Letters from Karchesa
She rose with the chorus of tiny redbirds who greeted the lightening of the sky with disproportionately loud voices. Three days of the workweek, Leela rose before dawn to start baking the day's bread. The other days of the week, when the other apprentice had that duty, she slept in, and Arya tried for utmost quiet as she gathered her things and crept from the room. The two of them shared a room in the ramshackle little building on the river, complaining and commiserating about their fellow housemates and landlady and secretly dreading the time when one of them would move away.
Arya walked along the riverbank as long as she could. She shared it with a few other early risers, but their presence only served to heighten her mood, a delicious sense of solitude flavored with buoyant expectation. To her right, the river was quiescent, murmuring sleepily through the reeds and rushes. From the left, the low hum of the city flowed through the labyrinth of narrow, winding streets to rouse the lazy river and batter at the sun's door.
Today was one of the days she would be working in the scribal complex, and she always followed a precise routine on these mornings. Her ablutions at the baths were the keystone of this private ritual in which she cleansed herself of everyday cares and put her spirit at peace for the important work that was to be done.
She bowed as the attendants gave her the morning greeting and stored her belongings. The baths were grand and ancient, and Arya brushed her fingers across her favorite crumbling mosaic of a rampant lion. Chips of the emerald stones that had served as his eyes remained embedded in the stone, worn smoother than glass. She entered the outer baths and disrobed, handing her clothing to one of the attendants and accepting a dollop of rough soap in return. Like the handful of other women present, she ran the soap over her skin and through her hair, breathing in the fresh scents of lemon, mint, and verbena.
The modern baths in the center of the city, which cost a silver to enter and catered to the wealthy, used fine soaps that smelled of jasmine and oleander, damask roses and perfume lilies. But Arya thought she preferred the astringent scent of herbs and citrus that cleared her mind as effectively as the pumice stones used to scour roughness from the skin.
After the women rinsed themselves thoroughly with water dipped from the large, squat pottery jugs, they passed into the inner corridors. Many of them bypassed the first room entirely, settling into the steaming pools in the second chamber with loud sighs of satisfaction.
Arya remained in the first chamber, walking swiftly down the three rings of stone steps into the circular pool. She plunged fearlessly into the frigid water, immersing herself completely until she had to resurface for another breath of air. She was unaware of the small, peaceful smile on her lips as she settled herself on the lowest step and watched the sunlight stream down through the colored glass dome to dance on the water.
The round tower room was filled with the dry sound of quills scratching busily across parchment, and the soft clinks they made tapping against the lips of the inkpots added a playful syncopation. The melody was disrupted by the occasional cough and scrape of a stool against the floor when someone stood up to stretch. Here the apprentice scribes sat in neat rows, and those who arrived first nearly always took the seats closest to the windows.
There was always a trade off: sitting there meant the greatest access to the cooling breezes, but a particularly strong wind could spray the ink from a full quill all over a sheet and ruin it. To Arya, the risk was worth it to sit an arm's length away from the glorious cobalt sky and the shining city that spread out from the base of the tower. From this height, the divisions of the city were muted, the squalor of the slums no more visible than the marble palaces of the wealthy.
Arya worked diligently, forbidding herself to sneak glances out the open window except when she stopped to work the stiffness out of her fingers and wrists. It wasn't as difficult as it seemed, for she was copying out a fascinating medical treatise that the empress-consort wanted circulated at court. The physician-philosopher Makarios, who was renowned for his treatises on at least two dozen fields of study, was in the process of conducting a new experiment meant to inform the building of several new hospitals. In order to determine the most healthful sites, he had placed cuts of raw meat at the proposed locations and was currently monitoring their rate of decay. The areas where the cuts of meat were least rotten would be the least susceptible to putrefying influences and therefore the most appropriate places to build the new hospitals.
Not all of the work was this interesting, of course. On other days she made hundreds of copies of pamphlets, inventories, ordinances, primers, and other records. The main objective was for the apprentice scribes to practice their skills in a way that allowed the scribe guilds to derive the greatest benefit from training them.
The most exciting part of the day was yet to come. Although she tried to project an aura of professional composure, Arya's eyes shone as she bowed to Artem, her master. He had another tower room to himself, and at the moment, she was his only apprentice. Rather than signaling that he was an undesirable master, it reflected his high standards for students.
"Come and take your place," he said, not looking up from his worktable as he gestured with his right hand. The left continued to ink in the intricate border of the page without the slightest hesitation. She obeyed, envying as always the completed indigo lily patterns that spiraled from the base of his palm to his fingertips.
Artem was one of the best illuminators in Karchesa, and it was Arya's deepest desire to become as skilled as he was. Most days, it seemed like an impossible task, but on some days, the clouds of uncertainty parted to give her a blazing glimpse of the future.
Arya looked down at her own worktable, and her eyes widened in shock when she realized what task he had prepared for her. "You're – you're letting me do a page for the Book of Caloris?"
