Chapter 1: Like cat and dog
The new boy behind the desk was watching him with shy curiosity. He was small and bony, with freckled skin and a ginger mop on top that looked more like a ravaged haystack than human hair. There was a nervousness in the way he moved and kept scratching his nose and ears that made Kiran think of a mouse. With a rash, he thought to himself, smiling. He bid the ginger mouse goodbye and left the shop.
Outside the sun was shining bright, making his eyes tear and forcing him to blink repeatedly. They had spent the better part of the last two hours in the dim light of the apothecary’s private office, a pompous name for a small, musty, windowless room with a desk, three chairs and a few shelves, in which said owner conducted his business. It used to be a storage room which he had converted into an office, because it was the most private. A couple of oil lamps provided all the light, but also a rancid smell that he ingeniously managed to conceal by throwing in some dried aromatic herbs. Business usually did not take so long, but this was one of their most scrupulous clients. Always looking for the best merchandise and willing to pay handsomely, but a terrible nitpicker. He asked questions, checked, sniffed and tested every single ingredient, then weighed it two or three times before buying it. Can’t blame the man for being thorough. Though sometimes Kiran wished he were not so slow and repetitive.
He sighed and stretched, breathing in the smell of dead leaves. The shop’s windows overlooked a small square in the best part of the Trade District, surrounded by old buildings with two or three floors and various shops on the ground floor. In the middle was a large plane tree, one of the few in the whole district and the only one in that square. Trees were scarce in Ardaena, where space was limited and, apart from some very old ones, they could only be found in the gardens of the most rich. It was one of the reasons he disliked the city. This particular plane was so old its branches overshadowed half the square. People had built benches around it and it was a popular place, both with passers-by and those who came to take water from the nearby fountain. Kiran sat on one, resting his head on its back, eyes up towards the rusty crown. It was fairly late in the autumn and half of the leaves were covering the dirty cobbles with a brittle, fragrant blanket. The sunlight was sifting through the holes in the crown and Kiran closed his eyes. The day was unusually warm for that time of the year and the sun on his face felt so pleasant, he dozed off.
“I swear I never met a slower person in my entire life. I could watch mould growing in that place and feel more entertained.”
Kiran startled awake.
“Were you sleeping?” asked Val, sitting next to him.
“Me? Not at all.” Then he yawned and stretched like a cat.
“What’s next on the list?”
“That’s for tomorrow, before we leave,” decided Val. “What about our clients?”
“All done, except for Idris.” They were told he was out on business and would return later in the afternoon.
“Really? Talk about efficiency. I guess we deserve a break. Let’s grab some food and enjoy the rest of this beautiful day.”
Kiran knew what that meant and it had nothing to do with the beauty of the day. He held out a hand.
“Give me the money. Do whatever you wish, but the money stays with me.”
Val frowned. “Outrageous! Is that how you talk to your father?”
The young man was unmoved.
“Fine, but I’ll keep my half,” said Val, changing the tone.
“Your half is as good as gone if you keep it.”
“You don’t trust me.”
“Near a bookshop? Never.”
“I am deeply saddened.” Val emphasized that with a hand on his heart.
“And I feel sorry for our poor friends, who will have to carry your books on top of everything else.”
“I promise I won’t buy more than tw—three.” Three fingers sprung up to reinforce his words. Then another one. “Maybe four, but no more.”
Kiran laughed—sometimes Val was incredibly childish. “You are incorrigible. Let’s eat, I’m starving.”
“Well, we made some good deals today. I’d say that merits a special pie,” proposed Val.
“Bribing me won’t work.”
“We’ll see about that.”
A few streets further was Sam’s bakery, one of the best reputed in the city. His famous meat pies were so good he was often employed by the nobles for their parties. That also meant they were not cheap. Most commoners could not afford to buy from him, but every now and then he and his father would indulge in a juicy pie, to reward a particularly good day.
From the square to the bakery was a little more than a short walk, but, despite the empty stomachs, they took their time. The streets were busy and people often bumped into each other, which meant it was fairly easy to lose the contents of one’s pockets, especially when looking like a traveller. Street vendors pulling heavy carts were crying their wares and people gathered around them to buy spiced meat pasties, cheese and wafers for lunch. It was difficult to move fast, but eventually they reached the bakery.
