Korin staggered off the boat with the rest of the passengers. The spring seas had been rough and he’d never managed to find his sea legs. Good to be on solid ground again. Even if that ground was a foreign land, a city full of strangers, where he was alone without a penny to his name.
Triome. The greatest city in the world. Capital of Ritalle, the first kingdom, Triome was as old as civilization. A center of trade, of knowledge, of culture. A place to hide, where a man could easily lose himself in the crowd. Even if that man was a wizard.
The docks were like an exotic, alien land, and he wasn’t even in the city proper yet. Korin had heard all kinds of stories of Triome, of the river markets where anything you could imagine could be bought or sold, or the cliffside parks where bright-plumed firstborn nobles crafted the futures of those who lived in the city far below. Of the great churches, large enough to house a village, with stained glass windows the size of houses and minarets covered in real gold. Opulent and vivid, crowded and alive, Triome was like nothing Korin had ever experienced. It would have been terrifying, if not for the greater horror he’d left behind.
The heat—Korin hadn’t expected the heat. The spring air was muggy and thick. Locals rushed about in light, billowy clothes that would have been indecent in southern lands. Half the men working the docks went shirtless, and the other half had collars open to halfway down their chests. The women were nearly as shockingly bare, in blousey, high-cut shirts that left their middles exposed, and slitted skirts that bared their thighs. Korin tried not to stare, but every direction was something startling.
Including up. The docks sat at the mouth of the river that bisected the city. Across that river, atop sheer white cliffs, mansions like jewels glittered in the afternoon sun. Home to the firstborn nobility that ruled this city—this nation—these homes were nothing like the stark stone castles of the south. Even from here, Korin could see the gardens, the courtyards, the wide open windows and arching doorways. No frozen winters here. Or frozen falls and springs. Triome was beautiful and warm and alive, but Korin wasn’t ready to call it paradise. Not yet.
The best thing Triome had going for it—it was the center of the world, as as cosmopolitan as a city could be. No two faces here looked the same. Humans and firstborn alike ranged in color from pale and fair like Korin to skin so dark it was almost true black. Added into the mix were the coppery shades of the western deserts or the olive skin of the northern coasts and all manner of in-betweens. No one stood out here. No one looked like they didn’t belong.
The tiny mining town where Korin had spent his childhood had contained none of this variety, and the school at which he’d spent seven years hadn’t been much better. The war had been different, with knights and wizards and soldiers gathered from all across the world, but he didn’t want to think about that. If this was to be his new home, these were to be his neighbors. He would have to get used to it.
If this was to be his home, Korin would have to get used to a lot of things. And he was going to have to learn how to fit in. As he wandered out from the docks, his filthy, travel-worn clothes and half-starved appearance were starting to draw the wrong eyes. Which was any eyes.
He turned north, away from the cliffs and their shining palaces, towards the heart of the city. As the garish colors gave way to browns and grays, as he started to see more human faces than not, Korin knew he was where he should be. Now he just needed a place to stay for the night, and hopefully longer.
Korin ducked in and out of several different guesthouses before he found what he needed. Only then did he pull the necklace out from under his shirt and dare to draw attention to himself as he crossed the busy tavern that took up most of the ground floor. He forced his shoulders back, making the most of his moderate height, and approached the woman behind the small bar who seemed to be in charge.
The woman was of that indeterminate age that could be anywhere between thirty-five and sixty, with reddish-brown skin and greying black hair pulled up in a messy bun. Her attention was on a thick ledger in front of her, although twice now she’d stopped what she was doing to pour drinks. But she didn’t seem to have heard Korin’s soft words.
He tried again, louder. “Ma’am?”
“If you’re needing a drink, talk to one of the girls.”
“No, I don’t—it’s actually—a room. I need a place to stay. But I don’t have any money.”
That got her attention, and not in a good way. Her fists clenched as she stood full up. Taller than Korin. And her voice was loud, even over the din of the room. “Come in here wasting my time and interrupting—“
She stopped as her eyes locked onto the copper sigil at Korin’s throat.
“I see,” she said, softer.
Korin kept talking. “I hope to stay in the city for a while. I can pay in trade. Can do any of the usual, plus I’m a healer. I can help any of your friends or family.” He looked pointedly down at her hip, at the throbbing morass of pain he’d seen from the doorway. “I can help you.”
She followed his gaze, and her mouth pulled tight as the words sank in. This was the critical moment, where she would either accept his offer or make some sign of prayer and scream for him to get out.
What she did was ask, “You drink?”
At Korin’s nod, she turned back to the keg behind her and poured him a beer. “Wizard. And a healer, you say. Don’t see many a your kind around this side of the city.”
“Does this mean I can stay?”
“Long as you keep quiet. I don’t like noise and I don’t like mess. You don’t cause trouble, and you come through with the magic,” her hand dipped down to touch her hip, then rose again. Korin didn’t think she realized she’d made the gesture. “Guess if you do that you can stay.”
“I promise.” No noise and no trouble were at the top of Korin’s current list of life goals.
“I’m Marta,” the woman said.
“Korin.” He took a drink of the beer. Watery, but not overly bitter. He’d tasted worse.
Marta looked him up and down, her hard eyes softening. “You hungry?”
“Starving,” he admitted. It was no exaggeration. He’d barely kept down any food on this ship, and they’d been at sea for weeks.
Marta waved at one of the serving girls, who promptly disappeared into the kitchen. “How old are you, Korin?”
“Twenty-two.” He knew he didn’t look it. Not after the hard trip, with his shirt and trousers hanging looser than normal, making him look like some kid trying to wear his grown-up brother’s clothes.
Marta snorted. “I’d of guessed fifteen. Either way, you keep your hands to yourself while you’re under my roof. The girls, they live here too, and all the work they do is with their clothes on, you hear me?”
Korin nodded quickly. “I wouldn’t.” And not just because Marta was intimidating. Korin wouldn’t have been interested in the girls even without her warning. Not that he was ready to admit to that. Not without knowing the city better.
From under the bar, Marta pulled out a key. “Once Lily brings you back a plate, go on upstairs. Room number’s on the key. I don’t need you taking up a stool if you’re not going to pay.”
That was fair. And Korin was ready to be by himself in the quiet. “Thank you, Marta.”
“There’s a bath end of the hall. This early, you shouldn’t have to fight anyone for it. And breakfast for boarders is served at sunup. Don’t make me regret this.”
“You won’t.” Korin could only hope that turned out to be true.