T HE MAER’S EYES WENT wide at my words, then narrowed again. Even in the midst of his infirmity, Alveron’s wit was sharp. “You were right to speak that close and soft,” he said. “You are treading dangerous ground. But speak, I will hear you.”
“Your grace, I suspect Threpe did not mention in his letter that I am a student at the University as well as a musician.”
The Maer’s eyes showed no glimmer of recognition. “Which university?” he asked.
“The University, your grace,” I said. “I am a member of the Arcanum.”
Alveron frowned. “You’re far too young to make such a claim. And why would Threpe neglect to mention this?”
“You were not looking for an arcanist, your grace. And there is a certain stigma attached to that sort of study this far east.” It was the closest I could come to speaking the truth: that Vints are superstitious to the point of idiocy.
The Maer blinked slowly, his expression hardening. “Very well,” he said. “Perform some work of magic if you are what you say.”
“I am only an arcanist in training, your grace. But if you would like to see a bit of magic . . .” I looked at the three lamps lining the walls, licked my fingers, concentrated, and pinched the wick of the candle sitting on his bedside table.
The room went dark and I heard his startled intake of breath. I brought out my silver ring, and after a moment it began to shine with a silver-blue light. My hands grew cold, as I had no source of heat other than my own body.
“That will do,” the Maer said. If he was at all unnerved, there was no hint of it in his voice.
I stepped across the room and opened the shuttered windows. Sunlight flooded the room. There was a hint of selas flower, a trill of birdsong. “I’ve always found that taking in some air is good for whatever troubles a body, though others disagree.” I smiled at him.
He didn’t return it. “Yes, yes. You’re very clever. Come here and sit.” I did so, taking a chair near his bedside. “Now explain yourself.”
“I told Caudicus I was compiling a collection of stories from the noble houses,” I said. “A handy excuse, as it also explains why I have been spending time with you.”
The Maer’s expression remained grim. I saw pain blur his eyes like a cloud passing in front of the sun. “Proof that you are a skilled liar hardly gains you my trust.”
A cold knot began to form in my stomach. I had assumed the Maer would accept the truth more easily than this. “Just so, your grace. I lied to him and I am telling you the truth. Since he thought me nothing more than an idle lordling, he let me watch while he made your medicine.” I held up the amber flask. The sunlight broke itself into rainbows on the glass.
Alveron remained unmoved. His normally clear eyes fogged with confusion and pain. “I ask for proof and you tell me a story. Caudicus has been a faithful servant for a dozen years. Nevertheless, I will consider what you’ve said.” His tone implied it would be a short, unkind consideration. He held out his hand for the vial.
I felt a small flame of anger strike up inside me. It helped to ease the cold fear settling in my gut. “Your grace wants proof?”
“I want my medicine!” he snapped. “And I want to sleep. Please do—”
“Your grace, I can—”
“How dare you interrupt me?” Alveron struggled to sit upright in his bed, his voice furious. “You go too far! Leave now and I may still consider retaining your services.” He was trembling with rage, his hand still reaching for the vial.
There was a moment of silence. I held out the vial, but before he could grasp it, I said, “You have vomited recently. It was milky and white.”
The tension in the room rose sharply, but the Maer went motionless when he heard what I said. “Your tongue feels thick and heavy. Your mouth is dry and filled with an odd, sharp taste. You have had a craving for sweets, for sugar. You wake in the night and find you cannot move, cannot speak. You are struck with palsy, with colic and unreasoning panic.”
As I spoke the Maer’s hand slowly drew away from the vial. His expression was no longer livid and angry. His eyes seemed unsure, almost frightened, but they were clear again, as if the fear had awakened some sleeping caution.
“Caudicus told you,” the Maer said, but he sounded far from certain.
“Would Caudicus discuss the details of your illness with a stranger?” I asked pointedly. “My concern is for your life, your grace. If I must bruise propriety to save it, I will do so. Give me two minutes to speak and I will give you proof.”