The smell of fresh bread and pastries that filled the whole place made their mouths water. The ovens were at the back of the building, but the heat still reached all the way to the front and the girl who served the customers kept wiping the sweat on her face with a cloth. Despite the limited space the baker had managed to cram in a long, narrow wooden table with crude benches on each side for those who wanted to eat inside. There were a few customers, but not as many as they feared, so it was not long before they were sitting at the table with two large meat pies, gold crusted and almost hot. The filling was well spiced and tasty and they kept licking the juices trickling down their fingers, which was one of the reasons why they never bought pies on the streets. It was a messy business, but an absolute delight for the senses.
They ate without speaking, savouring every bite and watching the bustle outside. Finally, pleased and with a full stomach, Val broke the silence.
“Let’s go back, I’d like a word with Ermid.”
“I’m sure you would.”
“You don’t have to come if you don’t want.”
“I don’t mind Ermid. Or the bookshop.”
Val smiled. “If there is somewhere else you’d rather go…”
“Not really. There’s still Idris, though,” reminded him Kiran.
“Ah, yes,” said his father, without enthusiasm.
“Don’t worry, I’ll take care of that.”
“Thank you.” Val patted his stomach with satisfaction. “That was delicious. Shall we proceed?”
Kiran smiled fondly. Val was so simple sometimes, so easy to please. They thanked the girl and made their slow way back to the plane tree square.
It was a two days’ ride from their home village to the capital, which might have seemed a lot, considering they had to make the journey both ways. With another couple of days in the city, the whole trip took, roughly, a week. But they enjoyed travelling and there were certain supplies they needed to buy. Trivial things, such as clothing, household goods, salt and spices, and other food ingredients that did not grow in their parts—trivial was a word Val often applied to living necessities, which held no intellectual value for him—as well as chemical tools, paper and ink. A physician and passionate scholar, Val had his own medicine recipes, which he prepared at home. He also preferred to make, rather than buy, their cleaning products. Especially the soap, which was an expensive item, highly valued by the elegant upper class and often disregarded by the rest, for obvious reasons. They picked most ingredients themselves from the woods or during their travels, but there were some chemicals they could only find in the city. The shops and markets of Ardaena were well stocked and Val had a nose for bargaining.
Another arrangement that took them to the city involved a few of the local apothecaries, which they supplied with wild herbs and roots, rare mushrooms and all sorts of odd looking things—usually dead—that would give most people the creeps. Many of those were not easy to come across and required thorough knowledge, some even a fair bit of travelling, so this was a steady business for them.
And finally there were the bookshops, where the fun began. Val loved books more than food and he could never keep out of a bookshop. Which was fine. But—and therein lay the real problem—he seldom left one empty handed. It was not a pecuniary issue, as Kiran had exaggerated when he had claimed his father would spend all his earnings on books. In fact he was always careful with money. Not parsimonious, prudent. And reallprudence was a word that applied to most of Val’s actions and decisions. No, the problem with books was space: there was simply no more of it on the shelves and they lay scattered in every corner of the library, or piled in dangerously hazardous heaps. They had even insinuated themselves in the bedrooms. Cleaning those rooms was turning into an ordeal and, for a while, he had tried to steer his father clear of bookshops. Not with much success, though.
Once, while dusting the bookshelves, Kiran had finally asked him, “Aren’t you afraid someone might break in one day, while we are away, and steal your books?”
“And do what with them?”
“Sell them, obviously.”
“Perhaps, if we lived in the city. As it is, I think a thief would find the trouble too great for the reward. Not to mention they are all marked with my initials. Don’t worry, my books are quite safe.”
Can’t say the same about me, Kiran had thought morosely when, just a moment later, a stack of books had collapsed, throwing him off balance and onto the hard floor, while they scattered around in cloud of dust. Val had helped him stand and put the books back.
“Try to be more careful, these are fragile objects.”
What about me?
“We should ask Alden to build us a few more shelves. Piling the books like this is unsafe, you might get hurt.”
“Why, thank you for thinking about my safety,” Kiran had replied bitterly.
“What are you saying? You are more important than anything!” Then, looking around, “No wonder this happened, we have too many books.”
“And who is responsible for that?”
“Too many books improperly stored, I was going to say.”—Kiran had attempted to protest—“Now, now, let’s have a cup of tea. We’ll sort this out.”
That was one of the ways Val ended an argument. But things had continued the same as before and, eventually, Kiran had given up. He just left him to his books, while he took care of other things on the list. Like today, when he had agreed to meet Idris, another chemist, by himself. However, there was still some time before that, so he joined his father in the little bookshop across the square from the apothecary they had left less than two hours before. And not to keep an eye on him, which would have been useless, but to skim through the books himself. He might have grumbled about them, but he was just as fond of reading.
