Well,” Graham said smugly, “after wasting half a day, I took it over to the smithy. Me and the boy managed to sear it with a hot iron. Took us better than two hours to get it black. Not a wisp of smoke, but it made a stink like old leather and clover. Damnedest thing. What sort of wood don’t burn?”

Graham waited a minute, but the innkeeper gave no signs of having heard. “Where would’e like me to hang it then?”

Kote roused himself enough to look around the room. “You can leave that to me, I think. I haven’t quite decided where to put it.”

Graham left a handful of iron nails and bid the innkeeper good day. Kote remained at the bar, idly running his hands over the wood and the word. Before too long Bast came out of the kitchen and looked over his teacher’s shoulder.

There was a long moment of silence like a tribute given to the dead.

Eventually, Bast spoke up. “May I ask a question, Reshi?”

Kote smiled gently. “Always, Bast.”

“A troublesome question?”

“Those tend to be the only worthwhile kind.”

They remained staring at the object on the bar for another silent moment, as if trying to commit it to memory. Folly.

Bast struggled for a moment, opening his mouth, then closing it with a frustrated look, then repeating the process.

“Out with it,” Kote said finally.

“What were you thinking?” Bast said with an odd mixture of confusion and concern.

Kote was a long while in answering. “I tend to think too much, Bast. My greatest successes came from decisions I made when I stopped thinking and simply did what felt right. Even if there was no good explanation for what I did.” He smiled wistfully. “Even if there were very good reasons for me not to do what I did.”

Bast ran a hand along the side of his face. “So you’re trying to avoid second-guessing yourself?”

Kote hesitated. “You could say that,” he admitted.

“I could say that, Reshi,” Bast said smugly. “You, on the other hand, would complicate things needlessly.”

Kote shrugged and turned his eyes back to the mounting board. “Nothing to do but find a place for it, I suppose.”

“Out here?” Bast’s expression was horrified.

Kote grinned wickedly, a measure of vitality coming back into his face. “Of course,” he said, seeming to savor Bast’s reaction. He looked speculatively at the walls and pursed his lips. “Where did you put it, anyway?”

“In my room,” Bast admitted. “Under my bed.”

Kote nodded distractedly, still looking at the walls. “Go get it then.” He made a small shooing gesture with one hand, and Bast hurried off, looking unhappy.

The bar was decorated with glittering bottles, and Kote was standing on the now-vacant counter between the two heavy oak barrels when Bast came back into the room, black scabbard swinging loosely from one hand.

Kote paused in the act of setting the mounting board atop one of the barrels and cried out in dismay, “Careful, Bast! You’re carrying a lady there, not swinging some wench at a barn dance.”

Bast stopped in his tracks and dutifully gathered it up in both hands before walking the rest of the way to the bar.

Kote pounded a pair of nails into the wall, twisted some wire, and hung the mounting board firmly on the wall. “Hand it up, would you?” he asked with an odd catch in his voice.

Using both hands, Bast held it up to him, looking for a moment like a squire offering up a sword to some bright-armored knight. But there was no knight there, just an innkeeper, just a man in an apron who called himself Kote. He took the sword from Bast and stood upright on the counter behind the bar.

He drew the sword without a flourish. It shone a dull grey-white in the room’s autumn light. It had the appearance of a new sword. It was not notched or rusted. There were no bright scratches skittering along its dull grey side. But though it was unmarred, it was old. And while it was obviously a sword, it was not a familiar shape. At least no one in this town would have found it familiar. It looked as if an alchemist had distilled a dozen swords, and when the crucible had cooled this was lying in the bottom: a sword in its pure form. It was slender and graceful. It was deadly as a sharp stone beneath swift water.

Kote held it a moment. His hand did not shake.

Then he set the sword on the mounting board. Its grey-white metal shone against the dark roah behind it. While the handle could be seen, it was dark enough to be almost indistinguishable from the wood. The word beneath it, black against blackness, seemed to reproach: Folly.

Kote climbed down, and for a moment he and Bast stood side by side, silently looking up.

Bast broke the silence. “It is rather striking,” he said, as if he regretted the truth. “But . . .” He trailed off, trying to find appropriate words. He shuddered.

Kote clapped him on the back, oddly cheerful. “Don’t bother being disturbed on my account.” He seemed more lively now, as if his activity lent him energy. “I like it,” he said with sudden conviction, and hung the black scabbard from one of the mounting board’s pegs.

Then there were things to be done. Bottles to be polished and put back in place. Lunch to be made. Lunch clutter to be cleaned. Things were cheerful for a while in a pleasant, bustling way. The two talked of small matters as they worked. And while they moved around a great deal, it was obvious they were reluctant to finish whatever task they were close to completing, as if they both dreaded the moment when the work would end and the silence would fill the room again.

Then something odd happened. The door opened and noise poured into the Waystone like a gentle wave. People bustled in, talking and dropping bundles of belongings. They chose tables and threw their coats over the backs of chairs. One man, wearing a shirt of heavy metal rings, unbuckled a sword and leaned it against a wall. Two or three wore knives on their belts. Four or five called for drinks.

Kote and Bast watched for a moment, then moved smoothly into action. Kote smiled and began pouring drinks. Bast darted outside to see if there were horses that needed stabling.

In ten minutes the inn was a different place. Coins rang on the bar. Cheese and fruit were set on platters and a large copper pot was hung to simmer in the kitchen. Men moved tables and chairs about to better suit their group of nearly a dozen people.

Kote identified them as they came in. Two men and two women, wagoneers, rough from years of being outside and smiling to be spending a night out of the wind. Three guards with hard eyes, smelling of iron. A tinker with a potbelly and a ready smile showing his few remaining teeth. Two young men, one sandy-haired, one dark, well dressed and well-spoken: travelers sensible enough to hook up with a larger group for protection on the road.

The settling-in period lasted an hour or two. Prices of rooms were dickered over. Friendly arguments started about who slept with whom. Minor necessities were brought in from wagons or saddlebags. Baths were requested and water heated. Hay was taken to the horses, and Kote topped off the oil in all the lamps.

The tinker hurried outside to make use of the remaining daylight. He walked his two-wheel mule cart through the town’s streets. Children crowded around, begging for candy and stories and shims.

When it became apparent that nothing was going to be handed out, most of them lost interest. They formed a circle with a boy in the middle and started to clap, keeping the beat with a children’s song that had been ages old when their grandparents had chanted it:

“When the hearthfire turns to blue,
What to do? What to do?
Run outside. Run and hide.”

Laughing, the boy in the middle tried to break out of the circle while the other children pushed him back.

“Tinker,” the old man’s voice rang out like a bell. “Pot mender. Knife grinder. Willow-wand water-finder. Cut cork. Motherleaf. Silk scarves off the city streets. Writing paper. Sweetmeats.”

This drew the attention of the children. They flocked back to him, making a small parade as he walked down the street, singing, “Belt leather. Black pepper. Fine lace and bright feather. Tinker in town tonight, gone tomorrow. Working through the evening light. Come wife. Come daughter, I’ve small cloth and rose water.” After a couple of minutes he settled outside the Waystone, set up his sharpening wheel and began to grind a knife.

As the adults began to gather around the old man, the children returned to their game. A girl in the center of the circle put one hand over her eyes and tried to catch the other children as they ran away, clapping and chanting:

“When his eyes are black as crow?
Where to go? Where to go?
Near and far. Here they are.”

The tinker dealt with everyone in turn, sometimes two or three at a time. He traded sharp knives for dull ones and a small coin. He sold shears and needles, copper pots and small bottles that wives hid quickly after buying them. He traded buttons and bags of cinnamon and salt. Limes from Tinuë, chocolate from Tarbean, polished horn from Aerueh. . . .

All the while the children continued to sing:

“See a man without a face?
Move like ghosts from place to place.
What’s their plan? What’s their plan?
Chandrian. Chandrian.”

Kote guessed the travelers had been together a month or so, long enough to become comfortable with each other, but not long enough to be squabbling over small things. They smelled of road dust and horses. He breathed it in like perfume.

Best of all was the noise. Leather creaking. Men laughing. The fire cracked and spat. The women flirted. Someone even knocked over a chair. For the first time in a long while there was no silence in the Waystone Inn. Or if there was, it was too faint to be noticed, or too well hidden.

Kote was in the middle of it all, always moving, like a man tending a large, complex machine. Ready with a drink just as a person called for it, he talked and listened in the right amounts. He laughed at jokes, shook hands, smiled, and whisked coins off the bar as if he truly needed the money.

Then, when the time for songs came and everyone had sung their favorites and still wanted more, Kote led them from behind the bar, clapping to keep a beat. With the fire shining in his hair, he sang “Tinker Tanner,” more verses than anyone had heard before, and no one minded in the least.

Hours later, the common room had a warm, jovial feel to it. Kote was kneeling on the hearth, building up the fire, when someone spoke behind him.

“Kvothe?”

The innkeeper turned, wearing a slightly confused smile. “Sir?”

It was one of the well-dressed travelers. He swayed a little. “You’re Kvothe.”

“Kote, sir,” Kote replied in an indulgent tone that mothers use on children and innkeepers use on drunks.

“Kvothe the Bloodless.” The man pressed ahead with the dogged persistence of the inebriated. “You looked familiar, but I couldn’t finger it.” He smiled proudly and tapped a finger to his nose. “Then I heard you sing, and I knew it was you. I heard you in Imre once. Cried my eyes out afterward. I never heard anything like that before or since. Broke my heart.”

The young man’s sentences grew jumbled as he continued, but his face remained earnest. “I knew it couldn’t be you. But I thought it was. Even though. But who else has your hair?” He shook his head, trying unsuccessfully to clear it. “I saw the place in Imre where you killed him. By the fountain. The cobblestones are all shathered.” He frowned and concentrated on the word. “Shattered. They say no one can mend them.”

The sandy-haired man paused again. Squinting for focus, he seemed surprised by the innkeeper’s reaction.

The red-haired man was grinning. “Are you saying I look like Kvothe? The Kvothe? I’ve always thought so myself. I have an engraving of him in back. My assistant teases me for it. Would you tell him what you just told me?”

Kote threw a final log onto the fire and stood. But as he stepped from the hearth, one of his legs twisted underneath him and he fell heavily to the floor, knocking over a chair.

Several of the travelers hurried over, but the innkeeper was already on his feet, waving people back to their seats. “No, no. I’m fine. Sorry to startle anyone.” In spite of his grin it was obvious he’d hurt himself. His face was tight with pain, and he leaned heavily on a chair for support.

“Took an arrow in the knee on my way through the Eld three summers ago. It gives out every now and then.” He grimaced and said wistfully, “It’s what made me give up the good life on the road.” He reached down to touch his oddly bent leg tenderly.

One of the mercenaries spoke up. “I’d put a poultice on that, or it’ll swell terrible.”

Kote touched it again and nodded. “I think you are wise, sir.” He turned to the sandy-haired man who stood swaying slightly by the fireplace, “Could you do me a favor, son?”

The man nodded dumbly.

“Just close the flue.” Kote gestured toward the fireplace. “Bast, will you help me upstairs?”

Bast hurried over and drew Kote’s arm around his shoulders. Kote leaned on him with every other step as they made their way through the doorway and up the stairs.

“Arrow in the leg?” Bast asked under his breath. “Are you really that embarrassed from taking a little fall?”

“Thank God you’re as gullible as they are,” Kote said sharply as soon as they were out of sight. He began to curse under his breath as he climbed a few more steps, his knee obviously uninjured.

Bast’s eyes widened, then narrowed.

Kote stopped at the top of the steps and rubbed his eyes. “One of them knows who I am.” Kote frowned. “Suspects.”

“Which one?” Bast asked with a mix of apprehension and anger.

“Green shirt, sandy hair. The one nearest to me by the fireplace. Give him something to make him sleep. He’s already been drinking. No one will think twice if he happens to pass out.”

Bast thought briefly. “Nighmane?”

“Mhenka.”

Bast raised an eyebrow, but nodded.

Kote straightened. “Listen three times, Bast.”

Bast blinked once and nodded.

Kote spoke crisply and cleanly. “I was a city-licensed escort from Ralien. Wounded while successfully defending a caravan. Arrow in right knee. Three years ago. Summer. A grateful Cealdish merchant gave me money to start an inn. His name is Deolan. We were traveling from Purvis. Mention it casually. Do you have it?”

“I hear you three times, Reshi,” Bast replied formally.

“Go.”

Half an hour later Bast brought a bowl to his master’s room, reassuring him that everything was well downstairs. Kote nodded and gave terse instructions that he not be disturbed for the rest of the night.

Closing the door behind himself, Bast’s expression was worried. He stood at the top of the stairs for some time, trying to think of something he could do.

It is hard to say what troubled Bast so much. Kote didn’t seem noticeably changed in any way. Except, perhaps, that he moved a little slower, and whatever small spark the night’s activity had lit behind his eyes was dimmer now. In fact, it could hardly be seen. In fact, it may not have been there at all.

Kote sat in front of the fire and ate his meal mechanically, as if he were simply finding a place inside himself to keep the food. After the last bite he sat staring into nothing, not remembering what he had eaten or what it tasted like.

The fire snapped, making him blink and look around the room. He looked down at his hands, one curled inside the other, resting in his lap. After a moment, he lifted and spread them, as if warming them by the fire. They were graceful, with long, delicate fingers. He watched them intently, as if expecting them to do something on their own. Then he lowered them to his lap, one hand lightly cupping the other, and returned to watching the fire. Expressionless, motionless, he sat until there was nothing left but grey ash and dully glowing coals.

As he was undressing for bed, the fire flared. The red light traced faint lines across his body, across his back and arms. All the scars were smooth and silver, streaking him like lightning, like lines of gentle remembering. The flare of flame revealed them all briefly, old wounds and new. All the scars were smooth and silver except one.

The fire flickered and died. Sleep met him like a lover in an empty bed.

The travelers left early the next morning. Bast tended to their needs, explaining his master’s knee was swollen quite badly and he didn’t feel up to taking the stairs so early in the day. Everyone understood except for the sandy-haired merchant’s son, who was too groggy to understand much of anything. The guards exchanged smiles and rolled their eyes while the tinker gave an impromptu sermon on the subject of temperance. Bast recommended several unpleasant hangover cures.

After they left, Bast tended to the inn, which was no great chore, as there were no customers. Most of his time was spent trying to find ways to amuse himself.

Some time after noon, Kote came down the stairs to find him crushing walnuts on the bar with a heavy leather-bound book. “Good morning, Reshi.”

“Good morning, Bast,” Kote said. “Any news?”

“The Orrison boy stopped by. Wanted to know if we needed any mutton.”

Kote nodded, almost as if he had been suspecting the news. “How much did you order?”

Bast made a face. “I hate mutton, Reshi. It tastes like wet mittens.”

Kote shrugged and made his way to the door. “I’ve got some errands to run. Keep an eye on things, will you?”

“I always do.”

Outside the Waystone Inn the air lay still and heavy on the empty dirt road that ran through the center of town. The sky was a featureless grey sheet of cloud that looked as if it wanted to rain but couldn’t quite work up the energy.

Kote walked across the street to the open front of the smithy. The smith wore his hair cropped short and his beard thick and bushy. As Kote watched, he carefully drove a pair of nails through a scythe blade’s collar, fixing it firmly onto a curved wooden handle. “Hello, Caleb.”

The smith leaned the scythe up against the wall. “What can I do for you, Master Kote?”

“Did the Orrison boy stop by your place too?” Caleb nodded. “They still losing sheep?” Kote asked.

“Actually, some of the lost ones finally turned up. Torn up awful, practically shredded.”

“Wolves?” Kote asked.

The smith shrugged. “It’s the wrong time of year, but what else would it be? A bear? I guess they’re just selling off what they can’t watch over properly, them being shorthanded and all.”

“Shorthanded?”

“Had to let their hired man go because of taxes, and their oldest son took the king’s coin early this summer. He’s off fighting the rebels in Menat now.”

“Meneras,” Kote corrected gently. “If you see their boy again, let him know I’d be willing to buy about three halves.”

“I’ll do that.” The smith gave the innkeeper a knowing look. “Is there anything else?”

“Well,” Kote looked away, suddenly self-conscious. “I was wondering if you have any rod-iron lying around,” he said, not meeting the smith’s eye. “It doesn’t have to be anything fancy mind you. Just plain old pig-iron would do nicely.”

Caleb chuckled. “I didn’t know if you were going to stop by at all. Old Cob and the rest came by day before yesterday.” He walked over to a workbench and lifted up a piece of canvas. “I made a couple extras just in case.”

Kote picked up a rod of iron about two feet long and swung it casually with one hand. “Clever man.”

“I know my business,” the smith said smugly. “You need anything else?”

“Actually,” Kote said as he settled the bar of iron comfortably against his shoulder, “There is one other thing. Do you have a spare apron and set of forge gloves?”

“Could have,” Caleb said hesitantly. “Why?”

“There’s an old bramble patch behind the inn.” Kote nodded in the direction of the Waystone. “I’m thinking of tearing it up so I can put in a garden next year. But I don’t fancy losing half my skin doing it.”

The smith nodded and gestured for Kote to follow him into the back of the shop. “I’ve got my old set,” he said as he dug out a pair of heavy gloves and a stiff leather apron; both were charred dark in places and stained with grease. “They’re not pretty, but they’ll keep the worst of it off you, I suppose.”

“What are they worth to you?” Kote asked, reaching for his purse.

The smith shook his head, “A jot would be a great plenty. They’re no good to me or the boy.”

The innkeeper handed over a coin and the smith stuffed them into an old burlap sack. “You sure you want to do it now?” the smith asked. “We haven’t had rain in a while. The ground’ll be softer after the spring thaw.”

Kote shrugged. “My granda always told me that fall’s the time to root up something you don’t want coming back to trouble you.” Kote mimicked the quaver of an old man’s voice. “ ‘Things are too full of life in the spring months. In the summer, they’re too strong and won’t let go. Autumn—’ ”

He looked around at the changing leaves on the trees. “ ‘Autumn’s the time. In autumn everything is tired and ready to die.’ ”

Later that afternoon Kote sent Bast to catch up on his sleep. Then he moved listlessly around the inn, doing small jobs left over from the night before. There were no customers. When evening finally came he lit the lamps and began to page disinterestedly through a book.

Fall was supposed to be the year’s busiest time, but travelers were scarce lately. Kote knew with bleak certainty how long winter would be.

He closed the inn early, something he had never done before. He didn’t bother sweeping. The floor didn’t need it. He didn’t wash the tables or the bar, none had been used. He polished a bottle or two, locked the door, and went to bed.

There was no one around to notice the difference. No one except Bast, who watched his master, and worried, and waited.

CHAPTER FOUR

Halfway to Newarre

Chronicler walked. Yesterday he had limped, but today there was no part of his feet that didn’t hurt, so limping did no good. He had searched for horses in Abbott’s Ford and Rannish, offering outrageous prices for even the most broken-down animals. But in small towns like these, people didn’t have horses to spare, especially not with harvest fast approaching.

Despite a hard day’s walking, he was still on the road when night fell, making the rutted dirt road a stumbling ground of half-seen shapes. After two hours of fumbling through the dark, Chronicler saw light flickering through the trees and abandoned any thought of making it to Newarre that night, deciding a farmstead’s hospitality would be welcome enough.

He left the road, blundering through the trees toward the light. But the fire was farther away than he had thought, and larger. It wasn’t lamplight from a house, or even sparks from a campfire. It was a bonfire roaring in the ruins of an old house, little more than two crumbling stone walls. Huddled into the corner those two walls made was a man. He wore a heavy hooded cloak, bundled up as if it were full winter and not a mild autumn evening.

Chronicler’s hopes rose at the sight of a small cook fire with a pot hanging over it. But as he came close, he caught a foul scent mingling with the woodsmoke. It reeked of burning hair and rotting flowers. Chronicler quickly decided that whatever the man was cooking in the iron pot, he wanted none of it. Still, even a place next to a fire was better than curling up by the side of the road.

Chronicler stepped into the circle of firelight. “I saw your f—” He stopped as the figure sprang quickly to its feet, a sword held with both hands.

No, not a sword, a long, dark cudgel of some sort, too regularly shaped to be a piece of firewood.

Chronicler stopped dead in his tracks. “I was just looking for a place to sleep,” he said quickly, his hand unconsciously clutching at the circle of iron that hung around his neck. “I don’t want any trouble. I’ll leave you to your dinner.” He took a step backward.

The figure relaxed, and the cudgel dropped to grate metallically against a stone. “Charred body of God, what are you doing out here at this time of night?”

“I was headed to Newarre and saw your fire.”

“You just followed a strange fire into the woods at night?” The hooded figure shook his head. “You might as well come here.” He motioned Chronicler closer, and the scribe saw he was wearing thick leather gloves. “Tehlu anyway, have you had bad luck your whole life, or have you been saving it all up for tonight?”

“I don’t know who you’re waiting for,” Chronicler said, taking a step backward. “But I’m sure you’d rather do it alone.”

“Shut up and listen,” the man said sharply. “I don’t know how much time we have.” He looked down and rubbed at his face. “God, I never know how much to tell you people. If you don’t believe me, you’ll think I’m crazy. If you do believe me, you’ll panic and be worse than useless.” Looking back up, he saw Chronicler hadn’t moved. “Get over here, damn you. If you go back out there you’re as good as dead.”

Chronicler glanced over his shoulder into the dark of the forest. “Why? What’s out there?”

The man gave a short, bitter laugh and shook his head in exasperation. “Honestly?” He ran his hand absentmindedly though his hair, brushing his hood back in the process. In the firelight his hair was impossibly red, his eyes a shocking, vibrant green. He looked at Chronicler, sizing him up. “Demons,” he said. “Demons in the shape of big, black spiders.”

Chronicler relaxed. “There’s no such thing as demons.” From his tone it was obvious he’d said the same thing many, many times before.

The red-haired man gave an incredulous laugh. “Well, I guess we can all go home then!” He flashed a manic grin at Chronicler. “Listen, I’m guessing you’re an educated man. I respect that, and for the most part, you’re right.” His expression went serious. “But here and now, tonight, you’re wrong. Wrong as wrong can be. You don’t want to be on that side of the fire when you figure that out.”

The flat certainty in the man’s voice sent a chill down Chronicler s back. Feeling more than slightly foolish, he stepped delicately around to the other side of the bonfire.

The man sized him up quickly. “I don’t suppose you have any weapons?” Chronicler shook his head. “It doesn’t really matter. A sword wouldn’t do you much good.” He handed Chronicler a heavy piece of firewood. “You probably won’t be able to hit one, but it’s worth a try. They’re fast. If one of them gets on you, just fall down. Try to land on it, crush it with your body. Roll on it. If you get hold of one, throw it into the fire.”

He drew the hood back over his head, speaking quickly. “If you have any extra clothes, put them on. If you have a blanket you could wrap—”

He stopped suddenly and looked out across the circle of firelight. “Get your back against the wall,” he said abruptly, bringing his iron cudgel up with both hands.

Chronicler looked past the bonfire. Something dark was moving in the trees.

They came into the light, moving low across the ground: black shapes, many-legged and large as cart wheels. One, quicker than the rest, rushed into the firelight without hesitating, moving with the disturbing, sinuous speed of a scuttling insect.

Before Chronicler could raise his piece of firewood, the thing skirted sideways around the bonfire and sprang at him, quick as a cricket. Chronicler threw up his hands just as the black thing struck his face and chest. Its cold, hard legs scrabbled for a hold and he felt bright stripes of pain across the backs of his arm. Staggering away, the scribe felt his heel snag on the rough ground, and he began to topple over backward, arms flailing wildly.

As he fell, Chronicler caught one last glimpse of the circle of firelight. More of the black things were scuttling out of the dark, their feet beating a quick staccato rhythm against roots and rocks and leaves. On the other side of the fire the man in the heavy cloak held his iron cudgel ready with both hands. He stood perfectly still, perfectly silent, waiting.

Still falling backward with the dark thing on top of him, Chronicler felt a dull, dark explosion as the back of his head struck the stone wall behind him. The world slowed, turned blurry, then black.

Chronicler opened his eyes to a confusing mass of dark shapes and firelight. His skull throbbed. There were several lines of bright, clear pain crossing the backs of his arms and a dull ache that pulled at his left side every time he drew in a breath.

After a long moment of concentration the world came into a blurry focus. The bundled man sat nearby. He was no longer wearing his gloves, and his heavy cloak hung off his body in loose tatters, but other than that he seemed unscathed. His hood was up, hiding his face.

“You’re awake?” the man asked curiously. “That’s good. You can never be sure with a head wound.” The hood tilted a bit. “Can you talk? Do you know where you are?”

“Yes,” Chronicler said thickly. It seemed to take far too much effort to make a single word.

“Even better. Now, third time pays for all. Do you think you can stand up and lend me a hand? We need to burn and bury the bodies.”

Chronicler moved his head a bit and felt suddenly dizzy and nauseous. “What happened?”

“I might have broken a couple of your ribs,” the man said. “One of them was all over you. I didn’t have a lot of options.” He shrugged. “I’m sorry, for whatever that’s worth. I’ve already stitched up the cuts on your arms. They should heal up nicely.”

“They’re gone?”

The hood nodded once. “The scrael don’t retreat. They’re like wasps from a hive. They keep attacking until they die.”

A horrified look spread over Chronicler’s face. “There’s a hive of these things?”

“Dear God, no. There were just these five. Still, we have to burn and bury them, just to be sure. I already cut the wood we’ll need: ash and rowan.”

Chronicler gave a laugh that sounded slightly hysterical. “Just like the children’s song:

“Let me tell you what to do.
Dig a pit that’s ten by two.
Ash and elm and rowan too—”

“Yes indeed,” the bundled man said dryly. “You’d be surprised at the sorts of things hidden away in children’s songs. But while I don’t think we need to dig the entire ten feet down, I wouldn’t refuse a little help. . . .” He trailed off meaningfully.

Chronicler moved one hand to feel the back of his head gingerly, then looked at his fingers, surprised that they weren’t covered in blood. “I think I’m fine,” he said as he cautiously levered himself up onto one elbow and from there into a sitting position. “Is there any—” His eyes flickered and he went limp, falling bonelessly backward. His head struck the ground, bounced once, and came to rest tilted slightly to one side.

Kote sat patiently for a few long moments, watching the unconscious man. When there was no movement other than the chest slowly rising and falling, he came stiffly to his feet and knelt at Chronicler’s side. Kote lifted one eyelid, then the other and grunted at what he saw, not seeming particularly surprised.

“I don’t suppose there’s any chance of you waking up again?” he asked without much hope in his voice. He tapped Chronicler’s pale cheek lightly. “No chance at—” A drop of blood spotted Chronicler’s forehead, followed quickly by another.

Kote straightened up so that he was no longer leaning over the unconscious man and wiped the blood away as best he could, which wasn’t very well, as his hands were covered in blood themselves. “Sorry,” he said absently.

He gave a deep sigh and pushed back his hood. His red hair was matted down against his head, and half his face was smeared with drying blood. Slowly he began to peel away the tattered remains of his cloak. Underneath was a leather blacksmith’s apron, wildly scored with cuts. He removed that as well, revealing a plain grey shirt of homespun. Both his shoulders and his left arm were dark and wet with blood.

Kote fingered the buttons of his shirt for a moment, then decided against removing it. Climbing gingerly to his feet, he picked up the spade and slowly, painfully, began to dig.

CHAPTER FIVE

Notes

It was well past midnight by the time Kote made it back to Newarre with Chronicler’s limp body slung across his lacerated shoulders. The town’s houses and shops were dark and silent, but the Waystone Inn was full of light.

Bast stood in the doorway, practically dancing with irritation. When he spotted the approaching figure he rushed down the street, waving a piece of paper angrily. “A note? You sneak out and leave me a note?” He hissed angrily. “What am I, some dockside whore?”

Kote turned around and shrugged Chronicler’s limp body into Bast’s arms. “I knew you would just argue with me, Bast.”

Bast held Chronicler easily in front of him. “It wasn’t even a good note. ‘If you are reading this I am probably dead.’ What sort of a note is that?”

“You weren’t supposed to find it till morning,” Kote said tiredly as they began to walk down the street to the inn.

Bast looked down at the man he was carrying, as if noticing him for the first time. “Who is this?” He shook him a little, eyeing him curiously before slinging him easily over one shoulder like a burlap sack.

“Some unlucky sod who happened to be on the road at the wrong time,” Kote said dismissively. “Don’t shake him too much. His head might be on a little loose.”

“What the hell did you sneak off for, anyway?” Bast demanded as they entered the inn. “If you’re going to leave a note it should at least tell me what—” Bast’s eyes widened as he saw Kote in the light of the inn, pale and streaked with blood and dirt.

“You can go ahead and worry if you want,” Kote said dryly. “It’s every bit as bad as it looks.”

“You went out hunting for them, didn’t you?” Bast hissed, then his eyes widened. “No. You kept a piece of the one Carter killed. I can’t believe you. You lied to me. To me!”

Kote sighed as he trudged up the stairs. “Are you upset by the lie, or the fact that you didn’t catch me at it?” he asked as he began to climb.

Bast spluttered. “I’m upset that you thought you couldn’t trust me.”

They let their conversation lapse as they opened one of the many empty rooms on the second floor, undressed Chronicler, and tucked him snugly into bed. Kote left the man’s satchel and travelsack on the floor nearby.

Closing the door to the room behind him, Kote said, “I trust you, Bast, but I wanted you safe. I knew I could handle it.”

“I could have helped, Reshi.” Bast’s tone was injured. “You know I would have.”

“You can still help, Bast,” Kote said as he made his way to his room and sat heavily on the edge of his narrow bed. “I need some stitching done.” He began to unbutton his shirt. “I could do it myself. But the tops of my shoulders and my back are hard to reach.”

“Nonsense, Reshi. I’ll do it.”

Kote made a gesture to the door. “My supplies are down in the basement.”

Bast sniffed disdainfully. “I will use my own needles, thank you very much. Good honest bone. None of your nasty jagged iron things, stabbing you like little slivers of hate.” He shivered. “Stream and stone, it’s frightening how primitive you people are.” Bast bustled out of the room, leaving the door open behind him.

Kote slowly removed his shirt, grimacing and sucking his breath through his teeth as the dried blood stuck and tugged against the wounds. His face went stoic again when Bast came back into the room with a basin of water and began to clean him off.

As the dried blood was washed away a wild scoring of long, straight cuts became clear. They gaped redly against the innkeeper’s fair skin, as if he had been slashed with a barber’s razor or a piece of broken glass. There were perhaps a dozen cuts in all, most of them on the tops of his shoulders, a few across his back and along his arms. One started on the top of his head and ran down his scalp to behind his ear.

“I thought you weren’t supposed to bleed, Reshi,” Bast said. “Bloodless and all that.”

“Don’t believe everything you hear in stories, Bast. They lie to you.”

“Well, you aren’t nearly as bad off as I thought,” Bast said, wiping his hands clean. “Though by all rights you should have lost a piece of your ear. Were they wounded like the one that attacked Carter?”

“Not that I could see,” Kote said.

“How many were there?”

“Five.”

“Five?” Bast said, aghast. “How many did the other fellow kill?”

“He distracted one of them for a while,” Kote said generously.

Anpauen, Reshi,” Bast said, shaking his head as he threaded a bone needle with something thinner and finer than gut. “You should be dead. You should be dead twice.”

Kote shrugged. “It’s not the first time I should be dead, Bast. I’m a fair hand at avoiding it.”

Bast bent to his work. “This will sting a bit,” he said, his hands strangely gentle. “Honestly, Reshi, I can’t see how you’ve managed to stay alive this long.”

Kote shrugged again and closed his eyes. “Neither do I, Bast,” he said. His voice was tired and grey.

Hours later, the door to Kote’s room cracked open and Bast peered inside. Hearing nothing but slow, measured breathing, the young man walked softly to stand beside the bed and bent over the sleeping man. Bast eyed the color of his cheeks, smelled his breath, and lightly touched his forehead, his wrist, and the hollow of his throat above his heart.

Then Bast drew a chair alongside the bed and sat, watching his master, listening to him breathe. After a moment he reached out and brushed the unruly red hair back from his face, like a mother would with a sleeping child. Then he began to sing softly, the tune lilting and strange, almost a lullaby:

“How odd to watch a mortal kindle
Then to dwindle day by day
Knowing their bright souls are tinder
And the wind will have its way.
Would I could my own fire lend.
What does your flickering portend?”

Bast’s voice faded until at last he sat motionless, watching the rise and fall of his master’s silent breathing through the long hours of morning’s early dark.

CHAPTER SIX

The Price of Remembering

It was early evening of the next day before Chronicler came down the stairs to the common room of the Waystone Inn. Pale and unsteady, he carried his flat leather satchel under one arm.

Kote sat behind the bar, paging through a book. “Ah, our unintentional guest. How’s the head?”

Chronicler raised a hand to touch the back of his head. “Throbs a bit when I move around too quickly. But it’s still working.”

“Glad to hear it,” Kote said.

“Is this . . .” Chronicler hesitated, looking around. “Are we in Newarre?”

Kote nodded. “You are, in fact, in the middle of Newarre.” He made a dramatic sweeping gesture with one hand. “Thriving metropolis. Home to dozens.”

Chronicler stared at the red-haired man behind the bar. He leaned against one of the tables for support. “God’s charred body,” he said breathlessly. “It really is you, isn’t it?”

The innkeeper looked puzzled. “I beg your pardon?”

“I know you’re going to deny it,” Chronicler said. “But what I saw last night . . .”

The innkeeper held up a hand, quieting him. “Before we discuss the possibility that you’ve addled your wits with that crack to the head, tell me, how is the road to Tinuë?”

“What?” Chronicler asked, irritated. “I wasn’t heading to Tinuë. I was . . . oh. Well, even aside from last night, the road’s been pretty rough. I was robbed off by Abbot’s Ford, and I’ve been on foot ever since. But it was all worth it since you’re actually here.” The scribe glanced at the sword hanging over the bar and drew a deep breath, his expression becoming vaguely anxious. “I’m not here to cause trouble, mind you. I’m not here because of the price on your head.” He gave a weak smile. “Not that I could hope to trouble you—”

“Fine,” the innkeeper interupted as he pulled out a white linen cloth and began to polish the bar. “Who are you then?”

“You can call me Chronicler.”

“I didn’t ask what I could call you,” Kote said. “What is your name?”

“Devan. Devan Lochees.”

Kote stopped polishing the bar and looked up. “Lochees? Are you related to Duke . . .” Kote trailed off, nodding to himself. “Yes, of course you are. Not a chronicler, the Chronicler.” He stared hard at the balding man, looking him up and down. “How about that? The great debunker himself.”

Chronicler relaxed slightly, obviously pleased to have his reputation precede him. “I wasn’t trying to be difficult before. I haven’t thought of myself as Devan in years. I left that name behind me long ago.” He gave the innkeeper a significant look. “I expect you know something of that yourself. . . .”

Kote ignored the unspoken question. “I read your book years ago. The Mating Habits of the Common Draccus. Quite the eye-opener for a young man with his head full of stories.” Looking down he began moving the white cloth along the grain of the bar again. “I’ll admit, I was disappointed to learn that dragons didn’t exist. That’s a hard lesson for a boy to learn.”

Chronicler smiled. “Honestly, I was a little disappointed myself. I went looking for a legend and found a lizard. A fascinating lizard, but a lizard just the same.”

“And now you’re here,” Kote said. “Have you come to prove that I don’t exist?”

Chronicler laughed nervously. “No. You see, we heard a rumor—”

“ ‘We?’ ” Kote interrupted.

“I’ve been traveling with an old friend of yours. Skarpi.”

“Taken you under his wing, has he?” Kote said to himself. “How about that? Skarpi’s apprentice.”

“More of a colleague, really.”

Kote nodded, still expressionless. “I might have guessed he would be the first to find me. Rumormongers, both of you.”

Chronicler’s smile grew sour, and he swallowed the first words that came to his lips. He struggled for a moment to recapture his calm demeanor.

“So what can I do for you?” Kote set aside the clean linen cloth and gave his best innkeeper’s smile. “Something to eat or drink? A room for the night?”

Chronicler hesitated.

“I have it all right here.” Kote gestured expansively behind the bar. “Old wine, smooth and pale? Honey mead? Dark ale? Sweet fruit liquor! Plum? Cherry? Green apple? Blackberry?” Kote pointed out the bottles in turn. “Come now, surely you must want something?” As he spoke, his smile widened, showing too many teeth for a friendly innkeeper’s grin. At the same time his eyes grew cold, and hard, and angry.

Chronicler dropped his gaze. “I’d thought that—”

“You thought,” Kote said derisively, dropping all pretense of a smile. “I very much doubt it. Otherwise, you might have thought,” he bit off the word, “of how much danger you were putting me in by coming here.”

Chronicler’s face grew red. “I’d heard that Kvothe was fearless,” he said hotly.

The innkeeper shrugged. “Only priests and fools are fearless, and I’ve never been on the best of terms with God.”

Chronicler frowned, aware that he was being baited. “Listen,” he continued calmly, “I was extraordinarily careful. No one except Skarpi knew I was coming. I didn’t mention you to anyone. I didn’t expect to actually find you.”

“Imagine my relief,” Kote said sarcastically.

Obviously disheartened, Chronicler spoke, “I’ll be the first to admit that my coming here may have been a mistake.” He paused, giving Kote the opportunity to contradict him. Kote didn’t. Chronicler gave a small, tight sigh and continued, “But what’s done is done. Won’t you even consider . . .”

Kote shook his head. “It was a long time ago—”

“Not even two years,” Chronicler protested.

“—and I am not what I was,” Kote continued without pausing.

“And what was that, exactly?”

“Kvothe,” he said simply, refusing to be drawn any further into an explanation. “Now I am Kote. I tend to my inn. That means beer is three shims and a private room costs copper.” He began polishing the bar again with a fierce intensity. “As you said, ‘done is done.’ The stories will take care of themselves.”

“But—”

Kote looked up, and for a second Chronicler saw past the anger that lay glittering on the surface of his eyes. For a moment he saw the pain underneath, raw and bloody, like a wound too deep for healing. Then Kote looked away and only the anger remained. “What could you possibly offer me that is worth the price of remembering?”

“Everyone thinks you’re dead.”

“You don’t get it, do you?” Kote shook his head, stuck between amusement and exasperation. “That’s the whole point. People don’t look for you when you’re dead. Old enemies don’t try to settle scores. People don’t come asking you for stories,” he said acidly.

Chronicler refused to back down. “Other people say you’re a myth.”

“I am a myth,” Kote said easily, making an extravagant gesture. “A very special kind of myth that creates itself. The best lies about me are the ones I told.”

“They say you never existed,” Chronicler corrected gently.

Kote shrugged nonchalantly, his smile fading an imperceptible amount.

Sensing weakness, Chronicler continued. “Some stories paint you as little more than a red-handed killer.”

“I’m that too.” Kote turned to polish the counter behind the bar. He shrugged again, not as easily as before. “I’ve killed men and things that were more than men. Every one of them deserved it.”

Chronicler shook his head slowly. “The stories are saying ‘assassin’ not ‘hero.’ Kvothe the Arcane and Kvothe Kingkiller are two very different men.”

Kote stopped polishing the bar and turned his back to the room. He nodded once without looking up.

“Some are even saying that there is a new Chandrian. A fresh terror in the night. His hair as red as the blood he spills.”

“The important people know the difference,” Kote said as if he were trying to convince himself, but his voice was weary and despairing, without conviction.

Chronicler gave a small laugh. “Certainly. For now. But you of all people should realize how thin the line is between the truth and a compelling lie. Between history and an entertaining story.” Chronicler gave his words a minute to sink in. “You know which will win, given time.”

Kote remained facing the back wall, hands flat on the counter. His head was bowed slightly, as if a great weight had settled onto him. He did not speak.

Chronicler took an eager step forward, sensing victory. “Some people say there was a woman—”

“What do they know?” Kote’s voice cut like a saw through bone. “What do they know about what happened?” He spoke so softly that Chronicler had to hold his breath to hear.

“They say she—” Chronicler’s words stuck in his suddenly dry throat as the room grew unnaturally quiet. Kote stood with his back to the room, a stillness in his body and a terrible silence clenched between his teeth. His right hand, tangled in a clean white cloth, made a slow fist.

Eight inches away a bottle shattered. The smell of strawberries filled the air alongside the sound of splintering glass. A small noise inside so great a stillness, but it was enough. Enough to break the silence into small, sharp slivers. Chronicler felt himself go cold as he suddenly realized what a dangerous game he was playing. So this is the difference between telling a story and being in one, he thought numbly, the fear.

Kote turned. “What can any of them know about her?” he asked softly. Chronicler’s breath stopped when he saw Kote’s face. The placid innkeeper’s expression was like a shattered mask. Underneath, Kote’s expression was haunted, eyes half in this world, half elsewhere, remembering.

Chronicler found himself thinking of a story he had heard. One of the many. The story told of how Kvothe had gone looking for his heart’s desire. He had to trick a demon to get it. But once it rested in his hand, he was forced to fight an angel to keep it. I believe it, Chronicler found himself thinking. Before it was just a story, but now I can believe it. This is the face of a man who has killed an angel.

“What can any of them know about me?” Kote demanded, a numb anger in his voice. “What can they know about any of this?” He made a short, fierce gesture that seemed to take in everything, the broken bottle, the bar, the world.

Chronicler swallowed against the dryness in his throat. “Only what they’re told.”

Tat tat, tat-tat. Liquor from the broken bottle began to patter an irregular rhythm onto the floor. “Ahhhh,” Kote sighed out a long breath. Tat-tat, tat-tat, tat. “Clever. You’d use my own best trick against me. You’d hold my story a hostage.”

“I would tell the truth.”

“Nothing but the truth could break me. What is harder than the truth?” A sickly, mocking smile flickered across his face. For a long moment, only the gentle tapping of drops against the floor kept the silence at bay.

Finally, Kote walked through the doorway behind the bar. Chronicler stood awkwardly in the empty room, unsure whether or not he had been dismissed.

A few minutes later Kote returned with a bucket of soapy water. Without looking in the storyteller’s direction, he began to gently, methodically, wash his bottles. One at a time, Kote wiped their bottoms clean of the strawberry wine and set them on the bar between himself and Chronicler, as if they might defend him.

“So you went looking for a myth and found a man,” he said without inflection, without looking up. “You’ve heard the stories and now you want the truth of things.”

Radiating relief, Chronicler set his satchel down on one of the tables, surprised at the slight tremor in his hands. “We got wind of you a while back. Just a whisper of a rumor. I didn’t really expect . . .” Chronicler paused, suddenly awkward. “I thought you would be older.”

“I am,” Kote said. Chronicler looked puzzled, but before he could say anything the innkeeper continued. “What brings you into this worthless little corner of the world?”

“An appointment with the Earl of Baedn-Bryt,” Chronicler said, puffing himself up slightly. “Three days from now, in Treya.”

The innkeeper paused mid-polish. “You expect to make it to the earl’s manor in four days?” he asked quietly.

“I am behind schedule,” Chronicler admitted. “My horse was stolen near Abbott’s Ford.” He glanced out the window at the darkening sky. “But I’m willing to lose some sleep. I’ll be off in the morning and out of your hair.”

“Well, I wouldn’t want to cost you any sleep,” Kote said sarcastically, his eyes gone hard again. “I can tell the whole thing in one breath.” He cleared his throat. “ ‘I trouped, traveled, loved, lost, trusted and was betrayed.” Write that down and burn it for all the good it will do you.”

“You needn’t take it that way,” Chronicler said quickly. “We can take the whole night if you like. And a few hours in the morning as well.”

“How gracious,” Kote snapped. “You’ll have me tell my story in an evening? With no time to collect myself? No time to prepare?” His mouth made a thin line. “No. Go dally with your earl. I’ll have none of it.”

Chronicler spoke quickly, “If you’re certain you’ll need—”

“Yes.” Kote set a bottle down hard on the bar, hard. “It’s safe to say I’ll need more time than that. And you’ll get none of it tonight. A real story takes time to prepare.”

Chronicler frowned nervously and ran his hands through his hair. “I could spend tomorrow collecting your story. . . .” He trailed off at the sight of Kote shaking his head. After a pause he started again, almost talking to himself. “If I pick up a horse in Baedn, I can give you all day tomorrow, most of the night, and a piece of the following day.” He rubbed his forehead. “I hate riding at night, but—”

“I’ll need three days,” Kote said. “I’m quite sure of it.”

Chronicler blanched. “But . . . the earl.”

Kote waved a hand dismissively.

“No one needs three days,” Chronicler said firmly. “I interviewed Oren Velciter. Oren Velciter, mind you. He’s eighty years old, and done two hundred years worth of living. Five hundred, if you count the lies. He sought me out,” Chronicler said with particular emphasis. “He only took two days.”

“That is my offer,” the innkeeper said simply. “I’ll do this properly or not at all.”

“Wait!” Chronicler brightened suddenly. “I’ve been thinking about this all backward,” he said, shaking his head at his own foolishness. “I’ll just visit the earl, then come back. You can have all the time you like then. I could even bring Skarpi back with me.”

Kote gave Chronicler a look of profound disdain. “What gives you the slightest impression that I would be here when you came back?” he asked incredulously. “For that matter, what makes you think you’re free to simply walk out of here, knowing what you know?”

Chronicler went very still. “Are—” He swallowed and started again. “Are you saying that—”

“The story will take three days,” Kote interrupted. “Starting tomorrow. That is what I am saying.”

Chronicler closed his eyes and ran his hand over his face. The earl would be furious, of course. No telling what it might take to get back in his good graces. Still . . . “If that’s the only way that I can get it, I accept.”

“I’m glad to hear it.” The innkeeper relaxed into a half smile. “Come now, is three days really so unusual?”

Chronicler’s serious expression returned. “Three days is quite unusual. But then again—” Some of the self-importance seemed to leak out of him. “Then again,” he made a gesture as if to show how useless words were. “You are Kvothe.”

The man who called himself Kote looked up from behind his bottles. A full-lipped smile played about his mouth. A spark was kindling behind his eyes. He seemed taller.

“Yes, I suppose I am,” Kvothe said, and his voice had iron in it.

CHAPTER SEVEN

Of Beginnings and the Names of Things

Sunlight poured into the Waystone. It was a cool, fresh light, fitted for beginnings. It brushed past the miller as he set his water-wheel turning for the day. It lit the forge the smith was rekindling after four days of cold metal work. It touched draft horses hitched to wagons and sickle blades glittering sharp and ready at the beginning of an autumn day.

Inside the Waystone, the light fell across Chronicler’s face and touched a beginning there, a blank page waiting the first words of a story. The light flowed across the bar, scattered a thousand tiny rainbow beginnings from the colored bottles, and climbed the wall toward the sword, as if searching for one final beginning.

But when the light touched the sword there were no beginnings to be seen. In fact, the light the sword reflected was dull, burnished, and ages old. Looking at it, Chronicler remembered that though it was the beginning of a day, it was also late autumn and growing colder. The sword shone with the knowledge that dawn was a small beginning compared to the ending of a season: the ending of a year.

Chronicler pulled his eyes away from the sword, aware that Kvothe had said something, but not knowing what. “I beg your pardon?”

“How do people normally go about relating their stories?” Kvothe asked.

Chronicler shrugged. “Most simply tell me what they remember. Later, I record events in the proper order, remove the unnecessary pieces, clarify, simplify, that sort of thing.”

Kvothe frowned. “I don’t think that will do.”

Chronicler gave him a shy smile. “Storytellers are always different. They prefer their stories be left alone. But they also prefer an attentive audience. I usually listen and record later. I have a nearly perfect memory.”

Nearly perfect doesn’t quite suit me.” Kvothe pressed a finger against his lips. “How fast can you write?”

Chronicler gave a knowing smile. “Faster than a man can talk.”

Kvothe raised an eyebrow. “I’d like to see that.”

Chronicler opened his satchel. He brought out a stack of fine, white paper and a bottle of ink. After arranging them carefully, he dipped a pen and looked expectantly at Kvothe.

Kvothe sat forward in his chair and spoke quickly, “I am. We are. She is. He was. They will be.” Chronicler’s pen danced and scratched down the page as Kvothe watched it. “I, Chronicler do hereby avow that I can neither read nor write. Supine. Irreverent. Jackdaw. Quartz. Lacquer. Eggoliant. Lhin ta Lu soren hea. ‘There was a young widow from Faeton, whose morals were hard as a rock. She went to confession, for her true obsession—’ ” Kvothe leaned farther forward to watch as Chronicler wrote. “Interesting—oh, you may stop.”

Chronicler smiled again and wiped his pen on a piece of cloth. The page in front of him held a single line of incomprehensible symbols. “Some sort of cipher?” Kvothe wondered aloud. “Very neatly done, too. I’ll bet you don’t spoil many pages.” He turned the sheet to look at the writing more carefully.

“I never spoil pages,” Chronicler said haughtily.

Kvothe nodded without looking up.

“What does ‘eggoliant’ mean?” Chronicler asked.

“Hmmm? Oh, nothing. I made it up. I wanted to see if an unfamiliar word would slow you down.” He stretched, and pulled his chair closer to Chronicler’s. “As soon as you show me how to read this, we can begin.”

Chronicler looked doubtful. “It’s a very complex—” Seeing Kvothe frown, he sighed. “I’ll try.”

Chronicler drew a deep breath and began to write a line of symbols as he spoke. “There are around fifty different sounds we use to speak. I’ve given each of them a symbol consisting of one or two pen strokes. It’s all sound. I could conceivably transcribe a language I don’t even understand.” He pointed. “These are different vowel sounds.”

“All vertical lines,” Kvothe said, looking intently at the page.

Chronicler paused, thrown off his stride. “Well . . . yes.”

“The consonants would be horizontal then? And they would combine like this?” Taking the pen, Kvothe made a few marks of his own on the page. “Clever. You’d never need more than two or three for a word.”

Chronicler watched Kvothe quietly.

Kvothe didn’t notice, his attention on the paper. “If this is ‘am’ then these must be the ah sounds,” he motioned to a group of characters Chronicler had penned. “Ah, ay, aeh, auh. That would make these the ohs.” Kvothe nodded to himself and pressed the pen back into Chronicler’s hand. “Show me the consonants.”

Chronicler penned them down numbly, reciting the sounds as he wrote. After a moment, Kvothe took the pen and completed the list himself, asking the dumbfounded Chronicler to correct him if he made a mistake.

Chronicler watched and listened as Kvothe completed the list. From beginning to end the whole process took about fifteen minutes. He made no mistakes.

“Wonderfully efficient system,” Kvothe said appreciatively. “Very logical. Did you design it yourself?”

Chronicler took a long moment before he spoke, staring at the rows of characters on the page in front of Kvothe. Finally, disregarding Kvothe’s question, Chronicler asked, “Did you really learn Tenia in a day?”

