19 March, 2017 22:21

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DAW Book Collectors No. 1540.

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DAW TRADEMARK REGISTERED

U.S. PAT. AND TM. OFF. AND FOREIGN COUNTRIES

—MARCA REGISTRADA

HECHO EN U.S.A.

S.A.

http://us.penguingroup.com

To my patient fans, for reading the blog and telling me what they really want is an excellent book, even if it takes a little longer.

To my clever beta readers, for their invaluable help and toleration of my paranoid secrecy.

To my fabulous agent, for keeping the wolves from the door in more ways than one.

To my wise editor, for giving me the time and space to write a book that fills me with pride.

To my loving family, for supporting me and reminding me that leaving the house every once in a while is a good thing.

To my understanding girlfriend, for not leaving me when the stress of endless revision made me frothy and monstrous.

To my sweet baby, for loving his daddy even though I have to go away and write all the time. Even when we’re having a really great time. Even when we’re talking about ducks.

PROLOGUE

A Silence of Three Parts

DAWN WAS COMING. The Waystone Inn lay in silence, and it was a silence of three parts.

The most obvious part was a vast, echoing quiet made by things that were lacking. If there had been a storm, raindrops would have tapped and pattered against the selas vines behind the inn. Thunder would have muttered and rumbled and chased the silence down the road like fallen autumn leaves. If there had been travelers stirring in their rooms they would have stretched and grumbled the silence away like fraying, half-forgotten dreams. If there had been music … but no, of course there was no music. In fact there were none of these things, and so the silence remained.

Inside the Waystone a dark-haired man eased the back door closed behind himself. Moving through the perfect dark, he crept through the kitchen, across the taproom, and down the basement stairs. With the ease of long experience, he avoided loose boards that might groan or sigh beneath his weight. Each slow step made only the barest tep against the floor. In doing this he added his small, furtive silence to the larger echoing one. They made an amalgam of sorts, a counterpoint.

The third silence was not an easy thing to notice. If you listened long enough you might begin to feel it in the chill of the window glass and the smooth plaster walls of the innkeeper’s room. It was in the dark chest that lay at the foot of a hard and narrow bed. And it was in the hands of the man who lay there, motionless, watching for the first pale hint of dawn’s coming light.

The man had true-red hair, red as flame. His eyes were dark and distant, and he lay with the resigned air of one who has long ago abandoned any hope of sleep.

The Waystone was his, just as the third silence was his. This was appropriate, as it was the greatest silence of the three, holding the others inside itself. It was deep and wide as autumn’s ending. It was heavy as a great riversmooth stone. It was the patient, cut-flower sound of a man who is waiting to die.

CHAPTER ONE

Apple and Elderberry

BAST SLOUCHED AGAINST THE long stretch of mahogany bar, bored. Looking around the empty room, he sighed and rummaged around until he found a clean linen cloth. Then, with a resigned look, he began to polish a section of the bar.

After a moment Bast leaned forward and squinted at some half-seen speck. He scratched at it and frowned at the oily smudge his finger made. He leaned closer, fogged the bar with his breath, and buffed it briskly. Then he paused, exhaled hard against the wood, and wrote an obscene word in the fog.

Tossing aside the cloth, Bast made his way through the empty tables and chairs to the wide windows of the inn. He stood there for a long moment, looking at the dirt road running through the center of the town.

Bast gave another sigh and began to pace the room. He moved with the casual grace of a dancer and the perfect nonchalance of a cat. But when he ran his hands through his dark hair the gesture was restless. His blue eyes prowled the room endlessly, as if searching for a way out. As if searching for something he hadn’t seen a hundred times before.

But there was nothing new. Empty tables and chairs. Empty stools at the bar. Two huge barrels loomed on the counter behind the bar, one for whiskey, one for beer. Between the barrels stood a vast panoply of bottles: all colors and shapes. Above the bottles hung a sword.

Bast’s eyes fell back onto the bottles. He focused on them for a long, speculative moment, then moved back behind the bar and brought out a heavy clay mug.

Drawing a deep breath, he pointed a finger at the first bottle in the bottom row and began to chant as he counted down the line.

Maple. Maypole.

Catch and carry.

Ash and Ember.

Elderberry.

He finished the chant while pointing at a squat green bottle. He twisted out the cork, took a speculative sip, then made a sour face and shuddered. He quickly set the bottle down and picked up a curving red one instead. He sipped this one as well, rubbed his wet lips together thoughtfully, then nodded and splashed a generous portion into his mug.

He pointed at the next bottle and started counting again:

Woolen. Woman.

Moon at night.

Willow. Window.

Candlelight.

This time it was a clear bottle with a pale yellow liquor inside. Bast yanked the cork and added a long pour to the mug without bothering to taste it first. Setting the bottle aside, he picked up the mug and swirled it dramatically before taking a mouthful. He smiled a brilliant smile and flicked the new bottle with his finger, making it chime lightly before he began his singsong chant again:

Barrel. Barley.

Stone and stave.

Wind and water—

A floorboard creaked, and Bast looked up, smiling brightly. “Good morning, Reshi.”

The red-haired innkeeper stood at the bottom of the stairs. He brushed his long-fingered hands over the clean apron and full-length sleeves he wore. “Is our guest awake yet?”

Bast shook his head. “Not a rustle or a peep.”

“He’s had a hard couple of days,” Kote said. “It’s probably catching up with him.” He hesitated, then lifted his head and sniffed. “Have you been drinking?” The question was more curious than accusatory.

“No,” Bast said.

The innkeeper raised an eyebrow.

“I’ve been tasting,” Bast said, emphasizing the word. “Tasting comes before drinking.”

“Ah,” the innkeeper said. “So you were getting ready to drink then?”

“Tiny Gods, yes,” Bast said. “To great excess. What the hell else is there to do?” Bast brought his mug up from underneath the bar and looked into it. “I was hoping for elderberry, but I got some sort of melon.” He swirled the mug speculatively. “Plus something spicy.” He took another sip and narrowed his eyes thoughtfully. “Cinnamon?” he asked, looking at the ranks of bottles. “Do we even have any more elderberry?”

“It’s in there somewhere,” the innkeeper said, not bothering to look at the bottles. “Stop a moment and listen, Bast. We need to talk about what you did last night.”

Bast went very still. “What did I do, Reshi?”

“You stopped that creature from the Mael,” Kote said.

“Oh.” Bast relaxed, making a dismissive gesture. “I just slowed it down, Reshi. That’s all.”

Kote shook his head. “You realized it wasn’t just some madman. You tried to warn us. If you hadn’t been so quick on your feet …”

Bast frowned. “I wasn’t so quick, Reshi. It got Shep.” He looked down at the well scrubbed floorboards near the bar. “I liked Shep.”

“Everyone else will think the smith’s prentice saved us,” Kote said. “And that’s probably for the best. But I know the truth. If not for you, it would have slaughtered everyone here.”

“Oh Reshi, that’s just not true,” Bast said. “You would have killed it like a chicken. I just got it first.”

The innkeeper shrugged the comment away. “Last night has me thinking,” he said. “Wondering what we could do to make things a bit safer around here. Have you ever heard the ‘White Riders’ Hunt’?”

Bast smiled. “It was our song before it was yours, Reshi.” He drew a breath and sang in a sweet tenor:

Rode they horses white as snow.

Silver blade and white horn bow.

Wore they fresh and supple boughs,

Red and green upon their brows.

The innkeeper nodded. “Exactly the verse I was thinking of. Do you think you could take care of it while I get things ready here?”

Bast nodded enthusiastically and practically bolted, pausing by the kitchen door. “You won’t start without me?” he asked anxiously.

“We’ll start as soon as our guest is fed and ready,” Kote said. Then, seeing the expression on his student’s face, he relented a little. “For all that, I imagine you have an hour or two.”

Bast glanced through the doorway, then back.

Amusement flickered over the innkeeper’s face. “And I’ll call before we start.” He made a shooing motion with one hand. “Go on now.”

The man who called himself Kote went through his usual routine at the Waystone Inn. He moved like clockwork, like a wagon rolling down the road in well-worn ruts.

First came the bread. He mixed flour and sugar and salt with his hands, not bothering to measure. He added a piece of starter from the clay jar in the pantry, kneaded the dough, then rounded the loaves and set them to rise. He shoveled ash from the stove in the kitchen and kindled a fire.

Next he moved into the common room and laid a fire in the black stone fireplace, brushing the ash from the massive hearth along the northern wall. He pumped water, washed his hands, and brought up a piece of mutton from the basement. He cut fresh kindling, carried in firewood, punched down the rising bread and moved it close to the now-warm stove.

And then, abruptly, there was nothing left to do. Everything was ready. Everything was clean and orderly. The red-haired man stood behind the bar, his eyes slowly returning from their faraway place, focusing on the here and now, on the inn itself.

They came to rest on the sword that hung on the wall above the bottles. It wasn’t a particularly beautiful sword, not ornate or eye-catching. It was menacing, in a way. The same way a tall cliff is menacing. It was grey and unblemished and cold to the touch. It was sharp as shattered glass. Carved into the black wood of the mounting board was a single word: Folly.

The innkeeper heard heavy footsteps on the wooden landing outside. The door’s latch rattled noisily, followed by a loud hellooo and a thumping on the door.

“Just a moment!” Kote called. Hurrying to the front door he turned, the heavy key in the door’s bright brass lock.

Graham stood with his thick hand poised to knock on the door. His weathered face split into a grin when he saw the innkeeper. “Bast open things up for you again this morning?” he asked.

Kote gave a tolerant smile.

“He’s a good boy,” Graham said. “Just a little ditherheaded. I thought you might have closed up shop today.” He cleared his throat and glanced at his feet for a moment. “I wouldn’t be surprised, considering.”

Kote put the key in his pocket. “Open as always. What can I do for you?”

Graham stepped out of the doorway and nodded toward the street where three barrels stood in a nearby cart. They were new, with pale, polished wood and bright metal bands. “I knew I wasn’t getting any sleep last night, so I knocked the last one together for you. Besides, I heard the Bentons would be coming round with the first of the late apples today.”

“I appreciate that.”

“Nice and tight so they’ll keep through the winter.” Graham walked over and rapped a knuckle proudly against the side of the barrel. “Nothing like a winter apple to stave off hunger.” He looked up with a glimmer in his eye and knocked at the side of the barrel again. “Get it? Stave?”

Kote groaned a bit, rubbing at his face.

Graham chuckled to himself and ran a hand over one of the barrel’s bright metal bands. “I ain’t ever made a barrel with brass before, but these turned out nice as I could hope for. You let me know if they don’t stay tight. I’ll see to ’em.”

“I’m glad it wasn’t too much trouble,” the innkeeper said. “The cellar gets damp. I worry iron would just rust out in a couple years.”

Graham nodded. “That’s right sensible,” he said. “Not many folk take the long view of things.” He rubbed his hands together. “Would you like to give me a hand? I’d hate to drop one and scuff your floors.”

They set to it. Two of the brass-bound barrels went to the basement while the third was maneuvered behind the bar, through the kitchen, and into the pantry.

After that, the men made their way back to the common room, each on their own side of the bar. There was a moment of silence as Graham looked around the empty taproom. There were two fewer stools than there should be at the bar, and an empty space left by an absent table. In the orderly taproom these things were conspicuous as missing teeth.

Graham pulled his eyes from a well-scrubbed piece of floor near the bar. He reached into his pocket and brought out a pair of dull iron shims, his hand hardly shaking at all. “Bring me up a short beer, would you, Kote?” he asked, his voice rough. “I know it’s early, but I’ve got a long day ahead of me. I’m helping the Murrions bring their wheat in.”

The innkeeper drew the beer and handed it over silently. Graham drank half of it off in a long swallow. His eyes were red around the edges. “Bad business last night,” he said without making eye contact, then took another drink.

Kote nodded. Bad business last night. Chances are, that would be all Graham had to say about the death of a man he had known his whole life. These folk knew all about death. They killed their own livestock. They died from fevers, falls, or broken bones gone sour. Death was like an unpleasant neighbor. You didn’t talk about him for fear he might hear you and decide to pay a visit.

Except for stories, of course. Tales of poisoned kings and duels and old wars were fine. They dressed death in foreign clothes and sent him far from your door. A chimney fire or the croup-cough were terrifying. But Gibea’s trial or the siege of Enfast, those were different. They were like prayers, like charms muttered late at night when you were walking alone in the dark. Stories were like ha’penny amulets you bought from a peddler, just in case.

“How long is that scribe fellow going to be around?” Graham asked after a moment, voice echoing in his mug. “Maybe I should get a bit of something writ up, just in case.” He frowned a bit. “My daddy always called them laying-down papers. Can’t remember what they’re really called.”

“If it’s just your goods that need looking after, it’s a disposition of property,” the innkeeper said matter-of-factly. “If it relates to other things it’s called a mandamus of declared will.”

Graham lifted an eyebrow at the innkeeper.

“What I heard at any rate,” the innkeeper said, looking down and rubbing the bar with a clean white cloth. “Scribe mentioned something along those lines.”

“Mandamus …” Graham murmured into his mug. “I reckon I’ll just ask him for some laying-down papers and let him official it up however he likes.” He looked up at the innkeeper. “Other folk will probably be wanting something similar, times being what they are.”

For a moment it looked like the innkeeper frowned with irritation. But no, he did nothing of the sort. Standing behind the bar he looked the same as he always did, his expression placid and agreeable. He gave an easy nod. “He mentioned he’d be setting up shop around midday,” Kote said. “He was a bit unsettled by everything last night. If anyone shows up earlier than noon I expect they’ll be disappointed.”

Graham shrugged. “Shouldn’t make any difference. There won’t be but ten people in the whole town until lunchtime anyway.” He took another swallow of beer and looked out the window. “Today’s a field day and that’s for sure.”

The innkeeper seemed to relax a bit. “He’ll be here tomorrow too. So there’s no need for everyone to rush in today. Folk stole his horse off by Abbot’s Ford, and he’s trying to find a new one.”

Graham sucked his teeth sympathetically. “Poor bastard. He won’t find a horse for love nor money with harvest in mid-swing. Even Carter couldn’t replace Nelly after that spider thing attacked him off by the Oldstone bridge.” He shook his head. “It doesn’t seem right, something like that happening not two miles from your own door. Back when—”

Graham stopped. “Lord and lady, I sound like my old da.” He tucked in his chin and added some gruff to his voice. “Back when I was a boy we had proper weather. The miller kept his thumb off the scale and folk knew to look after their own business.”

The innkeeper’s face grew a wistful smile. “My father said the beer was better, and the roads had fewer ruts.”

Graham smiled, but it faded quickly. He looked down, as if uncomfortable with what he was about to say. “I know you aren’t from around here, Kote. That’s a hard thing. Some folk think a stranger can’t hardly know the time of day.”

He drew a deep breath, still not meeting the inkeeper’s eyes. “But I figure you know things other folk don’t. You’ve got sort of a wider view.” He looked up, his eyes serious and weary, dark around the edges from lack of sleep. “Are things as grim as they seem lately? The roads so bad. Folk getting robbed and …”

With an obvious effort, Graham kept himself from looking at the empty piece of floor again. “All the new taxes making things so tight. The Grayden boys about to lose their farm. That spider thing.” He took another swallow of beer. “Are things as bad as they seem? Or have I just gotten old like my da, and now everything tastes a little bitter compared to when I was a boy?”

Kote wiped at the bar for a long moment, as if reluctant to speak. “I think things are usually bad one way or another,” he said. “It might be that only us older folk can see it.”

Graham began to nod, then frowned. “Except you’re not old, are you? I forget that most times.” He looked the red-haired man up and down. “I mean, you move around old, and you talk old, but you’re not, are you? I’ll bet you’re half my age.” He squinted at the innkeeper. “How old are you, anyway?”

The innkeeper gave a tired smile. “Old enough to feel old.”

Graham snorted. “Too young to make old man noises. You should be out chasing women and getting into trouble. Leave us old folk to complain about how the world is getting all loose in the joints.”

The old carpenter pushed himself away from the bar and turned to walk toward the door. “I’ll be back to talk to your scribe when we break for lunch today. I en’t the only one, either. There’s a lot of folks that’ll want to get some things set down official when they’ve got the chance.”

The innkeeper drew a deep breath and let it out slowly. “Graham?”

The man turned with one hand on the door.

“It’s not just you,” Kote said. “Things are bad, and my gut tells me they’ll get worse yet. It wouldn’t hurt a man to get ready for a hard winter. And maybe see that he can defend himself if need be.” The innkeeper shrugged. “That’s what my gut tells me, anyway.”

Graham’s mouth set into a grim line. He bobbed his head once in a serious nod. “I’m glad it’s not just my gut, I suppose.”

Then he forced a grin and began to cuff up his shirt sleeves as he turned to the door. “Still,” he said, “you’ve got to make hay while the sun shines.”

Not long after that the Bentons stopped by with a cartload of late apples. The innkeeper bought half of what they had and spent the next hour sorting and storing them.

The greenest and firmest went into the barrels in the basement, his gentle hands laying them carefully in place and packing them in sawdust before hammering down the lids. Those closer to full ripe went to the pantry, and any with a bruise or spot of brown were doomed to be cider apples, quartered and tossed into a large tin washtub.

As he sorted and packed, the red-haired man seemed content. But if you looked more closely you might have noticed that while his hands were busy, his eyes were far away. And while his expression was composed, pleasant even, there was no joy in it. He did not hum or whistle while he worked. He did not sing.

When the last of the apples were sorted, he carried the metal tub through the kitchen and out the back door. It was a cool autumn morning, and behind the inn was a small, private garden sheltered by trees. Kote tumbled a load of quartered apples into the wooden cider press and spun the top down until it no longer moved easily.

Kote cuffed up the long sleeves of his shirt past his elbows, then gripped the handles of the press with his long, graceful hands and pulled. The press screwed down, first packing the apples tight, then crushing them. Twist and regrip. Twist and regrip.

If there had been anyone to see, they would have noticed his arms weren’t the doughy arms of an innkeeper. When he pulled against the wooden handles, the muscles of his forearms stood out, tight as twisted ropes. Old scars crossed and recrossed his skin. Most were pale and thin as cracks in winter ice. Others were red and angry, standing out against his fair complexion.

The innkeeper’s hands gripped and pulled, gripped and pulled. The only sounds were the rhythmic creak of the wood and the slow patter of the cider as it ran into the bucket below. There was a rhythm to it, but no music, and the innkeeper’s eyes were distant and joyless, so pale a green they almost could have passed for grey.

CHAPTER TWO

Holly

CHRONICLER REACHED THE BOTTOM of the stairs and stepped into the Waystone’s common room with his flat leather satchel over one shoulder. Stopping in the doorway, he eyed the red-haired innkeeper hunched intently over something on the bar.

Chronicler cleared his throat as he stepped into the room. “I’m sorry to have slept so late,” he said. “It’s not really …” He stalled out when he saw what was on the bar. “Are you making a pie?”

Kote looked up from crimping the edge of the crust with his fingers. “Pies,” he said, stressing the plural. “Yes. Why?”

Chronicler opened his mouth, then closed it. His eyes flickered to the sword that hung, grey and silent behind the bar, then back to the red-haired man carefully pinching crust around the edge of a pan. “What kind of pie?”

“Apple.” Kote straightened and cut three careful slits into the crust covering the pie. “Do you know how difficult it is to make a good pie?”

“Not really,” Chronicler admitted, then looked around nervously. “Where’s your assistant?”

“God himself can only guess at such things,” the innkeeper said. “It’s quite hard. Making pies, I mean. You wouldn’t think it, but there’s quite a lot to the process. Bread is easy. Soup is easy. Pudding is easy. But pie is complicated. It’s something you never realize until you try it for yourself.”

Chronicler nodded in vague agreement, looking uncertain as to what else might be expected of him. He shrugged the satchel off his shoulder and set it on a nearby table.

Kote wiped his hands on his apron. “When you press apples for cider, you know the pulp that’s left over?”

“The pomace?”

“Pomace,” Kote said with profound relief. “That’s what it’s called. What do people do with it, after they get the juice out?”

“Grape pomace can make a weak wine,” Chronicler said. “Or oil, if you’ve got a lot. But apple pomace is pretty useless. You can use it as fertilizer or mulch, but it’s not much good as either. Folk feed it to their livestock mostly.”

Kote nodded, looking thoughtful. “It didn’t seem like they’d just throw it out. They put everything to use one way or another around here. Pomace.” He spoke as if he were tasting the word. “That’s been bothering me for two years now.”

Chronicler looked puzzled. “Anyone in town could have told you that.”

The innkeeper frowned. “If it’s something everyone knows, I can’t afford to ask,” he said.

There was the sound of a door banging closed, followed by a bright, wandering whistle. Bast emerged from the kitchen carrying a bristling armload of holly boughs wrapped in a white sheet.

Kote nodded grimly and rubbed his hands together. “Lovely. Now how do we—” His eyes narrowed. “Are those my good sheets?”

Bast looked down at the bundle. “Well Reshi,” he said slowly, “that depends. Do you have any bad sheets?”

The innkeeper’s eyes flashed angrily for a second, then he sighed. “It doesn’t matter, I suppose.” He reached over and pulled a single long branch from the bundle. “What do we do with this, anyway?”

Bast shrugged. “I’m running dark on this myself, Reshi. I know the Sithe used to ride out wearing holly crowns when they hunted the skin dancers… .”

“We can’t walk around wearing holly crowns,” Kote said dismissively. “Folk would talk.”

“I don’t care what the local plods think,” Bast murmured as he began to weave several long, flexible branches together. “When a dancer gets inside your body, you’re like a puppet. They can make you bite out your own tongue.” He lifted a half-formed circle up to his own head, checking the fit. He wrinkled his nose. “Prickly.”

“In the stories I’ve heard,” Kote said, “holly traps them in a body, too.”

“Couldn’t we just wear iron?” Chronicler asked. The two men behind the bar looked at him curiously, as if they’d almost forgotten he was there. “I mean, if it’s a faeling creature—”

“Don’t say faeling,” Bast said disparagingly. “It makes you sound like a child. It’s a Fae creature. Faen, if you must.”

Chronicler hesitated for a moment before continuing. “If this thing slid into the body of someone wearing iron, wouldn’t that hurt it? Wouldn’t it just jump out again?”

“They can make you bite. Out. Your own. Tongue,” Bast repeated, as if speaking to a particularly stupid child. “Once they’re in you, they’ll use your hand to pull out your own eye as easy as you’d pick a daisy. What makes you think they couldn’t take the time to remove a bracelet or a ring?” He shook his head, looking down as he worked another bright green branch of holly into the circle he held. “Besides, I’ll be damned if I’m wearing iron.”

“If they can jump out of bodies,” Chronicler said. “Why didn’t it just leave that man’s body last night? Why didn’t it hop into one of us?”

There was a long, quiet moment before Bast realized the other two men were looking at him. “You’re asking me?” He laughed incredulously. “I have no idea. Anpauen. The last of the dancers were hunted down hundreds of years ago. Long before my time. I’ve just heard stories.”

“Then how do we know it didn’t jump out?” Chronicler said slowly, as if reluctant even to ask. “How do we know it isn’t still here?” He sat very stiffly in his seat. “How do we know it’s not in one of us right now?”

“It seemed like it died when the mercenary’s body died,” Kote said. “We would have seen it leave.” He glanced over at Bast. “They’re supposed to look like a dark shadow or smoke when they leave the body, aren’t they?”

Bast nodded. “Plus, if it had hopped out, it would have just started killing folk with the new body. That’s what they usually do. They switch and switch until everyone is dead.”

The innkeeper gave Chronicler a reassuring smile. “See? It might not even have been a dancer. Perhaps it was just something similar.”

Chronicler looked a little wild around the eyes. “But how can we be sure? It might be inside anyone in town right now… .”

“It might be inside me,” Bast said nonchalantly. “Maybe I’m just waiting for you to let your guard down and then I’ll bite you on the chest, right over your heart, and drink all the blood out of you. Like sucking the juice out of a plum.”

Chronicler’s mouth made a thin line. “That’s not funny.”

Bast looked up and gave Chronicler a rakish, toothy grin. But there was something slightly off about the expression. It lasted a little too long. The grin was slightly too wide. His eyes were focused slightly to one side of the scribe, rather than directly on him.

Bast went still for a moment, his fingers no longer weaving nimbly among the green leaves. He looked down at his hands curiously, then dropped the half-finished circle of holly onto the bar. His grin slowly faded to a blank expression, and he looked around the taproom dully. “Te veyan?” he said in a strange voice, his eyes glassy and confused. “Te-tanten ventelanet?”

Then, moving with startling speed, Bast lunged from behind the bar toward Chronicler. The scribe exploded out of his seat, bolting madly away. He upset two tables and a half-dozen chairs before his feet got tangled and he tumbled messily to the floor, arms and legs flailing as he clawed his way frantically toward the door.

As he scrambled wildly, Chronicler darted a quick look over his shoulder, his face horrified and pale, only to see that Bast hadn’t taken more than three steps. The dark-haired young man stood next to the bar, bent nearly double and shaking with helpless laughter. One hand half-covered his face, while the other pointed at Chronicler. He was laughing so hard he could barely draw a breath. After a moment he had to reach out and steady himself against the bar.

Chronicler was livid. “You ass!” he shouted as he climbed painfully to his feet. “You … you ass!”

Still laughing too hard to breathe, Bast raised his hands and made weak, halfhearted clawing gestures, like a child pretending to be a bear.

“Bast,” the innkeeper chided. “Come now. Really.” But while Kote’s voice was stern, his eyes were bright with laughter. His lips twitched, struggling not to curl.

Moving with affronted dignity, Chronicler busied himself setting the tables and chairs to rights, thumping them down rather harder than he needed to. When at last he returned to his original table, he sat down stiffly. By then Bast had returned to stand behind the bar, breathing hard and pointedly focusing on the holly in his hands.

Chronicler glared at him and rubbed his shin. Bast stifled something that could, conceivably, have been a cough.

Kote chuckled low in his throat and pulled another length of holly from the bundle, adding it to the long cord he was making. He looked up to catch Chronicler’s eye. “Before I forget to mention it, folk will be stopping by today to take advantage of your services as a scribe.”

Chronicler seemed surprised. “Will they now?”

Kote nodded and gave an irritated sigh. “Yes. The news is already out, so it can’t be helped. We’ll have to deal with them as they come. Luckily, everyone with two good hands will be busy in the fields until midday, so we won’t have to worry about it until—”

The innkeeper’s fingers fumbled clumsily, snapping the holly branch and jabbing a thorn deep into the fleshy part of his thumb. The red-haired man didn’t flinch or curse, just scowled angrily down at his hand as a bead of blood welled up, bright as a berry.

Frowning, the innkeeper brought his thumb to his mouth. All the laughter faded from his expression, and his eyes were hard and dark. He tossed the half-finished holly cord aside in a gesture so pointedly casual it was almost frightening.

He looked back to Chronicler, his voice perfectly calm. “My point is that we should make good use of our time before we’re interrupted,” he said. “But first, I imagine you’ll want some breakfast.”

“If it wouldn’t be too much trouble,” Chronicler said.

“None at all,” Kote said as he turned and headed into the kitchen.

Bast watched him leave, a concerned expression on his face. “You’ll want to pull the cider off the stove and set it to cool out back.” Bast called out to him loudly. “The last batch was closer to jam than juice. And I found some herbs while I was out, too. They’re on the rain barrel. You should look them over to see if they’ll be of any use for supper.”

Left alone in the taproom, Bast and Chronicler watched each other across the bar for a long moment. The only sound was the distant thump of the back door closing.

Bast made a final adjustment to the crown in his hands, looking it over from all angles. He brought it up to his face as if to smell it. But instead he drew a deep lungful of air, closed his eyes, and breathed out against the holly leaves so gently they barely moved.

Opening his eyes, Bast gave a charming, apologetic smile and walked over to Chronicler. “Here.” He held out the circle of holly to the seated man.

Chronicler made no move to take it.

Bast’s smile didn’t fade. “You didn’t notice because you were busy falling down,” he said, his voice pitched low and quiet. “But he actually laughed when you bolted. Three good laughs from down in his belly. He has such a wonderful laugh. It’s like fruit. Like music. I haven’t heard it in months.”

Bast held the circle of holly out again, smiling shyly. “So this is for you. I’ve brought what grammarie I have to bear on it. So it will stay green and living longer than you’d think. I gathered the holly in the proper way and shaped it with my own hands. Sought, wrought, and moved to purpose.” He held it out a bit farther, like a nervous boy with a bouquet. “Here. It is a freely given gift. I offer it without obligation, let, or lien.”

Hesitantly, Chronicler reached out and took the crown. He looked it over, turning it in his hands. Red berries nestled in the dark green leaves like gems, and it was cunningly braided so the thorns angled outward. He set it gingerly on his head, and it fit snugly across his brow.

Bast grinned. “All hail the Lord of Misrule!” he shouted, throwing up his hands. He laughed a delighted laugh.

A smile tugged Chronicler’s lips as he removed the crown. “So,” he said softly as he lowered his hands into his lap. “Does this mean things are settled between us?”

Bast tilted his head, puzzled. “Beg pardon?”

Chronicler looked uncomfortable. “What you spoke of… last night …”

Bast looked surprised. “Oh no,” he said seriously, shaking his head. “No. Not at all. You belong to me, down to the marrow of your bones. You are an instrument of my desire.” Bast darted a glance toward the kitchen, his expression turning bitter. “And you know what I desire. Make him remember he’s more than some innkeeper baking pies.” He practically spat the last word.

Chronicler shifted uneasily in his seat, looking away. “I still don’t know what I can do.”

“You’ll do whatever you can,” Bast said, his voice low. “You will draw him out of himself. You will wake him up.” He said the last words fiercely.

Bast lay one hand on Chronicler’s shoulder, his blue eyes narrowing ever so slightly. “You will make him remember. You will.”

Chronicler hesitated for a moment, then looked down at the circle of holly in his lap and gave a small nod. “I’ll do what I can.”

“That’s all any of us can do,” Bast said, giving him a friendly pat on the back. “How’s the shoulder, by the way?”

The scribe rolled it around, the motion seeming out of place as the rest of his body remained stiff and still. “Numb. Chilly. But it doesn’t hurt.”

“That’s to be expected. I wouldn’t worry about it if I were you.” Bast smiled at him encouragingly. “Life’s too short for you folk to fret over little things.”

Breakfast came and went. Potatoes, toast, tomatoes, and eggs. Chronicler tucked away a respectable portion and Bast ate enough for three people. Kote puttered about, bringing in more firewood, stoking the oven in preparation for the pies, and jugging up the cooling cider.

He was carrying a pair of jugs to the bar when boots sounded on the wooden landing outside the inn, loud as any knocking. A moment later the smith’s prentice burst through the door. Barely sixteen, he was one of the tallest men in town, with broad shoulders and thick arms.

“Hello Aaron,” the innkeeper said calmly. “Close the door, would you? It’s dusty out.”

As the smith’s prentice turned back to the door, the innkeeper and Bast tucked most of the holly below the bar, moving in quick, unspoken concert. By the time the smith’s prentice turned back to face them, Bast was toying with something that could easily have been a small, half-finished wreath. Something made to keep idle fingers busy against boredom.

Aaron didn’t seem to notice anything different as he hurried up to the bar. “Mr. Kote,” he said excitedly, “could I get some traveling food?” He waved an empty burlap sack. “Carter said you’d know what that meant.”

The innkeeper nodded. “I’ve got some bread and cheese, sausage and apples.” He gestured to Bast, who grabbed the sack and scampered off into the kitchen. “Carter’s going somewhere today?”

“Him and me both,” the boy said. “The Orrisons are selling some mutton off in Treya today. They hired me and Carter to come along, on account of the roads being so bad and all.”

“Treya,” the innkeeper mused. “You won’t be back ’til tomorrow then.”

The smith’s prentice carefully set a slim silver bit on the polished mahogany of the bar. “Carter’s hoping to find a replacement for Nelly, too. But if he can’t come by a horse he said he’ll probably take the king’s coin.”

Kote’s eyebrows went up. “Carter’s going to enlist?”

The boy gave a smile that was a strange mix of grin and grim. “He says there ain’t much else for him if he can’t come by a horse for his cart. He says they take care of you in the army, you get fed and get to travel around and such.” The young man’s eyes were excited as he spoke, his expression trapped somewhere between a boy’s enthusiasm and the serious worry of a man. “And they ain’t just giving folks a silver noble for listing up anymore. These days they hand you over a royal when you sign up. A whole gold royal.”

The innkeeper’s expression grew somber. “Carter’s the only one thinking about taking the coin, right?” He looked the boy in the eye.

“Royal’s a lot of money,” the smith’s prentice admitted, flashing a sly grin. “And times are tight since my da passed on and my mum moved over from Rannish.”

“And what does your mother think of you taking the king’s coin?”

The boy’s face fell. “Now don’t go takin’ her side,” he complained. “I thought you’d understand. You’re a man, you know how a fellow has to do right by his mum.”

“I know your mum would rather have you home safe than swim in a tub of gold, boy.”

“I’m tired of folk calling me ‘boy,’” the smith’s prentice snapped, his face flushing. “I can do some good in the army. Once we get the rebels to swear fealty to the Penitent King, things will start getting better again. The levy taxes will stop. The Bentleys won’t lose their land. The roads will be safe again.”

Then his expression went grim, and for a second his face didn’t seem very young at all. “And then my mum won’t have to sit all anxious when I’m not at home,” he said, his voice dark. “She’ll stop waking up three times a night, checking the window shutters and the bar on the door.”

Aaron met the innkeeper’s eye, and his back straightened. When he stopped slouching, he was almost a full head taller than the innkeeper. “Sometimes a man has to stand up for his king and his country.”

“And Rose?” the innkeeper asked quietly.

The prentice blushed and looked down in embarrassment. His shoulders slouched again and he deflated, like a sail when the wind goes out of it. “Lord, does everyone know about us?”

The innkeeper nodded with a gentle smile. “No secrets in a town like this.”

“Well,” Aaron said resolutely, “I’m doing this for her too. For us. With my coin and the pay I’ve saved, I can buy us a house, or set up my own shop without having to go to some shim moneylender.”

Kote opened his mouth, then closed it again. He looked thoughtful for the space of a long, deep breath, then spoke as if choosing his words very carefully. “Aaron, do you know who Kvothe is?”

The smith’s prentice rolled his eyes. “I’m not an idiot. We were telling stories about him just last night, remember?” He looked over the innkeeper’s shoulder toward the kitchen. “Look, I’ve got to get on my way. Carter’ll be mad as a wet hen if I don’t—”

Kote made a calming gesture. “I’ll make you a deal, Aaron. Listen to what I have to say, and I’ll let you have your food for free.” He pushed the silver bit back across the bar. “Then you can use that to buy something nice for Rose in Treya.”

Aaron nodded cautiously. “Fair enough.”

“What do you know about Kvothe from the stories you’ve heard? What’s he supposed to be like?”

Aaron laughed. “Aside from dead?”

Kote smiled faintly. “Aside from dead.”

“He knew all sorts of secret magics,” Aaron said. “He knew six words he could whisper in a horse’s ear that would make it run a hundred miles. He could turn iron into gold and catch lightning in a quart jar to save it for later. He knew a song that would open any lock, and he could stave in a strong oak door with just one hand… .”

Aaron trailed off. “It all depends on the story, really. Sometimes he’s the good guy, like Prince Gallant. He rescued some girls from a troupe of ogres once….”

Another faint smile. “I know.”

“… but in other stories he’s a right bastard,” Aaron continued. “He stole secret magics from the University. That’s why they threw him out, you know. And they didn’t call him Kvothe Kingkiller because he was good with a lute.”

The smile was gone, but the innkeeper nodded. “True enough. But what was he like?”

Aaron’s brow furrowed a bit. “He had red hair, if that’s what you mean. All the stories say that. A right devil with a sword. He was terrible clever. Had a real silver tongue, too, could talk his way out of anything.”

The innkeeper nodded. “Right. So if you were Kvothe, and terrible clever, as you say. And suddenly your head was worth a thousand royals and a duchy to whoever cut it off, what would you do?”

The smith’s prentice shook his head and shrugged, plainly at a loss.

“Well if I were Kvothe,” the innkeeper said, “I’d fake my death, change my name, and find some little town out in the middle of nowhere. Then I’d open an inn and do my best to disappear.” He looked at the young man. “That’s what I’d do.”

Aaron’s eye flickered to the innkeeper’s red hair, to the sword that hung over the bar, then back to the innkeeper’s eyes.

Kote nodded slowly, then pointed to Chronicler. “That fellow isn’t just some ordinary scribe. He’s a sort of historian, here to write down the true story of my life. You’ve missed the beginning, but if you’d like, you can stay for the rest.” He smiled an easy smile. “I can tell you stories no one has ever heard before. Stories no one will ever hear again. Stories about Felurian, how I learned to fight from the Adem. The truth about Princess Ariel.”

The innkeeper reached across the bar and touched the boy’s arm. “Truth is, Aaron, I’m fond of you. I think you’re uncommon smart, and I’d hate to see you throw your life away.” He took a deep breath and looked the smith’s prentice full in the face. His eyes were a startling green. “I know how this war started. I know the truth of it. Once you hear that, you won’t be nearly so eager to run off and die fighting in the middle of it.”

The innkeeper gestured to one of the empty chairs at the table beside Chronicler and smiled a smile so charming and easy that it belonged on a storybook prince. “What do you say?”

Aaron stared seriously at the innkeeper for a long moment, his eyes darting up to the sword, then back down again. “If you really are …” His voice trailed off, but his expression turned it into a question.

“I really am,” Kote reassured him gently.

“… then can I see your cloak of no particular color?” the prentice asked with a grin.

The innkeeper’s charming smile went stiff and brittle as a sheet of shattered glass.

“You’re getting Kvothe confused with Taborlin the Great,” Chronicler said matter-of-factly from across the room. “Taborlin had the cloak of no particular color.”

Aaron’s expression was puzzled as he turned to look at the scribe. “What did Kvothe have, then?”

“A shadow cloak,” Chronicler said. “If I remember correctly.”

The boy turned back toward the bar. “Can you show me your shadow cloak then?” he asked. “Or a bit of magic? I’ve always wanted to see some. Just a little fire or lightning would be enough. I wouldn’t want to tire you out.”

Before the innkeeper could to respond, Aaron burst into a sudden laugh. “I’m just havin’ some fun with you, Mr. Kote.” He grinned again, wider than before. “Lord and lady, but I ain’t never heard a liar like you before in my whole life. Even my Uncle Alvan couldn’t tell one like that with a straight face.”

The innkeeper looked down and muttered something incomprehensible.

Aaron reached over the bar and lay a broad hand on Kote’s shoulder. “I know you’re just trying to help, Mr. Kote,” he said warmly. “You’re a good man, and I’ll think about what you said. I’m not rushing out to join. I just want to give my options a look-over.”

The smith’s prentice shook his head ruefully. “I swear. Everyone’s taken a run at me this morning. My mum said she was sick with the consumption. Rose told me she was pregnant.” He ran one hand through his hair, chuckling. “But yours was the ribbon-winner of the lot, I’ve gotta say.”

“Well, you know …” Kote managed a sickly smile. “I couldn’t have looked your mum square in the eye if I hadn’t given it a shot.”

“You might have had a chance if you’d picked something easier to swallow,” he said. “But everybody knows Kvothe’s sword was made of silver.” He flicked his eyes up to the sword that hung on the wall. “It wasn’t called Folly, either. It was Kaysera, the poet-killer.”

The innkeeper rocked back a bit at that. “The poet-killer?”

Aaron nodded doggedly. “Yes sir. And your scribe there is right. He had his cloak made all out of cobwebs and shadows, and he wore rings on all his fingers. How does it go?

On his first hand he wore rings of stone,

Iron, amber, wood, and bone.

There were—

The smith’s prentice frowned. “I can’t remember the rest. There was something about fire… .”

The innkeeper’s expression was unreadable. He looked down at where his own hands lay spread on the top of the bar, and after a moment he recited:

There were rings unseen on his second hand.

One was blood in a flowing band.

One of air all whisper thin,

And the ring of ice had a flaw within.

Full faintly shone the ring of flame,

And the final ring was without name.

“That’s it,” Aaron said, smiling. “You don’t have any of those behind the bar, do you?” He stood on his toes as if trying to get a better look.

Kote gave a shaky, shamefaced smile. “No. No, I can’t say as I do.”

They both startled as Bast thumped a burlap sack onto the bar. “That should take care of both Carter and you for two days with plenty to spare,” Bast said brusquely.

Aaron shouldered the sack and started to leave, then hesitated and looked back at the two of them behind the bar. “I hate to ask for favors. Old Cob said he’d look in on my mum for me, but …”

Bast made his way around the bar and began herding Aaron toward the door. “She’ll be fine, I expect. I’ll stop and see Rose too, if you like.” He gave the smith’s prentice a wide, lascivious smile. “Just to make sure she’s not lonely or anything.”

“I’d appreciate it,” Aaron said, relief plain in his voice. “She was in a bit of a state when I left. She could do with some comforting.”

Bast stopped midway through opening the inn’s door and gave the broad-shouldered boy a look of utter disbelief. Then he shook his head and finished opening the door. “Right, off you go. Have fun in the big city. Don’t drink the water.”

Bast closed the door and pressed his forehead against the wood as if suddenly weary. “She could use some comforting?” he repeated incredulously. “I take back everything I ever said about that boy being clever.” He turned around to face the bar while leveling an accusatory finger at the closed door. “That,” he said firmly to the room in general, “is what comes of working with iron every day.”

The innkeeper gave a humorless chuckle as he leaned against the bar. “So much for my legendary silver tongue.”

Bast gave a derogatory snort. “The boy is an idiot, Reshi.”

“Am I supposed to feel better because I wasn’t able to persuade an idiot, Bast?”

Chronicler cleared his throat softly. “It seems more of a testament to the performance you’ve given here,” he said. “You’ve played the innkeeper so well they can’t think of you any other way.” He gestured around at the empty taproom. “Frankly, I’m surprised you’d be willing to risk your life here just to keep the boy out of the army.”

“Not much of a risk,” the innkeeper said. “It’s not much of a life.” He hauled himself upright and walked around to the front of the bar, making his way to the table where Chronicler sat. “I’m responsible for everyone who dies in this stupid war. I was just hoping to save one. Apparently even that is beyond me.”

He sank into the chair opposite Chronicler. “Where did we leave off yesterday ? No sense repeating myself if I can help it.”

“You’d just called the wind and given Ambrose a piece of what he had coming to him,” Bast said from where he stood at the door. “And you were mooning over your ladylove something fierce.”

Kote looked up. “I do not moon, Bast.”

Chronicler picked up his flat leather satchel and produced a sheet of paper three-quarters full of small, precise writing. “I can read the last bit back to you, if you’d like.”

Kote held out his hand. “I can remember your cipher well enough to read it for myself,” he said wearily. “Give it over. Maybe it will prime the pump.” He glanced over at Bast. “Come and sit if you’re going to listen. I won’t have you hovering.”

Bast scampered for a seat while Kote drew a deep breath and looked over the last page of yesterday’s story. The innkeeper was quiet for a long moment. His mouth made something that might have been the beginning of a frown, then something like a faint shadow of a smile.

He nodded thoughtfully, his eyes still on the page. “So much of my young life was spent trying to get to the University,” he said. “I wanted to go there even before my troupe was killed. Before I knew the Chandrian were more than a campfire story. Before I began searching for the Amyr.”

The innkeeper leaned back in his chair, his weary expression fading, becoming thoughtful instead. “I thought once I was there, things would be easy. I would learn magic and find the answers to all my questions. I thought it would all be storybook simple.”

Kvothe gave a slightly embarrassed smile, the expression making his face look surprisingly young. “And it might have been, if I didn’t have a talent for making enemies and borrowing trouble. All I wanted was to play my music, attend my classes, and find my answers. Everything I wanted was at the University. All I wanted was to stay.” He nodded to himself. “That’s where we should begin.”

The innkeeper handed the sheet of paper back to Chronicler, who absentmindedly smoothed it down with one hand. Chronicler uncapped his ink and dipped his pen. Bast leaned forward eagerly, grinning like an excited child.

Kvothe’s bright eyes flickered around the room, taking everything in. He drew a deep breath, and flashed a sudden smile, and for a brief moment looked nothing like an innkeeper at all. His eyes were sharp and bright, green as a blade of grass. “Ready?”

CHAPTER THREE

Luck

EVERY TERM AT THE University began the same way: the admissions lottery followed by a full span of interviews. They were a necessary evil of sorts.

I don’t doubt the process started sensibly. Back when the University was smaller, I could picture them as actual interviews. An opportunity for a student to have a conversation with the masters about what he had learned. A dialogue. A discussion.

But these days the University was host to over a thousand students. There was no time for discussion. Instead, each student was subjected to a hail of questions in a handful of minutes. Brief as the interviews were, a single wrong answer or overlong hesitation could have a dramatic impact on your tuition.

Before interviews, students studied obsessively. Afterward, they drank in celebration or to console themselves. Because of this, for the eleven days of admissions, most students looked anxious and exhausted at best. At worst they wandered the University like shamble-men, hollow-eyed and grey-faced from too little sleep, too much drink, or both.

Personally, I found it odd how seriously everyone else took the whole process. The vast majority of students were nobility or members of wealthy merchant families. For them, a high tuition was an inconvenience, leaving them less pocket money to spend on horses and whores.

The stakes were higher for me. Once the masters set a tuition, it couldn’t be changed. So if my tuition was set too high, I’d be barred from the University until I could pay.

The first day of admissions always had a festival air about it. The admissions lottery took up the first half of the day, which meant the unlucky students who drew the earliest slots were forced to go through their interviews mere hours afterward.

By the time I arrived long lines snaked through the courtyard, while the students who had already drawn their tiles milled about, complaining and attempting to buy, sell, or trade their slots.

I didn’t see Wilem or Simmon anywhere, so I settled into the nearest line and tried not to think of how little I had in my purse: one talent and three jots. At one point in my life, it would have seemed like all the money in the world. But for tuition it was nowhere near enough.

There were carts scattered about selling sausages and chestnuts, hot cider and beer. I smelled warm bread and grease from a nearby cart. It was stacked with pork pies for the sort of people who could afford such things.

The lottery was always held in the largest courtyard of the University. Most everyone called it the pennant square, though a few folk with longer memories referred to it as the Questioning Hall. I knew it by an even older name, the House of the Wind.

I watched a few leaves tumble around the cobblestones, and when I looked up I saw Fela staring back at me from where she stood thirty or forty people closer to the front of the line. She gave me a warm smile and a wave. I waved back and she left her place, strolling back to where I stood.

Fela was beautiful. The sort of woman you would expect to see in a painting. Not the elaborate, artificial beauty you often see among the nobility, Fela was natural and unselfconscious, with wide eyes and a full mouth that was constantly smiling. Here in the University, where men outnumbered women ten to one, she stood out like a horse in a sheepfold.

“Do you mind if I wait with you?” she asked as she came to stand beside me. “I hate not having anyone to talk to.” She smiled winsomely at the pair of men queued up behind me. “I’m not cutting in,” she explained. “I’m just moving back.”

They had no objections, though their eyes flickered back and forth between Fela and myself. I could almost hear them wondering why one of the most lovely women in the University would give up her place in line to stand next to me.

It was a fair question. I was curious myself.

I moved aside to make space for her. We stood shoulder to shoulder for a moment, neither of us speaking.

“What are you studying this term?” I asked.

Fela brushed her hair back from her shoulder. “I’ll keep up with my work in the Archives, I suppose. Some chemistry. And Brandeur has invited me into Manifold Maths.”

I shivered a bit. “Too many numbers. I can’t swim those waters.”

Fela gave a shrug and the long, dark curls of hair she’d brushed away took the opportunity to tumble back, framing her face. “It’s not so hard once you get your head around it. It’s more like a game than anything.” She cocked her head at me. “What about you?”

“Observation in the Medica,” I said. “Study and work in the Fishery. Sympathy too, if Dal will have me. I should probably brush up my Siaru too.”

“You speak Siaru?” she asked, sounding surprised.

“I can get by,” I said. “But Wil says my grammar is embarrassingly bad.”

Fela nodded, then looked sideways at me, biting her lip. “Elodin’s asked me to join his class, too,” she said, her voice thick with apprehension.

“Elodin’s got a class?” I asked. “I didn’t think they let him teach.”

“He’s starting it this term,” she said, giving me a curious look. “I thought you’d be in it. Didn’t he sponsor you to Re’lar?”

“He did,” I said.

“Oh.” She looked uncomfortable, then quickly added, “He probably just hasn’t asked you yet. Or he’s planning on mentoring you separately.”

I waved her comment aside, though I was stung at the thought of being left out. “Who can say with Elodin?” I said. “If he isn’t crazy, he’s the best actor I’ve ever met.”

Fela started to say something, then looked around nervously and moved closer to me. Her shoulder brushed mine and her curling hair tickled my ear as she quietly asked, “Did he really throw you off the roof of the Crockery?”

I gave an embarrassed chuckle. “That’s a complicated story,” I said, then changed the subject rather clumsily. “What’s the name of his class?”

She rubbed her forehead and gave a frustrated laugh. “I haven’t the slightest idea. He said the name of the class was the name of the class.” She looked at me. “What does that mean? When I go to Ledgers and Lists will it be there under ‘The Name of the Class?’”

I admitted I didn’t know, and from there it was a short step to sharing Elodin stories. Fela said a scriv had caught him naked in the Archives. I’d heard that he’d once spent an entire span walking around the University blindfolded. Fela heard he’d invented an entire language from the ground up. I’d heard he had started a fistfight in one of the seedier local taverns because someone had insisted on saying the word “utilize” instead of “use.”

“I heard that too,” Fela said, laughing. “Except it was at the Horse and Four, and it was a baronet who wouldn’t stop using the word ‘moreover.’ ”

Before I knew it we were at the front of the line. “Kvothe, Arliden’s son,” I said. The bored-looking woman marked my name and I drew a smooth ivory tile out of the black velvet bag. It read: FELLING—NOON. Eighth day of admissions, plenty of time to prepare.

Fela drew her own tile and we moved away from the table.

“What did you get?” I asked.

She showed me her own small ivory tile. Cendling at fourth bell.

It was an incredibly lucky draw, one of the latest slots available. “Wow. Congratulations.”

Fela shrugged and slipped the tile into her pocket. “It’s all the same to me. I don’t make a special point of studying. The more I prepare, the worse I do. It just makes me nervous.”

“You should trade it away then.” I said, gesturing to the milling throng of students. “Someone would pay a full talent to get that slot. Maybe more.”

“I’m not much for bargaining, either,” she said. “I just assume whatever tile I draw is lucky and stick to it.”

Free from the line, we didn’t have any excuse to stay together. But I was enjoying her company and she didn’t seem terribly eager to run off, so the two of us wandered the courtyard aimlessly, the crowd milling around us.

“I’m starving,” Fela said suddenly. “Do you want to go have an early lunch somewhere?”

I was painfully aware of how light my purse was. If I were any poorer, I’d have to put a rock in it to keep it from flapping in the breeze. My meals were free at Anker’s because I played music there. So spending money on food somewhere else, especially so close to admissions, would be absolute foolishness.

“I’d love to,” I said honestly. Then I lied. “But I should browse around here a bit and see if anyone is willing to trade slots with me. I’m a bargainer from way back.”

Fela fished around in her pocket. “If you’re looking for more time, you can have mine.”

I looked at the tile between her finger and thumb, sorely tempted. Two extra more days of preparation would be a godsend. Or I could make a talent by trading it away. Maybe two.

“I wouldn’t want to take your luck,” I said, smiling. “And you certainly don’t want any part of mine. Besides, you’ve already been too generous with me.” I drew my cloak around my shoulders pointedly.

Fela smiled at that, reaching out to run her knuckles across the front of the cloak. “I’m glad you like it. But as far as I’m concerned, I still owe you.” She bit at her lips nervously, then let her hand drop. “Promise me you’ll let me know if you change your mind.”

“I promise.”

She smiled again, then gave a half-wave and walked off across the courtyard. Watching her stroll through the crowd was like watching the wind move across the surface of a pond. Except instead of casting ripples on the water, the heads of young men turned to watch her as she passed.

I was still watching when Wilem walked up beside me. “Are you finished with your flirting then?” he asked.

“I wasn’t flirting,” I said.

“You should have been,” he said. “What is the point of me waiting politely, not interrupting, if you waste such opportunities?”

“It isn’t like that,” I said. “She’s just friendly.”

“Obviously,” he said, his rough Cealdish accent making the sarcasm in his voice seem twice as thick. “What did you draw?”

I showed him my tile.

“You’re a day later than me.” He held out his tile. “I’ll trade you for a jot.” I hesitated.

“Come now,” he said. “It’s not as if you can study in the Archives like the rest of us.”

I glared at him. “Your empathy is overwhelming.”

“I save my empathy for those clever enough to avoid driving the Master Archivist into a frothing rage,” he said. “For folk such as you, I only have a jot in trade. Would you like it, or not?”

“I would like two jots,” I said, scanning the crowd, looking for students with a desperate wildness around their eyes. “If I can get them.”

Wilem narrowed his dark eyes. “A jot and three drabs,” he said.

I looked back at him, eyeing him carefully. “A jot and three,” I said. “And you take Simmon as your partner the next time we play corners.”

He gave a huff of laughter and nodded. We traded tiles and I tucked the money into my purse: one talent and four. A small step closer. After a moment’s thought, I tucked my tile into my pocket.

“Aren’t you going to keep trading down?”Wil asked.

I shook my head. “I think I’ll keep this slot.”

He frowned. “Why? What can you do with four days except fret and thumb-twiddle?”

“Same as anyone,” I said. “Prepare for my admissions interview.”

“How?” he asked. “You are still banned from the Archives, aren’t you?”

“There are other types of preparation,” I said mysteriously.

Wilem snorted. “That doesn’t sound suspicious at all,” he said. “And you wonder why people talk about you.”

“I don’t wonder why they talk,” I said. “I wonder what they say.”

CHAPTER FOUR

Tar and Tin

THE CITY THAT HAD grown up around the University over the centuries was not large. It was barely more than a town, really.

Despite this, trade thrived at our end of the Great Stone Road. Merchants brought in carts of raw materials: tar and clay, gibbstone, potash, and sea salt. They brought luxuries like Lanetti coffee and Vintish wine. They brought fine dark ink from Arueh, pure white sand for our glassworks, and delicately crafted Cealdish springs and screws.

When those same merchants left, their wagons were laden with things you could only find at the University. The Medica made medicines. Real medicines, not colored stumpwater or penny nostrums. The alchemy complex produced its own marvels that I was only dimly aware of, as well as raw materials like naphtha, sulfurjack, and twicelime.

I might be biased, but I think it’s fair to say that most of the University’s tangible wonders came from the Artificery. Ground glass lenses. Ingots of wolfram and Glantz steel. Sheets of gold so thin they tore like tissue paper.

But we made much more than that. Sympathy lamps and telescopes. Heateaters and gearwins. Salt pumps. Trifoil compasses. A dozen versions of Teccam’s winch and Delevari’s axle.

Artificers like myself made these things, and when merchants bought them we earned a commission: sixty percent of the sale. This was the only reason I had any money at all. And, since there were no classes during admissions, I had a full span of days to work in the Fishery.

I made my way to the Stocks, the storeroom where artificers signed out tools and materials. I was surprised to see a tall, pale student standing at the window, looking profoundly bored.

“Jaxim?” I asked. “What are you doing here? This is a scrub job.”

Jaxim nodded morosely. “Kilvin is still a little … vexed with me,” he said. “You know. The fire and everything.”

“Sorry to hear it,” I said. Jaxim was a full Re’lar like myself. He could be pursuing any number of projects on his own right now. To be forced into a menial task like this wasn’t just boring, it humiliated Jaxim publicly while costing him money and stalling his studies. As punishments went, it was remarkably thorough.

“What are we short on?” I asked.

There was an art to choosing your projects in the Fishery. It didn’t matter if you made the brightest sympathy lamp, or the most efficient heat-funnel in the history of Artificing. Until someone bought it, you wouldn’t make a bent penny of commission.

For a lot of the other workers, this wasn’t an issue. They could afford to wait. I, on the other hand, needed something that would sell quickly.

Jaxim leaned on the counter between us. “Caravan just bought all our deck lamps,” he said. “We only have that ugly one of Veston’s left.”

I nodded. Sympathy lamps were perfect for ships. Difficult to break, cheaper than oil in the long run, and you didn’t have to worry about them setting fire to your ship.

I juggled the numbers in my head. I could make two lamps at once, saving some time through duplication of effort, and be reasonably sure they would sell before I had to pay tuition.

Unfortunately, deck lamps were pure drudgery. Forty hours of painstaking labor, and if I botched any of it, the lamps simply wouldn’t work. Then I would have nothing to show for my time except a debt to the Stocks for the materials I’d wasted.

Still, I didn’t have a lot of options. “I guess I’ll do lamps then,” I said.

Jaxim nodded and opened the ledger. I began to recite what I needed from memory. “I’ll need twenty medium raw emitters. Two sets of the tall moldings. A diamond stylus. A tenten glass. Two medium crucibles. Four ounces of tin. Six ounces of fine-steel. Two ounces of nickel …”

Nodding to himself, Jaxim wrote it down in the ledger.

Eight hours later I walked through the front door of Anker’s smelling of hot bronze, tar, and coal smoke. It was almost midnight, and the room was empty except for a handful of dedicated drinkers.

“You look rough,” Anker said as I made my way to the bar.

“I feel rough,” I said. “I don’t suppose there’s anything left in the pot?”

He shook his head. “Folk were hungry tonight. I’ve got some cold potatoes I was going to throw in the soup tomorrow. And half a baked squash, I think.”

“Sold,” I said. “Though I’d be grateful for some salt butter as well.”

He nodded and pushed away from the bar.

“Don’t bother heating anything up,” I said. “I’ll just take it up to my room.”

He brought out a bowl with three good-sized potatoes and half a golden squash shaped like a bell. There was a generous daub of butter in the middle of the squash where the seeds had been scooped out.

“I’ll take a bottle of Bredon beer too,” I said as I took the bowl. “With the cap on. I don’t want to spill on the stairs.”

It was three flights up to my tiny room. After I closed the door, I carefully turned the squash upside down in the bowl, set the bottle on top of it, and wrapped the whole thing in a piece of sackcloth, turning it into a bundle I could carry under one arm.

Then I opened my window and climbed out onto the roof of the inn. From there it was a short hop over to the bakery across the alley.

A piece of moon hung low in the sky, giving me enough light to see without making me feel exposed. Not that I was too worried. It was approaching midnight, and the streets were quiet. Besides, you would be amazed how rarely people ever look up.

Auri sat on a wide brick chimney, waiting for me. She wore the dress I had bought her and swung her bare feet idly as she looked up at the stars. Her hair was so fine and light that it made a halo around her head, drifting on the faintest whisper of a breeze.

I carefully stepped onto the middle of a flat piece of tin roofing. It made a low tump under my foot, like a distant, mellow drum. Auri’s feet stopped swinging, and she went motionless as a startled rabbit. Then she saw me and grinned. I waved to her.

Auri hopped down from the chimney and skipped over to where I stood, her hair streaming behind her. “Hello Kvothe.” She took a half-step back. “You reek.”

I smiled my best smile of the day. “Hello Auri,” I said. “You smell like a pretty young girl.”

“I do,” she agreed happily.

She stepped sideways a little, then forward again, moving lightly on the balls of her bare feet. “What did you bring me?” she asked.

“What did you bring me?” I countered.

She grinned. “I have an apple that thinks it is a pear,” she said, holding it up. “And a bun that thinks it is a cat. And a lettuce that thinks it is a lettuce.”

“It’s a clever lettuce then.”

“Hardly,” she said with a delicate snort. “Why would anything clever think it was a lettuce?”

“Even if it is a lettuce?” I asked.

“Especially then,” she said. “Bad enough to be a lettuce. How awful to think you are a lettuce too.” She shook her head sadly, her hair following the motion as if she were underwater.

I unwrapped my bundle. “I brought you some potatoes, half a squash, and a bottle of beer that thinks it is a loaf of bread.”

“What does the squash think it is?” she asked curiously, looking down at it. She held her hands clasped behind her back.

“It knows it’s a squash,” I said. “But it’s pretending to be the setting sun.”

“And the potatoes?” she asked.

“They’re sleeping,” I said. “And cold, I’m afraid.”

She looked up at me, her eyes gentle. “Don’t be afraid,” she said, and reached out and rested her fingers on my cheek for the space of a heartbeat, her touch lighter than the stroke of a feather. “I’m here. You’re safe.”

The night was chill, and so rather than eat on the rooftops as we often did, Auri led me down through the iron drainage grate and into the sprawl of tunnels beneath the University.

She carried the bottle and held aloft something the size of a coin that gave off a gentle greenish light. I carried the bowl and the sympathy lamp I’d made myself, the one Kilvin had called a thieves’ lamp. Its reddish light was an odd complement to Auri’s brighter blue-green one.

Auri brought us to a tunnel with pipes in all shapes and sizes running along the walls. Some of the larger iron pipes carried steam, and even wrapped in insulating cloth they provided a steady heat. Auri carefully arranged the potatoes at a bend in the pipe where the cloth had been peeled away. It made a tiny oven of sorts.

Using my sackcloth as a table, we sat on the ground and shared our dinner. The bun was a little stale, but it had nuts and cinnamon in it. The head of lettuce was surprisingly fresh, and I wondered where she had found it. She had a porcelain teacup for me, and a tiny silver beggar’s cup for herself. She poured the beer so solemnly you’d think she was having tea with the king.

There was no talking during dinner. That was one of the rules I had learned through trial and error. No touching. No sudden movement. No questions even remotely personal. I could not ask about the lettuce or the green coin. Such a thing would send her scampering off into the tunnels, and I wouldn’t see her for days afterward.

Truth be told, I didn’t even know her real name. Auri was just what I had come to call her, but in my heart I thought of her as my little moon Fae.

As always, Auri ate delicately. She sat with her back straight, taking small bites. She had a spoon we used to eat the squash, sharing it back and forth.

“You didn’t bring your lute,” she said after we had finished eating.

“I have to go read tonight,” I said. “But I’ll bring it soon.”

“How soon?”

“Six nights from now,” I said. I’d be finished with admissions then, and more studying would be pointless.

Her tiny face pulled a frown. “Six days isn’t soon,” she said. “Tomorrow is soon.”

“Six days is soon for a stone,” I said.

“Then play for a stone in six days,” she said. “And play for me tomorrow.”

“I think you can be a stone for six days,” I said. “It is better than being a lettuce.”

She grinned at that. “It is.”

After we finished the last of the apple, Auri led me through the Underthing. We went quietly along the Nodway, jumped our way through Vaults, then entered Billows, a maze of tunnels filled with a slow, steady wind. I probably could have found my own way, but I preferred to have Auri as a guide. She knew the Underthing like a tinker knows his packs.

Wilem was right, I was banned from the Archives. But I’ve always had a knack for getting into places where I shouldn’t be. More’s the pity.

Archives was a huge windowless stone block of a building. But the students inside needed fresh air to breathe, and the books needed more than that. If the air was too moist, the books would rot and mildew. If the air was too dry, the parchment would become brittle and fall to pieces.

It had taken me a long time to discover how fresh air made its way into the Archives. But even after I found the proper tunnel, getting in wasn’t easy. It involved a long crawl through a terrifyingly narrow tunnel, a quarter hour worming along on my belly across the dirty stone. I kept a set of clothes in the Underthing, and after barely a dozen trips, were thoroughly ruined, the knees and elbows almost entirely torn out.

Still, it was a small price to pay for gaining access to the Archives.

There would be hell to pay if I were ever caught. I’d face expulsion at the very least. But if I performed poorly in my admissions exam and received a tuition of twenty talents, I’d be just as good as expelled. So it was a horse apiece, really.

Even so, I wasn’t worried about being caught. The only lights in the Stacks were carried by students and scrivs. This meant it was always nighttime in the Archives, and I have always been most comfortable at night.

CHAPTER FIVE

The Eolian

THE DAYS TRUDGED PAST. I worked in the Fishery until my fingers were numb, then read in the Archives until my eyes were blurry.

On the fifth day of admissions I finally finished my deck lamps and took them to Stocks, hoping they sold quickly. I considered starting another pair, but I knew I wouldn’t have time to finish them before tuition was due.

So I set about making money in other ways. I played an extra night at Anker’s, earning free drinks and a handful of small change from appreciative audience members. I did some piecework in the Fishery, making simple, useful items like brass gears and panes of twice-tough glass. Such things could be sold back to the workshop immediately for a tiny profit.

Then, since tiny profits weren’t going to be enough, I made two batches of yellow emitters. When used to make a sympathy lamp, their light was a pleasant yellow very close to sunlight. They were worth quite a bit of money because doping them required dangerous materials.

Heavy metals and vaporous acids were the least of them. The bizarre alchemical compounds were the truly frightening things. There were transporting agents that would move through your skin without a leaving a mark, then quietly eat the calcuim out of your bones. Others would simply lurk in your body, doing nothing for months until you started to bleed from your gums and lose your hair. The things they produced in Alchemy Complex made arsenic look like sugar in your tea.

I was painstakingly careful, but while working on the second batch of emitters my tenten glass cracked and tiny drops of transporting agent spattered the glass of the fume hood where I was working. None of it actually touched my skin, but a single drop landed on my shirt, high above the long cuffs of the leather gloves I was wearing.

Moving slowly, I used a nearby caliper to pinch the fabric of my shirt and pull it away from my body. Then, moving awkwardly, I cut the piece of fabric away so it had no chance at all of touching my skin. The incident left me shaken and sweating, and I decided there were better ways to earn money.

I covered a fellow student’s observation shift in the Medica in exchange for a jot and helped a merchant unload three wagonloads of lime for halfpenny each. Then, later that night, I found a handful of cutthroat gamblers willing to let me sit in on their game of breath. Over the course of two hours I managed to lose eighteen pennies and some loose iron. Though it galled me, I forced myself to walk away from the table before things got any worse.

At the end of all my scrambling, I had less in my purse than when I had begun.

Luckily, I had one last trick up my sleeve.

I stretched my legs on the wide stone road, heading to Imre.

Accompanying me were Simmon and Wilem. Wil had ended up selling his late slot to a desperate scriv for a tidy profit, so both of them were finished with admissions and carefree as kittens. Wil’s tuition was set at six talents and eight, while Sim was still gloating over his impressively low five talents and two.

My purse held one talent and three. An inauspicious number.

Completing our quartet was Manet. His wild grey hair and habitually rumpled clothes made him look vaguely bewildered, as if he’d just woken up and couldn’t quite remember where he was. We had brought him along partly because we needed a fourth for corners, but also because we felt it was our duty to get the poor fellow out of the University every once in a while.

The four of us made our way over the high arch of Stonebridge, across the Omethi River, and into Imre. Autumn was in its last gasp, and I wore my cloak against the chance of a chill. My lute was slung comfortably across my back.

At the heart of Imre we crossed a great cobblestone courtyard and walked past the central fountain filled with statues of satyrs chasing nymphs. Water splashed and fanned in the breeze as we joined the line leading to the Eolian.

When we got to the door I was surprised to see Deoch wasn’t there. In his place was a short, grim man with a thick neck. He held out a hand. “That’ll be a jot, young sir.”

“Sorry,” I moved the strap of my lute case out of the way and showed him the small set of silver pipes pinned to my cloak. I gestured to Wil, Sim, and Manet. “They’re with me.”

He squinted at the pipes suspiciously. “You look awfully young,” he said, his eyes darting back to my face.

“I am awfully young,” I said easily. “It’s part of my charm.”

“Awfully young to have your pipes,” he clarified, making it a reasonably polite accusation.

I hesitated. While I looked old for my age, that meant I looked a few years better than my actual fifteen. To the best of my knowledge, I was the youngest musician at the Eolian. Normally this worked in my favor, as it made me a bit of a novelty. But now …

Before I could think of anything to say, a voice came from the line behind us. “It’s not a fake, Kett.” A tall woman carrying a fiddle case nodded at me. “He earned his pipes while you were away. He’s the real thing.”

“Thanks Marie,” I said as the doorman gestured us inside.

The four of us found a table near the back wall with a good view of the stage. I scanned the nearby faces and staved off a familiar flicker of disappointment when Denna was nowhere to be seen.

“What was that business at the door?” Manet asked as he looked around, taking in the stage, the high, vaulted ceiling. “Were people paying to get in here?”

I looked at him. “You’ve been a student for thirty years, but never been to the Eolian?”

“Well, you know.” He made a vague gesture. “I’ve been busy. I don’t get over to this side of the river very often.”

Sim laughed, sitting down. “Let me put this in terms you’ll understand, Manet. If music had a University, this would be it, and Kvothe would be a full-fledged arcanist.”

“Bad analogy,” Wil said. “This is a musical court, and Kvothe is one of the gentry. We ride his coattails in. It is the reason we have tolerated his troublesome company for so long.”

“A whole jot just to get in?” Manet asked.

I nodded.

Manet gave a noncommittal grunt as he looked around, eyeing the well-dressed nobles milling on the balcony above. “Well then,” he said. “I guess I learned something today.”

The Eolian was just beginning to fill up, so we passed the time playing corners. It was just a friendly game, a drab a hand, double for a counterfeit, but coin-poor as I was, any stakes were high. Luckily, Manet played with the precision of a gear-clock: no mislaid tricks, no wild bids, no hunches.

Simmon bought the first round of drinks, and Manet bought the second. By the time the Eolian’s lights dimmed, Manet and I were ten hands ahead, largely due to Simmon’s tendency to enthusiastically overbid. I pocketed the single copper jot with grim satisfaction. One talent and four.

An older man made his way up onto the stage. After a brief introduction by Stanchion he played a heart-achingly lovely version of “Taetn’s Late Day” on mandolin. His fingers were light and quick and sure on his strings. But his voice …

Most things fail with age. Our hands and backs stiffen. Our eyes dim. Skin roughens and our beauty fades. The only exception is the voice. Properly cared for, a voice does nothing but grow sweeter with age and constant use. His was like a sweet honey wine. He finished his song to hearty applause, and after a moment the lights came back up and the room swelled with conversation.

“There’s breaks between the performers,” I explained to Manet. “So folk can talk and walk around and get their drinks. Tehlu and all his angels won’t be able to keep you safe if you talk during someone’s performance.”

Manet huffed. “Don’t worry about me embarrassing you. I’m not a complete barbarian.”

“Just giving fair warning,” I said. “You let me know what’s dangerous in the Artificery. I let you know what’s dangerous here.”

“His lute was different,” Wilem said. “It sounded different than yours. Smaller too.”

I fought off the urge to smile and decided not to make an issue of it. “That sort of lute is called a mandolin,” I said.

“You’re going to play, aren’t you?” Simmon asked, squirming in his seat like an eager puppy. “You should play that song you wrote about Ambrose.” He hummed a bit, then sang:

A mule can learn magic, a mule has some class,

Cause unlike young Rosey, he’s just half an ass.

Manet chuckled into his mug. Wilem cracked a rare smile.

“No,” I said firmly. “I’m done with Ambrose. We’re quits as far as I’m concerned.”

“Of course,” Wil said, deadpan.

“I’m serious,” I said. “There’s no profit in it. This back and forth does nothing but irritate the masters.”

“Irritate is rather a mild word,” Manet said dryly. “Not exactly the one I would have chosen, myself.”

“You owe him,” Sim said, his eyes glittering with anger. “Besides, they aren’t going to charge you with Conduct Unbecoming a Member of the Arcanum just for singing a song.”

“No,” Manet said. “They’ll just raise his tuition.”

“What?” Simmon said. “They can’t do that. Tuition is based on your admissions interview.”

Manet’s snort echoed hollowly into his mug as he took another drink. “The interview is just a piece of the game. If you can afford it, they squeeze you a little. Same thing if you cause them trouble.” He eyed me seriously. “You’re going to be getting it from both ends this time. How many times were you brought up on the horns last term?”

“Twice.” I admitted. “But the second time wasn’t really my fault.”

“Of course,” Manet gave me a frank look. “And that’s why they tied you up and whipped you bloody, is it? Because it wasn’t your fault?”

I shifted uncomfortably in my chair, feeling the pull of the half-healed scars along my back. “Most of it wasn’t my fault,” I amended.

Manet shrugged it aside. “Fault isn’t the issue. A tree doesn’t make a thunderstorm, but any fool knows where lightning’s going to strike.”

Wilem nodded seriously. “Back home we say: the tallest nail gets hammered down first.” He frowned. “It sounds better in Siaru.”

Sim looked troubled. “But the admission interview still determines the lion’s share of your tuition, doesn’t it?” From his tone, I guessed Sim hadn’t even considered the possibility of personal grudges or politics entering into the equation.

“For the most part,” Manet admitted. “But the masters pick their own questions, and they each get their say.” He began to tick things off on his fingers. “Hemme doesn’t care for you, and he can carry twice his weight in grudges. You got on Lorren’s bad side early and managed to stay there. You’re a troublemaker. You missed nearly a span of classes toward the end of last term. No warning beforehand or any explanation afterward.” He gave me a significant look.

I looked down at the table, pointedly aware that several of the classes I’d missed had been part of my apprenticeship under Manet in the Artificery.

After a moment, Manet shrugged and continued. “On top of it all, they’ll be testing you as a Re’lar this time around. Tuitions get higher in the upper ranks. There’s a reason I’ve stayed an E’lir this long.” He gave me a hard stare. “My best guess? You’ll be lucky to get out for less than ten talents.”

“Ten talents.” Sim sucked a breath through his teeth and shook his head sympathetically. “Good thing you’re so flush.”

“Not as flush as that,” I said.

“How can you not be?” Sim asked. “The masters fined Ambrose almost twenty talents after he broke your lute. What did you do with all the money?”

I looked down and nudged my lute case gently with my foot.

“You spent it on a new lute?” Simmon asked, horrified. “Twenty talents? Do you know what you could buy for that amount of money?”

“A lute?” Wilem asked.

“I didn’t even know you could spend that much on an instrument,” Simmon said.

“You can spend a lot more than that,” Manet said. “They’re like horses.”

This made the conversation stumble a bit. Wil and Sim turned to look at him, confused.

I laughed. “That’s a good comparison, actually.”

Manet nodded sagely. “There’s a wide spread with horses, you see. You can buy a broken old plow horse for less than a talent. Or you can buy a high-stepping Vaulder for forty.”

“Not likely,”Wil grunted. “Not for a true Vaulder.”

Manet smiled. “That’s it exactly. However much you’ve ever known someone to spend on a horse, you could easily spend that buying yourself a fine harp or fiddle.”

Simmon looked stunned by this. “But my father once spent two hundred fifty hard on a Kaepcaen tall,” he said.

I leaned to one side and pointed. “The blond man there, his mandolin is worth twice that.”

“But,” Simmon said. “But horses have bloodlines. You can breed a horse and sell it.”

“That mandolin has a bloodline,” I said. “It was made by Antressor himself. It’s been around for a hundred and fifty years.”

I watched as Sim absorbed the information, looking around at all the instruments in the room. “Still,” Sim said. “Twenty talents.” He shook his head. “Why didn’t you wait until after admissions? You could have spent whatever you had left over on the lute.”

“I needed it to play at Anker’s,” I explained. “I get free room and board as their house musician. If I don’t play, I can’t stay.”

It was the truth, but it wasn’t the whole truth. Anker would have cut me some slack if I’d explained my situation. But if I’d waited, I would have had to spend almost two span without a lute. It would be like missing a tooth or a limb. It would be like spending two span with my mouth sewn shut. It was unthinkable.

“And I didn’t spend all of it on the lute,” I said. “I had a few other expenses crop up too.” Specifically, I’d paid off the gaelet I’d borrowed money from. That had taken six talents, but being free of my debt to Devi was like having a great weight lifted off my chest.

But now I could feel that same weight settling back onto me. If Manet’s guess was even half-accurate, I was worse off than I’d thought.

Fortunately, the lights dimmed and the room grew quiet, saving me from having to explain myself any further. We looked up as Stanchion brought Marie up onto the stage. He chatted with the nearby audience while she tuned her fiddle and the room began to settle down.

I liked Marie. She was taller than most men, proud as a cat, and spoke at least four languages. Many of Imre’s musicians did their best to mimic the latest fashion, hoping to blend in with the nobility, but Marie wore road clothes. Pants you could do a day’s work in, boots you could use to walk twenty miles.

I don’t mean to imply she wore homespun, mind you. She just had no love for fashion or frippery. Her clothes were obviously tailored for her, close fitting and flattering. Tonight she wore burgundy and brown, the colors of her patron, the Lady Jhale.

The four of us eyed the stage. “I will admit,” Wilem said quietly, “that I have given Marie a fair amount of consideration.”

Manet gave a low chuckle. “That is a woman and a half,” he said. “Which means she’s five times more woman than any of you know what to do with.” At a different time, such a statement might have goaded the three of us into swaggering protest. But Manet stated it without a hint of taunt in his voice, so we let it pass. Especially as it was probably true.

“Not for me,” Simmon said. “She always looks like she’s getting ready to wrestle someone. Or go off and break a wild horse.”

“She does.” Manet chuckled again. “If we were living in a better age they’d build a temple around a woman like that.”

We fell silent as Marie finished tuning her fiddle and eased into a sweet roundel, slow and gentle as a soft spring breeze.

Though I didn’t have time to tell him, Simmon was more than half right. Once, in the Flint and Thistle, I had seen Marie punch a man in the throat for referring to her as “that mouthy fiddler bitch.” She kicked him when he was on the ground, too. But only once, and nowhere that hurt him in a permanent way.

Marie continued her roundel, the slow, sweet pace of it gradually building until it was trotting along briskly. The sort of tune you would only think of dancing to if you were exceptionally light on your feet, or exceptionally drunk.

She let it build until it was beyond anything a man could dream of dancing to. It was nothing like a trot now. It sprinted, fast as a pair of children racing. I marveled at how clean and clear her fingering was despite the frantic pace.

Faster. Quick as a deer with a wild dog behind it. I started to get nervous, knowing it was just a matter of time before she slid or slipped or dropped a note. But somehow she kept going, each note perfect, sharp and strong and sweet. Her flickering fingers arched high against the strings. The wrist of her bow hand hung loose and lazy despite the terrible speed.

Faster still. Her face was intent. Her bow arm a blur. Faster still. She braced herself, her long legs planted firmly on the stage, her fiddle tucked hard against her jaw. Each note sharp as early morning birdsong. Faster still.

She finished in a rush and gave a sudden, flourishing bow without a single mistake. I was sweating like a hard-run horse, my heart racing.

I wasn’t the only one. Wil and Sim each had a sheen of sweat across their foreheads.

Manet’s knuckles were white where he gripped the edge of the table. “Merciful Tehlu,” he said breathlessly. “They have music like this every night?”

I smiled at him. “It’s still early,” I said. “You haven’t heard me play.”

Wilem bought the next round of drinks and our talk turned to the idle gossip of the University. Manet had been around for longer than half of the masters, so he knew more scandalous stories than the three of us put together.

A lutist with a thick grey beard played a stirring version of “En Faeant Morie.” Then two lovely women, one in her forties and the other young enough to be her daughter, sang a duet about Laniel Young-Again I’d never heard before.

Marie was called back onto the stage and played a simple jig with such enthusiasm that it set folk dancing in the spaces between the tables. Manet actually stood for the final chorus and surprised us by demonstrating a pair of remarkably light feet. We cheered him, and when he took his seat again he was flushed and breathing hard.

Wil bought him a drink, and Simmon turned to me with excitement in his eyes.

“No,” I said. “I’m not going to play it. I already told you.”

Sim deflated into such profound disappointment that I couldn’t help but laugh. “I’ll tell you what. I’ll take a turn around the place. If I see Threpe, I’ll put him up to it.”

I made my slow way through the crowded room, and while I did keep an eye out for Threpe, the truth is I was hunting for Denna. I hadn’t seen her come in by the front door, but with the music, cards, and general commotion there was a chance I’d simply missed her.

It took a quarter hour to methodically make my way through the crowded main floor, getting a look at all the faces and stopping to chat with a few of the musicians along the way.

I made my way up to the second tier just as the lights dimmed again. I settled in at the railing to watch a Yllish piper play a sad, lilting tune.

When the lights came back up, I searched the second tier of the Eolian: a wide, crescent-shaped balcony. My search was more a ritual than anything. Looking for Denna was an exercise in futility, like praying for fair weather.

But tonight was the exception to the rule. As I strolled through the second tier I spotted her walking with a tall, dark-haired gentleman. I changed my path through the tables so I would intercept them casually.

Denna spotted me half a minute later. She gave a bright, excited smile and took her hand off the gentleman’s arm, motioning me closer.

The man at her side was proud as a hawk and handsome, with a jawline like a cinder brick. He wore a shirt of blindingly white silk and a richly dyed suede jacket the color of blood. Silver stitching. Silver on the buckle and the cuff. He looked every bit the Modegan gentleman. The cost of his clothes, not even counting his rings, would have paid my tuition for a solid year.

Denna was playing the part of his charming and attractive companion. In the past I had seen her dressed much the same as myself: plain clothes meant for hard wear and travel. But tonight she wore a long dress of green silk. Her dark hair curled artfully around her face and tumbled down her shoulders. At her throat was an emerald pendant shaped like a smooth teardrop. It matched the color of the dress so perfectly that it couldn’t be coincidence.

I felt a little shabby by comparison. More than a little. Every piece of clothing I owned in the world amounted to four shirts, two sets of pants, and a few sundries. All of it secondhand and threadbare to some degree. I was wearing my best tonight, but I’m sure you understand when I say my best was not particularly fine.

The one exception was my cloak, Fela’s gift. It was warm and wonderful, tailored for me in green and black with numerous pockets in the lining. It wasn’t elegant by any measure, but it was the finest thing I owned.

As I approached, Denna stepped forward and held out her hand for me to kiss, the gesture poised, almost haughty. Her expression was composed, her smile polite. To the casual observer she looked every bit the genteel lady being gracious to a poor young musician.

All except her eyes. They were dark and deep, the color of coffee and chocolate. Her eyes were dancing with amusement, full of laughter. Standing behind her, the gentleman gave a bare hint of a frown when she offered me her hand. I didn’t know what game Denna was playing, but I could guess my part.

So I bent over her hand, kissing it lightly in a low bow. I had been trained in courtly manners at an early age, so I knew what I was doing. Anyone can bend at the waist, but a good bow takes skill.

This one was gracious and flattering, and as I pressed my lips to the back of her hand I flared my cloak to one side with a delicate flick of my wrist. The last was the difficult bit, and it had taken me several hours of careful practice in the bathhouse mirror to get the motion to look sufficiently casual.

Denna made a curtsey graceful as a falling leaf and stepped back to stand beside the gentleman. “Kvothe, this is Lord Kellin Vantenier. Kellin, Kvothe.”

Kellin eyed me up and down, forming his full opinion of me more quickly than you can draw a short, sharp breath. His expression became dismissive, and he gave me a nod. I’m no stranger to disdain, but I was surprised how much this particular bit stung me.

“At your service, my lord.” I made a polite bow and shifted my weight so my cloak fell away from my shoulder, displaying my talent pipes.

He was about to look away with practiced disinterest when his eye snagged on the bright piece of silver. It was nothing special in terms of jewelry, but here it was significant. Wilem was right: at the Eolian, I was one of the gentry.

And Kellin knew it. After a heartbeat of consideration, he returned my bow. It was barely more than a nod, really. Just low enough to be polite. “Yours and your family’s,” he said in perfect Aturan. His voice was deeper than mine, a warm bass with enough of a Modegan accent to lend it a slight musical cant.

Denna inclined her head in his direction. “Kellin has been showing me my way around a harp.”

“I am here to win my pipes,” he said, his deep voice filled with certainty.

When he spoke, women at the surrounding tables turned to look in his direction with hungry, half-lidded eyes. His voice had the opposite effect on me. To be both rich and handsome was bad enough. But to have a voice like honey over warm bread on top of that was simply inexcusable. The sound of it made me feel like a cat grabbed by the tail and rubbed backward with a wet hand.

I glanced at his hands. “So you’re a harper?”

“Harpist,” he corrected stiffly. “I play the Pendenhale. King of instruments.”

I pulled in half a breath, then closed my mouth. The Modegan great harp had been the king of instruments five hundred years ago. These days it was an antique curiosity. I let it pass, avoiding the argument for Denna’s sake. “Will you be trying your luck tonight?” I asked.

Kellin’s eyes narrowed slightly. “There will be nothing of luck involved when I play. But no. Tonight I am enjoying my lady Dinael’s company.” He lifted Denna’s hand to his lips and gave it an absentminded kiss. He looked around at the murmuring crowd in a proprietary way, as if he owned them. “I will be in worthy company here, I think.”

I glanced at Denna, but she was avoiding my eyes. Her head tilted to the side as she toyed with an earring previously hidden in her hair, a tiny teardrop emerald that matched the pendant at her throat.

Kellin’s eyes flickered over me again. My ill-fitting clothes. My hair, too short to be fashionable, too long to be anything other than wild. “And you are… a piper?”

The least expensive instrument. “Pipist,” I said lightly. “But no. I favor the lute.”

His eyebrows went up. “You play court lute?”

My smile stiffened a bit despite my best efforts. “Trouper’s lute.”

“Ah!” he said, laughing as if things suddenly made sense. “Folk music!”

I let that pass as well, though less easily than before. “Do you have seats yet?” I asked brightly. “Several of us have taken a table below with a good view of the stage. You’re welcome to join us.”

“The lady and I already have a table in the third circle.” Kellin nodded in Denna’s direction. “I much prefer the company above.”

Outside his field of vision, Denna rolled her eyes at me.

I kept a straight face and made another polite bow to him, barely more than a nod. “I won’t delay you then.”

I turned to Denna. “My lady. Might I call on you some time?”

She sighed, looking every bit the put-upon socialite, except for her eyes, which were still laughing at all the ridiculous formality of the exchange. “I’m sure you understand, Kvothe. My schedule is quite full for the next several days. But you could pay a visit near the end of the span if you wish. I’ve taken rooms at the Grey Man.”

“You’re too kind,” I said, and gave her a much more earnest bow than the one I had given Kellin. She rolled her eyes at me this time.

Kellin held out his arm, turning his shoulder to me in the process, and the two of them walked off into the crowd. Watching them together, moving gracefully through the throng, it would be easy to believe they owned the place, or were perhaps thinking of buying it to use as a summer home. Only old nobility move with that easy arrogance, knowing deep in their guts that everything in the world exists only to make them happy. Denna was faking it marvelously, but for Lord Kellin Brickjaw it was as natural as drawing breath.

I watched until they were halfway up the stairs to the third circle. That’s where Denna stopped and put a hand to her head. Then she looked around at the floor, her expression anxious. The two of them spoke briefly and she pointed up the stairs. Kellin nodded and climbed out of sight.

On a hunch, I looked down at the floor and spotted a gleam of silver where Denna had been standing near the railing. I moved and stood over it, forcing a pair of Cealdish merchants to detour around me.

I pretended to watch the crowd below until Denna came close and tapped me on the shoulder. “Kvothe,” she said anxiously. “I’m sorry to bother you, but I seem to have lost an earring. Would you be a dear and help me look for it? I’m sure I had it on me just a moment ago.”

I agreed, and soon we were enjoying a moment of privacy, decorously searching the floorboards with our heads close together. Luckily, Denna’s dress was in the Modegan style, flowing and loose around the legs. If it had been slit up the side according to the current fashion of the Commonwealth, the sight of her crouching on the floor would have been scandalous.

“God’s body,” I muttered. “Where did you find him?”

Denna chuckled low in her throat. “Hush. You’re the one who suggested I learn my way around a harp. Kellin is quite a good teacher.”

“The Modegan pedal harp weighs five times as much as you do,” I said. “It’s a parlor instrument. You’d never be able to take one on the road.”

She stopped pretending to look for her earring and gave me a pointed look. “And who’s to say I won’t ever have a parlor to harp in?”

I looked back to the floor and gave as much of a shrug as I could manage. “It’s good enough for learning, I suppose. How are you liking it so far?”

“It’s better than the lyre,” she said. “I can already see that. I can barely play ‘Squirrel in the Thatch,’ though.”

“Is he any good?” I gave her a sly smile. “With his hands, I mean.”

Denna flushed a bit and looked for a second as if she would swat at me. But she remembered her decorum in time and settled for narrowing her eyes instead. “You’re awful,” she said, “Kellin has been a perfect gentleman.”

“Tehlu save us all from perfect gentlemen,” I said.

She shook her head. “I meant it in the literal sense,” she said. “He’s never been out of Modeg before. He’s like a kitten in a coop.”

“So you’re Dinael now?” I asked.

“For now. And for him,” she said, looking at me sideways with a small quirk of a smile. “From you I still like Denna best.”

“That’s good to know,” I said, then lifted my hand off the floor, revealing the smooth emerald teardrop of an earring. Denna made a show of discovering it, holding it up to catch the light. “Ah! Here we are!”

I stood and helped her to her feet. She brushed her hair back from her shoulder and leaned toward me. “I’m all thumbs with these things,” she said. “Would you mind?”

I stepped toward her and stood close as she handed me the earring. She smelled faintly of wildflowers. But beneath that she smelled like autumn leaves. Like the dark smell of her own hair, like road dust and the air before a summer storm.

“So what is he?” I said softly. “Someone’s second son?”

She gave a barely perceptible shake of her head, and a strand of her hair fell down to brush the back of my hand. “He’s a lord in his own right.”

“Skethe te retaa van,” I swore. “Lock up your sons and daughters.”

Denna laughed again, quietly. Her body shook as she fought to hold it in.

“Hold still,” I said as I gently took hold of her ear.

Denna drew a deep breath and let it out again, composing herself. I threaded the earring through the lobe of her ear and stepped away. She lifted one hand to check it, then stepped back and gave a curtsey. “Thank you kindly for all your help.”

I bowed to her again. It wasn’t as polished as the bow I’d given her before, but it was more honest. “I am at your service, my lady.”

Denna smiled warmly as she turned to go, her eyes laughing again.

I finished exploring the second tier for the sake of form, but Threpe didn’t seem to be around. Not wanting to risk the awkwardness of a second encounter with Denna and her lordling, I decided to skip the third tier entirely.

Sim had the lively look he gets around his fifth drink. Manet was slouched low in his chair, eyes half-lidded, his mug resting comfortably on the swell of his belly. Wil looked the same as ever, his dark eyes unreadable.

“Threpe’s nowhere to be found,” I said as I took my seat. “Sorry.”

“That’s too bad,” Sim said. “Has he had any luck finding you a patron yet?”

I shook my head bitterly. “Ambrose has threatened or bribed every noble within a hundred miles of here. They’ll have nothing to do with me.”

“Why doesn’t Threpe take you on himself?” Wilem asked. “He likes you well enough.”

I shook my head. “Threpe’s already supporting three other musicians. Four really, but two of them are a married couple.”

“Four?” Sim said, horrified. “It’s a wonder he can still afford to eat.”

Wil cocked his head curiously, and Sim leaned forward to explain. “Threpe’s a count. But his holdings aren’t really that extensive. Supporting four players on his income is a little … extravagant.”

Wil frowned. “Drinks and strings can’t amount to much.”

“A patron’s responsible for more than that.” Sim began to count items off on his fingers. “There’s the writ of patronage itself. Then he provides room and board for his players, a yearly wage, a suit of clothes in his family’s colors—”

“Two suits of clothing, traditionally,” I interjected. “Every year.” Growing up in the troupe, I never appreciated the livery Lord Greyfallow had given us. But these days I couldn’t help but imagine how much my wardrobe would be improved by two new sets of clothing.

Simmon grinned as a serving boy arrived, leaving no doubt as to who was responsible for the glasses of blackberry brand set in front of each of us. Sim raised his glass in a silent toast and drank a solid swallow. I raised my glass in return, as did Wilem, though it obviously pained him. Manet remained motionless, and I began to suspect he had dozed off.

“It still doesn’t add square,” Wilem said, setting down his brand. “All the patron gets is lighter pockets.”

“The patron gets a reputation,” I explained. “That’s why the players wear the livery. Plus he has entertainers at his beck and call: parties, dances, pageants. Sometimes they’ll write songs or plays at his request.”

Wil still seemed skeptical. “Still seems like the patron is getting the short side of it.”

“That’s because you only have half the picture,” Manet said, pulling himself upright in his chair. “You’re a city boy. You don’t know what it’s like growing up in a little town built on one man’s land.

“Here’s Lord Poncington’s lands,” Manet said, using a bit of spilled beer to draw a circle in the center of the table. “Where you live like the good little commoner you are.” Manet picked up Simmon’s empty glass and put it inside the circle.

“One day, a fellow strolls through town wearing Lord Poncington’s colors.” Manet picked up his full glass of brand and jigged it across the table until it stood next to Sim’s empty one inside the circle. “And this fellow plays songs for everyone at the local inn.” Manet splashed some of the brand into Sim’s glass.

Not needing any prompting, Sim grinned and drank it.

Manet trotted his glass around the table and entered the circle again. “Next month a couple more folk come through wearing his colors and put on a puppet show.” He poured more brand and Simmon tossed it back. “The next month there’s a play.” Again.

Now Manet picked up his wooden mug and clomped it across the table into the circle. “Then the tax man shows up, wearing the same colors.” Manet knocked his empty mug impatiently on the table.

Sim sat confused for a second, then he picked up his own mug and sloshed some beer into it.

Manet eyed him and tapped the mug again, sternly.

Sim poured the rest of his beer into Manet’s mug, laughing. “I like blackberry brand better anyway.”

“Lord Poncington likes his taxes better,” Manet said. “And people like to be entertained. And the tax man likes not being poisoned and buried in a shallow grave behind the old mill.” He took a drink of beer. “So it works out nicely for everyone.”

Wil watched the exchange with his serious, dark eyes. “That makes better sense.”

“It’s not always as mercenary as that,” I said. “Threpe genuinely wants to help musicians improve their craft. Some nobles treat their performers like horses in a stable,” I sighed. “Even that would be better than what I have now, which is nothing.”

“Don’t sell yourself cheap,” Sim said cheerfully. “Wait and get a good patron. You deserve it. You’re as good as any musician here.”

I kept silent, too proud to tell them the truth. I was poor in a way the rest of them could hardly understand. Sim was Aturan nobility, and Wil’s family were wool merchants from Ralien. They thought being poor meant not having enough money to go drinking as often as they liked.

With tuition looming, I didn’t dare spend a bent penny. I couldn’t buy candles, or ink, or paper. I had no jewelry to pawn, no allowance, no parents to write home to. No respectable moneylender would give me a thin shim. Hardly surprising, as I was a rootless, orphan Edema Ruh whose possessions would fit into a burlap sack. It wouldn’t have to be a large sack either.

I got to my feet before the conversation had a chance to wander into uncomfortable territory. “It’s time I made some music.”

I picked up my lute case and made my way to where Stanchion sat at the corner of the bar. “What have you got for us tonight?” he asked, running his hand over his beard.

“A surprise.”

Stanchion paused in the act of getting off his stool. “Is this the sort of surprise that’s going to cause a riot or make folk set my place on fire?” he asked.

I shook my head, smiling.

“Good.” He smiled and headed off in the direction of the stage. “In that case I like surprises.”

CHAPTER SIX

Love

STANCHION LED ME ONTO the stage and brought out an armless chair. Then he walked to the front of the stage to chat with the audience. I spread my cloak over the back of the chair as the lights began to dim.

I laid my battered lute case on the floor. It was even shabbier than I was. It had been quite nice once, but that was years ago and miles away. Now the leather hinges were cracked and stiff, and the body was worn thin as parchment in places. Only one of the original clasps remained, a delicate thing of worked silver. I’d replaced the others with whatever I could scavenge, so now the case sported mismatched clasps of bright brass and dull iron.

But inside the case was something else entirely. Inside was the reason I was scrambling for tuition tomorrow. I had driven a hard bargain for it, and even then it had cost me more money than I had ever spent on anything in my life. So much money I couldn’t afford a case that fit it properly, and made do by padding my old one with rags.

The wood was the color of dark coffee, of freshly turned earth. The curve of the bowl was perfect as a woman’s hip. It was hushed echo and bright string and thrum. My lute. My tangible soul.

I have heard what poets write about women. They rhyme and rhapsodize and lie. I have watched sailors on the shore stare mutely at the slow-rolling swell of the sea. I have watched old soldiers with hearts like leather grow teary-eyed at their king’s colors stretched against the wind.

Listen to me: these men know nothing of love.

You will not find it in the words of poets or the longing eyes of sailors. If you want to know of love, look to a trouper’s hands as he makes his music. A trouper knows.

I looked out at my audience as they grew slowly still. Simmon waved enthusiastically, and I smiled in return. I saw Count Threpe’s white hair near the rail on the second tier now. He was speaking earnestly to the well-dressed couple, gesturing in my direction. Still campaigning on my behalf though we both knew it was a hopeless cause.

I brought the lute out of its shabby case and began to tune it. It was not the finest lute in the Eolian. Not by half. Its neck was slightly bent, but not bowed. One of the pegs was loose and was prone to changing its tune.

I brushed a soft chord and tipped my ear to the strings. As I looked up, I could see Denna’s face, clear as the moon. She smiled excitedly at me and wiggled her fingers below the level of the table where her gentleman couldn’t see.

I touched the loose peg gently, running my hands over the warm wood of the lute. The varnish was scraped and scuffed in places. It had been treated unkindly in the past, but that didn’t make it less lovely underneath.

So yes. It had flaws, but what does that matter when it comes to matters of the heart? We love what we love. Reason does not enter into it. In many ways, unwise love is the truest love. Anyone can love a thing because. That’s as easy as putting a penny in your pocket. But to love something despite. To know the flaws and love them too. That is rare and pure and perfect.

Stanchion made a sweeping gesture in my direction. There was brief applause followed by an attentive hush.

I plucked two notes and felt the audience lean toward me. I touched a string, tuned it slightly, and began to play. Before a handful of notes rang out, everyone had caught the tune.

It was “Bell-Wether.” A tune shepherds have been whistling for ten thousand years. The simplest of simple melodies. A tune anyone with a bucket could carry. A bucket was overkill, actually. A pair of cupped hands would manage nicely. A single hand. Two fingers, even.

It was, plainly said, folk music.

There have been a hundred songs written to the tune of “Bell-Wether.” Songs of love and war. Songs of humor, tragedy, and lust. I did not bother with any of these. No words. Just the music. Just the tune.

I looked up and saw Lord Brickjaw leaning close to Denna, making a dismissive gesture. I smiled as I teased the song carefully from the strings of my lute.

But before much longer, my smile grew strained. Sweat began to bead on my forehead. I hunched over the lute, concentrating on what my hands were doing. My fingers darted, then danced, then flew.

I played hard as a hailstorm, like a hammer beating brass. I played soft as sun on autumn wheat, gentle as a single stirring leaf. Before long, my breath began to catch from the strain of it. My lips made a thin, bloodless line across my face.

As I pushed through the middle refrain I shook my head to clear my hair away from my eyes. Sweat flew in an arc to patter out along the wood of the stage. I breathed hard, my chest working like a bellows, straining like a horse run to lather.

The song rang out, each note bright and clear. I almost stumbled once. The rhythm faltered for the space of a split hair…. Then somehow I recovered, pushed through, and managed to finish the final line, plucking the notes sweet and light despite the fact that my fingers were a weary blur.

Then, just when it was obvious I couldn’t carry on a moment longer, the last chord rang through the room and I slumped in my chair, exhausted.

The audience burst into thunderous applause.

But not the whole audience. Scattered through the room dozens of people burst into laughter instead, a few of them pounding the tables and stomping the floor, shouting their amusement.

The applause sputtered and died almost immediately. Men and women stopped with their hands frozen midclap as they stared at the laughing members of the audience. Some looked angry, others confused. Many were plainly offended on my behalf, and angry mutterings began to ripple through the room.

Before any serious discussion could take root, I struck a single high note and held up a hand, pulling their attention back to me. I wasn’t done yet. Not by half.

I shifted in my seat and rolled my shoulders. I strummed once, touched the loose peg, and rolled effortlessly into my second song.

It was one of Illien’s: “Tintatatornin.” I doubt you’ve ever heard of it. It’s something of an oddity compared to Illien’s other works. First, it has no lyrics. Second, while it’s a lovely song, it isn’t nearly as catchy or moving as many of his better-known melodies.

Most importantly, it is perversely difficult to play. My father referred to it as “the finest song ever written for fifteen fingers.” He made me play it when I was getting too full of myself and felt I needed humbling. Suffice to say I practiced it with fair regularity, sometimes more than once a day.

So I played “Tintatatornin.” I leaned back into my chair and crossed my ankles, relaxing a bit. My hands strolled idly over the strings. After the first chorus, I drew a breath and gave a short sigh, like a young boy trapped inside on a sunny day. My eyes began to wander aimlessly around the room, bored.

Still playing, I fidgeted in my seat, trying to find a comfortable position and failing. I frowned, stood up, and looked at the chair as if it was somehow to blame. Then I reclaimed my seat and wriggled, an uncomfortable expression on my face.

All the while the ten thousand notes of “Tintatatornin” danced and capered. I took a moment between one chord and the next to scratch myself idly behind the ear.

I was so deeply into my little act that I actually felt a yawn swelling up. I let it out in full earnest, so wide and long that the people the front row could count my teeth. I shook my head as if to clear it, and daubed at my watery eyes with my sleeve.

Through all of this, “Tintatatornin” tripped into the air. Maddening harmony and counterpoint weaving together, skipping apart. All of it flawless and sweet and easy as breathing. When the end came, drawing together a dozen tangled threads of song, I made no flourish. I simply stopped and rubbed my eyes a bit. No crescendo. No bow. Nothing. I cracked my knuckles distractedly and leaned forward to set my lute back in the case.

This time the laughter came first. The same people as before, hooting and hammering at their tables twice as loudly as before. My people. The musicians. I let my bored expression fall away and grinned knowingly out at them.

The applause followed a few heartbeats later, but it was scattered and confused. Even before the house lights rose, it had dissolved into a hundred murmuring discussions throughout the room.

Marie rushed up to greet me as I came down the stairs, her face full of laughter. She shook my hand and clapped me on the back. She was the first of many, all musicians. Before I could get bogged down, Marie linked her arm in mine and led me back to my table.

“Good lord, boy,” Manet said. “You’re like a tiny king here.”