Alveron gave a slow nod.
“I’m not going to claim to know exactly what this is.” I gestured with the vial. “But most of what is poisoning you is lead. This accounts for the palsy, the pain in your muscles and viscera. The vomiting and paralysis.”
“I’ve had no paralysis.”
“Hmmm.” I looked him over with a critical eye. “That’s fortunate. But there is more than simply lead in this. I’m guessing this contains a goodly amount of ophalum, which isn’t exactly poisonous.”
“What is it then?”
“It’s more of a medicine, or a drug.”
“Which is it then?” he snapped. “Poison or medicine?”
“Has your grace ever taken laudanum?”
“Once when I was younger, to help me sleep through the pain of a broken leg.”
“Ophalum is a similar drug, but it is usually avoided as it is highly addictive.” I paused. “It is also called denner resin.”
The Maer grew paler at this, and in that moment his eyes grew almost perfectly clear. Everyone knew about the sweet-eaters.
“I suspect he added it because you had been irregular about taking your medicine,” I said. “The ophalum would make you crave it while easing your pain at the same time. It would also account for your sugar craving, your sweats, and any odd dreams you’ve been having. What else did he put in here?” I mused to myself. “Probably stitchroot or mannum to keep you from vomiting too much. Clever. Horrible and clever.”
“Not so clever.” The Maer gave a rictus smile. “He didn’t manage to kill me.”
I hesitated, then decided to tell him the truth. “Killing you would have been simple, your grace. He could easily dissolve enough lead in this vial to kill you.” I held it up to the light. “Getting enough to make you sick without killing or paralyzing you, that is difficult.”
“Why? Why poison me if not to kill me?”
“Your grace would have better luck solving that riddle. You know more about the politics involved.”
“Why poison me at all?” The Maer sounded genuinely puzzled. “I pay him lavishly. He is a member of the court in high regard. He has the freedom to pursue his own projects and travel when he wishes. He has lived here a dozen years. Why now?” He shook his head. “I tell you it doesn’t make sense.”
“Money?” I suggested. “They say every man has a price.”
Maer continued to shake his head. Then he looked up suddenly. “No. I’ve just remembered. I fell ill long before Caudicus began to treat me.” He stopped to think. “Yes, that’s right. I approached him to see if he could treat my illness. The symptoms you mentioned didn’t appear until months after he started treating me. It couldn’t have been him.”
“Lead works slowly in small doses, your grace. If he were going to poison you, he would hardly want you vomiting blood ten minutes after you drank his medicine.” I suddenly remembered who I was talking to. “That was poorly said, your grace. I apologize.”
He nodded a stiff acceptance. “Too much of what you say is too close to the mark for me to ignore. Yet still, I can’t believe Caudicus would do such a thing.”
“We can put it to the test, your grace.”
He looked up at me. “How is that?”
“Order a half-dozen birds brought to your rooms. Sipquicks would be ideal.”
“Tiny, bright things, yellow and red,” I held up my fingers about two inches apart. “They’re thick in your gardens. They drink the nectar from your selas flowers.”
“Oh. We call them flits.”
“We will mix your medicine with their nectar and see what happens.”
His expression grew bleak. “If lead works slowly, as you say, this would take months. I’ll not go without my medicine for months on some poorly supported fancy of yours.” I saw his temper burning close to the surface of his voice.
“They weigh much less than you, your grace, and their metabolisms are much faster. We should see results within a day or two at most.” I hoped .
He seemed to consider this. “Very well,” he said, lifting a bell from his bedside table.
I spoke quickly before he could ring it. “Might I ask your grace to invent some reason for needing these birds? A little caution would serve us well.”
“I have known Stapes forever,” the Maer said firmly, his eyes as clear and sharp as I had ever seen them. “I trust him with my lands, my lockbox, and my life. I do not ever wish to hear you imply he is anything other than perfectly trustworthy.” There was unshakable belief in his voice.
