Chapter no 9: Riding in the Wagon with Ben

The Name of the Wind

ABENTHY WAS THE FIRST arcanist I ever met, a strange, exciting figure to a young boy. He was knowledgeable in all the sciences: botany, astronomy, psychology, anatomy, alchemy, geology, chemistry….

He was portly, with twinkling eyes that moved quickly from one thing to another. He had a strip of dark grey hair running around the back of his head, but (and this is what I remember most about him) no eyebrows. Rather, he had them, but they were in a perpetual state of regrowing from being burned off in the course of his alchemical pursuits. It made him look surprised and quizzical all at once.

He spoke gently, laughed often, and never exercised his wit at the expense of others. He cursed like a drunken sailor with a broken leg, but only at his donkeys. They were called Alpha and Beta, and Abenthy fed them carrots and lumps of sugar when he thought no one was looking. Chemistry was his particular love, and my father said he’d never known a man to run a better still.

By his second day in our troupe I was making a habit of riding in his wagon. I would ask him questions and he would answer. Then he would ask for songs and I would pluck them out for him on a lute I borrowed from my father’s wagon.

He would even sing from time to time. He had a bright, reckless tenor that was always wandering off, looking for notes in the wrong places. More often than not he stopped and laughed at himself when it happened. He was a good man, and there was no conceit in him.

Not long after he joined our troupe, I asked Abenthy what it was like being an arcanist.

He gave me a thoughtful look. “Have you ever known an arcanist?”

“We paid one to mend a cracked axle on the road once.” I paused to think. “He was heading inland with a caravan of fish.”

Abenthy made a dismissive gesture. “No, no, boy. I’m talking about arcanists. Not some poor chill-charmer who works his way back and forth across caravan routes, trying to keep fresh meat from rotting.”

“What’s the difference?” I asked, sensing it was expected of me.

“Well,” he said. “That might take a bit of explaining….” “I’ve got nothing but time.”

Abenthy gave me an appraising look. I’d been waiting for it. It was the look that said, “You don’t sound as young as you look.” I hoped he’d come to grips with it fairly soon. It gets tiresome being spoken to as if you are a child, even if you happen to be one.

He took a deep breath. “Just because someone knows a trick or two doesn’t mean they’re an arcanist. They might know how to set a bone or read Eld Vintic. Maybe they even know a little sympathy. But—”

“Sympathy?” I interrupted as politely as possible.

“You’d probably call it magic,” Abenthy said reluctantly. “It’s not, really.” He shrugged. “But even knowing sympathy doesn’t make you an arcanist. A true arcanist has worked his way through the Arcanum at the University.”

At his mention of the Arcanum, I bristled with two dozen new questions. Not so many, you might think, but when you added them to the half-hundred questions I carried with me wherever I went, I was stretched nearly to bursting. Only through a severe effort of will did I remain silent, waiting for Abenthy to continue on his own.

Abenthy, however, noticed my reaction. “So, you’ve heard about the Arcanum, have you?” He seemed amused. “Tell me what you’ve heard, then.” This small prompt was all the excuse I needed. “I heard from a boy in Temper Glen that if your arm’s cut off they can sew it back on at the University. Can they really? Some stories say Taborlin the Great went there to learn the names of all things. There’s a library with a thousand books. Are

there really that many?”

He answered the last question, the others having rushed by too quickly for him to respond. “More than a thousand, actually. Ten times ten thousand books. More than that. More books than you could ever read.” Abenthy’s voice grew vaguely wistful.

More books than I could read? Somehow I doubted that.

Ben continued. “The people you see riding with caravans—charmers who keep food from spoiling, dowsers, fortune-tellers, toad eaters—aren’t real arcanists any more than all traveling performers are Edema Ruh. They might know a little alchemy, a little sympathy, a little medicine.” He shook his head. “But they’re not arcanists.

“A lot of people pretend to be. They wear robes and put on airs to take advantage of the ignorant and gullible. But here’s how you tell a true arcanist.”

Abenthy pulled a fine chain over his head and handed it to me. It was the first time I had ever seen an Arcanum guilder. It looked rather unimpressive, just a flat piece of lead with some unfamiliar writing stamped onto it.

“That is a true gilthe. Or guilder if you prefer,” Abenthy explained with

some satisfaction. “It’s the only sure way to be certain of who is and who isn’t an arcanist. Your father asked to see mine before he let me ride with your troupe. It shows he’s a man of the world.” He watched me with a sly disinterest. “Uncomfortable, isn’t it?”

I gritted my teeth and nodded. My hand had gone numb as soon as I’d touched it. I was curious to study the markings on its front and back, but after the space of two breaths, my arm was numb to the shoulder, as if I had slept on it all night. I wondered if my whole body would go numb if I held it long enough.