“This isn’t half the attention he usually gets,” Wilem said. “Normally they’re still cheering when he makes it back to the table. Young women bat their eyes and strew his path with flowers.”

Sim looked around the room curiously. “The reaction did seem …” he groped for a word. “Mixed. Why is that?”

“Because young six-string here is so sharp he can hardly help but cut himself,” Stanchion said as he made his way over to our table.

“You’ve noticed that too?” Manet asked dryly.

“Hush,” Marie said. “It was brilliant.”

Stanchion sighed and shook his head.

“I for one,” Wilem said pointedly, “would like to know what is being discussed.”

“Kvothe here played the simplest song in the world and made it look like he was spinning gold out of flax,” Marie said. “Then he took a real piece of music, something only a handful of folk in the whole place could play, and made it look so easy you’d think a child could blow it on a tin whistle.”

“I’m not denying that it was cleverly done,” Stanchion said. “The problem is the way he did it. Everyone who jumped in clapping on the first song feels like an idiot. They feel they’ve been toyed with.”

“Which they were,” Marie pointed out. “A performer manipulates the audience. That’s the point of the joke.”

“People don’t like being toyed with,” Stanchion replied. “They resent it, in fact. Nobody likes having a joke played on them.”

“Technically,” Simmon interjected, grinning, “he played the joke on the lute.”

Everyone turned to look at him, and his grin faded a bit. “You see? He actually played a joke. On a lute.” He looked down at the table, his grin fading as his face flushed a sudden embarrassed red. “Sorry.”

Marie laughed an easy laugh.

Manet spoke up. “So it’s really an issue of two audiences,” he said slowly. “There’s those that know enough about music to get the joke, and those who need the joke explained to them.”

Marie made a triumphant gesture toward Manet. “That’s it exactly,” she said to Stanchion. “If you come here and don’t know enough to get the joke on your own, then you deserve to have your nose tweaked a bit.”

“Except most of those people are the gentry,” Stanchion said. “And our clever-jack doesn’t have a patron yet.”

“What?” Marie said. “Threpe put word out months ago. Why hasn’t someone snatched you up?”

“Ambrose Jakis,” I explained.

Her face didn’t show any recognition. “Is he a musician?”

“Baron’s son,” Wilem said.

She gave a puzzled frown. “How can he possibly keep you away from a patron?”

“Ample free time and twice as much money as God,” I said dryly.

“His father’s one of the most powerful men in Vintas,” Manet added, then turned to Simmon. “What is he, sixteenth in line to the throne?”

“Thirteenth,” Simmon said sullenly. “The entire Surthen family was lost at sea two months ago. Ambrose won’t shut up about the fact that his father’s barely a dozen steps from being king.”

Manet turned back to Marie. “The point is, this particular baron’s son has got all manner of weight, and he’s not afraid to throw it around.”

“To be completely fair,” Stanchion said, “it should be mentioned that young Kvothe is not the savviest socialite in the Commonwealth.” He cleared his throat. “As evidenced by tonight’s performance.”

“I hate it when people call me young Kvothe,” I said in an aside to Sim. He gave me a sympathetic look.

“I still say it was brilliant,” Marie said, turning to face Stanchion, planting her feet solidly on the floor. “It’s the cleverest thing anyone’s done here in a month, and you know it.”

I lay my hand on Marie’s arm. “He’s right,” I said. “It was stupid.” I made a vacillating shrug. “Or at least it would be if I still had the slightest hope of getting a patron.” I looked Stanchion in the eye. “But I don’t. We both know Ambrose has poisoned that well for me.”

“Wells don’t stay poisoned forever,” Stanchion said.

I shrugged. “How about this then? I’d prefer to play songs that amuse my friends, rather than cater to folk who dislike me based on hearsay.”

Stanchion drew a breath, then let it out in a rush. “Fair enough,” he said, smiling a bit.

In the brief lull that followed, Manet cleared his throat meaningfully and darted his eyes around the table.

I took his hint and made a round of introductions. “Stanchion, you’ve already met my fellow students Wil and Sim. This is Manet, student and my sometimes mentor at the University. Everyone, this is Stanchion: host, owner, and master of the Eolian’s stage.”

“Pleasure to meet you,” Stanchion said, giving a polite nod before looking anxiously around the room. “Speaking of hosting, I should be about my business.” He patted me on the back as he turned to leave. “I’ll see if I can put out a few fires while I’m at it.”

I smiled my thanks to him, then made a flourishing gesture. “Everyone, this is Marie. As you’ve already heard with your own ears, the Eolian’s finest fiddler. As you can see with your own eyes, the most beautiful woman in a thousand miles. As your wit discerns, the wisest of …”

Grinning, she swatted at me. “If I were half as wise as I am tall, I wouldn’t be stepping in to defend you,” she said. “Has poor Threpe really been out stumping for you all this while?”

I nodded. “I told him it was a lost cause.”

“It is if you keep thumbing your nose at folk,” she said. “I swear I’ve never met a man who has your knack for lack of social grace. If you weren’t naturally charming, someone would have stabbed you by now.”

“You’re assuming,” I muttered.

Marie turned to my friends at the table. “It’s a pleasure to meet all of you.”

Wil nodded, and Sim smiled. Manet, however, came to his feet in a smooth motion and held out his hand. Marie took it, and Manet clasped it warmly between his own.

“Marie,” he said. “You intrigue me. Is there any chance I could buy you a drink and enjoy the pleasure of your conversation at some point tonight?”

I was too startled to do anything but stare. Standing there, the two of them looked like badly matched bookends. Marie stood six inches taller than Manet, her boots making her long legs look even longer.

Manet, on the other hand, looked as he always did, grizzled and disheveled, plus older than Marie by at least a decade.

Marie blinked and cocked her head a bit, as if considering. “I’m here with some friends right now,” she said. “It might be late by the time I finish up with them.”

“When makes no difference to me,” Manet said easily. “I’m willing to lose some sleep if it comes to that. I can’t think of the last time I shared the company of a woman who speaks her mind firmly and without hesitation. Your kind are in short supply these days.”

Marie looked him over again.

Manet met her eye and flashed a smile so confident and charming that it belonged on stage. “I’ve no desire to pull you away from your friends,” he said, “but you’re the first fiddler in ten years that’s set my feet dancing. It seems a drink is the least I can do.”

Marie smiled back at him, half amused, half wry. “I’m on the second tier right now,” she said, gesturing toward the stairway. “But I should be free in, say, two hours… .”

“You’re terribly kind,” he said. “Should I come and find you?”

“You should,” she said. Then gave him a thoughtful look as she turned to walk away.

Manet reclaimed his seat and took a drink.

Simmon looked as flabbergasted as we all felt. “What the hell was that?” he demanded.

Manet chuckled into his beard and leaned back in his chair, cradling his mug to his chest. “That,” he said smugly, “is just one more thing I understand that you pups don’t. Take note. Take heed.”

When members of the nobility want to show a musician their appreciation, they give money. When I first began playing in the Eolian, I’d received a few such gifts, and for a time it had been enough to help pay my tuition and keep my head above water, if only barely. But Ambrose had been persistent in his campaign against me, and it had been months since I had received anything of the sort.

Musicians are poorer than the gentry, but they still enjoy a show. So when they appreciate your playing, they buy you drinks. That was the real reason I was at the Eolian tonight.

Manet wandered off to fetch a wet rag from the bar so we could clean the table and play another round of corners. Before he could make it back, a young Cealdish piper came over to ask if there was any chance he could stand us a round.

There was a chance, as it turned out. He caught the eye of a nearby serving girl and we each ordered what we liked best, and a beer for Manet besides.

We drank, played cards, and listened to music. Manet and I had a run of bad cards and went down three hands in a row. It soured my mood a bit, but not nearly as much as the sneaking suspicion that Stanchion might be right about what he’d said.

A rich patron would solve many of my problems. Even a poor patron would be able to give me a little room to breathe, financially speaking. If nothing else, it would give me someone I could borrow money from in a tight spot, rather than being forced into dealing with dangerous folk.

While my mind was occupied, I misplayed and we lost another hand, putting us down four in a row with a forfeit besides.

Manet glared at me while he gathered in the cards. “Here’s a primer for admissions.” He held up his hand, three fingers spearing angrily into the air. “Let’s say you have three spades in your hand, and there have been five spades laid down.” He held up his other hand, fingers splayed wide. “How many spades is that, total?” He leaned back in his chair, crossing his arms. “Take your time.”

“He’s still reeling from the knowledge that Marie is willing to have a drink with you,” Wilem said dryly. “We all are.”

“Not me,” Simmon chirped. “I knew you had it in you.”

We were interrupted by the arrival of Lily, one of the regular serving girls at the Eolian. “What’s going on here?” she said playfully. “Is someone throwing a handsome party?”

“Lily,” Simmon asked, “If I asked you to have a drink with me, would you consider it?”

“I would,” she said easily. “But not for very long.” She laid her hand on his shoulder. “You gents are in luck. An anonymous admirer of fine music has offered to stand your table a round of drinks.”

“Scutten for me,” Wilem said.

“Mead,” Simmon said, grinning.

“I’ll have a sounten,” I said.

Manet raised an eyebrow. “A sounten, eh?” he asked, glancing at me. “I’ll have one too.” He gave the serving girl a knowing look and nodded toward me. “On his, of course.”

“Really?” Lily said, then shrugged. “Back in a shake.”

“Now that you’ve impressed the hell out of everyone you can have some fun, right?” Simmon asked. “Something about a donkey…?”

“For the last time no,” I said. “I’m done with Ambrose. There’s no percentage in antagonizing him any further.”

“You broke his arm,” Wil said. “I think he’s as antagonized as he’s going to get.”

“He broke my lute,” I said. “We’re even. I’m ready to let bygones be bygones.”

“Like hell,” Sim said. “You dropped that pound of rancid butter down his chimney. You loosened the cinch on his saddle… .”

“Black hands, shut up!” I said, looking around. “That was nearly a month ago, and no one knows it was me except for you two. And now Manet. And everyone within earshot.”

Sim flushed an embarrassed red and the conversation lulled until Lily returned with our drinks. Wil’s scutten was in its traditional stone cup. Sim’s mead shone golden in a tall glass. Manet and I got wooden mugs.

Manet smiled. “I can’t remember the last time I ordered a sounten,” he mused. “I don’t think I’ve ever ordered one for myself before.”

“You’re the only other person I’ve ever known to drink it,” Sim said. “Kvothe here throws them back like nobody’s business. Three or four a night.”

Manet raised a bushy eyebrow at me. “They don’t know?” he asked.

I shook my head as I drank out of my own mug, not sure if I should be amused or embarrassed.

Manet slid his mug toward Simmon, who picked it up and took a sip. He frowned and took another. “Water?”

Manet nodded. “It’s an old whore’s trick. You’re chatting them up in the taproom of the brothel, and you want to show you’re not like all the rest. You’re a man of refinement. So you offer to buy a drink.”

He reached across the table and took his mug back from Sim. “But they’re working. They don’t want a drink. They’d rather have the money. So they order a sounten or a peveret or something else. You pay your money, the barman gives her water, and at the end of the night she splits the money with the house. If she’s a good listener a girl can make as much at the bar as she does in bed.”

I chimed in. “Actually, we split it three ways. A third to the house, a third to the barman, and a third to me.”

“You’re getting screwed, then,” Manet said frankly. “The barman should get his piece from the house.”

“I’ve never seen you order a sounten at Anker’s,” Sim said.

“It must be the Greysdale mead,” Wil said. “You order that all the time.”

“But I’ve ordered Greysdale,” Sim protested. “It tasted like sweet pickles and piss. Besides …” Sim trailed off.

“It was more expensive than you thought it would be?” Manet asked, grinning. “Wouldn’t make much sense to go through all of this for the price of a short beer, would it?”

“They know what I mean when I order Greysdale at Anker’s,” I told him. “If I ordered something that didn’t actually exist, it would be a pretty easy game to figure out.”

“How do you know about this?” Sim asked Manet.

Manet chuckled. “No new tricks to an old dog like me,” he said.

The lights began to dim and we turned toward the stage.

The night rambled on from there. Manet left for greener pastures, while Wil, Sim, and I and did our best to keep our table clear of glasses while amused musicians bought us round after round of drinks. An obscene amount of drinks, really. Far more than I’d dared to hope for.

I drank sounten for the most part, since raising money to cover tuition was the main reason I’d come to the Eolian tonight. Wil and Sim ordered a few rounds too, now that they knew the trick of it. I was doubly grateful, otherwise I would have been forced to bring them home in a wheelbarrow.

Eventually the three of us had our fill of music, gossip, and in Sim’s case, the fruitless pursuit of serving girls.

Before we left, I stopped to have a discreet word with the barman where I brought up the difference between a half and a third. At the end of our negotiation, I cashed out for a full talent and six jots. The vast majority of that was from the drinks my fellow musicians had bought me tonight.

I gathered the coins into my purse: Three talents even.

My negotiations had also profited me two dark brown bottles. “What’s that?” Sim asked as I began to tuck the bottles into my lute case.

“Bredon beer.” I shifted the rags I used to pad my lute so they wouldn’t rub against it.

“Bredon,” Wil said, his voice thick with disdain, “is closer to bread than beer.”

Sim nodded in agreement, making a face. “I don’t like having to chew my liquor.”

“It’s not that bad,” I said defensively. “In the small kingdoms women drink it when they’re pregnant. Arwyl mentioned it in one of his lectures. They brew it with flower pollen and fish oil and cherry stones. It has all sorts of trace nutrients.”

“Kvothe, we don’t judge you.” Wilem lay his hand on my shoulder, his face concerned. “Sim and I don’t mind that you’re a pregnant Yllish woman.”

Simmon snorted, then laughed at the fact that he had snorted.

The three of us made our slow way back to the University, crossing the high arch of Stonebridge. And, since there was nobody around to hear, I sang “Jackass, Jackass” for Sim.

Wil and Sim stumbled gently off to their rooms in Mews. But I wasn’t ready for bed and continued wandering the University’s empty streets, breathing the cool night air.

I strolled past the dark fronts of apothecaries, glassblowers, and bookbinders. I cut through a manicured lawn, smelling the clean, dusty smell of autumn leaves and green grass beneath. Nearly all the inns and drinking houses were dark, but lights were burning in the brothels.

The grey stone of the Masters’ Hall was silvery in the moonlight. A single dim light burned inside, illuminating the stained glass window that showed Teccam in his classic pose: barefoot at the mouth of his cave, speaking to a crowd of young students.

I went past the Crucible, its countless bristling chimneys dark and largely smokeless against the moonlit sky. Even at night it smelled of ammonia and charred flowers, acid and alcohol: a thousand mingled scents that had seeped into the stone of the building over the centuries.

Last was the Archives. Five stories tall and windowless, it reminded me of an enormous waystone. Its massive doors were closed, but I could see the reddish light of sympathy lamps welling up around the edges of the door. During admissions Master Lorren kept the Archives open at night so all the members of the Arcanum could study to their hearts’ content. All members except one, of course.

I made my way back to Anker’s and found the inn dark and silent. I had a key to the back door, but rather than stumble through the dark, I headed into the nearby alley. Right foot rainbarrel, left foot window ledge, left hand iron drainpipe. I quietly made my way up to my third-story window, tripped the latch with a piece of wire, and let myself in.

It was pitch black, and I was too tired to go looking for a light from the fireplace downstairs. So I touched the wick of the lamp beside my bed, getting a little oil on my fingers. Then I murmured a binding and felt my arm go chilly as the heat bled out of it. Nothing happened at first, and I scowled, concentrating to overcome the vague haze of alcohol. The chill sunk deeper into my arm, making me shiver, but finally the wick bloomed into light.

Cold now, I closed the window and looked around the tiny room with its sloped ceiling and narrow bed. Surprisingly, I realized there was nowhere else in the four corners I’d rather be. I almost felt as if I were home.

This may not seem odd to you, but it was strange to me. Growing up among the Edema Ruh, home was never a place for me. Home was a group of wagons and songs around a campfire. When my troupe was killed, it was more than the loss of my family and childhood friends. It was like my entire world had been burned down to the waterline.

Now, after almost a year at the University, I was beginning to feel like I belonged here. It was an odd feeling, this fondness for a place. In some ways it was comforting, but the Ruh in me was restless, rebelling at the thought of putting down roots like a plant.

As I drifted off to sleep, I wondered what my father would think of me.

CHAPTER SEVEN

Admissions

THE NEXT MORNING I splashed some water on my face and trudged downstairs. The taproom of Anker’s was just starting to fill with people looking for an early lunch, and a few particularly disconsolate students were getting an early start on the day’s drinking.

Still bleary from lack of sleep, I settled into my usual corner table and began to fret about my upcoming interview.

Kilvin and Elxa Dal didn’t worry me. I was ready for their questions. The same was largely true of Arwyl. But the other masters were all varying degrees of mystery to me.

Every term each master put a selection of books on display in Tomes, the reading room in the Archives. There were basic texts for the low-ranking E’lir to study from, with progressively more advanced works for Re’lar and El’the. Those books revealed what the masters considered valuable knowledge. Those were the books a clever student studied before admissions.

But I couldn’t wander into Tomes like everyone else. I was the only student who had been banned from the Archives in a dozen years, and everyone knew about it. Tomes was the only well-lit room in the whole building, and during admissions there were always people there, reading.

So I was forced to find copies of the masters’ texts buried in the Stacks. You’d be amazed how many versions of the same book there can be. If I was lucky, the volume I found was identical to the one the master had set aside in Tomes. More often, the versions I found were outdated, expurgated, or badly translated.

I’d done as much reading as possible over the last few nights, but hunting down the books took precious time, and I was still woefully underprepared.

I was lost in these anxious thoughts when Anker’s voice caught my attention. “Actually, that’s Kvothe right over there,” he said.

I looked up to see a woman sitting at the bar. She wasn’t dressed like a student. She wore an elaborate burgundy dress with long skirts, a tight waist, and matching burgundy gloves that rose all the way to her elbows.

Moving deliberately, she managed to get down off the stool without tangling her feet and made her way over to stand next to my table. Her blonde hair was artfully curled, and her lips were a deeply painted red. I couldn’t help wondering what she was doing in a place like Anker’s.

“Are you the one who broke the arm of that brat Ambrose Jakis?” she asked. She spoke Aturan with a thick, musical Modegan accent. While it made her a little difficult to understand, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t find it attractive. The Modegan accent practically sweats sex.

“I did,” I said. “It wasn’t entirely on purpose. But I did.”

“Then you must let me buy you a drink,” she said in the tone of a woman who usually gets her way.

I smiled at her, wishing I’d been awake more than ten minutes so my wits weren’t quite so fuddled. “You wouldn’t be the first to buy me one on that account,” I said honestly. “If you insist, I’ll have a Greysdale mead.”

I watched her turn and walk back to the bar. If she was a student, she was new. If she’d been here more than a handful of days I would have heard about it from Sim, who kept tabs on all the prettiest girls in town, courting them with artless enthusiasm.

The Modegan woman returned a moment later and sat across from me, sliding a wooden mug across the table. Anker must have just finished washing it, as the fingers of her burgundy glove were wet where they had gripped the handle.

She raised her own glass, filled with a deep red wine. “To Ambrose Jakis,” she said with sudden fierceness. “May he fall into a well and die.”

I picked up the mug and took a drink, wondering if there was a woman within fifty miles of the University Ambrose hadn’t treated badly. I wiped my hand discreetly on my pants.

The woman took a deep drink of her wine and set her glass down hard. Her pupils were huge. Early as it was, she must have already been doing a fair piece of drinking.

I could suddenly smell nutmeg and plum. I sniffed at my mug, then looked at the tabletop, thinking someone might have spilled a drink. But there was nothing.

The woman across from me suddenly burst into tears. This was no gentle weeping, either. It was like someone had turned a spigot.

She looked down at her gloved hands and shook her head. She peeled off the wet one, looked at me, and sobbed out a dozen words of Modegan.

“I’m sorry,” I said helplessly. “I don’t speak—”

But she was already pushing herself up and away from the table. Wiping at her face, she ran for the door.

Anker stared at me from behind the bar, as did everyone else in the room.

“That was not my fault,” I said, pointing at the door. “She went crazy on her own.”

I would have followed her and tried to unravel it all, but she was already outside, and my admissions interview was less than an hour away. Besides, if I tried to help every woman Ambrose had ever traumatized, I wouldn’t have time left for eating or sleeping.

On the upside, the bizarre encounter seemed to have cleared my head, and I no longer felt gritty and thick with lack of sleep. I decided I might as well take advantage of it and get admissions out of the way. Sooner begun is sooner done, as my father used to say.

On my way to Hollows, I stopped to buy a golden brown meat pie from a vender’s cart. I knew I’d need every penny for this term’s tuition, but the price of a decent meal wasn’t going to make much difference one way or the other. It was hot and solid, full of chicken and carrot and sage. I ate it while I walked, reveling in the small freedom of buying something according to my taste rather than making do with whatever Anker happened to have at hand.

As I finished the last bit of crust, I smelled honeyed almonds. I bought a large scoop in a clever pouch made from a dried corn husk. It cost me four drabs, but I hadn’t had honeyed almonds in years, and some sugar in my blood wouldn’t hurt when I was answering questions.

The line for admissions wound through the courtyard. Not abnormally long, but irritating nonetheless. I saw a familiar face from the Fishery and went to stand next to a young, green-eyed woman who was waiting to queue up as well.

“Hello there,” I said. “You’re Amlia, aren’t you?”

She gave me a nervous smile and a nod.

“I’m Kvothe,” I said, making a tiny bow.

“I know who you are,” she said. “I’ve seen you in the Artificery.”

“You should call it the Fishery,” I said. I held out the pouch. “Would you like a honey almond?”

Amlia shook her head.

“They’re really good,” I said, joggling them enticingly in the corn-husk pouch.

She reached out hesitantly and took one.

“Is this the line for noon?” I asked, gesturing.

She shook her head. “We’ve got another couple minutes before we can even line up.”

“It’s ridiculous that they make us stand around like this,” I said.“Like sheep in a paddock. This entire process is a waste of everyone’s time and insulting to boot.” I saw a flicker of anxiety cross Amlia’s face. “What?” I asked her.

“It’s just that you’re talking a little loudly,” she said, looking around.

“I’m just not afraid to say what everybody else is thinking,” I said. “The whole admissions process is flawed to the point of blinding idiocy. Master Kilvin knows what I’m capable of. So does Elxa Dal. Brandeur doesn’t know me from a hole in the ground. Why should he get an equal say in my tuition?”

Amlia shrugged, not meeting my eye.

I bit into another almond and quickly spit it onto the cobblestones. “Feah!” I held them out to her. “Do these taste like plums to you?”

She gave me a vaguely disgusted look, then her eyes focused on something behind me.

I turned to see Ambrose moving through the courtyard towards us. He cut a fine figure, as he always did, dressed in clean white linen, velvet, and brocade. He wore a hat with a tall white plume, and the sight of it made me unreasonably angry. Uncharacteristically, he was alone, devoid of his usual contingent of toadies and bootlickers.

“Wonderful,” I said as soon as he came within earshot. “Ambrose, your presence is the horseshit frosting on the horseshit cake that is the admissions interview process.”

Surprisingly, Ambrose smiled at this. “Ah, Kvothe. I’m pleased to see you too.”

“I met one of your previous ladyloves today,” I said. “She was dealing with the sort of profound emotional trauma I assume comes from seeing you naked.”

His expression soured a little at that, and I leaned over and spoke to Amlia in a stage whisper. “I have it on good report that not only does Ambrose have a tiny, tiny penis, but he can only become aroused when in the presence of a dead dog, a painting of the Duke of Gibea, and a shirtless galley drummer.”

Amlia’s expression was frozen.

Ambrose looked at her. “You should leave,” he said gently. “There’s no reason you should have to listen to this sort of thing.”

Amlia practically fled.

“I’ll give you that,” I said, watching her go. “Nobody can make a woman run like you.” I tipped an imaginary hat. “You could give lessons. You could teach a class.”

Ambrose just stood, nodding contentedly and watching me in an oddly proprietary way.

“That hat makes you look like you fancy young boys,” I added. “And I’ve a mind to slap it right off your head if you don’t piss off.” I looked at him. “Speaking of which, how’s the arm?”

“It’s feeling a great deal better at the moment,” he said pleasantly. He rubbed at it absentmindedly as he stood there, smiling.

I popped another almond into my mouth, then grimaced and spit it out again.

“What’s the matter?” Ambrose asked. “Don’t fancy plum?” Then, without waiting for an answer, he turned and walked away. He was smiling.

It says a great deal for my state of mind that I simply watched him go, confused. I lifted the pouch to my nose and took a deep breath. I smelled the dusty smell of the corn husk, honey, and cinnamon. Nothing at all of plum or nutmeg. How could Ambrose possibly know…?

Then everything came crashing together in my head. At the same time, noon bell rang out and everyone with a tile similar to mine moved to join the long line winding through the courtyard. It was time for my admissions exam.

I left the courtyard at a dead run.

I pounded frantically on the door, out of breath from running up to the third floor of Mews. “Simmon!” I shouted. “Open this door and talk to me!”

Along the hallway doors opened and students peered out at the commotion. One of the heads peering out was Simmon’s, his sandy hair in disarray. “Kvothe?” he said. “What are you doing? That’s not even my door.”

I walked over, pushed him inside his room, and closed the door behind us. “Simmon. Ambrose drugged me. I think there’s something not right in my head, but I can’t tell what it is.”

Simmon grinned. “I’ve thought that for a …” He trailed off, his expression turning incredulous. “What are you doing? Don’t spit on my floor!”

“I have a strange taste in my mouth,” I explained.

“I don’t care,” he said, angry and confused. “What’s wrong with you? Were you born in a barn?”

I struck him hard across the face with the flat of my hand, sending him staggering up against the wall. “I was born in a barn, actually,” I said grimly. “Is there something wrong with that?”

Sim stood with one hand braced against the wall, the other against the reddening skin of his cheek. His expression pure astonishment. “What in God’s name is wrong with you?”

“Nothing’s wrong with me,” I said, “but you’d do well to watch your tone. I like you well enough, but just because I don’t have a set of rich parents doesn’t mean you’re one whit better than me.” I frowned and spit again. “God that’s foul, I hate nutmeg. I have ever since I was a child.”

A sudden realization washed over Sim’s face. “The taste in your mouth,” he said. “Is it like plums and spice?”

I nodded. “It’s disgusting.”

“God’s grey ashes,” Sim said, his voice hushed in grim earnest. “Okay. You’re right. You’ve been drugged. I know what it is.” He trailed off as I turned around and started to open the door. “What are you doing?”

“I’m going to go kill Ambrose,” I said. “For poisoning me.”

“It’s not a poison. It’s—” He stopped speaking abruptly, then continued in a calm, level voice. “Where did you get that knife?”

“I keep it strapped to my leg, under my pants,” I said. “For emergencies.”

Sim drew a deep breath, then let it out. “Could you give me a minute to explain before you go kill Ambrose?”

I shrugged. “Okay.”

“Would you mind sitting down while we talk?” He gestured to a chair.

I sighed and sat down. “Fine. But hurry. I’ve got admissions soon.”

Sim nodded calmly and sat on the edge of his bed, facing me. “Okay, you know when someone’s been drinking, and they get it into their head to do something stupid? And you can’t talk them out of it even though it’s obviously a bad idea?”

I laughed. “Like when you wanted to go talk to that harper girl outside the Eolian and threw up on her horse?”

He nodded. “Exactly like that. There’s something an alchemist can make that does the same thing, but it’s much more extreme.”

I shook my head. “I don’t feel drunk in the least. My head is clear as a bell.”

Sim nodded again. “It’s not like being drunk,” he said. “It’s just that one piece of it. It won’t make you dizzy or tired. It just makes it easier for a person to do something stupid.”

I thought about it for a moment. “I don’t think that’s it,” I said. “I don’t feel like I want to do anything stupid.”

“There’s one way to tell,” Sim said. “Can you think of anything right now that seems like a bad idea?”

I thought for a moment, tapping the flat of the knife’s blade idly against the edge of my boot.

“It would be a bad idea to …” I trailed off.

I thought for a longer moment. Sim looked at me expectantly.

“… to jump off the roof?” My voice curled up at the end, making it a sort of question.

Sim was quiet. He kept looking at me.

“I see the problem,” I said slowly. “I don’t seem to have any behavioral filters.”

Simmon gave a relieved smile and nodded encouragingly. “That’s it exactly. All your inhibitions have been sliced off so cleanly you can’t even tell they’re gone. But everything else is the same. You’re steady, articulate, and rational.”

“You’re patronizing me,” I said, pointing at him with the knife. “Don’t.”

He blinked. “Fair enough. Can you think of a solution to the problem?”

“Of course. I need some sort of behavioral touchstone. You’re going to need to be my compass because you still have your filters in place.”

“I was thinking the same thing,” he said. “So you’ll trust me?”

I nodded. “Except when it comes to women. You’re an idiot with women.” I picked up a glass of water from a nearby table and rinsed my mouth out with it, spitting it onto the floor.

Sim gave a shaky smile. “Fair enough. First, you can’t go kill Ambrose.”

I hesitated. “You’re sure?”

“I’m sure. In fact, pretty much anything you think to do with that knife is going to be a bad idea. You should give it to me.”

I shrugged and flipped it over in my palm, handing him the makeshift leather grip.

Sim seemed surprised by this, but he took hold of the knife. “Merciful Tehlu,” he said with a profound sigh, setting the knife down on the bed. “Thank you.”

“Was that an extreme case?” I asked, rinsing my mouth out again. “We should probably have some sort of ranking system. Like a ten point scale.”

“Spitting water onto my floor is a one,” he said.

“Oh,” I said. “Sorry.” I put the cup back onto his desk.

“It’s okay,” he said easily.

“Is one low or high?” I asked.

“Low,” he said. “Killing Ambrose is a ten.” He hesitated. “Maybe an eight.” He shifted in his seat. “Or a seven.”

“Really?” I said. “That much? Okay then.” I leaned forward in my seat. “You need to give me some tips for admissions. I’ve got to get back into line before too long.”

Simmon shook his head firmly. “No. That’s a really bad idea. Eight.”

“Really?”

“Really,” he said. “It is a delicate social situation. A lot of things could go wrong.”

“But if—”

Sim let out a sigh, brushing his sandy hair out of his eyes. “Am I your touchstone or not? This is going to get tedious if I have to tell you everything three times before you listen.”

I thought about it for a moment. “You’re right, especially if I’m about to do something potentially dangerous.” I looked around. “How long is this going to last?”

“No more than eight hours.” He opened his mouth to continue, then closed it.

“What?” I asked.

Sim sighed. “There might be some side effects. It’s lipid soluble, so it will hang around in your body a bit. You might experience occasional minor relapses brought about by stress, intense emotion, exercise… .” He gave me an apologetic look. “They’d be like little echoes of this.”

“I’ll worry about that later,” I said. I held out my hand. “Give me your admissions tile. You can go through now. I’ll take your slot.”

He spread his hands helplessly. “I’ve already gone,” he explained.

“Tehlu’s tits and teeth,” I cursed. “Fine. Go get Fela.”

He waved his hands violently in front of himself. “No. No no no. Ten.”

I laughed. “Not for that. She has a slot late on Cendling.”

“You think she’ll trade with you?”

“She’s already offered.”

Sim got to his feet. “I’ll go find her.”

“I’ll stay here,” I said.

Sim gave an enthusiastic nod and looked nervously around the room. “It’s probably safest if you don’t do anything while I’m gone,” he said as he opened the door. “Just sit on your hands until I get back.”

Sim was only gone for five minutes, which was probably for the best.

There was a knock on the door. “It’s me,” Sim’s voice came through the wood. “Is everything all right in there?”

“You know what’s strange?” I said to him through the door. “I tried to think of something funny I could do while you were gone, but I couldn’t.” I looked around at the room. “I think that means humor is rooted in social transgression. I can’t transgress because I can’t figure out what would be socially unacceptable. Everything seems the same to me.”

“You might have a point,” he said, then asked, “did you do something anyway?”

“No,” I said. “I decided to be good. Did you find Fela?”

“I did. She’s here. But before we come in, you have to promise not to do anything without asking me first. Fair?”

I laughed. “Fair enough. Just don’t make me do stupid things in front of her.”

“I promise,” Sim said. “Why don’t you sit down? Just to be safe.”

“I’m already sitting,” I said.

Sim opened the door. I could see Fela peering over his shoulder.

“Hello Fela,” I said. “I need to trade slots with you.”

“First,” Sim said. “You should put your shirt back on. That’s about a two.”

“Oh,” I said. “Sorry. I was hot.”

“You could have opened the window.”

“I thought it would be safer if I limited my interactions with external objects,” I said.

Sim raised an eyebrow. “That’s actually a really good idea. It just steered you a little wrong in this case.”

“Wow.” I heard Fela’s voice from the hallway. “Is he serious?”

“Absolutely serious,” Sim said. “Honestly? I don’t think it’s safe for you to come in.”

I tugged my shirt on. “Dressed,” I said. “I’ll even sit on my hands if it will make you feel better.” I did just that, tucking them under my legs.

Sim let Fela inside, then closed the door behind her.

“Fela, you are just gorgeous,” I said. “I would give you all the money in my purse if I could just look at you naked for two minutes. I’d give everything I own. Except my lute.”

It’s hard to say which of them blushed a deeper red. I think it was Sim.

“I wasn’t supposed to say that, was I?” I said.

“No,” Sim said. “That’s about a five.”

“But that doesn’t make any sense,” I said. “Women are naked in paintings. People buy paintings, don’t they? Women pose for them.”

Sim nodded. “That’s true. But still. Just sit for a moment and don’t say or do anything? Okay?”

I nodded.

“I can’t quite believe this,” Fela said, the blush fading from her cheeks. “I can’t help but think the two of you are playing some sort of elaborate joke on me.”

“I wish we were,” Simmon said. “This stuff is terribly dangerous.”

“How can he remember naked paintings and not remember you’re supposed to keep your shirt on in public?” she asked Sim, her eyes never leaving me.

“It just didn’t seem very important,” I said. “I took my shirt off when I was whipped. That was public. It seems a strange thing to get in trouble for.”

“Do you know what would happen if you tried to knife Ambrose?” Simmon asked.

I thought for a second. It was like trying to remember what you’d eaten for breakfast a month ago. “There’d be a trial, I suppose,” I said slowly, “and people would buy me drinks.”

Fela muffled a laugh behind her hand.

“How about this?” Simmon asked me. “Which is worse, stealing a pie or killing Ambrose?”

I gave it a moment’s hard thought. “A meat pie, or a fruit pie?”

“Wow,” Fela said breathlessly. “That’s …” She shook her head. “It almost makes my skin crawl.”

Simmon nodded. “It’s a terrifying piece of alchemy. It’s a variation of a sedative called a plum bob. You don’t even have to ingest it. It’s absorbed straight through the skin.”

Fela looked at him. “How do you know so much about it?”

Sim gave a weak smile. “Mandrag lectures about it in every alchemy class he teaches. I’ve heard the story a dozen times by now. It’s his favorite example of how alchemy can be abused. An alchemist used it to ruin the lives of several government officials in Atur about fifty years ago. He only got caught because a countess ran amok in the middle of a wedding, killed a dozen folk and—”

Sim stopped, shaking his head. “Anyway. It was bad. Bad enough that the alchemist’s mistress turned him over to the guards.”

“I hope he got what he deserved.”

“And with some to spare,” Sim said grimly. “The point is, it hits everyone a little differently. It’s not a simple lowering of inhibition. There’s an amplification of emotion. A freeing up of hidden desire combined with a strange type of selective memory, almost like a moral amnesia.”

“I don’t feel bad,” I said. “I feel pretty good, actually. But I’m worried about admissions.”

Sim gestured. “See? He remembers admissions. It’s important to him. But other things are just … gone.”

“Is there a cure?” Fela asked nervously. “Shouldn’t we take him to the Medica?”

Simmon looked nervous. “I don’t think so. They might try a purgative, but it’s not as if there’s a drug working through him. Alchemy doesn’t work like that. He’s under the influence of unbound principles. You can’t flush those out the way you’d try to get rid of mercury or ophalum.”

“A purgative doesn’t sound like much fun,” I added. “If my vote counts for anything.”

“And there’s a chance they might think he’s cracked under admission stress,” Sim said to Fela. “That happens to a few students every term. They’d stick him in Haven until they were sure—”

I was on my feet, my hands clenched into fists. “I’ll be cut into pieces in hell before I let them stick me in Haven,” I said, furious. “Even for an hour. Even for a minute.”

Sim blanched and took a step back, raising his hands defensively, palms out. But his voice was firm and calm. “Kvothe, I am telling you three times. Stop.”

I stopped. Fela was watching me with wide, frightened eyes.

Simmon continued firmly. “Kvothe, I am telling you three times: sit down.”

I sat.

Standing behind him, Fela looked at Simmon, surprised.

“Thank you,” Simmon said graciously, lowering his hands. “I agree. The Medica isn’t the best place for you. We can just ride this out here.”

“That sounds better to me too,” I said.

“Even if things did go smoothly at the Medica,” Simmon added. “I expect you will be more inclined to speak your mind than usual.” He gave a small, wry smile. “Secrets are the cornerstone of civilization, and I know you have a few more than most folk.”

“I don’t think I have any secrets,” I said.

Sim and Fela both burst out laughing at the same time. “I’m afraid you just proved his point,” Fela said. “I know you have at least a few.”

“So do I,” Sim said.

“You’re my touchstone,” I shrugged. Then I smiled at Fela and pulled out my purse.

Sim shook his head at me. “No no no. I’ve already told you. Seeing her naked would be the worst thing in the world right now.”

Fela’s eyes narrowed a little at that.

“What’s the matter?” I asked. “Are you worried I’ll tackle her to the ground and ravage her?” I laughed.

Sim looked at me. “Wouldn’t you?”

“Of course not,” I said.

He looked at Fela, then back. “Can you say why?” he asked curiously.

I thought about it. “It’s because …” I trailed off, then shook my head. “It …I just can’t. I know I can’t eat a stone or walk through a wall. It’s like that.”

I concentrated on it for a second and began to get dizzy. I put one hand over my eyes and tried to ignore the sudden vertigo. “Please tell me I’m right about that,” I asked, suddenly scared. “I can’t eat a stone, can I?”

“You’re right,” Fela said quickly. “You can’t.”

I stopped trying to rummage around the inside of my mind for answers and the odd vertigo faded.

Sim was watching me intently.“I wish I knew what that signified,” he said.

“I have a fair idea,” Fela murmured softly.

I drew the ivory admissions tile out of my purse. “I was just looking to trade,” I said. “Unless you are willing to let me see you naked.” I hefted the purse with my other hand and met Fela’s eye. “Sim says it’s wrong, but he’s an idiot with women. My head might not be screwed on quite as tightly as I’d like, but I remember that clearly.”

It was four hours before my inhibitions began to filter back, and two more before they were firmly in place. Simmon spent the entire day with me, patient as a priest, explaining that no, I shouldn’t go buy us a bottle of brand. No, I shouldn’t go kick the dog that was barking across the street. No, I shouldn’t go to Imre and look for Denna. No. Three times no.

By the time the sun went down I was back to my regular, semi-moral self. Simmon quizzed me extensively before walking me back to my room at Anker’s, where he made me swear on my mother’s milk that I wouldn’t leave my room until morning. I swore.

But all was not right with me. My emotions were still running hot, flaring up at every little thing. Worse, my memory hadn’t simply returned to normal, it was back with a vivid and uncontrollable enthusiasm.

It hadn’t been that bad when I was with Simmon. His presence was a pleasant distraction. But alone in my small garret room in Anker’s, I was at the mercy of my memory. It was as if my mind was determined to unpack and examine every sharp and painful thing I had ever seen.

You might think the worst memories were those of when my troupe was killed. Of how I came back to our camp and found everything aflame. The unnatural shapes my parents’ bodies made in the dim twilight. The smell of scorched canvas and blood and burning hair. Memories of the ones who killed them. Of the Chandrian. Of the man who spoke to me, grinning all the while. Of Cinder.

These were bad memories, but over the years I had brought them out and handled them so often there was hardly a sharp edge left to them. I remembered the pitch and timbre of Haliax’s voice as clearly as my father’s. I could easily bring to mind the face of Cinder. His perfect, smiling teeth. His white, curling hair. His eyes, black as beads of ink. His voice, full of winter’s chill, saying: Someone’s parents have been singing entirely the wrong sorts of songs.

You would think these would be the worst memories. But you would be wrong.

No. The worst memories were those of my young life. The slow roll and bump of riding in the wagon, my father holding the reins loosely. His strong hands on my shoulders, showing me how to stand on the stage so my body said proud, or sad, or shy. His fingers adjusting mine on the strings of his lute.

My mother brushing my hair. The feel of her arms around me. The perfect way my head fit into the curve of her neck. How I would sit, curled in her lap next to the fire at night, drowsy and happy and safe.

These were the worst memories. Precious and perfect. Sharp as a mouthful of broken glass. I lay in bed, clenched into a trembling knot, unable to sleep, unable to turn my mind to other things, unable to stop myself from remembering. Again. And again. And again.

Then there came a small tapping at my window. A sound so tiny I didn’t notice it until it stopped. Then I heard the window ease open behind me.

“Kvothe?” Auri said softly.

I clenched my teeth against the sobbing and lay still as I could, hoping she would think I was asleep and leave.

“Kvothe?” she called again. “I brought you—” There was a moment of silence, then she said, “Oh.”

I heard a soft sound behind me. The moonlight showed her tiny shadow on the wall as she climbed through the window. I felt the bed move as she settled onto it.

A small, cool hand brushed the side of my face.

“It’s okay,” she said quietly. “Come here.”

I began to cry quietly, and she gently uncurled the tight knot of me until my head lay in her lap. She murmured, brushing my hair away from my forehead, her hands cool against my hot face.

“I know,” she said sadly. “It’s bad sometimes, isn’t it?”

She stroked my hair gently, and it only made me cry harder. I could not remember the last time someone had touched me in a loving way.

“I know,” she said. “You have a stone in your heart, and some days it’s so heavy there is nothing to be done. But you don’t have to be alone for it. You should have come to me. I understand.”

My body clenched and suddenly the taste of plum filled my mouth again. “I miss her,” I said before I realized I was speaking. Then I bit it off before I could say anything else. I clenched my teeth and shook my head furiously, like a horse fighting its reins.

“You can say it,” Auri said gently.

I shook again, tasted plum, and suddenly the words were pouring out of me. “She said I sang before I spoke. She said when I was just a baby she had the habit of humming when she held me. Nothing like a song. Just a descending third. Just a soothing sound. Then one day she was walking me around the camp, and she heard me echo it back to her. Two octaves higher. A tiny piping third. She said it was my first song. We sang it back and forth to each other. For years.” I choked and clenched my teeth.

“You can say it,” Auri said softly. “It’s okay if you say it.”

“I’m never going to see her again,” I choked out. Then I began to cry in earnest.

“It’s okay,” Auri said softly. “I’m here. You’re safe.”

CHAPTER EIGHT

Questions

THE NEXT FEW DAYS were neither pleasant nor productive. Fela’s admissions slot was at the very end of the span, so I attempted to put the extra time to good use. I tried to do some piecework in the Fishery, but quickly returned to my room when I broke down crying halfway through inscribing a heat funnel. Not only couldn’t I maintain the proper Alar, but the last thing I needed was for people to think I’d cracked under the stress of admissions.

Later that night, when I tried to crawl through the narrow tunnel into the Archives, the taste of plum flooded my mouth, and I was filled with a mindless fear of the dark, confining space. Luckily, I’d only gone a dozen feet, but even so I almost gave myself a concussion struggling backwards out of the tunnel, and my palms were scraped raw from my panicked scrabbling against the stone.

So I spent the next two days pretending I was sick and keeping to my tiny room. I played my lute, slept fitfully, and thought dark thoughts of Ambrose.

Anker was cleaning up when I came downstairs. “Feeling better?” he asked.

“A bit,” I said. Yesterday I’d only had two plum echoes, and they were very brief. Better yet, I’d managed to sleep the whole night through. It seemed I was through the worst of it.

“You hungry?”

I shook my head. “Admissions today.”

Anker frowned. “You should have something, then. An apple.” He bustled around behind the bar, then brought out a pottery mug and a heavy jug. “Have some milk too. I’ve got to make use of it before it turns. Damn iceless started giving up the ghost a couple days ago. Three talents solid that thing cost me. I knew I shouldn’t have wasted money on it with ice so cheap around here.”

I leaned over the bar and peered at the long wooden box tucked away among the mugs and bottles. “I could take a look at it for you,” I offered.

Anker raised an eyebrow. “Can you do something with it?”

“I can look,” I said. “Could be something simple I could fix.”

Anker shrugged. “You can’t break it more than it’s already broken.” He wiped his hands on his apron and motioned me behind the bar. “I’ll do you a couple eggs while you’re having your look. I should use those up too.” He opened the long box, took out a handful of eggs, then walked back into the kitchen.

I made my way around the corner of the bar and knelt to look at the iceless. It was a stone-lined box the size of a small traveling trunk. Anywhere other than the University it would have been a miracle of artificing, a luxury. Here, where such things were easy to come by, it was just another piece of needless God-bothering that wasn’t working properly.

It was about as simple a piece of artificing as could be made. No moving parts at all, just two flat bands of tin covered in sygaldry that moved heat from one end of the metal band to the other. It was really nothing more than a slow, inefficient heat siphon.

I crouched down and rested my fingers on the tin bands. The right-hand one was warm, meaning the half on the inside would be correspondingly cool. But the one on the left was room temperature. I craned my neck to get a look at the sygaldry and spotted a deep scratch in the tin, scoring through two of the runes.

That explained it. A piece of sygaldry is like a sentence in a lot of ways. If you remove a couple words, it simply doesn’t make any sense. I should say it usually doesn’t make sense. Sometimes a damaged piece of sygaldry can do something truly unpleasant. I frowned down at the band of tin. This was sloppy artificing. The runes should have been on the inside of the band where they couldn’t be damaged.

I rummaged around until I found a disused ice hammer in the back of a drawer, then carefully tapped the two damaged runes flat into the soft surface of the tin. Then I concentrated and used the tip of a paring knife to etch them back into the thick metal band.

Anker emerged from the kitchen with a plateful of eggs and tomatoes. “It should work now,” I said. I started eating out of politeness, then realized I was actually hungry.

Anker looked over the box, lifting the lid. “That easy?”

“Same as anything else,” I said, my mouth half full. “Easy if you know what you’re doing. It should work. Give it a day and see if it actually chills down.”

I finished off the plateful of eggs and drank the milk as quickly as I could without being rude. “I’ll need to cash out my bar credit today,” I said. “Tuition’s going to be hard this term.”

Anker nodded and checked a small ledger he kept underneath the bar, tallying all the Greysdale mead I’d pretended to drink over the last two months. Then he pulled out his purse and counted out ten copper jots onto the table. A full talent: twice what I’d expected. I looked up at him, puzzled.

“One of Kilvin’s boys would have charged me at least half a talent to come round and fix this thing,” Anker explained, kicking at the iceless.

“I can’t be sure… .”

He waved me into silence. “If it isn’t fixed, I’ll take it out of your wages over the next month,” he said. “Or I’ll use it as leverage to get you to start playing Reaving night too.” He grinned. “I consider it an investment.”

I gathered the money into my purse: Four talents.

I was heading toward the Fishery to see if my lamps had finally sold when I caught a glimpse of a familiar face crossing the courtyard wearing dark master’s robes.

“Master Elodin!” I called as I saw him approaching a side door to the Masters’ Hall. It was one of the few buildings I hadn’t spent much time in, as it contained little more than living quarters for the masters, the resident gillers, and guest rooms for visiting arcanists.

He turned at the sound of his name. Then, seeing me jogging toward him, he rolled his eyes and turned back to the door.

“Master Elodin,” I said, breathing a little hard. “Might I ask you a quick question?”

“Statistically speaking, it’s pretty likely,” he said, unlocking the door with a bright brass key.

“May I ask you a question, then?”

“I doubt any power known to man could stop you.” He swung open the door and headed inside.

I hadn’t been invited, but I slipped inside after him. Elodin was difficult to track down, and I worried if I didn’t take this chance, I might not see him again for another span of days.

I followed him through a narrow stone hallway. “I’d heard a rumor you were gathering a group of students to study naming,” I said cautiously.

“That’s not a question,” Elodin said as he headed up a long, narrow flight of stairs.

I fought back the urge to snap at him and took a deep breath instead. “Is it true you’re teaching such a class?”

“Yes.”

“Were you planning on including me?”

Elodin stopped and turned to face me on the stairway. He looked out of place in his dark master’s robe. His hair was tousled and his face was too young, almost boyish.

He stared at me for a long minute. He looked me up and down as if I were a horse he were thinking of betting on, or a side of beef he was considering selling by the pound.

But that was nothing compared to when he met my eyes. For a heartbeat it was simply unsettling. Then it almost felt like the light on the stairway grew dim. Or that I was suddenly being thrust deep underwater and the pressure was keeping me from drawing a full breath.

“Damn you, half-wit.” I heard a familiar voice that seemed to be coming from a long way off. “If you’re going catatonic again, have the decency to do it in Haven and save us the trouble of carting your foam-flecked carcass back there. Barring that, get to one side.”

Elodin looked away from me and suddenly everything was bright and clear again. I fought to keep from gasping in a lungful of air.

Master Hemme stomped down the stairs, shouldering Elodin roughly to one side. When he saw me he snorted. “Of course. The quarter-wit is here too. Might I recommend a book for your perusal? It is a lovely piece of reading titled, Hallways, Their Form and Function: A Primer for the Mentally Deficient.”

He glowered at me, and when I didn’t immediately jump aside he gave me an unpleasant smile. “Ah, but you’re still banned from the Archives, aren’t you? Should I arrange to present the salient information in a form more suited to your kind? Perhaps a mummer’s play or some manner of puppet show?”

I stepped to one side and Hemme stormed by, muttering to himself. Elodin stared daggers into the other master’s broad back. Only after Hemme turned the corner did Elodin’s attention settle back on me.

He sighed. “Perhaps it would be better if you pursued your other studies, Re’lar Kvothe. Dal has a fondness for you, as does Kilvin. You seem to be progressing well with them.”

“But sir,” I said, trying to keep the dismay out of my voice. “You’re the one who sponsored my promotion to Re’lar.”

He turned and began climbing the stairs again. “Then you should value my sage advice, shouldn’t you?”

“But, if you’re teaching other students, why not me?”

“Because you are too eager to be properly patient,” he said flippantly. “You’re too proud to listen properly. And you’re too clever by half. That’s the worst of it.”

“Some masters prefer clever students,” I muttered as we emerged into a wide hallway.

“Yes,” Elodin said. “Dal and Kilvin and Arwyl like clever students. Go study with one of them. Both our lives will be considerably easier because of it.”

“But …”

Elodin came to an abrupt halt in the middle of the hallway. “Fine,” he said. “Prove you’re worth teaching. Shake my assumptions down to their foundation stones.” He patted at his robes dramatically, as if looking for something lost in a pocket. “Much to my dismay, I find myself without a way to get past this door.” He rapped it with a knuckle. “What do you do in this situation, Re’lar Kvothe?”

I smiled despite my general irritation. He couldn’t have picked a challenge more perfectly suited to my talents. I pulled a long, slender piece of spring steel out of a pocket in my cloak, then knelt in front of the door and eyed the keyhole. The lock was substantial, made to last. But while large, heavy locks look impressive, they’re actually easier to circumvent if they’re well-maintained.

This one was. It took me the space of three slow breaths to trip it with a satisfying k-tick. I stood up, brushed off my knees, and swung the door inward with a flourish.

For his part, Elodin did seem somewhat impressed. His eyebrows went up as the door swung open. “Clever,” he said as he walked inside.

I followed on his heels. I’d never really wondered what Elodin’s rooms were like. But if I’d guessed, it wouldn’t have been anything resembling this.

They were huge and lavish, with high ceilings and thick rugs. Old wood paneled the walls, and tall windows let in the early morning light. There were oil paintings and massive pieces of ancient wooden furniture. It was bizarrely ordinary.

Elodin moved quickly through the entryway, through a tasteful sitting room, then into the bedroom. Call it a bedchamber, rather. It was huge, with a four-post bed big as a boat. Elodin threw open a wardrobe and started removing several long, dark robes similar to the one he was wearing.

“Here.” Elodin shoved robes into my arms until I couldn’t hold any more. Some were everyday cotton, but others were fine linen or rich, soft velvet. He lay another half-dozen robes over his own arm and carried them back into the sitting room.

We passed old bookshelves lined with hundreds of books and a huge polished desk. One wall was taken up with a large stone fireplace big enough to roast a pig, though there was currently only a small fire smoldering there, keeping away the early autumn chill.

Elodin lifted a crystal decanter off a table and went to stand in front of the fireplace. He dumped the robes he was carrying into my arms so I could barely see over the top of them. Delicately lifting the top off the decanter, he sipped at the contents and raised an eyebrow appreciatively, holding it up to the light.

I decided to try again. “Master Elodin, why don’t you want to teach me naming?”

“That’s the wrong question,” he said, and upended the decanter onto smoldering coals in the fireplace. As the flames licked up hungrily, he took his armload of robes back and fed a velvet one slowly into the fire. It caught quickly, and when it was blazing away, he fed the others onto the fire in quick succession. The result was a great smoldering pile of cloth that sent thick smoke billowing up the chimney. “Try again.”

I couldn’t help but ask the obvious. “Why are you burning your clothes?”

“Nope. Not even close to the right question,” he said as he took more robes out of my arms and piled them into the fireplace. Then Elodin grabbed the handle for the flue and pulled it closed with a metallic clank. Great clouds of smoke began to pour into the room. Elodin coughed a bit, then stepped back and looked around in a vaguely satisfied way.

I suddenly realized what was going on. “Oh God,” I said. “Whose rooms are these?”

Elodin gave a satisfied nod. “Very good. I would also have accepted, Why don’t you have a key for this room? or What are we doing in here?” He looked down at me, his eyes serious. “Doors are locked for a reason. People who don’t have keys are supposed to stay out for a reason.”

He nudged the heap of smouldering cloth with one foot, as if reassuring himself it would stay in the fireplace. “You know you’re clever. That’s your weakness. You assume you know what you’re getting into, but you don’t.”

Elodin turned to look at me, his dark eyes serious. “You think you can trust me to teach you,” he said. “You think I will keep you safe. But that is the worst sort of foolishness.”

“Whose rooms are these?” I repeated numbly.

He showed me all his teeth in a sudden grin. “Master Hemme’s.”

“Why are you burning all of Hemme’s clothes?” I asked, trying to ignore the fact that the room was rapidly filling with bitter smoke.

Elodin looked at me as if I were an idiot. “Because I hate him.” He picked up the crystal decanter from the mantle and threw it violently against the back of the fireplace where it shattered. The fire began to burn more vigorously from whatever had been left inside. “The man is an absolute tit. Nobody talks to me like that.”

Smoke continued to boil into the room. If it weren’t for the high ceilings we’d already be choking on it. Even so, it was becoming hard to breathe as we made our way to the door. Elodin opened it, and smoke rolled out into the hallway.

We stood outside the door, staring at each other while the smoke billowed past. I decided to take a different tack on the problem. “I understand your hesitation, Master Elodin,” I said. “Sometimes I don’t think things all the way through.”

“Obviously.”

“And I’ll admit there have been times when my actions have been …” I paused, trying to think of something more humble than ill-considered.

“Stupid beyond all mortal ken?” Elodin said helpfully.

My temper flared, burning away my brief attempt at humility. “Well thank God I’m the only one here that’s ever made a bad decision in my life!” I said, barely keeping my voice this side of a shout. I looked him hard in the eye. “I’ve heard stories about you too, you know. They say you toffed things up pretty well yourself back when you were a student here.”

Elodin’s amused expression faded a bit, leaving him looking like he’d swallowed something and it had gotten stuck halfway down.

I continued. “If you think I’m reckless, do something about it. Show me the straighter path! Mold my supple young mind—” I sucked in a lungful of smoke and began to cough, forcing me to cut my tirade short. “Do something, damn you!” I choked out. “Teach me!”

I hadn’t really been shouting, but I ended up breathless all the same. My temper faded as quickly as it had flared up, and I worried I’d gone too far.

But Elodin just looked at me. “What makes you think I’m not teaching you?” he asked, puzzled. “Aside from the fact that you refuse to learn.”

Then he turned and walked down the hallway. “I’d get out of here if I were you,” he said over his shoulder. “People are going to want to know who’s responsible for this, and everyone knows you and Hemme don’t get on very well.”

I felt myself break into a panicked sweat. “What?”

“I’d wash up before admissions too,” he said. “It won’t look good if you show up reeking of smoke. I live here,” Elodin said, pulling a key from his pocket and unlocking a door at the far end of the hallway. “What’s your excuse?”

CHAPTER NINE

A Civil Tongue

MY HAIR WAS STILL wet when I made my way through a short hallway, then up the stairs onto the stage of an empty theater. As always, the room was dark except for the huge crescent-shaped table. I moved to the edge of the light and waited politely.

The Chancellor motioned me forward and I walked to the center of the table, reaching up to hand him my tile. Then I stepped back to stand in the circle of slightly brighter light between the two outthrust horns of the table.

The nine masters looked down at me. I’d like to say they looked dramatic, like ravens on a fence or something like that. But while they were all wearing their formal robes, they were too mismatched to look like a collection of anything.

What’s more, I could see the marks of weariness on them. Only then did it occur to me that as much as the students hated admissions, it was probably no walk in the garden for the masters either.

“Kvothe, Arliden’s son,” the Chancellor said formally. “Re’lar.” He made a gesture to the far right-hand horn of the table. “Master Physicker?”

Arwyl peered down at me, his face grandfatherly behind his round spectacles. “What are the medicinal properties of mhenka?” he asked.

“Powerful anesthetic,” I said. “Powerful catatoniate. Potential purgative.” I hesitated. “It has a whole sackful of complicating secondaries too. Should I list them all?”

Arwyl shook his head. “A patient comes into the Medica complaining of pains in their joints and difficulty breathing. Their mouth is dry, and they claim to have a sweet taste in their mouth. They complain of chills, but they are actually sweaty and feverish. What is your diagnosis?”

I drew a breath, then hesitated. “I don’t make diagnoses in the Medica, Master Arwyl. I’d fetch one of your El’the to do it.”

He smiled at me, eyes crinkling around the edges. “Correct,” he said. “But for the sake of argument, what do you think might be wrong?”

“Is the patient a student?”

Arwyl raised an eyebrow. “What does that have to do with the price of butter?”

“If they work in the Fishery, it might be smelter’s flu,” I said. Arwyl cocked an eyebrow at me and I added, “There’s all sorts of heavy metal poisoning you can get in the Fishery. It’s rare around here because the students are well-trained, but anyone working with hot bronze can inhale enough fumes to kill themselves if they aren’t properly careful.” I saw Kilvin nodding along, and was glad I didn’t have to admit the only reason I knew this was that I’d given myself a mild case of it a month ago.

Arwyl gave a thoughtful humph, then gestured to the other side of the table. “Master Arithmetician?”

Brandeur sat on the left-hand point of the table. “Assuming the changer takes four percent, how many pennies can you break from a talent?” He asked the question without looking up from the papers in front of him.

“What type of penny, Master Brandeur?”

He looked up, frowning. “We are still in the Commonwealth, if I remember correctly.”

I juggled numbers in my head, working from the figures in the books he’d set aside in the Archives. They weren’t the true exchange rates you would get from a moneylender, they were the official exchange rates governments and financiers used so they had common ground for lying to each other. “In iron pennies. Three hundred and fifty,” I said, then added. “One. And a half.”

Brandeur looked down at the papers before I’d even finished speaking. “Your compass reads gold at two hundred twenty points, platinum at one hundred twelve points, and cobalt at thirty-two points. Where are you?”

I was boggled by the question. Orienting by trifoil required detailed maps and painstaking triangulation. It was usually only practiced by sea captains and cartographers, and they used detailed charts to make their calculations. I’d only ever laid eyes on a trifoil compass twice in my life.

Either this was a question listed in one of the books Brandeur had set aside for study or it was deliberately designed to spike my wheel. Given that Brandeur and Hemme were friends, I guessed it was the latter.

I closed my eyes, brought up a map of the civilized world in my head, and took my best guess. “Tarbean?” I said. “Maybe somewhere in Yll?” I opened my eyes. “Honestly, I have no idea.”

Brandeur made a mark on a piece of paper. “Master Namer,” he said without looking up.

Elodin gave me a wicked, knowing grin, and I was suddenly struck with the fear that he might reveal my part of what we had done in Hemme’s rooms earlier that morning.

Instead he held up three fingers dramatically. “You have three spades in your hand,” he said. “And there have been five spades played.” He steepled his fingers and looked at me seriously. “How many spades is that?”

“Eight spades,” I said.

The other masters stirred slightly in their seats. Arwyl sighed. Kilvin slouched. Hemme and Brandeur went to far as to roll their eyes at each other. All together they gave the impression of long-suffering exasperation.

Elodin scowled at them. “What?” he demanded, his voice going hard around the edges. “You want me to take this song and dance more seriously? You want me to ask him questions only a namer can answer?”

The other masters stilled at this, looking uncomfortable and refusing to meet his eye. Hemme was the exception and glared openly.

“Fine,” Elodin said, turning back to me. His eyes were dark, and his voice had a strange resonance to it. It wasn’t loud, but when he spoke, it seemed to fill the entire hall. It left no space left over for any other sound. “Where does the moon go,” Elodin asked grimly, “when it is no longer in our sky?”

The room seemed unnaturally quiet when he stopped speaking. As if his voice had left a hole in the world.

I waited to see if there was more to the question. “I haven’t the slightest,” I admitted. After Elodin’s voice, my own seemed rather thin and insubstantial.

Elodin shrugged, then gestured graciously across the table. “Master Sympathist.”

Elxa Dal was the only one who really looked comfortable in his formal robes. As always, his dark beard and lean face made me think of the evil magician in so many bad Aturan plays. He gave me a bit of a sympathetic look. “How about the binding for linear galvanic attraction?” he said in an offhand way.

I rattled it off easily.

He nodded. “What’s the distance of insurmountable decay for iron?”

“Five and a half miles,” I said, giving the textbook answer despite the fact that I had some quibbles with the term insurmountable. While it was true that moving any significant amount of energy more than six miles was statistically impossible, you could still use sympathy to dowse over much greater distances.

“Once an ounce of water is boiling, how much heat will it take to boil it completely away?”

I dragged up what I could remember from the vaporization tables I’d worked with in the Fishery. “A hundred and eighty thaums.” I said with more assurance than I actually felt.

“Good enough for me,” Dal said. “Master Alchemist?”

Mandrag waved a mottled hand dismissively. “I’ll pass.”

“He’s good with questions about spades,” Elodin suggested.

Mandrag frowned at Elodin. “Master Archivist.”

Lorren stared down at me, his long face impassive. “What are the rules of the Archives?”

I flushed at this and looked down. “Move quietly,” I said. “Respect the books. Obey the scrivs. No water. No food.” I swallowed. “No fire.”

Lorren nodded. Nothing in his tone or demeanor indicated any sort of disapproval, but that just made it worse. His eyes moved across the table. “Master Artificer.”

I cursed inwardly. Over the last span I’d read all six books Master Lorren had set aside for Re’lar to study from. Feltemi Reis’ Fall of Empire alone took me ten hours. I wanted few things more than access to the Archives, and I’d desperately hoped to impress Master Lorren by answering whatever question he could think to ask.

But there was no help for it. I turned to face Kilvin.

“Galvanic throughput of copper,” the great bearlike master rumbled through his beard.

I gave it to five places. I’d had to use it while making calculations for the deck lamps.

“Conductive coefficient of gallium.”

I’d needed to know that to dope the emitters for the lamp. Was Kilvin lobbing me easy questions? I gave the answer.

“Good,” Kilvin said. “Master Rhetorician.”

I drew a deep breath as I turned to look at Hemme. I had gone so far as to read three of his books, though I have a sharp loathing for rhetoric and pointless philosophy.

Still, I could tamp down my distaste for two minutes’ time and play the part of a good, humble student. I am one of the Ruh, I could act the part.

Hemme scowled at me, his round face like an angry moon. “Did you set fire to my rooms, you little ravel bastard?”

The raw nature of the question caught me entirely off my guard. I was ready for impossibly hard questions, or trick questions, or questions he could twist to make any answer I gave seem wrong.

But this sudden accusation caught me utterly wrong-footed. Ravel is a term I particularly despise. A welter of emotion rolled through me and brought the sudden taste of plum to my mouth. While part of me was still considering the most gracious way to respond, I found I was already speaking. “I didn’t set fire to your rooms,” I said honestly. “But I wish I had. And I wish you’d been in there when it started, sleeping soundly.”

Hemme’s expression turned from scowling to astonished.

“Re’lar Kvothe!” the Chancellor snapped. “You will keep a civil tongue in your head, or I will bring you up on charges of Conduct Unbecoming myself!”

The taste of plum disappeared as quickly as it had come, leaving me feeling slightly dizzy and sweating with fear and embarrassment. “My apologies, Chancellor,” I said quickly, looking down at my feet. “I spoke in anger. Ravel is a term my people find particularly offensive. Its use makes light of the systematic slaughter of thousands of Ruh.”

A curious line appeared between the Chancellor’s eyebrows. “I’ll admit I don’t know that particular etymology,” he mused. “I guess I’ll make that my question.”

“Hold off,” Hemme interrupted. “I’m not finished.”

“You are finished,” the Chancellor said, his voice hard and firm. “You’re as bad as the boy, Jasom, and with less excuse. You’ve shown you can’t conduct yourself in a professional manner, so stint thy clep and consider yourself lucky I don’t call for an official censure.”

Hemme went white with anger, but he held his tongue.

The Chancellor turned to look at me “Master Linguist,” he announced himself formally. “Re’lar Kvothe: What is the etymology of the word ravel?”

“It comes from the purges instigated by Emperor Alcyon,” I said. “He issued a proclamation saying any of the traveling rabble on the roads were subject to fine, imprisonment, or transportation without trial. The term became shortened to ‘ravel’ though metaplasmic enclitization.”

He raised an eyebrow at that. “Did it now?”

I nodded. “Though I also expect there is a connection to the term ravelend, referring to the ragged appearance of performing troupes that are out at the heels.”

The Chancellor nodded formally. “Thank you, Re’lar Kvothe. Take a seat while we confer.”

CHAPTER TEN

Being Treasured

MY TUITION WAS SET at nine talents and five. Better than the ten talents Manet had predicted, but more than I had in my purse. I had until tomorrow noon to settle up with the bursar or I would be forced to miss an entire term.

Having to postpone my studies wouldn’t have been a tragedy. But only students are allowed access to University resources, such as the equipment in the Artificery. That meant if I couldn’t pay my tuition, I would be barred from my work in Kilvin’s shop, the only job where I could hope to earn enough money for my tuition.

I stopped at the Stocks and Jaxim smiled as I approached the open window. “Just sold your lamps this morning,” he said. “We squeezed them for a little extra because they were the last ones left.”

He leafed through the ledger until he found the appropriate page. “Your sixty percent comes out to four talents and eight jots. After the materials and piecework you used …” He ran his finger down a page. “You’re left with two talents, three jots, and eight drabs.”

Jaxim made a note in the ledger, then wrote me a receipt. I folded the paper carefully and tucked it into my purse. It didn’t have the satisfying weight of coins, but it brought my total up to more than six talents. So much money, but still not enough.

If I hadn’t lost my temper with Hemme my tuition might have been low enough. I could have studied more, or earned more money if I hadn’t been forced to hide in my room for almost two whole days, weeping and raging with the taste of plum in my mouth.

A thought occurred to me. “I should start something new, I guess,” I said casually. “I’ll need a small crucible. Three ounces of tin. Two ounces of bronze. Four ounces of silver. A spool of fine gold wire. A copper—”

“Hold on a second,” Jaxim interrupted me. He ran a finger back along my name in the ledger. “I don’t have you authorized for gold or silver.” He looked up at me. “Is that a mistake?”

I hesitated, not wanting to lie. “I didn’t know you needed authorization,” I said.

Jaxim gave me a knowing grin. “You’re not the first one to try something like that,” he said. “Rough tuition?”

I nodded.

He grimaced sympathetically. “Sorry. Kilvin knows Stocks could turn into a moneylender’s stall if he isn’t careful.” He closed the ledger. “You’ll have to hit the pawnshop like everyone else.”

I held up my hands, showing him the fronts and backs to make a point of my lack of jewelry.

Jaxim winced. “That’s rough. I know a decent moneylender on Silver Court, only charges ten percent a month. It’s still like having your teeth pulled, but better than most.”

I nodded and sighed. Silver Court was where the guild moneylenders had their shops. They wouldn’t give me the time of day. “It’s certainly better than I’ve gotten in the past,” I said.

I thought things over while I walked to Imre, the familiar weight of my lute resting on one shoulder.

I was in a tight spot, but not a terrible one. No guild moneylender would lend money to an orphan Edema Ruh with no collateral, but I could borrow the money from Devi. Still, I wish it hadn’t come to that. Not only was her rate of interest extortionate, but I worried what favors she might require of me if I ever defaulted my loan. I doubted they would be small. Or easy. Or entirely legal.

Such were the turnings of my thoughts as I made my way over Stonebridge. I stopped by an apothecary, then made my way to the Grey Man.

Opening the door, I saw the Grey Man was a boarding house. There was no common room where people could gather and drink. Instead there was a small, richly-appointed parlor, complete with a well-dressed porter who eyed me with an air of disapproval, if not outright distaste.

“Can I help you, young sir?” he asked as I came in the door.

“I’m calling on a young lady,” I said. “By the name of Dinael.”

He nodded. “I shall go and see if she is in.”

“Don’t trouble yourself,” I said, moving toward the stairs. “She’s expecting me.”

The man moved to block my way. “I’m afraid that isn’t possible,” he said. “But I will be glad to see if the lady is in.”

He held out his hand. I looked at it.

“Your calling card?” he asked. “That I might present it to the young lady?”

“How can you give her my card if you aren’t sure she is in?” I asked.

The porter gave me the smile again. It was gracious, polite, and so sharply unpleasant that I took special note of it, fixing it in my memory. A smile like that is a work of art. As someone who grew up on the stage, I could appreciate it on several levels. A smile like that is like a knife in certain social settings, and I might have need of it someday.

“Ah,” the porter said. “The lady is in,” he said with a certain emphasis. “But that does not necessarily mean she is in for you.”

“You can tell her Kvothe has come calling,” I said, more amused than offended. “I’ll wait.”

I didn’t have to wait long. The porter came down the stairs wearing an irritated expression, as if he’d been looking forward to throwing me out. “This way,” he said.

I followed him upstairs. He opened a door, and I swept past him with what I hoped was an irritating amount of dismissive aplomb.

It was a sitting room with wide windows that let in the late afternoon sun, large enough to seem spacious despite the scattered chairs and couches. A hammer dulcimer sat against the far wall, and one corner of the room was entirely occupied by a massive Modegan great harp.

Denna stood in the center of the room wearing a green velvet dress. Her hair was arranged to display her elegant neck to good effect, revealing the emerald teardrop earrings and matching necklace at her throat.

She was talking to a young man who was … the best word I can think of is pretty. He had a sweet, clean-shaven face with wide, dark eyes.

He had the look of a young noble who had been down on his luck too long for it to be a temporary thing. His clothing was fine but rumpled. His dark hair was cut in a style obviously meant to be curled, but it hadn’t been tended to recently. His eyes were sunken, as if he hadn’t been sleeping well.

Denna held out her hands to me. “Kvothe,” she said. “Come meet Geoffrey.”

“Pleasure to meet you, Kvothe,” Geoffrey said. “Dinael has told me quite a bit about you. You’re a bit of a—what is it? Wizard?” His smile was open and utterly guileless.

“Arcanist actually,” I said as politely as possible. “Wizard brings too much storybook nonsense to mind. People expect us to wear dark robes and fling about the entrails of birds. And yourself?”

“Geoffrey is a poet,” Denna said. “And a good one, though he’ll deny it.”

“I will,” he admitted, then his smile faded. “I have to go. I have an appointment with folk who shouldn’t be kept waiting.” He gave Denna a kiss on the cheek, shook my hand warmly, and left.

Denna watched the door close behind him. “He’s a sweet boy.”

“You say that as if you regret it,” I said.

“If he were a little less sweet, he might be able to fit two thoughts in his head at the same time. Maybe they would rub together and make a spark. Even a little smoke would be nice, then at least it would look like something was happening in there.” She sighed.

“Is he really that thick?”

She shook her head. “No. He’s just trusting. Hasn’t got a calculating bone in his body, and he’s done nothing but make bad choices since he got here a month ago.”

I reached into my cloak and brought out a pair of small, cloth-wrapped bundles: one blue, one white. “I’ve brought you a present.”

Denna reached out to take them, looking slightly puzzled.

What had seemed like such a good idea a few hours ago now seemed rather foolish. “They’re for your lungs,” I said, suddenly embarrassed. “I know you have trouble sometimes.”

She tilted her head on one side. “And how do you know that, pray tell?”

“You mentioned it when we were in Trebon,” I said. “I did some research.” I pointed. “That one you can brew in a tea: featherbite, deadnettle, lohatm… .” I pointed to the other. “That one you boil the leaves in some water and breathe the vapor coming off the top.”

Denna looked back and forth between the packages.

“I’ve written instructions on slips of paper inside,” I said. “The blue one is the one you’re supposed to boil and breathe the vapor,” I said. “Blue for water, you see.”

She looked up at me. “Don’t you make a tea with water, too?”

I blinked at that, then flushed and started to say something, but Denna laughed and shook her head. “I’m teasing you,” she said gently. “Thank you. This is the sweetest thing anyone’s done for me in a long while.”

Denna walked over to a chest of drawers and tucked the two bundles carefully into an ornate wooden box.

“You seem to be doing fairly well for yourself,” I said, gesturing to the well-appointed room.

Denna shrugged, looking around the room indifferently. “Kellin is doing well for himself,” she said. “I merely stand in his reflected light.”

I nodded my understanding. “I’d thought perhaps you’d found yourself a patron.”

“Nothing so formal as that. Kellin and I are walking about together, as they say in Modeg, and he is showing me my way around the harp.” She nodded to where the instrument loomed hugely in the corner.

“Care to show me what you’ve learned?” I asked.

Denna shook her head, embarrassed. Her hair slid down around her shoulders as she did so. “I’m not very good yet.”

“I will restrain my natural urge to jeer and hiss,” I said graciously.

Denna laughed. “Fine. Just a bit.” She walked behind the harp and drew up a tall stool to lean against. Then she lifted her hands to the strings, paused for a long moment, and began to play.

The melody was a variant of “Bell-Wether.” I smiled.

Her playing was slow, almost stately. Too many people think speed is the hallmark of a good musician. It’s understandable. What Marie had done at the Eolian was amazing. But how quickly you can finger notes is the smallest part of music. The real key is timing.

It’s like telling a joke. Anyone can remember the words. Anyone can repeat it. But making someone laugh requires more than that. Telling a joke faster doesn’t make it funnier. As with many things, hesitation is better than hurry.

This is why there are so few true musicians. A lot of folks can sing or saw out a tune on a fiddle. A music box can play a song flawlessly, again and again. But knowing the notes isn’t enough. You have to know how to play them. Speed comes with time and practice, but timing you are born with. You have it or you don’t.

Denna had it. She moved slowly through the song, but she wasn’t plodding. She played it slow as a luxurious kiss. Not that I knew anything of kissing at that point in my life. But as she stood with her arms around the harp, her eyes half-lidded with concentration, her lips lightly pursed, I knew I someday wanted to be kissed with that amount of slow, deliberate care.

And she was beautiful. I suppose it should come as no surprise that I have a particular fondness for women with music running through them. But as she played I saw her for the first time that day. Before I had been distracted by the difference in her hair, the cut of her dress. But as she played, all that faded from view.

I ramble. Suffice to say she was impressive, though obviously still learning. She struck a few bad notes, but didn’t flinch or cringe away from them. As they say, a jeweler knows the uncut gem. And I am. And she was. And so.

“You’re a long way past ‘Squirrel in the Thatch,’ ” I said quietly after she’d struck the final notes.

She shrugged my compliment away, not meeting my eye. “I don’t have much to do but practice,” she said. “And Kellin says I have a bit of a knack.”

“How long have you been at it?” I asked.

“Three span?” She looked thoughtful, then nodded. “A little less than three span.”

“Mother of God,” I said, shaking my head. “Don’t ever tell anyone how quickly you’ve picked it up. Other musicians will hate you for it.”

“My fingers aren’t used to it yet,” she said, looking down at them. “I can’t practice nearly as long as I like.”

I reached out and took hold of one of her hands, turning it palm up so I could see her fingertips. There were fading blisters there. “You’ve …”

I looked up and realized how close she was standing. Her hand was cool in mine. She stared at me with huge, dark eyes. One eyebrow slightly raised. Not arch, or playful even, just gently curious. My stomach felt suddenly strange and weak.

“I’ve what?” she asked.

I realized I had no idea what I had been about to say. I thought of saying, I have no idea what I was going to say. Then I realized that would be a stupid thing to say. So I didn’t say anything.

Denna looked down and took hold of my hand, turning it over. “Your hands are soft,” she said, then touched my fingertips lightly. “I thought the calluses would be rough, but they’re not. They’re smooth.”

Once her eyes weren’t fixed on mine, I regained a small piece of my wits. “It just takes time,” I said.

Denna looked up and gave a shy smile. My mind went blank as fresh paper.

After a moment, Denna let go of my hand and moved past me to the center of the room. “Would you care for something to drink?” she asked as she settled gracefully into a chair.

“That would be very kind of you,” I said purely on reflex. I realized my hand was still hanging stupidly in midair, and I let it fall to my side.

She gestured to a nearby chair and I sat.

“Watch this.” She picked up a small silver bell from a nearby table and rang it softly. Then she held up one hand with all five fingers extended. She folded in her thumb, then her index finger, counting downward.

Before she folded in her smallest finger, there came a knock on the door.

“Come in,” Denna called, and the well-dressed porter opened the door. “I believe I would like some drinking chocolate,” she said. “And Kvothe …” She looked at me questioningly.

“Drinking chocolate sounds lovely,” I said.

The porter nodded and disappeared, closing the door behind him.

“Sometimes I do it just to make him run,” Denna admitted sheepishly, looking down at the bell. “I can’t imagine how he can hear it. For a while, I was convinced he was sitting in the hallway with his ear against my door.”

“Can I see the bell?” I asked.

She handed it over. It looked normal at first glance, but when I turned it upside down I saw some tiny sygaldry on the inner surface of the bell.

“He isn’t eavesdropping,” I said, handing it back. “There’s another bell downstairs that rings in time with this one.”

“How?” She asked, then answered her own question. “Magic?”

“You could call it that.”

“Is that the sort of thing you do over there?” She jerked her head in the direction of the river and the University beyond. “It seems a little … tawdry.”

“It’s the most frivolous use of sygaldry I’ve ever seen,” I said.

Denna burst out laughing. “You sound so offended,” she said. Then, “It’s called sygaldry?”

“Making something like that is called artificing,” I said. “Sygaldry is writing or carving the runes that make it work.”

Denna’s eyes lit up at this. “So it’s a magic where you write things down?” she asked, leaning forward in her chair. “How does it work?”

I hesitated. Not only because it was a huge question, but because the University has very specific rules about sharing Arcanum secrets. “It’s rather complicated,” I said.

Luckily, at that moment there was another knock on the door and our chocolate arrived in steaming cups. My mouth watered at the smell of it. The man set the tray on a nearby table and left without a word.

I sipped and smiled at the thick sweetness of it. “It’s been years since I’ve had chocolate,” I said.

Denna lifted her cup and looked around the room. “It’s strange to think some people live their whole lives like this,” she mused.

“It’s not to your liking?” I asked, surprised.

“I like the chocolate and the harp,” she said. “But I could do without the bell and a whole room just for sitting.” Her mouth curved into the beginning of a frown. “And I hate knowing someone is set to guard me, like I’m a treasure someone might try to steal.”

“You’re not to be treasured, then?”

She narrowed her eyes over the top of her cup, as if she wasn’t sure how serious I was. “I don’t fancy being under lock and key,” she clarified with a grim note in her voice. “I don’t mind being given rooms, but they aren’t really mine if I’m not free to come and go.”

I raised an eyebrow at that, but before I could say anything she waved her hand dismissively. “It’s not like that really,” she sighed. “But I don’t doubt Kellin is informed of my comings and goings. I know the porter tells him who comes calling. It rankles a bit is all.” She gave a crooked smile. “I suppose that seems terribly ungrateful, doesn’t it?”

“Not at all,” I said. “When I was younger, my troupe traveled everywhere. But every year we would spend a few span at our patron’s estate, performing for his family and his guests.”

I shook my head at the memory. “Baron Greyfallow was a gracious host. We sat at his own table. He gave us gifts …” I trailed off, remembering a regiment of tiny lead soldiers he’d given me. I shook my head clear of the thought. “But my father hated it. Climbed the walls. He couldn’t tolerate the feeling of being at someone’s beck and call.”

“Yes!” Denna said. “That’s exactly it! If Kellin says he might pay me a visit on such and such evening, suddenly I feel I’ve had one foot nailed to the floor. If I leave I’m being obstinate and rude, but if I stay I feel like a dog waiting by the door.”

We sat for a moment in silence. Denna twirled the ring on her finger absentmindedly, sunlight catching the pale blue stone.

“Still,” I said, looking around. “They are nice rooms.”

“They’re nice when you’re here,” she said.

Several hours later, I climbed a narrow flight of stairs behind a butcher’s shop. There was a faint, pervasive smell of rancid fat from the alley below, but I was smiling. An afternoon with Denna entirely to myself was a rare treat, and my step was surprisingly light for someone about to make a deal with a demon.

I knocked on the solid wooden door at the top of the steps and waited. No guild moneylender would trust me with a bent penny, but there are always folk willing to lend money. Poets and other romantics call them copper hawks, or sharps, but gaelet is the better term. They are dangerous people, and wise folk steer well clear of them.

The door opened a crack, then swung wide, revealing a young woman with a pixie face and strawberry-blonde hair. “Kvothe!” Devi exclaimed. “I worried I might not see you this term.”

I stepped inside, and Devi bolted the door behind me. The large, windowless room smelled pleasantly of cinnas fruit and honey, a refreshing change from the alley.

One side of the room was dominated by a huge canopy bed, its dark curtains drawn. On the other side was a fireplace, a large wooden desk, and a standing bookshelf three-quarters full. I wandered over to eye the titles while Devi locked and barred the door.

“Is this copy of Malcaf new?” I asked.

“It is,” she said walking over to stand beside me. “A young alchemist who couldn’t settle his debt let me pick through his library in order to square things between us.” Devi carefully pulled the book from the shelf, revealing Vision and Revision in gold leaf on the cover. She looked up at me, grinning impishly. “Have you read it?”

“I haven’t,” I said. I’d wanted to study it for admissions but hadn’t been able to find a copy in the Stacks. “Just heard about it.”

Devi looked thoughtful for a moment, then handed it to me. “When you’ve finished, come back and we’ll discuss it. I’m woefully devoid of interesting conversation these days. If we have a decent argument, I might let you borrow another.”

Once the book was in my hands, she tapped the cover lightly with a finger. “This book is worth more than you are.” She said without a hint of playfulness in her voice. “If it comes back damaged, there will be an accounting.”

“I’ll be very careful,” I said.

Devi nodded, then turned and walked past me toward the desk. “Right then, on to business.” She sat down. “Cutting it a little close, aren’t you?” she asked. “Tuition needs to be paid before noon tomorrow.”

“I live a dangerous and exciting life,” I said as I wandered over and took a seat across from her. “And delightful as I find your company, I was hoping to avoid your services this term.”

“How do you like tuition as a Re’lar?” she asked knowingly. “How hard did they hit you?”

“That’s a rather personal question,” I said.

Devi gave me a frank look. “We are about to enter into a rather personal arrangement,” she pointed out. “I hardly feel I’m overstepping myself.”

“Nine and a half,” I said.

She snorted derisively. “I thought you were supposed to be all manner of clever. I never got higher than seven when I was a Re’lar.”

“You had access to the Archives,” I pointed out.

“I had access to vast stores of intellect,” she said matter-of-factly. “Plus, I am cute as a button.” She gave a grin that brought out dimples in both her cheeks.

“You are shiny as a new penny,” I admitted. “No man can hope to stand against you.”

“Some women have trouble keeping their feet as well,” she said. Her grin changed slightly, moving from adorable to impish and then well past the border into wicked.

Not having the slightest idea how to respond to that, I moved in a safer direction. “I’m afraid I need to borrow four talents.” I said.

“Ah,” Devi said. Suddenly businesslike, she folded her hands atop the desk. “I’m afraid I’ve made a few changes to my business recently,” she said. “Currently, I am only extending loans of six talents or more.”

I didn’t bother trying to hide my dismay. “Six talents? Devi, that extra debt will be a millstone around my neck.”

She gave a sigh that sounded at least slightly apologetic. “Here’s the trouble. When I make a loan, I run certain risks. I risk losing my investment if my debtor dies or tries to run. I run the risk they’ll attempt to report me. I run the risk of being brought up against the iron law, or worse, the moneylender’s guild.”

“You know I’d never try something like that, Devi.”

“The fact remains,” Devi continued, “my risk is the same, no matter if the loan is small or large. Why should I take those risks for small loans?”

“Small?” I asked. “I could live for a year on four talents!”

She tapped the desk with a finger, pursing her mouth. “Collateral?”

“The usual,” I said, giving her my best smile. “My boundless charm.”

Devi snorted indelicately. “For boundless charm and three drops of blood you can borrow six talents at my standard rate. Fifty percent interest over a two-month term.”

“Devi,” I said ingratiatingly. “What am I going to do with the extra money?”

“Throw a party,” she suggested. “Spend a day in the Buckle. Find yourself a nice game of high-stakes faro.”

“Faro,” I said, “is a tax on people who can’t calculate probabilities.”

“Then run bank and collect the tax,” she said. “Buy yourself something pretty and wear it next time you come in to see me.” She looked me up and down with dangerous eyes. “Maybe then I’ll be willing to cut you a deal.”

“How about six talents for a month at twenty-five percent?” I asked.

Devi shook her head, not unkindly. “Kvothe, I respect the impulse to bargain, but you don’t have any leverage. You’re here because you’re over a barrel. I’m here to capitalize on that situation.” She spread her hands in a helpless gesture. “That’s how I make my living. The fact that you have a sweet face doesn’t really enter into it.”

Devi gave me a serious look. “Conversely, if a guild moneylender would give you the time of day, I wouldn’t expect you to come here simply because I’m pretty and you like the color of my hair.”

“It is a lovely color,” I said. “We fiery types should really stick together.”

“We should,” she agreed. “I propose we stick together at fifty percent interest over a two month term.”

“Fine.” I said, slumping back into my chair. “You win.”

Devi gave me a winsome smile, dimples showing again. “I can only win if we were both actually playing.” She opened a drawer in the desk, bringing out a small glass bottle and a long pin.

I reached out to take them, but instead of sliding them across the desk, she gave me a thoughtful look. “Now that I think of it, there might be another option.”

“I’d love another option,” I admitted.

“The last time we talked,” Devi said slowly, “you implied you had a way into the Archives.”

I hesitated. “I did imply that.”

“That information would be worth quite a bit to me,” she said overcasually. Though she tried to hide it, I could see a fierce, lean hunger in her eyes.

I looked down at my hands and didn’t say anything.

“I’ll give you ten talents right now,” Devi said bluntly. “Not a loan. I’ll buy the information outright. If I get caught in the Stacks, I never learned it from you.”

I thought of everything I could do with ten talents. New clothes. A lute case that wasn’t about to fall to pieces. Paper. Gloves for the coming winter.

I sighed and shook my head.

“Twenty talents,” Devi said. “And guild rates on any loans you want in the future.”

Twenty talents would mean half a year of worry-free tuition. I could pursue my own projects in the Fishery rather than slaving away at deck lamps. I could buy tailored clothes. Fresh fruit. I could use a laundry rather than wash my clothes myself.

I drew a reluctant breath. “I—”

“Forty talents,” Devi said hungrily. “Guild rates. And I will take you to bed.”

For forty talents I could buy Denna her own half-harp. I could …

I looked up and saw Devi staring at me from across the desk. Her lips were wet, her pale blue eyes intense. She shifted her shoulders back and forth in the slow, unconscious motion of a cat before it pounces.

I thought of Auri, safe and happy in the Underthing. What would she do if her tiny kingdom was invaded by a stranger?

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I can’t. Getting in is … complicated. It involves a friend, and I don’t think they’d be willing.” I decided to ignore the other part of her offer, as I hadn’t the slightest idea what to say about it.

There was a long, tense moment. “Goddamn you,” Devi said at last. “You sound like you’re telling the truth.”

“I am,” I said. “It’s unsettling, I know.”

“Goddamn.” She scowled as she pushed the bottle and pin across the desk.

I pricked the back of my hand and watched the blood well up and roll down my hand to fall into the bottle. After three drops I tipped the pin into the mouth of the bottle as well.

Devi swabbed some adhesive around the stopper and drove it angrily into the bottle. Then she reached into a drawer and pulled out a diamond stylus. “Do you trust me?” She asked as she etched a number into the glass. “Or do you want this sealed?”

“I trust you,” I said. “But I’d like it sealed all the same.”

She melted a daub of sealing wax onto the top of the bottle. I pressed my talent pipes into it, leaving a recognizable impression.

Reaching into another drawer, Devi brought out six talents and clattered them onto the desk. The motion might have seemed petulant if her eyes hadn’t been so hard and angry.

“I’m getting in there one way or another,” she said with a chill edge to her voice. “Talk to your friend. If you’re the one that helps me, I’ll make it worth your time.”

CHAPTER ELEVEN

Haven

I RETURNED TO THE UNIVERSITY in good spirits despite the burden of my new debt. I made a few purchases, gathered up my lute, and headed out over the rooftops.

From the inside, Mains was a nightmare to navigate: a maze of irrational hallways and stairways leading nowhere. But moving across its jumbled rooftops was easy as anything. I made my way to a small courtyard that at some point in the building’s construction had become completely inaccessible, trapped like a fly in amber.

Auri wasn’t expecting me, but this was the first place I’d met her, and on clear nights she sometimes came out to watch the stars. I checked to make sure the classrooms overlooking the courtyard were dark and empty, then I brought out my lute and began to tune it.

I had been playing for almost an hour when I heard a rustling movement in the overgrown courtyard below. Then Auri appeared, scurrying up the overgrown apple tree and onto the roof.

She ran toward me, her bare feet skipping lightly across the tar, her hair blowing behind her. “I heard you!” she said as she came close. “I heard you all the way down in Vaults!”

“I seem to remember,” I said slowly, “that I was going to play music for someone.”

“Me!” She held both her hands close to her chest, grinning. She moved from foot to foot, almost dancing with her eagerness. “Play for me! I have been as patient as two stones together,” she said. “You are just in time. I could not be as patient as three stones.”

“Well,” I said hesitantly. “I suppose it all depends on what you’ve brought me.”

She laughed, rising up onto the balls of her feet, her hands still together, close to her chest. “What did you bring me?”

I knelt and began to untie my bundle. “I’ve brought you three things,” I said.

“How traditional,” she said, grinning. “You are quite the proper young gentleman tonight.”

“I am.” I held up a heavy dark bottle.

She took it with both hands. “Who made it?”

“Bees,” I said. “And brewers in Bredon.”

Auri smiled. “That’s three bees,” she said, and set the bottle down by her feet. I brought out a round loaf of fresh barley bread. She reached out and touched it with a finger, then nodded approvingly.

Last I brought out a whole smoked salmon. It had cost four drabs by itself, but I worried Auri didn’t get enough meat in whatever she managed to scrounge up when I wasn’t around. It would be good for her.

Auri looked down at it curiously, tilting her head to look into its single staring eye. “Hello fish,” she said. Then she looked back up at me. “Does it have a secret?”

I nodded. “It has a harp instead of a heart.”

She looked back down at it. “No wonder it looks so surprised.”

Auri took the fish out of my hands and laid it carefully on the roof. “Now stand up. I have three things for you, as is only fair.”

I came to my feet and she held out something wrapped in a piece of cloth. It was a thick candle that smelled of lavender. “What’s inside of it?” I asked.

“Happy dreams,” she said. “I put them there for you.”

I turned the candle over in my hands, a suspicion forming. “Did you make this yourself?”

She nodded and gave a delighted grin. “I did. I am terribly clever.”

I tucked it carefully into one of the pockets of my cloak. “Thank you, Auri.”

Auri grew serious. “Now close your eyes and bend down so I can give you your second present.”

Puzzled, I closed my eyes and bent at the waist, wondering if she had made me a hat as well.

I felt her hands on either side of my face, then she gave me a tiny, delicate kiss in the middle of my forehead.

Surprised, I opened my eyes. But she was already standing several steps away, her hands clasped nervously behind her back. I couldn’t think of anything to say.

Auri took a step forward. “You are special to me,” she said seriously, her face grave. “I want you to know I will always take care of you.” She reached out tentatively and wiped at my cheeks. “No. None of that tonight. This is your third present. If things are bad, you can come and stay with me in the Underthing. It is nice there, and you will be safe.”

“Thank you, Auri,” I said as soon as I was able. “You are special to me, too.”

“Of course I am,” she said matter-of-factly. “I am as lovely as the moon.”

I collected myself while Auri skipped over to a piece of metal piping that jutted from a chimney and used it to pry the cap off the bottle. Then she brought it back, holding it carefully with both hands.

“Auri,” I asked. “Aren’t your feet cold?”

She looked down at them. “The tar is nice,” she said, wriggling her toes. “It’s still warm from the sun.”

“Would you like a pair of shoes?”

“What would they have in them?” she asked.

“Your feet,” I said. “It’s going to be winter soon.”

She shrugged.

“Your feet will be cold.”

“I don’t come out on top of things in the winter,” she said. “It isn’t very nice.”

Before I could respond, Elodin stepped around a large brick chimney as casually as if he were out for an afternoon stroll.

The three of us stared at each other for a moment, each of us startled in our own way. Elodin and I were surprised, but out of the corner of my eye I saw Auri grow perfectly still, like a deer ready to spring away to safety.

“Master Elodin,” I said in my gentlest, friendliest tones, desperately hoping he wouldn’t do anything that might startle Auri into running. The last time she’d been scared back underground it had taken her a full span to re-emerge. “How nice to meet you.”

“Hello there,” Elodin said, matching my casual tone perfectly, as if there was nothing odd about the three of us meeting on a rooftop in the middle of the night. Though for all I knew, it might not seem odd to him.

“Master Elodin.” Auri dipped one bare foot behind the other and tugged the edges of her ragged dress in a tiny curtsey.

Elodin remained in the moon-cast shadow of the tall brick chimney. He made a curiously formal bow in return. I couldn’t see his face in any detail, but I could imagine his curious eyes examining the barefoot, waifish girl with the nimbus of floating hair. “And what brings the two of you out this fine night?” Elodin asked.

I tensed. Questions were dangerous with Auri.

Luckily, this one didn’t seem to bother her. “Kvothe has brought me lovely things,” she said. “He brought me bee beer and barley bread and a smoked fish with a harp where its heart should be.”

“Ah,” Elodin said, stepping away from the chimney. He patted his robes until he found something in a pocket. He held it out to her. “I’m afraid I’ve only brought you a cinnas fruit.”

Auri took a tiny, dancer’s step backward and made no motion to take it. “Have you brought anything for Kvothe?”

This seemed to catch Elodin off his stride. He stood awkwardly for a moment, arm outstretched. “I’m afraid I haven’t,” he said. “But I don’t imagine Kvothe has brought anything for me, either.”

Auri’s eyes narrowed, and she gave a tiny frown, fierce with disapproval. “Kvothe has brought music,” she said sternly, “which is for everyone.”

Elodin paused again, and I have to admit I enjoyed seeing him discomfited by someone else’s behavior for once. He turned and made a half bow in my direction. “My apologies,” he said.

I made a gracious gesture. “Think nothing of it.”

Elodin turned back to Auri and held out his hand a second time.

She took two small steps forward, hesitated, then took two more. She reached out slowly, paused with her hand on the small fruit, then took several scurrying steps away, bringing both hands close to her chest. “Thank you kindly,” she said, making another small curtsey. “Now, you may join us if you like. And if you behave, you may stay and listen to Kvothe play afterward.” She tilted her head a bit, making it a question.

Elodin hesitated, then nodded.

Auri scampered around to the other side of the roof, then down into the courtyard through the bare limbs of the apple tree.

Elodin watched her go. When he tilted his head there was just enough moonlight that I could see a thoughtful expression on his face. I felt a sudden, sharp anxiety tie knots in my stomach. “Master Elodin?”

He turned to face me. “Hmm?”

I knew from experience it would only take her three or four minutes to fetch whatever she was bringing up from the Underthing. I needed to talk fast.

“I know this looks strange,” I said. “But you have to be careful. She’s very nervous. Don’t try to touch her. Don’t make any sudden movements. It will scare her away.”

Elodin expression was hidden in shadow again. “Will it now?” he said.

“Loud noises too. Even a loud laugh. And you can’t ask her anything resembling a personal question. She’ll just run if you do.” I drew a deep breath, my mind racing. I have a good tongue in my head, and given enough time I’m confident in my ability to persuade just about anyone of anything. But Elodin was simply too unpredictable to manipulate.

“You can’t tell anyone she’s here.” It came out more forcefully than I’d intended, and I immediately regretted my choice of words. I was in no position to be giving orders to one of the masters, even if he was more than half mad. “What I mean,” I said quickly, “is that I would take it as a great personal favor if you didn’t mention her to anyone.”

Elodin gave me a long, speculative look. “And why is that, Re’lar Kvothe?”

I felt myself break out in a sweat at the cool amusement in his tone. “They’ll stick her in Haven,” I said. “You of all people …” I trailed off, my throat growing dry.

Elodin stared down at me, his face little more than a shadow, but I could sense him scowling. “Of all people I what, Re’lar Kvothe? Do you presume to know my feelings toward Haven?”

I felt all my elegant, half-planned persuasion fall to tatters around my feet. And I suddenly felt like I was back on the streets of Tarbean, my stomach a hard knot of hunger, my chest full of desperate hopelessness as I clutched at the sleeves of sailors and merchants, begging for pennies, halfpennies, shims. Begging for anything so I could get something to eat.

“Please,” I said to him. “Please, Master Elodin, if they chase her she’ll hide, and I won’t be able to find her. She isn’t quite right in the head, but she’s happy here. And I can take care of her. Not much, but a little. If they catch her that would be even worse. Haven would kill her. Please Master Elodin, I’ll do whatever you like. Just don’t tell anyone.”

“Hush,” Elodin said. “She’s coming.” He reached out to grip my shoulder, and moonlight fell across his face. His expression wasn’t fierce and hard at all. There was nothing but puzzlement and concern. “Lord and lady, you’re shaking. Take a breath and put your stage face on. You’ll scare her if she sees you like this.”

I took a deep breath and fought to relax. Elodin’s concerned expression faded and he stepped back, letting go of my shoulder.

I turned in time to see Auri scurry across the roof toward us, her arms full. She stopped a short distance away, eyeing us both, before coming the rest of the way, stepping carefully as a dancer until she was back where she originally stood. Then she sat down lightly on the roof, crossing her legs beneath herself. Elodin and I sat as well, though not nearly as gracefully.

Auri unfolded a cloth, lay it carefully between the three of us, then set a large, smooth wooden platter in the middle. She brought out the cinnas fruit and sniffed it, her eyes peering over the top of it. “What is in this?” she asked Elodin.

“Sunshine,” he said easily, as if he’d expected the question. “And early morning sunshine at that.”

They knew each other. Of course. That was why she hadn’t run away at the outset. I felt the solid bar of tension between my shoulder blades ease slightly.

Auri sniffed the fruit again and looked thoughtful for a moment. “It is lovely,” she declared. “But Kvothe’s things are lovelier still.”

“That stands to reason,” Elodin said. “I expect Kvothe is a nicer person than I am.”

“That goes without saying,” Auri said primly.

Auri served up dinner, sharing out the bread and fish to each of us. She also produced a squat clay jar of brined olives. It made me glad to see she could provide for herself when I wasn’t around.

Auri poured beer into my familiar porcelain teacup. Elodin got a small glass jar of the sort you would use to store jam. She filled his cup for the first round but not the second. I was left wondering if he was simply out of easy reach, or if it was a subtle sign of her displeasure.

We ate without speaking. Auri delicately, taking tiny bites, her back straight. Elodin cautiously, occasionally darting a glance at me as if he were unsure how to behave. I guessed from this that he’d never shared a meal with Auri before.

When we were finished with everything else, Auri brought out a small, bright knife and divided the cinnas fruit into three parts. As soon as she broke the skin of it, I could smell it on the air, sweet and sharp. It made my mouth water. Cinnas fruit came from a long way off and was simply too expensive for people like me.

She held out my piece and I took it from her gently. “Thank you kindly, Auri.”

“You are welcome kindly, Kvothe.”

Elodin looked back and forth between the two of us. “Auri?”

I waited for him to finish his question, but that seemed to be all of it.

Auri understood before I did. “It’s my name,” she said, grinning proudly.

“Is it now?” Elodin said curiously.

Auri nodded. “Kvothe gave it to me.” She beamed in my direction. “Isn’t it marvelous?”

Elodin nodded. “It is a lovely name,” he said politely. “And it suits you.”

“It does,” she agreed. “It is like having a flower in my heart.” She gave Elodin a serious look. “If your name is getting too heavy, you should have Kvothe give you a new one.”

Elodin nodded again and took a bite of his cinnas. As he chewed, he turned to look at me. By the light of the moon, I saw his eyes. They were cool, thoughtful, and perfectly, utterly sane.

After we finished our dinner, I sang a few songs, and we said our good-byes. Elodin and I walked away together. I knew at least a half-dozen ways to climb down from the roof of Mains, but I let him take the lead.

We made our way past a round stone observatory that stuck up from the roof and moved onto a long stretch of reasonably flat lead sheeting.

“How long have you been coming to see her?” Elodin asked.

I thought about it. “Half a year? It depends on when you start counting. It took a couple span of playing before I caught a glimpse of her, more before she trusted me enough to talk.”

“You’ve had better luck than I have,” he said. “It’s been years. This is the first time she’s come within ten paces of me. We barely speak a dozen words on a good day.”

