IMRE LAY A LITTLE over two miles from the University, on the eastern side of the Omethi River. Since it was a mere two days in a fast coach from Tarbean, a great many wealthy nobles, politicians, and courtiers made their homes there. It was conveniently close to the governing hub of the Commonwealth, while being a comfortable distance from the smell of rotten fish, hot tar, and the vomit of drunken sailors.
Imre was a haven for the arts. There were musicians, dramatists, sculptors, dancers, and the practitioners of a hundred other smaller arts, even the lowest art of all: poetry. Performers came because Imre offered what every artist needs most—an appreciative, affluent audience.
Imre also benefited by its proximity to the University. Access to plumbing and sympathy lamps improved the quality of the town’s air. Quality glass was easy to come by, so windows and mirrors were commonplace. Eyeglasses and other ground lenses, while expensive, were readily available.
Despite this, there was little love lost between the two towns. Most of Imre’s citizens did not like the thought of a thousand minds tinkering with dark forces better left alone. Listening to the average citizen speak, it was easy to forget that this part of the world had not seen an arcanist burned for nearly three hundred years.
To be fair, it should be mentioned that the University had a vague contempt for Imre’s populace, too, viewing them as self-indulgent and decadent. The arts that were viewed so highly in Imre were seen as frivolous by those at the University. Often, students who quit the University were said to have “gone over the river,” the implication being that minds that were too weak for academia had to settle for tinkering with the arts.
And both sides of the river were, ultimately, hypocrites. University students complained about frivolous musicians and fluffhead actors, then lined up to pay for performances. Imre’s population griped about unnatural arts being practiced two miles away, but when an aqueduct collapsed or someone fell suddenly sick, they were quick to call on engineers and doctors trained at the University.
All in all, it was a long-standing and uneasy truce where both sides
complained while maintaining a grudging tolerance. Those people did have their uses after all, you just wouldn’t want your daughter marrying one….
Since Imre was such a haven for music and drama, you might think I spent a great deal of time there, but nothing could be further from the truth. I had been there only once. Wilem and Simmon had taken me to an inn where a trio of skilled musicians played: lute, flute, and drum. I bought a short beer for ha’penny and relaxed, fully intending to enjoy an evening with my friends….
But I couldn’t. Bare minutes after the music started I practically fled the room. I doubt very much you’ll be able to understand why, but I suppose I have to explain if things are to make any sense at all.
I couldn’t stand being near music and not be a part of it. It was like watching the woman you love bedding down with another man. No. Not really. It was like….
It was like the sweet-eaters I’d seen in Tarbean. Denner resin was highly illegal, of course, but that didn’t matter in most parts of the city. The resin was sold wrapped in waxy paper, like a sucking candy or a toffee. Chewing it filled you with euphoria. Bliss. Contentment.
But after a few hours you were shaking, filled with a desperate hunger for more, and that hunger grew worse the longer you used it. Once in Tarbean I saw a young girl of no more than sixteen with the telltale hollow eyes and unnaturally white teeth of the hopelessly addicted. She was begging a sailor for a sweet, which he held tauntingly out of reach. He told her it was hers if she stripped naked and danced for him, right there in the street.
She did, not caring who might be watching, not caring that it was nearly Midwinter and she stood in four inches of snow. She pulled off her clothes and danced desperately, her thin limbs pale and shaking, her movements pathetic and jerky. Then, when the sailor laughed and shook his head, she fell to her knees in the snow, begging and weeping, clutching frantically at his legs, promising him anything, anything….
That is how I felt, watching the musicians play. I couldn’t stand it. The everyday lack of my music was like a toothache I had grown used to. I could live with it. But having what I wanted dangled in front of me was more than I could bear.
So I avoided Imre until the problem of my second term’s tuition forced me back across the river. I had learned that Devi was the person anyone could ask for a loan, no matter how desperate the circumstances.
So I crossed the Omethi by Stonebridge and made my way to Imre. Devi’s place of business was through an alley and up a narrow balcony staircase behind a butcher’s shop. This part of Imre reminded me of Waterside in
Tarbean. The cloying smell of rancid fat from the butcher shop below made me thankful for the cool autumn breeze.
