Judal's journey swiftly taught him lessons that any man with common sense could probably learn on his own. The first was the heartbreakingly familiar lesson that a bag of peaches was not something that actually lasted all that long. Even when he was trying to ration them. The second was that the road that lead out from his village was long in ways he had not understood. Long meant sore feet from their bare slapping on the hot dirt. Long meant more time walking than the dawn-to-dusk labors of the field. Long paired with no more peaches meant a grumbling stomach that would not silence itself.
The first village past his own had received him well enough, and the people there, some distant relatives, took pity on him and outfitted him with a meal and a place to rest his head. But Judal feared they would force him home, and so once again Judal slipped away in the night, laden with snacks to last for as long as he could resist to eat them.
However, he learned one other thing as stormclouds took over the skies and a swearing farmer driving a cart came up beside him, and that was that people will be very generous to clever young men who can keep the rains from making their journeys harder.
The farmer gave Judal a ride in exchange for chasing the clouds away, and threw in a small ration for keeping the temperature pleasant as they rode along. He was a taciturn fellow, disinclined to answer Judal's questions about his work and wares, and Judal quickly bored of trying to talk to him. So, Judal spent his time riding in the back of the cart, instead amusing himself by tricking the rukh into letting him jump the pickled foods the farmer carried in tall barrels in and out of their containers.
It was a few days later when the farmer announced they were almost to his destination, and Judal leapt atop the barrels to stare in wonder at the town ahead. The farmer had mentioned offhand that the town of Tongli was important for its part in shipping the wares to the capitol in Rakushou, but never could Judal have imagined the scope of what lay ahead of him. Below was a town that floated on the water like petals on the wind, or a dream through a lovelorn heart. He could vaguely make out small boats on the water, passing swiftly through the town.
"Hey, old man," Judal said. "You never said the town was built on the water!"
The old farmer scoffed and rolled his eyes. "Sit back down, boy."
"No, hey! How does it do that?" Judal asked. "How do you make a whole town float?"
"It doesn't float," the farmer said, "least most of it doesn't. S'not built on the water, the water's built into it. Canals."
The explanation did little to temper Judal's wonder, and he lept from the cart and into the air, buoyed on a gust of wind. "Canals…" He turned back to the stunned farmer, grinning. "Well, thanks for the ride! I'm going to go and investigate this stuff closer."
And with that he shot off, clearing the rest of the road to where the streets became narrow, paved footpaths beside wide waterways. The first thing that became apparent as he landed, apart from the sights, was the smell- a bit like sewage, a bit like the smell of the stagnant runoff from the autumn rains, a bit like salt and fish and something else Judal couldn't place his finger on. It wasn't necessarily a pleasant smell, but it was new, and Judal took a deep breath to savor every last drop of it. This was the smell of a real city, full of people and excitement and all that the world had to offer.
Then Judal's stomach growled, and he nearly collapsed from hunger. Perhaps, in retrospect, flying the rest of the way in an arrow-fast whirlwind had been a reckless idea. Judal slumped against the whitewashed wall of a house, watching people pass by and wondering how on earth his ingenious plan could have gone so awry.
Judal's mouth watered as a young man walked past, munching on a strip of seasoned meat on a skewer, and Judal nearly followed after him, as though the mere sight of someone else's food could satisfy his rumbling stomach. He made the smarter choice instead and followed instead the way the man had came, where his eyes and nose led him to a wide street populated with carts selling all manner of easy-to-eat treats from meats to sugared haws on skewers.
Though it pained him, Judal turned away from the seller with the haws and went instead to the man selling meats. "I'd like three please," he said.
"Three fan." The man plucked three skewers from the grill and held out a hand to take Judal's money.
Unfortunately, Judal had none. "Um. Is there a way I could-"
"Three fan," the man repeated. "Or no food."
Judal bit his lip and turned away, feeling foolish. Of course he'd have to pay. These people didn't know who he was. He was no great rainbringer here, and nothing like the magi in Yunan's story, who probably got to eat all the free food they wanted.
And then Judal had an idea.