We climbed over a wide, low chimney and back onto a gentle slope of thick timber sealed with layers of tar. As we walked I grew more anxious. Why had he been trying to get close to her?

I thought about the time I had gone to Haven with Elodin to visit his giller, Alder Whin. I thought about Auri there. Tiny Auri, strapped to a bed with thick leather belts so she couldn’t hurt herself or thrash around while she was being fed.

I stopped walking. Elodin took a few more steps before turning to look at me.

“She’s my friend,” I said slowly.

He nodded. “That much is obvious.”

“And I don’t have enough friends that I could bear to lose one,” I said. “Not her. Promise me you won’t tell anyone about her or bundle her off to Haven. It’s not the right place for her.” I swallowed against the dryness in my throat. “I need you to promise me.”

Elodin tilted his head to one side. “I’m hearing an or else,” he said, amusement in his voice. “Even though you’re not actually saying it. I need to promise you or else… .” One corner of his mouth quirked up in a wry little smile.

When he smiled, I felt a flash of anger mingled with anxiety and fear. It was followed by the sudden, hot taste of plum and nutmeg in my mouth, and I became very conscious of the knife I had strapped to my thigh underneath my pants. I felt my hand slowly sliding into my pocket.

Then I saw the edge of the roof a half-dozen feet behind Elodin, and I felt my feet shift slightly, getting ready to sprint and tackle him, bearing us both off the roof and down to the hard cobblestones below.

I felt a sudden, cold sweat sweep over my body and closed my eyes. I took a deep, slow breath and the taste in my mouth faded.

I opened my eyes again. “I need you to promise me,” I said. “Or else I’ll probably do something stupid beyond all mortal ken.” I swallowed. “And both of us will end up the worse for it.”

Elodin looked at me. “What a remarkably honest threat,” he said. “Normally they’re much more growlish and gristly than that.”

“Gristly?” I asked, emphasizing the ‘t.’ “Don’t you mean grisly?”

“Both,” he said. “Usually there’s a lot of, I’ll break your knees. I’ll break your neck.” He shrugged. “Makes me think of gristle, like when you’re boning a chicken.”

“Ah,” I said. “I see.”

We stared at each other for a moment.

“I’m not going to send anyone to take her in,” he said at last. “Haven is the proper place for some folk. It’s the only place for a lot of them. But I wouldn’t wish a mad dog locked there if there were a better option.”

He turned and started to walk away. When I didn’t follow, he turned to look back at me.

“That’s not good enough,” I said. “I need you to promise.”

“I swear on my mother’s milk,” Elodin said. “I swear on my name and my power. I swear it by the ever-moving moon.”

We started walking again.

“She needs warmer clothes,” I said. “And socks and shoes. And a blanket. And they need to be new. Auri won’t take anything that’s been worn by anyone else. I’ve tried.”

“She won’t take them from me,” Elodin said. “I’ve left things out for her. She won’t touch them.” He turned to look at me. “If I give them to you, will you pass them along?”

I nodded. “In that case she also needs about twenty talents, a ruby the size of an egg, and a new set of engraving tools.”

Elodin gave an honest, earthy chuckle. “Does she also need lute strings?”

I nodded. “Two pair, if you can get them.”

“Why Auri?” Elodin asked.

“Because she doesn’t have anyone else,” I said. “And neither do I. If we don’t look out for each other, who will?”

He shook his head. “No. Why did you pick that name for her?”

“Ah,” I said, embarrassed. “Because she’s so bright and sweet. She doesn’t have any reason to be, but she is. Auri means sunny.”

“In what language?” he asked.

I hesitated. “Siaru, I think.”

Elodin shook his head. “Sunny is leviriet in Siaru.”

I tried to think where I’d learned the word. Had I stumbled onto it in the Archives…?

Before I could bring it to mind, Elodin spoke. “I am preparing to teach a class,” he said casually, “for those interested in the delicate and subtle art of naming.” He gave me a sideways look. “It occurs to me that it might not be a complete waste of your time.”

“I might be interested,” I said carefully.

He nodded. “You should read Teccam’s Underlying Principles to prepare. Not a long book, but thick, if you follow me.”

“If you lend me a copy, I’d like nothing better than to read it,” I said. “Otherwise, I’ll have to muddle through without.” He looked at me, uncomprehending. “I’ve been banned from the Archives.”

“What, still?” Elodin asked, surprised.

“Still.”

He seemed indignant. “It’s been what? Half a year?”

“Three quarters of a year in three days’ time,” I said. “Master Lorren has made his feelings clear on the issue of letting me back inside.”

“That,” Elodin said with a strange protectiveness in his voice, “is utter horseshit. You’re my Re’lar now.”

Elodin changed directions, heading over a piece of rooftop I usually avoided because it was covered in clay roofing tiles. From there we hopped a narrow alley, made our way across the sloping roof of an inn, and stepped onto a broad roof of finished stone.

Eventually we came to a wide window with the warm glow of candlelight behind it. Elodin knocked on a pane of glass as sharply as if it were a door. Looking around, I realized we were standing atop the Masters’ Hall.

After a moment, I saw the tall, thin shape of Master Lorren block the candlelight behind the window. He worked the latch and the entire window swung open on a hinge.

“Elodin, what can I do for you?” Lorren asked. If he thought anything odd about the situation, I couldn’t tell from looking at his face.

Elodin jerked a thumb over his shoulder at me. “The boy here says he’s still banned from the Archives. Is that so?”

Lorren’s impassive eyes moved to me, then back to Elodin. “It is.”

“Well let him back in,” Elodin said. “He needs to read things. You’ve made your point.”

“He’s reckless,” Lorren said flatly. “I’d planned to keep him out for a year and a day.”

Elodin sighed. “Yes yes, very traditional. Why don’t you give him a second chance? I’ll vouch for him.”

Lorren eyed me for a long moment. I tried to look as responsible as I could, which wasn’t very, considering I was standing on a rooftop in the middle of the night.

“Very well,” Lorren said. “Tomes only.”

“Tombs is for feckless tits who can’t chew their own food,” Elodin said dismissively. “My boy’s a Re’lar. He has the feck of twenty men! He needs to explore the Stacks and discover all manner of useless things.”

“I am not concerned about the boy,” Lorren said with unblinking calm. “My concern is for the Archives itself.”

Elodin reached out and grabbed me by the shoulder, pushing me forward a bit. “How about this? If you catch him larking around again, I’ll let you cut off his thumbs. That should set an example, don’t you think?”

Lorren gave the two of us a slow look. Then he nodded. “Very well,” he said, and closed his window.

“There you go,” Elodin said expansively.

“What the hell?” I demanded, wringing my hands. “I … What the hell?”

Elodin looked at me, puzzled. “What? You’re in. Problem solved.”

“You can’t offer to let him cut off my thumbs!” I said.

He raised an eyebrow. “Are you planning on breaking the rules again?” He asked pointedly.

“Wh—No. But …”

“Then you don’t have anything to worry about,” he said. He turned and continued up the slope of the roof. “Probably. I’d still step carefully if I were you. I can never tell when Lorren is kidding.”

As soon as I awoke the next day, I made my way to the office of the bursar and settled accounts with Riem, the pinch-faced man who held the University’s purse strings. I paid my hard-won nine talents and five, securing my place in the University for one more term.

Next I went to Ledgers and Lists where I signed up for observation in the Medica along with Physiognomy and Physic. Next was Ferrous and Cupric Metallurgy with Cammar in the Fishery. Last came Adept Sympathy with Elxa Dal.

It was only then I realized I didn’t know the name of Elodin’s class. I leafed through the ledger until I spotted Elodin’s name, then ran my finger back to where the title of the class was listed in fresh dark ink: “Introduction to Not Being a Stupid Jackass.”

I sighed and penned my name in the single blank space beneath.

CHAPTER TWELVE

The Sleeping Mind

WHEN I STIRRED AWAKE the next day, my first thought was of Elodin’s class. There was an excited flutter in my stomach. After long months of trying to get Master Namer to teach me, I was finally going to get a chance to study naming. Real magic. Taborlin the Great magic.

But work came before play. Elodin’s class didn’t meet until noon. With Devi’s debt hanging over my head, I needed to squeeze in a couple hours’ work at the Fishery.

Entering Kilvin’s workshop, the familiar din of a half-hundred busy hands washed over me like music. While it was a dangerous place, I found the workshop oddly relaxing. Many students resented my quick rise through the ranks of the Arcanum, but I’d earned a grudging respect from most of the other artificers.

I saw Manet working near the kilns and started to wind my way through the busy worktables toward him. Manet always knew what work paid best.

“Kvothe!”

The huge room grew quiet, and I turned to see Master Kilvin standing in the doorway of his office. He made a curt beckoning gesture and stepped back inside his office.

Sound slowly filled the room as the students returned to their work, but I could feel their eyes on me as I made my way across the room, weaving between the worktables.

As I came closer, I saw Kilvin through the wide window of his office, writing on a wall-mounted slate. He was half a foot taller than me, with a chest like a barrel. His great bristling beard and dark eyes made him look even larger than he really was.

I knocked politely on the doorframe, and Kilvin turned, setting down his chalk. “Re’lar Kvothe. Come in. Close the door.”

Anxiously, I stepped into the room and pulled the door shut behind me. The clatter and din of the workshop was cut off so completely that I expected Kilvin must have some cunning sygaldry in place that muffled the noise. The result was an almost eerie quiet in the room.

Kilvin picked up a piece of paper from the corner of his worktable. “I have heard a distressing thing,” he said. “Several days ago, a girl came to Stocks. She was looking for a young man who had sold her a charm.” He looked me in the eye. “Do you know anything about this?”

I shook my head. “What did she want?”

“We do not know,” Kilvin said. “E’lir Basil was working in Stocks at the time. He said the girl was young and seemed rather distressed. She was looking for—” He glanced down at the paper. “—a young wizard. She didn’t know his name, but described him as being young, red-haired, and pretty.”

Kilvin set down the piece of paper. “Basil said she grew increasingly upset as they spoke. She looked frightened, and when he tried to get her name, she ran off crying.” He crossed his huge arms in front of his chest, his face severe. “So I ask you plainly. Have you been selling charms to young women?”

The question caught me by surprise. “Charms?” I asked. “Charms for what?”

“That you should tell me,” Kilvin said darkly. “Charms for love, or luck. To help a woman catch with child, or to prevent the same. Amulets against demons and the like.”

“Can such things be made?” I asked.

“No,” Kilvin said firmly. “Which is why we do not sell them.” His dark eyes settled heavily onto me. “So I ask you again: have you been selling charms to ignorant townsfolk?”

I was so unprepared for the accusation that I couldn’t think of anything sensible to say in my defense. Then the ridiculousness of it struck me and I burst out laughing.

Kilvin’s eyes narrowed. “This is not amusing, Re’lar Kvothe. Not only are such things expressly forbidden by the University, but a student who would sell false charms …” Kilvin trailed off, shaking his head. “It reveals a profound flaw of character.”

“Master Kilvin, look at me,” I said, plucking at my shirt. “If I was tricking gullible townsfolk out of their money, I wouldn’t have to wear secondhand homespun.”

Kilvin looked over, as if noticing my clothes for the first time. “True,” he said. “However, one might think a student of lesser means would be more tempted to such actions.”

“I’ve thought of it,” I admitted. “With a penny’s worth of iron and ten minutes easy sygaldry I could make a pendant that was cold to the touch. It wouldn’t be hard to sell such a thing.” I shrugged. “But I’m well aware that would fall under Fraudulent Purveyance. I wouldn’t risk that.”

Kilvin frowned. “A member of the Arcanum avoids such behavior because it is wrong, Re’lar Kvothe. Not because there is too much risk.”

I gave him a forlorn smile. “Master Kilvin, if you had that much faith in my moral grounding we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”

His expression softened a little, and he gave me a small smile. “I admit, I would not expect such of you. But I have been surprised before. I would be remiss in my duty if I did not investigate such things.”

“Did this girl come to complain about the charm?” I asked.

Kilvin shook his head. “No. As I said, she left no message. But I am at a loss as to why else a distressed young girl with a charm would come looking for you, knowing your description but not your name.” He raised an eyebrow at me, making it a question.

I sighed. “Do you want my honest opinion, Master Kilvin?”

Kilvin raised both eyebrows at that. “Always, Re’lar Kvothe.”

“I expect someone is trying to get me into trouble,” I said. Compared to dosing me with an alchemical poison, spreading rumors was practically genteel behavior for Ambrose.

Kilvin nodded, absentmindedly smoothing down his beard with one hand. “Yes. I see.”

He shrugged and picked up his piece of chalk. “Well then. I consider this matter resolved for the moment.” He turned back to the slate and glanced over his shoulder at me. “I trust I will not be troubled by a horde of pregnant women waving iron pendants and cursing your name?”

“I’ll take steps to avoid that, Master Kilvin.”

I filled a few hours doing piecework in the Fishery, then made my way to the lecture hall in Mains where Elodin’s class was being held. It was scheduled to begin at noon, but I was there a half hour early, the first to arrive.

The other students trickled in slowly. Seven of us in all. First came Fenton, my friendly rival from Advanced Sympathy. Then Fela arrived with Brean, a pretty girl of about twenty with sandy hair cut in the fashion of a boy’s.

We chatted and introduced ourselves. Jarret was a shy Modegan I’d seen in the Medica. I recognized the young woman with bright blue eyes and honey-colored hair as Inyssa, but it took me a while to remember where I’d met her. She was one of Simmon’s countless short-lived relationships. Last was Uresh, nearly thirty and a full El’the. His complexion and accent marked him as coming all the way from the Lanett.

The noon bell struck, but Elodin was nowhere to be seen.

Five minutes passed. Then ten. It wasn’t until half past noon that Elodin breezed into the hall, carrying a loose armful of papers. He dropped them onto a table and began to pace back and forth directly in front of us.

“Several things should be made perfectly clear before we start,” he said without any introduction or apology for his lateness. “First, you must do as I say. You must do it to the best of your ability, even when you don’t see the reasons for it. Questions are fine, but in the end: I say, you do.” He looked around. “Yes?”

We nodded or murmured affirmative noises.

“Second, you must believe me when I tell you certain things. Some of the things I tell you may not be true. But you must believe them anyway, until I tell you to stop.” He looked at each of us, “Yes?”

I wondered vaguely if he began every lecture this way. Elodin noticed the lack of an affirmative from my direction. He glared at me, irritated. “We aren’t to the hard part yet,” he said.

“I’ll do my best to try,” I said.

“With answers like that we’ll make you a barrister in no time,” he said sarcastically. “Why not just do it, instead of doing your best to try?”

I nodded. It seemed to appease him and he turned back to the class as a whole. “There are two things you must remember. First, our names shape us, and we shape our names in turn.” He stopped his pacing and looked out at us. “Second, even the simplest name is so complex that your mind could never begin to feel the boundaries of it, let alone understand it well enough for you to speak it.”

There was a long stretch of quiet. Elodin waited, staring at us.

Finally Fenton took the bait. “If that’s the case, how can anyone be a namer?”

“Good question,” Elodin said. “The obvious answer is that it can’t be done. That even the simplest of names is well beyond our reach.” He held up a hand. “Remember, I am not speaking of the small names we use every day. The calling names like ‘tree’ and ‘fire’ and ‘stone.’ I am talking about something else entirely.”

He reached into a pocket and pulled out a river stone, smooth and dark. “Describe the precise shape of this. Tell me of the weight and pressure that forged it from sand and sediment. Tell me how the light reflects from it. Tell me how the world pulls at the mass of it, how the wind cups it as it moves through the air. Tell me how the traces of its iron will feel the calling of a loden-stone. All of these things and a hundred thousand more make up the name of this stone.” He held it out to us at arm’s length. “This single, simple stone.”

Elodin lowered his hand and looked at us. “Can you see how complex even this simple thing is? If you studied it for a long month, perhaps you would come to know it well enough to glimpse the outward edges of its name. Perhaps.

“This is the problem namers face. We must understand things that are beyond our understanding. How can it be done?”

He didn’t wait for an answer and instead picked up some of the paper he’d brought in with him, handing each of us several sheets. “In fifteen minutes I will toss this stone. I will stand here,” he set his feet. “Facing thus.” He squared his shoulders. “I will throw it underhand with about three grip of force behind it. I want you to calculate in what manner it will move through the air so you can have your hand in the proper place to catch it when the time comes.”

Elodin set the stone on a desk. “Proceed.”

I set to the problem with a will. I drew triangles and arcs, I calculated, guessing at formulas I couldn’t quite remember. It wasn’t long before I grew frustrated at the impossibility of the task. Too much was unknown, too much was simply impossible to calculate.

After five minutes on our own, Elodin encouraged us to work as a group. That was when I first saw Uresh’s talent with numbers. His calculations had outstripped mine to such a degree that I couldn’t understand much of what he was doing. Fela was much the same, though she had also sketched a detailed series of parabolic arcs.

The seven of us discussed, argued, tried, failed, tried again. At the end of fifteen minutes we were frustrated. Myself especially. I hate problems I cannot solve.

Elodin looked to us as a group. “So what can you tell me?”

Some of us started to give our half-answers or best guesses, but he waved us into silence. “What can you tell me with certainty?”

After a moment Fela spoke up, “We don’t know how the stone will fall.”

Elodin clapped his hands approvingly. “Good! That is the right answer. Now watch.”

He went to the door and stuck his head out. “Henri!” he shouted. “Yes you. Come here for a second.” He stepped back from the door and ushered in one of Jamison’s runners, a boy no more than eight years old.

Elodin took a half-dozen steps away and turned to face the boy. He squared his shoulders and grinned a mad grin. “Catch!” he said, lofting the stone at the boy.

Startled, the boy snatched it out of the air.

Elodin applauded wildly, then congratulated the bewildered boy before reclaiming the stone and hurrying him back out the door.

Our teacher turned to face us. “So,” Elodin asked. “How did he do it? How could he calculate in a second what seven brilliant members of the Arcanum could not figure in a quarter hour? Does he know more geometry than Fela? Are his numbers quicker than Uresh’s? Should we bring him back and make him a Re’lar?”

We laughed a bit, relaxing.

“My point is this. In each of us there is a mind we use for all our waking deeds. But there is another mind as well, a sleeping mind. It is so powerful that the sleeping mind of an eight-year-old can accomplish in one second what the waking minds of seven members of the Arcanum could not in fifteen minutes.”

He made a sweeping gesture. “Your sleeping mind is wide and wild enough to hold the names of things. This I know because sometimes this knowledge bubbles to the surface. Inyssa has spoken the name of iron. Her waking mind does not know it, but her sleeping mind is wiser. Something deep inside Fela understands the name of the stone.”

Elodin pointed at me. “Kvothe has called the wind. If we are to believe the writings of those long dead, his is the traditional path. The wind was the name aspiring namers sought and caught when things were studied here so long ago.”

He went quiet for a moment, looking at us seriously, his arms folded. “I want each of you to think on what name you would like to find. It should be a small name. Something simple: iron or fire, wind or water, wood or stone. It should be something you feel an affinity toward.”

Elodin strode toward the large slate mounted on the wall and began to write a list of titles. His handwriting was surprisingly tidy. “These are important books,” he said. “Read one of them.”

After a moment, Brean raised her hand. Then she realized it was pointless as Elodin still had his back to us. “Master Elodin?” she asked hesitantly. “Which one should we read?”

He looked over his shoulder, not pausing in his writing at all. “I don’t care,” he said, plainly irritated. “Pick one. The others you should skim in a desultory fashion. Look at the pictures. Smell them if nothing else.” He turned back to look at the slate.

The seven of us looked at each other. The only sound in the room was the tapping of Elodin’s chalk. “Which one is the most important?” I asked.

Elodin made a disgusted noise. “I don’t know,” he said. “I haven’t read them.” He wrote En Temerant Voistra on the board and circled it. “I don’t even know if this one is in the Archives at all.” He put a question mark next to it and continued to write. “I will tell you this. None of them are in Tomes. I made sure of that. You’ll have to hunt for them in the Stacks. You’ll have to earn them.”

He finished the last title and took a step back, nodding to himself. There were twenty books in all. He drew stars next to three of them, underlined two others, and drew a sad face next to the last one on the list.

Then he left, striding out of the room without another word, leaving us thinking on the nature of names and wondering what we had gotten ourselves into.

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

The Hunt

DETERMINED TO MAKE A good showing of myself in Elodin’s class, I tracked down Wilem and negotiated an exchange of future drinks for his help navigating the Archives.

We made our way through the cobbled streets of the University together, the wind gusting as the huge, windowless shape of the Archives loomed above us across the courtyard. The words Vorfelan Rhinata Morie were chiseled into the stone above the massive stone doors.

As we came closer, I realized my hands were sweaty. “Lord and lady, hold on for a second.” I said as I stopped walking.

Wil raised an eyebrow at me.

“I’m nervous as a new whore,” I said. “Just give me a moment.”

“You said Lorren lifted his ban two days ago,” Wilem said. “I thought you’d be inside as soon as you had permission.”

“I was waiting for them to update the ledgers.” I wiped my damp hands on my shirt. “I know something’s going to happen,” I said anxiously. “My name won’t be in the book. Or Ambrose will be at the desk and I’ll have some sort of relapse from that plum drug and end up kneeling on his throat and screaming.”

“I’d like to see that,” Wil said. “But Ambrose doesn’t work today.”

“That’s something,” I admitted, relaxing a bit. I pointed to the words above the door. “Do you know what that means?”

Wil glanced up. “The desire for knowledge shapes a man,” he said. “Or something close to that.”

“I like that.” I took a deep breath. “Right. Let’s go.”

I pulled open the huge stone doors and entered a small antechamber, then Wil tugged open the inner doors and we stepped into the entry hall. In the middle of the room was a huge wooden desk with several large, leather-bound ledgers open atop it. Several imposing doors led off in different directions.

Fela sat behind the desk, her curling hair pulled back into a tail. The red light from the sympathy lamps made her look different, but no less pretty. She smiled.

“Hello Fela,” I said, trying not to sound as nervous as I felt. “I heard I’m back in Lorren’s good books. Could you check for me?”

She nodded and began to flip through the ledger in front of her. Her face brightened, and she pointed. Then her expression went dark.

I felt a sinking sensation in my stomach, “What is it?” I asked. “Is something wrong?”

“No,” she said. “Nothing’s wrong.”

“You look like something’s wrong, ”Wil grumbled. “What does it say?”

Fela hesitated, then spun the book around so we could read it: Kvothe, Arliden’s son. Red-haired. Fair complected. Young. Written next to this in the margin in a different script were the words, Ruh Bastard.

I grinned at her. “Correct on all counts. Can I go in?”

She nodded. “Do you need lamps?” she asked, opening a drawer.

“I do,” Wil said, already writing his name in a separate ledger.

“I’ve got my own,” I said, pulling my small lamp from a pocket of my cloak.

Fela opened the admittance ledger and signed us in. My hand shook as I wrote, skittering the pen’s nib embarrassingly, so it flicked ink across the page.

Fela blotted it away and closed the book. She smiled up at me. “Welcome back,” she said.

I let Wilem lead the way through the Stacks and did my best to look properly amazed.

It wasn’t a hard part to play. While I’d had access to the Archives for some time, I’d been forced to creep around like a thief. I had kept my lamp on its dimmest setting and avoided the main hallways for fear of accidentally running into someone.

Shelves covered every bit of the stone walls. Some hallways were broad and open with high ceilings, while others formed narrow lanes barely wide enough for two people to pass if they both turned sideways. The air was heavy with the smell of leather and dust, of old parchment and binding glue. It smelled of secrets.

Wilem led me through twisting shelves, up some stairs then through a long, wide hallway lined with books bound all in identical red leather. Finally we came to a door with dim red light showing around the edges.

“There are rooms set aside for private study,” Wilem said softly. “Reading holes. Sim and I use this one a lot. Not many people know about it.” Wil knocked briefly on the door before he opened it to reveal a windowless room barely larger than the table and chairs it contained.

Sim sat at the table, the red light of his sympathy lamp making his face look ruddier than usual. His eyes grew wide when he saw me. “Kvothe? What are you doing in here?” He turned to Wilem, horrified. “What is he doing in here?”

“Lorren lifted his ban, ”Wilem said. “Our young boy has a reading list. He’s planning his first book hunt.”

“Congratulations!” Sim beamed at me. “Can I help? I’m falling asleep here.” He held out his hand.

I tapped my temple. “The day I can’t memorize twenty titles is the day I don’t belong in the Arcanum,” I said. Though that was only half the truth. The full truth was that I only owned a half-dozen precious sheets of paper. I couldn’t afford to waste one on something like this.

Sim pulled a folded piece of paper out of his pocket along with a nub of pencil. “I need things written down,” he said. “Not all of us memorize ballads for fun.”

I shrugged and began to jot them down. “It will probably go faster if we split my list three ways,” I said.

Wilem gave me a look. “You think you can just walk around and find books by yourself?” He looked at Sim, who was grinning widely.

Of course. I wasn’t supposed to know anything about the layout of the Stacks. Wil and Sim didn’t know I’d been sneaking in at nights for almost a month.

It’s not that I didn’t trust them, but Sim couldn’t lie to save his life, and Wil worked as a scriv. I didn’t want to force him to choose between my secret and his duty to Master Lorren.

So I decided to play dumb. “Oh, I’ll muddle through,” I said nonchalantly. “It can’t be that hard to figure out.”

“There are so many books in the Archives,” Wil said slowly, “that merely reading all the titles would take you a full span.” He paused, looking at me intently. “Eleven full days without pause for food or sleep.”

“Really?” Sim asked. “That long?”

Wil nodded. “I worked it out a year ago. It helps stop the E’lir’s mewling when they must wait for me to fetch them a book.” He looked at me. “There are books without titles too. And scrolls. And clays. And many languages.”

“What’s a clay?” I asked.

“Clay tablet,” Wil explained. “They were some of the only things to survive when Caluptena burned. Some have been transcribed, but not all.”

“All that’s beside the point,” Sim interjected. “The problem is the organization.”

“Cataloging,” Wil said. “There have been many different systems over the years. Some masters prefer one, some prefer another.” He frowned. “Some create their own systems for organizing the books.”

I laughed. “You sound like they should be pilloried for it.”

“Perhaps,” Wil grumbled. “I would not weep over such a thing.”

Sim looked at him. “You can’t blame a master for trying to organize things in the best way possible.”

“I can,” Wilem said. “If the Archives were organized badly, it would be a uniform unpleasantness we could work with. But there have been so many different systems in the last fifty years. Books mislabeled. Titles mistranslated.”

He ran his hands through his hair, sounding suddenly weary. “And there are always new books coming in, needing to be cataloged. Always the lazy E’lir in Tombs who want us to fetch for them. It is like trying to dig a hole in the bottom of a river.”

“So what you’re saying,” I said slowly, “is that you find your time spent as a scriv to be both pleasant and rewarding.”

Sim muffled a laugh in his hands.

“And then there are you people.” Wil looked at me, his voice dangerous and low. “Students given the freedom in the Stacks. You come in, read half a book, then hide it so you can continue later at your own convenience. ”Wil’s hands made gripping motions as if clutching at the front of someone’s shirt. Or perhaps a throat. “Then you forget where you have put the book, and it is gone as surely as if you had burned it.”

Wil pointed a finger at me. “If I ever discover you have done such a thing,” he said, smoldering with anger, “no God will keep you safe from me.”

I thought guiltily about three books I had hidden in just this way while I was studying for exams. “I promise,” I said. “I won’t ever do that.” Again.

Sim stood up from the table, rubbing his hands together briskly. “Right. Simply said, it’s a mess in here, but if you stick to the books they have listed in Tolem’s catalog, you should be able to find what you’re looking for. Tolem is the system we use now. Wil and I will show you where they keep the ledgers.”

“And a few other things,” Wil said. “Tolem is hardly comprehensive. Some of your books might require deeper digging.” He turned to open the door.

As it turned out, only four books on my list were in the Tolem ledgers. After that, we were forced to leave the well-organized parts of the Stacks behind. Wil seemed to take the list as a personal challenge, so I learned a great deal about the Archives that day. Wil took me to the Dead Ledgers, the Backward Stair, the Bottom Wing.

Even so, at the end of four hours we’d only managed to track down the locations of seven books. Wil seemed frustrated by this, but I thanked him heartily, telling him he’d given me everything I needed to continue the search on my own.

Over the next several days, I spent almost every free moment I had in the Archives, hunting the books on Elodin’s list. I wanted nothing more than to start this class with my best foot forward, and I was determined to read every book he had given us.

The first was a travelogue I found rather enjoyable. The second was some rather bad poetry, but it was short, and I forced my way through by gritting my teeth and occasionally closing one eye so as not to damage the entirety of my brain. Third was a book of rhetorical philosophy, ponderously written.

Then came a book detailing wildflowers in northern Atur. A fencing manual with some rather confusing illustrations. Another book of poetry, this one thick as a brick and even more self-indulgent than the first.

It took hours, but I read them all. I even went so far as to take notes on two of my precious pieces of paper.

Next came, as near as I could tell, the journal of a madman. While it sounds interesting, it was really only a headache pressed between covers. The man wrote in a tight script with no spaces between the words. No breaks for paragraphs. No punctuation. No consistent grammar or spelling.

That was when I began to skim. The next day when confronted with two books written in Modegan, a series of essays concerning crop rotation and a monograph on Vintish mosaics, I stopped taking notes.

The last handful of books I merely flipped through, wondering why Elodin would want us to read a two-hundred-year-old tax ledger from a barony in the Small Kingdoms, an outdated medical text, and a badly translated morality play.

While I quickly lost my fascination with reading Elodin’s books, I still delighted in hunting them down. I irritated more than a few scrivs with my constant questions:Who was in charge of reshelving? Where were the Vintish dictums kept? Who had the keys to the fourth basement scroll storage? Where did the damaged books go while they were waiting to be repaired?

In the end, I found nineteen of the books. All of them except En Temerant Voistra. And that one was not from lack of trying. At my best guess, the entire venture took nearly fifty hours of searching and reading.

I arrived at Elodin’s next class ten minutes early, proud as a priest. I brought my two pages of careful notes, eager to impress Elodin with my dedication and thoroughness.

All seven of us showed up for class before the noon bell. The door to the lecture hall was closed, so we stood in the hallway, waiting for Elodin to arrive.

We shared stories about our search through the Archives and speculated as to why Elodin considered these books important. Fela had been a scriv for years, and she had only found seventeen of them. Nobody had found En Temerant Voistra, or even a mention of it.

Elodin still hadn’t arrived by the time the noon bell rang, and at fifteen minutes past the hour I grew tired of standing in the hallway and tried the door to the lecture hall. At first the handle didn’t move at all, but when I jiggled it in frustration, the latch turned and the door opened a crack.

“Thought it was locked,” Inyssa said, frowning.

“Just stuck,” I said, pushing it open.

We entered the huge, empty room and walked down the stairs to the front row of seats. On the large slate in front of us, written in Elodin’s oddly tidy handwriting was a single word: “Discuss.”

We settled into our seats and waited, but Elodin was nowhere to be seen. We looked at the slate, then at each other, at a loss for what exactly we were supposed to do.

From the looks on everyone’s faces, I wasn’t the only one who was irritated. I’d spent fifty hours digging up his damn useless books. I’d done my part. Why wasn’t he doing his?

The seven of us waited for the next two hours, chatting idly, waiting for Elodin to arrive.

He didn’t.

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

The Hidden City

WHILE THE HOURS I’D wasted hunting for Elodin’s books left me profoundly irritated, I emerged from the experience with a solid working knowledge of the Archives. The most important thing I learned was that it was not merely a warehouse filled with books. The Archives was like a city unto itself. It had roads and winding lanes. It had alleys and shortcuts.

Just like a city, parts of the Archives teemed with activity. The Scriptorium held rows of desks where scrivs toiled over translations or copied faded texts into new books with fresh, dark ink. The Sorting Hall buzzed with activity as scrivs sifted and reshelved books.

The Buggery was not at all what I expected, thank goodness. Instead, it proved to be the place where new books were decontaminated before being added to the collection. Apparently all manner of creatures love books, some devouring parchment and leather, others with a taste for paper or glue. Bookworms were the least of them, and after listening to a few of Wilem’s stories I wanted nothing more than to wash my hands.

Cataloger’s Mew, the Bindery, Bolts, Palimpsest, all of them were busy as beehives, full of quiet, industrious scrivs.

But other parts of the Archives were quite the opposite of busy. The acquisitions office, for example, was tiny and perpetually dark. Through the window I could see that one entire wall of the office was nothing but a huge map with cities and roads marked in such detail that it looked like a snarled loom. The map was covered in a layer of clear alchemical lacquer, and there were notes written at various points in red grease pencil, detailing rumors of desirable books and the last known positions of the various acquisition teams.

Tomes was like a great public garden. Any student was free to come and read the books shelved there. Or they could submit a request to the scrivs, who would grudgingly head off into the Stacks to find if not the exact book you wanted, then at least something closely related.

But the Stacks comprised the vast majority of the Archives. That was where the books actually lived. And just like in any city, there were good neighborhoods and bad.

In the good neighborhoods everything was properly organized and cataloged. In these places a ledger-entry would lead you to a book as simply as a pointing finger.

Then there were the bad neighborhoods. Sections of the Archives that were forgotten, or neglected, or simply too troublesome to deal with at the moment. These were places where books were organized under old catalogs, or under no catalog at all.

There were walls of shelves like mouths with missing teeth, where longgone scrivs had cannibalized an old catalog to bring books into whatever system was fashionable at the time. Thirty years ago two entire floors had gone from good neighborhood to bad when the Larkin ledger-books were burned by a rival faction of scrivs.

And, of course, there was the four-plate door. The secret at the heart of the city.

It was nice to go strolling in the good neighborhoods. It was pleasant to go looking for a book and find it exactly where it should be. It was easy. Comforting. Quick.

But the bad neighborhoods were fascinating. The books there were dusty and disused. When you opened one, you might read words no eyes had touched for hundreds of years. There was treasure there, among the dross.

It was in those places I searched for the Chandrian.

I looked for hours and I looked for days. A large part of the reason I had come to the University was because I wanted to discover the truth about them. Now that I finally had easy access to the Archives, I made up for lost time.

But despite my long hours of searching, I found hardly anything at all. There were several books of children’s stories that featured Chandrian engaged in minor mischief like stealing pies and making milk go sour. Others had them bargaining like demons in Aturan morality plays.

Scattered through these stories were a few thin threads of fact, but nothing I didn’t already know. The Chandrian were cursed. Signs showed their presence : blue flame, rot and rust, a chill in the air.

My hunt was made more difficult by the fact that I couldn’t ask anyone for help. If word spread that I was spending my time reading children’s stories, it would not improve my reputation.

More important, one of the few things I knew about the Chandrian was that they worked to viciously repress any knowledge of their own existence. They’d killed my troupe because my father had been writing a song about them. In Trebon they’d destroyed an entire wedding party because some of the guests had seen pictures of them on a piece of ancient pottery.

Given these facts, talking about the Chandrian didn’t seem like the wisest course of action.

So I did my own searching. After days, I abandoned hope of finding anything so helpful as a book about the Chandrian, or even anything so substantial as a monograph. Still, I read on, hoping to find a scrap of truth hidden somewhere. A single fact. A hint. Anything.

But children’s stories are not rich in detail, and what few details I found were obviously fanciful. Where did the Chandrian live? In the clouds. In dreams. In a castle made of candy. What were their signs? Thunder. The darkening of the moon. One story even mentioned rainbows. Who would write that? Why make a child terrified of rainbows?

Names were easier to come by, but all were obviously stolen from other sources. Almost all of these were names of demons mentioned in the Book of the Path, or from some play, primarily Daeonica. One painfully allegorical story named the Chandrian after seven well-known emperors from the days of the Aturan Empire. That, at least, gave me a brief, bitter laugh.

Eventually I discovered a slim volume called The Book of Secrets buried deep in the Dead Ledgers. It was an odd book: arranged like a bestiary but written like a children’s primer. It had pictures of faerie-tale creatures like ogres, trow, and dennerlings. Each entry had a picture accompanied by a short, insipid poem.

Of course, the Chandrian were the only entry without a picture. Instead there was just an empty page framed in decorative scrollwork. The accompanying poem was less than useless:

The Chandrian move from place to place,

But they never leave a trace.

They hold their secrets very tight,

But they never scratch and they never bite.

They never fight and they never fuss.

In fact they are quite nice to us.

They come and they go in the blink of an eye,

Like a bright bolt of lightning out of the sky.

Irritating as it was to read something like this, it made one point abundantly clear. To the rest of the world the Chandrian were nothing more than childish faerie stories. No more real than shamble-men or unicorns.

I knew differently, of course. I had seen them with my own eyes. I had talked to black-eyed Cinder. I had seen Haliax wearing shadow all around him like a mantle.

So I continued my fruitless search. It didn’t matter what the rest of the world believed. I knew the truth, and I’ve never been one to give up easily.

I settled into the rhythm of a new term. As before, I attended classes and played music at Anker’s. But most of my time was spent in the Archives. I had lusted after them for so long that being able to walk through the front doors any time I wanted seemed almost unnatural.

Even my continuing failure to find anything factual about the Chandrian didn’t sour the experience. As I hunted, I became increasingly distracted by other books I found. A handwritten medicinal herbal with watercolor pictures of various plants. A small quarto book of four plays I’d never heard of before. A remarkably engaging biography of Hevred the Wary.

I spent entire afternoons in the reading holes, missing meals and neglecting my friends. More than once I was the last student out of the Archives before the scrivs locked the doors for the night. I would have slept there if such things were allowed.

Some days, if my schedule was too tight for me to settle in for a long stretch of reading, I would simply walk the Stacks for a handful of minutes between classes.

I was so infatuated with my new freedoms that I did not make it over the river into Imre for many days. When I did return to the Grey Man, I brought a calling card I’d fashioned from a scrap of parchment. I thought Denna would be amused by it.

But when I arrived, the officious porter in the Grey Man’s parlor told me no, he could not deliver my card. No, the young lady was no longer in residence. No, he could not take a message for her. No, he did not know where she had gone.

CHAPTER FIFTEEN

Interesting Fact

ELODIN STRODE INTO THE lecture hall almost an hour late. His clothes were covered in grass stains, and there were dried leaves tangled in his hair. He was grinning.

Today there were only six of us waiting for him. Jarret hadn’t shown up for the last two classes. Given the scathing comments he’d made before disappearing, I doubted he’d be coming back.

“Now!” Elodin shouted without preamble. “Tell me things!”

This was his newest way to waste our time. At the beginning of every lecture he demanded an interesting fact he had never heard before. Of course, Elodin himself was the sole arbiter of what was interesting, and if the first fact you provided didn’t measure up, or if he already knew it, he would demand another, and another, until you finally came up with something that amused him.

He pointed at Brean. “Go!”

“Spiders can breathe underwater,” she said promptly.

Elodin nodded. “Good.” He looked at Fenton.

“There’s a river south of Vintas that flows the wrong way,” Fenton said. “It’s a saltwater river that runs inland from the Centhe sea.”

Elodin shook his head. “Already know about that.”

Fenton looked down at a piece of paper. “Emperor Ventoran once passed a law—”

“Boring,” Elodin interjected, cutting him off.

“If you drink more than two quarts of seawater you’ll throw up?” Fenton asked.

Elodin worked his mouth speculatively, as if he were trying to get a piece of gristle out of his teeth. Then he gave a satisfied nod. “That’s a good one.” He pointed to Uresh.

“You can divide infinity an infinite number of times, and the resulting pieces will still be infinitely large,” Uresh said in his odd Lenatti accent. “But if you divide a non-infinite number an infinite number of times the resulting pieces are non-infinitely small. Since they are non-infinitely small, but there are an infinite number of them, if you add them back together, their sum is infinite. This implies any number is, in fact, infinite.”

“Wow,” Elodin said after a long pause. He leveled a serious finger at the Lenatti man. “Uresh. Your next assignment is to have sex. If you do not know how to do this, see me after class.” He turned to look at Inyssa.

“The Yllish people never developed a written language,” she said.

“Not true,” Elodin said. “They used a system of woven knots.” He made a complex motion with his hands, as if braiding something. “And they were doing it long before we started scratching pictograms on the skins of sheep.”

“I didn’t say they lacked recorded language,” Inyssa muttered. “I said written language.”

Elodin managed to convey his vast boredom in a simple shrug.

Inyssa frowned at him. “Fine. There’s a type of dog in Sceria that gives birth through a vestigial penis,” she said.

“Wow,” Elodin said. “Okay. Yeah.” He pointed to Fela.

“Eighty years back the Medica discovered how to remove cataracts from eyes,” Fela said.

“I already know that,” Elodin said, waving his hand dismissively.

“Let me finish,” Fela said. “When they figured out how to do this, it meant they could restore sight to people who had never been able to see before. These people hadn’t gone blind, they had been born blind.”

Elodin cocked his head curiously.

Fela continued. “After they could see, they were shown objects. A ball, a cube, and a pyramid all sitting on a table.” Fela made the shapes with her hands as she spoke. “Then the physickers asked them which one of the three objects was round.”

Fela paused for effect, looking at all of us. “They couldn’t tell just by looking at them. They needed to touch them first. Only after they touched the ball did they realize it was the round one.”

Elodin threw his head back and laughed delightedly. “Really?” he asked her.

She nodded.

“Fela wins the prize!” Elodin shouted, throwing up his hands. He reached into his pocket and brought out something brown and oblong, pressing it into her hands.

She looked at it curiously. It was a milkweed pod.

“Kvothe hasn’t gone yet,” Brean said.

“Doesn’t matter,” Elodin said in an offhand way. “Kvothe is crap at Interesting Fact.”

I scowled as loudly as I could.

“Fine,” Elodin said. “Tell me what you have.”

“The Adem mercenaries have a secret art called the Lethani,” I said. “It is the key to what makes them such fierce warriors.”

Elodin cocked his head to one side. “Really?” he asked. “What is it?”

“I don’t know,” I said flippantly, hoping to irritate him. “Like I said, it’s secret.”

Elodin seemed to consider this for a moment, then shook his head. “No. Interesting, but not a fact. It’s like saying the Cealdish moneylenders have a secret art called Financia that makes them such fierce bankers. There’s no substance to it.” He looked at me again, expectantly.

I tried to think of something else, but I couldn’t. My head was full of faerie tales and dead-ended research into the Chandrian.

“See?” Elodin said to Brean. “He’s crap.”

“I just don’t know why we’re wasting our time with this,” I snapped.

“Do you have better things to do?” Elodin asked.

“Yes!” I exploded angrily. “I have a thousand more important things to do! Like learning about the name of the wind!”

Elodin held up a finger, attempting to strike a sage pose and failing because of the leaves in his hair. “Small facts lead to great knowing,” he intoned. “Just as small names lead to large names.”

He clapped his hands and rubbed them together eagerly. “Right! Fela! Open your prize and we can give Kvothe the lesson he so greatly desires.”

Fela cracked the dry husk of the milkweed pod. The white fluff of the floating seeds spilled out into her hands.

Master Namer motioned for her to toss it into the air. Fela threw it, and everyone watched the mass of white fluff sail toward the high ceiling of the lecture hall, then fall back heavily to the ground.

“Goddammit,” Elodin said. He stalked over to the bundle of seeds, picked it up, and waved it around vigorously until the air was full of gently floating puffs of milkweed seed.

Then Elodin started to chase the seeds wildly around the room, trying to snatch them out of the air with his hands. He clambered over chairs, ran across the lecturer’s dais, and jumped onto the table at the front of the room.

All the while he grabbed at the seeds. At first he did it one-handed, like you’d catch a ball. But he met with no success, and so he started clapping at them, the way you’d swat a fly. When this didn’t work either, he tried to catch them with both hands, the way a child might cup a firefly out of the air.

But he couldn’t get hold of one. The more he chased, the more frantic he became, the faster he ran, the wilder he grabbed. This went on for a full minute. Two minutes. Five minutes. Ten.

It might have gone on for the entire class period, but eventually he tripped over a chair and tumbled painfully to the stone floor, tearing open the leg of his pants and bloodying his knee.

Clutching his leg, he sat on the ground and let loose with a string of angry cursing the like of which I had never heard in my entire life. He shouted and snarled and spat. He moved through at least eight languages, and even when I couldn’t understand the words he used, the sound of it made my gut clench and the hair on my arms stand up. He said things that made me sweat. He said things that made me sick. He said things I didn’t know it was possible to say.

I expect this might have continued, but while drawing an angry breath, he sucked one of the floating milkweed seeds into his mouth and began to cough and choke violently.

Eventually he spat out the seed, caught his breath, got to his feet, and limped out of the lecture hall without saying another word.

This was not a particularly odd day’s class under Master Elodin.

After Elodin’s class I ate a bit of lunch at Anker’s, then went to my shift in the Medica, watching more experienced El’the diagnose and treat incoming patients. After that I headed over the river with the hope of finding Denna. It was my third trip in as many days, but it was a crisp, sunny day, and after all my time in the Archives, I felt the need to stretch my legs a bit.

I stopped at the Eolian first, though it was far too early for Denna to be there. I chatted with Stanchion and Deoch before moving on to a few of the other inns I knew she occasionally frequented: Taps, Barrel and Bale, and Dog in the Wall. She wasn’t at any of those either.

I wandered through a few public gardens, their trees almost entirely devoid of leaves. Then I visited all the instrument shops I could find, browsing the lutes and asking if they’d seen a pretty dark-haired woman looking at harps. They hadn’t.

It was fully dark by then. So I stopped by the Eolian again and wandered slowly through the crowd. Denna was still nowhere to be seen, but I did meet up with Count Threpe. We shared a drink and listened to a few songs before I left.

I pulled my cloak more tightly around my shoulders as I started back to the University. Imre’s streets were busier now than they had been during the day, and despite the chill in the air, there was a festival feel to the town. Music of a dozen different kinds poured from the doorways of inns and theaters. People crowded in and out of restaurants and exhibition halls.

Then I heard a laugh rise high and bright over the low murmuring of the crowds. I would have recognized it anywhere. It was Denna’s laugh. I knew it like the backs of my own hands.

I turned around, feeling a smile spread across my face. This was always the way of it. I only seemed to be able to find her after I’d given up hope.

I scanned the faces in the milling throng and found her easily. Denna stood by the doorway of a small café, wearing a long dress of dark blue velvet.

I took a step toward her, then stopped. I watched as Denna spoke to someone standing behind the open door of a carriage. The only part of her companion I could see was the very top of his head. He was wearing a hat with a tall white plume.

A moment later, Ambrose closed the carriage door. He gave her a wide, charming smile and said something that made her laugh. Lamplight glittered on the gold brocade of his jacket, and his gloves were dyed the same dark, royal purple as his boots. The color should have looked garish on him, but it didn’t.

As I stood staring, a passing two-horse fetter cart nearly knocked me flat and trampled me, which would have been fair, as I was standing in the middle of the road. The driver cursed and flicked out with his horse whip as he went past. It caught me on the back of the neck, but I didn’t even feel it.

I regained my balance and looked up in time to see Ambrose kiss Denna’s hand. Then, moving gracefully, he offered her his arm and they entered the café, together.

CHAPTER SIXTEEN

Unspoken Fear

AFTER SEEING AMBROSE AND Denna in Imre, I fell into a dark mood. On the walk back to the University my head spun with thoughts of them. Was Ambrose doing this purely out of spite? How had it happened? What was Denna thinking?

After a largely sleepless night, I tried not to think of it. Instead I burrowed deep into the Archives. Books are a poor substitute for female companionship, but they are easier to find. I consoled myself by hunting through the dark corners of the Archives for the Chandrian. I read until my eyes burned and my head felt thick and cramped.

Nearly a span passed, and I did little but attend classes and pillage the Archives. For my pains I gained lungs full of dust, a persistent headache from hours of reading by sympathy light, and a knot between my shoulder blades from hunching over a low table while I paged through the faded remains of the Gilean ledgers.

I also found a single mention of the Chandrian. It was in a handwritten octavo titled A Quainte Compendium of Folke Belief. At my best guess, the book was two hundred years old.

The book was a collection of stories and superstitions gathered by an amateur historian in Vintas. Unlike The Mating Habits of the Common Draccus, it made no attempt to prove or disprove these beliefs. The author had simply collected and organized the stories with occasional brief commentaries about how beliefs seemed to change from region to region.

It was an impressive volume, obviously comprising years of research. There were four chapters about demons. Three chapters for faeries: one of which was entirely devoted to tales of Felurian. There were pages on the shamble-men, rendlings, and the trow. The author recorded songs about the grey ladies and white riders. A lengthy section on barrow draugar. There were six chapters on folk magic: eight ways to cure warts, twelve ways to talk to the dead, twenty-two love charms …

The entire entry on the Chandrian was less than half a page:

Of the Chaendrian there is little to be said. Every Man knows of them. Every child chants their song. Yet folke tell no stories.

For the price of a small beer a Farmer will talk two hours on Dannerlings. But mention the Chaendrian and his mouth goes tight as a Spinner’s Asse and he is touching iron and pushing back his chair.

Many think it bad luck to speak of the Fae, yet still folke do. What makes the Chaendrian different I knowe notte. One rather drunk Tanner in the towne of Hillesborrow said in hushed tones, “If you talk of them, they come for you.” This seems the unspoken fear of these common folke.

So I write what I have gleaned, all common and inspecific. The Chaendrian are a groupe of various number. (Likely seven, given their name.) They appear and commit diverse violence for no clear reason.

There are signs which herald their Arrival, but there is no agreement as to these. Blue flame is the most common, but I have also heard of wine going sour, blindness, crops withering, unseasonable storms, miscarriage, and the sun going dark in the sky.

Altogether, I have found them a Frustrating and Profitless area of Inquirey.

I closed the book. Frustrating and profitless had a familiar ring to it.

The worst part wasn’t that I already knew everything written in the entry. The worst part was that this was the best source of information I’d managed to discover in over a hundred long hours of searching.

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

Interlude—Parts

KVOTHE HELD UP HIS hand, and Chronicler lifted his pen from the paper.

“Let’s pause there for a moment,” Kvothe said, nodding toward the window. “I can see Cob coming down the road.”

Kvothe stood and brushed off the front of his apron. “Might I suggest the two of you take a moment to compose yourselves?” He nodded to Chronicler. “You look like you’ve just been doing something you shouldn’t.”

Kvothe walked calmly to stand behind the bar. “Nothing could be further from the truth, of course. Chronicler, you are bored, waiting for work. That is why your writing gear is out. You wish you weren’t stuck without a horse in this nowhere town. But you are, and you’re going to make the best of it.”

Bast grinned. “Ooh! Give me something, too!”

“Play to your strengths, Bast.” Kvothe said. “You’re drinking with our only customer because you’re a shiftless layabout nobody would ever dream of asking for help in the fields.”

Bast grinned eagerly. “Am I bored too?”

“Of course you are, Bast. What else is there to be?” He folded the linen cloth and lay it on the bar. “I, on the other hand, am too busy to be bored. I am bustling about, tending to the hundred small tasks that keep the inn running smoothly.”

He looked at the two of them. “Chronicler, slouch back in your chair. Bast, if you can’t stop grinning, at least start telling our friend the story about the three priests and the miller’s daughter.”

Bast’s grin widened. “That’s a good one.”

“Everyone have their parts?” Kvothe picked up the cloth from the bar and walked through the doorway into the kitchen, saying, “Enter Old Cob. Stage left.”

There was the thump of feet on the wooden landing, then Old Cob stomped irritably into the Waystone Inn. He glanced past the table where Bast was grinning and making gestures to accompany some story, then made his way to the bar. “Hello? You in there, Kote?”

After a second the innkeeper came bustling in from the kitchen, drying his wet hands on his apron. “Hello there, Cob. What can I do for you?”

“Graham sent the little Owens boy to fetch me,” Cob said, irritated. “You have any idea why I’m here instead of haulin’ oats?”

Kote shook his head. “I thought he was bringing in the Murrions’ wheat today.”

“Damn foolishness,” Cob muttered. “We’re in for rain tonight, and I’m standing here with dry oats stacked in my field.”

“Since you’re here anyway,” the innkeeper said hopefully. “Can I interest you in some cider? Pressed it fresh this morning.”

Some of the irritation faded from the old man’s weathered face. “Since I’m waiting anyway,” he said. “Mug of cider would be proper nice.”

Kote went into the back room and returned with a pottery jug. There was the sound of more feet on the landing outside and Graham came through the door with Jake, Carter, and the smith’s prentice all in tow.

Cob turned to glare at them. “What’s so damned important it’s worth hauling me into town this time of morning?” he demanded. “Daylight’s burning, a—”

There was a sudden burst of laugher from the table where Chronicler and Bast sat. Everyone turned to see Chronicler flushing a bright red, laughing and covering his mouth with one hand. Bast was laughing too, pounding at the table.

Graham led the others to the bar. “I found out Carter and the boy are helping the Orrisons take their sheep to market,” he said. “Off to Baedn, wasn’t it?”

Carter and the smith’s prentice nodded.

“I see.” Old Cob looked down at his hands. “You’ll be missing his funeral then.”

Carter nodded solemnly, but Aaron’s expression went stricken. He looked from face to face, but everyone else was standing very still, watching the old farmer by the bar.

“Good,” Cob said at last, looking up at Graham. “It’s good you fetched us in.” He saw the boy’s face and snorted. “You look like you just killed your cat, boy. Mutton goes to market. Shep knew that. He wouldn’t think one jot less of you for doing what needs doing.”

He reached up to pat the smith’s prentice on the back. “We’ll all have a drink together to send ’im off proper. That’s the important thing. What happens in the church tonight is just a bunch of priestly speechifying. We know how to say good-bye better than that.” He looked behind the bar. “Bring us out some of his favorite, Kote.”

The innkeeper was already moving, gathering wooden mugs and filling them with a dark brown beer from a smaller keg behind the bar.

Old Cob held up his mug and the others followed suit. “To our Shep.”

Graham spoke first. “When we were kids, I broke my leg when we were out hunting,” he said. “I told him to run off for help, but he wouldn’t leave me. He rigged a little sled together out of pure nothing and cussedness. Dragged me the whole way back to town.”

Everyone drank.

“He introduced me to my missus,” Jake said.“I don’t know if I ever thanked him proper for that.”

Everyone drank.

“When I was sick with the croup, he came out to visit me every day,” Carter said. “Not many folk did. Brought me soup his wife made, too.”

Everyone drank.

“He was nice to me when I first came here,” the smith’s prentice said. “He would tell me jokes. And once I ruined a wagon couple he’d brought in for me to fix, and he never told Master Caleb.” He swallowed hard and looked around nervously. “I really liked him.”

Everyone drank.

“He was braver than all of us,” Cob said. “He was the first to stick a knife to that fella last night. If the bastard had been any way normal, that would have been an end to it.”

Cob’s voice shook a bit, and for a moment he looked small and tired and every bit as old as he was. “But that weren’t the case. These en’t good days to be a brave man. But he was brave all the same. I wish I’d been brave and dead instead, and him home right now, kissing his young wife.”

There was a murmur from the others, and they all drank to the bottom of their mugs. Graham coughed a bit before he set his down on the bar.

“I didn’t know what to say,” the smith’s prentice said softly.

Graham patted him on the back, smiling. “You did fine, boy.”

The innkeeper cleared his throat, and everyone’s eyes turned to him. “I hope you won’t think me too forward,” he said. “I didn’t know him as well as you. Not enough for the first toast, but maybe enough for the second.” He fidgeted with his apron strings, as if embarrassed for speaking up at all. “I know it’s early, but I’d dearly like to share a tumble of whiskey with you on Shep’s account.”

There was a murmur of assent and the innkeeper pulled glasses from beneath the bar and began to fill them. Not with bottle whiskey either—the red-haired man tapped it from one of the massive barrels resting on the counter behind the bar. Barrel whiskey was a penny a swallow, so they raised their glasses with more earnest warmth than might have otherwise been the case.

“What’s this toast going to be then?” Graham asked.

“To the end of a pisser of a year?” Jake said.

“That’s no kind of toast,” Old Cob grumbled at him.

“To the king?” Aaron said.

“No,” the innkeeper said, his voice surprisingly firm. He held up his glass. “To old friends who deserved better than they got.”

The men on the other side of the bar nodded solemnly and tossed back their drinks.

“Lord and lady, that’s a lovely tumble,” Old Cob said respectfully, his eyes watering slightly. “You’re a gentleman, Kote. And I’m glad to know you.”

The smith’s prentice set his glass down only to have it tip onto its side and roll across the bar. He snatched it up before it skittered over the edge and turned it over, eyeing its rounded bottom suspiciously.

Jake laughed a loud farmer’s laugh at his bewilderment while Carter made a point of setting his glass on the bar topside-down. “I don’t know how they do it in Rannish,” Carter said to the boy. “But round here there’s a reason we call it a tumble.”

The smith’s prentice looked properly abashed and turned his tumble upside down to match the others on the bar. The innkeeper gave him a reassuring smile before gathering up the glasses and disappearing into the kitchen.

“Right then,” Old Cob said briskly, rubbing his hands together. “We’ll have a whole evening of this after the two of you get back from Baedn. But the weather won’t wait on me, and I don’t doubt the Orrisons are eager to be on the road.”

After they filtered out of the Waystone in a loose group, Kvothe emerged from the kitchen and returned to the table where Bast and Chronicler sat.

“I liked Shep,” Bast said quietly. “Cob might be a bit of a crusty old cuss, but he knows what he’s talking about most of the time.”

“Cob doesn’t know half of what he thinks he does,” Kvothe said. “You saved everyone last night. If not for you, it would have gone through the room like a farmer threshing wheat.”

“That just isn’t true, Reshi,” Bast said, his tone plainly offended. “You would have stopped it. That’s what you do.”

The innkeeper shrugged the comment away, unwilling to argue. Bast’s mouth formed into a hard, angry line, his eyes narrowing.

“Still,” Chronicler said softly, breaking the tension before it grew too thick. “Cob was right. It was a brave thing to do. You have to respect that.”

“No I don’t,” Kvothe said. “Cob was right about that. These aren’t good times to be brave.” He motioned for Chronicler to pick up his pen. “Still, I wish I’d been braver and Shep was home kissing his young wife, too.”

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

Wine and Blood

EVENTUALLY WIL AND SIM pulled me from the warm embrace of the Archives. I struggled and cursed them, but they were firm in their convictions, and the three of us braved the chill wind on the road to Imre.

We made our way to the Eolian, claiming a table near the eastern hearth where we could watch the stage and keep our backs warm. After a drink or two I felt the book-longing fade to a dull ache. The three of us talked and played cards, and eventually I began to enjoy myself despite the fact that Denna was doubtless out there somewhere, hanging on Ambrose’s arm.

After several hours I sat slouched in my chair, drowsy and warm from the nearby fire while Wil and Sim bickered about whether the high king of Modeg was a true ruling monarch or merely a figurehead. I was nearly asleep when a heavy bottle knocked down hard onto our table followed by the delicate chime of wineglasses.

Denna stood next to our table. “Play along,” she said under her breath. “You’ve been waiting for me. I’m late and you’re upset.”

Blearily, I struggled upright in my seat and tried to blink myself awake.

Sim leaped to the challenge. “It’s been an hour,” he said, scowling fiercely. He tapped the table firmly with two fingers. “Don’t think buying me a drink is going to fix matters. I want an apology.”

“It’s not entirely my fault,” Denna said, radiating embarrassment. She turned and gestured to the bar.

I looked, worried I would see Ambrose standing there, watching me smugly in his goddamn hat. But it was only a balding Cealdish man. He made a short, odd bow toward us, halfway between acknowledgment and apology.

Sim scowled at him, then turned back to Denna and made a grudging gesture to the empty chair across from me. “Fine. So are we going to play corners or what?”

Denna sank down into the chair, sitting with her back to the room. Then leaned over to kiss Simmon on the forehead. “Perfect,” she said.

“I was scowling too,”Wilem said.

Denna slid him the bottle. “And for that, you may pour.” She set the glasses in front of each of us. “A gift from my overly persistent suitor.” She gave an irritated sigh. “They always need to give you something.” She eyed me speculatively. “You’re curiously mute.”

I rubbed a hand over my face. “I didn’t expect to see you tonight,” I said. “You caught me nearly napping.”

Wilem poured a pale pink wine then passed around the glasses while Denna examined the etching on the top of the bottle. “Cerbeor,” she mused. “I don’t even know if this is a decent vintage.”

“It’s not, actually,” Simmon said matter-of-factly as he took his glass. “Cerbeor is Aturan. Only wines from Vintas have a vintage, technically.” He took a sip.

“Really?” I asked, looking at my own glass.

Sim nodded. “It’s a common misuse of the word.”

Denna took a drink and nodded to herself. “Good wine, though,” she said. “Is he still at the bar?”

“He is,” I said without looking.

“Well then,” she smiled. “It seems you’re stuck with me.”

“Have you ever played corners?” Sim asked hopefully.

“I’m afraid not,” Denna said. “But I’m a quick study.”

Sim explained the rules with help from Wil and myself. Denna asked a few pointed questions, showing she understood the gist of it. I was glad. Since she was sitting across the table from me, she was going to be my partner.

“What do you usually play for?” she asked.

“Depends,” Wil said. “Sometimes we play by the hand. Sometimes by the set.”

“For a set of hands then,” Denna said. “How much?”

“We can do a practice set first,” Sim said, brushing his hair out of his eyes. “Since you’re just learning and all.”

Her eyes narrowed. “I don’t need any special treatment.” She reached into a pocket and brought a coin up onto the table. “A jot too much for you boys?”

It was too much for me, especially with a partner who had just learned the game. “Be careful with these two,” I said. “They play for blood.”

“In point of fact,” Wilem said. “I have no use for blood, and play for money instead.” He fingered through his purse until he found a jot, which he pressed firmly onto the table. “I am willing to play a practice game, but if she finds the thought insulting, I will thrash her and take whatever she is willing to lay on the table.”

Denna grinned at that. “You’re my kind of guy, Wil.”

The first hand went fairly well. Denna mislaid a trick, but we couldn’t have won anyway, as the cards were against us. But the second hand she made a mistake in the bidding. Then, when Sim corrected her, she got flustered and bid wildly. Then she accidentally led out of turn, not a huge mistake, but she led the jack of hearts, which let everyone know exactly what sort of hand she had. She realized it too, and I heard her mutter something distinctly unladylike under her breath.

True to their word, Wil and Sim moved in ruthlessly to take advantage of the situation. Given the weak cards in my hand, there wasn’t much I could do but sit and watch as they won the next two tricks and began to close on her like hungry wolves.

Except they couldn’t. She pulled a clever card force, then produced the king of hearts, which didn’t make any sense as she’d tried to lead the jack before. Then she produced the ace, too.

I realized her fumbling misplay had been an act slightly before Wil and Sim. I managed to keep it off my face until I saw the dim realization creep onto their expressions. Then I started to laugh.

“Don’t be smug,” she said to me. “I had you fooled, too. You looked like you were going to be sick when I showed the jack.” She put her hand in front of her mouth and made her eyes wide and innocent. “Oh my, I’ve never played corners before. Could you teach me? Is it true that sometimes people play for money?”

Denna snapped down another card onto the table and gathered in the trick. “Please. You lot should be glad I’m giving you a slap on the hand instead of the profound full-night fleecing you deserve.”

She mopped up the rest of the hand relentlessly, and it gave us such a solid lead that the rest of the set was a forgone conclusion. Denna never missed a trick after that, and played with enough cunning flair to make Manet seem like a dray horse by comparison.

“That was instructional,” Wil said as he slid his jot toward Denna. “I might need to lick my wounds a bit.”

Denna lifted her glass in a salute. “To the gullibility of the well-educated.”

We touched our glasses to hers and drank.

“You lot have been curiously absent,” Denna said. “I’ve been keeping an eye out for you for almost two span.”

“Why’s that?” Sim asked.

Denna gave Wil and Sim a calculating look. “You two are students at the University too, aren’t you? The special one that teaches magic?”

“That’s us,” Sim said agreeably. “We are chock full of arcane secrets.”

“We tinker with dark forces better left alone,” Wil said nonchalantly.

“It’s called the Arcanum, by the way,” I pointed out.

Denna nodded seriously as she leaned forward, her expression intent. “Between the three of you, I’m guessing you know how most of it works.” She looked at us. “So tell me. How does it work?”

“It?” I asked.

“Magic,” she said. “Real magic.”

Wil, Sim, and I exchanged glances.

“It’s complicated,” I said.

Denna shrugged and leaned back in her chair. “I have all the time in the world,” she said. “And I need to know how it works. Show me. Do some magic.”

The three of us shifted uncomfortably in our seats. Denna laughed.

“We’re not supposed to,” I said.

“What?” she asked. “Does it disturb some cosmic balance?”

“It disturbs the constables,” I said. “They don’t take kindly to that sort of thing over here.”

“The masters at the University don’t care for it much either,” Wil said. “They’re very mindful of the University’s reputation.”

“Oh come now,” Denna said. “I heard a story about how our man Kvothe called up some sort of demon wind.” She jerked her thumb at the door behind her. “Right in the courtyard outside.”

Had Ambrose told her that? “It was just a wind,” I said. “No demon involved.”

“They whipped him for it, too,”Wil said.

Denna looked at him as if she couldn’t tell if he were joking, then shrugged. “Well I wouldn’t want to get anyone in trouble,” she said with glaring insincerity. “But I am powerfully curious. And I have secrets I am willing to offer in trade.”

Sim perked up at this. “What sort of secrets?”

“All the vast and varied secrets of womankind,” she said with a smile. “I happen to know several things that can help improve your failing relations with the gentler sex.”

Sim leaned closer to Wil and asked in a stage whisper. “Did she say failing, or flailing?”

Wil pointed at his own chest, then Sim’s. “Me: failing. You: flailing.”

Denna raised one eyebrow and cocked her head to one side, looking at the three of us expectantly.

I cleared my throat uncomfortably. “We’re discouraged from sharing Arcanum secrets. It’s not strictly against the laws of the University—”

“It is, actually,” Simmon interrupted, giving me an apologetic look. “Several laws.”

Denna gave a dramatic sigh, looking up at the high ceiling. “I thought as much,” she said. “You lot just talk a good game. Admit it, you can’t turn cream into butter.”

“I happen to know for a fact that Sim can turn cream into butter,” I said. “He just doesn’t like to because he’s lazy.”

“I’m not asking you to teach me magic,” Denna said. “I just need to know how it works.”

Sim looked at Wil. “That wouldn’t fall under Unsanctioned Divulgence, would it?”

“Illicit Revelation,” Wil said grimly.

Denna leaned forward conspiratorially, resting her elbows on the table. “In that case,” she said. “I am also willing to finance a night of extravagant drinking, far above and beyond the simple bottle you see before you.” She turned her gaze to Wil. “One of the bartenders here has recently discovered a dusty stone bottle in the basement. Not only is it fine old scutten, drink of the kings of Cealdim, it is a Merovani as well.”

Wilem’s expression didn’t change, but his dark eyes glittered.

I looked around the largely empty room. “Orden is a slow night. We shouldn’t have any trouble if we keep things quiet.” I looked at the other two.

Sim was grinning his boyish grin. “It seems reasonable. A secret for a secret.”

“If it is truly a Merovani,” Wilem said. “I am willing to risk offending the masters’ sensibilities somewhat.”

“Right then,” Denna said with a wide grin. “You first.”

Sim leaned forward in his chair. “Sympathy is probably the easiest to get a grip on,” he said, then paused as if uncertain how to proceed.

I stepped in. “You know how a block and tackle lets you lift something too heavy for you to lift by hand?”

Denna nodded.

“Sympathy lets us do things like that,” I said. “But without all the awkward rope and pulleys.”

Wilem dropped a pair of iron drabs onto the table and muttered a binding. He pushed the right-hand one with a finger, and the left-hand one slid across the table at the same time, mimicking the motion.

Denna’s eyes went at little wide at this, and while she didn’t gasp, she did draw a long breath through her nose. It only then occurred to me that she’d probably never seen anything like this before. Given my studies, it was easy to forget that someone could live mere miles from the University without ever having any exposure to even the most basic sympathy.

To her credit, Denna recovered from her surprise without missing a beat. With only the slightest hesitation, she reached out a finger to touch one of the drabs. “This is how the bell in my room worked,” she mused.

I nodded.

Wil slid his drab across the table, and Denna picked it up. The other drab rose off the table too, bobbing in midair. “It’s heavy,” she said, then nodded to herself. “Right, because it’s like a pulley. I’m lifting both of them.”

“Heat, light, and motion are all just energy,” I said. “We can’t create energy or make it disappear. But sympathy lets us move it around or change it from one type into another.”

She put the drab back down on the table and the other followed suit. “And this is useful how?”

Wil grunted with vague amusement. “Is a waterwheel useful?” he asked. “Is a windmill?”

I reached into the pocket of my cloak. “Have you ever seen a sympathy lamp?” I asked.

She nodded.

I slid my hand lamp across the table to her. “They work under the same principle. They take a little bit of heat and turn it into light. It converts one type of energy into another.”

“Like a moneychanger,” Wil said.

Denna turned the lamp over in her hands curiously. “Where does it get the heat?”

“The metal itself holds heat,” I explained. “If you leave it on, you’ll eventually feel the metal get chilly. If it gets too cold, it won’t work.” I pointed. “I made that one, so it’s pretty efficient. Just the heat from your hand should be enough to keep it working.”

Denna flicked the switch and dull red light shone out in a narrow arc. “I can see how heat and light are related,” she said thoughtfully. “The sun is bright and warm. Same with a candle.” She frowned. “But motion doesn’t fit into it. A fire can’t push something.”

“Think about friction,” Sim chimed in. “When you rub something it gets hot.” He demonstrated by running his hand back and forth vigorously across the fabric of his pants. “Like this.”

He continued rubbing his thigh enthusiastically, unaware of the fact that, since it was happening below the level of the table, it looked more than slightly obscene. “It’s all just energy. If you keep doing it, you’ll feel it get hot.”

Denna somehow kept a straight face. But Wilem started to laugh, covering his face with one hand, as if embarrassed to be sitting at the same table with Sim.

Simmon froze and flushed red with embarrassment.

I came to his rescue. “It’s a good example. The hub of a wagon wheel will be warm to the touch. That heat comes from the motion of the wheel. A sympathist can make the energy go the other way, from heat into motion.” I pointed to the lamp. “Or from heat into light.”

“Fine,” she said. “You’re energy moneychangers. But how do you make it happen?”

“There’s a special way of thinking called Alar,” Wilem said. “You believe something so strongly that it becomes so.” He lifted up one drab and the other followed it. “I believe these two drabs are connected, so they are.” Suddenly the other drab clattered to the tabletop. “If I stop believing, it stops being so.”

Denna picked up the drab. “So it’s like faith?” she said skeptically.

“More like strength of will,” Sim said.

She cocked her head. “Why don’t you call it strength of will, then?”

“Alar sounds better,”Wilem said.

I nodded. “If we didn’t have impressive sounding names for things, no one would take us seriously.”

Denna nodded appreciatively, a smile tugging at the corners of her lovely mouth. “And that’s it then? Energy and strength of will?”

“And the sympathetic link,” I said. “Wil’s waterwheel analogy is a good one. The link is like a pipe leading to the waterwheel. A bad link is like a pipe full of holes.”

“What makes a good link?” Denna asked.

“The more similar two objects are, the better the link. Like this.” I poured an inch of the pale wine into my cup and dipped my finger into it. “Here is a perfect link to the wine,” I said. “A drop of the wine itself.”

I stood and walked to the nearby hearth. I murmured a binding and let a drop fall from my finger onto the hot metal andiron holding the burning logs.

I sat back down just as the wine in my glass started to steam, then boil.

“And that,”Wilem said grimly, “is why you never want a sympathist to get a drop of your blood.”

Denna looked at Wilem, then back to the glass, her face going pale.

“Black hands, Wil,” Simmon said with a horrified look. “What a thing to say.” He looked at Denna. “No sympathist would ever do something like that,” he said earnestly. “It’s called malfeasance, and we don’t do it. Ever.”

Denna managed a smile, though it was a bit strained. “If no one ever does it, why is there a name for it?”

“They used to,” I said. “But not anymore. Not for a hundred years.”

I let the binding go and the wine stopped boiling. Denna reached out and touched the nearby bottle. “Why doesn’t this wine boil too?” she asked, puzzled. “It’s the same wine.”

I tapped my temple. “The Alar. My mind provides the focus and direction.”

“If that’s a good link,” she asked, “what’s a bad one?”

“Here, let me show you.” I pulled out my purse, guessing coins would seem less alarming after Wilem’s comment. “Sim, do you have a hard penny?”

He did, and I arranged two lines of coins on the table in front of Denna. I pointed to a pair of iron drabs and murmured a binding. “Lift it up,” I said.

She picked up one drab and the other followed it.

I pointed to the second pair: a drab and my single remaining silver talent. “Now that one.”

Denna picked up the second drab and the talent followed it into the air. She moved both hands up and down like the arms of a scale. “This second one’s heavier.”

I nodded. “Different metals. They’re less similar, so you have to put more energy into it.” I pointed to the drab and the silver penny and muttered a third binding.

Denna put the first two drabs into her left hand, and picked up the third in her right. The silver penny followed it into the air. She nodded to herself. “And this one’s heavier still because it’s a different shape and a different metal.”

“Exactly,” I said. I pointed to the fourth and final pair: a drab and a piece of chalk.

Denna almost couldn’t get her fingers underneath the drab to pick it up. “It’s heavier than all the others together,” she said. “It’s got to be three pounds!”

“Iron to chalk is a lousy link, ”Wilem said. “Bad transference.”

“But you said energy couldn’t be created or destroyed,” Denna said. “If I have to struggle to lift this tiny piece of chalk, where does the extra energy go?”

“Clever,” Wilem chuckled. “So clever. I went a year before I thought to ask that.” He eyed her in admiration. “Some energy is lost into the air.” He waved one hand. “Some goes into the objects themselves, and some goes into the body of the sympathist who is controlling the link.” He frowned. “That can get dangerful.”

“Dangerous,” Simmon corrected gently.

Denna looked at me. “So right now you’re believing each of these drabs is connected to each of these other things?”

I nodded.

She moved her hands around. The coins and chalk bobbed in the air. “Isn’t that … hard?”

“It is,” Wilem said. “But our Kvothe is a bit of a showoff.”

“That’s why I’ve been so quiet,” Sim said. “I didn’t know you could hold four bindings at once. That’s impressive as hell.”

“I can do five if I need to,” I said. “But that’s pretty much my limit.”

Sim smiled at Denna. “One more thing. Watch this!” He pointed at the floating piece of chalk.

Nothing happened.

“Come on,” Sim said plaintively. “I’m trying to show her something.”

“Then show her,” I said smugly, leaning back in my chair.

Sim took a deep breath and stared hard at the piece of chalk. It trembled.

Wil leaned close to Denna and explained. “One sympathist can oppose another’s Alar,” he said. “It is just a matter of firmly believing that a drab is not the same as a silver penny at all.”

Wil pointed, and the penny clattered to the tabletop.

“Foul,” I protested, laughing. “Two on one isn’t fair.”

“It is in this case,” Simmon said, and the chalk trembled again.

“Fine,” I said, taking a deep breath. “Do your worst.”

The chalk dropped to the table quickly, followed by the drab. But the silver talent stayed where it was.

Sim sat back in his chair. “You’re creepy,” he said, shaking his head. “Fine, you win. ”Wilem nodded and relaxed as well.

Denna looked at me. “So your Alar is stronger than theirs put together?”

“Probably not,” I said graciously. “If they had practice working together they could probably beat me.”

Her eyes ranged over the scattered coins. “So that’s it?” she asked, sounding slightly disappointed. “It’s all just energy moneychanging?”

“There are other arts,” I said. “Sim does alchemy, for example.”

“While I,” Wilem said, “focus on being pretty.”

Denna looked us over again, her eyes serious. “Is there a type of magic that’s just …” She wiggled her fingers vaguely. “Just sort of writing things down?”

“There’s sygaldry,” I said. “Like that bell in your room. It’s like permanent sympathy.”

“But it’s still moneychanging, right?” she asked. “Just energy?”

I nodded.

Denna looked embarrassed as she asked, “What if someone told you they knew a type of magic that did more than that? A magic where you sort of wrote things down, and whatever you wrote became true?”

She looked down nervously, her fingers tracing patterns on the tabletop. “Then, if someone saw the writing, even if they couldn’t read it, it would be true for them. They’d think a certain thing, or act a certain way depending on what the writing said.” She looked up at us again, her expression a strange mix of curiosity, hope, and uncertainty.

The three of us looked at each other. Wilem shrugged.

“Sounds a damn sight easier than alchemy,” Simmon said. “I’d rather do that than spend all day unbinding principles.”

“Sounds like faerie-tale magic,” I said. “Storybook stuff that doesn’t really exist. I certainly never heard about anything like that at the University.”

Denna looked down at the tabletop where her fingers still traced patterns against the wood. Her mouth was pursed slightly, her eyes distant.

I couldn’t tell if she was disappointed or simply thoughtful. “Why do you ask?”

Denna looked up at me and her expression quickly slid into a wry smile. She shrugged away the question. “It was just something I heard,” she said dismissively. “I thought it sounded too good to be true.”

She looked over her shoulder. “I seem to have outlasted my overenthusiastic suitor,” she said.

Wil held up the flat of his hand. “We had an arrangement,” he said. “There was drink involved, and a woman’s secret.”

“I’ll have a word with the barman before I leave,” Denna said, her eyes dancing with amusement. “As for the secret: There are two ladies sitting behind you. They’ve been making eyes at you for most of the evening. The one in green fancies Sim, while the one with short blond hair seems to have a thing for Cealdish men who focus on being pretty.”

“We have already made note of them,” Wilem said without turning to look. “Unfortunately, they are already in the company of a young Modegan gentleman.”

“The gentleman is not with them in any romantic sense,” Denna said. “While the ladies have been eyeing you, the gentleman has been making it abundantly clear that he prefers redheads.” She lay her hand on my arm possessively. “Unfortunately for him, I have already staked my claim.”

I fought the urge to look at the table. “Are you serious?” I asked.

“Don’t worry,” she said to Wil and Sim. “I’ll send Deoch over to distract the Modegan. That will leave the door open for the two of you.”

“What’s Deoch going to do?” Simmon said with a laugh. “Juggle?”

Denna gave him a frank look.

“What?” Simmon said. “Wh … Deoch isn’t sly.”

Denna blinked at him. “He and Stanchion own the Eolian together,” she said. “Didn’t you know that?”

“They own the place,” Sim said. “They’re not, you know, together.”

Denna laughed. “Of course they are.”

“But Deoch is up to his neck in women,” Simmon protested. “He … he can’t—”

Denna looked at him as if he were simple, then to Wil and myself. “The two of you knew, didn’t you?”

Wilem shrugged. “I hadn’t any knowledge of it. But small wonder he is a Basha. He is attractive enough.” Wil hesitated, frowned. “Basha. What is a word for that here? A man who is intimate with both women and men?”

“Lucky?” Denna suggested. “Tired? Ambidextrous?”

“Ambisextrous,” I corrected.

“That won’t do,” Denna chided me. “If we don’t have impressive sounding names for things, no one will take us seriously.”

Sim blinked at her, obviously unable to come to grips with the situation.

“You see,” Denna said slowly, as if explaining to a child. “It’s all just energy. And we can direct it in different ways.” She blossomed into a brilliant smile, as if realizing the perfect way to explain the situation to him. “It’s like when you do this.” She began to vigorously rub her hands up and down her thighs, mimicking his earlier motion. “It’s all just energy.”

By this point Wilem was hiding his face in his hands, his shoulders shaking with silent laughter. Simmon’s expression was still incredulous and confused, but now it was also a furious, blushing red.

I got to my feet and took Denna’s elbow. “Leave the poor boy alone,” I said as I steered her gently toward the door. “He’s from Atur. They’re laced a little tightly in those parts.”

CHAPTER NINETEEN

Gentlemen and Thieves

IT WAS LATE WHEN Denna and I left the Eolian, and the streets were empty. In the distance I heard fiddle music and the hollow clopping of a horse’s hooves on cobblestones.

“So what rock have you been hiding under?” she asked.

“The usual rock,” I said, then a thought occurred to me. “Did you come looking for me at the University? At the big square building that smells like coal smoke?”

Denna shook her head. “I wouldn’t begin to know where to find you there. It’s like a maze. If I can’t catch you playing at Anker’s, I know I’m out of luck.” She looked at me curiously. “Why?”

“Someone showed up asking for me,” I said with a dismissive gesture. “She said I’d sold her a charm. I thought it might be you.”

“I did come looking for you a while back,” she said. “But I never mentioned your abundant charm.”

The conversation lulled and silence swelled between us. I couldn’t help but think of her walking arm in arm with Ambrose. I didn’t want to know any more about it, but at the same time, it was the only thing in my head.

“I came to visit you at the Grey Man,” I said, just to fill the air between us. “But you’d already gone.”

She nodded. “Kellin and I had a bit of a falling out.”

“Nothing too bad, I hope.” I gestured to her throat. “I notice you still have the necklace.”

Denna touched the teardrop emerald absentmindedly. “No. Nothing terrible. You can say this for Kellin, he’s a traditionalist. When he gives a gift, he sticks to it. He said the color flattered me, and I should keep the earrings too.” She sighed. “I’d feel better if he hadn’t been so gracious. Still, they’re nice to have. A safety net of sorts. They’ll make my life easier if I don’t hear from my patron soon.”

“You’re still hoping to hear from him?” I asked. “After what happened in Trebon? After he’s been out of contact for more than a month with no word at all?”

Denna shrugged. “That’s just his way. I told you, he’s a secretive sort. It’s not odd for him to be gone for long stretches of time.”

“I have a friend who is trying to find me a patron,” I said. “I could have him look for you too.”

She looked up at me, her eyes unreadable. “It’s sweet that you think I deserve better, but I really don’t. I have a good voice, but that’s it. Who would hire a half-trained musician without even an instrument to her name?”

“Anyone with ears to hear you,” I said. “Anyone with eyes to see.”

Denna looked down, her hair falling around her face like a curtain. “You’re sweet,” she said quietly, making an odd fidgeting gesture with her hands.

“What ended up souring things with Kellin?” I asked, steering the conversation somewhere safer.

“I spent too much time entertaining gentlemen callers,” she said dryly.

“You should have explained to him that I’m nothing remotely resembling a gentleman,” I said. “That might have eased his mind.” But I knew I couldn’t have been the problem. I’d only managed to visit once. Had it been Ambrose that had come calling? I could picture him in the lavish sitting room all too easily. That damn hat of his hanging casually off the corner of a chair as he drank chocolate and told jokes.

Denna’s mouth quirked. “It was mostly Geoffrey he objected to,” she said. “Apparently I was supposed to sit quiet and alone in my little box until he came to call on me.”

“How is Geoffrey?” I asked to be polite. “Has he managed to get a second thought into his head yet?”

I expected to get a laugh, but Denna merely sighed. “He has, but none of them are particularly good thoughts.” She shook her head. “He came to Imre to make a name for himself with his poetry, but lost his shirt gambling.”

“I’ve heard that story before,” I said. “Happens all the time over at the University.”

“That was just the beginning,” she said. “He figured he could win his money back, of course. First came the pawnshop. Then he borrowed money and lost that too.” She made a conciliatory gesture. “Though in all fairness, he didn’t gamble that away. Some bitch rooked him. Caught him with the weeping widow of all things.”

I looked at her, puzzled. “The what?”

Denna looked at me sideways, then shrugged. “It’s a simple rook,” she said. “A young woman stands outside a pawnshop all flustered and teary, then when some rich gent walks by she explains how she came to the city to sell her wedding ring. She needs money for taxes, or to repay a moneylender.”

She waved her hands impatiently. “The details don’t matter. What matters is when she got to town, she asked someone else to pawn the ring for her. Because she doesn’t know a thing about bargaining, of course.”

Denna stopped walking in front of a pawnshop window, her face a mask of distress. “I thought I could trust him!” she said. “But he just pawned it and ran off with the money! There’s the ring right there!” She pointed dramatically at the shop’s window.

“But,” Denna continued, holding up a finger. “Luckily, he sold the ring for a fraction of what it’s worth. It’s a family heirloom worth forty talents, but the pawnshop is selling it for four.”

Denna stepped close and lay her hand on my chest, looking up at me with wide, imploring eyes. “If you bought the ring, we could sell it for at least twenty. I’d give you your four talents back right away.”

She stepped back and shrugged. “That sort of thing.”

I frowned. “How is that a rook? I’ll catch on as soon as we go to the assessor.”

Denna rolled her eyes. “That’s not how it works. We agree to meet tomorrow at noon. But by the time I get there, you’ve already bought the ring yourself and run off with it.”

I suddenly understood. “And you split the money with the owner of the pawnshop?”

She patted my shoulder. “I knew you’d catch on sooner or later.”

It seemed fairly watertight except for one thing. “Seems you’d need a special combination of trustworthy-yet-crooked pawnshop as a partner.”

“True,” she admitted. “They’re usually marked though.” Denna pointed to the top of the nearby pawnshop’s doorframe. There were a series of marks that could easily be mistaken for random scratches in the paint.

“Ah,” I hesitated for half a moment before adding, “In Tarbean, markings like that meant this was a safe place to fence …” I groped for an appropriate euphemism. “Questionably acquired goods.”

If Denna was startled by my confession she gave no sign of it. She merely shook her head and pointed more closely to the markings, moving her finger as she went. “This says, ‘Reliable owner. Open to simple rooks. Even split.’ ” She glanced around at the rest of the doorframe and the shop’s sign. “Nothing about fencing goods from uncle.”

“I never knew how to read them,” I admitted. I glanced sideways at her, careful to keep any judgment out of my tone. “And you know how this sort of thing works because …?”

“I read it in a book,” she said sarcastically. “How do you think I know about it?”

She continued walking down the street. I joined her.

“I don’t usually play it as a widow,” Denna said, almost as an afterthought. “I’m too young for that. For me it’s my mother’s ring. Or grandmother’s.” She shrugged. “You change it to whatever feels right at the time.”

“What if the gent is honest?” I ask. “What if he shows up at noon, willing to help?”

“It doesn’t happen often,” she with a wry twist to her mouth. “Only once for me. Caught me completely by surprise. Now I set things up in advance with the owner just in case. I’m happy to rook some greedy bastard who tries to take advantage of a young girl. But I’m not about to take money off someone who’s trying to help.” Her expression went hard. “Unlike the bitch who got hold of Geoffrey.”

“Showed up at noon, did he?”

“Of course he did,” she said. “Just gave her the money. ‘No need to pay me back, miss. You go save the family farm.’ ” Denna ran her hands through her hair, looking up at the sky. “A farm! That doesn’t even make any sense! Why would a farmer’s wife have a diamond necklace?” She glanced over at me. “Why are the sweet ones such idiots with women?”

“He’s noble,” I said. “Can’t he just write home?”

“He’s never been on good terms with his family,” she said. “Less so now. His last letter didn’t have any money, just the news that his mother was sick.”

Something in her voice caught my ear. “How sick?” I asked.

“Sick.” Denna didn’t look up. “Very sick. And of course he’s already sold his horse and can’t afford passage on a ship.” She sighed again. “It’s like watching one of those awful Tehlin dramas unfold. The Path Ill-Chosen or something of the sort.”

“If that’s the case, all he has to do is stumble into a church at the end of the fourth act,” I said. “He’ll pray, learn his lesson, and live the rest of his days a clean and virtuous boy.”

“It would be different if he came to me for advice.” She made a frustrated gesture. “But no, he stops by afterward to tell me what he’s done. The guild moneylender cut off his credit, so what does he do?”

My stomach twisted. “He goes to a gaelet,” I said.

“And he was happy when he told me!” Denna looked at me, her expression despairing. “Like he’d finally figured a way out of this mess.” She shivered. “Let’s go in here.” She pointed to a small garden. “There’s more wind tonight than I thought.”

I set down my lute case and shrugged out of my cloak. “Here, I’m fine.”

Denna looked like she was going to object for a moment, then drew it around herself. “And you say you’re not a gentleman,” she chided.

“I’m not,” I said. “I just know it will smell better after you’ve worn it.”

“Ah,” she said wisely. “And then you will sell it to a perfumery and make your fortune.”

“That’s been my plan all along,” I admitted. “A cunning and elaborate scheme. I’m more thief than a gentleman, you see.”

We sat down on a bench out of the wind. “I think you’ve lost a buckle,” she said.

I looked down at my lute case. The narrow end was gaping open, and the iron buckle was nowhere to be seen.

I sighed and absentmindedly reached for one of the inner pockets of my cloak.

Denna made a tiny noise. Nothing loud, just a startled indrawn breath as she looked suddenly up at me, her eyes wide and dark in the moonlight.

I pulled my hand back as if burned by a fire, stammering an apology.

Denna began to laugh quietly. “Well that’s embarrassing,” she said softly to herself.

“I’m sorry,” I said quickly. “I wasn’t thinking. I’ve got some wire in there that I can use to hold this closed for now.”

“Oh,” she said. “Of course.” Her hands moved inside the cloak for a moment, then she held out a piece of wire.

“I’m sorry,” I said again.

“I was just startled,” she said. “I didn’t think you were the sort to grab hold of a lady without some warning first.”

I looked down at the lute, embarrassed, and made my hands busy, running the wire through a hole the buckle had left and twisting it tightly shut.

“It’s a lovely lute,” Denna said after a long, quiet moment. “But that case is an absolute shambles.”

“I tapped myself out buying the lute itself,” I said, then looked up as if suddenly struck with an idea. “I know! I’ll ask Geoffrey to give me the name of his gaelet! Then I can afford two cases!”

She swatted at me playfully, and I moved to sit next to her on the bench.

Things were quiet for a moment, then Denna looked down at her hands and repeated a fidgeting gesture she’d made several times during our talk. Only now did I realize what she was doing. “Your ring,” I asked. “What happened to it?”

Denna gave me an odd look.

“You’ve had a ring for as long as I’ve known you.” I explained. “Silver with a pale blue stone.”

Her forehead furrowed. “I know what it looked like. How did you?”

“You wear it all the time,” I said, trying to sound casual, as if I didn’t know every detail of her. As if I didn’t know her habit of twirling it on her finger while she was anxious or lost in thought. “What happened to it?”

Denna looked down at her hands. “A young gentleman has it,” she said.

“Ah,” I said. Then, because I couldn’t help myself, I added. “Who?”

“I doubt you—” She paused, then looked up at me. “Actually, you might know him. He goes to the University too. Ambrose Jakis.”

My stomach was suddenly filled with acid and ice.

Denna looked away. “He has a rough charm about him,” she explained. “More rough than charm, really. But …” She trailed off into a shrug.

“I see,” I said. Then, “It must be fairly serious.”

Denna gave me a quizzical look, then realization spread onto her face and she burst out laughing. She shook her head, waving her hands in violent negation. “Oh no. God no. Nothing like that. He came calling a few times. We went to a play. He invited me out for dancing. He’s remarkably light on his feet.”

She drew a deep breath and let it out in a sigh. “The first night he was very genteel. Witty even. The second night, slightly less so.” Her eyes narrowed. “On the third night he got pushy. Things went sour after that. I had to leave my rooms at the Boar’s Head because he kept showing up with trinkets and poems.”

A feeling of vast relief flooded me. For the first time in days I felt like I was able to take a full lungful of air. I felt a smile threatening to burst out onto my face and fought it down, fearing it would be so wide I’d look like an absolute madman.

Denna gave me a wry look. “You’d be amazed at how similar arrogance and confidence look at first glance. And he was generous, and rich, which is a nice combination.” She held up her naked hand. “The fitting was loose on my ring, and he said he’d have it repaired.”

“I take it he wasn’t nearly so generous after things went sour?”

Her red mouth made another wry smile. “Not nearly.”

“I might be able to do something,” I said. “If the ring’s important to you.”

“It was important,” Denna said, giving me a frank look. “But what would you do, exactly? Remind him, one gentleman to another, that he should treat women with dignity and respect?” She rolled her eyes. “Good luck.”

I simply gave her my most charming smile. I’d already told her the truth of things: I was no gentleman. I was a thief.

CHAPTER TWENTY

The Fickle Wind

THE NEXT EVENING FOUND me at the Golden Pony, arguably the finest inn on the University side of the river. It boasted elaborate kitchens, a fine stable, and a skilled obsequious staff. It was the sort of upscale establishment only the wealthiest students could afford.

I wasn’t inside, of course. I was crouched in the deep shadows of the roof, trying not to dwell on the fact that what I was planning went well beyond the bounds of Conduct Unbecoming. If I was caught breaking into Ambrose’s rooms, I would undoubtedly be expelled.

It was a clear autumn night with a strong wind. A mixed blessing. The sound of rustling leaves would cover any small noises I might make, but I worried the flapping edges of my cloak might draw attention.

Our plan was a simple one. I had slipped a sealed note under Ambrose’s door. It was an unsigned, flirtatious request for a meeting in Imre. Wil had written it, as Sim and I judged he had the most feminine handwriting.

It was a goose chase, but I guessed Ambrose would take the bait. I would have preferred to have someone distract him personally, but the fewer people involved the better. I could have asked Denna to help, but I wanted it to be a surprise when I returned her ring.

Wil and Sim were my lookouts, Wil in the common room, Sim in the alley by the back door. It was their job to let me know when Ambrose left the building. More importantly, they would alert me if he came back before I’d finished searching his rooms.

I felt a sharp tug in my right-hand pocket as the oak twig gave two distinct twitches. After a moment the signal was repeated. Wilem was letting me know Ambrose had left the inn.

In my left pocket was a piece of birch. Simmon held a similar one where he stood watch over the inn’s back door. It was a simple, effective signaling system if you knew enough sympathy to make it work.

I crawled down the slope of the roof, moving carefully over the heavy clay tiles. I knew from my younger days in Tarbean that they tended to crack and slide and could make you lose your footing.

I made it to the lip of the roof, fifteen feet off the ground. Hardly a dizzying height, but more than enough to break a leg or a neck. A narrow piece of roof ran beneath the long row of second-story windows. There were ten in all, and the middle four belonged to Ambrose.

I flexed my fingers a couple times to loosen them, then began to edge along the narrow strip of roof.

The secret is to concentrate on what you’re doing. Don’t look at the ground. Don’t look over your shoulder. Ignore the world and trust it to return the favor. This was the real reason I was wearing my cloak. If I were spotted I would be nothing more than a dark shape in the night, impossible to identify. Hopefully.

The first window was dark, and the second had its curtains drawn. But the third was dimly lit. I hesitated. If you’re fair-skinned like me, you never want to peer into a window at night. Your face will stand out against the dark like the full moon. Rather than risk peering in, I dug around in the pockets of my cloak until I found a piece of scrap tin from the Fishery that I’d buffed into a makeshift mirror. Then I carefully used it to peer around the corner and through the window.

Inside there were a few dim lamps and a canopy bed as big as my entire room back in Anker’s. The bed was occupied. Actively occupied. What’s more, there seemed to be more naked limbs than two people could account for. Unfortunately, my piece of tin was small, and I couldn’t view the scene in its full complexity, otherwise I might have learned some very interesting things.

I briefly considered going back and coming at Ambrose’s rooms from the other side, but the wind gusted suddenly, sending leaves skipping across the cobblestones and trying to claw me away from my narrow footing. Heart pounding, I decided to risk passing this window. I guessed the people inside had better things to do than stargazing.

I pulled the hood of my cloak down and held the edges in my teeth, covering my face while leaving my hands free. Thus blinded, I inched my way past the window, listening intently for any signs I’d been spotted. There were a few surprised noises, but they didn’t seem to have anything to do with me.

The first of Ambrose’s windows was elaborate stained glass. Pretty, but not designed to open. The next was perfect: a wide, double window. I pulled a thin piece of copper wire from one of the pockets of my cloak and used it to trip the simple latch holding it closed.

When the window wouldn’t open, I realized that Ambrose had added a drop bar as well. That took several long minutes of tricky work, one-handed in the near-total dark. Thankfully, the wind had died down, at least for the moment.

Then, once I’d worked my way past the drop bar, the window still wouldn’t budge. I began to curse Ambrose’s paranoia as I searched for the third lock, hunting for nearly ten minutes before I realized the window was simply stuck shut.

I tugged on it a couple times, which isn’t as easy as it sounds. They don’t put handles on the outside, you realize. Eventually I got overenthusiastic and pulled too hard. The window sprang open and my weight shifted backward. I leaned off the edge of the roof, fighting every reflex that urged me to move my foot back and regain my balance, knowing there was nothing but fifteen feet of empty air behind me.

Do you know the feeling when you tip your chair too far and begin to fall backward? The sensation was something like that, mixed with self-recrimination and the fear of death. I flailed my arms, knowing it wouldn’t help, my mind gone suddenly blank with panic.

The wind saved me. It gusted as I teetered on the edge of the roof, giving me just enough of a push that I could regain my balance. One of my flailing arms caught the now-open window and I scrambled desperately inside, not caring how much noise I made.

Once through the window I crouched on the floor, breathing hard. My heart was just beginning to slow when the wind caught the window and slammed it closed above my head, startling me all over again.

I brought out my sympathy lamp, thumbed the switch to a dim setting, and swept the narrow arc of light around the room. Kilvin had been right to call it a thief ’s lamp. It was perfect for this sort of skulking about.

It was miles to Imre and back, and I trusted Ambrose’s curiosity would keep him waiting for his secret admirer for at least half an hour. Normally looking for something as small as a ring would be a full day’s job. But I guessed Ambrose wouldn’t even think of hiding it. In his mind, it wasn’t something he’d stolen. He would consider it either a trinket or a trophy.

I set about methodically searching Ambrose’s rooms. The ring wasn’t on his chest of drawers or the bedside table. It wasn’t in any of his desk drawers, or on his jewelry tray in his dressing room. He didn’t even have a locked jewelry box, mind you, just a tray with all manner of pins, rings, and chains scattered carelessly across it.

I left everything where it was, which isn’t to say I didn’t think about robbing the bastard blind. Just a few pieces of his jewelry could pay my tuition for a year. But it went against my plan: get in, find the ring, and get out. So long as I left no evidence of my visit, I guessed Ambrose would simply assume he’d lost the ring if he noticed it was gone at all. It was the perfect sort of crime: no suspicion, no pursuit, no consequences.

Besides, it’s notoriously difficult to fence jewelry in a town as small as Imre. It would be far too easy for someone to trace it back to me.

That said, I’ve never claimed to be a priest, and there were plenty of opportunities for mischief in Ambrose’s rooms. So I indulged myself. While checking Ambrose’s pockets, I weakened a few seams so there was a fair chance of him splitting his pants up the back the next time he sat down or mounted his horse. I loosened the handle on his chimney’s flue so it would eventually fall off, and his room would fill with smoke while he scrambled to reattach it.

I was trying to think of something to do to his damned irritating plumed hat when the oak twig in my pocket twitched violently, making me jump. Then it twitched again and broke sharply in half. I cursed bitterly under my breath. Ambrose couldn’t have been gone for more than twenty minutes. What had brought him back so soon?

I clicked off my sympathy lamp and stuffed it into my cloak. Then I scurried into the next room to make my escape through the window. It was irritating to go through all the trouble of getting in just to leave again, but as long as Ambrose didn’t know anyone had broken into his rooms, I could simply come back another night.

But the window didn’t open. I pushed harder, wondering if it had jammed itself shut when the wind had slammed it.

Then I glimpsed a thin strip of brass running along the inside of the windowsill. I couldn’t read the sygaldry in the dim light, but I know wards when I see them. That explained why Ambrose was back so soon. He knew someone had broken in. What’s more, the best sort of wards wouldn’t just warn of an intruder, they could hold a door or window shut to seal a thief in.

I bolted for the door, hands scrabbling in the pockets of my cloak, looking for something long and slender I could use to foul the lock. Not finding anything suitable, I snatched a pen from his writing desk, jammed it into the keyhole, then jerked it hard sideways, breaking the metal head off inside the lock. A moment later I heard a grating metallic noise as Ambrose attempted to unlock the door from his side, fumbling and cursing when he couldn’t get his key to fit.

By that point I was already back at the window, shining my lamp back and forth along the strip of brass and murmuring runes under my breath. It was simple enough. I could render it useless by scratching out a handful of connecting runes, then open the window and escape.

I hurried back to the sitting room and snatched the letter opener off his desk, knocking over the capped inkwell in my hurry. I was just about to begin eliding runes when I realized how stupid that would be. Any petty thief could break into Ambrose’s rooms, but the number of people who knew enough sygaldry to foul a ward was much lower. I might as well sign my name on his window frame.

I took a moment to collect my thoughts, then returned the letter opener to the desk and replaced the inkwell. I returned and examined the long brass strip more closely. Breaking something is simple, understanding it is harder.

This is doubly true when you are confronted with the sounds of muttered cursing from behind a door, accompanied by the clack and rattle of someone trying to unjam a lock.

Then the hallway went quiet, which was even more unnerving. I finally managed to puzzle out the sequence of wards as I heard several sets of footsteps in the hall. I broke my mind into three pieces and focused my Alar as I pushed against the window. My hands and feet grew cold as I pulled heat from my body to counteract the ward, trying not to panic as I heard a loud thump as something heavy struck the door.

The window swung open, and I scrambled backward over the sash and onto the roof as something struck the door again and I heard the sharp crack of splintering wood. I still could have made it away safely, but when I set my right foot down on the roof, I felt a clay tile crack under my weight. As my foot slid, I grabbed the windowsill with both hands to steady myself.

Then the wind gusted, catching the open window and flinging it toward my head. I brought up my arm to protect my face, and it struck my elbow instead, smashing one of the small panes of glass. The impact pushed me sideways onto my right foot, which slid the rest of the way out from underneath me.

Then, since all my other options seemed to be exhausted, I decided it would be best if I fell off the roof.

Acting on pure instinct, my hands scrabbled madly. I dislodged a few more clay tiles, then caught hold of the lip of the roof. My grip wasn’t good, but it slowed and spun me so that I didn’t land on my head or my back. Instead I landed facedown, like a cat.

Except a cat’s legs are all the same length. I landed on my hands and knees. My hands merely stung, but my knees striking the cobblestones hurt as badly as anything I’d ever felt in my entire young life. The pain was blinding, and I heard myself yelp like a dog that’s been kicked.

A second later a hail of heavy red roofing tiles fell around me. Most shattered on the cobblestones, but one clipped the back of my head, while another caught me square on the elbow, making my entire forearm go numb.

