I WOKE EARLY THE next morning, nervous at the thought of lunch with Denna. Knowing it would be useless to attempt to get back to sleep, I headed to the Fishery. Last night’s extravagant spending had left me with exactly three pennies in my pocket, and I was eager to take advantage of my newly earned position.
Usually I worked nights in the Fishery. It was a different place in the mornings. There were only fifteen or twenty people there pursuing their individual projects. In the evenings there were usually twice that many. Kilvin was in his office, as always, but the atmosphere was more relaxed: busy, but not bustling.
I even saw Fela off in the corner of the shop, chipping carefully away at a piece of obsidian the size of a large loaf of bread. Small wonder I’d never seen her here before if she made a habit of being in the shop this early.
Despite Manet’s warning, I decided to make a batch of blue emitters for my first project. Tricky work, as it required the use of bone-tar, but they would sell fairly quickly, and the whole process would only take me four or five hours of careful work. Not only could I be done in time to meet with Denna at the Eolian for lunch, but I might be able to get a small advance from Kilvin so I could have a bit of money in my purse when I went to meet her.
I gathered the necessary tools and set up in one of the fume hoods along the eastern wall. I chose a place near a drench, one of the five-hundred-gallon tanks of twice-tough glass that were spaced throughout the workshop. If you spilled something dangerous on yourself while working in the hoods, you could simply pull the drench’s handle and rinse yourself clean in a stream of cool water.
Of course I would never need the drench so long as I was careful. But it was nice having it close, just in case.
After setting up the fume hood, I made my way to the table where the bone-tar was kept. Despite the fact that I knew it was no more dangerous than a stone saw or the sintering wheel, I found the burnished metal container unnerving.
And today something was different. I caught the attention of one of the
more experienced artificers as he walked past. Jaxim had the haggard look common to most artificers in the middle of large projects, as if he were putting off sleep until it was entirely finished.
“Should there be this much frost?” I asked him, pointing out the tar canister. Its edges were covered in fine white tufts of frost, like tiny shrubs. The air around the metal actually shimmered with cold.
Jaxim peered at it, then shrugged. “Better too cold than not cold enough,” he said with a humorless chuckle. “Heh heh. Kaboom.”
I couldn’t help but agree, and guessed that it might have something to do with the workshop being cooler this early in the morning. None of the kilns had been fired up yet, and most of the forge fires were still banked and sullen. Moving carefully, I ran through the decanting procedure in my head, making sure I hadn’t forgotten anything. It was so cold that my breath hung white in the air. The sweat on my hands froze my fingers to the canister’s fastenings the same way a curious child’s tongue sticks to a pump handle in
the dead of winter.
I decanted about an ounce of the thick, oily liquid into the pressure vial and quickly applied the cap. Then I made my way back to the fume hood and started preparing my materials. After a few tense minutes, I began the long, meticulous process of preparing and doping a set of blue emitters.
My concentration was broken two hours later by a voice behind me. It wasn’t particularly loud, but it held a serious tone you never ignore in the Fishery.
It said, “Oh my God.”
Because of my current work, the first thing I looked at was the bone-tar canister. I felt a flash of cold sweat roll over me when I saw black liquid leaking from one corner and running down the worktable’s leg to pool on the floor. The thick timber of the table’s leg was almost entirely eaten away, and I heard a light popping and crackling as the liquid pooling on the floor began to boil. All I could think of was Kilvin’s statement during the demonstration: In addition to being highly corrosive, the gas burns when it comes in contact with air….
Even as I turned to look, the leg gave way and the worktable began to tip. The burnished metal canister tumbled down. When it struck the stone floor, the metal was so cold it didn’t simply crack or dent, it shattered like glass. Gallons of the dark fluid burst out in a great splay across the workshop floor. The room filled with sharp crackling and popping sounds as the bone-tar spread across the warm stone floor and started to boil.
Long ago, the clever person who designed the Fishery placed about two dozen drains in the workshop to help with cleaning and managing spills. What’s more, the workshop’s stone floor rose and fell in a gentle pattern of peaks and troughs to guide the spills toward those drains. That meant as soon
as the container shattered, the wide spill of oily liquid began to run off in two different directions, heading for two different drains. At the same time it continued to boil, forming thick, low clouds, dark as tar, caustic, and ready to burst into flame.
Trapped between these two spreading arms of dark fog was Fela, who had been working by herself at an out-of-the-way table in the corner of the shop. She stood, her mouth half open in shock. She was dressed practically for work in the shop, light trousers and a gauzy linen shirt cuffed at the elbow. Her long, dark hair was pulled back into a tail, but still hung down to nearly the small of her back. She would burn like a torch.
The room began to fill with frantic noise as people realized what was happening. They shouted orders or simply yelled in panic. They dropped tools and knocked over half-finished projects as they scrambled around.
