The explosion knocked Zho into the wall of the basement laboratory, making his sensitive ears ring. Blinking out the grit of the alchemical salts that had blown into his eyes, he saw Beryl standing in the doorway, drawn by the noise. Her lips moved, but he couldn’t hear what she said.
It’s the salts, I know it! he thought. All I did was touch them to the flame and they went off like Vudran dragon powder! – but that flash of purple… He didn’t have time to finish the thought as doctor Sever rushed downstairs into the basement; brushing his daughter aside, he grabbed Zho by the lapels of his lab coat. Zho’s hearing returned all too quickly.
“What do you think you’re doing? Playing games down here?!” Sever shook him. The doctor’s reach didn’t stop at the lapels and he grabbed the half-elf’s long ears to pull him to his feet. Zho turned red, more from embarrassment at his abuse in front of Beryl than from the pain.
“The sa-salts,” he stammered, but Sever wasn’t listening.
“I have to present my findings to the Morbidium in two days, and you’re down here making Tian fireworks! All I asked was that you prepare the mixtures I needed from the chart!” Gesturing at the burnt parchment that had once been a chart, Sever pursed his lips and gave Zho the fish eye.
“I can’t impress on you enough the importance of this colloquium. If my findings are accepted by my colleagues I’ll be a credit to Lord Fairfallow. I needn’t remind you his lordship needs all the goodwill and credit we can lend him as he goes before the Court.”
Zho nodded. Lord Fairfallow was at the Umbral Court in Pangolais to defend a case brought by a rival lord, but he doubted Sever’s experiment for the Morbidium of Exquisite Surgeons had any bearing on it.
“It would be shameful if all our efforts were for naught, simply because you, a half-bred foreigner, blew up my laboratory!”
Zho stared straight ahead and tried to control his voice. “I didn’t do that, sir. I caused a small thermal reaction because the salts were bad. They turned purple under heat.”
Zho nodded. “The hydradite mixed properly, but when I added the medusidium it exploded.”
Sever frowned. “We only got that shipment in yesterday.” He shook his head in frustration. “There’s another box at Fairfallow’s warehouse. Go fetch it.”
Zho glanced towards the doorway. Beryl still stood on the top step leading into the basement, her hourglass figure silhouetted against the rare shaft of late afternoon light that managed to sneak past Nisroch’s customary gloom.
“It’s almost evening, sir.”
Sever scowled and tapped his foot impatiently. “I don’t care when you get it, just don’t come back without it!” He turned and stomped back up the rickety staircase; Beryl melted into the shadows as he passed. Sever turned in the doorway. “And if you don’t have my mixtures by Wealday, don’t come back at all!”
Zho slouched once Sever was out of sight. He picked pieces of glass from his gloves and was reaching for a broom to sweep up when he felt Beryl’s presence beside him. She was as quiet as a shadow and as difficult to spot, but Zho’s elvish heritage helped him see better in gloom than most men. Shivers ran up his spine as she stood close to him.
“Please get the mixtures right next time,” she whispered. He saw the tiny scars above her perfectly arched lips tremble. “It won’t really attract Lord Fairfallow’s attention, that’s just father’s conceit, but if his experiment fails…” Her dark eyes blinked back tears. “Father is too old to seek another sponsor, or incur his lordship’s displeasure.”
The words of comfort Zho wanted to say stuck in his throat; he reached out his hand but Beryl was already disappearing through the doorway into the gloom of Sever’s Graveside manor. Zho gave the broom an angry push; he had cleaned the lab that morning and now it was a mess; worse, he’d wrecked yet another chance to speak to Beryl privately.
The sky was an angry red welt by the time he finished cleaning. Grabbing his hooded cloak, Zho dashed outside; he had to cross the bridge to Southbank before nightfall or the portcullis would descend, trapping him in Graveside without permission. He joined the press of southsiders hurrying back across the river Usk to their hovels and tenements. Guards at each end of the bridge checked the workers’ writs of patronage, making sure each was permitted to be on Nisroch’s exclusive north bank.
The guard who examined Zho’s writ looked at him queerly. Zho flashed the heraldic badge pinned to his cloak: a shield embossed with a skeleton holding a shaft of wheat.
“I’m one of Lord Fairfallow’s men.”
The guard snorted. “Half-elf, you mean.” Zho turned crimson – his hood had fallen and revealed his ears.
“Where are you headed?”
The guard handed back his parchment and waved him on. A clap of thunder boomed over the Usk. Storm clouds overhead unloaded their burden of rain as Zho covered his ears and hurried across the bridge.
* * *
“He looked at me like I was muck beneath his feet!”
Zho sat in a corner of the Glut and Gallows, nursing an ale and complaining to his friend, an old salt and troubadour nicknamed Rummy. Zho removed a slim gold medallion on a chain from beneath his collar.
“Do you see this?” Rummy stopped playing a tune on his battered concertina and shushed him while looking wildly around.
“Put that away! You want to be killed?” The tavern was nearly empty of its usual rowdy crowd of sailors and stevedores. The pirate brigs sailed on the midnight tide to avoid Chelish warships, and landlubbers with any sense were holed up for the night; people outside after dark often fell prey to Nisroch’s nocturnal monsters or the depredations of their fellow Nisrochis. That left drunks, the dangerous, and the foolish to patronize the Gallows.
Zho paid no attention to Rummy’s shushing and shoved the medal, inscribed with fine Kelesh lettering, in his face. “This is for my work at the Veniccan College in Katheer, given to me by an emissary of the Satrap of Qadira!”
Rummy waved it away. “I’ve seen it before. It don’t make a lick of difference here.”
Zho sat up straighter. “It got me my job with doctor Sever!” He shoved the remnant of his pride back down his collar and slouched over his drink. “But it hasn’t done me any good since. What it says doesn’t matter; I’m just a foreign half-breed in Nidal.” He sighed. “I thought Nisrochis wouldn’t care, that they’d notice my talent and not my ears.”
He pulled fitfully on his ears, the most visible sign of his heritage. “Maybe I should ask the Kuthites to chop them off.”
Rummy rolled his eyes; the Kuthites, followers of the dark god Zon-Kuthon, were experts at dismemberment. “Ask them to go ahead and blind you too, while they’re at it.” He squeezed the bellows and started a waltz; at this hour he wouldn’t earn a copper, but his music had magic to lifted men’s spirits; Zho needed that more than anyone.
“Saw Beryl again today, did you?”
The way Zho groaned and hit his head against the table confirmed Rummy’s suspicion.
“Why do you want that dour girl, anyway? If I had your looks and my old sea legs I’d be on the next ship to Jalmeray; the world’s most beautiful wenches live there.” He stomped his peg leg on the floor for emphasis.
Zho shook his head. Rummy had deserted the Chelish navy without rising even to midshipman; he couldn’t understand how Qadiran nepotism and Nidalese xenophobia had cruelly thwarted Zho’s ambitions as an alchemist. Beryl might understand, but Zho couldn’t talk to her; each time he tried his tongue turned to stone. He wanted to concoct a potion of glibness that would enable him to speak to her, but Sever’s demands left too little time to realize even that small dream.
Rummy saw that he had touched a raw nerve. “Tell you what; I’ll go with you tomorrow and keep your company while you test the salts, eh?” Zho gave him a weak smile.
“After all,” Rummy continued, “someone has to look after fools and drunkards. With Cayden Cailean a deity non grata in Nidal, we’d best look after ourselves.”