Kvothe gave a faint smile and looked down at the table. “That’s an old story I’d almost forgotten. It took a day and a half, actually. A day and a half with no sleep. Why do you ask?”

“I heard about it at the University. I never really believed it.” He looked down at the page of his cipher in Kvothe’s neat handwriting. “All of it?”

Kvothe looked puzzled. “What?”

“Did you learn the whole language?”

“No. Of course not,” Kvothe said rather testily. “Only a portion of it. A large portion to be sure, but I don’t believe you can ever learn all of anything, let alone a language.”

Kvothe rubbed his hands together. “Now, are you ready?”

Chronicler shook his head as if to clear it, set out a new sheet of paper, and nodded.

Kvothe held up a hand to keep Chronicler from writing, and spoke, “I’ve never told this story before, and I doubt I’ll ever tell it again.” Kvothe leaned forward in his chair. “Before we begin, you must remember that I am of the Edema Ruh. We were telling stories before Caluptena burned. Before there were books to write in. Before there was music to play. When the first fire kindled, we Ruh were there spinning stories in the circle of its flickering light.”

Kvothe nodded to the scribe. “I know your reputation as a great collector of stories and recorder of events.” Kvothe’s eyes became hard as flint, sharp as broken glass. “That said, do not presume to change a word of what I say. If I seem to wander, if I seem to stray, remember that true stories seldom take the straightest way.”

Chronicler nodded solemnly, trying to imagine the mind that could break apart his cipher in a piece of an hour. A mind that could learn a language in a day.

Kvothe gave a gentle smile and looked around the room as if fixing it in his memory. Chronicler dipped his pen and Kvothe looked down at his folded hands for as long as it takes to draw three deep breaths.

Then he began to speak.

“In some ways, it began when I heard her singing. Her voice twinning, mixing with my own. Her voice was like a portrait of her soul: wild as a fire, sharp as shattered glass, sweet and clean as clover.”

Kvothe shook his head. “No. It began at the University. I went to learn magic of the sort they talk about in stories. Magic like Taborlin the Great. I wanted to learn the name of the wind. I wanted fire and lightning. I wanted answers to ten thousand questions and access to their archives. But what I found at the University was much different than a story, and I was much dismayed.

“But I expect the true beginning lies in what led me to the University. Unexpected fires at twilight. A man with eyes like ice at the bottom of a well. The smell of blood and burning hair. The Chandrian.” He nodded to himself. “Yes. I suppose that is where it all begins. This is, in many ways, a story about the Chandrian.”

Kvothe shook his head, as if to free himself from some dark thought. “But I suppose I must go even further back than that. If this is to be something resembling my book of deeds, I can spare the time. It will be worth it if I am remembered, if not flatteringly, then at least with some small amount of accuracy.

“But what would my father say if he heard me telling a story this way? ‘Begin at the beginning.’ Very well, if we are to have a telling, let’s make it a proper one.”

Kvothe sat forward in his chair.

“In the beginning, as far as I know, the world was spun out of the nameless void by Aleph, who gave everything a name. Or, depending on the version of the tale, found the names all things already possessed.”

Chronicler let slip a small laugh, though he did not look up from his page or pause in his writing.

Kvothe continued, smiling himself. “I see you laugh. Very well, for simplicity’s sake, let us assume I am the center of creation. In doing this, let us pass over innumerable boring stories: the rise and fall of empires, sagas of heroism, ballads of tragic love. Let us hurry forward to the only tale of any real importance.” His smile broadened. “Mine.”

My name is Kvothe, pronounced nearly the same as “Quothe.” Names are important as they tell you a great deal about a person. I’ve had more names than anyone has a right to.

The Adem call me Maedre. Which, depending on how it’s spoken, can mean “The Flame,” “The Thunder,” or “The Broken Tree.”

“The Flame” is obvious if you’ve ever seen me. I have red hair, bright. If I had been born a couple hundred years ago I would probably have been burned as a demon. I keep it short but it’s unruly. When left to its own devices, it sticks up and makes me look as if I have been set afire.

“The Thunder” I attribute to a strong baritone and a great deal of stage training at an early age.

I’ve never thought of “The Broken Tree” as very significant. Although in retrospect I suppose it could be considered at least partially prophetic.

My first mentor called me E’lir because I was clever and I knew it. My first real lover called me Dulator because she liked the sound of it. I have been called Shadicar, Lightfinger, and Six-String. I have been called Kvothe the Bloodless, Kvothe the Arcane, and Kvothe Kingkiller. I have earned those names. Bought and paid for them.

But I was brought up as Kvothe. My father once told me it meant “to know.”

I have, of course, been called many other things. Most of them uncouth, although very few were unearned.

I have stolen princesses back from sleeping barrow kings. I burned down the town of Trebon. I have spent the night with Felurian and left with both my sanity and my life. I was expelled from the University at a younger age than most people are allowed in. I tread paths by moonlight that others fear to speak of during day. I have talked to Gods, loved women, and written songs that make the minstrels weep.

You may have heard of me.

CHAPTER EIGHT

Thieves, Heretics, and Whores

If this story is to be something resembling my book of deeds, we must begin at the beginning. At the heart of who I truly am. To do this, you must remember that before I was anything else, I was one of the Edema Ruh.

Contrary to popular belief, not all traveling performers are of the Ruh. My troupe was not some poor batch of mummers, japing at crossroads for pennies, singing for our suppers. We were court performers, Lord Greyfallow’s Men. Our arrival in most towns was more of an event than the Midwinter Pageantry and Solinade Games rolled together. There were usually at least eight wagons in our troupe and well over two dozen performers: actors and acrobats, musicians and hand magicians, jugglers and jesters: My family.

My father was a better actor and musician than any you have ever seen. My mother had a natural gift for words. They were both beautiful, with dark hair and easy laughter. They were Ruh down to their bones, and that, really, is all that needs to be said.

Save perhaps that my mother was a noble before she was a trouper. She told me my father had lured her away from “a miserable dreary hell” with sweet music and sweeter words. I could only assume she meant Three Crossings, where we went to visit relatives when I was very young. Once.

My parents were never really married, by which I mean they never bothered making their relationship official with any church. I’m not embarrassed by the fact. They considered themselves married and didn’t see much point in announcing it to any government or God. I respect that. In truth, they seemed more content and faithful than many officially married couples I have seen since.

Our patron was Baron Greyfallow, and his name opened many doors that would ordinarily be closed to the Edema Ruh. In return we wore his colors, green and grey, and added to his reputation wherever we went. Once a year we spent two span at his manor, entertaining him and his household.

It was a happy childhood, growing up in the center of an endless fair. My father would read to me from the great monologues during the long wagon rides between towns. Reciting mostly from memory, his voice would roll down the road for a quarter mile. I remember reading along, coming in on the secondary parts. My father would encourage me to try particularly good sections myself, and I learned to love the feel of good words.

My mother and I would make up songs together. Other times my parents would act out romantic dialogues while I followed along in the books. They seemed like games at the time. Little did I know how cunningly I was being taught.

I was a curious child: quick with questions and eager to learn. With acrobats and actors as my teachers, it is little wonder that I never grew to dread lessons as most children do.

The roads were safer in those days, but cautious folk would still travel with our troupe for safety’s sake. They supplemented my education. I learned an eclectic smattering of Commonwealth law from a traveling barrister too drunk or too pompous to realize he was lecturing an eight-year-old. I learned woodcraft from a huntsman named Laclith who traveled with us for nearly a whole season.

I learned the sordid inner workings of the royal court in Modeg from a . . . courtesan. As my father used to say: “Call a jack a jack. Call a spade a spade. But always call a whore a lady. Their lives are hard enough, and it never hurts to be polite.”

Hetera smelled vaguely of cinnamon, and at nine years old I found her fascinating without exactly knowing why. She taught me I should never do anything in private that I didn’t want talked about in public, and cautioned me to not talk in my sleep.

And then there was Abenthy, my first real teacher. He taught me more than all the others set end to end. If not for him, I would never have become the man I am today.

I ask that you not hold it against him. He meant well.

“You’ll have to move along,” the mayor said. “Camp outside town and no one will bother you so long as you don’t start any fights or wander off with anything that isn’t yours.” He gave my father a significant look. “Then be on your merry way tomorrow. No performances. They’re more trouble than they’re worth.”

“We are licensed,” my father said, pulling out a folded piece of parchment from the inner pocket of his jacket. “Charged to perform, in fact.”

The mayor shook his head and made no motion to look at our writ of patronage. “It makes folk rowdy,” he said firmly. “Last time there was an unholy row during the play. Too much drinking, too much excitement. Folks tore the doors off the public house and smashed up the tables. The hall belongs to the town, you see. The town bears the expense of the repairs.”

By this time our wagons were drawing attention. Trip was doing some juggling. Marion and his wife were putting on an impromptu string-puppet show. I was watching my father from the back of our wagon.

“We certainly would not want to offend you or your patron,” the mayor said. “However the town can ill afford another evening such as that. As a gesture of goodwill I’m willing to offer you a copper each, say twenty pennies, simply to be on your way and not make any trouble for us here.”

Now you have to understand that twenty pennies might be a good bit of money for some little ragamuffin troupe living hand-to-mouth. But for us it was simply insulting. He should have offered us forty to play for the evening, free use of the public hall, a good meal, and beds at the inn. The last we would graciously decline, as their beds were no doubt lousy and those in our wagons were not.

If my father was surprised or insulted, he did not show it. “Pack up!” He shouted over one shoulder.

Trip tucked his juggling stones into various pockets without so much as a flourish. There was a disappointed chorus from several dozen townsfolk as the puppets stopped midjape and were packed away. The mayor looked relieved, brought out his purse, and pulled out two silver pennies.

“I’ll be sure to tell the baron of your generosity,” my father said carefully as the mayor lay the pennies into his hand.

The mayor froze midmotion. “Baron?”

“Baron Greyfallow.” My father paused, looking for some spark of recognition on the mayor’s face. “Lord of the eastern marshes, Hudumbran-by-Thiren, and the Wydeconte Hills.” My father looked around at the horizon. “We are still in the Wydeconte Hills, aren’t we?”

“Well, yes,” the mayor said. “But Squire Semelan . . .”

“Oh, we’re in Setnelan’s fief!” my father exclaimed, looking around as if just now getting his bearings. “Thin gentleman, tidy little beard?” He brushed his chin with his fingers. The mayor nodded numbly. “Charming fellow, lovely singing voice. Met him when we were entertaining the baron last Midwinter.”

“Of course,” the mayor paused significantly. “Might I see your writ?”

I watched as the mayor read it. It took him a little while, as my father had not bothered to mention the majority of the baron’s titles such as the Viscount of Montrone and Lord of Trelliston. The upshot was this: it was true that the Squire Semelan controlled this little town and all the land around it, but Semelan owed fealty directly to Greyfallow. In more concrete terms, Greyfallow was captain of the ship; Semelan scrubbed the planking and saluted him.

The mayor refolded the parchment and handed it back to my father. “I see.”

That was all. I remember being stunned when the mayor didn’t apologize or offer my father more money.

My father paused as well, then continued, “The city is your jurisdiction, sir. But we’ll perform either way. It will either be here or just outside the city limits.”

“Ye can’t use the public house,” the mayor said firmly. “I won’t have it wrecked again.”

“We can play right here,” my father pointed to the market square. “It will be enough space, and it keeps everyone right here in town.”

The mayor hesitated, though I could hardly believe it. We sometimes chose to play on the green because the local buildings weren’t big enough. Two of our wagons were built to become stages for just that eventuality. But in my whole eleven years of memory I could barely count on both hands the times we’d been forced to play the green. We had never played outside the city limits.

But we were spared that. The mayor nodded at last and gestured my father closer. I slipped out the back of the wagon and moved close enough to catch the end of what he said, “—God-fearing folk around here. Nothing vulgar or heretical. We had a double handful of trouble with the last troupe that came through here, two fights, folks missing their laundry, and one of Branston’s daughters got herself in a family way.”

I was outraged. I waited for my father to show the mayor the sharp side of his tongue, to explain the difference between mere traveling performers and Edema Ruh. We didn’t steal. We would never let things get so out of control that a bunch of drunks ruined the hall where we were playing.

But my father did nothing of the sort, he just nodded and walked back toward our wagon. He gestured and Trip started juggling again. The puppets reemerged from their cases.

As he came around the wagon he saw me standing, half-hidden beside the horses. “I’m guessing you heard the whole thing from the look on your face,” he said with a wry grin. “Let it go, my boy. He gets full marks for honesty if not for grace. He just says out loud what other folk keep in the quiet of their hearts. Why do you think I have everyone stay in pairs when we go about our business in bigger towns?”

I knew it for the truth. Still, it was a hard pill for a young boy to swallow. “Twenty pennies,” I said scathingly. “As if he were offering us charity.”

That was the hardest part of growing up Edema Ruh. We are strangers everywhere. Many folk view us as vagabonds and beggars, while others deem us little more than thieves, heretics, and whores. It’s hard to be wrongfully accused, but it’s worse when the people looking down on you are clods who have never read a book or traveled more than twenty miles from the place they were born.

My father laughed and roughed my hair. “Just pity him, my boy. Tomorrow we’ll be on our way, but he’ll have to keep his own disagreeable company until the day he dies.”

“He’s an ignorant blatherskate,” I said bitterly.

He lay a firm hand on my shoulder, letting me know I’d said enough. “This is what comes of getting too close to Atur, I suppose. Tomorrow we’ll head south: greener pastures, kinder folk, prettier women.” He cupped an ear toward the wagon and nudged me with his elbow.

“I can hear everything you say,” my mother called sweetly from inside. My father grinned and winked at me.

“So what play are we going to do?” I asked my father. “Nothing vulgar, mind you. They’re God-fearing folk in these parts.”

He looked at me. “What would you pick?”

I gave it a long moment’s thought. “I’d play something from the Bright-field Cycle. The Forging of the Path or somesuch.”

My father made a face. “Not a very good play.”

I shrugged. “They won’t know the difference. Besides, it’s chock full of Tehlu, so no one will complain about it being vulgar.” I looked up at the sky. “I just hope it doesn’t rain on us halfway through.”

My father looked up at the clouds. “It will. Still, there are worse things than playing in the rain.”

“Like playing in the rain and getting shimmed on the deal?” I asked.

The mayor hurried up to us, moving at a fast walk. There was a thin sheen of sweat on his forehead and he was puffing a little bit, as if he’d been running. “I talked it over with a few members of the council and we decided that it would be quite all right for you to use the public house if you would care to.”

My father’s body language was perfect. It was perfectly clear he was offended but far too polite to say anything. “I certainly wouldn’t want to put you out. . . .”

“No, no. No bother at all. I insist, in fact.”

“Very well, if you insist.”

The mayor smiled and hurried away.

“Well, that’s a little better,” my father sighed. “No need to tighten our belts yet.”

“Halfpenny a head. That’s right. Anyone without a head gets in free. Thank you, sir.”

Trip was working the door, making sure everyone paid to see the play. “Halfpenny a head. Though by the rosy glow in your lady’s cheeks I should be charging you for a head and a half. Not that it’s any of my business, mind you.”

Trip had the quickest tongue of anyone in the troupe, which made him the best man for the job of making sure no one tried to fast-talk or bully their way inside. Wearing his green and grey jester’s motley, Trip could say just about anything and get away with it.

“Hello, mum, no charge for the little one, but if he starts to squawk you’d best give him the tit quick or take him outside.” Trip carried on his unending patter. “That’s right, halfpenny. Yes, sir, empty head still pays full price.”

Though it was always fun to watch Trip work, most of my attention was on a wagon that had rolled into the other end of town about a quarter hour ago. The mayor had argued with the old man driving it, then stormed off. Now I saw the mayor heading back to the wagon accompanied by a tall fellow carrying a long cudgel, the constable unless I missed my guess.

My curiosity got the best of me and I made my way toward the wagon, doing my best to stay out of sight. The mayor and the old man were arguing again by the time I got close enough to hear. The constable stood nearby, looking irritated and anxious.

“. . . told you. I don’t have a license. I don’t need a license. Does a peddler need a license? Does a tinker need a license?”

“You’re not a tinker,” the mayor said. “Don’t try to pass yourself off as one.”

“I’m not trying to pass myself off as anything,” the old man snapped. “I’m a tinker and a peddler, and I’m more than both. I’m an arcanist, you great dithering heap of idiot.”

“My point exactly,” the mayor said doggedly. “We’re God-fearing people in these parts. We don’t want any meddling with dark things better left alone. We don’t want the trouble your kind can bring.”

“My kind?” the old man said. “What do you know about my kind? There probably hasn’t been an arcanist through these parts in fifty years.”

“We like it that way. Just turn around and go back the way you came.”

“Like hell if I’m spending a night in the rain because of your thick head,” the old man said hotly. “I don’t need your permission to rent a room or do business in the street. Now get away from me or I’ll show you firsthand what sort of trouble my kind can be.”

Fear flashed across the mayor’s face before it was overwhelmed by outrage. He gestured over one shoulder at the constable. “Then you’ll spend the night in jail for vagrancy and threatening behavior. We’ll let you on your way in the morning if you’ve learned to keep a civil tongue in your head.” The constable advanced on the wagon, his cudgel held cautiously at his side.

The old man stood his ground and raised one hand. A deep, red light welled up from the front corners of his wagon. “That’s far enough,” he said ominously. “Things could get ugly otherwise.”

After a moment’s surprise, I realized the strange light came from a pair of sympathy lamps the old man had mounted on his wagon. I had seen one before, in Lord Greyfallow’s library. They were brighter than gaslight, steadier than candles or lamps, and lasted nearly forever. They were also terribly expensive. I was willing to bet that no one in this little town had ever heard of them, let alone seen one.

The constable stopped in his tracks when the light began to swell. But when nothing else seemed to happen, he set his jaw and kept walking toward the wagon.

The old man’s expression grew anxious. “Now hold on a moment,” he said as the red light from the wagon started to fade. “We don’t want . . .”

“Shut your clepper, you old shit-fire,” the constable said. He snatched at the arcanist’s arm as if he were sticking his hand into an oven. Then, when nothing happened, he smiled and grew more confident. “Don’t think I won’t knock you a good one to keep you from working any more of your devilry.”

“Well done, Tom,” the mayor said, radiating relief. “Bring him along and we’ll send someone back for the wagon.”

The constable grinned and twisted the old man’s arm. The arcanist bent at the waist and gasped a short, painful breath.

From where I hid, I saw the arcanist’s face change from anxious, to pained, to angry all in a second. I saw his mouth move.

A furious gust of wind came out of nowhere, as if a storm had suddenly burst with no warning. The wind struck the old man’s wagon and it tipped onto two wheels before slamming back down onto four. The constable staggered and fell as if he had been struck by the hand of God. Even where I hid nearly thirty feet away the wind was so strong that I was forced to take a step forward, as if I’d been pushed roughly from behind.

“Begone!” the old man shouted angrily. “Trouble me no longer! I will set fire to your blood and fill you with a fear like ice and iron!” There was something familiar about his words, but I couldn’t put my finger on it.

Both the mayor and the constable turned tail and ran, their eyes white and wild as startled horses’.

The wind faded as quickly as it had come. The whole sudden burst couldn’t have lasted more than five seconds. As most of the townsfolk were gathered around the public house, I doubted anyone had seen it except for me, the mayor, the constable, and the old man’s donkeys who stood placidly in their harness, utterly unperturbed.

“Leave this place clean of your foul presence,” the arcanist muttered to himself as he watched them go. “By the power of my name I command it to be so.”

I finally realized why his words seemed so familiar. He was quoting lines from the exorcism scene in Daeonica. Not many folk knew that play.

The old man turned back to his wagon and began to extemporize. “I’ll turn you into butter on a summer day. I’ll turn you into a poet with the soul of a priest. I’ll fill you with lemon custard and push you out a window.” He spat. “Bastards.”

His irritation seemed to leave him and he heaved a great, weary sigh. “Well, that couldn’t have gone much worse,” the old man muttered as he rubbed at the shoulder of the arm the constable had twisted. “Do you think they’ll come back with a mob behind them?”

For a second I thought the old man was talking to me. Then I realized the truth. He was talking to his donkeys.

“I don’t think so either,” he said to them. “But I’ve been wrong before. Let’s stay near the edge of town and have a look at the last of the oats, shall we?”

He clambered up into the back of the wagon and came down with a wide bucket and a nearly empty burlap sack. He upended the sack into the bucket and seemed disheartened by the results. He took out a handful for himself before nudging the bucket toward the donkeys with his foot. “Don’t give me that look,” he said to them. “It’s short rations all around. Besides, you can graze.” He petted one donkey while he ate his handful of rough oats, stopping occasionally to spit out a husk.

It struck me as very sad, this old man all alone on the road with no one to talk to but his donkeys. It’s hard for us Edema Ruh, but at least we had each other. This man had no one.

“We’ve wandered too far from civilization, boys. The folk that need me don’t trust me, and the ones that trust me can’t afford me.” The old man peered into his purse. “We’ve got a penny and a half, so our options are limited. Do we want to be wet tonight or hungry tomorrow? We’re not going to do any business, so it will probably be one or the other.”

I slunk around the edge of the building until I could see what was written on the side of the old man’s wagon. It read:

ABENTHY: ARCANIST EXTRAORDINARY.

Scribe. Dowser. Chemist. Dentist.

Rare Goods. All Alements Tended.

Lost Items Found. Anything Mended.

No Horoscopes. No Love Potions. No Malefaction.

Abenthy noticed me as soon as I stepped out from behind the building where I’d been hiding. “Hello there. Can I help you?”

“You’ve misspelled ‘ailments’,” I pointed out.

He looked surprised. “It’s a joke, actually,” he explained. “I brew a bit.”

“Oh. Ale,” I said, nodding. “I get it.” I brought my hand out of my pocket. “Can you sell me anything for a penny?”

He seemed stuck between amusement and curiosity. “What are you looking for?”

“I’d like some lacillium.” We had performed Farien the Fair a dozen times in the last month, and it had filled my young mind with intrigue and assassination.

“Are you expecting someone to poison you?” he said, somewhat taken aback.

“Not really. But it seems to me that if you wait around until you know you need an antidote, it’s probably too late to pick one up.”

“I suppose I could sell you a penny’s worth,” he said. “That would be about a dose for a person your size. But it’s dangerous stuff in its own right. It only cures certain poisons. You can hurt yourself if you take it at the wrong time.”

“Oh,” I said. “I didn’t know that.” In the play it was touted as an infallible cure-all.

Abenthy tapped his lips thoughtfully. “Can you answer me a question in the meantime?” I nodded. “Whose troupe is that?”

“In a way it’s mine,” I said. “But in another way, it’s my father’s because he runs the show and points which way the wagons go. But it’s Baron Grey-fallow’s too, because he’s our patron. We’re Lord Greyfallow’s Men.”

The old man gave me an amused look. “I’ve heard of you. Good troupe. Good reputation.”

I nodded, not seeing any point in false modesty.

“Do you think your father might be interested in taking on any help?” he asked. “I don’t claim to be much of an actor, but I’m handy to have around. I could make you face paint and rouge that aren’t all full of lead and mercury and arsenic. I can do lights, too, quick, clean, and bright. Different colors if you want them.”

I didn’t have to think too hard about it; candles were expensive and vulnerable to drafts, torches were dirty and dangerous. And everyone in the troupe learned the dangers of cosmetics at an early age. It was hard to become an old, seasoned trouper when you painted poison on yourself every third day and ended up raving mad by the time you were twenty-five.

“I may be overstepping myself a little,” I said as I held out my hand for him to shake. “But let me be the first to welcome you to the troupe.”

If this is to be a full and honest account of my life and deeds, I feel I should mention that my reasons for inviting Ben into our troupe were not entirely altruistic. It’s true that quality cosmetics and clean lights were a welcome addition to our troupe. It’s also true that I’d felt sorry for the old man alone on the road.

But underneath it all I was moved by my curiosity. I had seen Abenthy do something I could not explain, something strange and wonderful. Not his trick with the sympathy lamps—I recognized that for what it was: showmanship, a bluff to impress ignorant townsfolk.

What he had done afterward was different. He called the wind and the wind came. It was magic. Real magic. The sort of magic I’d heard about in stories of Taborlin the Great. The sort of magic I hadn’t believed in since I was six. Now I didn’t know what to believe.

So I invited him into our troupe, hoping to find answers to my questions. Though I didn’t know it at the time, I was looking for the name of the wind.

CHAPTER NINE

Riding in the Wagon with Ben

Abenthy was the first arcanist I ever met, a strange, exciting figure to a young boy. He was knowledgeable in all the sciences: botany, astronomy, psychology, anatomy, alchemy, geology, chemistry. . . .

He was portly, with twinkling eyes that moved quickly from one thing to another. He had a strip of dark grey hair running around the back of his head, but (and this is what I remember most about him) no eyebrows. Rather, he had them, but they were in a perpetual state of regrowing from being burned off in the course of his alchemical pursuits. It made him look surprised and quizzical all at once.

He spoke gently, laughed often, and never exercised his wit at the expense of others. He cursed like a drunken sailor with a broken leg, but only at his donkeys. They were called Alpha and Beta, and Abenthy fed them carrots and lumps of sugar when he thought no one was looking. Chemistry was his particular love, and my father said he’d never known a man to run a better still.

By his second day in our troupe I was making a habit of riding in his wagon. I would ask him questions and he would answer. Then he would ask for songs and I would pluck them out for him on a lute I borrowed from my father’s wagon.

He would even sing from time to time. He had a bright, reckless tenor that was always wandering off, looking for notes in the wrong places. More often than not he stopped and laughed at himself when it happened. He was a good man, and there was no conceit in him.

Not long after he joined our troupe, I asked Abenthy what it was like being an arcanist.

He gave me a thoughtful look. “Have you ever known an arcanist?”

“We paid one to mend a cracked axle on the road once.” I paused to think. “He was heading inland with a caravan of fish.”

Abenthy made a dismissive gesture. “No, no, boy. I’m talking about arcanists. Not some poor chill-charmer who works his way back and forth across caravan routes, trying to keep fresh meat from rotting.”

“What’s the difference?” I asked, sensing it was expected of me.

“Well,” he said. “That might take a bit of explaining. . . .”

“I’ve got nothing but time.”

Abenthy gave me an appraising look. I’d been waiting for it. It was the look that said, “You don’t sound as young as you look.” I hoped he’d come to grips with it fairly soon. It gets tiresome being spoken to as if you are a child, even if you happen to be one.

He took a deep breath. “Just because someone knows a trick or two doesn’t mean they’re an arcanist. They might know how to set a bone or read Eld Vintic. Maybe they even know a little sympathy. But—”

“Sympathy?” I interrupted as politely as possible.

“You’d probably call it magic,” Abenthy said reluctantly. “It’s not, really.” He shrugged. “But even knowing sympathy doesn’t make you an arcanist. A true arcanist has worked his way through the Arcanum at the University.”

At his mention of the Arcanum, I bristled with two dozen new questions. Not so many, you might think, but when you added them to the half-hundred questions I carried with me wherever I went, I was stretched nearly to bursting. Only through a severe effort of will did I remain silent, waiting for Abenthy to continue on his own.

Abenthy, however, noticed my reaction. “So, you’ve heard about the Arcanum, have you?” He seemed amused. “Tell me what you’ve heard, then.”

This small prompt was all the excuse I needed. “I heard from a boy in Temper Glen that if your arm’s cut off they can sew it back on at the University. Can they really? Some stories say Taborlin the Great went there to learn the names of all things. There’s a library with a thousand books. Are there really that many?”

He answered the last question, the others having rushed by too quickly for him to respond. “More than a thousand, actually. Ten times ten thousand books. More than that. More books than you could ever read.” Abenthy’s voice grew vaguely wistful.

More books than I could read? Somehow I doubted that.

Ben continued. “The people you see riding with caravans—charmers who keep food from spoiling, dowsers, fortune-tellers, toad eaters—aren’t real arcanists any more than all traveling performers are Edema Ruh. They might know a little alchemy, a little sympathy, a little medicine.” He shook his head. “But they’re not arcanists.

“A lot of people pretend to be. They wear robes and put on airs to take advantage of the ignorant and gullible. But here’s how you tell a true arcanist.”

Abenthy pulled a fine chain over his head and handed it to me. It was the first time I had ever seen an Arcanum guilder. It looked rather unimpressive, just a flat piece of lead with some unfamiliar writing stamped onto it.

“That is a true gilthe. Or guilder if you prefer,” Abenthy explained with some satisfaction. “It’s the only sure way to be certain of who is and who isn’t an arcanist. Your father asked to see mine before he let me ride with your troupe. It shows he’s a man of the world.” He watched me with a sly disinterest. “Uncomfortable, isn’t it?”

I gritted my teeth and nodded. My hand had gone numb as soon as I’d touched it. I was curious to study the markings on its front and back, but after the space of two breaths, my arm was numb to the shoulder, as if I had slept on it all night. I wondered if my whole body would go numb if I held it long enough.

I was prevented from finding out, as the wagon hit a bump and my numbed hand almost let Abenthy’s guilder fall to the footboard of the wagon. He snatched it up and slipped it back over his head, chuckling.

“How can you stand it?” I asked, trying to rub a little feeling back into my hand.

“It only feels that way to other people,” he explained. “To its owner, it’s just warm. That’s how you can tell the difference between an arcanist and someone who has a knack for finding water or guessing at the weather.”

“Trip has something like that,” I said. “He rolls sevens.”

“That’s a little different,” Abenthy laughed. “Not anything so unexplainable as a knack.” He slouched a little farther down into his seat. “Probably for the best. A couple hundred years ago, a person was good as dead if folk saw he had a knack. The Tehlins called them demon signs, and burned folk if they had them.” Abenthy’s mood seemed to have taken a downward turn.

“We had to break Trip out of jail once or twice,” I said, trying to lighten the tone of the conversation. “But no one actually tried to burn him.”

Abenthy gave a tired smile. “I suspect Trip has a pair of clever dice or an equally clever skill which probably extends to cards as well. I thank you for your timely warning, but a knack is something else entirely.”

I can’t abide being patronized. “Trip can’t cheat to save his life,” I said a little more sharply than I had intended. “And anyone in the troupe can tell good dice from bad. Trip throws sevens. It doesn’t matter whose dice he uses, he rolls sevens. If he bets on someone, they roll sevens. If he so much as bumps a table with loose dice on it, seven.”

“Hmmm.” Abenthy nodded to himself. “My apologies. That does sound like a knack. I’d be curious to see it.”

I nodded. “Take your own dice. We haven’t let him play for years.” A thought occurred to me. “It might not still work.”

He shrugged. “Knacks don’t go away so easily as that. When I was growing up in Staup, I knew a young man with a knack. Uncommonly good with plants.” Abenthy’s grin was gone as he looked off at something I couldn’t see. “His tomatoes would be red while everyone else’s vines were still climbing. His squash were bigger and sweeter, his grapes didn’t hardly have to be bottled before they started being wine.” He trailed off, his eyes far away.

“Did they burn him?” I asked with the morbid curiosity of the young.

“What? No, of course not. I’m not that old.” He scowled at me in mock severity. “There was a drought and he got run out of town. His poor mother was heartbroken.”

There was a moment of silence. Two wagons ahead of us, I heard Teren and Shandi rehearsing lines from The Swineherd and the Nightingale.

Abenthy seemed to be listening as well, in an offhand way. After Teren got himself lost halfway through Fains garden monologue, I turned back to face him. “Do they teach acting at the University?” I asked.

Abenthy shook his head, slightly amused by the question. “Many things, but not that.”

I looked over at Abenthy and saw him watching me, his eyes danced.

“Could you teach me some of those other things?” I asked.

He smiled, and it was as easy as that.

Abenthy proceeded to give me a brief overview of each of the sciences. While his main love was for chemistry, he believed in a rounded education. I learned how to work the sextant, the compass, the slipstick, the abacus. More important, I learned to do without.

Within a span I could identify any chemical in his cart. In two months I could distill liquor until it was too strong to drink, bandage a wound, set a bone, and diagnose hundreds of sicknesses from symptoms. I knew the process for making four different aphrodisiacs, three concoctions for contraception, nine for impotence, and two philtres referred to simply as “maiden’s helper.” Abenthy was rather vague about the purpose of the last of these, but I had some strong suspicions.

I learned the formulae for a dozen poisons and acids and a hundred medicines and cure-alls, some of which even worked. I doubled my herb lore in theory if not in practice. Abenthy started to call me Red and I called him Ben, first in retaliation, then in friendship.

Only now, far after the fact, do I recognize how carefully Ben prepared me for what was to come at the University. He did it subtly. Once or twice a day, mixed in with my normal lectures, Ben would present me with a little mental exercise I would have to master before we went on to anything else. He made me play Tirani without a board, keeping track of the stones in my head. Other times he would stop in the middle of a conversation and make me repeat everything said in the last few minutes, word for word.

This was levels beyond the simple memorization I had practiced for the stage. My mind was learning to work in different ways, becoming stronger. It felt the same way your body feels after a day of splitting wood, or swimming, or sex. You feel exhausted, languorous, and almost Godlike. This feeling was similar, except it was my intellect that was weary and expanded, languid and latently powerful. I could feel my mind starting to awaken.

I seemed to gain momentum as I progressed, like when water starts to wash away a dam made of sand. I don’t know if you understand what a geometric progression is, but that is the best way to describe it. Through it all Ben continued to teach me mental exercises that I was half convinced he constructed out of sheer meanness.

CHAPTER TEN

Alar and Several Stones

Ben held up a chunk of dirty fieldstone slightly bigger than his fist. “What will happen if I let go of this rock?”

I thought for a bit. Simple questions during lesson time were very seldom simple. Finally I gave the obvious answer. “It will probably fall.”

He raised an eyebrow. I had kept him busy over the last several months, and he hadn’t had the leisure to accidentally burn them off. “Probably? You sound like a sophist, boy. Hasn’t it always fallen before?”

I stuck my tongue out at him. “Don’t try to boldface your way through this one. That’s a fallacy. You taught me that yourself.”

He grinned. “Fine. Would it be fair to say you believe it will fall?”

“Fair enough.”

“I want you to believe it will fall up when I let go of it.” His grin widened.

I tried. It was like doing mental gymnastics. After a while I nodded. “Okay.”

“How well do you believe it?”

“Not very well,” I admitted.

“I want you to believe this rock will float away. Believe it with a faith that will move mountains and shake trees.” He paused and seemed to take a different tack. “Do you believe in God?”

“Tehlu? After a fashion.”

“Not good enough. Do you believe in your parents?”

I gave a little smile. “Sometimes. I can’t see them right now.”

He snorted and unhooked the slapstick he used to goad Alpha and Beta when they were being lazy. “Do you believe in this, E’lir?” He only called me E’lir when he thought I was being especially willfully obstinate. He held out the stick for my inspection.

There was a malicious glitter in his eye. I decided not to tempt fate. “Yes.”

“Good.” He slapped the side of the wagon with it, producing a sharp crack. One of Alpha’s ears pivoted around at the noise, uncertain as to whether or not it was directed at her. “That’s the sort of belief I want. It’s called Alar: riding-crop belief. When I drop this stone it will float away, free as a bird.”

He brandished the slapstick a bit. “And none of your petty philosophy or I’ll make you sorry you ever took a shining to that little game.”

I nodded. I cleared my mind with one of the tricks I’d already learned, and bore down on believing. I started to sweat.

After what may have been ten minutes I nodded again.

He let go of the rock. It fell.

I began to get a headache.

He picked the rock back up. “Do you believe that it floated?”

“No!” I sulked, rubbing my temples.

“Good. It didn’t. Never fool yourself into perceiving things that don’t exist. It’s a fine line to walk, but sympathy is not an art for the weak willed.”

He held out the rock again. “Do you believe it will float?”

“It didn’t!”

“It doesn’t matter. Try again.” He shook the stone. “Alar is the cornerstone of sympathy. If you are going to impose your will on the world, you must have control over what you believe.”

I tried and I tried. It was the most difficult thing I had ever done. It took me almost all afternoon.

Finally Ben was able to drop the rock and I retained my firm belief that it wouldn’t fall despite evidence to the contrary.

I heard the thump of the rock and I looked at Ben. “I’ve got it,” I said calmly, feeling more than a little smug.

He looked at me out of the corner of his eye, as if he didn’t quite believe me but didn’t want to admit it. He picked at the rock absently with one fingernail, then shrugged and held it up again. “I want you to believe the rock will fall and that the rock will not fall when I let go of it.” He grinned.

I went to bed late that night. I had a nosebleed and a smile of satisfaction. I held the two separate beliefs loosely in my mind and let their singing discord lull me into senselessness.

Being able to think about two disparate things at once, aside from being wonderfully efficient, was roughly akin to being able to sing harmony with yourself. It turned into a favorite game of mine. After two days of practicing I was able to sing a trio. Soon I was doing the mental equivalent of palming cards and juggling knives.

There were many other lessons, though none were quite so pivotal as the Alar. Ben taught me Heart of Stone, a mental exercise that let you set aside your emotions and prejudices and let you think clearly about whatever you wished. Ben said a man who truly mastered Heart of Stone could go to his sister’s funeral without ever shedding a tear.

He also taught me a game called Seek the Stone. The point of the game was to have one part of your mind hide an imaginary stone in an imaginary room. Then you had another, separate part of your mind try to find it.

Practically, it teaches valuable mental control. If you can really play Seek the Stone, then you are developing an iron-hard Alar of the sort you need for sympathy.

However, while being able to think about two things at the same time is terribly convenient, the training it takes to get there is frustrating at best, and at other times rather disturbing.

I remember one time I looked for the stone for almost an hour before I consented to ask the other half of me where I’d hidden it, only to find I hadn’t hidden the stone at all. I had merely been waiting to see how long I would look before giving up. Have you ever been annoyed and amused with yourself at the same time? It’s an interesting feeling, to say the very least.

Another time I asked for hints and ended up jeering at myself. It’s no wonder that many arcanists you meet are a little eccentric, if not downright cracked. As Ben had said, sympathy is not for the weak of mind.

CHAPTER ELEVEN

The Binding of Iron

I sat in the back of Abenthy’s wagon. It was a wonderful place for me, home to a hundred bottles and bundles, saturated with a thousand smells. To my young mind it was usually more fun than a tinker’s cart, but not today.

It had rained heavily the night before, and the road was a thick morass of mud. Since the troupe was not on any particular schedule, we had decided to wait for a day or two to give the roads time to dry. It was a fairly common occurrence, and it happened to fall at the perfect time for Ben to further my education. So I sat at the wooden worktable in the back of Ben’s wagon and chafed at wasting the day listening to him lecture me about things I already understood.

My thoughts must have been apparent, because Abenthy sighed and sat down beside me. “Not quite what you expected, eh?”

I relaxed a bit, knowing his tone meant a temporary reprieve from the lecture. He gathered up a handful of the iron drabs that were sitting on the table and clinked them together thoughtfully in his hand.

He looked at me. “Did you learn to juggle all at once? Five balls at a time? Knives too?”

I flushed a bit at the memory. Trip hadn’t even let me try three balls at first. He’d made me juggle two. I’d even dropped them a couple of times. I told Ben so.

“Right,” Ben said. “Master this trick and you get to learn another.” I expected him to stand up and start back into the lesson, but he didn’t.

Instead he held out the handful of iron drabs. “What do you know about these?” He clattered them together in his hand.

“In what respect?” I asked. “Physically, chemically, historically—”

“Historically,” he grinned, “Astound me with your grasp of historical minutiae, E’lir.” I had asked him what E’lir meant once. He claimed it meant “wise one,” but I had my doubts from the way his mouth had quirked when he said it.

“A long time ago, the people who—”

“How long ago?”

I frowned at him in mock severity. “Roughly two thousand years ago. The nomadic folk who roamed the foothills around the Shalda Mountains were brought together under one chieftain.”

“What was his name?”

“Heldred. His sons were Heldim and Heldar. Would you like his entire lineage, or should I get to the point?” I glowered at him.

“Sorry, sir.” Ben sat up straight in his seat and assumed such an aspect of rapt attention that we both broke into grins.

I started again. “Heldred eventually controlled the foothills around the Shalda. This meant that he controlled the mountains themselves. They started to plant crops, their nomadic lifestyle was abandoned, and they slowly began to—”

“Get to the point?” Abenthy asked. He tossed the drabs onto the table in front of me.

I ignored him as best I could. “They controlled the only plentiful and easily accessible source of metal for a great distance and soon they were the most skilled workers of those metals as well. They exploited this advantage and gained a great deal of wealth and power.

“Until this point barter was the most common method of trade. Some larger cities coined their own currency, but outside those cities the money was only worth the weight of the metal. Bars of metal were better for bartering, but full bars of metal were inconvenient to carry.”

Ben gave me his best bored-student face. The effect was only slightly inhibited by the fact that he had burned his eyebrows off again about two days ago. “You’re not going to go into the merits of representational currency, are you?”

I took a deep breath and resolved not to pester Ben so much when he was lecturing me. “The no-longer-nomads, called the Cealdim by now, were the first to establish a standardized currency. By cutting one of these smaller bars into five pieces you get five drabs.” I began to piece two rows of five drabs each together to illustrate my point. They resembled little ingots of metal. “Ten drabs are the same as a copper jot; ten jots—”

“Good enough,” Ben broke in, startling me. “So these two drabs,” he held a pair out for my inspection, “Could have come from the same bar, right?”

“Actually, they probably cast them individually . . .” I trailed off under a glare. “Sure.”

“So there’s something still connecting them, right?” He gave me the look again.

I didn’t really agree, but knew better than to interrupt. “Right.”

He set them both on the table. “So when you move one, the other should move, right?”

I agreed for the sake of argument, then reached out to move one. But Ben stopped my hand, shaking his head. “You’ve got to remind them first. You’ve got to convince them, in fact.”

He brought out a bowl and decanted a slow blob of pine pitch into it. He dipped one of the drabs into the pitch and stuck the other one to it, spoke several words I didn’t recognize, and slowly pulled the bits apart, strands of pitch stretching between them.

He set one on the table, keeping the other in his hand. Then he muttered something else and relaxed.

He raised his hand, and the drab on the table mimicked the motion. He danced his hand around and the brown piece of iron bobbed in the air.

He looked from me to the coin. “The law of sympathy is one of the most basic parts of magic. It states that the more similar two objects are, the greater the sympathetic link. The greater the link, the more easily they influence each other.”

“Your definition is circular.”

He set down the coin. His lecturer’s facade gave way to a grin as he tried with marginal success to wipe the pitch off of his hands with a rag. He thought for a while. “Seems pretty useless doesn’t it?”

I gave a hesitant nod, trick questions were fairly common around lesson time.

“Would you rather learn how to call the wind?” His eyes danced at me. He murmured a word and the canvas ceiling of the wagon rustled around us.

I felt a grin capture my face, wolfish.

“Too bad, E’lir.” His grin was wolfish too, and savage. “You need to learn your letters before you can write. You need to learn the fingerings on the strings before you play and sing.”

He pulled out a piece of paper and jotted a couple of words on it. “The trick is in holding the Alar firm in your mind. You need to believe they are connected. You need to know they are.” He handed me the paper. “Here is the phonetic pronunciation. It’s called the Sympathetic Binding of Parallel Motion. Practice.” He looked even more lupine than before, old and grizzled with no eyebrows.

He left to wash his hands. I cleared my mind using Heart of Stone. Soon I was floating on a sea of dispassionate calm. I stuck the two bits of metal together with pine pitch. I fixed in my mind the Alar, the riding-crop belief, that the two drabs were connected. I said the words, pulled the coins apart, spoke the last word, and waited.

No rush of power. No flash of hot or cold. No radiant beam of light struck me.

I was rather disappointed. At least as disappointed as I could be in the Heart of Stone. I lifted the coin in my hand, and the coin on the table lifted itself in a similar fashion. It was magic, there was no doubt about that. But I felt rather underwhelmed. I had been expecting . . . I don’t know what I’d been expecting. It wasn’t this.

The rest of that day was spent experimenting with the simple sympathetic binding Abenthy had taught me. I learned that almost anything could be bound together. An iron drab and a silver talent, a stone and a piece of fruit, two bricks, a clod of earth and one of the donkeys. It took me about two hours to figure out that the pine pitch wasn’t necessary. When I asked him, Ben admitted that it was merely an aid for concentration. I think he was surprised that I figured it out without being told.

Let me sum up sympathy very quickly since you will probably never need to have anything other than a rough comprehension of how these things work.

First, energy cannot be created or destroyed. When you are lifting one drab and the other rises off the table, the one in your hand feels as heavy as if you’re lifting both, because, in fact, you are.

That’s in theory. In practice, it feels like you’re lifting three drabs. No sympathetic link is perfect. The more dissimilar the items, the more energy is lost. Think of it as a leaky aqueduct leading to a water wheel. A good sympathetic link has very few leaks, and most of the energy is used. A bad link is full of holes; very little of the effort you put into it goes toward what you want it to do.

For instance I tried linking a piece of chalk to a glass bottle of water. There was very little similarity between the two, so even though the bottle of water might have weighed two pounds, when I tried to lift the chalk it felt like sixty pounds. The best link I found was a tree branch I had broken in half.

After I understood this little piece of sympathy, Ben taught me others. A dozen dozen sympathetic bindings. A hundred little tricks for channeling power. Each of them was a different word in a vast vocabulary I was just beginning to speak. Quite often it was tedious, and I’m not telling you the half of it.

Ben continued giving me a smattering of lessons in other areas: history, arithmetic, and chemistry. But I grabbed at whatever he could teach me about sympathy. He doled out his secrets sparingly, making me prove I’d mastered one before giving me another. But I seemed to have a knack for it above and beyond my natural penchant for absorbing knowledge, so there was never too long a wait.

I don’t mean to imply that the road was always smooth. The same curiosity that made me such an eager student also led me into trouble with fair regularity.

One evening as I was building up my parent’s cookfire, my mother caught me chanting a rhyme I had heard the day before. Not knowing that she was behind me, she overheard as I knocked one stick of firewood against another and absentmindedly recited:

“Seven things has Lady Lackless
Keeps them underneath her black dress
One a ring that’s not for wearing
One a sharp word, not for swearing
Right beside her husband’s candle
There’s a door without a handle
In a box, no lid or locks
Lackless keeps her husband’s rocks
There’s a secret she’s been keeping
She’s been dreaming and not sleeping
On a road, that’s not for traveling
Lackless likes her riddle raveling.”

I had heard a little girl chant it as she played hop-skip. I’d only heard it twice, but it had stuck in my head. It was memorable, as most child rhymes are.

But my mother heard me and came over to stand by the fire. “What were you just saying, sweet?” Her tone wasn’t angry, but I could tell she wasn’t pleased either.

“Something I heard back in Fallows,” I said evasively. Running off with town children was a largely forbidden activity. Distrust turns quickly to dislike, my father told new members of our troupe, so stay together when you’re in town, and be polite. I laid some heavier sticks on the fire and let the flames lick them.

My mother was silent for a while, and I was beginning to hope she would leave it alone, when she said, “It’s not a nice thing to be singing. Have you stopped to think what it’s about?”

I hadn’t, actually. It seemed mostly nonsense rhyme. But when I ran it back through my head, I saw the rather obvious sexual innuendo. “I do. I didn’t think about it before.”

Her expression grew a little gentler, and she reached down to smooth my hair, “Always think about what you’re singing, honey.”

I seemed to be out of trouble, but I couldn’t keep from asking, “How is it any different than parts of For All His Waiting? Like when Fain asks Lady Perial about her hat? ‘I heard about it from so many men I wished to see it for myself and try the fit.’ It’s pretty obvious what he’s really talking about.”

I watched her mouth grow firm, not angry, but not pleased. Then something in her face changed. “You tell me what the difference is,” she said.

I hated bait questions. The difference was obvious: one would get me in trouble, the other wouldn’t. I waited a while to make it clear I had given the matter proper consideration before I shook my head.

My mother knelt lightly in front of the fire, warming her hands. “The difference is . . . go fetch me the tripod, would you?” She gave me a gentle push, and I scampered off to get it from the back of our wagon as she continued, “The difference is between saying something to a person, and saying something about a person. The first might be rude, but the second is always gossip.”

I brought the tripod back and helped her set it over the fire. “Also, Lady Perial is just a character. Lady Lackless is a real person, with feelings that can be hurt.” She looked up at me.

“I didn’t know,” I protested guiltily.

I must have struck a sufficiently piteous figure because she gathered me in for a hug and a kiss, “It’s nothing to cry over, sweet one. Just remember to always think about what you’re doing.” She ran her hand over my head and smiled like the sun. “I imagine you could make it up to both Lady Lackless and myself if you found some sweet nettle for the pot tonight.”

Any excuse to escape judgment and play for a while in the tangle of trees by the roadside was good enough for me. I was gone almost before the words left her mouth.

I should also make it clear that much of the time I spent with Ben was my free time. I was still responsible for my normal duties in the troupe. I acted the part of the young page when needed. I helped paint scenery and sew costumes. I rubbed down the horses at night and rattled the sheet of tin backstage when we needed thunder onstage.

But I didn’t bemoan the loss of my free time. A child’s endless energy and my own insatiable lust for knowledge made the following year one of the happiest times I can remember.

CHAPTER TWELVE

Puzzle Pieces Fitting

Toward the end of the summer I accidentally overheard a conversation that shook me out of my state of blissful ignorance. When we are children we seldom think of the future. This innocence leaves us free to enjoy ourselves as few adults can. The day we fret about the future is the day we leave our childhood behind.

It was evening, and the troupe was camped by the side of the road. Abenthy had given me a new piece of sympathy to practice: The Maxim of Variable Heat Transferred to Constant Motion, or something pretentious like that.

It was tricky, but it had fallen into place like a puzzle piece fitting. It had taken about fifteen minutes, and from Abenthy’s tone I guessed he had expected it to take three or four hours at least.

So I went looking for him. Partly to get my next lesson, and partly so that I could be just a little bit smug.

I tracked him down to my parent’s wagon. I heard the three of them long before I saw them. Their voices were just murmurs, the distant music that a conversation makes when it’s too dim for words. But as I was coming close I heard one word clearly: Chandrian.

I pulled up short when I heard that. Everyone in the troupe knew my father was working on a song. He’d been teasing old stories and rhymes from townsfolk for over a year wherever we stopped to play.

For months it was stories about Lanre. Then he started gathering old faerie stories too, legends about bogies and shamble-men. Then he began to ask questions about the Chandrian. . . .

That was months ago. Over the last half year he had asked more about the Chandrian and less about Lanre, Lyra, and the rest. Most songs my father set to writing were finished in a single season, while this one was stretching toward its second year.

You should know this as well, my father never let word or whisper of a song be heard before it was ready to play. Only my mother was allowed into his confidence, as her hand was always in any song he made. The cleverness in the music was his. The best words were hers.