He circled back around through the crowd, watching for a moment when the meat seller was distracted with another transaction, wand drawn. Then, when that moment came, he gripped his wand, whispering to the rukh and calling to the meat like he had called the pickles from the barrel. The first time it failed, and Judal edged closer, waiting, watching. Like pickles from a barrel. From one place to another. Just a simple displacement of…
Two skewers appeared in his open hand, and Judal grinned in triumph.
He turned to vanish again into the crowd, but, spotting the sugared haw vendor once more, he paused. Practice did make perfect after all…
Twenty minutes later, and several teleported delights richer, Judal sat down at the edge of the canal to watch the boats pass by and dug into his flavorful meat skewer. Some were obviously pleasure boats, where people with more money than he'd ever seen drifted along doing whatever it was people who didn't need to labor to live did with all their free time. Others were merchant ships, heavy with barrels and crates headed south to the capitol. Judal had never thought that wares and foods might have travelled south by boat, but now, seeing the way the people of Tongli had reshaped the land to harness the river and pave their paths with water, it seemed to him a perfectly clever and elegant solution. Judal pitched the bamboo skewer into the river and started on his next strip of meat. He wondered if he could cajole his way onto a ship to make his way to Rakushou. Surely boatmen could find some use for a magician with a gift for wind and water. Perhaps if he figured out a way to speed the ships up by pushing them along….
Judal pulled the last fatty hunk of meat off the skewer, chewing it over as he mentally chewed the issue of how to make a ship go faster. If it was sailed, it would be easy; simply call the wind. Most of the junks laden with goods seemed to have at least one sail… Judal nodded and swallowed the hunk of fat. That could work. A few drops of rain pricked the back of Judal's shirt, so he grabbed his sugared haw skewers and made for the cover of the overhanging roofs of the narrow alleyways.
He slept there in the alleyway that night, the sound of the rain turning to music as it bounced and flowed along roof tiles and wooden gutters, joined in a duet by the low slush of the canal. It would have been very romantic and soothing had Judal been somewhere warm and dry, but huddled in his dirty travelling clothes in a damp, barely sheltered alley left him feeling homesick and cold. In the moments between sleep, Judal resolved that if he was ever telling the story of his adventure, he would lie and say that at this moment he'd been safely inside, in a bed softer than any he'd ever slept in.
Across the canal, atop a watchtower, a guard called out the hour of the morning for all to hear. Judal stirred from his slumber at the noise, glancing around. Sunlight had begun to bathe Tongli in the warm light of morning, and already the canal was filled with ships large and small. Excitement made him clearheaded and alert in spite of his damp clothes, and Judal hopped back up to his feet to explore the city further.
He followed alongside the canal, watching as the city came awake. Even here, where there weren't orchards to tend, most were up with the sun: men on land shouting orders to men on boats, boys who shuffled wares from house to canal, women ordering the men or airing out blankets or gossiping amongst each other. Judal crossed over a stone bridge packed with people, and the sheer sound of it all really took hold. In his village, once you got away from the houses and the orchards, there was the quiet of nature, with only the soft fluttering of the rukh of the wind and the trees. But here in Tongli, the rukh of seemingly innumerable people filled the town with a blinding brilliance and the tinkling flutter of thousands of invisible wings.
Judal stood in the center of the bridge, staring and taking the scope of it all in for a long while.
Then, he started to walk again. Slow at first, letting the pull of the rukh guide him- he crossed the bridge he was on and followed the fluttering to another bridge, this one decorated with images of leaping fish. It crossed high over a wide canal, but Judal did not stop to gawk at the fisher-boats below. He was instead fascinated by the thrum of the city, the scope of the buildings, some on stilts, others on stone bases, and all the manner of smells and sounds that surrounded him. A third bridge brought him closer to the water than he'd been before as its wood and rope swayed precariously. After that though, he felt exhilarated. It was only the thought of Yunan, mysterious and austere in his… whatever it was that Yunan had been doing, that kept Judal from racing along the water's surface on the wind.
