The One from the Red Shoal

After his last arrangements ended on bad terms, astronomer and sorcerer Haltolomos returns to his home city Terscepolos to recover his reputation and find a new patron for his research. However, upon his return, he happens upon an unlikely child; a twenty year old girl named Ryu masquerading as a younger boy at a slave auction. Intrigued and in need of good help, he purchases her, but finds that she is far more than the scribe he bargained for. A person of sharp intelligence and strong resolve, she may also be skilled in the same occult magics he has studied for years.

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A standalone novel set seventy years before the events of The Third Son, which is available on wattpad.com


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9. Chapter Eight - part two

The closest Lavaalipiem was two blocks away on Sixth street. Within a week of living in Terscepolos, Hal had learned how to get to this temple. He didn't even have to think, his feet taking him down each familiar street.

There was no moon, but the streetlights kept the darkness at bay. The shadows gave the air a cold bite. Haltolomos stepped up the stairs of the temple, between the columns.

The interior of the temple was closed for the night, but the columns surrounded a public altar. In the middle of the small courtyard, a stone statue swirled like tongues of fire. Between ribbons of stone, the flames of a hidden gas-lamp flickered. The main building was at the end of the courtyard, its large double doors closed.

He knelt before the altar. The edge of the stone table was decorated in bas relief with the spiralling designs of Lavaalim. Hal read the hidden calligraphy: the hearth, the home, and the state.

The surface of the altar was carved into a bowl. The wind stole the ashes of past sacrifices. He cursed when he realized he had forgotten to bring a sacrifice for Her. He tore off the part of the hem of his robe where it had already begun to fray. He placed it in the bowl and with a quick prayer set it on fire. He closed his eyes as Her energy trickled down his arm, letting the small flame lick the tips of his fingers.

Red-eyed Lavaalim, keep me from injustice, he prayed.

He remembered when he was new to magic, young and untrained. Twenty years ago, when he'd been just an adolescent and realized that his connection to fire was more than a fascination, but the attunement that connected him to Lavaalim's plane. He would call energy until he was sick, and keep practicing until his hands were numb.

Fiery Matron, protect my home and my own.

Now, energy sat at his heels like a well trained dog and came to him at the snap of his fingers. But that was the easy part. It was much harder to compose a spell, directing the energy with a language as old as time and still being specific enough that it obeyed some semblance of his original intention. If he could, he would sit and devise spells all day, lose himself in the sound of the Lavaaliades, focused entirely in what words he needed and where each strand of energy needed to be.

Queen of All Things, honor me with your fire.

He wanted his heart to stop beating so quickly. He wanted to stop feeling like someone was right behind him. He wanted to stop running.

"Haltolomos Straveim?"

Nereos was leaving the interior of the temple. The double doors closed and clicked locked behind him. A woolen scarf was wrapped around his neck, gathered just under his chin.

Hal stood. This wasn't the temple Nereos was working at. It wasn't even a Tasallapiem.

"Good evening," Haltolomos managed.

"Evening?" Nereos cocked his head to the side. His wavy black hair caught the firelight. "It's nearly midnight."

Haltolomos looked over at the street. "I should get going."

"You never gave me a chance to apologize."

"Look, Nereos." He paused, frowning. "I don't have the time for..."

"For what?" Nereos took another step forward."It seems to me that someone who needs to pray in the middle of the night must have an awful lot on his mind. Sometimes that's better with a friend. That's all."

"That's all?"

His lips slipped into half a smile. He had sleepy eyes, like a contented cat. "I swear."

"I don't have a lot of reasons to believe you."

Nereos pursed his lips to the side, thinking. "Humor me?" he asked.

Haltolomos sighed. He wasn't going back home, at least not yet. He glanced back at the altar and its flames. The goddess's energy still lingered in the air, slowly dissipating back to its original plane. He looked back at Nereos. He'd expected to be more nervous, like he had been when he was leaving Laavalipiem just three days ago, or after his nightmares. The way the altar's light hit his face reminded Hal of his installation at the temple, the fluttering light and precisely placed glass.

"Alright," he said.

"Do you have anywhere you need to be?" Nereos walked down the steps of the temple and into the street. Hal walked beside him.