I didn’t spare it a moment’s thought. A broken arm would heal, but expulsion from the University would last a lifetime. I pulled my hood up and forced myself to my feet. Using one hand to make sure the hood of my cloak stayed in place, I staggered a few steps until I was under the eaves of the Golden Pony, out of sight of the upstairs window.

Then I was running, running, running… .

Eventually I made my careful, limping way onto the rooftops and let myself into my room by the window. It was slow going, but I had little choice. I couldn’t walk past everyone in the taproom disheveled, limping, and generally looking as if I’d just fallen off a roof.

Once I caught my breath and spent some time abusing myself for several types of blinding idiocy, I took stock of my wounds. The good news was that I hadn’t broken either of my legs, but I had splendid bruises blooming just below each knee. The tile that had grazed my head had left a lump, but hadn’t cut me. And while my elbow throbbed with a dull ache, my hand was no longer numb.

There was a knock at the door. I froze for a moment, then drew the birch twig from my pocket, muttered a quick binding, and jerked it back and forth.

I heard a startled noise from out in the hall, followed by Wilem’s low laugh. “That’s not funny,” I heard Sim say. “Let us in.”

I let them in. Simmon sat on the edge of the bed, and Wilem took the chair by the desk. I closed the door and sat on the other half of the bed. Even with all of us seated, the tiny room was crowded.

We eyed each other soberly for a moment, then Simmon spoke up. “Apparently Ambrose startled a thief in his rooms tonight. Fellow jumped out a window rather than get caught.”

I gave a brief, humorless laugh. “Hardly. I was almost out when the window blew shut on me.” I gestured awkwardly. “Knocked me off the roof.”

Wilem let out a relieved sigh. “I thought I botched the binding.”

I shook my head. “I had plenty of warning. I just wasn’t as careful as I should have been.”

“Why was he back so early?” Simmon asked, looking at Wilem. “Did you hear anything when he came in?”

“It probably occurred to him that my handwriting is not especially feminine,” Wilem said.

“He had wards on his windows,” I said. “Probably linked to a ring or something he carries with him. They must have tipped him off as soon as I opened the window.”

“Did you get it?”Wilem asked.

I shook my head.

Simmon craned his neck to get a better look at my arm. “Are you okay?”

I followed his eyes, but didn’t see anything. Then I tugged at my shirt and noticed that it was stuck to the back of my arm. With all my other pains, I hadn’t noticed it.

Moving gingerly, I pulled my shirt up over my head. The elbow of the shirt was torn and speckled with blood. I cursed bitterly. I only owned four shirts, and now this one was ruined.

I tried to get a look at my the injury, and quickly realized that you couldn’t get a look at the back of your own elbow, no matter how much you wanted to. Eventually I held it up for Simmon’s inspection.

“It’s not much,” he said, holding his fingers a little more than two inches apart. “There’s only one cut and it’s hardly bleeding. The rest of it’s just scraped up. It looks like you scuffed it hard against something.”

“Clay tile from the roof fell on me,” I said.

“Lucky,” Wilem grunted. “Who else could fall off a roof and end up with nothing more than a few scrapes?”

“I’ve got bruises on my knees the size of apples,” I said. “I’ll be lucky if I can walk tomorrow.” But deep down I knew he was right. The clay tile that had landed on my elbow could easily have broken my arm. The broken edges of the clay tiles were sometimes sharp as knives, so if it had hit me differently, it could have cut me down to the bone. I hate clay roofing tiles.

“Well, it could have been worse,” Simmon said briskly as he came to his feet. “Let’s go to the Medica and get you patched up.”

“Kraem no,” Wilem said. “He can’t go to the Medica. They will be asking to see if anyone is hurt.”

Simmon sat down again. “Of course,” he said, sounding vaguely disgusted with himself. “I knew that.” He looked me over. “At least you’re not hurt anywhere that people can see.”

I looked at Wilem. “You have a problem with blood, don’t you?”

His expression grew slightly offended. “I wouldn’t say …” His eyes darted to my elbow and his face grew a little pale despite his dark Cealdish complexion. His mouth made a thin line. “Yes.”

“Fair enough.” I started to cut my ruined shirt into strips of cloth. “Congratulations Sim. You’ve been promoted to field medic.” I opened a drawer and brought out hook needle and gut, iodine, and a small pot of goose grease.

Sim looked at the needle, then back at me, eyes wide.

I gave him my best smile. “It’s easy. I’ll talk you through it.”

I sat on the floor with my arm over my head while Simmon washed, stitched, and bandaged my elbow. He surprised me by being nowhere near as squeamish as I’d expected. His hands were more careful and confident than those of many students in the Medica who did this sort of thing all the time.

“So the three of us were here, playing breath all night?” Wil asked, pointedly avoiding looking in my direction.

“Sounds good,” Sim said. “Can we say I won?”

“No,” I said. “People must have seen Wil at the Pony. Lie and they’ll catch me for sure.”

“Oh,” Sim said. “What do we say then?”

“The truth.” I pointed at Wil. “You were at the Pony during the excitement, then came here to tell me about it.” I nodded to the small table, where a mass of gears, springs, and screws were spread in disarray. “I showed you the harmony clock I found, and you both gave me advice on how to fix it.”

Sim seemed disappointed. “Not very exciting.”

“Simple lies are best,” I said, getting to my feet. “Thanks again, both of you. This could have gone terribly wrong without the two of you looking out for me.”

Simmon got to his feet and opened the door. Wil stood as well, but didn’t turn to leave. “I heard a strange rumor the other night,” he said.

“Anything interesting?” I asked.

He nodded. “Very. I remember hearing that you were done antagonizing a certain powerful member of the nobility. I was surprised that you had finally decided to let sleeping dogs lie.”

“Come on, Wil,” Simmon said. “Ambrose isn’t sleeping. He’s a dog with the froth that deserves to be put down.”

“He more resembles an angry bear,” Wilem said. “One you seem determined to prod with a burning stick.”

“How can you say that?” Sim said hotly. “In two years as a scriv has he ever called you anything other than a filthy shim? And what about that time he almost blinded me by mixing my salts? Kvothe will be working the plum bob out of his system for—”

Wil held up his hand and nodded to acknowledge Simmon’s point. “I know this to be true, which is why I let myself be drawn into such foolishness. I merely wish to make a point.” He looked at me. “You realize you have gone well over the hill concerning this Denna girl, don’t you?”

CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE

Piecework

THE PAIN IN MY knees kept me from any sort of decent sleep that night. So when the sky outside my window started to show the first pale light of coming dawn I gave up, got dressed, and made my slow, painful way to the outskirts of town, looking for willow bark to chew. Along the way I discovered several new, exciting bruises I hadn’t been aware of the night before.

The walk was pure agony, but I was glad I was making it in the early morning dark, when the streets were empty. There was bound to be a lot of talk about last night’s excitement at the Golden Pony. If anyone saw me limping, it would be too easy for them to jump to the right conclusions.

Luckily, the trip loosened the stiffness in my legs and the willow bark took the edge off the pain. By the time the sun was fully up I felt well enough to appear in public. So I headed to the Fishery hoping to get in a few hours of piecework before Adept Sympathy. I needed to start earning money for next term’s tuition and Devi’s loan, not to mention bandages and a new shirt.

Jaxim wasn’t in the Stocks when I arrived, but I recognized the student there. We had entered the University at the same time and bunked close to each other for a little while in the Mews. I liked him. He wasn’t one of the nobility who drifted blithely through the school, carried by his family’s name and money. His parents were wool merchants, and he worked to pay his tuition.

“Basil,” I said. “I thought you made E’lir last term. What are you doing in the Stocks?”

He flushed a little, looking embarrassed. “Kilvin caught me adding water to acid.”

I shook my head, giving a stern scowl. “This is contrary to proper procedure, E’lir Basil,” I said dropping my voice an octave. “An artificer must move with perfect care in all things.”

Basil grinned. “You’ve got his accent.” He opened the ledger book. “What can I get you?”

“I’m not feeling up for anything more complicated than piecework right now,” I said. “How about—”

“Hold on,” Basil interrupted, frowning down at the ledger book.

“What?”

He spun the ledger around to face me and pointed. “There’s a note next to your name.”

I looked. Penciled in Kilvin’s strangely childlike scrawl was: “No materials or tools to Re’lar Kvothe. Send him to me. Klvn.”

Basil gave me a sympathetic look. “It’s acid to water,” he joked gently. “Did you forget, too?”

“I wish I had,” I said. “Then I’d know what was going on.”

Basil looked around nervously, then leaned forward and spoke in a low voice. “Listen, I saw that girl again.”

I blinked at him stupidly. “What?”

“The girl that came in here looking for you,” he prompted. “The young one that was looking for the redheaded wizard who sold her a charm?”

I closed my eyes and rubbed at my face. “She came back? This is the last thing I need right now.”

Basil shook his head. “She didn’t come in,” he said. “At least not that I know of. But I’ve seen her a couple times outside. She hangs around the courtyard.” He jerked his head toward the southern exit of the Fishery.

“Did you tell anyone?” I asked.

Basil looked profoundly offended. “I wouldn’t do that to you,” he said. “But she might have talked to someone else. You should really get rid of her. Kilvin will spit nails if he thinks you’ve been selling charms.”

“I haven’t been,” I said. “I’ve got no idea who she is. What does she look like?”

“Young,” Basil said with a shrug. “Not Cealdish. I think she had light hair. She wears a blue cloak with the hood up. I tried to walk over and talk to her, but she just ran away.”

I rubbed my forehead. “Wonderful.”

Basil shrugged sympathetically. “Just thought I’d warn you. If she actually comes in here and asks for you, I’ll have to tell Kilvin.” He grimaced apologetically. “I’m sorry, but I’m in enough trouble as it is.”

“I understand,” I said. “Thanks for the warning.”

When I walked into the workshop, I was immediately struck by a strange quality of the light in the room. The first thing I did was look up, checking to see if Kilvin had added a new lamp to the array of glass spheres hanging up among the rafters. I hoped the change in light was due to a new lamp. Kilvin’s mood was always foul when one of his lamps went unexpectedly dark.

Scanning the rafters, I didn’t see any dark lamps. It took me a long moment to realize the strange quality of the light was due to actual sunlight slanting in through the low windows on the eastern wall. Normally I didn’t come to work until later in the day.

The workshop was almost eerily quiet this early in the morning. The huge room seemed hollow and lifeless with only a handful of students working on projects. That combined with the odd light and the unexpected summons from Kilvin, made me rather uneasy as I crossed the room heading toward Kilvin’s office.

Despite the early hour, a small forge in the corner of Kilvin’s office was already well-stoked. Heat billowed past me as I stood in the open doorway. It felt good after the early winter chill outside. Kilvin stood with his back to me, working the bellows with a relentless rhythm.

I knocked loudly on the frame of the door to get his attention. “Master Kilvin? I just tried to check some materials out of Stocks. Is anything the matter?”

Kilvin glanced over in my direction. “Re’lar Kvothe. I will be a moment. Come in.”

I stepped into his office and swung the heavy door closed behind me. If I was in trouble, I’d rather not have anyone listening in.

Kilvin continued to work the bellows for a long moment. It was only when he drew out a long tube that I realized it wasn’t a forge he was firing, it was a small glasswork. Moving deftly, he drew out a blob of molten glass on the end of his tube, then proceeded to blow an increasingly large bubble of glass.

After a minute the glass lost its orange glow. “Bellows,” Kilvin said without looking at me, putting the tube back into the mouth of the glasswork.

I scrambled to obey, working the bellows in a steady rhythm until the glass was glowing orange again. Kilvin motioned me to stop, pulled it out, and puffed at the tube for another long moment, spinning the glass until the bubble was large as a sweetmelon.

He set it back in the glasswork again, and I pumped the bellows without being asked. By the third time we repeated this, I was wringing with sweat. I wished I hadn’t closed Kilvin’s door, but I didn’t want to leave the bellows for the time it would take for me to open it again.

Kilvin didn’t seem to notice the heat. The glass bubble grew large as my head, then big as a pumpkin. But the fifth time he drew it from the heat and began to blow, it sagged on the end of the tube, deflating and falling to the floor.

“Kist, crayle, en kote,” he swore furiously. He threw down the metal tube where it rang sharply against the stone floor. “Kraemet brevetan Aerin!”

I fought down the sudden urge to laugh. My Siaru wasn’t perfect, but I was fairly certain Kilvin had said, Shit in God’s beard.

The bearlike master stood for a long moment, looking down at the ruined glass on the floor. Then he let out a long, irritated breath through his nose, pulled off his goggles, and turned to look at me.

“Three sets of synchronized bells, brass,” he said without preamble. “One tap and catch, iron. Four heat funnels, iron. Six siphons, tin. Twenty-two panes of twice-tough glass and other assorted piecework.”

It was a list of all the work I had done this term in the Fishery. Simple things I could finish and sell back to Stocks for a quick profit.

Kilvin looked at me with his dark eyes. “Does this work please you, Re’lar Kvothe?”

“The projects are easy enough, Master Kilvin,” I said.

“You are now a Re’lar,” he said, his voice heavy with reproach. “Are you content to coast idly, making toys for the lazy rich?” he asked. “Is that what you desire from your time in the Fishery? Easy work?”

I could feel the sweat beading up in my hair and running down my back. “I am somewhat leery of venturing off on my own,” I said. “You didn’t particularly approve of the modifications I made to my hand lamp.”

“Those are coward’s words,” Kilvin said. “Will you never leave the house because you were scolded once?” He looked at me. “I ask you again. Bells. Castings. Does this work please you, Re’lar Kvothe?”

“The thought of paying next term’s tuition pleases me, Master Kilvin.” Sweat was running down my face. I tried to wipe it away with my sleeve, but my shirt was already soaked through. I glanced at Kilvin’s office door.

“And the work itself?” Kilvin prompted. There was sweat beading on the dark skin of his forehead, but he didn’t seem otherwise bothered by the heat.

“Truthfully, Master Kilvin?” I asked, feeling a little light-headed.

He looked a bit offended. “I value truth in all things, Re’lar Kvothe.”

“The truth is I’ve made eight deck lamps this last year, Master Kilvin. If I have to make another, I expect I might shit myself from pure boredom.”

Kilvin huffed something that could have been a laugh, then smiled widely at me. “Good. That is how a Re’lar should feel.” He pointed one thick finger at me. “You are clever, and you have good hands. I expect great things from you. Not drudgery. Make something clever and it will earn you more than a lamp. Certainly more than piecework. Leave that to the E’lir.” He gestured dismissively at the window that looked out over the workshop.

“I’ll do my best, Master Kilvin,” I said. My voice sounded strange to my own ears, distant and tinny. “Do you mind if I open the door and get some fresh air in here?”

Kilvin grunted an agreement, and I took a step toward the door. But my legs felt loose and my head spun. I staggered and almost fell headlong onto the floor, but I managed to catch the edge of the worktable and merely went to my knees instead.

When my bruised knees hit the stone floor it was excruciating. But I didn’t shout or cry out. In fact, the pain seemed to be coming from a long way off.

I awoke confused, with a mouth as dry as sawdust. My eyes were gummy and my thoughts so sluggish it took me a long moment to recognize the distinctive antiseptic tang in the air. That, combined with the fact that I was lying naked under a sheet, let me know I was in the Medica.

I turned my head and saw short blond hair and the dark physicker’s uniform. I relaxed back onto the pillow. “Hello Mola,” I croaked.

She turned and gave me a serious look. “Kvothe,” she said formally. “How do you feel?”

Still bleary, I had to think about it. “Thick,” I said. Then, “Thirsty.”

Mola brought me a glass and helped me drink. It was sweet and gritty. It took me a long moment to finish it, but by the time I was done, I felt halfway human again.

“What happened?” I asked.

“You fainted in the Artificery,” she said. “Kilvin carried you over here himself. It was rather touching, actually. I had to shoo him away.”

I felt my entire body flush with shame at the thought of being carried through the streets of the University by the huge master. I must have looked like a rag doll in his arms. “I fainted?”

“Kilvin explained you were in a hot room,” Mola said. “And you’d sweat through your clothes. You were dripping wet.” She gestured to where my shirt and pants lay wadded on the table.

“Heat exhaustion?” I said.

Mola held up a hand to quiet me. “That was my first diagnosis,” she said. “On further examination, I’ve decided you’re actually suffering from an acute case of jumping out of a window last night.” She gave me a pointed look.

I suddenly became self-conscious. Not of my near-nakedness, but of the obvious injuries I’d received when I’d fallen off the roof of the Golden Pony. I glanced at the door and was relieved to see it was closed. Mola stood watching me, her expression carefully blank.

“Has anyone else seen?” I asked.

Mola shook her head. “We’ve been busy today.”

I relaxed a bit. “That’s something then.”

Her expression was grim. “This morning, Arwyl gave orders to report any suspicious injuries. It’s no secret why. Ambrose himself has offered a sizable reward to whoever helps him catch a thief who broke into his rooms and stole several valuables, including a ring his mother gave him on her deathbed.”

“That bastard,” I said hotly. “I didn’t steal anything.”

Mola raised an eyebrow. “As easy as that? No denial? No … anything?”

I exhaled through my nose, trying to get my temper under control. “I’m not going to insult your intelligence. It’s pretty obvious I didn’t fall down some stairs.” I took a deep breath. “Look, Mola. If you tell anyone, they’ll expel me. I didn’t steal anything. I could have, but I didn’t.”

“Then why …” She hesitated, obviously uncomfortable. “What were you doing?”

I sighed. “Would you believe I was doing a favor for a friend?”

Mola gave me a shrewd look, her green eyes searching mine. “Well, you do seem to be in the favor business lately.”

“I … what?” I asked, my thoughts moving too sluggishly to follow what she was saying.

“The last time you were here, I treated you for burns and smoke inhalation after pulling Fela out of a fire.”

“Oh,” I said. “That’s not really a favor. Anyone would have done that.”

Mola gave me a searching look. “You really believe that, don’t you?” She shook her head a little, then picked up a hardback and made a few notes on it, no doubt filling out her treatment report. “Well, I consider it a favor. Fela and I bunked together back when we were both new here. Despite what you think, it’s not something a lot of people would have done.”

There was a knock and Sim’s voice came from the hallway. “Can we come in?” Without waiting for an answer, he opened the door and led an uncomfortable looking Wilem into the room.

“We heard …” Sim paused and turned to look at Mola. “He’s going to be okay, right?”

“He’ll be fine,” Mola said. “Provided his temperature levels out.” She picked up a key-gauge and stuck it in my mouth. “I know this will be hard for you, but try to keep your mouth shut for a minute.”

“In that case,” Simmon said with a grin, “We heard Kilvin took you somewhere private and showed you something that made you faint like a little sissy girl.”

I scowled at him, but kept my mouth shut.

Mola turned back to Wil and Sim. “His legs are going to hurt for a while, but there’s no permanent damage. His elbow should be fine too, though the stitching’s a mess. What the hell were you guys doing in Ambrose’s rooms, anyway?”

Wilem simply looked at her, characteristically dark-eyed and stoic.

No such luck with Sim. “Kvothe needed to get a ring for his ladylove,” he chirped cheerfully.

Mola turned to look at me, her expression furious. “You have a hell of a lot of nerve to lie right to my face,” she said, her eyes flat and angry as a cat’s. “Thank goodness you didn’t want to insult my intelligence or anything.”

I took a deep breath and reached up to take the key-gauge out of my mouth. “Goddammit Sim,” I said crossly. “Some day I’m going to teach you to lie.”

Sim looked back and forth between the two of us, flushed with panic and embarrassment. “Kvothe has a thing for a girl over the river,” he said defensively. “Ambrose took a ring of hers and won’t give it back. We just—”

Mola cut him off with a sharp gesture. “Why didn’t you just tell me that?” she demanded of me, irritated. “Everyone knows what Ambrose is like with women!”

“That’s why I didn’t tell you,” I said. “It sounded like a very convenient lie. There’s also the fact that it is not one whit of your goddamn business.”

Her expression hardened. “You come off pretty high and mighty for—”

“Stop. Just stop,” Wilem said, startling both of us out of our argument. He turned to Mola, “When Kvothe came here unconscious, what did you do first?”

“I checked his pupils for signs of head trauma,” Mola said automatically. “What the hell does that have to do with anything?”

Wilem gestured in my direction. “Look at his eyes now.”

Mola looked at me. “They’re dark,” she said, sounding surprised. “Dark green. Like a pine bough.”

Wil continued. “Don’t argue with him when his eyes go dark like that. No good comes of it.”

“It’s like the noise a rattlesnake makes,” Sim said.

“More like hackles on a dog, ”Wilem corrected. “It shows when he’s ready to bite.”

“All of you can go straight to hell,” I said. “Or you can give me a mirror so I can see what you’re talking about. I don’t care which.”

Wil ignored me. “Our little Kvothe has a flash-pan temper, but once he’s had a minute to cool down, he will realize the truth.” Wilem gave me a pointed look. “He’s not upset because you didn’t trust him, or that you tricked Sim. He’s upset because you found out what asinine lengths he is willing to go to in order to impress a woman.” He looked at me. “Is asinine the right word?”

I took a deep breath and let it out. “Pretty much,” I admitted.

“I chose it because it sounded like ass,” Wil said.

“I knew you two had to be involved,” Mola said with a hint of apology in her voice. “Honestly, the three of you are thick as thieves, and I do mean that in all its various clever implications.” She walked around the side of the bed and looked critically at my wounded elbow. “Which one of you stitched him up?”

“Me.” Sim grimaced. “I know I made a mess of it.”

“Mess would be generous.” Mola said, looking it over critically. “It looks like you were trying to stitch your name onto him and kept misspelling it.”

“I think he did quite well,” Wil said, meeting her eye. “Considering his lack of training, and the fact that he was helping a friend under less than ideal circumstances.”

Mola flushed. “I didn’t mean it like that,” she said quickly. “Working here, it’s easy to forget that not everyone …” She turned to Sim. “I’m sorry.”

Sim ran his hand through his sandy hair. “I suppose you could make it up to me sometime,” he said, grinning boyishly. “Like maybe tomorrow afternoon? When you let me buy you lunch?” He looked at her hopefully.

Mola rolled her eyes and sighed, somewhere between amusement and exasperation. “Fine.”

“My work here is done,”Wil said gravely. “I’m leaving. I hate this place.”

“Thanks Wil,” I said.

He gave a perfunctory wave over one shoulder and closed the door behind him.

Mola agreed to leave mention of my suspicious injuries off her report and stuck to her original diagnosis of heat exhaustion. She also cut away Sim’s stitches, then recleaned, resewed, and rebandaged my arm. Not a pleasant experience, but I knew it would heal more quickly under her experienced care.

In closing, she advised me to drink more water, get some sleep, and suggested that in the future I refrain from strenuous physical activity in a hot room the day after falling off a roof.

CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO

Slipping

UP UNTIL THIS POINT in the term, Elxa Dal had been teaching us theory in Adept Sympathy. How much light could be produced from ten thaums of continuous heat using iron? Using basalt? Using human flesh? We memorized tables of figures and learned how to calculate escalating squares, angular momentum, and compounded degradations.

Simply said, it was mind-numbing.

Don’t get me wrong. I knew it was essential information. Bindings of the sort we’d shown Denna were simple. But when things grew complicated, a skilled sympathist needed to do some fairly tricky calculations.

In terms of energy, there isn’t much difference between lighting a candle and melting it into a puddle of tallow. The only difference is one of focus and control. When the candle is sitting in front of you, these things are easy. You simply stare at the wick and stop pouring in heat when you see the first flicker of flame. But if the candle is a quarter mile away, or in a different room, focus and control are exponentially more difficult to maintain.

And there are worse things than melted candles waiting for a careless sympathist. The question Denna had asked in the Eolian was all-important: “Where does the extra energy go?”

As Wil had explained, some went into the air, some went into the linked items, and the rest went into the sympathist’s body. The technical term for it was “thaumic overfill,” but even Elxa Dal tended to refer to it as slippage.

Every year or so some careless sympathist with a strong Alar channeled enough heat through a bad link to spike his body temperature and drive himself fever-mad. Dal told us of one extreme case where a student managed to cook himself from the inside out.

I mentioned the last to Manet the day after Dal shared the story with our class. I expected him to join me in some healthy scoffing, but it turned out Manet had actually been a student back when it had happened.

“Smelled like pork,” Manet said grimly. “Damnedest thing. Felt bad for him of course, but you can only feel so much pity for an idiot. A little slippage here and there, you hardly notice, but he must have slipped two hundred thousand thaums inside two seconds.” Manet shook his head, not looking up from the piece of tin he was engraving. “Whole wing of Mains reeked. Nobody could use those rooms for a year.”

I stared at him.

“Thermal slippage is fairly common though,” Manet continued. “Now kinetic slippage …” He raised his eyebrows appreciatively. “Twenty years back some damn fool El’the got drunk and tried to lift a manure cart onto the roof of the Masters’ Hall on a bet. Tore his own arm off at the shoulder.”

Manet bent back over his piece of tin, engraving a careful rune. “Takes a special kind of stupid to do something like that.”

The next day I was especially attentive to what Dal had to say.

He drilled us mercilessly. Calculations for enthaupy. Charts showing distance of decay. Equations that described the entropic curves a skilled sympathist needs to understand on an almost instinctive level.

But Dal was no fool. So before we grew bored and sloppy, he turned it into a competition.

He made us draw heat from odd sources, from red-hot irons, from blocks of ice, from our own blood. Lighting candles in distant rooms was the easiest of it. Lighting one of a dozen identical candles was harder. Lighting a candle you’d never actually seen in an unknown location … it was like juggling in the dark.

There were contests of precision. Contests of finesse. Contests of focus and control. After two span, I was the highest ranked student in our class of twenty-three Re’lar. Fenton nipped at my heels in second place.

As luck would have it, the day after my assault on Ambrose’s rooms was the same day we began dueling in Adept Sympathy. Dueling required all the subtlety and control of our previous competitions, with the added challenge of having another student actively opposing your Alar.

So, despite my recent trip to the Medica for heat exhaustion, I melted a hole through a block of ice in a distant room. Despite two nights of scant sleep, I raised the temperature of a pint of mercury exactly ten degrees. Despite my throbbing bruises and the stinging itch of my bandaged arm, I tore the king of spades in half while leaving the other cards in the deck untouched.

All of these things I did in less than two minutes, despite the fact that Fenton set the whole of his Alar to oppose me. It is not for nothing that they came to call me Kvothe the Arcane. My Alar was like a blade of Ramston steel.

“It’s rather impressive,” Dal said to me after class. “It’s been years since I’ve had a student go undefeated for so long. Will anyone even bet against you anymore?”

I shook my head. “That dried up a long time ago.”

“The price of fame.” Dal smiled, then looked a little more serious. “I wanted to warn you before I announce it to the class. Next span I’ll probably start setting students against you in pairs.”

“I’ll have to go against Fenton and Brey at the same time?” I asked.

Dal shook his head. “We’ll start with the two lowest ranked duelists. It will be a nice lead-in to the teamwork exercises we’ll be doing later in the term.” He smiled. “And it will keep you from growing complacent.” Dal gave me a sharp look, his smile fading. “Are you all right?”

“Just a chill,” I said unconvincingly as I shivered. “Could we go stand by the brazier?”

I stood as close as I could without pressing myself against the hot metal, spreading my hands over the glimmering bowl of hot coals. After a moment the chill passed and I noticed Dal looking at me curiously.

“I ended up in the Medica with a bit of heat exhaustion earlier today,” I admitted. “My body’s just a bit confused. I’m fine now.”

He frowned. “You shouldn’t come to class if you aren’t feeling well,” he said. “And you certainly shouldn’t be dueling. Sympathy of this sort stresses the body and mind. You shouldn’t risk compounding that with an illness.”

“I felt fine when I came to class,” I lied. “My body is just reminding me I owe it a good night’s sleep.”

“See that you give it one,” he said sternly, spreading his own hands to the fire. “If you drive yourself too hard you’ll pay for it later. You’ve been looking a little ragged lately. Ragged isn’t the right word, really.”

“Weary?” I guessed.

“Yes. Weary.” He eyed me speculatively, smoothing his beard with a hand. “You have a gift for words. It’s one of the reasons you ended up with Elodin, I expect.”

I didn’t say anything to that. I must have said it quite loudly too, because Dal gave me a curious look. “How are your studies progressing with Elodin?” he asked casually.

“Well enough,” I hedged.

He looked at me.

“Not as well as I might hope,” I admitted. “Studying with Master Elodin isn’t what I expected.”

Dal nodded. “He can be difficult.”

A question sprang up in me. “Do you know any names, Master Dal?”

He nodded solemnly.

“What are they?” I pressed.

He stiffened slightly, then relaxed as he turned his hands back and forth over the fire. “That isn’t really a polite question,” he said gently. “Well, not impolite, it’s just the sort of question you don’t ask. Like asking a man how often he makes love to his wife.”

“I’m sorry.”

“No need to be,” he said. “There’s no reason for you to know. It’s a holdover from older times, I think. Back when we had more to fear from our fellow arcanists. If you knew what names your enemy knew, you could guess his strengths, his weaknesses.”

We were both silent for a moment, warming ourselves by the coals. “Fire,” he said after a long moment. “I know the name of fire. And one other.”

“Only two?” I blurted without thinking.

“And how many do you know?” He mocked me gently. “Yes, only two. But two is a great number of names to know these days. Elodin says it was different, long ago.”

“How many does Elodin know?”

“Even if I knew, it would be exceptionally bad form for me to tell you that,” he said with a hint of disapproval. “But it’s safe to say he knows a few.”

“Could you show me something with the name of fire?” I asked. “If that’s not inappropriate?”

Dal hesitated for a moment, then smiled. He looked intently into the brazier between us, closed his eyes, then gestured to the unlit brazier across the room. “Fire.” He spoke the word like a commandment and the distant brazier roared up in a pillar of flame.

“Fire?” I said puzzled. “That’s it? The name of fire is fire?”

Elxa Dal smiled and shook his head. “That’s not what I actually said. Some part of you just filled in a familiar word.”

“My sleeping mind translated it?”

“Sleeping mind?” He gave me a puzzled look.

“That’s what Elodin calls the part of us that knows names,” I explained.

Dal shrugged and ran a hand over his short black beard. “Call it what you will. The fact that you heard me say anything is probably a good sign.”

“I don’t know why I’m bothering with naming sometimes,” I groused. “I could have lit that brazier with sympathy.”

“Not without a link,” Dal pointed out. “Without a binding, a source of energy …”

“It still seems pointless,” I said. “I learn things every day in your class. Useful things. I don’t have a thing to show for all the time I’ve spent on naming. Yesterday you know what Elodin lectured about?”

Dal shook his head.

“The difference between being naked and being nude,” I said flatly. Dal burst into laughter. “I’m serious. I fought to be in his class, but now all I can do is think about all the time I’m wasting there, time I could be spending on more practical things.”

“There are things more practical than names,” Dal admitted. “But watch.” He focused on the brazier in front of us again, then his eyes grew distant. He spoke again, whispering this time, then slowly lowered his hand until it was inches above the hot coals.

Then, with an intent expression on his face, Dal pressed his hand deep into the heart of the fire, nestling his spread fingers into the orange coals as if they were nothing more than loose gravel.

I realized I was holding my breath and let it out softly, not wanting to break his concentration. “How?”

“Names,” Dal said firmly, and drew his hand back out of the fire. It was smudged with white ash, but perfectly unharmed. “Names reflect true understanding of a thing, and when you truly understand a thing you have power over it.”

“But fire isn’t a thing unto itself,” I protested. “It’s merely an exothermal chemical reaction. It …” I spluttered to a stop.

Dal drew in a breath, and for a moment it looked as if he would explain. Then he laughed instead, shrugging helplessly. “I don’t have the wit to explain it to you. Ask Elodin. He’s the one who claims to understand these things. I just work here.”

After Dal’s class, I made my way over the river to Imre. I didn’t find Denna at the inn where she was staying, so I headed to the Eolian despite the fact that I knew it was too early to find her there.

There were barely a dozen people inside, but I did see a familiar face at the far end of the bar, talking to Stanchion. Count Threpe waved, and I walked over to join them.

“Kvothe my boy!” Threpe said enthusiastically. “I haven’t seen you in a mortal age.”

“Things have been rather hectic on the other side of the river,” I said, setting down my lute case.

Stanchion looked me over. “You look it,” he said frankly. “You look pale. You should get more red meat. Or more sleep.” He pointed to a nearby stool. “Barring that, I’ll stand you a mug of metheglin.”

“I’ll thank you for that,” I said, climbing onto a stool. It felt wonderful to take the weight off my aching legs.

“If it’s meat and sleep you need,” Threpe said ingratiatingly. “You should come to dinner at my estate. I promise wonderful food and conversation so dull you can drowse straight through it and not worry about missing a thing.” He gave me an imploring look. “Come now. I’ll beg if I must. It won’t be more than ten people. I’ve been dying to show you off for months now.”

I picked up the mug of metheglin and looked at Threpe. His velvet jacket was a royal blue, and his suede boots were dyed to match. I couldn’t show up for a formal dinner at his home dressed in secondhand road clothes, which were the only sort I owned.

There was nothing ostentatious about Threpe, but he was a noble born and raised. It probably didn’t even occur to him that I didn’t have any fine clothes. I didn’t blame him for assuming that. The vast majority of the students at the University were at least modestly wealthy. How else could they afford tuition?

The truth was, I’d like nothing better than a fine dinner and the chance to interact with some of the local nobility. I’d love to banter over drinks, repair some of the damage Ambrose had done to my reputation, and maybe catch the eye of a potential patron.

But I simply couldn’t afford the price of admission. A suit of passably fine clothes would cost at least a talent and a half, even if I bought them from a fripperer. Clothes do not make the man, but you need the proper costume if you want to play the part.

Sitting behind Threpe, Stanchion made an exaggerated nodding motion with his head.

“I’d love to come to dinner,” I said to Threpe. “I promise. Just as soon as things settle down a bit over at the University.”

“Excellent,” Threpe said enthusiastically. “I’m going to hold you to it, too. No backing out. I’ll get you a patron, my boy. A proper one. I swear it.”

Behind him, Stanchion nodded approvingly.

I smiled at both of them and took another drink of metheglin. I glanced at the stairway to the second tier.

Stanchion saw my look. “She’s not here,” he said apologetically. “Haven’t seen her in a couple days, actually.”

A handful of people came through the door of the Eolian and shouted something in Yllish. Stanchion waved at them and got to his feet. “Duty calls,” he said, wandering off to greet them.

“Speaking of patrons,” I said to Threpe. “There’s something I’ve been wanting to ask your opinion about.” I lowered my voice. “Something I’d rather you kept between the two of us.”

Threpe’s eyes glittered curiously as he leaned close.

I took another drink of metheglin while I gathered my thoughts. The drink was hitting me more quickly than I’d expected. It was quite nice, actually, as it dulled the ache of my many injuries. “I’m guessing you know most every potential patron within a hundred miles of here.”

Threpe shrugged, not bothering with false modesty. “A fair number. Everyone who’s earnest about it. Everyone with money, anyway.”

“I have a friend,” I said. “A musician who is just starting out. She has natural talent but not much training. Someone has approached her with an offer of help and a promise of eventual patronage… .” I trailed off, not sure how to explain the rest.

Threpe nodded. “You want to know if he’s a legitimate sort,” he said. “Reasonable concern. Some folk feel a patron has a right to more than music.” He gestured to Stanchion. “If you want stories, ask him about the time Duchess Samista came here on holiday.” He gave a chuckle that was almost a moan, rubbing at his eyes. “Tiny gods help me, that woman was terrifying.”

“That’s my worry,” I said. “I don’t know if he’s trustworthy.”

“I can ask around if you like,” Threpe said. “What’s his name?”

“That’s part of the issue,” I said. “I don’t know his name. I don’t think she knows it either.”

Threpe frowned at this. “How can she not know his name?”

“He gave her a name,” I said. “But she doesn’t know if it’s real. Apparently he’s particular about his privacy and gave her strict instructions never to tell anyone about him,” I said. “They never meet in the same place twice. Never in public. He’s gone for months at a time.” I looked up at Threpe. “How does that sound to you?”

“Well it’s hardly ideal,” Threpe said, disapproval heavy in his voice. “There’s every chance this fellow isn’t a proper patron at all. It sounds like he might be taking advantage of your friend.”

I nodded glumly. “That was my thought too.”

“Then again,” Threpe said, “some patrons do work in secret. If they find someone with talent, it’s not unknown for them to nurture them in private, and then …” He made a dramatic flourish with one hand. “It’s like a magic trick. You suddenly produce a brilliant musician out of thin air.”

Threpe gave me a fond smile. “I thought that’s what someone had done with you,” he admitted. “You came out of nowhere and got your pipes. I thought someone had been keeping you hidden away until you were ready to make your grand appearance.”

“I hadn’t thought of that,” I said.

“It does happen,” Threpe said. “But strange meeting places and the fact that she’s not sure of his name?” He shook his head, frowning. “If nothing else, it’s rather indecorous. Either this fellow is having a bit of fun pretending to be an outlaw, or he’s genuinely dodgy.”

Threpe seemed to think for a moment, tapping his fingers on the bar. “Tell your friend to be careful and keep her wits about her. It’s a terrible thing when a patron takes advantage of a woman. That’s a betrayal. But I’ve known men who did little but pose as patrons to gain a woman’s trust.” He frowned. “That’s worse.”

I was halfway back to the University, with Stonebridge just beginning to loom in the distance, when I began to feel an unpleasant prickling heat run up my arm. At first I thought it was the pain of the twice-stitched cuts on my elbow, as they’d been itching and burning all day.

But instead of fading, the heat continued to spread up my arm and along the left side of my chest. I began to sweat, as if from a sudden fever.

I stripped off my cloak, letting the chill air cool me, and began to unbutton my shirt. The autumn breeze helped, and I fanned myself with my cloak. But the heat grew more intense, painful even, as if I’d spilled boiling water across my chest.

Luckily, this section of road ran parallel to a stream that fed into the nearby Omethi River. Unable to think of a better plan, I kicked off my boots, unshouldered my lute, and jumped into the water.

The chill of the stream made me gasp and sputter, but it cooled my burning skin. I stayed there, trying not to feel like an idiot while a young couple walked past, holding hands and pointedly ignoring me.

The strange heat moved through my body, like there was a fire inside me trying to find a way out. It started along my left side, then wandered down to my legs, then back up to my left arm. When it moved to my head, I ducked underwater.

It stopped after a few minutes, and I climbed out of the stream. Shivering, I wrapped myself in my cloak, glad no one else was on the road. Then, since there was nothing else to do, I shouldered my lute case and began the long walk back to the University dripping wet and terribly afraid.

CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE

Principles

“I DID TELL MOLA,” I said as I shuffled the cards. “She said it was all in my head and pushed me out the door.”

“Well, I can only guess what that feels like,” Sim said bitterly.

I looked up, surprised by the uncharacteristic sharpness in his voice, but before I could ask what was the matter, Wilem caught my eye and shook his head, warning me away. Knowing Sim’s history, I guessed it was another quick, painful end to another quick, painful relationship.

I kept my mouth shut and dealt another hand of breath. The three of us were killing time, waiting for the room to fill up before I started playing for my typical Felling night crowd at Anker’s.

“What do you think is the matter?”Wilem asked.

I hesitated, worried that if I spoke my fears aloud it might somehow make them true. “I might have exposed myself to something dangerous in the Fishery.”

Wil looked at me. “Such as?”

“Some of the compounds we use,” I said. “They’ll go straight through your skin and kill you in eighteen slow ways.” I thought back to the day my tenten glass had cracked in the Fishery. Of the single drop of transporting agent that had landed on my shirt. It was only a tiny drop, barely larger than the head of a nail. I was so certain it hadn’t touched my skin. “I hope that’s not it. But I don’t know what else it might be.”

“It could be a lingering effect from the plum bob,” Sim said grimly. “Ambrose isn’t much of an alchemist. And from what I understand, one of the main ingredients is lead. If he factored it himself, some latent principles could be affecting your system. Did you eat or drink anything different today?”

I thought about it. “I had a fair bit of metheglin at the Eolian,” I admitted.

“That stuff will make anyone ill,” Wil said darkly.

“I like it,” Sim said. “But it’s practically a nostrum all by itself. There’s a lot of different tincturing going on in there. Nothing alchemical, but you’ve got nutmeg, thyme, clove—all manner of spices. Could be that one of them triggered some of the free principles lurking in your system.”

“Wonderful,” I grumbled. “And how do I go about fixing that, exactly?”

Sim spread his hands helplessly.

“That’s what I thought,” I said. “Still, it sounds better than metal poisoning.”

Simmon proceeded to take four tricks in a row with a clever card force, and by the end of the hand he was smiling again. Sim was never really given to extended brooding.

Wil squared his cards away, and I pushed my chair back from the table.

“Play the one about the drunk cow and the butter churn,” Sim said.

I couldn’t help but crack a smile. “Maybe later,” I said as I picked up my increasingly shabby lute case and made my way to the hearth amid the sound of scattered, familiar applause. It took me a long moment to open the case, untwisting the copper wire I was still using in place of a buckle.

For the next two hours I played. I sang: “Copper Bottom Pot,” “Lilac Bough,” and “Aunt Emme’s Tub.” The audience laughed and clapped and cheered. As I fingered my way through the songs, I felt my worries slough away. My music has always been the best remedy for my dark moods. As I sang, even my bruises seemed to pain me less.

Then I felt a chill, as if a strong winter wind was blowing down the chimney behind me. I fought off a shiver and finished the last verse of “Applejack,” which I’d finally played to keep Sim happy. When I struck the last chord, the crowd applauded and conversation slowly welled up to fill the room again.

I looked behind me at the fireplace, but the fire was burning cheerfully with no sign of a draft. I stepped down off the hearth, hoping a little walk would chase my chill away. But as soon as I took a few steps, I realized that wasn’t the case. The cold settled straight into my bones. I turned back to the fireplace, spreading my hands to warm them.

Wil and Sim appeared at my side. “What’s going on?” Sim asked. “You look like you’re going to be sick.”

“Something like that,” I said, clenching my teeth to keep them from chattering. “Go tell Anker I’m feeling ill and have to cut it short tonight. Then light a candle off this fire and bring it up to my room.” I looked up at their serious faces. “Wil, can you help me get out of here? I don’t want to make a scene.”

Wilem nodded and gave me his arm. I leaned on him and concentrated on keeping my body from shaking as we made our way to the stairs. No one paid us much attention. I probably looked more drunk than anything. My hands were numb and heavy. My lips felt icy cold.

After the first flight of stairs, I couldn’t keep my shaking under control any longer. I could still walk, but the thick muscles in my legs twitched with every step.

Wil stopped. “We should go the Medica.” While he didn’t sound different, his Cealdish accent was thicker, and he was starting to drop words. A sign he was genuinely worried.

I shook my head firmly and leaned forward, knowing he’d have to help me up the stairs or let me fall. Wilem put an arm around me and half-steadied, half-carried me the rest of the way.

Once in my tiny room, I staggered onto the bed. Wil wrapped a blanket around my shoulders.

There were footsteps in the hallway and Sim peered nervously around the door. He held a stub of candle, sheltering the flame with his other hand as he walked. “I’ve got it. What do you want it for, anyway?”

“There.” I pointed to the table beside the bed. “You lit it off the fire?”

Sim’s eyes were frightened. “Your lips,” he said. “They’re not a good color.”

I pried a splinter from the rough wood of the bedside table and jabbed it hard into the back of my hand. Blood welled up and I rolled the long splinter around in it, getting it wet. “Close the door,” I said.

“You are not doing what I think you’re doing,” Sim said firmly.

I jabbed the long splinter down into the soft wax of the candle alongside the burning wick. It sputtered a little bit, then the flame wrapped around it. I muttered two bindings, one right after the other, speaking slowly so my numb lips didn’t slur the words.

“What are you doing?” Sim demanded. “Are you trying to cook yourself?” When I didn’t answer him, he stepped forward as if he would knock the candle over.

Wil caught his arm. “His hands are like ice,” he said quietly. “He’s cold. Really cold.”

Sim’s eyes darted nervously between the two of us. He took a step back. “Just … just be careful.”

But I was already ignoring him. I closed my eyes and bound the candle flame to the fire downstairs. Then I carefully made the second connection between the blood on the splinter and the blood in my body. It was very much like what I’d done with the drop of wine at the Eolian. With the obvious exception that I didn’t want my blood to boil.

At first there was just a brief tickle of heat, not nearly enough. I concentrated harder and felt my entire body relax as warmth flooded through me. I kept my eyes closed, keeping my attention on the bindings until I could take several long, deep breaths without any shuddering or shaking.

I opened my eyes and saw my two friends looking on expectantly. I smiled at them. “I’m okay.”

But before I got the words out, I began to sweat. I was suddenly too warm, nauseatingly warm. I broke both bindings as quickly as you jerk your hand away from a hot iron stove.

I took a few deep breaths, then got to my feet and walked over to the window. I opened it and leaned heavily on the sill, enjoying the chill autumn air that smelled of dead leaves and coming rain.

There was a long moment of silence.

“That looked like binder’s chills,” Simmon said. “Really bad binder’s chills.”

“It felt like the chills,” I said.

“Maybe your body has lost the ability to regulate its own temperate?” Wilem suggested.

“Temperature,” Sim corrected him absently.

“That wouldn’t account for the burn across my chest,” I said.

Sim cocked his head. “Burn?”

I was wet with sweat now, so I was glad for an excuse to unbutton my shirt and pull it off over my head. A large portion of my chest and upper arm was a bright red, a sharp contrast to my ordinarily pale skin. “Mola said it was a rash, and I was being fussy as an old woman. But it wasn’t there before I jumped into the river.”

Simmon leaned close to look. “I still think it’s unbound principles,” he said. “They can do bizarre things to a person. We had an E’lir last term that wasn’t careful with his factoring. He ending up not being able to sleep or focus his eyes for almost two span.”

Wilem slouched into a chair. “What makes a man cold, then hot, then cold again?”

Sim gave a halfhearted smile. “Sounds like a riddle.”

“I hate riddles,” I said, reaching for my shirt. Then I yelped, clutching at the bare bicep of my left arm. Blood welled out between my fingers.

Sim bolted to his feet, looking around frantically, obviously at a loss for what to do.

It felt like I’d been stabbed by an invisible knife. “God. Blackened. Damn.” I gritted out between my clenched teeth. I pulled my hand away and saw the small, round wound in my arm that had come from nowhere.

Simmon’s expression was horrified, his eyes wide, his hands covering his mouth. He said something, but I was too busy concentrating to listen. I already knew what he was saying, anyway: malfeasance. Of course. This was all malfeasance. Someone was attacking me.

I lowered myself into the Heart of Stone and brought all my Alar to bear.

But my unknown attacker wasn’t wasting any time. There was a sharp pain in my chest near the shoulder. It didn’t break the skin this time, but I watched a blotch of dark blue blossom under my skin.

I hardened my Alar and the next stab was little more than a pinch. Then I quickly broke my mind into three pieces and gave two of them the job of maintaining the Alar that protected me.

Only then did I let out a deep sigh. “I’m fine.”

Simmon gave a laugh that choked off into a sob. His hands still covered his mouth. “How can you say that?” he demanded, plainly horrified.

I looked down at myself. Blood was still welling up through my fingers, running down the back of my hand and my arm.

“It’s true,” I said to him. “Honestly, Sim.”

“But malfeasance,” he said. “It just isn’t done.”

I sat down on the edge of my bed, keeping pressure on my wound. “I think we have some pretty clear proof otherwise.”

Wilem sat back down. “I am with Simmon. I would never have believed this.” He made an angry gesture. “Arcanists do not do this anymore. It is insane.” He looked at me. “Why are you smiling?”

“I’m relieved,” I said honestly. “I was worried I’d given myself cadmium poisoning, or I had some mysterious disease. This is just someone trying to kill me.”

“How could someone do it?” Simmon asked. “I don’t mean morally. How did someone get hold of your blood or hair?”

Wilem looked at Simmon. “What did you do with the bandages after you stitched him up?”

“I burned them,” Sim said defensively. “I’m not an idiot.”

Wil made a calming gesture. “I’m just narrowing our options. It probably isn’t the Medica either. They’re careful about that sort of thing.”

Simmon stood up. “We have to tell someone.” He looked at Wilem. “Would Jamison still be in his office at this time of night?”

“Sim,” I said. “How about we just wait for a while?”

“What?” Simmon said. “Why?”

“The only evidence I have are my injuries,” I said. “That means they’ll want someone at the Medica to examine me. And when that happens …” With one hand still clamped over my bloody arm, I waved my bandaged elbow. “I look remarkably like someone who fell off a roof just a couple days ago.”

Sim’s sat back down in his chair. “It’s only been three days, hasn’t it?”

I nodded. “I’d be expelled. And Mola would be in trouble for not mentioning my injuries. Master Arwyl isn’t forgiving about that sort of thing. The two of you would probably be implicated too. I don’t want that.”

We were quiet for a moment. The only sound was the distant clamor of the busy taproom below. I sat down on the bed.

“Do we even need to discuss who’s doing this?” Sim asked.

“Ambrose,” I said. “It’s always Ambrose. He must have found some of my blood on a piece of roofing tile. I should have thought of that days ago.”

“How would he know it was yours?” Simmon asked.

“Because I hate him,” I said bitterly. “Of course he knows it was me.”

Wil was slowly shaking his head. “No. It’s not like him.”

“Not like him?” Simmon demanded. “He had that woman dose Kvothe with the plum bob. That’s as bad as poison. He hired those men to jump Kvothe in the alley last term.”

“My point exactly,” Wilem said. “Ambrose doesn’t do things to Kvothe. He arranges for other people to do them. He got some woman to dose him. He paid thugs to knife you. I expect he didn’t even do that, really. I’ll bet someone else set it up for him.”

“It’s all the same,” I said. “We know he’s behind it.”

Wilem frowned at me. “You’re not thinking straight. It’s not that Ambrose isn’t a bastard. He is. But he’s a clever bastard. He’s careful to distance himself from anything he does.”

Sim looked uncertain. “Wil has a point. When you were hired on as house musician at the Horse and Four, he didn’t buy the place and fire you. He had Baron Petre’s son-in-law do it. No connection to him at all.”

“No connection here either,” I said. “That’s the whole point of sympathy. It’s indirect.”

Wil shook his head again. “If you got knifed in an alley people would be shocked. But such things happen all the time all over the world. But if you fell down in public and started gushing blood from malfeasance? People would be horrified. The masters would suspend classes. Rich merchants and nobles would hear of it and pull their children from their studies. They’d bring the constables over from Imre.”

Simmon rubbed his forehead and looked up at the ceiling thoughtfully. Then he nodded to himself, first slowly, then with more certainty. “It makes sense,” he said. “If Ambrose had found some blood, he could have turned it over to Jamison and had him dowse out the thief. There wouldn’t have been any need to get folks in the Medica to look for suspicious injuries and such.”

“Ambrose likes his revenge,” I pointed out grimly. “He could have hidden the blood from Jamison. Kept it for himself.”

Wilem was shaking his head.

Sim sighed. “Wil’s right. There aren’t that many sympathists, and everyone knows Ambrose is carrying a grudge against you. He’s too careful to do something like this. It would point right to him.”

“Besides,” Wilem said. “How long has this been going on? Days and days. Do you honestly think Ambrose could go this long without rubbing your nose in it? Not even a little?”

“You have a point,” I admitted reluctantly. “That’s not like him.”

I knew it had to be Ambrose. I could feel it deep in my gut. In a strange way I almost wanted it to be him. It would make things so much simpler.

But wanting something doesn’t make it so. I took a deep breath and forced myself to think about it rationally.

“It would be reckless of him,” I admitted at last. “And he isn’t the sort to get his hands dirty.” I sighed. “Fine. Wonderful. As if one person trying to ruin my life wasn’t enough.”

“Who could it be?” Simmon asked. “Your average person can’t do this sort of thing with hair, am I right?”

“Dal could,” I said. “Or Kilvin.”

“It is probably safe to assume,” Wilem said dryly, “that none of the masters are trying to kill you.”

“Then it has to be someone with his blood,” Sim said.

I tried to ignore the sinking sensation in the pit of my stomach. “There is someone with my blood,” I said. “But I don’t think she could be responsible.”

Wil and Sim turned to look at me, and I immediately regretted saying anything. “Why would someone have your blood?” Sim asked.

I hesitated, then realized there was no way to avoid telling them at this point. “I borrowed money from Devi at the beginning of the term.”

Neither one of them reacted the way I expected. Which is to say, neither one reacted at all.

“Who’s Devi?” Sim asked.

I started to relax. Maybe they hadn’t heard of her. That would certainly make things easier. “She’s a gaelet who lives across the river,” I said.

“Okay,” Simmon said easily. “What’s a gaelet?”

“Remember when we went to see The Ghost and the Goosegirl?” I asked him. “Ketler was a gaelet.”

“Oh, a copper hawk,” Sim said, his face brightening with realization, then darkening again as he realized the implications. “I didn’t know there were any of those sort of people around here.”

“Those sort of people are everywhere,” I said. “The world wouldn’t work without them.”

“Wait,” Wilem said suddenly, holding up his hand. “Did you say, your …” He paused, struggling to remember the appropriate word in Aturan. “Your loaner, your gatessor was named Devi?” His Cealdish accent was thick around her name, so it sounded like “David.”

I nodded. This was the reaction I’d expected.

“Oh God,” Simmon said, aghast. “You mean Demon Devi, don’t you?”

I sighed. “So you’ve heard of her.”

“Heard of her?” Sim said, his voice going shrill. “She was expelled during my first term! It left a real impression.”

Wilem simply closed his eyes and shook his head, as if he couldn’t bear to look at someone as stupid as me.

Sim threw his hands into the air. “She was expelled for malfeasance! What were you thinking?”

“No,”Wilem said to Simmon. “She was expelled for Conduct Unbecoming. There was no proof of malfeasance.”

“I really don’t think it was her,” I said. “She’s quite nice, actually. Friendly. Besides, it’s only a six talent loan, and I’m not late paying her back. She doesn’t have any reason to do something like this.”

Wilem gave me a long, steady look. “Just to explore all possibilities,” he said slowly. “Would you do something for me?”

I nodded.

“Think back on your last few conversings with her,” Wilem said. “Take a moment and sift them piece by piece and see if you remember doing or saying something that might have offended or upset her.”

I thought back on our last conversation, playing it through in my head. “She was interested in a certain piece of information that I didn’t give her.”

“How interested?” Wilem’s voice was slow and patient, as if he were talking to a rather dimwitted child.

“Rather interested,” I said.

“Rather does not indicate a degree of intensity.”

I sighed. “Fine. Extremely interested. Interested enough to—” I stopped.

Wilem arched a knowing eyebrow at me. “Yes? What have you just remembered?”

I hesitated. “She might have also offered to sleep with me,” I said.

Wilem nodded calmly, as if he had expected something of the sort. “And you responded to this young woman’s generous offer in what way?”

I felt my cheeks get hot. “I … I sort of just ignored it.”

Wilem closed his eyes, his expression conveying a vast, weary dismay.

“This is so much worse than Ambrose,” Sim said, putting his head in his hands. “Devi doesn’t have to worry about the masters or anything. They say she could do an eight-part binding! Eight!”

“I was in a tight space,” I said a little testily. “I didn’t have anything to use as collateral. I’ll admit it wasn’t a great idea. After all this is done, we can have a symposium on how stupid I am. But for now can we just move on?” I gave them a pleading look.

Wilem rubbed at his eyes with one hand and gave a weary nod.

Simmon made an effort to get rid of his horrified expression with only marginal success. He swallowed. “Fair enough. What are we going to do?”

“Right now it doesn’t really matter who is responsible,” I said, cautiously checking to see if my arm had stopped bleeding. It had, and I peeled my bloody hand away. “I’m going to take some precautionary measures.” I made a shooing motion. “You two go get some sleep.”

Sim rubbed his forehead, chuckling to himself. “Body of God, you’re irritating sometimes. What if you’re attacked again?”

“It’s already happened twice while we’ve been sitting here,” I said easily. “It tingles a bit.” I grinned at his expression. “I’m fine, Sim. Honestly. There’s a reason I’m the top-ranked duelist in Dal’s class. I’m perfectly safe.”

“As long as you’re awake,” Wilem interjected, his dark eyes serious.

My grin grew stiff. “As long as I’m awake,” I repeated. “Of course.”

Wilem stood up and made a show of brushing himself off. “So. Clean yourself and take your precautionary measures.” He gave me a pointed look. “Shall young master Simmon and I expect Dal’s top-ranked duelist in my room tonight?”

I felt myself flush with embarrassment. “Why, yes. That would be greatly appreciated.”

Wil gave me an exaggerated bow, then opened the door and made his way out into the hall.

Sim was wearing a wide grin by now. “It’s a date then. But put on a shirt before you come. I’ll watch over you tonight like the colicky infant you are, but I refuse to do it if you insist on sleeping naked.”

After Wil and Sim left, I headed out the window and onto the rooftops. I left my shirt in my room, as I was a bloody mess and I didn’t want to ruin it. I trusted the dark night and the lateness of the hour, hoping no one would spot me running along the University rooftops half naked and bloody.

It is relatively easy to protect yourself from sympathy if you know what you’re doing. Someone trying to burn or stab me, or draw off my body heat until I lapsed into hypothermia, all those things deal with the simple, direct application of force, so they are easy to oppose. I was safe now that I knew what was happening and kept my defenses up.

My new concern was that whoever was attacking me might get discouraged and try something different. Something like dowsing out my location, then resorting to a more mundane type of attack, one I couldn’t stave off with an effort of will.

Malfeasance is terrifying, but a thug with a sharp knife will kill you ten times quicker if he catches you in a dark alley. And catching someone off their guard is remarkably easy if you can track their every movement using their blood.

So I headed across the rooftops. My plan was to take a handful of autumn leaves, mark them with my blood, and send them tumbling endlessly around the House of the Wind. It was a trick I’d used before.

But as I jumped across a narrow alley, I saw lightning flicker in the clouds and smelled rain in the air. A storm was coming. Not only would the rain mat down the leaves, keeping them from moving around, but it would wash my blood away as well.

Standing there on the rooftop, feeling like I’d had twelve colors of hell beaten out of me, brought back unsettling echoes of my years in Tarbean. I watched the distant lightning for a moment and tried not to let the feeling overwhelm me. I forced myself to remember I wasn’t the same helpless starving child I’d been back then.

I heard the faint, drumlike sound as a piece of tin roofing bent behind me. I stiffened, then relaxed as I heard Auri’s voice, “Kvothe?”

I looked to my right and saw her small shape standing a dozen feet away. The clouds were hiding the moon, but I could hear a smile in her voice as she said, “I saw you running across the tops of things.”

I turned the rest of the way around to face her, glad there wasn’t much light. I didn’t like to think how Auri might react to the sight of me half naked and covered in blood.

“Hello Auri,” I said. “There’s a storm coming. You shouldn’t be up on the tops of things tonight.”

She tilted her head. “You are,” she said simply.

I sighed. “I am. But only—”

A great spider of lightning crawled across the sky, illuminating everything for the space of a long second. Then it was gone, leaving me flash-blind.

“Auri?” I called, worried the sight of me had scared her off.

There was another flicker of lightning, and I saw her standing closer. She pointed at me, grinning delightedly. “You look like an Amyr,” she said. “Kvothe is one of the Ciridae.”

I looked down at myself and with the next lightning flicker I saw what she meant. I had dried blood running down the back of my hands from when I’d been trying to stanch my wounds. It looked like the old tattoos the Amyr had used to mark their highest ranking members.

I was so surprised by her reference that I forgot the first thing I’d learned about Auri. I forgot to be careful and asked her a question, “Auri, how do you know about the Ciridae?”

There was no response. The next flicker of lightning showed me nothing but an empty rooftop and an unforgiving sky.

CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR

Clinks

ISTOOD ON THE ROOFTOPS with the storm flickering overhead, my heart heavy in my chest. I wanted to follow Auri and apologize, but I knew it was hopeless. The wrong sort of questions made her run, and when Auri bolted, she was like a rabbit down a hole. There were a thousand places she could hide in the Underthing. I didn’t have a chance of finding her.

Besides, I had vital matters to attend to. Even now someone could be dowsing out my location. I simply didn’t have the time.

It took me the better part of an hour to make my way across the rooftops. The flickering light of the storm made things harder rather than easier, blinding me for long moments after every flash. Still, I eventually made my limping way to the roof of Mains where I typically met Auri.

Stiffly, I climbed down the apple tree to the enclosed courtyard. I was about to call down through the heavy metal grating that led to the Underthing when I saw a flicker of movement in the shadow of the nearby bushes.

I peered into the dark, unable to see anything but a vague shape. “Auri?” I asked gently.

“I don’t like telling,” she said softly, her voice thick with tears. Of all the awful things I’d been part of these last couple days, this was unquestionably the worst of it.

“I’m so sorry, Auri,” I said. “I won’t ask again. I promise.”

There was a tiny sob from the shadows that froze my heart solid and broke off a piece of it.

“What were you doing out on top of things tonight?” I asked. I knew this was a safe question. I’d asked it many times before.

“I was looking at the lightning,” she said, sniffling. Then, “I saw one that looked like a tree.”

“What was in the lightning?” I asked softly.

“Galvanic ionization,” she said. Then, after a pause, she added, “And river-ice. And the sway a cattail makes.”

“I wish I’d seen that one,” I said.

“What were you doing on top of things.” She paused and gave a tiny hiccuping laugh. “All crazy and mostly nekkid?”

My heart began to thaw a bit. “I was looking for a place to put my blood,” I said.

“Most people keep that inside,” she said. “It’s easier.”

“I want to keep the rest of it inside,” I explained. “But I’m worried someone might be looking for me.”

“Oh,” she said, as if she understood perfectly. I saw the slightly darker shadow of her move in the darkness, standing up. “You should come with me to Clinks.”

“I don’t think I’ve seen Clinks,” I said. “Have you taken me there before?”

There was a motion that might have been the shaking of a head. “It’s private.”

I heard a metallic noise, then a rustle, then I saw a blue-green light well up from the open grate. I climbed down and met her in the tunnel underneath.

The light in her hand showed smudges across her face, probably from where she’d been rubbing away her tears. It was the first time I’d ever seen Auri dirty. Her eyes were darker than normal, and her nose was red.

Auri sniffed and rubbed her blotchy face. “You,” she said gravely, “are a dreadful mess.”

I looked down at my bloody hands and chest. “I am,” I agreed.

Then she gave a tiny, brave smile. “I didn’t run so far this time,” she said tilting her chin proudly.

“I’m glad,” I said. “And I’m sorry.”

“No.” She gave her head a tiny, firm shake. “You are my Ciridae, and thus above reproach.” She reached out to touch the center of my bloody chest with a finger. “Ivare enim euge.”

Auri led me through the maze of tunnels that comprised the Underthing. We went farther down, through Vaults, past Cricklet. Then we moved through several twisting hallways and down again, using a stone spiral staircase I’d never seen before.

I smelled damp stone and heard the low, smooth sound of running water as we descended. Every once in a while there was the gritty sound of glass on stone, or the brighter tinkling sound of glass on glass.

After about fifty steps the wide, spiraling staircase disappeared into a vast, roiling pool of black water. I wondered how far the stairs continued below the surface.

There wasn’t any smell of rot or foulness. It was fresh water, and I could see ripples as it swirled in the stairwell and spread out into the dark beyond where our lights could reach. I heard the clink of glass again and saw two bottles spinning and bobbing on the surface, moving first one way, then another. One ducked under the surface and didn’t come up again.

There was a burlap sack hanging from a brass torch bracket mounted into the wall. Auri reached into the bag and pulled out a heavy stoppered bottle of the sort that might have once held Bredon beer.

She handed me the bottle. “They disappear for an hour. Or a minute. Sometimes for days. Sometimes they don’t come back at all.” She brought another bottle out of the sack. “It’s best to have at least four going at once. That way, statistically, you should always have two moving around.”

I nodded, and I pulled a strand of burlap from the tattered sack and daubed it with the blood that covered my hand. I uncorked the bottle and dropped it inside.

“Hair too,” Auri said.

I pulled a few from my head and threaded them through the bottle’s mouth. Then I drove the cork in hard and set it floating. It rode low in the water, circling erratically.

Auri handed me another bottle and we repeated the process. When the fourth bottle was swept out into the swirling water, Auri nodded and dusted her hands briskly against each other.

“There,” she said with a tone of immense satisfaction. “That’s good. We’re safe.”

Hours later, washed, bandaged, and considerably less nekkid, I made my way to Wilem’s room in the Mews. That night, and for many to come, Wil and Sim took turns watching over me as I slept, keeping me safe with their Alar. They were the best sort of friends. The sort everyone hopes for but no one deserves, least of all me.

CHAPTER TWENTY- FIVE

Wrongful Apprehension

DESPITE WHAT WIL AND Sim believed, I couldn’t believe Devi was responsible for the malfeasance against me. While I was painfully aware that I knew next to nothing about women, she had always been friendly to me. Even sweet at times.

True, she had a grim reputation. But I knew better than anyone how quickly a handful of rumors could turn into full-blown faerie stories.

I thought it much more likely that my unknown assailant was simply a bitter student who resented my advancement in the Arcanum. Most students studied for years before they reached Re’lar, and I had managed it in less than three terms. It could even be someone who simply hated the Edema Ruh. It wouldn’t be the first time that had earned me a beating.

In some ways, it really didn’t matter who was responsible for the attacks. What I needed was a way to stop them. I couldn’t expect Wil and Sim to watch over me for the rest of my life.

I needed a more permanent solution. I needed a gram.

A gram is a clever piece of artificery designed for just this sort of problem. It is a sort of sympathetic armor that prevents anyone from making a binding against your body. I didn’t know how they worked, but I knew they existed. And I knew where to find out how to make one.

Kilvin looked up as I approached his office. I was relieved to see his glasswork was cold and dark.

“I trust you are well, Re’lar Kvothe?” he asked without getting up from the worktable. He was holding a large hemisphere of glass in one hand and a diamond stylus in the other.

“I am, Master Kilvin,” I lied.

“Have you been thinking about your next project?” he asked. “Have you been dreaming clever dreams?”

“I was actually looking for a schema for a gram, Master Kilvin. But I can’t find it in any of the bolt-holes or reference books.”

Kilvin looked at me curiously. “And why would you be needing a gram, Re’lar Kvothe? Such a desire does not reflect good faith in your fellow arcanists.”

Unsure as to whether he was joking or not, I decided to play it straight. “We’ve been learning about slippage in Adept Sympathy. I was thinking that if a gram works to deny outside affinities …”

Kilvin gave a low chuckle. “Dal has been throwing fear into you. Good. And you are correct, a gram would help protect against slippage—” His dark Cealdish eyes gave me a serious look. “To a degree. However, it seems a clever student would simply learn his lessons and avoid slippage through proper care and caution.”

“I intend to, Master Kilvin,” I said. “Still, a gram strikes me as a useful thing to have.”

“There is truth to that,” Kilvin admitted, nodding his shaggy head. “However, with repairs and the filling of our autumn orders, we are understaffed.” He waved a hand toward the window that looked out into the workshop. “I cannot spare any workers to make such a thing. And even if I could, there is an issue of cost. They require delicate work, and gold is needed for the inlay.”

“I’d prefer to make my own, Master Kilvin.”

Kilvin shook his head. “There is reason the schema is not in the reference books. You are not far enough along to be making your own. One must be careful when meddling with sygaldry and one’s own blood.”

I opened my mouth to say something, but he cut me off. “More important, the sygaldry necessary for such a device is only entrusted to those who have reached the ranks of El’the. The runes for blood and bone have too great a potential for misuse.”

His tone let me know there was nothing to be gained by arguing, so I shrugged it off as if I couldn’t care less. “It’s no matter, Master Kilvin. I have other projects to occupy my time.”

Kilvin gave me a wide smile. “I am sure you do, Re’lar Kvothe. I am waiting with great eagerness to see what you will make for me.”

A thought struck me. “To that purpose, Master Kilvin, could I have the use of one of the private workrooms? I’d rather not have everyone looking over my shoulder while I’m tinkering.”

Kilvin’s eyebrows went up at this. “Now I am doubly curious.” He set down the hemisphere of glass, got to his feet, and opened a drawer in his desk. “Will one of the first floor workrooms suit you? Or is there a chance of something exploding? I will give you one on the third floor if that is the case. They are colder, but the roof is better suited for that sort of thing.”

I looked at him for a moment, trying to decide if he was joking. “A first floor room will be fine, Master Kilvin. But I’ll need a small smelter and a little extra room to breathe.”

Kilvin muttered to himself, then brought out a key. “How much breathing will you be doing? Room twenty-seven is five hundred feet square.”

“That should be plenty,” I said. “I also might need permission to get precious metals from Stocks.”

Kilvin chuckled at this, and nodded as he handed me the key. “I will see it is done, Re’lar Kvothe. I look forward to seeing what you will make for me.”

It was galling that the schema I needed was restricted. But there are always other ways of finding information, and there are always people who know more than they are supposed to.

For example, I didn’t doubt Manet knew how to make a gram. Everyone knew he was an E’lir in title only. But there was no way he would share the information with me against Kilvin’s wishes. The University had been Manet’s home for thirty years, and he was probably the only student who feared expulsion more than me.

This meant my options were limited. Other than a lengthy search of the Archives, I couldn’t think of any way to get a schema on my own. So, after several minutes of wracking my brain for a better option, I made my way to the Bale and Barley.

The Bale was one of the more disreputable taverns this side of the river. Anker’s wasn’t seedy in the strictest sense, it simply lacked pretension. It was clean without smelling of flowers and inexpensive without being tawdry. People visited Anker’s to eat, drink, listen to music, and occasionally have a friendly fight.

The Bale was several rungs farther down the ladder. It was grubbier, music was not a priority, and the fights were usually only recreational for one of the people involved.

Mind you, the Bale wasn’t as bad as half the places in Tarbean. But it was the worst you were likely to find this close to the University. So despite being seedy, it had wooden floors and glass in the windows. And if you passed out drunk and woke up missing your purse, you could content yourself with the fact that nobody had knifed you and stolen your boots as well.

As it was still early in the day, there were a bare handful of people scattered around the common room. I was glad to see Sleat sitting in the back. I hadn’t actually met him, but I knew who he was. I’d heard stories.

Sleat was one of the rare, indispensable people who have a knack for arranging things. From what I’d heard, he’d been a student on and off for the last ten years.

He was talking with a nervous-looking man at the moment, and I knew better than to interrupt. So I bought two mugs of short beer and made a pretense of drinking one while I waited.

Sleat was handsome, dark-haired and dark-eyed. Though he didn’t have the characteristic beard, I expected he was at least half Cealdish. His body language screamed authority. He moved as if he were in control of everything around him.

Which wouldn’t have surprised me, actually. He could own the Bale for all I knew. People like Sleat are no strangers to money.

Sleat and the anxious young man finally came to some sort of agreement. Sleat smiled warmly as they shook hands and clapped the man on the shoulder as he walked away.

I waited for a moment, then made my way over to his table. As I came closer, I noticed there was a stretch of open floor between his table and the others in the common room. It wasn’t much, just enough so eavesdropping would be difficult.

Sleat looked up as I approached.

“I was wondering if we could talk,” I said.

He made an expansive gesture to the empty chair. “This is a bit of a surprise,” he said.

“Why’s that?”

“I don’t get a lot of clever folks paying me visits. I get desperate folks.” He looked at the mugs. “Are those both for you?”

“You can have either or both.” I nodded at the one on the right. “But I’ve already had my mouth on that one.”

He looked at the mugs warily for a fraction of a second, then gave a wide, white smile and took the drink on the left. “From what I’ve heard, you’re not the sort to poison a man.”

“You seem to know a lot about me,” I said.

His shrug was so casual I guessed he’d practiced it. “I know a lot about everyone,” he said. “But I know more about you.”

“Why’s that?”

Sleat slouched forward, leaning on the table and speaking in a confidential tone. “Do you have any idea how boring your average student is? Half of them are rich tourists who don’t care half a damn for their classes.” He rolled his eyes and gestured as if throwing something over his shoulder. “The other half are bookish tits who have dreamed of this place so long they can hardly breathe once they’re here. They walk on eggshells, meek as priests. Scared lest the masters cast a disapproving eye in their direction.”

He sniffed disdainfully and leaned back in his seat. “Suffice to say you’re a breath of fresh air. Everyone says …” He stopped and gave his practiced shrug again. “Well, you know.”

“Actually, I don’t,” I admitted. “What do people say?”

Sleat gave me a sharp, beautiful smile. “Ah, that’s the problem isn’t it? Everyone knows a man’s reputation except the man himself. For most men this isn’t a bother. But some of us labor over our reputations. I have built mine brick by brick. It is a useful tool.” He gave me a sly look. “I expect you understand what I am talking about.”

I allowed myself a smile. “Perhaps.”

“What do they say about me, then? Tell me and I’ll return the favor.”

“Well,” I said. “You’re good at finding things,” I said. “You’re discreet, but expensive.”

He waved his hands, irritated. “Vagaries. Details are the bones of the story. Give me bones.”

I thought. “I heard you managed to sell several vials of Regim Ignaul Neratum last term. After the fire in Kilvin’s shop, where all of it was supposedly destroyed.”

Sleat nodded, his expression giving away nothing.

“I heard you arranged to get a message to Veyane’s father in Emlin despite the fact that there was a siege going on.” Another nod. “You got a young prostitute working in Buttons a set of documents proving she was a distant bloodline cousin of the Baronet Gamre, allowing her to marry a certain young gentleman with minimal fuss.”

Sleat smiled. “I was proud of that one.”

“When you were an E’lir,” I continued. “You were suspended for two terms on charges of Wrongful Apprehension. Two years later, you were fined and suspended again for Misuse of University Equipment in the Crucible. I’ve heard Jamison knows the sort of business you do, but he’s paid to turn a blind eye. I don’t believe the last one, by the way.”

“Fair enough,” he said easily. “Neither do I.”

“Despite your extensive activities, you’ve only been brought up against the iron law once,” I continued. “Transport of Contraband Substances, wasn’t it?”

Sleat rolled his eyes. “You know the damnedest thing? I was actually innocent of that one. Heffron’s boys paid off a constable to fake some evidence. The charges were withdrawn after only two days.” He scowled. “Not that the masters cared. All they gave a damn about was that I was out there besmirching the University’s good name.” His tone was bitter. “My tuition tripled after that.”

I decided to push matters a bit. “Several months ago you poisoned a young earl’s daughter with Venitasin and only gave her the antidote after she signed over the largest of the fiefdoms she stood to inherit. Then you staged it to look like she’d lost it playing a game of high-stakes faro.”

He raised an eyebrow at this. “Do they say why?”

“No,” I said. “I assumed she tried to default on her debt to you.”

“There’s some truth to that,” he said. “Though it was a bit more complicated. And it wasn’t Venitasin. That would be extraordinarily reckless.” He looked offended and brushed at his sleeve, plainly irritated. “Anything else?”

I paused, trying to decide if I wanted to get confirmation about something I’d suspected for some time. “Only that last term you put Ambrose Jakis in touch with a pair of men who have been known to kill people for money.”

Sleat’s expression remained impassive, his body loose and relaxed. But I could see a slight tension in his shoulders. Very little escapes me when I’m watching closely. “They say that, do they?”

I gave a shrug that put his to shame. My shrug was so nonchalant it would make a cat jealous. “I’m a musician. I play three nights a span in a busy tavern. I hear all manner of things.” I reached for my mug. “And what have you heard of me?”

“The same stories everyone else knows, of course. You convinced the masters to admit you to the University though you’re just a pup, no offense. Then two days later you shame Master Hemme in his own classroom and get away bird free.”

“Save for a whipping.”

“Save for a whipping,” he acknowledged. “During which you couldn’t be bothered to cry out or bleed, even a little. I wouldn’t believe that if there weren’t several hundred witnesses.”

“We drew a decent crowd,” I said. “It was good weather for a whipping.”

“I’ve heard some overly dramatic folk call you Kvothe the Bloodless because of it,” he said. “Though I’m guessing part of that comes from the fact that you’re Edema Ruh, which means you’re about as far from a blooded noble as a person can be.”

I smiled. “A bit of both, I expect.”

He looked thoughtful. “I’ve heard you and Master Elodin fought in Haven. Vast and terrible magics were unleashed, and in the end he won by throwing you through a stone wall, then off the roof of the building.”

“Do they say what we fought over?” I asked.

“All manner of things,” he said dismissively. “An insult. A misunderstanding. You tried to steal his magic. He tried to steal your woman. Typical nonsense.”

Sleat rubbed at his face. “Let me see. You play the lute passing well and are proud as a kicked cat. You are unmannerly, sharp-tongued, and show no respect for your betters, which is practically everyone given your lowly ravel birth.”

I felt a flush of anger start in my face and sweep, hot and prickling, down the entire length of my body. “I am the best musician you will ever meet or see from a distance,” I said with forced calm. “And I am Edema Ruh to my bones. That means my blood is red. It means I breathe the free air and walk where my feet take me. I do not cringe and fawn like a dog at a man’s title. That looks like pride to people who have spent their lives cultivating supple spines.”

Sleat gave a lazy smile, and I realized he’d been baiting me. “You also have a temper, so I’ve heard. And there’s a whole boatload of other assorted nonsense floating around you as well. You only sleep an hour each night. You have demon blood. You can talk to the dead—”

I leaned forward, curious. That wasn’t one of the rumors I’d started. “Really ? Do I talk to spirits, or are they claiming I’m digging up bodies?”

“I’m assuming spirits,” he said. “I haven’t heard anyone mention grave robbing.”

I nodded. “Anything else?”

“Only that you were cornered in an alley last term by two men who kill people for money. And despite the fact that they had knives and caught you quite unaware, you blinded one and beat the other senseless, calling down fire and lightning like Taborlin the Great.”

We looked at each other for a long moment. It was not a comfortable silence. “Did you put Ambrose in touch with them?” I asked at last.

“That,” Sleat said frankly, “is not a good question. It implies I discuss private dealings after the fact.” He gave me a flat look, no hint of a smile anywhere near his mouth or eyes. “Besides, would you trust me to answer honestly?”

I frowned.

“I can say, however, that because of those stories, nobody is much interested in taking that sort of job again,” Sleat said conversationally. “Not that there is much call for that sort of work around here to begin with. We’re all terribly civilized.”

“Not that you would know about it, even if it were going on.”

His smile came back. “Exactly.” He leaned forward. “Enough chatter then. What is it you’re looking for?”

“I need a schema for a piece of artificing.”

He set his elbows on the table. “And …”

“It contains sygaldry Kilvin restricts to those of El’the rank and higher.”

Sleat nodded matter-of-factly. “And how quickly do you need it? Hours? Days?”

I thought about Wil and Sim staying up nights to watch over me. “Sooner is better.”

Sleat looked thoughtful, his eyes unfocused. “It’s going to cost, and there’s no guarantee I’ll be able to produce it on an exact schedule.” He focused in on me. “Also, if you get caught you’ll be charged with Wrongful Apprehension at the very least.”

I nodded.

“And you know what the penalties are?”

“‘For Wrongful Apprehension of the Arcane not leading to injury of another,” I recited. “‘The offending student may be fined no more than twenty talents, whipped no more than ten times, suspended from the Arcanum, or expelled from the University.”

“They fined me the full twenty talents and suspended me two terms,” Sleat said grimly. “And that was only some Re’lar-level alchemy. It will be worse with you if this is El’the-level stuff.”

“How much?” I asked.

“To get hold of it in a few days …” He looked up at the ceiling for a moment. “Thirty talents.”

I felt the bottom drop out of my stomach, but I kept my face composed. “Is there any room to negotiate that?”

He gave his sharp smile again, his teeth were very white. “I also deal in favors,” he said. “But a thirty talent favor is going to be a big one.” He looked at me thoughtfully. “We could perhaps work out something along those lines. But I feel obliged to mention that when I call a favor due, it’s due. At that point, there isn’t any negotiation.”

I nodded calmly to show him I understood. But I felt a cold knot forming in my gut. This was a bad idea. I knew it in my bones.

“Do you owe anyone else?” Sleat asked. “And don’t lie to me or I’ll know.”

“Six talents,” I said casually. “Due at the end of the term.”

He nodded. “I’m guessing you didn’t manage to get it off some moneylender. Did you go to Heffron?”

I shook my head. “Devi.”

For the first time in our conversation Sleat lost his composure, his charming smile fell away entirely. “Devi?” He pulled himself up in his chair, his body suddenly tense. “No. I don’t think we can come to an arrangement. If you had cash it would be one thing.” He shook his head. “But no. If Devi already owns a piece of you …”

His reaction chilled me, then I realized he was just angling for more money. “What if I were to borrow money from you so I could settle my debt with her?”

Sleat shook his head, regaining a piece of his shattered nonchalance. “That is the very definition of poaching,” he said. “Devi has an ongoing interest in you. An investment.” He took a drink and cleared his throat meaningfully. “She does not look kindly on other folk interfering where she’s staked her claim.”

I raised an eyebrow. “I guess I was taken in by your reputation,” I said. “Silly of me, really.”

His face creased into a frown. “What do you mean by that?”

I waved my hands dismissively. “Please, give me credit for being at least half as clever as you’ve heard,” I said. “If you can’t get what I want, just admit it. Don’t waste my time by pricing things out of my reach or coming up with elaborate excuses.”

Sleat seemed unsure if he should be offended. “What part of this seems elaborate to you?”

“Come now,” I said. “You’re willing to run against the laws of the University, risk the wrath of the masters, the constables, and the iron law of Atur. But a little slip of a girl makes your knees quivery?” I sniffed and mimicked the gesture he’d made before, pretending to ball something up and throw it away over my shoulder.

He looked at me for a moment, then burst out laughing. “Yes, that’s exactly the case,” he said, wiping tears of genuine amusement from his eyes. “Apparently I was fooled by your reputation too. If you think Devi is a little slip of a girl, you aren’t nearly as clever as I thought.”

Looking over my shoulder, Sleat nodded at someone I couldn’t see and waved his hand dismissively. “Go on with you,” he said. “I have business to do with rational people who know the true shape of the world. You’re wasting my time.”

I felt myself prickling with irritation, but forced myself to keep it off my face. “I also need a crossbow,” I said.

He shook his head. “No, I’ve already told you. No loans or favors.”

“I can offer goods in exchange.”

He looked at me skeptically. “What sort of crossbow?”

“Any sort,” I said. “It needn’t be fancy. It just needs to work.”

“Eight talents,” he said.

I gave him a hard look. “Don’t insult me. This is mundane contraband. I’ll bet ten to a penny you can have one in two hours. If you try to gouge me, I’ll just go over the river and get one from Heffron.”

“Get one from Heffron and you’ll have to carry it back from Imre,” he said. “Constable would love seeing that.”

I shrugged and began to get to my feet.

“Three talents and five,” he said. “It’ll be used, mind you. And a stirrup, not a crank.”

I calculated in my head. “Will you accept an ounce of silver and a spool of finely drawn gold wire?” I asked, bringing them out from the pockets of my cloak.

Sleat’s dark eyes unfocused slightly as he did his own internal calculations. “You drive a tight bargain.” He picked up the spool of bright wire and the small ingot of silver. “There’s a rain barrel behind the Grimsome Tannery. The crossbow will be there in fifteen minutes.” He gave me an insulted look. “Two hours? You don’t know anything about me at all.”

Hours later Fela emerged from the shelves in the Archives and caught me with one hand against the four-plate door. I wasn’t pushing on it, exactly. Just pressing. Just checking to see if it was firmly closed. It was.

“I don’t suppose they tell scrivs what’s behind this?” I asked her without any hope.

“If they do, they haven’t told me yet,” Fela said, stepping close and reaching out to run her fingers along the grooves the letters made in the stone: Valaritas. “I had a dream about the door once,” she said. “Valaritas was the name of an old dead king. His tomb was behind the door.”

“Wow,” I said. “That’s better than the dreams I have about it.”

“What are yours?” She asked.

“Once I dreamed I saw light through the keyholes,” I said. “But mostly I’m just standing here, staring at it, trying to get in.” I frowned at the door. “As if standing outside while I’m awake isn’t frustrating enough, I do it while I’m asleep too.”

Fela laughed softly at that, then turned away from the door to face me. “I got your note,” she said. “What’s the research project you were so vague about?”

“Let’s go somewhere private to talk,” I said. “It’s a bit of a story.”

We made our way to one of the reading holes, and once the door was closed I told her the whole story, embarrassments and all. Someone was practicing malfeasance against me. I couldn’t go to the masters for fear of revealing I was the one who had broken into Ambrose’s rooms. I needed a gram to protect myself, but I didn’t know enough sygaldry to make one.

“Malfeasance,” she said in a low voice, slowly shaking her head in dismay. “You’re sure?”

I unbuttoned my shirt and took it down off my shoulder, revealing the dark bruise on my shoulder from the attack I’d only managed to partially stop.

She leaned in to look at it. “And you really don’t know who it might be?”

“Not really,” I said, trying not to think of Devi. I wanted to keep that particular bad decision to myself for now. “I’m sorry to drag you into this, but you’re the only one …”

Fela waved her hands in negation. “None of that. I told you to ask if you ever needed a favor, and I’m glad you did.”

“I’m glad you’re glad,” I said. “If you can get me through this, I’ll owe you instead. I’m getting better at finding what I want in here, but I’m still new.”

Fela nodded. “It takes years to learn your way around the Stacks. It’s like a city.”

I smiled. “That’s how I think of it too. I haven’t lived here long enough to learn all the shortcuts.”

Fela grimaced a bit. “And I’m guessing you’re going to need those. If Kilvin really believes the sygaldry is dangerous, most of the books you want will be in his private library.”

I felt a sinking sensation in my stomach. “Private library?”

“All the masters have private libraries,” Fela said matter-of-factly. “I know some alchemy so I help spot books with formulae Mandrag wouldn’t want in the wrong hands. Scrivs who know sygaldry do the same for Kilvin.”

“But this is pointless then,” I said. “If Kilvin has all those books locked away there’s no chance of finding what I’m looking for.”

Fela smiled, shaking her head. “The system isn’t perfect. Only about a third of the Archives are properly cataloged. What you’re looking for is probably still in the Stacks somewhere. It’s just a matter of finding it.”

“I wouldn’t even need a whole schema,” I said. “If I just knew a few of the proper runes I could probably just fake the rest.”

She gave me a worried look. “Is that really wise?”

“Wisdom is a luxury I can’t afford,” I said. “Wil and Sim have already been watching over me for two nights. They can’t sleep in shifts for the next ten years.”

Fela drew a deep breath then let it out slowly. “Right. We can start with the cataloged books first. Maybe what you need has slipped past the scrivs.”

We collected several dozen books on sygaldry and closeted ourselves in an out-of-the-way reading hole on the fourth floor. Then we started going through them one at a time.

We began with hopes of finding a full-fledged schema for a gram, but as the hours slid by we lowered our hopes. If not a whole schema, perhaps we could find a description of one. Perhaps a reference to the sequence of runes used. The name of a single rune. A hint. A clue. A scrap. Some piece of the puzzle.

I closed the last of the books we had brought back to the reading hole. It made a solid thump as the pages settled together.

“Nothing?” she asked tiredly.

“Nothing.” I rubbed my face with both hands. “So much for getting lucky.”

Fela shrugged, grimacing halfway through the motion, then craned her head to one side to stretch a kink out of her neck. “It made sense to start in the most obvious places,” she said. “But those will be the same places the scrivs have combed over for Kilvin. We’ll just have to dig deeper.”

I heard the distant sound of the belling tower and was surprised at how many times it struck. We’d been researching for over four hours. “You’ve missed your class,” I said.

“It’s just geometries,” she said.

“You’re a wonderful person,” I said. “What’s our best option now?”

“A long, slow trawl of the Stacks,” she said. “But it’s going to be like panning for gold. Dozens of hours, and that’s with both of us working together so we don’t overlap our efforts.”

“I can bring in Wil and Sim to help,” I said.

“Wilem works here,” Fela said. “But Simmon’s never been a scriv, he’ll probably just get in the way.”

I gave her an odd look. “Do you know Sim very well?”

“Not very,” she admitted. “I’ve seen him around.”

“You’re underestimating him,” I said. “People do it all the time. Sim’s smart.”

“Everyone here is smart,” Fela said. “And Sim is nice, but …”

“That’s the problem,” I said. “He’s nice. He’s gentle, which people see as weak. And he’s happy, which people see as stupid.”

“I didn’t mean it like that,” Fela said.

“I know,” I said, rubbing at my face. “I’m sorry. It’s been a bad couple of days. I thought the University would be different than the rest of the world, but it’s just like everywhere else: people cater to pompous, rude bastards like Ambrose, while the good souls like Simmon get brushed off as simpletons.”

“Which one are you?” Fela said with a smile as she began to stack up the books. “Pompous bastard or good soul?”

“I’ll research that later,” I said. “Right now I’ve got more pressing concerns.”

CHAPTER TWENTY-SIX

Trust

WHILE I WAS FAIRLY sure Devi wasn’t behind the malfeasance, I’d have to be a fool to ignore the fact that she had my blood. So when it became clear that making a gram was going to require a great deal of time and energy, I realized the time had come to pay her a visit and make sure she wasn’t responsible.

It was a miserable day: chill with a clammy wind that cut through my clothes. I didn’t own gloves or a hat, and had to settle for putting up my hood and wrapping my hands in the fabric of my cloak as I pulled it more tightly around my shoulders.

As I crossed Stonebridge a new thought occurred to me: maybe someone had stolen my blood from Devi. That made better sense than anything else. I needed to make sure the bottle with my blood was safe. If she still had it, and it hadn’t been tampered with, I’d know she wasn’t involved.

I made my way to the western edge of Imre where I stopped at a tavern to buy a small beer and warm myself by their fire. Then I walked through the now familiar alley and up the narrow staircase behind the butcher’s shop. Despite the chill and recent rain, the smell of rancid fat still hung in the air.

I took a deep breath and knocked on the door.

It opened after a minute, then Devi’s face peered through a narrow crack in the door. “Well hello,” she said. “Are you here for business or pleasure?”

“Business mostly,” I admitted.

“Pity.” She opened the door wider.

As I came into the room I tripped on the threshold, stumbling clumsily into her and resting one hand briefly on her shoulder as I steadied myself. “Sorry,” I said, embarrassed.

“You look like hell,” she said as she bolted the door. “I hope you’re not looking for more money. I don’t lend to folks who look like they’re coming off a three-day drunk.”

I settled wearily into a chair. “I brought back your book.” I said, bringing it out from under my cloak and laying it on her desk.

She nodded at it, smiling a bit. “What did you think of good old Malcaf?”

“Dry. Wordy. Boring.”

“There weren’t any pictures either,” she said dryly. “But that’s beside the point.”

“His theories about perception as an active force were interesting,” I admitted. “But he writes like he’s afraid someone might actually understand him.”

Devi nodded, her mouth pursed. “That’s about what I thought too.” She reached across the desk and slid the book closer to herself. “What did you think about the chapter on proprioception?”

“He seemed to be arguing from a deep well of ignorance,” I said. “I’ve met people in the Medica with amputated limbs. I don’t think Malcaf ever has.”

I watched her for some sign of guilt, some indication she’d been practicing malfeasance against me. But there was nothing. She seemed perfectly normal, cheery and sharp-tongued as ever. But I had grown up among actors. I know how many ways there are to hide your true feelings.

Devi made an exaggerated frown. “You look so serious over there. What are you thinking?”

“I had a couple of questions,” I said evasively. I wasn’t looking forward to this. “Not about Malcaf.”

“I’m so tired of being appreciated for my intellect.” She leaned back and stretched her arms over her head. “When will I be able to find a nice boy who just wants me for my body?” She gave a luxurious stretch, but stopped halfway through, giving me a puzzled look. “I’m waiting for a quip here. You’re usually quicker than this.”

I gave her a weak smile. “I’ve got a lot on my mind. I don’t think I can match wits with you today.”

“I never suspected you could match wits with me,” she said. “But I do like a little banter now and then.” She leaned forward and folded her hands on the top of the desk. “What sort of questions?”

“Did you do much sygaldry in the University?”

“Personal questions.” She raised an eyebrow. “No. I didn’t care for it. Too much fiddling around for my taste.”

“You don’t seem to be the sort of woman who’d mind a little fiddling around,” I said, managing a weak smile.

“That’s more like it,” she said with approval. “I knew you had it in you.”

“I don’t suppose you have any books on advanced sygaldry?” I asked. “The sort of things they don’t allow a Re’lar access to?”

Devi shook her head. “No. I’ve got some nice alchemical texts though. Stuff you’d never find in your precious Archives.” Bitterness was thick in her voice when she said the last word.

That’s when it all came together in my head. Devi wouldn’t ever be so careless as to let someone steal my blood. She wouldn’t sell it to turn a quick profit. She didn’t need the money. She didn’t have a grudge against me.

But Devi would sell her eyeteeth to get into the Archives.

“It’s funny you should mention alchemy,” I said as calmly as possible. “Have you ever heard of something called a plum bob?”

“I’ve heard of it,” she said easily. “Nasty little thing. I think I have the formula.” She turned in her seat a little, facing toward the shelf. “You interested in seeing it?”

Her face didn’t betray her, but with enough practice, anyone can control their face. Her body language didn’t give her away either. There was only the slightest tension in her shoulders, only a hint of hesitation.

It was her eyes. When I mentioned the plum bob, I saw a flicker there. Not just recognition. Guilt. Of course. She’d sold the formula to Ambrose.

And why wouldn’t she? Ambrose was a high-ranking scriv. He could sneak her into the Archives. Hell, with the resources at his disposal, he might not even have to do that. Everyone knew Lorren occasionally granted nonarcanum scholars access to the Archives, especially if their patrons were willing to pave the way with a generous donation. Ambrose had once bought an entire inn just to spite me. How much more would he be willing to pay to get hold of my blood?

No. Wil and Sim had been right about that. Ambrose wasn’t the sort to get his hands dirty if he could avoid it. Much simpler for him to hire Devi to do his dirty work for him. She’d already been expelled. She had nothing to lose and all the secrets of the Archives to gain.

“No thanks,” I said. “I don’t do much alchemy.” I took a deep breath and decided to jump right to the point. “But I do need to see my blood.”

Devi’s cheery expression froze on her face. Her mouth still smiled, but her eyes were cold. “I beg your pardon?” It wasn’t really a question.

“I need to see the blood I left here with you,” I said. “I need to know it’s safe.”

“I’m afraid that’s not possible.” Her smile fell completely away, and her mouth made a thin, flat line. “That’s not how I do business. Besides, do you think I’d be stupid enough to keep that sort of thing here?”

I felt a sinking sensation in my gut, still not wanting to believe it. “We can go to wherever you keep it,” I said calmly. “Someone has been conducting malfeasance against me. I need to make sure it hasn’t been tampered with. That’s all.”

“As if I would just show you where I keep that sort of thing,” Devi said with scathing sarcasm. “Have you been struck in the head or something?”

“I’m afraid I must insist.”

“Go ahead and be afraid,” Devi said with a glare. “Go ahead and insist. It won’t make any difference.”

It was her. There was no other reason for her to keep it from me. “If you refuse to show me,” I continued, trying to keep my voice level and calm. “I must assume you’ve sold my blood, or made your own mommet of me for some reason.”

Devi leaned back in her chair and crossed her arms with deliberate nonchalance. “You can assume whatever stupid thing pleases you. You’ll see your blood when you settle your debt with me, and not one moment sooner.”

I brought out a wax doll from underneath my cloak and rested my hand on the desk so she could see it.

“Is that supposed to be me?” she said. “With hips like that?” But the words were just the shell of a joke, a reflex action. Her tone was flat and angry. Her eyes were hard.

With my other hand I brought out a short strawberry-blond hair and fixed it to the doll’s head. Devi’s hand went unconsciously to her own hair, her expression shocked.

“Someone has been attacking me,” I said. “I need to make sure my blood is—”

This time when I mentioned my blood, I saw her eyes flicker to one of her desk’s drawers. Her fingers twitched slightly.

I met her eye. “Don’t,” I said grimly.

Devi’s hand darted to the drawer, yanking it open.

I didn’t doubt for a second that the drawer held the mommet she’d made of me. I couldn’t let her get hold of it. I concentrated and murmured a binding.

Devi’s hand came to a jarring halt halfway to the open drawer.

I hadn’t done anything to hurt her. No fire, no pain, nothing like what she’d done to me over the last several days. It was just a binding to keep her motionless. When I’d stopped at the tavern to warm myself, I’d taken a pinch of ash from their fireplace. It wasn’t a great source, and it was farther away than I’d like, but it was better than nothing.

Still, I could probably only hold her like this for a few minutes before I drew so much heat from the fire that I extinguished it. But that should be enough time for me to get the truth out of her and reclaim the mommet she’d made.

Devi’s eyes grew wild as she struggled to move. “How dare you!” she shouted. “How dare you!”

“How dare you!” I spat back angrily. “I can’t believe I trusted you! I defended you to my friends—” I trailed off as the unthinkable happened. Despite my binding, Devi started to move, her hand inching its way into the open drawer.

I concentrated harder and Devi’s hand came to a halt. Then, slowly, it began to creep forward again, disappearing into the drawer. I couldn’t believe it.

“You think you can come in here and threaten me?” Devi hissed, her face a mask of rage. “You think I can’t take care of myself? I made Re’lar before they threw me out, you little slipstick. I earned it. My Alar is like the ocean in storm.” Her hand was almost completely inside the drawer now.

I felt a clammy sweat break out across my forehead and broke my mind three more times. I murmured again and each piece of my mind made a separate binding, focusing on keeping her still. I drew heat from my body, feeling the cold crawl up my arms as I bore down on her. That was five bindings in all. My outside limit.

Devi went motionless as stone, and she chuckled deep in her throat, grinning. “Oh you’re very good. I almost believe the stories about you now. But what makes you think you can do what even Elxa Dal couldn’t? Why do you think they expelled me? They feared a woman who could match a master by her second year.” Sweat made her pale hair cling to her forehead. She clenched her teeth, her pixie face savage with determination. Her hand began to move again.

Then, with a sudden burst of motion she yanked her hand out of the drawer as if pulling it free from thick mud. She slammed something round and metallic down on the top of the desk, making the lamp’s flame leap and stutter. It wasn’t a mommet. It wasn’t a bottle of my blood.

“You bastard,” she said, almost chanting the words. “You think I’m not ready for this sort of thing? You think you’re the first to try and take advantage of me?” She twisted the top of the grey metal sphere. It gave a distinct click and she drew her hand slowly away. Despite my best efforts, I couldn’t keep her still.

That’s when I recognized the device she’d brought out of the drawer. I’d studied them with Manet last term. Kilvin referred to them as “self-contained exothermic accelerators,” but everyone else called them pocket warmers or poor-boys.

They held kerosene, or naphtha, or sugar. Once activated, a poor-boy burned the fuel inside, pouring out as much heat as a forge fire for about five minutes. Then it needed to be dismantled, cleaned, and refilled. They were messy and dangerous and tended to break easily because of the rapid heating and cooling. But for a short time, they gave a sympathist a bonfire’s worth of energy.

I lowered myself into the Heart of Stone and splintered off another piece of my mind, murmuring the binding. Then I tried for a seventh and failed. I was tired, and I hurt. The cold was leeching up my arms, and I had been through so much in the last few days. But I clenched my teeth and forced myself to murmur the words under my breath.

Devi didn’t even seem to notice the sixth binding. Moving as slowly as the hand of a clock, she pulled a loose thread free from her sleeve. The poor-boy made a groaning, metallic creak and heat began to roll off it in shimmering waves.

“I don’t have a decent link to you right now,” Devi said, as the hand holding the thread moved slowly back toward the poor-boy. “But if you don’t loose your binding, I’ll use this to burn every scrap of clothing off your body, and smile while you scream.”

It’s strange what thoughts flash into your head in these situations. The first thing I thought of wasn’t being horribly burned. It was that the cloak Fela had given me would be ruined, and I’d be left with only two shirts.

My eyes darted to the top of Devi’s desk where the varnish was already starting to blister in a ring around the poor-boy. I could feel the heat radiating against my face.

I know when I’m beaten. I broke the bindings, my mind reeling as the pieces slid back together.

Devi rolled her shoulders. “Let go of it,” she said.

I opened my hand and the wax doll toppled drunkenly onto the desk. I sat with my hands in my lap and remained very still, not wanting to startle or threaten her in any way.

Devi stood up and leaned across the desk. She reached out and ran a hand through my hair, then made a fist, tearing some away. I yelped despite myself.

Sitting back down, Devi picked up the doll and replaced her hair with several of my own. She muttered a binding.

“Devi, you don’t understand,” I said. “I just needed to—”

When I had bound Devi, I had focused on her arms and legs. It’s the most efficient way to restrain someone. I’d had limited heat to work with and couldn’t waste energy on anything else.

But Devi had heat to spare right now, and her binding was like being shut in an iron vise. I couldn’t move my arms or legs, or jaw, or tongue. I could barely breathe, only taking tiny, shallow breaths that didn’t require any movement of my chest. It was horrifying, like having someone’s hand around my heart.

“I trusted you.” Devi’s voice was low and rough, like a fine-toothed surgeon’s saw cutting away an amputated leg. “I trusted you.” She gave me a look that was pure fury and loathing. “I actually had someone come here, looking to buy your blood. Fifty-five talents. I turned him away. I denied even knowing you because you and I had a business relationship. I stick to the bargains I make.”

Who? I wanted to shout. But I could only make an inarticulate huuu huuu sound.

Devi looked at the wax doll she held, then at the poor-boy charring a dark ring into the top of her desk. “Our business relationship is now over,” she said tightly. “I am calling your debt due. You have until the end of the term to get me my money. Nine talents. If you are one half-breath late, I will sell your blood to recover my investment and wash my hands of you.”

She eyed me coldly. “This is better than you deserve. I still have your blood. If you go to the masters at the University or the constable in Imre, it will end badly for you.”

Smoke was curling up from the desk now, and Devi moved her hand to hold the mommet over the creaking metal of the poor-boy. She murmured, and I felt a prickle of heat wash over my whole body. It felt exactly like the sudden fevers that had been plaguing me for days.

“When I release this binding, you will say, ‘I understand, Devi.’ Then you will leave. At the end of the term, you will send someone with the money you owe. You will not come yourself. I do not ever want to see you again.”

