“You smell as awful as you look.”
Garen didn’t raise his head from the steaming tea in front of him. “I’m told I went swimming last night.”
Yura clucked her tongue. “And came out dirtier than you went in, sure. Who was he?”
He managed a short laugh. “Uh, I don’t really know. He seemed nice enough.”
The woman’s voice softened. “She sent you off blind a second time, huh? Praise and scorn be upon her.”
His teacher’s irreverence usually irked him, but this time Garen welcomed it. “Third time. This guy was beautiful, though.” He sipped some of the tea she’d poured him. It was bitter, tasted of tree bark and dirt. “If I hadn’t heard them coming, I’d still be there trying to do something I’d actually remember.”
Yura tousled his hair a bit, then smelled her hand and scowled. “She-who-foresees wouldn’t have it any other way. I’m gonna draw you a bath, and then you’re gonna tell me what they’re wanting with you.”
The imminence of a bath relaxed him. “Yes, please.” Then, remembering the weave of their demands, he sighed and added: “they’ve banned me. I can’t tell you.”
The woman rose up full, laughed loudly. “No man’s ever stopped me yet, Garen. Drink your tea and stop cowering.”
“I’m not…” he started, but she’d already left the room. “…Cowering” he muttered to himself, breathlessly. His head forward, his shoulders hunched, his arms guarding his chest as if expecting to be hit.
He was. He sat up straight, let himself breathe again.
As he finished his drink-sick tea, as he stood and walked to where the bath waited for him, as he undressed and let his body adjust to the heat of the water, and as he sank into the fragrant water of the bath, Garen tried to piece together the last 16 hours.
The usual dread had come upon him last night. Couldn’t focus long enough to cook anything, so he’d gotten herbed meat and bread at a street vendor. Eaten only half of it, gave the rest to an urchin, wandered back to his rented room.
He’d tried to write. Nothing had come. He had no attention for the stack of unread books he’d bought three weeks before, had no errands, no friends he wanted to see. Not tired either, he’d lit candles at the small shrine and sat, staring.
He remembered nothing after, before waking next to Sorn in the stables. He’d fucked a horse-keeper, or the son of one. Had gone swimming in the river with his boots on to fetch a shirt he’d thrown in.
He remembered none of that. Where’d they even meet? Garen never drank at the docks—too many soldiers, too far to walk home drunk at night without being stopped.
This morning—the men, the pronounced demand, woven with a ban. He remembered nothing they’d said. Yura was right—he’d been cowering. What they needed a provisioner for had terrified him.
The last day made little sense to him, the weeks before were even less clear. Autumn had come, nights colder, days shorter, city quieting as if waiting for death. Perhaps it was: war loomed, lightness of living smothered by foreign threats and panicked rulers.
The world around him felt distant and cold, so too his own world. He’d fought with his landlord over a rent-rise. Estranged a few friends with arguments, stupid politics, his impatience with their unthinking hate. Had few friends left now. No lover, no desire to find more of either, at least when conscious.
Yura had warned him about she-who-foresees. “You can become a provisioner without her,” she’d told him, “and not find out the next day you were running naked through the hex markets screaming that they’re all frauds.”
“That happened to you?” Garen has asked, fascinated.
“Ayup. They were, too, but that don’t make the embarrassment much better. I don’t have the kind of body people want to see flopping around in the street.”
He’d laughed. She looked great for someone past sixty. Then he’d remembered: he heard about this, a year before coming to her for training. “Wait! That was you last year?”
She nodded, solemn-serious. “And it’ll be you next year if you start trying to see like she sees. Though I dare say there’d be a lot more would want to see you flopping about.”
Sitting in the tub, remembering, Garen laughed. He’d not been found naked in the streets yet. Walking home wet, shirtless, wasn’t too far away.
Dried, dressed, he stared at himself in the mirror. He didn’t look so awful now. Tired, though. Needed to shave, needed to cut his hair. Maybe wouldn’t do either, let both grow longer. Maybe a beard with his face, a beard like Sorn had, a beard like the other two men before him. Now into his twenties—perhaps time to grow up.
