Chapter Seven: The Gift

“The petals and stamen of the alait rose can be used to make the most potent poison in the known world,” Professor Rensen Atal said.
He picked up the tweezers and turned the large, fragrant petal in a circle. “See these veins? That is the source of the poison, but insects sip the nectar although no other type of animal would ever chew on the petals or the stamen.”
“There is such a tree right outside of my balcony,” Lahn murmured.
“The alait rose is a beautiful tree, the emblem of our great nation,” Professor Atal replied. “You’ll find it everywhere in North Torahn. The saving grace is that not everyone can synthesize the poison. Few of us know how.”
“That is good,” Lahn said and studied the bright orange stamen. The scent of the flower was powerful and filled the laboratory with its sweet musk.
Professor Atal nodded. “The leaves of the plant are used to synthesize a strong pain killer. That process is easier than the process to extract the poison. One simply mashes the leaves with a pestle and mortar and then boils the mash in water for a couple of hours. The concoction thickens and can be imbibed or placed over a wound. If imbibed, the medicine makes one sleepy and slightly numb. Directly over a wound, the medicine numbs the pain.”
Lahn picked up a large, waxy leaf. It was dark green and gleamed in the lamplight and the light from the open windows.
“It has no scent,” Lahn said.
“The pain medicine has not odor or flavor,” the professor murmured. “That is why it is so popular with healers. Some of our pain killers are bitter and most patients opt not to drink them.”
Professor Atal set the petal down and led Lahn to another table. “We make many, many medicines here at university. We also store recipes and samples of leaves and plants for posterity. What were you working on in the south?”
“A cure for Leptka’s’ Disease.”
Professor Atal raised an eyebrow. “A cure for the plague? Most admirable, if it can be done.”
“I intend to do it,” Lahn assured him.
“Very good, then may I suggest you come on board as an employee of the university?”
Lahn gaped. “You…you want me to work for you?”
Professor Atal shrugged. “Why not? I have heard of your successes, you know. There is no war, as far as universities are concerned. All we care about is knowledge.”
“You’ve heard of me?”
“A brilliant young scientist who lived in a remote monastery in the Thol Mountains? Yes, I have.”
Lahn blushed. “I had no idea.”
“Don’t get all humble, your Highness. That won’t do at all. If you come onboard, we will be co-workers.”
“In that case, call me Lahn.”
“Lahn it is then. My name is Rensen and you should call me Rensen.”
They clasped forearms.
“Are you done here, Lahn?” Domio asked from the door leading into the hallway.
Lahn looked at Rensen. “Are we done?”
“For now,” Rensen agreed. “But come with me and fill out an application for employment.”
“What’s this?” Domio asked.
Lahn looked at his uncle. “Rensen here has asked me to apply for a position at the university’s laboratories as a scientist.”
“You need to ask permission,” Domio gently reminded his nephew.
Lahn frowned. “It won’t hurt anyone. It might even help.”
“You are betrothed to the Warlord of North Torahn,” Domio needlessly stated. “You have to ask permission.”
Lahn sighed. “Very well. But I’ll fill out the application anyway.”
Rensen bowed. “Very good. Come with me then.”
He led both Domio and Lahn down the wide, white, gleaming hallway. “You’ll need a sponsor to work for university and I’ll take that role. There is a six month probationary period, during which your work will have to be vetted and reviewed by your sponsor. At the end of that six month probationary period, you’ll be considered a full employee of the university.”
“Understood,” Lahn replied and followed Rensen into an office.
The young man behind the counter stood. “Professor Atal. How many I help you, sir?”
“I need an employment application.”
The young man nodded and stepped away, going through another door, before returning with a thick packet. “Whom is the application for?”
“Me,” Lahn replied.
The young man looked him over head to foot before nodding. “You’ll need to have references from at least three people. Some give more, but three is the usual number. They can be professional or personal references.”
Lahn held out his hand for the packet.
“The references must be at least one paragraph long and descriptive,” the young man continued. Then you must write a small biography of yourself and a history of your work experience. Any questions?“
Lahn looked over the packet. Each page had a question and space or answer. The words were written in the Common Tongue, which Lahn knew but had mostly forgotten. He hoped his uncle Domio would help him write the answers.
He looked at the young man. “Understood.”
The young man gave him a warm smile. “Good luck to you then.”
“I do have a question,” Lahn said. “How long before I hear if I am accepted?”
The young man considered. “From the time you apply, it takes about a fortnight. Then you will be asked to attend an interview with the university president and five professors. None of your sponsors can be part of the hiring panel.”
Lahn nodded.
“Good day then,” the young man said and took his seat once more.
Rensen led them out into the hall, closing the door behind them. “Don’t worry too much, Lahn. My word carries a lot of weight. Who are you going to ask for references?”
“I will be a character reference,” Domio said.
Rensen nodded. “Good, good. A serren is always a good reference. Who else?”
“The Warlord,” Lahn said on impulse.
Rensen gaped. “The Warlord?”
Lahn blushed. “Yes.”
“Well. He is an alumni of this university, you know. He was a brilliant student of political science and history.”
Lahn cocked his head. “He was?”
“Yes. He was a passable poet as well, if I recall.”
Lahn swallowed. Figured the heathen warlord would be a poet. He probably wrote filthy poetry to that whore goddess of his.
“So, he is a good reference?” Lahn asked.
“Of course,” Rensen replied. “I will be your third reference. Let me see the packet.”
Lahn handed him the papers and the professor rifled through the pages and removed one.
“This is my reference page,” he explained, handing Lahn the remainder of the packet. “Please bring these back tomorrow.”
“I will,” Lahn assured him.
They clasped forearms.