Ermid, the shopkeeper, was busy with some customers, but he greeted them with cordial familiarity, like old acquaintances, motioning them to help themselves. They knew each other for a long time. Val had been a regular since his younger years and seldom left the place without buying something. Their mutual love for books was what had drawn them close. In fact there was a corner at the back of the shop reserved for special customers, which was well stocked with rare or old books, or simply books on subjects that only appealed to the inquisitive minds of some scholars. Val could always find something interesting there, though whence and how he managed to get his hands on them Ermid would not always say and they thought best not to ask.
This was not a public library, but they were allowed to sit and read even without buying, rarely as the latter happened. There was a table with two chairs for that purpose, and for Ermid’s use when he had a bit of free time to chat with some of the clients, while keeping an eye on the shop. They went straight to it and, soon enough, were so absorbed in reading, they barely noticed the dimming of daylight.
“I should be going,” realized Kiran, when the tolling of bells penetrated his thoughts.
“Hm?” Val briefly lifted his nose from the book. “Oh, it’s getting late. You should be going.”
“Don’t wait for Ermid to throw you out.”
“Mhm. Just going to stay a bit more. I’ll see you at the inn for dinner.”
Then he resumed his reading, and Kiran knew he was lost to the world until closing time. So he thanked the shopkeeper for always putting up with his father and went to meet the last client, before it was too late.
It was dark outside when he left Idris’s workshop. The deal took half an hour at most, where he sold, among other things, some powdered snake ivy—which Idris had expressly asked for the last time they met—and purchased a few salts for some recipes of theirs. That ought to have been it, had Idris been less fond of talking. But he was very much so, and Kiran had to listen to his opinions about young men who were not what their fathers used to be, and how he disapproved of the use of such aid as snake ivy, which was said to do wonders for gentlemen, in the right amounts, but was quite dangerous otherwise.
“In my youth a man needed no help to impress a lady, if you follow me,” said Idris, winking suggestively. “These days young men are so pampered, they lack strength. They do nothing but dawdle about, dress after the latest fashion, drink and throw parties. They have forgotten how to be real men.” He was obviously talking about nobles. “But business is business and if that is what they ask for, who am I to argue? It is their parents’ duty to educate them, not mine.”
Kiran felt uncomfortable discussing such things with a man of Idris’s age—he was ten years older than Val—so he changed the subject. But the old man did not mind, he could talk about anything as long as someone listened. He was probably the most agreeable of their clients, but where old age seemed to make many people grumpier and tight-lipped, Idris was growing more talkative by the day. Eventually Kiran pointed outside, reminding him politely it was closing time, and he was finally excused.
The meeting had exhausted him and he could not wait to get back to the inn and enjoy a peaceful dinner.
Miller’s Inn was not on the best side of the Trade District, but it was clean, decently priced and the food was excellent. The owners were simple, uneducated people, but honest, kind and, most importantly, minded their own business. They always lodged there and, as loyal patrons, enjoyed a few privileges. Such as being given the same room on the top floor, which faced to the back of the inn, towards the waterfront—for it was considerably quieter and better aired and, small though it was, they did not have to share it—whenever it was or became available. Or being served a food they liked and such. Little things which made them feel particularly welcome. Not to mention the attention their horses received.
But the inn was across the river that split Ardaena and the Trade District in two, roughly from east to west. And while their clients were on the northern side, where the wealthy traders had their shops, the inn, built by a former miller, as the name suggested, was on the southern side, along with all the craftsmen and their workshops. They were called the Upper and Lower Trade, a convention which had more to do with occupation than actual elevation. There were several bridges that connected them and, fortunately, one of them was close to Miller’s Inn. But Kiran still had to walk a good distance through the Upper Trade before reaching that bridge, and he was growing hungry.
The last shops were closing and the taverns and alehouses were slowly filling with people in need for some gossip and a whole lot of ale. Night was falling rapidly over the city and the shopkeepers were lighting the street lamps, whose flickering flames cast a soft, golden light. There were fewer people on the streets and they were walking fast, many of them disappearing inside the noisy taverns. As he passed by them, laughter, shouts and drunk curses reached his ears, just as the streets were growing more silent. A fiddler playing a jingle was answered by a cacophony of hoarse voices and loud applause, scaring the cats that were feeding on the trash. This was another reason Kiran disliked the city. Sure, at home men were getting drunk too, being noisier than usual, but they seemed to have outgrown the barbaric behaviour in which some of these people indulged.
