The Master

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The Lightbringer

Aranthur awoke in a bed. With a wool sheet under him a fine, quilted double blanket atop him.

He took a deep breath and the spike in his head made him whimper aloud. Outside the blanket, it was cold--cold enough that he could see his breath, and cold enough that he had slept with his head tucked in under the wool. He blinked at the sunlight coming in through a narrow window above him, and the sunlight made the pain in his head more intense. He found that he could control the pain by closing his eyes, and once he'd managed it, he discovered that his mouth was paper dry. He'd no doubt been snoring--the other three students with whom he shared rooms in the City complained about it constantly and mocked him as well.

Under his dry mouth was a taste of blood--coppery and full of bile. He almost gagged.

There was water beside the bed--a handsome brown pitcher and a matching cup. He mastered the spike in his head long enough to pour a cup--one of the most difficult exercises of his life--and he downed the cup.

Exhausted, he pulled the blankets over his head and went back to sleep.

# # #

The sun was still filling the garret where he slept when he awoke a second time. Cautiously, he moved his head, and the pain there was nothing but an echo of the pain from earlier in the morning.

He took a deep breath, stretched, and rose. His head stayed on. In fact, he felt--solid. It occurred to him that he hadn't slept so long in--a year? Two?

He was naked. He usually slept naked, to save his threadbare shirts, but he had no memory of exactly how he'd become naked, and he saw no sign of his clothes. He was in someone else's room, and cautious investigation suggested that it was Lecne's room--or rather, a room in which several young men slept, almost like a barracks room. But the area at the end, under the narrow window, was clearly Lecne's. There were two heavy wooden chests barred in iron, and a much repaired clothes press of ancient vintage.

'You alive?' the chest's owner called. A sharply curving set of steps entered the attic room in the middle. Lecne's head appeared from the hole. 'Hello?'

The cold air was getting through the hours of sleep. 'I have no clothes,' Aranthur said.

Lena laughed. 'Mum's washing all your stuff,' he said. 'Wear mine. Here,' he said, bouncing into the attic and ducking his head under the gable timbers with the ease of long practice. He threw open the clothes press with a violence that would not have pleased the last person to repair the drawers. 'It's all simple stuff,' he said with some embarrassment.

Aranthur started to dress and remembered his manners. 'How's your da?' he asked. He knew the answer had to be favorable--no young man whose father was dead would be as bouncy as Lecne was that morning.

Lecne looked at him as if a horn had grown from his head. 'You saved him,' he said. 'You and Donna Iryllia. And the priest, I guess.’ Seeing Aranthur's confusion, he said, 'You really don't remember?'

Aranthur shook his head, which proved unwise.

Lecne bubbled with enthusiasm. 'Iryllia is something!' he said. 'She did a ritual, but she used your--stuff, whatever the stuff is called. It was incredible! We could see this dark red light flowing out of you into pater!' He danced around, and then said. 'And then the priest said that she didn't know much about healing and he came and did something--but still with your stuff.' He shrugged. 'Anyway, they pasted da's hand back on his arm. It's still there today!' He leaned forward. 'So mum's washing all your clothes and you can stay here forever, I reckon.'

Aranthur smiled.

And thought of the big man dying on the floor.

It hit him like a blow in the gut, and for a moment, he thought he'd vomit. Then, he just wanted to. 'I killed someone,' he said.

Lecne nodded. 'Yeh, that was pretty amazing too. I'm sorry for what I said to the priest. But pater was dying!'

Aranthur thought that he was looking at the other young man across a gulf of fire, so deep was the chasm between their two appreciations. He sat up. 'I killed,' he said.

Lecne shrugged. 'He was a bad man. You--helped us.' He grinned. 'Although the other man, Master Sparthos--he was incredible! He killed--what--three of the men? Four?' Lecne nodded. 'Turns out he's a master swordsman from the City. I guess he's the best swordsman in the world.'

Aranthur had a sharp memory of the man in brown's face as the crossbow was leveled at him. Anger. Failure.

'Anyway,' Lecne said, dismissing anyone's quibbles about the morality of the killing in one word. 'Cook's kept breakfast hot for you in the kitchen, and mum wants to speak to you. So do some other people. Irillya has been asking for you since she woke up, but that wasn't long ago.'

Aranthur was dressed--hose and braes, light shoes, a shirt and a heavy wool coat that had forty tiny buttons on the front and fit at the shoulders but fell away to his knees like a giant wool bell. It was comfortable, warm, and rather dashing.

'That's my best coat,' Lecne confirmed. 'No, you wear it. You look good in it. I hope I look that good in it. Listen, can I ask you something?'

Aranthur smiled. 'Ask me anything,' he said.

'Will you give me some sword lessons?' Lecne asked.

Aranthur knelt beneath the window and said a very tardy prayer to the Sun.

Thanks, source of light, for my life, and the lives of Lecne and his family. Take to your warmth the man I--killed. The man I killed. His mind skipped over the idea like a rock skipping across water when thrown by a strong boy. Allow me the chance at glory, that I may return it to your splendor. Amen.

He rose.

'Are you very religious?' Lecne asked.

Aranthur shrugged. 'In the city--at school we go to temple every day.' He realized that was not an answer. He frowned. 'I'd say it was a habit, but I think the Sun became real to me when I began to work with ritual.' He met the other boy's eye. 'I'm not sure what it is I think.'

Lecne laughed. 'There--you sound like me. Will you give me sword lessons?'

Aranthur wrinkled his forehead in an attempt to fight the headache. 'I need to go, Lecne. I only have three weeks for holidays and I've already used more than one. I was supposed to be home today.

'Can you ride?' Lecne said.

Aranthur considered for a moment. 'Yes,' he said. 'Not all that well, but I have ridden--mules for plowing, and my patur had one before--I went to school.'

