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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7. Chapter Seven

Haltolomos walked past the public altar and into the interior of the Lavaalopiem on Frenin street.

The atrium of the temple was empty, but he could hear the murmur of prayer farther back in the building, behind a closed door. A private ritual. He tried to keep his steps soft, so not to disturb them.

The temple was strangely dark--there were no lights or candles inside and the sun was obscured by the clouds. As he looked around, he noticed that the only windows were small and heavily curtained with a deep red cloth that matched the dark floor. Catching a glimpse of himself in one of the small mirrors, he saw that even his robes matched the monochromatic room. 

The wind gusted. The breeze trickled in between the columns that separated the atrium from the outside altar.

Light spilled onto the ground from the ceiling, as though filtered through rippled water. Mesmerized, Hal walked closer and saw that the rays fell in precise shapes. Symmetrical shapes radiated out from the center of the atrium. The hint of calligraphy bloomed at the edges of the glowing circle. A splash of red lingered at the center. A spectrum of color bounced off the crimson tiles and mirrored walls.

"Do you like it?"

Haltolomos turned. Nereos, the man from the other temple, lingered between the columns that separated the atrium from the public altar. The wind took the edge of his soft blue robe. A stray bit of sunlight fell on the light stitching at the hem, done in the swirling motifs of Tasallae.

"I was a little worried," he continued, "that the clouds wouldn't move and I'd find you sitting here wondering why I could possibly want to meet you here. I had them block the windows so they wouldn't interfere with the mirrors, but without the sun, it's pretty dreary."

"Did you make this?" Haltolomos asked. He blinked, remembering that he'd suggested he was already familiar with Nereos's artwork. He held out a hand and let the sunlight drip down his wrist. He could feel the light's heat down to his bones.

"I did." Nereos walked closer. He walked neatly, each foot placed precisely before the other like a cat. "It's a complex of mirrors and lenses that casts a pattern on the floor. The pattern shifts as the sun moves."

Standing next to Hal, Nereos pointed to the ceiling. Following his gesture, Hal could make out the patterned holes in the concrete ceiling, and the flash of the mirrors fixed in the structure. He couldn't even make a guess at what shapes the internal structure needed to make a pattern as complex and changeable as this.

"This must have taken years."

"Two. I worked out my method back in my first temple. That took..." His eyes narrowed and his lips pursed to the side. "Five? Five years."

"It's beautiful."

"I try." Nereos inclined his head. A small smile played at the corner of his lips. When he looked up, red and gold light was reflected in his eyes. "I know you were lying when you said you were a fan of my work. I can smell desperate from a mile away."

Haltolomos shrugged. If it had bothered Nereos, he wouldn't have agreed to meet with him in the first place. "To be fair, I researched the other men I spoke to."

"Just not me?"  He tiled his head to the side. His hair was unbound and fell against his shoulder.

"Is this what you're designing at the other temple?" Haltolomos asked. It was clear that this man was interested in him enough to entertain his company, so he was sure he could get into his good graces by asking about his work, even his original ploy hadn't quite turned out the way he wanted it to.

"Yes, something similar. I'd like the original pattern, at dawn, to represent Tasallae as the Mother, at noon the fiery rebirth of Tasallae-Lavaalos, then setting quietly into Tasallos." He paused, considering the patterns sprawled in sunlight across the floor. "I think I'm more inspired by this one, though."

"Why is that?"

"Well, it's hard to see right now since it's morning, but I worked a homage to Lyrieus into the pattern. See, Lyrieus is my patron god. I can't do that in the Tasallapiem." Though most people worshiped the entire pantheon, many people focused their prayers on the ones that best represented their beliefs.

"This isn't a temple of Lyrieus either."

"Well, I should know. But Tasallae never had an affair with the god of love and beauty." He pointed to a section of the pattern. "It's just the beginning--so the overseer won't see it unless he tries--when Lavaalos came upon the young Lyrieus and was nearly blinded by His beauty. That line right there in the pattern is a simplified adaptation from Gainoiem's poem, Upon seeing Lyrieus, Son of Hollonus."

Hal caught his eye. "Is that the part that goes, Lavaalos knew His was not the light which touches the mind, which graces the pages of a book, or falls onto the artist's canvas, as does the Mother Tasallae?"

Nereos grinned. "And His was not the fire which warms the home, which fuels the statehouse, which lights the oils of the ritual altar, as does himself Lavaalos."

"No, His is the light which traces the curve of a dancer's leg, which sits on the petals of the newborn flower, which hides in a lowered eye."

"And His is the fire which hides in a blush, which sits beneath the skin at the touch of rosy-tipped..."

His voice trailed away. Haltolomos wasn't sure what happened, except that he was closer now, so close that they were nearly touching. When Hal noticed, he stepped away, but his back was against the wall. 

"There's a small room in the back," Nereos whispered, "I still have the keys."

Nereos's hand was on Hal's hip and he leaned closer, arching against him. The tiles were so cold Haltolomos could feel them through his robes. He remembered when hands would grab him and press into his waist. He couldn't breathe.

Nereos frowned.  His thick brows knit together. "This is what you want, isn't it?"

"No?" Haltolomos managed. He could barely hear him over the sound of his own heart beating in his ears. "No. What?"

