Serpent's Walk was coming to know a certain visiting looker. After the carnival, everyone knew his face. The boys knew his names: he was Tras Preetror of Condigeo. Tras fascinated them. He spent the whole day in idleness, like a Lordkin. The kinless liked him even when he was with Lordkin, because Tras paid for what he took.
Not always, though. Sometimes he told stories instead.
He would walk away from a fight, or run, but sometimes he talked his way out. Wanshig got close enough to see Zatch the Knife accost Tras. He reported that they were presently talking like brothers long separated; that Tras Preetror shared a flask with Zatch. Zatch took nothing else.
Everything about Tras Preetror was exotic, peculiar. Whandall knew he had to see more.
The boys of Serpent's Walk kept getting caught because they went in bands. Bands could hide in the forest, because the forest was roomy. In the city people occupied what space there was. Getting caught got you laughed at. Whandall preferred to lurk alone.
Others learned that Tras Preetror was staying with a kinless family in the Eastern Arc. The kinless had bought protection from the Bonechewers who owned that area, so the house was nicer than most. It also meant that Whandall risked more than being laughed at if he got caught.
Three days after the carnival, the morning's light found eleven-year-old Whandall on the roof, just above Tras's curtained window. He'd slept there, flattened on the slope of the roof.
He heard Tras wake, piss, and dress himself, all while singing in the rolling Condigeano tongue. Tras's footsteps went straight to the curtained window. His arm reached through with something in his hand.
"Come down, boy," he said, tormenting the syllables of normal speech. "I've got something for you. Talk to me."
Whandall flattened against the roof while he thought it over. He hadn't gathered anything from the room. The teller couldn't be angry about that. He was singing again...
Whandall joined in the chorus and swung on in.
"You sing pretty," Tras said. "Who are you?" He held out his gift. Whandall tasted orange wedges in honey for the first time.
"Name Whandall of Serpent's Walk. Happy meet you, Tras," he said in Condigeano. He'd practiced the words while he and others eavesdropped on the lookers.
"Happy meet you, Whandall," Tras said in bad talk-to-strangers speech. "I talk to other... you call Lordkin?"
"Lordkin, yes, of Serpent's Walk."
"Tell me how you live."
He understood the words how you live, but Whandall couldn't make sense of them. "How I guard my self? My brothers teach-will teach me how to use a knife. I walk without one until I know."
"What you do yesterday?"
"Hid in the... hid. Watched this house. Can't see roof. No Lordkin around. Climb house next door, look at roof. Go for blanket, come back, sleep on roof. Wait for you. Tras, speak Condigeo."
Tras said in his own speech, "Are a lot of your days like that?"
"Maybe... . Tell me how the kinless live."
"I don't know."
Whandall said, "I know how woodsmen live. Woodsmen are kinless."
Whandall began to speak of what he'd learned. The dangerous plants, their names, how to recognize and avoid them. The rite that woodsmen performed before they felled a redwood and cut it up. What they ate. How they talked. Why none but Kreeg Miller would help injured Lordkin children. How they came to accept Whandall.
Tras listened intently, nodding, smiling. When Whandall ran down he said, "There, now, you've told me a lot about yourself. You rescued your
brother. Lordkin don't work, hut you carried water when you saw there was need. Lordkin don't learn about the forest, even the ones who go in as children. Lordkin like to watch without being seen. You gather, but the kinless try to stop you, because what you gather is what they make or sell or use. You don't worship trees, but you worship Yangin-Atep. You see?"
"Tras? Show me what you say. Tell me how you live."
Tras Preetror talked.
He had come to watch the Burning, to travel afterward and tell what he'd seen. "If you want to see the world, a teller is what you want to be. Wherever you go, they want to know what it's like where you came from. Of course you should know the speech. My family could afford a woman of the Incas to teach me and my brothers and sisters and cousins. We learned geometry and numbers and incantations, but I learned Inca speech too... ."
Tras mangled the words and rhythms of normal speech until Whandall's head hurt. Sometimes he didn't have the words. Finding them turned into lessons in Condigeano speech.
"... Rich. If I was rich, I could get my own ship and take it where I wanted."
"Tras, someone could take it away and go where he wants."
"Pirates? Sure. You have to be better armed than they are or carry a better wizard or somehow persuade a pirate that you do.
"Once upon a time, two Torovan privateers had us bracketed far from shore. Privateers are pirates, but a government gives them a license to steal-I mean gather. Who has a better right?" Tras laughed and said, "But Wave Walker carried a wizard that trip.
"We watched. Acrimegus-he was our wizard-sent a beam of orange light from his hand down into the water near one of the other ships. It was just bright enough to see in twilight. He held it there, on and on, while we maneuvered and the two ships counter-maneuvered and came closer and c-loser. Then the water boiled at that one spot. When Acrimegus gave us the signal, we all pulled the sails down and then crowded along the rail. The privateers must have thought we were crazy.
"A head broke the surface. It was almost the same size as the nearest ship. All of us shrieked and went running below, all but Acrimegus. I stuck my head back out to see the rest. The head was rising and rising on what looked like leagues of neck. It turned toward us. Acrimegus waved and danced and shouted, 'No, no, you massive great fool,' until it turned toward the privateer and started to dip-"
"What was it?"
"Well, an illusion, of course, but the privateers turned about and ran. What made it work wasn't just Acrimegus's light effects, but the details, the way he acted, the way we were acting."