"No. You?"

"Not anymore."

"What were you doing in the temple?"

"I'm sought out for a number of reasons," Nereos said. "And the overseer keeps odd hours."

The black shapes of cypress trees rustled above the tiered roofs. Only a few blocks from his apartment, they were close to the edge of the city and close to the wilderness and desert that lie beyond it. Hal wondered what such a well-sought after architect was doing in a poorer temple, but decided not to ask.

The street was all but deserted. The gas street lamps flickered in the wind. In the churning shadows, a small snake slithered between the cracks in the cement.

"Volarin," Nereos said, seeing it. "A good omen."

"They're everywhere around here." The building Haltolomos lived in kept a few snakes around to keep out the rats.

"Not superstitious?"

Haltolomos shrugged. "If They were interested in speaking to me, I'm sure They would do so more clearly than with a garden snake."

"I suppose so." Nereos cleared his throat. "So, you're an astronomer, correct?"

Hal nodded. "I was trained at the Academy of Divine Arts and Sciences." The Academy was one of the few religious institutions to have a name, since it was actually a complex of three separate temples dedicated to education. He still remembered the high, arching gates of the campus, the decorated fountains and cultivated gardens buried deep at the center of the city. It almost seemed like part of a myth, not quite real.

"Why did you leave?"

"I got an offer to work at a private Orriepiem," he said, "in Opoulos."

"And how long did that last?"

"About two years."

"It must have been nice," Nereos said, "working out there without a dozen other engineers clamoring down your throat."

Haltolomos nodded. "It was." The temple had been on a cliff by the bay. I've never felt more at home, more close to the sky.

"Then why did you leave?" Nereos asked. "Homesick?"

Hal frowned. "Something like that."

Nereos held out his arm. "May I?"

Hal nodded. Nereos slipped his arm into Hal's.

"It's cold," Nereos said. The night had gotten chilly. The nearing autumn brought a bite to the air. The city was too dry to retain heat once the sun was gone. In the distance, he heard dry trees rustling in the wind and birds calling. He could almost smell the sea.

When Hal didn't protest, Nereos put his head against Hal's shoulder. Nereos's hair still smelled like the smoke from the Lavaalipiem, sweet and heady.

"Is there anything open this late?"

"Besides a brothel?" Nereos asked.

"Maybe we should just walk."

"Oh, but you could watch me kiss strange men for money."

"You're being serious."

Nereos snorted. "Are you surprised?"

---

The Lyriepiem's windows were blocked by heavy red curtains and the door opened to a small room similarly sectioned off by rich fabrics. Lyrieus, the god of love, took many forms, but His temples tended to all provide the same service.

A young man stood by the door, pale and obviously foreign, his blond curls slicked back.

"A guest, Nereos?" he asked. "They'll be disappointed."

Nereos rolled his eyes. "This way, Haltolomos--can I call you that?"

"It's fine."

Although the parlor was large but simple. The white plaster walls were decorated with modest frescoes. A few hooded lanterns were mounted in the wall, giving the room a low, warm light. Lavish sofas sat in the corners, piled with pillows and furs.

A door in the back was slightly a jar, showing the dark hall that led deeper into the temple. There were only a few men inside, talking in hushed tones, but Haltolomos could hear whispers coming from outside the room.

"A slow night," Nereos noted. "You can sit, if you like."

"I'm fine here."

Nereos shrugged. Someone called his name and he looked over his shoulder, his black hair sliding across his neck. "Just a moment," he said.

"Who is that?"

Nereos's cocked his head to the side. "I don't actually know his name. I think I know his face." He leaned against the arm of one of the sofas and beckoned the man over.

The man kissed him, but Nereos made a show of it, sighing and arching his back. Hal saw his tongue as he sucked on the other man's top lip, saw his chest rise in a gasp as he moved down to his jaw, his neck. When he closed his eyes, his eyelashes brushed against the other man's cheek. When he sighed, his throat moved like a songbird's.

"Can I see you again?" the man asked.

"I live just downtown," Nereos said. The man nodded and left.

Leaning on the arm of the sofa, Nereos looked at Hal again. "So I didn't scare you off? That's a good thing."