Devi looked at me with such contempt that I cringe to remember it. Then she spat on me, tiny flecks of saliva striking the poor-boy and hissing into steam. “If I glimpse you again, even out of the corner of my eye, it will end badly for you.”

She lifted the wax mommet over her head, then brought it down sharply on the desk with her hand flat on top of it. If I’d been able to flinch or cry out in panic, I would have.

The mommet shattered, arms and legs breaking away, the head skittering off to roll across the desk and onto the floor. I felt a sudden, jarring impact, as if I’d fallen several feet and landed flat on a stone floor. It was startling, but nowhere near as bad as it could have been. Through the terror, some small part of me marveled at her precision and control.

The binding that held me fell away, and I drew a deep breath. “I understand, Devi,” I said. “But can—”

“Get OUT!” she shouted.

I got out. I would like to say it was a dignified exit, but that would not be the truth.

CHAPTER TWENTY-SEVEN

Pressure

WIL AND SIM WERE waiting for me in the back corner of Anker’s. I brought over two mugs of beer and a tray laden with fresh bread and butter, cheese and fruit, and bowls of hot soup, thick with beef and turnip.

Wilem rubbed one eye with the palm of his hand. He looked a little peaked under his dark Cealdish complexion, but other than that he didn’t seem much the worse for three nights of short sleep. “What’s the occasion?”

“I just want to help you two keep your energy up,” I said.

“Way ahead of you,” Sim said. “I had a refreshing nap during my sublimation lecture.” His eyes were a little dark around the edges, but he didn’t seem much the worse for wear either.

Wilem began to load up his plate. “You mentioned you had news. What sort of news?”

“It’s mixed,” I said. “Which do you want first, good or bad?”

“Bad news first,” Simmon said.

“Kilvin won’t give me the plans I need to make my own gram. It’s the sygaldry involved. Runes for blood and bone and such. He feels they’re too dangerous to be taught to Re’lar.”

Simmon looked curious. “Did he say why?”

“He didn’t,” I admitted. “But I can guess. I could use them to make all manner of unpleasant things. Like a little metal disk with a hole in it. Then, if you put a drop of someone’s blood in it, you could use it to burn them alive.”

“God, that’s awful,” Sim said, setting down his spoon. “Do you ever have any nice thoughts?”

“Anyone in the Arcanum could do the same thing with basic sympathy,” Wilem pointed out.

“There’s a big difference,” I said. “Once I made that device, anyone could use it. Again and again.”

“That’s insane,” Simmon said. “Why would anyone make anything like that?”

“Money,” Wilem said grimly. “People do stupid things for money all the time.” He gave me a significant look. “Such as borrowing from bloodthirsty gattesors.”

“Which brings me to my second piece of news,” I said uncomfortably. “I confronted Devi.”

“Alone?” Simmon said. “Are you stupid?”

“Yes,” I said. “But not for the reasons you think. Things got unpleasant, but now I know she wasn’t responsible for the attacks.”

Wilem frowned. “If not her, then who?”

“There’s only one thing that makes sense,” I said. “It’s Ambrose.”

Wil shook his head. “We’ve already gone through this. Ambrose would never risk it. He—”

I held up a hand to stop him. “He’d never risk malfeasance against me,” I agreed. “But I don’t think he knows who he’s attacking.”

Wilem closed his mouth and looked thoughtful.

I continued. “Think about it. If Ambrose suspected it was me, he’d bring me up on charges in front of the masters. He’s done it before.” I rubbed my wounded arm. “They’d discover my injuries and I’d be caught.”

Wil looked down at the tabletop. “Kraem,” he said. “It makes sense. He might suspect you of hiring a thief, but not that you’d break in yourself. He’d never do something like that.”

I nodded. “He’s probably trying to find the person who broke into his rooms. Or just get a little easy revenge. That explains why the attacks have been getting stronger. He probably thinks the thief ran off to Imre or Tarbean.”

“We’ve got to go to the masters with this,” Simmon said. “They can search his rooms tonight. He’ll be expelled for this, and whipped.” A wide, vicious grin spread over his face. “God, I’d pay ten talents if I got to hold the lash.”

I chuckled at his bloodthirsty tone. It took a lot to get on Sim’s bad side, but once you made it there was no going back. “We can’t, Sim.”

Sim gave me a look of sheer disbelief. “You can’t be serious. He can’t get away with this.”

“I’d get expelled for breaking into his rooms in the first place. Conduct Unbecoming.”

“They wouldn’t expel you for that,” Sim said, but his voice was far from certain.

“I’m not willing to take the risk,” I said. “Hemme hates me. Brandeur follows Hemme’s lead. I’m still in Lorren’s bad books.”

“And somehow he still finds the strength to pun,” Wilem muttered.

“That’s three votes against me right there.”

“I think you don’t give Lorren enough credit,” Wilem said. “But you’re right. They’d expel you. If for no other reason, they’d do it to smooth things over with Baron Jakis.”

Sim looked at Wilem. “You really think so?”

Wil nodded. “It’s possible they wouldn’t even expel Ambrose,” he said grimly. “He’s Hemme’s favorite, and the masters know the trouble his father could make for the University.” Wil snorted. “Think of the trouble Ambrose could make when he inherits.” Wilem lowered his eyes and shook his head. “I’m with Kvothe on this one, Sim.”

Simmon gave a great, weary sigh. “Wonderful,” he said. Then he looked up at me with narrow eyes. “I told you,” he said. “I told you to leave Ambrose alone from the very beginning. Getting into a fight with him is like stepping into a bear trap.”

“A bear trap?” I said thoughtfully.

He nodded firmly. “Your foot goes in easy enough, but you’re never getting it out again.”

“A bear trap,” I repeated. “That’s exactly what I need.”

Wilem chuckled darkly.

“I’m serious,” I said. “Where can I get a bear trap?”

Wil and Sim looked at me strangely, and I decided not to push my luck. “Just a joke,” I lied, not wanting to complicate things any further. I could find one on my own.

“We need to be sure it’s Ambrose,” Wilem said.

I nodded. “If he’s locked away in his rooms the next few times I’m attacked, that should be evidence enough.”

The conversation lapsed a bit, and for a couple of minutes we ate quietly, each of us tangled in our own thoughts.

“Okay,” Simmon said, seeming to have reached some conclusion. “Nothing’s really changed. You still need a gram. Right?” He looked at Wil, who nodded, then back to me. “Now hurry up with the good news before I kill myself.”

I smiled. “Fela has agreed to help me search the Archives for the schema.” I gestured toward the two of them. “If the two of you care to join us, it will mean long, grueling hours in close contact with the most beautiful woman this side of the Omethi River.”

“I might be able to spare some time,” Wilem said casually.

Simmon grinned.

Thus began our search of the Archives.

Surprisingly, it was fun at first, almost like a game. The four of us would scatter to different sections of the Archives then return and comb through the books as a group. We spent hours chatting and joking, enjoying the challenge and one another’s company.

But as hours turned into days of fruitless searching, the excitement burned away, leaving only a grim determination. Wil and Sim continued to watch over me at night, protecting me with their Alar. Night after night they lost sleep, making them sullen and irritable. I cut my sleep down to five hours a night to make things easier for them.

Under ordinary circumstances, five hours of sleep would be a great plenty for me, but I was still recovering from my injuries. What’s more, I needed to constantly maintain the Alar that kept me safe. It was mentally exhausting.

On the third day of our search I nodded off while studying my metallurgy. I only dozed for half a minute before my head lolled, startling me awake. But the icy fear followed me for the rest of the day. If Ambrose had attacked at that moment, I could have been killed.

So, even though I couldn’t afford it, I began dipping into my thinning purse to buy coffee. Many of the inns and cafes near the University catered to noble tastes, so it was readily available, but coffee is never cheap. Nahlrout would have been less expensive, but it had harsher side effects that I didn’t want to risk.

In between bouts of research, we set about confirming my suspicions that Ambrose was responsible for the attacks. In this, if nothing else, we were lucky. Wil watched Ambrose return to his room after his rhetoric lecture, and at the same time I was forced to stave off binder’s chills. Fela watched him finish a late lunch and return to his rooms, and a quarter hour later I felt a sweaty prickle of heat along my back and arms.

Later that evening I watched him head back to his rooms in the Golden Pony after his shift in the Archives. Not long after, I felt the faint pressure in both my shoulders that let me know he was trying to stab me. After the shoulders, there followed several other prods in a more personal area.

Wil and Sim agreed that it couldn’t be coincidence: it was Ambrose. Best of all, it let us know that whatever Ambrose was using against me, he kept it in his rooms.

CHAPTER TWENTY-EIGHT

Kindling

THE ATTACKS WEREN’T PARTICULARLY frequent, but they came with no warning.

On the fifth day after we started searching for the schema, when Ambrose must have been feeling particularly cussed or bored, there were eight of them: one as I was waking up in Wilem’s room, two during lunch, two while I was studying physiognomy in the Medica, then three in quick succession while I was coldsmithing iron in the Fishery.

The next day there were no attacks at all. In some ways that was worse. Nothing but hours of waiting for the other shoe to drop.

So I learned to maintain an iron-hard Alar as I ate and bathed, as I attended class and had conversations with my teachers and friends. I even maintained it while dueling in Adept Sympathy. On the seventh day of our search, this distraction and my general exhaustion led to my first defeat at the hands of two of my classmates, ending my perfect string of undefeated duels.

I could say that I was too weary to care, but that wouldn’t be entirely true.

On the ninth day of our search Wilem, Simmon, and I were combing through books in our reading hole when the door opened and Fela slipped inside. She was carrying a single book instead of her usual armload. She was breathing heavily.

“I’ve got it,” she said, her eyes bright. Her voice so excited it was almost fierce. “I found a copy.” She thrust the book out at us so we could read the gold leaf on the thick leather spine: Facci-Moen ve Scrivani.

We had learned about the Scrivani early in our search. It was an extensive collection of schemata by a long-dead Artificer named Surthur. Twelve thick volumes of detailed diagrams and descriptions. When we found the index, we had thought our search was nearly finished, as it listed “Diagrames Detaling the Construction of a Marvelous Five-Gramme, proven most Effectatious in the Preventing of Maleficent Sympathe.” Location: volume nine, page eighty-two.

We tracked down eight versions of the Scrivani in the Archives, but we never found the whole set. Volumes seven, nine, and eleven were always missing, no doubt tucked away in Kilvin’s private library.

We’d spent two entire days searching before finally giving up on the Scrivani. But now Fela had found it, not just a piece to the puzzle, but the whole thing.

“Is it the right one?” Simmon asked, his voice a mixture of excitement and disbelief.

Fela slowly removed her hand from the lower binding, revealing in bright gold: 9.

I scrambled up out of my chair, almost knocking it over in my rush to get to her. But she smiled and held the book high over her head. “First you have to promise me dinner,” she said.

I laughed and reached for the book. “Once this is over, I’ll take everyone to dinner.”

She sighed. “And you have to tell me I’m the best scriv ever.”

“You’re the best scriv ever,” I said. “You’re twice as good as Wil could ever be, even if he had a dozen hands and a hundred extra eyes.”

“Ick.” She handed me the book. “Here you go.”

I hurried to the table and cracked the book open.

“The pages will be missing, or something like that,” Simmon said in a low voice to Wil. “It can’t be this easy after all this time. I know something’s going to spike our wheel.”

I stopped turning pages and rubbed my eyes. I squinted at the writing.

“I knew it,” Sim said, he leaned his chair back on two legs, covering his tired eyes with his hands. “Let me guess, it’s got the grey rot. Or bookworm, or both.”

Fela stepped close and looked over my shoulder.“Oh no!” she said mournfully. “I didn’t even look. I was so excited.” She looked up at us. “Do any of you read Eld Vintic?”

“I read the chittering gibberish you people call Aturan,” Wilem said sourly. “I consider myself sufficiently multilingual.”

“Only a smattering,” I said. “A few dozen words.”

“I can,” Sim said.

“Really?” I felt hope rising in my chest again. “When did you pick that up?”

Sim scooted his chair across the floor until he could look at the book. “My first term as an E’lir I heard some Eld Vintic poetry. I studied it for three terms with the Chancellor.”

“I’ve never cared for poetry,” I said.

“Your loss,” Sim said absently as he turned a few pages. “Eld Vintic poetry is thunderous. It pounds at you.”

“What’s the meter like?” I asked, curious despite myself.

“I don’t know anything about meter,” Simmon said distractedly as he ran a finger down the page in front of him. “It’s like this:

Sought we the Scrivani word-work of Surthur

Long-lost in ledger all hope forgotten.

Yet fast-found for friendship fair the book-bringer

Hot comes the huntress Fela, flushed with finding

Breathless her breast her high blood rising

To ripen the red-cheek rouge-bloom of beauty.

“That sort of thing,” Simmon said absently, his eyes still scanning the pages in front of him.

I saw Fela turn her head to look at Simmon, almost as if she were surprised to see him sitting there.

No, it was almost as if up until that point, he’d just been occupying space around her, like a piece of furniture. But this time when she looked at him, she took all of him in. His sandy hair, the line of his jaw, the span of his shoulders beneath his shirt. This time when she looked, she actually saw him.

Let me say this. It was worth the whole awful, irritating time spent searching the Archives just to watch that moment happen. It was worth blood and the fear of death to see her fall in love with him. Just a little. Just the first faint breath of love, so light she probably didn’t notice it herself. It wasn’t dramatic, like some bolt of lightning with a crack of thunder following. It was more like when flint strikes steel and the spark fades almost too fast for you to see. But still, you know it’s there, down where you can’t see, kindling.

“Who read you Eld Vintic poetry?” Wil asked. Fela blinked and turned back to the book.

“Puppet,” Sim said. “The first time I met him.”

“Puppet!” Wil looked as if he would tear out his own hair. “God pound me, why haven’t we gone to him about this? If there’s an Aturan translation of this book he’ll know where it is!”

“I’ve thought the same thing a hundred times these last few days,” Simmon said. “But he hasn’t been doing well lately. He wouldn’t be much help.”

“And Puppet knows what’s on the restricted list,” Fela said. “I doubt he’d just hand something like that over.”

“Does everyone know this Puppet person except for me?” I asked.

“Scrivs do,” Wilem said.

“I think I can piece most of this together,” Simmon said, turning to look in my direction. “Does this diagram make any sense to you? It’s perfect nonsense to me.”

“Those are the runes.” I pointed. “Clear as day. And those are metallurgical symbols.” I looked closer. “The rest … I don’t know. Maybe abbreviations. We can probably work them out as we go along.”

I smiled and turned to Fela. “Congratulations, you’re still the best scriv ever.”

With Simmon’s help, it took me two days to decipher the diagrams in the Scrivani. Rather, it took us one day to decipher and one day to double and triple check our work.

Once I knew how to construct my gram, I began to play a strange sort of hide-and-seek with Ambrose. I needed the entirety of my concentration free while I worked on the sygaldry for the gram. That meant letting my guard down. So I could only work on the gram when I was certain Ambrose was otherwise occupied.

The gram was delicate work, small engraving with no margin for error. And it didn’t help that I was forced to steal the time in bits and pieces. Half an hour while Ambrose was drinking coffee with a young woman in a public café. Forty minutes when he was attending a symbolic logic lecture. A full hour and a half while he was working at the front desk in the Archives.

When I couldn’t work on my gram, I labored on my pet project. In some ways I was fortunate Kilvin had charged me with making something worthy of a Re’lar. It gave me the perfect excuse for all the time I spent in the Fishery.

The rest of the time I spent lounging in the common room of the Golden Pony. I needed to establish myself as a regular customer there. Things would seem less suspicious that way.

CHAPTER TWENTY-NINE

Stolen

EVERY NIGHT I RETIRED to my tiny garret room in Anker’s. Then I would lock the door, climb out the window, and slip into either Wil or Sim’s room, depending on who was keeping first watch over me that night.

Bad as things were, I knew they would become infinitely worse if Ambrose realized I was the one who had broken into his rooms. While my injuries were healing, they were still more than enough to incriminate me. So I worked hard to keep up the appearance of normality.

Thus it was that late one night, I trudged into Anker’s with all the nimble vigor of a shamble-man. I made a weak attempt at small talk with Anker’s new serving girl, then grabbed half a loaf of bread before disappearing up the stairs.

A minute later I was back in the taproom. I was covered in a panicked sweat, my heart was thundering in my ears.

The girl looked up. “You change your mind about that drink then?” she smiled.

I shook my head so quickly my hair whipped around my face. “Did I leave my lute down here last night after I finished playing?” I asked frantically.

She shook her head. “You carried it off, same as always. Remember I asked if you needed a bit of string to hold the case together?”

I darted back up the steps, quick as a fish. Then was back again in less than a minute. “Are you sure?” I asked, breathing hard. “Could you look behind the bar, just to be sure?”

She looked, but the lute wasn’t there. It wasn’t in the pantry either. Or the kitchen.

I climbed the stairs and opened the door to my tiny room. There weren’t many places a lute case could fit in a room that size. It wasn’t under the bed. It wasn’t leaning on the wall next to my small desk. It wasn’t behind the door.

The lute case was too large to fit in the old trunk by the foot of the bed. But I looked anyway. It wasn’t in the trunk. I looked under the bed again, just to be sure. It wasn’t under the bed.

Then I looked at the window. At the simple latch I kept well-oiled so I could trip it while standing on the roof outside.

I looked behind the door again. The lute wasn’t behind the door. Then I sat on the bed. If I had been weary before, then I was something else entirely now. I felt like I was made of wet paper. I felt like I could barely breathe, like someone had stolen my heart out of my chest.

CHAPTER THIRTY

More Than Salt

“TODAY,” ELODIN SAID BRIGHTLY, “we will talk about things that cannot be talked about. Specifically, we will discuss why some things cannot be discussed.”

I sighed and set down my pencil. Every day I hoped this class would be the one where Elodin actually taught us something. Every day I brought a hardback and one of my few precious pieces of paper, ready to take advantage of the moment of clarity. Every day some part of me expected Elodin to laugh and admit he’d just been testing our resolve with his endless nonsense.

And every day I was disappointed.

“The majority of important things cannot be said outright,” Elodin said. “They cannot be made explicit. They can only be implied.” He looked out at his handful of students in the otherwise empty lecture hall. “Name something that cannot be explained.” He pointed at Uresh. “Go.”

Uresh considered for a moment. “Humor. If you explain a joke, it isn’t a joke.”

Elodin nodded, then pointed at Fenton.

“Naming?” Fenton asked.

“That is a cheap answer, Re’lar,” Elodin said with a hint of reproach. “But you correctly anticipate the theme of my lecture, so we will let it slide.” He pointed at me.

“There isn’t anything that can’t be explained,” I said firmly. “If something can be understood, it can be explained. A person might not be able to do a good job of explaining it. But that just means it’s hard, not that it’s impossible.”

Elodin held up a finger. “Not hard or impossible. Merely pointless. Some things can only be inferred.” He gave me an infuriating smile. “By the way, your answer should have been ‘music.’”

“Music explains itself,” I said. “It is the road, and it is the map that shows the road. It is both together.”

“But can you explain how music works?” Elodin asked.

“Of course,” I said. Though I wasn’t sure of any such thing.

“Can you explain how music works without using music?”

That brought me up short. While I was trying to think of a response, Elodin turned to Fela.

“Love?” she asked.

Elodin raised an eyebrow as if mildly scandalized by this, then nodded approvingly.

“Hold on a moment,” I said. “We’re not done. I don’t know if I could explain music without using it, but that’s beside the point. That’s not explanation, it’s translation.”

Elodin’s face lit up. “That’s it exactly!” he said. “Translation. All explicit knowledge is translated knowledge, and all translation is imperfect.”

“So all explicit knowledge is imperfect?” I asked. “Tell Master Brandeur geometry is subjective. I’d love to watch that discussion.”

“Not all knowledge,” Elodin admitted. “But most.”

“Prove it,” I said.

“You can’t prove nonexistence,” Uresh interjected in a matter-of-fact way. He sounded exasperated. “Flawed logic.”

I ground my teeth at that. It was flawed logic. I never would have made that mistake if I’d been better rested. “Demonstrate it then,” I said.

“Fine, fine.” Elodin walked over to where Fela sat. “We’ll use Fela’s example.” He took her hand and pulled her to her feet, motioning me to follow.

I came reluctantly to my feet as well and Elodin arranged the two of us so we stood facing each other in profile to the class. “Here we have two lovely young people,” he said. “Their eyes meet across the room.”

Elodin pushed my shoulder and I stumbled forward half a step. “He says hello. She says hello. She smiles. He shifts uneasily from foot to foot.” I stopped doing just that and there was a faint murmur of laughter from the others.

“There is something ephemeral in the air,” Elodin said, moving to stand behind Fela. He put his hands on her shoulders, leaning close to her ear. “She loves the lines of him,” he said softly. “She is curious about the shape of his mouth. She wonders if this could be the one, if she could unclasp the secret pieces of her heart to him.” Fela looked down, her cheeks flushing a bright scarlet.

Elodin stalked around to stand behind me. “Kvothe looks at her, and for the first time he understands the impulse that first drove men to paint. To sculpt. To sing.”

He circled us again, eventually standing between us like a priest about to perform a wedding. “There exists between them something tenuous and delicate. They can both feel it. Like static in the air. Faint as frost.”

He looked me full in the face. His dark eyes serious. “Now. What do you do?”

I looked back at him, utterly lost. If there was one thing I knew less about than naming, it was courting women.

“There are three paths here,” Elodin said to the class. He held up one finger. “First. Our young lovers can try to express what they feel. They can try to play the half-heard song their hearts are singing.”

Elodin paused for effect. “This is the path of the honest fool, and it will go badly. This thing between you is too tremulous for talk. It is a spark so faint that even the most careful breath might snuff it out.”

Master Namer shook his head. “Even if you are clever and have a way with words, you are doomed in this. Because while your mouths might speak the same language, your hearts do not.” He looked at me intently. “This is an issue of translation.”

Elodin held up two fingers. “The second path is more careful. You talk of small things. The weather. A familiar play. You spend time in company. You hold hands. In doing so you slowly learn the secret meanings of each other’s words. This way, when the time comes you can speak with subtle meaning underneath your words, so there is understanding on both sides.”

Elodin made a sweeping gesture toward me. “Then there is the third path. The path of Kvothe.” He strode to stand shoulder to shoulder with me, facing Fela. “You sense something between you. Something wonderful and delicate.”

He gave a romantic, lovelorn sigh. “And, because you desire certainty in all things, you decide to force the issue. You take the shortest route. Simplest is best, you think.” Elodin extended his own hands and made wild grasping motions in Fela’s direction. “So you reach out and you grab this young woman’s breasts.”

There was a burst of startled laughter from everyone except Fela and myself. I scowled. She crossed her arms in front of her chest and her flush spread down her neck until it was hidden by her shirt.

Elodin turned his back to her and looked me in the eye.

“Re’lar Kvothe,” he said seriously. “I am trying to wake your sleeping mind to the subtle language the world is whispering. I am trying to seduce you into understanding. I am trying to teach you.” He leaned forward until his face was almost touching mine. “Quit grabbing at my tits.”

I left Elodin’s class in a foul mood.

Though to be honest, my mood of the last few days had been nothing but different variations of foul. I tried to hide it from my friends, but I was starting to crack under the weight of it all.

It was the loss of my lute that had done it. Everything else I’d been able to take in stride, the stinging burn across my chest, the constant ache in my knees, the lack of sleep. The persistent fear that I might let my Alar slip at the wrong moment and suddenly start vomiting blood.

I’d been coping with it all: my desperate poverty, my frustration with Elodin’s class. Even the new undertow of anxiety that came from knowing Devi was waiting on the other side of the river with a heart full of rage, three drops of my blood, and an Alar like the ocean in a storm.

But the loss of my lute was too much. It wasn’t just that I needed it to earn my room and board at Anker’s. It wasn’t just that my lute was the linchpin of my ability to make a living if I was forced out of the University.

No. The simple fact was that with my music, I could cope with the rest. My music was the glue that held me together. Only two days without it, and I was falling apart.

After Elodin’s class, I couldn’t bear the thought of more hours hunched over a worktable in the Fishery. My hands ached at the thought of it, and my eyes were gritty with lack of sleep.

So instead I wandered back to Anker’s for an early lunch. I must have looked fairly pitiful because he brought me out a double rasher of bacon with my soup, and a short beer besides.

“How did your dinner go, if you don’t mind my asking?” Anker asked, leaning against the bar.

I looked up at him. “Beg your pardon?”

“With your young lady,” he said. “I’m not one to pry, but the runner just dropped it off. I had to read it to see who it was for.”

I gave Anker my blankest look.

Anker gave me a puzzled look, then frowned. “Didn’t Laurel give you your note?”

I shook my head and Anker cursed bitterly. “I swear, some days the light should shine straight through that girl’s head.” He began to rummage around behind the bar. “Runner dropped off a note for you day before yesterday. I told her to give it to you when you got in. Here it is.” He held up a damp and rather draggled piece of paper and handed it to me.

It read:

Kvothe,

I am back in town and would greatly enjoy the company of a charming gentleman at dinner tonight. Sadly, there are none available. Would you care to join me at the Split Stave?

Expectantly yours,

D.

My spirits rose a little. Notes from Denna were a rare treat, and she’d never invited me to dinner before. While I was angry that I’d missed her, knowing she was back in town and eager to see me lifted my spirits considerably.

I wolfed down my lunch, and decided to skip my Siaru lecture in favor of a trip to Imre. I hadn’t seen Denna in more than a span, and spending time with her was the only thing I could think of that might improve my mood.

My enthusiasm dampened a bit as I made my way over the river. It was a long walk, and my knees started to ache even before I’d made it to Stonebridge. The sun was piercingly bright, but not warm enough to fight the chill of the early winter wind. The dust off the road gusted into my eyes and made me choke.

Denna wasn’t at any of the inns where she occasionally stayed. She wasn’t listening to music at the Taps or Goat in the Door. Neither Deoch nor Stanchion had seen her. I worried she might have left town entirely while I was occupied. She could be gone for months. She could be gone forever.

Then I turned a corner and saw her sitting in a small public garden under a tree. She had a letter in one hand and a half-eaten pear in the other. Where had she come by a pear so late in the season?

I was halfway across the garden before I realized she was crying. I stopped where I stood, at a loss for what to do. I wanted to help, but I didn’t want to intrude. Maybe it would be best …

“Kvothe!”

Denna tossed away the remains of the pear, hopped to her feet, and ran across the lawn toward me. She was smiling, but her eyes were rimmed with red. She wiped at her cheeks with one hand.

“Are you all right?” I asked.

Her eyes welled up with new tears, but before they could fall she screwed her eyes shut and shook her head sharply. “No,” she said. “Not entirely.”

“Can I help?” I asked.

Denna blotted her eyes with her shirtsleeve. “You help just by being here.” She folded the letter into a small square and forced it into her pocket. Then she smiled again. It wasn’t a forced smile, the sort you wear like a mask. She smiled a true smile, lovely despite the tears.

Then she tilted her head to one side and gave me a closer look, her smile fading into a look of concern. “What about you?” she asked. “You look a little peaked.”

I gave a weak smile. Mine was forced and I knew it. “I’ve been having a rough time lately.”

“I hope you don’t feel as rough as you look,” she said gently. “Have you been getting enough sleep?”

“I haven’t,” I admitted.

Denna drew a breath to speak, then paused and bit her lip. “Is it anything you’d like to talk about?” she asked. “I don’t know if I could do anything to help, but …” She shrugged and shifted her weight slightly from one foot to another. “I don’t sleep well myself. I know what it’s like.”

Her offer of help caught me unprepared. It made me feel … I cannot say exactly how it made me feel. It doesn’t fit easily into words.

It wasn’t the offer of help itself. My friends had been working tirelessly to help me for days. But Sim’s willingness to help was different than this. His help was dependable as bread. But knowing Denna cared, that was like a swallow of warm wine on a winter night. I could feel the sweet heat of it in my chest.

I smiled at her. A real smile. The expression felt odd on my face and I wondered how long I’d been scowling without knowing it. “You’re helping just by being here,” I said honestly. “Just seeing you does wonders for my mood.”

She rolled her eyes. “Of course. The sight of my blotchy face is a panacea.”

“There isn’t much to talk about,” I said. “My bad luck got tangled up with my bad decisions, and I’m paying for it.”

Denna gave a chuckle that hovered on the edge of being a sob. “I wouldn’t know anything about that sort of thing,” she said, her lips making a wry twist. “It’s worst when it’s your own stupid fault, isn’t it?”

I felt my mouth curve to mimic hers. “It is,” I said. “Truth be told, I’d prefer a bit of a distraction to a sympathetic ear.”

“That I can provide,” she said, taking hold of my arm. “Lord knows you’ve done the same for me often enough in the past.”

I fell into step alongside her. “Have I?”

“Endlessly,” she said. “It’s easy to forget when you’re around.” She stopped walking for a moment and I had to stop too, as she’d linked her arm in mine. “That’s not right. I mean to say when you’re around, it’s easy to forget.”

“Forget what?”

“Everything,” she said, and for a moment her voice wasn’t quite as playful. “All the bad parts of my life. Who I am. It’s nice to be able to take a vacation from myself every once in a while. You help with that. You’re my safe harbor in an endless, stormy sea.”

I chuckled. “Am I?”

“You are,” she said easily. “You are my shady willow on a sunny day.”

“You,” I said, “are sweet music in a distant room.”

“That’s good,” she said. “You are unexpected cake on a rainy afternoon.”

“You’re the poultice that draws the poison from my heart,” I said.

“Hmm.” Denna looked uncertain. “I don’t know about that one. A heart full of poison isn’t an appealing thought.”

“Yeah,” I admitted. “That sounded better before I actually said it.”

“That’s what happens when you mix your metaphors,” she said. A pause. “Did you get my note?”

“I got it today,” I said, letting all my regret pour into my voice. “Just a couple hours ago.”

“Ah,” she said. “That’s too bad, it was a good dinner. I ate yours too.”

I tried to think of something to say, but she simply smiled and shook her head. “I’m teasing. The dinner was just an excuse, actually. I have something to show you. You’re a hard man to find. I thought I was going to have to wait until tomorrow when you sang at Anker’s.”

I felt a sharp pang in my chest, so strong even Denna’s presence couldn’t entirely overwhelm it. “It’s lucky you caught me today,” I said. “I’m not sure I’ll be playing tomorrow.”

She cocked her head at me. “You always sing on Felling night. Don’t change that. You’re hard enough for me to find.”

“You’re a fine one to talk,” I said. “I can never catch you in the same place twice.”

“Oh yes, I’m sure you’re always looking for me,” she said dismissively, then broke into an excited grin. “But that’s beside the point. Come on. I’m sure this will distract you.” She began to walk faster, tugging at my arm.

Her enthusiasm was infectious, and I found myself smiling as I followed her through the twisting streets of Imre.

Eventually we came to a small storefront. Denna stepped in front of me, almost bouncing with excitement. All signs of her weeping were gone and her eyes were bright. She put her cool hands over my face. “Close your eyes,” she said. “It’s a surprise!”

I closed my eyes, and she led me by the hand for a few steps. The inside of the shop was dim and smelled of leather. I heard a man’s voice say, “Is this him, then?” followed by the hollow sound of things moving around.

“Are you ready?” Denna said into my ear. I could hear the smile in her voice. Her breath tickled the hairs on the back of my neck.

“I have no idea,” I said honestly.

I felt the breath of her stifled laugh on my ear. “Okay. Open them.”

I opened my eyes and saw a lean older man standing behind a long wooden counter. An empty lute case lay open like a book in front of him. Denna had bought me a present. A case for my lute. A case for my stolen lute.

I took a step closer. The empty case was long and slender, covered in smooth black leather. There were no hinges. Seven bright steel clasps circled the edge so the top lifted off like the lid of a box.

The inside was soft velvet. I reached out to touch it and found the padding soft but resilient, like a sponge. The velvet’s nap was nearly half an inch thick and a deep burgundy color.

The man behind the counter gave a thin smile. “Your lady has good taste,” he said. “And a serious mind about what she desires.”

He lifted the lid. “The leather is oiled and waxed. There’s two layers with rock maple bows beneath.” He ran a finger along the bottom half of the case, then pointed at the corresponding groove on the lid. “It fits snugly enough that no air can get in or out. So you need not worry moving from a warm, wet room into an icy night.”

He began to snap shut the clasps around the edge of the case. “The lady objected to brass. So these are finesteel. And once they’re in place, the lid is held against a gasket. You could submerse it in a river and the velvet will stay dry inside.” He shrugged. “Eventually the water would permeate the leather, of course. But there’s only so much one can do.”

Flipping the case over, he rapped a knuckle hard on the rounded bottom. “I have kept the maple thin, so it is not bulky or heavy, and reinforced it with bands of Glantz steel.” He gestured to where Denna stood grinning. “The lady wanted Ramston steel, but I explained that while Ramston is strong, it’s also rather brittle. Glantz steel is lighter and retains its shape.”

He looked me up and down. “If the young master wishes, he could stand on the bowl of the case without crushing it.” His mouth pursed slightly and he looked down at my feet. “Though I would prefer if you did not.”

He turned the case right side up again. “I have to say, this is perhaps the finest case I have made in twenty years.” He slid it across the counter toward me. “I hope you find it to your satisfaction.”

I was driven speechless. A rarity. I reached out and ran a hand along the leather. It was warm and smooth. I touched the steel ring where the shoulder strap would attach. I looked at Denna, who was practically dancing with delight.

Denna stepped forward eagerly. “This is the best part,” she said, flipping open the clasps with such familiar ease I could tell she’d done it before. She pulled off the lid and prodded the inside with a finger. “The padding is designed to be moved and reset. So no matter what lute you have in the future, it will still fit.

“And look!” She pressed the velvet where the neck would rest, twisted her fingers, and a lid popped up, revealing a hidden space underneath. She grinned again. “This was my idea, too. It’s like a secret pocket.”

“God’s body, Denna,” I said. “This must have cost you a fortune.”

“Well, you know,” she said with an air of affected modesty. “I had a little set aside.”

I ran my hand along the inside, touching the velvet. “Denna, I’m serious. This case must be worth as much as my lute… .” I trailed off and my stomach made a nauseating twist. The lute I didn’t even have anymore.

“If you don’t mind my saying so, sir,” the man behind the counter said. “Unless you have a lute of solid silver, I’m guessing this case is worth a damn sight more than that.”

I ran my hands over the lid again, feeling increasingly sick to my stomach. I couldn’t think of a word to say. How could I tell her someone had stolen my lute after she’d gone through all the work of having this beautiful gift made for me?

Denna grinned excitedly. “Let’s see how your lute fits!”

She gestured, and the man behind the counter brought out my lute and set it in the case. It fit snugly as a glove.

I began to cry.

“God, I’m embarrassed,” I said, blowing my nose.

Denna touched my arm lightly. “I’m so sorry,” she repeated for the third time.

The two of us sat on the curb outside the small shop. It was bad enough bursting into tears in front of Denna. I’d wanted to compose myself without the shopkeeper staring at me too.

“I just wanted it to fit properly,” Denna said, her expression stricken. “I left a note. You were supposed to come to dinner so I could surprise you. You weren’t even supposed to know it was gone.”

“It’s okay,” I said.

“It’s obviously not,” Denna said, her eyes starting to brim with tears. “When you didn’t show up, I didn’t know what to do. I looked for you everywhere last night. I knocked on your door, but you didn’t answer.” She looked down at her feet. “I can never find you when I go looking.”

“Denna,” I said. “Everything’s fine.”

She shook her head vigorously, refusing to look at me as tears started to spill down her cheeks. “It’s not fine. I should have known. You hold it like it’s your baby. If anyone in my life had ever looked at me the way you look at that lute, I’d …”

Denna’s voice broke and she swallowed hard before words started pouring out of her again. “I knew it was the most important thing in your life. That’s why I wanted to get you somewhere safe to keep it. I just didn’t think it would be so …” She swallowed again, clenching her hands into fists. Her body was so tense she was almost trembling. “God. I’m so stupid! I never think. I always do this. I ruin everything.”

Denna’s hair had fallen around her face so I couldn’t see her expression. “What’s wrong with me?” she said, her voice low and angry. “Why am I such an idiot? Why can’t I do just one thing right in my whole life?”

“Denna.” I had to interrupt her, as she was barely pausing to breathe. I laid my hand on her arm and she grew stiff and still. “Denna, there’s no way you could have known,” I interrupted. “You’ve been playing for how long? A month? Have you ever even owned an instrument?”

She shook her head, her face still hidden by her hair. “I had that lyre,” she said softly. “But only for a few days before the fire.” She looked up at last, her expression pure misery. Her eyes and nose were red. “This happens all the time. I try to do something good, but it gets all tangled up.” She gave me a wretched look. “You don’t know what it’s like.”

I laughed. It felt amazingly good to laugh again. It boiled up from deep in my belly and burst out of my throat like notes from a golden horn. That laugh alone was worth three hot meals and twenty hours of sleep.

“I know exactly what it’s like,” I said, feeling the bruises on my knees and the pull of half-healed scars along my back. I considered telling her how much of a mess I’d made of retrieving her ring. Then decided it probably wouldn’t help her mood if I explained how Ambrose was trying to kill me. “Denna, I am the king of good ideas gone terribly wrong.”

She smiled at that, sniffing and rubbing at her eyes with a sleeve. “We’re a lovely couple of weepy idiots, aren’t we?”

“We are,” I said.

“I’m sorry,” she said again, her smile fading. “I just wanted to do something nice for you. But I’m no good at these things.”

I took hold of Denna’s hand in both of mine and kissed it. “Denna,” I said with perfect honesty, “this is the kindest thing anyone has ever done for me.”

She snorted indelicately.

“Pure truth,” I said. “You are my bright penny by the roadside. You are worth more than salt or the moon on a long night of walking. You are sweet wine in my mouth, a song in my throat, and laughter in my heart.”

Denna’s cheeks flushed, but I rolled on, unconcerned.

“You are too good for me,” I said. “You are a luxury I cannot afford. Despite this, I insist you come with me today. I will buy you dinner and spend hours waxing rhapsodic over the vast landscape of wonder that is you.”

I stood and pulled her to her feet. “I will play you music. I will sing you songs. For the rest of the afternoon, the rest of the world cannot touch us.” I cocked my head, making it a question.

Denna’s mouth curved. “That sounds nice,” she said. “I’d like to get away from the world for the space of an afternoon.”

Hours later I walked back to the University with a spring in my step. I whistled. I sang. My lute on my shoulder was light as a kiss. The sun was warm and soothing. The breeze was cool.

My luck was beginning to change.

CHAPTER THIRTY-ONE

The Crucible

WITH MY LUTE BACK in my hands, the rest of my life slid easily back into balance. My work in the Fishery was easier. My classes breezed by. Elodin even seemed to make more sense.

It was with a light heart that I visited Simmon in the alchemy complex. He opened the door to my knocking and gestured me inside. “It worked,” he said excitedly.

I eased the door shut, and he led me to a table where a series of bottles, tubes, and coal-gas burners were arranged. Sim smiled proudly and held up a short, shallow jar of the sort you use to store face paint or rouge.

“Can you show me?” I asked.

Sim lit a small coal-gas burner and the flame fanned against the bottom of a shallow iron pan. We stood quietly for a moment, listening to it hiss.

“I got new boots,” Sim said conversationally, lifting up a foot so I could see.

“They’re nice,” I said automatically, then paused and looked closer. “Are those hobnails?” I asked incredulously.

He grinned viciously. I laughed.

The iron pan grew hot, and Sim unscrewed the jar, pressing the pad of his index finger into the translucent substance inside. Then, with a little flourish, he raised his hand and pressed the tip of his finger onto the surface of the hot iron pan.

I winced. Sim smiled smugly and stood there for the space of a long breath before pulling his finger away.

“Incredible,” I said. “You guys do some crazy things over here. A heat shield.”

“No,” Sim said seriously. “That’s absolutely the wrong way to think about it. It’s not a shield. It’s not an insulator. It’s like an extra layer of skin that burns away before your real skin gets hot.”

“Like having water on your hands,” I said.

Sim shook his head again. “No, water conducts heat. This doesn’t.”

“So it is an insulator.”

“Okay,” Sim said, exasperated. “You need to shut up and listen. This is alchemy. You know nothing about alchemy.”

I made a placating gesture. “I know. I know.”

“Say it, then. Say, ‘I know nothing about alchemy.’ ”

I glowered at him.

“Alchemy isn’t just chemistry with some extra bits,” he said. “That means if you don’t listen to me, you’ll jump to your own conclusions and be dead wrong. Dead and wrong.”

I took a deep breath and let it out. “Okay. Tell me.”

“You’ll have to spread it on quickly,” he said. “You’ll only have about ten seconds to get it spread evenly onto your hands and lower arms.” He made a gesture to his midforearm.

“It won’t rub away, but you will lose a bit if you chafe at your hands too much. Don’t touch your face at all. Don’t rub your eyes. Don’t pick your nose. Don’t bite your fingernails. It’s sort of poisonous.”

“Sort of?” I asked.

He ignored me, holding out the finger he’d pressed onto the hot iron pan. “It’s not like armor gloves. As soon as it’s exposed to heat, it begins to burn away.”

“Will there be any smell?” I asked. “Anything that will give it away?”

“No. It doesn’t really burn technically. It simply breaks down.”

“What does it break down into?”

“Things,” Simmon said testily. “It breaks down into complicated things you can’t understand because you don’t know anything about alchemy.”

“Is it safe to breathe?” I amended.

“Yes. I wouldn’t give it to you otherwise. This is an old formula. Tried and true. Now, because it doesn’t transmit heat, your hands will go straight from feeling cool to being pressed up hard against something burning hot.” He gave me a pointed look. “I advise you stop touching hot things before it’s all used up.”

“How can I tell when it’s about to be used up?”

“You can’t,” he said simply. “Which is why I advise using something other than your bare hands.”

“Wonderful.”

“If it mixes with alcohol it will turn acidic. Only mildly though. You’d have plenty of time to wash it off. If it mixes with a little water, like your sweat, that’s fine. But if it mixes with a lot of water, say a hundred parts to one, it will turn flammable.”

“And if I mix it with piss it turns into delicious candy, right?” I laughed. “Did you make a bet with Wilem about how much of this I’d swallow? Nothing becomes flammable when you mix it with water.”

Sim’s eyes narrowed. He picked up an empty crucible. “Fine,” he said. “Fill this up then.”

Still smiling, I moved to the water canister in the corner of the room. It was identical to the ones in the Fishery. Pure water is important for artificing too, especially when you’re mixing clays and quenching metals you don’t want contaminated.

I splashed some water into the crucible and brought it back to Sim. He dipped the tip of his finger into it, swirled it around, and poured it into the hot iron pan.

Thick orange flame roared up, burning three feet high until it flickered and died. Sim set down the empty crucible with a slight click and looked at me gravely. “Say it.”

I looked down at my feet. “I know nothing about alchemy.”

Sim nodded, seeming pleased. “Right,” he said, turning back to the worktable. “Let’s go over this again.”

CHAPTER THIRTY-TWO

Blood and Ash

LEAVES CRUNCHED UNDERFOOT AS I made my way through the forest to the north of the University. The pale moonlight filtering through the bare trees wasn’t enough to see clearly, but I had made this trip several times in the last span and knew the way by heart. I smelled wood smoke long before I heard voices and glimpsed firelight through the trees.

It wasn’t really a clearing, just a quiet space hidden behind a rocky outcrop. A few pieces of fieldstone and the trunk of a fallen tree provided makeshift seats. I had dug the fire pit myself a few days ago. It was over a foot deep and six across, lined with stones. It dwarfed the small campfire currently burning there.

Everyone else was already there. Mola and Fela shared the log-bench. Wilem was hunkered down on a stone. Sim sat cross-legged on the ground, poking at the fire with a stick.

Wil looked up as I came out of the trees. In the flickering firelight his eyes looked dark and sunken. He and Sim had been watching over me for almost two whole span. “You’re late,” he said.

Sim looked up to see me, cheerful as always, but there were marks of exhaustion on his face too. “Is it finished?” he asked, excited.

I nodded. Unbuttoning my cuff, I rolled up my shirtsleeve to reveal an iron disk slightly larger than a commonwealth penny. It was covered in fine sygaldry and inlaid with gold. My newly finished gram. It was strapped flat against the inside of my forearm with a pair of leather cords.

A cheer went up from the group.

“Interesting way to wear it,” Mola said. “Fashionable in a sort of barbarian raider way.”

“It works best in contact with skin,” I explained. “And I need to keep it out of sight, since I’m not supposed to know how to make one.”

“Practical and stylish,” Mola said.

Simmon wandered over and peered at it, reaching out to touch it with a finger. “It seems so small—aaaahh!” Sim cried out as he jumped backward, wringing his hand. “Black damn,” he swore, embarrassed. “I’m sorry. It startled me is all.”

“Kist and crayle,” I said, my own heart racing. “What’s the matter?”

“Have you ever touched one of the Arcanum guilders?” he asked. “The ones they give you when you become a full arcanist?”

I nodded. “It sort of buzzed. Made my hand go numb, like it had fallen asleep.”

Sim nodded toward my gram, shaking his hand. “It feels like that. Surprised me.”

“I didn’t know the guilders acted as grams too,” I said. “Makes sense though.”

“Have you tested it?” Wilem asked.

I shook my head. “It seemed a little strange for me to test it myself,” I admitted.

“You want one of us to do it?” Simmon laughed. “You’re right, that’s perfectly normal.”

“I also thought it would be convenient to have a physicker nearby.” I nodded in Mola’s direction. “Just in case.”

“I didn’t know I was going to be needed in my professional capacity tonight,” Mola protested. “I didn’t bring my kit.”

“It shouldn’t be necessary,” I said as I brought a block of sympathy wax out of my cloak and brandished it. “Who wants to do the honors?”

There was a moment of silence, then Fela held out her hand. “I’ll make the doll, but I’m not sticking it with a pin.”

“Vhenata,” Wilem said.

Simmon shrugged. “Fine, I’ll do it. I guess.”

I handed the block of wax to Fela, and she began warming it with her hands. “Do you want to use hair or blood?” she asked softly.

“Both,” I said, trying not to let my growing anxiety show.“I need to be absolutely sure of it if I’m going to be able sleep at night.” I pulled out a hatpin, pricked the back of my hand, and watched a bright bead of blood well up.

“That won’t work.” Fela said, still working the wax with her hands. “Blood won’t mix with wax. It’ll just bead up and squish out.”

“And how did you come by that tidbit of information?” Simmon teased uneasily.

Fela flushed, ducking her head a little, causing her long hair to cascade off her shoulder. “Candles. When you make colored candles you can’t use a water-based dye. It needs to be powder or oil. It’s a solubility issue. Polar and nonpolar alignments.”

“I love the University,” Sim said to Wilem on the other side of the fire. “Educated women are so much more attractive.”

“I’d like to say the same,” Mola said dryly. “But I’ve never known any educated men.”

I bent down and picked up a pinch of ash from the fire pit, then dusted it over the back of my hand where it absorbed the blood.

“That should work,” Fela said.

“This flesh will burn. To ash all things return,” Wilem intoned in a somber voice, then turned to Simmon. “Isn’t that what it says in your holy book?”

“It’s not my holy book,” Simmon said. “But you’re close. ‘To ash all things return, so too this flesh will burn.’ ”

“You two are certainly enjoying yourselves,” Mola observed dryly.

“I am giddy thinking of a full night’s sleep,” Wilem said. “An evening’s entertainment is coffee after cake.”

Fela held out the blob of soft wax, and I pressed the wet ash into it. She kneaded it again, then began to mold it, her fingers patting it into a manshaped doll in a few deft motions. She held it out for the group to see.

“Kvothe’s head is way bigger than that,” Simmon said with his boyish grin.

“I also have genitals,” I said as I took the mommet from Fela and fixed a hair to the top of its head. “But at a certain point realism becomes unproductive.” I walked over to Sim and handed him both the simulacra and the long hatpin.

He took one in each hand, looking uneasily back and forth between them. “You sure about this?”

I nodded.

“Fair enough.” Sim drew a deep breath and squared his shoulders. His forehead furrowed in concentration as he stared at the doll.

I doubled over, shrieking and clutching at my leg.

Fela gasped. Wilem leaped to his feet. Simmon went wide-eyed with panic, holding the doll and pin stiff-armed away from each other. He looked around wildly at everyone. “I … I didn’t …”

I straightened up, brushing at my shirt. “Just practicing,” I said. “Was the scream too girly?”

Simmon went limp with relief. “Damn you,” he said weakly, laughing. “That’s not funny, you bastard.” He continued to laugh helplessly as he wiped away the sheen of sweat from his forehead.

Wilem muttered something in Siaru and returned to his seat.

“You three are as good as a traveling troupe,” Mola said.

Simmon took a deep breath and let it out slowly. He reset his shoulders and brought the doll and the pin up in front of him. His hand shook. “Tehlu anyway,” he said. “You scared the hell out of me. I can’t do this now.”

“For the love of God.” Mola stood and walked around the fire pit to stand over Simmon. She held out her hands. “Give it to me.” She took the mommet and pin and turned to look me in the eye. “Are you ready?”

“Just a second.” After two span of constant vigilance, letting go of the Alar that protected me felt like prying open a fist gone stiff from clutching something too long.

After a moment, I shook my head. I felt strange without the Alar. Almost naked. “Don’t hold back, but hit me in the leg, just in case.”

Mola paused, murmured a binding, and drove the pin through the leg of the doll.

Silence. Everyone watched me, motionless.

I didn’t feel a thing. “I’m fine,” I said. Everyone started to breathe again as I gave Mola a curious look. “Was that really everything you had?”

“No,” Mola said frankly as she pulled the pin out of the doll’s leg and knelt to hold it over the fire. “That was a gentle test run. I didn’t want to listen to your girly scream again.” She pulled the pin back out of the fire and stood up. “I’m going to come charging in for real this time.” She poised the pin over the doll and looked at me. “You ready?”

I nodded. She closed her eyes for a moment, then murmured a binding and stabbed the hot pin through the mommet’s leg. The metal of the gram went cool against the inside of my arm, and I felt a brief pressure against my calf muscle, as if someone had prodded me with a finger. I looked down to make sure Simmon wasn’t getting some revenge by poking at me with a stick.

Because I wasn’t watching, I missed what Mola did next, but I felt three more dull prods, one in each arm and the other in the thick muscle just above my knee. The gram grew colder.

I heard Fela gasp and looked up in time to see Mola, grim-faced and resolute, toss the mommet into the heart of the campfire, murmuring another binding.

As the wax doll arced through the air, Simmon let out a startled yelp. Wilem came to his feet again, almost lunging at Mola, but too late to stop her.

The mommet landed among the red coals with an explosion of sparks. My gram went almost painfully cold against my arm and I laughed crazily. Everyone turned to look at me, their expressions in various stages of horror and disbelief.

“I’m fine,” I said. “This feels really weird though. It’s flickery. Like standing in a warm, thick wind.”

The gram grew icy against my arm, then the odd sensation faded as the doll melted, destroying the sympathetic link. The fire leaped up as the wax began to burn.

“Did it hurt?” Simmon asked anxiously.

“Not a bit,” I said.

“And that was everything I had,” Mola said. “To do any more I would have had to have a forge fire at my disposal.”

“And she’s El’the,” Simmon said smugly. “I bet she’s three times the sympathist Ambrose is.”

“At least three times,” I said, “But if anyone was going to go out of their way to find a forge fire, it would be Ambrose. You can overwhelm a gram if you throw enough at it.”

“So we’re going ahead with things tomorrow?” Mola asked.

I nodded. “I’d rather be safe than sore.”

Simmon poked a stick at the spot in the fire where the doll had landed. “If Mola can do her worst and it just rolls off you, it might be enough to keep Devi off your back too. Give you some breathing room.”

There was a brief moment of silence. I held my breath, hoping Fela and Mola wouldn’t take any particular note of his comment.

Mola raised an eyebrow at me. “Devi?”

I glared at Simmon, and he gave me a piteous look, like a dog that knows it’s going to be kicked. “I borrowed some money from a gaelet named Devi,” I said, hoping she’d be satisfied with that.

Mola continued to look at me. “And?”

I sighed. Ordinarily I would have avoided the subject, but Mola tended to be insistent about this sort of thing, and I desperately needed her help for tomorrow’s plan.

“Devi used to be a member of the Arcanum,” I explained. “I gave her some of my blood as collateral for a loan at the beginning of the term. When Ambrose started attacking me, I jumped to the wrong conclusion and accused her of malfeasance. Our relationship went sour after that.”

Mola and Fela exchanged a look. “You do go out of your way to make life exciting, don’t you?” Mola said.

“I already admitted it was a mistake,” I said, irritated. “What else do you want from me?”

“Are you going to be able to pay her back?” Fela interjected into the conversation before things became heated between Mola and me.

“I honestly don’t know,” I admitted. “With a few lucky breaks and some long nights in the Fishery, I might be able to scrape enough together by the end of the term.”

I didn’t mention the whole truth. While I might have a chance of earning enough to pay Devi back, I wouldn’t have a chance in hell of making my tuition at the same time. I didn’t want to spoil everyone’s evening with the fact that Ambrose had won. By forcing me to spend so much time hunting for a gram, he’d effectively driven me out of the University.

Fela tilted her head to one side. “What happens if you can’t pay her?”

“Nothing good,” Wilem said darkly. “They don’t call her Demon Devi for nothing.”

“I’m not sure,” I said. “She could sell my blood. She said she knew someone willing to buy it.”

“I’m sure she wouldn’t do that,” Fela said.

“I wouldn’t blame her,” I said. “I knew what I was getting into when I made the deal.”

“But sh—”

“It’s just the way the world works,” I said firmly, not wanting to dwell on it any more than necessary. I wanted the evening to end on a positive note. “I, for one, am looking forward to a good night’s sleep in my own bed.” I looked around to see Wil and Sim nodding weary agreement. “I’ll see everyone tomorrow. Don’t be late.”

Later that night, I slept in the luxury of my narrow bed in my tiny room. At some point I stirred awake, dragged into consciousness by the sensation of chill metal against my skin. I smiled, rolled over, and slid back into blissful sleep.

CHAPTER THIRTY-THREE

Fire

I PACKED MY TRAVELSACK carefully the next evening, anxious that I might forget some key piece of equipment. I was checking everything a third time when there was a knock on the door.

I opened it to see a young boy of ten or so standing there, breathing hard. His eyes darted to my hair and he looked relieved. “Are you Koath?”

“Kvothe,” I said. “And yes, I am.”

“Got a message for you.” He reached into a pocket and pulled out a bedraggled piece of paper.

I held out my hand, and the boy took a step back, shaking his head. “The lady said you’d give me a jot for bringing it to you.”

“I doubt that,” I said, holding out my hand. “Let me see the note. I’ll give you ha’penny if it’s really for me.”

The boy scowled and grudgingly handed it over.

It wasn’t even sealed, just folded over twice. It was also vaguely damp. Looking at the sweat-soaked boy, I could guess why.

It read:

Kvothe,

Your presence is graciously requested for dinner tonight. I’ve missed you. I have exciting news. Please meet me at the Barrel and Boar at fifth bell.

Yours,

Denna

Pstsrpt. I promised the boy ha’penny.

“Fifth bell?” I demanded. “God’s black hands! How long did you take to get here? It’s past sixth bell already.”

“That en’t my fault,” he said, scowling fiercely. “I been lookin’ all over for hours. Anchors she said. Take it to Koath at Anchors on the other side of the river. But this place en’t by the docks at all. And there en’t any anchors on the sign outside. How’s a one supposed to find this place?”

“You ask someone!” I shouted. “Black damn boy, how thick are you?” I fought down a very real urge to strangle him and took a deep breath.

I looked out the window at the fading light. In less than half an hour my friends would be gathering around the fire pit in the woods. I didn’t have time for a trip to Imre.

“Right,” I said as calmly as I could manage. I dug out a stub of pencil and scratched out a note on the other side of the piece of paper.

Denna,

I’m terribly sorry. Your runner didn’t find me until past sixth bell. He is unutterably thick.

I have missed you as well, and offer to put myself entirely at your disposal at any hour of the day or night tomorrow. Send the boy back with your response to let me know when and where.

Fondly,

Kvothe.

Pstcrpt. If the boy tries to get any money off you, give him a sharp cuff round the ear. He’ll get his money when he returns your note to Anker’s, assuming he doesn’t get confused and eat it along the way.

I folded it over again and pressed a blob of soft candle wax over the fold.

I felt my purse. Over the last month I’d slowly burned through the extra two talents I’d borrowed from Devi. I’d squandered the money on luxuries like bandages, coffee, and the materials for tonight’s plan.

As a result, all I had to my name was four pennies and a lonely shim. I shouldered my travelsack and motioned for the boy to follow me downstairs.

I nodded to Anker standing behind the bar, then turned to the boy. “Okay,” I said. “You bollixed things up getting here, but I’m going to give you a chance to make it right.” I pulled out three pennies and held them out for him to see. “You head back to the Barrel and Boar, find the woman who sent you, and you give her this.” I held up the note. “She’ll send back a reply. You bring it here and give it to him.” I pointed to Anker. “And he’ll give you the money.”

“I en’t an idiot,” the boy said. “I want ha’penny first.”

“I en’t an idiot either,” I said. “You’ll get three whole pennies when you bring her note back.”

He glared at me, then nodded sullenly. I handed him the note, and he ran out the door.

“Boy seemed a little addled when he came in here,” Anker said.

I shook my head. “He’s witless as a sheep,” I said. “I wouldn’t use him at all, but he knows what she looks like.” I sighed and put the three pennies on the bar. “You’d be doing me a favor if you read the note to make sure the boy isn’t faking.”

Anker gave me a bit of an uncomfortable look. “And what if it’s of an, um, personal nature?”

“Then I’ll dance a merry little jig,” I said. “But between the two of us, I hardly think that’s likely.”

The sun had set by the time I made it into the forest. Wilem was already there, kindling a fire in the wide pit. We worked together for a quarter hour, gathering enough wood to keep a bonfire burning for hours.

Simmon arrived a few minutes later dragging a long section of dead branch. The three of us broke it into pieces and made nervous small talk until Fela came out of the trees.

Her long hair was pinned up, leaving her elegant neck and shoulders bare. Her eyes were dark and her mouth was slightly redder than usual. Her long black gown was gathered close at her narrow waist and well-rounded hips. She was also displaying the most spectacular pair of breasts I’d ever seen at that point in my young life.

We all gaped, but Simmon gaped openly. “Wow,” he said. “I mean, you were the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen before this. I didn’t think there was any further for you to go.” He laughed his boyish laugh and gestured at her with both hands. “Look at you. You’re incredible!”

Fela flushed and looked away, obviously pleased.

“You have the hardest part tonight,” I said to her. “I hate to ask, but …”

“But you’re the only irresistibly attractive woman we know,” Simmon chimed in. “Our backup plan was to stuff Wilem into a dress. Nobody wants that.”

Wilem nodded. “Agreed.”

“Only for you.” Fela’s mouth quirked into an ironic smile. “When I said I owed you a favor, I never guessed you’d ask me to go out on a date with another man.” The smile went a little sour. “Especially Ambrose.”

“You only need to put up with him for an hour or two. Try to get him into Imre if you can, but anywhere at least a hundred yards from the Pony will do.”

Fela sighed. “At least I’ll get dinner out of this.” She looked at Simmon. “I like your boots.”

He grinned. “They’re new.”

I turned at the sound of approaching footsteps. Mola was the only one of us not here, but I heard murmured voices mixed with the footsteps and gritted my teeth. It was probably a pair of young lovers out enjoying the unseasonably warm weather.

The group of us couldn’t be seen together, not tonight. It would raise too many questions. I was just about to rush out to intercept them when I recognized Mola’s voice. “Just wait here while I explain,” she said. “Please. Just wait. It will make things easier.”

“Let him pitch a twelve-color fit.” A familiar female voice came out of the darkness. “Let him shit out his liver for all I care.”

I stopped in my tracks. I knew the second voice, but I couldn’t put my finger on who it belonged to.

Mola emerged from the dark trees. At her side was a small figure with short strawberry-blond hair. Devi.

I stood stunned as Mola came closer, holding out her hands in a placating gesture and speaking quickly. “Kvothe, I know Devi from a long while ago. She showed me the ropes back when I was new here. Back before she … left.”

“Expelled,” Devi said proudly. “I’m not ashamed of it.”

Mola continued hurriedly. “After what you said yesterday. It seemed like there was some misunderstanding. When I stopped in to ask her about it …” She shrugged. “The whole story kind of came out. She wanted to help.”

“I want a piece of Ambrose,” Devi said. There was a weight of cold fury in her voice when she said his name. “My help is largely incidental.”

Wilem cleared his throat. “Would we be correct in assuming—”

“He beats his whores,” Devi said, interrupting him abruptly. “And if I could kill the arrogant bastard and get away with it, I would have done it years ago.” She stared flatly at Wilem. “And yes, we have a past. And no, it’s none of your business. Is that enough reason for you?”

There was a tense silence. Wilem nodded, his face carefully blank.

Devi turned to look at me.

“Devi.” I made a short bow to her. “I’m sorry.”

She blinked in surprise. “Well, I’ll be damned,” she said, her voice sharp with sarcasm. “Maybe you do have half a brain in your head.”

“I didn’t think I could trust you,” I said. “I was wrong, and I regret it. It wasn’t the clearest thinking I’ve ever done.”

She eyed me for a long moment. “We’re not friends,” she said curtly, her expression still icy. “But if you’re still alive at the end of all this, we’ll talk.”

Devi looked past me and her expression softened. “Little Fela!” She brushed past me and gave Fela a hug. “You’re all grown up!” She stepped back and held Fela at arm’s length, looking her over appreciatively. “My lord, you look like a ten-stripe Modegan whore! He’ll love it.”

Fela smiled and spun a little so the bottom of her dress flared. “It is nice to have an excuse to dress up every once and a while.”

“You should be dressing up on your own,” Devi said. “And for better men than Ambrose.”

“I’ve been busy. I’m out of practice preening. It took me an hour to remember how to do my hair. Any advice?” She held her arms out to her sides and did a slow turn.

Devi looked her up and down with a calculating eye. “You’re already better than he deserves. But you’re all bare. Why don’t you have any sparkle on you?”

Fela looked down at her hands. “Rings won’t work with the gloves,” she said. “And I didn’t have anything nice enough to go with the dress.”

“Here then,” Devi tilted her head and reached up under her hair, first on one side then the other. Then she stepped closer to Fela. “Lord you’re tall, bend down.”

When Fela straightened up again, she was wearing a pair of earrings that swung and caught the light of the fire.

Devi stepped back and gave an exasperated sigh. “And they look better on you, of course.” She shook her head with irritation. “Good lord woman. If I had tits like yours I’d own half the world by now.”

“You and me both,” Sim said enthusiastically.

Wilem burst out laughing, then covered his face and stepped away from Sim, shaking his head and doing his best to look like he didn’t have the slightest idea who was standing next to him.

Devi looked at Sim’s unashamed, boyish grin, then back to Fela. “Who’s the idiot?”

I caught Mola’s eye and motioned her closer so we could talk. “You didn’t need to, but thanks. It’s a relief, knowing she’s not out there plotting against me.”

“Don’t assume,” Mola said grimly. “I’ve never seen her so angry. It just seemed a shame for the two of you to be at odds. You’re a lot alike.”

I darted a glance across the fire pit where Wil and Sim were cautiously approaching Devi and Fela. “I’ve heard a lot about you,” Wilem said, looking at Devi. “I thought you’d be taller.”

“How’s that working out for you?” Devi asked dryly. “Thinking, I mean.”

I waved my hands to get everyone’s attention. “It’s late,” I said. “We have to get into position.”

Fela nodded. “I want to be there early, just in case.” She straightened her gloves nervously. “Wish me luck.”

Mola walked over and gave her a quick hug. “It’ll be fine. Stay somewhere public with him. He’ll behave better if people are watching.”

“Keep asking him about his poetry,” Devi advised. “He’ll talk the time away.”

“If he gets impatient, compliment the wine,” Mola added. “Say things like, ‘Oh I’d love another glass, but I’m worried it’d go right to my head.’ He’ll buy a bottle and try and pour it into you.”

Devi nodded. “It’ll keep him off you for an extra half-hour at least.” She reached out and pulled up the top of Fela’s dress a bit. “Start conservative, then bring them out a little more toward the end of the dinner. Lean. Use your shoulders. If he keeps seeing more and more, he’ll think he’s getting somewhere. It’ll keep him from getting grabby.”

“This is the most terrifying thing I’ve ever seen,” Wilem said quietly.

“Do all the women in the world secretly know each other?” Sim asked. “Because that would explain a lot.”

“There’s barely a hundred of us in the Arcanum,” Devi said scathingly. “They confine us to a single wing of the Mews whether or not we actually want to live there. How can we not know each other?”

I walked over to Fela and handed her a slender oak twig. “I’ll signal you when we’re done. You signal me if he walks out on you.”

Fela arched an eyebrow. “A woman could take that slightingly,” she said, then smiled and slid the twig inside one of her long black gloves. Her earrings swung and caught the light again. They were emeralds. Smooth emerald teardrops.

“Those are lovely earrings,” I said to Devi. “Where did you come by them?”

Her eyes narrowed, as if she were trying to decide whether or not to take offense. “A pretty young boy used them to settle his debt,” she said. “Not that it’s any of your business.”

I shrugged. “Just curious.”

Fela waved and walked off, but before she made it ten feet Simmon caught up with her. He smiled awkwardly, talking and making a few emphatic gestures before handing her something. She smiled and tucked it into her long black glove.

I turned to Devi. “I assume you know the plan?”

She nodded. “How far is it to his room?”

“A little more than half a mile,” I said apologetically. “The slippage—”

Devi cut me off with a gesture. “I do my own calculations,” she said sharply.

“Right.” I gestured to where my travelsack lay near the edge of the fire pit. “There’s wax and clay in there.” I handed her a slim birch twig. “I’ll signal you when we’re in position. Start with the wax. Give it a hard half-hour, then signal and move onto the clay. Give the clay at least an hour.”

Devi snorted. “With a bonfire behind me? It’ll take me fifteen minutes, tops.”

“It might not be tucked into his sock drawer, you realize. It might be locked away without much air.”

Devi waved me away. “I know my business.”

I made a half bow. “I leave it in your capable hands.”

“That’s it?” Mola demanded indignantly. “You lectured me for an hour! You quizzed me!”

“There isn’t time,” I said simply. “And you’ll be here to coach her if need be. Besides, Devi happens to be one of the handful of people I suspect might be a better sympathist than me.”

Devi gave me a dark look. “Suspect? I beat you like a red-headed stepchild. You were my little sympathy hand puppet.”

“That was two span ago,” I said. “I’ve learned a lot since then.”

“Hand puppet?” Sim asked Wilem. Wil made an explanatory gesture and they both burst out laughing.

I motioned to Wilem. “Let’s go.”

Before we could head out, Sim handed me a small jar.

I gave it an odd look. I already had his alchemical concoction tucked away in my cloak. “What’s this?”

“It’s just ointment in case you get burned,” he explained. “But if you mix it with piss, it turns into candy.” Sim’s expression was deadpan. “Delicious candy.”

I nodded seriously. “Yes sir.”

Mola stared in confusion. Devi pointedly ignored us and began piling wood on the fire.

An hour later, Wilem and I were playing cards at the Golden Pony. The common room was nearly full, and a harpist was doing a passable version of “Sweet Winter Rye.” The room was full of murmured conversation as wealthy customers gambled, drank, and talked about whatever rich people talk about. How to properly beat the stable boy, I guessed. Or techniques for chasing the chambermaid around the estate.

The Golden Pony was not my sort of place. The clientele was too well-bred, the drinks too expensive, and the musicians more pleasing to the eye than the ear. Despite all this, I’d been coming here for nearly two span, making a show of trying to climb the social ladder. That way, no one could say it was odd I was here on this particular night.

Wilem took a drink and shuffled the cards. My own drink sat half-finished and warm. It was only a simple ale, but given the prices at the Pony I was now, quite literally, penniless.

Wil dealt another hand of breath. I picked up my cards carefully, as Simmon’s alchemical concoction made my fingers ever so slightly sticky. We might as well have been playing with blank cards. I drew and threw randomly, pretending to concentrate on the game when really I was waiting, listening.

I felt a slight tickle in the corner of my eye and reached to rub it away with my fingers, catching myself at the last second with my hand upraised. Wilem stared at me from across the table, his eyes alarmed, and gave his head a small, firm shake. I went motionless for a moment, then slowly lowered my hand.

I was so busy trying to appear nonchalant that when the cry came from outside I was actually startled. It cut through the low murmur of conversation as only a shrill voice filled with panic can. “Fire! Fire!”

Everyone in the Pony froze for a moment. This always happens when people are startled and confused. They take a second to look around, smell the air, and think things like, “Did he just say fire?” or “Fire? Where? Here?”

I didn’t hesitate. I leaped to my feet and made a show of looking around wildly, obviously trying to search out the fire. By the time everyone else in the common room started to move, I was already dashing for the stairs.

“Fire!” The cries continued from outside. “Oh God. Fire!”

I smiled as I listened to Basil overact his small part. I didn’t know him well enough to let him in on the whole plan, but it was vital that someone notice the fire early so I could spring into action. The last thing I wanted to do was accidentally burn down half the inn.

I reached the top of the steps and looked around the upper floor of the Golden Pony. There were already footsteps pounding up the stairs behind me. A few wealthy lodgers opened their doors, peering into the hallway.

There were faint wisps of smoke curling underneath the door to Ambrose’s rooms. Perfect.

“I think it’s over here!” I shouted, sliding a hand into one of my cloak’s pockets as I ran to the door.

In the long days we spent searching the Archives, I’d found reference to a great many interesting pieces of artificery. One of them was an elegant piece of artificery called a siege stone.

It worked on the most basic sympathetic principles. A crossbow stores energy and uses it to shoot a bolt a long distance at a great speed. A siege stone was an inscribed piece of lead that stores energy and uses it to move itself about six inches with the force of a battering ram.

Reaching the middle of the hallway, I braced myself and charged Ambrose’s door with my shoulder. I also struck it with the siege stone I held concealed against the flat of my hand.

The thick-timbered door staved in like a barrel struck by an anvil hammer. There were startled gasps and exclamations from everyone in the hallway. I rushed inside, trying desperately to keep the manic grin off my face.

Ambrose’s sitting room was dark, and made darker by a haze of smoke in the air. I saw flickering firelight inside, off to the left. From my previous visit I knew it was his bedroom.

“Hello?” I shouted. “Is everyone all right?” I pitched my voice carefully: Bold but concerned. No panic, of course. I was, after all, the hero of this scene.

Smoke was thick in the bedroom, catching the orange firelight and stinging my eyes. There was a massive wooden chest of drawers against the wall, big as a workbench in the Fishery. Flames licked and flickered around the edges of the drawers. Apparently Ambrose had been keeping the mommet in his sock drawer.

I picked up a nearby chair and used it to smash the window I’d climbed through several nights ago. “Clear the street!” I shouted down.

The bottommost left drawer seemed to be burning the hottest, and when I pulled it open the smoldering clothes inside caught the air hungrily and burst into flame. I smelled burning hair and hoped I hadn’t lost my eyebrows. I didn’t want to spend the next month looking constantly surprised.

After the initial flare up, I drew a deep breath, stepped forward, and pulled the heavy wooden drawer free of the bureau with my bare hands. It was full of smoldering, blackened cloth, but as I ran to the window, I could hear something hard in the bottom of the drawer rattling against the wood. It tumbled as I threw it out the window, clothes bursting into flame as the wind caught them.

Next I yanked out the top right-hand drawer. As soon as I pulled it free, smoke and flame poured out in an almost solid mass. With these two drawers gone, all the empty space inside the bureau formed a crude chimney, giving the fire all the air it wanted. As I heaved the second drawer out the window, I could actually hear the hollow rush of fire spreading through the varnished wood and the clothes inside.

Down in the street, people drawn by the commotion were doing their best to put out the flaming debris. In the middle of the small crowd, Simmon stomped about in his new hobnail boots, smashing things to flinders like a boy splashing in puddles after the first spring rain. Even if the mommet had survived the fall, it wouldn’t survive that.

This was more than mere pettiness. Devi had signaled me twenty minutes ago, letting me know she’d already tried the wax mommet. Since there had been no result, it meant Ambrose had undoubtedly used my blood to make a clay mommet of me. A simple fire wasn’t going to destroy it.

One by one, I grabbed the other drawers and threw them into the street as well, pausing to pull down the thick velvet curtains around Ambrose’s bed to shield my hands from the heat of the fire. This also might seem petty, but it wasn’t. I was terrified of burning my hands. Every talent I had revolved around them.

Petty was when I kicked the chamber pot on my way back to the bureau. It was the expensive kind, fine glazed pottery. It tipped over and rolled crazily across the floor until it struck the hearth and shattered. Suffice to say that what spilled across Ambrose’s rugs was not delicious candy.

Flame flickered openly in the spaces where the drawers had been, lighting the room while the broken window let in some clear air. Eventually someone else was brave enough to make their way into the room. He used one of the blankets off Ambrose’s bed to protect his hands and helped me throw the last several burning drawers out the window. It was hot, sooty work, and even with the help, I was coughing by the time the last of the drawers went tumbling onto the street.

It was over in less than three minutes. A few quick-thinking bar patrons brought in pitchers of water and doused the still-burning frame of the empty bureau. I tossed the smoldering velvet drapes out the window, shouting, “Look out down there!” so Simmon would know to retrieve my siege stone from the pile of tangled cloth.

Lamps were lit and the smoke thinned as cool night air blew in through the broken window. People filtered into the room to help, or gawk, or gossip. A cluster of amazed onlookers gathered around Ambrose’s staved-in door, and I idly wondered what sort of rumors might spring out of tonight’s performance.

Once the room was properly lit, I marveled at the damage the fire had done. The chest of drawers was little more than a collection of charred sticks, and the plaster wall behind it was cracked and blistered from the heat. The white ceiling was painted with a wide fan of black soot.

I caught my reflection in the dressing-room mirror and was pleased to see my eyebrows were more or less intact. I was mightily disheveled, my hair in disarray and my face smudged with sweat and dark ash. The whites of my eyes looked very bright against the black of my face.

Wilem joined me and helped bandage up my left hand. It wasn’t really burned, but I knew it would look odd if I walked away entirely unscathed. Aside from a little lost hair, my worst injury was actually the holes charred in my long sleeves. Another shirt ruined. If this kept up I’d be naked by the end of the term.

I sat on the edge of the bed and watched as people brought more water to splash on the bureau. I pointed out a charred ceiling beam, and they doused it too, sending up a sharp hiss and a cloud of steam and smoke. People continued to wander in and out, looking at the wreckage and muttering to each other while shaking their heads.

Just as Wil was finishing my bandage, the sound of galloping hooves on cobblestones came through the broken window, temporarily overwhelming the noise of fiercely stomping hobnailed boots.

Less than a minute later, I heard Ambrose in the hallway. “What in the name of God is going on here? Get out! Out!”

Cursing and shoving people aside, Ambrose made his entrance. When he saw me sitting on his bed he pulled up short. “What are you doing in my rooms?” he demanded.

“What?” I asked, then looked around. “These are your rooms?” Keeping the proper amount of dismay in my tone wasn’t easy, as my voice was rough with smoke. “I just burned myself saving your things?”

Ambrose’s eyes narrowed, then went to the charred wreckage of his bureau. His eyes flicked back to me, then went wide with sudden realization. I fought the urge to grin.

“Get out of here you filthy, thieving Ruh,” he spat venomously. “I swear if anything’s missing, I’ll bring the constable down on you. I’ll have you on the iron law and see you hanged.”

I drew a breath to respond, then started to cough uncontrollably and had to settle for glaring at him.

“Good job, Ambrose,” Wilem said sarcastically. “You caught him. He stole your fire.”

One of the onlookers chimed in, “Yeah, make him put it back!”

“Get out!” Ambrose shouted, red-faced and furious. “And take that filthy shim with you or I’ll give you both the thrashing you deserve.” I watched the bystanders stare at Ambrose, appalled by his behavior.

I gave him a long, proud look, playing the scene for all it was worth. “You’re welcome,” I said with injured dignity, and shouldered past him, jostling him roughly out of the way.

As I was leaving, a fat, florid man in a waistcoat staggered through the ruined door to Ambrose’s rooms. I recognized him as the owner of the Golden Pony.

“What the devil’s been going on here?” he demanded.

“Candles are dangerous things,” I said. I looked over my shoulder and met Ambrose’s eye. “Honestly boy,” I said to him. “I don’t know what you were thinking. You’d think a member of the Arcanum would have more sense.”

Wil, Mola, Devi, and I were sitting around what was left of the bonfire when we heard the crackle of footsteps coming through the trees. Fela was still dressed elegantly, but her hair was unpinned. Sim was making his way carefully alongside her, absentmindedly holding branches out of her way as they moved through the undergrowth.

“And just where have you two been?” Devi asked.

“I had to walk back from Imre,” Fela explained. “Sim came to meet me halfway. Don’t worry mother, he was a perfect gentleman.”

“I hope it wasn’t too bad for you,” I said.

“Dinner was about what you would expect,” Fela admitted. “But the second part made it all worthwhile.”

“Second part?” Mola asked.

“On our way back, Sim took me to see the wreckage at the Pony. I stopped to have a word with Ambrose. I’ve never had so much fun.” Fela’s smile was wicked. “I was perfectly huffy.”

“She was,” Simmon said. “It was brilliant.”

Fela faced Sim and set her hands on her hips. “Run off on me, will you?”

Sim screwed his face up into an exaggerated scowl and gestured wildly. “Listen to me, you daft bint!” he said in a fair imitation of Ambrose’s Vintish accent. “My rooms were on fire!”

Fela turned away, throwing up her hands. “Don’t lie to me! You ran off to be with some whore. I’ve never been so humiliated in my life! I never want to see you again!”

We applauded. Fela and Sim linked arms and took a bow.

“In the interest of pure accuracy,” Fela said in an offhand way, “Ambrose didn’t use the words ‘daft bint.’” She didn’t let go of Sim’s arm.

Simmon looked a little embarrassed. “Yes, well. There are some things you don’t call a lady, even in fun.” He reluctantly let go of Fela and sat on the trunk of the fallen tree. Fela sat next to him.

Fela leaned close to him and whispered something. Sim laughed, shaking his head. “Please?” Fela asked, laying her hand on his arm. “Kvothe doesn’t have his lute. Someone has to entertain us.”

“Okay, Okay.” Simmon said, obviously a little flustered. He closed his eyes for a moment, then spoke in a sonorous voice:

Fast came our Fela fiery eyes flashing,

Crossing the cobbles strength in her stride.

Came she to Ambrose all ashes around him

Grim was his gazing fearsome his frown.

Still Fela feared not brave was her bo—

Simmon came to an abrupt stop before saying the word “bosom” and blushed red as a beet. Devi gave an earthy chuckle from where she sat on the other side of the fire.

Ever the good friend, Wilem stepped in with a distracting question. “What is that pause you keep doing?” he asked. “It’s like you can’t catch your breath.”

“I asked that too,” Fela said, smiling.

“It’s something they use in Eld Vintic verse,” Sim explained. “It’s a break in the line called a caesura.”

“You are dangerously well informed about poetry, Sim,” I said. “I’m close to losing respect for you.”

“Hush,” Fela said. “I think it’s lovely. You’re just jealous he can do it off the cuff.”

“Poetry is a song without music,” I said loftily. “A song without music is like a body without a soul.”

Wilem raised his hand before Simmon could respond. “Before we become mired in philosophical talk, I have a confession to make,” Wilem said somberly. “I dropped a poem in the hallway outside Ambrose’s rooms. It was an acrostic that spoke of his powerful affection for Master Hemme.”

We all laughed, but Simmon seemed to find it particularly funny. It took him a long while to catch his breath. “It couldn’t be more perfect if we planned it,” he said. “I bought a few pieces of women’s clothing and scattered them in with what was out on the street. Red satin. Lacy bits. A whalebone corset.”

There was more laughter. Then they turned their eyes to me.

“And what did you do?” Devi prompted.

“Only what I set out to,” I said somberly. “Only what was necessary to destroy the mommet so I could sleep safe at night.”

“You kicked over his chamber pot,” Wilem said.

“True,” I admitted. “And I found this.” I held up a piece of paper.

“If that’s one of his poems,” Devi said, “I’d suggest you burn it quickly and wash your hands.”

I unfolded the slip of paper and read it aloud. “Ledger mark 4535: Ring. White gold. Blue smokestone. Remount setting and polish.” I folded it carefully and put it in a pocket. “To me,” I said, “This is better than a poem.”

Sim sat upright. “Is that a pawnslip for your lady’s ring?”

“It’s a claim slip for a jeweler, if I don’t miss my guess. But yes, it’s for her ring,” I said. “And she’s not my lady, by the by.”

“I’m lost,” Devi said.

“That’s how all this started,” Wilem said. “Kvothe was trying to reclaim a bit of property for a girl he fancies.”

“Someone should fill me in,” Devi said. “I seem to have come in halfway through the story.”

I leaned back against a piece of fieldstone, content to let my friends tell the story.

The slip of paper hadn’t been in Ambrose’s chest of drawers. It hadn’t been on the hearth or his bedside table. It hadn’t been on his jewelry tray or his writing desk.

It had, in fact, been in Ambrose’s purse. I’d lifted it off him in a fit of pique half a minute after he called me a filthy, thieving Ruh. It had almost been a reflex action as I’d brushed roughly past him on my way out of his rooms at the Pony.

By strange coincidence, the purse also contained money. Almost six talents. Not a great deal of coin as far as Ambrose was concerned. Enough for an extravagant night out with a lady. But for me it was a great deal of money, so much I almost felt guilty for taking it. Almost.

CHAPTER THIRTY-FOUR

Baubles

THERE WAS NO NOTE for me from Denna when I returned to Anker’s that night. Nor was there one waiting in the morning. I wondered if the boy had ever found her with my message, or if he had simply given up, or dropped it in the river, or eaten it.

The next morning I decided my mood was too good to spoil it with the inevitable madness of Elodin’s class. So I shouldered my lute and headed over the river to look for Denna. It had taken longer than I’d planned, but I was eager to see the look on her face when I finally returned her ring.

I walked into the jeweler’s and smiled at the small man standing behind a low display case. “Are you finished with the ring?”

His forehead creased. “I … I beg your pardon, sir?”

I sighed and dug around in my pocket, eventually producing the slip of paper.

He peered at it, then his face lit with understanding. “Ah, yes. Of course. Just a moment.” He made his way through a door into the back of the shop.

I relaxed a bit. This was the third shop I’d visited. The other conversations hadn’t worked out nearly this well.

The tiny man bustled out of the back room. “Here we are, sir.” He held up the ring. “Right as rain again. Lovely stone too, if you don’t mind my saying.”

I held it to the light. It was Denna’s ring. “You do good work,” I said.

He smiled at this. “Thank you, sir. All told, the work came to forty-five pennies.”

I gave a small, silent sigh. It had been too much to hope that Ambrose had paid for the work in advance. I juggled numbers in my head and counted a talent and six jots onto the glass top of the display case. As I did, I noticed it had the slightly oily texture of twice-tough glass. I ran my hand over it, wondering idly if it was one of the pieces I had made at the Fishery.

As the jeweler gathered up the coins, I noticed something else. Something inside the case.

“A bauble caught your eye?” he asked smoothly.

I pointed at a necklace in the center of the case.

“You have excellent taste,” he said, pulling out a key and unlocking a panel in the back of the case. “This is quite an exceptional piece. Not only is the setting elegant, but the stone itself is remarkably fine. You don’t often see an emerald of this quality cut in a long drop.”

“Is it your work?” I asked.

The jeweler gave a dramatic sigh. “Alas, I cannot claim that distinction. A young woman brought it in several span ago. She had more need of money than adornment it seems, and we came to an arrangement.”

“How much would you like for it?” I asked as casually as possible.

He told me. It was a staggering amount of money. More money than I had ever seen in one place. Enough money that a woman might live comfortably in Imre for several years. Enough money for a fine new harp. Enough for a lute of solid silver, or, if she desired, a case for such a lute.

The jeweler sighed again, shaking his head at the sad state of the world. “It is a shame,” he said. “Who can tell what drives young women to such things.” Then he looked up and smiled, holding the teardrop emerald to the light with an expectant expression. “Still, her loss is your gain.”

Since Denna had mentioned the Barrel and Boar in her note, I decided to start looking for her there. My lute case hung heavier on my shoulder now that I knew what she’d given up to pay for it. Still, one good turn deserves another, and I hoped the return of her ring would help balance things between us.

But the Barrel and Boar wasn’t an inn, merely a restaurant. Without any real hope, I asked the host if someone might have left a message for me. Nobody had. I asked if he remembered a woman who had been there the night before? Dark-haired? Lovely?

He nodded at that. “She waited for a long while,” he said. “I remember thinking, ‘Who would keep a woman like that waiting?’ ”

You would be amazed at how many inns and boarding houses there are, even in a smallish city like Imre.

CHAPTER THIRTY-FIVE

Secrets

TWO DAYS LATER I was heading off to the Fishery, hoping some honest work would clear my head and make me better able to tolerate two hours of Elodin’s jackassery. I was three steps from the door, when I saw a young girl in a blue cloak hurrying across the courtyard toward me. Underneath the hood, her face was a startling mix of excitement and anxiety.

We made eye contact and she stopped moving toward me. Then, still eyeing me, she made a motion so furtive and stiff I couldn’t understand what she meant until she repeated it: she wanted me to follow her.

Puzzled, I nodded. She turned and walked out of the courtyard, moving with the awkward stiffness of someone trying desperately to be nonchalant.

I followed her. Under other circumstances I would have thought she was a shill luring me into a dark alley where thugs would kick out my teeth and take my purse. But there weren’t any decently dangerous alleys this close to the University, and it was a sunny afternoon besides.

Eventually she stepped into a deserted piece of road behind a glassblower and a clocksmith’s shop. She looked around nervously, then turned, her face beaming under the shelter of her hood. “I finally found you!” she said breathlessly.

She was younger than I’d thought, no more than fourteen. Curls of mousy brown hair framed her pale face and fought to escape the hood. Still, I couldn’t place her… .

“I’ve had a drummer of a time tracking you down,” she said. “I spend so much time here my ma thinks I have a beau at the University,” she said the last almost shyly, her mouth making a tiny curve.

I opened my mouth to admit I didn’t have the slightest idea who she was. But before I could get a word out, she spoke again. “Don’t worry,” she said. “I hain’t let anyone know I was coming to see you.” Her bright eyes went dark with anxiety, like a pool when the sun goes behind a cloud. “I know it’s safer that way.”

It was only when her face went dark with worry that I recognized her. She was the young girl I’d met in Trebon when I’d gone to investigate rumors of the Chandrian.

“Nina,” I said. “What are you doing here?”

“Looking for you.” She thrust out her chin proudly. “I knew you must be from here cause you knew all sorts of magic.” She looked around. “But it’s bigger than I thought it would be. I know you didn’t give anyone in Trebon your name because then they’d have power over you, but I have to say it makes you terribly hard to find.”

Had I not told anyone my name in Trebon? Some of my memories of that time were vague, as I’d had a bit of a concussion. It was probably for the best I’d kept myself anonymous, given that I’d been responsible for burning down a sizable portion of the town.

“I’m sorry to put you to so much work,” I said, still not sure what this was all about.

Nina took a step closer. “I had dreams after you left,” she said, her voice low and confidential. “Bad dreams. I thought they were coming for me because of what I told you.” She gave me a meaningful look. “But then I started sleeping with the amulet you gave me. I made my prayers every night, and the dreams went away.” One of her hands absentmindedly fingered a piece of bright metal that hung around her neck on a leather cord.

I realized with sudden guilt that I’d inadvertently lied to Master Kilvin. I hadn’t sold anyone a charm, or even made anything that would look like one. But I had given Nina an engraved piece of metal and told her it was an amulet to set her mind at ease. Before that she’d been on the edge of nervous hysteria, worried that demons were going to kill her.

“So it’s been working then?” I asked, trying not to sound guilty.

She nodded. “As soon as I had it under my pillow and said my prayers, I slept like a babe at the tit. Then I started having my special dream,” she said, and smiled up at me. “I dreamed about the big pot Jimmy showed me before those folks were kilt up at the Mauthen farm.”

I felt hope rise in my chest. Nina was the only person alive who had seen the ancient piece of pottery. It had been covered with pictures of the Chandrian, and they are jealous of their secrets.

“You remembered something about the pot with the seven people painted on it?” I asked excitedly.

She hesitated for a moment, frowning. “There was eight of them,” she said. “Not seven.”

“Eight?” I asked. “Are you sure?”

She nodded earnestly. “I thought I told you before.”

The rising hope in my chest suddenly fell into the pit of my stomach where it lay heavy and sour. There were seven Chandrian. It was one of the few things I knew for certain about them. If there were eight people on the painted vase Nina had seen …

Nina continued to chatter away, unaware of my disappointment. “I dreamed about the pot for three nights in a row,” she said. “And it weren’t a bad dream at all. I woke up all rested and happy every night. I knew then what God was telling me to do.”

She began to root around in her pockets and brought out a length of polished horn more than a handspan long and big around as my thumb. “I remembered how you were so curious about the pot. But I couldn’t tell you anything cause I’d only seen it for a moment.” She handed me the piece of horn, proudly.

I looked down at the cylindrical piece of horn in my hands, not sure what I was supposed to do with it. I looked up at her, confused.

Nina gave an impatient sigh and took the horn back. She twisted it, removing the end like a cap. “My brother made this for me,” she said as she carefully drew a rolled piece of parchment from inside the horn. “Don’t worry. He doesn’t know what it was for.”

She handed me the parchment. “It’s not very good,” she said nervously. “My mum lets me help paint the pots, but this is different. It’s harder doing people than flowers and designs. And it’s hard getting something right that you can only see in your head.”

I was amazed my hands weren’t shaking. “This is what was painted on the vase?” I asked.

“It’s one side of it,” she said. “Something round like this, you can only see a third of it when you’re looking at it from one side.”

“So you dreamed of a different side each night?” I asked.

She shook her head. “Just this side. Three nights in a row.”

I slowly unrolled the piece of paper and instantly recognized the man she had painted. His eyes were pure black. In the background there was a bare tree, and he was standing on a circle of blue with a few wavy lines on it.

“That’s supposed to be water,” she said, pointing. “It’s hard to paint water though. And he’s supposed to be standing on it. There were drifts of snow around him too, and his hair was white. But I couldn’t get the white paint to work. Mixing paints for paper is harder than glazes for pots.”

I nodded, not trusting myself to speak. It was Cinder, the one who had killed my parents. I could see his face in my mind without even trying. Without even closing my eyes.

I unrolled the paper further. There was a second man, or rather the shape of a man in a great hooded robe. Inside the cowl of the robe was nothing but blackness. Over his head were three moons, a full moon, a half moon, and one that was just a crescent. Next to him were two candles. One was yellow with a bright orange flame. The other candle sat underneath his outstretched hand: it was grey with a black flame, and the space around it was smudged and darkened.

“That’s supposed to be shadow, I think,” Nina said, pointing to the area under his hand. “It was more obvious on the pot. I had to use charcoal for that. I couldn’t get it right with paint.”

I nodded again. This was Haliax. The leader of the Chandrian. When I’d seen him he had been surrounded by an unnatural shadow. The fires around him had been strangely dimmed, and the cowl of his cloak had been black as the bottom of a well.

I finished unrolling the paper, revealing a third figure, larger than the other two. He wore armor and an open-faced helmet. On his chest was a bright insignia that looked like an autumn leaf, red on the outside brightening to orange near the middle, with a straight black stem.

The skin of his face was tan, but the hand he held poised upright was a bright red. His other hand was hidden by a large, round object that Nina had somehow managed to color a metallic bronze. I guessed it was his shield.

“He’s the worst,” Nina said, her voice subdued.

I looked down at her. Her face looked somber, and I guessed she’d taken my silence the wrong way. “You shouldn’t say that,” I said. “You’ve done a wonderful job.”

Nina gave a faint smile. “That’s not what I meant,” she said. “He was hard to do. I got the copper pretty okay here.” She touched his shield. “But this red,” her finger brushed his upraised hand, “is supposed to be blood. He’s got blood all over his hand.” She tapped his chest. “And this was brighter, like something burning.”

I recognized him then. It wasn’t a leaf on his chest. It was a tower wrapped in flame. His bloody, outstretched hand wasn’t demonstrating something. It was making a gesture of rebuke toward Haliax and the rest. He was holding up his hand to stop them. This man was one of the Amyr. One of the Ciridae.

The young girl shivered and pulled her cloak around herself. “I don’t like looking at him even now,” she said. “They were all awful to look at. But he was the worst. I can’t get faces right, but his was terrible grim. He looked so angry. He looked like he was ready to burn down the whole world.”

“If this is one side,” I asked, “Do you remember the rest of it?”

“Not like this. I remember there was a woman with no clothes on, and a broken sword, and a fire… .” She looked thoughtful, then shook her head again. “Like I told you, I only saw it for a quick second when Jimmy showed me. I think an angel helped me remember this piece in a dream so I could paint it down and bring it to you.”

“Nina,” I said. “This is really amazing. You really have no idea how incredible this is.”

Her face lit up again with a smile. “I’m glad of that. I’ve had a world of trouble making it.”

“Where did you get the parchment?” I asked, noticing it for the first time. It was actual vellum, high-quality stuff. Far better than anything I could afford.

“I practiced on some boards at first,” she said. “But I knew that wasn’t going to work. Plus I knew I’d have to hide it. So I snuck into the church and cut some pages out of their book,” she said the last without the faintest hint of self-consciousness.

“You cut this out of the Book of the Path?” I asked, somewhat aghast. I’m not particularly religious, but I do have a vestigial sense of propriety. And after so many hours in the Archives, the thought of cutting pages out of a book was horrifying to me.

Nina nodded easily. “It seemed the best thing, since an angel gave me the dream. And they can’t lock the church up properly at night, since you tore off the front of the building, and killed that demon.” She reached over and brushed at the paper with a finger. “It hain’t that hard. All you need to do is take a knife and scrape at it a bit and all the words come off.” She pointed. “I was careful never to scrape off Tehlu’s name though. Or Andan’s, or any of the other angels,” she added piously.

I looked at it more closely and saw it was true. She’d painted the Amyr so the words Andan and Ordal rested directly on top of his shoulders, one on each side. Almost as if she were hoping the names would weigh him down, or trap him.

“Plus you said I shouldn’t tell anyone what I saw,” Nina said. “And painting is like telling with pictures instead of words. So I figured it would be safer to use pages from Tehlu’s book, because no demon would ever look at a page of that book. Especially one with Tehlu’s name still writ all over it.” She looked up at me proudly.

“That was cleverly done,” I said approvingly.

The belling tower began to ring the hour, and Nina’s expression flared into sudden panic. “Oh no!” she said pitifully. “I should have been back at the docks by now. My mum’s going to give me a birching!”

I laughed. Partly because I was utterly amazed by this unexpected piece of luck. And partly at the thought of a young girl brave enough to defy the Chandrian, but still terrified of making her mother angry. Such is the way of the world.

“Nina, you’ve done me a wonderful favor. If you ever need anything, or if you have another dream, you can find me at an inn called Anker’s. I play music there.”

Her eyes went wide. “Is it magic music?”

I laughed again. “Some people think so.”

She looked around nervously. “I really have to go!” she said, then waved and took off running toward the river, the wind blowing her hood back as she went.

I carefully rerolled the piece of paper and tucked it back into the hollow piece of horn. My mind spun with what I had just learned. I thought of what I’d heard Haliax say to Cinder all those years ago: Who keeps you safe from the Amyr, the Singers, the Sithe?

After my months of searching, I was fairly certain the Archives held nothing more than faerie stories about the Chandrian. Nobody considered them more real than shamble-men or faeries.

But everyone knew about the Amyr. They were the bright knights of the Aturan Empire. They were the strong hand of the church for two hundred years. They were the subject of a hundred stories and songs.

I knew my history. The Amyr had been founded by the Tehlin Church in the early days of the Aturan Empire.

But the pottery Nina had seen had been much older than that.

I knew my history. The Amyr had been condemned and disbanded by the church before the empire fell.

But I knew the Chandrian were still afraid of them today.

It seemed like there was more to the story.

CHAPTER THIRTY-SIX

All This Knowing

DAYS PASSED, AND I invited Wil and Sim across the river to celebrate our successful campaign against Ambrose.

Given my taste for sounten, I was not much of a drinker, but Wil and Sim were kind enough to demonstrate the fine points of the art. We visited several different taverns, just for variety, but eventually we ended up back at the Eolian. I preferred it because of the music, Simmon because of the women, and Wilem because it served scutten.

I was moderately well-buttered when I was called up onto the stage, but it takes more than a little drink to make me fumble-fingered. Just to prove I was not drunk, I made my way through “Whither With He With the Withee,” a song that’s difficult enough to articulate when sober as a stone.

The audience loved it, and showed its appreciation in the appropriate way. And, since I was not drinking sounten that night, much of the evening is lost to living memory.

The three of us walked the long road back from the Eolian. There was a crispness to the air that spoke of winter, but the three of us were young and warmed from the inside by many drinks. A breeze pushed my cloak back and I took a full, happy breath.

Then a sudden panic seized me. “Where’s my lute?” I asked more loudly than I’d intended.

“You left it with Stanchion at the Eolian,” Wilem said. “He was afraid you would trip over it and break your neck.”

Simmon had stopped in the middle of the road. I bumped into him, lost my balance, and tumbled to the ground. He hardly seemed to notice. “Well,” he said seriously. “I certainly don’t feel up to that right now.”

Stonebridge rose ahead of us: two hundred feet from end to end, with a high arch that peaked five stories above the river. It was part of the Great Stone Road, straight as a nail, flat as a table, and older than God. I knew it weighed more than a mountain. I knew it had a three-foot parapet running along both its edges.

Despite all this knowing, I felt deeply uneasy at the thought of trying to cross it. I climbed unsteadily to my feet.

As the three of us examined the bridge, Wilem began to lean slowly to one side. I reached out to steady him and at the same time Simmon laid hold of my arm, though whether to help me or to brace himself I couldn’t be certain.

“I certainly don’t feel up to that right now,” Simmon repeated.

“There’s a place to sit over here,”Wilem said. “Kella trelle turen navor ka.”

Simmon and I muffled our laughter, and Wilem led us through the trees to a little clearing not fifty feet from the foot of the bridge. To my surprise a tall greystone stood at the middle of it, pointing skyward.

Wil entered the clearing with calm familiarity. I came more slowly, looking about curiously. Greystones are special to troupers, and seeing it gave rise to mixed feelings.

Simmon flopped down in the thick grass while Wilem settled his back against the trunk of a leaning birch. I moved to the greystone and touched it with my fingertips. It was warm and familiar.

“Don’t push at that thing,” Simmon said nervously. “You’ll tip it over.”

I laughed. “This stone has been here for a thousand years, Sim. I don’t think my breathing on it is going to hurt it.”

“Just come away from it. They’re not good things.”

“It’s a greystone,” I said, giving it a friendly pat. “They mark old roads. If anything, we’re safer being next to it. Greystones mark safe places. Everyone knows that.”

Sim shook his head stubbornly. “They’re pagan relics.”

“A jot says I’m right,” I taunted.

“Ha!” Still on his back, Sim held up a hand. I stepped over to slap it, formalizing our wager.

“We can go to the Archives and settle it tomorrow,” Sim said.

I sat down next to the greystone and had just started to relax when I was seized by a sudden panic. “Body of God!” I said. “My lute!” I tried to jump to my feet and failed, almost managing to knock out my brains against the greystone in the process.

Simmon tried to sit up and calm me, but the sudden motion was too much for him and he fell awkwardly onto his side and began to laugh helplessly.

“This isn’t funny!” I shouted.

“It’s at the Eolian,” Wilem said. “You’ve asked about it four times since we left.”

“No I haven’t,” I said with more conviction than I really felt. I rubbed my head where I’d knocked it against the greystone.

“There is no reason to be ashamed.” Wilem waved a hand dismissively. “It is man’s nature to dwell on what sits close to his heart.”

“I heard Kilvin got a few in him at the Taps a couple months ago and wouldn’t shut up about his new cold-sulfur lamp,” Simmon said.

Wil snorted. “Lorren would rattle on about proper shelving behavior. Grasp by the spine. Grasp by the spine.” He growled and made clutching motions with both hands. “If I hear him say it again I will grasp his spine.”

A flash of memory came to me. “Merciful Tehlu,” I said, suddenly aghast. “Did I sing ‘Tinker Tanner’ at the Eolian tonight?”

“You did,” Simmon said. “I didn’t know it had so many verses.”

I wrinkled my forehead, trying desperately to remember. “Did I sing the verse about the Tehlin and the sheep?” It was not a good verse for polite company.

“Nia,” Wilem said.

“Thank God,” I said.

“It was a goat,” Wilem managed seriously before he bubbled up into laughter.

“‘… in the Tehlin’s cassock!’ ” Simmon sang, then joined Wilem in laughter.

“No, no,” I said miserably, resting my head in my hands. “My mother used to make my dad sleep under the wagon when he sang that in public. Stanchion will beat me with a stick and take away my pipes next time I see him.”

“They loved it,” Simmon reassured me.

“I saw Stanchion singing along,” Wilem added. “His nose was a little red by that time too.”

There was a long piece of comfortable quiet.

“Kvothe?” Simmon asked.

“Yes?”

“Are you really Edema Ruh?”

The question caught me unprepared. Normally it would have set me on edge, but at the moment I didn’t know how I felt about it. “Does it matter?”

“No. I was just wondering.”

“Oh.” I continued to watch the stars for a while. “Wondering what?”

“Nothing in particular,” he said. “Ambrose called you Ruh a couple times, but he’s called you other insulting things before.”

“It’s not an insult,” I said.

“I mean he’s called you things that weren’t true,” Sim said quickly. “You don’t talk about your family, but you’ve said things that made me wonder.” He shrugged, still flat on his back, looking up at the stars. “I’ve never known one of the Edema. Not well, anyway.”

“What you hear isn’t true,” I said. “We don’t steal children, or worship dark Gods or anything like that.”

“I never believed any of that,” he said dismissively, then added. “But some of the things they say must be true. I’ve never heard anyone play like you.”

“That doesn’t have anything to do with my being Edema Ruh,” I said, then reconsidered. “Maybe a little.”

“Do you dance?” Wilem asked, seemingly out of the blue.