"Were you frightened?"
"I pissed in my kilt. But what a story! I'd travel again with Acrimegus any day. Now you tell me something."
"I've seen a Lord."
"So have 1. Where was your Lord?"
"At home, in Lordshills. He had a fountain. And a room inside where they can cook. A room to piss in, with running water. And a room where kinless wrote things on paper and put them in jars, but I couldn't go in there." Whandall decided not to speak Samorty's name. He would hold that in reserve.
"Can you read?"
"No. I don't know anyone who can read." Except the Lords could read. And Shanda.
"You do now. What did your Lord do?"
Whandall was still trying to understand what he'd seen on two visits. "He had other Lords to dinner, and a magician. People who weren't Lords brought the food and took it away, and all the Lords did was talk and ask each other questions. At the end they acted like they'd fixed something broken, only... only it was the next Burning. They think if they can make people talk to each other, they can miss the next Burning. And at the end he put on armor and went out with some other armed men."
"Did they ... do you think they put off the next Burning?"
No grown man or woman could answer that question. Whandall didn't think even Lord Samorty knew that. Whandall said, "No."
"Then when will it happen?"
"Nobody knows," Whandall said. "There was another Lord who made cups move in a circle. Like this-"
"Yes, that's called juggling."
"How do you do it?"
"Years of practice. It isn't magic, Whandall."
"There was a ..." Whandall couldn't remember the word. "People pretending to be other people. Telling each other a story like they don't know they're being watched. Jispomnos, they called it."
"I've seen Jispomnos. It's too long for after dinner. It runs on forever! You saw just pieces, I bet. Was there a part where the wife's parents want blood money?"
They talked through the morning and deep into afternoon. Whandall practiced his scanty Condigeano from time to time, but usually they were each speaking their own language.
Tras spoke of his own affairs without hesitation. Still, it was hard for even a teller to tell how he lived ... to see it from inside ... to see what a stranger must miss. They had to walk circles around their lives, to sneak up on the truth.
"Do you know who your father was?" Whandall said, "Yes. Do you?"
"Yes, of course," Tras said.
"What you did with your face. It looked like you wanted to fight."
Tras shrugged uncomfortably. "Maybe for just a moment. Sorry. Whandall, it's an insult to ask if anyone but my father is my father." Tras changed to local speech. "This not Condigeo. You feel I still respect you?"
"Yes, but we don't say father. Resalet-" Tras lofted one eyebrow. Whandall explained, "Resalet is father to my brothers Wanshig and Shastern and two of my sisters. He tells us, 'I know who my father is. So do you. But maybe I'm talking to one who isn't so lucky. I don't throw it in his teeth. You don't either. You say Pothefit. You and I and he know who I mean. Even if we're wrong.' "
"Pothefit. Your father. Have other name?"
"Not to tell."
"Live with you?"
"Pothefit was killed by a wizard."
Tras's face twisted. The man's face was so alien, it was hard to tell just what he was showing. He said, "When was that?"
"My second Burning. I was seven. Five years ago." Almost five, Whandall thought.
"I missed it. My ship left late. Now nobody seems to know when the next Burning will start," Tras said.
"Nobody knows," Whandall agreed. , Tras Preetror sighed. "But someone has to know. Someone has to set a fire."
An odd viewpoint, Whandall thought. "Yangin-Atep sets fire."
"They used to know, here in Tep's Town. In late spring, every spring, you'd burn the city. Now it's been... three years? What do you remember of the Burning?"
Whandall tried to tell him. Tras listened for a bit, then asked in Condigeano, "A wizard killed this Pothefit?"
"It was said."
"Odd. I'd know if there was a powerful wizard in Tep's Town."
"He's here. I've seen him. Someday I'll see him again. I don't know enough about magic yet. I don't even have my knife."
Tras said, "I've seen those knives. Half a pace long, plain handles, maybe a little crude?"
"A Condigeano merchant would spend more effort. Inca smiths get very fancy. Here, someone would just take it away from him."
Whandall frowned, remembering something. "Why did you laugh?"
Tras looked guilty. "You caught that? I'm sorry."
"Yes, but why?"
"Magic wears out. It wears out faster in cities because there are more people. Everybody knows a little magic. You ever try to work a spell near a courthouse? It's bad enough in Condigeo.
"But here! There's something about Tep's Town that eats the magic right out of spells and potions and prayers. Here, it's hard to imagine what a wizard could do that would hurt a careful man. He must have taken your f-taken Pothefit by surprise."
How? A man so old that he might die before Whandall had his knife! A gatherer must be wary, ready to run or fight. What could Morth of Atlantis have done to surprise Pothefit?
But Whandall only asked, "Have you been where magic is strong?"
"They're dangerous places. Deserts, the ocean, mountain peaks. Anywhere magicians have a hard time getting to, that's where magic can still leap out and bite you. But I like to go look," Tras said. "I'm a teller. I have to go to where I can find stories to tell."
"What will happen when all the magic is gone?"
Tras looked grave. "I don't know. I don't think anyone knows, but some magicians say they have visions of a time when there is no magic, and everyone lives like animals. Others say that after a long time there'll be a new age that doesn't need magic."
Whandall's mind's eye showed him Tep's Town spreading to cover the world ... just for a moment, before he blinked the image away.
What Whandall remembered best of that afternoon was how little he understood of what he'd seen of his world. But he'd learned just by talking, and the teller didn't seem disappointed.