Bread and a Golden Knife
The Harbinger, the Temptress,
the Sealer of an ancient doom.
A dusting of Diamond white and Sapphire blue
given Life by breath to soar and mingle,
to dance in the air beneath a harvest moon.
A pity you aren’t who you are, before birthing the
—Tomes of the Touched
Meliu scrambled awake, sitting up and waving her arms at a demon reaching for her eyes; the Shadow fluttered and bled into a world of gray and brown, a leftover from her dreams. The rush of surf over rocks and the scent of a dead fire reminded her where she sat. She froze, then swept her eyes up and down the beach. The finger of stone stood fifty paces away, a clear path of beach and pocked stone leading to its base. If she’d jumped from its height at low tide, it would’ve hurt a hell of a lot more.
She flexed her shoulders, grateful that sleep had eased the agony of her landing. Ulrikt. The boy. They must’ve been figments, no more real than the Shadows of Man in her dreams. Yet, a stone-ringed fire pit sat nestled in the sand in front of her, and a heavy wool blanket covered her legs. Someone started the fire and saw to her survival, but no way in the hells it could’ve been either of the faces she’d seen when crawling ashore. With her senses returned, she wagered he was a fisherman who her agonized body and soul transformed into wishful, or nightmarish, thinking. A hermit. A sailor from the Black Owl. Anybody else.
The Face of Ulrikt? She hadn’t believed in that fable since she was a barefoot postulant, she’d been too rational to get suckered into spook stories. The force of prayer required to change one’s skin and tongue, to become someone else so mothers and lovers couldn’t tell them apart, presented itself as an impossibility. But, the last month had corrected a number of her assumptions already.
She settled on one of two possibilities, she’d encountered a legend of Istinjoln, or she strode the catwalk between sanity and madness.
She snatched her pack and haversack, rummaged through them. Holy robes, tea, cup, and honey were still there. Her pouch of coins still sat nestled to her hip beneath her dress, and sleeves of hidden coins in her boots still buckled her toes. If everything else was here, what were the odds of the jewels being missing? She checked anyhow. She knew a little of gems, but almost nothing about their value. There were a couple of tiny sapphires and several larger topaz of varying quality, but uncertainty lay with a clear stone. Unfinished and the size of her thumbnail, if it was a diamond she might be able to eat for years with the treasure sewn into her hem. Appraisers weren’t known for their honesty in good times, revealing her gems might feed her to worms instead of making her rich. Funny how something could be valuable and worthless at the same time.
But, not a thing was missing. She cocked her head.
Except the arrow she’d found in the surf. She scratched through the cold coals of the fire and the sands around where she’d woken up. Nothing.
She pulled a strip of dried pork from her pack and ripped into it with her teeth. Why the hells would the Face, or anyone else, steal an arrow? The pork was hard as her pa’s overcooked chicken and hurt her teeth to chew, but the salt and spice set her stomach growling for more. Unless she was going to learn to fish, she needed to move on.
She stifled a groan as she stood and stretched her shoulders, struggling to right her brain in order to get her bearings. First trouble, she didn’t know whose land she stood on, Brotna or Hidreng. They were two Tek nations more at odds than Choerkin and Broldun, due to Brotna’s ties with Tek Thon. Of the two nations, the Hidreng supported more trade with the Silone and would most welcome her. The Brotna were as apt to sell her into slavery as to sacrifice her to some heathen god.
If they’d sailed far enough, west might lead to the Hidreng city of Kulkar, but if she was in Brotna… She faced northeast and walked. No way to go wrong walking further into Hidreng territory. She followed the beach fifty paces before stopping; the arrow lay in the sand circled by seashells, and it pointed inland, due east or damned close to it.
She stooped and nabbed the arrow, its rag falling back from the head to reveal a vial strapped to the shaft. The glass was blown with a thin wall in its center separating two liquids, and inside the rear half rested a piece of iron. A striker to break that wall, she assumed.
She muttered to the arrow, “Wyvern’s Flash.” Rumor in Istinjoln spoke of priests failing to solve the mystery behind the demon magic Tek sailors wielded. “You explain the blaze on the Black Owl, but where the hells are you pointing me?” Hugging the sea meant she couldn’t get lost any more than she was, inland on the other hand, was thousands of horizons of foreign territory. She slipped the arrow into her pack, tip up to be safe, and stepped into the circling shells.
She faced a natural trail leading up a rolling rise, its heights covered in grasses tall enough to hide a pony. Which meant damned near tall enough to hide her. No way in the forges nor hells did some fisherman or sailor point her way; her delusions were real and telling her where to go. Never question Ulrikt, Adelin had told her, but what about his Face?