This thought brought amusement. Friends joked he was an old man. Cranky, stubborn. Boring. Kept to himself too much, read too much, drank not enough. Too content to stare into distance than dance in the fleeting now. Too serious.
“I’m going to stop shaving,” Garen said, entering the kitchen.
“And how long you been thinking that one through?” Yura teased. She filled two plates, handed them to him, stared hard into his left eye: “Or is that part of the demand?”
He shook his head. “I don’t think so. I just thought maybe it’d look good.”
Bemusement in her voice. “Of course it will. Let’s eat, boy. You’re always too serious when you’re hungry.”
Her banter lightened his mood. They sat next to each other at the table, plates in spaces they cleared of clutter.
“So they came at what time?” his teacher asked, still chewing her last bite of lamb.
Garen swallowed, drained a cup of water. “Just at dawn. I heard them coming in the stables.”
Shaking her head hard, the rings on her ears clanging, she asked him, “So you ran back home from a man to meet those soldiers?”
“Uh…yeah,” he answered. “Is that weird?”
She grunted. “You heard them coming.”
“About an hour before, yes.”
She followed a silence with a sigh: “she told you.”
He returned his own pause. Then, “I don’t know. I heard them knocking, and so I ran home to get there before they showed up.”
Yura stood. Dropped her fork on her plate, loud. “That took me ten years to learn. You’re…she picked you well.”
He raised his head to meet her uncomfortable awe. “You picked me, Yura. And taught me really well.”
She walked from the room, returned with a candle and a bowl of water. “You showed up at my door all burning with sight and fear. I wasn’t gonna turn you away. But I definitely didn’t choose you for anything. Maybe she didn’t either, but saw ahead what you could do. I don’t think it matters, in the end.”
She placed the bowl on the table. He watched her, thought on her words. He saw sense there.
“You still not talking to her?” he asked.
“Nope. Three months now. I’m too old to be running around outside time like I’ve got all the time in the world.” She lit the candle, sank its weighted end into the bowl. “If she wants more of my time, she’s gotta give me more of my own.”
Garen stayed silent, watched the flame play on the surface of the water. He’d known Yura for four years, heard each of her stories about she-who-foresees. Each tale fascinated more, filled him with more desire. He’d wanted to meet her. Begged Yura to teach him the devotions, the prayers, the dream-chants. The ways to find her in the threshold, the realms between wake and sleep.
He had not understood why not, why a provisioner would not take her patronage. Sent running naked through a hex-market, sure; found swimming in a river mid-autumn, of course. But still, why not? Why not when she could end the nightmares, teach control of the sight, a chance to avoid untimely death?
Yura told him at midsummer that she was done. She would speak no longer to their lady.
He had thought she joked.
“Nope. All done. No more. She can find someone else.”
Stuttering he’d replied: “but why? What happened?”
She’d shrugged. “Nothing. I’m just done. Maybe forever. If she wants me, she knows where to find me, and she knows what’s she’s gotta do to earn my favor back.”
Such had made him bristle. The first time she-who-foresees had spoken, he was hers. All doubts, all fears: gone. Years of headaches, nightmares, walking-sleep: ended.
Yura taught him to find her, with warnings. “She’s pushy, she’s got no boundaries, she doesn’t take no lightly. You gotta push back or you lose yourself.”
He found no need to push. Finding her, he found himself. Her presence was peace, sleep after a long day with no urgency to wake the next. She gave sense to everything, asked nothing in return.
Yura’s voice woke him from these thoughts. “You seeing this?”
Garen searched for fragments of visions, dance of light on water. “I don’t see anything.”
Yura nodded. “No reflection of the flame. It just…disappears into the water.”
He shifted, looked again. She spoke the truth. The water reflected no light.
“That’s…that’s bad, right?”
Yura rubbed her eyebrows. “I’ve never seen that before. Could be their ban. Could be something worse. Could just be we’re tired. When…when they got you going?”
Garen sunk in his chair. “Three days from now. I have to gather provisions and be ready at dawn on sixth-day.”
Yura met his eyes. Hers were kind, concerned. Worried. “And you’re going blind, huh? She and I might not be speaking ever again, but…well, you know what you gotta do.”
He nodded. He’d won an argument.
It felt nothing like victory.