When you wait a few span or month to hear a finished song, the anticipation adds savor. But after a year excitement begins to sour. By now, a year and a half had passed and folk were almost mad with curiosity. This occasionally led to hard words when someone was caught wandering a little too close to our wagon while my father and mother were working.

So I moved closer to my parent’s fire, stepping softly. Eavesdropping is a deplorable habit, but I have developed worse ones since.

“. . . much about them,” I heard Ben say. “But I’m willing.”

“I’m glad to talk with an educated man on the subject.” My father’s strong baritone was a contrast to Ben’s tenor. “I’m weary of these superstitious country folk, and the . . .”

Someone added wood to the fire and I lost my father’s words in the crackling that followed. Stepping as quickly as I dared, I moved into the long shadow of my parent’s wagon.

“. . . like I’m chasing ghosts with this song. Trying to piece together this story is a fool’s game. I wish I’d never started it.”

“Nonsense,” my mother said. “This will be your best work, and you know it.”

“So you think there is an original story all the others stem from?” Ben asked. “A historical basis for Lanre?”

“All the signs point to it,” my father said. “It’s like looking at a dozen grandchildren and seeing ten of them have blue eyes. You know the grandmother had blue eyes, too. I’ve done this before, I’m good at it. I wrote “Below the Walls” the same way. But . . .” I heard him sigh.

“What’s the problem then?”

“The story’s older,” my mother explained. “It’s more like he’s looking at great-great-grandchildren.”

“And they’re scattered to the four corners,” my father groused. “And when I finally do find one, it’s got five eyes: two greens, a blue, a brown, and a chartreuse. Then the next one has only one eye, and it changes colors. How am I supposed to draw conclusions from that?”

Ben cleared his throat. “A disturbing analogy,” he said. “But you’re welcome to pick my brain about the Chandrian. I’ve heard a lot of stories over the years.”

“The first thing I need to know is how many there actually are,” my father said. “Most stories say seven, but even that’s conflicted. Some say three, others five, and in Felior’s Fall there are a full thirteen of them: one for each pontifet in Atur, and an extra for the capitol.”

“That I can answer,” Ben said. “Seven. You can hold to that with some certainty. It’s part of their name, actually. Chaen means seven. Chaen-dian means ‘seven of them.’ Chandrian.”

“I didn’t know that,” my father said. “Chaen. What language is that? Yllish?”

“Sounds like Tenia,” my mother said.

“You’ve got a good ear,” Ben said to her. “It’s Temic, actually. Predates Tenia by about a thousand years.”

“Well, that simplifies things,” I heard my father say. “I wish I’d asked you a month ago. I don’t suppose you know why they do what they do?” I could tell by my father’s tone that he didn’t really expect an answer.

“That’s the real mystery, isn’t it?” Ben chuckled. “I think that’s what makes them more frightening than the rest of the bogey-men you hear about in stories. A ghost wants revenge, a demon wants your soul, a shamble-man is hungry and cold. It makes them less terrible. Things we understand we can try to control. But Chandrian come like lightning from a clear blue sky. Just destruction. No rhyme or reason to it.”

“My song will have both,” my father said with grim determination. “I think I’ve dug up their reason, after all this while. I’ve teased it together from bits and pieces of story. That’s what’s so galling about this, to have the harder part of this done and have all these small specifics giving me such trouble.”

“You think you know?” Ben said curiously. “What’s your theory?”

My father gave a low chuckle. “Oh no Ben, you’ll have to wait with the others. I’ve sweated too long over this song to give away the heart of it before it’s finished.”

I could hear the disappointment in Ben’s voice. “I’m sure this is all just an elaborate ruse to keep me traveling with you,” he groused. “I won’t be able to leave until I’ve heard the blackened thing.”

“Then help us finish it,” my mother said. “The Chandrian’s signs are another key piece of information we can’t nail down. Everyone agrees there are signs that warn of their presence, but nobody agrees on what they are.”

“Let me think . . .” Ben said. “Blue flame is obvious, of course. But I’d hesitate to attribute that to the Chandrian in particular. In some stories it’s a sign of demons. In others it’s fae creatures, or magic of any sort.”

“It shows bad air in mines, too,” my mother pointed out.

“Does it?” my father asked.

She nodded. “When a lamp burns with a blue haze you know there’s firedamp in the air.”

“Good lord, firedamp in a coal mine,” my father said. “Blow out your light and get lost in the black, or leave it burn and blow the whole place to flinders. That’s more frightening than any demon.”

“I’ll also admit to the fact that certain arcanists occasionally use prepared candles or torches to impress gullible townsfolk,” Ben said, clearing his throat self-consciously.

My mother laughed. “Remember who you’re talking to, Ben. We’d never hold a little showmanship against a man. In fact, blue candles would be just the thing the next time we play Daeonica. If you happened to find a couple tucked away somewhere, that is.”

“I’ll see what I can do,” Ben said, his voice amused. “Other signs . . . one of them is supposed to have eyes like a goat, or no eyes, or black eyes. I’ve heard that one quite a bit. I’ve heard that plants die when the Chandrian are around. Wood rots, metal rusts, brick crumbles. . . .” He paused. “Though I don’t know if that’s several signs, or all one sign.”

“You begin to see the trouble I’m having,” my father said morosely. “And there’s still the question as to if they all share the same signs, or have a couple each.”

“I’ve told you,” my mother said, exasperated. “One sign for each of them. It makes the most sense.”

“My lady wife’s favorite theory,” my father said. “But it doesn’t fit. In some stories the only sign is blue flame. In others you have animals going crazy and no blue flame. In others you have a man with black eyes and animals going mad and blue flame.”

“I’ve told you how to make sense of that,” she said, her irritated tone indicating they’d had this particular discussion before. “They don’t always have to be together. They could go out in threes or fours. If one of them makes fires dim, then it’ll look the same as if they all made the fires dim. That would account for the differences in the stories. Different numbers and different signs depending on how they’re grouped together.”

My father grumbled something.

“That’s a clever wife you’ve got there, Arl.” Ben spoke up, breaking the tension. “How much will you sell her for?”

“I need her for my work, unfortunately. But if you’re interested in a short-term rental, I’m sure we could arrange a reas—” There was a fleshy thump followed by a slightly pained chortle in my father’s baritone. “Any other signs that spring to mind?”

“They’re supposed to be cold to the touch. Though how anyone could know that is beyond me. I’ve heard that fires don’t burn around them. Though that directly contradicts the blue flame. It could—”

The wind picked up, stirring the trees. The rustling leaves drowned out what Ben said. I took advantage of the noise to creep a few steps closer.

“. . . being ‘yoked to shadow,’ whatever that means,” I heard my father say as the wind died down.

Ben grunted. “I couldn’t say either. I heard a story where they were given away because their shadows pointed the wrong way, toward the light. And there was another where one of them was referred to as ‘shadow-hamed.’ It was ‘something the shadow-hamed.’ Damned if I can remember the name though. . . .”

“Speaking of names, that’s another point I’m having trouble with,” my father said. “There are a couple dozen I’ve collected that I’d appreciate your opinion on. The most—”

“Actually, Arl,” Ben interrupted, “I’d appreciate it if you didn’t say them out loud. Names of people, that is. You can scratch them in the dirt if you’d like, or I could go fetch a slate, but I’d be more comfortable if you didn’t actually say any of them. Better safe than sore, as they say.”

There was a deep piece of silence. I stopped midsneak with one foot off the ground, afraid they’d heard me.

“Now don’t go looking at me like that, either of you,” Ben said testily.

“We’re just surprised, Ben,” came my mother’s gentle voice. “You don’t seem the superstitious type.”

“I’m not,” Ben said. “I’m careful. There’s a difference.”

“Of course,” my father said. “I’d never—”

“Save it for the paying customers, Arl,” Ben cut him off, irritation plain in his voice. “You’re too good an actor to show it, but I know perfectly well when someone thinks I’m daft.”

“I just didn’t expect it, Ben,” my father said apologetically. “You’re educated, and I’m so tired of people touching iron and tipping their beer as soon as I mention the Chandrian. I’m just reconstructing a story, not meddling with dark arts.”

“Well, hear me out. I like both of you too well to let you think of me as an old fool,” Ben said. “Besides, I have something to talk with you about later, and I’ll need you to take me seriously for that.”

The wind continued to pick up, and I used the noise to cover my last few steps. I edged around the corner of my parents’ wagon and peered through a veil of leaves. The three of them were sitting around the campfire. Ben was sitting on a stump, huddled in his frayed brown cloak. My parents were opposite him, my mother leaning against my father, a blanket draped loosely around them.

Ben poured from a clay jug into a leather mug and handed it to my mother. His breath fogged as he spoke. “How do they feel about demons off in Atur?” he asked.

“Scared.” My father tapped his temple. “All that religion makes their brains soft.”

“How about off in Vintas?” Ben asked. “Fair number of them are Tehlins. Do they feel the same way?”

My mother shook her head. “They think it’s a little silly. They like their demons metaphorical.”

“What are they afraid of at night in Vintas then?”

“The Fae,” my mother said.

My father spoke at the same time. “Draugar.”

“You’re both right, depending on which part of the country you’re in,” Ben said. “And here in the Commonwealth people laugh up their sleeves at both ideas.” He gestured at the surrounding trees. “But here they’re careful come autumn-time for fear of drawing the attention of shamble-men.”

“That’s the way of things,” my father said. “Half of being a good trouper is knowing which way your audience leans.”

“You still think I’ve gone cracked in the head,” Ben said, amused. “Listen, if tomorrow we pulled into Biren and someone told you there were shamble-men in the woods, would you believe them?” My father shook his head. “What if two people told you?” Another shake.

Ben leaned forward on his stump. “What if a dozen people told you, with perfect earnestness, that shamble-men were out in the fields, eating—”

“Of course I wouldn’t believe them,” my father said, irritated. “It’s ridiculous.”

“Of course it is,” Ben agreed, raising a finger. “But the real question is this: Would you go into the woods?”

My father sat very still and thoughtful for a moment.

Ben nodded. “You’d be a fool to ignore half the town’s warning, even though you don’t believe the same thing they do. If not shamble-men, what are you afraid of?”

“Bears.”

“Bandits.”

“Good sensible fears for a trouper to have,” Ben said. “Fears that townsfolk don’t appreciate. Every place has its little superstitions, and everyone laughs at what the folk across the river think.” He gave them a serious look. “But have either of you ever heard a humorous song or story about the Chandrian? I’ll bet a penny you haven’t.”

My mother shook her head after a moment’s thought. My father took a long drink before joining her.

“Now I’m not saying that the Chandrian are out there, striking like lightning from the clear blue sky. But folk everywhere are afraid of them. There’s usually a reason for that.”

Ben grinned and tipped his clay cup, pouring the last drizzle of beer out onto the earth. “And names are strange things. Dangerous things.” He gave them a pointed look. “That I know for true because I am an educated man. If I’m a mite superstitious too . . .” He shrugged. “Well, that’s my choice. I’m old. You have to humor me.”

My father nodded thoughtfully. “It’s odd I never noticed that everyone treats the Chandrian the same. It’s something I should’ve seen.” He shook his head as if to clear it. “We can come back to names later, I suppose. What was it you wanted to talk about?”

I prepared to sneak off before I was caught, but what Ben said next froze me in place before I took a single step.

“It’s probably hard to see, being his parents and all. But your young Kvothe is rather bright.” Ben refilled his cup, and held out the jug to my father, who declined it. “As a matter of fact,’bright’ doesn’t begin to cover it, not by half.”

My mother watched Ben over the top of her mug. “Anyone who spends a little time with the boy can see that, Ben. I don’t see why anyone would make a point of it. Least of all, you.”

“I don’t think you really grasp the situation,” Ben said, stretching his feet almost into the fire. “How easily did he pick up the lute?”

My father seemed a little surprised by the sudden change of topic. “Fairly easily, why?”

“How old was he?”

My father tugged thoughtfully at his beard for a moment. In the silence my mother’s voice was like a flute. “Eight.”

“Think back to when you learned to play. Can you remember how old you were? Can you remember the sort of difficulties you had?” My father continued to tug on his beard, but his face was more reflective now, his eyes far away.

Abenthy continued. “I’ll bet he learned each chord, each fingering after being shown just once, no stumbling, no complaining. And when he did make a mistake it was never more than once, right?”

My father seemed a little perturbed. “Mostly, but he did have trouble, just the same as anyone else. E chord. He had a lot of trouble with greater and diminished E.”

My mother broke in softly. “I remember too, dear, but I think it was just his small hands. He was awfully young. . . .”

“I bet it didn’t stall him for long,” Ben said quietly. “He does have marvelous hands; my mother would have called them magician’s fingers.”

My father smiled. “He gets them from his mother, delicate, but strong. Perfect for scrubbing pots, eh woman?”

My mother swatted him, then caught one of his hands in her own and unfolded it for Ben to see. “He gets them from his father, graceful and gentle. Perfect for seducing young nobles’ daughters.” My father started to protest, but she ignored him. “With his eyes and those hands there won’t be a woman safe in all the world when he starts hunting after the ladies.”

“Courting, dear,” my father corrected gently.

“Semantics,” she shrugged. “It’s all a chase, and when the race is done, I think I pity women chaste who run.” She leaned back against my father, keeping his hand in her lap. She tilted her head slightly and he took his cue, leaning in to kiss the corner of her mouth.

“Amen,” Ben said, raising his mug in salute.

My father put his other arm around her and gave her a squeeze. “I still don’t see what you’re getting at, Ben.”

“He does everything that way, quick as a whip, hardly ever makes mistakes. I’ll bet he knows every song you’ve ever sung to him. He knows more about what’s in my wagon than I do.”

He picked up the jug and uncorked it. “It’s not just memorization though. He understands. Half the things I’ve been meaning to show him he’s already figured out for himself.”

Ben refilled my mother’s cup. “He’s eleven. Have you ever known a boy his age who talks the way he does? A great deal of it comes from living in such an enlightened atmosphere.” Ben gestured to the wagons. “But most eleven-year-olds’ deepest thoughts have to do with skipping stones, and how to swing a cat by the tail.”

My mother laughed like bells, but Abenthy’s face was serious. “It’s true, lady. I’ve had older students that would have loved to do half as well.” He grinned. “If I had his hands, and one quarter his wit, I’d be eating off silver plates inside a year.”

There was a lull. My mother spoke softly, “I remember when he was just a little baby, toddling around. Watching, always watching. With clear bright eyes that looked like they wanted to swallow up the world.” Her voice had a little quaver in it. My father put his arm around her and she rested her head on his chest.

The next silence was longer. I was considering sneaking away when my father broke it. “What is it you suggest we do?” His voice was a mix of mild concern and fatherly pride.

Ben smiled gently. “Nothing except to think about what options you might give him when the time comes. He will leave his mark on the world as one of the best.”

“The best what?” my father rumbled.

“Whatever he chooses. If he stays here I don’t doubt he will become the next Illien.”

My father smiled. Illien is the troupers’ hero. The only truly famous Edema Ruh in all of history. All our oldest, best songs are his songs.

What’s more, if you believed the stories, Illien reinvented the lute in his lifetime. A master luthier, Illien transformed the archaic, fragile, unwieldy court lute into the marvelous, versatile, seven-string trouper’s lute we use today. The same stories claim Illien’s own lute had eight strings in all.

“Illien. I like that thought,” my mother said. “Kings coming from miles away to hear my little Kvothe play.”

“His music stopping barroom brawls and border wars.” Ben smiled.

“The wild women in his lap,” my father enthused, “laying their breasts on his head.”

There was a moment of stunned silence. Then my mother spoke slowly, with an edge to her voice. “I think you mean ‘wild beasts laying their heads in his lap.’ ”

“Do I?”

Ben coughed and continued. “If he decides to become an arcanist, I bet he’ll have a royal appointment by the time he’s twenty-four. If he gets it into his head to be a merchant I don’t doubt he’ll own half the world by the time he dies.”

My father’s brows knitted together. Ben smiled and said, “Don’t worry about the last one. He’s too curious for a merchant.”

Ben paused as if considering his next words very carefully. “He’d be accepted into the University, you know. Not for years, of course. Seventeen is about as young as they go, but I have no doubts about . . .”

I missed the rest of what Ben said. The University! I had come to think of it in the same way most children think of the Fae court, a mythical place reserved for dreaming about. A school the size of a small town. Ten times ten thousand books. People who would know the answers to any question I could ever ask. . . .

It was quiet when I turned my attention back to them.

My father was looking down at my mother, nestled under his arm. “How about it, woman? Did you happen to bed down with some wandering God a dozen years ago? That might solve our little mystery.”

She swatted at him playfully, and a thoughtful look crossed her face. “Come to think of it, there was a night, about a dozen years ago, a man came to me. He bound me with kisses and cords of chorded song. He robbed me of my virtue and stole me away.” She paused, “But he didn’t have red hair. Couldn’t be him.”

She smiled wickedly at my father, who appeared a little embarrassed. Then she kissed him. He kissed her back.

That’s how I like to remember them today. I snuck away with thoughts of the University dancing in my head.

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

Interlude—Flesh with Blood Beneath

In the Waystone Inn there was a silence. It surrounded the two men sitting at a table in an otherwise empty room. Kvothe had stopped speaking, and while he seemed to be staring down at his folded hands, in reality his eyes were far away. When he finally pulled his gaze upward, he seemed almost surprised to find Chronicler sitting across the table, pen poised above his inkwell.

Kvothe let out his breath self-consciously and motioned Chronicler to set down his pen. After a moment Chronicler complied, wiping the nib of the pen on a clean cloth before setting it down.

“I could use a drink,” Kvothe announced suddenly, as if he were surprised. “I haven’t told many stories lately, and I find myself unreasonably dry.” He rose smoothly from the table and began to make his way through the maze of empty tables toward the empty bar. “I can offer you almost anything, dark ale, pale wine, spiced cider, chocolate, coffee. . . .”

Chronicler raised an eyebrow. “Chocolate would be wonderful, if you have it. I wouldn’t expect to find that sort of thing this far from . . .” He cleared his throat politely. “Well, anywhere.”

“We have everything here at the Waystone,” Kvothe said, making an offhand gesture to the empty room. “Excepting any customers, of course.” He brought an earthenware jug up from underneath the bar, then set it on the bar with a hollow sound. He sighed before calling out, “Bast! Bring up some cider, would you?”

An indistinct reply echoed from a doorway at the back of the room.

“Bast,” Kvothe chided, seemingly too quiet to be heard.

“Shag down here and get it yourself, you hack!” the voice shouted up from the basement. “I’m in the middle of something.”

“Hired help?” Chronicler asked.

Kvothe leaned his elbows on the bar and smiled indulgently.

After a moment, the sound of someone climbing a set of wooden stairs in hard-soled boots echoed from the doorway. Bast stepped into the room, muttering under his breath.

He was dressed simply: black long-sleeved shirt tucked into black pants; black pants tucked into soft black boots. His face was sharp and delicate, almost beautiful, with striking blue eyes.

He carried a jug to the bar, walking with a strange and not unpleasant grace. “One customer?” he said reproachfully. “You couldn’t get it yourself? You pulled me away from Celum Tinture. You’ve been harping on me to read it for nearly a month now.”

“Bast, do you know what they do to students at the University who eavesdrop on their teachers?” Kvothe asked archly.

Bast put a hand on his chest and began to protest his innocence.

“Bast . . .” Kvothe gave him a stern look.

Bast closed his mouth and for a moment looked as if he was about to try and offer some explanation, then his shoulders slumped. “How did you know?”

Kvothe chuckled. “You’ve been avoiding that book for a mortal age. Either you had suddenly become an exceptionally dedicated student, or you were doing something incriminating.”

“What do they do to students at the University who eavesdrop?” Bast asked curiously.

“I haven’t the slightest idea, I was never caught. I think making you sit and listen to the rest of my story should be punishment enough. But I forget myself,” Kvothe said, gesturing to the common room. “We are neglecting our guest.”

Chronicler seemed anything but bored. As soon as Bast entered the room, Chronicler began to watch him curiously. As the conversation continued, Chronicler’s expression had grown by degrees more puzzled and more intent.

In fairness, something ought to be said about Bast. At first glance, he looked to be an average, if attractive, young man. But there was something different about him. For instance, he wore soft black leather boots. At least, if you looked at him that’s what you saw. But if you happened to catch a glimpse of him from the corner of your eye, and if he were standing in the right type of shadow, you might see something else entirely.

And if you had the right sort of mind, the sort of mind that actually sees what it looks at, you might notice that his eyes were odd. If your mind had the rare talent of not being fooled by its own expectations, you might notice something else about them, something strange and wonderful.

Because of this, Chronicler had been staring at Kvothe’s young student, trying to decide what was different about him. By the time their conversation was through, Chronicler’s gaze would be considered intense at the very least, and rude by most. When Bast finally turned from the bar, Chronicler’s eyes widened perceptibly, and the color drained from his already pale face.

Chronicler reached inside his shirt and tugged something from around his neck. He set it on the table at arm’s length, between himself and Bast. All this was done in half a second, and his eyes never left the dark-haired young man at the bar. Chronicler’s face was calm as he pressed the metal disk firmly onto the table with two fingers.

“Iron,” he said. His voice sounding with strange resonance, as if it were an order to be obeyed.

Bast doubled over as if punched in the stomach, baring his teeth and making a noise halfway between a growl and a scream. Moving with an unnatural, sinuous speed, he drew one hand back to the side of his head and tensed himself to spring.

It all happened in the time it takes to draw a sharp breath. Still, somehow, Kvothe’s long-fingered hand caught Bast’s wrist. Unaware or uncaring, Bast leaped toward Chronicler only to be brought up short, as if Kvothe’s hand were a shackle. Bast struggled furiously to free himself, but Kvothe stood behind the bar, arm outstretched, motionless as steel or stone.

“Stop!” Kvothe’s voice struck the air like a commandment, and in the stillness that followed, his words were sharp and angry. “I will have no fighting among my friends. I have lost enough without that.” His eyes caught Chronicler. “Undo that, or I will break it.”

Chronicler paused, shaken. Then his mouth moved silently, and with a slight tremor he drew his hand away from the circle of dull metal that lay upon the table.

Tension poured out of Bast, and for a moment he hung limply as a rag doll from the wrist Kvothe still held, standing behind the bar. Shakily, Bast managed to find his feet and lean against the bar. Kvothe gave him a long, searching look, then released his wrist.

Bast slumped onto the stool without taking his eyes from Chronicler. He moved gingerly, like a man with a tender wound.

And he had changed. The eyes that watched Chronicler were still a striking ocean blue, but now they showed themselves to be all one color, like gems or deep forest pools, and his soft leather boots had been replaced with graceful cloven hooves.

Kvothe motioned Chronicler forward imperiously, then turned to grab two thick glasses and a bottle seemingly at random. He set the glasses down as Bast and Chronicler eyed each other uneasily.

“Now,” Kvothe said angrily, “you’ve both acted understandably, but that does not by any means mean that either of you has behaved well. So, we might as well start over altogether.”

He drew a deep breath. “Bast, let me introduce you to Devan Lochees, also known as Chronicler. By all accounts a great teller, rememberer, and recorder of stories. In addition, unless I have suddenly lost all my wit, an accomplished member of the Arcanum, at least Re’lar, and one of perhaps two score people in the world who knows the name of iron.

“However,” Kvothe continued, “in spite of these accolades he seems to be a bit innocent of the ways of the world. As demonstrated by his plentiful lack of wit in making a near-suicidal attack on what I guess is the first of the folk he has ever had the luck to see.”

Chronicler stood impassively throughout the introduction, watching Bast as if he were a snake.

“Chronicler, I would like you to meet Bastas, son of Remmen, Prince of Twilight and the Telwyth Mael. The brightest, which is to say the only student I’ve had the misfortune to teach. Glamourer, bartender, and, not last, my friend.

“Who, over the course of a hundred and fifty years of life, not to mention nearly two years of my personal tutelage, has managed to avoid learning a few important facts. The first being this: attacking a member of the Arcanum skilled enough to make a binding of iron is foolish.”

“He attacked me!” said Bast hotly.

Kvothe looked at him coolly. “I didn’t say it was unjustified. I said it was foolish.”

“I would have won.”

“Very likely. But you would have been hurt, and he would be hurt or dead. Do you remember that I had introduced him as my guest?”

Bast was silent. His expression remained belligerent.

“Now,” said Kvothe with a brittle cheerfulness. “You’ve been introduced.”

“Pleased,” Bast said icily.

“Likewise,” Chronicler returned.

“There is no reason for you two to be anything other than friends,” Kvothe continued, an edge creeping into his voice. “And that is not how friends greet each other.”

Bast and Chronicler stared at each other, neither moved.

Kvothe’s voice grew quiet, “If you do not stop this foolishness, you may both leave now. One of you will be left with a slim sliver of story, and the other can search out a new teacher. If there is one thing I will not abide, it is the folly of a willful pride.”

Something about the low intensity of Kvothe’s voice broke the stare between them. And when they turned to look at him it seemed that someone very different was standing behind the bar. The jovial innkeeper was gone, and in his place stood someone dark and fierce.

He’s so young, Chronicler marveled. He can’t be more than twenty-five. Why didn’t I see it before? He could break me in his hands like a kindling stick. How did I ever mistake him for an innkeeper, even for a moment?

Then he saw Kvothe’s eyes. They had deepened to a green so dark they were nearly black. This is who I came to see, Chronicler thought to himself, this is the man who counseled kings and walked old roads with nothing but his wit to guide him. This is the man whose name has become both praise and curse at the University.

Kvothe stared at Chronicler and Bast in turn; neither could meet his eye for very long. After an awkward pause, Bast extended his hand. Chronicler hesitated for a bare moment before reaching out quickly, as if he were sticking his hand into a fire.

Nothing happened, both of them seemed moderately surprised.

“Amazing, isn’t it?” Kvothe addressed them bitingly. “Five fingers and flesh with blood beneath. One could almost believe that on the other end of that hand lay a person of some sort.”

Guilt crept into the expressions of the two men. They let go of each other’s hands.

Kvothe poured something from the green bottle into the glasses. This simple gesture changed him. He seemed to fade back into himself, until there was little left of the dark-eyed man who’d stood behind the bar a moment ago. Chronicler felt a pang of loss as he stared at the innkeeper with one hand hidden in a linen rag.

“Now.” Kvothe pushed the glasses toward them. “Take these drinks, sit at that table, and talk. When I come back, I don’t want to find either one of you dead or the building on fire. Fair?”

Bast gave an embarrassed smile as Chronicler picked up the glasses and moved back to the table. Bast followed him and almost sat down before returning to grab the bottle too.

“Not too much of that,” Kvothe cautioned as he stepped into the back room. “I don’t want you giggling through my story.”

The two at the table began a tense, halting conversation as Kvothe moved into the kitchen. Several minutes later he emerged, bringing out cheese and a loaf of dark bread, cold chicken and sausage, butter and honey.

They moved to a larger table as Kvothe brought the platters out, bustling about and looking every bit the innkeeper. Chronicler watched him covertly, finding it hard to believe that this man humming to himself and cutting sausage could be the same person who had stood behind the bar just minutes ago, dark-eyed and terrible.

As Chronicler gathered his paper and quills, Kvothe studied the angle of the sun through the window, a pensive look on his face. Eventually he turned to Bast. “How much did you manage to overhear?”

“Most of it, Reshi,” Bast smiled. “I have good ears.”

“That’s good. We don’t have time to backtrack.” He drew a deep breath. “Let’s get back to it then. Brace yourselves, the story takes a turn now. Downward. Darker. Clouds on the horizon.”

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

The Name of the Wind

Winter is a slow time of year for a traveling troupe, but Abenthy put it to good use and finally got around to teaching me sympathy in earnest. However, as is often the case, especially for children, the anticipation proved much more exciting than the reality.

It would be wrong to say that I was disappointed with sympathy. But honestly, I was disappointed. It was not what I expected magic to be.

It was useful. There was no denying that. Ben used sympathy to make light for our shows. Sympathy could start a fire without flint or lift a heavy weight without cumbersome ropes and pulleys.

But the first time I’d seen him, Ben had somehow called the wind. That was no mere sympathy. That was storybook magic. That was the secret I wanted more than anything.

Spring thaw was well behind us and the troupe was riding through the forests and fields of the western Commonwealth. I was riding along, as per normal, in the front of Ben’s wagon. Summer was just deciding to make itself known again and everything was green and growing.

Things had been quiet for about an hour. Ben was drowsing with the reins held loosely in one hand when the wagon hit a stone and jarred us both out of our respective reveries.

Ben pulled himself more upright in his seat, and addressed me in a tone I had grown to think of as Have-I-Got-a-Puzzle-for-You. “How would you bring a kettle of water to a boil?”

Looking around I saw a large boulder by the side of the road. I pointed.

“That stone should be warm from sitting in the sun. I’d bind it to the water in the kettle, and use the heat in the stone to bring the water to boil.”

“Stone to water isn’t very efficient,” Ben chided me. “Only about one part in fifteen would end up warming the water.”

“It would work.”

“I’ll grant you that. But it’s sloppy. You can do better, E’lir.”

He then proceeded to shout at Alpha and Beta, a sign that he was in a genuine good mood. They took it as calmly as ever, in spite of the fact that he accused them of things I’m sure no donkey has ever willingly done, especially not Beta, who possessed impeccable moral character.

Stopping midtirade, he asked, “How would you bring down that bird?” He gestured to a hawk riding the air above a wheat field to the side of the road.

“I probably wouldn’t. It’s done nothing to me.”

“Hypothetically.”

“I’m saying that, hypothetically, I wouldn’t do it.”

Ben chuckled. “Point made, E’lir. Precisely how wouldn’t you do it? Details please.”

“I’d get Teren to shoot it down.”

He nodded thoughtfully. “Good, good. However, it is a matter between you and the bird. That hawk,” he gestured indignantly, “has said something uncouth about your mother.”

“Ah. Then my honor demands I defend her good name myself.”

“Indeed it does.”

“Do I have a feather?”

“No.”

“Tehlu hold and—” I bit off the rest of what I was going to say at his disapproving look. “You never make it easy, do you?”

“It’s an annoying habit I picked up from a student who was too clever for his own good.” He smiled. “What could you do even if you had a feather?”

“I’d bind it to the bird and lather it with lye soap.”

Ben furrowed his brow, such as it was. “What kind of binding?”

“Chemical. Probably second catalytic.”

A thoughtful pause. “Second catalytic . . .” He scratched at his chin. “To dissolve the oil that makes the feather smooth?”

I nodded.

He looked up at the bird. “I’ve never thought of that,” he said with a kind of quiet admiration. I took it as a compliment.

“Nevertheless,” he looked back to me, “you have no feather. How do you bring it down?”

I thought for several minutes, but couldn’t think of anything. I decided to try and turn this into a different sort of lesson.

“I would,” I said casually, “simply call the wind, and make it strike the bird from the sky.”

Ben gave me a calculating look that told me he knew exactly what I was up to. “And how would you do that, E’lir?”

I sensed he might be ready to finally tell me the secret he had been keeping all through the winter months. At the same time I was struck with an idea.

I drew in a deep breath and spoke the words to bind the air in my lungs to the air outside. I fixed the Alar firmly in my mind, put my thumb and forefinger in front of my pursed lips, and blew between them.

There was a light puff of wind at my back that tousled my hair and caused the tarpaulin covering the wagon to pull taut for a moment. It might have been nothing more than a coincidence, but nevertheless, I felt an exultant smile overflow my face. For a second I did nothing but grin like a maniac at Ben, his face dull with disbelief.

Then I felt something squeeze my chest, as if I was deep underwater.

I tried to draw a breath but couldn’t. Mildly confused, I kept trying. It felt as if I’d just fallen flat on my back and had the air driven from me.

All in a rush I realized what I had done. My body exploded into a cold sweat and I grabbed frantically at Ben’s shirt, pointing at my chest, my neck, my open mouth.

Ben’s face turned from shocked to ashen as he looked at me.

I realized how still everything was. Not a blade of grass was stirring. Even the sound of the wagon seemed muted, as if far off in the distance.

Terror screamed through my mind, drowning out any thought. I began to claw at my throat, ripping my shirt open. My heart thundered through the ringing in my ears. Pain stabbed through my straining chest as I gaped for air.

Moving more quickly than I had ever seen before, Ben grabbed me by the tatters of my shirt and sprang from the seat of the wagon. Landing in the grass by the side of the road, he dashed me to the ground with such a force that, if I’d had any air in my lungs, it would have been driven out of me.

Tears streaked my face as I thrashed blindly. I knew that I was going to die. My eyes felt hot and red. I raked madly at the earth with hands that were numb and cold as ice.

I was aware of someone shouting, but it seemed very far away. Ben kneeled above me, but the sky was getting dim behind him. He seemed almost distracted, as if he were listening to something I couldn’t hear.

Then he looked at me, all I remember were his eyes, they seemed far away and filled with a terrible power, dispassionate and cold.

He looked at me. His mouth moved. He called the wind.

A leaf in lightning, I shook. And the thunderclap was black.

The next thing I remember was Ben helping me to my feet. I was dimly aware of the other wagons stopping and curious faces peering at us. My mother came away from our wagon and Ben met her halfway, chuckling and saying something reassuring. I couldn’t make out the words as I was focused on breathing deep, in and out.

The other wagons trundled on, and I followed Ben mutely back to his wagon. He made a show of puttering around, checking the cords that held the tarpaulin tight. I collected my wits and was helping as best I could when the final wagon in the troupe passed us.

When I looked up, Ben’s eyes were furious. “What were you thinking?” he hissed. “Well? What? What were you thinking?” I’d never seen him like this before, his whole body drawn up into a tight knot of anger. He was shaking with it. He drew back his arm to strike me . . . then stopped. After a moment his hand fell to his side.

Moving methodically he checked the last couple of ropes and climbed back onto the wagon. Not knowing what else to do, I followed him.

Ben twitched the reins and Alpha and Beta tugged the wagon into motion. We were last in line now. Ben stared straight ahead. I fingered the torn front of my shirt. It was tensely silent.

In hindsight, what I had done was glaringly stupid. When I bound my breath to the air outside, it made it impossible for me to breathe. My lungs weren’t strong enough to move that much air. I would have needed a chest like an iron bellows. I would have had as much luck trying to drink a river or lift a mountain.

We rode for about two hours in an uncomfortable silence. The sun was brushing the tops of the trees when Ben finally drew in a deep breath and let it out in an explosive sigh. He handed me the reins.

When I looked back at him I realized for the first time how old he was. I had always known he was nearing his third score of years, but I’d never seen him look it before.

 “I lied to your mother back there, Kvothe. She saw the end of what happened and was worried about you.” His eyes didn’t move from the wagon ahead of ours as he spoke. “I told her we were working on something for a performance. She’s a good woman. She deserves better than lies.”

We rode on in an endless agony of silence, but it was still a few hours before sunset when I heard voices calling “Greystone!” down the line. The bump of our wagon turning onto the grass jostled Ben from his brooding.

He looked around and saw the sun was still in the sky. “Why are we stopping so early? Tree across the road?”

“Greystone.” I gestured up ahead to the slab of stone that loomed over the tops of the wagons ahead of us.

“What?”

“Every once in a while we run across one by the road.” I gestured again to the greystone peering over the tops of smaller trees by the roadside. Like most greystones it was a crudely hewn rectangle about a dozen feet tall. The wagons gathering around it seemed rather insubstantial compared to the stone’s solid presence. “I’ve heard them called standing stones, but I’ve seen a lot of them that weren’t standing, just lying on their sides. We always stop for the day when we find one, unless we’re in a terrible hurry.” I stopped, realizing I was babbling.

“I’ve known them by a different name. Waystones,” Ben said quietly. He looked old and tired. After a moment he asked, “Why do you stop when you find one?”

“We just always do. It’s a break from the road.” I thought for a moment. “I think they’re supposed to be good luck.” I wished I had more to say to keep the conversation going, his interest piqued, but I couldn’t think of anything else.

“I suppose they could be at that.” Ben guided Alpha and Beta into a spot on the far side of the stone, away from most of the other wagons. “Come back for dinner or soon afterward. We need to talk.” He turned without looking at me and began to unhitch Alpha from the wagon.

I’d never seen Ben in a mood like this before. Worried that I’d ruined things between us, I turned and ran to my parents’ wagon.

I found my mother sitting in front of a fresh fire, slowly adding twigs to build it up. My father sat behind her, rubbing her neck and shoulders. They both looked up at the sound of my feet running toward them.

“Can I eat with Ben tonight?”

My mother looked up at my father, then back to me. “You shouldn’t make yourself a nuisance, dear.”

“He invited. If I go now, I can help him set up for the night.”

She wiggled her shoulders, and my father started rubbing them again. She smiled at me. “Fair enough, but don’t keep him up until the wee hours.” She smiled at me. “Give me a kiss.” She held out her arms and I gave her a hug and a kiss.

My father gave me a kiss too. “Let me have your shirt. It’ll give me something to do while your mother fixes dinner.” He skinned me out of it and fingered the torn edges. “This shirt is wholly holey, more than it has any right to be.”

I started to stammer out an explanation but he waved it aside. “I know, I know, it was all for the greater good. Try to be more careful, or I’ll make you sew it yourself. There’s a fresh one in your trunk. Bring me needle and thread while you’re in there, if you’d be so kind.”

I made a dash into the back of the wagon and drew on a fresh shirt. While I rummaged around for needle and thread I heard my mother singing:

“In evening when the sun is setting fast,
I’ll watch for you from high above
The time for your return is long since past
But mine is ever-faithful love.”

My father answered:

“In evening when the light is dying
My feet at last are homeward turning
The wind is through the willows sighing
Please keep the hearthfire burning.”

When I came out of the wagon, he had her in a dramatic dip and was giving her a kiss. I set the needle and thread next to my shirt and waited. It seemed like a good kiss. I watched with a calculating eye, dimly aware that at some point in the future I might want to kiss a lady. If I did, I wanted to do a decent job of it.

After a moment my father noticed me and stood my mother back on her feet. “That will be ha’penny for the show, Master Voyeur,” he laughed. “What are you still here for, boy? I’ll bet you the same ha’penny that a question slowed you down.”

“Why do we stop for the greystones?”

“Tradition, my boy,” he said grandly, throwing his arms wide. “And superstition. They are one and the same, anyway. We stop for good luck and because everyone enjoys an unexpected holiday.” He paused. “I used to know a bit of poem about them. How did it go . . . ?

“Like a drawstone even in our sleep
Standing stone by old road is the way
To lead you ever deeper into Fae.
Laystone as you lay in hill or dell
Greystone leads to something something ‘ell’.”

My father stood for a second or two looking off into space and tugging at his lower lip. Finally he shook his head. “Can’t remember the end of that last line. Lord but I dislike poetry. How can anyone remember words that aren’t put to music?” His forehead creased with concentration as he mouthed the words silently to himself.

“What’s a drawstone?” I asked.

“It’s an old name for loden-stones,” my mother explained. “They’re pieces of star-iron that draw all other iron toward themselves. I saw one years ago in a curiosity cabinet.” She looked up at my father who was still muttering to himself. “We saw the loden-stone in Peleresin, didn’t we?”

“Hmmm? What?” The question jogged him out of his reverie. “Yes. Peleresin.” He tugged at his lip again and frowned. “Remember this, son, if you forget everything else. A poet is a musician who can’t sing. Words have to find a man’s mind before they can touch his heart, and some men’s minds are woeful small targets. Music touches their hearts directly no matter how small or stubborn the mind of the man who listens.”

My mother made a slightly unladylike snort. “Elitist. You’re just getting old.” She gave a dramatic sigh. “Truly, all the more’s the tragedy; the second thing to go is a man’s memory.”

My father puffed up into an indignant pose but my mother ignored him and said to me, “Besides, the only tradition that keeps troupes by the grey-stone is laziness. The poem should run like this:

“Whatever the season
That I’m on the road
I look for a reason
Loden or laystone
To lay down my load.”

My father had a dark glimmer in his eye as he moved behind her. “Old?” He spoke in a low voice as he began to rub her shoulders again. “Woman, I have a mind to prove you wrong.”

She smiled a wry smile. “Sir, I have a mind to let you.”

I decided to leave them to their discussion and started to scamper back to Ben’s wagon when I heard my father call out behind me, “Scales after lunch tomorrow? And the second act of Tinbertin?”

“Okay.” I burst into a jog.

When I got back to Ben’s wagon he had already unhitched Alpha and Beta and was rubbing them down. I started to set up the fire, surrounding dry leaves with a pyramid of progressively larger twigs and branches. When I was finished I turned to where Ben sat.

More silence. I could almost see him picking out his words as he spoke. “How much do you know about your father’s new song?”

“The one about Lanre?” I asked. “Not much. You know what he’s like. No one hears it until it’s finished. Not even me.”

“I’m not talking about the song itself,” Ben said. “The story behind it. Lanre’s story.”

I thought about the dozens of stories I’d heard my father collect over the last year, trying to pick out the common threads. “Lanre was a prince,” I said. “Or a king. Someone important. He wanted to be more powerful than anyone else in the world. He sold his soul for power but then something went wrong and afterward I think he went crazy, or he couldn’t ever sleep again, or . . .” I stopped when I saw Ben shaking his head.

“He didn’t sell his soul,” Ben said. “That’s just nonsense.” He gave a great sigh that seemed to leave him deflated. “I’m doing this all wrong. Never mind your father’s song. We’ll talk about it after he finishes it. Knowing Lanre’s story might give you some perspective.”

Ben took a deep breath and tried again. “Suppose you have a thoughtless six-year-old. What harm can he do?”

I paused, unsure what sort of answer he wanted. Straightforward would probably be best. “Not much.”

“Suppose he’s twenty, and still thoughtless, how dangerous is he?”

I decided to stick with the obvious answers. “Still not much, but more than before.”

“What if you give him a sword?”

Realization started to dawn on me, and I closed my eyes. “More, much more. I understand, Ben. Really I do. Power is okay, and stupidity is usually harmless. Power and stupidity together are dangerous.”

“I never said stupid,” Ben corrected me. “You’re clever. We both know that. But you can be thoughtless. A clever, thoughtless person is one of the most terrifying things there is. Worse, I’ve been teaching you some dangerous things.”

Ben looked at the fire I’d laid out, then picked up a leaf, mumbled a few words, and watched a small flame flicker into life in the center of the twigs and tinder. He turned to look at me. “You could kill yourself doing something as simple as that.” He gave a sickly grin. “Or looking for the name of the wind.”

He started to say something else, then stopped and rubbed his face with his hands. He gave a great sigh that seemed to deflate him. When he took his hands away, his face was tired. “How old are you again?”

“Twelve next month.”

He shook his head. “It’s so easy to forget that. You don’t act your age.” He poked at the fire with a stick, “I was eighteen when I began at the University,” he said. “I was twenty before I knew as much as you do now.” He stared into the fire. “I’m sorry, Kvothe. I need to be alone tonight. I need to do some thinking.”

I nodded silently. I went to his wagon, gathered tripod and kettle, water and tea. I brought them back and quietly laid them beside Ben. He was still staring into the fire when I turned away.

Knowing my parents wouldn’t expect me back for a while, I headed into the forest. I had some thinking of my own to do. I owed Ben that much. I wished I could do more.

It took a full span of days before Ben was his normal, jovial self again. But even then things weren’t the same between us. We were still fast friends, but there was something between us, and I could tell he was consciously holding himself apart.

Lessons ground to a near standstill. He halted my fledgling study of alchemy, limiting me to chemistry instead. He refused to teach me any sygaldry at all, and on top of everything else, he began to ration what little sympathy he thought safe for me.

I chafed at the delays, but held my peace, trusting that if I showed myself to be responsible and meticulously careful, he would eventually relax and things would return to normal. We were family, and I knew that any trouble between us would eventually be smoothed over. All I needed was time.

Little did I know our time was quickly drawing to an end.

CHAPTER FIFTEEN

Distractions and Farewells

The town was called Hallowfell. We stopped for a handful of days because there was a good wainwright there, and nearly all our wagons needed tending or mending of some sort. While we were waiting, Ben got the offer he couldn’t refuse.

She was a widow, fairly wealthy, fairly young, and to my inexperienced eyes, fairly attractive. The official story was that she needed someone to tutor her young son. However, anyone who saw the two of them walking together knew the truth behind that story.

She had been the brewer’s wife, but he had drowned two years ago. She was trying to run the brewery as best she could, but she didn’t really have the know-how to do a good job of it. . . .

As you can see, I don’t think anyone could have built a better snare for Ben if they had tried.

Plans were changed and the troupe stayed on at Hallowfell for a few extra days. My twelfth birthday was moved up and combined with Ben’s going away party.

To truly understand what it was like, you must realize that nothing is so grand as a troupe showing off for one another. Good entertainers try to make each performance seem special, but you need to remember that the show they’re putting on for you is the same one they’ve put on for hundreds of other audiences. Even the most dedicated troupes have an occasional lackluster performance, especially when they know they can get away with it.

Small towns, rural inns, those places didn’t know good entertainment from bad. Your fellow performers did.

Think then, how do you entertain the people who have seen your act a thousand times? You dust off the old tricks. You try out some new ones. You hope for the best. And, of course, the grand failures are as entertaining as the great successes.

I remember the evening as a wonderful blur of warm emotion, tinged in bitter. Fiddles, lutes, and drums, everyone played and danced and sang as they wished. I dare say we rivaled any faerie revel you can bring to mind.

I got presents. Trip gave me a belt knife with a leather grip, claiming that all boys should have something they can hurt themselves with. Shandi gave me a lovely cloak she had made, scattered with little pockets for a boy’s treasures. My parents gave me a lute, a beautiful thing of smooth dark wood. I had to play a song of course, and Ben sang with me. I slipped a little on the strings of the unfamiliar instrument, and Ben wandered off looking for notes once or twice, but it was nice.

Ben opened up a small keg of mead he had been saving for “just such an occasion.” I remember it tasting the way I felt, sweet and bitter and sullen.

Several people had collaborated to write “The Ballad of Ben, Brewer Supreme.” My father recited it as gravely as if it were the Modegan royal lineage while accompanying himself on a half harp. Everyone laughed until they hurt, and Ben twice as much as everyone else.

At some point in the night, my mother swept me up and danced around in a great spinning circle. Her laughter sang out like music trailing in the wind. Her hair and skirt spun around me as she twirled. She smelled comforting, the way only mothers do. That smell, and the quick laughing kiss she gave me did more to ease the dull ache of Ben’s leaving than all the entertainments combined.

Shandi offered to do a special dance for Ben, but only if he came into her tent to see it. I’d never seen Ben blush before, but he did it well. He hesitated, and when he refused it was obviously about as easy for him as tearing out his own soul. Shandi protested and pouted prettily, saying she’d been practicing it for a long time. Finally she dragged him into the tent, their disappearance encouraged by a cheer from the entire troupe.

Trip and Teren staged a mock sword fight that was one part breathtaking swordplay, one part dramatic soliloquy (provided by Teren), and one part buffoonery that I’m sure Trip must have invented on the spot. It ranged all over the camp. In the course of the fight Trip managed to break his sword, hide under a lady’s dress, fence with a sausage, and perform such fantastical acrobatics that it’s a miracle he didn’t seriously injure himself. Although he did split his pants up the back.

Dax set himself alight while attempting a spectacular bit of fire breathing and had to be doused. All he suffered was a bit of singed beard and a slightly bruised pride. He recovered quickly under Ben’s tender ministrations, a mug of mead, and a reminder that not everyone was cut out to have eyebrows.

My parents sang “The Lay of Sir Savien Traliard.” Like most of the great songs, Sir Savien was written by Illien, and generally considered to be his crowning work.

It’s a beautiful song, made more so by the fact that I’d only heard my father perform the whole thing a handful of times before. It’s hellishly complex, and my father was probably the only one in the troupe who could do it justice. Though he didn’t particularly show it, I knew it was taxing even for him. My mother sang the counter-harmony, her voice soft and lilting. Even the fire seemed subdued when they took a breath. I felt my heart lift and dive. I wept as much for the glory of two voices so perfectly enmeshed as for the tragedy of the song.

Yes, I cried at the end of it. I did then, and I have every time since. Even a reading of the story aloud will bring tears to my eyes. In my opinion, anyone who isn’t moved by it is less than human inside.

There was a momentary quiet after they finished, wherein everyone wiped their eyes and blew their noses. Then, after a suitable period of recovery had elapsed, someone called out, “Lanre! Lanre!”

The shout was taken up by several other people. “Yes, Lanre!”

My father gave a wry smile and shook his head. He never performed any part of a song until it was finished.

“C’mon, Arl!” Shandi called out. “You’ve been stewing it long enough. Let some out of the pot.”

He shook his head again, still smiling. “It’s not ready yet.” He bent down and carefully set his lute into its case.

“Let’s have a taste, Arliden.” It was Teren this time.

“Yeah, for Ben’s sake. It’s not fair that he should have to hear you mumble over it for all this while and not get . . .”

“. . . are wondering what you’re doing in that wagon with your wife if it’s not . . .”

“Sing it!”

“Lanre!”

Trip quickly organized the whole troupe into a great chanting, howling mass that my father managed to withstand for almost a minute before he stooped and lifted his lute back out of the case. Everyone cheered.

The crowd hushed as soon as he sat back down. He tuned a string or two, even though he’d only just set it down. He flexed his fingers and struck a few soft, experimental notes, then swept into the song so gently that I caught myself listening to it before I knew it had begun. Then my father’s voice spoke over the rise and fall of the music.

“Sit and listen all, for I will sing
A story, wrought and forgotten in a time
Old and gone. A story of a man.
Proud Lanre, strong as the spring
Steel of the sword he had at ready hand.
Hear how he fought, fell, and rose again,
To fall again. Under shadow falling then.
Love felled him, love for native land,
And love of his wife Lyra, at whose calling
Some say he rose, through doors of death
To speak her name as his first reborn breath.”

My father drew a breath and paused, his mouth open as if he would continue. Then a wide, wicked grin spread across his face and he bent to tuck his lute safely away. There was an outcry and a great deal of complaining, but everyone knew they had been lucky to hear as much as they had. Someone else struck up a song for dancing, and the protests faded away.

My parents danced together, her head on his chest. Both had their eyes closed. They seemed so perfectly content. If you can find someone like that, someone who you can hold and close your eyes to the world with, then you’re lucky. Even if it only lasts for a minute or a day. The image of them gently swaying to the music is how I picture love in my mind even after all these years.

Afterward, Ben danced with my mother, his steps sure and stately. I was struck by how beautiful they looked together. Ben, old, grey, and portly, with his lined face and half-burned eyebrows. My mother, slender, fresh, and bright, pale and smooth-skinned in the firelight. They complemented each other by contrast. I ached knowing I might never see them together again. 

By this time the sky was beginning to brighten in the east. Everyone gathered to say their final good-byes.