'Come and eat,' Lecne said, and the two of them went down the stairs to the common room. The attic turned out to be a floor above the guest rooms, and for the first time, Aranthur appreciated the sheer size of the inn. It had perhaps fifteen rooms along the balcony of the first floor, even if most of them were nothing more than a bed and a wash stand.

The common room was abustle with activity. A party of merchants were being regaled by two maids with the events of the night before, while two older women washed at the blood stains in front of the bar. The whole front window was ablaze with light, and the priest sat there with a scroll. His smile when he saw Aranthur was as bright as the sun behind him. Aranthur bowed his head in respect and followed his new friend through the alcove and into the kitchen.

Lecne's father lay on a settle between the great fireplace and the back door. He raised his head and managed a smile.

'Ah, my hero!' he said weakly. He raised his left hand and it gave a feeble twitch. The hand was, however, fully attached, and a red line ran almost half way round it.

The churgeon was sitting by the bed. He smiled at Aranthur. 'It will probably never regain full mobility,' he said. He shrugged. 'But it is there.'

Aranthur was surrounded by praise and congratulations, which he attempted to refuse.

'You are too modest!' said Lecne's mother. 'I can't believe you are a man!'

Aranthur shook his head. 'I think all the praise should go to the lady,' he said. 'She performed the art--the working. I only provided--'

The churgeon was shaking his head. 'Boy, these are not educated people,' he said softly. 'And the lady is receiving as much praise.'

'You must be a great sorcerer!' Thania Cucina proclaimed, and made the sun sign with her hand.

The churgeon gave Aranthur the just as I told you glance and shook his head. 'Among the scholars, Donna, a sorcerer is a servant of the Dark. A master of Light is called a magister or perhaps, if I am not too pedantic, a magistra in the case of our lady, and all together they are magi.

Aranthur was none to sure of the doctor's etymology, but it seemed possible. 'I am merely a new scholar,' he said. Embarrassed by the continuing praise, he said, 'I really must start walking. I have twenty parsangs or more to go to reach my father's village.'

Lecne sat him down at the great table and two serving girls put plates in front of him--festival food, a massive plate of bacon and another of fried eggs, and a cup of pomegranate juice. The nearer girl lingered after putting down the plate of eggs. 'It's hot,' she said helpfully. And then, even more boldly, 'I'm Hasti.'

Hasti was short, lithe, and had large eyes--that was the only impression Aranthur could form. The morning was passing in a haze--he could not seem to see or hear anything properly.

Lecne was sitting across from him, taking bacon and nodding. His mother sat, and so did the churgeon, and the girls leaned against the walls or settled on stools.

Lecne leaned forward. 'I'm sorry I have to be so quick, but there are still travelers coming in. Remember yesterday we spoke of stasis in Mitla?'

Aranthur nodded. 'And that was the Duke of Mitla in the great wagon last night, or I'm a svatch.'

Lecne nodded, as did his mother. 'And those soldiers were Mitlians,' Lecne added. 'Two merchants who came in this morning say that one of their captains--the sellsword Cursini--is fighting to take the city even now, or has taken it--that the mob killed many of the old Duke's soldiers and the rest fled. The traders say--'

Donna Cucina leaned across the table and took Aranthur's hand. 'My sweet, what my son is failing to tell you is that the west road is packed with refugees and vagabonds in this mortal cold. The traders are afraid to go west. Surely your own mother would want you to stay here until the trouble passes. And Darknight upon us!'

Lecne gave his mother the look that adolescent boys give cautious mothers in all the great wheel of the world. 'All the soldiers had horses, Aranthur. We gathered them in last night. Most of them had loot in their saddle bags--they'd pillaged something. Perhaps the Duke's palace?' He grinned. 'We're giving Master Spathos four horses and whatever is on them, and you two, if that suits you.' He grinned. 'I think that with two horses, you could ride home.'

'I think that's foolish and dangerous,' Donna Cucina said. 'There has been enough ill-luck already, and this is the season of the dark.'

Aranthur felt as if a new sun had risen. Horses? Two horses? He could ride from the City to home in a matter of days--could make home that very night, even with a late start.

'Come!' Lecne said. 'Let's look at the prizes.'

Aranthur--as a student--was in the habit of self-examination, and it was with some surprise that he went out to the inn's stone barn without a qualm for the man he'd killed. That is--the killing sat like a horror on his shoulders, and yet the thought of taking the dead man's belongings troubled him not at all.

The horses were not magnificent. They were a mis-matched assembly of nags and brutes with a few smaller horses of better colour and shape. The man in brown--Master Sparthos--was taking a brush to one small mare even as they entered, while another man, small and blond and very pale, curried another. The barn was not warm, but neither was it nearly as cold as the snow-bound world outside, despite the immense vaulted ceilings. It was like a comfortable temple to animals, and smelled of horse and cow and pig and hay.

Master Sparthos looked up from his work and surprised Aranthur with a slight smile.

'I'm glad you survived, boy,' he said. 'A good day's work for a student, I'd say.' He waved a hand at a dozen horses tied to posts in the central bay of the great barn.

Aranthur gave him a proper bow. 'I am honoured to know you, Magister.' In the City, the absolute masters--three or four men and women whose work was beyond question the best from each guild were honoured with the same title as the masters of divinity at the temple and the masters and mistresses of the ars magica in the Studion. Sparthos was not well known--Aranthur had never seen him, for example--but his name was famous. He was the paramount master of the sword in the City, and thus, to Aranthur, in the world.

Sparthos nodded, as such was only his due.

'How many horses are they giving you, boy?' he asked.

Aranthur bowed. 'Two, Magister.'

The master nodded, as if this seemed just to him. 'I have already made my choices,' he said. 'May I guide yours?'