He hastened his pace and finally reached the bridge, where he stopped and took a deep breath. At night, with the stars turning on one by one, the river looked beautiful. There were no moons that night and the lamps at the foot of the bridge were out, either from lack of oil or because nobody had bothered to light them, but the horizon still had a faint purple tint. The sky was clear and the air smelled of moisture, fish, rotting plants and burnt wood. A gentle breeze was blowing from the east, along the river, not too cold, only chilly enough to prickle the skin.
And with it, mirroring the stars, moved a swarm of fireflies, dancing in the air like sparks from a bonfire. Or so people might have thought, had they been able to see them. But to anyone’s eyes they would have appeared dim, like insects whose wings caught some unseen light. Kiran, however, saw a swarm of glowing creatures, bright specks of starlight, and he stared in silence, dazzled by the beauty of it. Hidden in the stands of reed which padded the river banks, frogs were croaking in a loud, dissonant chorus of mating calls. Arburn at night was one of the few things he enjoyed in Ardaena.
He was so lost in reverie, he heard nothing before he felt the cold blade at his throat.
“Gimme the purse! Gentle, now.”
The whisper was husky and smelled of bad alcohol and black candy, a narcotic made from a certain mushroom boiled with maple syrup, to hide the bitter taste. It was cheap, easy to prepare and quite effective, though it had unpleasant effects on breath and teeth over time. The man’s left arm was thrown around him, pressing along the collarbone and pulling him backwards. The sleeve smelled as if it had not seen water in weeks.
“Do it!” The stinky whisper became more imperative.
Kiran bit his lip, regretting the moment he had forgotten his surroundings and had let his guard down. He had no intention to give away the money, nor show the salts he had just bought—they were fairly costly and he was sure to lose them.
“Let’s not be too hasty,” he said, trying to keep his calm. He felt something stirring inside, a presence that was about to wake, and that worried him even more. “Don’t wake up, please. Don’t,” he murmured to himself, not realizing he had said that aloud.
“What was that?” asked the man in a threatening voice. He shifted behind his back, sniffing him. “Mm, you’re not one of ’em hoity-toities, but you sure smell good.” He pressed closer, rubbing against his back in a manner which made Kiran shiver with disgust. The free arm slowly moved to the back, groping him through the cloak, while the blade pressed harder against the tender skin of the neck. “Not bad! Looks like tonight I’m lucky. Might as well enjoy meself a little.”
The man made a coarse, repulsive sound, resembling a laugh, and the foul smell of his breath twisted Kiran’s guts. The sickening feeling roused the presence inside and his hands moved suddenly and swiftly, grabbing the arm at his throat in a tight, painful grip, while his elbow hit square in the stomach. It happened so fast the poor bastard had no time to react. The knife fell from his hand and he dropped to his knees, gasping for air. He cursed horribly and raised to attack with an enraged growl, but Kiran had already turned to face him and he froze, stricken with dread.
“Curse your blood! What are you?”
In the darkness of the night Kiran’s eyes were glowing golden, like a cat’s, yet not in the same way. They looked more as if a fire were burning in them, radiating from the center and spreading towards the edge of the iris in bright streaks of gold and amber. There was nothing human in them.
Kiran kicked the knife away from him. “Don’t you dare follow me!” he hissed. “Say anything about this to anyone and I promise you, no matter where you are, you’ll meet a horrible end.”
His assailant nodded, paralysed with fear. From the bridge a voice called to them.
“You there! What is going on?” Two sets of footsteps and a wobbly light were approaching fast. “Hey!”
Damn it, thought Kiran displeased. He did not need more trouble. All he wanted was to have a peaceful dinner and go to sleep. “Get lost,” he ordered the stunned man. “Now!”
The man recovered from his horror enough to understand he was let go. He bolted towards one of the alleys, tripping on the uneven cobbles that paved the streets, but did not stop to look behind. Kiran took a few deep breaths, trying to compose himself. The two on the bridge were close enough for him to see them better in the flickering light of their lantern. They were young soldiers and one of them ran past him, in an attempt to catch the thief, but lost him in the pitch black of the side streets.
“What happened?” demanded the one who stayed behind, raising the lamp to see his face.
He was an unusually tall man and the stern look and rigid posture put him in charge. He was staring intently, measuring him, and for a moment Kiran imagined he saw a strong emotion passing over that stone face, but it was so brief he paid no attention to it, too busy to hide his own.
“I apologize for the disturbance, sir,” he said in the most obliging manner he could muster. “That gentleman appeared to have a problem. I was trying to help, but he ran away the moment you called.”