I was prevented from finding out, as the wagon hit a bump and my numbed hand almost let Abenthy’s guilder fall to the footboard of the wagon. He snatched it up and slipped it back over his head, chuckling.

“How can you stand it?” I asked, trying to rub a little feeling back into my hand.

“It only feels that way to other people,” he explained. “To its owner, it’s just warm. That’s how you can tell the difference between an arcanist and someone who has a knack for finding water or guessing at the weather.”

“Trip has something like that,” I said. “He rolls sevens.”

“That’s a little different,” Abenthy laughed. “Not anything so unexplainable as a knack.” He slouched a little farther down into his seat. “Probably for the best. A couple hundred years ago, a person was good as dead if folk saw he had a knack. The Tehlins called them demon signs, and burned folk if they had them.” Abenthy’s mood seemed to have taken a downward turn.

“We had to break Trip out of jail once or twice,” I said, trying to lighten the tone of the conversation. “But no one actually tried to burn him.”

Abenthy gave a tired smile. “I suspect Trip has a pair of clever dice or an equally clever skill which probably extends to cards as well. I thank you for your timely warning, but a knack is something else entirely.”

I can’t abide being patronized. “Trip can’t cheat to save his life,” I said a little more sharply than I had intended. “And anyone in the troupe can tell good dice from bad. Trip throws sevens. It doesn’t matter whose dice he uses, he rolls sevens. If he bets on someone, they roll sevens. If he so much as bumps a table with loose dice on it, seven.”

“Hmmm.” Abenthy nodded to himself. “My apologies. That does sound like a knack. I’d be curious to see it.”

I nodded. “Take your own dice. We haven’t let him play for years.” A thought occurred to me. “It might not still work.”

He shrugged. “Knacks don’t go away so easily as that. When I was growing up in Staup, I knew a young man with a knack. Uncommonly good with plants.” Abenthy’s grin was gone as he looked off at something I couldn’t see. “His tomatoes would be red while everyone else’s vines were

still climbing. His squash were bigger and sweeter, his grapes didn’t hardly have to be bottled before they started being wine.” He trailed off, his eyes far away.

“Did they burn him?” I asked with the morbid curiosity of the young. “What? No, of course not. I’m not that old.” He scowled at me in mock

severity. “There was a drought and he got run out of town. His poor mother was heartbroken.”

There was a moment of silence. Two wagons ahead of us, I heard Teren and Shandi rehearsing lines from The Swineherd and the Nightingale.

Abenthy seemed to be listening as well, in an offhand way. After Teren got himself lost halfway through Fain’s garden monologue, I turned back to face him. “Do they teach acting at the University?” I asked.

Abenthy shook his head, slightly amused by the question. “Many things, but not that.”

I looked over at Abenthy and saw him watching me, his eyes danced. “Could you teach me some of those other things?” I asked.

He smiled, and it was as easy as that.

Abenthy proceeded to give me a brief overview of each of the sciences. While his main love was for chemistry, he believed in a rounded education. I learned how to work the sextant, the compass, the slipstick, the abacus. More important, I learned to do without.

Within a span I could identify any chemical in his cart. In two months I could distill liquor until it was too strong to drink, bandage a wound, set a bone, and diagnose hundreds of sicknesses from symptoms. I knew the process for making four different aphrodisiacs, three concoctions for contraception, nine for impotence, and two philtres referred to simply as “maiden’s helper.” Abenthy was rather vague about the purpose of the last of these, but I had some strong suspicions.

I learned the formulae for a dozen poisons and acids and a hundred medicines and cure-alls, some of which even worked. I doubled my herb lore in theory if not in practice. Abenthy started to call me Red and I called him Ben, first in retaliation, then in friendship.

Only now, far after the fact, do I recognize how carefully Ben prepared me for what was to come at the University. He did it subtly. Once or twice a day, mixed in with my normal lectures, Ben would present me with a little mental exercise I would have to master before we went on to anything else. He made me play Tirani without a board, keeping track of the stones in my head. Other times he would stop in the middle of a conversation and make me repeat everything said in the last few minutes, word for word.

This was levels beyond the simple memorization I had practiced for the

stage. My mind was learning to work in different ways, becoming stronger. It felt the same way your body feels after a day of splitting wood, or swimming, or sex. You feel exhausted, languorous, and almost Godlike. This feeling was similar, except it was my intellect that was weary and expanded, languid and latently powerful. I could feel my mind starting to awaken.

I seemed to gain momentum as I progressed, like when water starts to wash away a dam made of sand. I don’t know if you understand what a geometric progression is, but that is the best way to describe it. Through it all Ben continued to teach me mental exercises that I was half convinced he constructed out of sheer meanness.

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