Haltolomos blinked. Unsure what to say, he cleared his throat. "Well."

"He isn't actually coming home with me, if that's what you're wondering," Nereos said, "I don't do that. I'm not guaranteed protection out of the temple. It would be foolish." He gestured to one of the men who stood in the corner of the parlor. Hal noticed a dagger at his belt.

"Then why...?"

"They pay me for... the experience. He flirts, I play interested, we kiss, and when we're done, I make like I enjoyed his company oh so much that I'd love to see him again. He gropes my ass, slips a coin in my pocket. At the end of the night, the temple gets a cut of what I made. "

"If I were okay with fucking him," Nereos continued, "I would have told him to go into one of the rooms in the back of the building." He shrugged. "I'd make a better percentage if I did, or if I came here regularly, but I've already got a temple salary. It was... different before I did."

Nereos lay on the sofa, head propped up on the arm and his legs bent close to him. "Will you sit next to me?"

Haltolomos sat. The sofa was old and yielded under his weight. He leaned against Nereos' leg. Crisp night air clung to his skin, but he was surprisingly warm. Hal closed his eyes.

"I am so tired."

"Of the temples?"

"Of not sleeping."

"Oh." He paused. "Well, yes, that'll do it."

"I'm sorry. I'm not very good company right now."

Nereos sat up. He leaned closer, bending up between his knees. "What keeps you up?" he asked. "Can I help?"

"Not the way you want to."

He smiled uneasily, the corners of his lips wavering and struggling to hold up the skin beneath his blue eyes."I was going to offer you tea. But, um, alright."

"Oh." Hal blinked. Nereos looked away.

"Look, um." He paused, stumbling over his words. "I get it. At least, I think I do. What I did, the other day. It crossed a line. I don't have any excuses. I'm sorry. It won't happen again."

"I believe you." The words just slipped out. Hal blinked, surprised at himself. There was something genuine about Nereos; for the first time, he seemed unsure of himself. There was no lazy smile or lowered eye to hide his uncertainty. He sucked on the bottom of his lip for a moment. His fingers scratched at the hem of his tunic.

"Most people familiar with the temples," Nereos said, "know I work here. When someone I don't know asks for a private meeting with me, that's how it usually ends. I'm not really the type for anything long term. I didn't know you were so new to the city. Even if I did, it probably wouldn't have occurred to me that you might mind."

"I more than minded it," Hal reminded him.

"I'm sorry, I know. I'm not trying to make excuses. I regret running away, which is strange, because I hardly know you. I didn't think you would even stomach the thought of seeing me again. That bothered me more than it should have." He kept speaking, as though he weren't sure when to stop, as though if he just kept speaking, the right words might appear. "I'm making a lot of bad moves. I couldn't tell you why. Usually I'm better at this."

"Well, you've made a few right ones."

His head tilted to the side. "Have I?"

"You apologized," Hal said. "That was one. And showing me your installation at the temple, that was the first."

He smiled hesitantly. "Was it?"

Hal nodded. "And bringing me here. That's one, also."

His eyes brightened, catching the candlelight. "You like it here?"

"And asking," Hal said, "before taking my hand. That's another one."

"Oh." Nereos sighed. "Can I kiss you? If I ask?" Then his brow furrowed and he seemed to recoil. "Would that be strange? I hope it's not. Would you mind?"

Haltolomos considered it, studying Nereos's face. His lips were still flushed. His blue eyes were still dilated, almost black. He was handsome, and even more handsome here, entirely in his element, entirely at ease. He recalled how Nereos had kissed the other man. Wouldn't that be nice?

Shouldn't it be?

Dread sat like an ill weight in his stomach.

"I don't think that would be a good idea," he said. "I'm sorry."

"Don't be, please." Nereos shook his head. "How about I see you again? Would that be alright?"

"Why?" He blinked, baffled. He certainly wasn't interested in whatever Nereos was.

"I want to know what keeps you up at night. Is that strange? I don't want it to be."

"I don't think so."

"Good. That's good."

"You get breakfast on Mondays," Hal said, "Right?"

Nereos smiled. "That's right."

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