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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10. Chapter Nine - part one

As Nikureh passed the altar at the bottom of the stairwell, she muttered a prayer and bowed her head. She could smell the milk left there last night by some pious resident. She could feel the eye motifs in the edges of the relief staring at her as she walked up the stairs. Her skirts swished around her ankles.

This building was only slightly nicer than where she lived, a small room rented out of the back of a small potter's store. There was very little dust in the corners of the stairs. She couldn't spot a single mouse and even saw a few holes in the walls where the house snakes lived. But she could also hear the ever-present muttering of all of its residents. If anything, she enjoyed the solitude of her small home.

When she got to Haltolomos's door, she knocked and waited for him to answer, hoping he was home. When he did, his short hair was unkempt and dark bags hung under his eyes. He looked her up and down, as though unfamiliar with her.

"Hello, Haltolomos?" she asked.

He blinked, dark brow furrowed. "Yes?"

"I was just wondering if I was still under your employ." Nikureh frowned. "Ryu didn't show up today."

"We won't be needing your services anymore."

"Well, um, is he here?" She wrung her hands and tried to peer past him. He was much taller than her and took up most of the narrow doorway. All she could make out was the cracked plaster by the threshold and the midday light streaming in from the window.

"Miss Demos, you should leave."

His tone struck a nerve in her. She felt it deep in her chest, an uncomfortable tightness. She sucked in a breath and raised her jaw. "With all due respect, Straveim, Ryu is a very bright person and it would be a shame--"

"Miss Demos." Haltolomos leaned in. "I don't think either of us need to give a shit where Ryu is. Do you understand?"

She clenched her fists at her side, her nails feeling the gaps between the threads of her dress.

"Have a good day," Haltolomos said as he closed the door.

She closed her eyes, letting out a tense breath. In the end, Ryu was a slave and Haltolomos was his master. The thought made Nikureh clench her jaw. Why had she thought Haltolomos might be any different than other men? That he might, in some disturbed way, respect Ryu as a person? He'd brought him to lessons sheerly because it would benefit him to have a smart slave, and for no other reason.

And now, suddenly, it wasn't so profitable. She didn't know why or how, and she never would.

She shook her head. She couldn't dwell on it. She'd had a meeting with another client, going over their records and checking the arithmetic, and another after that teaching a painter's son how to scan modern poetry.

With every job she took, she hoped just maybe one of her clients might suggest her to someone more well-of, someone with the money to house her as a governess for a few children. Surely that would be better than this. Sometimes she couldn't help but think she'd escaped the clutches of one slavery just to fall into another.

She sighed and started to walk back down the stairs when another door on the landing opened. A woman walked out, with coarse black hair and wearing a strict gray tunic. She brushed past Nikureh without so much as a side glance. 

Nikureh hurried after her. "Excuse me?"

The woman stopped and looked over her shoulder. One gray eyebrow arched over her steely eyes.

"Child, I'm busy--"

"I was just wondering if you knew the man in the room there?" She pointed to Haltolomos's door, though it was shut now. 

"Hal?" She snorted a bark of a laugh that made Nikureh cringe. "Yeah, yeah, you could say that."

"Did you know his slave?" she pressed. "Ryu?"

The woman hesitated a moment, eyes narrowed. "What is it to you?"

"I was teaching him," Nikureh said. "And now Haltolomos won't let me see him."

"Oh." Her harsh face softened for a moment, her mouth pulling into a sympathetic frown. "Child, he's gone."

Nikureh started. "Gone?"

The woman shrugged. "Left while Hal was out last night."

Her eyes went wide. "That's why he seemed so angry."

"He'll get over it." She laughed and turned, heading back down the stairs. Her sandals clicked loudly against the stairs. 

"Wait."

She stopped, shoulders falling with a sigh. "Yes, child?"

"Do you know where Ryu went?"

"How would I know?"

"But why didn't you stop him?"

She finally turned again, her thick hair falling over her shoulder like a bristling cat's. "Because it's not any of my business, girl, and it's not any of yours either." 

This time, when she left, Nikureh made no effort to stop her. She listened as her loud, commanding footsteps descended the tall building and left into the street. 

Nikureh leaned against the wall of the stairwell. She couldn't help the nervousness that played in her bones. Ryu was only a kid, but he was a slave. He was used to poverty, to poor treatment. Surely he'd been on the streets before, and had survived.  Like the woman said, it wasn't any of her business. She didn't have any reason to worry.

Did she?

She hurried down the stairs.

---

It was a dry night, but the night was beginning to cool. Ryu pulled her toga closer around herself. She'd spent one of the denarii yesterday on food, but she was used to sleeping outside. She was used to going without foot, or clean clothes. But the chill in the air made her worry. Nights were always the hardest in the desert. The money that clinked in her pocket was far more than she'd ever owned at one time.

