Peraise was, and still is, a town that one smelled long before one saw. Most of the town’s construction clung to a tiny stretch of river, no longer than 150 yards, at the top of a tall, roaring waterfall, and at the bottom of a yet taller waterfall. The river, the Orlan Blue, ran northwest to southeast in this stretch, a kink in the river’s larger south-to-north arc from the Titan Ridge to the Middle Sea. Here, at Peraise, was where it tumbled down from the Orlan midlands and began its journey through the valley below us, winding along at the foot of the Eastern Ivian Rim.
This nexus of geographical elements was a blessing and a curse for the town of Peraise. It overlooked a lush valley whose mighty conifers were so far below that they looked like a soft, textured quilt laid over an undulating floor. And the mammoth, frosted ridge that thrust up on the opposite side of the valley was no less spectacular. But the valley floor being so far below, inaccessible by road, meant that Peraise’s famous tanneries could not locate themselves downriver.
About half the buildings in Peraise were dedicated to the twin trades of hunting and tanning, and the stench of fresh gore, putrefaction, and a variety of astringent odors thrown off by various scouring and softening agents wafted far downwind. Unfortunately for us, our approach was downwind. Naht held his nose, seeming to pinch his entire face with the effort, while we walked the narrowing road along the cliffside to the little town.
The light was beginning to retreat over the edge of the eastern cliffside as the late afternoon sun settled into the treeline overlooking the west end of the town, and Peraise was alive with activity beneath the comforting aural press of the waterfall. Tanners, their aprons, arms, and faces filthy with a long day’s effort, hauled hides in various states of artificial decay and preservation between vats. Husbands and wives mended tools and fussed over draft animals. A shepherd leaned against a rock, minding a tiny herd of sheep across the river.
Before the town stood a young man wearing a beat-up, coarse leather apron that hung to his knees, a similarly worn sleeved shirt with golden-edged cuffs mangled with use, and a pristine, velvety purple mantle. His hair was drawn back into a golden ponytail, and his smiling green eyes were set like cut gemstones into high cheekbones and a narrow chin.
We stopped for Mal to introduce us while I glanced over the man’s shoulder. The shepherd was staring at us. A kilted woman nearly dropped a stack of hides doing a double-take as she passed between buildings.
“Howe. This is Sandron. Sandron, this is Horwendell, and this is Aalduzinaht.”
Mal brought Naht forward with a gentle hand on the shoulder. The three of us traded shallow bows.
“Welcome to Peraise, brothers.” His eyes darted to mine, which had drifted back out to the leering shepherd. “Please, come in to the Academy. I’m sure you need some rest.”
When we locked eyes again, it struck me how much Sandron had just said, first in four words, and then in twelve more. Realizing I couldn’t hope to outdo him on that front, I gave a silent nod, and we hurried into the town, braving the glares of passerby. Sandron wove us a path through the village, avoiding stacked goods and traffic, and we turned the corner into a doorway flanked with speckled granite columns.
Mal pulled the carved spruce door closed behind us, the impressive rush of the waterfall became a soft drumroll, and we were bathed in darkness. I could make out some footsteps and then some scraping and a whoosh as Sandron poked at a fireplace until the hidden embers sprang back to life, flames grasping at the fresh air.
The Academy here had a small footprint, but a high, arched wooden ribcage of a ceiling lent it its due authority. The bookshelves were stuffed with a colorful collection of mismatched and oddly-sized tomes—not quite the rigid, stately regularity of the ideal Academy library, but impressive for one this far into the countryside. A few rows of pews faced a lectern, carved with an icon of Ae, depicted in the classical tradition: bearing a spear, a shield, a horsehair crested helm, and armor.
Sandron ducked over to a credenza behind the lectern, retrieving from it some biscuits and a pitcher of milk to share. As he offered the milk to Naht, I broke the silence.
“This is very generous of you, friend, I kn…”
“The milk? Ah, just hospitality.”
“No,” I chuckled. “You know what I’m talking about. Meeting us out front.”
“No, I… don’t know what you mean.”
Mal leaned back in a pew, regarding this exchange with amusement. Naht was nibbling on a biscuit, probably confused but trying to hide it.
“Sandron, don’t be silly. If we had simply waltzed into town, we’d have to explain ourselves and our companion. I don’t know that just anyone would welcome Naht. By coming out to meet us, you made it clear we were guests. You shielded us with your reputation.”
Sandron stroked his bare chin, his eyes seeming to flash in the firelight as they regarded me.
“No, I did it because that’s how we greet guests. And you have nothing to worry about from the others. The boy is welcome. But… I think I see your meaning now.”
“I told you,” Mal chimed in between bites of biscuit. “You’re too cynical, Howe.”