I can’t remember what I said to him before we left. I know it felt woefully inadequate, but I knew he understood. He made me promise not to get myself into any trouble, tinkering with the things he had taught me.

He stooped a bit and gave me a hug, then tousled my hair. I didn’t even mind. In semiretaliation I tried to smooth out his eyebrows, something I’d always wanted to try.

His expression was marvelous in its surprise. He gathered me into another hug. Then he stepped away.

My parents promised to steer the troupe back toward the town when we were in the area. All the troupers said they wouldn’t need much steering. But, even as young as I was, I knew the truth. It would be a great long time before I saw him again. Years.

I don’t remember starting out that morning, but I do remember trying to sleep and feeling quite alone except for a dull, bittersweet ache.

When I awoke later in the afternoon I found a package resting next to me. Wrapped in sackcloth and tied with twine, there was a bright piece of paper with my name fixed to the top, waving in the wind like a little flag.

Unwrapping it, I recognized the book’s binding. It was Rhetoric and Logic, the book Ben had used to teach me argument. Out of his small library of a dozen books it was the only one I hadn’t read from cover to cover. I hated it.

I cracked it open and saw writing on the inside cover. It said: 

“Kvothe,

Defend yourself well at the University. Make me proud.

Remember your father’s song. Be wary of folly.

Your friend,

Abenthy.”

 Ben and I had never discussed my attending the University. Of course I had dreams of going there, someday. But they were dreams I hesitated to share with my parents. Attending the University would mean leaving my parents, my troupe, everyone and everything I had ever known.

Quite frankly, the thought was terrifying. What would it be like to settle in one place, not just for an evening or a span of days, but for months? Years? No more performing? No tumbling with Trip, or playing the bratty young noble’s son in Three Pennies for Wishing? No more wagons? No one to sing with?

I’d never said anything aloud, but Ben would have guessed. I read his inscription again, cried a bit, and promised him that I would do my best.

CHAPTER SIXTEEN

Hope

Over the next months my parents did their best to patch the hole left by Ben’s absence, bringing in the other troupers to fill my time productively and keep me from moping.

You see, in the troupe age had little to do with anything. If you were strong enough to saddle the horses, you saddled the horses. If your hands were quick enough, you juggled. If you were clean shaven and fit the dress, you played Lady Reythiel in The Swineherd and the Nightingale. Things were generally as simple as that.

So Trip taught me how to jape and tumble. Shandi walked me though the courtly dances of a half dozen countries. Teren measured me against the hilt of his sword and judged that I had grown tall enough to begin the basics of swordplay. Not enough to actually fight, he stressed. But enough so I could make a good show of it on stage.

The roads were good this time of year, so we made excellent time traveling north through the Commonwealth: fifteen, twenty miles a day as we searched out new towns to play. With Ben gone, I rode with my father more often, and he began my formal training for the stage.

I already knew a great deal, of course. But what I had picked up was an undisciplined hodgepodge. My father systematically went about showing me the true mechanics of the actor’s trade. How slight changes in accent or posture make a man seem oafish, or sly, or silly.

Lastly, my mother began teaching me how to comport myself in polite society. I knew a little from our infrequent stays with Baron Greyfallow, and thought I was quite genteel enough without having to memorize forms of address, table manners, and the elaborate snarled rankings of the peerage. Eventually, I told my mother exactly that.

“Who cares if a Modegan viscount outranks a Vintish spara-thain?” I protested. “And who cares if one is ‘your grace’ and the other is ‘my lord?’ ”

“They care,” my mother said firmly. “If you perform for them, you need to conduct yourself with dignity and learn to keep your elbow out of the soup.”

“Father doesn’t worry about which fork to use and who outranks who,” I groused.

My mother frowned, her eyes narrowing.

“Who outranks whom,” I said grudgingly.

“Your father knows more than he lets on,” my mother said. “And what he doesn’t know he breezes past due to his considerable charm. That’s how he gets by.” She took my chin and turned my face toward her. Her eyes were green with a ring of gold around the pupil. “Do you just want to get by? Or do you want to make me proud?”

There was only one answer to that. Once I knuckled down to learn it, it was just another type of acting. Another script. My mother made rhymes to help me remember the more nonsensical elements of etiquette. And together we wrote a dirty little song called “The Pontifex Always Ranks Under a Queen.” We laughed over it for a solid month, and she strictly forbade me to sing it to my father, lest he play it in front of the wrong people someday and get us all into serious trouble.

“Tree!” The shout came faintly down the line. “Threeweight oak!”

My father stopped in the middle of the monologue he had been reciting for me and gave an irritated sigh. “That’ll be as far as we get today then,” he grumbled, looking up at the sky.

“Are we stopping?” my mother called from inside the wagon.

“Another tree across the road,” I explained.

“I swear,” my father said, steering the wagon to a clear space at the side of the road. “Is this the king’s road or isn’t it? You’d think we were the only people on it. How long ago was that storm? Two span?”

“Not quite,” I said. “Sixteen days.”

“And trees still blocking the road! I’ve a mind to send the consulate a bill for every tree we’ve had to cut and drag out of the way. This will put us another three hours behind schedule.” He hopped from the wagon as it rolled to a halt.

“I think it’s nice,” my mother said, walking around from the back of the wagon. “Gives us the chance for something hot,” she gave my father a significant look, “to eat. It gets frustrating making do with whatever you can grab at the end of the day. A body wants more.”

My father’s mood seemed to temper considerably. “There is that,” he said.

“Sweet?” my mother called to me. “Do you think you could find me some wild sage?”

“I don’t know if it grows around here,” I said with the proper amount of uncertainty in my voice.

“No harm in looking,” she said sensibly. She looked at my father from the corner of her eye. “If you can find enough, bring back an armload. We’ll dry it for later.”

Typically, whether or not I found what I was looking for didn’t matter very much.

It was my habit to wander away from the troupe in the evenings. I usually had some sort of errand to run while my parents set up for dinner. But it was just an excuse for us to get away from each other. Privacy is hard to come by on the road, and they needed it as much as I did. So if it took me an hour to gather an armload of firewood they didn’t mind. And if they hadn’t started dinner by the time I came back, well, that was only fair, wasn’t it?

I hope they spent those last few hours well. I hope they didn’t waste them on mindless tasks: kindling the evening fire and cutting vegetables for dinner. I hope they sang together, as they so often did. I hope they retired to our wagon and spent time in each other’s arms. I hope they lay near each other afterward and spoke softly of small things. I hope they were together, busy with loving each other, until the end came.

It is a small hope, and pointless really. They are just as dead either way.

Still, I hope.

Let us pass over the time I spent alone in the woods that evening, playing games that children invent to amuse themselves. The last carefree hours of my life. The last moments of my childhood.

Let us pass over my return to the camp just as the sun was beginning to set. The sight of bodies strewn about like broken dolls. The smell of blood and burning hair. How I wandered aimlessly about, too disoriented for proper panic, numb with shock and dread.

I would pass over the whole of that evening, in fact. I would spare you the burden of any of it if one piece were not necessary to the story. It is vital. It is the hinge upon which the story pivots like an opening door. In some ways, this is where the story begins. So let’s have done with it.

Scattered patches of smoke hung in the still evening air. It was quiet, as if everyone in the troupe was listening for something. As if they were all holding their breath. An idle wind tussled the leaves in the trees and wafted a patch of smoke like a low cloud toward me. I stepped out of the forest and through the smoke, heading into the camp.

I left the cloud of smoke and rubbed some of the sting from my eyes. As I looked around I saw Trip’s tent lying half collapsed and smoldering in his fire. The treated canvas burned fitfully, and the acrid grey smoke hung close to the ground in the quiet evening air.

I saw Teren’s body lying by his wagon, his sword broken in his hand. The green and grey he normally wore was wet and red with blood. One of his legs was twisted unnaturally and the splintered bone showing through the skin was very, very white.

I stood, unable to look away from Teren, the grey shirt, the red blood, the white bone. I stared as if it were a diagram in a book I was trying to understand. My body grew numb. I felt as if I was trying to think through syrup.

Some small rational part of me realized I was in deep shock. It repeated the fact to me again and again. I used all Ben’s training to ignore it. I did not want to think about what I saw. I did not want to know what had happened here. I did not want to know what any of this meant.

After I don’t know how long, a wisp of smoke broke my line of vision. I sat down next to the nearest fire in a daze. It was Shandi’s fire, and a small pot hung simmering, boiling potatoes, strangely familiar among the chaos.

I focused on the kettle. Something normal. I used a stick to poke at the contents and saw that they were finished cooking. Normal. I lifted the kettle from the fire and set it on the ground next to Shandi’s body. Her clothes hung in tatters about her. I tried to brush her hair away from her face and my hand came back sticky with blood. The firelight reflected in her flat, empty eyes.

I stood and looked about aimlessly. Trip’s tent was entirely aflame by now, and Shandi’s wagon was standing with one wheel in Marion’s campfire. Аll the flames were tinged with blue, making the scene dreamlike and surreal.

I heard voices. Peering around the corner of Shandi’s wagon I saw several unfamiliar men and women sitting around a fire. My parents’ fire. A dizziness swept over me and I reached out a hand to steady myself against the wagon’s wheel. When I gripped it, the iron bands that reinforced the wheel crumbled in my hand, flaking away in gritty sheets of brown rust. When I pulled my hand away the wheel creaked and began to crack. I stepped back as it gave way, the wagon splintering as if its wood were rotten as an old stump.

I now stood in full view of the fire. One of the men tumbled backward and came to his feet with his sword out. His motion reminded me of quicksilver rolling from a jar onto a tabletop: effortless and supple. His expression was intent, but his body was relaxed, as if he had just stood and stretched.

His sword was pale and elegant. When it moved, it cut the air with a brittle sound. It reminded me of the quiet that settles on the coldest days in winter when it hurts to breathe and everything is still.

He was two dozen feet from me, but I could see him perfectly in the fading light of sunset. I remember him as clearly as I remember my own mother, sometimes better. His face was narrow and sharp, with the perfect beauty of porcelain. His hair was shoulder length, framing his face in loose curls the color of frost. He was a creature of winter’s pale. Everything about him was cold and sharp and white.

Except his eyes. They were black like a goat’s but with no iris. His eyes were like his sword, and neither one reflected the light of the fire or the setting sun.

He relaxed when he saw me. He dropped the tip of his sword and smiled with perfect ivory teeth. It was the expression a nightmare wore. I felt a stab of feeling penetrate the confusion I clutched around me like a thick protective blanket. Something put both its hands deep into my chest and clutched. It may have been the first time in my life I was ever truly afraid.

Back by the fire, a bald man with a grey beard chuckled. “Looks like we missed a little rabbit. Careful Cinder, his teeth may be sharp.”

The one called Cinder sheathed his sword with the sound of a tree cracking under the weight of winter ice. Keeping his distance, he knelt. Again I was reminded of the way mercury moved. Now on eye level with me, his expression grew concerned behind his matte-black eyes. “What’s your name, boy?”

I stood there, mute. Frozen as a startled fawn.

Cinder sighed and dropped his gaze to the ground for a moment. When he looked back up at me I saw pity staring at me with hollow eyes.

“Young man,” he said, “wherever are your parents?” He held my gaze for a moment and then looked over his shoulder back toward the fire where the others sat.

“Does anyone know where his parents are?”

Some of them smiled, hard and brittle, as if enjoying a particularly good joke. One or two of them laughed aloud. Cinder turned back to me and the pity fell away like a cracked mask, leaving only the nightmare smile upon his face.

“Is this your parents’ fire?” he asked with a terrible delight in his voice.

I nodded numbly.

His smile slowly faded. Expressionless, he looked deep into me. His voice was quiet, cold, and sharp. “Someone’s parents,” he said, “have been singing entirely the wrong sort of songs.”

“Cinder.” A cool voice came from the direction of the fire.

His black eyes narrowed in irritation. “What?” he hissed.

“You are approaching my displeasure. This one has done nothing. Send him to the soft and painless blanket of his sleep.” The cool voice caught slightly on the last word, as if it were difficult to say.

The voice came from a man who sat apart from the rest, wrapped in shadow at the edge of the fire. Though the sky was still bright with sunset and nothing stood between the fire and where he sat, shadow pooled around him like thick oil. The fire snapped and danced, lively and warm, tinged with blue, but no flicker of its light came close to him. The shadow gathered thicker around his head. I could catch a glimpse of a deep cowl like some priests wear, but underneath the shadows were so deep it was like looking down a well at midnight.

Cinder glanced briefly at the shadowed man, then turned away. “You are as good as a watcher, Haliax,” he snapped.

“And you seem to forget our purpose,” the dark man said, his cool voice sharpening. “Or does your purpose simply differ from my own?” The last words were spoken carefully, as if they held special significance.

Cinder’s arrogance left him in a second, like water poured from a bucket. “No,” he said, turning back toward the fire. “No, certainly not.”

“That is good. I hate to think of our long acquaintance coming to an end.”

“As do I.”

“Refresh me again as to our relationship, Cinder,” the shadowed man said, a deep sliver of anger running through his patient tone.

“I . . . I am in your service. . . .” Cinder made a placating gesture.

“You are a tool in my hand,” the shadowed man interrupted gently. “Nothing more.”

A hint of defiance touched Cinder’s expression. He paused. “I wo—”

The soft voice went as hard as a rod of Ramston steel. “Ferula.”

Cinder’s quicksilver grace disappeared. He staggered, his body suddenly rigid with pain.

“You are a tool in my hand,” the cool voice repeated. “Say it.”

Cinder’s jaw clenched angrily for a moment, then he convulsed and cried out, sounding more like a wounded animal than a man. “I am a tool in your hand,” he gasped.

“Lord Haliax.”

“I am a tool in your hand, Lord Haliax,” Cinder amended as he crumpled, trembling, to his knees.

“Who knows the inner turnings of your name, Cinder?” The words were spoken with a slow patience, like a schoolmaster reciting a forgotten lesson.

Cinder wrapped shaking arms around his midsection and hunched over, closing his eyes. “You, Lord Haliax.”

“Who keeps you safe from the Amyr? The singers? The Sithe? From all that would harm you in the world?” Haliax asked with calm politeness, as if genuinely curious as to what the answer might be.

“You, Lord Haliax.” Cinder’s voice was a quiet shred of pain.

“And whose purpose do you serve?”

“Your purpose, Lord Haliax.” The words were choked out. “Yours. None other.” The tension left the air and Cinder’s body suddenly went slack. He fell forward onto his hands and beads of sweat fell from his face to patter on the ground like rain. His white hair hung limp around his face. “Thank you, lord,” he gasped out earnestly. “I will not forget again.”

“You will. You are too fond of your little cruelties. All of you.” Haliax’s hooded face swept back and forth to look at each of the figures sitting around the fire. They stirred uncomfortably. “I am glad I decided to accompany you today. You are straying, indulging in whimsy. Some of you seem to have forgotten what it is we seek, what we wish to achieve.” The others sitting around the fire stirred uneasily.

The hood turned back to Cinder. “But you have my forgiveness. Perhaps if not for these remindings, it would be I who would forget.” There was an edge to the last of his words. “Now, finish what—” His cool voice trailed away as his shadowed hood slowly tilted to look toward the sky. There was an expectant silence.

Those sitting around the fire grew perfectly still, their expressions intent. In unison they tilted their heads as if looking at the same point in the twilit sky. As if trying to catch the scent of something on the wind.

A feeling of being watched pulled at my attention. I felt a tenseness, a subtle change in the texture of the air. I focused on it, glad for the distraction, glad for anything that might keep me from thinking clearly for just a few more seconds.

“They come,” Haliax said quietly. He stood, and shadow seemed to boil outward from him like a dark fog. “Quickly. To me.”

The others rose from their seats around the fire. Cinder scrambled to his feet and staggered a half dozen steps toward the fire.

Haliax spread his arms and the shadow surrounding him bloomed like a flower unfolding. Then, each of the others turned with a studied ease and took a step toward Haliax, into the shadow surrounding him. But as their feet came down they slowed, and gently, as if they were made of sand with wind blowing across them, they faded away. Only Cinder looked back, a hint of anger in his nightmare eyes.

Then they were gone.

I will not burden you with what followed. How I ran from body to body, frantially feeling for the signs of life as Ben had taught me. My futile attempt at digging a grave. How I scrabbled in the dirt until my fingers were bloody and raw. How I found my parents. . . .

It was in the darkest hours of the night when I found our wagon. Our horse had dragged it nearly a hundred yards down the road before he died. It seemed so normal inside, so tidy and calm. I was struck by how much the back of the wagon smelled like the two of them.

I lit every lamp and candle in the wagon. The light was no comfort, but it was the honest gold of real fire, untinged with blue. I took down my father’s lute case. I lay in my parent’s bed with the lute beside me. My mother’s pillow smelled of her hair, of an embrace. I did not mean to sleep, but sleep took me.

I woke coughing with everything in flames around me. It had been the candles, of course. Still numb with shock, I gathered a few things into a bag. I was slow and aimless, unafraid as I pulled Ben’s book from under my burning mattress. What horror could a simple fire hold for me now?

I put my father’s lute into its case. It felt like I was stealing, but I couldn’t think of anything else that would remind me of them. Both their hands had brushed its wood a thousand thousand times.

Then I left. I walked into the forest and kept going until dawn began to brighten the eastern edges of the sky. As the birds began to sing I stopped and set down my bag. I brought out my father’s lute and clutched it to my body. Then I began to play.

My fingers hurt, but I played anyway. I played until my fingers bled on the strings. I played until the sun shone through the trees. I played until my arms ached. I played, trying not to remember, until I fell asleep.

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

Interlude—Autumn

Kvothe held out a hand to Chronicler, then turned to his student, frowning. “Stop looking at me like that, Bast.”

Bast looked close to tears. “Oh, Reshi,” he choked out. “I had no idea.”

Kvothe gestured as if cutting the air with the side of his hand. “There’s no reason you should, Bast, and no reason to make an issue out of it.”

“But Reshi . . .”

Kvothe gave his student a severe look. “What, Bast? Should I weep and tear my hair? Curse Tehlu and his angels? Beat my chest? No. That is low drama.” His expression softened somewhat. “I appreciate your concern, but this is just a piece of the story, not even the worst piece, and I am not telling it to garner sympathy.”

Kvothe pushed his chair back from the table and came to his feet. “Besides, all of this happened long ago.” He made a dismissive gesture. “Time is the great healer, and so on.”

He rubbed his hands together. “Now, I’m going to bring in enough wood to get us though the night. There’ll be a chill if I’m any judge of weather. You can get a couple loaves ready to bake while I’m out, and try to collect yourself. I refuse to tell the rest of this story with you making blubbery cow eyes at me.”

With that, Kvothe walked behind the bar and out through the kitchen toward the back door of the inn.

Bast scrubbed roughly at his eyes, then watched his master go. “He’s fine so long as he’s busy,” Bast said softly.

“I beg your pardon?” Chronicler said reflexively. He shifted awkwardly in his seat, as if he wanted to get to his feet, but couldn’t think of a polite way to excuse himself.

Bast gave a warm smile, his eyes a human blue again. “I was so excited when I heard who you were, that he was going to tell his story. His mood’s been so dark lately, and there’s nothing to shake him out of it, nothing to do but sit and brood. I’m sure that remembering the good times will . . .” Bast grimaced. “I’m not saying this very well. I’m sorry for earlier. I wasn’t thinking straight.”

“N-no,” Chronicler stammered hastily. “I’m the one—it was my fault, I’m sorry.”

Bast shook his head. “You were just surprised, but you only tried to bind me.” His expression grew a little pained. “Not that it was pleasant, mind. It feels like being kicked between your legs, but all over your body. It makes you feel sick, and weak, but it’s just pain. It wasn’t like you’d actually wounded me.” Bast looked embarrassed. “I was going to do more than hurt you. I might have killed you before I even stopped to think.”

Before an uncomfortable silence developed, Chronicler said, “Why don’t we take his word that we were both suffering from blinding idiocy, and leave it at that?” Chronicler managed a sickly smile that was heartfelt in spite of the circumstances. “Peace?” he extended his hand.

“Peace.” They shook hands with much more genuine warmth than they had earlier. As Bast reached across the table his sleeve pulled back to reveal a bruise blossoming around his wrist.

Bast self-consciously pulled his cuff back into place. “From when he grabbed me,” he said quickly. “He’s stronger than he looks. Don’t mention it to him. He’ll only feel bad.”

Kvothe emerged from the kitchen and shut the door behind himself. Looking around, he seemed surprised that it was a mild autumn afternoon rather than the springtime forest of his story. He lifted the handles of a flat-bottomed barrow and trundled it out into the woods behind the inn, his feet crunching in the fallen leaves.

Not too far into the trees was the winter’s wood supply. Cord on cord of oak and ash were stacked to make tall, crooked walls between the trunks of trees. Kvothe tossed two pieces of firewood into the wheelbarrow where they struck the bottom like a muted drum. Another two followed them. His motions were precise, his face blank, his eyes far away.

As he continued to load the barrow, he moved slower and slower, like a machine winding down. Eventually he stopped completely and stood for a long minute, still as stone. Only then did his composure break. And even with no one there to see, he hid his face in his hands and wept quietly, his body wracked with wave on wave of heavy, silent sobs.

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

Roads to Safe Places

Perhaps the greatest faculty our minds possess is the ability to cope with pain. Classic thinking teaches us of the four doors of the mind, which everyone moves through according to their need.

First is the door of sleep. Sleep offers us a retreat from the world and all its pain. Sleep marks passing time, giving us distance from the things that have hurt us. When a person is wounded they will often fall unconscious. Similarly, someone who hears traumatic news will often swoon or faint. This is the mind’s way of protecting itself from pain by stepping through the first door.

Second is the door of forgetting. Some wounds are too deep to heal, or too deep to heal quickly. In addition, many memories are simply painful, and there is no healing to be done. The saying “time heals all wounds” is false. Time heals most wounds. The rest are hidden behind this door.

Third is the door of madness. There are times when the mind is dealt such a blow it hides itself in insanity. While this may not seem beneficial, it is. There are times when reality is nothing but pain, and to escape that pain the mind must leave reality behind.

Last is the door of death. The final resort. Nothing can hurt us after we are dead, or so we have been told.

After my family was killed, I wandered deep into the forest and slept. My body demanded it, and my mind used the first door to dull the pain. The wound was covered until the proper time for healing could come. In self-defense, a good portion of my mind simply stopped working—went to sleep, if you will.

While my mind slept, many of the painful parts of the previous day were ushered through the second door. Not completely. I did not forget what had happened, but the memory was dulled, as if seen through thick gauze. If I wanted to, I could have brought to memory the faces of the dead, the memories of the man with black eyes. But I did not want to remember. I pushed those thoughts away and let them gather dust in a seldom-used corner of my mind.

I dreamed, not of blood, glassy eyes, and the smell of burning hair, but of gentler things. And slowly the wound began to grow numb. . . .

I dreamed I was walking through the forest with plain-faced Laclith, the woodsman who had traveled with our troupe when I was younger. He walked silently through the underbrush while I kicked up more noise than a wounded ox dragging an overturned cart.

After a long period of comfortable silence I stopped to look at a plant. He came quietly up behind me. “Sagebeard,” he said. “You can tell by the edge.” He reached past me and gently stroked the appropriate part of the leaf. It did look like a beard. I nodded.

“This is willow. You can chew the bark to lessen pains.” It was bitter and slightly gritty. “This is itchroot, don’t touch the leaves.” I didn’t. “This is baneberry, the small fruits are safe to eat when red but never when shading from green to yellow to orange.

“This is how you set your feet when you want to walk silently.” It made my calves ache. “This is how you part the brush quietly, leaving no sign of your passing. This is where you find the dry wood. This is how you keep the rain off when you don’t have canvas. This is paterroot. You can eat it but it tastes bad. These,” he gestured, “straightrod, orangestripe, never eat them. The one with little knobs on it is burrum. You should only eat it if you have just eaten something like straightrod. It will make you keck up whatever’s in your stomach.

“This is how you set a snare that won’t kill a rabbit. This snare will.” He looped the string first one way, then another.

As I watched his hands manipulate the string I realized it was no longer Laclith, but Abenthy. We were riding in the wagon and he was teaching me how to tie sailors’ knots.

“Knots are interesting things,” Ben said as he worked. “The knot will either be the strongest or the weakest part of the rope. It depends entirely on how well one makes the binding.” He held up his hands, showing me an impossibly complex pattern spread between his fingers.

His eyes glittered. “Any questions?”

“Any questions?” my father said. We had stopped early for the day because of a greystone. He sat tuning his lute and was finally going to play his song for my mother and me. We had been waiting so long. “Are there any questions?” he repeated, as he sat with his back against the great grey stone.

“Why do we stop at the waystones?”

“Tradition mostly. But some people say they marked old roads—” My father’s voice changed and became Ben’s voice, “—safe roads. Sometimes roads to safe places, sometimes safe roads leading into danger.” Ben held one hand out to it, as if feeling the warmth of a fire. “But there is a power in them. Only a fool would deny that.”

Then Ben was no longer there, and there was not one standing stone, but many. More than I had ever seen in one place before. They formed a double circle around me. One stone was set across the top of two others, forming a huge arch with thick shadow underneath. I reached out to touch it. . . .

And awoke. My mind had covered a fresh pain with the names of a hundred roots and berries, four ways to light a fire, nine snares made from nothing but a sapling and string, and where to find fresh water.

I thought very little on the other matter of the dream. Ben had never taught me sailors’ knots. My father had never finished his song.

I took inventory of what I had with me: a canvas sack, a small knife, a ball of string, some wax, a copper penny, two iron shims, and Rhetoric and Logic, the book Ben had given me. Aside from my clothes and my father’s lute, I had nothing else.

I set out looking for drinking water. “Water comes first,” Laclith had told me. “Anything else you can do without for days.” I considered the lay of the land and followed some animal trails. By the time I found a small spring-fed pool nestled among some birch trees, I could see the sky purpling into dusk behind the trees. I was terribly thirsty, but caution won out and I took only a small drink.

Next I collected dry wood from the hollows of trees and under canopies. I set a simple snare. I hunted for and found several stalks of motherleaf and spread the sap onto my fingers where they were bloody and torn. The stinging helped distract me from remembering how I had hurt them.

Waiting for the sap to dry, I took my first casual look around. Oaks and birches crowded each other for space. Their trunks made patterns of alternating light and dark beneath the canopy of branches. A small rivulet ran from the pool across some rocks and away to the east. It may have been beautiful, but I didn’t notice. I couldn’t notice. To me the trees were shelter, the undergrowth a source of nourishment, and the pool reflecting moonlight only reminded me of my thirst.

There was also a great rectangular stone lying on its side near the pool. A few days earlier I would have recognized it as a greystone. Now I saw it as an efficient windbreak, something to put my back against as I slept.

Through the canopy I saw the stars were out. That meant it had been several hours since I had tried the water. Since it hadn’t made me sick, I decided it must be safe and took a long drink.

Rather than refreshing me, all my drink did was make me aware of how hungry I was. I sat on the stone by the edge of the pool. I stripped the leaves from the stalks of motherleaf and ate one. It was rough, papery, and bitter. I ate the rest, but it didn’t help. I took another drink of water, then lay down to sleep, not caring that the stone was cold and hard, or at least pretending not to care.

I awoke, took a drink, and went to check the snare I had set. I was surprised to find a rabbit already struggling against the cord. I took out my small knife and remembered how Laclith had shown me to dress a rabbit. Then I thought of the blood and how it would feel on my hands. I felt sick and vomited. I cut loose the rabbit and walked back to the pool.

I took another drink of water and sat on the stone. I felt a little lightheaded and wondered if it was from hunger.

After a moment my head cleared and I chided myself for my foolishness. I found some shelf fungus growing on a dead tree and ate it after washing it in the pool. It was gritty and tasted like dirt. I ate all I could find.

I set a new snare, one that would kill. Then, smelling rain in the air, I returned to the greystone to make a shelter for my lute.

CHAPTER NINETEEN

Fingers and Strings

In the beginning I was almost like an automaton, thoughtlessly performing the actions that would keep me alive.

I ate the second rabbit I caught, and the third. I found a patch of wild strawberries. I dug for roots. By the end of the fourth day, I had everything I needed to survive: a stone-lined fire pit, a shelter for my lute. I had even assembled a small stockpile of foodstuffs that I could fall back on in case of emergency.

I also had one thing I did not need: time. After I had taken care of immediate needs, I found I had nothing to do. I think this is when a small part of my mind started to slowly reawaken itself.

Make no mistake, I was not myself. At least I was not the same person I had been a span of days before. Everything I did I attended to with my whole mind, leaving no part of me free for remembering.

I grew thinner and more ragged. I slept in rain or sun, on soft grass, moist earth, or sharp stones with an intensity of indifference that only grief can promote. The only notice I took of my surroundings was when it rained, because then I could not bring out my lute to play, and that pained me.

Of course I played. It was my only solace.

By the end of the first month, my fingers had calluses hard as stones and I could play for hours upon hours. I played and played again all of the songs I knew from memory. Then I played the half-remembered songs as well, filling in the forgotten parts as best I could.

Eventually I could play from when I woke until the time I slept. I stopped playing the songs I knew and started inventing new ones. I had made up songs before; I had even helped my father compose a verse or two. But now I gave it my whole attention. Some of those songs have stayed with me to this day.

Soon after that I began playing . . . how can I describe it?

I began to play something other than songs. When the sun warms the grass and the breeze cools you, it feels a certain way. I would play until I got the feeling right. I would play until it sounded like Warm Grass and Cool Breeze.

I was only playing for myself, but I was a harsh audience. I remember spending nearly three whole days trying to capture Wind Turning a Leaf.

By the end of the second month, I could play things nearly as easily as I saw and felt them: Sun Setting Behind the Clouds, Bird Taking a Drink, Dew in the Bracken.

Somewhere in the third month I stopped looking outside and started looking inside for things to play. I learned to play Riding in the Wagon with Ben, Singing with Father by the Fire, Watching Shandi Dance, Grinding Leaves When it Is Nice Outside, Mother Smiling. . . .

Needless to say, playing these things hurt, but it was a hurt like tender fingers on lute strings. I bled a bit and hoped that I would callous soon.

Toward the end of summer, one of the strings broke, broke beyond repair. I spent the better part of the day in a mute stupor, unsure of what to do. My mind was still numb and mostly asleep. I focused with a dim shadow of my usual cleverness on my problem. After realizing that I could neither make a string nor acquire a new one, I sat back down and began to learn to play with only six strings.

In a span I was nearly as good with six strings as I had been with seven. Three span later I was trying to play Waiting While it Rains when a second string broke.

This time I didn’t hesitate, I stripped off the useless string and started to learn again.

It was midway through Reaping when the third string broke. After trying for nearly half a day, I realized that three broken strings were too many. So I packed a small dull knife, half a ball of string, and Ben’s book into a tattered canvas sack. Then I shouldered my father’s lute and began to walk.

I tried humming Snow Falling with the Late Autumn Leaves; Calloused Fingers and a Lute With Four Strings, but it wasn’t the same as playing it.

My plan was to find a road and follow it to a town. I had no idea how far I was from either, in which direction they might lie, or what their names might be. I knew I was somewhere in the southern Commonwealth, but the precise location was buried, tangled up with other memories that I was not eager to unearth.

The weather helped me make up my mind. Cool autumn was turning to winter’s chill. I knew the weather was warmer to the south. So, lacking any better plan, I set the sun on my left shoulder and tried to cover as much distance as I could.

The next span was an ordeal. The little food I’d brought with me was soon gone, and I had to stop and forage when I was hungry. Some days I couldn’t find water, and when I did I had nothing I could use to carry it. The small wagon track joined a bigger road, which joined a larger road yet. My feet chafed and blistered against the insides of my shoes. Some nights were bitter cold.

There were inns, but aside from the occasional drink I stole from horse troughs, I gave them a wide berth. There were a few small towns as well, but I needed someplace larger. Farmers have no need for lute strings.

At first, whenever I heard a wagon or a horse approaching I found myself limping off to hide by the side of the road. I had not spoken with another human since the night my family was killed. I was more akin to a wild animal than a boy of twelve. But eventually the road became too large and well traveled, and I found myself spending more time hiding than walking. I finally braved the traffic and was relieved when I was largely ignored.

I had been walking for less than an hour one morning when I heard a wagon coming up behind me. The road was wide enough for two wagons to run abreast, but I moved to the grass at the edge of the road anyway.

“Hey, boy!” a rough male voice behind me yelled. I didn’t turn around. “Hullo, boy!”

I moved farther off the road into the grass without looking behind me. I kept my eyes on the ground beneath my feet.

The wagon pulled slowly alongside me. The voice bellowed twice as loud as before, “Boy. Boy!”

I looked up and saw a weathered old man squinting against the sun. He could have been anywhere from forty to seventy years old. There was a thick-shouldered, plain-faced young man sitting next to him on the wagon. I guessed they were father and son.

“Are ye deaf, boy?” The old man pronounced it deef.

I shook my head.

“Ye dumb then?”

I shook my head again. “No.” It felt strange talking to someone. My voice sounded odd, rough and rusty from disuse.

He squinted at me. “You goin’ into the city?”

I nodded, not wanting to talk again.

“Get in then.” He nodded toward the back of the wagon. “Sam won’t mind pulling a little whippet like yuself.” He patted the rump of his mule.

It was easier to agree than run away. And the blisters on my feet were stinging from the sweat in my shoes. I moved to the back of the open cart and climbed on, pulling my lute after me. The back of the open wagon was about three-quarters full of large burlap bags. A few round, knobby squash had spilled from an open sack and were rolling aimlessly around on the floor.

The old man shook the reins. “Hup!” and the mule grudgingly picked up its pace. I picked up the few loose squash and tucked them into the bag that had fallen open. The old farmer gave me a smile over his shoulder. “Thanks, boy. I’m Seth, and this here is Jake. You might want to be sittin’ down, a bad bump could tip ye over the side.” I sat on one of the bags, tense for no good reason, not knowing what to expect.

The old farmer handed the reins to his son and brought a large brown loaf of bread out of a sack that sat between the two of them. He casually tore off a large chunk, spread a thick dab of butter onto it, and handed it back to me.

This casual kindness made my chest ache. It had been half a year since I had eaten bread. It was soft and warm and the butter was sweet. I saved a piece for later, tucking it into my canvas sack.

After a quiet quarter of an hour, the old man turned halfway around. “Do you play that thing, boy?” He gestured to the lute case.

I clutched it closer to my body. “It’s broken.”

“Ah,” he said, disappointed. I thought he was going to ask me to get off, but instead he smiled and nodded to the man beside him. “We’ll just have to be entertainin’ you instead.”

He started to sing “Tinker Tanner,” a drinking song that is older than God. After a second his son joined in, and their rough voices made a simple harmony that set something inside me aching as I remembered other wagons, different songs, a half-forgotten home.

CHAPTER TWENTY

Bloody Hands Into Stinging Fists

It was around noon when the wagon turned onto a new road, this one wide as a river and paved with cobbles. At first there were only a handful of travelers and a wagon or two, but to me it seemed like a great crowd after such a long time alone.

We went deeper into the city, and low buildings gave way to taller shops and inns. Trees and gardens were replaced by alleys and cart vendors. The great river of a road grew clogged and choked with the flotsam of a hundred carts and pedestrians, dozens of wains and wagons and the occasional mounted man.

There was the sound of horses’ hooves and people shouting, the smell of beer and sweat and garbage and tar. I wondered which city this was, and if I’d been here before, before—

I gritted my teeth and forced myself to think of other things.

“Almost there,” Seth raised his voice above the din. Eventually the road opened out into a market. Wagons rolled on the cobbles with a sound like distant thunder. Voices bargained and fought. Somewhere in the distance a child was crying shrill and high. We rode aimlessly for a while until he found an empty corner in front of a bookshop.

Seth stopped the wagon and I hopped out as they were stretching away the kinks from the road. Then, with a sort of silent agreement, I helped them unload the lumpy sacks from the back of the wagon and pile them to one side.

A half an hour later we were resting among the piled sacks. Seth looked at me, shading his eyes with a hand. “What are ye doin’ in town today, boy?”

“I need lute strings,” I said. Only then did I realize I didn’t know where my father’s lute was. I looked around wildly. It wasn’t in the wagon where I’d left it, or leaning against the wall, or on the piles of squash. My stomach clenched until I spotted it underneath some loose burlap sacking. I walked over to it and picked it up with shaking hands.

The older farmer grinned at me and held out a pair of the knobby squash we’d been unloading. “How would your mother like it if you brought home a couple of the finest orange butter squash this side of the Eld?”

“No, I can’t,” I stammered, pushing away a memory of raw fingers digging in the mud and the smell of burning hair. “I m—mean, you’ve already . . .” I trailed off, clutching my lute closer to my chest and moving a couple of steps away.

He looked at me more closely, as if seeing me for the first time. Suddenly self-conscious, I imagined how I must look: ragged and half-starved. I hugged the lute and backed farther away. The farmer’s hands fell to his side and his smile faded. “Ah, lad,” he said softly.

He set the squash down, then turned back to me and spoke with a gentle seriousness. “Me and Jake will be here selling until round about sundown. If you find what you’re looking for by then, you’d be welcome back on the farm with us. The missus and me could sure use an extra hand some days. You’d be more than welcome. Wouldn’t he, Jake?”

Jake was looking at me too, pity written across his honest face. “Sure enough, Pa. She said so right afore we left.”

The old farmer continued to look at me with serious eyes. “This is Seaward Square.” He said, pointing at his feet. “We’ll be here till dark, maybe a little after. You come back if’n you want a ride.” His eyes turned worried. “You hear me? You can come back with us.”

I continued to back away, step by step, not sure why I was doing it. Only knowing that if I went with him I would have to explain, would have to remember. Anything was better than opening that door. . . .

“No. No, thank you,” I stammered. “You’ve helped so much. I’ll be fine.” I was jostled from behind by a man in a leather apron. Startled, I turned and ran.

I heard one of them call out behind me, but the crowd drowned them out. I ran, my heart heavy in my chest.

Tarbean is big enough that you cannot walk from one end to the other in a single day. Not even if you avoid getting lost or accosted in the tangled web of twisting streets and dead end alleys.

It was too big, actually. It was vast, immense. Seas of people, forests of buildings, roads wide as rivers. It smelled like urine and sweat and coal smoke and tar. If I had been in my right mind, I never would have gone there.

In the fullness of time, I became lost. I took a turn too early or too late, then tried to compensate by cutting through an alley like a narrow chasm between two tall buildings. It wound like a gully carved by a river that had left to find a cleaner bed. Garbage drifted up the walls and filled the cracks between buildings and the alcove doorways. After I had taken several turns I caught the rancid smell of something dead.

I turned a corner and staggered against a wall as pain stars blinded me. I felt rough hands grab hold of my arms.

I opened my eyes to see an older boy. He was twice my size with dark hair and savage eyes. The dirt that smudged his face gave him the appearance of having a beard, making his young face strangely cruel.

Two other boys jerked me away from the wall. I yelped as one of them twisted my arm. The older boy smiled at the sound and ran a hand through his hair. “What are you doin’ here, Nalt? You lost?” His grin broadened.

I tried to pull away but one of the boys twisted my wrist and I gasped, “No.”

“I think he’s lost, Pike,” the boy on my right said. The one on my left elbowed me sharply in the side of the head and the alley tilted crazily around me.

Pike laughed.

“I’m looking for the Woodworks,” I muttered, slightly stunned.

Pike’s expression turned murderous. His hands grabbed my shoulders. “Did I ask you a question?” he shouted. “Did I say you could talk?” He slammed his forehead into my face and I felt a sharp crack followed by an explosion of pain.

“Hey, Pike.” The voice seemed to come from an impossible direction. A foot nudged my lute case, tipping it over. “Hey, Pike, look at this.”

Pike looked down at the hollow thump as the lute case fell flat against the ground. “What did you steal, Nalt?”

“I didn’t steal it.”

One of the boys holding my arms laughed. “Yeah, your uncle gave it to you so you could sell it to buy medicine for your sick grandma.” He laughed again while I tried to blink the tears out of my eyes.

I heard three clicks as the latches were undone. Then came the distinctive harmonic thrum as the lute was taken out of its case.

“Your grandma is gonna be mighty sorry you lost this, Nalt,” Pike’s voice was quiet.

“Tehlu crush us!” the boy on my right exploded. “Pike, ya know how much one of them’s worth? Gold, Pike!”

“Don’t say Tehlu’s name like that,” said the boy on my left.

“What?”

“ ‘Do not call on Tehlu save in the greatest need, for Tehlu judges every thought and deed,’ ” he recited.

“Tehlu and his great glowing penis can piss all over me if that thing isn’t worth twenty talents. That means we can get at least six from Diken. Do you know what you can do with that much money?”

“You won’t get the chance to do anything with it if you don’t quit saying things like that. Tehlu watches over us, but he is vengeful.” The second boy’s voice was reverent and afraid.

“You’ve been sleeping in the church again haven’t you? You get religion like I get fleas.”

“I’ll tie your arms in a knot.”

“Your ma’s a penny whore.”

“Don’t talk about my mom, Lin.”

Iron pennies.”

By this time I had managed to blink my eyes free from the tears and I could see Pike squatting in the alley. He seemed fascinated by my lute. My beautiful lute. He had a dreamy look in his eyes as he held it, turning it over and over in his dirty hands. A slow horror was dawning on me through the haze of fear and pain.

As the two voices grew louder behind me, I began to feel a hot anger inside. I tensed. I couldn’t fight them, but I knew if I got hold of my lute and made it into a crowd I could lose them and be safe again.

“. . . but she kept humping away anyway. But now she only got a halfpenny a throw. That’s why your head is so soft. You’re lucky you don’t have a dent. So don’t feel bad, that’s why you get religious so easy.” The first boy finished triumphantly.

I felt only a tenseness on my right side. I tensed too, ready to spring.

“But thanks for the warning. I hear Tehlu likes to hide behind big clumps of horseshit and th—”

Suddenly both of my arms were free as one boy tackled the other into the wall. I sprinted the three steps to Pike, grabbed the lute by the neck, and pulled.

But Pike was quicker than I’d expected, or stronger. The lute didn’t come away in my hand. I was jerked to a halt and Pike was pulled to his feet.

My frustration and anger boiled over. I let go of the lute and threw myself at Pike. I clawed madly at his face and neck, but he was a veteran of too many street fights to let me get close to anything vital. One of my fingernails tore a line of blood across his face from ear to chin. Then he was against me, pressing me back until I hit the alley wall.

My head struck brick, and I would have fallen if Pike hadn’t been grinding me into the crumbling wall. I gasped for breath and only then realized I’d been screaming all the while.

He smelled like old sweat and rancid oil. His hands pinned my arms to my sides as he pressed me harder into the wall. I was dimly aware that he must have dropped my lute.

I gasped for breath again and flailed blindly, knocking my head against the wall again. I found my face pressed into his shoulder and bit down hard. I felt his skin break under my teeth and tasted blood.

Pike screamed and jerked away from me. I drew a breath and winced at a tearing pain in my chest.

Before I could move or think, Pike grabbed me again. He bludgeoned me up against the wall once, twice. My head whipsawed back and forth, caroming off the wall. Then he grabbed me by the throat, spun me around, and threw me to the ground.

That’s when I heard the noise, and everything seemed to stop.

After my troupe was murdered, there were times when I would dream of my parents, alive and singing. In my dream their deaths had been a mistake, a misunderstanding, a new play they had been rehearsing. And for a few moments I had relief from the great blanketing grief that was constantly crushing me. I hugged them and we laughed at my foolish worry. I sang with them, and for a moment everything was wonderful. Wonderful.

But I always woke up, alone in the dark by the forest pool. What was I doing out here? Where were my parents?

Then I would remember everything, like a wound ripping open. They were dead and I was terribly alone. And that great weight that had been lifted for just a moment would come crushing down again, worse than before because I wasn’t ready for it. Then I would lay on my back, staring into the dark with my chest aching and my breath coming hard, knowing deep inside that nothing would ever be right, ever again.

When Pike threw me to the ground, my body was almost too numb to feel my father’s lute being crushed underneath me. The sound it made was like a dying dream, and it brought that same sick, breathless ache back to my chest.

I looked around and saw Pike breathing heavily and clutching his shoulder. One of the boys was kneeling on the chest of the other. They weren’t wrestling anymore, both were looking in my direction, stunned.

I stared numbly at my hands, bloody where slivers of wood had pierced the skin.

“Little bastard bit me,” Pike said quietly, as if he couldn’t quite believe what had happened.

“Get off me,” said the boy lying on his back.

“I said you shouldn’t say those things. Look what happened.”

Pike’s expression twisted and his face went a livid red. “Bit me!” he shouted and swung a vicious kick at my head.

I tried to get out of the way without doing any more damage to the lute. His kick caught me in the kidney and sent me sprawling into the wreckage again, splintering it even further.

“See what happens when you mock Tehlu’s name?”

“Shut up about Tehlu. Get off me and grab that thing. It might still be worth something to Diken.”

“Look what you did!” Pike continued to howl above me. A kick caught me in the side and rolled me halfway over. The edges of my vision started to darken. I almost welcomed it as a distraction. But the deeper pain was still there, untouched. I balled my bloody hands into stinging fists.

“These knob things still seem okay. They’re silvery, I’ll bet we can get something for them.”

Pike pulled back his foot again. I tried to put up my hands to keep it away, but my arms just twitched and Pike kicked me in the stomach.

“Grab that bit over there. . . .”

“Pike. Pike!”

Pike kicked me in the stomach again and I vomited weakly onto the cobblestones.

“You there, stop! City Watch!” A new voice shouted. A heartbeat of stillness was followed by a scuffle and a flurry of pattering feet. A second later, heavy boots pounded past and faded in the distance.

I remember the ache in my chest. I blacked out.

I was shaken out of darkness by someone turning my pockets inside out. I tried unsuccessfully to open my eyes.

I heard a voice muttering to itself, “Is this all I get for saving your life? Copper and a couple shims? Drinks for an evening? Worthless little sod.” He coughed deep in his chest and the smell of stale liquor washed over me. “Screaming like that. If you hadn’t sounded like a girl I wouldn’t have run all this way.”

I tried to say something, but it dribbled out as a groan.

“Well, you’re alive. That’s something, I suppose.” I heard a grunt as he stood up, then the heavy thumping of his boots faded away into silence.

After a while I found I could open my eyes. My vision was blurry and my nose felt larger than the rest of my head. I prodded it delicately. Broken. Remembering what Ben had taught me, I put one hand on each side of it and twisted it sharply back into place. I clenched my teeth against a cry of pain, and my eyes filled with tears.

I blinked them away and was relieved when I saw the street without the painful blurriness of a moment ago. The contents of my small sack lay next to me on the ground: a half ball of string, a small dull knife, Rhetoric and Logic, and the remainder of a piece of bread the farmer had given me for lunch. It seemed like forever ago.

The farmer. I thought of Seth and Jake. Soft bread and butter. Songs while riding in a wagon. Their offer of a safe place, a new home. . . .

A sudden memory was followed by a sudden sickening panic. I looked around the alley, my head aching from the sudden movement. Sifting the garbage with my hands I found some terribly familiar shards of wood. I stared at them mutely as the world darkened imperceptibly around me. I darted a look at the thin strip of sky visible overhead and saw it was purpling into twilight.

How late was it? I hurried to gather my possessions, treating Ben’s book more gently than the rest, and limped off in what I hoped was the direction of Seaward Square.

The last of twilight had faded from the sky by the time I found the square. A few wagons rolled sluggishly among the few straggling customers. I limped wildly from corner to corner of the square, searching madly for the old farmer who had given me a ride. Searching for the sight of one of those ugly, knobby squash.

When I finally found the bookstore Seth had parked beside, I was panting and staggering. Seth and his wagon were nowhere to be seen. I sank down into the empty space their wagon had left and felt the aches and pains of a dozen injuries that I had forced myself to ignore.

I felt them out, one by one. I had several painful ribs, although I couldn’t tell if they were broken or if the cartilage was torn. I was dizzy and nauseous when I moved my head too quickly, probably a concussion. My nose was broken, and I had more bruises and scrapes than I could conveniently count. I was also hungry.

The last being the only thing I could do anything about, I took what was left of my piece of bread from earlier in the day and ate it. It wasn’t enough, but it was better than nothing. I took a drink from a horse trough and was thirsty enough not to care that the water was brackish and sour.

I thought of leaving, but it would take me hours of walking in my current condition. Besides, there was nothing waiting for me on the outskirts of the city except miles upon miles of harvested farmland. No trees to keep the wind away. No wood to make a fire. No rabbits to set traps for. No roots to dig. No heather for a bed.

I was so hungry my stomach was a hard knot. Here at least I could smell chicken cooking somewhere. I would have gone looking for the smell, but I was dizzy, and my ribs hurt. Maybe tomorrow someone would give me something to eat. Right now I was too tired. I wanted nothing more than to sleep.

The cobblestones were losing the last of the sun’s heat and the wind was picking up. I moved back into the doorway of the bookshop to get out of the wind. I was almost asleep when the owner of the shop opened the door and kicked at me, telling me to shove off or he’d call the guard. I limped away as quickly as I could.

After that I found some empty crates in an alley. I curled up behind them, bruised and weary. I closed my eyes and tried not to remember what it was like to go to sleep warm and full, surrounded by people who loved you.

That was the first night of nearly three years I spent in Tarbean.

CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE

Basement, Bread and Bucket

It was just after lunchtime. Rather, it would have been after lunchtime if I’d had anything to eat. I was begging in Merchant’s Circle and so far the day had profited me two kicks (one guard, one mercenary), three shoves (two wagoneers, one sailor), one new curse concerning an unlikely anatomical configuration (also from the sailor), and a spray of spittle from a rather unendearing elderly man of indeterminate occupation.

And one iron shim. Though I attributed it more to the laws of probability than from any human kindness. Even a blind pig finds an acorn once in a while.

I had been living in Tarbean for nearly a month, and the day before I had tried my hand at stealing for the first time. It was an inauspicious beginning. I’d been caught with my hand in a butcher’s pocket. This had earned me such a tremendous blow to the side of the head that today I was dizzy when I tried to stand or move about quickly. Hardly encouraged by my first foray into thievery, I had decided that today was a begging day. As such, it was about average.

Hunger knotted my stomach, and a single shim’s worth of stale bread wasn’t going to help much. I was considering moving to a different street when I saw a boy run up to a younger beggar across the way. They talked excitedly for a moment then hurried off.

I followed of course, showing a pale shadow of my former burning curiosity. Besides, anything that moved the two of them away from a busy street corner in the middle of the day was bound to be worth my while. Maybe the Tehlins were giving out bread again. Or a fruit cart had tipped over. Or the guard was hanging someone. That would be worth half an hour of my time.