I hesitated in front of the heavy door, looking down into the alley. I was about to become involved in dangerous business. A Cealdish moneylender could take you to court if you didn’t repay your loan. A gaelet would simply have you beaten, or robbed, or both. This was not smart. I was playing with fire.
But I didn’t have any better options. I took a deep breath, squared my shoulders, and knocked on the door.
I wiped my sweaty palms against my cloak, hoping to keep them reasonably dry for when I shook Devi’s hand. I had learned in Tarbean that the best way to deal with this type of man was to act with confidence and self-assurance. They were in the business of taking advantage of other people’s weakness.
I heard the sound of a heavy bolt being drawn back, then the door opened, revealing a young girl with straight, strawberry-blond hair framing a pixielike face. She smiled at me, cute as a new button. “Yes?”
“I’m looking for Devi,” I said.
“You’ve found her,” she said easily. “Come on in.”
I stepped inside and she closed the door behind her, sliding the iron bolt home. The room was windowless, but well-lit and filled with the scent of lavender, a welcome change from the smell of the alley. There were hangings on the walls, but the only real furniture was a small desk, a bookshelf, and a large canopy bed with the curtains drawn around it.
“Please,” she said, gesturing to the desk. “Have a seat.”
She settled herself behind the desk, folding her hands across the top. The way she carried herself made me rethink her age. I’d misjudged her because of her small size, but even so, she couldn’t be much older than her early twenties, hardly what I had expected to find.
Devi blinked prettily at me. “I need a loan,” I said.
“How about your name, first?” She smiled. “You already know mine.” “Kvothe.”
“Really?” She arched an eyebrow. “I’ve heard a thing or two about you.” She looked me up and down. “I thought you’d be taller.”
I could say the same. I was caught off balance by the situation. I’d been ready for a muscular thug and negotiations filled with thinly veiled threats and bravado. I didn’t know what to make of this smiling waif. “What have you heard?” I asked to fill the silence. “Nothing bad, I hope.”
“Good and bad.” She grinned. “But nothing boring.”
I folded my hands to keep from fidgeting. “So how exactly do we do this?”
“Not much for banter, are you?” she said, giving a brief, disappointed sigh. “Fair enough, straight to business. How much do you need?”
“Only about a talent,” I said. “Eight jots, actually.”
She shook her head seriously, her strawberry-blond hair swinging back and forth. “I can’t do that, I’m afraid. It’s not worth my while to make ha’penny loans.”
I frowned. “How much is worth your while?” “Four talents,” she said. “That’s the minimum.” “And the interest?”
“Fifty percent every two months. So if you’re looking to borrow as little as possible, it’ll be two talents at the end of the term. You can pay off the whole debt for six if you like. But until I get all the principle back, it’s two talents every term.”
I nodded, not terribly surprised. It was roughly four times what even the most avaricious moneylender would charge. “But I’m paying interest on money I don’t really need.”
“No,” she said, meeting my eyes seriously. “You’re paying interest on money you borrowed. That’s the deal.”
“How about two talents?” I said. “Then at the end—”
Devi waved her hands, cutting me off. “We aren’t bargaining here. I’m just informing you as to the conditions of the loan.” She smiled apologetically. “I’m sorry I didn’t make that clear from the beginning.”
I looked at her, the set of her shoulders, the way she met my eyes. “Okay,” I said, resigned. “Where do I sign?”
She gave me a slightly puzzled look, her forehead furrowing slightly. “No need to sign anything.” She opened a drawer and pulled out a small brown bottle with a glass stopper. She laid a long pin next to it on the desk. “Just a little blood.”
I sat frozen in my chair, my arms at my sides. “Don’t worry,” she reassured me. “The pin’s clean. I only need about three good drops.”
I finally found my voice. “You’ve got to be kidding.”
Devi cocked her head to one side, a tiny smile curling one edge of her mouth. “You didn’t know?” she said, surprised. “It’s rare that anyone comes here without knowing the whole story.”
“I can’t believe anyone actually…” I stalled, at a loss for words.
“Not everyone does,” she said. “I usually do business with students and ex-students. Folk on this side of the river would think I was some sort of witch or a demon or some nonsense like that. Members of the Arcanum know exactly why I want blood, and what I can do with it.”
“You’re a member of the Arcanum too?”
“Former,” she said, her smile fading a little. “I made Re’lar before I left. I know enough so that with a little blood, you can never hide from me. I can
dowse you out anywhere.”
