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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11. Chapter Nine - part two

Ryu followed Demos to a small shop. It was closed, a large sign placed in front of the door for the night.

"Around back," Demos said, picking her way over the broken cobblestones and the plants that grew in the accumulating dirt between buildings. Ryu could smell water and saw moonlight reflected against a small trickle of water. A tall bramble tickled her nose.

Behind the shop was a square opening, covered by a red curtain.

"No door?" Ryu asked.

Demos snorted and pushed the old cloth out of the way. Ryu followed her in.

The backroom was small and dark. The air was thick with the smell of silt and old rain. Ryu stood by the doorway as Demos picked her way through the shadows. Some rustled. A drawer opened and then shut with a faint click. A match hissed as Demos lit a candle. Its light bounced off the curtain. The walls blushed with its soft red glow.

A bed made of a few cushions and a light blanket was nestled in one corner. In another, she kept a woven basket of her clothes, neatly folded and stacked, and a drawer. Portions of old quilted cloth and torn embroidery were hung haphazardly on the brick walls. It reminded Ryu of a magpie's nest.

"You can sit," Demos said, going through one of her drawers.

Ryu looked around and decided to sit on one of the pillows. The straw inside made a soft sound beneath her. "Demos--"

"You can call me Nikureh," she said. "I'm not teaching you."

Ryu paused. "Nikureh..." she let the name slide off her tongue slowly. "Did Haltolomos send you?"

Nikureh shook her head, kneeling beside Ryu. She held a bottle in one hand and some cloth in another. She worked at the bottle's cork. "He wouldn't even tell me that you were gone."

Ryu frowned. "Why did you come, then?"

"Because I thought that you might be in danger," she said. "Can I see your hand?"

After a second of hesitation, Ryu peeled her hand away from where she held it against her chest. The blood stuck to her tunic, making the cloth stick to her skin. She cringed. In the dim light, her blood was black and the torn skin around the edges of her wound were ragged and purple. Some dirt from the ground clung to her palm. Nikureh held her hand gently, the tips of her fingers just touching Ryu's wrist.

Nikureh poured some of the alcohol onto the cloth and pressed the rag against the wound. Ryu hissed and looked away. The stinging pain radiated up her arm.

"Sorry," Nikureh said, cringing. "I'm not a doctor, but I know one. I could bring you to her tomorrow."

"I'm fine."

"No, you're not." Her hand lingered on Ryu's arm. Her skin was hard with callouses, but warm. Ryu saw a black smudge on her index finger. An ink stain. 

Ryu shrugged. "It's not my right hand. I can still write."

Nikureh bit her lip, still eyeing Ryu's hand. "Did he hurt you anywhere else?"

The scratches on Ryu's shoulders and knees burned. The soreness in her stomach told her she was going to bruise by tomorrow. "No."

Nikureh's eyes narrowed. Ryu avoided her gaze.

"How did you find me?"

Nikureh rose to put the bottle of alcohol back in her drawer, her back to Ryu. There was dirt in her dark hair and dust stains on her skirt. Ryu looked away, guilt festering in her throat. Why was Nikureh going to all this trouble? 

  "A lady told me you had left," Nikureh said.   

Ryu started. "Michem?"

"Is that her name?" Nikureh shrugged. "I asked around for you. No one knew your name, but some remembered your face. Most remembered the man following you, asking the same questions. That's when I got nervous. What did he want?"

Ryu shook her head and looked away. "I don't know."

"Are you mixed up in something dangerous?" she asked. Ryu noticed her eyes weren't brown, but a dark honey yellow. "I don't want you to get hurt."

"It's not me. I don't know what he wants."

Ryu glanced at the entrance. Rays of faint moonlight slipped around the edges of the curtain and fell on white streaks across the concrete floor. Maybe this time she would get out of the city entirely. She didn't know what mess her current master was wrapped up in, but she certainly didn't want to find out.

But this was the only place she knew. Everything she knew about her home, her language, and her culture were pieces gleaned from the slaves kind enough to teach her, and the man who had helped her pick out a boy's name for herself. Whatever she could call a home--whatever fragments she held of her brief childhood--had all been stolen from her when she was taken.