I followed the boys through the twisting streets until I saw them turn a corner and scurry down a flight of stairs into the basement of a burned-out building. I stopped, my dim spark of curiosity smothered by my common sense.

A moment later they reappeared, each carrying a chunk of flat brown bread. I watched as they wandered past, laughing and shoving at each other. The youngest, no more than six, saw me looking and waved.

“Still some left,” he called through a mouthful of bread. “Better hurrup though.”

My common sense did a rapid turnaround, and I headed cautiously downward. At the bottom of the steps were a few rotting planks, all that remained of a broken door. Inside I could see a short hallway opening out into a dimly lit room. A young girl with hard eyes pushed past me without looking up. She clutched another piece of bread.

I stepped over the broken pieces of door into the chill, damp dark. After a dozen steps I heard a low moan that froze me where I stood. It was almost an animal sound, but my ear told me it came from a human throat.

I don’t know what I expected, but it was nothing like what I found. Two ancient lamps burned fish oil, throwing dim shadows against the dark stone walls. There were six cots in the room, all occupied. Two children that were hardly more than babies shared a blanket on the stone floor, and another was curled up in a pile of rags. A boy my age sat in a dark corner, his head pressed against the wall.

One of the boys moved slightly on his cot, as if stirring in his sleep. But something was wrong with the movement. It was too strained, too tense. I looked closer and saw the truth. He was tied to the cot. All of them were.

He strained against the ropes and made the noise I had heard in the hall. It was clearer now, a long moaning cry. “Aaaaaaabaaaaaaah.”

For a moment all I could do was think about every story I had ever heard about the Duke of Gibea. About how he and his men had abducted and tortured people for twenty years before the church had gone in and put an end to it.

“What what,” came a voice from the other room. The voice had an odd inflection to it, as if it wasn’t really asking a question.

The boy on the cot jerked against his ropes. “Aaaahbeeeeh.”

A man came through the doorway brushing his hands on the front of his tattered robe. “What what,” he repeated in the same not-questioning tone. His voice was old and tired around the edges, but at its center it was patient.

Patient as a heavy stone or a mother cat with kittens. Not the sort of voice I expected a Duke-of-Gibea type to have.

“What what. Hush hush, Tanee. I wan’t gone, just stepped away. Now I’m here.” His feet made slapping sounds against the bare stone floor. He was barefoot. I felt the tension slowly spill out of me. Whatever was going on here, it didn’t seem nearly as sinister as I had originally thought.

The boy stopped straining against the ropes when he saw the man approaching. “Eeeeeeaah.” He said, and tugged against the ropes restraining him.

“What?” It was a question this time.

“Eeeeeeaah.”

“Hmmm?” The old man looked around and saw me for the first time. “Oh. Hello.” He looked back to the boy on the bed. “Well, aren’t you the clever one today? Tanee called me in to see we have a visitor!” Tanee’s face broke into a terrific grin and he gave a harsh, honking gasp of breath. In spite of the painful sound, it was clear he was laughing.

Turning to look at me, the barefoot man said, “I don’t recognize you. Have you been here before?”

I shook my head.

“Well, I’ve got some bread, only two days old. If you carry some water for me, you can have as much as you can eat.” He looked at me. “Does that sound all right?”

I nodded. A chair, table, and an open barrel standing near one of the doors were the only furnishings in the room aside from the cots. Four large, round loaves were stacked on the table.

He nodded too, then began to move carefully toward the chair. He walked gingerly, as if it pained him to set his feet down.

After he reached the chair and sank into it, he pointed to the barrel by the doorway. “Through the door there’s a pump and bucket. Don’t bother to hurry, it’s na a race.” As he spoke he absentmindedly crossed his legs and began to rub one of his bare feet.

Inefficient circulation, a long-unused part of me thought. Increased risk of infection and considerable discomfort. Feet and legs should be raised, massaged, and swabbed in a warm infusion of willow bark, camphor, and arrowroot.

“Don’t fill the bucket too full. I don’t want you to hurt yourself or spill all over. It’s wet enough down here.” He eased his foot back to the floor and bent to gather up one of the tiny children who was beginning to stir restlessly on the blanket.

As I filled the barrel I snuck glances at the man. His hair was grey, but despite that and the slow, tender manner in which he walked, he wasn’t very old. Perhaps forty, probably a little less. He wore a long robe, patched and mended to such a degree that I couldn’t really guess at its original color or shape. Though nearly as ragged as I was, he was cleaner. Which isn’t to say that he was clean exactly, just cleaner than me. It wasn’t hard to be.

His name was Trapis. The patched robe was the only piece of clothing he owned. He spent nearly every moment of his waking life in that damp basement caring for the hopeless people no one else would bother with. Most of them were young boys. Some, like Tanee, had to be restrained so they wouldn’t hurt themselves or roll out of their beds. Others, like Jaspin who had gone fever-mad two years ago, had to be restrained so they wouldn’t hurt others.

Palsied, crippled, catatonic, spastic, Trapis tended them all with equal and unending patience. I never once heard him complain of anything, not even his bare feet, which were always swollen and must have pained him constantly.

He gave us children what help he could, a bit of food when he had some to spare. To earn a little something to eat we carried water, scrubbed his floor, ran errands, and held the babies so they wouldn’t cry. We did whatever he asked, and when there wasn’t any food we could always have a drink of water, a tired smile, and someone who looked at us as if we were human, not animals in rags.

Sometimes it seemed that Trapis alone was trying to care for all the hopeless creatures in our corner of Tarbean. In return we loved him with a silent ferocity that only animals can match. If anyone had ever raised a hand to Trapis, a hundred howling children would have torn them to bloody scraps in the middle of the street.

I stopped by his basement often in those first few months, then less and less as time went by. Trapis and Tanee were fine companions. None of us felt the need to talk much, and that suited me fine. But the other street children made me unspeakably nervous, so I visited infrequently, only when I was in desperate need of help, or when I had something to share.

Despite the fact that I was seldom there, it was good to know there was one place in the city where I wouldn’t be kicked at, chased, or spit on. It helped when I was out on the rooftops alone, knowing that Trapis and the basement were there. It was almost like a home you could come back to. Almost.

CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO

A Time for Demons

I learned many things those first months in Tarbean. I learned which inns and restaurants threw away the best food, and how rotten food needed to be before it made you sick to eat it.

I learned that the walled complex of buildings near the docks was the Temple of Tehlu. The Tehlins sometimes gave out bread, making us say prayers before we could take our loaf. I didn’t mind. It was easier than begging. Sometimes the grey-robed priests tried to get me to come into the church to say the prayers, but I’d heard rumors and ran away whenever I was asked, whether I had my loaf or no.

I learned how to hide. I had a secret place atop an old tannery where three roofs met, making a shelter from the wind and rain. Ben’s book I secreted away under the rafters, wrapped in canvas. I handled it only rarely, like a holy relic. It was the last solid piece of my past, and I took every precaution to keep it safe.

I learned that Tarbean is vast. You cannot understand if you have not seen it yourself. It is like the ocean. I can tell you of the waves and water, but you don’t begin to get an inkling of its size until you stand on the shore. You don’t really understand the ocean until you are in the midst of it, nothing but ocean on all sides, stretching away endlessly. Only then do you realize how small you are, how powerless.

Part of Tarbean’s vastness is the fact that it is divided into a thousand small pieces, each with its own personality. There was Downings, Drover Court, the Wash, Middletown, Tallows, Tunning, Dockside, the Tarway, Seamling Lane. . . . You could live your whole life in Tarbean and never know all its parts.

But for most practical purposes Tarbean had two pieces: Waterside and Hillside. Waterside is where people are poor. That makes them beggars, thieves, and whores. Hillside is where people are rich. That makes them solicitors, politicians, and courtesans.

I had been in Tarbean for two months when I first thought to try my hand at begging Hillside. Winter gripped the city firmly and the Midwinter Pageantry was making the streets more dangerous than usual.

This was shocking to me. Every winter for the entirety of my young life our troupe had organized the Midwinter Pageantry for some town. Dressed in demon masks, we would terrorize them for the seven days of High Mourning, much to everyone’s delight. My father played an Encanis so convincing you’d think we’d conjured him. Most importantly, he could be frightening and careful at the same time. No one was ever hurt when our troupe was in charge.

But in Tarbean it was different. Oh, the pieces of the pageantry were all the same. There were still men in garishly painted demon masks skulking about the city, making mischief. Encanis was out there too, in the traditional black mask, making more serious trouble. And though I hadn’t seen him, I didn’t doubt that silver-masked Tehlu was striding around the better neighborhoods, playing his part. As I said, the pieces of the pageantry were the same.

But they played out differently. For one thing, Tarbean was too big for one troupe to provide enough demons. A hundred troupes wouldn’t be enough. So, rather than pay for professionals, as would be sensible and safe, the churches in Tarbean took the more profitable path of selling demon masks.

Because of this, on the first day of High Mourning ten thousand demons were set loose on the city. Ten thousand amateur demons, with license to make whatever mischief they had minds to.

This might seem like an ideal situation for a young thief to take advantage of, but really the opposite was true. The demons were always thickest Waterside. And while the great majority behaved properly, fleeing at the sound of Tehlu’s name and keeping their devilry within reasonable bounds, many did not. Things were dangerous the first few days of High Mourning, and I spent most of my time simply staying out of harm’s way.

But as Midwinter approached, things settled down. The number of demons steadily decreased as people lost their masks or tired of the game. Tehlu no doubt eliminated his share as well, but silver mask or no, he was only one man. He could hardly cover the whole of Tarbean in just seven days’ time.

I chose the last day of Mourning for my trip Hillside. Spirits are always high on Midwinter’s Day, and high spirits mean good begging. Best of all, the ranks of the demons were noticeably thinned, which meant it was reasonably safe to be walking the streets again.

I set out in the early afternoon, hungry because I couldn’t find any bread to steal. I remember feeling vaguely excited as I headed toward Hillside. Maybe some part of me remembered what Midwinter had been like with my family: warm meals and warm beds afterward. Maybe I had been infected by the smell of evergreen boughs being gathered into piles and set ablaze in celebration of Tehlu’s triumph.

That day I learned two things. I learned why beggars stay Waterside, and I learned that no matter what the church might tell you, Midwinter is a time for demons.

I emerged from an alley and was instantly struck by the difference in atmosphere between this part of the city and where I had come from.

Waterside, merchants wheedled and cajoled customers, hoping to lure them into their shops. Should that fail, they were not shy about bursting into fits of bellicosity: cursing or even openly bullying customers.

Here the shop owners wrung their hands nervously. They bowed and scraped and were unfailingly polite. Voices were never raised. After the brutal reality of things Waterside, it seemed to me as if I had stumbled into a formal ball. Everyone was dressed in new clothes. Everyone was clean, and they all seemed to be participating in some sort of intricate social dance.

But there were shadows here, too. As I surveyed the street I spotted a pair of men lurking in the alleyway across from me. Their masks were quite good, bloodred and fierce. One had a gaping mouth and the other a grimace of pointed white teeth. They were both wearing the traditional black hooded robes, which I approved of. So many of the demons Waterside didn’t bother with the proper costume.

The pair of demons slipped out to follow a well-dressed young couple who were strolling idly down the street, arm in arm. The demons stalked them carefully for nearly a hundred feet, then one of them snatched the gentleman’s hat and thrust it into a nearby snowdrift. The other grabbed the woman in a rough embrace and lifted her from the ground. She shrieked while the man struggled with the demon for possession of his walking stick, obviously flummoxed by the situation.

Luckily his lady maintained her composure. “Tehus! Tehus!” she shouted. “Tehus antausa eha!”

At the sound of Tehlu’s name the two red-masked figures cowered, then turned and ran off down the street.

Everyone cheered. One of the shopkeepers helped the gentleman retrieve his hat. I was rather surprised by the civility of it all. Apparently even the demons were polite on the good side of town.

Emboldened by what I had seen, I eyed the crowd, looking for my best prospects. I stepped up to a young woman. She wore a powder blue dress and had a wrap of white fur. Her hair was long and golden, curled artfully around her face.

As I stepped forward she looked down at me and stopped. I heard a startled intake of breath as one hand went to her mouth. “Pennies, ma’am?” I held out my hand and made it tremble just a little. My voice trembled too. “Please?” I tried to look every bit as small and hopeless as I felt. I shuffled from foot to foot in the thin grey snow.

“You poor dear,” she sighed almost too quietly for me to hear. She fumbled with the purse at her side, either unable or unwilling to take her eyes from me. After a moment she looked inside her purse and brought something out. As she curled my fingers around it I felt the cold, reassuring weight of a coin.

“Thank you, ma’am,” I said automatically, I looked down for a moment and saw silver glinting through my fingers. I opened my hand and saw a silver penny. A whole silver penny.

I gaped. A silver penny was worth ten copper pennies, or fifty iron ones. More than that, it was worth a full belly every night for half a month. For an iron penny I could sleep on the floor at the Red Eye for the night, for two I could sleep on the hearth by the embers of the evening fire. I could buy a rag blanket that I would hide on the rooftops, keeping me warm all winter.

I looked up at the woman, who was still looking down at me with pitying eyes. She couldn’t know what this meant. “Lady, thank you,” my voice cracked. I remembered one of the things that we said back when I lived in the troupe. “May all your stories be glad ones, and your roads be smooth and short.”

She smiled at me and might have said something, but I got a strange feeling near the base of my neck. Someone was watching me. On the street you either develop a sensitivity to certain things, or your life is miserable and short.

I looked around and saw a shopkeeper talking with a guard and gesturing in my direction. This wasn’t some Waterside guard. He was clean-shaven and upright. He wore a black leather jerkin with metal studs and carried a brass-bound club as long as his arm. I caught scraps of what the shopkeeper was saying.

“. . . customers. Who’s going to buy chocolate with . . .” He gestured my way again and said something I couldn’t catch. “. . . pays you? That’s right. Maybe I should mention . . .”

The guard turned his head to look in my direction. I caught his eyes. I turned and ran.

I headed for the first alley I saw, my thin shoes slipping on the light layer of snow that covered the ground. I heard his heavy boots pounding behind me as I turned into a second alley branching off from the first.

My breath was burning in my chest as I looked for somewhere to go, somewhere to hide. But I didn’t know this part of the city. There were no piles of trash to worm into, no burned-out buildings to climb through. I felt sharp frozen gravel slice through the thin sole of one of my shoes. Pain tore through my foot as I forced myself to keep running.

I ran into a dead end after my third turning. I was halfway up one of the walls when I felt a hand close around my ankle and pull me to the ground.

My head hit the cobblestones and the world spun dizzily as the guard lifted me off the ground, holding me by one wrist and my hair. “Clever boy, aren’t you?” he panted, his breath hot on my face. He smelled like leather and sweat. “You’re old enough, you should know not to run by now.” He shook me angrily and twisted my hair. I cried out as the alley tilted around me.

He pressed me roughly against a wall. “You should know enough not to be coming Hillside either.” He shook me. “You dumb, boy?”

“No,” I said muzzily as I felt for the cool wall with my free hand. “No.”

My answer seemed to infuriate him. “No?” he bit off the word. “You got me in trouble, boy. I might get written up. If you aren’t dumb, then you must need a lesson.” He spun me around and threw me down. I slid in the greasy alley snow. My elbow struck the ground and my arm went numb. The hand clutching a month of food, warm blankets, and dry shoes came open. Something precious flew away and landed without even a clink as it hit the ground.

I hardly noticed. The air hummed before his club cracked against my leg. He snarled at me, “Don’t come Hillside, understand?” The club caught me again, this time across the shoulder blades. “Everything past Fallow Street is off limits to you little whore’s sons. Understand?” he backhanded me across the face and I tasted blood as my head careened off the snow-covered cobbles.

I curled into a ball as he hissed down at me. “And Mill Street and Mill Market is where I work, so you never. Come. Back. Here. Again.” He punctuated each word with a blow from his stick. “Understand?”

I lay there shaking in the churned-up snow, hoping it was over. Hoping he would just go away. “Understand?” He kicked me in the stomach and I felt something tear inside of me.

I cried out and must have babbled something. He kicked me again when I didn’t get up, then went away.

I think I passed out or lay in a daze. When I finally came to my senses again, it was dusk. I was cold to the very center of my bones. I crawled around in the muddy snow and wet garbage, searching for the silver penny with fingers so numb with cold they would barely work.

One of my eyes was swelled shut and I could taste blood, but I searched until the last scrap of evening’s light was gone. Even after the alley had gone black as tar I kept sifting the snow with my hands, though I knew in my heart of hearts that my fingers were too numb to feel the coin even if I chanced across it.

I used the wall to get to my feet and started to walk. My wounded foot made progress slow. Pain stabbed up my leg with each step, and I tried to use the wall as a crutch to keep some weight off it.

I moved into Waterside, the part of the city that was more a home to me than anywhere else. My foot grew numb and wooden from the cold, and while that worried some rational piece of me, my practical side was just glad there was one less part of me that hurt.

It was miles back to my secret place, and my limping progress was slow. At some point I must have fallen. I don’t remember it, but I do remember lying in the snow and realizing how delightfully comfortable it was. I felt sleep drawing itself over me like a thick blanket, like death.

I closed my eyes. I remember the deep silence of the deserted street around me. I was too numb and tired to be properly afraid. In my delirium, I imagined death in the form of a great bird with wings of fire and shadow. It hovered above, watching patiently, waiting for me. . . .

I slept, and the great bird settled its burning wings around me. I imagined a delicious warmth. Then its claws were in me, tearing me open—

No, it was just the pain of my torn ribs as someone rolled me onto my back.

Blearily, I opened an eye and saw a demon standing over me. In my confused and credulous state, the sight of the man in the demon mask startled me into wakefulness, the seductive warmth I had felt a moment ago vanished, leaving my body limp and leaden.

“It is. I told you. There’s a kid lying in the snow here!” The demon lifted me to my feet.

Now awake, I noticed his mask was sheer black. This was Encanis, Lord of Demons. He set me unsteadily onto my feet and began to brush away the snow that covered me.

Through my good eye I saw a figure in a livid green mask standing nearby. “Come on . . .” the other demon said urgently, her voice sounding hollowly from behind the rows of pointed teeth.

Encanis ignored her. “Are you okay?”

I couldn’t think of a response, so I concentrated on keeping my balance as the man continued to brush the snow away with the sleeve of his dark robe. I heard the sound of distant horns.

The other demon looked nervously down the road. “If we don’t keep ahead of them we’ll be up to our shins in it,” she hissed nervously.

Encanis brushed the snow out of my hair with his dark gloved fingers, then paused and leaned in closer to look at my face. His dark mask loomed oddly in my blurry vision.

“God’s body, Holly, someone’s beaten hell out of this kid. On Midwinter’s Day, too.”

“Guard,” I managed to croak. I tasted blood when I said the word.

“You’re freezing,” Encanis said and began to chafe my arms and legs with his hands, trying to get my blood flowing again. “You’ll have to come with us.”

The horns sounded again, closer. They were mixed with the dim sounds of a crowd.

“Don’t be stupid,” the other demon said. “He’s in no shape to go running through the city.”

“He’s in no shape to stay here,” Encanis snapped. He continued to massage my arms and legs roughly. Some feeling was slowly returning to them, mostly a stinging, prickly heat that was like a painful mockery of the soothing warmth I had felt a minute ago when I was drifting off to sleep. Pain jabbed at me each time he went over a bruise, but my body was too tired to flinch away.

The green-masked demon came close and laid a hand on her friend’s shoulder. “We have to go now, Gerrek! Someone else will take care of him.” She tried to pull her friend away and met with no success. “If they find us here with him they’ll assume we did it.”

The man behind the black mask swore, then nodded and began to rummage around underneath his robe. “Don’t lie down again,” he said to me in urgent tones. “And get inside. Somewhere you can warm up.” The crowd sounds were close enough for me to hear individual voices mixed with the noise of horses’ hooves and creaking wooden wheels. The man in the black mask held out his hand.

It took me a moment to focus on what he held. A silver talent, thicker and heavier than the penny I had lost. So much money I could hardly think of it. “Go on, take it.”

He was a form of darkness, black hooded cloak, black mask, black gloves. Encanis stood in front of me holding out a bright bit of silver that caught the moonlight. I was reminded of the scene from Daeonica where Tarsus sells his soul.

I took the talent, but my hand was so numb I couldn’t feel it. I had to look down to make sure my fingers were gripping it. I imagined I could feel warmth radiating up my arm, I felt stronger. I grinned at the man in the black mask.

“Take my gloves too.” He pulled them off and pushed them against my chest. Then the woman in the green demon mask pulled my benefactor away before I could give him any word of thanks. I watched the two of them go. Their dark robes made them look like pieces of retreating shadow against the charcoal colors of Tarbean’s moonlit streets.

Not even a minute passed before I saw the pageantry’s torchlight come around the corner toward me. The voices of a hundred men and women singing and shouting crashed over me like waves. I moved away until I felt my back press up against a wall, then I slid weakly sideways until I found a recessed doorway.

I watched the pageantry from my vantage there. People poured by, shouting and laughing. Tehlu stood tall and proud in the back of a wagon drawn by four white horses. His silver mask gleamed in the torchlight. His white robes were immaculate and lined with fur at the cuff and collar. Grey-robed priests followed along beside the wagon, ringing bells and chanting. Many of them wore the heavy iron chains of penitent priests. The sound of the voices and the bells, the chanting and the chains mingled to make a sort of music. All eyes were for Tehlu. No one saw me standing in the shadows of the doorway.

It took nearly ten minutes for all of them to pass, only then did I emerge and begin to make my careful way home. It was slow going, but I felt fortified by the coin I held. I checked the talent every dozen steps or so to reassure myself that my numb hand was still gripping it tightly. I wanted to put on the gloves I had been given, but I feared to drop the coin and lose it in the snow.

I don’t know how long it took for me to get back. The walking warmed me slightly, though my feet still felt wooden and numb. When I looked back over my shoulder, my trail was marked by a smear of blood in every other footprint. It reassured me in an odd way. A foot that bleeds is better than one that is frozen solid.

I stopped at the first inn I recognized, the Laughing Man. It was full of music, singing, and celebration. I avoided the front door and went around to the back alley. There were a pair of young girls chatting in the kitchen doorway, avoiding their work.

I limped up to them, using the wall as a crutch. They didn’t notice me until I was nearly on top of them. The younger one looked up at me and gasped.

I took a step closer. “Could one of you bring me food and a blanket? I can pay.” I held out my hand and was frightened by how much it shook. It was smeared with blood from when I had touched the side of my face. The inside of my mouth felt raw. It hurt to talk. “Please?”

They looked at me for a moment in stunned silence. Then they looked at each other and the older of the two motioned the other inside. The young girl disappeared through the door without a word. The older girl, who might have been sixteen, came closer to me and held out her hand.

I gave her the coin and let my arm fall heavily to my side. She looked at it and disappeared inside after a second long glance at me.

Through the open doorway I heard the warm, bustling sounds of a busy inn: the low murmur of conversation, punctuated with laughter, the bright clink of bottle glass, and the dull thump of wooden tankards on tabletops.

And, threading gently through it all, a lute played in the background. It was faint, almost drowned by the other noise, but I heard it the same way a mother can mark her child crying from a dozen rooms away. The music was like a memory of family, of friendship and warm belonging. It made my gut twist and my teeth ache. For a moment my hands stopped aching from the cold, and instead longed for the familiar feel of music running through them.

I took a slow, shuffling step. Slowly, sliding along the wall, I moved back away from the doorway until I couldn’t hear the music anymore. Then I took another step, until my hands hurt with the cold again and the ache in my chest came from nothing more than broken ribs. They were simpler pains, easier to endure.

I don’t know how long it was before the two girls came back. The younger one held out a blanket wrapped around something. I hugged it to my aching chest. It seemed disproportionately heavy for its size, but my arms were trembling slightly under their own weight, so it was hard to tell. The older girl held out a small, solid purse. I took it as well, clutching it so tightly my frostburned fingers ached.

She looked at me. “You can have a corner by the fire in here if you want it.”

The younger girl nodded quickly. “Nattie won’t mind.” She took a step and reached out to take my arm.

I jerked away from her, almost falling. “No!” I meant to shout but it came out as a weak croak, “Don’t touch me.” My voice was shaking, though I couldn’t tell if I was angry or afraid. I staggered away against the wall. My voice was blurry in my ears. “I’ll be fine.”

The younger girl started to cry, her hands hanging useless at her sides.

“I’ve got somewhere to go.” My voice cracked and I turned away. I hurried off as fast as I could. I wasn’t sure what I was running from, unless it was people. That was another lesson I had learned perhaps too well: people meant pain. I heard a few muffled sobs behind me. It seemed a long while before I made it to the corner.

I made it to my hidden place, where the roofs of two buildings met underneath the overhang of a third. I don’t know how I managed to climb up there.

Inside the blanket was a whole flask of spiced wine and a loaf of fresh bread nestled next to a turkey breast bigger than both my balled fists. I wrapped myself in the blanket and moved out of the wind as the snow turned to sleet. The brick of the chimney behind me was warm and wonderful.

The first swallow of wine burned my mouth like fire where it was cut. But the second didn’t sting nearly so much. The bread was soft and the turkey was still warm.

I woke at midnight when all the bells in the city started ringing. People ran and shouted in the streets. The seven days of High Mourning were behind us. Midwinter was past. A new year had begun.

CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE

The Burning Wheel

I stayed tucked into my secret place all that night and woke late the next day to find my body had stiffened into a tight knot of pain. Since I still had food and a little wine I stayed where I was rather than risk falling when I tried to climb down to the street.

It was a sunless day with a damp wind that never seemed to stop. Sleet gusted under the protection of the overhanging roof. The chimney was warm behind me, but it wasn’t enough to actually dry out my blanket or drive away the chilly damp that soaked my clothes.

I finished the wine and the bread early on, and after that I spent most of my time gnawing at the turkey bones and trying to warm up snow in the empty wine flask so I could drink it. Neither proved very productive, and I ended up eating mouthfuls of slushy snow that left me shivering with the taste of tar in my mouth.

Despite my injuries I dropped off to sleep in the afternoon and woke late at night filled with the most wonderful warmth. I pushed away my blanket and rolled away from the now too-hot chimney only to wake near dawn, shivering and soaked through to the skin. I felt strange, dizzy and fuddled. I huddled back against the chimney and spent the rest of the day drifting in and out of a restless, fevered sleep.

I have no memory of how I made it off the rooftop, delirious with fever and nearly crippled. I don’t remember making my way the three-quarters of a mile through Tallows and the Crates. I only remember falling down the stairs that led to Trapis’ basement, my purse of money clutched tight in my hand. As I lay there shivering and sweating I heard the faint slapping of his bare feet on the stone.

“What what,” he said gently as he picked me up. “Hush hush.” Trapis nursed me through the long days of my fever. He wrapped me in blankets, fed me, and when my fever showed no signs of breaking on its own, he used the money I’d brought to buy a bittersweet medicine. He kept my face and hands wet and cool while murmuring his patient, gentle, “What what. Hush hush,” while I cried out from endless fever dreams of my dead parents, the Chandrian, and a man with empty eyes.

I woke clear-headed and cool.

“Oooohreeee,” Tanee said loudly from where he was tied to his cot.

“What what. Hush hush, Tanee.” Trapis said as he put down one of the babies and picked up the other. It looked around owlishly with wide, dark eyes, but seemed unable to support its own head. It was quiet in the room.

“Ooooooohreeee,” Tanee said again.

I coughed, trying to clear my throat.

“There’s a cup on the floor next to you,” Trapis said, brushing a hand along the head of the baby he held.

OOOOOH OOHRRRREE EEEEEEHHAA!” Tanee bellowed, strange half-gasps punctuating his cry. The noise agitated several of the others who moved restlessly in their cots. The older boy sitting in the corner raised his hands to the sides of his head and began to moan. He started rocking back and forth, gently at first, but then more and more violently so that when he came forward his head knocked against the bare stone of the wall.

Trapis was at his side before the boy could do himself any real harm. He put his arms around the rocking boy. “Hush hush, Loni. Hush hush.” The boy’s rocking slowed but did not entirely subside. “Tanee, you know better than to make all that noise.” His voice was serious, but not stern. “Why are you making trouble? Loni could hurt himself.”

“Oorrahee,” Tanee said softly. I thought I could detect a note of remorse in his voice.

“I think he wants a story,” I said, surprising myself by speaking.

“Aaaa,” Tanee said.

“Is that what you want, Tanee?”

“Aaaa.”

There was a quiet moment. “I don’t know any stories,” he said.

Tanee remained stubbornly silent.

Everyone knows one story, I thought. Everyone knows at least one.

“Ooooooree!”

Trapis looked around at the quiet room, as if looking for an excuse. “Well,” he said reluctantly. “It has been a while since we had a story, hasn’t it?” He looked down at the boy in his arms. “Would you like a story, Loni?”

Loni nodded a violent affirmation, nearly battering Trapis’ cheek with the back of his head.

“Will you be good and sit by yourself, so I can tell a story?”

Loni stopped rocking almost immediately. Trapis slowly unwrapped his arms and stepped away. After a long look to make sure the boy wouldn’t hurt himself, he stepped carefully back to his chair.

“Well,” he muttered softly to himself as he stooped to pick up the baby he had set aside. “Do I have a story?” He spoke very quietly to the child’s wide eyes. “No. No, I don’t. Can I remember one? I suppose I had better.”

He sat for a long moment, humming to the child in his arms, a thoughtful expression on his face. “Yes, of course.” He sat up taller in his chair. “Are you ready?”

This is a story from long ago. Back before any of us were born. Before our fathers were born, too. It was a long time ago. Maybe—maybe four hundred years. No, more than that. Probably a thousand years. But maybe not quite as much as that.

It was a bad time in the world. People were hungry and sick. There were famines and great plagues. There were many wars and other bad things in this time, because there was no one to stop them.

But the worst thing in this time was that there were demons walking the land. Some of them were small and troublesome, creatures who lamed horses and spoiled milk. But there were many worse than those.

There were demons who hid in men’s bodies and made them sick or mad, but those were not the worst. There were demons like great beasts that would catch and eat men while they were still alive and screaming, but they were not the worst. Some demons stole the skins of men and wore them like clothes, but even they were not the worst.

There was one demon that stood above the others. Encanis, the swallowing darkness. No matter where he walked, shadows hid his face, and scorpions that stung him died of the corruption they had touched.

Now Tehlu, who made the world and who is lord over all, watched the world of men. He saw that demons made sport of us and killed us and ate our bodies. Some men he saved, but only a few. For Tehlu is just and saves only the worthy, and in these times few men acted even for their own good, let alone the good of others.

Because of this, Tehlu was unhappy. For he had made the world to be a good place for men to live. But his church was corrupt. They stole from the poor and did not live by the laws he had given. . . .

No, wait. There was no church yet, and no priests either. Just men and women, and some of them knew who Tehlu was. But even those were wicked, so when they called on Lord Tehlu for help he felt no desire to aid them.

But after years of watching and waiting, Tehlu saw a woman pure of heart and spirit. Her name was Perial. Her mother had raised her to know Tehlu, and she worshiped him as well as her poor circumstances allowed. Although her own life was hard, Perial prayed only for others, and never for herself.

Tehlu watched her for long years. He saw her life was hard, full of misfortune and torment at the hands of demons and bad men. But she never cursed his name or ceased her praying, and she never treated any person other than with kindness and respect.

So late one night, Tehlu went to her in a dream. He stood before her, and seemed to be made entirely of fire or sunlight. He came to her in splendor and asked her if she knew who he was.

“Sure enough,” she said. You see, she was very calm about it because she thought she was just having an odd dream. “You’re Lord Tehlu.”

He nodded and asked her if she knew why he had come to her.

“Are you going to do something for my neighbor Deborah?” she asked. Because that’s who she had prayed for before she went to sleep. “Are you going to lay your hand on her husband Losel and make him a better man? The way he treats her isn’t right. Man should never lay a hand on woman, save in love.”

Tehlu knew her neighbors. He knew they were wicked people who had done wicked things. Everyone in the village was wicked but her. Everyone in the world was. He told her so.

“Deborah has been very kind and good to me,” Perial said. “And even Losel, who I don’t care for, is one of my neighbors all the same.”

Tehlu told her that Deborah spent time in many different men’s beds, and Losel drank every day of the week, even on Mourning. No, wait—there wasn’t any Mourning yet. But he drank a lot at any rate. Sometimes he grew so angry that he beat his wife until she could not stand or even cry aloud.

Perial was quiet for a long moment in her dream. She knew Tehlu spoke the truth, but while Perial was pure of heart, she was not a fool. She had suspected her neighbors of doing the things Tehlu said. Even now that she knew for certain, she cared for her neighbors all the same. “You won’t help her?”

Tehlu said that the man and wife were each other’s fitting punishment. They were wicked and the wicked should be punished.

Perial spoke out honestly, perhaps because she thought she was dreaming, but perhaps she would have said the same thing had she been awake, for Perial said what was in her heart. “It’s not their fault that the world is full of hard choices and hunger and loneliness,” she said. “What can you expect of people when demons are their neighbors?”

But though Tehlu listened to her wise words with his ears, he told her that mankind was wicked, and the wicked should be punished.

“I think you know very little about what it is to be a man,” she said. “And I would still help them if I could,” she told him resolutely.

SO YOU SHALL, Tehlu told her, and reached out to lay his hand on her heart. When he touched her she felt like she were a great golden bell that had just rung out its first note. She opened her eyes and knew then that it had been no normal dream.

Thus it was that she was not surprised to discover she was pregnant. In three months she gave birth to a perfect dark-eyed baby boy. She named him Menda. The day after he was born, Menda could crawl. In two days he could walk. Perial was surprised, but not worried, for she knew the child was a gift from God.

Nevertheless, Perial was wise. She knew that people might not understand. So she kept Menda close by her, and when her friends and neighbors came to visit, she sent them away.

But this could only last a little while, for in a small town there are no secrets. Folk knew that Perial was not married. And while children born out of wedlock were common during this time, children who grew to manhood in less than two months were not. They were afraid that she might have lain down with a demon, and that her child was a demon’s child. Such things were not unheard of in those dark times, and the people were afraid.

So everyone gathered together on the first day of the seventh span, and made their way to the tiny house where Perial lived by herself with her son. The town smith, whose name was Rengen, led them. “Show us the boy,” he yelled. But there was no response from the house. “Bring out the boy, and show us he is nothing but a human child.”

The house remained quiet, and though there were many men among them, no one wanted to enter a house that might have a demon’s child inside. So the smith cried out again, “Perial, bring out young Menda, or we will burn your house around you.”

The door opened, and a man stepped out. None of them recognized who it was, because even though he was only seven span from the womb, Menda looked to be a young man of seventeen. He stood proud and tall, with coal-black hair and eyes. “I am the one you think is Menda,” he said in a voice both powerful and deep. “What do you want of me?”

The sound of his voice made Perial gasp inside the cottage. Not only was this the first time Menda had ever spoken, but she recognized his voice as the same one that had spoken to her in a dream, months ago.

“What do you mean, we think you are Menda?” asked the smith, gripping his hammer tightly. He knew that there were demons that looked like men, or wore their skins like costumes, the way a man might hide beneath a sheepskin.

The child who was not a child spoke again. “I am Perial’s son, but I am not Menda. And I am not a demon.”

“Touch the iron of my hammer then,” said Rengen, for he knew all demons feared two things, cold iron and clean fire. He held out his heavy forge hammer. It shook in his hands, but no one thought the less of him for it.

He who was not Menda stepped forward and lay both hands on the iron head of the hammer. Nothing happened. From the doorway of her house where she watched, Perial burst into tears, for though she trusted Tehlu, some part of her had held a mother’s worry for her son.

“I am not Menda, though that is what my mother called me. I am Tehlu, lord above all. I have come to free you from demons and the wickedness of your own hearts. I am Tehlu, son of myself. Let the wicked hear my voice and tremble.”

And they did tremble. But some of them refused to believe. They called him a demon and threatened him. They spoke hard, frightened words. Some threw stones and cursed him, and spat toward him and his mother.

Then Tehlu grew angry, and he might have slain them all, but Perial leaped forward and laid a restraining hand on his shoulder. “What more can you expect?” she asked him quietly. “From men who live with demons for their neighbors? Even the best dog will bite that has been kicked enough.”

Tehlu considered her words and saw that she was wise. So he looked over his hands at Rengen, looked deep into his heart and said, “Rengen, son of Engen, you have a mistress who you pay to lie with you. Some men come to you for work and you cheat or steal from them. And though you pray loudly, you do not believe I, Tehlu, made the world and watch over all who live here.”

When Rengen heard this, he grew pale and dropped his hammer to the ground. For what Tehlu said to him was true. Tehlu looked at all the men and women there. He looked into their hearts and spoke of what he saw. All of them were wicked, so much that Rengen was among the best of them.

Then Tehlu drew a line in the dirt of the road so that it lay between himself and all those who had come. “This road is like the meandering course of a life. There are two paths to take, side by side. Each of you are already traveling that side. You must choose. Stay on your own path, or cross to mine.”

“But the road is the same, isn’t it? It still goes to the same place,” someone asked.

“Yes.”

“Where does the road lead?”

“Death. All lives end in death, excepting one. Such is the way of things.”

“Then what does it matter which side a man is on?” It was Rengen asking these questions. He was a large man, one of the few that was taller than dark-eyed Tehlu. But he was shaken by all that he had seen and heard in the past few hours. “What is on our side of the road?”

“Pain,” Tehlu said in a voice as hard and cold as stone. “Punishment.”

“And your side?”

“Pain now,” Tehlu said in the same voice. “Punishment now, for all that you have done. It cannot be avoided. But I am here too, this is my path.”

“How do I cross?”

“Regret, repent, and cross to me.”

Rengen stepped over the line to stand beside his God. Then Tehlu bent to pick up the hammer that the smith had dropped. But instead of giving it back, he struck Rengen with it as if it were a lash. Once. Twice. Thrice. And the third blow sent Rengen to his knees sobbing and crying out in pain. But after the third blow, Tehlu laid the hammer aside and knelt to look Rengen in the face. “You were the first to cross,” he said softly so only the smith could hear. “It was a brave thing, a hard thing to do. I am proud of you. You are no longer Rengen, now you are Wereth, the forger of the path.” Then Tehlu embraced him with both arms, and his touch took much of the pain from Rengen who was now Wereth. But not all, for Tehlu spoke truly when he said that punishment cannot be avoided.

One by one they crossed, and one by one Tehlu struck them down with the hammer. But after each man or woman fell, Tehlu knelt and spoke to them, giving them new names and healing some of their hurt.

Many of the men and women had demons hiding inside them that fled screaming when the hammer touched them. These people Tehlu spoke with a while longer, but he always embraced them in the end, and they were all grateful. Some of them danced for the joy of being free of such terrible things living inside them.

In the end, seven stayed on the other side of the line. Tehlu asked them three times if they would cross, and three times they refused. After the third asking Tehlu sprang across the line and he struck each of them a great blow, driving them to the ground.

But not all were men. When Tehlu struck the fourth, there was the sound of quenching iron and the smell of burning leather. For the fourth man had not been a man at all, but a demon wearing a man’s skin. When it was revealed, Tehlu grabbed the demon and broke it in his hands, cursing its name and sending it back to the outer darkness that is the home of its kind.

The remaining three let themselves be struck down. None of them were demons, though demons fled the bodies of some who fell. After he was done, Tehlu did not speak to the six who did not cross, nor did he kneel to embrace them and ease their wounds.

The next day, Tehlu set off to finish what he had begun. He walked from town to town, offering each village he met the same choice he had given before. Always the results were the same, some crossed, some stayed, some were not men at all but demons, and those he destroyed.

But there was one demon who eluded Tehlu. Encanis, whose face was all in shadow. Encanis, whose voice was like a knife in the minds of men.

Wherever Tehlu stopped to offer men the choice of path, Encanis had been there just before, killing crops and poisoning wells. Encanis, setting men to murder one another and stealing children from their beds at night.

At the end of seven years, Tehlu’s feet had carried him all through the world. He had driven out the demons that plagued us. All but one. Encanis ran free and did the work of a thousand demons, destroying and despoiling wherever he went.

So Tehlu chased and Encanis fled. Soon Tehlu was a span of days behind the demon, then two days, then half a day. Finally he was so close he felt the chill of Encanis’ passing and could spy places where he had set his hands and feet, for they were marked with a cold, black frost.

Knowing he was pursued, Encanis came to a great city. The Lord of Demons called forth his power and the city was brought to ruin. He did this hoping Tehlu would delay so he could make his escape, but the Walking God paused only to appoint priests who cared for the people of the ruined town.

For six days Encanis fled, and six great cities he destroyed. But on the seventh day, Tehlu drew near before Encanis could bring his power to bear and the seventh city was saved. That is why seven is a lucky number, and why we celebrate on Caenin.

Encanis was now hard pressed and bent his whole thought upon escape. But on the eighth day Tehlu did not pause to sleep or eat. And thus it was that at the end of Felling Tehlu caught Encanis. He leaped on the demon and struck him with his forge hammer. Encanis fell like a stone, but Tehlu’s hammer shattered and lay in the dust of the road.

Tehlu carried the demon’s limp body all through the long night, and on the morning of the ninth day he came to the city of Atur. When men saw Tehlu carrying the demon’s senseless form, they thought Encanis dead. But Tehlu knew that such a thing was not easily done. No simple blade or blow could kill him. No cell of bars could keep him safe within.

So Tehlu carried Encanis to the smithy. He called for iron, and people brought all they owned. Though he had taken no rest nor a morsel of food, all through the ninth day Tehlu labored. While ten men worked the bellows, Tehlu forged the great iron wheel.

All night he worked, and when the first light of the tenth morning touched him, Tehlu struck the wheel one final time and it was finished. Wrought all of black iron, the wheel stood taller than a man. It had six spokes, each thicker than a hammer’s haft, and its rim was a handspan across. It weighed as much as forty men, and was cold to the touch. The sound of its name was terrible, and none could speak it.

Tehlu gathered the people who were watching and chose a priest among them. Then he set them to dig a great pit in the center of the town, fifteen feet wide and twenty feet deep.

With the sun rising Tehlu laid the body of the demon on the wheel. At the first touch of iron, Encanis began to stir in his sleep. But Tehlu chained him tightly to the wheel, hammering the links together, sealing them tighter than any lock.

Then Tehlu stepped back, and all saw Encanis shift again, as if disturbed by an unpleasant dream. Then he shook and came awake entirely. Encanis strained against the chains, his body arching upward as he pulled against them. Where the iron touched his skin it felt like knives and needles and nails, like the searing pain of frost, like the sting of a hundred biting flies. Encanis thrashed on the wheel and began to howl as the iron burned and bit and froze him.

To Tehlu the sound was like a sweet music. He lay down on the ground beside the wheel and slept a deep sleep, for he was very tired.

When he awoke, it was evening of the tenth day. Encanis was still bound to the wheel, but he no longer howled and fought like a trapped animal. Tehlu bent and with great effort lifted one edge of the wheel and set it leaning against a tree that grew nearby. As soon as he came close, Encanis cursed him in languages no one knew, scratching and biting.

“You brought this on yourself,” Tehlu said.

That night there was a celebration. Tehlu sent men to cut a dozen evergreens and use them to kindle a bonfire in the bottom of the deep pit they had dug.

All night the townsfolk danced and sang around the burning fire. They knew the last and most dangerous of the world’s demons was finally caught.

And all night Encanis hung from his wheel and watched them, motionless as a snake.

When the morning of the eleventh day came, Tehlu went to Encanis a third and final time. The demon looked worn and feral. His skin was sallow and his bones pressed tight against his skin. But his power still lay around him like a dark mantle, hiding his face in shadow.

“Encanis,” Tehlu said. “This is your last chance to speak. Do it, for I know it is within your power.”

“Lord Tehlu, I am not Encanis.” For that brief moment the demon’s voice was pitiful, and all who heard it were moved to sorrow. But then there was a sound like quenching iron, and the wheel rung like an iron bell. Encanis’ body arched painfully at the sound then hung limply from his wrists as the ringing of the wheel faded.

“Try no tricks, dark one. Speak no lies,” Tehlu said sternly, his eyes as dark and hard as the iron of the wheel.

“What then?” Encanis hissed, his voice like the rasp of stone on stone. “What? Rack and shatter you, what do you want of me?”

“Your road is very short, Encanis. But you may still choose a side on which to travel.”

Encanis laughed. “You will give me the same choice you give the cattle? Yes then, I will cross to your side of the path, I regret and rep—”

The wheel rung again, like a great bell tolling long and deep. Encanis threw his body tight against the chains again and the sound of his scream shook the earth and shattered stones for half a mile in each direction.

When the sounds of wheel and scream had faded, Encanis hung panting and shaking from his chains. “I told you to speak no lie, Encanis,” Tehlu said, pitiless.

“My path then!” Encanis shrieked. “I do not regret! If I had my choice again, I would only change how fast I ran. Your people are like cattle my kind feed on! Bite and break you, if you gave me half an hour I would do such things that these wretched gawping peasants would go mad with fear. I would drink their children’s blood and bathe in women’s tears.” He might have said more, but his breath was short as he strained against the chains that held him.

“So,” Tehlu said, and stepped close to the wheel. For a moment it seemed like he would embrace Encanis, but he was merely reaching for the iron spokes of the wheel. Then, straining, Tehlu lifted the wheel above his head. He carried it, arms upstretched, toward the pit, and threw Encanis in.

Through the long hours of night, a dozen evergreens had fed the fire. The flames had died in the early morning, leaving a deep bed of sullen coals that glimmered when the wind brushed them.

The wheel struck flat, with Encanis on top. There was an explosion of spark and ash as it landed and sank inches deep into the hot coals. Encanis was held over the coals by the iron that bound and burned and bit at him.

Though he was held away from the fire itself, the heat was so intense that Encanis’ clothes charred black and began to crumble without bursting into flame. The demon thrashed against his bonds, settling the wheel more firmly into the coals. Encanis screamed, because he knew that even demons can die from fire or iron. And though he was powerful, he was bound and burning. He felt the metal of the wheel grow hot beneath him, blackening the flesh of his arms and legs. Encanis screamed, and even as his skin began to smoke and char, his face was still hidden in a shadow that rose from him like a tongue of darkening flame.

Then Encanis grew silent, and the only sound was the hiss of sweat and blood as they fell from the demon’s straining limbs. For a long moment everything was still. Encanis strained against the chains that held him to the wheel, and it seemed that he would strain until his muscles tore themselves from bone and sinew both.

Then there was a sharp sound like a bell breaking and the demon’s arm jerked free of the wheel. Links of chain, now glowing red from the heat of the fire, flew upward to land smoking at the feet of those who stood above. The only sound was the sudden, wild laughter of Encanis, like breaking glass.

In a moment the demon’s second hand was free, but before he could do more, Tehlu flung himself into the pit and landed with such force that the iron rang with it. Tehlu grabbed the hands of the demon and pressed them back against the wheel.

Encanis screamed in fury and in disbelief, for though he was forced back onto the burning wheel, and though he felt the strength of Tehlu was greater than chains he had broken, he saw Tehlu was burning in the flames.

“Fool!” he wailed. “You will die here with me. Let me go and live. Let me go and I will trouble you no further.” And the wheel did not ring out, for Encanis was truly frightened.

“No,” said Tehlu. “Your punishment is death. You will serve it.”

“Fool! Madling!” Encanis thrashed to no avail. “You are burning in the flames with me, you will die as I do!”

“To ash all things return, so too this flesh will burn. But I am Tehlu. Son of myself. Father of myself. I was before, and I will be after. If I am a sacrifice then it is to myself alone. And if I am needed and called in the proper ways then I will come again to judge and punish.”

So Tehlu held him to the burning wheel, and none of the demon’s threats or screaming moved him the least part of an inch. So it was that Encanis passed from the world, and with him went Tehlu who was Menda. Both of them burned to ash in the pit in Atur. That is why the Tehlin priests wear robes of ashen grey. And that is how we know Tehlu cares for us, and watches us, and keeps us safe from—

Trapis broke off his story as Jaspin began to howl and thrash against his restraints. I slid softly back into unconsciousness as soon as I no longer had the story to hold my attention.

After that, I began to harbor a suspicion that never entirely left me. Was Trapis a Tehlin priest? His robe was tattered and dirty, but it might have been the proper grey long ago. Parts of his story had been awkward and stumbling, but some were stately and grand, as if he had been reciting them from some half-forgotten memory. Of sermons? Of his readings from the Book of the Path?

I never asked. And though I stopped by his basement frequently in the months that followed, I never heard Trapis tell another story again.

CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR

Shadows Themselves

Through all my time in Tarbean, I continued to learn, though most of the lessons were painful and unpleasant.

I learned how to beg. It was a very practical application of acting with a very difficult audience. I did it well, but Waterside money was tight and an empty begging bowl meant a cold, hungry night.

Through dangerous trial and error I discovered the proper way to slit a purse and pick a pocket. I was especially good at the latter. Locks and latches of all kinds soon gave up their secrets to me. My nimble fingers were put to a use my parents or Abenthy never would have guessed.

I learned to run from anyone with an unnaturally white smile. Denner resin slowly bleaches your teeth, so if a sweet-eater lives long enough for their teeth to grow fully white, chances are they have already sold everything they have worth selling. Tarbean is full of dangerous people, but none as dangerous as a sweet-eater filled with the desperate craving for more resin. They will kill you for a pair of pennies.

I learned how to lash together makeshift shoes out of rags. Real shoes became a thing of dreams for me. The first two years it seemed like my feet were always cold, or cut, or both. But by the third year my feet were like old leather and I could run barefoot for hours over the rough stones of the city and not feel it at all.

I learned not to expect help from anyone. In the bad parts of Tarbean a call for help attracts predators like the smell of blood on the wind.

I was sleeping on the rooftops, snugged tightly into my secret place where three roofs met. I awoke from a deep sleep to the sound of harsh laughter and pounding feet in the alley below me.

The slapping footsteps stopped and more laughter followed the sound of ripping cloth. Slipping to the edge of the roof, I looked down to the alley below. I saw several large boys, almost men. They were dressed as I was, rags and dirt. There may have been five, maybe six of them. They moved in and out of the shadows like shadows themselves. Their chests heaved from their run and I could hear their breath from the roof above.

The object of the chase was in the middle of the alley: a young boy, eight years old at the most. One of the older boys was holding him down. The young boy’s bare skin shone pale in the moonlight. There was another sound of ripping cloth, and the boy gave a soft cry that ended in a choked sob.

The others watched and talked in low urgent tones with each other, wearing hard, hungry smiles.

I’d been chased before at night, several times. I’d been caught too, months ago. Looking down, I was surprised to find a heavy red roof tile in my hand, ready to throw.