She didn’t trust either of them, hells, she didn’t trust her own wits, but if the person at the fire wasn’t a mirage, it was the closest thing to an ally she had.
The slope shifted beneath her feet as she climbed, and once at the top of the rise she turned to look back at the sea. From here she could see the remnants of the Black Owl, fragments of crates, and bodies. Escaping the view made stepping into the unknown easier. Strides later she was so deep in the high grass there was no point to looking back, that horrifying world was gone, replaced by a view of the sea to a hazy horizon. In front of her, a rolling ocean of green turning brown, where waves were capped by strings of seeds.
Within a candle this endless expanse unnerved her; an open world was a different sort of maze than she was used to, and as easy to get lost and die in. The sun was her only guide, so when it set to the west she bedded down for the night, and the second meal of pork made her jaws ache.
She feared the onset of night and the cold it would bring, but the grass broke the breezes and the chill she expected never came. Of course it was warmer to the south. How far had they sailed, a hundred horizons? She fell asleep with her pack beneath her head, visions of maps and nautical lines before her eyes.
Jocular voices awakened her before she had a chance to dream the answer. Singing. Distant and growing closer. She recognized the Hidreng dialect, but she couldn’t make out the words the way they slurred.
She poked her head above the stems of her bed; a halo of lantern light held high by a pole. Merchants or farmers with a wagon, she wagered, which meant she’d been close to stumbling onto a road.
She watched them, stone still, and as their light climbed a rise then sank, she jumped to her feet to follow. The road impressed her, twenty paces wide and set in stone. Grasses grew between cracks, but the stones were set so close her fingers would find difficult purchase in their spacing. She’d stumbled on a well-traveled trade route, a welcome guide to somewhere.
She followed the men and their cart, ignoring their songs, but listening for any banter between. They were Hidreng traders looking to turn a profit on some opportunity ahead, this much she’d picked up. Four or five candles later her eyes squinted into a rising sun and her feet and knees ached. The cart zigged and zagged up a steep rise and she waited for it to disappear before marching straight up the hill, saving hundreds of steps by taking the straight path.
She huffed the last hundred steps to the crown of the hill and leaned palms to knees to catch her breath. A strong wind brought the distant but nauseating odor of human refuse to her nostrils, and when she looked up her view answered the question of what opportunity the traders were chasing. A walled town nestled on the shore of a bay, surrounded by tents and shanties and milling people; she’d found the Silone and what must pass for safety.
Meliu breathed deep, hanging her head. When her eyes opened, she looked between her legs at a world upside down, and figured her perception wasn’t so far off. Her head spun as she righted herself, and her eye wandered to the bay and among the mass of bobbing timber she spotted the blue Luxun banner. “My ride beat me here. Damn that.” But she grinned, taking a tiny bottle of perfume from her pack and dabbing. She covered her nostrils with her wrists, a rush of lilac straight to her brain, covering the shit and rot stink. Life’s just better when it smells good.
With twists and pulls she straightened her dress and gear before strolling toward this Hidreng town. But the Luxun captain never mentioned their destination, and all she’d cared for was getting away. She concentrated as she walked, images of maps she’d perused in Istinjoln flashing in front of her eyes. Stone walls shielded the town, and town it was, not a city. This alone chopped the options of where she was down to a handful of possibilities. A deep water bay for trade. She could see the little circle on a map, but couldn’t read the name. Two gates, north and south, both bearing towered gates. She’d stumbled upon either Semhuar or Inster… Semhuar has a central tower.
None of the rooftops forming this maze of humanity could warrant description as a tower. This must be Inster. It made sense, it was said that half of Choerkin trade traveling to the Hundred Nations passed through Inster. Rumor spoke of an agreement between the Fost and officials of Inster, gold, silver, and iron from the Estertok Mountains for spices and exotic foods. Horses. Oxen were also mentioned in those rumors.
Inster of all Hidreng places should be safest.
As she reached the sweeping expanse surrounding the town, her thoughts turned to food which wouldn’t threaten to wear her teeth to nubs. A few hundred strides into the filthy encampment brought the shouts to her ear: “Bread! Smoked fish!”
Her mouth watered, a clear sign of starvation; she loathed fish.
She tracked down the teenage girl in a wick. A big girl, blonde and popular, at least so long as she sported a pack filled with bread on her back, while bearing a basket of fish wrapped in leaves in front of her.
Meliu’s stomach growled with a ferocity that made a little girl glance at her belly. “Two loaves and two fish, if it pleases.”
The girl gazed down upon her with beady, narrow-set eyes. “Ten songs fer the loafs, another twenty get ya the fish.”