If the comment had come from anyone else, or at a different time, it probably would have started a fight. “That’s just how people picture us. Playing pipes and fiddles. Dancing around our campfires. When we aren’t stealing everything that isn’t nailed down, of course.” A little bitterness crept into my tone when I said the last. “That’s not what being Edema Ruh is about.”

“What is it about?” Simmon asked.

I thought about it for a moment, but my sodden wit wasn’t up to the task. “We’re just people really,” I said eventually. “Except we don’t stay in one place very long, and everyone hates us.”

The three of us watched the stars quietly.

“Did she really make him sleep under the wagon?” Simmon asked.

“What?”

“You said your mom made your dad sleep under the wagon for singing the verse about the sheep. Did she really?”

“It’s mostly a figure of speech,” I said. “But once she really did.”

I didn’t often think of my early life in my troupe, back when my parents were alive. I avoided the subject the same way a cripple learns to keep the weight off an injured leg. But Sim’s question brought a memory bubbling to the surface of my mind.

“It wasn’t for singing ‘Tinker Tanner,’” I found myself saying. “It was a song he’d written about her… .”

I was quiet for a long moment. Then I said it. “Laurian.”

It was the first time I’d said my mother’s name in years. The first time since she’d been killed. It felt strange in my mouth.

Then, without really meaning to, I began to sing.

Dark Laurian, Arliden’s wife,

Has a face like the blade of a knife

Has a voice like a pricklebrown burr

But can tally a sum like a moneylender.

My sweet Tally cannot cook.

But she keeps a tidy ledger-book

For all her faults, I do confess

It’s worth my life

To make my wife

Not tally a lot less …

I felt oddly numb, disconnected from my own body. Strangely, while the memory was sharp, it wasn’t painful.

“I can see how that might earn a man a place under the wagon,” Wilem said gravely.

“It wasn’t that,” I heard myself saying. “She was beautiful, and they both knew it. They used to tease each other all the time. It was the meter. She hated the awful meter.”

I never talked about my parents, and referring to them in the past tense felt uncomfortable. Disloyal. Wil and Sim weren’t surprised by my revelation. Anyone who knew me could tell I had no family. I’d never said anything, but they were good friends. They knew.

“In Atur we sleep in the kennels when our wives are angry,” Simmon said, nudging the conversation back into safer territory.

“Melosi rehu eda Stiti,” Wilem muttered.

“Aturan!” Simmon shouted, his voice bubbling with amusement. “No more of your donkey talk!”

“Eda Stiti?” I repeated. “You sleep next to fire?”

Wilem nodded.

“I am officially protesting how quickly you picked up Siaru,” Sim said, holding up a finger. “I studied a year before I was any good. A year! You gobble it up in a single term.”

“I learned a lot growing up,” I said. “I was just getting the fine points this term.”

“Your accent is better,” Wil said to Sim. “Kvothe sounds like some southern trader. Very low. You sound much more refined.”

Sim seemed mollified by that. “Next to the fire,” he repeated. “Does it seem odd that it’s the men that always have to do their sleeping somewhere else?”

“It’s pretty obvious women control the bed,” I said.

“Not an unpleasant thought,” Sim said. “Depending on the woman.”

“Distrel is pretty,” Sim said.

“Keh,” Wil said. “Too pale. Fela.”

Simmon shook his head mournfully. “Out of our league.”

“She is Modegan,” Wilem said, his grin so wide it was almost demonic.

“She is?” Sim asked. Wil nodded, wearing the widest smile I’d ever seen on his face. Sim sighed wretchedly. “It figures. Bad enough that she’s the prettiest girl in the Commonwealth, I didn’t know she was Modegan, too.”

“I’ll grant you prettiest girl on her side of the river,” I corrected. “On this side, there’s—”

“You’ve already gone on about your Denna,” Wil interrupted. “Five times.”

“Listen,” Simmon said, his tone suddenly serious. “You just have to make your move. This Denna girl is obviously interested in you.”

“She hasn’t said anything along those lines.”

“They never say they’re interested.” Simmon laughed at the absurdity of it. “There are little games. It’s like a dance.” He held up two hands, making them talk to each other. “‘Oh, fancy meeting you here.’ ‘Why hello, I was just going to lunch.’ ‘What a happy coincidence, so was I. Can I carry your books?’ ”

I held up a hand to stop him. “Can we skip to the end of this puppet show, where you end up sobbing into your beer for a span of days?”

Simmon scowled at me. Wilem laughed.

“She has enough men fawning over her,” I said. “They come and go like …” I strained to think of an analogy and failed. “I’d rather be her friend.”

“You would rather be close to her heart,” Wilem said without any particular inflection. “You would rather be joyfully held in the circle of her arms. But you fear she will reject you. You fear she would laugh and you would look the fool.” Wilem shrugged easily. “You are hardly the first to feel this way. There is no shame in it.”

That struck uncomfortably close to the mark, and for a long moment I couldn’t think of anything to say in reply. “I hope,” I admitted quietly. “But I don’t want to assume. I’ve seen what happens to the men that assume too much and cling to her.”

Wilem nodded solemnly.

“She bought you that lute case,” Sim said helpfully. “That has to mean something.”

“But what does it mean?” I said. “It seems like she’s interested, but what if it’s just wishful thinking on my part? All those other men must think she’s interested too. But they’re obviously wrong. What if I’m wrong too?”

“You’ll never know unless you try,” Sim said, with a bitter edge to his voice. “That’s what I’d normally say. But, you know what? It doesn’t work worth a damn. I chase them and they kick at me like I’m a dog at the dinner table. I’m tired of trying so hard.” He gave a weary sigh, still flat on his back. “All I want is someone who likes me.”

“All I want is a clear sign,” I said.

“I want a magical horse that fits in my pocket,” Wil said. “And a ring of red amber that gives me power over demons. And an endless supply of cake.”

There was another moment of comfortable quiet. The wind brushed gently through the trees.

“They say the Ruh know all the stories in the world,” Simmon said after a while.

“Probably true,” I admitted.

“Tell one,” he said.

I eyed him narrowly.

“Don’t look at me like that,” he protested. “I’m in the mood for a story, that’s all.”

“We are somewhat lacking for entertainment,” Wilem said.

“Fine, fine. Let me think.” I closed my eyes and a story with Amyr in it bubbled to the surface. Hardly surprising. They had been on my mind constantly since Nina had found me.

I sat up straight. “All right,” I took a breath, then paused. “If either of you have to go piss, do it now. I don’t like having to stop halfway through.”

Silence.

“Okay.” I cleared my throat. “There is a place not many folk have seen. A strange place called Faeriniel. If you believe the stories, there are two things that make Faeriniel unique. First, it is where all the roads in the world meet. Second, it is not a place any man has ever found by searching. It is not a place you travel to, it is the place you pass through while on your way to somewhere else.

“They say that anyone who travels long enough will come there. This is a story of that place, and of an old man on a long road, and of a long and lonely night without a moon… .”

CHAPTER THIRTY-SEVEN

A Piece of Fire

FAERINIEL WAS A GREAT crossroads, but there was no inn where the roads met. Instead there were clearings in the trees where travelers would set their camps and pass the night.

Once, years ago and miles away, five groups of travelers came to Faeriniel. They chose their clearings and lit their fires as the sun began to set, pausing on their way from here to there.

Later, after the sun had set and night was settled firmly in the sky, an old beggar in a tattered robe came walking down the road. He moved with slow care, leaning on a walking stick.

The old man was going from nowhere to nowhere. He had no hat for his head and no pack for his back. He had not a penny or a purse to put it in. He barely even owned his own name, and even that had been worn thin and threadbare through the years.

If you’d asked him who he was, he would have said, “Nobody.” But he would have been wrong.

The old man made his way into Faeriniel. He was hungry as a dry fire and weary to his bones. All that kept him moving was the hope that someone might give him a bit of dinner and a piece of their fire.

So when the old man saw firelight flickering, he left the road and made his weary way toward it. Soon he saw four tall horses through the trees. Silver was worked into their harness and silver was mixed with the iron of their shoes. Nearby the beggar saw a dozen mules laden with goods: woolen cloth, cunning jewelry, and fine steel blades.

But what caught the beggar’s attention was the side of meat above the fire, steaming and dripping fat onto the coals. He almost fainted at the sweet smell of it, for he had been walking all day with nothing to eat but a handful of acorns and a bruised apple he’d found by the side of the road.

Stepping into the clearing, the old beggar called out to the three dark-bearded men who sat around the fire. “Halloo,” he said. “Can you spare a bit of meat and a piece of your fire?”

They turned, their gold chains glittering in the firelight. “Certainly,” their leader said. “What do you have with you? Bits or pennies? Rings or strehlaum? Or do you have the true-ringing Cealdish coin we prize above all others?”

“I have none of these,” the old beggar said, opening his hands to show they were empty.

“Then you will find no comfort here,” they said, and as he watched they began to carve thick pieces from the haunch that hung by the fire.

“No offense, Wilem. It’s just how the story goes.”

“I didn’t say anything.”

“You looked like you were going to.”

“I may. But it will wait until after.”

The old man walked on, following the light of another fire through the trees.

“Halloo!” the old beggar called out as he stepped into the second clearing. He tried to sound cheerful, though he was weary and sore. “Can you spare a bit of meat and a piece of your fire?”

There were four travelers there, two men and two women. At the sound of his voice they rose to their feet, but none of them spoke. The old man waited politely, trying to appear pleasant and harmless. But the quiet stretched on, long as long, and still no word was spoken.

Understandably, the old man grew irritated. He was used to being shunned or shrugged aside, but these folk merely stood. They were quiet and restless, moving from foot to foot while their hands twitched nervously.

Just as he was about to sulk away, the fire flared and the beggar saw the four wore the blood-red clothes that marked them as Adem mercenaries. Then the old man understood. The Adem are called the silent folk, and they speak only rarely.

The old man knew many stories of the Adem. He’d heard that they possessed a secret craft called the Lethani. This let them wear their quiet like an armor that would turn a blade or stop an arrow in the air. This is why they seldom spoke. They saved their words, keeping them inside like coals in the belly of a furnace.

Those hoarded words filled them with so much restless energy that they could never be completely still, which is why they were always twitching and fidgeting about. Then when they fought, they used their secret craft to burn those words like fuel inside themselves. This made them strong as bears and fast as snakes.

When the beggar first heard these rumors, he thought them silly campfire stories. But years ago in Modeg, he had seen an Adem woman fight the city guard. The soldiers were armed and armored, thick of arm and chest. They had demanded to see the woman’s sword in the king’s name, and though hesitant, she presented it to them. As soon as they held it in their hands, they had leered and pawed at her, making lewd suggestions about what she could do to get it back.

They were tall men with bright armor and their swords were sharp. They fell like autumn wheat before her. She killed three of them, breaking their bones with her hands.

Her own wounds were minor by comparison, a dark bruise along one cheek, a slight limp, a shallow cut across one hand. Even after all the long years, the old man remembered the way she had licked the blood from the back of her hand like a cat.

This is what the old beggar thought of when he saw the Adem standing there. All thought of food and fire left him, and he backed slowly into the shelter of the surrounding trees.

Then he set off toward the next fire, hoping third time would prove lucky.

At this clearing were a number of Aturans standing around a dead donkey lying near a cart. One of them spotted the old man. “Look!” he pointed. “Grab him! We’ll hitch him to the cart and make him pull!”

The old man darted back into the trees, and after running to and fro, he lost the Aturans by hiding under a pile of moldering leaves.

When the sound of the Aturans faded, the old man dragged himself from the leaves and found his walking stick. Then, with the courage of one who is poor and hungry, he set off to the fourth fire he saw in the distance.

There he might have found what he was looking for, because around the fire were traders from Vintas. Had things been different they might have welcomed him to dinner, saying, “Where six can eat, seven can eat.”

But by this point the old man was quite a sight. His hair stuck from his head in wild disarray. His robe, ragged before, was now torn and dirty. His face was pale from fright, and his breathing groaned and wheezed in his chest.

Because of this, the Vints gasped and made gestures before their faces. They thought he was a barrow draug, you see, one of the unquiet dead that superstitious Vints believe walk the night.

Each of the Vints had a different thought as to how they could stop him. Some thought fire would frighten him off, some thought salt scattered on the grass would keep him away, some thought iron would cut the strings that held the soul to his dead body.

Listening to them argue, the old beggar realized that no matter what they agreed on, he would not be the better for it. So he hurried back to the sheltering trees.

The old man found a rock to sit on and brushed the dead leaves and dirt away as best he could. After sitting for a while he thought to try one final campsite, knowing it would only take one generous traveler to fill his belly.

He was pleased to see a lone man sitting at the final fire. Coming closer, he saw a thing that left him both delighted and afraid, for though the beggar had lived many years, he had never before spoken to one of the Amyr.

Still, he knew the Amyr were a part of Tehlu’s church, and—

“They weren’t part of the church,” Wilem said.

“What? Of course they were.”

“No, they were of the Aturan bureaucracy. They had … Vecarum—judiciary powers.”

“They were called the Holy Order of Amyr. They were the strong right hand of the church.”

“Bet a jot?”

“Fine. If it will keep you quiet through the rest of the story.”

The old beggar was delighted, for he knew the Amyr were a part of Tehlu’s church, and the church was sometimes generous to the poor.

The Amyr came to his feet as the old man approached. “Who goes there?” he asked. His voice was proud and powerful, but also tired. “Know I am of the Order Amyr. None should come between me and my tasks. I will act for the good of all, though Gods and men might bar my way.”

“Sir,” the beggar said, “I’m just hoping for a piece of fire and some charity on a long road.”

The Amyr gestured the old man forward. He was armored in a suit of bright steel rings, and his sword was tall as a man. His tabard was of shining white, but from the elbows the color darkened into crimson, as if dipped in blood. In the center of his chest, he wore the symbol of the Amyr: the black tower wrapped in a crimson flame.

The old man sat near the fire and gave a sigh as the heat soaked into his bones.

After a moment, the Amyr spoke, “I’m afraid I can offer you nothing to eat. My horse eats better than I do tonight, but that does not mean that he eats well.”

“Anything would be a lovely help,” the old man said. “Scraps are more than what I have. I am not proud.”

The Amyr sighed. “Tomorrow I must ride fifty miles to stop a trial. If I fail or falter, an innocent woman will die. This is all I have.” The Amyr gestured to a piece of cloth with a crust of bread and a sliver of cheese. Both of them together would hardly be enough to dent the old man’s hunger. It made a poor dinner for a man as large as the Amyr.

“Tomorrow I must ride and fight,” the armored man said. “I need my strength. So I must weigh your night of hunger against this woman’s life.” As he spoke, the Amyr raised his hands and held them palms up, like the plates of a balancing scale.

When he made this motion, the old beggar saw the backs of the Amyr’s hands, and for a second he thought the Amyr had cut himself, and that blood was running between his fingers and down his arms. Then the fire shifted and the beggar saw it was only a tattoo, though he still shivered at the bloody markings on the Amyr’s hands and arms.

He would have done more than shiver had he known all that those markings meant. They showed the Amyr was trusted so completely by the Order that his actions would never be questioned. And as the Order stood behind him, no church, no court, no king could move against him. For he was one of the Ciridae, highest of the Amyr.

If he killed an unarmed man, it was not murder in the Order’s eyes. If he strangled a pregnant woman in the middle of the street, none would speak against him. Should he burn a church or break an old stone bridge, the empire held him blameless, trusting all he did was in the service of the greater good.

But the beggar knew none of this, and so he tried again. “If you don’t have any food to spare, could I have a penny or two?” He thought of the Cealdish camp, and how he might buy a slice of meat or bread.

The Amyr shook his head. “If I did, I would gladly give it. But three days ago I gave the last of my money to a new widower with a hungry child. I have been penniless as you are ever since.” He shook his head, his expression weary and full of regret. “I wish circumstances were different. But I now must sleep, so you must go.”

The old man was hardly happy about this, but there was something in the Amyr’s voice that made him wary. So he creaked back onto his feet and left the fire behind.

Before the warmth of the Amyr’s fire could leave him, the old man tightened his belt and made up his mind to simply walk through ’til morning. Hoping the end of his road might bring him better luck, or at least a meeting with some kinder folk.

So he walked through the center of Faeriniel, and as he did, he saw a circle of great grey stones. Inside that circle was the faint glow of firelight hidden in a well-dug pit. The old man noticed he couldn’t smell a wisp of smoke either, and realized these folk were burning rennel wood, which burns hot and hard, but doesn’t smoke or stink.

Then the old man saw that two of the great shapes were not stones at all. They were wagons. A handful of people huddled round a cookpot in the dim light of the fire.

But the old man didn’t have a shred of hope left, so he kept walking. He was almost past the stones when a voice called out: “Ho there! Who are you, and why do you pass by so quietly at night?”

“I’m nobody,” the old man said. “Just an old beggar, following my road until its end.”

“Why are you out walking instead of settling down to sleep? These roads are not all safe at night,” the voice replied.

“I have no bed,” the old man said. “And tonight I cannot beg or borrow one for all the world.”

“There is one here for you, if you would like it. And a bit of dinner if you’ve a mind to share. No one should walk all day and night besides.” A handsome, bearded man stepped from the concealment of the tall grey stones. He took the old man’s elbow and led him toward the fire, calling ahead, “We have a guest tonight!”

There was a small stir of motion ahead of them, but the night was moonless and their fire was deep in a concealing pit, so the beggar couldn’t see much of what was being done. Curious, he asked, “Why do you hide your fire?”

His host sighed. “Not all folk are filled with love for us. We’re safest by being out of harm’s way. Besides, our fire is small tonight.”

“Why is that?” the beggar asked. “With so many trees, wood should be easy to come by.”

“We went gathering earlier,” the bearded man explained. “But folk called us thieves and shot arrows at us.” He shrugged. “So we make do, and tomorrow will take care of itself.” He shook his head. “But I am talking too much. May I offer you a drink, father?”

“A bit of water, if you can spare it.”

“Nonsense, you will have wine.”

It had been a long time since the beggar had tasted wine, and the thought of it was enough to set his mouth all a-watering. But he knew wine was not the best thing for an empty stomach that had walked all day, so he said, “You are kind, bless you. But water is good enough for me.”

The man at his elbow smiled. “Then have water and wine, each to your desire.” And saying so he brought the beggar to their water barrel.

The old beggar bent and drew up a ladle of water. When it touched his lips it was cool and sweet, but as he drew up the ladle, he couldn’t help but notice the barrel was very nearly empty.

In spite of this, his host urged him, “Take another and wash the dust from your hands and face. I can tell you’ve been on the road for a long and weary while.” So the old beggar took a second dipper of water, and once his hands and face were clean, he felt much refreshed.

Then his host took his elbow again and led him to the fire. “What is your name, father?”

Again the beggar was surprised. It had been years since anyone had cared enough to ask his name. It had been so long he had to stop and think about it for a moment. “Sceop,” he said at last. “I am called Sceop, and you?”

“My name is Terris,” his host said as he made the old man comfortable close to the fire. “This is Silla, my wife, and Wint, our son. This is Shari and Benthum and Lil and Peter and Fent.”

Then Terris brought Sceop wine. Silla gave him a heavy ladle of potato soup, a slice of warm bread, and half a golden summer squash with sweet butter in the bowl of it. It was plain, and there was not a lot, but to Sceop it seemed a feast. And as he ate, Wint kept his cup full of wine, and smiled at him, and sat by his knee and called him grandfather.

The last was too much for the old beggar, and he began to cry softly. Perhaps it was that he was old, and his day had been a long one. Perhaps it was that he was not used to kindness. Perhaps it was the wine. Whatever the reason, tears began to trickle down his face and lose themselves in his deep white beard.

Terris saw this and was quick to ask, “Father, whatever is the matter?”

“I am a silly old man,” Sceop said, more to himself than to the rest of them. “You have been kinder to me than anyone in years, and I am sorry I cannot repay you.”

Terris smiled and laid a hand on the old man’s back. “Would you really like to pay?”

“I cannot. I have nothing to give you.”

Terris’s smile widened. “Sceop. We are the Edema Ruh. The thing we value most is something everyone possesses.” One by one, Sceop saw the faces around the fire look up at him expectantly. Terris said, “You could tell us your story.”

Not knowing what else to do, Sceop began to speak. He told how he had come to Faeriniel. How he had walked from one fire to the next, hoping for charity. At first his voice faltered and his story stumbled, for he had been alone a long time and was not used to talking. But soon his voice became stronger, his words bolder, and as the fire flickered and reflected in his bright blue eyes, his hands danced along with his old dried voice. Even the Edema Ruh, who know all the stories in the world, could do nothing but listen in wonder.

When his story came to an end the troupers stirred as if waking from a deep sleep. For a moment they did nothing but look at each other, then they looked at Sceop.

Terris knew what they were thinking. “Sceop,” he asked gently. “Where were you headed, when I stopped you tonight?”

“I was going to Tinuë,” said Sceop, who was a little embarrassed at how caught up in the story he had become. His face was hot and red, and he felt foolish.

“We are bound for Belenay ourselves,” Terris said. “Would you consider coming with us instead?”

For a moment Sceop’s face lit with hope, but then it fell. “I would be nothing but a burden. Even a beggar has his pride.”

Terris laughed. “You would tell the Edema about pride? We do not ask you out of pity. We ask because you belong in our family, and we would have you tell us a dozen dozen stories in the years to come.”

The beggar shook his head. “My blood is not yours. I am not a part of your family.”

“What does that have to do with the price of butter?” Terris asked. “We Ruh decide who is a part of our family and who is not. You belong with us. Look around and see if I am lying.”

Sceop looked up at the circle of faces and saw what Terris said was true.

And so the old man stayed, and lived with them for many years before they parted ways. Many things he saw, and many stories he told, and everyone was wiser in the end because of it.

This thing happened, though it was years and miles away. I have heard it from the mouths of the Edema Ruh, and thus I know it to be true.

CHAPTER THIRTY-EIGHT

Kernels of Truth

“IS THAT THE END?” Simmon asked after a polite pause. He was on his back, looking up at the stars.

“Yes.”

“It didn’t end the way I thought it would,” he said.

“What did you expect?”

“I was waiting to find out who the beggar really was. I thought as soon as someone was nice to him, he would turn out to be Taborlin the Great. Then he would give them his walking stick and a sack of money and …I don’t know. Make something magical happen.”

Wilem spoke up. “He’d say, ‘Whenever you are in danger knock this stick on the ground and say “stick be quick,” ’ and then the stick would whirl around and defend them from whoever was attacking them.” Wilem was lying on his back in the tall grass, too. “I didn’t think he was really an old beggar.”

“Old beggars in stories are never really old beggars,” Simmon said with hint of accusation in his voice. “They’re always a witch or a prince or an angel or something.”

“In real life old beggars are almost always old beggars,” I pointed out. “But I know what kind of story you two are thinking about. Those are stories we tell other people to entertain them. This story is different. It’s one we tell each other.”

“Why tell a story if it’s not entertaining?”

“To help us remember. To teach us—” I made a vague gesture. “Things.”

“Like exaggerated stereotypes?” Simmon asked.

“What do you mean by that?” I asked, nettled.

“ ‘Tie him to the wagon and make him pull’?” Simmon made a disgusted noise. “I’d be offended if I didn’t know you.”

“If I didn’t know you,” I said hotly,“I’d be offended. Do you know Aturans used to kill people if they found them living on the road? One of your emperors declared them to be detrimental to the empire. Most were little more than beggars who had lost their homes because of the wars and taxes. Most were simply press-ganged into military service.”

I tugged at the front of my shirt. “But the Edema were especially prized. They hunted us like foxes. For a hundred years Ruh-hunt was a favorite pastime among the Aturan upper crust.”

A profound silence fell. My throat hurt, and I realized I’d been shouting.

Simmon’s voice was muffled. “I didn’t know that.”

I kicked myself mentally and sighed. “I’m sorry Simmon. It’s a … It was a long time ago. And it’s not your fault. It’s an old story.”

“It would have to be, to have a reference to the Amyr,” Wilem said, obviously trying to change the subject. “They disbanded what? Three hundred years ago?”

“Still,” I said. “There’s some truth in most stereotypes. A seed they sprouted from.”

“Basil is from Vintas,” Wil said. “And he is odd about certain things. Sleeps with a penny underneath his pillow, that sort of thing.”

“On my way to the University I traveled with a pair of Adem mercenaries,” Simmon said. “They didn’t talk to anyone except each other. And they were restless and fidgety.”

Wilem spoke hesitantly. “I will admit to knowing many Cealdim who take great care to line their boots with silver.”

“Purses,” Simmon corrected him. “Boots are for putting your feet in.” He wiggled a foot to illustrate.

“I know what a boot is,” Wilem said crossly. “I speak this vulgar language better than you do. Boot is what we say, Patu. Money in your purse is for spending. Money you plan to keep is in your boot.”

“Oh,” Simmon said thoughtfully. “I see. Like saving it for a rainy day, I guess.”

“What do you do with money when it rains?” Wilem asked, genuinely puzzled.

“And there’s more to the story than you think,” I interjected quickly before things digressed any further. “The story holds a kernel of truth. If you promise to keep it to yourselves, I will tell you a secret.”

I felt their attention sharpen onto me. “If you ever accept the hospitality of a traveling troupe, and they offer you wine before anything else, they are Edema Ruh. That part of the story is true.” I held up a finger to caution them. “But don’t take the wine.”

“But I like wine,” Simmon said piteously.

“That doesn’t matter,” I said. “Your host offers you wine, but you insist on water. It might even turn into a competition of sorts, the host offering more and more grandly, the guest refusing more and more politely. When you do this, they will know you are a friend of the Edema, that you know our ways. They will treat you like family for the night, as opposed to being a mere guest.”

The conversation lulled as they absorbed this piece of information. I looked up at the stars, tracing the familiar constellations in my head. Ewan the hunter, the crucible, the young-again mother, the fire-tongued fox, the broken tower… .

“Where would you go if you could go anywhere?” Simmon’s question came out of the blue.

“Across the river,” I said. “Bed.”

“No no,” he protested, “I mean if you could go anywhere in the world.”

“Same answer,” I said. “I’ve been a lot of places. This is where I’ve always wanted to go.”

“But not forever,” Wilem said. “You don’t want to be here forever, do you?”

“That’s what I meant,” Simmon added. “We all want to be here. But none of us want to be here forever.”

“Except Manet,” Wil said.

“Where would you go?” Simmon pursued his point doggedly. “For adventure?”

I thought for a moment, quietly. “I guess I’d to go to the Tahlenwald,” I said.

“Among the Tahl?” Wilem asked. “They’re a primitive nomadic people, from what I’ve heard.”

“Technically speaking, the Edema Ruh are a nomadic people,” I said dryly. “I heard a story once that said the leaders of their tribes aren’t great warriors, they’re singers. Their songs can heal the sick and make the trees dance.” I shrugged. “I’d go there and find out if it was true.”

“I would go to the Faen Court,” Wilem said.

Simmon laughed. “You can’t pick that.”

“Why not?” Wilem said with a quick anger. “If Kvothe can go to a singing tree, I can go into Faen and dance with Embrula … with Faen women.”

“The Tahl is real,” Simmon protested. “Faerie stories are for drunks, halfwits, and children.”

“Where would you go?” I asked Simmon to keep him from antagonizing Wilem.

There was a long pause. “I don’t know,” he said, his voice oddly empty of any inflection. “I haven’t been anywhere, really. I only came to the University because after my brothers inherit and my sister gets her dowry there isn’t going to be much for me except the family name.”

“You didn’t want to come here?” I asked, disbelief coloring my voice.

Sim made a noncommittal shrug, and I was about to ask him something else when I was interrupted by the sound of Wilem getting noisily to his feet. “Are we feeling up to the bridge now?”

My head felt remarkably clear. I got to my feet with only a slight wobble. “Fine by me.”

“Just a second.” Simmon started to undo his pants as he moved toward the trees.

As soon as he was out of sight, Wilem leaned close to me. “Don’t ask about his family,” he said quietly. “It is not easy for him to speak about. Worse when he is drunk.”

“What—”

He made a sharp motion with his hand, shaking his head. “Later.”

Simmon bumbled back into the clearing, and the three of us made our silent way back to the road, then over Stonebridge and into the University.

CHAPTER THIRTY-NINE

Contradictions

LATE NEXT MORNING, WIL and I made our way to the Archives to meet up with Sim and settle our bets of the night before.

“The problem is his father,” Wilem explained in low tones as we made our way between the grey buildings. “Sim’s father holds a duchy in Atur. Good land, but—”

“Hold on,” I interrupted. “Our little Sim’s father is a duke?”

“Little Sim,” Wilem said dryly, “is three years older than you and two inches taller.”

“Which duchy?” I asked. “And he’s not that much taller.”

“Dalonir,” Wilem said. “But you know how it is. Noble blood from Atur. Small wonder he does not speak of it.”

“Oh come on,” I chided, gesturing to the students filling the street around us. “The University has the most open-minded atmosphere since the church burned Caluptena to the ground.”

“I notice you do not make any loud announcement that you’re Edema Ruh.”

I bristled. “Are you implying I’m embarrassed?”

“I am saying you make no loud announcement,” Wil said calmly, giving me a steady look. “Neither does Simmon. I imagine you both have your reasons.”

Pushing down my irritation, I nodded.

Wilem continued. “Dalonir is in the north of Aturna, so they are reasonably well off. But he has three older brothers and two sisters. The first son inherits. The father bought the second a military commission. The third was placed in the church. Simmon …” Wilem trailed off suggestively.

“I have a hard time imagining Sim as a priest,” I admitted. “Or a soldier, come to think of it.”

“And so Sim ends up at the University,” Wilem finished. “His father was hoping he would become a diplomat. Then Sim discovered he liked alchemy and poetry and entered the Arcanum. His father was not entirely pleased.” Wilem gave me a significant look and I gathered he was drastically understating the case.

“Being an arcanist is a remarkable thing!” I protested. “Much more impressive than being a perfumed toady in some court.”

Wilem shrugged. “His tuition is paid. His allowance continues.” He paused to wave at someone on the other side of the courtyard. “But Simmon does not go home. Not for even a brief visit. Sim’s father likes to hunt, fight, drink, and wench. I suspect our gentle, bookish Sim was probably not given the love a clever son deserves.”

Wil and I met up with Sim in our usual reading hole and clarified the details of our drunken wagers. Then we went our separate ways.

An hour later I returned with a modest armload of books. My search had been made considerably easier by the fact that I’d been researching the Amyr since Nina had arrived and given me her scroll.

I knocked softly on the door of the reading hole, then let myself in. Wil and Sim were already sitting at the table.

“Me first,” Simmon said happily. He consulted a list, then pulled a book from his stack. “Page one hundred and fifty two.” He leafed through until he found the page and then began to scan it. “Ah-ha! ‘The girl then gave an account of everything…. Blah blah blah … And led them to the place where she stumbled onto the pagan frolic.’” He looked up, pointing at the page. “See? It says pagan right there.”

I sat down. “Let’s see the rest.”

Sim’s second book was more of the same. But the third held something of a surprise.

“ ‘A large preponderance of marker stones in the vicinity, suggesting this area might have been crossed with trade routes in some forgotten past… .’” He trailed off, then shrugged and handed the book to me. “This one seems to be on your side.”

I couldn’t help but laugh. “Didn’t you read these before you brought them here?”

“In an hour?” He gave a laugh of his own. “Not likely, I just used a scriv.”

Wilem gave him a dark look. “No you didn’t. You asked Puppet, didn’t you?”

Simmon assumed an innocent expression, which on his naturally innocent face only served to make him look profoundly guilty. “I might have stopped in to see him,” he hedged. “And he might have happened to suggest a couple books that had information about greystones.” Seeing Wilem’s expression he raised a hand. “Don’t get sniffy on me. It’s backfired anyway.”

“Puppet again,” I grumbled. “Are you ever going to introduce me? The two of you are so tight-lipped about him.”

Wilem shrugged. “You will understand when you meet him.”

Sim’s books divided into three categories. One supported his side, telling of pagan rites and animal sacrifices. The other speculated about an ancient civilization that used them as marker stones for roads, despite the fact that some were located on sheer mountainsides or river bottoms where no road could be.

His final book was interesting for other reasons:

“… a pair of matched stone monoliths with a third across the top,” Simmon read. “The locals refer to it as the door-post. While spring and summer pageants involve decorating and dancing around the stone, parents forbid their children from spending time near it when the moon is full. One well-respected and otherwise reasonable old man claimed …”

Sim broke off reading. “Whatever,” he said disgustedly and moved to close the book.

“Claimed what?” Wilem asked, his curiosity piqued.

Simmon rolled his eyes and continued reading, “Claimed at certain times men could pass through the stone door into the fair land where Felurian herself abides, loving and destroying men with her embrace.”

“Interesting,” Wilem murmured.

“No it isn’t. It’s childish, superstitious bunk,” Simmon said testily. “And none of this is getting us any closer to deciding who is right.”

“How do you count them, Wilem?” I asked. “You’re our impartial judge.”

Wilem moved to the table and looked through the books. His dark eyebrows moved up and down as he considered. “Seven for Simmon. Six for Kvothe. Three contrary.”

We looked briefly at the four books I had brought. Wilem ruled one of them out, which brought the tally to seven for Simmon and ten for me. “Hardly conclusive,” Wilem mused.

“We could declare it a draw,” I suggested magnanimously.

Simmon scowled. Good-natured or not, he hated losing a bet. “Fair enough,” he said.

I turned to Wilem and gave a significant look at the pair of books still untouched on the table. “It looks like our bet will be settled a little more quickly, nia?”

Wilem gave a predatory grin. “Very quickly.” He lifted a book. “Here I have a copy of the proclamation which disbanded the Amyr.” He opened to a marked page and began to read. “‘Their actions will henceforth be held in account by the laws of the empire. No member of the Order shall presume to take upon themselves the right to hear a case, nor to pass judgment in court.’ ”

He looked up smugly. “See? If they had their adjudicating powers revoked, then they must have had some to begin with. So it stands to reason they were a part of the Aturan bureaucracy.”

“Actually,” I said apologetically, “The church has always had judiciary powers in Atur.” I held up one of my two books. “It’s funny you should bring the Alpura Prolycia Amyr. I brought it too. The decree itself was issued by the church.”

Wilem’s expression darkened. “No it wasn’t. It was listed in here as Emperor Nalto’s sixty-third decree.”

Puzzled, we compared our two books and found them directly contradictory.

“Well I guess those cancel each other out,” Sim said. “What else have you guys got?”

“This is Feltemi Reis. The Lights of History,” Wilem grumbled. “It is definitive. I didn’t think I would need any further proof.”

“Doesn’t this bother either of you?” I thumped the two contradictory books with a knuckle. “These shouldn’t be saying different things.”

“We just read twenty books saying different things,” Simmon pointed out. “Why would I have a problem with two more?”

“The purpose of the greystones is speculative. There’s bound to be a variety of opinions. But the Alpura Prolycia Amyr was an open decree. It turned thousands of the most powerful men and women in the Aturan Empire into outlaws. It was one of the primary reasons for the collapse of the empire. There’s no reason for conflicting information.”

“The order has been disbanded for over three hundred years,” Simmon said. “Plenty of time for some contradictions to arise.”

I shook my head, flipping through both of the books. “Contrary opinions are one thing. Contrary facts are another.” I held up my book. “This is The Fall of Empire by Greggor the Lesser. He’s a windbag and a bigot, but he’s the best historian of his age.” I held up Wilem’s book. “Feltemi Reis isn’t nearly the historian, but he’s twice the scholar Greggor was, and scrupulous about his facts.” I looked back and forth between the books, frowning. “This doesn’t make any sense.”

“So what now?” Sim said. “Another draw? That’s disappointing.”

“We need someone to judge,” Wilem said. “A higher authority.”

“Higher than Feltemi Reis?” I asked. “I doubt Lorren can be bothered to settle our bet.”

Wil shook his head, then stood and brushed the wrinkles from the front of his shirt. “It means you finally get to meet Puppet.”

CHAPTER FORTY

Puppet

“THE MOST IMPORTANT THING is to be polite,” Simmon said in a hushed tone as we made our way through a narrow hallway lined with books. Our sympathy lamps shot bands of light through the shelves and made the shadows dance nervously. “But don’t patronize him. He’s a bit—odd, but he’s not an idiot. Just treat him like you would treat anyone else.”

“Except polite,” I said sarcastically, tiring of this litany of advice.

“Exactly,” Simmon said seriously.

“Where are we going, anyway?” I asked, mostly to stop Simmon’s henpecking.

“Sub-three,” Wilem said as he turned to descend a long flight of stone steps. Centuries of use had worn down the stone, making the stairs look as bowed as heavy-laden shelves. As we started down, the shadows made the steps look smooth and dark and edgeless, like an abandoned riverbed worn from the rock.

“Are you sure he’s going to be there?”

Wil nodded. “I don’t think he leaves his chambers very much.”

“Chambers?” I asked. “He lives here?”

Neither of them said anything as Wilem led the way down another flight of stairs, then through a long stretch of wide hallway with a low ceiling. Finally we came to an unremarkable door tucked into a corner. If I hadn’t known better I would have assumed it was one of the countless reading holes scattered throughout the Stacks.

“Just don’t do anything to upset him,” Simmon said nervously.

I assumed my most polite expression as Wilem rapped on the door. The handle began to turn almost immediately. The door opened a crack, then was thrown wide. Puppet stood framed in the doorway, taller than any of us. The sleeves of his black robe billowed strikingly in the breeze of the opening door.

He stared at us haughtily for a moment, then looked puzzled and brought a hand to touch the side of his head. “Wait, I’ve forgotten my hood,” he said, and kicked the door closed.

Odd as his brief appearance had been, I’d noticed something more disturbing. “Burned body of God,” I whispered. “He’s got candles in there. Does Lorren know?”

Simmon opened his mouth to answer when the door was thrown wide again. Puppet filled the doorway, his dark robe striking against the warm candlelight behind him. He was hooded now, with his arms upraised. The long sleeves of his robes caught the inrush of air and billowed impressively. The same rush of air caught his hood and blew it partway off his head.

“Damn,” he said in a distracted voice. The hood settled half on, half off his head, partially covering one eye. He kicked the door shut again.

Wilem and Simmon remained straight-faced. I refrained from any comment.

There was a moment of quiet. Finally a muffled voice came from the other side of the door. “Would you mind knocking again? It doesn’t seem quite right otherwise.”

Obediently, Wilem stepped back up to the door and knocked. Once, twice, then the door swung open and we were confronted with a looming figure in a dark robe. His cowled hood shadowed his face, and the long sleeves of his robe stirred in the wind.

“Who calls on Taborlin the Great?” Puppet intoned, his voice resonant, but slightly muted by the deep hood. A hand pointed dramatically. “You! Simmon!” There was a pause, and his voice lost its dramatic resonance. “I’ve seen you already today, haven’t I?”

Simmon nodded. I could sense the laughter tumbling around in him, trying to find a way out.

“How long ago?”

“About an hour.”

“Hmm.” The hood nodded. “Was I better this time?” He reached up to push the hood back and I noticed the robe was too big for him, the sleeves hanging down to his fingertips. When his face emerged from the hood he was grinning like a child playing dress-up in his parents’ clothes.

“You weren’t doing Taborlin before,” Simmon admitted.

“Oh.” Puppet seemed a little put out. “How was I this time? The last time, I mean. Was it a good Taborlin?”

“Pretty good,” Simmon said.

Puppet looked at Wilem.

“I liked the robe,” Wil said. “But I always imagined Taborlin with a gentle voice.”

“Oh.” He finally looked at me. “Hello.”

“Hello,” I said in my politest tone.

“I don’t know you.” A pause. “Who are you?”

“I am Kvothe.”

“You seem so certain of it,” he said, looking at me intently. Another pause. “They call me Puppet.”

“Who is ‘they?’ ”

“Who are they?” he corrected, raising a finger.

I smiled. “Who are they then?”

“Who were they then?”

“Who are they now?” I clarified, my smile growing wider.

Puppet mirrored my smile in a distracted way and made a vague gesture with one hand. “You know, them. People.” He continued to stare at me the same way I might examine an interesting stone or a type of leaf I’d never seen before.

“What do you call yourself?” I asked.

He seemed a little surprised, and his eyes focused onto me in a more ordinary way. “That would be telling, I suspect,” he said with a touch of reproach. He glanced at the silent Wilem and Simmon. “You should come in now.” He turned and walked inside.

The room wasn’t particularly large. But it seemed bizarrely out of place, nestled in the belly of the Archives. There was a deep padded chair, a large wooden table, and a pair of doorways leading into other rooms.

Books were everywhere, overflowing shelves and bookcases. They were piled on the floor, scattered across tables and stacked on chairs. A pair of drawn curtains against one wall surprised me. My mind struggled with the impression that there must be a window behind them, despite the fact that I knew we were deep underground.

The room was lit with lamps and candles, long tapers and thick dripping pillars of wax. Each tongue of flame filled me with vague anxiety as I thought of open fire in a building filled with hundreds of thousands of precious books.

And there were puppets. They hung from shelves and pegs on walls. They lay crumpled in corners and under chairs. Some were in the process of being built or repaired, scattered among tools across the tabletop. There were shelves full of figurines, each cleverly carved and painted in the shape of a person.

On his way to his table, Puppet shrugged out of the black robe and let it fall carelessly to the floor. He was dressed plainly underneath, wrinkled white shirt, wrinkled dark pants, and mismatched socks much mended in the heel. I realized he was older than I’d thought. His face was smooth and unlined, but his hair was pure white and thin on top.

Puppet cleared a chair for me, carefully removing a small string puppet from the seat and finding it a place on a nearby shelf. He then took a seat at the table, leaving Wilem and Simmon standing. To their credit, they didn’t seem terribly disconcerted.

Digging a little in the clutter on the table he brought out an irregularly shaped piece of wood and a small knife. He took another long, searching look at my face, then began to methodically whittle, curls of wood falling onto the tabletop.

Oddly enough, I had no desire to ask anyone what was going on. When you ask as many questions as I do, you learn when they are appropriate.

Besides, I knew what the answers would be. Puppet was one of the talented, not-quite-sane people who had found a niche for themselves at the University.

Arcanum training does unnatural things to students’ minds. The most notable of these unnatural things is the ability to do what most people call magic and we call sympathy, sygaldry, alchemy, naming, and the like.

Some minds take to it easily, others have difficulty. The worst of these go mad and end up in Haven. But most minds don’t shatter when subjected to the stress of the Arcanum, they simply crack a little. Sometimes these cracks showed in small ways: facial tics, stuttering. Other students heard voices, grew forgetful, went blind, went dumb…. Sometimes it was only for an hour or a day. Sometimes it was forever.

I guessed Puppet was a student who had cracked years ago. Like Auri, he seemed to have found a place for himself, though I marveled at the fact that Lorren let him live down here.

“Does he always look like this?” Puppet asked Wilem and Simmon. A small drift of pale wood shavings had gathered around his hands.

“Mostly,” Wilem said.

“Like what?” Simmon asked.

“Like he’s just thought through his next three moves in a game of tirani and figured out how he’s going to beat you.” Puppet took another long look at my face and shaved another thin strip of wood away. “It’s rather irritating, really.”

Wilem barked a laugh. “That’s his thinking face, Puppet. He wears it a lot, but not all the time.”

“What’s tirani?” Simmon asked.

“A thinker,” Puppet mused. “What are you thinking now?”

“I’m thinking you must be a very careful watcher of people, Puppet,” I said politely.

Puppet snorted without looking up. “What use is care? What good is watching for that matter? People are forever watching things. They should be seeing. I see the things I look at. I am a see-er.”

He looked at the piece of wood in his hand, then to my face. Apparently satisfied, he folded his hands over the top of his carving, but not before I glimpsed my own profile cunningly wrought in wood. “Do you know what you have been, what you are not, and what you will be?” He asked.

It sounded like a riddle. “No.”

“A see-er,” he said with certainty. “Because that is what E’lir means.”

“Kvothe is actually a Re’lar,” Simmon said respectfully.

Puppet sniffed disparagingly. “Hardly,” he said, looking at me closely. “You might be a see-er eventually, but not yet. Now you are a look-er. You’ll be a true E’lir at some point. If you learn to relax.” He held out the carved wooden face. “What do you see here?”

It was no longer an irregular piece of wood. My features, locked in serious contemplation, stared out of the wood grain. I leaned forward to get a closer look.

Puppet laughed and threw up his hands. “Too late!” he exclaimed, looking childlike for a moment. “You looked too hard and didn’t see enough. Too much looking can get in the way of seeing, you see?”

Puppet set the carved face on the tabletop so it seemed to be staring at one of the recumbent puppets. “See little wooden Kvothe? See him looking? So intent. So dedicated. He’ll look for a hundred years, but will he ever see what is in front of him?” Puppet settled back in his seat, his eyes wandering the room in a contented way.

“E’lir means see-er?” Simmon asked. “Do the other ranks mean things too?”

“As a student with full access to the Archives, I imagine you can find that out for yourself,” Puppet said. His attention focused on a puppet on the table in front of him. He lowered it to the floor carefully to avoid tangling its strings. It was a perfect miniature of a grey-robed Tehlin priest.

“Would you have any advice as to where he could start looking?” I asked, playing a hunch.

“Renfalque’s Dictum.” Under Puppet’s direction, the Tehlin puppet raised himself from the floor and moved each of his limbs as if he were stretching after a long sleep.

“I’m not familiar with that one.”

Puppet responded in a distracted voice. “It’s on the second floor in the southeast corner. Second row, second rack, third shelf, right-hand side, red leather binding.” The miniature Tehlin priest walked slowly around Puppet’s feet. Clutched tightly in one hand was a tiny replica of the Book of the Path, perfectly fashioned, right down to the tiny spoked wheel painted on the cover.

The three of us watched Puppet pull the strings of the little priest, making it walk back and forth before finally coming to sit on one of Puppet’s stocking-clad feet.

Wilem cleared his throat respectfully. “Puppet?”

“Yes?” Puppet replied without looking up from his feet. “You have a question. Or rather, Kvothe has a question and you’re thinking of asking it for him. He is sitting slightly forward in his seat. There is a furrow between his brows and a pursing of the lips that gives it away. Let him ask me. It might do him good.”

I froze in place, catching myself doing each of the things he had mentioned. Puppet continued to work the strings of his little Tehlin. It made a careful, fearful search of the area around his feet, brandishing the book in front of itself before stepping around table legs and peering into Puppet’s abandoned shoes. Its movements were uncanny, and it distracted me to the point where I forgot I was uncomfortable and felt myself relax.

“I was wondering about the Amyr, actually.” My eyes remained on the scene unfolding at Puppet’s feet. Another marionette had joined the show, a young girl in a peasant dress. She approached the Tehlin and held out a hand as if trying to give him something. No, she was asking him a question. The Tehlin turned his back on her. She laid a timid hand on his arm. He took a haughty step away. “I was wondering who disbanded them. Emperor Nalto or the church.”

“Still looking,” he admonished more gently then before. “You need to go chase the wind for a while, you are too serious. It will lead you into trouble.” The Tehlin suddenly turned on the girl. Trembling with rage, it menaced her with the book. She took a startled step backward and stumbled to her knees. “The church disbanded them of course. Only an edict from the pontifex had the ability to affect them.” The Tehlin struck the girl with the book. Once, twice, driving her to the ground, where she lay terribly still. “Nalto couldn’t have told them to cross to the other side of the street.”

Some slight motion drew Puppet’s eye. “Oh dear me,” he said, cocking his head toward Wilem. “See what I see. The head bows slightly. The jaw clenches, but the eyes aren’t fixed on anything, aiming the irritation inward. If I were the sort of person who judged by looking, I’d guess Wilem had just lost a bet. Don’t you know the church frowns on gambling?” At Puppet’s feet, the priest brandished the book upward at Wilem.

The Tehlin brought its hands together and turned away from the crumpled woman. It took a stately step or two away and bowed its head as if praying.

I managed to pull my attention away from the tableau and look up at our host. “Puppet?” I asked, “Have you read the Lights of History by Feltemi Reis?”

I saw Simmon give Wilem an anxious look, but Puppet didn’t seem to find anything odd about the question. The Tehlin at his feet stood and started to dance and caper about. “Yes.”

“Why would Reis say the Apura Prolycia Amyr was Emperor Nalto’s sixty-third decree?”

“Reis wouldn’t say any such thing,” Puppet said without looking up from the marionette at his feet. “That’s pure nonsense.”

“But we found a copy of Lights that said exactly that,” I pointed out.

Puppet shrugged, watching the Tehlin dance at his feet.

“It could be a transcription mistake,” Wilem mused. “Depending on the edition of the book, the church itself might be responsible for changing that piece of information. Emperor Nalto is history’s favorite whipping boy. It could be the church trying to distance itself from the Amyr. They did some terrible things toward the end.”

“Clever clever,” Puppet said. At his feet the Tehlin made a sweeping bow in Wilem’s direction.

I was struck by a sudden idea. “Puppet,” I asked. “Do you know what is behind the locked door on the floor above this one? The large stone door?”

The Tehlin stopped dancing and Puppet looked up. He gave me a long, stern look. His eyes were serious and clear. “I don’t think the four-plate door should be of any concern to a student. Do you?”

I felt myself flush. “No sir.” I looked away from his eyes.

The tension of the moment was broken by the distant sound of the belling tower. Simmon cursed softly. “I’m late,” he said. “I’m sorry Puppet, I’ve got to go.”

Puppet stood and hung the Tehlin on the wall. “It’s time I got back to my reading, regardless,” he said. He moved to the padded chair, sat, and opened a book. “Bring this one back some time.” He gestured in my direction without looking up from his book. “I have some more work to do on him.”

CHAPTER FORTY-ONE

The Greater Good

I LOOKED UP AT SIMMON and whispered, “Ivare enim euge.”

Sim gave a despairing sigh. “You are supposed to be studying your physiognomy.”

It had been a full span since we had set fire to Ambrose’s rooms, and winter was finally showing its teeth, covering the University with knee-deep drifts of blowing snow. As was always the case when the weather turned inclement, the Archives were full to the brim with industrious students.

Since all the reading holes were occupied, Simmon and I had been forced to bring our books to Tomes. The high-ceilinged, windowless room was more than half full today, but still quiet as a crypt. All the dark stone and muted whispers made the place slightly eerie, making it obvious why students referred to it as Tombs.

“I am studying my physiognomy,” I protested softly. “I was looking at some of Gibea’s diagrams. Look what I found.” I held out a book for him to see.

“Gibea?” Simmon whispered, horrified. “I swear the only reason you study with me is so you can interrupt.” He pulled away from the book I was offering him.

“It’s nothing grotesque,” I protested. “Just … here. Just look at what it says here.” Simmon shoved the book away, and my temper flared. “Careful!” I hissed. “This is one of his originals. I found it behind some other books, buried in Dead Ledgers. Lorren will cut off my thumbs if anything happens to it.”

Sim recoiled from the book as if it were red-hot. “An original? Merciful Tehlu, it’s probably written on human skin. Get it away from me!”

I almost joked about how human skin probably wouldn’t take ink, but decided against it when I saw the expression on Sim’s face. Still, my expression must have given me away.

“You’re perverse,” he spat, his voice almost rising to unacceptable levels. “God’s mother, don’t you know he cut apart living men to watch their organs work? I refuse to look at anything that monster was responsible for.”

I set the book down. “You might as well give up studying medicine then,” I said as gently as possible. “Gibea’s research on the human body was the most thorough ever done. His journals are the backbone of modern physic.”

Simmon’s face stayed hard and he leaned forward so he could speak softly and still be heard. “When the Amyr moved against the duke, they found the bones of twenty thousand people. Great pits of bones and ashes. Women and children. Twenty thousand!” Simmon sputtered a bit before he could continue. “And those are just the ones they found.”

I let him calm himself a bit before I said, “Gibea wrote twenty-three volumes concerning the machinery of the body,” I pointed out as gently as I could. “When the Amyr moved against him, part of his estate burned, four of those volumes and all his notes were lost. Ask Master Arwyl what he would give to have those volumes whole again.”

Simmon brought his hand down hard on the tabletop, causing several students to look in our direction. “Dammit!” he hissed. “I grew up thirty miles from Gibea! From my father’s hills you can see the ruins on a cloudless day!”

That stilled me. If Sim’s family lands were that close, his ancestors must have been fealty-bound to Gibea. That meant they might have been forced to help him gather subjects for his experiments. Some of his family might have ended up in the pits of bone and ash themselves.

I waited a long while before I whispered again, “I didn’t know.”

He regained most of his composure. “We don’t talk about it,” he said stiffly, brushing the hair out of his eyes.

We bent to our studies, and it was an hour before Simmon spoke again. “What did you find?” he asked too casually, as if not wanting to admit his curiosity.

“Here on the inner leaf,” I whispered excitedly. I opened the cover and Sim’s face twisted unconsciously as he looked down at the page, as if the book smelled of death.

“… spilled it all over.” I heard a voice as a pair of older students strolled into the hall. By their rich clothes I could tell they were both nobility, and while they weren’t shouting, they weren’t making any effort to be quiet, either. “Anisat made him clear up the mess before he let him wash off. He’ll smell like urea for a span of days.”

“What’s here to see?” Simmon asked, looking down at the page. “It’s just his name and the dates.”

“Not the middle, look up at the top. Around the edges of the page.” I pointed at the decorative scrollwork. “Right there.”

“I’d wager a drab the little pug poisons himself before the term’s through,” the other one said, “Were we ever that stupid?”

“I still don’t see anything,” Simmon said softly, making a baffled gesture with both his elbows on the table. “It’s pretty enough if you like that sort of thing, but I’ve never been a great fan of illuminated texts.”

“We could head to the Twopenny.” The conversation continued several tables away, drawing annoyed looks from surrounding students. “They’ve got a girl there who plays the pipes, I swear you’ve never seen anything like her before. And Linten says if you’ve got a bit of silver she …” His voice dropped conspiratorially.

“She what?” I asked, butting into their conversation as rudely as possible. I didn’t need to shout. In the Tomes a normal speaking voice carries the whole room. “I’m afraid I didn’t quite catch that last bit.”

The two of them gave me affronted looks, but didn’t reply.

“What are you doing?” Sim hissed at me, embarrassed.

“I’m trying to shut them up,” I said.

“Just ignore them,” he said. “Here, I’m looking at your damn book. Show me what you want me to see.”

“Gibea sketched all his own journals,” I said. “This is his original, so it makes sense that he did his own scrollwork too, right?” Sim nodded and brushed his hair back from his eyes. “What do you see there?” I slowly pointed from one piece of scrollwork to another. “Do you see it?”

Sim shook his head.

I pointed again, more precisely. “There,” I said, “and there in the corner.”

His eyes widened. “Letters! I … v …” he paused to puzzle them out,“Ivare enim euge. That’s what you were rambling about.” He pushed the book away. “So what’s the point, aside from the fact that he was nearly illiterate in Temic?”

“It’s not Temic.” I pointed out. “It’s Tema. An archaic usage.”

“What is it even supposed to say?” He looked up from his book, his brow creasing. “Toward great good?”

I shook my head. “For greater good,” I corrected. “Sound familiar?”

“I don’t know how long she’ll be there,” one of the loud pair continued. “If you miss her you’ll regret it.”

“I told you, I can’t tonight. Maybe on Felling. I’ll be free on Felling.”

“You should go before then,” I told him. “The Twopenny’s crowded Felling night.”

They gave me irritated looks. “Mind your own business, slipstick,” the taller one said.

That got my back up even more. “I’m sorry, weren’t you talking to me?”

“Did it look like I was talking to you?” he said scathingly.

“It sounded like it,” I said. “If I can hear you three tables away you must want me to be part of your conversation.” I cleared my throat. “The only alternative is that you’re too thick to keep your voice down in the Tomes.”

His face flushed red and he probably would have replied, but his friend said something in his ear and they both gathered their books and left. There was a quiet scattering of applause as the door closed behind them. I gave my audience a smile and a wave.

“The scrivs would have taken care of that,” Sim reproached softly as we leaned back over the table to talk.

“The scrivs weren’t taking care of it,” I pointed out. “Besides, it’s quiet again, and that’s what matters. Now, what does ‘for greater good’ remind you of?”

“The Amyr, of course,” he said. “It’s always the Amyr with you lately. What’s your point?”

“The point,” I whispered excitedly, “is that Gibea was a secret member of the order Amyr.”

Sim gave me a skeptical look. “That’s a bit of a stretch, but I suppose it fits. That was about fifty years before they were denounced by the church. They were pretty corrupt by then.”

I wanted to point out that Gibea wasn’t necessarily corrupt. He was pursuing the Amyr’s purpose, the greater good. While his experiments had been horrifying, his work advanced medicine in ways it was almost impossible to comprehend. His work had probably saved ten times that many lives in the hundreds of years since.

However, I doubted Sim would appreciate my point. “Corrupt or not, he was a secret member of the Amyr. Why else would he hide their credo in the front cover of his journal?”

Simmon shrugged. “Fine, he was one of the Amyr. What does that have to do with the price of butter?”

I threw up my hands in frustration and struggled to keep my voice low. “That means the order had secret members before the church denounced them! That means when the pontifex disbanded them, the Amyr had hidden allies. Allies that could keep them safe. That means the Amyr could still exist today, in secret, pursuing their work in subtle ways.”

I noticed a change in Simmon’s face. At first I thought he was about to agree with me. Then I felt a prickle on the back of my neck and realized the truth. “Hello Master Lorren,” I greeted him respectfully without turning around.

“Speaking with students at other tables is not permitted,” he said from behind me. “You are suspended for five days.”

I nodded and the two of us came to our feet and gathered up our things. Expressionless, Master Lorren reached out a long hand toward me.

I handed Gibea’s journal over without comment and a minute later we were blinking in the chill winter sunlight outside the Archive’s doors. I pulled my cloak around me and stomped the snow off my feet.

“Suspended,” Simmon said. “That was clever.”

I shrugged, more embarrassed than I cared to admit. I hoped one of the other students would explain I was actually trying to keep things quiet, rather than the other way around. “I was just trying to do the right thing.”

Simmon laughed as we began to walk slowly in the direction of Anker’s. He kicked playfully at a small drift of snow. “The world needs people like you,” Simmon said in the tone of voice that let me know he was turning philosophical. “You get things done. Not always the best way, or the most sensible way, but it gets done nonetheless. You’re a rare creature.”

“How do you mean?” I asked, my curiosity piqued.

Sim shrugged. “Like today. Something bothers you, someone offends you, and suddenly you’re off.” He made a quick motion with a flat hand. “You know exactly what to do. You never hesitate, you just see and react.” He was thoughtful for a moment. “I imagine that’s the way the Amyr used to be. Small wonder folk were frightened of them.”

“I’m not always so terribly sure of myself,” I admitted.

Simmon smiled. “I find that strangely reassuring.”

CHAPTER FORTY-TWO

Penance

SINCE STUDYING WASN’T AN option and winter was covering everything in drifts of blowing snow, I decided this was the perfect time to catch up on a few things I’d been letting fall by the wayside.

I tried to pay Auri a visit, but ice covered the rooftops and the courtyard where we usually met was full of drifted snow. I was glad I didn’t see any footprints, as I didn’t think Auri owned shoes, let alone a coat or hat. I would have gone searching for her in the Underthing, but the iron grate in the courtyard was locked and iced over.

I worked a few double shifts in the Medica and played an extra night at Anker’s as an apology for the evening when I’d had to leave early. I worked long hours in the Fishery, calculating, running tests, and casting alloys for my project. I also made a point of catching up on a month of lost sleep.

But there is only so much sleeping one person can do, and by the fourth day of my suspension, I’d run out of excuses. As much as I didn’t want to, I needed to talk to Devi.

By the time I made up my mind to go, the weather had warmed just enough so that the falling snow had turned to sheets of freezing sleet.

It was a miserable walk to Imre. I didn’t have hat or gloves, and the wind-driven sleet soaked my cloak within five minutes. In ten minutes I was wet through to the skin and wishing I’d waited or spent the money on a carriage. The sleet had melted the snow on the road, and the damp slush was inches thick.

I stopped by the Eolian to warm myself a bit before heading to Devi’s. But the building was locked and lightless for the first time I’d ever seen. Small wonder. What noble would come out in this weather? What musician would expose their instrument to the freezing damp?

So I slogged my way through the deserted streets, eventually coming to the alley behind the butcher’s shop. It was the first time I could remember the stairway not smelling of rancid fat.

I knocked on Devi’s door, alarmed by how numb my hand was. I could barely feel my knuckles hitting the door. I waited for a long moment, then knocked again, worried that she might not be in, and I’d come all this way for nothing.

The door opened just a little. Warm lamplight and a single icy blue eye peered out through the crack. Then the door opened wide.

“Tehlu’s tits and teeth,” Devi said. “What are you doing out in this?”

“I thought—”

“No you didn’t,” she said disparagingly. “Get in here.”

I stepped inside, dripping, the hood of my cloak plastered to my head. She closed the door behind me, then locked and bolted it. Looking around I noticed she’d added a second bookshelf, though it was still mostly bare. I shifted my weight and a great mass of damp slush dislodged itself from my cloak and splattered wetly onto the floor.

Devi gave me a long, dispassionate looking over. I could see a fire crackling in the grate on the other side of the room near her desk, but she made no indication that I should come any farther into the room. So I remained where I was, dripping and shivering.

“You never do things the easy way, do you?” she said.

“There’s an easy way?” I asked.

She didn’t laugh. “If you think showing up here half-frozen and looking like a kicked dog is going to improve my disposition toward you, you’re terribly …” She trailed off and looked at me thoughtfully for another long moment. “I’ll be damned,” she said, sounding surprised. “I actually do like seeing you like this. It’s lifting my spirits to an almost irritating degree.”

“It wasn’t really my intention,” I said. “But I’ll take it. Would it help if I caught a terrible cold?”

Devi considered it. “It might,” she admitted. “Penance does involve a certain amount of suffering.”

I nodded, not having to work to look miserable. I dug into my purse with clumsy fingers and brought out a small bronze coin I’d won off Sim playing low-stakes breath several nights ago.

Devi took it. “A penance piece,” she said, unimpressed. “Is this supposed to be symbolic?”

I shrugged, causing more slush to spatter to the floor. “Somewhat,” I said. “I thought of going to a moneychanger and settling my entire debt with you in penance coin.”

“What stopped you?” she asked.

“I realized it would just irritate you,” I said. “And I wasn’t looking forward to paying the moneychanger’s fee.” I fought the urge to looking longingly at the fireplace. “I’ve spent a lot of time trying to think of some gesture that might make a suitable apology to you.”

“You decided it would be best to walk here during the worst weather of the year?”

“I decided it would be best if we talked,” I said. “The weather was just a happy accident.”

Devi scowled and turned toward the fireplace. “Come in then.” She walked over to a chest of drawers near her bed and brought out a thick blue cotton robe. She handed it to me and motioned to a closed door. “Go change out of your wet clothes. Wring them out in the basin or they’ll take forever to dry.”

I did as she said, then brought the clothes out and hung them on the pegs in front of the fire. It felt wonderful to stand so close to the fireplace. In the light of the fire I could see that the skin under my fingernails was actually a little blue.

As much as I wanted to linger and warm myself, I joined Devi at her desk. I noticed that the top of it had been sanded down and revarnished, though it still bore a coal-black ring where the poor-boy had charred the wood.

I felt rather vulnerable sitting there wearing nothing but the robe she’d given me, but there was nothing to be done about it. “After our previous … meeting.” I fought to avoid looking at the charred ring on her desk. “You informed me that the full amount of my loan would be due at the end of the term. Are you willing to renegotiate that?”

“Unlikely,” Devi said crisply. “But rest assured that if you are unable to settle accounts in coin, I’m still in the market for certain pieces of information.” She gave a sharp, hungry smile.

I nodded, she still wanted access to the Archives. “I was hoping you might be willing to reconsider, as you now know the whole story,” I said. “Someone was performing malfeasance against me. I needed to know that my blood was safe.”

I gave her a questioning look. Devi shrugged without taking her elbows off the desk, her expression one of vast indifference.

“What’s more,” I said, meeting her eye. “It is entirely possible that my irrational behavior might have been partially due to the lingering effect of an alchemical poison I was subjected to earlier this term.”

Devi’s expression went stiff. “What?”

She hadn’t known then. That was something of a relief. “Ambrose arranged to have me dosed with the plum bob about an hour before my admissions interview,” I said. “And you sold him the formula.”

“You have a lot of gall!” Devi’s pixie face was outraged and indignant, but it wasn’t convincing. She was off balance and trying too hard.

“What I have,” I said calmly, “is the lingering taste of plum and nutmeg in my mouth, and the occasional irrational desire to choke people for doing nothing more offensive than jostling me on the street.”

Her false outrage fell away. “You can’t prove anything,” she said.

“I don’t need to prove anything,” I said. “I have no desire to see you in trouble with the masters or up against the iron law.” I looked at her. “I just thought you might be interested in the fact that I was poisoned.”

Devi sat very still. She fought to maintain her composure, but guilt was creeping onto her expression. “Was it bad?”

“It was,” I said quietly.

Devi looked away and crossed her arms in front of her chest. “I didn’t know it was for Ambrose,” she said. “Some rich tosh came around. Made a stunningly good offer… .”

She looked back at me. Now that the chilly anger had left her, she looked surprisingly small. “I’d never do business with Ambrose,” she said. “And I didn’t know it was for you. I swear.”

“You knew it was for someone,” I said.

There was a long moment of silence broken only by the occasional crackling of the fire.

“Here’s how I see it,” I said. “Recently, we’ve both done something rather foolish. Something we regret.” I pulled the robe more closely around my shoulders. “And while these two things certainly don’t cancel each other out, it does seem to me that they establish some sort of equilibrium.” I held out my hands like they were the balancing plates on a scale.

Devi gave me a small, embarrassed smile. “Perhaps I was hasty in demanding full repayment.”

I returned the smile and felt myself relax. “How would you feel about sticking to the original terms of our loan?”

“That seems fair.” Devi held out her hand over the desk and I shook it. The last of the tension in the room evaporated and I felt a long-standing piece of worry unknot itself in my chest.

“Your hand is freezing,” Devi said. “Let’s go sit by the fire.”

We relocated ourselves and sat quietly for several minutes.

“Gods below,” Devi said with an explosive sigh. “I was so angry with you.” She shook her head. “I don’t know if I’ve ever been that angry with anyone in my whole life.”

I nodded. “I didn’t really believe you’d stoop to malfeasance,” I said. “I was so sure it couldn’t be you. But everyone kept talking about how dangerous you were. Telling stories. Then when you wouldn’t let me see my blood …” I trailed off, shrugging.

“Are you really still getting after-echoes from the plum bob?” she asked.

“Little flashes,” I said. “And I seem to be losing my temper more easily. But that might just be the stress. Simmon says I probably have unbound principles in my system. Whatever that means.”

Devi scowled. “I’m working with less than ideal equipment here,” she said, gesturing to a closed door. “And I am sorry. But the fellow offered me a full set of the Vautium Tegnostae.” She waved to the bookshelves. “Normally I’d never make something like that, but unexpurgated copies are just impossible to find.”

I turned to look at her, surprised. “You made it for him?”

“It’s better than handing over the formula,” Devi said defensively.

Part of me felt like I should be angry, but the majority of me was simply happy that I was warm and dry, with no threat of death hanging over me. I shrugged it off. “Simmon says you can’t factor worth half a damn,” I said conversationally.

Devi looked down at her hands. “I’m not proud of selling it,” she admitted. Then after a moment, she looked up again, grinning. “But the Tegnostae has gorgeous illustrations.”

I laughed. “Show me.”

Hours later my clothes were dry and the sleet had changed to a gentle snow. Stonebridge would be a solid sheet of ice, but other than that, the walk home would be much more pleasant.

When I emerged from the washroom I saw Devi was sitting back at her desk. I made my way over and handed her the robe. “I won’t impugn your honor by asking why you own a robe much longer and broader in the shoulder than anything a delicate young lady of your size could ever wear.”

Devi snorted indelicately and rolled her eyes.

I sat down and tugged on my boots. They were delightfully warm from sitting near the fire. Then I brought out my purse and lay three heavy silver talents on the desk, pushing them toward her. Devi looked at them curiously.

“I’ve recently come into a little money,” I said. “Not enough to settle my whole debt. But I can pay this term’s interest early.” I waved a hand at the coins. “A gesture of good faith.”

Devi smiled and pushed the coins back across the table. “You’ve still got two span before the end of the term,” she said. “Like I said, let’s stick to our original deal. I’d feel bad about taking your money early.”

Though I’d offered Devi the money as an honest peace offering, I was glad to keep my three talents for now. There is a vast difference between having some coin and no coin. There is a feeling of helplessness that comes from having an empty purse.

It’s like seed grain. At the end of a long winter, if you have some grain left, you can use it for seed. You have control over your life. You can use that grain and make plans for the future. But if you have no grain for seed in the spring, you are helpless. No amount of hard work or good intention will make crops grow if you don’t have the seed to start with.

So I bought clothes: three shirts, a new pair of pants, and thick woolen socks. I bought a hat and gloves and scarf to keep away the winter’s chill. For Auri I bought a pouch of sea salt, a sack of dried peas, two jars of peach preserves, and a pair of warm slippers. I bought a set of lute strings, ink, and a half-dozen sheets of paper.

I also bought a sturdy brass drop-bar and screwed it to the window frame in my tiny garret room. I could circumvent it fairly easily, but it would keep my few possessions safe from even the most well-intentioned thieves.

CHAPTER FORTY-THREE

Without Word or Warning

I STARED OUT THE FRONT window of Anker’s, looking at the falling snow and idly turning Denna’s ring over in my fingers. Winter lay heavy over the University, and Denna had been gone for more than a month. I had three hours before class with Elodin, and I was trying to decide if the slim chance of finding Denna was worth the long, cold walk to Imre.

As I stood at the window, a Cealdish man came through the door, stomping the powdery snow from his boots and looking around curiously. It was still early in the day, and I was the only person in the common room.

He walked over to me, snowflakes melting in his beard until they were bright beads of water. “Sorry to bother you. I’m looking for a fellow.” he said, surprising me with his utter lack of anything resembling a Cealdish accent. He reached inside his long coat and pulled out a thick envelope with a blood-red seal. “Ka-voth-ee.” He read slowly, then turned the envelope toward me so I could see the front.

Kvothe—Anker’s Inn.

University. (Two miles west of Imre.)

Belenay-Barren

Central Commonwealth.

It was Denna’s handwriting. “It’s Kvothe, actually,” I said absentmindedly. “The e is silent.”

He shrugged. “You him?”

“I am,” I said.

He nodded, satisfied. “Well, I got this down in Tarbean about a span back. Bought it off a fellow for a hard penny. He said he bought it off a sailor in Junpui for a Vintish silver bit. He couldn’t remember the name of the town where the sailor had got it from, but it was inland a ways.”

The man met my eye. “I’m tellin’ you this so you don’t think I’m trying to shim you on the deal. I paid a full hard penny, then came over myself from Imre though it was out of my way.” He looked around the common room. “Though I’m guessing a fellow with a fine inn such as this won’t quibble about giving a fellow his due.”

I laughed. “This isn’t my inn,” I said. “I just have a room here.”

“Oh,” he said, obviously a little disappointed. “You looked kinda proprietorial standing there. Still, I’m sure you see I need to make my money off this.”

“I do,” I said. “How much do you think is fair?”

He looked me up and down, eyeing my clothes. “I suppose I’d be happy making my hard penny back and a soft penny besides.”

I brought out my purse and fished around in it. Luckily, I’d been playing cards a few nights before, and had some Aturan currency. “Seems fair,” I said as I handed over the money.

He started to go, then turned back. “Out of curiosity,” he asked. “Would you have paid two hard pennies to get it?”

“Probably,” I admitted.

“Kist,” he swore, then headed back outside, the door banging behind him.

The envelope was heavy parchment, wrinkled and smudged with much handling. The seal showed a stag rampant standing before a barrel and a harp. I pressed it hard between my fingers, shattering it as I sat down.

The letter read:

Kvothe,

I’m sorry to leave Imre without word or warning. I sent You a message the night of my departure, but I expect you never received it.

I have gone abroad looking for greener pasture and better Opportunity. I am fond of Imre, and enjoy the pleasure of your Occasional, though Sporadic, company, but it is an expensive city in which to live, and my prospects have grown slender of late.

Yll is lovely, all rolling hills. I find the weather quite to my liking, it is warmer and the air smells of the sea. It seems I might pass an entire winter without being brought to bed by my lungs. My first in years.

I have spent some time in the Small Kingdoms and saw a skirmish between two bands of mounted men. Such a crashing and Screaming of Horses you have never heard. I have spent some time afloat as well, and learned all manner of sailor’s knots, and how to spit properly. Also, my Cussing has been greatly broadened.

If you ask politely when we next meet, I may demonstrate my newfound skills.

I have seen my first Adem Mercenary. (They call them blood-shirts here.) She is hardly bigger than me, with quite the most remarkable grey eyes. She is pretty, but strange and quiet, endlessly twitching. I have not seen her fight and am not sure I wish to. Though I am curious.

I am still enamoured of the harp. And am currently housing with a skilled gentleman (whom I shall not name) for the furthurinse of my study in this.

I have drunk some wine while Writing this letter. I mention this to excuse my above spelling of the word Furtherence. Furtherance. Kist. You know what I mean.

I apologize for not writing sooner, but I have been a great deal traveling and not until now have I had Means to write a Letter. Now that I have done, I expect it might be a while longer before I find a traveler I trust to start this missive on its long road back to you.

I think of you often and fondly.

Yours,

D.

Pstscrpt. I hope your lute case is serving you well.

Elodin’s class began strangely that day.

For one, Elodin was actually on time. This caught us unprepared as the six remaining students had taken to spending the first twenty or thirty minutes of the class gossiping, playing cards, and griping about how little we were learning. We didn’t even notice Master Namer until he was halfway down the steps of the lecture hall, clapping his hands to get our attention.

The second odd thing was that Elodin was dressed in his formal robes. I’d seen him wear them before when occasion demanded, but always grudgingly. Even during admissions interviews they were usually rumpled and unkempt.

Today he wore them as if he meant it. They looked sharp and freshly laundered. His hair wasn’t in its normal state of dishevel, either. It looked like it had been trimmed and combed.

Reaching the front of the lecture hall, he climbed onto the dais and moved to stand behind the lectern. This more than anything made everyone sit up and take notice. Elodin never used the lectern.

“Long ago,” he said without any preamble, “this was a place where people came to learn secret things. Men and women came to the University to study the shape of the world.”

Elodin looked out at us. “In this ancient University, there was no skill more sought after than naming. All else was base metal. Namers walked these streets like tiny Gods. They did terrible, wonderful things, and all others envied them.

“Only through skill in naming did students move through the ranks. An alchemist without any skill in naming was regarded as a sad thing, no more respected than a cook. Sympathy was invented here, but a sympathist without any naming might as well be a carriage driver. An artificer with no names behind his work was little more than a cobbler or a smith.

“They all came to learn the names of things,” Elodin said, his dark eyes intense, his voice resonant and stirring. “But naming cannot be taught by rule or rote. Teaching someone to be a namer is like teaching someone to fall in love. It is hopeless. It cannot be done.”

Master Namer smiled a bit then, for the first time looking like his familiar self. “Still, students tried to learn. And teachers tried to teach. And sometimes they succeeded.”

Elodin pointed. “Fela!” He motioned for her to approach. “Come.”

Fela stood, looking nervous as she climbed up to join him on the lecturer’s dais.

“You have all chosen the name you hope to learn,” Elodin said, his eyes sweeping over us. “And you have all pursued your studies with varying degrees of dedication and success.”

I fought the urge to look away shamefacedly, knowing that my efforts had been halfhearted at best.

“Where you have failed, Fela has succeeded,” Elodin said. “She has found the name of stone… .” He turned sideways to look at her. “How many times?”

“Eight times,” she said looking down, her hands twisting nervously in front of her.

There was a murmur of genuine awe from all of us. She had never mentioned this in our frequent griping sessions.

Elodin nodded, as if approving of our reaction. “When naming was still taught, we namers wore our prowess proudly. A student who gained mastery over a name would wear a ring as declaration of their skill.” Elodin stretched out a hand in front of Fela and opened it, revealing a river stone, smooth and dark. “And this is what Fela will do now, as proof of her ability.”

Startled, Fela looked at Elodin. Her eyes flickered back and forth between him and the stone, her face growing stricken and pale.

Elodin gave her a reassuring smile. “Come now,” he said gently. “You know in your secret heart you are capable of this. And more.”

Fela bit her lips and took hold of the stone. It seemed bigger in her hands than it had in his. She closed her eyes for a moment and drew a long, deep breath. She let it out slowly, lifted the stone, and opened her eyes so it was the first thing she would see.

Fela stared at the stone and there was a long moment’s silence. The tension in the room built until it was tight as a harp string. The air vibrated with it.

A long minute passed. Two long minutes. Three terribly long minutes.

Elodin sighed gustily, breaking the tension. “No no no,” he said, snapping his fingers near her face to get her attention. He pressed a hand over her eyes like a blindfold. “You’re looking at it. Don’t look at it. Look at it!” He pulled his hand away.

Fela lifted the stone and opened her eyes. At the same moment Elodin gave her a sharp slap on the back of the head with the flat of his hand.

She turned to him, her expression outraged. But Elodin merely pointed at the stone she still held in her hand. “Look!” he said excitedly.

Fela’s eyes went to the stone, and she smiled as if seeing an old friend. She covered it with a hand and brought it close to her mouth. Her lips moved.

There was a sudden, sharp cracking sound, as if a speck of water had been dropped into a pan of hot grease. There followed dozens more, so sharp and quick they sounded like an old man popping his knuckles, or a storm of hailstones hitting a hard slate roof.

Fela opened her hand and a scattering of sand and gravel spilled out. With two fingers she reached into the jumble of loose stone and pulled out a ring of sheer black stone. It was round as a cup and smooth as polished glass.

Elodin laughed in triumph before sweeping Fela into an enthusiastic hug. Fela threw her arms around him wildly in return. They took several quick steps together that were half stagger, half dance.

Still grinning, Elodin held out his hand. Fela gave him the ring, and he looked it over carefully before nodding.

“Fela,” he said seriously. “I hereby promote you to the rank of Re’lar.” He held up the ring. “Your hand.”

Almost shyly, Fela held out her hand. But Elodin shook his head. “Left hand,” he said firmly. “The right means something else entirely. None of you are anywhere near ready for that.”

Fela held out her other hand, and Elodin slid the ring of stone easily onto her finger. The rest of the class broke into applause, rushing close to get a look at what she had done.

Fela gave a radiant smile and held out her hand for all of us to see. The ring wasn’t smooth as I’d first thought. It was covered in a thousand tiny, flat facets. They circled each other in a subtle, swirling pattern unlike anything I’d ever seen before.

CHAPTER FORTY-FOUR

The Catch

DESPITE THE TROUBLE WITH Ambrose, my obsession with the Archives, and my countless fruitless trips to Imre hunting Denna, I managed to finish my project in the Fishery.

I would have liked another span of days to run a few more tests and tinker with it. But I was simply out of time. The admissions lottery was coming up soon, and my tuition would be due not long after. Before I could put my project up for sale, I needed Kilvin to approve my design.

So it was with no small amount of trepidation that I knocked on the door of Kilvin’s office.

The Master Artificer was hunched over his personal worktable, carefully removing the screws from the bronze casing of a compression pump. He didn’t look up as he spoke, “Yes, Re’lar Kvothe?”

“I’m finished, Master Kilvin,” I said simply.

He looked up at me, blinking. “Are you now?”

“Yes, I was hoping to make an appointment so I might demonstrate it to you.”

Kilvin set the screws in a tray and brushed his hands together. “For this I am available now.”

I nodded and led the way through the busy workshop, past Stocks, to the private workroom Kilvin had assigned me. I brought out the key and unlocked the heavy timber door.

It was large as workrooms go, with its own fire well, anvil, fume hood, drench, and other assorted staples of the artificing trade. I’d pushed the worktable aside to leave half of the room empty except for several thick bales of straw stacked against the wall.

Hanging from the ceiling in front of the bales was a crude scarecrow. I’d dressed it in my burned shirt and a pair of sackcloth pants. Part of me wished I’d run a few more tests in the time it had taken to sew the pants and stuff the straw man. But at the end of the day, I am a trouper first and all else second. As such, I couldn’t ignore the chance for a little showmanship.

I closed the door behind us while Kilvin looked around the room curiously. Deciding to let my work speak for itself, I brought out the crossbow and handed it to him.

The huge master’s expression went dark. “Re’lar Kvothe,” he said, his voice heavy with disapproval. “Tell me you have not squandered the labor of your hands on the improvement of such a beastly thing.”

“Trust me, Master Kilvin,” I said, holding it out to him.

He gave me a long look, then took the crossbow and began to examine it with the meticulous care of a man who spent every day working with deadly equipment. He fingered the tightly woven string and eyed the curved metal arm of the bow.

After several long minutes he nodded, put one foot through the stirrup, and cocked it without any noticeable effort. Idly, I wondered how strong Kilvin was. My shoulders ached and my hands were blistered from struggling with the unwieldy thing over the last several days.

I handed him the heavy bolt and he examined it as well. I could see him looking increasingly perplexed. I knew why. The bow didn’t have any obvious modifications or sygaldry. Neither did the bolt.

Kilvin slotted the bolt into the crossbow and raised an eyebrow at me.

I made an expansive gesture to the straw man, trying to look more confident than I felt. My hands were sweating and my stomach was full of doves. Tests were fine and good. Tests were important. Tests were like rehearsal. But all that really matters is what happens when the audience is watching. This is a truth all troupers know.

Kilvin shrugged and raised the crossbow. It looked small braced against his broad shoulder, and he took a moment to carefully sight along the top of it. I was surprised to see him calmly draw half a breath, then exhale slowly as he pulled the trigger.

The crossbow jerked, the string twanged, the bolt blurred.

There was a harsh, metallic clank, and the bolt stopped midair as if it had struck an invisible wall. It clattered to the stone floor in the middle of the room, fifteen feet away from the straw man.

Unable to help myself, I laughed and threw my arms triumphantly into the air.

Kilvin raised his eyebrows and looked at me. I grinned a manic grin.

The master retrieved the bolt from the floor and examined it again. Then he recocked the crossbow, sighted, and pulled the trigger.

Clank. The bolt dropped to the floor a second time, skittering slightly to one side.

This time Kilvin spotted the source of the noise. Hanging from the ceiling in the far corner of the room was a metal object the size of a large lantern. It was rocking back and forth and spinning slightly, as if someone had just struck it a glancing blow.

I took it off its hook and brought it back to where Master Kilvin waited at the worktable. “What is this thing, Re’lar Kvothe?” he said curiously.

I set it down on the table with a heavy clunk. “In general terms, Master Kilvin, it’s an automatically triggered kinetic opposition device.” I beamed proudly. “More specifically, it stops arrows.”

Kilvin bent to look at it, but there was nothing to see except for featureless plates of dark iron. My creation looked like nothing so much as a large, eight-sided lantern made entirely of metal.

“And what do you call it?”

That was the one part of my invention I hadn’t managed to finish. I’d thought of a hundred names, but none of them seemed to fit. Arrow-trap was pedestrian. The Traveler’s Friend was prosaic. Banditbane was ridiculously melodramatic. I could never have looked Kilvin in the eye again if I’d tried to call it that.

“I’m having some trouble with the name,” I admitted. “But for now I’m calling it an arrowcatch.”

“Hmmph,” Kilvin grunted. “It does not catch the arrow, precisely.”

“I know,” I said, exasperated. “But it was either that or call it a ‘clank.’ ”

Kilvin looked at me sideways, his eyes smiling a little. “One would think a student of Elodin’s would prove more facile with his naming, Re’lar Kvothe.”

“Delivari had it easy, Master Kilvin,” I said.“He just made a better axle and stuck his name on it. I can’t very well call this ‘the Kvothe.’ ”

Kilvin chuckled. “True.” He turned back to the arrowcatch, eyeing it curiously. “How does it work?”

I grinned and brought out a large roll of paper covered in diagrams, complicated sygaldry, metallurgical symbols, and painstaking formulae for kinetic conversion.

“There are two main parts,” I said. “The first is the sygaldry that automatically forms a sympathetic link with any thin, fast-moving piece of metal within twenty feet. I don’t mind telling you that took me a long couple of days to figure out.”

I tapped the appropriate runes on the piece of paper. “At first I thought that might be enough by itself. I hoped if I bound an incoming arrowhead to a stationary piece of iron, it would absorb the arrow’s momentum and make it harmless.”

Kilvin shook his head. “It has been tried before.”

“I should have realized before I even tried,” I said. “At best it only absorbs a third of the arrow’s momentum, and anyone two-thirds arrowshot is still going to be in a bad way.”

I gestured to a different diagram. “What I really needed was something that could push back against the arrow. And it had to push very fast and very hard. I ended up using the spring steel from a bear trap. Modified, of course.”

I picked up a spare arrowhead from the worktable and pretended it was moving toward the arrowcatch. “First, the arrow comes close and establishes the binding. Second, the incoming arrow’s momentum sets off the trigger, just like stepping on a trap.” I snapped my fingers sharply. “Then the spring’s stored energy pushes back at the arrow, stopping it or even knocking it backward.”

Kilvin was nodding along. “If it needs to be reset after each use, how did it stop my second bolt?”

I pointed to the central diagram. “This wouldn’t be of much use if it only stopped one arrow,” I said. “Or if it only stopped arrows coming from one direction. I designed it to have eight springs in a circle. It should be able to stop arrows from several directions at once.” I shrugged apologetically. “In theory. I haven’t been able to test that.”

Kilvin looked back at the straw man. “Both of my shots came from the same direction,” he said. “How was the second one stopped if that spring had already been triggered?”

I picked up the arrowcatch by the ring I’d set into the top and showed how it could rotate freely. “It hangs on a pivot ring,” I said. “The shock of the first arrow set it spinning slightly, which brought a new spring into alignment. Even if it hadn’t, the energy of the incoming arrow tends to swing it around to the nearest untriggered spring, like a weathervane points into the wind.”

I hadn’t actually planned the last. It had been a lucky accident, but I didn’t see any reason to tell Kilvin that.

I touched the red dots visible on two of the eight iron faces of the arrowcatch. “These show which springs have been triggered.”

Kilvin took it from me and turned it in his hands. “How do you reset the springs?”

I slid a metal device out from under the worktable, little more than a piece of iron with a long lever attached. Then I showed Kilvin the eight-sided hole in the bottom of the arrowcatch. I fit the arrowcatch onto the device and pressed down on the lever with my foot until I heard a sharp click. Then I rotated the arrowcatch and repeated the process.

Kilvin bent to pick it up and turned it over in his huge hands. “Heavy,” he commented.

“It needed to be sturdy,” I said. “A crossbow bolt can punch through a two-inch oak plank. I needed the spring to snap back with at least three times that much force to stop the arrow.”

Kilvin shook the arrowcatch idly, holding it to the side of his head. It didn’t make any noise. “And what if the arrowheads are not made of metal?” he asked. “Vi Sembi raiders are said to use arrows of flint or obsidian.”

I looked down at my hands and sighed. “Well …” I said slowly. “If the arrowheads aren’t some sort of iron, the arrowcatch wouldn’t trigger when they came within twenty feet.”

Kilvin gave a noncommittal grunt and set the arrowcatch back down on the table with a thump.

“But,” I said brightly. “When it came within fifteen feet, any piece of sharp stone or glass would trigger a different set of bindings.” I tapped my schema. I was proud of it, as I’d also had the foresight to inscribe the inset pieces of obsidian with the sygaldry for twice-tough glass. That way they wouldn’t shatter under the impact.

Kilvin glanced at the schema, then grinned proudly and chuckled deep in his chest. “Good. Good. What if the arrow has a head of bone or ivory?”

“The runes for bone aren’t trusted to a lowly Re’lar like myself,” I said.

“And if they were?” Kilvin asked.

“Then I still wouldn’t use them,” I said. “Lest some child doing a cartwheel trigger the arrowcatch with a thin, quickly moving piece of their skull.”

Kilvin nodded his approval. “I was thinking of a galloping horse,” he said. “But you show your wisdom in this. You show you have the careful mind of an artificer.”

I turned back to the schema and pointed. “That said, Master Kilvin, at ten feet a fast-moving cylindrical piece of wood will trigger the arrowcatch.” I sighed. “It’s not a good link, but it’s enough to stop the arrow, or at least deflect it.”

Kilvin bent to examine the schema more closely, his eyes wandering the crowded page for a long couple of minutes. “All iron?” he asked.

“Closer to steel, Master Kilvin. I worried iron would be too brittle in the long term.”

“And each of these eighteen bindings are inscribed on each of the springs?” he asked, gesturing.

I nodded.

“That is a great duplication of effort,” Kilvin said, his tone more conversational than accusatory. “Some might say such a thing is overbuilt.”

“I care very little what other people think, Master Kilvin,” I said. “Only what you think.”

He grunted, then looked up from the paper and turned to face me. “I have four questions.”

I nodded expectantly.

“First, of all things, why make this?” he asked.

“No one should ever die from ambush on the road,” I said firmly.

Kilvin waited, but I had nothing more to say on the matter. After a moment he shrugged and gestured to the other side of the room. “Second, where did you get the …” His brow furrowed slightly. “Tevetbem. The flatbow?”

My stomach clenched at the question. I’d held the vain hope that Kilvin, being Cealdish, wouldn’t know such things were illegal here in the Commonwealth. Barring that, I’d hoped he simply wouldn’t ask.

“I … procured it, Master Kilvin,” I said evasively. “I needed it to test the arrowcatch.”

“Why not use a simple hunter’s bow?” Kilvin said sternly. “And thereby avoid the need of illegal procurement?”

“It would be too weak, Master Kilvin. I needed to be sure my design would stop any arrow, and a crossbow fires a bolt harder than any other.”

“A Modegan longbow is equal of a flatbow,” Kilvin said.

“But the use of one is beyond my skill,” I said. “And the purchase of a Modegan bow is far beyond my means.”

Kilvin let out a deep sigh. “Before, when you made your thief ’s lamp, you made a bad thing in a good way. That I do not like.” He looked down at the schema. “This time you have made a good thing in a bad way. That is better, but not entirely. Best is to make a good thing in a good way. Agreed?”

I nodded.

He lay one massive hand on the crossbow. “Did anyone see you with it?”

I shook my head.

“Then we will say it is mine, and you procured it under my advisement. It will join the equipment in Stocks.” He gave me a hard look. “And in the future you will come to me if you need such things.”

That stung a bit, as I’d been planning on selling it back to Sleat. Still, it could have been worse. The last thing I wanted was to run afoul of the iron law.

“Third, I see no mention of gold wire or silver in your schema,” he said. “Nor can I imagine any use they could be put to in such a device as yours. Explain why you have checked these materials out of Stocks.”

I was suddenly pointedly aware of the cool metal of my gram against the inside of my arm. Its inlay was gold, but I could hardly tell him that. “I was short on money, Master Kilvin. And I needed materials I couldn’t get in Stocks.”

“Such as your flatbow.”

I nodded. “And the straw and the bear traps.”

“Wrong follows wrong,” Kilvin said disapprovingly. “The Stocks are not a moneylender’s stall and should not be used as such. I am rescinding your precious metals authorization.”

I bowed my head, hoping I looked appropriately chastised.

“You will also work twenty hours in Stocks as your punishment. If anyone asks, you will tell them what you did. And explain that as a punishment you were forced to repay the value of the metals plus an additional twenty percent. If you use Stocks as a moneylender, you will be charged interest like a moneylender.”

I winced at that. “Yes, Master Kilvin.”

“Last,” Kilvin said, turning to lay one huge hand on the arrowcatch. “What do you imagine such a thing would sell for, Re’lar Kvothe?”

My heart rose in my chest. “Does that mean you approve it for sale, Master Kilvin?”

The great bearlike artificer gave me a puzzled look. “Of course I approve it, Re’lar Kvothe. It is a wondrous thing. It is an improvement to the world. Every time a person sees such a thing, they will see how artificery is used to keep men safe. They will think well of all artificers for the making of such a thing.”

He looked down at the arrowcatch, frowning thoughtfully. “But if we are to sell it, it must have a price. What do you suggest?”

I’d been wondering on this question for six span. The simple truth was I hoped it would bring me enough money to pay for my tuition and my interest on Devi’s loan. Enough to keep me in the University for one more term.

“I honestly don’t know, Master Kilvin,” I said. “How much would you pay to avoid having a long yard of ash arrow shot through your lung?”

He chuckled. “My lung is quite valuable,” he said. “But let us think in other terms. Materials come to …” He glanced at the schema. “Roughly nine jots, am I correct?”

Uncannily correct. I nodded.

“How many hours did it take you to make?”

“About a hundred,” I said. “Maybe a hundred and twenty. But a lot of that was experimentation and testing. I could probably make another in fifty or sixty hours. Less if moldings are made.”

Kilvin nodded. “I suggest twenty-five talents. Does that seem reasonable to you?”

The sum took my breath away. Even after I repaid Stocks for materials and the workshop took its forty percent commission, it was six times more than I’d earn working on deck lamps. An almost ridiculous amount of money.

I began to agree enthusiastically, then a thought occurred to me. Though it pained me, I slowly shook my head. “Honestly, Master Kilvin. I’d prefer to sell them more cheaply than that.”

He raised an eyebrow. “They will pay it,” he reassured me. “I have seen people pay more for less useful things.”

I shrugged. “Twenty-five talents is a lot of money,” I said. “Safety and peace of mind shouldn’t only be available to those with heavy purses. I think eight would be a great plenty.”

Kilvin looked at me for a long moment, then nodded. “As you say. Eight talents.” He ran his hand over the top of the arrowcatch, almost petting it. “However, as this is the first and only one in existence, I will pay you twenty-five for it. It will go in my personal collection.” He cocked his head at me. “Lhinsatva?”

“Lhin,” I said gratefully, feeling a great weight of anxiety lifting off my shoulders.

Kilvin smiled and nodded toward the table. “I would also like to examine the schema at my leisure. Would you like to make me a copy?”

“For twenty-five talents,” I said, smiling as I slid the paper across the table, “you can have the original.”

Kilvin wrote me a receipt and left, clutching the arrowcatch like a child with a new favorite toy.

I hurried to Stocks with my slip of paper. I had to settle my debt for materials, including the gold wire and silver ingots. But even after the workshop took its commission I was left with almost eleven talents.

I went through the remainder of the day grinning and whistling like an idiot. It is as they say: a heavy purse makes for a light heart.

CHAPTER FORTY-FIVE

Consortation

I SAT ON THE HEARTH at Anker’s with my lute in my lap. The room was warm and quiet, full of people who had come to hear me play.

Felling was my regular night at Anker’s, and it was always busy. Even in the worst weather there weren’t enough chairs, and those who came late were forced to cluster around the bar and lean against walls. Lately, Anker had needed to bring in an extra girl on Felling night just to hurry drinks around the room.

Outside the inn, winter was still clutching at the University, but inside the air was warm and sweet with the smell of beer and bread and broth. Over the months I had slowly trained my audience to be properly attentive while I played, so the room was hushed as I fingered my way through the second verse of “Violet Bide.”

I was in fine form that night. My audience had bought me half a dozen drinks, and in a fit of generosity, a tipsy scriv had tossed a hard penny into my lute case where it lay shining among the dull iron and copper. I’d made Simmon cry twice, and Anker’s new serving girl was smiling and blushing at me with such frequency that even I couldn’t miss the signal. She had beautiful eyes.

For the first time I could remember, I actually felt like I had some control over my life. There was money in my purse. My studies were going well. I had access to the Archives, and despite the fact that I was forced to work in Stocks, everyone knew Kilvin was terribly pleased with me.

The only thing missing was Denna.

I looked down at my hands as I entered into the final chorus of “Violet Bide.” I’d had a few more drinks than I was used to, and I didn’t want to fumble. As I watched my fingers, I heard the door of the taproom open and felt a chill wind curl around the room. The fire swayed and danced beside me as I heard boots moving across the wooden floor.

The room was quiet as I sang:

She sits by her window.

She sips at her tea.

She waits for her love,

To return from the sea.

Her suitors come calling.

She watches the tides,

And all the while Violet bides.

I hit the final chord but instead of the thunderous applause I expected, there was only an echoing quiet. I looked up and saw four tall men standing in front of the hearth. The shoulders of their heavy cloaks were wet with melted snow. Their faces were grim.

Three of them wore the dark round caps that marked them as constables. And if that weren’t clue enough as to their business, each of them carried a long oak cudgel bound in iron. They watched me like hard-eyed hawks.

The fourth man stood aside from the others. He didn’t wear a constable’s cap and wasn’t nearly so tall or broad across the shoulders. Despite that, he carried himself with undeniable authority. His face was lean and grim as he drew out a piece of heavy parchment decorated with several black, official-looking seals.

“Kvothe, Arliden’s son,” he read aloud to the room, his voice clear and strong. “In the sight of these witnesses I bind you to stand to your own account before the iron law. You are charged with Consortation with Demonic Powers, Malicious Use of Unnatural Arts, Unprovoked Assault, and Malfeasance.”

Needless to say, I was caught completely flat-footed. “What?” I said stupidly. As I said, I’d had more than a few drinks.

The grim man ignored me and turned to one of the constables. “Bind him.”

One of the constables drew out a length of clattering iron chain. Up until now I’d been too startled to be properly afraid, but the sight of this grim-faced man pulling a pair of dark iron manacles out of a sack filled me with a fear that turned my bones to water.

Simmon appeared next to the hearth, pushing his way past the constables to stand in front of the fourth man.

“What exactly is going on here?” Sim demanded, his voice hard and angry. It was the only time I’d ever heard him sound like the son of a duke. “Explain yourself.”

The man holding the parchment eyed Simmon calmly, then reached inside his cloak and brought out a stout iron rod with a band of gold around each end. Sim paled a bit as the grim man held it up for everyone in the room to see. Not only was it every bit as threatening as the constable’s cudgels, the rod was an unmistakable symbol of his authority. The man was a sumner for the Commonwealth courts. Not just a regular sumner either, the gold bands meant he could order anyone to stand before the iron law: priests, government officials, even members of the nobility up to the rank of baron.

At this point Anker made his way through the crowd as well. He and Sim looked over the sumner’s document and found it to be very legitimate and official. It was signed and sealed by all manner of important people in Imre. There was nothing to be done. I was going to be brought up against the iron law.

Everyone at Anker’s watched as I was bound hand and foot in chains. Some of them looked shocked, some confused, but most of them simply looked frightened. When the constables dragged me through the crowd toward the door, barely a handful of my audience were willing to meet my eye.

They marched me the long way back to Imre. Over Stonebridge and down the flat expanse of the great stone road. All the way the winter wind chilled the iron around my hands and feet until it burned and bit and froze my skin.

The next morning Sim arrived with Elxa Dal and matters slowly became clear. It had been months since I had called the name of the wind in Imre after Ambrose broke my lute. The masters had brought me up on charges of malfeasance and had me publicly whipped at the University. It had been so long ago that the lash marks on my back were nothing more than pale silver scars. I had thought the matter resolved.

Apparently not. Since the incident had occurred in Imre, it fell under the jurisdiction of the Commonwealth courts.

We live in a civilized age, and few places are more civilized than the University and its immediate environs. But parts of the iron law are left over from darker times. It had been a hundred years since anyone had been burned for Consortation or Unnatural Arts, but the laws were still there. The ink was faded, but the words were clear.

Ambrose wasn’t directly involved, of course. He was much too clever for that. This sort of trial was bad for the University’s reputation. If Ambrose had brought this case against me it would have infuriated the masters. They worked hard to protect the good name of the University in general and of the Arcanum in particular.

So Ambrose was in no way connected with the charges. Instead, the case was brought before Imre’s courts by a handful of Imre’s influential nobles. Oh, certainly they knew Ambrose, but that wasn’t incriminating. Ambrose knew everyone with power, blood, or money on either side of the river, after all.

Thus was I brought up against the iron law. For the space of six days it was a source of extraordinary irritation and anxiety to me. It disrupted my studies, brought my work in the Fishery to a standstill, and drove the final nail into the coffin I used to bury my hopes of ever finding a local patron.

What started as a terrifying experience quickly became a tedious process filled with pomp and ritual. More than forty letters of testimony were read aloud, confirmed, and copied into the official records. There were days filled with nothing but long speeches. Quotations from the iron law. Points of procedure. Formal modes of address. Old men reading out of old books.

I defended myself to the best of my ability, first in the Commonwealth court, then in church courts as well. Arwyl and Elxa Dal spoke on my behalf. Or rather, they wrote letters, then read them aloud to the court.

In the end, I was cleared of any wrongdoing. I thought I was vindicated. I thought I had won… .

But I was still terribly naive in many ways.

CHAPTER FORTY-SIX

Interlude—A Bit of Fiddle

KVOTHE CAME SLOWLY TO his feet and gave a quick stretch. “Let’s pause there for now,” he said. “I expect we’ll see more than the usual number of people for lunch today. I need to check on the soup and get a few things ready.” He nodded to Chronicler. “You might want to do the same.”

Chronicler remained seated. “Wait a minute,” he said. “This was your trial in Imre?” He looked down at the page, dismayed. “That’s it?”

“That’s it,” Kvothe said. “Not much to it, really.”

“But that’s the first story I ever heard about you when I came to the University,” Chronicler protested. “How you learned Tema in a day. How you spoke your entire defense in verse and they applauded afterward. How you …”

“A lot of nonsense, I expect,” Kvothe said dismissively as he walked back to the bar. “You’ve got the bones of it.”

Chronicler looked down at the page. “You seem to be giving it pretty short shrift.”

“If you’re desperate for the full account, you can find it elsewhere,” Kvothe said. “Dozens of people saw the trial. There are already two full written accounts. I see no need to add a third.”

Chronicler was taken aback. “You’ve already spoken to a historian about this?”

Kvothe chuckled deep in his throat. “You sound like a jilted lover.” He began to bring out stacks of bowls and plates from beneath the bar. “Rest assured, you’re the first to get my story.”

“You said there were written accounts,” Chronicler said. Then his eyes widened. “Are you telling me you’ve written a memoir?” There was a strange note in the scribe’s voice, something almost like hunger.

Kvothe frowned. “No, not really.” He gave a gusty sigh. “I started something of the sort, but I gave it up as a bad idea.”