I dropped my eyes. “Yes, your grace.”
He rang the bell, and it was barely two seconds before the portly manservant opened the door. “Yes sir?”
“Stapes, I miss being able to walk in the gardens. Could you find me a half-dozen flits?”
“Yes,” the Maer said as if it he were ordering lunch. “They’re pretty things. I think the sound of them will help me sleep.”
“I’ll see what I can do, sir.” Before he closed the door, Stapes scowled at me.
After the door was shut, I looked at the Maer. “Might I ask your grace why?”
“To save him the trouble of lying. He hasn’t the knack for it. And there is wisdom in what you said. Caution is always wisdom’s tool.” I saw a thin layer of perspiration covering his face.
“If I am correct, your grace, tonight will be difficult for you.”
“All my nights are difficult of late,” he said bitterly. “What will make this one any worse than the last?”
“The ophalum, your grace. Your body is craving it. In two days you should be through the worst of it, but until then you will be in considerable . . . discomfort.”
“There will be aching in your jaw and head, sweating, nausea, cramps and spasms, especially in your legs and lower back. You may lose control of your bowels and there will be alternating periods of intense thirst and vomiting.” I looked down at my hands. “I am sorry, your grace.”
Alveron’s expression was rather pinched by the end of my description, but he nodded graciously. “I would rather know.”
“There are a few things that will make it slightly more tolerable, your grace.”
He brightened a bit. “Such as?”
“Laudanum for one. Just a bit, to ease your body’s craving. And a few other things. Their names are unimportant. I can mix them into a tea for you. Another problem is that you still have a goodly deal of lead in your body that isn’t going to go away on its own.”
This seemed to alarm him more than anything I’d said so far. “Won’t I simply pass it?”
I shook my head. “Metals are insidious poisons. They become trapped in your body. Only by a special effort can we leach the lead away.”
Maer scowled. “Damn and bother. I hate leeches.”
“A figure of speech, your grace. Only imbeciles and toad-eaters use leeches in this day and age. The lead needs to be drawn out of you.” I thought about telling him the truth, that he would most likely never be rid of all of it, but decided to keep that bit of information to myself.
“Can you do it?”
I thought for a long moment. “I am probably your best option, your grace. We are a long way from the University. I wager not one in ten physicians here have any respectable training, and I don’t know who among them might know Caudicus.” I thought for a moment longer then shook my head. “I can think of fifty people better suited to the job, but they are a thousand miles away.”
“I appreciate your honesty.”
“Most of what I need I can find down in Severen-Low. However . . .” I trailed off, hoping the Maer would understand my meaning and save me the embarrassment of asking for money.
He stared at me blankly. “However?”
“I will need money, your grace. The things you will need are not easy to come by.”
“Oh, of course.” He produced a purse and passed it to me. I was a little surprised to find the Maer had at least one well-stocked purse within easy arm’s reach of his bed. Unbidden, I remembered my tirade to a tailor in Tarbean years ago. What had I said to him? A gentleman is never far from his purse? I fought down an inappropriate fit of laughter.
Stapes returned shortly after that. In a surprising display of resourcefulness, he produced a dozen sipquicks in a wheeled cage the size of a wardrobe.
“My word, Stapes,” the Maer exclaimed as his manservant rolled the fine mesh cage through the doorway. “You’ve outdone yourself.”
“Where would it suit you best, sir?”
“Just leave it there for now. I’ll have Kvothe move it for me.”
Stapes looked a trifle wounded. “It’s no trouble.”
“I know you’d be glad to do it, Stapes. But I was hoping you would fetch me a fresh pitcher of appledraw instead. I think it might settle my stomach.”
“Certainly.” He hurried out again, closing the door behind him.
As soon as the door was closed, I moved to the cage. The little gemlike birds darted from perch to perch with a blurring speed. “Pretty things,” I heard the Maer muse. “I was fascinated with them as a child. I remember thinking how wonderful it must be to eat nothing but sugar all day.”
