“My apologies. I have already been treated by the finest physicians in Awat.”
She braced herself for his next sally, and was surprised when he simply shrugged and said, “Is that so? Odd that they did not confine you to bed before you fully recovered.”
“I was released from convalescence last week.”
“And are now up and about already, in such weather, no less.”
Ignoring him, Ashne decided, would be easier than responding. She turned away. At her silence, he seemed to lose interest, much to her relief.
Then she felt a tapping at her shoulder, and flinched.
“Take this, at least,” he said, with a hint of irritation in his tone at last. “You look as miserable as a drowned rooster, and it looks like we’re going to be stuck here for a while.”
In his hand was a steamed pork bun. She reached out for it tentatively, wondering if he had poisoned the food, and if it might not be better to refuse.
“And why on heaven and earth would I want to drug you, when I have already openly stated my profession?” he muttered, as if reading her mind. “You are no one important. And you are hardly my type! Riverfolk. Always so distrustful. Can’t you take a gesture of good will for what it is?”
Uncertain again of how to reply, she said, “You could be trying to peddle antidotes, or stomach medicine.”
For a moment he stared. Then he threw his head back and laughed and laughed. “Here,” he said, and took a bite out of the bun before handing it back to her. “Satisfied?”
The bun was still warm to the touch, and juices trickled out from where he had bitten. Their appetizing scent wafted to her nose easily in the chill air, and her stomach finally deigned to remind her that she had not yet eaten since the previous night.
“Thank you, Master Apothecary,” she said, rather stiffly.
His reply was scathing but good-humored. “Good. I can’t stand it when people refuse to take proper care of their own bodies.”
After that, they fell into a comfortable silence. The rain pattered on in her ears. Across the street, an unlatched door creaked and moaned. Ashne wondered, as she chewed, what fiefdom he hailed from, and how his hair had lost its color. Perhaps he had been exiled, and his head had turned white in his grief. Or perhaps he had eaten some strange herb during his travels. (She was, for some reason, more inclined to believe the latter.)
As Ashne finished the last of the bun, a sharp wind arose, spraying her with rain. She shrank back, realizing that the matter of the summons had fled her mind.
Two years now had passed since Awat’s final victory over Khonua; so too had Ashne and her sworn sister Zsaran resumed their old bodyguard duties, but for that final secret mission back south. And now that the deed was done, she must once more return to her lady’s side.
That was all there was to it. There was no need for concern.
Nor any reason for her to dawdle any longer. She would brave the weather after all, though Zsaran would surely scold her for neglecting her health, just as the apothecary had.
At that thought she turned, intending to thank the man once more for his small kindness.
What she saw gave her pause. Beside her, the apothecary peered out towards the sky, raising his hand to brush strands of hair from his face in an impatient gesture. In that brief moment, an unnatural stillness in his sleeve caught her eye: the voluminous cloth hung limply in the air, seemingly unaffected by the wind.
She watched on, alert, preparing to ward off a strike from a hidden weapon.
There was a twisted flicker of movement.
But nothing happened. She blinked, and the sleeve was flapping around again like the rest of his clothing. Ashne stared, bewildered.
“Looks like a storm after all,” said the stranger.
Her eyes had never failed her. And so she responded, without thinking, “What, are you a diviner as well as an apothecary?”
He did not reply immediately, but when he did there was a note of mild amusement in his voice again. “The study of sorcery is discouraged by the Son of Heaven, may he live ten thousand years.”
And perhaps it was the strangeness of his answer and his peculiar choice of words that spurred her on, though Zsaran often teased her for having the curiosity of a rock.
“Lords and kings discourage many things,” she said, “yet that does not keep people from doing them nonetheless. And the Son of Heaven’s word holds no power here.”