My time in the kitchen was short-lived. The chef threw me out, but if nothing else, he paid for my day without burning my head. Regardless, I needed substantially more coin to afford Father's next injection. Alternatively, I could have gone without meals for two days.
The medicine man had no heart. He cared not for those who were sick nor those he could save. The medicine man had one favor, and that was to sleep on a bed of jewels, whether be taken from the living or the dead. I couldn't forsake Father.
It meant I'd be significantly poor for the next few days, but I visited the medicine man's domain. His shop was hidden down a maze of alleys shrouded in darkness, with only the glow of blue flies to offer light outside his door. As usual, when I stepped inside, there was a powder in the air. The flavor of it was medicinal but tart. There were no tables, no chairs, no goods on display. Only a single counter with a darkened archway behind it. And who stood at the counter? None other than the medicine man himself, a skeleton of a figure wearing a face that was not a face. Its features, the mask that hid everything but his decrepit smile, were elaborate and ornate but grim all the same. Below his chin, the odd fellow wore little more than a smock stained with aged blood, and gloves thin as sheep's skin.
"I need the usual," I said from a distance.
Payment." He uttered through a cough in a voice of wheezing suffocation.
I crept near and emptied the contents of my pockets on his countertop. He swiftly swiped everything into a drawer.
"Wait," he told me before Stepping through the dark archway.
I stood in agonizing silence till my ears could take no more. The medicine man was rumored to be sick in a way he himself could not heal. Remaining in his presence, in his domain, was a dare too great for the passing of time. When he returned, I might have been relieved but terrified still.
He sat a single injection packaged in a small wooden box on the counter and gestured for me to take it. With grave hesitation, I reached and obtained the goods.
As I turned to take my leave, the medicine man's voice, with great strain, warned me, "This is the last."
"The last?" I asked.
"There will not be another, not for some time."
"But my father," I pleaded with insult.
"Your father will never recover. Let him die as he should have done long before."
"Why will there be such a wait?"
He said nothing, but his grin flickered too wide for his amber mask.
"Tell me!" I shouted.
"Zardack root," he laughed, and he coughed before adding, "It is found in the kingdom of dust, three Islands from where we stand."
He spoke of Soot. From lessons in my past, I knew the kingdom of Dust was a wasteland of black sands and burning skies. Via was a greater island with three cities under a single crown. But Soot was rumored to span so far it could hold two to three nations. Its lack of resources was perhaps what kept it unified. In any case, the idea that such a valuable resource came from black sands was a shock.
What good was a single injection?
Father could go a week before his fever returned. After two weeks, blood would wet his lungs. Three weeks might have brought back the convulsions. Four weeks would surely lead to death. If we waited two weeks, to give him the last injection, he'd have a month, perhaps a month and a half.
The equations were sickening as I paced my way home. How long had it been since I last saw our city in the light of true day? Not dusk, not dawn, but the embrace of the sun. My head was too full to admire the marketplace and its crowded life. But even I couldn't miss a peculiar sight that surely caught several eyes.
Parading down the lane, he blatantly took products from several merchant tables: an apple, an orange, nuts, and single slices of bread. There were several who witnessed it, merchants included, but they did nothing. Quills scheme was well known. No one wanted to give him the satisfaction of an arrest. He must have been searching for someone new. I approached before he had a chance to pick up a spool of yarn from a table of fabrics.
"What are you doing?!"
"Guardsman? You're early. Or, perhaps, am I late?" he joked and stepped around me to proceed.
"Put it back," I protested.
"Whatever do you mean?" he played dumb while biting into a ripe fruit before my eyes.
Several passersby laughed at the brazen show.
"Put it back while you still can," I warned.
"Or what? You'll have me arrested?"
"Yes!" I answered almost immediately, and he laughed before telling me, "please do. I'd like to return to my cell before supper. It's going to rain tonight and I, as always, am without a smock or proper cloak."
The Gods had trapped us in their territories. Ships could only travel so far before hitting what we came to know as an ocean's divide. They were large gaps between territories, between oceans, with the sole purpose of keeping mortals dependent and loyal to their Gods. If a ship tried to cross the gap, it simply fell off the water's edge into a black void of seemingly nothing. No one knew what existed in the void, and no one ever returned from its abyss.