She couldn't even go to her only friends in the city--the slaves still owned by her previous master--because she would immediately be revealed as a runaway. After all, that was the reason he sold her in the first place. He was tired of hunting her down, of dragging her back to his estate, of beating her back bloody until she promised she would never leave again.

"For what it's worth," Nikureh said, "I think you should go back."

Ryu blinked. "What?"

"Haltolomos isn't a bad man. I don't think he'll hurt you for running away, and he's smart. I've seen his name in books. His studies are published, in libraries, taught at the academy."

"Yeah, well," Ryu said, "I've seen him try to hem a tunic backwards and get kicked out of at least five temples."

Nikureh frowned, biting the side of her lip. "But you understand my point."

"No, I don't. You left your family because you refused to be trapped. Why shouldn't I do the same?"

Nikureh bit her lip again. Her eyes were downcast, her lashes shadowing them from the candle light.

"Ryu," she said, "when I was a child, I wanted to teach at an academy. I wanted to wander through libraries larger than I could even imagine, and read old, ancient texts that no one has even heard of. And I'm living in a shack behind a shop, going through store records and teaching bored children their characters. Sometimes it takes me a month to afford a new book."

The book Nikureh had given her burned against her chest. "So you regret it?"

She looked up sharply. "It's not as simple as that."

"Isn't it?" She couldn't believe she'd let herself look up to her, let herself make a decision based on--what? A gift and a few reading lessons? 

Nikureh's back straightened and her jaw rose. "I did--and still do--what I have to to survive. Don't you dare think you can judge me for the doubts and choices that are inflicted on me by the same men who enslave you."

Ryu blinked. "I'm... I'm sorry."

"Look," Nikureh said, "it's your choice. It should always be your choice. But its obvious that you aren't safe."

But it's because of him! Ryu shifted her weight, uncomfortable as the words stuck in her throat. If she went back to Haltolomos, she'd have to deal with the man who ambushed her in the alley. He knew where she lived. He'd proven fully capable of following her without detection. The thought of seeing him again made her stomach tie itself in knots. The man thought that if she ran, he could find her, but she knew he was wrong. She could get away, if she tried, and ignore whatever it was that Haltolomos had gotten himself into.   

A burst of wind made the curtain billow into the room. Nikureh shivered, wrapping her arms around herself. 

"I wish I had some clothes to offer you," she said, "that aren't covered in blood. All I have are woman's clothes."

"That's alright." The thought of wearing one of Nikureh's skirts made her heart race. She couldn't remember the last time she'd worn a skirt.  

"You can stay here at least, until the morning, if you want."

Ryu looked outside again. Her feet ached. "That would be nice."

Nikureh stood and blew out the candle sitting on the drawer. When she walked back, she slipped between the shifting rays of moonlight and shadow. The white light fell on her face, her bright eyes and dark hair. 

She knelt by her makeshift bed, pushing some of the pillows to the side."There should be enough room."

"I'm fine on the floor."

"No, you're not." Nikureh forced a blanket into Ryu's hand. "You know, I care about you."

"Why?"

"Because you're smart," she said. She slipped a blanket over her shoulders, trying to keep the cold, night air out. "And you're clever. And you think I can't tell that you enjoy learning, but I know you do. I'm sorry I snapped. Maybe I want you to go back to Haltolomos so I can keep teaching you. I don't know."

"I don't think that's it."

"Don't you?" Nikureh's brow furrowed. "You thought I tried to find you because Haltolomos sent me. It didn't even cross your mind once that someone might have your interests at heart, rather than their own. And I can't say that's a bad assumption to make, but it must be a lonely one."

Ryu ran her fingers through the blanket. It was old and made of scratchy wool, but still thick. "Well, I'm still alive."

"You should get some sleep." She settled down in her bed, turning over so her back was to Ryu and pulling her thin blanket up to her shoulders. 

Ryu lay next to her. She could hear Nikureh breathe softly, like the wind sighing in the distance. In the dark, she could only make out the faint gleam of her curly hair, which had fallen over her face, and the whites of her nails. She wondered what it might be like, to stay here, where it was warm and dark and hidden. 

The cold wind lapped up against her back like an insistent cat, begging to be let in  Ryu pressed a little closer to Nikureh careful not to touch her. Even from underneath her blanket, she could feel the faint heat of her body. 

 

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