The other one came back, puffing from the exertion.
“Did he assault you?” asked the first man.
“Did he steal anything from you?”
Kiran patted his belt and pockets. “Not that I can tell, no. I don’t think he had that intention.”
“Oh, he did,” said the other one in a friendlier tone, catching his breath. “You can tell that sort a mile off.”
“Is that so?” Kiran’s wonder sounded genuine.
Now that he took a closer look, they were no regular soldiers, but royal guards. Were they patrolling the streets? Is that even a royal guard’s duty? The one in charge was studying him with a scarcely disguised suspicion and Kiran felt a sudden urge to leave, as if the man’s stare could see behind his lie. Not the one about the assault, his other lie, his secret. Inside him the presence had gone back to sleep, but he feared there might still be a trace of the strange fire, which had scared off that miserable bastard, in his eyes.
“What is that?” asked the tall guard all of a sudden, startling him. He was pointing below his chin.
Kiran touched his neck and felt a sharp sting. He saw a tiny smear of blood on his fingers—the blade had scratched the skin. “I cut myself this morning.”
“Beg your pardon?”
“How did you cut yourself?”
“With a kitchen knife, yes. Held it the wrong way. Too much zeal, I suppose.” Think you’re so clever, Grim-face. The man’s sarcasm sent the blood rushing to his cheeks, but he hoped they will not notice that in the poor light of the lantern. At least his voice did not betray him.
“Pfff!” the friendly guard stifled his laugh. “Sorry, Captain, that was amusing.”
Grim-face ignored him, his eyes still on Kiran. “Where are you going at this hour?”
“Hopefully to have dinner, if I can still find any.” That one was beginning to annoy him, so he felt no desire to be more explicit. Apparently the feeling was mutual, however the man possessed remarkable self-control.
“Where would that be?”
“The Miller’s Inn. Gentlemen, I apologize if I caused any trouble, but I have a friend waiting for me at the inn and it would be very uncivil of me to be late. Which, by the way, I already am. So if there is nothing else…”
“Very well,” said Grim-face, “we shall escort you.”
Kiran made a slight bow, to conceal a wince of displeasure. “That shall not be necessary, the inn is right on the other side. I assure you I shall not stray from the right path.”
“It is for your protection.”
“I appreciate that, but I’m certain no one is waiting under the bridge. I imagine the water is too cold.”
The friendly guard could not hold his laughter anymore. “You are unbelievable!” he said, patting him on the shoulder.
Coming from a stranger, this sort of familiar gesture would normally have annoyed Kiran, but he liked this man. Possibly because he disliked the other too much. The Captain seemed to be losing his patience with both of them and Kiran fought back a smile. It was obvious the man did not trust him and he suspected the escort offer was to keep an eye on him rather than for protection. But he had no argument to enforce that offer, other than being, by the nature of his occupation, a hand of the law. And since there was no proof of unlawful behaviour, he was going to have to give up. Which he did, however unsatisfying for him, because he was not stupid, apparently.
“Be careful. The streets are not safe at night.” Grim-face made a stiff bow, just a slight incline of the head, and left.
“Stay out of trouble,” said the other one, with a wink and a wave of hand, and then followed his superior.
Kiran sighed with relief and suddenly realized it really was late and he was very, very hungry.
Val was waiting for him at the inn, watching the door with increasing apprehension. Their dinner was sitting on the table, cold, but untouched.
“Where have you been?” he met his son with impatience and concern.
“I’m sorry for worrying you, Val. I was delayed.”
On his way to the inn Kiran had decided not to mention his little misadventure. At least until they were back home. He had cleaned his neck, just to be sure, and the fine cut looked like any other fresh scratch. Hopefully his father would not pay attention to it. He rarely lied to him, and only by omission, but being partially to blame for the incident and still annoyed by its development, he much rather preferred not to distress him, nor to sit through one of his lectures.
“Oh, Fates!” said Val, slapping his forehead. “I forgot what a blabber good old Idris is.”
“You have no idea. I swear the older that man grows, the more he rambles. We should have him on top of the list from now on, that way we could use the rest of it as an excuse to leave his shop.”
Val laughed at the idea, but agreed it was not bad. “The food went cold.”
“Perhaps I could persuade Maire to heat it a little,” said Kiran, standing. He went to the kitchen door and had a short talk with the innkeeper’s wife, then returned to the table.
The woman came to take their bowls. “I’ll bring you some more bread,” she said, obliging.
“You’re very kind, Maire, but this one is just fine. Thank you.”
