Some things don’t change.
I pull my cloak over my head, try to ignore the crowds of people on the brick road. It is raining, faintly, even though it’s more like a mist from the ocean than anything else.
People’s eyes don’t change. Even if, logically, I know they are not watching me. Some part of me feels they are watching me so I watch myself. Step quietly, don’t trip, hold my hands around my cloak, don’t hunch my shoulders too much, but also don’t stand up so tall that they notice how wide those shoulders are.
They have no idea what I can do, I tell myself, and I let myself feel powerful, in a forbidden sort of way. If this child, with the curly hair, knew what I could do… If her mother knew I could move blood with my fingers, would she run, or cower? If the merchant on his wagon behind them knew I could rip the humerus bone from his arm, would he lash his whip at me?
I let myself feel powerful in the knowing. Because telling would mean a mob at my throat. Eyes, to watch something that is actually dangerous. I pull my cloak tighter, hope the misty rain won’t ruin the face paint. I am so much more than face paint.
I stroll along the docks, eyeing the showy displays set up beside gangplanks. Spice traders. Cotton traders. Some kind of smugglers, judging from the texture of invisible blood stains on this ship’s hull. Techno-gadgets from up north. I snort and stroll past the guy decked out in a long coat and thin boots already soaked with water. Is he even a sailor? As if I know anything about sailors.
I stop. Nobody is standing beside this ship, painted yellow. I inhale the scent of packaged soap, salt; stop when I think of red blood in salt water.
I stand in the brick street that is blending into wooden docks, waiting. I left the crowds behind me, on the city streets–I think, secretly, the people are afraid of the water.
Oh, heart, it is not the water you are afraid of.
I count to ten while standing in the street, and decide. I know how much these cost, I have listened to the merchants shouting all down the streets. So I lift out the sack tucked under my cloak and place jet and pebblewood coins on the box forming the display’s base, take the jar of crystal salts and the paper packages of pale orange soap. It is better this way. No talking.
I keep walking, bundles under my arms, cloak trying to billow away in the ocean’s breath.
Brain, you learned math like a third language. One, your mother tongue, in the mountains. Two, words to maim, like taking air and hammering it into ice worthy of stabbing. Three, Kolariq taught you multiplication, geometry, money changing, how to half and quarter a recipe. Except.
You learned math like a third language because nobody taught you. Nobody taught you as a baby, pre-recollection, how to babble syllables connotated with meaning. Kolariq didn’t teach you, post-recollection, variables and division. He told you about doubling the blood quantity. He told you about the shape of each organ in a body; how many killing words it took to make a stomach clench in pain, dissolving by its own acid. He taught you about the magic in your own blood, the ways it wasn’t quite matched with someone else’s.
Brain, he did teach you how to cook though. He said a good mage had better be capable enough to feed themselves. What good was knowing how to kill if you couldn’t keep yourself alive? In some ways, your memory of him lives on in the garden by the house.
A memory: the other boys, younger, returning with caught fish and you rising from the cave-entrance couch in anger, refusing to eat anything but sea kelp. Ignoring the fact that the knife you used to chop the kelp was kuchlet bone, from the dagger-sharp snout of a deep-sea fish. Already dead, already dead, you repeated to yourself. So much of your training was an exercise in explaining away why somebody was already dead. Three languages learned is still three, subtract the one nearly never spoken. Two divided by one is still two, unless the one is a knife.
I return to the city the next day, bundles of soap and salt buried next to the skeleton cook. I have the same cloak, but the red sun is shining so I let my ribbon-free hair loose. I try to smile daintily, except to the man wreathed in a cloud of smoke, eyes hazy. I pointedly ignore him. I make my way through the brick streets, between merchant-ridden wagons, stone buildings less than two stories high, sliding doors across alleyways. To the market. I openly hold my empty sack. The one I need to fill before the day is over. I am dreading this part.
I approach the wooden stall selling bags of flour, smile cautiously at the woman there with a pinched mouth and pincer-ready hands. She starts to speak at me, like I am a sounding board for how she can raise her own prices. I shake my head and move on, heart pounding.
I find a different flour merchant, this one with a burly guard, and I manage to whisper and tell her I want only the smallest bag she has. I imagine thorns come from her eyes, aimed at my chest, and I pull my cloak tighter regardless of my mind saying it wasn’t real.
The flour is a weight at the bottom of my sack against the shaking, and I go to the vegetables next. This market is organized like that, under some system of food classifying from who knows how long ago. Flours, vegetables, meats, herbs–even though the fungi always count as vegetables instead of meat. And even though half the herbs are actually flour.
I pick red mushrooms and green fruits from a wooden cart, pay for them quickly after blushing when he asks if I’ve ever thought to sell my hair. If I were petty, I would curse him with deadened nerves on his scalp, make him think his hair was painfully falling out until the curse wore off. But I’m not petty. Not like blond boy.
I stop in place, drag my mind from thinking like that. I have no right to think things like that.
I pay for plum apples, which claim to be as good as the frost orchards, but I at least know it’s not true. I buy black beans, claiming to soften in cold water, but I know that’s not true either. Except I have a generous rock who loves to heat things up, so I add them to my sack anyway, bite my violet lip as I hand over black-jet and carved pebblewood coins. Some things are worth the price of not asking questions. Like why the sellers would think of that in the first place.
I avoid the meat section like the plague, because there is a plague, the crawling at the back of my neck and my itching fingers and the curses in my throat rising to help this deadly thing grow tell me it is so. I swallow the words down, as tempting as they would be to speak. I clutch my sack in both hands so I can use my thumbs to scratch the itches, I want to put my hood up but I am trying to blend in here, woman in the market, so I wind through the curving, crowded, shouting streets to the herbs. Pay for basil at a shop of hanging baskets. Pay for the bark of trees, curled into pale sticks by ribbons of twine. Pay for yellow flour, in burlap bags held by strong arms that almost try to touch me.
By sunhigh, I am exhausted, like my insides were left to melt in the sun and then shaken up and refrozen inside me. I sit at the edge of the market streets, stalls like buildings to form winding paths. I sit down at the edge of the market, on a bench beneath the roof of a hotel. I close my eyes, for a moment, to block out the red sun and the faintly orange sky.
My senses immediately shoot to the disease in the meat market. It is a thing living and breathing in the insects, like buzzing wings, dropping and growing in red meat and stray green leaves and I swallow, open my eyes to bring myself back. To the stone bench in the shade of a hotel’s roof.
The quivering in my knees has cautiously subsided, the faint ringing in my ears is just a dull ache. I shake my head, at the disease in the meat section. I have never been good at healing.
Let’s do this one thing: there is a place in every city where the travelers come to visit, when the merchants come. I sneak there, after sun high, sack still in my arms, knee caps still shaking in their joints. I bite my lip, because it is not a hotel, it is a camp of tents. I step from the trodden, muddy path, just beyond the wooden posts carved with warnings in the Uqik language. I pretend to brush something from the inside of my cloak as someone’s boots squelch past me. I close my eyes. In this exhale are the words that might just kill everybody all the faster. But I say them anyway. Let them suffuse into the wood, but only for a day or two. This curse, meant to kill, but softly enough that anything large enough should live fine. Muscle cramps. Achy joints. Nothing like the vomiting of the red-meat plague.
I stand, in the mud, for probably too long. Wonder how upset the people will be when they find their market goods are nothing but husks of black, like charcoal. Good money, spent on that. Good money spent on a disease.
I step back on the path and walk away.