“Among other things,” I said, incredulously, thinking of the wax mommet I’d made of Hemme at the beginning of the term. That was just hair. Blood was much more effective at creating a link. “You could kill me.”
She gave me a frank look. “You’re awfully thick to be the Arcanum’s bright new star. Think it through. Would I stay in business if I made a habit of malfeasance?”
“The masters know about this?”
She laughed. “God’s body, of course not. Neither does the constable, the bishop, or my mother.” She pointed to her chest, then to me. “I know and you know. That’s usually enough to ensure a good working relationship between the two of us.”
“What about unusually?” I asked. “What if I don’t have your money at the end of the term? What then?”
She spread her hands and shrugged carelessly. “Then we work something out between the two of us. Like rational people. Maybe you work for me. Tell me secrets. Do me favors.” She smiled and gave me a slow, lecherous looking over, laughing at my discomfiture. “If worse comes to worst, and you end up being extraordinarily uncooperative, I could probably sell your blood to someone to recover my loss. Everyone has enemies.” She shrugged easily. “But I’ve never had things descend to that level. The threat is usually enough to keep people in line.”
She looked at the expression on my face and her shoulders slumped a little. “Come on now,” she said gently. “You came here expecting some thick-necked gaelet with scarred knuckles. You were ready to make a deal with someone ready to beat twelve distinct colors of hell out of you if you were a day late. My way is better. Simpler.”
“This is insane,” I said, getting to my feet. “Absolutely not.”
Devi’s cheerful expression faded. “Get ahold of yourself,” she said, plainly growing exasperated. “You’re acting like some farmer who thinks I’m trying to buy his soul. It’s just a little blood so I can keep tabs on you. It’s like collateral.” She made a calming gesture with both hands, as if smoothing the air. “Fine, I’ll tell you what. I’ll let you borrow half the minimum.” She looked at me expectantly. “Two talents. Does that make it easier?”
“No,” I said. “I’m sorry to have wasted your time, but I can’t do it. Are there any other gaelets around?”
“Of course,” she said coolly. “But I don’t feel particularly inclined to give out that sort of information.” She tilted her head quizzically. “By the way, today’s Cendling, isn’t it? Don’t you need your tuition by noon tomorrow?”
“I’ll find them on my own then,” I snapped.
“I’m sure you will, clever boy like you.” Devi waved me away with the back of her hand. “Feel free to let yourself out. Think fond thoughts of Devi
in two months’ time, when some thug is kicking the teeth out of your pretty little head.”
After leaving Devi’s I paced the streets of Imre, restless and irritated, trying to get my thoughts in order. Trying to think of a way around my problem.
I had a decent chance of paying off the two-talent loan. I hoped to move up the ranks in the Fishery soon. Once I was allowed to pursue my own projects, I could start earning real money. All I needed was to stay in classes long enough. It was just a matter of time.
That’s really what I was borrowing: time. One more term. Who knew what opportunities might present themselves in the next two months?
But even as I tried to talk myself into it, I knew the truth. It was a bad idea. It was begging for trouble. I would swallow my pride and see if Wil or Sim or Sovoy could lend me the eight jots I needed. I sighed, resigning myself to a term of sleeping outside and scavenging meals where I could find them. At least it couldn’t be worse than my time in Tarbean.
I was just about to head back to the University when my restless pacing took me by a pawnshop’s window. I felt the old ache in my fingers….
“How much for the seven-string lute?” I asked. To this day I do not remember actually entering the store.
“Four talents even,” the owner said brightly. I guessed he was new to the job, or drunk. Pawnbrokers are never cheerful, not even in rich cities like Imre.
“Ah,” I said, not bothering to hide my disappointment. “Could I take a look at it?”
He handed it over. It wasn’t much to look at. The grain of the wood was uneven, the varnish rough and scratched. Its frets were made of gut and badly in need of replacing, but that was of little concern to me, as I typically played fretless anyway. The bowl was rosewood, so the sound of it wouldn’t be terribly subtle. But on the other hand, rosewood would carry better in a crowded taproom, cutting through the murmur of idle conversation. I tapped the bowl with a finger and it gave off a resonant hum. Solid, but not pretty. I began to tune it so I would have an excuse to hold it a while longer.