Then I paused, looking back to my secret place. I had a rag blanket and a half a loaf of bread there. My rainy-day money was hidden here, eight iron pennies I had hoarded for when my luck turned bad. And most valuable of all, Ben’s book. I was safe here. Even if I hit one of them, the rest would be on the roof in two minutes. Then, even if I got away, I wouldn’t have anywhere to go.

I set down the tile. I went back to what had become my home, and curled myself into the shelter of the niche underneath the overhanging roof. I twisted my blanket in my hands and clenched my teeth, trying to shut out the low rumble of conversation punctuated by coarse laughter and quiet, hopeless sobbing from below.

CHAPTER TWENTY-FIVE

Interlude—Eager for Reasons

Kvothe gestured for Chronicler to set down his pen and stretched, lacing his fingers together above his head. “It’s been a long time since I remembered that,” he said. “If you are eager to find the reason I became the Kvothe they tell stories about, you could look there, I suppose.”

Chronicler’s forehead wrinkled. “What do you mean, exactly?”

Kvothe paused for a long moment, looking down at his hands. “Do you know how many times I’ve been beaten over the course of my life?”

Chronicler shook his head.

Looking up, Kvothe grinned and tossed his shoulders in a nonchalant shrug. “Neither do I. You’d think that sort of thing would stick in a person’s mind. You’d think I would remember how many bones I’ve had broken. You’d think I’d remember the stitches and bandages.” He shook his head. “I don’t. I remember that young boy sobbing in the dark. Clear as a bell after all these years.”

Chronicler frowned. “You said yourself that there was nothing you could have done.”

“I could have,” Kvothe said seriously, “and I didn’t. I made my choice and I regret it to this day. Bones mend. Regret stays with you forever.”

Kvothe pushed himself away from the table. “That’s enough of Tarbean’s darker side, I imagine.” He came to his feet and gave a great stretch, arms over his head.

“Why, Reshi?” The words poured out of Bast in a sudden gush. “Why did you stay there when it was so awful?”

Kvothe nodded to himself, as if he had been expecting the question. “Where else was there for me to go, Bast? Everyone I knew was dead.”

“Not everyone,” Bast insisted. “There was Abenthy. You could have gone to him.”

“Hallowfell was hundreds of miles away, Bast,” Kvothe said wearily as he wandered to the other side of the room and moved behind the bar. “Hundreds of miles without my father’s maps to guide me. Hundreds of miles without wagons to ride or sleep in. Without help of any sort, or money, or shoes. Not an impossible journey, I suppose. But for a young child, still numb with the shock of losing his parents. . . .”

Kvothe shook his head. “No. In Tarbean at least I could beg or steal. I’d managed to survive in the forest for a summer, barely. But over the winter?” He shook his head. “I would have starved or frozen to death.”

Standing at the bar, Kvothe filled his mug and began to add pinches of spice from several small containers, then walked toward the great stone fireplace, a thoughtful expression on his face. “You’re right, of course. Anywhere would have been better than Tarbean.”

He shrugged, facing the fire. “But we are all creatures of habit. It is far too easy to stay in the familiar ruts we dig for ourselves. Perhaps I even viewed it as fair. My punishment for not being there to help when the Chandrian came. My punishment for not dying when I should have, with the rest of my family.”

Bast opened his mouth, then closed it and looked down at the tabletop, frowning.

Kvothe looked over his shoulder and gave a gentle smile. “I’m not saying it’s rational, Bast. Emotions by their very nature are not reasonable things. I don’t feel that way now, but back then I did. I remember.” He turned back to the fire. “Ben’s training has given me a memory so clean and sharp I have to be careful not to cut myself sometimes.”

Kvothe took a mulling stone from the fire and dropped it into his wooden mug. It sank with a sharp hiss. The smell of searing clove and nutmeg filled the room.

Kvothe stirred his cider with a long-handled spoon as he made his way back to the table. “You must also remember that I was not in my right mind. Much of me was still in shock, sleeping if you will. I needed something, or someone, to wake me up.”

He nodded to Chronicler, who casually shook his writing hand to loosen it, then unstoppered his inkwell.

Kvothe leaned back in his seat. “I needed to be reminded of things I had forgotten. I needed a reason to leave. It was years before I met someone who could do those things.” He smiled at Chronicler. “Before I met Skarpi.”

CHAPTER TWENTY-SIX

Lanre Turned

I had been in Tarbean for years at this point. Three birthdays had slipped by unnoticed and I was just past fifteen. I knew how to survive Waterside. I had become an accomplished beggar and thief. Locks and pockets opened to my touch. I knew which pawnshops bought goods “from uncle” with no questions asked.

I was still ragged and frequently hungry, but I was in no real danger of starving. I had been slowly building my rainy-day money. Even after a hard winter that had frequently forced me to pay for a warm spot to sleep, my hoard was over twenty iron pennies. It was like a dragon’s treasure to me.

I had grown comfortable there. But aside from the desire to add to my rainy-day money I had nothing to live for. Nothing driving me. Nothing to look forward to. My days were spent looking for things to steal and ways to entertain myself.

But that had changed a few days earlier in Trapis’ basement. I had heard a young girl speaking in an awed voice about a storyteller who spent all his time in a Dockside bar called the Half-Mast. Apparently, every sixth bell he told a story. Any story you asked for, he knew. What’s more, she said that he had a bet going. If he didn’t know your story, he would give you a whole talent.

I thought about what the girl had said for the rest of the day. I doubted it was true, but I couldn’t help thinking about what I could do with a whole silver talent. I could buy shoes, and maybe a knife, give money to Trapis, and still double my rainy-day fund.

Even if the girl was lying about the bet, I was still interested. Entertainment was hard to come by on the streets. Occasionally some ragamuffin troupe would mum a play on a street corner or I’d hear a fiddler in a pub. But most real entertainment cost money, and my hard-won pennies were too precious to squander.

But there was a problem. Dockside wasn’t safe for me.

I should explain. More than a year before, I had seen Pike walking down the street. It had been the first time I’d seen him since my first day in Tarbean when he and his friends had jumped me in that alley and destroyed my father’s lute.

I followed him carefully for the better part of a day, keeping my distance and staying in the shadows. Eventually he went home to a little box alley Dockside where he had his own version of my secret place. His was a nest of broken crates he had cobbled together to keep the weather off.

I perched on the roof all night, waiting until he left the next morning. Then I made my way down to his nest of crates and looked around. It was cozy, filled with the accumulated small possessions of several years. He had a bottle of beer, which I drank. There was also half a cheese that I ate, and a shirt that I stole, as it was slightly less raggedy than my own.

Further searching revealed various odds and ends, a candle, a ball of string, some marbles. Most surprising were several pieces of sailcloth with charcoal drawings of a woman’s face. I had to search for nearly ten minutes until I found what I was really looking for. Hidden away behind everything else was a small wooden box that showed signs of much handling. It held a bundle of dried violets tied with a white ribbon, a toy horse that had lost most of its string mane, and a lock of curling blond hair.

It took me several minutes with flint and steel to get the fire going. The violets were good tinder and soon greasy clouds of smoke were billowing high into the air. I stood by and watched as everything Pike loved went up in flames.

But I stayed too long, savoring the moment. Pike and a friend came running down the box alley, drawn by the smoke, and I was trapped. Furious, Pike jumped me. He was taller by six inches and outweighed me by fifty pounds. Worse, he had a piece of broken glass wrapped with twine at one end, making a crude knife.

He stabbed me once in the thigh right above my knee before I smashed his hand into the cobblestones, shattering the knife. After that he still gave me a black eye and several broken ribs before I managed to kick him squarely between the legs and get free. As I pelted away he limped after me, shouting that he would kill me for what I’d done.

I believed him. After patching up my leg, I took every bit of rainy-day money I had saved and bought five pints of dreg, a cheap, foul liquor strong enough to blister the inside of your mouth. Then I limped into Dockside and waited for Pike and his friends to spot me.

It didn’t take long, I let him and two of his friends follow me for half a mile, past Seamling Lane and into Tallows. I kept to the main roads, knowing they wouldn’t dare attack me in broad daylight when people were around.

But when I darted into a side alley, they hurried to catch up, suspecting I was trying to make a run for it. However, when they turned the corner no one was there.

Pike thought to look up just as I was pouring the bucket of dreg onto him from the edge of the low roof above. It doused him, splashing across his face and chest. He screamed and clutched at his eyes as he went to his knees. Then I struck the phosphorus match I’d stolen, and dropped it onto him, watching it sputter and flare as it fell.

Full of the pure, hard hatred of a child, I hoped he would burst into a pillar of flame. He didn’t, but did catch fire. He screamed again and staggered around while his friends swatted at him, trying to put him out. I left while they were busy.

It had been over a year ago and I hadn’t seen Pike since. He hadn’t tried to find me, and I had stayed well clear of Dockside, sometimes going miles out of my way rather than pass near it. It was a kind of truce. However, I didn’t doubt that Pike and his friends remembered what I looked like, and were willing to settle the score if they spotted me.

After thinking it over, I decided it was too dangerous. Even the promise of free stories and a chance at a silver talent wasn’t worth stirring things up with Pike again. Besides, what story would I ask for?

The question rolled around in my head for the next few days. What story would I ask for? I jostled up against a dockworker and was cuffed away before I could get my hand all the way into his pocket. What story? I begged on the street corner opposite the Tehlin church. What story? I stole three loaves of bread and took two of them down to Trapis as a gift. What story?

Then, as I lay on the rooftops in my secret place where three roofs met, it came to me just as I was about to drift off to sleep. Lanre. Of course. I could ask him for the real story of Lanre. The story my father had been. . . .

My heart stuttered in my chest as I suddenly remembered things I had avoided for years: my father idly strumming at his lute, my mother beside him in the wagon, singing. Reflexively, I began to draw away from the memories, the way you might pull your hand back from a fire.

But I was surprised to find these memories held only a gentle ache, not the deep pain I expected. Instead I found a small, budding excitement at the thought of hearing a story my father would have sought out. A story he himself might have told.

Still, I knew it to be sheer folly to go running Dockside for the sake of a story. All the hard practicality Tarbean had taught me over the years urged me to stay in my familiar corner of the world, where I was safe. . . .

The first thing I saw on entering the Half-Mast was Skarpi. He was sitting on a tall stool at the bar, an old man with eyes like diamonds and the body of a driftwood scarecrow. He was thin and weathered with thick white hair on his arms and face and head. The whiteness of it stood out from his deep brown tan, making him seem splashed with wave foam.

At his feet were a group of twenty children, some few my age, most younger. They were a strange mix to see, ranging from grubby, shoeless urchins like myself, to reasonably well-dressed, well-scrubbed children who probably had parents and homes.

None of them looked familiar to me, but I never knew who might be a friend of Pike’s. I found a place near the door with my back to the wall and sank down onto my haunches.

Skarpi cleared his throat once or twice in a way that made me thirsty. Then, with ritual significance, he looked mournfully into the clay mug that sat in front of him and carefully turned it upside down on the bar.

The children surged forward, pressing coins onto the bar. I did a quick count: two iron halfpennies, nine shims, and a drab. Altogether, just a little over three iron pennies in Commonwealth coin. Maybe he was no longer offering the silver talent bet. More likely the rumor I’d heard was wrong.

The old man nodded almost imperceptibility to the bartender. “Fallows Red.” His voice was deep and rough, almost hypnotic. The bald man behind the bar gathered up the coins and deftly poured wine into Skarpi’s wide clay cup.

“So, what would everyone like to hear about today?” Skarpi rumbled. His deep voice rolling out like distant thunder.

There was a moment of silence that again struck me as ritualistic, almost reverent. Then a babble burst forth from all the children at once.

“I want a faerie story!”

“. . . Oren and the fight at Mnat’s . . .”

“Yes, Oren Velciter! The one with Baron . . .”

“Lartam . . .”

“Myr Tariniel!”

“Illien and the Bear!”

“Lanre,” I said, almost without meaning to.

The room went still again as Skarpi took a drink. The children watched him with a familiar intensity I couldn’t quite identify.

Skarpi sat calmly in the middle of the quiet. “Did I,” his voice rolled out slowly, like dark honey, “hear someone say Lanre?” He looked directly at me, his blue eyes clear and sharp.

I nodded, not knowing what to expect.

“I want to hear about the dry lands over the Stormwal,” one of the younger girls complained. “About the sand snakes that come out of the ground like sharks. And the dry men who hide under the dunes and drink your blood instead of water. And—” She was cuffed quickly into silence from a dozen different directions by the children surrounding her.

Silence fell sharply as Skarpi took another drink. Watching the children as they watched Skarpi, I realized what they reminded me of: a person anxiously watching a clock. I guessed that when the old man’s drink was gone, the story he told would be over as well.

Skarpi took another drink, no more than a sip this time, then set his cup down and pivoted on his stool to face us. “Who would like to hear the story of a man who lost his eye and gained a better sight?”

Something about the tone of his voice or the reaction of the other children told me this was a purely rhetorical question. “So, Lanre and the Creation War. An old, old story.” His eyes swept over the children. “Sit and listen for I will speak of the shining city as it once was, years and miles away. . . .”

Once, years and miles away, there was Myr Tariniel. The shining city. It sat among the tall mountains of the world like a gem on the crown of a king. Imagine a city as large as Tarbean, but on every corner of every street there was a bright fountain, or a green tree growing, or a statue so beautiful it would make a proud man cry to look at it. The buildings were tall and graceful, carved from the mountain itself, carved of a bright white stone that held the sun’s light long after evening fell. 

Selitos was lord over Myr Tariniel. Just by looking at a thing Selitos could see its hidden name and understand it. In those days there were many who could do such things, but Selitos was the most powerful namer of anyone alive in that age.

Selitos was well loved by the people he protected. His judgments were strict and fair, and none could sway him through falsehood or dissembling. Such was the power of his sight that he could read the hearts of men like heavy-lettered books.

Now in those days there was a terrible war being fought across a vast empire. The war was called the Creation War, and the empire was called Ergen. And despite the fact that the world has never seen an empire as grand or a war so terrible, both of them only live in stories now. Even history books that mentioned them as doubtful rumor have long since crumbled into dust.

The war had lasted so long that folk could hardly remember a time when the sky wasn’t dark with the smoke of burning towns. Once there had been hundreds of proud cities scattered through the empire. Now there were merely ruins littered with the bodies of the dead. Famine and plague were everywhere, and in some places there was such despair that mothers could no longer muster enough hope to give their children names. But eight cities remained. They were Belen, Antus, Vaeret, Tinusa, Emlen, and the twin cities of Murilla and Murella. Last was Myr Tariniel, greatest of them all and the only one unscarred by the long centuries of war. It was protected by the mountains and brave soldiers. But the true cause of Myr Tariniel’s peace was Selitos. Using the power of his sight he kept watch over the mountain passes leading to his beloved city. His rooms were in the city’s highest towers so he could see any attack long before it came to be a threat.

The other seven cities, lacking Selitos’ power, found their safety elsewhere. They put their trust in thick walls, in stone and steel. They put their trust in strength of arm, in valor and bravery and blood. And so they put their trust in Lanre.

Lanre had fought since he could lift a sword, and by the time his voice began to crack he was the equal of a dozen older men. He married a woman named Lyra, and his love for her was a passion fiercer than fury.

Lyra was terrible and wise, and held a power just as great as his. For while Lanre had the strength of his arm and the command of loyal men, Lyra knew the names of things, and the power of her voice could kill a man or still a thunderstorm.

As the years passed, Lanre and Lyra fought side by side. They defended Belen from a surprise attack, saving the city from a foe that should have overwhelmed them. They gathered armies and made the cities recognize the need for allegiance. Over the long years they pressed the empire’s enemies back. People who had grown numb with despair began to feel warm hope kindling inside. They hoped for peace, and they hung those flickering hopes on Lanre.

Then came the Blac of Drossen Tor. Blac meant ‘battle’ in the language of the time, and at Drossen Tor there was the largest and most terrible battle of this large and terrible war. They fought unceasing for three days in the light of the sun, and for three nights unceasing by the light of the moon. Neither side could defeat the other, and both were unwilling to retreat.

Of the battle itself I have only one thing to say. More people died at Drossen Tor than there are living in the world today.

Lanre was always where the fight was thickest, where he was needed most. His sword never left his hand or rested in its sheath. At the very end of things, covered in blood amid a field of corpses, Lanre stood alone against a terrible foe. It was a great beast with scales of black iron, whose breath was a darkness that smothered men. Lanre fought the beast and killed it. Lanre brought victory to his side, but he bought it with his life.

After the battle was finished and the enemy was set beyond the doors of stone, survivors found Lanre’s body, cold and lifeless near the beast he had slain. Word of Lanre’s death spread quickly, covering the field like a blanket of despair. They had won the battle and turned the tide of the war, but each of them felt cold inside. The small flame of hope that each of them cherished began to flicker and fade. Their hopes had hung on Lanre, and Lanre was dead.

In the midst of silence Lyra stood by Lanre’s body and spoke his name. Her voice was a commandment. Her voice was steel and stone. Her voice told him to live again. But Lanre lay motionless and dead.

In the midst of fear Lyra knelt by Lanre’s body and breathed his name. Her voice was a beckoning. Her voice was love and longing. Her voice called him to live again. But Lanre lay cold and dead.

In the midst of despair Lyra fell across Lanre’s body and wept his name. Her voice was a whisper. Her voice was echo and emptiness. Her voice begged him to live again. But Lanre lay breathless and dead.

Lanre was dead. Lyra wept brokenly and touched his face with trembling hands. All around men turned their heads, because the bloody field was less horrible to look upon than Lyra’s grief.

But Lanre heard her calling. Lanre turned at the sound of her voice and came to her. From beyond the doors of death Lanre returned. He spoke her name and took Lyra in his arms to comfort her. He opened his eyes and did his best to wipe away her tears with shaking hands. And then he drew a deep and living breath.

The survivors of the battle saw Lanre move and they marveled. The flickering hope for peace each of them had nurtured for so long flared like hot fire inside them.

“Lanre and Lyra!” they shouted, their voices like thunder. “Our lord’s love is stronger than death! Our lady’s voice has called him back! Together they have beaten death! Together, how can we help but be victorious?”

So the war continued, but with Lanre and Lyra fighting side by side the future seemed less grim. Soon everyone knew the story of how Lanre had died, and how his love and Lyra’s power had drawn him back. For the first time in living memory people could speak openly of peace without being seen as fools or madmen.

Years passed. The empire’s enemies grew thin and desperate and even the most cynical of men could see the end of the war was drawing swiftly near.

Then rumors began to spread: Lyra was ill. Lyra had been kidnapped. Lyra had died. Lanre had fled the empire. Lanre had gone mad. Some even said Lanre had killed himself and gone searching for his wife in the land of the dead. There were stories aplenty, but no one knew the truth of things.

In the midst of these rumors, Lanre arrived in Myr Tariniel. He came alone, wearing his silver sword and haubergeon of black iron scales. His armor fit him closely as a second skin of shadow. He had wrought it from the carcass of the beast he had killed at Drossen Tor.

Lanre asked Selitos to walk with him outside the city. Selitos agreed, hoping to learn the truth of Lanre’s trouble and offer him what comfort a friend can give. They often kept each other’s council, for they were both lords among their people.

Selitos had heard the rumors, and he was worried. He feared for Lyra’s health, but more he feared for Lanre. Selitos was wise. He understood how grief can twist a heart, how passions drive good men to folly.

Together they walked the mountain paths. Lanre leading the way, they came to a high place in the mountains where they could look out over the land. The proud towers of Myr Tariniel shone brightly in the last light of the setting sun.

After a long time Selitos said, “I have heard terrible rumors concerning your wife.”

Lanre said nothing, and from his silence Selitos knew that Lyra was dead.

After another long pause Selitos tried again. “Though I do not know the whole of the matter, Myr Tariniel is here for you, and I will lend whatever aid a friend can give.”

“You have given me enough, old friend.” Lanre turned and placed his hand on Selitos’ shoulder. “Silanxi, I bind you. By the name of stone, be still as stone. Aeruh, I command the air. Lay leaden on your tongue. Selitos, I name you. May all your powers fail you but your sight.”

Selitos knew that in all the world there were only three people who could match his skill in names: Aleph, lax, and Lyra. Lanre had no gift for names—his power lay in the strength of his arm. For him to attempt to bind Selitos by his name would be as fruitless as a boy attacking a soldier with a willow stick.

Nevertheless, Lanre’s power lay on him like a great weight, like a vise of iron, and Selitos found himself unable to move or speak. He stood, still as stone and could do nothing but marvel: how had Lanre come by such power?

In confusion and despair, Selitos watched night settle in the mountains. With horror he saw that some of the encroaching blackness was, in fact, a great army moving upon Myr Tariniel. Worse still, no warning bells were ringing. Selitos could only stand and watch as the army crept closer in secret.

Myr Tariniel was burned and butchered, the less that is said of it the better. The white walls were charred black and the fountains ran with blood. For a night and a day Selitos stood helpless beside Lanre and could do nothing more than watch and listen to the screams of the dying, the ring of iron, the crack of breaking stone.

When the next day dawned on the blackened towers of the city, Selitos found he could move. He turned to Lanre and this time his sight did not fail him. He saw in Lanre a great darkness and a troubled spirit. But Selitos still felt the fetters of enchantment binding him. Fury and puzzlement warred within him, and he spoke. “Lanre, what have you done?”

Lanre continued to look out over the ruins of Myr Tariniel. His shoulders stooped as though he bore a great weight. There was a weariness in his voice when he spoke. “Was I accounted a good man, Selitos?”

“You were counted among the best of us. We considered you beyond reproach.”

“Yet I did this.”

Selitos could not bring himself to look upon his ruined city. “Yet you did this,” he agreed. “Why?”

Lanre paused. “My wife is dead. Deceit and treachery brought me to it, but her death is on my hands.” He swallowed and turned to look out over the land.

Selitos followed his eyes. From the vantage high in the mountains he saw plumes of dark smoke rising from the land below. Selitos knew with certainty and horror that Myr Tariniel was not the only city that had been destroyed. Lanre’s allies had brought about the ruin of the last bastions of the empire.

Lanre turned. “And I counted among the best.” Lanre’s face was terrible to look upon. Grief and despair had ravaged it. “I, considered wise and good, did all this!” He gestured wildly. “Imagine what unholy things a lesser man must hold within his secret heart.” Lanre faced Myr Tariniel and a sort of peace came over him. “For them, at least, it is over. They are safe. Safe from the thousand evils of the everyday. Safe from the pains of an unjust fate.”

Selitos spoke softly, “Safe from the joy and wonder . . .”

“There is no joy!” Lanre shouted in an awful voice. Stones shattered at the sound and the sharp edges of echo came back to cut at them. “Any joy that grows here is quickly choked by weeds. I am not some monster who destroys out of a twisted pleasure. I sow salt because the choice is between weeds and nothing.” Selitos saw nothing but emptiness behind his eyes.

Selitos stooped to pick up a jagged shard of mountain glass, pointed at one end.

“Will you kill me with a stone?” Lanre gave a hollow laugh. “I wanted you to understand, to know it was not madness that made me do these things.”

“You are not mad,” Selitos admitted. “I see no madness in you.”

“I hoped, perhaps, that you would join me in what I aim to do.” Lanre spoke with a desperate longing in his voice. “This world is like a friend with a mortal wound. A bitter draught given quickly only eases pain.”

“Destroy the world?” Selitos said softly to himself. “You are not mad, Lanre. What grips you is something worse than madness. I cannot cure you.” He fingered the needle-sharp point of the stone he held.

“Will you kill me to cure me, old friend?” Lanre laughed again, terrible and wild. Then he looked at Selitos with sudden, desperate hope in his hollow eyes. “Can you?” he asked. “Can you kill me, old friend?”

Selitos, his eyes unveiled, looked at his friend. He saw how Lanre, nearly mad with grief, had sought the power to bring Lyra back to life again. Out of love for Lyra, Lanre had sought knowledge where knowledge is better left alone, and gained it at a terrible price.

But even in the fullness of his hard-won power, he could not call Lyra back. Without her, Lanre’s life was nothing but a burden, and the power he had taken up lay like a hot knife in his mind. To escape despair and agony, Lanre had killed himself. Taking the final refuge of all men, attempting to escape beyond the doors of death.

But just as Lyra’s love had drawn him back from past the final door before, so this time Lanre’s power forced him to return from sweet oblivion. His new-won power burned him back into his body, forcing him to live.

Selitos looked at Lanre and understood all. Before the power of his sight, these things hung like dark tapestries in the air about Lanre’s shaking form.

“I can kill you,” Selitos said, then looked away from Lanre’s expression suddenly hopeful. “For an hour, or a day. But you would return, pulled like iron to a loden-stone. Your name burns with the power in you. I can no more extinguish it than I could throw a stone and strike down the moon.”

Lanre’s shoulders bowed. “I had hoped,” he said simply. “But I knew the truth. I am no longer the Lanre you knew. Mine is a new and terrible name. I am Haliax and no door can bar my passing. All is lost to me, no Lyra, no sweet escape of sleep, no blissful forgetfulness, even madness is beyond me. Death itself is an open doorway to my power. There is no escape. I have only the hope of oblivion after everything is gone and the Aleu fall nameless from the sky.” And as he said this Lanre hid his face in his hands, and his body shook with silent, racking sobs.

Selitos looked out on the land below and felt a small spark of hope. Six plumes of smoke rose from the land below. Myr Tariniel was gone, and six cities destroyed. But that meant all was not lost. One city still remained. . . .

In spite of all that had happened, Selitos looked at Lanre with pity, and when he spoke it was with sadness in his voice. “Is there nothing then? No hope?” He lay one hand on Lanre’s arm. “There is sweetness in life. Even after all of this, I will help you look for it. If you will try.”

“No,” said Lanre. He stood to his full height, his face regal behind the lines of grief. “There is nothing sweet. I will sow salt, lest the bitter weeds grow.”

“I am sorry,” Selitos said, and stood upright as well.

Then Selitos spoke in a great voice, “Never before has my sight been clouded. I failed to see the truth inside your heart.”

Selitos drew a deep breath. “By my eye I was deceived, never again. . . .” He raised the stone and drove its needle point into his own eye. His scream echoed among the rocks as he fell to his knees gasping. “May I never again be so blind.”

A great silence descended, and the fetters of enchantment fell away from Selitos. He cast the stone at Lanre’s feet and said, “By the power of my own blood I bind you. By your own name let you be accursed.”

Selitos spoke the long name that lay in Lanre’s heart, and at the sound of it the sun grew dark and wind tore stones from the mountainside.

Then Selitos spoke, “This is my doom upon you. May your face be always held in shadow, black as the toppled towers of my beloved Myr Tariniel.

“This is my doom upon you. Your own name will be turned against you, that you shall have no peace.

“This is my doom upon you and all who follow you. May it last until the world ends and the Aleu fall nameless from the sky.”

Selitos watched as a darkness gathered about Lanre. Soon nothing could be seen of his handsome features, only a vague impression of nose and mouth and eyes. All the rest was shadow, black and seamless.

Then Selitos stood and said, “You have beaten me once through guile, but never again. Now I see truer than before and my power is upon me. I cannot kill you, but I can send you from this place. Begone! The sight of you is all the fouler, knowing that you once were fair.”

But even as he spoke them, the words were bitter in his mouth. Lanre, his face in shadow darker than a starless night, was blown away like smoke upon the wind.

Then Selitos bowed his head and wept hot tears of blood upon the earth.

It wasn’t until Skarpi stopped speaking that I noticed how lost in the story I had become. He tilted his head back and drained the last of the wine from his wide clay cup. He turned it upside-down and set it on the bar with a dull thump of finality.

There was a small clamor of questions, comments, pleas, and thanks from children who had remained still as stones throughout the story. Skarpi made a small gesture to the barkeep who set out a mug of beer as the children began to trickle out onto the street.

I waited until the last of them had left before I approached him. He turned those diamond-blue eyes on me and I stammered.

“Thank you. I wanted to thank you. My father would have loved that story. It’s the . . .” I broke off. “I wanted to give you this.” I brought out an iron halfpenny. “I didn’t know what was going on, so I didn’t pay.” My voice seemed rusty. This was probably more than I had spoken in a month.

He looked closely at me. “Here are the rules,” he said, ticking them off on his gnarled fingers. “One: don’t talk while I’m talking. Two: give a small coin, if you have it to spare.”

He looked at the ha’penny on the bar.

Not wanting to admit how much I needed it, I sought for something else to say. “Do you know many stories?”

He smiled, and the network of lines that crossed his face turned to make themselves part of that smile. “I only know one story. But oftentimes small pieces seem to be stories themselves.” He took a drink. “It’s growing all around us. In the manor houses of the Cealdim and in the workshops of the Cealdar, over the Stormwal in the great sand sea. In the low stone houses of the Adem, full of silent conversation. And sometimes.” He smiled. “Sometimes the story is growing in squalid backstreet bars, Dockside in Tarbean.” His bright eyes looked deep into me, as if I were a book that he could read.

“There’s no good story that doesn’t touch the truth,” I said, repeating something my father used to say, mostly to fill the silence. It felt strange talking to someone again, strange but good. “There’s as much truth here as anywhere, I suppose. It’s too bad, the world could do with a little less truth and a little more . . .” I trailed off, not knowing what I wanted more of. I looked down at my hands and found myself wishing they were cleaner.

He slid the halfpenny toward me. I picked it up and he smiled. His rough hand lit lightly as a bird on my shoulder. “Every day except Mourning. Sixth bell, more or less.”

I started to leave, then stopped. “Is it true? The story.” I made an inarticulate gesture. “The part you told today?”

“All stories are true,” Skarpi said. “But this one really happened, if that’s what you mean.” He took another slow drink, then smiled again, his bright eyes dancing. “More or less. You have to be a bit of a liar to tell a story the right way. Too much truth confuses the facts. Too much honesty makes you sound insincere.”

“My father used to say the same thing.” As soon as I mentioned him a confusing welter of emotions rose up in me. Only when I saw Skarpi’s eyes following me did I realize I was backing nervously toward the exit. I stopped and forced myself to turn and walk out the door. “I’ll be here, if I can.”

I heard the smile in his voice behind me. “I know.”

CHAPTER TWENTY-SEVEN

His Eyes Unveiled

I left the bar smiling, unmindful of the fact that I was still Dockside and in danger. I felt buoyant knowing I would have the chance to hear another story soon. It had been a long time since I had looked forward to anything. I went back to my street corner and proceeded to waste three hours begging, not gaining so much as a thin shim for my efforts. Even this failed to dampen my spirits. Tomorrow was Mourning, but the day after there would be stories!

But as I sat there, I felt a vague unease creep over me. A feeling that I was forgetting something impinged on my too-rare happiness. I tried to ignore it, but it stayed with me all day and into the next, like a mosquito I couldn’t see, let alone swat. By the end of the day, I was certain I had forgotten something. Something about the story Skarpi had told.

It is easy for you to see, no doubt, hearing the story like this, conveniently arranged and narrated. Keep in mind that I had been living like an animal in Tarbean for nearly three years. Pieces of my mind were still asleep, and my painful memories had been gathering dust behind the door of forgetfulness. I had grown used to avoiding them, the same way a cripple keeps weight off an injured leg.

Luck smiled on me the next day, and I managed to steal a bundle of rags off the back of a wagon and sell them to a ragman for four iron pennies. Too hungry to worry about tomorrow, I bought a thick slice of cheese and a warm sausage, then a whole loaf of fresh bread and a warm apple tart. Finally, on a whim, I went to the back door of the nearby inn and spent my final penny on a mug of strong beer.

I sat on the steps of a bakery across the street from the inn and watched people coming and going as I enjoyed my best meal in months. Soon twilight faded into darkness and my head began to spin pleasantly from the beer. But as the food settled in my belly, the nagging sensation returned, stronger than before. I frowned, irritated that something would spoil an otherwise perfect day.

Night deepened until the inn across the street stood in a pool of light. A few women hovered near the doorway to the inn. They murmured in low voices and gave knowing looks to the men who walked past.

I drank off the last of the beer and was about to cross the street and return the mug when I saw a flicker of torchlight approaching. Looking down the street, I saw the distinctive grey of a Tehlin priest and decided to wait until he had passed. Drunk on Mourning and just recently a thief, I guessed the less contact I had with the clergy the better off I’d be.

He was hooded, and the torch he carried was between us, so I couldn’t see his face. He approached the group of nearby women and there was a low murmur of discussion. I heard the distinctive chink of coins and sunk further into the shadow of the doorway.

The Tehlin turned and headed back the way he had come. I remained still, not wanting to draw his attention, not wanting to have to run for safety while my head was spinning. This time, however, the torch was not between us. When he turned to look in my direction, I could see nothing of his face, only darkness under the cowl of his hood, only shadow.

He continued on his way, unaware of my presence, or uncaring. But I stayed where I was, unable to move. The image of the hooded man, his face hidden in shadow, had thrown open a door in my mind and memories were spilling out. I was remembering a man with empty eyes and a smile from a nightmare, remembering the blood on his sword. Cinder, his voice like a chill wind: “Is this your parent’s fire?”

Not him, the man behind him. The quiet one who had sat beside the fire. The man whose face was hidden in shadow. Haliax. This had been the half-remembered thing hovering on the edge of my awareness since I had heard Skarpi’s story.

I ran to the rooftops and wrapped myself in my rag blanket. Pieces of story and memory slowly fit together. I began to admit impossible truths to myself. The Chandrian were real. Haliax was real. If the story Skarpi had told was true, then Lanre and Haliax were the same person. The Chandrian had killed my parents, my whole troupe. Why?

Other memories bubbled to the surface of my mind. I saw the man with black eyes, Cinder, kneeling in front of me. His face expressionless, his voice sharp and cold. “Someone’s parents,” he had said, “have been singing entirely the wrong sort of songs.”

They had killed my parents for gathering stories about them. They had killed my whole troupe over a song. I sat awake all night with little more than these thoughts running through my head. Slowly I came to realize them as the truth.

What did I do then? Did I swear I would find them, kill them all for what they had done? Perhaps. But even if I did, I knew in my heart it was impossible. Tarbean had taught me hard practicality. Kill the Chandrian? Kill Lanre? How could I even begin? I would have more luck trying to steal the moon. At least I knew where to look for the moon at night.

But there was one thing I could do. Tomorrow I would ask Skarpi for the real truth behind his stories. It wasn’t much, but it was all I had. Revenge might be beyond me, at least for now. But I still had a hope of knowing the truth.

I held tight to that hope through the dark hours of night, until the sun rose and I fell asleep.

CHAPTER TWENTY-EIGHT

Tehlu’s Watchful Eyes

The next day I came blearily awake to the sound of the hour being struck. I counted four bells, but didn’t know how many I might have slept through. I blinked the sleep from my eyes and tried to gauge the time from the position of the sun. About sixth bell. Skarpi would be starting his story now.

I ran through the streets. My bare feet slapped on rough cobbles, splashing through puddles and taking shortcuts through alleyways. Everything became a blur around me as I pulled in great lungfuls of the damp, stagnant, city air.

I almost burst into the Half-Mast at a dead run and settled in against the back wall by the door. I dimly realized there were more people in the inn than usual this early in the evening. Then Skarpi’s story pulled me in and I could do nothing but listen to his deep rolling voice and watch his sparkling eyes.

“. . . Selitos One-Eye stood forward and said, “Lord, if I do this thing will I be given the power to avenge the loss of the shining city? Can I confound the plots of Lanre and his Chandrian who killed the innocent and burned my beloved Myr Tariniel?”

Aleph said, “No. All personal things must be set aside, and you must punish or reward only what you yourself witness from this day forth.”

Selitos bowed his head. “I am sorry, but my heart says to me I must try to stop these things before they are done, not wait and punish later.”

Some of the Ruach murmured agreement with Selitos and went to stand with him, for they remembered Myr Tariniel and were filled with rage and hurt at Lanre’s betrayal.

Selitos went to Aleph and knelt before him. “I must refuse, for I cannot forget. But I will oppose him with these faithful Ruach beside me. I see their hearts are pure. We will be called the Amyr in memory of the ruined city. We will confound Lanre and any who follow him. Nothing will prevent us from attaining the greater good.”

Most of the Ruach hung back from Selitos, too. They were afraid, and they did not wish to become involved in great matters.

But Tehlu stood forward saying, “I hold justice foremost in my heart. I will leave this world behind that I might better serve it, serving you.” He knelt before Aleph, his head bowed, his hands open at his sides.

Others came forward. Tall Kirel, who had been burned but left living in the ash of Myr Tariniel. Deah, who had lost two husbands to the fighting, and whose face and mouth and heart were hard and cold as stone. Enlas, who would not carry a sword or eat the flesh of animals, and who no man had ever known to speak hard words. Fair Geisa, who had a hundred suitors in Belen before the walls fell. The first woman to know the unasked-for touch of man.

Lecelte, who laughed easily and often, even when there was woe thick about him. Imet, hardly more than a boy, who never sang and killed swiftly without tears. Ordal, the youngest of them all, who had never seen a thing die, stood bravely before Aleph, her golden hair bright with ribbon. And beside her came Andan, whose face was a mask with burning eyes, whose name meant anger.

They came to Aleph, and he touched them. He touched their hands and eyes and hearts. The last time he touched them there was pain, and wings tore from their backs that they might go where they wished. Wings of fire and shadow. Wings of iron and glass. Wings of stone and blood.

Then Aleph spoke their long names and they were wreathed in a white fire. The fire danced along their wings and they became swift. The fire flickered in their eyes and they saw into the deepest hearts of men. The fire filled their mouths and they sang songs of power. Then the fire settled on their foreheads like silver stars and they became at once righteous and wise and terrible to behold. Then the fire consumed them and they were gone forever from mortal sight.

None but the most powerful can see them, and only then with great difficulty and at great peril. They mete out justice to the world, and Tehlu is the greatest of them all—”

“I have heard enough.” The speaker wasn’t loud, but he may as well have shouted. When Skarpi told a story, any interruption was like chewing a grain of sand in a mouthful of bread.

From the back of the room, two men in dark cloaks came toward the bar: one tall and proud, one short and hooded. As they walked I saw a flash of grey robe beneath their cloaks: Tehlin priests. Worse, I saw two other men with armor under their cloaks. I hadn’t seen it while they were sitting, but now that they were moving it was painfully obvious they were church strongmen. Their faces were grim, and the lines of their cloaks spoke of swords to me.

I wasn’t the only one who saw. The children were trickling out the door. The smarter ones tried to appear casual, but some broke into a run before they got outside. Against common sense three children stayed. There was a Cealdish boy with lace on his shirt, a little girl with bare feet, and myself.

“I believe we have all heard enough,” the taller of the two priests said with quiet severity. He was lean, with sunken eyes that smoldered like half hidden coals. A carefully trimmed beard the color of soot sharpened the edges of his knife blade face.

He handed his cloak to the shorter, hooded priest. Underneath he wore the pale grey robe of the Tehlins. Around his neck was a set of silver scales. My heart sunk deep into the pit of my stomach. Not just a priest, but a Justice. I saw the other two children slip out the door.

The Justice spoke, “Under Tehlu’s watchful eye, I charge you with heresy.”

“Witnessed,” said the second priest from within his hood.

The Justice motioned to the mercenaries. “Bind him.”

This the mercenaries did with rough efficiency Skarpi endured the whole thing placidly, without saying a word.

The Justice watched his bodyguard begin to tie Skarpi’s wrists, then turned his body slightly away, as if dismissing the storyteller from his mind. He took a long look around the room, his inspection finally ending with the bald, aproned man behind the bar.

“T—Tehlu’s blessing be upon you!” the owner of the Half-Mast stammered explosively.

“It is,” the Justice said simply. He took another long look around the room. Finally he turned his head to the second priest who stood back from the bar. “Anthony, would a fine place such as this be harboring heretics?”

“Anything is possible, Justice.”

“Ahhh,” the Justice said softly and looked slowly around the room, once again ending with an inspection of the man behind the bar.

“Can I offer your honors a drink? If’n it please you?” the owner offered quickly.

There was only silence.

“I mean . . . a drink for you and your brothers. A fine barrel of fallow white? To show my thanks. I let him stay because his stories were interesting, at first.” He swallowed hard and hurried on, “But then he started to say wicked things. I was afraid to throw him out, because he is obviously mad, and everyone knows God’s displeasure falls heavy on those who raise their hands to madmen. . . .” His voice broke, leaving the room suddenly quiet. He swallowed, and I could hear the dry click his throat made from where I stood by the door.

“A generous offer,” the Justice said finally.

“Very generous,” echoed the shorter priest.

“However, strong drink sometimes tempts men to wicked actions.”

“Wicked,” whispered the priest.

“And some of our brothers have taken vows against the temptations of the flesh. I must refuse.” The Justice’s voice dripped pious regret.

I managed to catch Skarpi’s eye, he gave me a little half-smile. My stomach churned. The old storyteller didn’t seem to have any idea what sort of trouble he was in. But at the same time, deep inside me, something selfish was saying, if you’d come earlier and found out what you needed to know, it wouldn’t be so bad now, would it?

The barman broke the silence. “Could you take the price of the barrel then, sirs? If not the barrel itself.”

The Justice paused, as if thinking.

“For the sake of the children,” the bald man pleaded. “I know you will use the money for them.”

The Justice pursed his lips. “Very well,” he said after a moment, “for the sake of the children.”

The shorter priest’s voice had an unpleasant edge. “The children.”

The owner managed a weak smile.

Skarpi rolled his eyes at me and winked.

“You would think,” Skarpi’s voice rolled out like thick honey, “fine churchmen such as yourselves could find better things to do than arresting storytellers and extorting money from honest men.”

The clinking of the barman’s coins trailed off and the room seemed to hold its breath. With a studied casualness, the Justice turned his back toward Skarpi and spoke over one shoulder toward the shorter priest. “Anthony, we seem to have found a courteous heretic, how strange and wonderful! We should sell him to a Ruh troupe; in a way he resembles a talking dog.”

Skarpi spoke to the man’s back. “It’s not as if I expect you to bound off looking for Haliax and the Seven yourself. ‘Small deeds for small men,’ I always say. I imagine the trouble is in finding the job small enough for men such as yourselves. But you are resourceful. You could pick trash, or check brothel beds for lice when you are visiting.”

Turning, the Justice snatched the clay cup off the bar and dashed it against Skarpi’s head, shattering it. “Do not speak in my presence!” he crackled. “You know nothing!”

Skarpi shook his head a little, as if to clear it. A trickle of red lined its way down his driftwood face, down into one of his sea-foam eyebrows. “I suppose that could be true. Tehlu always said—”

“Do not speak his name!” the Justice screamed, his face a livid red. “Your mouth dirties it. It is a blasphemy upon your tongue.”

“Oh come now, Erlus.” Skarpi chided as though talking to a small child. “Tehlu hates you even more than the rest of the world does, which is quite a bit.”

The room became unnaturally still. The Justice’s face grew pale. “God have mercy on you,” he said in a cold, trembling voice.

Skarpi looked at the Justice mutely for a moment. Then he started to laugh. Great, booming, helpless laughter from the bottom of his soul.

The eyes of the Justice flicked to one of the men who had tied the storyteller. With no preamble the grim-faced man struck Skarpi with a tight fist. Once in the kidney, once in the back of the neck.

Skarpi crumpled to the ground. The room was silent. The sound of his body hitting the wood planking of the floor seemed to fade before the echoes of his laughter did. At a gesture from the Justice, one of the guards picked the old man up by the scruff of his neck. He dangled like a rag doll, his feet trailing on the ground.

But Skarpi was not unconscious, merely stunned. The storyteller’s eyes rolled around to focus on the Justice. “Mercy on my soul.” He gave a weak croak that might have been a chuckle on a better day. “You don’t know how funny that sounds coming from you.”

Skarpi seemed to address the air in front of him. “You should run, Kvothe. There’s nothing to be gained by meddling with these sort of men. Head to the rooftops. Stay where they won’t see you for a while. I have friends in the church who can help me, but there’s nothing you can do here. Go.”

Since he wasn’t looking at me when he spoke, there was a moment of confusion. The Justice gestured again and one of the guards struck Skarpi a blow to the back of the head. His eyes rolled back, and his head lolled forward. I slipped out the door, onto the street.

I took Skarpi’s advice and was on a rooftop running before they left the bar.

CHAPTER TWENTY-NINE

The Doors of My Mind

Up onto the rooftops and back to my secret place, I wrapped myself in my blanket and cried. I cried as if something inside me had broken and everything was rushing out.

When I had worn myself out with sobbing it was deep into the night. I lay there looking at the sky, weary but unable to sleep. I thought of my parents and of the troupe, and was surprised to find the memories less bitter than before.

For the first time in years, I used one of the tricks Ben had taught me for calming and sharpening the mind. It was harder than I remembered, but I did it.

If you have ever slept the whole night without moving, then awoke in the morning, your body stiff with inaction. If you can remember how that first terrific stretch feels, pleasant and painful, then you may understand how my mind felt after all these years, stretching awake on the rooftops of Tarbean.

I spent the rest of that night opening the doors of my mind. Inside I found things long forgotten: my mother fitting words together for a song, diction for the stage, three recipes for tea to calm nerves and promote sleep, finger scales for the lute.

My music. Had it really been years since I held a lute?

I spent a long time thinking about the Chandrian, about what they had done to my troupe, what they had taken from me. I remembered blood and the smell of burning hair and felt a deep, sullen anger burning in my chest. I will admit I thought dark, vengeful thoughts that night.

But my years in Tarbean had instilled an iron-hard practicality. I knew revenge was nothing more than a childish fantasy. I was fifteen. What could I possibly do?

I did know one thing. It had come to me as I lay remembering. It was something Haliax had said to Cinder. Who keeps you safe from the Amyr? The singers? The Sithe? From all that would harm you in the world?

The Chandrian had enemies. If I could find them, they would help me. I had no idea who the singers or the Sithe were, but everyone knew that the Amyr were church knights, the strong right hand of the Aturan Empire. Unfortunately, everyone also knew that there had been no Amyr in three hundred years. They had been disbanded when the Aturan Empire collapsed.

But Haliax had spoken of them as if they still existed. And Skarpi’s story implied that the Amyr had begun with Selitos, not with the Aturan Empire as I had always been taught. There was obviously more to the story, more that I needed to know.

The more I thought on it, the more questions arose. The Chandrian obviously didn’t kill everyone who gathered stories or sang songs about them. Everyone knew a story or two about them, and every child at one point has sung the silly rhyme about their signs. What made my parent’s song so different?

I had questions. There was only one place for me to go, of course.

I looked over my meager possessions. I had a rag blanket and a burlap sack with some straw that I used for a pillow. I had a pint bottle with a cork in it, half full of clean water. A piece of canvas sailcloth that I weighted down with bricks and used as a windbreak on cold nights. A crude pair of salt-dice and a single, tatty shoe that was too small for me, but that I hoped to trade for something else.

And twenty-seven iron pennies in common coin. My rainy-day money. A few days ago it had seemed like a vast treasure trove, but now I knew it would never be enough.

As the sun was rising, I removed Rhetoric and Logic from its hiding place underneath a rafter. I unwrapped the scrap of treated canvas I used to protect it and was relieved to find it dry and well. I felt the smooth leather in my hands. I held it to my face and smelled the back of Ben’s wagon, spice and yeast with the bitter tang of acids and chemical salts mingled in. It was the last tangible piece of my past.

I opened it to the first page and read the inscription Ben had made more than three years ago. 

Kvothe,

Defend yourself well at the University. Make me proud.

Remember your father’s song. Be wary of folly.

Abenthy.

 I nodded to myself and turned the page.

CHAPTER THIRTY

The Broken Binding

The sign over the doorpost read: THE BROKEN BINDING. I took it to be an auspicious sign and walked in.

A man sat behind a desk. I assumed he was the owner. He was tall and reedy with thinning hair. He looked up from a ledger, his expression vaguely irritated.

Deciding to keep niceties to a minimum, I walked to his desk and handed him the book. “How much would you give me for this?”

He leafed through it professionally, feeling the paper between his fingers, checking the binding. He shrugged. “A couple of jots.”

“It’s worth more than that!” I said indignantly.

“It’s worth what you can get for it,” he said matter-of-factly. “I’ll give you one and a half.”

“Two talents and I have the option to buy it back for a month.”

He gave a short, barking laugh. “This is not a pawnshop.” He slid the book across the desk toward me with one hand as he picked up his pen with the other.

“Twenty days?”

He hesitated, then gave the book another cursory once-over and brought out his purse. He pulled out two heavy silver talents. It was more money than I’d seen in one place for a long, long time.

He slid them across the desk. I restrained the desire to snatch them up immediately and said, “I’ll need a receipt.”

This time he gave me such a long hard look that I began to get a little nervous. It was only then I realized how I must look, covered in a year’s worth of alley dirt, trying to get a receipt for a book I’d obviously stolen.

Eventually he gave another bland shrug and scratched out a note on a slip of paper. At the bottom of it he drew a line and made a motion with his pen. “Sign here.”

I looked at the paper. It read:

I, by signing below, hereby attest to the fact that I can neither read nor write.

I looked up at the owner. He held a straight face. I dipped the pen and carefully wrote the letters “D D” as if they were initials.

He fanned the ink dry and slid my “receipt” across the desk toward me. “What does D stand for?” he asked with the barest hint of a smile.

“Defeasance,” I said. “It means to render something null and void, usually a contract. The second D is for Decrepitate. Which is the act of throwing someone into a fire.” He gave me a blank look. “Decrepication is the punishment for forgery in Junpui. I think false receipts fall in that category.”

I made no move to touch the money or the receipt. There was a tense silence.

“This isn’t Junpui,” he said, his face carefully composed.

“True enough,” I admitted. “You have a keen sense of defalcation. Perhaps I should add a third D.”

He gave another sharp, barking laugh and smiled. “You’ve convinced me, young master.” He pulled out a fresh slip of paper and set it in front of me. “You write me a receipt, and I will sign it.”

I took up the pen and wrote. “I the undersigned, do agree to return the copy of the book Rhetoric and Logic with the inscription “to Kvothe” to the bearer of this note in exchange for two silver pennies, provided he present this receipt before the date—”

I looked up. “What day is it?”

“Shuden. The thirty-fifth.”

I had fallen out of the habit of keeping track of the date. On the streets, one day is largely the same as the next, save that people are a little more drunk on Hepten, a little more generous on Mourning.

But if it was the thirty-fifth then I only had five days to get to the University. I knew from Ben that admissions only lasted until Cendling. If I missed them, I would have to wait two months for the next term to start.

I filled in the date on the receipt and drew a line for the bookseller to sign. He looked a little bemused as I slid the paper toward him. What’s more, he didn’t notice that the receipt read pennies instead of talents. Talents were worth significantly more. This meant he had just agreed to give me back the book for less money than he had bought it for.

My satisfaction damped itself when it occurred to me how foolish all of this was. Pennies or talents, I wouldn’t have enough money to buy the book back in two span. If everything went well I wouldn’t even be in Tarbean tomorrow.

