A muddled sea of faces looked down the long hall towards a slate board that took up the entirety of the far wall. Some dozed, their chins rested lazily on propped hands, or even lay with their heads askew on one folded elbow. Kerron saw one boy doodling furiously on a sheaf of papers, occasionally flipping the stack back and forth to compare the lines. He usually ignored students who chose to use his lectures as extra nap time or time to study for other classes. It was their money after all—or their parents money—and it was no problem of his if they performed poorly due to their own bad planning.
Thankfully, today it seemed that the majority of the faces staring down at him this afternoon were attentive, taking notes and copying the diagrams he had sketched on the slate behind him. He turned back to the board and drew a closed circle and a three-part knot.
“After a simple unknot,” he pointed at the closed circle, “the next in the series is the three-cross, the trefoil. Look closely at the way one line crosses behind,” he circled a point on the second figure where the lines crossed with a small break in the drawing, “and the other crosses in front.” He circled a second crossing. “These are key to the making of a correct Weave. If the strands are crossed improperly it simply won’t work. The figure becomes null and has no effect.”
He turned back to the room as the class—those who were paying attention at least—finished their notes.
“Now,” he continued, “we move into more complex shapes. Typically, when a pannari adept learns Weaving, he or she begins with a simple braid or plait. A three-part braid is the easiest to learn and demonstrate.”
Kerron scanned the room for a moment and then gestured at a girl on the left side of the room. “You’re wearing a braid in your hair today.” The girl jumped a bit and blushed as her classmates all turned her way. “How old were you when you learned to braid your own hair?”
“Um… I think my mother taught me when I was five or six,” she said quietly.
Kerron nodded. “That’s pretty close to the age when a pannari child can perform their first simple Weave. Their schools start teaching with a three-part plait, either using hair or reeds or even yarn. It takes a lot more dexterity to move on to more complex shapes, so they also begin with hand and finger exercises in the first year.
“Consider this motion, used only with the fingers.”He sketched a shape in the air with three fingers, using a twisting motion of the wrist as he completed his movement. “That’s a five-part Weave, using treble structure.”
He paused again. “As you can see, it did nothing. Which brings us to the most fascinating part. Why can a pannari Weave, and a human cannot? We, as humans, can study Weaving all we like. I could use all the correct gestures, I can understand the theory and each individual turn, but no matter how perfectly I perform a Weave, nothing will happen.”
“It comes down to aptitude. Not all pannari can successfully Weave either. Some children show aptitude at a young age, Weaving complex figures as easily as learning to speak. Other pannari children find it more difficult to learn but manage to complete the easier forms with some instruction. The schools recruit practitioners regardless of skill level if a child shows even a touch of aptitude. But the majority of pannari can’t perform a Weaving any more than you or I can. It simply won’t work.”
A young man in the front row looked up from a frantic scribbling of notes. “But, why?”
Kerron shrugged, putting his palms up. “No one knows. Not even the pannari themselves. There are theories, of course. The talent for Weaving seems to run in families. But even then, not every family member will show aptitude down through the generations. Skill and power seem to be random as well. The religious texts say that aptitude is a gift of the Goddess, bestowed based on Her divine will. But many scholars from both races still believe that there must be a logical, predictable component that determines aptitude.”
He turned back to the wall slate again. “Some theories currently being explored are listed here. He pointed to a box that read: “Blood, Geography, Ancestry, Astrology.” Kerron drew four question marks below the list, then turned back.
“But there are probably elements we haven’t even considered. If you continue studying Weaving here I hope you will contribute to this search. It’s one of the most fascinating questions in Comparative Theology today. That’s a pet project of mine, of course. But to me, there’s no question more important in this subject.” He leaned forward, resting his hands on the podium that stood at the front of the lecture platform.
“You see, if we can discover the how and why of this distinction, we may be able to open the practice of Weaving to those who have previously shown no aptitude. Perhaps, even to humanity.” He paused, letting his statement fill the room. “That could change the very foundation of our society.”