The rukh guided him to a hanging garden of wysteria and willows and ponds, ringed in wavering pathways to chase off evil spirits. Judal walked them, hoping to no avail to find an unattended fruit tree. Eventually he settled before a pond, watching the fat fish inside swim lazily about. He sighed and let the sound of the rukh wash over him. He was still so far from the capitol… And now, in Tongli, he realized he had no idea what he'd do if he even reached Rakushou. What, was he just expecting to walk up there and… find his destiny? Bump into one of the princes his father and grandfather had served under and be recognized as an equal?
Judal dipped his fingers into the pond, gently swirling them around and startling the koi. All Yunan's talk of magi… it couldn't have been for nothing. It had to mean something, why else would he have disappeared like a fairy tale so soon after?
Still, Judal was having a hard time imagining himself some grand magi of creation. The most powerful sorcerer of his age, sure, he could live with something like that. But a magi? Someone who was supposed to know what was best for the whole world? Fuck, Judal didn't even know how to read or write, let alone how to pick someone fit to rule the world!
Yet he felt it, deep within his soul. That weird tug that there was something, somewhere that he was supposed to find. He had always guessed everyone felt that, because being a peasant sucks. But maybe….
"Don't you come any closer!"
Judal was jolted from his reverie by a startled, frightened shout from over the garden wall. He pulled his eyes up from the koi pond and stared, wondering if the voice would shout again.
"Please, I swear that's all I have!"
Judal rose and crossed to the wall, silently leaping atop it with a burst of wind and gravity magic. Below, he saw a man, much older than himself, cornered by a comely young woman with a short sword and a few other street toughs. The woman spat on the man's shoes and held her sword in his direction.
"Do you really think we believe that? A fat merchant like you's sure to have some more goodies on him somewhere… Or did you leave your gold back on that barge with your common sense?"
Judal leaned his cheek into his palm as he watched the mugging unfold. He had heard that large towns were dangerous, but he'd never imagined he'd get to do something so exciting as watching a mugging unfold in person. Still, as he watched the merchant's blubbering turn incoherent with fear, Judal found himself wondering what his family would say if they heard he just sat by and watched a guy get mugged for fun. Probably bad things. And what would Yunan say? What would a magi, or even just a really badass sorcerer do?
"Hey!" Judal barked from his seat atop the wall. The assemblage all startled and looked up. "You know, it's real rude to go around robbing people." Damn, that was the best line he had in him? Judal felt lame saying something like that aloud. "You better scram and leave this guy alone, else I'll make you pick on somebody your own size."
The young woman snorted. "Get lost. I don't wanna kill some poor kid for playing hero."
Judal made a show of thinking about it before cracking into a wide, toothy grin. "Nah, I think I'd rather kick your ass." He fished around in his pack, pulling out his peach wand. "I gotta say, all the humidity here suits me just fine! I've been wantin' to practice stuff like this, but people always flipped out if I tried to do it back home!"
"You think you're so tough-"
"Thalg Al-Sarros!" Judal laughed, sending a spear of ice down between the woman and the merchant. Both shouted in surprise, and the woman staggered back. "Oh, shit! That's bigger than I expected!" Judal lept from the garden wall to balance on the tip of the ice spike. It was slipperier than he expected, and Judal windmilled his arms to summon enough balance and wind to keep him upright. Thankfully, the giant spear of ice was still intimidating enough that it went mostly unnoticed. "Still wanna pick a fight with me, lady? I'll mess you up!"
The woman looked at the ice, then at her crew of cowering street toughs, and then made a noise of aggravation, turning tail and running.
Judal grinned, triumphant, and jumped down to where they had stood. This time, he stuck the landing. "So, hey, Old Man… That lady said you were a merchant…" He glanced over his shoulder, trying to look as cool as possible. "Does that mean you got a ship?"
The man, who had soiled himself somewhere in the exchange, nodded wordlessly. Judal frowned a little. Gross.
"Well, then..." He turned around and offered the man a hand. "I'm Judal, Grand Magi of Kou, and I'm lookin' for somebody to get me to Rakushou! You got room in your employ for a little hired magic muscle?"