"I'm sorry." Nereos backed away.  He wrapped his arms around himself. Blood rose to his face in a red blush. "I'm sorry. I thought my reputation preceded me."

"Reputation?"

"Nevermind." He wouldn't meet Haltolomos's eyes. He shook his head, already turning away. "I should just go."  

---

Lying on the couch, Ryu held the book against her chest. The leather was warm like a living creature. She could write whatever she wanted in it, her words in her hand on her paper. It smelled like the coffee shop and felt like Demos's soft hand. She'd never owned something before.

Hal had told her to practice her characters and that they would discuss her attunement later today, but she could only think about her teacher. A woman who, somehow, left her family and kept her own job. Was that even possible? It seemed like a fable, half myth and half bedtime story.

But why? If she stayed with her family and gotten married, she could have gotten a position at a temple of higher place of learning. It was uncommon, but women were allowed to have eccentric hobbies so long as they had money, connections, and a husband. Surely that would have been better than leaving it all behind, struggling so hard she charged half of what other tutors did, just to end up teaching a pupil like Ryu.

The door opened. Haltolomos walked into the room like a burst of hot air.

Ryu sat up. "How was your--"

He walked into his bedroom and slammed the door so hard, Ryu started. She felt the sharp noise in the pit of her stomach. He was in a bad mood, obviously. She shouldn't have spoken. She closed her eyes, but she could still hear his loud footsteps as he paced his room. There was no escaping it. The scars on her back burned.

But she'd gotten him the list of contacts. She knew how to sew. She was learning her words. Surely she was useful enough. Surely she was safe. All masters eventually beat their slaves, but any man would be less willing to damage a useful tool.

Of course, that was it. That was why Demos left. There was no comfort, or skill, or job worth the loss of her freedom. She wondered if Demos felt the same. It was like a ghost trying to leave her spine. It was as though she was not herself. She wished she could be anywhere else--anyone else. 

She started again when Hal's bedroom opened. He was holding a basket full of clothes. He held the red robe he'd been wearing previously, balled up in one hand. He had thrown on a different tunic, old and wrinkled at the edges. 

"Come with me," he said. His voice was tense. He walked to the front door. 

"Weren't you going to teach me, sir?" Ryu asked, remembering how excited he was the last time he'd spoken of it. 

"Not now." He paused, fishing in his pocket for his key. 

"Sir?"

He didn't look behind him as he left the apartment. She scrambled up and went to follow him down the stairs. He led her silently past the small altar to the Domos, the household gods, at the bottom of the building, and out the back door. 

There was a small alley between the back of this apartment building and a wall cutting off the nearby hill. The street gave way to hard sand and large puddles. When Ryu looked up, she could see the feet of people walking by on the hill. A few rusted pipe jutted out of the wall. Old water gushed out white and fell into a mixture of grime, refuse and sand before finally trickling into the sewer drain. 

A character was carved into the brick beside the pipe--its simple curves reminiscent of the god of calm seas and rainwater--along with the numerals denoting the local Hollopiem's location. A richer temple might provide grand fountains or clever grotesques to offer water onto delicately paved streets. Ryu had seen them a few times when her last master traveled through that part of the city.

There was another person in the alley. Wearing a light tunic and skirt, she was tall and dark. Gray hairs curled at the tips of her ears, but her otherwise black hair fell down to the middle of her back, barely contained by a brown tie. Her long fingers worked water through a wicker basket of cloth. Her blue eyes flashed to the side as Haltolomos walked past.

"And where have you been?"

"Good afternoon to you, too, Michem."

"And who is this?"

"Ryu, this is Michem. Michem, this is Ryu."

The woman squinted. "A slave boy?"

"It's not like that." Haltolomos went to stand by one of the pipes. Ryu debated asking if he wanted her to help, but it seemed like he was on the verge of snapping at her. She watched the people on the street above walk past.

"I didn't say it was." Michem rolled her eyes. "He's pretty, though."

Ryu heard Haltolomos sigh over the soft sucking sound of wet clothes. She didn't want to do something to get his attention, but if he was in such a bad mood, that was inevitable. 

"He's not in a good mood, is he?" Michem asked. 

"Of course he's not," Ryu said, "some thief got in. Tore up the room."

Michem paused, looking over her shoulder at Ryu. Ryu wanted to squirm under her gaze.

"You have quite the storyteller here, Hal," she said, going back to her laundry. "Reminds me of my son."

Ryu frowned. Why hadn't it worked? She grit her teeth and studied the ground. Water welled up between her toes. She wondered if her master had noticed that she'd forgotten her sandals. 

"Yes," Haltolomos said, an odd tone to his voice. "I know."

When she looked up again, Haltolomos was studying her, brows furrowed. She wanted to crawl into a hole. 

 "Excuse me, Michem," Haltolomos said. He turned and and took Ryu by the shoulder.

"Yeah, sure," Michem said from behind them. "Just leave this here. I'm sure no one will steal it."

Haltolomos pulled her back into the building, in the space behind the staircase. It was dark and the air still smelled damp, like mold and rainwater. Ryu felt her skin crawl. Fear dropped into her gut and made her feet itch with the need to run. She didn't want to meet Hal's eyes, so she peered around him, to see if there was anyone else inside who could see her. She met the eyes hidden in the design of the Domos altar and shuddered.

"If you want me to talk to you about plane theory," Haltolomos said, "you just have to ask."

 

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