There were three feeders wired to the outside of the cage, glass tubes filled with sugar-water. Two of them had spouts shaped like tiny selas blooms, while the third was a stylized iris. The perfect pet for nobility. Who else could afford to feed their pet sugar every day?
I unscrewed the tops of the feeders and poured a third of the Maer’s medicine into each. I held out the empty vial to Alveron. “What do you normally do with these?”
He set it on the table near his bed.
I watched the cage until I saw one of the birds fly to a feeder and drink. “If you tell Stapes you want to feed them yourself, will it keep him from meddling with their food?”
“Yes. He always does exactly as I tell him.”
“Good. Let them drain the feeders before you refill them. They’ll get a better dose that way, and we’ll see results faster. Where do you want me to put the cage?”
He looked around the room, his eyes moving sluggishly. “Next to the chest of drawers in the sitting room,” he said finally. “I should be able to see the cage from here.”
I carefully rolled the cage into the next room. When I returned, I found Stapes pouring the Maer a glass of appledraw.
I made a bow to Alveron. “With your permission, your grace.”
He made a gesture of dismissal. “Stapes, Kvothe will be returning later this afternoon. Let him in, even if I happen to be sleeping.”
Stapes nodded stiffly and gave me another disapproving look.
“He may be bringing me a few things as well. Please don’t mention it to anyone.”
“If there is anything you require . . .”
Alveron gave a tired smile. “I know you would, Stapes. I am simply putting the boy to use. I would rather have you close at hand.” Alveron patted his manservant’s arm, and Stapes looked mollified. I let myself out.
* * *
My trip to Severen-Low took hours longer than it needed to. Though I chafed at the delay, it was a necessary one. As I walked the streets, I caught glimpses of folk dogging along behind me.
I wasn’t surprised. From what I had seen of the rumor-driven nature of the Maer’s court, I expected to have a servant or two watching my errands in Severen-Low. As I’ve said, the Maer’s court was rather curious about me at this point, and you have no idea what lengths bored nobility will go to in order to nose about in other people’s business.
While the rumors themselves were of no concern to me, their effects could be catastrophic. If Caudicus heard I had gone shopping through apothecaries after visiting the Maer, what steps would he take? Anyone willing to poison the Maer wouldn’t hesitate to snuff me like a candle.
So, to avoid suspicion, the first thing I did when I came to Severen was buy dinner. Good, hot stew and rough bread. I was sick to death of elegant food that was milk-warm by the time it made its way to my rooms.
Afterward I bought two tippling flasks, the sort normally used for brandy. Then I spent a relaxing half-hour watching a small traveling troupe perform the end of The Ghost and the Goosegirl on a street corner. They weren’t Edema Ruh, but they did a good job of it. The Maer’s purse was generous to them when they passed the hat.
Eventually I found my way to a well-stocked apothecary. I bought several things in a nervous, haphazard manner. After I had everything I needed and a few things I didn’t, I awkwardly made inquiries with the owner about what a man might take if he was . . . having certain troubles . . . in the bedroom.
The chemist nodded seriously and recommended several things with a perfectly straight face. I bought a little of each, then made a bumbling attempt to threaten and bribe him into silence. By the time I finally left, he was insulted and thoroughly irritated. If anyone asked, he would be quick to tell the story of a rude gentleman interested in impotence cures. It was hardly something I was eager to add to my reputation, but at least there wouldn’t be any stories making their way back to Caudicus about my purchasing laudanum, deadnettle, bitefew, and other equally suspicious drugs.
Lastly, I bought my lute back from the pawner with an entire day to spare. It nearly emptied the Maer’s purse, but it was my final errand. The sun was setting by the time I made my way back to the foot of the Sheer.
There were only a handful of options for making your way between Severen-High and Severen-Low. The most ordinary were the two narrow staircases that cut back and forth up the face of the Sheer. They were old, crumbling, and narrow in places, but they were free, and therefore the usual choice for the common folk who lived in Severen-Low.