Aranthur bowed again. 'I would be most pleased, Magister.'

The man in brown smiled thinly. 'I have taken one fine Nessan horse--this little mare. She is worth as much as all the rest, or most of the rest, but I'll leave her in this barn until the weather clears--she's unsuited to the snow, and too pretty to ride to death. But her sister is right there--almost as pretty. I recommend her, as long as your second choice is a nice practical plug like this gentleman, who has had his stones cut but seems solid, if a little old. I'd say he's seven or eight; he has some scars from the wars, to say he's got a good temper, and those heavy haunches promise work.'

The horse in question would never have won a beauty contest, but he was big and powerful.

'If my man, Cai, was bigger, I'd have taken him,' the magister added. 'But he's a pipsqueak and needs a little horse.'

'Any horse's better than walking, maestro,' the blond man said in Liote.

Lecne nodded. 'My lord has good horse sense, if I may say--'

'I'm not a lord, nor should you refer to me as one,' Sparthos said. 'My title is earned--I am the best sword in the world. Keep the word lord for those whose qualities are less obvious and more--' he smiled nastily, 'inherent.'

Lecne smiled broadly. 'Ah, no offence meant, my lord--that is, magister. A master swordsman! Of course--your fighting was brilliant!' He paused. 'I've always wanted to learn to use a sword.'

Magister Sparthos did not have a long nose--in fact, he had a nondescript face and a short, almost pug nose, and yet he managed to look down it with something very like disdain.

'Why?' he asked.

Lecne looked puzzled. 'I don't know,' he said. 'We have a sword, and I love the feel of it in my hand. And--'

'You are an innkeeper,' Magister Sparthos said. 'Take one of the stortes that the dead men left, and practice cutting with it--no one even needs to teach you. A strong arm with a storte will overcome any threat that might come to an inn.' His contempt for the profession of inn-keeping was obvious, and unhidden.

Lecne could not help but be stung. He bit his lip--

Aranthur put his hand on the other young man's arm. 'When I come back, I'll give you a lesson,' he said.

The magister laughed. 'In the kingdom of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.' He laughed again, clearly pleased with himself.

Aranthur was not impressed with the man's manners, but after a review of the horses tied to various posts and pillars, he agreed with his choice of horses and accounted himself fortunate to have two such fine animals. The Nessan was not, perhaps a pure breed--she was a little too big and her head was a little too square to be perfect. Her dam or her sire had been, and the other parent had been a military horse, and the combination was very pleasing. She had nice manners and took food like a lady.

'I won't own you long,' Aranthur told her. 'You are not a student's horse.'

She had a fine, plain saddle on her and no bags. Lecne, who recovered quickly, told him that they'd all agreed that morning that each of them--the inn, the lady, the priest, the swordsman, and the student--would take their choice of horses and have whatever was on the horse as well.

'The swordsman took the two most heavily laden horses as his first choices,' Lecne said.

'So he passed on Ariadne because she had no loot,' Aranthur said. Her saddle alone was worth all the fees for a month of classes, a light riding saddle. It had neither silver nor gold, but the leather was the best. The stitching was very fine, with decorative whorls, all done doubled, so that every pair of awl-cut holes had a heavy thread between them, instead of every other hole as cheaper harness and tack was made. In this Aranthur had an advantage--he worked in a saddle-maker's shop from time to time. Any country boy or girl knew how to wield and awl and a needle, but in the city such skills were rarer.

The big military horse had an old and ill-used military saddle, high backed and with a heavy base--the sort of saddle any horse might dread, more like a chair mounted on a horse's back. But there was a pack--a long cylinder--strapped to the back of the saddle, and a sort of truncated cone like an inverse dunce's cap hanging from one side of the saddle. The big horse was fretting, and Aranthur, who had grown up with animals, if not with horses, guessed the poor beast wanted rid of the heavy saddle.

Lecne poked in the ribs, half in fun and half seriously. 'Would you choose?' he asked. 'The lady chooses next, and then the priest.'

Aranthur made a cursory transit of the other animals, but he'd already given his heart to the mare, and the conical leather case on the big brute held his attention.

'I assume we can't look in the packs until we choose,' he said, more in banter than in earnest.

'That's right,' Lecne said.

There was another fine half-Nessan horse, but she was smaller yet and seemed timid, or perhaps merely tired, and the rest of the military horses were tired plugs with most of their grace beaten out of them, vicious spur marks on their sides as semi-circular white scars on bay horsehair, and badly tangled manes. Aranthur suspected--as a farmer--that most of them would clean up well enough with food and rest. As to plunder, the habit soldiers had of putting their stolen goods on the worst horses and riding the best meant that the two horses with the largest packs were sway-backed brutes past mark of mouth.

The prospect of horse ownership opened vistas of ease and comfort to Aranthur--home every holiday and not once a year; the ability to take courier jobs in the City and even to get a place on a nobleman's staff for the summer. He suspected it would cost almost as much to keep a pair of horses in the City as he could make by owning them, but the whole idea was itself an adventure. Either way, he wanted the horses for themselves, and was uninterested in taking the goods--stolen goods, in fact, although he'd have had a hard time explaining how he thought all these things through.

In the end, he took the two horses recommended by the magister. He was a student--he was easily swayed by expert opinion, and the man in brown had, in fact, a good eye for horseflesh. As soon as he made his choice, he took the big gelding into a stall, tied him to a handy hook and unsaddled the poor brute, who all but shivered with pleasure. With iron resolution, he began to curry the horse, who needed care desperately, instead of rifling the pouches of the military saddle, opening the conical case, or the cylinder of new leather on the back of the saddle.