“You wrote all the way to your trial in Imre?” Chronicler said, looking at the paper in front of him. Only then did he realize he was still holding his pen poised above the page. He began to unscrew and clean the brass nib of the pen on a cloth with an air of vast irritation. “If you already had all this written down, you could have saved me cramping my hand for the last day and a half.”

Kvothe’s forehead creased in confusion. “What?”

Chronicler rubbed the nib briskly with a cloth, every motion screaming with affronted dignity. “I should have known,” he said. “It all fit together too smoothly.” He glared up. “Do you know how much this paper cost me?” He made an angry gesture to the satchel that held the finished pages.

Kvothe simply stared at him for a moment, then laughed with sudden understanding. “You misunderstand. I gave up the memoir after a day or so. I wrote a handful of pages. Not even that.”

The irritation faded from Chronicler’s face, leaving a sheepish expression. “Oh.”

“You are like a wounded lover,” Kvothe said, amused. “Good lord, calm yourself. My story is virginal. Yours are the first hands to touch it.” He shook his head. “There’s something different about writing a story down. I don’t seem to have the knack for it. It came out all wrong.”

“I’d love to see what you wrote,” Chronicler said, leaning forward in his chair. “Even if it’s just a few pages.”

“It was quite a while ago,” Kvothe said. “I don’t know if I remember where the pages are.”

“They’re up in your room, Reshi,” Bast said brightly. “On your desk.”

Kvothe gave a deep sigh. “I was trying to be gracious, Bast. The truth is, there’s nothing on them worth showing to anyone. If I’d written anything worth reading, I would have kept writing it.” He walked into the kitchen and there were muted, bustling sounds from the back room.

“Good try,” Bast said softly. “But it’s a lost cause. I’ve tried.”

“Don’t coach me,” Chronicler said testily. “I know how to get a story out of a person.”

There was more bumping from the back room, a splash of water, the sound of a door closing.

Chronicler looked at Bast. “Shouldn’t you go help him?”

Bast shrugged, lounging further back into his chair.

After a moment, Kvothe emerged from the back room carrying a cutting board and a bowl full of freshly scrubbed vegetables.

“I’m afraid I’m still confused,” Chronicler said. “How can there already be two written accounts if you never wrote it yourself or talked to a historian?”

“Never been brought to trial, have you?” Kvothe said, amused. “The Commonwealth courts keep painstaking records, and the church is even more obsessive. If you have a desperate desire for the details, you can dig around in their deposition ledgers and act books respectively.”

“That might be the case,” Chronicler said. “But your account of the trial …”

“Would be tedious,” Kvothe said. He finished paring the carrots, and began to cut them. “Endless formal speeches and readings from the Book of the Path. It was tedious to live through, and it would be tedious to repeat.”

He brushed the sliced carrots from the board into a nearby bowl. “I’ve probably kept us at the University too long, anyway,” he said. “We’ll need the time for other things. Things no one has ever seen or heard.”

“Reshi no!” Bast shouted in alarm, sitting bolt upright in his chair. His expression was plaintive as he pointed to the bar. “Beets?”

Kvothe looked down at the dark red root on the cutting board as if surprised to see it there.

“Don’t put beets in the soup, Reshi,” Bast said. “They’re foul.”

“A lot of people like beets, Bast,” Kvothe said. “And they’re healthful. Good for the blood.”

“I hate beets,” Bast said piteously.

“Well,” Kvothe said calmly, “since I’m finishing the soup, I get to pick what goes into it.”

Bast came to his feet and stomped toward the bar. “I’ll take care of it then,” he said impatiently, making a shooing motion. “You go get some sausage and one of those veiny cheeses.” He pushed Kvothe toward the basement steps before storming into the kitchen, muttering. Soon there was the sound of rattling and thumping from the back room.

Kvothe looked over at Chronicler and gave a wide, lazy smile.

People began to trickle into the Waystone Inn. They came in twos and threes, smelling of sweat and horses and freshly mown wheat. They laughed and talked and tracked chaff across the clean wooden floors.

Chronicler did a brisk business. Folk sat leaning forward in their chairs, sometimes gesturing with their hands, sometimes speaking with slow deliberation. The scribe’s face was impassive as his pen scratched across the page, occasionally darting back for ink.

Bast and the man who called himself Kote worked together as a comfortable team. They served up soup and bread. Apples, cheese, and sausage. Beer and ale and cool water from the pump out back. There was roasted mutton too, for those who wanted it, and fresh apple pie.

Men and women smiled and relaxed, glad to be off their feet and sitting in the shade. The room was full of the gentle buzz of conversation as folk gossiped with neighbors they had known their whole lives. Familiar insults, soft and harmless as butter, were traded back and forth, and friends had comfortable arguments about whose turn it was to buy the beer.

But underneath it all, there was a tension in the room. A stranger would never have noticed it, but it was there, dark and silent as an undertow. No one spoke of taxes, or armies, or how they had begun to lock their doors at night. No one spoke of what had happened in the inn the night before. No one eyed the stretch of well-scrubbed wooden floor that didn’t show a trace of blood.

Instead there were jokes and stories. A young wife kissed her husband, drawing whistles and hoots from the rest of the room. Old Man Benton tried to lift up the hem of the Widow Creel’s skirt with his cane, cackling when she swatted him. A pair of little girls chased each other around the tables, shrieking and laughing while everyone watched and smiled fond smiles. It helped a bit. It was all that you could do.

The inn’s door banged open. Old Cob, Graham, and Jake trudged in out of the brilliant midday sunlight.

“Hullo Kote!” Old Cob called, looking around at the handful of people spread around the inn. “You’ve got a bit of a crowd in here today!”

“You missed the bigger part of it,” Bast said. “We were downright frantic for a while.”

“Anything left for the stragglers?” Graham asked as he sank onto his stool.

Before he could reply, a bull-shouldered man clattered an empty plate onto the bar and set a fork down gently beside it. “That,” he said in a booming voice, “was a damn fine pie.”

A thin woman with a pinched face stood next to him. “Don’t you cuss, Elias,” she said sharply. “There’s no call for that.”

“Oh honey,” the big man said. “Don’t get yourself in a twit. Damfine is a kind of apple, innit?” He grinned around at the folks sitting at the bar. “Sort of foreign apple from off in Atur? They named it after Baron Damfine if I remember correct.”

Graham grinned back at him. “I think I heard that.”

The woman glared at all of them.

“I got these from the Bentons,” the innkeeper said meekly.

“Oh,” the big farmer said with a smile. “That’s my mistake then.” He picked up a crumb of crust from the plate and chewed it speculatively. “I’d swear it was a Damfine pie for all that. Maybe the Bentons got them some Damfine apples and don’t know it.”

His wife sniffed, then saw Chronicler sitting idle at his table and pulled her husband away.

Old Cob watched them go, shaking his head. “I don’t know what that woman needs in her life to make her a little happy,” he said. “But I hope she finds it before she pecks old Eli bloody.”

Jake and Graham made vague grumbles of agreement.

“Nice to see folks filling up the place.” Old Cob looked at the red-haired man behind the bar. “You’re a fine cook, Kote. And you’ve got the best beer in twenty miles. All folk need is a bit of an excuse to stop by.”

Old Cob tapped the side of his nose speculatively. “You know,” he said to the innkeeper. “You should bring in a singer or sommat on nights. Hell, even the Orrison boy can play a bit of his daddy’s fiddle. I bet he’d be glad to come in for the price of a couple drinks.” He looked around at the inn. “A little music is just what this place needs.”

The innkeeper nodded. His expression was so easy and amiable it almost wasn’t an expression at all. “I expect you’re right,” Kote said. His voice was perfectly calm. It was a perfectly normal voice. It was colorless and clear as window glass.

Old Cob opened his mouth, but before he could say anything else Bast rapped one knuckle hard on the bar. “Drinks?” he asked the men sitting at the bar. “I’m guessing you’d all like a little something before we bring you out a bite to eat.”

They did, and Bast bustled around behind the bar, pulling beer into mugs and pressing them into waiting hands. After a slow moment, the innkeeper swung silently into motion alongside his assistant, heading into the kitchen to fetch soup. And bread with butter. And cheese. And apples.

CHAPTER FORTY-SEVEN

Interlude—The Hempen Verse

CHRONICLER SMILED AS HE made his way to the bar. “That’s a solid hour’s work,” he said proudly as he took a seat. “I don’t suppose there’s anything left in the kitchen for me?”

“Or any of that pie Eli mentioned?” Jake asked hopefully.

“I want pie too,” Bast said, sitting next to Jake, nursing a drink of his own.

The innkeeper smiled, wiping his hands on his apron. “I think I might have remembered to set one by, just in case you three came in later than the rest.”

Old Cob rubbed his hands together. “Can’t remember last time I had warm apple pie,” he said.

The innkeeper went back into the kitchen. He pulled the pie from the oven, sliced it, and laid the pieces neatly onto plates. By the time he carried them out toward the taproom he could hear raised voices in the other room.

“It was too a demon, Jake,” Old Cob was saying angrily. “I told you last night, and I’ll tell you again a hundred times. I’m not a one to change my mind like other folk change their socks.” He held up a finger. “He called up a demon and it bit this fellow and sucked out his juice like a plum. I heard it from a fella who knew a woman that seen it herself. That’s why the constable and the deputies came and hauled him off. Meddling with dark forces is against the law over in Amary.”

“I still say folk just thought it was a demon,” Jake persisted. “You know how folk are.”

“I know folk.” Old Cob scowled. “I’ve been around longer than you Jacob. And I know my own story too.”

There was a long moment of tense silence at the bar before Jake looked away. “I was just sayin’,” he muttered.

The innkeeper slid a bowl of soup toward Chronicler. “What’s this then?”

The scribe gave the innkeeper a sly look. “Cob’s telling us about Kvothe’s trial in Imre,” he said, a hint of smugness in his voice. “Don’t you remember? He started the story last night but only made it halfway through.”

“Now.” Cob glared around, as if daring them to interrupt. “It was a tight spot. Kvothe knew if he was found guilty they’d string him up and let him hang.” Cob made a gesture to one side of his neck like he was holding a noose, tilting his head to the side.

“But Kvothe had read a great many books when he was at the University, and he knew himself a trick.” Old Cob stopped to take a forkful of pie and closed his eyes for a moment as he chewed. “Oh lord and lady,” he said to himself. “That’s a proper pie. I swear it’s better than me mam used to make. She always skint on the sugar.” He took another bite, a blissful expression spreading over his weathered face.

“So Kvothe knew a trick?” Chronicler prompted.

“What? Oh.” Cob seemed to remember himself. “Right. You see, there’s two lines in the Book of the Path, and if you can read them out loud in the old Tema only priests know, then the iron law says you get treated like a priest. That means a Commonwealth judge can’t do a damn thing to you. If you read those lines, your case has to be decided by the church courts.”

Old Cob took another bite of pie and chewed it slowly before swallowing. “Those two lines are called the hempen verse, because if you know them, you can keep yourself from getting strung up. The church courts can’t hang a man, you see.”

“What are the lines?” Bast asked.

“I dearly wish I knew,” Old Cob said mournfully. “But I don’t speak Tema. Kvothe didn’t know it himself. But he memorized the verse ahead of time. Then he pretended to read it and the Commonwealth court had to let him go.

“Kvothe knew he had two days until a Tehlin Justice could make it all the way to Amary. So he set about learning Tema. He read books and practiced for a whole day and a whole night. And he was so powerful smart that at the end of his studying he could speak Tema better than most folk who been doing it their whole lives.

“Then, on the second day before the Justice showed up, Kvothe mixed himself a potion. It was made out of honey, and a special stone you find in a snake’s brain, and a plant that only grows at the bottom of the sea. When he drank the potion, it made his voice so sweet anyone who listened couldn’t help but agree with anything he said.

“So when the Justice finally showed up, the whole trial only took fifteen minutes,” Cob said, chuckling. “Kvothe gave a fine speech in perfect Tema, everyone agreed with him, and they all went home.”

“And he lived happily ever after,” the red-haired man said softly from behind the bar.

Things were quiet at the bar. Outside the air was dry and hot, full of dust and the smell of chaff. The sunlight was hard and bright as a bar of gold.

Inside the Waystone it was dim and cool. The men had just finished the last slow bites of their pie, and there was still a little beer in their mugs. So they sat for a little while longer, slouching at the bar with the guilty air of men too proud to be properly lazy.

“I never much cared for Kvothe stories myself,” the innkeeper said matter-of-factly as he gathered up everyone’s plates.

Old Cob looked up from his beer. “That so?”

The innkeeper shrugged. “If I’m going to have a story with magic, I’d like it to have a proper wizard in it. Someone like Taborlin the Great, or Serapha, or The Chronicler.”

At the end of the bar, the scribe didn’t choke or startle. He did pause for half a second though, before lowering his spoon back into his second bowl of soup.

The room went comfortably quiet again as the innkeeper gathered up the last of the empty plates and turned toward the kitchen. But before he could get through the doorway, Graham spoke up. “The Chronicler?” he said. “I haven’t ever heard of him.”

The innkeeper turned back, surprised. “You haven’t?”

Graham shook his head.

“I’m sure you have,” the innkeeper said. “He carries around a great book, and whatever he writes down in that book comes true.” He looked at all of them expectantly. Jake shook his head too.

The innkeeper turned to the scribe at the end of the bar, who was keeping his attention on his food. “You’ve heard of him, I’m sure,” Kote said. “They call him Lord of Stories, and if he learns one of your secrets he can write whatever he wants about you in his book.” He looked at the scribe. “Haven’t you ever heard of him?”

Chronicler dropped his eyes and shook his head. He dipped the crust of his bread in his soup and ate it without speaking.

The innkeeper looked surprised. “When I was growing up, I liked The Chronicler more than Taborlin or any of the rest. He’s got a bit of Faerie blood in him, and it’s made him sharper than a normal man. He can see for a hundred miles on a cloudy day and hear a whisper through a thick oak door. He can track a mouse through a forest on a moonless night.”

“I’ve heard of him,” Bast said eagerly. “His sword is named Sheave, and the blade is made of a single piece of paper. It’s light as a feather, but so sharp that if he cuts you, you see the blood before you even feel it.”

The innkeeper nodded. “And if he learns your name, he can write it on the blade of the sword and use it to kill you from a thousand miles away.”

“But he’s got to write it in his own blood,” Bast added. “And there’s only so much space on the sword. He’s already written seventeen names on it, so there’s not that much room left.”

“He used to be a member of the high king’s court in Modeg,” Kote said. “But he fell in love with the high king’s daughter.”

Graham and Old Cob were nodding now. This was familiar territory.

Kote continued, “When Chronicler asked to marry her, the high king was angry. So he gave Chronicler a task to prove he was worthy… .” The innkeeper paused dramatically. “Chronicler can only marry her if he finds something more precious than the princess and brings it back to the high king.”

Graham made an appreciative noise. “That’s a pisser of a task. What’s a man to do? You can’t bring something back and say, ‘Here, this is worth more than your little girl… .’ ”

The innkeeper gave a grave nod. “So Chronicler wanders the world looking for ancient treasures and old magics, hoping to find something he can bring back to the king.”

“Why doesn’t he just write about the king in his magic book?” Jake asked. “Why doesn’t he write down, ‘And then the king stopped being a bastard and let us get married already.’ ”

“Because he doesn’t know any of the king’s secrets,” the innkeeper explained. “And the high king of Modeg knows some magic and can protect himself. Most importantly, he knows Chronicler’s weaknesses. He knows if you trick Chronicler into drinking ink, he has to do the next three favors you ask of him. And more important, he knows Chronicler can’t control you if you have your name hidden away somewhere safe. The high king’s name is written in a book of glass, hidden in a box of copper. And that box is locked away in a great iron chest where nobody can touch it.”

There was a moment’s pause as everyone considered this. Then Old Cob began nodding thoughtfully. “That last bit tickled my memory,” he said slowly. “I seem to remember a story about this Chronicler fellow going to look for a magic fruit. Whoever ate the fruit would suddenly know the names of all things, and he’d have powers like Taborlin the Great.”

The innkeeper rubbed his chin, nodding slowly. “I think I heard that one too,” he said. “But it was a long time ago, and I can’t say as I remember all the details… .”

“Ah well,” Old Cob said as he drank the last of his beer and knocked down his mug. “Nothing to be ’shamed of, Kote. Some folk are good at remembering and some ain’t. You make a fine pie, but we all know who the storyteller is around here.”

Old Cob climbed stiffly down off his stool and motioned to Graham and Jake. “Come on then, we can walk together as far as Byres’ place. I’ll tell you two all about it. Now this Chronicler, he’s tall and pale, and thin as a rail, with hair as black as ink—”

The door of the Waystone Inn banged closed.

“What in God’s name was that all about?” Chronicler demanded.

Kvothe looked sideways at Chronicler. He smiled a small, sharp smile. “How does it feel,” he asked, “knowing people out there are telling stories about you?”

“They’re not telling stories about me!” Chronicler said. “They’re just a bunch of nonsense.”

“Not nonsense,” Kvothe said, seeming a little bit offended. “It might not be true, but that doesn’t mean it’s nonsense.” He looked at Bast. “I liked the paper sword.”

Bast beamed. “The king’s task was a nice touch, Reshi. I don’t know about the Faerie blood though.”

“Demon blood would have been too sinister,” Kvothe said. “He needed a twist.”

“At least I won’t have to hear him tell it,” Chronicler said sullenly, prodding a bit of potato with his spoon.

Kvothe looked up, then chuckled darkly. “You don’t understand, do you? A fresh story like that on a harvest day? They’ll be at it like a child with a new toy. Old Cob will talk about Chronicler to a dozen people while they’re bucking hay and drinking water in the shade. Tonight at Shep’s wake, folk from ten towns will hear about the Lord of Stories. It will spread like a fire in a field.”

Chronicler looked back and forth between the two of them, his expression vaguely horrified. “Why?”

“It’s a gift,” Kvothe said.

“You think I want this?” Chronicler said incredulously. “Fame?”

“Not fame,” Kvothe said grimly. “Perspective. You go rummaging around in other people’s lives. You hear rumors and go digging for the painful truth beneath the lovely lies. You believe you have a right to these things. But you don’t.” He looked hard at the scribe. “When someone tells you a piece of their life, they’re giving you a gift, not granting you your due.”

Kvothe wiped his hands on the clean linen cloth. “I’m giving you my story with all the grubby truths intact. All my mistakes and idiocies laid out naked in the light. If I decide to pass over some small piece because it bores me, I’m well within my rights. I won’t be goaded into changing my mind by some farmer’s tale. I’m not an idiot.”

Chronicler looked down at his soup. “It was a little heavy-handed, wasn’t it?”

“It was,” Kvothe said.

Chronicler looked up with a sigh and gave a small, embarrassed smile. “Well. You can’t blame me for trying.”

“I can, actually,” Kvothe said. “But I believe I’ve made my point. And for what it’s worth, I’m sorry for any trouble that might cause you.” He gestured to the door and the departed farmers. “I might have overreacted a bit. I’ve never responded well to manipulation.”

Kvothe stepped out from behind the bar, heading to the table near the hearth. “Come on now, both of you. The trial itself was tedious business. But it had important repercussions.”

CHAPTER FORTY-EIGHT

A Significant Absence

I WENT THROUGH THE ADMISSIONS lottery and was lucky enough to draw a late slot. I was glad for the extra time, as my trial had left me little opportunity to study for my exams.

Still, I wasn’t terribly worried. I had time to study and free access to the Archives. What’s more, for the first time since I’d come to the University, I wasn’t a pauper. I had thirteen talents in my purse. Even after I paid Devi the interest on her loan, I would easily have enough for tuition.

Best of all, the long hours spent searching for the gram had taught me a great deal about the Archives. While I might not know as much as an experienced scriv, I was familiar with many of her hidden corners and quiet secrets. So while I studied, I also allowed myself the freedom to do other reading while I prepared for admissions.

I closed the book I’d been poring over. A well-written, comprehensive history of the Aturan church. It was as useless as all the rest.

Wilem looked up as my book thumped shut. “Nothing?” he asked.

“Less than nothing,” I said.

The two of us were studying in one of the fourth-floor reading holes, much smaller than our customary place on the third floor, but given how close we were to admissions, we’d been lucky to find a private room at all.

“Why don’t you let it go?” Wil suggested. “You’ve been beating this Amyr thing like a dead horse for what, two span?”

I nodded, not wanting to admit my research into the Amyr had actually started long before our bet had taken us to Puppet.

“And what have you found so far?”

“Shelves of books,” I said. “Dozens of stories. Mentions in a hundred histories.”

He gave me a level look. “And this wealth of information irritates you.”

“No,” I said. “The lack of information troubles me. There isn’t any solid information about the Amyr in any of these books.”

“None?” Wilem said skeptically.

“Oh, every historian in the last three hundred years talks about them,” I said. “They speculate on how the Amyr influenced the decline of the empire. Philosophers talk about the ethical ramifications of their actions.” I gestured to the books. “That tells me what people think about the Amyr. It doesn’t tell me anything about the Amyr themselves.”

Wilem frowned at my stack of books. “It can’t all be historians and philosophers.”

“There are stories too,” I said. “Early on there are stories about the great wrongs they righted. Later you get stories about the terrible things they did. An Amyr in Renere kills a corrupt judge. Another in Junpui puts down a peasant uprising. A third in Melithi poisons half the town’s nobility.”

“And that isn’t solid information?” Wilem asked.

“They’re soft stories,” I said. “Second- or third-hand. Three-quarters of them are simply hearsay. I can’t find corroborating evidence for them anywhere. Why can’t I find any mention of the corrupt judge in the church records? His name should be recorded in every case he tried. What was the date of this peasant uprising, and why can’t I find it mentioned in any of the other histories?”

“It was three hundred years ago,” Wilem said reproachfully. “You can’t expect all those little details to survive.”

“I expect some of the little details to survive. You know how obsessive the Tehlins are about their records,” I said. “We have a thousand years of court documents from a hundred different cities squirreled away down in sub-two. Whole rooms full …”

I waved my hands dismissively. “But fine, let’s abandon the small details. There are huge questions I can’t find any answers for. When was the Order Amyr founded? How many Amyr were there? Who paid them, and how much? Where did that money come from? Where were they trained? How did they come to be a part of the Tehlin church?”

“Feltemi Reis answered that,” Wilem said. “They grew out of the tradition of the mendicant judges.”

I picked up a book at random and thumped it onto the table in front of him. “Find me one bit of proof to support that theory. Find me one record that shows a mendicant judge being promoted into the ranks of the Amyr. Show me one record of an Amyr being employed by a court. Find me one church document that shows an Amyr presiding over a case.” I crossed my arms in front of my chest belligerently. “Go on, I’ll wait.”

Wilem ignored the book. “Maybe there weren’t as many Amyr as people assume. Perhaps there were only a few of them and their reputation grew out of their control.” He gave me a pointed look. “You should understand how that works.”

“No,” I said. “This is a significant absence. Sometimes finding nothing can be finding something.”

“You’re starting to sound like Elodin,” Wilem said.

I frowned at him but decided not to rise to the bait. “No, listen for a minute. Why would there be so little factual information about the Amyr? There are only three possibilities.”

I held up fingers to mark them off. “One: nothing was written down. I think we can safely discard that. They were too important to be so entirely neglected by historians, clerks, and the obsessive documentation of the church.” I tucked that finger away.

“Two. By an odd chance, copies of the books that do have this information have simply never made their way here to the Archives. But that’s ridiculous. It’s impossible to think that over all the years nothing on the subject has ended up in the largest library in the world.” I folded down the second finger.

“Three.” I pointed with the remaining finger. “Someone has removed this information, altered it, or destroyed it.”

Wilem frowned. “Who would do that?”

“Who indeed?” I said, “Who would benefit most from the destruction of the information of the Amyr?” I hesitated, letting the tension build. “Who else but the Amyr themselves?”

I had expected him to dismiss my idea, but he didn’t. “An interesting thought,” Wilem said. “But why assume the Amyr are behind it? It is much more sensible to think the church itself is responsible. Certainly the Tehlins would like nothing better than to quietly erase the Amyr’s atrocities.”

“True,” I admitted. “But the church isn’t very strong here in the Commonwealth. And these books come from all over the world. A Cealdish historian wouldn’t have any compunctions about writing a history of the Amyr.”

“A Cealdish historian would have very little interest in writing the history of a heretic branch of a pagan church,” Wilem pointed out. “Besides, how could a discredited handful of Amyr do something the church itself could not achieve?”

I leaned forward. “I think the Amyr are far older than the Tehlin church,” I said. “During the time of the Aturan Empire, a great deal of their public strength was with the church, but they were more than just a group of wandering justices.”

“And what leads you to this belief?” Wil said. From his expression I could see I was losing Wilem’s support rather than gaining it.

A piece of ancient pottery, I thought. A story I heard from an old man in Tarbean. I know it because of something the Chandrian let slip after they killed everyone I ever knew.

I sighed and shook my head, knowing how crazy I would sound if I told the truth. That was why I scoured the Archives. I needed some tangible evidence to support my theory, something that wouldn’t make me a laughingstock.

“I found copies of the court documents from the time the Amyr were denounced,” I said. “Do you know how many Amyr they put on trial in Tarbean?”

Wil shrugged.

I held up a single finger. “One. One Amyr in all of Tarbean. And the clerk writing the transcript of the trial made it clear the man they put on trial was a simpleton who didn’t understand what was going on.”

I still saw doubt on Wilem’s face. “Just think on it,” I pleaded. “The scraps I’ve found suggest there were at least three thousand Amyr in the empire before they were disbanded. Three thousand highly trained, heavily armed, wealthy men and women absolutely devoted to the greater good.

“Then one day the church denounces them, disbands their entire order, and confiscates their property.” I snapped my fingers. “And three thousand deadly, justice-obsessed fanatics just disappear? They roll over and decide to let someone else take care of the greater good for a while? No protest? No resistance? Nothing?”

I gave him a hard look and shook my head firmly. “No. That goes against human nature. Besides, I haven’t found one record of a member of the Amyr being brought before the church’s justice. Not one. Is it so outrageous to think they might have decided to go underground, to continue their work in a more secret way?

“And if that’s reasonable,” I continued before he could interrupt. “Doesn’t it also make sense they might try to preserve their secrecy by carefully pruning histories over the last three hundred years?”

There was a long pause.

Wilem didn’t dismiss it out of hand. “An interesting theory,” he said slowly. “But it leads me to one last question.” He eyed me seriously. “Have you been drinking?”

I slumped in my chair. “No.”

He came to his feet. “Then you should start. You have been spending too much time with all these books. You need to wash the dust from your brains.”

So we went for a drink, but I still harbored my suspicions. I bounced the idea off Simmon when I next had the chance. He accepted it more easily than Wilem had. Which isn’t to say he believed me, just that he accepted the possibility. He said I should mention it to Lorren.

I didn’t. The blank-faced Master Archivist still made me nervous, and I avoided him at every opportunity for fear I might give him some excuse to ban me from the Archives. The last thing I wanted to do was suggest his precious Archives had been slowly pruned over the last three hundred years.

CHAPTER FORTY- NINE

The Ignorant Edema

I SAW ELXA DAL RAISE a hand in greeting from across the courtyard. “Kvothe!” He smiled warmly. “The very fellow I was hoping to see! Could I borrow a moment of your time?”

“Of course,” I said. While I liked Master Dal, we hadn’t had much contact together outside the lecture hall. “Could I buy you a drink, or a bite of lunch? I’ve been meaning to thank you more properly for speaking on my behalf at the trial, but I’ve been busy… .”

“As have I,” Dal said. “I’ve actually been meaning to talk to you for days, but time keeps getting away from me.” He looked around. “I wouldn’t turn down a bit of lunch, but I should probably forego the drink. I have admissions to oversee in less than an hour.”

We stepped into the White Hart. I’d barely even seen the inside of the place, as it was far too rich for the likes of me.

Elxa Dal was recognizable in his dark master’s robes, and the host fawned a bit as he led the two of us to a private table. Dal seemed perfectly at his ease as he took a seat, but I was increasingly nervous. I couldn’t imagine why the Master Sympathist would seek me out for a conversation.

“What can I bring you?” asked the tall, thin man as soon as we were in our chairs. “Drinks? A selection of cheeses? We have a delightful lemoned trout as well.”

“The trout and cheeses would do nicely,” Dal said.

The host turned to me. “And yourself?”

“I’ll try the trout as well,” I said.

“Wonderful,” he said, rubbing his hands together in anticipation. “And to drink?”

“Cider,” I said.

“Do you have any Fallows red?” Dal asked hesitantly.

“We do,” said the host. “And it’s a lovely year, too, if I do say so myself.”

“I’ll have a cup,” Dal said, glancing at me. “One cup shouldn’t alter my judgment too badly.”

The host hurried away, leaving me alone at the table with Elxa Dal. It felt odd sitting across the table from him. I shifted nervously in my seat.

“So how are things with you?” Dal asked conversationally.

“Passing fair,” I said.“It was a good term with the exception of …” I made a gesture toward Imre.

Dal gave a humorless chuckle. “That was a brush with the old days, wasn’t it?” He shook his head. “Consortation with Demons. Good lord.”

The host returned with our drinks and left without a word.

Master Dal picked up his wide clay cup and held it in the air. “To not getting burned alive by superstitious folk,” he said.

I smiled despite my discomfiture and raised my wooden mug. “A fine tradition.”

We both drank, Dal sighing appreciatively at the wine.

Dal looked at me across the table. “So tell me,” he said. “Have you ever considered what you’re going to do with yourself when you’re done here? After you have your guilder, I mean.”

“I haven’t thought of it that much,” I admitted honestly. “It seems such a long way off.”

“At the rate you’re rising through the ranks it might not be so long at that. Already a Re’lar at … how old are you again?”

“Seventeen,” I lied smoothly. I was sensitive about my age. Many students were nearly twenty before they enrolled in the University, let alone joined the Arcanum.

“Seventeen,” Dal mused softly. “It’s so easy to forget that. You carry yourself so tall.” His eyes got a faraway look in them. “Lord and lady, I was a mess at seventeen. My studies, trying to sort out my place in the world. Women …” He shook his head slowly. “It gets better, you know. Give it three or four years and everything settles down a bit.”

He raised his clay cup to me briefly before taking another drink. “Not that you seem to be having much trouble. Re’lar at seventeen. Quite a mark of distinction.”

I flushed a bit, not knowing what to say.

The host returned and began laying dishes on the table. A small board with an array of different sliced cheeses. A bowl with small, toasted pieces of bread. A bowl of strawberry preserves. A bowl of blueberry jam. A small dish of shelled walnuts.

Dal picked up a small piece of bread and a slice of crumbling white cheese. “You’re quite the sympathist,” he said. “There are any number of opportunities out there for a person as skilled as yourself.”

I spread a bit of strawberry across a piece of cheese and toast, then put it into my mouth to give myself time to think. Was Dal implying he wanted me to focus more on my study of sympathy? Was he implying he wanted to sponsor me to El’the?

Elodin had sponsored my elevation to Re’lar, but I knew these things changed. Masters occasionally fought over particularly promising students. Mola, for example, had been a scriv before Arwyl stole her away into the Medica.

“I do enjoy my study of sympathy quite a bit,” I said carefully.

“That’s abundantly clear,” Dal said with a smile. “Some of your classmates wish you enjoyed it a little less, I can assure you of that.” He ate another piece of cheese, then continued, “That said, it is possible to overdo it. Didn’t Teccam say ‘Too much study harms the student?’ ”

“Ertram the Wiser, actually.” I said. It had been in one of the books Master Lorren had set aside for Re’lar to study this term.

“It’s true at any rate,” he said. “You might want to consider taking a term off to relax a bit. Travel a little, get some sun.” He took another drink. “It’s not good to see one of the Edema Ruh without a tan.”

I didn’t know what to say to that. The thought of taking a holiday from the University had never occurred to me. Where would I possibly go?

The host arrived with plates of fish, steaming and smelling of lemon and butter. For a while both of us concentrated on our food. I was glad for an excuse not to talk. Why would Dal compliment me on my studies, then encourage me to leave?

After a while Elxa Dal gave a contented sigh and pushed back his plate. “Let me tell you a little story,” he said. “A story I like to call ‘The Ignorant Edema.’ ”

I looked up at that, slowly chewing my mouthful of fish. I kept my expression carefully composed.

He arched an eyebrow, as if waiting to see if I had anything to say.

When I didn’t, he continued. “Once there was a learned arcanist. He knew all of sympathy and sygaldry and alchemy. He had ten dozen names tucked neatly into his head, spoke eight languages, and had exemplary penmanship. Really, the only thing that kept him from being a master was poor timing and a certain lack of social grace.”

Dal took a sip of wine. “So this fellow went chasing the wind for a while, hoping to find his fortune out in the wide world. And while he was on the road to Tinuë, he came to a lake he needed to cross.”

Dal smiled broadly. “Luckily, there was an Edema boatman who offered to ferry him to the other side. The arcanist, seeing the trip would take several hours, tried to start a conversation.

“ ‘What do you think,’ he asked the boatman, ‘about Teccam’s theory of energy as an elemental substance rather than a material property?’

“The boatman replied he’d never thought on it at all. What’s more, he had no plans to.

“ ‘Surely your education included Teccam’s Theophany?’ the arcanist asked.

“ ‘I never had what you might call an education, y’honor,’ the boatman said. ‘And I wouldn’t know this Teccam of yours if he showed up selling needles to m’wife.’

“Curious, the arcanist asked a few questions and the Edema admitted he didn’t know who Feltemi Reis was, or what a gearwin did. The arcanist continued for a long hour, first out of curiosity, then with dismay. The final straw came when he discovered the boatman couldn’t even read or write.

“ ‘Really sir,’ the arcanist said, appalled. ‘It is every man’s job to improve himself. A man without the benefits of education is hardly more than an animal.’ ”

Dal grinned. “Well, as you can guess, the conversation didn’t go very far after that. They rode for the next hour in a tense silence, but just as the far shore was coming into sight a storm blew up. Waves started to lash the little boat, making the timbers creak and groan.

“The Edema took a hard look at the clouds and said, ‘It’ll be true bad in five minutes, then sommat worse afore it clears. This boat of mine won’t hold together through it all. We’re gonnta have to swim the last little bit.’ And with this the ferryman takes off his shirt and begins to tie it around his waist.

“ ‘But I don’t know how to swim,’ says the arcanist.”

Dal drank off the last of his wine, turned the cup upside down, and set it firmly on the tabletop. There was a moment of expectant silence as he watched me, a vaguely self-satisfied expression on his face.

“Not a bad story,” I admitted. “The Ruh’s accent was a little over the top.”

Dal bent at the waist in a quick, mocking bow. “I will take it under consideration,” he said, then raised one finger and gave me a conspiratorial look. “Not only is my story designed to delight and entertain, but there is a kernel of truth hidden within, where only the cleverest student might find it.” His expression turned mysterious. “All the truth in the world is held in stories, you know.”

Later that evening, I related the encounter to my friends while playing cards at Anker’s.

“He’s giving you a hint, thickwit,” Manet said irritably. The cards had been against us all night, and we were five hands behind. “You just refuse to hear it.”

“He’s hinting I should leave off studying sympathy for a term?” I asked.

“No,” Manet snapped. “He’s telling you what I’ve told you twice already. You’re a king-high idiot if you go through admissions this term.”

“What?” I asked. “Why?”

Manet set his cards down with profound calm. “Kvothe. You’re a clever boy, but you have a world of trouble listening to things you don’t want to hear.” He looked left then right at Wilem and Simmon. “Can you try telling him?”

“Take a term off,” Wilem said without looking up from his cards. Then added, “Thickwit.”

“You really have to,” Sim said earnestly. “Everyone’s still talking about the trial. It’s all anyone is talking about.”

“The trial?” I laughed. “That was more than a span ago. They’re talking about how I was found completely innocent. Exonerated in the eyes of the iron law and merciful Tehlu himself.”

Manet snorted loudly, lowering his cards. “It would have been better if you’d been guilty in a quiet way, rather than be innocent so loud.” He looked at me. “Do you know how long it’s been since an arcanist was brought up on charges of Consortation?”

“No,” I admitted.

“Neither do I,” he said. “Which means it’s been a long, long while. You’re innocent. Lovely for you. But the trial has given the University a great shining black eye. It’s reminded folk that while you might not deserve burning, some arcanists might.” He shook his head. “You can be certain the masters are uniformly wet-cat-mad about that.”

“Some students aren’t too pleased either,” Wil added darkly.

“It isn’t my fault there was a trial!” I protested, then backed up a bit. “Not entirely. Ambrose stirred this up. He was backstage during the whole thing, laughing up his sleeve.”

“Even so,” Wil said. “Ambrose is sensible enough to avoid admissions this term.”

“What?” I asked, surprised. “He’s not going through admissions?”

“He is not,” Wilem said. “He left for home two days ago.”

“But there was nothing to connect him to the trial,” I said. “Why would he leave?”

“Because the masters are not idiots,” Manet said. “The two of you have been snapping at each other like mad dogs since you first met.” He tapped his lips thoughtfully, his expression full of exaggerated innocence. “Say, that reminds me. Whatever were you doing at the Golden Pony the night Ambrose’s room caught fire?”

“Playing cards,” I said.

“Of course you were,” Manet said, his tone thick with sarcasm. “The two of you have been throwing rocks at each other for a full year, and one of them has finally hit the hornet’s nest. The only sensible thing to do is run off to a safe distance and wait ’til the buzzing stops.”

Simmon cleared his throat timidly. “I hate to join the chorus,” he said apologetically. “But rumor has gotten around you were seen having lunch with Sleat.” He grimaced. “And Fela told me she’d heard you were … um … courting Devi.”

“You know that’s not true about Devi,” I said. “I’ve just been visiting her in order to keep the peace. She was half an inch away from wanting to eat my liver for a while there. And I only had one conversation with Sleat. It was barely fifteen minutes long.”

“Devi?” Manet exclaimed with dismay. “Devi and Sleat? One expelled and the other the next best thing?” He threw down his cards. “Why would you be seen with those people? Why am I even being seen with you?”

“Oh come now.” I looked back and forth between Wil and Sim. “It’s that bad?”

Wilem set down his cards. “I predict,” he said calmly, “that if you go through admissions, you will receive a tuition of at least thirty-five talents.” He looked back and forth between Sim and Manet. “I will wager a full gold mark to this effect. Does anyone care to take my bet?”

Neither of them took him up on his offer.

I felt a desperate sinking in my stomach. “But this can’t …” I said. “This …”

Sim put his cards down as well, the grim expression out of place on his friendly face. “Kvothe,” he said formally. “I am telling you three times. Take a term away.”

Eventually I realized my friends were telling me the truth. Unfortunately, this left me entirely at loose ends. I had no exams to study for, and starting another project in the Fishery would be nothing but foolishness. Even the thought of searching the Archives for information on the Chandrian or the Amyr had little appeal. I had searched so long and found so little.

I toyed with the idea of searching elsewhere. There are other libraries, of course. Every noble house has at least a modest collection containing household accounts and histories of their lands and family. Most churches had extensive records going back hundreds of years, detailing trials, marriages, and dispositions. The same was true of any sizable city. The Amyr couldn’t have destroyed every trace of their existence.

The research itself wouldn’t be the hard part. The hard part would be gaining access to the libraries in the first place. I could hardly show up in Renere dressed in rags and road dust, asking to thumb through the palace archives.

This was another instance in which a patron would have been invaluable. A patron could write me a letter of introduction that would open all manner of doors for me. What’s more, with a patron’s backing, I could make a decent living for myself as I traveled. Many small towns wouldn’t even let you play at the local inn without a writ of patronage.

The University had been the center of my life for a solid year. Now, confronted with the necessity of leaving, I was utterly at sea, with no idea of what I could do with myself.

CHAPTER FIFTY

Chasing the Wind

I GAVE MY ADMISSIONS TILE to Fela, telling her I hoped it brought her luck. And so the winter term came to an end.

Suddenly three-quarters of my life simply disappeared. I had no classes to occupy my time, no shifts in the Medica to fill. I could no longer check out materials from Stocks, use tools in the Fishery, or enter the Archives.

At first it wasn’t so bad. The midwinter pageantry was wonderfully distracting, and without the worry of work and study I was free to enjoy myself and spend time in the company of my friends.

Then spring term started. My friends were still there, but they were busy with their own studies. I found myself crossing the river more and more. Denna was still nowhere to be found, but Deoch and Stanchion were always willing to share a drink and some idle gossip.

Threpe was there too, and while he occasionally pressed me to attend a dinner at his house, I could tell his heart wasn’t in it. My trial hadn’t pleased people on this side of the river either, and they were still telling stories about it. I wouldn’t be welcome in any respectable social circle for a great long time, if ever.

I toyed with the idea of leaving the University. I knew people would forget about the trial more quickly if I wasn’t around. But where would I go? The only thought that came to mind was heading off to Yll with the vain hope of finding Denna. But I knew that was nothing but foolishness.

Since I didn’t need to save money for tuition, I went to repay Devi. But for the first time ever, I wasn’t able to find her. Over the course of several days I grew increasingly nervous. I even slid several apologetic notes under her door until I heard from Mola that she was taking a holiday and would be returning soon.

Days passed. And I sat idle as winter slowly withdrew from the University. Frost left the corners of windowpanes, drifts of snow dwindled, and trees began to show their first greening buds. Eventually Simmon caught his first glimpse of bare leg beneath a flowing dress and declared spring had officially arrived.

One afternoon as I sat drinking metheglin with Stanchion, Threpe came through the door practically bubbling with excitement. He whisked me off to a private table on the second tier, looking ready to burst with whatever news he was carrying.

Threpe folded his hands on the tabletop. “Since we haven’t had much luck finding you a local patron, I started casting my nets farther afield. It’s nice to have a local patron. But if you have the support of a properly influential lord, it hardly matters where he lives.”

I nodded. My troupe had ranged all over the four corners under the protection of Lord Greyfallow’s name.

Threpe grinned. “Have you ever been to Vintas?”

“Possibly,” I said. Then seeing his puzzled look, I explained, “I traveled quite a bit when I was young. I can’t remember if we ever made it that far east.”

He nodded. “Do you know who the Maer Alveron is?”

I did, but I could tell Threpe was bursting to tell me himself. “I seem to remember something …” I said vaguely.

Threpe grinned. “You know the expression ‘rich as the King of Vint?’ ”

I nodded.

“Well, that’s him. His great-great-grandfathers were the kings of Vint, back before the empire stomped in, converting everyone to the iron law and the Book of the Path. If not for a few quirks of fate a dozen generations back, Alveron would be the royal family of Vintas, not the Calanthis, and my friend the Maer would be the king.”

“Your friend?” I said appreciatively. “You know Maer Alveron?”

Threpe made a vacillating gesture.“Friend may be stretching things a little,” he admitted. “We’ve been corresponding for some years, exchanging news from our different corners of the world, doing each other a favor or two. It would be more appropriate to say we’re acquainted.”

“An impressive acquaintance. What is he like?”

“His letters are quite polite. Never a bit snobby even though he does stand quite a good rank above me,” Threpe said modestly. “He’s every bit a king except for the title and crown, you know. When Vintas formed, his family refused to surrender any of their plenary powers. That means the Maer has the authority to do most anything King Roderic himself can do: grant titles, raise an army, coin money, levy taxes—”

Threpe shook his head sharply. “Ah, I forget what I’m doing,” he said as he began to search his pockets. “I received a letter from him only yesterday.” He produced a piece of paper, unfolded it, then cleared his throat and read:

I know you are knee-deep in poets and musicians out there, and I am rather in need of a young man who is good with words. I cannot find anyone to suit me here in Severen. And, everything said, I would prefer the best.

He should be good with words above all, perhaps a musician of some sort. After that, I would desire him to be clever, well-spoken, mannerly, educated, and discreet. On reading this list you may see why I have had no luck finding such a one for myself. If you happen to know a man of this rare sort, encourage him to call on me.

I would tell you what use I intend to put him to, but the matter is of a private nature… .

Threpe studied the letter for a moment or two. “It goes on for a bit. Then he says, ‘As to the matter I mentioned before, I am in some haste. If there is no one suitable in Imre, please send me a letter by post. If you happen to send someone my way, encourage him to make speed.’ ” Threpe’s eyes scanned the paper for a moment more, his lips moving silently. “That’s all of it,” he said finally, and tucked it back into a pocket. “What do you think?”

“You do me a great—”

“Yes, yes.” He waved a hand impatiently. “You’re flattered. Skip all that.” He leaned forward seriously. “Will you do it? Will your studies,” he made a dismissive gesture westward, toward the University, “permit an absence of a season or so?”

I cleared my throat. “I’ve actually been considering taking my studies abroad for a time.”

The count burst into a wide grin and thumped the arm of his chair. “Good!” he laughed. “I thought I was going to have to pry you out of your precious University like a penny from a dead shim’s fist! This is a wonderful opportunity, you realize. Once in a lifetime, really.” He gave me a sly wink. “Besides, a young man like yourself would be hard-pressed to find a better patron than a man who’s richer than the king of Vint.”

“There’s some truth to that,” I admitted aloud. Silently, I thought, Could I hope for better assistance in my search for the Amyr?

“There’s much truth to that,” he chuckled. “How soon can you be ready to leave?”

I shrugged. “Tomorrow?”

Threpe raised an eyebrow. “You don’t give much time for the dust to settle, do you?”

“He said he was in haste, and I’d rather be early than late.”

“True. True.” He drew a silver gear-watch from his pocket, looked at it, then sighed as he clicked it closed. “I’ll have to miss some sleep tonight drafting a letter of introduction for you.”

I glanced at the window. “It’s not even dark yet,” I said. “How long do you expect it to take?”

“Hush,” he said crossly. “I write slowly, especially when I’m sending a letter to someone as important as the Maer. Plus I have to describe you, no easy task by itself.”

“Let me help you then,” I said. “No sense losing sleep on my account.” I smiled. “Besides, if there’s one thing I’m well-versed in it’s my own good qualities.”

The next day I made a round of hasty good-byes to everyone I knew at the University. I received heartfelt handshakes from Wilem and Simmon and a cheerful wave from Auri.

Kilvin grunted without looking up from his engraving and told me to write down any ideas I might have for the ever-burning lamp while I was away. Arwyl gave me a long, penetrating look through his spectacles and told me there would be a place for me in the Medica when I returned.

Elxa Dal was refreshing after the other masters’ reserved responses. He laughed and admitted he was a little jealous of my freedom. He advised me to take full advantage of every reckless opportunity that presented itself. If a thousand miles wasn’t enough to keep my escapades secret, he said, then nothing would.

I had no luck finding Elodin, and settled for sliding a note under the door of his office. Though since he never seemed to use the place, it might be months before he found it.

I bought a new travelsack and a few other things a sympathist should never be without: wax, string and wire, hook-needle and gut. My clothes were easy to pack, as I didn’t own many.

As I loaded my pack, I slowly realized I couldn’t take everything with me. This came as something of a shock. For so many years I’d been able to carry everything I’ve owned, usually with a hand to spare.

But since I’d moved into this small garret room, I’d begun gathering oddments and half-finished projects. I now had the luxury of two blankets. There were pages of notes, a circular piece of half-inscribed tin from the Fishery, a broken gear-clock I’d taken to pieces to see if I could put it back together again.

I finished loading my travelsack, then packed everything else into the trunk that sat at the foot of my bed. A few worn tools, a broken piece of slate I used for ciphering, a small wooden box with the handful of small treasures Auri had given me… .

Then I went downstairs and asked Anker if he would mind stowing my possessions in the basement until I returned. He admitted a little guiltily that before I’d started sleeping there, the tiny, slant-ceilinged room had been empty for years, and only used for storage. He was willing to leave it unrented if I promised to continue our current room-for-music arrangement after I returned. I gladly agreed, and swinging my lute case onto my shoulder I headed out the door.

I wasn’t entirely surprised to find Elodin on Stonebridge. Very little about the Master Namer surprised me these days. He sat on the waist-high stone lip of the bridge, swinging his bare feet over the hundred-foot drop to the river below.

“Hello Kvothe,” he said without turning his eyes from the churning water.

“Hello Master Elodin,” I said. “I’m afraid I’m going to be leaving the University for a term or two.”

“Are you really afraid?” I noticed a whisper of amusement in his quiet, resonant voice.

It took me a moment to realize what he was referring to. “It’s just a figure of speech.”

“The figures of our speaking are like pictures of names. Vague, weak names, but names nonetheless. Be mindful of them.” He looked up at me. “Sit with me for a moment.”

I started to excuse myself, then hesitated. He was my sponsor, after all. I set down my lute and travelsack on the flat stone of the bridge. A fond smile came over Elodin’s boyish face and he slapped the stone parapet next to himself with the flat of his hand, offering me a seat.

I looked over the edge with a hint of anxiety. “I’d rather not, Master Elodin.”

He gave me a reproachful look. “Caution suits an arcanist. Assurance suits a namer. Fear does not suit either. It does not suit you.” He slapped the stone again, more firmly this time.

I carefully climbed onto the parapet and swung my feet over the edge. The view was spectacular, exhilarating.

“Can you see the wind?”

I tried. For a moment it seemed as if… No. It was nothing. I shook my head.

Elodin shrugged nonchalantly, though I sensed a hint of disappointment. “This is a good place for a namer. Tell me why.”

I looked around. “Wide wind, strong water, old stone.”

“Good answer.” I heard genuine pleasure in his voice. “But there is another reason. Stone, water, and wind are other places too. What makes this different?”

I thought for a moment, looked around, shook my head. “I don’t know.”

“Another good answer. Remember it.”

I waited for him to continue. When he didn’t, I asked, “What makes this a good place?”

He looked out over the water for a long time before he answered. “It is an edge,” he said at last. “It is a high place with a chance of falling. Things are more easily seen from edges. Danger rouses the sleeping mind. It makes some things clear. Seeing things is a part of being a namer.”

“What about falling?” I asked.

“If you fall, you fall,” Elodin shrugged. “Sometimes falling teaches us things too. In dreams you often fall before you wake.”

We were both silent in our thoughts for a while. I closed my eyes and tried to listen for the name of the wind. I heard the water below, felt the stone of the bridge beneath my palms. Nothing.

“Do you know what they used to say when a student left the University for a term?” Elodin asked.

I shook my head.

“They said he was chasing the wind,” he chuckled.

“I’ve heard the expression.”

“Have you? What did it seem to mean?”

I took a moment to choose my words. “It had a frivolous flavor. As if students were running around to no good purpose.”

Elodin nodded. “Most students leave for frivolous reasons, or to pursue frivolous things.” He leaned forward to look straight down at the river below. “But that was not always the meaning of it.”

“No?”

“No.” He sat back up again. “Long ago, when all students aspired to be namers, things were different.” He licked a finger and held it to the air. “The name most fledgling namers were encouraged to find was that of the wind. After they found that name, their sleeping minds were roused and finding other names was easier.

“But some students had trouble finding the name of the wind. There were too few edges here, too little risk. So they would go off into the wild, uneducated lands. They would seek their fortunes, have adventures, hunt for secrets and treasure… .” He looked at me. “But they were really looking for the name of the wind.”

Our conversation paused as someone came onto the bridge. It was a man with dark hair and a pinched face. He watched us from the corner of his eye without turning his head, and as he walked behind us I tried not to think how easy it would be for him to push me off the bridge.

Then he was past us. Elodin gave a weary sigh and continued. “Things have changed. There are even fewer edges now than there were before. The world is less wild. There are fewer magics, more secrets, and only a handful of people who know the name of the wind.”

“You know it, don’t you?” I asked.

Elodin nodded. “It changes from place to place, but I know how to listen for its changing shape.” He laughed and clapped me on the shoulder. “You should go. Chase the wind. Do not be afraid of the occasional risk.” He smiled. “In moderation.”

I swung my legs around, hopped off the thick wall, and resettled my lute and travelsack over my shoulder. But as I started toward Imre, Elodin’s voice stopped me. “Kvothe.”

I turned and saw Elodin lean forward over the side of the bridge. He grinned like a schoolboy. “Spit for luck.”

Devi opened the door for me and widened her eyes in shock. “My goodness,” she said, pressing a piece of paper dramatically to her chest. I recognized it as one of the notes I left under her door. “It’s my secret admirer.”

“I was trying to pay off my loan,” I said. “I made four trips.”

“The walk is good for you,” she said with a cheerful lack of sympathy as she motioned me inside, bolting the door behind me. The room smelled of…

I sniffed. “What is that?” I asked.

Her expression went rueful. “It was supposed to be pear.”

I lay down my lute case and travelsack and took a seat at her desk. Despite my best intentions, my eyes were drawn to the charred black ring.

Devi tossed her strawberry-blonde hair and met my eye. “Care for a rematch?” she asked, her mouth curving. “I can still take you, gram or no gram. I can take you while I’m dead asleep.”

“I’ll admit to being curious,” I said. “But I should tend to business instead.”

“Very well,” she said. “Are you really going to pay me off entire? Have you finally found yourself a patron?”

I shook my head. “However, I have had a remarkable opportunity arise. The chance to get a fine patron indeed.” I paused. “In Vintas.”

She raised an eyebrow. “That’s a long ways off,” she said pointedly. “I’m glad you stopped to settle your debt before jaunting off to the other side of the world. Who knows when you’ll be back.”

“Indeed,” I said. “However. I find myself in a bit of an odd place, financially speaking.”

Devi was already shaking her head before I finished speaking. “Absolutely not. You’re already into me for nine talents. I am not loaning you more money the day you leave town.”

I held up my hands defensively. “You misunderstand,” I said. I opened my purse and spilled talents and jots onto the table. Denna’s ring tumbled out too, and I stopped it before it could roll off the edge of the table.

I gestured to the pile of coins in front of me, slightly more than thirteen talents. “This is all the money I have in the world,” I said. “With it, I need to get myself to Severen with fair speed. A thousand miles with some to spare. That means passage on at least one ship. Food. Lodging. Money for coaches or the use of a post note.”

As I listed each of these things, I slid an appropriate amount of money from one side of the desk to the other. “When I finally arrive in Severen, I will need to buy myself clothes that will allow me to move among the court without looking like the ragged musician I am.” I slid more coins.

I pointed at the few straggling coins remaining. “This does not leave me enough to settle my debt with you.”

Devi watched me over her steepled fingers. “I see,” she said seriously. “We must discover some alternate method for you to square your debt.”

“My thought is this,” I said. “I can leave you with collateral against my eventual return.”

Her eyes flickered down to the slender, dark shape of my lute case.

“Not my lute,” I said quickly. “I need that.”

“What then?” she asked. “You’ve always said you have no collateral.”

“I have a few things,” I said, rummaging around in my travelsack and brought up a book.

Devi’s eyes lit up. Then she read the spine. “Rhetoric and Logic?” She made a face.

“I feel the same way,” I said. “But it’s worth something. Especially to me. Also …” I reached into the pocket of my cloak and brought out my hand lamp. “I have this. A sympathy lamp of my own design. It has a focused beam and a graded switch.”

Devi picked it up off the desk, nodding to herself. “I remember this,” she said. “Before, you said you couldn’t give it up because of a promise you’d made to Kilvin. Has that changed?”

I gave a bright smile that was two-thirds lie. “That promise is actually what makes that lamp the perfect piece of collateral,” I said. “If you take this lamp to Kilvin, I have every confidence he will pay a lavish sum just to get it out of …” I cleared my throat. “Unsavory hands.”

Devi flicked the switch idly with her thumb, spinning it from dim to bright and back again. “And I imagine this would be a stipulation you require? That I return it to Kilvin?”

“You know me so well,” I said. “It’s almost embarrassing.”

Devi set the lamp back on the table next to my book and took a slow breath through her nose. “A book that’s only valuable to you,” she said. “And a lamp that’s only valuable to Kilvin.” She shook her head. “This is not an appealing offer.”

I felt a pang as I reached to my shoulder and unclasped my talent pipes and slid them onto the table as well. “Those are silver,” I said. “And hard to come by. They’ll get you into the Eolian free, too.”

“I know what they are.” Devi picked them up and looked them over with a sharp eye. Then she pointed. “You had a ring.”

I froze. “That’s not mine to give.”

Devi laughed. “It’s in your pocket, isn’t it?” She snapped her fingers. “Come now. Let me see it.”

I brought it out of my pocket, but I didn’t hand it over. “I went through a lot of trouble for this,” I said. “It’s the ring Ambrose took from a friend of mine. I’m just waiting to return it to her.”

Devi sat silently, her hand outstretched. After a moment I put the ring onto her palm.

She held it close to the lamp and leaned forward, squinting one eye closed on her pixie face. “That’s a nice stone,” she said appreciatively.

“The setting’s new,” I said miserably.

Devi set the ring carefully on top of the book next to my pipes and hand lamp. “Here is the deal,” she said. “I will keep these items as collateral against your current debt of nine talents. This will last for the space of one year.”

“A year and a day,” I said.

A smile curved the corner of her mouth. “How storybook of you. Very well. This will postpone your repayment for a year and a day. If you have not repaid me by the end of that time, these items will be forfeit, and our debt will be cleared.” Her smile went sharp. “Though I may be persuaded to return them in exchange for certain information.”

I heard the belling tower in the distance and gave a deep sigh. I didn’t have much time for bargaining, as I was already late for my meeting with Threpe. “Fine,” I said, irritated. “But the ring will be kept somewhere safe. You can’t wear it until I’ve defaulted.”

Devi frowned. “You don’t—”

“I am not movable on this point,” I said seriously. “It belongs to a friend. It is precious to her. I would not have her see it on someone else’s hand. Not after everything I did to get it back from Ambrose.”

Devi said nothing, her pixie face set in a grim expression. I put on my own grim expression and met her eye. I do a good grim expression when I need to.

A long moment of silence stretched between us.

“Fine!” she said at last.

We shook hands. “A year and a day,” I said.

CHAPTER FIFTY-ONE

All Wise Men Fear

I STOPPED BY THE EOLIAN where Threpe was waiting for me, practically dancing with impatience. He had, he told me, found a boat heading downriver in less than an hour. What’s more, he had already paid my way as far as Tarbean, where I should easily be able to find passage east.

The two of us hurried to the docks, arriving just as the ship was going through its final preparations. Threpe, red-faced and puffing from our brisk walk, hurried to give me a lifetime’s worth of advice in the space of three minutes.

“The Maer is old, old blood,” he said. “Not like most of the little nobility around these parts who can’t tell you who their great-grandfathers are. So treat him with respect.”

I rolled my eyes. Why did everyone always expect me to behave so poorly?

“And remember,” he said. “If you look like you’re chasing money, they’ll see you as provincial. As soon as that happens no one will take you seriously. You’re there to curry favor. That’s the high-stakes game. Besides, fortune follows favor, as they say. If you get one, you’ll have the other. It’s like what Teccam wrote, ‘The cost of a loaf is a simple thing, and so a loaf is often sought …’ ”

“ ‘… but some things are past valuing: laughter, land, and love are never bought.’” I finished. It was actually a quote from Gregan the Lesser, but I didn’t bother correcting him.

“Hoy there!” a tan, bearded man shouted to us from the deck of the ship. “We got one straggler we’re waitin’ on, and Captain’s angry as an ugly whore. He swears he’ll leave if he ain’t here in two minutes. You’d do well to be aboard by then.” He wandered off without waiting for a reply.

“Address him as your grace,” Threpe continued as if we hadn’t been interrupted. “And remember: speak least if you would be most often heard. Oh!” He drew a sealed letter from his breast pocket. “Here’s your letter of introduction. I may send another copy by post, just so he knows to expect you.”

I gave him a broad smile and gripped his arm. “Thank you, Denn,” I said earnestly. “For everything. I appreciate all of this more than you know.”

Threpe waved the comment aside. “I know you’ll do splendidly. You’re a clever boy. Mind that you find a good tailor when you get there. The fashions will be different. As they say: know a lady by her manner, a man by his cloth.”

I knelt and opened up my lute case. Moving the lute aside, I pressed the lid of the secret compartment and twisted it open. I slid Threpe’s sealed letter inside, where it joined the hollow horn with Nina’s drawing and a small sack of dried apple I had stowed there. There was nothing special about the dried apple, but in my opinion if you have a secret compartment in your lute case and don’t use it to hide things, there is something terribly, terribly wrong with you.

I snapped the clasps closed, refastening the lid, then stood and gathered up my belongings, ready to board the ship.

Threpe gripped my shoulder suddenly. “I almost forgot! Alveron mentioned in one of his letters that the young people in his court gamble. He thinks it’s a deplorable habit, so stay clear of it. And remember, small thaws make great floods, so be twice wary of a slowly changing season.”

I saw someone running down the dock toward us. It was the pinch-faced man who had passed Elodin and me on Stonebridge earlier. He carried a cloth-wrapped package close under one arm.

“I’m guessing that’s their missing sailor,” I said quickly. “I’d better get aboard.” I gave Threpe a quick embrace and tried to get away before he could give me any more advice.

But he caught my sleeve as I turned. “Be careful on your way there,” he said, his expression anxious. “Remember: There are three things all wise men fear: the sea in storm, a night with no moon, and the anger of a gentle man.”

The sailor passed us and hit the gangplank running, unmindful of how the board jounced and clattered under his feet. I gave Threpe a reassuring smile and followed close on his heels. Two leathery men hauled up the plank, and I returned Threpe’s final wave.

Orders were shouted, men scrambled, and the ship began to move. I turned to face downriver, toward Tarbean, toward the sea.

CHAPTER FIFTY-TWO

A Brief Journey

MY ROUTE WAS A simple one. I would head downriver to Tarbean, through the Refting Strait, down the coast toward Junpui, then up the Arrand River. It was more roundabout than going overland, but better in the long run. Even if I were to purchase a post letter and change horses at every opportunity, it would still take me almost three span to reach Severen overland. And most of that time would be in southern Atur and the Small Kingdoms. Only priests and fools expected the roads in that part of the world to be safe.

The water route added several hundred miles to the distance traveled, but ships at sea need not mind the twistings and turnings of a road. And while a good horse can set a better pace than a ship, you can’t ride a horse day and night without stopping to rest. The water route would take about a dozen days, depending on the weather.

My curiosity was also glad to take the sea route. I had never been on any water larger than a river. My only real concern was that I might become bored with nothing but wind, waves, and sailors for company.

Several unfortunate complications arose during the trip.

In brief, there was a storm, piracy, treachery, and shipwreck, although not in that order. It also goes without saying that I did a great many things, some heroic, some ill-advised, some clever and audacious.

Over the course of my trip I was robbed, drowned, and left penniless on the streets of Junpui. In order to survive I begged for crusts, stole a man’s shoes, and recited poetry. The last should demonstrate more than all the rest how truly desperate my situation became.

However, as these events have little to do with the heart of the story, I must pass them over in favor of more important things. Simply said, it took me sixteen days to reach Severen. A bit longer than I had planned, but at no point during my journey was I ever bored.

CHAPTER FIFTY-THREE

The Sheer

I LIMPED THROUGH THE GATES of Severen ragged, penniless, and hungry. I am no stranger to hunger. I know the countless hollow shapes it takes inside you. This particular hunger wasn’t a terrible one. I’d eaten two apples and some salt pork a day ago, so this hunger was merely painful. It wasn’t the bad hunger that leaves you weak and trembling. I was safe from that for at least eight hours or so.

Over the last two span everything I owned had been lost, destroyed, stolen, or abandoned. The only exception was my lute. Denna’s marvelous case had paid for itself ten times during my trip. In addition to saving my life on one occasion, it had protected my lute, Threpe’s letter of introduction, and Nina’s invaluable drawing of the Chandrian.

You may notice I don’t include any clothing on my list of possessions. There are two good reasons for this. The first is that you couldn’t really call the grubby rags I wore clothing without stretching the truth to its breaking point. Secondly, I had stolen them, so it doesn’t seem right to claim them as my own.

The most irritating was the loss of Fela’s cloak. I’d been forced to tear it up and use it for bandages in Junpui. Nearly as bad was the fact that my hard-won gram now lay somewhere deep below the cold, dark waters of the Centhe Sea.

The city of Severen was split into two unequal portions by a tall, white cliff. The majority of the living business of the city took place in the larger portion of the city at the foot of this cliff, aptly named the Sheer.

Atop the Sheer was a much smaller piece of the city. It consisted mostly of estates and manor houses belonging to aristocracy and wealthy merchants. Also present were the attendant number of tailors, liveries, theaters, and brothels necessary to provide for the needs of the upper class.

The stark cliff of white stone looked as if it had been thrust skyward to give the nobility a better view of the countryside. As it wandered off to the northeast and south, it lost height and stature, but where it bisected Severen, it was two hundred feet tall and steep as a garden wall.

In the center of the city, a wide peninsula of cliff jutted out from the Sheer. Perched on this outthrust piece of cliff was Maer Alveron’s estate. Its pale stone walls were visible from anywhere in the city below. The effect was daunting, as if the Maer’s ancestral home was peering down on you.

Seeing it without a coin in my pocket or a decent set of clothes on my back was rather intimidating. I’d planned to take Threpe’s letter straight to the Maer despite my disheveled state, but looking up at the tall stone walls, I realized I probably wouldn’t be let through the front door. I looked like a filthy beggar.

I had few resources and even fewer options to choose from. With the exception of Ambrose some miles to the south in his father’s barony, I didn’t know a single soul in all of Vintas.

I’ve begged before, and I’ve stolen. But only when I’ve had no other options available to me. They are dangerous occupations and only a complete fool attempts them in an unfamiliar city, let alone an entirely new country. Here in Vintas, I didn’t even know what laws I might be breaking.

So I gritted my teeth and took the only option available to me. I wandered barefoot through the cobblestone streets of Severen-Low until I found a pawn shop in one of the better parts of the city.

I stood across the street for the better part of an hour, watching the people come and go, trying to think of some better option. But I simply didn’t have one. So I removed Threpe’s letter and Nina’s painting from the secret compartment in my lute case, crossed the street, and pawned my lute and case for eight silver nobles and a span note.

If you’ve led the sort of easy life that’s never taken you to the pawners, let me explain. The note was a receipt of sorts, and with it, I could buy my lute back for the same amount of money, so long as I did it within eleven days. On the twelfth day it became the property of the pawnbroker who would undoubtedly turn around and sell it for ten times that amount.

Back on the street, I hefted the coins. They seemed thin and insubstantial compared to Cealdish currency or the heavy Commonwealth pennies I was familiar with. Still, money spends the same the world round, and seven nobles bought me a fine suit of clothes of the sort a gentleman might wear, along with a pair of soft leather boots. What remained bought a haircut, shave, bath, and my first solid meal in three days. After that I was coin-poor again, but feeling much more sure of myself.

Still, I knew it would be difficult to make my way to the Maer. Men with his degree of power live within layers of protection. There are customary, graceful ways to navigate these layers: introductions and audiences, messages and rings, calling cards and ass-kissing.

But with only eleven days to get my lute out of pawn, my time was too precious for that. I needed to make contact with Alveron quickly.

So I made my way to the foot of the Sheer and found a small café that catered to a genteel clientele. I used one of my precious few remaining coins to buy a mug of chocolate and a seat with a view of the haberdasher’s across the street.

Over the next several hours I listened to the gossip that flows through such places. Even better, I won the trust of the clever young boy who worked at the café, waiting to refill my mug if I so desired. With his help and some casual eavesdropping, I learned a great deal about the Maer’s court in a short amount of time.

Eventually the shadows grew longer, and I decided it was time to move. I called the boy over and pointed across the street. “Do you see that gentleman? The one in the red vest?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Do you know who it is?”

“The Esquire Bergon, if ’n it please you.”

I needed someone more important than that. “How about the cross-looking fellow in the awful yellow hat?”

The boy hid a smile. “That’s Baronet Pettur.”

Perfect. I stood and clapped Jim on the back. “You’ll do well for yourself with a memory like that. Keep well.” I gave him ha’penny and strolled to where the baronet stood, fingering a bolt of deep green velvet.

It goes without saying that in terms of social rank, there are none lower than the Edema Ruh. Even leaving aside my heritage, I was a landless commoner. This meant in terms of social standing the baronet was so high above me that if he were a star, I would not be able to see him with the naked eye. A person of my position should address him as “my lord,” avoid eye contact, and bow deeply and humbly.

Truth be told, a person of my social standing shouldn’t speak to him at all.

Things were different in the Commonwealth, of course. And the University itself was particularly egalitarian. But even there, nobility were still rich and powerful and well-connected. People like Ambrose would always run roughshod over folk like myself. And if things got difficult, he could always hush things up or bribe a judge to get himself out of trouble.

But I was in Vintas now. Here Ambrose wouldn’t need to bribe the judge. If I’d accidentally jostled the Baronet Pettur in the street while I was still barefoot and muddy, he could have horsewhipped me bloody, then called the constable to arrest me for being a public nuisance. The constable would have done it too, with a smile and a nod.

Let me try to say this more succinctly. In the Commonwealth, the gentry are people with power and money. In Vintas, the gentry have power and money and privilege. Many rules simply do not apply to them.

That meant in Vintas, social rank was of utmost importance.

That meant if the baronet knew I was below him, he would lord it over me, quite literally.

On the other hand …

As I walked across the street toward the baronet, I straightened my shoulders and raised my chin a bit. I stiffened my neck and narrowed my eyes slightly. I looked around as if I owned the entire street, and it was currently something of a disappointment.

“Baronet Pettur?” I said briskly.

The man looked up, smiling vaguely, as if he couldn’t decide if he recognized me or not. “Yes?”

I made a curt gesture toward the Sheer. “You would be doing the Maer a great service if you would escort me to his estate as quickly as possible.” I kept my expression stern, almost angry.

“Well, certainly.” He sounded anything but certain. I could sense the questions, the excuses beginning to bubble up in him. “W—”

I fixed the baronet with my haughtiest stare. The Edema might be on the lowest rung of the social ladder, but there are no finer actors breathing. I had been raised on the stage, and my father could play a king so regal I’d seen audiences doff their hats when he made his entrance.

I made my eyes as hard as agates and looked the florid man up and down as if he were a horse I wasn’t sure I cared to bet on. “If the matter were not urgent, I would never impose on you this way.” I hesitated, then added a stiff, reluctant, “Sir.”

Baronet Pettur looked me in the eye. He was slightly off balance, but not nearly as much as I’d hoped. Like most nobility, he was self-centered as a gyroscope, and the only thing keeping him from sniffing and looking down his nose at me was his uncertainty. He eyed me, trying to decide if he could risk offending me by asking my name and how we were acquainted.

But I still had a final trick to play. I brought out the thin, sharp smile the porter at the Grey Man had used when I had come calling on Denna all those months ago. As I’d said, it was a good smile: gracious, polite, and more patronizing than if I’d reached out and patted the man on the head like a dog.

The Baronet Pettur bore up under the weight of the smile for almost a full second. Then he cracked like an egg, his shoulders rounding a bit, and his manner becoming ever so slightly obsequious. “Any service I can lend the Maer is a service I am glad to render,” he said. “Please, allow me.” He took the lead, heading toward the foot of the cliff.

Following behind, I smiled.

CHAPTER FIFTY-FOUR

The Messenger

I MANAGED TO BLUFF AND fast-talk my way through the majority of the Maer’s defenses. The Baronet Pettur helped me simply by his presence. Being escorted by a recognizable member of the nobility was enough to get me deep inside Alveron’s estate. After that, he soon outlived his usefulness and I left him behind.

Once he was out of sight I put on my most impatient face, asked a busy servant for directions, and made it all the way to the outer doors of the Maer’s audience chamber before I was stopped by an unassuming man in his middle years. He was portly, with a round face, and despite his fine clothes he looked like a grocer to me.

If not for the several hours I’d spent gathering information in Severen-Low I might have made a terrible mistake and tried to bluff my way past this man, thinking him nothing more than a well-dressed servant.

But this was actually the person I was looking for: the Maer’s manservant, Stapes. Though he looked like a grocer, he had the aura of true authority about him. His manner was quiet and certain, unlike the overbearing, brash one I had used to bully the baronet.

“How can I help you?” Stapes asked. His tone was perfectly polite, but there were other questions lurking beneath the surface of his words. Who are you? What are you doing here?

I brought out Count Threpe’s letter and handed it over with a slight bow. “You would be doing me a great service if you would convey this to the Maer,” I said. “He is expecting me.”

Stapes gave me a cool look, making it perfectly clear that if the Maer had been expecting me, he would have known about it ten days ago. He rubbed his chin as he looked me over, and I saw he wore a dull iron ring with gold letters scrolling across the surface.

Despite his obvious misgivings, Stapes took the letter and disappeared through a set of double doors. I stood in the hallway for a nervous minute before he returned and ushered me inside, his manner still vaguely disapproving.

We moved through a short hallway, then came to a second set of doors flanked by armored guards. These weren’t ceremonial guards of the sort you sometimes see in public, standing stiffly at attention, holding halberds. They wore the Maer’s colors but beneath their sapphire and ivory were functional breastplates with steel rings and leather. Each man wore a long sword and a long knife. They eyed me seriously as I approached.

The Maer’s manservant nodded to me, and one of the guards manhandled me in a quick, competent way, sliding his hands along my arms and legs and around my chest, searching for hidden weapons. I was suddenly very glad for some of the misfortunes on my trip, specifically the ones that had ended with me losing the pair of slender knives I’d grown accustomed to wearing underneath my clothes.

The guard stepped back and nodded. Then Stapes gave me another irritated look and opened the inner door.

Inside, two men sat at a map-strewn table. One was tall and bald with the hard, weathered look of a veteran soldier. Next to him sat the Maer.

Alveron was older than I had expected. He had a serious face, proud around the mouth and eyes. His well-trimmed salt-and-pepper beard had very little black left to it, but his hair was still full and thick. His eyes too, seemed to belie his age. They were clear grey, clever and piercing. They were not the eyes of an old man.

The Maer turned those eyes on me as I entered the room. He held Threpe’s letter in one hand.

I made a standard number three bow. “The Messenger” as my father called it. Low and formal, as fitting the Maer’s high station. Deferential, but not obsequious. Just because I tread heavily on propriety’s toes doesn’t mean I can’t play the game when it’s of use to me.

The Maer’s eyes flickered down to the letter, then back up. “Kvothe, is it? You travel swiftly to arrive in such good time. I’d not expected even a reply from the count so soon.”

“I made all possible speed to put myself at your disposal, your grace.”

“Indeed.” He looked me over carefully. “And you seem to vindicate the count’s opinion of your wit by making it all the way to my door with nothing but a sealed letter in your hand.”

“I thought it best to present myself as soon as possible, your grace,” I said neutrally. “Your letter implied you were in some haste.”

“And an impressive job you did of it too,” Alveron said, glancing at the tall man sitting at the table next to him. “Wouldn’t you say, Dagon?”

“Yes, your grace.” Dagon looked at me with dark, dispassionate eyes. His face was hard and sharp and emotionless. I suppressed a shiver.

Alveron glanced down at the letter again. “Threpe certainly has some flattering things to say about you here,” he said. “Well-spoken. Charming. Most talented musician he’s met in ten years… .”

The Maer continued reading, then looked back up, his eyes shrewd. “You seem a bit young,” he said hesitantly. “You’re barely past twenty, aren’t you?”

I was a month past my sixteenth birthday. A fact I’d pointedly omitted from the letter. “I am young, your grace,” I admitted, sidestepping the actual lie. “But I’ve been making music since I was four.” I spoke with quiet confidence, doubly glad of my new clothes. In my rags, I couldn’t have helped but look like a starving urchin. As it was, I was well-dressed and tanned from my days at sea, and the lean lines of my face added years to my appearance.

Alveron eyed me for a long, speculative moment, then nodded, apparently satisfied. “Very well,” he said. “Unfortunately, I am rather busy at present. Would tomorrow be convenient for you?” It wasn’t really a question. “Have you found lodgings in the city?”

“I have not made any arrangements as of yet, your grace.”

“You will stay here,” he said evenly. “Stapes?” He called in a voice hardly louder than his normal speaking tone, and the portly, grocer-looking fellow appeared almost instantly. “Set our new guest somewhere in the south wing, near the gardens.” He turned back to me. “Will your luggage be following?”

“I fear all my luggage was lost on the way, your grace. Shipwreck.”

Alveron raised an eyebrow briefly. “Stapes will see you are properly outfitted.” He folded Threpe’s letter and made a gesture of dismissal. “Good evening.”

I made a quick bow and followed Stapes from the room.

The rooms were the most opulent I’d ever seen, let alone lived in, full of old wood and polished stone. The bed had a feather mattress a foot thick, and when I drew its curtains and lay inside, it seemed as big as my entire room back at Anker’s.

My rooms were so pleasant it took me almost a full day to realize how much I hated them.

Again you have to think in terms of shoes. You don’t want the biggest pair. You want a pair that fits. If your shoes are too big, your feet chafe and blister.

In a similar way, my rooms chafed at me. There was an immense empty wardrobe, empty chests of drawers, and bare bookshelves. My room in Anker’s had been tiny, but here I felt like a dried pea rattling around inside an empty jewelry box.

But while the rooms were too large for my nonexistent possessions, they were too small for me. I was obliged to remain there, waiting for the Maer to summon me. Since I had no idea when this might happen, I was effectively trapped.

In defense of the Maer’s hospitality, I should mention a few positive things. The food was excellent, if somewhat cold by the time it made its way from the kitchens. There was also a wonderful copper bathing basin. Servants brought the hot water, but it drained away through a series of pipes. I had not expected to find such conveniences so far from the civilizing influence of the University.

I was visited by one of the Maer’s tailors, an excitable little man who measured me six dozen different ways while chattering about the court gossip. The next day, a runner boy delivered two elaborate suits of clothing in colors that flattered me.

In a way, I was fortunate I’d met with trouble at sea. The clothing Alveron’s tailors supplied was much better than anything I could have afforded, even with Threpe’s help. As a result, I cut quite a striking figure during my stay in Severen.

Best of all, while checking the fit of my clothes the chatty tailor mentioned cloaks were in fashion. I took the opportunity to exaggerate somewhat about the cloak Fela had given me, bemoaning the loss of it.

The result was a richly colored burgundy cloak. It wouldn’t keep the rain off worth a damn, but I was quite fond of it. Not only did it make me look rather dashing, but it was full of clever little pockets, of course.

So I was dressed, fed, and boarded in luxury. But despite this largess, by noon of the next day I was prowling my rooms like a cat in a crate. I itched to be outside, to have my lute out of pawn, to discover why the Maer needed the service of someone clever, well-spoken, and above all, discreet.

CHAPTER FIFTY-FIVE

Grace

I PEERED AT THE MAER through a gap in the hedge. He was sitting on a stone bench under a shade tree in his gardens, looking every bit the gentleman in his loose sleeves and waistcoat. He wore the house colors of Alveron: sapphire and ivory. But while his clothes were fine, they weren’t ostentatious. He wore a gold signet ring, but no other jewelry. Compared to many others in his court, the Maer was almost plainly dressed.

At first this seemed to imply that Alveron disdained the fashions of the court. But after a moment, I saw the truth of it. The ivory of his shirt was creamy and flawless, the sapphire of his waistcoat vibrant. I would have bet my thumbs they hadn’t been worn more than a half-dozen times.

As a display of wealth, it was subtle and staggering. It was one thing to be able to afford fine clothes, but how much would it cost to maintain a wardrobe that never showed the slightest hint of wear? I thought of what Count Threpe had said about Alveron: Rich as the King of Vint.

The Maer himself looked much the same as before. Tall and thin. Greying and immaculately groomed. I took in the tired lines of his face, the slight tremble of his hands, his posture. He looks old, I thought to myself, but he’s not.

The belling tower began to strike the hour. I stepped back from the hedge and strolled around the corner to meet the Maer.

Alveron nodded, his cool eyes looking me over carefully. “Kvothe, I was rather hoping you would come.”

I gave a semi-formal bow. “I was pleased to receive your invitation, your grace.”

Alveron made no gesture for me to seat myself, so I remained standing. I guessed he was testing my manners. “I hope you do not mind our meeting outside. Have you seen the gardens yet?”

“I haven’t had the opportunity, your grace.” I’d been trapped in my damned rooms until he had sent for me.

“You must allow me to show you around.” He took hold of a polished walking stick that rested against the shade tree. “I’ve always found that taking some air is good for whatever troubles a body, though others disagree.” He leaned forward as if he would stand, but a shadow of pain crossed his face and he drew a shallow, painful breath between his teeth. Sick. I realized. Not old, sick.

I was at his side in a twinkling and offered him my arm. “Allow me, your grace.”

The Maer gave a stiff smile. “If I were younger, I’d make light of your offer,” he sighed. “But pride is the luxury of the strong.” He laid a thin hand on my arm and used my support to gain his feet. “I must settle for being gracious instead.”

“Graciousness is the luxury of the wise,” I said easily. “So it can be noted that your wisdom lends you grace.”

Alveron gave a wry chuckle and patted my arm. “That makes it a bit easier to bear, I suppose.”

“Would you like your stick, your grace?” I asked. “Or shall we walk together?”

He made the same dry chuckle. “ ‘Walk together.’ That’s delicately put.” He took the stick in his right hand while his left held my arm in a surprisingly strong grip.

“Lord and lady,” he swore under his breath. “I hate to be seen doddering about. But it’s less galling to lean on a young man’s arm than hobble around on my own. It’s a horrible thing to have your body fail you. You never think about it when you’re young.”

We began to walk, and our conversation lulled as we listened to the sound of water splashing in the fountains and birds singing in the hedges. Occasionally the Maer would point out a particular piece of statuary and tell which of his ancestors had commissioned it, made it, or (he spoke of these in a quieter, apologetic tone) plundered it from foreign lands in times of war.

We walked about the gardens for the better part of an hour. Alveron’s weight on my arm gradually lessened and soon he was using me more for balance than support. We passed several gentlefolk who bowed or nodded to the Maer. After they were out of earshot he would mention who they were, how they ranked in court, and a snippet or two of amusing gossip.

“They’re wondering who you are,” he said after one such couple had passed behind a hedge. “By tonight it will be all the talk. Are you an ambassador from Renere? A young noble looking for a rich fief and a wife to go along? Perhaps you are my long-lost son, a remnant from my wilder youth.” He chuckled to himself and patted my arm. He might have continued, but he stumbled on a protruding flagstone and almost fell. I steadied him quickly, and eased him onto a stone bench beside the path.

“Damn and bother,” he cursed, obviously embarrassed. “How would that have looked, the Maer scrabbling about like a beetle on its back?” He looked around crossly, but we seemed to be alone. “Would you do an old man a favor?”

“I am at your disposal, your grace.”

Alveron gave me a shrewd look. “Are you indeed? Well, it’s a little thing. Keep secretive about who you are and what your business is. It’ll do wonders for your reputation. The less you tell them, the more everyone will be wanting to get from you.”

“I’ll keep close about myself, your grace. But I would have better luck avoiding the subject of why I’m here if I knew what it was… .”

Alveron’s expression went sly. “True. But this is too public a place. You’ve shown good patience so far. Exercise it a while longer.” He looked up at me. “Would you be so kind as to walk me to my rooms?”

I held out my arm. “Certainly, your grace.”

After returning to my rooms, I removed my embroidered jacket and hung it in the carved rosewood wardrobe. The huge piece of furniture was lined with cedar and sandalwood, scenting the air. Large, flawless mirrors hung on the insides of the doors.

I walked across the polished marble floor and sat on a red velvet lounging couch. I idly wondered how exactly one was supposed to lounge. I couldn’t remember ever doing it myself. After a moment’s consideration, I decided lounging was probably similar to relaxing, but with more money in your pocket.

Restless, I got to my feet and moved around the room. There were paintings on the walls, portraits and pastoral scenes done skillfully in oil. One wall held a huge tapestry that showed a vast naval battle in intricate detail. That occupied my attention for almost half an hour.

I missed my lute.

It had been terribly hard to pawn it, like cutting off my hand. I’d fully expected to spend the next ten days sick with worry, anxious that I wouldn’t be able to buy it back.

But without meaning to, the Maer himself had set my mind at ease. In my wardrobe hung six suits of clothing, fine enough for any lord. When they had been delivered to my room, I’d felt myself relax. My first thought on seeing them wasn’t that I could now mingle comfortably with court society. I thought that if worse came to worst, I could steal them, sell them to a fripperer, and easily have enough money to reclaim my lute.

Of course if I did such a thing, I would burn all my bridges with the Maer. It would render my entire trip to Severen pointless, and would embarrass Threpe so profoundly that he might never speak to me again. Nevertheless, knowing I had that option gave me a thin thread of control over the situation. It was enough so I could keep from going absolutely mad with worry.

I missed my lute, but if I could gain the Maer’s patronage, my life’s road would grow suddenly smooth and straight. The Maer had money enough for me to continue my education at the University. His connections could help me continue my research into the Amyr.

Perhaps most important was the power of his name. If the Maer were my patron, I would be under his protection. Ambrose’s father might be the most powerful baron in all of Vintas, a dozen steps from royalty. But Alveron was practically a king in his own right. How much simpler would my life become without Ambrose endlessly spiking my wheel? It was a giddy thought.

I missed my lute, but all things have their price. For a chance of having the Maer as a patron, I was willing to grit my teeth and spend a span bored and anxious, without music.

Alveron turned out to be right about the curious nature of his attendant court. After he called me to his study that evening, rumor exploded like a brushfire around me. I could understand why the Maer enjoyed this sort of thing. It was like watching stories being born.

CHAPTER FIFTY-SIX

Power

ALVERON SENT FOR ME again the next day, and soon the two of us were strolling along the garden paths again, his hand resting lightly on my arm. “Let’s head toward the south side.” The Maer pointed with his walking stick. “I hear the selas will reach full bloom soon.”

We took the left turning of the path and he drew a breath. “There are two types of power: inherent and granted,” Alveron said, letting me know the topic of today’s conversation. “Inherent power you possess as a part of yourself. Granted power is lent or given by other people.” He looked sideways at me. I nodded.

Seeing my agreement, the Maer continued. “Inherent power is an obvious thing. Strength of body.” He patted my supporting arm. “Strength of mind. Strength of personality. All these things lie within a person. They define us. They determine our limits.”

“Not entirely, your grace,” I protested gently. “A man can always improve himself.”

“They limit us,” the Maer said firmly. “A man with one hand will never wrestle in the roundings. A man with one leg will never run as quickly as a man with two.”

“An Adem warrior with only one hand might be more deadly than a common warrior with two, your grace.” I pointed out. “Despite his deficiency.”

“True, true,” the Maer said crossly. “We can improve ourselves, exercise our bodies, educate our minds, groom ourselves carefully.” He ran a hand down his immaculate salt-and-pepper beard. “For even appearance is a type of power. But there are always limits. While a one-handed man might become a passable warrior, he could not play a lute.”

I nodded slowly. “You make a good point, your grace. Our power has limits we can extend, but not indefinitely.”

Alveron held up a finger. “But that is only the first type of power. We are only limited if we rely upon the power we ourselves possess. There is still the type of power that is given. Do you understand what I mean by granted power?”

I thought a moment. “Taxes?”

“Hmm,” the Maer said, surprised. “That’s a rather good example, actually. Have you put much thought into this sort of thing before?”

“A bit,” I admitted. “But never in these terms.”

“It is a difficult thing,” he said, sounding pleased by my response. “Which do you think is the greater type of power?”

I only had to think for a second. “The inherent, your grace.”

“Interesting. Why do you say that?”

“Because a power you possess yourself cannot be taken away, your grace.”

“Ah.” He raised a long finger as if to caution me. “But we’ve already agreed that type of power is severely limited. Granted power has no limits.”

“No limits, your grace?”

Alveron nodded his head in concession. “Very few limits, then.”

I still didn’t agree. The Maer must have seen it on my face because he leaned toward me to explain. “Let’s say I have an enemy, young and strong. Let’s say he has stolen something of mine, some money. Are you with me?”

I nodded.

“No manner of training will make me the match of a quarrelsome twenty-year-old. So what do I do? I get one of my young, strong friends to go and box his ears. With that strength I can accomplish a feat which would be otherwise impossible.”

“Your enemy could box your friend’s ears instead,” I pointed out as we rounded a corner. An arching trellis turned the path ahead of us into a shaded tunnel, thick with deep green leaves.

“Let’s say I got three friends together,” the Maer amended. “Suddenly I’ve been granted the strength of three men! My enemy, even if he were very strong, could never be as strong as that. Look to the selas. Terribly difficult to cultivate, they tell me.”

We entered the shadow of the trellis tunnel where hundreds of deep red petals blossomed in the shade of leaf and arch. The smell was sweet and tremulous. I brushed a hand across one of the deep red blooms. It was unspeakably soft. I thought of Denna.

The Maer returned to our discussion. “You’re missing the point, anyway. The lending of strength is just a small example. Some types of power can only be given.”

He made a subtle gesture to a corner of the garden. “Do you see Compte Farlend over there? If you asked him about his title, he would say he possesses it. He would claim it is a part of him as much as his own blood. A part of his blood, in fact. Almost any noble would say the same thing. They would argue their lineage imbued them with the right to rule.”

The Maer looked up at me, his eyes glittering in amusement. “But they’re wrong. It is not inherent power. It is granted. I could take away his lands and leave him a pauper on the street.”

Alveron motioned me closer, and I leaned a bit. “Here is a great secret. Even my title, my riches, my control over people and the land. It is only granted power. It belongs to me no more than does the strength of your arm.” He patted my hand and smiled at me. “But I know the difference, and that is why I am always in control.”

He straightened and spoke in normal tones. “Good afternoon, Compte. Lovely day to be out in the sun, wouldn’t you say?”

“Indeed, your grace. The selas are quite breathtaking.” The Compte was a heavy man with jowls and a thick mustache. “My compliments.”

After the compte had passed us by, Alveron continued. “You notice he complimented me on the selas? I have never touched a trowel in my life.” He looked sideways at me, his expression slightly smug. “Do you still think inherent power is the better of the two?”

“You make a compelling point, your grace,” I said. “However—”

“You’re a hard one to convince. One last example, then. Can we agree that I will never be able to give birth to a child?”

“I think that is safe to say, your grace.”

“Yet if a woman grants me the right to wed her, I can give birth to a son. Through granted power, a man can make himself as fast as a horse, as strong as an ox. Can inherent power do this for you?”

I couldn’t argue that. “I bow to your argument, your grace.”

“I bow to your wisdom in accepting it.” He chuckled, and at the same time the faint ringing of the hour moved through the garden. “Oh bother,” the Maer said, his expression souring. “I must go take that dreadful nostrum of mine or Caudicus will be completely unmanageable for a span of days.” I gave him a quizzical look and he explained. “He somehow discovered that I poured yesterday’s dose in the chamber pot.”

“Your grace should be mindful of your health.”

Alveron scowled. “You overstep yourself,” he snapped.

I flushed in embarrassment, but before I could apologize he waved me into silence. “You’re right, of course. I know my duty. But you sound just like him. One Caudicus is enough for me.”

He paused to nod toward an approaching couple. The man was tall and handsome, a few years older than myself. The woman was perhaps thirty, with dark eyes and an elegant, wicked mouth. “Good evening, Lady Hesua. I trust your father is continuing to improve?”

“Oh yes,” she said. “The surgeon says he should be up before the span is through.” She caught my eye and held it briefly, her red mouth curving into a knowing smile.

Then she was past us. I found myself sweating a bit.

If the Maer noticed, he ignored it. “Terrible woman. New man every span of days. Her father was wounded in a duel with Esquire Higton over an ‘inappropriate’ remark. A true remark, but that doesn’t count for much once the swords are out.”

“What of the squire?”

“Died the day after. Pity too. He was a good man, just didn’t know enough to mind his tongue.” He sighed and looked up at the belling tower. “As I was saying. One physician is quite enough for me. Caudicus clucks over me like a mother hen. I hate taking medicine when I am already on the mend.”

The Maer did seem better today. He hadn’t really needed the support of my arm during our walk. I sensed he only leaned on me to give us an excuse to be talking so close together. “Your improving health seems proof enough that his ministrations work to heal you,” I said.

“Yes, yes. His potives drive away my illness for a span of days. Sometimes for months.” He sighed bitterly. “But they always come back. Shall I be drinking potions the rest of my life?”

“Perhaps the need for them will pass, your grace.”

“I had hoped the same thing myself. In his recent travels Caudicus gathered some herbs that worked wondrous well. His last treatment left me hale for nearly a year. I thought I was finally free of it.” The Maer scowled down at his walking stick. “Yet here I am.”

“If I could aid you in any way, your grace, I would.”

Alveron turned his head to look me in the eye. After a moment he nodded to himself. “I do believe you would,” he said. “How extraordinary.”

Several conversations of a similar sort followed. I could tell the Maer was trying to get a feel for me. With all the skill learned in forty years of courtly intrigue, he steered the conversation in subtle ways, learning my opinions, determining whether or not I was worthy of his trust.

While I didn’t have the Maer’s experience, I was a fair conversationalist myself. I was always careful with my answers, always courteous. After a few days, a mutual respect began to grow between us. Not a friendship such as I had with Count Threpe. The Maer never encouraged me to disregard his title or sit in his presence, but we were growing closer. While Threpe was a friend, the Maer was like a distant grandfather: kind but older, serious, and reserved.

I got the impression the Maer was a lonely man, forced to remain aloof from his subjects and the members of his court. I almost suspected he might have sent to Threpe for a companion. Someone clever but removed from the politics of court so he could have an honest conversation once in a while.

At first I dismissed such an idea as unlikely, but the days continued to pass and still the Maer avoided any mention of what use he planned to put me to.

If I’d had my lute I could have passed the time pleasantly, but it still lay in Severen-Low, seven days away from belonging to the pawnshop. So there was no music, just my echoing rooms and my damnable useless idleness.

As rumors about me spread, various members of the court came to visit. Some made a pretense of welcoming me. Others made a show of wanting to gossip. I even suspected there were a few attempts at seduction, but at that point in my life I knew so little of women that I was immune to those games. One gentleman even tried to borrow money from me, and I was hard pressed not to laugh in his face.

They told different stories and used different degrees of subtlety, but they were all there for the same reason: to glean information from me. However, since I was under the Maer’s instructions to be tight-lipped about myself, all the conversations were brief and unsatisfying.

All but one, I should say. The exception proves the rule.

CHAPTER FIFTY-SEVEN

A Handful of Iron

I MET BREDON ON MY fourth day in Severen. It was early, but I was already pacing my rooms, nearly insane with boredom. I’d had my breakfast, and it was hours before lunch.

So far today I’d dealt with three courtiers come to pry at me. I dealt with them deftly, running our conversations aground at every opportunity. So where are you from, my boy? Oh, you know how it is. One travels so. And your parents? Yes actually. I had them. Two in fact. What brings you to Severen? A coach and four, for the most part. Though I walked a bit as well. Good for the lungs, you know. And what are you doing here? Enjoying good conversation, of course. Meeting interesting people. Really? Who? Why all sorts. Including you, Lord Praevek. You are quite the fascinating fellow … .

And so on. It wasn’t long before even the most tenacious rumormonger grew weary and left.

Worst of all, these brief exchanges would be the most interesting part of my day if the Maer didn’t call for me. So far we’d conversed over a light lunch, three times during brief walks in the garden, and once late at night when most sensible people would be abed. Twice Alveron’s runner woke me from a sound sleep before the sky began to color with the blue beginning of dawn’s light.

I know when I am being tested. Alveron wanted to see if I was truly willing to make myself available to him at any unreasonable hour of the day or night. He was watching to see if I would become impatient or irritated by his casual use of me.

So I played the game. I was charming and unfailingly polite. I came when he called and left as soon as he was through with me. I asked no impertinent questions, made no demands on him, and spent the remainder of my day grinding my teeth, pacing my overlarge rooms, and trying not to think about how many days I had left before the span note on my lute expired.

Small wonder that a knock on that fourth day sent me scrambling for the door. I hoped it was a summons from the Maer, but at this point, any distraction would be welcome.

I opened the door to reveal an older man, a gentleman down to his bones. His clothes gave him away, certainly, but more important was the fact that he wore his wealth with the comfortable indifference of someone born into it. New-made nobles, pretenders, and rich merchants simply don’t carry themselves the same way.

Alveron’s manservant, for example, had finer clothes than half the gentry, but despite the self-assurance Stapes possessed, he looked like a baker wearing his holiday best.

Thanks to Alveron’s tailors, I was dressed as well as anyone. The colors were good on me, leaf green, black, and burgundy, with silver workings on the cuff and collar. However, unlike Stapes, I wore the clothes with the casual ease of nobility. True, the brocade itched. True, the buttons, buckles, and endless layers made every outfit stiff and awkward as a suit of mercenary’s leathers. But I lounged in it as easily as if it were a second skin. It was a costume, you see, and I played my part as only a trouper can.

As I was saying, I opened the door to see an older gentleman standing in the hall.

“So you’re Kvothe, are you?” he asked.

I nodded, caught slightly off my stride. The custom in northern Vintas was to send a servant ahead to request a meeting. The runner brought a note and a ring with the noble’s name inscribed. You sent a gold ring to request a meeting with a noble of higher rank than yourself, silver for someone of roughly the same rank, and iron for someone beneath you.

I didn’t have any rank, of course. No title, no lands, no family, and no blood. I was lowborn as they come, but no one here knew that. Everyone assumed the mysterious red-haired man spending time with Alveron was some flavor of nobility, and my origin and standing was a much-debated topic.

The important thing was that I had not been officially introduced to the court. As such, I had no official ranking. That meant all the rings sent to me were iron. And one does not typically refuse a request sent with an iron ring, lest one offend one’s betters.

So it was rather surprising to find this older gentleman standing outside the door. Obviously noble, but unannounced and uninvited.

“You may call me Bredon,” he said, looking me in the eye. “Do you know how to play tak?”

I shook my head, unsure what to make of this.

He gave a small, disappointed sigh. “Ah well, I can teach you.” He thrust a black velvet sack toward me and I took hold of it with both hands. It felt as if it were full of small, smooth stones.

Bredon gestured behind him, and a pair of young men bustled into my room carrying a small table. I stepped out of their way, and Bredon swept through the door in their wake. “Set it by the window,” he directed them, pointing with his walking stick. “And bring some chairs—No, the rail-back chairs.”

In a short moment everything was arranged to his satisfaction. The two servants left, and Bredon turned to me with an apologetic look on his face. “You’ll forgive an old man a dramatic entrance, I hope?”

“Of course,” I said graciously. “Please have a seat.” I gestured toward the new table by the window.

“Such aplomb,” he chuckled, leaning his walking stick against the window sill. The sunlight caught on the polished silver handle wrought in the shape of a snarling wolf ’s head.

Bredon was older. Not elderly by any means, but what I consider grandfather old. His colors weren’t colors at all, merely ash grey and a dark charcoal. His hair and beard were pure white, and all cut to the same length, making a frame for his face. As he sat there, peering at me with his lively brown eyes, he reminded me of an owl.

I took a seat across from him and wondered idly how he was going to attempt to wheedle information out of me. He’d obviously brought a game. Perhaps he’d try to gamble it out of me. That would be a new approach at least.

He smiled at me. An honest smile I found myself returning before I realized what I was doing. “You must have a fair collection of rings by this point,” he said.

I nodded.

He leaned forward curiously. “Would you mind terribly if I looked them over?”

“Not at all.” I went into the other room and brought back a handful of rings, spilling them onto the table.

He looked them over, nodding to himself. “You’ve had all our best gossipmongers descend on you. Veston, Praevek, and Temenlovy have all taken a crack.” His eyebrows went up as he saw the name on another ring. “Praevek twice. And none of them got a shred of anything out of you. Nothing half as solid as a whisper.”

Bredon glanced up at me. “That tells me you are keeping your tongue tightly between your teeth, and you are good at it. Rest assured, I’m not here in some vain attempt to pry at your secrets.”

I didn’t entirely believe him, but it was nice to hear. “I’ll admit that’s a relief.”

“As a brief aside,” he mentioned casually. “I’ll mention the rings are traditionally left in the sitting room near the door. They are displayed as a mark of status.”

I hadn’t known that, but I didn’t want to admit to it. If I was unfamiliar with the customs of the local court, it would let him know I was either a foreigner or not one of the gentry. “There’s no real status in a handful of iron,” I said dismissively. Count Threpe had explained the basics of the rings to me before I left Imre. But he wasn’t from Vintas, and obviously hadn’t known the fine points.

“There’s some truth to that,” Bredon said easily. “But not the truth entire. Gold rings imply those below you are working to curry your favor. Silver indicates a healthy working relationship with your peers.” He laid the rings in a row on the table. “However, iron means you have the attention of your betters. It indicates you are desirable.”

I nodded slowly. “Of course,” I said. “Any ring the Maer sends will be an iron one.”

“Exactly.” Bredon nodded. “To have a ring from the Maer is a mark of great favor.” He pushed the rings toward me across the top of the smooth marble table. “But there is no such ring here, and that itself is meaningful.”

“It seems you’re no stranger to courtly politics yourself,” I pointed out.

Bredon closed his eyes and nodded a weary agreement. “I was quite fond of it when I was young. I was even something of a power, as these things go. But at present, I have no machinations to advance. That takes the spice from such maneuverings.” He looked at me again, meeting my eyes directly.“I have simpler tastes now. I travel. I enjoy wines and conversation with interesting people. I’ve even been learning how to dance.”

He smiled again, warmly, and rapped a knuckle on the board. “More than anything, however, I enjoy playing tak. However, I know few people with time or wit enough to play the game properly.” He raised an eyebrow at me.

I hesitated. “One might assume that someone well-skilled in the subtle art of conversation could use long stretches of idle chatter to glean information from an unsuspecting victim.”

Bredon smiled. “By the names on these rings, I can tell you’ve seen nothing but the most gaudy and grasping of us. You’re understandably skittish regarding your secrets, whatever they may be.” He leaned forward. “Consider this instead. Those who have approached you are like magpies. They caw and flap around you, hoping to snatch something bright to carry home with them.” He rolled his eyes disdainfully. “What gain is there in that? Some small notoriety, I suppose. Some brief elevation among one’s gaudy, gossipy peers.”

Bredon ran a hand over his white beard. “I am no magpie. I need nothing shiny, nor do I care what gossipmongers think. I play a longer, more subtle game.” He began to work the drawstring loose on the black velvet bag. “You are a man of some wit. I know this as the Maer does not waste his time with fools. I know you either stand in the Maer’s good grace, or you have a chance to gain that grace. So here is my plan.” He smiled his warm smile again. “Would you like to hear my plan?”

I found myself smiling back without meaning to, as I had before. “That would be unusually kind of you.”