For those who didn’t relish the thought of climbing two hundred feet of narrow stairway, there were other options. The freight lifts were run by a pair of former University students. Not full arcanists, but clever men who knew enough sympathy and engineering to manage the rather mundane task of hauling wagons and horses up and down the Sheer on a large wooden platform.
For passengers, the freights cost a penny going up and a halfpenny going down, though you’d occasionally have to wait for some merchant to finish loading or unloading his goods before the lift could make its trip.
Nobility didn’t use the freights. The Vintic suspicion of all things remotely arcane took them to the horse lifts. These were drawn by a team of twenty horses hitched to a complex series of pulleys. This meant the horse lifts were a little faster and cost a full silver eighth-bit to ride. Best of all, every month or so some drunk lordling would fall to his death from them, adding to their popularity by showing the breeding of the clientele.
Since the money in my purse wasn’t my own, I decided to use the horse lifts.
I joined the four gentlemen and one lady who were already in line, waited for the lift to lower itself, then handed over my thin silver bit and stepped aboard.
It was no more than an open-sided box with a brass rail running around the edge. Thick hempen ropes connected to the corners, giving it some stability, but any extreme motion set the thing swaying in a most disturbing fashion. A smartly dressed boy rode up and down with each load of passengers, opening the gate and signaling the horse drivers at the top when to begin their pull.
It is the custom of the nobility to put their backs to Severen as they ride the lifts. Gawking was something common folk did. Not particularly caring what the nobles thought of me, I stood at the front rail. My stomach did peculiar things as we rose from the ground.
I watched Severen spread out below. It was an old city, and proud. The high stone wall circling it spoke of troubled times long past. It said much of the Maer that even in these peaceful times the fortifications were kept in excellent repair. All three of the gates were guarded, and they were closed at sundown every night.
As the lift continued I could see the different sections of Severen as clearly as if I were looking down on a map. There was a rich neighborhood, spaced with gardens and parks, the buildings all of brick and old stone. There was the poor quarter, the streets narrow and twisting, where all the roofs were tar and wooden shingles. At the foot of the cliff a black scar marked where a fire had cut through the city at some point in the past, leaving little more than the charred bones of buildings.
Too soon the ride was over. I let the other gentles disembark as I leaned against the railing, looking out over the city far below.
“Sir?” the boy who rode the lift prompted wearily. “All off.”
I turned, stepped off the lift, and saw Denna standing in the front of the line.
Before I had time to do anything other than stare in wonder, she turned and met my eyes. Her face lit. She cried my name, ran at me, and was nestled in my arms before I knew what was happening. I settled my arms around her and rested my cheek against her ear. We came together easily, as if we were dancers. As if we’d practiced it a thousand times. She was warm and soft.
“What are you doing here?” she asked. Her heart was racing, and I felt it thrilling against my chest.
I stood mutely as she stepped back from me. Only then did I notice an old bruise fading to yellow high on her cheek. Even so, she was the most beautiful thing I had seen in two months and a thousand miles. “What are you doing here?” I asked.
She laughed her silver laugh and reached out to touch my arm. Then her eyes flicked over my shoulder and her face fell. “Hold on!” she cried to the boy who was closing the gate to the lift. “I have to catch this one or I’ll be late,” she said, her face full of pained apology as she stepped past me onto the lift. “Come find me.”
The boy closed the gate behind her and my heart fell as the lift began to drop from sight. “Where should I look?” I stepped closer to the edge of the Sheer, watching her fall away.
She was looking up, her face white against the darkness, her hair a shadow in the night. “The second street north of Main: Tinnery Street.”
Shadow took her, and suddenly I was alone. I stood, the smell of her still in the air around me, the warmth of her just fading from my hands. I could still feel the tremor of her heart, like a caged bird beating against my chest.