Kerron rapped the podium with his knuckles twice. “But that’s it for today. For next class I want to to elaborate on some of the major distinctions between the pannari’s monotheistic religion and humanity’s animistic traditions. Everyone should read the introduction and part one of Belger’s Threads of History.”
He turned to gather his notes from the table behind the podium as the rustling of papers and the squeaking of chair legs on the wood floor filled the room. He even heard a few sighs, probably from those class members just waking up from their snoozes. He picked up a damp rag from the basket hooked to the wall beside the slate and began erasing the board. Professor Caldion had the hall next, and she was picky about having a clean slate. She had been at Daram University for about a hundred years, give or take, and somehow her seniority just made her cranky. After she made a few poisonous remarks to his department head, Kerron had learned to leave the hall as clean as if he had never been there.
Someone cleared their throat behind him. Kerron looked back to see the young man who had asked the question earlier.
“Professor,” he said, as Kerron turned, “sorry, I just have a question.”
“Of course,” Kerron said. “Ask away!”
“This might be a stupid question. But, well, if humans can’t perform Weaving…why study it?
“Why have a course at the University to the study of a skill we can never master?”Kerron laughed softly. “Don’t worry, that’s not a silly question. And you’re not the first to ask it, especially if you include the Dean.”
The boy smiled. “So, why?”
“The simple answer, to me, is that we must think globally. Humans live alongside a people for whom Weaving is a fundamental part of their culture. To ignore it would be foolish. If we want to continue to exist peacefully with pannari we must understand them. And, as I discussed, there may be a way to integrate Weaving with our own culture. There’s so much more to learn about it, and yet very few human scholars are focusing on the topic. It worries me.”
The young man nodded. “I guess that makes sense.”
“So,” Kerron said, “Will I see you next semester? We go much further into the theory and practice in the next level.”
“I think I might. I’ll have to see how it fits into my schedule though. My dad wants me to focus on medicine, you see…”
Kerron nodded. “Of course. Even if you don’t, my door is always open for questions.”
The young man smiled and said his goodbyes, and Kerron waved as the boy half-ran out the door; probably already late to his next lecture.
Kerron had failed to mention that his “door” was more like a curtain. A quick ten minute walk brought him back to the office space he shared with three other adjunct faculty. It was tucked into an unused dining hall in an empty dormitory building. Drafty window casings and high ceilings kept the room hot in the summers and cold in the winters, but he had his own desk and two small bookshelves, and even a beat up armchair he had purloined from the office of a retiring professor last year before the building custodians had come to collect the old furniture. It was just going to be chopped up for scrap and trash anyway, so Kerron figured he might as well make use of it for his small space. The dingy green fabric was worn and had a rip down the side of one arm, but it made his corner of the hall feel just a bit cozier. He flopped down on it now, letting his head rest back on the cushion. It was damned comfortable, for what it was worth. He looked over at his desk and saw a few letters had been dropped there while he was out. One was in a lavender envelope, and he laughed as he saw it sticking out from the stack of other mundane papers. His sister always used ridiculous stationary when she wrote. He leaned back, ignoring the mail. He had about an hour before the students finished their dinners and the faculty were served. Just enough time for a quick afternoon nap.
He had barely closed his eyes when he heard a thump from behind the curtain to his right. He flipped the fabric back and peeked out to see Professor Sherai across the way, fumbling with the clasps of a leather satchel currently spilling papers out from her desk onto the floor. She looked up and sighed as she saw him.
“I’m sorry Kerron, I didn’t realize you were here.” She gave up on the clasp and sat heavily in her chair. “It’s this damned bag! Popped a seam just as I crossed the quad and now I can’t get the latch open. I’m an absolute disaster today.”
“No worries,” Kerron said, pulling back the curtain. “If you want I can take a look at that clasp for you.”
Sherai waved a hand. “No, don’t bother. I never want to look at it again. Just cut the straps and get a new one.”
She looked up at the timepiece that hung on the wall above her desk. “At least I have a few more hours before my next lecture.”