She still hadn't found a shop willing to buy the watch she had taken. The first she had tried assumed she had stolen, because it was so rich looking, and threatened to turn her into the local prefect. She'd run so far from him that her feet still hurt.

But now the cold of the stone street was pleasant against the soles of her feet. In the quiet of the night, she could only hear small sounds, birds calling at the edge of the wilderness, the soft swish of the wind, the distant patter of footsteps. On the other side of the street, she saw a pair of black-eared cats, staring at her with yellow eyes. Were they the same cats she had seen during her lesson with Miss Demos?

She turned away. She should have been looking for somewhere to sleep, but she was too restless to think about resting, even though her legs were beginning to protest and the ache in her back grew. She walked past the next alley, turning with the street.

Someone took her by the neck. She opened her mouth to scream, but his hand was already over her mouth. She tasted dust and old leather and wanted to vomit. He pinned her against the wall of the alley, driving the air from her lungs. He was pale, with a square jaw and brown hair. He was so close that his nose nearly touched hers, and he held her so high up that her toes could barely scrape against the grimy ground.

"We'll make this quick, kid."

The stone of the building dug into her shoulders. A knot of fear twisted in her stomach. She'd seen this happen to some of her friends.Somewhere taken by the wrist, twisted around screaming as they were dragged off into the master's house. Others were taken quietly, with just a word and a gesture. Ryu had always been smaller, looked over, ignored, and easily forgotten.

Not now, not now, please, not now.

What would he think when he saw that she wasn't a man? Would he think that she was lying to him, trying to trick him? People were killed for that. She could see herself, lying on the ground, her blood pooling in the dips of the street.

"The building you came from last night," he said. "Does a man named Haltolomos Straveim live there?"

She struggled to take a breath in his rough grip. "Excuse me?"

"Do you know him?"

She blinked, confused. What did he want with her master? "Who?"

"Have you seen him?"

"I don't know, I don't know. I just scrub the floors, I swear." She struggled in his grip. The bricks scratched her skin. The watch and coins in her pocket hit the wall behind her with a hard, metallic ring. 

His hand reached into her pocket. She squeezed her eyes shut as she felt his hand against the side of her hip, but all he did was pull out the watch. His eyes widened as the watch caught the pale moonlight. For a moment,his face lost the intimidating snarl, caught somewhere in blank surprise.

"Where did you get this?" he asked, showing his teeth once more.

"Why would you want to know?"

He shoved his elbow into her stomach. She gasped, a nauseating pain radiating through her body. She gasped, trying the breathe. "What are you?" he asked. "Haltolomos's new boy?"

It took all her strength to spit. "No."

"Then why would he give you this?"

She didn't know why he was asking such strange questions, but she shook her head anyway. Her short hair hit her cheeks. "I don't understand. I pawned it off some girl in--"

"Fucking little liar. This is property of the Flovos's. Do you think you can lie that away?"

"I didn't know. It's just a watch. I didn't know who--"

He threw her to the side. She landed on the ground badly, the air rushing from her lungs when her rib cage collided with the pavement. She leaned against her hands, trying to catch her breath. 

Out of the corner of her eye, she saw the man, standing with the straight, clean posture of a nobleman and cloaked heavily in a deep blue cloak. She startled and tried to pull away from him, out of the alley.

He snorted, making a phlegmy sound deep in his throat. He took a pipe out of his pocket and lit it with a match. He looked at her briefly."Disgusting," he said, smoke slithering out of his mouth."Do you really think I'd want to be anywhere near your backward ass, slave? Huh? Is that what you're afraid of?"

She scrambled to stand, but his heavy boot landed on her hand. She cried out, pain radiating down her arm. He knelt down beside her. She could feel the bones in her hand shift under his foot. She could smell fire and cloves on his breath. The smoke burned her eyes.

"Here's how this is going to work, kid," he said. "You're going to go back to that building. You're going to find Haltolomos, whether you know him now or not. And when you have, we'll see each other again. Don't you dare leave, because I can, and I will--"

"Let him go."

Ryu strained to look up. It was Demos, holding a dagger in both hands, thrust in front of herself. Her skirts were dirty and ripped at the hems, and her headdress had slipped off, revealing her curly black hair, now covered in dust. 

The man grinned, pulling at the white skin beside his eyes. He stood, his hands held up. "We're finished anyway, doll." 

As he walked past her, he let his hand brush against her shoulder. She rounded away from him, drew her lips back, and spat on the ground he walked on. 

Ryu pushed herself up to her knees and cradled her had against her chest. She wasn't sure how badly it was hurt. The skin felt hot and slick with blood. She looked up and met Demos's eyes, black and catching the moonlight. The teacher knelt beside her, holding out a hand.

"Are you okay?" Her eyes were wide and her lips were slightly agape. 

Ryu shied away. What if she'd been hired by Haltolomos? After all, without her and her master, Demos was out of the job. "How did you find me?" she asked.

"Why don't we go somewhere else?" she asked. "I'll tell you, I promise."

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