Lady Irillya came in next. Aranthur heard the higher music of her voice and the low response from the magister, and both of them laughed together. The sound made Aranthur curiously jealous--he tried to analyze that feeling and found nothing there but bottomless irrationality, but the feeling lingered through the whole of his new horse's rump and back legs. He decided to name his gelding Rasce, after a character in a play who behaved badly for comic effect, and Rasce seemed to accept the name in good part. He ate placidly from a manger full of valuable oats, and seemed at peace with the world.

The lady appeared outside Rasce's stall, and she leaned against the door frame. It was the first time that Aranthur had fully given her his attention--or rather, sensing something was different, looked at her carefully. She was chnaged this morning--she almost looked like a different young woman. Her silver hair net was gone, and her fine silk gown edged in fur, replaced by sober working clothes.

'Not so beautiful without my make up, eh?' she asked.

Aranthur knew that some women painted their faces, but he'd never met one before. Since only courtesans, whores, actresses and queens did such things, his face flushed. 'No...' he stammered.

She laughed. 'You are such a boy.' she said. 'I see you are in good health--no spiritual hangover this morning?' she laughed.

He shrugged. 'A terrible headache when I awoke at sunrise,' he said. 'I didn't even pray.'

'I took too much,' she admitted. 'I even topped up my own reserve. You are--well provided with power,' she said.

He shrugged and re-combed an area of his new horse he'd already done. She confused him. He thought now that she was younger than he'd thought the night before--without her paint, she was likely closer to twenty than thirty, and her hair was almost white blond, her face narrow and delicate, her limbs long. In fact, she looked like the frescos of the fae folk in the Temple of the City--the Temple of Wisdom, Hagia Sophia.

'You used sorcery against me--when the Duke first put you out of the wagon,' Aranthur said. He met her eye. 'Then you drained me of power,' he went on. 'Are you a Dark student, donna?'

He hadn't meant to ask her. In fact, until that morning, he hadn't fully believed that there were students of the dark.

'Ouch,' she said. 'No,' she said. She turned to walk away, and spoke without turning her head to look at him. 'Not everyone has nice fat rich parents to provide a Studion education, eh?' she spat. 'I came to thank you for my cases. And to apologize for using power to manipulate you--I know its wrong, but how was I to know you were a student? Or had powers?' She looked at him and her look softened. 'Not that that makes it any better,' she said quietly.

'You are welcome,' he said. 'My parents own a small farm in a village. My father is not the headman, nor are we the richest; until the land reforms, we were peasants. I owe my place in the Studion to the whim of our local lord, and nothing more. I doubt I'm even the smartest boy in my village.' He shrugged, trying to be indifferent to her opinion, and mostly failing.

'I do not serve the darkness,' Iryllia said. She walked away before he could answer, and as he curried his Nessen, he thought of things he might have said. The best retort was if you continue using power to manipulate people, you will serve darkness but it was too wordy. And too pompous.

In fact, she'd done him no harm. The entire incident had moved entirely to his advantage, at least so far. Count no man happy until he is dead seemed apt, from among the ancient sages. But his magister of philosophy liked to say that too much idealism was the death of rationality. 'Look at results,' he would declaim. And in this case, none of her arts had served to injure him.

He frowned, trying to get to the root of the causality. The Duke was overthrown-- she was his--mistress? And he abandoned her on the road as he fled--a lesson in astrology, really. Had he not looked at his stars? And she, deserted, had claimed her belongings--which were, in all likelihood, really hers--more so than the loot in the saddle bags of all the horses were the property of their new owners. He tossed it all around while the curry brush went round and round, and the old mud and horse sweat filled the air.

'Let me try this again,' she said from the doorway of the stall.

'Were you with the Duke of Mitla?' Aranthur asked. He wished he'd kept his mouth closed--she was making peace, and he was chasing the solution to a problem.

She winced. 'Yes,' she said. 'With, being such a resonant word, full of--meaning.'

'I'm sorry,' he said. 'I'm trying to understand.' He tried smiling.

'I--' she shook his head. He couldn't very well say, I'm a peasant boy and we don't really understand how the upper classes operate. It was an accurate statement, but not what he wanted to say.

'So the Duke pushed you out in the snow, and you used art to get me to help you,' he said.

'Yes,' she admitted. 'You know,' she said, with aw bitter smile, 'I have two sets of arts. In a warm room, surrounded by people, I can ask most people--most men--to fetch me wine, and they will, without asking themselves why.' Her eyes kindled, and she flashed him a smile--

He all but froze.

She nodded. 'Sometimes, I use either power without thought. Do you know that when you attempt a compulsion--' she looked him in the eyes. Her eyes were deep and surprising, a livid blue that was like the sea on a bright summer day. 'I speak to you as a grown scholar, understand?'

Aranthur was almost bowled over by her assumption of his knowledge. 'I'm not--'

'When you attempt a compulsion, it helps if your target already likes you, and it makes the compulsion much harder--and much more dangerous to both the caster and the target, if the target dislikes the caster. You understand? If I had asked you to help me, and you declined--even if you only declined because, say, of the press of your chores--then it would be very, very difficult for me to send my compulsion. Almost impossible, in fact.' She shook her head. 'And I was almost drained anyway. I said something in the wagon that I ought not have said.' She smiled at the false-elegance of her own diction. 'I told the Duke he was a coward. I'd been wearing myself out using my arts to keep him from simply killing me--oh, he was angry. He is a dark-damned coward, by the sun. If he spent the energy ruling Mitla that he spent on escape plans--'

She shook her head. 'I'm babbling.'

'Babble more,' Tiy Drako said. He had his head and shoulders over the partition from the next stall, and now he leaped over, lithe, terribly graceful, and far more like an aristocrat than a priest. 'I think you are the most beautiful woman I've ever seen,' he said.

'Are you sure you are a priest?' Irillya asked him. Her tone was arch, but her eyes stayed on him.