Despite its uselessness, the receipt helped ease the sting of parting with the last thing I owned from my childhood. I blew on the paper, folded it carefully into a pocket, and collected my two silver talents. I was surprised when the man held out his hand to me.

He smiled in an apologetic way. “Sorry about the note. But you didn’t look like you’d be coming back.” He gave a little shrug. “Here.” He pressed a copper jot into my hand.

I decided that he was not an altogether bad fellow. I smiled back at him and for a second I almost felt guilty about how I’d written the receipt.

I also felt guilty about the three pens I’d stolen, but only for a second. And since there was no convenient way to give them back, I stole a bottle of ink before I left.

CHAPTER THIRTY-ONE

The Nature of Nobility

The two talents had a reassuring weight to them that had nothing to do with how heavy they were. Anyone who has been without money for a long time will know what I’m talking about. My first investment was a good leather purse. I wore it underneath my clothes, tight against my skin.

Next was a real breakfast. A plateful of hot eggs and a slice of ham. Bread that was fresh and soft, plenty of honey and butter on the side, and a glass of milk not two days from the cow. It cost me five iron pennies. It may be the best meal I ever ate.

It felt strange sitting at a table, eating with a knife and fork. It felt strange being around people. It felt strange having a person bring me food.

As I mopped up the remnants of my breakfast with an end of bread, I realized that I had a problem.

Even in this slightly grubby inn Waterside, I was attracting attention. My shirt was nothing more than an old burlap sack with holes for my arms and head. My pants were made out of canvas and too big by several degrees. They reeked of smoke, grease, and stagnant alley water. I’d been holding them up with a length of rope I had dug out of some trash. I was filthy, barefoot, and I stank.

Should I buy clothes or try to find a bath? If I bathed first, I would have to wear my old clothes afterward. However, if I tried to buy clothes looking the way I did now, I might not even be let into the store. And I doubted that anyone would want to measure me for a fit.

The innkeep came to take my plate, and I decided on a bath first, mainly because I was sick to death of smelling like a week-dead rat. I smiled up at him. “Where can I find a bath near here?”

“Here, if you have a couple pennies.” He looked me over. “Or I’ll work you an hour instead, a good hard hour. The hearth could use scrubbing.”

“I’ll need a lot of water, and soap.”

“Two hours then, I’ve got dishes too. Hearth first, then bath, then dishes. Fair?”

An hour or so later my shoulders ached and the hearth was clean. He showed me to a back room with a large wooden tub and a grate on the floor. There were pegs along the walls for clothes, and a sheet of tin nailed to the wall served as a crude mirror.

He brought me a brush, a bucket of steaming water, and a cake of lye soap. I scrubbed until I was sore and pink. The innkeeper brought a second bucket of hot water, then a third. I gave a silent prayer of thanks that I didn’t seem to be lousy. I had probably been too filthy for any self-respecting louse to take up residence.

As I rinsed myself for the last time, I looked at my discarded clothes. Cleaner than I’d been in years, I didn’t want to touch them, let alone wear them. If I tried to wash them they’d simply fall apart.

I dried myself off and I used the rough brush to pull through the snarls in my hair. It was longer than it had seemed when it was dirty. I wiped the fog from the makeshift mirror and was surprised. I looked old, older at any rate. Not only that, I looked like some young noble’s son. My face was lean and fair. My hair needed a bit of a trim, but was shoulder-length and straight, as was the current fashion. The only thing missing was a noble’s clothes.

And that gave me an idea.

Still naked, I wrapped myself in a towel and left by the back door. I took my purse but kept it out of sight. It was a little before noon and people were everywhere. Needless to say, quite a few eyes were turned in my direction. I ignored them and set a brisk pace, not trying to hide. I composed my features into an impassive, angry mask without a trace of embarrassment.

I stopped by a father and son loading burlap sacks into a cart. The son was about four years older than me and head and shoulders taller. “Boy,” I snapped. “Where can I buy some clothes around here?” I looked pointedly at his shirt. “Decent clothes,” I amended.

He looked at me, his expression somewhere between confusion and anger. His father hurriedly took off his hat and stepped in front of his son. “Your lordship might try Bentley’s. It’s plain stuff, but it’s only a street or two away.”

I darkened my expression. “Is it the only place about?”

He gaped. “Well . . . it could . . . there’s one . . .”

I waved him impatiently into silence. “Where is it? Simply point, since your wits have left you.”

He pointed and I strode off. As I walked I remembered one of the young page parts I used to play in the troupe. The page’s name was Dunstey, an insufferably petulant little boy with an important father. He was perfect. I gave my head an imperious tilt, set my shoulders a little differently and made a couple of mental adjustments.

I threw open the door and stormed in. There was a man in a leather apron who I can only assume was Bentley. He was fortyish, thin, and balding. He jumped at the sound of his door banging against the wall. He turned to look at me, his expression incredulous.

“Fetch me a robe, lack-wit. I’m sick of being gawked at by you and every other mewler that decided to go marketing today.” I slouched into a chair and sulked. When he didn’t move I glared at him. “Did I stutter? Are my needs perhaps inobvious?” I tugged at the edge of my towel to demonstrate.

He stood there, gaping.

I lowered my voice menacingly, “If you don’t bring me something to wear—” I stood up and shouted, “—I’ll tear this place apart! I’ll ask my father for your stones as a Midwinter gift. I’ll have his dogs mount your dead corpse. DO YOU HAVE ANY IDEA WHO I AM?”

Bentley scurried away, and I threw myself back into the chair. A customer I hadn’t noticed until now made a hurried exit, stopping briefly to curtsy to me before she left.

I fought back the urge to laugh.

After that it was surprisingly easy. I kept him running about for half an hour, bringing me one piece of clothing or another. I mocked the material, the cut, and workmanship of everything he brought out. In short, I was the perfect little brat.

In truth I couldn’t have been more pleased. The clothing was plain but well made. Indeed, compared to what I had been wearing an hour before, a clean burlap sack would have been a great step up.

If you haven’t spent much time in court or in large cities, you won’t understand why this was so easy for me to accomplish. Let me explain.

Nobles’ sons are one of nature’s great destructive forces, like floods or tornadoes. When you’re struck with one of these catastrophes, the only thing an average man can do is grit his teeth and try to minimize the damage.

Bentley knew this. He marked the shirt and pants and helped me out of them. I got back into the robe he had given me, and he began sewing like the devil was breathing down his neck.

I flounced back into the chair. “You might as well ask. I can tell you’re dying of curiosity.”

He looked up briefly from his stitching. “Sir?”

“The circumstances surrounding my current state of undress.”

“Ah, yes.” He tied off the thread and began on the pants. “I will admit to a slight curiosity. No more than proper. I’m not one to pry into anyone’s business.”

“Ah,” I nodded, pretending disappointment. “A laudable attitude.”

There followed a long moment, the only sound was that of the thread being drawn through cloth. I fidgeted. Finally, I continued as if he had asked me, “A whore stole my clothes.”

“Really, sir?”

“Yes, she tried to get me to trade them for my purse, the bitch.”

Bentley looked up briefly, genuine curiosity on his face. “Wasn’t your purse with your clothes, sir?”

I looked shocked. “Certainly not! ‘A gentleman’s hand is never far away from his purse.’ So my father says.” I waved my purse at him to make my point.

I noticed him trying to suppress a laugh and it made me feel a little better. I’d made the man miserable for almost an hour, the least I could give him was a story to tell his friends.

“She told me if I wanted to keep my dignity, then I’d give her my purse and walk home wearing my clothes.” I shook my head scornfully. “ ‘Wanton,’ I said to her, ‘A gentleman’s dignity isn’t in his clothes. If I handed over my purse simply to save myself an embarrassment then I would be handing over my dignity.’ ”

I looked thoughtful for a second, then spoke softly as if thinking aloud. “It only follows that a gentleman’s dignity is in his purse then.” I looked at the purse in my hands, and gave a long pause. “I think I heard my father say something of the sort the other day.”

Bentley gave a laugh that he turned into a cough, then stood up and shook out the shirt and pants. “There you go, sir, fit you like a glove now.” A hint of a smile played around his lips as he handed them to me.

I slid out of the robe and pulled on the pants. “They’ll get me home, I suppose. How much for your trouble, Bentley?” I asked.

He thought for a second. “One and two.”

I began to lace up my shirt and said nothing.

“Sorry, sir,” he said quickly. “Forgot who I was dealing with.” He swallowed. “One even would do nicely.”

Taking out my purse, I put one silver talent into his hand and looked him in the eye. “I will be needing some change.”

His mouth made a thin line, but he nodded and handed me back two jots.

I tucked the coins away and tied my purse firmly underneath my shirt, then gave him a meaningful look and patted it.

I saw the smile tug at his lips again. “Good-bye, sir.”

I picked up my towel, left the store, and started my altogether less conspicuous walk back to the inn where I had found breakfast and a bath.

“What can I get for you, young sir?” the innkeeper asked as I approached the bar. He smiled and wiped his hands on his apron.

“A stack of dirty dishes and a rag.”

He squinted at me, then smiled and laughed. “I’d thought you’d run off naked through the streets.”

“Not quite naked.” I laid his towel on the bar.

“There was more dirt than boy before. And I would have bet a solid mark your hair was black. You really don’t look the same.” He marveled mutely for a second. “Would you like your old clothes?”

I shook my head. “Throw them away—actually, burn them, and make sure no one accidentally breathes the smoke.” He laughed again. “I did have some other items though.” I reminded him.

He nodded and tapped the side of his nose. “Right enough. Just a second.” He turned and disappeared though a doorway behind the bar.

I let my attention wander around the room. It seemed different now that I wasn’t attracting hostile stares. The fieldstone fireplace with the black kettle simmering. The slightly sour smells of varnished wood and spilled beer. The low rumble of conversation. . . .

I’ve always had a fondness for taverns. It comes from growing up on the road, I think. A tavern is a safe place, a refuge of sorts. I felt very comfortable just then, and it occurred to me that it wouldn’t be a bad life, owning a place like this.

“Here you go then.” The innkeeper laid down three pens, a jar of ink, and my receipt from the bookstore. “These gave me almost as much of a puzzle as why you had run off without your clothes.”

“I’m going to the University.” I explained.

He raised an eyebrow. “A little young, aren’t you?”

I felt a nervous chill at his words, but shrugged it off. “They take all kinds.”

He nodded politely as if that explained why I had shown up barefoot and reeking of back alleys. After waiting for a while to see if I’d elaborate, the barman poured himself a drink. “No offense, but you don’t exactly look to be the sort who would want to be washin’ dishes anymore.”

I opened my mouth to protest; an iron penny for an hour’s work was a bargain I was hesitant to pass up. Two pennies was the same as a loaf of bread, and I couldn’t count all the times that I had been hungry in the last year.

Then I saw my hands resting on the bar. They were pink and clean, I almost didn’t recognize them for my own.

I realized then I didn’t want to do the dishes. I had more important things to do. I stood back from the bar and got a penny from my purse. “Where’s the best place to find a caravan leaving for the north?” I asked.

“Drover’s Lot, up Hillside. Quarter mile past the mill on Green Street.”

I felt a nervous chill when Hillside was mentioned. I ignored it as best I could and nodded. “You have a lovely inn here. I’d count myself lucky to have one as nice when I’ve grown up.” I handed him the penny.

He broke into a huge smile and handed back the penny. “With such nice compliments, you come back any time.”

CHAPTER THIRTY-TWO

Coppers, Cobblers and Crowds

It was about an hour before noon when I stepped out onto the street. The sun was out and the cobblestones were warm beneath my feet. As the noise of the market rose to an irregular hum around me, I tried to enjoy the pleasant sensation of having a full belly and a clean body.

But there was a vague unease in the pit of my stomach, like the feeling you get when someone’s staring at the back of your head. It followed me until my instincts got the better of me and I slipped into a side alley quick as a fish.

As I stood pressed against a wall, waiting, the feeling faded. After a few minutes, I began to feel foolish. I trusted my instincts, but they gave false alarms every now and again. I waited a few more minutes just to be sure, then moved back into the street.

The feeling of vague unease returned almost immediately. I ignored it while trying to find out where it was coming from. But after five minutes I lost my nerve and turned onto a side street, watching the crowd to see who was following me.

No one. It took a nerve-wracking half hour and two more alleys before I finally figured out what it was.

It felt strange to be walking with the crowd.

Over the last couple years crowds had become a part of the scenery of the city to me. I might use a crowd to hide from a guard or a storekeeper. I might move through a crowd to get where I was going. I might even be going in the same direction as the crowd, but I was never a part of it.

I was so used to being ignored, I almost ran from the first merchant who tried to sell me something.

Once I knew what was bothering me, the greater part of my uneasiness left. Fear tends to come from ignorance. Once I knew what the problem was, it was just a problem, nothing to fear.

As I’ve mentioned, Tarbean has two main sections: Hillside and Waterside. Waterside was poor. Hillside was rich. Waterside stank. Hillside was clean. Waterside had thieves. Hillside had bankers—I’m sorry, burglars.

I have already told the story of my one ill-auspiced venture Hillside. So perhaps you will understand why, when the crowd in front of me happened to part for a moment, I saw what I was looking for. A member of the guard. I ducked through the nearest door, my heart pounding.

I spent a moment reminding myself that I wasn’t the same filthy little urchin who’d been beaten years ago. I was well-dressed and clean. I looked like I belonged here. But old habits die slow deaths. I fought to control a deep red anger, but couldn’t tell if I was angry at myself, the guard, or the world in general. Probably a little of each.

“Be right with you,” came a cheerful voice from a curtained doorway.

I looked around the shop. Light from the front window fell across a crowded workbench and dozens of shelved pairs of shoes. I decided I could have picked a worse store to wander into.

“Let me guess—” came the voice again from the back. A grandfather-grey man emerged from behind the curtain carrying a long piece of leather. He was short and stooped, but his face smiled at me through his wrinkles. “—you need shoes.” He smiled timidly, as if the joke was a pair of old boots that had worn out long ago, but were too comfortable to give up. He looked down at my feet. I looked too, in spite of myself.

I was barefoot of course. I hadn’t had shoes for so long that I never even thought about them anymore. At least not during the summer. In the winter, I dreamed of shoes.

I looked up. The old man’s eyes were dancing, as if he couldn’t decide whether laughing would cost him his customer or not. “I guess I need shoes,” I admitted.

He laughed and guided me into a seat, measuring my bare feet with his hands. Thankfully the streets were dry, so my feet were merely dusty from the cobblestones. If there had been rain they would have been embarrassingly filthy.

“Let’s see what you like, and if I have anything of a size for you. If not, I can make or change a pair to fit you in an hour or two. So, what would you be wanting shoes for? Walking? Dancing? Riding?” He leaned back on his stool and grabbed a pair off a shelf behind him.

“Walking.”

“Thought so.” He deftly rolled a pair of stockings onto my feet, as if all his customers came in barefoot. He tucked my feet into a pair of something black with buckles. “How’s those feel? Put a little weight on to make sure.”

“I—”

“They’re tight. I thought so. Nothing more annoying that a shoe that pinches.” He stripped me out of them, and into another pair, quick as a whip. “How about these?” They were a deep purple and made of velvet or felt.

“They—”

“Not quite what you’re looking for? Don’t blame you really, wear out terrible fast. Nice color though, good for chasing the ladies.” He patted a new pair onto my feet. “How about these?”

They were a simple brown leather, and fit like he’d measured my feet before he’d made them. I pressed my foot to the ground, and it hugged me. I had forgotten how wonderful a good shoe can feel. “How much?” I asked apprehensively.

Instead of answering he stood, and started searching the shelves with his eyes. “You can tell a lot about a person by their feet,” he mused. “Some men come in here, smiling and laughing, shoes all clean and brushed, socks all powdered up. But when the shoes are off, their feet smell just fearsome. Those are the people that hide things. They’ve got bad smelling secrets and they try to hide ’em, just like they try to hide their feet.”

He turned to look at me. “It never works though. Only way to stop your feet from smelling is to let them air out a bit. Could be the same thing with secrets. I don’t know about that, though. I just know about shoes.”

He began to look through the clutter of his workbench. “Some of these young men from the court come in, fanning their faces and moaning about the latest tragedy. But their feet are so pink and soft. You know they’ve never walked anywhere on their own. You know they’ve never really been hurt.”

He finally found what he was looking for, holding up a pair of shoes similar to the pair I wore. “Here we go. These were my Jacob’s when he was your age.” He sat on his stool and unlaced the pair of shoes I was wearing.

“Now you,” he continued, “have old soles for a boy so young: scars, calluses. Feet like these could run barefoot all day on stone and not need shoes. A boy your age only gets these feet one way.”

He looked up at me, making it a question. I nodded.

He smiled and lay a hand on my shoulder. “How do they feel?”

I stood up to test them. If anything, they were more comfortable than the newer pair for being a little broken in.

“Now, this pair,” he waved the shoes he held, “are new. They haven’t been walked a mile, and for new shoes like these I charge a talent, maybe a talent and two.” He pointed at my feet. “Those shoes, on the other hand, are used, and I don’t sell used shoes.”

He turned his back on me and started to tidy his workbench rather aimlessly, humming to himself. It took me a second to recognize the tune: “Leave the Town, Tinker.”

I knew that he was trying to do me a favor, and a week ago I would have jumped at the opportunity for free shoes. But for some reason I didn’t feel right about it. I quietly gathered up my things and left a pair of copper jots on his stool before I left.

Why? Because pride is a strange thing, and because generosity deserves generosity in return. But mostly because it felt like the right thing to do, and that is reason enough.

“Four days. Six days if raining.”

Roent was the third wagoneer I’d asked about going north to Imre, the town nearest the University. He was a thick-bodied Cealdish man with a fierce black beard that hid most of his face. He turned away and barked curses in Siaru at a man loading a wagon with bolts of cloth. When he spoke his native language, he sounded like an angry rockslide.

His rough voice lowered to a rumble as he turned back to me. “Two coppers. Jots. Not pennies. You can ride in a wagon if there is space. You can sleep underneath at night if you want. You eat in the evening with us. Lunch is just bread. If a wagon gets stuck, you help push.”

There was another pause while he shouted at the men. There were three wagons being packed with trade goods while the fourth was achingly familiar, one of the wheeled houses I had spent most of my early life riding. Roent’s wife, Reta, sat in the front of that wagon. Her mien wavered from severe, when she watched the men loading the wagons, to smiling when she spoke with a girl standing nearby.

I assumed the girl was a passenger like myself. She was my age, perhaps a year older, but a year makes a great deal of difference at that time of life. The Tahl have a saying about children of our age. The boy grows upward, but the girl grows up.

She was dressed practically for traveling, pants and shirt, and was just young enough for it not to seem improper. Her bearing was such that if she had been a year older, I would have been forced to see her as a lady. As it was, when she spoke with Reta she moved back and forth between a genteel grace and a childlike exuberance. She had long, dark hair, and. . . .

Simply said, she was beautiful. It had been a long time since I had seen anything beautiful.

Roent followed my gaze and continued. “Everyone helps set camp at night. Everyone takes a turn watching. You fall asleep during your watch, you get left behind. You eat with us, whatever my wife cooks. You complain, you get left behind. You walk too slow, you get left behind. You bother the girl . . .” He ran a hand through his thick dark beard. “Bad things happen.”

Hoping to turn his thoughts in a different direction, I spoke up, “When will the wagons be done loading?”

“Two hours,” he said with a grim certainty, as if defying the workers to contradict him.

One of the men stood upright atop a wagon, shading his eyes with a hand. He called out, raising his voice over the sound of horses, wagons, and men that filled the square. “Don’t let him scare you off, kid. He’s decent enough after all the growling.” Roent pointed a stern finger, and the man turned back to his work.

I hardly needed to be convinced. A man who travels with his wife is usually to be trusted. Besides, the price was fair, and he was leaving today. I took this opportunity to pull a pair of jots from my purse and hold them out to Roent.

He turned to me. “Two hours.” He held up thick fingers to make his point. “You are late, you get left behind.”

I nodded solemnly. “Rieusa, tu kialus A’isha tua.” Thank you for bringing me close to your family.

Roent’s great shaggy eyebrows went up. He recovered quickly and gave a quick nod that was almost a small bow. I looked around the square, trying to get my bearings.

“Someone’s full of surprises.” I turned around to see the worker who had shouted to me from the wagon. He held out his hand. “Derrik.”

I shook his hand, feeling awkward. It had been so long since I’d made simple conversation with someone that I felt strange and hesitant. “Kvothe.”

Derrik put his hands behind him and stretched his back with a grimace. He stood head and shoulders taller than me, twenty or so, tall and blond. “You gave Roent a bit of a turn there. Where’d you learn to speak Siaru?”

“An arcanist taught me a little,” I explained. I watched as Roent went to speak to his wife. The dark-haired girl looked in my direction and smiled. I looked away, not knowing what to make of it.

He shrugged. “I’ll leave you to fetch your things, then. Roent’s all growl and not much gruff, but he won’t wait once the wagons are packed.”

I nodded, even though my “things” were nonexistent. I did have a little shopping to do. They say you can find anything in Tarbean if you have enough money. For the most part, they are right.

I made my way down the stairs to Trapis’ basement. It felt strange to make the trip wearing shoes. I was used to the cool damp of stone underfoot when I came to pay a visit.

As I made my way down the short hallway, a boy in rags emerged from the inner rooms holding a small winter apple. He pulled up short when he saw me, then scowled, his eyes narrow and suspicious. Looking down, he brushed roughly past me.

Without even thinking about it, I slapped his hand away from my purse and turned to look at him, too stunned for words. He bolted outside, leaving me confused and disturbed. We never stole from each other here. Out on the streets it was everyone for themselves, but Trapis’ basement was the closest thing to a sanctuary we had, like a church. None of us would risk spoiling that.

I took the last few steps into the main room and was relieved to see that everything else seemed normal. Trapis wasn’t there, probably off collecting charity to help him care for his children. There were six cots, all full, and more children lying on the floor. Several grubby urchins stood around a bushel basket on the table, clutching winter apples. They turned to stare at me, their expressions flinty and spiteful.

It dawned on me then. None of them recognized me. Clean and well-dressed, I looked like some regular boy come wandering in. I didn’t belong.

Just then Trapis came back, carrying several flat loaves of bread under one arm and a squalling child in the other. “Ari,” he called to one of the boys standing near the bushel basket. “Come help. We’ve got a new visitor and she needs changing.”

The boy hurried over and took the child out of Trapis’ arms. He lay the bread on the table next to the bushel basket and all the children’s eyes fixed on him attentively. My stomach went sour. Trapis hadn’t even looked at me. What if he didn’t recognize me? What if he told me to leave? I didn’t know if I could cope with that, I began to edge toward the door.

Trapis pointed to the children one at a time. “Let me see. David, you empty and scrub the drinking barrel. It’s getting brackish. When he’s done Nathan can fill it from the pump.”

“Can I take twice?” Nathan asked. “I need some for my brother.”

“Your brother can come for his own bread,” Trapis said gently, then looked more closely at the boy, sensing something. “Is he hurt?”

Nathan nodded, looking at the floor.

Trapis laid a hand on the boy’s shoulder. “Bring him down. We’ll see to him.”

“It’s his leg.” Nathan blurted, seeming close to tears. “It’s all hot, and he can’t walk!”

Trapis nodded and gestured to the next child. “Jen, you help Nathan bring his brother back.” They hurried out. “Tarn, since Nathan’s gone, you carry the water instead.”

“Kvothe, you run for soap.” He held out a halfpenny. “Go to Marna’s in the Wash. You’ll get better from her if you tell her who it’s for.”

I felt a sudden lump form in my throat. He knew me. I can’t hope to explain to you how much of a relief it was. Trapis was the closest thing I had to a family. The thought of him not knowing me had been horrifying.

“I don’t have time to run an errand, Trapis.” I said hesitantly. “I’m leaving. I’m heading inland, to Imre.”

“Are you then?” he asked, then paused and gave me a second, closer look. “Well then, I guess you are.”

Of course. Trapis never saw the clothes, only the child inside them. “I stopped by to let you know where my things are. On the roof of the candle works there’s a place where three roofs meet. There are some things there, a blanket, a bottle. I don’t need any of it anymore. It’s a good place to sleep if anyone needs one, dry. No one goes there. . . .” I trailed off.

“That’s kind of you. I’ll send one of the boys round,” Trapis said. “Come here.” He came forward and gathered me into a clumsy hug, his beard tickling the side of my face. “I’m always glad to see one of you get away,” he said softly to me. “I know you’ll do just fine for yourself, but you can always come back if you need to.”

One of the girls on a nearby cot began to thrash and moan. Trapis pulled away from me and turned to look. “What what,” he said as he hurried over to tend to her, his bare feet slapping on the floor. “What what. Hush hush.”

CHAPTER THIRTY-THREE

A Sea of Stars

I returned to Drover’s Lot with a travelsack swinging by one shoulder. It held a change of clothes, a loaf of trail bread, some jerked meat, a skin of water, needle and thread, flint and steel, pens and ink. In short, everything an intelligent person takes on a trip in the event they might need it.

However, my proudest acquisition was a dark blue cloak that I had bought off a fripperer’s cart for only three jots. It was warm, clean, and, unless I missed my guess, only one owner from new.

Now let me say this: when you’re traveling a good cloak is worth more than all your other possessions put together. If you’ve nowhere to sleep, it can be your bed and blanket. It will keep the rain off your back and the sun from your eyes. You can conceal all manner of interesting weaponry beneath it if you are clever, and a smaller assortment if you are not.

But beyond all that, two facts remain to recommend a cloak. First, very little is as striking as a well-worn cloak, billowing lightly about you in the breeze. And second, the best cloaks have innumerable little pockets that I have an irrational and overpowering attraction toward.

As I have said, this was a good cloak, and it had a number of such pockets. Squirreled away in them I had string and wax, some dried apple, a tinderbox, a marble in a small leather sack, a pouch of salt, hook-needle and gut.

I’d made a point of spending all my carefully hoarded Commonwealth coin, keeping my hard Cealdish currency for my trip. Pennies spent well enough here in Tarbean, but Cealdish money was solid no matter where in the four corners you found yourself.

A final flurry of preparation was being made as I arrived. Roent paced around the wagons like a restless animal, checking everything again and again. Reta watched the workers with a stern eye and a quick word for anything that wasn’t being done to her satisfaction. I was comfortably ignored until we headed out of the city, toward the University.

As the miles rolled away, it was as if a great weight slowly fell away from me. I reveled in the feel of the ground through my shoes, the taste of the air, the quiet hush of wind brushing through the spring wheat in the fields. I found myself grinning for no good reason, save that I was happy. We Ruh are not meant to stay in one place for so long. I took a deep breath and nearly laughed out loud.

I kept to myself as we traveled, not being used to the company of others. Roent and the mercenaries were willing to leave me alone. Derrik joked with me off and on, but generally found me too reserved for his tastes.

That left the other passenger, Denna. We didn’t speak until the first day’s ride was nearly done. I was riding with one of the mercenaries, absently peeling the bark from a willow switch. While my fingers worked, I studied the side of her face, admiring the line of her jaw, the curve of her neck into her shoulder. I wondered why she was traveling alone, and where she was going. In the middle of my musing she turned to look in my direction and caught me staring at her.

“Penny for your thought?” she asked, brushing at an errant strand of hair.

“I was wondering what you’re doing here,” I said half-honestly.

Smiling, she held my eyes. “Liar.”

I used an old stage trick to keep myself from blushing, gave my best unconcerned shrug, and looked down at the willow wand I was peeling. After a few minutes, I heard her return to her conversation with Reta. I found myself strangely disappointed.

After camp was set and dinner was cooking, I idled around the wagons, examining the knots Roent used to lash his cargo into place. I heard a footfall behind me and turned to see Denna approaching. My stomach rolled over and I took a short breath to compose myself.

She stopped about a dozen feet from me. “Have you figured it out yet?” she asked.

“Excuse me?”

“Why I’m here.” She smiled gently. “I’ve been wondering the same thing for most my life, you see. I thought if you had any ideas. . . .” she gave me a wry, hopeful look.

I shook my head, too uncertain of the situation to find the humor in it. “All I’ve been able to guess is that you’re going somewhere.”

She nodded seriously. “That’s as much as I’ve guessed too.” She paused to look at the circle the horizon made around us. The wind caught her hair and she brushed it back again. “Do you happen to know where I’m going?”

I felt a smile begin a slow creep onto my face. It felt odd. I was out of practice smiling. “Don’t you know?”

“I have suspicions. Right now I’m thinking Anilin.” She rocked onto the edges of her feet, then back to the flats. “But I’ve been wrong before.”

A silence settled over our conversation. Denna looked down at her hands, fidgeting with a ring on her finger, twisting it. I caught a glimpse of silver and a pale blue stone. Suddenly she dropped her hands to her sides and looked up at me. “Where are you going?”

“The University.”

She arched an eyebrow, looking ten years older. “So certain.” She smiled and was suddenly young again. “How does it feel to know where you are going?”

I couldn’t think of a reply, but was saved from the need for one by Reta calling us for supper. Denna and I walked toward the campfire, together.

The beginning of the next day was spent in a brief, awkward courtship. Eager, but not wanting to seem eager, I made a slow dance around Denna before finally finding some excuse to spend time with her.

Denna, on the other hand, seemed perfectly at ease. We spent the rest of the day as if we were old friends. We joked and told stories. I pointed out the different types of clouds and what they told of the weather to come. She showed me the shapes they held: a rose, a harp, a waterfall.

So passed the day. Later, when lots were being drawn to see who had which turn at watch, Denna and I drew the first two shifts. Without discussing it, we shared the four hours of watch together. Talking softly so as to not wake the others, we sat close by the fire and spent the time watching very little but each other.

The third day was much the same. We passed the time pleasantly, not in long conversation, but more often watching the scenery, saying whatever happened to come to our minds. That night we stopped at a wayside inn where Reta bought fodder for the horses and a few other supplies.

Reta retired early with her husband, telling each of us that she’d arranged for our dinners and beds with the innkeeper. The former was quite good, bacon and potato soup with fresh bread and butter. The latter was in the stables, but it was still a long sight better than what I was used to in Tarbean.

The common room smelled of smoke and sweat and spilled beer. I was glad when Denna asked if I wanted to take a walk. Outside was the warm quiet of a windless spring night. We talked as we wended our slow way through the wild bit of forest behind the inn. After a while we came to a wide clearing circling a pond.

On the edge of the water were a pair of waystones, their surfaces silver against the black of the sky, the black of the water. One stood upright, a finger pointing to the sky. The other lay flat, extending into the water like a short stone pier.

No breath of wind disturbed the surface of the water. So as we climbed out onto the fallen stone the stars reflected themselves in double fashion; as above, so below. It was as if we were sitting amid a sea of stars.

We spoke for hours, late into the night. Neither of us mentioned our pasts. I sensed that there were things she would rather not talk about, and by the way she avoided questioning me, I think she guessed the same. We spoke of ourselves instead, of fond imaginings and impossible things. I pointed to the skies and told her the names of stars and constellations. She told me stories about them I had never heard before.

My eyes were always returning to Denna. She sat beside me, arms hugging her knees. Her skin was more luminous than the moon, her eyes wider than the sky, deeper than the water, darker than the night.

It slowly began to dawn on me that I had been staring at her wordlessly for an impossible amount of time. Lost in my thoughts, lost in the sight of her. But her face didn’t look offended or amused. It almost looked as if she were studying the lines of my face, almost as if she were waiting.

I wanted to take her hand. I wanted to brush her cheek with my fingertips. I wanted to tell her that she was the first beautiful thing I had seen in three years. That the sight of her yawning to the back of her hand was enough to drive the breath from me. How I sometimes lost the sense of her words in the sweet fluting of her voice. I wanted to say that if she were with me then somehow nothing could ever be wrong for me again.

In that breathless second I almost asked her. I felt the question boiling up from my chest. I remember drawing a breath then hesitating—what could I say? Come away with me? Stay with me? Come to the University? No. Sudden certainty tightened in my chest like a cold fist. What could I ask her? What could I offer? Nothing. Anything I said would sound foolish, a child’s fantasy.

I closed my mouth and looked across the water. Inches away, Denna did the same. I could feel the heat of her. She smelled like road dust, and honey, and the smell the air holds seconds before a heavy summer rain.

Neither of us spoke. I closed my eyes. The closeness of her was the sweetest, sharpest thing my life had ever known.

CHAPTER THIRTY-FOUR

Yet to Learn

The next morning I blearily awoke after two hours of sleep, bundled myself onto one of the wagons and proceeded to drowse away the morning. It was nearly noon before I realized that we had taken on another passenger at the inn last night.

His name was Josn, and he had paid Roent for passage to Anilin. He had an easy manner and an honest smile. He seemed an earnest man. I did not like him.

My reason was simple. He spent the entire day riding next to Denna. He flattered her outrageously and joked with her about becoming one of his wives. She seemed unaffected by the late hours we had kept the night before, looking as bright and fresh as ever.

The result was that I spent the day being irritated and jealous while acting unconcerned. Since I was too proud to join their conversation, I was left to myself. I spent the day thinking sullen thoughts, trying to ignore the sound of his voice and occasionally remembering the way Denna had looked last night with the moon reflecting off the water behind her.

That night I was planning to ask Denna to go for a walk after everyone turned in for the night. But before I could approach her, Josn went to one of the wagons and brought back a large black case with brass buckles along the side. The sight of it made my heart turn sideways in my chest.

Sensing the group’s anticipation, though not mine in particular, Josn slowly undid the brass clasps and drew out his lute with an air of studied nonchalance. It was a troupers lute, its long, graceful neck and round bowl were painfully familiar. Sure of everyone’s attention, he cocked his head and strummed, pausing to listen to the sound. Then, nodding to himself, he started to play.

He had a fair tenor and reasonably clever fingers. He played a ballad, then a light, quick drinking song, then a slow, sad melody in a language that I didn’t recognize but suspected might be Yllish. Lastly he played “Tinker Tanner,” and everyone came in on the chorus. Everyone but me.

I sat still as stone with my fingers aching. I wanted to play, not listen. Want isn’t strong enough a word. I was hungry for it, starved. I’m not proud of the fact that I thought about stealing his lute and leaving in the dark of the night.

He finished the song with a flourish, and Roent clapped his hands a couple of times to get everyone’s attention. “Time for sleep. You sleep too late—”

Derrik broke in, gently teasing. “. . . we get left behind. We know, Master Roent. We’ll be ready to roll with the light.”

Josn laughed and flipped open his lute case with his foot. But before he could put it away I called over to him. “Could I see that for a second?” I tried to keep the desperation out of my voice, tried to make it sound like idle curiosity.

I hated myself for the question. Asking to hold a musician’s instrument is roughly similar to asking to kiss a man’s wife. Nonmusicians don’t understand. An instrument is like a companion and a lover. Strangers ask to touch and hold with annoying regularity. I knew better, but I couldn’t help myself. “Just for a second?”

I saw him stiffen slightly, reluctant. But keeping friendly appearances is a minstrel’s business just as much as music. “Certainly,” he said with a jocularity that I saw as false but was probably convincing for the others. He strode over to me and held it out. “Be careful . . .”

Josn took a couple of steps back and gave a very good appearance of being at ease. But I saw how he stood with his arms slightly bent, ready to rush forward and whisk the lute away from me if the need arose.

I turned it over in my hands. Objectively, it was nothing special. My father would have rated it as one short step above firewood. I touched the wood. I cradled it against my chest.

I spoke without looking up. “It’s beautiful,” I said softly, my voice rough with emotion.

It was beautiful. It was the most beautiful thing I had seen in three years. More beautiful than the sight of a spring field after three years of living in that pestilent cesspit of a city. More beautiful than Denna. Almost.

I can honestly say that I was still not really myself. I was only four days away from living on the streets. I was not the same person I had been back in the days of the troupe, but neither was I yet the person you hear about in stories. I had changed because of Tarbean. I had learned many things it would have been easier to live without.

But sitting beside the fire, bending over the lute, I felt the hard, unpleasant parts of myself that I had gained in Tarbean crack. Like a clay mold around a now-cool piece of iron they fell away, leaving something clean and hard behind.

I sounded the strings, one at a time. When I hit the third it was ever so slightly off and I gave one of the tuning pegs a minute adjustment without thinking.

“Here now, don’t go touching those,” Josn tried to sound casual, “you’ll turn it from true.” But I didn’t really hear him. The singer and all the rest couldn’t have been farther away from me if they’d been at the bottom of the Centhe Sea.

I touched the last string and tuned it too, ever so slightly. I made a simple chord and strummed it. It rang soft and true. I moved a finger and the chord went minor in a way that always sounded to me as if the lute were saying sad. I moved my hands again and the lute made two chords whispering against each other. Then, without realizing what I was doing, I began to play.

The strings felt strange against my fingers, like reunited friends who have forgotten what they have in common. I played soft and slow, sending notes no farther than the circle of our firelight. Fingers and strings made a careful conversation, as if their dance described the lines of an infatuation.

Then I felt something inside me break and music began to pour out into the quiet. My fingers danced; intricate and quick they spun something gossamer and tremulous into the circle of light our fire had made. The music moved like a spiderweb stirred by a gentle breath, it changed like a leaf twisting as it falls to the ground, and it felt like three years Waterside in Tarbean, with a hollowness inside you and hands that ached from the bitter cold.

I don’t know how long I played. It could have been ten minutes or an hour. But my hands weren’t used to the strain. They slipped and the music fell to pieces like a dream on waking.

I looked up to see everyone perfectly motionless, their faces ranging from shock to amazement. Then, as if my gaze had broken some spell, everyone stirred. Roent shifted in his seat. The two mercenaries turned and raised eyebrows at each other. Derrik looked at me as if he had never seen me before.

Reta remained frozen, her hand held in front of her mouth. Denna lowered her face into her hands and began to cry in quiet, hopeless sobs.

Josn simply stood. His face was stricken and bloodless as if he had been stabbed.

I held out the lute, not knowing whether to thank him or apologize. He took it numbly. After a moment, unable to think of anything to say, I left them sitting by the fire and walked toward the wagons.

And that is how Kvothe spent his last night before he came to the University, with his cloak as both his blanket and his bed. As he lay down, behind him was a circle of fire, and before him lay shadow like a mantle, gathered. His eyes were open, that much is certain, but who among us can say they know what he was seeing?

Look behind him instead, to the circle of light that the fire has made, and leave Kvothe to himself for now. Everyone deserves a moment or two alone when they desire it. And if by chance there were tears, let us forgive him. He was just a child, after all, and had yet to learn what sorrow really was.

CHAPTER THIRTY-FIVE

A Parting of Ways

The weather held fair, which meant that the wagons rolled into Imre just as the sun was setting. My mood was sullen and hurt. Denna had shared a wagon with Josn the whole of the day, and I, being foolish and proud, had kept my distance.

A whirl of activity sprang up as soon as the wagons rolled to a stop. Roent began to argue with a clean-shaven man in a velvet hat before he had brought his wagon to a full stop. After the initial bout of bargaining, a dozen men began unloading bolts of cloth, barrels of molasses, and burlap sacks of coffee. Reta cast a stern eye over the lot of them. Josn scuttled around, trying to keep his luggage from being damaged or stolen.

My own luggage was easier to manage, as I only had my travelsack. I retrieved it from between some bolts of cloth and moved away from the wagons. I slung it over one shoulder and looked around for Denna.

I found Reta instead. “You were a great help on the road,” she said clearly. Her Aturan was much better than Roent’s, with hardly any trace of a Siaru accent at all. “It is nice to have someone along who can unhitch a horse without being led by the hand.” She held out a coin to me.

I took it without thinking. It was a reflex action from my years as a beggar. Like the reverse of jerking your hand back from a fire. Only after the coin was in my hand did I take a closer look at it. It was a whole copper jot, fully half of what I had paid to travel with them to Imre. When I looked back up, Reta was heading back toward the wagons.

Not sure what to think, I wandered over to where Derrick sat on the edge of a horse trough. He shaded his eyes against the evening sun with one hand as he looked up at me. “On your way then? I almost thought you might stick with us for a while.”

I shook my head. “Reta just gave me a jot.”

He nodded. “I’m not terribly surprised. Most folks are nothing but dead weight.” He shrugged. “And she appreciated your playing. Have you ever thought of trying out as a minstrel? They say Imre’s a good place for it.”

I steered the conversation back to Reta. “I don’t want Roent to be angry with her. He seems to take his money pretty seriously.”

Derrick laughed. “And she doesn’t?”

“I gave my money to Roent,” I clarified. “If he’d wanted to give some of it back, I think he’d do it himself.”

Derrick nodded. “It’s not their way. A man doesn’t give money away.”

“That’s my point,” I said. “I don’t want her to get in trouble.”

Derrick waved his hands back and forth, cutting me off. “I’m not doing a good job explaining myself,” he said. “Roent knows. He might have even sent her over to do it. But grown Cealdish men don’t give away money. It’s seen as womanish behavior. They don’t even buy things if they can help it. Didn’t you notice that Reta was the one who bargained for our rooms and food at the inn a few nights ago?”

I did remember, now that he mentioned it. “But why?” I asked.

Derrick shrugged. “There isn’t any why. It’s just the way they do things. That’s why so many Cealdish caravans are husband-wife teams.”

“Derrick!” Roent’s voice came from behind the wagons.

He sighed as he stood up. “Duty calls,” he said. “See you around.”

I tucked the jot into my pocket and thought about what Derrick had said. The truth was, my troupe had never gone so far north as to make it into the Shald. It was unnerving to think I wasn’t as world-wise as I’d thought.

I slung my travelsack over my shoulder and looked around one last time, thinking that perhaps it would be best if I left without any troublesome good-byes. Denna was nowhere to be seen. That settled it then. I turned to leave . . .

. . . and found her standing behind me. She smiled a little awkwardly with her hands clasped behind her back. She was lovely as a flower, and totally unconscious of it. I was suddenly short of breath, and I forgot myself, my irritation, my hurt.

“You’re still going?” She asked.

I nodded.

“You could come to Anilin with us,” she suggested. “They say the streets are paved with gold there. You could teach Josn to play that lute he carries around.” She smiled. “I’ve asked him, and he’s said he wouldn’t mind.”

I considered it. For half a heartbeat I almost threw my whole plan aside just to stay with her a little longer. But the moment passed and I shook my head.

“Don’t look like that,” she chided me with a smile. “I’ll be there for a while, if things don’t work out for you here.” She trailed off hopefully.

I didn’t know what I could do if things didn’t work out for me here. I was hanging all my hopes on the University. Besides, Anilin was hundreds of miles away. I barely owned the clothes on my back. How would I find her?

Denna must have seen my thoughts reflected on my face. She smiled playfully. “I guess I’ll just have to come looking for you, then.”

We Ruh are travelers. Our lives are composed of meetings and partings, with brief, bright acquaintances in-between. Because of this I knew the truth. I felt it, heavy and certain in the pit of my stomach: I would never see her again.

Before I could say anything she looked nervously behind her. “I had better go. Watch for me.” She flashed her impish smile again before turning to walk away.

“I will,” I called after her. “I’ll see you where the roads meet.”

She glanced back and hesitated for a moment, then waved and ran off into the early evening twilight.

CHAPTER THIRTY-SIX

Less Talents

I spent the night sleeping outside the city limits of Imre in a soft bed of heather. The next day I woke late, washed in a nearby stream, and made my way west to the University.

As I walked, I watched the horizon for the largest building in the University. From Ben’s descriptions I knew what it would look like: featureless, grey, and square as a block. Larger than four granaries stacked together. No windows, no decorations, and only one set of great stone doors. Ten times ten thousand books. The Archives.

I had come to the University for many reasons, but that was at the heart of it. The Archives held answers, and I had many, many questions. First and foremost, I wanted to know the truth about the Chandrian and the Amyr. I needed to know how much of Skarpi’s story was the truth.

When the road crossed the Omethi River, there was an old stone bridge. I don’t doubt that you know the type. It was one of those ancient, mammoth pieces of architecture scattered throughout the world, so old and solidly built that they have become part of the landscape, not a soul wondering who built them, or why. This one was particularly impressive, over two hundred feet long and wide enough for two wagons to pass each other, it stretched over the canyon the Omethi had carved into the rock. When I reached the crest of the bridge I saw the Archives for the first time in my life, rising like some great greystone over the trees to the west.

The University lay at the heart of a small city. Though truthfully, I hesitate to call it a city at all. It was nothing like Tarbean with its twisting alleys and garbage smell. It was more of a town, with wide roads and clean air. Lawns and gardens were spaced between small houses and shops.

But since this town had grown up to serve the peculiar needs of the University, a careful observer could note small differences in the services the town provided. For instance, there were two glassblowers, three fully stocked apothecaries, two binderies, four booksellers, two brothels, and a truly disproportionate number of taverns. One of them had a large wooden sign nailed to its door proclaiming, no sympathy! I wondered what non-arcane visitors might think of the warning.

The University itself consisted of about fifteen buildings that bore little resemblance to each other. Mews had a circular central hub with eight wings radiating in each direction so it looked like a compass rose. Hollows was simple and square, with stained glass windows showing Teccam in a classic pose: standing barefoot in the mouth of his cave, speaking to a group of students. Mains was the most distinctive building of the lot: it covered nearly an acre and a half and looked like it had been cobbled together from a number of smaller, mismatched buildings.

As I approached the Archives, its grey, windowless surface reminded me of an immense greystone. It was hard to believe after all the years of waiting that I was finally there. I circled around it until I found the entrance, a massive pair of stone doors standing wide open. Over them, chiseled deep into the stone, were the words Vorfelan Rhinata Morie. I didn’t recognize the language. It wasn’t Siaru . . . maybe Yllish, or Temic. Yet another question I needed answers for.

Through the stone doors was a small antechamber with a more ordinary set of wooden doors inside. I tugged them open and felt cool, dry air brush past me. The walls were bare grey stone, lit with the distinctive unwavering reddish light of sympathy lamps. There was a large wooden desk with several large, ledger-type books lying open atop it.

At the desk sat a young man who looked to be a full-blooded Ceald, with the characteristic ruddy complexion and dark hair and eyes.

“Can I help you?” he asked, his voice thick with the harsh burr a Siaru accent makes.

“I’m here for the Archives,” I said stupidly. My stomach was dancing with butterflies. My palms were sweaty.

He looked me over, obviously wondering at my age. “Are you a student?”

“Soon,” I said. “I haven’t been through admissions yet.”

“You’ll need to do that first,” he said seriously. “I can’t let anyone in unless they’re in the book.” He gestured at the ledgers on the desk in front of him.

The butterflies died. I didn’t bother to hide my disappointment. “Are you sure I can’t look around just for a couple of minutes? I’ve come an awfully long way . . .” I looked at the two sets of double doors leading out of the room, one labeled TOMES the other stacks. Behind the desk a smaller door was labeled scrivs only.

His expression softened somewhat. “I cannot. There would be trouble.” He looked me over again. “Are you really going through admissions?” his skepticism was obvious even through his thick accent.

I nodded. “I just came here first.” I said looking around the empty room, eyeing the closed doors, trying to think of some way to persuade him to let me in.

He spoke before I could think of anything. “If you’re really going, you should hurry. Today is the last day. Sometimes they don’t go much longer than noon.”

My heart beat hard and quick in my chest. I’d assumed they would run all day. “Where are they?”

“Hollows.” He gestured toward the outer door. “Down, then left. Short building with . . . color-windows. Two big . . . trees out front.” He paused. “Maple? Is that the word for a tree?”

I nodded and hurried outside, soon I was pelting down the road.

Two hours later I was in Hollows, fighting down a sour stomach and climbing up onto the stage of an empty theater. The room was dark except for the wide circle of light that held the masters’ table. I walked to stand at the edge of the light and waited. Slowly the nine masters stopped talking among themselves and turned to look at me.

They sat at a huge, crescent-shaped table. It was raised, so even seated they were looking down on me. They were serious-looking men, ranging in age from mature to ancient.

There was a long moment of silence before the man sitting at the center of the crescent motioned me forward. I guessed he was the Chancellor. “Come up where we can see you. That’s right. Hello. Now, what’s your name, boy?”

“Kvothe, sir.”

“And why are you here?”

I looked him in the eye. “I want to attend the University. I want to be an arcanist.” I looked around at each of them. Some seemed amused. None looked particularly surprised.

“You are aware,” the Chancellor said. “That the University is for continuing one’s education. Not beginning it?”

“Yes, Chancellor. I know.”

“Very well,” he said. “May I have your letter of introduction?”

I didn’t hesitate. “I’m afraid I don’t have one, sir. Is it absolutely necessary?”

“It is customary to have a sponsor,” he explained. “Preferably an arcanist. Their letter tells us what you know. Your areas of excellence and weakness.”

“The arcanist I learned from was named Abenthy, sir. But he never gave me a letter of introduction. Might I tell you myself?”

The Chancellor nodded gravely, “Unfortunately, we have no way of knowing that you actually have studied with an arcanist without proof of some kind. Do you have anything that can corroborate your story? Any other correspondence?”

“He gave me a book before we parted ways, sir. He inscribed it to me and signed his name.”

The Chancellor smiled. “That should do nicely. Do you have it with you?”

“No.” I let some honest bitterness creep into my voice. “I had to pawn it in Tarbean.”

Sitting to the left of the Chancellor, Master Rhetorician Hemme made a disgusted noise at my comment, earning him an irritated look from the Chancellor. “Come, Herma,” Hemme said, slapping his hand on the table. “The boy is obviously lying. I have important matters to attend to this afternoon.”

The Chancellor gave him a vastly irritated look. “I have not given you leave to speak, Master Hemme.” The two of them stared at each other for a long moment before Hemme looked away, scowling.

The Chancellor turned back to me, then his eye caught some movement from one of the other masters. “Yes, Master Lorren?”

The tall, thin master looked at me passively. “What was the book called?”

Rhetoric and Logic, sir.”

“And where did you pawn it?”

“The Broken Binding, on Seaward Square.”

Lorren turned to look at the Chancellor. “I will be leaving for Tarbean tomorrow to fetch necessary materials for the upcoming term. If it is there I will bring it back. The matter of the boy’s claim can be settled then.”

The Chancellor gave a small nod. “Thank you, Master Lorren.” He settled himself back into his chair and folded his hands in front of himself. “Very well, then. What would Abenthy’s letter tell us, if he had written it?”

I took a good breath. “He would say that I knew by heart the first ninety sympathetic bindings. That I could double-distill, perform titration, calcify, sublimate, and precipitate solution. That I am well versed in history, argument, grammars, medicine, and geometry.”

The Chancellor did his best to not look amused. “That’s quite a list. Are you sure you didn’t leave anything out?”

I paused. “He probably would have also mentioned my age, sir.”

“How old are you, boy?”

“Kvothe, sir.”

A smile tugged at the Chancellor’s face. “Kvothe.”