“Thirty songs!” The screech in her voice caught even herself off guard. The price was outrageous, enough to set her teeth to grinding. But she eased her tone. “I’ll give you twenty.” The girl stared. “All right, twenty-five then.”
The basket of fish spun away from her; haggling didn’t see to be the girl’s plan. Meliu dug into her purse. “All right! Thirty, you little she-shit.”
The girl spun with an outstretched palm and took her coins with a cocksure smile. Meliu’s gut snarled again, and she wondered if it hadn’t been the rumble of her own belly betraying her on the price of food.
Meliu found a clear spot next to a cart and took a seat, peeled the fish from its leaves and ate. Best damned fish she ever stuck in her mouth. Best bread too. And should’ve been, too, for the price she paid. But once she tossed the leaves of the first and bit into the second, the rapture of sated starvation faded. This fish was crap. Over smoked and dry. She ate it anyhow and tossed the bones into a barrel.
Two days outside Inster taught Meliu much of human nature and commerce.
The first lesson was that the key to any negotiation was to not need what the other offered, so when it came to food, the greedy bastards knew they had you. Second, Hidreng crowns spent with more value than the same weight in songs, with the bastards claiming the purity of southern ore superior, but truth was they sought a lender’s profit at both ends. She had coins enough, but her pa had taught her enough for her to realize how right quick they’d spend. It was a lesson he claimed her mother never learned. She promised herself the coins in her boots were for saving her hide, same for the gems, which meant she had maybe two weeks to concoct a plan, and that was if prices didn’t climb.
Rumor spoke of food in Inster being cheaper, but stepping into the throngs of Tek made her nervous. She tore a chunk from her loaf of dark bread and chewed. If she could buy bread in town and sell it at profit her troubles disappeared, but she’d have to do it before she ran out of Songs.
There were scraps to be had, of course. People were generous in hard times, but only so far as they were able. Fishers handed out extras as they had them, but folks were already salting and drying as much as they could, storing up for worse times if they came. But Meliu was an inland girl, raised on pork, goat, chicken, and vegetables, fish never did taste quite right. She’d eaten too much fish since first stepping on a boat, and she’d kill for a roasted chicken about now, hells, make that a pigeon.
Meliu glanced at Inter’s gates and shuddered. She’d seen so much death, faced terrors she wouldn’t have imagined a couple months ago, that the godsdamned Tek shouldn’t scare her. But they did, them and their false gods, bloodthirsty gods. It didn’t help that she could speak Tekit, because she understood what they muttered behind her back. Even here outside those stone walls, they were crude and bawdy, or downright violent; their words were never kind.
Came down to it, she might be better off selling herself to Silone men, or cozying up to a single merchant with coins to spare. More women than would admit were already earning their meals this way, and Meliu was pretty enough, after Lord Priest Ulrikt healed her himself. A look in a mirror after his touch defied her memory of the pain and ordeal she suffered at the hands of Angin after he’d been Taken. Her skin was perfect, without a hint of scar, but she couldn’t forget her scalp hanging clean from her skull.
She scoffed at the notion of whoring, but admitted to herself she didn’t know to what lengths hunger might drive her. Still, trading in food would keep her dignity and pride until she came across a holy enclave she could trust. She ate until her belly was full and crammed the remnants of loaf into her satchel before staring at the gates again. She took a few strides to test her courage and stopped.
Even among the Hidreng she was a waif, short and thin, weak. She was a scholar skilled in languages, and her strength in prayer wasn’t like One Lash, with her Fire. Meliu’s strongest prayers were Light, useful for someone reading books in the dark, or needing to find their way in tunnels, and it might even save her life in a pinch, but it wasn’t a great weapon. Even blinding a man was temporary, most times.
Living is overcoming your fears. Master Mestel had told her this a hundred times, and if she were still alive, the Master would grimace at her cowardice. With a deep breath she held her head high and strode forward, but thought better of it and slouched, eyes on the ground trying not to draw attention. By the time she reached the heavy log gate she’d settled into what she hoped was a nondescript walk that portrayed she knew where she was going. Act like you know what you’re doing, and folks will believe it. Or at least that’s what she hoped.
The town was filled with black hair and dark eyes, and she swore they all glared at her. The few Silone she saw were men, a head taller than the Hidreng and armed. She stayed to the middle of the dirt road, avoiding any ruts that’d make her shorter than she already was, and kept her nose open to the smell of a bakery. Animal and human waste assaulted her nostrils, and there must be a tannery not too far away. Her nose wouldn’t be much use.