"Do you see anyone else getting it done? Not, of course, that you're doing anything except standing around gaping at the moment." Despite his acerbic tone, the corners of Artem's thin lips quirked upwards.
"I can start now?"
He finally put down the brush and wiped his hands briskly on his apron. "Make the pigments first. You'll need to start with the tempera base, for which you'll need?" He paused expectantly.
"Egg yolk and linseed oil, six parts to one," Arya answered promptly.
"And why are we using the egg yolk?" Many other illuminators were still working in the old tradition, which only made use of egg whites.
"The base will be stronger and less brittle, resulting in a higher-quality and more durable piece."
Artem inclined his head in approval. "Nicely put. After you have the tempera base ready, mix the vermilion paint. But I want to test the color before you use any of it."
When she went to retrieve the linseed oil, she also took down the bottles of sulfur and mercury. Her veins were practically buzzing with excitement, but her hands moved with steady assurance as she mixed the compounds. All her hard work – long hours spent squinting over old texts, recopying different scripts over and over again to perfect her hand, learning half a dozen languages, and memorizing the complicated mix of ingredients making up what seemed like all the colors in the existence – was about to come to fruition.
Zayven's day began when the sun's ended, setting the river aflame as it plunged below the horizon. He had slept badly, and his manservant was alerted to this not unusual state of affairs when Zayven stubbed his toe on his way to the washstand and let out a string of vicious curses.
Elyos stood in the doorway, his face set in disapproving lines, as he watched his charge splash water all over himself. At least these floors, unlike the wooden ones at home, were tile and easily cleaned.
He didn't say a word, but Zayven hunched his shoulders instinctively as he reached for the towel Elyos held out. He used it to dry off his face and chest and let the rest of the water drip onto his trousers.
"It's too hot," he muttered defensively.
"That's no reason to dress like a heathen," Elyos said, eyeing his bare chest and shoulders darkly.
Zayven wadded up the towel and left it on the stand by the hammered copper ewer. "It's the only way a man can get any sleep around here."
"Perhaps if you sought your bed at a reasonable hour instead of gallivanting around all night, your sleeping hours would be cool enough," the older man said pointedly.
He threw his head back, shaking with laughter, and his surliness was forgotten. "Elyos, I adore you. Don't ever change.
"'Gallivanting around,'" he repeated, still chuckling to himself as he disappeared into his voluminous closet.
Elyos just shook his head, using the towel to dry off the washstand before leaving the room.
Zayven contemplated a stack of freshly laundered robes, trying to decide which of them was made of the lightest material. Even with all the windows open, it was stifling, and though the sun had gone down, the heat would linger on the streets for another few hours. This was the primary reason people advised against visiting Karchesa during Cobra Moon. Privately, he thought they were onto something, but it wouldn't do to let Jaim know he was right about too many things.
At last, he chose one that was pale blue and added a scarlet sash embroidered with gold dragonflowers. He liked the Karchesan style of dress, which was much more colorful than what was customarily worn in Talia. It might have been a spur of the moment decision to come here, but so far he was pleased with his choice.
He was still getting used to the food, though. Returning to the main room, he cast a wary eye at the breakfast tray Elyos had brought him. It was taking him some time to get used to fried bread and spicy porridge as the first meal of the day, especially when he was nursing a hangover.
But he didn't want to be read another lecture by Elyos, so he dutifully sat down to eat, hoping his stomach wouldn't reject the food outright. It seemed that he was going to be lucky. After a few moments, he was chewing happily and laboriously trying to make his way through the local paper.
He stopped when Elyos returned with the mail that had come while he slept. Not so lucky, after all.
Putting aside the last piece of crisp, golden bread, he wiped his fingers vigorously on the cloth and reached for the topmost letter. His stomach clenched when he read the address – right place, wrong person – and he sorted through the rest of the mail quickly. There was nothing else from Talia, and nothing else of import, really, including the rather large stack of bills he had already managed to amass.
Still, Zayven went through each piece of correspondence with painstaking care until at last, only the letter from his brother's steward was left.
Lord Zayven, it read, My apologies for disturbing you on your travels, but there being no one else who understands the gardens as you do, I resort to begging your indulgence on these important matters…
He smiled crookedly. Now that he was gone, there really was no one who had the least idea what to do with growing things at home. No matter how many times Zayven and the head gardener had tried pointing out the differences to him, Kaspar still couldn't differentiate weeds from flowers. In fact, Zayven was fairly sure that left to his own devices, his brother would always go the route of assuming the hardier-looking the plant, the better, which would be fairly disastrous for the formal gardens. And as for Minka…
He leapt to his feet and allowed the letter to fall to the table. Haphazardly, he ran a brush through his hair, ripping through the snarls without pause, and shoved the spare change from the side table into his pockets.
