'I fancy a sweet bun. How about you?'

I longed to ask him who opposed High Lord Sethon, but the subject was clearly at an end.

And I had not had a sweet bun in a very long time — there was no money for such excesses in my master's household.

'I should not dawdle…' I said.

'Come, it will not take long. We'll get them as we walk. Can you recommend a seller?'

I nodded. One bun would not take long. I spotted a break in the slow-moving crowd and led Master Tozay through it, cutting diagonally across the road to the corner of the covered White Cloud Market. It was busier than usual, the afternoon sun driving people under the shade of the broad white silk sails that had been stretched between carved poles. We passed Ari the Foreigner serving some merchants in his coffee stall, the heavy perfume of the strange black drink thick in the air. Ari had once given me a bowl of his coffee, and I had liked the rich bitterness and the slight buzzing it left in my head. I touched Master Tozay's arm and pointed at the pastry stall to our left, its counter blocked by customers.

'The red bean ones are said to be good here,' I said, standing on my toes to see the trays of buns arranged in neat lines.

The nutty smell of bean paste and sweet dough radiated in a wave of heat. A sharp roil of hunger joined the ache in my gut. Master Tozay nodded and, bowing politely, managed to neatly insert himself ahead of a woman hesitating over her choice. As I watched his broad back and sunburnt neck, I felt another flicker of memory: of being carried on a big man's back and the salty warmth of sun-leathered skin against my cheek. But, once again, I couldn't make the image stay. Was it a memory of my father? I no longer had any clear idea of what he looked like. A moment later Master Tozay turned, holding a bun in each hand, wrapped in a twist of red paper.

'Here you go,' he said, handing me a pastry 'Be careful. The seller said they're just out of the steamer.'

'Thank you, sir.' The heat from the bun stung my palm through the thin wrapping. I slid the paper down, fashioning a handle. It would be best to wait until it had cooled, but the smell was too tantalising; I bit into it, juggling the steaming pastry around with my tongue.

'Tasty' Master Tozay said, fanning his mouth with his hand.

I nodded, unable to speak as the hot dense filling made my jaw seize with its sudden sweetness.

He motioned forwards with his bun. 'Is this the way to the gate?'

I swallowed and sucked in a breath of cooling air. 'Yes, you follow the white sails until they end,' I said, pointing at the silk roof, 'and then turn right. Just keep walking and you'll come to the Gate of Officials.'

Master Tozay smiled. 'Good boy. Now, if ever you make the journey down the coast to Kan Po, you must look for me. Ybu can be sure of a welcome.' He hesitated then put his hand on my shoulder. 'If that dragon has any sense tomorrow, he'll choose you,' he said, giving me a gentle shake.

I smiled. 'Thank you, sir. And travel well.'

He nodded and raised his pastry in salute, then joined the flow of people in the centre of the walkway. As his solid form merged into the shapes and colours of the crowd, I felt as though he was taking my mother and father with him. Two half-memories that were already fading, leaving only an imprint of a smile like mine and the smell of sun-warmed skin.


The full-hour bell was ringing as I finally lifted the latch of the gate that led to the kitchen of my master's house. Irsa, one of the bond maids, was standing at the delivery door with the miller's man. I watched as she laughed, her hands spread on her hips to show their generous shape, as the young man hoisted a large sack onto his shoulder. Then she saw me and quickly stepped back into the shelter of the doorway Her coy giggles dropped into the hissing undertones of gossip. The miller's man swung around and stared at me, his fingers curling into a ward-evil. I looked away and made a show of shutting the gate. Better to wait until he followed Irsa into the storage rooms.

When the courtyard was clear, I walked slowly up the path towards the kitchen. Lon, the gardener, was on his knees repairing the low bamboo fence that enclosed the Sun Garden. I nodded as I passed and he waved a dirt-crusted hand. Lon mainly kept to himself, but he always greeted me with gentle courtesy and even had a smile for Chart, the slops boy His kindness was not copied by many of my master's other staff. Our small household was very much divided: those who believed a cripple could be a Dragoneye, and those who did not. All who served my master knew that his wealth had nearly run dry; there would be no funds to train another candidate. If I did not secure the apprentice bonus and the twenty per cent tithe tomorrow, my master was ruined.

The kitchen doorway was open and I stepped over the raised threshold that kept evil spirits from entering the house. Immediately, the heat from the large cooking stoves pressed against my skin and I smelled the sharp tang of sour plum sauce and salt-baked fish: my master's evening meal. Kuno, the cook, glanced up from the white-root he was slicing.

'You, is it?' He turned his attention back to the vegetable. 'Master has already ordered the gruel,' he said, tilting his shaved head at a small pot hanging over the spit fire. 'Don't blame me when you eat it. It was according to his instructions.'

My evening meal. As part of the cleansing ritual, I was allowed only one bowl of millet gruel before praying throughout the night to my ancestors for guidance and help. A few months ago, I had asked my master whether it mattered that I had no knowledge of my ancestors. He stared at me for a moment, then turned away saying, 'It matters very much.' My master was being very careful; he said we must do everything according to Dragoneye tradition to avoid attracting Council scrutiny. I could only hope that old Hian's precedent for the Reverse Horse Dragon Second was in the history scrolls. And that my master could find it in time.

A rasping noise rose from behind the large wooden preparation table that stood in the centre of the room. Chart, calling me from his mat beside the stoves.

'He's been waiting for you,' Kuno said. 'Been getting under my feet all day' He sliced off the end of the white- root with an extra heavy chop. 'You tell him I'm not blind, I know he's been at the cheese.' Although they had worked in the same kitchen for eleven years, Kuno still refused to speak to Chart or even look at him. Too much bad luck.

I skirted around the end of the table and used its worn edge for balance as I sat on the stone floor beside Chart. He tapped my knee with a clawed finger, his lolling mouth slowly forming a smile.

'Did you really get some cheese?' I asked softly, shifting my weight off my aching left hip.

He nodded vigorously and opened his hand to show me a piece of dirty cheese rind. The muscles in his throat contorted as he struggled to speak. I listened for his words in the strained, elongated sounds.

'For…the…rat.' He pushed the rind into my hand.

'Thank you,' I said, slipping the cheese into my pocket. Chart was always giving me food he had found. Or stolen. He was convinced that if I fed the big grey rat that lived behind the storeroom where I slept, the Rat Dragon would repay the kindness by choosing me as his apprentice. I wasn't so sure an energy dragon would take note of such a thing, but I still gave the scraps to the rat.

From beneath his body, Chart pulled out a thick slice of fine bread covered in dust. The master's bread. I glanced at Kuno; he was still bent over the white-root. I moved to my right until I hid Chart and the bread from view.

'How'd you get that? Kuno will whip you,' I whispered.

'For you…only gruel tonight…you be…hungry tomorrow.' He dropped the bread into my lap.

I ducked my head in thanks and stuffed it into my pocket with the cheese. 'I think that's the whole idea. They want us to be hungry' I said.

Chart twisted his mouth into a puzzled grimace.

I shrugged. 'We're supposed to prove our natural stamina by doing the approach ceremony hungry and tired.'

Chart rolled his head back and forth across the mat. 'Stu…pid,' he said. He took a deep breath and steadied his head against the side of the firewood box, fixing his eyes on mine.

'Tomorrow morning you come…say goodbye?' His fingers closed around my wrist. 'Come say…goodbye…

Вы читаете Eon: Dragoneye Reborn
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