“Fifteen, sir.” There was a rustle as the masters each took some small action, exchanged glances, raised eyebrows, shook their heads. Hemme rolled his eyes skyward.

Only the Chancellor did nothing. “How exactly would he have mentioned your age?”

I gave a thin sliver of a smile. “He would have urged you to ignore it.”

There was a breath of silence. The Chancellor drew a deep breath and leaned back in his seat. “Very well. We have a few questions for you. Would you like to begin, Master Brandeur?” He made a gesture toward one end of the crescent table.

I turned to face Brandeur. Portly and balding, he was the University’s Master Arithmetician. “How many grains are in thirteen ounces?”

“Six thousand two hundred and forty,” I said immediately.

He raised his eyebrows a little. “If I had fifty silver talents and converted them to Vintish coin and back, how much would I have if the Cealdim took four percent each time?”

I started the ponderous conversion between currencies, then smiled as I realized it was unnecessary. “Forty-six talents and eight drabs, if he’s honest. Forty-six even if he’s not.”

He nodded again, looking at me more closely. “You have a triangle,” he said slowly. “One side is seven feet. Another side, three feet. One angle is sixty degrees. How long is the other side?”

“Is the angle between the two sides?” He nodded. I closed my eyes for the space of half a breath, then opened them again. “Six feet six inches. Dead even.”

He made a hmmmpfh noise and looked surprised. “Good enough. Master Arwyl?”

Arwyl asked his question before I had time to turn and to face him. “What are the medicinal properties of hellebore?”

“Anti-inflammatory, antiseptic, mild sedative, mild analgesic. Blood purifier.” I said, looking up at the grandfatherly, spectacled old man. “Toxic if used excessively. Dangerous for women who are with child.”

“Name the component structures that comprise the hand.”

I named all twenty-seven bones, alphabetically. Then the muscles from largest to smallest. I listed them quickly, matter-of-factly pointing out their locations on my own upraised hand.

The speed and accuracy of my answers impressed them. Some of them hid it, others wore it openly on their faces. The truth was, I needed to impress them. I knew from my previous discussions with Ben that you needed money or brains to get into the University. The more of one you had, the less of the other you needed.

So I was cheating. I had snuck into Hollows through a back entrance, acting the part of an errand boy. Then I’d picked two locks and spent more than an hour watching other students’ interviews. I heard hundreds of questions and thousands of answers.

I also heard how high the other students’ tuitions were set. The lowest had been four talents and six jots, but most were double that. One student had been charged over thirty talents for his tuition. It would be easier for me to get a piece of the moon than that much money.

I had two copper jots in my pocket and no way to get a bent penny more. So I needed to impress them. More than that. I needed to confound them with my intelligence. To dazzle them.

I finished listing the muscles of the hand and started in on the ligatures when Arwyl waved me into silence and asked his next question. “When do you bleed a patient?”

The question brought me up short. “When I want him to die?” I asked dubiously.

He nodded, mostly to himself. “Master Lorren?”

Master Lorren was pale and seemed unnaturally tall even while sitting. “Who was the first declared king of Tarvintas?”

“Posthumously? Feyda Calanthis. Otherwise it would be his brother, Jarvis.”

“Why did the Aturan Empire collapse?”

I paused, taken aback by the scope of the question. None of the other students had been asked anything so broad as this. “Well, sir,” I said slowly to give myself a moment or two to organize my thoughts. “Partly because Lord Nalto was an inept egomaniac. Partly because the church went into upheaval and denounced the Order Amyr who were a large part of the strength of Atur. Partly because the military was fighting three different wars of conquest at the same time, and high taxes fomented rebellion in lands already inside the empire.”

I watched the master’s expression, hoping he would give some sign when he had heard enough. “They also debased their currency, undercut the universality of the iron law, and antagonized the Adem.” I shrugged. “But of course it’s more complicated than that.”

Master Lorren’s expression remained unchanged, but he nodded. “Who was the greatest man who ever lived?”

Another unfamiliar question. I thought for a minute. “Illien.”

Master Lorren blinked once, expressionless. “Master Mandrag?”

Mandrag was clean-shaven and smooth-faced, with hands stained a half hundred different colors and seemed to be made all of knuckle and bone. “If you needed phosphorus where would you get it?”

His tone sounded for a moment so much like Abenthy’s that I forgot myself and spoke without thinking. “An apothecary?” One of the masters on the other side of the table chuckled and I bit my too-quick tongue.

He gave me a faint smile, and I drew a faint breath. “Barring access to an apothecary.”

“I could render it from urine,” I said quickly. “Given a kiln and enough time.”

“How much would you need to gain two ounces pure?” He cracked his knuckles absentmindedly.

I paused to consider, as this was a new question too. “At least forty gallons, Master Mandrag, depending on the quality of the material.”

There was a long pause as he cracked his knuckles one at a time. “What are the three most important rules of the chemist?”

This I knew from Ben. “Label clearly. Measure twice. Eat elsewhere.”

He nodded, still wearing the faint smile. “Master Kilvin?”

Kilvin was Cealdish, his thick shoulders and brisding black beard reminded me of a bear. “Right,” he grumbled, folding his thick hands in front of him. “How would you make an ever-burning lamp?”

Each of the other eight masters made some sort of exasperated noise or gesture.

“What?” Kilvin demanded, looking around at them, irritated. “It is my question. The asking is mine.” He turned his attention back to me. “So. How would you make it?”

“Well,” I said slowly. “I would probably start with a pendulum of some sort. Then I would bind it to—”

Kraem. No. Not like this.” Kilvin growled out a couple words and pounded his fist on the table, each thump as his hand came down was accompanied by a staccato burst of reddish light that welled up from his hand. “No sympathy. I do not want an ever-glowing lamp. I want an ever-burning one.” He looked at me again showing his teeth, as if he were going to eat me.

“Lithium salt?” I asked without thinking, then backpedaled. “No, a sodium oil that burned in an enclosed . . . no, damn.” I mumbled my way to a stop. The other applicants hadn’t had to deal with questions like these.

He cut me off with a short sideways gesture of his hand. “Enough. We will talk later. Elxa Dal.”

It took me a moment to remember that Elxa Dal was the next master. I turned to him. He looked like the archetypal sinister magician that seems to be a requirement in so many bad Aturan plays. Severe dark eyes, lean face, short black beard. For all that, his expression was friendly enough. “What are the words for the first parallel kinetic binding?”

I rattled them off glibly.

He didn’t seem surprised. “What was the binding that Master Kilvin used just a moment ago?”

“Capacatorial Kinetic Luminosity.”

“What is the synodic period?”

I looked at him oddly. “Of the moon?” The question seemed a little out of sync with the other two.

He nodded.

“Seventy-two and a third days, sir. Give or take a bit.”

He shrugged and gave a wry smile, as if he’d expected to catch me with the last question. “Master Hemme?”

Hemme looked at me over steepled fingers. “How much mercury would it take to reduce two gills of white sulfur?” he asked pompously, as if I’d already given the wrong answer.

One of the things I’d learned during my hour of quiet observation was this: Master Hemme was the king-high bastard of the lot. He took delight in student’s discomfort and did everything he could to badger and unsettle them. He had a fondness for trick questions.

Luckily, this was one I had watched him use on other students. You see, you can’t reduce white sulfur with mercury. “Well,” I drew the word out, pretending to think it through. Hemme’s smug smile grew wider by the second. “Assuming you mean red sulfur, it would be about forty-one ounces. Sir.” I smiled a sharp smile at him. All teeth.

“Name the nine prime fallacies,” he snapped.

“Simplification. Generalization. Circularity. Reduction. Analogy. False causality. Semantism. Irrelevancy. . . .” I paused, not being able to remember the formal name of the last one. Ben and I had called it Nalt, after Emperor Nalto. It galled me, not being able to recall its real name, as I had read it in Rhetoric and Logic just a few days ago.

My irritation must have shown on my face. Hemme glowered at me as I paused, saying. “So you don’t know everything after all?” He leaned back into his seat with a satisfied expression.

“I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t think I had anything to learn,” I said bitingly before I managed to get my tongue under control again. From the other side of the table, Kilvin gave a deep chuckle.

Hemme opened his mouth, but the Chancellor silenced him with a look before he could say anything else. “Now then,” the Chancellor began, “I think—”

“I too would ask some questions,” the man to the Chancellor’s right said. He had an accent that I couldn’t quite place. Or perhaps it was that his voice held a certain resonance. When he spoke, everyone at the desk stirred slightly, then grew still, like leaves touched by the wind.

“Master Namer,” the Chancellor said with equal parts deference and trepidation.

Elodin was younger than the others by at least a dozen years. Cleanshaven with deep eyes. Medium height, medium build, there was nothing particularly striking about him, except for the way he sat at the table, one moment watching something intently, the next minute bored and letting his attention wander among the high beams of the ceiling above. He was almost like a child who had been forced to sit down with adults.

I felt Master Elodin look at me. Actually felt it, I suppressed a shiver. “So-heketh ka Siaru krema’teth tu?” he asked. How well do you speak Siaru?

“Rieusa, ta krelar deala tu.” Not very well, thank you.

He lifted a hand, his index finger pointing upward. “How many fingers am I holding up?”

I paused for a moment, which was more consideration than the question seemed to warrant. “At least one,” I said. “Probably no more than six.”

He broke into a broad smile and brought his other hand up from underneath the table, it had two fingers upright. He waved them back and forth for the other masters to see, nodding his head from side to side in an absent, childish way. Then he lowered his hands to the table in front of him, and grew suddenly serious. “Do you know the seven words that will make a woman love you?”

I looked at him, trying to decide if there was more to the question. When nothing more was forthcoming, I answered simply, “No.”

“They exist.” He reassured me, and sat back with a look of contentment. “Master Linguist?” He nodded to the Chancellor.

“That seems to cover most of academia,” the Chancellor said almost to himself. I had the impression that something had unsettled him, but he was too composed for me to tell exactly what. “You will forgive me if I ask a few things of a less scholarly nature?”

Having no real choice, I nodded.

He gave me a long look that seemed to stretch several minutes. “Why didn’t Abenthy send a letter of recommendation with you?”

I hesitated. Not all traveling entertainers are as respectable as our troupe, so, understandably, not everyone respected them. But I doubted that lying was the best course of action. “He left my troupe three years ago. I haven’t seen him since.”

I saw each of the masters look at me. I could almost hear them doing the mental arithmetic, calculating my age backward.

“Oh come now,” Hemme said disgustedly and moved as if he would stand.

The Chancellor gave him a dark look, silencing him. “Why do you wish to attend the University?”

I stood dumbfounded. It was the one question I was completely unprepared for. What could I say? Ten thousand books. Your Archives. I used to have dreams of reading there when I was young. True, but too childish. I want revenge against the Chandrian. Too dramatic. To become so powerful that no one will ever be able to hurt me again. Too frightening.

I looked up to the Chancellor and realized I’d been quiet for a long while. Unable to think of anything else, I shrugged and said, “I don’t know, sir. I guess I’ll have to learn that too.”

The Chancellor’s eyes had taken on a curious look by this point but he pushed it aside as he said, “Is there anything else you would like to say?” He had asked the question of the other applicants, but none of them had taken advantage of it. It seemed almost rhetorical, a ritual before the masters discussed the applicant’s tuition.

“Yes, please,” I said, surprising him. “I have a favor to ask beyond mere admission.” I took a deep breath, letting their attention settle on me. “It has taken me nearly three years to get here. I may seem young, but I belong here as much, if not more, than some rich lordling who can’t tell salt from cyanide by tasting it.”

I paused. “However, at this moment I have two jots in my purse and nowhere in the world to get more than that. I have nothing worth selling that I haven’t already sold.

“Admit me for more than two jots and I will not be able to attend. Admit me for less and I will be here every day, while every night I will do what it takes to stay alive while I study here. I will sleep in alleys and stables, wash dishes for kitchen scraps, beg pennies to buy pens. I will do whatever it takes.” I said the last words fiercely, almost snarling them.

“But admit me free, and give me three talents so I can live and buy what I need to learn properly, and I will be a student the likes of which you have never seen before.”

There was a half-breath of silence, followed by a thunderclap of a laugh from Kilvin. “HA!” he roared. “If one student in ten had half his fire I’d teach with a whip and chair instead of chalk and slate.” He brought his hand down hard on the table in front of him.

This sparked everyone to begin talking at the same time in their own varied tones. The Chancellor made a little wave in my direction and I took the chance to seat myself in the chair that stood at the edge of the circle of light.

The discussion seemed to go on for quite a long while. But even two or three minutes would have seemed like an eternity, sitting there while a group of old men debated my future. There was no actual shouting, but a fair amount of hand waving, most of it by Master Hemme, who seemed to have taken the same dislike of me that I had for him.

It wouldn’t have been so bad if I could have understood what they were saying, but even my finely tuned eavesdropper’s ears couldn’t quite make out what was being said.

Their talking died down suddenly, and then the Chancellor looked in my direction, motioning me forward.

“Let it be recorded,” he said formally, “that Kvothe, son of—” He paused and then looked at me inquiringly.

“Arliden,” I supplied. The name sounded strange to me after all these years. Master Lorren turned to look in my direction, blinking once.

“. . . son of Arliden, is admitted into the University for the continuance of his education on the forty-third of Caitelyn. His admission into the Arcanum contingent upon proof that he has mastered the basic principles of sympathy. Official sponsor being one Kilvin, Master Artificer. His tuition shall be set at the rate of less three talents.”

I felt a great dark weight settle inside me. Three talents might as well be all the money in the world for any hope I had in earning it before the term began. Working in kitchens, running errands for pennies, I might be able to save that much in a year, if I was lucky.

I held a desperate hope that I could cutpurse that much in time. But I knew the thought to be just that, desperate. People with that sort of money generally knew better than to leave it hanging in a purse.

I didn’t realize that the masters had left the table until one of them approached me. I looked up to see the Master Archivist approaching me.

Lorren was taller than I would have guessed, over six and a half feet. His long face and hands made him look almost stretched. When he saw he had my attention, he asked, “Did you say your father’s name was Arliden?”

He asked it very calmly, with no hint of regret or apology in his voice. It suddenly made me very angry that he should stifle my ambitions of getting into the University then come over and ask about my dead father as easy as saying good morning.

“Yes.” I said tightly.

“Arliden the bard?”

My father always thought of himself as a trouper. He never called himself bard or minstrel. Hearing him referred to in that way irritated me even more, if that were possible. I didn’t deign to reply, merely nodded once, sharply.

If he thought my response terse he didn’t show it. “I was wondering which troupe he performed in.”

My thin restraint burst. “Oh, you were wondering,” I said with every bit of venom my troupe-sharpened tongue could muster. “Well, maybe you can wonder a while longer. I’m stuck in ignorance now. I think you can abide a while with a little piece of it yourself. When I come back after earning my three talents, maybe then you can ask me again.” I gave him a fierce look, as if hoping to burn him with my eyes.

His reaction was minimal, it wasn’t until later that I found getting any reaction from Master Lorren was about as likely as seeing a stone pillar wink.

He looked vaguely puzzled at first, then slightly taken aback, then, as I glared up at him, he gave a faint, thin smile and mutely handed me a piece of paper.

I unfolded and read it. It read: “Kvothe. Spring term. Tuition: -3.Tln.” Less three talents. Of course.

Relief flooded me. As if it were a great wave that swept my legs from beneath me, I sat suddenly on the floor and wept.

CHAPTER THIRTY-SEVEN

Bright-Eyed

Lorren led the way across a courtyard. “That is what most of the discussion was about,” Master Lorren explained, his voice as passionless as stone. “You had to have a tuition. Everyone does.”

I had recovered my composure and apologized for my terrible manners. He nodded calmly and offered to escort me to the office of the bursar to ensure that there was no confusion regarding my admission “fee.”

“After it was decided to admit you in the manner you had suggested—” Lorren gave a brief but significant pause, leading me to believe that it had not been quite as simple as that “—there was the problem that there was no precedent set for giving out funds to enrolling students.” He paused again. “A rather unusual thing.”

Lorren led me into another stone building, through a hallway, and down a flight of stairs. “Hello, Riem.”

The bursar was an elderly, irritable man who became more irritable when he discovered he had to give money to me rather than the other way around. After I got my three talents, Master Lorren led me out of the building.

I remembered something and dug into my pocket, glad for an excuse to divert the conversation. “I have a receipt from the Broken Binding.” I handed him the piece of paper, wondering what the owner would think when the University’s Master Archivist showed up to redeem the book a filthy street urchin had sold him. “Master Lorren, I appreciate your agreeing to do this, and I hope you won’t think me ungrateful if I ask another favor. . . .”

Lorren glanced at the receipt before tucking it into a pocket, and looked at me intently. No, not intently. Not quizzically. There was no expression on his face at all. No curiosity. No irritation. Nothing. If not for the fact that his eyes were focused on me, I would have thought he’d forgotten I was there. “Feel free to ask,” he said.

“That book. It’s all I have left from . . . that time in my life. I would very much like to buy it back from you someday, when I have the money.”

He nodded, still expressionless. “That can be arranged. Do not waste your worry on its safety. It will be kept as carefully as any book in the Archives.”

Lorren raised a hand, gesturing to a passing student.

A sandy-haired boy pulled up short and approached nervously. Radiating deference, he made a nod that was almost like a bow to the Master Archivist. “Yes, Master Lorren?”

Lorren gestured to me with one of his long hands. “Simmon, this is Kvothe. He needs to be shown about, signed to classes and the like. Kilvin wants him in Artificing. Trust to your judgment otherwise. Will you tend to it?”

Simmon nodded again and brushed his hair out of his eyes. “Yes, sir.”

Without another word, Lorren turned and walked away, his long strides making his black master’s robes billow out behind him.

Simmon was young for a student, though still a couple years my senior. He stood taller than me, but his face was still boyish, his manner boyishly shy.

“Do you have somewhere to stay yet?” he asked as we started to walk. “Room at an inn or anything?”

I shook my head. “I just got in today. I haven’t thought much further than getting though admissions.”

Simmon chuckled. “I know what that’s like. I still get sweaty at the beginning of each term.” He pointed to the left, down a wide lane lined with trees. “Let’s head to Mews first then.”

I stopped walking. “I don’t have a lot of money,” I admitted. I hadn’t planned on getting a room. I was used to sleeping outside, and I knew I would need to save my three talents for clothes, food, paper, and next term’s tuition. I couldn’t count on the masters’ generosity two terms in a row.

“Admissions didn’t go that well, huh?” Simmon said sympathetically as he took my elbow and steered me toward another one of the grey University buildings. This one was three stories tall, many-windowed, and had several wings radiating out from a central hub. “Don’t feel bad about it. I got nervous and pissed myself the first time through. Figuratively.”

“I didn’t do that badly,” I said, suddenly very conscious of the three talents in my purse. “But I think I offended Master Lorren. He seemed a little . . .”

“Chilly?” Simmon asked. “Distant? Like an unblinking pillar of stone?” He laughed. “Lorren is always like that. Rumor has it that Elxa Dal has a standing offer often gold marks to anyone who can make him laugh.”

“Oh,” I relaxed a little. “That’s good. He’s the last person I’d want to get on the wrong side of. I’m looking forward to spending a lot of time in the Archives.”

“Just handle the books gently and you’ll get along fine. He’s pretty detached for the most part, but be careful around his books.” He raised his eyebrows and shook his head. “He’s fiercer than a mother bear protecting her cubs. In fact, I’d rather get caught by a mother bear than have Lorren see me folding back a page.”

Simmon kicked at a rock, sending it skipping down the cobblestones. “Okay. You’ve got options in the Mews. A talent will get you a bunk and a meal chit for the term.” He shrugged. “Nothing fancy, but it keeps the rain off. You can share a room for two talents or get one all to yourself for three.”

“What’s a meal chit?”

“Meals are three a day over in the Mess.” He pointed to a long, low-roofed building across the lawn. “The food isn’t bad so long as you don’t think too hard about where it might have come from.”

I did some quick arithmetic. A talent for two month’s worth of meals and a dry place to sleep was as good a deal as I could hope for. I smiled at Simmon. “Sounds like just the thing.”

Simmon nodded as he opened the door into the Mews. “Bunks it is, then. Come on, let’s find a steward and get you signed up.”

The bunks for non-Arcanum students were on the fourth floor of the east wing of Mews, farthest from the bathing facilities on the ground floor. The accommodations were as Sim had described, nothing fancy. But the narrow bed had clean sheets, and there was a trunk with a lock where I could keep my meager possessions.

All the lower bunks had already been claimed, so I took an upper one in the far corner of the room. As I looked out one of the narrow windows from on top of my bunk, I was reminded of my secret place high on Tarbean’s rooftops. The similarity was oddly comforting.

Lunch was a bowl of steaming-hot potato soup, beans, narrow rashers of fatty bacon, and fresh brown bread. The room’s large plank tables were nearly half full, seating about two hundred students. The room was full of the low murmur of conversation, punctuated by laughter and the metallic sound of spoons and forks scraping against the tin trays.

Simmon steered me to the back corner of the long room. Two other students looked up as we approached.

Simmon made a one-handed gesture to me as he set down his tray. “Everyone, meet Kvothe. Our newest dewy-eyed first-termer.” He gestured from one person to the next. “Kvothe, these are the worst students the Arcanum has to offer: Manet and Wilem.”

“Already met him,” Wilem said. He was the dark-haired Cealdim from the Archives. “You really were headed to admissions,” he said, mildly surprised. “I thought you were dealing me false iron.” He reached out his hand for me to shake. “Welcome.”

“Tehlu anyway,” Manet muttered, looking me over. He was at least fifty years old with wild hair and a grizzled beard. He wore a slightly disheveled look, as if he’d only woken up a few minutes ago. “Am I as old as I feel? Or is he as young as he looks?”

“Both,” Simmon said cheerfully as he sat down. “Kvothe, Manet here has been in the Arcanum for longer than all of us put together.”

Manet snorted. “Give me some credit. I’ve been in the Arcanum longer than any of you have been alive.”

“And still a lowly E’lir,” Wilem said, his thick Siaru accent made it hard to tell if he was being sarcastic or not.

“Huzzah to being an E’lir,” Manet said earnestly. “You boys will regret it if you move any farther up the ranks. Trust me. It’s just more hassle and higher tuitions.”

“We want our guilders, Manet,” Simmon said. “Preferably sometime before we’re dead.”

“The guilder is overrated too,” Manet said, tearing off a piece of bread and dunking it in his soup. The exchange had an easy feel, and I guessed this was a familiar conversation.

“How’d you do?” Simmon asked Wilem eagerly.

“Seven and eight,” Wilem grumbled.

Simmon looked surprised. “What in God’s name happened? Did you punch one of them?”

“Fumbled my cipher,” Wilem said sullenly. “And Lorren asked about the influence of subinfudation on Modegan currency. Kilvin had to translate. Even then I could not answer.”

“My soul weeps for you,” Sim said lightly. “You trounced me these last two terms, I was bound to catch a break sooner or later. I got five talents even this term.” He held out his hand. “Pay up.”

Wilem dug into his pocket and handed Sim a copper jot.

I looked at Manet. “Aren’t you in on it?”

The wild-haired man huffed a laugh and shook his head. “There’d be some long odds against me,” he said, his mouth half full.

“Let’s hear it,” Simon said with a sigh. “How much this term?”

“One and six,” Manet said, grinning like a wolf.

Before anyone could think to ask me what my tuition was, I spoke up. “I heard about someone getting a thirty-talent tuition. Do they usually get that high?”

“Not if you have the good sense to stay low in the rankings,” Manet grumbled.

“Only nobility,” Wilem said. “Kraemlish bastards with no business having their study here. I think they stoke up high tuitions just so they can complain.”

“I don’t mind,” Manet said. “Take their money. Keep my tuition low.”

I jumped as a tray clattered down onto the other side of the table. “I assume you’re talking about me.” The owner of the tray was blue-eyed and handsome with a carefully trimmed beard and high Modegan cheekbones. He was dressed in rich, muted colors. On his hip was a knife with a worked-wire hilt. The first weapon I’d seen anyone wearing at the University.

“Sovoy?” Simmon looked stunned. “What are you doing here?”

“I ask myself the same thing.” Sovoy looked down at the bench. “Are there no proper chairs in this place?” He took his seat, moving with an odd combination of graceful courtliness and stiff, affronted dignity. “Excellent. Next, I’ll be eating with a trencher and throwing bones to the dogs over my shoulder.”

“Etiquette dictates it be the left shoulder, your highness,” Manet said around a mouthful of bread, grinning.

Sovoy’s eyes flashed angry, but before he could say anything Simmon spoke up, “What happened?”

“My tuition was sixty-eight strehlaum,” he said indignantly.

Simmon looked nonplussed. “Is that a lot?”

“It is. A lot,” Sovoy said sarcastically. “And for no good reason. I answered their questions. This is a grudge, plain and simple. Mandrag does not like me. Neither does Hemme. Besides, everyone knows they squeeze the nobility twice as hard as you lot, bleeding us dry as stones.”

“Simmon’s nobility,” Manet pointed a spoon. “He seems to do fine for himself.”

Sovoy exhaled sharply through his nose. “Simmon’s father is a paper duke bowing to a tin king in Atur. My father’s stables have longer bloodlines than half you Aturan nobles.”

Simmon stiffened slightly in his seat, though he didn’t look up from his meal.

Wilem turned to face Sovoy, his dark eyes going hard. But before he could say anything Sovoy slumped, rubbing his face in one hand. “I’m sorry, Sim, my house and name to you. It’s just . . . things were going to be better this term, but now they’re worse instead. My allowance wouldn’t even cover my tuition, and no one will extend me more credit. Do you know how humiliating that is? I’ve had to give up my rooms at the Golden Pony. I’m on the third floor of Mews. I almost had to share a room. What would my father say if he knew?”

Simmon, his mouth full, shrugged and made a gesture with his spoon that seemed to indicate that there was no offense taken.

“Maybe things would go better for you if you didn’t go in there looking like a peacock.” Manet said. “Leave off the silk when you go through admissions.”

“Is that how it is?” Sovoy said, his temper flaring again. “Should I abase myself? Rub ashes in my hair? Tear my clothes?” As he grew angrier, his lilting accent became more pronounced. “No. They are none of them better men than me. I need not bow to them.”

There was a moment of uncomfortable silence at the table. I noticed more than a few of the surrounding students were watching the show from the nearby tables.

“Hylta tiam,” Sovoy continued. “There is nothing in this place I do not hate. Your weather is wild and uncivilized. Your religion barbaric and prudish. Your whores are intolerably ignorant and unmannerly. Your language barely has the subtlety to express how wretched this place is. . . .”

Sovoy’s voice grew softer the longer he spoke, until he almost seemed to be speaking to himself. “My blood goes back fifty generations, older than tree or stone. And I am come to this,” he put his head against the palms of his hands and looked down at his tin tray. “Barley bread. Gods all around us, a man is meant to eat wheat.”

I watched him while chewing a mouthful of the fresh brown bread. It tasted wonderful.

“I don’t know what I was thinking,” Sovoy said suddenly, getting to his feet. “I can’t deal with this.” He stormed off, leaving his tray on the table.

“That’s Sovoy,” Manet said to me in an offhand manner. “Not a bad sort, though he’s usually not nearly as drunk as that.”

“He’s Modegan?”

Simmon laughed. “You don’t get more Modegan than Sovoy.”

“You should not prod at him,” Wilem said to Manet. His rough accent made it hard for me to tell if he was rebuking the older student, but his dark Cealdish face showed definite reproach. As a foreigner, I guessed he sympathized with Sovoy’s difficulty adjusting to the language and culture of the Commonwealth.

“He is having a rough time of it,” Simmon admitted. “Remember when he had to let his manservant go?”

Mouth full, Manet made a gesture with both hands as if playing an imaginary violin. He rolled his eyes, his expression vastly unsympathetic.

“He had to sell his rings this time around,” I added. Wilem, Simmon, and Manet turned to look at me curiously. “There were pale lines on his fingers.” I explained, holding up my hand to demonstrate.

Manet gave me a close looking over. “Well now! Our new student seems to be all manner of clever.” He turned to Wilem and Simmon. “Lads, I’m in a betting mood. I’ll wager two jots that our young Kvothe makes it into the Arcanum before the end of his third term.”

“Three terms?” I said, surprised. “They told me all I had to do was prove I mastered the basic principles of sympathy.”

Manet gave me a gentle smile. “They tell everyone that. Principles of Sympathy is one of the classes you’ll have to slog through before they elevate you to E’lir.” He turned back to Wil and Sim expectantly. “How about it? Two jots?”

“I’ll bet.” Wilem gave me a small, apologetic shrug. “No offense. I play the odds.”

“What’ll you be studying then?” Manet asked as they shook on it.

The question caught me off guard. “Everything, I guess.”

“You sound like me thirty years ago,” Manet chuckled. “Where are you going to start?”

“The Chandrian,” I said. “I’d like to know as much about them as possible.”

Manet frowned, then burst out laughing. “Well, that’s fine and good, I suppose. Sim here studies faeries and piksies. Wil there believes in all manner of silly damn Cealdish sky spirits and such.” He puffed himself up absurdly. “I’m big on imps and shamble-men myself.”

I felt my face get hot with embarrassment.

“God’s body, Manet,” Sim cut him off. “What’s gotten into you?”

“I just bet two jots on a boy who wants to study bedtime stories,” Manet groused, gesturing to me with his fork.

“He meant folklore. That sort of thing.” Wilem turned to look at me. “You looking to work in the Archives?”

“Folklore’s a piece of it,” I hedged quickly, eager to save face. “I want to see if different cultures’ folktales conform to Teccam’s theory of narrative septagy.”

Sim turned back to Manet. “See? Why are you so twitchy today? When’s the last time you slept?”

“Don’t take that tone with me,” Manet grumbled. “I caught a few hours last night.”

“And which night was that?” Sim pressed.

Manet paused, looking down at his tray. “Felling night?”

Wilem shook his head, muttering something in Siaru.

Simmon looked horrified. “Manet, yesterday was Cendling. Has it been two days since you’ve slept?”

“Probably not,” Manet said uncertainly. “I always lose track of things during admissions. There aren’t any classes. It throws off my schedule. Besides, I’ve been caught up in a project in the Fishery.” He trailed off, scrubbing at his face with his hands, then looked up at me. “They’re right. I’m a little off my head right now. Teccam’s septagy, folklore and all that. It’s a bit bookish for me, but a fine thing to study. I didn’t mean any offense.”

“None taken.” I said easily and nodded at Sovoy’s tray. “Slide that over here, would you? If our young noble’s not coming back, I’ll have his bread.”

After Simmon took me to sign up for classes, I made my way to the Archives, eager to have a look around after all these years of dreaming.

This time when I entered the Archives, there was a young gentleman sitting behind the desk, tapping a pen on a piece of paper that bore the marks of much rewriting and crossing out. As I approached, he scowled and scratched out another line. His face was built to scowl. His hands were soft and pale. His blinding white linen shirt and richly-dyed blue vest reeked of money. The part of me that was not long removed from Tarbean wanted to pick his pocket.

He tapped his pen for another few moments before laying it down with a vastly irritated sigh. “Name,” he said without looking up.

“Kvothe.”

He flipped through the ledger, found a particular page and frowned. “You’re not in the book.” He glanced up briefly and scowled again before turning back to whatever verse he was laboring over. When I made no signs of leaving he flicked his fingers as if shooing away a bug. “Feel free to piss off.”

“I’ve just—”

Ambrose put down his pen again. “Listen,” he said slowly, as if explaining to a simpleton. “You’re not in the book,” he made an exaggerated gesture toward the ledger with both hands. “You don’t get inside.” He made another gesture to the inner doors. “The end.”

“I’ve just gone through admissions—”

He tossed up his hands, exasperated. “Then of course you’re not in the book.”

I dug into a pocket for my admission slip. “Master Lorren gave me this himself.”

“I don’t care if he carried you here pig-a-back,” Ambrose said, pointedly redipping his pen. “Now quit wasting my time. I have things to do.”

“Wasting your time?” I demanded, my temper finally wearing thin. “Do you have any idea what I’ve gone through to get here?”

Ambrose looked up at me, his expression growing suddenly amused. “Wait, let me guess,” he said, laying his hands flat on the table and pushing himself to his feet. “You were always smarter than the other children back in Clodhump, or whatever little one-whore town you’re from. Your ability to read and count left the local villagers awestruck.”

I heard the outer door open and shut behind me, but Ambrose didn’t pay it any attention as he walked around to lean against the front of the desk. “Your parents knew you were special so they saved up for a couple years, bought you a pair of shoes, and sewed the pig blanket into a shirt.” He reached out to rub the fabric of my new clothes between his fingers.

“It took months of walking, hundreds of miles bumping along in the backs of mule carts. But in the end . . .” He made an expansive gesture with both hands. “Praise Tehlu and all his angels! Here you are! All bright-eyed and full of dreams!”

I heard laughter and turned to see that two men and a young woman had come in during his tirade. “God’s body, Ambrose. What’s got you started?”

“Goddamn first-termers,” Ambrose groused as he headed back around to sit behind the desk. “Come in here dressed like rag piles and act like they own the place.”

The three newcomers walked toward the doors marked stacks. I fought down a hot flush of embarrassment as they looked me up and down. “Are we still heading to the Eolian tonight?”

Ambrose nodded. “Of course. Sixth bell.”

“Aren’t you going to check to see if they’re in the book?” I asked as the door closed behind them.

Ambrose turned back to me, his smile bright, brittle, and by no means friendly. “Listen, I’m going to give you a little advice for free. Back home you were something special. Here you’re just another kid with a big mouth. So address me as Re’lar, go back to your bunk, and thank whatever pagan God you pray to that we’re not in Vintas. My father and I would chain you to a post like a rabid dog.”

He shrugged. “Or don’t. Stay here. Make a scene. Start to cry. Better yet, take a swing at me.” He smiled. “I’ll give you a thrashing and get you thrown out on your ear.” He picked up his pen and turned back to whatever he was writing.

I left.

You might think that this encounter left me disheartened. You might think I felt betrayed, my childhood dreams of the University cruelly shattered.

Quite the contrary It reassured me. I had been feeling rather out of my element until Ambrose let me know, in his own special way, that there wasn’t much difference between the University and the streets of Tarbean. No matter where you are, people are basically the same.

Besides, anger can keep you warm at night, and wounded pride can spur a man to wondrous things.

CHAPTER THIRTY-EIGHT

Sympathy in the Mains

Mains was the oldest building at the University. Over the centuries it had grown slowly in all directions, engulfing smaller buildings and courtyards as it spread. It had the look of an ambitious architectural breed of lichen that was trying to cover as many acres as it could.

It was a hard place to find your way around. Hallways took odd turns, dead-ended unexpectedly, or took long, rambling, roundabout paths. It could easily take twenty minutes to walk from one room to another, despite the fact that they were only fifty feet apart. More experienced students knew shortcuts, of course: which workrooms and lecture halls to cut through to reach your destination.

At least one of the courtyards had been completely isolated and could only be accessed by climbing though a window. Rumor had it that there were some rooms bricked off entirely, some with students still inside. Their ghosts were rumored to walk the halls at night, bewailing their fate and complaining about the food in the Mess.

My first class was held in Mains. Luckily, I had been warned by my bunk-mates that Mains was difficult to navigate, so despite getting lost, I still arrived with time to spare.

When I finally found the room for my first class, I was surprised to find it resembled a small theater. Seats rose in tiered semicircles around a small raised stage. In larger cities my troupe had performed in places not unlike this one. The thought relaxed me as I found a seat in the back.

I was a jangling mass of excitement as I watched other students slowly trickle into the room. Everyone was older than me by at least a few years. I reviewed the first thirty sympathetic bindings in my head as the theater filled with anxious students. There were perhaps fifty of us in all, making the room about three-quarters full. Some had pen and paper with hardbacks to write on. Some had wax tablets. I hadn’t brought anything, but that didn’t worry me overmuch. I’ve always had an excellent memory.

Master Hemme entered the room and made his way onto the stage to stand behind a large stone worktable. He looked impressive in his dark master’s robes, and it was bare seconds before the whispering, shuffling theater of students hushed to silence.

“So you want to be arcanists?” he said. “You want magic like you’ve heard about in bedtime stories. You’ve listened to songs about Taborlin the Great. Roaring sheets of fire, magic rings, invisible cloaks, swords that never go dull, potions to make you fly.” He shook his head, disgusted. “Well, if that’s what you’re looking for, you can leave now, because you won’t find it here. It doesn’t exist.”

At this point a student came in, realized he was late, and moved quickly into a vacant seat. Hemme spotted him though. “Hello, glad you chose to attend. What is your name?”

“Gel,” the boy said nervously. “I’m sorry. I had a bit of a hard time . . .”

“Gel,” Hemme interrupted. “Why are you here?”

Gel gaped for a moment before managing to say, “For Principles of Sympathy?”

“I do not appreciate tardiness in my class. For tomorrow, you may prepare a report on the development of the sympathy clock, its differences from the previous, more arbitrary clocks that used harmonic motion, and its effect on the accurate treatment of time.”

The boy twisted in his seat. “Yes, sir.”

Hemme seemed satisfied with the reaction. “Very well. What is sympathy, then?”

Another boy hurried in clutching a hardback. He was young, by which I mean he looked to be no more than two years older than me. Hemme stopped him before he could make it into a seat. “Hello there,” he said in an over-courteous tone. “And you are?”

“Basil, sir,” the boy stood awkwardly in the aisle. I recognized him. I had spied on his admissions interview.

“Basil, you wouldn’t happen to be from Yll, would you?” Hemme asked, smiling sharply.

“No, sir.”

“Ahhh,” Hemme said, feigning disappointment. “I had heard that Yllish tribes use the sun to tell time, and as such, have no true concept of punctuality. However, as you are not Yllish, I can see no excuse for being late. Can you?”

Basil’s mouth worked silently for a moment, as if to make some excuse, then apparently decided better of it. “No, sir.”

“Good. For tomorrow, you can prepare a report on Yll’s lunar calendar compared to the more accurate, civilized Aturan calendar that you should be familiar with by now. Be seated.”

Basil slunk wordlessly into a nearby seat like a whipped dog.

Hemme gave up all pretext of lecture and lay in wait for the next tardy student. Thus it was that the hall was tensely silent when she stepped hesitantly into the room.

It was a young woman of about eighteen. A rarity of sorts. The ratio of men to women in the University is about ten to one.

Hemme’s manner softened when she entered the room. He moved quickly up the steps to greet her. “Ah, my dear. I am suddenly pleased that we have not yet begun today’s discussion.” He took her by the elbow and led her down a few of the steps to the first available seat.

She was obviously embarrassed by the attention. “I’m sorry, Master Hemme. Mains is bigger than I’d guessed.”

“No worry,” Hemme said in a kindly fashion. “You’re here and that’s what matters.” He solicitously helped her arrange her paper and ink before returning to the stage.

Once there, it seemed as if he might actually lecture. But before he began he looked back to the girl. “I’m sorry miss.” She was the only woman in the room. “Poor manners on my part. What is your name?”

“Ria.”

“Ria, is that short for Rian?”

“Yes, it is,” she smiled.

“Rian, would you please cross your legs?”

The request was made with such an earnest tone that not even a titter escaped the class. Looking puzzled, Rian crossed her legs.

“Now that the gates of hell are closed,” Hemme said in his normal, rougher tones. “We can begin.”

And so he did, ignoring her for the rest of the lecture. Which, as I see it, was an inadvertent kindness.

It was a long two and a half hours. I listened attentively, always hoping that he would come to something I hadn’t learned from Abenthy. But there was nothing. I quickly realized that while Hemme was discussing the principles of sympathy, he was doing it at a very, very basic level. This class was a colossal waste of my time.

After Hemme dismissed the class I ran down the stairs and caught him just as he was leaving through a lower door. “Master Hemme?”

He turned to face me. “Oh yes, our boy prodigy. I wasn’t aware you were in my class. I didn’t go too fast for you, did I?”

I knew better than to answer that honestly. “You covered the basics very clearly, sir. The principles you mentioned today will lay a good foundation for the other students in the class.” Diplomacy is a large part of being a trouper.

He puffed up a bit at my perceived compliment, then looked more closely at me. “Other students?” He asked.

“I’m afraid I’m already familiar with the basics, sir. I know the three laws and the fourteen corollaries. As well as the first ninety—”

“Yes, yes. I see,” he cut me off. “I’m rather busy right at the moment. We can speak of this tomorrow, before class.” He turned and walked briskly away.

Half a loaf being better than none, I shrugged and headed for the Archives. If I wasn’t going to learn anything from Hemme’s lectures, I might as well start educating myself.

This time when I entered the Archives there was a young woman sitting behind the desk. She was strikingly beautiful with long, dark hair and clear, bright eyes. A notable improvement over Ambrose to be sure.

She smiled as I approached the desk. “What’s your name?”

“Kvothe,” I said. “Son of Arliden.”

She nodded and began to page through the ledger.

“What’s yours?” I asked to fill the silence.

“Fela,” she said without looking up. Then nodded to herself and tapped the ledger. “There you are, go on in.”

There were two sets of double doors leading out of the antechamber, one marked stacks and the other tomes. Not knowing the difference between the two, I headed to the ones labeled stacks. That was what I wanted. Stacks of books. Great heaps of books. Shelf after endless shelf of books.

I had my hands on the handles of the doors before Fela’s voice stopped me. “I’m sorry. It’s your first time in here, isn’t it?”

I nodded, not letting go of the door’s handles. I was so close. What was going to happen now?

“The stacks are Arcanum only.” She said apologetically. She stood up and walked around the desk to the other set of doors. “Here, let me show you.”

I reluctantly let go of the door’s handles and followed her.

Using both hands, she tugged one of the heavy wooden doors open, revealing a large, high-ceilinged room filled with long tables. A dozen students were scattered throughout the room, reading. The room was well-lit with the unwavering light of dozens of sympathy lamps.

Fela leaned close to me and spoke in a soft voice. “This is the main reading area. You’ll find all the necessary tomes used for most of the basic classes.” She blocked the door open with her foot and pointed along one wall to a long section of shelving with three or four hundred books. More books than I had ever seen in one place before.

Fela continued to speak softly. “It’s a quiet place. No talking above a whisper.” I’d noticed that the room was almost unnaturally quiet. “If you want a book that isn’t there, you can submit a request at the desk,” she pointed. “They’ll find the book and bring it out to you.”

I turned to ask her a question, and only then realized how close she was standing. It says a great deal about how enamored I was with the Archives that I failed to notice one of the most attractive women in the University standing less than six inches away. “How long does it usually take them to find a book?” I asked quietly, trying not to stare at her.

“It varies,” she brushed her long black hair back over her shoulder. “Sometimes we’re busier than others. Some people are better at finding the appropriate books.” She shrugged and some of her hair swung back down to brush against my arm. “Usually no more than an hour.”

I nodded, disappointed by not being able to browse the whole of the Archives, but still excited to be inside. Once again, half a loaf was better than none. “Thanks, Fela.” I went inside, and she let the door swing shut behind me.

But she came after me just a moment later. “One last thing,” she said quietly. “I mean, it goes without saying, but this is your first time here. . . .” Her expression was serious. “The books don’t leave this room. Nothing leaves the Archives.”

“Of course,” I said. “Naturally.” I hadn’t known.

Fela smiled and nodded. “I just wanted to make sure. A couple of years ago we had a young gent who was used to carrying off books from his father’s library. I’d never even seen Lorren frown before that, or talk much above a whisper. But when he caught that boy in the street with one of his books. . . .” She shook her head as if she couldn’t hope to explain what she had seen.

I tried to picture the tall, somber master angry and failed. “Thanks for the warning.”

“Don’t mention it.” Fela headed back out into the entrance hall.

I approached the desk she had pointed out to me. “How do I request a book?” I asked the scriv quietly.

He showed me a large log book half filled with student’s names and their requests. Some were requests for books with specific titles or authors, but others were more general requests for information. One of the entries caught my eye: “Basil—Yllish lunar calendar. History of Aturan calendar.” I looked around the room and saw the boy from Hemme’s class hunched over a book, taking notes.

I wrote: “Kvothe—The history of the Chandrian. Reports of the Chandrian and their signs: black eyes, blue flame, etc.”

I went to the shelves next and started looking over the books. I recognized one or two from my studies with Ben. The only sound in the room was the occasional scratch of a pen on paper, or the faint, bird-wing sound of a page turning. Rather than being unsettling, I found the quiet strangely comforting. Later I was to find out that the place was nicknamed “Tombs” because of its cryptlike quiet.

Eventually a book called The Mating Habits of the Common Draccus caught my eye and I took it over to one of the reading tables. I picked it because it had a rather stylish embossed dragon on the cover, but when I started reading I discovered it was an educated investigation into several common myths.

I was halfway through the title piece explaining how the myth of the dragon in all likelihood evolved from the much more mundane draccus when a scriv appeared at my elbow. “Kvothe?” I nodded and he handed me a small book with a blue cloth cover.

Opening it, I was instantly disappointed. It was a collection of faerie stories. I flipped through it, hoping to find something useful, but it was filled with sticky-sweet adventure stories meant to amuse children. You know the sort: brave orphans trick the Chandrian, win riches, marry princesses, and live happily ever after.

I sighed and closed the book. I had half expected this. Until the Chandrian killed my family, I thought they were nothing more than children’s stories too. This sort of search wasn’t going to get me anywhere.

After walking to the desk I thought for a long moment before writing a new line in the request-ledger: “Kvothe—The history of the Order Amyr. The origins of the Amyr. The practices of the Amyr.” I reached the end of the line and rather than start another one I stopped and looked up at the scriv behind the desk. “I’ll take anything on the Amyr, really,” I said.

“We’re a little busy right now,” he said, gesturing to the room. Another dozen or so students had filtered in since I had arrived. “But we’ll bring something out to you as soon as we can.”

I returned to the table and flipped through the children’s book again before abandoning it for the bestiary. The wait was much longer this time, and I was learning about the strange summer hibernation of Susquinian when I felt a light touch on my shoulder. I turned, expecting to see a scriv with an armload of books, or maybe Basil come to say hello. I was startled by the sight of Master Lorren looming over me in his dark master’s robes.

“Come,” he said softly, and gestured for me to follow.

Not knowing what might be the matter, I followed him out of the reading room. We walked behind the scriv’s desk and down a flight of stairs to a small featureless room with a table and two chairs. The Archives was filled with little rooms like this, reading holes, designed to give members of the Arcanum a place to sit privately and study.

Lorren lay the request-ledger from Tomes on the table. “I noticed your request while assisting one of the newer scrivs in his duties,” he said. “You have an interest in the Chandrian and the Amyr?” he asked.

I nodded.

“Is this in regard to an assignment from one of your instructors?”

For a moment I thought about telling him the truth. About what had happened to my parents. About the story I had heard in Tarbean.

But Manet’s reaction to my mention of the Chandrian had shown me how foolish that would be. Until I’d seen the Chandrian myself, I didn’t believe in them. If anyone would have claimed to have seen them, I would have thought they were crazy.

At best Lorren would think I was delusional, at worst, a foolish child. I was suddenly pointedly aware of the fact that I was standing in one of the cornerstones of civilization, talking to the Master Archivist of the University.

It put things in a new perspective for me. The stories of an old man in some Dockside tavern suddenly seemed very far away and insignificant.

I shook my head. “No, sir. It’s merely to satisfy my curiosity.”

“I have a great respect for curiosity,” Lorren said with no particular inflection. “Perhaps I can satisfy yours a bit. The Amyr were a part of the church back when the Aturan Empire was still strong. Their credo was Ivare Enim Euge which roughly translates as ‘for the greater good.’ They were equal part knight-errant and vigilante. They had judiciary powers, and could act as judges in both the religious and secular courts. All of them, to varying degrees, were exempt from the law.”

I knew most of this already. “But where did they come from?” I asked. It was as close as I dared come to mentioning Skarpi’s story.

“They evolved from traveling judges,” Lorren said. “Men who went from town to town, bringing the rule of law to small Aturan towns.”

“They originated in Atur then?”

He looked at me. “Where else would they have originated?”

I couldn’t bring myself to tell him the truth: that because of an old man’s story I suspected the Amyr might have roots much older than the Aturan Empire. That I hoped they might still exist somewhere in the world today.

Lorren took my silence as a response. “A piece of advice,” he said gently. “The Amyr are dramatic figures. When we are young we all pretend to be Amyr and fight battles with willow-switch swords. It is natural for boys to be attracted to those stories.” He met my eyes. “However, a man, an arcanist, must focus himself on the present day. He must attend to practical things.”

He held my eyes as he continued to speak. “You are young. Many will judge you by that fact alone.” I drew a breath, but he held up a hand. “I am not accusing you of engaging in boyish fancy. I am advising you to avoid the appearance of boyish fancy.” He gave me a level look, his face as calm as always.

I thought of the way Ambrose had treated me and nodded, feeling color rise to my cheeks.

Lorren brought out a pen and drew a series of hashes through my single line of writing in the ledger book. “I have a great respect for curiosity,” he said. “But others do not think as I do. I would not see your first term unnecessarily complicated by such things. I expect things will be difficult enough for you without that additional worry.”

I bowed my head, feeling as if I’d somehow disappointed him. “I understand. Thank you, sir.”

CHAPTER THIRTY-NINE

Enough Rope

The next day I was ten minutes early to Hemme’s class, sitting in the front row. I hoped to catch Hemme before the class started, thereby saving myself from having to sit through another one of his lectures.

Unfortunately, he did not appear early. The lecture hall was full when he entered by the hall’s lower door and climbed the three steps onto the raised wooden stage. He looked around the hall, eyes searching me out. “Ah yes, our young prodigy. Stand up, would you?”

Uncertain as to what was going on, I stood.

“I have pleasant news for everyone,” he said. “Mr. Kvothe here has assured me as to his complete grasp of the principles of sympathy. In doing so, he has offered to give today’s lecture.” He made an expansive gesture for me to join him on the stage. He smiled at me with hard eyes. “Mr. Kvothe?”

He was mocking me, of course, expecting me to slink down into my seat, cowed and ashamed.

But I had had enough of bullies in my life. So I climbed onto the stage and shook his hand. Using a good stage voice I spoke to the students, “I thank Master Hemme for this opportunity. I only hope that I can help him shed some light on this most important subject.”

Having started this little game, Hemme was unable to stop it without looking foolish. As he shook my hand he gave me the look a wolf gives a treed cat. Smiling to himself, he left the stage to assume my recently vacated seat in the front row. Confident of my ignorance, he was willing to let the charade continue.

I would never have gotten away with it if not for two of Hemme’s numerous flaws. First, his general stupidity in not believing what I had told him the day before. Second, his desire to see me embarrassed as thoroughly as possible.

Plainly said, he was giving me enough rope to hang myself with. Apparently he didn’t realize that once a noose is tied, it will fit one neck as easily as another.