“My plan is to insinuate myself into your favor now. I will make myself useful and entertaining. I will provide conversation and a way to pass the time.” He spilled a set of round stones out onto the marble tabletop. “Then, when your star grows ascendant in the Maer’s sky, I may find myself in possession of an unexpectedly useful friend.” He began to sort the stones into their different colors. “And should your star fail to rise, I am still richer by several games of tak.”

“I also imagine it won’t hurt your reputation to spend several hours alone with me,” I mentioned. “Given that all my other conversations have been barren things not likely to last a quarter hour.”

“There is some truth to that as well,” he said as he began to arrange the stones. His curious brown eyes smiled at me again. “Oh yes, I think I’m going to have quite a bit of fun playing with you.”

My next several hours were spent learning how to play tak. Even if I had not been nearly mad with idleness, I would have enjoyed it. Tak is the best sort of game: simple in its rules, complex in its strategy. Bredon beat me handily in all five games we played, but I am proud to say that he never beat me the same way twice.

After the fifth game he leaned back with a satisfied sigh. “That was approaching a good game. You got clever in the corner here.” He wiggled his fingers at the edge of the board.

“Not clever enough.”

“Clever nonetheless. What you attempted is called a brooker’s fall, just so you know.”

“And what’s the name for the way you got away from it?”

“I call it Bredon’s defense,” he said, smiling rakishly. “But that’s what I call any maneuver when I get out of a tight corner by being uncommonly clever.”

I laughed and began to separate the stones again. “Another?”

Bredon sighed. “Alas, I have an unavoidable appointment. I needn’t hurry out the door, but I don’t have enough time for another game. Not a proper one.”

His brown eyes looked me over as he began to gather the stones into the velvet bag. “I won’t insult you by asking if you’re familiar with the local customs,” Bredon said. “However, I thought I might give a few general pieces of advice, on the off chance they might be helpful.” He smiled at me. “It would be best to listen, of course. If you refuse, you reveal your knowledge of these things.”

“Of course,” I said with a straight face.

Bredon slid open the table’s drawer and pulled out the handful of iron rings we had swept aside to clear the board for our game. “The presentation of the rings implies a great deal. If they are jumbled in a bowl for example, it implies disinterest in the social aspects of the court.”

He arranged the rings with their engraved names facing me. “Laid out in careful display, they show you are proud of your connections.” He looked up and smiled. “Either way, a new arrival is usually left alone in the sitting room on some pretext. This gives them a chance to paw through your collection in order to satisfy their curiosity.”

Shrugging, Bredon pushed the rings toward me. “You have, of course, always made a point of offering to return the rings to their owners.” He was careful not to make it into a question.

“Of course,” I said honestly. Threpe had known that much.

“It is the most polite thing to do.” He looked up at me, his brown eyes peering owlishly from the halo of his white hair and beard. “Have you worn any of them in public?”

I held up my bare hands.

“Wearing a ring can indicate a debt, or that you are attempting to curry favor.” He looked at me. “If the Maer ever declines to take his ring back from you, it would be an indication he was willing to make your connection somewhat more formal.”

“And not wearing the ring would be viewed as a slight,” I said.

Bredon smiled. “Perhaps. It is one thing to display a ring in your sitting room, quite another to display it on your hand. Wearing the ring of one’s better can be viewed as quite presumptuous. Also, if you wore another noble’s ring while visiting the Maer, he might take it amiss. As if someone had poached you from his forest.”

He leaned back in his chair. “I mention these things as general talking points,” he said, “suspecting this information is already well known to you, and you are politely letting an old man ramble.”

“Perhaps I am still reeling from a series of numbing defeats at tak,” I said.

He waved my comment away, and I noticed he wore no rings of any sort on his fingers. “You took to it quickly, like a baron at a brothel, as they say. I expect you’ll prove a decent challenge after a month or so.”

“Wait and see,” I said. “I’ll beat you the next time we play.”

Bredon chuckled. “I like to hear that.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out a smaller velvet bag. “I have also brought you a small gift.”

“I couldn’t possibly,” I said reflexively. “You’ve already provided me with an afternoon’s entertainment.”

“Please,” he said, pushing the bag across the table. “I must insist. These are yours without obligation, let, or lien. A freely given gift.”

I upended the bag and three rings chimed into my palm. Gold, silver, and iron. Each of them had my name etched into the metal: Kvothe.

“I heard a rumor your luggage was lost,” Bredon said. “And thought these might prove useful.” He smiled. “Especially if you desire another game of tak.”

I rolled the rings around in my hand, idly wondering if the gold ring was solid or simply plated. “And what ring would I send my new acquaintance if I desired his company?”

“Well,” Bredon said slowly. “That is complicated. By my rash and unseemly barging into your rooms, I have neglected a proper introduction and failed to inform you as to my title and rank.” His brown eyes looked into mine seriously.

“And it would be terribly rude of me to inquire about such things,” I said slowly, not quite sure what he was playing at.

He nodded. “So for now, you must assume I am without either title or rank. That puts us on a curious footing: you unannounced to the court, and myself unannounced to you. As such, it would be fitting for you to send me a silver ring if, in the future, you would like to share a lunch or graciously lose another game of tak.”

I rolled the silver ring around in my fingers. If I sent it to him, rumor would get around that I was claiming a rank roughly equal to his, and I had no idea what rank that was. “What will people say?”

His eyes danced a bit. “What indeed?”

So the days continued to pass. The Maer summoned me for urbane chatter. Magpie nobles sent their cards and rings and were met with polite conversational rebuffment.

Bredon alone kept me from growing mad with caged boredom. The next day I sent him my new silver ring with a card saying, “At your leisure. My rooms.” Five minutes later he arrived with his tak table and bag of stones. He offered my ring back to me and I accepted it as graciously as possible. I wouldn’t have minded him keeping it. But as he knew, I only had the one.

Our fifth game was interrupted when I was summoned by the Maer, his ring of iron sitting darkly on the runner’s polished silver tray. I made my apologies to Bredon and hurried off to the gardens.

Later that night Bredon sent me his own silver ring and a card saying, “After supper. Your rooms.” I wrote “Delighted” on the card and sent it back.

When he arrived, I offered to return his ring. He politely declined and it joined the rest in the bowl by my door. It sat there for everyone to see, bright silver glittering among the handful of iron.

CHAPTER FIFTY-EIGHT

Courting

THE MAER HAD NOT called on me for two days.

I was trapped in my rooms, and near mad with boredom and irritation. Worst was the fact that I didn’t know why the Maer wasn’t calling on me. Was he busy? Had I offended him? I thought of sending him a card along with the gold ring Bredon had given me. But if Alveron were testing my patience, that could be a grave mistake.

But I was impatient. I had come here to gain a patron, or at least some assistance in my pursuit of the Amyr. So far, all I had to show for my time in the Maer’s service was a profoundly flattened ass. If it hadn’t been for Bredon, I swear I would have gone frothing mad.

Worse, my lute and Denna’s lovely case were only two days away from becoming someone else’s property. I had hoped by this point to have gained enough of the Maer’s favor that I could ask him for the money I needed to get it out of pawn. I’d wanted him to be indebted to me, not the other way around. Once you owe something to a member of the nobility, it is notoriously difficult to work your way free of their debt.

But if Alveron’s lack of summons was any indication, I seemed to be far from his good graces. I racked my memory, trying to think of what I might have said during our last conversation that could have offended him.

I’d pulled a card from the drawer and was trying to think of a politic way of asking the Maer for money when a knock came at the door. Thinking it was my lunch come early, I called for the boy to leave it on the table.

There was a significant pause that roused me from my reverie. I hurried to the door and was startled to see the Maer’s manservant, Stapes, standing outside. Alveron’s summons had always been delivered by runner before.

“The Maer would like to see you,” he said. I noticed the manservant looked worn around the edges. His eyes were weary, as if he hadn’t been sleeping enough.

“In the garden?”

“In his rooms,” Stapes said. “I will take you there.”

If the gossiping courtiers were to be believed, Alveron rarely received visitors in his rooms. As I fell into step behind Stapes, I couldn’t help but feel relief. Anything was better than waiting.

Alveron was propped upright in his great feather bed. He seemed paler and thinner than when I’d seen him last. His eyes were still clear and sharp, but today they held something else, some hard emotion.

He gestured to a nearby chair. “Kvothe. Come in. Sit down.” His voice was weaker too, but it still carried the weight of command. I sat at his bedside, sensing the time was not appropriate for thanking him for the privilege.

“Do you know how old I am, Kvothe?” he said without preamble.

“No, your grace.”

“What would your guess be? How old do I seem?” I caught the hard emotion in his eyes again: anger. A slow, smoldering anger, like hot coals beneath a thin layer of ash.

My mind raced, trying to decide what the best answer might be. I didn’t want to risk giving offense, but flattery irritated the Maer unless it was done with consummate subtlety and skill.

My last resort then. Honesty. “Fifty-one, your grace. Perhaps fifty-two.”

He nodded slowly, his anger seeming to fade like thunder in the distance. “Never ask a young man your age. I am forty, with a birthday next span. You’re right though, I look fifty years if I look a day. Some might even say you were being generous.” His hands smoothed the bedcovers absently. “It’s a terrible thing, growing old before your time.”

He stiffened in pain, grimacing. After a moment it passed, and he drew a deep breath. A faint sheen of sweat covered his face. “I don’t know how long I’ll be able to speak with you. I don’t seem to be doing very well today.”

I stood. “Should I fetch Caudicus, your grace?”

“No,” he spat. “Sit down.”

I did.

“This damnable sickness has crept on me this last month, adding years and making me feel them. I have spent my life tending to my lands, but I have been lax in one regard. I have no family, no heir.”

“Do you mean to take a wife, your grace?”

He sagged against his pillows. “The rumor has finally gotten around, has it?”

“No, your grace. I guessed it from what you’ve said in some of our conversations.”

He gave me a penetrating look. “Truthfully? A guess and not from a rumor?”

“Truthfully, your grace. There are rumors, a whole courtload, if you’ll excuse the expression.”

“ ‘Courtload.’ That’s good.” He smiled a thin whisper of a smile.

“But most of it concerns some mysterious visitor from the west.” I performed a small seated bow. “There’s nothing of marriage. Everyone sees you as the world’s first bachelor.”

“Ah,” he said, his face showing his relief. “That used to be the case. My father tried to marry me off when I was younger. I was rather strong-headed about not taking a wife at the time. That’s another problem with power. If you possess too much, people don’t dare point out your mistakes. Power can be a terrible thing.”

“I imagine so, your grace.”

“It takes away your choices,” he said. “It gives a man opportunities, but at the same time it takes others away. My situation is difficult, to say the least.”

Over the course of my life I’ve been hungry too many times to feel much empathy for the nobility. But the Maer looked so pale and weak as he lay there that I felt a flicker of sympathy. “What situation is that, your grace?”

Alveron struggled to sit upright against his pillows. “If I am to be married, it must be to someone suitable. Someone from a family well-positioned as my own. Not only that, but this cannot be a marriage of alliance. The girl must be young enough to—” He cleared his throat, a papery noise. “Produce an heir. Several if possible.” He looked up at me. “Do you begin to see my problem?”

I nodded slowly. “Just the bare shape of it, your grace. How many such daughters are there?”

“A bare handful,” Alveron said, a hint of the old fire coming back to his voice. “But it can’t be one of the young women the king has under his control. Bargaining chips and treaty sealers. My family has fought to hold our plenary powers since the founding of Vintas. I won’t negotiate with that bastard Roderic for a wife. I won’t remit a grain of power to him.”

“How many women are beyond the king’s control, your grace?”

“One.” The word fell like a lead weight. “And that is not the worst of it. The woman is perfect in every way. Her family is respectable. She is educated. Young. Beautiful.” The last word seemed to come hard to him.

“She is pursued by a flock of love-struck courtiers, strong young men with honey on their tongues. They want her for every reason, her name, her land, her wit.” He gave a long pause. “How will she respond to the courting of a sick old man who walks with a stick when he can walk at all?” His mouth twisted, as if the words were bitter.

“But surely your position …” I began.

He lifted a hand and looked me squarely in the eye. “Would you marry a woman you had bought?”

I looked down. “No, your grace.”

“Neither will I. The thought of using my position to persuade this girl to marry me is … distasteful.”

We were quiet for a moment. Outside the window I watched two squirrels chase each other around the tall trunk of an ash tree. “Your grace, if I am going to help you pay court to this lady …” I felt the heat of the Maer’s anger before I turned to see it. “I beg pardon, your grace. I’ve overstepped myself.”

“Is this another one of your guesses then?”

“Yes, your grace.”

He seemed to struggle with himself for a moment. Then he sighed, and the tension in the room faded. “I must ask your pardon. This clawing pain wears my temper thin, and it is not my custom to discuss personal matters with strangers, much less have them guessed from underneath me. Tell me the rest of what you guess. Be bold, if you must.”

I breathed a little easier. “I guess you want to marry this woman. To suit your duty, primarily, but also because you love her.”

There was another pause, not so bad as the last one, but tense nonetheless. “Love,” he said slowly, “is a word the foolish use too often. She is worthy of love, that is certain. And I have a fondness for her.” He looked uncomfortable. “That is all I will say.” He turned to look at me. “Can I count on your discretion?”

“Of course, your grace. But why so secretive about it?”

“I prefer to move at a time of my own choosing. Rumor forces us to act before we are ready, or ruins a situation before it becomes fully ripe.”

“I understand. What is the lady’s name?”

“Meluan Lackless,” he said her name carefully. “Now, I have discovered for myself that you are charming and well-mannered. What’s more, Count Threpe assures me you are a great maker and player of songs. These things are exactly what I need. Will you enter my service in this regard?”

I hesitated. “How exactly will your grace be putting me to use?”

He gave me a skeptical look. “I would think it rather obvious for so excellent a guesser as yourself.”

“I know you hope to court the lady, your grace. But I don’t know how. Do you want me to compose a letter or two? Write her songs? Will I climb balconies by moonlight to leave flowers on her windowsill? Dance with her wearing a mask, claiming your name as my own?” I gave him a wan smile. “I’m not much of a dancer, your grace.”

Alveron gave a deep, honest laugh, but even through the joyful sound of it, I could tell the act of laughing pained him. “I was thinking more of the first two,” he admitted, sinking back into the pillows, his eyes heavy.

I nodded. “I’ll need to know more about her, your grace. Trying to court a woman without knowing her would be worse than foolish.”

Alveron nodded tiredly. “Caudicus can lay the groundwork for you. He knows a great deal about the history of the families. Family is the foundation upon which a man stands. You’ll need to know where she comes from if you’re to court her.” He motioned me closer and held out an iron ring, his arm trembling with the effort of staying in the air. “Show this to Caudicus and he will know you are on my business.”

I took it quickly. “Does he know you plan to marry?”

“No!” Alveron’s eyes flew open. “Do not speak of this to anyone! Invent some reason for your inquiries. Fetch my medicine.”

He lay back, closing his eyes. As I left I heard him speaking faintly: “Sometimes they don’t give it knowingly, sometimes they don’t give it willingly. Nevertheless … all power.”

“Yes, your grace,” I said, but he had already fallen into a fitful sleep before I left the room.

CHAPTER FIFTY-NINE

Purpose

AS I LEFT THE Maer’s rooms, I considered sending a runner with my card and ring ahead to Caudicus. Then I dismissed the thought. I was on an errand for the Maer. Surely that would excuse a slight breach of etiquette.

From the rumor mill, I knew Alveron’s arcanist had been a permanent part of the Maer’s court for more than a dozen years. But other than the fact that he lived in one of the estate’s southern towers, I had no idea what to expect from the man.

I knocked on the thick-timbered door.

“Hold on then,” the voice came faintly. There was the sound of a bolt being drawn back, and the door opened to reveal a thin man with a long, hawkish nose and curling black hair. He wore a long, dark garment vaguely reminiscent of a master’s robe. “Yes?”

“I was wondering if I might borrow a moment of your time, sir?” I said, my nervousness only half-feigned.

He looked me over, taking in my fine clothes. “I don’t do love potions. You can find that sort of thing down in Severen-Low.” The heavy door began to inch closed. “Though you’d be better off with a little dancing and some roses if you ask me.”

“I’m here for something else,” I said quickly. “Two things actually. One for the Maer and one for myself.” I lifted my hand, revealing the iron ring on my palm, Alveron’s name blazed in bright gold across the face of it.

The door stopped closing. “You’d best come in, then,” Caudicus said.

The room looked like a small University contained in a single room. Lit with the familiar red glow of sympathy lamps, there were shelves of books, tables full of twisted glassware, and far in the back, half concealed by the curving wall of the tower, I thought I could see a small furnace or kiln.

“Good God!” I exclaimed, covering my mouth with one hand. “Is that a dragon?” I pointed to a huge stuffed crocodile that hung from one of the ceiling beams.

You have to understand, some arcanists are more territorial than sharks, especially those who have managed to acquire luxurious court positions such as this. I had no idea how Caudicus might react to a young arcanist-in-training arriving in his territory, so I decided it was safer to play the part of a pleasantly dim, nonthreatening lordling.

Caudicus closed the door behind me, chuckling. “No. It’s an alligator. Quite harmless I assure you.”

“It gave me a bit of a start,” I said. “What is the use of such a thing?”

“Honestly?” He looked up at it. “I don’t rightly know. It belonged to the arcanist who lived here before me. It seemed a shame to throw it away. Impressive specimen, don’t you think?”

I gave it a nervous look. “Quite.”

“What is this business you mentioned?” He gestured to a large, cushioned chair and settled himself into a similar chair across from me. “I’m afraid I only have a few minutes before I will be otherwise occupied. Until then my time is yours …” He trailed off questioningly.

I could see he knew quite well who I was: the mysterious young man the Maer had been meeting with. I guessed he was eager as the rest to find out why I was in Severen.

“Kvothe,” I said. “Actually, the Maer’s medicine is half my business.” I saw a faint, irritated line appear between his eyebrows and hurried to correct whatever he might be thinking. “I was speaking with the Maer earlier.” I gave the barest pause, as if I was unreasonably proud of this. “And he asked me if I might bring him his medicine after I had finished speaking with you.”

The line disappeared. “Certainly,” Caudicus said easily. “It would save me the trip to his rooms. But what is the matter you wished to speak about?”

“Well,” I leaned forward excitedly. “I’m doing research into the histories of the noble families in Vintas. I am thinking of writing a book, you see.”

“A genealogy?” I saw boredom begin to fog his eyes.

“Oh no. There are genealogies aplenty. I was thinking of a collection of stories related to the great families.” I was rather proud of this lie. Not only did it explain my curiosity about Meluan’s family, it gave a reason for why I was spending so much time with the Maer. “History tends to be rather dry, but everyone enjoys a story.”

Caudicus nodded to himself. “Clever idea. That could be an interesting book.”

“I’ll be writing a brief historical preface for each family, as an introduction to the stories that follow. The Maer mentioned you were quite the authority on the old families, and said he would be pleased if I called on you.”

The compliment had its desired effect, and Caudicus puffed himself up ever so slightly. “I don’t know if I’d consider myself an authority,” he said with false modesty. “But I am a bit of a historian.” He raised an eyebrow at me. “You must realize the families themselves would probably be a superior source of information.”

“One would think that,” I said with a sideways look. “But families tend to be reluctant to share their most interesting stories.”

Caudicus gave a wide grin. “I imagine so.” The grin faded just as quickly. “But I’m certain I don’t know any stories of that sort regarding the Maer’s family,” he said seriously.

“Oh no no no!” I waved my hands in violent negation. “The Maer is a special case. I wouldn’t dream …” I trailed off, swallowing visibly. “I was hoping you might be able to enlighten me regarding the Lackless family. I’m rather in the dark about them.”

“Really?” he said, surprised. “They’ve fallen from what they once were, but they’re a treasure trove of stories.” His eyes focused far away and he tapped his lips with his fingers distractedly. “How about this, I’ll brush up on their history, and you can come back tomorrow for a longer talk. It’s nearly time for the Maer’s medicine, and it shouldn’t be delayed.”

He got to his feet and began to roll up his sleeves. “There’s one thing I can remember off the top of my head, if you don’t mind my rambling while I prepare the Maer’s medicine.”

“I’ve never seen a potion being made,” I said enthusiastically. “If you wouldn’t find it too distracting …”

“Not at all. I could prepare it in my sleep.” He moved behind a worktable and lit a pair of blueflame candles. I took care to look suitably impressed even though I knew they were just for show.

Caudicus shook a portion of dried leaf onto a small hand scale and weighed it. “Do you have any trouble accepting rumor into your research?”

“Not if it’s interesting.”

He was silent while he carefully measured a small amount of clear liquid from a glass-stoppered bottle. “From what I understand, the Lackless family has an heirloom. Well, not an heirloom exactly, but an ancient thing that dates back to the beginning of their line.”

“There’s not much odd with that. Old families are rife with heirlooms.”

“Hush,” he said testily. “There’s more to it than that.” He poured the liquid into a flat lead bowl with some crude symbols carved along the outside. It bubbled and hissed, filling the air with a faint, acrid smell.

He decanted the liquid into the pan over the candles. From there he added the dry leaf, a pinch of something, and a measure of white powder. He added a splash of fluid I assumed was simply water, stirred, and poured the result through a filter and into a clear glass vial, stoppering it with a cork.

He held the result up for me to see: a clear amber liquid with a slight greenish tint. “There you go. Remind him to drink it all.”

I took the warm vial. “What was this heirloom?”

Caudicus rinsed his hands in a porcelain bowl and shook them dry. “I’ve heard that on the oldest parts of the Lackless lands, in the oldest part of their ancestral estate, there is a secret door. A door without a handle or hinges.” He watched me to make sure I was paying attention. “There’s no way of opening it. It is locked, but at the same time, lockless. No one knows what’s on the other side.”

He nodded toward the vial in my hand. “Now get that to the Maer. It’ll be best if he drinks it while it’s warm.” He escorted me to the door. “Do come back tomorrow.” he smirked a bit. “I know a story about the Menebras that will turn your red hair white.”

“Oh, I only work on one family at a time,” I said, not wanting to risk getting bogged down in endless court gossip. “Two is the absolute most. Right now I’m working on Alveron and Lackless. I couldn’t bring myself to start a third as well.” I gave an insipid smile. “I’d put myself all in a muddle.”

“That’s a shame,” Caudicus said. “I travel quite a bit, you see. Many of the noble houses are eager to host the Maer’s own arcanist.” He gave me a sly look. “This makes me privy to some rather interesting facts.” He opened the door. “Think on it. And do stop back tomorrow. I’ll have more on the Lacklesses at any rate.”

I was at the doors to the Maer’s rooms before the vial had a chance to cool. Stapes opened the door to my knocking and led me to the Maer’s inner rooms.

The Maer Alveron was sleeping in the same position I had left him in. As Stapes shut the door behind me, one of the Maer’s eyes opened and he beckoned to me feebly. “You took your sweet time.”

“Your grace, I—”

He motioned me forward again, more sharply this time. “Give me my medicine,” he said thickly. “Then leave. I’m tired.”

“I’m afraid it’s rather important, your grace.”

Both eyes opened, and the smoldering anger was there again. “What?” he snapped.

I moved to the side of the bed and leaned close. Before he could protest my impropriety, I whispered, “Your grace, Caudicus is poisoning you.”

CHAPTER SIXTY

Wisdom’s Tool

THE MAER’S EYES WENT wide at my words, then narrowed again. Even in the midst of his infirmity, Alveron’s wit was sharp. “You were right to speak that close and soft,” he said. “You are treading dangerous ground. But speak, I will hear you.”

“Your grace, I suspect Threpe did not mention in his letter that I am a student at the University as well as a musician.”

The Maer’s eyes showed no glimmer of recognition. “Which university?” he asked.

“The University, your grace,” I said. “I am a member of the Arcanum.”

Alveron frowned. “You’re far too young to make such a claim. And why would Threpe neglect to mention this?”

“You were not looking for an arcanist, your grace. And there is a certain stigma attached to that sort of study this far east.” It was the closest I could come to speaking the truth: that Vints are superstitious to the point of idiocy.

The Maer blinked slowly, his expression hardening. “Very well,” he said. “Perform some work of magic if you are what you say.”

“I am only an arcanist in training, your grace. But if you would like to see a bit of magic …” I looked at the three lamps lining the walls, licked my fingers, concentrated, and pinched the wick of the candle sitting on his bedside table.

The room went dark and I heard his startled intake of breath. I brought out my silver ring, and after a moment it began to shine with a silver-blue light. My hands grew cold, as I had no source of heat other than my own body.

“That will do,” the Maer said. If he was at all unnerved, there was no hint of it in his voice.

I stepped across the room and opened the shuttered windows. Sunlight flooded the room. There was a hint of selas flower, a trill of birdsong. “I’ve always found that taking in some air is good for whatever troubles a body, though others disagree.” I smiled at him.

He didn’t return it. “Yes, yes. You’re very clever. Come here and sit.” I did so, taking a chair near his bedside. “Now explain yourself.”

“I told Caudicus I was compiling a collection of stories from the noble houses,” I said. “A handy excuse, as it also explains why I have been spending time with you.”

The Maer’s expression remained grim. I saw pain blur his eyes like a cloud passing in front of the sun. “Proof that you are a skilled liar hardly gains you my trust.”

A cold knot began to form in my stomach. I had assumed the Maer would accept the truth more easily than this. “Just so, your grace. I lied to him and I am telling you the truth. Since he thought me nothing more than an idle lordling, he let me watch while he made your medicine.” I held up the amber flask. The sunlight broke itself into rainbows on the glass.

Alveron remained unmoved. His normally clear eyes fogged with confusion and pain. “I ask for proof and you tell me a story. Caudicus has been a faithful servant for a dozen years. Nevertheless, I will consider what you’ve said.” His tone implied it would be a short, unkind consideration. He held out his hand for the vial.

I felt a small flame of anger strike up inside me. It helped to ease the cold fear settling in my gut. “Your grace wants proof?”

“I want my medicine!” he snapped. “And I want to sleep. Please do—”

“Your grace, I can—”

“How dare you interrupt me?” Alveron struggled to sit upright in his bed, his voice furious. “You go too far! Leave now and I may still consider retaining your services.” He was trembling with rage, his hand still reaching for the vial.

There was a moment of silence. I held out the vial, but before he could grasp it, I said, “You have vomited recently. It was milky and white.”

The tension in the room rose sharply, but the Maer went motionless when he heard what I said. “Your tongue feels thick and heavy. Your mouth is dry and filled with an odd, sharp taste. You have had a craving for sweets, for sugar. You wake in the night and find you cannot move, cannot speak. You are struck with palsy, with colic and unreasoning panic.”

As I spoke the Maer’s hand slowly drew away from the vial. His expression was no longer livid and angry. His eyes seemed unsure, almost frightened, but they were clear again, as if the fear had awakened some sleeping caution.

“Caudicus told you,” the Maer said, but he sounded far from certain.

“Would Caudicus discuss the details of your illness with a stranger?” I asked pointedly. “My concern is for your life, your grace. If I must bruise propriety to save it, I will do so. Give me two minutes to speak and I will give you proof.”

Alveron gave a slow nod.

“I’m not going to claim to know exactly what this is.” I gestured with the vial. “But most of what is poisoning you is lead. This accounts for the palsy, the pain in your muscles and viscera. The vomiting and paralysis.”

“I’ve had no paralysis.”

“Hmmm.” I looked him over with a critical eye. “That’s fortunate. But there is more than simply lead in this. I’m guessing this contains a goodly amount of ophalum, which isn’t exactly poisonous.”

“What is it then?”

“It’s more of a medicine, or a drug.”

“Which is it then?” he snapped. “Poison or medicine?”

“Has your grace ever taken laudanum?”

“Once when I was younger, to help me sleep through the pain of a broken leg.”

“Ophalum is a similar drug, but it is usually avoided as it is highly addictive.” I paused. “It is also called denner resin.”

The Maer grew paler at this, and in that moment his eyes grew almost perfectly clear. Everyone knew about the sweet-eaters.

“I suspect he added it because you had been irregular about taking your medicine,” I said. “The ophalum would make you crave it while easing your pain at the same time. It would also account for your sugar craving, your sweats, and any odd dreams you’ve been having. What else did he put in here?” I mused to myself. “Probably stitchroot or mannum to keep you from vomiting too much. Clever. Horrible and clever.”

“Not so clever.” The Maer gave a rictus smile. “He didn’t manage to kill me.”

I hesitated, then decided to tell him the truth. “Killing you would have been simple, your grace. He could easily dissolve enough lead in this vial to kill you.” I held it up to the light. “Getting enough to make you sick without killing or paralyzing you, that is difficult.”

“Why? Why poison me if not to kill me?”

“Your grace would have better luck solving that riddle. You know more about the politics involved.”

“Why poison me at all?” The Maer sounded genuinely puzzled. “I pay him lavishly. He is a member of the court in high regard. He has the freedom to pursue his own projects and travel when he wishes. He has lived here a dozen years. Why now?” He shook his head. “I tell you it doesn’t make sense.”

“Money?” I suggested. “They say every man has a price.”

Maer continued to shake his head. Then he looked up suddenly. “No. I’ve just remembered. I fell ill long before Caudicus began to treat me.” He stopped to think. “Yes, that’s right. I approached him to see if he could treat my illness. The symptoms you mentioned didn’t appear until months after he started treating me. It couldn’t have been him.”

“Lead works slowly in small doses, your grace. If he were going to poison you, he would hardly want you vomiting blood ten minutes after you drank his medicine.” I suddenly remembered who I was talking to. “That was poorly said, your grace. I apologize.”

He nodded a stiff acceptance. “Too much of what you say is too close to the mark for me to ignore. Yet still, I can’t believe Caudicus would do such a thing.”

“We can put it to the test, your grace.”

He looked up at me. “How is that?”

“Order a half-dozen birds brought to your rooms. Sipquicks would be ideal.”

“Sipquicks?”

“Tiny, bright things, yellow and red,” I held up my fingers about two inches apart. “They’re thick in your gardens. They drink the nectar from your selas flowers.”

“Oh. We call them flits.”

“We will mix your medicine with their nectar and see what happens.”

His expression grew bleak. “If lead works slowly, as you say, this would take months. I’ll not go without my medicine for months on some poorly supported fancy of yours.” I saw his temper burning close to the surface of his voice.

“They weigh much less than you, your grace, and their metabolisms are much faster. We should see results within a day or two at most.” I hoped.

He seemed to consider this. “Very well,” he said, lifting a bell from his bedside table.

I spoke quickly before he could ring it. “Might I ask your grace to invent some reason for needing these birds? A little caution would serve us well.”

“I have known Stapes forever,” the Maer said firmly, his eyes as clear and sharp as I had ever seen them. “I trust him with my lands, my lockbox, and my life. I do not ever wish to hear you imply he is anything other than perfectly trustworthy.” There was unshakable belief in his voice.

I dropped my eyes. “Yes, your grace.”

He rang the bell, and it was barely two seconds before the portly manservant opened the door. “Yes sir?”

“Stapes, I miss being able to walk in the gardens. Could you find me a half-dozen flits?”

“Flits, sir?”

“Yes,” the Maer said as if it he were ordering lunch. “They’re pretty things. I think the sound of them will help me sleep.”

“I’ll see what I can do, sir.” Before he closed the door, Stapes scowled at me.

After the door was shut, I looked at the Maer. “Might I ask your grace why?”

“To save him the trouble of lying. He hasn’t the knack for it. And there is wisdom in what you said. Caution is always wisdom’s tool.” I saw a thin layer of perspiration covering his face.

“If I am correct, your grace, tonight will be difficult for you.”

“All my nights are difficult of late,” he said bitterly. “What will make this one any worse than the last?”

“The ophalum, your grace. Your body is craving it. In two days you should be through the worst of it, but until then you will be in considerable … discomfort.”

“Speak plainly.”

“There will be aching in your jaw and head, sweating, nausea, cramps and spasms, especially in your legs and lower back. You may lose control of your bowels and there will be alternating periods of intense thirst and vomiting.” I looked down at my hands. “I am sorry, your grace.”

Alveron’s expression was rather pinched by the end of my description, but he nodded graciously. “I would rather know.”

“There are a few things that will make it slightly more tolerable, your grace.”

He brightened a bit. “Such as?”

“Laudanum for one. Just a bit, to ease your body’s craving. And a few other things. Their names are unimportant. I can mix them into a tea for you. Another problem is that you still have a goodly deal of lead in your body that isn’t going to go away on its own.”

This seemed to alarm him more than anything I’d said so far. “Won’t I simply pass it?”

I shook my head. “Metals are insidious poisons. They become trapped in your body. Only by a special effort can we leach the lead away.”

Maer scowled. “Damn and bother. I hate leeches.”

“A figure of speech, your grace. Only imbeciles and toad-eaters use leeches in this day and age. The lead needs to be drawn out of you.” I thought about telling him the truth, that he would most likely never be rid of all of it, but decided to keep that bit of information to myself.

“Can you do it?”

I thought for a long moment. “I am probably your best option, your grace. We are a long way from the University. I wager not one in ten physicians here have any respectable training, and I don’t know who among them might know Caudicus.” I thought for a moment longer then shook my head. “I can think of fifty people better suited to the job, but they are a thousand miles away.”

“I appreciate your honesty.”

“Most of what I need I can find down in Severen-Low. However …” I trailed off, hoping the Maer would understand my meaning and save me the embarrassment of asking for money.

He stared at me blankly. “However?”

“I will need money, your grace. The things you will need are not easy to come by.”

“Oh, of course.” He produced a purse and passed it to me. I was a little surprised to find the Maer had at least one well-stocked purse within easy arm’s reach of his bed. Unbidden, I remembered my tirade to a tailor in Tarbean years ago. What had I said to him? A gentleman is never far from his purse? I fought down an inappropriate fit of laughter.

Stapes returned shortly after that. In a surprising display of resourcefulness, he produced a dozen sipquicks in a wheeled cage the size of a wardrobe.

“My word, Stapes,” the Maer exclaimed as his manservant rolled the fine mesh cage through the doorway. “You’ve outdone yourself.”

“Where would it suit you best, sir?”

“Just leave it there for now. I’ll have Kvothe move it for me.”

Stapes looked a trifle wounded. “It’s no trouble.”

“I know you’d be glad to do it, Stapes. But I was hoping you would fetch me a fresh pitcher of appledraw instead. I think it might settle my stomach.”

“Certainly.” He hurried out again, closing the door behind him.

As soon as the door was closed, I moved to the cage. The little gemlike birds darted from perch to perch with a blurring speed. “Pretty things,” I heard the Maer muse. “I was fascinated with them as a child. I remember thinking how wonderful it must be to eat nothing but sugar all day.”

There were three feeders wired to the outside of the cage, glass tubes filled with sugar-water. Two of them had spouts shaped like tiny selas blooms, while the third was a stylized iris. The perfect pet for nobility. Who else could afford to feed their pet sugar every day?

I unscrewed the tops of the feeders and poured a third of the Maer’s medicine into each. I held out the empty vial to Alveron. “What do you normally do with these?”

He set it on the table near his bed.

I watched the cage until I saw one of the birds fly to a feeder and drink. “If you tell Stapes you want to feed them yourself, will it keep him from meddling with their food?”

“Yes. He always does exactly as I tell him.”

“Good. Let them drain the feeders before you refill them. They’ll get a better dose that way, and we’ll see results faster. Where do you want me to put the cage?”

He looked around the room, his eyes moving sluggishly. “Next to the chest of drawers in the sitting room,” he said finally. “I should be able to see the cage from here.”

I carefully rolled the cage into the next room. When I returned, I found Stapes pouring the Maer a glass of appledraw.

I made a bow to Alveron. “With your permission, your grace.”

He made a gesture of dismissal. “Stapes, Kvothe will be returning later this afternoon. Let him in, even if I happen to be sleeping.”

Stapes nodded stiffly and gave me another disapproving look.

“He may be bringing me a few things as well. Please don’t mention it to anyone.”

“If there is anything you require …”

Alveron gave a tired smile. “I know you would, Stapes. I am simply putting the boy to use. I would rather have you close at hand.” Alveron patted his manservant’s arm, and Stapes looked mollified. I let myself out.

My trip to Severen-Low took hours longer than it needed to. Though I chafed at the delay, it was a necessary one. As I walked the streets, I caught glimpses of folk dogging along behind me.

I wasn’t surprised. From what I had seen of the rumor-driven nature of the Maer’s court, I expected to have a servant or two watching my errands in Severen-Low. As I’ve said, the Maer’s court was rather curious about me at this point, and you have no idea what lengths bored nobility will go to in order to nose about in other people’s business.

While the rumors themselves were of no concern to me, their effects could be catastrophic. If Caudicus heard I had gone shopping through apothecaries after visiting the Maer, what steps would he take? Anyone willing to poison the Maer wouldn’t hesitate to snuff me like a candle.

So, to avoid suspicion, the first thing I did when I came to Severen was buy dinner. Good, hot stew and rough bread. I was sick to death of elegant food that was milk-warm by the time it made its way to my rooms.

Afterward I bought two tippling flasks, the sort normally used for brandy. Then I spent a relaxing half-hour watching a small traveling troupe perform the end of The Ghost and the Goosegirl on a street corner. They weren’t Edema Ruh, but they did a good job of it. The Maer’s purse was generous to them when they passed the hat.

Eventually I found my way to a well-stocked apothecary. I bought several things in a nervous, haphazard manner. After I had everything I needed and a few things I didn’t, I awkwardly made inquiries with the owner about what a man might take if he was … having certain troubles … in the bedroom.

The chemist nodded seriously and recommended several things with a perfectly straight face. I bought a little of each, then made a bumbling attempt to threaten and bribe him into silence. By the time I finally left, he was insulted and thoroughly irritated. If anyone asked, he would be quick to tell the story of a rude gentleman interested in impotence cures. It was hardly something I was eager to add to my reputation, but at least there wouldn’t be any stories making their way back to Caudicus about my purchasing laudanum, deadnettle, bitefew, and other equally suspicious drugs.

Lastly, I bought my lute back from the pawner with an entire day to spare. It nearly emptied the Maer’s purse, but it was my final errand. The sun was setting by the time I made my way back to the foot of the Sheer.

There were only a handful of options for making your way between Severen-High and Severen-Low. The most ordinary were the two narrow staircases that cut back and forth up the face of the Sheer. They were old, crumbling, and narrow in places, but they were free, and therefore the usual choice for the common folk who lived in Severen-Low.

For those who didn’t relish the thought of climbing two hundred feet of narrow stairway, there were other options. The freight lifts were run by a pair of former University students. Not full arcanists, but clever men who knew enough sympathy and engineering to manage the rather mundane task of hauling wagons and horses up and down the Sheer on a large wooden platform.

For passengers, the freights cost a penny going up and a halfpenny going down, though you’d occasionally have to wait for some merchant to finish loading or unloading his goods before the lift could make its trip.

Nobility didn’t use the freights. The Vintic suspicion of all things remotely arcane took them to the horse lifts. These were drawn by a team of twenty horses hitched to a complex series of pulleys. This meant the horse lifts were a little faster and cost a full silver eighth-bit to ride. Best of all, every month or so some drunk lordling would fall to his death from them, adding to their popularity by showing the breeding of the clientele.

Since the money in my purse wasn’t my own, I decided to use the horse lifts.

I joined the four gentlemen and one lady who were already in line, waited for the lift to lower itself, then handed over my thin silver bit and stepped aboard.

It was no more than an open-sided box with a brass rail running around the edge. Thick hempen ropes connected to the corners, giving it some stability, but any extreme motion set the thing swaying in a most disturbing fashion. A smartly dressed boy rode up and down with each load of passengers, opening the gate and signaling the horse drivers at the top when to begin their pull.

It is the custom of the nobility to put their backs to Severen as they ride the lifts. Gawking was something common folk did. Not particularly caring what the nobles thought of me, I stood at the front rail. My stomach did peculiar things as we rose from the ground.

I watched Severen spread out below. It was an old city, and proud. The high stone wall circling it spoke of troubled times long past. It said much of the Maer that even in these peaceful times the fortifications were kept in excellent repair. All three of the gates were guarded, and they were closed at sundown every night.

As the lift continued I could see the different sections of Severen as clearly as if I were looking down on a map. There was a rich neighborhood, spaced with gardens and parks, the buildings all of brick and old stone. There was the poor quarter, the streets narrow and twisting, where all the roofs were tar and wooden shingles. At the foot of the cliff a black scar marked where a fire had cut through the city at some point in the past, leaving little more than the charred bones of buildings.

Too soon the ride was over. I let the other gentles disembark as I leaned against the railing, looking out over the city far below.

“Sir?” the boy who rode the lift prompted wearily. “All off.”

I turned, stepped off the lift, and saw Denna standing in the front of the line.

Before I had time to do anything other than stare in wonder, she turned and met my eyes. Her face lit. She cried my name, ran at me, and was nestled in my arms before I knew what was happening. I settled my arms around her and rested my cheek against her ear. We came together easily, as if we were dancers. As if we’d practiced it a thousand times. She was warm and soft.

“What are you doing here?” she asked. Her heart was racing, and I felt it thrilling against my chest.

I stood mutely as she stepped back from me. Only then did I notice an old bruise fading to yellow high on her cheek. Even so, she was the most beautiful thing I had seen in two months and a thousand miles. “What are you doing here?” I asked.

She laughed her silver laugh and reached out to touch my arm. Then her eyes flicked over my shoulder and her face fell. “Hold on!” she cried to the boy who was closing the gate to the lift. “I have to catch this one or I’ll be late,” she said, her face full of pained apology as she stepped past me onto the lift. “Come find me.”

The boy closed the gate behind her and my heart fell as the lift began to drop from sight. “Where should I look?” I stepped closer to the edge of the Sheer, watching her fall away.

She was looking up, her face white against the darkness, her hair a shadow in the night. “The second street north of Main: Tinnery Street.”

Shadow took her, and suddenly I was alone. I stood, the smell of her still in the air around me, the warmth of her just fading from my hands. I could still feel the tremor of her heart, like a caged bird beating against my chest.

CHAPTER SIXTY-ONE

Deadnettle

AFTER MY TRIP TO Severen, I deposited my lute case in my room and made my way to Alveron’s private rooms as quickly as possible. Stapes was not pleased to see me, but he showed me in with the same bustling efficiency as always.

Alveron lay in a sweaty stupor, his bedclothes twisted around him. It was only then I noticed how thin he had grown. His arms and legs were stringy and his complexion had faded from pale to grey. He glowered at me as I entered the room.

Stapes arranged the Maer’s covers in a more modest fashion and helped him into a seated position, propping him up with pillows. The Maer endured these ministrations stoically, then said, “Thank you, Stapes,” in a tone of dismissal. The manservant left slowly, giving me a decidedly uncivil stare.

I approached the Maer’s bed and brought several items from the pockets of my cloak. “I found everything I needed, your grace. Though not everything I hoped for. How do you feel?”

He gave me a look that spoke volumes. “It took you a damn long time getting back. Caudicus came while you were away.”

I fought down a wave of anxiety. “What happened?”

“He asked me how I was feeling, and I told him the truth. He looked in my eyes and down my throat and asked me if I had thrown up. I told him yes, and that I wanted more medicine and to be left alone. He left and sent some over.”

I felt a panic rise in me. “Did you drink it?”

“If you’d been gone much longer I would have, and to hell with your faerie stories.” He brought another vial from beneath his pillow. “I can’t see what harm it could do. I can feel myself dying already.” He thrust it toward me angrily.

“I should be able to improve matters, your grace. Remember, tonight will be the most difficult. Tomorrow will be bad. After that, all should be well.”

“If I live so long as that,” he groused.

It was just the petulant grumble of a sick man, but it mirrored my thoughts so precisely that ice ran down my back. Earlier, I hadn’t considered that the Maer might die despite my intervention. But when I looked at him now, frail and grey and trembling, I realized the truth: he might not live through the night.

“First, there’s this, your grace.” I took out the tippling flask.

“Brandy?” he said with muted anticipation. I shook my head and opened it. He wrinkled his nose at the smell and sank back onto the pillows. “God’s teeth. As if my dying wasn’t bad enough. Cod liver oil?”

I nodded seriously. “Take two good swallows, your grace. This is part of your cure.”

He made no move to take it. “I’ve never been able to stomach the stuff, and lately I even vomit up my tea. I won’t put myself through the hell of drinking it only to sick it back up.”

I nodded and restoppered the flask. “I’ll give you something to stop that.” There was a pot of water on the bedside table, and I began to mix him a cup of tea.

He craned weakly to see what I was doing. “What are you putting in that?”

“Something to keep you from being sick, and something to help you pass the poison out of your system. A bit of laudanum to ease your craving. And tea. Does your grace take sugar?”

“Normally, no. But I’m guessing it will taste like stumpwater without it.” I added a spoonful, stirred, and handed him the cup.

“You first,” Alveron said. Pale and grim, he watched me with his sharp grey eyes. He smiled a terrible smile.

I hesitated, but only for a moment. “To your grace’s health.” I said, and took a good swallow. I grimaced and added another spoonful of sugar. “Your grace predicted it quite well. Stumpwater it is.”

He took the cup with both hands and began to drink it in a number of quick, determined sips. “Dreadful,” he said simply. “But better than nothing. Do you know what a hell it is to be thirsty but not be able to drink for fear of throwing up? I wouldn’t wish it on a dog.”

“Wait a bit to finish it,” I cautioned. “That should settle your stomach in a few minutes.”

I went into the other room and added the new vial of medicine to the flit’s feeders. I was relieved to see they were still sipping at the medicated nectar. I had worried they might avoid it due to a change in flavor or some natural instinct for self-preservation.

I also worried that lead might not be poisonous to sipquicks. I worried they might take a span to show any ill effects, not mere days I worried at the Maer’s rising temper. I worried at his illness. I worried at the possibility I might be wrong about everything I’d guessed.

I returned to the Maer’s bedside and found him cradling the empty cup in his lap. I mixed a second cup similar to the first, and he drank it quickly. Then we sat in silence for the space of fifteen minutes or so.

“How do you feel, your grace?”

“Better,” he admitted grudgingly. I detected a slight dullness to his speech. “Much better.”

“That is probably the laudanum,” I commented. “But your stomach should be settled by now.” I picked up the flask of cod liver oil. “Two good swallows, your grace.”

“Is this really the only thing that will do?” he asked distastefully.

“If I had access to the apothecaries near the University, I could find something more palatable, but at the moment this is the only thing that can be done.”

“Get me another cup of tea to wash it down with.” He picked up the flask, took two sips, and handed it back, his mouth turned down in a ghastly expression.

I sighed internally. “If you are going to sip it, we will be here all evening. Two solid swallows, the kind sailors use to drink cheap whiskey.”

He scowled. “Don’t speak to me as if I were a child.”

“Then act the part of a man,” I said harshly, stunning him to silence. “Two swallows every four hours. That whole flask should be finished by tomorrow.”

His grey eyes narrowed dangerously. “I would remind you who you are speaking to.”

“I am speaking to a sick man who will not take his medicine,” I said levelly.

Anger smoldered behind his laudanum-dulled eyes. “A pint of fish oil is not medicine,” he hissed. “It is a malicious and unreasonable request. It can’t be done.”

I fixed him with my best withering stare and took the flask out of his hand. Without looking away, I drank the whole thing down. Swallow after swallow of the oil passed my gullet as I held the Maer’s eye. I watched his face shift from angry to disgusted, then finally settle into an expression of muted, sickened awe. I upended the flask, ran my finger around the inside of it and licked it clean.

I pulled out a second flask from a pocket of my cloak. “This was going to be your dose for tomorrow, but you will need to use it tonight. If you find it easier, one swallow every two hours should suffice.” I held it out to him, still holding his eyes with mine.

He took it mutely, drank two good swallows, and stoppered the flask with a grim determination. Pride is always a better lever against the nobility than reason.

I fished in one of the pockets of my rich burgundy cloak and brought out the Maer’s ring. “I forgot to return this to you before, your grace.” I held it out to him.

He began to reach out for it, then stopped. “Keep it for now,” he said. “You’ve earned that much, I imagine.”

“Thank you, your grace,” I said, careful to keep my expression composed. He wasn’t inviting me to wear the ring, but allowing me to keep it was a tangible step forward in our relationship. No matter how his courtship of the Lady Lackless went, I had made an impression on him today.

I poured him more tea and decided to finish his instructions while I had his attention. “You should drink the rest of this potful tonight, your grace. But remember, it’s all you’ll have until tomorrow. When you send for me, I’ll brew you some more. You should try to drink as many fluids as you can tonight. Milk would be best. Put some honey in it and it will go down easier.”

He agreed and seemed to be easing toward sleep. Knowing how difficult his night would be, I let him nod off. I gathered my things before letting myself out.

Stapes was waiting in the outer rooms. I mentioned to him that the Maer was sleeping, and told him not to toss out the tea in the pot, as his grace would be wanting it when he woke up.

As I left, the look Stapes gave me was not merely chilly, as it had been before. It was hateful, practically venomous. Only after he closed the door behind me did I realize what this must look like to him. He assumed I was taking advantage of the Maer in his time of weakness.

There are a great many such people in the world, traveling physicians with no qualms about preying on the fears of the desperately ill. The best example of this is Deadnettle, the potion seller in Three Pennies for Wishing. Easily one of the most despised characters in all drama, there’s no audience that doesn’t cheer when Deadnettle gets pilloried in the fourth act.

With that in mind, I began to dwell on how fragile and grey the Maer had looked. Living in Tarbean, I had seen healthy young men killed by ophalum withdrawal, and the Maer was neither young nor healthy.

If he did die, who would be blamed? Certainly not Caudicus, trusted advisor. Certainly not Stapes, beloved manservant… .

Me. They would blame me. His condition had worsened soon after I arrived. I didn’t doubt Stapes would quickly bring to light the fact that I’d been spending time alone with the Maer in his rooms. That I’d brewed him a pot of tea right before he had a very traumatic night.

At best I would look like a young Deadnettle. At worst, an assassin.

Such was the turning of my thoughts as I made my way through the Maer’s estate back to my rooms, pausing only to lean out one of the windows overlooking Severen-Low and vomit up a pint of cod liver oil.

CHAPTER SIXTY-TWO

Crisis

THE NEXT MORNING I made my way to Severen-Low before the sun was up. I ate a hot breakfast of eggs and potatoes while I waited for an apothecary to open. When I was finished, I bought two more pints of cod liver oil and a few other oddments I hadn’t thought of the day before.

Then I walked the entire length of Tinnery Street, hoping to stumble onto Denna despite the fact that it was far too early in the morning for her to be up and about. Wagons and farmers’ carts vied for space on the cobbled streets. Ambitious beggars were laying claim to the busiest corners while shopkeepers hung out their shingles and threw wide their shutters.

I counted twenty-three inns and boarding houses on Tinnery Street. After making note of the ones Denna would probably find appealing, I forced myself back to the Maer’s estates. This time I took the freight lifts, partly to confuse anyone following me, but also because the purse the Maer had given me was nearly empty.

Since I needed to keep a normal face on things, I remained in my rooms, waiting for the Maer to send for me. I sent my card and ring to Bredon, and soon he was sitting across from me, thrashing me at tak and telling stories.

“… so the Maer had him hung in a gibbet. Right alongside the eastern gate. Hung here for days, howling and cursing. Saying he was innocent. Saying it wasn’t right and how he wanted a trial.”

I couldn’t quite bring myself to believe it. “A gibbet?”

Bredon nodded seriously. “An actual iron gibbet. Who knows where he managed to find one in this day and age. It was like something out of a play.”

I searched for something relatively noncommittal to say. While it did sound grotesque, I also knew better than to openly criticize the Maer. “Well,” I said, “banditry is a terrible thing.”

Bredon began to place a stone on the board, then reconsidered. “Quite a few folks thought the whole thing was in rather …” He cleared his throat. “Bad taste. But nobody said so very loudly, if you catch my meaning. It was a grisly thing. But it got the point across.”

He finally chose the placement of his stone, and we played quietly for a time.

“It’s a strange thing,” I said. “I ran into someone the other day who didn’t know where Caudicus would rank in the overall scheme of things.”

“That’s not terribly surprising,” Bredon gestured to the board. “The giving and receiving of rings is a lot like tak. On the face of it, the rules are simple. In execution they become quite complicated.” He clicked down a stone, his dark eyes crinkling with amusement. “In fact, the other day I was explaining the intricacies of the custom to a foreigner not familiar with such things.”

“That was kind of you,” I said.

Bredon gave a gracious nod. “It seems simple at first glance,” he said. “A baron ranks above a baronet. But sometimes young money is worth more than old blood. Sometimes control of a river is more important than how many soldiers you can put to field. Sometimes a person is actually more than one person, technically speaking. The Earl of Svanis is, by strange inheritance, also the Viscount of Tevn. One man, but two different political entities.”

I smiled. “My mother once told me she knew a man who owed fealty to himself,” I said. “Owed himself a share of his own taxes every year, and if he were ever threatened, there were treaties in place demanding he provide himself with prompt and loyal military support.”

Bredon nodded. “It happens more often than folk realize,” he said. “Especially with the older families. Stapes, for example, exists in several separate capacities.”

“Stapes?” I asked. “But he’s just a manservant, isn’t he?”

“Well,” Bredon said slowly. “He is that. But he’s hardly just a manservant. His family is quite old, but he has no title of his own. Technically, he ranks no higher than a cook. But he owns substantial lands. He has money. And he is the Maer’s manservant. They’ve known each other since they were boys. Everyone knows he has Alveron’s ear.”

Bredon’s dark eyes peered at me. “Who would dare insult such a man with an iron ring? Go to his room and you will see the truth: there is nothing in his bowl but gold.”

Bredon excused himself shortly after our game, claiming a prior engagement. Luckily, I now had my lute to occupy my time. I set about retuning it, checking the frets, and fussing over the tuning peg that was constantly coming loose. We had been away from each other for a long while, and it takes time to get reacquainted.

Hours passed. I discovered myself absentmindedly playing “Deadnettle’s Lament” and forced myself to stop. Noon came and went. Lunch was delivered and cleared away. I retuned my lute and ran some scales. Before I knew it I found myself playing “Leave the Town, Tinker.” Only then did I realize what my hands were trying to tell me. If the Maer was still alive, he would have called for me by now.

I let the lute fall silent and began to think very quickly. I needed to leave. Now. Stapes had seen me bring medicine to the Maer. I could even be accused of tampering with the vial I had brought from Caudicus’ rooms.

Slow fear began to knot my gut as I realized the helplessness of my situation. I didn’t know the Maer’s estates well enough to attempt a clever escape. On my way to Severen-Low this morning, I’d gotten turned around and had to stop to ask directions.

The knock on the door was louder than usual, more forceful than that of the errand boy who normally came to deliver the Maer’s invitation. Guards. I froze in my seat. Would it be best to answer the door and tell the truth? Or duck out the window into the garden and somehow try to make a run for it?

The knock came again, louder. “Sir? Sir?”

The voice was muffled by the door, but it was not a guard’s voice. I opened the door and saw a young boy carrying a tray with the Maer’s iron ring and card.

I picked them up. The card had a single word written in a shaky hand: Immediately.

Stapes looked uncharacteristically ragged around the edges and greeted me with an icy stare. Yesterday he’d looked as if he wanted me dead and buried. Today his look implied that simply buried would be good enough.

The Maer’s bedroom was generously decorated with selas flowers. Their delicate smell was almost enough to cover the odors they’d been brought in to conceal. Combined with Stapes’ appearance, I knew my predictions of the night’s unpleasantness had been close to the truth.

Alveron was propped into a sitting position in his bed. He looked as well as could be expected, which is to say exhausted, but no longer sweating and racked with pain. As a matter of fact, he looked almost angelic. A rectangle of sunlight washed over him, lending his skin a frail translucency and making his disarrayed hair shine like a silver crown around his head.

As I stepped closer he opened his eyes, breaking the beatific illusion. No angel ever had eyes as clever as Alveron’s.

“I trust I find your grace well?” I asked politely.

“Passing fair,” he responded. But it was mere social noise, telling me nothing.

“How do you feel?” I asked in a more serious tone.

He gave me a long look that let me know he did not approve of my addressing him so casually, then said. “Old. I feel old and weak.” He took a deep breath. “But for all that, I feel better than I have in several days. A little pain, and I am mightily tired. But I feel … clean. I think I’ve passed the crisis.”

I did not ask about last night. “Would you like me to mix you another pot of tea?”

“Please.” His tone was measured and polite. Unable to guess his mood, I hurried through the preparations and handed him his cup.

He looked up at me after sampling it. “This tastes different.”

“There is less laudanum in it,” I explained. “Too much would be harmful to your grace. Your body would begin to depend on it as surely as it craved the ophalum.”

He nodded. “You’ll note my birds are doing well,” he said in an overly casual tone.

I looked through the doorway and saw the sipquicks darting about in their gilded cage, lively as ever. I felt a chill at the implication of his comment. He still didn’t believe Caudicus was poisoning him.

I was too stunned to make a quick reply, but after a breath or two I managed to say, “Their health does not concern me nearly so much as your own. You do feel better, don’t you, your grace?”

“That is the nature of my illness. It comes and goes.” The Maer set down his cup of tea, still three-quarters full. “Eventually it fades entirely, and Caudicus is free to go off gallivanting for months at a time, gathering ingredients for his charms and potives. Speaking of,” he said, folding his hands in his lap. “Would you do me the favor of fetching my medicine from Caudicus?”

“Certainly, your grace.” I stretched a smile over my face, trying to ignore the unease settling in my chest. I cleaned up the clutter I had created while fixing his tea, tucking packages and bundles of herbs back into the pockets of my burgundy cloak.

The Maer nodded graciously, then closed his eyes and seemed to lapse back into his tranquil, sunlit nap.

“Our fledgling historian!” Caudicus said as he gestured me inside and offered me a seat. “If you’ll excuse me for a moment, I’ll be right back.”

I sank into the padded chair and only then noticed the array of rings on the nearby table. Caudicus had gone so far as to have a rack built for them. Each was displayed with the name facing outward. There were a great many of them, silver, iron, and gold.

Both my gold ring and Alveron’s iron one sat on a small tray on the table. I reclaimed them, taking note of this rather graceful way of wordlessly offering the return of a ring.

I looked around the large tower room with muted curiosity. What possible motive could he have for poisoning the Maer? Barring access to the University itself, this place was every arcanist’s dream.

Curious, I got to my feet and wandered to his bookshelves. Caudicus had a respectable library, with nearly a hundred books crowding for space. I recognized many of the titles. Some were chemical references. Some were alchemical. Others dealt with the natural sciences, herbology, physiology, bestiology. The vast majority seemed to be historical in nature.

A thought occurred to me. Perhaps I could get the native Vintish superstition to work to my advantage. If Caudicus was a serious scholar and even half as superstitious as a native Vint, he might know something about the Chandrian. Best of all, since I was playing the dimwitted lordling, I didn’t need to worry about damaging my reputation.

Caudicus came around the corner and seemed somewhat taken aback when he saw me standing by the bookshelves. But he rallied quickly and gave me a polite smile. “See anything you’re interested in?”

I turned, shaking my head. “Not particularly,” I said. “Do you know anything about the Chandrian?”

Caudicus looked at me blankly for a moment, then burst out laughing. “I know they’re not going to come into your room at night and steal you out of your bed,” he said, wiggling his fingers at me, the way you’d tease a child.

“You don’t study mythology then?” I asked, fighting down a wave of disappointment at his reaction. I tried to console myself with the fact that this would firmly solidify me as a half-wit lordling in his mind.

Caudicus sniffed. “That’s hardly mythology,” he said dismissively. “One could barely even stoop to calling it folklore. It’s superstitious bunk, and I don’t waste my time with it. No serious scholar would.”

He began to putter around the room, restoppering bottles and tucking them into cabinets, straightening up stacks of papers, and returning books to their shelves. “Speaking of serious scholarship, if I remember correctly, you were curious about the Lackless family?”

I simply stared at him for a moment. With everything that had happened since, I’d all but forgotten the pretense of the anecdotal genealogy I’d invented yesterday.

“If it wouldn’t be any trouble,” I said quickly. “As I’ve said, I know practically nothing of them.”

Caudicus nodded seriously. “In that case you might be well-served in considering their name.” He adjusted an alcohol lamp underneath a simmering glass alembic in the midst of an impressive array of copper tubing. Whatever he was distilling, I guessed it wasn’t peach brandy. “You see, names can tell you a great deal about a thing.”

I grinned at that, then fought to smother the expression. “You don’t say?”

He turned back to face me just as I got my mouth under control. “Oh yes,” he said. “You see, names are sometimes based on other, older names. The older the name, the closer it lies to the truth. Lackless is a relatively new name for the family, not much more than six hundred years old.”

For once I didn’t have to feign amazement. “Six hundred years is new?”

“The Lackless family is old.” He stopped his pacing and settled down into a threadbare armchair. “Much older than the house of Alveron. A thousand years ago the Lackless family enjoyed a power at least as great as Alveron’s. Pieces of what are now Vintas, Modeg, and a large portion of the small kingdoms were all Lackless lands at one point.”

“What was their name before that?” I asked.

He pulled down a thick book and flipped its pages impatiently. “Here it is. The family was called Loeclos or Loklos, or Loeloes. They all translate the same, Lockless. Spelling was rather less important in those days.”

“What days were those?” I asked.

He consulted the book again. “About nine hundred years ago, but I’ve seen other histories that mention the Loeclos a thousand years before the fall of Atur.”

I boggled at the thought of a family older than empires. “So the Lockless family became the Lackless family? What reason could a family have for changing its name?”

“There are historians who would cut off their own right hands to answer that,” Caudicus said. “It’s generally accepted that there was some sort of falling out that splintered the family. Each piece took on a separate name. In Atur they became the Lack-key family. They were numerous, but fell on hard times. That’s where the word ‘lackey’ comes from, you know. All those paupered nobility forced to scrape and bow to make ends meet.

“In the south they became the Lacliths, who slowly spiraled into obscurity. The same with the Kaepcaen in Modeg. The largest piece of the family was here in Vintas, except Vintas didn’t exist back then.” He closed the book and held it out to me. “You can borrow this if you’d like.”

“Thank you.” I took the book. “You’re too kind.”

There was the distant sound of a belling tower. “I’m too long-winded,” he said. “I’ve talked away our time and haven’t given you anything of use.”

“Just the history makes a great difference,” I said gratefully.

“Are you sure I can’t interest you in a few stories from other families?” he asked, walking over to a worktable. “I wintered with the Jakis family not long ago. The baron is a widower you know. Quite wealthy and somewhat eccentric.” He raised both eyebrows at me, his eyes wide with implied scandal. “I’m sure I could remember a few interesting things if I were assured of my anonymity.”

I was tempted to break character for that, but instead I shook my head. “Perhaps when I’m done working on the Lackless section,” I said with all the self-importance of someone devoted to a truly useless project. “My research is quite delicate. I don’t want to get tangled up in my head.”

Caudicus frowned a bit, then shrugged it away as he rolled up his sleeves and began to make the Maer’s medicine.

I watched him go through his preparations again. It wasn’t alchemy. I knew that from watching Simmon work. This was barely even chemistry. Mixing a medicine like this was closer to following a recipe than anything. But what were the ingredients?

I watched him move through it step by step. The dried leaf was probably bitefew. The liquid from the stoppered jar was no doubt muratum or aqua fortis, some sort of acid at any rate. When it bubbled and steamed in the lead bowl it dissolved a small amount of lead, maybe only a quarter-scruple. The white powder was probably the ophalum.

He added a pinch of the final ingredient. I couldn’t even guess what that was. It looked like salt, but then again, most everything looks like salt.

As he went through the motions, Caudicus nattered on about court gossip. DeFerre’s eldest son had broken his leg jumping out a brothel window. Lady Hesua’s most recent lover was Yllish and didn’t speak a word of Aturan. There was a rumor of highwaymen on the king’s road to the north, but there are always rumors of bandits, so that was nothing new.

I don’t care one whit for gossip, but I can fake interest when I must. All the while I watched Caudicus for some telltale sign. Some whisper of nervousness, a bead of sweat, a moment’s hesitation. But there was nothing. Not the slightest indication he was preparing a poison for the Maer. He was perfectly comfortable, utterly at ease.

Was it possible he was poisoning the Maer by accident? Impossible. Any arcanist worth his guilder knew enough chemistry to …

Then it dawned on me. Maybe Caudicus wasn’t an arcanist at all. Maybe he was simply a man in a dark robe who didn’t know the difference between an alligator and a crocodile. Maybe he was just a clever pretender who happened to be poisoning the Maer out of simple ignorance.

Maybe that was peach brandy in his distillery.

He tamped the cork into the vial of amber liquid and handed it to me. “There you are,” he said. “Make sure you take it to him straightaway. It’ll be best if he gets it while it’s still warm.”

The temperature of a medicine doesn’t make one whit of difference. Any physicker knows that.

I took the vial and pointed to his chest as if I’d just noticed something. “My word, is that an amulet?”

He seemed confused at first, then and drew out the leather cord from underneath his robes. “Of sorts,” he said with a tolerant smile. At a casual glance, the piece of lead he wore around his neck looked very much like an Arcanum guilder.

“Does it protect you from spirits?” I asked in a hushed voice.

“Oh yes,” he said flippantly. “All sorts.”

I swallowed nervously. “May I touch it?”

He shrugged and leaned forward, holding it out to me.

I took it timidly with my thumb and forefinger, then jumped back a step. “It bit me!” I said, pitching my voice somewhere between indignation and anxiety as I wrung my hand.

I saw him fighting down a smile. “Ah, yes. I need to feed it, I suspect.” He tucked it back inside his robes. “Go on now.” He made a shooing motion toward the door.

I made my way back to the Maer’s rooms, trying to massage some feeling back into my numb fingers. It was a genuine Arcanum guilder. He was a real arcanist. He knew exactly what he was doing.

I returned to the Maer’s rooms and engaged in five minutes of painfully formal small talk while I refilled the flit’s feeders with the still-warm medicine. The birds were unnervingly energetic, humming and chirruping sweetly.

The Maer sipped a cup of tea as we talked, his eyes following me quietly from the bed. When my work with the birds was finished I made my good-byes and left as quickly as propriety allowed.

Though our conversation hadn’t touched on anything more serious than the weather, I could read his underlying message as plainly as if he’d written it for me to read. He was in control. He was keeping his options open. He didn’t trust me.

CHAPTER SIXTY-THREE

The Gilded Cage

AFTER MY BRIEF TASTE of freedom, I was trapped in my rooms again. Though I hoped the Maer was through the worst of his recovery, I still needed to be at hand should his condition worsen and he call on me. I couldn’t justify even a brief trip to Severen-Low, no matter how desperately I wanted to head back to Tinnery Street with the hope of meeting up with Denna.

So I called on Bredon and spent a pleasant afternoon playing tak. We played game after game, and I lost each one in new and exciting ways. This time when we parted ways, he left the game table with me, claiming his servants were tired of carrying it back and forth between our rooms.

In addition to tak with Bredon and my music, I had a new distraction, albeit an irritating one. Caudicus was every bit the gossip he seemed to be, and word had spread about my story genealogy. So now in addition to courtiers trying to pry information out of me, I was deluged with a steady flow of people eager to air everyone else’s dirty laundry.

I dissuaded those I could, and encouraged the especially rabid to write their stories down and send them to me. A surprising number of them took time to do this, and a stack of slanderous stories began to accumulate on a desk in one of my unused rooms.

The next day when the Maer summoned me, I arrived to find Alveron sitting in a chair near his bed, reading a copy of Fyoren’s Claim of Kings in the original Eld Vintic. His color was remarkably good and I saw no trembling in his hands as he turned a page. He didn’t look up as I entered the room.

Without speaking, I prepared a new pot of tea with the hot water waiting at the Maer’s bedside table. I poured a cup and set it at the table by his elbow.

I checked the gilded cage in his sitting room. The flits darted back and forth to the feeders, playing dizzying aerial games which made them difficult to count. Still, I was reasonably certain there were twelve of them. They seemed none the worse despite three days of poisonous diet. I resisted an urge to knock the cage about a bit.

Finally I replaced the Maer’s flask of cod liver oil and found it was still three-quarters full. Yet another sign of my fading credibility.

Wordlessly I gathered up my things and prepared to leave, but before I made it to the door, the Maer turned his eyes up from his book. “Kvothe?”

“Yes, your grace?”

“It seems I am not as thirsty as I thought. Would you mind finishing this for me?” He gestured to the untasted cup of tea that sat on the table.

“To your grace’s health,” I said, and drank a sip. I made a face and added a spoon of sugar, stirred, and drained the rest of it with the Maer watching me. His eyes were calm, clever, and too knowing to be wholly good.

Caudicus let me in and ushered me into the same seat as before. “You’ll excuse me for a moment,” he said. “I have an experiment I must attend to, or I fear it will be ruined.” He hurried up a set of steps that led to a different part of the tower.

With nothing else to occupy my attention, I eyed his display of rings again, realizing that a person could make a fair guess at his position in the court by using the rings themselves as triangulation points.

Caudicus returned just as I was idly considering stealing one of his gold rings.

“I was not sure if you wanted your rings back,” Caudicus said, gesturing.

I looked back at the table and saw them resting on a tray. It seemed odd I hadn’t noticed them before. I picked them up and slid them into an inner pocket of my cloak. “Thank you kindly,” I said.

“And will you be taking the Maer his medicine again today?” he asked.

I nodded, puffing myself up proudly.

When I nodded, the motion of my head made me dizzy. It was only then I realized the trouble: I’d drunk a full cup of the Maer’s tea. There hadn’t been much laudanum in it. Or rather, not much laudanum if you were in pain and being slowly weaned away from a budding addiction to ophalum.

However, it was quite a bit of laudanum for someone like myself. I could feel the effects of it slowly creeping over me, a warm lassitude running through my bones. Everything seemed to be moving a little more slowly than normal.

“The Maer seemed eager for his medicine today,” I said, taking extra care to speak clearly. “I’m afraid I don’t have much time to chat.” I was in no condition to play the half-wit gentry for any length of time.

Caudicus nodded seriously and retreated to his worktable. I followed him as I always did, wearing my best curious expression.

I watched with half an eye as Caudicus mixed the medicine. But my wits were fuddled by the laudanum, and what remained were focused on other matters. The Maer was hardly speaking to me. Stapes hadn’t trusted me from the beginning, and the flits were healthy as ever. Worst of all, I was trapped in my rooms while Denna waited down on Tinnery Street, no doubt wondering why I hadn’t come to visit.

I looked up, aware that Caudicus had asked me a question. “Beg your pardon?”

“Could you pass me the acid?” Caudicus repeated as he finished measuring out a portion of leaf into his mortar and pestle.

I picked up the glass decanter and began to hand it to him before I remembered I was just an ignorant lordling. I couldn’t tell salt from sulfur. I didn’t even know what an acid was.

I did not flush or stumble. I didn’t sweat or stutter. I am Edema Ruh born, and even drugged and fuddled I am a performer down to the marrow of my bones. I met his eyes and asked, “This one, right? The clear bottle comes next.”

Caudicus gave me a long, speculative look.

I flashed him a brilliant grin. “I’ve got a good eye for detail,” I said smugly. “I’ve watched you go through this twice now. I bet I could mix the Maer’s medicine myself if I wanted to.”

I pitched my voice with all the ignorant self-confidence I could muster. This is the true mark of nobility. The unshakable belief that they can do anything: tan leather, shoe a horse, spin pottery, plow a field … if they really wanted to.

Caudicus looked at me a moment longer, then began to measure out the acid. “I daresay you could, young sir.”

Three minutes later I was walking down the hall with the warm vial of medicine in my sweaty palm. It almost didn’t matter whether I’d fooled him or not. What mattered was that for some reason, Caudicus was suspicious of me.

Stapes stared daggers into my back as he let me into the Maer’s rooms, and Alveron ignored me as I poured the new dose of poison into the flit’s feeders. The pretty things hummed about their cage with infuriating energy.

I took the long way back to my rooms, trying to get a better feel for the layout of the Maer’s estate. I already had my escape route half planned, but Caudicus’ suspicion encouraged me to put the finishing touches on it. If the flits didn’t start dying tomorrow, it would probably be in my best interest to disappear from Severen as quickly and quietly as possible.

Late that night, when I was reasonably sure the Maer wouldn’t call on me, I slipped out the window of my room and made a thorough exploration of the gardens. There were no guards this late at night, but I did have to avoid a half-dozen couples taking moonlight strolls. There were two others sitting in close, romantic conversation, one in a bower, the other in a gazebo. The last couple I nearly trod on while cutting through a hedgerow. They were neither strolling nor conversing in any conventional sense, but their activities were romantic. They didn’t notice me.

Eventually I found my way onto the roof. From there I could see the grounds surrounding the estate. The western edge was out of the question, of course, as it was pressed up against the edge of the Sheer, but I knew there had to be other opportunities for escape.

While exploring the southern end of the estate, I saw lights burning brightly in one of the towers. What’s more, they had the distinctive, red tint of sympathy lamps. Caudicus was still awake.

I made my way over and risked a look inside, peering down into the tower. Caudicus was not simply working late. He was talking to someone. I craned my neck, but I couldn’t see who he was speaking to. What’s more, the window was leaded shut and I couldn’t hear anything.

I was about to move to a different window when Caudicus stood and began to walk to the door. The other person came into view, and even from this steep angle I could recognize the portly, unassuming figure of Stapes.

Stapes was clearly worked up about something. He made an emphatic gesture with one hand, his face deathly serious. Caudicus nodded several times in agreement before opening the door to let the manservant out.

I noted Stapes wasn’t carrying anything when he left. He hadn’t stopped by for medicine. He hadn’t stopped by to borrow a book. Stapes had stopped by in the middle of the night to have a private conversation with the man who was trying to kill the Maer.

CHAPTER SIXTY-FOUR

Flight

Though no family can boast a truly peaceful past, the Lacklesses have been especially ripe with misfortune. Some from without: assassination, invasion, peasant revolt, and theft. More telling is misfortune that comes from within: how can a family thrive when the eldest heir forsakes all family duty? Small wonder they are often called the “Luckless” by their detractors.

It seems a testament to the strength of their blood that they have survived so much for so long. Indeed, if not for the burning of Caluptena, we might possess records tracing the Lackless family back far enough for them to rival the royal line of Modeg in its antiquity… .

I tossed the book onto the table in a way that would have made Master Lorren spit blood. If the Maer thought this sort of information was enough to woo a woman, he was in worse need of my help than he thought.

But as things currently stood, I doubted the Maer would be asking me for any help with anything, least of all something as sensitive as his courting. Yesterday he hadn’t summoned me to his rooms at all.

I was clearly out of favor, and I sensed Stapes had a hand in it. Given what I had seen two nights ago in Caudicus’ tower, it was fairly obvious Stapes was part of the conspiracy to poison the Maer.

Though it meant spending all day trapped in my rooms, I stayed where I was. I knew better than to jeopardize Alveron’s already low opinion of me by approaching him without being summoned first.

An hour before lunch Viscount Guermen stopped by my rooms with a few pages of handwritten gossip. He also brought a deck of cards, apparently thinking to take a page from Bredon’s book. He offered to teach me how to play thrush, and, as I was just learning the game, agreed to play for the pittance of a single silver bit per hand.

He made the mistake of letting me deal, and left in a bit of huff after I won eighteen hands in a row. I suppose I could have been more subtle. I could have played him like a fish on a line and bilked him for half his estate, but I was in no mood for it. My thoughts were not pleasant, and I preferred to be alone with them.

An hour after lunch, I decided I was no longer interested in currying favor with the Maer. If Alveron wished to trust his treacherous manservant, that was his business. I’d be damned if I would spend one more minute sitting idle in my room, waiting by the door like a whipped dog.

I threw on my cloak, grabbed my lute case, and decided to take a walk down Tinnery Street. If the Maer needed me while I was away, he could damn well leave a note.

I was halfway into the hall when I saw the guard standing at attention outside my door. He was one of Alveron’s own, clad in sapphire and ivory.

We stood for a moment, motionless. There was no sense in asking if he was there on my account. Mine was the only door for twenty feet in any direction. I met his eye. “And you are?”

“Jayes, sir.”

At least I still rated a “sir.” That was worth something. “And you’re here because …?”

“I’m to accompany you if you leave your room. Sir.”

“Right.” I stepped back into my room and closed the door behind me.

Were his orders from Alveron or Stapes? It didn’t really matter.

I went out my window, into the garden, over the little streamlet, behind a hedgerow, and up a section of decorative stone wall. My burgundy cloak was not the best color for sneaking around in the garden, but it worked quite nicely against the red of the roofing tiles.

After that I made my way onto the roof of the stables, through a hayloft, and out the back door of a disused barn. From there it was just a matter of jumping a fence and I was off the Maer’s estate. Simple.

I stopped at twelve inns on Tinnery Street before I found the one where Denna was staying. She wasn’t there, so I continued along the street, keeping my eyes open and trusting to my luck.

I spotted her an hour later. She was standing at the edge of a crowd, watching a street corner a production of, believe it or not, Three Pennies for Wishing.

Her skin was darker than when I’d seen her last at the University, tanned from travel, and she wore a high-necked dress after the local fashion. Her dark hair fell in a straight sheaf across her back, all except a single slender braid that hung close to her face.

I caught her eye just as Deadnettle shouted out his first line in the play:

I’ve cures for what ails you!

My wares never fails you!

I’ve potions for pennies, results guaranteed!

So if you’ve got a dicky heart,

Or can’t get her legs apart,

Come straightaway to my cart,

You’ll find what you need!

Denna smiled when she saw me. We might have stayed for the play, but I already knew the ending.

Hours later, Denna and I were eating sweet Vintish grapes in the shadow of the Sheer. Some industrious stonemason had carved a shallow niche into the white stone of the cliff, making smooth seats of stone. It was a cozy place we had discovered while walking aimlessly through the city. We were alone, and I felt myself to be the luckiest man in the world.

My only regret was that I didn’t have her ring with me. It would have been the perfect unexpected gift to go with our unexpected meeting. Worse yet, I couldn’t even tell Denna about it. If I did, I’d be forced to admit I’d used it as collateral for my loan with Devi.

“You seem to be doing fairly well for yourself,” Denna said, rubbing the edge of my burgundy cloak between her fingers. “Have you given up the bookish life?”

“Taking a vacation,” I hedged. “Right now I’m assisting the Maer Alveron with a thing or two.”

Her eyes widened appreciatively. “Do tell.”

I looked away uncomfortably. “I’m afraid I can’t. Delicate matters and all that.” I cleared my throat and tried to change the subject. “What of you? You seem to be doing fairly well yourself.” I brushed two fingers across the embroidery that decorated the high neck of her dress.

“Well I’m not rubbing elbows with the Maer,” she said, making an exaggerated deferential gesture in my direction. “But as I mentioned in my letters, I—”

“Letters?” I asked. “You sent more than one?”

She nodded. “Three since I left,” she said. “I was about to start a fourth, but you’ve saved me the trouble.”

“I only got the one,” I said.

Denna shrugged. “I’d rather tell you in person, anyway.” She paused dramatically. “I finally have my formal patronage.”

“You have?” I said, delighted. “Denna, that’s wonderful news!”

Denna grinned proudly. Her teeth were white against the light nut color of her travel-tanned face. Her lips, as always, were red without the aid of any paint.

“Is he part of the court here in Severen?” I asked. “What’s his name?”

Denna’s grin faded into a serious look, a confused smile playing around her mouth. “You know I can’t tell you that,” she chided. “You know how closely he guards his privacy.”

My excitement fell away, leaving me cold. “Oh no. Denna. It’s not the same fellow as before, is it? The one who sent you to play for that wedding in Trebon?”

Denna looked puzzled. “Of course it is. I can’t tell you his real name. What was it you called him before? Master Elm?”

“Master Ash,” I said, and it felt like a mouthful of ashes when I said it. “Do you at least know his real name? Did he tell you that much before you signed up?”

“I expect I know his real name,” she shrugged, running a hand through her hair. When her fingers touched the braid she seemed surprised to find it there and quickly began to unravel it, her deft fingers smoothing it away. “Even if I don’t, what does it matter? Everyone has secrets, Kvothe. I don’t particularly care what his are so long as he continues to deal square with me. He’s been very generous.”

“He’s not just secretive, Denna,” I protested. “From the way you’ve described him, I’d say he’s either paranoid or tangled up in dangerous business.”

“I don’t know why you’re carrying such a grudge against him.”

I couldn’t believe she could say that. “Denna, he beat you senseless.”

She went very still. “No.” Her hand went to the fading bruise on her cheek. “No he didn’t. I told you. I fell while I was out riding. The stupid horse couldn’t tell a stick from a snake.”

I shook my head. “I’m talking about last fall in Trebon.”

Denna’s hand fell back to her lap where it made an absentminded fidgeting gesture, trying to toy with a ring that wasn’t there. She looked at me, her expression blank. “How did you know about that?”

“You told me yourself. That night on the hill, waiting for the draccus to come.”

She looked down, blinking. “I … I don’t remember saying that.”

“You were a little addled at the time,” I said gently. “But you did. You told me all about it. Denna, you shouldn’t have to stay with someone like that. Anyone who could do that to you …”

“He did it for my own good,” she said, her dark eyes beginning to flicker with anger. “Did I tell you that? There I was without a scratch on me and everyone else at the wedding dead as leather. You know what small towns are like. Even after they found me unconscious they thought I might have had something to do with it. You remember.”

I put my head down and shook it like an ox worrying its yoke. “I don’t believe it. There had to be another way around the situation. I would have found another way.”

“Well I guess we can’t all be as clever as you,” she said.

“Clever doesn’t have anything to do with it!” I came close to shouting. “He could have taken you away with him! He could have come forward and vouched for you!”

“He couldn’t let anyone know he was there,” Denna said. “He said—”

“He beat you.” And as I spoke the words I felt a terrible anger come together inside me. It wasn’t hot and furious, as some of my flashes of temper tend to be. This was different, slow and cold. And as soon as I felt it, I realized it had been there inside me for a long while, crystallizing, like a pond slowly freezing solid over a long winter night.

“He beat you,” I said again, and I could feel it inside, a solid block of icy anger. “Nothing you can say will change that. And if I ever see him, I’ll likely stick a knife in him rather than shake his hand.”

Denna looked up at me then, the irritation fading from her face. She gave me a look that was all sweet fondness and mingled pity. It was the sort of look you give a puppy when it growls, thinking itself terribly fierce. She put her hand gently on the side of my face, and I felt myself flush hot and hard, suddenly embarrassed by my own melodrama.

“Can we not argue about it?” she asked. “Please? Not today? It’s been so long since I’ve seen you… .”

I decided to let it go rather than risk driving her away. I knew what happened when men pressed her too hard. “Fair enough,” I said. “For today. Can you at least tell me what sort of thing your patron brought you out here for?”

Denna leaned back in her seat, smiling a wide smile. “Sorry, delicate matters and all that,” she mimicked.

“Don’t be that way,” I protested. “I’d tell you if I could, but the Maer values his privacy very highly.”

Denna leaned forward again to lay her hand over mine. “Poor Kvothe, it’s not out of spite. My patron is at least as private as the Maer. He made it very clear that things would go badly if I ever made our relationship public. He was quite emphatic about it.” Her expression had gone serious. “He’s a powerful man.” She seemed as if she would say more, then stopped herself.

Though I didn’t want to, I understood. My recent brush with the Maer’s anger had taught me caution. “What can you tell me about him?”

Denna tapped a finger against her lips thoughtfully. “He’s a surprisingly good dancer. I think I can say that without betraying anything. He’s quite graceful,” she said, then laughed at my expression. “I’m doing some research for him, looking into old genealogies and histories. He’s helping me write a couple songs so I can make a name for myself… .” She hesitated, then shook her head. “I think that’s all I can say.”

“Will I get to hear the songs after you’re done?”

She gave a shy smile. “I think that can be arranged.” She leapt to her feet and grabbed my arm to pull me to my feet. “Enough talking. Come and walk with me!”

I smiled, her enthusiasm as infectious as a child’s. But when she pulled at my hand, she let out a tiny yelp, flinching and pressing one of her hands to her side.

I was standing next to her in a second. “What’s the matter?”

Denna shrugged and gave me a brittle smile, holding her arm close to her ribs. “My fall,” she said. “That stupid horse. I get a twinge when I forget and move too quickly.”

“Has anyone looked at it?”

“It’s just a bruise,” she said. “And the sort of doctor I can afford, I wouldn’t trust to touch me.”

“What of your patron?” I asked. “Certainly he could arrange something.”

She slowly straightened. “It’s really not a problem.” She lifted her arms above her head and made a quick, clever dance step, then laughed at my serious expression. “No more talk of secret things for now. Come walk with me. Tell me dark and lurid gossip from the Maer’s court.”

“Very well,” I said as we began to walk. “I’ve heard the Maer is marvelously recovered from a long-standing illness.”

“You’re a poor rumormonger,” she said. “Everyone knows that.”

“The Baronet Bramston played a disastrous deck of faro last night.”

Denna rolled her eyes. “Boring.”

“The Comptess DeFerre lost her virginity while attending a performance of Daeonica.”

“Oh,” Denna raised her hand to her mouth, stifling a laugh. “Did she really?”

“She certainly didn’t have it with her after the intermission,” I said in a hushed voice. “But it turns out she had just left it behind in her rooms. So it was merely misplaced, not really lost. The servants found it two days later when they were cleaning up. Turns out, it had rolled underneath a chest of drawers.”

Denna’s expression turned indignant. “I can’t believe I believed you!” She swatted at me, then grimaced again, sucking a sharp breath through her teeth.

“You know,” I said softly. “I’ve been trained at the University. I’m not a physicker, but the medicine I know is good. I could take a look at it for you.”

She gave me a long look, as if she wasn’t quite sure what to make of my offer. “I think,” she said at last, “that might be the most circumspect route anyone has ever tried for getting me out of my clothes.”

“I …” I felt myself blush furiously. “I didn’t mean …”

Denna laughed at my discomfiture. “If I let anyone play doctor with me, it would be you, my Kvothe,” she said. “But I’ll tend to it for now.” She linked arms with me and we continued our walk down the street. “I know enough to take care of myself.”

I returned to the Maer’s estate hours later, taking the direct route rather than come in over the rooftops. When I arrived in the hallway leading to my room, I found two guards standing there instead of the single one that had been waiting before. I guessed they had discovered my escape.

Even this couldn’t dampen my spirits overmuch, as the time I’d spent with Denna had left me feeling twelve feet tall. Better yet, I was meeting with her tomorrow to go riding. Having a specific time and place to meet was an unexpected treat where Denna was concerned.

“Good evening, gentlemen,” I said as I came down the hall. “Anything interesting happen while I was out?”

“You’re to be confined to your rooms,” Jayes said grimly. I noticed he left off the “sir” this time.

I paused with my hand on the doorknob. “Beg pardon?”

“You’re to remain in your rooms until we get further orders,” he said. “And one of us is to stay with you at all times.”

I felt my temper flare up. “And does Alveron know about this?” I asked sharply.

They looked at each other uncertainly.

It was Stapes giving the orders then. That uncertainty would be enough to keep them from laying hands on me. “Let’s get this sorted out straightaway,” I said, and started down the hall at a brisk walk, leaving the guards to catch up with me, their armor clattering.

My temper fanned itself hotter as I made my way through the halls. If my credibility with the Maer was truly ruined, I preferred to have done with it now. If I couldn’t have the Maer’s good will, I would at least have my freedom and the ability to see Denna when I wished.

I turned the corner just in time to see the Maer emerging from his rooms. He looked as healthy as I had ever seen him, carrying a sheaf of papers under one arm.

As I approached, irritation flashed across his face and I thought he might simply have the guards carry me away. Nevertheless, I approached him as boldly as if I had a written invitation. “Your grace,” I said with cheery cordiality. “Might we talk for a moment?”

“Certainly,” he replied in a similar tone as he swung open the door he had been about to close behind himself. “Do come in.” I watched his eyes and saw an anger as hot as mine. A small, sensible part of me quailed, but my temper had the bit in its teeth and was galloping madly ahead.

We left the bemused guards in the antechamber, and Alveron led me through the second set of doors into his personal rooms. Silence hung dangerous in the air, like the calm before a sudden summer storm.

“I cannot believe your impudence,” the Maer hissed once the doors were closed. “Your wild accusations. Your ridiculous claims. I mislike public unpleasantness so we will deal with this later.” He made an imperious gesture. “Return to your rooms and do not leave until I decide how best to deal with you.”

“Your grace—”

I could tell by the set of his shoulders that he was ready to call the guards. “I do not hear you,” he said flatly.

He met my gaze then. His eyes were hard as flint and I saw how angry he truly was. This wasn’t the anger of a patron or employer. It wasn’t someone irritated by my failure to respect the social order. This was a man who had ruled everything around him from the age of sixteen. This man thought nothing of hanging someone from an iron gibbet to make a point. This was a man who, but for a twist of history, would now be king of all Vintas.

My temper sputtered and went out like a snuffed candle, leaving me chilled. I realized then that I had misjudged my situation badly.

When I was a child, homeless on the streets of Tarbean, I’d learned to deal with dangerous people: drunken dockworkers, guardsmen, even a homeless child with a bottle-glass knife can kill you.

The key to staying safe was knowing the rules of the situation. A guard wouldn’t beat you in the middle of the street. A dockworker wouldn’t chase you if you ran.

Now, with sudden clarity, I realized my mistake. The Maer was not bound by any rules. He could order me killed then hang my body over the city gates. He could throw me in jail and forget about me. He could leave me there while I grew starved and sickly. I had no position, no friends to intercede on my behalf. I was helpless as a child with a willow-switch sword.

I realized this in a flash and felt a gnawing fear settle in my belly. I should have stayed in Severen-Low while I had the chance. I never should have come here in the first place and meddled in the affairs of powerful folk such as this.

It was just then that Stapes bustled in from the Maer’s dressing room. Seeing us, his normally placid expression flickered briefly into panic and surprise. He recovered quickly. “I beg your pardon, sirs,” he said, and hurried back the way he came.

“Stapes,” the Maer called out before he could leave. “Come here.”

Stapes slunk back into the room. He wrung his hands nervously. His face had the stricken look of a guilty man, a man caught in the midst of something dishonest.

Alveron’s voice was stern. “Stapes, what do you have there?” Looking closer, I saw the manservant wasn’t wringing his hands, he was clutching something.

“It’s nothing—”

“Stapes!” the Maer barked. “How dare you lie to me! Show me at once!”

Numbly, the portly manservant opened his hands. A tiny gem-bright bird lay lifeless on his palm. His face had lost all hint of color.

Never in the history of the world has the death of a lovely thing brought such relief and joy. I had been certain of Stapes’ betrayal for days now, and here was the unquestionable proof of it.

Nevertheless, I kept quiet. The Maer had to see this with his own eyes.

“What is the meaning of this?” the Maer asked slowly.

“It’s not good to think of such things, sir,” the manservant said quickly, “and worse to dwell on them. I’ll just fetch another one. It’ll sing just as sweet.”

There was a long pause. I could see Alveron struggling to contain the rage he’d been ready to unleash on me. The silence continued to stretch.

“Stapes,” I said slowly. “How many birds have you replaced these last few days?”

Stapes turned to me, his expression indignant.

Before he could speak, the Maer broke in. “Answer him, Stapes.” His voice sounded almost choked. “Has there been more than this one?”

Stapes gave the Maer a stricken look. “Oh Rand, I didn’t want to trouble you. You were so bad for a time. Then you asked for the birds and had that terrible night. Then the next day one of them died.”

Looking down at the tiny bird in his hand, his words came faster and faster, almost tumbling over each other. Too clumsy to be anything but sincere. “I didn’t want to fill your head with talk of dying things. So I snuck it out and brought a new one in. Then you kept getting better and they started falling four or five a day. Every time I looked there would be another one lying in the bottom of the cage like a little cut flower. But you were doing so well. I didn’t want to mention it.”

Stapes covered the dead sipquick with a cupped hand. “It’s like they were giving up their little souls to make you well again.” Something inside the man suddenly gave way, and he began to cry. The deep, hopeless sobs of an honest man who has been frightened and helpless for a long time, watching the slow death of a well-loved friend.

Alveron stood motionless for a stunned moment, all the anger spilling out of him. Then he moved to put his arms gently around his manservant. “Oh Stapes,” he said softly. “They were, in a way. You haven’t done anything you can be blamed for.”

I quietly left the room and busied myself removing the feeders from the gilded cage.

An hour later the three of us were eating a quiet supper together in the Maer’s rooms. Alveron and I told Stapes what had been happening over the last several days. Stapes was almost giddy, both at his master’s health and at the knowledge it would continue to improve.

As for myself, after suffering a few days under Alveron’s displeasure, being so suddenly in his good graces again was a relief. Nevertheless, I was shaken by how close to disaster I had been.

I was honest with the Maer about my misguided suspicion of Stapes, and I offered the manservant my sincere apology. Stapes in turn admitted his doubts about me. In the end we shook hands and thought much better of each other.

As we were chatting over the last bites of supper Stapes perked up, excused himself, and hurried out.

“My outer door,” the Maer explained. “He has ears like a dog. It’s uncanny.”

Stapes opened the door to admit the tall man with the shaven head who had been looking over maps with Alveron when I’d first arrived, Commander Dagon.

As Dagon stepped into the room his eyes flicked to each of the corners, to the window, to the other door, briefly over me, then back to the Maer. When his eyes touched me, all the deep feral instincts that had kept me alive on the streets of Tarbean told me to run. Hide. Do anything so long as it took me far away from this man.

“Ah, Dagon!” the Maer said cheerily. “Are you well this fine day?”

“Yes, your grace.” He stood attentively, not quite meeting the Maer’s eye.

“Would you be good enough to arrest Caudicus for treason?”

There was a half-heartbeat pause. “Yes, your grace.”

“Eight men should be sufficient, providing they’re not likely to panic in a complicated situation.”

“Yes, your grace.” I began to sense subtle differences in Dagon’s responses.

“Alive,” Alveron responded, as if answering a question. “But you needn’t be gentle.”

“Yes, your grace.” With that, Dagon turned to leave.

I spoke up quickly. “Your grace, if he’s truly an arcanist you ought to take certain precautions.” I regretted the word “ought” as soon as I had said it, “ought” was presumptuous. I should have said, You may wish to consider taking certain precautions.

Alveron seemed to take no notice of my misstep. “Yes, of course. Set a thief to catch a thief. Dagon, before you settle him downstairs, bind him hand and foot with good iron chain. Pure iron, mind you. Gag and blindfold him… .” He thought for a brief moment, tapping his lips with a finger “And cut off his thumbs.”

“Yes, your grace.”

Alveron looked at me. “Do you think that should be sufficient?”

I fought down a wave of nausea and forced myself not to wring my hands in my lap. I didn’t know which I found more unsettling, the cheerful tone with which Alveron delivered the commands, or the flat emotionless one with which Dagon accepted them. A full arcanist was nothing to trifle with, but I found the thought of crippling the man’s hands more horrifying than killing him outright.

Dagon left, and after the door closed Stapes shuddered. “Good lord, Rand, he’s like cold water down the back of my neck. I wish you’d get rid of him.”

The Maer laughed. “So someone else could have him? No, Stapes. I want him right here. My mad dog on a short leash.”

Stapes frowned. But before he could make anything more of it, his eyes were drawn through the doorway into the sitting room. “Oh, there’s another one.” He walked to the cage and returned with another dead flit, holding its tiny body tenderly as he carried it out of the chambers. “I know you needed to test the medicine on something,” he said from the other room. “But it’s a little rough on the poor little calanthis.”

“Beg pardon?” I asked.

“Our Stapes is old-fashioned,” Alveron explained with a smile. “And more educated than he cares to admit. Calanthis is the Eld Vintic name for them.”

“I could swear I’ve heard that word somewhere else.”

“It’s also the surname of the royal line of Vintas,” Alveron said chidingly. “For someone who knows so much, you’re curiously blind in places.”

Stapes craned his neck to look toward the cage again. “I know you had to do it,” he said, “But why not use mice, or Comptess DeFerre’s nasty little dog?”

Before I could answer, there was a thump from the outer rooms and a guard burst through the inner door before Stapes could come to his feet.

“Your grace,” the man said breathlessly as he jumped to the room’s only window and slammed the shutters. Next he ran to the sitting room and did the same with the window in there. There followed other, similar noises from rooms farther back I had never seen. There was a faint sound of furniture being moved.

Stapes looked puzzled and half rose to his feet, but the Maer shook his head and motioned for him to sit down. “Lieutenant?” he called out, a tinge of irritation in his voice.

“Beg pardon, your grace,” the guard said as he reentered the room, breathing heavily. “Dagon’s orders. I was to secure your rooms straightaway.”

“I take it all is not well,” Alveron said dryly.

“There was no answer from the tower when we knocked. Dagon had us force the door. There was … I know not what it was, your grace. Some malignant spirit. Anders is dead, your grace. Caudicus is nowhere in his rooms, but Dagon is after him.”

Alveron’s expression darkened. “Damn!” he thundered, striking the arm of his chair with a fist. His brow furrowed and he let out an explosive sigh. “Very well.” He waved the guard away.

The guard stood stiffly. “Sir. Dagon said I’m not to leave you unguarded.”

Alveron gave him a dangerous look. “Very well, but stand over there.” He pointed to the corner of the room.

The guard appeared perfectly happy to fade into the background. Alveron leaned forward, pressing the tips of his fingers to his forehead. “How in the name of God did he suspect?”

The question seemed rhetorical, but it set the wheels of my mind spinning. “Did your grace pick up his medicine yesterday?”

“Yes, yes. I did everything the same as I had done in days past.”

Except you didn’t send me to get your medicine, I thought to myself. “Do you still have the vial?” I asked.

He did. Stapes brought it to me. I uncorked it and ran a finger along the inside of the glass. “How does your grace’s medicine taste?”

“I’ve told you. Brackish, bitter.” I watched the Maer’s eyes go wide as I brought my finger to my mouth and touched it lightly to the tip of my tongue. “Are you mad?” Alveron said incredulously.

“Sweet,” I said simply. Then I rinsed my mouth with water and spat it as delicately as possible into an empty glass. I took a small folded packet of paper from a pocket in my vest, shook a small amount into my hand and ate it, grimacing.

“What’s that?” Stapes asked.

“Liguellen,” I lied, knowing the real answer, charcoal, would only provoke more questions. I took a mouthful of water and spat it out as well. This time it was black, and Alveron and Stapes stared at it, startled.

I bulled ahead. “Something must have made him suspect you were not taking your medicine, your grace. If it suddenly tasted different, you would have asked him.”

The Maer nodded. “I saw him yesterday evening. He asked after my health.” He beat his fist softly onto the arm of his chair. “All the cursed luck. If he has any wit, he’s been gone half a day. We’ll never catch him.”

I thought about reminding him that if he had believed me from the first, none of this would have happened, then thought better of it. “I’d advise your men to stay out of his tower, your grace. He’s had time to prepare a great deal of mischief in there, traps and the like.”

The Maer nodded and passed his hand in front of his eyes. “Yes. Of course. See to it, Stapes. I believe I’ll take a bit of rest. This business may take a while to sort out.”

I gathered myself to leave. But the Maer gestured me back into my seat. “Kvothe, stay a moment and make me a pot of tea before you go.”

Stapes rang for servants. While clearing the remains of our lunch away, they glanced at me curiously. Not only sitting in the Maer’s presence, I was sharing a meal with him in his private chambers. This news would be rumored through the estate in under ten minutes.

After the servants left, I made the Maer another pot of tea. I was preparing to leave when he spoke over the top of his cup, too softly for the guard to overhear.

“Kvothe, you have proved perfectly trustworthy and I regret any doubts I briefly entertained about you.” He sipped and swallowed before continuing. “Unfortunately, I cannot allow news of a poisoning to spread. Especially with the poisoner escaped.” He gave me a significant look. “It would interfere with the matter we discussed before.”

I nodded. Widespread knowledge that his own arcanist had nearly killed him would hardly help Alveron win the hand of the woman he hoped to marry.

He continued. “Unfortunately this need for silence also precludes my giving you a reward you all too richly deserve. Were the situation different, I would consider the gift of lands mere token thanks. I would grant you title too. This power my family still retains, free from the controlment of the king.”

My head reeled at the implication of what the Maer was saying as he continued. “However, if I were to do such a thing, there would be need of explanation. And an explanation is the one thing I cannot afford.”

Alveron extended his hand, and it took me a moment to realize he intended me to shake it. One does not typically shake hands with the Maer Alveron. I immediately regretted that the only person present to see it was the guard. I hoped he was a gossip.

I took his hand solemnly, and Alveron continued, “I owe you a great debt. If you ever find yourself in need, you shall have at your command all the help a grateful lord can lend.”

I nodded graciously, trying to keep a calm demeanor despite my excitement. This was exactly what I had been hoping for. With the Maer’s resources, I could make a concerted search for the Amyr. He could get me access to monastery archives, private libraries, places where important documents hadn’t been pruned and edited as they had in the University.

But I knew this wasn’t the proper time to ask. Alveron had promised his help. I could simply bide my time and choose what type of help I wanted most.

As I stepped outside the Maer’s rooms, Stapes surprised me with a sudden, wordless embrace. The expression on his face couldn’t have been more grateful if I’d pulled his family from a burning building. “Young sir, I doubt you understand how much I’m in your debt. If there’s anything you ever need, just make me wise of it.”

He gripped my hand, pumping it up and down enthusiastically. At the same time I felt him press something into my palm.

Then I was standing in the hallway. I opened my hand and saw a fine silver ring with Stapes’ name etched across the face. Alongside it was a second ring that wasn’t metal at all. It was smooth and white, and also had the manservant’s name carved in rough letters across the surface of it. I had no idea what such a thing might signify.

I made my way back to my rooms, almost dizzy with my sudden fortune.

CHAPTER SIXTY-FIVE

A Beautiful Game

THE NEXT DAY MY meager belongings were moved to rooms the Maer deemed more suitable for someone firmly in his favor. There were five of them in all, three with windows overlooking the garden.

It was a nice gesture, but I couldn’t help but think that these rooms were even farther from the kitchens. My food would be cold as a stone by the time it made its way to me.

I’d barely been there an hour before a runner arrived bearing Bredon’s silver ring and a card that read: “Your glorious new rooms. When?”

I turned the card over, wrote: “As soon as you like,” and sent the boy on his way.

I placed his silver ring on a tray in my sitting room. The bowl next to it now had two silver rings glittering among the iron.

I opened the door to see Bredon’s dark eyes peering owlishly out at me from the halo of his white beard and hair. He smiled and bowed, his walking stick tucked under one arm. I offered him a seat, then excused myself poli