The inside of the tent was dim but for a wick flickering within a silver-wrought, green glass lamp. Kalughnoran tents are tall enough to stand in, round, warm. The floor was strewn with a few woven rugs and in one corner Ivanyaska Broveschka Prupov’s bedroll, still bound in a fat cylinder, sat beside a short carved table with clever folding legs. Ivanyaska invited me in with a typical Kalughnoran bow and we sat, I more slowly than I’d have liked. To my satisfaction, however, I did not wince or groan at the bending of my waist and flexing of my newly-acquired joints as I steadied myself and sat on a proffered, short stool. It was just high enough to keep one’s ass off the cold Kalughnoran ground while one sat, cross-legged.
The table held a little bronze warmer, faintly sputtering an almost invisible flame at the bottom of a decorated ceramic teapot. The fuel was a Skertah alchemical invention, a black paste that burns hot and slow. The scent of it, like burning wet grass, and of the tea in the pot, invaded my nostrils: dry berries, clove, rose, bright bark. Warmth, finally, began to seep into me, diffusing through my weary arms and legs and chest. The healer’s wagon was too cold. My ears and nose tingled.
Ivanyaska poured tea into little wood cups. She was very fine, older than me, with long fingers and slender white wrists. Her hair was out, a tangle of dark brown in masses of braids that heaped on her shoulders. Estevo, fool that he was, had sewn the idea into my mind and now I could not ignore it. Ivanyaska’s full lips pursed as she poured tea to the brim.
As I mentioned before, I was around twenty-two years old at that time. Twenty-two year old men, and twenty-two year old women, I suspect, are idiots.
I waited and tried to focus elsewhere. The silver-wrought lamp with green glass hung from a tether at the apex of the tent. It was a fine thing, too delicate for the harsh country I found myself in, and I looked from it to the woman that it belonged to.
“Drink,” she said, her voice gruff. She lifted her cup, one handed, holding her embroidered wool sleeve with her other hand. I did likewise, the fashion of toasting in that place, and we lifted the tea to each other, to the sky with our eyes raised, and then turned our torsos somewhat to the left and drank.
The tea boiled down into me, warming, coursing, throat then chest, then pit of stomach. Spices tingled on my tongue. When I placed the cup back on the table, she filled it again. “Tell me everything about what happened in the forest.”
I told her. She stopped me only once, at word of the borovoi. I made certain embellishments, but was not such a fool as to claim to have killed such a creature alone. I told her the woman fought it and ran when she was wounded, leaving the loot behind for me to retrieve.
When it was over, we drank again, and she waited for a long time in silence. In that time, she produced a slender, ceramic bottle, a liquor made from berries, called favel. She poured it and this we drank, and it burned most wonderfully and by then I felt very warm and hopeful and idiotic indeed. Then, she said, “You spoke against Vasily Avosha Brobov. Called him a liar. If this reaches his ears, he’ll have you killed by the provka serving him.”
“They’ll be welcome to try, once I’m well.”
“Once you’re well. For now you are very vulnerable, Heshim Nashak Na.”
“Not so vulnerable as they might think. I walked here, didn’t I?”
“And you would fall over from a snowball,” she said. “Eleven provka serve Vasily Avosha Brobov. Can you fight them all?”
Here, I paused. Boasting would only get me so far. “Eleven? I thought six.” Eleven was, I thought, more than his fair share.
“He was already Zhrovocha’s most powerful tevka, and more so now that your own tevka is dead. Did you know he died, in the green woman’s attack?”
“I believe I missed that detail in the sprays of blood. Also I fought a borovoi while I recovered what was stolen. I did mention the borovoi?”
“You have a mouth cleverer than your brains, Heshim Nashak Na. Vasily Avosha Brobov has already recruited your former comrades, apart from the Lonireilan.”
“His name doesn’t matter. Vasily has eleven pledged to him, and two other weak tevka and their few provka. He will destroy you, if he wishes. But,” she motioned in the air, a swiveling of the wrist, “I would have you as my provka. I will ask the rasakanova tomorrow.”
I began to hope that perhaps Estevo had been right. I met her eyes and found them lovely. “As you wish, my tevka.”
“This is not a–stop looking like that and pay attention.” She paused, inspecting me with a confused look. “Are you going to be sick?”
I sat up straighter and took a breath. “No. I am fine.”
“What was that face?”
“Nothing.” I was an idiot, remember.
She waited, then went on. “This is not a kindness. I am going to ask your secrecy. A pledge. You will give it before I go on, or you’ll get out. If you break this pledge, I’ll kill you. If you reveal what I ask, I’ll kill you. Do you understand?”
Very confused, I nodded. She offered favel again, pushing it towards me. “Drink.”
I picked up the cup and, after the proper civilities, I drank.
Ivanyaska smiled. “Very soon, Rasakanova Zhrovocha will make one of his tevka his blood. Understand? He is leaving the Bear’s Tooth, taking his share and going while he is still rasakanova.” The kings of Kalughnor do not die on their thrones. They go, either into the wild to die, like old bears, or into a quiet life where they are advisors and parents to the younger kings, who they take as their children. In this way, they avoid weak familial rule, keep their kingdoms strong, and avoid assassination. This much I understood. I nodded.
“I will be his choice. To make certain of that, I need strong provka and stronger tevka .Vasily Avosha Brobov will also want the rasakanova’s throne. He has the most of us, the most provka, the most coin, the most allies. He is strong. He will kill a weak rasakanova, and all who serve him. I will not be weak. I will elevate your status once you are mine to direct, and you will be tevka. Then, we are going to kill Vasily Avosha Brobov, and all who serve him.”
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