He bowed--again, like an aristo and not like a priest, who would simply bow stiffly from the waist. 'Your wit cuts like a good sword, donna. I cannot decide if I am a true priest, or not.' He smiled at Aranthur. 'My mentor is angry with me for throwing the knife.'

Aranthur nodded and held out his hand. 'I'm not,' he said. 'Without that, I would never have dared attack the man.' He paused. 'Although I'm still--not happy--that I killed him.'

'We tried to save him,' Drako said lightly. 'Surely that exculpates our sin?'

Aranthur thought of his philosophy magister and his comments about results, but he bit his tongue and said nothing.

'That's a fine beast,' Drako said, examining the small Nessen mare. 'I took a pack horse, myself. I would never have convinced my mentor to ride, even if he were considerably more lame than he is. I gave the innkeeper's son the goods in the bags.'

Iryllia raised her eyebrows. 'Because you have no use for worldly wealth?' she asked.

He grinned at her. 'Something like that,' he said. The two of them locked eyes for a moment, and Aranthur went back to making careful strokes with the brushes.

'How bad a priest are you?' she asked, her voice suddenly lower.

'We're not celibate,' Tiy laughed. 'By we, I mean me. My mentor is celibate, but he doesn't need to be.'

She smiled wickedly. 'If I understand the theology of the sun,' she said, 'It's possible that he does not need to be--but perhaps you do.' She smiled again, a dangerous smile, and turned. 'Aranthur, am I forgiven? I promise, if it is ever in my power, I'll do you a good turn.'

Aranthur bowed again. 'Yes,' he said. He wished he had something witty or elegant to say--he wished he was as quick as Drako, who was, in fact, smirking as little at his discomfiture.

Iryllia walked away, her pattens clicking on the barn floor.

Drako laughed. 'Holy Sun rising in the East,' he said. 'It is like finding a gold Imperial in a dung heap.'

Aranthur kept working.

'My former self would have passed through the cold halls of hell for that face,' Drako said. 'At least for a week or two, or until my money ran out and my father reined me in.' He fitted his shoulders into a corner of the stall. He looked at Aranthur, trying to assess the impact of his words.

Aranthur could feel the weight of the other man's regard, but he kept the brush moving, changing direction with the grain of the mare's hide. She was beginning to gleam.

'You know what my father said when I told him I was going to become a monk or a priest?'

Aranthur looked up and met the man's eyes. He was smiling, but the words clearly hurt him.

'He said, 'This is one little fad I will not support.' He thought that my conversion was merely a fad, a temporary revulsion. He told me that I'd purge myself for two weeks and then feel all the more self-indulgent for it.'

Aranthur was on the legs.

'I'd love to prove him wrong,' Drako said. 'If you'd just give me a little help here--I am confessing to being a worthless daesia. A little sympathy, and I can probably keep myself from following that incredibly beautiful young woman inside.' He laughed in self-mockery.

Aranthur looked up, and met his eye, and smiled.

'For Sun's sake say something!' Drako said.

Aranthur giggled. He shook his head and rubbed some of the old dust and sweat off the brush by using it on the stable wall. 'I'm probably so green I don't even know what you're on about,' he said. 'What's a daesia?'

'A man who lives to--I don't know. For pleasure. To lie with women--and men,' he said with a wicked look. 'And gamble, and fight, and raise hell. A person who goes to plays and jeers at the playwright. Goes to Temple and mocks the priest's hypocrisy. Goes to the brothel to find love. Fights duels with those who annoy. Writes poetry.' He laughed. 'Bad poetry.'

Aranthur shook his head. 'Sounds wonderful,' he said. 'Where do I sign up?'

Drako looked at him and his brow furrowed. 'You?'

Aranthur thought about what his magisters might say, but he could only laugh, because he was honest with himself, and he knew how instantly Iryllia enflamed him. 'Only--I think I'd be terrible at it,' he said. 'Because I'd want to write good poetry, and that takes work, and I'd want to be a good swordsman, and that's a lifetime of study, and I'd want to prove the priests to be hypocrites, and that would get me arrested.' He laughed. 'Especially the last, because I'm a peasant kid and not an aristo.'

Drako fingered his hairy chin. He had the beginnings of the full beard that priests wore, and from its length, Aranthur estimated the other man had been an acolyte about two months. 'Tell me what attracted you to your mentor,' he asked.

'Can't you just feel his holiness?' Drako asked.

Aranthur nodded. 'I can.'

Drako nodded. 'I've never met anyone like him. All my father's friends and their sons are military men. Everything is about war.' He made a face. 'Marce Kurvenas is a Lightbringer. He lives it. He--he talked to me. He sat with me and got to know me, and he told me what I was and where I had failed myself and the way of the Sun.’ Drako winced. 'See? Even in my spirituality, it's all about me.'

The mare was burnished like a bronze statue and she shone. The bigger gelding was contentedly munching the good, clean hay.

'I want to see what I got,' Aranthur admitted. 'I'm not an aristocrat.'

Drako laughed. 'You have nothing to say to my troubles?'

Aranthur looked at him. 'They're very different from my troubles,' he said.

He hadn't meant it to be funny--in fact, he'd meant to add a stinging rebuke about how rich boys playing at monks deserved whatever they got. Or maybe he only thought he'd deliver such a rebuke--there was something about the man calling himself Tiy Drako that was very, very easy to like.

But the man roared his laughter. He put his hands on his knees, he laughed so hard. 'Oh, by the light of the new day, my friend, that was good--and well-deserved. I will--' he laughed a while. 'I will eventually repeat that.' Then he stopped laughing. 'Let's see what you got in your bags. You make me wish we'd given our share to you. The inn's rich enough.'

