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The crowds thinned as soon as I left the main roadways and traveled ever upward on legs that burned and ached with many days’ travel. How good it would have been to sit in one of the tea-houses before a fire, propping my feet on the hearth and sipping warmed favel to fill my insides, too, with warmth.
Instead, I trudged up a slope of greasy, trodden snow. Stone emanated cold and all the windows were shuttered, the high roofs black beneath layers of white and crystal blue. The narrow streets twisted this way and that, but always I turned my steps to climb. High above, the mountain disappeared in the gray expanse, as if the top of it was hidden in another world.
Those people that saw me turned their backs, those few out and about. Some were messengers in heavy coats and hats, others servants with sacks on their shoulders and the sigiled armbands of their houses. I stood aside, pressing against an icy wall, while a coal-cart ground past, too wide for the little back streets. The shaggy ox pulling it strained and grunted as it hung up on the corner of a house and the man leading it whispered encouragement to the beast before it pulled the black-laden cart free.
The district in which the healer lived stretched long across the side of the mountain. I climbed a narrow cut of stairs up through a reinforced embankment, as high and stout a wall as any fortification. Emerging from the shelter of the cut, the wind kicked even harder.
Along a wider street than those below, the signs of shopfronts swung in the wind. To one side was the drop to the lower city, the roofs of the little houses and the hot, harsh scent of coal smoke, though the wind and snow hid the haze. Farther above, the highest reaches of the city still towered, and the black shapes of some manner of birds still dashed and leapt between the spires. On this street, however, faceted glass windows gave purchase to veils of frost. The tiled roofs shed drifts of snow that I dodged as I walked, keeping an eye on the few others out and walking or riding in the evil weather. I raised a hand to a woman walking my way with her hat pulled low, and to the man escorting her with a fine, glinting axe at his side. She waved me off without slowing and the man glared. They crossed the road and kept on.
Glancing about, I saw a ghanavocha rider nearing. I waited, standing aside but near enough the road he might slow or have to maneuver around me. As the rider neared, I raised a hand and said “Habra.” He reined in his beast, which snorted and shook, and he peered at me. His pink face, wrinkled with age and wizened by a thin white beard, was mostly hidden beneath layers of scarves and fur.
“Healer’s house,” I said in my halting Kalughri. “Thank you, which way?” I cursed for sounding stupid, knowing I’d said not quite the right niceties.
He pointed, up the street, then made a motion as if to turn a corner. “That way, sir outlander.” I caught the notes of overpoliteness in his voice as well as his words. He said a few things about direction that I didn’t follow, but then, “healer’s house with a blue door.” He gestured again and seemed to repeat himself. This time I understood. “This way, then right?” I said back to him, mimicking his gestures.
As he left I saw, back the way he had come, another ghanavocha rider, but this I ignored, sure I could find my way. Following his directions, doubling back, slapping my hands and stamping my feet to stave off cold, I finally found a high stone house in a row with a dozen others, and a blue door standing bright as a bottle. The healer’s cart was outside, for he had not stopped while the Bear’s Tooth company had halted to distribute orders and pay when the caravan arrived in Balunkraf. Three youths bustled on the top and inside, removing lamps for cleaning, loosing cords which secured travel goods, carrying boxes and cases and blankets and all manner of things from inside the cart out and up the steps and into the old stone house. I passed them by and climbed the steps and, shaking away snow and cold, entered the healer’s home.
Before I could go two steps, a servant greeted me. She bowed a graying head and spoke too quickly in Kalughri, but the message was clear enough. “I’m here for the healer,” I said. Seeming to notice my accent, she looked at my rheumily and her hand came to her mouth, briefly. She recovered quick enough and bowed again and shuffled away. Had any Kalughnoran ever seen an outlander before?
I moved aside in the narrow front hall as one of the porters shouldered his way in and grunted for me to move. While I rubbed my hands within their mitts, he followed after the old servant into the dark of the house. A thick animal skin carpet, bear or something large and furry, warmed the place, but the walls were drab and the glass lamps in brass sconces were not yet lit. A stairway led up into dark, and a hall back into more. There I waited. The porter returned and the other two came in, making the entryway briefly as crowded as a tavern bar, but then they were gone and I stood alone, trying to look at tapestries but thinking of the presence I felt outside, watching me. I tried to turn and glance casually back outside, but faced the inner hall once again at the sight of a ghanavocha waiting across the street from the healer’s cart.
With the rustle of slippers on floorboards and furs, the servant reappeared, averting her eyes from my face but gesturing for me to follow. She rocked on her feet to turn around and led me into the dim passage.
We went back, then up a separate stair which creaked with my weight, but made not a sound at hers. I paused long on each step while she negotiated the next, hoping that Vasily, if it was indeed him outside waiting and watching, would grow weary or hungry in the time it took for my errand and leave. We reached the top step, another cold, narrow hall with a pall of gray light coming through the frosty window. Then, into a room from which the crackle of a new-made fire was just beginning to sound. Once I was inside, she left me.
There, the healer sat on his haunches beside a brick hearth. The room held a wooden table, long enough to lie on, and workbenches, and a pile of some of the healer’s things from the cart, and more books and glass jars and racks and shelves of tiny drawers than I’d ever seen.
“So,” he said, looking at me seriously. “Your rasakanova wants you fully healed I take it?”
“My tevka,” I said. “And she asks—” I looked over my shoulder to make certain the old lady wasn’t there. She’d gone, and I didn’t hear the porters on the steps. Returning my gaze to the healer, I said, in Kalughri, “She needs Gorbeva. You are to introduce me. I must give a message.”
The healer sighed. He motioned to the door and I went to close it, and when I’d turned around he’d stood was looking into the fire.
“Gorbeva,” he pronounced, “died last winter.”
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