"I'll be back late," he mumbled, not meeting Elyos's gaze as he strode from the room. Had he looked back, Zayven would have seen that the older man's eyes were filled with sorrow rather than scorn.
Even in his haste to put distance between himself and his lodgings, Zayven was careful to keep track of his surroundings. He was a stranger in a strange yet wondrous city, and he knew wandering into certain districts would lose him his purse if not his life. Karchesa was massive both in size and population compared to Talia; the Grand Market alone was as large as the entire town in which he loved, and there were seven other markets in this city, though none of them were as large as the Grand Market.
When he felt that he had gone far enough, the dryness of exertion replacing the bitter ashes of regret on his tongue, he ducked into a mid-sized coffeehouse that was not entirely empty but far from crowded. After taking his order, the stolid-faced waiter came back with a small metal cup and a steaming pitcher. The cup was placed on the table, but instead of bending to pour the coffee, the man never deviated from his straight-backed stance. Keeping the pitcher a good arm's length above the table, he filled the cup with a deft flick of the wrist. Not a single drop of liquid landed on the scarred wooden table.
Zayven burned his tongue on the first impetuous sip, but he decided it was worth it as rich notes of cinnamon and chicory filled his mouth. For a time, he watched the other people in the shop discreetly, but they seemed engrossed in quiet, private conversations. No one else sat alone. When he turned his attention to passersby on the street, their bustling activity seemed to accentuate his feeling of isolated idleness.
At last, Zayven opened the leather-bound volume he had brought with him. He had been meaning to read for some time. It was more engrossing than he expected, a strange combination of commentary on the human condition coupled with densely detailed descriptions of the proper upkeep of formal gardens. The waiter came by often to fill his cup, and Zayven murmured absentminded thanks.
When he got to a section on cold climate trees, however, he sat back. It brought to mind the steward's letter and a strangely sharp desire to be home, overseeing the planting of the new silver firs himself.
"Botany, philosophy, landscape design, all of the above, or undecided?" a friendly voice broke into his thoughts.
"Pardon?" Zayven asked, looking up.
The speaker was a young man around his age of average height and build, with blond hair that had been bleached even paler by the sun. He gestured towards the volume. "Narianna's Treatise. Normally it's read by aspiring botanists, philosophers, or architects, although sometimes it's unfortunate first year students who mistook it for Naphorian's Thesis."
"I see. I'm not a student, but I'll have to go with undecided, I think." Zayven smiled crookedly.
He bowed politely. "Forgive me for interrupting you."
He was about to step away, but Zayven put out his hand. "Believe me, I consider it a favor."
"Gloomy thoughts?" The other man laughed. "Narianna can do that to you."
"Indeed. My name is Zayven."
"Kasimir," he bowed and, at Zayven's urging, took the opposite seat. "Are you Rasovinese?"
He raised his eyebrows. Rasovina bordered Talia on two sides, and thus the languages were quite similar. "Very close. I'm Talian. I take it you are a student at the university?"
Kasimir nodded. "Yes. Not linguistics, as you probably guessed. I study astronomy."
They chatted easily for awhile, and Zayven found him a pleasant conversationalist, one who made keen observations on a variety of subjects. At one point, he realized that his cup was empty and that the coffeehouse had become quite full.
"Classes are out for the day," Kasimir explained. He waved a hand at the door as a large group of noisy young men trooped in.
"Friends of yours?" Zayven asked, unsure whether he felt relief or disappointment.
"Yes. Won't you join us?"
He hesitated, but before he could respond, the crowd swooped down on them. Zayven found himself being introduced to six or seven people, all chattering away at top speed to him and to each other. Out of nowhere, it seemed, they found more chairs and drew them up to the table.
At home, he could easily have matched them word for word, but his Karchesan was not yet fluent enough to allow him to do so. He was content to answer questions when addressed, which was gratifyingly often; otherwise, he sat back to enjoy the conversations he could follow.
His waiter had been replaced by a young woman with yellow curls and a ready smile. All of the youths seemed to know her, and she handled their jokes and casual flirting skillfully. She seemed to enjoy each individual's comments but never encouraged anyone in specific; she laughed off the florid compliments without giving offense.
As her merry brown eyes seemed to meet his and his alone, Zayven's chest twinged painfully. Somehow, without realizing it, he had transformed her into someone else, someone just a bit taller with less of a curl but more gold in her hair. Her voice had become devastatingly familiar even though the words she spoke were foreign. It didn't matter to him because he had never been able to make sense of her, no matter how hard he had tried. For the boundless space of a moment, it was as if Minka had set foot in Karchesa. But her eyes weren't brown.
A/N: Many thanks for the wonderful feedback and encouragement! First appearances by Helios and Kakeru in this part. The experiment involving hospital locations and rotten meat was actually conducted by Muhammad ibn Zakariya al-Razi, also known as Rhazes, who lived in the 800-900s.