“So!” declared Sandron with a clap of his hands, as if that were that. “Welcome to Ae’s house. You may stay under this roof as long as you need. But Malisa tells me you’ll be going soon. Can I help? Can we help?”
I stared. We, of course, referred to the College of Apostles. What he was offering was the help of thousands of people across the seven kingdoms, from little academies like this to prestigious universities like the Argate and even out to tiny missions in faraway lands. He was offering centuries of wisdom, authority, relationships, and accrued knowledge. He was offering the resources of a cross-continental organization commanded by a living god. And it’s possible that making good on this offer would come at great personal cost to him—not all of the prominent voices in the College would look kindly upon aid freely given to a strange Accursed child.
Maybe he was being polite, and he didn’t mean quite that. But I thought he seemed moved. I wondered what Mal had said to him when she had arrived before us.
“Sandron, you are very generous.” Before he could say something else nauseatingly good-natured, I rumbled on. “We should stay here, but not much longer than it will take to plan our journey. I… do have some favors to ask of you.”
With that, we got to work. Sandron, Mal, and I huddled over a map of the seven kingdoms he rolled out over the lectern. At first Naht swung his legs on one of the pews, but eventually he slid off and started musing around the library. Sandron’s eyes flicked up from time to time, but he seemed satisfied with the level of respect that Naht was according his collection.
After a few hours, we settled on a plan.
In spite of my misgivings, we committed to seeking out the court of the Emperor. Sandron had briefly argued the point, too—if the Emperor was capable of the transmutation of souls, shouldn’t Ae be capable of it, too? Both were living gods whose magic condensed onto the world as naturally as a person’s breath on a cold day. And Ae was far closer, and she was not situated in a court of a culture that was, frankly, utterly alien to us. I, on the other hand, was skeptical that either of them were capable of this magic at all. There are limits to even a god’s power. But Mal had us both on this point. The legends claimed that the Emperor transformed his highest ranking officials into imperious, awesome half-dragons (the Lóng) who bore his visage and administered his realm. Ae figured in no such legends. And seeking an audience with her was going to be as difficult as crossing the middle sea. The same might be true of the Emperor, but all told, our efforts seemed best spent chasing our only lead—the legend of the Lóng—rather than not chasing our only lead.
The Emperor’s court was in the Imperial City deep in the heartland of his Empire. We would need to reach the northern continent by way of ship and then journey perhaps a thousand miles inland to reach it to have any hope of making contact with the Emperor. But we knew little of the geography of the north. It seemed wisest to simply choose a port of arrival close to the heartland and then figure out from there, closer to the facts at hand, how to traverse the rest of the distance. That port, we decided, was the one labeled on our map as Shouning.
Our port of departure would be Mirta’s Staithe at the north end of the kingdom of East Arc. Our route there would be simple, but challenging: follow the Orlan Blue. We would need to take the road north of Peraise for about a week as we came down from the midlands, and then after reaching the bustling little city of Épineuil we could break off of to the east until we met the Orlan Blue at the foot of the Eastern Ivian Rim. There, we would find a smaller, rougher road that followed the river as it snaked to the north. It was to be hoped that we could find and board a river ship or ferries carrying harvest shipments to speed our passage. All the same, it could take us a few weeks on the river to pass into East Arc and travel the entire length of the kingdom to reach the port. Fortunately, most of the river was heavily populated, and the riverside roads improved with the increasing latitude.
With that decided on, Sandron reiterated his offer to help, and I asked my favors.
“Does your collection here have anything about the Empire?”
“Certainly.” Sandron sidled over to one of the tall bookcases and browsed over some of the spines until he found three in a row of the same height, shape, and leathery grain, dyed in red, black, and green. “These. The History, the Logos, and the Astronomy of the North.”
I frowned. “Hmm. I take it these are written by…”
“Apostles, yes, I’m afraid. If you want writing from the northerners’ own perspective, it’ll be written in Yǔwén. We only have High Ivian and Orlan language works in this collection.”
“I was afraid of that. Thank you. May I…?”
“Borrow them for the journey? Of course. Try to return them to the College. We have a mission in Shizuishan, which I believe is close to your destination.”
“Thank you. One more request, if you will.”
I hesitated. Too long. He noticed.
“Don’t worry so much, Horwendell. I live to help those in need.”
“Ah, um.” I ran a hand through my beard and mustache with irritation. “You don’t live for this, I don’t think. Do you have any resources… on transmutation?”
His brow furrowed, and his mouth set at a severe angle. “Oh.”
“I understand; I don’t mean to…”
“I do,” he said, his voice low, low, beneath even the smoldering flames in the fireplace.