Fela hadn’t screamed or called for help, which meant no one but me had noticed the danger she was in. If Kilvin’s demonstration was any indication, I guessed the whole shop could be a sea of flame and caustic fog in less than a minute. There wasn’t any time….
I glanced at the scattered projects on the nearby worktable, looking for anything that could be of some help. But there was nothing: a jumble of basalt blocks, spools of copper wire, a half-inscribed hemisphere of glass that was probably destined to become one of Kilvin’s lamps….
And as easy as that, I knew what I had to do. I grabbed the glass hemisphere and dashed it against one of the basalt blocks. It shattered and I was left with a thin, curved shard of broken glass about the size of my palm. With my other hand I grabbed my cloak from the table and strode past the fume hood.
I pressed my thumb against the edge of the piece of glass and felt an unpleasant tugging sensation followed by a sharp pain. Knowing I’d drawn blood, I smeared my thumb across the glass and spoke a binding. As I came to stand in front of the drench I dropped the glass to the floor, concentrated, and stepped down hard, crushing it with my heel.
Cold unlike anything I’d ever felt stabbed into me. Not the simple cold you feel in your skin and limbs on a winter day. It hit my body like a clap of thunder. I felt it in my tongue and lungs and liver.
But I got what I wanted. The twice-tough glass of the drench spiderwebbed into a thousand fractures, and I closed my eyes just as it burst. Five hundred gallons of water struck me like a great fist, knocking me back a step and soaking me through to the skin. Then I was off, running between the tables.
Quick as I was, I wasn’t quick enough. There was a blinding crimson flare from the corner of the workshop as the fog began to catch fire, sending up strangely angular tongues of violent red flame. The fire would heat the rest of
the tar, causing it to boil more quickly. This would make more fog, more fire, and more heat.
As I ran, the fire spread. It followed the two trails the bone-tar made as it ran toward the drains. The flames shot up with startling ferocity, sending up two curtains of fire, effectively cutting off the far corner of the shop. The flames were already as tall as me, and growing.
Fela had worked her way out from behind the workbench and hurried along the wall toward one of the floor drains. Since the bone-tar was pouring down the grate, there was a gap close to the wall clear of flame or fog. Fela was just about to sprint past when dark fog began to boil up out of the grate. She gave a short, startled shriek as she backed away. The fog was burning even as it boiled up, engulfing everything in a roiling pool of flame.
I finally made my way past the last table. Without slowing I held my breath, closed my eyes, and jumped over the fog, not wanting to let the horrible corrosive stuff touch my legs. I felt a brief, intense flash of heat on my hands and face, but my wet clothing kept me from being burned or catching fire.
Since my eyes were closed, I landed awkwardly, banging my hip against the stone top of a worktable. I ignored it and ran to Fela.
She had been backing away from the fire toward the outer wall of the shop, but now she was staring at me, hands half-raised protectively. “Put your arms down!” I shouted as I ran up to her, spreading my dripping-wet cloak with both hands. I don’t know if she heard me over the roar of the flames, but regardless, Fela understood. She lowered her hands and stepped toward the cloak.
As I closed the final distance between us, I glanced behind and saw the fire was growing even faster than I’d expected. The fog clung to the floor, over a foot deep, black as pitch. The flames were so high I couldn’t see to the other side, let alone guess how thick the wall of fire had become.
Just before Fela stepped into the cloak, I lifted it to completely engulf her head. “I’m going to have to carry you out.” I shouted as I bundled the cloak around her. “Your legs will burn if you try to wade through.” She said something in reply, but it was muffled by the layers of wet cloth and I couldn’t make it out over the roar of the fire.
I picked her up, not in front of me, like Prince Gallant out of some storybook, but over one shoulder, the way you carry a sack of potatoes. Her hip pressed hard into my shoulder and I pelted toward the fire. The heat battered the front of my body, and I threw my free arm up to protect my face, praying the moisture on my pants would save my legs from the worst of the corrosive nature of the fog.
I drew a deep breath just before I hit the fire, but the air was sharp and acrid. I coughed reflexively and sucked down another lungful of the burning
air just as I entered the wall of flame. I felt the sharp chill of the fog around my lower legs and there was fire all around me as I ran, coughing and drawing in more bad air. I grew dizzy and tasted ammonia. Some distant, rational part of my mind thought: of course, to make it volatile.
When I awoke, the first thing that sprang to my mind was not what you might expect. Then again, it may not be that much of a surprise if you have ever been young yourself.
“What time is it?” I asked frantically.
“First bell after noon,” a female voice said. “Don’t try to get up.”
I slumped back against the bed. I was supposed to have met with Denna at the Eolian an hour ago.
Miserable and with a sour knot in my stomach, I took in my surroundings. The distinctive antiseptic tang in the air let me know that I was somewhere in the Medica. The bed was a giveaway too: comfortable enough to sleep in, but not so comfortable that you’d want to lie around.