“Thank you, Rensen, for this opportunity.”
“We could do worse than having you in residence,” Rensen said with a chuckle.
Lahn placed the packet in his shoulder bag.
“Come, Lahn,” Domio said and steered Lahn towards the great arched entrance and out into the gardens.
They walked in silence side by side for a few minutes until they found their carriage parked out by the sidewalk beyond the great iron gates of the university. The sidewalks were crowded with pedestrians coming and going from the great open air market a few blocks away.
As Domio went to enter the carriage, Lahn plucked his tunic sleeve.
“Can we go to the market, Uncle?” he asked.
Domio frowned. “What ever for?”
“I would like to purchase the Warlord a gift.”
Domio’s frown eased and he smiled. “To soften him?”
Lahn chuckled sheepishly. “It won’t hurt.”
Domio nodded and approached the carriage driver. “Wait for us for a bit more. We’re headed to the market.”
The man tipped his head. “Very good, my lord. I will try to get closer to the market for your convenience.”
Lahn put his shoulder bag in the carriage and he and Domio headed east along the sidewalk. The university consisted of several large buildings that took up a mile of space. The open air market began at the black iron fence where the university grounds came to an abrupt end. The pavilions were a riot of colors and small flags that snapped in the strong wind coming in from the north. It had begun to sprinkle again but not enough to cover one’s head. The skies were slate gray and the light was watery and gave the impression it was late afternoon, when it was only late morning at best.
This far west, the pavilions sold mostly food and Lahn’s stomach gave a strong growl at the spicy smells.
“You’re hungry,” Domio said. “You should have said something. Let’s purchase some food before finding a gift.”
He led Lahn to a line and read the sign over the pavilion. The sign was written in Common Speech.
Domio turned to Lahn. “It says the vendor sells skewers of fried dosi with chunks of turies. Would you like to eat that or shall we try another pavilion?”
“What does that one say?”
His uncle turned. “The sigh says grains with a spicy sauce, tah’lir meat and chunks of fried cheese.”
“Ooh, let’s go there. I’m in the mood for something spicy to warm my blood.”
Domio led the way to the other line, which was longer, much to Lahn’s chagrin. They went to stand at the back of the line. The line proceeded quickly and soon they were at the head of the line and Domio was ordering and paying their fee. The vendor handed Domio two wooden bowls with the food and two wooden spoons.
“When you are finished, bring the bowls and spoons back,” the vendor said.
Domio bowed. “Consider it done.”
They stood off to the side and ate hungrily. The food was spicy and flavorful with a slight sweet taste to the chewy, nutty grains. The tah’lir meat was tender, its flavor lost beneath the heat of the southern spices. The cheese had a crunchy batter and was golden brown. It was salty and pungent and complemented the other flavors beautifully. When they were done, Domio took the bowls and spoons to a small table stacked with dirty bowls and spoons. He left the items there then they walked into the crowd, heading east towards the wharves.
The market was even larger than the university, encompassing several blocks of land from east to west and from north to south. Hundreds of pavilions and smaller tents crowded the space. Narrow pathways crisscrossed the market to allow patrons to go from pavilion to pavilion. Long tables with sample wares stood out in front of each pavilion, but most of the wares were kept inside of the wide, tall tents.
As they walked through the tents, Lahn looked at the wares, wondering what he could possibly purchase for one of the wealthiest men in North Torahn and someone he did not know.
He appealed to his uncle.
His uncle frowned. “Well, he mostly wears uniforms, so a new tunic does not seem a sound decision. What are his hobbies?”
Lahn blew a breath. “God Poa only knows. I have not had a conversation with the man since arriving here, Uncle.”
“Well, mayhap he likes a good game of s’krieh,” his uncle suggested.
“S’krieh? Do they sell board games here? Or shall we inquire about a shop?”
“I daresay they should sell games here. Come, let us ask.”
Domio asked one of the bored looking guards patrolling the grounds, who directed them further south along one of the pathways.
It took them a good half hour to find the green pavilion belonging to a Tjish.unen merchant. The tall, muscular merchant showed them inside his pavilion, where six long tables displayed a dizzying array of games.
“S’krieh is played with a board or cards,” the merchant explained as they looked over his wares. “Which would you prefer?”
“Is the Warlord a card player or a board player?” Domio asked.
The merchant turned to the table. “He is known to like card games, but he might be intrigued by this board here.”
The board in question had figurines shaped out of pewter. They were about half the size of Lahn’s hands and exquisitely detailed. The board itself was large and gorgeous with the four directions painted different colors to designate different kingdoms. The dice were smooth bone, painted with numbers, each face corresponding to a color from each of the four kingdoms.
Lahn had never played s’krieh, so he ran the tip of his fingers along the landscapes painted on each direction of the board, curious about the game.
“This is fine work,” he said to the merchant in his broken Common Speech.
The merchant bowed. “My wife and daughters make each board, my lord. It is a labor of love. Each board takes close to a month to make.”
Lahn was not surprised, not with the level of detail he saw on the board. He praised the merchant’s family’s work and the merchant preened proudly.
“I’ll take this board,” Lahn said.
The merchant bowed. “Very good, my lord. I shall wrap it up in cloth for you to protect it from the elements. It comes in a wooden box which is made by hand also.”
Lahn perused the merchant’s other wares while the man set the board and figurines in their box.
When the merchant was done, he set the box in Lahn’s hands. It was wrapped in fine muslin.
“Thank you,” Lahn murmured.
The merchant bowed and named his price. It was a small fortune, but Domio did not blink as he paid the fee.
“Come, Lahn, before we are left destitute,” Domio said and led Lahn out into the rainy late morning.

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