Kerron sat up and stretched his neck. Then stopped. “Wait, it’s past six and I thought you didn’t have any late classes this term.”
“I don’t. But I’m covering for Gerev tonight. Dean asked me this morning and I couldn’t really refuse. I felt bad.”
Kerron frowned. “He’s not back yet? He told me he was just going to be gone three days.” He glanced across to the third desk in their shared space. It was just as it was the day before, perfectly tidy. He realized he hadn’t seen Professor Gerev that morning at all.
Sherai leaned forward a bit, pursing her lips. “I heard from the Dean that he wasn’t sure where he was. I just hope, well, you know.” She trailed off, looking worried.
“That he’s not sick.” Kerron said, filling it in for her.
She nodded, crossing her arms as if in a hug. “I heard it’s hit the pannari harder in the North. And that’s where his mother was living.”
“Well, he could have just stayed longer, right?” But Kerron sighed, shaking his head. “No. It’s not like him to just skip out on his work.”
Sherai nodded as well. “If the Dean hasn’t heard from him…”
They sat for a moment in silence. There was no need to say it, they both knew what the other feared. Kerron broke the silence by standing up and grabbing his own satchel.
“Hey, don’t worry just yet.” He threw the bag over his shoulder and walked over to Sherai. “Let’s not get ahead of the storm, right?” He reached out and clasped her shoulder in a reassuring squeeze.
“I’m free tonight, so I’ll walk over to his rooms and see what’s what.”
She gave him a small smile. “Thank you! Promise me you’ll let me know right away that he’s okay.”
“Of course.” He adjusted the bag on his shoulder one more time and turned to leave. “You’ll be the first person I find when I get back.”
A light drizzle had begun to fall as he walked through the cobbled pathway leading from the older buildings towards the main dormitories. A few students were out despite the weather, some hurrying past and ducking into their own doorways before the weather worsened. Others strolled more slowly, heedless of the rain. An early autumn rain was usually quick here in Daram, moving through the valley that hugged the University and off to the bay before causing too much damage. Kerron tucked his hands into his pockets and picked up his pace. In his haste to reassure Sherai he had completely forgotten to grab his coat. Well, it was too late to go back now. He hurried down towards the apartments set aside for teachers and administrative staff who chose to live full time at the University. Daram was close to a few major cities but more than a few staff members came from further away or had managed to negotiate room and board into their teaching contracts. Kerron was not so lucky. He spent a good portion of his pay on a room in a shared apartment in Daram Village. It was further away from the university, but it also afforded a bit more privacy. He usually didn’t mind the walk into town, even in the rainy season. He usually had his coat, though.
He entered the building without knocking, noticing the outer door had a popped latch. It was probably against security protocol but the trope of the absent-minded professor had more than a little resemblance to truth. The staff who lived here probably didn’t mind a little less security for the reassurance that, should they leave their keys behind, they’d be able to get back in at night. He climbed the stairs two at a time and stopped before Gerev’s door. He listened for a moment but there didn’t seem to be any sounds from within. He knocked.
“Hey, Gerev, are you home?” He leaned in towards the door. Was that a scuffling sound? There was no answer.
He spoke a little louder. “Are you there? Sherai said you weren’t teaching tonight. I wanted to see if you were back yet.”
This time there were definitely shuffling sounds. Kerron tried the knob, and to his surprise it turned.
The first thing that hit him was the smell. The air was hard, metallic, filling his nostrils with a cloying buzz. He gagged and buried his face in his sleeve. Was that blood or vomit? Hell, maybe it was both. Fuck.
The small room was lit with one oil lamp next to the bed, casting sharp shadows against the figure huddled on the mattress. The sheets and coverlet were strewn on the floor beside the bed frame. Kerron picked his way over a duffle bag that looked like it had been thrown to the floor, its contents spilling out across the room.
The figure on the bed stirred as he approached, letting out a strained moan. Gerev’s face was drenched with sweat as he turned to face Kerron, his eyes fluttered. Kerron knelt beside the bed, pushing away the sheets and hopefully some of the noxious smell. He put a hand to his friend’s head.