I turned my head and saw a familiar pair of striking green eyes framed by close-cropped blond hair. “Oh,” I relaxed back onto the pillow. “Hello Mola.” Mola stood next to one of the tall counters that lined the edges of the room. The classic dark colors of those who worked at the Medica made her pale complexion seem even more so. “Hello Kvothe,” she said, continuing to
write her treatment report.
“I heard you finally got promoted to El’the,” I said. “Congratulations.
Everyone knows you deserved it a long time ago.”
She looked up, her pale lips curving into a small smile. “The heat doesn’t seem to have damaged the gilding on your tongue.” She lay down her pen. “How does the rest of you feel?”
“My legs feel fine, but numb, so I’m guessing I got burned but you’ve already done something about it.” I lifted up the bedsheet, looked under it, then tucked it carefully back into place. “I also seem to be in an advanced state of undress.” I felt a momentary panic. “Is Fela alright?”
Mola nodded seriously and moved closer to stand by the side of the bed. “She has a bruise or two from when you dropped her, and is a little singed around the ankles. But she came out of it better than you did.”
“How is everyone else from the Fishery?”
“Surprisingly good, all things considered. A few burns from heat or acid. One case of metal poisoning, but it was minor. Smoke tends to be the real troublemaker with fires, but whatever was burning over there didn’t seem to give off any smoke.”
“It did give off a sort of ammonia fume.” I took a few deep, experimental
breaths. “But my lungs don’t seem to be burned,” I said, relieved. “I only got about three breaths of it before I passed out.”
There was a knock on the door and Sim’s head popped in. “You’re not naked are you?”
“Mostly,” I said. “But the dangerous parts are covered up.”
Wilem followed in, looking distinctly uncomfortable. “You’re not nearly as pink as you were before,” he said. “I’m guessing that’s a good sign.”
“His legs are going to hurt for a while, but there’s no permanent damage,” she said.
“I brought fresh clothes,” Sim said cheerily. “The ones you were wearing were ruined.”
“I hope you chose something suitable from my vast wardrobe?” I said dryly to hide my embarrassment.
Sim shrugged off my comment. “You showed up without shoes, but I couldn’t find another pair in your room.”
“I don’t have a second pair,” I said as I took the bundle of clothes from Sim. “It’s fine. I’ve been barefoot before.”
I walked away from my little adventure without any permanent damage. However, right now there wasn’t a part of me that didn’t hurt. I had flash burn across the backs of my hands and neck and mild acid burns across my lower legs from where I’d waded through the fire-fog.
Despite all this, I made my limping way the long three miles across the river to Imre, hoping against hope that I might still find Denna waiting.
Deoch eyed me speculatively as I crossed the courtyard toward the Eolian. He looked me up and down pointedly. “Lord, boy. You look like you fell off a horse. Where are your shoes?”
“A good morning to you too,” I said sarcastically.
“A good afternoon,” he corrected, with a significant glance up at the sun. I began to brush past him, but he held up a hand to stop me. “She’s gone, I’m afraid.”
“Black…sodding damn.” I slumped, too weary to curse my luck properly.
Deoch gave me a sympathetic grimace. “She asked about you,” he said consolingly. “And waited for a good long while too, almost an hour. Longest I’ve ever seen that one sit still.”
“Did she leave with someone?”
Deoch looked down at his hands, where he was toying with a copper penny, rolling it back and forth over his knuckles. “She’s not really the sort of girl who spends a lot of time alone….” He gave me a sympathetic look. “She turned a few away, but did eventually leave with a fellow. I don’t think she was really with him, if you catch my meaning. She’s been looking for a patron, and this fellow had that sort of look about him. White-haired, wealthy, you know the type.”
I sighed. “If you happen to see her, could you tell her…” I paused, trying to think of how I could describe what had happened. “Can you make ‘unavoidably detained’ sound a little more poetic?”
“I reckon I can. I’ll describe your hangdog look and shoeless state for her too. Lay you a good solid groundwork for some groveling.”
I smiled despite myself. “Thanks.”
“Can I buy you a drink?” he asked. “It’s a little early for me, but I can always make an exception for a friend.”
I shook my head. “I should be getting back. I’ve got things to do.”
I limped back to Anker’s and found the common room buzzing with excited folk talking about the fire in the Fishery. Not wanting to answer any questions, I slunk into an out-of-the-way table and got one of the serving girls to bring me a bowl of soup and some bread.
As I ate, my finely tuned eavesdropper’s ears picked out pieces of the stories people were telling. It was only then, hearing it from other people, that I realized what I had done.
I was used to people talking about me. As I’ve said, I had been actively building a reputation for myself. But this was different; this was real. People were already embroidering the details and confusing parts, but the heart of the story was still there. I had saved Fela, rushed into the fire and carried her to safety. Just like Prince Gallant out of some storybook.
It was my first taste of being a hero. I found it quite to my liking.