Aranthur opened the conical case first. It was smooth and beautifully made of heavy leather, carefully molded into a shape a little like a leg of lamb prepared by a butcher, and it had a neatly fitted cover that was decorated with hair or fur--a very heavy, dark fur.

He opened the buckle. It was a fine buckle--brass, but gilded and decorated with chasing. The little belt that went into buckle had a metal end that was also decorated.

Inside, the case was lined in chamois or buckskin, and nestled deep in it like a scroll in a tube was a heavy snap lock--like a puffer, but with a longer barrel. The stock was cunning--it could be placed against the shoulder or chest, or even held in one hand. The weapon appeared almost new, and the barrel was as long as his arm.

Drako whistled. 'That's beautiful,' he said. 'Deadly, too. Watch out--it's loaded.'

Aranthur flinched.

'Give it here,' Drako said. 'Look--this is the pan cover--marvelous design. Look at that--when you open the cock, the pan cover moves. Oh--I'd like to have this apart. See the powder in the pan?'

Aranthur understood the basic principles of firearms. 'I do,' he said. 'If that ignites from the sparks, it burns through the torch hole and lights the charge in the barrel on fire.'

Drako dumped the contents of the pan into his hand. They were silvery gray--almost black--small kernels and flakes, all different.

Set into the side of the case was a set of tools--very handsome tools, a turn screw and a small pair of pliers and a bullet mold. There were bullets in a hard leather tube and there was a small hammer or mallet. Upon discovery of the mallet, Drako put the pinkie of his left hand into the barrel--Aranthur wanted to cringe at his daring.

'Grooved,' he said. 'By the sun! Let's shoot it!' He pointed at it. 'This is a fine weapon--something special. I can show you how to keep it clean. It won't thank you for mistreatment.'

Aranthur could not restrain himself from putting the butt to his shoulder. It was small, but he could get his head down.

'Oh, promise me we can shoot it!' Drako said.

'Of course!' Aranthur said. The puffers and cannones that the scholars devised were among the most famous inventions of the City, even though now the best ones were made in Mitla and even further north.

But now he wanted to open the other case, even though he was aware that greed was guiding him.

It was a man's travel case--a malle. As soon as he opened it, he sat back on his heels. The case had a slight smell--spikenard or some other rare resin.

It struck him that this was somebody's. The carbine had no real owner--in fact, it looked to be new. But the malle was full of clothes. There were shirts, some fine and some full of patches and holes, and two pairs of fine, light shoes, and a whole suit--hose in pale pink, and a black doublet and matching short cloak. There was a ring--a simple man's ring in gold, with a black stone. There was a closely wrapped belt, and a purse, and a dagger. And a book--Kafatia's Consolations, all done in calligraphy.

Aranthur could feel the man's death. It came at him suddenly, and he realized that he had felt it when he first opened the case. The man had been a merchant or a scholar--from Mitla, he guessed. They'd killed him on the road for his horse and his case--or so he assumed. The case was redolent with the personality of the man-- and his death. He'd been touching it when he died.

Drako put a hand on his shoulder. 'I'm no magister,' he said, 'and I feel it too.'

'I can't take his clothes,' Aranthur said.

'They're as nice as mine,' Drako said. 'Let me get my Lightbearer and he'll exorcise the poor man. Summer Sun, they must have tormented him to get this much--this much pain.'

# # #

The old priest came and lit a censor. His exorcism rite was complex and involved two forms of incense and a trance, and Aranthur watched in fascination--but there was very little to see after the initial ritual.

Eventually the priest's eyes opened. He released a long sigh and rose stiffly from his cross-legged trance position. He winced and smiled at Aranthur.

'I am not as young as I once was,' he said. 'You did well to ask me. They thought he had hidden gold--they tortured him for it.' He shook his head. 'And then we killed them, anyway, so that their evil was itself for nothing.'

'You took no part in the killing,' Aranthur said.

'Did I not?' the old priest said. He put a hand on Aranthur's head like a father with a very young child, and Aranthur, who at times had a very high opinion of himself, was humbled. 'I might have prevented it, but I did not. I certainly have blood on my hands.'

'Prevented it?' Aranthur asked.

Tiy Drako shook his head. 'He means that if we had taken other paths, we would not have allowed this event to occur,' he said.

'I mean more than that, oh all-knowing disciple,' the priest said with a steady tolerance. 'Had I been more alert, I might, for example, have been on my feet and in among the soldiers so that they grew calmer and less violent. It is the duty of the Lightbringer to do good actively, and not accept a passive role. I should, at least, have been the first to die, insisting that they not harm any but me. But I was dozing, having read all day.'

'Surely--' Aranthur said.

The priest smiled. 'Young man, I'm a Lightbringer, not a fool. I do not pretend to perfection or enlightenment, nor do I try to convince you I have achieved any such state. I merely describe how, had I been nearer perfection, I might have behaved. Fear not! I do not accept responsibility for their deaths. I took no action to help them. Or hurt them. Unlike my disciple, who put one foot back on the path of violence, even while he stands here contemplating carnality.'

Drako looked as if he'd been struck.

The priest laughed. 'Is she more beautiful than your soul, my friend?'

'Forgive me, Lightbringer,' Drako begged.

Again the priest laughed. 'I? Forgive you? You have done nothing against me. It is against yourself you sin. I find her beautiful as well--I merely see her from a greater distance than you. Were I nearly perfect, I would see her only as a soul.'

'Yes,' Drako said. But he sounded more wistful than crestfallen.

The priest opened the case. The beautiful smell was still there, but it did not exert aura.

'Master, if something can receive spirit, or aura,' Aranthur knew that the Ars Magica and the houses of theology had different terms for almost everything. 'If the case can be imbued with the dead man's torment,' he went on, 'why can I not put a working into an object?'

The Lightbringer assumed a serious expression. 'You can,' he said.