“I might be able to go as low as three and five,” the man behind the counter said.
My ears pricked up as I heard something in his tone: desperation. It occurred to me that an ugly, used lute might not sell very well in a city full of nobility and prosperous musicians. I shook my head. “The strings are old.” Actually they were fine, but I hoped he didn’t know that.
“True,” he said, reassuring me of his ignorance, “but strings are cheap.”
“I suppose,” I said doubtfully. With a deliberate plan, I set each of the
strings just a hair out of tune with the others. I struck a chord and listened to the grating sound. I gave the lute’s neck a sour, speculative look. “I think the neck might be cracked.” I strummed a minor chord that sounded even less appealing. “Does that sound cracked to you?” I strummed it again, harder.
“Three and two?” He asked hopefully.
“It’s not for me,” I said, as if correcting him. “It’s for my little brother.
The little bastard won’t leave mine alone.”
I strummed again and grimaced. “I may not like the little sprit very much, but I’m not cruel enough to buy him a lute with a sour neck.” I paused significantly. When nothing was forthcoming, I prompted him. “Not for three and two.”
“Three even?” he said hopefully.
To all appearances I held the lute casually, carelessly. But in my heart I was clutching it with a white-knuckled fierceness. I cannot hope for you to understand this. When the Chandrian killed my troupe, they destroyed every piece of family and home I had ever known. But in some ways it had been worse when my father’s lute was broken in Tarbean. It had been like losing a limb, an eye, a vital organ. Without my music, I had wandered Tarbean for years, half-alive, like a crippled veteran or one of the walking dead.
“Listen,” I said to him frankly. “I’ve got two and two for you.” I pulled out my purse. “You can take it, or this ugly thing can gather dust on a high shelf for the next ten years.”
I met his eye, careful to keep my face from showing how badly I needed it. I would do anything to keep this lute. I would dance naked in the snow. I would clutch at his legs, shaking and frantic, promising him anything, anything….
I counted out two talents and two jots onto the counter between us, nearly all of the money I had saved for this term’s tuition. Each coin made a hard click as I pressed it to the table.
He gave me a long look, measuring me. I clicked down one more jot and waited. And waited. When he finally reached out his hand for the money, his haggard expression was the same one I was used to seeing on pawnbroker’s faces.
Devi opened the door and smiled. “Well now, I honestly didn’t think I’d see you again. Come in.” She bolted the door behind me and walked over to her desk. “I can’t say I’m disappointed, though.” She looked over her shoulder and flashed her impish smile. “I was looking forward to doing a little business with you.” She sat down. “So, two talents then?”
“Four would be better, actually,” I said. Just enough for me to afford tuition and a bunk in the Mews. I could sleep outside in the wind and rain. My
lute deserved better.
“Wonderful,” she said as she pulled out the bottle and pin.
I needed the tips of my fingers intact, so I pricked the back of my hand and let three drops of blood slowly gather and fall into the small brown bottle. I held it out to Devi.
“Go ahead and drop the pin in there too.” I did.
Devi swabbed the bottle’s stopper with a clear substance and slid it into the mouth of the bottle. “A clever little adhesive from your friends over the river,” she explained. “This way, I can’t open the bottle without breaking it. When you pay off your debt, you get it back intact and can sleep safe knowing I haven’t kept any for myself.”
“Unless you have the solvent,” I pointed out.
Devi gave me a pointed look. “You’re not big on trust, are you?” She rummaged around in a drawer, brought out some sealing wax, and began to warm it over the lamp on her desk. “I don’t suppose you have a seal, or ring or anything like that?” she asked as she smeared the wax across the top of the bottle’s stopper.
“If I had jewelry to sell, I wouldn’t be here,” I said frankly and pressed my thumb into the wax. It left a recognizable print. “But that should do.”
Devi etched a number on the side of the bottle with a diamond stylus, then brought out a slip of paper. She wrote for a moment then fanned it with a hand, waiting for it to dry. “You can take this to any moneylender on either side of the river,” she said cheerfully as she handed it to me. “Pleasure doing business with you. Don’t be a stranger.”
I headed back to the University with money in my purse and the comforting weight of the lute strap hanging from my shoulder. It was secondhand, ugly, and had cost me dearly in money, blood, and peace of mind.
I loved it like a child, like breathing, like my own right hand.