A few minutes later they were savouring her amazing smoked pork stew, while Kiran amused his father with the embarrassing conversation he had with Idris, doing quite a good impression of the old man’s mannerisms. Val did not seem to notice any change in his disposition and that, at last, made him relax.
“Arburn is stunning at night,” said Kiran when they were done eating, sipping from his hot, flavoured tea. He lowered his voice, “I saw a swarm of fuuri.”
Val threw a cautious look around. The inn was crowded, but people were chattering and drinking, though the place was not nearly as noisy as a tavern. No one was paying attention to them.
“Really? I thought they lived in woods.”
“Not necessarily. As long as there’s food…”
“Ah, the river,” realized Val. “The weather today was unusually warm for the season, there must be a lot of moisture in the air.”
“They probably followed it. But it is mostly in woodlands that you would find them. It’s almost as if they have a fondness for those, if that were possible.”
“Only they don’t have likes and dislikes.”
“No, they are mindless creatures. They just feed. I suppose you could call it an instinct.”
“I wish I could see them the way you do,” said Val. For a man with his mind it would have been extraordinary. A wealth of knowledge, hidden from his eyes.
“You already see more than any other man, because you know what to look for,” said Kiran, covering Val’s hand with his own in an affectionate and comforting gesture. “Your knowledge is closest to that of the Eina. True, theirs is far deeper, but even they cannot see more than what is apparent.”
“I know, I know…” Val stared absently at the honey-coloured liquid in his cup, thinking, then spoke with a playful glint in his eyes. “I found an interesting book today. It talks about the Eina. The author seems to have spent some time in the eastern lands.”
After a moment’s pause, his son gave him an incredulous look. “You bought your own book?”
“Not bought. But I was curious,” replied Val with the tone of a child caught doing something bad.
“What, to see what it says? You wrote it, you have the manuscript! And a copy.”
“Tsk! To see how it was translated. This is not one of Ermid’s copies, he bought it from a traveller from Vessar. Sometimes scholars inadvertently alter meanings in the translation process. And I don’t see a problem in wanting to have a foreign copy.”
Kiran’s first impulse was to scold him, but he remembered his own careless mistake. He had not even had the courage to tell Val about it, how could he be annoyed at him for openly admitting to have given in to a whim? Perhaps not quite a whim, for he had a good argument about translations, but even without that it was not really a problem. I am such a nag sometimes, he realized, ashamed. “Well? What do you think of it?”
“I didn’t have the chance to take a proper look. It’s nicely made, though perhaps a little too embellished for my taste.” He chuckled. “You should have seen Ermid’s face when he gave it to me—smiling from ear to ear.”
“So it was a gift?”
“Did I not say so? Although I insisted to pay for it, but he would not hear of that. He said he bought it for a good price, together with half a dozen others.”
“I’m surprised he didn’t wish to keep it.”
“He has his own copy. And he’s not fluent enough in Vessari. Well, I’m not that much of a master, either, but I’m pleased all the same… My book has reached farther places than I would have expected.” Val was always modest about his achievements, but it was obvious he was contented.
“I can’t wait to see it,” said Kiran with a fond smile, to his father’s great pleasure. “What else did you find?”
“A travel journal about the western lands. From the little bits I read, it describes many of the local customs and beliefs.”
“Mm, that sounds interesting.”
“Yes. And it’s by no means a flimsy book. I also bought one on farming. It seems well written, with detailed explanations and arguments.”
“Farming? Since when does it interest you?”
“It doesn’t hurt to know a little about it. I don’t expect to travel all my life. Farming may sound easy because many live off of it, but there are rules about working the land and the plants have their own particularities.”
“But you know a lot about plants.”
“Wild plants, forests, yes. This and that are different things. We never owned a proper vegetable garden, for example. We don’t spend enough time at home to care for it. Farming requires constant work, because each crop has its own cycle and needs.”
Whenever Val was interested in a new subject, his approach was methodical. He did not believe in doing things by ear. ‘Each effect has a cause, therefore you must know how to create the right conditions, in order to obtain the desired result.’ Improvisation was always a last resort, when circumstances were poor or unfavourable, but things needed to be done nonetheless. ‘No matter how arbitrary it looks, everything has a rule. You just have to find it,’ he always said.
Val emptied his cup and rose. “It’s late, we should retreat. I want to read a little before going to sleep and tomorrow we must start early. By noon we should be well on the road.”
Kiran had already finished his tea. They bid the innkeepers good night and went to their room on the top floor, facing north, towards the river.