Aranthur shook his head. 'I've been told that it is impossible,' he said.

Lightbringer Kurvenas nodded and pursed his lips. 'Then why do you ask me?' he said softly.

'Because the spirit of the dead man was palpable in the case. I felt it. Tiy felt it. You exorcised it. Hence, it was there. Spirit or aura can be worked--manipulated. Thus...'

The priest nodded, obviously pleased. 'You must be someone's favorite student,' he said. He fingered his long beard a moment. 'I will tell you. I suspect that otherwise you might be of the kind who will experiment, to the detriment of your soul and others. A servant of darkness can create an object of great power by first manipulating a person--an animal, although that is weaker, or a human, in a way that alters that persons aura to suit the needs of the dark sorcerer. And then--'

'He kills his victim in the presence of the item,' Aranthur sat back on his heels and whistled. 'Ritual sacrifice.'

'Death is one of the strongest powers,' the old man said. 'Only in death can spirit be fused to dead matter.'

Aranthur paused.

'Ask,' said the priest. 'I am here for you, not for me.'

'Are there--Darkbringers?' he asked.

The old man shook his head. 'Some would have it so, with an endless procession of horrible conspiracies,' he said. 'But I have walked the world seventy years and some, from the Outer Sea to the Assinia, and I have never met one. Men and women need no help from organized evil cults to be selfish and brutal--do they?'

Drako laughed ruefully. 'No, master.'

Master Kurvenas nodded. 'I confess there are people who use the powers of darkness to increase their power--who, knowing the true path, turn their backs on it and go the other way, seduced by the lure of this world. Some even profess that there is only this world.' He shrugged. 'They are the ones who create artifacts such as you describe. There--I have told you something interesting, have I not?'

Aranthur shook his head. 'Incredible. Why have my magisters not told me this?'

Kurvenas smiled. 'Have you ever really asked?' He waved his hand. 'Enjoy your new possessions. By liberating his spirit, you have made them truly yours.'

'What do I owe you, master?' Aranthur asked.

The Lightbringer looked away.

Drako nodded. 'I take care of that. A lightbringer is above considerations of mere money. Or should be allowed to be.' He smiled. 'Two chalkes would do it, I think.' His smile widened to a grin. 'And a shot of your carbine!'

Minutes later they were in the deep snow beyond the inn's yard and barns. Every step broke through the crust, so that both young men--and Lecne Cucino, who joined them on invitation--were wet to the crotch. But the cold didn't touch them, as they slogged back and forth to a stunted tree, setting an old board against it. Lecne took a shoeing hammer and put an old prayer card onto the board. He pointed at it--a woodcut of death with a sickle reaping the lives of men.

'Let's see if we can kill death,' he said.

The other two young men were silenced by the comment. Aranthur felt it was ill-omened, to say the least.

Still, in a few moments they had replaced the priming in the mechanism's spoon-shaped pan and shut the cunning little cover that seemed to operate on some internal spring and catch.

'Want me to do this?' Drako asked. 'I've shot a puffer.'

Aranthur almost gave way, and then changed his mind, although as a student he disliked the omen about death and the mechanism made him afraid. His hands were shaking.

He attempted to analyze his feelings, as the magisters taught, but his mind was a whirl of impressions and impulses, because it had been that kind of day.

He raised the weapon and put the butt carefully against his shoulder under Drako's shouted instructions to 'keep it tight, tight!'

The weapon had a tiny ring on an equally tiny staff that folded up out of the stock to form a rear sight. It was simple enough to place the weapons front sight, a tiny white ball of silver, in the rear sight's circle. He placed the white ball on the playing card of death and jerked the trigger bar.

The flat crack shocked him--so did the lack of movement from the carbine. Where he had expected a blow, he felt only a slight movement, as if the weapon was a living thing.

The three walked to the old tree. The board was untouched, but there was a hole a fist higher than the top of the board--two fists above the prayer card.

'Not bad,' Drako said. 'You pulled the bar too hard, and it lifted the barrel. Let me have a go.'

He showed the other two how to load the piece as he went, first putting a charge down the barrel from a small cow horn full of the silver-black powder, and then tamping it with the ram-stick under the barrel. Then he took one of the small round balls out of the pouch made for them and put it on the barrel. It was too big. But not very much too big--the ball went about half it's own diameter into the barrel and stuck.

The other two young men came up to help. There was an odd tool in the case, like a ramming stick but only two inches long, set in an egg of polished bronze. But it didn't make sense.

'I can show you,' Iryllia said.

They hadn't noticed her coming out, but there she was, sensibly clad in men's clothes, with high hose and boots.

Mutely, they handed her the weapon.

She took the bronze tool and placed the short ram stick--which had a cupped end--on the ball, and pushed very hard, her mouth tightening with effort. The ball popped into the barrel. Then she took the longer ramming stick and placed it against the ball in the barrel, took the pretty little hammer, and drove the ball all the way down. She showed them that there was an engraved mark on the ramming stick to show that the ball had been driven all the way home.

'You shoot it,' Drako said. 'You loaded it.'

'Why thank you!' she said. She raised the weapon, placed the short stock against her shoulder, and pulled the trigger bar in almost the same motion.

They all saw the card take the hit, and splinter exploded from the back of the board. The distant hills echoed the sound of the shot after some delay.

'Oh! they all said, and then they applauded her.

'Not just a pretty face,' she said, mostly to Drako, who made a face at Aranthur as if to say I never suggested otherwise.

Drako had a remarkable quality, which came out as each of them loaded and shot the weapon several times. That is, he was content to allow Iryllia to take over the loading. He did not press his knowledge. Aranthur, although the youngest of the men, was aware that had he had some knowledge of the workings of a puffer, he might have felt the need to explain, or take control, but Drako merely let go.