A horse-drawn cart rolled by and she spotted bags of grain onboard, so she followed, cursing as she stepped in the trap the horse left her. She shook and scraped the crap off her foot, thankful for boots rather than sandals, and trotted to catch up. They took several turns, but she was used to caves and their winding ways, she didn’t worry at all about getting lost. Although the cart’s path didn’t stop, it led her to a shop with a shingle painted with a golden knife. In its windows dried meats hung over a counter filled with loaves of bread. Not stinking fish neither, goose and chicken. Her mouth filled with water, and she licked her lips.
A bell rang above her head as she opened the door, and two ominous stares greeted her. A large woman whose arms rolled in waves of walrus blubber stood behind the counter, and a crooked-nosed man gone gray swept the floor with a straw broom. “Do you speak Silone, by chance?” Keeping her knowledge of their tongue to herself was an advantage she didn’t want to give up over quick.
“Stinking foreign urchin,” the woman said in Tekit. “A little, if her has coin.”
“I’d like ten loaves of bread and a chicken, roasted please.”
The merchant stared, turned her back. “Go away, child.”
“I’m not a child, and I got songs. How much?” She pulled a silver fifty-songs from her pouch and held it up.
“Songs? Your coins worth half their weight, maybe.” The woman laughed but pulled a scale from beneath the counter. “Come.”
Meliu dropped the coin on the scale and the woman adjusted the measure. “Coin is shaved. Five loaves, no chicken.”
The ugly man spoke in Tekit. “Sparrow-assed girl, give her nothing.”
Meliu scowled, but ignored the man’s words. “It isn’t, and I’d get twenty loaves outside the gates without the bird.”
“Not child.” The merchant smiled. “Five loaves and chicken.”
“I’ve a large family, please—”
“Ha! Think her first?” The woman bent over and winked. “Her make coin off me, instead of who her stole that coin from.”
The man spoke to the woman. “Sell her to the whore’s nest down the street. No one would miss this titless child.” His lip-suck and chuckle sent a shiver down her spine, but she kept her eyes on the matron.
The woman gave the man a three fingered gesture she didn’t understand and smiled at Meliu.
She didn’t know whether to trust her, nor how to convince the merchant she’d be worth more selling bread. Maybe honesty blended with fabrication would count for something. “I didn’t steal it, but you’re right. I can get a loaf for five Songs outside, sell them to me for three, I can sell at four.”
“So, ten profit for her, and the chicken?”
“I might have to haggle, so more like seven, and the chicken is mine. I hate fish.”
The merchant waggled a finger and laughed. “I’ll give her eight and the chicken. Her come back midday tomorrow for more? Ten, then.”
If she got thirty-two for the batch, she’d make a whisper’s profit, but she would have herself a chicken. And she might resell them at four and a half or five anyhow. “Deal.” She held out her hand, but the woman ignored her.
“Her make money, her buy a knife. Come only middle of day or morning, if her smart girl.”
Meliu lied. “I got a dagger.” She took off her pack and put it on the counter before considering her robes stuffed in the bottom. She doubted a Hidreng merchant would recognize them, but it still set her nerves on edge. Eight loaves swelled her bag, and she had to wipe her mouth when the woman handed her a chicken wrapped in an oiled cloth to keep it moist. “Thank you.”
“Her late, deal no good.”
The creepy man leered as Meliu slung the pack over her shoulder and she made a point not to meet his gaze. She nodded to the woman as she clutched her chicken and walked outside with a bounce to her step. She took a few seconds to remember where she was, before taking hastened steps to make sure she got out of Inster quick as her legs would carry her without running. This time whenever she saw a Silone man she veered in their direction, hoping anyone following might think she had an ally close.
When she stepped from the gates and into the milling throngs of her own people, she breathed easy again. The threat of being found out a priest felt small compared to walking into the den of foreigners who bore witness to false gods. At least one thought to sell her into whoring. Prostitution wasn’t a sin in the eyes of Sol, although frowned upon, but the slave trade was an abomination. Only the gods possessed the wisdom to make slaves of a mortal’s soul.
It was no matter, she made it out of the enemy’s den unharmed and with a partner easier than she’d expected. She knew better than to trust the woman, in particular if she failed to make the woman a profit, and she reserved a special dislike for the old man’s lascivious glare.
Now she had to figure out how to sell bread. She figured to get five Songs a loaf on a few at least, being Silone would help. Folks would be happier to buy from her than some Hidreng, the trick was finding the people with Songs in their pocket. She needed to avoid Ivin Choerkin, the Wolverine, and a few Wardens. Scattered others would recognize her, and if they did, most would keep their mouths shut. The smiths on the hill, they’d be too busy to travel for food, and they’d have plenty of copper from their work. Seamsters, tanners, heck, fishers should have coin too, and be eager for some bread. She stood straighter as she walked into the tent camp, pleased with herself. Her plan wasn’t a road to wealth, but she’d keep herself fed.