“Shit, Gerev.” He pulled his palm away. “You’re on fire!” He wiped his hand on his pants, then grabbed the lamp from the bedside table and brought it closer.
As the shadows fled Kerron felt a chill rush down his scalp, raising the hairs on his neck. Gerev’s normally pale pannari skin was a bright pink, blistering in spots and beginning to peel. It was as if he had been boiled. His eyes burned with fever and his dark hair was soaked through.
“How long have you been like this?” Kerron wasn’t sure Gerev could hear him. Gerev opened cracked lips and groaned again.
The words were barely audible, spoken with a swollen, blistered tongue. Kerron put his hand over his eyes for a moment, drawing in a breath.
“Here, have some water,” he said. He reached into his satchel and pulled out a small canteen. He usually carried it with him on his way home each night. Kerron unscrewed the metal cap and dripped it carefully into the man’s mouth.
He waited as Gerev coughed down a few more sips and stood up. “I’m going to get you a doctor. I’ll be back as soon as I can, I promise. You’re going to be okay.”
Gerev wheezed at that, a broken laugh. He licked his lips again and spoke. “You know that’s not true.”
Kerron looked down at his feet. “We don’t know for sure. Nothing woven can’t be cut.”
Gerev didn’t respond to that, so after another moment Kerron turned and tucked his canteen back into his bag. After a second thought he set it down next to the bed. It was already contaminated. He couldn’t catch it, of course, but it could carry the disease with him to any other pannari he came across. He didn’t want to take that risk.
It took more than an hour to find a physician that would see Gerev. The University Hospital was as far across the sprawling campus as you could get, and Kerron jogged the whole way. The first person he spoke to, after pushing his way into the clinic and past the first nurse’s desk, stammered and shook her head before running the other way when he explained Gerev’s symptoms. In his frustration he had grabbed the coat of the next doctor who passed, this time practically begging him to help. Thankfully this turned out to be one of the heads of the department, who was clearly more seasoned and only raised an eyebrow after hearing Kerron’s story.
“You know there’s no cure.” The doctor said, meeting Kerron’s pleading gaze sternly. “If it’s what you say, your friend only has a few hours left.”
“I know.” Kerron said, meeting his eyes. “But he’s in pain, and suffering. There has to be something you can do for him. And if it’s not…”
“If it’s not the fury? Not the red plague?” The doctor shook his head. “You don’t believe that, I can see that already.”
Kerron’s shoulders dropped. “Please. Please just see him.”
The physician regarded him for another moment, then turned back to the desk behind them, grabbing a clipboard from behind a few stacks of paper. “You’re lucky, it’s actually quiet tonight.” He flipped through a few pages, stopping at one. “If it is the red fury, I need confirmation. I’m sending Dr. Hinds with you, she’ll know what she’s looking at.”
It took another few minutes to locate the doctor, who had apparently hidden herself in a side office to catch up on writing case notes, and more than a few to get back across the campus. As they reached Gerev’s apartments again she pulled a few cloth masks from her surgeon’s bag, handing one to Kerron.
“Just in case,” she said. “Assumptions are a fool’s downfall.”
He nodded and slipped the mask on and tied the strap behind his head. He had already been exposed, but her advice was still sound. One never knows.
Gerev was much the same as before, if a little more alert after having some water. The doctor quickly knelt down next to the bed and pulled out a small scope, listening first to his heart and lungs, then checking his eyes and feeling his throat, underarms, and groin. Kerron watched silently as she examined her patient, noticing how Gerev winced whenever his skin was touched or his limbs lifted. Those blisters looked painful as hell. After a few minutes she sat back on her heels and pulled a syringe from her bag, loading it with a clear liquid from a vial. Once it was filled, she grasped Gerev’s hand with her own.
“I’m sorry.” It was simple, direct. She didn’t need to say anything further.
Gerev opened his eyes, lifting his hand towards the syringe.