His third shot, he hit the card precisely, his lead ball obliterating death's skull face. All of them hit the card.

Iryllia smiled. 'I love the smell,' she said. 'I always have.'

The powder stank of sulfur like the public baths, the thermi, in the City, but with another tang, almost like salt.

'Now we clean it,' Drako said.

Iryllia agreed. 'This is a very fine weapon--as good as mine. I even think I might be able to name the maker.' She examined the breech and the muzzle and then shook her head. 'Intriguing--a master-work, and unsigned.'

Lecne nodded. 'I know nothing of puffers,' he said. 'Ha! That's not even true any more. I love you people. But I know workers. I bet it's the work of a journeyman as a try piece for his mastery. We have a superb copper kettle like that--nicest one we have.'

Drako nodded. 'I think you have something there,' he said.

Iryllia joined in. 'I suspect it's from a shop in Mitla--you see how plain it is, and yet so elegant? Mitla. Your Chalkedon has to put flowers on everything, or the rising sun of the world, or the First Invocation or some pious saying. In Mitla, they add nothing.'

Aranthur laughed. 'Perhaps our engravers are simply more skilled,' he said.

Iryllia gave him a look that might have been pity. 'You need to get out more often,' she said.

Aranthur let the argument go. Even with a horse to carry him, he was aware that the morning was gone and the afternoon was pressing. The four of them went inside and under Drako's careful ministry, the weapon was opened--the complex mechanism removed, and then the barrel which hooked in and out of the breech and had two wedges held with pins.

Irillya brought her own puffer to the kitchen table. 'I think you know more about taking one of these apart than I ever learned,' she said. 'I just shoot them.'

Drako asked the cook for boiling water and a little rakka oil. He took the barrel off Iryllia's puffer and took both barrels out in the yard, where he poured boiling water through them until clouds of stinking steam erupted. At first the water ran black from the fouling, but after a moment it ran clear. Then he ran wads of tow--the combings of the flax crop--into the barrels and dried them, and oiled them.

Then he laid the mechanisms on the kitchen table with the cooks grudging permission. 'I call this part the lock,' he said. 'I suppose early ones--in my father's time--looked like door locks.'

He shoed Iryllia the inside of her lock, with brown rust and old grease and some black dirt or powder fouling. 'You could grow carrots in this,' Drako said and smiled.

Irrylia shrugged. 'Go ahead, smart boy. Show me how to clean it.'

Drako nodded. 'I will,' he said. He heated the lock a little, putting it on a brick in the fireplace, and then--before Iryllia could protest--he poured boiling water over it. Immediately he picked it up with tongs and put it on the hearth.

'The water can't cause rust if it vanishes from heat,' he said.

Aranthur didn't think that his physical logic was sound--but practically, his actions worked. The lock was mostly clean, with a few brown streaks of rust. He took a wad of tow, balled it up and put some oil on it and then pressed it into the ash at the edge of the hearth until the tow was almost gray. He used it to polish at the streaks of rust.

'A real gonner or an armourer could have it apart, and make the lock shine inside as well as out,' he said. But when he was done, and had poured water over it again and then put the rakka oil over everything, the lock looked like a miracle in steel.

Iryllia unbent as the cleaning progressed. She helped Aranthur work on his carbine while Drako worked on her lock. Of course, the new carbine needed much less work, and Aranthur was afraid of its complexity--the inside of the lock was like a world in miniature. But before the clock on the wall counted the second hour, both weapons were clean and oiled.

Iryllia immediately loaded hers, and tucked it in her belt.

Aranthur grinned at all of them. 'I--really--have to go.' He looked around. 'I feel very fortunate that I have met you three. The last day has been,' he shook his head. 'Like something out of a story book.'

They all kissed him, even Iryllia.

He picked up the carbine case and his new travel case, and carried them out to his new horse, feeling that it was all a little unreal. Then he saddled the heavier horse, checked the geldings shoes, saw to it that his mare had food, and brought his own horse round into the front of the inn.

Lecne was waiting--and so was Tiy Drako.

'I'm not slipping away without paying,' Aranthur said.

'You really don't seem the type,' Lecne said. 'You owe nothing. We are in your debt.'

Aranthur smiled. 'I accept, because I'm a poor student. But I would like you to keep my other horse for a few days--perhaps even a week. And I'll pay.' He described the contents of the travel case and handed over four Chalkes, the round silver coins of the Imperium.

Tiy smiled. 'Are you sure you aren't an aristocrat?' he said.

Lecne took the coins. 'We could have a hard winter without patur,' he said. 'I won't refuse good money when you have some. But you're welcome here when you don't, too.'

Drako nodded. 'I'm not a real priest, but that was well said, brother.'

Aranthur hugged each of them. ''I'll be back soon,' he said to Lecne. 'Come and visit me in the City,' he said to Tiy.

The acolyte stifled laughter and bowed his head. 'We're going the other way,' he said. 'But I imagine I'll make it back to Chalkedon in time, and perhaps I'll visit you with my begging bowl, at that. If you're wealthy now.' He grinned.

'School,' Aranthur said. 'School will eat it all. Will you take the road with me?'

'My Lightbringer says it’s a bad day to travel--who knows? Perhaps I'll still be here when you return. But let me offer you a word of council.' The acolyte looked wary.

Aranthur nodded.

'The carbine--in the city, it's illegal.' He shrugged. 'On the other hand, possession of one qualifies you for the Selected Men.'

'Oh!' Aranthur said, with pleasure. The Selected Men performed in all the great processions, and marched ahead of the guilds at festivals.

Drako nodded. 'I have written you a letter to open a door or two,' he said. 'Please--no thanks required. Pray for me!' Without another word, the acolyte handed him the letter, turned and went inside.

Aranthur hugged Lecne again.


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