Dr. Hinds nodded. “You have maybe one night, or less. The pain will get worse, like you’re being boiled alive. Your skin will slough and your eyes will dry out and lose function. It won’t be an easy death.”
Gerev shuddered, his breath catching in his throat and turning into another wheeze. Kerron wasn’t sure this time if it was a laugh or a cry.
“Do you want this?” The doctor held up the syringe. “It will be quick and painless, I promise.”
“I’m sorry. I need you to speak and give consent.” Dr. Hinds turned to Kerron, who was standing just behind her. “I need your witness for this as well.”
“Yes.” Gerev croaked, still reaching for the doctor’s hand as if to draw the syringe toward him. “I consent.”
She turned to Kerron. He nodded, surprised to find tears in his eyes. He had never been very close to his colleague, no more than any other. But this unexpected intimacy had turned that to something else in less than a few hours.
“I witness his consent.” Kerron said. He wasn’t sure if that was the proper thing to say, but it seemed enough for the doctor.
It took only a few moments for her to administer her medicine. Only a few moments for a man’s last breaths to turn from sharp gasping wheezes into one long sigh.
The doctor placed two fingers on his neck, then listened once more with her scope. Satisfied, she stood and started packing her tools back into her bag.
Kerron stood silently, entirely lost. Just this afternoon he was teaching his favorite class, bantering with students. Who knew where a day could lead? And what would tomorrow bring, now that plague had come to Daram?
The doctor reached out to him as she turned to leave. “Go home,” she said kindly, squeezing his arm. “I’ll take care of the body.”
The body. What strange words for a former friend.
“Go to bed, get some rest. Gods know one of us should. I’ll probably be up all night drafting quarantine procedures.”
She opened the door but paused before stepping through. “Maybe take a bath first. And you should burn your clothes.”
With that, she left him there alone. With the body. Had it only been a few hours since he had left Serai back at their office? He should go back and tell her. But he didn’t want to move, not just yet. He pulled a chair out from Gerev’s desk beside the door and sat, staring out the room’s small window. He should leave. He needed to sleep.
Gods, he needed some rest. And with the University starting quarantine for all pannari, he knew he could get some time off. There would probably be no classes for at least a month, maybe more. He thought back to a letter left on his desk just that afternoon, stamped with his sister’s seal on purple stationery. She was always asking him to come visit, but he could never find the time. Suddenly there was nothing more he wanted than to see Dahlia’s smiling face, laughing at something awkward he did. She a rare optimism that infected everyone around her.
Kerron stood, looking one last time at his friend.
“I’m so sorry Gerev.” He was talking to himself, really. It didn’t matter. This kind of thing was important. “You deserved better than this. May your Lady take you home.” He wove the sign of the Lady in front of his chest, ending with a bowed head.
He was no alai, but someone ought to give the blessing. And for a moment he did feel a sense of peace, a sense of rightness to the benediction. He may not be pannari but he knew the meaning of the words, how much such things meant. Or maybe it was just for his own peace that he said them.
Would the Lady even listen to a human’s prayer?
He didn’t think it mattered. She would take Gerev or not, as She willed it. And by morning Kerron planned to be far from here, on the road to see Dahlia and maybe even onward to home, towards Larrus and his mother. He grabbed his satchel from the floor beside him and left the room, closing the door softly.
Does it still count as home if you haven’t lived there in years?
The laughed off the question, relaxing a bit for the first time in hours. What nonsense. But the strange feeling that came with the thought followed him as he walked, tugging at the back of his mind.
Can you be lost even in the middle of the familiar?
He shook his head, clearing it. Foolish. These were late-night stress thoughts. It was past time for him to rest, past time to sleep. And after a few hours of sleep he would catch a coach toward his sister’s estate in Portho and she would welcome him with her smile and a hug that lasted a bit too long.
But as his head hit the pillow, finally, after a long walk and a groggy wash in the basin beside his bed, one last thought swam by.
Where is home after all, for the wandering fool?